Susan Mallery

The Sassy One

The second book in the Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road series, 2003

To Amy Pierpont, my editor, for ever so gently asking,

“What would happen if he didn’t know about the kid?”

and to Irene Goodman, my agent,

who loved the trilogy idea from the very beginning.


Francesca Marcelli had only been pregnant for twenty minutes and already her back hurt.

“Talk about realistic,” she muttered, adjusting the straps that held her fake eight-months-pregnant belly in place. The size was daunting enough-she couldn’t see her feet or find a comfortable sitting position-but the weight was the real killer. Someone with a twisted sense of humor had decided to simulate what felt like the pressure of a baby elephant. The small of her back screamed out in protest, while unexpected pressure on her bladder made her want to duck into the nearest ladies’ room.

“All for a good cause,” she reminded herself.

Francesca shifted to ease the throbbing in her back and leaned against the heavy cart she’d maneuvered into the service elevator of the six-story bank building. When the doors opened, she shoved her overloaded cart into the main hallway. Stacks of boxes wobbled precariously and threatened to tumble onto the carpeted floor.

It was just after five on a Friday afternoon. All around her dozens of businesspeople headed for the main elevators to start their weekend. Francesca pushed up her glasses and paused to smooth down the front of the ugliest maternity dress she’d been able to find. The oversize collar dwarfed her shoulders and made her head look too small. The pinks and roses of the busy floral print sucked all the color from her pale olive skin. She’d brushed powder into her hair to lighten it to a mousy brown. The little makeup she’d put on had been applied to make her look tired, drawn, and unattractive.

She glanced at her watch, then squared her shoulders as she prepared to begin work.

“Show time,” she said softly, not that anyone was listening.

Three men from the insurance office at the end of the hall walked past her without even giving her a nod. Francesca continued to push her pile of packages slowly against the flow of foot traffic. Two women in suits gave her a quick, sympathetic smile. A man and a woman, both carrying expensive-looking briefcases, followed. The woman looked, the man didn’t.

Another corridor branched to the left. Francesca shifted her cart to make the turn. Several boxes went tumbling. A single man walked by without breaking his stride. A college-age girl stopped long enough to help Francesca pick up the boxes, then hurried toward the elevator with a call to “Wait for me!”

Five minutes later Francesca reached her destination-an office she’d scouted out the previous week, chosen because the company had recently shut down. There she was, pregnant, lost, overloaded with more than a dozen boxes to be delivered, and no one to accept them. Had she been any sort of an actress, she might have been able to force out a tear or two.

The rules stipulated she was not allowed to directly ask for help. It had to be offered. She would wait for the required thirty minutes, mentally tallying who ignored her, who smiled, and who, if anyone, stopped to actually offer assistance.

This was a high-powered crowd with expensive tastes and busy lives. She didn’t hold out much hope for rescue. In her experience-

“You look lost.”

Francesca whirled around to see a tall man standing beside her cart. A tall, good-looking man in a dark blue power suit.

“Hi,” she said before preparing to launch into her canned speech about needing to deliver packages to a nonexistent firm. Except she couldn’t remember anything she was supposed to say.

The man waited patiently. He had dark blond hair and sort of tawny-colored eyes. There was an intensity to his expression that reminded her of predators watching prey. A shiver rippled through her as she thought of gazelles being brought down for the kill. Unfortunately in her current condition she was more water buffalo than gazelle.

He looked confident, important, and powerful. Not the sort of person who should be stopping to help an unattractive pregnant woman in trouble. Men like him sent assistants to take care of life’s unpleasant details.

“Do you speak English?” he asked, enunciating each word clearly.

“What? Oh. Of course.” She sucked in a breath, not sure what could be wrong with her. She would blame her sudden mental hiccup on food poisoning, only she hadn’t eaten anything that day. “I’m, ah-” Francesca cleared her throat. Brain function returned and she launched into her spiel.

“Hi. I’m Francesca. I’m supposed to be delivering these packages here-” She motioned to the closed and locked office door. “But there seems to be a problem.”

The man glanced first at the boxes, all carefully addressed to the defunct company, then to the door where a hand-lettered sign said that Malcolm and White Data Tech was no more.

“Bringing these here was the last thing my boss told me to do before he left town,” she went on. “If I don’t get them delivered, he’s going to kill me.”

In an effort to look terrified, Francesca thought about how little she had in her checking account and how that pesky electric bill was going to come due soon. Eventually she would reap the rewards of her postgraduate education, but until she could actually slap the letters Ph.D. after her name, she seemed destined to a life of poverty.

“You’ll have to risk his fury,” the man said calmly. “These boxes aren’t going anywhere today. That company closed the door about ten days ago. From what I’ve heard, the main players skipped town with the last few dollars left, leaving several employees with lots of angry customers and no paychecks. What’s your name again?”

“Francesca Marcelli.”

He smiled at her. A genuine, happy-to-meet-you smile that made the corners of his eyes crinkle and caused her palms to suddenly start to sweat. This was the most fun she’d had in days.

Her rescuer introduced himself as Sam Reese.

“Let’s get you out of this hallway, and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do next.”

We? They were a we?

Sam took charge of the cart, wheeling it down the hallway with an ease that made her envious. Of course, he didn’t have to worry about a pregnant belly getting in the way of his actions. She trailed after him, wondering what the next step would be. How far was Sam willing to take things? In situations like this-a nonemergency-people generally stopped at the point of inconvenience.

“Just through there,” he said, pointing to a set of double glass doors.

Before Francesca could read the name of the company, one of the doors opened and a huge man stepped into the hallway. She involuntarily came to a stop to stare.

The man had to be at least six feet seven. He was built like a mountain with a massive neck and shoulders broad enough to support a couple of trailer homes. Dark-skinned, with penetrating eyes and a firm, unsmiling

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