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The last thing Ana Rodriguez needed in her life was another preening, self-indulgent star. Mere weeks ago, she'd walked away from her successful career as a costume designer in Hollywood for precisely that reason. So when her best friend, Emma Worth, had suggested she apply for the job as the director for a charity starting up in her hometown of Vista del Mar, Ana had jumped at the chance.
A fresh start was just what she needed. Away from the drama of Hollywood. Away from stars who would make her life miserable just because she didn't put out.
Since then, she'd found out she'd be working with Ward Miller, a musical superstar who glowed brighter than anyone she'd known in Hollywood. In her experience, the bigger the name, the bigger the ego. Only now, instead of merely dressing the megalomaniac, she had to pander to his every need, listen to his opinions, take his advice and generally make sure he was thrilled to be the celebrity face of the charity, Hannah's Hope.
With a critical eye, she scanned the charity's humble front office. As their mission statement said, they provided "mentoring and resources for disadvantaged individuals." Which was a fancy way of saying "We help poor people." In general, Ana wasn't fond of fancy ways of saying things.
"You're stewing," a friendly voice chided.
Ana looked over her shoulder to Christi Cox, her assistant director. "I'm not stewing. I'm mulling."
Which was just a fancy way of saying "stewing." Ana uncrossed her arms to toy with the delicate trio of golden loops that comprised her earrings.
The furnishings of the front room were clean, but strictly utilitarian. Functional worktables supplemented with used chairs and bookshelves she'd picked up on Craigslist. The conference room, offices and kitchen in back were even less chic. She'd sent Omar, Hannah's Hope's third employee, out to the grocery store to buy coffee. But she doubted even the most gourmet of brews would impress Miller.
She'd dressed up the front room as best she could, with some throw pillows, a floor lampto soften the glare of overhead fluorescentsand a bright throw rug, all items she'd had at home. They reflected her eclectic style and added a touch of comfort to the room, but no elegance.
In short, the facilities for Hannah's Hope looked exactly like what they were: fifty percent meeting space, fifty percent classroom, one hundred percent last, best hope for its clientele. Zero percent schmooze room for spoiled celebrities.
She couldn't shake the fear that Miller would walk in here and turn his nose up at all they'd done. But underneath that was a deeper fear. That he'd walk in here, have one conversation with her and realize she was a fraud who lacked the skills to make Hannah's Hope really soar.
If anyone could see through her, it was Miller. He wasn't just a musical god, he was also legendary for his charitable work on behalf of the Cara Miller Foundation, an organization he'd started after the death of his wife. He'd donated and raised countless millions. He sat on the board of more charities than she could count, including the newly formed board of Hannah's Hope.
And the truth was, she'd gotten this job only because Emma also sat on the board. Growing up with Emma was practically her sole qualification for being the director of Hannah's Hope.
The hopes and dreams of the entire town rested on her shoulders. She didn't dare let them down. Not when they needed her so desperately.
Besides, she needed this job. Not just because she'd quit her other one. Not because she'd invested all her savings in a tiny bungalow in one of Vista del Mar's middle-class neighborhoods. But because after four years of draping fabric and making beautiful people look good, she needed to do something important. She needed to make a difference.
If only she had more time to get her feet under her before Miller showed up. It was bad enough that she felt so horribly unprepared for this job, why did she have to deal with him so early in her stint as director? Rafe Cameron, the charity's founder, was an inattentive board member at best. Rafehometown bad boy turned corporate raiderwas focused on taking over Worth Industries, the company that fueled the local economy. Rafe had started Hannah's Hope to create goodwill within the community, but Ana suspected he was motivated more by public relations spin than true benevolence. Emma supported her one hundred percent. But Ward was the wild card. Would he swoop in and perform the kind of miracle he had for the Cara Miller Foundation? Or was he merely Rafe's watchdog, sent here to judge her every misstep?
Besides, he was Ward freakin' Miller. Musical superstar and the most recognizable do-gooder in the country. Oh, yeah. And he was hot.
Any one of those elements would be enough to intimidate a woman of her meager accomplishments. The triple whammy just might induce cardiac arrest.
Maybe she was even hoping he'd turn out to be a jerk. She'd been a fan of his since she hit puberty. Professional distance would be easier to fake if he ended up being just as obnoxious as
oh, say, Ridley Sinclair, the supposedly happily married movie star who'd relentlessly hit on her. Okay, so Ward didn't have to be that bad. All she asked for was just a smidge of artistic temperament to help her establish some boundaries between her fantasies of Ward and the real-life man she was about to face.
Christi came to stand beside Ana. They stood shoulder to shoulder by their office door, trying to imagine the first impression the room would give.
Ana clucked. "It's not fancy enough. It's not elegant enough. We should have met at the Vista Del Mar Beach and Tennis Club like I wanted to."
"His personal assistant said he didn't expect any special treatment," Christi reminded her.
Ana gave a guffaw of disbelief. "I've worked with a lot of famous people. They all expect special treatment."
And she was so not good at pandering to celebrities. Inevitably, she tired of their nonsense and her temper got the better of her. Oh, it's that fiery Latin temper, her friends would tease. Which only made it worse. She hated living down to that stereotype.
"Either they demand a particular kind of water, chilled to a precise temperature," she continued. "Or they want a collection of seventeen different snacks that are all a shade of blue. Or they're on some cleansing diet that requires them to snort free-range kelp up their nose five times a day."
"I think," Christi quipped, "I would have remembered it if his assistant had mentioned free-range kelp snorting."
"What did the assistant mention?" Ana asked, unable to swallow her curiosity any longer. "Never mind. I don't want to know."
She wasn't a groupie scanning the pages of Tiger Beat for the Jonas Brothers' favorite color of M&M. This was professional interest only.
But it irritated her that she asked, because of course she was curious. What hot-blooded American woman between the ages of twenty and eighty-nine wouldn't be? What woman her age hadn't slow danced in some smoky bar to the sonorous rhythm of "Falling Hard"? Or sat in traffic singing along with "Caught You"?
He was her generation's
well, Bono, Paul McCartney and Johnny Cash all rolled into one. A sexy bad boy with a heart of pure platinum and talent for writing songs so good they made your soul ache. He hadn't performed or put out any new albums since his wife, Cara, had died of cancer three years ago. His absence from the public eye only added to his mystique. Die-hard fans still clamored for new songs. She certainly had her share of giddy excitement about meeting him. Maybe more than her share. But she'd worked really hard to bury it under a layer of professionalism. She just hoped she succeeded.
She glanced at her watch again. "And, he's officially late. Very late."
Then a voice came from behind her. "Not too late, I hope."
It was the gravelly voice of a rock star, a voice she'd know anywhere. Hearing it made her stomach drop straight down to her toes.
She turned slowly toward the voice. And there he was. Ward Miller.
He stood just inside the hallway that led to the service entrance. He was taller than she expected, maybe just shy of six feet. He dressed in the ubercasual style of celebrities, with green cargo pants and a simple V-neck white T-shirt that emphasized the breadth of his shoulders. He held mirrored aviator glasses in one hand and had on a Stingrays ball cap. Why did stars always think a simple hat would be enough to fool people? His dark, wavy hair was shorter than when he'd toured regularly, but still long enough to make him look scruffy and a little disreputable. His face was narrow, his lips thin, but neither feature made him look parsimonious, as they might have on another man. Instead, he looked soulful and sensitive. Though not entirely tamed. That edge of wildness surprised her. Magazine photos hadn't captured that.
Perhaps most important, he didn't look offended. Good thing, too. Hardworking do-gooders with liberal arts degrees were a dime a dozen, but mega rock stars willing to lend their name to a charity were so much harder to come by.
Face-to-face with all his star power, she suddenly felt a little light-headed. "Mr. Miller, you've surprised us by sneaking in the service entrance." She hadn't intended to let the note of censure creep into her voice. But maybe that was better than the alternative. She could all too easily imagine herself giggling like a schoolgirl.
"I hope you don't mind. The paparazzi followed us from the airport. I'm sorry I'm late." And then, he winked at her. "I didn't even have time to pick up any free-range kelp."
Ward waited for the enticing brunette to laugh at his teasingafter all, her quip about snorting kelp had nearly had him guffawing. He didn't meet many people willing to laugh at his fame. It was refreshing.
Instead, her posture stiffened making her appear slightly taller than he'd first thought, though she still couldn't have been more than five-six. She blushed, which made her skin glow a gorgeous peach. With her luxurious tumble of dark hair, her wide smile and her high cheekbones, she looked lushly exotic.
However, she was also simmering with anger.
"Sorry I had to sneak in the back," he said, trying again to massage her into a more amiable frame of mind. "We made it all the way to the San Diego airport unnoticed. But Drew Barrymore and that guy from the Apple ads were there, flying off on some vacation. Unfortunately, they made it through security just as we were coming out, so there was already a swarm of photographers there."
He made light of it, but SUVs of camera-toting leeches had followed for nearly thirty miles. His driver had almost lost them in the maze of streets in the business district of Vista del Mar. In fact, his assistant and publicist had stayed in the car when he hopped out, both to speed things up and in hopes that the paparazzi would see the figures still in the back of the car and keep following it.
Since Ana didn't seem amused by his joke, he flashed a smile at her companion. The woman returned his smile faintly. She had that fluttery look fans sometimes got.
He extended his hand. "Hi, I'm Ward Miller."
"Hi," the older blonde woman said in a breathy voice, before clearing her throat. "I'm Christi Cox. I'm the assistant director here at Hannah's Hope." As she slipped her hand in his, she gave a giggly squeak and elbowed Ana in the side. "See, he's not pretentious or preening."
Christi returned his wink with an exaggerated one of her own. Instantly, he liked her. He wasn't going to have any trouble getting along with her. The jury was still out on the prickly other woman.
She stepped forward and extended her own hand along with a tight smile. "I'm Ana Rodriguez. The director of Hannah's Hope."
She shook his hand for only an instant before she pulled it back and tucked it close to her side. Good thing he hadn't been expecting any more warmth in the greeting.
With a frown, she nodded toward the window. "It looks like you didn't do such a good job shaking them after all."
He looked out the front window at the street beyond. A white SUV sat in front of the building, parked at a haphazard angle. A second later, another SUV squealed to a halt beside the first. And then a third.
His cell phone vibrated and then hummed the seven-note bridge in the "Falling Hard" ringtone his aunt bought him for his birthday last year as a joke.
Ana's brows snapped together in a frown at the sound of his phone ringing. Automatically, he glanced down at the caller ID. It was Jess, his assistant. "I better take this. He won't be long."
"Sorry, man," Jess launched into speech without preamble or introduction. "We lost them at the hotel. I told Ryan we should keep driving, but he was eager to check in."
"No worries," Ward said into the phone, keeping his tone casual. Ryan, Ward's publicist, could steamroll the pope. And since he was a believer in the old as-long-as-they-spell-your-name-right axiom, Ryan had probably demanded he and Jess check into the hotel precisely to engineer the press finding Ward. "You guys get settled in there. I'll text you when I want you to send the car back."
He ended the call and slid the phone back in his pocket with a pained smile. "Well, looks like they're here to stay. Shall we go out and answer some questions?" He gave her shoulder a friendly clap. She looked at him with such surprise, he found himself leaving his hand there. "If we throw them a bone, maybe they'll leave us alone."
For a moment, he had the urge to slide his hand to the nape of her neck. Before he could stop himself, he did. With a gentle touch, he steered her toward the door. "Come on, let's get out there."
She skittered away from his touch. "Why should I go?"
"Free press is good press. Might as well make this work for Hannah's Hope."
"I" Then she broke off, seeming to consider his words. "I guess you're right." With a shrug, she approached the door, carefully slanting her shoulders so she slipped through the door.
However, her thick, long hair nearly brushed his chest as she passed. Her hair smelled warm and fragrant. Like cinnamon left in the sun. A breeze drifted in through the open door, mixing her scent with the briny tang of the ocean. It was like eating snickerdoodles at the beach.