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Authors: Susan Andersen

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BOOK: Playing Dirty
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And blew out a breath. “No shit?”

Ava turned her head, raising her brows at him. “I assume that meets with your approval. In fact, a nice little gift certificate to my favorite spa for my negotiation skills wouldn’t be out of line.”

“It really wouldn’t.” He read the clause again, then looked up at her, feeling some of the she’s-gonna-blow-my-big-chance-all-to-hell-and-gone knot he’d been packing for the past couple of months dissolve. “How the hell did you talk the owners down to a rent this reasonable?”

She shrugged. “By being the best at what I do,” she said lightly. “Which is why you hired me. Although I did have to give the owner my word that if he finds someone interested in seeing the place while your crew is still in residence they’ll be reasonable about allowing it to be shown—with the strict understanding, of course, that it’s not available until your lease expires.” Leveling those green eyes on him, she said, “I also promised that your crew would leave it in as good, if not better, condition than they found it.”

“We will,” Beks agreed, and Cade nodded.

“If there are any small repairs that need doing—and they have time and the union allowing—I’ll talk to the guys about taking care of them,” he said, then gave her a solemn, head-on gaze. “Good work.”

 

A
VA INCLINED
her head. “Thanks,” she said. But she wasn’t as uninfluenced by his approval as she might have wished.

Not that she wasn’t over Cade, because she
so
was. It was more that…she hadn’t expected to still feel this pull of unwilling attraction.

She supposed that was precisely what she should have expected, given she’d had a similar reaction at their earlier meetings. But perhaps because she’d handled the first face-to-face pretty well and had felt reasonably removed when she’d had to see him again at her lawyer’s office, then again during the summit with his scriptwriter in the beginning of December, she had assumed she’d gotten the whole oh-my-gawd-am-I-really-going-to-work-with-the-bastard thing out of her system.

Apparently not.

Still, that was all this was, a sort of knee-jerk what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here vibe at being thrown together again with the author of her worst insecurities.

Which she had worked her way through, thank you very much, more than a dozen years ago. She didn’t discount the great deal of effort it had taken on her part, but damned if she intended to go back there again. Squaring her shoulders, she dug two sets of keys out of her briefcase. She handed the larger one to Beks. “These are to the house. I think I have enough for everyone who’s staying there, but if you need more let me know and I’ll have the landlord make them up.”

The other set she handed to Cade, along with an additional contract. “I wasn’t able to get as good a deal on the Belltown condo you requested, because short-term leases on units in that area have a built-in demand. I did, however, talk them down two hundred and forty bucks from the original asking price, since historically
January is a postholiday lull month.” She shrugged. “It’s not much, but I imagine every little bit helps.”

“You
rock
, girlfriend,” Beks said and offered up her palm for a high five.

As Ava slapped it, Cade gave her an unsmiling nod. “It does, yes. Thank you.” His fingers, brushing hers as he accepted the keys, were warm and hard.

He was harder and tougher-looking all over, in fact, than he’d been at eighteen, his shoulders wider, his chest brawnier. The sleeves of his blue sweater were pushed up, revealing silky dark hair that feathered tan, muscular forearms. And his face, which was more angular and less…pretty…than it had been in high school, sported even darker stubble around his mouth and along the inflexible lines of his jaw.

He also seemed a great deal less carefree than he’d been back in the day, more somber-mouthed and watchful-eyed.

Not that she gave a great big rip one way or the other. Who didn’t change after high school? She was just interested in discovering the kind of man she’d be working with in the here and now. The more she knew, the better prepared she’d be to keep him at arm’s length, right where he belonged. Because while a whole lot had changed in thirteen years, the fact that he couldn’t be trusted remained the same.

But speaking of work…

“As you requested, several of Miss Agnes’s collections are in a vault here,” she said briskly. “If you’ll give me some times that work best for you, I’ll coordinate them with Jane’s schedule so we can discuss which ones you want to use for your documentary. Once you’ve made your decision, we’ll arrange to have the rest moved to off-site safekeeping.”

He nodded. “The sooner the better works for me.”

“Let me call her.”

She set up the appointment for that evening, then left to take the staples, supplies and extra linens she’d bought earlier to the two rentals. When she got back, Cade’s director of photography, a beefy, bald guy named Louie who looked to be in his mid-forties, had arrived. She also met the night watchman, a tough-looking older man named John.

It was full dark when the van she’d arranged for pulled into the driveway and disgorged the production’s soundman, the lighting engineer and a film school student who was the light man’s assistant. She pulled out her iPhone and added notes to the ones she’d already jotted down on Louie and John to keep everyone straight in her mind.

For the soundman she thumb-typed: Kyle. 40-smthing. Never seems 2 b w/out Bose in-ear head set.

The lighting engineer rated: Jim Short. 60s? size matches name. Asst Ryan. Blond surfer boy. Somthg they call Best Boy.

Over time she would add personal preferences to their files, because information like that was what had contributed to her success over the years.

Jane arrived a short while later, and Ava escorted her down the hallway, the two of them chatting nonstop. Finding the pocket door to the parlor open, she glanced in to see Cade sitting at the desk, poring over the papers spread across its surface. A rich brown lock of hair fell over his forehead, the desk lamp picking out its subtle streaks of bronze and blond. And her friend’s voice promptly faded to a background murmur.

Because, for just a second, she had a vision of that silky hair brushing her stomach.

She jerked in shock and slapped a new vision in its place—this one of letting herself into her Alki Beach condo, kicking off her heels, lighting a few candles and turning on the fireplace. She’d love nothing more than to climb into her nightie and maybe pour herself a nice glass of wine. To flop down on her big, overstuffed couch and know that this day was finally over.

She couldn’t deny she was intrigued and excited at the opportunity to be part of a documentary featuring Miss A. It was a world outside her normal experience and she was fascinated by the idea of learning about it.

But a big part of her was already exhausted by the push-pull of her emotions, which kept flip-flopping all over the place whenever she was in Cade Calderwood Gallari’s company. And for now she just had a need to escape.

So she cleared her throat and leaned into the room. “Jane is here and I’m gonna take off.”

Janie grabbed her by the arm at the same time Cade jerked his head up to stare at her in alarm.

“Are you crazy?” her friend demanded. “Leave me by myself with this clown and I won’t be responsible for what I say.”

“That is not an option,” Cade agreed. “We need you to stick around so you can handle the details.”

Both were clearly determined that she wouldn’t leave, so postponing her home-sweet-home fantasy, she blew out a quiet breath and gave in with reasonable grace. “Very well,” she said and preceded Jane into the room.

Where, steeling herself, she took the farthest seat across the desk from the man and his damn vision-inducing pheromones. “Let’s get this done.”

CHAPTER THREE

Lord. I didn’t realize how crazy the next six weeks were gonna be until I wrote down everything I need to get done.

Later that evening

I
T WAS NEARLY NINE
when Cade let himself into his rented Belltown condo in a renovated 1914 brick building on First Avenue. Dropping his keys into a burled wood bowl on a tobacco tin–sized table, he didn’t bother feeling for the light switch. Instead he made his way down the abbreviated hallway and into the body of the living space by the glow of the city lights pouring through a good-sized triple-pane window that blocked most of the downtown traffic noises. He went directly to the gas fireplace in the corner of the room and flipped on the switch.

With a soft whoosh, flames leapt to life and began licking at the artificial logs. Turning on the table lamp, he looked around his new digs.

It was a short tour, since the place had a single studio-style bedroom, a galley kitchen and a bathroom boasting an oversize shower, which all by itself made it worth twice the price he was paying. It would definitely do.

It had been a long day, however, and he was past ready for a little kick-back time. So he toed off his shoes and padded in his stocking feet to the kitchen, where he delved into the fridge Ava had stocked, grabbing the first thing he saw: the half gallon of milk. Opening it, he gulped down a quarter of it straight from the carton, then bent to study the rest of the refrigerator’s contents.

She’d bought him chicken tenders, a skewer of grilled Alaska salmon, cut veggies and fruit, a tub of kalamata olives, a wedge of aged Beemster Gouda, salad fixings and a container of some New Agey–looking salad made of couscous or quinoa, or some such shit. But it was the container of deviled eggs he pulled out.

He wondered if she’d remembered how much he liked them or had just gotten some for everybody.

Probably the latter.

Taking the lid off, he tossed it on the counter, grabbed the carton of milk and took his booty over to the chair by the fireplace. He set the milk on the little table at his elbow, swung his feet up onto a footstool, fished out an egg half and popped it in his mouth.

“Damn.” He didn’t know if Ava had made these herself, gotten someone else to make them or picked them up at one of the upscale grocery stores that seemed to liberally sprinkle Seattle these days, but he had to hand it to her—they rocked.

So far, at least, she seemed to be good at her job.

Yet here it was, not even the first official day, and he already needed a break from her. That didn’t bode well for the next month and a half.

When he first got the brainstorm to hire her, he’d considered himself fricking brilliant. It was a win-win: Ava was the choice most highly recommended and he could finally pay off the debt of his high school
screwup, which until last November she’d refused to even let him apologize for. As an added benefit, she was providing the food services and seemed to have a strong knowledge of the town’s players. All of which would save him money in the long run.

In that aspect, and given the quality of her work, he
was
brilliant. But he hadn’t thought things through. He hadn’t considered how being constantly thrown into contact with her would make him feel.

He’d forgotten how much he’d liked her back in the day before he’d thrown her to the wolves in order to keep a bunch of friends, who hadn’t been worth what he’d sacrificed.

“Shit.” Losing his appetite, he set the container of deviled eggs aside, dropped his feet from the stool and sat up. Jamming his fingers through his hair, he stared at the flickering flames.

Let it go, Slick.
What was done was done, and going over it for the hundredth time sure wouldn’t help him unwind after a day crammed with traveling and trying to get things organized. And hungry or not, he needed to fuel up. Tomorrow was the first full day on the set, and he needed to be on top of his game.

So he reached for another egg. He’d eat his food, drink his milk and just veg in front of the fire for a while. What he wouldn’t do was obsess over old mistakes.

Especially not the one he’d made with Ava Spencer.

 

S
LOW TO PULL
her attention from the lists she was compiling when the landline at her elbow rang the following morning, Ava reached to pick up the receiver without bothering to check caller ID. She brought it to her ear and murmured an absentminded hello as she ran her
gaze down the list she’d been assembling on her Grocery iQ app. Grey Poupon!
That
was what she’d forgotten—she’d known there was something.

She added it to her list.

“Ava, I need you to plan your father’s birthday event.”

Well, hell.
That got her attention. Abandoning her iPhone on the breakfast bar, she straightened on her stool. “Hello, Mother. I thought you and Dad were still in Chicago.”

“Yes, yes, we are.” Impatience laced Jacqueline Spencer’s tone. “Which is precisely the problem. We’ll be here until early February—which allows me no time to arrange your father’s birthday myself. So you need to do it.”

Ava counted to ten. “Do you remember the documentary job I told you about?” She didn’t hold out much hope, since usually the things that were important to her went out of her mother’s ears as quickly as they’d gone in.

But Jacqueline surprised her. “The one with Allan Gallari’s son?”

“Yes. I just started it yesterday and between that and some jobs for a few of my longtime clients, I’m afraid it’s going to take up all my time for the next several weeks. But I can refer you to a fantastic local party planner I met at the conference in New York last summer.”

“I don’t want some second-rate caterer! This is your father’s
sixtieth birthday
we’re talking about, Ava.”

Crap. The guilt card. No wonder parents played it so often—it was so freaking effective. Sighing, she picked up her iPhone again and opened a new app. “How many people?”

“I’m keeping it small. I thought seventy-five. At the house.”

Small. Uh-huh. “On Dad’s actual birthday?”

“Don’t be silly, darling—how many people will turn out on a Wednesday night? Make it the following Saturday.”

“Winter theme okay?”

“Yes, that would be lovely. And engraved invitations, of course, with the RSVP to you, no gifts. I’ll get you the guest list.”

Ava made a note to contact the calligrapher she used as soon as she had that in hand. “What do you have in mind for food? The guest list strikes me as too large for a sit-down unless you want me to rent a tent for the back lawn.”

“Not in late February—the weather’s too iffy for that.”

“My thoughts exactly. Were you thinking circulating waiters with hors d’oeuvres? Or a buffet?”

“I thought an open bar and hearty hors d’oeuvres, served by, yes, the wait staff. Then a dessert buffet with, of course, a spectacular cake as its centerpiece. Tiered, not sheet. Champagne fountains at either end.”

“I will need to hire one of my caterers, because I don’t have time for that part and I know you want the best for Father’s party.”

A sigh came down the line, but her mother restrained herself to a stern, “I expect you to supervise them carefully.”

“Uh-huh.” Didn’t she always? “An eight to midnight timeframe, then?”

“Yes.”

“All right.” She made note of that as well, added additional reminders for a few things she’d have to follow through on, then shut down her app. “That will get me started. I’ll send you an email to confirm what we just
talked about, but I need to hang up now, Mom, or I’m going to be late for my real job.”

“Mother,” Jacqueline Spencer corrected her automatically. “And really, dear, you’re a businesswoman in high demand—must you sound as though you’re off to flip hamburgers on the weekend shift?”

Ava laughed. “Sometimes I think that would be more relaxing.”

“What am I to do with you?” Jacqueline said, and Ava could envision her mother shaking her head. “Well, I shall let you go, I suppose. But do keep an eye on the mail—I’m going to send you an appropriate dress to wear to your father’s party.”

Ava’s smile dropped from her lips as ice rimed her veins. “I’m not twelve anymore. I can find my own dress, thank you.”

“You’ll like what I select,” Jacqueline said serenely, ignoring, as she always did, Ava’s wishes on the matter.

“No, Mom, I won’t. You constantly buy me things that I don’t have a prayer of fitting into and I never wear them. Save your money.”

“You simply need to lose a few pounds and my money won’t be wasted.”

She tried counting to ten again but only got as far as six. “How I handle my weight is not your decision to make. I have curves. I’m always
going
to have curves and will never be rail-thin like you. Deal with it.”

“I don’t believe I like your tone, Ava.”

“And I don’t like being treated like an incompetent child.”

“I don’t do that!” Jacqueline sounded both shocked and affronted. A heartbeat of silence passed before she added stiffly, “I was merely trying to help.”

God save me from your help,
Ava thought in despair,
but only said, “I appreciate that. But I’m thirty-one years old. Allow me to dress myself.”

The pleasantries they exchanged after that were few, awkward and doubtless left her mother feeling, as they did her, not so pleasant. It was a relief to finally ring off, and Ava carefully reseated the receiver in its stand on the kitchen counter.

All the while painfully aware that her first inclination was to hurl it across the kitchen.

God, she was tired of this. She knew her mother loved her, in her own self-absorbed way. But wouldn’t it be nice, just once, to get through a conversation that didn’t leave her achingly aware of the conditions Jacqueline placed upon that love? That didn’t raise the issue of her damn weight?

Instead, their conversations generally left her feeling anywhere from vaguely to DEFCON Alert–level dissatisfied. Not to mention not all that great about herself.

She knew it was ridiculous—that only her opinion ought to count. It didn’t change the fact that when she swiveled on her stool and caught a glimpse of herself in the sound-facing bank of windows that the interior lights and stormy weather darkness outside had turned into a mirror, she saw herself through her mother’s eyes and thought,
Cow.
Didn’t change that—


No,
dammit.” She wasn’t going down that road again. She had things to do—even
more
things, given the addition of her father’s party, than she’d had fifteen minutes ago. She didn’t have time for this inadequacy crap.

Turning back to the counter, she tossed her cell phone into her purse and plucked her black draped cardigan from the back of the stool to pull it on over her wrap
front beach-blue dress. She stepped into her heels and crossed to the closet for her coat.

Then, picking up her Kate Spade purse as she sailed past the tiny entry table, she let herself out of the condo and, bypassing the elevator, headed down the stairs to the parking garage.

 

S
INCE
A
VA
was the last person Cade wanted to see, naturally she was the first one he clapped eyes on when he let himself into the Wolcott kitchen. She was bent over a table she’d set up against the wall, putting what looked to be finishing touches on the spread she’d set out.

It looked like something out of a magazine—a considerable step up from the usual food services arrangement—and he wondered if he’d congratulated himself too soon regarding the anticipated money he’d save by having her take over the job.

It was a hard thought to hang on to, however, when her butt was bumping in tune with some bluesy, jazzy song about not treating a dog the way the singer thought a woman had treated him, which purled out of an MP3 player on the counter. She’d always been a kick-ass dancer—even back in their prepubescent days when they’d had to learn all that formal stuff in cotillion class. Nor had she ever been the least bit self-conscious about dancing down the hallway at Country Day.

Except for those last few weeks of their senior year.

He cleared his throat. “I didn’t realize you were here. I didn’t see your Beemer in the drive.”

Her hips ceased swiveling as she looked at him over her shoulder. “I drove a client’s car today.”

“The Audi A6?”

“Yes. I’m taking it to be detailed on my lunch hour.”

“You’re working other jobs?”

“On my own time, yes.” Turning slowly to face him, she crossed her arms beneath her breasts, plumping up the creamy cleavage in her blue V-neck dress from what had been a mere hint to an impressive flash of the real deal. “You didn’t seriously expect me to blow off my clients who’ve been with me through the good times and lean for six weeks of working for you, did you?”

Yeah, he supposed he had. But when she put it that way…

Kyle walked into the kitchen before he could respond, which was probably just as well. The soundman gave Ava’s cleavage an appreciative glance. But even before her arms dropped to her sides, restoring the generous swell back to its original hint, his focus had switched to the food she’d laid out. His brows furrowing as he crossed the room to pour himself a cup of coffee from the industrial coffeemaker at the end of the table, he scrutinized the offerings.

And turned accusing eyes on her. “No bear claws?” he demanded.

“Sorry, no.” Ava picked up a plate and grabbed a pair of tongs that she left suspended above a plate of long rectangles of lightly sugared pastries as she glanced over at Kyle. “Try a galette. Are you an apple or a blackberry man?”

“Blackberry, I guess.” He watched suspiciously as she scooped the pastry onto a plate. “That looks like one of those girly tea-party desserts.”

She grinned at him, her dimples punching deep. “Just try it. If you don’t like it, I’ll get you some bear claws when I go out this afternoon.”

“Yeah, okay,” he grumbled and took a bite. He swore as several blackberries tumbled from the pastry back onto his plate, but chewed and swallowed the portion
that had made it into his mouth, licked a crystal of sugar from his lip, then met her gaze. And smiled sheepishly.

“Damn.” He took another bite and said around it, “That’s better than an orgasm.”

BOOK: Playing Dirty
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