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Luring a Lady

By Kimberly Sims,2014-11-04 22:06
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SUMMARY:Nothing in Sydney Hayward's background of wealth and privilege prepared her to take the helm of her family's corporation. And her new responsibilities left no room for complications. Earthly and entirely masculine, Mikahil came from a world entirely different from her own but the way she felt when he put his strong, work-hardened hands on her was wreaking havoc with Sydney's resolve... Published by Ulverscroft Large Print Books on 2008/07/01

     The Stanislaski Brothers

     Nora Roberts

     A Stanislaski Saga

     LURING A LADY

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     Prologue

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     The playground was full of noise, drama and politics. Even at eight, Mikhail knew aboutpolitics. He had, after all, been in America nearly two full years.

     He no longer waited for men to come drag his father away, or to wake up one morning back inthe Ukraine and find the escape into Hungary, the travel to Austria and finally to New York hadall been a dream.

     He lived in Brooklyn, and that was good. He was an American, and that was better. He and hisbig sister, his little brother went to school—and spoke English. Most of the time. His babysister had been born here, and would never know what it was to shiver in the cold while hidingin a wagon, waiting, waiting for discovery.

     Or freedom.

     There were times he didn't think of it at all. He liked getting up in the morning and seeingthe little houses that looked so much like their house out his bedroom window. He likedsmelling the breakfast his mother cooked in the kitchen, and hearing his mother's voicemurmuring, his father's booming as Papa got ready for work.

     Papa had to work very hard, and sometimes he came home tired in the evening. But he had asmile in his eyes, and the lines around them were fading.

     And at night there was hot food and laughter around the dinner table.

     School was not so bad, and he was learning—except his teachers said he daydreamed too muchand too often.

     "The girls are jumping rope." Alexi, Mikhail's little brother, plopped down beside him.

     Both had dark hair and golden brown eyes, and the sharp facial bones that would make womenswoon in only a few more years. Now, of course, girls were something to be ignored. Unless theywere family.

     "Natasha," Alex said with smug pride in his older sister, "is the best."

     "She is Stanislaski."

     Alex acknowledged this with a shrug. It went without saying. His eyes scanned the playground.He liked to watch how people behaved, what they did—and didn't do. His jacket—just a bit toobig as his brother's was a bit too small—was open despite the brisk March wind.

     Alex nodded toward two boys on the far end of the blacktop. "After school, we have to beat upWill and Charlie Braunstein."

     Mikhail pursed his lips, scratched an itch just under his ribs. "Okay; Why?"

     "Because Will said we were Russian spies and Charlie laughed and made noises like a pig. So."

     "So," Mikhail agreed. And the brothers looked at each other and grinned.

     * * *

     They were late getting home from school, which would probably mean a punishment. Mikhail'spants were ripped at the knee and Alexi's lip was split—which would undoubtedly mean alecture.

     But it had been worth it. The Stanislaski brothers had emerged from the battle victorious.They strolled down the sidewalk, arms slung over each other's shoulders, book bags dragging asthey recapped the combat.

     "Charlie, he has a good punch," Mikhail said. "So if you fight again, you have to be fast. Hehas longer arms than you have."

     "And he has a black eye," Alex noted with satisfaction.

     "Yes." Mikhail swelled with pride over his baby brother's exploits. "This is good. When we goto school tomorrow, we… Uh-oh."

     He broke off, and the fearless warrior trembled.

     Nadia Stanislaski stood on the stoop outside their front door. His mama's hands were fisted onher hips, and even from half a block away he knew her eagle eye had spotted the rip in histrousers.

     "Now we're in for it," Alexi muttered.

     "We're not in yet."

     "No, it means…in trouble." Alexi tried his best smile, even though it caused his lip tothrob. But Nadia's eyes narrowed.

     She swaggered down the walk like a gunfighter prepared to draw and fire. "You fight again?"

     As the eldest, Mikhail stepped in front of his brother. "Just a little."

     Her sharp eyes scanned them, top to bottom and judged the damage minor. "You fight each otheragain?"

     "No, Mama." Alex sent her a hopeful look. "Will Braunstein said—"

     "I don't want to hear what Will Braunstein said. Am I Will Braunstein's mama?"

     At the tone, both boys dropped their chins to their chests and murmured: "No, Mama."

     "Whose mama am I?"

     Both boys sighed. Heavily. "Our mama."

     "So, this is what I do when my boys make me worry and come late from school and fight likehooligans." It was a word she'd learned from her neighbor Grace MacNamara—and one she thought,sentimentally, suited her sons so well. Her boys yelped when she grabbed each one by theearlobe.

     Before she could pull them toward the house, she heard the rattle and thump that could only beher husband Yuri's secondhand pickup truck.

     He swung to the curb, wiggled his eyebrows when he saw his wife holding each of his sons bythe ear. "What have they done?"

     "Fighting the Braunsteins. We go inside now to call Mrs. Braunstein and apologize."

     "Aw. Ow!" Mikhail's protest turned into a muffled yip as Nadia expertly twisted his earlobe.

     "This can wait, yes? I have something." Yuri clambered out of the truck, and held up a littlegray pup. "This is Sasha, your new brother."

     Both boys shouted with delight and, released, sprang forward. Sasha responded with licks andnips and wriggles until Yuri bundled the pup into Mikhail's arms.

     "He is for you and Alexi and Tasha and Rachel to take care. Not for your mama," he said evenas Nadia rolled her eyes. "This is understood?"

     "We'll take good care of him, Papa. Let me hold him, Mik!" Alex demanded and tried to elbowMikhail aside.

     "I'm the oldest. I hold him first."

     "Everybody will hold. Go. Go show your sisters." Yuri waved his hands. Before scrambling away,both boys pressed against him.

     "Thank you, Papa." Mikhail turned to kiss his mother's cheek. "We'll call Mrs. Braunstein,Mama."

     "Yes, you will." Nadia shook her head as they ran into the house, calling for their sisters."Hooligans," she said, relishing the word.

     "Boys will be what boys will be." Yuri lifted her off her feet, laughed long and deep. "We arean American family." He set her down, but kept his arm around her waist as they started intothe house. "What's for dinner?"

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     LURING A LADY

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     To my nephew Kenni, my second favorite carpenter

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     Chapter 1

     Contents - Prev/Next

     She wasn't a patient woman. Delays and excuses were barely tolerated, and never toleratedwell. Waiting—and she was waiting now—had her temper dropping degree by degree toward ice.With Sydney Hayward icy anger was a great deal more dangerous than boiling rage. One frigidglance, one frosty phrase could make the recipient quake. And she knew it.

     Now she paced her new office, ten stories up in midtown Manhattan. She swept from corner tocorner over the deep oatmeal-colored carpet. Everything was perfectly in place, papers, files,coordinated appointment and address books. Even her brass-and-ebony desk set was perfectlyaligned, the pens and pencils marching in a straight row across the polished mahogany, thenotepads carefully placed beside the phone.

     Her appearance mirrored the meticulous precision and tasteful elegance of the office. Hercrisp beige suit was all straight lines and starch, but didn't disguise the fact that there wasa great pair of legs striding across the carpet.

     With it she wore a single strand of pearls, earrings to match and a slim gold watch, all verydiscreet and exclusive. As a Hayward, she'd been raised to be both.

     Her dark auburn hair was swept off her neck and secured with a gold clip. The pale frecklesthat went with the hair were nearly invisible after a light dusting of powder. Sydney felt theymade her look too young and too vulnerable. At twenty-eight she had a face that reflected herbreeding. High, slashing cheekbones, the strong, slightly pointed chin, the small straightnose. An aristocratic face, it was pale as porcelain, with a softly shaped mouth she knew couldsulk too easily, and large smoky-blue eyes that people often mistook for guileless.

     Sydney glanced at her watch again, let out a little hiss of breath, then marched over to herdesk. Before she could pick up the phone, her intercom buzzed.

     "Yes."

     "Ms. Hayward. There's a man here who insists on seeing the person in charge of the Sohoproject. And your four-o'clock appointment—"

     "It's now four-fifteen," Sydney cut in, her voice low and smooth and final. "Send him in."

     "Yes, ma'am, but he's not Mr. Howington."

     So Howington had sent an underling. Annoyance hiked Sydney's chin up another fraction. "Sendhim in," she repeated, and flicked off the intercom with one frosted pink nail. So, theythought she'd be pacified with a junior executive. Sydney took a deep breath and prepared tokill the messenger.

     It was years of training that prevented her mouth from dropping open when the man walked in.No, not walked, she corrected. Swaggered. Like a black-patched pirate over the rolling deck ofa boarded ship.

     She wished she'd had the foresight to have fired a warning shot over his bow.

     Her initial shock had nothing to do with the fact that he was wildly handsome, though theadjective suited perfectly. A mane of thick, curling black hair flowed just beyond the nape ofhis neck, to be caught by a leather thong in a short ponytail that did nothing to detract fromrampant masculinity. His face was rawboned and lean, with skin the color of an old gold coin.Hooded eyes were nearly as black as his hair. His full lips were shadowed by a day or two'sgrowth of beard that gave him a rough and dangerous look.

     Though he skimmed under six foot and was leanly built, he made her delicately furnished officeresemble a doll's house.

     What was worse was the fact that he wore work clothes. Dusty jeans and a sweaty T-shirt with apair of scarred boots that left a trail of dirt across her pale carpet. They hadn't evenbothered with the junior executive, she thought as her lips firmed, but had sent along a commonlaborer who hadn't had the sense to clean up before the interview.

     "You're Hayward?" The insolence in the tone and the slight hint of a Slavic accent had herimagining him striding up to a camp fire with a whip tucked in his belt.

     The misty romance of the image made her tone unnecessarily sharp. "Yes, and you're late."

     His eyes narrowed fractionally as they studied each other across the desk. "Am I?"

     "Yes. You might find it helpful to wear a watch. My time is valuable if yours is not. Mr…"

     "Stanislaski," He hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his jeans, shifting his weighteasily, arrogantly onto one hip. "Sydney's a man's name."

     She arched a brow. "Obviously you're mistaken."

     He skimmed his gaze over her slowly, with as much interest as annoyance. She was pretty as afrosted cake, but he hadn't come straight and sweaty from a job to waste time with a female."Obviously. I thought Hayward was an old man with a bald head and a white mustache."

     "You're thinking of my grandfather."

     "Ah, then it's your grandfather I want to see."

     "That won't be possible, Mr. Stanislaski, as my grandfather's been dead for nearly twomonths."

     The arrogance in his eyes turned quickly to compassion. "I'm sorry. It hurts to lose family."

     She couldn't say why, of all the condolences she had received, these few words from a strangertouched her. "Yes, it does. Now, if you'll take a seat, we can get down to business."

     Cold, hard and distant as the moon. Just as well, he thought. It would keep him from thinkingof her in more personal ways—at least until he got what he wanted.

     "I have sent your grandfather letters," he began as he settled into one of the trim Queen Annechairs in front of the desk. "Perhaps the last were misplaced during the confusion of death."

     An odd way to put it, Sydney thought, but apt. Her life had certainly been turned upside downin the past few months. "Correspondence should be addressed to me." She sat, folding her handson the desk. "As you know Hayward Enterprises is considering several firms—"

     "For what?"

     She struggled to shrug off the irritation of being interrupted. "I beg your pardon?"

     "For what are you considering several firms?"

     If she had been alone, she would have sighed and shut her eyes. Instead, she drummed herfingers on the desk. "What position do you hold, Mr. Stanislaski?"

     "Position?"

     "Yes, yes, what is it you do?"

     The impatience in her voice made him grin. His teeth were very white, and not quite straight."You mean; what is it I do? I work with wood."

     "You're a carpenter?"

     "Sometimes."

     "Sometimes," she repeated, and sat back. Behind her, buildings punched into a hard blue sky."Perhaps you can tell me why Howington Construction sent a sometimes carpenter to representthem in this interview."

     The room smelled of lemon and rosemary and only reminded him that he was hot, thirsty and asimpatient as she. "I could—if they had sent me."

     It took her a moment to realize he wasn't being deliberately obtuse. "You're not fromHowington?"

     "No. I'm Mikhail Stanislaski, and I live in one of your buildings." He propped a dirty boot ona dusty knee. "If you're thinking of hiring Howington, I would think again. I once worked forthem, but they cut too many comers."

     "Excuse me." Sydney gave the intercom a sharp jab. "Janine, did Mr. Stanislaski tell you herepresented Howington?"

     "Oh, no, ma'am. He just asked to see you. Howington called about ten minutes ago toreschedule. If you—" . "Never mind." Sitting back again, she studied the man who was grinningat her. "Apparently I've been laboring under a misconception."

     "If you mean you made a mistake, yes. I'm here to talk to you about your apartment building inSoho."

     She wanted, badly, to drag her hands through her hair. "You're here with a tenant complaint."

     "I'm here with many tenants' complaints," he corrected.

     "You should be aware that there's a certain procedure one follows in this kind of matter."

     He lifted one black brow. "You own the building, yes?"

     "Yes, but—"

     "Then it's your responsibility."

     She stiffened. "I'm perfectly aware of my responsibilities, Mr. Stanislaski. And now…" .

     He rose as she did, and didn't budge an inch. "Your grandfather made promises. To honor him,you must keep them."

     "What I must do," she said in a frigid voice, "is run my business." And she was tryingdesperately to learn how. "You may tell the other tenants that Hayward is at the point ofhiring a contractor as we're quite aware that many of our properties are in need of repair orrenovation. The apartments in Soho will be dealt with in turn."

     His expression didn't change at the dismissal, nor did the tone of his voice or the spread-legged, feet-planted stance. "We're tired of waiting for our turn. We want what was promised tous, now."

     "If you'll send me a list of your demands—"

     "We have."

     She set her teeth. "Then I'll look over the files this evening."

     "Files aren't people. You take the rent money every month, but you don't think of the people."He placed his hands on the desk and leaned forward. Sydney caught a wisp of sawdust and sweatthat was uncomfortably appealing. "Have you seen the building, or the people who live in it?"

     "I have reports," she began.

     "Reports." He swore—it wasn't in a language she understood, but she was certain it was anoath. "You have your accountants and your lawyers, and you sit up here in your pretty officeand look through papers." With one quick slash of the hand, he dismissed her office andherself. "But you know nothing. It's not you who's cold when the heat doesn't work, or who mustclimb five flights of stairs when the elevator is broken. You don't worry that the water won'tget hot or that the wiring is too old to be safe."

     No one spoke to her that way. No one. Her own temper was making her heart beat too fast. Itmade her forget that she was facing a very dangerous man. "You're wrong. I'm very concernedabout all of those things. And I intend to correct them as soon as possible."

     His eyes flashed and narrowed, like a sword raised and turned on its edge. "This is a promisewe've heard before."

     "Now, it's my promise, and you haven't had that before."

     "And we're supposed to trust you. You, who are too lazy or too afraid to even go see what sheowns."

     Her face went dead white, the only outward sign of fury. "I've had enough of your insults forone afternoon, Mr. Stanislaski. Now, you can either find your way out, or I'll call security tohelp you find it."

     "I know my way," he said evenly. "I'll tell you this, Miss Sydney Hayward, you will begin tokeep those promises within two days, or we'll go to the building commissioner, and the press."

     Sydney waited until he had stalked out before she sat again. Slowly she took a sheet ofstationery from the drawer then methodically tore it into shreds. She stared at the smudges hisbig wide-palmed hands had left on her glossy desk and chose and shredded another sheet. Calmer,she punched the intercom, "Janine, bring me everything you've got on the Soho project."

     An hour later, Sydney pushed the files aside and made two calls. The first was to cancel herdinner plans for the evening. The second was to Lloyd Bingham, her grandfather's—nowher—executive assistant.

     "You just caught me," Lloyd told her as he walked into Sydney's office. "I was on my way out.What can I do for you?"

     Sydney shot him a brief glance. He was a handsome, ambitious man who preferred Italian tailorsand French food. Not yet forty, he was on his second divorce and liked to escort society womenwho were attracted to his smooth blond looks and polished manners. Sydney knew that he hadworked hard and long to gain his position with Hay-ward and that he had taken over the reinsduring her grandfather's illness the past year.

     She also knew that he resented her because she was sitting behind a desk he consideredrightfully his.

     "For starters, you can explain why nothing has been done about the Soho apartments."

     "The unit in Soho?" Lloyd took a cigarette from a slim gold case. "It's on the agenda."

     "It's been on the agenda for nearly eighteen months. The first letter in the file, signed bythe tenants, was dated almost two years ago and lists twenty-seven specific complaints."

     "And I believe you'll also see in the file that a number of them were addressed." He blew outa thin stream of smoke as he made himself comfortable on one of the chairs.

     "A number of them," Sydney repeated. "Such as the furnace repairs. The tenants seemed to thinka new furnace was required."

     Lloyd made a vague gesture. "You're new to the game, Sydney. You'll find that tenants alwayswant new, better and more."

     "That may be. However, it hardly seems cost-effective to me to repair a thirty-year-oldfurnace and have it break down again two months later." She held up a finger before he couldspeak. "Broken railings in stairwells, peeling paint, an insufficient water heater, a defectiveelevator, cracked porcelain…" She glanced up. "I could go on, but it doesn't seem necessary.There's a memo here, from my grandfather to you, requesting that you take over the repairs andmaintenance of this building."

     "Which I did," Lloyd said stiffly. "You know very well that your grandfather's health turnedthis company upside down over the last year. That apartment complex is only one of severalbuildings he owned."

     "You're absolutely right." Her voice was quiet but without warmth. "I also know that we have aresponsibility, a legal and a moral responsibility to our tenants, whether the building is inSoho or on Central Park West." She closed the folder, linked her hands over it and, in thatgesture, stated ownership. "I don't want to antagonize you, Lloyd, but I want you to understandthat I've decided to handle this particular property myself."

     "Why?"

     She granted him a small smile. "I'm not entirely sure. Let's just say I want to get my feetwet, and I've decided to make this property my pet project. In the meantime, I'd like you tolook over the reports on the construction firms, and give me your recommendations." She offeredhim another file. "I've included a list of the properties, in order of priority. We'll have ameeting Friday, ten o'clock, to finalize."

     "All right." He tapped out his cigarette before he rose. "Sydney, I hope you won't takeoffense, but a woman who's spent most of her life traveling and buying clothes doesn't knowmuch about business, or making a profit."

     She did take offense, but she'd be damned if she'd show it. "Then I'd better learn, hadn't I?Good night, Lloyd."

     Not until the door closed did she look down at her hands. They were shaking. He was right,absolutely right to point out her inadequacies. But he couldn't know how badly she needed toprove herself here, to make something out of what her grandfather had left her. Nor could heknow how terrified she was that she would let down the family name. Again.

     Before she could change her mind, she tucked the file into her briefcase and left the office.She walked down the wide pastel corridor with its tasteful watercolors and thriving ficustrees, through the thick glass doors that closed in her suite of offices. She took her privateelevator down to the lobby, where she nodded to the guard before she walked outside.

     The heat punched like a fist. Though it was only mid-June, New York was in the clutches of avicious heat wave with temperatures and humidity spiraling gleefully. She had only to cross thesidewalk to be cocooned in the waiting car, sheltered from the dripping air and noise. Aftergiving her driver the address, she settled back for the ride to Soho.

     Traffic was miserable, snarling and edgy. But that would only give her more time to think. Shewasn't certain what she was going to do when she got there. Nor was she sure what she would doif she ran into Mikhail Stanislaski again.

     He'd made quite an impression on her, Sydney mused. Exotic looks, hot eyes, a complete lack ofcourtesy. The worst part was the file had shown that he'd had a perfect right to be rude andimpatient. He'd written letter after letter during the past year, only to be put off with half-baked promises.

     Perhaps if her grandfather hadn't been so stubborn about keeping his illness out of the press.Sydney rubbed a finger over her temple and wished she'd taken a couple of aspirin before she'dleft the office.

     Whatever had happened before, she was in charge now. She intended to respect her inheritanceand all the responsibilities that went with it. She closed her eyes and fell into a half dozeas her driver fought his way downtown.

     Inside his apartment, Mikhail carved a piece of cherry-wood. He wasn't sure why he continued.His heart wasn't in it, but he felt it more productive to do something with his hands.

     He kept thinking about the woman. Sydney. All ice and pride, he thought. One of thearistocrats it was in his blood to rebel against. Though he and his family had escaped toAmerica when he had still been a child, there was no denying his heritage. His ancestors hadbeen Gypsies in the Ukraine, hot-blooded, hot tempered and with little respect for structuredauthority.

     Mikhail considered himself to be American—except when it suited him to be Russian.

     Curls of wood fell on the table or the floor. Most of his cramped living space was taken upwith his work—blocks and slabs of wood; even an oak burl, knives, chisels, hammers, drills,calipers. There was a small lathe in the corner and jars that held brushes. The room smelled oflinseed oil, sweat and sawdust.

     Mikhail took a pull from the beer at his elbow and sat back to study the cherry. It wasn'tready, as yet, to let him see what was inside. He let his fingers roam over it, over the grain,into the grooves, while the sound of. traffic and music and shouts rose up and through the openwindow at his back.

     He had had enough success in the past two years that he could have moved into bigger and moremodern dwellings. He liked it here, in this noisy neighborhood, with the bakery on the corner,the bazaarlike atmosphere on Canal, only a short walk away, the women who gossiped from theirstoops in the morning, the men who sat there at night.

     He didn't need wall-to-wall carpet or a sunken tub or a big stylish kitchen. All he wanted wasa roof that didn't leak, a shower that offered hot water and a refrigerator that would keep thebeer and cold cuts cold. At the moment, he didn't have any of those things. And Miss SydneyHayward hadn't seen the last of him.

     He glanced up at the three brisk knocks on his door, then grinned as his down-the-hallneighbor burst in. "What's the story?"

     Keely O'Brian slammed the door, leaned dramatically against it, then did a quick jig. "I gotthe part." Letting out a whoop, she raced to the table to throw her arms around Mikhail's neck."I got it." She gave him a loud, smacking kiss on one cheek. "I got it." Then the other.

     "I told you you would." He reached back to ruffle her short cap of dusty blond hair. "Get abeer. We'll celebrate."

     "Oh, Mik." She crossed to the tiny refrigerator on long, slim legs left stunningly revealed bya pair of neon green shorts. "I was so nervous before the audition I got the hiccups, then Idrank a gallon of water and sloshed my way through the reading." She tossed the cap into thetrash before toasting herself. "And I still got it. A movie of the week. I'll probably only getlike sixth or seventh billing, but I don't get murdered till the third act." She took a sip,then let out a long, bloodcurdling scream. "That's what I have to do when the serial killercomers me in the alley. I really think my scream turned the tide."

     "No doubt." As always, her quick, nervous speech amused him. She was twenty-three, with anappealing coltish body, lively green eyes and a heart as wide as the Grand Canyon. If Mikhailhadn't felt so much like her brother right from the beginning of their relationship, he wouldhave long since attempted to talk her into bed.

     Keely took a sip of beer. "Hey, do you want to order some Chinese or pizza or something? I'vegot a frozen pizza, but my oven is on the blink again."

     The simple statement made his eyes flash and his lips purse. "I went today to see Hayward."

     The bottle paused on the way to her lips. "In person? You mean like, face-to-face?"

     "Yes." Mikhail set aside his carving tools, afraid he would gouge the wood.

     Impressed, Keely walked over to sit on the windowsill. "Wow. So, what's he like?"

     "He's dead."

     She choked on the beer, watching him wide-eyed as she pounded on her chest. "Dead? Youdidn't…"

     "Kill him?" This time Mikhail smiled. Another thing he enjoyed about Keely was her innateflare for the dramatic. "No, but I considered killing the new Hayward—his granddaughter." ,;

     "The new landlord's a woman? What's she like?"

     "Very beautiful, very cold." He was frowning as he skimmed his fingertips over the wood grain."She has red hair and white skin. Blue eyes like frost on a lake. When she speaks, iciclesform."

     Keely grimaced and sipped. "Rich people," she said, "can afford to be cold."

     "I told her she has two days before I go to the building commissioner."

     This time Keely smiled. As much as she admired Mikhail, she felt he was naive in a lot ofways. "Good luck. Maybe we should take Mrs. Bayford's idea about a rent strike. Of course, thenwe risk eviction, but… hey." She leaned out the open window. "You should see this car. It'slike a Lincoln or something—with a driver. There's a woman getting out of the back.'' Morefascinated than envious, she let out a long, appreciative breath. "Harper's Bazaar's version ofthe executive woman." Grinning, she shot a glance over her shoulder. "I think your ice princesshas come slumming."

     Outside, Sydney studied the building. It was really quite lovely, she thought. Like an oldwoman who had maintained her dignity and a shadow of her youthful beauty. The red brick hadfaded to a soft pink, smudged here and there by soot and exhaust. The trimming paint waspeeling and cracked, but that could be easily remedied. Taking out a legal pad, she began totake notes.

     She was aware that the men sitting out on the stoop were watching her, but she ignored them.It was a noisy place, she noted. Most of the windows were open and there was a variety ofsound—televisions, radios, babies crying, someone singing "The Desert Song" in a warblingsoprano. There were useless little balconies crowded with potted flowers, bicycles, clothesdrying in the still, hot air.

     Shading her eyes, she let her gaze travel up. Most of the railings were badly rusted and manyhad spokes missing. She frowned, then spotted Mikhail, leaning out of a window on the topfloor, nearly cheek to cheek with a stunning blonde. Since he was bare chested and the blondewas wearing the tiniest excuse for a tank top, Sydney imagined she'd interrupted them. Sheacknowledged him with a frigid nod, then went back to her notes.

     When she started toward the entrance, the men shifted to make a path for her. The small lobbywas dim and oppressively hot. On this level the windows were apparently painted shut. The oldparquet floor was scarred and scraped, and there was a smell, a very definite smell, of mold.She studied the elevator dubiously. Someone had hand-lettered a sign above the button that readAbandon Hope Ye Who Enter Here.

     Curious, Sydney punched the up button and listened to the grinding rattles and wheezes. On animpatient breath, she made more notes. It was deplorable, she thought. The unit should havebeen inspected, and Hayward should have been slapped with a citation. Well, she was Haywardnow.

     The doors squeaked open, and Mikhail stepped out.

     "Did you come to look over your empire?" he asked her.

     Very deliberately she finished her notes before she met his gaze. At least he had pulled on ashirt—if you could call it that. The thin white T-shirt was ripped at the sleeves and mangledat the hem.

     "I believe I told you I'd look over the file. Once I did, I thought it best to inspect thebuilding myself." She glanced at the elevator, then back at him. "You're either very brave orvery stupid, Mr. Stanislaski."

     "A realist," he corrected with a slow shrug. "What happens, happens."

     "Perhaps. But I'd prefer that no one use this elevator until it's repaired or replaced."

     He slipped his hands into his pockets. "And will it be?"

     "Yes, as quickly as possible. I believe you mentioned in your letter that some of the stairrailings were broken."

     "I've replaced the worst of them."

     Her brow lifted. "You?"

     "There are children and old people in this building."

     The simplicity of his answer made her ashamed. "I see. Since you've taken it on yourself torepresent the tenants, perhaps you'd take me through and show me the worst of the problems."

     As they started up the stairs, she noted that the railing was obviously new, an unstained lineof wood that was sturdy under her hand. She made a note that it had been replaced by a tenant.

     He knocked on apartment doors. People greeted him enthusiastically, her warily. There weresmells of cooking—meals just finished, meals yet to be eaten. She was offered strudel,brownies, goulash, chicken wings. Some of the complaints were bitter, some were nervous. ButSydney saw for herself that Mikhail's letters hadn't exaggerated.

     By the time they reached the third floor, the heat was making her dizzy. On the fourth, sherefused the offer of spaghetti and meatballs—wondering how anyone could bear to cook in allthis heat—and accepted a glass of water. Dutifully she noted down how the pipes rattled andthumped. When they reached the fifth floor, she was wishing desperately for a cool shower, achilled glass of chardonnay and the blissful comfort of her air-conditioned apartment.

     Mikhail noted that her face was glowing from the heat. On the last flight of stairs, she'dbeen puffing a bit, which pleased him. It wouldn't hurt the queen to see how her subjectslived. He wondered why she didn't at least peel off her suit jacket or loosen a couple of thoseprim buttons on her blouse.

     He wasn't pleased with the thought that he would enjoy doing both of those things for her.

     "I would think that some of these tenants would have window units." Sweat slithered nastilydown her back. ''Air-conditioning.''

     "The wiring won't handle it," he told her. "When people turn them on, it blows the fuses andwe lose power. The hallways are the worst," he went on conversationally. "Airless. And up hereis worst of all. Heat rises."

     "So I've heard."

     She was white as a sheet, he noted, and swore. "Take off your jacket."

     "I beg your pardon?"

     "You're stupid." He tugged the linen off her shoulders and began to pull her arms free.

     The combination of heat and his rough, purposeful fingers had spots dancing in front of hereyes. "Stop it."

     "Very stupid. This is not a boardroom."

     His touch wasn't the least bit loverlike, but it was very disturbing. She batted at his handsthe moment one of her arms was free. Ignoring her, Mikhail pushed her into his apartment.

     "Mr. Stanislaski," she said, out of breath but not out of dignity. "I will not be pawed."

     "I have doubts you've ever been pawed in your life, Your Highness. What man wants frostbite?Sit."

     "I have no desire to—"

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