Victoria tossed the head shot of Russ Rowland onto the
conference room table. “Why him?”
Ava picked up the photo and waved it under her client’s
nose. “Have you gone blind? The man is smoking hot. You two are going to look
No, she hadn’t gone blind. When it came to gorgeous men her
vision was twenty-twenty. Her inner sight, however, could use Coke-bottle
glasses. Victoria ignored the glossy print and turned away to look out the
window of the towering skyscraper. Steam rose from the rain-soaked pavement of
the hot New York City streets. Despite the air conditioning chilling her skin,
she longed for the cool breezes of the family home in the Hamptons, even if her
mother was currently in residence. “Design Intervention is not a reality dating
show. You’re my friend. You’re supposed to do what’s best for me.”
“In this room, I’m your agent. And I am doing what’s best
She turned from the window, rubbing her arms. “Have you seen
his show in Australia? It’s one step away from porn.”
“But an important step. Besides, nothing wrong with a man
using power tools while shirtless.” Ava tapped the picture. “Nothing at all.”
Victoria didn’t need the photo to remember the man was
Playgirl material. Not that she read Playgirl. Well, not since college anyway.
“It’s one thing to be on TV with a fabulous male gay designer. It’s another to
be on with a half-naked, very straight man. The paparazzi will have a field
day. Mother throws a fit every time I’m on Page Six.”
“Ratings are the name of the game. So if the pho-hogs take
your picture, you smile nice. Besides, your mother doesn’t scare you. What are
you really afraid of?”
“Nothing.” Everything. Would she be able to back up the
first season’s success without Neil? And despite Ava saying so, Victoria was
afraid that her mother was right about everything. From how she wore her hair,
to her career, to the most contentious subject between them: marriage.
“Couldn’t I just do the show solo until Neil gets back?”
“One, we don’t know when he’ll be back.” A long silence
Victoria arched an eyebrow. “And two?”
“I hate to break it to you, but you can’t carry a show on
your own. You need the back and forth interplay. And as beautiful as your
designs are, the audience stays tuned to watch the antics between you and
She hated that Ava was right. Viewers might love the big
reveal at the end, but according to the fan letters, they were equally
fascinated with the relationship between the two co-hosts. Some days it was
like a damn soap opera. But Victoria needed Neil, not some surfer dude who
decorated like a beach bum. This Russ probably didn’t know the difference
between silk and satin and thought stripping referred to him peeling off his
shirt instead of refurbishing old furniture.
This was Neil’s fault.
No, Victoria knew that was unfair. Dear sweet Neil, how
could she be upset with him? While her co-host flew to his mother’s bedside in
Arizona, she was whining about starring in a design show with a hunky, straight
male, and an Aussie to boot. She must stop feeling sorry for herself. Stop
depending on others for her happiness. She grinned at her agent. “You know what
Neil would say?”
“Oh, this is going to be good,” encouraged Ava.
Victoria snapped her fingers and lowered her voice two
octaves. “Honey, I wish he’d go all down-under on me.”
She and Ava shared a laugh. She needed Neil’s sense of
humor. Needed him to be the co-star of this show, which he had conceptualized
and named. Production should wait. Neil was fun, smart, cute, and gay. While
Russ had predator written all over him. Her laugh faded. “He’s going to be
difficult. He’ll try to take over.”
“He won’t be a problem.”
“He’s already a half an hour late. Keeping the network
executives waiting is really impressive.” Victoria shook off the negative
feelings swamping her. This was all wrong without Neil, but he’d assured her it
was the right thing to do—the only thing to do.
Ava handed her Russ’s picture. “Come on, the ratings will go
through the roof. You’ll get your design line for sure.”
That’s all Victoria had ever wanted since she could put
crayon to paper—her own design line. She’d created her logo at the age of
fourteen. Designed her friends’ bedrooms even as her own mother refused
Victoria free reign in her own room. All through high school her mother had
steered her toward law so she’d make the perfect politician’s wife. Victoria
would nod, and in secret, she would dream and sketch. Now that she was so close
to proving her mother wrong, would working with Russ hurt or help her cause?
She examined his image. Russ’s burnished blond hair fell in
waves past his neck in such a way that begged her fingers to dive in and
explore its texture. His dazzling smile mocked her, as if he knew she craved to
kiss the photo like some thirteen-year-old. And to top it off, his light brown
eyes, colored like the hues of the outback at sunrise, stared back, daring her
to do so.
If a two-dimensional photo made her feel like a feline
predator ready to pounce, what feelings would the 3-D version churn out? She
would just have to deal with it. Not that she had much choice. As they said,
‘The show must go on.’
“I can handle him,” she said.
“I’ll look forward to it, luv.”
Both women flinched at the sound of the Aussie drawl. They
looked up sheepishly, embarrassed by being caught ogling his picture and
speaking about him as if he were a side of beef ready to be devoured. Though he
didn’t seem to mind, did he?
His long, lean body rested casually against the frame of the
door leading into the conference room. He sported loafers, khaki pants, and a
white dress shirt. Unbuttoned at the collar, the color enhanced his
deep-bronzed tan. So did the puka beads around his neck. If it weren’t for the
five o’clock shadow and the aviator sunglasses resting on top of his tousled hair,
he would look almost civilized. But there was nothing civilized about the gleam
in his eye. He looked like an assassin zeroing in on a target.
How long had he’d been listening? By his smile, she guessed
it was since the ‘down-under’ part. Heat flamed across Victoria’s face, and she
resisted the urge to press her cool hands on her cheeks.
She handed the incriminating photo back to Ava and walked
forward to introduce herself. He didn’t make it easy by continuing to lounge against the
doorway. She put out her hand. “Mr. Rowland, nice to meet you. I’m
Instead of shaking her hand as an equal business associate,
he took it gently and raised it to his lips like they’d just been introduced at
a ball. A breath caught in her throat, and she automatically tried to snatch
her hand back, but his grasp was firm. A tingling sensation skittered up her
arm, and her chest tightened as he tugged back. At any other time she would
have thought she was having a heart attack. She instinctively knew he was just
as dangerous as one, perhaps even more so. Maybe, her inner sight had sharpened
a bit over time.
“Just nice?” He gave her a disapproving frown. He brushed a
light kiss on top of her hand. His smile returned. “It’s certainly a pleasure
to meet you.”
She willed herself not to outwardly respond, even as she
internally melted into a pool of goo. Neither the photo nor the video clips did
the man justice. After all, you couldn’t smell a picture, and now his ocean
breeze scent assaulted her senses, making her wish they were kicking up some
sand. His bio read 6’2”, but it was 6’2” of pure maleness making her 5’2”
female self want to climb all over him. His deep throaty Aussie accent washed
over her like silk sliding across her naked body.
“And let me state for the record I only go down-under on the
Yeah, like anyone would question your sexual
orientation. Regaining her ability to speak, she managed to quip, “Neil
will be so disappointed.”
“Just as long as I don’t disappoint you.” His lips curved
into a wicked smile. “Do you still think you can handle me?”
She wasn’t going to back down. This was her and Neil’s show,
not his. “No sweat.”
“Just so you know I come with a warning.”
I bet you do, she thought. “Hmm, let me guess.” Probably
something like ‘Ride At Your Own Risk’ but she couldn’t say that. A little too
risqué, even for her. “Don’t Feed the Animals?”
“I don’t bite. Much anyway. No, it’s Fragile. Handle With
Victoria couldn’t hold back the laugh that escaped. Fragile?
There wasn’t a fragile bone in his body. He looked like the type that wouldn’t
mind being thrown onto a bed and allowing a woman to have her way with him.
Just the way she liked her men. Except Russ would expect to have his way back.
She could feel it in every fluttering nerve of her body. And what did he mean
by ‘I don’t bite. Much anyway?’
She would never be able to co-exist with this man. She had
to put him in his place and do it fast. “Well, mine is No Trespassing.”
“Sorry, luv, all I saw was Danger, Curves Ahead,” Russ drawled.
The sound of Ava’s throat clearing jolted Victoria out her
stupefied state of hormonal lust. Embarrassment flooded her. She had completely
forgotten to introduce Ava to Russ. Not that Ava would hold it against her. In
fact, she’d never let her live it down. The usually oh-so-cool Victoria was
She stepped aside to allow her polar opposite, the
five-foot-nine, blond, blue-eyed beauty forward. Unreasonably giddy that Ava
was currently on with her on-and-off boyfriend, soap opera star, Josh Grillo,
Victoria began the introduction. “Mr. Rowland, this is Ava Gardner. She’s my
agent and friend.” She stopped herself from adding, “And taken.”
“Cheers, Ava Gardner.” Russ tilted his head. “Like the
“Yes, my mom’s little joke. Though I never made it past
being a background actor.”
“I’m sure your talents lay elsewhere.” He lifted Ava’s hand
and gave it a quick peck.
Ava uncharacteristically giggled.
Oh, he was a charmer all right. Typical he-man whose
primitive instinct drove him to spread his seed. Victoria wouldn’t be surprised
if he had Neanderthal DNA running rampant through his blood. And God help her,
it turned her on.
What is wrong with me? He was so not
the type she dated. She preferred men who were well dressed and well mannered.
Well, at least outside of the bedroom she did. Russ was a certified bad boy.
She’d bet it was stamped on his birth certificate.
She probably wasn’t his type, either. She frowned. Why did
that fact bother her?
“Looks like we can get started.” Producer Brett Hartman
strode into the room, followed by two other men and one busty intern.
Victoria took a seat farthest away from the door, hoping
Russ would go to the other end of the table. Those hopes were dashed as he slid
into the spot directly across from her. He winked, flashing a knowing smile. If
he started playing footsies underneath the table, she’d kick him all the way
back to the Land of Oz.
He leaned back in the chair, looking as though he was the
star of the show and not an unwanted interloper. How could he be so relaxed?
She was wound tighter than a bad celebrity facelift.
Victoria tilted her head from side to side. A crunch
relieved some of the tension. Despite her misgivings, she wished his tanned
hands were busy massaging her shoulders instead of tossing a paperweight into
the air and catching it with the flair of a Las Vegas magician. So
God, he rubbed her the wrong way. She looked away before she
started thinking about him rubbing her the right way.
Hopefully Neil would return soon, and her attraction to Russ
would be a non-issue. Perhaps she’d even indulge herself before he left the
show and jump him American style.
But what if Neil wasn’t back soon? Victoria wasn’t very good
at controlling her sexual urges, and having sex with Russ would muddy the show.
It would complicate things. Working relationships were hard enough without
adding sex into the mix. She’d learned that the hard way. But it seemed she
liked doing things the hard way because right now, all she could think about was
going at it with him like the paint mixing machine at Home Depot.
She suppressed a smile. Couldn’t let the Aussie bad boy
suspect her attraction to him. However, if she didn’t rein in her thoughts and
stop staring at him as if he were a slice of cake behind the dessert counter,
he’d figure it out.
The first step—she shifted her gaze to the head of the
table. Second, she drew up a master plan. Perhaps she’d take a page from her
mother’s repertoire and play the social snob. That ought to keep Russ off the scent.
“Vicki, what do you think?”
Vicki? She glared at him. Did he
butcher her name to annoy her? Or did he think he was being funny? No one, not
even Neil, could get away with calling her that. She channeled her mother and
conjured up a snotty tone. “It’s Victoria, if you please.”