Baby, Don’t Go

Rule One: Don’t Let Him In

When photographer Nick Coltrane saunters into Daisy Parker‘s security firm, all she sees is the man who broke her heart nine years ago. Providing round-the-clock protection for him now is out of the question… right?

Rule Two: Always Be Able To Walk Away

Nick needs Daisy around to keep the hired thugs that are out for his blood from actually getting it. He can handle living hand-in-glove for a short while with the one woman he’s been obsessed with for years. No problem.

Some Rules Were Made To Be Broken

Read an Excerpt →

May 30, 2000
Avon Books
ISBN-10: 0-380-80712-2

Between the Covers

When it comes to settings other than the Pacific Northwest for my books I’ve learned the hard way that my writing is more focused and I do much less flailing around if I personally research the story’s locale. In the case of BABY, DON’T GO, that meant San Francisco.

I can practically see the rolling of eyes and hear the collective, ‘Well, poor you.’ And yeah, I admit it wasn’t exactly a hardship, since this is a city I truly adore. But even better than getting to go somewhere cool were the results I got from the days I spent walking San Francisco from one end to the other and visiting its various neighborhoods. Being there brought the story I wanted to write more fully alive. And best of all, it gave me a clearer direction to take it.

I go into a book knowing the characters I want to write and its basic plot points. But the story doesn’t truly unfold in my mind until I’m in the midst of writing it. The visit I made to Golden Gate Park, though, gave me the idea for several scenes. Stopping by a shop called Biordi in North Beach gave me Reggie’s prize dishes. In truth, I never know what I might get until I get there.

But I can be sure it will be better than what I would have gotten had I not gone and explored the book’s setting for myself.

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Awards + Kudos

  • 3  Weeks on the New York Times extended list, rising to #27
  • 5 Weeks on the USAToday list, rising to #43
  • 4 Weeks on the Waldenbooks bestseller list, two of them at #2
  • “A sexy, racy and all-around good-time read.” ~The Oakland Press

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

nine years ago

Daisy Parker gave a little sigh of pleasure as the weight of Nick Coltrane’s naked body pressed her into the mattress. Sweat bonded their bodies together, while his muscular arms held her tight. She could hardly believe she’d just surrendered her virginity to him– let alone with such enthusiasm. As he pressed kisses into the side of her neck, her body hummed with little aftershocks of satisfaction. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she stretched with voluptuous delight.

To think she almost hadn’t attended Mo’s wedding reception– which was still in full swing ten floors below. Two years ago, she’d tried to sever all ties with the Coltranes. She’d detested Nick and Maureen’s father for the cold premeditation with which he’d ended his marriage to her mother, not to mention the way he’d arranged to have Mama’s name smeared all over the tabloids. She’d seen no point in staying in touch with any of them.

But Mo had refused to let the connection lapse. She’d sent occasional notes that would have been rude to ignore, since Daisy’s beef had never been with her stepsister. So Daisy had written back, and every now and then they’d gotten together for a lunch or dinner. When the invitation to Mo’s nuptials had arrived, Daisy hadn’t been able to resist.

The wedding at Grace Cathedral had been like something out of a fairy tale to Daisy’s nineteen year old eyes, and Mo and her handsome groom had looked deliriously happy. But when Daisy arrived at the reception at the Mark Hopkins Hotel a few hours ago, she’d had second thoughts about the wisdom of attending.

She didn’t belong with the throng of San Francisco’s elite that crowded the Peacock Court– she never had. Being thrust into their company again had simply driven home the fact, and she’d planned to leave as soon as she paid her respects to the bride and groom.

Until Nick had swept her off her feet and blown all rational thought clear out of her mind.

She still couldn’t believe he’d greeted her like a long lost friend and ditched the reception line to squire her around. He’d always done such an excellent job of ignoring her that the sudden attention had been like grabbing hold of the business end of a live wire– hot, terrifying, and excitingly disorienting.

Baby, Don't Go

There’d been a look in his eyes that she hadn’t been able to define: a sense of displacement maybe, an impression of recklessness for sure. But he’d charmed her and kept her so off balance with his touch –a guiding hand in the small of her back here, long, warm fingers wrapped around her forearm or brushing her bare shoulder there– that she’d told herself it didn’t matter. He was a golden-skinned god with flashing white teeth and streaky brown hair, dancing attendance on her, snapping pictures of her from the camera around his neck, leaving her breathless, exhilarated, dizzy.

And that was before the dancing began and she got a taste of being in his arms.

When the lights went low and the music turned slow and torchy, she’d been a goner. He’d held her so closely she’d felt him from chest to knees, and he’d been warm, hard, and very happy to see her, as the old saw went. The next thing she remembered, they were in the hotel elevator and he was kissing her; then they were in this room, on this bed, and her heart was pounding, pounding, pounding, her pulse throbbing in places she hadn’t dreamed had a pulse, and he’d been on top of her, inside of her, and practically before the slight sting of her hymen rupturing had a chance to pierce her consciousness, his slow hands and urgent hips had driven her to a place of screaming release.

And all Mama’s talk about love finally made sense.

She breathed in his scent as he slowly pushed up on his elbows. He looked down at her.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes.” She was more than all right. She felt stupendous.

“Good.” He rolled off her and climbed to his feet, and Daisy propped her head in her hand to admire the play of lamplight across his naked flesh. He was so gorgeous.

That wasn’t the most masculine word in the world, she supposed, but it suited him to a T. And no one in their right mind would ever deny he was masculine. Consummately, incomparably masculine. His shoulders were wide, his biceps hard, and lean, strapping muscle defined his chest. Body hair that looked silky and soft grew in a tree-of-life pattern, a fine fan that spread over his pectorals, then dwindled into a narrow trunk that ran down rigidly defined stomach muscles to disappear into the waistband of the tuxedo slacks he’d pulled up his hard flanks.

She blinked. He was dressing? “What are you doing?”

Baby, Don't Go

“I’ve got to go.”

A moment ago she’d felt supremely confident in her nudity; now she suddenly felt exposed. Looking around for her dress, she blushed to see it dangling from the bedside lampshade where it had snagged by a strap. Plucking a couple of tissues out of the box on the table, she dabbed surreptitiously at the smear of blood on her inner thighs and shot him a glance. “Why?”

She watched as Nick pulled on his shirt and his jacket but didn’t bother to fasten them up. He scooped the handful of shirt studs into his palm and dropped them in his pocket. Tie dangling, hands stuffed deep in his pant’s pockets, he looked over at her. His blue eyes softened, the corner of his mouth crooked up, and he took a step toward the bed.

Then, just as she was sure he was going to reach for her again, he pulled himself up short and squared his shoulders. “I’ve got an appointment in the morning,” he said lightly. “This has been great, but a guy needs his sleep.”

“But, I don’t understand. What about…what you said?” What about when you said you loved me?

He stared at her and just for a moment she could have sworn his eyes reflected tenderness and longing… regret. Then he shrugged and the moment was gone. “You really are young, aren’t you, Blondie? You know how the game is played– people’ll say anything in the heat of the moment.”

She hadn’t known, hadn’t even realized it was a game, and she could only stare at him in humiliated misery as he bent down, gave her a friendly peck on the cheek, and murmured for her to take care. Then the door swung closed behind Nick’s back, and the opportunity to analyze the discrepancy passed.

And Daisy was left all alone in a room high atop the Mark Hopkins to contemplate her passage into adulthood.

 

Chapter One

Baby, Don't Go

monday

Daisy hadn’t even cleared the office door before she caught a load of grief.

Her secretary screeched and stared at her in horror. “Please tell me you don’t actually plan on wearing that.”

Stopping short, Daisy glanced down at her gold wool blazer with the crest on its breast pocket and the navy and gold plaid kilt it topped. Then she shut the door behind her and looked back at Reggie. “What’s wrong with it? You’re the one who told me to wear a skirt.”

He rolled his eyes and smoothed his own dapper suit as if to reassure himself that one of them at least was blessed with fashion sense. “I didn’t tell you to dress like Mary Catherine Parochial meets GI Jane.”

“What, the boots, you mean?” She gazed down the navy nyloned length of her legs to her lace-up boots and the bit of scrunched sox that topped them. “They’re navy; they go.”

“Sure, if you’re bucking for the Best Dressed Combat Soldier Who Ever Rolled a Schoolgirl award. Why don’t you just throw on a set of cammies and be done with it? I can probably scrounge up some green and brown eye-shadow– we’ll camouflage your face, too.”

She scowled at him. “You said put on a skirt; I stopped at home and put on a skirt. I’m sorry if it isn’t up to your high standards of sartorial elegance, but I’m a security specialist, not a debutante. I don’t wear heels, Reg, so you can just forget it. I’d be useless if I needed to run.”

“It’s my fondest hope that the only running you’ll need to do is straight to the bank to deposit this new client’s check.” Reggie gave her outfit a final disparaging glance before he turned back to his computer, muttering, “That’s if he gives us a check once he gets a gander at your idea of professional attire.”

Knowing it made him crazy to be loomed over, Daisy slapped her hands down on his desk and leaned her weight on them. “Maybe, unlike most men,” she said between her teeth, “he’ll actually have half a brain in his head and realize this isprofessional. Granted, it’s not dress-for-success banker pinstripes, but it’s eminently suitable for a woman he’d like to guard his ass.”

Baby, Don't Go

Reggie was clearly unimpressed, and she straightened. “For crying out loud, Reg. Who is this guy, anyway– the crown Prince of England?”

“Close,” said a cool voice from the door behind her.

No. Oh, dear God, please; no. Her heart pounding an erratic tattoo against her ribs, Daisy slowly pivoted, hoping against hope that her ears had played a trick on her.

They hadn’t. It was exactly who she’d feared it would be. Nick Coltrane. The last man in the world she wanted to see.

He was as gorgeous as ever, too, damn his blue eyes. That long, beautifully formed body looked as hard and fit as she remembered, even covered by an old pair of jeans and a V-necked sweater that was accessorized by the camera around his neck. Mo used to say that Nick looked like he was born in his tennis whites, and it was true. He had an air of casual sophistication, of belonging, that was as natural to him as breathing.

But then, why shouldn’t he? Sucking in a deep breath, Daisy squared her shoulders. He did belong; he always had. It was she who had been the outsider.

She watched him look around her office and, seeing it through his eyes, she immediately disregarded the inviting butter-cream paint job she and Reggie had given the walls to showcase the bright posters they’d framed and hung up. She didn’t see the glossy six foot Ficus tree, or Reg’s gleaming genuine wood-like desk. Instead she noticed the scuffed linoleum and the two battered wooden chairs with the garage sale table between them against the window wall.

Then she shrugged. So, big deal, it wasn’t upscale. It was nevertheless all hers. Well, hers and the bank’s, anyway.

Nick gave her a through perusal. “How are you, Blondie? You’re looking good.”

Don’t” –she took an incensed step forward before she caught herself– “call me Blondie,” she finished with a mildness that burned her gullet. The nickname was a hot button, and he damn well knew it, which was undoubtedly the reason he’d pushed it. She’d been sixteen years old to his twenty-two when he’d first started calling her that, and fish that she was, she never quit rising to the bait. Feeling heat radiating in her cheeks, she drew in another deep breath and held it a moment before easing it out again, perilously close to losing her composure.

Baby, Don't Go

She would eat worms before she gave him that satisfaction. And certainly before she’d allow him to see that when he looked at her with those cool, casually amused eyes, she felt the screaming ache of rejection all over again.

Thrusting up her chin, she gazed at him without speaking. He lounged against the door, ankles crossed and hands in his jeans’ pockets, and looked back at her.

“I take it you two know each other,” Reggie said when the silence had stretched thin.

“My father was married to her mother for a while,” Nick said.

Daisy froze. That was what he saw as their strongest connection? It shouldn’t hurt– not after all the other ways he’d managed to hurt her. Yet it did, and she badly wanted to get in his face and hurt him back, but damned if she’d let him see he still had the power to get to her.

Reg came to attention behind her, giving her a distraction to focus on. “Yeah?” he demanded. “Which marriage was that?”

“Her third,” she said.

“It was my dad’s fifth,” Nick offered.

Reggie, bless him, ignored Nick. “That woulda been the rich guy then, right? The one who landed your mom on the front page of all the tabloids?”

Daisy narrowed her eyes at Nick, daring him to say one word. If he knew what was good for him, he’d keep his mouth shut, because it was his father’s fault her mother had been hounded by those journalistic rags in the first place.

Baby, Don't Go

Nick merely gave her a level-eyed gaze, and determined to behave like an adult, she met it with a levelness of her own. “So, what’s it been, Coltrane, six, seven years since we last saw each other?” As if she didn’t know to the minute.

“Nine.”

“That long? My. Time really flies when you’re not being annoyed. What brings you slumming in my neck of the woods?”

“Uh, he’s our two o’clock, Daise.”

Slowly, she turned to look at her secretary. “He’s what?”

Reggie held his palms up in surrender. “When I made the appointment I had no idea he was your step–“

“I am not her brother,” Nick cut in peremptorily, his voice flat.

Daisy turned her attention back to him. “No,” she said, “you certainly never wanted that role, did you?”

He met her angry gaze head on. “No. I didn’t. And if you haven’t figured out why by now, you’re not half as bright as I always thought you were.”

She felt her face flame again, in remembrance and in shame. “You want to hire me?” she demanded incredulously.

Baby, Don't Go

“I don’t want to be within five miles of you.”

She was proud of her reasonable tone when she suggested, “Then go home. I don’t have time for your rich boy games; I’ve got a business to run.”

Nick looked around. “Yeah, I can see you’ve got clients stacked up like cord wood, all right. How do you ever get anything done?”

Please, God, let me hit him just once. Just one little pop and I’ll never ask anything of You again. “Goodbye, Nick.” Her pleated skirt flared out around her thighs as she twirled on her heel and stalked to her office.

“Daisy, wait.”

Reluctantly, she turned back to face him, aware of Reggie’s acute interest. Great. He’d be all over her the minute Nick left, and this fiasco would never be allowed to die a natural death. Face stony, she looked at Nick.

“I apologize,” he said. “That was uncalled for. I do want to talk to you about hiring your services.”

Damn. The gesture she made toward her door was jerky with nerves, and she blew out a frustrated breath. “Come into my office. Reg, hold my calls.” The phone hadn’t exactly been ringing off the hook lately, but Nick didn’t have to know that.

The walls seemed to close in on her the moment he stepped through the doorway. She’d forgotten how tall he was until she found herself at eye level with his collarbone as he moved past her. His camera brushed her breast, and her gaze flashed up to lock with his. Jerking it away, she waved at the visitor’s chair facing her desk. “Have a seat.”

She scooted around the desk and flopped into her own chair, angry that she was still so aware of him after all these years. Crossing her arms beneath her breasts she gave him an impassive look across the desk. Without Reggie as an audience, she didn’t feel compelled to mind her manners. “What the hell are you doing here, Coltrane?”

Baby, Don't Go

Excellent question. It was one Nick had been asking himself since the moment he’d walked through the door and seen Daisy leaning over her secretary’s desk. He could have gone to any number of security firms, and if he was smart, he wouldn’t be within miles of big-eyed Daisy Parker and her wise-ass attitude. There was just something about her that never failed to access feelings he was better off not feeling.

But when he’d started calling around, her name had kept popping up as one of the best in the business. At the same time, he’d heard from more than one source that her fledgling company was barely staying afloat. So why not kill two birds with one stone and throw his business her way? It would help her, and he’d get the protection he needed at a price he could afford.

What the hell, that night at the Mark Hopkins was years ago– they were both adult enough to put it behind them.

“I find myself in need of your services.” he said coolly.

“What’s the matter, Coltrane– fast living finally catch up with you?”

He’d debated all the way here how much to tell her. Up until this moment, he’d actually considered the whole truth, but it didn’t take a genius to see that wouldn’t fly. It’d hit too many of Daisy’s hot buttons.

The mess gathering momentum around him had all started because he hadn’t given his usual one hundred and fifty percent on Saturday. He had a reputation for his one-of-a-kind, can’t-find-them-anywhere-else photos. People said they spoke intimately to the moment, and the truth was, he wasn’t particularly modest when it came to his ability with a camera– he had a sixth sense or an inner eye or something that simply knew when the shot was there. And since he was exceptionally good at capturing the essence of his subjects and pretty much wedded to his Nikon, people tended to forget it wasn’t actually an extension of his hands.

The result was that he sometimes caught moments on film that had the potential to damage or outright destroy a reputation. The tabloids routinely offered him a small fortune for any embarrassing photos he might care to pass along, but he always destroyed the negatives. Having grown up a part of the society that kept him employed, he knew very well that a significant part of his success was due to his discretion.

But Saturday afternoon he’d been worried about the phone call he’d had from his sister just before he’d left to drive up to the Pembroke estate in the wine country, and he hadn’t given the big society wedding his trademark single-minded concentration.

Who would’ve thought, though, that practical, level-headed Maureen would do something so criminally un-Mo-like as to juggle funds between the escrow accounts in her real estate business? He didn’t doubt for a moment that she’d done it for a good cause, given her propensity for smoothing over everyone’s problems, but it was still idiotic. It was also guaranteed to land her in serious trouble, since the commission she’d counted on to pay back the account had vanished when her sale of a Nob Hill apartment building fell through.

Baby, Don't Go

Wracking his brain for a way to help her, he’d photographed Bitsy Pembroke’s wedding on auto pilot. Which no doubt accounted for why he’d missed what was going on in the background.

When he’d left the Pembroke estate, he’d gone straight down to Monterey. His concentration had been better on that shoot, but he’d still been chewing over Mo’s dilemma when he’d climbed out of his car last night in the carriage house garage he lived above and found two muscle-bound bruisers tearing up his darkroom. They’d pounced on him, demanding his film.

They’d hadn’t specified from which shoot, and he hadn’t volunteered that all his film from the past two days was in his duffel bag, which had still been in his car behind the driver’s seat. Instead, upon seeing all the contact sheets from other shoots that they’d ruined, he’d told them to eat him– a suggestion to which they’d taken exception.

His Nikon had been around his neck as usual, and they’d offered him one last chance to do things the easy way and it over. He’d declined, and before the wail of cop sirens had broken up the party, they’d dislocated his shoulder trying to get it.

He’d told the cop who had shown up everything he’d known, but unfortunately that was damn little. It wasn’t until he’d gotten back from the ER that he’d been able to develop the film the goons had been so hot to get their mitts on. And at first he hadn’t seen a thing worth being roughed up over. He’d blown up frame after frame before he’d spotted what the goons had tried to prevent him from discovering.

And he was stunned.

Bitsy had insisted at the last minute that he shoot her and her groom in the gazebo. In the background was a beautifully restored gatekeeper’s cottage. And inside the cottage, were a man and a woman having sex. The light and the angle were such that they could be seen through a window, if one knew enough to search it out.

The surprise wasn’t that a couple was screwing their brains out. People sometimes knocked back more champagne at these functions than was wise and ended up celebrating in ways they’d never intended and had years and years to regret. God knew he was a walking testament to that.

The shocker was the man’s identity.

J. Fitzgerald Douglass was an icon, the grand old man of San Francisco society. At the age of sixty, he was the stuff of legends. He’d inherited a declining family business and turned it into a multi-million dollar enterprise. He had then turned to philanthropy, using much of his newly realized profits to endow libraries and churches.

Baby, Don't Go

His moral rectitude was the stuff of legends, and the media had been all abuzz recently about his probable appointment as an American ambassador to a small but strategic Middle Eastern country. Everyone considered him a shoe-in– it only needed the stamp of approval from a very conservative congress at this point. And since no one was more conservative than Douglass, that appeared to be a mere formality.

So what the hell was this living monument to morality doing in two of Nick’s frames with his very married hands all over a woman young enough to be his granddaughter?

Considering Douglass’s goons had left Nick with a messed up arm, a trashed darkroom, and an unhappy insurance agent, his attitude toward the older man was seriously unsympathetic. But he now knew how he was going to raise the money for Mo. He was breaking his own iron-clad rule and selling the damn pictures to the tabloids.

He didn’t think he’d share his solution with Daisy, however. Although the screaming pain of his dislocated shoulder had dissipated as soon as the ER crew had put it back in place, he’d been left with deep tissue bruising from shoulder to elbow. The arm was usable but weak, and would be of no use at all if Douglass’ men came back. Which he knew they’d continue to do until they finally got their hands on the film they sought. He needed a bodyguard. Blondie needed the work. So what was the sense in telling her that his plans included the one thing she’d never tolerate?

Fingers snapped in his face. “Are you zoning on me?”

He snagged her hand and moved it away from his nose. “No. I’m thinking.” Shaking off the sudden, unbidden awareness that touching her brought on, he released her.

“Then perhaps you can tell me why you want to hire my services.” Rubbing her hand against her kilt, she scrutinized him speculatively. “Why wouldn’t a ritzy guy like Nicholas Sloan Coltrane call one of the uptown outfits?”

“Who says I didn’t? But uptown firms demand uptown retainers, Blondie.” Which was true, even if he hadn’t really considered one of the uptown firms. He needed every dime he could scrape together if he ever hoped to bail Mo out of trouble.

“What does that make me then, the Kmart of security specialists?” She surged to her feet and pointed a slender finger at the door. “Get out of here, Nick. I knew this was a mistake the minute I saw your lying face.”

He looked at her standing there, all long, lanky arms and legs, big flashing eyes, and hot-cheeked indignation, and said, “I’m telling the truth, Daisy. You’re what I can afford, all right?”

Baby, Don't Go

She blew out a disgruntled breath, but nevertheless resumed her seat. Looking pointedly at the Rolex on his wrist and his cashmere sweater, she said, “You honestly expect me to believe you’re on a budget?”

“Hell, yes, I’m on a budget! The family fortune is long gone and I live on what I earn. Dad had six wives. They didn’t come cheap, doll face, especially when it came time to say goodbye.” He wasn’t about to share that his father had been a spendthrift in far worse ways than that. It was none of her damn business.

“Oh, please. Your father didn’t fork over a dime when he kicked Mom and me out of that great white hotel you Coltranes called home. I bet he made a bundle when he manufactured that horseshit about my mother and sold it to the tabloids.” She gave him a look of disgust. “She and I, on the other hand, had the clothes on our backs when we returned to the ‘burbs. And we were damn lucky to have that much.”

“You want me to admit my dad screwed over your mom? I freely admit it. But he did that, Daisy, not me.”

“It’s sure as hell an inherited trait with you Coltrane men, though, isn’t it?”

Too fast and overpowering to defend against, visions of the night of Mo’s wedding exploded across Nick’s mind. Daisy, hot and responsive, moving beneath him, tendrils of her blonde hair stuck to her damp face, chocolate brown eyes heavy-lidded and out of focus, sassy mouth for once in her life following his lead without a single argument. Ruthlessly stomping the memories down, he forced himself to meet her gaze calmly. “Yes, I suppose I behaved badly, too.”

“But, hey, boys will be boys, right? You were just a chip off the old block.”

It was a direct hit, considering he’d spent his entire life trying to be the exact opposite of his father. “It was a long time ago,” he said stiffly.

“Yes, it was,” she agreed. “How many years did you say it was again? Seven?”

Nine.” And he’d never forgotten it, no matter how hard he’d tried. The fact that she didn’t seem equally burdened by unwelcome memories bugged the hell out of him. Rash words sang a siren song in the back of his throat, but he swallowed them unsaid.

Baby, Don't Go

With deliberate aloofness, he said, “The fact remains that my budget is extremely limited, and that’s why I’m here.”

“And just what makes you think you can afford me?” One of her eyebrows rose superciliously, disappearing into the shaggy tendrils that flopped over her forehead, and he got sidetracked by her haircut. Short petals of white-blonde hair exploded from her head like the flower for which she’d been named. . . or a dandelion gone to seed. Uneven wisps clung to her cheeks and her nape. Had she actually paid someone to do that to her?

Shaking off the thought, he stated flatly, “Your secretary said a four thousand dollar retainer would get you started.” He saw her swallow hard and pressed his advantage. “So are you interested or not?”

He had to hand it to her, she recovered quickly. Picking up a pen, she held it poised above the legal pad on her desk and met his gaze squarely. “That depends,” she said briskly. “Why do you need my help?”

Because he’d set a bidding war in motion between the journalistic bottom-feeders otherwise known as the tabloids. For the first time in his life he planned to sell a compromising picture for publication.

His decision would undoubtedly come back to haunt him by destroying his credibility with the very society that kept him employed. Had J. Fitzgerald simply trusted in his reputation and left him the hell alone, it never would have occurred to Nick to cash in on the man’s indiscretion.

But Douglass hadn’t left him alone, and when Nick weighed the interests of a hypocrite with political aspirations against those of his sister, there was simply no contest.

Of course if he told the truth to Daisy, she’d probably toss him out on his ass. She hated the tabloids. It was hard to fault her for it when they had publically branded her mother a slut, but that was a long time ago, and he had a bad feeling he needed someone to watch his back until Friday night when the highest bidder would be determined in this dangerous game he played.

He summoned his most charming smile and lied without compunction. “I took some . . .compromising. . . pictures of a lady. Her almost-ex-husband is a bit irate.”

It never occurred to Daisy to doubt his story. Nick had charisma to burn and probably went out with a different debutante every night of the week. That he had sunk so low as to mess with a married woman made her long to denounce him as a pig and toss him out on his ear, but the thought of a four thousand dollar retainer stopped her. “How irate?”

Baby, Don't Go

“A couple of his goons dislocated my arm and trashed my darkroom.”

She looked up to study him. He looked hale enough to her. “Which arm?”

“The left.”

“What’s its condition now?”

“It’s weak, but no permanent damage was done. I’m on anti-inflammatories for a week or so.”

She stood up and came around the desk. “Let me take a look at it.”

He stared at her for a moment, then struggled out of the left side of his sweater. She could tell by his awkwardness that the arm was still tender.

She saw why the moment it emerged from his sleeve. The arm was bruised dark purple from his elbow to where the short sleeve of a white T-shirt stretched over his hard biceps. She sank to her heels at his side, and gently pushed the sleeve up as far as she could. She studied the discoloration, probed it gently with her fingertips, then glanced up at his face. “Looks painful.”

“It’s not so bad. I just don’t have a lot of strength in it, but the doc said it would get stronger every day.”

“Hmmph.” She eased the sleeve back into place, then pinned him in place with a stern look. “This is what you get for messing around with a married woman.”

Baby, Don't Go

A sharp crack of laughter escaped Nick’s throat. “Beautiful. Is that the kind of sensitivity training they’re teaching bodyguards these days?”

“Security specialist!”

He shrugged, then winced. “Whatever. Don’t they teach you folks that the customer is always right? Whatever happened to TLC?”

She glared at him. “If I take this job, Coltrane –and that’s a pretty big if– tender loving care will not be part of the package. Deal with it or go home.” She picked up a pencil and tapped it irritably against the desktop. “Did the goons use a weapon?”

“They used their great hurkin’ fists, sweetheart. I assume they also wore guns, but the cops arrived before they got around to using them.”

“Who called the police?”

“My neighbor. She saw them break in before I got home. I walked in to catch ’em in the act.”

“Why don’t you simply give the guy his wife’s photos, Nick? It was tacky to take them in the first place. It seems kinda low to hang onto them.”

Something crossed his expression, but she was unable to pin it down before he said, “I don’t have them to give– I gave the negatives to her. What she does with them is her business.”

“Then what’s the problem? Tell him that and get him off your back.”

Baby, Don't Go

“The problem, Blondie, is that I refuse to sic him on her. I don’t know what this guy will do. I mean, do you really find it rational to send a couple of hired guns after me just for taking a few nudie shots of his estranged wife?” He laughed then and held up a big hand to forestall her answer. “Never mind, don’t answer that– you probably do. But I don’t. They’ve been separated for a long time, and until she tells him herself, I’m gonna have a couple of muscle-bound, pistol-packing morons tracking my every move and doing their best to beat the information out of me in order to locate the negatives.”

She pulled over a legal pad. “I’ll need Hubby’s name.”

Nick stilled. “I don’t want you getting him all riled up.”

“I don’t have the authority to question him, Nick.” She kept her voice noncomittal. “But neither can I keep you safe from the world at large. So give me a starting place.”

He hesitated, then said, “John Johnson.”

“John Johnson.” Hard-to-verify aliases tended to make her suspicious. “Not Smith? That ought to narrow it down considerably.”

“Okay, that’s it– I tried.” He pushed his chair back and stood. “If you’re going to doubt every word that comes out of my mouth this isn’t going to work.”

It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that she was doing exactly that, so she focused on the other thing he’d said. “What do you mean you tried?”

He ignored the question, looking at her though narrowed eyes. “Coming here was a dumb idea that’s clearly destined to fail. Sorry I wasted your time.” He headed for the door.

Daisy wanted to let him walk away. Desperately, she wanted that. But four thousand dollars. . . Her firm was only six months old and she was operating on a shoe string. She had rent to pay, both here and on her apartment, plus Reggie’s salary. And she had this sneaking fondness for eating on a semi-regular basis. So she stood and said to the tense set of his shoulders, “Nick, wait.”

Baby, Don't Go

He halted and turned to face her, his blue eyes free of expression.

“Please. Have a seat. I apologize.” She pulled a contract from her desk drawer and slapped it on the desktop. Punching down the intercom button, she said, “Reggie, would you come in here, please?” Then, as Nick resumed his seat, she looked across the desk at him.

And, hoping she wasn’t making the biggest mistake of her life, she separated the fee schedule from the contract, pushed it across the desk to him, and said, “Let me explain how your retainer will be allocated.”

 

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Baby, Don’t Go is available in the following formats:

Baby, Don't Go

Avon Books

May 30, 2000