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Atlanta Jackson expelled a gusty sigh as she studied herself in the hotel suite's full-length mirror. Was the pale, hollowed-eyed woman staring back really her?
The hair was right, a long cascade of nearly white-blonde curls. But her skin was pasty and her body a tad too angular to carry off the bombshell label that was routinely applied to it. She was a good half-dozen pounds thinner than she'd been just a month earlier, and ten pounds thinner than she'd been the month before that. Forget the low-carb fad that was all the rage among Hollywood A-listers. She'd gone on the high-stress diet, guaranteed to melt off the pounds quicker than butter on Louisiana asphalt in August.
At least her dress, a simple navy sheath made of cotton, hid some of her new angles.
A smile bowed her lips. Zeke would hate this dress, which was precisely why she'd purchased it the day before at a pricy Fifth Avenue boutique, outside of which she had been mobbed by paparazzi and actually booed by a couple of passersby. Buying it and now wearing it out in public were acts of defiance.
Zeke Comptonher manager, mentor and, according to him, her messiahhadn't allowed her to wear navy. It was too close to black, he claimed. Black being another forbidden color since it reminded him of mourning.
"What does America's favorite actress have to be sad about?" he'd asked the one time Atlanta's stylist had suggested a vintage Oscar de la Renta gown the color of onyx for a red-carpet event.
Wouldn't the public like to know? she'd thought at the time. Now she knew better. The public didn't want the truth, unvarnished or otherwise. They wanted romantic, rags-to-riches fairy tales and titillating scandals. They wouldn't accept that she was tired of being manipulated, tired of being dictated to and sick to death of living a lie.
Atlanta slipped on a pair of rounded-toe flats. Despite the fashionable little bow on them, the shoes were another no-no in Zeke's book.
"You're too short to wear anything less than a three-inch heel, love," he'd decreed one year into their professional relationship. By then, things between them also had turned personal, and she'd moved from her West Hollywood studio apartment into his Bellaire home, playing the dutiful Eliza Doolittle to his domineering Henry Higgins.
Atlanta was five-seven, hardly what one would consider petite, but she'd listened to him about clothing and shoes and pretty much everything else. She'd always listened to the men in her life, a habit that dated to her childhood.
Bad things happen to little girls who don't do what they're told.
The words echoed from her distant past. As she had done a million times before, Atlanta forced them and the black memories that accompanied them back. Then she glanced at her watch. It was time to go. Thank God, she thought, as she made her way out the suite's door. She was as eager to leave New York as she'd been to leave Los Angeles. Neither place was welcoming now that Zeke had poisoned the well of public opinion against her and made her a pariah among her peers.
In the elevator, she checked her purse one more time, making sure she had her itinerary, tickets and passport. Her luggage was waiting downstairs. The limousine she'd called for would be at the curb, only a gauntlet of paparazzi to run before she could relax in the relative privacy that its tinted windows would afford.
In a dozen hours she would be in Monta Correnti, Italy. Her stylist, one of the few people from her old life still willing to speak to her, assured Atlanta that the remote hillside village situated between Naples and Rome was the ideal place to drop off the radar, relax and rejuvenate.
God, she hoped Karen Somerville was right. Atlanta was wound so tightly these days she felt ready to explode. But first things first. Sucking in a deep breath, she donned a pair of dark designer sunglasses as the elevator's doors slid open.
"Show time," she murmured.
Eyes shaded with his trademark Oakleys, Angelo sauntered into the VIP lounge at JFK International as if he hadn't a care in the world. Image was everything, especially given all of the speculation swirling around his career.
The official line from the team was that Angelo was suffering pulled ligaments and severe tendonitis in his right shoulder, but that after rest and physical therapy he would return to the regular lineup in the spring. The truth wasn't quite as rosy as that. In addition to the start of osteoarthritis, he had a torn rotator cuff. Cortisone shots had kept the worst of the arthritis pain at bay in the past, but no shot would take care of the torn cuff.
As the team's physician bluntly put it, "You need surgery. An injury like this won't heal on its own. And, given your age, it might never heal well enough to take the abuse heaped on it by a major league ballplayer."
It all boiled down to a truth he wasn't ready to accept. Instead of scheduling surgery, he had embraced his brother's high-handed scheme for a family reunion. He was going to Italy, where he would spend the next couple of weeks. He had no intention of reconnecting with his father, but the gesture would appease Alex. As an added bonus, that little speck on the map was a good place to duck the press and figure out his future.
The bar area of the VIP lounge held only a smattering of patrons. None of them looked up when he entered. They were all important people in their own rightmovers, shakers, captains of industry. They didn't get awestruck or if they did, they hid it well behind blasé attitudes. His ego certainly hoped that was the case with the gorgeous blonde sitting in front of the floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked the tarmac.
Despite the oversized sunglasses perched on her small nose, Atlanta Jackson was easy to recognize. The actress had starred in a dozen bona fide blockbusters. He took in the naturally pouty lips and the trademark blonde hair that tumbled just past her shoulders. Interest stirred. Again. He'd met her at a New York nightclub a few years earlier. They'd talked briefly. He'd flirted shamelessly, but to no avail. She'd turned him down flat when he'd asked her to dance. A couple of Angelo's teammates still liked to razz him about the fact that he, Angelo Casali, had struck out.
She shifted in her seat to cross her legs. The demure hemline of her simple navy dress pulled partway up her thighs. Interest turned to outright lust. Not many women were built as she was: long-limbed and slender, yet curvy in all of the places a man liked to rest his hands. A little less curvy than he recalled. He could guess why. Her image was taking a beating in the tabloids ever since she'd walked out on her much older manager slash boyfriend.
According to one story Angelo had read, the guy claimed Atlanta had betrayed him with a slew of lovers over the years, most recently bedding his twenty-year-old son.
Maybe it was Angelo's ego talking, but the woman who'd turned him down flat in a nightclub a few years earlier hadn't seemed the sort to stray. With that in mind, he crossed to her table and waited until she looked up to speak.
"I'd offer to buy you a drink, but you'd probably turn me down. So, how about some meaningful conversation until one of our flights boards?"
He couldn't see her eyes behind the glasses, but her full lips twitched with amusement. "As lines go, that's very original, Mr. Casali."
"Thanks." He didn't wait to be offered a seat. He pulled out one of the chairs and straddled it backward. "So, you do remember me. I wasn't sure you would. It's been a few years."
His ego took another little hit when she replied, "Well, you've been in the news a lot these days."
"I could say the same about you."
Her mouth tightened fractionally. "Yes, I have."
"Is that why you're wearing sunglasses inside?"
"Maybe." She motioned to his Oakleys. "And you? "
"Definitely. This way no one can be sure I'm making eye contact with them. I find it discourages conversation."
A pair of finely arched brows rose over the top rim of her dark lenses.
"You find that ironic," he guessed.
"A little." She shrugged delicately.
"Here's the thing. Since you and I are the only two people in the lounge wearing shades I figure we probably should stick together. You know, play for the same team."
"Given all that is being said about me right now, are you sure you want me on your team, Mr. Casali?"
"The name is Angelo." He cocked his head to one side. "We'll consider this a tryout."
Atlanta laughed if for no other reason than the man's sheer nerve. A tryout? She hadn't had to read for a part in quite a while. The starring roles in her last three movies, each of which had grossed well over a hundred million dollars in the American market alone, had been written specifically with her in mind. Everyone in Hollywood knew that no one played the vulnerable vixen better than Atlanta Jackson. It was her niche. Her character type. She sobered at that.
"What if I don't want to be on your team?" she asked.
She wanted to be turned off by his unflagging confidence or at the very least irritated by it. She found herself intrigued instead and maybe even a little envious. While she could portray confidence in front of the camera, she seldom felt it in real life. It was just one of the many things she was working to rectify.
"How can you be so sure?" she wanted to know.
"Everyone wants to be on the winning team."
"And that would be yours?"
"Of course. I've got the golden touch. The Rogues are in the playoffs because of me. We're heading to the Wo rl d S e r ie s."
"That's only an assumption at this point."
"No. It's a fact, sweetheart. We'll be there."
Normally, she didn't care for empty endearments, but his casual use of sweetheart complemented his bravado so perfectly, she let it pass. Instead, she honed in on another matter.
"We? Are the news reports wrong, then?" Her gaze strayed to his shoulder. It didn't look injured. Indeed, nothing about the man's rock-hard physique appeared compromised or compromising, for that matter.
"You know the media." He shrugged.
Atlanta might have believed that news of Angelo's professional demise was vastly overblown if he hadn't grimaced after making the casual movement.
"They're ruthless when they scent blood," he was saying.
Thinking of Zeke, she replied, "They're even more ruthless when they've got sources happy to help draw it."
Her image was being put through the shredder, and, while she wasn't all that sad to see some of the false layers she'd once agreed to peel away, she certainly didn't want them replaced with more lies and half-truths. Unfortunately, that was exactly what Zeke was feeding the hungry hordes these days, and they were eating it up, ravenous for more.
I made you. I'll ruin you.
Zeke's parting words. Foolishly, she hadn't believed he'd do it. She knew better now. He was doing a bang-up job of making good on his promise.
Angelo was apparently far less naïve than she. "The world is full of people eager to sell you out. You have to be careful who you trust."
"At this point, I trust no one." Surprised to have told him that, she asked, "Who do you trust?"
"My twin," he replied without hesitation. "Alex has always had my back."
"You have a twin?" Good heavens, there were two men on the planet as good-looking as this one? She'd worked with A-list actors, bona fide heartthrobs, who couldn't match Angelo's rugged male perfection. "Are you identical?"
"Not quite. I'm better looking."
"No doubt you're more modest, too," she replied dryly.
"Sure." Angelo wasn't put off. In fact, he pulled the sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and winked as he boasted, "I'm also better with women."
God help her. The man was every bit as sexy as she recalled from their brief meeting in a nightclub a few years back. He also was every bit as cocksure. She was used to being around oversized egos, her own included. Angelo, at least, tempered his with humor. He was harmless, she decided, especially here in a public place.
Which was what gave her the nerve to lean closer and say, "So, Don Juan, if I'm going to be on your team, perhaps you should explain the game we're playing."
"Is that the name or the object?"
"I'm intrigued. Tell me more."
He glanced at the chunky Rolex strapped to his wrist. "Here's the thingI have an hour and forty minutes to kill before my flight departs. I could get my own table, order a drink and sip it alone while I wait. Or I could stay here with you and enjoy what is bound to be some fascinating conversation."
A lifetime ago, Atlanta had thought herself interesting, but it had been a very long time since a man had said so. "What makes you so sure the conversation would be fascinating?"
"You're a fascinating woman. What else would it be?"
Come-on or not, his reply caused her breath to catch. Clearly, being a pariah among the people she'd considered her friends had taken its toll on her self-esteem.
"I like your answer," she told him.
"Enough to let me buy you a drink?"
"Enough that the drink's on me."
Angelo waved over a server and they ordered their beveragesan imported beer for him and a glass of unsweetened iced tea for her. As the waitress left he was frowning.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"Not wrong. I guess I thought you'd order something else."
"Such as champagne perhaps? And not just any champagne but Piper-Heidsieck by the magnum?"
"Or Dom. I read once that you bathed in it."
"I read that, too."
"It's not true?"
She shook her head. "Afraid not."
"I'm disappointed. I was going to ask you what it felt like having all of those bubbles bursting against your bare skin."
His smile, set as it was on a mouth that would have been at home on Michelangelo's David, dazzled. Atlanta camouflaged her involuntary shiver by shifting in her seat. There was no camouflaging the gooseflesh that pricked her arms. She hoped he wouldn't notice it.
"My publicist made that one up. It enjoyed a lot of buzz for a while, and I even picked up an endorsement deal for another brand of champagne. The truth is, I prefer showers to baths of any sort and I don't drink."