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Jason Kane had finally seen a woman he wanted and no one in the whole incompetent world of television seemed to know who she was.
Okay, that was a slight exaggeration, he admitted as he replayed the brief scene. Surely some of those idiots on the set of Within Our Reach, his network's failing soap, knew her. She'd just sashayed across the screen in today's episode, wearing a formfitting uniform and displaying more shapely leg than any cop he'd ever seen on the streets of New York.
Unfortunately, they hadn't deigned to give her a credit. He'd run through the crawl listing the actors a half dozen times to no avail. He'd checked with the casting people, who seemed to have a vague recollection of the walk-on part but not the actress who'd gotten it. He'd had his secretary on the phone to the producers for the past hour. All she'd discovered was that the woman seemed to be a friend of someone connected to the show. That someone, whoever it was, had called in a favor to get her the tiny, nonspeaking role. Given the lack of a Social Security number on record, she apparently hadn't been paid a dime.
He played the video again, second-guessing himself, wondering if perhaps his initial reactionokay, his first dozen reactionshad been aberrations. He homed in on her in the crowded scene, just as he had every other time. His body tightened with masculine appreciation, just as it had before. His pulse kicked in
again. His gut instinct, said to be the best in the entire television industry, went on red alert as he studied the close-up image enlarged to three times life-size on the giant screen before him. Her cute little tush and long, long legs might have aroused his most basic carnal instincts, but it was that image on the screen that had held his cooler, more professional fascination.
Her blond hair feathered softly around a delicate face so exquisite it would have had Marlene Dietrich in her prime weeping with envy. Her mouth was a lushly sculpted work of art. Her eyes, an impossible shade of vivid, summer-sky blue, were capable of such intense scrutiny he knew without a doubt that she could render a man weak with no more than a glance. In that bit part as a cop, every movement of her body, every expression that crossed her face, had hinted subtly of intriguing interrogation techniques.
So, he thought with yet another sigh of pure, heartfelt satisfaction, it hadn't been a fluke. She had a rare quality that eluded most women, no doubt about it. Even more important for television, the camera was able to capture it.
At thirty-five Jason Kane was a connoisseur of women, just as he was of fine wine and gourmet cuisine. He'd had to cultivate the latter, but his appreciation of women was pure instinct. He admired their beauty, reveled in their intelligence and enjoyed their sensuality, though not always in that order.
In his capacity as president of TGNTrans-Global Networkhe had been surrounded by some of the most gorgeous stars in the world. He'd worked with some of the brightest and most ambitious females ever to grace an executive suite.
And he had slept with
Well, the indiscreet truth of it was, he had slept with more than his share of the most incredible, most inventive, most incendiary ladies ever to donor slide out ofa negligee.
But not a one held a candle to the charisma of that anonymous blonde whose perfect face was frozen on the giant screen in his office. Mysterious and a little sad, she fascinated him even more deeply than she affected his libido. His determination to have her doubled. He would pursue her as relentlessly as he had every other important acquisition he'd made in his life. There was no question in his mind that he would succeed.
"That," he snapped to the three junior executives who had been frantically scribbling notes all during the last-ditch strategy meeting to save the failing soap, "is what that show needs to drag it out of the ratings gutter."
When no one else had been able to devise a plan to rescue the show, Jason had taken it on himself. It was exactly the sort of challenge he loved. Hiring an unknown and making her a star would be the kind of bold, unexpected move he'd built his reputation on.
"Work with the producers," he instructed. "Get her under contract, long-term. Tell the writers I want her on-screen in a story line so hot it'll give the censors heartburn. Tell 'em to get her out of that uniform."
"But, boss, she plays a cop," Freddie Cramer had the temerity to point out.
Freddie Cramer was a recent graduate of UCLA. He couldn't seem to decide between Hollywood's casual chic of jeans, open-necked dress shirt and jacket and New York's more formal pinstriped suit. It was almost the only decision Freddie had trouble with. Today, probably in deference to the somber nature of the meeting, he'd gone with the pinstripes. Freddie was a big believer in ambience.
Freddie was also the only one in the whole bunch of junior executives who didn't cower when Jason spoke. To everyone else's astonishment and Jason's private amusement, Freddie's career at TGN was flourishing. He'd be a vice president before he turned thirty, maybe even before he hit twenty-five. If any of the others had had the guts to ask why, Jason would have explained that he didn't need to be surrounded by people who shared his opinion. Heads bobbing dutifully in agreement meant nothing to him.
He wanted people to argue with him, to keep him on his toes. He might be the person who was single-handedly bringing this second-class network into ratings contention for the first time in its history, but he wasn't infallible. Not that he wanted too many people to figure that out just yet.
Freddie Cramer didn't question Jason's intelligence. He honed it. He didn't threaten Jason's power. He ensured it. Jason prayed daily for more men and women of Freddie's ilk to cross his path.
"No cop's on duty twenty-four hours a day," he shot right back. "If the writers can't figure out a way to make it happen, fire 'em and get me new writers. This show needs a dramatic overhaul, and this woman is going to be the linchpin for it. I want her in a front-burner story line within a month. Any questions?"
Naturally it was Freddie who dared one, even as the others dashed for the door, scrambling eagerly to do his bidding. "Who is she?" he asked, bringing his colleagues to a halt, their expressions suddenly uncertain.
Jason, his gaze once more glued to the screen and that incredible frozen image, said quietly, "That, gentlemen, seems to be the million-dollar question."
Whoever she was, Jason predicted with absolute certainty that not only her life but his own was about to be turned upside down.
The last time he'd felt the same surge of confidence and anticipation, he'd taken over an entire network. Surely one petite woman with an air of mystery about her would be a snap by comparison.
Callie Smith felt as if she'd been run over by a truck. Looked pretty much like it, too, she decided with brutal honesty as she gazed into the mirror above the sink in her minuscule bathroom.
Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy from what felt like a solid two months of crying. Her skin was blotchy. Her hair had defied every weakhearted attempt she'd made to coax some curl into it.
Terence Walker peered over her shoulder and shook his head at her reflection. "Girl, you look sorrier than any cat Grandma ever dragged in."
"Thank you for that pick-me-up," she commented snidely to her neighbor and best friend. "Go away."
Unfortunately, Terry was not the sort of man easily dissuaded once he'd set his mind to something. Callie had learned that the hard way in the months since she'd been dumped by her Wall Street brokerage firm and her husband in a depressing burst of downsizing on all fronts of her life. Terry was harder to shake than a nagging midwinter cough and, especially on days like today, twice as irritating.
"This can't go on," he declared. "You've been a mess since that jerk you were married to walked out that door and flew to the Caribbean for a quickie divorce so he could marry the bimbo in spandex."
"That was six months ago. I'm over that," she said blithely. It wasn't entirely true, but she was convinced if she repeated it often enough, it would become true. Time, that reported healer, was crawling by at a snail's pace, it seemed.
"And losing your job two months ago? Are you over that, too?" Terry pressed.
Callie frowned. It probably said a lot about her priorities that that blow had been even harder to take. She'd never depended on a man, even her husband, for her sense of self-worth, but her self-esteem and her ambition were inextricably tied together. Still, she said determinedly, "I will be."
"Right," Terry said with a familiar disbelieving note in his voice. "The bottom line here is, you have to pull yourself together."
"For what?" she demanded, sniffling and patting ineffectually at her eyes with a damp cloth in an attempt to reduce the puffiness. She flatly refused to smooth on the hemorrhoid cream that Terry had assured her in a recent makeup tip session would work wonders. "I have no job. I have no love life. What's left?"
"Living, for one thing," Terry said. "Being forced to move back to Iowa and raise corn, for another. It could come to that, you know."
That dire reminder was almost enough to shake her out of her lethargy. Going home to the Iowa farm she'd always despised was a fate not to be endured.
Born Calliope Jane Gunderson almost thirty years ago, she had been named for a musical instrument in what must have been the last bit of whimsy in which her stern, rigid, Iowa-bred mother had ever indulged. Callie had always suspected she'd been conceived in the back of her father's pickup during the Iowa State Fair as a calliope played in the background. She'd never dared to ask either of her parents if some momentary lapse in judgment explained why two such wildly different and totally incompatible people had married.
Growing up in that strained household hadn't exactly been a picnic for her or her younger sister, Eunice. They had led a cold, harsh, sometimes desperate life, made more difficult by the lack of joy or affection between her parents. Eunice had married a dry, humorless man just like their father and was currently withering away on a farm of her own.
Callie had fled at the first opportunity. She had gravitated to New York the way a thirsty man might crawl toward an oasis in the middle of the desert. She loved the neon, the frenzied energy, the vibrant culture, the ethnic diversity, the quaint boutiques. She hadn't even minded the dirt and grime so much. After all, she had grown up on unrelenting acres of the stuff.
Now, it appeared, she was facing a return to more of the same unless she could haul herself out of this depression and pull her life together. If she hadn't known that already deep in her gut, Terry's constant reminders would have drilled it into her. She scowled at his reflection in the mirror.
"If this is your idea of cheering me up, it's a good thing you didn't choose comedy as a career," she said.
"I didn't choose comedy because I am a certifiable hunk," he retorted immodestly, grinning back at her and preening outrageously.
It was true. He had been blessed with the kind of interesting, rough-hewn features and muscular body that made women want to throw themselves at his feet and beg for just one of his endearing, crooked smiles. Ever since he'd become the leading actor on Within Our Reach, they had been doing just that with such regularity that Callie was embarrassed on behalf of the entire female half of the population.
Didn't they have lives? Didn't they realize that the character Terry played was make-believe? Apparently not, if the mail he periodically carted home was any indication. They really, really wanted his well-developed and carefully maintained thirty-three-year-old body.
"Stop bragging," she muttered, giving up on salvaging her face for the moment and turning away from the mirror. "One word to the soap opera magazines about your true sexual preferences and you'll be back trying to find work in some pitiful chorus line off Broadway."
"Discovering that I'm gay might force the writers to adjust the story line the teensiest little bit," he admitted without taking offense at the threat of blackmail. "But I could draw a whole new audience."
That was Terry, ever the optimist. No wonder he was wearing on her nerves. She wanted to sulk. In fact, she had been sulking off and on for most of the past six months. Just as Terry had diagnosed, it had begun with the departure of her husband and showed no signs of letting up. It was starting to put a strain on their friendship, if not her bank account, which was large enough to weather a few more months of self-pity if she stayed out of Bloomingdale's.
She scowled at him again. "Funny, I've never heard that the networks were battling for that particular demographic."
"I don't see why. We're young. We're upwardly mobile. We buy cars and clothes and beer."
Callie patted his sexily stubbled cheek. "Give it up. This is daytime TV we're talking about. The culture of Middle America. They'll never let you kiss on-screen again."
As she headed into the kitchen to see if there was anything in the refrigerator that could still be considered edible, Terry trailed after her.
"Speaking of kissing on-screen," he said, automatically leaning against the counter and striking a camera-ready pose that would have set most female hearts tripping. "Rumor has it that the network boss man himself has taken an interest in the show. He's out to spice up the ratings with some new femme fa-tale. When the word came down today, all the actresses on the set were in an absolute tizzy. I've never seen so many cell phones in use at one place at one time. Every agent in town must have been getting a blistering earful. I can't imagine why. At the rate soap time moves, it'll be months before the character does more than say hello."
Terry loved industry gossip. Since his long-time lover was bored to tears by what he considered to be the shallowness of television, Callie heard more than she'd ever wanted to know about Terry's coworkers.
She knew, for instance, that the sweet little ingenue on the show had slept with almost every male in the cast and crew. She also had it on excellent authority that the man who played a pious, self-righteous physician with such dedication was addicted to cocaine. And the show's Emmy Award-winning villain was the softest touch on the set, to say nothing of being an Olympic-caliber ladies' man.
About the only thing she could say for being the beneficiary of all of this inside information was that it made the calls she received from Eunice almost bearable. Her sister was a die-hard viewer of Within Our Reach. Feeding her the show's latest gossip usually kept Callie from having to discuss anything at all about Iowa.