Rossi sniffed the air and grinned. “Smells great in here. Chip’s secret sauce?”
I nodded, watching his reaction, waiting for more.
“Looks great, too,” he said glancing around. “You did a wonderful job.”
Perfect. I threw my arms around him and hugged him tight. My friend Chip’s restaurant, La Cucina, was the first commercial space I ever designed, and to be honest, I needed a little reassurance.
As we strolled into the dining room, a server sprang to attention and led the way to an intimate, white-topped table. He unfolded our napkins and placed them on our laps. “I’m Enzo. Chip sends his apologies for not greeting you personally but,” he grinned and winked, “he’s going crazy in the kitchen.”
“We understand,” I said. Before opening his doors to the public tonight, Chip had invited Rossi and me to an early private dinner. That he was now backstage making sure everything would be perfect for show time wasn’t surprising.
Enzo held up a bottle of pinot noir for our inspection. “With Chip’s compliments.” We nodded and in no time at all, Rossi and I were clinking glasses. His eyes, all liquid Italian fire, did what they always did when he looked at me. They tuned out everything else within range. At the moment that included the menu, and with the aroma of secret sauce in the air, no easy feat.
I used to think Rossi’s habit of concentrating solely on the object of his attention was a detective’s ruse for gaining something. I still did. He used those penetrating eyes of his like a secret weapon to squeeze out the truth. For sure, I had never been able to lie to him about a thing. Damn it.
He raised his glass. And an eyebrow. “To Deva Dunne, the best interior designer east of the Rockies. West of them, too.” He took a celebratory sip before adding, “Seriously, the place looks terrific.”
“You really like it?” I guess I needed to keep the compliments coming.
“Yeah.” He grinned, showing me a flash of even white teeth.
Damn. Rossi always knew what I was thinking, what I needed. A trait that made him maddening, not to mention rather irresistible at times.
I blew out an exasperated breath and hoisted my wine glass. As I sipped, I glanced around, enjoying the view all over again. To tempt the appetite of anybody who strolled in, I’d painted the dining room Tuscan tomato and the bar area merlot. Striped carpeting in merlot, tomato and taupe echoed the wall colors. For drama and bling, I’d filled ornate gold frames with black and white photographs of Italian street scenes and hung them everywhere. And to enhance the photo colors, black Chiavari chairs surrounded tables draped in white linen. No checkered cloths for La Cucina.
Start up costs had been high, so I insisted Chip pay me only when he could. If that never happened, it would be okay. We were friends, and besides, I owed him for giving me such a high profile project to add to my design portfolio.
Rossi picked up one of the brand new menus and handed it to me. “Food? Red walls make me hungry.”
“That’s the whole idea.” Pleased, I took the menu from him and leaned in closer. “You know something?”
He flashed a wicked smile. “Yeah, your neckline looks great when you do that.”
I sat up straighter. “This is like being on a date with a Mafia don.”
He frowned. “Why’s that?”
A while ago he’d told me his Uncle Sully—Salvatore—had mob connections, but he’d refused to tell me how Sally died. So right away you think concrete overshoes. But on that particular topic Rossi wouldn’t give out details, so who knew? “There’s no one else here except Enzo. It’s like you reserved the restaurant just for the two of us.”
Rossi sampled the pinot noir again. “I don’t get it. What’s the Mafia connection?”
“Remember the scene in The Godfather when Al Pacino takes Diane Keaton to the empty restaurant?”
“No, I never saw it.”
“Unbelievable. You’re the only person I know who didn’t.”
He shrugged. “I hate mob movies.”
“Well, anyway, Pacino’s booked the whole place for the night, and there’s nobody there except the wait staff.” I spread my arms wide. “Like here.”
“You have a very fertile imagination,” Rossi said, poker faced. “Now how about we pick an appetizer?”
Not wanting Chip to think I couldn’t find anything I liked, I wasted no time scanning the offerings.
Under Appetizers, I spied Dynamite Shrimp. “How about the shrimp?”
“How’s that Italian?” Rossi asked, his brow creasing. “Think Italian-Thai. Chip isn’t doing the same old, same old. He’s innovating on the traditional dishes.”
Rossi glanced up, giving me the full impact of those eyes. “Italian mobs are one thing. Italian food’s another. I like traditional.”
“Right.” Funny, too, coming from a guy who all by himself kept the frozen pizza industry going.
As Rossi studied the menu, I stole a glance at him sitting there handsome as sin in one of his signature Hawaiian shirts. Like his taste in food, it was awful. Purple and yellow hibiscus blooms against a cloud blue sky. He wore his Hawaiians as a ploy so he’d seem less intimidating to crime suspects, and he’d gotten into the habit of wearing them all the time. His philosophy was if it worked with suspects, why not with everyone? He was a superb detective, but still, his shirts were so appalling I loved busting him about them.
“So, Mr. Traditional, tell me something. Did your grandfather wear Hawaiian shirts?”
He eyed me over the top of his menu. “Point made. Dynamite shrimp it is. And how about an antipasto?” He skimmed the selections and sighed. “No tomatoes. Water chestnuts. Jeez.” His glance dropped farther down the page. “Ah,” he said as if he’d just discovered a murder one clue. ”Look under Entrees.” He tapped the page with a finger. “For the Traditionalist. Mama Luigi’s Sunday Lasagna.” He slapped the menu onto the tabletop. “That’s for me. I hope Mama Luigi didn’t innovate a damn thing.” Then he looked up, stricken. “She didn’t do fusion, did she?”
“You have nothing to fear, Rossi, except your own lack of taste buds.”
“That isn’t true. I have superb taste and a subtle appreciation for the finer things in life.” His eyes went darker than ever. “Which is the reason I’m sitting across from a gorgeous redhead.”
He took my hands and holding them steady and firm, stared across at me with those dark, hooded eyes.
Whatever he was about to tell me never got said. An ear-splitting blast cut off his words, and the building rocked on its foundation. The explosion sent the kitchen doors ricocheting into the dining area and the tables and chairs spinning in the air. The impact flung me out of my seat and hurled me across the room. I landed on the floor with a bone-jarring thud and lay there stunned, too disoriented to move. In shock, trembling with fear, I watched smoke billow out of the kitchen.
Ears ringing, eyes stinging, I ignored the pain in my backside, gripped the leg of an overturned table and pulled myself into a sitting position. Where was Rossi?
Rossi. Omigod, Rossi.
I wanted to scream, but the blast had knocked all the air out of my lungs. I couldn’t breathe, never mind yell. Suddenly, his face bloodied, Rossi bent over me and yanked me up. His arm around my waist, we stumbled past overturned tables, crunching on shards of glass and smashed gilt wood frames. Blown off its hinges, the front door lay in the middle of the street. Trying not to inhale the smoke, we staggered through the opening, out onto Fifth Avenue and gulped in the clear, fresh air.
Fire trucks wailed in the distance. Enzo, so suave a few minutes ago, hunched on the curb with his head in his hands, staring into space.
Rossi cradled me in his arms. “It’s over now, Deva,” he murmured in my ear. “It’s over.” I looked up. A thread of blood trickled down his cheek, and his eyebrows were gone. I held him tight, afraid if I let go the rest of him would disappear along with his eyebrows.
“We made it out alive, Rossi. But oh my God, where’s Chip?”