An Exquisite Challenge

By: Jennifer Hayward

CHAPTER ONE

IF LIFE WAS a glass of Cabernet, Alexandra Anderson wanted to live right in the lusty, full-bodied center of it. The thrill of the chase was paramount—the stickier the challenge, the better. If she wasn’t sure she could do it—that’s where she wanted to be. That’s when she got even better. That’s where she thrived.

As for the intricacies of that particular varietal versus California Zinfandel and Merlot? For a girl who’d grown up in the backwaters of Iowa tossing back beers with the undesirable crowd, it wasn’t something that kept her up at night. Who gave a toss as long as it tasted good and did something to alleviate the interminable boredom of yet another cocktail party that was all work and no play?

Certainly not the sentiment of the man who’d just strode into Napa Valley’s annual industry fundraiser for the homeless, a massive scowl on his face. Those grapes that made bubbly go fizz for her were an obsession for Gabriele De Campo, the visionary behind De Campo Group’s world-renowned wines. His raison d’être.

She stood watching him from her perch on the balcony overlooking the mezzanine of the Pacific Heights hotspot Charo, where the event was being held, with only one goal in mind: to indulge in one of those adrenaline-seeking ventures she so loved. To convince Gabriele De Campo to let her PR firm handle the two massive upcoming launch events for De Campo’s most important wine in a decade. It was her chance to finally win a piece of the internationally renowned winemaker’s communications portfolio, and she didn’t intend to fail.

She took a sip of the glass of wine she’d been nursing for an hour and a half while she’d schmoozed every key player in the California wine industry, doing every piece of reconnaissance she could to learn who was who, what made these people tick and what would make a knockout launch for De Campo.

A warning shiver snaked up her spine. Was she crazy to even be attempting this?

It had all happened in a rather mind-numbingly quick fashion. This morning she’d been sleeping off one too many martinis from her girls’ night out in Manhattan when she’d been woken at 6:00 a.m. with a panicked phone call from Katya Jones, the head of De Campo’s marketing department. An old colleague of hers, cool-as-a-cucumber Katya had sounded unusually flustered. Gabriele De Campo had just fired the PR agency handling his Devil’s Peak launch for its “atroce” ideas three and a half weeks before simultaneous kickoff events in Napa and New York. “I need you,” Katya had groaned. “And I need you now.”

Alex might not have been so inclined to drag her sorry butt out of bed for a chance to work for her sister’s brother-in-law if she hadn’t just lost her three-million-dollar-a-year diamond client this week in a hostile takeover. It had been a huge blow for Alex’s fledgling PR firm that had just taken over a ritzy new space on Fifth Avenue. If she didn’t find another big client soon, she’d be closing her doors before she even got started. So she’d shaken off her fuzz, canceled her appointments and jumped on a plane to San Francisco in time to make this party.

There was only one problem with the whole scenario. Katya didn’t know Alex’s relationship to Gabe. Didn’t know he had a strict no-working-with-family policy he’d never bent from, no matter how much she’d tried to convince him to give her De Campo’s business. Didn’t know she and Gabe were like oil and water. Always. When Gabe said white, she said black. It was just the way it was.

Which had no bearing on the here and now, she told herself, tucking a wayward strand of her long, dark hair back into her chignon, squaring her shoulders and starting for the winding staircase that led down to the mezzanine. Her combative relationship with Gabe was inconsequential when a two-million-dollar contract was on the line. When her future was on the line.

She curved her hand around the mahogany banister and took a deep, steadying breath. Her steps down the staircase were slow and deliberate, designed not to attract attention. Gabe was in the middle of the crowd, speaking to the head of the local farm workers union  , his attention immersed in his subject as it always was—that single-minded focus his trademark. But as she continued her descent, that familiar awareness flickered across the air between them, charged, electric. Gabe’s head came up. His gaze froze as it rested on her. His eyes widened.

As if he was surprised to see her.

Oh, Lord. Katya had told him she’d hired her. Hadn’t she?

She started to get the awful feeling that no, somehow her old colleague had not passed along that crucial piece of information as she descended the second flight of stairs, her heart thumping in tandem with each step. Gabe’s thick, dark brow arched high, his gaze not leaving her face. Surprise. Definitely surprise.

This was so, so not good.

Or maybe, she countered desperately, as he broke off his conversation and strode over to stand at the base of the stairs, it was actually a very good thing. Having the element of surprise over control freak Gabe could work in her favor. Allow her to slide in some sound reasoning before he brought the gavel down.

Her knees, as she descended the last flight and took him in, felt a little too weak for a woman facing a man who was essentially family. Which might have been due to the superbly tailored suit that fit Gabe’s tall, muscular body like a glove. Or his black-as-night hair worn overly long with perfectly cut sideburns.

Some women pointed out the sexy indentation in the middle of his chin as outrageously hot. She preferred the drown-yourself-in-them forest-green eyes. His formidable self-control she was fairly certain would come crumbling down for the right woman...

She pulled in a breath as she negotiated the last step and stopped in front of him. Utterly to die for. Utterly off-limits. Get a hold of yourself, Lex.

His mouth curved. “Alexandra.”

The rich, velvety texture of his voice stormed her senses, sending goose bumps to every inch of her skin. His use of her full name was formal, his gaze as it rested on her face probing. “I had no idea you were on the West Coast.”

Dammit, Katya. He really had no idea. She swallowed past the sudden dryness in her throat and tipped her head back to look up at him. “Your internal radar didn’t signal I was close?”

His mouth quirked. “Something must have been scrambling the signal.”

She braced herself against the smoky, earthy scent of him as he bent to brush his lips across each of her cheeks, but his husky “ciao” decimated her composure.

“What are you doing here?” he murmured, drawing back, his gaze lingering on her face. “I can’t imagine anything less your style than an industry party like this.”

Hell. She lifted her chin. “You haven’t spoken to Katya yet today, have you?”

“Katya Jones?”

“Yes, she was going to call you. She—I—” Alex planted her gaze on his and held on. “She hired me, Gabe. To do the events.”

His eyes widened, then darkened. “That isn’t possible. I approve those decisions.”

“I’m afraid it is,” she said calmly. “Have you checked your messages? She must have left you one.”

He scraped his hair out of his face with a tanned, elegant-fingered hand and scowled. “I haven’t had two seconds to think today, let alone check email.”

And there you had it. She plastered a breezy, confident smile on her face. “You have coast-to-coast launches in three and a half weeks, Gabe. Katya knows I’m the only one who can pull them off at this point, so she called me in to help.” She waved a hand at him. “I’m here to save you.”

“Save me?” His frown deepened. “You know I have a firm policy against working with family.”

“I don’t think you have a choice.”

He screwed up his aristocratic, beautiful face and sliced a hand through the air. “I need a drink.”

Excellent idea. So did she.

“So, I can have a theme to you in forty-eight hours,” she said brightly, trailing along behind him to the bar. “I looked at the ideas the other agency put together for you and I agree, they’re crap. I’ve got some much better ones.”

“Alex,” he growled, slapping his palm on the bar, “you are not doing these launch events.”

She slid onto a stool, her chin tilted at a mutinous angle. “Katya hired me. I’m brilliant at my job. You know I am.”

“That is irrelevant.” He barked a request for drinks at the bartender, then sat down beside her. “I know you’re the best, Alex. I would have hired you already if you weren’t family. But you are, and it’s not happening.”

Desperation surged through her. She rested her elbows on the bar, locked her gaze on his and went for the jugular. “You backed the wrong horse, Gabe. You chose the wrong agency and now you’re in too deep. Executing two massive back-to-back launch events in Napa and New York with this little prep time is an almost suicidal assignment. There are only two PR people besides myself in this country who are even capable of pulling it off. One,” she emphasized, “is presently sailing up the Nile with his wife. I know because I just got a postcard from him. The second is in Houston doing an event with five extra staff she just hired to make it happen. You will not,” she pronounced, “be getting any personal service there.”

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