Nicole shook her head. No, it wasn’t. It was bad judgment and the need for approval.
But all that was about to change.
She was about to change.
After Connections was sold out from under her three months ago, Nicole had decided she wasn’t going to let her need to be needed or her yearning for affection betray her into bad choices anymore. When Kathy called to tell her about her new commercial property, it seemed like a sign. It felt like a second chance.
Nicole made a face at the dark shutters that covered the windows. Okay, maybe a fourth or fifth chance. But she was going to make the most of it. She’d read up on bartending. She’d studied retail business. She’d bought an entire shelf of self-help and psychology guides and highlighted her copy of Losing the Losers in Your Life until half the pages were brilliant yellow. Finally she sank her severance package into buying the Blue Moon, put her furniture into storage and moved in with Kathy until the space over the bar could be converted into a snug apartment of her own.
Maybe the last decision had been a little precipitous, Nicole acknowledged. But she hadn’t wanted to waste her capital on a short-term lease, and Kathy was eager to clinch the sale. The two women had roomed together their freshman year at college. Really, the situation was ideal. The Blue Moon was perfect.
Until this morning, when Nicole had run smack into the snake in her personal paradise. Mark DeLucca.
She unlocked the shutters over the first set of windows and folded them back. Dust grimed her fingers and tickled her nose.
She sniffed. Lead us not into temptation…
Tempting, yes. DeLucca had the brooding appeal of a Real Man fantasy who wore riding boots and an open-necked white shirt. Or motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket. He had flat black eyes and wavy dark hair and a face so hard and perfect it belonged on a coin. He looked like every mistake she’d ever made…only better.
She crossed the tiny square dance floor to the bar, her low heels echoing in the empty room. Maybe she had managed to get through this first meeting without throwing herself at his feet and begging him to use her. But she was pretty sure that continued exposure to Mark DeLucca’s lethal good looks would be bad for her nerves, wearing on her resolution and dangerous to her heart.
She wiped her hands on a bar rag and reached for the phone. Riffling through her day planner, she found Kathy’s work number and dialed. She stood, staring out the window, as the line rang on the other end. Behind the cold, dusty glass, the ruffled lake threw shards of light.
“Paradise Commercial Realtors. This is Kathy.”
Nicole wedged the phone between her shoulder and jaw and said, “Tell me again why I need Mark DeLucca.”
Kathy—clever, confident, divorced—laughed. “You weren’t impressed with our local heartthrob?”
Nicole scrubbed at the faint black streaks on her fingers. “I was impressed all right. Is he like that with customers?”
Arrogant. Intimidating. Sexy.
“Rude,” Nicole said.
“We-ell, I’m fairly new in town myself, but the real estate office hasn’t had any complaints. He knows his drinks. He knows the regulars. He seems pretty popular with the summer people.” Kathy gave another knowing laugh. “Especially the teenage daughters of the summer people.”
Nicole frowned. “He doesn’t serve drinks to minors, does he?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” Kathy paused before adding, “Of course, his sister’s engaged to the chief of police, so I don’t think you’re in danger of losing your license. But I think DeLucca just flirts with them.”
“Wonderful. Does his future brother-in-law, the police chief, bend the laws about sexual harassment and statutory rape, too?”
“From what I saw last Saturday night, I’d say your bartender’s on the receiving end of the harassment.” Kathy sounded amused.
“So you don’t blame him,” Nicole said.
“I don’t blame him or them. I’ve been tempted to harass the man myself. He can handle it. And he can handle the Monday-night football crowd, which is saying something around here. That’s why we kept him, really, despite his background. He did a good job for the previous owner. She couldn’t run the place, and she needed the income.”
Nicole might be a dupe where men were concerned, but she wasn’t that naive about business. “Not to mention that an active operation is more attractive to purchasers than a closed one,” she said dryly.
“That, too,” Kathy admitted. “I showed you the numbers. So, what did DeLucca do to upset your apple cart?”
Nicole couldn’t say. Didn’t want to say, not when her confession would make it painfully clear how susceptible she was to the wrong kind of guy.
“Nothing much. He was a little aggressive. And I was late,” she added, trying to keep the accusation from her tone.
“Oh, I forgot to wake you, didn’t I?”
“That’s all right,” Nicole said, although it wasn’t, really. “I should buy myself a new alarm clock.”
“Put your old one in storage?”
No. Her clock had been missing ever since Kevin had packed his things and a selection of hers and moved out of her apartment—right before he fired her. And in the three months since, Nicole had kept an irregular schedule, reading until all hours of the morning and then sleeping through the day. But she didn’t feel like confiding that to Kathy, either.
“Something like that,” she said.
“Well, another good thing about Mark DeLucca is he shows up when he says he will. He’s reliable.”
Nicole eased her death grip on the receiver. Reliable was good.
And then Kathy went and spoiled it all by adding, “It’s remarkable, really, given his background.”
“What background?” Nicole asked.
“Well, remember, I’m not a local, so I can’t tell you everything,” the real estate agent said. Though she seemed to be doing a mighty thorough job to Nicole. “But that whole family has issues. I know the mother has a drinking problem.”
Nicole closed her eyes. No new business owner wanted to hear that her key employee came from a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic gene pool.
In Nicole’s own personal rogues gallery, that résumé put Mark DeLucca somewhere between Charles the self-absorbed graduate student and Yuri the vodka-prone cellist. Some women fell for tall, dark and handsome. She was a sucker for tall, dark and misunderstood.
Not anymore, she reminded herself. She opened her eyes to the light streaking through the window.
She would not allow herself to be used, and she would keep Mark DeLucca around only as long as he was useful to her.
The memory of his smooth, flat voice mocked her resolution.
I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll work for you.
There was a woman waiting upstairs in Mark’s apartment.
He recognized the signs: the car parked in the marina’s lot below, a light in the window above. But this car, a battered compact, belonged to his sister. And since his sister was also the only woman who currently possessed a key to his apartment, it was a good bet she was the one waiting inside.
Too bad. Mark pulled his Jeep into a space by the boathouse steps. He wondered what Tess wanted this time.
Or—since this was Tess, after all, who had bullied and mothered him since they were both old enough to stand—what it was she thought he needed now.
He smiled as he climbed