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"Don't forget, Nicky. Please, sis, you can't forget."
Nicky Taylor ground her teeth, then stopped, worried that her older sister, Susan, would hear it over the Bluetooth connection.
"What?" Susan asked. "What did you say?" "Aieee!" Nicky swerved her car, then slammed on the brakes as she tried to avoid a motorcycle zipping too fast down the oncoming lane. No less than three other cars had to do something similar, and their horns blared angrily all around her.
"Damn cyclists!" she cursed even as she flushed in embarrassment. Truthfully, that near-accident had been her fault. She'd been trying to maneuver around a slow-moving bus. She was in a section of Chicago that had the triple threat: narrow lanes, heavy traffic and three streets intersecting in a confusing mess. "Nicky! Nicky, are you all right?" "Yes, yes," she groused to cover her own guilt. "I'm meeting Tammy at that club and I'm late." "You're always late. What happened?" "Nothing, nothing. Just a motorcyclist and a city bus."
She glanced at the time and her chest tightened exponentially. Damn, she hated being late. "Tammy is going to have a fit. The first amateur act has probably already started."
"We're used to you being late. I'll text her that you're on your way. Just drive carefully, okay?"
Nicky winced, knowing that her reputation was well deserved. But she was building a career—didn't they understand that? "I'm not always late. And I drive just fine."
Susan's inelegant snort blasted through the line. "You drive fine when you're concentrating on it. When was the last time you tried to do one thing at a time?"
Nicky didn't answer. She was too busy straightening out her car behind the gawd-awful bus. At least with it going slowly, she'd be able to check her e-mails as soon as she got off the phone. Her company manufactured plastic containers. It wasn't rocket science, but they made a lot of containers. Unfortunately, the world was cutting back on its plastic consumption, which meant as regional head of five distribution nodes, Nicky had to find a way to scale back without firing hundreds of employees.
Part of her just wanted to throw in her resignation along with the layoffs. Shipping plastic parts around the country wasn't exactly what she'd planned when she received her MBA. She'd dreamed of making green products, of earning her living while saving the planet. Plastic was as far from that as she could have gotten. But they'd offered her money and a fast track to the executive boardroom. She hadn't counted on the hundred-hour workweek or the fact that she'd stall out in middle management while the economy took a serious downturn.
Fortunately her little sister, Tammy, knew a guy who specialized in shipping optimization. That's who she was really meeting at amateur night. Nicky just prayed that Prof. Thompson could help her optimize without firing. But he'd have to look at the reports first, which had to be compiled from data from each division head, and then…
"Nicky? Are you still there?"
"Hmm?" She forcibly pulled her attention back to her sister. And the damn bus. And being late to see Prof. Thompson at some stupid amateur night, all before she looked at those figures from the East Coast factory. Her chest tightened further, and she had to force a deep breath. She would not have a panic attack here. Not while driving. No, no, no! She just needed a moment to breathe.
"Yeah, I'm still here," she said, still willing her breath to even out. "Still stuck. Stupid bus."
There was a picture on the back of the bus of a tropical resort. Nicky stared at it a moment, her thoughts wandering to a sandy beach and a hot guy rubbing oil on her back. Wouldn't that be heaven? She held on to the image for a moment, really savored it. It had been years since she'd been with a man. She'd been too busy, too focused, and too afraid of making another bad boyfriend choice. But in fantasy land, she could pretend anything. She could be on a hot beach with the absolute perfect man caressing her in the most intimate ways. It would be so good…
She held on to the thought, soaked it into her skin, and felt her breath lengthen. Moments later, her body relaxed enough for her to function. No panic attack. Life was good.
Except, of course, life wasn't good. She still was nearly an hour late for her appointment, and even when she made it, she didn't have all the figures together. She didn't even see a time when she could take her island vacation. Not until the economy took a better turn. Not until…
"I've e-mailed you the dates…"
Nicky frowned. Dates for what? Oh yeah, her goddaughter's christening. There was a meeting with the priest and then the actual event. She just couldn't forget. "Thanks, Suz."
"Five o'clock Thursday with the priest, okay?"
Nicky nodded, her thoughts still wandering toward the tropical island and a hot guy with body oil. "Does it have to be at five?" She couldn't remember the last time she'd left work that early. Sun, sand, a man…
"You already said you could make it at five!"
"Okay, okay! Five o'clock Thursday."
"You just can't—"
"Can't forget, I know, I got it!" An ache cramped her belly painfully. It was stress. Duh. Her breath was getting short again, so she continued ranting because it felt good. And because it staved off the panic attacks that were getting more frequent with every passing day. "I manage five nodes, supervise nearly two thousand employees, and everyone thinks I can't remember a simple appointment with a priest!" She'd have to remember to put it in her phone calendar. With warnings three days in advance. But she couldn't do that while driving and talking on the phone.
"Nicky, honey, it's not that I don't think you're capable—"
"I know, I know. I gotta go. This bus is driving me nuts." Then she clicked off before her sister could argue.
With a grunt of frustration, she swiveled around in her seat, watching for a break in traffic and furious when she didn't see one. She knew she was overreacting. But she still had a ton of work to do without a clue about when she'd get it in. Who put amateur night on a Thursday, anyway? She should have said no, but she needed to consult Prof. Thompson. And, oh no, she still had to do her laundry. Did she have anything clean for tomorrow? Did she have time to buy some underwear on the way to the bar?
Her phone beeped with a text just as she was finally shifting to the next lane. The pressure built in her mind and body as she stopped her instinctive jerk to answer the phone. She was driving, damn it. Any text could wait!
She steadied the car and pushed through a light, but the cramp in her stomach returned as she ignored the message on her phone. What if it was her boss? What if one of the offices had trouble sending the report? It was well after seven, but she knew at least three of her immediate subordinates worked the same crazy hours she did. If it was one of them, then she needed to get on the problem right away. Jobs were on the line, hers included. She knew there was a way to save most of them, but she had a lot of work to do to find it.
With a grunt of disgust, she grabbed her phone and hit the appropriate button. It was awkward reading and driving at the same time, but she'd mastered it a long time ago. With a sigh of relief, she saw it was from her sister Tammy and not a work disaster.
Where r u?
She stopped at a light and whipped off a response.
Almost there! she texted. It was a lie, but if there were no more buses between her and the bar, she'd make it before the end of the second act. Unless another disaster hit. She tried not to think of that. She tried not to think of tropical islands either or the way her entire body clenched with frustration. If she could just get through the immediate crisis, she would deal with the rest later. But God, what she wouldn't give to be on that tropical island now….
Jimmy Ray did a double take, jerking the curtain slightly as he peered out at the crowd. It couldn't be her. That absolutely could not be Nicky Taylor, his high school fantasy walking into the bar. She'd been a volleyball star, class president and the girl voted most likely to run the country in twenty years. And he'd wanted her forever. What was she doing here at amateur night?
He leaned forward, peering into the dimly lit crowd. He couldn't be sure it was her. Lots of women had long legs, gray business suits and that look of anxious harassment in their eyes. But only Nicky walked that way, with her hips shifting in a lilting cadence while her pointy chin dared a man to try for her. Could that really be her? The blond hair was right, but this woman had a tight lift to her shoulders that high school Nicky never had. She was also walking and trying to read on her BlackBerry while taking off her coat and scanning the crowd at the same time. That was vintage Nicky, even in high school. He bet she'd mastered multitasking by the time she was six.
He frowned as he watched the woman who might be Nicky reach her destination. There was another woman there nursing a margarita. He had to wait for a shift in the lights, but…yes! That was Tammy, Nicky's younger sister. He was sure of it. After all, he'd lived down the block from the Taylor family for years. He knew all of Nicky's family, had trick-or-treated at their house, had even shared a yearly Christmas potluck. He knew them the way he knew how to construct a saw-the-lady-in-half illusion. The woman at the table was Tammy, which meant the other woman—the blonde with the overstuffed briefcase—was Nicky Taylor. Here at amateur night. Of all the dumb luck!
Anticipation tightened his gut. Or was that fear? He closed his eyes, clenching his jaw in disgust. He'd gotten past the nausea that came with painful shyness the day he'd received his first six-figure check. He'd even forced himself up on stage at his brother's bar just to make sure he could overcome his fear of public speaking. But one look at Nicky's long legs in killer black pumps, and he was right back in high school complete with gut-churning panic. Back then he'd resorted to the fantasy of being a magician, of mesmerizing all in his path with his suave charm. Now he was a man and a millionaire. He did not need to hide in fantasy to talk to a woman. Even if that woman was Nicky Taylor, the girl who'd owned his heart since he was twelve.
He had to find a way to talk to her, to have that shot he'd missed in high school. But how? A dozen scenarios spun through his brain, each growing more far-fetched. In the end, he cut off his overactive reasoning. That had been his problem in high school: too much thinking and too little action. By the time he'd worked up the perfect plan to seduce Nicky Taylor, they'd already graduated and gone on to college. Tonight he would keep it simple.
He would magic her into his arms.
"And now for my greatest trick…"
Nicky barely heard the magician's prattle. Her attention was focused on her latest e-mail as she hit Next Page on her phone. Professor Thompson was a no-show. Or rather, he'd shown but left when Nicky was late. Tammy hadn't told her, of course. Her little sister had this misplaced idea that Nicky needed some fun in her life. Well, duh. But sitting through amateur night at a bar didn't qualify. Unfortunately Tammy could be an-noyingly insistent, so rather than cause a scene, Nicky had sat down, ordered some wine and promptly buried her nose in her e-mail. It was hard to see in the bar/ theater, especially with the flickering flash explosions from the stage, but if she held the phone's screen about six inches from her nose, she could read well enough.
"I'm going to separate this woman from her phone!"
A hand shot out and swiped her BlackBerry right out of her palm.
"Hey!" Nicky cried out, then she had to blink against the glare of the spotlight. Laughter erupted all around her, most especially from Tammy, who waved her margarita in salute.
"Well, you were being rude," Tammy said as she winked at the magician.
Nicky acknowledged the hit with an apologetic shrug. "Sorry…umm—" her gaze slipped over to the stage display "—Magic Man." Was that really his act's name? "I apologize for saving my career during your magic act."
"That's all right. I always forgive beautiful women." The magician flashed her a killer, megawatt smile. This close up, she could see that he was quite the cutie, in a hometown, wholesome kind of way. Brown eyes, light brown hair, pale white skin. The stage lights weren't doing him any favors on that score. They seemed to highlight exactly how dark and mysterious he wasn't. And yet, she responded to him. An image of her island hottie flashed through her brain, and she found herself thinking that if this magician got a good tan and stepped into a short sarong, she could absolutely settle down in the sand next to him. The idea was so strong, her fingers actually itched to see what kind of muscles lay hidden under his tux.
But rather than fondle the main attraction right under the lights, she flashed her own version of a killer smile. "Thank you," she said, holding out her hand for her phone. "I promise I'll turn it off now."
"Hmmm, forgiveness is one thing. Property is something else entirely." He grinned as he started backing up to the stage, holding her phone hostage as he moved. "Would you care to join me onstage? Perhaps we can let you win your phone back."
Her fantasy reluctantly faded as her body began to clench. She needed that phone. Just the thought of all the things that could go wrong if she lost it had her close to hyperventilating. "No, no, no. I need that phone."
"Go on," encouraged Tammy from behind her margarita. "It'll be fun."
Nicky gave her sister a glare. Tammy's idea of fun was vastly different than her own.
Meanwhile, the Magic Man was beginning to flip through her e-mail. "Let's see what we have here. Work. Work. Sales info. Factory specs. Yawn." He dropped the phone in a top hat on his magician's table. "A beautiful woman shouldn't be that very boring. I can see why you don't want it back."