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Lindsay Beckham put down the phone in her office carefully as if the receiver harbored an explosive. The calls from Gina were always surreal. On television blackmail was a dramatic high-stakes affairthreats, strong language, wrung hands and curses. Or excruciating, calculated and cruelly exciting.
These talks were bizarre simply because they were so ordinary. Gina was an old friendor so Lindsay had had the typically poor judgment to thinkso their exchanges were familiar, and while not exactly warm and fuzzy anymore, neither were they hostile. Gina treated her "salary" as if she were providing a service Lindsay should feel thrilled to purchase and chatted about personal matters as if their friendship hadn't taken this baffling turn several months ago when, in the middle of a catch-up phone call, Gina had blurted out, "Did you know there is no statute of limitations on murder?"
Wouldn't the press be interested to find out that a few years back Gina Nelson had seen Lindsay Beckham, the hot new owner of Boston's hot new bar, Chassy, kill her boyfriend? Forget the press, wouldn't the police be interested?
And Gina had gone on to point out, wouldn't potential investors in Chassy's planned expansion be interested to learn the woman angling for their money had run away from her adoptive family at seventeen and lived a large part of her adult life high on whatever she could find, going from man to man, searching for love and her own identity the least likely way she could find either?
Needless to say, after that the call had hurtled downhill faster than an Olympic skier.
The betrayal had hurt her not just personally but professionally. Gina seemed to know preciselyhow much Lindsay could part with and stay afloat. Lindsay wanted to do more than stay afloat. She wanted to take Chassy from the quiet neighborhood stop it had been when her wonderful employers and mentors, Laura and Scott Downing, had sold it to her for a song, to the trendy powerhouse she was sure the bar could be as their South Boston neighborhood grew and began to thrive. In the last year she'd made a lot of the right moves, including starting a local chapter of the Martinis and Bikinis women's social club. That guaranteed her loyal customers for its monthly meetings where lucky members were selected to complete wild and empowering dares.
With Gina back in the picture, clinging to her, her past couldn't be put to rest no matter how far Lindsay thought she'd moved beyond it. She'd finally wrestled away most of her guilt over causing her ex-boyfriend Ty's death, but she wasn't sure the courts would take the same view.
Unfortunately, Gina's timing was typical of Lindsay's life. For a precious few weeks in early fall Lindsay had started to feel she was finally digging herself out of the bad times and bad luck that had been her lifelong companions. A new vow of clean living, success in business, then the biggest surpriseinformation about her birth familyhad been dropped into her lap the previous summer in the form of a letter from her deceased birth mother introducing her three half sisters, Brooke, Joey and Katie. Lindsay had invited them to join Martinis and Bikinis and was gradually getting to know the trio.
And then, kaboom, Gina.
There was always something. Granted, she'd made bad choices, but while a lot of people believed in the idea of happily ever after, and some people like her blue blood Winfield half sisters even got a shot at living it, for Lindsay there had only been struggling-ever-after.
Her assistant manager's voice made Lindsay jam on a smile. Another case in point. Born into a wealthy family, Denver Langston had attended an Ivy League college and medical school, and had the luxury of ditching his lucrative career as a plastic surgeon in L.A. because the work hadn't been what he expected.
Now he had the further luxury of slumming in her bar while he figured out what he wanted to do next and where.
If she didn't respect him so much, she well, she might not.
He moved toward her, early as always for his shift, slipping off the royal blue jacket that didn't look thick enough to ward off the dismal damp cold of winter in Massachusetts, but doubtless was several-hundred-dollar state-of-the-art Alpine gear. "How goes it?"
Lindsay shrugged and turned toward her desk, looking for something to straighten. As usual there was nothing. Though she'd always been teased for her compulsive neatness, first by her sloppy adoptive parents and her equally sloppy boyfriends, now by her staff, order kept her from feeling panicked and overwhelmed. And something about Denver made her feel both.
"The usual." And how screwed up was her life that being blackmailed counted as the usual?
He watched her with that dark gaze that lately was making her want things she couldn't have with him. Sex, intimacy, sex, fun times, sex did she mention sex? Too risky. She was his boss for one, and not anxious for a sexual harassment lawsuit on top of blackmail, thanks very much. Second, she liked him, and whatever they started would sputter all too soon and ruin their working relationship. One thing she'd learned the hard way, men didn't stick around after the initial orgasmic thrill wore off.
She nodded, sure she wasn't fooling him. Denver wasn't much of a talker, but he had this unsettling way of tuning into her moods that made her
Well, she wasn't quite sure what it made her, but she knew it wasn't any healthier for her peace of mind than the calls from Gina. "You're sure?"
"Sure." She nodded, aware her tone was too bright and he'd notice. "Fine."
"Uh-huh." Sarcasm became him. Everything became him. "And I'm Paris Hilton."
"Post-op?" If she looked at him any longer, her insides would twist up and she'd start with the blush-and-stutter crap.
Tall and imposing, handsome to a point, nose too proud to be perfect, Denver wasn't the kind of guy that turned female heads the first time he walked into a room, but probably the second or third, and definitely once he'd smiled and shown his easy charm. He was also the kind of guy that could intimidate most people simply by setting his jaw a certain way and scowling. She'd seen him in action when the occasional patron got rowdy.
Luckily it took more than hard jaws and scowls to get her to crack.
"So you're not going to tell me what's wrong?"
"Do I ever?" She glanced over to see him shake his head, amusement turning up the corners of his mouth.
"Nah. But I keep trying."
"Yeah, you do." She opened a cabinet drawer to look busy, wondering why he bothered, and riffled through the hanging folders searching for the file on the next evening's Martinis and Bikinis Love or Lust? preValentine's Day party, probably passing it three times.
"This what you want?" He found the file and handed it to her. "How did you know?"
"Same file you always pull when I come in here to talk to you."
Busted. She turned her head to hide the blush that was her fair skin's nemesis, which she could control around ninety-nine percent of the population. Guess who belonged to the one percent? "Thank you."
"Lindsay." His voice was too intimate; he moved closer and she tensed, ready to tell him to back off.
"Hey, guys, what's up?"
Saved by the bell. Justin Bell, their hot young bartender, hired at the end of the summer and raking in devoted female customers. He swaggered into her office, dressed in butt-hugging black pants and a black T-shirt, dirty blond hair mussed in a look that probably took him hours.
"Hi, Justin." Lindsay moved past Denver. "Remember, we're running a special on mango mojitos and passion fruit martinis for our Tropics in Winter night tonight, so be ready."
"Sweetheart, for you, I am always ready." Justin gyrated his pelvis and Lindsay laughed in spite of her crappy mood.
"Just keep the customers happy, Justin. I'll worry about keeping me happy."
He shook his head. "Lindsay, babe, you have got to get yourself somewhere warm. Miami or the Sahara or even better into some hot guy's arms."
Lindsay raised her brows. "And why is that?"
"To melt that layer of ice you're stuck in." Behind her Denver snorted. She shot him a look, then sent Justin a glare. Men. "We open in thirty, get to work. And for tomorrow evening's Martinis and Bikinis meeting, try eliminating the simple syrup in the pomegranate juice mix for the Valentinis. We have lots of women watching carbs and/or calories, and I thought they were too sweet. Maybe sugar around the glass rims instead."
"Yes, ma'am, boss woman."
She'd opened her mouth to correct him to Lindsay, when Denver's hand gripped her upper arm, making her hiss like an ambushed feline. She did not like being touched unexpectedly, especially from behind.
"Whoa." His hand gentled immediately. "You're on edge even for you."
"I'm fine. What do you want?"
"I just need a minute."
She nodded briskly, pulling out of his grasp. "Justin, if Casey isn't here in five, call her cell and light a fire under her ass, okay?"
"You can count on me, babe."
"No problem, Lindsay-babe."
She countered his boyish smile with a withering look and shooed him back into the bar, then crossed her arms over her chest and turned to Denver, who was leaning casually against her desk. "So, guy, what's up?"
He smiled at her imitation of Justin. "You want it straight?"
"I always do." She hugged herself tighter and had to remind herself to keep her shoulders from stiffening up toward her ears. Not more bad news. Gina had hinted she'd be asking for a "raise" soon and Lindsay needed time with the books, time alone, time to let herself deal with the threat.
"Casey quit. She's pregnant and sick and can't handle the long hours on her feet." He spoke quietly but she saw the concern in his eyes.
"Okay." Lindsay nodded calmly, while her insides shouted, No, not Casey, not now. "She told you today?"
"She called my cell."
"Right." She banished the jolt of irritation at the idea of Casey knowing Denver's cell number and went over the schedule in her mind. "I'll work tomorrow's Martinis and Bikinis party. How long before you can get someone new?"
He shook his head.
She frowned. "That long?"
"No, not the new hire."
He pushed himself away from her desk and came to stand a foot away. She had to make herself not step back. "You."
"What are you talking about?" She felt like growling. She had enough on her plate without psychoanalysis.
"Don't you let anything out?" He put his hands on his hips, taller than her five-ten height by a good number of inches. "I picture this seething mess of emotions inside you. Like snakes trapped in a box."
"Why, Denver, how literary."
His jaw set. She couldn't help smirking. What did he want, that she'd break down crying because she'd have to work harder than hard until they found a replacement? She was born on a Saturday, "Saturday's child works hard for a living." She wasn't afraid of work. Work was healthy, clean and constructive.
So if he thought she'd lay her head on his big sturdy chest, blubber into his manly-man strength and allow that he was more powerful and capable and superior than she, he had another think coming.
Staff quit, that was part of the business. She marched to the door of her office and called out to Justin. "Cancel order to harass Casey, she's not coming in."
"Gotcha, big lady." He grinned at her scowl. "Big lady Lindsay."
She rolled her eyes and turned back into her office, feeling brittle and tenuous, as if one more push was going to send her over and maybe she'd need that manly-man chest after all.
Except she didn't. Life had taught her she could handle a lot more crap with a lot less trauma than most people.
Her private phone rang. She half lunged for it then stopped herself. Lindsay's panic would be immediately apparent to Mr. See-Everything. Then she panicked anyway and lunged again, encountering Denver's hand already on the receiver before she snatched hers away and retreated.
He had a brief conversation, watching her the whole time, a conversation that sounded as if another waitress was coming in late tonight, damn it. She imagined herself on the surface of the moon, everything bright, vast, calm, quiet, in the control of forces much bigger than her.
"Margaret's going to be late. Meltdown on the Mass Pike."
Lindsay nodded. "I'll cover."
"When was your last day off?"
"Don't patronize me."
"It's a simple question."
"I don't do days off."
"You need to." His tone was matter-of-fact, but his gaze was relentless. "You can fool most of the people most of the time but you can't fool me."