alexis morgan's romance books
alexis morgan's romance books
ALWAYS BE TRUE: TINO
by Alexis Morgan
Sergeant Joe's Boys, Book 2
October 4, 2016
From Alexis Morgan, the bestselling author of such "heartfelt, touching stories" (Susan Mallery) as Always for You: Jack, comes another charming Sergeant Joe's Boys novel featuring a proud military man with a lot to learn about love—and an irresistible woman with a lot to give.
When Sergeant Joe and his wife, Marlene, adopted Tino Gianelli as a teenager, the foster kid began to heal from his deep insecurities. Now, with a successful military career behind him and a good job as a contractor in the family construction business, Tino shouldn't have any reason to doubt himself. He's fallen hard for a beautiful heiress, and she seems to be crazy about him too. So why does he keep trying to hide his working-class roots?
Natalie Kennigan's ideal guy is someone who will consider her an equal and his best friend, not merely a box to check on the road to success. Tino—with his down-to-earth personality, generous heart, and passionate embrace—might just be the one, at least until he finds out about Natalie's family money and starts treating her like the typical rich girl who needs to be wined and dined. Natalie will have none of it. She won't be happy until he accepts her for who she truly is—just as she wants to love the real Tino.
"Wait for it . . ."
Tino Gianelli mumbled the words under his breath as he stood poised and ready to leap into action should it become necessary. Even money said that would be any second now. The petite blonde had caught his attention right after he'd arrived two hours ago. He didn't know who she was, but he did know the woman possessed way more energy than any one person ought to have. She was here, there, and everywhere. And right now, she was too busy talking to one of the other volunteers to realize she was about to back into an open five-gallon bucket of paint.
Sure enough, as soon as she finished answering one question, someone else called out to her from the other side of the gym. When she turned to reply, only Tino's quick reflexes and superior strength saved the day. He picked her up by the waist and hauled her to safety a few feet away before setting her back down. As soon as he was sure she wouldn't fall, he reluctantly released his hold on her.
Wow, she was even shorter than he'd thought. At a shade under six one himself, he had at least eleven inches over her in height, maybe closer to twelve. He pointed toward the bucket. "Sorry if I startled you, but you were inches from disaster."
At least she didn't immediately rip into him for manhandling her with no warning. Instead, she stared down at the bright orange plastic bucket he was pointing to and then back up at him. Her eyebrows shot up, and her mouth instantly lit with a bright smile framed by a killer set of dimples. "Well, that would've been embarrassing, not to mention a waste of good paint. Thanks for swooping in to save the day-and me."
He grinned down at her. "You're welcome."
She held out her hand. "I'm Natalie Kennigan, project coordinator."
He liked her firm grip on his hand, but he liked her happy laugh even more. Evidently Tino wasn't the only one who felt that way, because several others in the area paused what they were doing long enough to glance in their direction. Ignoring them, he kept his entire focus on Natalie. It had been a long time since he'd been around an attractive woman who radiated such warmth, and he couldn't help but soak up as much as he could.
"Tino Gianelli, volunteer and part-time hero."
She acknowledged his introduction with another quick smile. "This must be your first time volunteering here, Mr. Gianelli. I would've remembered if we'd met before."
Yeah, well, she was pretty damn unforgettable herself, but he kept that fact to himself. "Yes, it's my first time here, and please call me Tino."
"How did you hear about our project?"
Tino looked around the gym. "My mother saw an article in the paper and mentioned it. I had some time on my hands and thought I might be able to help."
That was mostly true. He'd left the military a few weeks back and had yet to decide what to do next. Evidently he'd been underfoot a bit too much at home, because as soon as his mother read about the project needing volunteers with experience in the building trades, she'd shoved the paper under his nose. After tapping on the article with her forefinger, she'd informed him that if he wasn't going to get a steady job or go to school, he could at least make himself useful to somebody. He resented the implication that he was no longer pulling his weight. While he didn't actually mind doing a little physical labor, he'd spent the past ten years serving their country. Wasn't that enough? Obviously not.
Natalie was too busy studying the newly patched holes in the wall to notice the downturn in his mood. She ran her fingers along the tape he'd just applied to cover up the seams in the drywall. "Well, we appreciate all the help we can get. Especially when said help knows what he's doing. I'm guessing that's not the first repair like this you've done."
That was true enough, even if he'd spent most of the last decade with a rifle in his hand instead of a trowel. She didn't need to hear about that, though.
"Patching drywall is just another of my many talents. I'm also a fair hand at carpentry, simple plumbing, and electrical repairs, not to mention painting." He reached out to touch the damp smear of soft green color on her cheek with his fingertip and held it up for her to see. "You look good in this color, but I suspect you meant for this to end up on the wall."
Her fair complexion flushed rosy pink, but her smile didn't fade in the least as she accepted the rag he pulled out of his hip pocket. As she scrubbed at her cheek, she told him, "It has been mentioned that what I lack in skill I make up for with enthusiasm, which is why they keep me away from the power tools. The details about why that is are truly tragic, so please don't ask."
He held up his hands as a promise not to pry. "I'll just have to let my imagination run wild then. For what it's worth, right now I'm picturing a battle between you and a wall. It involves jackhammers and chain saws."
Her laughter rang out again. "Close enough. All I can say is that it was epic."
Then she gave his toolbox a glance that could only be described as envious. "Are all those toys yours? Looks like you came prepared for anything."
For anything except meeting someone like her. "I wasn't sure what kind of work I'd be doing, and I'd rather use my own tools."
"I'm glad you came prepared. God knows there are all kinds of jobs around here that need doing. Enough to keep an army of volunteers busy for months." She glanced around the gym, maybe checking on the progress being made. "Speaking of which, I'd better get back to work myself."
Tino should've let her walk away. He had his own assigned task to finish, but he couldn't resist spending a few more minutes in her company. "I was about to cut out some more damaged drywall. Want to try out my reciprocating saw?"
Her blue eyes lit up with interest. "Are you sure?"
"Why not? I've already marked off the section that needs to come out. All you need to do is cut along the lines. And if things go off the rails a bit, I can always make the patch a little bigger to hide the evidence."
For a second, he thought she might hug him before she finally said, "I promise to be careful."
He put on his safety glasses and dug a second pair out of the toolbox. "Here, put these on."
After giving her a quick tutorial on how the saw worked, he positioned Natalie in front of the damaged area. When she had the tip of the saw aimed in the right spot, he stood directly behind her, ready to coach as necessary. For both their sakes, he needed to concentrate on the job at hand, but he remained all too aware of the sexy woman standing right in front of him. It wouldn't pay to get distracted by the faint scent of her perfume or the halo of wild curls that had escaped from one of those scrunchie things meant to hold her hair back.
"Okay, Natalie, let her rip."
She hit the On button and jumped a bit when the saw tore into the drywall. He steadied her arms with his hands, but then left it up to her to continue on her own. All in all, she did a pretty credible job, taking her time and biting her lower lip as she guided the blade along the lines he'd marked.
After finishing the last cut, Natalie turned off the saw and stepped back from the wall to critique her work. "It's a little crooked."
He brushed away some of the dust. "Not enough to matter. You did a fine job, especially for your first time with a power saw. Besides, no one will be able to tell once it's taped and mudded."
His words clearly pleased her as she surrendered the saw and safety glasses to him. "Thanks for letting me do that, Tino. I'd hang around to help with the patch, but it's almost eleven thirty, and everyone stops to eat lunch at noon. I'm supposed to help serve today, so I'd better go get cleaned up."
Then she frowned. "You will join us for lunch, won't you?"
Actually, he'd planned on finishing this last patch before heading over to his brother's place. However, eating lunch with a bunch of strangers suddenly sounded a whole lot better than drinking beer and watching a ballgame with Jack.
"Sure, I can stay."
"Great! I hope you like pizza and salad." Natalie picked up a small backpack and took off across the gym at her usual speed. Halfway across the room, she stopped and turned back to face him. "If there's room, save me a spot at your table."
Okay, then. So maybe this whole attraction thing wasn't a one-way street. "I will. See you then."
She shot him another one of her bright smiles and disappeared through a door on the other side of the room.
Natalie forced herself to cross the rest of the gym without looking back a second time, even though she dearly wanted to know if Tino Gianelli was watching as she walked away. She suspected . . . no, she hoped he was.
He was the first interesting-not to mention attractive-man she'd met since ending her engagement to Benton Humboldt. She liked Tino's dark, wavy hair and teasing eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate. It probably wouldn't amount to anything, but a girl could always hope. Besides, flirting with a handsome man over pizza and Caesar salad was a harmless way to dip her toes back in the dating pool again.
"Hey, Miss Natalie, how's it going?"
She smiled at Clarence, the janitor who kept things running here at the center. Despite spending more than forty hours there during the week, he showed up every Saturday to help with the ongoing effort to restore the building to its former glory. She looped her arm through his. "We should get at least half of the gym painted today. One of the new volunteers has almost finished repairing the last two walls. I'm really hoping to convince him to come back again. He seems to really know what he's doing."
"That's good, girl. You're going to have this place shining soon."
"I hope so. I know having all our stuff underfoot makes your job harder."
He smiled. "Now, you don't go worrying about that. I don't mind one bit, and it's only temporary, anyway."
That was true, but it seemed to take forever to make any real progress. She had to remind herself that the faded paint and outdated furnishings were slowly disappearing.
"There's so much more we could be doing for the people in this area once we get the building back up to code and the new computer lab finished."
Clarence patted her arm. "I love the way you look at this old gal and see all the possibilities. Most people only saw how run-down she'd gotten and wanted to tear her down to bring in a bunch of fancy stores or something else just as useless. Folks around here need a place to gather. You know, to come together as a community. Outsiders don't understand that and should just stay out of our business."
He wasn't saying anything he hadn't told her half a dozen times before. Once again, Natalie didn't point out that she had been an outsider the first time she'd visited the building or that it was outsider money pulling his beloved community center back from the brink. Besides, she agreed with him. The people who lived in the immediate area should have the biggest say in how things got done.
They were about to pass the door to the ladies' room. "I'd better stop in here and clean up a bit before I serve lunch. I'll save you a couple of those brownies you like so much."
"You spoil me, missy." He smiled down at her and winked. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you. Let me know if you need me to set up any more tables or anything."
She headed into the restroom. One look in the mirror had her wanting to bang her head on the wall. "Well, aren't you just lovely?"
Not only did she still have the remnants of the paint streak smeared across her cheek, but her hair was an unruly mess. She looked as if she'd just rolled out of bed and hadn't even bothered to brush her hair before leaving home. Sigh. And here she thought Tino's smile had been flirtatious. Now she suspected he'd been having a hard time holding back his laughter. All things considered, she couldn't even bring herself to blame him.
After soaking a paper towel with water and soap, she scrubbed the rest of the paint off her face. It was tempting to put on a bit of makeup, but she settled for just a touch of lipstick. Next, she tackled her hair, dragging a brush through it before quickly braiding it. As usual, a few strands still escaped to frame her face with soft curls. She'd spent years trying without success to tame her hair. It was as good as it was going to get.
Regardless, she had better things to do than primp in front of a mirror all day. It was almost time to serve lunch. They had plenty of volunteers to help with that task, so it wasn't imperative that she show up. However, passing out pizza was the one chance she had to personally thank everyone who had shown up to help today. The foundation might be footing the bill for the project, but the volunteers made it happen. She liked letting each of them know that their efforts were appreciated.
She headed down the hall and grabbed an apron. The kitchen was already bustling with activity. She automatically sought out Rosalie Earle in the crowd. The older woman ran the kitchen like a benevolent drill sergeant, marshaling her forces to operate with amazing efficiency. The kitchen had been one of the first areas to be renovated in the building. Instead of the bunch of mismatched appliances that had been hopelessly out of date, the place was now filled with gleaming stainless steel counters and a commercial-grade refrigerator, cooktop, and dishwasher. She was rather proud of what they'd accomplished in what would be the heart of the community center.
She wove her way through the others in the kitchen to reach Rosalie. "I'm here. Put me to work."
Rosalie held up a finger to acknowledge that she'd heard her. Natalie hadn't realized she was talking on the phone and stepped back to afford the other woman some privacy. A few seconds later, Rosalie ended her call.
"Sorry about that, but I've been reaching out to other restaurants in the area where we might be able to order food for future work parties. I think it's important to spread our purchases around the neighborhood."
"Good idea. I'm sure they would all appreciate the business."
Natalie pulled on a pair of disposable gloves. "Is everything set for lunch?"
Rosalie nodded. "We should be ready to go at the stroke of twelve. I'm assuming you want to serve the pizza again, so I've saved that spot for you."
"That's great. By the way, I promised Clarence I'd set aside a couple of the brownies for him. Where can I stash them?"
Her friend rolled her eyes. "He can come get his own brownies if he wants some that bad."But even as she spoke, Rosalie grabbed a small paper plate and stalked over to the counter where the desserts had been set
out. She picked out three of the brownies, two of the chocolate chip cookies, and a lemon bar. After covering the goodies with plastic, she wrote Clarence's name on a sticky note and stuck it on top.
Natalie hid a smile. Rosalie and Clarence circled each other like a pair of feral cats trying to establish their territories. Natalie suspected that there was more to it than that. Like maybe they were both fighting a strong attraction that neither of them was ready to acknowledge. She knew for certain that Clarence was a widower and Rosalie was divorced, so there was nothing keeping them apart except for sheer stubbornness. It was tempting to play matchmaker, but she didn't want to risk her own friendship with each of them if things didn't work out.
One of the other women called out, "Heads up, everybody. The hungry mob has arrived."
Natalie took her usual spot at the head of the line and opened the first three boxes of pizza. They always ordered an equal number of pepperoni, cheese, and vegetarian pizzas. It would be interesting to see which one Tino would ask for. She was betting a big guy like him would go for the pepperoni, the only one with meat on it. She spotted him making his way toward her as the line snaked forward.
He noticed her looking at him and nodded with a smile. She smiled back. At the same time, she had to fight to keep from checking her hair to make sure it was behaving itself. When his tray was finally in front her, she asked, "What kind of pizza do you want, and how many slices? We always order more than we need, so don't hesitate to take as much as you like."
He studied the selections. "In that case, I'll have two pieces of the veggie."
Okay, so she would've lost that bet. She dished up two of the bigger slices and handed him the plate. "There you go, and thanks again for volunteering today, not to mention the lesson in repairing drywall."
"Anytime. Let me know if there are any other skills you'd like me to demonstrate."
One problem with having such fair skin was that she blushed too easily. Right now, she suspected her cheeks were bright red, because the skills that came to mind had nothing to do with fixing up the community center. He knew it, too, because he winked at her as he continued down the line toward the salad bar.
"He's new, isn't he?"
Natalie glanced over her shoulder at Rosalie. "Yep, it's his first day here. I'm hoping he comes back. He's definitely got the kind of skills I covet."
When her friend started laughing, Natalie replayed what she'd just said. Once again, she wanted to bang her head on something. "Lady, you have a wicked mind. The man knows basic carpentry, plumbing, and stuff."
Rosalie patted her on the shoulder. "You just keep telling yourself that's all you're interested in if it makes you feel better. I might be old enough to be that man's mother, but I'm not blind to his particular . . . skill set."
Normally, Natalie loved Rosalie's husky laugh, but not at this particular moment. For one thing, she was pretty sure she was blushing again, not to mention Tino had just glanced back in her direction. Had he figured out that he'd been their topic of discussion? From the small grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, she suspected the answer was yes.
To make matters worse, she'd fallen behind in her duties. Time to get her head back in the game. She turned her attention to the next person in line. "Thanks so much for coming today! What kind of pizza would you like?"
"A writer with a gift for seeing the hidden wounds of soldiers returning from war, Alexis Morgan has outdone herself in Always Be True: Tino. This sexy romance nicely spiced with humor sneaks under your guard to become something rare: a genuinely moving, even inspiring story that will have you both smiling and blinking back tears by the end."—USA Today bestselling author Janice Kay Johnson
"I am a sucker for a strong, shy hero who overcomes his insecurities to win the woman he loves. Alexis Morgan delivers another winner with Always Be True."—New York Times bestselling author Claudia Connor
"Besides really enjoying the story I liked visiting with the characters from book one. I'm really looking forward for Mikhail's book, Love, Always and Forever out March 14, 2017!"—Romancing the Readers
"I loved the characters and found the romance to be really sweet. I am a sucker for military romances and I loved the opposites attract vibe with Tino and Natalie. These two couldn't have been more different, but they just worked."—Once Upon a Book Blog
"Another feel good story by Alexis Morgan."—Princess Thuy's Reviews
"Another touching story you'll enjoy."—Yvonne's Reviews.
"I love the whole idea of this series."—Romancing the Readers