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"So what's it going to be? Sexy secrets? The best lies lovers tell? Or should we find someone with a confession to make?"
Eve Best looked into the faces of the production team for Just Between Us, the afternoon cable show she hosted on CATL-TV. The show that had just been profiled in Vanity Fair. The show that was rocketing up the ratings and making the dreams of everyone in this room come true.
Every Monday at five, they got together in this conference room to hammer out the roster for the following week, with the exception of Fridays, when she invited a panel to take questions in a town-hall meeting format, or she simply did it herself. But for four twentytwo-minute segments, Monday through Thursday at three o'clock, they had to come up with the best in sexy, cutting-edge topics and guests. The funny thing was, no matter how many shows they did, they never seemed to run out of material.
They were, after all, talking about human behavior, in all its wonderful forms and mutations.
Lainie Kaye, the junior of their two segment producers, waved a sheaf of clippings. "If we go for a guest, I got a commitment from Dawn Penney. She's the actress, remember, who turned a part in that awful horror movie about the beach resort into a career character. Now she writes that column for the Register, 'Perfect Dates." Sex and the City, Atlanta style."
Eve made some notes in her planner. "Get her. See if she can do Thursday."
Cole Crawford, their executive producer, looked up from the binder that went everywhere with him. Eve had asked him once if he slept with it under his pillow, and had been immediately sorry. Since his wife had up and left him,the topic of sleeping with anything or anyone was a sore one. Cole had made his kids and his career his whole lifeto the benefit of the show and the detriment of any hope of a love life for the poor guy.
"Wednesday would be better," he said. "Hump day and all. Get people past the middle of the week, right?"
Eve shook her head. Technically he had the last word on programming, but this was her show. And the more popular it got, the more clout she had and the more it was likely she'd get the programming she thought audiences would respond to best.
Not a bad place to be, considering Cole was one of the few who remembered she'd started out as junior weathergirl back in the day.
"Thursday," she repeated firmly. "When Thursday hits, people start thinking about plans for the weekend. It's the perfect time to hear about the perfect date." She sat back, satisfied, as Cole nodded and gave in. Lainie left the room at a jog, as if Dawn Penney would give away the space they needed on her calendar if she didn't get to the phone this second.
"Okay, three down, one to go," Eve said. "What are the possibilities for Wednesday?"
Nicole Reavis, their primary segment producer, had her own sheaf of clippings. "I had an idea the other night about male-female communication," she said. "What if we get someone like Dr. Deborah Tannen, the linguistics expert? She could talk about the differences in communication styles, and how what we say isn't always what the other person understands."
"I'm liking this," Eve said. Cole leaned forward. A good sign. "Go on."
"We could focus on subtext," Nicole said. "You know, what I'm saying isn't really what I'm talking about, and how that gets us into trouble in relationships."
"Trying to read the other party," Cole said. "How to find out if they mean what they say. Maybe even negotiation tactics and how that works in relationships."
He would know. But Eve kept that to herself. "Let's do it. Nicole, get one of the coordinators to find the guestsomeone local, if you canand you and I will work on the script. And how about we carry over the theme to the Friday town-hall meeting? I bet everyone in the audience has a miscommunication story. We'll pull three or four out to give advice from a male and female point of view."
"Consider it done." Nicole scribbled frantically in her notebook.
Just then, Zach Haas, the youngest crew member but the most experienced cameraman, poked his head into the room. "Sorry to interrupt, guys. Cole, those camera tests are ready whenever you need them."
"Thanks, Zach," Cole replied, and the twentysomething kid disappeared.
"So are we finished?" Eve looked around the table.
"Yes? Good job, everyone. See y'all tomorrow."
As the noise level rose with people pushing in chairs and collecting their stacks, Eve's assistant pushed through the rush for the door. "Eve"
Dylan Moore was six feet tall and thin as a licorice whip. With the ink still fresh on his communications degree and dirt from the family farm in south Georgia scrubbed off his toes, he was determined to have a career in television and didn't care how humbly he started. Eve was sure to lose him to Cole one of these days. She'd resigned herself to that. But in the meantime, he was the one who kept her functioning from minute to minute. He'd probably learned project management by default from all those years of being the eldest of all the sibs in the picture on his desk.
"He's here," Dylan said in a low voice, tugging on her elbow to draw her away from the door and, presumably, the foyer where guests at the station waited.
But she already knew. Had been dreading his arrival from the moment Cole had told her about him the previous week.
"Him. The exec from CWB." Dylan glanced at the door, but the room had emptied. At the confirmation of her fears, Eve felt a trickle of dread settle in her stomach. "Mitchell Hayes. The guy who wants to eat you up and have the rest of us on a plate for dessert."
UNDER THE CUSTOM-TAILORED suit, Mitchell Hayes tried to roll the tension out of his shoulders. Every muscle seemed locked in place, which made it tough to look relaxed and confident.
In this business, appearances were everythingit was bad enough in New York, but that rule had probably been invented right here in Atlanta. This afternoon, it was vital that he look confident without being arrogant. Not to mention friendly and trustworthy and sincere without looking like a suck-up.
"If we can get Just Between Us, we'll have the female demographic locked up," Nelson Berg, his boss at CWB, had said two days ago. "You get this Eve Best to sign with the network and you'll be golden."
"And if it doesn't work out?"
Nelson had given him a long look and tented his fingers over his stomach in a way that meant bad news was coming. "We asked you to sign Jah-Redd Jones and NBC got him. We needednot just wanted, mind, neededAlastair McCall's Animal Mind-Hunter. And what happened there?"
"OLN had a mole in the station," Mitch had protested. "McCall was signed up before I even got on the plane."
"Well, they don't have a mole at CATL-TV," Nelson had snapped, "but it's only a matter of time. Eve Best is ripe for the picking, and this money she and her friends have won in the lottery is a ratings gold mine.
You get down there, romance the socks off her and her staff and get them signed up."
"Or?" Mitch had said before his brain had a chance to catch up with his mouth.
"Or I'm going to have to replace you." Nelson's face had been kind, but the words were brutal. "Not much point in keeping a scout who can't bring home the bacon, is there?"
No, there wasn't.
On trips such as these Mitch often wondered why on the guy's staff had a lifethey were so busy bringing home the bacon they didn't have homes to go to. Apartments, yes. Places to keep their stuff, sure. But homes? Nope.
Something moved behind the soundproof glass wall that backed the receptionist's desk, and the cardsecured door clicked open. An African-American guy who could have made a career in college basketball stepped out.
"Mr. Hayes, I'm Dylan Moore, Eve Best's personal assistant." Mitch shook his hand. "Right this way."
Mitch followed him into the rabbit warren of corridors, taping booths and offices that made up TV stations all over the country. This one boasted three studiosone for news, one for network linkups and a huge one for the exclusive use of Just Between Us.
As he passed behind the backdrop that somehow managed to convey a sense of home along with big-city glitz (who was their set designer?) he had to smile. Because of course the studio was all about appearances, too. Behind the set, where the camera never went, the walls were naked board and batten, with schedules and notes stapled all over them. Tie wraps secured wristsized bundles of electrical wiring and cables to the studs, along with Ethernet and T1 lines.
It looked so like the studios at CWB that he felt right at home. Or at least, as much as a guy could feel at home when he was living in a pressure cooker.
At the top of a set of stairs, he passed a conference room, where, from the debris, it looked as if a production meeting had just ended. Moore paused at the door of an office next to it, and Mitch resisted the urge to stretch his neck muscles one more time and straighten his tie.
He nodded at Moore and walked into Eve Best's office with a smile and an outstretched hand.
One of their affiliates in Atlanta had sent him a box full of DVDs of the last three months of the show. But even watching forty hours of Eve Best hadn't prepared him for the reality.
She pushed her chair back and came around the desk as if his pheromones met hers in the space between them, and exploded in a chemical reaction. The small screen simply didn't do justice to the curves and the healthy glow of her skin. Her baby-doll top was cut just low enough to show a tempting swell of cleavage but not enough to be in bad taste. He'd expected that triangular, girl-next-door smile that knocked viewers off their chairs, but it didn't happen. Instead, he got the full effect of those wide, long-lashed green eyes.
And they weren't particularly glad to see him. "Eve, this is Mitchell Hayes from CWB," Moore said from the door. "Mr. Hayes, Eve Best."
"Thank you, Dylan." Her voice, which was husky and playful when she spoke to her guests, was merely husky now. Subdued or not, it stroked some pleasure point deep inside Mitch's chest. In fact, the whole package seemed to be custom-made to stroke every pleasure point he hadand when had been the last time he'd experienced that?
What had Nelson said? He was here to romance the socks off this woman and get her to say yes.
To the contract.
He needed to focus on his goal, and soon, or he'd be in the deepest trouble of his career.
"Please sit down, Mr. Hayes."
Belatedly, he realized he needed to say something to take control of this interview and stop drinking her in like a teenage boy staring at the head cheerleader.
"Thanks for seeing me, Ms. Best," he said. "I know your schedule is probably packed."
"You're right there. The only place I could fit you in was at the end of the day, and even at that I need to keep it short. I appreciate you've come a long way to have this conversation, but I'm going to a benefit this evening. I'm afraid I'll need to leave in about half an hour."
What an amazing voice. What charisma. No wonder the viewers were flocking to Just Between Us. He could watch this woman all day. "That will be plenty of time."
getting her commitment to the network. brought the conversation back around to the reason he was there. "If you'll bring your show to our network, we're prepared to offer you six million for the first year, eight for the second and ten for the third if you'll agree to sign with us."
A slow blink was her only reaction. For a woman whose openness and frankness were her trademark, she evidently knew how to be as cagey as a poker player. "That's very generous."
"You won't find a better deal, even with the big guns like NBC or SBN. Have they approached you?"
"If they had, I'd hardly say so, would I?"
Of course not. CWB had its spies, and they'd have been careful to brief him beforehand. But that didn't mean the bigger networks wouldn't be hot on his heels once they heard CWB was courting Eve. Television fed on itself, after all.
"Maybe not, but you know how it is. Everyone knows everyone, and word gets around."
"Well, the word around here is no." With a glance at the clock, she rose. Mitch got to his feet as she again came around the desk and held out a hand. "Thank you for taking the time to come and make the offer, Mitch. It's very flattering, but the answer is still no."
He took her hand, and two things registered. First, that her fingers were slender and warm in his. And second, that she was taller than he'd thought. He stood six foot three in his socks, and with the strappy heels she wore, the top of her head came almost to his eye level.
Then a third thing registered. She smelled delicious.
A combination of vanilla and spice and the clean scent of warm skin. Involuntarily, he drew in a breath, and she looked into his eyes.
His brain went blank. He murmured some vague words of thanks for her time and then beat feet out of there, finding himself in the driver's seat of his rental car before he knew quite how he'd gotten there.
And a good thing, too.
Because if he'd stayed one second more, he'd have pushed Eve Best up against the wall of her office and breathed that scent from the side of her neck. Then he'd have kissed her senseless.
He could only imagine what that would have done to his chances for getting her to say yes to him.
He shook his head as if to clear it. To CWB. Not him. To CWB and their offer.
Yeah. That's what he meant.