“Under the circumstances, I hate to ask, but I have no choice,” he said soberly. “I can’t do anything about this. I can’t unbreak Rachel’s ankle, she can’t possibly hobble around the sand on a Caribbean island, and I can’t leave Erica to cover everything by herself. I’m afraid you have to go. You’ll be leaving tomorrow at noon.”
A deep ache rumbled through her, and for a moment she thought she might throw up. She tried to respond, to absolutely refuse, but her mouth was dry and she was unable to utter a sound. How could she be around Cole Barrington and his awful girlfriend, Jasmine Juniper, and survive? Viewing their beaming faces on the pages of magazines was bad enough, but to be around them on a romantic, private tropical island where she had spent a magical week of blissful nights melting in Cole’s arms would be too much to bear.
“Look, Paige, I know it’s not ideal,” Michael continued, interrupting the salacious memory, “but my hands are tied. Our hands are tied.”
Paige adored her boss. Michael was like a father figure to her. He’d hired her straight out of college several years before and they’d developed a close bond. She almost felt sorry for him as he shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He knew the news was the last thing she wanted to hear.
“No, it’s not ideal,” she managed, “and I know what you’re going to say. It’s been a year and I should be over it by now, and I am,” she lied, “but honestly, the thought of being around him and Jasmine at an event for several days… it’s making me feel sick. It’ll be humiliating.”
“Only if you let it be,” Michael said firmly. “Hold your head up. Act as if nothing happened. You have to accept that he’s been with Jasmine on and off for a long time.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t run into them before now.”
“I’ve studiously avoided situations where I might.”
“This may be a big business, but it’s a small town. Running into them, or even bumping into Cole with one of his other, uh, female friends had to happen sometime. I need you, Paige. You have to suck it up and get through this.”
“Don’t worry, Michael, I won’t let you down, but I have a favor to ask.”
“Whatever you need.”
“I know I’ll have to fly to the island with them, but can I stay behind a day or two and take a commercial flight back?”
“Sure, no problem. Do you have something special in mind?”
“Scuba diving. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find a sunken Spanish galleon. There’s booty all around the islands. Did you know that?”
“Everyone knows that, and I hope you get lucky,” he said warmly. “Yes, of course, take three or even four days if you want, I know how much you love the water, but you have to bring me back a few coins when you find your pot of gold.”
“I’ll scoop up a pocketful for you.”
“I’m glad you’re smiling again. I’ll make sure you get all the files from Rachel, and you can call her at home if you have any questions, but nothing much has changed since you were there last year.”
“Okay, I’ll get right on it, and you’re right. I need to face my demons, and it’s been ages since I spent time with him.”
Spent time with him. What did that even mean? Spent time with him. It sounded so innocuous. She could feel the old anger resurface. How could she not? In addition to the lingering hurt, she still felt like a fool. The idyllic romance had fallen apart when she and Cole had returned. Michael had immediately guessed why she’d been miserable for days. It had been a no-brainer. Cole and his womanizing ways were legendary.
“Try not to worry,” Michael said, hoping to reassure her. “It probably won’t be as bad as you think.”
“I’m sure it won’t be,” she muttered, then rising to her feet she walked swiftly from the room, but as she returned to her office she could feel her teeth clenching.
She couldn’t believe it. She was about to be trapped playing nicey-nice with Cole and Jasmine. How would she get through it?
Cole would be a major personality during the event, but Cole was a major personality, period. He was a producer with his own company based at one of the major studios. His last three films had been box office bonanzas, and while he was famous for being an innovative filmmaker, with his square jaw, coal black hair, and bright blue eyes, not to mention his tall, muscular frame, Cole Barrington could easily be a star in front of the camera.
Closing the door behind her, she moved around her desk and sank into the leather chair. How could this have happened? Couldn’t Rachel have waited until after the event to break her ankle? It was a stupid thought, but she couldn’t help herself, and closing her eyes, recalling the awful moment when she’d learned Cole was nothing but a jerk, felt like days ago, not twelve months.
She’d been at the studio where his offices were located, and had impulsively stopped by with his favorite coffee and a doughnut. His secretary wasn’t at her desk so she had tapped lightly on his door and stepped in. To her complete shock she had found herself staring at Jasmine Juniper. The young, buxom starlet had been unbuttoning her blouse and kicking off her shoes. Heart in her mouth, Paige had backed away, but leaving the door open just a crack she’d peered in to see what would happen next. A moment later she’d heard the sound of the shower in Cole’s private bathroom, then his voice calling for the beautiful blond actress to join him.
“The water’s hot, Jasmine. Whenever you’re ready.”
She’d watched Jasmine pad barefoot across the thick carpet, peeling off her shirt as she did, then disappear through the door that led into Cole’s private suite. The stories Paige had heard about Cole Barrington had raced through her head. He’s a total Casanova. Look but don’t touch, not unless you want your fingers burned. Tears flooding her eyes as her heart broke, she had hurried away to hide in the stairwell.
The week she and Cole had spent together had been nothing short of magical. They’d truly connected, or so she’d thought. Clearly she’d been wrong, very wrong. They’d been home just a couple of days and he was already back in Jasmine’s arms. On their flight home she’d convinced herself that Jasmine—and all the others—would be history. She’d been shocked and hurt and utterly distraught.
A short time after that heartbreaking moment she’d learned Jasmine Juniper had been cast in the starring role in Barrington Productions’ next feature film. That had been the nail in Cole’s coffin. In her coffin. In their coffin. He’d called a couple of times, and she might have called him back had she not seen endless photographs of him with Jasmine at various publicity parties. Paige had forced herself to come to grips with the fact that she’d just been one of the many girls he’d bedded. Nothing special. Just a week of hot sex on a hot island. Nothing more, nothing less.
“Michael’s right,” she mumbled as she stared out of her office window. “It’s a miracle I haven’t run into him before now. I’ll stay cool, collected, and professional, and make sure he doesn’t have the satisfaction of knowing he shredded my heart into a thousand pieces. He’ll never know. Not ever, the bastard!”
A knock on her door announced the arrival of the files from her colleague’s office, and as she began to peruse them she found herself getting annoyed. Rachel’s organizational skills left a lot to be desired, and after an hour or so Paige decided to take the work home. She was out of sorts. She needed to make herself copious cups of tea, scan and upload certain documents, and start packing.
Placing the manila folders back into their carry box, she threw her briefcase in with them, donned her coat, and started down the hallway, but as she approached the reception area she paused; the unmistakable aroma of an expensive European aftershave wafted around her nostrils. It couldn’t be! Cole Barrington never came to them; Michael always visited him at the studio. Maybe it was someone else. She paused. Should she turn around and scurry back, or take a chance and turn the corner?
“Screw it,” she muttered, determined to push past her fears. “If it’s him, fine. I’m not going to let him get to me. I refuse!”
Swallowing hard, then taking a deep breath, she entered the reception room.
Sure enough, there he was, all six feet, two inches of him, with his black hair, blue eyes, and chiseled features. Her heart stopped beating. Completely. He was dressed in tan slacks and a cream shirt, and she found herself thinking if he opened just one more button, the chest hair that she once loved to nuzzle against would be in plain sight.
The phone on the receptionist’s desk rang loudly, and Paige abruptly realized she was staring. She needed to say something, she needed to break the awkward silence, but decided to fight the almost overwhelming need. Why should the onus be on her? Why didn’t he speak first?
“Well, my goodness. Paige! How are you? That looks heavy. Do you need a hand?”
He was walking forward. Her heart had started again, but now it was thumping like mad, and she hated how gorgeous he looked.
“No, I’m fine, thanks,” she said quickly, clutching the box for dear life. “What are you doing here?”
“I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop in and say hello to Michael,” he replied, stopping directly in front of her. “Are you sure you don’t want me to take that?”
“I understand Rachel’s out of action and you’ll be taking her place.”
“Wow, news travels fast,” she managed, despite the fact that the box was beginning to feel ridiculously heavy and a hot flush was moving across her face. “I have to go. I have a ton of stuff to do.”
“I’m sure. I guess I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”
Striding past him to the elevators, she cursed herself. Memories were flooding her brain. The deliciousness of his powerful arms, how he would tilt her head up and drop his lips onto hers, the heavenly way his breath tickled her ear when he’d murmur his decadent fantasies, fantasies she still carried around with her, fantasies no one else had ever spoken of, fantasies she wanted… desperately wanted… ached for… craved… dreamed about.
The ding of the elevator snapped her from the bittersweet thoughts. Fighting the bevy of emotions, she moved through the doors, but when they closed she leaned against the wall and dropped her head. Cole was as enticing as ever, as roguishly masculine as ever, and she still wanted him as much as ever.
“You’re being an idiot,” she angrily muttered. “He was with Jasmine two days after you got back. Two fucking days!”
The old argument leapt to the fore. She’d had no claim on him. There’d been no promises, no speeches of undying love. The short speech hadn’t helped a year before, and it wasn’t helping her now. Just two days after their amazing week together, he’d been able to jump back into Jasmine’s arms. It was something she couldn’t forgive, and worse, it was something she couldn’t forget.
Stepping from the elevator into the underground parking garage, the sound of her heels clicking on the concrete seemed strangely loud as they echoed through the air. At least Jasmine hadn’t been at his side at the reception. That was something for which she was grateful, and unlocking her car she placed the box in the back seat, settled behind the wheel, and took several long few deep breaths.
“This is ridiculous. I will not let him get to me,” she mumbled. “I need to get home, I need cups of tea and toast and honey. I need to work. That’s what I need.”
Placing her key in the ignition, she was just about to start the car when her cell phone rang. Glancing down, she didn’t recognize the number, but assumed it was someone related to the event. The phone calls would be coming in fast and furious as everyone switched gears from working with Rachel to working with her.
“Paige Brooks speaking.”
“Hello, Paige. I’m glad to see you’re answering your phone these days.”
A fresh wave of heat crossed her face and her stomach did a wild flip. Closing her eyes and telling herself to stay calm, she managed to find her voice.
“I thought you were there to see Michael? Has he kept you waiting all this time?”
“He’s on one of his interminable conference calls. I just wanted say how pleased I am you’re going to be on the island. I’m looking forward to working with you again and catching up.”
“Save it. Your charm has lost its gloss.”
She instantly regretted the outburst. Her repressed anger had surged to the surface and the words had left her lips before they could be stopped.
“If we’re going to be working together again, don’t you think it would be best to be civil?”
Paige continued to silently berate herself. She hadn’t meant to lose it, not even a little bit, and now she was deeply embarrassed.
“Paige? Are you there?”
“Yes, sorry, of course. Please accept my apology. I can assure you I will not be rude to you again.”
“If you are,” he said, lowering his voice, “I might just put you over my knee.”
Had he just said that? The butterflies she’d not felt since their last night together suddenly burst to life. Spanking her had been one of his whispered threats, one that had made her toes curl.
“I’m not sure that’s being civil,” she quipped, amazed the retort had miraculously flashed through her head, “and I don’t think Jasmine would appreciate you flirting with an ex, even though we weren’t ever… uh…”
“What makes you think I was flirting,” he asked, interrupting her and saving her from no-man’s-land, “and why do you think Jasmine and I are an item?”
“Everyone knows that!”
“Oh, please, Cole, just stop with the bullshit.”
She’d done it again. She’d lost her cool, but suddenly she didn’t care.
“Michael’s ending his call. I’ll see you on the island, but we will be civil… and Paige… we have to talk.”
“You know, you really should have been an actor.”
“I’ll see you on the island because I have to, but you can’t con me, Cole Barrington. I’m not one of your silly starlets, but don’t worry, I’ll be the modicum of civility.”
Ending the call, she realized she was holding her phone with a white-knuckled grip.
“I hate this,” she groaned. “I hate this so much. What’s wrong with me? Why does he still affect me like this? I have to get myself together. I have to.”
Fastening her seat belt, she was just about to start up her car when her phone rang a second time. Darting her eyes down, she was relieved to see it was Rachel. The distraction was just what she needed.
“Rachel, you just caught me. I’m actually sitting in my car getting ready to leave the office. How are you? I’m so sorry about your accident.”
“Ugh, it’s such a pain, and I mean that literally as well as figuratively. Do you want to call me back after your Bluetooth clicks in?”
“No, I’m perfectly happy to chat now. Grateful in fact.”
After a lengthy conversation, Paige felt much better. Her head was back in business mode, she had her priorities, and from what Rachel had told her things were in good shape. Starting up her car, she began to drive out of the building, but as she glided slowly through the street level of the parking structure she spotted Cole’s midnight blue Porsche.
In twenty-four hours she’d be boarding a flight and spending the next several days around him and his Marilyn Monroe wannabe girlfriend. Jasmine was a blend of blond hair, bouncy boobs, and black stiletto heels, and regardless of her pent-up feelings, Paige knew she had to be professional. Everyone who was anyone would be there, and she would be in the center of the activity. She grimaced. She had to maintain a polished dignity. Engaging Cole in a nasty spat and hanging up on him was not exactly an auspicious way to start off.
Willing herself to be brave, she turned the steering wheel, pulled up next to the sports car, and switched off the engine. She’d wait for him and have a quick, courteous dialogue. She had no choice. Whether she liked it or not, she had to get things back on the right track.