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"What is this?"
Dana Fallon flinched at the irritation and impatience in Max Hudson's voice. She couldn't blame him. Hudson Pictures was up against an immovable deadline in shooting their current project, and her leaving now wasn't the nicest thing she could do to them.
But she had her reasons. Good ones.
Stand by your decision. Execute your plan. Her big brother's booming "coach" voice echoed in her head even though he was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
She reined in her retreating courage, brushed the dark curtain of overgrown bangs out of her lashes and tucked the ends behind her ear. Her gaze bounced off the disbelief in Max's vivid blue eyes and focused instead on the V of tanned, muscled chest revealed by the three unfastened buttons of his white Joseph Abboud shirt. Dangerous territory.
"It's my resignation. I'm quitting, Max. You'll need to advertise for my replacement as soon as we return to the States. I've already drafted the ad for your approval."
"You can't quit." He wadded the paper one-handed and pitched it toward the trash can in the corner of the hotel suite he'd been using as a temporary office for the past several months. He missed. In the five years she'd worked for him, Dana didn't think he'd ever managed to hit a wastebasket with a paper ball regardless of which continent they were on. Max might be a creatively brilliant producer and film editor, but despite his killer body he had no athletic talents of the team sports variety.
She loved him anyway, and didn't that make her an idiot since her attachment was completely one-sided and unlikely to ever be returned? It was time she admitted Max would love his deceased wife until he joined her inthe grave and move on.
He went back to shuffling papers as if his pronouncement settled everything, and she was tempted to scuffle back to her hotel room with her metaphorical tail between her legs. But she couldn't. Not this time.
When a job offer from a friend had coincided with the anniversary of her brother's accident, Dana had realized she was no closer to attaining her goals today than she'd been when she'd taken this job. Her brother had never quit pursuing his dream despite setbacks and staggering odds, and she owed it to him to find the same courage.
That morning she'd promised herself that as soon as she left France behind and returned to California with the rest of Hudson Pictures' cast and crew she'd seize control of her life and go after the career and family she wanted.
"I have to go, Max. I want to produce my own films, and you're never going to let me do that here at Hudson.
Like my letter says, I have an opportunity with an indie film company"
"You misunderstood me. You can't quitnot to work for another filmmaker." His inflexible tone warned her not to argue.
She'd known this wouldn't be easy. That was the main reason it had taken her weeksuntil the day before her departure from Franceto work up the courage for this conversation. "I'm not asking your opinion."
"Because you already know what I'll say. It's a stupid decision and a step backward to leave a major player like Hudson to go to a fly-by-night independent studio. That aside, read your contract. You're forbidden to work for another film company for two years after you leave us."
Surprise snapped her shoulders back. She didn't remember signing a noncompete clause, but she'd been so thrilled to be offered a position at Hudson that she hadn't read the contract as carefully as she should have. The document in question was in her file cabinet at home. She couldn't verify or disprove his words. "Two years?"
"Yes. It's a standard clause in Hudson contracts. It keeps people from taking proprietary information with them when they go."
He stabbed his fingers through his short dark hair and moved a pile of papers on his desk as if he were looking for something and was irritated at not being able to find it. She fought the urge to spring forward and locate the missing item for him the way she always had in the past.
Helping him and taking care of him wasn't just her job, it had become something of an addictionone she needed to kick.
"The timing of your tantrum sucks," he added without looking up.
She gasped and tried to put a lid on her anger. Hasty words and emotional outbursts never solved anything, and it wasn't like him to be rude. But then he wasn't often under this much pressure. The film had to be wrapped and ready before his grandmother Lillian Hudson died from the cancer consuming her body. They were getting close to completion since they'd already begun the postproduc-tion phase, but the clock was ticking. Time was short and Lillian's remaining days were limited. Everyone involved was working around the clock and tense enough to crack.
Still, anger flushed any lingering reservations Dana might have had about hurting Max's feelings from her system. When she'd taken this job five years ago she'd intended only to get her foot in the door, gain a little experience and then move onward and upward in a year or two. She was overqualified to be the executive assistant to a producer and film editoreven one as acclaimed as Max Hudson. She had credentialseven if they were of the East Coast variety instead of the West Coast.
She'd always dreamed of producing her own films. But then Max had turned out to be an amazing boss. She'd found herself learning more from him than her years at university and her internships back home had taught her.
And then like a dummy, she'd fallen for him, which made leaving impossible. Until now. After watching him waltz off with yet another blonde last week, she'd realized that if the romantic setting of Chateau Montcalm in Provence, France, couldn't make Max see her as a woman instead of just an office accessory, then he never would.
She had put her life on hold to be near him for too long. She had to move on. Her brother often said that treading water did nothing but maintain the status quo, and she'd been treading and going nowhere. That had to end. Now.
She struggled to get control of her emotions so she wouldn't end up shrieking at him, and when she thought she had, she took a deep breath. "This is not a tantrum, Max. This is my career."
He looked up from his desk, his blue eyes glacial. "You'll have no career if you try to find work elsewhere in the film industry."
Shock slipped beneath her ribs like a sharp sword. Shock, hurt and betrayal. Max had a reputation for being ruthless in pursuit of his vision for a film, but he'd never been that way with her. "After all I've done for you, you'd blackball me?"
"In a heartbeat. Your leaving now would destroy our chance of finishing before" He bit off the words and turned his head toward the storyboard hanging on the wall. But she didn't think he was focusing on the graphic depictions of each scene from the movie.
His jaw muscles bunched and his lips flattened. Watching him struggle with his feelings gripped her in a choke hold. She knew he was crazy about Lillian. They all adored the Hudson matriarch. And the knowledge that they would soon lose her was difficult to handle. But Dana knew Max was wrong about one thing. He could finish this film without her.
He visibly pulled himself together and his eyes found hers again. This time they were hard with determination and devoid of emotion. This was the face of the man she'd seen reduce misbehaving cast or crew members to Jell-O with a few terse lines. She locked her knees to prevent the same thing from happening to her.
"Dana, I won't let you make me fall behind schedule.
My grandmother wants to see the story of her romance with my grandfather on the screen. I will not disappoint her. And I will do whatever it takes to prevent you from sabotaging this project."
"Sabotaging!" She couldn't believe what she was hearing. She'd known he wasn't going to take this well, but to threaten her? When she'd started working for him five years ago he'd still been reeling from his wife's death. She'd done everything except breathe for him until he'd surfaced from his grief. And she'd continued to be his right hand ever since.
This was the thanks she got?
Fury simmered inside her. If she stayed in this suite one more minute she was going to say something she'd regret.
"I am going back to my room." It had taken everything she had to work up the nerve for this confrontation, and she'd crashed and burned because he was being an idiot. She needed to regroup, to replan. Because she couldn't go on. Not like this.
She pivoted on her boot heel and stomped out of his suite. A stream of Max's muttered curses followed in her wake. He called her back, but she didn't stop and she didn't go to her room. She couldn't. A sense of claustrophobia engulfed her. She bypassed the elevator, jogged down the emergency stairs and slammed out the side exit of the hotel. Her long stride covered the parking lot as she headed… somewhereshe didn't know where, but anywhere away from the infuriating, selfish bastard in the hotel was preferable to here.
"Dana," Max called from behind her. She ignored him and lengthened her stride. "Dana. Wait."
She heard his footsteps quicken as if he'd broken into a jog and then he caught her elbow as she reached a corner, pulled her to a standstill and swung her around to face him. "Give me a couple of months. Let me get Honor in the can. And then we'll talk."
"There's nothing left to talk about, Max. I've asked you for a bigger role and been refused so many times I've quit wasting my breath. I didn't spend all those years and all that money getting a degree in filmmaking to be an executive assistant."
"I'll give you a raise."
She tilted her head back and glared at him. He could be so obtuse sometimes she wanted to scream. "It's not about the money or even the project. I believe in this movie with all my heart, and I want to help you finish it. But the chance to produce the indie film won't wait for me. My friend's company needs me now. The only reason I have this opportunity is because their last producer died unexpectedly. I've already made her wait three weeks for a decision. If I turn them down or try to stall them any longer they'll find someone else. If anyone understands budget and time constraints as a producer, you should, Max. You know I have to move now."
She could practically see the wheels turning in his brain. His hand slid from her elbow to her bicep to her shoulder, his long, warm fingers infusing her flesh with heat that seeped through the fabric of her blouse and straight into her bones. It wasn't a sexual thing on his part. But it was on hers. She felt the noncaress deep inside.
She had a love-hate reaction to his touches. She loved how each caress made her feel all excited and jittery and breathless, but she hated how a simple brush of his fingers could weaken her kneesand her willpowerand turn her into putty in his hands.
And he didn't even notice.
Talk about adding insult to injury.
"Stay, Dana. I'll give you associate producer credits on Honor. That will give you better credentials whenever you decide to move on. Not that I intend to make it easy for you to leave. You're the best assistant I've ever had."
His praise filled her with a warm glow, and then reality hit her with a cold, sobering shower. He was talking about her work, not her personally. He'd never see her as anything more than a coworker. And she wanted more so, so much more. But right now, with his fingertips gently massaging her shoulder, she was too addled to make a decision.
She shrugged off his hand. "I'll think about it and get back to you before we touch down in L.A."
"I won't be returning with you tomorrow. I need another week here, maybe two or three. I want your decision now."
Frustration and a sense of entrapment made it difficult for her to breathe. He knew if she agreed she wouldn't go back on her word. Unlike most of the inhabitants of Hollywood, her word was her bond. But if she stayed with him… how would she ever get over him and move on with her life? And if she couldn't do that, how would she ever have the family or the career she craved?
James, her older brother, her idol, would be so disappointed in her for waffling.
"We both know 'associate producer' is a pretty useless title, often no more than a boon given because someone did somebody a favor. I want more than credits, Max. I want hands-on skills. And I know you. There's enough control freak in you that you'd give me the title but none of the producer's responsibilities. I'd come away with a slightly better-looking résumé, but without any new abilities."
A nerve in his upper lip twitched, drawing her attention to the mouth that had monopolized so many of her dreamsa mouth she had yet to feel against hers in her waking hours. A September breeze cooled her skin and stirred his thick hair. She fisted her fingers against the need to smooth those dark glossy strands back into place.
"With the deadline we're facing, you'll be working around the clock if you take this position, and I promise you, this won't be a meaningless title. You'll get your new skills." And you'll regret it, his challenging tone implied.
She could feel herself slipping toward acquiescence and tried to pull back from the ledge to weigh the positives and negatives. As he'd said, any Hudson Pictures product carried clout and a guaranteed cinematic release. An indie film did not. The best she could hope for was acclaim at the Sundance or Toronto film festivals and possible success if that happened and the movie got picked up. But the market for independent films was exceptionally tight right now. Few were selling without big name stars. Her friend's flick had no box office draws in the cast.
Slim-to-none chances versus a sure thing. Some choice.