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HE SMELLED OF LEATHER and musk and warm skin, and his shoulder was a solid wall of muscle against her left arm. Every time he spoke, his deep voice vibrated through herthe urge to squirm in her chair.
Claudia Dostis was seriously in danger of screaming out loud. In fact, if Leandro Mandalor's big, beefy arm knocked against hers one more time, she was not going to be answerable for the consequences.
It was the organizers' fault. They'd squashed too many people at too few tables at the open forum sessions for the Daytime Television Convention, then they'd compounded their mistake by seating her next to her arch rival.
How was she supposed to concentrate on answering questions from the floor when she was pressed up against Captain Butthead?
He was easily the most obnoxious man she'd ever met. Hands down, without even trying. All he had to do was walk into a room and she was instantly annoyed. It had a lot to do with her innate competitive spirithis soap, Heartlands, competed on a daily basis with Ocean Boulevard, her baby. It had even more to do with the fact that six months ago he'd tried to get the jump on her by poaching the Boulevard's idea to run a feature-length wedding episode in the winter months.
But mostly it was just him.
He was too tallsix four, or something equally ridiculous. He was too darkolive skinned, with glossy black curly hair that he wore cropped close to his head. And he was too, too, too cocky. The man oozed confidence and take-charge charisma. He liked to call the shots, and he expected people to give him what he wanted, when he wanted it, stat.
And the way he looked at heras thoughshe were a private joke that only he understood. His dark brown eyes always held a hint of laughter when they lit on her, and it made her long for a large, heavy object to aim at his big, fat head.
For about the millionth time that afternoon, she felt theHer fingers curled around the edges of her notes as she fought the need to punch him and tell him to keep his distance.
"!it's an interesting point, but I'm not sure that I agree with it," he said in his deep baritone. "What do you think, Claudia?"
She stiffened. She'd been so busy grinding her teeth over their forced intimacy she'd completely missed the comment from the floor.
Her stomach tightening with panic, she ran her mind back over the past few minutes. They'd been talking about audience expectations for daytime drama, and the challenge of both meeting those expectations and providing fresh formats and ideas. Unfortunately, about the time when the discussion had gotten more specific, she'd been mentally sticking pins in his voodoo doll.
In short, she had no idea what she was supposed to agree or disagree with.
Her chin came up and she cocked an eyebrow at the giant hulking next to her. When in doubt, come out fighting was her motto. It had never failed her yet.
"Nice try, Leandro," she said, "but I think we're all interested in hearing what you've got to say."
He held her eye for a beat, a small smile curling his mouth. She couldn't help noticing that he had full, sensuous lips, and that his mouth was bracketed by laugh lines.
"How can I resist when you ask so nicely?" he said. He held her eye for a moment longerjust long enough to make her feel distinctly!uncomfortablebefore turning back to face the room full of eager wannabe writers, producers and directors.
"Television is a visual medium, we all know that. The simple answer is that there are always going to be beautiful people on our screens. But it doesn't mean there isn't a place for character actors. In all honesty I can say that when I sit down to cast a part, I'm thinking about the role,actor or actress trying for the part," he said.
Signaling he had finished, he gestured for Claudia to pick up the gauntlet.
"As much as it kills me, I'm going to have to agree with Leandro," she said.
A ripple of laughter washed through the room. Their rivalry was becoming an industry in-joke, she knew.
"The reality is, some of the most popular long-term characters on Ocean Boulevard are played by actors and actresses who fall outside the accepted norms for physical beauty in our culture," she said, warming to her topic. "Particularly in daytime drama, the audience falls in love with people and personalities, not faces and bodies. They spend a lot of time with our characters every week. They love them and hate themafter a while, what they look like becomes almost irrelevant. Having said all that, however!I will plead guilty to casting for beefcake occasionally. I figure our stay-at-home moms deserve a bit of eye candy every now and then."
That scored her a laugh. She sat back in her chair, waiting for the next question. When it was directed to the producer of the Kelly Larson talk show, on her right, she risked a glance at her watch. Ten more minutes and her official obligations for the convention were over. Hallelujah.
"Beefcake. I wonder how they'd react if I said I cast for tits and ass?"
Leandro had leaned close to her ear to deliver his sotto voce comment, and she could feel his breath against her cheek.
"You should try it, see how they like it," she suggested sweetly.
He grinned, his teeth very white against his tanned skin. She wondered if he had them whitened, or if he visited a tanning salon, or both. Surely Mother Nature hadn't bestowed all that height and breadth on him as well as great teeth and a year-round tan?
"Would you promise to tend my wounds after they tear me to shreds?" he asked.
"I've got a large container of salt out the back, ready and waiting," she said.
He laughed, a full-throated sound that drew the eyes of their interested audience.
Suddenly realizing how it must look, the two of them whispering with each other and grinning like schoolkids, she concentrated on her notes. The problem was, she wanted to wipe the smug smile off his face so badly, she leaped at any opportunity to lock horns with him.
But then she'd always been stubborn. From a young age she'd learned to look out for herself, and it had been good preparation for her career. She'd had to fight many prejudices in her battle to be taken seriously in the world of network television. Now, fighting was so much a part of her life it was second nature.
"Well, folks, that's all we've got time for today. Let's join together in thanking our special guests from the industry for their time and expertise in answering our questions today," their chairperson, Bonnie Randall, said.
Claudia acknowledged the round of polite applause with a small smile. The truth was, of the five-hundred-orso hopefuls crowded into this session, only a handful would achieve their dream to become part of the entertainment industry. It made her sad to see all the expectant faces sometimes.
Pushing back her chair, she stood for the first time in two hours and winced at how tight her back and butt were. She really had to think about adding some stretching to her work-out routinePilates or yoga or something. She was turning into an old lady with all the hours she was clocking behind her desk.
"This way," Leandro said from behind her, and she felt a large hand land on her back as he steered her toward the closest exit.
Instinctively she dug her heels in, not liking how small she felt standing next to him. On a good day she was the shortest person in the room at five foot one, but she felt positively childlike next to Leandro's towering height.
"I can find the door on my own," she said coolly.
His mouth quirked. "Just trying to be a gentleman," he said.
"Trying being the operative word. Why don't you quit pretending you're anything other than what you area pirate," she said.
"A pirate? Why am I not getting Johnny Depp vibes when you say that?" he said wryly.
"You know why."
He cocked his head to one side as he looked down at her. "You're not still upset about the wedding episode?" he asked incredulously, as though she'd brought up a spat they'd had on the playground in elementary school.
"Yeah, I am. And I will continue to be as long as originality and reward for effort remain important to me," she said stiffly.
He shook his head, clearly amused. She hated that she amused him. It made her want to kick him in the shin, or
"Claudia, when are you going to let it rest?" he asked mockingly. His hand landed in the middle of her back again and she found herself being steered toward the exit once more.
She was so busy being irritated by his condescending attitude that she went without protest.
"It's really not the conspiracy that you're imagining, you know. I heard through a reliable sourcewho came to me, by the way, and not the other way aroundthat my biggest rival was running a feature-length special. What would you have done if the same opportunity fell into your lap?" "Let me think for a moment! Come up with my own bright idea? Decide to be original?" she suggested.
"Sure you would have. And then you would have decided to fight fire with fire. You're a beat 'em at their own game kind of woman. You wouldn't be where you are today if you weren't," Leandro said.
They were out in the foyer of the Universal Hilton by now, and somehow they'd managed to find a quiet, secluded corner to stand in. Claudia was oblivious to everyone and everything else as she glared at the man looming over her.
"Don't put me in the same grubby little basket as you, bucko," she said, jabbing a finger at his chest. He was standing so close she actually hit him, her finger driving home into firm, resilient muscle.
To her consternation, he threw back his head and laughed. "Don't laugh at me," she warned him through gritted teeth. "Then stop being so cute," he said. "Did you know that your nostrils flare when you get really angry?"
It was too much. It had been a long day, and an even longer convention, and Leandro Mandalor had been a dark, disturbing presence throughout the whole damned thing. Giving in to base impulse, she hauled back her foot and kicked him, hard, in the shin.
"Yow!" he howled, skipping backward and bending to clutch at his calf.
"Cute my ass. And my nostrils are none of your business, flaring or otherwise," she said before spinning on her heel and making for the elevator bank.
The sound of his laughter followed her across the marbled foyer.
She ground her teeth together and called him four-letter words all the way up to her floor. He thought she was a joke. A Kewpie doll he could poke a stick at and get some laughs out of. Her stride morphing into a stalk, she made her way to her hotel suite and swiped her key card.
Sadie and Grace looked up from where they were lounging in the living room when she entered.
"Uh-oh. Mandalor alert," Sadie said as she saw Claudia's face.
"The man is an arrogant ass. A patronizing pig. A!aâ€¦" Claudia spluttered, running out of appropriately vitriolic insults.
"Slippery snake? Jittery jerk? How about leprotic loser?" Grace suggested, poker-faced.
"It's not funny," Claudia wailed, throwing herself into an armchair and toeing her high heels off with a relieved sigh.
Sadie grimaced apologetically. "It is kind of funny. Sorry, sweetie," she said. "Every day you've left the convention fuming at him. Even you have to admit that it's a teensy, weensy bit amusing."
Jumping to her feet again, Claudia crossed to the minibar and grabbed herself a bottle of mineral water.
"Have I been that bad?" she asked as she cracked the seal on the bottle.
Grace and Sadie made eye contact with each other, then nodded in unison.
Taking a slug of mineral water, Claudia pushed her shoulder-length straight black hair away from her face.