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Jane Selwyn's knees felt watery as she made her way across the steaming asphalt parking lot toward the three-story office building. The Remington Agency was her last chance for gainful employment in Port Clara. In the span of a few short weeks, she'd gone from pampered, rich man's wife to begging for a job from the man who had unwittingly broken up her marriage.
Not that the marriage hadn't already been gasping its dying breaths. But Max Remington's flirtations had finished it off in a hurry.
Jane stepped into the building's cool interior and checked her appearance one last time in the lobby mirror. She straightened the lapel of her red power suit and glossed on another layer of lipstick. Her silk blouse was already damp and sticking to her skin August in South Texas was brutally hot, even on the coast. Still, she looked the part of a successful executive. Unfortunately, her pathetically slim portfolio told a different story.
For six years she had devoted her days to keeping herself and her home beautiful for her husband and raising their daughter. Scott had freaked out whenever she even mentioned getting a job. But now it was just her and three-year-old Kaylee, and no money. Employment was a necessity.
Everyone said she was crazy to ask for so little in the divorce. But no one had known how desperate she'd been to get out with no one else hurt. Now she was the proud owner of a sleek cabin cruiserher settlement and a single mother of a gorgeous child, both of which ate away at her meager savings.
She never would have applied to the Remington Agency if she hadn't exhausted all other possibilities.
The agency was on the third floor of Port Clara's nicestoffice building. Jane paused before the door and sent up a prayer that Max would see past the humiliating events of their early acquaintance, past her short résumé, and give her a chance.
She straightened her spine and opened the door, then sucked in a breath of surprise. She hadn't expected a local ad agency to be quite so upscale. Though the reception area was small, it screamed class with its stone floor, rough limestone walls, and water cascading down a waterfall in the corner. With all the ferns and the muted lighting, she felt as if she'd entered a small corner of a rain forest.
A stylish woman of indeterminate age sat at a semicircular desk that looked as if it had erupted right from the stone floor. She smiled serenely at Jane.
"May I help you?"
"I'm Jane Selwyn. I have an interview with Mr. Remington at one o'clock."
The receptionist, whose nameplate said she was Carol Washington, looked at Jane with sympathetic brown eyes. "Didn't you get my message?"
Oh, no. Her cell phone had run out of juice just before lunch. Currently it was charging in her car. "I didn't check my voice mail," Jane stated without apology. "Is there a problem?"
"Mr. Remington had to run outsome type of printing emergency. He told me to extend his apologies."
"Oh." Jane almost sagged with disappointment. "Can I reschedule, then?"
"Actually, Mr. Remington has already made a decision about the artist."
"Without even interviewing all the candidates?"
Carol hesitated. "I'm sure he would look at your work as a courtesy."
A courtesy? Like hell. He'd caused her divorce, or at least accelerated the timeline. The least he could do was give her a shot at the position. "I'll just wait here until he returns."
"Why don't I make you another appointment," Carol said smoothly.
So he could cancel that one, too? "I'd prefer to wait." She was going to see Max Remington today, one way or another.
Carol nodded just as a door opened behind her and Max Remington appeared. "Carol, has John Can-field" Surprise registered on his handsome face as he spotted Jane and recognized her. "Jane? What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to interview for the artist position."
"You're Jane Selwyn? I thought your last name was Simone."
Jane inhaled sharply. He was even better-looking than she remembered. After a few months in Port Clara he'd acquired a golden tan, and his unruly hair had turned more blond than brown.
He wore neatly pressed jeans riding low on his slim hips and an open-collar shirt, no tie, no jacket, and she felt ridiculously overdressed. Few people wore suits in their laid-back beach community, but she'd thought it appropriate for an interview.
Fortunately, he didn't seem to mind. In fact, his lingering gaze said he approved, but not in a completely professional way.
Her face flushed. She told herself it was the weather.
"I changed back to my maiden name." She'd wanted nothing to remind her of Scott.
"I told Ms. Selwyn that the job was already filled," Carol put in.
Max quickly overcame his surprise and smiled, revealing even, white teeth. "It's great to see you again."
Jane stood, fumbling her portfolio before she could extend her hand to accept his warm handshake. "I'm surprised you would make a decision without interviewing all of the candidates."
"Well, now, I was leaning toward one applicant, but I haven't made a final, final decision yet."
Carol peered at him skeptically over her half-moon reading glasses.
"Why don't you come back to my office," Max continued. "Pardon the messthe workers are still putting in the finishing touches."
Mess was right. Men were laying carpet in the hallway, painting walls, installing light fixtures. Jane had to dodge ladders, sawhorses and paint buckets, and once she nearly tripped because her attention was focused on her potential employer's buns.
She'd sworn up and down to her ex-husband that she hadn't been flirting with Max that fateful day of their first meeting a few months ago. But he'd certainly been flirting with her, and on some level she had responded to him. How could she not? How could any woman with a pulse not feel drawn to such a gorgeous male?
He held the door of his office open, and she entered. It was large but not ridiculously so and a little bit messy, but nothing like the hallway outside. At least it had carpet, paint and furniture.
He cleared off a small table and pulled out a chair for her. "Sorry to be so casual. My conference room furniture hasn't arrived yet."
"This is fine. You're certainly doing up everything first-class." She settled into the chair, again juggling her purse and portfolio. Why did she feel so awkward? As a corporate wife she'd been required to handle all kinds of social situations, from formal banquets to funerals to ladies' coffee klatches, and she'd never had problems saying the right thing or fitting in. But now she second-guessed every word.
"Advertising is all about image." He settled at the table across from her and placed her résumé, such as it was, in front of him.
"Your reception area certainly makes a statement."
"You think it's too much?" He sounded a bit worried.
Goodness, why would he care what she thought? "No, I think it's lovely. I love the sound of moving water."
"I guess you would, since you live on a boat."
She wished he didn't know quite so much about her already. But his cousin, Cooper, owned the fishing charter boat berthed next door to her, and she was close friends with Cooper's wife, Allie. In fact, she and Max had both been in Cooper and Allie's wedding, though they'd hardly exchanged two words. She'd been very subdued that day, wanting to feel happy for her friend but unable to shake her overall pessimism regarding marriage.
In addition to her living situation, Max also knew she was freshly divorced and a single motherand that her millionaire ex-husband had a violent temper.
"Why don't I show you my portfolio?" Jane said brightly, wanting to get it over with. She figured her work would speak for itself. Either he would see her talent and give her a chance, or he wouldn't.
She unzipped the large, black leather case, a thoughtful graduation present from her parents, and opened it in front of Max. He flipped through it silently, scrutinizing each page.
"I'm not familiar with any of your clients. Can you tell me a little bit about them?"
"They're mostly fictitious," she blurted out.
"Most of this work was done as class assignments. The businesses don't exist. Remington Charters is the only real client I've ever had." She had designed a logo for Allie's fishing business before Cooper had come on the scene.
She expelled a long breath. There, she'd gotten the worst news out.
"Your résumé says you've been working freelance since you graduated."
"A gross exaggeration to get me in the door," she admitted. "If you want the absolute truth, I don't have much experience. But I have talent, education and technical know-how."
"Can you do video computer editing?"
She nodded firmly. "I did some video work in school. I'm sure the technology has advanced, but I can learn it. I'll learn it on my own time."
He looked at her, at her artwork, then back at her. He was going to reject her, that was obvious.
She leaned forward slightly. "Just give me a chance, Mr. Remington Max. I won't lie to you. I need this job. I'm already behind on my payments to the marina, and pretty soon they're going to kick me out and and I'll just have to drift, I guess."
Oh, God, she hadn't meant to say all that. Please, sir, I want some more. Could she humiliate herself any further?
Max studied the woman sitting across from him. He'd been surprised as hell to find out she was Jane Selwyn. If he'd known, he never would have even scheduled an interview.
But now that she was here, he felt obligated to at least consider her for the position. After all, she'd gotten dressed up in that Queen Elizabeth suit for the occasion.
The first time he'd met her, she'd looked quite different. She'd been wearing a bikini, in fact. And what a bikini. Sure, bikinis were pretty much par for the course in Port Clara, but Jane wore hers better than any other he'd seen. In fact, he'd like to see
He gritted his teeth. Best not to dwell on what she looked like under that suit. He tried desperately to think like a businessman.
Hiring Jane Selwyn would be illogical. He'd already interviewed a better-qualified candidate who was perfect. But though Carol was right that he'd made a decision, he hadn't yet contacted the artist to offer the job. He could still reconsider.
Jane's portfolio showed talent, but it was decidedly amateurish. And despite the small-town atmosphere of Port Clara, he had no intentions of limiting his services to local used-car dealers and barbecue joints. He intended to compete with agencies from HoustonNew York and San Francisco, too. Jane was so underqualified. But the biggest reason of all not to hire her was what she did to him on a physical level. He'd never met a more beautiful woman. Not just your average beautiful, like a model or a beach bunny, but an ethereal, angelic beautiful. With her black, wavy hair, her high forehead and her lush red lips, she reminded him of one of those 1940s movie starsVivien Leigh, maybe.
Her husband had been right to punch Max in the face. Although he hadn't made any outrageous come-ons when he'd first met her, his thoughts had been decidedly carnal, and good ol' Scott had sensed it.
Max had been in the business world long enough to know that work and sex mixed together like nitro and glycerin. Workplace affairs caused no end of heartache, not to mention the loss of productivity. If he hired Jane, their relationship would have to be strictly business.
Of course, he'd decided long ago he would never act on his attractionthe minute he'd seen her darling, bright-eyed, blond-haired little girl.
Single moms were off-limits for Max. He didn't need that lesson shoved down his throat again.
"I'll work for free," she said, breaking into his thoughts.
"Give me a two-week trial, and you won't have to pay me. We can call it an internship. Let me prove what I can do. I'll work twice as hard as anybody you could possibly find. I won't complain. I'll take work home with me at night. I'll I'll " She trailed off as she apparently ran out of incentives.
Thank God she hadn't offered fringe benefits with the boss, or he might have snapped up her offer.
As it was, he couldn't help but consider what she had proposed. The one problem with the other artist was the salary he'd demanded. Launching this business had been far more expensive than Max had planned for. His cousin Reece, who was also his CPA, was having kittens over the cost overruns for the office remodeling. Getting free graphic arts services would help with his bottom line.
But he quickly nixed the idea. It wouldn't be fair to Jane. She obviously needed a job, which meant she needed money, too. She had mouths to feed.
And he had to hire the best-qualified candidate.
Max stood, signaling an end to the interview. "It was a pleasure seeing you again, Jane. As I said, I haven't made a final decision yet, but I'll let you"
"You aren't going to hire me, are you?"
"I'm still considering all"
"My ex-husband and I finalized our divorce because of you," she said abruptly. "You owe me."
He hadn't seen that coming. Cheeky move. "Oh, really? I thought I did you a favor."
"No, actually, I did you a favor. If I hadn't agreed to Scott's rotten divorce terms, he was going to claim you and I had an affair and drag your name through the mud. He said he would ruin you and your business here in Port Clara before you even got started. And he could, believe me."
Max sat back down with a thud. "I remember he made some threats, but I thought that was just heat-of-the-moment stuff. Did he actually think we were involved? Based on one conversation?"