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OMG. Luke McKenzie.
When Jess had taken the assignment from the temp agency to work as a production assistant for a film company, she'd expected it to be a low-budget affair with actors she'd never heard of. Not Luke McKenzie, who'd been named as the most beautiful man in the world for three years running. Luke McKenzie, the favourite actor of both her sister and her best friend, and whose films they dragged her to see at the cinema, even though Jess would rather watch a decent sci-fi movie than sit through a rom-com for the umpteenth time.
Luke McKenzie, who right now didn't look very happy.
Neither did the chocolate Labrador who was sitting beside him, radiating guilt.
Well, this was none of her business. She was meant to be sorting out some paperwork, not gawking at an A-list movie star or listening in to her boss's conversation.
'Jess, can you come here a second, please?' Ayesha Milan, the production manager, called.
'Sure,' Jess said, expecting to be sent on an errand.
'Can you look after Mr McKenzie's dog today?' Jess froze. Look after a dog.
That was precisely why she'd left the career she loved and had become a temp. So she'd never have to look after another dog again.
'She doesn't bite,' Luke said, rolling his eyes. 'Just steals things and chews them. She seems to have a particular taste for Loubou-tins.'
Expensive designer shoes. Well, that would explain why he didn't look too happy-the owner of said shoes had probably had a mammoth hissy fit on him when she'd discovered the damage, and replacing them would be far from cheap.
'Jess, are you scared of dogs?' Ayesha asked.
'No-o,' Jess said hesitantly. She wasn't scared of dogs. She was scared of bonding with them. Of having her heart shredded again. It had taken her more than a year to get to where she was now. The thought of having to look after a dog was bringing everything right back to her.
'Then can you take charge of ?' Ayesha looked at Luke to prompt him for the dog's name.
'Baloo,' Ayesha finished, looking straight at Jess. Oh, help.
As a production assistant, Jess was basically meant to do anything she was asked to do. Saying no would be tantamount to cancelling her contract. Even though she'd worked for the temp agency for nearly a year now, it would still make her look unreliable if she walked out of this job less than an hour after she'd started it, leaving the client in a mess. Which meant they'd be less likely to give her any more assignments, and she couldn't afford to lose her job.
But saying yes meant putting herself back in a vulnerable position. Something she really didn't want to do.
'I've got to get back to the set. I don't have time for this. Here,' Luke said, and handed her the dog's lead.
Before Jess could process what was happening, he'd stomped off.
Leaving her with the dog.
'I-look, don't I have other stuff to do for you?' she asked Ayesha, inwardly panicking. Please let her not have to do this. Please.
Ayesha spread her hands. 'The big thing is to keep the stars happy. We have to tiptoe round them.' She sighed. 'I expected Mimi to be the difficult one, not him.'
'Why did he bring the dog on set? Especially if he knows that she chews things?'
Ayesha shrugged. 'I have no idea.'
'He could've brought a crate with him. Where the dog would've felt safe instead of worried by all the people round her, and-' Jess stopped, aware that Ayesha was looking curious.
'You sound as if you know about dogs.'
A degree in animal behaviour and working as a police dog trainer for most of her career had taught Jess a lot. 'A bit,' Jess mumbled.
'Then you'll be the perfect person to look after Baloo,' Ayesha said brightly.
No, she wasn't. She was the last person to look after the dog. Why hadn't she lied and said that she was scared of dogs, or allergic to them? And she was furious at the way the actor had behaved. This was as bad as the socialites who carried a little dog around with them as an accessory. 'If you haven't got time to look after a dog properly, you shouldn't have one,' Jess said. 'I don't care if he's the star of the film. This isn't how you treat dogs.' She frowned. 'My sister and my best friend think he's wonderful. I didn't think he'd be like-well, like that, in real life.' Grouchy. Demanding. Whatever the male equivalent of a diva was.
'He never used to be,' Ayesha said. 'I worked on a film with him a couple of years ago, and he was a total sweetheart-he remembered everyone's name, thanked anyone who ran an errand for him, and I think every female member of the crew and cast fell in love with him. Including me, and I'm used to actors being charming. With him, it wasn't acting. He meant it.' She shrugged. 'But he's had a pretty hard time the last year. I think it's changed him.'
Jess remembered seeing the stories about the break-up of Luke McKenzie's marriage in the press. A divorce must be hard enough to deal with, but having the press zooming in on every detail must make it so much worse. And even Carly and Shannon-her sister and her best friend-had admitted that Luke's last film hadn't been quite as good as the previous ones. Not surprising, really: when your life imploded, it was pretty hard to concentrate on your job and do your best. Which was why Jess was focusing on doing something completely different from her old life. 'Even so, you don't just dump your dog on the nearest stranger.'
The dog licked her hand, as if glad that someone was batting her corner, and Jess felt something crack in the region of her heart.
She couldn't do this. She couldn't make herself that vulnerable and open again.
'Wouldn't it be better if she went to the animal handling department?' Jess asked, hoping she didn't sound quite as desperate as she felt.
'They work part-time and they're only on set when we actually need them.' Ayesha looked at her schedule. 'Which isn't today.'
So she had no choice?
'Jess, if you could look after the dog, I'd be really grateful,' Ayesha said. 'I need to keep everything running as smoothly as possible. And if we say we can't do it and give the dog back to him, it's going to affect rehearsals. We start filming this week, so we can't afford any setbacks. The dog chewed Mimi's shoes. I've already had a message from the director to get another pair delivered here by lunch-time. I get the impression that if we refuse to look after her and the dog goes back with Luke, then Mimi's going to walk off set. And it'll take an awful lot to unruffle her feathers and persuade her to come back.'
'Artistic temperament?' Jess asked.
'Let's just say she lives up to her name.'
Mimi-me, me, me, me. Jess got it instantly.
Ayesha blew out a breath. 'Though I'd appreciate it if you didn't repeat any of that.'
Jess remembered what the production manager had told her right from the start: set rules were non-negotiable. What happened on set, stayed on set. No photographs, no social media, no mobile phones, no leaks. Everything within the bounds of the set was to remain a completely separate world. 'Of course not.'
'And if you can get those call sheets for tomorrow sorted while you're looking after the dog, that'd be good.' Ayesha smiled at her.
Dismissed, but nicely so. It looked as if she didn't have a choice in the matter, then. 'OK,' Jess said, and took the dog over to her own desk.
Luke McKenzie hadn't bothered to bring a water bowl with him, or give any information about the dog's feeding schedule. And she had no idea when the movie star planned to come and collect the dog. He hadn't bothered to tell them that, either.
Jess wasn't sure what made her angriest: the fact that Luke had dumped his dog, or the fact that he'd put her in an impossible position. She didn't want to look after his dog, but she had no way to refuse. Not without explanations she didn't want to make, because she'd had enough of people pitying her.
'He needs a lesson in manners,' she said to the dog. 'And a lot of lessons in how to look after you. You haven't even got any toys to keep you busy.'
The dog shifted closer to Jess and put her head on Jess's knee.
Jess had to fight back the tears. It'd been so long since she'd worked at a desk with a dog cuddled up close to her. And the spaniel-shaped hole in her life felt as if it had just opened up again.
She dragged in a breath. 'Let's see what we can sort out for you, sweetie.' A word with the catering department netted her a plastic bowl for water, and a word with the props department gained her a tennis ball. 'It's a bit sketchy, but it's better than nothing,' she said. 'We'll work round this.'
And she wouldn't bond with the dog in just one day.
That, Luke thought as he headed for the temporary building of the production office, was possibly one of the worst days he'd ever spent in his entire career as a film actor. A co-star who wanted to be treated as if she were the empress of the entire universe, a ridiculous bill for replacing a pair of shoes that said costar could barely walk in, and now he had to go back and collect the dog that had been dumped on him. The dog he didn't want. The dog who'd wrecked both his house and his sleep over the last two days.
The icing on the misery cake now would be another of those snide little articles asking if Luke McKenzie was in the process of making another box office flop. He was pretty sure that the last couple had been written by one of his ex-wife's cronies, but calling them both on it would just result in yet more bad publicity for him. Say nothing, and he was a wimp. Protest, and he was a spiteful bastard who was trying to get revenge on his ex. Whatever he did, he lost.
'Just grin and bear it,' he told himself. Fleur would get over the guilt eventually, and she'd stop trying to paint him as the bad guy in an attempt to make herself feel better about what she'd done. He hoped.
There was one way Luke could turn the tables on her and get all the sympathy, but he wasn't prepared to do that. Particularly as he knew how quickly the press could put the opposite spin on a story to get more mileage from it. That part of his life was private, and it was staying that way.
OK. He only had to put up with the dog until Thursday. Just another three days. Then his aunt would be back in London to find the dog a permanent home; and he could get back to concentrating on his career. And on making damn sure that this movie was a huge success so Fleur and her cronies wouldn't be able to say another word.
Luke walked into the office, expecting to see Ayesha Milan, but the only person he saw was the new assistant. He hadn't actually caught her name this morning. He really regretted that; he'd always sworn that he wouldn't be one of the stuck-up stars who forgot what it was like to be at the bottom of the heap. He usually made a point of making sure that anyone who worked with him knew that he appreciated what they did and he didn't take them for granted. Today, he'd slipped up. Badly.
'Mr McKenzie,' she said, her mouth thinning. 'Come to collect your dog?'
He was about to apologise for the way he'd dumped the dog on her that morning, but she didn't give him the chance. 'I don't care if you're Mr Big Shot Actor, and I don't care if you complain to Ayesha and get me fired for this, but what you did this morning is most definitely not the way to treat a dog. You dumped her on us-without any water, any food, any bedding, any toys-and that's just not good enough.'
OK. He already knew that.
She wasn't finished. 'My sister and my best friend think you're the greatest as a movie star.'
Implying, he thought, that she didn't.
'But, let me tell you, you totally suck as a dog owner.'
He couldn't deny that. She was speaking the truth.
'Absolutely. I know nothing about dogs.' He paused. 'And Baloo isn't mine.'
That seemed to take the wind out of her sails. 'She's not yours?'
'I'm looking after her-not that I had any choice-until my aunt gets back from America in three days' time.'
'Oh.' She paused, frowning. 'Why didn't you have a choice?'
'Doesn't matter. I'll take her off your hands, now.' Not that he was going to make a good job of it. The next seventy-two hours or so were going to stretch him to the limit. It didn't help that the dog had chewed his script, too. The damned dog chewed everything. Worse still, how could he remain angry with an animal who leaped around in joy and wagged her tail madly when she saw him, and right now was sitting at his feet, looking up at him with what was definitely the canine equivalent of a dopey welcoming smile?
'Why didn't you have a choice?' The assistant's voice was softer, now. Kinder.
God, how easy it would be to let himself respond. But he couldn't afford to do that. He needed to keep his focus.
'Your aunt must've known you're working this week. She could've booked Baloo into kennels.'
'She's not my aunt's dog, either.' The words slipped out before he could stop them.
She raised an eyebrow. 'So how come your aunt asked you to look after Baloo?'
It was a long, long story.
Diversion was the best tactic here. He smiled at her. 'I'm sorry; I didn't catch your name earlier.'
'Jess.' Short for Jessica? A staccato name, clipped and a little harsh. How she'd been with him when he'd walked in. But now he looked at her-Jess. Softer. Sweeter. She wasn't wearing a scrap of make-up, not even mascara to enhance those amazing green eyes.
And what the hell was he doing, letting himself notice that? He shook himself. Even if he was in a position to think about another relationship, it sure as hell wouldn't be with anyone remotely connected to the movie business. Been there, done that, and been vilified by the press for it. Which really rankled, considering that he hadn't been the one who'd cheated and broken up the marriage.
Though he had lied. About one tiny little fact. And if that ever got out..
He shook himself. 'Jess. I was pretty short with you this morning. Rude, even. I'm sorry. This is your first day on set, isn't it?'
She looked surprised that he'd noticed. 'Yes, it is, Mr McKenzie.'
'Call me Luke. And welcome to the team,' he said.
She folded her arms. 'OK, you get points for good manners. Even though I suspect you might be acting your socks off, right now.'
To his surprise, he found himself laughing.
When was the last time he'd really laughed like that? Really been amused?
And when was the last time someone had called him on his behaviour instead of tiptoeing round him? Probably not since before the break-up of his marriage.
Jess Greenacre was refreshing. And she was the first person in a long while to intrigue him. She looked older than the average production assistant, so this probably wasn't her first job. So why was she in such a junior role?
None of his business, he reminded himself.