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Sophie Callahan squealed and clamped her hand over her mouth. Her cell had just buzzed with an incoming text: Up for a hurricane party? Scored company beach house for weekend! Might run late. Will meet you there. Pick up steaks and breakfast? Key code #3214.
It was from Jonathan Black, Peck and Davilla's handsome, charismatic, talented, dynamic, sexy and irresistible Creative Director. Sigh and double sigh.
Sophie read the message three times, just to make sure she hadn't hallucinated it. Then she glanced around the room of copywriters, production artists, junior designers and image developers. In other words, newbies, all hoping to climb out of the pit. And it looked as though, she, Sophie Callahan, had just hauled herself over the edge.
No one else held a phone. Sophie waited, listening for buzzes and chirps. Had anyone else from the pit been invited to the party?
No? Then she'd really and truly caught the eye of Jonathan Black. And in a good way. Clutching her phone, she closed her eyes and exhaled, feeling relief more than anything. Relief that she'd accomplished a goal for which she'd sacrificed her entire social life.
For a year, she'd targeted Jonathan Black as the Creative Director she wanted to work with. For a year, she'd studied his past ad campaigns, analyzed his style, figured out which Peck and Davilla creatives he favored and studied their styles, and then put herself around them whenever she could. For a year, she'd volunteered for scut work and had done favors—many favors. She'd learned as much as she could and she'd given away ideas.
And the senior creatives had taken those ideas and used them as their own, especially Ross, one of the art directors.
That was okay. That was how the game was played. But Sophie knew when they used her ideas and they knew when they used her ideas. And after she disingenuously and publicly gushed her delight that they'd found her idea worthy, others knew it, too.
But it was her audacity during last Monday's meeting that must have finally pinged Jonathan's radar.
Ross's team had been pitching the second time to a retirement developer who'd hated their first ideas. All of them. Jonathan was sitting in as they'd scrambled not to lose the account. Knowing this, Sophie had intercepted an intern from Production and offered to deliver last-minute mock-ups to the meeting.
And then she'd stayed, ignoring pointed glances and a long look from Jonathan.
Sophie had studied this campaign as she'd studied the others and she didn't like it. It wasn't all that much different from the first one. Ross and his team weren't getting it, and Sophie could tell the clients didn't think so, either.
The P&D team was treating the retirement community as though it housed relics from an ancient civilization. The people in the illustrations didn't look like her grandparents. Her grandparents traveled, they volunteered—they went to the gym, for Pete's sake. They didn't spend their days sitting on a bench surrounded by azaleas and grinning goofily at each other like the couple in the picture Ross held.
And that's when Sophie had laughed. The room had grown tense and silent and the small sound drew everyone's attention. Not what she'd planned, but she brazened it out.
She gestured to the picture. "They're so not my grandparents. My grandparents are all about use it or lose it."
"And these two look like they've lost it," one of the client reps said, which was exactly what Sophie had been going to say.
Aware of Jonathan's sharp, unsmiling gaze upon her, she was glad she hadn't.
"This is—" one of the Worthington (Because You're Worth It) reps waved at the display and slumped in his seat "—depressing."
"The presentation reflects the tone you told us you were going for," Jonathan reminded them. "We stayed on message."
"We said 'upscale serenity,' not 'sit around and wait for the white light.'"
Jonathan interrupted the nervous chuckles. "So we don't want to emphasize calm and peaceful." He gestured for Ross to remove the storyboard. "Now we know. Don't feel you have to stick with your original idea. Let us kick this around and come at it from another direction."
The Worthington people exchanged looks and the rep spoke. "Jonathan, I don't think we're on the same wavelength."
Wave. Sophie's cue. "What about Ross's cruise idea?" Which was actually Sophie's idea. Which she'd just thought of.
"Cruise?" one of the clients asked.
Ross sent her a murderous glance and shook his head. "It was just a thought. It didn't fit the Worthington image."
But Jonathan had picked up on the client's interest. "They want to go in a different direction. Maybe it fits now. Outline the idea for us."
Heart pounding, Sophie was afraid she'd gone too far. "My grandparents are always saying they could live on a cruise ship, so Ross was thinking about cruising through retirement and making the ads all bright and peppy like a cruise line's instead of lifeless and boring." Oops. She hadn't meant to say "lifeless and boring." Never criticize the client's idea. To his face. And never never never say anything negative about a pitch.
The Worthington people perked up. Ross, pro that he was, was already sketching out a few ideas. "When I saw the plans for your complex, I remember thinking that living there would be like being on a permanent vacation." And he was off.
Sophie stayed quiet, aware that Jonathan was studying her. She met his eyes once and smiled before turning her attention to Ross's extemporaneous presentation. Well, not all her attention. Jonathan wasn't the type of man a woman could ignore.
After the clients had left, just when Ross had been about to lay into her, Jonathan approached. "Great save, Ross." They exchanged a look. The other man gave a tight nod and retreated, but Sophie knew she'd hear about it later.
"What's your name?" Jonathan asked her.
He pulled out his phone. "You've got balls, Sophie Callahan."
"Don't ever do that again."
She clamped her mouth shut.
His gaze flicked over her. "I need your contact info."
Her voice sounding eager in spite of her best efforts, Sophie supplied it.
Jonathan entered her number and pocketed his phone. "You're lucky the cruise angle worked."
And did she say "thanks" and leave it at that? No. "It wasn't luck. I studied the account and I researched the demographics."
"Your grandparents," he said dryly.
"And their friends." She met his gaze. No use backing down now, even though her heart drummed so hard she could hear her pulse.
Something shifted in his eyes. He liked beautiful women, Sophie knew. Everyone knew. And he liked them with a certain sensual seasoning. Sophie was not beautifully seasoned. She was cute. And energetic. Not perky—energetic. There was a difference.
She wasn't Jonathan's type romantically, but a dinner out wouldn't be such a bad thing, since she could impress him during some one-on-one time. Sophie had no illusions about Jonathan. He was not a long-term guy, but he was enormously talented and she wanted the experience of working with him. If it took a couple of dates to get that chance, fine.
"We work in teams," he told her.
"So I've heard."
"You're not a team player."
"Maybe I need a better team."
Suddenly, he grinned. "Maybe you do."
A beat passed and Sophie stopped breathing. Please, please, please put me on your team.
His expression turned speculative. "You and Ross bounce off each other pretty good."
"Ross?" No. No-no-no-no-no. "He likes to work alone."
"I know. But creatively, he might need some shaking up. You strike me as the sort of person who shakes things up."
The man was toying with her. She could see it in his eyes. Talk about a disastrous pairing—for Sophie, anyway. Ross had used her ideas before and if she were officially assigned to his team, she knew she'd never get credit for anything. Never build her portfolio.
"Once concrete sets, it doesn't shake," she said. "It cracks and breaks."
"Careful, Sophie." Jonathan gave her a hard stare. "Ross has been around a long time. He's made a lot of contacts. And you need more than one good idea to build a career."
I've had lots of ideas. Several are in current ads. But she hadn't said anything. By that time, she'd said enough.
After he'd left, Sophie had dropped into a chair in the empty conference room and put her head between her knees. Ross? She was going to end up with Ross? It could have been worse. Jonathan could have fired her.
But now, just four days later, here was an invitation to one of his legendary beach parties! Maybe he wasn't going to assign her to Ross after all.
"You must have a hot date tonight."
Sophie opened her eyes to find Aire-An, her partner with the stupidly weird name, looking at her from across their desk. As though the affected spelling would make her stand out.
"It's got possibilities." Sophie didn't have a boyfriend. Not that she didn't want a boyfriend, but right now she didn't have time.
"New opportunity." She set her phone down and closed her laptop. "I've got tons to do, so I'm taking off."
"Early?" Aire-An goggled at her. "You never leave early. I'm not sure you leave at all."
"That's what it takes to get ahead." She tried not to sound self-righteous, but honestly, as a partner, Aire-An had been an anchor. And not in a steadying way, but a holding back way.
"Yeah, well, I want to have a life, too."
Sophie cleared off her desk. "The way I see it is that we're always going to be working crazy hours, so I might as well be working crazy hours on a big project for more money."
"And more stress." Aire-An waggled her fingers at Sophie. "Go. Take off. Have a normal Friday night for once."
It had better not be normal, Sophie thought as she took the stairs to the lobby so she wouldn't attract notice by waiting for the elevator. See, it was the attention to little details that would get her ahead.
As she crossed the glass-enclosed walkway over the street to the parking garage, she noticed another detail, one maybe not so little. Clouds. And not fluffy, white, friendly clouds, but angry, gray clouds brushing past the downtown skyscrapers.
What had happened to the sun? How sad that she hadn't known the weather had changed. When Sophie got out of the pit and into a room with a window, she'd know what the weather was doing.
Did Jonathan know? Of course he knew. He'd said "hurricane party" as a heads-up for stormy weather, not an actual hurricane. Jonathan had his own office with a lovely window and, currently, Jonathan was in a conference room with an even lovelier window. He'd seen the clouds. Daily afternoon showers were common in the late summer.
The concrete and metal stairs echoed as Sophie descended to the Peck and Davilla employee parking level in the garage.
Listening, she didn't hear other cars starting up and hadn't encountered anyone else who might be leaving for a weekend at the beach.
Good. That probably meant a team retreat instead of a big bash. Sophie had heard rumors of a client who might spring for a Super Bowl ad, the Holy Grail of TV advertising. Oh, to be assigned to that creative team. What a career booster, not to mention a jewel in her portfolio. The trick was to stand out and still be considered a team player.
Yeah, yeah. Jonathan said he wanted team players, but he'd invited Sophie to the beach house and Aire-An, the ultimate team player, was stuck drawing toothpaste tubes for mock-ups.
Fifteen minutes later, Sophie parked her car on the street in front of the midtown-area townhouse she shared with a couple of roommates. It was in an excellent location with a short commute, but only two bathrooms and a two-car garage. And not so much communal living space.
Her roommates weren't home. Inhaling, Sophie paused to enjoy a rare moment of solitude. And then she started packing.
As soon as Sophie had learned of Jonathan's beach-house parties, she'd shopped for the perfect swimsuit for swimming and the perfect swimsuit for not swimming, as well as appropriate cover-ups. Business beach party—talk about a wardrobe challenge. Now her preparations were going to pay off big-time.
Sophie's goal was to arrive first, or at least early enough to stake out her territory and establish herself as a hostess. As someone in charge. Someone who had her act together. And looked attractive doing it. Sure, it was a throwback to the fifties, but in a way, so was Jonathan. If Sophie had to be the girl who went for coffee, so to speak, then she'd do it.
Speaking of…he'd assigned her steaks and breakfast. Kind of a lot for one person, but she was the newbie, so she'd have to suck it up this time.
But steaks and breakfast for how many people? Was Jonathan planning to grill outside if the weather cleared, or in the kitchen broiler? Did he need propane or charcoal?
Breakfast—did that mean coffee, too? Was there a grinder at the beach house, or should she buy the coffee already ground? Jonathan loved a good cup of coffee, so maybe Sophie should bring her own grinder. And what kind of breakfast? Doughnuts? Or the full bacon-and-eggs weekend feast?
It was four o'clock. Commuter traffic would already be clogging the streets. Sophie still had to shave her legs—clearly no time to book a wax—and apply self-tanner, something she knew from personal experience should not be rushed.
Taking a deep, centering breath, she opened her laptop and started a new project list, the first ever to include groceries.
By the time Sophie had touched up her pedicure and packed the car, gusts were jostling every annoying set of wind chimes on the block.
Rain started spitting as she drove to the grocery store. According to the gleeful weathercasters, always happy to have something exciting to report, the storm had jogged north and bands of tropical-storm-force wind and rain would lash the upper Texas coast this weekend.
Wel l, that didn't sound like any fun. From the parking lot of the grocery store, Sophie checked for a follow-up text from Jonathan. Nothing. In fact, nothing from anyone. The party was still on. Okay, then. She pushed open the car door and the wind caught it. Sophie barely stopped it from slamming into the minivan parked alongside. These were some serious gusts. She pushed down her skirt even though she wore her swimsuit beneath it, and hurried into the crowded grocery store to buy steaks and breakfast.
Adrian Dean scowled down at the sand beneath the wooden steps leading from the front door of the elevated beach house to a walkway that stopped right at the beach.
He'd come to stand outside on the porch and enjoy the churning ocean and the roiling black clouds and the gusty wind and then, when a crack of lightning had split the horizon, he'd jumped like a girl and dropped the metal pole he'd been disassembling.