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Most days Willow Stead loved her job. She felt very lucky to be pretty much her own boss. But not today.
The problem had actually started months ago, when the network bigwigs had pulled some strings and gotten the second most popular television host in America to work on her show. Great, right?
Not if that man was Jack Crown.
Sure, he was good-looking and charming. But beneath that toothy grin and effervescent personality beat the heart of a rogue. While his type of bad boy could be redeemed on TV or on the pages of a romance novel, in real life he couldn't. Which was something Willow knew firsthand, having had her heart broken by this very man at the tender age of sixteen.
"Drinks, Willow, that's all I'm suggesting," Jack was saying with that sexy smile of his.
There was no doubting why he'd been named one of People's Sexiest Men Alive for the past four years. But she was resistant to his appeal. Yeah, right. If only the callousness she rememberedhe'd stood her up on prom night, for Pete's sakewas enough to keep her from falling for him.
She'd done her best to keep her distance from him over the past six months as they'd worked together on Sexy & Single, the New York-based reality TV matchmaking show she was producing. But she couldn't deny she wanted to accept his invitation for drinks.
"Urn you haven't said no yet, so I guess you need me to talk you into it," he said, his voice dropping to an intimate whisper. "Is that what you want?"
"What I want is for you to stop acting like I'm one of your rotating harem," she said, trying for disdain. "I'm not like all the other women that fall at your feet."
"Ah, you've wounded me," he said, clutching at where his heart should be.
"Doubtful," she said. "But since we do need to discuss the show, I'll accept."
"Geez, Willow, don't sound so eager," he said. "There was a time when you used to enjoy being with me."
She wrinkled her nose at him. She didn't like being reminded of her past infatuation. God, could she have been more obvious back then? If she could write a letter to her sixteen-year-old self, she'd start it with STOP MOONING OVER JACK CROWN! and be done with it.
"I'm not that girl anymore," she said.
"I don't believe that," he said. "I still see shades of her in how you act with everyone but me. Why is that? Clearly I've done something to rub you the wrong way."
"Just because I'm not buying your public image doesn't mean anything," she said. "Gail has told me enough about PR for me to know that you can't be America's Sweetheart in real life."
Gail Little was one of Willow's best friends and had been the reason Willow had pitched the idea of this show to her bosses at the network. Gail's personal matchmaking experience had been captured on the first episodes of Sexy & Singleher dates with New Zealand billionaire playboy Russell Holloway had really brought in the viewers. The quiet, sophisticated Gail taming the wild Russell had been ratings gold.
"Forget image. You know me," he said. "What do you believe?"
He didn't want to know, and there was no way she was opening that can of worms. "I don't know you. Not really. You spend more time flying cross-country to host your other shows than here on the set with me. But that doesn't matter. So what about those drinks?"
He rolled his eyes. "I'll buy you dinner and drinks if you stop evading the question and tell me what's going on. We've been working together for six months and I keep getting the cold shoulder from you. I must be remembering our high school years differently because I thought we'd been friends."
"You must be," she said. "Can we eat out without your legions of fans finding us?"
"No," he said. "But I have an apartment that's a short walk from here. What do you say? Want to come back to my place?"
She started to shake her head but then stopped. She did want to have dinner with him. A part of her was hoping he'd be interested in her so she could date and dump him the way he'd dumped her the night of prom. She knew it was petty and she didn't like that about herself but she'd never been a turn-the-other-cheek person. Never.
She'd waited for the perfect moment to get her revenge. And it looked like it had arrived a mere fourteen years later Who said that patience wasn't rewarded?
"Okay, I'll do it," Willow said. Maybe she could include a little anecdote about how Jack got his comeuppance in that letter to her sixteen-year-old self.
"Good. How long until you're done here?" he asked.
"About twenty minutes. I have to talk to the camera crew. They had a problem on the shoot last night. Why don't you leave me the address and I'll meet you there," she said.
"You're not going to back out, are you?"
"That's not my plan. I said I'd be there."
"Good. I thought I remembered you as a girl of your word," he said. There was a natural confidence about him that was so attractivetoo bad that she hated it. She wanted to see some cracks in the facade of America's Sweetheart. She wanted to see that life threw him curveballs once in a while.
"Women don't like to be referred to as girls," she said.
"My bad," he said with a wink.
"You're about to have an epic fail if you do it again."
He laughed as he turned to walk away. She couldn't help staring at his fine backside until he disappeared through the door.
"Looks like hell might be in danger of freezing over," Nichole Reynolds said as she approached Willow.
"Shut up," Willow said to her other best friend. Nich-ole was the pop culture reporter for America Today, the national newspaper, and wrote a behind-the-scenes blog for the show. And she was one of the few people who knew the truth about Jack.
"Just saying. And you should be nicer to me, I'm about to be a mommy," Nichole said, patting her baby bump.
She had recently married Conner MacAfee, the owner of the matchmaking service featured on the show, and was expecting her first child. Nichole was truly happy with Conner, and Willow was glad for her friend.
"I have to be nice because you're pregnant?" Willow asked. The truth was there were two people in the world that Willow really cared about, and Nichole was one of them.
"It wouldn't hurt. So did I hear correctlyyou're having dinner with Jack Crown? What happened to wanting revenge on him?" Nichole asked.
"I still do," Willow admitted. "It's just dinner. Even I'm not so irresistible to make a man fall for me that quickly."
Oh, God, where had that come from? She wasn't that girl anymore. The one who'd been so happy that a popular boy had smiled at her.
"Oh, Willow, don't sell yourself short," Nichole said with a cheeky grin. "He is definitely interested in you."
"For now. It's just because I've been ignoring him. I bet if I let him woo me tonight, he'd lose interest," Willow said.
"I'll take that bet," Nichole said.
"I bet he won't lose interest in you," Nichole said. "What do you want to wager?"
"Nothing. I'm not really betting on Jack," Willow said.
"Why not? You said he was shallow. What have you got to lose?" Nichole asked.
Her pride. What if she fell for him a second time and had to watch him walk away again? She didn't want to be the loser in a relationship with himtwice. "I was being flip."
"No, you weren't. Come on, I'll bet you a spa day at Elizabeth Arden Red Door," Nichole said.
"No fair, you know I love that place," Willow said. "Why are you insisting on this?"
Nichole wrapped her arm around Willow's shoulder. "You can't trust any man because of that one incident with Jack so long ago. I want to see you healed from that so you can find a guy and settle down like Gail and I did. We're happy and we want you to be, too."
She hugged her friend back. A part of her wanted that, too. "I just want him to feel the pain I felt."
"I don't care what the outcome is as long as you can move on," Nichole said.
"Okay, I'll take the bet. But you're going to lose and I'm going to gloat," Willow said.
"Fine by me, but if he stays interested in you, then I win, and I'm going to save my spa day until after the baby comes."
"Fair enough," Willow said. "But they'll be ice skating in hell before I fall for Jack Crown."
"You keep telling yourself that," Nichole said. "It will make my victory that much sweeter."
November in New York had a certain excitement to it. Not that the City ever lacked energy but there was something about this time of year when everyone and everything seemed to be gearing up for Christmas.
For Jack, it was the beginning of one of his busiest times of the year. He had three holiday specials that needed to be filmedthey were all live tapings. Plus a yearend recap show of Extreme Careers, his series that was otherwise already in the can. His agent was on him about his next big gig and Jack knew he was moving into another phase of his career. Finally he didn't have to drum up workproducers and networks were coming to him.
Since he was so busy it didn't surprise him that this was when Willow finally accepted a date with him. It was just like her to make his life a little crazier. But then maybe that was why he'd been asking her out.
Jack looked around his apartment, making sure every detail was perfect. It wasn't so much that he was nervoushey, he was Jack Crown and every woman wanted to be with himbut this was Willow. He couldn't say for sure when he'd become so obsessed with her.
He suspected it was because unlike every other girl he met, she just treated him like he was part of her crew. No special smiles, no attempts to get him alone. He knew that shouldn't bother him. But it did.
He had faint memories of her from high school when she'd tutored him in language arts so he wouldn't fail the state test and could continue to play football. But that was all. Just flashes of a younger Willow interspersed with his football-playing days.
Back then football was his life. Considering he'd grown up in Texas on the poorer side of town, there was only one real ticket out of poverty for himsports. He'd gone on to be a Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver and then a first-round draft pick for the New York Giants. Unfortunately, his first time-out he'd been brought down by a careerending tackle. He'd learned after his injury that he was going to have to find something else to do and quick. Luckily he'd always had an affinity for being on camera and had been able to segue into a broadcasting gig.
The buzzer rang and he hurried over to answer it. His converted loft building had a state-of-the-art security system. When he hit a button, a small black-and-white screen showed Willow standing at the outside door.
He buzzed her in and then glanced around the apartment to make sure everything was in order. He didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know that Willow wasn't going to give him another chance at getting this right. This working date had to be perfect.
There was a knock on the door and he smiled to himself as he crossed to open it. He planned on knocking her socks off and ensuring that when she left his apartmentpreferably in the morningshe'd be dying to see him again.
Willow had an earthy sensuality about her that made him more aware of her sexually each time they met. At first, he'd just wanted to rekindle their old friendship, but as she'd continued to ignore him, she'd awakened something primal inside of him. He suspected an affair with Willow would affect their working relationship, but at this point he knew his ego would settle for nothing less than having her. He needed to prove to both of them that she'd made a mistake by ignoring him.
He opened the door and Willow scowled up at him. She looked tired and thin, something he hadn't noticed when they were on the set or even in the editing booth. She always moved with so much energy, but tonight she seemed worn out.
Not exactly the right mood he needed her in. But he'd grown up with a single mom and had learned early on how to cheer her up with a lot of attention. So he shifted gears in his head.
He pulled her close for a hug, rubbing her back. But she wedged her arms between them. "What are you doing?"
"You looked like you needed a hug," he said, stepping back and leading her into his apartment. It wasn't overly luxurious like the apartment they'd photographed him at for Architectural Digest a few months back. He couldn't live like that. He supposed it was the smalltown Texas boy in him but that kind of opulence made him feel out of place.
His loft was an open floor plan with a kitchen at one end and a huge entertainment area on the other. That was one thing he didn't mind splurging on. There were large comfortable couches as well as a nicely appointed dining area.
"I could use a drink," Willow said.
"Wine, beer or something stronger?" he asked. He had a fully stocked bar, even though he wasn't much of a drinker. He didn't like feeling out of control. He'd learned that after a brief stint of stupidity when he'd been recovering from his knee injury and had had no job prospects.
"What kind of wine do you have?" she asked.
"Just about every kind. I endorse a vineyard and they send me a case of everything they make," he said with a wry grin.
"That's right. You're everyone's favorite ad man. I like dry white wine," she said.
"Coming right up. Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes. Do you want to go out on the balcony?" he asked.
"It's cold outside," she said.
"I have those patio heaters. You'll be comfortable," he said.
She nodded and turned away from him. He watched her walk slowly across his apartment before he started toward the kitchen. She was on edge and didn't seem to be in the mood to enjoy this evening with him. If he was a different kind of man he'd give up but he was used to overcoming odds and coming out the winner. After all everyone said after his careerending football injury that he was going to have to go back to Frisco, Texas. But he hadn't.