Excerpt from UNFINISHED BUSINESS

"I’ll be fine. I can do this," Melissa Sanders said. She sat next to Jeanie on the Green Room couch of Wake Up, America, patting the publicist’s tightly clasped hands. "I really like the idea of picking couples from the audience and giving them the Naughty Sex Quiz. That should be fun," she enthused, although in truth she felt a bit leery about the idea.

"Are you ready for some tough questions?" Jeanie asked. "In the last segment, Bobbi will take questions from the audience, but even she doesn’t know what they’re going to be. The show’s producers don’t want to lose the element of surprise."

"I don’t think I could be surprised," Melissa said dryly. "I’ve memorized the damn book."

"Where’s your hubby, Ms. Sanders? How are you going to answer that one?"

"He’s in London on business travel. I’m hoping he can join me soon." Melissa smiled and flashed the band on her finger at Jeanie. "See, I’m ready for anything. I’m even wearing a wedding ring."

"Hey, good thinking," Jeanie said. "That didn’t occur to me."

Melissa felt an uneasy twinge as the gold ring glinted in the lights, but decided not to share its history with Jeanie. Maybe that’s why it was still on her finger—to help her pull off this crazy tour.

"You thought of everything else," she told Jeanie. "It’s going to be fine."

Of course, Melissa was certain she would be stricken with hysterical blindness during the broadcast and not be able to see the host or the cameras or anything. But other than that, it was a classic case of role reversal. Jeanie seemed more nervous than Melissa. There was more at stake than Melissa wanted to think about, so she was concentrating on being grateful that the booking hadn’t been cancelled. Antonio still hadn’t been located, but the marketing department had made an executive decision to go ahead without him. Wake Up America was too good a gig to pass up, and Melissa had finally convinced them she would be able make excuses for her missing husband.

Please, God, let him stay missing. It was much safer that way.

The green room door popped open, and the show’s guest-wrangler—the harried young woman who’d been squiring them around all morning—beckoned for Melissa. "C’mon! You’re up next!"

Melissa squeezed Jeanie’s hand. "I can do this," she whispered. "I won’t let you down."

Jeanie squeezed back, and some color returned to her ashen face. She began to straighten Melissa’s clothing, dusting the shoulders of her navy pinstripe pantsuit and straightening the starched collar of her man-tailored blouse. She even gave Melissa’s shiny brunette pageboy a smoothing. It was probably a reflex action, but Melissa was encouraged that Jeanie was acting more like herself. Jeanie was about thirty-five and the perfect publicist, part brilliant sales strategist and part mother hen. There hadn’t been much strategizing going on this morning, but at least she was starting to make familiar clucking noises.

The guest-wrangler grabbed Melissa’s hand, dragged her out of Jeanie’s clutches, and quickly led her through the wings. Melissa heard a countdown, and then she was gently pushed onto a television set to tumultuous applause. The lights were surreal, like the spaceship landing in Close Encounters, but she could see a woman who looked like Bobbi Start rising from a couch and waving at her. She’d never seen the host through anything but her television screen. Now she looked as if she were a mile away.

Was that a symptom of hysterical blindness?

Melissa wouldn’t have placed a bet on her chances of getting over there, but somehow she made the trip in seconds, and miraculously, there were no disasters. She didn’t trip or fall. Her fly didn’t unzip itself and her jacket didn’t catch on anything and rip off her body like stunt clothing.

Did they have obedience schools for imaginations? She should have sent hers years ago. Down, imagination, down.

"Here’s our sex expert!" Bobbi rushed over and hugged Melissa as she stepped up on the pedestal set. Bobbi’s exuberance nearly knocked them both over, which the audience loved. They clapped and cheered, making Melissa feel as if she were in friendly company. She wasn’t surprised the show was a hit. Bobbi projected that same sort of welcome to everyone. Tiny and boundlessly perky, the former Olympic gymnast was morning television’s bright new face. She’d brought Wake Up to the number two spot in the ratings, and it was swiftly gaining on number one.

Who needs coffee with Bobbi Start in the morning? That was the show’s teaser.

"Melissa, Melissa, Melissa," Bobbi gushed as they sat down. "You naughty girl! This book of yours is quite an eye-opener. Or should I say mind-opener?"

Bobbi held up 101 Ways, and Melissa blushed, mostly with pleasure. She’d been coached by Jeanie to think of herself as excited rather than nervous, which must mean she was really excited. Her insides were vibrating like one of those coin-operated motel beds.

"Please, yes, call it a mind-opener," Melissa said. "My goal with the book is to help women think out of the box, so to speak, when it comes to their love lives. I believe we should be as creative in our quest for sexual enjoyment as we are in our quest for bargains at the mall. Think how happy everyone would be—and how skinny. You know sex burns nearly seven-hundred calories an hour. That’s better than the treadmill."

Bobbi chortled. "But who could have sex for an hour?"

She doesn’t know Antonio, Melissa thought.

One of the cameras had a blinking red light, which Melissa had been told meant it was on. She glanced at it and smiled, hoping to send Jeanie a signal. See, I’m doing fine out here. Piece of cake.

"Why don’t we have some fun with the folks in our audience?" Bobbi suggested. "Let’s give a lucky couple the ‘Naughty Sex Quiz’ and see how they do. Do we have any volunteers?"

Hands shot up all over the studio, but one of the show’s pages was already out in the audience with a couple who’d volunteered before the taping. The page introduced the couple as in their thirties, married ten years and stuck in the sexual doldrums.

Melissa scanned the crowd nervously. Okay, so she’d invented the quiz for her book, but it hadn’t occurred to her that she’d be conducting man-on-the-street type interviews. She greeted the couple with a smile, pretending it wasn’t at all unusual to be casually probing into the intimate details of their lives.

"Do you indulge in sexual afterplay as well as sexual foreplay?" she asked them. "In other words, do you talk about your lovemaking afterward and tell each other what you liked?"

The man blushed, but the woman spoke right up. "What I’d like is to have sex," she said.

The audience tittered, and Melissa found herself smiling, too. "Not to worry," she said. "It sounds like a case of sexual batteries going dead. What you need is a jump start." She rubbed her hands as if warming them. "To get the current flowing again, try something I call erotic flash-forwards. They’re fun, highly stimulating, and they’ll help you discover your own secret turn-ons."

"What are erotic flash-forwards?" Bobbi asked.

The husband seemed perplexed, too. "I flashed someone once," he said uncertainly. "There was a census-take at the door, and it was hotter’n hell that day, so I flapped my bathrobe to create a breeze—"

Bobbi jumped in again, apparently to save the audience’s delicate sensibilities. "I’m guessing Melissa is talking about visualizing the kind of sex you’d like to have with your partner. Right, Melissa? Fantasizing?"

"Yes, exactly." She turned to the crowd. "And here’s a homework assignment for all of you. Next time you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in a line, use that time to daydream about what would thrill your soul if you were alone somewhere with your partner. It could be something you saw at the movies or read in a book, but don’t limit it to the obvious. Sure, you could have your partner brush your hair, but maybe you’d rather have him warm your bottom with that hair brush."

"Just when it was getting interesting!" Bobbi clucked with disappointment as the show’s theme music began to play. "We have to take a short break, but stay tuned. Coming up next? How to make him sit up and beg for booty."

As soon as the cameras were off, the set buzzed with activity. A rather morose young man refreshed Melissa’s water glass and Bobbi’s iced tea. Flowers were fluffed and pillows plumped. A sound woman checked the boom mikes, and a group of staffers huddled in discussions off to one side.

Melissa looked to Bobbi for approval and got a thumbs-up as the host leafed through her notes. "The next segment should be even better," she said. "I see we have some great surprises in store. These producers of mine are geniuses."

The guest-wrangler dashed out to powder Melissa’s nose so there was no chance to find out what Bobbi meant, but she wasn’t too concerned. Things seemed to be going pretty well. Even the married couple had been cute without trying to be. When you talked about sex, you had a real advantage, she’d discovered. The subject was a minefield of double entendres. You couldn’t go far without stepping on something. It was dangerous—and exciting.

" . . . three, two, one—"

Melissa barely got a sip of water before they were back on the air. Bobbi held up the book again, and one of the cameras zoomed in for a close-up. The cover appeared on the monitor, and the name Melissa Sanders appeared on the screen. It gave her quite a jolt. That was her book! There’d been a flurry of activity getting ready, and it hadn’t dawned on her until now that she’d be seeing her own book on TV. It almost felt as if they were talking about someone else, and she was here by mistake.

"Let’s talk about Chapter Five, Melissa. Some of these games sound like carnival rides: Joy Ride, Spin Cycle, Express Train to Blissville, Wing Ding Swing and Sexual Paste. Oh, and how about this one—the Velvet Tongue. Care to tell us about any of those?" Bobbi said with a coy wink.

"Well, the Wing Ding Swing involves having your partner push you in the swing, but not with his hands."

"My, My." Bobbi laughed. "Sounds like good coordination is required. How about Sexual Paste, hmm? You must tell us about that one."

Melissa laughed, too. "Sorry, you’ll have to read the book. Sexual Paste is triple X-rated and much too hot for daytime TV."

"Okay, but tell us this at least—which one of these games made your husband beg for more? Was it the Velvet Tongue, maybe?"

Melissa blushed. The interlude that had sparked the name Velvet Tongue was still achingly vivid in her mind, even after two years.

"Actually, Antonio inspired that game," she said softly, "but I’m not sure I should tell you how."

Bobbi rose, glancing toward the wings from which Melissa had emerged. "Well, then," she said in a tone lilting with intrigue, "maybe Antonio will tell us himself."

"What?" Melissa stared at Bobbi, who was now talking directly to the camera.

"Yes, folks, we have a surprise for Melissa. She doesn’t know anything about this, but we’ve brought her husband over from London, where he was traveling on business. We thought everyone would want to meet the man who inspired the Velvet Tongue."

Bobbi flung out an arm. "Welcome, Antonio Bond!"

* * * * *

No one gasped louder than Melissa as a tall, dark and exotically handsome man walked onto the set of the talk show. His glossy black hair was a little longer than current trends dictated, but he’d never seemed the type who cared about trends. It caressed the nape of his neck and fell onto his forehead, making him look ever so slightly disreputable, but in the sexiest possible way.

On the other hand, he could have been a spokesperson for the line of clothes he wore. The casually tailored slacks, black silk shirt and woven leather sandals gave him the look of a man who’d just flown in from the south of France. The shadowed jaw beautifully carved his angular face. This was not the waiter who’d dropped to his knees in front of her and proposed. And yet, it was. This was Antonio. He had that same intense, prepare-to-be-swept-off-your-feet quality.

He walked to Bobbi first and shook her hand, then turned to Melissa, who had not yet managed to stand up. His dark gaze locked in on her, glinting with dangerous lights. Apparently he was in no rush. The set’s blinking red bulbs and ticking time clocks didn’t seem to faze him as he watched her efforts to rise with undisguised interest.

With a tug of his hand, he pulled her to her feet and said for everyone to hear, "Cara, it feels like years since I’ve held you."

The audience sighed as he drew her into his arms. Melissa couldn’t even breathe. Her pulse throbbed so hard it hurt, but this wasn’t pleasure. She didn’t know what it was. Fear, excitement, wild anticipation?

The audience couldn’t hear what he whispered, and Melissa didn’t catch all of it either, but it sounded like, "Don’t expect to walk away from me again. Ever."

She glanced up at him, startled, but all she caught was his fleeting smile. Lord, he was impossibly gorgeous. Still. That mouth of his was every bit as smolderingly gorgeous as the night he’d laid a trail of fiery kisses all over her nude, trembling body. Why was this happening to her? On national television?

"It’s just as beautiful as the night I put it on your finger," he said.

Melissa wasn’t sure what he meant until he brought her fingers to his lips and kissed the woven gold band she wore. Her heart froze like a stone. It was the ring. She was jinxed, cursed. She would never escape him as long as that ring was on her finger. She could feel her imagination spinning away with her, and she made a desperate effort to stop it. Jinxes and curses were pure superstition. It was him, not the ring. He was her problem.

She needed some distance from him, but it felt as if she’d stepped onto a merry-go-round. If not for his arms around her, she would have tumbled off. The set swirled, and so did her thoughts. What had he actually said, and more to the point, what did he want from her? Maybe she was spinning out again, but could this be some kind of blackmail attempt? Was he after money? He’d never struck Melissa as that kind of man, but how well did she know his true character?

Jeannie should have thought of all this before she tracked him down.

Why didn’t she tell me she’d found him?

Antonio sat down next to her, and never in her life had Melissa been forced to gather her wits so quickly. She knew they’d been looking for him, but she hadn’t been prepared for him to show up this way. In all honesty, she hadn’t been prepared for him to show up at all. She hoped he’d been coached and knew what he was supposed to say and not say, but there’d been no sign of that so far.

She had no idea what to say either, especially to him. Have mercy, lord, don’t ravish me and fling me into the volcano? That should bring down the house.

"I can see this really is a surprise for Melissa," Bobbi chirped. "Just look at her. She looks— Are you all right, Melissa?"

"I’m speechless," Melissa managed. "How did you find him?"

No, never mind! Don’t answer that.

Bobbi was already addressing the audience. "Somehow, I have trouble imagining Antonio begging for anything, don’t you?" she asked them. Heads nodded.

"Call me Tony, please," he said. He graced Bobbi with a fleeting smile, then shot a penetrating glance at Melissa. "I think my bride should answer that. Have you ever heard me beg, Melissa?"

Melissa tossed him a bawdy wink. "Well, of course. My whole book is based on research." She was not going to let this man intimidate her on national television. He was supposed to be her well-satisfied husband, according to the book, and if he didn’t know it, she would have to make that point somehow.

He leaned over and whispered in her ear, "Tell the truth, if you dare. And by the way, according to your book, I can arouse you to the point of orgasm this way. Is it working? Maybe you’d better let the audience think it is if you want to sell books."

Melissa whimpered, but not in ecstasy. Every single eye was glued on her. She considered doing her best imitation of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, but the humiliation factor was too great. She couldn’t make those noises when she was having sex. Well, except with him, the rat, and she didn’t intend to give him that satisfaction now. She was already having flashbacks of their wedding night. In Technicolor and Surround Sound.

She could hear the sensual growl in his throat when he’d stolen inside her toga with his hand and found her naked skin for the first time. She could smell the body heat rising off his skin, and feel the rush of her own blood as she realized how addictive his touch could be.

Somehow she had to hit REWIND and turn this video off!

Stalling for time, she reached for her cup of ice water. Her hand was shaking so hard, she could barely hold it steady, which gave her an idea. But could she do something that crazy? No, it was outrageous, much too risky. Yes, she could do it. She had to. It was the only way to put him off-balance and regain any kind of control.

She sucked in some air, flashed Antonio a nervous smile—and emptied the entire mug into his lap. It had to be freezing cold, but he didn’t move a muscle that she could see. He just sat there, breathing through his nostrils, and did nothing while the audience gasped.

Bobbi sprang into action, looking for something to blot up the mess, and the guest-wrangler dashed over with a towel. She held it out to Tony, but Melissa grabbed it.

"It’s okay!" She held up the towel, addressing Bobbi and the audience. "We’re playing a game called Oops! You spill something on the gentlemen’s lap, and then you get to clean him up. It’s very sexy. Right, Tony?"

Tony’s glance had gone darker than a creature of the night’s. Dracula didn’t have eyes that black and endless. In an ominous voice, he said, "I don’t know about Oops, but we have played a few games. The one I like best is the Runaway Bride and the Furious Groom—who takes his revenge when he catches up with her."

Melissa gulped. She had little doubt that he was furious, and that she would pay for this in some unspeakable way. But that wasn’t the only thing that concerned her at the moment. The audience had all been given free copies of 101 Ways. She hoped no one would notice there was no such game in the book.