Charlotte still wore the dark shoes and black clothing from her current job as a stylist at a salon. Her hair, previously her shining glory as she changed styles and colors with each season, now covered her head with a short brown and gray fuzz.
Despite cosmetic concealer, violet smudges of weariness showed beneath her eyes. Her eyelids fluttered and she glanced up at Bella, her lips lifting in a smile. “Look at you. You brought me food again. You’re trying to make me fat,” she complained as she sat up and patted the sofa for Bella to join her.
“This way you don’t have to fix it. You can just eat it. Would you like to eat here or in the kitchen?”
“Here is fine,” Charlotte said and Bella pulled out a TV tray.
“What would you like to drink?” Bella asked.
“I can get it myself,” Charlotte said and started to rise.
“I’m already up,” Bella argued. “Water, soda, tea?”
“Hot tea,” Charlotte said and shook her head. “You fuss over me too much.”
“Not at all,” Bella said as she put the tea kettle on in the adjoining kitchen. “If I’d known what you were going through, I would have come back to help you with your treatments.”
“You needed that trip. You’d earned it. I can take care of myself,” Charlotte insisted as Bella brought her the cup of tea.
“I would have made it easier for you,” Bella said, sitting next to the woman who had raised her. “I could have helped with the business.”
Charlotte sighed. “Well, I overestimated my stamina, and losing the spas has been a hard pill to swallow. But I did the best I could. You have to stop taking responsibility for things that you can’t control.”
“Really,” Charlotte said sharply then her face softened. “You can’t spend your life trying to be the polar opposite of your mother. You’ve worked hard, earned your degree in college, did rescue work overseas. Now it’s time for you to enjoy your life, do what you want to do. You’ve got to stop worrying about me.”
Bella bit her tongue, but nothing her aunt said made her feel one bit less responsible. How was it fair that Bella had lived her dream when her aunt had lost hers? It just wasn’t right. If there was a way to make it up to Charlotte, she should do it.
Unable to sleep, Bella racked her brain for any possibilities. She’d already approached several banks and been turned down flat. Her only hope was Michael Medici.The mere thought of him gave her shivers. That didn’t stop her, however, from calling his assistant to make an appointment to meet him at his office. Luckily, or not, she was told Michael would meet her that afternoon. It would be tight since she was scheduled to work the evening shift at the restaurant, but she knew she needed to do this as soon as possible before she talked herself out of it.
Shoring up her courage, she strode into his office when his assistant gave her the go-ahead. He stood as she entered and with her heart pounding in her ears, she met his gaze. “I’ll take the deal.”
He raised his eyebrow and nodded.
“With conditions,” she added.
His dark gaze turned inscrutable. “What conditions?” he asked in a velvet voice.
“That we set a time limit for our—” She floundered for the right word. “Involvement.”
“Agreed. One year,” he said. “After that time, you and I can determine if we want to continue.”
She gave a quick nod. “And my aunt is never ever to know that I agreed to this in order for her to get her business.”
“You have my word,” he said.
She wanted more than his word. She wanted a document signed in blood, preferably his.
Her expression must have revealed her doubt because he gave a cynical chuckle. “You’ll know you can count on my word soon enough.”
“There are other things we need to work out. Is this going to be totally secret? Are we supposed to pretend that we’re just acquaintances?”
“We can negotiate that later. I’ll expect you to be exclusive.”
“And what about you?” she asked.
He lifted his eyebrows again then allowed his gaze to fall over her. “Based on our experience in bed, I think you’ll be able to take care of my appetite.”
Bella felt a surprising rush of heat race through her. How did the man generate so much excitement without even touching her? She glanced at her watch and cleared her throat. “Okay, I think we’ve covered the basics. I need to get to work.”
“You can quit the restaurant,” he said without batting an eye.
“No, I can’t. I need the extra money to help my aunt,” she said.