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"I found a replacement for Gloria, Mr. Carter. Everyone says this is the best event planner on the west coast."
Unspoken was the understanding that Mitch would accept nothing less than the best. Which was difficult, considering his luxury resort was six weeks from opening to the public and had been beset by one problem after another. The most recent was the loss of the woman he'd contracted to handle all the resort events.
"Call me Mitch," he absently told his new assistant. He motioned to the vacant seat opposite his desk, but she shook her head, preferring to stand.
She'd been here a couple of weeks, but Diana was still jumpy and nervous. He knew he was demanding of his employees and it definitely made it easier to demand if they were on a first-name basis, so she'd better get over her timidity soon. They were almost at the end of his Mr. Nice Guy two-week break-in period.
He took the papers she handed him and in one glance was thrown back in time. Shocked, Mitch stared at the glossy dossier. The black-and-white photo didn't do justice to Belle Forsham's fairy-like beauty. It didn't capture the gleam of her tousled blond curls, or the wicked tilt of her sea-green eyes. The shadows accented her sharp features, the light reflecting off her smile.
The best? Yeah, she was. Good enough to make a man stupid. He glared at that smile, irritated with his body's reaction. Belle Forsham was pure trouble. He knew she was, and still he got hard remembering the taste of her lips. He tried to dull his body's reaction by visualizing himself standing, alone, at the altar.
Yeah, the anger definitely dimmed his desire.
"Mr. Carter?" Diana interrupted his pathetic obsessing. "Do you want me to contact Eventfully Yours? They're perfect for the job given the scope of the resort's needs and what you are looking for in an event planner."
"I'd rather not work with this particular company," he said, making it sound like he'd put some thought into the decision. In reality, no thought was required. Despite how often she showed up in his dreams, usually nude, Belle was at the bottom of the list of women he wanted to see. And she was definitely the last one he'd consider depending on for any aspect of his success.
After all, who knew better just how undependable she was? He tossed the file on the pile on his desk, the banner on her dossier catching his eye. He sneered. Society's Planning Princess, indeed.
I don't understand. Everyone says they're the best. They've worked for a dozen A-list actors, some of the top musicians in the country and any number of politicians. They've arranged club openings, publisher parties, award-ceremony after-parties."
"They're not what I'm looking for," he snapped.
Diana's face fell, making her look like a sad chipmunk. Obviously sticking with her own version of the dress-for-success theory, she wore a tidy suit, stockings and ugly shoes. The overall image was serious efficiency, which was supported by the fact that she did a damned good job. Mitch wouldn't have hired her otherwise. He just wished she'd loosen up. He glanced down at his own jeans and workboots and gave a mental shrug. So she didn't have to loosen up to his level, but a little less formality wouldn't hurt.
"Let's look at the other event planners," Mitch instructed. "Sometimes a reputation is based on perception, rather than how good the firm actually is. I need more than gloss to make this work. If Lakeside is going to succeed, I'm going to need clever, resourceful and intuitive."
He pushed away from his overloaded desk and strode to the wide bank of windows that looked out to the lake. Almost completed, this resort was the culmination of all his dreams. Ten acres of verdant hills, lush gardens and what he secretly referred to as the enchanted forest, Lakeside was going to be the brightest jewel in his development crown and his first venture into hotels. So far he'd launched a half-dozen business parks, a mall and a couple of small restaurants. All of which he'd turned for a sweet profit.
But this resort was more than ambitious. For a guy who'd started out swinging a hammer, it was a huge coup. To kick this venture off here, in Southern California, was ballsy, given that he'd torched his bridges with the top hotelier on the west coast six years ago.
"I need a creative wizard with killer contacts. Someone who gets what our clientele will want, who can make the resort a posh getaway for the wealthy. If I'm going to turn this into the most talked-about hot spot of the rich and famous, I'm going to need someone who kicks ass."
Diana's mouth worked for a second, then after an obvious internal struggle, she thrust out her chin and pointed to the abandoned dossier on his desk.
"But that's what I've been trying to tell you, Mitch. Belle Forsham is all of that. Her events are the most talked-about, the most outside-the-box successes of the last two years. She seems to know everyone, do everything. She
" Diana stopped, wrinkled her nose and took a deep breath before continuing. "She kicks ass."
Amazed she'd finally used his given name, Mitch gave a snort of laughter at the uptight way she said ass. Amusement faded as he glanced again at the photo of his ex-fiancée.
When had she gone into event planning? And how the hell had she stuck with it long enough to be such a success? He had to admit, though, she had the intelligence and creativity to make it happen, although she'd always tried to hide the brains behind a flirty flutter of her lashes. She was definitely a social butterfly. He recalled the guest list for their aborted wedding. It had read like the who's who of People magazine.
It was the memory of that damned wedding, the humiliation of standing alone in front of all those gawking and snickering witnesses, that cinched it. Mitch ground his teeth, long-simmering anger burning in his gut. Belle might have great ideas, be clever and well-connected. But when the chips were down, she couldn't be counted on.
"She's a flake," he finally said.
"She's the best." Diana held up a sheaf of papers, all recommending Eventfully Yours. "Everything I've heard, all the research I did says that Belle Forsham is the It Girl of events. She's the hottest thing on the west coast."
Ambition fought with ego. The good of his company versus the biggest humiliation of his past. His need to see Belle again, to see if she was still that intriguing combination of sexy and sweet, battled with his desire to keep the door to that part of his history nailed shut.
Mitch looked over the resort grounds again, the gentle beauty of the sun-gilded lake beckoning him. Reminding him to do his best. A lot was riding on this deal. He'd sunk all his available resources into making this resort the most luxurious, the most welcoming. None of that would matter without guests with big enough wallets to indulge themselves.
He'd screwed himself into a corner once because of Belle Forsham. Or because of his desire to screw her, to be exact. He'd never wanted a woman the way he'd wanted Belle. But she'd been his boss's only child and off-limits. His old-fashioned upbringing and his worry that he'd be disrespecting Franklin if he had wild monkey sex with the guy's daughter had inspired him to the dumbest proposal of his life. Well, that and his idiotic belief that he'd fallen in love with her.
He'd handled it all wrong. He could see that now, but that didn't change the fact that she'd dumped him at the altar, and because of her he'd lost both his job and the respect of his mentor. Which bothered him almost as much as never having the wild Belle-against-the-wall sex he'd wanted so badly.
And he was supposed to welcome her back in his life? Was he willing to make a deal with the sexiest little devil he'd ever known in order to ensure his success?
He thought of his team. They were just as invested in the resort as he was. Because Mitch had little experience in the resort business, he'd brought in two managersone to oversee the hotel, the other to run the three restaurants. He was the money man, the one with the vision, but he needed each of them on board to handle the hundred-plus employees and make sure the day to day of the operation ran smoothly while he made his vision a reality.
He glanced at the family picture behind his desk. He knew his family took great pride in his accomplishments, just as they had huge expectations for his success. Expectations that included supporting his grandmother and providing jobs for four of his cousins in his company. Those expectations were both a source of pride and a noose around his neck. He had to succeed.
The resort already had enough problems. On top of the usual construction glitches and startup issues, they'd been having a run of bad luck. Losing his event coordinator was just the last in a long string of unexplained setbacks. Could he afford to blow off the perfect planner out of pride?
Damn. He sighed and pushed the file on the desk toward Diana.
"Check her availability."
"There's only one man who'll satisfy you. Quit stalling and go for it, already."
Belle Forsham stopped pacing across the lush amethyst carpet of her office to roll her eyes at her best friend and business partner. The office was a quirky combination of trendy accessories, sexy textures and practical lines. Much like Belle herself.
"It's not like chasing some guy down for hot sex, Sierra. This is serious. We're talking business here. My father's business. Or should I say, the end of my father's business."
"Exactly. You want to save Forsham Hotels, you need to get help." Sierra flipped open the pink bakery box she'd brought in for their morning meeting and, after a careful perusal, chose a carrot-cheesecake muffin.
Not even looking at the other offerings, Belle automatically went for the fanciest muffin. Rich, chocolaty and decadent, just the way she liked it. Except she was so stressed, she put it down after one bite. Why waste the indulgence?
"I don't need help," she lied.
"Yes, you do. It's not like you and I can plan an event that will save your dad's butt," Sierra shot back, referring to their company, Eventfully Yours, as she licked cream-cheese icing from her thumb.
They were the elite event planners on the west coast, catering to the rich and famous from southern California up to Monterey. Combining Sierra's fearless attitude and Belle's knack for creative entertainment, the two women had hit the Hollywood scene hard and strong four years back. Eventfully Yours had grown from organizing themed play dates for sitcom divas' Pomeranians to arranging intimate soirees for A-list actors and five hundred of their closest friends.
"You know, now that I think about it, I really shouldn't be going behind my father's back," Belle stalled, sitting on the edge of her inlaid rosewood desk. "He'd be the first to say his heart attack is no reason to treat him like an invalid. If he wanted to make a deal to save the hotels, he'd do it himself."
Used to Belle's habit of squirreling out of anything that made her uncomfortable, Sierra just stared. It was that uncompromising, see-all-the-way-into-her-soul look that Belle hated. Whenever Sierra narrowed her blue eyes and shot her that look, Belle felt like a total wuss.
"Don't you think if my dad wanted to deal with Mitch Carter, he'd approach him himself?" she asked, playing her last excuse.
"Right. Your dad, upstanding guy that he is, is gonna go begging help from the man he fired from a dream VP position and partnership in one of the primo hotel conglomerates in the U.S. The same guy his daughter ditched at the altar."
"Exactly," Belle exclaimed, jumping up from her perch on the desk to throw her arms in the air. "Given our sucky history, why would you think Mitch wants anything to do with me?"
Sierra arched a brow, then gave a little shrug. Taking her time, she dusted the crumbs off her fingers, shifted in the plush chair and curled her long legs under her. Raising one brow, she tapped a manicured nail on her bare ankle.
"This is the guy who refused to have sex with you before marriage. I figure he has some twisted belief in things like honor."
Sierra rolled her eyes at her own words. Always the cynic, she didn't understand the concept of selfless honor. Of course, neither did Belle. But it sure sounded sweet.
"This would also be the same guy who, despite having the perfect opportunity to make your daddy's life a living hell when you ruined their deal, simply shook hands and walked away."
Walked away and left her daddy holding a piece of investment property that, because of zoning and development legalities, was now taking his business down the toilet. But considering what Belle had done, that wasn't really Mitch's fault. Was it?
"So he's freaking hero material," she muttered. "So what?"
Belle slid off her heels so she could pace faster. Nothing slowed down a good pace like four-inch Manolos. The way her luck was running, she'd stumble and break the heel. And she needed to move around and try to shake off the nasty feeling that had settled over her when she'd been reminded of how badly she'd treated Mitch. That he'd broken her heart was no excuse. She knew that now. But knowing it and being willing to do something about it were definitely two different things.
"Exactly," Sierra agreed. "He's hero material. Which means he's hard-wired to ride to the rescue. Even after all that crap went down, Mitch never badmouthed you or your father. If he knew how bad things are now, maybe he'd offer some advice. Or best case? He'll step in, checkbook at the ready, and save the company."
Mitch definitely lived by his own code. Over the last six years he'd developed a reputation as the man with the magic touch. Mr. Money, a real-estate developer with an eye for success, he was known in the industry as a fair man who played by his own rules, uncompromising, intense and dynamic. People appreciated his generous willingness to share his success, but behind the scenes, there were whispers of ruthless payback to anyone who crossed him.
Which didn't bode well for Belle, since she was the one seen as most deserving of Mitch's revenge. Mutual acquaintances still joked that she'd better watch her back. She knew better, though. She'd never mattered enough to him to merit that much attention.
"He won't deal with me," she assured Sierra, playing her trump card.
"You don't know that." The way Sierra said it, as though she had some naughty little secret, made Belle nervous.
"Yes, I do." Belle took a deep breath and, with the air of one confessing a mortal sin, dropped her voice to a loud whisper. "I never told you, but I tried to see Mitch. Two years ago. Remember when I had that car wreck?"
Eyes huge with curiosity, Sierra nodded.
"I was shook up and had some weird idea that being hit in a head-on accident on a one-way street was a sign that I should make amends for all my wicked ways." She met her friend's snort of laughter with a glare. "I figured ditching Mitch topped my wicked list, so I sucked up my courage and went to apologize."
"No way," Sierra breathed. "And you didn't tell me?"
"There was nothing to tell. He was supposedly out of the country."
"Well, I went back a couple weeks later and his assistant said he was out with the flu."
"So isn't it obvious? He was avoiding me."
"He left the country and got the flu to avoid you?"
Belle rolled her eyes. "No, that was just BS. He was probably there in his office telling his assistant to make something up so he didn't have to see me."
Sierra's expression clearly said "you've got to be kidding."
"Don't give me that look. It could be true."
"Only if the roles were reversed. You're the one afraid of confrontation, Belle. Not Mitch. If he were in the office, I'm sure he'd have taken five minutes to personally tell you to kiss his ass."
"And you want me to go chasing the guy for favors?" Belle ignored the confrontation issue. It was true, after all. "We both know he doesn't want anything to do with me."
Sierra hummed, then slid off the chair and crossed to the leather bag she'd tossed on the credenza. She pulled out a file folder with what looked like a printout of an e-mail clipped to it.
Waving the file at Belle, she arched a brow and asked, "Wanna bet?"
"Spill," Belle demanded, making a grab for the folder. Sierra whipped it out of reach with a laugh.
"You really need to have more faith in your impact on people."
"According to you, people are only out for what they can get," Belle shot back.
"Exactly. So while Mitch might happily punish you when it's convenient, the tune changes when he needs something."
"And he needs us?"
"No. He needs you. This gig is right up your alley," Sierra claimed. Which meant it was totally social. Sierra handled the big corporate and studio events, the types of things that required juggling numbers, working with specific images or ground rules. In other words, the more traditional events that relied heavily on organization. Belle's specialty was the over-the-top hedonistic fantasies. And since she'd indulged in so many fantasies about Mitch Carter, the idea of having another shot at sharing a few with him sent her pulse racing.
"Spill," she demanded. She tried to ignore the excitement dancing in her stomach, making her edgy and impatient. This was crazy. Mitch hated her. He had to. But maybe, just maybe, this was her shot at making amends. At fixing the past and helping her father. And maybe, just maybe
at finally getting into his pants.