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It was going to be one of those days. Sydney James could already tell. Her return flight from St. Michel to Texas, after her whirlwind trip to interview for the job of press secretary to St. Michel's royal family, had been delayed six hours. Three hours in the terminal and three hours stuck on the runway.
Much of that time had been the middle of the night in Texas, and a good portion had been spent in the air where she couldn't use her cell phone, anyway. All she'd been able to do was leave a message that she was going to be late for work—several hours late.
She'd been vague about her plans for the weekend, opting not to tell anyone about the job interview until she had a better handle on whether she even wanted the position. And, of course, whether the job wanted her. For that reason, she'd never been happier to talk to a voice mailbox. Voice mailboxes didn't hammer her with questions.
Thursday, when she'd left Texas, she'd driven herself to the airport and left her car in long-term parking so she wouldn't have to bother anyone for a ride to and from Dallas/Fort Worth International. Once she was back on Texas soil, she'd rushed to her car to get back to the office. Now she sat parked in front of Celebrations, Inc., Catering Company. Before she went in, she needed to catch her breath and make herself presentable. Running on little sleep for the better part of the past twenty-four hours, she looked like hell. She studied her reflection in her compact mirror. She had dark circles under her eyes, which made her irises look a peculiar shade of olive rather than their usual medium green, and her face looked drawn and pale. She reapplied powder, blush and lipstick with the silent prayer that maybe, just maybe, she could make herself look halfway human.
Fat chance, she thought as she snapped the compact closed. The camera never lied.
Since it was already noon and she'd missed her call time by several hours, she hoped they'd greet her with the news that they needed time to regroup and wanted to reschedule the scenes she was in for tomorrow—or better yet, later in the week. Or best-case scenario, maybe they hadn't missed her at all and had taped without her.
She knew that was a bad attitude. How many women would love to have her spot on Catering to Dallas, a reality TV show that chronicled the inner workings of Celebrations, Inc., Catering Company? She'd never been the center of attention on the show, and she preferred it that way. Content to carry out her duties as the catering company's public relations director, staying in the background as her three friends and co-stars Pepper Merriweather-Macintyre, A.J. Sherwood-Antonelli-Harrison and Caroline Coopersmith-Montgomery vied for the spotlight.
Sydney slipped her cosmetics back into the inner pocket of her handbag and let herself out of the car.
"Here goes," she murmured under her breath, willing there to be a fresh pot of coffee on the craft-services table.
She slipped inside the back door into the kitchen and glanced around. The white cabinets and gold-and-brown solarius granite looked fresh and clean. An array of vegetables befitting a farmers' market was artfully arranged on the center island. The area was obviously ready for a shoot. However, everyone seemed to be on a break. At least they weren't in the middle of taping. Although, if they had been, there would've been someone stationed outside the door to keep her from wandering into the shot.
"There you are." Sydney jumped as Pepper seemed to appear behind her from out of nowhere. To be caught that unawares, Sydney must have been more exhausted than she realized.
She put a hand on her chest. "You nearly gave me a heart attack."
"I'm sorry," Pepper said, her Southern accent thicker than usual as she bit off the words. "But where on earth have you been? We've had quite a bit of excitement on the set this morning. Didn't you get my messages? I've been trying to call you."
Sydney hadn't. Her phone was tucked inside her purse, still on airplane mode. She rifled through her handbag until she found her cellular, her fingers first finding her keys, a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer and the small bag of pretzels they'd given her on the plane before she located what she was looking for. She pulled it out and changed the setting. More than a dozen calls and texts blew up her phone.
As director of public relations, she was rarely out of touch. She gave the messages a cursory glance before dropping her phone back into her purse and returning the bag to her shoulder. Most of the messages were from Pepper. She would deal with the other texts and voice mails later. As she braced herself for Pepper's inquisition, she wondered if subconsciously she'd forgotten to turn on her phone to avoid questions about her absence before it was absolutely unavoidable.
And that time was now. Better to head off the questions by volunteering information.
"I had to go out of town this weekend and my return flight was delayed."
"You what?" Pepper asked. "Where'd you go? Why didn't you tell anyone?"
Sydney waved off the question as if it were no big deal. "Long story. But tell me, what's happening here?"
Just as Sydney hoped, Pepper lost the scent of her own inquiry and pounced on the decoy.
"Oh. My. Gosh. You won't believe it." Her voice was a hushed stage whisper. She looked around as if worried someone might overhear her. "Bill Hines had to take a personal leave of absence. We walked in this morning to find out that we have a brand-new director. At least for the time being."
Pepper pointed with her nose toward the other side of the large kitchen. Sure enough, there stood a tall, dark haired, broad-shouldered man talking to the executive producer, Aiden Woods. Sydney couldn't tell what he looked like because she could only see his profile. The men stood behind the set lights. The new guy's features were somewhat cloaked in shadows.
"Don't let his good looks fool you," Pepper said. "The guy's a slave driver of the worst kind."
For some reason, maybe it was the lack of sleep, Pepper's melodramatics struck Sydney as funny. A small hiccup-laugh escaped.
"Right. You laugh now, but just wait," Pepper warned. "He was not too pleased with you this morning when you missed your call time."
"What?" Sydney asked, suddenly sobered by the news that she might be in trouble. "I didn't have a call time." Yes she did. "Well, not an individual spotlight, anyway."
Pepper put up her hands. "Hey, don't shoot the carrier pigeon. I am just giving you fair warning."
Now that the news had had a chance to sink in, Sydney found herself getting a tad irritated. This guy comes in unannounced and takes roll? No. They weren't used to checking in, and as far as she was concerned, they weren't going to start now. Who did he think he was, coming in and shaking up a system that worked just fine?
"Why didn't he just shoot the scene without me?" Sydney asked.
"He did. Sort of. Ooh, come here. Let's go find A.J. and Caroline. They're hiding in your office."
Sydney stole one more glance at the new director.
"Is he really that bad?"
Pepper grimaced and grabbed Sydney by the hand, all but dragging her the long way through the building, via the front reception area, circumventing the new guy, Aiden and the rest of the crew.
"Who the hell is he, anyway? And who does he think he is, coming in here with an attitude?"
Pepper didn't answer. Their friends weren't in the office but had ventured out to the craft-services table, which was tucked into an out-of-the-way alcove in the back of the Celebrations, Inc., Catering Company shop.
"Look who I found." Pepper was still using that absurd stage whisper.
A.J. and Caroline took it one step worse. They pantomimed a mixture of shock and relief. What? Were they no longer allowed to speak at a normal decibel? They whisked Sydney into the office and shut the door.
"Oh, my dear God," said A.J., finally using normal volume. "Where have you been?"
A.J. raked her hands through her hair, looking panic-stricken. That was when Sydney realized something was very wrong. Pepper might be the resident drama queen, but A.J. was calm, cool and levelheaded. Usually, Sydney envied her composure. When A.J. flapped, there was reason to be concerned.
"That doesn't matter. I'm here now. Please fill me in on what's going on."
A.J. explained how Aiden had said Bill Hines had a family emergency and had introduced Miles Mercer as the new interim director.
"Miles Mercer ?" Sydney repeated. "Where do I know that name from?"
"Come here." Caroline motioned Sydney to come behind the desk. She typed something into the computer's internet browser. A long list of hits came up for Miles Mercer. When Sydney saw the thumbnail of the Past Midnight movie poster, the pieces began to fall into place.
That Miles Mercer.
She'd heard of him and his scary movie, Past Midnight, a low-budget horror flick. Everyone had heard of him. Not only was he a local boy who'd made good, but a few years ago, the movie had been a runaway box-office sensation, and was declared a cutting-edge approach to filmmaking.
What the heck was he doing here on the set of Catering to Dallas?
"Really?" She pointed toward the door. "That's him?"
"Yes," said A.J. "Apparently, he's a good buddy of Aiden's and flew in immediately after Bill asked for leave."
"Do you know he's only twenty-nine years old?" Pepper asked. Even though her expression was disapproving, her eyes were large and held that certain awed reverence reserved for only the most gorgeous men. "Bless his heart, but that's too young to have been called a genius. Don't you think?"
Sydney commandeered the mouse and clicked on the first Miles Mercer listing on the browser page—one of those "eencyclopedia" sites that offered comprehensive morsels of info in easily digestible bites. She quickly read what it had to report about him.
Yes, he had apparently been heralded a genius among the Hollywood types for his innovative movie-making style. It also noted that he'd made Past Midnight when he was in college. He'd entered it in various contests and film festivals, and it morphed into an overnight box-office success.
Sydney hadn't seen the movie or any of the films he'd made since. The "eencyclopedia" pointed out that none of his later projects had scored the rave reviews or box-office success of Past Midnight. Sydney was unimpressed; even if Past Midnight was groundbreaking, horror was not her favorite genre. Who wanted to be scared out of her wits and uncomfortable being alone in her own home?
As she stared at the framed Audrey Hepburn poster on her office wall, she heard herself make a disapproving noise that she hadn't meant to be audible.
"If he's such a big shot, what in the world is he doing on the set of Catering to Dallas?" She looked up from the computer to see her friends staring at her, and for a moment she was afraid she had insulted them.
"I mean no offense. I'm part of this cast, too. It's just that Celebration, Texas, isn't Hollywood and as much as we'd like to think our show is a pop-culture phenomenon, it's reality TV. It is what it is and it certainly isn't cutting edge."
The girls shrugged and murmured that she did have a point. They also suggested that the sooner Sydney introduced herself to Miles and faced whatever wrath he might have in store for her, the better. They were only supposed to have taken a fifteen-minute break, during which he was going to go over some notes with Aiden, and then they were supposed to get back to work.
Caroline sighed. "If we don't get out there, he's probably going to come looking for us. That's just how he is. You'll see."
"Why do I feel as if I'm on my way to the principal's office for a reprimand?" Sydney asked as they all filed out of the office and made their way back to the craft-services area, where they came to a halt when they realized that Miles was still on the other side of the kitchen, still deep in conversation with Aiden.
If she positioned herself just right in the craft-services nook, she could steal glances at the infamous Miles Mercer without him being the wiser. At this angle his face was turned toward her and was no longer cloaked in shadows as it had been when she first saw him.
The "eencyclopedia" reconnaissance mission had painted an interesting picture of their new interim boss and the pictures had proven that he was a niceenough-looking guy, but what the research hadn't done was prepare Sydney for how drop-dead gorgeous Miles Mercer actually was in person. The photos hadn't done him justice.
Unwittingly, Sydney found herself doing the math in her head: he was five years her junior. Her gaze took a leisurely walk down the length of him, taking advantage of this moment when she could drink him in and size him up before she would be subjected to his scrutiny.
He was tall, dark and broad-shouldered. His hair was thick and cut in one of those effortlessly hip styles—not really long, but too long to be considered short. It was slightly curly and stood up a little on top, as if he'd rolled out of bed and carelessly combed it with his fingers. He was clean-shaven, and wore jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt.
If her friends hadn't warned her that he had such a disagreeable disposition, things might be looking sort of delicious in the Celebrations, Inc., kitchen. "Mmm-mmm-mmm." Pepper smacked her lips as she poured herself a mug of coffee. "With his temper, I'll bet he's hell on a Triscuit in bed."
A.J. and Sydney laughed. Caroline nearly choked on the bite of bagel she was chewing. Once she'd recovered, she shot Pepper a pointed look.
"What?" Pepper drawled. "Come on. He's a good-looking guy. Everything aside, you have to give him that. I may be married, but I can still look. And appreciate."
Pepper had just come back to the show after a brief hiatus to deal with personal issues of her own. Last year had been a series of ups and downs for her and her family. On one hand, she'd met and married the love of her life, Rob Macintyre. But she'd also watched Texas Star Energy, the company her father had built into an empire, implode under a criminal investigation. Sadly, her father had ultimately suffered a heart attack and passed away before he could go to trial.
Pepper had confided that in her heart she would always believe her father was innocent. Sydney, A.J. and Caroline were all glad to have her back on the show and at Celebrations, Inc., where she had an opportunity for a fresh start. That was part of the reason that Sydney was so ambivalent about telling her friends she was thinking of leaving the show. She and Pepper shared a lot of the same duties. Where Sydney's official title was public relations director, they all called Pepper the company's "social connector" because of the incredible social "ins" she possessed that only a Texas debutante could bring to the table.