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Allan McKinney might look like a Hollywood hottie with his lean, made-for-sin body, neatly styled dark brown hair and piercing silver eyes that could make a woman forget to think. But Jessi Chandler knew he was the devil in disguise.
He was the bad guy and always had been. More tempting than sin itself as he rode in at the last minute to ruin everything. Knowing him the way she did, she couldn't imagine he had come to her table in the corner of Little Bar here in the Wilshire/La Brea area of Los Angeles for any other reason than to crow about his latest victory.
It had been only three weeks since he and his vengeful cousins at Playtone Games had taken over her family's company, Infinity Games, bringing their longtime rivalry to a vicious climax.
She'd just come from a meeting at Playtone Games where she'd made a proposal to try to save her job. The most humiliating thing about this merger was having to grovel in front of Allan. She was a damned fine director of marketing, but instead of being able to continue in her role and just get on with the work that needed to be done, she had to trek into the city from Malibu once a week and prove to the Montrose cousins that she was earning her paycheck.
He slid into the booth across from her, his long legs brushing against hers. He acted as if he owned this place and the world. There was something about his arrogance that had always made her want to take him down a notch or two.
It was 5:00 p.m., and the bar was just beginning to get busy with the after-work crowd. She was anonymous here and could just let her guard down for a minute, but now that Allan was sitting across from her, messing with her mojo, that wasn't going to happen.
"Are you here to rub it in?" she asked at last. It fit with the man she believed him to be and with the little competition they'd had going since the moment they'd met. "Seems like a Montrose-McKinney thing to do."
Her father had been adamant about staying away from Thomas Montrose's grandsons due to the bad blood between their families. She got that, but even before the takeover, she'd had no choice but to deal with Allan when her best friend, Patti, had fallen in love with and married his best friend.
"Not quite. I'm here to make you an offer," he said, signaling the waitress and ordering a Glenlivet neat.
"Thanks, but I don't need your kind of help," she said. She'd probably find herself out of a job quicker with him on her side.
He ran his hand over the top of his short hair, narrowed his eyes and looked at her in a way that made her sit up straighter in her chair. "Do you get off on pushing me to the edge?"
"Sort of," she said. She did take a certain joy in sparring with him. And she kept score of who won and who lost.
"Why?" he asked, pulling out his iPhone and setting it on the table next to him. He glanced down at the screen and then brought his electric gaze back to her.
"Concentrating on your phone and not on the person you're with is one reason," she answered. It irked her when anyone did that, but bothered her even more when the person was Allan. "Besides, I like getting to see the chinks in your perfect facade when you can't hide the real Allan."
The waitress delivered his drink. He leaned forward on his elbows. The woman was thin and pretty and wore a pair of large black glasses that were clearly a personality statement and went well with her pixie haircut. Allan smiled at her, and the waitress blushed, which made Jessi roll her eyes.
"What did I do to make you so adversarial toward me?" he asked, turning back to her as the waitress left.
"Why do you care?"
"I'm tired of always arguing with you. In fact, that brings me back to my reason for tracking you down," he said.
"I'd like to buy you out. Your shares in Infinity Games are now worth a lot of money, and we both know you don't want to work for my cousin Kell or me. I'll make you a fair offer."
She sat there in shock as his words sank in. Did he think her family heritage meant so little to her? When she thought of how her dad and grandfather had always been so busy at work that they'd never been around well, hell, no, she wasn't selling. Especially not to a Montrose heir. "Never. I'd give them away before I sold to you."
He shrugged. "I just thought I'd save all of us a lot of frustration. You don't seem to be really interested in working for the merged company."
"I'm not selling," she said one more time, just in case he had any illusion that she was going to walk away easily. "I'm planning to keep my job and make you and your cousins eat your words."
"That Emma and I are expendable. Don't deny that you believe it."
She and her older sister still had to prove themselves if they wanted to keep their jobs. Sure, they were shareholders, so they'd always have an ownership stake in the company, but their actual jobs were on the line. Their younger sister, Cari, had already jumped through hoops for the Montrose cousins and had ended up keeping her position and falling in love with one of them.
Declan Montrose was now engaged to her, though three months ago he'd arrived at Infinity Games to manage the merger of the two companies, which meant he was there to fire the Chandler sisters. But Cari had turned the tables on him, revealing that he was the father of her eighteen-month-old son as a result of a brief affair they'd had. This had been a big surprise to everyone on both sides of the merger. It had been an interesting time, to say the least, but in the end she and Dec had fallen in love and Cari had managed to save her job at the newly merged Playtone-Infinity Games.
"I wasn't going to deny it," Allan said. "The situation with both you and Emma is different than the one with
Cari. When she approached Dec and I with her ideas for saving the staff at Infinity Games she was happy to listen to our ideas, as well."
His words hurt; Jessi wasn't going to lie about that. But Cari was known for being the caring sister, and Jessi, well, she'd always been the rebel, the ballbuster. But that didn't mean she was emotionless. She wanted to see her family's legacy in video games continue; after all, Gregory Chandler had been a pioneer in the industry in the seventies and eighties. "I have a few ideas that I've been working on."
"Share them with me," Allan invited, glancing again at his phone.
"Why?" she asked.
"To see if you're sincere about wanting to keep your position. No more lame ideas like sending out Infinity-Playtone game characters to make appearances at malls. You're head of marketing and we expect more than that."
"It wasn't-" she said, but in her heart she knew it sort of was. She didn't want Playtone-Infinity to be successful so she'd shot herself in the foot. "Okay, maybe it was a little lame."
"What else do you have in mind? You're too smart not to have something big," he said, staring at her with that intense gaze of his.
"Was that actually a compliment?"
"Don't act so surprised. You're very good at your job and we both know you know it. Talk to me, Jessi."
She hesitated. She was good, and she wasn't ever as tentative as she felt right now. It was just that she'd been beaten and felt like it today. "I don't What can you do?"
"Decide if it's worth my time to help you," he said at last.
"Our best friends are married and we're their daughter's godparents. I can't just let Kell fire you without at least making some sort of effort to help," he said. "Patti and John would never forgive me."
"Then why offer to buy me out?"
"It would solve the problem and we'd both be able to walk away from this."
"It would," Jessi said. "But that's not happening."
She rubbed the back of her neck. She didn't like anything about this merger but she also didn't relish the idea of being fired. "I'm one person who wouldn't be swayed by your bank account."
He shrugged off her comment and for a moment looked pensive.
"It bothers you that I sent the jet to pick you and Patti up that first time we met, doesn't it?" he asked, leaning back and glancing at his iPhone, but quickly looking back at Jessi, which earned him a few more points toward being a good guy.
She took a swallow of her gin and tonic. "Yes. It felt like you were trying too hard. I mean, offering your private jet to fly us to Paris.that was showing off."
"Maybe I just wanted Patti to have a proposal she'd always remember. You and I both know that John doesn't earn what I earn. I was just helping my friend out."
"I know. It was romantic. I admit I didn't behave as well as I could have . I guess I can be a bit of a brat."
"Well, you certainly were that weekend," he said, leaning in so that she caught a whiff of his spicy aftershave.
She closed her eyes for a minute and acknowledged that if she didn't keep Allan in the adversary category, there was a part of her that would be attracted to him. He was the only person-man or woman-she'd ever met whom she could go head-to-head with and still talk to the next day. He understood that winning was important to her and didn't get mad when she won. He just got even, which, to be fair, appealed to her as much as it irritated her.
"But that's in the past. Let's work together. I think you and Emma probably have a lot to contribute to the newly merged company."
"Probably? Jeez, that sounds encouraging," she said, taking another sip of her drink.
"I'm trying here," he said.
"Well, I've got a few feelers out in the movie industry. There are three new action movies coming next summer that I think are good matches for the type of games that we develop, which might be enough lead time to get a really good game out." Given that the merged company was not only a prime video game developer for consoles like Xbox and PlayStation, but also had a thriving app business for smartphones and tablets, making games with movie tie-ins was a naturally good idea. Infinity Games had never pursued this line of business before, but since the takeover, Jessi and her sisters had been thinking outside the box.
"That's a great idea. I have some contacts in that area if you'd like me to use them," Allan offered.
"Yes," he said. "It's in my best interest to help you."
"I'm the CFO, Jessi. Anything that affects the bottom line concerns me."
"Of course it does," she said.
She was torn. A part of her wanted to accept his help, but this was Allan McKinney, and she didn't trust him. It wasn't just that he'd thrown around his money as if the stuff grew on trees; it was also that she hadn't been able to find out much about him from her private investigator, whom she'd hired to check out John when Patti had first met him. What the detective had turned up about Allan well, frankly, it had all seemed too good to be true.
No one had the kind of happy, pampered existence the P.I. had found when he dug into Allan's past. It was too clean, too perfect. There was something he'd been hiding, but none of that had mattered at the time, since John McCoy was the main subject of the investigation and he'd turned out to be a good guy.
Maybe Jessi should ask Orly, her P.I., to start digging again. When it came to Allan, there had been too few leads and many closed doors the first time around. Given what had happened with Playtone and Infinity, and that she'd recently had Allan's cousin Dec investigated, too, maybe it was time to ask Orly to find out what more he could about Allan.
"Sure, I'd love your help," she said.
"You sound sarcastic," Allan commented, glancing down at his mobile phone yet again.
"It's the best I can do," she said.
"Excuse me for a moment. I keep getting a call from a number I don't know," he told her.
He picked up his phone and answered. After a moment, his brow furrowed, and he hunched back in his chair. "Oh, God, no," he muttered.
"What?" she asked. She grabbed her Kate Spade bag and started to slide off the bench, until Allan grabbed her hand.
She shook her head but waited as he listened, and then his face went ashen. He turned away from her.
"How?" he asked, his voice gruff.
She could only stare at him as he shook his head and rasped, "The baby?" After a pause he murmured, "Okay, I will be there on Friday." He disconnected the call and turned to her. "John and Patti are dead."
Jessi wanted to believe he was lying, but his face was pale and there was none of that arrogant charm she always associated with him. She pulled her phone out and saw that she, too, had received several calls from an unknown number.
"I can't believe it. Are you sure?"
He gave her a look that was so lost and wounded, she knew the truth.
"No," she said, wrapping her arm around her waist.
Allan was shaken to his core. He'd lost his parents at a rather young age, which was part of the reason he and John had bonded, but this was.wrong. It was just wrong that someone so young and with so much to live for had died.
Jessi's hands were shaking, and he glanced over at her, only to find everything he was feeling inside was there on her face. The woman who always looked so tough and in control was suddenly small and fragile.
He got up and moved around to her side, putting his arm around her shoulder and drawing her into the curve of his body. She resisted for the merest of seconds before she turned her face into his chest, and he felt the humid warmth of her tears as they soaked into his shirt.