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They had tracked her down, even at her sister's Italian wedding hideaway.
Amanda Jensen disconnected the call from her boss and jammed her phone inside the pocket of her spa robe. Wouldn't she love to shut off the thing completely? But since the magazine she worked for was going through layoffs and she was the last person hired, she couldn't take chances.
"Sorry, but I have to go." She wiggled her foot, hoping to gain the attention of the impossibly beautiful European woman with the glossy bun, wearing a white lab coat, who knelt over Amanda's toes, meticulously applying a thin layer of French nail polish.
"But, madam, I have finished only one foot."
She had, and it looked silly. Amanda stifled a laugh. "It's okay, I'll come back tonight to get the rest of the pedicure."
"But, madam, our resort spa is full with the wedding guests."
True. Jeannie's wedding weekend had created a logjam of skiers, coaches, friends and ski fans, all clamoring to be made beautiful for the event of the season. Amanda's stomach dropped. She was reminded of the subject of her interview assignment, and she felt queasy.
"What? Oh, never mind my foot. It's winterI'm wearing closed-toe shoes."
The European woman turned her doe eyes up at Amanda, insinuating what only doe eyes could insinuate.
Amanda shook her head. "No one's going to be sucking on my toes anytime soon."
Which was depressing now that she thought about it, but what could she do?
"It is winter in the Italian Alps, madam. Anything can happen."
"Yes. Yes, it can." That was how it had happened for her sister, and in this very resort.
Smiling, Amanda glanced through the plate-glass window at the glistening white slope dotted with pine trees, and for a moment she felt that old familiar tug in her heart. Mountains had been her home from her earliest memories. Now she lived in a concrete city, bustling, alive and powerful. And the demands of New York followed her, even to this snowcapped paradise.
Shaking off her wistful mood, she took one last inhalation of the siren's call of cedar-and-rosemary-scented massage oil. She felt bad enough as it was, cutting out on her pampering afternoon with Jeannie, but work gave her no choice. She hoped Jeannie would understand.
Amanda pushed off the lounge chair in search of her younger sister, trying not to dwell on what she was missing. She and Jeannie had so little time together as it was. For months Jeannie had been recuperating in a hospital in Milan, healing from a horrific ski-racing crash. Amanda had been in the States, shuttling between her magazine job in Manhattan and their mother's hospice in New Hampshire.
Home, she thought. Or what used to be home. Now her home was the place that employed her.
Jeannie's home was Massimo Coletti.
"Ciao, bella." Massimo ducked his head inside the herb-laced, steamy room, and immediately sent the temperature rocketing upward another few degrees. Her sister's Italian skier fiance was a knockout. Chiseled cheekbones, sleek shiny hair, glowing green eyes, dimples and a hard body that didn't quit. But his sexiest trait, in Amanda's eyes, anyway, was the way his gaze softened when he looked at her sister.
"Have you seen my Jeannie?" Massimo asked.
My Jeannie. Amanda sighed. Here was the man who made all the difference in healing her sister's difficult past. "She's in the massage room. I was just going to look for her."
But Massimo beat her to it. He swooped in as the masseuse was leaving and gave Jeannie's massage-radiant skin a hug. Then he leaned closer and kissed her on both cheeks. Amanda's heart both gladdened and pounded. Jeannie giggled and threw her arms around Massimo's neck, not shy about the towel that dropped to her waist.
It was the scar that undid Amanda. A long, jagged cut from a surgeon's scalpel, winding its way down her sister's left leg.
The old fury came back. This was her father's fault. And Amanda hated skiing, she truly did. Hated it with a passion.
"Amanda, are you almost ready for the rehearsal luncheon?" Jeannie asked, gently touching her on the arm. "Because there's this great guy I want to introduce you to. His name is Marco and he's a friend of Massimo's."
"Marco is a writer like you," Massimo explained, his arms around his beloved wife-to-be.
"He won the Milan Prize for literature. He's very accomplished." Jeannie squeezed Massimo's hand and then looked at Amanda hopefully.
They wanted her to be happy. They truly did.
"You guys are sweet, but I'm an investigative reporter." okay, a fledgling investigative reporter. "There's a world of difference in the kind of writing your friend does and what I do."
Massimo's brow scrunched. To a guy who sped down icy mountainsides at eighty-five miles per hour, one keyboard jockey was pretty much the same as the next.
"Just tell him I'm on deadline," Amanda said. "If he's a writer, he'll understand."
"Deadline?" Her future brother-in-law was so smooth that sometimes she forgot English was his second language.
"That means she can't make it," Jeannie said. "Why, Mandy? What happened?"
Amanda looked at her beautiful sister's disappointed face. "Paradigm gave me an interview assignment here in the hotel. I'll come back as soon as I'm finished, Jeannie, I promise."
"I know you will." The look of faith never left her eyes. Sometimes Amanda didn't deserve her sister. "And this will give you incentive to come back." Jeannie leaned over and rustled inside her purse, as if her upcoming rehearsal luncheon wasn't reason enough for Amanda to hurry.
She felt guilty and sick. Why did her father have to be a famous ski coach, and why did she let it slip to her boss, who took advantage of it to make her interview a skier, of all people?
And not a sweet, hunky Italian skier, but an arrogant, aloof American skier who, her boss informed her, had once skied under her father's tutelage.
Strike one, strike two. Could anything be worse about this assignment?
But her anger was erased by the photo Jeannie held up of one Marco D'Angeli. Marco of the Angels. Jeannie's setup for her looked like an angel, with a cherubic face, the same glossy hair as Massimo, and the same soulful brown eyes. Unlike her sister's fiance though, Marco was thin and serious and writerly. He posed with a pen in hand and not a stitch of clothing on his slight, studious frame.
Oh, my. "Is this one of those naked charity calendars?"
"His writers' club is raising money for diabetes research."
"Okay," she joked, "sign me up for two copies. One for home and one for work."
"Are you sure you can't postpone the interview until tonight? Because then you could meet Marco in person."
Amanda glanced at her younger sister's pleading eyes. The younger sister who only wanted her to share some of the happiness and peace she'd finally found. Then she glanced at the hunky photo of the cute, non-threatening Italian.
"I'm sorry, but I can't right now. Chelsea made an appointment with the agent. I have twenty minutes for the interview, then I'll need an hour or two to write up something quick. It won't take me long, I swear."
Jeannie's head tilted. She would never understand Amanda's drivenot completely. But how could she be expected to understand when she hadn't been home when Mom was in hospice? When she hadn't been there when Amanda couldn't get their father to cover one godforsaken doctor's bill?
Because in his world, their mother was a nobody. Just like Amanda was a nobody. Jeannie would never know that feeling, because Jeannie was a somebody.
"I need to secure my job, Jeannie." Being an investigative reporter at Paradigm magazine was power. It was status. It was the ultimate trump card against people like her father. "Marco is a big shot like you and Massimo. I'm still on my way up in the world."
"Amanda," Jeannie said softly. "The right man will love you for who you are inside."
Easy for her to say. "Sure he will," Amanda said cheerfully. "Right after I nail this five-hundred-word profile. Now, will you help me prepare my interview questions? Because I have no clue who this guy is."
"I'll bet I know," Jeannie said, the smile in her eyes again. "If they want to profile a skier in a glossy American magazine, there's only one person."
Massimo nodded. "Brody Jones. There is no other American skier."
Amanda had never heard of Brody Jones before today. But that wasn't saying much. When skiing came on television or showed up in the newspaper, then Amanda Jensen, daughter of the famous alpine ski coach, MacArthur Jensen, tuned out and turned the page.
Jeannie studied her nails. "Brody won't be happy when you tell him who your father is."
"No problems there," Amanda said dryly. "Because I'm telling Brody Jones nothing."
"And I wouldn't expect him to give you any quotes."
Amanda just stared. Her sister knew as much about being a reporter as Amanda knew about ski racing. "That's what interviews are for, giving quotes. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. I give you print space to please your sponsors and attract fans, and in return, your exposure gives me readers and advertising. It's an age-old deal."
"She really doesn't know Brody," Jeannie murmured to Massimo.
"Doesn't matter," Amanda said. "He signed up for this interview, so he should know he's expected to give quotes in return."
Massimo laughed. Rather loudly, Amanda thought. Which was strange, considering she could see Massimo encouraging any media attention sent his way. As all the top-ranked skiers she'd known from childhood would have done.
Massimo turned to Jeannie and smiled gently. "Do you want to tell your sister about the American skier, or should I?"
Brody paused after his third set of single-leg squats and poured the last of the water in his bottle down his throat. The tiny resort gym was like a sauna inside.
"Um, are you Brody Jones?"
He glanced down to see a gangly American teen, his ski-team vest too big for his frame, standing beside the bench gawking at him as though he was his everlasting hero.
Brody shriveled inside. He wasn't anybody's hero. But he smiled at the kid anyway. Why disillusion youth? They grow up soon enough. "Yeah, I'm Brody. What's your name, kid?"
"Aiden." The teen shifted. "I, uh, want to be a great ski racer too."
"Do you like to work hard?" At the kid's awkward nod, Brody figured he'd spare him the lecture and just sign the autograph pad the kid was shoving in his face. Brody made a scrawl approximating his signature. Depending on his next race, the thing might end up on eBay.
Or not. Depending on his next race.
He smiled at the kid and handed it back. He really didn't care where the autograph ended up. That was the beauty of it.
"You gonna win next week, Brody?" the kid asked. "Of course. Are you gonna win your next race, Aiden?"
Aiden blinked at him. "Yes?"
"Say it proud, brother."
Brody high-fived him and the kid laughed, which made him laugh too. The world thought Brody was washed up, but he wasn't. He had just one more race he needed to compete in, but that was nobody else's business but his own.
"Can I take a photo of you, Brody?" The kid held up his phone.
"Sure." He looked like crap, but he obliged Aiden with the photo op. Even smiled for the camera.
A throat cleared behind him. "We need to talk strategy."
Brody turned from the kid to his longtime agent, Harrison Rice, hopping from one foot to the other, looking as if he was being raked over the coals, which he usually was.
"Yeah?" Brody picked up his dumbbells and decided to let Harrison say whatever he needed to say. Brody didn't need to talk anything with him. He had his own strategy. Always had had.
He lifted the weights and blew out the tension. One more set. He knew the routine cold, and nothing and no one could snap him out of it.
Harrison sat on the bench beside him and wiped his brow with his handkerchief. It was hot in here, but Harrison was the only guy Brody knew who actually carried a handkerchief in his pocket.
"Here's the deal, Brodyyou can't say anything this afternoon. If the reporter starts digging too much about your last season with MacArthur, or about your injury, then we're screwed."
Brody paused in his reps. "Exactly why did you agree to this interview, Harrison?"
"Because the Xerxes people wanted it."
Right. Brody rolled his eyes. "You don't see the irony of my sponsoring an energy drink?"
"It's an excellent deal they're offering." Harrison spread his hands. "What am I supposed to do? If you want a comeback, you need training money. If you need training money, you need sponsors."
True. Though Brody didn't want a comeback, not a full-fledged one, anyway. Harrison knew that. Of everyone on his business team, Harrison was the one guy who'd been with him since the beginning when Brody had been a pimply rebel teen fleeing a lousy home life to the ski slopes of a New England prep school.
He lifted the weights again. There weren't too many people he trusted and he surrounded himself with the few he did as coaches and equipment specialists. And Harrison, who was both agent and business manager. "Do we have any other options?"
"No. And I would tell you if we did."
Brody breathed out and set down his weights. "Who's the reporter?" he asked quietly.
"A woman from Paradigm magazine."
"Paradigm? The monthly New York glossy?"
"They have reporters who cover sports stars," Harrison said defensively.
"Great." He felt like spitting. "A celebrity reporter. Even worse."
"It's what Xerxes wants, and it's a puff piece. It's tailor-made for our purposes." Harrison shifted. "I've been thinking about it, Brody, and here's how we'll handle it. I'll write up some quotes and put them on index cards for you. When the reporter turns on her tape recorder, you read from the cards. Better yet, memorize them. That'll satisfy her, and get us what we want."
Brody just stared at his agent. If Harrison wasn't such a miracle worker with the sponsorswhich unfortunately he really couldn't afford to give upthen he would've told him to forget it. The same way he'd cut himself loose from his former coaches, trainers and the whole national ski-team organization in favor of forming his own team.