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"You didn't tell me there would be paparazzi!" Maggie Goodman muttered into her phone.
As if she wasn't nervous enough. She ducked behind the trees, out of sight of the snap-happy vultures with their powerful cameras and long-range lenses. Thankfully, they hadn't spotted her; their attention remained focused hungrily on the front entrance of Trump Place.
"Relax, sis," Tracy soothed. "They'll be watching for Manhattan's glitterati. They won't care about the ex-wife of a jack-the-lad footballer. Soccer isn't as popular in the States as it is back home in England."
"Everyone here seems to know David Beckham and Posh Spice."
"Sure, but how many have heard of Wayne Rooney and Colleen, let alone know what they look like? They won't know Lee Goodman." Her voice softened. "Or you."
Anonymity was one of the reasons Maggie had leaped at Tracy's offer to come to the United States. She'd been tired of having the details of her messy divorce splashed across the tabloids and of being asked questions by the gossip media every time her ex was seen with a new woman. He could date who he pleased as long as he left Maggie and her seven-year-old daughter, Emily, alone. They'd suffered enough.
"They won't recognize you," Tracy added. "You look completely different now."
Maggie smoothed her dark brown hair, recently restored to her natural color from bleached blond, then checked the cafe au lait linen dress and matching jacket she'd worn for this evening's meeting. Understated, professional and elegant, it was as far from tarty footballer's wife as she could get. Not what she was used to wearingshe'd thrown away every bling-covered, barely there outfit as soon as her divorce had been finalizedbut it felt normal.
Lee would hate it. Despite the heat, a shiver went through her as she recalled the repercussions of his disapproval. She shook her head to clear the brutal images. She didn't have to worry about what her ex thought anymore. She didn't have to worry what any man thought. Maggie would never give anyone the chance to control her life that way again.
"You're right." She wished the nervous fluttering in her stomach would settle. "I just don't want to let you down. I know how important this meeting is for Making Your Move. What if I mess it up?"
Bad enough that Tracy was flat on her back in a hospital bed after emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix and that her assistant had run off with a minor-league baseball player, one of the relocation business's clients. Maggie would never forgive herself if she ruined her sister's chance of winning the contract with the New Jersey Ice Cats, the local professional hockey team.
"I doubt you could make things worse. What could go wrong?"
"Jake Badoletti's a professional sportsman with a bad-boy reputation. We both know how temperamental they can be." Her gut twisted at the thought of the one she'd divorced nearly a year ago. She touched a finger to the fading scar on her cheek.
"Jake at his worst is a million times better than your snake of an ex. When I dealt with Bad Boy, he was charmingnot what I'd expected given the media stories about him."
Maggie had read the client file about the popular hockey player. Jake "Bad Boy" Badoletti was a top defenseman who played as hard off the ice as on it. Clippings from the society pages and celebrity magazines, as well as excerpts from internet sites like TMZ, had shown him dating a staggering array of beautiful women and attending countless parties and celebrity events.
Admittedly, there had been a shift in the stories after the horrific car accident that had taken the life of his good friend. Jake had been injured badly enough that there were fears he'd never skate again, let alone play professionally. Once he'd recovered, the media coverage had focused on his charity work and fan-appreciation events.
Had he really changed, or was he as good at playing the PR game as he was hockey? In her experience, leopards didn't change their spots.
Either way, it made no difference; she had a job to do. "I'd better go or I'll be late."
"I really appreciate you doing this for me, sis."
"Let's see if you still feel like that after I've spoken with Jake."
"You'll be fine. It's a straightforward meeting."
"Get him to sign the paperwork that says everything went okay with his move from Chicago." Maggie tapped her briefcase. "And check if he needs anything else."
"See, piece of cake. You'll be in and out of there in no time. Then I promise you can focus on helping me with the admin side of the business instead of taking client meetings."
"Sounds good." Maggie kept her voice light. "By the time I finish here and collect Emily from your neighbor's house, we'll have missed visiting hours. We'll see you tomorrow."
"I'm glad Emily hit it off with Janice's daughter, Amy. It'll do both of you single mothers a favor." Tracy swore and lowered her voice. "Nurse Attila is outside my room. She'll give me hell if she catches me on my cell. She's already confiscated my laptop."
"That's because you're supposed to be resting, not working."
"Working helps me feel better." Tracy's sharp intake of breath said moving was still painful.
"So would following the doctor's orders."
"You always were the bossy big sister. Oops, got to go. See you tomorrow."
Maggie shook her head indulgently as she snapped her phone shut. Not much kept her sister down. She'd do well to take a leaf out of Tracy's book.
Helping Tracy was a small way to thank her for giving Maggie the chance to provide a safe, secure life for Emily, far away from Lee. It was also an opportunity to rebuild the self-confidence and independence her ex had stolen from her. This meeting was an important first step. Admittedly, she hadn't done anything yet, but from the smallest acorns
"Okay. I can do this." She squared her shoulders, then strode purposefully toward the brass-and-glass entrance.
Tracy was right. The paparazzi paid no attention to Maggie, giving her only a brief, dismissive glance as she walked past them and through the doors into the lobby.
Relieved at having made it past the first hurdle unscathed, she stepped into a waiting elevator and jabbed the button for the fortieth floor. She checked her appearance in the mirrored wall and grimaced. The ferry ride from Weehawken, along with the summer heat and humidity, had reddened her cheeks and frizzed her hair. Grateful for the air-conditioning, she tried to fix the damage, then turned her mind to the upcoming meeting.
Jake Badoletti was New Jersey's prodigal son. Recently transferred from Chicago, the Ice Cats management and fans believed he'd bring the ultimate hockey prize, the Stanley Cup, back to his home state. Keen to ensure their star player's transition went smoothly, the Ice Cats had given Tracy carte blanche in managing Jake's relocation. They'd promised to put her on retainer for all their player moves if she delivered for Bad Boy.
With Jake settled into his new place, all Tracy needed was for him to sign off the move. She hadn't wanted to wait until she was out of hospital and had begged a favor.
Maggie swallowed hard. She'd never done anything like this before; she'd been a secretary, then a sports star's wife, not a businesswoman. Talk about a baptism of fire.
Taking in a deep breath, she tried to calm her jittery pulse. It was only one meeting, and Tracy was depending on her to give it her best shot. I won't let her down.
The soft digital voice announcing the fortieth floor made her heart thump heavily.
"Showtime." Stiffening her spine, she strode out of the lift.
Her steps faltered. Noise spilled out of the open apartment doors. Voices and laughter, underscored with a heavy bass beat. The air was thick with a mix of expensive perfume and potent aftershave.
Jake had arranged their meeting during a party? That didn't reassure her about the kind of man he was.
Several enormous men headed past her toward the elevator. Built like tanks, with thick necks and tattoos, she guessed they were American footballers. A couple of tanned women wearing microminis, crop tops and skyscraper heels hung off each player's arm.
Maggie couldn't help a pang of envy when she saw one of the women wearing a sexy pair of Giuseppe Zanotti studded sandals. Her toes curled in her sling-backs. Even though they were Chanelshe hadn't given up the designer shoes she lovedthe sedate pair didn't have the same feel she knew those strappy stilettos would.
Once, she would have loved being at a party like this. She would have delighted in rubbing shoulders with those richer and more famous than she and Lee were, hoping some of their glitz would come her way. Back then, she would have found a way to be the center of attention.
"Get your butt over here, Cindy," one of the men growled impatiently at a blonde tottering unsteadily behind the group.
Maggie's stomach twisted as darker memories filled her mind. She turned away, desperate to escape both her thoughts and the building as fast as possible. Before she could take a step, an inner voice reminded her that wasn't an option.
She brushed her damp palms against her linen dress and forced the memories aside. Her heels clicked on the marble floor as she walked along the hallway.
Her sense of dread grew as she progressed through the apartment. Aside from the flamboyantly garish decor, this could have been the house she'd left behind in England. From the leather, steel and glass furniture to the top-of-the-range boys' toys in every room, the place reeked of money and testosterone overload.
She'd expected to find Jake at the heart of the party, but he wasn't among the crowd in the living room. There were some fit blokes, probably teammates, and a couple of actors she recognized from one of the New York cop dramas, as well as a bunch of fresh-faced clones in buttoned-down shirts and chinos who could be Wall Street whiz kids, lawyers or the wealthy of Upper Manhattan. The women were all tall, thin and tanned with long, shiny hair and the latest designer fashions.
Jake wasn't among the thick necks doing body shots off a giggling redhead sprawled across the long, shiny table in the dining room. Nor in the den, where another group of men sprawled on leather couches alongside yet more tanned, scantily clad women, watching a baseball game on a giant plasma screen.
Where the heck was he? How could she make a good impression on him when she couldn't find him? Biting back a sigh, she headed in a different direction.
Near the master suite, she noticed a pair of handsome, well-built men coming toward her. Clearly brothers, they looked like athletes. Hockey players? Maybe they knew where Jake was hiding.
"Excuse me. Have you seen Jake Badoletti?"
"Honey, whatever you want from Jake, I can do better," the taller man said with a twinkle in his eye.
Though she normally ignored such blatant flirtation, the man's grin was infectious. Maggie couldn't help smiling back.
"Behave, Tru." The stockier bloke frowned, then glanced through the open door behind them. "Jake's kind of busy."
Maggie's smile faded. Great. Her client was holed up in his bedroom with a groupie. She was tempted to leave and make him reschedule, but she didn't want to get Tracy into trouble. "I'll wait for him in the living room. Thank you."
"Don't rush off. Have a drink with us." The friendlier brother stuck out his hand. "Tru Jelinek. I play with Jake on the Ice Cats. This is my brother, Ike."
They seemed harmless enough, and it would be better than waiting alone. "Nice to meet you. Maggie Goodman."
"You're English?" Ike studied her carefully. "I didn't think you Brits were hockey fans."
"I'm not a fan. I'm with Making Your Move. I have an appointment with Jake."
"I'm her sister. I'm helping her out until she's back on her feet."
"We heard about her busted appendix." He sounded concerned. "Is she doing okay?"
"Yes, thank you. She's recovering nicely, but frustrated she's not healing faster."
"I bet," he muttered.
"Do you know her well?" She was curious about his reaction.
"She helped me find my town house last summer."
From his tone, there was more to that story than the single, bald sentence, but she didn't have time to explore it, as Tru motioned her toward the open bedroom door.
"Since you're here on business, you should go on in."
When Maggie hesitated, he urged her on. "You're not interrupting anything important. Besides, the sooner you're done, the sooner you can join us for a drink."
Swallowing her apprehension over what she'd see within, she gripped her briefcase tightly and stepped into the doorway.
In the large sitting area of the suite, by the floor-to-ceiling windows, a group of women fluttered around a tall, dark-haired man like a flock of brightly colored exotic birds. That must be Jake Badoletti. Her mouth went dry.
None of the photos in Tracy's file had done him justice. She'd known he was good-looking, but that didn't begin to describe the man in person.
Heaven help her, he was gorgeous!
Square jawed and rugged, with piercing blue eyes and a crooked grin. He was clearly a warrior of the ice, but his broken nose and scars somehow added to his appeal and made him more intriguing. Unlike the hulking bodies of the thick necks, Jake had the firm, solid lines of an athlete in peak condition. Lean, corded muscle shaped the snug-fitting black shirt and faded jeans. Exciting and enticing, he brimmed with charm and hints of danger.
No wonder he had that reputationany woman would have a hard time resisting the pull of this particular bad boy. Once upon a time, she'd have been in that crowd, fighting for his attention. Not anymore. Never again.
Still, she couldn't help feeling a little relieved that she probably wouldn't see him again.
He'd be Tracy's problem, assuming Maggie did what she had to do in this meeting. Pushing aside a last-minute nervous quiver, she donned her polite but reserved media smile and entered the lion's den.
"What can I get you, Bad Boy?"
A skinny blonde in a figure-hugging yellow microdress and spiked heels offered a champagne flute and a shot glass, but the message in her baby blue eyes said, "Choose me."
Jake held up the beer bottle he'd been nursing for the past hour and forced a smile of regret he didn't feel. "I'm good, thanks."
Her full lips pursed in a disappointed pout that six months ago he would have been tempted to kiss away. Now he couldn't dredge up any interest. He was relieved when she and several of her friends flounced off.
The high-pitched chatter of the women who remained reverberated in his head, making his temples throb. The sickly mix of their perfumes made him yearn for fresh air. He had to get out of here. If it wasn't for the paparazzi camped outside the building, Jake would have gone for a walk. He would take the heat and humidity of the city in August if it meant he got some respite.