The Stanislaski Brothers
A Stanislaski Saga
LURING A LADY
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.
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?"
LURING A LADY
To my nephew Kenni, my second favorite carpenter
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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.
"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—"
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?"
"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," 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."