Former child star Meredith Alcott knows life isn't like the movies. But now she has a chance to realize her own Hollywood dream by restoring a run-down amusement park to its former glory before Christmas. Clashing with the owner's arrogant, all-business son wasn't in the job description even as Jake Walters sweeps her into a romance she never wants to end.
As financial adviser to the stars, Jake always has his eye on the bottom line. He doesn't want an outsider anywhere near the legendary institution that's been in his family for generations. Yet Meredith gets top billing when she's hired to revamp his family's park. The bewitching designer challenges him at every turn while arousing a desire that fulfills Jake's wildest fantasies. But sabotage threatens to turn all their passionate hopes to dust. Unless Jake can come up with a loving plan that keeps the magic going past the holidaysand Meredith in his arms forever .
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Meredith Alcott sat stiffly in the HR director's office, wondering what lurked behind Susan Moran's smile. Susan was impeccably dressed in a platinum-gray suit and pink blouse, and had a pin in the shape of a turtle on the lapel of her jacket. Tully the Turtle, Susan's favorite animated character, seemed to be waving at her, but Merry didn't feel like waving back.
Susan's straight hair was carefully brushed to one side and braided to hang down over her shoulder. Merry always felt a little grubby in Susan's presence. Today was no different, no matter that she'd carefully styled her curly black hair and was wearing her most stylish black silk pantsuit.
Almost every surface in Susan's office was decorated with Tully the Turtle memorabiliafrom the huge turtle clock on the wall to the dainty watch on her wrist. Tully the Turtle had been Bernard and William Chapman's original animated character and had made a fortune for the two men and their family. Enough that they could build their own studios and eventually their tie-in theme park.
Like Merry, Susan had been a child actress for Chapman Brothers Studios. The brothers took care of all their employees, even the child actors who'd grown up and left acting.
"I've been with the Chapman Brothers since I was a child, Susan." Merry said patiently. "This is the second opening in the studio's design department I've applied for in the past five years, and the second time I've been turned down. I would like to know why." Merry gave a polite smile even as she dreaded the answer. In the back of her mind, she always wondered if she wasn't good enough. Nonsense, she told herself sternly. She was good enough, but the nagging little doubt remained.
Susan straightened the pens lined up on the side of her desk. Everything about Susan was neat and tidy despite the clutter of her office. "Your credentials are impeccable and we appreciate your loyalty, but Lisa Chapman just graduated from college." Susan paused, letting the information hang in the air. Then she sighed. "I take orders, too, and I'm so sorry you're unhappy." A look of regret passed over her face. She reached for a business card and a pencil, and started to write.
Merry nodded politely, swallowing her disappointment. She wanted to throw a good old-fashioned hissy fit: roll on the ground and scream and cry. Then she'd get fired, go broke and lose her house. She, her shoes and her cat would be homeless. That was a bit of an exaggeration; she did have money set aside. Thank goodness for residuals. But not even the residuals were enough to pay her mortgage and keep her in organic food. "Thank you, Susan, for talking to me."
"I know you're disappointed." Susan said, adding something else to the business card in front of her. "This is the contact information for John Walters. He owns the Citrus Grove Entertainment Center in Riverside, I'll be honest with you. Management is going to keep you dangling for another five years. And there's no guarantee that the next opening that comes available will go to you. Maybe it's time you made a change. Call this man and talk to him."
Merry accepted the card, hiding her surprise. She put it in her pocket, stood up and smiled as cordially as she could. "I appreciate that," she said. Then she turned and left the large, airy office.
In the parking garage, Merry leaned against her brand-new Prius hybrid car, trying not to cry, August heat swirled around her, making her silk blouse stick to her back. Lisa Chapman was family, and Merry understood that. But what about Merry? The Chapman brothers prized loyalty, and she'd been loyal. Giving the job she'd worked for to Lisa hurt. Did fresh-out-of-college Lisa Chapman know more about designing sets than Merry did?
When she'd heard that Eric Sloan was retiring, she'd bought a new car because she knew she was next in line to head the set-design department. She would get away from working in the theme park and move back into the TV-and-movie division, which would give her more opportunities.
She stroked the sexy, white, gas-efficient Prius for a moment, eyes closed, refusing to give in to her disappointment. The Chapman brothers knew how fleeting fame could be. As each child actor had grown up and out of the roles they played, they'd been given a place behind the scenes. Those who'd leveraged their abilities into full-blown acting careers had eventually left to continue their lives. Merry had stayed, and now she wondered why. The Chapmans had rewarded her loyalty by giving away the job she coveted to one of their own family, even though Lisa's degree was so new the ink wasn't dry. She'd interned at the park under Merry and had mentioned she'd wanted the job. Sure, she'd work for a salary half of what Merry would command, but that didn't make it fair. Merry had been faithful to the Chapman brothers, but they hadn't reciprocated.
She opened her car door and slid into the stuffy interior. She started the motor and waited for the air conditioner to spit out cold air before she put the thing in gear and headed back to Redlands. As much as she loved working for the Chapman Brothers theme park, she had the feeling she would never get out of it. She wanted more than just being told what to do and occasionally adding suggestions for the design of the rides, the seasonal display changes and the floral arrangements surrounding the ticket booths. She wanted more creative input. She didn't want to be a gofer forever.
Just before she threw the car in gear, her phone rang. "Hi, Noelle."
"Are we drinking, or are we shoe shopping?" her sister asked.
"We're drinking." Merry answered. Shoe shopping was the victory dance.
"Monkey nuts!" Noelle said. "What happened?"
"They gave the job to a relative who just graduated from University of California, Riverside." Saying the words out loud upset her all over again, Merry had started working for the studio two days after her seventh birthday, appearing as an extra on a number of series before landing the role of Maddie Jefferson's best friend. She'd loved working on Maddie's Mad World, but she'd wanted to be the star of her own show. And now she was still stuck being second banana, which was why she'd left acting at eighteen to attend UCLA's design school. She was a talented set designer, and she wanted to put those talents to use. Some people worked for a mouse, some for a duck and she worked for a turtle that seemed to move backward more often than forward.
"What are you going to do?" Noelle asked.
"I'm going to come over to your house after work, think about my options and drink all of your tequila." She fingered the card Susan had given her. It had one name on it. John Walters, and his phone number. She'd heard about Citrus Grove Park. She'd even gone once to check it out, but hadn't been impressed. The park was aging and showing its unadorned bones. It needed a facelift and a Botox injection.
"I'll make guacamole and put clean sheets on the spare bed." Noelle said.
"I should be there around eight-thirty." Merry replied and disconnected.
She put the Prius in gear and pulled out of the garage onto hot Burbank Street.
Jacob Walters sat in his office overlooking Hollywood Boulevard. Nineteen-year-old Annie Gray sat in front of him, her legs curled up under her, a kittenish, wide-eyed smile on her elfin face. She had a fey, waiflike look, as well as an atrocious sense of style. Today she wore pink shorts, a yellow shirt with some sort of odd design on it and purple lipstick. Her brown hair, pulled into an untidy braid, was streaked with dark pink and orange.
Thick black liner around her blue eyes made her look like a raccoon.
"So tell me." he said, "what exactly do you do with a ten-thousand-dollar belt?"
Annie pouted, "It's Hermes. It's a status symbol."
Annie Gray was an up-and-coming recording artist with the voice of an angel, the beauty of a swan and the mouth of a truck driver. Annie's mother had hired Jake to help her manage Annie's money, but the singer was not being particularly cooperative.
"A symbol of what?" Jake asked, trying not to wince. As a financial advisor, he'd seen musicians come and go. Some came in poor and left poor, some came in poor and left rich. Annie wasn't going to leave rich if she kept spending the way she was.
"It says I'm a star." She batted her eyes at him.
He wanted to tell her she was stupid to think she would always be a star. "I know having money to spend on anything you want has its allure, but you have to think about the future."
Annie shrugged. "I have enough money. I don't need to worry."
"You will if you keep buying ten-thousand-dollar belts."
Again she shrugged. "I can't do drugs no more, so I shop."
Jake closed his eyes and prayed for patience. He would just have to ignore that issue. "Until you get back to work, you have to stick to your budget. On my advice, your mother canceled all your credit cards. You will be on a limited allowance until you're working again."
"You can't do that. It's my money." She jumped to her feet, looking panicked.
"You just got out of rehab. Nobody cares who you were. And right now you're a sort-of-famous, ex-junkie pop star whose only claim to fame is a song about sex-ting. I'm doing what I can to keep you solvent."
She sauntered over to the edge of his desk, unbuttoning the top two buttons of her shirt and pulling the edges apart to show more skin and an evil-looking tattoo that curled around the inside of her breast. She leaned over and smiled at him. "Come on, Jakie. My mummy will listen to you. Tell her I'll be a good girl. Let me keep at least one credit card."
Jake sighed. Phase two. If pouting didn't work, try seduction. She ran her fingers up his arm and he pulled away. He was thirty-two years old and had seen just about everything in the ten years he'd worked as a financial advisor. He pressed a button under his desk and a moment later his assistant, Vicki, silently opened the door and entered. "Just so you know, my secretary is standing right behind you as a witness to this meeting."
Annie jumped back and rebuttoned her blouse. "This isn't over."
Phase three: the threat. "You don't seem to understand what a conservatorship means. You have no control over your money because you can't be trusted. That is no one else's fault but yours."
"You're fired." she snapped.
"And you can't fire me, either." he said with a half smile as she moved to phase four. Like so many others before her, she was completely predictable. "I've seen it all, sweetie. Your mother has your best interests at heart and you need to grow up and listen to her."
"If I'd listened to my mother, I would have gone to college and not been a star." she snapped.
"If you'd gone to college, you could have taken an accounting class and learned to manage your own money."
"You're mean." Annie said, the pout returning. "How do I know you're not trying to rip me off and take a piece of the pie for yourself?"
Phase five, he thought, was questioning his ability to keep her solvent. "Probably because I have a lot more money than you do and don't need your piddly little 1.6 million." Which she wouldn't have if he hadn't been hired by her family.
"You're just an accountant. You can't have more money than me." She lifted her chin defiantly as though he'd be intimidated.
He resisted the urge to laugh. "I don't buy ten-thousand-dollar belts." Or fancy cars, or designer clothes. He'd bought his last Mercedes SUV used and lived in a small house in the Hills that he'd bought in a foreclosure sale. The only areas he'd splurged on had been his bedroom and the kitchen. Jake liked to cook and he wanted the best appliances he could afford. He also liked to sleep comfortably, so he did purchase a custom-made Swiss mattress that was so comfortable he fell asleep almost the moment his head touched the pillow.
She stomped her foot. "I'm going to go see a lawyer."
Phase six: the final threatseeing a lawyer. "Fine." he replied, "See you later."
She marched out of the office, slamming the door so hard the photos on the walls bounced.
"She's going to be trouble." Vicki said.
"Like we haven't had that before." he said with a sigh. Most of his clients were trouble with a capital T. And Miss Gray was proving to be one of the bigger ones.
"This is a heck of a way to make a living." Vicki said, straightening one of the photos that had slipped askew from Annie's door slam.
"That's why I love it." And he did, despite the juvenile behavior of so many of his clients. He loved the challenge of putting them back on solid ground. Many of them appreciated his efforts, but a few, like Annie, chafed under his control.
"Your sister called." Vicki said, "I said you'd get back to her."
He picked up the phone as Vicki walked out, closing the door quietly behind her.
He dialed his sister. Evelyn answered on the first ring as though she'd been standing right next to the phone.
"It's Daddy. He's lost his mind."
Jake's first thought was that his widowed father had run off with a twenty-year-old bimbo. Not that his father was easily led, but a pretty woman was a pretty woman, and he'd been a widower for a long time, "What's going on?"
"He's decided he's not selling the park and is going to renovate instead. He's already been to the bank and gotten a loan."
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It was a good read.