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Exposing Alix

Inara Scott

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright 2012 by Inara Scott. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact Inara Scott at

Cover design by Su Kopil Ebook ISBN 978-0-615-73416-3

First Edition December 2012

The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarked status and trademark owners of the following marks mentioned in this work of fiction: Los Angeles Airport (LAX), Hummer, Marlboro Man, Hotel Bel-Air, The Oscar Award (Oscar), Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Warner Brothers, Botox, Pilates, Film Quarterly, ChapStick, Nikon, Dr. Phil, Sherlock Holmes,

Mercedes, Citizen Kane.

For all the women who believe in love

Chapter One He heard the creature before he saw ita low, heartfelt growl that promised death or at least a long stay in the hospital if it was not obeyed. Ryker Valentine froze in the act of peering into the window of the tiny clapboard cottage and spun slowly on one handmade Italian loafer, hands spread wide in supplication. Nice doggie? he said hopefully, eyes widening as he took in the sleek muscled form of a Doberman pinscher. The dog responded by lowering its head and growling again, its eyes narrow and pinned on Good Lord, were its eyes pinned on his crotch? Here now, Ryker pleaded, were friends, arent we? Im a nice mannie. A

nice, nice mannie. He wiped a suddenly damp palm against his thigh before digging into his pocket. When his fingers closed around the rigid outline of his cell phone, he sighed with relief. At least hed be able to dial 911 before the dog ripped out his throat. As if understanding Rykers intent, the dog curled back one lip in warning. Cell phone in hand, Ryker stepped closer to the tiny beach house, though the ramshackle structure, with its candy-pink trim and rotting wood porch, provided little cover. This was the perfect end to his day. Hed already been hassled by paparazzi in Malibu, had to wait three hours at the mercy of the crowds at LAX when his

flight was delayed, and then the only rental car left at the tiny Eugene, Oregon airport was a yellow Hummer, which theyd saved especially for him. He winced every time he looked at it. All this for a trip hed been blackmailed into making. Ryker was preparing to push the emergency call button when he saw a pair of jean-clad legs emerge from the other side of the house. A tiny, almost childsized figure wearing dark sunglasses and an enormous white raincoat surveyed the scene and said cheerfully, Guess you picked the wrong house to rob, huh? Then, as if she had no interest in the activities of her flesh-eating monster of a dog, the womanhe was almost certain it was a woman, though the bulky clothes

gave little indication of the shape of the figure beneathturned her attention to a small bed of flowers. With a flip of her parka, she bent over and began to pull weeds. Ryker had to squash a flare of temper at her nonchalant attitude. Of course, in her defense, it must look as though he was trying to break into the house. Still, he had a dogs nose in his crotch. Couldnt she muster a bit of sympathy? He tried to inject an apologetic note into his voice. Excuse me, do you live here? Are you Daisy Zahn? It seemed impossible. Daisy Zahn or Alix Z, as she was known to the film world was famous for making sexy, arthouse movies that pushed the envelope as far as they could while still maintaining

the coveted R rating. Despite their limited releases, theyd ended up being huge moneymakers, perhaps because they were universally acknowledged to be sensual feasts for the eyes. This creature hardly appeared female, let alone capable of stimulating the sexual fantasies of thousands of viewers. No response. A slim backside pointed his direction. A pair of binoculars swung from her neck, and she removed them before continuing her weeding. A small pile of greenery began to form at the side of the bed. Ryker gritted his teeth and tried to smile, reminding himself that many people in the movie business were not what they seemed. Perhaps she was a raging cauldron of sexuality beneath the

plastic sunglasses, bulky coat, and unfashionably short jeans. Can you call off your dog, at least? I swear I have no interest in breaking into your house. Rex, hold. The dog sat back on its haunches but continued to study him with an obvious bloodlust. Im not sure that counts, Ryker said. Look, I dont like strangers and neither does Rex. She threw a bit of crabgrass on the pile and then straightened, wiping her hands on her jeans. This is private property, and youre trespassing. She cocked her head toward the Hummer he had parked in her driveway. However, youre also driving the ugliest vehicle known to man, and if I

let Rex kill you, Ill have to dispose of it myself. So Ill give you five minutes to get itand youthe hell out of here. Ryker took a deep breath and sought patience. He was here to ask this creature, if she was indeed Alix Z, for a favor. Cursing her in four colorful languages probably wouldnt help. If youre Daisy, we have a friend in common. He grimaced at the thought of the high-strung German millionaire whod sent him on this fools errand. Although on second thought, he would probably prefer to think of himself as not having any friends, so I suppose you could say weve got an enemy in common. Gunther Hartcourt suggested I talk to you. Actually, Gunther had threatened to

cut off the funds for his movie unless he convinced the mysterious Alix Z to act as his consultant. Still, it sounded better to call it a request rather than an order. Gunther? She pursed her lips and crossed her arms over her chest. How do you know Gunther? Ryker pasted his best red-carpet smile on his face. Ryker Valentine, maam. At your service. You say that as if it answers my questions. Should I have a clue who Ryker Valentine is? Her tone dripped with contempt. He gritted his teeth and tried to maintain the smile. He wished she would take off her sunglasses so he could get a look at her face. All he could see was a small, wellformed nose that spoke to either good

genes or a talented plastic surgeon, and a pair of full lips. The lips had promise. The jawthrust at a deliberately stubborn angledid not. Does the name Garden of Eden mean anything to you? Garden of Eden was Rykers directorial debut, a gritty mafia story universally acknowledged as the sleeper hit of the year. Gunther Hartcourt had produced it, taking a chance on a young, untested director who cast himself as leading man and had won big. Ryker had been up for Best Director and Best Actor, though hed walked away from Oscar night empty-handed. No. She was lying. She had to be. Everyone in America had seen Garden of

Eden. At least, everyone with taste. Cowboy Justice? Blue Moon? he said helpfully, naming the first two films in which hed starred, which had also been critical and box office hits. She shook her head again. No and no. Gunther had said this might happen, but Ryker had refused to believe him. He pushed a few buttons on his cell and then held it out, grimly aware that the move required putting his flesh within closer reach of the ever-watchful Rexs jaws. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, he had seen the injury a zealous guard dog could inflict. Gunther knew that, because they had talked about having a pit bull on the set of Salvas Revenge and Ryker had flatly refused. Over

the years, he had learned to tolerate certain family dogs but not guard dogs. He hated guard dogs. Okay, was terrified of them, truth be told. Gunther, who liked to imagine himself a practical joker, thought Rykers feelings about dogs were amusing. Talk to Gunther. Hell explain. And when this was all over, Ryker would kill him.

Chapter Two Alix snatched the phone from the mans perfectly tanned fingers, careful not to touch the smooth brown skin or wellmanicured nails. Of course shed seen Garden of Eden. Everyone over the age of seventeen with a pulse had seen it. But that didnt mean she had to give Mr. Fallat-My-Feet-Im-a-Movie-Star Ryker Valentine the time of day. She pushed the call button and waited. The familiar brusque voice answered immediately. Ryker? What are you doing calling me? Youre supposed to be talking to Alix. A-L-I-X. You need her, Ryker, and if you want to make a movie for me, youll get her.

At another time, those words might have inspired a feeling of pride; right now they only sent a flash of fury rippling through her. This is Alix, Gunther, she bit out. Liebling! Satisfaction flooded his voice, with the strong German accent she swore he cultivated to sound intimidating. You didnt recognize him? Or said you didnt, you cheeky thing. I knew it. I absolutely knew it. Whats this all about? Before I answer, please tell me Rex is doing something unspeakable to Mr. Valentine. Unable to entirely suppress a smile, she said, Theyre getting acquainted. She could picture the grin splitting his ruddy cheeks. Lovely, he exhaled.

Ive been waiting weeks for this. Alix paused, waiting for him to explain, but there was silence on the other line. Um, Gunther? she said finally. Did you have something you wanted to tell me? Like, why you sent a swollenheaded movie star to break into my house? She flashed a quick look at Ryker, who was glaring at Rex with a mix of fury and horror. He wore a loose button-down shirt of some fine, silky material that had evidently been rained on and now outlined his absurdly broad shoulders. Raw, potent masculinity oozed from his pores, just like it had on the big screen. Most actors looked smaller in person than they did on film, but not Ryker. He looked even bigger, as if the camera couldnt entirely capture the

enormity of his brooding, physical presence. She forced herself to tear her eyes away. Sorry, darling, Gunther continued. I was just enjoying a visual of the scene. Listen, you know I wouldnt send anyone to you lightly. Rykers got something to ask, and youre going to want to say no. But you have to promise me youll hear him out. The smile dropped from her face. Gunther, does this have anything to do with So suspicious! he chided. Just hear him out and then call me. Resisting the urge to bury the phone deep in the sand, she let out a long exhale. Gunther, you know Im not doing that

anymore. I never said you were. We can argue about it later. Just listen to what he has to say, all right? Ive got to run. Ive got people coming for drinks in an hour to discuss a new script, and the house is a wreck! Abruptly, the phone went dead, and she stared down at the screen with a sense of growing futility. She owed Gunther everything she had, and hed never asked for anything in return. Of course, she had made millions for his production company, but still. If he wanted her to talk to Ryker Valentine, she had no choice but to do it. Sighing, Alix turned her gaze to the painfully beautiful man glaring at her from an admittedly uncomfortable

position, pressed against the front of the house. Rex, ever patient, sat calmly in front of him, tongue lolling to one side. Alix snapped her fingers, and the dog obediently turned and loped to her side, still keeping a watchful eye on the stranger with the thick black hair curling at his temples. Ryker Valentine. Shed seen beautiful men before, many in all their naked glory. It was an occupational hazard of directing movies with love scenes that didnt allow for muchor anyclothing. But Ryker Valentine had something those men did not. He had a presence, a dark humor lighting his eyes and wealth of stories in the deep lines around his mouth. He was Marlboro Man mixed with Latino

sensuality; rock hard muscles and the grace of a cat. The fact that he was somewhat reclusive, living in relative isolation on the coast in Malibu rather than in the flashier, prominent neighborhoods of Bel Air or the Hollywood Hills, only made him more desirable. Of course, Alix didnt have any interest in a man like Ryker. She knew far too much to make such a rookie mistake. Like every other actor, director, and related Hollywood type, he was firmly excluded from consideration for dating or any other romantic endeavor, for that matter. I guess you had better come inside, she said reluctantly. He nodded, and for a moment, the

hostility spread from him in waves. But it was immediately replaced with a bonejarringly sexy smile, his toffee-colored skin so warm and rich she was struck with the sudden desire to taste it. In Garden of Eden, hed been bare-chested for a significant portion of the film, even bareassed for one glorious moment, and she pictured that skin now, exposed in all its rigid, masculine beauty. The light caressed him, rippled across the shadows left by the hard muscles of his chest, the curve of his buttock, the ridge of his thigh Lord, he would look pretty through the lens of her camera. Alix shook her head. She was not going to film him. Just talk to him. What did Gunther have to say? he asked as she smashed the door open with

her shoulder. The warped wood tended to stick on humid days like today, when the wind was unusually still and passing rain showers hung on the horizon like a gray curtain floating in the breeze. Only that Im going to want to say no, but I should hear you out. So Ill hear you out. Gunther can be persuasive. Thats putting it kindly. Can I get you something to drink? Alix carefully laid her binoculars on an end table. The cottage was tiny, a one-bedroom retreat with an open living-dining-kitchen area and a huge stone hearth that provided the only heat on cool nights. The wooden floor creaked under her feet as she walked to the broad soapstone sink and pulled down two chipped mugs. Rex followed

half a pace behind, keeping his body safely between Ryker and his mistress. She swiveled her face toward Ryker. Water? Iced tea? Tea, please. He stood in the doorway, blocking the slanting afternoon light. Alix rested for a moment and pictured him as a photograph, a rough black silhouette framed in a soft yellow glow. She still had on her sunglasses, so the image was washed in gray, giving it a moody, pensive air. Is something wrong? He quirked a black eyebrow. Heat flushed her cheeks, and she spun around, mortified. Nosorry. I was just thinking about, er, something else. His knowing look suggested he could

imagine exactly what that something else might be. Righteous indignation replaced her embarrassment. Where did he get off assuming she was thinking about him? Maybe she was lost in thought worrying about her sick grandmother or her boyfriend! Roughly, she jerked open the refrigerator and pulled out the pitcher of tea. Rex, closely attuned to her feelings, whined softly and thumped his stubby tail against the floor. Lie down, Rex. He gave her a mournful look, then stretched out his body in the middle of the floor between the front door and the kitchen, head neatly cradled in his paws so he could continue to watch diligently for any sign of trouble.

Ryker chuckled, though she noticed he did not reach out a friendly hand toward Rex. Your dog doesnt trust me. Giving Rex a wide berth, he ambled into the living area, where a wicker coffee table held an assortment of photography magazines and a tattered book of Anne Lebowitzs portraits. My dog is a good judge of character. For the first time in years, Alix found herself noticing the worn fabric covering the sofa, and the crocheted blanket over the back suddenly looked tacky rather than homey. She made an effort not to glance at the piles of photographs on the dining table by the sink. The last thing she needed was Mr. Hot Pants looking through the prints shed made of her session last week with

Paulina and Gregory. She spilled tea into a glass, her gaze arrested when he ran his fingers through his thick, blue-black hair. Fascinated by the simple movement, she didnt notice the glass had filled until tea dripped down her hand. She jumped and set down the pitcher, wiping her arm across her body and hoping he didnt notice her clumsiness. He settled onto the sofa, stretching out long legs on the coffee table. Black eyes swept from her weather-beaten running shoes to windblown hair. They say dogs resemble their owners, but Im afraid you dont look a bit like a Doberman. Did you inherit the creature, by any chance? Rescued, she said, handing him the

tea. And what do you mean by that, anyway? How should a Doberman owner look? German, for one. He grinned, exposing bright, Hollywood-perfect teeth. Tall. Blonde. Aggressive. Like Gunther. You strike me as more of the Labrador retriever type. Alix fought the urge to bare her teeth and snarl, just to prove how aggressive she could be. Normally, she didnt mind the fact that men didnt give her a second look. Shed made sure of that, actually. But for some reason, coming from this man, it stung. I see. How flattering. Now, perhaps you could tell me what youre here for? Of course, you had me at Labrador, but why dont we go through the motions anyway.

He threw back his head and laughed. I wasnt trying to insult you. I may not like dogs, but even I can appreciate a Lab. My sister had one, and he was gentle as a kitten, loyal She held up a hand. I know. Gentle, kind, shed like mad, and dont know the meaning of the word guard. I am a woman living alone at the end of a secluded road in a fishing village that has a population of five hundred, on a good day. Im happy with Rex here, thank you very much. He sobered. Of course. You really need an alarm system of some kind. Youre at least half mile from the nearest house. I could barely find the place, and I had detailed directions. Tiny fingers of awareness danced

along her spine at the deep, sensual voice. If anyone resembled a Doberman, this man did. Lean, muscled, ready to attack at a moments notice. Though he now looked entirely at ease, relaxed against her ancient furniture, she couldnt forget the flash of temper shed seen when he handed her the phone. Ryker Valentine did not want to be here, and all his joking couldnt erase the sparks that glittered behind those velvety eyes. I assume you got those directions from Gunther. Can I also assume he told you how much I value my privacy? Ryker held a hand over his heart. He made me swear an oath on my mothers grave not to share the location of this house, or the name of its inhabitant, with anyone I know.

Yes, well, I hope you take that oath seriously. So lets get this over with. Why did Gunther send you, and what do you want? He shifted in his seat and took another sip of tea. The water beaded up on the outside of the glass and ran down his hand. Helpless, Alix watched the liquid trail across his skin. Ryker set down the glass and rubbed his hands together. Right, lets get to it. The humor melted from his dark eyes. Gunthers producing my next film, and theres a bit more romance in this one than the last. Gunther wasnt thrilled with the way a few of the love scenes came out. He suggested I hire a consultant. Ryker spit out the words as if they were distasteful. Alix suppressed a smirk.

So Gunther thought Mr. OscarNominated Director needed help with his love scenes, did he? She had to admit, Garden of Eden had exposed some serious weakness in that area. It included a single sex scene that most critics agreed appeared to have been appended onto the story for the sole purpose of exposing Rykers very attractive behind. Alix tried to look vague. A consultant? What for, exactly? He waved his hands with irritation. Gunther thinks the sex scenes are too cold, not enough emotion. I think hes confusing a movie about real life with some romantic fairy tale, but I suppose some people like fairy tales. At any rate, he says youre the best, and I have to admit, I liked your work. I mean, the

script was less than compelling, and your lighting could use some improvement, but overall Alix lowered herself into an armchair covered with faded yellow-and-blueflowered upholstery. Script? Lighting? she said, steeling herself for what she knew was coming. For some reason she felt compelled to make him say it. What did you see? What am I the best at? The best at sex, he said impatiently. Gunther showed me Candy Fever and Through the Window. Of course, Id heard of them but never got around to seeing them before. Not really my thing, you know. Of course not, she mocked. How could it be? I didnt mean any offense.

Alix narrowed her eyes. She couldnt tell whether the sincerity in his voice was real. That was an occupational hazard of dealing with actorsyou couldnt trust a word they said. Look, Im not sure what Gunther told you, but that was a long time ago. I dont make movies anymore. He waved as if he expected her to protest. Through the Window was released two years ago. Thats hardly a long time. Its a long time to me. She avoided his gaze, staring out the window to the tall grasses waving on the dunes that flanked her house. The sky had filled with clouds and the light inside wasnt the best, but Alix refused to remove her sunglasses. To be honest, I only made those movies for the money. Its not something I ever intended to make into a

career. He looked around the house and raised a curious eyebrow. Really? And you stopped making them because you dont need the money anymore? She bristled. I had loans. Debts I needed to repay. Ive got other priorities now. She glanced away, unable to keep from looking toward the table. Ryker picked up on the movement of her head immediately. Priority one? he asked. Without a glance in her direction, he jumped up and prowled to the table, his body moving like a cat on the hunt. Damn it, why did he have to be so observant? She hurried to follow. This is private, Mr. Valentine. He fingered a black-and-white picture of a naked woman mounting an equally

naked man. The woman had long hair that draped over her breasts. Her partner looked up at her with a mixture of intense lust and complete adoration. Alix snatched the picture from Rykers hand. Im working on a collection of photos, but theyre not ready for viewing just yet. He leaned back, a smirk crossing his lips. Youve progressed since your movies. Was the R rating too confining? Is that why you quit? She straightened her back. I always preferred photography, Mr. Valentine. Unfortunately, there isnt a lot of money to be made in photography. But dont get me wrong, Im proud of my movies. I made movies about women and men who loved each other. Having sex was an

expression of that love. Thats why women enjoyed my moviesbecause they celebrated something beautiful, sensual, and real. Right, he said, yawning, real love. Thats what they all say. Tell me, Miss Zahn, if youre not ashamed of it, why does everyone in this town think your name is Daisy? Which, by the way, is a stroke of genius. He gave a short, mirthless laugh. No one would ever connect a director of sex movies with the name Daisy. They werent sex movies. They were love stories. And my first name is Daisy. She gritted her teeth. Alexandra is my middle name. Someone actually named you Daisy? he said incredulously.

My mother had an unfortunate obsession with the floweryet another reason why fifteen-year-olds shouldnt have children. You think I would make that up? I suppose not. It doesnt matter. As you just demonstrated, people make assumptions about my films, Mr. Valentine. I prefer not to have those assumptions applied to me in person. He leaned forward, close enough that she could feel the warmth of his breath. Thats too bad. Frankly, I would have been more impressed if you could have just owned up to the whole thing. Alix closed her eyes and counted to ten. Im not hiding anything, she said, keeping a careful hold on her temper.

Im a private person. Whatever. He waved his hand negligently. Ill give you one hundred grand, and Ill double that if we win the Oscar for Best Picture. Sound reasonable? Her mouth fell open. One hundred grand? As in, one hundred thousand dollars? Hurriedly, she worked to regain her composure. How much? One hundred thousand dollars. She took a breath. How long do you expect it to take? I have a book Im working on, and I need to get back to it. He eyed her shrewdly. I need at least a month. We could be finished by the end of June, if you can start right away. One hundred thousand dollars for a months work? Alix ignored the bit about

the Oscar as she feverishly struggled to do the math. She could pay her taxes and renew the lease on her tiny darkroom. She could live on the rest for at least a year, assuming she sold a few pictures here and there in local galleries. A full year to work on nothing but her photographs. She could finally finish her book. It was a dream come true. Tell me again what you want me to do? she asked. Were almost done filming Salvas Revenge. We did the location work first and are finishing at the Bolvana studio in LA. You work with me on the sex scenes. Give me some advice to spice them up or make them romantic or whatever it is you do that Gunther likes. His jaw tightened, and Alix decided Gunther was a very

brave man to piss off Ryker Valentine. We would shoot together and then look at the dailies and talk about the editing. But make no mistakeIm the director. You would just be making suggestions. And the film? she asked cautiously. Salvas Revenge is about a woman who believes her brother has been involved in an international money-laundering ring. Shes got to unravel the clues to find out whats really going on and at the same time throw a bulldog detective off the trail. She starts out using her body to distract him, but along the way, she falls in love. Alix nodded, trying to remain calm for the sake of the hundred thousand dollars that now dangled over Rykers head. So its a love story?

He grimaced. Its an action movie. Theres a romantic aspect, but its secondary. The real conflict is between Salva and her brother, and later, between the brother and the cop. You dont like love stories, I gather? Love is one of the most basic elements of storytelling. I couldnt make movies if I didnt appreciate that. But all this nonsense about romance and true love? Stories that are nothing more than fairy tales, masquerading as real life? No, I dont have much patience for that sort of thing. Alix cocked her head and then looked away. His disgust was palpable. She studied the picture in her hands, knowing he probably thought it was pornography.

He wouldnt understand what she was really trying to capture. What was expressed in the eyes of the people making love. So what youre saying is that youre making a movie thats a love story, but you dont believe in love? He grinned, the quick smile transforming his face. I dont believe in aliens either, but that doesnt mean I cant make a movie about them.

Chapter Three Ryker stared into Alixs sunglasses, wishing he could see her eyes, get some hint as to the direction of her thoughts. She frowned, turning away from his gaze to the picture she still held in her hands. He glanced back at the photograph, which she immediately tipped protectively toward her body. Her fingers were fineboned and slender, her wrists narrow. Had he called her a Labrador? He studied her body, remembering the slim backside pointed his direction outside the house. Perhaps he had underestimated what lay beneath the surface of Alix Z. She threw the picture down on the table. Ryker resisted the urge to grab it from the haphazard pile in which it had

landed. Something about the black-andwhite image had been burned into his retina. The scene was captivating, the movement and emotion leaping off the paper. In the moment he had held the photo, he felt the pleasure of the scene, knew those people were as comfortable with each others bodies as they were with their own. The womans eyes were heavylidded, her lip caught ever so slightly between her teeth. The mans hands rested at her hips, fingers splayed across her flesh. Who was Alix Z that she could take something most people couldnt talk about, much less watch, and make it so unforgettable? Neither of the people in the photograph were exceptionally attractive, but their imperfections only

enhanced the scene. They were as far from Hollywood as he could imagine, and yet the image was a hundred times more sensual than anything hed seen in LA. Even if he didnt believe in the emotion, he couldnt argue with the visceral impact of her work. Or the fact that his groin tightened just from looking at it. So, do we have a deal? She did not meet his eye, straightening a pile of pictures into a neat stack. He looked back at the tables surface and realized there were hundreds, literally hundreds of pictures like the one he had picked up. They were all of the same couple, making love in a number of different positions. And they all radiated lust, heat, and a palpable sense of

pleasure. He leaned over, unable to stop himself from taking a closer look. Alix threw out an arm, brushing him across the chest. I think its time for you to leave. He straightened, surprised at the sudden lurch of desire that the brief moment of contact had elicited. What was wrong with him? He shook his head, suddenly unable to tear his gaze from the woman standing only a foot away. Ryker? He swallowed, paralyzed. At that moment, Alixs hair caught a hint of sunlight, and something brown and simple transformed into a sparkling display of red and gold. She had the most extraordinary scent, he realized, earthy and spicy, like

sandalwood and salt water. It made him want to lick her neck. Taste the lightly tanned flesh almost entirely hidden by her bulky clothes. Unbidden, his hand came out and gently removed the glasses from her face. Its hard to talk to someone when you cant see their eyes, he said. She froze. He felt her jaw tremble as he touched her cheek. Then the glasses came off, and he caught his breath. She was extraordinary. Round green eyes and dark lashes, winged eyebrows that reflected the stubborn determination hed seen in her earlier. Her face was a classic oval, the full lips hed been watching in perfect proportion to her high cheekbones and smooth forehead. He needed to kiss her. It was absurd,

likely the combination of a long day, a lot of frustration, and the undeniably exciting pile of pictures on the table beside her. Whatever the reason, the urge was overwhelming. And Ryker had never been the sort to deny his urges. # As the Adonis in her living room leaned forward, giving every indication of intending to plant his movie-star lips on hers, Alix shook herself from her reverie and took a quick step back. She didnt care how beautiful he was, how warm and inviting his skin, how sensual the scent of him. Right now, he was just another hotto-trot guy who had gotten turned on by her pictures. In a flash, Rex had jumped to his feet and inserted himself between

them. Gently, he bumped his nose against Rykers knee. The famous black eyes shuttered, and Ryker took a quick step back. His hands came up as he shook his head and chuckled, though the sound was a little forced. Easy, Rex. No need to raise the alarm. Im not going to touch her. Alix spun around, needing a moment without his image dominating her gaze. She focused on the rag rug by the front door, and the weathered wooden bench that held her collection of newspapers and bottles waiting to be recycled on her next trip to Florence. She took a breath. She could handle Ryker Valentine. Shed known plenty of men like him. He thought, because of her movies, that shed be an easy lay. He wasnt interested in the

real Alix, and she wasnt interested in the real Ryker. If there was a real Ryker. Rex doesnt like it when people come too close, Alix said, trying to sound casual. Flippant. She picked up her iced tea from the coffee table and took a sip, glaring at her hand until it stopped shaking. He was going to think she was one of his sex-starved groupies. She turned back to face him. Does Rexs mistress feel the same? he asked. Thats a bit personal, dont you think? His eyes mocked her, seemingly unconcerned that hed just tried to kiss her and shed refused. You know how tight things get on a movie set. If were

going to work together, we might as well start getting to know each other now, while we arent surrounded by fifty other people having simultaneous crises of epic proportions. He walked over to the thick oak mantel that surrounded the hearth and picked up a five-by-seven print in a pewter frame. As he studied the picture Alix graduating with her MFA, flanked on either side by Gunther and Elias Laboznikov, her thesis advisorRykers gaze flicked back and forth between her and the photo. Alix wanted to cross her arms over her chest to protect it from his prying eyes. Even with her bulky clothes, she felt exposed, somehow vulnerable. Could he tell she wasnt wearing a bra?

Graduation? You and Gunther must be pretty close, then. Ive known him for some time, she said tightly. He waited for a moment, as if expecting her to say something more. When she did not, he continued, And the other manLaboznikov, right? Ive heard he can be a real prick. The last was said almost admiringly. Hes tough, she admitted. But an incredible teacher. I learned a lot from him. Now I dont mean to be rude, but all this getting to know you seems a bit premature. I havent decided yet if Ill help you. Oh, you will, he said, still looking at the picture. Remember? I had you at Labrador.

An unwilling smile teased the edges of her mouth. I told Gunther I wouldnt give you an answer until Id called him. Ill let you make that call, then. He looked around. You do have a phone, dont you? Alix grabbed a pad and a pencil from a drawer in the kitchen and handed it to him, careful to ensure that their hands did not meet. Why dont you write down your number for me. Ill let you know when Ive made a decision. # Ryker Valentine left as unexpectedly as he had arrived, without protest or further conversation. As soon as his car if it could be called thatdisappeared from sight, Alix collapsed into her favorite armchair and cradled Rexs head

between her palms. She smoothed the soft skin between his eyes. I dont have much choice, do I? He whined and leaned his ninetypound frame against her. Golden eyes looked up adoringly. Youre a really good faker, you know that? You looked downright fierce. Shed adopted Rex while filming her last movie. Shed been living alone in a small one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica. It was far enough from the studio that she was able to get some mental distance from the work she was doing, but the long commute led to a lot of late nights, when she felt nervous coming home alone, not knowing what waited inside. Her movies had attracted considerable attention, and though shed

managed to avoid most of it, it only took one nut job to change a persons life forever. Besides that, on the rare occasion that she had tried to date anyone, Rex had given her comfort that things would never go further than she wanted. Rex had been abandoned and looked fierce enough to deter most families from considering himcertainly anyone with small children. But the SPCA volunteers had assured her that he was not nearly as aggressive as he appeared. They speculated that Rex had been abandoned because he was too nice. You could have bitten Ryker, she said. That would have been fine with me. She was the one who deserved the bite. For a second, she had actually

contemplated letting him kiss her. Groaning, she stood and extracted her cell from the pocket of her raincoat before pulling it off. She punched a familiar number into the phone and waited. Alix? Gunther, you bastard, what were you thinking? He laughed. I was thinking that I want the Oscar this time. Ryker needs a little help, and I cant think of anyone better for the job. I hate LA. I told you I never wanted to live there again, she said flatly. I know you say you dont like LA, but be serious. Everyone likes LA. Its simply absurd to pretend otherwise. Gunther Hartcourt had come to

America when he was in his forties, a restless millionaire who owned three newspapers, a fashion magazine, and a designer clothing line. He also dabbled in hundreds of other small, artistic ventures, including funding a number of art galleries. He lived in New York for several years, working in theater and photography, but at the same time, he became fascinated by Hollywood and its unique mix of art, money, and politics. His uncanny sense of style, not to mention a driving ambition to bring the stories he loved to life, led him to try his hand at producing, which he found to be a perfect match for his ability to adapt his personality to his audience. Directors found him charismatic and determined. Studio executives called him shrewd and

calculating. Agents and actors found him charming to a fault. To Alix, he was simply the closest thing to a father shed ever known. And I dont want to make more movies. She put her hand over her eyes. Lame. She already sounded lame, and theyd just begun to fight. Yes, yes, I know, he said. Youve been telling me that for years. Its a terrible waste of an extraordinary talent, but Ive accepted theres nothing I can do about it. But that doesnt mean you cant work on a little movie, does it? Alix heaved herself off the couch and walked to the kitchen table, where she began absently flipping through the closest stack of pictures. I need to finish my book, Gunther. I need time,

uninterrupted time to pull everything together. Im close now. Really close. Maybe just one or two more couples and Im there. I cant go running off right when Im so close to the end. His voice was patient, long-suffering. Alix, lets have a little reality check, all right? Youve been working on that book for three years. Youve got thousands of photographs and have done sessions with at least twenty couples. Youve been telling me that you need one more session for almost a year now. Alix set down the pictures and closed her eyes as she dragged the elastic from her hair. She tried not to focus directly on his words as she shook her head and redid her loose ponytail. But this time its true.

Youre on the verge of bankruptcy. You cant keep taking pictures and spending money on a darkroom without bringing anything in. Youve said you wont accept a gift from me, let alone another loan. So this isnt rocket science. Take the job, liebling. You need the money, and you need to get out of that house. Her heart sank. Is this a pity job, Gunther? If it is, Im not interested. He sighed. Unfortunately, no. I like Ryker a lot. Hes a good man, and over the past couple of years, hes become a friend as well. But when it comes to women, hes a cold bastard. You saw Garden of Eden, didnt you? Tell the truth now; I wont let it go to his head. Of course I did, she snapped.

And? He looked like he was having sex with a stranger. Exactly my point. He thinks love is a fantasy someone dreamed up to sell greeting cards. Hes a damn fine director, and most of the film is beautifully shot, but the love sceneswell, theyre terrible. None of the emotion I want to see is there. You, on the other hand, make sex look like a ballet. Women wept when they saw Through the Window. I want them to feel that way about Salvas Revenge. I want the members of the Academy to feel that way. I want my Oscar. Ive never consulted on a movie before. I wouldnt know what to do. Its simple. Youll give him your opinion, and hell take it because hell

realize youre right. Hes a smart man, and he wants that Oscar almost as much as I do. You may be hopeless with men, but youve never been a wallflower when it comes to your movies. Im not hopeless with men, she muttered. I just dont like dating them. Some people might argue that dating is an essential prerequisite to a relationship. Some might argue that men in LA dont do relationships, so whats the point of dating? You havent lived in LA for three years, he reminded her. And you moved from LA to a god-forsaken town with exactly two eligible bachelors, both of whom you have soundly rejected. Some might argue

He told me it would only take a month, she interrupted, to stem the fruitless argument. I dont want to be gone longer than a month. Fine, set whatever limits you want. But come to LA. Bring your puppy with you if you must, but get out of that house. Even if you didnt need the money, Alix, Id tell you to come. It isnt healthy for you to lock yourself away from people. I know you like to think youre a tortured artist who needs her privacy, but darling, you need to get out. I do get out, she protested. I came to visit you at Christmas. Yes, and that was six months ago. You never stopped working the whole time you were here, and you only had dinner with me twice. And one of those

times was Christmas Eve. The conversation was becoming too familiar to continue. Gunther, I appreciate your concern, but Im fine. Lets just drop it, okay? Ill go to LA and help your little movie star, but then Im coming straight home. Im finishing the book this year. Its going to happen. And then what? Whats going to happen when you finish it? The question sent a zing right to the pit of her stomach. Okay, I guess its time to go now, Alix said cheerily. Ill give Ryker a call and let him know Im coming. There was a brief pause. Alix, the book isnt going to change anything. You know that, dont you? Great, so Ill talk to you later. Good-

bye! Alix ended the call and stared at the screen. Sometimes, she hated the book. When shed started it, she and Gunther had both loved the idea: Alix would use her photographs to show how love transformed the act of sex. Gunther thought it would appeal to a broad audience. They could simultaneously attract women, who were looking for love, and men, who were looking for sex. But he thought the project should take only a few months. He thought Alix could interview a few couples, write some cheesy narrative to run under the pictures, and send it to press. He never really understood what she was trying to do. The book was about real love, not

infatuation or attraction. When she was making films, Alix had worked with fantastic actors, people who were professional and, in most cases, genuinely liked each other. They brought emotion and realism to her scenes that was beautiful to watch. But she didnt want to make stories about fake love. She wanted the real thing. That was why she was making the book. The couples shed photographed truly loved each other, and they radiated that feeling throughout their lovemaking. At orgasm, they released themselves in a moment of complete vulnerability. It was beautiful and sensual, and Alix had captured it, over and over. It was real. It was proof. The book was almost finished, and when it was,

shed know she had finally done something worthwhile. The only problem was, something was missing. Shed taken hundreds of pictures, but she wasnt finished. She just didnt know why. Alix picked up Rykers half-empty cup of iced tea and swirled the amber liquid. What would have happened if shed let him kiss her? She stamped to the kitchen and dumped the tea into the sink. That was a stupid question. He probably hadnt even tried to kiss her. Shed probably just imagined the whole thing. And even if he had tried, it was because he thought she was some kind of sex freak because she took pictures of naked men and women. What a joke. She pulled open the refrigerator and

stared at the empty shelves. It had been a week since shed been to the grocery store, and she was pining for fresh vegetables and fruit, but she simply didnt have the money. Not if she was going to make the next payment on the darkroom and buy more film and developing solution and paper All right, fine, she said, snapping her fingers at Rex. Ill go to LA. Ill make the movie and earn my easy money. But then Im on the next plane back to Oregon. And after that? She swallowed hard and tried to ignore the chill that settled over her shoulders. Wellafter that, I finish the book. No matter what.

Chapter Four Ryker dropped the paper bag that held his dinner on the coffee table in front of the large, flat-paneled screen that dominated his home office. He slid a DVD labeled Candy Fever into a player and pressed a few buttons on the wall console dotted with blinking green and red lights. Then he sank down into a dark leather couch, remote control in hand. As the DVD loaded, he poked halfheartedly at a large salad. Realizing he was far more interested in a beer than a pile of greens, he withdrew a bottle from a small fridge beside the wall and took a healthy drink. It had been another lousy day on the set. He wasnt getting anywhere with his actors. If anything,

things were getting worse, and he was barely able to contain his frustration. It didnt help that he couldnt stop thinking about Alix Z. Part of him was still furious that Gunther had demanded her presence on the set. But another part of him couldnt help but wonder what if anythingshe might be able to offer to the film that seemed to be spiraling into chaos. Truth be told, he also couldnt stop wondering about the woman herself. Ever since hed left Oregon, he kept picturing that moment in her house when the light touched her hair and hed felt compelled to kiss her. After spending most of his adult life surrounded by gorgeous women, hed thought himself immune to such impulses. His reaction to her was so

unexpected he had taken to examining it as he might an unfamiliar bit of dialog or confusing section of a script. He considered his motivation, the underlying conflict, and that action he was trying to play. Yet after a full week of examination, he still couldnt quite pin down the precise reason for the attraction. She was beautifulor at least her face wasbut that couldnt be it. Hed seen too many other beautiful women to attribute his interest solely to looks. She was refreshingly uninterested in him. That certainly had something to do with it. It had been a long time since hed had any sort of challenge when it came to a woman, and hed enjoyed her absolute refusal to show him even a bit of deference. Yet that alone didnt seem

sufficient. The best excuse he could find was that she was a puzzle. Not many women made their way into directing, and fewer still achieved the level of success Alix Z reached with just a few films. Of course, they werent just any films. They were sexy films. Films that took age-old stories and imbued them with a living, breathing sensuality. Films that hed been watching and rewatching all week. Films that had been made by a woman who lived in total seclusion and managed to hide her beauty behind a pair of big glasses and dreadful clothes. Who was Alix Z? Sexless recluse or sensual Hollywood powerhouse? He flipped through a number of scenes in the idle DVD, stopping at one

that looked interesting. A woman began to crawl on hands and knees toward a man who lay, outstretched, on a silky red comforter. A lazy smile played around the corners of his mouth, but there was nothing lazy about the way he looked at her, passion oozing from him in visible waves. The camera caught the golden skin of her back and the curve of her naked bottom, lingered on the mans face and torso, and then flashed to soft white cloths holding his arms to the posts of a four-poster bed. Every shot was perfectly cropped to expose just the right amount of skin to tantalize the viewer but not attract the attention of the rating censor. Is this my punishment? the man on the screen murmured. The woman laughed. This is only the

beginning. The plot of Candy Fever, Alix Zs first film, was simple. The heroine of the film made expensive chocolates, truffles, and other sugary confections. Her treats were imbued with a sensual magic that could renew old flames or start a new love. Yet she herself lived alone, unable to find a man who could contain her sexual appetites and still satisfy her need for love. She was eventually won over by a quiet neighbor who lived a double life nerdy software engineer by day and sexual dynamo by night. It was a trite story, full of clichs, yet there was a powerful, heady sensuality about it, along with a blatant romanticism that pulled in thousands of viewers. The veneer of art-house chic was thin

clearly, it was a fairy tale from beginning to endbut it was a fairy tale with lots of sex. Beautiful sex. Sex shot with a creativity and imagination hed never seen before. Mmmmm. The man closed his eyes as the woman trailed one hand along his inner thigh. She crawled farther between his legs and then dropped her head in a motion obscured by her long, dark hair. The man on the screen groaned. Rykers fingers tightened around his beer. Do you like that, darling? The man nodded, his response garbled. He pulled against the cloths that bound him, but only in a halfhearted way. Ryker hit Fast Forward. Hed watched this movie once already this

week, and the scene he wanted was near the end, where the hero and heroine finally declared their love. When the DVD landed on the same woman and man on a beach, the man removing her bikini top while she reclined on a white blanket, he stopped and hit Play. The soundtrack played something low and jazzy while the camera moved to her face, her eyes drawing closed as pleasure creased her mouth. The woman tangled her fingers in his hair, moaning softly. Ryker searched her expression for a hint of what Gunther thought he needed to add to Salvas Revenge. Yes, she looked aroused, but that wasnt hard to duplicate. Gunther couldnt say he didnt have that. But more than aroused, she lookedhe studied her face more closely, trying to

determine the exact nature of the emotion he saw thereshe looked ecstatic. But to his eyes, it was like watching a cartoon with human actors. It was overdone. Trite. What he was trying to dokeep the emotion real, even in the midst of sex was far more difficult. He thought about the critics who had complained that the sex scene in Garden of Eden came across as cold and unfeeling, just because he refused to capitulate to the Hollywood version of romance. Was that really what had kept him from winning the Oscar? If he could give them what Alix Z delivered, would he finally make it to the top? Youre so beautiful, the man on the screen said, lowering his head to the womans naked breast. The camera caught

his fingers tightening, then relaxing, and then followed as they trailed down a curved waist and across a smooth, flat navel. Ryker took a long draught of his beer, feeling a tightening in his groin as he watched the screen. An image of the woman who made the film flashed across his mind, with her full lips and guarded green eyes. He wondered idly whether she entertained partners with the same abandon as the woman on the TV. Hard to believe, given what hed seen, but perhaps that was why he couldnt stop thinking about her. It was the contradiction she seemed to embody. Let me love you, darling. Ive been waiting so long. The camera cut from the mans face,

focused and intent, to the womans, her mouth a perfect O of surprise and pleasure. Is it true, then? Do you love me? she asked softly. Ryker sighed. He simply didnt understand why people had to take a perfectly good sex scene and muck it up with a lot of fake I love yous, and soulful looks. Yet this was precisely what Gunther wanted him to dowhat he insisted was necessary to get into the hearts of his audience. Let me show you how much, the man said, bending over her soft flesh. An image struck him then, a pair of full lips bending over him, licking and sucking, while green eyes watched from above. He pictured the photograph hed seen in Alixs hand and wondered how

many couples had she watched. Hed never considered himself a voyeur, but imagining her watching them created a hum of sexual tension that had accompanied him for days now, every time he pictured her, long hair catching fire in the sunlight, her lips pursed. Watching. Waiting. Perhaps pleasuring herself while she watched, her long, slender fingers tangling in her own dark curls. Ryker shifted in his seat, flicking off the movie as his pants began to grow uncomfortably tight. He couldnt be truly attracted to her. That would be downright odd. Ryker Valentine didnt have fantasies about awkward, reclusive filmmakers who wore their jeans too

short and their glasses too big. He was frustrated and tired, turned on by a skillful director who evidently knew a thing or two about arousing her audience. He ran his fingers through his hair and laughed ruefully. Maybe Gunther was right. Maybe he could learn something from Alix Z. He turned back to the dog-eared script he carried everywhere he went and focused on it while he wolfed down part of his salad. Lately it seemed that Salvas Revenge was destined for disaster. Just last week hed realized that some of the film they shot on location had been overexposed. All of the actors faces looked pale and lifeless, and hed have to rework the scene so they could do it again on a sound stage. That would take at least

another day or two and who knew how many thousands of additional dollars. He scowled at the script. He had a lot of work in front of him, and since hed told the actors they had a six a.m. call, he had to finish it tonight. The ringing of the phone startled him out of his reverie. The caller ID showed it was his sister, Maria. Shouldnt you be studying? he said in greeting. Maria was in a nursing program and complained at every opportunity about how difficult her classes were. Not anymore. I decided to quit. Ryker sighed, setting down the script. No you didnt. You decided to quit last week. And the week before that. You cant decide it again.

This time I mean it. He heard the sound of a child crying in the background. Whats going on? Is Fifi sick? Though at twenty Maria seemed little more than a child herself, she had a oneyear-old daughter to juggle along with nursing school. The father had disappeared at the first word that there would be a baby. Fiercely independent, Maria was raising Felicity on her own. No. Shes just grumpy. Doesnt want to go to sleep. I dont know if shes teething or what, but Ive been trying to study for the past hour, and I cant get anything done because she keeps waking up. The wobble in her voice told him she was close to tears. You arent going to

quit, he said gently. Youve put in too much time and effort to let it all slip away. Youre just tired and frustrated. Tell you what, Ill come by and distract Fifi while you study. Just find me a beer, will you? Youre busy. I cant let you come all this way just because of me. He let the smile show in his voice. Maria, if you hadnt wanted me to come over, you wouldnt have called. I suppose youre right. She sniffed. But I feel terrible about it. Dont. He cradled the phone on his shoulder as he picked up a jacket and walked over to the front door. I was done for the night anyway.

Chapter Five Alix Z? Are you Alix Z? The crowds of travelers in the busy Los Angeles airport streaming around her, Alix closed her eyes and briefly entertained the fantasy of saying no. As her plane had descended through the thick layer of yellowish-brown smog that covered the city, memories of her days making movies for Gunther came spilling back, leaving Alix with a familiar mix of longing and distaste. Even when shed been living and working here, shed never felt quite at home. The urge to run back to Oregon and Rex was overwhelming. But then she remembered that she didnt have enough money in her checking account to pay the change fee on

her ticket. Leaving LA was not an option. She steeled her shoulders and pasted an artificial smile on her face for the eager young man who had greeted her. Yes. Mr. Valentine sent me to pick you up. Im Nick Peters. I hope you dont mind me saying that Im a big fan of your movies. He extended his hand, and Alix shook it with a resigned sigh. Nick Peters was tall, lean, and broadshouldered, with frayed blue jeans riding low around his hips. A mop of curly hair covered his forehead, expertly cut to ensure it did not obscure his crystal blue eyes or square jaw. Alix studied him clinically, seeing in that perfect physique and artful appearance a mirror of a thousand other young men shed met over the years. When she first moved to

LA, shed been flattered by the attention of boys like Nick. But after a few painful encounters, shed learned not to trust their gleaming white smiles. They spent time with her because they thought she could give them something: a part, some money, connections. They had no interest in her. As they left LAX, Alix eyed the familiar mix of palm trees, artificially green shrubs, and dead grass with a sigh. Nothing in LA seemed real, not even the plants. Nick pulled onto the freeway, chattering at high speed about Salvas Revenge, the latest Hollywood gossip, and his recommendations for the newest restaurants at which Alix simply had to be seen. The Bolvana studio was in

Burbank, which could have made for an endless trip across the Valley, but luckily the freeways were all moving, and Nick seemed determined to get them there in record time. He ducked across lanes on the bumpy concrete road, alternatively moving at a slow crawl when traffic tightened and then accelerating to ninety when the traffic broke. By the time they arrived, Alix was exhausted. Six months since her last visit and shed forgotten how much energy it took just to exist here, with the constant barrage of stimulation from the radio, the billboards, and the honking horns. She found herself longing for the silence of her beach retreat, even as her nervousness over what she was supposed to do grew. Her role on the film was clear, she

reminded herself. She would stay for one month. She would provide her opinion and nothing more. She would ignore her silly, physical response to Ryker and focus on her work. And when her month was over, she would be back on a plane, one hundred thousand dollars richer. Bolvana Studio was small in comparison with its neighbor, Warner Brothers, but still expansive, with eighteen sound stages on over seventy acres. Gunther had been working with Bolvana for years and had a comfortable bungalow on the lot with offices for his production company, which Alix had visited at Christmas. As they pulled to a stop outside the main gate, Nick held up a security tag for a guard who stood in a small white building at the edge of the

enormous compound. With an impassive nod, the guard turned away, and a redand-white arm rose to allow them entry. Did you want anything from the cafeteria? Water? Coffee? Alex shook her head. Whats on the schedule today? I wont be interrupting, will I? Theyre just rehearsing. Ryker wanted me to bring you by right away. Nick stopped in front of a multistory, square building. It looked like an enormous warehouse with brown stucco walls and no windows. A small sign identified the building as Studio Twelve. A light hung over the doorway, along with a sign promising dire results if the door was opened when the light was red.

Nick led them inside. The studio held an open, unfinished space with cavernous ceilings crawling with wooden scaffolding, lights, and black electric cords. A three-sided living room set faced them, complete with an overstuffed couch, two large windows with lace curtains, and dark cherry coffee table. On the right-side wall was an entry door with a row of locks. A small army of empty canvas-backed chairs faced the set, one bearing the logo Director. Lena Mandaval, lead actress in Salvas Revenge, sat on one side of the sofa, shoulders back, jaw set. Jake Redburn, the actor who played Hank McAdams, the bulldog cop who was Salvas nemesis, stood a few feet away, arms crossed over his chest, a frown cutting deep grooves

into the sides of his mouth. A group of people clustered around the other side of the coffee table, including Ryker. He was intent, scratching notes on a thick tablet of white paper. Do it again, Ryker ordered, looking up to glare at the actors. Its not working, Jake said. He was shorter than Ryker, with the lean, hard muscles of a wrestler and short, cropped hair. Defined biceps stood out from the edges of a worn cotton T-shirt. Im telling you, you can rework the scene a dozen times, but if Lena doesnt warm up, its never going to work. Oh sure, its all my fault. Lena shook a mane of thick, black hair and turned her back more fully to him. How typical. Blame someone else for your

inability to get it up. Maybe if I wasnt kissing a doormat, Id have a little more interest in my work, Jake snapped. Enough! Ryker held up his hands. Youre acting like children. Were going to do it one more time and then take a break. Now pretend youre professionals and take it from the top. He took a few steps back from the set and focused on each of them in turn, barking instructions. Lena, you dont want him thinking about what he saw earlier today. Youre desperate. Distracting him is your only hope. Jake, youre fighting a losing battle and you know it, but your job is too important to you to give up easily. Nick started to open his mouth, presumably to announce their presence,

but Alix shushed him with a hand and slid into one of the canvas chairs. Nick shrugged and sat down beside her. You shouldnt be here, Lena said, turning to look at Jake. In the time it took her to rearrange her position on the sofa, her body changed completely, from defiant and angry to inviting, concerned. To the casual observer, her posture leaning forward, hands clasped together appeared designed to draw him closer. But Alix could see the tension in her mouth and the stiffness of her back. Jake moved around the room, checking the window and locks on the door as he spoke. I saw Rinaldo by the bank this afternoon. Hes looking for you. Im staying here tonight. Theyll find you, she said. And

well both be in trouble if they do. Im not leaving you alone. He stopped in front of her, grabbing her by the hand and pulling her to her feet. I cant stop thinking about you, Salva. She melted into his arms, triumph curling her lips, giving every sign of a women well satisfied. But to Alixs mind, Lenas eyes told a different story. The current between Jake and Lena was hot hot enough to light the screen on fire, if channeled properly. But it was all negative energy, tension and fear. Her fingers curled around his biceps like the talons of a hawk. We shouldnt, she said, her voice barely a whisper. I dont care. Jake wrapped his arms around Lenas narrow waist, dropping his head to kiss her. As their mouths meshed,

she put her arms around his neck. The gesture looked forced. Stiff. They kissed, but there was no passion. A moment later, they broke apart. Ryker tousled his hair, leaving the black waves uneven and rough. That looked like crap. Lets take a break. Anyone know what time it is? He glanced around the room, lips curving when he noticed Alix for the first time. Alix flinched, his gaze brushing roughly against her like the touch of his hand. His eyes were hard, inscrutable, the smile showing little in the way of emotion. Frustration, though, was evident in the tight set to his shoulders. She had the sudden desire to run. Ryker Valentine didnt want to share the set with her. He didnt believe in anything she did. And it

would only make it worse if she had to tell him just how bad things really looked. Alix, welcome. Come on over. He gestured toward the people gathered behind him and then to Lena and Jake. Folks, this is Alix Z. Gunther thinks shell be able to get something romantic out of these two. Jake cocked his head. Alix Z? As in, Through the Window? One Night Stand? That Alix Z? A look of surprise crossed his face, but he was a decent enough actor to mask it almost immediately with a welcoming smile. The one and only, she said, stepping forward reluctantly. The look of surprise on the faces of Jake and a few others was not shocking. Shed seen it hundreds of times before.

Everyone in LA seemed to think a woman who made sexy films should look like one of her actresses. They wanted to see a show poodle, and, like Ryker had said, she was a Labrador. Of course, it didnt help that she was wearing a baggy T-shirt and a pair of old jeans shed bought at a thrift store a few years before. That, and she wore her usual glasses today, not her sunglasses. They were square and heavy, with thick black frames that Gunther said made her look like an old man. Jake extended his hand. Jake Redburn. Pleasure to meet you. Jake. Alix returned his firm handshake. She liked him immediately. There was an openness to his smile that she didnt expect from a million-dollar

actor. Jake looked at Ryker, laugh lines crinkling at the corners of his eyes. You didnt tell us you were bringing in an expert. Rykers only reaction was to twist his lips into a deeper frown. Considering the garbage you call acting these days, I need all the help I can get. Im Lena. With another toss of her long hair, Lena rose from the sofa and positioned herself between Jake and Alix. Lena smiled, but the gesture did not touch her dark, doe-like eyes. Alix shook her soft hand, wondering at the emotions swirling below the lines of tension in Lenas beautiful features. Lena had a typical Hollywood bodythin and toned, each curve carefully sculpted

but her face was just old enough to have more character than the generic blonde starlets that filled Hollywood. There was wisdom in her deep brown eyes and a hint of pain. Alix had to admit that Ryker had cast the perfect Salva. Im looking forward to working with you, Alix said. Lenas eyes darted back to Jake, and her mouth tightened. Im not sure why. There isnt a lot getting done around here. Jake gave Alix a look of apology. Did Ryker warn you? Warn me about what? Youve wandered onto the most dysfunctional set in Hollywood, he said cheerfully. Were a mess. It isnt funny, Lena snapped. Why

do you have to try to turn everything into a joke? So I dont kill you, he replied calmly, though a muscle jumped in his cheek. Didnt you say we were wrapping early today? Lena asked Ryker. I have some calls I need to make. Fine. Ryker sighed. He introduced her briefly to the row of people behind him. She nodded and waved at each, knowing shed never remember their names. Now, you can all go, except Amir. He pointed to a dark-skinned lanky man with a goatee and row of hoops protruding from his eyebrow. Alix, this is my assistant director, Amir Madani. Amir grunted amiably at Alix. Ryker continued, Amir, I need

Gunthers viewing room set up with those clips we talked about earlier today. And make sure Alix has a car and hotel information. Eight a.m. call, Jake and Lena. He shook a threatening finger at the two of them. I expect something much better tomorrow, understand? Lena started to reply, but evidently the thundercloud on Rykers face convinced her otherwise. She nodded and flounced off the set. Jake shook his head. Glad to have you here, Alix. Hope you dont mind if I corner you sometime to ask about your films. I really am a fan. It would be my pleasure. Jake waved and headed out the door. Alix swallowed as one by one, the rest of the group followed him out. Finally,

she was alone with Ryker. She squared her shoulders. She was in a movie studio, for heavens sake. It wasnt as if he was going to make a pass at her here. Especially not when she was wearing a gray T-shirt that was two sizes too big for her and jeans that ended somewhere around the ankle. Ryker surveyed her, his attention lingering on her glasses. Im not sure which I liked better, the gigantic sunglasses or those monsters. Pilfer them from your grandfathers closet, by any chance? I have a very strong prescription, she snapped. I spend enough on the lenses; I dont need to spend more on the frames. Of course.

She turned away from his probing stare and made a point of walking around the set. So this is Salvas apartment? Looks about right. Middle-class comfort, with a touch of desperation. You read the script. Of course. I liked it. But you didnt tell me our leads were at each others throats. It doesnt take an expert to see that. She picked up a heavy glass ashtray and hefted it in one hand, feeling the weight. Later in the film, Salva would use it to knock out an aggressor. It was good to know Ryker was paying attention to details. She stole a glance over her shoulder. He was intent, staring at her back as if he expected to find the answer to some mystery there.

With a tight shake of the head, he refocused on her face. This is the worst Ive seen them. Theyve been bickering from the start, but its getting uglier by the day. I thought theyd be able to get past it. I guess I was wrong. Get past what? Jake and Lena? You dont know their history? She sat down on the sofa. Nope. Should I? Thanks to Gunther, she was actually more up to date on Hollywood gossip than she wanted to be. But she had no intention of letting Ryker know that. Besides, it would be interesting to hear his version of the story. Ryker barked a laugh. I suppose I should have expected that. Jake and Lena were a serious item about ten years ago,

when he was still a model and she had just made her first feature. The tabloids had them secretly married, or at least engaged. But then Jake got caught with a wardrobe girl from one of his modeling gigs. The break-up was nasty, to say the least. And you cast them as lovers? Alix raised a skeptical eyebrow. That hardly seems wise. He brushed aside her words. Theyve been in a couple of movies together since then and did fine. Besides, Lenas perfect for the roleshes at a crossroad in her career, right on the cusp of being recognized for her acting and not just her looks, and Salvas at the same crossroad. She realizes in the film that shes relied on her looks all her life, and that doesnt

work with this guy. Hmm. You said they were in a couple of movies together. Were they romantic leads? Ryker paused, considering the question before he answered. One was an ensemble piece. They were a couple, though to be honest, there wasnt any serious onstage affection. In the other, they were both married but kept up a flirtation through the film. Their chemistry was exceptional. I didnt think their past would be an issue. I would call what we just witnessed an issue. He flopped down on the sofa next to her. He looked tired, the lines around his eyes more pronounced than the last time shed seen him. He dropped his head on

the back of the couch. Thats putting it mildly. So weve got thirty days to get two people who hate each other to make hot, sweaty love for the camera, and make it believable and emotional? Ryker closed his eyes. Thats about it. Oh, and did I mention I want the Oscar this time? I seem to recall something about that. Well, in case I wasnt clear, let me say it again. He turned his head to study her. I want that Oscar. Understand? The intensity of his gaze trapped her. She nodded mutely. Abruptly, his expression changed, and he said with an easy smile, But enough about that. Are you ready for dinner?

I thought Amir was setting up some scenes for us to watch. She put her hands in her lap and tried to ease the rest of her body farther away without catching his attention. Amusement flared in his eyes. He leaned toward her. They can wait. I dont want to look at anything related to Salvas Revenge for at least two hours. Well have an early dinner and watch the clips later. Dont worry, Ill still get you to bed at a reasonable hour. Every word from his mouth seemed like some kind of sexual innuendo. He was close enough now that she could smell a hint of spicy cologne and feel the warmth radiating from his skin. She resisted the urge to jump up from the sofa. Id like to check into my

hotel, if thats okay. Get settled a bit. Fine with me. That will give you time to change into something a little morehmm. He curved his fingers around the frayed edge of her T-shirt. More, feminine, shall we say? Alix grabbed the fabric from his hand. Im not one of your actresses, she said. Theres a reason Ive made my career on the other side of the camera. But thats just it. Ive seen you without the glasses, remember? Youre beautiful. Just as attractive as any of my actresses. He took one of her hands and slid his fingers around her wrist, taking their measure with his thumb and forefinger. Fine bones. I take back what I said about you being like a Labrador. Thats just what you want people to

believe. I think theres a greyhound hidden somewhere beneath all these clothes. She tugged at her wrist, but he didnt let go. I think youve got an active imagination. A quiver of reluctant pleasure tightened her stomach as she took in his words. He was too sensual, too damn intelligent to be shrugged off like she expected. Where do we eat? Just as the tingles from her wrist were growing into electric currents, he released her. She fell into the cushions and rubbed her wrist. She hadnt been with a man for a very, very long time. Perhaps that explained why her body was demanding that she fall into Rykers arms without a second thought.

Ive got reservations at Tiger Lilys, in West Hollywood. Its a long drive, but lately its the only place I can go and not be bothered. Alix grimaced. She had forgotten that they were in Hollywood now, and Ryker Valentine was a household name. There would be reporters, paparazzi, and pictures. She hated pictures. She would be the unknown guest accompanying Ryker to dinner. Tabloids would speculate as to who she was and why they were together. Though she had avoided pictures when her movies were released, a few always slipped out. Eventually someone would connect her face with the name Alix Z. And then the stories would get even racier. Something of the horror of the

situation must have shown in her face, because Ryker cocked his head in surprise. Its part of the game, Alix. You know that. Theyll take a few pictures, gossip about it for a few weeks, and then it will be forgotten. Of course youd say that. Every time someone gossips about you, your asking price goes up ten grand. He shrugged. Thats the way the business works. If you cant handle a little gossip, you cant handle Hollywood. Alix gritted her teeth. She couldnt handle Hollywood. That was precisely why shed left. Fine. But Id prefer to arrive separately. Call Tiger Lilys and describe me for them, but dont give my name. Id like to try to keep out of the press if I can. Ill meet you there at six?

He didnt move from the sofa, just studied her with that inscrutable black gaze. All right, he said finally. But if you really want to draw attention to yourself, wear that outfit. Theyll love it.

Chapter Six Ryker, darling! So lovely to see you. Tiger Lilys was a tiny restaurant with only a handful of tables, located on the edge of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Everything in the restaurant had been designed for privacy and comfort, from the silky gold drapes covering the tall windows to the private tables, each with its own flickering candle. Its host and namesake, a leggy blonde with velvety brown eyes, was the daughter of a Mitch Lily, a well-known director and producer. Tiger Lily had the fortune to know most of her clientele well before she opened and used her familiarity with the movie scene to quickly make her establishment a favorite among those more interested in a

good meal than a night of seeing and being seen. Tiger kissed Ryker on both cheeks before leading him to his favorite table, tucked into a dimly lit corner in the back of the room. Is my friend here yet? he asked. Not yet. If she noticed that he hadnt left a name for his companion, she was far too discreet to mention it. Ill keep my eye out for her. She seated him at the table and handed him the piece of handmade paper that served as a menu. At Tiger Lilys, the menu changed daily, depending on what sort of fresh produce and seafood were available. Shes about five foot one or two, you said? Brown hair, glasses? Ryker nodded. Shes a bit shy, so

please dont advertise the fact that were together, if you know what I mean. She gave him an understanding pat on the shoulder. No problem. Ill take good care of her. Ryker picked up a water glass and took a long drink. He wondered what Daisy would wear to dinner. A fifties housedress? A burlap sack? Hed never seen such an attractive woman look as unkempt as shed looked today. That Tshirtthose pantsand the glasses. A smile crossed his face. They were a stroke of genius. There was something defiant about the whole outfit, like she was determined to prove something by making herself as unattractive as possible. His smile faded as he recalled the atmosphere shed walked into. Lena and

Jake had been in rare form, and he was at the end of his rope, barking out orders like a general. Daisy had clearly been dismayed by the scene. He wondered how tomorrow would go. As sexy as her films were, he simply couldnt imagine her on the set, interacting with the actors and convincing everyone of her vision. He only hoped Gunther wouldnt be disappointed if she wasnt effective. He heard Tiger greet someone in front. Hes in back. Follow me. Thanks. Ryker turned in his seat, unable to keep his mouth from dropping open when he saw the transformation. Alixs long hair fell loose around her shoulders, sparkling with color from golden brown to strawberry to chestnut. The glasses

were gone, and her eyes, surrounded by thick dark lashes, glittered in the dim restaurant light. She wore a clingy, emerald green dress the exact color of her eyes. Spaghetti straps exposed lightly tanned shoulders, and a pair of full breasts swayed as she walked. The dress hit her at mid-thigh, exposing sleek legs and sculpted calves above impossibly high silver heels. She moved like a fairy, floating above the ground with her silver shoes and leafy-green dress. Ryker, she murmured. For a moment, he was too stunned to move. Tiger Lily cleared her throat quietly and then faded into the background. Ryker continued to stare at Daisy until he realized she was waiting

for him to rise and greet her. With a quick mental shake, he took her golden elbow in his hands and leaned forward to press a kiss on each cheek. Daisy. His lips burned where they met her flesh, and he had to catch himself from trailing his lips down the hollow of her neck. He breathed deeply of her smell, earthy and musky, and an unexpected sensation rippled from his stomach to his groin. She froze. Alix, she snapped. My name is Alix. I thought I made it clear that I leave Daisy behind when I come to LA. Of course. I wasnt thinking. My apologies. He gestured toward her dress. You changed, I see. I decided you were right. Id attract

less attention like this. If anyone sees us, theyll think Im one of your usual tarts. They wont bother to investigate. She surveyed the room, hand on hip. With perfect ease, she gave a regal smile to the few who caught her eye, and then sank into the seat across from his, where the candlelight caught fire in the thick gold hoop earrings that tangled in her hair. Youve done this before, he accused, ignoring the slight. Where did you get that dress? She shrugged. Gunther and I go out when Im in town. I have a few dresses that I bring when I come to LA. Buthmm. He cut himself off, realizing she was enjoying every minute of his shock. He slid into his seat, forcing a casual smile. I guess now youve got

me wondering which is the real Alix Z. She draped her body against the back of her chair. What do you think? I must say, I have no idea. You see, I did a little research last week. Or rather, I tried to do a little research. Alix Z, despite her popularity, did an exceptional job keeping her face out of the press. I think I found three, maybe four pictures, two with you wearing those horrible glasses and one from a premier with you in a long-sleeve black dress that would have suited my grandmother. Gunther, on the other hand, was everywhere. Youd think he made those movies, for all the interviews he gave. I didnt like the attention, and he didnt want to miss the opportunity to plug the films. It worked out better that

way. How did you convince them to leave you alone? he asked. At first, all the papers were speculating about the mysterious Alix Z and trying to get interviews; then there were those few pictures, and then the buzz just dropped off. She grinned. It was easier than youd think. I realized pretty quickly that hiding wouldnt workit only made them more curious. So I did the opposite. I put myself out there, but made sure I was the least articulate, least photogenic person theyd ever interviewed. I was boring, dowdy, and droned on about film theory and aspect ratios. They quickly realized Gunther was the better mouthpiece for our movies.

So its all a game? The terrible glasses, the clothesits all something you cooked up to fool reporters? It was completely contrary to his everyday existencechanging oneself to avoid publicity, rather than the other way aroundbut at least it solved the puzzle. And youre still doing it? Even now? Alix unwound a linen napkin from her silverware and draped it over her lap. When she shifted positions and crossed one leg over the other, Ryker found his gaze trapped, pinned by that simple motion. It was impossible to reconcile the siren in front of him, with her sleek bare legs and silver shoes, and the dowdy woman in bug-like sunglasses and an oversized parka hed met on the beach in Oregon.

Id been like that for a long time, she said finally, shrugging her shoulders in a move that sent her breasts bobbing up and down. Before Hollywood. I just made things a bit more dramatic for the press. Its not really a game. Its just me. Not entirely you. He motioned toward her, indicating with a sweep of his hand her head to her toes. This is you too. No. She shook her head firmly. This is something I can do when Im forced. The other is whats comfortable. I dont like to worry about my looks, Ryker. I know that seems bizarre to you, but its the way I am. But you chose those glasses to be horrible. You cant tell me you dont do it for them. For the reporters and such.

It works on a number of different levels, she said. Besides, no one in LA is exactly what they seem. Isnt your real name Ricardo Valdez? He grimaced. I suppose you have me there. You created a little stir in the Latino community when they found out about that. They said you were trying to deny your heritage. So you do know something about me? The Internet is a wonderful thing. I suppose. Ryker looked down at the menu, hoping to distract her from further questions about his Latinoor lack of Latinoheritage. Anything sound interesting? Hazelnut-crusted halibut?

She pulled her expressive mouth in a moue of disgust. I live in a fishing village, remember? Im used to my fish flopping around moments before I eat it. To be honest, its the chance for fresh vegetables that has me interested. The grilled vegetable plate sounds perfect. He grinned. Thats the first time youve sounded like a normal woman this evening. She waggled her finger at him. Wash out your mouth, mister. Theres no such thing as a normal woman. Now, how about bread? I may crave vegetables, but Im also starving. I think we can arrange that. He raised a finger, and a black-and-white clad waitress magically appeared. He beckoned her closer and whispered his request. She

blushed, tittered, and scooted off to the kitchen. Im sure shed be happy to serve that with her phone number tucked in the basket, Alix observed. Bit cynical, arent you? She waved her hand. You know how it is in this town. Everyones looking to get something, and theyre more than happy to use sex to get it. Lets just say when I wanted to photograph something real, I didnt look here. He leaned back in his chair, fighting to keep his gaze at eye level. I wouldnt have expected you to be so comfortable stereotyping the whole city quite so quickly. Are you going to tell me you think LA is overflowing with true love?

He shrugged. As much as anywhere else, I suppose. Which is to say, not much. Oh, right. She laid one finger on the side of her mouth. Youre the guy who doesnt like his sex cluttered with emotion. It isnt that I think sex should be devoid of emotion, he said, wrinkling his forehead. I happen to think sex is much more fun when its between two people who like each other. But if you ask me, all the talk of true love and romance just gets in the way. Women get so caught up in wondering if the man loves them that they read emotions into things that are simply physical. Alix leaned forward, exposing a delicious eyeful of cleavage. You really

believe that sex is the same whether the people love each other or not? People throw around the word love too easily. This whole story about some magical emotion that takes people over and makes them do crazy things is ridiculous. Its just an excuse for irresponsible behavior. Ryker couldnt believe himself. He was babbling like some baby actor at his first interview. He should have taken control by now, cut off the conversation at the first mention of the word love. But something about Alixs gentle probing made it impossible not to respond. Are you saying you dont think love exists? Im not saying there isnt something to the way people care for each other. But

the whole idea of romantic love? The thing all the poets rave about? He flashed an apologetic smile. Im sorry, but I think its nonsense. Pretty words and not much else. Alix frowned. Youre dismissing one of the most essential human emotions. Love motivates people to do incredible things and has throughout history. Does Helen of Troy ring a bell? Lust, he said. Not hard to understand. And for the record, Im not saying the idea of romantic love cant make a great story. Take Casablanca, without doubt one of the finest films ever made. Alix bit her lip, as if she was considering arguing with him. Then, apparently having thought better, she

picked up her glass of water and stared across the table, her luminous eyes revealing little of her emotions. Just not a movie youre interested in making. He shrugged. Each to his own, I suppose. And what about you? Any more films in your future? Unlikely. Im really more interested in photography. And youre working on a book? Those pictures I saw were part of it, I assume? She slid her finger around the edge of her glass. Yes. He waited for her to elaborate. When she simply sat in silence, he gestured for her to continue. It rankled that she had him running at the mouth while he could barely extract a complete sentence from

her. And whats the book about? Sex? Love? Alix picked up her glass again and took a sip. Yes. Do you have a publisher for it yet? No. Are you working on anything else? No. Ryker leaned back in his seat. You like talking about your work, dont you? Alix flashed a quick smile. Tell me more about Salvas Revenge. Have Jake and Lena been this difficult all along? No. Its been challenging, but overall, theyve exceeded my expectations. But the sex He shook his head. Thats where it all breaks down. He gave her his most charming grin. But enough about love and sex. Lets make

small talk, shall we? It was too obvious, almost desperate, this need to change the subject. But he was finding it increasingly difficult to talk about sex without thinking about itand thinking about her, having it. With him. Soon. # Lena stared at herself in the mirror above the tiny bathroom sink in her trailer, unable to look away from the lines curving around the corners of her mouth. Wrinkles. Already. She was only thirty, and time was already digging trenches into her face. She pinched the skin under her neck and pulled it forward an inch or so, then

let go. For a second, the fold of skin stayed loose, like the waddle of a turkey, before it reabsorbed into her neck. The elastic was breaking down. Shed need a face-lift soon. Very soon. Before anyone could tell what shed done. Perhaps Botox and a face-lift. And a tummy tuck. She turned to the side and studied her reflection again. Of late, that had been softening as well, the formerly taut flesh of her stomach and waist losing the definition it once had. Despite the Pilates, the running, and the god-awful workouts with her sadistic trainer, everything was beginning to sag. She was getting old, and everyone knew what happened to actresses when they got old. A knock sounded at the door.

What? she snarled, not looking away from her reflection. Lena, its Jake. Can I come in? Her heart skipped. Jake? She looked around frantically, seeing stacks of unworn clothing on the couch, dirty clothes in a pile by the door for the laundry service, the remnants of her dinner salad on the fold-out table, and worst of all, the wrapper from a clandestine miniature chocolate bar on the counter beside the sink. Cant it wait until tomorrow? He pulled the door open, and, as it always did, the sight of his virile masculinity hit her like a wave, sending a rush of heat from her toes to her fingertips. His body hadnt changed much over the years. He was the same height,

probably the same weight. But his muscles no longer had the roundness of youth. They were hard, defined like rigid bands of steel. Even under his T-shirt and jeans she could see them, the vee of his lower abs beckoning until she itched to touch him, to trace the lines of those muscles. Someday, sweetheart, youll have to start locking your door. She shook herself from her reverie and pulled the lapels of her robe more tightly together. Hed probably gone right from the set to the gym, like she should have, because his hair looked freshly washed, and his three days of stubble had been carefully trimmed. God she hated him. She hated him from the edges of his square jaw to the

soft contours of his sensual mouth. The mouth that drew her eye every time he walked in the room. The mouth that had kissed her today with such passion it had taken every ounce of her will not to respond. The mouth that had kissed so many other women, with the same fake passion. If Id known you were coming, I would have. What are you still doing here, anyway? I thought you would have gone home hours ago. She stamped over to the refrigerator under the counter and grabbed a bottle of sparkling water. What she really wanted was a beer. And a fullsize chocolate bar. I didnt have the heart to face the traffic. What about you? I had calls to make. Besides, I

needed a shower. For some reason, I always feel dirty when I leave the set these days. Jake sighed. Lena, I thought we were over this. Its been ten years. You cant still be holding a grudge. He followed her, leaning against the counter with his arms crossed over his chest. The move accentuated his biceps. He did it on purpose, she had no doubt. Actually, I can. She looked pointedly at her watch. Was there anything else? I need to get dressed and hit the road. Cant miss any of my beauty rest, you know. Breathe deeply, she instructed herself. But nothing seemed to dull the painful awareness that he was only a few feet away.

That his legs were spread a casual distance apart. That her body could fit between his legs. His jaw tightened. I dont understand what happened. It isnt as though we havent worked together before. He reached out a hand and ran it up and down the length of her arm. Her dressing gown was made of fine silk, and when he pressed the soft fabric against her flesh, it felt cool, then hot. That was different, she said, swallowing convulsively, unable to move. We didnt have to, to He tugged gently on her arm. She took an unwilling step toward him, heat rushing from her stomach to her cheeks. He tugged again. She moved closer. His

calloused hand passed through her hair, and she had to fight the urge to close her eyes. No, Jake, she whispered, her hand coming to clutch the sides of her robe, which felt ready to fall open at any moment. Dont do this to me. I still want you, Lena. Youre still the most beautiful woman Ive ever seen. Cant we put the past behind us? We could start over. Try again. Goose bumps rose along her arms and legs. He got to his feet, and she inhaled sharply, her nipples pebbling under his steady gaze. He tangled both hands in her long hair, gently rubbing her temples with his thumbs. Her eyelids drooped. Lena, he breathed, his mouth a bare

inch from her ear. Dont you remember how good we are together? Dont you remember how I made you scream? She whimpered, unable to do more to free herself from the spell he had laid. His lips followed a moment later, starting with the vulnerable flesh behind her ear and cascading down her neck to the hollow at the base. His mouth was warm and gentle, his lips achingly familiar. Large, strong hands traced a path of fire along her back until they reached around to circle her waist. Then she felt his thumbs brush lightly against the undersides of her breasts. Ahh, she exhaled, jerking at the shock of pleasure at his touch. We could do it again. We could be that way again. The words were halfway

buried in her flesh, his mouth swooping lower to touch her collarbones and then glide back up her neck to the edge of her jaw. He was approaching her mouth. If he touched her mouth, shed be lost. Jake, stop. She put her hands against his chest, but that was a mistake because then she was flooded with all new sensations: his muscles, the heat and strength of them exploding under her fingers; the smooth cotton of his shirt teasing her, begging her to lift it, to put flesh to flesh. Why cant you leave me alone? she said, her voice half sob, half moan. Leave you alone? I go to sleep, and I think about you. I wake up, and I think about you. I need to kiss you, Lena.

Youre driving me crazy. Youre so cold, but I know thats not you. Its killing me. Without warning, his mouth covered hers, and time stopped. It was a familiar dance, yet totally new. She was hesitant, stiff. He spent minutes just softening her lips with his coaxing and teasing, until they parted and his tongue darted inside. Then they were dancing and spinning, heat like fireworks popping and fading, only to explode even higher and brighter a second later. Why cant we do this for the cameras, Lena? Isnt it all still here? He paused for only a moment between kisses. Like a rush of cold water, the magic was gone. She pushed against his shoulders, hard now, all business. This is about the

movie, isnt it? Youre trying to get a better performance out of your leading lady and thought perhaps if you seduced her, you might get that performance. No, no! He looked appalled, and Lena had to remind herself that he was an actorhis profession hinged on being able to deliver performances like this. I just dont see why Shit, Lena. Im serious about this. I want to give it another try. Not because of the movie, just because of us. Right. Her mouth twisted in a cynical smile. So we get together while were filming the movie. Our love scenes get hotter. The public gets a great story about reunited lovers, and the movie gets a better buzz. Very smart. I only wish Id thought of it myself.

That isnt it. Not at all, he ground out. Im just wondering how long it lasts, she continued. He clenched his jaw, an expression she knew from years of experience meant he was genuinely upset, but she was unable to stop the words flowing from her in an angry torrent. How long until you replace me with someone younger and cuter? How long till you find some new twenty-year-old you cant resist? Will you dump me straight off this time, or shall we try a three-way first? Youre sick, he said, thrusting his hands deep in his pockets as he turned away. Youre a gorgeous woman, at the top of your game. Youve got everything, but you cant trust anyone. Poor little rich

girl. I made a mistake back then, okay? I kissed a girl, and it wasnt you. But thats all it was. A kiss. A mistake that had nothing to do with you and everything to do with me being a stupid, immature idiot. But youre so damn insecure youll never see that, will you? Fine. Forget I tried. He stalked out the door without another look. Lena slammed the door behind him. Fine, she shouted to the empty room. Just fine! I didnt need him then, and I dont need him now. She paced up and down the trailer, recounting all the reasons she hated him, all the ways hed hurt her, reminded herself of the anguish she went through with every tabloid picture that surfaced of

him kissing That Woman, lips planted on hers at exactly the same angle he used on Lena. The hurt had never gone away, really, and when she conjured it up, like this, it spilled out in dark, black waves until she was filled with it, filled with the righteous anger that told her he was a jerk, a cad, an ass of the first order, and she was better off without him. But she couldnt stop the tears. They started in a steady trickle, then a deep, indrawn breath, and finally she collapsed on the sofa, holding a pillow over her mouth to muffle the sound. She couldnt trust him. She could never trust him. Not again. Not ever.

Chapter Seven Alix followed Rykers vintage-looking Mercedes as it pulled away from Tiger Lilys. She wished he drove a flashy sports car so she could hate it and hate him for having it, but he didnt. He was far too interesting to fit into any of her stereotypes, no matter how much she wanted to place him in one. Throughout the meal, just when she thought shed figured him out, hed surprise her. Like what hed said about Casablancahow could a man with a heart of ice appreciate one of the most romantic movies of all time? And the way he made sure she had bread, and frowned and apologized when his cell phone rang during dinner. Little things.

The way hed stopped pouring wine for them after one glass because he didnt want to drive under the influence. The way hed smiled graciously and signed autographs for a table full of gawking tourists, deflecting attention away from her subtly. He had not made a point of excluding her but nonetheless shielded her from scrutiny. He held the door for her. Stood up when she excused herself to go to the ladies room. It was like having dinner with Prince Charming, not a swollen-headed movie star. Which irritated her to no end. They were back on the Bolvana lot by nine. The sun was falling behind the horizon, and the heat of the day had quickly dissipated, leaving behind a cool

stillness. Ryker pulled into a space in front of the dun-colored bungalow that held Gunthers offices. The building was apparently intended to look like a singlefamily home, though the generic brown exterior and bedraggled hedge did little to further that image. Alix parked and walked over to his car, feeling ridiculous in her miniskirt and heels. Shed bought the dress a year ago for the sole purpose of placating Gunther. Every time she visited him, he nagged her incessantly to dress up and go out to a few parties. Finally, shed agreed. Shed told herself the dress was just another way of blending in, another costume she needed to learn to wear. As Ryker had pointed out, she attracted more attention when she dressed in her

usual jeans and T-shirts than when she dressed to the nines, and she had to admit, it was nice to feel feminine once in a while. But unlike her dark glasses and baggy shirts, it was a costume that never quite seemed to fit. She always felt on the verge of tipping over in her high heels and had to fight the desire to hunch over and shield her breasts from view. Ryker held up a ring of keys. Gunther lets me use his viewing room when were shooting. Its more comfortable than watching the dailies in the editing room. Alix nodded. She was nervous, more nervous than shed been in a long time. Ryker wasnt one of the male floozies whod hit on her hundreds of times before. He was an electric male,

dominating her gaze with broad shoulders and narrow waist, dark honeycolored skin, and sensual lips. He touched her back and guided her into the building. Currents of heat ran from the edges of his fingertips through the soft silk of her dress. Alix bit her lip and nursed the tiny cut she inflicted with a worried tongue. They were here to work. Ryker knew that as well as she did. Other than his eyes straying occasionally to her cleavage which, she had to admit, she appreciated he had been a perfect gentleman at dinner, giving no hint that he wanted anything more than to establish a good working relationship. Thank goodness. The interior hall was dark, but Ryker

strode forward without pause, guiding Alix with a touch on her elbow. They passed two opened doors and then entered a room with a collection of tiny lights glowing from a console on the wall. Ryker hit a switch beside the door that illuminated a bank of bulbs above a large screen. A couch sat in the middle of the room, flanked on either side by a black leather Eames chair and a matching upholstered armchair. A tall counter with a smooth marbled surface curved around the far left corner of the room, with three silver barstools guarding the front. A crystal decanter half filled with amber liquid sat on one end. Ryker picked up a remote control and motioned for Alix to sit down. Gunther brought me here when he introduced me

to Garden of Eden. Its quieter than the editing room and much more comfortable. She looked around the room for a moment and contemplated sitting in one of the armchairs. Too obvious? Pathetic, that she couldnt even sit next to him without panicking? She steeled her courage and plunked down in the middle of the couch. Surely he wouldnt sit next to her. Surely hed take one of the armchairs. Like to take your half out of the middle, do you? he said, voice low and amused as he wedged himself between her and the side of the couch. Alix scurried as far away as she could, though it gave her only an additional foot or so of room. Goose bumps rose on her

traitorous skin. She pulled her knees together and tried for calm. So, what are we watching? He pushed Play and then immediately froze the film. A still image of Lena, wearing a low-cut black nightgown and lying across a crumpled bed, filled the screen. This is the scene where Lena tricks Jake to get him in her room so she can seduce him. We first shot this scene about a month ago. I knew it wasnt right, but when Gunther saw it, he nearly flipped. The teasing light faded from his eyes as he stared at the screen. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, and jabbed the remote control with one irritated finger. Might as well get this over with. Jake entered the room, gun drawn. I heard something at the window, he

growled. Lena crawled out of bed, rubbing her eyes as if shed just awakened. She stretched, arching her back and forcing her breasts to strain against the top of her gown. Theres no one there. Its just your imagination. He turned, gaze immediately falling to her breasts. She looked away as if embarrassed, but the camera caught the hint of a smile on her lips, hidden behind a black waterfall of hair. Imagination, huh? I suppose my imagination has been working overtime lately. She laughed, a breathy, nervous sound. About what? You have to ask? She peered out from beneath her hair,

seeking and tentative. But the other day, youyou asked what I knew about Paulo, and I thought He stood over her, a full head taller. With one hand, he reached out and touched her arm. I need to find out the truth, Salva. Its my job. That doesnt mean I dont want you. She closed her eyes, swayed, brushing her breasts against him as she turned back toward the bed. But you dont trust me. He paused and then slowly shook his head. She placed her hand on his forearm, a breathtaking picture of vulnerability. I dont care. Just kiss me. Please kiss me. Jake stared at her, jaw flexing as if he fought some inner battle. Then, eyes open, he slowly lowered his mouth.

She leaned against him, sliding her hands up along his chest. Their mouths meshed, and he groaned, burying his hands in her hair. His mouth slid along the edge of her jaw, then dipped lower, tracing the edge of her collarbone. She offered herself to him, shaking her hair behind her like a cloud and arching her back to press her chest closer to his. Without pause, he took what she gave, pulling the thin spaghetti straps of her nightgown over her shoulders and exposing her perfect white breasts. His fingers moved over the hard brown peaks, and she moaned. NC-17 rating okay with you? Alix asked. Well edit out the racier stuff. Jake returned his attention to her

mouth. Bodies intertwined, they fell backward on the bed as he licked the edges of her lips, slid his tongue between them, claimed her like a prize. That was when it all began to go wrong. What had been an ordinary love scene, albeit one without much emotion, turned into a battle. He struggled to maintain control while she fought back, her mouth moving faster than his, her tongue slipping between his lips, her fingers catching him around the waist. Though to the casual viewer it might not have been noticeable, to Alix it was almost painful to watch, their bodies full of barely repressed anger, any hint of romance diluted by the far greater sense of fury. When he covered her with the weight of his body, it was an act of

dominance, not passion, and when she rolled him onto his back and straddled him, it was tit for tat, push for shove. Alix watched for a minute before she covered her eyes and waved a hand at the screen. Is it all like that? she asked, her voice muffled behind her hand. We did a number of takes, Ryker said wearily. That was the worst. By the end of the day, theyd worked through a lot of it and had reached a truce, I think. All I can say is that it didnt look quite that bad when we were filming. She observed him from the corner of her eye as he slumped back against the cushions. He rubbed his eyes and slouched down farther into the couch. He hit Fast Forward, and the film spun through a number of versions of the

scene, then changed to a kitchen. Lena sat on a kitchen counter, laughing. Jake leaned between her legs. Ryker hit Play, and for a minute, the couple looked happy, their cheeks resting against each other. Jake eased his fingers through her hair, from her temple to the side of her neck. He took one long black curl and wound it around his finger. He dropped a kiss on her shoulder, and she froze. The look of ease disappeared, though she tried to maintain the same expression. A cold, tight smile replaced the sensual heat of the moment before. Ryker hit Pause again. He muttered an expletive under his breath. I thought they were professionals. Shes in love with him, Ryker, Alix said softly. You cant blame her for

that. What? He looked amazed. She hates him. Its as plain as the nose on her face. She must still be pissed about that wardrobe girl. Alix shook her head. I always try to give men the benefit of the doubt, but you really dont get this stuff, do you? He sighed. If youre considering giving me a lecture about true love, you can stop right now. Im not interested. Whether youre interested or not, Lenas still in love with Jake. Shes terrified to let him touch her. Thats why she looks like that. Shes using her anger to mask her fear. If we dont figure out some way to get her past that fear, well never get what we need out of these two. Ryker got off the couch and began to

pace the room. So now were supposed to be amateur psychiatrists? Matchmakers? Sorry, but I dont do Dr. Phil on the set of my movies. Theyre grown-ups, and theyre making too much money to allow these feelings to get in the way of their jobs. Forget all that, and tell me something I can control. Cameras, lighting, costume, set design What are we missing? Theyre not just actors, Ryker, theyre people, and theres some serious stuff going on between them. You think we can just stand there and tell them to forget it, and it will all go away? So what do you suggest? He laughed grimly. We send them out on a date? Alix leaned back against the couch,

relieved not to have his body so close to hers. I didnt say we had to fix their relationship. I said we had to get her past her fear. Shes an actora good actor. We just have to convince her shes good enough to hide her real feelings. I see. He leaned against the bar and crossed his arms over his chest. And you figured all this out from watching five minutes of film? She shrugged. I could be completely wrong. Stranger things have happened. But you dont think so. I dont think so. I know fear when I see it, but she isnt scared of him physically. She trusts him enough to fight with him, and that tells me theres still something between them. So youve watched a bunch of

people screw, and now youre some kind of sexual Sherlock Holmes? He kept his voice light, but it was impossible to hide the irritation that lurked below the surface. Alix bit her lip. Im just telling you what I think. He advanced on her a few steps, his mouth curving speculatively. Tell me, Sherlock, Ive got some pent-up frustration. Any ideas for getting rid of it? She tried to laugh, though her heart skipped at the look in his eye. Sorry, I only diagnose actors. Youre sure? He stopped a few feet in front of her, head cocked at a questioning angle as his gaze traveled up and down her body. I bet we could

figure something out between the two of us. Alixs body flushed with heat. She knew she should move quickly, make it clear that she wanted nothing to do with whatever he was offering. Yet she was frozen, unable to tear herself away from the most sexually charged moment shed experienced in years. Look, its getting late. Maybe we should take this up again in the morning. He took her hand and pulled her to standing. The touch of his palm caught her breath in her throat, and she wobbled on her high heels. He smiled and placed one finger on the strap of her dress, right by her collarbone, and then slid the finger down to the front of her dress. You know, Ive been wondering. How

many He trailed the back of his hand across her bare skin. How many couples do you think youve watched over the years? What do you mean? she asked lowly, an uncomfortable prickle tightening her nipples. What does this have to do with Salvas Revenge? Im just curious. When youre taking your pictures, youre watching them, right? Theyre having sex in front of you. So what do you think? How many has it been? His hand crept around to the back of her neck, where he lingered for a minute, tickling the sensitive skin at the nape of her neck, and then following the delicate bones of her spine down her back. She swallowed hard, willing herself to

pull away as his hand came to rest on the small of her back. I dont really keep track. Surely you have some idea, he said. Id really prefer not to talk about it. I dont think He leaned forward and let his mouth lightly caress the edge of her shoulder. At the same time, he pressed her toward him, bringing their bodies into contact from thigh to chest. Her heart lurched as his lips traveled upward, along the sensitive skin of her neck and the line of her jaw. Desire curled through her body, lingering in the pit of her stomach. Finally, their lips met, touched, parted. He was taking without pause, and she was letting him, letting the wet, seductive pressure of his tongue run

through her. There was fire inside her, rushing in a torrent from her lips to her legs. It was an emotion she hadnt felt for ages. Hell, shed never felt it before. Not like this. He slid his mouth down her neck. Do you pick up tips while youre watching? Refine your technique? he breathed. Ryker She meant to tell him to stop, but the sensation of his lips caressing her neck robbed her of breath, of thought. He pressed into the base of her spine, and she molded against him. He returned to her mouth, sucked lightly on her bottom lip, and then opened his lips to take her into a cloud of hot, wet

passion. She clutched his shoulder, the muscles beneath her hand hard, flexing as he ran a hand along her spine, tracing the outline of her vertebrae. She had no idea how to tell him to stop, couldnt even remember why she should. Her voice had disappeared even as her body melted into his sensual assault. His hand moved up her side, brushing lightly against the hard peaks of her nipples, and she gasped, the spell finally broken. The pleasure was too intense, her reaction too swift and abandoned to let it continue. She knew what lay at the end of this path, and she refused to go through it again. She put her hands on his chest and firmly pushed him away, her chest rising and falling rapidly as she struggled to catch her

breath. This isnt a good idea. Were working together. He straightened, his eyes dark, unfathomable. Look, I dont like to get involved with coworkers either. But lets be rational about it. Were attracted to each other. Were grown-ups. I think we can handle it. She tried to slow her breathing and act calm. Im being practical. It doesnt make sense. Im not here for long, and weve got a lot of work to do. His voice curled around her, deep and sensual, with just a hint of humor. We can speed things up, if you prefer. I suggest we take our time, personally, but if youre feeling rushed Heat flushed her cheeks. She took a step back. We just met. You dont know

anything about me. He eyed her flushed cheeks, and then his gaze dropped lower, to the hard buds peeking out through the thin silk of her dress. A tiny smile appeared at the corner of his mouth. Im not sure that matters. Of course it matters, she flared, drawing strength from his statement. Look, Im here to make my hundred thousand dollars and get the hell out of LA as quickly as possible. Im not interested in entanglements. Understand? He assessed her silently and then nodded. If you say so. He didnt believe her. She could see it in his eyes. But she knew what would happen if she tried to explain. Shed tell him how she valued her privacy and how

she wasnt interested in casual sex, and hed look at her with pity and pretend he understood. Meanwhile, hed be thinking what a pathetic, frigid freak she must be. She made her voice firm. I do. Its been a long day, and weve got an early call tomorrow. Can we just drop it? If you insist, he said. The last thing I want is to interrupt your beauty sleep. Six a.m. call. Ill look forward to hearing your ideas for bringing about this great reconciliation between Jake and Lena. Unsure from his wry smile what he wasor was notdropping, Alix grabbed her purse from the couch. Fine. Great. Ill see you tomorrow. Her words tripped over each other nervously. She caught sight of him staring at her

bottom as she bent over to retrieve her bag. His grin widened. I will look forward to it. Theres nothing I like better than to watch a master working her craft. # Ryker walked Alix to her car and then returned to the screening room. He sank down into the couch, smile fading as he focused on the projection screen and the frozen image of Lena and Jake. He jabbed at the remote control until their faces faded away. What a night. From Alixs transformation to that amazing kiss, nothing had gone the way hed expected. Shed gotten under his skin from the very start with her probing questions about love and sex. Hed turned on the charm

then because he remembered from their first meeting that it seemed to fluster her. Shed responded with a mix of nervousness and defiance that he couldnt help but enjoy. He had assumed a woman with her background would have been hit on thousands of times, but she didnt have the tough skin or the casual cynicism he would have expected. He certainly hadnt expected to find a mix of innocence and temptation, all wrapped up together in one saucy package of sultry emerald eyes and smooth skin. And her mouth Lord, nothing could have prepared him for that mouth. Hot and wet, sucking him into a dark pool of passion that he would have willingly drowned in, right then and there. With one kiss shed turned on his

entire body. It was remarkable. She was a puzzle, a knot he wanted to unravel more and more every time he saw her. Shed trembled with anticipation when hed touched her. Hed felt the shiver run through her, seen how her nipples hardened instantly under his touch. Her body didnt hesitate before reacting, even if her mind told her it should. Her hips had melded with his; her lips teased him with unrestrained passion. And she was ready to throw that away because they were coworkers? Because she didnt want to live in LA? A woman who worshipped at the altar of good sex and made movies dedicated to the art of arousal didnt have time for entanglements?

Ryker shook his head. He turned out the rest of the lights in the bungalow and got into his car. If nothing else, the mystery of Alix had momentarily distracted him from the train wreck Salvas Revenge had become. Hell, hed be distracted all night long just thinking about the touch of her tongue on his. As he pulled out onto the freeway, a smile played around the corner of his mouth. Twice now Alix had pushed him away. One might think hed be frustrated, embarrassed even. But instead he was strangely energized. He couldnt wait to see her tomorrow and see what shed do next. He half expected an entirely different person to greet him in the morning. It was as if they were in the first act

of a three-act play, and he didnt know yet how the story would end. Though he had a very good guess.

Chapter Eight Alix practically ran back to her car, not stopping until she hit the cool outside air. She fumbled with the car key and slid into the front seat, her hands shaking. Two blocks later, her heartbeat was still racing, and there was a suspicious warmth between her thighs. Damn him. Damn him for being just as dangerous as shed expected. Damn him for giving her that horrible, seductive smilethe one shed seen him use in all his movies to get the girl into bed. And damn her for still wanting him. When the light turned green, Alix forced herself to accelerate rapidly and merge into the next lane. She had to stop thinking about Ryker and pay attention to

her driving, or shed end up in a ten-car pile-up on the 101. Then shed really be the laughingstock of Hollywood. Her phone rang in her purse, and she jumped at the sound. She managed to extract her cell just as the call went to voice mail, her car swerving into the next lane. A horn honked, and someone sped by, shouting. She cringed and sank down in the seat. Truthfully, she was a horrible driver. Shed grown up a foster kid in New York City and moved into her own apartment when she was seventeen. Shed never had the money or the need for a car until she moved to LA, after film school. By then it was too late. She didnt have the reflexes. She studiously ignored the honking horns and looked at the phone, half

thinking shed see Rykers name on her caller ID. It was Gunther. Of course, Gunther. Shed promised shed call him when she got into town. She straightened in her seat and adjusted the rearview mirror. As she did, she caught a quick look at her flushed face and shook her head with disgust. Gunther couldnt see her like this. He would know something was wrong. She had to pull herself together. Alix deliberately took five deep, slow breaths. She hit the air conditioning and rolled down the windows. Ryker, she reminded herself, was just a man. A man with the face and body of a Greek god, perhaps, but a man. And she had very clear rules for dealing with men;

rules that would ensure she never, ever made the same mistakes shed made in the past. Rule one: no sex without love. That eliminated most wannabe actors and directors from the dating pool. Hollywood-types wanted sex, nothing more. In fact, once she made rule one, she didnt really need a rule two. Thirty white-knuckled minutes and two near-collisions later, she pulled up to the gate in front of a sprawling Bel Air mansion. She tapped in a passcode and waited for the heavy iron to retract. When it did, she accelerated up the drive to the front of the palatial, three-story mansion Gunther called home. A modern wonder in white stucco and steel, the house flowed in narrow

rectangles up and down a sprawling hillside, with expansive views of the city at every level. A series of connected pools surrounded three sides of the building, and the gurgle of the moving water filled the quiet night. Gunther met her at the front door. His short, white-blond hair was neatly spiked from his head, his round, smooth cheeks cherubic as always. He wore dark pants and a black silk T-shirt that showed off his physique, which, despite being in his mid-sixties, rivaled many of the actors cast through his production company. I wondered when you were going to show up, he grumbled. I finally had to call the studio to see if you had arrived. Alix ran around the side of the car and let him envelop her in a hug. Im

sorry. Ryker kept mebusy. The warmth of his grumble made her smile. No one cared about her the way Gunther did. It still felt like a small miracle every time she saw him, and she wondered where her life might have taken her had he not insisted she join his film class. Gunther held her shoulders and stepped back a pace. What on earth are you wearing? Dont tell me Rykers already got you prancing around town in your minidress. Thats a second-date dress, not a first! Alix rolled her eyes. It wasnt for him, she said. I was trying to blend in. Jeans didnt seem like the right message. And the message would betake me, Im yours? Gunther planted his hands on his hips and glared. He had

made millions scaring actors, directors, and agents with that stare, but Alix knew there was nothing behind it. At least, when applied to her. I thought you wanted me to go out more. Werent you just saying that? Not without me, he snapped. Not with Ryker Valentine. Alix tucked her hair behind her ears and slipped her arm into the crook of his elbow. I see youre feeling very paternal tonight. Shall we pour you a cup of warm milk and tuck you off to bed? He snorted but allowed her to lead him back into the house. Make it a gin and tonic, and then well talk. Now, how was your flight? A bit bumpy. But I survived. They walked a step down into a

sunken living room. A thick white shag rug tickled her toes through her sandals. The room was stark, white and steel, with an enormous black-and-white picture over the mantel of a large fireplace. The picture was of a man and woman kissing, their faces half hidden by the womans hair, which whipped around them as if stirred by a strong wind. The mans hands cupped her jaw. Her shoulders were bare, their edges blurred by movement. Alix winced when she saw it. Havent you taken that down yet? Oh, hush. Its some of your best work, Gunther reproved. He walked over to a wet bar on the other side of the room. Martini? Alix shook her head. Not unless you want to peel me off the floor in an hour.

You can always stay here, you know. I know. But Im already checked into the hotel. And shed never felt comfortable here. She didnt need to say it out loud. He understood. The opulence made her feel like she was trespassing in someones museum. At least hotels didnt pretend to be a home. I cant believe you would pick a hotel over me, Gunther said. Its the Hotel Bel-Air. Alix grinned. How could I turn down such luxury? Youll stay here on the weekends, at least. Alix inclined her head back toward the picture. I heard from them a month or so ago. Apparently theyre expecting. Gunther gave a look that

acknowledged her blatant attempt to change the subject, but he did not argue further. Did you film the conception? She shot him an annoyed look as she slid into a chair that wasnt nearly as comfortable as it appeared. Gunther! Im just asking, he said innocently. He looked back to the door as if expecting someone to follow behind her. Wheres the puppy? One of the local kids is dog-sitting. This is no place for a dog. At least, a fullsize dog. Gunther shook his head. Can you believe those things they dress up in sweaters and call dogs these days? Now Rex, hes a real dog. You just like him because hes German.

Of course. Tell me, what did Ryker think of him? I dont think Rykers a big fan. Gunther smirked. I didnt think he would be. Alix sighed. I will never understand men and their practical jokes. Its a sign of respect, really. But enough chatter. Hows my movie? Is there any hope? Alix dropped her head against the back of the chair. You didnt tell me our leads hated each other. Hate is such a strong word, he said. Besides, I didnt know it had gotten that bad. At least, I didnt know until I saw that scene. He shuddered. I still cant believe Ryker wasted actual film on that. I should have fired him on the spot. How

is he, by the way? Its been a week or so since Ive been on the set. Is he holding up? Do you think youll work well together? He handed her a glass of club soda with a slice of lime. She took a sip and let the bubbles tickle her nose as she considered her words. Well, she said carefully, its early to say. But I am a little concerned about him. How so? You know how he feels about sex? I have some idea, Gunther said, a trace of irony in his voice. Hes a bit disillusioned, you could say? Hmm. Disillusioned would suggest he had some illusions at some point. Im not so sure about that. Hes adamant about sex not being a romantic endeavor.

I cant help but think thats influencing the film. Gunther poured a healthy measure of gin into a shaker. Its inevitable. I told you he thinks love is a fantasy. He makes no secret of that. And you still went with him for this film? Its fairly important to the story, Gunther. Hes so good otherwise, it seemed worth the risk. I thought he could contain it. He had such good ideas for the film. No one today does drama like Ryker. And I thought casting Lena and Jake Redburn together was sheer genius. When theyre working well togetherwell, they just pop. Its remarkable. She stared down at her glass, picturing the scene shed viewed earlier

that night, and then the dark light in his eyes, afterwards, when hed touched her. Theres certainly some powerful chemistry there, if we can only channel it in the right direction. But its more than the acting. That scene She shuddered. He shot in low-angle and high-angle and used Jakes point of view throughout. It felt dark. Claustrophobic. I didnt say anything because Ryker was already upset about it. It wasnt just the absence of romanceit was more. She looked up at Gunther. Tell me, you know all the gossip. What am I really dealing with here? Is he a woman-hater? Did he get dumped at the altar? Have a wife who fooled around on him? Gunther sat across from her and set his martini glass down on a glass-topped

coffee table. He pulled the olive from his glass and popped it in his mouth before taking a healthy slurp. Is your interest personal or professional? Professional! she said, wishing she could somehow douse the hot blush that immediately covered her cheeks. Are you sure? Alix did not meet his eyes. Yes. If you say so. He eyed her suspiciously. He eats little girls like you for dinner, Alix. Just keep that in mind. Gunther, I am not a little girl. I know how to deal with men like Ryker. Alix, youre not nearly as tough as you think you are. Youve had experience with cheap bastards like Reece Fawcett and teenage boys. You havent been with anyone like Ryker.

Reece was the last guy shed dated in film school. Shed thought things between them were going great, and then hed suddenly stopped returning her calls. He told her later it was because was tired of dating a frigid virgin. The ironic thing was that she was the furthest thing from either frigid or virginal. Forget that the men had been jerks, every last one of them, and that shed been desperate for love. The fact was, shed had sex and plenty of it. Driven by a constant hunger for affection, beginning at the tender age of fifteen shed tumbled through a series of horrible relationships, none of which had given her what shed really needed. Years of reckless behavior had caught up with her when she was seventeen. She

hadnt even known she was pregnant until shed spent days having cramps, and then started bleeding. With a foster parent who was more likely to give her the back of a hand as a loving hug, shed kept it all to herself. When the bleeding wouldnt stop, shed been forced to check into a hospital. Gunther had been the one person shed trusted enough to call for help. And right then and there, shed made a commitment: no more sex without love. When Gunther arrived to take her home with him, she told him about her vow, perhaps seeking absolution, or perhaps simply needing to talk to someone about how stupid shed been, and how determined she was not to make the same mistake again. Hed taken in her

flurry of words with a gentle, loving nod, making no attempt to question her youthful resolve. Now, the whole thing seemed like such a joke. No sex without love? She might as well say no sex, period. Im here to work on a movie, Gunther, not get involved. You know that better than anyone. So tell me the scoop. Whats his story? Gunther shrugged. I wish I knew. There is no wife that Ive ever heard about. No engagement either. In fact, Im not sure Ive ever seen him with the same woman more than a few nights in a row. As far as I know, hes a confirmed bachelor, but thats hardly unusual around here. Alix leaned back and sighed.

Perhaps he was born without a heart. Hes estranged from his family. That may have something to do with it. His mother was unmarried when he was born, and there are always plenty of rumors swirling around about who his father might be. He grew up in South Central and moved out of the house when he was a teenager. Gunther sipped his drink. Who knows. Whatever the reason, youll have to find some way around it. Great. She stared at her hands. Ive got actors who hate each other and a director without a heart. Gunther smiled. If anyone can turn this movie around, its you. Im not sure why you think that. I havent worked on a movie for years, and its not as if I was ever a genius when it

came to film. Frankly, I think you may have overestimated my abilities. She meant to say it wryly, but the words that emerged held a hint of panic. Gunther, always attuned to her real feelings, turned sharply toward her. Whats this nonsense? Did Ryker say something like that? She shook her head, regretting the attempt at a joke. Its justforget it. Im just tired. She had known from the start that Ryker didnt want her on the set and didnt believe she had anything to offer to the film. But tonight shed heard firsthand just how cynical he was. The more she thought about it, the more depressed she became. In the clip shed seen, Lena and Jake looked worse together than

anything Ryker had directed in the past. And now that she knew how intractable Ryker was, her task seemed almost insurmountable. But she could hardly say that to Guntherthe very person who had insisted she be there. His voice softened. Alix, this is Gunther. Tell me whats going on. She closed her eyes and ran her fingers through her hair. Its going to be an uphill climb. You know that, right? I dont want any expectations that I can pull off some kind of miracle. Im just supposed to film the romance, Gunther. I dont know how to make it. Nonsense. You did exactly that a hundred times over when we worked together.

No, I didnt. I took actors and put them in bed together. I added some pretty lighting and a womans perspective, and youd think I reinvented the wheel. This is different. Theres real emotion at play here. You understand emotion, Gunther said softly. You understand what it means to be hurt. Im not sure Ryker does. She grimaced. Great. So Im supposed to be the emotional conduit for the entire movie? Thanks. That makes me feel much better. He chuckled. All right, liebling, perhaps we should change the subject. Hows the book coming? She wadded her napkin and threw it at him.

Not a better subject? She paused and studied the bubbles rising in her glass. Lately I just feel She sought for the right word. I feel stuck. I dont know how Im going to turn around your movie when I cant even get my own work right. I thought you were almost done. One or two more couples, you said. She stood and paced to a wide bank of windows that looked out over flat pools of water sparkling with moonlight. No. You were right. Its more than that. The truth is, I dont know how to finish it. Somethings missing, and I cant figure out what. I keep taking more pictures, and theyre all wrong. Sometimes you just have to pull the plug, Gunther said. Know when to

quit. No, she snapped. Im not quitting. Im going to figure it out. I just need time. He held up his hands. Okay, okay. At least give yourself a break. Forget about the book and think about Salvas Revenge. Im betting one hundred thousand dollars and one month that you can fix it. I have faith in you, my dear, even if you dont. Thanks. Alix drained her glass and gazed back out the window. Thanks a million.

Chapter Nine By the time Alix arrived at the studio the next morning, Ryker was already there, peering through a viewfinder from various positions around the set and mumbling to himself. She tried to ignore the leap of her pulse when she saw him, taut backside outlined by a snug pair of tan chinos, dark hair reflecting the bright studio lights. He spun around when the door clicked shut. Youre here. One side of his mouth quirked upward. I wasnt sure if you would come back, after last night. For a moment, she froze, imagining the heat between their bodies and the stark invitation shed seen in his eyes just before she fled. Then she forced herself to

relax and take a deep breath. He was talking about the film. Surely he was talking about the film. Theyd agreed to put aside anything else, hadnt they? I love a challenge, she said brightly. Me too. He seemed to imply something with those words, something that made her squirm, though she could not have articulated a reason why. He eyed her bulky sweatshirt, dark glasses, and jeans. I see youve got your grubbies on today. She tried to look nonchalant, adjusting her worn canvas backpack on one shoulder before burying her hands in her pockets. Everything on the set looked the same as it had the night before, the heavy glass ashtray back in place on the end table, the cushions arranged

symmetrically on the couch. I told you, this is how Im most comfortable. He turned his back to her and put the viewfinder to his eye again. Whatever you say. So he was going to pretend nothing had happened. That was good, right? Nothing had happened, really. Hed kissed her. Made an offer she refused. It was likely an unusual event for him, but ultimately meaningless. If Ryker was frustrated, he didnt need her help to unwind. There were thousands of women who would be thrilled to crawl into his bed. Hed probably waited about thirty seconds after shed left before hed called one. What are we shooting this morning? She had studied the script into

the wee hours of the morning but suddenly couldnt remember a word of what shed read. The scene we rehearsed yesterday. He picked up a dog-eared copy of a script from the coffee table and scribbled some notes on the page. Its just a kiss. I figured Jake and Lena should be able to handle that, at least. Any new ideas? I thought that was your job. He slipped the viewfinder into his pocket and made another note, the sound of his pencil scratching on the paper echoing in the large, open space. Alix dropped her backpack on the floor a few feet away and pulled out her own copy of the script. She flipped to the scene and spent a moment reviewing her notes

before she looked up. She took a deep breath. I do have some thoughts on how we might do this differently. If she hadnt been staring at them, shed never have noticed the way his shoulders tightened at her words. The tiny movement reminded her of the frustration that had spilled out of him the night before. Ryker was a proud man. It didnt take Dr. Phil to understand that he didnt entirely appreciate her presence on the set or the suggestion that she could fix what he couldnt. By all means, he said, gesturing for her to continue. Share your thoughts. Alix steeled herself for his reaction. Well, as you said last night, we cant do much about their relationship. So I

thought wed start by focusing on what we can controlthe way youve structured the scene. As it is now, Jake kisses Lena, right? I mean, shes been working on getting him to kiss her for a while, but hes the one who takes the initiative. And its pretty abrupt. He comes into the room and checks the windows first. Like this. She mimicked his movements as she moved around the stage, shutting out Ryker and losing herself in the memory of the scene. She stopped at the end of the couch. He ends up beside Lena, and they exchange a few lines. And the next thing you know, he hauls her into his arms, and theyre kissing. Yes, and? It sets up the wrong dynamic, she

said flatly. Lena should be the one in charge. Its her seduction, not his. Later, he should remember that she was the one to kiss him, not the other way around, and it will make him suspicious. Besides, I think the more control we build into the scene for her, the more comfortable shell feel as an actor. Show me, Ryker demanded. He positioned himself on the far right side of the stage. Im Hank. Ive just come from an encounter with a menacing thug that I think may be working for Lenas brother. Ive come here because Im worried about her, but Im also suspicious that she may be caught up in the business. Alix nibbled her lower lip and sat down on the arm of the couch, as Lena had the day before. So you stalk around

the room, as much for her benefit as yours. Shes by the couch, watching. The camera follows her point of view, varied between broad shots of your upper body and tight shots on your hands hovering near your gun, maybe your upper back and the side of your face. Ryker walked around the set slowly. He looked thoughtful but not hostile. Alix decided that was a good sign. Then when you come over to the couch, Lena stands up. Shes nervous; maybe her hands are trembling. But she knows what she has to do. Ryker stopped a few inches from her. Alix held out one hand toward him. Shes pleading, supplicating. He took her hand slowly. Alix rose to her feet, the touch of his hand instantly

bringing a warm tingle through her body. Well need to rewrite a bit of the script here. She says you cant stay, but shes holding on to you like shes terrified to let go. Shes saying one thing, but her body is telling you something else. She touches your chest, and you cover her hand with yours. Alix placed her hand over Rykers heart and felt the strong, steady beat through the smooth cotton of his shirt. He brought his other hand to touch hers, and the jolt of energy that followed was so strong she jumped. And then? he said, his voice low. Why dont we wait for Jake and Lena to get here, she gasped. Her body seemed paralyzed, held in place by the force of his hand closing over hers.

If were going to bring something new to them, I want to understand what it is first, he said. This partnership isnt going to work if we dont have a unified front. She had to admit he had a point. It isnt complicated. She tried to extract her hand from his, but his fingers tightened around hers. You exchange a look with her. You tell her shes driving you crazy, but you cant get romantically involved while youre on a case. You start to pull away. She begs you to stay. She brings your arms around her. Alix twined Rykers arm around her body, trying to convince herself that they were actors in a movie. That she was not inches away from the body she longed to rub herself against

like a cat at a scratching post. You stop, body rigid. Your breathing quickens. She caresses the side of your face, your hair. You hold back from her, but youre obviously fighting a losing battle. His hair felt soft on her fingers, his jaw rough with dark stubble. Had he not shaved that morning? Alix swallowed hard but forced herself to continue. She twines her fingers in your hair and pulls your face down to hers. You follow her lead, slowly but surely, eyes never leaving hers. Rykers dark gaze devoured her. Her thoughts seemed determined to scatter, but she forced them back to the reason she was holding him. And then they kiss. Ryker moved his mouth next to hers,

so close she could feel the touch of his breath sliding across her cheek. And its your kiss, not mine? he asked. Youre in control? Alix nodded, taking short, shallow breaths, fearing her breasts might brush against him if she sucked in air the way she wanted. But how do I feel? Rykers eyes never left hers. He had moved his hand to her back, pressing her body gently but firmly toward his. She resisted until the force of his hand pushed her slightly off balance, and she had to take a step forward to steady herself. The tiny movement brought their legs brushing against each other. Im a man who is used to being in charge. And now Im suddenly going to let you run the show?

She swallowed hard. Myerher kiss sets off a fire that neither of you can control. When you look back, all you remember is that she kissed you, and then everything went to black. Rykers mouth moved even closer. Alix swayed. Her eyes felt heavy, the weight of his gaze dragging them closed. And what does the camera do? Stays framed on their faces. This is where they shut out the rest of the world. Nothing matters but that kiss. Only when they break apart do we cut to a wider shot, bring the rest of the world back in. His gaze flicked from her mouth to her eyes, caressing her with everything but his hands. Just as her body began to scream for more, he straightened abruptly.

I like the first part, he said. Hate the end. It isnt true to Jakes character. Men dont lose themselves like that. A man like Jake would be thinking about his duty as a cop. Hed be worrying about who might come in and wondering whether hes ever going to get laid. He dropped her hand and walked back to pick up the script hed discarded on the table next to them. We can give it a try, but I have to be honest with you. Im not buying it. The heat drained from Alixs body. Instantly, she was reminded where she was and what they were doing. She had to convince this man, this hot-blooded but strangely cold-hearted man, that romance had a place in his movie. And if she hadnt known it before,

she knew it now. This would not be easy. # Stop! The frustration in Rykers voice matched Alixs mounting exasperation. You two remember youre supposed to be attracted to each other, right? Lena, positioned behind a kitchen counter, raised one perfectly trimmed eyebrow. Im just trying to do what you said, Ryker. She gestured contemptuously toward Jake. Im playing him for a fool. Didnt you get that? Oh, we all got that, Lena, Jake drawled. He wore a pair of faded jeans, a tattered T-shirt, and a gun holster around one shoulder. As he stuck his thumbs into the corners of his back pockets, he

looked like six feet of muscled, pissed-off cop. You arent doing much better, Ryker said. In contrast to Jake, Ryker wore casually elegant clothes that screamed money and style, from his perfectly tailored shirts to his dark, coffee-colored loafers. After three long days on the set, Alix had never seen Ryker looking rumpled, wrinkled, or sloppy. It was infuriating, actually. Just once, she wanted to see him with a coffee stain on his shirt or an errant wrinkle in his trousers. You look at her as if shes a cobra who might strike at any minute. Im a cop, Jake said. Shes a suspect. Im hardly going to let down my guard completely. Alix gritted her teeth and tamped

down the desire to throttle all three of them. Can we put that aside for a minute? she interjected. You all are focusing on the things that are keeping Hank and Salva apart. I need you to focus on the things that are drawing them together. Lena, look at him. Alix gestured toward Jake. Hes in your kitchen oozing pure masculinity and power. You want to think that youre using him, but deep down, you suspect you might be the one losing control. Jake grinned. I like that. Pure masculinity and power. Thanks, Alix. Alix smiled back but only for a second. Dont let it go to your head. Youre a cop, but youre also a man. You want her, and youre not sure how long you can resist. Got it? Enough with the

kid gloves. You arent scared of her, Jake. Youre wary. Theres a big difference. Now, can we start from the top? Jake and Lena both turned to Ryker. Alix held her breath. It always came back to this. Like kids waiting for approval from a parent, when Alix pushed them, Jake and Lena always looked to Ryker for support. And as much as Ryker tried to back her upand she had to admit that he did trywhen it came down to it, he didnt believe in what she was attempting to do, and the actors knew it. Ryker nodded, though to Alixs eyes, it was painfully obvious that he didnt believe a word shed said. Do it again, he said. They walked through the scene two

more times before Ryker held up a tired hand. Look, this isnt getting any better. Lena, Jake enters the kitchen on your first line, not your second, and I need you behind the counter when he crosses the threshold. Then, just as he starts to speak, you cross left, not right, and end up next to him, not five feet away. Lena rolled her eyes and flounced into place. Jake scowled and took his place offstage. Ryker crossed his arms over his chest and gave them both black stares. One could almost see the thundercloud hovering over the set. The chance of them producing a romantic interlude in which Lena ended up on the kitchen counter with her legs wrapped around Jakes waist seemed next

to nil. Ryker, Alix interrupted, its one oclock. Why dont we give Jake and Lena an hour off, and you and I can talk about this some more? Maybe we can put our heads together and think of something new to try. They had made some progress over the three days. Not much but some. Theyd filmed one scenethe kissand it was better than it had been before. Alix had convinced Ryker to allow Jake to show more vulnerability, and they had changed some of the camerawork to bring a womans perspective to the scene. Where before the camera had looked at Lenas body through Jakes eyes, now they used Lenas point of view, the camera lingering on Jakes hands and shoulders

and brushing nervously across his gun before settling on his lips. Where Ryker liked to use darker lighting, Alix convinced him to introduce hints of warmer colors for scenes with Lena and Jake together. But their progress was painfully slow, and neither Alix nor Ryker was entirely happy with the results. Though she hadnt figured out how to say it, Alix had realized they could rehearse until they were blue in the face, and Lena could cross left instead of right, and Jake could stop looking like he was kissing a black widow spider, but the scene still wouldnt work. Until she could get Ryker to buy in, nothing else mattered. Finally, Lena grumbled.

Something that makes sense. Jake glared at Lena. Cant you even be civil? Shes trying to save your movie, you know. Oh, so now its my movie, is it? I thought this was all about you, Lena replied acidly. Ryker hesitated for a minute, obviously debating the benefits of spending the hour yelling at the actors versus letting everyone get a little bit of distance. Finally, he turned to Alix. A break would be a good idea. Take an hour, everyone, he called. Well start back at two. Jake and Lena wandered off the set together, still arguing. Alix stretched her arms over her head and yawned. Being around the two of them was absolutely

exhausting. They bounced off each other with a restless energy that was all the more infuriating because it could have been so powerful had it been appropriately directed. Instead it was wasted on bickering and twisted sexual tension hidden behind a cloud of fear and frustration. So, what did you have in mind? The deep voice startled her, and she dropped her arms abruptly, realizing the bare skin of her stomach was exposed. Three days hadnt done much to chill the desire that Ryker inspired. If only she could have maintained the outrage hed stirred up with his initial assumptions about her ability to help, perhaps things would have been fine. But her anger had faded all too quickly. As much as she

wanted to hate him, once they settled down to work together, he had become the consummate professional. He treated her with respect, though he clearly disagreed with her suggestions. He focused with single-minded intensity on the movie, as if he could make things better by sheer force of will. He cajoled and intimidated but was never disrespectful. For the first time in a long time, Alix was excited to get up and go to work in the morning. The problem was her damned libido. Every time Ryker bent over and she was forced to view his perfect backside, outlined by those should-be-illegal pants, her stomach quivered. When he flashed that ironic smile, the one that seemed to

reflect some deep inner humor, she found herself furiously speculating about what was really happening behind his dark eyes. Then hed touch her hand or stand closer than was absolutely necessary and send her back into a tizzy. Oh, I thought maybe wed Alix struggled to get her mind back to the present. Maybe we could get outside a little? Go for a walk? Walk? You mean, leave the studio? A slow smile creased the hard lines of Rykers face. What a novel concept. I tend to walk a lot when Im stuck, Alix admitted. But I guess that makes more sense when you live on the beach. I do the same. If it didnt take an hour just to get there, Id say we should go back to my place.

You live on the ocean? Alix asked. Ryker nodded. First thing I did when I made a little moneybought a place with private beach access up the coast in Malibu. Sounds lovely. Ill have to take you there some time. Alixs heart fluttered nervously. She was not going to get involved with Ryker, she reminded herself firmly, steeling her eyes not to linger on his lean hips. His dark eyes grew knowing as she took a half step back. Uh, sure, she said, forcing a calm smile. Maybe when were done filming. He chuckled. Chicken. She felt the color steal into her cheeks. With one word, he put her back

into the viewing room with his lips on her shoulder, and her body flushed with heat. Ryker, youre not She trailed off as his eyes flicked from her face to her chest and then back. Alix, did you know that when you blush, you turn pink all the way down to your collarbones? he said, his voice conversational. It occurred to her that going off the studio grounds might not be a good idea after all. You know, weve got a lot to talk about. Maybe we should just stay here. Ryker shook his head. Wildwood Canyon is only ten minutes away. We wont have time for a long walk, but at least well get away from that. He

gestured toward Jake and Lena, who were still glaring at each other, even as they grabbed lunch from the catering table. All right, she said, wishing with all her might that she could take back her hasty suggestion. Despite her fears, Ryker didnt make any further suggestive remarks as they headed out of the studio. With the same casual chivalry hed shown when they went to dinner together, he opened the door of his car for her, waited until she had seated herself, and then closed it gently behind. Alix forced herself to relax into the smooth leather seat of the cherry-red Mercedes. The car had two seats, a sleek mahogany instrument panel, and a long front end. Something about it made her

feel like she was driving off to see the premier of a Gene Kelly film. The sun bathed her skin in a gentle warmth, and Alix rolled down her window to let the breeze in as they pulled out of the parking lot. She rested her head against the seat and tried not to think about how close Ryker was and how intimate the tiny space between them. What kind of car is this? she asked, uncomfortable with the silence. I mean, besides a Mercedes. Its a 1960 300 SL Roadster. Wow, she said, trying to sound as if that meant something to her. He slid her a sideways glance as they accelerated onto the highway. I dont really know anything about cars either,

he said. I just think it looks cool. Alix laughed, and her shoulders slowly relaxed. I thought all men knew something about cars. Isnt that programmed into the Y chromosome? Cars and sports? If so, I may be a double X in disguise, he said. I never had much interest in either. Really? You werent quarterback for your high school football team? I spent most of my youth dodging the police and my stepfather, both of which sent me to the movie theater. By the time I hit high school, I was saving money for acting classes. Sports were for other kids. I didnt have time. She studied him through her lashes, his profile a mix of hard, rigid planes and

a mouth twisted with wry humor. She realized that that combination seemed to define himdarkness and humor. What was your favorite? she asked impulsively. Favorite movie, I mean. He shrugged. It didnt matter to me. Anything with car chases and explosions, when I was young. My mother dragged me to some of the better films when I got a little older. I suppose my all-time favorite would have to be Citizen Kane, and of course anything by Hitchcock. What about you? Alix considered for a moment. I cant say I really have one favorite. That seems to change by the season. I think Ingmar Bergman may be my all-time favorite director, though lately Ive been partial to Almodvar.

Ryker shook his head sadly. I should have known. Alix giggled. Too romantic for you? He snorted. What do you think? They chatted easily, and Alix forgot about her nerves and fear of being alone with him. Ryker handled the car with careless precision, one hand resting loosely on the gearshift, long fingers tapping idly on the steering wheel. They rode slowly through the stately, residential houses at the edge of Burbank and then turned up a narrow road into one of the steep canyons that led to the Verdugo Mountains. After a mile or so, they turned into the park. A small gatehouse marked the entrance. The road climbed up into the canyon, winding past

a number of picnic tables set amid tall sycamores and pine trees, fragrant in the warm afternoon sun. They parked in a small lot at the end of the road. Ryker slid on a pair of dark glasses and jammed a dark brown fedora on his head. A fiendishly good disguise, Alix said, straight-faced. Ryker looked at her over the top of his glasses. Youd never recognize me, right? She laughed. I never recognized you in the first place, remember? The path was narrow and dusty, hardpacked yellow sand and loose rocks. Alix pulled off her sweatshirt and tied it around her waist, sweat beading up on her forehead as they left the shade of the

tall trees and ventured out under the bright sun. The path had been carved into the side of the canyon, steep and winding, with the vista of the city spread out in front of them and the canyon walls rising at their backs. The air was warm and still, birds twittering from steel-gray sage and the hardy, desert vegetation that thrived along the canyon walls. There had been two other cars in the parking lot, but the trail was empty and quiet, save for the crunch of the gravel beneath their feet. The studio seemed a million miles away. Alix held her arms at her sides, acutely aware that the narrow trail had them practically touching, their bodies mere inches apart. So how are we going to make this

work? Ryker said suddenly. Alix cocked her head. What do you mean? Were coming at this movie from opposite sides. How do we bring it together? She paused, surprised that he had brought up the very issue shed been dancing around. Its your movie, she said carefully. Im just trying to do what you hired me to do. I cant make you believe in something you think is nonsense. On the other hand, if I cant get you to suspend your beliefs, Im not sure were going to get anywhere. He did not respond. Alix wondered if she had been too direct, but when she dared a look at his face, he seemed thoughtful, not angry. They walked in

silence, their shoes crunching on the sandy trail. They followed the path until they came to a fork, one route continuing up into the mountains, the other following along the top of a ridge before dipping back toward the road in a series of steep switchbacks. Ryker motioned toward the ridge, and they continued until they reached a small clearing. Alix stopped to catch her breath and then noticed a couple a few hundred yards ahead of them, several switchbacks below. They were facing each other, and the man held the womans face in his hands. Alix stared, instantly captivated by the emotion plainly evident in her eyes. Wishing you had your camera? Ryker whispered.

Hush, Alix responded. The man lowered his head and kissed the woman; it was a long, slow kiss that started with her mouth and trailed down her neck. His arms wound around her body and settled on her bottom. He pulled her tightly against him, and she gave a soft cry of delight. Ryker checked behind them and shuffled his feet uncomfortably. Alix, dont you usually get permission first? She frowned, eyes not leaving the man and woman. Theyre in a public park. They dont mind. Really? I thought Alix waved him quiet. Look at how hes touching her, she said. Can you see how he adores her? How hes completely focused on her?

Ryker turned reluctantly back to the couple. I see that hes risking being arrested for public indecency. Kids use this park, you know. Alix glared at him. Look at them, she ordered. Look at them and then think about our movie. They are completely lost in each other. Thats what we need Jake and Lena to do. Lose themselves in each other. Cant you see how shes yielding to him? How she uses her body to tell him she wants him? The man dipped his face into the womans neck and then looked up again to meet her gaze. He murmured something Alix couldnt hear, but the words hardly mattered. The womans eyes shone, and she nodded and smiled. The man trailed the back of his hand along

her cheek and then across her breast. Her eyes closed, and she arched her back. Watch him caress her, Alix whispered. Watch her respond with her whole body. They are communicating on every level right now, body and mind. Ryker was silent. They watched for another moment, Ryker peering nervously over his shoulder every few minutes. Alix, its not going to do either of us any good to end up on the cover of a tabloid watching a couple make out in the park. Reluctantly, she nodded, and he gave a warning cough as they started forward again. The couple barely moved as Alix and Ryker walked past, their bodies draped against each other. Ryker continued down the path, Alix

following a few paces behind, careful not to accidentally come in contact with him. You watch that sort of thing all the time? Ryker asked. He looked back up the trail to the spot where they had seen the couple, though it was hidden now from view by the thick vegetation. Im probably a little too liberal with it, Alix admitted, brushing the sweat from her forehead. There are some who get annoyed. But youre absolutely comfortable with it. With watching, I mean? Its beautiful, she said simply, her gaze drawn back by his soft voice. I hate that people dont get to look at that beauty. Why should we look away just because people are expressing love for each other?

Ryker paused in the trail, considering her words. And thats what you want our movie to look like? Alix nodded. Thats it. He looked into her eyes, and Alix felt herself being searched, measured. She wanted to lean forward and touch the brown skin exposed at the neck of his shirt but instead jammed her hands into her pockets and turned away. He pulled her back with a gentle tug to her arm. Okay, I get it. Thats what you want it to look like. But whats it supposed to feel like, Alix? Can you help me with that?

Chapter Ten It took only the time for her to catch her breath before his lips swooped down to capture hers. And it took only that breath for Alix to lose control of all her convictions and dissolve under the heat of that kiss. Her arms, traitorous pair, wound themselves around his neck. He was tall enough that she had to stand on tiptoe, and that movement sent her offbalance, leaning into him and inadvertently pressing her body along the length of his. The kiss was different from the night before. Sudden. Intense. A depth of passion swept from her lips to her toes. He traced the edge of her bottom lip with his tongue, sucked gently on the plump

flesh he found there, and then plunged into the opening beyond. His arm clasped around her waist, fingers tickling the sensitive skin of her stomach. Impatient, he tugged the bulky fabric of her shirt aside and reached for that bare skin. A soft moan came from somewhere. Alix realized, almost as if in a dream, that it came from her. He continued to bathe her in his kiss, stroking and licking, until she clutched his shoulders and pressed her hips closer to him, zinging sensations running up and down her spine, lingering in her breasts. Is this what it should feel like? he murmured, trailing kisses down her neck. Or perhaps this? She arched her back, unable to think about what she was

doing, what he was doing. His teeth found her nipple, biting softly through the fabric of her shirt, and her hips jerked in time. She closed her eyes, fighting for control. Ryker, what are you doing? Experimenting. I cant direct something if I dont know how it feels. He cupped her buttocks in his hands, drawing her closer. She could feel his hardness nestled between her legs, and it sent her reeling. She gasped. I thought we werent going to do this. Do what? He stroked her stomach. She sucked in her breath. This, she said. We werent going to do this. She intended the words to come out firm, but they sounded breathy and uncertain.

Were coworkers, remember? He recaptured her mouth and sent her senses reeling with a series of long, slow kisses. Thats exactly why we need this. Youre going to show me how our movie should be shot. He tugged at the elastic containing her hair, sending it cascading around her shoulders. He tangled his fingers in its length. His fingers at her scalp produced a whole new series of tingles up and down her body. As coworkers. He gazed into her eyes, his dark liquid stare so intense and pure she couldnt look away. I wanted this for Jake and Lena, she said, not us. We arent the actors, Ryker. I know. They can barely stand each

other. As if to prove how different they were, he pressed her more tightly against him, leaving no doubt what bumped against the sensitive nub between her legs. She widened her stance, needing to feel pressure there from his body. Needing more. Except she didnt want more. She wanted to be left alone. She wanted to work on the movie and then go back to her book, her pride and sanity intact. Messing around with Ryker would leave both in question. He ground gently against her, and she gripped him tightly, realizing almost as an afterthought that she was clutching him around the neck like she was drowning. Then he kissed her again, this time slowly and deeply, until her entire body went

soft and limp in his arms. He pulled back, surveying her flushed, dazed expression with satisfaction. I think Im finally starting to understand what you want. Well try that with Lena and Jake later this afternoon. # Alix made a point of blocking all memory of the incident in the park from her mind, choosing to believe she and Ryker had simply seen a couple kissing and then walked calmly and casually back to his car. Perhaps out of pity for her wounded pride, he allowed her to perpetuate this myth, never mentioning what had really happened in the week that followed. Unexpectedly, given the potential for rising tension between them, things on

the set improved. Alix fell into a routine of waking early and meeting Ryker on the set to talk about plans for the day. They would rehearse or shoot film and then view the dailies together before they called it a night. Things started to click. He could see the same flaws in a scene that she did. He knew what she was trying to achieve, even if he couldnt get there himself. Together, they coaxed and cajoled Lena. Alix played good cop to Rykers bad. They tried to give Lena opportunities to take control of her scenes, to use the acting talent they knew she had. Little by little, things got better. It wasnt what they wanted, but it was better. But the attraction between them only

got worse. Sexual tension simmered silently, just below the surface of everything they did. Ryker didnt try to kiss her again, but it took no more than a meaningful look or the brush of his hand against her thigh or the touch of his hand on her waist and Alix was left struggling for control. He was seducing her, little by little. She knew it, but she was helpless to fight it. If anything, his control only made it worse. So her heart leaped unsteadily when, on a Friday afternoon, he invited her to come to his house for a walk on the beach. Noise from some unexpected construction in the road opposite their soundstage had marred three takes in a row, forcing an early end to the day while one of the production assistants tried to

figure out who to bribe to get the work moved to July. I know you love the beach, Ryker said, his gaze dark and inviting. Im making you an offer you cant refuse. But weve got work to do here, Alix replied, a lump forming in her throat at the thought of them alone, in his house. Im the director, Ryker said. If I say its time for a break, its time for a break. Tell you what, if you really want, Ill have Amir make a tape for us, and we can watch some film while were there. What could she do? She was terrified, yet unable to think of any good excuse to say no. Unable, or perhaps unwilling. Underlying his invitation had been just the hint of a challenge. And Alix had

never been good at stepping down from a challenge. Besides, she told herself, she hadnt spent any time at the beach since shed arrived in LA two weeks before, and she wanted desperately to see the ocean. She grabbed her rattiest, most unattractive sweatshirt and bug-eyed sunglasses and met him at his car. She was not a Ryker Valentine groupie, she told herself sternly. If he made a pass at her, she would find the will to say no. Her pride demanded it. Situated just off the winding Pacific Coast Highway, Rykers ranch-style beach house was nothing like what Alix had expected. The exterior was plain, even drab, with gray cedar shake siding and a row of small windows looking toward the road. A long driveway protected by a

broad iron gate led down to the house, flanked by tufts of brown grass, gnarled cypress trees, and exposed rock. There were no flowers or soft touches; the house blended into the landscape as if it were a part of the cliff on which it sat. But the interior could not have been more different. Instead of Gunthers white walls and creamy shag rugs, there were wood floors with colorful throws. The living room was full of overstuffed leather chairs that felt as comfortable as they looked. It was all carefully decorated, but it was vibrant with life and energy. And dominating every room were huge bay windows with stunning views of the ocean. Alix hadnt realized, until that moment, how much she missed the ocean.

In her years of living on the beach, it had become a part of her, from the sound of the waves to the smell of salt in the air. Despite the obvious luxury, and inescapable fact that this was Rykers house, she was instantly, perfectly at home. Ryker threw his keys onto a dark walnut end table by the front door. What can I get you to drink? Alix walked over to a set of french doors. She pushed gently on the brass handles, and the door swung open to a flat grassy area that seemed to hover above the pristine, empty beach below. A long rectangular swimming pool dominated the far side of the yard, with a hot tub on one end. She breathed deeply of the ocean air and felt a weight lift from her shoulders.

Club soda? Ryker flashed an unexpectedly warm smile. After the week weve had, Id expected something stronger. Alix grinned, almost giddy with pleasure at the sight of the blue water stretching to the horizon. Right now, things dont look so bad. Ryker stood at her side and pushed open the other side of the double doors. Thats exactly how I felt the first time I walked into this house. Like it didnt matter what else was happening in my life. Once I was looking at the ocean, I knew everything would be okay. His voice was soft and warm, and the intimacy of the moment caught Alix off guard. She spun around, needing to put at least a few feet of distance between them.

Wheres the kitchen? I can help myself to that drink. Ryker gestured toward a small flight of stairs that led to a hallway. Kitchens that way. But youll never find anything useful in there. I have no idea how to cook. The only thing I keep stocked is the bar. Along one wall of the living room there was a row of dark wood cabinets topped with a polished wood counter. Ryker opened one glass-doored cupboard, withdrew two tumblers, and set them down on the counter. He poured them both club soda, added two olives to each glass, and threw a few handfuls of crackers onto a silver tray. Voila, he said, extending the tray with a flourish. Dinner is served.

Alix giggled and took her glass from the tray. Remind me not to come for a visit when Im hungry. Ryker gave her a playful leer. I never said I couldnt satisfy a womans hunger. She clutched the cold, wet glass, the laughter fading as Ryker focused his attention on her lips. She swallowed nervously. Ryker? An endless moment passed, and Alix watched Rykers eyes flick from her face to her chest and then back. He set the tray on the counter. This time, she thought, she would be stronger. She would push him away before things even got started. Then why did you come? A voice in her head mocked. You know why he brought you

here. He took a step toward her. She took a step back. You know what he wants. You want it too. He took another step. He was so close she could make out the long, dark lashes that surrounded his eyes and smell his warm skin. At that moment, in a stroke of divine intervention, the phone rang. Ryker cocked his head and studied her with a rueful smile. I should get that. It could be the studio. A cordless phone blinked from a table in the hall beside the front door. Ryker turned his back to her as he picked it up, the breadth of his shoulders startling under the crisp fabric of his shirt.

Hello? Oh, Rosa No, I didnt forget Of course Yes, yes, I know Look, Ill see you in a few hours, okay? His voice had changed from inviting to curt and coldly efficient. He angled his body toward Alix, his eyes raking her as he spoke. Yes, Im bringing someone All right. Good-bye. He hung up the phone. That was my sister. Shes having a dinner party tonight, and I promised Id go. And bring a date. Oh. Alix tried not to look disappointed. She set her glass down on an end table. Well, you can drop me off at the studio. Ive got plenty of work to do. Youre the date. She cocked her head. Really? Really.

A funny feeling tickled her stomach, a mix of anticipation and horror. She looked down at her jeans and baggy sweatshirt. Im not sure Im dressed for it. He frowned. Traffics going to be hell. We wont have time to swing by the hotel. Ive got a few things in the spare bedroom. Something should fit. Alix blinked. Of course. I mean, who doesnt have a few extra outfits in the closet. For the opposite sex. His lips twisted in an approximation of a smile. You never know when youll need it. Follow me. The upstairs hallway was decorated with original prints by several of her favorite photographersLaboznikov among them. They were arresting images

but hardly optimistic, from a man on a bicycle in front of a line of broken-down apartment buildings to an empty field littered with trash with a lone tree growing in the middle. Are you a collector? she asked He shrugged. I pick up things when they strike me. The spare bedroom was dominated by a king-size bed covered with a quilt made from seemingly random geometric shapes and a cacophony of colors. Though it had no discernible pattern, the mix of hues and shapes was soft, peaceful, and extraordinarily beautiful. What an amazing quilt, she said. My sister Rosalia made it. He pointed to a wedding picture of a beautiful young black-haired woman.

Thats Rosa. A line of other pictures in brightly colored frames decorated the dresser and bedside tables. There was a picture of an older man and woman; Rosalia with babies on either hip; and school pictures of young men who had to be Rykers brothers. In one tall, wooden frame there was a photo of a woman who looked to be in her late teens, holding a newborn infant. And the rest of the family. He opened a closet where a number of shirts and pants hung in a neat line. Alix tried to avoid getting too near to him. They were, after all, only a few feet from a bed. But he made no move to approach her, looking out the window with shuttered eyes that gave no hint as to what he was thinking.

He gestured toward a closed door. Theres the bathroom. Youre welcome to take a shower if youd like. She shook her head. It was impossible to imagine being naked in the same house with him. Im going for a quick swim. Make yourself at home. Ill meet you downstairs. She nodded and waited until he had left the room to look through the closet. The clothes were casual, a few pairs of jeans and trousers, simple knit shirts, and one tiered peasant-style skirt. The sizes were a bit of a puzzlethey were a mix of comfortable size eights and tens, hardly supermodel garb. Also interesting was the discovery of a playpen at the back of the closet, and a stack of baby-girl

clothes. She shook her head at that. It was impossible to imagine Ryker holding an infant. Alix tapped her mouth with one finger and considered her options. She was a size four, so the fitted pants probably wouldnt work. The skirt, on the other hand, had an elastic waist, and even if it was too big to stay at her waist, it would at least fall somewhere around her hips. A tank top with a scooped neck matched the swirling blues and greens of the skirt, though it too was at least a size too big. She pulled the pieces from the closet and laid them carefully on the bed, then moved to the window to close the blind so she could try them on. Naturally, Ryker chose that moment to emerge from the house in a pair of

low-slung navy bathing trunks. She sucked in her breath. It was like watching a scene from Garden of Eden, except that now shed touched that body and felt those lips on hers. She studied his lean hips and the ridge of muscle separating stomach from groin. Warmth bloomed from her stomach to her breasts, and she shuddered at the flood of erotic images that followed. Ryker, naked, next to her in bed. Ryker, naked, in the pool. Ryker, naked, his head buried between her legs. He approached the edge of the pool and looked up, catching her eye as she gazed at him through the window. A hot blush swamped her cheeks as he grinned and dove neatly into the water.

She jumped away from the window and fumbled with the cord until the blind dropped. Lord, he had a way of eating her alive with those dark eyes. Alix jerked on the clothes and then sat on the edge of the bed. Steady, methodical splashes came from the pool. Hed said it would be half an hour or so before they were to leave, and she would drive herself insane if she sat here the entire time, imagining him in the pool, the water sliding across his skin and bubbling around his Clearly, she needed some distraction. As she padded back down the carpeted steps, she felt again that odd feeling of comfort that shed experienced from the first moment she entered the living room. Her glass of club soda sat on

an end table, water beading up on the sides, and she sank into the chair beside it. Idly, she flipped through a basket filled with magazines and books. An oversized, soft-cover volume caught her eye. It was a collection of modern photography that she knew well. Laboznikov had been editing it when she was in school, and it included one of her own photographs. Bemused, she set the book on her lap and let the pages fall open to a thin leather strap that served as a bookmark. It marked her picture. It was one she had taken during Eliass class on photographic techniques. She had focused on the puckered skin of a womans areola, barely including the

edge of her nipple. A mans thumb lay on the side of the nipple, curled possessively around it. Her skin was pink, the areola brown. Ryker had been checking up on her. She turned back to the basket and found an old copy of Film Quarterly, also familiar because in it, an NYU film student had written an article analyzing her erotic movies. This too was marked with a sticky note. Alix placed it on top of the book and flipped through the pages, feeling an unexpected surge of pride. Perhaps Ryker understood better, now that hed read the article. Her movies were about more than getting off lonely women. They were about vulnerability, real emotion, and pure, honest pleasure. With a hopeful sigh, she leaned back

into the buttery-soft leather chair and began to read.

Chapter Eleven Ryker focused on the feeling of the cool water against his skin and tried not to think about the nightmare that was only a few hours away. Naturally, he had forgotten about Rosalias dinner party. Perhaps forgotten was not the right word. Blocked, maybe. That would be more accurate. Rosalia had a family dinner at her house in Boyle Heights once a month. She was the oldest daughter, the matriarch now that Mama was gone, and she took her duties seriously. One had to be braveor perhaps a little stupidto reject her invitations. So Ryker attended her dinners, along with his father and four siblings, and hated every minute.

The jokes about his work, his house in Malibu, and his movie-star lifestyle never seemed to cease. Never mind that theyd all accepted, at various times, his offers of money, jobs, and connections. Each still had his or her own source of criticism. His stepfather, Emilio, believed no good could come from the loose morals of the movie industry. His half brothers couldnt understand why he didnt party more and why he didnt bring them along when he did. Rosalia nagged him incessantly to stop dating actresses and models, who she assumed were the equivalent of life-size Barbie dolls. Even worse, to Rosalia, was the fact that none of the women hed dated had any trace of Latino blood.

Rosalia took her Mexican heritage almost as seriously as her matriarchal responsibilities. Ryker had tried attending dinner alone, but that backfired. The last two times hed shown up without a date, a young, unmarried girl with dusky skin and huge brown eyes had mysteriously appeared at the table next to him. It didnt seem to matter to Rosalia that the women were all ten years his junior and painfully shy. She just kept throwing them his way. What would she think of Alix? He did a neat flip turn and pushed off on the side of the pool. He still didnt know quite what to think of Alix, except that when faced with the prospect of suffering through another endless, painful

dinner with his family, having her by his side made it sound almost bearable. She was good with the actors. Alix could fade into the background when they were shooting in a way he never could, getting out of the way of the actors when they needed their space and then filling them up when they were ready for direction. She never got angry or frustrated, never yelled like he did or stamped around when things didnt go her way. She just smiled a Mona Lisa smile and kept on working. He had to admit, watching the couple in the park had been a unique experience. Though he had little faith that they had seen true love or any similar nonsense, he had gotten insight into the look Alix was trying to create. There had been

something intense in that moment, something palpable and significant. He chalked it up to honest sexual desire, though admittedly, there was something unfamiliar about it. Something he didnt see in the eyes of his actors. Seeing through her eyes had been a powerful experience. A powerful and arousing experience. He could no more have walked away from her at that second as he could have jumped off the narrow path into the canyon below. He covered it with humor and focused on seduction, but the truth was that hed wanted her badly. Still did, actually. He understood that she wasnt inclined to fall into bed with him. Or rather, her mind wasnt so inclined. Her body clearly was. So he was

taking it slowly. There was no need to rush. He wanted her more every day, but next time, he wanted her to come to him. And she would. He had no doubt that she would. Meanwhile, Alixs presence on the set was proving surprisingly valuable. Ryker found himself arguing with her just to see how her mind worked. She thought out every move in advance like a savvy professional, every piece fitting into the big picture she had developed in her mind. Hed never worked so closely with someone before, and it was surprisingly comfortableeven enjoyable. Though he didnt always agree with her, she always made him think. He stopped for a moment to adjust his goggles and looked up at the window

of the spare bedroom. He pictured Alix standing there, gazing down on him as she had when he first entered the water. Even the memory of her eyes on his body sent the blood rushing to his groin. Thank goodness the pool was cold. He did five more laps and glanced at his watch, realizing hed have to get ready soon, or theyd be late. If only he could stay here tonight and focus his attention on Alix. If only Ryker forced himself to work out his frustration with another lap. His stepfather would pick up on his temper right away. Emilio had been harping on Ryker to control his temper from the day he moved in with Rykers mother. Which, naturally, had only pissed Ryker off more. As an adult, he was glad for the discipline hed learned from

Emilio, but it had done nothing to foster a relationship between them. Instead, hed learned to develop a hard shell to slip behind whenever Emilio began to nag or Mama looked at him with those big sad eyes. Ryker found himself in that shell more and more these days, every time he went to dinner with the family. It was a comfortable place, that shell, a place where he didnt have to feel anything, where he could watch from a distance and nothing they did could affect him. Sometimes he found himself wondering what it would be like to just be himself around them. But when they were around, he didnt even know what that meant. Was he Ryker or Ricardo? The boy he used to be or the man he had

become? He held his breath, swimming the length of the pool as fast as he could, slamming into the tiled wall on the other side and jerking up his head, gasping with effort. Flipping onto his back, he stared up at the clear blue sky. It was one night. A few hours. Maria and Rosalia both had young kids. The night always ended early. He would survive. Ryker pulled himself out of the water and grabbed his towel. He looked back up at the window, but she wasnt there. He imagined her showering, emerging from the bathroom naked, breasts swaying as she walked. Tonight was the night. Shed wanted to come here. She wanted him. By the time the sun went down, his family would be a distant memory. Alix Z

would finally be his. # Alix lost track of time as she became absorbed in the article about her movies. A feeling of nostalgia overcame her as she studied the still shots and remembered the process of shooting those films. Some days, filming an intense sexually explicit scene was the last thing her actors wanted to do. It had fallen to her to think up tricks to get them back in the mood. Soft lights, music, the right foods Shed done anything she could think of to foster the romance. It didnt always work, and that was okay too. Shed learned that being the director didnt mean she was God. Some days you stumbled onto the magic, and some days you worked for it. Basking in your glory days? A deep

voice startled her back to awareness. She jumped, spilling a trickle of club soda down the front of her blouse. Damn it, Ryker! You shouldnt sneak up Her words trailed off as she took in his appearance. He must have come right from the pool, because his dark hair curled in sleek waves around his ears, and a few drops of water slid down his forehead. A white towel had been wrapped around his narrow waist, accentuating the soft brown of his skin and the hair that ran in a line from his chest to his groin. She cleared her throat. on a person like that. You know, we do have a few minutes before we have to go. He raised a suggestive brow.

Her skin felt as if it might spontaneously burst into flame at the suggestion. She backed against the chair and tucked her feet under the soft fabric of her skirt, forcing her mouth to repeat the words shed practiced. Ryker, I apologize if Ive misled you, but Im serious about keeping things between us purely professional. Were clearly not compatible, anyway, and He cut her off with a raised hand. Not compatible? That whole coworker thing was crazy enough, and now youre going to tell me we arent compatible? She had the feeling shed just waved a red cape in front of a bull. A hot, mad, Latin bull, with narrow hips and a rigid six-pack of muscles running down his stomach.

Alix shook her hands in front of her. Look, we disagree about everything. Im a hopeless romantic, and youre as pragmatic as they come. Our bodies, he said softly, are compatible. You cant argue with that. Alix gulped. We need to focus on business. Salvas Revenge. Lena. Jake. Figuring out how to get them to the next level. Thats where our energy needs to lie. Rykers hand rested casually on the towel that was tucked around his waist. He ignored her agitation, continuing to examine her face with a slow, measured gaze. The buzz of the telephone interrupted the adrenaline rush that had her heart beating like a rabbit. He did not move to answer it. After a few rings, an

answering machine picked up. Ryker? This is Rosalia. I hope youre not picking up because you already left. You know Papa hates when youre late. Look, I need a couple of bottles of wine. If you get this, can you pick them up on your way over? Thanks. Alix stared at Ryker. The moment between them passed as quickly as it had come. I guess we dont have time after all. Ill be downstairs in a few minutes.

Chapter Twelve The Mercedes purred smoothly as they pulled slowly down the circular drive toward the highway. Rykers eyes remained bleak and cold. She thought back to the conversation shed had with Gunther and the speculation about Rykers relationship with his family. Apparently things werent bad enough to keep him from a family dinner, but, judging from the muscle jerking in his jaw and the hard set to his shoulders, they werent good either. The silence stretched out between them. Family dinner, huh? she finally said. How often do you all get together? He twisted his mouth in a semblance

of a smile. Whenever Rosalia tells us to. Alix smiled back, though he didnt sound amused. Is she the eldest? After me, yes. How many other siblings do you have? Four. She thought about the pictures in the bedroom, and the homemade quilt on the bed. You must be very close. He gave a snort. Right. Alix stared out the windshield, acutely aware of the tension emanating from the large, male body beside her. They merged onto the freeway, and she tried not to flinch, because suddenly they were surrounded by traffic, cars and trucks coming from all sides at astonishing rates of speed. The low-slung

Mercedes seemed only a few inches from the ground, and each time a giant SUV roared past, she closed her eyes. Dont trust my driving? Alix tried to force her fingers from clawing the door handle. Im a New Yorker turned Oregonianthe worst possible combination. I dont trust anyones driving. He glanced into the rearview mirror and executed a lane change with the precision of an Indy 500 driver. I thought New Yorkers had no fear. Just the crazy ones who actually learn how to drive. Folks like me take the subway and let the cabbies do the driving. You dont know how to drive? For the first time since theyd gotten in the

car, the hint of a smile curved around his mouth. How are you getting to and from your hotel? Alix scowled. I can drive. I hate it, but I can drive. The smile widened. Are you one of those people who goes twenty miles under the speed limit and slows down for green lights just in case they might change? Maybe. Tell me about New York, he said. Weve been working together for almost two weeks, and I dont know any more about you now than I did when we met. Where did you grow up? The Bronx. Brownsville. Harlem. I moved around a lot. Your parents didnt want to settle

down? My mother left me at the hospital where I was born. I bounced around foster homes, mostly. Oh. He appeared to contemplate the information, shooting quick glances at her as he continued to weave around the traffic. That sounds tough. I grew up in South Central, but at least it was all in one spot. She waved a dismissive hand. Theres good and bad to moving around. The good thing is, when things get really bad, you know they wont last forever. Thats one way to look at it. So how did you end up getting into photography? And dont try to duck the question. He gave her a preemptory glare. This time, Im not giving up until I hear the

answer. Alix laid her head against the seat and closed her eyes. She wasnt used to talking about herself, and the words seemed to stick in her throat. She imagined the first camera shed ever held, a gorgeous old Nikon that weighed enough to leave a bruise around her neck when she wore it too long, and let the memory propel her speech. We had a young, do-good teacher at my high school who got a grant to run an elective art and media class and handpicked a few kids to participate. I think she was probably related to someone in the business, because she got some famous photographers and directors to donate their time. I had pretty good grades and had taken a few

art classes, so they put me in. Elias did a section on photography, and Gunther did one on film. I thought Gunther lived in LA what was he doing in New York? He started in New York with theater and artsy stuff. He didnt move to LA and get into the movies until I went to college. I lived with him for a few weeks before I moved into my own apartment my senior year. She didnt mention that shed moved in with Gunther after shed lost the baby, or that hed helped her pay for that first apartment. Or that she was grateful, every day of her life, for that do-good teacher. A car cut in front of them. Without missing a beat, Ryker slammed on the brakes, swerved, and narrowly missed a

collision. Alix winced and sank deeper into her seat. Subways might have their own problems, but at least you didnt have to worry about being turned into an accordion by some three-ton SUV. So you took a class in high school what happened after that? he asked. They decided I had some potential. Elias gave me a camera and told me to pick out subjects I found interesting. There was a church across the street from my house, and I had a habit of sneaking in and watching when they had weddings. The priest started to recognize me. When he asked me what I was doing there, I offered to take pictures at the ceremonies, if theyd let me sit in the church. I did a few couples, and they liked my work. It snowballed after that.

You photographed weddings. For Elias Laboznikov. He shook his head in amazement. You say that as if theres something wrong with wedding pictures. I photographed people who happened to be at a wedding. They were incredible subjects. There arent many times in peoples lives when their emotions are so close to the surface. How about funerals? Did you sneak into those too? Alix snorted. When you grow up the way I did, you dont need to search out misery. Joy and love, on the other hand, are a little harder to find. I suppose. And the sex? When did that come in? She paused, trying to decide how to

answer the question. Over the years, shed found people fell into two general camps when it came to hearing about her work. The first group, which was by far the largest, really just wanted to hear about the movies. They didnt care about the philosophy behind them. The second group was interested in the philosophy but didnt necessarily appreciate the work itself. Ryker reached over and patted her leg. Youre doing very well, he said. Just keep talking. It isnt so hard now, is it? Alix blushed, the warmth of his hand on her leg making it difficult to speak. Somehow, she had the feeling Ryker didnt fall into either camp. He seemed more interested in her than the photos or

the movies. That was something entirely new. By the time I graduated from high school, I had made a little business for myself. I got a scholarship to college and paid for living expenses by photographing weddings. And then I had this idea that people might pay me to go on part of their honeymoon with them. I mentioned it to Gunther. He talked to some actors who loved the idea. It was a pretty good gigId take pictures of them on location somewhere, and then Id leak the pictures to the press over a couple of weeks while they went elsewhere. It gave them some privacy, and I got to travel and take pictures. One of the couples asked me to film them having sex. They were a particularly uninhibited pair and yet truly

loved each other. I said yes and was completely fascinated with what I saw. Fascinated. Thats a good word, Ryker said dryly. She tamped down the flare of defensive anger. Were never allowed to watch people having sex because its the most intimate act two people can share. Yet its that very intimacy that makes it beautiful. Ive found no better way to get at such pure, raw emotion than photographing couples making love. When filmed right, sex can be one of the most beautiful things in the world. Youll forgive me, but Candy Fever wasnt just a love story. Of course it wasnt. My movies and my photographs are different. Gunther suggested I try directing after I got my

MFA. He knew my heart was in photography, but he also knew I had crushing student loans and no way of paying them back. So the sex films really were about the money. They were R-rated movies, she said. Id hardly call them sex films. But you know thats why people went to see them. For once, the familiar criticism seemed motivated by a sense of curiosity. Slowly, her increasing defensiveness started to fade. Men like to watch. Women want to believe in love. I tried to give them both what they wanted. And based on the numbers, you succeeded. She inclined her head in agreement.

I made enough money to pay back some debts. Thats all I wanted. When did you become Alix Z? I started calling myself Alix when I went to college. Alix Z happened when I moved to LA to make movies with Gunther. But youre Daisy when youre home in Oregon? She sighed. Im Daisy when I dont want to answer questions about Alix Z. Speaking of which, can we change the subject? And dont we need to get a bottle of wine? He slapped his forehead. Thank goodness youre here. I think you just saved me from certain death at the hands of my sister. Theres a liquor store a few blocks from her house. Well stop on the

way. Ryker slipped in a CD and Norah Joness smooth, silky voice filled the space around them. They talked about nothing for a whilemovies they liked and directors they didnt, and then drove in a silence that now felt companionable, not strained. Alix relaxed enough to loosen her hold on the door and stop flinching every time they changed lanes. As they exited the freeway, it was as if the quiet Malibu beach had never existed. The roads were packed with cars, windows down, music blaring. The signs and billboards were in Spanish, the trees few and far between. Without the ocean breeze, the air was hot and still. So, does your whole family live in Boyle Heights? asked Alix.

Just about. My stepfather Emilio didnt want to stay in our old house after my mother passed away. He moved the family about a year after she died. Rosalia was fifteen, and she basically took over running the place. She married when she was twenty and has two little kids now, but she stayed close enough to my father and the other kids to keep an eye on them. Eduardo has an apartment with some buddies a couple miles away. Maria and Hector still live with Emilio. He sounded clinical, as though he were describing someone elses family. The sound of his voice sent a chill over Alix. Do you miss it? Youre pretty far from the family. I was always pretty far from the family. He rubbed his face and brushed

back a few strands of hair. He did not look at her as he spoke. They stopped at a streetlight, and the car vibrated quietly underneath them. The space felt charged again. How old were you when your mother married Emilio? I was ten. Rosalia was born when I was eleven. So you must have something in common. Alix groped for something helpful to say. You grew up in the same neighborhood, didnt you? And went to the same schools? My mother sent me to private schools and refused to teach me Spanish. Contrary to what the tabloids may report, she was the one who called me Ryker. Wait a minute, Alix said, confused.

I thought your real name was Ricardo. It is. He gave a chilly smile. My grandfather died right before I was born, and my mother felt obligated to name me after him. But the last thing she wanted was for me to sound like all the other Mexican kids in South Central. So she called me Ryker. If she could have turned my skin white, she would have. Why does everyone think you changed your name when you started making movies? When she met Emilio, everything changed. They were all about Latin pride and respecting your heritage, and suddenly, I was Ricardo again. Of course, by then, I wasnt interested in reassimilating. He drummed his fingers on the gearshift impatiently until the light

changed. As soon as I moved out, I went back to calling myself Ryker. It just happened that at the same time, I started getting work in Hollywood. Alix felt like a window into the darkness that surrounded Ryker had suddenly been opened. But surely you I dont fit in, he said flatly. I havent for a long time. Im not Mexican enough or Catholic enough. Emilio thinks Im debauched, and Rosalia thinks Ive deserted the family. Youre walking into a time bomb, Alix. I probably shouldnt have brought you, but I did, and you deserve to know. Dont expect any huggy-kissy family nonsense. Theyre decent folks, I suppose, but they dont understand my life, and I dont

understand theirs. We go, we suffer in silence, and then we leave. Thats how it is. # Ryker pulled into the driveway of a small craftsman-style house framed by a wide front porch with just a hint of a sag in the middle and a tiny scrap of mostly dead grass. Alix took a deep breath, screwed up her courage, and dropped her heavy glasses into her purse. Then, trying to avoid Rykers stare, she slipped on a layer of lip gloss, pulled her hair from its heavy ponytail and brushed it out, long and thick around her shoulders. He stared at her, shaking his head. I never know what youll do next, do you know that? She ignored him. After a long pause,

he walked around the car, opened her door, and extended his hand. Alix forced a pleasant, empty expression on her face. He put his hand at her elbow, gently guiding her toward the front door. The skirt hung just below her waist, and Alix straightened it as she walked and then adjusted the tank top that threatened to spill off one shoulder. The front yard was littered with baby gear: a stroller, brightly colored ride-on car, plastic balls, and a variety of action figures. As Ryker and Alix walked up the driveway, a tiny boy of four or five with a mop of jet-black hair and a determined look in his eyes sped past them. Hola, To Ricardo! he called, never quite making eye contact as he rounded the corner of the yard and spun on one

foot, keeping his gaze pinned on the front door. English please, Emilio! called a young woman as she walked onto the porch, rubbing a bowl with a striped dishtowel. She had long, dark hair held back from her forehead by a white headband. A white apron covered a navy shirtwaist dress with white piping around the collar and cuffs. She looked for all the world like a Latina Donna Reed. Mama! the boy pleaded, youre in the way! The woman turned to look behind her just as a young man wearing baggy jeans and a sleek black polo shirt appeared at her back. Hector, I thought I told you to change your jeans before supper, she said.

Shhh! Hector said dramatically, hands on either side of the womans shoulders. He peeked around the edge at the little boy. Im hiding. Emilio stuck out his tongue. I can see you, estpido. Emilio! The woman stared in horror. Get into the house. If I hear that word again, youll be straight to bed, no supper. She walked forward, extending her hand toward Alix. Im so sorry about that. Im Rosalia, and this is my brother Hector. Thank you so much for coming. My husband, Antonio, just ran out for another six pack. Hell be back soon. She examined Alix from shoes to hair, her gaze shrewd and unyielding. Alix felt a sudden desire to run back to the car

and hide in the nonexistent backseat. She had never liked being on display, and Rosalias bottomless eyes told her that at this gathering, Alix would not be permitted to fade into the background. She forced her mouth to open and form words. Im Daisy. Daisy Zahn. Thanks for having me. Alix shook Rosalias hand and tried not to let her shoulders bend under the intense regard. As shed told Ryker, Alix had been using her middle name ever since shed moved from Gunthers house to her own apartment. At the time, shed felt a need to separate herself from her past and declare to herself and to the world that she was no longer Daisy. Daisy was a girl who didnt control her own destiny. Daisy was a girl things happened to,

instead of the other way around. Maybe Ryker had felt the same way when he left home. What better way to assert control over your life than to change your name? Years later, when she left LA and bought her house in Oregon, she struggled over what to call herself. Though she no longer felt like Daisy, she had come to despise the assumptions and knowing smiles that accompanied the name Alix Z. Shed reverted to Daisy but always wondered if shed done the right thing. Was it more important to have anonymity or to claim her work? Even today, she could recall the words Ryker had spoken the first time they met: Frankly, I would have been more impressed if you could have just owned up to the whole sex thing. Easy for him to say. He

didnt have to deal with the smarmy looks, the conclusions everyone was so quick to reach. Besides, a part of her still was Daisy. Her mother hadnt given her much, but at least shed given her a name. Daisy Alexandra Zahn. A full name. A name that she wasnt going to give away, even if she wasnt quite sure what to do with it. At any rate, the moment she shook Rosas hand she had decided that the last person she wanted to be that night was Alix Z. Her heart had nearly broken when Ryker told her how excluded and isolated he felt from his family. Though his face had remained stony and unemotional, she could see something dark and painful sparking in his eyes. He had enough problems with these people. He didnt

need to add to them by bringing an erotic filmmaker to supper. Ryker started with shock when he heard her name but quickly covered his surprise with a cough. The pressure on her arm increased, and she had the feeling he would be asking questions later. Although she didnt appear much older than her early twenties, Rosalia had the suspicious stare of a powerful family matriarch. Daisy? Thats unusual. Her gaze swept Alix from head to toe. Funny, my sister Maria has the same outfit. At that moment, another child toddled out the front door of the house, followed by another young woman. This child looked around a year old. She had pigtails standing straight out from the top

of her head and a toothy grin. Her white dress was covered with multicolored stains, orange and green around the collar and brown at the hem. Ry! Ry! she called as she toddled toward the stairs. The first genuine smile Alix had seen in a long time broke across Rykers face. Fifi! He scooped up the tiny creature and threw her at least three feet in the air. She squealed with delight. Rosalia frowned and held up a hand as if to stop him, but the other woman cut her off before she could speak. Rosa, theyre fine. The voice was weary, quiet. Despite her youth, deep lines had been etched around her mouth and eyes. Rosalia frowned and started to

respond but then visibly restrained herself. She crossed her arms over her chest. Isnt that the same skirt that youve got, Maria? Maria subjected Alix to a tired scrutiny before she spoke again. No. My skirt is more purple than that. Alix gave a grateful smile to the woman who must have been responsible for the closet full of clothes and playpen at Rykers house. I guess weve got similar taste, then, she said. Im Daisy. Maria. She gestured toward Ryker, who was still engaging in acrobatics with the tiny girl. That messy creature is my daughter Felicity. Were the black sheep of the family. Rosalia shot Maria an annoyed look. Dont be ridiculous.

Shes right, Maria, Ryker called without looking at them. Im the black sheep. More people emerged from the house. Another child, a young man, and an older one. Rosalia took over the introductions. Alix met Rykers stepfather, Emilio, and his brother Eduardo. Ryker kept Felicity tightly in his arms as he watched the scene and waved to his stepbrothers but made little move to join Alix or acknowledge his stepfather. Alix tried to squash a growing panic at the sea of faces that appeared ready to devour her. Deliberately, she imagined she was at one of Gunthers press parties. She planted a fake smile on her face and tried her best to be polite but not

particularly interesting. Hector and Eduardo greeted her with boisterous smiles and then shot Ryker disbelieving looks, as if they couldnt imagine why he would waste his time with someone so ordinary. Emilio treated her with a grave respect. He was a short, slight man with wavy white hair cut short and mobile features that exposed every emotion. When he looked at Ryker, he didnt try to hide his impatience. Ricardo, are you so busy you cannot even say hello? Ryker acknowledged him with a short nod and then turned back to the children. Two little boys swarmed around his legs as Felicity crawled on his shoulders. Emilio snorted. Pleasant as always. Rosalia waved her hand. Ignore him,

Papa. It is just his way. His way of being rude, perhaps. Alix shifted from one foot to the other, wishing she were anywhere else. Rosalia gave her father a warning look. She had a commanding presence that no one seemed able to ignore. Daisy, tell us, what sort of work do you do? Im a photographer, she said. I actually live in Oregon. Im just visiting LA. Oregon? How did you and Ricardo meet, then? Emilio asked Ryker appeared at her elbow, holding a giggling Felicity upside down on his chest. Daisy is friends with Gunther Hartcourt. Emilios thick white eyebrows drew

together. So youre in the movie business as well? And she looked so decent, didnt she? Ryker mocked. Papa, leave her be. We dont want to scare the poor thing. Maria extended her hand toward Alix. Why dont you come in the house with me and Rosalia. You can help us finish the tamales. Ryker, youll watch Felicity, wont you? Ryker flashed a tight smile. Shes safe with me. Maria nodded and patted his arm. I never doubted that for a minute.

Chapter Thirteen Ryker watched Alix walk up to the house with Maria and Rosalia, still stunned by the change she had somehow wrought in herself. It was as if she was some kind of social chameleon. At the beach, when they first met, shed been snappy and belligerent. When she entered the Bolvana studio, she turned into a stubborn, driven artist. At Tiger Lilys, she became a seductress, a woman used to wrapping men around her little finger. And now? Now he didnt know what he was looking at. Some kind of oldfashioned, demure, conservative foil; a person who didnt make waves but helped smooth them out. It was uncanny. She changed her

name, brushed her hair, and took off her glasses, and it was like he was looking at a different person. She seems lovely. Emilio grunted as Alix disappeared into the house. How long have you two been dating? Ryker turned to Emilio. Is it too much to ask for a little privacy? he said evenly. You brought her. It didnt seem an unusual question to ask. Actually, she just came to town, Ryker replied. Weve only known each other for a couple of weeks. Emilio pursed his lips disapprovingly. You shouldnt lead her on that way. Why would you assume Im leading her on? Ryker tried to keep a tight rein on his temper, but he could already feel

himself losing control. You brought her to meet your family. Thats not something people usually do with someone theyve just met. Perhaps Ive fallen for her, Ryker said. Perhaps it was love at first sight. Right. Do you think Im blind? Emilio waved toward the house. She seems like a very nice girl, but shes hardly your type. Just what is my type? Bimbos? Prostitutes? Emilio threw up his hands. Of course not. I never said that. Why must you take everything I say and turn it around? Why must you always believe the worst about me? Ryker countered.

Aler, Daisy, is a gorgeous woman. Shes also smart, tough, and makes me laugh. Just because she isnt six feet tall and doesnt think LA is the center of the universe doesnt make her any less of an incredible woman. Why shouldnt I fall for someone like her? Why indeed? Emilio stared at Ryker, black eyes snapping. Ryker had cursed those eyes every time Emilio guessed when hed stolen a cigarette, nipped a drink off the top of a bottle of scotch, or stayed out past his curfew. Sometimes he thought those damn black eyes had the ability to see into his very soul. Why indeed? Oh Lord. Its a little early in the night to start with the amateur psychology, isnt it?

I just think its interesting, the way you chase after those women, one after another, a different one every night. Its as if youre determined to date women you know cant possibly make you happy so you can reject them as soon as they disappoint. And you know what would make me happy? Ryker struggled to keep his temper in check. I know what doesnt make you happybrainless women who think the sun rises and sets on their shoulders. If your mother could see you Can we drop it, please? Ryker forced the words between his teeth. Id like to prove to Rosalia that I can make it through one of these meals without taking a swing at you.

Emilio gave a short laugh. You wouldnt dare. Id lay you flat. Ryker forced his shoulders to relax. Id like to see you try. I cant. I promised your sister no more fistfights in her front yard. A reluctant smile teased the edges of Rykers mouth. Is that so? You and I havent brawled since I was sixteen. Have there been other fights I dont know about? Emilio nodded. At least one a week. Must be that midlife crisis finally catching up with you. Emilio chuckled. They shared a rare moment of peace. Hows the movie? Emilio asked. Ryker shrugged. Weve run into a

few speed bumps. Youll get it in shape. Youve never been one to let a little speed bump get in your way. That was the first thing your mama told you about me. Hes a good kid, she said, but stubborn as a mule. Ryker grunted. Is that right? Told me you were going to win an Oscar the day you got your first part. Believed it too. Right up until the day she died, she wanted to see you holding that little statue. Emilio shook his head. I guess she thought maybe then youd stop fighting so hard. Ryker ran his hands through his hair and turned away. He exhaled slowly. It was going to be a long night. # Alix twisted the stem of her wineglass

as she looked out the kitchen window to Rosalias tiny backyard. Rosalias house was filled with the same warm, vibrant colors as the quilt shed made for Ryker. Tall glass candleholders decorated with pictures of religious figures filled the fireplace mantel and stood in clusters on end tables and on a wide wooden sideboard. A large, framed picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe looked down serenely over a sofa covered with a bright-red-and-yellow-striped throw. Outside, Rosalias husband Tony flipped chicken and steak on a shiny silver grill and chatted with Emilio. Rykers younger brothers, Eduardo and Hector, laughed and joked with each other. Ryker stood a few feet apart from the group. He nursed a beer as he stared into space,

absently raising it to his lips and then bringing it back down without even taking a sip. The tension between him and the other men was palpable. The younger set seemed willing to include him in their conversation; he gave them a few halfhearted smiles but never really joined in their banter. Tony and Emilio made no such effort. They all but turned their backs on him, and Ryker seemed to pay them even less attention. Its sad, isnt it? Maria said quietly. Alix spun on the tall wooden bar stool on which shed been perched. Shed almost forgotten Maria was there. What do you mean? Rosalia buzzed back and forth in the background, setting the dining room table

and tidying up the kitchen. She seemed to enjoy her role as hostess, never sitting down for more than a minute at a time before finding something else to occupy her. Without a trace of modesty, she had put Maria and Alix to work, first as part of her tamale assembly line and then chopping tomato, onion, and cilantro for fresh salsa. Alix appreciated the distraction and found she enjoyed Marias company immensely. The younger woman had a sharp, biting sense of humor that she turned on her family and herself with equal measure. Once the men went into the backyard, the children came into the house, and Maria disappeared every few minutes to find some new way to entertain Felicity and keep her out of

trouble. It wasnt hard to see she doted on her rambunctious toddler. Maria waited until Rosalia had left the room again before she spoke. She gestured toward the window. That. Its always been like that. Ever since I can remember. Alix studied them againthe way Ryker held his head and looked directly between the other men, the angle of their bodies away from him, the cold set to his lips. Hes not that way with you, she said. Ryker was the only one in the family Maria seemed unwilling, or unable, to satirize. Alix appreciated the way she directed the conversation away from him every time Rosalia tried to subtlyor not so subtlyprobe about the nature of his

relationship with Alix. Maria took a sip of her wine, the deep red of the cabernet matching the color of her lips. Weve always had a special bond. She gave a wry smile. Or maybe he was so busy fighting with everyone else he didnt have the energy left to fight with me. Why? Alix felt guilty asking, but she was hungry to find out more, to understand what Ryker had been through. Why all the fighting? Maria shrugged. Youd have to ask him that. I suppose it was hard, figuring out his place in the family. We were so much younger than he was, and so different. He didnt want to follow Papas rules, and I dont think he ever forgave Mama for getting married. Rosalia was

too much like Mama, and the boys were young and desperate for attention. They drove him crazy. I was just me, too busy screwing up my own life to cause him any trouble. Alix picked up a bright red-andyellow-striped cloth napkin from a stack and began to fold it. You have a beautiful daughter, and youre managing to raise her on your own while attending nursing school. That doesnt sound like screwing up to me. I got pregnant when I was nineteen, with a boy I havent seen since. Ryker was the only one who didnt give me hell about it. He just told me if I ever needed anything, I should come to him. And when I had nowhere else to go, he was there.

They sat in silence for a moment. Alix folded another napkin. She was struck by an unexpected wave of emotion. Memories of her arrival at the hospital after shed lost her own baby assaulted her. She remembered the anguish, the fear, and then the incredible relief when Gunther had said he was on his way. I She had to stop and clear her throat. I guess that must have been pretty important. To have someone say that, I mean. Maria gave her an assessing look. It was. Its hard to explain how frightening it is when you see that double line on the pregnancy test. Alix nodded involuntarily, and then turned her eyes back to the napkins. They took turns folding and adding their

napkins to the stack. So, I guess you must have needed a change? Maria nodded sideways at Alixs outfit. Alixs lips twisted in a rueful smile. I suppose I should have thanked you for the clothes. Maria laughed. No problem. I have to admit, I was a bit surprised. I dont think Ive ever seen any of his other, ershe stumbled over the words friends, wearing my skirts. You must be very close. I wouldnt say that, exactly. Alix darted a look at Rosalia, who had begun lighting candles on the table in the next room, and lowered her voice. She wasnt sure what Ryker wanted the others to think about her or why hed brought her,

but she had the sense he wouldnt want to lie to Maria. Were just friends. He was desperate for company tonight, and I happened to be the first human being he could find to drag with him. No offense, but I wouldnt read more into it than that. Hmm. Maria eyed her shrewdly. Youll forgive me if I dont entirely agree. I know my brother a little. Theres more between you than just friends. Alix drew back. What makes you say that? Am I wrong? Alix slid her hand across the crisp broadcloth, smoothing out a wrinkle as she did. Were about as different as two people can be, she said, staring at the woven threads under her fingers.

But youre interested. How could you not be? Hes out of my league. Im sure thats painfully obvious to everyone here. Maria chuckled. Dont let appearances fool you. Its a funny business, being a movie star. Hes had to change a lot, just to keep sane. But I suspect youre more alike than you think, deep down. Alix pictured Ryker describing how he felt about romantic love and gave Maria a tight smile. She wasnt sure why acknowledging the truth suddenly seemed so sad. At least, it didnt seem worth arguing about with Maria. If you say so. He likes you, Maria observed. He looks at you differently than he does

other girls. Believe me, Ive seen him with a lot of women, and he doesnt think much of them. He respects you. I can tell. Alix decided not to mention the fact that Maria had little experience on which to base that conclusion; after all, shed only seen Alix and Ryker together for a few minutes that evening. Were in a similar business, she offered. Maybe thats it. Maybe. Maria looked unconvinced. Im helping out on his movie, Alix elaborated. Shed been deliberately keeping quiet about her role on Salvas Revenge because she didnt want to lie any more than necessary. We respect each other, even though we dont agree on much of anything.

She paused, struck by what shed said. Amazingly enough, she had the funny feeling it was true. Ryker might think she was crazy and lived in a fairy-tale world, but he respected her work. They couldnt have worked together so seamlessly if he hadnt. But? Maria interrupted her thoughts. Alix grabbed the stack of napkins and pushed her stool back from the bar. But nothing. Respect is more than I could have expected, to be honest. Im not planning to ask for more. Hmm. Maria turned her head deliberately toward the window, where Ryker tipped his beer toward his lips and then lowered it again without drinking. His gaze traveled from the men by the

grill to the glass patio door and the people inside, lingering on Alix. When he noticed them looking at him, he raised his beer in a mock salute. Alixs face suffused with heat. Maria chuckled. Listen, Im not going to tell you it will be easy. Rykers the stubbornest man youll ever meet, and then some. But the toughest shells grow around the softest fruit, right? Give him a chance. Maybe hell surprise you.

Chapter Fourteen Alix tried to keep her hands steady in her lap as she slid into the leather seat beside Ryker and clicked her seat belt into place. The sun was setting in a glorious display of gold-tipped clouds, but Ryker didnt spare it a glance. He roared out of the driveway and down the street without looking back. Should she try to make conversation? Alix peered at the white line around Rykers mouth and decided to remain silent. He blasted through a red light and onto the freeway in a squeal of tires. Dinner had been long and painful. Rosalia questioned Ryker about his relationship with Alix, his movies, and how long it had been since hed been to

church. He repaid her questions with cynical looks and bare, three-word sentences. Emilio sent disapproving looks at Ryker and quizzed Maria about her classes. Hector and Eduardo seemed oblivious to the family tensions. They chattered away about their girlfriends and Rykers past dates. That earned them a cold look from Rosalia. Alix tried to smooth over the rough spots where she could, offering stories from her years photographing weddings and hoping they wouldnt ask too many questions about what she was working on now. Luckily, they seemed to assume her only connection to Ryker and his movies was Gunther. Two hours later, Maria changed a cranky Felicity into a pink pajama set

while the older children passed out in front of the television. Rosalia gave up her attempts to make conversation, and the room fell into silence. Alix and Ryker helped Rosalia clear the table, and then Ryker made his good-byes. There was a lot of hugging, though much of it looked forced, and Emilio only glowered from the other side of the room. Now, she could almost see the tension boiling inside of Ryker, from the white knuckles on the gearshift to the muscle twitching in his cheek. Alix endured fifteen minutes of silence, determined to force Ryker to be the first to speak. Sorry about that, he finally muttered. The little Mercedes wove in and out of the cars packing the busy road.

She held on to her door handle and swallowed hard. Sorry about dinner, or sorry for nearly killing me on the freeway? Ryker looked down at the speedometer. Oh. The insane pace slowed a hair. Sorry about dinner. It was fun, she said lightly. Kind of like Leave it to Beaver. Only everyone hates each other. Yeah, something like that. He slowed another hair. Alix decided keeping him talking could actually be an effective safety precaution. Is it usually that bad? Ryker drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. Actually, that was particularly unpleasant. Sometimes, Emilio and I dont talk to each other at all. That seems to work better.

I hope I didnt make things worse. He shot her a quick look and frowned. No, no, absolutely not. I shouldnt have dragged you along, but I wasnt up to doing it by myself tonight. He paused. To be honest, I dont know what Id have done without you. Alix slouched down in her seat and tried not to let a silly smile break across her face. No problem. It isnt as though I had so many other offers. He chuckled, and his fingers relaxed. Still. They can be a bit overwhelming. Alix nodded. Rosalia is rather erefficient, isnt she? Ryker snorted. Thats putting it mildly. After Mama passed away, Rosalia appointed herself the caretaker of the family. Luckily, I had already moved out.

Rosa has been mothering Maria to death ever since. I dont know how Maria swallows her tongue when Rosalia gets going. You would think Marias two, the way Rosa treats her. Its better than nothing, though. You sure about that? Alix shot him a wry smile. No. I have no idea, really. He paused. So you dont have any family? Nope. I had a grandmother, but she died when I was two. And there was a distant cousin. She took me in for a few years, but in the end she wasnt really interested in raising a child. Thats when they put you in a foster home? Yep. First of ten, to be exact.

Wow. Ryker leaned back against his seat. Ten homes. Thats amazing. Ten is nothing. I knew kids who went through that many in a year. But I was with relatives until I was five and pretty lucky after that. I bet you were a cute little bugger. Hard to believe no one would make it permanent. Im not sure how cute I was. When I was seven, they placed me with a couple of pretty tough families. I started to lock myself in my room a lot. I wasnt exactly cuddly, if thats what youre imagining. Tough as in? They didnt touch me, she said. They just didnt care. At Mama Clarks house, there were six of us foster kids. She never really got to know any of us. At

the Noskowitzes, there was a lot of fighting. Fighting between the grownups, fighting between them and their real kids, between the real kids and the fosters. I tried to stay quiet and not bother anyone. Things went downhill from there. Older kids are notoriously hard to place. I never expected anyone to keep me. Ryker whistled. And I thought it was hard adjusting to Emilio. I cant imagine doing that more than once, and you did it ten times? She shrugged. You get used to it. A lot of my buddies in junior high bounced between their parents and foster homes, Ryker said. Looked like a miserable way to live. I dont think any of them managed to finish high school. I cant believe you managed to get to

college, let alone finish an MFA. Alix muffled an embarrassed squeak and studied her hands. I guess in that I was lucky to have Emilio, Ryker continued. Every time I tried to drop out, he kicked my butt back into school. He even helped me get the scholarships to go to USC, though at the time it felt like one more way to manipulate me and keep me from making a career in the movies. I couldnt have done it without Gunther, Alix said. She remembered her conversation with Maria and looked at Ryker with new eyes. He had done for Maria what Gunther had done for her. Now that she knew that, it was impossible to see him the same way. How could he pretend to be so cold when he was

capable of so much love? He helped me get my photography business going and write my application for NYU. Things sort of fell into place after that. I actually feel a little guilty now that I hardly ever see him. Hes always after me to come visit LA, but I only get out here a couple of times a year. Traveling is expensive, and Im busy with the book. Arent you lonely out there? She shrugged. Im used to being alone. To be honest, its the only way I know how to live. Emotions backed up into her chest, and she turned from him to squint at the horizon, where the sun had begun to slip behind the hills. Are we headed back to the studio? I hate to bring it up, but we only have a few weeks left before I leave, and theres still a lot to

get done. Ryker looked pained. I cant think about it right now. Alix leaned over and grabbed her purse, rifled through it, and extracted her glasses. She started to slip them back on, but Rykers hand came out and landed on her forearm. Dont, he said. I cant see the road. So imagine it. Youve got a good imagination. She turned the glasses over in her hands. Why? Because I need to talk to a real person tonight, not an actress. Whats that supposed to mean? I just mean that I never know what to expect with you. One minute, youre

walking into Tiger Lilys like some kind of siren; the next, youre having dinner with my family and convincing them youre a harmless wedding photographer. Alix paused and bit her lip. I really do need glasses, Ryker, she said softly. And maybe youre right, and they are a bit unflattering, but thats part of me too. Its all part of who I am. He didnt respond but threw on his blinker and cut across all lanes of traffic to exit. Where are we going? Back to my place. To the beach. But Ryker, we need to get back to work. He shook his head. Not tonight. The touch of real pain in his voice surprised her, and she darted him a quick

look. Please, he said. Though nothing had changed about him physicallythe broad shoulders looked just as hard and imposing, the jaw set and firmshe felt a sudden vulnerability in his rigid visage. A need in him that he must have hated to reveal. Alix closed her eyes and struggled with her own desire to retreat, to run away from the vulnerability she saw in him. But there was no running in her tonight. Shed already seen more of him, and shared more of herself, than she would have thought possible. Running away no longer seemed an option. She nodded. By the time they pulled into Rykers driveway, the sky had turned to a deep,

velvety purple. Ryker led Alix around the side of the house, where a tall flight of steps wound through the rock and sand to the beach. Damp, salty air rolled off the ocean and filled her senses with the comforting feeling of home. Silently, they worked their way down onto the cool sand below. The tide must have been out, because the beach seemed to go on forever, the waves crashing in the distance. Ryker dropped down onto the ground and began to remove his shoes. What are you doing? she asked. He peeled off his socks and stood. Dark pants puddled around his feet. Giving her a wicked smile, he threw his briefs on top of the pile. What does it look like Im doing? Im stripping. I need

a swim. Alix swallowed hard and tried not to look below his neck. But itscold. And Yes? He began unbuttoning his shirt. The dark obscured his features, but she could see the gleam of those white teeth. Im not going swimming. Yes, you are, he replied calmly, baring his chest as he removed the last piece of clothing. Not, Im not. She crossed her arms over her chest and stuck out her lower lip. Im from Oregon. No one swims in our ocean but children and insane people with wet suits. I guess the children are insane too. Ive never understood it, actually.

Well, this is California. We love our ocean. We swim in it every chance we get. She flung her arm around in a circle, indicating the deserted beach and street far behind them. What if someone sees? Theres no public access to this beach for miles in either direction. Besides, the moon wont be up for at least an hour. Its dark. No one is going to see anything. She looked up at the sky. Stars had begun to appear like tiny pinholes of light in the black sky, but they barely illuminated the contours of Rykers face. She resolutely steered her eyes from his naked form and tried to keep her breathing steady. I dont think this is a good idea.

He took her hand and pressed a kiss on the inside of her palm. A shiver of excitement left her stomach quaking. Alix, we just went through the equivalent of a war zone. We need to decompress. And swimming together naked will allow us todecompress? Her words trailed off in a long, slow hiss as he pressed his mouth again to her skin, this time kissing the tips of her fingers and then drawing the littlest one inside his mouth. He sucked gently, and Alix froze, unable to move, breathe, or think of anything other than the warm, wet feeling. He took a step closer, let her hand fall to her side, and tugged at the hem of her shirt.

Ryker, I think we need to discuss Before she could finish her sentence, he had pulled the shirt over her head and trailed his fingers down the side of her face. Warmth rolled off his skin like the cool salty air flowing inland from the ocean. Are you really going to make me do this for you? he asked. Because I will. Its not safe to swim alone. Its the buddy rule, you know. No swimming without a buddy. A choked laugh emerged from her lips. Oh, is that it? You need a buddy? He bent down to whisper in her ear, so close she could feel his breath on her cheek. Will you be my buddy, Alix Z, or Daisy Zahn, or whoever you are right now?

She knew she should say no. Ryker was a man of strong desires, and it wouldnt be long before shed be in the position she hatedprotesting, pushing back, trying to set limits that no one really understoodleast of all her. But his body, so tall and lean, beckoned her. The ocean waves roared, and the water smashed into the sand, the sound familiar and soothing. Then Ryker kissed her ear and closed his teeth around the lobe in a gentle nip. Alix sucked in a deep breath. She wasnt sure which was more dangerous being in the water with Ryker or out of it. Without thinking, she pushed against his chest, needing only a moment of space to clear her head. But her fingers met smooth skin, taut muscles, and crinkly

hair, and she was suddenly acutely aware that her torso was almost as bare as his, only a scrap of white lace covering her breasts. He took her face between his hands and swooped down to press a quick kiss on her lips. She pulled away, shaking her head and clinging desperately to the last ounce of willpower she possessed. This is too much, Ryker. Im not playing games with you. No sex. Got it? He stopped and eyed her seriously. Id never force you to do anything you dont want, he said softly. I just want to be near you. I think you want that too. Something caught in her throat, and Alix had to look away. Why did he have to look at her like that? Like he somehow

understood? Of their own accord, her fingers reached back and unhooked her bra. The lace fell to the ground, and she shivered when the air hit her sensitive nipples. She remained frozen while he stared at her for a moment, and then lowered her skirt, taking her panties with it, until she stood naked before him. I wish we had the moonlight. I can picture your skin, gleaming and white under the moon. One hand traced the outline of her breast, slid across and, with unerring precision, landed on her nipple. She closed her eyes, almost dizzy with the intensity of the rush of sensation that followed. On second thought, he said, perhaps this is better.

Just when she thought she would melt into the sand, he took her hand and urged her toward the water. Ready, buddy? She did not trust her voice to speak but began to move toward the ocean. The sand underfoot grew cold and wet, and then the foamy water lapped her ankles. What was she doing? Alix shuddered when the water hit her calves. The darkness added an air of tension to the scene that curled her toes around the shells and rough grains of sand beneath her. Rykers hand pulled her deeper, goose bumps rising on her flesh and her nipples hardening to painful peaks. When a low wave hit her thighs, she gasped and stopped. You swim in this water?

Ryker chuckled. Well have to take the quick plunge. No sense going slow. Ready? Words tangled in her throat. She made a strangled sound of assent as another wave smashed against her midriff. He released her and held up his hand. After the next wave. Water rolled past, making her catching her breath at the sudden chill. Onetwo Wait! Three! He let go of her hand and dove forward. Alix sucked in a breath and followed. The shock of cold started her heart tripping, and she pulled several short strokes under water before coming to her feet.

Whoo! She couldnt prevent the exhilaration from emerging from her lips. The water caressed her naked skin, and when she stood, water lapped around her breasts. Ryker? Alix spun around, but in the darkness, all she could see was the glow of lights on the hills in the distance. When he didnt respond, she relaxed back against the water, her body starting to adjust to the temperature. Growing bolder, she released her legs and floated on her back, looking at the stars, feeling calmed by the water supporting her naked form. A swirl beside her leg alerted her to Rykers presence, and then he arose behind her, his hands spanning her waist, his head breaking the waters surface

beside her ear. Miss me? he breathed. It was naturalinevitable, really that she roll over to look at him. And then bring their faces together and join their lips in a salty kiss, their bodies slipping against each other as the water surged and roiled around them. Youre warm, she said when he pressed her against him. He crouched down in the water, half standing, half floating, and tugged her into a tight embrace. I cant have my buddy getting hypothermia. I dont think thats a problem. He dropped a kiss behind her ear, and then along the nape of her neck. Their bodies meshed so perfectly she hardly

considered how comfortable it was to be with him, how natural it felt to have his skin against hers. The water moved gently around them, surging and withdrawing. Ryker relaxed his hold, and she rolled onto her back, her head naturally falling in the crook of his neck. I have to admit, this is a lovely way to decompress, she said. Do you do this often? Every chance I get. I swim every morning when Im not shooting and come down here at night. There are benefits to having money. She snorted. A few. Must be a big change from growing up in South Central. He was quiet for a moment, and she

wondered if shed insulted him. But then he said, I think about it every day, what I left behind. You cant help but do that, here in LA. Its all around you, the inequities, the poverty. I try to do what I can to help, but its hard. You never know what you can really do. The problems are so big. Can I tell you a secret? she asked. Of course. He ran his fingers over her breasts, and she sighed with pleasure. I donated the profits from Candy Fever to my old high school so they could build their art program. She giggled. I did it anonymously so no one could accuse them of getting their funding from naughty films. He chuckled, and she felt the rumble deep in his chest. I bet theres some old

biddies somewhere who would love to know that. I know. Its delicious, isnt it? He stroked his fingertips up and down her rib cage. Youre remarkable, Alix. I dont know about that. If it werent for that program, and for the help of people like Gunther and Elias, I would never have gotten out. Ive seen your pictures, he said gravely. Im not sure artistry like that could ever have been contained in wedding pictures. Warm honey spread over her chest and stomach, filling her limbs with a delicious sweetness. What about you? Did you have a mentor? Someone who helped you make it out?

He moved beneath her, the pressure of his hands at her hips keeping her bottom firmly centered over his groin. Not really. There arent a lot of people lining up to help an angry young Latino boy whos busy pretending he doesnt need any help. No, I just got lucky. I hit a few billboards, and people liked my looks. Once I got cast in Angel Dust, I started getting calls. It snowballed from there. Alix rocked, ever so slightly, against the rod that centered at her back and then rode between her buttocks. She closed her eyes and let the sensual pulse between her legs wash over her body. Everyone at USC said you were the hardest working student theyd seen in years, and the most talented. Talk to some of my professors?

Ryker asked. Read a few interviews, she admitted. I dont think it was just luck. I suppose I knew what I wanted, and I didnt expect anyone to get it for me. She reached around and outlined the edges of his buttocks. They flexed and moved under her seeking fingers. The pulse between her legs grew and magnified, taking over her hips, her stomach, her legs. You make me crazy, he said, exhaling slowly. Every time I see you, I imagine touching you like this. He moved his hands higher to cup her breasts, and she sighed and relaxed her head against his shoulder. He tweaked her nipples, thrummed them once, then again, and she sucked in a deep breath.

Her hips moved in time with his caress, arching back against him and then releasing. Forcing her eyes open, she stared up at the sky, allowing herself to dissolve into the moment. The aching pleasure of his touch deepened, while the need for more pressure, more contact, grew stronger. She reached farther and took him in her hands, running her fingers along the length of his penis and then gently cupping his balls. He groaned and flipped her over so their bodies aligned, his hardness searing the space at the juncture of her thighs. Dual, competing sensations of glorious pleasure and aching regret seized her. Was this what her vow had come to? A couple of weeks with a handsome

movie star and she was ready to throw it all away? She held her breath, heart pounding. Vow be dammed. She couldnt push him away. But he didnt make the move she feared. He simply rocked against her, the tip of him rubbing against her clitoris. Dont worry, he said, as if he understood exactly how she felt. I just want to feel you. Mutely, she nodded, letting her body float away from his for a second. He caught her hips, pulled her back down against him. The water kept their bodies in motion, the current pulling them up and apart and then releasing them back into each other. It was unlike anything shed experienced; the force of the water

was almost like a third person, with its own gentle caress. He reached between them and positioned his penis so it would ride more perfectly between her legs. Her hips developed a mind of their own, bucking and thrusting as if determined to force him inside. Rykers arms tightened on her. He claimed her mouth, his tongue taking her prisoner, showing her no mercy even while he stayed mercifully still below. She could feel how much that control cost him, the muscles in his buttocks and back tight and hard. She started to move her hand lower, wanting to feel him like he felt her, but he grabbed her and pulled her arms to her sides. Dont, he said, his voice rough.

With tiny, almost imperceptible movements, he began to thrust his hips. He moved gently between her legs, rubbing against her clitoris but never going deeper. The pleasure inside her built, sharper and more powerful than anything shed felt before, and a mix of fear and pleasure drove her to a deep, low moan. Her entire body throbbed and burned. All her convictions about sex and all her reasons to say no paled in comparison to the driving, physical need. We cant She gasped at the pleasure he was inflicting. He held her hips against him. I know. Trust me. A barrier inside her dissolved. She did trust him. However crazy it was, she trusted him with everything she had.

She slid her legs apart and wrapped them around his hips, feeling his cock sliding back and forth against her flesh. As vulnerable as she was, Alix felt safe, sure he would protect them both from her irrational behavior. He did, holding tightly to her hips and moving just inches, back and forth. He groaned into her neck. She pushed against him, feeling herself drive toward the edge of orgasm, her clitoris burning and her hips driving hard against him. Oh yes, she moaned. Please. He moved faster and harder, finally pulling away completely and positioning himself higher, their bellies and hearts touching, his cock resting against her stomach. She slid her body up and down,

the pressure landing precisely at the center of her pleasure. He gasped, and his hands tightened reflexively. She felt herself tumbling toward a crescendo, every muscle in her body tightening. Faster, harder, their muscles fought their brains, their bodies dancing in a fury of control and passion. And then she exploded, pleasure shooting from her groin to her fingers and down to her toes. Alix and Ryker cried out at the same time, his body shaking and seizing against her. Her body suffused with pleasure so sharp and overwhelming she collapsed against him in sweet release.

Chapter Fifteen When the shudders finally stopped and her mind seemed once again in control of her body, Alix tentatively pulled away from Ryker. Clumsily, she set her feet on the ground, was buffeted by a wave, and fought to regain her balance. She couldnt speak, didnt want to ruin the moment that felt so tenuous and fragile, so she started to slowly make her way back toward shore. Liquid warmth still pounded through her limbs, along with a quiet, heavy feeling that left her wanting to relax back into the waters embrace. But the realization of what theyd almost done what she wanted to dokept her moving, shock just beginning to settle over her

shoulders. Alix had never intended her celibacy to last so long. She loved mens bodies, their taste, smell, and heat. Even though her teenage years had left deep scars, they hadnt erased her need for physical contact. If she hadnt started photographing sex, she probably would have given up her vow long ago. But once she started watching couples in love, things changed. Shed discovered that for her subjects, the moment of climax demonstrated vulnerability, caring, and absolute surrender. It was beautifuland terrifying. In the past, shed released that vulnerability to the wrong person, over and over again. Shed known the devastation that came when they turned

away, minutes after climax, to smoke a cigarette and turn on the TV. Shed shed all her defenses and barriers for men who didnt care, and it cost her her pride, her self-respect, and almost her life. Yet somehow, Ryker Valentine had convinced her body to open when life had taught her to keep it closed. She wanted, even now, to let him bury himself inside her, even though she knew with absolute certainty that he wouldnt be doing it because of anything other than lust. Her thoughts spinning, she forced herself to put one foot in front of the other until she was splashing through the shallow water back onto the shore. Ryker broke through the water behind her. Without looking in her direction, he grabbed her hand and gently squeezed.

It was absurd, but that gesture soothed the torrent of thoughts cascading through her mind. Perhaps she wasnt entirely crazy. Perhaps there was something more to him than desire. Perhaps her body was responding to something he would never have admitted he felt. Unlikely, of course, but even the thought that he understood, on some level, how intense this moment was, meant something to her. Gratefully, she squeezed back. They walked to their clothes in silence. He handed her his shirt. You should dry off. His voice was low, gravelly, as if it hadnt been used for a long time. She wiped the smooth cotton across her breasts and belly, and then handed it

back. It smelled like himspicy and masculine. Impossible to define. The air had turned cool, and goose bumps stood out on Alixs arms and legs as she slid Marias clothes over her damp skin. She shivered and wrapped her arms around her waist. Youre chilled. We should get inside, Ryker said. That was when the first note of panic pierced the sensual haze that lingered in her mind. Inside? Inside meant his house, and his house meant his bed, which meant Ryker, I need to get back to my hotel, she said. He touched her cheek briefly with the back of his hand, a careless, intimate gesture that had her resolve melting in an

instant. Why ever would you do a thing like that, he breathed, placing a kiss close to her ear. When theres a bed right upstairs? Alix closed her eyes and shook her head. She should tell him now, again, that she wasnt going to sleep with him. Reassert herself. Make her intentions plain. But what were her intentions? Hadnt she just opened her legs, in the most literal of ways, to this man? He doesnt care about you, her mind screamed. Or did he? Did some part of him care? I didnt mean that to happen, she blurted out. It doesnt change anything. Im sorry, I dont mean to be a tease. I

really like you, but Im not going to sleep with you. Ryker stopped. A frustrated sigh emerged from tight lips. I dont mean to question you, but why the hell not? I mean, I understand being safe. God knows I get myself tested and make sure I dont spread any little Rykers around. But after what happened out therehe gestured toward the wateris sex all that different? He laughed a trifle nervously. You arent a virgin, are you? No, she said quietly. Im not. But I decided a long time ago that casual sex was off-limits. For reasons I cant really explain. He studied her silently. After an interminable pause, he shrugged. Fine. Fine? What does that mean?

It means fine. We wont have sex. I can handle that. I like you, Alix, and were finally making some progress with the movie. Id hate to do anything that would jeopardize that. So we might as well decide now to leave the sex out of the picture. It will make things easier down the road. She didnt like the way her heart dropped at the casual way he had agreed with her. And, she said slowly, we pretend this night never happened? Ryker shook his head. He leaned forward and took her breath away with a kiss as thorough and intense as any she had ever experienced. Oh no. Im not forgetting anything. He headed toward the house. She blinked and watched him go, unable to

move, thanks to the rush of desire that turned her legs to jelly. The sand squeaked under her feet as she struggled to catch up with him. Ryker! Ryker, you bastard, what the hell is that supposed to mean? He started up the multi-tiered stairway back to his house. She was a few feet behind when she heard the first chuckle. You cant just kiss me and then walk away like that, you know, Alix demanded. Weve got to settle this thing between us. He laughed again. She started to seethe. We arent going to do this again, right? You agree? Alix, he said, his voice thick with laughter, you are an original. You know

that, dont you? Dont you patronize me! Im serious. You touch me again, and Im out of here. Got it? Whatever you say. Now hurry up; tomorrows going to be a busy day. # Lena glared at the tiny dictator she had come to hate over the past two weeks. Alix Z stood in the far corner of the set, busily setting herself to fade into the background as the cameras were positioned for another take. She didnt sit in a chair beside Ryker, prominently displayed in the center of the room. She didnt follow the cameras with her viewfinder and mumble under her breath or swear when the scene didnt go as she pleased.

Sometimes you would forget she was there for minutes at a time. But then shed resurface, like a damned ghost, and whisper something in your ear. Caress him, Salva, shed say, dont stroke, caress Or, yield to him, Salva. You keep fighting and seducing. Its time to yield. It was like having a sexual Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder, telling you exactly what you already knew you should be doing. And her eyes, they were so knowing. She looked at Lena and then looked at Jake, and Lena had the painful feeling that she was being watched from the inside out. Jake was eating it up, the bastard. Hed spent the two weeks mooning around after her, lapping up her direction

like she was Steven freaking Spielberg. But of course Alix had nice things to say to him. When she whispered in his ear, it was only to ask him for more. More inner struggle. More suspicion. Lena, on the other hand, never seemed to get it right. One more time, Ryker called. From the top. Its getting better, but were still not there. Lena, you know what we need, and were going to keep shooting until we get it. Lena wanted to scream. Of course, Ryker wasnt happy with her. He hadnt been happy for weeks, so that was nothing new. Having Alix there hadnt changed a thing. He still wanted to blame anything that went wrong on Lena. But there was something different about him today. He kept giving Alix

these moony, steamy looks when he didnt think anyone was watching. Something had happened between the two of them the night before, Lena would bet. Hard to believe, but looks like that didnt lie. Well, they could screw like bunnies, for all she cared. Maybe that would get Ryker off her back. Ryker, weve got a hair in the gate on the A Camera, Frank called. I need a few minutes. Ryker glared at him. The gate was the opening on the camera where the film was exposed to light. A hair on the gate meant that a dark line would be visible on any film they shot until the gate was cleaned. All right, short break everyone. Lena sighed with relief. She eyed the piles of food on the back table, her gaze

lingering on the glazed donuts, and waged a brief inner struggle. Black coffee, she decided, would have to do. Lena, why dont you come for a little walk with me? Alix appeared at Lenas side without making a sound. Lena jumped. What are you, some kind of witch? Sorry, Alix replied, corners of her mouth turned down in a rueful smile, its a habit I picked up from working weddings. They dont like it when the photographer is louder than the priest. Sure, whatever. I suppose it is stuffy in here. Lena grabbed her purse without waiting for Alix to follow. She pounded across the soundstage to the exterior door. The sun was almost directly overhead, and she immediately wished she

had her sunglasses. She began to pace up and down the concrete path. It had been three years since shed had a cigarette, but the desire to smoke had been burning a hole in her gut ever since shed started this damned movie. She pulled a stick of gum from her purse and began to chew vigorously. Tell me, Lena, how many movies have you made? Alix asked. She leaned against the building, her loose jeans sliding down somewhere near her hips. She wore a thin blue T-shirt that clung to her generous breasts. Alix had one of those curvy bodies that looked like crap on the screen but in real life, men seemed to like. Or at least, they like to screw. Who knew what men really liked. Jakes little tramp had had a body like that. Back

then, hed always told Lena she was too skinny. But he knew as well as she did that gaining weight wasnt an option. Not if she wanted to keep making movies. Lena examined her nails. Six. And how many did you star in? Two. And how many times did you take top billing? Lena frowned. Never. What the hell are you driving at? This is all new for you, isnt it. The attention. The pressure. No, not really. Like I said, Ive starred in two other films. It isnt like Im a nobody. Alix acknowledged the truth of Lenas statement with a short nod. Of course not. But this film is riding on your

shoulders. Do you think about that? Ever wonder why Ryker cast you? Of course she thought about it. Of course she wondered why Ryker had cast her. Shed wondered about it every night for the past six months. But she didnt intend to tell Miss Smarty-Pants that. Because I was on the cover of Maxim the month he was casting the show? Alix shook her head. Youre used to people thinking of you as nothing but a pretty face, arent you? Lena looked up from her contemplation of her manicure. Whats that supposed to mean? Youve been cast as a hooker, a model, a single woman who almost breaks up a marriage, a hot girl a geek tries to date, and a spys love interest. What do

you think I mean? So? Maybe I am a pretty face. Whats wrong with that? Nothing. Except, someone forgot to give you the message that youre also a decent actor. Lena snorted. Right. Look, Im not saying I cant act, but thats not what they want me for. Im the eye candy. The lure we throw out to bring in the boys. Theres nothing wrong with that, but dont expect me to be Meryl Streep, okay? Im doing the best I can. What are you most scared of, Lena? Is it trying to act and having the critics say you didnt succeed, or not being able to hide your feelings from Jake anymore? Lenas mouth dropped open, and a

jolt of cold fear ripped through her. Jake? What does this have to do with Jake? Slowly, Alix extracted a tube of lip balm from the pocket of her jeans. She slid the tube between her fingers, back and forth, until somehow the gesture became lewd. Lena watched, fascinated, as Alix ran one finger around the top, then down the side. She pulled off the cap and rubbed the ChapStick over her lips. Lena couldnt look away from her mouth. Absurd as it should have been, those full lips instantly became a focal point of sensuality. When Alix rubbed her lips together and pursed her mouth into the suggestion of a kiss, it was as if she was communicating directly with a lover. You can make anything sexy, Alix

said softly, putting the tube back in her pocket. Its all in the way you approach it. I could go down on this ChapStick, and if I believed it enough, it would excite the men who watched me. As far as I can tell, youve been working all morning to convince yourself that you dont find Jake sexy. That he doesnt turn you on. That you arent going to melt if he touches your face or kisses your neck. Youre scared, and even if you refuse to admit it, its destroying the film. Lena sucked in her breath. So it wasnt enough to have Ryker beating up on me? They had to hire someone else to do it too? Alix crossed her arms over her chest. I have no interest in beating up on you. But youre holding back, and I cant have

that. Lena bit her lip, feeling an unexpected tightness in the back of her throat. You dont know me. She had to swallow hard to continue. You dont know anything about me. Alix lifted her enormous glasses and pushed them back into her hair. She met Lenas eyes in a hard, intense stare. Youre an actress. A decent actress, though youre doing your best not to admit it. We can figure this out together, but you cant keep holding back. Hes a tube of lipstick. A boy you dated in high school whose name you cant recall. Hes nothing. You are the star. Her voice was low, mesmerizing in its intensity. You are the star. Now start acting like one.

Chapter Sixteen Alix ignored Rykers raised eyes as she walked back through the door with Lena. She wasnt sure if her little pep talk had made a difference, but it was clear that something needed to change, and soon. Ryker wouldnt let Lena keep shooting herself and the rest of the cast in the foot. At some point, he was going to lose patience, and Lena would find herself in a very bad position. Even with her eyes averted, she could feel him watching her, and as if of their own accord, her hips took on a new, sensual sway. They hadnt talked much on the way back to her hotel last night. Ryker kept watching her out of the corner of his eye with a gaze thick with promise. She

wasnt sure if she found it insulting or thrilling. She had no idea what he thought their future would hold, but she had a feeling it wasnt just friendship. Alix had wrestled with her body for hours before dropping off to sleep. She considered all the reasons she didnt want to sleep with him and all the reasons she did. In the end, shed woken up with no better answer to her dilemma than shed had the night before. She wanted him, but she needed love. And she had no doubt that when it came to Ryker, falling in love would be nothing less than disaster. Then again, millions of people had sex without being in love. There was no reason why she couldnt be one of them. Are we ready yet? Alix asked Ryker, clearing her mind of any thoughts of love

or sex as she came to stand beside him. She kept her voice low as Lena positioned herself on the edge of the sofa. Lenas eyes were glassy, and she looked dazed. I think we need to shoot now. I mean, right now. Ryker seemed to realize that she was serious and clapped his hands as he called everyone back to attention. With a few brisk commands, the crew was in place. Action! Jake entered the room, stalked around the set, and ended up in front of Lena. Theyd run this scene, the same one theyd rehearsed Alixs first day on the set, at least fifty times already that morning. Practiced it, shot it from various angles. Each time, it was wrong. Though Jake seemed to be responding well to her

changes, Lena was getting worse by the day. She looked like a marionette, going through motions someone had laid out for her. Alix felt certain her new staging and composition would help the film, but Lenas performance had to improve, or nothing else would matter. Jake murmured his lines, his body practically radiating repressed passion. If nothing else, this movie would renew his career, which had been somewhat rocky after his last movie, which had been a bigbudget flop. Lena stood, pleading with him not to leave. She laid her hand on his chest, and Jake covered it with his own. Their eyes met, and she wrapped his arm around her body. He leaned toward her, and she melted against him, parting her lips and breaching the distance between

them with a slow, deliberate movement. They shared a long, sweet kiss, mouths fused together as tightly as their bodies. For an instant, Alix thought Lena had finally broken through her fear. But then she pulled away, her eyes glittering with repressed emotion. Im sorry. Lena sank down on the sofa. Im sorry, but we have to stop. Ryker bounded up from his chair. He opened his mouth, fury visible in every line of his body. Alix grabbed his arm, hoping to forestall the flood of words she could see he longed to spew at the actress, who had crumpled onto the sofa. Lena? she said. Whats going on? Lenas huge eyes, framed by thick, dark lashes, filled with tears. I cant do it, she said, her voice husky. I cant do

it. Lena Jake started to speak, but Alix cut him off with a raised hand. Of course you can, Lena. Its just ChapStick, right? Lena shook her head, thick black curls tumbling around her shoulders. Nice try, but its not going to work. She raised her head and looked at each of them in turn. Its too late for that. Im sorry but youll have to figure something out without me. Ive tried and Ive tried, but Im never going to make you happy, Ryker. You want something I just cant give. She took a deep, trembling breath. Ive made up my mind. I quit. # Were screwed. Ryker lifted a glass of whiskey to his lips and drank it down

in one shot. He slouched in the leather Eames chair and stared at the enormous blank screen in Gunthers viewing room. Alix stared down at her own drink and winced at the fury in his voice. She needs a break. Ill talk to her tomorrow. She cant quit. Youll talk to her? Ryker set down his glass. Forgive me, but she quit after the last time you talked to her. Im not sure I want you anywhere near her. Alix sighed. You may be right. Still, I think we can change her mind. Im not sure I want to change her mind. I already have most of my important footage. Ryker rubbed his face. I could film the rest with a double. Splice in her face, shoot from behind. Its just the sex thats left anyway.

Just the sex. Alix shook her head. Thats exactly your problem. Its not just the sex. Its the most important part of your film. You cant shoot the most important part of your film with a body double. Thats exactly my problem? He raised an eyebrow. Forgive me, Miss Director, but weve been working together for two weeks. I could have lots of other problems that you dont know a thing about. Alix stood and began to pace the room. Seriously, we need to figure out how to get Lena back on the job. And we need to decide what to tell Gunther. In an instant, his voice turned cold and hard. We dont need to tell him anything. This is my movie. Ill talk to

Gunther. Youll talk to Gunther about what? Alix and Ryker whipped around in unison to see the tall, stocky figure leaning against the doorway. The bright sunlight illuminated his white shirt and linen pants and reflected off the gold chain around his neck. A thick swath of white chest hair peeked out from the top of his shirt. A rush of overwhelming relief washed over Alix, and she started to take a step toward him. But then she stole a look at Ryker and froze. Rykers jaw was set and tight. He looked as he had as theyd approached Rosalias house: hardened and ready for battle. As much as she wanted to run to Gunther like a child and tell him what

had happened, Alix knew in an instant that her loyalty lay with Ryker. It was his movie, and he deserved her trust in letting him fix it. Gunther. Ryker acknowledged his presence with a dip of his head but made no move to stand. Ryker, Gunther drawled. He gave Alix a brief hug before pushing her back to study her appearance. Lord, Alix, you look like hell. Dont you own a decentfitting pair of pants? Alixs cheeks burned. Shed never had a parent around to embarrass her in front of the cute boys in high school, but she now imagined she knew what it would have felt like. Just because I refuse to spend two hundred dollars on a pair of jeans doesnt mean I look like hell, she

said. And its nice to see you too. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked back and forth between her and Ryker. So? What are you going to tell me? Weve run into a little technical glitch, Ryker said smoothly. Nothing we cant fix. Alix hid her shock. If Ryker wasnt telling Gunther about Lena, he probably had a good reason. Alix? Gunther said, searching her face for confirmation. She forced an easy smile. You heard him. Technical glitch. Hair in the gate. Happens all the time, you know. Gunther narrowed his eyes. Hmmm. Well, if you say so. He abruptly clapped his hands together. Im here to tell you

to go put on your sparkly shoes, Alix. Im having a party tonight, and I expect you and Ryker to be there. Alix recoiled. A party? I thought wed decided I would lay low while Im here. Gunther shrugged. This will be an intimate gathering. Just thirty or forty friends. No press. Theres always press. Alix walked back to the bar at the end of the room and stared blindly at the bottle of whiskey Ryker had opened a few minutes before. She hadnt wanted a drink then, but now she did. Familiar feelings of dread clawed at her stomach at the thought of entertaining Gunthers Hollywood crowd. Ryker sighed. You might have given us a little advance warning, Gunther.

Were pretty busy on the set right now. Gunther waved a dismissive hand. Youll have it wrapped up in time. My place at eight. Dont be late! With a cheerful smile, he turned and disappeared down the hall, leaving the door to slam shut behind him. Ryker groaned. Thats all we need. One of Gunthers little gatherings. He must be trying to start generating buzz for the movie. Its not my fault he wants to have a party. She tried not to sound defensive, though it was hard when Ryker was staring at her as though she had somehow deliberately planned for this to happen. Sure it is, Ryker said. He didnt have parties for me before you got here. Alix splashed a measure of whiskey

into a glass. She held it up to her lips, steeled her courage, and took a sip. It burned her mouth, and she barely kept from spitting it out. She swallowed, coughed, and set down the cup. Not much of a drinker, are you? Ryker observed. She coughed again, her tongue and throat on fire. Wine, she squeaked out. I can drink wine. If you say so. He drummed his fingers on his knee. Alix removed the elastic from her hair and shook it out over her shoulders. A deep, throbbing pain had erupted behind her temples the moment Lena said I quit, and she rubbed gently just above the sides of her glasses to ease it. Headache? Ryker asked.

Alix nodded. Im not sure if I should blame Gunther or Lena. Theres plenty of blame to go around. Why pick one? Rykers brows loosened as he watched her. Im sorry, I shouldnt have snapped at you. Its been a long day, Alix said, gazing mournfully at the glass of whiskey she knew shed never drink. And its barely afternoon. She continued to rub her temples, imagining the endless evening to come with Gunthers Hollywood cronies and their gorgeous model girlfriends. Gunther wouldnt advertise who she was, but he wouldnt hide it either, and then shed have to deal with all those questions, the obnoxious comments She rubbed harder as the throbbing intensified.

Come here, Ryker said, beckoning with one hand. She stared at him without moving. Im not going to bite. He patted the sofa. Reluctantly, she edged over and sat as far away from him as possible. He chuckled. You pick the oddest times to be shy. He arranged himself directly behind her on the sofa. He placed his hands on either side of her head, gently removed her glasses, and handed them to her. She took the heavy plastic frames in one hand and tried not to hold her breath. He rubbed his first two fingers in smooth circles at her temples. The very touch of his hands sent prickling goose bumps up and down Alixs bare arms. He

continued to rub, and the first tingling awareness slowly faded, replaced instead by a warm, gentle throb between her legs. Rykers hands fell away from her head, and equal amounts of relief and disappointment started through her. But then he leaned forward and placed a kiss on the back of her neck. Alix froze, her breath caught. She cleared her throat. Ryker, she started to say but lost her voice when he sucked gently on the spot where the muscles in her back joined her neck. A quiet sigh of pleasure escaped her lips. What was she going to do? What should she say? Ryker appeared to take her exhalation as a good sign. He continued to trail kisses down the length of her neck and

across her collarbones. His fingers trailed across the soft fabric of her T-shirt, cupped her breasts and then released them. Prisoner to the sensual spell he was weaving, Alix froze, unable to move, to think. I love your breasts, Ryker murmured in her ear. Full, soft, begging to be touched. He teased the nipples to peaks, moving his thumbs in slow circles. Alixs eyes slid closed. His hands were like a powerful drug, eating away at her inhibitions and fears. I want to see you naked, he said, slipping his hands under her shirt to rest on her bare skin. I want to take you in my mouth and watch you move underneath me. She melted against him, shivers racing

along her spine. When his fingers reached under her bra to caress her, she moaned again, this time because a sharp jolt of pleasure shot between her chest and her core. Her back arched, and she rested her head against his shoulder. He kept one hand at her breast while the other slipped lower, down her stomach, over her jeans, to rest between her legs. Alix jerked back, her body seeking his. Ryker? A voice sounded in the hallway. Not now. He lifted his mouth from her shoulder to call back at the voice but didnt move his hands. Alix took advantage of the moment to give herself a quick, internal slap. She bounded up and over to the door, which

she flung open. Amir stood on the other side. Whats up? she asked cheerfully. People are wondering about tomorrow, Amir said, darting a look between her and Ryker, his curiosity barely contained. Do we still have rehearsal? Ryker stood and eyed them both, a familiar mix of irritation and amusement quirking his lips. Of course, he drawled. Call is at eight sharp. Dont be late. Alix cocked her head at Ryker. Really? Well work this out by then. Amir nodded and turned to leave. Ryker watched him disappear down the hallway and then locked the door behind him.

Now, where were we?

Chapter Seventeen Before she had time to respond, he took her face in his hands. She fit perfectly in his palms, her full lips slightly parted, her expression a blend of fear and desire. She didnt pull away when he dragged her against his chest. Her arms simply collapsed, her forearms pinned between them. He wanted to feel more, feel her breasts unbound against him, but instead he focused on her mouth. It felt strange to keep trying to seduce a woman who seemed so willing yet so determined to avoid consummation. But he couldnt stop touching her. He couldnt walk away. He even found himself enjoying the game, perfecting the art of arousal and satisfaction without any promise of sex

on the other end. She was tentative, restrained, and he coaxed her with his lips and tongue. Trust me, his mouth told her. I will pleasure you. He caressed her forehead and temples, running his fingers through her hair, tangling them in strands of pure silk. He felt it the moment her resistance melted. It didnt trickle past but washed away like a great flood. Her fingers tensed, and she exhaled on a long, languid breath. Then her tongue began to dance with his, seeking and teasing, pulling away before going deep. When she bit his lower lip, a jolt of pleasure ran straight to his groin. She tugged him over to the couch, pushed on his chest until he fell back against the cool leather. Then she slid

down between his legs until her knees settled on the floor. He sat up straighter and ran his fingers down the length of her spine, feeling the outline of each vertebra through her dress before letting his fingers slip around to hold her tiny waist. She broke the kiss for a minute, stared at him with some intense, unspoken emotion, and then slowly, methodically, began to unbutton his shirt, punctuating each button with a kiss and a flick of her tongue. When she reached the top of his pants and started on his belt, Ryker got the first inkling he had lost control. A voice in the back of his head told him to move, grab her hands, and kiss her until she was helpless beneath him. But the voice couldnt seem to propel his body

into motion. He was frozen, helpless under the sensual onslaught of her tongue, her busy fingers, and her warm, soft breath. When her hands brushed against him, the erection that had been growing more painful by the moment jerked his hips halfway off the couch. Her mouth moved lower on his chest as her fingers busied themselves with his belt. It was torture, that mouth, catching his skin between her teeth in a nip and then soothing the sting with a lick of her little pink tongue. As she worked, she floated against him, alternately pressing her breasts into his chest and letting the hard nubs of her nipples rub against him, and then moving back to take another bite.

When she loosened his belt, his cock took over and erased all rational thought from his brain. With a hungry look in her verdant eyes, she pulled open his pants and caressed him through a thin layer of cotton. Her touch burned with a mix of pleasure and pain. He groaned, and one hand came to rest on her head, massaging her silky hair as she kissed a line of fire from his stomach down to the elastic at the top of his briefs. Her skin was soft and smooth, teasing him with its proximity as she stopped and rubbed her face against his stomach. His shirt draped across his bare skin, and she tickled around his hips, her fingertips gliding over his chest, nipples, navel, leaving his muscles bunched and hard behind her.

Honey, slow down His voice came through tight lips, his breath whistling a second behind. He tried to loop his hands under her arms and pull her up, but she refused to back off, taking that moment to pull back the elastic and free his erection to her slender fingers. His body moved again, jerking and shuddering when she touched his bare skin. He wanted to pull her against him, crush her body along his, but she had rendered him helpless, unable to move or do anything that might stop the next touch, the next sensation. She took advantage of his raised hips to slide his pants and briefs halfway down his thighs. When he was fully exposed, she stroked the head of his cock, and he groaned, the sound echoing in the quiet room. She

moved her hand down the length of him, caressing the scar at the base of the head, feeling the length of the vein at the bottom, cupping the soft sac at the end. She was a witch, a devil, prolonging the moment of first contact, moving her cheek closer to his groin, covering his skin with wet kisses, then tickling the base of him with her tongue. Holding his cock firmly in her hand, she waited, lips practically touching, until he leaped in response. Then she opened her mouth and took him inside. He exhaled, his world narrowing to the feeling of her mouth, hot and wet, surrounding him. She sucked on the tip, first gently and then with more force, opening her mouth wider to surround

him. The throb and the heat felt so good he needed to go deeper, wished she could take it all at once, and, as if she could read his mind, she took him deep in one long draught. He was on the verge of exploding, and in desperation tried again, tugging on her arms. Good Lord, woman, youre killing me. He wanted to bury himself in her flesh, not in her mouth. She backed off only long enough to circle his tip with her tongue, bathe him in long, sensual strokes, and then let the length of him slide deeper into her mouth. It was too much. Ryker felt himself slip past the edge of control as the pleasure intensified. He began to thrust against her, moving inside her mouth as

his hips nearly lifted him off the couch. There was suction, heat, and the movement of her tongue against his flesh, all conspiring to drive him past the edge of sanity. When he approached the edge, he felt his body tense, pause, and then explode in pure pleasure. # When the room stopped spinning, Ryker opened his eyes and tried to focus. With some effort, he was able to make out the viewing room, a place hed never look at the same way again; the blank screen looming over him and the woman who had just fulfilled weeks of fantasies leaning back on her haunches, gazing at him like a tawny panther surveying a kill. If he wasnt weak as a baby, and far too satisfied to move, he would have drawn

her down on top of him and drunk one more time from that dangerous pink mouth. But instead, he simply looked at her. Even blinking seemed an effort. The longer he looked, the clearer it became that he had no idea what possessed her. Who she was. What she wanted. Sphinx-like, she rose to her feet and rearranged her clothes. I need to get ready, she said. Ill see you tonight. What? He struggled to stand, suddenly uncomfortable with his vulnerability. He jerked up his pants and redid his belt. Gunthers party, she repeated. Ill see you there. A roaring sound began in his ears as

he worked to shake off his post-climax stupor. Hed never been dismissed before, but he had the feeling that was exactly what Alix had just done. He contemplated her for a moment, watched her pink tongue dart out to moisten her lips. How could that mouththat incredible, naughty, dangerous mouth still look so innocent? Her hair draped over one shoulder, sparkling with red and gold lights. Her green eyes were guarded, carefully masking any emotion, but her hands were tangled together in a nervous heap, laced and then unlaced. Right, he drawled. So Im supposed to say thanks for the blowjob, and see you later? She took a step back, obviously flustered by his anger. I dont

understand why youre upset. I thought this was what you wanted. He let the silence stretch uncomfortably between them before he spoke again. Im not some prick who just wants to get off, Alix. If thats what you think, then we can forget the whole thing. Forget what whole thing? There is no thing, Ryker. You know that better than anyone. Before she could go any further, he pulled her back into his arms and claimed her mouth in a deep, penetrating kiss. She put her hands back up to his chest as if to push him away, but her protest died before it even began. He could taste himself on her tongue. He inserted his hands between their

bodies, teased her nipples in several short strokes back to the hard buds she had ground against his skin minutes before. He refused to let her walk away thinking shed given him what he wanted. Thinking he was some shallow bastard who would be content with a blowjob and a pat on the head. He leaned forward, put one hand behind her knees and the other at her back, and lifted her off the ground. She squealed a protest as he dropped her on the sofa, her arms and legs wide as she landed on her back and struggled to right herself. Her eyes were huge, dark saucers in her elegant oval of a face. She swallowed once, then again. He forgot, sometimes, how beautiful she was, when she covered her face with her sunglasses

and disguised her body in ill-fitting clothes. Ryker, I Im not letting you go. Not yet. With that, he lowered himself into the position she had just occupied, holding her gently in place as she tried to sit up. He swallowed her murmured protest with another kiss. He turned his mouth to her breasts, nibbling their peaks through the thin material of her shirt until she moaned with pleasure. Then, with a deep sigh, she leaned her head back and let her body melt into the cushions. He felt a surge of satisfaction. She wanted him. Everything else she said, everything she did was just noise. Releasing her knees, he flipped her

shirt over her head, released her bra, and finally held her naked breasts in his hands. With a fierce pleasure, he caressed her nipples, rubbing circles around her flesh until her hips bucked and demanded his attention. He slid his hand down her body, wishing he had her in his bed so he could lick and stroke every inch of her skin. Instead, he unzipped her jeans. She lifted her hips, and he shimmied the thick fabric down over her ankles. When he reached her panties and found them already wet through, he smiled and felt a new shot of lust. Now the tables were turned. She was at his mercy. Hed been waiting so long. He slipped one finger into her and was instantly surrounded by slick, wet

heat. She cried out at his touch, hips rising and falling as if he was already inside. He slid his finger around the hood of her clitoris, stroked it gently. Soft, breathy sounds came at regular intervals. He could hear the rhythm in her voice, feel it in the thighs that clenched and released. Clenched and released. He kissed the length of her body, paused at the soft skin above her hip, tangled his fingers in the black hair at her mound. He stopped to survey her, the white skin laid out before him, the abandon in her every move. She was pulsing against his hand, which rested at her navel. She wanted more. He leaned forward, spreading her knees, waiting until she had relaxed completely before bending forward. He

took in the musky scent as he finally tasted her, tickled the soft flesh with his tongue. She jerked as they made contact, and he grabbed her hips, not letting her move away from his seeking and probing. He traced the edges of her, nibbled her skin with exquisite tenderness. Then he went deeper, taking long, smooth strokes at the edge of her clitoris, before dipping deeper, relishing every smell, every taste. She thrust against him, muscles flexing spasmodically. He plunged his tongue inside and thrust. Her rhythm increased, and he met it, pausing in between to suck gently on her peak. She moved faster, and he substituted his finger for his mouth, thrusting with his finger and imagining it was something more, imaging him reaching to her very

core. Still, he kept his mouth on her, applying pressure as he thrust. She paused, tensed, and he sucked hard, joining every move, every sensation. She dissolved in a scream. Her body leaped, shuddered, and he pulled deeply with his mouth, taking as much of her as he could while she collapsed around him. When she lay still and silent on the couch, he drew back and slid both hands beneath her. He stopped at her waist, looped his hands loosely around her, and pulled her limp body into a sitting position. That, my dear, is the last time you dismiss me. Understand? Mutely, eyes wide, she nodded. He dropped a kiss on the tip of her nose. Now you can go. Ill see you at the


Chapter Eighteen Alix gave the pot of sweetly fragrant white orchids centered on Gunthers marble mantel a gentle pat and then moved a collection of silver candles an inch to the left of the flowers. As she stepped back to consider the arrangement, a steely-eyed matron in a white shirt and black pants frowned from the doorway to the kitchen. Can I get you something, miss? Another glass of wine? No, thanks, Alix demurred. She had a strong suspicion the woman with the bun so tight her eyebrows were mere centimeters from her receding hairline would rather drown her in wine than let her disturb the precisely executed party

decor. Gunther loved to decorate for a partyor, to be more precise, loved to hire someone to decorate for a partyso a small army of celebration facilitators had been at the house ever since Alix arrived at four that afternoon. They bustled around moving furniture, setting up tables of appetizers, and decorating everything from the mantel to the garden with white and silver-themed ornaments. Tiny white lanterns hung around the door to the patio and shot sparkles of light across the moving pools of water. Yards of delicate white organza were artfully draped around silver plates of goat cheese, caviar, bread crisps, and thinly sliced vegetables. Candles sparkled and threw shadows around the softly lit rooms.

Alixs contribution to the spacing of the candles was clearly not appreciated. Well, you just let me know if you need anything. Tight Bun eyed Alixs attire of jeans and T-shirt skeptically. The guests should start arriving soon. Did you want me to keep your wine chilled while you get ready? No. I only need a few minutes to throw on my dress. Alix raised her nose and sniffed audibly. Is that something burning? Oh! The matrons jaw dropped, and a look of horror crossed her broad, ruddy face. My quiches! She ran from the room, black leather shoes squeaking all the way. Relieved to be alone once again, Alix cocked her head at the candles and moved

them back an inch to the right. Bun Lady was right; her instincts sucked. There was a reason why Gunther didnt ask her to throw his parties. It wasnt just her lack of decorating skills. He knew how much she hated these gatherings. She dreaded the questions, the laughter, the pointed male glances. She knew when she made her movies that someday she might have to deal with the public, but she hadnt anticipated how hard it would be. Because every time they laughed, it was like they were laughing at her soul. Even if they were just movies, they did reflect her true romantic ideals. Gunther told her she shouldnt care what they thought. The support she got from her fansmost of them womenshould have outweighed a few leering studio

executives. But it didnt seem to work that way. She had learned to live through it, but she never liked it. She tried to tell herself that tonight would be different. At Gunthers urging, shed decided not to disguise herself in one of the frumpy black dresses shed worn when she was hiding from the press years before. After all, this was Rykers movie, not hers. There was no reason for them to think she was working on the film. It was even possible no one would recognize her. She just had to focus on being one of the crowd. Attractive but not gorgeous. Sociable but not memorable. A tall order but not an impossible one. After all, shed been blending into crowds for years. This was just one

disguise among many. And if they did recognize her, she told herself she could handle it. Shed done it before. Bob and weave, she and Gunther used to joke. Bob and weave. Alix walked over to the patio and stepped outside. The air caressed her skin, the temperature at the breaking point between warm and cool. As the musky, sensual fragrance of a jasmine plant surrounded her, she realized that this party would provide an additional challengethis party would include Ryker Valentine. She sipped from her glass of smoky California chardonnay and allowed her thoughts to take her back to the screening room. Back to Rykers grim reaction, his pride bruised, eyes flashing when he

realized she intended to walk away and leave him in a pleasure-induced stupor. She hadnt meant to insult him, but clearly, she had. He didnt understand and she couldnt tell himthat shed simply needed to regain control of the situation. That she needed to be able to step back from her own desire and experience the pleasure of his. Her plan had backfired in the most spectacular way. Hed taken every bit of her control and eliminated it. Even more than when theyd been at the beach, hed broken down her defenses and left her gasping. She wanted him desperately, but was more sure than ever that she couldnt give in. Because she was starting to feel something for him.

Not love, perhaps, but something more than friendship. Something more than respect. It was a dangerous emotion, whatever it was, because with a man like Ryker, it was destined to end in disaster. Which meant she needed to end things. As soon as possible. She picked a tiny sprig of white flowers and held them to her nose. She couldnt do it here, at Gunthers house. She couldnt risk Gunther finding out. Hed have nothing but questions for her, and Ryker as well. And with the movie in a shambles, and Lena having just quit Well, she couldnt add this to the mix. It wouldnt be fair to Ryker or Gunther. She thought through her options. Tonight shed have to play it cool, tell Ryker she had agreed to stay overnight at

Gunthers. He couldnt argue with that. Gunther was his boss, after all, and Ryker could hardly insist she disappoint him. It wasnt much, but it would give her a night of breathing room. And after tonight? After tonight, shed have to be honest. Tell him things were getting too intense, and she couldnt handle it anymore. She needed room, and they needed to finish the movie. Hed understand. Wouldnt he? # Ryker watched Alix flit around the room, bestowing her highest-wattage smiles on the men least deserving of them. Tonight his consummate chameleon had turned into a shallow

social butterfly. Her tiny green dress and high heels were like the worst sort of costume; in all the time hed known her, hed never heard her giggle so loudly or so often. Meanwhile, her eyes were blank, their green depths masked. She introduced herself merely as Alix, and Ryker wondered how many people recognized her for who she was. Gunther hadnt mentioned her role on the set of Salvas Revenge. He seemed inclined to leave it to Alix to reveal the nature of her work. She steadfastly avoided questions, giggled some more, and when asked directly what she was doing in LA, adroitly turned the subject back to the questioner. The crowd was composed primarily of Gunthers friendsthe men who ruled

Hollywood with a combination of money and style. They were attorneys and bankers; they owned exclusive restaurants and nightclubs or managed studios like Gunther. They sported heads of pure white or perfectly dyed black, but little in between. Each carried a wife or girlfriend on his arm like a tall, blonde trophy. Ryker had never liked this crowd. He watched as Anthony Sloane collared Alix by the caviar. He was a short man with a round belly and thick jowls. A gold chain rested on a smooth, darkly tanned chest. No one was entirely sure how Anthony had made his money, but few believed it had been by following all the rules. Something about the gleam in his eye didnt sit right with Ryker. He put one

hand on the elbow of the silvery blonde chattering into his ear and edged her toward the table of food Anthony had been hovering around all evening. She continued without interruption, seeming not to notice when Ryker positioned himself only a few feet from Alix and Anthony. Alix, you look familiar. Anthony covered a cucumber slice with caviar and slipped it between his lips as he talked. Where have I seen you before? Have I met you at one of Gunthers parties? Alix sipped from her glass of wine, a smile plastered across her full lips. She held a napkin with a half-eaten appetizer but made no move to bring it to her lips. If Ryker wasnt mistaken, she had done little beside drink this evening.

I lived in LA a few years ago, she said. Perhaps we met then. A few years ago? Hmm. He stared at her another minute, then snapped two fleshy fingers together. Wait! Ive got it. I never forget a face. Gunther introduced us years ago. Youre Alix Z, arent you? He chortled and motioned to a group of men standing nearby. Its Alix Z, boys. You remember Alix, dont you? She directed Candy Fever and Through the Window. Remember those little beauties? The heads whipped around, and appreciative smiles slowly crossed their faces. They circled around Alix. Ryker gritted his teeth. Something in the eyes of those men reminded him of the way a hungry man approached a steak. I remember the films, but how could

I have missed the woman behind them? Terrance Fillmore, a tall man with a crown of thinning white hair, spoke appreciatively from behind his glass of wine. If I recall correctly, Alix prefers to stay clear of the spotlight, Anthony said, his gaze remarkably shrewd as he studied her. Which was no easy feat when her movies came out. When we heard Gunther had a woman directing those films, we all thought hed found the Holy Grail. Everyone wants to find a new market for sex, and you had itother women. Im surprised you made it out of LA alive. Are you shooting something new? Terrace asked. You left behind a lot of fans hungry for more, you know. He

flashed a smile. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Alix shifted her weight, her gaze darting around the circle before landing on Ryker, who had given up all pretense of listening to his companion. Im well Shes working with me, Ryker broke in. Shes going to put a little more romance in Salvas Revenge. Romance? Anthony shifted his attention to Ryker. Is that what they call it these days? If thats the case, then Candy Fever was one of the most romantic movies Ive ever seen. A dark-skinned man at the other end of the circle smirked. I guess now when my date asks for a little romance, Ill know what to give her.

Alixs expression did not change. Ryker waited for her to say something to defend her work, but she only smiled along with the men. It isnt just about sex, Ryker said. Alix has a real gift for the emotional side of a love scene. Its all very important to the film, right, Alix? Alix flipped her hair over one shoulder. Sure, what could be more important than sex? she said lightly. Weve got to make sure we get the moans right, you know, and cue the jazz music at the perfect time. Its a tough job, but someones got to do it. Ryker flinched at the nonchalant tone of her voice. Hed gotten so used to hearing her defend her work it was impossible to imagine she could dismiss it

in one sentence. I thought you didnt care for that sort of thing, Anthony said to Ryker, looking back and forth between him and Alix. What sort of thing? Ryker asked. Anthony waved his short, stubby fingers. The softer side of sex. Mood music, soft lighting, all that. We didnt see much of it in Garden of Eden, thats for sure. All of the men laughed, and Ryker felt his fingers curl into fists. Deliberately, he imagined Emilio standing at his shoulder, and he forced himself to take a deep breath and let go of his temper. Thats what Alix is for, he said evenly. Ryker has more important things to worry about, Alix said, looking down at

her nails as if the conversation bored her. He does the real workIm like the fashion police. You cant imagine some of the positions actors get into. She shuddered. Very unattractive. Alix, you can start a whole new trend in the industry, Anthony said approvingly. Well all start hiring sex designers the way we do costume and makeup. I cant believe I didnt think of it myself. Now tell me, when are you finished with Salvas Revenge? Ive got a little serial-killer flick I need to have sexed up. Any chance youre available? Ryker gave Alix a hard, searching look but saw only the barest flash of something real in her eyes. It was dark and sad, and he took her hand to pull her away from the group.

Back off, boys, he said with a grim smile. This sex designer is mine. There were a few hoots and catcalls. You cant keep her all to yourself, Anthony said. Shes doing important work for me, Ryker said. It isnt just about the sex. Theres more to it than that. Shes got a real gift for working with the actors. Im learning a lot from her, actually. Anthony squinted at him and then passed a quick look at Alix. His eyes dropped to her cleavage. Son, you dont have to say another word. I think I have an idea of just what youre learning. Ryker had actually drawn his arm back, hand forming a fist before he could stop himself, when he felt Gunther grab his elbow. In a heartbeat, the white-haired

man stepped into the circle, neatly positioning himself between Ryker and Anthony. Ryker, why dont you take Alix to freshen up her drink? Gunther said quietly. Tony, I think perhaps its time for you to leave.

Chapter Nineteen Lena! Jake pounded impatiently on the door to Lenas trailer. He still couldnt believe she had quit. Things were tough on the set, sure, but quit? She couldnt be serious. It would ruin her career. What director would cast an actor that had quit in the middle of a movie? Gunther Hartcourt would sue her for every penny she had, and then some. Not to mention the rumors that would circulate about why she was quitting. It would get ugly fast and stay that way for a long time to come. Lena, come out here. Go away. A tired, choked voice filtered through the thin aluminum

doorframe. Jake rattled the handle. Lena, be reasonable. Talk to me. You cant do this. You arent the boss of me, Jake. He sighed. What are we, six? Dont make me do this in the parking lot. Im not going to talk to you. Jake began to methodically pound on the door with his fist. I can keep this up all night, he called. Do you really want that kind of publicity? There was a pause, and then the door opened a crack. I dont care, Lena hissed through the narrow opening. This is going to destroy my career anyway. Why should I be bothered by a little bad publicity? In an instant, Jake shoved his

shoulder into the tiny space and leaned his weight on the door. Lena stumbled, knocked off-balance by the sudden pressure of his body, and Jake stumbled forward into the cluttered trailer. He caught himself just before he hit the floor, taking in the mess around him with dismay. Tiny, snack-size bags of potato chips littered the coffee table, and empty diet soda cans had been thrown with abandon across the floor. A half-full bag of miniature chocolate bars and dozens of tiny foil wrappers covered the sofa. You really know how to party, babe. He turned to Lena, the smile fading as he took in her bedraggled appearance. He couldnt restrain a sharp exhalation of breath. Damn it, Lena, whats going on?

Her eyes were bloodshot, rimmed with red, and swollen. The tip of her nose glowed like Rudolph on Christmas Eve. She wore a fleecy white sweatshirt and pants, and all he could think of was wrapping her in his arms and kissing away every single one of the tears she had so obviously shed. All the rational things hed come to say disappeared in an instant, and all that was left was a bonedeep feeling of desperation. Oh stop, she said, her nose clogged and voice thick. I dont need your pity. I know youre just here to save your movie. Im not a fool, Jake. Lena He fought to clear his throat, searching for the right words. Lena, I You what? She crossed her arms

over her chest. Theres nothing left to say. Its done. I tried and I failed, okay? I cant do it. I cant shoot this movie with you. I thought I could, but I cant. Are you happy? Happy? He stared in amazement. Of course Im not happy. You can do this; I know you can. Youre a damn good actress, and this part was made for you. You cant walk away from it. So now Alix has you giving pep talks too? she snarled. Its not a pep talk. Its the truth. No. She bent over and began to crumple the silvery wrappers and shove them into the bag. Its not going to work. When you touch meher voice turned huskyI cant act. I cant think. So dont think, he pleaded. Just let

yourself go. Let yourself feel. Thats all Alix wants you to do. I heard what she was telling you, and shes right. If you could only let go, it could be incredible. The thin lines around her mouth hardened. Let go? So everyone can see how pitiful I am? The pathetic Lena Mandaval, still carrying a torch for badboy Jake Redburn? He slapped a hand against his forehead. You cant be serious! God, Lena, whats this really about? You cant possibly believe anyone is going to think that, can you? Lena snatched empty potato chip bags from the floor. I want you to go. Im not leaving until we straighten this out, he said. Something fell into place as he said it. He wasnt leaving. Not

anymore. Hed spent years walking away from her, and he was through. Theres nothing to straighten out. Exasperated, she threw her hands into the air, empty bags and potato chip crumbs flying across the room. I know whats going to happen when that insane woman puts us in bed together, and I refuse to let it be captured on film. Ive got some pride, Jake. He paused, tapping his mouth gently as an idea occurred to him. So why dont we just get it out of the way right now? She cocked her head, looking at him as if hed finally gone insane. Get it out of the way? Get what out of the way? What are you talking about? This. He turned to close and lock the door, and then took a purposeful

stride toward her. I understand whats going on now. Youre worried about what will happen the first time we make love after ten years. Its a legitimate concern. And theres an easy solution. Her eyes widened, and she took a step back. Jake, thats not what I meant. Theres a lot of pent-up sexual energy between us. Youre worried youll lose control. So we need to bleed off some of the tension. Get the kinks out before they put it on film. She shook her hands in front of her and kept inching backward. I think you should leave. Youre obviously distraught about the movie. I can understand that, but surely Ryker can think of some way to finish this up without me. He grabbed her around her waist,

sliding his hands under the hem of her sweatshirt and locking his fingers on her warm, soft flesh. Im not going anywhere. Let go of me. Her voice quavered. He shook his head and pulled her toward him. This is something I should have done a long time ago. You know, all these years I kept thinking someday wed be able to start over. We were kids back then, I thought. Someday well be adults, and things will be different. I thought if I gave you time, youd come around. But I realize now thats never going to happen. What we had was too deep to forget. Its in our souls. You know that. Thats why you fight me so hard. Her hands formed two small, ineffective fists. She leaned them against

his chest as tears began to glisten in her eyes. Dont do this to me right now, she said. Oh no, Im not falling for that. Ive been sympathetic before, and what good did it do me? He moved his hands higher, from her narrow waist to her back. She wasnt wearing a bra, and his hands moved freely across the soft, bare skin. Were going to make love, sweetheart, and there isnt a damn thing you can do about it. Jake! She sucked in her breath as he trailed his hand along her rib cage, skimming the edge of her breast. What do you think youre going to prove? That you can turn me on? Fine. I admit it. You turn me on. You always have. Is that what you want to hear?

He slid his hands to the sleeves of the sweatshirt, and, with one neat tug, pulled it up and over her head. Seeing her naked breasts brought a rush of desire so strong his knees quivered. Staring at her small brown nipples, he said simply, I know you want me. That was never our problem. But do you know how much I want you? Its been ten years. You cant possibly Her words trailed off, and she sucked in a breath as he lowered his mouth to kiss each impossibly beautiful peak. Im not interested in talking anymore. That was my problem all along talking never worked with you. Im going to show you, darling. Maybe then youll get it through that thick skull of

yours. Slowly, deliberately, he bent over and slid one arm behind her knees, catching her in his embrace and marching purposefully toward the bedroom at the end of the trailer. He had to shift sideways to fit through the narrow hallway between the living space and the bathroom, bumping Lenas shoulder in the process. Sorry, he muttered. Lena stared up at him, eyes wide and vulnerable. For a moment, he almost stopped and set her down. But then he remembered how many times hed walked away from her in the past and forced himself to keep going. He laid her down on the bed. Lena threw out her arms to steady herself, her

eyes still tightly shut. Her skin, like sweet cream, stood out in sharp relief on her crimson bedspread. When she laid her head down, her hair surrounded her, jet black and shining. Tell me how you doubt me, Lena. Tell me how I can kiss you like this and you can doubt the way I feel. He lowered his mouth to her neck and then gently flicked the hollow at the base of her throat with his tongue. She closed her eyes. Do what you want. Im not going to fight. He stood up and kicked off his shoes, pants, briefs, and shirt. Her eyes remained closed, but her breathing had quickened. He watched her chest rise and fall, her breasts swaying with the movement. Im glad to hear that. And by the

way, Im naked now. He kept his voice conversational as he leaned over her. Pulling gently, he began to lower her pants. Despite her protests, she lifted her hips obediently and helped move the soft fleece down to her knees. He kissed along the inside of her calf, down to her instep and the arch of her foot. She shivered when he pressed his mouth against her toes. Memories came back to him, images of kissing those toes in their tiny studio apartment in Hollywood. They had nothing back thenjust a futon bed and limitless ambition to make it in the movies. What a lovely little thong, Lena. Did you wear this for me? Her clothing fell to the floor, and she lay before him, her

body a miracle of shining white skin and soft curves. He put one knee on the bed, and the mattress shifted under his weight. The comforter was soft and thick, so different from the coarse materials theyd once shared. She flinched, closing her legs. Tsk, tsk, he said. He put one hand on her knee and pulled her legs apart. If youre yielding to me, you must yield all the way. After a pause, her legs dropped open. He had to restrain his own indrawn breath when her pink flesh was revealed to him. God, Lena. Youre so beautiful. Carefully, he coiled his body along hers, taking care not to touch her except with his hands. Using only his finger, he

outlined her face, the curve of her eyebrows, and her smooth red lips. And then he kissed her, softly parting her lips with his tongue and exploring the depths of her mouth. Ive wanted this for so long, he said, sliding his mouth along the edge of her jaw. She turned her body to his. Her eyes remained tightly closed. No words, Jake. She pressed against him, and his skin caught fire every place she touched. Her breasts burned against his chest, her mound seared his cock, even his legs were scorched by her long, lean thighs. If youre going to screw me, do it with your body, not your words. He ignored the shot of pain her words inflicted and grabbed her buttocks

with both hands, grinding their bodies together as if his passion alone could convince her he was speaking the truth. Open your eyes, damn it. She shook her head. Youre an actor. I cant trust my eyes. With a growl of frustration, he turned his attention back to her breasts. With a long sweep of his tongue, he bathed the hard peak and then gently bit the end until felt her hips jerk against him. He turned to the other peak, giving it the same attention, nibbling and sucking until her hips were in constant motion, grinding rhythmically against him. Wanting both hands free, he sat up and pressed her onto her back. For a moment, he stared at her body, memorizing her curves, the taut flesh of

her belly and puckered skin of her areola. Her legs were open now, relaxed, and he ran his hands along the inside of her thighs, brushing against the hair at the apex of her legs, feeling a cynical rush of satisfaction when she moaned and strained toward him. With one finger, he parted her nether lips and touched the soft flesh below. Lena jerked, her head tossing. He slid his finger along the edge of her clitoris, pausing for a moment to stroke her once, then again. She cried out, and her fists clutched the bedspread. He wished she would touch him, longed to feel her hands on his body. But today was about her, showing her all the pleasure hed wanted to share with her for so long. Oh yes. Yes.

Jake ignored her quiet moan and continued his steady manipulation of her flesh. Lenas hips moved off the bed, and she began to whimper. When she reached up with one hand and began to blindly stroke his leg, he had to close his eyes and suck in a deep breath. Please, she moaned. More. Leaning forward, he kissed her navel and waist, then got to his feet and looked around the room for his discarded jeans. In the back pocket, he found his wallet and the single condom hed stashed there. He slipped it on and moved back between her legs. Covering her, he let the tip of his cock touch her flesh for the first time, and almost lost control. She spread her legs wider and thrust her hips against him. Yes, Jake, now!

She was wet and soft, and he had to grit his teeth not to bury himself with one thrust. Forcing control, he moved forward, inch by inch, shuddering when her hands finally came up to land on his shoulders. Somehow the touch of her fingers was even more sensual than the sheath of flesh swallowing him whole. He paused again, let her trace the edge of his biceps, slip over his shoulders to his back, then grab him around the waist. The movement was too sweet, the pressure of her body against his too familiar. He held still and tightened his shoulders at the shudder that ran down his back. Lenas hands slipped down his body to land on his hips and buttocks. When she pulled him hard against her, he finally lost control.

Thrusting slowly at first and then with increasing speed, he felt her body tighten around him, then release with a slow suction. With each drive, she held on tighter and moaned in his ear. Come with me, he said, sucking in air in short, tense breaths. Harder, faster, he was starting to spiral beyond reason, but he wanted her with him. Her eyes were closed, but her mouth was open. Yes, she said, yesss! Her body dissolved, racked with explosive shudders that told him what he needed to know. Covering her mouth with one last kiss, he thrust faster and harder, collapsing against her as the word dissolved to black. # While Gunther escorted the last of

his guests to the doorway to say goodbye, Ryker paced impatiently across the thick white carpet, his frustration almost at the breaking point. Alix sat on the worlds most uncomfortable couch, nursing yet another glass of wine and looking shell-shocked. Hed been ready to leave three hours ago, but he wasnt going without her, and she had stubbornly refused to even talk to him alone, muttering something about staying at Gunthers house overnight. Well, that was fun, she finally said, when both Gunther and his guest were out of view. Oh yeah, a barrel of monkeys. Right up there with dinner at Rosalias for sheer entertainment value. Alix leaned forward and unbuckled

the strap on her shoe. She eased her foot free and looped it over her knee, massaging the instep with one hand. At least no one there looked likely to get into a fistfight. Dont get comfortable. Ryker frowned at the delicate, exposed skin of her foot. The straps of her sandal had left red marks around her toes and heel. Were leaving as soon as you say your good-bye to Gunther. She turned her attention to the other shoe. Im not going anywhere, she said behind a waterfall of hair. I told you that several times tonight. Look, I already had to watch you condescend to yourself all night with those guys. Im not in the mood for any more games. Get your purse, or whatever

you brought. Its time to go. The second silver shoe dropped to the floor. Alix looked up, her eyes evergreen in the flickering candlelight. I cant leave with you. Gunther expects me to stay. Hell ask all sorts of questions if we leave together. Cant you let it go for a night? Youre an adult. You dont need to justify yourself to Gunther. She held out her hands in a gesture of pleading. I dont have it in me right now. I barely made it through the night. You can understand that, cant you? He shook his head. Now that you mention it, no, I dont understand. You let those guys insult you all night long. They called your films trash, and you didnt blink. What happened to sex being

the most important part of the film? What about love and all those things you told me you believed in? She sighed and leaned against the couch. Its nothing I havent heard a million times before. They arent going to change their minds because I tell them my films are different. Every time I turn around, youre telling me that your films are different, and damn it if I didnt start to believe you. If I didnt think what you were doing had any meaning, do you really think Id let you work on Salvas Revenge? I dont care what strings Gunther pulled. This is my film, and youre here to make a difference. Not to be the fashion police. Her lashes flicked down. It isnt the same with you. I dont know how many

times Ive met Anthony over the years. He forgets me every time because I wont sleep with him and Im not rich. Hes a businessman. He knows dollars and cents. He doesnt understand what I do and he never will. But you She trailed off, looking vulnerable and unsure. From somewhere deep inside, Ryker felt a flood of a warm, powerful emotion. Alix, he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her to her feet. Without her high heels, she barely reached his shoulder, and he had a sudden desire to sweep her against him and bury her in the crook of his arm. Lets go to my house. Well go for a walk on the beach. Well forget about Anthony and Gunther and Lena and this whole mess. She was silent. He tipped her face

toward his. The mask that had shielded her emotions all night had fallen away, and emotions flickered in rapid successionhe saw desire and longing but also a fear he found difficult to comprehend. Helpless, he lowered his mouth and covered her with a kiss so deep he thought they might both drown. Their mouths meshed, opened, slid across each other in instant union. His body caught fire when her tongue touched his, and he tightened his arms around her waist. Come home with me, he breathed against her neck. He molded her against him, and it was like turning on the radio in the middle of his favorite song. Her hips arched against his, and he felt the pressure, the heat, and the need, familiar

and new all at once. His hands teased the edges of her skirt, touched the tops of her thighs. But Gunther He took her hand and pulled her down a short hall into an empty bedroom. He closed the door behind them. Youre either coming home with me, or Im going to make love to you on that bed right now, Alix. Which is it going to be? Her mouth dropped open in surprise. Without waiting for a further response, he pulled her back against him and renewed his assault. He slid her skirt to her waist and let his hands tease the soft skin of her hips and buttocks. She wore a thong, no stockings, and he cupped the bare skin in his hands.

Mmm, she exhaled, rising on her tiptoes to press herself against him. Gently, he placed his hands under her thigh and lifted it off the ground. She was like silk, fluid and unresisting, and when she leaned into his body, he felt the heat of her core against his groin. He stifled a groan and thrust against her. She responded in kind, arching and straining to bring their bodies even closer. He trailed his hands across her breasts, feeling the nipples spring into relief against his palms. She threw her head back, and he moved lower, finally pressing the palm of his hand against her mound. The silk of her panties was damp, and he pressed harder until she shuddered and moaned his name. No longer entirely in control, Ryker

slipped his hand over the top of her panties and then underneath. The moist curl of hair drew him lower, and he dipped one finger between the folds, just as he had earlier that day. She thrust hard into his hand, and he moved still lower to slide deep inside. It was all happening so quickly he had no idea where he might stop, only knew he needed to be inside of her. They slammed against the door, her thigh at his waist, his finger buried deep in her core. He withdrew, knitted two fingers together, and entered again. Oh yes. Alix pushed against his hand, her body as hot and ready as his. He entered her again and again, until she was teetering on the edge of climax, but it wasnt enough. In a frenzy of need,

he found himself roughly jerking open his pants and freeing his aching cock. Alix moaned and moved her hips against him as he did. He pulled hard on her panties, and they ripped, coming away in his hand in a scrap of silk and lace. I need to be inside you, he growled. Do you understand that? He paused and kissed her hard, waiting for some resistance, but all he heard was her panting and pleading in soft, whispered breaths. With quick, deliberate motions he grabbed the condom hed thrown into his pocket earlier that night in a fit of supreme optimism, and slipped it on. Hungrily, he turned back to Alix and the tip of his cock entered her, just an inch. She gasped, and he withdrew. She was so wet and hot he could have burst

right then, but he held back as he entered again, deeper this time. When he withdrew again, the pleasure so intense he was momentarily dizzy. Her tightness squeezed him; her heat burned all around him. He moved inside her again, farther this time. The rhythm was unstoppable, the need overwhelming. He took a deep breath, desperately trying to maintain his control, counting the seconds until he could bury himself completely inside her. He needed to take it slow. She wanted to take it slow. He heard the words echoing in his mind but pushed farther, his control a string of silken thread. Alix, this is right, he heard himself saying. This is right. That was when he realized she had frozen and was staring at him, her eyes

wide and stricken. Sweetheart? He stopped, remembering in a rush where he was and exactly what he was doing. Alix, what She shook her head, her eyes luminous and cheeks flushed. His hands fell away. For a moment, he stayed there, locked between her legs, but all of the pleasure disappeared in an instant at the look on her face. Slowly, he pulled out, and she lowered her leg to the floor. She straightened, her breath coming fast and hard. Ryker stood, frozen, until she turned away and walked to the window. He closed his pants, his cock still hard and painful, his body disconnected from his mind. A buzzing came from his pocket.

Unable to think, much less process what had just happened, he pulled out his cell phone and checked the caller ID. He flipped open the phone. Jake, he said, this better be good.

Chapter Twenty Alix closed her eyes and tried to focus on the sound of the sultry jazz music that still filled Gunthers house. Her head was spinning from the combination of the wine, the long, painful night, and Ryker. Ryker. She focused on her breathing, willing her heart to return to normal. She didnt know how to describe what had just happened, even to herself. And really, it didnt matter. She only wished she could undo that moment of panic, the moment when shed felt him inside her and all her muscles had locked into a painful, terrified state. For the first time in her adult life, shed wanted it desperately, but her bodys reaction had taken the decision

away from her. As Ryker barked into the phone, she straightened her dress and panties, wincing at the slick heat of moisture between her legs and the sound of his zipper on the other side of the room. She couldnt look at him, couldnt bear the disappointment shed see there. It was all over. He would know how messed up she really was. Even when she wanted it, she couldnt have sex without freaking out. What man would have anything to do with a woman like that? She could barely make out the sound of Jakes voice on the other end of the line. They spoke for only a minute. Fine. Tell her I expect to see her Monday morning, eight a.m. Rykers voice held little emotion. He

snapped the phone shut and threw it in his pocket. Lenas changed her mind. Alix avoided his eyes. Thank goodness. What happened? He didnt say. Just apologized on her behalf and said theyd be ready to go Monday morning. Were theytogether? She forced herself to think about Lena and Jake, to recall the mess that had been created that morning. If theyd reconciled, it could change everything. I have no idea. Alix heard a trace of irritation in his reply and felt her own temper surge in response. Not important, I suppose? Not as far as Im concerned. She threw up her hands, the cool assurance in his voice curling her nails

into her palms. Of course. What was I thinking? Because it obviously hasnt been relevant before now. Lenas relationship with Jake clearly hasnt affected her acting or her ability to perform the role. Youre absolutely right. Forget I mentioned it. What do you want me to do? Enroll them in couples counseling? She brushed her hair from her shoulders, relieved to have something, anything, to focus on other than what had just happened between her and Ryker. We just need to be aware that its an issue. Maybe give them a few days to cool off before we try something physical again. He leaned back against the door and frowned. Hasnt Lena manipulated us all enough? We have to throw our schedule

off too? No way. Were back on the set at eight a.m. Monday, just like we planned. I only meant He cut her off. I realize you think its nave, but Id like to believe theres a world in which actors are professionals and can do their jobs without letting their personal life seep through. Of course theyre professionals, and of course they try to keep their personal life out of their acting. But theyre also human. Theres something serious between those two. You cant discount that. So you think theyre in love, and because of that Im supposed to change my entire film? She fought to keep her voice calm while frustration coursed through her. I

never said that. But I do think love is the most powerful emotion a human being can experience, and romantic love is inextricably tangled up with sex. You cant put two people who love each other in a bed together and expect they wont feel something remarkable. You can barely put two strangers in a bed together and expect that. She ignored what her words might mean for what had just happened with Ryker and barreled on. It simply isnt rational. And yes, you might have to account for that when youre directing a film. You know, Im getting a little tired of being lectured by you on this subject, he said tightly. Im just trying to do my job, she shot back. Youre paying me to put some

romance in your movies, and frankly, thats never going to happen as long as you insist on treating love like some kind of disease. And what exactly makes you an expert on love? Last time I checked, you were living alone in a town of five hundred with only a dog for company. That hardly gives me confidence that youre an expert on relationships. He gestured toward the door theyd just leaned against. What just happened here? What kind of game are you playing? One minute youre hot and ready, and the next youre looking at me like Im the devil. Explain how someone so committed to love and sex does that. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her.

I didnt mean She stopped, needing to catch her breath. I justI thought I was ready, but Whats really going on with you? You told me you didnt have sex for a reason. So whats the reason? Is there a boyfriend lurking somewhere I dont know about? A fianc? An ex-husband? The question was so unexpected all she could do for a moment was gape silently at him. No, she finally whispered. No boyfriend. No fianc. No ex-husband. You werent He stopped, obviously hesitant to say it aloud. The surge of anger that followed was so strong, Alix had to fight the urge to smack him right across his smug, square, jaw. No, I wasnt raped or abused. In

fact, I slept with anything that moved for a few years. Does that make you happy? This isnt about happy or not happy. I want to know the truth. I want to know why youre stringing me along. She gasped. Stringing you along? Look, you bastard, the truth is I made some mistakes in my life, and I suffered because of it. And Im not going to make them again. Ive been privileged to see love in a lot of places, shared by a lot of people. Ive seen it at weddings, and Ive seen it when people are having sex. She tried to keep her voice even, though adrenaline was sending little tremors through her body. Someday, Im going to have it for myself. Ryker studied her in silence, his arms crossed over his chest. Then he swore

under his breath. Jesus, you really believe this crap, dont you. Alix had to fight the urge to drop her eyes. Yes, I do. You may think its irrational and childish, but I happen to believe its out there. Ryker stepped forward, then back, crossing and uncrossing his arms. Twice started to speak, then stopped. Finally, he jammed his fingers in his pockets and swore again. And youre convinced youre going to bump into Prince Charming someday? Youll fall in love and then into his bed? Dont you know how easy you would be to exploit? Youre like a train wreck waiting to happen! Someone is going to convince you he loves you, Alix, just to get you in bed, and then where will you be?

Give me some credit, she said spitefully. Im not a precious virgin, walking around with stars in her eyes. Im an adult woman who happens to be willing to wait for something real. And believe me, I can tell when it isnt. Ive spent my life photographing it, after all. When its real, itsdifferent. Thats all I can say. I know it when I see it. Thats bullshit, Ryker said harshly. Im sorry, but you should know the truth. This nonsense about love and sex is a liea lie people tell themselves to excuse all sorts of stupid behavior. Lenas a perfect example. She choked under the pressure of the film, and this whole thing with Jake was a convenient excuse for her to hide behind. I dont know who sold you a bill of goods, but theres a reason

you havent found the magic river of love yet. It doesnt exist. The venom in his voice drew Alix back. What have you got against love, anyway? So what if you dont believe in it. At least it makes other people happy. Is there anything wrong with that? He paced past her to a window overlooking the garden. He rested his hands on the sill for a moment, his shoulders tight, before spinning around to face her again. When my mother was fifteen, she let herself get seduced by a man who claimed he loved her. Even after she found out that he was married, and even after she had every reason to believe he wanted nothing to do with her or her child, she kept wishing for more. She wouldnt teach me Spanish, in the

hopes that it would make me more appealing to him. She bankrupted herself to put me through private school, so I could sound white. She didnt look at another man for ten years, because she still kept hoping that someday my father would divorce his wife and marry her instead. All because of that lie. So dont tell me that its harmless. His chest heaved, and Alix stared at him, startled by the unexpected emotion in his words. And what about you? he continued. Did love save you from all those foster families? Where was love when you needed it? You were deserted by everyone who should have cared for you. Life isnt a movie, Alix. You, of all people, should know that.

The words stabbed through her, bringing with them dark memories of her childhood. She pictured the boys shed slept with, the dignity shed lost each time one of them had turned her away. And she remembered being in a park and feeling the blood between her thighs. The panic at the thought of losing the little bit of life that had lived inside her. The flood of emotions sent tears unexpectedly filling her eyes, and she pressed her fingers against them, hoping the tears wouldnt spill down her cheeks. Shut up, she whispered. Im sorry, but youre living in a dream world, and I think you know it. Doesnt it seem odd that someone who says she believes in love is a complete recluse? Maybe your problem isnt that

you believe so much in love, but that you dont believe in it at all. Did you ever consider that? I dont have a problem, she said, swallowing hard to choke back the lump in her throat. Im waiting for something real. Theres nothing wrong with that. You stood there tonight and let those men make fun of you. I watched you. He got to his feet and began to pace the room. You know, I went back and looked through all the press coverage of your movies and not once did I hear you defending them as a tribute to love. Every time the camera came your way, you dodged. You put them off, bored them, whatever, but never once did you defend your work to them like you did to me. Why is that? Why are you so reluctant to

talk about the thing you say you believe in so deeply? Its not worth it. Not for Hollywood. But my book The book youve been working on for four years but cant finish? I heard all about it from Gunther. Did it ever occur to you that you cant finish the book because you know in your heart it isnt true? She sucked in a breath, his words cracking in her heart like a whip. No. She spun around and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. No. She took a deep, shuddering breath and focused on blocking out his words. You even had to invent a new persona for yourself when you started telling yourself lies. You turned into Alix

Z so you could start over, but what you really started to do was create a fantasy that doesnt really exist. Of course you cant publish that book. Youd have to pick a name to stick on it, for one thing. Is it an Alix Z vehicle, or something perhaps by the old Daisy Zahn? And then youd have to own up to the truth. Youd have to realize that neither Alix or Daisy believes the stories youve invented for yourself. Stop it. Her voice turned into a whimper. Please. Please stop. Ryker stopped, something in her words finally reaching him through his anger. He stepped forward and tried to put a hand on her arm. Shit, Alix, Im sorry. I didnt mean She shook him off. I think you

should leave. But Forget it. She stifled the tears that threatened behind her eyes. Just go. I cant leave you like this. Alix used every ounce of willpower to force an easy smile to her face. Like what? Listen, Gunthers probably standing outside that door right now, and hes only going to be polite for so long. He stared at her, clearly unable to decide what to do next. Forget what I said about giving Lena a break, she continued. Youre absolutely right. Well get things back on track first thing Monday morning. Alix Drop it, Ryker, she said, letting just a hint of steel show in her smile. Youre

getting what you want, okay? No emotions. No crazy female to soothe and comfort. You get to leave free and clear. So shut up and dont look a gift horse in the mouth. # Ryker forced himself not to gaze in the rearview mirror as he sped away from Gunthers house, knowing he would only feel worse if he had to look for one more minute at Alixs cold eyes. Hed been an ass. A complete ass. Even as the words spilled out of him, he wanted to take them back. But something about watching Alix prostrate herself before those men all night had troubled him to his core, and by the end of the evening, he couldnt seem to keep it in. And then theydwell, then hed felt

himself inside of her and had seen her face and felt the stab of guilt so sharp it had taken his breath away. She believed in true love. So had his mother. His mother had defended love to him over and over. And what had it gotten her? An illegitimate child and a lifetime of hurt. He headed toward the freeway and pulled in behind a line of red taillights. He turned the radio on and then off again. A truck roared past, and he wished he could be in it, driving anywhere else but back to his cold, empty house. Hed never meant to lash out at her. Hed just meant to tell her the truth. It had come out hard and angry, but hed needed her to understand reality. Somehow, Alix had bought into the most

dangerous lie he knew, and if she could only figure that out now, shed save herself a lot of pain. But hed hurt her. He didnt even know what kind of pain hed caused her, but he knew she was hurting, and it cut him to the core. Damn. He slammed his hand against the steering wheel. In typical chameleonfashion, shed gotten herself under control with remarkable speed. By the time Gunther had knocked on the door, there had been no hint of the pain that had racked her body. Only that smooth, impassive mask over her face, and her eyes, lifeless and cold. An eighteen-wheeler blared its horn as it passed. The driver extended his

middle finger in Rykers direction. He looked down at the speedometer and realized hed slowed down to forty-five. Ryker stamped on the gas pedal, and the tiny car shot ahead. What if she hadnt frozen back there at Gunthers house? He would never have understood how deep her emotions went. They would have had sex. He would have brought her home and buried himself in her over and over again. Somewhere in his groin there was a surge of possessive heat as he recalled that moment against the door, imagined what it would have been like to fully claim her. Make her his own. He shook his head, dismissing his own absurd, destructive thoughts. She would have imagined herself in love with

him. Perhaps she already did. Alix was his worst nightmarea woman committed to the fantasy of love. A fantasy even she, somewhere in her heart, knew was false. One thing was clearhe must never touch her again. From the beginning, he had thought she was offering him a game, some amusement to distract him from the movie. Over time, shed become an itch that simply needed to be scratched. An itch that just kept getting stronger. The need to capture Alix and lose himself inside her had overpowered him tonight. Even after all that had happened, as he said good-bye at Gunthers door hed wanted to keep holding her hand, to press her body against his and damn the consequences. He would have to make sure they

werent alone together. As absurd as it sounded, he wasnt sure he could trust himself not to touch her again if they were alone. She was just a woman. He would have to keep reminding himself of that fact. She was a foolish, love-struck, train wreck of a woman who was looking for a fairy-tale ending. But he was no prince, and theyd all be better off if he stayed far, far away.

Chapter Twenty-one Gunther motioned toward the white couch. Alix sat, realizing from the set to his jaw that he had something he wanted to say, and conversation was nonnegotiable. He waited until she was seated and then positioned himself across from her, leaning backward and steepling his fingers as he studied her. So, do I kill him now or wait until my movie is done? Alix laughed nervously. What are you talking about? Ryker. Whats going on between you two? He hovers over you like a jealous boyfriend all night, practically punches Anthony Sloane in the nose, and then you disappear in a room together. When you

come out, hes wearing a thundercloud, and you look like death warmed over. Alix sighed. She knew she couldnt keep anything from Gunther. Its complicated. Id rather not talk about it. He waited. So? I said Id rather not talk about it. I know what you said. Im ignoring it. I want to know the truth. Did he hurt you? Because if he did, Im going to kill the bastard. You know that, dont you? Alix pushed herself to standing. She started to move around the room, collecting empty glasses and setting them on one of the buffet tables. You cant kill him. He hasnt done anything wrong. The caterers will be here tomorrow morning to clean that up. I know. I need to keep my hands

busy. She gathered a handful of napkins and threw them on top of a small china plate and set that beside the glasses. You dont have to give me the gory details, he said, voice softening. I just want to help. Hes a hard man, Alix. I dont want you to get hurt. She chuckled weakly. Im too tough for that. You should know that by now. Alix continued to roam the room, collecting trash and dishes. Gunther sat silently, his icy-blue eyes soft as they watched. Did you get laid, at least? he said. Alix spun around, mouth open. Gunther! He raised his hands in mock surrender. Look, hes a good-looking man. I could understand if you got

carried away. Alix snorted. Now thats the funniest thing Ive heard all night. Youve been alone for a long time, Gunther observed. Alix pushed back a lock of hair and stifled a fresh wave of tears. I dont want to talk about my love life. Im happy in Oregon. I know it isnt the life you think I should be living, but Im fulfilled. You might as well accept that now, because I dont think its going to change any time soon. So youre giving up? You and Ryker have a falling out, and youre giving up? There was no falling out, she said, keeping her voice steady. There was nothing to fall out of. And my life has been settled for a while. Youre the only

one who cant see that. He stood and began to help her, carrying over to the buffet table a halfempty glass of wine and a plate still bearing two limp crab cakes. Alix, do you know when was the first time you hugged me? I mean, initiated the hug. Not just hugged me back. She narrowed her brows. What does that have to do with anything? Humor me. Guess how long it was. She didnt have to guess. She remembered. Shed run over to him at her high school graduation and wrapped her arms around his neck, almost inadvertently. Shed been horror-stricken when she realized what shed done, terrified he would push her away. And then infinitely relieved when he didnt.

It was graduation, he said, filling in the silence. More than three years after wed met, a year after Id come to check you out of the hospital. She paused, swirling melting ice around in a cup. Ungrateful little thing, wasnt I? No, you were a scared little thing, he corrected gently. No one taught you how to trust. No one showed you what it was like to depend on someone or to love them. What worries me, liebling, is that you still dont quite have the hang of it. She jerked her head up. His words were uncannily close to Rykers. What do you mean? I adore you and you know it. Even when you are being a busybody. I dont mean with me. I mean with other men. He walked over to the

picture of the couple that hung over the mantel and dominated the room. He studied it as he spoke. I knew after the miscarriage that you needed space to heal. I even encouraged you to photograph weddings because I thought that way youd have some exposure to couples who loved each other. But along the way, the wires got crossed. I think you gave up on reality. I think what happened to you was so frightening, you figured out a way to ensure it would never happen again. Cold fingers trailed up the back of her spine. Shed barely gotten herself under control after Rykers attack by blacking out his words. Shed told herself he was wrong. Crazy. It only hurt because she wanted to trust him and now she knew she couldnt. But she hadnt

anticipated a new attack from Gunther. Thats absurd. I just decided not to have sex again until I fell in love. I dont see how thats giving up on reality. I would be thrilled to find someone. I just dont have any luck with men. Lots of women have a hard time finding someone. It isnt like Im some kind of freak. Of course you arent. The problem is that I think deep down youve decided its never going to happen. Your vow of celibacy has turned into a kind of crutch. Its become the excuse you use to push men away. You used to be terrified to say no, and now I think youre terrified to say yes. Alix shook her head. At least, unlike Ryker, he hadnt said she didnt believe in

love. Youre wrong. I just havent found the right guy. The way youre going, you never will. Youre living through that damned book, Alix. Every time you take a new set of pictures it gives you a fresh excuse to lock yourself in that cabin and avoid putting yourself out there. Im not blaming you, because you did what you had to do to survive. But you cant love without risk. Thats the part you havent figured out. Youre trying to find the perfect, risk-free relationship before you commit your heart and your body, and it just isnt out there. Im sorry, but it just isnt. Alix rubbed her biceps. I dont understand why youre saying all this. Do you want me to sleep with Ryker? Is that

it? Are you telling me I should throw myself at Ryker so I can have the experience of being hurt? Im sorry, but Im not interested in that kind of life lesson. Gunther walked over and held her at arms length. No. Im not telling you to sleep with Ryker. I would much prefer that you dont, actually, because I would miss him if I had to kill him. But I am telling you that the path youre on is leading nowhere. I just want you to be happy, liebling. Is that so crazy? She leaned forward, collapsing into his arms. No, she said, her voice muffled by his shirt. No. It isnt crazy at all. # Alix walked into the studio just

before six a.m. on Monday. Too bloody early after yet another night with little sleep. Her stomach churned with anxiety as she contemplated seeing Ryker again. After a long, painful weekend of reliving her conversation with him and with Gunther, part of her wanted nothing more than to hide in her room and cry the day away. But the other partthe part with pridewas determined to show Ryker that he hadnt hurt her. That his words hadnt cut right to the heart of every fear and doubt shed ever had and those she hadnt even known existed. Ryker stood beside Amir and Frank, pointing toward the fake window at the back of the stage. The set was surprisingly busy. The first morning shed been there, it had just been the two of them. Today,

Frank, the director of photography, was there, along with camera crew, gaffer, grips, the caterers, Nick, who she hadnt seen since her first day on the set, and a number of black-clad young people whose purpose seemed to be standing around looking bored. Ryker didnt notice she was there until Nick waved. Then he turned, and a wry smile touched one side of his mouth as his eyes flicked over her loose, threadbare jeans, faded NYU film school T-shirt, and thick glasses. As usual, his presence hit her like a punch to the gut, the air seemingly sucked from her lungs at the sight of the full lips, dark skin, and broad shoulders shed touched so intimately just a few days before. But that part of their relationship was

over. Theyd come too far to go down that path ever again. She hurried the rest of the way to the coffee table and focused on looking nonchalant and unconcerned when Ryker started toward her. I thought about it over the weekend and decided you were right, he said when he reached her side. No sense in pushing things too hard today. Well get some film this morning, and then after lunch, well take the afternoon off and go out to Marina del Ray. Gunther offered to take us for a cruise. Oh, I see. Sounds lovely. She fought the sudden urge to pour her coffee all over his perfectly groomed hair and wrinkle-free linen shirt. How could he look so unconcerned? So off-hand? How

dare he not have dark circles under his eyes, a stuffy nose and headache like she did from sobbing into her pillow until three in the morning? I guess I should have brought my boat shoes. Ryker chuckled, but it was an uneasy laugh, punctuated by a cough. While she added cream to her coffee, he cleared his throat and jammed his hands into his pockets. Are you, er, okay? I mean, is everything all right? He shifted on his feet. What do you mean? she asked, wanting for a moment to watch him squirm. I mean He glanced around the room and dropped his voice. I mean, after Friday. Things got a little out of

hand. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. Im fine. Though it would have been fun to keep him dangling in discomfort, her pride wouldnt allow it. Theres really nothing to talk about. He frowned. I had no right to say those things. Im not sure what came over me. It was the whole dayLena, the party, Gunther I wanted to apologize. Apology accepted, she said casually. Can we drop it, please? Youre sure? He sounded painfully eager. She forced an easy shrug. I thought from the start that it was a mistake for us to get involved. Friday night waswell, it was Friday night. We got too personal. So lets forget it, okay? Get back to work?

He nodded vigorously. Sure. Fine. Whatever you want. He started talking, with visible relief, about whether it would be better to shoot the scene from Lenas point of view or Jakes, and whether they should open with a frame of the paperweight that Lena would later use on one of the thugs her brother sent after Jake. Alix stared at his dark hair, the long, elegant fingers he waved as he spoke, and decided that she hated him. She hated his self-assured cynicism. She hated the way he made her feelthe longing, the aching need for his touch. She even hated the way she trusted him and the way his darkness made her question the very core of her beliefs. And just to add to the pile, she hated

him for the fact that shed been ashamed, ever since Friday night, for the way shed responded to Anthony Sloane. She now regretted every interview shed done, every chance shed missed to proclaim her beliefs to the world. Not because he was right about the way she felt, but because he was wrong, and she had done nothing to correct him. But there was nothing she could do about that now. She could only look to the future. The next time the reporters called, shed tell them the truth. Shed say all the things she told Ryker, and damn the consequences. Meanwhile, life would go on as it had before. Ryker was running from her as fast as his legs could go, and she could hardly blame him. They were the most

unlikely of couples. He was nothing more than an actor with an unfortunate family history and a terminal fear of relationships. He wanted nothing to do with love. For her, love was the only thing that truly mattered. She didnt know what to think about Gunthers accusations. She supposed it was possible, in a small way, that he was right. She was scared of being hurt. But she didnt believe that she had been pushing men away or that she was burying herself in her photos because she was avoiding having a real relationship. After all, look at what had happened with Ryker. If shed truly been pushing him away, they wouldnt have ended up leaning against a doorway together, his pants around his ankles.

She was here to make an easy hundred grand and then get back to her book as soon as possible. That was the only way shed be able to put the doubts Ryker and Gunther raised to rest. She didnt need to sleep with Ryker or fall in love with him for love to be real. She just needed to finish the damn book. It didnt matter if she put the name Daisy or Alix on it. She wasnt scared to believe in it. She just needed to finish it. Not to prove it to Ryker. To prove it to herself.

Chapter Twenty-two Lena adjusted her sunglasses and rearranged her position on the front deck of Gunthers gleaming white yacht. Carefully, she fixed her bikini top so it lay smoothly over her breasts, and arched her back so her stomach appeared even flatter than it was. Her hip bones jutted nicely from the waistband of her low-rise capri pants. The breeze ruffled her hair, which sparkled with chestnut highlights in the intense sunlight of late afternoon. Everything was perfect. She glanced over at Jake, hoping he would give her one of those smoldering looks shed been pretending not to notice all morning. When they left the dock, shed made sure to take off her top

slowly, right next to him, and hed leaned over when no one was looking and breathed in her ear, Youll do that for me later tonight, wont you? She shivered with anticipation. Even the thought of being alone with him caused a pool of liquid heat to form between her thighs. Having sex with Jake hadnt solved anything, of course. She didnt trust him, refused to look at him while they made love, and certainly had no intention of picking up where they left off, as he seemed to suggest. But things had been easier today. Something inside her had been liberated, and shed felt different, more comfortable in her skin. Though a wave of pure terror still washed over her every time she thought about getting into bed with Jake

with the cameras rolling and her eyes open, she no longer felt compelled to run away. And she had to admit, Jake knew his way around a womans body. She didnt like to think about where hed gained all his experience, but in the ten years since theyd slept together, hed become more patient, more skilled. Hed mastered her, played her body like a delicate instrument, and given her more pleasure than shed thought possible. She focused on him and gritted her teeth. Damn it, he was still hovering over Alix like she was Jodi goddamn Foster, nodding and smiling like a fool after everything she said. Alix had put on a pair of enormous sunglasses, and shed removed her shoes

and rolled up her jeans and the sleeves of her ragged T-shirt. It was painful, really, to see how conspicuously awful she managed to make herself look. Nothing she wore fit right, her stomach wasnt nearly as flat as Lenas, and her hair well, suffice to say that Lena doubted she even had a comb. Yet Jake didnt seem to mind. He had barraged Alix with questions during the long ride to the coast, asking about her masters thesis, her movies, her theories about filming sex, and then kept agreeing with everything she said or exclaiming Oh, of course! as if shed just explained the meaning of life and it was exactly what hed thought all along. Ryker drove them down in a sedan he borrowed from the studio. Hed insisted

they ride together. Bonding or some such nonsense. Jake had offered the front seat to Lena and, thinking it best that they not sit next to each other, shed accepted. But that had only put him in Alixs lap. One would think hed at least have the decency to pretend not to like her. At least when Lena was sitting only a few feet away. The only enjoyable part of the entire ride was realizing that Ryker was as irritated as she was by Jakes fawning behavior. Every few minutes, he would look in the rearview mirror and scowl. Once, when Jake actually touched Alixs shoulder, Ryker changed lanes so fast Lena thought she might get whiplash. Hard to believe there might be something serious developing between

Ryker and Alix, with him being one of the sexiest men on the planet and her being somewhere close to housewife material. You did good work today. Rykers deep voice cut into her thoughts. Lena deliberately turned her back to Jake and Alix. She straightened her waistband again and took a sip of her gin and tonic. Thanks. Then, because she knew she had to say it, she forced herself to go on. And thanks for being so understanding. I guess Ive been a little difficult lately. He smiled, dark skin framing his snow-white teeth. Lena wondered, for the hundredth time, why she couldnt get interested in Ryker. He was absurdly handsome and widely recognized to be a

rising star, both as an actor and director. Yet for all that, nothing he did made her pulse race the way a single look from Jake could. Difficult? He chuckled. I suppose thats one way to put it. Lena returned the smile. If nothing else, it was a huge relief to be able to talk to Ryker without feeling sick inside. When theyd started shooting, shed been so stunned that shed actually gotten the part, and so nervous that shed screw it up, that she could barely look him in the eye. He was a great director, and she was nothing but a pretty face. Things had gone well at first, but he was still hopelessly intimidating. But then things with Jake started to disintegrate, and Ryker had become

increasingly frustrated with her. By the end, hed descended to yelling at her and Jake, and shed resorted to teenage pouts and bad behavior to hide her guilt and nerves. She knew she wasnt performing well, but who could expect her to? She had Ryker criticizing every move she made and Jake breathing heavy in her ear whenever she turned around. I should apologize as well, he said. Ive been a little testy the past few weeks. Testy? Lena giggled. I suppose thats one way to put it. She pushed up her glasses and gazed at him, pressing her back against the cool fiberglass decking. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Jake watching. Deliberately, she stretched her arms over her head, arched her back,

and yawned. What do you say we start over, Mr. Director? He tipped back a long-neck bottle of beer and took a long sip. What exactly did you have in mind, Ms. Mandaval? You know, get to know each other a little. After all these months of shooting, weve never really talked. She leaned forward playfully and touched his shirt. For example, who does your shopping? Youre an awfully well-dressed bachelor. I do. He caught her hand and gave her an amused look. Lena, I dont think you want to play this game. Hes not even looking anymore. What? She darted a look at Jake, who was talking to a white-clad crew member bearing a tray of stuffed mushrooms. Her face burning, Lena

turned back to Ryker. I didnt thinkI mean, I wasnt Forget it. Look, Lena, I like you, in spite of all the crap youve pulled. Youre petty, insecure, and a complete pain in the ass, but youve got guts and you can be a great actress. I see it inside you, and I want to bring it out. Now I realize yelling at you might not have been the best path, but Im also not going to baby you. His expression hardened. Youre an adult, and I expect you to start acting like one. So I take it were back to yelling? Lena said. She ignored the stab of conscience at his brutal dissection of her character and focused instead on the unexpected compliment. She knew she could be juvenile and frustratingshe hadnt known that Ryker thought she

could be a great actress. No yelling. This is just straight talk from a friend. A friend? She mulled over the word. Really? Okay, maybe straight talk from a boss, he admitted. Im not like Alix, Lena. Im not going to try to understand whats going on between you and Jake. I hope we can be friends later, but right now the most important thing to me is being your director and getting you to do the kind of work thats going to make us all proud. Im not sure thats any of her business, anyway, Lena grumbled. Exactly my point. When you come to the studio, I expect you to leave all that baggage at the door and give me one

hundred and ten percent of that potential I know youve got locked inside you. I dont expect you to play little jealousy games with me, and I dont expect you to engage in histrionics and walk off the set. Maybe everyone else lets you get away with it, but I respect you too much to do that. Understand? She swallowed hard. It was difficult to imagine Ryker Valentine respecting her. Frankly, she wasnt sure shed done anything to deserve that respect. Unexpected tears pricked at the back of her eyes, and she dropped her sunglasses hastily over her face. Rykers tone softened. Lena, your career is on the verge of something spectacular, and I want to see it get there. But that wont happen as long as you act

like you arent worth the film youre printed on. He took hold of her shoulders. He didnt shake, just left his hands firmly in place. Lena couldnt look away, his gaze so intense she quailed inside while moisture continued to fill her eyes. Id like to put this all behind us and start again, this time without any nonsense. Youre going to start acting like a person who believes in herself, and Im going to stop trying to yell you into next year. Unexpected warmth lightened his eyes. Were going to make a movie that takes everyones breath away. Got it? Lena nodded, unable to speak. Ryker dropped his hands and patted her encouragingly on the shoulder. Now enjoy yourself. This is the last day off

youll be getting until we finish this show. # Thanks for sitting with me. Gunther cradled a glass of deep crimson cabernet in one hand. He sat back in the white leather captains chair, his free hand resting idly on the steering wheel of the yacht. Ryker peered out over the water from his seat beside Gunther. From the flybridge, the water looked glassy and smooth and remarkably distant. Of course. Though in the interest of full disclosure, Im not sure I had a choice. Gunther grinned. That is very perceptive statement. I knew I liked you, Ryker. You and I understand each other.

You want to hear more about how things are going with Jake and Lena? Gunther shook his head. You can handle your actors. I knew when you cast them that youd have your hands full, but youre up to the job. No, I want to hear how things are going with Alix. From high above the front deck, Ryker could barely make out Alixs and Jakes heads. Jake appeared to be pointing something out to Alix on the shore. Ryker imagined Lena somewhere right behind, her eyes shooting daggers into Alixs back. Ryker deliberately swirled his beer in the bottle and studied it for a moment before he answered. What, exactly, do you mean? Im just curious. You seemed

particularly close at the party on Friday. I meant to thank you, actually, for looking out for her. Anthony Sloane is a prick, but hes an important source of funding. I cant afford to alienate him completely, or I would have let you punch his lights out. Ryker was fairly certain Gunthers easy-going aura was masking some deeper emotion, but a self-masochist streak forced him to prove it. Things are going well. But of course, you were right, shes incredible. No one does sex like Alix Z. Though he had expected to garner some reaction with his bald statement, he was surprised by the intensity of the fire that leaped to Gunthers eyes. Gunthers fingers tightened on the wheel for just a moment, and then he relaxed and forced a

short laugh. We made a lot of money with her movies. She gave it all away, did you know that? Paid me back the money I loaned her to attend school and then funded some scholarship with the rest. Ryker grunted. She told me. Gunther turned to him, surprise widening his glacial-blue eyes. Really? She doesnt normally share that sort of information. I noticed, Ryker said dryly. Did she also mention all the hell she went through when she was growing up? She told me she was a foster kid. Bounced around a lot. Is that what you mean? You grew up in South Central, so I think you have some idea of what her

schools and neighborhoods were like. But you had a mother, and, unless Ive misjudged you, youve got a pretty thick skin. Alix never did. When I met her, she was like a little baby porcupine, trying desperately to grow her quills but never having quite enough to ward off the pain they put her through. It wasnt just that no one cared about her. That would have been bad enough. But they seemed determined to break her spiritconvince her that life was hopeless, that shed never get anywhere and she shouldnt bother to try. They thought she shouldnt take art or music. They wanted her to spend the rest of her life working at some fast-food restaurant. He pursed his lips in disapproval. I put her first camera in her hands when

she was a freshman in high school, and it was like giving food to a starving man. That camera became her lifeblood, Ryker. Through that lens she saw all the things she had been denied all her life. Love. Hope. A future. And? Ryker met Gunthers stare. Why do I get a feeling theres a moral to this story? Ill be honest with you. When I saw how Salvas Revenge was going, I knew you needed help. But I also knew by giving you Alixs address, I was feeding her to the lions. I wasnt sure whether I wanted Alix within a hundred yards of you, and Im still not. Youre a damn good director, but youre also a tough bastard. So you put the movie first. Ryker shrugged. I can appreciate that.

No. Gunthers voice, curt and hard, lashed out. I would never sacrifice Alix because of a movie. But I thought, I hoped you might be good for each other. I thought she might be able to teach you a little bit about how to keep on caring, even when everything tells you to stop. Ryker stared. Hed never have thought Gunther Hartcourt, of all people, would have fallen for all that emotional nonsense. And from me? What did you think she could learn from me? Gunther sighed. I dont know. Shes always been a loner. Even in high school, she never had many friends. I suppose it comes with moving around so much. But it isnt healthy. She needs people, whether she admits it or not. When she lived in LA, I forced her to go out now and again.

But once she moved to the beach, I couldnt even do that. The fact is, Ryker, youre a charming son of a bitch. I thought maybe you would give her an excuse to come out of her shell. Seems every year shes been retreating further and further into it, and Im scared someday I wont be able to bring her out at all. I see. Ryker took a long swallow of beer and stared at the water. He heard Alixs laughter float up from the deck below, and he frowned. Why are you telling me this now? I think I made a mistake. The bald admission caught Ryker unaware. He spun around to stare at Gunther, who was looking over the ocean with a pensive expression. What are you

talking about? Shes too vulnerable. Even after the porcupine grows his quills, his belly is tender. I see how she looks at you, and I dont like it. Youre going to hurt her. Unease settled over Rykers shoulders like a dark cape. We arentI mean, we havent Gunther brushed off his words with a flick of his fingers. I have no interest in whether youre having sex or not. Frankly, it might be good for her if you did. But theres something more going on. I want to know what your intentions are. Christ, Gunther, Im not a sixteenyear-old boy for you to play Daddy with. My relationship with Alix is none of your business, Ryker growled. The hell it isnt.

Look, she knows where Im coming from. Ive been honest with her every step of the way. I dont do romance, and I dont do love. If she gets hurt, its her business. The words sounded merciless, even brutal. It was as he intended, but Ryker had to struggle not to wince as he said it. Gunthers mouth turned down in disgust. Dont be an ass. I dont care what you think she knows. Im warning youstay away from her. I hate to have to disable my best director, but Id do it in a second if I thought you were playing games with her. Theres no game, Ryker said. And dont worry, regardless of how much of a monster you may think I am, I have no intention of hurting Alix. Thanks to your

insistence, we are making a movie together, but thats it. Youve got nothing to worry about. Gunther dismissed him with a flick of his fingers. See that I dont, Mr. Valentine, or there will be hell to pay.

Chapter Twenty-three Alix watched nervously as the crew hurried around the set, bumping into one another and almost dropping plates and glasses at every turn. They were shooting a party scene, and between takes, the crew had to do the painstaking work of restoring every prop to pre-party condition. With only five days left to film in June, Ryker had everyone working at breakneck speed, though with Jake and Lena performing better these days, it wasnt with the same air of frustration that it had been when she first arrived. More than a week after Gunthers party, Ryker still avoided touching her at all costs, but hed gotten comfortable being alone with her again. For the past

two nights, he hadnt even found an excuse to bring the interns or Amir along when were in the screening room. That was a big change from the first few days, when hed filled the set and every other room they were in together with people. No, Maria, theres no way. Alix tried not to eavesdrop on Rykers cell phone conversation, but it was impossible with the two of them only a foot apart, watching as the crew restored picked-over plates of food and replaced empty beer bottles with fulls. Im sorry, but weve got a huge shoot tonight. Ive got a studio full of extras I dont intend to pay twice. Ryker looked up from his conversation to bark at Frank. That take looked lousy. We need to do it again.

Weeks ago, Rykers bark had sounded fierce, unrelenting, and intimidating. Now she knew it for what it wasthe voice of a perfectionist who knew precisely what he wanted and refused to rest until he got it. Ryker turned back to his cell and continued to argue with Maria but with an increasing note of resignation. He tore his fingers through his hair, scattering the already rumpled strands across his forehead in a gesture Alix now knew was his habit when he was filled with nervous energy. His long legs ate up the small space as he paced and talkedanother nervous habit, Alix had discovered. When she got anxious, she curled up in a chair and bit her fingers. When Ryker got anxious, he paced.

Yes, she knew that about him and so much more. She knew that he liked his coffee with cream, no sugar, and didnt care if it was two days old, as long as it was hot. He dressed to the nines even when they were walking around the set on a Sunday morning and was partial to cool linen shirts and long, snug-fitting chinos that showed off his tight behind. For Lenas sake, he tried to curb his habit of yelling at the actors when a scene didnt go as he wanted, but when he was tired or frustrated, his temper could still get the better of him. He was sparing in his praise, but that only made it more valuable, and she could see Jake and Lena glow with pride when he told them theyd done well. No, noof course you cant skip

your exam. Ill take care of it. Ill be there to pick up Fifi in an hour Yes, you owe me huge. Ill see you soon. He slammed the phone closed and heaved a giant sigh. Marias got an exam after work today, and the woman who usually takes care of Felicity is sick. In fact, everyone in the entire city who does daycare is apparently sick right now. Rosalias got some school-board meeting she cant miss, Emilio and the boys are out of town, and someone has to pick up Fifi. Youll have to take over. Alix stared. Me? Take over? You mean shoot the scene without you? You can do it. Of course I can do it, she replied, her mind racing through their schedule for the rest of the day. But youve got

meetings until seven tonight. Youve got lighting changes to discuss with Frank, theyre bringing over the new trailer at four, and then youre meeting with Gunther about the budget at six. Im glad to know someones keeping track of my schedule, he said. Alix felt her face light up in a blush. Theres a lot to be done. Im just trying to keep it all straight. Ryker ran his hands through his hair and resumed his pacing. You and me both. But Maria cant miss this exam. She already missed one a couple of weeks ago when Fifi had that fever, and the professors a real bastard. He told her hed flunk her if it happened again. What ifwhat if I pick her up? Alix nibbled on her lip as she thought

through the possibilities. I was going to get everything ready and prepare Lena and Jake for their big love scene tomorrow, but thats probably not necessary. I can take Fifi to your house and hang out with her until Marias class is over. Ryker shook his head. I cant let you do that. You think Fifi wouldnt go for it? She doesnt know me very well, I suppose. He gave a wry chuckle. Fifi would go home with Hannibal Lecter. She was born without the shy gene. No, its nice of you to offer, but I cant have you doing that. I had a number of foster siblings when I was growing up. My babysitting

skills may be a bit rusty, but Im sure its like riding a bike. Ill figure it out. It isnt that, he said, wrinkling his forehead. I saw you playing with the kids at Rosas house the other night, and Im sure youd be a great babysitter. But its a family thing. Ill take care of it. Alix paused for a moment to enjoy the discovery that Ryker remembered her playing with the kids at Rosalias house. Then she resolutely squelched the feeling of pleasure. Shed worked hard to stop reacting like a puppy every time Ryker smiled at her. There was nothing between them and never would be. She forced herself to lay a casual hand on his forearm. Ryker, dont be silly. Were friends, right? Friends help each other out.

He stared at her, glancing briefly at her arm, his dark eyes hard and intense. Fascinated, she watched as he swallowed, and she felt the muscles under her hand twitch. Friends? he said. Yes, I suppose thats right. You suppose? Alix gave him a playful swat. You mean weve been working together fifteen hours a day for the last three weeks, and you arent sure? Friends. Surprisingly enough, the word felt right. Theyd had their detours, but somewhere in the midst of everything, they had developed an honest-to-God friendship. Ryker argued with her when he thought she went too far in her attempts to put a romantic gloss on Jake

and Lenas love scenes, and she pushed him to admit his personal views on love had colored the way he directed his actors. They hadnt yet shot the scene in which Jakes and Lenas characters had sex for the first time but had discussed it in excruciating detail, from the first kiss to the moment of ultimate surrender, and had managed to do so without losing their minds or their clothes. They had shared late-night cups of coffee, challenged each others theories about communicating with their audience, and groaned over scenes that didnt work the way they wanted. Theyd even shared stories of their crazy childhoodshis, running around South Central trying to prove he belonged, and hers, riding the trains in

New York City, knowing she didnt belong to anyone, anywhere. He smiled reluctantly. Okay, youre right. But that doesnt mean Ill let you play nursemaid for me. Nonsense. I need a break from your yelling anyway. He started to protest further, and she held up a hand to interrupt. Just give me Marias number and address, and Ill take care of it. Ryker! Amir ran up with a pained look on his face. Frank said to tell you the B Camera isnt running, and catering says they need to go out and get more tortilla chips. Apparently our little extras are just famished! Oh, and the girl in the red dress is throwing up in the bathroom. What do you want to do about it? Alix and Ryker winced in unison.

Ryker heaved a sigh. Tell Frank Ill be right there. We can wait for the food, but tell Red Dress if she isnt on the set when the cameras are rolling, Ill have to replace her. As Amir ran in the other direction, Ryker turned to Alix, a deep wrinkle of concern between his eyes. Youre right. I cant leave. Are you sure you dont mind getting Felicity? She held up her pad and pen. Just give me the number and the keys to your house. Well be fine. # When Ryker walked through his front door that night, the first thing he heard was giggling. He stopped to close his eyes and listen. It was a sound he would never grow tired of hearing. When Maria and Fifi had stayed with him for two months

in the spring, hed grown accustomed to hearing that giggle. It made the house seem that much quieter after they left. He followed the sound to the backyard. Alix, clad in a painfully circumspect one-piece bathing suit, swirled Felicity around in the pool. The one-year-old slapped the water with open palms and then laughed uproariously when the water hit her face. Lovely, Fifi, lovely! Alix pushed back her hair and grinned when a jet of water caught her in the eyes. Mo, mo, mo! Fifi squealed. Goodness, you are a clever little thing, arent you? Alix crooned. They looked so natural together, Felicity nestled deep in Alixs arms, Alix swaying back and forth to some unconscious

rhythm. This is the life, I tell you. Maybe Gunthers right. Maybe I should sell my soul to the devil and move back to LA. She laughed at her own joke. Then again, Im not sure the devil pays much for souls like mine. Ryker cleared his throat as he walked over to the side of the pool. I wouldnt count on that, he said. I think your soul could be worth quite a bit. Alix spun around, a plume of pink coloring her cheeks, while Felicity turned into a full-body squirm. Ry, Ry! Felicity called, stretching her arms toward him. Ry! Youre back early, Alix said. You startled me. Gunther and I cut the meeting short. He said he would give me a call

tomorrow. Ry? Felicity slapped the water hopefully. Honey, Uncle Ryker is wearing one of his fancy shirts. We dont want to get him wet. Alix paused. On second thought, hes filthy rich. What are we worried about? Huh? It took a moment for her words to register, because he was captivated by the way the sun reflected golden lights in her hair, and he could almost make out the curve of her breast, pressed against Felicitys back. Now wait a minute. He began to back away from the water. Alix waded over to the side of the pool. Splash, Fifi, she called. Quick! Splash!

Felicity didnt need to be told twice. Within seconds, she was slapping the water as hard as she could. Alix tried to hold Felicity in one arm while she shoveled handfuls of liquid at Ryker. She was almost entirely ineffective, but she was laughing so hard he couldnt help but lean over and join in. He tried for a moment to splash Alix, but that was impossible without getting Fifi in the face, so, without another thought, he slipped off his shoes and jumped in the water. Grabbing his niece from Alixs unresisting grasp, he launched into an allout, full-frontal assault. Get her, Fifi! he shouted, and they swept the water in wide strokes in Alixs direction. Alix shrieked and ducked under the surface. Ryker watched, bemused, as

she swirled her body around and took a deep stroke toward the other end of the pool. Her absurd suit, which apparently had been made in the 1950s, covered her from her collarbones to the curve of her heart-shaped bottom, but it hardly mattered. The fabric molded to her small frame, and when she popped back up to the surface a few feet away, it outlined her tiny waist and generous breasts. He almost dropped Fifi when he saw her nipples, perfectly framed by the thin fabric. He couldnt get involved with her. He knew that. She was an emotional train wreck, a woman on the hunt for love, and his producers virtual daughter. Cheapand-easy sex was not an option. But her mouth, oh, her mouth. Just

looking at it gave him shivers. Every night when he went for a swim, all he could think of was the movement of her body against his, the way her legs had closed around his waist, and the way it had feltfor just a momentto bury himself inside. You cant get me, she taunted. He swallowed and tried not to stare, but the vision of her body, so beautifully revealed by the thin suit and slanted sun over the water, had him captivated. Her smile slowly faded. I suppose youre right, he said huskily. She turned away, wiping the water that dripped down her face and into her eyes and then gazed at Felicity. A wide smile creased her cheeks. Well, Fifi, I

guess we got him, didnt we? Ryker looked down at the thick, black hair of his niece. She patted his arms and gazed up with adoration. An invisible camera clicked somewhere, and he felt the picture in his bones, the scene forever framed in his mind. Alix, in the water, smiling. Felicity, looking up trustingly, her tiny body relaxed against his. The sun, casting silvery sparkles in the water around them. A wave of emotion hit him so hard his knees trembled. He tried not to react, but the feeling was so strong he had to catch his breath. Are you all right? Alix asked, concerned. Im fine, he managed to rasp. I

just realized how cold the water is. Here, let me take Fifi. Alix walked over, arms extended, and he handed her the child without argument. She took Felicity under the arms, and when their fingers touched, he flinched. Jesus, Im not going to bite you, Alix muttered. Felicity settled easily on her hip, and the two of them headed to the steps at the shallow end of the pool. He could only watch them go, a lump in his throat making breathing difficult. He swallowed hard and looked down at his clothes, his shirt plastered to his chest, cotton pants swirling in the water below. He hauled himself out of the pool and unbuttoned his shirt while Alix toweled off Felicity and herself. Helplessly, he watched the path of the towel across her

shoulders, around her waist, over her breasts, between her legs, and his body reacted like it did every time he imagined touching her. Except now he was half clothed and wet and didnt have much room to hide. Felicity dashed off through the patio door into the house. Alix looped the towel around her waist in a loose sarong. Fifi, wait for me! Ryker grabbed her arm as she brushed past him. Alix, I didnt mean Whatever he had planned to say dried in his throat, because she was gazing hungrily at his bare chest, and her lips lay in a loose, full line, and all he could think of was pressing those breasts against him and claiming that mouth in a deep, hot kiss.

Alix, he started again, but she was so close her towel brushed against his legs, and the words dissolved in his mouth. Fifi, she said. I need to get Fifi. He looked at her smooth, wet hair and the perfect curve of her nose. She was still staring, her gaze flicking between his chest and then lower. When her tongue danced across her lips, he barely silenced a groan. His hand traveled from her forearm to shoulder, and then brushed her collarbone, trailing along the edge of her jaw. She sucked in a breath. Hed been so good, fought his desire for so long, but something broke down inside, and he cupped her chin in his hand and forced her eyes to his. She blinked furiously and looked everywhere

but into his face. He could think of nothing to say, just memorized the shape of her lips and arch of her brows. Dont, she said, her voice breaking. He leaned forward, the rest of the world slipping away as he focused on her lips. Ryker! Rosalias voice rang out through the house. Felicity, what are you doing? You know Uncle Ryker doesnt like it when you pull the cushions off the sofa. Where is Uncle Ryker, anyway? Doesnt he know better than to leave a child alone in the house? Ryker? Nothing could have doused his ardor faster than the sound of his eldest sister. Why on earth had he given them all the security code to his front gate? Alix pulled away just as Rosalia

emerged from the patio door. Well, well, well! Rosalia said. What do we have here? Ryker glared at her and crossed his arms over his chest. Did it ever occur to you to knock? Not when Ive just driven across town in rush-hour traffic to pick up my niece so my enormously important brother can get back to work, she said sweetly. How are you, Daisy? So nice to see you again. I do hope I didnt interrupt anything. Alix, her face glowing with embarrassment, tightened the towel at her waist and motioned toward a pile of clothes on a reclining chaise longe. Of course not. I just need to get dressed, and then Im on my way, she said.

Dont go, Ryker commanded. Rosalia nodded. Absolutely not. Ill just get Felicity. You didnt need to come, Ryker said. We were doing fine. A sudden wash of anger sent his toes and fingers tingling. Just once, hed like to see Rosalia mind her own business and stay out of his life. Just once. Maria told me you had meetings tonight, Rosalia said. She felt terrible. I told her I would come by and get Felicity as soon as I could. Maria knows Ill collect from her when the time comes. Ryker gritted his teeth. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Alix disappear into the changing area at the back end of the pool, clothes

clutched to her waist. He couldnt let her leave. It suddenly seemed imperative that he keep her there. It wouldnt make any sense for me to go back to the studio now, he said to Rosa, though he kept watching for Alix. And remind me why you need to get involved in everything that happens in this family? I happen to care about this family. Rosalia huffed. She threw back her head and gestured toward the house. Lets not argue. Im here already. I might as well collect Felicity and go. Fifi is fine with me, Ryker said. She cant stay here. Marias class isnt over until eight, and Felicity needs to be in bed, Rosalia said. I have a playpen upstairs. She can

sleep here, he shot back. Im not going to infect her, you know. Shes stayed here before and survived. Oh, for goodness sake, I know that. Im just trying to help. Yes, youre nothing if not helpful, Rosa. It was an old argument, her constant mothering like nails running down a chalkboard in his mind. Lets drop it. Maria already planned to pick her up here. But Drop it, he warned. Fine. Rosalia looked him up and down. Fall into the water did you? It seemed like a good idea at the time. Without a look toward him or Rosalia, Alix emerged, fully clothed, and

ducked into the house. He watched her hips sway beneath her loose jeans as she walked, her backside perfectly rounded when she bent over to talk to Fifi, who was cheerfully ripping pages out of one of his magazines. A moment later, the two of them were seated side by side on the couch. Alix pulled a sippy cup and stack of books from an oversized diaper bag. Fifi bounced with joy as Alix started to read. Ryker sighed with relief. For now, at least, she wasnt planning to leave. Rosalia pursed her lips. She studied Alix for a moment and then turned back to Ryker. She seems like a lovely woman, Rosalia said. And Felicity certainly seems to like her. Any chance its serious this time?

Im not in the market for serious, he said. Aler, Daisy knows that. Just because Mama got hurt doesnt mean everyone does. Ryker looked pointedly down at his pants. Thanks. Now, I really ought to get changed. Rosalia dropped her voice. Were going to the cemetery tomorrow. Are you sure you dont want to come with us? No, he snapped. I dont want to come with you. Youve been asking me to come for ten years, and for ten years, Ive said no. Mama would want you there. Mamas dead, Rosa. She doesnt want me to be at her grave with you. She doesnt want anything from me. Youre part of the family, Rosa said

stubbornly. It isnt right not to have you there. Im half family, Rosa. And not even the right half. No one cares if Im not there. Rosalia sucked in a breath. For a moment, the faade of a competent, slightly officious middle-aged woman dropped away, and she looked like the twenty-four-year-old she was. Damn you, Ryker, she whispered. I care. Ive always cared. She pushed past him, and he thought he saw tears in her eyes. As she approached the couch, Felicity jumped up and grabbed her around the knees. Rosalia picked her up and swung her around in a fierce hug. Im sorry, mi hija, I have to go. You

stay with Uncle Ryker. Her voice sounded husky and thick with tears. Ryker fought the wave of guilt that followed. Words lodged in his throat. He shouldnt have to apologize, he told himself. Rosalia had been perpetuating a fantasy for years that someday, everything would change, and hed want to be a part of their happy little Mexican family. But he wasnt, and he didnt. And that was all there was to it. He couldnt change who he was or what he was. Felicity gazed around hopefully. Ry? Alix held out her arms. Yes, sweetie. Uncle Ryker is right there. She pointed to the patio, where Ryker dripped onto the concrete. See? Your silly uncle is all

wet. He cant come in until he dries off. Fifi giggled and settled back into Alixs lap. Have fun with the bastard, Rosalia said to Alix. Just dont turn your back to him. Before Alix could respond, she brushed past and ran out the door. A moment later, a car roared down the driveway. Alix looked through the patio door at Ryker. Everything okay? Of course. Just the usual. He combed his fingers through his hair, sending a cascade of water down his back and shoulders. Felicity grabbed a hank of Alixs hair and tugged. Shes direct, isn't she, Alix said. Maybe we should try that on the set.

Yank on Lenas hair when she isnt ready. Good idea, Ryker said, chuckling weakly. He slid off his pants and stood in a pair of dripping boxer shorts as Alix resumed reading the book. It was about a lost bunny who hopped around a forest glade searching for his mother, but none of the other forest animals knew where she had gone, and each sent the bunny in a different direction. Ryker let the sun warm his shoulders as he stood, listening to Alixs husky voice and Felicitys baby-speak until the thrumming in his head drowned them out. Tomorrow was the anniversary of his mothers death. Damn Rosalia for reminding him.

Every year he tried to forget, and every year she tried to drag him to the cemetery to remember. Once, just once, hed like to be on location on June twenty-fifth somewhere in a jungle or on a beach. Somewhere they didnt have phones or Internet or telegrams. But he knew Rosalia would find him. It wouldnt matter where he went. She seemed to think it was her personal obligation to keep Mamas memory alive. Theyd had a terrible fight about it the first year. He told her she wasnt like Mama, no matter how hard she tried, because Mama would never have forced such a scene. She told him Mama was weeping in her grave over his refusal to honor her along with the family. It had been the same every year since,

with varying degrees of venom, as if they were rehearsing a scene in a movie and a sadistic director somewhere was laughing and yelling, Do it again! And damned if it didnt hurt just as much, every time.

Chapter Twenty-four Alix schooled herself not to look as Ryker walked past the couch on his way upstairs, a towel slung low around his hips. It was no use. He was simply too beautiful. Like a sculpture by an artist who worshipped the male form, he was all long, lean muscles and flat planes between, everything in perfect proportion to lure the eye lower, low enough to see that the towel now lay flat against his groin. Apparently the visit from his sister had killed the ardor aroused by the pool. He had almost kissed her. After a week of healing the rift theyd created at

Gunthers party, and striking a delicate friendship out of what shed thought had been an insurmountable distance, hed leaned forward with every intention of kissing her. And shed said, Dont when every muscle in her body yelled, Please, please do. Fifi let loose a terrific screech that called to mind crows fighting over a crust of bread and slapped the book impatiently. Alix laughed. Okay, Miss Demanding. Ill finish the book. She continued reading. The little bunny resorted to asking the trees, stars, and west wind for help finding his mother. Each seemed to send the bunny in a different direction, until he finally grew exhausted and lay down by a gray,

mossy rock to take a nap. Ryker walked down the stairs, a pair of athletic pants riding low on his waist, a matching T-shirt revealing his strong, brown arms. He crossed the room and sat down across from them, opening one of the magazines Fifi had destroyed with a resigned sigh. Alix focused on the book, ignoring the rushing sound in her ears and the way her body went on instant alert, just having him near. Every inch of her skin seemed to prickle with awareness. The scent of him, damp and male, filled her head and brought a tingle to her nose. Moist heat rushed between her legs. She couldnt deny the single message each of her senses gave her. She needed him to make love to her.

To finish what hed started. It wasnt what shed imagined when she made her vow all those years ago. Ryker didnt care about her, and she knew falling in love with him would be a complete disaster. She could respect him, desire him, even like him. But she must never, ever fall in love with him. Yet since that painful night at Gunthers, she couldnt stop dreaming about him. Fantasizing about his touch, his tongue, and his body covering hers. Her conversation with Gunther had only made it worse. She couldnt stop thinking about the past and wondering why shed turned into the person she was. Why she panicked when Ryker began to make love to her. Gunthers words had resonated deep in her core. At some point, her

commitment to a childhood vow had become something much more dangerous. Gunther had said she had mixed up love and sex and was terrified of both. She was starting to think he was right. So the bunny closed his eyes and fell asleep dreaming of his mother. Alix continued reading, forcing her lips to form words even as her mind raced in a very different direction. She flicked a glance at him through her lashes. He still wanted her. She had seen it in his eyes and in his body just a few minutes ago. Nothing was stopping them from being together. She stared blankly at the book, her mouth suddenly dry. Fifi opened her mouth to begin another squeal, and Alix took a

long sip from a glass of water before continuing. During the night, all the creatures of the forest visited the bunny. The wind wrapped him in a blanket, and the stars watched over him. The trees cast their leaves on him to keep away the dew. Gunther said she needed to take a risk. This would be the biggest risk of all. When the bunny woke up, he found his mother cuddled beside him. Where were you? the bunny said sleepily. I couldnt find you. Ive been with you the whole time, his mother said. You only needed to stop looking outside and feel inside your heart. And the bunny went back to sleep, knowing he was safe and would never lose his mother again.

Mama, Fifi said happily. Alix stared at the soft, watercolor drawing of the two bunnies. She cocked her head and examined the page more closely. Then she drew back, her mouth falling open as she realized the true meaning of the book. On one level, the bunny might merely have been lost and then found by his mother. But it could also mean something quite different. When she looked closer, she saw that the bunny mothers outline was blurred, and her body appeared soft and light. The damn bunnys mother was dead. She flipped over the book to look at the cover, which showed the bunny and his mother snuggled side by side by the green rock. They looked peaceful and happy. What kind of rotten trick was

that? Just looking at it made her throat feel tight and thick. With an enormous grin, Fifi grabbed the book from Alixs open hand and threw it triumphantly on the floor. Ry! She jumped off the couch and held up her arms to him. Up! Up! Rykers gaze drew her eyes to his. He held out his hand impatiently. Give me that book. He flipped through the pages, reading quickly. Does that mean, er, what I think it means? Alix asked. Ryker lingered on the last page. Remarkably enough, when he looked up, she thought she could see something in his eyessome sheen of moisture, just for a minute, before he shook his head and frowned. That is a horrible book,

he said distinctly. Alix let out a long, uneven breath. I heartily agree. # Thanks again, Maria said, giving Alix a one-armed hug as she headed toward her car. Fifi snuggled, asleep, on Marias neck and shoulder. I enjoyed it, Alix replied, heart already racing with anticipation as Ryker loomed behind her. Once Fifi left, shed be alone with Ryker. The prospect was as terrifying as it was exciting. The evening had flown past in a haze of painful, guilty pleasure brought on by the inescapably intimate act of caring for a child with Ryker. There had been no repeat of the moment that afternoon

when Ryker almost kissed her. In fact, Ryker had seemed slightly distracted, drifting off occasionally into a silent reverie, broken only by Fifis boisterous demands for attention. Alix attributed it to their earlier unexpected visit from Rosalia. Knowing Maria could walk through the door at any moment had certainly quelled some of Alixs ardor. She hoped the same was true for Ryker, and it wasnt that hed managed to convince himself he wasnt attracted to her after all. I owe you twice, Maria called to Ryker. Once for picking her up and once for sparing me a lecture from Rosalia. You dont owe me a thing, he said. Alix picked her up, and Id do anything to spare you Rosalias wrath. You know

that. Maybe someday Ill have the chance to repay the favor. I am a heck of a babysitter, you know, Maria said with a wink. Alix didnt turn to see his expression but could imagine the horror on Rykers face at the thought of having a child of his own. I wouldnt hold your breath, he said, the barest hint of irony in his voice. And by the way, that book needs to go. Which book? Maria asked. The one with the bunnies, Ryker said with disgust. Oh. Maria nodded and then laughed sheepishly. Its really for me, not her. It makes me feel better. Maria shot a look back and forth between Ryker and

Alix. So, next week is dinner at Rosas. Ill see you both there? Im going back to Oregon at the end of the week, Alix said. Shoot. Maria sounded genuinely disappointed. Well miss you. Alix couldnt remember a time shed been missed at a family dinner. Even if it wasnt a bit true, the suggestion was a nice one. Thanks, she said. I appreciate that. Ryker cleared his throat. I suppose youre wanting to get Fifi home, then. Maria stuck out her tongue at him. If you say so. I do. She didnt fall asleep until eight. Shell be exhausted tomorrow. Ryker, Alix had found, knew a great deal about his niece. He knew she had to

be in bed by seven, or she would get overtired and cranky. He knew she liked apples and cheese, and he had plenty of both on hand. He knew how to give her a bath and how to pat her back until she fell asleep. He even changed her diaper without drama or protest. It was unnerving, actually, to watch a man who argued so strenuously against the existence of love prove just how deeply he could care about another human being. Maria rolled her eyes. All right, Rosalia, she said. Rykers face scrunched into a dramatic mask of pain. Now thats uncalled for. Maria grinned. Nah. You deserved it, Mother Hen.

Ryker held up his hands. Wow. So much aggression from someone who owes me big-time. I thought I didnt owe you anything, Maria said. I take it back, Ryker said, glancing at Alix. Now go. Ah. Maria gave Ryker a genuine smile. Well, I guess I can take a hint. And Daisy, I do hope youll come visit the next time youre in town. Ill look forward to that, Alix said, a warm feeling stealing over her at Marias obvious sincerity. It had been a long time since shed made a friend. Maria started out the door, and Ryker began to push it shut behind her. Before hed gotten it completely closed, Maria

stuck her head back in. Any chance youre coming tomorrow? Ryker tensed and shook his head. No. You knew that. But I thought maybe this yearits the tenth and No. Maria sighed. Okay. I should know better. Yes, you should. She disappeared then, and Ryker closed and locked the door behind her. He stared at it a moment before turning to Alix, his eyes dark and drawn. I need a drink. Thoughts of seduction melted away as Alix took in Rykers haunted visage. He looked the way he had the night

theyd had dinner at Rosalias, only sadder. Take a seat, and Ill make you the best martini youve ever had, Alix said. Ryker nodded, then sat down on the couch and gazed blindly into space. Unsure what she should do, Alix focused on the task hed given her, finding a gleaming silver shaker, whiskey tumbler, and deep martini glass in the spacious cabinet. A small fridge behind the counter yielded club soda and a bottle of olives. She poured the club soda into the tumbler and sipped it as she continued. Gin or vodka? Gin. She studied the labels until she found a bottle and then poured a healthy measure into the tumbler and added the

barest hint of vermouth. Delicately, she shook the liquid several times, poked two olives onto a toothpick, and filled the glass. Do you want to talk about it? she asked carefully. Rykers expression did not change. My mother died ten years ago. They go to the cemetery every year on the anniversary of her death. And you dont go? No. She walked over and handed him the glass. He grabbed it without meeting her eyes and took a deep drink. You got another one like that? Sure. He drank steadily for the next few minutes. When the first drink was done,

Alix poured him a second and sat down. How did she die? she asked, hoping to distract him, even if only for a few minutes, from his determined path toward oblivion. Breast cancer. Double mastectomy and chemo didnt make bit of difference. Were you with her? At the end? He chewed on an olive. No. Emilio was there, and the girls. I tried to visit when they werent around. That got hard at the end, so I stopped coming. I didnt want her to watch us fight. I had given her enough trouble when she was alive. I didnt want to bother her while she was dying. Alixs chest grew tight. Did you did you ever get to say good-bye? Last time I left. We didnt know

when it would be, but we knew it was coming. Ryker gulped down the second drink and handed her the glass. Another, he grunted. She walked slowly toward the bar. Why dont you go to the cemetery? Its their grave, not mine. They pick the flowers. They picked the stone. It says Descanse En Paz. I had to ask someone what that means. Alix winced. Were you close to her? I mean, when you were older? Where do you think Rosalia got her idea for the family dinners? Mama loved having us all around her. Even when we fought like crazy, she said it was worth it. Alix fixed a third drink with about half as much gin. She handed him the

glass. He held it for a minute, swirling the liquid until it created a tiny whirlpool. He looked up at her. I guess you think Im a monster for not holding her hand as she died. No. She shook her head. You did that for her. It must have been very hard to stay away. At the funeral, Emilio told me I broke her heart. She died with a broken heart because I wasnt there. A lump formed in her throat. She sat down next to him on the couch and put her hand on his knee. His wife had just died. He didnt mean it. Right. He turned his body toward her. You should go. And leave you to drink yourself into oblivion?

I do it every year. Its my tradition. They have their tradition, and I have mine. I dont think so. She leaned forward and kissed him gently on the mouth. Then she pulled back and studied him. I think Im going to stay. I dont want to talk. I just want to get drunk. She touched his face. You want to forget. I know. Ive had days I would give anything to forget. No. You dont know. He clenched a fist, staring down at his hands. You dont know what its like to regret something this much. To wonder what it would have meant if you had done it differently. For both of you. I lost a baby, she whispered, the

word slipping from her like a fragile breeze. She took his hands between her palms and forced him to look her in the eye. I felt him flow from my body. I had been having cramps for days, but I was too scared to tell anyone. Maybe it could never have been prevented. But maybe it could. So dont tell me I dont know. I know. For an exquisite moment, they looked at each other, sharing the pain and regret they had lived with for so long. Then he leaned forward and molded his lips to hers. They collapsed into each other, Alix licking and sucking, imagining in some sheltered part of her mind that she could heal himand herselfwith their kiss. Finally, he broke the contact, exhaling sharply and closing his eyes. Alix, please.

Dont do this to me right now. You can see Im in no state to argue. She brought his hand to her mouth and kissed each of his fingers. Amazingly, her nerves had disappeared. There was no longer any question in her mind as to what she should do. Because no matter how stupidno matter how ill-advised and no matter the consequencesone thing suddenly became painfully clear. She had to stay with him. She had to comfort him in the only way she knew how. She no longer had a choice. Because she loved him.

Chapter Twenty-five The realization humbled her. Her defenses hadnt been nearly as effective as she had thought. She had done the one thing she had vowed not to do: fallen in love with a man who would never love her back. It was terrifying and exhilarating, and she couldnt imagine there had been a time she hadnt known the truth. She loved him with every beat of the pulse that shot through her body. Loved him with a fierce, angry passion that wouldnt allow him to be alone with his grief. Loved him for his scars, his pain, and the child behind his eyes. She loved him, and she could heal himnot completely, not entirely, but a

little. And it was enough. Enough to make it worthwhile. She stood up, gently leading him toward the stairs. He followed, the sadness radiating from him in waves. When they reached his room, he was seized with a sudden burst of energy. He took her face in his hands and kissed her. Hard. Their teeth bumped together; his mouth ground into hers. He punished her with his grief and then pulled away and rested his forehead against hers. You should go, he said hoarsely. Im not going anywhere, she said. She pulled her shirt over her head and bared her breasts. She took one of his large, strong hands and placed it on her chest. Im staying with you. He traced the outline of her areola

and gently rolled her nipple between his fingers. She exhaled sharply and arched toward him. He bent over and kissed her breast, took the nipple in his mouth, and sucked gently. Yes, she sighed. It was right. Her body knew him as if they had been lovers all her life. Heat shot through her, from stomach to toes to fingers, until her entire body tingled with the force of it. She tugged on his shirt, and he stepped away long enough to pull it over his head. His hands closed around her waist. He held her tightly, staring at her face as if memorizing its contours. I cant give you what you want, he said. You have to know that. Alix slipped off the rest of her clothes. When she stood naked before

him, she walked to the bed and lay down. Im not leaving, she repeated. She knew he didnt love her, but it made no difference. She could no more withhold her love than she could change the tides. It pulled her toward him, steady and unyielding. He growled something deep in his throat and continued to stare. This isnt a fairy tale, he said. I wont wake up in the morning and clothe myself in a suit of armor. She held up her arms. Youre the furthest thing from a knight that Ive seen, Ryker Valentine. Now come make love to me. He swallowed and, without taking his eyes from her body, removed the rest of his clothes and covered her from legs to

chest. They were still for a moment, hearts beating fast, bodies warming each other, his weight balanced on his arms. He lowered his mouth to her neck and trailed kisses down to the hollow at the base of her throat. She tangled her fingers in his hair, luxuriating in the feeling of the soft, black locks. His mouth moved across her neck to her ear and nibbled on the lobe. She arched her back, and her nipples brushed his chest like hot embers. He rose up on his knees and let his kisses fall on her shoulders and trail across her breastbone. She stirred restlessly beneath him, her hands dancing over the rippling muscles of his back. More, she breathed. I want more. He took her wrists and pushed them

above her head. With one hand, he held her captive and dropped his lips to her breast. He sucked gently, then more firmly when she moved beneath him. A low moan escaped her lips. Her hips were already moving rhythmically, an incessant throb driving her against him. She needed pressure, already sought the release of orgasm, but he looked up at her and shook his head. Oh no, not yet, sweetheart. Im not through with you, not by a long shot. He moved his body so he wasnt touching her below the waist and continued to torment her nipples, covering them with wide swaths of his tongue, then licking and biting, just enough to send her jerking against him, her hands over her head pushing back

into the cool sheets. She was hot and wet below, her legs rubbing together in a slick motion. Smoothly, he transferred her wrists to his other hand and tickled her skin from ribs to hips, sliding fingertips lower each time, up to her breasts and then down until he had reached the top of her mound and tangled his fingers in her dark hair. Already on the edge of climax, Alix cried out when he rested the palm of his hand against her clitoris. He did not rub or move, just applied gentle pressure while she jerked beneath him. When she began to move more quickly, her breath coming in little pants, he removed his hand and laughed softly. So impatient, greedy little one. She lunged toward him, freeing her

hands in a surge of strength. My turn, she said. She pushed him toward the bed, turning his shoulders so she could roll on top of him. His penis jutted into the air, a hard, hungry animal. She longed to climb on but restrained herself, instead taking him in one hand and running her tongue up and down his length. He groaned, and she took him in her mouth, sucking gently and then with more force, taking him deep and then running her mouth around the head, tasting the first bit of sweet, salty fluid that collected at the tip. With strong, determined hands, he grabbed her under the arms and pulled her up to face him. I learned my lesson last time, he

said. There will be no more of that. At least, not right now. She looped her legs around his waist and leaned back, letting his hands run over her torso and caress her taut, aching nipples. Imagining the rolling of the ocean, she rocked against him slowly, teasing herself with the pressure against her clitoris. Then she lowered herself down to rest against his penis, the hard length of him landing at precisely the right spot. She rode against him, sliding up and down his length until she was crying out with pleasure. Lord, woman. He chuckled weakly, hands tight on her waist. I need to get a condom on before we do something really stupid.

She rolled onto her back and watched him pull a foil package from the bedside table. Her heart beat wildly, and panic started to rise in her throat as he eased the condom into place. She closed her eyes and felt his weight on her chest. Tell me now if you want to stop, he whispered into her neck. In response, she opened her legs and thrust her hips upward. He groaned, and she felt him enter her slowly, just like theyd done before. He pulled out, rubbed against her clitoris, eliciting a deep moan and painful, throbbing response, and then gently thrust back inside, a little farther this time. The fear dissolved. This was right.

Now, with this man. She spread her legs wider and moved her hands down to his buttocks. When he moved against her, she pushed him deeper inside while bringing her hips up against him. He thrust deeper, and she gasped. She was tight, almost like shed become a virgin all over again, yet having him inside left her needy and hungry in a way shed never experienced. She couldnt help but tense, and he must have sensed it, because he withdrew and substituted his finger for his penis, tickled and stroked her clitoris until she was once again on the verge of orgasm, and then slid his finger inside. He pressed up against the wall of her vagina, and at the same time rocked her erect nub with his thumb.

She cried out and arched against him. He moved his finger away and resumed his position on top. Then he swallowed her nerves away with a deep, endless kiss that left her unable to think about anything else. Look at me, he whispered as he positioned himself between her thighs. She forced her eyes to open. He was staring at her, dark chocolate eyes fathomless, full of emotion. Trust me, she felt him say. I will protect you. Alix melted, all the reserve, the fear, and the tension melting from her body. Unconsciously, her lids started to slide closed as her legs fell open, and he slid into her. No, no, dont shut your eyes, he urged. Stay with me.

Mutely, she let his gaze envelope her and let all the caring she saw there fill her. Onetwo And then he was inside, and a cry escaped her lips. She was full, fuller than shed ever been before, and a wave of emotion caught in her chest. Oh, she moaned. Yes. Yes. Cautiously, he began to move. In and out, now withdrawing all the way and tickling her clitoris with his penis, now penetrating deeply. She wrapped her legs around his waist and urged him to move harder, faster. She gloried in the sensation, their bodies moving in unison, his hardness buried inside her. They were one. It was nothing like she remembered. Sex in her youth had been a slightly painful, hurried affair with a boy who

grunted a few times and then came. She had never been with a man. And certainly never a man like Ryker. Now, he murmured. Together. She kept her eyes open, knowing what she wanted to see but not imagining she would see it. But there it wasthe moment of perfect passion, the splitting of her soul in an orgasm that surely made the heavens move. And he was with her, eyes half closed, arms clutched tightly around her. She saw it in him, the love she wanted so desperately. They were one, and they were made for each other. Their bodies knew it and so did their spirits. She shook with release, cried out his name, and heard him do the same. He pulsed inside her, his waves of pleasure enhancing hers, bringing her back to her

peak again, until finally, racked with shuddering, uncontrollable joy, she was spent. The fireworks faded, she lay her head in the crook of his arm, and let herself drift off to sleep. # Ryker studied the woman sleeping peacefully at his side, bathed in the soft pink light of early morning, and wondered just how violent Gunther Hartcourt could really be. Would he have Ryker killed, simply tortured a bit, or perhaps tortured and then killed? He rolled onto his back, careful not to jolt her awake, and silently smacked himself in the head. This would go down in history as the dumbest thing hed ever done. Dumber than the tattoo hed had to

have removed when he started his modeling career. Dumber than the car hed stolen when hed turned sixteen. Dumber, certainly, than the time hed told his girlfriend he had run out of condoms just so he could see what it felt to be truly naked, from head to toe, when they had sex. Luckily, his girlfriend had started her period two days later. No repercussions there. But this time? Well, this time he didnt see how he could avoid it. Alix rolled over and murmured something in her sleep. Her cheeks were flushed, perfect pink roses blooming on her pale skin. The sheet fell back, exposing her full breasts. A tiny bruise stood out above her areola. He must have gotten carried away.

Ryker practically snorted at the thought. Carried away? That was the understatement of the century. Lifting the sheet just enough to expose his body, he inched out of bed. He tasted bile in his throat, a sick combination of anticipation, fear, and guilt. What would she say? What would she expect of him? Or, to put it baldly, how big of a scene was she going to make? He grabbed a shirt, pants, underwear, and headed downstairs, head spinning. How could he have let it happen? It had been an incredible night. He couldnt deny that. From the first moment hed realized she was truly offering herself to him and hed imagined sliding deep inside her, he was lost. He

could try to blame it on Rosa or Maria, the anniversary of his mothers death or two martinis in quick succession on an empty stomach, but the truth was, it had simply been Alix. Alixs touch. The memory of it started his cock tingling. He shook his head and started to fill the coffeepot with water, hoping to distract himself from the overpowering urge to march back upstairs and take her again, now, when she was still sleepy and tousled. He wanted her from behind, where he could pull her hips hard against him. He wanted her on their sides, her leg looped over his. He wanted her standing up, her legs around his waist. He wanted her on top so he could

play with her nipples while she rode him. The coffeepot overflowed and ran onto the counter. Hastily, he turned off the water. He had to get control. Think, Ryker, think! What the hell are you going to say to her? He was spared the agony of his own thoughts by her appearance at the door of the kitchen. She wore one of his T-shirts, and her nipples were visible through the thin fabric. She looked hesitant. Vulnerable. Words froze in his throat. Good morning, she said and blushed. His mouth gaped open, and he found himself unable to think of anything, anything at all, to say. She watched him for a moment and then turned away. Wheres the cereal?

He motioned toward a cupboard. She pulled out a box of bran flakes and put it on the table. Bowls? He motioned again, still stricken dumb and mute, and she took down a bowl, grabbed the milk from the fridge, and pulled open a few drawers until she found the silverware. Then she sat down at the table and started to eat. Finally, he cleared his throat and sat at the table beside her. Alix, about last night She cocked her head. Oh please, she said. He couldnt tell if she sounded resigned, frustrated, or amused. Perhaps a little of each. Lets not go there. Weve got a long day ahead, and I, for one, dont intend to complicate it with heartfelt

speeches. We can deal with that later. Now, how about some coffee?

Chapter Twenty-six Lena watched nervously as Alix and Ryker murmured to each other in low tones. It was Sunday morning, and the studio was quiet. They had sent any unnecessary crew members home. Soft music played in the background. The air was cool, and goose bumps stood out on her arms. She was naked except for the tiny scrap of a thong shed insisted on wearing. It was absurd, of course, but she liked to maintain the illusion that she and Jake werent screwing every night like bunnies, her eyes tightly closed, his open and seekingor so she assumed. She couldnt close her eyes today. Today, the cameras would be rolling.

Today, shed have to look. Dont be nervous, Jake whispered. Youll be great. I know it. She ignored him, like she ignored all the endearments he whispered in her ear before they fell asleep. Part of her wanted to believe him, wanted it so bad it was like an ache in her chest. But another part of her still couldnt let go of what had happened so many years ago. She was so terrified shed get hurt again, she couldnt believe that things had really changed. Which was ridiculous, really, because in the past few weeks, it seemed that everything had changed. When it came to acting, Lena had learned she wasnt so bad after all. Shed actually started to trust her instincts, throw herself deeply into her character and stop worrying

about what the audience might think. She learned Jake Redburn had grown up since theyd first been lovers. When something went wrong on the set, he took responsibility. When she was tired, he took care of her, rubbed her feet, brought her salad with a few indulgent slices of good cheese. But she still hadnt opened her eyes. Quiet on the set! Lena took a deep breath. It wasnt like they were really going to have sex. They were acting. Only acting. There wasnt much dialogue; theyd already shot the scene just before and just after. It was only sex. Jake would climb into bed with her. At first, hed be reluctant, still fighting their attraction. She would have to seduce him until his resistance was

broken, and then hed take control. They would film him kissing her breasts and belly, licking her inner thigh and caressing her bottom. When he was supposed to be entering her, they would film a close-up of her face. She would gasp, realizing that she loved him. That part came from Alix. It was her bright idea to have Salvas moment of truth come while she was having sex. Alix couldnt make anything easy for Lena. Even their sex scene had to be more than a sex scene. Action! The first few takes were horrible. Lenas body was stiff and unresponsive. Jake looked more worried than he did aroused. Alix pulled him aside for a few murmured instructions. He threw on a

robe and wandered away from the set. Alix approached Lena next. Lena hid her body under the white bedsheets. What? she muttered. Its time to step it up, Alix said briskly. No more coddling. No more Ms. Nice Girl. Are you kidding? Lena poked her head out of the covers. Youre picking now to go mean on me? Youve been hanging out too long with Ryker. I gave you my ChapStick spiel. That was the best I had. Now its time to go to work. Commit yourself. This is it. This is your moment. Miss it here, and it will never come again. But Alix held up a hand. Im not interested.

Lena noticed for the first time the lines of tension etched around Alixs eyes and the way she kept darting little looks at Ryker while they talked. Have a good night, did you? Lena drawled. Alix flushed beet red. I dont know what youre talking about. Lena chuckled. Oh, her expression was priceless! Like a teenager caught redhanded by her mother. Did you commit yourself? Grab your own moment? Your one chance? Alix glared at her. Were here to film a movie, not talk about my personal life. The professional is personal. Isnt that what youre always telling me? Can we get back to Salvas Revenge, please?

No. Lena pouted. Im not doing anything until I hear details. Its obvious youre in love with him. So what happened last night? Did you finally do the deed? Please. Let it go, Lena. Lena knew she was being a jerk but couldnt seem to stop. I bet hes good in the sack. At least, thats what all the other gals say. Did he tell you he loved you back? Theyre such good liars, these men of ours. You didnt believe him, did you? Alixs eyes were haunted. Her shoulders collapsed inward. Of course not, she whispered. I would have to be crazy to believe something like that. Whatever nasty thing Lena had been about to say died in her throat at Alixs painful reply. Oh, hon, Im sorry, she

said with genuine sympathy. Whatever hell Alix had put her through, she didnt deserve that feeling. No one did. Im so sorry. Alix gave her a weak smile. Lets just say I know exactly how difficult it is to do what Im asking. Youre good, damn good. Dont let fear get in the way of that. Lena nodded, threw the sheet back over her head, and took several long, slow breaths. Okay, she said through the cloth. Im ready. Were ready, Alix called. Lena folded the sheet around her breasts and centered her head on the pillow. She focused on her character. She was Salva, not Lena. He was Hank McAdams, not Jake. She could do this.

Places, please. Jake appeared next to the bed, naked, except for a tiny scrap of silk. Alix had wanted them naked. Ryker allowed a few pieces of modesty cloth. Quiet on the set! Jake stared down at her, eyes dark and hungry. Lena blocked out the lights, forgot the cameras, let the set fade to black. Andaction! She held up her arms, and he reluctantly climbed into bed. She kissed him, and for a while, he remained stiff and cold. Gradually, his body loosened, and he circled her with his arms. They fell into each other, limbs tangled, bodies intertwined. Slowly, the locus of control shifted. Instead of responding to her

kisses, he initiated them. When he trailed a line of fire down her throat to her breasts, she relaxed and let him take over. Her body didnt care if she was Lena or Salva, if he was Jake or Hank. It responded to the passion in his touch and the way he caressed her skin as if she was made of the finest porcelain. He stroked her nipples, traced their outline, took them in his mouth, and she sighed with pleasure. Something fell into place, and she was transported to a place where nothing mattered but his hands, the weight of his body, and the pressure of his tongue. Yes, she moaned, I need you. He moved into position on top of her. The sheet had long since been kicked away, and their bodies pressed together,

only a tiny scrap of silk keeping them apart. Jake stared down at her, and Lena shuddered once but kept her eyes open. Lena, he whispered. Look at me. In his eyes, she saw everything she had feared. Love. Commitment. Apology. A question. Her lashes fluttered. Salva, she reminded herself savagely. You are Salva! Lena, Jake said. I love you. He pushed open her legs and settled between them. I love you, he repeated. Tell me you love me too. Tears filled her eyes. All her attempts at acting dissolved in an instant. She couldnt fight it any longer. Maybe she was a fool. Maybe she was crazy. But it

was there, right in front of her, and she couldnt deny it any longer. Yes. She sighed, and a smile creased her mouth. Yes, Jake. I love you too, you stupid, stubborn man. CUT! Ryker roared in the background. Tears streamed out of the corners of her eyes, and Lena laughed as Jake settled his mouth over hers for a long, deep kiss. # I suppose youre pleased with yourself, Ryker grumbled. They sat together in the viewing room, the projection screen covered with an enormous shot of Lena, laughing and kissing Jake. It pissed him off every time he looked at it. Im happy for them, Alix said.

Arent you? I would be happier if theyd been able to focus on their work today. After that debacle this morning, youd think they were a couple of love-struck teenagers. We got great film. You have everything you need here. Just edit out the parts where they declare their undying love to each other. God save me from actors who cant remember that theyre supposed to be acting. He knew he was spiraling out of control, but the fury was growing and his body practically shaking with rage. You would think theyd done it just to spite you, she said. What on earth do you have to be so pissed about? I expect them to be professionals,

he said, slamming one fist down on an open palm. I expect them to act, not use my camera time for a declaration of love. Lets be honest here, she said carefully. Are you pissed because they used camera time to declare their love or because they fell in love in the first place? That wasnt love, he said flatly. That was lust. Pure, honest lust. Nothing wrong with that, except the delusion that it means anything more. For Gods sake, she exploded, jumping off of the couch. How can you say that? Were you not there today? Did you not see what happened on that bed? There was magic there. Everyone felt it. You wanted to feel it, he argued. You want to believe in it.

Of course I do! She threw up her hands and spun around to face him. Can we cut to the chase? Lets talk about last night. Lets talk about what happened between us. We had sex, he said, stomach falling. He had known this conversation was coming. It had only been a matter of time. Thats it. No. She shook her head. It was more than that. We made love. I saw it. I saw it in your eyes. I like you, Alix, he said slowly. I like you a lot. But thats it. Whatever you saw was your own invention. She blinked, and her jaw moved forward an inch. An invention? It wasnt real. He worked to keep his voice firm but gentle. Whatever you

felt, whatever you think you saw was just lust. Sex. Animals reacting to each other in the most primitive way possible. Animals, she repeated. Her voice was beginning to thicken. The cold feeling in his stomach intensified. You think we were just like animals last night. I could have been a complete stranger, and you would barely have noticed the difference. This was going even worse than hed imagined. Well, look, it isnt as though there wasnt any feeling. I mean, I appreciated you being there last night. But if Id had any sense, things would never have gone that far. I had too much to drink. It was a mistake. Not for me. She crossed her arms over her chest. Im glad it happened.

And Im not going to let you pretend you didnt feel it too. It was just sex, he repeated, feeling his control of the situation falling away. He wanted her to cry, to rage at him. But all he saw in her was the deadly calm shed shown the night of Gunthers party. Youre mixing everything up. She shook her head. No. Not anymore. Now its you whos got it confused. That thing you felt last night that emotion you feltit wasnt just sex, Ryker. It was love. ThereIve said it. I fell in love with you. Thats why I did what I did. Not because of some mistake, or because you drank too much, or because I was overcome with lust. Because I fell in love with you, and I didnt want to walk away from the way I

felt anymore. So dont tell me we were just a couple of animals screwing in the woods, okay? Im sorry, he said hoarsely. He thought he was prepared to hear her say it, but it was still a painful, wrenching blow. He hadnt meant to hurt her. Hed meant to stay away. Why couldnt he have just stayed away? I didnt feel anything. It was just good sex. Im sorry if your feelings are hurt, but thats all it was. She studied him silently. Youre such a hypocrite. A hypocrite? Yes, and I cant believe it took me this long to figure out. He raised a hand to his forehead. Alix, youre not making any sense. Look, were almost done with the movie. Cant

we just forget about this and move on? Of course you want to forget about it. Youre scared, she accused. Youre even worse than I was, and I was pretty bad. Scared? His brows contracted in genuine surprise. Scared of what? Scared of love. He stopped. He would have laughed, but she was so serious he felt the irritation rise back up in his chest. Alix, youre being ridiculous. Im not scared of anything. I just dont believe in the same things you do. I dont believe in love. You dont believe in love. She tapped her foot and blew out a breath, eyeing him with disgust. What a crock. I cant believe you can say these things with a straight face.

That was when he started to get angry. Hed tried to be patient, tried not to hurt her. But he could stay patient for only so long. Youve got no reason to be like this. I was honest with you at every step of the way. You knew how I felt. Oh, I know what you told me. You lied to yourself, Ryker, not me. Youve been lying to yourself this whole time. Maybe all your life. Because the truth is that you are so damn scared of love, you have to run around pretending it doesnt exist. But it does, and you know it. You know it better than anyone. You saw what happened to your mother, and it terrifies you. If it didnt, you wouldnt fight so hard. Ryker swallowed hard. You dont know what youre talking about.

Really? Then explain to me why you go to Rosalias family dinner every month, even though you claim to hate it. Tell me why you care so much about what Rosalia thinks of you, and why it hurts so badly that Emilio disapproves of your lifestyle. Tell me why you can hardly live with yourself when you think your mother died without you telling her you loved her. Enough. His voice lashed out like a whip. Clearly, I made a mistake when I let you get involved in my personal affairs. Am I wrong? she taunted. Can you really say Im wrong? You drove your mother away. You drove them all away with your tough-guy attitude. I watched you at dinner, Ryker, and yes, Rosalia is

overbearing, and Emilio complained about your lifestyle. But thats not what I saw there. I saw a group of people who wanted desperately to be a part of your life. Hector and Eduardo worship you you know that, right? And Emilio, well, he looks at you with so much pride its incredible. You saved Marias life, to hear her tell it. And Rosalia sits there, practically aching for you to show some sign of approval for all the things she does. And what do you do? You ignore them. You shut them out. And someday youre going to push them too far, and they wont come back. He stood and walked toward the door. This conversation is over. I fell in love with you, she said to his retreating back. Your worst

nightmare came true. So what are you going to do now? Push me away too? Tell me Im crazy, that what I felt last night was all in my head? You were there. We were joined, Ryker. We were one. He spun around. Of course we were joined, he said, deliberately making his voice cold and hard. Thats what happens when you have sex. She threw up her hands, her voice beginning to tremble. Fine. Run away. Lie to yourself. You wont have to deal with me anymore. Im leaving. What? Youve got all the film you need. Jake and Lena just gave your audience a collective wet dream. You dont need me anymore. He took a deep breath. Alix, dont

go. Please. This isnt how I wanted to leave things. She pushed past him and headed to the door. Thats too damn bad. Put the check in the mail. If you need me, Ill be in Oregon. # Alix slammed the door of the car and raced out of the parking lot, half expecting the security guard to stop her at the gate. But the white-and-red arm swung open with a flash of her pass, and she got a friendly wave from the guard as she pulled out onto the street. She kept looking in her rearview mirror for the first few minutes, half expecting to see someone running after the car. But that was beyond ridiculous. He wasnt going to run after her like

some love-crazed fool in a movie. He wasnt going to meet her at the airport either, or catch her as she was boarding the plane. He was going to watch her leave with a sigh of relief. The tears started in earnest then, great, hulking sobs that made it impossible to see or drive, so she pulled into a parking lot, dropped her head on the steering wheel, and let her grief take over. He didnt love her. Whatever she had seen in his eyes last night wasnt love or even caring. He had been as cold and hard today as the first day shed met him. How silly, how incredibly, stupendously silly, to think she might change him, touch his heart, or melt some of the ice

that had lodged there so many years before. What had Gunther said on that day Ryker had come to the beach? Ryker Valentine is a cold bastard, hed said. Why hadnt she listened? She pawed through the glove box of the car, searching for Kleenex or napkins, anything to wipe the disaster her face had become. Finding none, she used her sleeve, rubbing raw the tender skin beneath her eyes. She stared blindly out the windshield. Was he right? Had she simply been fooling herself last night? Could the look she saw in his eyes have been an illusion? The thought left her dizzy. She pressed her fingers into her closed eyelids until swirling colors and stars appeared.

She had seen something in his eyes when he made love to her, hadnt she? Was it possible that what she felt was entirely one-sided? A figment of her imagination? She now understood why Lena had taken ten years to heal from Jakes infidelity. The pain of rejected loveeven when she knew it was comingwas so raw, so utterly consuming, she couldnt imagine how she could ever look Ryker in the face again, let alone kiss him in front of a camera for an audience of millions. Alix threw the car into gear and headed for the airport. She had an emergency credit card she could use to buy her ticket home. If Ryker didnt come through with a check soon enough, she could borrow money from Gunther to pay the bill. It didnt matter how she got

there, really. She simply had to leave. Staying in LA, seeing Gunther, or anyone else she knew, was not an option. She needed Rex. She needed her house and the stark, empty Oregon beach outside her window. She needed the comfort of rain against her windows and clouds moving across the horizon. She needed to look at her pictures and reassess. Finish the book and take some time off. Gunther had said she was using the book as a crutch, and maybe he was right. Hed been right about so many things. She had been scared to take a risk. And now that she had, she knew why. Because love hurt. It hurt like nothing else in the world. Numb, unable to think or process anything beyond getting herself on a

plane, Alix found a parking spot, locked the car, and made her way to the terminal. She mailed the parking ticket and keys to Gunther, bought a one-way ticket home, and didnt look back.

Chapter Twenty-seven Friday dinner at Rosas was always unpleasant, but as Ryker left the studio and got in his car, he knew this meal had the potential to be the worst ever. Hed been answering questions all week from the cast and crew about AlixWhere had she gone? Why had she left so abruptly? When would she be back?and it was driving him mad. Seeing Emilio and Rosa required a healthy hold on his temper at the best of times; coming into the night with a chip on his shoulder was going to make it exponentially harder. It wasnt just the questions about Alex he was dreading. Everyone at dinner tonight would be primed for a fight. Emilio was always pissed after Ryker

failed to go to his mothers grave. Rosalia would need extra handling because hed hurt her feelings when she came to pick up Fifi. Hed managed to upset Maria because shed called to see if Alix would be coming to dinner, and hed bitten her head off in response. Hector and Eduardo would hang back, trying not to get crosswise with either Ryker or Rosa, but theyd be disappointed in him too. He could see it in their eyes. If only shed stayed. She could have come tonight. She would have helped him with Rosa and Emilio. If Alix were here, everything wouldnt seem like such a nightmare. Ryker slammed on the brakes to narrowly avoid running a red light. Had he even thought that? Thought about

bringing Alix back to Rosas? Alix was gone. Shed done her work, the check was in the mail, and they were finished. So why did he find himself thinking about her every dammed day? He changed lanes abruptly, weaving around cars and trucks in an effort to clear his mind of the volley of images that followed. Alix, tears in her eyes as she left the studio for the last time. Alix, in the screening room, cheeks flushed and eyes heavy with pleasure. He had a hollow feeling in his chest every time he walked around the set, simply because she wasnt there. Looking at film was even worse. He kept turning to talk to her, to mention some idea he had for editing or some complaint about the angle of a camera, and hed get a painful shock when he

realized he was alone. Hed stopped swimming because he couldnt walk outside the house without seeing that image of her, sunlight dancing in her hair, Fifi cuddled in her arms. Even his bed was infected. He kept seeing her beneath him, and the sheet tangled around her body in the morning. Hed started sleeping in the guest room just to avoid it. He had clearly been tainted with some of his mothers self-destructive romanticism. Or perhaps by Alixs. After all, hed been working sixteen or eighteen hours a day with her for a month. It must have affected his brain. Addled his thinking. Which was further proof that it was lucky she had gone. He refused to go where that romanticism would take him.

He didnt like the hollow feeling, or the regret or the loss he was experiencing now. He absolutely would not let it become something even greater. When Ryker pulled up to Rosalias house, Hector stood in the front lawn, talking to Emilio. Wheres Daisy? Emilio asked. I thought shed be here with you. Ryker gritted his teeth. Right out of the gate, Emilio was going to needle him. Maria knew Daisy wouldnt be here tonight, and surely shed told Emilio and Rosa. Emilio was just proving a point, like he always did. She went back to Oregon. Too bad. I thought she seemed like a nice girl. Ryker inclined his head but kept

silent. He refused to let them bait him. He looked longingly at the house and dreamed about grabbing a beer and chugging it like some college kid trying desperately to get drunk as quickly as possible. Are you going to see her again? Emilio asked. Will she come back to LA when the movie comes out? No. Did you have a fight? Id rather not discuss it. Emilio nodded sagely. I see. You drove her away, then. Oh Lord, Emilio, cant you give it a rest? Ryker exploded, hands clenching into fists. For one time in my life, cant you give it a damn rest? The porch door slammed shut. Rosa

stood on the porch her mouth wide with surprise. Little Emilio followed closely at her side, hanging on to her skirt. Ricardo! she scolded, gesturing toward the child. Watch your language, for heavens sake. The sound of his Spanish name, the trill of the R, Emilios knowing look it all combined to send him into a blind fury. Ill say whatever I damn well please, Ryker said loudly. Hector, take Emilio inside, Rosalia said. In that moment, her voicequiet, but with an underlying hint of steel sounded so much like his mothers that Ryker actually flinched. When Hector and the little boy disappeared into the house, Rosalia stepped down off the porch.

While you are in my house, she snapped, youll be civil, at least. At least? Good to know your expectations of me arent high. How can they be? Rosa shot back stiffly. I call you, and you dont call me back. I try to help you, and you insult me and send me home like a servant. Ryker stifled a groan. You took it on yourself to rescue Fifi from me. Dont blame that one on me. Im nothing more than a burden to you, am I? Rosa clicked her tongue in disgust. This whole family is nothing more to you than an embarrassment and a burden. Are we going there again, Rosa? If so, perhaps I can help fill in the rest of the list for you. Ive turned my back on

Boyle Heights and my heritage and become one with the dark side. Im ungrateful, disrespectful, and cruel. Anything I missed? Rosa closed her eyes. You started this. All I wanted was for you not to swear in front of the children. Dont make this into something it isnt. Right. So this is my fault. Rosa. Emilio directed a flood of Spanish at her. Ryker didnt know what he said, but it was clearly about him, because Rosalia kept glancing in his direction as Emilio spoke. She argued briefly with Emilio, but he cut her off with a raised hand. She bowed her head in acknowledgement. Then, after shooting a quick, almost pitying look at Ryker, she disappeared back into the house.

What did you say to her? Ryker growled. He hated how vulnerable he felt when they spoke Spanish around him. Worse when they spoke it about him. I told her she needed to hold her tongue, Emilio said calmly. Why? Because youre not yourself right now. You made a mistake with Daisy, and youre hurting because of it. Ryker took a step back. You dont know what youre talking about. I watched the two of you at dinner. I saw how you looked at her, and I saw how she tried to protect you. She was a unique person, and if shes out of your life, I think you will regret it. Or perhaps you already do. You dont know a thing, Ryker

said. You dont know a thing about me or Alix. Thats her name, Emilio. Alix. She lied to you about that. She lied about a lot of things. Im sure she had her reasons, Emilio said, unperturbed. Ryker had to pause then, because everything Alix had done that night, every lie shed told was on his behalf. Even he couldnt argue with that. Fine. Do you want to know the truth? She left because I was honest with her. She said she loved me, and I told her I didnt love her back, and I never would. I told her the love she wants is a fantasy, and the sooner she realizes that, the better. The love she wants is a fantasy. Emilio repeated the words slowly. Is that what you said? Is that what you

believe, Ricardothat love is a fantasy? Ryker hooked a finger in one belt loop. Thats exactly what I think. Alix has this idea that someday shell find her true love and a love for all time, and its nonsense. Its never going to happen. A lot of people believe in that nonsense. Like my mother, Ryker spat. Look where that got her. Sometimes when we love, we get hurt. Yes, your mother loved your father, and she suffered because of it, but she never regretted it. Even after he hurt her, she never regretted it. Ryker turned away. I cant stay here, he muttered. I cant stay here and listen to this. She never regretted it because you

were the result of that love. And I have never regretted loving you either, Emilio continued. I only regret that you never believed it to be true. Ryker felt the bile rise up in his throat. You dont even know me. You think you love some boy named Ricardo that you tried to save with your religion and your Mexican heritage. Thats not love. You look at me, and you see a fiction. I see the same thing your mother saw. I see a boy who was hurt who turned into a man who is afraid to care. Thats no fiction. You see a boy you tried to remake in your image. You see the boy you tried to create, not the boy I actually was. Or the person I am now.

Emilio sighed. I cannot say I never made mistakes. Or that I would do it all the same if I had the chance. But I never wanted to change you. I wanted you to know that you didnt have to change yourself to be worthy of love. I wanted to teach you pride and self-respect. Im sure there were better ways to do that. But never think for a moment I didnt love you. Because I did. I always did. Ryker couldnt take any more. The drumbeat in his ears drowned out the world, and all he could see was Emilios eyes, dark and fathomless. And then he saw his mothers eyes, the last bit of color in a pale face, as she lay in her bed at the hospital and squeezed his hand one last time. Tell Rosa Im sorry, but I have to

go. Im tired of arguing with you. Im tired of always being wrong. Ryker turned his back and headed for the car. Call her, Emilio advised. Youll regret it if you dont. Ryker rolled down his window as he pulled out of the driveway. Add it to the list.

Chapter Twenty-eight I dont like it, Alix. Youre the one whos been after me to finish the damn thing. Alix held the phone between her shoulder and her ear as she retrieved a particularly big dust bunny from under the couch. Shed only been away from the house for a month, but the dust and sand had piled up in impressive quantities. I did exactly what you kept telling me to do. You cant be happy with this. Gunthers voice was a mix of disapproval and worry. Alix could imagine him pacing across his thick white carpet, sipping a martini as he gazed out his back window to the view of Los Angeles below. Its disjointed. The beginning is gorgeous,

exactly what I always expected. But the ending is terrible. You might as well print it in softcover and sell it in grocery stores behind the counter with the other trashy magazines. Well, dont pull any punches on my account, Alix said dryly. Of course, she knew he was exaggerating. But not by much. Shed finished the book days after shed returned, coldly scrutinized hundreds of pictures for the ones that would have the greatest commercial appealthe prettiest faces, rosiest lightingand scribbled some text to go with it. It was hardly on par with dirty magazines, but it fell far short of what shed been trying to accomplish when she first started. And she didnt care one bit.

I dont want you to look back and regret this. Its too soon after After what? Alix snapped. After Ryker Valentine took my stupid, nave heart and tap-danced all over it? Too soon since you got back, Gunther said gently. Give yourself a little space. Walk the dog, read a book. Or maybe you should do some traveling. Ive got some time opening up in a couple of weeks. We could spend a few weeks in Europe. I dont want to go to Europe. Alix swatted a giant cobweb off the ceiling. I want to stay here. With Rex. At the sound of his name, the sleek Doberman jumped up and nudged her elbow. Hed been particularly clingy since shed returned, not willing to be more

than a few feet away, especially at night. Alix paused to pat his head, then continued her cleaning. Soft amber light began to fill the room as the sun set over the ocean. It was summer now, and the sky had been clear for weeks, the rich colors of the evening seeming to taunt her with their beauty. But for once she didnt want romantic sunsets and pink-tipped clouds. She wanted cloudy skies and drizzle. She wanted weather to match her mood. At least wait a month before you submit it, Gunther said. Ill talk to Charlie. He wont want this out there any more than I do. Gunther was right. Shed already sent it to her agent, and he didnt like it either. It didnt mesh, he said. Something felt off.

Alix sighed. Im not changing it. I want the damn thing done and over with. Im tired of having naked people all over my house. Its time to move on. You said it yourself. But not like this. Youll regret it later. I understand why youre rushing it, but please, libeling, youve put in years of work. What happened with Ryker doesnt change that. Alix almost laughed out loud. Of course what had happened with Ryker changed things. It changed everything. Shed spent years searching for perfect expressions of love. Shed even thought herself skilled at uncovering the real from the fake. But shed learned the hard way that she didnt know a thing about love. Anyone could be fooled.

Even her. Alix cleared her throat. Lets drop it, all right? Hows the movie? Theyre editing. It looks good so far. Rykers been an absolute prick. Thank goodness hes done with the actors. Alix closed her eyes at the sudden lurch of her heart. She didnt care why he was being a prick, she told herself sternly. She didnt. Jake and Lena are getting married, I hear. Yes. Gunther practically purred with satisfaction. The pictures getting all kinds of buzz. See the movie that brought Jake and Lena back together. You cant buy that kind of publicity. Probably just a matter of time before he cheats on her again, Alix said darkly.

Dont, Gunther said. Dont let him turn you like this. Alix fought a sudden rush of tears. She swallowed hard, trying to clear her throat, but no sound emerged. When the silence between them lengthened, Gunther swore. As soon as this movie is done, Im going to kill him. I swear. Alix wiped her hand across her nose. Rexs tail thumped against the floor, and she turned to look down at his golden eyes. I just had something caught in my throat, she managed to say, forcing a cough. Right. Are you sure youre okay? Maybe I should come down there. Youve got other things you need to do. Im fine.

Youre not fine. Im fine, she insisted. Ive got Rex, and Ive got you. What more could a girl ask for? He sighed deeply. I know it doesnt mean much, but Im sorry, Alix. Im so sorry. She sank down on the floor, unable to prevent the fresh flood of tears. When she could speak again, she whispered softly, Me too. # Mr. Valentine, phone for you. Its your sister Maria. She says its an emergency. Ryker sighed and took the phone from the nervous intern who hovered a few feet from his shoulder. Hed turned off his cell phone precisely because he

didnt want to be interrupted. It had been a long day of editing, and he wanted to be done in time to get to a publicity planning session at Gunthers house. Maria had been calling him every day since his fight a week ago with Emilio, and it was driving him crazy. Maria, Im not going to call Emilio, he snapped. And Ive had enough of Ryker, please. Papas had a stroke. Marias voice wobbled. Ryker froze. What? Maria choked back a sob. I was stopping by the house, and he was just sitting there by the TV. He couldnt move or talk or anything. We brought him to the hospital. Theyre giving him a CT scan right now. Jesus. He closed his eyes and

grabbed the arms of his chair. Is he going to be okay? We dont know. Ryker had to take a deep breath then, because suddenly the room was spinning. Where are you? White Memorial. Whos there? Everyone. Tonys home with the kids. We just got here. Ryker frowned. Maybe I shouldnt Ryker. Marias voice broke, and there was silence on the line. Then, faintly, she said, Ryker, please come. He stood up and looked around for his keys. Ill be there as soon as I can. # When he reached the hospital, Ryker

parked his car and sat for a moment in the quiet. Though part of him wanted to throw himself through the automatic doors, another part dreaded what hed find. Had he done it again? Had he pushed someone away, only to find himself regretting it laterafter there was nothing he could do about it? Maria met him by the nurses station. She threw her arms around his neck and immediately began to cry. He held her tightly, fighting the prickle at the back of his own eyes and the tightness in his throat. Damn it, Emilio had deserved better. In his singular, authoritarian way, Emilio had done everything he could to make Ryker a success. He had pushed Ryker in school, stood over him to make sure he

finished his homework, and sought out scholarships so he could attend USC. When Ryker started hanging with a tough crowd, Emilio manufactured projects for himhome repairs, yard work, anything to keep him off the streets. It hadnt made Ryker like him, but, looking back, what choice did he have? Ryker knew he hadnt been an easy kid to befriend. Hed carried around so much anger in those days, it was a wonder Emilio had stayed with them at all. Ryker had been mulling over Emilios last words to him ever since their dinner. I wanted you to know that you didnt have to change yourself to be worthy of love. Was that what it had all been about? The endless fights over his name, over speaking Spanish, over all the things Ryker had

taken as a rejection of who he was. It had never occurred to him that Emilio knew exactly what his mother had done, all those years ago, in her efforts to attract his father. Or that Emilio might have been trying to help him become more at peace with the heritage hed never fully accepted. Alix was right, a quiet voice whispered in his head. You love him. And you never told him. Just like you never told her. Maria lifted her head and smiled. Hes awake. Ryker blinked furiously. Awake? As in, hes okay? Maria pushed back a strand of hair that had fallen from a makeshift bun on top of her head. We dont know the

extent of the damage yet. He cant speak and cant move his left side. But its early. And hes alive. Tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes. You should go see him. Do you Ryker swallowed and cleared his throat, feeling more like a tenyear-old at that moment than he ever had before. Do you really think he wants me there? Maria punched him softly in the arm. As far as hes concerned, youre his son. How can you ask that? I just thought Stop thinking. You do the most damage when you do that. Maria took his hand. They walked down a series of hallways until they reached a room with windows facing the hallway covered by a

thick curtain. Hector and Eduardo were coming out of the door as he approached. They looked like theyd been through hell, with red-rimmed eyes and tousled hair, but both gave him huge, relieved smiles. Glad youre here, Hector said as he threw his arms around Ryker and slapped him on the back. Eduardo did the same, murmuring something that sounded like, Love you, man, his voice thick and hoarse. Ryker started to say something in return, but they just stood there and beamed at him, and something in their eyes made it difficult to speak. They wandered away a minute later. Ryker watched them drift down the hall together. They were boys, really, and he was their big brother. How could he

have forgotten that? Maria tugged his hand again, and he followed her into Emilios room. The fluorescent lights gave everything a pale, greenish cast, and a wall of machines beeped and flashed from beside the bed. Rosalia sat in a plastic chair with her head bowed, holding a rosary of red beads and a gold cross over Emilios hand. His eyes were closed, but when they entered, he opened them and turned his head to the door. He looked calm, an oxygen tube in his nose and his face oddly distorted, one side of his lips sagging while the other remained mobile. He pulled his hand from Rosalias grasp, and she sat up abruptly, looking around as if startled by the sudden movement. When she saw them at the door, she stood but made no

move toward them. I didnt think youd come, she said stiffly. Ryker winced. I suppose I deserve that. He tried to hug her, but she was rigid, cold in his embrace. You two should have some time together, she said, inclining her head toward Emilio. Ryker started to protest, but Emilio nodded. Maria and Rosalia left the room. Ryker stood for a moment, unsure what to do. Emilio motioned to the chair, and Ryker sat, listening to the machines beep and praying they continued to do so. Silence stretched out between them. Emilio beckoned him closer with a tiny movement of his fingers. Ryker leaned

forward hesitantly. Emilio motioned again, and Ryker bowed his head, his cheek practically touching the bed sheet. When he felt a gentle hand on his head, Ryker closed his eyes, laid his head on the bed sheets, and let his stepfather stroke his hair. When he looked up, Emilio was staring at him, tears running down his face. Ryker wiped his own eyes and laughed shakily. Damn it, Papa. When I said I was tired of arguing with you, I didnt mean I wanted this. They sat for a moment, Ryker struggling to find a way to make sense out of his tangled emotions. He thought about Hector and Eduardo, brothers he never called or invited to his house. He

thought about Rosalia, still a child when her mother died, struggling to keep the family together. He thought about Maria, so determined to believe herself to be the black sheep of the family, when she was, in fact, the sanest of them all. Then he thought about Alix. Alix, who understood better than he did how much he loved all of them. Who had offered him her own love, even when she knew she was destined for heartache. And he realized just how much he had lost. He stared at the bed for a long time, until words came spilling, unbidden, from his mouth. She told me I was being an ass, he said. Alix told me that. She said I was scared, and I pushed you away because of it. She said I was a hypocrite,

and I think she was right. Emilio watched gravely as he spoke. The room grew quiet, the beeping machines taking over the tiny space. Finally, Emilio nodded his head, just once. You put up with a lot over the years. You put up with my temper and my ego. You loved my mother like she deserved to be loved, and all I could see was that Id failed. I knew I wasnt the son my biological father wanted, and I figured you were even less likely to want me. So I didnt give you a chance. I pushed everyone away, even people I loved, because I was scared they might not love me back. I wish I could have seen that before now. I wish He trailed off, imagining the pain in Alixs eyes before

she walked away. I wish I hadnt been so blind that I pushed away the person I cherished most. Emilios eyes were dark and sorrowful. Though he didnt speak, Ryker felt certain he understood everything that had been said. Prouuud The word slurred and passed through Emilios lips like a sigh. Ryker swallowed hard, blinking furiously as a thick lump pushed up in his throat. Emilio stared at him, his body practically shaking as he forced his mouth to form the words. Alwaysh prouud A tear dripped down Rykers nose, then another as the strong, hard man who had been his only father gazed down at

him with that familiar, unrelenting stare. Even now? Ryker whispered. Even after I hurt her? Mi hijo Emilio whispered, beckoning toward him until Ryker gathered his hands together and held them, warm and steady, against his heart. My son. They sat together a long time, until Emilios eyes drifted closed, and he fell asleep. Maria came in then, and Rosalia. They stood on either side of Ryker, Marias hand resting on his shoulder. The doctor is outside. Shed like to talk to us, Maria said. Ryker nodded but didnt rise. He looked back and forth between them, his gaze lingering on Rosalia. Im sorry, he said, his voice thick with unaccustomed

tears. I should have gone with you to the cemetery that day, Rosa. I should have stayed for dinner last week. He held out his hands. I should have done a lot of things. She stood still, her body hard and unyielding. Like what? He grimaced. I should have known youd want more. She didnt smile, but he thought he saw a hint of humor in her dark eyes, and her chin lowered just a fraction of an inch. I should have been there with you when she died. I should have learned Spanish so I could have read the stone on her grave. He stood and held out a hand. Theres probably a lot more, but thats a start. Can you forgive me?

Rosalias chin trembled, and she pressed her lips together as if that would hold back the tears glistening in her eyes. I suppose I havent been the easiest person to live with either. But you dont know what its like. She wanted me to keep us together, and Ive failed her, all these years. I tried so hard, but I didnt know how to do it. I didnt know how to be her. Ryker felt the wind knocked out of him at Rosalias words. He stared at her, amazed. You thought you had failed her? She adored you. It drove me crazy how she favored you. And look at you nowyoure like the rock in the ocean we all swirl around. You are the center of this family, Rosa. No one else could do that. No one.

Rosalia laughed and wiped her nose. I thought I could never live up to you. You were so strong, so independent. She was so proud of you. All she ever wanted was to make you happy. Maria snorted. Funny how no one seems to be comparing themselves to me. Rosalia smiled, and just like that, a heavy weight Ryker hadnt even known he was carrying lifted from his heart. Sure we did, Ryker said. Right, Rosa? Rosalia winked. Right RicarI mean, Ryker. Ryker paused and then shrugged. You can call me Ricardo, he said. I suppose thats my name too. They started toward the door, where

a patient doctor in lime-green scrubs stood waiting, clipboard in hand. Ryker poked Maria in the ribs. Youll translate, right? I dont do well with doctors. Maria nodded. I talked to her a few minutes ago. Everything looks really good. She just wants to give us some details about the CT scan and talk about what we might expect to see over the next few days. You can probably go home. I know youre at a busy time in the movie. Im exactly where I need to be, Ryker said. The doctor talked about more tests, physical therapy, and recovery rates. The only thing Ryker heard was that the stroke had been relatively mild, and theyd been lucky to get Emilio to the hospital

so quickly. They would have to keep a close eye on him over the next few days, and there could be some lasting damage to his left side, but they were optimistic that he would make a full recovery. When the doctor left, Ryker sank into a chair beside Rosalia and Maria, relief flooding his body. You two should go, he said. Youve got kids at home. Ill stay with him tonight. Maria shook her head. I can stay. Fifis happy with her cousins. Were ahead of schedule. Theres nothing for me to rush back to. But He raised one hand. Please. Let me stay with him. He imagined the cold, dark hallways of his house, the roar of the ocean that had once been so comforting

but lately only reminded him of one thing. One person. I dont want to go back to an empty house right now. Maria drew back and shot a look at Rosalia. Ryker laid his head against the wall and closed his eyes. He felt raw, his emotions so close to the surface he imagined his sisters could see down into his soul. Rosalia put her hand on his knee. Do you hear anything from Daisy? she asked softly. The sound of her nameher real name, the name she didnt know quite what to do withrang like a dark, painful chord. No. Maria studied him, her brows drawn together. Why dont you call her? I tried. She didnt answer. He

didnt mention that he had only called once and then hung up when he got her voice mail. Truth was, he didnt really want to talk to her. Just hearing her voice made him shudder. You miss her. It wasnt a question, and he didnt bother to protest. I said things to hurt her. I think I wanted to hurt her. She said she loved me, and I threw it in her face. Maria grabbed his hand and squeezed it. Go after her. Shell understand. You werent there. He remembered the disgust in her eyes and the anguish she tried to hide. I was a bastard. Shell never forgive me. She already knew you were a bastard, Maria said baldly. And she fell in love anyway. Besides, what choice do

you have? You love her, dont you? She paused. Dont you? Ryker paused. Of course he loved her. Hed loved her all along. Hed just been too scared to see it. I do. I love her. All his words about love being for fools, about love being a made-up emotion, suddenly sounded so silly. This was what they talked about. This was the feeling that drove people to do crazy things, that had led his mother to conceive a child with a man she knew would never be hers, and eventually led her to happiness in Emilios arms. He loved her. The truth of it rushed through him, momentarily drowning out everything

other than the beating of his heart and the whoosh of his blood in his veins. He loved her. And that meant he had to find a way to win her back. Maria and Rosalia looked at each other and smiled. I knew it, Maria said with satisfaction. Talk to her, Rosalia advised. You said terrible things to me too, but I forgave you, didnt I? Youre my sister. You dont have a choice, Ryker said. Were family. Rosalia smiled and laid her head on his shoulder and then punched him on the arm. Im glad you finally remembered.

Chapter Twenty-nine Alix bumped down her long, sandy driveway, her eyes darting to the letter sitting on the passenger seat, glaring at her. It was from her agent, and it was thick. Probably the contract for the book. The fact that she had a contract already was proof of how much the publishers had wanted the book. Charlie had submitted it on a Thursday, and by Friday theyd had five offers. Everyone loved artsy sex pictures. Who didnt want an excuse to look at people having sex? Pornography was hard to justify, but this was love, and the editors knew it would sell like hotcakes. Even if the artist had changed her mind halfway through the book about the

existence of love. She sat in the driveway and opened the letter. Alix felt ill when she looked at the line for her signature. Charlie had actually urged her not to sign it. He said in a month shed want to change her mind and redo the ending. And that was the problemshe did want to change the ending. She hated it. It felt wrong. Shed given up on true love and gone for pretty pictures of people having sex. It was the opposite of everything shed wanted to do. But that was the old Alix talking. The one who believed in all that nonsense. The new Alix understood that it was all business. She folded the contract and jammed it in her pocket and then pushed open the

car door. Shed have to sign it quickly, before she lost her nerve. Rex! she called. It was odd that he hadnt come out to greet her. Usually he met her car halfway down the drive. She heard a growl, then a bark from the other side of the house. With an irritated sigh, Alix rounded the side of the cottage. In the past week, Rex had taken to barking at a pair of eagles that hunted in the marshy area just beyond the house. She wouldnt mind so much, except she worried if Rex got irritating enough, one of the eagles might actually carry him off. Rex, come! He barked twice but didnt appear. The only other time shed heard him bark like that had been Her brain froze,

mid-thought, because at that moment, she saw him. Ryker Valentine, pressed against her house, Rex sitting a few feet away. He raised a hand, and Rex growled. Any chance you might be willing to call him off? Ryker asked, his voice high and strangled. Depends on what you want, she said, struggling to keep her voice even while her heart leaped unsteadily in her throat. I cashed the check two weeks ago. You cant have the money back. Im not here about money. I needed to see you. Alix studied him. He didnt look as dapper as usual. His hair actually looked as though it hadnt been washed for a couple of days, and he wore an old pair of

jeans that could have belonged to any of the residents of Desmond, Oregon. Which was to say they hardly looked right on Ryker Valentine. You look terrible. Emilio had a stroke a week ago. I havent been home much since. These are Anthonys clothes. Oh no, she said, one hand coming to rest on her chest. Is he okay? Hes making an incredible recovery. He was lucky. Maria found him right after it happened. I see. She snapped her fingers at Rex. Leave. He trotted obediently to her side, looked up at her, and whined. So? She forced an expression of nonchalance. Any particular reason you

decided to stop by? Other than to tell me about Emilio? You wouldnt return my calls, he said. I figured if it was important, youd leave a message. She turned her back on Ryker and started toward the house. As she did, she pulled the contract from her pocket. She needed a pen. Now. Before the mere presence of this man brought her newfound cynicism tumbling to the ground. Her insides were already turning to warm, molten honey, and a buzz had begun between her ears that was making it difficult to think. He took your heart and stomped on it, she reminded herself. Wait, he said, grabbing her

shoulder. Please. Ive been doing a lot of apologizing lately, and Im getting pretty good at it, but this may take a minute. I need to sign this contract. Resolutely, she shook off his hand and practically ran to the front door. She gave it a hard slam with her shoulder and stumbled when the door fell open. Ryker followed a few feet behind. Rexs nails clicked on the wood floor as Alix searched for a pen. She found pencils, markers, even chalk, but no pen. Whats the hurry? Ryker asked. Cant you do that later? She glared at him as she headed for the bedroom. There was a pen tucked inside her journal. She could use that. No, I cant. He squeezed in front of her and

blocked the hallway with his annoyingly broad chest. Alix, slow down. I really need to say this. Im not sure why I should care what you need. She wanted to push him out of the way but didnt trust herself to come in contact with his flesh. She raised a hand toward him, and he grabbed her wrist. She tugged on it, but he didnt release his hold. Rex growled in warning. Ryker glared at him and released her hand. Look, dog, this isnt easy, okay? You scare the crap out of me. But Im not leaving until I say my piece. So either rip out my throat now or leave me alone. Alix gaped at his words. Shed never suspected Ryker was scared of dogs. Lie down, she said to Rex. She turned back

to Ryker. So what did you want to say? You were right, okay? he shot out. Everything you said was right. Emilio and my sisters, the way I was pushing away my family. It was all true. I didnt figure it out until I got to the hospital and realized that if I wasnt careful, Emilio would die just like my mother, and hed never know how much he meant to me. Alix struggled to maintain a level of calm. Thats good. Im glad to hear that. Now, can you please leave? She held up the contract. I have something I need to do. Whats that for, anyway? He grabbed the contract from her hand and flipped through its contents. You finished the book? Good for you. That

must have felt great. Can I see it? It did feel great, and no, you cannot. He reached out and took her hand. I was wrong about other things too. She trembled and tried to pull away. Please dont. You scared the hell out of me. He refused to release her, reaching out and putting the other around her waist. I panicked. I said horrible things to you. Things that werent true. She shook her head. Im not listening. I just need a pen. Please, let me get the pen. I have no idea why youre so determined to sign that contract, but I have a feeling I shouldnt let you. Look, I needed a dose of reality, and

you gave it to me. Now Im free to go out and screw anyone I want, and Ill know better than to think theres anything more to it. Does that make you happy? No! He hauled her against him. Youll touch another man over my dead body. She froze, the first tiny fingers of hope shooting through her. Her breasts flattened against his chest, nipples instantly tingling at the feeling of his body next to hers, the cold metal of his belt buckle pressing into her stomach. Thats hardly fair. How am I going to satisfy my urges? Im just an animal, right? He lowered his head, staring into her eyes as he did. That was one of the stupidest things Ive ever said. And you

arent having sex again with anyone but me. She closed her eyes. Her knees trembled. Youre a cruel man, she whispered. I was moving on. Getting my life back on track. Why did you have to come? He tipped up her chin. Alix, you said something special happened that night. You said you fell in love with me, and we were joined together. You said we were one. Do you still believe that? She shook her head. That was nonsense. I didnt know what I was saying. He smiled and ran his thumb over her lips. If I believed that, I would have to give up my life right now. Because you were right. We were one. It was magical.

Ive never felt that way before. About anyone. Her heart began to pound in earnest, the thumping so loud she could barely hear or think. But you saidyou dont really He kissed her gently. I love you, Daisy Zahn, and I love you, Alix Z. I love all the people you are and everything you believe in. I love that you came out of darkness and always believed in light. I love that you refuse to give in to cynicism. I love your passion and your innocence. Please tell me I didnt crush your love that day. Please. Hardly daring to speak, she threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in his chest. Dont lie to me, she said, her voice lost in the folds of his coat. I

cant take any more lies. Look at me, Alix. His voice rumbled deep in his chest. She swallowed hard. I dont think I can. He rested his cheek against the top of her head for a moment, then backed away. Solemnly, he slid his arm under her knees and picked her up. This is much easier in the movies, he said. Quick, wheres the bedroom? She tucked her head into his chest and pointed behind him. He spun around and found her bed, covers tangled at the base. He set her down gently and began to remove her shoes. What are you doing? she asked. It worked for Jake, he said. Maybe

it will work for me. She watched him slide her shoes and socks from her feet. She couldnt think about what was happening. His words tangled in her mind even as his fingers sent her pulse racing. He rubbed the arch of her foot and caressed the delicate skin of her ankle before moving higher, to the waistband of her pants. These jeans, he said solemnly as he unzipped and eased them down her legs, are the ugliest things I have ever seen. Alix shivered as he kissed the back of her knee. Isnt the woman supposed to be the one giving fashion lessons? Not when the woman puts together outfits like this. She sighed happily and relaxed under his ministrations. You are a bit of a

fashion plate, you know. He threw her pants down on the floor and nibbled on the soft skin of her stomach. I am an artist, he proclaimed. She laughed, the sound catching in her throat when he looped his fingers under the edge of her panties and swept them to the ground. In more ways than one. He pulled her T-shirt over her head, trailing a long line of kisses down her throat as he did. The thin cotton garment sailed across the room. As usual when she was at the beach, she wasnt wearing a bra, and her breasts spilled forward to be cupped in his palms. Her nipples ached for his touch, and when he released her to lean back and remove his own clothes, she moaned and arched toward him with

need. So impatient, he murmured, tracing the edge of her areola with one finger. I still cant believe you did without for so long. I was waiting for you, she said. A soft ocean breeze swirled around the room through an open window, and the smell of salt and warm sand surrounded them. When his body was exposed to her, she sat up and ran her fingers down his abdomen, following with her mouth along the hard ridges of his muscles. His penis jutted toward her, and she lowered her mouth to it, gently kissing the tip and licking the bead of moisture that formed there. He pushed her back against the pillows, taking her nipple in his mouth

and teasing it until her head thrashed from side to side. A tiny frisson of nervousness tickled the edges of her consciousness when he covered her with his body, the hard length of him pressing at the juncture of her thighs. He seemed to know the moment she tensed, and he stopped, his body hovering over hers. Are you ready? She nodded and opened her body to him. Eyes fixed on hers, he entered, slowly filling her, leaving no room for doubt or question. When they were fully joined, bodies so intimately meshed she didnt know where he stopped and she began, he took her face between his hands. Can you feel how much I love you?

he asked, his dark brown gaze searching, demanding. I can, she whispered, tears forming in the back of her throat. And is it possible you love me too? After all Ive put you through? She nodded, choked with emotion, unable to speak the words. Tell me, sweetheart, he said, beginning to move inside her. She relaxed into him, meeting his thrusts with her hips in a lazy rhythm. Yes, she breathed. Yes. Yes, what? Yes, I love you! He smiled with satisfaction. Will you marry me? A wave of joy caught the breath in her throat. She was spiraling toward her

peak, and he moved expertly over her, grinding their bodies together until she shuddered with pleasure. I will, she whispered. He moved faster, thrust deeper, and she urged him on with her body and her hands, pressing against his buttocks as if she could bring him closer to her core. Then she felt his shoulders tense under her fingers, and he locked his arms around her. Come with me, darling, he said, eyes boring into hers, body moving ever faster. Yes! she cried as he brought her to the edge of her peak and then beyond. She gave him everything in that moment her heart, her life, her very soul. And when she looked into his eyes, she knew

he had done the same, and somewhere a camera snapped, and the picture was sealed forever in her heart. It was love, and it was beautiful.

Chapter Thirty The tiny Florence, Oregon bookstore overflowed with people. The doors had been propped open to allow the crowds to form on the sidewalk outside. A microphone had been set up in the small caf at the back of the store. A group of women sat in a semicircle around it, many with pads and pens, ready to take notes. Alix took her place at the front and cleared her throat. It was hard to believe, after all this time, that the day had finally come. Thanks so much, everyone, for coming to celebrate the release of The Look of Love. As many of you know, I used to live in Desmond, and I still spend as much time as I can there when Im not working in Los Angeles. Ive lived a lot of

places, but Oregon will always be my home, and there was nowhere else I could imagine celebrating this launch. The audience applauded, and a smile broke across Alixs face. She hadnt expected how fun this would be. Im really proud of The Look of Love, she continued, and I hope youll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed making it. Now, Im happy to answer any questions you have, and then Ill be signing copies for purchase. Lets see it, someone called from the back of the store. There was another round of enthusiastic clapping. Alix held up the enormous book. It was so heavy she could hold it over her head for only a minute before setting it back down on the

podium in front of her. Her nameDaisy Alexandra Zahnsprawled in large letters across the front. Is that you and Ryker on the cover? a woman asked. Alix grimaced. Yes. But that wasnt my idea, I promise. Ryker insisted. Im still a bit camera shy, but he loved the idea of having us in the book. I used our photo shoot for the final chapter. Our pictures are a bit moreerdiscreet than some of the other chapters, but I was really pleased with the way they turned out. A heavyset woman in the second row raised her hand. How did you get the idea for the book? Now thats an easy one. I always believed in true love, and I wanted to find

a way to show peopleespecially all those skeptics out therejust how real it is. I must admit, I had some trouble finishing the book, but once I knew who would be in the final chapter, things sort of fell into place. There were a few whistles and appreciative laughter. Alix grinned. What are you working on now? Ryker and I are busy with our next film. I cant tell you much about it yet, but you can expect plenty of action and plenty of passion. Will there be a Look of Love II? Not exactly that, but Im already starting to take pictures for my next collection of photos. I think this one will be about family. She answered questions for half an

hour and then signed books until they sold out a short time later. Though small talk and socializing didnt come easy for Alix, being in a crowded room full of people who loved her work was surprisingly exhilaratingand humbling. After the crowd filtered out, Alix thanked the bookstore owner and drove back to her cottage on the beach. Rex greeted the car as she turned down the long driveway, barking and jumping at her like a puppy. Then he bounded away to stand beside the tall, lean figure sitting on the sagging front porch. Rexs stub of a tail knocked against the aging wood as he craned his head around for petting. Alix slammed the door of her old pickup and pushed her sunglasses up. She

threw herself into the waiting arms of her husband, exulting in the familiar thrill she still felt every time he caught her in a tight embrace. How did it go? he asked, pulling back just far enough to study her face. Great, she beamed. We sold out. I guess well have to get more books next time. I told you so. He kissed the tip of her nose. Did they ask any tough questions? Nope. I mean, other than, Why isnt your husband here? I didnt have a good answer for that one, she said pertly. He sobered. Im sorry. I just thought it was your day in the sun. I didnt want to muck it up by bringing out a bunch of Hollywood types.

Alix smiled and then wiggled out of his embrace. I know. Im kidding. I appreciate the sentiment, but next time, youre coming with me. After all, you dragged me on stage when you won the Oscar. In that dress, nonetheless. That was different. You earned that. And you looked hot in that dress. She snorted. Lets go for a walk. She grabbed a tennis ball from a stack by the porch and clapped her hands for Rex. He bounded to her side and then looked back at Ryker, cocking his head as if to say, well, are you ready yet? They started down the dune toward the hard-packed sand at the waters edge. Alix threw the ball, and Rex raced after it, then almost immediately lost interest and bounded back toward them.

Ryker shook his head. That dog is a lousy retriever. I dont know why you bother. He enjoys chasing it. Alix ran to get the ball and then returned to Rykers side before throwing it back toward the dunes. Rex ran after it for a few yards. Well pick it up on the way back, Alix said. They walked in comfortable silence. Rykers hand was warm and strong around hers. Im proud of you, Ryker said unexpectedly. Proud of me? For what? For getting out there. For talking about your book. She didnt respond but squeezed his hand in thanks. Did Rosa call? She

should have gotten her copy by now. Ryker chuckled. I could hear her blush over the phone. But she said it was beautifuland I think she really meant it. Now we just have to keep Hector and Eduardo from getting their hands on it. Maybe it will be good for them. A look at true love never hurt anyone. The sky at the edge of the horizon sparkled with the slanted rays of early evening. Alix slid her sunglasses over her eyes. Im never going to get you to throw those things away, am I? Ryker asked. Nope. Love me, love my glasses. He stopped and dragged her into his arms. First the dog, and now the glasses? Yep.

He sighed, eyes twinkling. I suppose youre worth it. Suppose? She frowned and stamped her foot on the sand. Im pretty sure. Pretty sure? she squealed. They are truly atrocious glasses, he said thoughtfully. Hmph. She stuck out her tongue at him. Ryker laughed. Daisy Alexandra Zahn, my wife, my heart, my love, I adore you and everything about you. I love your dog, I love your jeans, and yes, I even love your horrible sunglasses. Alix leaned forward and kissed him lightly, feeling safe, secure, and utterly content in his arms. Youre a good man, Ryker Valentine.

And youre one hell of a woman.

About the Author Inara Scott grew up on a steady diet of romance and happily ever after. Her first novel, penned at the age of 14, was titled A Wild and Stormy Passion and featured a sword-wielding pirate heroine. Today, Inara writes anything and everything, including young adult fiction and adult romance. Rumors of her secret life as a university professor, writing about energy law and economics, also circulate. She does frequent school visits and enjoys teaching writing to students of all ages. Inara loves to hear from readers. You can contact her via her website, at, or find her on

Facebook ( or on Twitter (@inarascott).