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"I don't trust her." Mike Ryan drummed his fingertips on his desktop and glared at his younger brother.
"Yeah," Sean said on a laugh. "You've made that clear for months. What isn't clear is why. She's a terrific artist, meets her deadlines, is easy to get along with and a hell of a bakershe's always bringing goodies in for everyone. So how about you tell me what Jenny Marshall ever did that you're so against her."
Scowling, Mike gritted his teeth and shifted his gaze to the view out his office window. Even in Southern California, January gardens looked a little grim. The backyard of the Victorian mansion that served as Celtic Knot Gaming's office boasted dry, brown grass, leafless trees and empty flower beds. The sky was studded with gray clouds and a cold wind swept in off the ocean to rattle those bare tree limbs.
Still, looking at that dismal view was better than drawing up a mental image of Jenny Marshall. As unwilling as he was, though, that picture of her flashed across his brain. She was a damn munchkin, only standing about five foot two, but that tiny body was really packed well. She had curves that made Mike's mouth water every time he saw herespecially since he already knew just what those curves looked like naked. One more reason he tried to avoid running into her.
Her short blond hair was a mass of curls that ended at her jawline, stirring up a grown man's idle daydreams into fantasies of hot, sweaty nights. Instantly, he forced his mind away from the images of naked Jenny and instead thought of her eyes. As blue as the sky, bright with liesand once, glazed with passionfor him.
Okay, that's enough of that, he told himself firmly.
"I've got my reasons," he muttered, not bothering to look at his brother again.
Sean had no clue that Mike and Jenny had met long before she was hired at Celtic Knot and there was no reason for that to change.
"Fine." Sean blew out a breath. "Always were a hardhead. Anyway, doesn't matter what the reasons are. You, me and Brady already decided this."
"Brady's in Ireland."
"Yep," Sean said, then added, "ain't technology great? You do remember the meeting we had over webcam? The one where we all decided who would do which hotel?"
"Good. Because Jenny's in her office right now, working on the designs for the River Haunt hotel." Sean met his brother's gaze. "She's already coming up with some great stuff. If we switch designers at this stage, it's going to slow down everything. Besides, Jenny's good. She earned this."
Mike scowled and bit back any further argument because it just wouldn't do any good. Sean was right: the plans had been made. He couldn't change them now. All of the artists for the company had already been assigned their work schedules. Most of them were finishing up the graphics for the next game to be released in the coming summer. So Jenny was the only logical choice.
Didn't mean he had to like it.
But there were deadlines to meet and no one knew that better than Mike. He, his brother and their friend Brady Finn had begun this gaming company when they were still in college. Their first game had been short on art and long on mystery and action. It had taken off faster than any of them had hoped and by the time they graduated from college, they were all millionaires.
They'd plowed their money back into the company they called Celtic Knot and within six months had released a bigger, more sophisticated game. They built a reputation for action games based on ancient Irish legends and superstitions, and their fan base swelled.
They'd bought this old Victorian in Long Beach, California, as their home base and hired the very best computer programmers, and digital and graphic artists.
They'd won awards and had legions of fans waiting for the release of their next game. And now, they were growing in another direction.
They were buying three hotels and revamping them into perfect role-playing venues for guests. Each hotel would be modeled after one of their top-selling games. The first, Fate Castle, was in Ireland. The modifications had just recently been completed and the hotel would be open and welcoming guests in March. The second, River Haunt, was in Nevada on the Colorado River and was just waiting for Mike to step up and get the renovations moving forward.
But how the hell could he do that while working one-on-one with Jenny Marshall? Answer: he couldn't. But he wasn't prepared to go into all of the reasons why with Sean. Instead, he'd simply go to Jenny. Convince her to back off this project. She was probably in no more hurry to work with him than he was with her. If she went to Sean herself and asked to be replaced, there wouldn't be a problem. Mike would offer her a raise. Or a bonus. A woman like her would jump at a chance for thatand he'd be able to get on with the hotel transformation.
"Meantime," Sean said, loudly enough to snap Mike's attention back to the moment, "I'm still talking to the toy company about the line of collectibles they're proposing based on our gaming characters."
"What do the lawyers say?" Mike asked.
"Plenty," Sean admitted. "And most of it I can't understand. I swear they teach these people to speak in tongues when they're in law school."
"Agreed. How much did you get out of it?"
Sean crossed his legs, ankle on knee. "Enough to know that if they up their offer on the licensing fee, this could be a really good thing for us."
"I don't know Toys?"
"Not toys. Collectibles," Sean corrected. "I called Brady this morning and he's on board. So think about this, Mike. At the next gaming convention we not only have the games to push, but the collectibles. We can spin that off to board games even, for people not interested in video games."
Mike laughed shortly and leaned back in his chair. "There aren't many people uninterested in games."
"Okay, true. But we're pushing into the hotel industry, giving people a chance to live their favorite games. We could take that another step," Sean said, slapping one hand down on Mike's desk. "We can sponsor our own conventions."
"What?" Surprised, Mike just stared at him.
Sean grinned. "Think about it. Hell, Comic-Con started out small and look at them now. We could hold Celtic Knot Conan entire convention centered around our games and products. We can host tournaments, offer prizes. Costume contests. Hell, we could run a contest offering a contract to whoever comes up with the best new beast to use in one of our games."
"Did you go surfing this morning?"
Sean stopped. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"That water's cold, probably froze a few brain cells."
"Don't you think we've got enough going on right now? The latest game came out in December, and the sequel to 'Fate Castle' hits this summer, not to mention the hotel business."
"Okay, we're busy," Sean allowed. "We want to stay busy, we have to keep thinking, expanding. Our business is based on the fans. On the way they feel connected to the scenarios we create. If we give them more, offer them other ways to connect, to feel a part of the world they love, that can only benefit us."
Mike thought about it for a minute. He could see the enthusiasm on his brother's face and knew that Sean was at least partly right. Continuing to build their brand would only solidify their position in the marketplace.
The castle hotel in Ireland already had a waiting list six months long and they hadn't even opened yet. That told Mike there was a huge market for just what Sean was describing. And little brother was right about something else, too.
"We'll talk to Brady about your convention ideathat may be a good way to go."
"Whoa." Sean grinned. "This is a moment. Maybe I should hunt up a photographer."
Mike laughed. "Okay, fine. I think you're onto something. On the collectibles, I'm on board. Tell the lawyers to work up the company's licensing offer and then we'll sign."
"Already did," Sean said.
"Sure of yourself, weren't you?"
Amused, Mike said, "Okay, well, you're right about the other stuff, too. The role-playing, the contests. Ireland's too hard for a lot of people to get to. The grounds on the hotel in Nevada aren't big enough for us to hold tournaments on any kind of real scale. So the hotel in Wyoming will have to be the base for that kind of growth."
"Just what I was thinking," Sean said. "It's on a hundred and fifty acres, with lakes and forests. It's perfect for the kind of thing I'm talking about."
"Then it's handy you're in charge of that one, isn't it?"
"Also what I was thinking," Sean said with a quick, smug smile.
It was the smug part that had Mike suggesting, "You should go to Wyoming. Check it out in person."
Sean snorted. "Sure. That'll happen. It's January, Mike. It's snowing there. Like crazy cold snowing." He shivered. "No, thank you. Look, we bought the property in Ireland by checking it out online and that worked great."
"I've talked to the Realtor, had her make videos of everything. The inn itself needs a lot of work, but the property is perfect and that's more important, right?"
"You take care of yours and I'll take care of mine. No worries, I'll go look around in a few months, before we start the design stage." Sean stood up and looked down at Mike. "Right now, though, I'm dealing with the big Game Con in Chicago next month. And I've got the art on 'Banshee Screams' to oversee. I'll get to Wyoming," he said. "But it can wait until summer " Shaking his head, he laughed and headed for the door. "A surfer. In the snow. Yeah. That'll work."
Mike frowned after him. Brady was happy as hell, working and living in Ireland with his wife and new baby son. Sean was busy making plans to be a happy, surfing megalomaniac. So, it was only Mike staring at nothing but trouble. It would take at least six months to refit the Nevada hotel. And since he couldn't find a way to get her off the project, that meant a hell of a lot of time spent with Jenny Marshall.
A woman who had already lied to him once.
Yeah. This was gonna be great.
Jenny Marshall poured herself a glass of white wine and sat down in an overstuffed chair, ordering herself to relax. But she didn't take orders well, not even from herself. Curling her feet up under her, Jenny looked out the window at the neighbor kids playing basketball in the driveway across the street.
The duplex she rented was old and small. Built in the 1940s, it sat on a narrow street a few blocks from the beach. The rent was too high, but the place itself was cozy, close to work and less generic than some cramped apartment. Here, she could garden and go to block parties and buy Girl Scout cookies and football pizzas from the kids who lived on the street. Here, Jenny felt that she was connected. A part of things. And for a woman alone, that feeling was priceless.
She took a sip of her wine and shifted her gaze to the front yard, where bare trees clattered in the wind. Twilight fell over the neighborhood in a soft lavender glow and lamplight began blooming in her neighbors' windows. Relaxation still eluded her, but with everything she had on her mind that really wasn't a surprise.
Between her work on the upcoming game from Celtic Knot and the designs she was working on for the River Haunt hotel, there was plenty to think about. She did love her job and was grateful for it. Especially since one of her bosses would like nothing better than to fire heror to see her drop into a black hole and simply disappear.
She frowned into her glass and tried to ignore the pain of regret that clutched at her heart. It hadn't been easy, working with Mike Ryan for the past several months. Every time they were in the same room together, she felt hostility coming off him in waves so thick it nearly choked her. The man was hard-hearted, stubborn, unreasonable and still the one man who made her in-sides quiver.
She lifted her glass of wine in a toast to her own stupidity.
Seriously, hadn't she learned her lesson more than a year ago? When they met that night in Phoenix, it had been magic, pure and simple. And, like any good fairy tale, the magic had lasted exactly one night. Then Prince Charming had turned into an ogre and Jenny's proverbial glass slippers were flip-flops again.
It had all started out so well, too. The night before a big gaming convention in Phoenix, Jenny had met a tall, gorgeous man with a wicked smile and eyes as blue as a summer sky. They had a drink together in the bar, then had dinner, then took a walk and finally had ended up in her room at the convention hotel. She'd never done that beforegone to bed with a man she barely knew. But that night, everything had been different. From the moment she met Mike, she'd felt as if she had somehow only been waiting for him to walk into her life. Which, she could admit now, was absolutely ridiculous. But that night Jenny had allowed her heart to rule her head. She'd given in to the rush of attraction, that zing of something special that she'd only ever felt for him. And by morning, Jenny knew she'd made a huge mistake.
Sighing, she laid her head against the back of the chair, closed her eyes and drifted back to the moment when the floor had opened up beneath her feet. The morning after the best night of her life.