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BURKE ELLIOT GLANCED UP from the tidy stack of paperwork on his neatly arranged desk as Hollywood superstar Fitz Kelleran strolled into his Paramount Studios bungalow.
"Hi, honey," said Fitz. "I'm home." He shut the door on the remains of a gloomy February day and pitched a faded duffel at the reception area sofa before heading toward the tiny office bathroom, shedding bits of wardrobe in his wake.
"Not again." Burke bit back a resigned sigh as he rose from his desk chair and followed. He'd spent four years as Fitz's personal assistant before the actor had promoted him to associate producer for his new filmproduction company. Four years salvaging bits and bobs of order and sanity from the chaos his friend tended to churn up wherever he went. "This is getting to be a bad habit."
"What's the matter?" Fitz twisted the taps in the narrow shower and adjusted the temperature of the spray.
"Bad day? Your date cancel out on you tonight? Don't tell me you're not glad to see me."
Burke plucked a tuxedo tie dangling from the edge of the pedestal sink. "Why do you insist on showering here several evenings each week? Why don't you use the facilities in your dressing room?"
"Saves time." Fitz dropped his pants and shot Burke a grin as he stepped into the steaming stall. "I can clean up and check in with you at the same time."
Burke tossed the tie on the crumpled black trousers lying on the tile floor and settled for a seat on the toilet lid. There was always business to discuss, now that he was fine-tuning the preproduction budget for Fitz's pet project, a remake of the classic Western, The Virginian.
Just as the bright promise of Southern California sunshine had lured Burke from London's drizzle, Fitz had lured him from a junior executive position in an accounting firm with promises of Hollywood adventures. He'd come full circle, back to a world of columns and ledgers, but he didn't mindhe'd always enjoyed arranging figures in orderly rows. And the fact that those figures represented movie production details had a certain appeal of its own.
"I suppose I should be grateful you're learning to manage your time more efficiently."
"I have to, now that you're not doing it for me."
"I offered to find a replacement, didn't I?" Burke nudged aside a discarded sock.
"For you?" Fitz smiled over the top of the shower door and scrubbed shampoo into wet blond hair. "If you're going to quit again, can you wait until I'm dry?"
"Never mind." Attempting a conversation with someone whose head was currently stuck beneath a water spigot was a pointless exercise.
A knock sounded at the outer office door moments before a pretty young wardrobe assistant let herself into the reception area. "Hey, Burke."
"Good evening, Heather. I assume you're here to collect Mr. Kelleran's things." He gathered a pile of black-and-white formal wear and deposited it in her outstretched arms. "I believe this is all of it."
"All of it." She smiled as she repeated his words.
"I just love that English accent."
She stood in place near the bathroom door, methodically checking each article. Behind them, the sound of water splattering against the shower tile explained her obvious attempt to delay her departure. Most women would engage in similar ploys to catch a glimpse of one of People's sexiest men alive wearing little more than those famous dimples.
Burke moved back to his desk and frowned at the contract lying in an open folder.
"Burke?" asked Heather.
"Hmm?" He glanced over his shoulder, distracted.
"Is something missing?"
"No, nothing." She dropped the clothes beside Fitz's duffel and stepped closer. "I was just wondering
are you doing anything tomorrow night?"
Tomorrow night. Friday. Burke rearranged the fit of his glasses over his nose, reexamining his conclusions and readjusting his expectations. Not Fitz, then. And Heather
She'd always seemed to be well organized and levelheaded. Very nearly sereneand Burke considered serenity an extremely desirable trait in any woman. He'd also found her physically attractive, in the general and abstract manner he regarded casual female acquaintances who weren't appallingly otherwise. Now he turned to take a closer look.
"Burke," Fitz called from the next room.
"Tomorrow night?" asked Burke.
The shower door clicked open. "Are you still there?" asked Fitz.
"Yes," said Heather. Her smile warmed, hinting at a number of possibilities for an extremely pleasant evening.
The phone on the desk trilled. "Excuse me," said Burke as Fitz stalked into the room with a long white towel wrapped around his waist. He reached behind him and grabbed the phone. "Burke Elliot speaking."
"Tell Kelleran he's a dead man," shouted Myron Greenberg in Burke's ear. Greenberg, Fitz's agent and partner in his film-production company, was never serene. "Got that, Elliot? A dead man."
"You can tell him yourself," said Burke, pulling the phone a few inches from his head to prevent damage to his hearing. "He's standing right here, dripping on my carpet."
Fitz snatched his duffel from the sofa and headed back to the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
Heather's smile widened. "I'm not going to waste my breath," said Greenberg. "I'm through talking to that lying piece of"
"Myron." Burke pulled off his glasses and polished them with the clean cloth he kept for that purpose in his top desk drawer. "Did you, by any chance, have another purpose in mind for this call?"
"Don't give me any of that snotty Brit attitude," said Greenberg before launching into one of his trademark obscenity-laden tantrums.
Burke resettled his glasses and angled his hip against the desk. He set the receiver down beside him, where he could monitor Greenberg's spewing from a more comfortable distance. "Tomorrow night?" he asked again.
"Yeah." Heather leaned toward him and teased a bright red nail along the edge of his shirt front. "You seem like a busy guy. The kind of guy who might appreciate a quiet, home-cooked meal."
"Elliot? Elliot!" screamed a faintly static Greenberg.
"Excuse me, Heather." Burke picked up the phone.
"I want Nora's signature on that contract, and I want it now. Right now. Got that?" Greenberg's voice quivered with more venom than usual. "You tell Fitz he'd better come through on this, or I'm out. I mean it this time."
Burke seized Heather's hand as it crept toward his collar and brought her fingertips to his lips. Her fingers were smooth and smelled agreeably of rose-scented soap. "You have every right to be angry, Myron," he said in his soothing, reasonable voice. "This delay has been intolerable."
Greenberg hesitated as though he hadn't expected agreement on the matter. "You're damn right it has."
"I'll see to it myself that Fitz understands the level of your frustration." He curled Heather's fingers in his and tipped up her palm to brush his mouth over her warm, delicate wrist.
"You do that." Myron huffed and puffed some more, and then there was a moment of ominous silence.
"What do you mean, "the level of my frustration'? Is that some kind of shrink b.s.? You trying to handle me, Elliot?"
"Is it working?"
Greenberg snorted a humorless laugh. "You couldn't handle a corpse on Valium."
"I wonder, Myron, why would a corpse need Valium?" Burke knew if he met the agent's bluster with calm logic, he'd soon tire of the one-sided row.
Fitz cracked open the bathroom door and peeked through the slit. "Is that Greenberg?"
Burke offered him the phone, and the door snapped shut.
"What was that?" asked Greenberg.
"And why would I want to handle a corpse?" asked Burke as Heather tugged her hand loose to trail her fingers along his jaw. "If it were a fresh corpse, at a murder scene, for instance, the police might become upset if I tampered with any evidence pertaining to the crime.And if it weren't a fresh corpse
if it were, perhaps, in temporary storage at a mortuary somewhere"
Click. "About tomorrow night
" Burke dropped the phone on his desk and slid his hands around Heather's narrow waist. "Let me check my"
"You can't make it," said Fitz. He strode back into the room, dressed in ragged jeans and a specimen from his ever-increasing collection of T-shirts advertising Montana businesses and events. This one sported a logo for an establishment with the unfortunate name of the Beaverhead Bar & Grill.
The actor tossed pairs of thick socks and work boots on the floor in front of the sofa and plopped down on the cushions to tug them on. "You've got a prior engagement."
Burke spread his hands in what he hoped would appear like abject disappointment and shrugged an apology to Heather. She gave him a sizzling smile, collected the discarded wardrobe bits and sashayed out of the office.
She'd be back. She, or someone just like her. He seemed never to lack a selection of female company for the weekend. Or for most weeknights, to be precise.
And he always tried to be very, very precise. "What engagement?" he asked Fitz when she'd gone. "You didn't mind, did you?" His friend tipped his head toward the door.
"Not really." Burke shrugged again. "I must admit the invitation took me by surprise. I thought she was looking in your direction."
Fitz yanked one last time at the laces on his boot and straightened. "I'm a married man."
"Do you actually think that will stop the pretty young things of this world from tossing their lures your way?"
"They're wasting their bait. I climbed out of that pond a long time ago."
"You make it sound as though it's been years," said Burke. "You've only been married a few months."
"Yeah." Fitz grinned. "And now I'm going to be a father."
"I'm surprised you waited this long to remind me." Burke couldn't hide his own smile at his friend's infectious delight. Fitz had surprised everyone who knew him with his sudden marriage to a woman he'd met at a location shoot the previous summer, a widow with a twelve-year-old daughter and a tangle of connections to a loosely extended family. An even greater surprise was his immediate foray into fatherhood.
Fatherhood. Burke suppressed a shudder. "You usually find a way to introduce the topic into any discussion within the first five minutes."
"I was distracted." Fitz frowned. "And you'd better not mention anything about that pond stuff to Ellie."
"I know better than to say anything at all about other women when your wife is within hearing range."
Tough, fiery Ellie Harrison Kelleran had no patience with Fitz's tendency to stumble into the tabloids. And because the man was head-over-boot-heels in love with her, he tried his best to maintain his balance and avoid any misunderstandings that might be construed as misadventures.
Ironically, the person of most interest to the press of late was Ellie, a petite redhead who'd caught the eye and captured the heart of Hollywood's most eligible bachelor. But the immense size and remote location of Granite Ridge Ranch, Fitz and Ellie's home in Southwest Montana, prevented the press from prying too deeply into their private lives.
"What engagement?" Burke asked again.
"Not an engagement, exactly. More like an assignment." Fitz stood and headed toward the miniscule kitchen. He selected one of the beers he himself had stocked in the cubelike refrigerator and waved a bottle of water at Burke.
Burke shook his head. He had a feeling he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear. "And just what is this assignment?"
Fitz popped the bottle cap and took a long, slow sip. "What did Greenberg want?"
"Your head on a platter."
"Nora's signature on that contract."
The movie she'd filmed last summer in Montana with Fitz would open soon, and all indications were it was going to open big. She had her choice of scripts right now, and Fitz and Greenberg were pressuring her to choose theirs.
His, actually. Burke was the one who'd chosen the script for the classic screwball comedy, sold his bosses on the idea and secured the studio's blessing to launch the presale phase of production. He was the one who'd suggested Nora for the lead.