Praise for Michelle Garren Flye’s Close Up Magic:
“Whoa…I do believe in magic and the incredible ambience it creates in this wonderful romantic story. …it makes such an incredible setting for this book!”– Smitten With Reading
“Stacey and Andre have a wonderful capacity for forgiveness and the resolution of their issues is absolutely delightful. An overall compelling and magical story that fans of contemporary romances are sure to enjoy.” — Book Reviews and More by Kathy
“With an engaging secondary cast of characters; witty dialogue and humorous interactions; Close Up Magic is an enchanting story that will make the reader believe in romance and magic!” — Jersey Girl Book Reviews
Reporter Stacey Matthewson has made a living writing sensational stories that knock celebrities off their pedestals. Now she’s got a hot lead on an even hotter magician who’s mystifying Las Vegas with his new show–the problem is, she’s had a crush on him for years. How can she write a story that might ruin him, especially when he proves himself to be so much more than she’d ever dreamed?
Magician Andre Hawke has a knack for making things disappear, but when it comes to his brother’s drinking and gambling, he’s got a problem. Hiring the sexy reporter who threatens to blow away his carefully wrought illusion might be the answer to his problems…or she might bring on a whole new set of them.
Stacey’s never believed in magic, and Andre doesn’t know who to trust anymore. Can passion overcome their inhibitions, or will betrayal stem the tide of love?
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Stacey Matthewson plucked her smartphone from her pocket the moment the plane touched down, well before the pilot turned off the sign banning the use of electronic devices. It killed her to be out of touch, especially at a time like this. She hit the call button and said two words. “Tell me.”
“Jeez, could that flight have been any longer?” Bella’s smartass young voice greeted her. “You’re gonna have to hoof it if you’re gonna make the show.”
“Forget that. I’ll make it. Tell me you got me a ticket.” Stacey fought to keep the anxiety out of her voice.
Her nineteen-year-old sister and part-time assistant made her listen to a sharp crack of bubblegum before she answered. “Of course I got you a ticket. It’s waiting for you.”
Thank God. “Good. I guess you’re not fired.” She hit the end button before Bella could tell her she couldn’t fire her own sister. She was exhausted and exhilarated at the same moment. In an hour or so, she’d be in the same room with Andre Hawke.
Stacey had met a lot of celebrities, most of them much further up the A-list than Andre Hawke was yet–possibly further than he ever would be. As a free-lance entertainment reporter, she’d written stories exposing the secrets of movie stars, capturing the worst moments of the idols who, in the end, proved themselves to be only human after all. Andre Hawke was small potatoes for someone like her, but she’d found her sources drying up after what she privately referred to as “the incident”–at least, when she allowed herself to think about it at all.
I screwed up. I didn’t check my sources and I’m paying for it. She winced at the memory, and, not for the first time, wondered how she’d ever even gotten into this aspect of reporting. Her college professors had expected great things of her. They probably wouldn’t be thrilled to know she’d degenerated into a bloodhound looking to shake down the latest celebrity to fall off a wagon.
Stacey straightened her spine, shifting uncomfortably in the cramped seat and reminding herself she’d made a good living off the sensationalist reporting, at least until recently. And what other choice would have allowed her to support herself and her little sister for the past few years? What really sucked was that after so many years knocking other people’s idols off their pedestals, she finally had to do the same thing to someone she admired.
She thumbed through the web pages she’d bookmarked on her smartphone. Hawke was an up-and-coming magician, a definite rising star on the horizon of celebrity. Fortunately for her, he wasn’t there yet, so the scandal that had rocked his little camp right after his first big appearance in Las Vegas hadn’t reached most reporters in the industry. Which meant she had the opportunity to write the story and get it out there before anyone else caught on.
She paused on a picture of Hawke and felt another tinge of regret that it had to be him. She’d actually seen one of his magic shows at a tiny theater in New York and had followed his career with interest since. He had it all: he was good-looking, skilled, and had an air of sincerity that sort of made you not even mind being the victim of his act.
She didn’t have time for regret, though. She clicked her phone off and stuck it into her pocket, reaching for the only bag she’d brought–a little overnight bag small enough to fit under the seat in front of her. Her purse was large enough to accommodate her laptop, so she didn’t have to wait for baggage claim. As soon as the pilot clicked off the fasten seatbelts sign and the crew opened the door, she’d be out and hopefully arrive in time to catch Andre Hawke before the show. Just because no one else had picked up the story yet didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen.
She banished the last of her guilty feelings. It’s not like I’m the president of his fan club or anything. And Andre Hawke is a big boy. He can handle a little press. Even my kind.
Andre Hawke studied his reflection in the mirror. The lean, handsome face that looked back reminded him of the few memories he had of his father. He still had a hard time associating that reflection with himself, although the thick, curly dark hair and deep blue (some women said almost violet) eyes had always been his, even when he’d been a dorky kid. He smiled and the reflection smiled back, white teeth flashing. His brother had suggested the teeth-whitening. The thought of Tony made the smile fade.
Andre turned from the mirror, reaching for the leather jacket he wore instead of a cape when he was onstage. Softened by time, the jacket had belonged to his father. One of the things he’d left behind and Andre had adopted as a prop, a reminder of the family whose history was half true, half part of the act.
On cue, his cell phone rang and he punched the button. “Hey Mom.”
“How’d you know it was me?” His mother’s lazy southern accent made him smile.
“Who else would call me right before a show?” He picked up a white tipped cane, studying it with amused interest before tossing it aside. The producer had left several artificial-looking magic props laying around in the hopes Andre would choose to adopt some of them, but Andre had no interest in stereotypes. He wanted nothing to do with what people would expect. He reached for his Oakley sunglasses and imagined his mother sitting on the front porch of the little home where he’d grown up. Were the crickets still singing? Was it really October? He’d lost track of the seasons since he’d been in the Nevada desert, where the weather was hot and dry, just as it had been two months before, although maybe not quite as hot now as it had been early in the summer.
“Andy, you know I wouldn’t do anything to mess you up. I just wanted you to know how much we all love you. We’re proud of you, son. Really proud.” She fell silent for a moment and he closed his eyes, knowing what would come next. “Your brother’s really sorry, you know.”
“I know.” Andre tried not to sound too bitter. Tony’s antics had put him in a bad spot financially, although he’d been able to work it out professionally. What really hurt was the betrayal by the brother he’d always thought he could count on. After all, they’d only had each other and their mother after their father left them as children. He sighed. “His timing leaves a little to be desired. Just make sure he stays in the program.”
“I know you’re hurt, son, but try to look at it from his point of view. You’ve always been the success of our family…don’t interrupt!”
Andre shut his mouth, which had opened to protest automatically. He frowned at the phone. How did she always know? “I wasn’t going to.”
“Of course you weren’t. What I was saying is that Tony’s always felt he had to live up to you. You’ve got to give him a break this time. He failed. He’s sorry.”
“And when he’s better, we’ll move on.” Andre took a deep breath, then covered the phone with one hand and exercised some of the same misdirection he used in his act. “I know I have to be on stage in thirty, Sara. There’s plenty of time.” He uncovered the phone. “Sorry, Mom. They employ overachievers exclusively here.”
“It’s okay, honey. I know you’re busy. I just wanted you to know we’re thinking about you tonight. We’re right there with you.”
“Yeah.” For a moment, he wished it were really true. Or maybe he wished he could just pack everything up and go home. Maybe he envied his brother for giving in to his weakness, something Andre had never allowed himself to do. “I love you, Mom.”
“Love you too, baby.” The click of the line sounded strangely emptier than usual.
He stood for a second in the empty dressing room. Any moment it would fill up with assistants and stagehands seeking last minute direction. He’d never thought about the complications of losing his agent during his first big show. A six-month run at a large–if rundown–casino/resort on the Las Vegas strip was the stuff dreams were made of if you were an up-and-coming magician. It was the last thing Tony had pulled off before he got drunk and gambled away the advance. All of it. Not just his share. Andre had had to deplete his own savings to pay his few employees and Tony’s extended stay in the rehab facility had zeroed it out. Andre was broke until the ticket sales surpassed the advance and his crew’s expenses.
Damn it. Andre turned grimly, feeling like a caged animal. The loss of the money didn’t hurt half as much as the loss of the one person he’d always thought he could rely on. He’d trusted Tony. Goddamn him. From the day they’d left their mother’s tiny home in Bath, N.C., Tony had busted his ass to get Andre through the days of busking on the streets of New York and table-hopping at little cafes. He’d gotten Andre’s first real gig at a tiny theater in New York and from there the theaters had gotten bigger, the audiences more enthusiastic. And it all had led to this engagement in Las Vegas. Tony should be here.
He shook off the lingering regret. He had Bobby to take care of the day-to-day stuff and the show revenue would soon be enough to tide them over if they kept selling out. The one thing he didn’t have was a public relations person. Neither Bobby nor Mattie had the expertise to handle press, and he was beginning to feel the need for one urgently. He needed to take his time, find somebody he could trust, but he knew it was only a matter of time now before the vultures of journalism smelled decay and swooped in on him to get at the bones of the story about his brother.
As if on cue, a sharp rap sounded on the door. A second later, a woman dressed in a figure-hugging black sheath dress with a bleached-blonde mane of hair falling around her shoulders entered the room without waiting to be admitted. Andre was used to women barging into his dressing room, but this woman left him speechless. She might have been one of the million young women looking to cut loose for a Vegas vacation except for the sharp intelligence in her hazel eyes. His brain screamed for caution, but he ignored it, stepping forward to take her hand. “Good evening. I’m Andre Hawke. How can I help you?”
He has no idea who I am. Good. That meant he wasn’t being flooded by journalists. If she could be the first to gain his trust, maybe she could get an exclusive about the dismissed agent… Stacey smiled her sweetest and tried not to be too thrilled that Andre Hawke was holding her hand. “Mr. Hawke.” She wished she could have freshened up a little more. She’d stopped at the airport bathroom, taken off her wrinkled blazer, changed her jewelry and washed up a little. She tilted her head with as much confidence as she could muster, glad her last dye job had turned out so spectacularly her hair sparkled even in dim light, let alone the bright lights of the dressing room. “So good to meet you.”
He tucked the sunglasses he held in one hand into the inside pocket of his leather jacket. “My pleasure.” His eyes scanned her up and down and back again.
Her heart gave an odd thump, but she was prepared for that, too. She’d watched countless videos of his stage performances on YouTube, and she knew his reputation for womanizing. The Great Andre–on stage and in the sack, evidently. She summoned her best flirtatious smile, but his next words caught her off guard enough so she faltered. “Who exactly are you and how the hell did you get back here?”
She’d paid off a security guard but he didn’t have to know that. “I snuck in. I wanted to catch you before the show.” She fluttered her eyelashes and lowered her gaze, on cue as usual.
“Are you here to see the show, then?” He didn’t release her hand, his eyes intense on hers when she looked back.
“Of course I am.” She shot him a smile. “I can’t wait, actually. I’ve been a fan ever since I saw you at the Clemson Theater in New York a few years ago.”
“I remember that show.” His smile widened, revealing perfect teeth for a moment before softening again into a sensual curve, and his gaze flickered to her mouth.
“It’s obviously taken you to bigger and better things.” Her chest felt tight and she found it hard to breathe. Was he going to kiss her? Dear God, she felt paralyzed. Was this really just desire or did he actually know enough magic to hold her immobile while he considered whether or not to kiss her? Or did she want his kiss so bad she was willing to sacrifice what was left of her career to get it?
She cleared her throat and fought her way out of whatever spell he’d cast. “I, um, do have another reason–” She reached into her purse.
“Save it.” He dropped her hand. “I don’t talk to the press before shows.”
She couldn’t disguise her astonishment. “How do you know I’m a reporter?”
“Fresh off the plane. I recognize the smell of the soap. Congratulations, you’re the first. This evening, anyway.” He glanced at his watch. “I’m not expecting any more for at least a couple hours.” His glare was sharp. “They probably won’t catch me until after the show.”
“All the more reason to listen to me now.” She wasn’t about to give up after flying halfway across the United States just to make her pitch. “We’ve got at least fifteen minutes before you’re on stage.”
“We’ve barely got two before my assistant barges through that door with a dozen questions.”
“Plenty of time to schedule a meeting.”
He laughed. “You’re not going to give up, are you?”
“Not on your life.” She took a step toward him. “I wasn’t lying about being a fan. I’ve seen every one of your shows in one form or another. DVD, YouTube, videocassette. I know you’re from Bath, North Carolina, and you started your career playing banjo for square dances. I know you did magic tricks on the side, and you went to college to please your mother, but your heart has always been in show business. I know you’ve got a genius IQ and an engineering degree, and I honestly can’t believe I’m standing here in front of you right now.” She stopped, feeling a hot blush spread over her face, but she could tell she’d gotten his attention. She dropped her gaze. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that.”
He snorted. “And you’re twice the salesman I am.” He started to turn away. “I almost bought it, too. A warning to my ego.”
Shit. He was walking away. If he left without agreeing to see her again, she’d never get an interview, let alone an exclusive. It wasn’t his ego talking when he said he’d have a flood of reporters after him soon, although maybe not right after this show. Andre Hawke would soon be the hottest thing going. Nobody could figure out how he did his tricks. His Las Vegas show was a springboard, guaranteed to propel him to bigger and better things. His agent had been an absolute fool to let himself get caught with his hand in the till at this point. His agent, who was also his brother. Stacey grasped at the last straw she still carried.
“I know about your brother.”
He froze, and when he turned, his gaze was cold enough to freeze her in her tracks. His dark blue eyes were depthless, his expression stony. Her heart seized up in her chest, her breath caught in her throat. She opened her mouth to say more, but she couldn’t get the words out.
“What exactly is it you think you know?” His voice held no teasing laughter now.
“About why you fired him.” She stuck her chin out and carried on, as brave as could be under the circumstances. “And don’t give me that shit about he was called home to deal with a family matter. He was drinking and gambling and he’s probably got a problem with one or both.” She paused, making her voice soothing. “I know you don’t want to go public with it, but you’re going to have to sooner or later. I can help you, but only if you give me an exclusive.”
His eyes narrowed and he took a step forward. “My brother is taking a leave of absence from his work. He went home to take care of some family business. Which is none of yours, by the way.”
She opened her mouth to tell him that cover story wouldn’t hold water for long, but the door opened behind him, startling her. Andre didn’t move, his eyes still locked on hers, as a young man with a faux-hawk and a clipboard rushed in. “Andre, you’re due on in ten minutes and we still don’t know where you want us to put the box for…” His voice drifted off. “Oh. I didn’t know you had company.”
“I wouldn’t call her company.” Andre finally dragged his gaze away from Stacey’s and she found she could breathe again. “Reporter. Get her information.” He stalked out of the dressing room.
The kid raised his eyebrows but took Stacey’s card without further comment and showed her out the door to the auditorium. When an usher approached, she reached for her ticket for the seat located somewhere up in the balcony, but the kid shook his head and motioned the usher away with authority. “He wants you to sit up front.”
“What?” Stacey still felt breathless, hungover, she realized, from the sheer intensity of Andre’s presence. Had she missed something or was “get her information” code for more than “let her leave her card”?
Bobby grinned, his voice ringing with pride in his employer. “Still can’t believe it, huh? That’s what he does to people. That’s why he can pull anyone he wants onstage. All he has to do is look at them and they sort of melt. Doesn’t matter if it’s a man, woman or kid. He knows how to throw them off.”
“Is that his secret?” She gave him a dubious look.
“One of ‘em.” He pulled out a chair at the bottom of the stage. “He’s got a few. But then you know that, don’t you?” When she frowned, he saluted jauntily. “Be seein’ you.”
She shrugged and seated herself, trying to shake off the lingering effects of Andre’s presence. The whole thing was starting to annoy her. Admittedly, the seat was better than the one she’d paid for, but she remembered the icy look he’d given her too well to want to be this close to him again so soon. And what was he up to, putting her in the front row? Was it the old adage about keeping your enemies closer than your friends? She doubted it was just that she knew the truth about his brother. She’d actually threatened his carefully guarded family’s quiet existence, so she must be dealt with. She lifted her chin defiantly. Bring it on, Andre Hawke.
To the rest of the world–or at least those who knew about Andre Hawke–his father John Hawkins had been a loving father, supportive of his son, hard-working and devoted to his job in the paper mill, and he’d died in a horrible accident on the job. Andre had fostered this myth carefully. The truth was that his father wasn’t dead and he’d never worked at a paper mill. He’d left his family when Andre and his twin brother were six years old. Rumor was he lived off the grid somewhere in Montana. He hadn’t emerged to claim his successful son as his own, and as far as Stacey knew, Andre had never sought him out. Maybe he preferred the fictional father to the real thing.
But that wasn’t going to work this time. Tony Hawkins wasn’t the hard-working saint Andre would like everyone to believe, and his downfall had happened much more publicly than that of his father. She hoped Andre really had listened to her, because she’d meant what she’d said. He wouldn’t be able to rewrite history again, but if he’d let her, she could make sure it wouldn’t ruin him.
Unlike other magicians–in fact, most live performers–Andre didn’t make a spectacular entrance onto the stage. He simply walked out, bowed, and performed a magic trick. It was never the same trick. That was what made him so amazing. His repertoire far exceeded those of illusionists with twice his experience. He must constantly be developing new tricks, working them in with favorites and rearranging the show’s order so every one seemed new. Stacey shifted uncomfortably in her front row seat, aware that she shouldn’t be so admiring of the man whose story could revive her faltering career. She tried to renew the irritation she’d felt a few minutes before, more comfortable with that than her growing sympathy with the man.
When the music started, she glanced expectantly at the stage. Tonight he didn’t appear immediately, striding onto the stage with his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. Instead, she heard a murmur from the audience and turned to find him standing at her elbow. He gave her a jaunty grin, grasped her hand and pulled her to her feet.
“What the hell are you doing?” The gasp was wrenched from her lips. Oh my God. Of course he’d given her a good seat. He intended to make her part of the act. Shit. She tried to hold back, but he gave her hand a pull.
“Look at this, ladies and gentlemen, she’s shy. Give her a little encouragement.” He flashed his gleaming smile at the audience and they broke into applause. Leaning toward her as if he were bowing, he murmured in her ear, “You’ll have to work for that seat.”
“Am I even going to get a chance to sit in it?” She shot back. He gave her a blandly innocent look and bounded up the stairs to the stage, pulling her along in his wake.
The spotlight centered on them and she blinked in the brightness. His pupils contracted, but otherwise he seemed undisturbed. Used to the spotlight. He faced her. “Do you believe in magic?”
“No.” She glared at him. “There’s always a trick.”
“Ah. A nonbeliever.” His grin grew wider, and she heard a murmur of amusement and anticipation from the crowd. If anyone could make a believer out of her, it would be Andre Hawke. He was playing them with all the skill of a born entertainer, and she couldn’t suppress her admiration. God, he was absolutely magnificent and if playing along with a magic trick could get her the interview, she better be game. She tilted her chin and his eyes narrowed. With a practiced flourish, he drew a blindfold from his pocket. “So, you’re going to play?”
The words surprised her until she realized they were directed only at her and not at the audience. He must have a way of turning his mic off when he didn’t want them to hear. She shrugged, pretending nonchalance. “Whatever.” In spite of her response, however, the blindfold did disturb her a little. She didn’t like not knowing what was happening to her. She lived her life by maintaining control at all times. Relinquishing it, even for a moment, was not something she wanted to do.
With laughing encouragement from the audience, he led her to a chair that looked like it might have come from a schoolroom somewhere and instructed her to check it out for any abnormalities. She did so, even lifting the chair and looking underneath it. Then he told her to sit and she felt him move behind her, tying the blindfold with practiced movements. Just as he finished, he leaned down and said softly in her ear, “Do you trust me?”
“Should I?” She folded her arms over her chest and crossed her legs, trying to look like she didn’t have a care in the world.
The laughter of the audience let her in on the fact that this exchange had been with a live mic. He really was full of tricks. She pictured him moving away from her, pretending to be offended. When the laughter died down, he began talking about studying the beliefs of Tibetan monks and practicing their philosophies to broaden his mind. Her own mind wandered. She couldn’t concentrate on his words, but she enjoyed the sound of his voice. Then he stopped talking, and she felt a light breeze soothing her hot cheeks. She thought of the look in his eyes before he tied the blindfold on her, and the words he’d whispered in her ear.
Do you trust me?
Hands touched her shoulders, tingling as if sending a light jolt of electricity through her. She jumped and he laughed. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” He whipped the blindfold from her face. “Are you all right?”
“Of course.” She blinked. “Is it over? What did you do?”
“Actually, I didn’t do anything. You did.” He put an arm around her shoulders and turned her to face a monitor. She stared, unable to comprehend at first that the instant replay of the chair hovering near the curtains at the top of the stage was actually the one she’d just been sitting in, and that the figure seated imperturbably in it was her. He moved behind her, placing both hands on her shoulders as if to brace her, his words oddly intimate even as they echoed across the huge room. “You flew.”
“Oh my God.” She felt sick. She looked at the ceiling, a good thirty feet above her head. She looked at the little chair she’d been seated on. No safety buckles, no harnesses. Her knees buckled and she might have fallen had he not caught her.
She heard a gasp from the audience as he led her off the stage and handed her over to a pretty girl with a clipboard and headset. She heard him murmur instructions, but she couldn’t focus. The girl nodded and half carried her backstage. Andre returned to the stage, assuring the audience she was fine and recovering from her shock. The ensuing applause seemed to indicate that Stacey’s reaction to the trick had done nothing but affirm their belief in him.
Stacey recovered herself as the girl in the headphones tried to lead her down a hall. She shook off the girl’s grasp. “Where are we going?”
“Mr. Hawke wants you to wait for him in his dressing room.”
“Right. I’m not doing that.” She turned and started back toward the stage. “In fact, I think I’m going to kill Mr. Hawke now.”
“You can’t go back out there.” The girl moved to block her path, unperturbed by Stacey’s death threat. “I’m sorry, but you have to wait here.”
“You can’t do that.” Stacey glared. “I bought a ticket.”
“And sat in the seat Mr. Hawke provided.” The girl might be young, but she wasn’t stupid. “He always pulls a volunteer from that seat, and it’s always with prior consent.”
“Well, there was no fucking ‘prior consent’ tonight, I promise.” Stacey glared. “He never told me I was going to be flying through the air. Or in a trance. I could have been killed.”
“He’d never let that happen.”
Stacey frowned, looking at the girl. She obviously believed what she was saying. In fact, Stacey figured the girl would sit on any chair Andre asked her to. And go into any number of trances at whatever inopportune time Andre chose. She shook her head. “Dear God, how does he do it?”
The girl sensed she was no longer going to cause trouble and said, “Look, if you really feel well enough, you can watch the rest of the show from backstage. I’ll show you. It’s even better than your seat was.”
“Excellent.” She folded her arms. “Are you sure he’d want you to do that? He did tell you I’m a journalist, didn’t he?”
“He said you were a reporter. I don’t think he’s particularly concerned.” The girl shrugged and held out her hand. “I’m Mattie. He wants me to take care of you. Can I get you something to drink?”
A good strong Scotch. She shook her head. “No. I mean, just water.”
Mattie turned and issued an order to a stagehand, who hurried to follow instructions. Stacey wondered who exactly the girl was. She certainly seemed to have more authority than the stagehand/groupie Stacey had first assumed her to be. Within a few moments, Mattie had installed her in a chair in the wings of the stage, a bottle of artesian water in her hand. From her new seat, Stacey had a very good view of Andre as he performed a couple of amazing card tricks, plucked a rose out of a woman’s hair, and turned a paper airplane into a white dove. If he was misdirecting the audience, he must surely be a master because even from her angle, she couldn’t catch the trick.
Would they let me move, though? She glanced at Mattie talking to a stagehand. She saw Bobby, the kid from earlier, watching from the other side of the stage. What if she got up and started over there? Just as she considered this, Mattie placed a hand on her shoulder. “I have to ask you to keep your seat for the next few minutes. He’s ready for his finale and if you move you could endanger someone.”
Stacey relaxed in her seat, wondering what exactly was wrong with her, anyway. She was a tough kid from a rough upbringing. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t let anyone boss her around, and if she got thrown out while in the quest for a story, she wouldn’t care.
But I’m not here to find out how he does it. I’m here to find out what was done to him. That’s my story, and if I get thrown out now, it’ll ruin everything.
She was prevaricating, and she knew it. She didn’t want to know how the magic was done. If she did, she’d never be able to believe, never be able to experience that sense of wonder that, to be honest, Andre had first woken in her. She smiled a little, remembering that show. It had been a rare treat for her and Bella back during her senior year in college. She’d won the tickets on a radio show and gone, never expecting the show to work its way past her cynical exterior and touch something else, some carefully guarded desire to believe. She shook off the memory. She couldn’t afford to believe in magic when she’d been given so many reasons not to during her life.
The finale was a spectacular illusion in which Andre performed an escape worthy of Houdini himself while hanging upside down over a tank of water while a flame slowly burned through the rope. A curtain was drawn around Andre, and a circle of witnesses surrounded the area. Stacey watched the rope jerk with his movements, so completely caught up in the moment that when the rope gave way and she heard a splash, she half-started out of her chair. She heard a chuckle and glanced to her side as he walked out of the backstage area, completely dry, and grinned at her. “You worried?”
“Of course not.” She pretended not to be startled by his appearance. She’d been watching the entire time. He had definitely begun the illusion suspended from the rope. The audience members he’d pulled onstage still stood in a circle with their hands joined. The logistics of the trick boggled her mind. Holy cow. She shrugged. “I knew there was a trick.”
“You have serious trust issues.” With these parting words, he loped onstage, startling one female volunteer with a kiss on the cheek and taking his well-deserved bow.
He finished his bow, then shook hands with each volunteer as they were escorted off the stage. He paused to speak quietly with both Bobby and Mattie before returning to her side. “You still mad?”
“Mad?” She snorted. “Why would I be mad? Oh, you mean the little putting me in a trance and sending me floating in the rafters thing? Ha!” She glared at him. “You keep pulling shit like that and you’ll have lawsuits on your hands, buddy.”
“Umm.” He compressed his lips, then held his hand out to her. “Let’s go for a walk.”
“A walk?” She blinked. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Not at all. I always go for walks after a show. Come, we won’t go far.”
She checked his forward momentum with an angry sneer. “I really don’t have any desire to go anywhere with you. Have you forgotten you nearly killed me? Without my consent?”
He looked amused. “Are you mad because I forgot to ask your consent to kill you? Would you have given it?”
“Ha. Ha.” She put all her contempt into the two syllables. “That’s not what I meant. Do you do that all the time?”
“Actually, that was a first.” He tilted an eyebrow. “But then, you have a reputation for doing your research, so you’d know that, wouldn’t you?” He started down the hall, still talking so she had no choice but to follow him if she wanted to hear what he was saying, which, in spite of her fury, she did. “I’d planned to use the trick for the first time tonight, but I didn’t actually plan to open with it. You were a little easier to put into a trance than I’d anticipated.” His voice indicated this wasn’t a compliment, and another source of heat began to burn in her, this time from humiliation. Was that what he wanted?
But he was still talking. “I needed to get you under control, and that seemed like a good way. I figured you’d have a strong reaction to it, although I have to admit, I didn’t anticipate fainting. Fear of heights?”
She gritted her teeth. “You didn’t have to do any such thing. I was on my way to my spot in the back row when that kid waylaid me and put me in the front row seat you selected. And besides, I’m not here to discover your secrets. I’m not that kind of reporter.”
His lips curled. “Oh, I have a pretty good idea what kind of reporter you are, Ms. Matthewson. You’re here to question me about Tony. You want that story. The one where I bemoan the fact that my brother and closest friend betrayed me.”
Now they were getting somewhere. “Are you saying your brother betrayed you?”
He broke off. Had she rattled him? But then he shook his head, speaking in a regretful tone. “And if it weren’t for the fact that this is so far beneath you, you’d’ve been out on your pretty little ass right after the show.”
“Beneath me?” She blinked. It almost sounded like a compliment. At least it was far enough from his former line of humiliating repartee to both intrigue her and throw her off.
“Beneath you.” He whirled, taking both her hands in an abrupt motion. They were on the casino floor, standing close to the windows. People at the nearby craps tables shot them curious glances. Had she followed him this far, blind to her surroundings? “I did some research. Not much, but enough to know who you are and what your capabilities are. You write crap, Ms. Matthewson.”
She winced. “Call me Stacey, and who the hell are you to make that judgment?”
“Doesn’t matter what I call you, you still write crap. And as your next intended victim, I think I’m pretty well qualified to make any judgments I want. You prey on people’s worst moments, immortalize the shadows and sell it to the highest bidder.” He paused, his lips compressing as if he didn’t want to say anymore, but then he added, albeit reluctantly. “And yet…you write well.”
“I write well?” She shook her head, aware he was still holding her hands. The warmth of his grasp combined with an unexpected gratitude for the compliment, and she felt a little too warm and also as if he were playing with her emotions so skillfully she was almost enjoying it. “Are you saying I write good shit?”
“Not really.” He dropped her hands and gestured around them. “Life is chance, Stacey. Have you never noticed that? I wonder what chance has brought you into my path. Was it Lady Luck?” As he spoke, a woman at a slot machine near them gave a cry of delight as bells and whistles began to sound. Andre grinned. “We better move on. Management tends to blame me when things like that happen.” He grasped her forearm and started toward the exit.
“Wait!” She pulled back, trying to check their forward progress. “Where are we going?”
“Where?” She shook her head. She felt exhausted from the yo-yoing of her emotions. “I don’t…”
“There’s a coffee shop in the shopping center across the street. It’ll be quieter than here.” He cocked an eyebrow at her again. “Of course, we could go to my suite, but then natural assumptions would be made…”
She blushed, wondering if he meant natural assumptions by him or someone else. Mattie or Bobby, maybe? “Oh. Okay.”
He bought two coffees and brought them back to the table where she’d dropped. She looked drained, exhausted from traveling, probably, but he had a guilty feeling he was partly responsible. He quashed the guilt. He didn’t want to feel concerned about her. She’d threatened his family, after all. But he couldn’t help it. There was more to this woman than her beautiful, tough exterior showed. He’d seen it in the articles Mattie brought him before the show. Especially in the later ones, he’d sensed sympathy for the subjects. She could definitely prove useful to him.
Tossing a few cream and sweetener packets on the table, he said, “I didn’t know how you took it.”
As he’d suspected, she disregarded both, taking a cautious sip of the steaming liquid. “Can you explain to me why exactly we’re here?”
He leaned back in his chair. “Could you please make up your mind? First you’re dying to interview me, now you don’t want to spend a moment alone with me.”
“You’ve made it pretty clear you don’t approve of my style of journalism.” Her mouth primmed up into a thin line. He wanted to tell her not to do that. Her lips were lush and full of promise, but compressing them that way made part of her allure disappear.
“I’m curious. What was your angle, anyway?” He took a sip of coffee, studying her over the white plastic rim. “How were you going to make this appeal to the masses? I’m not exactly a star. Yet.”
“Exactly.” She scrubbed her face wearily. “Fine. You’re not a star, but you’re an up-and-coming magician doing your first big gig in Vegas. Nobody doubts you’re going to be a star. And your agent–who also happens to be your brother–gets caught gambling away your advance a few weeks after you get here. You kept it quiet for longer than I would have imagined you could, too.” Her gaze was frankly curious. “What was it a week…or ten days ago that you sent him away?”
He shrugged. “Didn’t want exactly this kind of press to overshadow me.” And you’re going to help me with that. He leaned forward. “I’m pretty good at reading people. Requisite job skill for my chosen career, I suppose. You intrigue me. You’re afraid to be yourself, but you don’t like the person you’re pretending to be.”
She looked startled, but she quickly covered it up with a slightly derisive smile. “You’re grasping. You don’t really know anything about me.”
He brought one hand up to tick off points. “You’re not a natural blonde, you drink your coffee black even though you’d probably prefer it a little sweeter, you write crap when you’re capable of doing much better and you’re chasing a story in Vegas when you’re usually the bane of the A-list in Hollywood or New York. What’s your angle? You’re hunting a next-to-nobody in Vegas and even compromising the few scruples you still have. Why would you do that for me?”
She took a deep drink of the coffee. Too deep. It made her cough and sputter, and he knew she was hiding something.
He patted her on the back and continued. “I have a business proposition for you.”
“B-business?” She gasped the single important word.
“I’m thinking for one reason or another you’re a bit down on your luck. As you’ve noted, I’m down a staff member. I have no intention of hiring another agent, at least at this point. I have Bobby and Mattie for the day-to-day stuff and at least a six-month run here in Vegas. However, I could use someone to handle the press.”
Her coughing stopped. Was she too astounded by his offer to remember she’d nearly choked herself? The thought made him smile, but he hid it by standing.
“I expect you’d like to sleep on it, especially considering how late it is. Where are you staying?”
She stared at him and gulped. “I–haven’t had a chance to…”
He frowned. “You haven’t checked in or you don’t have a place to stay?”
“I came straight from the plane…” She trailed off, looking more tired than she had before, probably at the idea of finding a room at this late hour.
He glanced at the bag at her feet. He’d assumed it was a large purse, but he realized it was probably an overnight bag. Without waiting to hear her protest, he slung the bag over his shoulder and pulled her to her feet, starting toward the mall entrance.
“Where are we going?” She followed him.
Deciding she was tired enough to come with him regardless of whether he answered or not, he shushed her, pulling out his phone.
Greg answered on the second ring. Greg was the concierge in charge of keeping Andre happy, so when Andre called, he answered. So far, he hadn’t had a problem fulfilling Andre’s requests, and Andre hoped tonight would be the same, but considering his depleted bank account, he might be pushing his luck. As usual, however, Greg sounded courteous and ready to help. “Mr. Hawke. What can I do for you this evening?”
“Greg, I need a room. For a new staff member.”
“Certainly, sir. What will your staff member’s requirements be?” Greg had no doubt been anticipating this since Tony’s departure.
“A queen room should serve. With a study area.”
“And when will you be needing it?”
Andre eyed the woman stumbling along beside him. She needed a room sooner rather than later. She was dead on her feet. His financial position was well known at the hotel, however, and he couldn’t risk being too demanding. “Could we get her something tomorrow?”
“Absolutely. Shall I phone you when it is ready?”
“Thank you, Greg.” He hung up, pushing open the door to the resort. Maybe it would be better to keep her close until he had a full commitment from her anyway.
Okay, that’s it for Chapter One…now, go buy the book…
Well, all right. If you want a little more of a taste, how about Chapter Two?
Stacey rolled over and stretched, feeling the cool rustle of Egyptian cotton sheets against her body. Startled, she sat up, looking around. She remembered the coffee shop with Andre. He’d called someone, asked them about a room for her. She couldn’t remember what the upshot of it had been, but she did remember him bringing her to the hotel and showing her to a room before he left. I was really out of it.
Her bag sat at the foot of the bed, and she was still fully dressed. “Jeez, I must’ve been shattered to go to bed without changing.”
She frowned, remembering Andre’s job offer. Public relations. A press secretary. It wasn’t something she’d ever imagined herself doing, but since that story two months before that might have run if a sharp-eyed editor hadn’t double-checked her facts, she’d found it more and more difficult to sell her stories. Freelance reporting was an unforgiving career without room for error, especially when you were dealing with celebrities with enough money to sue at the slightest provocation. She pulled her knees up to her chest, hugging herself. Maybe this was what she needed.
Especially if it came with a perk like this room. She gave the floor-to-ceiling windows an appreciative look, located a remote and pressed it so the blackout curtains slid back. She let out a low whistle at the view of the Las Vegas skyline in the bright morning sunlight. “Nice.”
She needed a shower. The clothes she wore stuck to her skin, and she could feel the grime of travel hanging about her like a cloud. She thought of the kid in the Peanuts cartoons and smiled. “Pigpen. That’ll never do.” She threw back the covers and stripped to her bra and panties, deciding to carry her bag into the bathroom with her.
The bathroom wasn’t immediately visible, so she opened the bedroom door and stepped out into the short hall. Halfway down, she paused and sniffed. The scent of coffee pervaded the place. She shook her head. This place might be magnificent, but an automatic coffeemaker would be too much to ask. A small dining area opened to her left and she glanced in, pausing in amazement. A carafe of steaming coffee sat on the table, a folded newspaper and a couple of covered dishes beside it. She frowned. Room service? Without her having to even answer the door? A sudden terrifying suspicion filled her. Oh my God. She turned, ready to race back into the bedroom, but instead she ran directly into Andre, dressed in a robe and looking as if he’d just gotten out of the shower.
For an anguished moment, she froze, feeling his arms come up in an instinctive motion to steady her. She couldn’t look at him, her face burning with embarrassment.
“I ordered enough for two.”
She stole a look up at his amused expression and gritted her teeth, but then his grin softened, and she became aware that his hands were on the bare skin of her waist, the only thing between them her underwear and his robe…and she couldn’t look away from his violet eyes, a sudden rush of desire overcoming her embarrassment.
She’d dropped her bag when she ran into him, and her hands moved of their own accord to his arms, feeling the definition of his muscular biceps through the material of the robe. He didn’t look this muscular on stage. I guess he is hiding something up his sleeves. The thought made her smile, which fortunately broke the mood.
He grinned as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. “Good morning.” He stepped away from her, letting his hands linger just a moment longer before sliding away reluctantly.
“What–” She broke off and fought for control. Finally gaining it, she focused on him. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s my suite.”
“Your suite?” She gulped, feeling idiotic. “Oh God. Of course it is.” Hot blood flooded her face and she swallowed hard. “I–I didn’t think…I mean, I wasn’t… I’m really sorry. I just need to shower–”
“Go ahead.” He picked up the newspaper. “Then I’d like you to join me for breakfast.”
She fled the room, slammed the bathroom door behind her and locked it. She immediately felt silly. He hadn’t really done anything wrong. She was the one who’d assumed the suite was hers. Guilt overcame her. Had he slept on the couch so she could have the bed? God, she was such an idiot.
And this was a marvelous bathroom. Sunken whirlpool tub, sauna/shower, separate toilet and double marble sinks. She wished she had time for a bath but opted for a quick shower instead. She carefully applied her makeup and dressed in the dark red wrap dress she’d packed. She stepped back and examined her reflection with approval. The dress flattered her curves and showed just enough cleavage to be interesting without being too distracting. Taking a deep breath, she turned to the bathroom door. Time to face the music.
He wasn’t in the dining area or the living room. She noted the bedroom door was shut. He must be dressing. She felt a twinge of mixed disappointment and relief, which she quickly shook off, deciding to distract herself with a cup of coffee. He had said he’d ordered enough for two. She poured a steaming cup and took a sip just as the bedroom door opened.
Andre emerged, looking casually handsome in jeans and a white t-shirt with the logo for a Las Vegas bar on it. The shirt was just tight enough to accentuate the muscles of his chest and upper arms. He wasn’t exactly what Stacey would call brawny, but he was well built in a wiry sort of way.
She hadn’t noticed the sheaf of papers in his hands until he tossed them on the table. “There you go.”
“Pardon?” She raised her eyebrows over her coffee cup.
“The agreement for employment.” He nodded toward the papers. “Unless you’ve got something better going.”
“Better?” She snorted. “As you’ve already discovered, my career is at a standstill. And if you’re not going to give me the story I came for, it’s likely to remain that way. But why would you trust me enough to hire me?”
“I keep asking myself that same question.” He uncovered one of the dishes on the table and plucked out a danish, turning to contemplate her. “I keep coming back to instinct. You’re a beautiful, talented woman and you can do more with that than you have been. I’m willing to give you that opportunity, so why wouldn’t I trust you?”
His seemingly naïve logic took her breath away. She shook her head. “Because I came here to get a story. I’m a journalist, not a public relations babysitter.” She frowned at the paperwork. “Is there some magic in here that’ll stop me from getting my story and running with it? I could use the job to do it.”
He swallowed the bite of danish and motioned at the contract. “Standard non-disclosure agreement. You betray me and I’ll ruin you.”
The cool tone he uttered the words in chilled her. He could do it, too. His career was on the way up while hers was falling rapidly. Why shouldn’t she hitch herself onto his star? It wasn’t a particularly odious job. She could do it easily. But she’d be tying herself down. She wouldn’t enjoy the same freedom she had as a sensational journalist flying from one coast to another, writing stories and selling them to the highest bidding tabloid. And she wouldn’t suffer the same bouts of conscience every time she sold a story, either. She realized abruptly why his offer was so tempting.
It’s honest work. I haven’t done that in a while. She faced him. “The only way this will work is if you tell me everything.”
“Understood.” He took another bite of pastry.
“I mean everything.” She glared to make him understand how serious she was. “Anything that happens, anything that’s going to come up in a press conference. I have to know about it first, whether it’s personal or not. If you’ve gotten a woman pregnant or contracted gonorrhea, you tell me.”
He made a face. “I’m very careful about that sort of thing.”
“Right. Well, nobody’s perfect.” She studied the papers, flipping through them. Then she looked around for a pen, scanned the last page and signed, feeling as if she’d let go of a weight that had been pulling her down for a while. “Fine. The first thing we have to get through is this thing with your brother. Tell me.”
“You don’t waste time, do you?” He flipped through the pages. “But you forgot the nondisclosure agreement.”
“I’m not signing it.”
He leveled his dark blue gaze on her. “Then we don’t have a deal.”
As he turned away, she spoke. “You and I both know that agreement doesn’t mean shit. If I broke it, the damage would be done. I could have a book published and on the market, telling every secret you’ve got and you wouldn’t be able to stop me.”
He wheeled around, his eyes dark and angry. “I won’t work with someone who won’t agree not to sell my secrets.”
“I won’t be bound and gagged. Or put in a trance.” She folded her arms over her breasts. “You’re big on trust. You have my word. I will not disclose anything I ever learn about you or your magic while I am employed by you without your permission.”
“Then why won’t you sign the agreement?” He waved the paper at her. “No one else has ever had a problem with it. I’m offering you a real chance to do something positive with your life and you’re snubbing your nose at it. Why?”
“Because I’m not going to be another magic trick you can pull out of your hat. You can’t own me because I’m not for sale.” She paused, taking a deep breath. “You’re right. This is a good chance for me. I know my career’s in the toilet and I put it there. I made a mistake. I don’t have any intention of making another one. Standard confidentiality is already covered in the contract for the job. I signed that. I don’t intend to go above and beyond that just so you can be certain I’m in your pocket.”
His frown deepened and she nodded. “I can see this won’t work. I’ll get my things and be out of your hair in five minutes.”
As she started toward the bathroom where she’d left her bag, she heard him slap the papers on the table. “You’re maddening, you know that, right?”
She glanced over her shoulder. “That could be said for everyone in this room.”
Did she see a ghost of a smile? She couldn’t be certain, but then he shrugged. “Fine.”
“Fine?” The single word made no sense.
“Fine! Get back here. We have work to do.” He glared at the table, then looked back at her. “Don’t you dare make me regret this.”
His voice had lost its threatening edge, and she sensed a plea in it. Don’t make me wrong about you. I don’t want to be betrayed again. Her heart gave an extra thump and she stepped back into the room. “He really hurt you, didn’t he?”
His eyes narrowed. “We need to get to work, not talk about our feelings.”
“And you say I’m the one with trust issues.” She sat across from him, pulling out her computer.
He hesitated a second longer, then dropped into his seat, his expression still grumpy. “You do have trust issues. What if I asked you about your relationship with your family? From what I gather, it wasn’t the best, was it?”
Startled by the revelation that he’d delved into more of her life than just her professional work, she frowned. “My family is off limits.”
“But you expect me to tell you all about mine.” He grinned wickedly. “Tit for tat. Let’s play. I tell you something personal, you tell me something.”
“No.” She shook her head. “You made your family part of your professional life. Mine isn’t.”
“Don’t you work with your sister?” He raised his eyebrows, blue eyes studying her. “In fact, you’ve taken care of her for the past couple of years, haven’t you?”
Bella. Her heart squeezed with an almost maternal instinct. Bella was nineteen now, easily of age to take care of herself, but Stacey wondered how her sister would react when she called to tell her she wouldn’t be returning to New York anytime soon. Bella would be fine, though. She could keep the apartment and find some part-time temp jobs to help pay her way while she continued school. Stacey cleared her throat, opening her laptop and keeping her gaze averted from his. “Bella’s a big girl. She can take care of herself now.”
“Maybe.” He nodded. “If she’s anything like you, she can. But that begs the question of why you were taking care of her at all. I know your parents are alive and well and you have a younger brother in high school not more than an hour away from Manhattan. What’s up with all that?”
“And I know your father is alive and well and living in Montana.” She glared at him. “Tit for tat. Shall we get to work?”
“Touché.” He seemed undisturbed, and he leaned across the table. “You’ll tell me, you know. Eventually you’ll trust me enough to tell me all about it. Do you know why?”
She shook her head, her eyes caught by his. God, this man knew how to get under her skin. Under her skin, into her mind…as if he were determined to own her, as if her determination to hold him off was just fuel for his determination to have her. It was enough to make her grit her teeth against a wild desire to give into him.
His smile was confident. “Because I’m going to tell you all my secrets. And when I do, you’ll want to give me something back.”
He sat back, a satisfied expression on his face, and motioned toward her computer. “So let’s get started.”
Cursing him inwardly, she forced her attention to the work she knew needed to be done. True to his word, he told her about the evening he’d come back from dining with the producer of the show to find his brother gambling and drinking. Stacey could see the pain and concern beneath his cool exterior. She didn’t mention it, however, knowing he would end up turning the conversation onto her. He might be right about getting her to tell him her secrets, but she wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.
She kept her guard up throughout the morning, not giving him any opening until they were nearly done with the press release about his brother’s dismissal as an agent. Stacey had agreed to keep the scandal out of it, but she couldn’t resist pointing out to him that any press could be twisted to be good press.
“Not for my brother.” Andre’s expression was determined.
“You’re very forgiving. How long had he been stealing from you, anyway?”
“I didn’t say I forgive him. I haven’t. Not sure if I will. But he’s my brother and I won’t let this ruin him.”
“Is this a blood is thicker than water thing?”
He sat back in his chair. “What about your siblings?”
“My sister’s a sweet kid. My brother’s a bastard.” She turned her attention to her notes.
“You don’t like him or he’s literally a bastard?”
She snorted, smiling a little. “Literally. I don’t really know him, so I don’t know if I like him or not. My mom had an affair.”
“But your parents are still together? Did they work it out?”
She made an impatient movement, scattering the signed contract he’d set on the table. “Maybe I should have had you sign a nondisclosure agreement. Or a non-nosy one.”
“That would never work. Being nosy is in my nature.” His eyes twinkled.
“I get that.” She stood. “Look, I’ve got enough to work with here–”
“One more question.” He studied her, holding his coffee mug in his hands.
What was it about him that put her so off her game? She straightened the papers she’d been making notes on and snapped her notebook computer shut before answering. “What is it?”
Her unfriendly tone made him smile instead of flinch. “You mentioned you saw one of my early shows. The Clemson Theater in New York.”
She hadn’t expected that. “Yeah. That was the one.”
“What did you think?”
This time the question stopped her cold. She ceased shuffling the papers and met his gaze, almost reluctantly. Her carefully guarded memory of that last trick he’d performed and the way his eyes had met hers for a moment returned to her with a jolt. Of course he didn’t remember that moment. She’d been one in a crowd, just another girl. But he’d been and was Andre Hawke, a man who could make even the toughest of disbelievers think again.
Or believe. She yanked her gaze away, putting her computer into her bag. “It was great.” Her voice sounded a little shaky to her own ears. “I enjoyed–”
His phone rang, interrupting her. He held up one hand. “Just a sec.” After a brief conversation, he hung up. “Your room is ready.”
“You mean I don’t get to stay here with you? Bummer.” She rolled her eyes, happy with the change of subject. “Where’d you sleep last night, anyway?”
“Couch.” He motioned at the living area. “It’s not super comfortable, so I’ll be glad to send you your own way tonight.”
“Not to mention that a boy your age needs his privacy.” She gathered her notes. “How do I get to this room you mentioned?”
“Bellman is on his way to take your bag. And don’t worry about the tip. I’ll take care of it.” He touched her shoulder and she glanced up, raising her eyebrow. His next words surprised her…again. “I’m looking forward to seeing what you can do.”
Damn it. She could get lost in those eyes and that velvety voice. He wasn’t going to work his magic on her, though. She straightened her spine. “Don’t get your hopes up too high. I’ve been writing trash for so long, I may not be able to do anything else.”
His enigmatic smile was her only answer, for the bell sounded at that moment. He escorted her to the door, carrying her bag for her. When he opened it, he spoke quietly to the bellman, then turned back to her. “When you get the press release ready, email it to me. And perhaps you could join me for lunch here so we could go over it?”
“Sure. If you don’t need it before that.” She frowned, a little confused. He seemed so in control of everything. As if no one would dare cross the Great Andre before he was good and ready. But he was just a man, after all. Not a wizard, no matter how great an illusionist he might be. If she’d found out a good day and a half before, his secret was not safe much longer. Her sources were good, but they weren’t that good.
“We won’t. Schedule a press conference for this evening right before the show. I’ll let you know where.” He closed the door.
She shrugged and followed the bellman down the corridor to the elevator.
Her room was in an older part of the hotel. Much smaller and less luxurious than Andre’s suite, it was nonetheless very comfortable and adequate for her needs. An arrangement of fresh flowers was, she suspected, there at Andre’s request. Was he just being thoughtful or did he have ulterior motives? And what might those motives be? She ran a finger over a silky lily petal, remembering the moment in his suite when his hands had lingered on her skin. She considered letting her imagination run wild with the fantasy, but knew she couldn’t afford it. She worked with him now, and she suspected Andre was far too intelligent to mix business with pleasure.
She forced herself to concentrate on what needed to be done. Her decision to take this job didn’t just affect her. Bella might be technically an adult, but she was still dependent on Stacey. If Stacey wasn’t going to return to New York right away, she needed to let Bella know. Maybe she could find a roommate, take a temp job for a while. If this became more permanent, they could figure it out then.
She set up her computer and called Bella. “Hey.”
“Hey, yourself. How’d it go last night?”
“Huh?” Stacey started, remembering her earlier fantasy about Andre.
“The show. The magician…what’s his name?”
“Andre. Andre Hawke.” She took a deep breath. How had it gone? Too early to tell.
“C’mon, fangirl, dish. Is he as hot as he looks in his pictures? I can’t remember that show you’re always talking about. Guess he didn’t make as big an impression on me. But more important, did you get your story?”
“Oh my God, you slept with him.”
“No!” Bella’s accusation shocked Stacey, more because it was so factually stated than because it was close to her real fantasy. Who wouldn’t fantasize about Andre Hawke after spending an hour or two in his company? But Bella had jumped to that conclusion from thousands of miles away without any real idea of what Andre’s magnetic presence was like. “Why would you say that?”
Bella snorted. “Because you’re a total groupie. You’ve hero-worshipped that guy ever since you first saw him. And why else would you not get the story you went after? Anyway, are you coming back soon? I’ve been looking at the temp jobs, but none of them are half as interesting as working for you.”
Now was the time. Stacey squelched her big sister protective instincts. It would do Bella good to survive on her own for a change. By the time she was Bella’s age, she’d been supporting both of them. Bella rarely even went to the grocery store alone. “That’s the thing. I’m not exactly coming back.”
“You’re not coming back?” Bella sounded incredulous. “What? Why? Did you find another story?”
“No. Not exactly.” Stacey sighed. “It’s just that he offered me a job. Public relations.”
“Who offered you a job? The magician? You’re kidding me.”
“Andre offered me a job, and I’m not kidding. Salary and benefits and everything.”
“You’ve always said you don’t want a job like that.” Bella’s voice was understandably confused. “You’ve always said you prefer the freedom of–”
“Yeah, well, look where my ‘freedom’ got me.” Stacey bit off the words. “I’m next door to unemployed and destitute.” She paused and took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry. I’ll send you a check as soon as I can, but could you do me a favor and pack up some clothes and send them out this way? Jeans and whatever I’ve got that even vaguely looks like something you’d wear in Vegas.”
Bella finally broke several seconds of silence. “You’re not sleeping with him… Is he nice or something?”
“Nice?” Would she call him nice? Would anyone call Andre nice? The word didn’t seem to fit, at least not as well as so many others: mysterious, gorgeous, sexy, magnetic, charismatic… “I’m not…I mean, I guess so, yes.”
“Are you sure you didn’t sleep with him?”
“Of course not!” Stacey let her outrage slip into her voice. This was getting far more complicated than the simple conversation she’d anticipated having. “Look, could you just send the clothes here? I’ll email you the address.”
“Fine.” Bella had changed from shocked to sulky. With a sharp click, she hung up. Stacey looked at the phone blankly. What the hell? Her sister could act childish at times, but she’d always been grateful for what Stacey had done for her. Was it too much to expect her to be happy Stacey had found permanent employment, especially if it enabled Stacey to continue to support her?
Halfway through his morning workout, Andre’s doorbell rang. He opened the door, knowing it would be Mattie and Bobby. He’d expected them ever since his email half an hour before. He motioned them inside and reached for a towel. “What’s up?”
Mattie’s unplucked eyebrows shot up. She refused to spend money on spas and salons, but she was somehow more attractive than most of the women he’d dated who spent a great deal of money and time on their appearances. Mattie was smart, beautiful, loyal and one of his best employees, and she wasn’t going to take any crap from anyone, including Andre Hawke. “You’re kidding me. Who is this woman? She’s on the payroll now? I thought you just wanted to sleep with her.”
“He did.” Bobby helped himself to a water from the minibar.
“You did?” Mattie swung around to glare at Andre. “You slept with her and now she’s on the payroll. I guess that at least makes some sort of sense.”
“I didn’t, not that it’s anybody’s business.” Andre whacked the back of Bobby’s head and took the water bottle from him. He looped a fluffy towel around his neck and uncapped the bottle to take a long sip.
Unperturbed, Bobby plucked a pack of almonds from the bar. “Fine. Whatever. You don’t usually do much sleeping when a beautiful woman spends the night in your suite, I guess.”
“Jesus, Andre.” Mattie shook her head. “Haven’t you gotten fucked by enough employees this month?”
“Drop it.” He’d had enough. Mattie and Bobby were his oldest friends, but he wasn’t going to let even them talk about Tony. That was between him and his brother.
Mattie looked a little uncomfortable, but she didn’t back down. “Sorry. But seriously. You can’t just hire someone like her. She’ll dig up every secret you have and publish it. You’ll be ruined.”
“Relax, Matts.” Bobby grinned at her, sucking the salt off an almond. “Don’t you remember all those privacy agreements and shit we had to sign? And we’ve known him forever.” He gave Andre a satisfied look. “I’m sure Andre had someone like her sign twice as many agreements.”
Andre hesitated, uncomfortable. Mattie noticed and groaned. “Aw, shit. You’re kidding me.” She shook her head. “And he’s not even screwing her.”
“She wouldn’t sign it.” It sounded weak in his own ears, but he refused to question his decision now. “I decided it wasn’t necessary.”
“You decided?” She stomped to the door. “Fine. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Mattie.” His voice stopped her in her tracks and she glanced back. He scrubbed his hands on the towel and held his right hand out to her. She took a half step back toward him, as if she were about to take his hand, and he passed his left palm over his right. It burst into flame and she started. He smiled, closing his hand, reopening it and offering her the lily that had appeared there. “How many of my secrets do you know?”
She took the lily with a scornful look. “I’m not her. She’s got magic of her own, and the sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be.” And she flounced out of the room without another backward glance.
Bobby stood, looking amused. “She’s got gypsy blood in her, you know. She half believes all this shit you do.”
“Well, see if you can convince her Stacey isn’t a danger.” Andre wiped his hand on the towel again. He dropped into a chair across from his friend. Bobby was his best friend and only real confidante, now that Tony was out of the picture. Some might think that was pitiful. He’d picked up the kid at one of his earliest shows. A good eight years Andre’s junior, Bobby idolized the magician. Over the past few years, they had grown close. Almost as close as brothers. Almost. Andre winced a little but he kept it inside. He wouldn’t discuss his problems with Tony…not even with Bobby. And Bobby wouldn’t want him to.
He’d never expected Bobby and Mattie to hook up. Mattie was older, but not by much, and she’d been with Andre longer. Andre had always respected the woman who could do everything from manage his bookings to keeping his checkbook balanced. And she hadn’t looked at him twice as far as considering sleeping with him. But when they brought Bobby onto the staff, it hadn’t taken long before the two became an item. Their relationship had lasted the years, probably because Bobby idolized her even more than he did Andre.
He laughed at Andre now. “Are you sure she’s no danger?” He bit an almond in half and examined the insides like a surgeon, chewing thoughtfully. “I mean, she does seem to have some sort of magic. I didn’t think you’d trust anybody again after Tony, but this woman shows up with ulterior motives from the get-go and before the night is out, you’re offering her a job.”
Andre considered. Bobby had always been able to make him think twice. He didn’t resent his younger friend’s intrusions as much as he did Mattie’s hot-blooded accusations. “That’s just it. She never made a secret of why she was here. I mean, she wasn’t backstage more than a minute before she laid her cards on the table. I respect that.” He took a swig of the water.
Bobby raised one eyebrow and stood, popping the other half of almond into his mouth. “I’ll work on Mattie, but don’t count on much.”
“Sure.” Andre remained in the seat he’d taken, looking at the blank wall on the other side of the kitchen. “Thanks.” He stayed there as Bobby left the room, thinking of Mattie’s words. She’s got magic of her own, and the sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be.
Now, that’s really it. Seriously. If you want to find out what happens to Andre and Stacey now, go buy the book! It’s available in paperback and Kindle format on Amazon. And thanks for reading!