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Authors: Susan Andersen

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BOOK: Playing Dirty
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CHAPTER FIVE

I thought I knew everything about Miss A. But I’m learning all sorts of new things.

A
VA MADE HER WAY
through the mansion’s crowded salon to the silver-haired gentleman whose interview Cade had just wrapped up. Beks had passed along a request from Cade earlier to hold herself ready to escort the finished interviewee out of the room so they could get the next interview rolling without delay. Or as the younger woman had put it with her infectious smile: “I’ll haul ’em in, you haul ’em out.”

She’d snatched the opportunity to watch the shoot from an inconspicuous vantage point at the side of the room, hoping to get a feel for what she, Jane and Poppy could expect when it was their turn. Her attention had drifted from the interviewee to Cade way too often, but as she approached the two men, she did her best to ignore his half of the duo.

“Mr. Tarrof?” She brushed the man’s gray tweed jacket sleeve to get his attention. “I apologize for interrupting, but—”

Both men turned to her. The older man was nattily attired in a beautifully tailored suit, gray shirt and a yellow tie that matched the impeccably folded handkerchief peeking out of his coat’s breast pocket.

Cade, by contrast, was casual in a royal-blue sweater he’d no doubt chosen to match his eyes and a pair of jeans almost disreputably worn. “This is Ava,” he said with a smile that included them both. “She’ll be your guide navigating the land mines out of the room.”

To her, he said, “I was just thanking Stan for his awesome interview,” then turned the full power of his attention back on the older gentleman. “And I can’t do that enough. You gave me some seriously good footage. So, again, thank—”

A sudden bump from behind sent Ava stumbling. She felt Mr. Tarrof reach out to steady her, but his cool, dry hand slid off her forearm without finding purchase. It was Cade, taking a long-legged step toward her, who stopped her forward momentum.

But it wasn’t a pretty landing. She smacked up against the hard wall of his chest, and the impact flattened her breasts and knocked the breath from her lungs.

The lack of oxygen wasn’t the worst of it, though.
That
would be the instant heat, instant awareness. Like déjà vu, it was eerily familiar. Yet the body she was pressed up against was different—bigger now than it had once been, harder and tougher.

Shit!
Sucking in a breath to replace the air she’d lost, she leapt back, and Cade’s hands, which had grasped a hip and her shoulder, dropped to his sides.

“God, Miss—Ava—I’m sorry,” a man said from behind her, and Ava turned to see the grip named Collin with a long stepladder in his hands. He set it up a short way from the “set” they were using for the interviews. “I was trying to dodge Ryan and I misjudged. Are you all right?”

No.
“Yes, sure. I’m fine.”
Except for this shook-up, out-of-control feeling.

The thought snapped her spine erect. Because that was just plain dumb, considering her history with Gallari.

Cade cleared his throat, and, beginning to feel like a wind-up doll turning this way and that, she jerked around once again.

“See what I mean about land mines?” he was saying to Mr. Tarrof, then to her added, “I’m putting Stan in your hands, so give him your best.”

“I always do,” she agreed, curving her lips up without actually meeting his gaze. Yet she was conscious of his tanned forearms with their dusting of dark hair below his pushed-up sleeves. Aware that her hands could still feel the cashmere softness of the sweater they’d gripped. Turning to the older man, she cleared her mind of everything but him. And gave him a real smile.

“I can see why Cade was so pleased,” she said as she led him away, pointing out various cables snaking across the floor for him to avoid. “I had the chance to see most of your interview and you were fabulous.”

“Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far,” he said with a half pleased, half rueful smile. “I’m mostly just glad it’s over. I was a bit nervous.”

“I hear that. My friends and I are scheduled for the day after tomorrow and my stomach keeps doing flip-flops at the thought of having a camera recording my every mistake.” She flashed him another smile. “If it helps, though, your nerves didn’t show. You came across as very natural.”

Putting out a staying hand, she avoided a collision between them and the best boy Ryan as he rushed by—and made a note to have a word with the gaffer about
the kid’s need to be more aware of the people around him, since they had just narrowly avoided what would have been two accidents within as many minutes.

“I did notice, though,” she said as they continued on, “that you didn’t eat beforehand. How about a cup of coffee or tea or maybe a soft drink? And I still have some fabulous pastries. They’re a huge hit with the crew, but I managed to squirrel some away so the rest of us might have a shot at enjoying them.”

He gave her an appreciative smile. “That would be nice. Thank you. My appetite’s returned now that I’ve got the interview behind me.”

She laughed, knowing exactly how that went, and guided the older gentleman around Collin, who was now moving a light under Jim Short’s direction. Once they’d steered through the beehive of activity and made their way out to the hallway, it took only seconds to reach the kitchen.

She waved at the service table. “Help yourself to whatever appeals to you. I’ll just get some of those pastries I told you about.”

Mr. Tarrof poured himself a cup of coffee and lifted the Crock-Pot lid to Ava’s soup of the day, releasing taco-scented steam into the air. He glanced over to where she was arranging pastries on a platter a little way down the table, the bunch of grapes he’d just picked up suspended over the fruit platter. “Do you mind if I ask how you knew Agnes?” He gave her a smile and transferred the grapes to a small plate, next to a few cubes of cheese. “You’re much too young to have run with her crowd.”

“Miss Agnes befriended me and my two best friends back when we were only twelve.” Her lips curved up at the flood of fond memories. “From our first encounter,
she was always there for both our achievements and our failures.” She brought the plate of pastries over. “Here, try one of these.”

Comprehension dawned in his faded blue eyes as he stared at her. “You’re one of those young women she left her estate to.”

Ava slid one of the galettes that were so popular with the crew onto his plate, removed the dish from his hands and put everything on a tray. “I am, yes.” She led him over to the small grouping of tables she had arranged near the door to the pantry.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said, following her. “The kitchen of a documentary shoot isn’t exactly where I’d expect a Wolcott heiress to be working.”

Ava placed his tray on a table, pulled out a chair and waved him into it with a pleasantly bland smile. He wasn’t the first to think what she did for a living was beneath her station in life.

That honor went to her mother.

Tarrof made a face as he slid into the seat, obviously realizing he hadn’t been very diplomatic. “I’m sorry, Miss, that was tactless. I meant no offense.”

“None taken.” She deftly removed his items from the tray and arranged them in front of him. Tucking the tray beneath her arm, she winked at him. “I suppose I could say I’m here to keep an eye on my property, but the truth is I’m a personal concierge—which is a fancy title for a jack-of-all-trades. Today I’m providing escort and the hospitality service for Scorched Earth Productions. Tomorrow?” She shrugged. “I might walk someone’s dog or arrange a ski trip for a party of twelve. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I find it immensely rewarding.”

He studied her closely. “I’ve heard of you,” he said
slowly. “I didn’t put it together before, but you’re Ava…ah, Ava…” His brow, which had furrowed in concentration, suddenly cleared, and he snapped his fingers. “Spencer, right? Donald and Jacqueline’s girl?” Picking up his coffee, he wrapped both hands around it and gazed up at her. “You’re Mitzy Kemper’s gem.”

She laughed aloud. “Is that what she calls me? She’s such a sweetheart.”

“Small world.” He took a bite of the pastry, swallowed and said, “Wow. You’re right. This is great.” He gave her an appreciative smile. “I might have to avail myself of your services myself. Do you have a card?”

“I do. Let me just grab one for you.” Going into the pantry where she kept her purse, she fetched a card from her case and took a moment to record a quick reminder on her phone to bring additional ones tomorrow, as well as a holder to display them in.

Hey, a girl had to take advantage of whatever promotional opportunities came her way.

She handed Tarrof the card a moment later, then went to pour herself a cup of coffee. Rejoining him, she immediately went back to the subject on her mind. “About your interview. Do you mind if I pick your brain?”

“Not at all. It’s not every day an attractive young woman solicits advice from an old duffer like me.”

She made a scoffing noise. “Old duffer, my ass…terisk. I bet you have to beat the ladies off with a stick.”

They grinned at each other, but Ava’s slowly faded. “I’m anxious about my interview and was wondering…you indicated you were nervous about yours as well, yet you came off sounding genuine and relaxed. How did you manage that? You honestly looked as if you could have talked for hours. And you did it all before breakfast.”

“Oh, from your lips—but I thank you for the compliment. I think it was actually due to Mr. Gallari’s interviewing technique.” He essayed a wry facial shrug. “During the preinterview on the phone, I kept trying to get him to give me a list of the questions he’d be asking so I could practice a little. I didn’t want to come across as an idiot.”

She nodded fervently. “I
so
get that desire.” And the last person she wanted to sound foolish in front of was Cade Gallari. “Is that what I should be doing, then? Asking Cade for questions I can put some thought into before I have to answer them on camera?”

“Unfortunately, no. He was pretty firm about not wanting rehearsed answers. I don’t mind admitting that wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but as it happens he’s quite easy to talk to. He has a way of making you feel as if he finds everything you say of vital interest.”

Ava nodded. “It did look like he has an easy style.” She had watched Cade pull his chair close to Mr. Tarrof’s the way he had done at her condo the other night—and had wondered at first if the mannerism was simply a well-practiced all-purpose gambit that he’d discovered worked for him.

And yet…

If it were contrived, he was certainly one world-class actor and could probably make serious money facing the camera rather than working behind it. As reluctant as she was to think anything nice about the guy, she couldn’t deny that he’d appeared genuinely fascinated by what Stan Tarrof had to say.

“I must say,” the old gent went on, “in the end he asked me about the very things we had discussed. So it turned out to be much less stressful than I’d anticipated.”

“Well, rats.” With a sigh, she climbed to her feet. “I
guess there’s no secret handshake or magic bullet, then. I’ll simply have to muddle through somehow.” She gave Tarrof an appreciative smile. “I can only hope I come across a fraction as interesting as you did.”

 

C
ADE DIDN’T GET
right back in the groove of things after he heard Ava laugh that deep belly laugh that managed to grab him by the short hairs every time. Beks ushered in the next interviewee, yet instead of putting the woman at ease while Kyle fitted her with a lavalier microphone, the way he normally would, he found his mind wandering.

That laugh was never directed at him. He shouldn’t give a damn—yet for some reason he did. Why, he didn’t know. It wasn’t as if he’d pined for her for these past however many years.

So wouldn’t you think the truth of that might have kept him from damn near groaning aloud when she’d slapped up against him and he’d felt her lush roundness shifting to accommodate his harder planes, when the heat that emanated from her in waves had sunk straight into his muscle memory, his
bones?

On the other hand, what red-blooded, hetero guy
wouldn’t
have had the same reaction? This was a woman who had it all, with her creamy skin that didn’t need a goddamn thing except the dusting of cinnamon freckles that came stock, her vibrant hair and dimples, her knock-your-socks-off individualistic style. And that
body
. Jesus. That body.

The truth was, even back in the day when he’d been a popular member of the in crowd and she’d been a denizen of the invisible fringe, he’d always had a sneaking fondness for Ava and her attitude, had always looked at her and seen
woman
in the ripeness of her breasts
and ass, in the way she moved, even when she carried extra weight. Yet he hadn’t hesitated to throw her under the bus anyhow. So, yeah, in all likelihood what he was feeling here was a little residual guilt.

She was sure as hell nobody’s victim, though. She’d hit back hard when he’d sacrificed her back when, then had gone on to hone herself into a fucking
goddess
.

If there was one lesson he’d had drummed into his head, however, it was that the only person he could depend on was himself. God knew Ava was never going to be in his corner. So why the hell was he allowing himself to be bugged by a little thing like a laugh that wasn’t intended for him?

Gritting his teeth, he manipulated his head to stretch the kinks out of his neck. He
wasn’t,
dammit. And it didn’t bug him. He was just having a nostalgic moment, that was all. Give him a minute and it would pass.

They always did.

Turning to the woman whose dress Beks was currently making immaculate with her lint roller, he signaled the cameraman to start shooting.

“So, Mrs. Sandor,” he said warmly, taking his seat, scooting his chair forward and focusing on her. Putting everything else from his mind, he prepared to go mining for the thrill he got with each and every new interview, that gratification of discovering people’s stories and helping to bring them to life. “When we talked on the phone, you told me that you and Agnes Wolcott would have been debutantes together in 1946—if she hadn’t refused to participate. Could you tell me a little more about that?”

BOOK: Playing Dirty
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