“What is your way?” she asked.
“We start with one spa and do it right,” he said.
“But Charlotte had three—”
“And is still recovering from chemotherapy,” he said.
She took a breath and pursed her lips, her gaze sliding away from his. “Go on,” she said.
“In this economy, people want luxury at a discount.”
“But you have to pay for good service—”
“Yes, but people need to feel as if they aren’t spending too much on splurging.” He opened the file folder. “I researched the business plans of successful spas. You need to focus on what they call miniservices and discounts for volume purchases. A minifacial. Packages of massages. A package of ten pedicures at a discount. In turn, you provide a quality service, but limit the time.”
“Sounds like fast food,” she said, curling her beautiful lip.
“Exactly,” he said. “People can justify fast food more easily than lobster and filet mignon. Filet mignon is a commitment.”
She paused and threaded her fingers through her dark hair. “I don’t know if Charlotte will go for this.”
“The deal is nonnegotiable,” he said and felt not one qualm. Michael knew how to split the wheat from the chaff. “I’m bending my rules by offering this plan to you.”
She blinked in surprise. “How are you bending your rules?”
“If someone loses their business, then they’re not a good enough bet for me to give them a second try,” he said in a blunt tone.
Bella’s eyes widened. “Even though she got sick?”
“For whatever reason,” he said. “When you’re in trouble or you can’t cover your responsibilities, you always make sure you have someone to cover for you. If you’re not a superhero, you have to have a backup.”
She met his gaze. “What about you? Who’s your backup? Or are you a superhero?”
He chuckled at her audacity. “If anything unforeseen should happen to me, my attorney will step in.”
“I’m sure you pay him very well,” she said.
“Not everyone has that luxury,” she said.
“It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity,” he said. “And I’ll require it as part of the business plan.”
“I’m her backup,” she said, lifting her chin again. “That’s settled.”
“In this case, I will need an additional backup,” he said.
“Why?” she asked. “I’m trained and dependable and completely committed.”
“I have another job for you,” he said, watching her carefully. He thought about Bella far too often. The images of the night they shared together burned through his mind like a red-hot iron. Plus there was something in her eyes that clicked with him. Her effect on him was a mystery. Once he solved that mystery, he would be free.
“What?” she demanded. “I need to help my aunt. There’s nothing more important.”
“You’ll be able to help her. I won’t demand all your time,” he said. “But as part of the deal, you and I will continue the affair we started a month ago.”
Her jaw dropped in shock. “You’re joking, aren’t you?”
“I told you there would be a cost to both you and your aunt. Can you honestly tell me that you didn’t enjoy that night we shared?”
Her cheeks turned pink with the color that damned her protest. She looked away.
“You and I have a lot in common,” he said. “And it translates physically. I can give you something you need and you give me something I want.” He wouldn’t use the word need. He would never be that vulnerable.
“I would feel like a prostitute,” she whispered.
“The drama isn’t necessary,” he said in a dry voice. “I want you. If you’ll admit it, you want me, too. I can give you things you need. I can help take care of your aunt, but I want something in return. What’s wrong with that?”
She closed her eyes, her dark eyelashes providing a fan of mystery. One. Two. Three seconds later, she opened her eyes and stared at him. “What’s wrong with that? Everything.”
“T hink it over,” Bella muttered, repeating Michael’s parting words. She was so frustrated she could scream. In fact, she had done just that in the privacy of her Volkswagen Beetle.
Spotting her favorite coffee shop, she squeezed her vehicle into a small space alongside the curb and scooted inside the shop. The scent of fresh coffee and baked goods wafted over her, making her mouth water. A half second later, she was hit with a double shot of nostalgia and pain. She and Stephen, her ex-fiancé, had spent many hours here. She glanced in the direction of their favorite booth in the corner next to the window, perfect for the times they’d spent talking about the future they would share.The hurt she’d tried to escape slid past her defenses. During her time in Europe, Bella had not only missed out on helping her Aunt Charlotte when she’d needed her most, she’d also lost the only man she’d ever loved.