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On the monitor, Brody Donegan, aka Doctor Nite, slid a five under the stripper's G-string and gave the knowing smirk that made his cable show must-see TV for every lounge lizard prowling the meat-market bars.
"I've got to get this guy," Jillian James said to her cousin Nate, in whose video-editing studio they sat. "For the documentary," she added quickly, hoping Nate hadn't noticed the edge in her voice. She tapped the Mute button so hard she snapped a nail.
Doctor Nite, Brody Donegan's show, featured sexy hot spots as the backdrop for advice on how to get laid and stay single. Donegan, who used women like tissues and taught his high-fiving, beer-guzzling fans to do the same, symbolized all that was wrong with a culture that exalted sex over love, external looks over inner beauty and self-involvement over emotional commitment.
Jillian had to get him.
She'd tried for weeks for an interview, but his network had stonewalled her and his agent had e-mailed that he was too busy. "For a no-name filmmaker" was implied, but Jillian got the message loud and clear.
That was where fate, through her cousin, had stepped in. Nate just happened to be good friends with Donegan's camera guy, who just happened to be out of commission for the upcoming shoot. Nate had recommended Jillian to fill in.
"So, you have the scoop for me?" she asked Nate now.
"Brody wants to meet you tonight." Nate handed her one of the show's business cards, which featured the star's face. Donegan was handsome enough if you liked the bad-boy looksquare jaw dangerous eyes wicked grin.
Jillian could take or leave it.
"Time and place on the back," Nate said.
She flipped the card. 11 p.m., Score was written in bold Sharpie. Score was a trendy bar in Santa Monica, she knew. "Eleven is late."
"Doctor Nite hours," Nate said. "Get used to it."
"I will. You bet. Whatever it takes." She flicked the card against her chin, her heart racing, her skin overheated, sole to scalp. This scrap of paper held the key to her future. Everything depended on this meeting. The job. Her documentary. Her career.
Well, maybe not everything, but this was big. In her pitch to the We Women Cable Network, she'd mentioned exclusive interviews with Doctor Nite, knowing that would pique the acquisitions manager's interest. Now she had to get the damn interviews.
"So this project you want him for is about dating?" Nate asked, looking doubtful. "Doesn't sound like you."
"I needed a change of pace after the foster care piece," she said. She'd devoted two years to the project, living on Top Ramen and dreams, begging favors from film school friends, selling her second camera, her extra computer and every spare piece of equipment to pay postproduction costs.
It had been her first major project since she left TV news. Her San Diego network had sponsored several small projects, all well received, but Childhood Lost took top honors at two prestigious film festivals. She'd floated on air.
Then slammed to the ground when she couldn't find a buyer. Everyone loved it, but it was "too local" for public television buying only lurid exposés or feel-good pieces. Without big-buck backers, Childhood Lost sank like a stone to the bottom of the sea of lost documentaries.
How could a movie change the world if the only people who saw it were her film school profs and die-hard fans?
She'd vowed her next project would be commercial from the get-go. Drinks out with her two best friends, Becca and Dana, had given her the idea for a movie about the dark side of the player lifestyle.
Becca had just broken up with her boyfriend of two years because, at thirty-seven, he claimed to be too young to get serious. Dana had lived through a similar scenario six months before. Jillian's own breakups had been amicable, but between the three friends, they knew a dozen other women who'd been victims of the Peter Pan syndromeguys who refused to grow up and commit.
As they commiserated over margaritas, Doctor Nite had appeared on the bar's plasma and guys all over the place lifted their beer and woofed approval, and the idea was born.
Soon Jillian was frantically scribbling notes on napkins for Peter Pan Prison: How Men Who Play Pay.
Bare-bones grants from a social-psychology foundation and two women's groups had funded interviews with therapists, matchmakers and sociologists, along with women who'd dated Peter Pan boys and some longtime bachelors she'd snared outside a strip club. She'd obtained promotional footage from the Doctor Nite show, too. Now all she needed was in-depth interviews with the man himself to nail the sale to We Women.
On the screen in her cousin's studio, Donegan was flirting with a top-heavy blonde. "I love this bit," Nate said.
"You're a fan of the show?"
"Are you kidding? Doctor Nite is great." Nate was a good person with a kind heart, but he was single and twenty-eight, exactly the show's demographic.
"You don't think marriage is a crime against men, though, do you? You want to settle down one day?"
"If I can't avoid it." He grinned.
Lord, if Nate bought the Doctor Nite philosophy, lots of other decent guys did, too, which made for a terrible trend.
She studied Doctor Nite. She could see why women liked him. Even with the sound muted, she picked up his strong masculine energy. He had expressive eyes, and a smile that tugged at you, invited you in. Infectious and appealing and
"Oh, I get it," Nate said softly, "You're into the guy."
"God, no," she said, startled to feel her face flame.
"That's cool, JJ. Sometimes I forget you're a woman."
"Gee, thanks," she said, though she took pride in being one of the guys when she worked. In high school, when being over-weight had rendered her sex-neutral, it had been hell. Fat girls were friends, not girlfriends.
Now being one of the guys served her well, kept any residual sexism at bay. She went by JJ and used the androgynous J. James as her credit line, and was as far from girlie as she could be. She carried her own equipment and never shied from intimidating shoots.
"Good luck with him," Nate said, studying her thoughtfully.
"Thanks. I'll need it." Getting the job was just the first step. She had to get Donegan to trust her enough to talk about his secret loneliness, the inner emptiness of his way of life.
She'd always been lucky getting honest answers to the boldest questions. She believed people responded to her bone-deep curiosity. Everyone longed to be understood, after all. Would Brody?
Watching him on the monitor, she felt a shiver of excitement. If her plan worked and she sold the movie, it would mean a big career leap. She'd have a name. Funding would fall into her lap. Not that fame or money was the point.
This piece was for Becca and Dana and all the womenand men, for that mattercrippled by the idea that just as a woman couldn't be too thin, a man couldn't be too single.
"You keep the DVD," Nate said with a wink. "Enjoy." Her cousin thought Jillian had a thing for Doctor Nite. Please. She took the DVD all the same. Research.
EVEN IF SHE HADN'T known what Brody Donegan looked like, Jillian would have known where he was by the crowd swarming his huge table in the raised central area of Score.
Designed to look like a bachelor pad from the Fifties, the club was furnished with zebra-striped chairs, low white and black leather couches, with a huge fire pit in the lounge and faux animal hides on the floor. The walls held framed nudes, the music was Sinatra and the signature drink a gin martinishaken, not stirred. Perfect hangout for Doctor Nite.
Every seat at Donegan's long table was filled and people crowded around it, everyone talking at once. The women jutted their breasts forward, the men laughed boldly. Like mating birds, the males showed beak and claw, the females preened and flounced, hardwired to perform this primitive dance.
Jillian understood the drive, even if she didn't like it, and would use it to appeal to Brody. Instead of her usual jeans, chambray shirt and cargo vest, she'd worn a tailored white blouse that emphasized her tan and offered a sliver of cleavage, snug black slacks and heels high enough that her arches ached the instant she slid them on.
Why did women willingly endure this agonynot much better than ancient foot binding? Supposedly, spike heels enhanced a woman's sexual featureslifting her butt, lengthening her legs, tilting her breasts forward. Jillian had worn them so she could meet the six-foot Brody at eye level. If they made her more attractive to him, too, they were worth the temporary pain.
Instead of the usual ponytail under a ball cap, she'd let her curls fall wild to her shoulders. Sexier that way, she figured, though she wasn't much for the teasing hair toss.
She paused near the phone alcove to observe the scene. She liked to dip her toe into the social stream before getting swept into the current.
Donegan was clearly amusing the crowd, but she noticed that whenever someone addressed him, he made eye contact and turned his body toward them, giving full attention to the person. The man knew how to work a crowd, no question.
Jillian was prepared to be charmed. She hoped to charm him right back.At least enough to get hired. Then the real work began.
Abruptly, Donegan rose from the table and headed straight for her. Had he seen her, sensed her presence?
He's going to the men's room, you idiot. It was right behind her. She smiled at her foolishness. As he drew nearer, light hit his face and she was startled by his expression. He looked utterly weary. As if he were desperate to escape the noisy crowd and sleep for a week.
Wow. He was close and if she didn't speak soon, she'd seem like a bug-eyed gawker. She lurched forward. "Mr. Donegan? I'm Jillian James. JJ? Here to discuss filling in for Kirk Canter?"
He smiled and his expression warmed instantly. "Yes. JJ. That's right." He gave her an approving once-over. "Kirk didn't mention you were gorgeous."
"He's never seen me, actually. It's my cousin Nathan who recommended me. He went to film school with Kirk. Thank you, though." She tugged at her hair, uncomfortable with the compliment, but trying to look pleased.
"No, thank you." Again his eyes traced her figure, making her hot all over. She was flattered, of course, though years of being ignored by men because of her weight had given her a solid skepticism about superficial male attraction. In this case, she hoped it made Brody more amenable to hiring her.
Brody nodded toward his crowd at the table. "We're there if you want to head over."
"I'll just wait for you." She wondered how they would manage a meeting surrounded by the rowdy group now accepting a round of drinks. On Brody's tab, no doubt.
When Brody returned to her, his smile was so gracious she wondered if she'd imagined the naked exhaustion she'd seen in that unguarded moment.
"Shall we?" He put a hand to her back and led her to the table, fingertips light, the contact easy and natural on her body.
At the table, every head swiveled Brody's way, every pair of eyes turned to him. The king was back.
"I hate to break up the party, guys," Brody said, "but we need some alone time." His tone held a hint of sexual suggestion.
"Fo' sho," one guy said.
"Brody swings he scores," said another, clinking beers with a third man. Two women cut Jillian glares, the message clear: You're not that hot.
Donegan's sexual pretense irritated her, but it worked. After a flurry of female kisses, male backslaps and handshakes, Brody and Jillian were suddenly alone.
Surveying the mess of abandoned martini glasses and beer steins, he sighed. "We'll be more comfortable in the lounge," he said and took her to a white leather couch in an alcove.
He sat just inside her personal space and studied her as if she were fragile or a work of art, his eyes a soulful brown that invited you in for a swim. If you had to drown, where better than warm chocolate?
Not Jillian's usual thoughts about men or their eyes, but Brody Donegan was an unusual man. In person, she saw that he was more boy next door than bad boy. Maybe bad boy next door?
"Are you hungry?" he asked. "What would you like to drink?"
"I'm fine as far as food. Club soda to drink, please."
"Club soda?" He gave her look of mock disappointment.
"Come on. You're out with Doctor Nite. You need something with a kick. Unless you're twelve-stepping it, JJ? Are you?"
"Twelve-stepping ? Oh. You mean, am I in recovery? No, no. I mean, I'm not an alcoholic" She caught herself. "Not that that's bad. I mean, I know many people " Her words trailed off.
"Some of your best friends are alcoholics?" He grinned.
"That came out wrong." She was falling on her first-impression face here.
"Don't be nervous, JJ. I don't bite. At least, not hard enough to leave a mark." He winked. "As to a drink, Andre mentioned this tricky little Australian Shiraz that I wanted to try. How's that sound? One glass? You're not driving, are you?"
"No. I came in a cab. One glass sounds fine."
The waiter appeared like a whispered breath and took Brody's order of the wine and an appetizer sampler. "Maybe you'll want a taste," he explained to her, throwing his arm across the back of the sofa and shifting his body her way.
She became aware of his broad shoulders and long legs, the expensive cologne he wore, the hint of stubble that on most men looked scruffy, but on him looked dead sexy.
Get a grip, Jillian.
She sat on the edge of the couch, her back straight, which was a technique she suggested for news interviews because it made you seem alert and prepared. "About the job " she said, forging ahead. She intended to emphasize her experience, flexibility and the fact she was a quick study.
"Ever been here before?" he asked, his eyes full of mischief and fun. He didn't seem to be in any hurry to get to the point. "No. I've heard of it, though." She forced herself to relax, take it easier, enjoy the conversation, despite how her heart thrummed and her brain pushed her to spit it out, get to the point, get the job. "It seems like a Doctor Nite kind of place."
"Exactly." He shot her a quick grin. "Tonight, though, I'm here for my agent. He's trolling for new clients and I knew we'd run into people he should know better."
"Did it work?"
"I think so. These things have to percolate."
"That was quite a crowd. Your agent and friends? Fans?" Lovers? The jealous daggers the women had zinged her way suggested they had been or intended to be.
"Friends, mostly. Some fans.Acquaintances. Industry people." He smiled. "The lines blur. Do you have friends you're close to?"
"You stay in touch ?"
"Sure. By phone and e-mail. Dinners and drinks. A movie or music somewhere when we can."
"The occasional slumber party? S'mores and pillow fights in your nighties?"
She laughed at the tease, despite her nervousness and urgency. "Sorry, no. Our schedules sometimes make it hard to find the time to get together in person."
"Does your work consume you, JJ? Are you like that?" He'd batted her an easy lob she could direct toward the interview. "I do get so caught up in my work I forget everything else, yes." My biggest flaw is perfectionism. Which was true, but would sound like bragging.
Before she could say more, the runner arrived with their fooda tiered dish holding lobster ravioli, tenderloin satay and confit duck rolls that looked incredible.
"You forget to eat, too?" Brody asked.
"Sometimes," she said, her mouth watering madly. She'd thought she was too nervous to eat. Brody had charmed her stomach, too.
The waiter appeared with the wine and poured it for Brody to sip. He nodded his approval, and when both glasses were full, held one out to her. "Now tell me what you think." His gaze stayed with her while she sipped the smoky blackberry wine with a bright finish. "Very nice," she said. "I like it."
"Andre never steers me wrong. Now for the food." He rubbed his hands together, then stabbed a ravioli with his fork and held it out to her. "Give it a try?"
She leaned forward and allowed Brody to feed her the square of pasta, his hand beneath her lips to catch any drips. The intimate gesture seemed completely normal coming from Brody.
The bite exploded in a lush blend of rich shellfish, creamy sauce and delicate pasta. "Oh, my God," she said.
"Heaven, huh?" He watched her closely as she chewed.
"Mmm-hmm." She licked her lips to catch a smear of sauce and Brody's gaze locked on.
She stilled, her tongue midlip. "Hmm," he said, then cleared his throat and leaned for a satay stick. He dipped the meat into the sauce, then held it for her. "It's peanut-ginger, but light. Try it."
She tugged a bite of beef from the stick and savored the blend of meat and tangy sauce. "Incredible."
"I know." He seemed so happy about her pleasure. "The chef plays hard to get with the recipe. I've tried everything, even mentioned him on the show."
"So you cook?"
"When I have time."
"Does that mean you're consumed by your work, too?"