Bold, confident and successful, Bo Charmichael is a self-made woman, one who has overcome tragedy and betrayal and earned the respect of her community. Driven to succeed by a deep-seated need to provide for her family, she has drawn a thick black line around her heart and her life and allows nothing to cross it. Until Nic Sinclaire, that is. Forced into close proximity by a bizarre chain of events that erode the carefully laid foundation of her life, Bo finds herself turning to her self-appointed bodyguard and business partner. As the danger escalates and sinister forces combine to destroy her, the thick black line between her and Nic is smudged and distorted by the chemistry that rages between them. Bo’s safe, familiar world seems set for destruction–by crime, by passion, or perhaps by her own choices.
Nic slid into a seat with a scowl that spoke volumes. “What the hell is he doing here?” he asked quietly, picking up on the tension immediately. Shahir shook his head warningly.
“I’m not really sure,” he responded in a low tone. “But it can only be trouble.”
With a capital T. It was a belligerent thought, and Nic had to work really hard to suppress a growing urge to hurl the fellow out by the scruff of the neck. He caught Andrea’s knowing look, rolled his eyes in exasperation, and took his irritation out on a bread roll.
A quick glance at his watch told him it was close to seven thirty. He continued to bore holes into Dario’s unsuspecting back, wrestling with a haphazard collection of strange emotions that seemed to pretty much cover the whole spectrum from plain disgust through to good old-fashioned anger.
Beyond Dario, who kept looking at his watch in a tense, expectant kind of way, Nic saw Bo appear in the doorway. She was dressed in a long skirt that sat enticingly low on her hips. Its vivid pinks highlighted the soft golden tan of the tiny strip of flesh that peeped out between the skirt and the sassy, seductive number that masqueraded as a blouse. It was an entirely frivolous affair, all soft lace and white chiffon, cleverly tucked and shaped to fit like it was part of her.
She paused as if searching the room. Nic forced himself to exhale quietly, and then concentrated on keeping his eyes in their sockets. Judging by the loud silence, and Dario’s sudden and obviously eager focus, he guessed that he hadn’t been the only one knocked sideways. Which, he realised, with a sudden bolt of insight, was exactly what she’d anticipated.
Fascinated like the rest of them–even Andrea looked wide-eyed with surprise and curiosity, and that definitely didn’t happen very often–Nic watched as her gaze settled on Dario for a long moment. He had already started to rise from his chair when, with an expression of glacial indifference, she strolled straight past him to the bar.
She scooped up a bowl of white roses that sat conspicuously on the counter and, without even pausing, turned to drop them into a trash can that was strategically placed opposite Dario’s table. The bowl hit the bottom with a resounding crash as the ornate, and probably expensive, glass bowl shattered. With a wide, friendly smile of greeting she kept on walking until she got up to their table. Only the bright sparkle, half-anger, half-satisfaction, in her eyes belied her casual, infinitely relaxed air as she slid into the only remaining chair.
“Hi guys,” she said loudly then beckoned a nearby waiter. “Please do me a favour, Moses, and get rid of that trash for me. It’s a real eyesore, and I don’t want to sit here all night looking at rubbish.”
Already primed, he obliged with a smile. Satisfied, Bo flashed her happiest smile around the table. “How about a toast,” she said. “To throwing out the old and grabbing hold of the new. To new beginnings.”
They responded with enthusiasm, the tension dissipating in the clinking of glasses and the resumption of normal conversation. Around them people began talking again, the moment of curiosity forgotten and the atmosphere visibly relaxing.
“Ouch!” Nic said softly but with a whole depth of meaning, his grin indicating his amusement and his approval. “Even I got that message.”
Bo laughed, but her eyes were a little regretful. “I’m sorry that it had to come to that,” she said. “But I really couldn’t think of anything else to do to get through to him. Now I only hope it worked.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Caro intervened, talking quietly and careful not to look across the room. “He’s been infuriatingly persistent up till now. Do you really think a little thing like public humiliation is going to put him off?”
“She does have a point.” Nic was keeping his voice low. “Don’t look now, but I’m afraid he’s still there. And he’s moved around the table so that he can watch us.”
Bo reached for a bread roll, using the action to mask a surreptitious glance in Dario’s direction.
“Dammit!” Her voice revealed a mixture of disbelief and frustration. “What the hell do I have to do to get through to him?”
“It’s a hopeless case,” Steve said gloomily. Then, to lighten things up a little: “You’ll just have to get married, I’m afraid.” It was an old joke, a back-to-the-wall-and-all-out-of-solutions thing, when she would comment about marriage being the last option. Usually it made her laugh. And usually it gave her the impetus she needed to overcome the frustration and find the answers she was missing. This time the response wasn’t what he’d been planning on. Caro dug him in the ribs, and Shahir managed a swift and brutal kick to his shin under the table.
“Ow!” He coloured, registering his clumsiness and obviously wishing he could retract. “I’m sorry,” he offered lamely. Bo flashed him an easy and forgiving smile.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s just that…well…that is kind of what got me into this in the first place.”
“True,” Andrea said in a dry half-amused, half-serious and definitely a lot thoughtful sort of way. “But he may not be too far off the mark.”
“What on earth do you mean?” Caro sounded like she wasn’t sure whether to be curious or offended.
“Think about it… he’s been gone all of what… six years?”
“Not long enough,” Bo interjected feelingly. “But I think it’s more like seven.”
“Anyway, now he’s back and here you are still single. And no record of any serious relationships either.” She laughed at Bo’s quick look of surprise. “This is a pretty small area, remember. And you’re something of a rarity in that you’ve made it from the bottom of the pile. People talk. But my point is…what does that say about you?”
“That I’m in no hurry to repeat that particular mistake.” It sounded quick and a little defensive.
“Or–at least maybe to pea-brain over there–that you’re still hung up on him.”
“You think so?” Bo looked at her in undisguised horror. Then, remembering Dario’s arrogance and conceit: “I suppose it is a possibility.”
“I’d say it’s a definite possibility,” Shahir agreed.
“But I’m the one who effectively put him in jail!” Bo protested. “Surely that must tell him something?”
“A fit of anger.” Shahir shrugged. “You were hurt, wanted to hurt in return. He maybe even sees that as proof that you care.”
“Now you’ve lost me totally. How can putting his butt in jail prove that I care?”
“An act of passion,” Shahir explained patiently. “The old thing about love and hate being two sides of the same coin. And another thing…he’s been stewing in there for seven years, probably with not much else to focus on. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’s somehow convinced himself that you’re still in love with him.”
“I hate to burst your little bubble,” Bo snapped, “but is that supposed to make me feel better? Because if it is, it really isn’t working.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t. Make you feel better, I mean.” Caro spoke quickly, almost too casually, because she suddenly saw a door opening and wanted to plant a foot in it quickly before Bo slammed it shut. “But it does make sense in an altogether creepy kind of way. And you getting into his head, working out what makes him tick, might just provide the answers you need to get you out of his.”
“Meaning what, exactly?” Bo wasn’t entirely sure that asking was a good idea. But not asking seemed worse so she took the lesser evil.
“Meaning that, if we’re right and you still being single is his proof that you’re still hung up on him, then the obvious solution is to get un-single.”
“Great!” Bo rolled her eyes in growing exasperation. “So what do you suggest? Maybe I should run an ad–husband wanted, to start immediate. No experience necessary.”
There was a quick burst of laughter, but Caro was on a roll and didn’t intend to slow down.
“Think about it, Bo. It might just work. Not the ad, I mean, and not even a real husband either. All you need is for it to look that way and—”
“And hopefully he’ll get the message and get lost!” Andrea had clearly warmed to the idea.
“Right. So I’ll just amend that ad to read fake husband wanted. Acting experience essential. That’s a wonderful idea.”
“It is the only one you’ve got right now,” Caro responded practically, trying not to sound gleeful.
“Okay, so I’m not exactly bursting with ideas, but this is…well, it’s just plain ridiculous!”
“Not really.” Steve looked ominously thoughtful. “They just might be on to something, Bo. And what other option do you really have?”
“I could just strangle him and hide the body in the first lot of foundations we’ll be throwing next week.” It loomed large, a tempting thought.
“Not a viable option. As your lawyer I have to say that.” Shahir was using his best lawyer-tone, though his eyes twinkled with real amusement and what could only be a shared light of speculation that made it pretty clear to all of him that he almost wished he wasn’t supposed to be on the right side of the law. “It is just a theory, of course, and maybe it is a little crazy. But you better than anyone know that the crazy ideas are often the ones that work. Why don’t you at least put it to the test? You really have nothing to lose, and a hell of a lot to gain.”
“It’s a real pity he wasn’t here on tango night,” Steve volunteered. “There was enough heat generated that night to give him and his illusions an instant meltdown.”
It was light-heartedly said, but the sudden silence flared, filled with anything but amusement. Bo flushed, the memory unexpected and still a source of something bordering on mortification. Caro and Andrea found themselves exchanging a look that said it all–a quiet recognition of a common purpose.
“You’re a genius!” Andrea exclaimed, as if the idea hadn’t once crossed her mind. Steve grinned with sudden understanding.
“Oh no–don’t even go there!” Bo’s protest was immediately drowned in the ensuing low-voiced encouragements, a stalemate clearly in the making.
“But it’s perfect!” Caro hissed, obviously not going to back down. The argument, ridiculously whispered and low-voiced, went backwards and forwards, everyone putting in their opinion and Bo growing more obdurate by the minute.
Finally, as if he’d lost all patience with the lot of them, Nic leaned forward. “Let’s end this. One dance, put the theory to the test, check his reaction. If it falls flat, fine. That’s the end of it and of the argument. Theory dead in the water.” Bo looked at him, surprised, doubtful, reluctant. “Unless, of course, you want to continue this useless debate ad nauseum?”
He did have a point there. Had made more sense than anyone else, at any rate. And besides, the door was just a short distance from the dance floor. Freedom beckoned. And maybe, just maybe, if they were right, one dance might well serve the purpose. That and the fact that Nic was still staying at the cottage–which she was pretty sure Dario knew–might well convince the man that there was something between them. Even though, she reassured herself, there was really nothing there at all.
“One dance,” she acquiesced, giving him her firmest and-no-funny-business-look.
He responded with a best-behaviour kind of smile of acknowledgement and pushed back his chair. Bo stood as well, let him lead her towards the dance floor. She was careful not to even glance at Dario, and focused all her concentration on not stiffening instinctively as Nic drew her firmly into his arms.
“I think,” he said, gathering her close, “that you’re supposed to look like you’re enjoying yourself.”