As far as escorts to a fantasy getaway went, he was perfect. Brawny, well-dressed, quick to smile—and to lend a hand into the evening’s limo. At his first touch, Meredith Madison knew she was going to enjoy herself with him.
Mostly because he had no idea who she really was.
That was exactly the way she liked it. The hunk who’d arrived to pick her up just a few minutes earlier had never seen her before. After tonight, he’d never see her again. The realization felt unexpectedly liberating.
She could do this. Swapping places with her glamorous sister Marley wouldn’t be easy, but she could do it. No one would be the wiser.
Feeling more sure of herself, Meredith smiled. In the sleek black stretch of leather, steel, and chrome she and the hunk shared, she watched him lower his broad frame onto the seat across from her.
The natural athletic grace of his movements intrigued her. So did his hands—big, square-fingered, and wholly masculine, they were made for fixing things. For laying out maps of conquest. For caressing the small of a woman’s back while escorting her into a room, or cradling her cheek while kissing her.
Not that she needed to be fixed. Or conquered, Meredith told herself as she swung her feet onto the limo’s cushy upholstery in her favorite casual pose. She’d never allow anyone to tell her what to do. But this adventure included an escort. If he wanted to kiss her later, who was she to argue? After all, the invitation had promised her “the fantasy of a lifetime.” That’s what she was here to claim.
The limo driver closed the door with an expensively subdued thunk, then stowed her borrowed overnight case in the trunk. In the interest of being prepared, Meredith had brought a change of clothes and some toiletries. The fact that the driver hadn’t even blinked when she’d handed over the case had only confirmed her suspicions.
The invitation she’d co-opted from Marley must have been for a comped stay at a new luxury resort, just as she’d thought. Her twin sister had enjoyed countless such perks from various places, all hoping she’d lend her famous starlet charisma to their let-us-pamper-you atmospheres.
If she didn’t like it, Meredith reasoned, she’d simply cut her stay short. If the place turned out to be as showy and pretentious as the luxe Hollywood bungalow she’d been house-sitting for Marley for the past few days, she’d bail out and spend the weekend fighting for a place to stow her ratty old sneakers in Marley’s sequin-spangled closet.
The overall gorgeousness of the man who’d arrived to take her to the resort boded well, though. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, and possessed of a manner undoubtedly meant to put skittish guests at ease, he gave Meredith a distinct sense of being in capable hands. Warmed by his influence, she relaxed.
So what if she wasn’t a star actress like her sister? Meredith thought defiantly, hugging her knees. She deserved a little downtime, too. She’d spent the whole day at the museum, cataloguing pop culture reference materials—the dustiest, most thankless part of her job as an advertising historian. Now it was time to cut loose.
As if in accord with her thoughts, the limousine accelerated along the drive and left the house behind. It began the winding descent through the Hollywood Hills toward the L.A. basin, bearing her toward her mysterious destination like a modern-day Cinderella’s pumpkin-turned-limo. Sure, she didn’t have a fairy godmother, and Meredith was more likely to wear Tevas than glass slippers. But the analogy felt apt, all the same.
Through the tinted windows, flashes of vibrant summer sunset came and went. So did Meredith’s bravado. She couldn’t help it. Kidnapping someone else’s identity—even temporarily, and just for the fun of it—wasn’t an everyday occurrence for her.
Her escort turned his attention to her again. “Sure you’re ready for this?”
“Of course. I was born ready.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear it.” He clasped his hands loosely between his spread knees, the gesture both confident and relaxed. He nodded toward her arms-locked-on-knees pose. “Because you look a little uneasy. For a minute there, I thought you’d changed your mind.”
Great. He was handsome and observant. If he guessed somehow that she wasn’t really who she’d claimed to be...
“Me? No!” She unclasped her knees, realizing for the first time exactly how tightly she’d been hugging them. Maybe she was more nervous than she wanted to admit. Deliberately, she sprawled sideways on the limo seat and gave him a provocative look. “I’m yours for the night, Prince Charming.”
“Tony,” he reminded her. “Tony Valentine.”
Tony Valentine. That’s right. He’d told her that when he’d arrived.
Disappointment stole over her. She didn’t want to be reminded of who he really was—a man with an identity, a past, and a job to do. In her mind, “Prince Charming” worked perfectly well as a nickname. It synced up nicely with her Cinderella fantasy. So did the even more appropriate “Hottie.” Both monikers kept her macho escort at arm’s length, a distance Meredith needed. For tonight, she truly wanted to feel like Cinderella—a naughty, punk-historian Cinderella, removed from her ordinary life for as long as the fun lasted.
But apparently, Tony wasn’t the kind of man who would let himself be generalized. Probably, he saw himself as a unique version of super-stud escort, and liked to be treated as such. She wondered how he saw her. Unlike her absentee twin sister, she wasn’t exactly—
No. Making comparisons was not what she needed.
“Okay. Tony it is. We might as well get started,” Meredith announced instead. She swung her feet from the seat and faced him. In the confined, vaguely rocking limousine space, their knees nearly touched. “What happens next, exactly? I’m new at this.”
For a moment, he only continued to watch her. Thoughtfully. His gaze hadn’t left her since he’d sat down, she realized then. The whole time she’d been classifying his attributes like the trained academic she was, he’d undoubtedly been studying her, as well. The man was good. Not to mention uncomfortably observant.
“You thought this was for just one night?” he asked.
“Okay. I’m yours for...as long as it takes!” Meredith returned gamely. Never let it be said she wasn’t up for adventure. “Now that I’ve met you, I feel much better about this whole idea.”
That seemed to please him. He delivered her a devastating smile, one that actually made her heart pound a little faster. Placing her hand automatically over her chest, Meredith smiled back. This man was even more charming than she’d thought. His interest in her felt remarkably genuine.
Wherever this resort was, she had to recommend it to her friends. So far, just riding in the limo with this guy offered more excitement than her Friday nights usually delivered.
“That’s good,” he said, nodding. “I do want you to be comfortable. You’re our star attraction, after all.”
“I feel like a star attraction.”
“And you look—”
He broke off, his dark-eyed gaze darting to her feet. It skimmed over her flip-flops, traveled along the comfy, utilitarian-pocketed length of her khaki cargo pants, snagged on her T-shirt and the L.A. museum sweatshirt tied around her hips. Finally, it wound up on her Dodgers baseball cap. A smile quirked his lips.
Inwardly, Meredith cringed, half-expecting the inevitable comparison.
“Great,” he finished, seeming to mean it. “Really comfortable.”
She shrugged. “All of my ball gowns chafe.”
“Ahhh. I see.” His smile widened. “I have the same problem with my tuxedos. They rub my sense of machismo raw.”
“Hmmm.” She pretended to consider it, letting her attention roam upward from his large, leather-clad feet to his L.A.-casual pants and knit shirt. Both were dark and well-fitted. “Your machismo seems to be limping along okay to me.”
“Maybe.” He offered her a good-natured grin, leaning closer as though confiding in her. “But you haven’t seen the Victoria’s Secret number I’ve got on underneath this.”
Meredith froze. Was he...serious? She’d been on dates with some unlikely candidates before, but this—she’d thought—was different. Oh, God.
“Kidding.” Tony grabbed a fistful of knit and lifted his shirt neck-high. The motion revealed a tantalizing flash of taut abs, muscular chest, and a smattering of dark hair. Too quickly, he covered himself again. “Sheesh, you’re easy.”
“Easy? You haven’t proved a thing,” she shot back, raising her eyebrow. “For all I know, you’re wearing a thong.”
“For all I know, you are.”
“Maybe you’ll find out,” Meredith purred. “Later.”
“That sounds like a challenge.” He paused, regarding her with blatant masculine interest. “I enjoy a challenge.”
“Most men do.”
He shook his head. “Not like I do. Otherwise, I’d never have taken on this job in the first place.”
Something rueful flashed in his eyes. Meredith wondered at it. Ordinarily, she loved her own job. But she couldn’t imagine having one like his. Being an escort to spoiled actresses and other Hollywood types couldn’t be easy.
“It’s not so bad, though.” Releasing a pent-up breath, he finger-combed the wavy brown hair away from his forehead. He scanned the bulging manila file folders, cell phone, pager, and sunglasses arrayed haphazardly on the limo seat next to him, then brightened. “I’d been warned you might not even show up.”
“I’m glad I did.”
“Me, too. The night’s looking up.”
Something about him appealed to her—something beyond his remarkable good looks. His cockeyed point of view? His easy laughter? His teasing ways? Meredith wasn’t sure what it was...but she was sure she wanted to make the most of her time with him. Now that Tony had accepted her as Marley, the liberating effects of being incognito were kicking in. He thought she was someone else—which left Meredith free to be as wild as she dared.
After all, nobody would ever know what she did tonight. Nobody...except her and the hard bodied hunk seated across from her.
He took out a clipboard. Poised a pen over the sheet of paper fastened to it. Fixed her with a businesslike look.
“Humor me with some preliminary feedback,” Tony said, rubbing his thumb up and down his pen. “What do you think of the experience so far?”
Reluctantly, Meredith lifted her gaze. She’d never before longed to morph into six inches of plastic and ink. But watching Tony stroke his pen, so slowly, so provocatively... Criminy! What was she, some kind of ballpoint fetishist?
“It’s very...stimulating,” she said.
He didn’t so much as quirk an eyebrow. He scrawled stimulating on the paper. “The limo pickup is meant to set the correct mood for the experience to come. Do you like it?”
“The mood?” Sexy, flirty... “Absolutely.”
Tony scratched a check mark into the designated box. Meredith leaned over, squinting at the remaining questions. A dispiriting number of them filled the page.
“Aren’t opinion surveys usually reserved for after a guest’s stay?” she asked.
“Ordinarily. But you’re not just any guest.” He checked his watch. “I’ll want your opinion on the arrival process, too. We ought to be there in fifteen minutes.”
So soon? Impatiently, Meredith frowned at the clipboard. Her whole life was ruled by clipboarded lists, museum pieces to be archived, and the other demands of her job. Tonight, she intended to break free.
Still concentrating on his list, Tony glanced up. “Our guests are meant to experience ‘the fantasy of a lifetime,’” he said. “Are we off to a good start on that?”
The fantasy of a lifetime. His words echoed the invitation she’d snagged. They also served as the best opening she’d had since stepping into the limo with him. Meredith seized it.
Tony frowned. “No?”
“No.” In as fluid a movement as her cargo pants and hip-tied sweatshirt allowed, she slid onto the limo seat beside him, into the space unoccupied by papers and gadgets. His body heat touched her. His presence enveloped her, even more strongly than it had before. She drew in a deep breath. “So far, there’s too much talking. Not enough touching.”
His eyes widened.
Thrilled with her own audacity, Meredith put her hand on his knee. “You know...touching. Like this.”
His leg tensed, muscular and strong beneath her palm. She would enjoy that strength if things went well between them, Meredith mused. Maybe she’d invite Tony to dinner at the resort. See what developed. Canoodling with a hottie like him would sure as heck beat lounging poolside.
He nodded, staring transfixed at her hand on his knee. “I know touching,” he agreed.
His voice sounded deep. Undeniably sexy. As sexy as Meredith felt while undercover as her glamorous twin. She’d never been timid. In fact, she prided herself on being upfront. Unconventional. Occasionally rebellious. But this...only giddy momentum could have carried her through it.
“Touching, touching...” Tony pretended to scan his clipboard, then raised it with a manly shrug and a teasing grin. “Nope. That’s not covered on the opinion survey.”
“To hell with the opinion survey.” Meredith seized it. She tossed it onto her just-vacated limo seat. “I don’t need prompting. I’m perfectly capable of telling you what I think.”
His look of interest returned. “I like a woman who speaks her mind.”
“I like a man who recognizes a come-on when he sees one.”
“Are you suggesting I don’t?”
She squeezed his knee. “Let’s put it this way...I’m not evaluating the flexibility of your anterior cruciate ligament, here.”
Tony raised his eyebrows.
“My favorite tight end nearly missed the playoffs last year because of a torn ACL.”
That stopped him. “You’re a football fan?”
Whoops. Her sister Marley didn’t know a quarterback from a Quarter Pounder. Scrambling to cover, Meredith shrugged. “I learn all kinds of things researching roles. Acting is my life’s work, you know. I take it seriously.”
Tony stilled. One moment, he was right there with her, enjoying the banter between them. The next...whoosh. He was gone. What had she said?
“I take my work seriously, too.” He eyed the clipboard, preparing to reach for it. “There’s a lot at stake, here.”
Damn. She’d gone and reminded him of work. There went her first opportunity to be TV-starlet wild. Unwilling to quit so easily, Meredith lunged sideways, intercepting his grab for the survey.
Tony’s chest met her shoulder; his arm brushed hers, almost cradling her from behind as they both reached across the limo. They were as close to indulging in vertical “spooning” as possible while still sitting side by side, Meredith realized. But his arm was much longer than hers. He could still reach the clipboard, even though she couldn’t.
He didn’t, though. Instead, Tony paused. He looked at her, then smiled. The space between them grew taut with expectation.
She canted her head toward the clipboard. “Write down an A-plus for everything,” she suggested, giving him a saucy look. “I’m wildly optimistic.”
His gaze dropped to her lips. Poised with his arm still outstretched, Tony slowly brought his hand up to her face. He skimmed his fingertips along her cheek. His touch felt every bit as sure and pleasurable as she’d imagined it would. Purposefully, he lowered his head.
“You have reason to be optimistic,” he assured her.
A kiss felt inevitable. Waiting, Meredith held her breath. Crazy as it was, she wanted this. Wanted him. Yes, yes...
Into the silence, intercom static crackled. “Five minutes, Mr. V.,” the driver announced.
Meredith started. Tony blinked. The spell between them scattered. He grabbed his clipboard in one swift motion, then shoved it amid the rest of his belongings. “That warning’s for you. I thought you might want to get ready for your entrance.”
Puzzled—and yes, okay, disappointed—Meredith stared down at herself. She gestured toward her casual clothes. “Do I look like I’m into making an entrance?”
His perplexed expression matched hers. “You did last month at the premiere of that new Jennifer Lopez movie.”
Arrgh. Another forehead-smacking moment. She was supposed to be Marley. She had to remember that.
“I decided to go for the celebrity-caught-by-surprise look,” she ad-libbed. “You know, like in paparazzi shots.”
“How appropriate.” Wearing the expression of a man with a private secret, Tony tugged the brim of her baseball cap. Then he gestured toward her cargo pants, T-shirt, sweatshirt, and flip-flops. “Just so long as all this is gone by tomorrow.”
“Right. Just like me, you have a job to do here. Remember?”
Openmouthed, Meredith stared at him. “A job?”
Tony grinned. He rolled his eyes, as though she really were her famously flighty twin sister. “Never heard the term, Princess? J-O-B. It’s the thing Valentine Studios hired you to do at this shindig. I’ve got the contract right here.”
He reached for the manila folder beside him, leaving Meredith gawping. What did he mean, a job? Why hadn’t Marley warned her about this?
Oh, yeah. Because Marley didn’t know she was here. She didn’t even know Meredith had accepted the invitation on Marley’s behalf. Because she couldn’t know, ever, or Meredith would never live it down.
She summoned her wits—and the original invitation from one of her cargo pant pockets. She waved it toward Tony. “What about this? This isn’t a contract. It doesn’t say anything about a job.”
“That’s a courtesy invitation.” He didn’t even glance up at the heavy cream cardstock, engraved in sensual, bold-faced script, which had enticed her into this whole mess. He rifled through his file folder. “Similar to the ones sent to the registered guests you’ll be responsible for teaching at Valentine Studios’ actor fantasy camp.”
Teaching? “Actor fantasy camp?”
“Yes. Didn’t your people brief you?”
Mutely, she shook her head.
“Figures.” He made a face, his impatience with her supposed entourage plain. “The short version is, actor fantasy camp is like a live-in studio tour. The idea originated with baseball fantasy camp. Only ours is done Hollywood style.”
Okay. Baseball fantasy camp she was familiar with. That, she understood. She’d spent much of her teenaged years watching televised MLB games with her dad while her mom ferried Marley to one audition after another. But the rest...
Efficiently, Tony plucked a glossy tri-fold brochure from the file. He pressed it into Meredith’s grasp. “The Valentine Studios camp is debuting this weekend, featuring our inaugural celebrity attraction: Marley Madison. AKA, you.”
Her? This just got worse and worse. Holding the brochure, Meredith blinked at her sister’s glamorous likeness on the front cover. Set against a background of the usual images—the Hollywood sign, a director’s chair, glittering stars, and a marker slate—the photograph showed Marley at her starlet best: decked out in designer duds, expertly colored blonde hair, and artfully enhanced breasts.
“We have guests booked from all around the country,” Tony continued. “Classes ranging from Diva Dramatics to Tabloid Tattling to Star Schmoozing 101—ahhh, here it is.”
He brandished a contract. Meredith snatched it. After scanning several pages of legalize, she recognized Marley’s loopy signature on the final page.
Apparently, her sister had agreed to a two-week “actor fantasy camp” appearance—and then conveniently forgotten it, probably in the midst of planning her recent wedding. Marley had unknowingly stepped smack into the middle of the whole mess.
She shoved the contract and brochure back. “I can’t do it.”
“Nerves? I expected that.” Tony grabbed something else from his pile of things. He offered it to her. “Here. Breathe into this.”
She stared. “A paper bag?”
“Best thing to cure hyperventilating.”
“Trust me. I am not the type of woman who hyperventilates.”
“You might be.” Grinning, he gave her an exaggeratedly lascivious eyebrow waggle. “Given the right stimulus.”
“Oh, puh-leeze.” She was in enough trouble already.
“So distraction doesn’t work for you, then. Fine. Try the bag.”
“No.” She thrust the brown lunch sack into his hands. “This is ridiculous.”
“It’s effective.” Stuffing away the bag, Tony scrutinized her. “Would it ease your mind if I told you the real reporters and potential investors aren’t arriving until later?”
He looked at her hopefully.
She hated to disappoint him, but...there would be reporters there? Yikes! Marley was going to kill her! Sure, they were twins. But where their lives were concerned, Meredith and Marley couldn’t have been more different. She was not cut out to take her sister’s place—not for an event like this.
“Reporters?” She swallowed hard.
“At least one. From Inside Hollywood magazine. He—or she—will be posing as a guest in order to write one of their ‘Insider’ profiles.” Tony glanced out the window as something flashed overhead—the Valentine Studios gates. “Hell, I’m running this thing, and even I don’t know which journalist has been assigned. It’s a gamble, all right.”
He chuckled, apparently unconcerned. The big galoot.
Trying not to panic, Meredith analyzed the situation. She’d gotten into this. But there was still time to get out. Once Tony knew who she really was, he’d realize he had to change his actor fantasy camp plans.
“Tell the driver to circle the block.” She slapped her hand over the limo’s control panel, looking for the intercom button. “Driver! Go around the block, please.”
Tony removed her finger from the button she’d chosen. He looked amused. “That’s the cigarette lighter.”
“Well, we can’t go any farther.” Meredith twisted. She rapped on the partition. It summarily slid down. “Driver, please stop the car.”
“Harry, stop this car and you’re fired.”
The partition noiselessly rose again. The limo prowled through a shadowed pathway between two enormous soundstages, just as though she’d never spoken.
Tony cupped her face in his hands. Kindly, he studied her. His air of calm reached out to her. It nearly succeeded in lulling Meredith into forgetting the snafu she’d gotten into.
“Relax,” he said. “I know you’re nervous. Once you make your entrance, you’ll feel fine. All actors are that way.”
She nearly sighed. He really was being sweet—for an unreasonable, misguided, know-it-all actor fantasy camp executive.
She’d liked him better as a fantasy escort.
Still, too beguiled to resist, Meredith curled her fingers around his. Their warmth mingled reassuringly.
She had to play it straight with him. “Listen, Tony. I’m not who you think I am. I’m—”
“Your red carpet awaits,” he interrupted, preoccupied with something outside the window. The limo stopped. He twined their hands together, his grasp steady and encouraging, then gave her a squeeze. “Ready or not, here you go.”
An instant later, their uniformed driver whisked open the door. The screams of—were they fans?—hurtled toward Meredith, followed closely by a brilliant flare of flashbulbs. Blinded by them, she clung to Tony as he hustled her out of the car.
In a moment, they stood together on the red carpet. A hush fell over the spectators.
It only lasted a second or two. By the time Meredith regained her wits, the uproar had begun again.
“You’ve got the wrong woman,” she said to Tony through clenched teeth, desperate to make him see reason. “I’m an academic, not an actress!”
He cupped his ear. He shook his head, indicating he couldn’t hear her in the din. Then, with a cheery smile, Tony held up their joined hands in greeting.
The crowd loved it. The shouts grew louder. The flashes increased.
This was insane. Squinting, Meredith could just make out the scene. Reporters and paparazzi lined the area behind the velvet ropes, which separated the rest of the Valentine Studios back lot from the red carpet. Along the length of that red carpet more people waited in the post-sunset afterglow, screaming crazily as they waved eight-by-ten glossies of Marley. Fans, Meredith assumed in a daze. There were reporters and fans there.
She had to get out of this. Now, before it was too late.
“Marley! Marley! Over here!” someone yelled.
“Say it, Marley! Give us your catchphrase from Fantasy Family!”
“Marley! Can I have your autograph?”
It was all too much. Tugging her baseball cap lower with her free hand, Meredith tightened her grasp on Tony. He offered her another reassuring squeeze, but didn’t look her way. Frustrated, she yanked as hard as she could.
That did it. Quizzically, he faced her. “Hey, what the—”
She cupped her hands around her mouth. “I’ve got to talk to you!”
He probably still couldn’t hear her. But whatever he saw on her face convinced him she meant what she was saying—and it was important. Tony took one look and blessedly hustled her into motion.
Sheltered against his chest, held there by his burly arm as they maneuvered the rest of the way down the red carpet, Meredith felt protected. Safe. Indulged. But when they reached Tony’s private office and he shut the door behind them...well, clearly the jig was up.
“Okay.” Looking aggravated, he shoved a hand through his hair, then turned to face her in the sudden silence. “Exactly what the hell is going on?”
(end of excerpt)