They’d met at the gym. It was such a cliché. And boring. So boring. If there was one thing in her life to which Amanda Anderson could lay claim, it was that she wasn’t boring; at least she didn’t think so. The tapestry of her life was a testament to that very fact, wasn’t it? But while the way they had met might have been boring, he certainly was not.
The he in her life, or rather in her constant thoughts, was absolutely, breathtakingly divine. He was Braxton Carter. He had stunningly glossy sandy brown hair that she was sure no amount of product could produce, and the craziest green eyes she’d ever seen. For months they’d exchanged glances, but she’d told herself the furtive flirtatious looks didn’t mean anything. All the girls at the gym exchanged glances with Braxton Carter. Why wouldn’t they? A surfer’s shoulders, a totally ripped body, and a smile that could only be described as a full-fledged toothpaste commercial. It had to be, of course, because Braxton Carter was an actor.
It was bad enough that they’d met at the gym, but the last thing Amanda wanted in her life was an egotistical, insecure actor—but that was a tall order. She lived in the City of Angels. Everyone was an actor, or a writer, or a something. Everyone was in the business, and if they weren’t, they wanted to be.
Leaning against her sleek, shining black Mercedes, she watched the beautiful people go in and out of the glass and wood building that housed the trendiest gym in the city, Fairweather Fitness. There were three locations: Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Thousand Oaks. Belonging to one meant you belonged to all three, but it wasn’t cheap, so the clientele were either successful, or hoping to befriend those who were. Oftentimes, when she would cast her eyes on the younger women in the workout room, she would wonder about them. They were all pretty, all in great shape, and working themselves to death to stay that way. It seemed frenetic to her. Overkill. And how could they afford the steep monthly dues? Lifting her eyes up to the endless Southern California blue sky, the doubts she’d been having since she’d agreed to have coffee with him began to plague her.
“What am I doing? What the heck is wrong with me?” she muttered, pulling her large black sunglasses over her eyes and dropping her gaze back down, but then she spotted him walking toward her and she knew exactly why. He was the epitome of irresistible.
Braxton walked like a big cat, smooth and graceful, his arms swinging languidly at his sides. His ridiculously white linen shirt showed off his golden tan, and there was something in the way he’d rolled up his sleeves that gave him a look of casual elegance. He had style.
“Some people are just born cool,” a friend had once told her. “Even when they were kids running around the playground, they were cool.”
She couldn’t remember who had said it, but whoever it was had been right. Braxton was cool.
“Been waiting long?” he asked as he approached.
“No,” she said casually, wishing her heart would slow down. Wishing he didn’t make her breath come in short pants. Wishing he didn’t stay in her head after she returned home, and float aimlessly around in her dreams when she slept.
“Are you okay? You look irritated.”
“I don’t know why I’m here. I have things to do. This is ridiculous.”
“Having a cup of coffee with a guy is ridiculous?”
He was tilting his head to the side as he talked, scrutinizing her, or was he? Maybe he was just pissed. Maybe she’d insulted him.
“That depends,” she replied with a dramatic sigh.
“On whether or not it’s a cup of coffee, or something else.”
To her chagrin he broke into a laugh, a laugh that showed his perfect teeth and crushingly cute dimples.
“I’m glad you find me so amusing,” she frowned. “I was right. This was a mistake.”
Turning around, she opened the door of her car and was about to climb in when he stepped forward and grabbed her arm.
“Hey, hold on, I wasn’t laughing at you,” he said quickly.
“I don’t see anyone else here,” she quipped, “and don’t say you were laughing with me, because I wasn’t laughing.”
“You don’t understand,” he said, releasing her and crossing his arms.
She stared back at him, grateful for the protection of her sunglasses. It was the first time he’d ever touched her, and though his hand had been shockingly soft, his grip had been sure and confident. She wished she hadn’t experienced that moment. It was making it difficult to hold on to her desperate need to walk away. Now she knew what it was like to feel his fingers against her skin, and she wanted more, so much more, but it was impossible… wasn’t it?
“May I explain?”
“If you must,” she replied, wishing she had the strength to climb into her car and drive off.
“I was laughing because…” he began, his voice soft and strangely melodic.
“Go on,” she pressed. “You were laughing because…?”
“You were so serious, as if you were about to do something dangerous, not just to have a cup of coffee and a chat.”
“I see. Then you were laughing at me.”
“No, yes, no, I guess I was, but not in a bad way. Jeez, this is tough. You’re tough. Can we start again?”
“I’m amusing, I’m dramatic, and I’m tough,” she quipped. “That’s quite a summary.”
“You need to just chill,” he said, lowering his voice and dropping his chin, his eyes narrowing.
It might have been his tone, or the way he seemed to be looking at her with a scolding glint, or perhaps because he was right—she did need to chill, she needed to chill a whole lot—but whatever it was, in spite of her best efforts to keep her defenses in place, she felt herself melting.
“Would you like to take two cars, or drive with me?” he pressed.
“What makes you think I’ve changed my mind?”
“That’s not the answer to my question,” he replied, moving closer to her.
She could smell the subtle fragrance of his aftershave, or was it cologne?
“L’Occitane, Cade,” she murmured.
“Very good,” he nodded. “Do you make a habit of identifying men’s cologne?”
“It says a lot,” she replied, “and in my business, the more information I have, the better.”
“No doubt, that’s true. I’m sure there are many birds of prey in those high towers at the studio?”
“My office is not in a high tower, and I’m not going to stand here and have a conversation in a parking lot like a high-school cheerleader after football practice,” she frowned.
“High tower, figurative,” he said softly, somehow managing to raise just one eyebrow, “and I’d much prefer to talk over coffee. I did ask, and you did say yes, remember? So…?”
“I’m not laughing, see? Straight face, and it’s just coffee, nothing else.”
“Why? Why would you want to have coffee with me? That gym is full of gorgeous girls.”
He paused, stepped back, and smiled his killer smile.
“Amanda, you were right. This was a mistake. I’m sorry if I offended you,” and turning around, he strode off across the parking lot.
Her heart suddenly leapt into her throat. She wanted to run after him, to tell him she was the one who had made the mistake, that she really, honestly, truly did want to spend time with him at a table in a café, but instead she spun around, slid into her leather seat, gripped her leather steering wheel, and grit her teeth.
“Why did I do that?” she grunted, then taking a deep breath, she pulled off her sunglasses, lowered her visor, and stared at herself in the vanity mirror. “I did it because it was the smart thing to do. Because it’s impossible. Why start something that can never be finished? It doesn’t matter how attracted I am to him—it would never work, and dammit, my question was a fair one. Why me?”
Swallowing back the threat of frustrated tears, she opened her Gucci handbag, pulled out her hairbrush, and ran it through her thick, brown, wavy hair. It was what she did when she was upset, or nervous, or out of sorts. It made her feel better and in control. Amanda always had to be in control. Her life was about control, and being an executive at a major motion picture production company, Seaspray Pictures, control was everything. Control those around you, or they’ll control you—that’s what her mentor had taught her, and it was a lesson she’d learned well. The entertainment business was cutthroat, and she was one of only a few successful women among many manipulative, powerful, clever men.
Pushing the car’s start button, she felt the engine burst to life and let out a long, grateful sigh. She loved her car. She loved its speed, and she considered herself an excellent driver. Backing out of her parking space, she drove out of the parking lot. She knew Braxton drove a BMW 750i, though how he could afford it she didn’t understand. There was quite a bit about Braxton Carter that she didn’t understand, but doing her best to push aside her curiosity, she pondered the evening ahead.
She lived in a beautiful home above the Beverly Hills Hotel, but the thought of heating up leftovers and watching television filled her with dread. There was an intimate Italian restaurant on Beverly Blvd. called Tuscany, where she could sit at the bar and eat. It was a popular haunt so she often ran into friends. It was much more appealing than her empty house, but she needed to pick up her cleaning and make a quick stop at the grocery store for some milk. She had to have steamed milk in her coffee in the morning, and though her housekeeper, Miriam, had promised to pick some up, Amanda wasn’t taking any chances.
There was a line at the cleaners, and a line at the grocery store, and she’d received a return call from a producer she’d been trying to reach all day, so it was almost an hour later by the time she finally pulled up to the valet parking area of the restaurant. She didn’t like valet parking, but it was impossible to find a spot on the busy street, so she reluctantly stepped from her car and took the ticket from the young man who would be driving her $150,000 Mercedes Coupe. It always made her shake her head in wonder that people blithely handed over their expensive automobiles to complete strangers, even if it was to drive just around the block, but that was life in Los Angeles. Walking through the door, she was immediately greeted by the smiling host. His name was Giorgio, and he had an amazing memory for names and dates.
“Miss Anderson, how lovely to see you again,” he beamed. “It’s been, what, let me think, two weeks and three days. Too long.”
“How do you do that, Giorgio? It’s incredible.”
“It is a gift,” he winked. “Why God gave it to me, I don’t know, but maybe one day I will find out. Are you meeting anyone?”
“No, it’s just me.”
“You want the bar?”
Glancing into the dining room, she saw some familiar faces, but no one she knew well enough to wander over and have a chat.
“Yes, the bar.”
“Please, come with me. There’s a spot open at the end. I know you like sitting at the end.”
She did. It gave her an excellent view of the door, and it was away from the lights that shone over the counter.
He led her around the busy bar and handed her the menu she knew by heart, and she settled in and ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio. The crisp white wine would dictate that she’d have seafood, and that’s what she wanted. A light John Dory from New Zealand, or perhaps orange roughy from Australia. Just the thought made her hungry. The waiter placed the bread basket next to her but she waved it away. Control. She had it in spades. Self-control, control over scripts, production costs, schedules, control over every aspect of her life.
Sipping her wine, her mind turned to the rumors she’d heard about Braxton Carter. When the bedroom door closed, he took charge. The crazy thing was, as much as she felt the need to control her world and everything in it, what she’d heard about him she found totally tantalizing; so much so, she’d had him checked out. It was easy for a woman with her influence and power to garner information about people, but what she’d learned had been frustratingly minimal. He had money, but the source of it was a mystery. He was selective about the roles he played, unusual for an unknown actor, but he was represented by one of the better talent agencies in town. She’d viewed some of his work. He was talented, the camera loved him, and while he made more than most struggling actors, it certainly wasn’t enough to pay for a house on Sunset Plaza Drive or the car he drove.
“Would you like to order?”
Glancing at the waiter, she shook her head.
“No, thank you, not yet. Just bring me a green salad with the dressing on the side.”
“Right away, Miss Anderson.”
Taking another sip of her wine, she could feel it begin to take off the edge, and she continued to ponder the dark, tantalizing rumors. Supposedly Braxton Carter played with ropes, shackles, riding crops, floggers, and goodness knows what else. Closing her eyes, she bit her lower lip. She found the thought intoxicating. Could she do it? Her entire life was about control, but taking it, not giving it away.
“I would love to explore it,” she mumbled, “but how can I do that with someone like him? If I do and I love it, then what? No, it’s impossible. I’m not going there.”
It was impossible not because he was an actor and she was a production company executive. Not because she was successful, and his whole income thing was a big question mark. Not even because he was drop-dead gorgeous, and the thought of dating someone drop-dead gorgeous made her feel queasy.
It was impossible because he was younger than her, noticeably younger, and she was sure that at some point a beautiful bouncy young thing with bouncy boobs and bouncy hair would bounce between them and bounce her right out of the picture, breaking her heart in the process.
No. It was impossible.
“It’s a crime that you should be eating alone.”
She’d been so lost in her thoughts she hadn’t noticed Braxton Carter walking through the door, or seen him as he’d approached, or felt his presence when he’d stood behind her.
“Did you follow me?” she frowned, looking over her shoulder at his ridiculously handsome face.
“No, I didn’t follow you, and I hope you have a nice dinner,” he said brusquely, and with a disappointed frown he began to walk away
The word slipped out before she could stop herself, and she immediately blamed the wine. It had lowered her defenses, and she wasn’t sure if she was pleased or not when he paused and stared back at her.
“I, uh, think I owe you an apology,” she mumbled, suddenly deciding she wanted to make peace, then immediately doubting the decision.
“I was rude to you in the parking lot earlier. I’m sorry. It’s just, well, I…”
“Hold that thought,” he said, slipping into the empty bar stool next to her. “That’s better, now I can see you properly. You look very nice, by the way.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“You were about to explain why you were rude.”
“Yes, it’s… hard.”
“Then don’t tell me,” he said casually, and catching the bartender’s attention, he ordered a glass of expensive cognac.
“You don’t want to know?” she asked, feeling slightly bewildered.
“Not if it’s uncomfortable for you,” he replied. “Why would I want to make you uncomfortable?”
His mesmerizing green eyes were holding hers, but gently. There was no threat in his gaze, no demands or judgments.
“Cheers,” he smiled, lifting his glass.
“Yes,” she said, smiling back, lifting hers.
“Are you eating here,” he asked, “or did you just stop in for a drink?”
“Eating,” she answered. “You?”
“The same. I heard about this place from a friend of mine. She said it’s excellent.”
“It is, but it’s a bit pricey.”
“Good food usually is,” he remarked.
She waited for him to suggest a table, and when he didn’t, she hated that she was disappointed. When he placed his order, she did too, then wondered if she should have told the waiter to make sure their checks were separate, but moments later the question became moot. Giorgio strode up to her, his usually happy face contorted with worry and angst.
“Miss Anderson,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “I’m so terribly sorry.”
“What is it, Giorgio? What do you have to be sorry about?”
“I’m afraid, uh, it’s your c-car,” he stammered. “The valet, he, uh, hit a pole. I’m afraid it’s not drivable.”
“What?” she exclaimed, a ripple of shock shuddering through her body.
“Your car,” Giorgio repeated, “the front end. It’s rather bad. I’m so terribly sorry.”
She couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. Stunned, she slipped off her barstool, but she was off balance, and as she took a step toward the frantic host, she stumbled. Braxton’s arm shot out, catching her before she fell, and moving it up and around her shoulders, he held her tightly.
“Don’t worry,” he said firmly. “It’s just a car and I’ll get you home. Do you have your insurance information?”
“Um, yes, yes, I do,” she nodded.
“Call it in immediately so they have it on record. Giorgio, would you please call the police?”
“The police? We need the police?”
“Yes, there needs to be a police report. Miss Anderson wasn’t driving, and it has to be made clear from the outset. Your valet service will be insured, but it must be established whether or not the valet in question was under the influence of anything.”
“Ah, yes, yes, I understand,” the upset host replied. “I’ll call them right now.”
“Here,” Braxton said, picking up Amanda’s wineglass and handing it to her. “Take a drink.”
“I’m fine, really,” she muttered.
“Don’t argue,” he frowned. “Take a drink, then a long deep breath. I’m going to help you, and don’t worry, I have no agenda, clear?”
She stared up at him. He was suddenly different. He was no longer a gorgeous young actor. He was a man, a strong man, and he was stepping in and taking control.
And she loved it.