The late afternoon sun slanted through Nicole Vance’s office window at Vance Realty in Lakeview, Washington, beckoning her to go outside. A short walk would clear her head of the worries Roseann Whitmore’s call had generated after she’d shooed the man who represented a big realty franchise out of her office.
“His company has its sights set on gobbling up most all the offices here, especially yours, Nicky, since it’s the biggest of the independents. I hear he’s recruiting realtors all over town.”
Nicole sucked in a quick breath, as if doing so would slow her racing heart. No one’s taking my company.
“If he talks to you, maybe you could stay on as broker, assuming he doesn’t bring in new blood. But I don’t trust him, Nicole. You know what happened before. And you better warn your Allen. Mr. Dalton is sure to want to talk to your top producers,” the older woman had cautioned.
Nicole set her phone down, leaned back in her chair and rubbed a finger against her throbbing temple. Well, if Mr. Dalton from Realty World called today, she’d just say she wasn’t interested. And she’d warn him off trying to recruit her agents. She’d worked too hard for too many years to simply roll over because a national franchise might be interested in taking over.
Today, especially, was not a good time for Nicole to verbally joust with a nasty company rep intent on taking over her business. Please not today. Nicole was still battling a bug she must have picked up at her college reunion. Or maybe the flu she’d contracted the week before she’d left for Chicago had morphed into something worse. She’d taken to skipping lunch to avoid the nausea that had overtaken her every afternoon for the past week, opting to stash a couple of crackers in her purse each morning. Her administrative assistant had suggested that Nicole stay home until she felt better. At least she’d avoid sharing her germs with the rest of the staff.
Nicole had waved off Ellie’s concern, stating that germs weren’t getting the better of her. But she’d come to dread the hours between one and four p.m., when her stomach insisted on rebelling.
Nicole glanced up as her door slid open.
“I’m so sorry, Nicole. But he won’t leave.” Ellie sounded contrite.
“Who won’t leave?”
“A Mr. Dalton, from Realty World. I tried, but he refused to move his appointment to next Tuesday morning, the first spot open on your calendar since you asked me to move all afternoon appointments to the morning.”
Nicole sighed. Not another pushy dude. The thought made her even less inclined to hear what the man had to say, but she might as well tell him to go away now. What was the point in giving him hope that she might be interested if she delayed the meeting until Tuesday? “Put him in the conference room with the window. So you can watch him. I’ll be right there.”
Nicole nibbled on another saltine and rose from her seat. She walked to Ellie’s desk and angled her body so that she could look into the nearest conference room while appearing to speak to her assistant. The man in question stood near the door, his face in profile as he stared at photos of the brokers’ council members at Vance Real Estate Company. His dark brown hair and the beard along his jaw line—no mustache?—were neatly cut. His suit was a stylish charcoal gray that emphasized his broad shoulders and long legs. Something about his stance, how he filled out that suit reminded Nicole of a television show featuring a British detective. Maybe it was the vest. Regardless of the reason, Nicole felt hormone-generated heat spilling through her. Mr. Dalton reached down and picked up a magazine. He had a nice butt, too.
If Nicole were looking for male companionship, she might choose him on his looks alone. The cut of his clothes suggested he was successful. But he couldn’t have her business. Roseann’s initial comments had intimated that’s what he intended, and that he was single, too. Should Nicole consider dating him, if only to learn more about why he wanted to bring offices under the Realty World umbrella in Lakeview instead of nearby, much larger, Seattle?
“He is nice-looking.” Ellie kept her voice low.
Nicole nodded. “That suit has to be Armani, the shoes Gordon Rush. What’s your guess? Six foot two, two hundred pounds?” Nicole’s fingers brushed back an errant strand of hair that had escaped her French twist.
“Maybe a bit taller. If he were clean-shaven, he’d be a twin of my daughter’s first husband. Let’s hope he’s not a jerk, too. Think he works out?” Ellie gave Nicole a wry grin. “That beard reminds me of those pirate movies my granddaughters like so much.”
“You’re calling him a rake? A ladies’ man?”
“He could be,” Ellie sighed. “Make him a sheikh and he could carry you off to some desert oasis so you could have your way with him.” Ellie hugged herself and swayed slightly.
“In your dreams,” Nicole murmured under her breath. “You know I’m much too busy for frivolities.”
But the thought was enticing. Mr. Dalton had to be better than Darin, her ex-boyfriend from college. But Nicole had no time for dating. She stiffened her resolve along with her shoulders. “Scratch the desert oasis. I doubt he’d want to get those expensive-looking shoes all sandy.” Nicole cleared her throat easier than her errant thoughts as she forced herself to concentrate on why he was so insistent on seeing her.
“I suppose you’re right,” the older woman lamented.
“Two minutes, Ellie?” Nicole placed a finger next to her right nostril in her secret sign that she planned to get rid of the man. Quickly.
“Give him three. We don’t have enough male pulchritude around here these days. Give me time to fantasize.” Ellie blushed. “Shall I bring him coffee?”
“He won’t have time to finish it, but go ahead.”
Nicole followed Ellie into the room and watched as she offered a steaming mug to the man from a tray also holding a creamer, a sugar container, and a stirring spoon. She shut the door after Ellie departed.
“Mr. Dalton. Sorry to keep you waiting. I’m sure you understand how busy things are right now.”
The man turned, his bright green eyes startling in his tan face. “Call me Peter. I hear you’re one of the movers and shakers in Lakeview.”
The warmth of his fingers as he wrapped them firmly around Nicole’s outstretched hand was at first comforting. She felt an unsettling shock of attraction that caused her to hesitate before pulling her hand away. “You didn’t need an appointment to acknowledge that. A phone call would have sufficed.”
“Wouldn’t have been seemly. And I wanted to meet you.” Without asking, he took a seat, the corners of his mouth curving upward. “To confirm what I’ve been told. Your colleagues tell me your office survived the downturn better than most, that your firm is still growing—in agents you manage and percentage of the business you command.”
“Again, information you’d have found by checking the MLS.” Nicole’s gaze settled on Peter Dalton’s fingers as they curved around the coffee mug and brought it to his lips.
He paused before taking a sip and smiled at Nicole. Had he caught her staring, sensed that her pulse had picked up? Was that a dimple in his left cheek?
“Ah, but more enlightening coming from your colleagues—some of whom consider you a competitor.” He set the mug on the table, folded his hands and allowed his gaze to travel downward from her hair, past the v-neck of her pale pink silk blouse before returning to her face. Nicole resisted the temptation to smooth her hair and straighten her suit jacket.
“Not how I do business, Mr. Dalton,” Nicole said, “the competition part, anyway. Agents always do better if they work to help each other bring a transaction to closure.”
“Glad to know we share that goal.”
“Why, exactly, did you insist on seeing me today?” Nicole glanced at her silver Kimio bracelet watch, a gift to herself after her office closed the multi-million-dollar sale of a downtown high-rise. Three minutes gone, already? I owe Ellie lunch.
“I need your take on the market. The real market, not what people want to believe.”
“You already know that it’s growing. Isn’t that why Realty World plans to refurbish that old Windermere building downtown and start filling it with agents?” Information Roseann had shared.
Peter beamed at Nicole then shook his head, revealing a deeper dimple. “You heard that’s the building my client is interested in? I see nothing gets past you.” His smile faded. “Setting that aside for the moment, I’ve detected rumblings that the recent upturn in the market is soft, unlikely to last past this fall.”
Who had he been talking to? From her careful review of the local and regional economy, Nicole had concluded the same thing, though it was not yet reflected in the business her agents were doing. They’d broken last year’s records for both dollar and unit volume each month since January.
“Perhaps you were told that to discourage you from starting a franchise here,” she said.
“You suspect sour grapes on the part of some of your, uh, colleagues?” His intense green eyes held a challenge. He took another sip of his coffee and pushed back his chair. “It’s late in the day. How about we meet over dinner so we can continue this discussion?”
The man was smooth. Knew how to dress. Probably knew what success felt like, but he represented a definite business challenge. At Mr. Dalton’s mention of dinner, Nicole’s stomach began acting up again. She did her best to ignore the sensations.
He made a second slow appraisal of her form when Nicole followed his lead and rose from her seat. Had he recognized her Michael Kors suit, concluded she knew how to dress and could afford to buy the best? That telling glance told her he might also be a personal challenge. But she never dated people she met through work. A rule she’d never broken. At least she hadn’t wanted to, until now.
“Are you suggesting I’d be more willing to hear you out if you ply me with salmon and a rich dessert?” she asked, desperate to wish away the rising waves in her stomach.
“I like mutually successful business meetings, Ms. Vance. Let’s call it what it is, a business dinner. You can pick the restaurant that meets your high standards.” Peter Dalton’s dimple flashed at her again.
She imagined placing her lips on it, if only to stop that dimple from pulling the corners of his mouth into another too-confident grin.
Determined not to take the bait of another, out-of-the-office encounter, she declined his invitation. “I’m afraid my appointments calendar is full up, Mr. Dalton.”
“Call me Peter,” he repeated quietly.
Her stomach began another slow roll, as if harboring giant waves on a stormy sea.
He opened the door and gestured to her to precede him.
“If you’ll excuse me for a moment,” she mumbled and trotted in the direction of her bathroom, wondering if she looked as sick as she felt.
When she returned to the reception area, Peter stood next to Ellie’s desk. “Your assistant tells me you’re not feeling well. How about a raincheck on that business dinner?” He offered his hand again.
Nicole felt controlled power as Peter’s hand surrounded her fingers with sizzling awareness and she regretted her earlier insistence on turning him down. Had he grasped her hand longer than was necessary? What was that about? “I’ll have to get back to you. Nice meeting you, Mr. Dalton.”
One dark brow rose. “Peter.”
Simultaneously relieved that he hadn’t pushed for that dinner meeting and disappointed that she hadn’t agreed— the better to learn why his company had its sights set on taking over the Lakeview market —Nicole returned to her seat and eased back in her chair. Her phone pinged a text message and Peter Dalton’s name appeared. Ellie must have given him one of Nicole’s business cards.
For an upset stomach, I’d suggest peppermint or spearmint tea or gum. It worked for my sister. She swears by it whenever one of her rug rats has the flu. Peter
A suggestion that couldn’t hurt. Maybe it would settle her stomach. She looked up at Ellie’s knock.
“I’m getting ready to leave, Nicole. Do you need anything before I take off?”
“How many agents are still here, Ellie?”
“A few are in their offices. Two more in the fax room, sending revised offers.”
“One’s to that Re/Max office on Birch Street, one to Roseann.” She handed a document to Nicole. “Oh, and this one will go to Pacific Rim after you look it over.”
Ron’s firm. “Who’s the agent on the Pacific Rim deal?”
Ellie grimaced. “The big man himself. Mr. Warren’s buyers are demanding all kinds of concessions. Donnetta was practically in tears, but her sellers really need to sell, so she wrote up this revision. She’d like you to let her know if she should change anything. She’s keeping her fingers crossed, even mentioned going to Mass tomorrow before sending it over.”
As if prayer will do any good with that bastard. “I’ll look it over before I go home and talk with Donnetta tomorrow.”
“She’d appreciate that. Hope you’re feeling better.” Ellie backed out of the office and shut Nicole’s door.
Another deal made more difficult by the opposing agent. Why couldn’t Ron be more cooperative? Was it any wonder Nicole was nauseous? She glanced at the calendar. Nearly five weeks since that gathering in Chicago. But only in the past week had headaches bedeviled her along with nausea that had joined forces to make her afternoons a misery.
Then there was her promise to her sister to talk to their mother. Yet another headache-inducing activity.
At least Sage didn’t know about Darin. Nicole hadn’t seen any reason to tell her that she’d had dinner with her college boyfriend. He’d welcomed her at the twentieth-year reunion with a hug that reminded her why she’d fallen for him her senior year. They’d shared dinner, dancing and his bed. Which I shouldn’t have.
Had Rudy known, Nicole’s brother would have crowed that it was about time Nicole got laid. Both Sage and Rudy begged Nicole to take more vacations. Enjoy herself in the big city was how Rudy put it. And he would have pegged Darin as a player, someone not really serious about his career—architecture—or his family—divorced. Darin admitted he hadn’t seen his three kids in more than six months, putting the blame on his ex-wife. Why hadn’t he insisted on seeing them? Wouldn’t a caring father have done so?
Darin hadn’t aged a day since the afternoon they broke up. While looking over their classmates, Darin had whispered, “Unlike those two over there, you’ve clearly gotten better in the last twenty years. How about we take this up to my room—or yours—so you can fill me in on how you became so successful? I know you are. That dress of yours screams couture.”
Nicole had fallen for his flattery, not surprised that he recognized what she was wearing. Was that why she’d agreed to go with him to the bar? He hadn’t asked why she chose to stick with a diet cola while he drank three mixed drinks. Hours later, she’d shrugged out of her Manolos and relaxed in Darin’s arms. His hotel room overlooked Grant Park. The moonlight shimmered on the waves of Lake Michigan, lending a romantic air. His room was two floors higher than hers in the venerable landmark hotel.
Nicole inferred from Darin’s remarks said that he’d been looking to score with someone at the reunion. Someone like me. She’d needed that long-weekend break from work. It hadn’t been long enough, and she’d made a major mistake spending two nights with Darin, even though he’d helped her to relax for the first time in what seemed like months. Too bad protective big brother Rudy wasn’t around when Nicole had thrown caution to the winds. But no one was the wiser, especially not her older brother or her loved-to-tease younger sister, because Nicole had kept details of the reunion to herself.
She shuddered that she’d returned home with the flu, unable to shake what always seemed to make the rounds in late spring. But from whom or where she’d contracted it, she couldn’t say. If she didn’t feel better by the end of next week, after she saw her mother, she’d make a doctor’s appointment and ask for something, anything to stop those awful sensations in her gut.
She glanced down at the copy of the contract Donnetta wanted her to look over. The difficulty Ron Warren caused her people didn’t help her sensitive stomach. Perhaps he was the reason for Nicole’s headache. She pressed her fingers to her temples again, as if that would stop the pounding. It didn’t.
Nicole set the contract aside, pressed her left hand against her roiling stomach and gritted her teeth. With her right hand, she picked up her pinging phone. “What is it, Ellie?”
“Your sister. On line two. I can tell her you’re busy,” her assistant offered.
“No. I’ll take it.” Nicole sucked in a quick breath as another set of spasms rampaged through her insides. She stood up so abruptly her chair banged into the window behind her desk. Her office looked out on a walkway that meandered through the trees behind the building—a classic structure she’d saved from demolition with a long-term lease.
Nicole rushed into her private bathroom and leaned over the toilet in time to avoid losing her saltine lunch on the floor. While she hugged the porcelain, panting, thoughts of what she would say to Sage about Mother also surged.
After rinsing her mouth and washing her hands, Nicole returned to her desk, picked up the phone and punched line two. “You still there, Sage?”
“Where were you?” Sage sounded too much like Priscilla, her crabby thirteen-year-old daughter. Not that Nicole spent all that much time with Sage’s kids. At least the nine-year-old twins were still cute.
“Sorry. I have the stomach flu. Just lost what little I ate today. What’s up, as if I didn’t know?”
“You have to talk to Mom.”
Nicole sighed. “What is it this time?”
“You’re the oldest and—”
“Correction: oldest girl. Not the oldest. Call Rudy. He’s the oldest. Maybe he can get through to her.”
Sage snorted. “As if that’s going to happen. You know he hasn’t spoken to her since Adam’s funeral. God! Is ours the most dysfunctional family around or just the unluckiest?”
Nicole ran a hand along the back of her neck, wishing she had made an appointment for a massage. Lord knows her muscles needed it. “Okay, I’ll call her.”
“Better yet, why don’t you stop over and see her after work? Don’t tell her you’re coming. Last time I tried, she refused to let me in. Mom’s moving the furniture again. And Pris said she’s closed off the upstairs completely, except for Adam’s room.”
Nicole squeezed her eyes closed, imagining what her mother’s house must look like. Ten years after Adam’s death in Iraq, his room remained a shrine to Wanda’s “precious baby boy.” Nicole’s last attempt to enter Adam’s room had resulted in Wanda’s outraged screams.
Nicole swiveled her chair away from the window view and forced her gaze on her laptop. She keyed in an appointment to stop at her mother’s house on Monday after work.
“This week is really bad for me, Sage. Especially since I’m under the weather. Why don’t you try again? Or send Pris over, this time with the twins. You know Mother loves your kids. I’ll stop over on Monday. In the meantime, call Rudy. Tell him to get his thumb out of his ass and call Mother. He’s the oldest. He should be making up to her for not staying in touch.”
“As if he’ll listen to me,” Sage retorted, sounding like a put-upon teenager, which wasn’t pretty in a 39-year-old mother of three.
Nicole shook her head, desperate to go home and lie down with a cold compress on her forehead. She pursed her lips to avoid a nasty comeback. “Do what you can, Sage. I’ll get back to you after I see Mother.”