The days may be cold, but the nights are red hot in USA Today bestselling author Lucy Monroe’s Northern Fire contemporary romance series.
Deborah Banes gave up her family for her dreams and when the role of a lifetime requires a location shoot in Cailkirn, Alaska, she know she can weather the freezing cold temperatures. It’s the heat she feels when she sets eyes on the tall, rugged, and impossibly stubborn Rock Jepsom that has her worried.
Rock doesn’t live by anyone’s rules but his own. He’s given everything he has to make his land and his hometown something he can be proud of, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to give it all up to bright lights and big stars. Not even Deborah Banes’ mega-watt smile can convince him to change his mind. But as the sparks between them intensify, Rock realizes that the fire they’re feeling could be more than the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood . . . it could be the real thing.
The warning came a second before Deborah Banes’ seat companion plopped a half-full plastic cup on her small food tray.
Right next to where she’d been tapping away on her tablet.
The strong scent of spirits hit her nostrils as the amber liquid sloshed over the sides, barely missing the minicomputer she’d given up movie nights and her favorite herbal tea at Starbucks for six months to afford.
“Cool it, Carey!” Three hours into the five-hour flight, Deborah’s patience with the younger actor was wearing thin.
She couldn’t decide if her co-star for the indie film she’d landed her first starring role in at the ripe age of twenty-nine was nervous, excited, or both. She sincerely hoped this was not his natural state. As they travelled together, he had annoyed with enough persistence to give her some serious concerns about the next ten weeks. Regardless of how talented his screen test had shown him to be.
“Lighten up, Debs.” His affected English accent slipping, he gave her the winning smile that made the director’s second assistant giggle like the school girl she’d left behind decades before.
Deborah gave a mental eye-roll. The man was from Alaska, not the UK. And apparently had the perfect location for filming, which he’d offered the producers in exchange for his role.
Not that it had been put that way to Deborah, but secrets were hard to keep in Hollywood. Talent wasn’t everything in this business. Considering what starring opposite Carey James would mean for her career, she was just grateful he had his fair share of it.
She’d made her own deal with the devil to make this film and it wasn’t for her credit as primary female lead.
“My name is Deborah,” she told him for something like the tenth time.
Carey nodded sagely, alcohol turning his bright eyes hazy. “I know.”
“So, maybe, I don’t know…could you try and use it?”
He laughed like she’d made a joke. “Sure, Debs.”
Oh, sheesh. “Carey?”
“Don’t you think you should take a nap before we land?” she hinted.
“Plenty of time to sleep later tonight.” He winked. “Much later.”
She could do without the heavy-handed flirting. If she thought for a second he was really hitting on her, she’d shut him down fast. But he wasn’t giving off that vibe. He was what Deborah’s first college roommate had called harmlessly tipsy.
“Or, you know, right now.” She tried appealing to his ego. “You don’t want poufy eyes on the first day of filming.”
For a brief moment, she thought it was going to work as his expression turned horrified, but it smoothed out a second later. “The camera crew doesn’t arrive with the equipment until tomorrow. They’ll take at least a day to set up.”
“Did you even look at the schedule?” Because the one she’d been emailed indicated preliminary takes were happening the next afternoon.
At least one cameraman with basic equipment had to have flown in with the primary film crew that arrived into Anchorage a couple of days before. The director, Art Gamble, and his assistants were supposed to visit the Cailkirn location today in order to determine initial settings.
Independent films ran on a tighter schedule as well as a much tighter budget. Not to mention about a tenth of the crew associated with a blockbuster production. Even so, she thought it was an ambitious schedule. Deborah might have negotiated her way into a tiny production credit and the chance to direct two scenes, but in Art’s eyes she was still the actor, not an official part of his team.
According to Carey, who was never loathe to talk about himself, he had given some very detailed specs on the property outside Cailkirn, Alaska. Presumably, Art and his crew were not going in blind. Deborah still wished she was with them.
She’d never expected to go all the way to Alaska for her first break onto the big screen, or for that break to be her way to the other side of the camera.
After another jostle at her elbow that sent more of her untouched drink splashing dangerously close to her tablet, she gave up any hope of adding to her notes on her character. She put the computer safely away.
Deborah tried for a genuine smile for Carey. “Is your family still in Alaska?” It wasn’t his fault he was young for his age and she was old for hers.
At least on the inside.
Her skin? Was flawless. Some things were more important than running the dilapidated AC unit in her apartment.
Carey grimaced, his expression turning almost furtive, before it smoothed into his usual smile. “Just my older brother. My sister is going to the San Francisco School of Fine Arts.”
“Acting is in the blood, huh?”
“You bet. You’ve heard of my parents, Georgia Howell and Errol Jepsom.”
Okay, so the hokey old stage names ran in the family. “Um, I…” She hated to admit she didn’t know the pair, but she’d never heard of either actor.
“I guess they were a little older than you.”
Ouch. “If they were your parents, that’s a good guess.”
He smiled, like he hadn’t just insulted her. “They made mostly low budget films. Classics really. Mom was like Jamie Lee Curtis.”
“She got her start as a scream queen?” Deborah wasn’t sure the comparison was an accurate one, even if both women had gotten their start in the industry doing horror films.
Georgia Howell had clearly not parlayed that beginning to major stardom. Unlike Jamie Lee Curtis.
“Yeah, but she and dad fell in love, had us kids and well, they died tragically before they got their big break.” Carey looked almost defensive. “They did all right though.”
“So, is your brother an actor too?”
“No chance. He’s got the looks. The name. Rock Jepsom, right? But he’s got no sense of drama.”
Deborah had a feeling Carey had enough dramatic sense for both brothers.
Rock yanked the fifty-pound hay bale down from the stack and carried it to Orion’s stall. The large, black Percheron stallion was in the paddock with Rock’s gray mare of the same breed, Amanda. He’d planned to ride this morning, but he was too pissed.
He needed to work off some of his anger before mounting a horse, even a calm-tempered one like Orion.
It wasn’t enough Rock’s baby brother had gone to the Lower 48 to follow the same dreams that had killed their parents. No, the idiot had to spend the entire inheritance Rock had built him out of the money their parents left chasing the fantasy.
He probably thought Rock didn’t know the money was gone, but seriously? Like he wouldn’t have left himself a backdoor to his brother’s accounts when he turned over his inheritance. It was because of that backdoor that Carey still had money to go back to university if he wanted to.
Not that Rock would tell the twenty-two-year-old that.
Not after Carey had signed away the use of Rock’s land as a movie location.
In exchange for a damn lead role.
Not that the suits who’d shown up at Rock’s gates had said that exactly, but he wasn’t an idiot.
And neither was his brother, really, all evidence to the contrary. Carey knew how pissed Rock would be when he found out what his little brother had done.
The boy wouldn’t have risked Rock’s wrath for anything less than a shot at his big break. The same big break their parents had still been chasing when their plane crashed ten years ago.
Damn it. Rock flaked the hay into Orion’s stall with vicious movements.
Just damn it all to hell and back.
He could hear Carey now. “Please, Rock. You know how important this is to me.”
The little shit was going to be shocked when he realized Rock wasn’t falling for it this time.
The execs had been surprised enough when Rock refused them entry to Jepsom Acres. Both times. The director had arrived with his assistant first. When Rock refused to open the gate, he’d left, only to return an hour later with the executive producer. They’d had a hard time believing Carey hadn’t told Rock about the deal. Rock wasn’t.
It was typical Carey James move.
If he’d thought Rock would be too embarrassed or loyal to tell the execs the papers giving them access to his land weren’t worth the pulp used to make them, then Carey must have suffered brain damage down there in LA.
Carey and his twin Marilyn’s names might still be on the deed, but their combined ownership only totaled twenty percent. Both had opted to accept more money from Rock in exchange for most of their inherited interest in the house and land when they turned twenty-one.
At least Carey hadn’t run through that as fast as he had the half-a-million Rock had been forced to turn over to his brother on his eighteenth birthday.
He hadn’t wanted to buy his sister and brother out completely. They were family and should know they still had a home, no matter where their wanderlust might take them. Even if their only parent was an older brother.
But he’d needed to know his home was safe from the obsession with stardom. Rock had put too much into building a life completely unimpeded by show business. It was a damn good thing he’d done things the way he had.
If he hadn’t, he’d have an entire film crew and cast camping out on his front lawn. Now, wouldn’t he?
Excitement fizzing like champagne through her, Deborah rolled her suitcase toward the airport exit, her matching (if slightly beat up) carryon stacked on top. It wasn’t Carey’s full set of London Fog luggage, but she was here for the same chance he was. To star in a film that had all the right elements to launch them both a huge leap forward.
Besides, her battered bags bought at a discount outlet held what she needed and that’s all that mattered. At least they did if she’d packed right.
After checking the projected weather reports, Deborah had brought clothes she usually reserved for winter in LA. Still, she wasn’t sure the light sweaters meant to be layered over tank tops and T-shirts would be warm enough. Summer came to the Kenai Peninsula, but with the exception of a few days of unpredictable highs, it was nothing like summer in Southern Cali, that was for sure.
Bright neon proclaimed the Mooselaneous souvenir shop to her left, saying better than the Welcome Alaska sign that she wasn’t in LA anymore. The airport’s interior renovations were smooth and sleek, but the river stone columns and quirky storefronts fit her image of Alaska to a T.
Deborah was smiling, allowing her innate sense of adventure to surface after the long plane ride, as the sound of raised voices drew her attention from her first impression of the state with more landmass than Pluto.
Shocked by the faces that went with the voices, Deborah stopped in the middle of the concourse.
Gesticulating wildly, Carey was talking to the head producer and director.
Deborah couldn’t make sense of the two major power people on the film being at the airport right now. Carey, Deborah and the other actors were supposed to take a hired shuttle to Cailkirn.
She knew they were. She even had the driver’s name and number to call in case he wasn’t waiting for them outside baggage claim.
Art Gamble and Elaine Morganstein were supposed to be on location already. Neither had struck her as the type to come to the airport just to welcome the cast and escort them to the location.
Sure, they might have sent an assistant to do it, but not Art and Ms. Morganstein.
They didn’t look happy either.
Ms. Morganstein, a woman in her mid-fifties who’d had undisputed success as a producer in the independent film industry, had her arms crossed and her face set in severe lines. Art, the film’s director and another indie film success story, was doing all the yelling.
Carey just looked like he was doing some really fast talking.
None of this spelled a relaxing drive to Cailkirn spent taking in the beauty of the Kenai Peninsula, not if they were all in the same car and Deborah had a sinking feeling that would indeed be the case. She was pretty sure she could write off the evening she’d had planned for settling in with some time to go over the script again too.
Suddenly chilled, she pulled her gray cardigan close. She should be used to this kind of drama (whatever had inspired it) in her volatile industry, but she had to admit it was one of her least favorite aspects to the career she’d chosen.
Other passengers moved around her, reminding Deborah that she was stopped in the direct line of foot traffic. Wishing she could simply pretend she hadn’t seen, she forced herself back into movement, but changed her direction toward the little scene playing itself out.
She’d never found avoidance an effective course of action and this? Was too important. She wasn’t young and rich like Carey. Deborah’s entire future hinged on this role and the success of the movie.
The producer noticed Deborah before the others, a small, but imperious jerk of Ms. Morganstein’s head indicating she wanted her female lead front and center.
As she arrived, Deborah heard, “My name is on the deed.” Carey’s tone implied it wasn’t the first time he’d made the claim.
“It better be, Mr. James, or you are done in LA.” The director’s voice could have crushed rock.
Or a new actor’s career.
Deborah found herself shivering again. And she wasn’t the recipient of Art’s stony gaze.
“Is there a problem?” she asked, not sure she wanted an answer, but nevertheless needing to know.
“Apparently there is some disagreement as to who is actually the property holder for our location.” Ms. Morganstein’s voice dripped acid.
Deborah winced with reluctant sympathy for Carey. If he’d screwed this film over, she’d want to kill him, sure. But the person who would come out the worse from this would be Carey James. No question.
“I don’t think I understand,” Deborah said carefully. “I thought Carey owned the location property.”
“I do,” Carey said with enough earnestness, she almost believed him.
He was an actor after all.
Ms. Morganstein’s eyes narrowed, but she nodded. “Then you’ll have no trouble coming with us and reminding your caretaker of that fact.”
“He’s um not exactly the caretaker,” Carey said.
Deborah’s stomach clenched with tension. This was not going to be good.
“What exactly is he?” the producer asked icily.
Art snorted with impatience, his brows beetling in his trademark expression. “We gathered that.”
“Um, we both own the land. Along with my sister.” Carey spoke with clear reluctance.
Deborah was surprised when both the director and producer relaxed. She wasn’t feeling relaxed. At all. Carey seemed pleased though, his own shoulders sagging in obvious relief.
“We’ll have to remind him of that fact then,” Art said with palpable satisfaction.
Carey nodded like a bobble head. “You bet, that’s what we’ll do.”
“So long as your name is on the deed, the contract you signed giving us permission to shoot on the property is still valid.” Ms. Morganstein’s tone had warmed a degree, or two.
“Are you sure about that?” Deborah asked, wishing for just this once she could ignore the practical side of her nature.
But seriously? Property law wasn’t universal and it sounded like a legal mess to her.
Ms. Morganstein flicked her hand dismissively. “We’ll get the lawyers on it. We may not be a big studio, but I’m sure our legal team will run rings around a provincial Alaskan man from the barely-there town of Cailkirn.”
Deborah didn’t mention that her research on the town had revealed that Alistair Banning, the reclusive billionaire, was also a citizen of Cailkirn and that while the town was small, it was a significant tourist stop on the cruise routes. She wasn’t sure small town equaled provincial and Deborah was fairly confident provincial didn’t mean ignorant or easily intimidated.
“Um, yeah.” Carey didn’t sound too sure either, but neither their head director nor their top producer seemed to notice.
“Okay, change in plan.” Ms. Morganstein uncrossed her arms and started walking, talking as she covered the distance to the exit swiftly. “We go directly to the location and get this matter cleared up. Every hour it remains unresolved is costing us money.”
“All of us?” Deborah asked.
“I don’t think the entire cast and crew needs to descend on the poor man. I’m sure having the two primaries, the director, producer and our assistants will be enough.”
Deborah felt like she was supposed to pity the poor man, but something in Carey’s expression said he didn’t think the six of them were a match for his brother.
Well, wasn’t that just lovely?
Her first big role and it was in jeopardy before they’d even started rehearsals.
Rock wasn’t surprised by the buzzing at the gate. He’d been more surprised by the fact the movie suits hadn’t come back before now. Besides, he’d been expecting Carey.
The younger man had called last week to say he was coming for a visit. The fact he hadn’t mentioned that the visit included using Rock’s land as a film location was beside the point.
Carey might only own ten percent of it, but Jepsom Acres was still his home and as much as Rock might be tempted to tell his little brother to get lost right now, he wasn’t going to. If those movie people were with him, they were fair game though. The video camera at the gate only showed Carey standing beside a large dark SUV. The tinted windows didn’t reveal who was driving, or if there were others in the truck.
Rock pressed the intercom. “Yeah?”
“You know it’s me, Rock.” His brother glared up at the camera. “Open the gate.”
“You forget your remote access?”
“It’s in the bottom of my suitcase.”
“Maybe you should dig it out then.” Oh, yeah. He was pissed and if Carey didn’t realize it, that ought to do it.
“Rock, I’ve got people here with me. Stop being a dick and open the gate.” Carey’s frustration came through the intercom loud and clear.
Rock bit back a suggestion about what Carey could do with his attitude. He was thirty-two, not twelve. No matter how mad he was at his brother. It was his job to set the example. It always had been, for all the good it had done him.
He pressed the button to release the gate.
A minute later, Rock watched from the wraparound porch as the large black rental SUV came to a halt in front of his home. The doors opened and the two suits who had tried to gain entrance to his land before stepped out from the front. Carey climbed out of the back, his hair dyed black, his clothes trendy and his smile nervous as hell.
Rock rejected his initial instinct to protect his baby brother like he’d been doing his whole life and didn’t let any of his own emotions show on his face. No matter what, he was happy to see his brother, but he was pissed too. Both emotions were for private consumption only.
Unless things got out of hand and then well, the pissed was going to show in a way that wasn’t going to make any of these cheechakos comfortable.
He frowned to himself. The term for newcomers to Alaska fit these people, though tourist might be better. They didn’t plan on staying, now did they?
His muscles tight with tension he would not reveal, Rock leaned with deceptive negligence against the square verandah pillar nearest the top of the steps. He waited in silence for Carey and his posse to come to him.
Movement on the other side of the SUV caught Rock’s gaze, though. The beautiful dark-haired woman stepping down had a face as smooth as porcelain, but eyes the exact shade of his favorite dark chocolate reflected fatigue and worry. Nothing in the perfect oval of her features said she was happy, or wanted to be there.
Dammit to hell. Carey hadn’t just screwed Rock over with this stunt.
She came around the car, her body moving with elegant grace that made Rock hard just watching. Shock coursed through him at his instant reaction to the woman.
She wore an open gray sweater over a white top, a gray, white and pink print scarf settled stylishly around her neck and snug pink jeans tucked into brown riding boots. The outfit was not overtly sexual, but on her, it was hot as hell and gave him all sorts of ideas about peeling back her layers.
Her boot heels weren’t as high as the other woman’s power stilettos, but the beauty stood at least an inch taller, making her maybe eight to nine inches shorter than Rock’s own six-foot-four.
His favorite height difference for his bed partners.
He couldn’t even pretend not to know where that thought had come from. Despite his simmering anger, Rock’s libido had woken with the first glimpse of her espresso brown hair.
He did not date women in the business.
Not that sex always meant dating.
“Rock!” Carey’s insistent tone and volume was impossible to ignore.
Dragging his gaze back to his brother, if not his full attention, Rock asked, “What?”
“Aren’t you going to invite us in?”
“You don’t need an invitation.”
Carey nodded and led his little group up the stairs and past Rock. The middle-aged woman and young man who had been in the far back seats of the SUV followed last.
Rock didn’t hesitate to break in between them and the beauty, walking beside her across the porch and then allowing her inside his home ahead of him.
He inhaled her scent as she walked by, his dick responding instantly to the subtle musk mixed with a wisp of spring flowers. He had always appreciated a woman who didn’t drench herself in perfume, but none had ever caught his senses in a vice like this one.
He wanted to press her up against the entry wall and bury his nose in that sexy place where a woman’s neck met her shoulder and just inhale. What he wanted to do after was a lot earthier.
Carey had gone directly into the living room, he and the two suits already seated by the time Rock walked in behind the woman wreaking havoc with his focus and libido.
“Rock, this is Elaine Morganstein, executive producer and Art Gamble.” Carey indicated the two suits with his hand. “The director on my current film.”
Rock nodded his acknowledgement but wasn’t about to lie and say he was pleased to meet the two.
When Gamble didn’t bother to stand up to shake Rock’s hand and Ms. Morganstein merely gave him half a smile, he didn’t regret that lack either.
Momentarily dismissing them, he turned to the beauty who had yet to sit down. “And you are?”
“Deborah Banes, your brother’s co-star.” She put her hand out.
He took it without hesitation. “Pleased to meet you, Deborah.”
Her almost grimace said she very much doubted that and he appreciated the honesty of her reaction enough to grace her with a rare smile. “What do you think of Alaska?”
“What I’ve seen so far is beautiful, fascinating…I hope I’ll get to stay long enough to get a real impression.”
He inclined his head, surprised by his instant mental agreement with that hope. After a lifetime’s habit, he managed to keep his thoughts to himself, though.
He hadn’t let go of her hand and she hadn’t tried to pull away. He liked that. Using that connection, he led her to the matching distressed leather sofa facing the one on which Carey sat.
Deborah perched on the edge of the cushion and Rock took the other end, leaving the two seats beside Carey for the as-yet unnamed guests in his home.
Rock gave Carey a pointed look. He’d taught his brother better manners.
Carey managed to look abashed and breezy at the same time, while introducing the director’s assistants. He remembered the twenty-something man from the director’s initial visit. The older woman was new, though.
“Carey, are you going to offer your guests refreshments?” Rock asked in the awkward silence that had fallen after the overlooked introductions.
“Is Mrs. Painter still here?”
“Why wouldn’t she be?”
“I don’t know. I just…”
“It’s not the weekend. She’s here.”
“Great.” Carey jumped up. “I’ll ask her to make coffee.”
“You do that.”
Ms. Morganstein watched the interaction between Rock and his brother with narrow-eyed interest. The director was too busy looking around the living room with unmistakable avarice to notice anything else but the space.
Rock wasn’t worried the man was planning to rob him. No, he was seeing location, location, location.
“I hope this indicates you are in a more reasonable frame of mind today.” Ms. Morganstein swept her hand out, indicating them all sitting civilly in his home.
“My brother brought guests to my home. That got you in the door, it didn’t guarantee you access to my property or my home.”
“His home too.”
She smiled, her eyes flashing with definite triumph. “He said his name is on the deed.”
“So, our contract stands.”
“What contract might that be?”
“The one we told you about yesterday,” she said with some asperity. “When you refused us entrance to the property.”
“Did you send a copy of that contract to my lawyer for my signature and I don’t know about it?”
“What? No. We were unaware that Carey James wasn’t the only owner of the property.” Her tone said she didn’t like admitting that little fact.
“Carey James doesn’t own shit. Carey Jepsom’s name is on the deed to my land.”
“You are playing with semantics. Your brother is co-owner of this land and as such, legally able to enter into contractual obligations relating to it.”
Deborah made a soft sound beside him and he guessed she wasn’t as sure as her boss.
Carey walked back into the room right then, so Rock directed his comments to the younger man. “Tell your producer what percentage of Jepsom Acres you own, Carey.”
“You said it would always be my home.”
“Did you want to move back in?”
“Of course not!”
“Then that point is moot.”
“Not exactly, Mr. Jepsom. Your brother’s claim to this home is exactly what we are discussing.”
“My brother accepted a significant amount of money from me when he turned twenty-one, in exchange, he relinquished everything but a ten percent interest in the property. I own eighty percent of Jepsom acres and that number increases while Carey’s decreases with every improvement I make that increases the value of the property which he does not participate in materially.”
He watched calmly as the arrogant satisfaction faded just a bit in both the director (who was now paying his undivided attention to the discussion) and the producer’s expressions.
“I knew it,” Deborah said under her breath.
Rock shifted his gaze to her. “Knew what, Miss Banes?”
He nodded and waited for her to answer.
She flicked a gaze to Carey and then her producer and director. Rock wasn’t surprised when she shook her head instead of answering.
“Percentages aren’t the only important element in a contract like this,” the director said with the authority of a man used to talking out of his ass and expecting others not to notice.
“I promise you, it’s all that matters with this one.”
“I’m not sure a judge would see it that way.”
Carey made a familiar sound. He wasn’t happy, but he didn’t know how to fix something when smothering it with charm didn’t work.
Rock fixed his little brother with a look he’d had to develop raising two younger siblings after their parents died. “You plan to try to sue me for use of my property, Carey?”
“I don’t think it needs to come to that,” Carey said weakly.
“Oh, it most certainly will if you don’t find your way toward some semblance of reason,” Ms. Morganstein said, like she thought the threat would intimidate him.
Rock didn’t intimidate easily. “You are welcome to take this to court, ma’am, but I guarantee you’ll be wasting both time and money best spent on finding another location for your movie.”
“You’re prepared for an expensive legal battle?” she asked in a tone that said she was sure he wasn’t.
He looked around his own living room and out the large picture window at the manicured landscaping and well-maintained drive beyond. “What about my home gives you the impression I do not have the resources to grind your fancy LA lawyers into the Alaskan dirt?”
She jerked back in her chair, her mouth falling open.
“Have you even looked into Alaska real estate values, ma’am?”
He wasn’t above enjoying the way she winced every time he used the word ma’am. She didn’t like being referred to by a word that implied she was older than him. His mother had always hated it.
“I assure you being a big man in a small town doesn’t buy you much when our so-called fancy lawyers come to town.”
Irritated and done with the conversation, Rock stood up. “How about this, ma’am? I’ll give you my lawyer’s card. You have your people contact him and then you decide if you think it’s worth pursuing this.”
He crossed the room, intending to go to his office and get the card.
“Go with him,” he heard the director hiss from behind Rock.
He was shocked when the person who caught up with him in the hall was Deborah, not Carey. “What they hell? Why did they send you with me?”
“I don’t know.”
Rock automatically adjusted his stride to accommodate the woman who’d sent his libido into overdrive. “Your bosses made a mistake signing that contract with Carey and not bothering to check the title before bringing everyone up here.”
“They don’t seem like idiots.”
Deborah made a sound between laughter and impatience. “Your brother can be very convincing.”
“He gets that charm from our father.”
“What about you?”
“Where did you get your stubbornness from?”
He turned to face her as they came into his office. “According to my mother, it was her dad. He still runs a ranch in Texas.”
He’d never met his grandparents until after his parents died. The Jepsoms had passed on by then, but his mother’s people still lived in Texas.
He liked to tease his granddad about their baby-sized state claiming a couple, three of them would fit in Alaska’s borders. While the truth was that Alaska covered two-point-three times the square miles of Texas, his granddad always argued. The old man swore better than lifelong Cailkirn resident Norris MacKinnon when Maisie wasn’t around to hear.
“Why do you live in Alaska then?”
“It’s home.” And he’d had enough never knowing where that was in his younger years.
She ran her hand along the solid bookshelf he’d commissioned from Natural Furnishings. “Carey’s home too.”
Norris MacKinnon had built the office suite himself and Rock was proud of the solid furniture. It wasn’t anything like the pressboard crap his parents usually bought because they never planned to stay in any one place very long.
“When it’s convenient for him to think so, yeah.”
“He loves Jepsom Acres with a sincerity he doesn’t show everything else.” Even acting, her words implied.
Rock wouldn’t say how much he liked hearing that.
The woman turned him on unexpectedly and completely, but she wasn’t his confessor. Or a friend.
Rock grabbed the law firm’s business card and turned to face Deborah. “I’m still not sure what you’re doing here.”
“I’m in Cailkirn to make a movie.” Her smile was soft, but her tone held a certain level of hardness he respected.
“I get that, but why did your director send you with me right now? To babysit me?”
A cynical look came over Deborah’s features, making him wonder if she was older than the very early twenties that she looked. “I’m pretty sure babysitting wasn’t what they had in mind.”
“They noticed how I reacted to you.” And weren’t above using whatever or whomever they needed to get what they wanted.
The question was: Was Deborah amenable to being used?
Her laugh was laced with genuine humor. “I’m pretty sure a blind man would have and those two are sharks in the water.”
Carey was the only one who might begin to realize how unexpected that was, but Rock doubted his baby brother paid enough attention to have connected those particular dots.
“You don’t look offended.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You looking back?”
“You’re pretty direct.”
“Subterfuge is not my thing.” He stepped closer to her, the electricity arcing between them.
Her breath caught. “Not like your brother.”
“Carey will work any angle to catch his big break.” Though out-and-out lying? That was something new.
Had his baby brother changed so much in the four years since he left Cailkirn?
Deborah looked up at Rock, her voice coming out soft and shivering along his nerve endings. “He says your parents were in the business.”
“They were.” The ability to be single-minded was a family trait and right now, Rock’s was set on the woman in front of him.
“Then he comes by it naturally.”
Deborah couldn’t have said anything more effective to throw a wash of cold water over his sexual desire.
Rock stepped back. “He could have followed my example.”
“You don’t like the fact he’s an actor.” She studied him, like she was trying to understand.
He didn’t figure she’d be in Alaska long enough.
He turned toward the door. “No.”
It was time to get back to the others and end this farce. No matter how he reacted to this woman, he couldn’t afford to forget that she was from Carey’s world, not Rock’s.
Deborah laid her hand on his arm, stopping him from walking out of the office. “He’s still welcome in your home.”
And just like that, from a single, small connection, reason flew out the window and desire wreaked havoc with Rock’s heart rate and breathing.
Doing his best not to let her see the effects such a simple touch had on him, he faced her again. “I’ve been taking care of Carey and Marilyn since Mom brought them home from the hospital.”
“You couldn’t have been that old.” A gaze as warm and delicious as chocolate sauce asked him the question her words hadn’t.
Rock shrugged. “I was the oops baby. Marilyn was planned ten years later. Her twin, Carey, was the surprise that time.”
His parents had wanted a daughter. They’d gotten another son too, but one who fit their version of a family better than Rock ever had. And they’d had ten-year-old Rock to help take up the slack with his younger siblings.
“Still, ten is pretty young to be taking care of a baby.” Her tone said she thought he might be exaggerating things a little.
He wished, and not for the first time, that he was. “My parents put their careers first, last and always. You know the hours your industry demands.”
“I do. You had to have had a nanny.”
“Sometimes.” And that was all he was going to say about that. “Did you do it on purpose?”
He backed her toward the wall, stopping only when their bodies were separated by less than a breath. “Avoid answering my question.”
“I was looking back.” Her voice was laced with the same desire heating his blood, but her expression reflected uncertainty.
Rock nodded. “Good to know.”
“Is it?” she asked.
“You don’t mind I’m supposed to be your incentive to fall into line?”
“I’m more interested in knowing if it bothers you to be the incentive?”
“Who said I was?” She slid away from him and stopped at the door. “I’m an actor, not an escort.”
With that, she turned smartly on her heel and left his office.
Damn, he enjoyed her spirit and he liked even more that she didn’t automatically fall in with her bosses’ evident plans to entice Rock into cooperation.
Rock couldn’t deny enjoying the way Ms. Morganstein’s mouth pinched in consternation as she took his lawyer’s card.
She silently handed it to the director, who cursed. “These are your lawyers?”
The director’s expression turned crafty. “What, they file your business paperwork with the state?”
“Among other things.”
“Is it your company’s name on the deed, or your own?” Ms. Morganstein asked.
She smiled. “I think you’ll find putting them on personal retainer is a bit more than you expect it will be.”
“They already are.” Exasperated by their ignorance, he stared at Carey. “What have you told them about me?”
“I can tell.”
“Why don’t you tell us what your brother hasn’t?” Gamble invited, all jovial.
“I already did.” But the film people hadn’t been listening. Typical. His parents had been damn good at only hearing what they wanted too. “He doesn’t have enough vestment to make any kind of legally binding agreement regarding Jepsom Acres without my approval.”
“What’s the name of your company?” the producer asked crisply.
“Does it matter? I told you it’s not on the deed to my land.”
Mrs. Painter arrived with the coffee tray.
“Denali Venture Capital & Investments,” Carey said on a huff. He glared at Rock. “It’s not like it is a big secret.”
“No. Just not relevant.”
Apparently, the director didn’t agree. He was typing something into his phone. “How do you spell that?”
Carey told him. “It’s the Athabascan word for Mt. McKinley. Rock likes to think of himself as that big and that solid.”
Rock ignored his brother’s sarcasm and stood to help Mrs. Painter with the coffee. He wasn’t surprised the rail-thin producer took hers black. Deborah refused any at all.
“Would you care for something else?” he asked her.
“Filtered water if you have it.”
“This isn’t LA, miss,” Mrs. Painter said. “Rock’s well provides some of the sweetest and freshest water you’ll find, even in Alaska.”
Deborah gave his housekeeper a smile Rock wouldn’t mind having turned on himself. It was so genuine and sweet. “I’d love a glass, if you don’t mind.”
Mrs. Painter left to get it and Rock got pulled back into the conversation.
“You must realize we’ve got too much money invested in this location already to simply walk away,” Ms. Morganstein said with firm resolve.
Gamble nodded. “We’ve flown in the cast and part of the crew. The rest will be here by the end of the week. Our schedule would be delayed in a way we cannot afford if we have to find another location locally, much less attempt to find one so perfect somewhere else altogether.”
Ms. Morganstein set her coffee down and leaned forward. “Our investors would expect reparations. Your brother would be on the line for that as well as all the other costs incurred, not to mention criminal charges for signing a contract fraudulently.”
Carey squawked in denial.
Rock just shook his head. “I’m guessing LA prosecutors have enough to do without pressing charges against my brother for criminal stupidity.”
“I’m not stupid!” Carey jumped up and glared at Rock.
Rock raised a single brow. “You signed that contract without the legal right to do so.”
“You always said this would be my home no matter what.” Carey had the impudence to look hurt.
“To live in, to bring a guest or two to visit…not to turn into bed and breakfast for a film crew, or into a damned movie set.”
“We aren’t staying here. We’ve got rooms at the lodge,” Carey said fast and loudly, like that made it all better.
“That’s not the damn point.” Though he privately appreciated that Carey hadn’t intended Rock suffer the indignity of having his inner sanctum turned into a public hostel.
Carey’s increasingly wounded expression just made Rock mad. He wasn’t having a family argument in front of strangers.
“I think you underestimate how seriously Hollywood takes contracts,” Ms. Morganstein said.
Rock surged to his feet and scowled pointedly at his brother until Carey returned to his seat. Then Rock turned the full force of his angry will on the two suits. “And you have overestimated my patience.”
“Now, just hold on.” Gamble put his hands up in a calming gesture. “There must be some kind of arrangement we can come to.”
Rock shook his head. “I don’t need your money.” And if they had enough to pay what the use of his land was worth, or any land like it close by, Carey couldn’t have used the offer of it to finagle a starring role in the film. “I don’t care for your good will.”
Ms. Morganstein’s looked at him coolly. “But you’re brother? You aren’t going to claim you don’t care about him?”
Rock wasn’t about to deny that truth. “You think threatening him is going to make me sign your contract?”
The producer and director’s identical expression of smug certainty said they did.
“Let’s get something clear, here.” He let his expression settle into something only his worst business rivals ever saw. “You come for my brother and I will come for you.”
“Is that supposed to intimidate me?” the producer demanded, but Ms. Morganstein’s tone wasn’t nearly as full-throttle as her words.
She didn’t look intimidated exactly, but she did look thoughtful.
“I think, if you were independently wealthy, you wouldn’t be here in Alaska, looking for a free location,” he answered with characteristic honesty.
Gamble swallowed his coffee wrong and then started sputtering, “Jepsom Acres happens to be perfect for the storyline which plays out almost entirely in the country. I assure you, we do have the funds necessary for this production.”
“Right now, you do. How much you have tomorrow, or next week will be in direct correlation to how far you take thisthing with my brother. You want to blackball him, you go right ahead. You try putting him in jail, good damn luck funding another movie in the next decade.