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"What do you mean, he didn't show up?" Sam Drexel stopped dead in the middle of the polished executive hallway of the CrownCraft offices, causing two people behind her to have to scramble to avoid a collision.
The renowned L.A. photographer on the other end of the call declared he had waited for three full hours before shutting down his equipment and letting his crew go. And, no, he was not available for a reschedule. But, yes, he would be sending her the full bill. The last thing Sam heard as he hung up was "damned rock stars."
Damned rock stars. The words drummed in her head as she punched her phone off, did an about-face and made straight for the elevator. Part of her was reeling, but part of her was already calculating how much damage this would do to her strained project budget. What kind of jerk blew off a photo shoot costing tens of thousands of dollars? Who the hell did he think he was?
But the minute she stepped out of the elevator on the thirty-eighth floor—home of CrownCraft's marketing department—the sounds of Nick Stack's music throbbing through the corridors reminded her exactly who the hell he was. The king of the driving-hot beat and libido-ramping lyrics. The master of sexy signature sounds. The pied piper of rock, who led impressionable young college girls into a labyrinth of desire and sexual discovery. At least, he used to.
She told herself that her heart was racing because she was angry—justifiably so. But her footsteps synchronized with the music, and by the time she reached the marketing department workroom she had to stop and lean against the wall to collect herself. The bass-heavy rush of Nicholas Stack's biggest hit invaded her skin, loosened her bones and threatened to take over her heartbeat.
Damned music. She was determined not to let her potent visceral reaction to it undercut her anger.
He hadn't even shown up.
Taking a deep breath, she rolled around the door frame and charged into the workroom, coming to a stop with her hands on her hips.
"Will somebody turn off that howling before I throw the damned speakers out the window?"
Her assistant and the two designers on the floor in the midst of a sea of greeting card layouts looked up in surprise. Parts of the sexy groove thumping away on the stereo would soon fill a number of the musical valentines spread in a mock-up stage all around them. And the whole project, especially the music, had been her idea.
As they shook their heads in disbelief, her face reddened. She couldn't blame them for being confused. Two months ago she couldn't get enough of Nick Stack's steamy ballads and sexed-up dance numbers, and had even broken into a few exotic dance moves during his vocal riffs.
She lunged for the off button in the middle of one of Stack's patented, knee-weakening "bay-beeee's," and the silence that followed was so deep it seemed as if the room had just been dropped down a well.
"Whoa." Dale Emerson pushed away from the worktable. The project's head designer wore a gray-streaked ponytail and was talented enough to get by with saying whatever he thought. "What set you off?"
"He didn't show," she said, her face now glowing hot. "Stack didn't bother to put in an appearance at the photo shoot this afternoon. So, as of now, we have no poster, no ads and no CD cover."
"But we've got to have photos," graphic artist Sarah Casey moaned.
"The jerk didn't even call to make excuses," Sam said, surveying the line of cards at her feet and feeling the pride she'd taken in the concept being eroded by an all-too-personal feeling of betrayal.
"Why would he miss a chance for such publicity?" her assistant, Renee Morgan, asked.
"Besides the obvious? That he thinks the whole world revolves around him? Who knows?" Sam squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then expelled a huge breath. "I hate Valentine's Day."
"We've noticed." Dale tried to lighten the mood. "And why is that? Not enough valentines in your shoe box in the third grade?"
"I got plenty of valentines, Dr. Freud." She crossed her arms and focused an incendiary gaze on one particularly romantic-looking layout. "I just get sick of seeing sappy red hearts wherever I look and hearing songs that rhyme 'baby' with 'lay me.'"
She realized they were giving each other speaking looks and struggled to give her reaction a more businesslike slant. "Besides, the Valentine's campaign is a pink collar ghetto. Have you noticed that they always give it to a woman? Me, specifically? Three years running?"
"Maybe they give it to you because you do such a good job with it." Sarah held up a pair of layout boards in evidence. "I mean, these are damned good designs and the music you chose fits so perfectly—"
"Face it, kiddo," Dale said with a hint of mischief. "There just aren't many Wharton MBAs around with a great eye for 'romantic.'"
Sam flinched. Stiffening, she turned on her heel and strode out, but not before she heard a chuckle and Dale's irreverent conclusion.
"Somebody needs a date."
So much for keeping it strictly professional.
This whole project had become a cautionary tale on the hazards of mixing her professional life with her personal one. If she hadn't been floating around in a romantic fog, she would never have gotten the bright idea to build a line of musical valentines around Nick Stack's signature sounds and phrases.
By the time she got to her office and slammed the door, she was trembling. Renee, Dale, Sarah…everybody knew her love life had gone to hell. How could they not? She was riding a romantic skyrocket one week and barely dragging her butt into work the next. She caught her reflection in the window as she headed for her chair.
She was on edge. Overworked. Exhausted.
The memory she'd been trying to suppress boiled up to threaten her composure. Rich Collier—bouquet-of-roses Rich—had been in Chicago on business and given her a call out of the blue.
She winced. Okay, not exactly "out of the blue." She had let an old classmate know she was interested in finding out what had happened to her ex-boyfriend, and a month later— voilà—he called. Apparently he thought they had unfinished business, too. She'd taken it as proof that her manhunting strategy of "mining the list of old boyfriends" was a winner.
What the hell had she been thinking?
As if decent, rational, gainfully employed heterosexual males just roamed the landscape, waiting to be bagged, banded and domesticated.
She refused to allow the pricking in her eyes to turn into tears. Two doors down, somebody punched the play button again and Nick Stack's smoky, compelling invitation filtered through her office walls… muted, but still powerful enough to conjure the memory of Rich showing up at her apartment that first night with "their album." A few bars of that sexy, driving beat and that mesmerizing voice, and she was putty in his hands.
It was the music.
It got into her blood and lowered her defenses. It always had. She couldn't help thinking that she hadn't fallen in love with Rich Collier so much as she had been seduced by that damned music—twice.
Still, she should have known something wasn't right. Who the hell left Chicago on the weekend to go home to Muncie, Indiana? Nobody. Unless he was expected home on Friday evening. By his wife.
Where was her judgment, her business-honed instinct for subtext, nuance and deception? Where was her bullshit meter when she needed it?
Drowned out by raging hormones, a scorching set of male vocals and a hypnotic 4/4 beat.
What was the female equivalent of "thinking with your dick"?
Crimson with humiliation, she hit the intercom and dug deep into her reserves for some heavy-duty attitude.
"Get me somebody in Legal," she ordered when Renee answered. "Nick Stack is going to rue the day he violated this contract."
Four weeks later
"This goes against everything I'm trying to do, Stan." Nick Stack stopped in the middle of the sidewalk as they emerged from the Drake Hotel on Chicago's Miracle Mile. His leather jacket collar was flipped up against the November wind, his shaggy hair was blowing wildly, and his glare was hot enough to sear meat… all of which made him look very bad-boy rocker. A label he no longer appreciated.
"It's money, Nick." Agent Stanley Ripken waved his client toward the limo waiting at the curb with the door open. When Nick balked, Stan produced a glare from under wiry brows. "Get in the damned car."
"They'll flash these pictures all over the country," Nick growled.
"We should be so lucky. It's called publicity. And you need it."
"Not like this, I don't. It's my old sound. I'll never be taken seriously in jazz until that crap is six feet under."
"After this shoot, they'll cut you a nice check and we'll hold a nice wake. Then you'll get on with the new demo, and we'll all get rich again."
"Is that all you think about? Money?"
Stan squared on him, glaring.
"No. Right now I'm thinking of a photo shoot that you blew off and a lawyer screaming in my ear about failure to perform contracted services. You told me to get you some money—I got you some. 'Just tell me where to show up,' you said. Only you didn't show up!" Then, like the father figure he'd often been to Nick, he pointed to the open car door. "Quit being such a diva and get in the car."
Muttering, Nick climbed into the back of the limo. This, he told himself, was payback for all the pointless excesses of his former career. He was having his crimes against music and artistic integrity emblazoned on a valentine and hung around his neck for the whole world to see.
Stan was right—this was his fault. He needed money for a new demo album and was desperate enough to think he didn't care how he got it.
It turned out he did care. A lot.
But his boycott of the L.A. photo shoot had only made matters worse. When they demanded a reshoot, CrownCraft insisted it be done in Chicago so it could be properly "handled" by their marketing department.
When the car stopped in front of a skyscraper, Nick rolled out and stood looking up at the place in horror. Sixty glass-paneled floors of tedium. He groaned. His last photos as an A-lister had been shot by an up-and-comer in Greenwich Village who took him out on the street—shirtless and holding his guitar—and captured what happened as he stopped traffic and sent most of lower Manhattan into gridlock. Now he was so far off the cutting edge that he was being funneled into an advertising photographer's queue…just after the laundry soap and right before the mouthwash.
In that delightful state of mind, he emerged from the elevator onto the thirty-second floor and found a woman in a steel gray suit waiting with feet spread, arms crossed and chin out. Her auburn hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She had damned fine legs—what he could see of them—and an attitude like the helmeted fat lady out of a Wagnerian opera. She was a little intimidating… and sexy as hell.
"We've been waiting," she said in a deep, resonant voice that made his ears tingle.
"You know what they say. 'Good things come to those who wait,'" Stan said with his most disarming smile.
"Whereas, we get your client." She shot Nick a glare that sent a jolt of electricity through him, then turned briskly toward a nearby hallway.
This was his "handler"? Nick shook off the lingering sensual buzz, stuck his hands in his pockets and stalked after Stan and the Dungeon Mistress. Clearly, she wasn't a fan.
Probably a major corporate ladder climber. She sure had the legs for it. He followed them down to a pair of black spike heels with wicked red soles. There were probably men all over CrownCraft with matching puncture marks on their backs.
Watching the sway of her prime asset down the long hallway, he found himself experiencing a growing tension…in response to her hostility or her long-legged presence? Given the fact that this was photo shoot number two, it was undoubtedly the former. Her dismissive look and snide comment said clearly that she doubted they were going to get their money's worth. And that came as something of a shock to him. Women usually appreciated him. In fact, they generally threw themselves at—
He slid his hand to his chest to explore the odd sensation developing there, then caught himself, scowled and jammed it back into his pocket.
Who the hell was she to…
He glared at her erect shoulders and superbly toned butt.
Fine. She expected a rock star—by damn, he'd give her a rock star. A no-holds-barred bad boy with ego and libido run amuck. With a little luck, the experience would be so obnoxious and the photos so bad that the company would use them sparingly… or not at all. Just what he wanted.
Brunhilda led them into a warehouse-size studio that was already warm from racks of overhead can lights.
Showtime. Before he had gone ten feet, he whipped off his leather jacket and tossed it to her. She caught it by reflex.
"Thanks, babe." He hung his hands on his waist, giving everyone an eyeful of "rock star" while he surveyed the studio. "It's hotter than hell in here. I'll need some Lauquen. Can't work when I'm dehydrated."
"What?" She held his coat well away from her, her hackles rising.
"Lau-quen? Designer water? Ring any bells?" He pointed at the lights. "And some of this wattage has got to go." He caught Stan trying to make for the door. "It's in all my contracts. Tell 'em, Stan." As Stan muttered a confirmation, she tossed the coat aside and struggled with her temper. She was hot? He smiled. She was going to get even hotter.
"First of all, my name is Samantha Drexel, not Babe," she bit out in those husky tones that made his fingertips vibrate. "I am the marketing manager who came up with the idea of using your music in our valentines. It was someone else's bright idea to issue a full CD of your songs, and we're having to 'crash' production. So if you don't mind—"
Nick whirled on Stan. "A CD? You let BMR sell them full tracks?"
Stan mouthed the words money, money, money as he rubbed his thumb and fingers together and ducked out the door. It was all Nick could do not to charge after him and throttle the old rat bastard until his hairpiece went flying. They were reissuing his old stuff!
For a minute he grappled for control. For the past six years he'd labored in small clubs and worked endless studio sessions and jazz festivals, trying to bury his hard rocking reputation and forge a new identity for himself and his music. Then an ambitious corporate climber gets a bright idea and all his hard work goes down the tubes. He stared at her.
She was so going to regret that creative impulse.