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Luke Bryant stared at his watch for the sixth time in the last four minutes and felt his temper, already on a steady simmer, start a low boil.
She was late. He glanced enquiringly at Jenna, his Head of PR, who made useless and apologetic flapping motions with her hands. All around him the crowd that filled Bryant's elegant crystal and marble lobby began to shift restlessly. They'd already been waiting fifteen minutes for Aurelie to make an appearance before the historic store's grand reopening and so far she was a no-show.
Luke gritted his teeth and wished, futilely, that he could wash his hands of this whole wretched thing. He'd been busy putting out corporate fires at the Los Angeles office and had left the schedule of events for today's reopening to his team here in New York. If he'd been on site, he wouldn't be here waiting for someone he didn't even want to see. What had Jenna been thinking, booking a washed-up C-list celebrity like Aurelie?
He glanced at his Head of PR again, watched as she bit her lip and made another apologetic face. Feeling not one shred of sympathy, Luke strode towards her.
'Where is she, Jenna?'
'What is she doing?'
Luke curbed his skyrocketing temper with some effort. 'And does she realise she's fifteen' he checked his watch 'sixteen and a half minutes late for the one song she's meant to perform?'
'I think she does,' Jenna admitted.
Luke stared at her hard. He was getting annoyed with the wrong person, he knew. Jenna was ambitious and hardworking and, all right, she'd booked a complete has-been like Aurelie to boost the opening of the store, but at least she had a ream of market research to back up her choice. Jenna had been very firm about the fact that Aurelie appealed to their target group of eighteen to twenty-five-year-olds, she'd sung three chart-topping and apparently iconic songs of their generation, and was only twenty-six herself.
Apparently Aurelie still held the public's interestthe same way a train wreck did, Luke thought sourly. You just couldn't look away from the unfolding disaster.
Still, he understood the bottom line. Jenna had booked Aurelie, the advertising had gone out, and a significant number of people were here to see the former pop princess sing one of her insipid numbers before the store officially reopened. As CEO of Bryant Stores, the buck stopped with him. It always stopped with him.
'Where is she exactly?'
As if they'd been talking about anyone else. 'Yes. Aurelie.' Even her name was ridiculous. Her real name was probably Gertrude or Millicent. Or even worse, something with an unnecessary i like Kitti or Jenni. Either way, absurd.
'She's in the staff break room'
Luke nodded grimly and headed upstairs. Aurelie had been contracted to sing and, damn it, she was going to sing. Like a canary.
Upstairs, Bryant's women's department was silent and empty, the racks of clothes and ghostly faceless mannequins seeming to accuse him silently. Today had to be a success. Bryant Stores had been slowly and steadily declining for the last five years, along with the economy. No one wanted overpriced luxuries, which was what Bryant's had smugly specialised in for the last century. Luke had been trying to change things for years but his older brother, Aaron, had insisted on having the final say and he hadn't been interested in doing something that, in his opinion, diminished the Bryant name.
When the latest dismal reports had come in, Aaron had finally agreed to an overhaul, and Luke just prayed it wasn't too late. If it was, he knew who would be blamed.
And it would be his fault, he told himself grimly. He was the CEO of Bryant Stores, even if Aaron still initialled many major decisions. Luke took responsibility for what happened in his branch of Bryant Enterprises, including booking Aurelie as today's entertainment.
He knocked sharply on the door to the break room. 'Hello? Miss Aurelie?' Why didn't the woman have a last name? 'We're waiting for you' He tried the knob. The door was locked. He knocked again. No answer.
He stood motionless for a moment, the memory sweeping coldly through him of another locked door, a different kind of silence. The scalding rush of guilt.
This is your fault, Luke. You were the only one who could have saved her.
Resolutely he pushed the memories aside. He shoved his shoulder against the door and gave it one swift and accurate kick with his foot. The lock busted and the door sprang open.
Luke entered the break room and glanced around. Clothessilly, frothy, ridiculous outfitswere scattered across the table and chairs, some on the floor. And something else was on the floor. Aurelie.
He stood there, suspended in shock, in memory, and then, swearing again, he strode towards her. She was slumped in the corner of the room, wearing an absurdly short dress, her legs splayed out like spent matchsticks.
He crouched in front of her, felt her pulse. It seemed steady, but what did he really know about pulses? Or pop stars? He glanced at her face, which looked pale and was lightly beaded with sweat. Actually, now that he looked at her properly, she looked awful. He supposed she was pretty in a purely objective sense, with straight brownish-blonde hair and a lithe, slender figure, but her face was drawn and grey and she looked way too thin.
He touched her cheek and found her skin clammy. He reached for his cell phone to dial 911, his heart beating far too hard. She must have overdosed on something. He'd never expected to see this scenario twice in one lifetime, and the remembered panic iced in his veins.
Then her eyes fluttered open and his hand slackened on the phone. Luke felt something stir inside him at the colour of her eyes. They were slate-blue, the colour of the Atlantic on a cold, grey day, and they swirled with sorrow. She blinked blearily, struggled to sit up. Her gaze focused in on him and something cold flashed in their blue depths. 'Aren't you handsome,' she mumbled, and the relief he felt that she was okay was blotted out by a far more familiar determination.
'Right.' He hauled her up by the armpits and felt her sag helplessly against him. She'd looked thin slumped on the floor, and she felt even more fragile in his arms. Fragile and completely out of it. 'What did you take?' he demanded. She lolled her head back to blink up at him, her lips curving into a mocking smile.
'Whatever it was, it was a doozy.'
Luke scooped her up in his arms and stalked over to the bathroom. He ran a basin full of cold water and in one quick and decisive movement plunged the pop star's face into the icy bowlful.
She came up like a scalded cat, spluttering and swearing.
'What the hell?'
'Sobered up a bit now, have you?'
She sluiced water from her face and turned to glare at him with narrowed eyes. 'Oh, yes, I'm sober. Who are you?'
'Luke Bryant.' He heard his voice, icy with suppressed rage. Damn her for scaring him. For making him remember. 'I'm paying you to perform, princess, so I'll give you five minutes to pull yourself together and get down there.' She folded her arms, her eyes still narrowed, her face still grey and gaunt. 'And put some make-up on,' Luke added as he turned to leave. 'You look like hell.'
Aurelie Schmidtnot many people knew about the Schmidtwiped the last traces of water from her face and blinked hard. Stupid man. Stupid gig. Stupid her, for coming today at all. For trying to be different.
She drew in a shuddering breath and grabbed a chocolate bar from her bag. Unwrapping it in one vicious movement, she turned to stare at the clothes scattered across the impromptu dressing room. Jenna, the Bryant stooge who had acted as her handler, had been horrified by her original choice of outfit.
'But you're Aurelie You have an image..'
An image that was five years past its sell-by date, but people still wanted to see it. They wanted to see her, although whether it was because they actually liked her songs or just because they hoped to see her screw up one more time was open to debate.
And so she'd forsaken the jeans and floaty top she'd been wanting to wear and shimmied into a spangly minidress instead. She'd just been about to do her make-up when she must have passed out. And Mr Bossy Bryant had come in and assumed the worst. Well, she could hardly blame him. She'd done the worst too many times to get annoyed when someone jumped to that rather obvious conclusion.
Clearly she was late, so she wolfed down her chocolate bar and then did the quick version of her make-up: blush, concealer, eyeliner and a bold lipstick. Her hair looked awful but at least she could turn it into a style. She pulled it up in a messy up-do and sprayed it to death. People would like seeing her a little off her game anyway. It was, she suspected, why they were here; it was why the tabloids still rabidly followed her even though she hadn't released a single in over four years. Everyone wanted to see her fail.
It had been a good twenty minutes since she was meant to perform her once-hit single Take Me Down, and Aurelie knew the audience would be getting restless. And Luke Bryant would be getting even more annoyed. Her lips curved in a cynical smile as she turned to leave the break room. Luke Bryant obviously had extremely low expectations of her. Well, he could just join the club.
Stepping onto a stageeven a makeshift one like thisalways felt like an out-of-body experience to Aurelie. Any sense of self fell away and she simply became the song, the dance, the performance. Aurelie as the world had always known her.
The crowd in front of her blurred into one faceless mass and she reached for the mike. Her stiletto heel caught in a gap in the floor of the stage and for a second she thought she was going to pitch forward. She heard the sudden collective intake of breath, knew everyone was waiting, even hoping, she'd fall flat on her face. She righted herself, smiled breezily and began to sing.
Usually she wasn't aware of what she was doing onstage. She just did it. Sing, slink, shimmy, smile. It was second nature to her now, first nature, because performingbeing someone elsefelt far easier than being herself. And yet right there in the middle of all that fakery she felt something inside her still and go silent, even as she sang.
Standing on the side of the makeshift stage, away from the audience assembled in the lobby, Luke Bryant was staring right at her, his face grim, his eyes blazing. And worse, far worse, since he should be staring at her, was the realisation that she was staring back at him. And some part of herself could not look away even as she turned back to face the crowd.
Luke watched as Aurelie began her routine, and knew that was what it was. She was on autopilot, but she was good enough that it didn't matter. Her whipcord-slender body moved with an easy, sensual grace. Her voice was clear and true but also husky and suggestive when she wanted it to be, like sunshine and smoke. It was a sexy voice, and she was good at what she did. Even annoyed as he was with her, he could acknowledge that.
And then she turned and looked at him, and any smug sense of detachment he felt drained away. All he felt was need. An overwhelming physical need for her but, more than that, a need to to protect her. How ridiculous. He didn't even like her; he despised her. And yet in that still, silent second when their gazes met he felt a tug of both heart and well, the obvious.
Then she looked away and he let out a shuddering breath, relieved to have that weird reaction fade away. Clearly he was overtired and way too stressed, to be feeling like that about someone like Aurelie. Or anyone at all.
He heard her call out to the crowd to sing along to the chorus of the admittedly catchy tune, and watched as she tossed her head and shouted, 'Come on, it's not that old a hit that you can't remember!'
He felt a flicker of reluctant admiration that she could make fun of herself. It took courage to do that. Yet remembering her slumped on the break room floor made his mouth twist down in disapproval. Dutch courage, maybe. Or worse.
The music ended, three intense minutes of song and dance, and Luke listened to the thunder of applause. He heard a few catcalls too and felt himself cringe. They liked her, but part of liking her, he knew, was making fun of her. He had a feeling Aurelie knew that too. He watched as she bowed with a semi-sardonic flourish, fluttered her fingers at her fans and sashayed offstage towards him. Their gazes clashed once more and Aurelie tipped her chin up a notch, her eyes flashing challenge.
Luke knew he'd treated her pretty harshly upstairs, but he wasn't about to apologise. The woman might have been on drugs. Now that she had done her act he wanted her out of here. She was way too much of a wild card to have in the store today. She came towards him and he reached out and curled one hand around her wrist.
He felt the fragility of her bones under his fingers, the frantic hammering of her pulse, and wished he hadn't touched her. Standing so close to her, he could smell her perfume, a fresh, citrusy scent, feel the heat from her body. He couldn't quite keep his gaze from dipping down to the smooth roundness of her breasts and the gentle flaring of her hips, outlined all too revealingly under the thin, stretchy material of her skimpy dress. His gaze travelled back up her body and he saw her looking at him with an almost weary cynicism.
He dropped her wrist, conscious that he'd just given her a very thorough once-over. 'Thank you,' he said, and heard how stiff his voice sounded.
Her mouth twisted. 'For what, exactly?'
'For singing.' He hated the lilt of innuendo in her voice.
'No problem, Bossy.'
Annoyance flared. 'Why do you think I'm bossy?'
'We-ell ' She put her hands on her hips. 'You dunked me in a sink of cold water and expected me to thank you for it.'
'You were passed out. I was doing you a favour.'
Her lips curved and her eyes glittered. Everything about her mocked him. 'See what I mean?'
'I just want you to do what you're meant to do,' Luke said tightly. The sooner this woman was out of here, the better. The store opening didn't need her. He didn't need her.
With that same mocking smile she placed one slender hand on his chest so he could see her glittery nail varnishand she could feel the sudden, hard thud of his heart. He could feel the heat of her hand through his shirt, the gentle press of her slender fingers and, irritatingly, his libido stirred.