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'Is that even legal?'
Ava Lange glared at the row of suited clones flanking Daniel Arnot in his high-rise Sydney office. Smugness fattened their expressions; they were all too used to getting their own way.
Four against one. Nice.
'Can they do this, Dan? Mid-contract?' Her use of they was no accident. The word demarcated a battlefield, with the network suits on one side and her on the other. Between them stretched a mile of barbed tangles—a very apt representation of Ava's feelings towards all of them right now. Particularly the man in the centre, whose fringed brown eyes stared steadily back at her.
'We can, Ava, yes.'
Disappointment bit deep as Daniel declared his allegiance. Then anger surged in like a king wave, swamping any anxiety she had about being called in today. She'd assumed she was here to be fired, not promoted.
The former held vastly more appeal.
She stalled her hands before they smacked down on his desk, settling them instead with deceptive care. Blessedly, they were steady. 'You're telling me keeping my job as landscape consultant for Urban Nature is now conditional on me getting in front of the camera?'
Clone Number One eagerly spoke up. 'There is provision in your contract for AusOne to modify the manner in which you—'
Dan looked askance at the man until he fell silent, then he turned and reclaimed her gaze steadily. 'Test audiences loved your brief appearance on the behind-the-scenes episode last season,' Dan said, as though that explained it all. 'We'd like to give you a fly and see what happens.'
It had been a long time since she'd last swum in the choco-latey depths of his eyes. Ava had to steel herself against the urge. 'I have no interest in being on television.'
His jaw tightened, and some perverse part of her delighted to know she was troubling him. That she was impacting on him at all. But he wasn't done yet; those eyes were at their blankest when that mind was working its hardest.
'Ava, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,' he said. 'You should take it.'
She pulled her hands off the polished surface of his desk, leaving a heat-aura in the shape of her slender fingers. It evaporated into nothing, along with her words in the face of Dan's blind determination to get his way. Her pulse picked up and she straightened.
'I have no interest in being on television, Dan. I'm saying no.'
Clone Number One piped up again. 'You can't say no. You're contracted.'
Ava's eyes flicked to him, to see how serious he was about that. He had the intense look of a feral dog scenting blood. Ava imagined just how rabid he'd be in court, and how many prize horses her father would have to sell to help her mount a legal defence. She swallowed the discomfort.
Seasoned leather protested as Dan settled his surfer's shoulders deeper into his chair. He silently lifted two fingers and all three lawyers rose as one. If she hadn't been so furious, Ava might have laughed.
She kept her eyes fixed on Dan's dark brown ones as the clones filed past her to the door. It was only when his posture changed that she knew they were alone. He ran a carefully manicured hand through his hundred-dollar haircut.
Manicures, Dan? Really? The Daniel Arnot she remembered had paid about as little attention to his cuticles as he had to politics. If he couldn't surf it, he couldn't see it. As a girl, she'd dreamed he'd turn that singular focus in her direction— just once. Now he had, she wanted to bolt from the room.
He looked at her from beneath an untroubled brow. 'Ava…'
'Don't!' She shot to her feet, recognising that honey-smooth tone all too well. He'd used it on her half his life when he wanted something. Today was not the day to discover whether or not it still had power over her. She prowled across his office, venting a warning over her shoulder. 'I know where this is going. You sharpened your negotiation skills on me and my brother growing up, remember?'
'Ava, if you say no you'll be breaking your contract with the network and the piranhas waiting outside will pull you to pieces in court. Is that what you want?'
A horribly expensive and public legal case? That was the exact opposite of what she wanted. She just wanted to grow her consultancy business and build herself some kind of financial security. Right now she couldn't afford to fight, or the bad publicity. Heck, she could barely afford the taxi fare to this meeting! Every cent she earned these days she plunged into her business.
She made a beeline for the ornamental black bamboo in the corner, where it was strangled in its constricting pot. Its roots had nowhere to go.
I can empathise entirely.
She spun around, thick hair swinging. 'Don't you know me at all, Dan? What made you think I'd go for this?'
'Common sense. You don't have a whole lot of options here, Ava.'
Irritation hissed out of her and she crossed towards him. 'I enjoy my job the way it is: behind-the-scenes, designing the gardens, planning the themes.'
'You'll still get to do all that; you'll just be doing it on camera. A handful of set-ups per shoot and the rest is unchanged.' He rubbed his chin and Ava lost her train of thought for a moment, suddenly imagining it was her palm tracing over the stubble growing along the square angles of his jaw.
She shook her head and doubled her focus. 'Except that I'll be on set all the time, instead of in my home office working on the designs.'
Long fingers waved her concern away. 'We'll get you a mobile office.'
The speed with which he offered a six-figure sweetener took her aback. His cashed-up world was a million miles from her carefully budgeted one, but even so it was suspiciously generous. She sank onto one hip and tipped her head to study him.
'What's in this for you?' His jaw set and she knew she was onto something. 'You know I'd never go for something which puts me right in the public eye. So what is it, Dan? Why the pressure?'
'Ava…' There it was again—that tone. 'Be reasonable.'
Heat roared through her body. 'You're asking me to give up my home, my business and my life to give you what you want. I think I have a right to know what you're getting out of it. Money? Promotion? A corner office?'
That one hit home. A tic flared in his left eye, but he didn't bite. 'One season, Ava. Thirteen shows. Then your contract expires and you can negotiate freely.'
She snorted. The last time she'd been free had been six months ago, right before she'd signed on with AusOne. Back then, the promise of a year's fixed income and the chance to quadruple her portfolio had been like a siren's song. And it had been going to plan for the most part.
But this… After everything her family had done for him. What had happened to him?
Fury and a healthy dose of Lange mulishness made her rash.
'This is hardly a negotiation. I wonder what my father would have to say about you press-ganging me into this.'
Like a disturbed tiger snake he shot out of his chair and advanced around the desk, stopping a mere breath away from her. Ava met his stare and filtered air in and out through her lips rather than risk inhaling his intoxicating scent.
Nine years had changed nothing.
'He'd say Thank you, Dan, for making sure Ava's livelihood is secure—that she has food in the fridge and a future in the industry she loves.' Brown eyes turned nearly black as he glared down at her. 'Not to mention for the extraordinary boost the publicity will give your business.'
He radiated furious warmth, and Ava had to force herself not to bask in it. Not to look at him and think about how well the extra nine years suited him. 'I don't value the publicity and I don't consider hosting a gardening show will do diddly to help my career—my serious career—in landscape design. Quite the opposite, in fact.'
Colour streaked along those sensational cheekbones. 'This would be the same gardening show that has bankrolled your fledgling consultancy, yes? A show you obviously have little respect for.'
Guilt intensified her heat. She'd used his television programme to kick-start her business and they both knew it. Being a hypocrite didn't sit well with her. She'd always prided herself on her honesty, too. Curse him!
'You might as well put me in a bikini and drape me over an expensive car,' she said. Heat flared in his eyes before they dulled to blank, behind-the-desk Dan. 'How many people do you suppose will want to commission me to design their corporate landscaping projects if I'm a poster-girl for television? You're bargaining with my professional self-respect.'
Conscious of her shaking voice, she bought some calm-down time by filling a glass with cool water from an ornate pitcher and taking a long, slow sip. Then she crossed the thick wool carpet and emptied the remainder onto the parched bamboo. The hint of a smile on his face when she glanced at him sent her roaring straight back up the Richter scale to furious.
'What?' she snapped.
'You love your plants. It's part of who you are.' Sincerity glittered in his eyes. 'Why not let that enthusiasm and expertise show for everyone to see? No more getting irritated when a presenter mispronounces the Latin or dumps a plant into unprepared soil. You virtually write the scripts anyway—why not simply be the one to deliver them?'
She narrowed her eyes, thinking furiously. She was trapped by her contract; the lawyers knew it and Dan knew it. They were just waiting for her to catch on. There was no way in the world she would be able to match one of Australia's biggest television networks legally, and neither could she afford to resign. In fact, the pay rise Dan was offering meant she could wash her hands of AusOne at the end of her contract and still be on track with her business plan.
Just six months.
'Ava, they have you over a barrel. You really don't have a choice here.'
Her head snapped up. No way was she going to cave just because she couldn't afford a five-hundred-dollar-an-hour lawyer. The days of her just giving in to Daniel Arnot were well and truly over.
'I get to be hands-on,' she said. 'No swanning in for two shots and then leaving assistants to do all the work…'
'Fine. Butnot at the expense of your designing,' he countered.
'Naturally. And Shannon and Mick stay with me.'
'I couldn't agree more.'
'You'll put it in writing?' she parried.
His lips thinned at that one.
'Come on, Dan, you're not short of a lawyer or three to whip something up for you.'
He exhaled, and shoved his hands deep into his designer pockets. 'I'm disappointed you think you had to ask, Ava. I swear I've tried to make this a good deal for you. It's happening; you might as well just…' He waved frustrated hands.
'Lie back and think of England?'
A phone rang in an office somewhere. His mouth set dangerously. 'Thirteen episodes, Ava. That's it.'
And then she saw it: the tiniest glimmer of the younger man she remembered. Deep in those brown eyes was some fear that she'd take her skills and walk out. This mattered to him. That was her undoing. Instantly she was sixteen again, and every protective urge she'd spent years exorcising came bubbling to the surface. It galled her that she was still biologically opposed to hurting him.
'You hold my self-respect in your hands,' she said quietly. 'My career.'
He sighed and held her gaze. 'I know.'
'Give me your word it will be handled tastefully.' That I will be.
'You have it.' He stretched out a large hand. 'On your mother's memory.'
Ava glanced at his long fingers, at the tanned hand where it emerged from an expensive cuff. She itched to feel that smooth skin. But she forced herself to remember which side of the battlefield he'd chosen just minutes before. She stood straighter.
'If you had the slightest respect for my mother's memory you wouldn't be screwing her daughter over to further your own career.'
Even after nine years she still had enough residual hurt left in her to be satisfied as the colour leached entirely from Dan's face. Then she turned and walked from his office. It would be too easy to fall back on old times and trust him. She had to remember he was no longer Steve's best mate and her de facto big brother.
He was one of them.
'You are kidding, right?' Ava looked at her brother in confusion. 'I can't afford this!'
A magnificent home spread out before her, the deep blue of Sydney Harbour reflecting in its many tinted windows. It was sensational. Shooting six days a week for Urban Nature meant the ninety-minute commute to her south coast home just wasn't doable. Steve had warned her that city accommodation wouldn't come cheap, but even so she hadn't appreciated how much of her lucrative pay-rise would be eaten away.
He'd offered to scout affordable rentals for her in the week it would take her to pack up her life in Flynn's Beach. They'd looked at three already, but this opulence was by far his most ludicrous suggestion.
'You don't get it all.' Steven Lange took her shoulders and twisted her gently to face the east side of the residence. 'You get that bit.'
'This bit.' A smooth voice cut in from her right, and Dan walked towards them, a newly cut key dangling from his fingers. She met his gaze evenly, almost defiantly, hoping he'd never realise she harboured the slightest remorse for the way she'd last spoken to him.
He clapped his hand on her brother's shoulder. 'Hey, mate. Good to see you.'
Steve grinned. 'Danno.'
A bad feeling came over her. Oh, he hadn't…
'Come on, I'll show you around my humble abode,' Dan said.
She turned and glared at Steve as Dan guided the way to a refurbished arched gate in the large rammed-earth wall that obscured the rest of the house from view. Ava's heart leapt as she stepped through the pretty gate into a small garden space, and her designer's eye immediately started doing its thing. There wasn't a lot of planning evident, but it was lush, flowering and completely unexpected in a house as modern as this one. An ancient birdbath leaned skew-whiff in the garden's heart. It was designer crooked, dotted with clusters of moss, and looked as if it belonged in a home magazine.
She fought to keep her face from betraying how much the whole setting appealed to her. It was precisely the sort of thing she might design.