“Hey, Als. Table Three just got here. You can grab his order,” Jorge said over the whoosh of the exhaust fan when I walked in the back door for my Saturday shift.
In my opinion, Jorge’s Wood-Fired Pizza was better than George’s. Jorge was a jolly kind of guy who actually liked both people and pizza. The tips were decent. The pizza was way better. And I got a free meal and as many bathroom breaks as I needed with every shift.
Plus, the pizzeria was located an easy walk from Dad’s nursing home.
“Sure,” I said, pasting a smile on my face. I was still reeling from yesterday’s revelations. In Mrs. Grosu’s pink and yellow guest room, I’d added up the cost of twelve months of long-term care.
If I was going to pay Dominic back, I would have to start selling internal organs.
I still didn’t know what I was going to do. I needed to talk to him. But I didn’t know if I could survive seeing him.
His email last night had been short and oh so sweet.
Subject: Getting to know me
I’m never getting over you, Ally. And I’m not going to try. My heart was yours from the pepperoni on.
My mind on pepperoni, I clocked in and then pushed through the swinging door into the dining room. It was a busy Saturday afternoon. Half the booths were already full. The other server waved to me while she keyed in an order.
But I didn’t wave back.
Because I couldn’t stop staring at Table Three.
Those blue eyes pulled me across the checkered tile floor like an industrial magnet.
Dominic Russo, looking more casual than I’d ever seen him in jeans, a sweatshirt, and a ball cap, was staring at me. So sad, so hopeful.
My feet stopped in front of him, and my heart did its best to climb out of my throat.
I missed him. My body physically ached for him. The sound of his voice, the furrow of his brow, the smell of him after a shower, the heat from his body that always thawed me.
“Ally,” he rasped, then cleared his throat.
“Hi, Dom,” I said lamely. I wanted to break down and cry. I wanted to climb into his lap and let him hold me and convince me that everything was going to be fine now. I wanted him to make it all better. Somehow.
His gaze roamed me from head to toe as if he couldn’t quite believe I was here.
Remembering where I was, I pulled my notepad out of my apron and swallowed hard. “Do you know what you want?”
He glanced down at the unopened menu and then back up at me. “I was thinking I could go for a pepperoni pizza.”
Ouch. Direct hit on the ol’ ticker.
I put the pad back. “Sure. Is there anything else you want?”
He rested his hand on the edge of the green Formica table. His pinky was an inch from where my hand hung at my side. But sometimes an inch might as well be a mile. And I didn’t know how to cross it. I didn’t know how to ask him for what I needed. Because I didn’t know what I needed.
“There are a lot of things I want,” he said softly. His hopeful gaze found mine and held it. His pinky flexed, and for one glorious, perfect second, it brushed mine. My body lit up like a Christmas tree.
I loved him. So damn much. And he’d hurt me so damn badly. And I didn’t know what I needed from him.
I took a self-preserving step backward. “It’s so good to see you,” I said, addressing my sneakers. “I’ll put your order in.”
He was looking at me with so much feeling it was making me dizzy. His thumb tapped out a silent beat on the table. And the familiarity of it took my breath away. My heart squeezed like it did on days when my dad recognized me.
Maybe it was as simple as that. Loving someone, forgiving someone. Maybe it was about showing up and being strong enough to take the hurt.
He nodded and looked down at the table. “Thanks,” he said quietly.
I flew into the kitchen.
“Jorge, I need a pepperoni on the fly, and I need to put the toppings on myself,” I announced.
My boss shrugged and shoved a naked pie at me. “Suit yourself, Als.”
It was the longest three minutes of my life, waiting for the pizza oven to work its magic.
I almost burnt the shit out of my hand getting the pizza out of the oven and onto a tray.
“Calm down before you get hurt,” Jorge admonished.
“I already got hurt. But it’s okay because I love him!”
Jorge said something about “crazy women” under his breath. But I was too busy sprinting for the dining room.
Once again, I stopped in my tracks when I saw Table Three.
He was gone.
I did a quick scan of the restaurant, but my body already knew Dominic Russo was gone. In his place was a thick manilla envelope under a crisp twenty-dollar bill. I dumped the pizza on the table, sat, and tore open the envelope.
A certified check from one Dr. Claudia Morales fluttered out and onto my lap. My mother had written my father a check for the exact amount that she’d snuck out of his savings. There was a second check to me for an amount that made me blink. In the memo field, it said “for expenses incurred.”
“Oh my God,” I breathed.
“Honey, are you okay over there?” A woman across the restaurant asked. “You look like you’re having a fit.”
I shook my head silently.
“You’re not okay, or you’re not having a fit?” she pressed. More customers were turning to stare at me.
“I’m not okay. It’s not a fit. It’s love.”
She nodded sagely. “You’re in love with that fine man who was sitting there all broody and beautiful?”
Next on the stack was the deed for dad’s house. Attached to it was a handwritten note.
It’s yours. No one can ever take your memories from you.
“Damn you, Dom,” I whispered on a half sob.
Next came a report from what looked like some kind of private investigator.
Subject: Deena Smith, Goodwin Childers Nursing Home.
I turned the pages, skimming quickly. It looked like an investigation into unorthodox and illegal collection tactics. Attached was a formal complaint to the state accusing Front Desk Deena of using harassment and intimidation tactics to coerce families into paying the debts of loved ones even when there was no financial responsibility.
There was a newspaper clipping beneath it. A short paragraph in the police blotter mentioning a nursing home employee under investigation for intimidating families of patients to earn large bonuses for on-time collections. The employee had been suspended without pay.
Well, that explained all the damn jewelry.
“That doesn’t look like any kind of jewelry or flowers,” the woman called over, craning her neck to see what I was looking at.
The last thing in the envelope was an advance copy of Label’s May issue.
Dalessandra, looking strong and fierce, stood with four other women on the cover next to the headline “No More Secrets: Survivors Share Their Stories.”
“Oh. My. God.”
“Well, what is it?”
“A magazine,” I said.
“Huh. Guy thinks you want to do a little light reading? You sure there’s no diamond ring in there?”
I flipped through the magazine to the spread. Dalessandra and each of the other four women had written essays. There was a breathtaking, full-page picture of Dalessandra and her friend Simone… in an embrace?
“I’m tired of keeping secrets. I’m in love with Simone. We’ve been in a relationship for years.”
“Holy. Shit,” I breathed.
I scanned to the bottom.
Editor’s Note: Paul Russo was fired from Label. He is currently employed by another magazine. At the time, Label made the mistake of choosing not to enforce his non-compete and requiring Russo’s harassment victims to sign non-disclosure agreements in return for cash settlements. We have since reversed our stance on both issues. Victims will never again be silenced in our offices. On a related issue, managing editor Irvin Harvey has been fired for violating our harassment policy. Dominic Russo will take on the role of managing editor while beauty editor Shayla Bruno steps into the creative director position.
I wanted to read every word.
But first, I wanted to give Dominic his pizza.
“I need a box,” I announced to the dining room.
“Yeah. A ring box,” the lady at Table Eight harrumphed.
“A pizza box. Did anyone see which way he went?”
Every woman in the restaurant pointed to the right.
Table Two dumped their leftovers onto the bare table and handed me their box. “Thanks!” I said, shoving my masterpiece inside.
“Go get him before someone else does,” the woman said.
I hit the door at a run, pizza box firmly clutched in my hands.
“Dominic Russo!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. But I didn’t see his familiar frame anywhere.
He’d left minutes ago. He could have driven away by now. Out of my life again.
I kept running. Kept looking.
“I didn’t know Jorge’s delivered,” a guy in coveralls said as I sprinted past.
“We don’t,” I called over my shoulder.
I charged across the street to the next block, my heart racing. Where was he? He couldn’t be gone. Not now.
I saw the cluster of people, the blue bus stop sign at the end of the block, and stumbled.
Could it be? Would he be there?
I took off again, my heart in my throat.
The sunshine was bright and warm on my face. It felt like hope. Like love.
And there he was. Sitting on a glossy green bench against a fence behind the bus stop. He was hinged forward, hands hanging between his knees, eyes on the ground.
“You forgot your pizza,” I wheezed out.
He tensed and looked up at me, an expression of hope so pure it stitched together every tear in my heart.
“Ally.” He was on his feet, reaching for me.
“Oh, hey, Jorge’s delivers,” a woman in a bright yellow jacket said to her neighbor.
“Man, I could go for a slice of pepperoni right now,” her neighbor said.
“Here.” I thrust the pizza at Dominic.
“Baby, I don’t want a pizza. I want you,” he said dryly. “I want to tell you how fucking sorry I am for everything. I want to make it up to you. I want to demand another chance.”
“You want this pizza,” I insisted, shaking the box.
“Listen, honey, if he doesn’t want it, I’ll take it,” the guy called from the bus bench.
“Remember when you told me that if I wanted anything in the world, I just had to ask you?”
Dominic nodded, looking at me very seriously. “What do you want, Ally?”
“I want you to open this pizza. Please.”
Reluctantly he released his grip on my wrists and took the box from me.
He lifted the lid, and for a moment, I wondered if the pepperonis had gotten sloshed around during my sprint. But then I saw him clench his jaw and swallow hard, and I knew my little message was intact.
He looked up at me, blue eyes burning with intensity. “I don’t have my reading glasses on me. Can you read it for me?”
Jorge’s pepperonis were huge. Dominic knew exactly what they spelled.
But he wanted me to say the words.
We stood there, a pizza box between us.
I wet my lips and took one last breath before the plunge.
“It says ‘I Love You’—well, ‘I Heart U,’ but you get the gist.”
The pizza box was sailing in the direction of the bus stop, and I was flying through the air, landing exactly where I belonged. In Dominic Russo’s arms.
“Woo! Free sidewalk pizza!” someone hooted.
But I was too busy being kissed.
He rained kisses over my cheeks, forehead, and chin. And finally, finally, Dominic’s mouth was on mine.
He tugged on my hair, pulling my head back. A move so familiar and so missed, I teared up.
“I love you, Ally.”
“You guys got any Jorge’s garlic bread you wanna throw over here? I won’t complain.”
Dom rolled his eyes. “If you give me a minute here, I’ll buy you all everything on Jorge’s menu.”
I laughed for the first time in what felt like forever.
“Say it again, Maleficent. Please?” Dom begged.
“I love you, Charming. I’m ready for our happily ever after.”
He picked me up right off the ground and twirled me around to the hoots and hollers of our little audience.
I wrapped my arms around him tight enough that he’d never escape. “You Russos keep changing my life at bus stops.”
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