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 great together.”
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 for you.”
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 followed.
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 Neil.”
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 Victoria Bryce.”
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 opposite sex.”
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 Care.”
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 oh-so-hot-and-bothered.
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 actress?”
“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 unprofessional.
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.”