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If life was a glass of Cabernet, Alexandra Anderson wanted to live right in the lusty, full-bodied center of it. The thrill of the chase was paramount-the stickier the challenge, the better. If she wasn't sure she could do it- that's where she wanted to be. That's when she got even better. That's where she thrived.
As for the intricacies of that particular varietal versus California Zinfandel and Merlot? For a girl who'd grown up in the backwaters of Iowa tossing back beers with the undesirable crowd, it wasn't something that kept her up at night. Who gave a toss as long as it tasted good and did something to alleviate the interminable boredom of yet another cocktail party that was all work and no play?
Certainly not the sentiment of the man who'd just strode into Napa Valley's annual industry fundraiser for the homeless, a massive scowl on his face. Those grapes that made bubbly go fizz for her were an obsession for Gabriele De Campo, the visionary behind De Campo Group's world-renowned wines. His raison d'être.
She stood watching him from her perch on the balcony overlooking the mezzanine of the Pacific Heights hotspot Charo, where the event was being held, with only one goal in mind: to indulge in one of those adrenaline-seeking ventures she so loved. To convince Gabriele De Campo to let her PR firm handle the two massive upcoming launch events for De Campo's most important wine in a decade. It was her chance to finally win a piece of the internationally renowned winemaker's communications portfolio, and she didn't intend to fail.
She took a sip of the glass of wine she'd been nursing for an hour and a half while she'd schmoozed every key player in the California wine industry, doing every piece of reconnaissance she could to learn who was who, what made these people tick and what would make a knockout launch for De Campo.
A warning shiver snaked up her spine. Was she crazy to even be attempting this?
It had all happened in a rather mind-numbingly quick fashion. This morning she'd been sleeping off one too many martinis from her girls' night out in Manhattan when she'd been woken at 6:00 a.m. with a panicked phone call from Katya Jones, the head of De Campo's marketing department. An old colleague of hers, cool-as-a-cucumber Katya had sounded unusually flustered. Gabriele De Campo had just fired the PR agency handling his Devil's Peak launch for its "atroce" ideas three and a half weeks before simultaneous kickoff events in Napa and New York. "I need you," Katya had groaned. "And I need you now.'''
Alex might not have been so inclined to drag her sorry butt out of bed for a chance to work for her sister's brother-in-law if she hadn't just lost her three-million-dollar-a-year diamond client this week in a hostile takeover. It had been a huge blow for Alex's fledgling PR firm that had just taken over a ritzy new space on Fifth Avenue. If she didn't find another big client soon, she'd be closing her doors before she even got started. So she'd shaken off her fuzz, canceled her appointments and jumped on a plane to San Francisco in time to make this party.
There was only one problem with the whole scenario. Katya didn't know Alex's relationship to Gabe. Didn't know he had a strict no-working-with-family policy he'd never bent from, no matter how much she'd tried to convince him to give her De Campo's business. Didn't know she and Gabe were like oil and water. Always. When Gabe said white, she said black. It was just the way it was.
Which had no bearing on the here and now, she told herself, tucking a wayward strand of her long, dark hair back into her chignon, squaring her shoulders and starting for the winding staircase that led down to the mezzanine. Her combative relationship with Gabe was inconsequential when a two-million-dollar contract was on the line. When her future was on the line.
She curved her hand around the mahogany banister and took a deep, steadying breath. Her steps down the staircase were slow and deliberate, designed not to attract attention. Gabe was in the middle of the crowd, speaking to the head of the local farm workers union, his attention immersed in his subject as it always was-that single-minded focus his trademark. But as she continued her descent, that familiar awareness flickered across the air between them, charged, electric. Gabe's head came up. His gaze froze as it rested on her. His eyes widened.
As if he was surprised to see her.
Oh, Lord. Katya had told him she'd hired her. Hadn't she?
She started to get the awful feeling that no, somehow her old colleague had not passed along that crucial piece of information as she descended the second flight of stairs, her heart thumping in tandem with each step. Gabe's thick, dark brow arched high, his gaze not leaving her face. Surprise. Definitely surprise.
This was so, so not good.
Or maybe, she countered desperately, as he broke off his conversation and strode over to stand at the base of the stairs, it was actually a very good thing. Having the element of surprise over control freak Gabe could work in her favor. Allow her to slide in some sound reasoning before he brought the gavel down.
Her knees, as she descended the last flight and took him in, felt a little too weak for a woman facing a man who was essentially family. Which might have been due to the superbly tailored suit that fit Gabe's tall, muscular body like a glove. Or his black-as-night hair worn overly long with perfectly cut sideburns.
Some women pointed out the sexy indentation in the middle of his chin as outrageously hot. She preferred the drown-yourself-in-them forest-green eyes. His formidable self-control she was fairly certain would come crumbling down for the right woman
She pulled in a breath as she negotiated the last step and stopped in front of him. Utterly to die for. Utterly off-limits. Get a hold of yourself, Lex.
His mouth curved. "Alexandra."
The rich, velvety texture of his voice stormed her senses, sending goose bumps to every inch of her skin. His use of her full name was formal, his gaze as it rested on her face probing. "I had no idea you were on the West Coast."
Dammit, Katya. He really had no idea. She swallowed past the sudden dryness in her throat and tipped her head back to look up at him. "Your internal radar didn't signal I was close?"
His mouth quirked. "Something must have been scrambling the signal."
She braced herself against the smoky, earthy scent of him as he bent to brush his lips across each of her cheeks, but his husky "ciao" decimated her composure.
"What are you doing here?" he murmured, drawing back, his gaze lingering on her face. "I can't imagine anything less your style than an industry party like this."
Hell. She lifted her chin. "You haven't spoken to Katya yet today, have you?"
"Yes, she was going to call you. She-I-" Alex planted her gaze on his and held on. "She hired me, Gabe. To do the events."
His eyes widened, then darkened. "That isn't possible. I approve those decisions."
"I'm afraid it is," she said calmly. "Have you checked your messages? She must have left you one."
He scraped his hair out of his face with a tanned, elegant-fingered hand and scowled. "I haven't had two seconds to think today, let alone check email."
And there you had it. She plastered a breezy, confident smile on her face. "You have coast-to-coast launches in three and a half weeks, Gabe. Katya knows I'm the only one who can pull them off at this point, so she called me in to help." She waved a hand at him. "I'm here to save you."
"Save me?" His frown deepened. "You know I have a firm policy against working with family."
"I don't think you have a choice."
He screwed up his aristocratic, beautiful face and sliced a hand through the air. "I need a drink."
Excellent idea. So did she.
"So, I can have a theme to you in forty-eight hours," she said brightly, trailing along behind him to the bar. "I looked at the ideas the other agency put together for you and I agree, they're crap. I've got some much better ones."
"Alex," he growled, slapping his palm on the bar, "you are not doing these launch events."
She slid onto a stool, her chin tilted at a mutinous angle. "Katya hired me. I'm brilliant at my job. You know I am."
"That is irrelevant." He barked a request for drinks at the bartender, then sat down beside her. "I know you're the best, Alex. I would have hired you already if you weren't family. But you are, and it's not happening."
Desperation surged through her. She rested her elbows on the bar, locked her gaze on his and went for the jugular. "You backed the wrong horse, Gabe. You chose the wrong agency and now you're in too deep. Executing two massive back-to-back launch events in Napa and New York with this little prep time is an almost suicidal assignment. There are only two PR people besides myself in this country who are even capable of pulling it off. One," she emphasized, "is presently sailing up the Nile with his wife. I know because I just got a postcard from him. The second is in Houston doing an event with five extra staff she just hired to make it happen. You will not," she pronounced, "be getting any personal service there."
He slid a glass of wine across the bar to her, his broad shoulders rising in a dismissive shrug. "We'll figure it out. I'm not breaking my rule."
Fire singed her veins. There were a few things Alex was sure of in life. One was the fact that no one was better at their job than she was. Hands down. He needed her. "Do you want your launches to fail?" she demanded. "You've spent eight years, eight years getting De Campo to this point in Napa, Gabe. Eight years gaining the respect you deserve for your Californian vintages. You have one chance to make a first impression with this wine. I can make sure it's the launch of the year."
He set his glass down and cursed under his breath. Alex stared at him. She had never, ever heard Gabe say that word.
"Let me help you," she murmured, reaching out and laying her hand on his forearm. "I can do this."
A current of electricity zigzagged its way from her palm to her stomach. She pulled her hand away and tucked it under her thigh. It was always this way between them, a gigantic pulse-fluttering awareness of each other that defied reason.
"You didn't think it was a really bad idea jumping on a plane before you had any idea if I was going to take you on?" Gabe muttered with a dark stare that was equal parts frustration and something else entirely.
"Katya hired me. As in gave me the job, Gabe."
"I can unhire you."
He shrugged. "You know it's a bad idea."
"It's fine." She sank her teeth into her bottom lip. "I'll stay out of your way. I'll be so invisible you won't even know I'm there."
"That," he murmured, wry humor flashing in his eyes, "is a physical impossibility for you. You're like a fireengine-red poppy in a sea of Tuscan green."
He held up a hand, his gaze flicking over her shoulder. "I need to talk to a couple of people, then I have a ton of work to do at home. Sit here, wait for me and I'll drive you back to your hotel. We can talk on the way."
She wanted to retort she wasn't a dog, that she didn't take orders, but this was the part where she needed to prove he could work with her.
"Fine," she murmured sweetly. "Here I sit, waiting for you."
He narrowed his gaze on her face, looked as if he was about to say something, then shook his head and stood. "Ten minutes."
She watched his tall, imposing figure cut through the crowd. Holy hell, Katya. Really?
The chicly dressed West Coast crowd buzzed around her, drawn to the shining mahogany centerpiece of a bar like moths to a flame. She settled back on the stool, enjoying the relaxed, chilled-out vibe that was so far from the New York scene she was used to, it was like night and day. Sipped her wine and wondered how to approach this Gabe she wasn't familiar with. He rarely got into a mood, he was iron man, the man most likely to walk through a burning building unscathed, his Armani suit intact. Yet tonight he was antagonized, edgy. Harder to predict.
The only thing to do was stick to the end goal, she told herself. Get the job. She hadn't spent the last eight years slugging it out in a big, prestigious Manhattan PR firm to go back to working fourteen-hour days on brands that bored her to tears. Functioning like a corporate robot to pad someone else's bottom line. Anderson Communications was hers. Her ticket to complete financial independence and security. She was not going to fail.
For her, freedom was everything. Misplaced testosterone had no part in it when her future was on the line.
She ran her gaze over the crowded bar with a restless energy that contrasted with the easy vibe. Continued cataloging the attributes of her target audience. A fortysome-thing salt-and-pepper male on the other side of the bar caught her eye.
It couldn't be.
The one man she'd truly hoped never to see again.
Her heart stopped in her chest. Tall, lean and sophisticated in a dark gray designer suit, chatting to a quirkily beautiful blonde, he looked exactly the same. Except, now he had the gray where before he hadn't and there were visible lines around his eyes when he smiled. That smile he knew dropped a woman at fifty paces.
It had her.
She whipped around on the stool, but not before he saw her. The shock on his face rocketed through her, made her dizzy, disoriented. She got unsteadily to her feet and walked blindly through the crowd, destination undetermined, anywhere that was far, far away from him. The faces around her blurred into a haze of polite laughter and bright lights. Of course Jordan would be here tonight. He was the CEO of the biggest spirits company in the U.S. Everyone who was anyone in the wine industry was here .
Why hadn't she anticipated it?
A hand came down on her shoulder.
She spun around, her heart jump-starting and racing a mile a minute. Jordan Lane. Her former client. The man she'd made the biggest mistake of her life with.
The man she'd loved and hated in equal measure.
"Jordan." She forced the words past her constricted throat. "What a surprise."