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"I've printed out the PR schedule for this week's lead-up to the relaunch. The City Lights tie-in" Louise Valentine broke off as her cell phone began to burble. "I'll have to take this," she said, excusing herself from the Nash Group executives gathered around the conference table for her briefing. "I'm expecting a call from the editor."
But as she flipped open the phone the caller ID warned her that it wasn't editor of the country's major "scene' magazine.
It was Max.
For a moment she couldn't think, couldn't move, but then he'd always had that effect on her. Reducing her to a quivering wreck with a look that suggested it was a toss up whether he kissed her or strangled her. Since kissing her wasn't an option, she'd made a point of keeping her distance other than at family gatherings. Even then, by mutual consent, they'd chosen opposite ends of the room.
Unfortunately that was no longer a choice for either of them, but clearly Max was as unhappy about that as she was. He had certainly taken his time about making a moment in his busy schedule to talk to her about taking on marketing and publicity for the Bella Lucia restaurant group now that he was in charge.
Well, too bad. Her schedule was busy, too. She wasn't sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. On the contrary, the phone never stopped ringing. She was in demand, a success in her own right.
She hadn't looked back since the day he'd fired her from the family business, leaving her in no doubt that, far from being an asset to Bella Lucia, as far as he was concerned she was nothing but a liability.
Okay, she'd be kidding herself if she didn't admit that there had been moments in the last couple of weeks when she'd found herself doodling ideas on her jotter, daydreaming about what she'd do if she did take on PR and marketing of the Bella Lucia restaurants; the fact that it would mean working with Max never failed to tip the dream over the edge into nightmare territory.
Even now he was only calling her because he'd had his arm twisted; she knew he'd have refused point blank to consider it if the suggestion had come from anyone but Jack. Max's half-brother might not have wanted to stick around and run the company himself, but as he was a major investor his suggestions carried the kind of weight that not even Max could ignore.
So far Max hadn't been able to find the time to pick up the phone and ask her if she was interested in the job, forget actually getting to the point of sitting down and talking the future through with her. Hadn't done one thing to make her feel she was needed, that her ideas would be welcome, let alone valued. Well, why would he? She wasn't a genuine Valentine"
She glanced up, realised that everyone was waiting. She snapped the phone shut, turned it off, tried to recall where she'd been in her briefing. City Lights.
"As you know, City Lights ran the offer for a limited number of complimentary tickets to the opening of your London flagship restaurant in today's issue. Free food, live music and the opportunity to mingle with celebrities; a chance to live the aspirational lifestyle for a night." She looked up. "You'll be gratified to learn that the response was so great that it crashed the City Lights systems, a story that was reported in the later editions of the London evening papers and will run in the diary columns of tomorrow's dailies."
"Well done, Louise,"Oliver Nash said. "With luck the tickets will be changing hands on eBay for hard cash by this time tomorrow."
"If they are," she replied, matter-of-factly, "luck will have had nothing to do with it."
Max heard the voicemail prompt click in, then Louise's cool, businesslike voice suggesting he leave a message, assuring him that she would return his call as soon as possible.
That would be about as likely as a cold day in hell, he thought, ignoring the invitation and tossing the phone onto his desk. Why would Louise bother to call him back? Why would she waste one moment of her time doing what he wanted? It had been years but she'd never forgotten, or forgiven him for firing her.
As if he'd had any choice.
One of them had had to go and Bella Lucia was his future, the one fixed point in his life. Even when his father had been changing wives faster than most men changed cars. When his mother had been more interested in her career, her lovers.
Everyone knew that Louise was just filling in time at the Chelsea restaurant until she fulfilled her mother's ambition for her by marrying a title so that she could spend the rest of her life swanning around a country estate, decorating the pages of Country Life, while a nanny raised her kids.
Not that the problem had been all her fault.
The truth was that he'd never been able to think straight around Louise and it had been ten times worse since she'd returned from a summer spent in Italy with a full set of curves, blonde curls that looked as if they had been tousled by some dark-eyed Latin and eyes that seemed to mock him.
If she hadn't been his cousin.
But she was. Family. Which meant that after college she'd joined the company, working in his restaurant, a situation about as restful as ploughing a minefield; you just never knew when the next explosion was going to happen.
The effect on the staff had been bad enough, but when a particularly disruptive outburst had involved a group of diners he'd had no choice but to fire her on the spot. No choice.
He could cheerfully throttle Jack for putting him in this position. All the time he'd been in Qu'Arim, setting up the new restaurant, he'd been doing his best to convince himself that his halfbrother didn't know what he was talking about.
Obviously he was right about the need to bring in some heavy-weight PR muscle. It was a different world from the dreary postwar era; when his grandfather had opened his first restaurant, people had flocked to eat good Italian food served in warm and welcoming surroundings. Under the control of his father and uncle, they'd grown complacent. They'd been living off reputation, history, for too long. The business had stagnated. The restaurant in Qu'Arim was just the beginning of a new era of global expansion, but to make it work they needed someone who could update the image, get them reviewed, talked about; re-define them not just as a London, but a worldwide "A-list' restaurant group.
Except that it wasn't "they' any more.
The future of the company was in his hands and his alone. He needed someone. And his brother had made it clear that he didn't just need someone with Louise's talent to take up the challenge.
He needed Louise.
Of course, Jack, having dropped that little bombshell, had waltzed off back to New York leaving him to convince Louise to drop everything and come and work for him.
Yes, well. Having driven her away in the first place, he had to be the one to convince her to return. Whatever it took. Because it seemed to him that just at this moment Louise needed him, just a little, too, whether she'd admit it or not.
He wasn't fooling himself that it would be easy. Louise might have been a useless maÃ®tre d', more interested in flirting with the customers than doing her job, but since then she'd carved out a brilliant career for herself in marketing and PR. Her client list included one of the most successful restaurant chains in the country. She knew everyone in the business. Everyone in the media. And her mother's high society family gave her an in with the social elite. She was "A' list.
She was also bright enough to know that Bella Lucia needed her a lot more than she needed Bella Lucia.
That he needed her a lot more than she needed him.
If the situation were reversed, if he were in her shoes, he knew he wouldn't listen to one word she had to say until she was on her knees, begging.
He hoped, for his knees' sake, that she wasn't inclined to carry a grudge that far.
Fat chance, he thought, checking the time.
If he shifted himself, he should catch her leaving the office. It wouldn't be so easy for her to ignore him face to face.
"You are a wonder, Louise." Oliver Nash had waited while she locked up, walked her down to the street and now continued to hold her hand long after it had ceased to be the kind of handshake that concluded a successful meeting. "Are you going to let me take you to dinner somewhere special? So that I can thank you properly?"
"You'll get my account at the end of the month, Oliver. Prompt payment is all the thanks I need."
"One of these days you'll make my day and say yes."
She laughed. "One of these days I'll say yes, you old fraud, and scare you half to death. Go home to your lovely wife."
"You know me too well," he said, then as he bent to kiss her cheek she saw Max leaning against his muscular sports car, watching them.
"Dumped your toy boy for a sugar-daddy, Lou?" he asked. Louise was thankful that the shadows were deep enough to disguise the flush that had darkened her cheeks. Even now he only had to look at her, speak to her, be in the same room, to send a shiver of something dark, something dangerous, rippling through her body. To disturb the even tenor of her life.
Not that there had been much that was even about it in the last few months.
Oliver, his hand still firmly holding hers, raised a brow a fraction of an inch and, since there was no way to avoid making introductions, she said, "Oliver, I don't believe you know my." She caught herself. She was still readjusting to her new identity. Still forgot "I don't believe you know Max Valentine. Max, Oliver Nash is a valued client; the chairman of the Nash Group."
"Fast food?" Max replied. "Fast profit,"Oliver replied, more amused than annoyed at being the butt of a younger man's jealousy. "How's business in the slow food sector?"
The exchange, unpleasant though it was, had given her time to recover, put up the barriers with a distant smile, and she stepped in before it deteriorated further.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Oliver," she said. "You'll be all right?" He looked up as a thin, icy rain began to fall, then at Max. "I'd be happy to give you a lift."
"Louise and I have business to discuss, Nash," Max intervened, his hand at her elbow, before she could be tempted to let Oliver chauffeur her as far as the nearest underground station in his Rolls. "Family business."
His hand was barely touching her. Max never touched her if he could help it, not since that summer before she'd gone away to Italy; after that everything had changed.
They had changed. Become unsettlingly aware of each other in a way that, for cousins, wasn't quitedecent.
Except that now she knew they weren't cousins. That she'd been adopted.
Carefully lifting her arm away, she said, "Office hours are from ten until six, Max"
"It's nearly eight."
He didn't look at his watch and she wondered exactly how long he'd been waiting for her to emerge from her office. Her PA had left a little after six"she had a life"and it must have been before then, or how would he have known she was still on the premises?
She refused to feel guilty about that. Or rise to his bait. She didn't have to explain herself to him. To anybody.
"For valued clients,"she said, "office hours are infinitely expandable."
She ignored the innuendo. What she did, whom she did it with, was nothing to do with him.
"If you want to discuss business," she advised, "I suggest you call my secretary tomorrow and make an appointment. I may have an hour to spare some time next week."
She turned to Oliver, said, "Thanks for the offer, but I won't take you out of your way." She kissed his cheek. "I'll see you tomorrow at the photo-shoot."
Neither she nor Max spoke until the Rolls had pulled away from the kerb. Then she turned to him, said, "Aren't you missing something, Max?"
"A PR consultant?" he offered.
She shook her head. "I was referring to your usual accessory blonde. I imagine they have names, but it's so hard to keep up."
She gained a certain amount of pleasure in seeing him clamp down hard, forced for once to hold his tongue, keep his temper in check. Taking unfair advantage of his predicament, she looked up and down the nearly empty street as if his latest airhead might have wandered off to do some window-shopping.
"Maybe it's a little cold for such delicate creatures to be out," she added, even as she mentally slapped her wrist for goading him when he couldn't retaliate. But she owed him for that toy boy/sugar-daddy remark. "No, I've just remembered. At the Christmas party you were flirting with Maddie, but she left with Jack, didn't she? The brother who inherited your father's good manners."
"According to Jack," he said, "the only blonde I need at the moment is you."
"Really?" She tutted. "Then you're really going to have to try harder, aren't you?"
And, having done with Max, she raised her hand to summon a cruising taxi. He beat her to the door, opened it, climbed in after her.
"Excuse me but this is my taxi.You have a car,"she reminded him. "We have to talk." "You have to talk. I don't have to listen."
He didn't wait for an answer but gave the driver her address. "Hijacking my taxi isn't going to get you what you want,"she said. "What will?" he asked, sitting back in the far corner of the cab, as far from her as he could get.
That didn't please her either. "Nothing. I have a thriving business, more clients than I can handle. Why would I be interested in leaving that to work for Bella Lucia? More to the point, why would I spare one minute of my time to listen to you?"
"You're family, Lou. That should be enough."
"Family? Haven't you been paying attention, Max? That was all just a pretty fiction invented by the Valentines. Your parents, the people who pretended to be my parents. If you're looking for a family connection you've come to the wrong person."
"Don't be ridiculous. Of course you're family"
She arched a brow. "If you've come to demand my loyalty, you're going to have to try a little harder."
She cut him off before he could perjure himself. "As I recall, being "family"." she made those irritating little quote marks with her fingers; irritating Max when she had the upper hand was so satisfying "wasn't enough the last time I was on the payroll. It certainly didn't save me from the humiliation of being sacked in front of an entire restaurant full of diners. I'm sorry, Max, but I don't see the attraction of working for you. I may be blonde, but I'm not dumb."
"That was a long time ago, Lou." "Yes, it was, but what's changed, hmm? You're still treating me like some stupid girl who doesn't know her left from her right. Insulting me in front of an important client. Ignoring my wishes. Well, I've got news for you: I'm not a girl, I'm a fully grown woman and I've built up a successful business from nothing, just the way William Valentine did. You should try it some time, then you might have a little more respect."
She swallowed. Wished she hadn't said that. Bella Lucia was Max's life. He worked harder than anyone to make it a success. If it had gone down in the recent financial crisis, no one would have been hit harder, or deserved it less.
It was always the same. The minute she was with him, she lost her head, stopped behaving like a rational woman.
She leaned forward, rapped sharply on the driver's window. "Pull over, please."
The cabbie pulled into the kerb, but Max didn't move. "This won't go away, Lou."
Probably not, but she was tired, she had another long day ahead of her tomorrow, and while a row with Max was always exhilarating she discovered that she wasn't enjoying this one.
"You want me to get down on my knees and beg, is that it?" he pressed.
That was almost too tempting, but Max, on his knees, would not be a supplicant. He would simply be demonstrating"at least in his own eyes"that he was bigger than she was. That he could forgive and forget. That in clinging to her grudge, she hadn't been able to move on. As he knelt at her feet his eyes would still be telling her that he was the winner.
"All I want," she said, carefully, slowly, "is for you to listen to what I'm saying. I'm saying goodnight, Max."
For a moment she thought he was going to protest, force the issue, but then without another word he opened the door and stepped out of the cab, handing the driver a note to cover her fare home"still trying to keep control"and, shrugging his collar up against the rain, he began to walk back to his car.
Louise, left in the cab, was shaking, hating Max for putting her through that, hating herself for caring.
"Is that it?" The driver, having clearly heard everything, turned around. "Do you want me to drive on? You're not going to change your mind and want me to go after him? Once I turn the corner I'll be locked in the one-way system and there'll be no way back."
Max could do nothing but walk away. Acknowledge that, having behaved like a moron, he'd got no more than he deserved. What made it worse was that he wasn't like that; at least not with anyone else. He made an exception for Louise.
She never failed to bring out the worst in him.
He only had to look at her and he reverted from civilised man into some kind of Neanderthal.
Maybe she was right, he thought, hunching his shoulders against the icy rain that matched his mood. Nothing had changed. They hadn't been able to work together all those years ago and time had done nothing to mellow either of them.
He'd made the offer but she wasn't interested.
He stopped, blew out a long breath that smoked in the cold air. If someone had made him an offer like that, he wouldn't have been impressed either.