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Authors: Susan Andersen

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Focusing on the sign next to the kiddie play area, Ava did her best to wrestle her curiosity to a standstill. Unsupervised Kids Will Be Given An Espresso And
A Free Puppy, she read. Usually that tickled her, but now the words simply bounced around in her head like Ping-Pong balls in a box—until finally, unable to help herself, she surrendered to her need to know. “All right, I give. Did it live up to all the hype?”

“Yeah.” Her friend grimaced. “I’m sorry, Av, but it did. I’ve never liked the dramatization-type documentaries because the acting is usually abysmal. But apparently Gallari’s gaining something of a cult rep as a star-maker. Several times now he’s chosen unknown talent that he’s gotten on the cheap from SAGIndie or university drama programs, who’ve then gone on to garner moderate-to-Ohmigawd-worthy success.”

“And you know this how?” Jane demanded. “Jeez, what are you, Gallari’s biggest fan now?”

“Seriously?” the blonde demanded right back. “Could you be any more insulting, Janie? Of course I’m not. Jase was so blown away by the documentary he insisted on watching the extras.”

“Good God,” Ava muttered. “The thing was
that
good?” As she watched Jane reach for Poppy’s hand and say, “Sorry, babe,” she wasn’t sure how she felt about Cade’s achievements. On the one hand, she would hardly cry a river if he tanked in every endeavor he touched.

On the other, his success might well help her and her friends’ finances.

“I’m afraid so.” Elbows on the table, Poppy skimmed back her cloud of curls with both hands. “He really does have an eye for talent. But he only used the reenactments in tiny doses. It was the interviews that really sold it. The whole thing was just so…compellingly presented.”

Then her slender brows drew together. “Still. Why
the hell would he want to shoot one in the Wolcott mansion, which he had to know would be a hard sell, given it belongs to us now? Unless—?” Abruptly, she let go of her hair and snapped her spine erect.

“Ho-ly shitskis, Av. You said he’ll landscape the ground back to the way it was in the eighties?”

“Of course.” Jane, too, sat straighter. “The break-in where Miss Agnes’s guy was killed and the Wolcott diamonds disappeared.”

“That would be the unsolved mystery,” Ava agreed.

In 1985, during a remodel of Miss Agnes’s bed-and-sitting-room, her suite of diamond jewelry had been stolen. Late one night six months later, “her man, Henry,” as she always referred to him, heard a noise and came out of the office where he’d been working to find Mike Maperton, the head carpenter from the remodel, inside the mansion. Henry tripped the alarm, but Maperton killed him before help could arrive. It was assumed the construction worker had been retrieving the jewelry from where he’d hidden it, but if so, it was never recovered.

Jane smiled crookedly. “I always got the impression, whenever Miss A referred to Henry, that he was a lot more to her than just a factotum or man of business or whatever the heck he was supposed to be.”

Poppy shrugged. “We all did. What’s your point?”

“Damned if I know, except that I can see the story playing out in a documentary.” Jane hooked her hair behind her ears. “And I hate to admit it, but it would be nice to have the financial burden taken off our shoulders for a while. But Miss A was one of a kind—so, unless Gallari’s scored Streep to play her, I can’t imagine the actress who could do her justice.”

“I’d like to talk to you about something that’s
related to the Miss A part, but first I should probably tell you—”
okay, this is the tricky part
“—that I, um, agreed to work for him next week, then for an additional six weeks during the actual production, which starts around the first of the year.”

“Are you out of your freaking mind?” Poppy kept her voice low to prevent two nearby little girls eating the frosting off their cupcakes from overhearing, but her tone held a fierce edge.

“Maybe.” Tough to take offense when she’d been asking herself the same thing way too frequently since walking away from Cade last night. “Probably, even. My first impulse when he approached me was the same ole, same ole—to either spit in his eye or gouge them both out.”

Straightening her shoulders, she looked from one friend’s face to the other. “But that’s just a knee-jerk reflex.”

“One that totally works for me,” Jane interjected in a dry tone.

Ava shook her head. “He’s old news, Janie. I am so over him. But you know how dicked up my finances have been the past year.” Her lips tilted wryly. “So when he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse as the production company’s personal concierge—I didn’t.”

Watching her with concern-filled eyes, neither Janie nor Poppy smiled back and Ava sighed. “What? You think I’m too fragile to handle it?”

“No, of course not,” Jane said. “But I don’t trust that bastard as far as I can throw him. We were there the last time he got up close and personal with you and had to watch you struggle to put yourself back together.”

“It was a piece-by-piece process,” Poppy agreed, “that took way too long and too much glue before it held
together. And
then
you had to handle most of it on your own because of him screwing up our after-graduation plans—”

Yeah, getting shipped off to the fat farm didn’t help hasten the process,
she thought wryly. Which, okay, was more her mother’s fault than Cade’s. But screw that—the truth was, if she hadn’t been so flattened by his betrayal, something her mother hadn’t even seemed to notice, she would have dug in until she’d won that battle. So, for all intents and purposes, it was his fault.

She tuned back in to hear Poppy continue, “So I suppose that I, at least, am a little afraid for you. You worked like a demon to build yourself back up, and I just don’t want to see all your hard work go down the drain because of Buttface Gallari.”

“Neither do I. And I won’t let it. I will never forgive him, Poppy—
ever
. But I’m through running away from him. Because you’re right, I did work too hard building myself back up to keep doing that. I’m not surprised you might have reservations about my ability to handle myself—”

“I don’t! You’ll go down in the I-am-woman-hear-me-roar annals for your counterattack on Gallari during the worst moment of your life. You more than proved you can handle yourself.”

“Since then, though, I’ve been more reactive than proactive whenever I’ve run into him. So maybe
I
feel I have something to prove—to myself, if no one else. It doesn’t help that I looked in the mirror this morning and had a ‘fat’ moment.”

“Dammit, Av,” Jane said. “When are you going to let those go? You’ve been a size twelve for twelve years.”

“Which
you
like to remind me would be a size fourteen if I’d buy my clothing at the less spendy stores
where most women shop.” She knew her friend was only teasing when she said that, but she couldn’t honestly deny Jane was right.

“Please.” The brunette made a rude noise. “You know I only say that because I’m jealous you have big boobs.
I
wanna have big girl boobs some day.” She gestured at Ava’s emerald-green cashmere sweater and the black pencil skirt she’d tucked it into. “Look at you!”

She glanced down at herself. “I know. Does this make me look rotund?”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Spencer, snap out of it!” Poppy gave her a get-over-yourself glare. “As Janie said, you’ve maintained your killer bod for pretty much your entire adult life. And you
know
men trip all over themselves when you walk by. It’s not because you’re fat, girlfriend.”

“Okay. Sorry.” She shook out her hands and picked up her coffee cup—then merely held it for a moment as she gave her friends a rueful smile. “I backslid for a minute there. Jeez. I’ve been down Insecurity Road so many times it likely has a butt-shaped rut etched in it. But I’m good now.”

“It’s that damn Gallari, showing up out of the blue and shaking you up.”

She shrugged. Seeing him again had contributed for sure, but it was really the telephone conversation she’d had with her mother earlier in which Jacqueline had made her usual crack about Ava’s weight. Why was her mom always so sure that she could do better, diet herself thinner? Never mind that she was a busty, hippy, big-boned girl who could starve herself into an early grave and still not die a sylphlike woman.

Well,
she
mostly knew her worth. She also knew
she’d earned it for more than shedding thirty-nine pounds.

She knocked back a sip of coffee, set her cup on the table and, hands flat on either side of the mug, leaned into them in her intense need to make her friends understand why she’d agreed to do the last thing they’d expect from her. “Look, I’m not exactly raring to play personal concierge to Cade myself. But it’s work I can do with my eyes closed and he’ll pay me a weekly bundle for it, plus a huge bonus if the documentary comes in on time and on budget.”

“Even if he’s on the up-and-up, how on earth are you gonna deal with seeing him day in and day out?”

“By being the biggest professional you’ve ever seen. By reminding myself that if all goes well, I can finally pay off that frickin’ balloon payment that’s been hanging over my head.”

Remembering a discussion with Cade last night that she had almost enjoyed, she flashed her dimples at her friends. “One of the things I’m genuinely excited about is an agreement I made to talk with Cade and his scriptwriter about Miss A to get her part as authentic as possible. So tell me what you guys would like to see included about her.”

After an enthusiastic conversation about their mentor, Ava looked at her watch and pushed back from the table. “I know this is a bombshell and I’m sorry to drop it on your heads and run, but I’m meeting Cade again this evening at my lawyer’s to go over the fine points in my contract and discuss my job description in more detail. Until that’s taken care of, I don’t plan to sign anything.” Rising to her feet, she looked down at her two friends. “We good?”

“Of course we are.” Poppy stood as well and gave
Ava a hard hug. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt again.”

“Not gonna happen,” she promised.

“Don’t forget dinner at Dev’s and my place next week,” Jane added as she, too, rose to give her a hug. “And you step carefully around that man, you hear?”

“I will,” she said, pulling on her plum-colored Steve Madden wool peacoat, flipping up the collar and picking up the plum, blue and green scarf Poppy’s mother had made her to wind around her neck. “Love you guys.”

She headed for the door, but paused to shoot her friends a cocky smile over her shoulder. “And don’t worry! I’m gonna kick some serious booty on this job.”

CHAPTER TWO

I didn’t think I’d ever get used to being in the mansion as an owner after Miss A died. So how weird is it that it feels so strange to suddenly be here as an outsider?

Nine weeks later

“S
HE HERE YET
?”

Beks Donaldson, Cade’s production assistant, was slow to pull her attention away from the chart she was putting together at the kitchen table in the Wolcott mansion. By the time she craned around to look at him over her shoulder, he was seconds from tapping the face of his watch with his forefinger—that detested, time-is-money gesture his old man always used to use on him. Fuck. He’d sworn he would never do that to anyone else, so what the hell?

Annoyed by his slipping control, he found it didn’t help his mood that while Beks didn’t roll her gray-blue eyes, she somehow managed to convey the impression of doing so.

But all she said before turning back to her chart was a mild, “No.” He noticed she also refrained from reminding him that he’d interrupted her work less than ten minutes ago to ask the same damn question.

“She’s late,” he growled at the feathered tips of Beks’s Harley-Davidson shield n’ wings tattoo showing on either side of her nape above the neckline of her sweater.

“Uh-huh.”

Okay, he was being an idiot. But damn Ava Spencer anyway for keeping him waiting. He considered giving Beks a you-don’t-even-wanna-mess-with-me look, but she didn’t bother to turn around again. He had to settle for a stern, “Let me know when she arrives.”

“You got it, boss.”

He went back to the parlor where he’d been working on his own prep work—only to discover that he couldn’t concentrate for shit.

Dammit, he
never
lost the ability to focus when it came to work. He’d bled too many buckets, poured too much of his heart and soul into carving out a place for himself in this industry, to allow himself the luxury.

Not that he didn’t understand what the problem was, of course; he knew exactly where he’d gone south. He was always proactive, accustomed to working through every eventuality ahead of time to avoid spanners being thrown in his works during the actual production. Generally, by the time he was ready to dig in and really rock and roll, he’d worked out ninety-nine percent of the kinks, thereby sidestepping a lot of blunders. But he’d made a serious one with Ava that night back in November.

Yes, he’d owed her an apology for being such a shit in high school. But considering he’d attempted to
give
her one several times over the past decade, there had been no need to lead off with it the minute they’d come face-to-face. Her coolness that evening had made him rush the sorrys instead of waiting to get a feel for the
emotional climate, a skill he’d developed early in his career and found handy in damn near every situation.

The trouble was, he had everything riding on this project. In order to get it funded he’d had to accept a couple of contract clauses he ordinarily would have avoided like a flaming case of jock rash. So he’d gone in knowing he had to talk Ava into renting him the Wolcott mansion. It was that or scrap the project, because if he had to build sets to duplicate it, his budget would be a bust before he even got started. And considering he’d already signed the damn contracts, that wasn’t an option.

Not that he’d hamstrung himself entirely. Never one to go into anything blind, he’d investigated before he’d signed anything, then deemed the risk worthwhile when he’d discovered the extent of Ava’s financial difficulties. And if securing the mansion had been his sole objective, things would have been business as usual.

But while he prided himself on always hiring efficient crews, for this project he’d needed not just efficient but the very best. That was a nonissue when it came to industry personnel. He’d known exactly who to hire: the professionals he’d worked with most successfully in the past. The ones whose visions meshed best with his own.

He always used a local as well, however, someone familiar with the area, to manage logistics and coordinate daily living for his cast and crew so he could focus his own attention where it belonged—on the production. To his dismay, not only had Ava turned out to be one of the owners, hers had also been the name that had kept cropping up when he’d started putting out feelers for a Seattle go-to, detail-oriented person with the best contacts. How ironic was that?

Karma sure was a bitch. Still, he had bet on himself. Because while the risks of this project might be greater than all his other ventures combined, so were the rewards.

The Wolcott documentary was his ticket to even bigger and better things. Velcro it to his past several achievements and maybe, just maybe, he’d finally get to take the script he’d been sitting on for three long years and turn it into the film he’d been dreaming of. The latter wouldn’t have a blockbuster-sized budget. But that only meant it would be all his to do the way
he
wanted to do it.

Well, either that or it would be the flush heard around the world if his gamble failed and Ava Spencer decided to use the mansion or her position on his crew for payback. He had to admit it was a concern that had been scratching at the back of his mind ever since they’d signed the contracts. Yet, staring at the blustery weather outside the parlor window, he didn’t see
how
she could do it, given that she needed money almost as badly as he needed this documentary to succeed.

Still, it had been naïve of him not to even consider the possibility that she had an agenda of her own before he’d all but handed her carte blanche to the most important project he’d ever worked. Which was surprising, considering naïveté hadn’t been a part of his makeup since the day he’d found out his dad wasn’t really his dad.

“Boss!”

Grateful for Beks’s bellow yanking him away from the pit into which that last thought likely would have landed him, he stalked over to the open pocket door and stuck his head out into the hall. “Yo!” That subject was a dead horse he had
no
desire to beat all over again.

“Your concierge is here.”

There was no good reason for his heart to start tripping all over itself. Snapping off a silent command for it to get the hell back to its normal steady rhythm, he muttered a terse, “About damn time,” and headed down to the kitchen.

“You ever consider going into acting?” he heard Beks demand as he neared the room. “’Cause you’re, like, a ringer for those amazing actresses that ruled back in the Hollywood studio system era. Same vibe, same glamour, swear to God.”

He paused in the doorway to watch Ava peel off a pricey-looking coat as she smiled in bemusement at his production assistant.

Beks had that effect on people. If she harbored a single inhibition in her entire body, he had yet to discover what it was. A guy could rack his brain until it liquefied, in fact, and still never come up with an instance in which the younger woman had bothered to censor her thoughts before loosing them on the world.

He had to admit, though, that she was right on the money with her assessment of Ava. Between the concierge’s flame-red thirties-style bob and her forties, knock-you-on-your-ass body, she had the retro glamour of a Hollywood golden age starlet. The impression was only reinforced when she finished removing her coat and revealed a black cashmere sweater dress that clung here and skimmed there, showcasing spectacular curves both above and below the skinny red belt that cinched in her waist.

Feeling a primal pull of attraction, he took a step closer to the threshold.

Then she tipped her head back and laughed in genuine amusement, and he stopped in his tracks. Because
he remembered that sound. Remembered it from that long-ago time before he’d made one of the dumbest decisions of his life.

“Me, an actress?” Even in profile he could see a dimple flash. “No, I can honestly say I’ve never considered that as a career choice.” Another laugh burbled up her throat. “Really,
truly
never considered it. I couldn’t act my way out of a paper bag if my hair was on fire.”

“Which the color sorta suggests it is,” Beks said.

“Yes, well, that’s the curse of the redhead for you. Trust me, given a choice, I’d much rather have black hair like yours. But no one who knows me would ever put me and acting in the same sentence. I’m supereffective when it comes to making people’s lives run smoothly. But be scintillating in front of a camera?” Her quick grimace produced another dimple. “Not so much.”

“Yeah, I can’t act for shit, either,” Beks admitted gloomily. “Otherwise, I’d be all over gettin’ into the star groove.”

Stepping to the side of the archway out of Ava’s sight, Cade watched as she studied Beks’s skim-milk skin and dark hair, which the younger woman wore in high, fan-shaped, burgundy-streaked pigtails. Ava’s lips crooked up in the faintest of smiles as she took in the Goth eye makeup and bloodred lipstick, both of which presented a stark contrast with the Catholic schoolgirl uniform and knee socks Beks wore, yet tied right in with her black lace-up, patent leather ankle boots with their clunky heels and three inch, correction-shoe-looking platforms.

Ava’s smile grew wider, punching dimples deep in her cheeks. “Yeah, speed assessor that I am, I kind of guessed right away that you’re not the repressed type.”

Cade frowned. They were obviously in the throes of one of those instant bonding moments females were so
freaking fond of—and he hadn’t hired Ava to hang out with Beks.

He stepped into the room. “Good of you to finally make it, Spencer.”

Her dimples disappeared as she turned to give him the same cool, detached look that had been a trademark of their previous meetings. “Mr. Gallari,” she said coolly. “I said I would be here, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, at one-thirty.” He resisted the urge to drive home the fact she was an hour and a half late. He didn’t doubt for a second that she was every bit as cognizant of the fact as he.

“Oh, gosh, you didn’t check your messages, did you?” Her tone was easy, friendly, but her gaze seemed to say something else. “I called last night to let you know that, although I’d secured the house for your crew that I told you about last month, I had a last-minute opportunity to strike a better deal, so I would be late.” Reaching into a vintage alligator briefcase, she extracted a handful of papers and extended them to him. “I had a meeting with the owner this afternoon and I think you’ll be happy with the results of my negotiations.”

Accepting the stack without looking at it, he gave the pocket where he kept his cell phone a surreptitious pat, only to find it empty. Shit. He knew he should own up to the dead battery he’d discovered when he’d turned his cell back on after debarking the plane this morning, and the fact that he’d plugged it into the rental car power source—where he’d undoubtedly left it. He absolutely should, but he was irritated with her even though it wasn’t her fault.

Still…

If he were to be honest about it, his and Beks’s arrival into town had been extremely smooth—maybe
even the smoothest ever. The town car driver had been there with Cade’s name printed on a sign when they’d reached Baggage, the key to the back door had been exactly where Ava had said it would be and her instructions to disarm the security alarm clear. Unlike the last time he’d been here, the mansion had been warm and inviting, and they’d found the refrigerator stocked with cheese, meats, fresh fruit and an assortment of drinks, both hard and soft. On the counter had been two different kinds of crackers and a box of Fran’s Gray and Smoked Salt caramels. So she’d done her job—and then some.

He let his irritation go on a quiet breath. “You’ve met Ms. Shy and Retiring here, I take it?”

Ava smiled at the nickname but said, “Yes and no. We’ve been talking for a few minutes but never got around to the actual introductions.”

“In that case, let me present Rebekka Donaldson, my production assistant.”

“Okay, there’s a name I haven’t been called in a while,” the younger woman said as she reached out to give Ava a firm handshake. “It’s been so long, in fact, that unless you’re my grandmother, it’s unlikely I’ll respond to it. Everyone except Granny Louise—and maybe Mom when she’s unhappy with me—calls me Beks.”

“Come to think of it, except at our own introduction I’ve never actually heard anybody call you Rebekka,” he agreed. “So, Ava, Beks. Beks, meet Ava Spencer, our local concierge.”

“What does a production assistant do?” Ava asked, folding her coat and laying it over the back of an antique oak chair. As she looked at Beks with bright-eyed interest, she smoothed the soft fabric with a long, pale
hand. Her fingertips bumped one of the turned spools that rose on either side of the chair’s back and she traced its shape between her fingers and thumb.

He looked away, jolted all over again by her unconscious sexuality. He’d felt it when they were kids but had always assumed that was merely because
A:
she had a way of moving that made him think of sex and
B:
sex was all he
had
thought about at the time. Hell, he’d been a teenage boy, ready and willing to nail anything with tits. And God knows she’d always had great breasts.

But that didn’t explain his reaction to her now.

“I’m half gofer and half coordinator,” Beks said. “Cade’s giving me my big break.”

Clearing his throat, he shook the reaction aside. “Beks is our detail woman. There are a million attached to filming and she’s a genius at keeping track of ’em all.”

Beks nodded. “That whole ‘making people’s lives run smoothly’ thing you said you do?” she said cheerfully. “Well, I am to the running of a production what you are to people’s lives.”

Turning back to Cade, she waved at the papers in his hand. “Go ahead and look over the contracts, boss. I’ll show Ava what I’m working on at the moment.”

It wasn’t a quick tutorial he heard, however, as he turned his attention to the rental agreement. Instead Beks mentioned that while the weather up here would take some getting used to after L.A., at least she didn’t have to worry about getting a sunburn.

Ava laughed but then said that even in Seattle in the winter women with skin as fair as theirs required a good sunblock.

Which promptly segued into a spirited debate over the best brand.

Shaking his head, he searched the contract for the bottom line, flipping through the pages until he came to the one that had the clause disclosing the monthly rent. He read it swiftly. Then went back to read it again more slowly.

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