“That’s a nasty bruise you have there,” Chris Lander called out from across the trailer.
Jillian Finnegan studied the bluish patch of skin on her right shoulder, a memento from last night. Several more covered her hips and thighs, but the body suit hid them. Her gaze connected with her partner-in-crime—Chris Lander, the genius who hid her bruises so no one noticed them.
“They don’t hurt,” Jillian said a tad defensively as she adjusted her robe.
“Of course,” Chris mumbled through clenched teeth, reaching for his “special” bag.
“You’re not going to lecture me again?”
“What good would that do?” Jaw set, Chris joined her. “You’re stubborn and blindly loyal. If the studio finds out the cause of those bruises…” He pushed the robe aside and started applying base color on her shoulder.
She and Chris were Hollywood’s dynamic duo—the brilliant stunt coordinator and his most daring stuntwoman. In the past seven years, Jillian had doubled for many female action stars under Chris’ watchful eyes. If the studio learned about her nocturnal activities, she would be out of a job. She had a contract that forbade extracurricular stunts, which she’d breached this past week.
“I couldn’t say no,” Jillian said. “They’re family.”
“The stunts they pull are dangerous, Jill. They cut too many corners to thrill the crowd. Let them hire a substitute for emergencies.”
“You don’t understand,” Jillian whispered.
“Damn straight, I don’t.” Chris took a deep breath, his hazel eyes flashing. “You’re their sister, yet they have no problem putting your life in danger. It’s important to plan a move down to a fraction of a second. Practice it over and over again”—he slammed a fist against his palm for emphasis—“before doing it in front of an audience. They had you performing moves you haven’t done since you were a teenager. No wonder you fell.”
“Only during practice,” Jillian said defensively.
“Does it matter?”
Yes, damn it. Working with my family meant everything to me. “The ride went smoothly during my act. I had the people on their feet, holding their breath, silence so tense it pulsed. Then…” She closed her eyes, images from last night zipping through her head. The thrill. The crowd. The look of pride on her brothers’ faces. If only her father had been there.
Chris didn’t understand how stifled she felt doing stunts as a double. Hiding behind makeup and wigs, not getting her due despite all the work she put in. When performing with her family, she felt free. Complete. Right now, The Phantom Rider was the star of the Bay Area Circus. Soon, Jillian wouldn’t need the mask to hide her real identity. She would once again be part of The Fearless Finnegans Troupe, the main attraction of the show.
“Then what?” Chris asked.
Jillian opened her eyes and grinned. No matter how often Chris criticized her nocturnal activities, he missed that life. “I gave them what they wanted and left them begging for more. You should come on Friday.”
Chris shuddered. “No, thanks. I’m too young to have a heart attack. Did you wear the mask again?”
“Oh yeah.” Once her father recovered, he’d give his final approval, and she would say bye-bye to Hollywood.
“As long as the fans keep calling you The Phantom Rider, your secret is safe.” Chris stepped back and studied his handiwork. The discolorations were gone. She could always trust Chris to take care of her.
She reached up and kissed his cheek. “Thanks, Uncle Chris.”
He dismissed her with a flick of his hand, picked up a fire-red skydiver suit, and pushed it into her arms. “Now put that on and get out of here before I call your father and tell him everything. I’m sure he has no idea what you and your brothers have been up to. Damn fools,” Chris mumbled. “How could they not see your bruises? A near-sighted moron could spot them a mile away.”
She didn’t try to trivialize his worries. Reasoning with Chris when he switched to mother bear mode was out of the question.
“You can’t call Dad.”
“I know. How’s he doing?”
“Better.” Her father had had a heart attack and recovery was slow. Every time she stopped by his place, it broke her heart to see him. He’d become a shell of the once vibrant man who’d done some of the most daring stunts in the history of the Finnegans. Her throat tight, Jillian pulled on her jumpsuit and zipped up, but she watched Chris from the corner of her eye.
He tapped on his tablet and went over the sequence of action he had planned for the skydiving segment, but his mind wasn’t in it. He kept pausing and glaring into space. She faked interest in the zippers when he glanced her way.
Chris had always watched out for her from the moment her mother married into the Fearless Finnegans Troupe, a family of daredevils. Jillian had been only ten when Daniel Finnegan adopted her. Overnight, she’d acquired a doting father, an uncle and aunt, two older brothers, and cousins, who’d welcomed her into the family. Her mother had joined the act before the ink dried on the marriage certificate. Chris, who’d been the Finnegan’s stunt coordinator back then, had worked with Jillian slowly and diligently, and by the time she was twelve, she was ready to ride her bike on The Wall. A year later, she’d conquered the Globe of Death, a rite of passage for all Finnegans. Her brothers liked to brag they did both when they were ten.
Jillian had just turned sixteen when a freak accident killed her mother during a performance. It was Chris who’d helped her overcome her fears and got her back on the bike. But her performance had slowly changed, her behavior on stage becoming erratic. She’d taken chances, thrilling the audience, but scaring her father.
The nights they weren’t performing, she’d “hung out” with her cousins and brothers. Hanging out with the Finnegan boys often involved doing something illegal. Lucky for all of them, her father never found out or heads would have rolled.
Or maybe he had. Being pushed out of the family’s nest had hurt. Angry and feeling rejected, she’d packed up her things and joined Chris in Hollywood. Working with her family now was like coming home.
Jillian reached up and kissed Chris’ cheek. “I’m sorry for forcing you to keep my secret.”
“Yeah, right. Me, strong-armed by a hundred-and-forty pound girl?” He was six-four and twice Jillian’s weight. “Oh, before I forget, do you have an outfit for the producer’s party?”
Jillian grimaced. “Do I have to go?”
“Yes.” He shot her a look that said she had to be nuts. “You don’t miss a producer’s party, especially this one.”
Yeah, the reclusive billionaire who’d saved this movie when the studio had planned to pull the plug.
“Fine, worrywart,” Jillian said. “I’ll be there.”
“Can you find a date?”
Jillian made a face. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a decent date.
“You can come with us,” he offered, reaching for gloves.
“Oh, is that pity in your voice? I’m not going to be a third wheel. I can go with one of the gang.”
“Not your cousins. They’ll empty the guests’ pockets and slip away before anyone realizes they’ve been robbed.”
Jillian grimaced. “They never raided parties or paying customers. They were honest thieves.” When Chris rolled his eyes, Jill grinned. “You know what I mean. They robbed the rich and gave to the poor.”
“And lined their pockets, too,” Chris retorted.
“We weren’t exactly loaded. Besides, we gave free performances.” Of course, she’d known they were breaking the law, but at the time she hadn’t cared. They’d seemed invincible, like renegades or modern day Robin Hoods.
“You’re going to spread yourself too thin working day and night. You need a life. I promised your mother I’d make sure you wouldn’t waste your youth working yourself to death.”
Jillian went still. Her throat shriveled. Her Mom. She missed her. The pain was still there.
“She worried about you. You were a teenager, and all you cared about was performing and hanging out with your cousins. You need to find something better than this.” He indicated the trailer with a wave.
“I have.” And she couldn’t wait to do it again. She was at her best when she performed in front of adoring fans.
“I’m not talking about a job, sweetie. You need someone to love you and put you first,” Chris continued. “And that someone is not Keith LeBlanc.”
Jillian made a face. Keith was the lead actor in her new film. “What made you think of Keith?”
“He’s been monopolizing your time since we started filming.” Chris studied her intently. “And he’s Hollywood’s latest Wonder Boy, which translates to a big ego.”
“Keith is like a sponge, always wanting to learn stuff, and he thinks I’m witty.” She gave Chris another toothy smile.
Chris snickered. “He’s not suitable for you.”
Suitable? Sometimes Chris sounded so old-fashioned. It had been a while since he’d warned her against dating someone in show business. Her first Hollywood romance had burned hot and fizzled fast. Chris hadn’t approved. Twice after that, she’d opened herself to love, and each time the same thing had happened. Her conclusion? Hollywood men lacked romance, imagination, and skills. Or maybe she had high expectations and was easily bored.
“Don’t worry about me.” She tucked her long hair under a wig cap, then pulled the wig on. “I have new rules. No more dating Hollywood bad boys with wicked smiles, cute butts, and shiny toys. They have the attention span of a cocker spaniel on Viagra. No more dealing with cocky attitudes and excusing bad habits,” she vowed.
Chris laughed and threw the skydiving gloves to her. “I’ve heard that before.”
“I’m serious this time. I’m done with show biz guys.”
“I didn’t mean you should write off every man in show biz. Just don’t confuse troubled for interesting. Find someone with solid family values. Not all guys around here are bad.”
“Yes, they are. You just got lucky.”
She was in the process of slipping on the gloves when the masterful purr of a V-twin engine reached her ears. It drew closer, until the windows of the trailer vibrated. Chris looked out the window with an expression she’d only seen on his face when he stared at his life partner.
“Is that Greg?” Jillian asked.
Chris chuckled. “Are you kidding? He’d never be caught on anything that didn’t have a door. Even driving with a top down makes him uneasy. But you’d better take a long, hard look, Jill, because if you’re serious about those rules you just spouted, you are about to miss out.”
“Who is it?” Jillian adjusted the straps of her gloves as she approached Chris.
“The kind of bad boy you’ve sworn to never, ever date.”
Jillian peered out the window, and her eyes widened. Holy shit! Had she just sworn off men with shiny toys? What a beauty. Her eyes followed the huge Leeds Road King with its two-tone sterling silver and vivid black lines. It was top of the line with custom-made heavy breathers and exhaust pipes. She knew enough stats on the motorcycle to know it had everything a modern rider could possibly want, from GPS navigation and AM-FM stereo to iPod plug-ins and voice recognition for phone calls. What she wouldn’t give to take it for a test drive.
Then her gaze shifted to the owner of the bike as he switched off the engine and stood.
“Really, Jillian? I don’t understand how you keep using…”
She tuned him out. Watching the biker dismount sent a thrill through her that had nothing to do with his bike. No sane woman would take that for a test drive. Everything about him said he was in charge. He did the driving.
He was big with broad, masculine shoulders under a leather jacket, thighs molded by black jeans and scruffy boots that had seen better days. He removed his helmet and finger-combed his hair. The wavy hair flopped back on his forehead and curled at the base of his neck.
Turn around, please. Pretty please.
She grinned when the man shifted and gave her a side profile. Chiseled jaw line. A two-day-old shadow. Not fair. If only she could see his eyes. Eyes said a lot about a man. His were hidden behind aviator sunglasses.
Jillian sighed, the sound close to a purr.
“Now’s your chance.”
She whipped around and faced Chris. “What?”
“Show me you’re immune to all that.” He indicated the stranger with a wave.
The floor shifted under Jillian. That man out there was too much for her to test her theory on—too big, too masculine, and too gorgeous. Who was he?
Even though they were shooting at a location, the public wasn’t allowed to come this close to the crew’s trailers, which meant he had to be a studio exec. He didn’t look like the type to take orders from anyone, so he couldn’t be an actor.
“Here you go.” Chris handed her goggles and a helmet.
She wrinkled her nose, pushed the goggles up in her hair—though carefully so as not to dislodge her wig—and tucked the helmet under her armpit. The tempo of her heartbeat changed as she started for the door. Her stomach dipped.
“Hurry,” Chris added. “Michaels wants us out there now. We should be in the air in the next thirty minutes.”
“Oh. So no time to test theories,” Jillian said.
“Scared? You?” Chris laughed. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
Me neither. No man was turning her into a coward. No matter how hot he was.
“Okay, Chris. Watch and learn. I’m going to have that gorgeous man eating out of the palm of my hand in ten seconds flat.”
Chris chuckled. “Be careful out there, and remember to focus, stay in control, and don’t be ashamed to ask for help when you’re in trouble.”
Jillian rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. He’s just a man.”
Chris groaned. “I meant skydiving, Jill. He’s already making you forget about work.” His expression became serious. “I won’t be able to give you a pep talk before you jump, so remember everything I’ve taught you.”
Focus, stay in control, and when in trouble improvise… the three rules she lived by.
Lex Fitzgerald studied the people scurrying about the Perris Valley Skydiving field and grimaced. The idea that he could find a solution to his business problem in Hollywood would have been ludicrous a week ago. Now, here he was.
To his left were several RV trailers with tinted windows, gleaming exteriors, and popped out sides. Beside them, the other trailers looked drab and several decades old. To his right was a huge contraption with Indoor Skydiving printed on it. It wasn’t exactly the place to search for the perfect person to play the role of his wife, but he was desperate.
Once he’d made up his mind about what had to be done, he’d set a plan in motion. Reading resumes. Doing background checks. Studying headshots, not that looks had anything to do with acting abilities. He had a history of dating a certain kind of woman, and if he deviated from that, his family would be onto him.
He’d already chosen ten promising candidates. All he had to do now was observe the actresses in action, without them knowing his identity or intentions, and narrow down the list. People tended to act like idiots whenever his name was mentioned. Half the time he wasn’t sure whether he or his family was the cause.
Lex was a real estate developer with a knack for finding prime properties— returning decrepit buildings to their former glory and empty lots into an oasis for those with discerning tastes. Becoming a billionaire before he hit forty was proof that the key to success was hard work and innovation. But his large Irish-American family had a presence on the west coast. They covered the full spectrum when it came to careers. From public servants to successful entrepreneurs, sports figures to land owners, one couldn’t pick a profession without a Fitzgerald popping up.
Two years ago, his cousin Eddie, a former cop with the LAPD, had approached him with a proposal to create custom-made motorcycles. They’d started Leeds and launched their first motorcycle—Leeds Road King. Three months ago, they’d released Street Rider X and XD, the second one lighter and more appealing to younger riders. The reviews had been great and bike enthusiasts had taken notice, the first quarter surpassing their expectations. But when they started receiving orders from overseas, especially Asia and South America, Lex had realized they needed a distributor. One with a respected reputation in the extreme sports industry. There was only one distributor worth courting: Hujimura Motorcycle Distributors, a family-owned company with branches across the globe. Unfortunately, the CEO was a traditionalist.
Yoshi Hujimura didn’t believe in doing business with unmarried men. According to him, unmarried men lacked tradition and stability, which meant they were not dependable.
What a crock of shit.
Lex was all about tradition and dependability. He was still unmarried at thirty-nine because he had to fulfill a promise he’d given his father—watch over his brothers and sister, and make sure they settled into their lives and chosen careers.
He was close to fulfilling that promise. All his brothers, his sister, and cousins, who’d joined his family along the way, were happily married and had thriving careers. Eddie was the last one.
Eddie might be a genius when it came to designing engines and motorcycles, but he was no businessman. Lex lived and breathed business. He’d been running Fitz-Valdez Real Estate since he was in his twenties. That he had to marry some stranger now to seal a deal didn’t bother him. Once his cousin’s business took off, Lex would be free to focus on his personal life.
Lex’s head snapped toward the sexy, feminine voice. A woman in a red skydiving suit walked toward him, her eyes on his bike.
He tried not to cringe. She was everything he hated about Hollywood. Her makeup was over the top, like she was trying to cover up all her imperfections. And it was impossible to tell her hair color because of the atrocious multicolored wig.
As though she felt his disapproval, she shoved her hands in the pockets of her jumpsuit. The action drew his attention to her generous hips.
“Thank you,” he said politely and hoped the woman would go away.
She stepped closer. “I like the modifications.”
Lex gave her a second glance, trying to see beyond the heavy makeup. He noted her button nose, lush lips, and the gentle curve of her cheekbone. “Modifications?”
“The handlebar, the chrome finish, and the hand-adjustable rear suspension weren’t in the original Road King. The adjustable seats and the fenders are also new.”
A woman who knew bikes. Now he was intrigued. He noted more things about her. She wasn’t busty, but her posture said she was proud of whatever she had under the suit. He was a curves man. Not something to brag about, but curves and gentleness were two things he appreciated and enjoyed in the opposite sex.
He couldn’t tell anything about her. Not her hair or the color of her eyes hidden by the long fake lashes and hooded eyelids as she studied his ride. Not that it mattered now. She could be wearing a sack over her head and he’d find her interest in his bike fascinating.
“It can hit eighty in fifth gear and still run smoothly,” Lex said. “You obviously know your bikes.”
“I’ve ridden some, modified a few. Road Kings are powerful and beautiful, but I prefer smaller bikes. I own an XD after years of being an F4i fan, but—”
F4i were made by Honda and were favored stunt bikes. Eddie planned to replace them with Leeds bikes. “But?”
Her head lifted, and their eyes met. She flashed a smile. “The XD could do with a little tweaking here and there. How does RK handle on the highway?”
He’d pushed the RK to one-forty with ease, but he was still reeling from the effect of her smile and couldn’t respond. It transformed her face, garish makeup and all. She had gorgeous turquoise eyes, darker on the edges and lighter toward the center. Then what she’d said registered.
More tweaking? Eddie and his team of engineers had worked their asses off to get the engine and proportions right. He reigned in his annoyance and forced himself to focus on her question. What was it? The RK on the road.
“Handle her with care, and she’ll give you the best ride of your life.”
“Sounds like something I’d like to try,” she purred, grinning while giving him a slow perusal that said she was flirting with him. “I love rides. All kinds of rides,” she added softly, voice all husky, eyes meeting his under the canopy of her fake lashes.
And damn if she didn’t get a rise out of him. She wasn’t even his type. “Maybe I’ll let you, if you ask nicely,” slipped out of his mouth before he realized it.
“I don’t do nice, but I could make an exception”—she laughed, her eyes twinkling—“for the Road King.” She turned and threw over her shoulder, “Nice chatting with you. Take care of that baby. It’s truly a king among bikes.”
Lex didn’t say anything. He was still trying to find his balance. Who knew a woman’s laugh could have such an effect on him. When she’d paused at an exception, he’d expected her to say him. He’d never been jealous of a bike until today.
His eyes followed her, loving the sway of her hips, which was surely for his benefit. She confirmed it when she glanced over her shoulder, winked, and laughed.
That rise she’d gotten out of him was now a throbbing hard-on. Lex shook his head to clear it and focused on controlling his body. He didn’t know what had just happened, but he was finally looking forward to being at the Perris Valley Skydiving School today and the party this weekend. He had to know the identity of that woman.
“Excuse me?” A man wearing a security badge interrupted his musing. “The drop zone is off-limits today, sir.”
“I’m here to see Barbs Riggins.” Lex handed him his card.
The guard studied it. Of course, the man didn’t know Lex or that he was bankrolling this movie. “You need to talk to Mr. Gunter, the location manager. No one sees Mrs. Riggins without going through him.”
He’d made the necessary adjustments in his schedule for this detour, and the last thing he needed was to be given the runaround. On the other hand, he couldn’t take out his frustrations on a guy following orders.
“Okay, my friend, take me to Mr. Gunter.”
“This way, sir.” The guard headed toward groups of people under a tent at the edge of the field. Possibly actors and actresses. Beside them were several golf carts.
According to the studio, they were filming here for the rest of the day. The drop zone might not be open to the public, but he could see spectators by the club building. Another group was by the plane, which was already on their little runway. He could see the woman in the red suit talking to Barbs.
Barbs and her husband were a Hollywood power couple. He produced, she directed. Their romantic comedies often became blockbusters, but with the Terra Frost franchise, they were branching out into a new territory. Because the last installment of Terra Frost had tanked, the studio almost canned it, until Barbs and her husband took it over and brought in younger actors to keep its target audience. Convincing his mother, Estelle Fitzgerald, to get involved hadn’t been hard. She liked a challenge.
“Which one is Gunter?” Lex asked.
“The one in a white suit,” the guard answered, pointing at a gangly man in a Dodgers baseball cap. He was with the group by the tent.
Mr. Gunter looked up and smiled when he saw Lex. He left the others and hurried toward him while talking into the earpiece of a walkie-talkie.
“This is a wonderful surprise, Mr. Fitzgerald.” He shook Lex’s hand with enthusiasm.
“I hope I’m not in the way,” Lex said. “My secretary called.”
“She must have talked to Barbs, but you are always welcome here, sir. Come and meet the rest of the gang.” Gunter was in the middle of introducing another assistant something when Barbs’ golf cart pulled up beside them.
“Lex!” she called, hurrying to his side and tilting her head for a kiss. “I cannot believe it’s taken you this long to come see us, you naughty boy.”
Lex chuckled. Barbs had known Lex since he was a child. He’d even had a crush on her at one time. Unlike his mother who was accepting her age gracefully, Barbs had nipped and tucked all signs of aging and could pass for a forty-something from a distance. Her dark hair was without a single gray strand.
“Why? Do you want me looking over your shoulder?” Lex teased.
She laughed, her hazel eyes twinkling. “As long as we’re within budget, my dear.” She took his arm and led him away from the others. Like his mother, she didn’t reach his shoulder, but she knew how to command attention. “Of course, if you had a few million more to throw my way, I wouldn’t cut corners.”
Lex grinned. He had bankrolled the production because of his mother. Estelle Fitzgerald was one woman Lex had never been able to refuse anything.
“I’m out of millions,” he said just as the plane’s engine kicked into gear. Lex’s attention shifted. The people on the ground moved away from the plane. The biker chick in red was gone. “What’s going on?”
Barbs shaded her eyes with her hand, despite her sunglasses, and studied the plane as its blade whipped the air. “A mid-air fight. It’s spectacular. We’ve done dry runs, and Lander timed down the sequence to the last second.”
Lex frowned. “I thought you did that kind of thing in a simulator.”
“We do,” Barbs said. “But we also shoot at a location for authenticity. The camera crew on the ground”—she waved toward the field—“and the one jumping with the actors give us views from different angles.” She touched the communicator piece on her right ear. “Oh, excuse me. I need to answer this. Yes? Go ahead. Give him whatever he wants to make him happy.”
Lex watched the plane taxi, anticipation making him edgy. Barbs touched his arm. “If I know you, you didn’t read the summary I sent you or the list of stars.”
Not until last week when it became apparent he needed help. “I’ve been busy.”
“We got Keith LeBlanc as the supporting actor. Lots of talent there. He’s the next Cruise. Yes?” She murmured into the mouthpiece. “Is that so? Tell Jill to talk to him. She seems to have a knack for calming him down.” Barbs turned to Lex. “Maybe not the next Cruise, but close enough.”
“Is the lead actress doing the jump with LeBlanc?”
“Margo?” Barbs chuckled. “You wouldn’t catch her doing a single stunt, which makes Keith very refreshing. She’s in her trailer resting before her scene, which starts when Jillian lands on the ground. You should meet her. She’s a very talented young lady. I stole her from Sissy.” She giggled. “Poor Sissy still hasn’t forgiven me, but I plan to change that at your mother’s party. I’m going to introduce her to a dashing middle-aged Aussie I met last week. Might be her next husband.”
Somehow, Lex doubted it. Sissy, another director and sorority sister to his mother, loved younger men. “Jillian?”
“The stuntwoman, Jillian Finnegan. She’s Margo’s double. Leslie”—Barbs waved to a tiny blonde hovering by the golf cart—“tell Margo we have a visitor she must meet.”
Lex had no interest in Margo anymore even though she had made his list. Jillian Finnegan hadn’t, but she was on it now. Stuntwoman.
The woman he’d met was no one’s double. He remembered the sparkle in her eyes, the tinkle of her laugh and its effect on him. He stared at the plane as it took off, anticipation and apprehension shooting through him.
He might have just found the woman he was searching for.
Jillian studied the patches of green and brown visible from the window of the Cessna. They were about thirteen thousand feet above the drop zone and should be jumping soon, yet her mind was on that biker and her reaction to him. The moment he’d turned and looked her way, she’d almost chickened out.
Up close, the man packed way too much sex appeal. He had a presence most men worked hard to cultivate and failed.
Talking to him… No, flirting with him had filled her with the kind of excitement and nervousness she only felt when she was about to perform a stunt. Something few men had ever achieved. And the way her body had tightened when he’d given her a once-over had completely blindsided her.
“Jill?” Chris shouted above the drone of the aircraft’s engine.
Jillian forced herself to focus. What the hell was wrong with her? Being distracted by a sexy smile would not do. Not before a stunt. She stood, braced herself against the wall of the plane, and moved to Chris’ side. He studied her with a frown.
“Are you okay?” he asked, concern in the depth of his eyes.
“Yeah. I’m good. Great.” Liar. She was rattled. She’d never reacted to a man the way she had to that biker. Damn it. She didn’t like not being in control. She nodded vigorously as though trying to convince herself more than Chris.
Scowling, Chris’ narrowed eyes stayed on her as though he didn’t like what he was seeing, or hearing. He could always read her. “Then pull yourself together or we’re scrapping the jump.”
And have Barbs get angry? No way. Her temper was legendary. So far, it had been smooth sailing on the set. But Jillian had overheard her and her husband arguing about keeping the production on schedule and on budget.
Cheeks warm, Jillian said firmly, “I’m fine.”
“Then prove it,” Chris snapped.
Why was he riding her so hard? She had this. She took a deep breath and exhaled. I’m in control. I can handle anything.
Calmer, she stared straight into Chris’ eyes and caught the flicker of concern in their depths before he went back to being her superior. “I’m good.”
Chris continued to study her intently. She sighed with relief when he nodded and glanced at Keith. “Calm him down.”
Jillian stole a glance at the Aussie. She could see why Chris was concerned. Keith’s jaw flexed, and he kept clenching and unclenching his hands. Most actors and actresses didn’t do their own stunts, but the import from Australia liked to do things his way, including his stunts. So far, he had braved scenes that would have fazed an amateur stuntman.
As if aware of Jillian’s scrutiny, he glanced at her and flashed a smile. His sweet smile often captivated female fans of all ages. Too bad it didn’t have the same effect on her. The sensual promise she’d glimpsed on the biker’s lips had packed a bigger punch. Made her wonder what kind of kisser he was. She’d never believed in instant lust, until today.
Dang it, she was thinking about him again.
She stole a glance at Chris to see if he was watching, but he was busy consulting with Packman—the first assistant director standing in for Barbs. Jillian scooted to Keith’s side. “You ready?”
“Yep.” Then he chuckled nervously and swept a lock of blond hair from his forehead. “Guess I’m a little nervous. How can you stand doing this all the time?”
Jillian shrugged. “I don’t let fear stop me. Plus, it pays the bills.” She was twenty-nine, not old enough to start worrying about retirement and not too young to believe she was invincible. Serious injuries were always a possibility and a concern. “Everything will be fine,” she reassured him. “Just follow the sequences we did during dry runs and nothing will go wrong. Remember, I have your back and Chris is the best in the field.”
“And you’re not saying that because you’re his niece?”
Honorary niece, but he didn’t need to know that. “No. You did the burning car scenes yesterday and made it out without a scratch.”
Keith grinned. “That was amazing. He’s kind of a perfectionist.”
“That he is. And those two pros are covering us, too.”
Keith glanced at the two professional skydivers talking to their left. “Okay. I’m all yours.”
Smiling, Jillian signaled Chris and gave an A-OK.
He joined them and went over the stunt sequence one last time. “The wind velocity, visibility, and cloud ceiling are perfect. The temperature is about thirty-eight degrees.” He gripped Keith’s shoulder. “Remember, your main chute and the backup are fail-safe. You have Jillian below you and two divers above you. Signal them as we practiced if you need help. The ground crew will be waiting for you at the end of the field when you land.” Turning to Jillian, he added, “You go first. Heaney jumps after LeBlanc.”
Sean Heaney patted his cameras and gave a thumbs-up signal. Sean was a renowned cinematographer who filmed free-fall stunts for movies and commercials. How he hurtled earthward at over a hundred miles-per-hour with huge cameras strapped to his head while filming stunts defied logic. The cameras were mounted on a rig attached to his helmet, and were connected to hand-mounted controls by wires running along his arms.
Chris opened the door, and a blast of freezing air filled the cabin. “Get into position, Jill,” he yelled.
Wind whipping at her clothes, Jillian put her feet out on the strut and placed her hands on the wing support bar. It was cold. Although her grip was steady, the tempo of her heartbeat shot up, her pulse quickening.
Settling into a semi-crouched position, she looked toward the ground. Eighty mile-per-hour wind pulled at her clothes. It couldn’t get better than this.
Chris signaled her.
Taking a deep breath, Jillian let go of the wing support. Gravity pulled her toward the surface of the earth as she fell away from the plane. Her descent was rapid. A blurry Keith appeared in her line of vision as he hurtled toward her. She smiled. He was doing great.
For the next several minutes, she dived then arched her back and spread out her arms and legs, until she achieved stability. She was ready when Keith made his move and reached for her.
Jillian evaded him, swooped, dived, and rolled with precise and graceful moves her gymnastics teacher would have applauded. Keith kept coming after her, the mock fight seeming so real when he grabbed the sleeve of her suit and yanked. The seam, replaced with Velcro, ripped and air rushed inside the suit. Dang! It was cold. Even the inner suit didn’t protect her from the chill.
Jillian checked her altimeter. They were approaching the altitude to pull the rip cord and release their parachutes. Sean noticed what she was doing and imitated her moves. Moving her right hand to the rip cord, she released her chute and simultaneously moved her left hand over her head.
The lines jerked her body upward. Now she could control her descent. The spectacular view, the fresh air, and the feeling of oneness with nature were like the feeling she got after an amazing orgasm. However, the rush of emotions that accompanied the jump could never be compared with sex. It was better and more intense.
As she turned, dipped, and floated toward the ground, Keith followed her moves. Their landing went smoothly.
Margo, wearing a better quality of the red jumpsuit, the sleeve ripped to match Jillian’s, walked over to join her and the ground crew. Jillian knew the drill—trade places and get off the stage. It was a total buzz kill. As usual, Margo looked right through her.
Jillian had learned not to take offense. She walked off the field without looking back. That weird sense of being watched had her looking around until she found the culprit—the gorgeous stranger on his bike.
Her stomach dipped. She probably shouldn’t welcome the zing of excitement that shot through her, but she did anyway. It had been awhile since she felt it. Too bad it was for another Hollywood hunk.
He gave a stiff bow, a smile tugging the corners of his lips. Jillian looked behind her to make sure that smile was meant for her. There was no one near her. Warmth crept up her cheeks when their eyes met again. Feeling raw and exposed, she waved, yanked open the door of the trailer, and disappeared inside.
The stunt crew’s trailer was old and pitiful compared to the main cast’s fully stocked, state-of-the-art RVs. At least, she didn’t have to share with the other stuntmen and stuntwomen. Knowing Chris had its perks, even if they were sub-par.
She removed the wig and cap, shook her wheat-colored tresses, and finger-combed them. Next off was the suit. She carefully unrolled the bandages from around her chest, until her breasts spilled free.
Oh, that feels good.
She rubbed the welts left behind. Binding her breast so she appeared flat-chested and caking her face with makeup to achieve Margo’s pout and exotic features was the worst part of doubling for the actress. Jillian’s breasts hurt, and her skin needed to breathe again.
She was removing her makeup when the powerful sound of a motorcycle starting reached her. He was leaving. Already? The urge to go look followed. She ditched the idea before it took root.
Glaring at her reflection in the mirror, she blew out air. What was it about that man anyway? She’d met her share of handsome men in her line of work. Dated a few. Good looks didn’t mean jack.
Oh well. Let him go. She didn’t like the feeling of not being able to control her responses. There were enough things in life she couldn’t control, so when it came to her body, she was its mistress and she liked it that way.
The sound of the bike grew faint; then other sounds from outside replaced it. She finished washing her face and applied a light moisturizer, then changed into her regular clothes. Not wanting to clog her pores again, she didn’t bother with foundation. Just mascara on her lashes, the fake ones tossed in the garbage. A colorless lip gloss finished her post-scene ritual.
A glance out the window and Jillian grimaced. No wonder she’d heard voices. It was lunchtime, and the catering crew was removing coolers of food and drinks from their van and placing them under the tent. She was skipping lunch today, thank goodness. The stars might get whatever they demanded, but the crew got the same boring sandwiches and salads. She planned to make one quick stop at her father’s before heading home. If she got lucky, she might get her sister-in-law’s homemade stew.
Jillian grabbed her leather jacket, shrugged it on, and reached for her keys. Barbs’ voice reached her before she stepped down from the trailer.
“That was great, Keith. I know it couldn’t have been easy, but you pulled it off. One more scene today and we’re done.” She patted him on the back and added, “Eat your lunch and rest.” She waved Jillian over. “Come here, hun!”
Jillian looked longingly at her bike. She really needed to leave.
“Wasn’t she great, Chris?” she directed the question at the stunt coordinator, but didn’t wait for a response. “You were awesome.” She gave Jillian a warm hug.
“Thank you, Barbs.” They had been filming for a couple of months now, and in that short time, Jillian had come to admire the director. Barbs treated everyone cordially, from the highly paid casts to the extras. But when she lost her temper, everyone tried to stay out of her way.
“Take it easy for the rest of the week,” Barbs said, firmly. “We have a full schedule next week. I want you fresh and ready on Monday. Oh, I almost forgot. Our backers expect everyone involved in the production to be at the Saturday night party. Everyone, so I expect you there with your plus-one.” She turned and hopped onto the golf cart. With a wave, she took off toward the tent.
Something had put Barbs in a good mood. Earlier, she’d seemed tense.
“Take it easy tonight, kiddo,” Chris said, walking toward her. He tossed her a bottle of water. “Do not add more bruises in the next two nights or you’ll be dressed like a nun come Saturday. If you call me before the party, I’ll pay your father a visit,” he threatened.
“I can take care of a few bruises on my own.”
He shuddered. “I’ve seen your attempts. Come here.” With a quick hug he added, “Now get out of here.”
Jillian put on her sunglasses and headed for her bike while guzzling water. As a stunt artist, taking care of her body was her first priority, and that meant keeping it hydrated. Water and a regimented workout. When she was on the road, it was hard to keep to a routine because her trailer wasn’t equipped with a gym. But she’d learned to make do. No use whining about things she couldn’t have. But that would soon change when she rejoined her family. Her father had just bought a new rig with travel weights and gadgets.
Jillian zipped up her jacket, swept her hair out of the way, and put on her Bluetooth enabled helmet with built-in speakers. She adjusted the volume on the handlebar-mounted controls. Now she could hear the traffic along with Beethoven’s Symphony. Within seconds, she was leaving the skydiving school behind.
Cool breezes floated past her, teasing her warm skin. Late spring was her favorite time of year. It was neither too hot nor too cold. Instead of heading north towards I-215, she took a side road and headed for Ortega Highway. It was less scenic, but had less traffic.
She was still wired up from her jump. Classical music or yoga usually relaxed her after a stunt. When those didn’t work, mind-blowing sex took care of the excess adrenaline. She hadn’t used that technique in a while.
Technique. What a way to describe sex. Sex was anything but a technique.
Out of nowhere, the image of the man with the RK flashed in her mind. She shook her head, but couldn’t dislodge his handsome features. The man was unforgettable; although everything about him yelled danger. He was the kind of man who would make a woman break all her rules.
As though her mind had conjured him, she saw him ahead. She’d recognize those broad shoulders anywhere. Her stomach did that annoying flip-flop again. She was going to pass him and keep going.
A truck was coming in the other lane, but it was still too far to worry about. The speed limit on Ortega Highway was forty-five. If she stepped on the gas, she could reach sixty easily.
She accelerated, moving to the other lane as she inched closer. She was close to overtaking him when he glanced at her, grinned, and picked up speed. What the heck? When she slowed down, he did too.
What was he doing? She stepped on the gas, tried overtaking him again, but the truck was too close. The driver flashed his headlights in warning. Luckily, there was a gravel shoulder on the road. Jillian swerved, lose pebbles flying behind her. The truck driver honked as he passed. He probably thought she was a nutcase. She careened right, flew over the edge of the road, and shot ahead of the biker.
In your face, baby. Jillian laughed.
Seconds later, her laughter disappeared as he picked up speed. This guy had a serious competitive streak. Just like her. He drew closer and closer. He was gaining on her. Of course, it could be a question of which one of their bikes handled acceleration better, but that was neither here nor there. Biking was her thing, and there was no way he was winning.
She tightened her body and sunk low, then gave her baby the final boost. She left him behind. Yes! She’d won.
Jillian did victory wheelies, which she’d perfected in her teens. Leaning back, she lifted the front wheel of her bike. Down the road she did the reverse, going for a nose wheelie. If the road was wider, she would have done a circle, but she was going too fast. Two guys in a jeep honked in appreciation as they rode past. She laughed.
The biker either didn’t like her performance or was a buzz kill. He passed her and became a road hog, swerving left then right, blocking her from overtaking him. His light blinked furiously, indicating he planned to pull over.
Did he really think she’d pull over, too? She loved danger, probably more than most girls, but there was no freaking way she was pulling up on the shoulder of some road with a stranger just because he was gorgeous. When he slowed down, she shot past him and kept going.
Jillian pulled up to a Shell Gas Station in San Juan Capistrano to refuel. She was just finishing when the biker eased in behind her. She turned to face him, her stomach doing that stupid dance again as she watched him dismount his bike.
“What took you so long?” she teased.
He pulled off his helmet, did that hair sweep he’d pulled earlier, which drew attention to his dark-brown wavy hair, and pulled off his sunglasses. “I was enjoying the view.”
Heat rushed to her cheeks. Jillian laughed to cover her nervousness. “I must remember to use that the next time I lose a race.”
He chuckled, the sound rich and sexy. Nice. His steely gray eyes glittered with something that had her taking a step back before she caught herself.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it losing. More like choosing my battles.” He kept moving closer, bringing with him a masculine, woodsy scent and a large dose of sex appeal that hit all her senses at once. Her mind protested, but her body must have decided to disconnect because it greedily responded.
“Those were nice wheelies,” he added in a voice gone husky, removing his glove and offering his hand in greeting.
“Thank you. They were my victory wheelies,” she added. “Basic. Nose. Circle, but…” Her voice trailed off when he took her hand. Who knew something so simple would feel so intimate?
“You’d have to stop for the circle,” he finished. “Lex Fitzgerald,” he added and lifted her hand to his lips.
A delicious warmth invaded her body. If a different guy had pulled that move in broad daylight, it would have seemed corny. From him, it seemed natural. Maybe it was the ease with which he did it or the fact that his eyes darkened as though the physical connection affected him. Why was his name familiar?
“Have dinner with me,” the words rolled off his tongue like a prelude to something decadent. Her entire body hummed with appreciation.
“Yes,” Jillian heard herself say above the furious pounding of her heart, her voice a tad breathless. His lips curled with masculine satisfaction and she realized she’d agreed to something. “Uh, no.”
“You can’t take it back. You can choose where we’ll go,” he added.
Jillian laughed self-consciously and eased her hand from his. “Yeah, tempting, but the answer is still no.”
His eyebrows shot up. “No, you don’t want to choose?”
“No to food and eating. I can’t.”
“Of course, we can.” His hand came to rest on the seat of her bike, and for a moment, she stared at it with morbid fascination. She had sat there only minutes ago. Her traitorous mind imagined that large hand on… her ass.
Her mind just had to go there? Seriously?
When he patted the seat, her eyes flew to his. The grin on his face said he’d guessed what her crazy mind was creating. Guessed and found it amusing.
Jillian gave him a saucy grin. “Sorry, I don’t do Hollywood.”
His expression changed, going from amusement to concern in an instant. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t date anyone in show business.”
“Why?” he shot back.
“They bore me, but it’s been nice meeting you, Lex Fitzgerald.” That name. She’d heard it somewhere.
“I’m not in show business.” He slipped his glove back on, eyes not leaving her face. “Now that we’ve cleared up that, when and where can I pick you up?”
Such arrogance was something she usually disliked in men, yet on him it was actually a turn on. Perhaps it was the look on his face that said something about her pleased him. Probably her blabbering.
“Yeah, that’s not happening,” Jillian said. “You are with the studio or you wouldn’t just waltz onto the field the way you did. Actors, extras, and studio execs are all not in my dating pool.” She shuddered, remembering the losers she’d dated the last five years. No imagination. Self-absorbed. Boring in and out of the bedroom.
Lex smiled as though pleased by her declaration or her delicate shudder. Warmth added blue to the depths of his eyes, which was interesting.
“Barbs is a family friend,” he said. “I brought her a message from my mother.”
Ah, that was where she’d heard the Fitzgerald name. Chris had mentioned an Estelle Fitzgerald bank-rolling the movie. Must be his mother, which meant he was the last person she wanted near her. He could never know about her nocturnal activities. Plus, his family owned Leeds, the makers of the Road King. She hoped he wasn’t easily offended.
Jillian picked up her helmet. “I hope I didn’t insult you when I mentioned problems with your bikes.”
Lex’s broad shoulders lifted under the leather jacket, a glint entering his eyes. “I can handle a few constructive criticisms, but I’d rather discuss yours over a meal.”
He got an A-plus for persistence and Jillian was tempted to say yes, but…
“Sorry, I have to go. It’s been nice talking to you, Lex. I’m sure you have a team of engineers who’ll figure out all the improvements your bikes need.” She put her helmet on. Painfully aware of his silent presence, she glanced over her shoulder to find him watching with a smile as though he knew something she didn’t. As though she hadn’t just turned his dinner invitation down. Twice. Bet women rarely did that. The Fitzgeralds were loaded.
She waved and pulled away. He didn’t move, and she could still see him in her rearview mirror watching her when she stopped before entering the street.
Jillian was a bit miffed that he hadn’t asked for her name. Just because she’d said no to dinner with him tonight didn’t mean she wouldn’t mind down the line. He hadn’t struck her as a man who gave up so easily.
Oh, just as well. He packed way too much sex appeal for her peace of mind.
Five minutes later, Jillian entered the old neighborhood where she grew up, and memories flashed through her head. She’d always been a tomboy, challenging her brothers and cousins to let her do stuff with them. Street hockey. Bike stunts. She’d watch them with envy, hating that she had to do boring stuff like dance and gymnastics. Now she was grateful her mother had insisted. Being agile helped her master fight moves, jumps, and rolls, which translated to better paying stunts.
Her entire family had lived in a sprawling five-bedroom house in San Juan—her family and Uncle Rowan and his family. Now her father, her younger brother Patrick—Ricky—and his wife Ginger, and their little girl, Sophia, were the only ones left. Cian, her oldest brother, and her cousins were in Anaheim. Her uncle and aunt had moved a couple of blocks away.
An unfamiliar black SUV pulled out of her father’s driveway just as she entered the street running in front of their house. The driver, with a head built like a bullet, leered at her as they drove past. A shiver crawled up Jillian’s spine. New employees? Her father always employed a part-time guy to help drive the rig on long road trips or help Uncle Rowan assemble the equipment. Since he was out of commission, chances were he’d want someone on a permanent basis.
A boy revved the engine of his motorcycle ahead and drew Jillian’s attention. Jillian hid a grin. Watching this would never get old.
As far back as she could remember, kids on the block would try to impress her father with their biking skills. He’d give them pointers and warn them to be careful, but that was it. Finnegan Troupe never employed anyone outside the family to do stunts. Temp handymen and stunt coordinators like Chris, yes, but never stuntmen and stuntwomen.
Jillian parked her bike beside Ricky’s and waved to the biker as he rode past. Using the open garage door, she entered the house. A voice drew her to the living room. Ricky. He was yelling something.
Ricky was the bike expert. He’d taught her everything she knew about bikes—parts, performances, and how to modify them to suit her needs. He was also a hothead. Jillian wondered who he was yelling at now.
“They came to the house, Cian. A bunch of thugs. One touched Sophia’s head. You bet I wanted to punch him. Why didn’t you or Dad tell me things were this bad?” Ricky asked.
Jillian stopped and frowned. What did Ricky mean by things were bad?
“What do you mean he didn’t want me to worry?” Ricky snapped, then grew quiet. He was the only one she could hear, which meant he was on the phone. “Since I got married? Fucking hell, Cian. I told him Ginger didn’t want a big wedding. Yeah, yeah, that’s beside the point now. I knew we were overextended when the Reno gig fell through, but he told me not to worry. The next thing I knew we had a new rig and the wall was upgraded, but to get in bed with Armenians like Petrosian is suicide. We have to do something.”
So the troupe had been having problems for over a year, and Cian and Dad had never bothered to tell Ricky or her? Did Uncle Rowan know? Cian was their father’s right hand man. He could convince any officials to back up the troupe, organize a gig anywhere at the drop of a hat, and rally up employees.
“How much do we owe?” he asked. “Three-fifty?”
Jillian gasped and slapped her hand over her mouth. Three hundred and fifty grand? They couldn’t possibly pay all that back. What was her father thinking? Chances were he’d borrowed a lot less, but it had accrued interest.
“Just what I overheard through the door,” Ricky said, his voice low and defeated. “They expect full payment in three months or they’ll take over the business and make us pay off the rest working for them.”
My stomach dropped. They were the Fearless Finnegans, not some Armenian lapdogs.
“Okay. I’ll join you guys after Elena comes home. What about Jill? Shouldn’t we contact her?”
Yeah! Jillian inched closer.
“Cian. No. Dude, we have to tell her,” Ricky added. “If she finds out that you left her out of the loop, she’ll go ballistic.” More silence. “Dad said that? I guess I’d forgotten about her mother. Still, if he sees how much she loves being back and the way she’s already drawing in a bigger crowd… Oh, I get it.”
She hated the one-sided conversation. She could only guess what Cian was saying, and it pointed to Dad not wanting her involved.
“No one is like her. I don’t care how or who you plan to replace her with. No one pulls moves the way Jill does.”
Jillian sucked in a breath. If he’d reached out and decked her, the pain would not have been this unbearable. They planned to replace her?
Her first instinct was to storm into the room, snatch the phone from Rick, and yell at Cian, but then she remembered her father was down the hall. He was the one calling the shots. Her fight was with him.
Carefully, Jillian backed up, opened the side door leading to the garage, and slammed it shut. “I’m home. Where is everyone?” she called out.
No, she wasn’t going to fight with her father, but she planned to make him change his mind.