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Beverly Hills, California
Five weeks earlier...
ALEXANDRA SHANAHAN had thought being invited to lunch with Hollywood's most powerful actor was too good to be true.
She was right. "You want me to what?" Alexandra Shanahan asked incredulously, staring at Wolf Kerrick as though he'd lost his mind.
"Play my new love interest," he repeated, his deep voice nearly flat.
Wolf Kerrick's love interest. How ludicrous. Beyond ludicrous.
Wolf Kerrick...and her? Alexandra would have laughed if her stomach wasn't doing wild cartwheels.
Everything, she thought woozily, about the lunch was wrong. The impossible-to-secure reservations at the famous Beverly Hills Hotel's terrace restaurant. The bright blue sky overhead. The dizzying fragrance of the terrace garden's roses and gardenias.
When she'd first sat down at the table, she'd introduced herself—silly, but since they'd never officially met, it'd seemed like the right thing to do.
Wolf had repeated her name thoughtfully. "Shanahan. Sounds familiar."
"There's a famous football coach by the same name," she'd answered nervously, trying to ignore the excited whispers of the other restaurant patrons. Everyone had been watching them. Or at least watching Wolf. But then, he was a megastar and sinfully good-looking, so she couldn't really blame them.
"Maybe that's it," he'd answered, leaning back in his chair.
"Or maybe it's familiar because it's Irish."
She'd managed a tight smile before dropping her gaze, already overwhelmed by his formidable size and presence.
Wolf Kerrick was bigger, broader, stronger, more male than nearly any other actor in the business. There was no mistaking him for any other actor, either, not with his Spanish-Irish black hair, dark eyes and sinful, sensual mouth.
"Daniel said you had a job offer for me," she'd said nervously, jumping straight to the point. There was no reason to stall. She'd never be able to eat in his company, so ordering lunch was out of the question. Best just get the whole interview over and done with.
She'd nodded to fill the silence. She'd hoped he'd maybe elaborate, but he hadn't. Her cheeks had scalded. Her face had felt so hot even her ears had burned. "Daniel said he thought I'd be perfect for the job."
Wolf's dark head had tipped, his black lashes dropping as he'd considered her. After an endless silence he'd nodded once. "You are."
She wasn't sure if she should be flattered or terrified. He seemed so much friendlier on the big screen, more approachable in film than he was here in flesh. Right now he was anything but mortal, human. Instead he was like a dark warrior, an avenger with a secret—and dangerous—agenda.
"I'm looking to fill a position," he said flatly.
"Yes," she echoed, hands knotting together in her lap.
"The role of my new love interest."
She nearly tumbled from her chair. "What?"
She stared at him so hard his face blurred.
"It's a publicity stunt," Wolf said in the same flat, almost bored tone. "The position would last approximately four to six weeks. Of course, you'd be well compensated."
Shocked, mortified, Alexandra felt as though she'd burst into flames any moment. "But I—I...couldn't," she sputtered, reaching for her water glass even as a rivulet of perspiration slid down inside her gray linen jacket. She was broiling here on the terrace. She'd dressed far too warmly for lunch outside, and with the bright California sun beating down on her head she thought she'd melt any moment. "I don't date—" she broke off, swallowed convulsively "—actors."
Wolf's jaw shifted. A trace of amusement touched his features. "You don't have to.You just have to pretend to date me."
Him. Wolf Kerrick. International film star. Spanish-Irish heartthrob. Alexandra gulped more water. She was so hot she could barely think clearly. If only she'd dressed more appropriately. If only she'd thought to bring someone to the meeting with her. Her boss, Daniel deVoors, one of the industry's top directors, had sent her here today, telling her Wolf Kerrick had a proposition for her. She'd thought maybe Mr. Kerrick needed a personal assistant. It hadn't crossed her mind he'd be interviewing for a lover.
"Why?" she whispered.
"You're young, wholesome, ordinary, someone the public could relate to."
Young, wholesome and ordinary, Alexandra silently repeated, feeling her heart jump to lodge firmly in her throat. He didn't find her attractive even though she'd made such efforts today. Alexandra rarely wore makeup, but today she'd used a little mascara and a touch of lipstick, and obviously it'd made no difference. She was still wholesome and ordinary. She took a deep breath, suppressed the sting of his words. "But I still don't understand...."
"It's a PR move aimed at damage control." Wolf shifted in his seat so that his powerful body seemed to dwarf the table and the terrace and the day itself.
Alexandra's brows furrowed. She was finding it increasingly difficult to keep focused on what he was saying, disappointment washing through her in gigantic waves. She'd been so thrilled to meet Wolf Kerrick, to have this chance to interview with him. Last night she'd barely slept. Today she'd woken extra early and showered and dressed with such care....
But now...now she just felt hurt. Disappointed.
There was no job, just this ridiculous proposal.
Her temper stirred and she sat taller. "Damage control?" she repeated, trying to keep up with him. "Why would you need damage control...?" Her voice faded as it hit her, in one lucid swoop. Joy Hughes.
This was about Wolf's affair with Joy Hughes.
And looking across the table, it all came together. Mr. Kerrick didn't want to hire a love interest. He didn't want to be meeting her or sitting here in public having this conversation. He was doing this—speaking to her, asking her to play a part— to help repair his damaged reputation, and she knew who and what had damaged his reputation. His year-long affair with the very married film actress, Joy Hughes.
"Does this have to do with your...affair?" she asked awkwardly, torn between anger and shame that Daniel deVoors would even suggest her to Mr. Kerrick as a possible love interest.
Wolf Kerrick's lips suddenly pulled back in an almost wolflike snarl. "There was no affair."
Alexandra's heart jumped, but she didn't cower. "If there was no affair," she said huskily, fingers balling into fists, "you wouldn't need me, would you?"
Wolf leaned forward, dark eyes flashing, jaw jutting with anger. "There was no affair."
His dark eyes held hers, fierce, penetrating, and the stillness following his words was as dangerous as his tone of voice.
She felt the blister of his anger, as well as his underlying scorn. Yet she was angry, too. He must think she was stupid or naive to take everything he said at face value. And she might be naive, but she wasn't stupid. Alexandra met his gaze squarely. "Everyone knows you and Joy have been involved for the last year."
Wolf and Joy Hughes were both megastars. Bigger than film stars, larger than life, they personified Hollywood power and glamour. So much so that when they'd secretly linked up earlier in the year, their affair—Joy was still married to another Hollywood heavyweight—made headline news and had remained there for nearly six months.
Even now she remembered how their photos had been on every cover of every weekly tabloid—for months. "It's not exactly a secret," she added.
The planes of Wolf's face hardened, his high cheekbones growing more prominent. "The media fabricated the relationship. I thought the interest would die. I told Joy as much. It didn't."
He paused, considered his words. "The public's fickle. Today they're enthralled by rumors and gossip, tomorrow they're appalled. But the stories have gotten out of hand. The bad press will soon influence the box-office takings. I can't take that chance, not when it'll hurt every single person who works on my films."
He was right about that much, she agreed, biting her lower lip. She'd been in Hollywood four years, had worked for Paradise Pictures for nearly three and knew that a low-grossing film impacted everyone. A low-grossing film left an ugly black mark on everyone's résumé.
Rubbing at a tiny knot of tension throbbing in her temple, she tried to see her part in this. "But to generate new press by pretending to have a relationship with me? It's such an old Hollywood trick. I didn't think it was done anymore."
His long black lashes lifted and his dark gaze searched hers, his scrutiny so intense it left her feeling strangely exposed. "The studio wants proof that Joy and I aren't an item. Being seen with you would be the proof they need."
"Just by being seen with me?"
"That's how the tabloids work. They snap their photos, run their stories and publicly speculate about celebrities'happiness and future, often without interviewing one reliable source." His tone was rueful, his expression mocking. "After one week of being together in public, we'll be an item."
"That's all it takes?"
"Sometimes only one photo is necessary." His mouth slanted. "But I should warn you, the pressure will be intense. The paparazzi are everywhere, photographers camp outside my door. Once reporters learn your name, they'll hunt down information on you—where you work, what you do, who you've dated—" He broke off, looked at her from beneath arched brows. "Do you have any scandals in your past, anything the press can dredge up?"
Stunned to silence, she shook her head. "Old boyfriends with an axe to grind?" he persisted. Again she shook her head. She'd hardly ever dated. Growing up on an isolated ranch, there hadn't been many chances to date, and moving to Los Angeles at nineteen had nipped her desire to date in the bud. The men she'd met in Los Angeles were often shallow, materialistic and crass, nothing like the men she'd been raised with, none revealing any of the male qualities she admired, like strength, courage, confidence, generosity.
Men in Los Angeles loved cars, tans and expensive restaurants. Oh, and women with fake breasts.
"There's nothing in my past worthy of tabloid interest," she said, briefly thinking of her mom who'd died when she was young and her oldest brother's wife who'd been killed in a car accident. But those weren't the kinds of things the gossip magazines would be interested in. Those were the personal heartbreaks that lay buried between the covers of photo albums, baby books and high school graduation diplomas.
But those personal heartbreaks were also one of the reasons she'd left Montana. Having grown up in the shadow of five older brothers, Alexandra needed space. Independence. She needed to be her own person and have control over her life.
Playing Wolf Kerrick's new love interest would strip her identity as well as her control.
She'd be followed, photographed, harassed. "I'll make it worth your while," Wolf said quietly, as if able to read her mind, or the emotions flickering over her face. "I've met with Daniel and your studio. They're willing to offer you a significant promotion if you take the position. And when the assignment ends, you'll be offered an A.D. position with Daniel."
"Assistant director?" she repeated under her breath, dazed by the idea of really being involved in making pictures and not just taking coffee orders.
For the first time since Wolf had presented her with the proposal, she was tempted to accept, she really was. To escape from photocopy hell and actually do something on a film...to leave the office behind and go on location...to be involved with real decision making versus how much liquid sugar was needed to properly sweeten the lighting technician's double-shot iced coffee...
But looking at Wolf, she knew her decision wasn't quite so simple. Wolf was a man. An actor. A very popular actor as famous for his skills in the bedroom as his talent on-screen.
And maybe Wolf was notorious for bedding lots of women, but she couldn't do that—wouldn't do that. It's not who she was.
But what if Wolf expected that?
She shot an uncertain glance up into his face. "Mr. Kerrick, I think you should know right now, up front, that I don't do the casting-couch routine." Her heart raced as she considered his hard features, his firm, sensual mouth. "I won't do it. It's not how I was raised."
His lips curled up, a flicker of wry amusement touched his dark eyes before just as swiftly disappearing. "I've never needed to convince or pressure a woman into bed."
"Yes, I know," she said, pulse still pounding like mad. "But I wouldn't want you to think that later I'll do things—"
"Miss Shanahan, rest assured that there's no risk of that. Forgive my bluntness, but you're not my type."
Her face flooded with heat even as her blood turned to ice. Oh, God. How humiliating. But she'd practically asked for that, hadn't she?
Painfully embarrassed, Alexandra felt her insides curdle and cramp. Of course she wasn't his type. Of course he wouldn't want to take someone like her to bed. He could have any woman in the world, why would he want to be with her?
"I'm sorry," she said, voice noticeably husky, "but I don't think this is going to work. I'm not who or what you need." She fumbled for her purse, finally finding it at her feet, next to her chair. "And I'm not about to try to change to please you or anyone else."
She rose to escape, but Wolf reached out, caught her hand, kept her from fleeing.
"That's where you're wrong." His deep voice, pitched low, vibrated inside her as his dark eyes, a glittering onyx, held her transfixed. "You're exactly what I want and need."
His words shook her, but it was his touch, that scalding press of skin on skin, that made her knees buckle. With his hand around her wrist, she felt electric, charged, different. "I know I'm no beauty queen, but there's no reason for you to be cruel—"
His fingers tightened around her wrist. "Cruel? I'm paying you a compliment. I've picked you to play the role of my lover." His voice deepened, betraying his Dublin roots. "I wouldn't ask just anyone—"
"And I'm to be flattered by that?"
She tugged at her hand, hating the ruthless edge in his voice, that raw, hard, male quality that made him want to dominate her and everything else in his world. "That's where you're mistaken." Tears shimmered in her eyes. "Because I'm not flattered and I don't take it as a compliment that you've chosen me to fill a role in your life. I'm not an accessory, Mr. Kerrick. Not for you, not for anyone!"
She stole a quick breath, noticed the diners around them watching in rabid interest. "People are staring," she said softly, a faint catch in her voice. "Please release me and let me go."
"I'll release you, but I want you to sit down and finish this—"
"It is finished," she flashed furiously.
"No, it's not. Sit down. Now." He exhaled. "Please."
Alex slowly sank into her chair again, her purse falling limply to her lap.
Wolf leaned forward, his dark eyes never leaving hers. "Don't let your pride get in the way, Miss Shanahan. Your boss told me you're smart, ambitious. This is an opportunity to make a name for yourself."
Her nausea had returned, stronger than before. "Make a name for myself as what? Your fake girlfriend?" She stared at him incredulously. "You think I should jump at your proposal, be flattered because I'm a plain-Jane girl and don't get out much, is that it? And yes, I'm ambitious, but unfortunately not ambitious enough to date you. Not ambitious enough to pretend to be your girlfriend to get a promotion. I find it digusting that I'd gain industry status—respect—simply by being seen around town with you. That's not the way life should work—"