Copyright © 2017 by Samanthe Beck. 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 the Publisher.
Quinn Sheridan found herself trapped in the taunting, neon-blue gaze of a raven-haired temptress with killer legs, a tiny waist, and improbably generous yet gravity-defiant tits challenging the limits of a painted-on black cat suit. A tremble of intimidation left tiny fractures in the bedrock of her self-assurance, but she refused to crumble. Sure, the framed poster hanging in the hall outside her agent’s office presented video game vixen Lena Xavier in all her unattainably perfect, CGI-embellished glory, but with the magic of make-up, good lighting, and a little help from wardrobe, the flesh-and-blood actress hired to portray the icon of male adolescent fantasies would look the part.
She backed up a step, and caught her reflection superimposed like a pale, indistinct ghost over the image thanks to the glass protecting the lithograph. The effect wasn’t particularly encouraging.
She would. Her spine straightened at the mental affirmation, and she ignored the way the woman in the poster seemed to smirk at her. Of course she would pull off the transformation. She had to.
Lifting her chin, she walked into her agent’s office projecting a calm confidence she was far from feeling. The performance would have won her a standing ovation from the toughest audience, she thought. She hadn’t been this anxious about a meeting since her days as an aspiring actress, about to give her first audition. But, frankly, there was a lot more at stake today.
Eddie looked up as she entered. His everglade-green eyes widened a fraction and he abandoned whatever instructions he’d been giving his assistant over his speakerphone in favor of a brusque, decisive, “Cancel lunch.”
Quinn’s stomach—her empty stomach—sank to the glossy red soles of her Louboutins.
His assistant responded first. “Eddie Washington, I sold a kidney to get you your favorite table at Toscanova. Do not make me call them back and cancel.”
“Cancel,” Eddie repeated. Quinn forced herself to stand tall and proud as his sharp gaze inspected her from the top of her upswept hair to the pointy tips of her pumps. “Cancel anything constituting a photo op for the foreseeable future, as well.” He hung up on his assistant’s muttered curse, pinched the bridge of his nose, and shook his head at her. “You’re not camera ready.”
So much for the magic of strategically gathered black jersey, and a two-hundred-dollar torture device some fashion marketing genius had the cajones to call a comfort-shaper. The stupid thing was not comfortable, and apparently, it revealed a little too much of her current shape. Which meant when it came to stupid, she won the prize.
Quinn continued into Eddie’s office, swallowing the defensive excuses that leaped to her lips. She perched on the arm of the white leather divan situated against the wall opposite his desk. Excuses wouldn’t change anything. Nor would getting defensive. Acting wasn’t a career for fragile egos, and she didn’t pay him to coddle hers.
They’d known each other a long time—since those early days when her twin brother, Callum, had been the real client and she’d been a little extra baggage their mother had negotiated into the deal. Eddie was one of the top sports and entertainment agents, as well as one of her oldest friends, and she was lucky to have him. While his brutal honesty stung, he had her best interests at heart. Their best interests.
Keeping that in mind, she folded her arms across her more ample than normal chest, lifted one brow, and shot him her trademark half-smile—the cool facade that gave nothing away. “Okay, fine. I’ve let my conditioning slip a little.”
“A little?” He got up and strode around his glass monument of a desk. The thick, white rug hushed his footsteps.
Inside, she winced. Outwardly, she just shrugged. “I took a couple weeks off after Pep Rally wrapped. I’d earned a break.”
Propping his enviably toned frame against his desk, he inspected her again. “Absolutely. But this”—he gestured at her—“is not the result of taking a break for ‘a couple weeks.’” Restless fingers formed air quotes around the words. “You’ve lost all the lean muscle and definition the studio expects for this kind of a role. You were supposed to spend the hiatus turning yourself from a cheerleader into a big screen, action heroine. If they get a look at you now, they’re going to think you’re undisciplined or indifferent about the role. We both know you’re neither.” His eyes narrowed with something suspiciously like concern. “What happened?”
“Nothing.” She scoffed the word, but her conscience cringed. Her twin brother had happened. A busted knee had happened. Eight weeks of sitting around nursing the sprain with a steady diet of regret and carbs had happened. And yes, apparently all the inactivity had taken a toll. Her bathroom scale hadn’t actually moved all that much, but her clothes fit differently. Her favorite shirts felt snugger across the chest. Her favorite jeans hugged tighter to her hips. Her stomach wasn’t quite as taut and flat as it had been before the injury. She still couldn’t quite believe it. Between years of acting classes, dance lessons, rehearsals, and a good metabolism, she’d always been able to maintain her shape without giving it any concentrated effort.
Eddie continued to regard her, but now doubt drove his eyebrows toward his hairline. “Nothing happened?” he asked again.
“I took a break. That’s all. And fine, maybe I let myself go a bit.” She shrugged and examined her cuticles as if a hangnail worried her more than this conversation. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Not if your next job involved posing for Playboy.” Eddie raked a hand through his short afro, making his dark hair stand on end. “But double-agent, martial arts master, and all-around ass kicker Lena Xavier is supposed to look dangerously sexy. The producers want Wonder Woman, Lara Croft, and Atomic Blonde all rolled into one, and zipped into a skintight leather cat suit. Instead you’re bombshell curvy, and…wait. You’re not pregnant, are you?”
A harsh laugh slipped out. “Ha. Right. Alert the media. Call the Pope. We’ve got another immaculate conception.” The last six months had been hell on her social life. There were reasons. Several, actually—the sprained knee being perhaps the least of them—but though Eddie held a position of trust in her life, she didn’t intend to share any of them with him.
He let out what might have been a sigh of relief, but shook his head. “We’re not calling anyone. If the studio brass get a load of you looking like this…” He let the implications go unstated and combed his fingers through his hair again. “Hell, I’m pretty sure there’s an appearance clause in your contract, which means—”
“I know what it means.” The producers could fire her at any time during filming if her appearance changed even slightly from the way she’d looked at the time she’d been cast in the role. Of course they could. Audiences expected their favorite anti-hero spy to make the leap from Xbox to big screen while wearing her iconic cat suit. The actress playing her had to do the role justice.
And she would. But ‘during filming’ seemed like the operative phrase here. Filming didn’t start for three months. A comforting thought, but the flickers of panic in Eddie’s eyes put a skip in her pulse. She stood, moved to the center of the sofa, and took a proper seat this time. “Is that what this meeting is all about? You want to make sure I’ll be camera ready? Relax.” She ran her palms over the length of her dress. “Twelve weeks is plenty of time to tighten the assets, so there’s no need to body shame me into—”
She jerked her attention back to Eddie. “What?”
“They moved up the shooting schedule because of a change in the location availability. You’re due in wardrobe in just over six weeks. That’s why I called this meeting.”
“Oh…fuck me. You’re kidding.”
He pulled his handsome face into a grimace. “I don’t kid about business.”
Fuck, indeed. After spending the last five years singing, dancing, and acting her ass off as the perky head cheerleader on the hit television series Pep Rally—and turning down film after film because Hollywood wanted to typecast her as a bouncy blonde—fate had rewarded her patience with a starring role in Dirty Games, the big-budget film based on the best-selling video game. It had taken half a decade, but she’d finally graduated from high school. This was a major move for her, the chance to transition from the small screen to the big one, from teen starlet to bankable box office draw. She wanted this shot. She needed it, personally and financially. And she’d damn well earned it. But plenty of people would love to see her fail. Especially any of the actresses who’d made the short list to play Lena. This was a competitive industry.
Sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows along one wall of the office, slanted across the sofa, and created an uncomfortably hot spotlight directly where she sat. “Okay. Don’t give yourself an aneurysm. I’ve got this under control. I’ll get in shape.”
He stared at her for a long moment while he turned something over in his mind. “Six weeks leaves no margin for error. I’m calling in professional help.”
Professional help? “You’re referring me to a therapist?”
“Sort of. I’m sure he’ll fix whatever’s going on in your head at the same time he fixes the rest of you.” Then he strode behind his desk and spoke into his phone. “Lisa, get the secret weapon on this line, ASAP.” His gaze slid to her. “Tell him it’s an emergency.” Without waiting for a reply, he disconnected, and flung himself into his chair. Over steepled fingers, he looked at Quinn.
Something in his stare sent a trickle of sweat down her spine. “What’s the ‘secret weapon’?”
A beat of silence followed her question, broken by the squeak of Eddie’s leather chair as he leaned forward. “Luke McLean. He spent over a decade as a private fitness consultant to the biggest names in Hollywood. Over the last couple years, he’s changed his focus somewhat, but he’ll take you on as a favor to me, if I ask him. He’s exclusive, and expensive, but he always gets results.”
An expensive workout buddy? No thanks. “That’s sweet of you to offer, but I can do this myself.”
“You’ve never dieted or hit the gym in your life,” Eddie argued.
“If you don’t think rehearsing and performing the Pep Rally routines counts as working out, I’d like to see you do it.”
“I’m sure it was, but you don’t have that now. What you have is six weeks to get yourself back into the kind of shape you took for granted when you were eighteen, except, hey, you’re not eighteen anymore.” He shook his head slowly.
She had a feeling he wasn’t sure if even his secret weapon could pull this off. “Thanks for pointing that out,” she retorted, unable to keep the snap of sarcasm at bay.
“Look, things change as you age—”
“Right. You’re not a teenager. This is going to take effort, and a plan.”
“Eddie, I have a plan. Eat less. Move more.” It wasn’t rocket science, for God’s sake. Besides, the change in her physique had nothing to do with her age, and everything to do with weeks of limited activity resulting from the sprained MCL she’d incurred while literally dragging Callum to a long-overdue stint at a private rehab facility.
Thankfully, she hadn’t needed surgery to repair the ligament. A clunky brace and six weeks of PT had done the trick. Now that her doctor had given her a clean bill of health, she could spend some quality time in the small home gym she’d installed—the one Callum had used maybe a handful of times before sliding back into the old habits their mom had been naive enough to think Quinn could save him from.
Mom had been wrong, as it turned out. She was nobody’s savior, despite her mother’s insistence on casting her in the role of dependable, responsible twin. No matter how hard she tried, and how much she missed the old Callum, she couldn’t solve his problems for him. But she could solve her own. Hop on the treadmill or elliptical every morning for thirty minutes or so, and turn herself into Lena Xavier. How hard could it be? She didn’t need some overpriced expert telling her what to do.
“Talk to me about negative calories,” Eddie challenged. “Describe an optimal cardio-strength training balance for burning fat and building lean muscle.”
“Just because I don’t speak Muscle & Fitness, doesn’t mean I don’t know how to—”
Eddie’s phone buzzed. He held up a finger to silence her, and spoke into the speaker. “Give me good news, Lisa.”
“I’ve got Mr. McLean on the line.”
“Put him through, and take an extra half hour for lunch.”
“I’m taking an extra hour. Seems I scored a prime table at Toscanova. Since it’s going on your Amex, I’ll bring you a panini. Line one.”
Eddie rolled his eyes, and tapped the line. “Luke, my man. Thanks for getting in touch so quickly.”
“Your assistant said it was an emergency.”
The deep, slightly impatient response vibrated with an edge of authority that did funny things to her insides—the kind of things that had her recrossing her legs, and pressing her thighs together. She had a little weakness for growly voices. And authority.
“It is,” Eddie said. “I need you to take on a full-time client, for the next six weeks—”
“This is. I don’t take on private clients anymore. Even if I did, I can’t do this one. I’m leaving at the end of the week for my first real vacation in three years. I can refer you to a couple of qualified consultants who might be able to help.”
“I don’t need a referral. I need you. You’re the best.”
A cynical laugh sent something hot and restless fluttering low in Quinn’s abdomen. “Kissing ass won’t change anything.”
“I’m just stating a fact,” Eddie replied smoothly. “Want to know another fact? Everything’s negotiable. What will it take to make this happen? Name your price. Name the place. My only requirement is that it be absolutely private and totally confidential.”
“You can’t put a price on mental health. I need a vacation. For the past three years I’ve been one hundred percent focused on building my business. The facility, the staff, and the referral network—”
“Mortgage, insurance, salaries…all this requires cash, does it not?”
“I’m comfortable with my burn rate,” the low voice replied, with a calm that backed up the confidence of the statement. “Call Rick Samson, or Julianna Pierce.”
“He’s a glorified rep counter, and she’s insane. Come on, Luke. Remember having an hour of need? This is mine.”
A long silence followed. Quinn found herself holding her breath. Half of her hoped he’d refuse. No, correction, all of her hoped he’d refuse. She didn’t want to put herself in the hands of some arrogant stranger who clearly didn’t want the gig.
Those clipped words came out lower. Harsher. The little hairs on her arm stood at attention.
“Sorry, man. I wouldn’t play the ‘you owe me’ card if this wasn’t important. I’m at your mercy.”
Her imagination cracked under the pressure, and sought its own escape by conjuring up an image of her strapped to some complicated piece of gym equipment, her muscles straining and immobilized, and that gruff voice telling her she was at his mercy.
A frustrated groan came from the other end of the line. Her hard-up hormones created an entirely different scenario for the thigh-tightening sound. He followed it up with a reluctant, “What’s the goal?”
Eddie pumped a fist in victory. “You’ll do it?”
“I’m not committing to anything, yet. First, I have to understand what it is, and if I think I can get it done. Then, you still have to agree to my terms.”
“My client needs to get chiseled like a slab of granite. No bulking, just cut, cut, cut. Define and tone”—Eddie glanced her way again—“everything, in six weeks.”
“Cut, define, and tone in six weeks? Your client’s aggressive.”
“That’s why I need you. You specialize in aggressive.”
The phone’s speaker carried the sound of a long, forceful exhale. Her cheeks heated at the humiliation of being discussed like an unappealing project, but at the same time, her lips tingled as if the gust of air he’d released from deep in his chest had breezed over them. Pathetic or not, this phone call was the most action she’d gotten in…forever.
“Age? Injuries? I have to assume there’s a reason an athlete with the talent to warrant your representation has let his training lapse.”
“Twenty-three, no injuries, and she’s not an athlete. Her name is Quinn Sheridan, and she’s preparing for a movie role—”
“Oh hell no, Eddie.” The voice now held an indignant note. “Not an actress. Anything but an actress.”
Heat burned her face for a whole different reason. Anger. How dare this self-righteous jackass reject her, based on her career choice?
Eddie sent her a sharp look, held up a hand, and closed it like a mouth to send her the universal sign for ‘shut it.’ “My hour of need,” he reiterated into the speaker.
“Fine.” The brusque word practically slapped her. “But this is way more than an hour of need, and my time comes at a cost.” Then he proceeded to name a figure that stole her breath. Before she could find her voice and utter a flat-out rejection, he added, “Plus expenses.”
“Done,” Eddie said. “Half up front, and half at the end, provided she’s camera-ready from every angle by the time you’re finished with her. Where do you want to do this?”
“The Playground at Paradise Bay,” he responded, naming one of the priciest, most exclusive destinations in the Caribbean. “I’ve used them in the past for this type of thing, so I know the resort offers everything we need, including unparalleled privacy. They have excellent facilities, their chefs can accommodate my customized menus, and I can keep your client focused on her goal in such a contained environment.”
Holy crap. A hefty chunk of her Lena Xavier paycheck was disappearing before her eyes, and she hadn’t earned a penny of it yet. But she needed to, because private drug treatment facilities like Foundations carried a hefty price tag, and thanks to some bad financial decisions on her parents’ part, they weren’t in a position to help cover the cost of Callum’s rehab. It was all on her. Every penny.
“Reserve one of the villas,” McLean went on, squandering even more of her money without hesitation. “One with a workout room included.”
“My assistant will send you the reservation confirmation and your flight information by the end of the day,” Eddie replied. “Anything else?”
She lowered her forehead to her knees and waited for a lightheaded feeling to pass.
“Yeah. Convey this to your client…”
The note of steel in the words had her straightening, and staring at the phone.
“I have a zero bullshit policy,” he went on. “I won’t tolerate diva behavior from some neurotic, narcissistic actress who expects everyone to cater to her bottomless ego. Tell her to leave the entourage at home. I’m taking her on, not her boyfriend, her girlfriend, her mother, or her spiritual advisor. For six weeks, I’m in charge. I expect her to obey instructions and adhere to the program. No exceptions, no excuses, or no deal.”
“Uh…” Eddie had the grace to wince. “Did you get that, Quinn?”
She hauled herself to her feet—toned or not, she could damn well stand up for herself—and strode to his desk until she was close enough to brace her palms on the cool glass, and leaned toward the phone. “Every word,” she said in her best ice-bitch voice. “Luckily, neither my neurosis nor my narcissism interferes with my hearing. Tell Mr. McLean I’ll see him in Paradise Bay.”