Title: Don’t Toy with Me
Author: Barbara Barrett
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Repossession of your car in Los Angeles is like breathing without lungs. It can make an unemployed management consultant like Jordan Wright do crazy things, such as accept a job beneath her skills on a TV reality show and pretend to be a spy for a competing outfit.
Creativity not one of his strong suits, executive producer Bart Underwood is in over his head with his new production. Intrigued by Jordan’s ability to spin a tall tale out of nowhere, he takes advantage of her need to prove herself in hopes she’ll rescue his baby. Despite their growing attraction to each other, though, even she can’t save a reverse beauty pageant titled Ugly as Sin.
When several stunts go awry, she suggests a new concept, a competition called Don’t Toy with Me. Before they can go forward, though, Bart must deal with his blackmailing partner, whose resentment of Jordan threatens to shut down the show altogether.
“… why did you tell me you worked for my competitors?”
“Ha ha. That’s the miscommunication part I mentioned. I thought maybe you give contestants stunts to perform. You know, little playlets? When you told me I was too good looking for your show, I ran with it, thinking that’s what was expected.”
There. Full story. He probably wasn’t happy she’d wasted his time—she wasn’t so happy either to have wasted her time driving all the way out here, other than she had the time to waste—but she could at least escape this audition and forget about ever walking the runway again.
She attempted to appear cool, although her stomach roiled like the day she’d been forced to eat aging hamburger from her fridge, because there was nothing else except raw beets.
“So. You don’t work for, what did you call them, Thrill-a-Minute?”
“They didn’t send you to do reconnaissance on our show?”
“Glad you finally picked up on that.”
Facial Hair propped a foot on one of the chairs and leaned toward her. Be still my heart. Those jeans were tighter than she realized at first glance. The scent of musk wafted across the short distance between them. Nice. Don’t breathe it, don’t breathe it, or you’ll be sorry.
“Why should I believe you?” His mouth widened as if to smile, but she didn’t sense amiability. It was more the spider-to-the-fly variety. Still, her focus stayed there longer than necessary, until she reminded herself she didn’t owe him any further explanation.
This was going nowhere. Even she, doormat to the world, had her limits. “Look, I’m leaving. I haven’t done anything illegal, so you can’t hold me here like a criminal. I won’t hesitate to use the can of pepper spray in my purse if provoked.” She actually did have one with her, though it was a couple years old and probably inoperable.
Jordan threw her bag over her shoulder like a mail carrier preparing for the day’s deliveries and headed for the door. He didn’t try to stop her. Just as her hand reached the door knob, he spoke. “How’d you like to work for me instead?”
Few statements could have stopped her in her tracks. That one did. God, she hated the vulnerability near-poverty forced on a person.
She made a half-turn, not desperate enough to give him a full frontal grovel. “You’re offering me a part?”
He shook his head in disbelief. “No way! You really don’t know what this show is about, do you?”
This was getting old. “What kind of job then, if not on the show?”
“With the show.” He extended his hand. “I’m Bart Underwood, the Executive Producer.”
She shook his hand, expecting a jolt from one of those shockers concealed in a prankster’s palm. Instead, his palm was smooth and warm. Made her want to linger more than she should.
“I doubt many could manufacture a cover story on demand like that.”
“Tell me about this job.”
He combed a hand through his hair. For the first time, she noticed that the scraggly beard and wardrobe, an olive green cotton shirt, open-kneed and yeah, tight, jeans, and work boots, were part of a persona. The nails on the hand that rumpled that luscious dark hair were manicured. The boots bore no scuff marks. Bart Underwood definitely subscribed to the Hollywood image factory.
“Your story about your aunt not hearing all the details about this audition is plausible, but I’m still not convinced you’re aren’t Thrill-a-Minute’s plant. So I don’t want you going back to those guys. Unless it’s to counterspy for us.”
Counterspy? Now who was weaving the crazy stories? “I need an assistant to handle the administrative details of this project. Interested?” he asked before she had time to figure out what was fishy. He told her what her pay would be. Not much but better than nothing.
She paused momentarily, debating how much she wanted this job. A tiny brain alert screamed that assisting Bart Underwood wasn’t a wise career move. On the other hand, with the loss of her car looming, what could it hurt to sign on with this show? Just for a while, of course. Long enough to make her next car payment and catch her breath before relaunching her career efforts. Besides, sparring daily with Bart Underwood, or whatever they’d been doing, intrigued her.
“I do management consulting. Can I do that as your assistant?” The most challenging project she’d tackled since leaving her last job was organizing her closet contents by color.
“A time study expert?”
“Not exactly, although I sometimes get into flowcharts.”
He scowled. “Just what I need. Flowcharts.”
So much for what could have been. Once again, she eyed the door.
“Wait! I was kidding.”
She swiveled his direction but kept her mouth shut. Did she dare hope?
“Maybe down the line there’ll be an opportunity to do your other thing.”
Not much promise there. But he hadn’t said no. Plus, it meant she could keep her car. A room and food she could mooch from her aunt a while longer, but she had to keep her wheels for job interviews. Those were definitely still in her future, given the screwy nature of this audition.
“Okay, sign me up.”
“Don’t quit your job at Thrill-a-Minute. Tell them you’re going to work for us but will report back to them.”
“Fine.” Jordan agreed. What could it hurt, since no employer existed? But she was still in the dark about something. “Just what is this beauty pageant? Like I said, I’m short on details.”
He laughed. Bent, hand on knee, to catch his breath. When he straightened again, he stood there shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe her ignorance. “Our project isn’t w