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This time she'd gone too far.
Max Preston looked from the newspaper spread before him to the glittering sea beyond the window and made up his mind. This time he wasn't going to give her the opportunity to ignore his calls. To ignore him.
His chair scraped across the parquet flooring of the Beach and Tennis Club's breakfast restaurant as he stood from his table. Leaving a tip for his waitress and his just delivered omelet untouched, he took one last sip of his coffee and left.
So much for the first Saturday off he'd had in months.
He hadn't known he was going to fill his morning. He did now.
A search on his phone as he strode to his car turned up her address. Tossing the parochial, two-bit rag she worked forthe proverbial thorn in his sideonto the passenger seat, he slid into his seat and eased the Maserati out of the club's parking lot.
The first time he'd seen Gillian Mitchell's picture and byline in the Seaside Gazette and realized that she was here in Vista del Mar, he'd felt an unexpected surge of pleasure and triumph, like when he found something he didn't realize he'd lost and was missing. A hundred-dollar bill in his coat pocketbut better.
It only took the seconds he'd needed to read her first biting paragraph for those feelings to vaporize.
Since that moment, he'd been trying to view her presence here and her articles with purely professional detachment.
Clearly, she wasn't doing the same. Her attacks on Cameron Enterprises and, in particular, Max's boss, Rafe Cameron, might, to the uninformed reader, appear objective, but they were personal and directed at Max. He was sure of it.
On the seat beside him, her opinion piece lay face-up. At the first set of lights he flipped the paper over so that he didn't have to see the one-sided article that constituted her opinion.
A call came through on his cell. "Max speaking," he said into his earpiece.
"Have you seen it?" Rafe wasted no words.
"I'm dealing with it." As head of PR for Cameron Enterprises it was Max's job to smooth the waters, to make sure the people of Vista Del Mar saw Rafe's takeover of Worth Industriesa microchip manufacturer and one of the town's biggest employersin the best possible light.
And Gillian, it seemed, was doing everything in her power to achieve the opposite result.
"Is it libel?" Rafe asked.
"It's close. I'm on my way to see her now. I'll let her know how seriously we're taking this. That our lawyers will be examining this piece as well as every word she's written to date, and every word she will write in the future on anything related to this subject."
"Good." Rafe rang off.
At one time, Max had nothing but the highest respect for Gillian's doggedness. But when she started making his boss the repeated target of her campaign, that doggedness looked a lot more like intransigence and plain old sour grapes.
Because she and Max had history.
But the way he remembered it, it had been good history. And it had ended cleanly. Six months into their relationship, when she'd casually dropped the words children and marriage into a conversation, he'd known he had to end it. It was only fair. He didn't do marriage and kids, they hadn't been in his plans. Still weren't. And till that moment he hadn't thought they'd been in hers.
So he'd broken it off with her. On the spot. It was the only honest thing to do. And he'd thought she'd taken it well. There had been no drama. She'd calmly agreed with him that they clearly had different needs from a relationship, and walked away without so much as a backward glance.
He hadn't heard from her or of her in the three and a half years since then. Till these opinion pieces and her supposed factual, objective articles. So now he was thinking maybe she hadn't taken it well. Maybe she had merely bided her time till the opportunity to strike back arose.
The ten-minute coastal drive gave Max time to calm down so that by the time he reached her placean older Spanish-style home set several blocks back from the beachhe was only annoyed instead of furious.
She was nothing he couldn't deal with.
And, if he was honest, he was just a little curious, too. They'd had some good times. Had she changed in the intervening years? Were her eyes as green as he remembered?
He strode the path to her door, knocked firmly and waited, standing where she'd have a clear view of him through the glass bordering the door. He could just make out the beat of the rock music she used to enjoy and had a flash of memory, of Gillian swaying and sashaying around her L.A. apartment. The music stopped.
Beyond a row of orange flowering bushes, a blue hatchback with tinted windows sat in the driveway. Max paused before knocking again. She used to drive a sporty, two-door soft top.
Had she married, as she'd been so clearly keen to do? The thought gave him pause. The fact that she hadn't changed her name didn't mean she hadn't gotten her wish. The hatchback had a definite family-car aura to it.
It didn't matter. The only thing that concerned him was the paper he held and the inflammatory words she was writing in it. As he lifted his hand to knock again, the door swung open halfway.
For a moment, as they looked at each other, the world stopped. For just that moment, he forgot why he was here. Sunlight caught her chestnut-brown hair, brought a luminescence to her creamy skin. She was so hauntingly familiar, and yet, not.
"Max?" She blinked, regrouped. "What are you doing here?" Her words, the shock and the underlying reluctance in them, got the world spinning nicely again. He hadn't expected or wanted warmth, but he also hadn't expected fear, and that was definitely what he saw in her wide, green eyes and heard in the catch in her throaty voice. She didn't want him here.
"We need to talk."
"If you want to talk to me, phone." She swung the door.
Max put his hand and foot out to halt its momentum. "You'll see me now. I tried phoning last week, remember? That didn't work. This is what you get when you don't answer my calls."
"I was going to call you Monday. We can make an appointment. I'll see you during normal working hours."
Her eyes were just as green as he remembered. It was the emotion he read in them now that was different. Perhaps the defensiveness was caused by conscience about the things she was writing. "And since when have you kept normal working hours?"
"Since " A look he couldn't interpret stole over her face. "Since I realized that work isn't the be-all and end-all of everything. Which means that, unlike yours, my weekends are sacred. I like to relax, to devote my time to.other things. It most definitely means that you're not a welcome intrusion."
Max stayed precisely where he was. He remembered her as being direct but beneath this morning's directness he couldn't help but feel that she was hedging. She was on the defensive. Which worked for him. "You're not the only one who values their weekends," he said, "so let me come in, we'll talk, straighten a few things out and then I'll leave. But until we've talked, I'm not going anywhere."
Gillian glanced at the slim watch encircling her wrist then over her shoulder as though deciding. "Five minutes, Max. That's all I can give you." She stepped back from the door, opened it just wide enough for him to enter.
It was a decision that pleased him. "Five minutes is all we'll need. So long as you see reason." He stepped inside, got his first proper look at her. A white tank top clung gently to the curve of her breasts. The press of her nipples against the soft fabric advertised the fact that she wore no bra, diminishing the available oxygen in the room and threatening to distract him absolutely. For the first time Max reconsidered the wisdom of catching her unawares, first thing in the morning, in her home.
Drawstring yoga pants rode low on the flare of her hips. Her pale feet were bare. He was guessing she wasn't long out of bed. And he was not going to follow that train of thought any further, because combining the words Gillian and bed even if only in his mind would almost certainly derail his thought process.
Though still slender, she was maybe a little curvier than he remembered. There was a new softness to her body that was most definitely missing from the guarded expression on her face.
She bit her lip, something he'd only ever seen her do when she was nervous, then gestured to a room just off the entranceway. She stood blocking any view he might have had of any of the rest of her house while he stepped into the formal living room she'd indicated. How did she manage to look so unyielding and yet so tempting?
A sofa and two comfortable-looking floral armchairs surrounded a coffee table that was bare except for a flowering peace lily. The curtained window overlooked a private, palm-filled garden.
"Sit down." She pointed to one of the armchairs. "I'll be back in a moment." She headed for the door. "One thing." She hesitated.
"Are you married?" He hadn't meant that to be the first question he asked her. "No."
He shouldn't feel relief, he had no right, and he was no hypocrite. Not normally. Business. This was purely business. That was all there would ever be between them.
She left the room and Max had to drag his gaze from the sway of her hips in the soft draping fabric and turn back to the living room. The door shut with a firm click behind her.
He looked about the room that seemed both a little old-fashioned and far too tidy, in an almost sterile way. The Gillian he remembered used to have half-read newspapers, magazines and books stacked and stashed around any and all of her living spaces.
Seemed she'd changed. Or that this was what his grandmother used to refer to as her company room. It certainly wasn't where the music he'd heard or the scent of coffee he'd caught as he'd stepped into the house had been coming from.
He placed his copy of the Seaside Gazette on the coffee table so that her opinion piece was uppermost, reminding him to refocus on his sole reason for being here. Not to speculate on Gillian's life.
True to her word she was back in just a few moments, once again shutting the door carefully behind her. The soft tank top and yoga pants had been replaced by hip-hugging, multipocketed cargo pants and an olive-green T-shirt. Thankfully, for the sake of his focus, it seemed she wore a bra beneath the T-shirt. She'd pulled her lush hair back into a high ponytail.
She looked like the heroine from one of the computer games they used to playready for combat.
The subtle charge of anticipation swept through him. "This morning's opinion piece." That was why he was here. Not to find out if she was married or how she'd been doing in the past three and half years, or if she wanted to go out to dinner tonight. There was, after all, more than one way to skin a cat.
No. Not going there again. Max pulled himself up short.
Her kick-ass demeanor had beguiled and fooled him once into thinking it meant she didn't want those things he shied away from, that she wasn't looking for emotional intimacy and a future together. And Max was a man who learned from his mistakes.
Gillian perched on the edge of the second armchair, as though ready to leap back to her feet. Her expression was shuttered. Still, just because they were on opposite sides of this issue didn't mean he couldn't enjoy locking horns with her. "It's libelous," he said quietly, leaning toward her.
"No, it's not." She shook her head, smiling. "It's an opinion piece. And every opinion is backed up by cold, hard facts."
"You call labeling Rafe Cameron an angry teenager who's grown into an angry man with an ax to grind and the money to grind it well, a fact?"
"/ didn't call him that. It's a direct quote."
"From a real person?"
"Of course." He'd pushed a button with that one. "As real as Emma Worth was."
And she pushed a button right back. Max's jaw tightened. Emma Worth's father, Ronald, had founded Worth Industries and was revered in the town. So when Gillian had quoted his skeptical daughter in a piece two months ago, the townsfolk had sat up and taken notice. And not in a good way. In the interim, Max had brought the focus back round to the good work Rafe was doing in the town, specifically the charity, Hannah's Hope, he'd founded to improve the literacy skills of the town's workforce, many of whom were migrant workers with limited formal education.
He had scored something of a coup in using Rafe and his half-brother Chase's connections to secure the involvement of superstar musician Ward Miller. The community was justifiably enthusiastic, almost excited. And interest in the upcoming fundraising gala was strong and building. Negotiations with a number of other celebrities were proceeding nicely.
But celebrities were notoriously sensitive about their public images. They were rightly cautious about what and whom they were linked with.
Gillian and her opinion pieces could end up scaring some of his best prospects off for no good reason. "You at least gave Emma a name. I had no doubt she was real. Today's source " He shrugged to express his doubts.
"Emma insisted I use her name because she knew it would give weight and credence to her comments. The source I used for today's piece didn't feel the same way. And I agreed with him. But that doesn't mean he's not real or that he didn't have specific, verified examples to back his opinion up."
Max leaned back in his chair and studied her, trying to gauge just how sure of her position she was. "You're skating on wafer-thin ice, Gillian. Our lawyers will be taking a good hard look at each and every word you've written."
"They can look as hard as they want." Defiance lifted her chin. And he found he was the one doing all the "looking." Her hair, her skin, her figure, the fire in her green eyes that picked out flecks of amber. He cataloged her features, remembered how he'd liked so mucheverything, in factabout her, but it had been her eyes, the intelligence and passion they hinted at, that captured his attention most.
He wouldn't be distracted by the battle light in them now, although he could admit it stirred reactions in him that he'd had no intention of allowing. But there was no denying she was beautiful, all the more so when the passion for one of her causes was stirred.
Once, he'd had no trouble making passion, of an altogether different kind, stir.