Evidently I am. The first chapter of WHAT A RICH WOMAN WANTS was supposed to appear on the lovely Limecello’s (@limecello) blog tartsweet.com in the Tuesday Teaser slot. Imagine my surprise not to find it there when I was all set to promote it. That’s because I forgot to send it. I shed a few tears over the missed opportunity (especially after Limecello had so gracefully offered me the slot) and my notoriously bad marketing skills. I think I will just stick to writing romance novels. It seems the only thing in life I’m qualified to do and am good at. So go check out tartsweet.com and see what other goodies Limecello is offering readers. And if you’re still interested, Chapter One of WHAT A RICH WOMAN WANTS appears below.
Niko Morales navigated the interlocking brick driveway, lavishly landscaped on both sides, and parked his six-year-old, slightly battered black Acura under the porte cochere of the Robinson beachside estate.
Releasing his seat belt, he stepped out into the evening air, still hot this time of year this close to the gulf, but it wouldn’t last much longer. In another month or so the humidity would lift and the daily rainstorms would cease. The breathtaking heat that created near swamp-like conditions would give way to balmy breezes and cool nights. The sticky summer, complete with vicious mosquitoes and various other annoyances full-time residents of Willow Bay had to live with, would give way to “season”. Full-blown tourist season, with its influx of snowbirds and vacationers, doubled the year-round population, overcrowding the roads, hotels, restaurants and beaches. The local economy thrived while the residents groused.
The majority of the highly affluent in Willow Bay, people like the Robinsons, had homes “up north”, probably bigger and more impressive than the ones like this used primarily for escape from snow and cold.
This particular neck of land, not large enough to be called a peninsula, more of a wide finger, extended nearly two miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, forming a bay behind its mileand-a-half width. It had been dubbed Royal Cove, and for good reason, since it comprised some of the priciest real estate in southwest Florida and boasted some of the most lavish homes as well.
Like this one, he mused, schooling himself to be unimpressed by the distinctive architecture, leaded-glass windows, peaked roofline and wide marble staircase leading up to ten-foot-high, paneled oak double doors.
He liked to think he’d inured himself to the ostentatious displays of wealth he came into contact with nearly every day as a sheriff’s deputy in Willow Bay. For those who had it, money provided insulation from traffic tickets, DUIs and the like. He’d learned that some deputies were happy to take the cash and look the other way. He wasn’t one of them and swore he never would be. He wrote the tickets and let the system do the rest. If a judge decided to alter the charges, reduce the penalty or waive the fine, that had nothing to do with Niko. He did his job the best way he knew how and left it at that.
Still, a home like this was so far from his own humble beginnings on the outskirts of Jacksonville that he had to remind himself not to be intimidated. Wealthy people were still people with weaknesses and faults and problems like everyone else. Knowing this helped him behave as if he were on equal footing with potential sponsors, such as the woman he was about to meet.
Lesley Robinson ran her family’s charitable foundation. She also, from what he knew, ran her family. Although this impressive estate belonged to her parents, she was the one in charge of a vast fortune. Her father had suffered a stroke that had debilitated him several years ago. Richard Robinson was cared for 24/7 by a legion of private-duty nurses. His wife Mitzi remained the social butterfly she’d always been, perhaps more so now, unencumbered by her husband’s presence.
None of that mattered, however, because Lesley was the one he needed on his side. She held the purse strings, and her support of the community center he dreamed of, one that would keep underprivileged young men off the streets and out of prison, would be the big push he needed. Lesley Robinson held sway in this tight-knit enclave of retired Fortune 500 CEOs, professional athletes and self-made millionaires.
From the passenger seat he picked up the folder he’d prepared, filled with information about the Challenge Project. A mission statement, a cost estimate and a site development plan. As requested he’d also included projections for annual operational costs once the center was complete and compared that to the cost of keeping the same number of individuals in prison for a year. His goal was to develop these rather lost young men into law-abiding citizens, to give them the skills needed to hold down a job and raise a family. To be contributing members of society instead of a drain on its resources.
He was well aware of the fact that it was a noble, idealistic goal and that others had attempted the same thing in a variety of ways, but he remained undeterred. He’d pulled himself out of a childhood steeped in poverty. He’d been sucked into a gang in his early teens, and he’d seen the damage such involvement did. He’d given up too much, including his own son, because at the time he hadn’t had a choice. That’s what he hoped to give other young men. Choices. One way or another, he’d get Lesley Robinson on his side. With her help he was confident there was no end to what his vision could accomplish.
He approached the front door, hearing a deep, melodic chime echo from inside once he’d pushed the bell.
In less than a minute one of the doors swung inward to reveal a compact Hispanic woman wearing a uniform of sorts, consisting of a white polo shirt, white cotton slacks and white sneakers. Her dark hair was secured in a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She regarded him neutrally, neither welcoming nor repelling.
He greeted her in Spanish, introduced himself and asked for Lesley Robinson. She returned the greeting, gestured him inside and closed the door behind him. She showed him to a small reception area consisting of two brocade chairs flanking an ornate table, over which hung a gilded mirror.
Niko took in the larger foyer, the sweeping staircase to the second floor with landings leading off in two directions. More marble and polished wood, the odd, echoey feeling of an excessively large home with few occupants.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, reassured that the business casual clothing he’d chosen was appropriate for the surroundings. He’d shunned the one suit he owned for a long-sleeved white dress shirt and a navy-blue sports coat paired with gray slacks. He was not and would never be a suit-and-tie kind of guy, and one thing he’d learned in his thirtythree years was never to try to be something he was not.
He’d been blessed in many ways and tried not to take any of those blessings for granted, including his appearance. Due to his mixed race, or so he’d always thought, he was taller than many of his Latino peers. From the father he’d never met came not only his height, but his long limbs. He kept himself in shape with regular workouts. From his mother he’d inherited his olive complexion, dark hair—which he kept short and messily spiked—and brown eyes.
He had a small scar below his chin from his time with the gang. Dressed as he was now, that was the only one visible. There were others, though, along with a number of tattoos which were on display occasionally in settings other than this. They were part of who he was, part of his history. He didn’t go out of his way to hide them, but he didn’t flaunt them either.
In moments the housekeeper returned. “This way,” she said simply, and Niko followed her down a hallway to the right. She tapped once, opened the door and gestured him inside.
From behind a massive desk a woman rose and came toward him, her hand outstretched in greeting. “Deputy Morales. Lesley Robinson. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
He took her hand, noting her long, slender fingers unadorned by jewelry, the nails her very own, neatly manicured and covered with clear polish. She was too slender, he thought, in her black pencil skirt that almost skimmed her knees and a long-sleeved, silkylooking blouse in a shade of teal that brought out the unusual bluish-green of eyes framed by unflattering glasses. Her hair was a mix of blond and sandy brown, swept up in a clip at the back, leaving a side sweep of bangs across her forehead.
“Come in, please. Have a seat.” She gestured to the two chairs in front of her desk. Niko chose one and made himself comfortable. “Would you like something to drink?”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
“That will be all, Lita.” After Lita closed the door, Lesley indicated the folder. “You’ve brought some information for me?”
All business, he thought. No artifice. He liked that. Liked her, though he’d met her a mere thirty seconds ago. He handed her the folder.
She’d barely given him a chance to speak since he’d walked in the room. He didn’t know why but that amused him. Maybe because he didn’t particularly care for small talk, didn’t see the point of it. He much preferred to cut to the chase. But it surprised him when others did the same, especially women.
She opened the folder and studied the contents, which gave him more time to study her and her surroundings. The desk was made of beautifully burled dark wood. Mahogany maybe, though he had no idea. It was fairly neat, although there were some file folders and papers in a tidy stack. The other usual accoutrements. A multiline phone. A lamp. A computer.
Behind her was a credenza beneath a window that looked out over the front of the property, including the driveway. She might have seen him drive up. Maybe she’d studied him before he approached the house. It didn’t matter. He had nothing to hide.
There were built-in shelves on two of the walls, some holding books, others displaying framed photographs or art. He noted a wet bar as well, with a small array of glassware along with decanters partially filled with amber liquid.
“Tell me about yourself.”
He swung his gaze back to Lesley. She maintained a rather rigid posture as if she wasn’t quite comfortable in her own skin, even as she pretended to relax back into her chair. He wondered how long she’d been studying him while he’d been taking in his surroundings.
“I believe it’s all there.” He nodded toward the folder. “There’s a copy of my resume as well.”
“Yes. Why don’t you tell me what’s not in the bio. Or the resume.” Her gaze was direct.
“What is it you’d like to know?”
“Why this project of yours is so important to you. What motivates you. Why you care.”
Wow. Cut to the chase. He’d raised some funds already from a few other sources. He didn’t remember ever being asked why he cared or why this was important to him. Everyone assumed, as they were meant to, that he simply wanted to help his fellow man just as they did by donating money. No one asked about his history, how close he’d come to being one of those hard-core gang members if he’d stayed on the path he’d started down as a teenager. Chances were good that if he hadn’t gotten out when he did, he’d be dead or in prison by now.
“I was in a gang when I was younger. I didn’t think I had a choice at the time. I want to give young men who are in the same situation a choice.”
“Elaborate on how you to plan to do that.”
“Most of it’s there.” He indicated his carefully prepared folder filled with information, wondering now why he’d bothered. “Catch them young. No later than middle school. Keep them out of trouble and, keep them in school. Offer after-school programs, help with homework, athletics, a place to go where they’ll be supervised. Counselors available. Teach them manners, basic job skills, conflict resolution. Include life skills training, personal finances, parenting. Help them learn how to be successful.”
She regarded him steadily for a few moments. He stared back, oddly at ease. She’d either use her family’s charitable foundation and her influence to help him or she wouldn’t. He could only do what he could do. He’d learned long ago he could control his own choices, no one else’s.
“How did you escape the gang?”
“I testified in a trial against one of the other members. After that they rolled up the welcome mat.”
“Because one member testifying against another is generally considered bad form.”
A corner of her mouth lifted briefly. He noted her full lips and wondered what she’d look like if she relaxed completely. Smiled. Took off her glasses. Undid a button or two on her blouse.
She made no comment about his joke. “Why did you testify against another member?”
He shifted in his seat. Cleared his throat. Very few people knew the details of his testimony against Carlos or that he’d had to give up his son Fletcher in order to keep him safe. He preferred to keep it that way. By the time Carlos was sentenced to prison, Niko knew the best thing for Fletcher was for Hayley and Ray to adopt him.
“Why is that important?”
Again a corner of her mouth lifted. “Deputy Morales—” “Niko.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Deputy Morales, my family’s foundation supports a variety of programs, as I’m sure you know. I decide which programs are worth presenting to the board of trustees. I don’t work with people I don’t trust. I won’t see the foundation’s funds misused. Building trust means gathering information about those who apply. So you can either answer my questions about your background, or I’ll have Lita show you out.”
“Haven’t you already done a background check on me?”
“Of course. Do you want to answer my questions or not?”
“I testified against Carlos because he hurt a lot of people. He was going to hurt a lot more if he wasn’t stopped. I was in a position to stop him.”
“You were a gang member. Didn’t you hurt people?”
“I was a minor player in a loosely organized gang of street kids. Carlos Mariano used intimidation tactics to keep the kids under his control. I’d grown up with Carlos. I wanted to believe he listened to me, that I had some influence over him. Mostly I tried to keep Carlos in check.”
“But you couldn’t?”
“I thought gang members took an oath of loyalty to one another.”
How, Niko thought, could he ever explain his past to a woman like this? Money insulated people like her from the harsh realities of the world. Private schools and limousines and yacht races were so far from the pothole-filled, drug-running, violent streets he’d been born into. How could he explain the loss he’d felt when the mother of his child overdosed on heroin? Or that fear of his own child growing up in that environment had driven him to testify against Carlos, to make sure his son had a better start in life?
“There are times, Ms. Robinson, when loyalty to an entity or to another person is tested, when you have to decide whether the price for your loyalty is more than you want to pay. That’s what I had to decide.”
He was sure he’d struck a chord. Her expression changed subtly, as if he’d surprised her or reminded her of something significant.
She glanced at the open file in front of her. “You were never arrested, is that correct?”
She glanced up when he said, “Yes.”
“I thought an arrest record was a badge of honor to a gang member.”
“I had no interest in being locked up for any reason. I was no angel, but you’re not going to hold it against me because I was smart enough not to get caught, are you, Ms. Robinson?”
“Of course not. Thank you, Deputy.” She cleared her throat, gave him what almost passed for a smile. “Niko,” she acknowledged. She stood and extended her hand, so he did the same. “I’ll see you out.”
He followed her down the hallway, liking the sway of her hips beneath the skirt, even though she needed more meat on her bones. He couldn’t help but notice how rigidly she held herself. She pretended to relax but never actually did. He wondered why she seemed so ill at ease in her own home.
She held the door open for him. “I’ll be in touch about setting up a presentation to the board.”
The door closed decisively behind him. He breathed in the fresh air and let it out on a sigh. He reminded himself once again that he had no control over what happened next. He opened the back door of the Acura and laid his sports coat across the seat. At the same time he became aware of the sound of a ball bouncing off the rear bumper of his car. He looked around for the source of it but could see nothing through the landscaping. A soccer ball rolled away from the back of the vehicle. He took a couple of quick steps to stop its progress. A small boy appeared several feet away when Niko scooped up the ball.
The child regarded him silently. Niko figured he was five or six years old. Dark hair, dark eyes, slender build. Both wary and shy, ready to bolt at any moment. Niko hunkered down to make himself less threatening. “This must be yours.” The kid stared and nodded, but just barely. “Are you practicing your goal shots?” He shook his head.
“Would you like to?”
“I don’t have a net.”
“Oh. My name’s Niko. What’s yours?”
The kid glanced over his shoulder as if expecting a reprimand from that vicinity. “Ricky,” he told Niko, keeping his voice down. “I didn’t mean to hit your car.”
“It’s okay. Is your name Ricky Robinson?”
Surely that couldn’t be right. But Ricky nodded. Was he Lesley Robinson’s son?
Lesley wrapped her arms tightly across her chest and made her way back to her office. Once there she closed the door and sank into the chair behind her desk. By force of will she relaxed her arms and shoulders, and rotated her head from one side to the other to ease the tension in her neck. She did her deep-breathing exercises, telling herself to relax, although she’d gone through some semblance of this routine less than half an hour ago in preparation for her meeting with Niko Morales.
She didn’t like anyone to rattle her or for anyone to see that they’d done so. She had to be in control because if she wasn’t…if she wasn’t, well, what then? Nothing good. She couldn’t lose her head, her cool, her calm, her reason. She couldn’t listen to her heart and make decisions on what it wanted. She’d done that once before, and the consequences had been disastrous.
Instead she kept everything on a tight leash. She’d been doing it for so long, holding herself, her family, her home, the foundation together, she’d forgotten how not to do it. She never let go, never relaxed. She had to be vigilant because she knew from past experience if she wasn’t, bad things would happen.
After a few minutes she swiveled her chair to gaze out the window. The gurgling fountain just a few feet beyond the panes of glass and the view of the carefully tended landscaping never failed to soothe her. After closing the door behind Niko Morales, she needed to be soothed.
Yes, she’d done her homework on him, but a cold, clinical background check hadn’t prepared her for his presence up close. She’d trained herself not to react to men, or at least not to give any sign of her reaction. Though to be honest, she met very few who caused her to react in any significant way anymore. Most of the men she met were her father’s age or older, his peers from the country club and the business community. They sat on the foundation’s board. Some were family attorneys or accountants or old cronies of her father’s or the husbands of her mother’s circle of friends.
Lesley couldn’t recall the last time she’d met a man in her own age range who sent a zing through her with just the touch of his hand. Maybe not since Steven, though she shied away from that thought. She’d been divorced from him for over five years.
Had it been that long since she’d had anything but a passing interest in a man?
In fairness, she acknowledged that she’d been devastated by her husband’s infidelity, an act he’d perpetrated right under her nose. She’d been forced to make quick decisions, to exert damage control to contain the chaos he’d created, and to protect the life of an infant.
But she’d never stopped blaming herself for all of it. For believing his lies, believing he cared for her. Most of all she couldn’t forgive herself for making the foolish decision to marry him.
And then Maria’s pregnancy had happened, as had the complications. She remembered Maria’s fear for her son’s survival. Even now Lesley didn’t know how she could have turned her back on Maria’s pleas. Not in the light of Maria’s impending deportation. The universe had been so unfair to the woman, Lesley had to do what she could to help.
Then the universe revealed its twisted sense of humor, and she learned who the baby’s father was. Steven had made sure Maria was deported before she could tarnish his sterling reputation, and refused any responsibility for the child he’d created with her. That had been the last straw. Lesley had divorced Steven but kept the child. She’d made a promise to the young woman Steven had seduced and abandoned. To watch over and protect the son she had to leave behind. And unlike Steven, promises meant something to her.
A figure crossed her line of vision as she gazed absently out the window. Niko Morales had discarded his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves. He was walking backward across the driveway when he suddenly dodged to his left and stopped, then kicked at something the landscaping hid from view.
Lesley stood to get a better look and saw a soccer ball roll back toward Niko. It looked like the one she’d given Ricky for his birthday last month. It had been a ridiculous gift, she’d realized after he opened it. Ricky had no one to play soccer with outside of school because he had few friends. But it looked like perhaps he’d made one.
Niko spoke and gestured. Lesley shifted left and leaned closer to the window. Now she could see Ricky listening and nodding at whatever Niko was telling him. Niko kicked the ball and Ricky managed to bring it to a stop underneath one of his sneakered feet. Niko made a clapping motion and said something that Lesley couldn’t hear. She tried to remember the last time she’d seen Ricky smile.