Read an Excerpt
Shelby Scott glared at the spectacle unfolding in front of the world-famous hotel and pursed her lips. With amused people skirting by, Dex Hunter was going all-out, kissingor was that mauling?one extremely enthusiastic lady. The blaze from her diamante dress could help bring home a ship in a gale. A starlet wannabe, Shelby surmised, given that Mr. Hunter owned his very own movie studio.
When they'd met earlier that dayafter she'd splashed hot coffee all over his shirt cuffShelby had promised herself that waitressing was only a stopgap. New to California, she had her heart set on finding a good nanny position. She had experience and everyone back home knew she loved kids. As luck would have it, Mr. Hunter was in the market.
A busy bachelor and head of Hunter Productions, Dex needed a suitable someone to help care for his little brother who was due to pay a solo visit. When Dex learned that child care was her vocation of choice, he'd seemed interested. Then he'd discovered that she'd read every book in the boy's bestloved children's series and even knew the difference between a stegosaurus and a T. rex. Apparently his brother loved dinosaurs.
Dex said he felt as if he'd struck gold. She'd felt the same way. Because he'd been short on time, they'd agreed to meet tonight to talk more and hopefully finalize the deal.
But the cheap display she was witnessing now quashed any chance of them working together. When his five-year-old brother arrived from Australia, Dex Hunter could make other arrangements. She'd had enough of dealing with Casanova types. In Hollywood or Mountain Ridge, Oklahoma, in blue jeans or tailored trousers
Hell, they were all the same.
The snap-lock kiss finally broke apart. Dex Hunter's focus shifted and, as if guided by radar, landed smack-dab on Shelby. While she watched, he set the clearly giddy woman aside then strode past two awnings and straight up to Shelby. Over the scent of coming rain, his fresh musky scent filled her lungs at the same time his masculine presence enveloped her. Broad through the shoulders and talleven compared to her five-foot-ten-inch frametonight he exuded a born-to-bed confidence.
But his lidded, tawny-colored gaze was the kicker. Beneath the streetlights, those eyes might be mistaken for a lion's an intelligent, potentially dangerous beast's.
"You're early," he said, straightening his collar.
"I'm sure I'm right on time." Shelby couldn't help herself. "Are you in the habit, Mr. Hunter, of making a downright show of yourself in public?"
His eyebrows knitted together before he caught on and threw a glance over a jacketed shoulder. One corner of his mouth curved with a grin.
"She did kind of pounce, didn't she?"
"Oh, and he palms off responsibility, too."
His gaze sharpened, then he dragged a finger and thumb down each side of his mouth. When his hand lowered, his jaw was tight and his grin was rubbed clean away. "We've gotten off on the wrong foot."
"We're not getting off at all."
Finished and done, she headed for the nearest bus stop.
She'd been in Los Angeles two weeks. Other than a few days in Oklahoma City years ago, she hadn't set foot outside of her hometown before. She'd only settled on California because of a much-loved old movie where the heroine, who had needed a new start, had lucked out when she'd ended up here. Now, feeling aloneand naivethe idea of buckling and going back to "familiar" surged up to grip her like a vise. She had a lifetime of memories in Mountain Ridgemostly good.
Some seriously bad.
Which was why she'd made that promise to stay away and stay strong. She refused to endure pitying or even disapproving looks from folk she'd known all her life. And if some said that was running away, if there were people who dared imply that was yellow well, who gave a fat fairy's
She heard the slap of footfalls on the pavement behind her. Next minute, Dex Hunter reappeared, his dynamo frame physically blocking her this time.
"You said you'd have dinner with me," he said, "to discuss my proposition."
"If that's how you conduct yourself in public while expecting company, I don't care to know what you'd get up to in the privacy of your own home, whether an innocent little boy was staying or not." She tipped forward, spoke clearly. "I won't be a part of it."
"That woman's a friend."
"That would be a friend with benefits?"
"We were saying goodbye."
"I might be a country girl," Shelby drawled, "but I didn't fall off the back of a hay cart yesterday. That embrace was not a friendly farewell."
It was a prelude to something much deeper. Burning, desperate. She'd come across that kind of kiss before.
"Bernice had too much to drink," he told her, catching up as she set off again, a single stride of his equaling two purposeful steps from her. "She's meeting some buddies and wanted me to tag along. When I said I had plans." He scratched his ear. "Well, she tried to convince me."
"And you put up such a fight," Shelby said prettily.
"For all you know, she might've been my girlfriend. A fiancée even."
At the mention of the F-word, Shelby's stomach swooped and she stopped. Dex Hunter couldn't take a hint, even when it slapped him upside the head.
"I didn't like what I saw." Didn't like the way it made her feel. Uncomfortable. Vulnerable. "Call a nanny agency. And, for heaven's sake, wipe that lipstick off your cheek."
"I checked out your references this afternoon," he said. "Got some people on the phone."
Shelby felt her gaze widen, her throat constrict.
"At the cafe," he said, using a handkerchief to scrub that smear from his jaw, "you mentioned a couple places you worked for back home. People spoke highly of you and your capabilities, by the way. Mrs. Fallon from Hatchlings Kindergarten was especially impressed. She said you connect particularly well with boys."
"I liked roping more than tea parties growing up," she admitted as her thoughts raced on. She didn't mind that he'd followed up on those names she'd supplied, but now she couldn't help but wonder. Who else had Dex Hunter spoken to? What else did he know? Not that he would give a hoot about that ugly incident last month. The episode Mountain Ridge would whisper about and lament for years to come.
"I haven't seen my youngest brother in six months," he was saying, "but I'm sure he's the same kid. Full of mischief and ideas and buckets of energy. You'd like him." A fond smile reflected in those tawny-colored eyes. "Everyone does."
Shelby released a breath.
Okay. She was curious. Had his brother sat in a saddle yet?
Did he like checkers or baseball? Maybe he was more into building blocks, constructing little towns and surrounding them with farms, barns, horses, cows. Shelby straightened.
None of that erased this man's lame excuse for the nearly R-rated scene she'd just witnessed. Friend indeed. She crossed her arms. "You'll find someone else."
"I want you."
"Please, just go and join your"
Midsentence, she'd glanced back. And froze.
The womanBernicehad flung her arms around yet another man. As her new victim gently pried her away, Bernice tottered thenoh, dear Lordcrumpled and began to cry. While Shelby's heart sank, two women rushed up. With arms linked around Bernice's waist, the friends Dex Hunter had mentioned carefully led her away.
"Bernice's fiance broke off their engagement the other week," he said. "I've known the guy for years. Not the marrying kind. Guess tonight, before she went home for good, Ber-nice wanted to prove something to the world. To herself. Not that she needs to. She was always too good for Mac."
Knots filled Shelby's stomach. How very much she felt for that woman. Hurt and despair could lead a person to do some seriously dumb things. Things you could barely make sense of later on and never take back.
Dex's voice broke into her thoughts. "This town's too tough for someone like her. Too tough for a lot of people."
Shelby felt his evaluating gaze on her again, before he straightened both shoulders and got back on track.
"Whatever you decide about the job," he said, "I still want to take you to dinner. You've been working, serving people all day. Bet you're as hungry as I am, and I could eat a horse."
She gave a grudging grin. "Sounds as if Mrs. Fallon at the kindergarten mentioned my appetite."
He chuckled, a smooth rich sound that left her feeling as if she were swirling in a pool of deep warm water. Or was that quicksand?
"Tate has an appetite, too," he said. "Last time we caught up, cheeseburgers were his favorite fillers. Although I might have had something to do with that."
Her smile, and opinion of Mr. Hunter, loosened up more. He really was charming. And persuasive. A tricky combination, as past experience had taught her. Still.
"Guess there's no harm in sharing a meal," she said. "But we're going Dutch."
Dex didn't mistake Shelby Scott's tone. The clear-cut message in her words or in her eyes. She would have dinner with him. Might even answer more questions about her nanny experience in Mountain Ridge. Given that their misunderstanding regarding Bernice had been sorted, no reason he and Shelby shouldn't get back to negotiations. Although he wasn't convinced that she saw it that way.
She had a point. Most people would simply call the best nanny agency in town, let them do the screening and save themselves the trouble. But his gut said Shelby Scott was the right person to help care for the little guy, who not only meant more to Dex than anyone in the world but also needed his protection.
Someone wanted to harm their media mogul father. Until that man was brought to justice, Tate needed a safe place to stay. No member of the Hunter clan would take a chance on the five-year-old being caught up in another incident like the one Sydney authorities were investigating now. After being run off the road then, later, shot at, his father had been assaulted and almost abducted. Tate had been with his dad and had been a whisker away from being kidnapped, too.
As Dex swept his gaze up and down the boulevard, deciding on the ideal place to dinecozy and quiet without being too intimatehis cell phone buzzed. When he ignored it, Shelby seemed confused.
"That could be important," she said.
"We're on our way to dinner."
"Where I come from, it's rude to ignore a ringing phone or a knock at the door."
He considered her big frank green eyes. This wasn't the time to tell her that, in L.A. at least, people ignored phones all the time.
Dex answered the call.
On the other end of the line, his scriptwriter Rance Loggins blurted out, "It's not working. You want Jada to confront Pete at the wedding, but I don't think she should. It's too predictable."
"You'll work something out. Sleep on it."
"I thought you wanted this script finished."
Dex flicked a glance Shelby's way. She stood patiently, looking like a blend of angel and seductress in a pretty pink dress, glossy hair bouncing under its own weight and a warm breeze.
"Dex?" Rance interrupted his thoughts. "You there?"
"Swing by the office"
"I'm out of town for a week starting tomorrow. It's a pivotal scene." Rance must have heard him push out a breath. "I'm only repeating what you told me. You want it right and you want it quick. This is all that's holding us up."
Hunter Productions had enjoyed a record opening weekend with their most recent release, Easy Prey, an action flick featuring one of the day's biggest box office stars. Dex had other movies coming out but he had a good feeling about this one. The characterization was genius. He smelled smash hit. Awards.
Dex eyed Shelby again, caught the time on his watch. Right at seven. Two steaks, desserts, a bottle of wine, cat in the bag "I'll be over after ten," he told Rance. Silence echoed in his ear.
"You're fobbing this off because of a woman," Rance said. "No, I'm not." Not in the usual sense.
"I thought you were committing yourself to building Hunter Productions back up. Making it strong again."
Dex had known Rance a long time. He counted this man as a friend. Now Dex's jaw clenched and voice lowered. He was laid-back, certainly. That didn't translate into pushover.
"You're forgetting who pays the bills," he let his friend know.
"You need to make the cash to pass it on."
Dex ended the call. With her own phone, Shelby was taking shots of the famous fashion shops on Rodeo Drive across the way.
"You need to cancel, don't you?" she said, phone near her face as she clicked. "That's fine. In fact, it's best."
Flicking back his jacket hem, Dex set his hands low on his belt. Damned if he'd let her get away that easily. If for some reason she gave notice at the cafe, he might never find her again. But Rance had a point.
While he'd refused to spend his life hunched over a desk at the office, until this latest hit, Hunter Productions' books had favored the lean side. When he'd first come out here from Australia, a kid of twenty-five, a friend at the time had helped him with manipulating budgets. He'd learned a lot from Joel Chase, and had put in the kind of crazy hours his family might have trouble believing of him. Even so, if he had to tend to business tonight, he wouldn't let this other important matter slide.
"Come along," he suggested. "We'll grab a bite afterward."
"I'm not comfortable with that."
"I don't know you well enough."
"I don't own a wooden club, Shelby. I won't knock you out and drag you away to my secret lair."
Her gaze held his with a narrowed pondering look that said she wasn't so sure. She was wary and, living in a place like L.A., wary was good. If she was cautious about going to some unknown address, it only showed common sense. Another plus.
He'd lay the rest on the table.
"My writer's hit a snag with a script," he explained. "The story's a romantic comedy with an edge. We're working on a pivotal scene where everything falls apart. The man who the female lead once loveda man who cheated on heris getting married to her friend and she's invited to the wedding. Her date for the evening had to bow out so she's gone on her own."
The single line forming between Shelby's brows suggested that she was intrigued so he went on.
"She's sitting with a group of the bride's relatives, who go on about how beautiful the bride looks in her gown. Then a clumsy waiter spills cucumber soup on the female lead's dress." When Shelby blinked, maybe remembering the splashed coffee incident earlier that day, he continued. "In her stained gown, she's on her way to the restroom, asking herself why she's putting herself through all this, when she runs into the groom."
Shelby waited. "Then what?"
"We're not sure."
Exhaling, she glanced around at the same time she absently dropped her cell in her tote. A Santa Ana wind chose that moment to whirl around their feet, up their legs and into her bag. The gust picked up a loose papera card of some sort. Twirling out from the tote, it circled midair then swept toward the road.
Shelby snatched at it. Missed. Without thinking, she stepped off the curb at the precise moment a gleaming new V-8 sedan whooshed past.