Tapping her toe made a satisfying clack on the tiles. Alyssa added a drum of her fingers around her cardboard sign, the smell of sharpie radiating like the body odors of the arrivals descending the escalator. A few glanced wearily in her direction and she mustered an apologetic grin when they didn’t find their name and had to keep shuffling.
“Believe me,” she whispered, “I don’t want to be here either.”
The automatic doors swooshed open behind her and a cold blast hit her back. Alyssa hunched into her parka, the phone with Professor Baldemero’s message thumping against her hip. His voice burned in her ears with the high and mighty request detouring her from his reports and the warmth of her apartment. She shivered, this time in frustration, and glared at the trudging humanity.
“Where are you?”
Spying an elderly man with silvery hair and a trench coat similar to Baldemero’s, she smiled hopefully. A suited chauffeur, however, intercepted the arrival. They traded acknowledging nods, then a manila envelope for the traveler’s bulky suitcase. With the luggage in tow, the chauffeur led them away while his client cracked open the envelope’s seal.
“You,” said a smooth baritone, “must be Mero’s assistant.”
Alyssa spun and then staggered back from a too-tall middle-aged man standing before her. The strap of a duffel bag dragged his pilot’s jacket off a squared shoulder, revealing the black cashmere sweater underneath.
She caught her breath thanks to another blast of wintry air. “Mr. Tanker?”
“Call me Dominic.” Half of Dominic’s mouth curved into an amused grin.
Collecting her gape, Alyssa jump-started her brain. “I’m sorry, I was expecting someone—”
“More like Professor Baldemero.”
“Mero’s in a class by himself.”
His humor ratcheted her skepticism. “He asked me to pick up his brother—”
“Stepbrother.” Dominic shifted his duffel to his other shoulder with an effortless swing. “Our dear departed father didn’t share Mero’s rigid morality.”
Alyssa grimaced. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Mero might have problems divulging the family’s secrets. I’m the black sheep,” Dominic winked, “it’s kind of my job.”
His smile inspired one of her own and Alyssa hugged her cardboard sign against her downy front. “But mine is to get you to Baker and Cane’s.”
“I’d hate to have Mero think you were negligent.”
Dominic motioned at the automatic doors and they started a brisk walk, her sneakers squishing in time with his thick-soled boots. She led down the concrete loading station, to where the crosswalk provided access to the cylindrical parking lot curving on the other side.
Dominic tipped his chin at the line of black Cadillacs. “I was expecting one of those town cars actually.”
“I think the Professor forgot.” Alyssa winced and checked both ways for traffic when Dominic laughed.
“That sounds like Mero.”
“I meant because it was so sudden.” She darted onto the striped pavement after a herd of taxi cabs had passed.
“Dad hadn’t been well for a while.” Dominic sighed and followed her to the elevator.
“Were you two close?”
“No.” He stared at the ascending numbers. “So I was surprised the dynamic duo contacted me.”
“You mean Baker and Cane?”
He nodded. “I didn’t expect to be in the will.”
“It’s too bad you missed the funeral.”
“Did Mero have you shuttling people to that too?”
Alyssa smirked. “No. He asked me to accompanying him though. He had a presentation afterwards so I was preparing his notes.”
“His nose is glued to that grind stone.”
“It is a pretty brilliant nose.”
“And yours, cute as it is, is turning brown.”
Flushing, Alyssa started covering her nose’s button-end but detoured her fingers into brushing back bangs disturbed from the elevator’s opening whoosh.
“I’m his assistant. I help him out where ever I can.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the company but Mero will push boundaries like no one I’ve ever known.”
“I feel like there’s advice coming.”
Dominic’s chuckle filled the elevator. “I can only speak from experience. He nagged me about joining the company, to participate in Dad’s projects, to get custody and hereditary lines worked out so his kids would be first in line for whatever fell from Dad’s pockets.” He shrugged, and his long exhale bounded off the frosted cars and misted windows when they exited at the rooftop. “I can only suggest you stand up for yourself or he’s going to bleed you dry.”
“At this point, so long as he keeps paying me, I’ve got blood to spare.”
Alyssa fished her keys from her pocket. Chagrinned, she indicated her hatchback with its cracked bumper and twin doors.
“She’s not much but she’s mine.”
After popping the trunk, Alyssa smashed her racquet bag aside with a box of books and printed articles she needed to sift through for any related evidence to Baldemero’s theories.
“Sorry there’s not much room.”
“It’ll fit.” Dominic shoved his duffel inside and eyed the Wilson logo. “You play?”
“I did. I haven’t since—”
“You started with Mero.”
“How could you guess?”
Dominic grinned. “Just lucky.”
Rounding the bumper, he waited at the passenger side while Alyssa closed the trunk. She slipped into the driver’s bucket seat, and tried not to recall the balled up papers and empty food containers from meals scarfed between libraries now cluttering the back. After giving the air freshening baggie a jostle to release a vanilla cloud, she unplugged the passenger door’s lock.
While Dominic crowded the passenger side, his knees brushing the glove compartment, Alyssa settled behind the wheel. Unzipping her parka, she started the insert key, wiggle, and clutch jostle sequence needed to start the engine.
Oil-smeared puffs shot from the vents and Alyssa slammed off the defroster. “She’s not quite a town car.”
“I like it better.” Dominic buckled his seatbelt and seemed to melt into the cushions. “It’s cozier.”
Alyssa backed out of the stall and started the circular descent to the gate.
“You’d think Mero would be paying you enough for a replacement.”
Alyssa yanked the parking stub from the visor. “I’m saving up.”
“That’s the master plan.” Halting behind a station wagon’s brake lights, Alyssa fished for her wallet.
“Here.” Dominic handed over a twenty.
“I don’t need your sympathy.”
“It’s self-preservation. Hands at two and ten.”
Abandoning her wallet search, Alyssa took the bill, folded it around the parking stub, and pulled up to the attendant. She handed over both, collected the change, and offered it to Dominic.
He waved her off. “Keep it.”
“Two and ten, remember?”
She uncoiled her fist and Dominic snatched at the falling change while she drove past the parking lot’s raised arm and merged into the downtown bound traffic. After a glance at her watch, she accelerated into the far left lane, slush spraying against the undercarriage.
“Don’t rush on my account.” Dominic dropped the change among the pencils in her cup holder. “I don’t mind being late.”
“True, but I’m not Mero. Neither are you.”
“Until I get that recommendation letter, I’m on time.”
“Maybe today will change that.”
Alyssa frowned, and then locked her eyes on the road when an SUV cut them off.
“If Mero played his cards the way I think he did,” said Dominic, “then he’s liable to be collecting quite a bit from dear old Dad. It might soften him up a bit.”
“Into what? Granite?”
“I think a fuzzy bunny is too much to hope for.”
Alyssa snickered. “Definitely.”
She checked her side mirror, but her gaze drifted to Dominic’s profile, the dip of his chin and rigid cheekbones eerily familiar. The sedan beside them honked, breaking the momentary trance and she shook off the similarities.
“What about you? How are you going to change?”
“I’m pretty squishy already.” Dominic pinched his bicep, but Alyssa suspected he snared more jacket and sweater than fat.
“I mean after the will.”
“Fishing for a handout?”
Pursing her lips, Alyssa lifted her chin. “I don’t take handouts.”
“You work for what you earn?”
“Then you’ve earned something for driving me.”
“Yeah, a happy Professor.”
“I’m not sure how happy he’ll be once I get there, but I was thinking of something a little more tangible.” Dominic’s smile filled the car. “How about dinner?”
Once she’d remembered how to breathe again, Alyssa let up on the gas. “Dinner? With me?”
“No, Mero. He always like’s taking his little stepbrother for dinner.”
She peeked over at him, her hackles rising. “Do you always ask your drivers out?”
“Only the pretty ones.”
A blush burned her cheeks and Alyssa concentrated on the road once more. “I have some reports to finish, some reading to do.” She thumbed at the trunk and then flicked the blinker as the first sign for their exit flew past.
“Some people work on the weekends.”
“Suppose?” She cut across each of the highway’s four lanes, making Dominic sway within the car’s confines. “What is it that you do exactly, Mr. Tanker?”
“It’s Dominic and let’s just say Dad left a little in the bank when he moved on.”
“You don’t work?”
“I work at living.” Dominic waved his hands vaguely, stirring a cologne scent that meshed with vanilla. “Traveling, meeting people, doing new and different things. You know, living.”
“I guess I missed that class.”
“I’m a good teacher.”
“I bet you are.”
She gave him a sidelong glance and cringed when he caught her eye. Resuming a professional silence, Alyssa drove them off the highway and navigated the side streets leading to Baker and Cane’s three-story building. A thirty-minute parking spot opened up and she pulled to the curb.
Alyssa kept her hands on the wheel. “I’m sorry. I don’t get a lot of dinner offers from, well, from anyone really.”
“That’s because you work too hard.”
“I have goals. I want to make a difference in my field. Find answers to the questions about our past.”
“Does that mean abandoning your present? Or your future?”
She stared into the dash, the glass quivering from the idling engine. “No but—”
“How about seven o’clock? I’m staying at the Meridian.” Dominic swiveled her watch with delicacy, his fingertips radiating warmth upon her wrist, and tapped the face. “That gives me someone to share whatever the dynamic duo has to dispense and gives you three hours to get your work done.”
“Two, really.” She bit her lip as her cheeks heated up like tiny flames. “It’s the Meridian. I’d have to figure out what to wear.”
“You look fabulous.”
Alyssa peered into the backseat, cluttered with the debris of the last few months. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Another breeze swept into the car when Dominic stepped from the passenger seat and then opened trunk. She met his gaze in the rearview mirror when the back remained wide.
“Will see you then.”
Dominic slammed the trunk and Alyssa collapsed into her seat. She watched him shoulder his duffel and then disappear into the glass fortress. The weight of reports and articles tugged an invisible leash and she exhaled a misted breath before heading for home, knowing her laptop, an array of color specific pens, and a closet full of options waited.