“It surprises me that Mike would fight anyone, especially Modesto.” Although she said the words aloud, she didn’t expect Roberto to comment. Mike wasn’t a fighter. Modesto was much more savvy when it came to such matters. The Hispanic youth would have dropped Mike in record time.

“Whatever plagued him was a hot issue,” Roberto commented. “From what the others told me, Mike went after Modesto without provocation. The funny thing is, I don’t think Modesto really wanted to fight him.”

“But you were able to break it up before anyone was hurt?” she asked, unable to hide her concern.

Roberto nodded, and a hint of a smile turned up the edges of his mouth. “No problem.”

Brynn relaxed.

Roberto was about to say something when Emilio strolled past casually and stopped as though surprised to find his older brother spending time with his teacher. “Mornin’, Miss Cassidy.”

“Morning, Emilio.”

The teenager turned to his brother. “Have you asked her yet?”

Roberto answered in Spanish, his voice low and threatening.

Emilio ignored him. “He’s going to invite you over to the apartment for breakfast. I’m supposed to make myself scarce.” He grinned boyishly and added in a low voice, “I’d be careful if I were you, ’cause it looks to me like my big brother intends to put the make on you.”

Brynn couldn’t keep from laughing, but Roberto wasn’t amused. He spoke again, and his tone was clear. He wanted his brother to shut up and leave them alone.

Advertisement..

If Emilio felt the least bit threatened by his brother, he didn’t let it show. If anything, the younger Alcantara couldn’t have looked more pleased.

“You should have seen Roberto this morning,” he continued undaunted. His smile was full and cocky. “He was up at the crack of dawn, shaving and splashing on that fancy cologne he likes so well.”

“Emilio.” Again Roberto threatened him.

“He likes you, Teach, big time.”

Brynn knew smiling was probably the worst thing she could do, but she couldn’t make herself stop. Emilio was telling her everything she wanted to hear.

Disgruntled, Roberto pulled his wallet from his hip pocket and jerked out a twenty-dollar bill. “Get lost for a couple of hours,” he instructed.

A wide grin split Emilio’s face. “I’m outta here.” He looked to Brynn and winked. “Have fun, you two.” With that he was gone.

“I apologize for my brother,” Roberto said flatly.

Brynn arched one brow. “Was what Emilio said true? Do you intend to put the make on me?”

His intensely dark eyes didn’t waver from hers. “That depends.”

“On what?”

“Several matters,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Mostly on if you feel the same way about me as I do you.” He reached for her hand and laced his fingers with hers. “I’d be honored if you’d join me for breakfast.”

“Does that mean you’re volunteering to cook?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

“Then I accept.”

Hand in hand they strolled down the sidewalk.

“We have nothing in common.” It was as though he felt obligated to remind her of that.

“I certainly don’t agree with your views on education,” she added. If he was looking for reasons they shouldn’t see each other, she had a list of her own.

Roberto’s chest deflated as he released a pent-up breath. “You’re Irish, I’m Hispanic. I have no business bringing you home with me.”

“But you are, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” he said, as though admitting to a fault.

“Why?” Perhaps she should leave matters as they are and not ask.

“Because I had to know.” His voice was gruff with impatience, but Brynn understood. She was equally curious. Equally fascinated with him.

“I needed to know, too,” she admitted softly.

Roberto’s hand squeezed hers, and when she looked up, he smiled.

He brought her to the apartment he shared with his brother. The compact unit was decorated with large overstuffed pieces of furniture. The royal blue material had several crocheted doilies flattened across the back.

“My mother made those,” Roberto explained when Brynn ran her finger over the delicately crafted cotton threads.

“They’re lovely.”

“So are you.”

Before Brynn could comment, Roberto turned her in his arms. She came willingly, without a qualm, eager for his kiss. He didn’t disappoint her. Soon his mouth settled firmly over hers. His kiss was both hot and compelling. Brynn’s breath caught in her throat as he wrappped her securely in his arms. She buried her face in the hollow of his neck and breathed in the warm, spicy rum scent of him. The bay cologne reminded her of what Emilio had said, and she smiled softly and pressed her lips against his smoothly shaven skin.

“I meant to wait to kiss you,” he confessed, his lips in her hair. “At least until after breakfast.”

“I didn’t want to wait.”

He continued to caress her back. “We shouldn’t be doing this.”

“You’re right,” she agreed, and stepped up onto the tips of her toes to kiss him again. The world dissolved, melting away any resistance that might have remained. “We’re both crazy.”

“The world is crazy,” Roberto agreed, “but I haven’t the strength to resist you.”

Brynn closed her eyes and pressed her head against the solid strength of his shoulder. She was content to stay as they were, but she wasn’t blind to their differences. What Roberto said was true. They had little in common other than the fact that they were crazy about each other.

Jenny was convinced she was coming down with a cold. Her throat ached, and she alternated between hot flashes and the chills. And she swore every bone in her body ached. A cold complicated by the flu.

She managed to sing her way through the two production numbers she was involved in from South Pacific. She smiled as if she hadn’t a care in the world, delivered the dinners to her customers, and counted the minutes until she’d finished her shift.

When she returned to the apartment the first thing she did was take a long, hot shower. Even with the comfort of warm water raining down on her, she developed a hacking cough.

“You don’t sound so good,” Michelle called from the other side of the bathroom.

“I’m miserable.”

“Do you want me to get you some aspirin?” her roommate offered.

“No thanks,” Jenny said as she opened the door. “I took some when I got home.” Dressed in a thick terry-cloth robe, she ambled into the living room and buried herself under the wool afghan her mother had mailed her last Christmas.

“I bet a nice hot bowl of chicken soup would help you to feel better.”

“I’m fine, Nurse Michelle,” Jenny teased.

“You need something,” her roommate insisted.

What she needed, Jenny realized, wasn’t to be easily found. More than at any other time since her arrival in New York, Jenny needed her family.

Jenny could feel a sneeze coming on, and she reached for a tissue and nearly blew a hole through it with the force of her misery.

“My goodness.” Michelle laughed.

“What about the Christmas party?” Jenny asked, wanting to take her mind off her woes. She needed to divert Michelle before she whipped out a thermometer and dispensed massive doses of TLC. Struggling as she was against bouts of self-pity, Jenny preferred to suffer alone.

“Oh, my goodness, the party! I nearly forgot.” Michelle walked over to her purse and took out a list. “I talked to Paul. You remember Paul Fredricks, don’t you?”

Jenny nodded, although she hadn’t a clue who Paul was. She’d figure it out in a moment.

“Anyway, Paul says the fifth would work out great.”

“The fifth is fine with me.” For the life of her, Jenny couldn’t figure out why they would need to clear the date with Paul Fredricks, but again that was something she would leave to reason out later.

“Do you agree?”

“Sure.” One day was as good as any other as far as she was concerned. “I’ll make sure I have the fifth off.”

“Good. I added Paul’s name to the list while I was at it. You don’t object, do you?”

“Of course he can come. The more the merrier.” Paul Fredricks, of course. He was the actor who’d captured Michelle’s attention and her heart after one short meeting. Her roommate seemed to think no one had noticed. Perhaps no one else had, but Jenny wasn’t as easily fooled.

“Look,” Michelle said, standing inside the kitchen. “The message machine is blinking.”

“I forgot to check,” Jenny admitted. The first order of business when she’d returned home was aspirin and a hot shower. “Who called?”

“I don’t know.” Michelle pushed down the button and reached for a pad and pen.

“It’s Irene,” Michelle cried.

It would be just like their agent to leave the most important news of their careers on the answering machine.

“I don’t know where you girls are,” Irene’s elevated voice said, “but I sincerely hope you’ll be home soon. Now listen up! I talked to John Peterman this afternoon, and he wants you both back for a second audition first thing in the morning. I repeat, he wants to see you both again.”

Michelle looked to Jenny.

Jenny looked to Michelle.

Michelle threw open her arms and screamed.

Her cold forgotten, Jenny tossed aside the quilt and raced over to her friend’s open arms. Together they danced around the living room, screaming at the top of their lungs.

Then Jenny started to cough again.

Eight

“Suzie, can I see you after class?” Brynn asked the Chinese girl. Of all her students, Brynn found real encouragement in watching this particular teenager’s progress. Suzie’s written essays revealed a quick, analytical mind and a thirst for knowledge. Brynn hadn’t said anything to Suzie, but she’d taken it upon herself to inquire about the possibility of a full-ride scholarship for the girl.

Suzie glanced up from her desk and blinked. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No, not at all,” Brynn quickly assured her. She patted Suzie’s shoulder, and the girl returned to her writing assignment.

“Do you want to see me, too?” Malcolm called from the back of the classroom, disrupting the calm. That was Malcolm’s specialty.

“Not today,” she said.

Malcolm folded his muscular arms and leaned back on his desk chair until his shoulders were braced against the wall. His eyes were round with irritation. “I heard you stopped by my place yesterday and asked to speak to my mother. If you got something to say to her, you can say it to me first.” He lifted his chin an inch in open defiance.

It was clear Malcolm didn’t trust her. Brynn doubted that many of her students did, although she’d worked hard to gain their confidence. Again and again she butted her head against the thick walls of doubt and suspicion. To the best of her knowledge she hadn’t gone against her word once, yet her students acted as if they were waiting for her to knife them in the back. Certainly the incident with Emilio that first day hadn’t helped matters any.