Fair Play
Deirdre Martin

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Theresa Falconetti hated lots of things: waterproof mascara that really wasn't; cheese you could spray from a can; and people who didn’t give up their subway seat for the elderly or pregnant, to name a few. But number one on her list was doing something she didn’t want to do. That’s why Janna MacNeil, the partner with whom she ran her PR firm, was sparing with details about a new potential client.

"It’s a restaurant," Janna explained as they shared morning coffee, a mutual addiction. This had been their routine ever since opening FM PR two years earlier: come to the office, check in over coffee, then split up and get down to work.

"A restaurant," Theresa repeated thoughtfully, sinking down into one of the plush leather chairs in Janna’s office. She didn’t want to think about how much they’d shelled out on furniture. "Since when do we handle restaurants?"

"Since our accountant told me we need to drum up as much business as we can."

Theresa sighed. "Hit me."

"It’s a mom and pop place in Brooklyn," Janna began, reading the details from a piece of paper on her oversized desk, which dwarfed her. At five feet tall, with short blonde hair, she was the physical opposite of Theresa, whose long legs and dark curls made her the envy of countless women. "It’s got a strong local following, but the new owners, two brothers, are looking to expand the clientele," Janna continued. "They want to start pulling in the foodies from Manhattan." She raised her head to look at Theresa. "Are you free this afternoon?"

"I think so."

"Then would you mind going out there and meeting with these guys? I’ve got to meet with Mike Piazza."

"Mike Piazza? Of the Mets?"

"No, Mike Piazza the plumber. Of course Mike Piazza of the Mets." Janna looked hopeful. "If we could get him, it would be huge."

Theresa sank back in her chair. It always seemed to work out this way: Janna meeting celebrities, Theresa dispatched to check out what was probably a glorified pizzeria. Before starting their agency, Janna did PR for the NHL’s New York franchise, the Blades. Theresa had haunted her long and hard about meeting the team’s hottest new player, Alexei Lubov. She still suffered from nightmares when she recalled what happened when her wish was granted: she and Lubov had gone out, and he had tried to rape her. When she dared to press charges, Theresa’s self esteem and reputation were nearly destroyed, but she persevered,and finally settled out of court. She used the money to set up the firm with Janna, and swore off professional athletes entirely, e for a friendly relationship with Janna’s husband Ty, the former Captain of the Blades. Well, Janna could deal with Mike-Piazza-the-Met, that was more than fine by her. "What time do the Brooklyn brothers want to meet?"

"Around two."

"That’s doable. Where’s the restaurant?"

"Bensonhurst."

"Really?" Theresa was surprised. She was born and raised in Bensonhurst. Her family lived there still, constantly making it clear they wished she did, too. Bensonhurst... She wracked her brains, trying to figure out what family restaurant Janna might be talking about. And then it hit her.

"You’re sending me to Dante’s, aren’t you," she said flatly.

Janna glanced away guiltily. "Yes."

"I don’t believe you!"

Dante’s was the restaurant where the Blades held all their private parties. One of its co-owners was Michael Dante, a third line winger for the team. He’d made a lasting impression on her two years ago when he asked to buy her drink, failing to realize he didn’t have his two front teeth in. At Ty and Janna’s wedding, he’d hounded her endlessly to dance. She couldn’t stand to be around him—he reminded her of everything she’d like to forget.

"You tricked me," she accused.

"I know," Janna confessed. "But I knew it was the only way to get you to agree. Besides, his brother will be there, too."

"Can’t you switch your meeting with Piazza so that you can handle it?"

"It’s business, Theresa...." Janna sounded weary, despite the early hour.

"I really don’t want to deal with him."

"I’ve never understood what you have against Michael. He’s a nice guy."

"A nice guy who reminds me of every Italian Brooklyn boy I grew up with and moved to the city to avoid."

Janna gave a small grimace. "Well, try to keep an open mind when you’re meeting with them, please. We could really use this account."

"I’ll be the consummate professional," Theresa assured her while mentally stockpiling insults to use on Dante if he dared flirt with her. She’d meet with him, fine. They needed the business, so she’d do it.

But she didn’t have to like it.

 

Theresa pushed open the large, carved wooden door to the restaurant and slipped inside, out of the warm September air. The lights and air conditioning were on, but there was no one behind the long, polished wood bar, and every linen covered table in the large room was empty. Trying hard to ignore the bad paintings of Venetian gondoliers and pictures of local priests gracing the red walls, she loudly called out "Hello?" A minute later, Michael Dante appeared through the swinging, steel doors of the kitchen. He was scowling, but upon seeing her, the tensions melted from his face, replaced by a big smile. Here it comes, thought Theresa.

"Theresa. It’s great to see you."

Theresa smiled politely. "Nice to see you, too. I see you’re wearing all your teeth today."

"For you, a full mouth," he kidded back. Theresa noticed him subtly checking her out and bristled. Get over it, ice boy. It’s never going to happen.

"So..." she began, anxious to get the ball rolling so she could get the hell out as quickly as possible. "Should we wait for your brother to arrive?"

"That won’t be necessary," Michael said stiffly, ushering her to a table for two. "You want anything to drink? Pellegrino, a glass of wine?"

"Pellegrino would be great," said Theresa, watching his back as he sauntered away and slipped behind the bar. Objectively speaking, he was not unattractive: black, tousled hair, tan skin, and green/blue eyes which seemed to change color depending upon what he was wearing. A decent body, too: strong arms and a muscled chest tapering down to a perfect "V" at the waist.

Filling two glasses with ice over which he poured mineral water for both of them, Michael tried to hide his disappointment at the change in Theresa’s appearance. She was still gorgeous, but looked nothing like he remembered—or fantasized about. Clad in black from head to toe, her long, wavy hair was pulled back in a sleek bun, and her eyes were obscured by those chic, heavy framed glasses all the hip people seemed to favor nowadays. Her manner was different, too. Polite, formal. How could this be the same woman who, just two short years ago, was fun, flirty, and enjoyed cursing at him in Italian? Maybe she wasn’t the One after all.

"Here you go." Michael handed Theresa her Pellegrino and slipped into the chair opposite her. "So," he said.

"So."

"You look nice today," he noted appreciatively.

Theresa frowned. "Can we stick to business, please?"

"Sure," he said, seeming to suppress a smile. "My brother and I need your help. We want to turn Dante’s into an upscale, Manhattan style restaurant."

"Okay," Theresa said cautiously, taking out a legal pad and pen. "Tell me what you have in mind."

She listened carefully as he outlined the reinvention he envisioned. Just as she was about to ask him if they planned any renovations, boom! one of the kitchen doors flew open and out stormed an older, 1970’s version of Michael, pointedly glaring at them as he strode across the restaurant and out the front door.

Theresa turned to Michael questioningly. "Was that—?"

"My brother?" Michael supplied bitterly. "Yeah, that was him, all right."

"He doesn’t seem very...happy."

"He’s not. He thinks upgrading the restaurant is a cardinal sin on a par with jarred gravy and Godfather III." Michael shook his head dismissively. "Don’t worry about him. I’ve got him covered."

Trying to regroup, Theresa posed the question she’d meant to ask before they’d been interrupted. The answer was they were planning to expand both the dining area and the banquet room within the next couple of months.

"What about decor? What have you got in mind there?"

"I don’t know." Michael looked around the restaurant blankly. "Some more paintings, I guess. A couple more pictures."

"If you want to attract a more upscale clientele," Theresa began gently, "the restaurant may need a more...polished...look."

"Okay." Michael drained his Pellegrino like a man needing fortification for what might come next. "What else?"

"Staff."

"What about them?"

"How many, how old..."

"I’m not sure how many," he admitted. "I’ll have to ask Anthony. As for how old, most of them are probably in their 60s now...a few might even be in their 70s. They all started working for my father when they were young men," he finished proudly.

Sensing that this might not be the time to tell him the staff might need some renovating as well, she turned to the most important issue of all: the menu. "The food has got to be exceptional if you want to draw from the other boroughs."

"It is," he said confidently.

"You’re sure it is or you hope it is?"

"It is," he repeated stubbornly. "You know it is. You’ve eaten here."

"That was over a year ago." At Ty and Janna’s wedding, when you were such a noodge I wanted to shove a square of lasagna down your throat just to get you to shut up and leave me alone.

"Well, nothing’s changed. If anything, the food’s gotten better." He jumped up from the table. "Hang on a minute, I want you to taste something." He disappeared into the kitchen, returning a minute later with a small dessert plate that he placed in front of her.

"What’s this?" Theresa asked suspiciously, staring down at puffy pancakes drizzled with honey.

"Just try it," Michael urged. "Go on."

Uncomfortable with being watched but trapped, Theresa reached for a fork and cut off a small piece of the pancake, popping it in her mouth. It was good. Okay, it was very good. No, she had to be honest, it was great. If he wasn’t there she’d snarf down the whole thing.

"Well?" he asked expectantly, arms folded across his chest.

"BTS," she declared rapturously.

"BTS?"

"Better than sex."

Michael laughed. Now that was the Theresa he remembered: blunt, funny, un-self conscious...obviously, the girl who haunted his dreams was still in there somewhere, lurking behind the crisp, clipped demeanor. Hopeful of bringing out more of her real personality, he leaned towards her.

"Careful. Your roots are showing, and I’m not referring to your hair."

Theresa’s eyes narrowed. "What?"

"Your Brooklyn accent," Michael murmured affectionately. "It was there in full force just a moment ago. As for BTS," he added with a devilish grin, "are you sure about that?"

Theresa’s expression darkened. "Zoccolo! Come sei sciocco," she snarled at him.

Michael’s heart swelled. She’d called him a tasteless clod In Italian! God, he adored her.