Right about the time Lesley Robinson’s father’s stroke left her in charge of his Fortune 500 company, she adopted her housekeeper’s sick baby and divorced her philandering husband.
She’s survived the past six years by building an impenetrable wall around her emotions. But when a hunk of a sheriff’s deputy turns up at her office to apply for a grant from the company’s foundation, her distrust of men and relationships takes a direct hit.
Niko Morales clawed his way out of gang life to build a new one grounded in law enforcement and a passion to help disadvantaged youth. So, Lesley needs a companion for an upcoming social occasion? He’s no gigolo, but for his community center, and maybe for her, he’ll wear the monkey suit.
Without any apparent effort at all, Niko sneaks under Lesley’s cool façade, shaking up everything she believed about herself. But when their relationship is threatened by the sins of others, they’ll both have to step up—and out of their comfort zones. Or they’ll lose the one thing they want most: each other.
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“May I help you, sir?”
The guy had to be at least forty. His gold-plated name tag read Marcus Turner. Maybe he was the dining room manager or something. Niko had no idea. But the man’s tone suggested there was absolutely nothing he’d be able to do for Niko and that most likely Niko had lost his way and mistakenly wandered in off the street.
Niko grinned. He couldn’t help picturing Marcus having a stroke when he told him he was there to meet Lesley Robinson.
“I’m joining Lesley Robinson for lunch.”
“Ahhh.” Marcus gave Niko another appraising once-over. “Your name?”
“Morales.” Niko purposely rolled the R just to mess with him.
The host glanced at his reservation book, running his finger down the entries. “Ah, yes. Here we are. Please follow me, Mr. Morales.”
The dining room wasn’t crowded. Niko supposed most clubs of this caliber were probably standing room only between January and April, but they didn’t do much business during the summer and fall.
Marcus paused at a window table for four in the far corner. He pulled a chair back for Niko and whisked away two of the place settings before promising a server would be right over.
Niko made himself comfortable. The window overlooked a vast swimming pool surrounded by white lounge chairs and umbrella tables for four. Beyond the pool was a stretch of private beach. Both were deserted. A female server appeared and Niko ordered iced tea. It was his day off, and he vaguely wished Lesley had suggested meeting at Señor Tequilas, in which case he’d have ordered a beer. But he wasn’t calling the shots at the moment. Lesley was. He knew iced tea was the safest beverage choice for a business meeting.
It came served in a frosted glass with a sprig of mint. What the hell was he supposed to do with that mint leaf? Leave it in the glass? Fish it out and set it on his bread plate? No matter how many etiquette books he read, there always seemed to be some small detail of proper behavior that escaped him. He decided to leave the leaf in the glass and turned it so he could drink from the other side.
Lesley appeared and Niko watched her greet the snotty host, who seemed absolutely delighted to see her. She was wearing another of those slim skirts, this one in a narrow black pinstripe paired with a white blouse and peep-toe black pumps. Her hair was upswept and clipped tight. Her only jewelry was a tank watch with a black band and gold hoop earrings. Niko’d heard the term understated elegance and that’s what Lesley made him think of now. Classy. Rich. She didn’t flaunt her wealth. Her outfit and her demeanor said it all.
She briefly greeted some of the diners at the other tables, mostly older men and a few couples, before making her way to her own table. Niko knew enough to push his chair out and stand to greet her. He caught the flare of surprise when he did so. But she smiled and touched his arm, briefly pressing her cheek against his. “Niko. I’m so glad you could make it.”
He didn’t have time to contemplate his reaction to the whiff of her subtle perfume. He held the chair adjacent to his out for her.
The server appeared in seconds. Lesley glanced at his beverage choice. “I’ll have an iced tea as well. Hold the mint.” She smiled at the server and then at him. “I don’t know why they put a sprig of mint in the iced tea. I’m never quite sure what to do with it.”
Niko smiled back at her and made a note to himself to order his tea plain the next time. If there was a next time.
Lesley folded her hands under her chin and regarded him. He held her gaze. He liked looking at her. He liked trying to figure her out. For example, what was going on in her head right now?
“I like you. I didn’t expect to, but I do,” she said
“Thank you, I think. I like you too. I don’t recall having any expectations one way or the other about whether I would, though.”
Her tea arrived. “Give us a few minutes, would you, Wendy?” she said to the server.
“Thank you.” She turned back to Niko. “My reputation as an ice-cold bitch didn’t precede me, then?”
Niko frowned. He worked at keeping profanity out of his everyday language. Though the term bitch was only mildly profane, he found he didn’t care to hear Lesley use it, especially not in reference to herself. “That’s an unflattering and probably inaccurate description of you.”
“Probably?” She gave a girlish giggle.
“I don’t know you well enough to say whether it’s accurate or not.”
“But based on your limited knowledge of me, your impression is that it’s inaccurate. I appreciate that. More than you know.”
Usually Niko found small talk difficult and pointless, but with Lesley it was a bit like sparring. She wasn’t exactly his opponent, but he looked for ways to pierce her armor just the same. Perhaps she was doing the same with him.
She reached for her menu, so he did too. After they ordered, Lesley said, “I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you here today?”
“Was it so Mr. Gracious there at the host stand could decide if my sports coat would offend any of the other patrons?”
Her eyes widened. “Of course not! Was Marcus rude to you?”
“No. Come on, Lesley. Most of the Latinos allowed on the property are washing dishes or pruning the bougainvillea. They aren’t the guests of Lesley Robinson.”
“Sorry. I didn’t think about that. The club is just the easiest place for me to do lunch meetings. Are you uncomfortable here?”
“It’s fine. I was just yanking your chain.”
Lesley glanced around the dining room. “Frankly, I think the club could do with a bit more diversity.”
“I’m on the waiting list.”
Lesley laughed out loud. It sounded real and genuine to Niko’s ears, and it made him smile. He’d like to hear her laugh more often.
She settled back in her chair. Niko again wondered if she ever completely relaxed. She fiddled with her silverware for a moment before she looked at him. “I have a proposition for you.”
He kept his gaze on her, wondering where this was going.
“I’ve been thinking about your community center quite a lot recently. The Robinson Foundation funds will help, of course, but frankly, I know everyone who’s anyone in this town. I believe, if you were introduced to people with money and influence in the proper circumstances, by someone they know, you’ll soon have more than enough funding to get the center opened.”
“That someone would be you.”
Niko sensed a trap of some sort. “And the ‘proper circumstances’?”
Lesley licked her lips. That quick dart of the tip of her tongue mesmerized Niko. Was she trying to seduce him? He almost laughed out loud at the very idea.
“I don’t know how much you know about how things are done here in Willow Bay. There’s a rather small, tightly knit group of individuals who basically scratch each other’s backs. They all sit on each other’s boards, attend each other’s golf tournaments and charitable balls. Write checks to each other’s causes. Most of the big events occur during the height of the season. Things like the Heart Ball, the Emerald Ball—”
“The Annual Garden Party, the Sunshine Festival.”
Niko didn’t bother to tell Lesley he’d worked both traffic and crowd control at some of those events.
Their meals arrived. Niko looked at his steak sandwich. It looked decidedly unmanageable with grilled onions, peppers and melted cheese spilling out from beneath the bun. He wondered if he was supposed to pick it up and eat it or leave it on the plate and use a knife and fork. Why was nothing simple here in the land of the rich and influential? He didn’t have money to blow on dry-cleaning his sports coat. He picked up his utensils and leaned toward Lesley. “You’re setting me up for something. Why don’t you cut to the chase?”
He sliced into the sandwich before realizing he didn’t need the knife. The steak was that tender.
“You’re very sharp, Mr. Morales. I need to remember that.” Lesley speared a bit of salad on the end of her fork.
Niko finished his first bite. “Isn’t that how business works? I wanted something from you. Now you want something from me. I’m not as sharp as you think, though, because I haven’t figured out what it is you want.”
“I’d like you to be my escort.”
Niko almost choked on his second bite. He managed to swallow it and drink some tea.
“Did you say escort? As in service? Sorry, Miss Robinson. I’m not for sale. If you’ll excuse me.”
When not writing fiction, Dr. Seuss-like poetry or song lyrics, I disguise myself behind a green apron and supply caffeine-laced substances to addicted consumers for a world-wide coffee company. I enjoy (in no particular order) premium coffee, inexpensive white zinfandel, reading, bicycling, and playing tennis badly. I'm still married to my first husband, I have two fantastic children, and one almost perfect dog. Originally from Southwest Missouri, I currently reside in Central Florida.
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