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Wicked & Willing
By Leslie Kelly
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Leslie Kelly
All right reserved.
Chapter One"What would you say if I told you it's possible you're the long-lost granddaughter of a millionaire?"
Venus Messina snorted as she twisted the cap off a bottle of Bud, then flipped it into the trash with her thumb. She didn't even look over her shoulder at the uptight old windbag whom she'd dubbed Mr. Collins - Tom Collins - since that was his drink of choice. He sat at the end of the bar and had been trying to engage her in conversation since the moment he arrived.
Granddaughter of a millionaire. Right.
Lemme guess ... my Granny is Miss Manners. Cause everyone can see I'm just like her. She chuckled under her breath.
The man persisted. "... and his direct heir?"
Though his voice grated shrilly over the noisy chatter in the crowded room, nobody even glanced over in curiosity. It was late into Happy Hour on a hot Friday night in June, and everyone knew Friday nights in an Irish pub were as good a place for outrageous stories and high drama as any movie theater.
Tonight was the third time this week the man had parked himself here at Flanagan's, her foster uncle's bar, where she'd been working until she could find a full-time job. The first night, the man had been so quiet she almost hadn't heard his drink order. He'd looked as out of his element as a nun in a strip club. Not so much in the way he dressed, though. After all, Flanagan's catered to a lot of ambitious, wealthy businesspeople who spent their days bowing down to the almighty dollar in one of the many huge office buildings in downtown Baltimore.
No, he didn't look out of place because of his pricey dark suit, which even Venus could tell probably cost more than she made in a month - or more than she had made in a month when she'd actually been employed full-time. Instead, it was his stiffness, the upturned tilt of his pointy chin, the way his nose flared in that irritating way when somebody stepped too close. The way he combed one long strand of graying hair over the top of his head to hide a bald spot, because, after all, rich people were much too refined to ever wear something as gaudy as a toupee.
Nope, she couldn't say she liked Mr. Collins, even if he was a damn good tipper.
"Are you even going to answer me, young lady?"
The imperious tone said he'd given up on easy friendliness, something he'd tried last night and failed at miserably. Mr. Collins's face looked like it was going to crack from his smile - obviously he didn't use it very often.
Tonight he'd skipped friendly and gone for nosy. He'd been trying to engage her in conversation and had been asking way too many personal questions - none of which she'd answered, of course. After she'd spent the past hour ignoring everything he said that wasn't prefaced by the standard, "Bartender, get me a ...," he'd finally blurted out his ridiculous millionaire comment.
"Well?" he prompted, impatiently tapping his perfectly manicured fingers on the top of the pitted, sticky bar.
Sliding the bottle of Bud and a Fuzzy Navel - a disaster of a drink if ever there was one - to the yuppie couple seated at the bar, she muttered, "I'd say somewhere a village is seriously missing its idiot."
Yuppie man grinned. His date, with the pisspoor taste in drinks, gave Venus a quick frown, warning her away from spoken-for territory. As if, lady. Guys in ties were definitely not Venus's bag these days. As a matter of fact, she'd lately sworn off all men in general. Her last relationship had burned her - badly - leaving her not only brokenhearted, but jobless to boot.
Besides which, Venus had decided thirty was too old to keep playing the field. She looked forward to her thirtieth birthday the way a condemned prisoner looked forward to the executioner.
Thirty. Less than a year away. Now, doesn't that suck?
Venus didn't so much mind the number. She did mind not being where she'd thought she'd be by age thirty - in a great job, a stable relationship, a house, maybe even with a couple of rugrats running around. Her upbringing had made her desire The Brady Bunch life as an adult.
At the rate she was going, she'd be lucky with The Osbournes.
"It would behoove you to take a brief break and speak with me," Mr. Tom Collins said, still red in the face from her previous comment.
"Behoove?" She paused to finish pulling a draught of Guinness, complete with the requisite "G" swirl of foam on top. She pushed it toward the waitress, and grinned as Janie rolled her eyes behind the annoying man's back. "It would also behoove me to earn my paycheck, don'tcha think, Janie?"
The woman snorted. "You call what that cheapskate Joe pays us a paycheck?" Venus took no offense. Janie was Joe's on-again, off-again girlfriend. This week they were off-again.
Besides, Janie was right. The pay was pretty abysmal. It was the tips that had kept her clothed and fed for several months. For some reason, the regulars at Flanagan's seemed to like Venus's caustic wit and in-your-face attitude. Plus, she made a damn fine Bloody Mary, if she did say so herself.
But bartending wasn't exactly her dream job. Up until eight months ago, Venus had had the job she'd always hoped for, complete with the kind of salary that had enabled her to actually open a savings account. Starting out in the typing pool of a financial company right out of high school, she'd worked her way up for ten years. She'd scraped and studied, taken college night courses when she could. She'd put in long hours and kept the right attitude, including keeping her mouth shut when the occasion warranted it. Eventually she'd ended up in management in the HR department.
Then she'd been stupid enough to let down her guard, to get involved with Dale, one of the executives in the company. She'd fallen in ... well, not love, but at least infatuation. He'd fallen in lust. Unfortunately, she'd gotten over the infatuation a little sooner than he'd gotten over the lust. When she'd broken it off, he hadn't been pleased.
In fact, he'd been so displeased, Dale had made sure Venus ended up on the unemployment line three months later.
Hence, her dislike for guys in ties.
Without a college degree to go with her experience, Venus had simply been unable to find a new job - unless she wanted to start all over again at the bottom of the ladder.
She might reach that point. If she hadn't had this job at Joe's place to fall back on, plus the remainder of that nearly empty savings account, she probably already would have. But holding out for a better-paying job wasn't just about taking care of herself. She needed to make enough to get back to helping Ma. Her foster mother had insisted she was doing fine, but Venus knew more than most the way Maureen struggled. Until her layoff, Venus had managed to send enough back to Trenton to make a real difference for the four kids currently living in her old home.
She wanted to be able to do so again. Soon.
"Imagine not having to worry about a paycheck," the man said, sounding almost desperate. "Please, Ms. Messina, give me a few minutes of your time." The word "please," and the urgency in his voice, made her pause and really look at the man.
"Go ahead, V," she heard from behind her. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the sardonic look on her uncle Joe's craggy red face. "And if you're a millionaire heiress, don't forget who taught you to ride a bike."
"That woulda been Tony Cabrini, the boy in 6A," she replied with a saucy grin.
Joe wagged his index finger at her. "And who taught you how to deal with Tony Cabrini and boys like him when he got fresh on your fourteenth birthday?"
Venus fisted a hand and put it on her hip. "Ma did."
"Well, who do ya think taught her that knee trick, hmm?"
Excerpted from Wicked & Willing by Leslie Kelly Copyright © 2003 by Leslie Kelly
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.