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And the winner is "
During the infinitesimal pause before the presenter read the Addy Award recipient's name, Samantha Bradford was sure her heart stopped beating.
This is it, she thought. This is my moment.
"Michael Lewis of the Grafton Surry Agency."
Sam straightened in her seat, pasted a smile on her face and joined in the applause. As her palms slapped together with stinging force, her gaze narrowed on the man who was striding across the stage of the Atlanta Herriman Hotel's grand ballroom, buttoning the jacket of his superbly tailored suit as he went. She knew him well. He was admittedly handsome, sexy, smart, insightful and charismatic. He also sang off-key in the shower, preferred boxers to briefs, enjoyed watching old war movies, had the annoying habit of leaving the seat up and possessed an untouched trust fund whose worth was on par with the gross national product of some small countries.
Yes, she knew him that well.
Seven years earlier Samantha had been in love with him and blissfully counting down the days until she became his wife. They'd found advertising jobs in Los Angeles, put down a deposit on a town house and made all manner of grand plans for their new life together. Those plans never materialized. The reason no longer mattered as far as she was concerned, though at the time Michael had accused her of choosing her family over him. Sam saw things differently. Everything could have worked out if only the man had been capable of compromise.
They'd gone their separate ways, bitterness burning any bridge that might have remained. She'd been fine with that. Really. She'd patched up her heart, put her life back in order. Michael had moved toLos Angeles without her. Sam had stayed in Manhattan, but she too had moved on.
Then fifteen months ago he'd returned to the city and the advertising scene where she was now at the top of her game. Ever since then, all of the memories, both good and bad, that Sam had safely stored away kept threatening to tumble out. She found that damned irritating. She found the man to be even more so. Michael had taken a job with one of the city's largest ad agencies and a key rival to the one where Sam worked, which was owned by her father. She and Michael had been in competition ever since, angling for each other's clients and going head-to-head for the industry's highest accolades.
Such as the Addy.
The hands that a moment ago had engaged in polite applause balled into fists in her lap. What made tonight's loss all the more galling was the fact that just the previous month Michael had snatched up the honors she'd been nominated for in the print campaign category of the Clio Awards.
For anyone keeping score, and she knew damned well Michael was, tonight made it two and zip in his favor.
Sure enough, when he reached the podium and took the trophy in his hands, his gaze seemed to search the audience. She swore he was looking straight at her when he brought the Addy to his lips and gave it a lingering kiss. Afterward, he offered a sexy grin that had half the women in the room issuing a sigh and the other half wanting to. Sam's stomach did a familiar little flip and roll, but she reminded herself that she'd long ago conquered the weakness that would have had her falling into either category.
"Some people might say it's an honor just to be nominated for this award," Michael began. "But I'll let you in on a little secret. I really wanted to win this one. And victory is all the sweeter for having been chosen from a group of such talented people."
He winked in her direction.
Why you arrogant son of a
She let the thought go unfinished. Instead, she instructed herself to take a deep breath and hold it before releasing it slowly between her teeth. She knew from past experience that the relaxation technique worked, so she tuned out the rest of Michael's short acceptance speech and continued, feeling some of her tension ebb away.
Look forward, not back.
That was her motto. The awards would be over soon. The American Advertising Federation's annual conference had wrapped up that afternoon. Tomorrow she would return to New York, and though it was a Sunday, she would be back at work. Nothing new in that. Sam spent a lot of weekends at the office. But while staying at the Atlanta Herriman she'd heard talk that the luxury chain of hotels might be looking for a new firm to handle its national campaigns. She intended for the Bradford Agency to be first in line should the rumor turn out to be true.
Thundering applause pulled her from her thoughts. Michael was leaving the stage. He held the trophy aloft in one hand as he made a fist of the other and pumped it in the air. It took an effort not to let her lip curl. She hadn't thought it possible for him to look cockier than he had on his way to receive the award. It just went to show that the man's potential in that area was limitless.
Three tables over, the people from Grafton Surry were on their feet, giving their golden boy a standing ovation. No doubt they would be toasting him with champagne late into the night. Perhaps one of the pretty, young account executives sitting at his table would offer to celebrate with him in private. Who knew? Who cared? Not Sam. Nope. She planned to go to bed early, rise before the sun and be at her desk in New York by noon. By the time Michael roused from sleep with what she hoped would be one very major hangover, she would have worked up a strategy for landing that big account.
Michael paid tribute to his win with a glass of the hotel's finest bourbon as he sat by himself in the upscale lounge that overlooked the lobby's impressive fountain. The trophy was in the center of the table, sharing space with a bowl of mixed nuts. He was pleased to have won it, especially since his success had come at Samantha's expense. Again. But victory didn't taste as sweet as he'd hoped it would. Something was missing. Again.
Several of his colleagues had gone to a nightclub outside the Herriman. They'd urged Michael to come along since he was the one they wanted to honor with raised glasses. He'd declined, claiming fatigue, even though he was 180 degrees the opposite of tired, which was why he was in the lounge rather than sitting alone in his room sampling something from the minibar. Wired, that's how he felt. Primed. Though for what he couldn't have said.
Until he saw her.
Sam stood framed in the lounge's arched entrance, looking like something straight out of his fantasies. But it wasn't fantasies that kept Michael awake at night. No. Memories were the culprit. Some were bitter, others sweet. All of them still beckoned him, remaining far too fresh and distracting, given the passage of time. The woman had hurt him. Now she haunted him, which, aside from the excellent job opportunity at Grafton Surry, was why he'd returned to New York. He wanted her exorcised once and for all.
Unfortunately, as he stared at her now, all he really wanted was her.
Sam had always had that effect on him. It wasn't until she'd essentially put her father's needs before Michael's, making her priorities painfully clear, that he'd resented her for it. He swallowed now and swore under his breath. Why did she have to be so beautiful?
Seven years hadn't changed that fact. If anything, she was lovelier now than she'd been at twenty-five. Her face had lost some of its fullness but none of its impact, dominated as it was by nearly black eyes that were topped off with a lush fringe of lashes and elegantly arched brows. Her hair was a couple of shades lighter than her eyes but just as rich, with a natural wave and sheen. She wore it shorter now. It hung to just below her shoulders, additional layers softening the appearance of her blunt chin and prominent cheekbones.
And then there was that body. Michael shifted uncomfortably in his seat as his gaze slipped south, pulled in that direction despite his best intentions. Soft curves made him want to moan. Sam had never been voluptuous, but nothing about her figure could be considered boyish. The cinnamon-colored halter-style gown she wore made it abundantly clear that every last inch of her was female. The gown dipped low enough in the front to offer a tantalizing peek of cleavage, under which a wide band of fabric highlighted the narrowness of her waist. From there, it flared out subtly at her hips. A slit up from the hem gave him a glimpse of one shapely calf. He remembered how those bare legs felt to his touch. He remembered how they felt wrapped around him.
Michael reached for his drink, finishing off the bourbon in a single gulp. Need began trickling back even before he returned the glass to the table. To counteract it, he reminded himself how ruthless she could be. Once upon a time he'd admired Sam's go-for-the-jugular approach in business. Now that they were competitors, he found it damned annoying. Last month she'd tried to sweet-talk away one of Grafton Surry's biggest clients. One of his biggest accounts. Only a sizable cut in his commission and long hours spent on a new campaign had kept the high-end watchmaker from jumping ship. He would be paying her back for that. Soon.
Right now he intended to call it a night. Michael raised his hand to signal the waiter for his check. Unfortunately, it was Samantha's attention he snagged. He knew the exact moment she spotted him. Her expression tightened, and for just a second he swore she looked vulnerable. Trick of the lounge's dim lighting, he decided, and sent her a smile as he gave his Addy award a caressing stroke.
Samantha's dark gaze followed the motion and she scowled. She turned and took a step toward the exit, but then she was pivoting back and marching to his table on a pair of heels that made her legs look as if they belonged in a chorus line.
Her voice was as husky and provocative as he remembered. He ignored the tug of lust and in his most casual tone replied, "Hey, Sam. It's been a while."
They had seen each other a few times across crowded rooms at advertising functions, but this marked their first actual conversation since his return to town.
"Yes. It has."
"How have you been?" he asked.
"Good. Great, in fact. You?"
"The same. How's your family?"
Michael thought he'd managed to keep the sneer from his tone, but realized he wasn't successful when she replied, "I might tell you if I thought you really cared. In fact, as I recall, the last time I tried to tell you, you wouldn't even listen."
"Ancient history." He shrugged. But then couldn't resist adding, "I see you're still working for Daddy."
She crossed her arms, leaving the little beaded handbag she carried to swing from one elbow in her agitation. That wasn't what held his attention, though. The pose did sinful things to her cleavage, which in turn did sinful things to his line of thinking.
"Why wouldn't I be? The Bradford Agency is the best in town."
"One of the best," he corrected. "I guess I thought maybe after all these years you would have finally broken free of him."
"I don't need to break free," she objected. "I'm an account executive and a good one. I'm being primed, I might add, to take over the agency when my father retires in eight years. That means that by the time I'm forty, I'll be the one calling all the shots at Bradford. I could very well wind up in charge of my own agency before you do. I'm hardly the prisoner you assume me to be."
"Right." He nodded solemnly and ignored her jab about his foot-dragging on going into business for himself. "I forgot. You had a choice, Sam. And you made it."
They stared at each other for a long moment. He barely heard her voice above the din of conversations when she replied, "You made a choice, too."
He closed his eyes, shook his head. "Back to that already, are we?"
"What did you expect?"
"More originality on your part, I guess, given some of the advertising campaigns you've put together."
Her eyes narrowed. "I'm trying to figure out if that was intended as a compliment."
"Let me know when you decide." His smile was intentionally ambivalent.
Sam unfolded her arms. "Well, I just came over to offer my congratulations."
"That's big of you under the circumstances."
"Just say 'you're welcome,'" she said tightly.
"You're welcome." Michael angled sideways in his seat and settled one elbow over the back of the chair. Testing himself, he allowed his gaze to meander to the vee of her décolletage again. Even without her arms crossed, enough gently mounded skin was exposed to ignite his imagination and send his hormones into overdrive. "That dress looks good on you. And I do mean that as a compliment, in case you're wondering."
She shrugged dismissively. "It was just something I had hanging in my closet."
"Ah. I see you still have expensive taste." When she said nothing, Michael added, "That particular designer's fashions are very high end. I know because he's one of my clients."
"Yes. For now." She smiled sweetly and he felt a muscle begin to tick in his jaw.
"You work too hard, Sam. It makes me wonder if you're ever off the clock or if you're always scheming up ways to grab my accounts."
"I don't have to scheme for that, Michael. I just have to do my job well. As for my personal life, it's none of your business."
He shrugged. "Still, I'm surprised to see you in here. I figured you'd be tucked in your bed by now, alarm set, bags packed and ready to head to the airport to catch the first flight to LaGuardia."
This time the muscle that ticked was in her jaw, making him wonder how close he'd come to the truth.
"If you must know, I was supposed to meet someone for drinks.