Daring to dream, p.9
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       Daring to Dream, p.9

         Part #1 of Dream series by Nora Roberts
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  slick, lying drug smuggler?"

  She tried for dignity. "I didn't know he was a smuggler."

  "Just a slick liar."

  "All right, fine. You can say that experience gave me a fresh viewpoint on and a general dislike for the institution. The point is, Laura is married and I'm not going to make it more difficult for her."

  "It's your home too, Margo."

  Now her heart swelled, and broke just a little. "He can't change that. But you can't always go home. Besides, I've been happy here, and I can be again."

  He moved closer, wanting to read her eyes. "Kate says you're considering selling your flat."

  Her eyes were simple to read. They were filled with annoyance. "Kate talks too much." She turned around to study those last gilding lights. He turned her back again.

  "She's worried about you. So am I."

  "You don't have to be. I'm working on a plan."

  "Why don't I take you to dinner? You can tell me about it."

  "I'm not sure I'm up to the telling stage, but I could probably eat. We don't have to go out. The trattoria will deliver."

  "And that way you don't risk bumping into anyone who knows you," he concluded and shook his head. "Don't be a coward."

  "I like being a coward."

  "Then you'd better get dressed." Deliberately, he skimmed his fingertip over the bare skin of her shoulder, up her throat. And watched her eyes go dark and wary. "Because you're asking for trouble right here."

  She nearly tugged her robe into place before she stopped herself. Odd how the skin could tingle. "You've already seen me naked."

  "You were ten." He slid the robe into place himself, gratified when he felt her quick shiver. "It doesn't count." To test her reaction, he hooked his fingers in the belt of the robe, gave one gentle tug. "Want to risk it, Margo?"

  Danger had snapped into the air, abruptly, unexpectedly, fascinatingly. Struggling to be cautious, she stepped back. "I'll get dressed. We'll go out."

  "Safe choice."

  But she didn't feel safe when he walked out and closed the door behind him. She felt… stirred.

  He'd done it to push her into going out. That was the simple, rational conclusion Margo came to. It seemed the only conclusion when he settled into the busy little restaurant and dived into his first-course selection of antipasto di funghi crudi with exuberance.

  "Try one." He held a marinated mushroom to her lips, nudged it through. "Nobody does vegetables like the Italians."

  "Nobody does anything edible like the Italians." But she toyed with her salad of tomato and mozzarella. She'd grown so accustomed to denying herself full meals that eating heartily still felt like cheating.

  "You need a good five pounds, Margo," he said. "Ten wouldn't hurt."

  "Ten and I'd have a whopping bill from the dressmaker for alterations in my wardrobe."

  "Eat. Live dangerously."

  She nibbled on cheese. "You're sort of a businessman," she began and made him laugh.

  "Oh, if you stretch the point."

  "That wasn't meant to be an insult. It's hard for me to picture you as an executive, making corporate decisions. Your father's always had this aura of power. You're more—"

  "Feckless?" he suggested.

  "No. Relaxed." Impatient with herself, she huffed out a breath. "I'm really not trying to insult you, Josh. What I should say is that whatever it is you do, you make it seem easy. Take Peter."

  "No, thanks."

  "In comparison," she continued. "He's tense and driven. 'Successful yet ambitious corporate man' is etched onto his face."

  "And I, on the other hand, the scion of the Templeton for tune, am relaxed, was it? And carefree, jetting my way around the world's hot spots, seducing women in between squash matches. Or is it playing squash in between seducing women?"

  "I'm not entirely sure," Margo said evenly, "but that's beside the point."

  "And the point of this deathless observation is…?"

  "I have insulted you." Too used to him to be concerned, she shrugged. "You have to have some talent for business because your parents aren't fools. However much they love you, they wouldn't give you free rein to poke into the hotels. They'd just let you drain your trust fund and be a wastrel."

  "Your confidence in me is touching." With a sneer, he topped off their glasses. "I think I need another drink."

  "And you have that law degree."

  "Yes, the one they gave me after I'd finished racketing around Harvard."

  "Don't be so sensitive." She patted his hand. "It occurs to me that you must know something about managing… things. I've had a few interesting offers," she began. "The most lucrative and least complicated is from Playboy."

  His eyes went so sharp, so flinty, it surprised her that they didn't strike sparks off the silverware. "I see."

  "I've posed naked before—or the next thing to it." Wary of his enigmatic response, she sliced off a bit of cheese. "European magazines aren't as puritanical as American ones."

  "And you consider an arty ad in Italian Vogue on the same level as a centerfold in a skin magazine?" There were murderous thoughts rocketing through his head, making him feel ridiculously like the cuckolded lover.

  No, she didn't, and felt incredibly foolish. "Same body," she said with a careless shrug. "The point is, I've made my living in front of the camera in varying stages of dress and undress. This is a way to continue to do so. A one-shot deal, anyway, that would put some distance between me and the creditors. With what they're offering me I could get back on my feet. Well, one foot anyway."

  His eyes never left her face. Nearby, a waiter dropped a tray of dishes with a resounding crash, and Josh didn't so much as blink. "Are you asking me to look over the offer?''

  It had been her thought, but she reconsidered, and reconsidered quickly, at the razor-edged tone in the question. "No, I was simply mentioning one of my alternatives."

  "Is that what you want to be, Margo? Some sweaty-palmed adolescent's wet dream? This month's pinup in the auto mechanic shop, a visual aid at the fertility clinic?"

  "I think that's in very poor taste," she said stiffly.

  "That's in poor taste?" The way he exploded with it had several diners jerking their heads around and murmuring.

  "Don't shout at me," she said under her breath. "You've never had any respect for what I do. I don't know why I thought you might have some sensible comment about this."

  "You want a sensible comment. Terrific." He gulped down wine to force the bile back down his throat. "Go right ahead and do it, duchess. Take the money and run. Don't worry about embarrassing your family. Why should you care? So they snicker the next time your mother's standing in line at the supermarket. If the kids tease Ali at school, it's not your problem. Just make sure you're well paid."

  "That's enough," she said quietly.

  "Is it?" he tossed back. "I'm just warming up."

  "I said it was an option. I didn't say I was going to accept." With impatient fingers she rubbed at a headache brewing at her left temple. "Goddamn it, it's just a body. My body."

  "You're connected to people. I'd hoped you'd begun to realize that what you do affects them."

  "I have." Wearily she let her hand drop. "All right, I have. Judging from your reaction, it wouldn't go over very well."

  Inch by inch he reeled in his temper and studied her. "Is that what this was about? Testing the waters with me?"

  She managed a smile. "Yes. Bad idea." Sighing, she pushed her plate away. "On to the next. We won't bother with the German producer who's offering a considerable pile of marks if I let him showcase me in his latest adult film."

  "Jesus Christ, Margo—"

  "I said we wouldn't bother with that. So what do you do when you decide to redecorate one of your hotels?''

  He rubbed a hand over his face. "While I'm trying to make that leap of thought, we'll order the pasta course." He signaled the waiter, ordered tagliolini for himself and risotto for Margo.

  Bracing her c
hin on her palm, she began to think through that next option. "Your Italian's much better than mine. That might be helpful, too."

  "Margo darling, don't go off on another tangent until I've caught up." His blood was still hot at the idea of her being spread out in full, glorious color for any man with pocket change to drool over. "Are you asking me for decorating advice?"

  "No. No, of course not." The very idea made her snicker. The headache and unsteady stomach his temper had caused began to ease. "I'm curious about what you do with the furnishings when you redo suites."

  "You want furniture?"

  "Josh, just answer the question. What do you do when you change the decor?"

  "Okay, fine. We rarely do that in one of our established hotels, as the clientele appreciates the tradition." What the hell was going through that fascinating mind of hers now? he wondered, but shrugged. It wouldn't take long to find out. "However, when we buy out another hotel, we will usually revamp the rooms in the Templeton style, using the locale for inspiration. We'll keep whatever is suitable or up to our standards, sometimes shipping pieces off to another location. What doesn't suit is normally sold at auction, which is where the decorator and buyer would pick up replacements. We also buy at antique shops and through estate sales."

  "Auction," she murmured. "It might be best. Simplest. Auctions, antique shops, estate sales. They're all really just secondhand stores, aren't they? I mean, everything there has been owned before, used before. Sometimes people value things more if they've belonged to someone else."

  She beamed up at the waiter, nearly causing him to jostle the plates as his blood pressure spiked. "Grazie, Mario. Ho molta fame."

  "Prego, signorina. Mia piacere. Buona appetite." He bowed away from the table, narrowly avoiding a collision with a busboy.

  "Your Italian's fine," Josh said dryly. "You don't even need words."

  "He's a sweetheart. He has a lovely wife who presents him with a bambina every year. And he never looks down my blouse." She paused, considered. "Well, hardly ever. Anyway," she said, digging into the risotto with genuine enthusiasm, "speaking of secondhand shops."

  "Were we?''

  "Yes. What sort of percentage of the value is customary when you sell?"

  "It would depend on several factors."

  "What are they?"

  Deciding he'd been patient and informative long enough, he shook his head. "No, you first. Why do you want to know?"

  "I'm thinking of—what's the term?—downsizing." She speared a shrimp from his plate.

  "Actually, rightsizing has become the more politically correct term."

  "Okay. I like that better anyway. Rightsizing." She chuckled over the idea. "I've been collecting things for ten years. I thought I might unload some of them. My apartment's entirely too crowded, and I've never taken the time to weed out my wardrobe. Since I've got some free time, I thought…"

  She trailed off. He hadn't said a word, but she knew he understood she was scrambling for pride. "I need the money," she said flatly. "It's stupid of me to pretend otherwise. Kate thinks liquidation is the best option." She tried to smile again. "And since. Playboy is out…"

  "You don't want me to offer you a loan," he murmured. "You just want me to sit back and do nothing while you sell your shoes for grocery money."

  "And my bags, and my porcelain boxes, and my candlesticks." He wasn't going to feel sorry for her, she determined. By God, no one was going to feel sorry for her. "Look, Streisand did it a couple years ago, didn't she? Not that she needed the money, but what's the difference? She sold things she'd collected over the years, and I doubt she turned up her nose at the money. It doesn't appear that I'm going to be able to sell my face for the foreseeable future, and I don't intend to sell my body, so I've whittled the options down to my things."

  She didn't want sympathy, he determined. So he wouldn't offer it. "Is that what you were doing tonight when I came by? Inventory?"

  "In an impulsive, semihysterical sort of way. But now I'm calm and rational, and I see that the plan—actually Kate's plan—has value." She covered his hand with hers. "Josh, when you saw me back home, you asked if I needed help. I'm telling you I do. I'm asking you for it."

  He looked down at her hand, the glint of sapphire and diamonds against creamy white skin. "What do you want me to do?"

  "First, keep this between us for now."

  He turned his hand over, linked his fingers with hers. "All right. What else?"

  "If you could help me figure out how and where to sell what I have to sell. How to get the best price. I haven't managed my money well. Hell, I haven't done such a hot job with my life either, but I'm going to start now. I don't want to get fleeced because I'm not sure what something's worth, or because I'm in too much of a hurry."

  He picked up his wine with his free hand, considered. Not just what she was asking, but what it meant, and what could be done. "I can help you, if you're sure it's what you want."

  "I'm sure."

  "You've got a couple of choices, as I see it. You can get an agent." Keeping his eyes on hers, he topped off their wine. "I know an outfit here in Milan that's very trustworthy. They'll come in, appraise what you've selected, give you around forty percent."

  "Forty? But that's terrible."

  "It's actually a bit on the high side, but we do a lot of business with them and you'd probably get it."

  Grimly, she set her teeth. "What are my other choices?"

  "You could try one of the auction houses. You could go with an appraiser and then contact some of the antique or collectible shops and see what you'd get there." He leaned closer, watching her face. "But, if you ask me, you should sell yourself."

  "Excuse me?"

  "Margo Sullivan can sell anything. What else have you been doing for the last ten years but hawking someone else's products? Sell yourself, Margo."

  Baffled, she sat back. "Excuse me. Aren't you the one who just finished rapping my knuckles for mentioning doing just that?"

  "Not your picture. You. Open a shop, stock it with your own possessions. Advertise it. Flaunt it."

  "Open a shop?" Her laugh bubbled out as she reached for her glass. "I can't open a shop."

  "Why not?"

  "Because I… I don't know why," she murmured and deliberately pushed her glass aside. "I've had too much wine if I don't know why."

  "Your flat's already a small-scale department store."

  "There are dozens of reasons why it wouldn't work." Her head spun just thinking about it. "I don't know anything about running a business, keeping books."

  "Learn," he said simply.

  "There's taxes, and fees. Licenses. Rent, for Christ's sake." Flummoxed, she began to run her fingers up and down the jeweled chain she wore. "I'm trying to eliminate bills, not make more of them. I'd need money."

  "An investor, someone who would be willing to pump in the startup money."

  "Who'd be stupid enough to do that?"

  He lifted his glass. "I would."

  Chapter Seven

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  She spent most of the night picking the idea apart, tossing in bed and reciting all the sane objections she should have thought of in the first place.

  It was a ridiculous notion. Reckless and foolish. And it had come along just when she was trying so hard to stop being ridiculous and reckless and foolish.

  When tossing in bed frustrated her enough, she rose to pace in the dark. Obviously Josh knew little more about business than she did, or he would never have suggested such a preposterous plan.

  She wasn't a shopkeeper, for God's sake. Appreciating lovely things only meant she had expensive taste. It didn't mean she could turn herself into a merchant. And maybe she did know how to sell, but being the Bella Donna Woman and urging some tourist to write a traveler's check for a Daum goldfish were two entirely different matters.

  Certainly people would come, at first. Out of curiosity, out of glee to see the once famous, now notorious Margo Sullivan hawking
her wares. She would probably make a few sales too, initially. And some society matron with too many face-lifts could gesture to her curio cabinet to point out the antique snuff bottle she'd bought from that poor model who'd fallen on hard times.

  Margo set her teeth. Well, she'd have that snooty matron's money in her pocket, wouldn't she?

  Catching herself, she shook her head. No, it was an impossible idea. Starting a business was simply too complicated, and maintaining one would be beyond her. She would only be setting herself up for another failure.

  Coward.

  "Just shut up, Josh. It wouldn't be your butt on the line. Just your money."

  And she wasn't going to take his money anyway. The idea of being indebted to him was more than her pride could stand. Even if she swallowed her pride, she didn't think her nerves could handle working with him. He'd undoubtedly be popping up even more than usual, checking on her, checking on his investment.

  Looking at her the way he looked at her. Absently she rubbed a hand between her breasts. Had he always looked at her that way? Had she just begun to notice? She recognized hunger in a man's eyes when she saw it. Was used to seeing it. There was no reason for her mouth to go dry and her pulse to start jittering because they were Josh's eyes.

  His eyes were as familiar to her as her own. She'd known those eyes, known him, all of her life. It had to be her imagination—imagination skewed by her emotional upheaval. It was just that she'd been feeling so unwanted, she'd mistaken kindness and concern from an old friend for desire.

  That was it, of course.

  But she knew she hadn't mistaken her own reaction when he touched her, when his fingers skimmed over her shoulder. Flesh to flesh. And for an instant, just a quick flash, she'd actually fantasized that his fingers would dip lower, part her robe, cup her breasts and…

  And she had to be skirting madness to wind an erotic daydream around Josh Templeton.

  He was a friend, practically family. And at the moment, the least of her worries.

  She had to concentrate on practicalities, not sexual intrigues. After Alain she'd decided that sex, romance, even the whisper of relationship were going to the bottom of her priority list. The most reasonable thing for her to do would be to contact Josh in the morning and ask him for the name of the agent he'd mentioned. She would cull out everything she didn't need for basic survival, take the forty percent, and go on.

  She'd sell the car as well. And her furs. Her standing twice-monthly appointment at Sergio Valente in Rome was out, as was her biannual jaunt to Les Pres et les Sources in France. There would be no more strolling down the Montenapoliane with careless forays into Valentino and Armani.

  She would make do with what she had, or what she had left, and find a job.

  Damn him for making her too ashamed to snatch up a quick six figures for one harmless photo shoot.

  Besides, what kind of shop would it be? she asked herself as her mind stubbornly circled back. People didn't go into a store expecting to buy a Gucci bag and a Steuben bird in the same place. It wouldn't be secondhand clothing, or curios, or leather goods. It would be a hodgepodge; confusing, unfocused.

  It would be unique.

  It would be hers.

  With her hands pressed to her mouth, Margo let herself imagine it. Busy
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