THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU -  A contemporary romance published by Crimson Romance. Available November 19, 2012

                                                                         Chapter One


The vanity license plate bolted to the black hybrid read N MAN 1 when it should have screamed TR UB LE. A rainy night rush hour flat tire on the freeway kind of trouble.  That’s what Molly Hewitt expected when she approached the not-for-profit medical clinic where she served as administrator. Otherwise, why would Nick Mancini’s car squat in the twenty-four minute zone—ticket territory? He had his own parking slot at the other end of the block, alongside the trailer he used for a construction office. It wasn’t as if he were inside the clinic making a killer donation. The odds on that were as slim as men and women flip-flopping on the Mars/Venus thing.

The morning from hell already landed on Molly’s doorstep. She’d overslept, burned her toast, and forgotten to plug in the coffeemaker. Now, hungry and caffeine deprived, and with Ms. Cranky lurking inside her and ready to stomp on her usually placid disposition, she had to maneuver through a tête-à-tête with the San Francisco condo king. Were the Furies tap dancing on her head, or what? She shoved her defenses into high alert, pushed open the clinic door, and stepped into the small waiting room. She’d expected to find the builder ready to pounce from one of the six mismatched chairs aligned beneath the Golden Gate Bridge poster, but there was no sign of him. Still, she sensed he prowled somewhere nearby. She shot a glance toward the closed door of her equally undersized office.

 

“He’s not in there.” Cynthia Wells brushed aside a long strand of maroon-tinted hair and stepped out from behind the third-hand desk that served as a reception center. “When I told him you hadn’t come in yet, he decided to go for coffee. I offered ours,but he turned it down. I guess he didn’t want to feel obligated.” “That’s assuming he feels anything at all.” Molly headed into her office. To make the cluttered space more tranquil, the pale lime walls held a quartet of scenic Monet prints that bled all her favorite pastel colors. She flipped on the fluorescent overhead lights and dumped her faux Kate Spade handbag and worn leather briefcase onto her desk.  The tantalizing aroma of freshly brewed coffee settled in around her.


It surprised Molly that it had taken Mr. Mancini a week to accuse her of poking her nose into his business—a possible million-dollar poke at that. She’d found that out from Mrs. Zamoulian who lived in that wreck of a building Mancini had recently bought. Since the building sat smack in the middle of his new condo project, he planned to demolish it.  Sure, the building screamed for demolition anyway, but not without substantial compensation for the tenants. Apparently, Mrs. Z has caved under the third degree from her new landlord and ratted out Molly, whose only crime was to express an opinion onhow she would handle his cheesy buyout offer should she ever be in Mrs. Z’s shoes. Cynthia leaned in her office. “What will you say when he comes back?”“Hmm. What I’d like to say is so X-rated my lips would have to do penance for a month. So I’ll stick to the PG version.” Molly dug a tin of Altoids out of her purse. Unlike some of her friends who hit the gym or the fast food counter when under pressure, Molly stuck to Altoids. Less pain...less gain. She offered some to Cynthia, then popped a couple into her mouth. The spearmint flavor burst on her tongue and began to soothe her rattled psyche.

 

 

“How can anyone look so gorgeous and be so rotten?” Cynthia said from the open doorway. “Who knows? Maybe he suffered some deep childhood trauma.” “You think so?” Molly shrugged. “Anything’s possible.” “Well, inside, he might be decayed meat, but outside he’s a dream.” “Yes, but what good are looks if they mask a whole laundry list of defects?”Cynthia grinned. “Where should I start?”Although Cynthia was usually focused, today she wore a bemused expression, which suggested Nick Mancini still occupied her attention. Barely two years out of high school and fully invested in guys who gave her “jock shock,” looks still mattered to her. Molly was almost a hundred percent certain Mr. Mancini had been the one in the
dress shirt, tie, and pressed slacks she’d spotted the other day leaning against the hybrid’s hood and talking with several hardhats at his construction site. If so, even she had to admit he deserved her highest rating—three mochachino raspberry grandes—two point five more than she awarded each of her last two boring dates.

Molly changed the subject and glanced in the direction of the two examining rooms located at the rear of the building. “Have the doctors come in yet?”“Huh?”“Are the doctors in?” It took Cynthia a few seconds to refocus. “Dr. Ed is with a patient.  Dr. Jake is on late call today.”  At precisely that moment, the front door opened and closed. Molly offered up a silent prayer for it to be someone seeking medical attention, but one look at Cynthia’s lips forming the words “it’s him” and her belief system crashed. As soon as Cynthia cleared the doorway, Nick Mancini filled it. Yes, he was the man she’d spotted with the construction crew. Only today he’d opted for khakis and a forest green T-shirt. The short sleeves banded well-toned muscles, which placed him high on her totally buff list. Add those to the hard pecs and abs held prisoner beneath
the fabric that stretched across a broad chest, and he easily qualified for triple blue ribbon status.

Molly swallowed, and what remained of the Altoids slid down her throat. When she had cruised by his building site the other day, he’d glanced over ,which had forced her to speed up. Now she stood close enough to better fit the pieces of his face together: strong chin, full mouth, and a nose flat enough at the bridge to make it interesting. Perhaps he’d fallen off a ladder and broken it. His dark hair, worn long enough to separate him from the “looking forward one day to retirement” crowd, ramped up his sex appeal. Look, but don’t touch. Molly bit down on the outer edge of her bottom lip. She’d hate herself in the morning but, what the heck, she piled on an extra mochachino.“You must be Ms.Hewitt.” Two long strides brought him into the middle of her office. The air bristled with the high-octane energy that rolled off him. His deep voice boasted a full complement of male hormones—not exactly gruff, but not musical, either.
Whatever the quality, it was in direct proportion to the rest of him: exceedingly male.

 

"You are...?” Molly obeyed the urge to feign ignorance. After all, why give the impression she attached any importance to his complaint about her meddling?“ Nick Mancini.” His eyes drilled into hers like a bit swiveling through a redwood plank.  Still, she remained rooted to the vinyl floor, exactly three feet from N MAN 1.“Yes, I’m Molly Hewitt.” She extended her hand. “Nice to meet you.” Which it wasn’t, given the circumstances, but maybe the “nice” would take some of the charge out of his battery. His gaze drifted over her royal blue knit top and ivory linen knee-length skirt. The tightly bunched muscles in his face relaxed.  “We need to talk.” He took her hand and applied what felt like friendly pressure when, probably, he’d like to snap all five fingers as if they were swizzle sticks .His skin texture suggested the reverse side of an emery board—barely abrasive. Why not, since he no longer had to climb up on a girder and bang away at a helpless board anymore. The hired crew carried out the heavy duty stuff. He withdrew his hand
and began to fire questions at her. “What’s your connection to the tenants in my building down the street? In what capacity do you represent them?” “I don’t—” “What are you, another wannabe lawyer?” That brought him one step closer.  “I’m not a wannabe anything.” Molly jumped in quickly before he accused her of having her hand in the latest economic downturn. “Nor do I represent your tenants.

Several are patients here at the clinic. That’s my only connection to them. ”Standing five feet nine and a half in her three-inch wedge sandals, she brought her eyes closer to Mr. Mancini’s. They shared basically the same color—sort of a smoky caramel brown. She was never wild about the shade, but he made it seem
almost...exotic.  Due, no doubt, to the contrast with his dark lashes. Hers were redhead-light and needed a
double application of mascara from any brand on sale at the local drugstore .“You’re advising them on a matter that doesn’t concern you. ”It took another moment to drag her eyes away from his and cajole her brain into thinking mode again. “Actually, I didn’t offer any advice.”

 

“That’s not what I heard.” Poor Mrs. Z. He’d probably threatened her with the twenty-first century equivalent of the rack. “Well, I did offer a suggestion or two.” A small, dark mole tha tlooked more interesting than dangerous sprouted near the outer edge of his left eyebrow. Maybe Dr.Ed should take a look at it later.  “That’s not giving  yourself nearly enough credit. My guess—you offered a lot more than two suggestions. That’s why they’ve formed a tenants’ association.” He held up a hand before she had a chance to contradict him. “Don’t bother denying where the idea, along with the inflated buyout demand, came from. Now there’s talk about circulating a petition.”  “I don’t recall the police carting anyone off to San Quentin for that.” “I suppose tomorrow you’ll advise them to walk a picket line in front of the
building.” A picket line. What a great idea. She might mention it to Mrs. Z so she could pass it on to the others at the next tenants’ meeting.  All my permits are in order. They can collect a thousand signatures and leaflet the entire South of Market area. It won’t change anything. They’ll never stop my project from going ahead.”  They’ll give it a heck of a try, though. Maybe they could interest enough people to see the justice of their cause. San Francisco was rife with citizens’ groups agitating for the have-nots who were always getting the shaft from the have-it-alls. “You never know,” she said. “Sometimes good things happen when least expected.  ”His aftershave brought a refreshing hint of the outdoors into the small,
windowless space. Nice. After he left—and it couldn’t be soon enough—she hoped the scent would linger. “They’ve had more than enough time to relocate, nearly twice what the law requires. You advised them to stay put.” He stabbed the air with one long finger, almost as if conducting a discordant symphony. Molly beat off the urge to lean back, since that might suggest she’d given up ground. Unless her little patch of terra firma crumbled, she was determined not to part with an inch.

“Several tenants asked what I’d do in their situation, and I told the truth. Having practically no resources with which to make a move, I’d absolutely stand pat.” His eyes narrowed at the poker term, as if he’d just awakened to the possibility that he was dealing with a con artist or at least someone accomplished at bluffing.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, most Friday nights Molly played poker with her
Aunt Vi and cousin, Dominique. She never bluffed, though, and wouldn’t know how to con anyone. “I made a very generous cash offer. One any landlord would consider overly generous.”  His skin tone ran toward olive and blended well with an eye-catching tan. One of the perks of outdoor work. Even lathered with sunscreen, she couldn’t avoid burning through the entire pink to red spectrum if she exposed her skin to the sun for more than thirty minutes. “You consider twenty-five thousand dollars per apartment unit generous?”  “When you don’t have to work for it, yes.”  “Sorry. Not even close. Especially for people who live on or just one notch above the poverty line.” She tried to temper the censure in her voice but failed. “I suppose suggesting they hold out for a hundred grand instead wasn’t the same as giving them advice.” “That’s not how I see it.” “I get it. You would hold out for a hundred.” That brought him in maybe fifteen
more inches. Another fifteen and he’d leave his shoe print on her sandals and spray-on tan toes.“If I were in their situation, sure I would.” 
“You don’t consider a hundred grand greedy?” He shook his head and a lock of dark hair nudged his brow, further ramping up his sex appeal and breaking God only knew how many scientific laws of nature. Molly took a few moments to clear her head of the kind of thoughts that could turn a woman into Play-Doh. If he were any other man, under any other circumstances...
She sucked in a deep breath and had to kick start herself to refocus on greed.  “No.” She exhaled in a whoosh of air. “To expect a generous buyout isn’t greedy. It’s just plain common sense. When’s the last time you checked out the economy?” She sidestepped around her desk, opened the center drawer and dug out a hand calculator.

“Hard to imagine where you think those people are going to move to in this city on twenty-five thousand dollars. You probably have a team of financial advisors who do nothing all day but figure out ways to make you piles of money. For your tenants, though, a savings account is probably the best they can expect. That’s one step up from a cookie jar.” She tapped numbers into the calculator. “Let’s assume twenty-five
thousand times a measly two point five percent in a money market, which assumes it’s tied up practically
for life. That only comes to...” 
“Six twenty-five.” He spit it out, with hardly a hesitation, as if he had an
adding machine implanted in his brain. “Even without the interest, the principal should last for years if they’re careful.”  “You mean if they use it as a supplement and add it to the amount they pay for rent now.”
“That’s the idea. They’ll have a financial cushion to bridge the gap once they relocate.” “Except in today’s market and in this city, that should last about...”As her fingers again danced across the instrument’s key panel, his hand reached out and clamped onto hers. He snatched the calculator with his other hand and
dropped it onto her desk. “You know, I’d love to sit down with you sometime and crunch numbers or
whatever, but right now I’m running late for an appointment.”


She pulled her hand away. “That sounds like just another way to say the argument has gone against you, and it’s time to retreat.” “Were we arguing?” “Weren’t we?” “I hope not.” He smiled for the first time. At least he proved he had the capacity and wasn’t all just rugged good looks. The smile softened his strong features.  Molly supposed plenty of women jumped out of their lace thongs at the slightest encouragement
from him. Even if she wore a thong, she didn’t foresee adding her name to the list. Not even if she prevailed and he encouraged. “Well, disagreeing, then.” 
“I understand your point, and yes, I’ll admit it will take some effortto relocate where rents are cheaper. But those kinds of units do exist.”  “Really? Maybe in the Yukon...and even there, there must be a waiting list.” The smile dropped a notch. “There’s no need to go that far. Low rent apartments can be found right here.”  “Not to my knowledge.” Also, if the rumor proved true, he might gobble up the seedy real estate—perhaps even the clinic—at her end of the block and no one would make a buyout offer to her. No other San Francisco landlord would give the clinic the
kind of break on rent her current “angel” offered—a dollar a month. She would love to pump Mr.Mancini on any future plans but decided against a two-pronged assault.  “In my business, I’ve gotten to know the city pretty well. There’s affordable housing available right now if you know where to look. Do you want me to prove it to you?” “Do you really think you can?”

He slid his cell phone from its sheath and gave it his attention for a few seconds. “I can free up some time this afternoon to prove there are inexpensive units out there—given my tenants will have a windfall to work around. We’ll check out a few. Then once you’re convinced, we can both get on with business.” It had been far too long since a determined man invited her inside an apartment for any reason—she didn’t count the octopus who’d earned a squirt in the eye with hand sanitizer when he’d decided to take inventory of her body, and in a public lobby. Or the blind date with the comb-over that didn’t quite hide the double-sided tape. Even though this man had a face and body that could take a woman’s inhibitions and shred them into confetti, she wasn’t about to drive around town with him so he could try to prove a nonprovable
point. “That sounds like a waste of both our time.” 
“I can make time.”  “Sorry, but I can’t during work hours on a Friday or any other weekday. So why not just take a good look at the classified ads in the Chronicle or check out the Internet?  You’ll see what’s available in the rental market.” That should settle it.
His gaze bored into her like a laser primed for maximum penetration. “You’re backing down.” “Absolutely not.” He braced his hands on the edge of her desk and leaned in several inches, which brought his eyes practically level with hers. His arm muscles flexed, and asecond later, her toes curled. Which would be understandable if he were her type, which he wasn’t, but he was TR UB LE. Oh, yes.

“Ms. Hewitt...?” “Huh?” Great. Now she was channeling Cynthia.“Why don’t you just admit you’re wrong?”
For heaven’s sake, why didn’t he just throw down a glove and challenge her to a duel? Obviously, mere words would never change his mind. He needed physical proof, so she  figured she might as well relent.

“I admit nothing of the kind. Also, I don’t have an overblown ego that forbids me to acknowledge a mistake.” A dark brow—the one with the mole—rose. Her dart had hit a bull’s eye. “To prove my point, I’ll take a look at what you imagine is available.”  He nodded. “Okay, then. Why don’t I drop by your place and pick you up tomorrow at ten?” That was the time she’d set aside to cruise around the city and scoop up gift
cards donated by several high-end restaurants for her upcoming auction event. Afterwards, she had an appointment with the producer of the funky smash revue Beach Blanket Babylon. They’d discussed the possibility of squeezing in the highest bidder somewhere between Louis the Fourteenth and the dancing poodles. “I have appointments tomorrow, but I could finish by two.” Free from there on, also. All she had on tap for Saturday night was to curl up with a glass of Chardonnay and a good murder mystery.
“Doesn’t work for me.” He went back to his cell phone. “How’s Sunday afternoon around three?” She figured that morning he’d be sleeping off a big Saturday night frolic. He didn’t sport a wedding ring, but that didn’t mean he didn’t frolic with a wife. “Not possible then, either. Sorry.” Her cousin Dominique had agreed to drop over around four to help with the proposal Molly planned to submit to the Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation. She would cancel except for a looming deadline. He nodded his head. “See, you’re trying to avoid a showdown. You know I’m right.”  “You’re wrong on both counts. I can meet you tonight around six.” That would turn tonight into the second Friday in a row she’d have to bail out of the poker game. But she wanted to get this search over with, like quadruple ASAP.

“Can’t make it.”  “Well, then, I guess that only leaves Sunday morning. Or perhaps now you’d like
to postpone this indefinitely.” The mouth that had smiled so invitingly only a couple of minutes before sank into a frown. “I...okay, I can try to squeeze it in.”  “Thank you.” She managed to get the words out without too much sarcasm—which, where Nick Mancini was concerned, didn’t come easily. If he was going to have an overnight guest, too bad. He’d just have to kick her out of the sack early.
“All right, where do you live?” he asked. “Why do you want to know that?” The broad shoulders under his T-shirt slumped, and he blew air out through his mouth. “So I can pick you up.” “Oh.” At least he refrained from adding “stupid.” “I can meet you here. I don’t give out my address to people I don’t know.” He stared at her for such a long time she wondered if he’d had some sort of seizure.  What luck they were in a medical office.“Right. We’ll meet here Sunday morning at, say, ten. Does that fit into your schedule?” “Yes, fine.” “Good. We’ll settle this, and then maybe you can stay out of trouble for a while. Or at least not cause any more.”  “Really? Not cause trouble for whom?” She figured the “whom” stared her down from across her desk. “I had my tenants in mind. Who did you think I meant?”  “You. Who else?”  “Uh-uh.” The corners of his lips tipped up and his facial muscles relaxed.  “Usually, when trouble heads my way, it has little to do with business.” Between the slow drawl and the sensual look that bumped his expression into approach at your own risk
territory, a patch of heat sprang into her cheeks. To her credit, she kept her mouth from dropping open.


“Your face is flushed.” He reached across the desk and tapped her lightly on the chin with a bent finger. “Do I make you nervous?”  At this juncture he did, more so than when he’d practically laid siege to her
office.  “No, of course not.” Lax, lately, about practicing yoga, Molly made a mental note to review the Alternate Breath Technique. She had a feeling that, on Sunday morning, she would need the benefit of its promised natural tranquilizer.  “Okay, then. I’ll stop by for you Sunday at ten.” No more smiles. He just
turned and left the office.
Once the front door closed, Cynthia buzzed in. She set a mug of steaming coffee on Molly’s desk. “You sure held your own with the big bad builder.”  Molly let out the breath held far too long. She swept her dog-eared copy of Grant Writing for Dummies and a pile of empty file folders off her chair and plopped down onto it. “Do you think so?” She fanned her face with her hand. Either the cooling system had failed, or Mr. Mancini had vacuumed up all the air. “I know so. Wow, I would have crumpled.”
“Yeah, like poor Mrs. Zamoulian.” It pained her to think about the woman going up against N MAN 1. She hadn’t stood the tiniest chance. Well, on Sunday morning, Molly intended to show up with enough evidence to prove low-rent housing was even scarcer than a fogless summer in San Francisco. Then, hopefully, after their apartment hunt, Mr. Mancini would realize his cheesy twenty-five thousand dollar buyout offer wouldn’t stretch from here to the corner.  Would he admit it, though? She guessed he hardly ever confessed he was wrong, even when faced with incontrovertible proof. Speaking of which, she wondered how much he was going to require and if just a few hours would be enough to prove her
point.  That put a prickly thought into her head. She wouldn’t have to do this more than once with him, would she?