After a long pause, Monique answered, “Not to him.”
“But you do want to get married?”
“Someday.” Monique looked at Niko, her expression unreadable. “When the right man comes along. What about you? Are you a confirmed, lifelong bachelor?”
“I’m not afraid of commitment. I love family, love children, and hope one day to have them.”
“So what are you waiting on?”
Niko didn’t hesitate in his answer. “The right woman.”
Her comeback was interrupted by a familiar face approaching their table. The woman gave Monique a dismissive once-over. “Is this why you haven’t returned my calls?”
Niko looked up. “Hello, Ashley.”
Providing Monique a clear view of her back, Ashley focused on Niko. “Is this why you’ve been running from me and are no longer available for conversation or to share a drink?”
“Does it look like I’m running from you now?”
“You know you’ve been avoiding me. Don’t even try to lie.”
Other than a brief tightening of his jaw, Niko showed no outer signs of irritation. “You have my attention now, Ashley. What do you want?”
“If you’d returned one of several messages left on your phone, you’d already know. I want to play a more active and pivotal role in your campaign.”
“And I texted back the contact number for volunteers, though allowing me to place promotional items in your salon has been very helpful.”
Ashley changed tactics: lowered her voice, smiled seductively and lazily ran a hand up Niko’s arm. “I’d like a more…personal role, you know, work with you directly to ensure the win. Unless you’ve found another way to shut down your competition, put some of that good Niko lov—”
“That’s enough.” His voice was low yet deadly. “Don’t cause a scene.”
Ashley bit back a retort and sat down, uninvited, at their table. Still she ignored Monique.
“Is this any way to treat a friend?”
Niko took a patient breath. “I apologize for not returning your calls. Between the campaign and company business, it’s been a jam-packed week.”
“Apology accepted.” She leaned toward him, close enough for her tank-top-covered breast to graze his arm. “But only if after you leave here, you’ll stop by my place for drinks.”
He moved his arm away from her chest. “That won’t be possible.”
He looked at Monique, who was tactfully viewing the exchange. “Forgive my rudeness.”
A not-so-subtle jab at this intruder’s impolite behavior. “Ashley, have you met Mo Slater? She is an accomplished attorney who is running on the Democratic ticket. Mo, this is Ashley DeWitt.”
“Niko, can we talk privately for a moment?” For the attention Ashley gave her, Monique might as well have been invisible.
“I’m afraid not. Monique and I are having dinner and discussing the mayoral race. Whatever else you need to say to me can be shared here.”
“Trust me,” Ashley purred with a flip of her long brown hair and a smile. “What I have to say is for your ears alone.”
“If it’s that private, I’m not interested.”
“Fine!” She gave Monique a cold look and stood. “I’ll take my information elsewhere.”
She turned abruptly, almost knocking over the waitress delivering Niko’s triple-decker and Monique’s chicken cordon bleu sandwich.
“Sorry about that,” Niko said once Ashley and the waiter had left. “Jealousy, possessiveness and constant drama are some of the reasons we broke up. I thought we had an understanding, but she’s falling back into old ways. You can’t imagine…”
Monique offered a sympathetic smile as she spread her napkin. “Unfortunately, Niko, I can.”
The Silver Serenade Concert was finally here. Dapper men and gorgeous, gown-clad women filled The Regency Center and shone brighter than the lights that dangled across the Golden Gate Bridge. A buzz of excitement was in the air as some of the one thousand lucky patrons who’d secured this hot ticket sipped wine, champagne and spirits, while others threw air-kisses to just-seen friends. Monique stepped into the lobby, accompanied by her campaign manager, Lance.