9780373798339Hot and Bothered

A Harlequin Blaze

Turning a certified disaster into a certifiable dish…

Image consultant Haven Hoyt needs to take former pop superstar Mark Webster from boozing, brawling mess to presentable musician—capable of keeping his tacky boot out of his mouth. Mark has no interest in being molded, but once she’s finished with him, he’ll be a work of art.

Haven has very simple rules for herself: be perfectly put together, don’t crack under pressure and never sleep with your client. But under the scruff and the surly attitude, Mark is hot. Haven’s careful image is unraveling with every look of lust and too-tempting touch. If she’s not careful, she’ll fall for her work of art…and break each of her rules in the process.

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Excerpt from Hot and Bothered

Copyright © 2015 Serena Bell
All rights reserved — Harlequin Blaze

Chapter 1

Haven Hoyt sipped her water, smoothed her napkin over her lap and cast yet another glance toward the door of Charme, the see-and-be-seen Manhattan restaurant. Her newest client was late, but that didn’t surprise her. Mark Webster had a reputation for being all kinds of unpredictable. Compared to some of the reasons his name had been splashed in the press, late to lunch was a minor sin.

She surveyed the restaurant again to make sure she hadn’t missed him. She loved this place, with its half-circle booths like enormous club chairs and high ceilings baffled with great swoops of black and white. Light flooded the room through big front windows and from a million tiny halogens. She knew the restaurant’s owner and its interior designer. And the publicist who had made it a sensation was a friend of Haven’s—she made venues the way Haven made people.

Speaking of people Haven had made, Amanda Gile was dining with a well-known fashion writer two booths over, her adorable short haircut drawing attention to her high cheekbones and long neck. Haven smiled. A year ago, Amanda had opened a small boutique on Amsterdam. The New York fashion retail world had been ready to chew her up and spit her out, but Haven had transformed her into a celebutante—invited everywhere, fussed over, photographed. Haven had enjoyed every minute of the process—the shopping, the makeovers, the parties in the Hamptons where she’d draped her client over actors, producers, musicians and news makers. Amanda’s success had boosted Haven’s stock, too.

Mark Webster was going to be a lot more challenging than adorable, innocent Amanda Gile, but Haven had no doubt she could resuscitate his image. His pop group, Sliding Up, had taken high school girls by storm nine years ago, but now he was a has-been guitarist with a bad reputation. He boozed, he womanized, he brawled and he partied—and not in a slick, arm-around-an-i?-girl way. He favored dark, sketchy clubs that he often managed to get himself tossed out of. And the sin that overrode all sins was that he put his foot in his mouth ninety percent of the time.

But as one of New York’s premier image rehabilita-tors, Haven knew better than anyone that bad publicity was still publicity, and a star’s light never went out.

The sound of a commotion at the door told Haven that Mark Webster had arrived. She’d done her homework, of course. She’d searched a million pictures of the guy online and couldn’t help her tingle of interest at the fascinating contrast between his clean-cut boy-band self and the disaster he appeared to have become.

As a band member, he’d been golden and dimpled and damn cute. These days, his hair was too long to be sexy, his beard was a fungus trying to colonize his face, his eyes were often puffy and bloodshot, and he looked drunk in every photo.

Just like the guy who was leaning on the hostess stand now, an expression on his scruffy face that—on a less permanently pissed-off man—might have been pleading. But Mark looked sullen and faintly threatening. He was much bigger than Haven had guessed from the photos—tall, broad, built, undiminished by whatever hard living had taken the shine of youth off his features.

“I don’t own a tie. Or a jacket. I’m meeting someone here, okay? She’s over there.” His voice was loud enough for Haven to hear now, his jaw thrust forward, his eyes narrow. He wore torn jeans, a gray T-shirt and a leather bomber jacket that looked as if it had been through a thresher. He was a sharp contrast to the polished perfection of Charme and its diners, a collection of people confident about where they belonged in New York City and life.

She felt a little pang of sympathy for him, even if she knew he’d brought this on himself. In her email to him, she’d noted that dress was business casual. And yet… Somehow she knew he would have felt even more out of place if he’d dressed the part. The clothes he was wearing were a shield. Against the restaurant, against what was being demanded of him, against what she was about to put him through.

Mark’s rough baritone cut clear through the murmur of cultured lunchtime conversation. “It’s not like I’m trying to come in here without a shirt or shoes.”

Diners were turning to look now, pausing in their midday negotiations and machinations to watch the entertainment.

The hostess responded quietly, probably asking Mark to leave, or warning him that she’d get the manager. She was just a kid, nineteen or twenty at most, and she looked panicky.

“Where does it say I can’t wear whatever the hell I want?”

Haven could see the hostess’s agitation. She pushed her seat back, moving slowly without drawing attention to herself. She wanted to cut this off before he got physical or threatening, before he got himself kicked out. She knew bar brawls were among his specialties, and though she’d never read about him hurting or even yelling at a woman, she didn’t want this to be his test case.

Nearly tripping where the wide gray floor gave way to the carpeted entryway, she caught herself and stepped behind Mark with her dignity intact. “He’s with me.”

Mark and the hostess both turned to look at Haven. The hostess’s eyes were hostile, Mark’s dark and dangerous.

“We’ve met,” Haven told the hostess. “I was here a week ago Friday, too. You seated me.”

“Yes,” said the hostess. “I remember you. Nevertheless, we ask that our patrons observe our—”

“I missed Ryan when I was here Friday. Is he in today? I’d love to say hi to him.”

Ryan Freehey was Charme’s owner, and everything about the hostess’s stance shifted from aggressive to submissive at the mention of his name. “He’s not in today, but I’d be happy to tell him you were here and asking for him.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that. Tell him Haven Hoyt says hi.”

Haven turned to Mark. Why hadn’t she insisted on meeting him in her office? Well, she’d have to make the best of it. She stuck out her hand. “Haven Hoyt.”

His eyes narrowed.

She guessed if you were Mark Webster, dressed in beatup clothes and girded for battle, she might not be a sight for sore eyes, but she was pretty damn proud of today’s outfit—high-waisted wrap skirt with skinny belt, cute cropped sweater, print blouse and beige espadrille-style shoes stacked so high she felt downright precarious. Her hair was piled up on her head, and she’d checked her makeup before she left the office. She looked good.

Plus she’d just saved his butt.

So why was he staring at her as though she was a bug on his dinner plate?

She dropped her hand, because he obviously wasn’t going to shake it.

“Wait,” said the hostess. “You’re—” Her gaze journeyed over Mark, assessing him. Her sour expression summed up how far Mark had fallen from his prettier days, but the hostess gamely said, “I love ‘Twice As Nice’!”

“You weren’t even born when—” Haven intervened swiftly. “It’s a great song, isn’t it?” she gushed. “A huge hit!”

She used his arm to swivel him away from the hostess stand and led the way to their table.

Haven was conscious, as she walked, of his eyes fixed on her back, boring into her. Her heart beat fast with nerves from the near confrontation.

She didn’t bother to wait for him to pull out her chair for her—she knew that wasn’t going to happen. She sat, and he dropped into his chair with a masculine nonchalance that made her breath catch. He shrugged the mangled bomber jacket off his shoulders and let it drop down the back of his chair. His fitted gray T-shirt revealed sculpted biceps and well-defined pecs. He’d apparently been working out, between bouts of hiding in dingy bars and getting himself photographed staggering drunk. She could do a lot with a body like that.

In the purely professional sense, that was.

She’d been at this restaurant Friday night with a very nice, painfully boring hedge-fund manager. All of her recent blind dates had been as stimulating as a trip to the grocery store. Haven had to admit that, as messy as Mark was making this lunch, it was a hell of a lot more interesting than any of those dates. He was a lot better looking, too. Gruff, badly dressed, in need of a shave, but he still had presence. Another point in his favor.

He pulled out his phone and studied it as if it was going to save him. From her?

From himself, she suspected. Because whatever had brought him to Charme today, he really didn’t want to be here.

Might as well get it out on the table. “You’re not meeting me of your own volition, right?”

“No.” He had nice eyes, gray-blue under slashes of brow, a mobile mouth and amazing bones. She’d have to make sure he got some sleep and quit—or at least cut back on—the partying.

“You want to tell me why you came?”

“They have some lookalike they say they’ll use instead of me for the tour if I don’t clean up my act. And apparently you are the official act cleaner upper.”

She smiled at that. “I am the official act cleaner upper.”

“You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

He wasn’t the first client to have said that to her, but he was the first to have said it with such belligerence. Most were apologetic. On the other hand, most hadn’t been photographed nude with five women at once or been kicked out of several newsworthy A-list parties.

“So you’re thrilled to be here.”

“Here in the specific sense of Charme—” he pronounced it “charm” with no hint of French “—or in the larger sense of in your hands?”

She wouldn’t mind having him in her hands in the nonprofessional sense. Yikes, had she actually thought that? He was so not her type, great body or not. “I meant in my hands, but clearly you’re not thrilled to be here, either.”

“That depends entirely on who’s picking up the tab.”

Oh, she did have her work cut out for her.

Haven had debated whether or not to take Mark on, knowing he was going to be a royal pain. She’d consulted some of her colleagues, who’d also been split on the question. Some thought it would be the perfect opportunity for another high-profile coup to cement Haven’s recent successes—her elevation of Amanda Gile and of party-girl Celine Carr. Others warned her that it was one thing to rehab the image of a rising star with some impulse issues and quite another to try to bring back a man who’d been a celebrity zombie for close to a decade.

What had finally convinced her to accept Mark as a client was the networking potential. She’d been trying to build a relationship with the band’s manager for years. If she could make Mark look good, there’d be other opportunities in the future.

If she couldn’t—well, there was no point in thinking about that. She hadn’t gotten this far by doubting herself.

“Lunch is on me,” she said mildly. It was like working with puppies. If you were calm and firm, and they didn’t sense your agitation, you’d be fine.

The waiter who approached their table managed not to react to her client’s garb. “Can I start you with a drink?”

“Do you have a beer list?”

The waiter rattled off the beers and Mark chose one. She ordered a glass of sparkling water with lemon.

“Do you need a few more minutes?”

“Yes—” she began, because Mark hadn’t even picked up his menu, but he interrupted her.

“Any kind of steak will be fine.”

“We have a very nice beef tender—”

“That’s fine.”

She ordered seafood pasta.

Mark’s posture was as angry as the rest of him, head down, shoulders hunched, protecting himself from the world. They could start there—but not today. Today she’d just talk to him. Loosen him up a little, if that was even possible. “So, the tour’s this fall?” It was March now—not a lot of time, but enough. She’d changed Amanda Gile’s life in six months.

“Yeah.” It was barely a word, just a notch above a grunt.

“Will there be an album?”

“We’ll release cuts from the tour itself as singles for download. If there’s enough good material, we’ll make an album.” He rolled his eyes to indicate what he thought the likelihood of that was.

“And everyone’s on board?”

He averted his gaze. “Not Pete.”

Pete Sovereign was the other guitar player. The one Mark had punched in the face ten years ago, leading to the band’s breakup. There’d been something about a woman, a groupie, they’d both slept with. The groupie had had unkind things to say about Mark afterward to the press. Haven couldn’t help being reminded of her own romantic past, even though the situations were different and hers hadn’t been public. Maybe that was where the unexpected twinges of empathy for Mark had come from. She probably needed to shut that down. A few similarities didn’t make them bosom buddies.

The two men hadn’t spoken since the incident—or so Google had informed her.

She doubted she’d pry any more info about that out of him today. And it probably didn’t matter much. She had her marching orders. Take one hostile, scruffy, washed-up musician and produce a creditable version of the pretty, dimple-faced boy he’d been.

At least Amanda Gile had cut and styled her hair regularly and worn fashionable clothes.

A thought occurred to her. “Who’s getting Pete on board?”

For the first time, she saw an emotion cross his face that might not have been pure anger, though she wasn’t sure what it was.

“Oh, God, they’re making you do it,” Haven guessed.

He nodded. “Those were the terms. Work with you and kiss Pete Sovereign’s ass.” Their eyes locked and she could see the emotion, for a split second, clearly.

Pain.

She didn’t know exactly what had gone down between him and Pete all those years ago, but whatever it was, it hadn’t been pretty.

She had her work cut out for her, but he did, too. Grovel to Pete Sovereign. Remake himself.

The compassion she’d felt when she’d first seen him in his raggedy clothes, haggling with the hostess, came back in a wave. Which was weird, because she rarely mourned people’s “old selves,” rarely had qualms about rehabbing their images. She believed in image. Image was its own armor, and donning it could make you ready for anything. Even so, people could be resistant. Sometimes they had ideas about wanting to be themselves or not wanting to be fake. In those cases, Haven reassured them that the right image wouldn’t be like that. It would feel as though they were showing their best selves to the world. Let me show you how to wear the real you on the outside.

She didn’t expect that argument to fly with Mark. He was too smart, too cynical. Too sure his best self was already showing.

“Can I ask you something? Given how much you obviously don’t want to work with me or apologize to Pete Sovereign, why are you doing the tour? What are you hoping to get out of it?”

The look he gave her could have lasered through glass, sheared it off clean. “Do we have to analyze it? I’m here, right? What if I just tell you I need to do this?”

“That’s fine,” she said, and watched his shoulders sink with relief.

It would be helpful to know who he was, what he was about, but strictly speaking, no, she didn’t have to know his motivations to do her job. She just had to get him cleaned up, keep him cleaned up and present him to the public eye at events where journalists would make a stink about his new, clean-cut self and the boozing, womanizing wreck he’d renounced.

She’d keep it simple, do her job and deliver a shiny new version of Mark Webster to his manager, as promised. Which meant she couldn’t waste time on sympathy or curiosity or any other extraneous emotions. She was an artist, Mark Webster was her medium and she had work to do.

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