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Bella awakened to the sensation of being covered in the softest, finest cotton sheets…and wrapped in the strong, but unfamiliar arms of the man who'd made love to her most of the night.
Her chest tightened into a hard knot at the realization that she'd slept with a near stranger. What had possessed her? Was it because she still hadn't recovered from her breakup with her ex-fiancé? Was it because she needed to escape the guilt she felt for not being there for her aunt when she'd needed her most?
She blinked her bleary eyes several times then closed them again. It had been so easy to accept Michael Medici's offer to drive her home in the rare Atlanta snowstorm with a stop at a cozy bar. Somehow, she'd ended up in his bed instead.
Taking a quick breath, she felt the overwhelming need to run. This had been a huge mistake. She wasn't that kind of woman. Scooting a millimeter at a time, she got to the side of the bed and gently slid her foot to the ground.
"Where are you going?" Michael asked, causing her to stop midmotion.
She glanced over her shoulder and the sight of him covered by a sheet only from the waist down made her throat tighten. In the soft darkness before dawn, he leaned against one forearm, and his broad shoulders and muscular chest emanated strength. She forced herself to meet his gaze and saw what had attracted her from the beginning—dark eyes that glowed with confidence and attentiveness. She'd pushed her fingers through his dark curly hair. His mouth had taken her with shocking passion.
She cleared her throat and tried to clear her mind. "I realized I have a job interview today. I should get home."
"You don't think the interview will be canceled due to the snowstorm?" he asked.
"Well, I can't be sure," she said a bit too brightly for her own ears. "Always best to be prepared. You don't have to get up. I'll call a cab."
He gave a short laugh and rose from the bed. "Fat chance in this weather. I'll take you."
She looked away. "Oh, no really—"
"I insist," he said in a rock-solid tone.
"But my car," she said.
"I'll have my driver bring it to your place."
One hour later, Michael turned into her apartment complex. Bella let out a tiny breath of relief in anticipation of escaping such close confines with him. During the silent ride, she'd spent every other minute castigating herself for making such a foolish choice. She needed to step up and be there for her aunt. She refused to be like her mother—irresponsible and careless of others' needs.
"Is this the building?" Michael asked.
"Yes," she said, her hand on the door as he pulled to a stop. "I really appreciate the ride home. It was very kind of you."
"I'd like to see you again," he said, and something in his voice forced her to meet his gaze.
If she were another person, if she had fewer responsibilities, if she weren't still in love with a man she couldn't have… too many ifs.
She shook her head. "It's not a good idea. I shouldn't have—" She broke off and cleared her throat. Lord, this was awkward.
He leaned toward her. "You didn't like being in my bed?" he asked, but it was more of a dare than a question.
She sucked in a quick breath. "I didn't say that. I just have a lot going on right now. I think being with you could be confusing for me."
"It doesn't have to be confusing," he said. "It's simple. I meet your needs and you meet mine."
She couldn't stop a bubble of nervous laughter as she looked into his dark gaze. How could anything with this man ever be simple? She was out of her league and she knew it. "I—uh—I don't think so." She shook her head. "Thank you for bringing me home."
Bella raced inside her apartment and closed the door behind her. She took several deep breaths, still unable to believe that she had spent the night with a man she barely knew.
She checked the time. A little too early for her regular morning call with Aunt Charlotte. She took a shower and let the hot spray rinse away her stress and warm her from the outside in. For a few minutes, she forgot about her worries and focused on the warm water.
After she got out of the shower, she dried off, dressed and checked the time again. She dialed her aunt's number and waited while it rang several times. Bella felt her concern grow the longer it took for Charlotte to answer.
Bella had almost lost her and she still could. Her aunt was recovering from breast cancer and a year of grueling treatment, a year when Bella had been away pursuing her dream. If only Charlotte hadn't kept her illness a secret.
"Hello," her aunt said in a sleepy voice.
"Oh, no, I woke you," Bella said.
"No," Charlotte said and sighed. "Well, actually you did. The shop is closed today."
"So you get a day off," Bella said, excited at the prospect of her aunt getting some extra rest.
"Without pay," Charlotte grumbled.
"Can I bring something over for you? Soup, sandwich, coffee, green tea…"
"Don't you dare," Charlotte said. "I don't want you driving in this messy weather. I have plenty of food here. Maybe I'll do something really decadent and stay in bed and watch the morning shows."
"As long as you promise to eat something," Bella said.
"You sound just like a mom," Charlotte said.
"I want to make up for lost time."
"Oh, sweetie," her aunt said. "You gotta let go of that. I made it through."
"But you lost something important to you," Bella said, speaking of her aunt's spa. It had been her aunt's life-long dream to open several spas in Atlanta and Charlotte had succeeded until the disease and treatment had sucked the energy out of her.
"True, but things could be worse." She laughed. "My hair is growing back. I'm thinking of dying it pink."
Bella smiled. "Or purple?"
"Yeah," Charlotte said. "Speaking of spas, I found out who bought the business from the bank."
"Really? How did you find out?"
"A client who came into the salon works for the bank. She said some local big wheeler and dealer bought them. She said he's known for buying and selling bankrupt businesses."
Bella made a face. The man she described sounded like a vulture. "Not exactly Prince Charming," she muttered.
"I don't know," her aunt said. "The client said if there were a picture in the dictionary beside the word hot, this guy would be right there. I haven't heard of him, but apparently he's well known among local businesses. Michael Medici's his name."
Three weeks later, Bella walked into MM Enterprises mustering the fragile hope that Michael Medici would show an ounce of compassion for her Aunt Charlotte. She knew the deck was stacked against her in more ways than one, but she had to try. In an ironic twist of fate, Michael's company had bought her aunt's business before Bella had even met him. Apparently, Michael was known for scooping up the skeletons of failing companies and either breathing new life into them, or partitioning them into smaller pieces and making a profit.
The heels of her boots clicked against the tile floor. Dressed in black from head to toe, she could have been outfitted for a funeral. Instead, she was dressing for success. More than anything, she needed Michael to take her seriously. Stepping into the elevator, her nerves jumped under her skin, and she mentally rehearsed her request for the millionth time. The elevator dinged, signaling its arrival. She walked down the hallway and took a breath just before she opened the door to his office.
A young woman seated behind a desk wearing a Bluetooth glanced up in inquiry. "May I help you?"
"I'm Bella St. Clair. I have an appointment with Mr. Medici," she said.
The receptionist nodded. "Please take a seat. He'll be right with you."
Bella sat on the edge of the upholstered blue chair and unbuttoned her coat as she glanced around the office. Business magazines were fanned out neatly on top of the cherry sofa table. Mirrors and original artwork graced cream-colored walls and a large aquarium filled with colorful fish caught her attention. She wondered if any of those fish were from the shark family. She wondered if Michael would ultimately be ruthless or reasonable.
She resisted the urge to fidget. Barely. This was her chance to make it up to Charlotte for not being there when her aunt had needed her most.
Her heart still wrenched at what Charlotte had suffered. Charlotte had supported Bella while she pursued her dream of taking a year off to work for disaster relief in Europe, and had kept her diagnosis a secret from Bella until she'd arrived back in the States.
"You can go in now," the receptionist said, jolting Bella back from her reverie.
Stiffening her spine, she stood and smiled at the receptionist. "Thank you," she said and hesitated a half beat before she opened the door to Michael Medici's office.
Walking inside, she saw him standing in front of the wall of windows on the opposite wall. The sight of him hit her like a strike to her gut. His dark, commanding frame provided a stark contrast against the blue sky behind him. His eyes seemed colder than the last time she'd seen him.
She bit the inside of her cheek. Why shouldn't he be cold toward her? She'd rejected his suggestion that they continue their affair. She was lucky he was willing to see her at all. That had been her litmus test. If he would talk to her, then maybe she could persuade him to agree to her proposal.
"Bella," he said in the smooth velvety voice she remembered. "What brings you here?"
Step one. Address the past and move on. "I realize that you and I shared a rather unusual experience a few weeks ago," she began.
"On the contrary," he said with a slight mocking glint in his eyes. "I understand it happens every day, all over the world."
Her cheeks burned at the remembered intimacy. "Not quite the way that—" She gave up and cleared her throat. "That night aside, I would like to discuss a business proposition with you."
He lifted an eyebrow in surprise and moved to the front of his desk, sitting on the edge. "A business proposition? Have a seat," he said, waving his hand to one of the leather chairs in front of him.
Moving closer to him to sit down, she caught a whiff of his cologne. A hot visual of him naked in bed with her seared her memory. His proximity jangled her nerves, but she was determined. "There's a lot that you and I don't know about each other, but I did tell you that my Aunt Charlotte had experienced some health problems and was also having a tough time professionally."
He nodded silently.
She had wished that he would be less handsome than the last time she'd seen him. Her wish had not come true. She took another breath, wanting to clear her head. "What I didn't tell you was that while I was out of the country last year, my aunt was diagnosed with cancer. She hid that from me or I would have come back immediately. She had to undergo treatment that weakened her. She's better now, but she wasn't able to focus on her business during that time. She lost it."
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said.
"Thank you," she said, feeling a sliver of relief at his words of compassion. "This has been so hard on my aunt. She's sinking into a depression over it. I did some research and found out that you bought her business from the bank."
He tilted his head to one side, frowning. "What business?"
"The spas," she said. "Charlotte's Day Spas."
Realization crossed his face. "Right. She had three of them. I'm planning to convert the properties and resell them. One is a perfect location for a pizza franchise."
"Pizza," she echoed, dismayed at the thought. She cleared her throat. "What I would like to propose is to arrange a loan with you for us to buy back the businesses with the agreement that you would get a share of the profit."
He looked at her for a long moment. "Which at the moment is zero," he said.
"It obviously won't stay that way. The only reason the spas crashed was because of my aunt's health problems."
"And what do you plan to use to secure the loan?" he asked.
"We don't have anything tangible, but the important thing is that my aunt and I would be willing to work night and day to make this work."
"Do you really think, with her health, she can work night and day?" he asked.
She bit her lip. "She needs a purpose. She feels as if she's lost everything." She sighed. "No. I wouldn't let her work night and day, but I could work that hard. I'm young. I'm strong. I can do this."
"So, you're asking me to bank on you and your commitment," he said. "Do you have a résumé?"
He was as cool as a swim in the Arctic, only revealing his thoughts when he wanted, Bella thought with a twinge of resentment. No wonder he was known for his business expertise. She thought of all the menial jobs she'd taken to help finance her education and felt a sinking sensation. She gave him the manila folder that contained the business plan and her résumé. "As you can see, I'm a licensed esthetician, and I have a bachelor's degree in communication studies."
He glanced over the paper. "If you're so committed to your aunt's spas, then why did you go to college? You had your esthetician's license."
"My aunt and I agreed that I should get a college education."
He nodded, looking through the papers. He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully with his hand. "I'll get back to you."
Michael watched Bella leave his office. Damn her, he whispered after she'd closed the door behind her.