“What are you doing here?”
Nicole Collins pitched her voice low in the elegant hotel restaurant. Still, she managed to interrupt the introductions between her literary agent, Denise Maitland, and the two men who stood in front of their table.
Malcolm Bryant turned toward her, a wariness in his cocoa eyes. His chiseled brown face hadn't changed much in the past four years. Perhaps it was even more appealing now, as was his six-foot-plus frame. No,
was the wrong word. The writer in her searched her mental thesaurus for something more appropriate.
she decided. He was more compelling and more confident. A self-assured stranger in a tailored, dark blue suit.
“I co-own the company that optioned for the movie rights to your book.” His deep-sea voice washed over her. It still had the power to sweep her away.
“You own the production company?” She spoke through numb lips.
“Co-own.” He inclined his head toward the tall, well-dressed man beside him. “This is my partner, Tyrone Austin.”
Nicole glanced at the smiling stranger before returning her attention to the man in front of her, and the memories of broken vows and tragic loss. She folded her hands in her lap, hoping that would stop their shaking.
“Nicky, what's wrong?” Denise asked.
She turned toward her agent. “Did you know he owned the company?”
“Of course.” Denise regarded her with a confused expression on her dark, round face. “Does it matter?”
“It matters.” If she had known Malcolm was Celestial Productions, she wouldn't be here.
Nicole scanned the room. Couples and groups of friends enjoyed lunch and quiet conversation. Now and then, bubbles of laughter floated across the silence, then faded away. He had brought her here. Paid for her to fly first class across the country to Los Angeles, back to his territory. Reserved a suite for her in a luxury hotel. Invited her to a business lunch in the hotel's four-star restaurant. And then, once she was lulled into a false sense of security, he'd changed her dream to a nightmare by reappearingâand bringing the painful past with him.
Nicole returned her attention to him as she stood. His gaze tracked her, and his firm lips stopped moving. She hadn't heard a word he'd said.
“I can't do this,” she stated.
“What?” Denise half-rose from her chair.
Nicole picked up her purse and walked out of the dining room. She squared her shoulders, tilted her chin, and kept her vision straight ahead. She couldn't do anything about her shaking knees, though. She'd lost her temperâand probably her agent. She hated herself for running away from Malcolm. But she'd hate herself more if she stayed and did something stupid, like burst into tears.
A crowd waited in front of the elevators. The doors opened as Nicole approached. She stepped on and noticed someone had selected her floor. The crowd thinned as the elevator rose, seeming to stop at every floor. Nicole stood, outwardly calm in the center of the packed car, but inside turbulent emotions filled her. Anger. Sorrow. Regret.
Finally reaching her floor, Nicole and several other passengers disembarked and separated in the hallway. She located her room and pulled her key card from her purse. She started to slip it into the security lock when a dark hand grasped her wrist, the long fingers warm against her pulse.
“We have to talk,” he murmured.
Malcolm Bryant felt the pulse jump in Nicole's delicate wrist as he leaned over her, his chest against her slender back. He could feel her warmth as he breathed her soft fragranceâa mixture of the soap she used and her natural scent that still stirred him, even in his dreams.
“We have to talk,” he repeated.
An older couple stepped from the room across the hall. Malcolm caught their curious stare before they moved along.
“We can stay out here if you want,” he murmured into the shell of Nicole's ear. “But we'll probably attract a lot of attention. Personally, I'd prefer to talk in your room. Either way, we will talk.”
“Fine.” She pulled free of him and pushed open the door. “We'll talk in the room.”
Nicole crossed the thick, turquoise carpet, walking past the dining section and small living area to the sliding glass doors on the opposite side of the suite. She tossed her purse on the mahogany conversation table between two matching overstuffed chairs, folded her arms across her chest, and turned to face him.
She was backlit by the window, which offered a glimpse of the sun straining to penetrate the Los Angeles skyline. The cream-colored pantsuit flowed over her, masking her figure. But he could tell from her face that she was a lot more slender, almost fragile. Her thick, nearly black hair was longer and was gathered in a clip at the nape of her neck. Small stud earrings were her only accessory. The conservative, polished businesswoman before him was very different from the free spirit he had known four years ago.
The scene is set,
Malcolm thought, strolling into the living area. He shoved his hands into his trouser pockets, biting back the urge to ask how she'd been the past four years.
he told himself.
Stick to business.
Emotions always got him into trouble.
“Celestial Productions offered a fair market price for the movie rights to
And we've agreed to your other terms,” he began.
“You misrepresented your company, Malcolm. You knew I wouldn't have anything to do with Celestial Productions if I knew you owned it. Can you deny that?” she prompted when he didn't speak.
“No.” He watched resentment darken her catlike eyes. She lowered her arms and balled her hands into fists. Even from across the room, he could feel her vibrating with anger.
“You were probably disappointed when I insisted on meeting Celestial Productions's principals.” Her smooth inflection barely masked the throb of fury in her voice.
“No, I wasn't.” Malcolm kept his tone reasonable. “If I'd wanted to keep my identity a secret from you, I could have. I didn't have to come to lunch today.”
“Then how would your partner have explained your absence?”
“We would have thought of something. The point is, I never hid from you. When your agent asked for information about our company, we gave her everything. You must not have asked to see it. My name was all over those papers.”
Malcolm saw the flicker of doubt in Nicole's eyes before she lowered her gaze.
“After you walked out on me, I never thought you would willingly come anywhere near me again,” she said. “But Denise told me Celestial Productions approached her.”
Malcolm pushed away the guilt her words evoked, reminding himself he wasn't the only one to blame for their relationship failing.
“Nicky, you pushed me away. Afterâ”
“Don't.” She held up a slim hand, pain clouding her ebony eyes. “I don't want to talk about it, Malcolm.”
He dropped his gaze to hide his own pain. “Fair enough.”
Business. Stick to business.
“Ty and I are very excited about the idea of owning the movie rights to
We enjoy science fiction, and we'd do a good job with your book.”
Nicole turned toward the window. “And you'd give me everything I asked for. Allow me final approval on the screenplay and input on the shooting locations, the cast, and the final cut.”
“Yes.” Malcolm frowned at the tightness of her tone.
“Tempting.” Nicole turned back to him. “But deals with the devil usually are.”
Malcolm felt his nostrils flare. Heat rushed into his cheeks. “You've gone too far. I understand this is a shock to you. I had time to get used to the idea of seeing you again. You didn't have time to get used to seeing me. But there's no reason for personal attacks.”
“There's every reason.” Nicole seemed to gather herself. Her deep breaths lifted her chest beneath the loose-fitting jacket. “Does Denise know about us?”
“Of course not. That's personal. This is business.”
She looked troubled. “Malcolm, I can't do business with you. There are too many ... difficult memories behind us.”
“Please leave.” Her tone emerged between a plea and a command.
Malcolm started to speak, then reconsidered. She was too agitated to continue this discussion. A discussion that hadn't started well and had deteriorated badly. His gaze lowered to watch her hand press against her abdomen. He flinched, and her hand dropped away.
“You're right.” His voice sounded rough to his ears. “We both need some space. We'll talk more tomorrow.”
“No, we won't. I'm getting a flight back to New York tonight.”
He frowned. “Nickyâ”
She shook her head, her voice resigned. “Good-bye, Malcolm.”
He looked into her shuttered eyes. She'd closed him out as firmly as if she'd locked a door against him. Pleading with her wouldn't remove the barrier; beating against it wouldn't make it go away. He'd tried those tactics unsuccessfully more than four years ago.
He studied her, this remote, composed woman, and wondered with regret how deep she'd buried the Nicole Collins he'd known. And how much of her demise was his fault. A part of her must still be alive, though, Malcolm thought. The part that had created the fantasy world of the
series with its warm, close-knit family. That was the Nicole he needed to reach. But, he realized, looking into her eyes again, not today. She wouldn't listen to him today. Without a word, Malcolm turned and walked out, shutting the door behind him.
Nicole was shaking so much, she couldn't convince her legs to carry her to the overstuffed chairs. Instead she sank onto the carpet.
Her mind stayed blank for several minutes before clicking back on. But the memories weren't happy ones. She pressed a damp palm to her stomach. Years ago, their lives had been perfect. But then the foundation had crumbled, and she and Malcolm hadn't been able to regain their footing. At least not together.
An impatient fist pounded on her door. Nicole closed her eyes.
Please let it not be Malcolm.
They had nothing more to say to each other.
“Nicky, open up,” Denise commanded. “I know you're in there.”
Could we try curtain number three?
Still, Denise was her agent and her friend. She knew the other woman deserved an explanation for her seemingly bizarre behavior. After all, Denise had worked hard to put this deal together for herâat her request. Nicole scrubbed her palms over her face, then pushed herself to her feet and walked across the room on still-wobbly legs. She checked the peephole to make sure her agent was alone, then let her in.
Denise marched across the plush carpet in three-inch, fire-engine-red stilettos. A form-fitting, scarlet dress wrapped her curvaceous figure. She stopped in front of the glass doors and spun back toward Nicole.
“What's the problem? Why did you call off the deal? Do you know how long and hard I worked to pull this off?”
“So this is about you?” Nicole knew from past experience that putting Denise on the defensive was the fastest way to calm her so they could discuss things reasonably.
“You know this isn't about me.” Denise frowned, pointing one cherry-red fingernail in Nicole's direction. “But after all the time and energy I put into this deal, I deserve to know why you pulled out of it.”
“Because I knew I wouldn't be able to work with the producers.”
“How did you know that?” Denise's voice hovered less than one pitch below exasperation. “You hadn't even met them.”
Nicole wandered into the living area and sat on the armchair facing the window. Denise was right, Nicole thought. Her agent deserved to know why she had walked away from Celestial Productions's offer. Nicole wondered how much she could tell Denise without revealing the painful details. What would her friend accept?
“You knew Malcolm,” Denise accused. “You've met him before. When?”
Nicole sighed. “I met him in college.”
“And, Denise, the rest is private.”
Denise studied her with a shrewd, dark gaze. Nicole hated that look. It made her feel as though her friend could reach into every dark corner of her mind and find out what she'd had for breakfast, how many hours of sleep she'd had, and the date of her last confession.
“So, this is personal?” Denise's understanding tone put Nicole on instant alert.