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Authors: Rhonda Laurel

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Table of Contents

Cover

Table of Contents

Look for these titles from Rhonda Laurel

Title Page

Copyright Warning

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

About the Author

Also by Rhonda Laurel

More Romance from Etopia Press

 

Look for these titles from Rhonda Laurel

 

Now Available

 

The Blake BoysSeries

 

For the Love of the Game (Book One)

MVP (Book Two)

The Blake Legacy (Book Three)

Texas Heat (Book Four)

Love Notes and Football (Book Five)

The Perfect Storm (Book Six)

Slow Burn (Book Seven)

Cowboy’s Heart (Book Eight)

Tempting Fate (Book Nine)

Executive Desires (Book Ten)

Meet the Blakes (Book Eleven)

The Final Play (Book Twelve)

Stranded in Paradise (Book Thirteen)

Slap Shot (Book Fourteen)

 

 

TheHollywood HeatSeries

 

Star Crossed (Book One)

Hollywood Rush (Book Two)

 

 

Ebb Tide

Shutter

“Masquerade” HalloweenHeat IV

 

In Print

 

The Rhonda Laurel Collection

“Masquerade” Halloween Heat MF

The Blake Boys Collection

The Blake Boys Collection II

The Blake Boys Collection III

 

Slap Shot

The Blake Boys Book Fourteen

Rhonda Laurel

 

Etopia Press

Copyright Warning

EBooks are not transferable. They cannot be sold, shared, or given away. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is a crime punishable by law. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded to or downloaded from file sharing sites, or distributed in any other way via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, withoutthe publisher’s permission. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000 (http://www.fbi.gov/ipr/).

 

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construedas real in any way. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental.

 

Published By

Etopia Press

1643 Warwick Ave., #124

Warwick, RI 02889

http://www.etopiapress.com

Slap Shot

Copyright © 2016 by Rhonda Laurel

ISBN: 978-1-944138-41-7

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of thisbook may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

First Etopia Press electronic publication: March 2016

 

 

 

DEDICATION

 

To Derek and Charisma, thanks for making forgiveness and love possible.

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Derek Popovich threw the towel over his shoulder and headed for his locker. It had been a brutal game today, but despite their best efforts, the Philadelphia Pirates wouldn’t be advancing in the playoffs. Injuries and scattered coaching strategies had plagued his team all season. Playing hard had taken a toll on his body. Being thegoalie was a very demanding job, as every muscle in his body could attest. And he knew just the trick to ease his aching muscles after a grueling loss. The soft, talented hands of a nubile woman. Too bad he’d just ended things with his latest fling, Phoebe.

According to the gossip rags, he and Phoebe were hot and heavy and ready to make a serious commitment to each other. But the whirlwindromance she’d been alluding to in interviews for months wasn’t even close to the truth. They’d met at a party at a friend’s house in Los Feliz and hooked up in the bathroom that night. He’d had a good time but hadn’t given the encounter a second thought until she began calling him relentlessly looking to get together again. They’d had a few more sporadic dalliances that he’d managed to keep outof the public eye until his luck ran out when the paparazzi snapped pictures of them exiting a club in L.A. He’d been chained to Phoebe in the media ever since, and the whole situation had taken on a life of its own. The world thought he was on the verge of settling down. He suspected Phoebe tying herself to him was a strategic PR stunt to help catapult her career. Daniel, his publicist, advisedthat he let the relationship fade away naturally. After all, the idea that the bad boy hockey player could occasionally commit was good for his image.

The worst part was explaining to his family that none of these claims were true. There had been a number of salacious stories about him over the years. He was lauded for one-night stands and wild sexcapades. The downside to his sexual infamywas when his exploits did make the media, he had a lot of explaining to do to the women in his life. But none were as embarrassing as the story about his junk.

He’d gotten the talking-to of a lifetime from his mother, who’d scolded him while slipping between English and Russian, when an online tabloid posted an article claiming he was very well-endowed. His babushka, Annika, was upset becauseshe read a translated version of it and thought they meant he had a deformed penis and it was affecting his hockey playing. He’d called his grandmother and fumbled in Russian, trying to set the record straight. His brothers Alex and Theo had a good time ribbing him about that one.

Maybe it was time to curb some of that behavior. He was living a fun life, but every now and again a pang wouldhit him when he thought of what he was missing by not having someone special. Settling down had worked for his friend Seth when he found his wife, Morgan. His friend’s relationship gave him hope he could one day be that happy too with the right person. A comment from a teammate brought him out of his daydream.

“Derek, you still coming to my party next week?” his friend and teammate IvanKrakowski yelled from across the room.

Derek grinned. “Not this time. I’m going to Portland to visit my brother and his kids. But let’s play a round of golf and grab lunch when I get back into town.”

“It’s a deal.”

He was no fool. Ivan’s parties were legendary. The team celebrated the end of the season the only way they knew how: with rowdy fun that always led to the cops beingcalled. He’d timed his visit to his brother to have a good excuse not to attend.

He’d known Ivan for a long time and valued their friendship. The life of a professional athlete was wrought with fake friends and big egos, and he’d been blessed to meet a few people who were genuine, like Ivan and Seth. Seth was down-to-earth and partied just as hard as he did—or at least he had until he’dtraded those wild days for married life.

He finished dressing and checked out his image in the mirror. During the off-season, he’d planned on visiting his family, who were scattered about the world, but he would be spending the bulk of his time at his bar, the Slap Shot. It was a home away from home for his athlete friends, a place to unwind, leave their egos at the door, and enjoy a goodmeal. Bravado and grandstanding weren’t allowed and it made for a better atmosphere. But lately business had been sluggish, and he wanted to breathe some new life into the place. He’d done an overhaul on the menu and had considered bringing in a live band.

In reality, a full-scale renovation was what the place really needed after Seth’s epic fight with his teammate Lamont at Seth’s retirementparty. Years of pent-up anger and jealousy had resulted in broken furniture, fixtures, and a couple of holes in the walls. Sure, Lamont deserved the comeuppance, but all that damage still cost money and downtime for the restaurant.

Derek waved good-bye to a few more teammates and exited the locker room. He took the escalator by the equipment room in an effort to avoid the reporters lurkingaround on the main floor. The post-game press conference had already been held, but there were always a few hanging back hoping to get more in-depth sound bites. It was part of his job to engage with reporters, but it wasn’t always possible to give a succinct two-sentence answer to sum up the culmination of several weeks of playing.

Besides, he was tired.

The side door was a safe bet.Players rarely used it, and he’d escaped through it on several occasions in the past. He stuck his head out; there was no one in sight. As soon as the door closed behind him, a mob of reporters turned the corner and started firing off questions. The door didn’t have a handle, so there was no way to get back inside. And to his surprise, they were all asking about his love life.

“Derek!” Abrunette-haired woman thrust a microphone into his face. “Is it true you and Phoebe Palentz are over?”

“Did your tough season bring tension in the relationship?”

“Rumor has it she caught you cheating. Who is this new mystery woman?”

“Is it true you’ve already moved on?”

“No comment.” He slid on his sunglasses to shield his eyes from the blinding camera lights.

Stillin hockey mode, he seriously considered body checking the reporters to make a path to the parking lot. Thankfully, stadium security came rushing over and put some distance between him and the crowd, allowing him to bolt to his car. He slid behind the wheel of his cobalt blue Aston Martin Rapide S and peeled out, looking forward to some down time. But he wasn’t going to get any peace and quiet untilthe rumor mill tired of his fake relationship with Phoebe.

 

* * *

 

Charisma Reed fished in her rose-colored Hermes Birkin bag for the keys to the office door. Morning was always so quiet inside the elegant office building that housed her cousin Jared’s architectural firm. She was never one for being an early riser, but she liked getting to the office before the rest ofthe staff to set up things for the day. She’d been working here for five months now and she had to admit she liked it. Reed Designs was a bustling world filled with creativity and high-concept ideas. It was about building things and creating new foundations. Something she was trying to do herself. Jared had given her a chance when her world was falling apart, and she was grateful to him for that.It hadn’t been easy figuring out her next move after the hellish year she’d had, but it had been her family who’d stepped in and offered their support. She was beginning to feel like she belonged again, and it felt good.

She took the blame for the series of bad choices that led her to Lamont Brayer, her now ex-boyfriend. She’d been determined to land herself a rich athlete like her cousinMorgan, who’d married Seth Blake, quarterback for the Philadelphia Titans. But what she got instead was a tumultuous relationship with the team’s flamboyant wide receiver. Lamont was the antithesis of Seth. He was egotistical, manic, and craved the limelight and glory that came with a winning team like a plant needed sun. Too bad he didn’t handle it well. In the beginning, she found those volatilequalities intoxicating. Who wouldn’t want to be the wife of a famous football player? But as time wore on, she began to see his true colors. He was controlling and aggressive and he treated her badly in private. Then it spilled over into their public lives as well. Fights at nightclubs, restaurants, and parties became the norm and made great tabloid fodder.

He’d mistreated her countlesstimes, but she hung in there hoping he would eventually tire of it and settle down. She didn’t know if she were stubborn or determined, but she stayed with him longer than any woman should have. But the fight with Seth at the Slap Shot the night of Seth’s retirement party was the final straw. He’d hurt and humiliated her for the last time. It took Seth pummeling Lamont to make her realize that shedeserved a better life than what she had. She broke up with him and filed a restraining order. He’d tried to win her back with a lame marriage proposal, but she’d refused his apologies. His image had taken a severe beating after the incident at the Slap Shot, and he’d even come under scrutiny with the team and the media about his domestic violence issues.

She opened the office door and punchedin the alarm code. Craving her morning pick- me-up, she made her way into the kitchen and dropped a mocha latte pod into the fancy coffee brewer and within a matter of minutes it was ready. Cup in hand, she grabbed her purse and turned too quickly, almost getting coffee on her handbag. She let out a sigh of relief; the droplets had spilled onto the floor and narrowly missed the purse.

Itwas one of the few remnants she had left of her luxurious life with Lamont. Sure it was more of a status symbol. She liked that look of envy she got when women noticed her bag. It was lovely, but in hindsight still not worth all the angst she went through with him.

Jared walked into the break room. “Good morning, Charisma. Early as usual.”

“Good morning, Jared. I wasn’t expecting youso soon. I thought you’d be at home cuddling with Autumn.”

“She kicked me out.” He laughed and turned on the espresso machine. “She’s having lunch with Sydney and Grandma this afternoon. She’s nervous and wanted some time to prep.”

“Did you tell her we have the sweetest grandmother in the world? Grandma’s going to eat her up with a spoon.” She set her cup down and wiped up the lattedroplets with a paper towel.

“I did. How is Grandma doing?”

“Fine and feisty as ever,” she replied with a smile.

Once Lamont had finally got it through his thick head that she wasn’t coming back, he demanded she vacate his condo she’d been living in and return all the expensive trinkets he’d bought her. She was left with only her matador red mica Lexus LS, which she’d purchasedherself. Suddenly homeless, she’d been relieved when her grandmother had invited her to come live with her.

The Reed homestead had always been a safe haven for her. She shuddered at the thought of living with her parents again. Her mother, Debra, had always had grand plans for her daughter and had been a consummate stage mother all her life. The molding started early. She was always pushingCharisma into activities like acting, gymnastics, dance, and singing. Any activity that could yield a multimillion-dollar career someday. When Debra finally conceded that her daughter wasn’t talented enough to pursue those potentially high-profile careers, she’d encouraged her to use her physical attributes to land an athlete.

Charisma had concealed a lot of Lamont’s bad behavior partlybecause she knew how much her mother wanted a rich, celebrity son-in-law like Seth Blake. Debra had been unrelenting about Lamont being a great guy until Aunt Sydney intervened and finally opened her eyes to what was really going on with her daughter’s relationship. But what saddened Charisma the most was that she really just wanted her mom to be on her side for once.

It was times like thisshe missed having her brother Trevor around. She blamed his frequent absence on the nature of his job. The photojournalist traveled extensively, covering the beauty and atrocities happening all over the globe. It was always hard to keep up with his whereabouts. He’d e-mail to check in on her, but she never had the heart to tell him about her antics. Trevor was the one person in her life who’dalways been in her corner because he understood the tyranny of their mother Debra. She had tried to mold her son the same way she’d tried to mold Charisma, but Trevor had rebelled. Debra had her heart set on a doctor son, not a photographic correspondent putting himself in danger for the sake of a snapshot. The disagreement over his choice of major in college created a big divide in their family,and by the time he’d graduated, too many things had been said. Trevor hadn’t been home in years.

Jared interrupted her train of thought. “So what’s on the agenda for today?”

“I have you slotted for a block of design time in the morning, so you won’t be getting any calls unless they’re urgent. And I made sure there were no late afternoon conferences so you can get home at a decent hour.”

“Nice. I may get to design a building today,” he said.

“That’s the plan.”

“Autumn is cooking a Moroccan dish tonight. Care to join us?”

Charisma smiled at the look of love on her cousin’s face. “Thanks, but I don’t want to infringe on your last night together before she heads back to Texas.”

“Good point. But I’ll bring in leftovers.” He sipped his espresso. “I reviewedyour notes on the Slap Shot and they’re great. It’s always a good idea to do periodic wellness checkups with the project manager. You asked Ian all the right questions, and he thinks you’re great. He’s keeping to the schedule. I think you’re really getting the hang of things, and we’re ready to talk interior design with the client. Think you’re up to a face-to-face with Derek?”

A lump rosein Charisma’s throat. She’d been trying to avoid meeting Derek since this project began and with his hockey schedule, it had been a non-issue. Until now. She knew it was foolish, but she felt responsible for the remodeling. If Seth hadn’t had to defend her that night, the fight wouldn’t have occurred.

In fact, they’d never formally met, although she’d been to the exclusive eatery a coupleof times and the place was always packed with rich athletes and other celebrity types. She was surprised when Jared said business had been slow lately. It was still hard to get a reservation. Derek was a gorgeous hockey legend, future hall of famer, and an infamous man whore. He was six foot three, had thick black hair, beautiful glacial-blue eyes, and a killer smile. He was devilishly handsome,rough around the edges, and had a raw sex appeal that made for great fantasies—and that didn’t even take into account the spicy rumor going around that he was well-endowed. Still, there was something about that man that made her nervous, even though she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“I’ve tried to meet with Derek, but he’s been too busy because of hockey.”

“Hockey season is over,so he’ll be at the bar more often.”

“I thought you saw him the other night?”

“Yes. We got together as friends and had a blast. And having a blast means not discussing work.” He laughed. “But this isyourproject. You need to meet with him and make sure he’s happy with what we’ve done so far. We need to get inside his head and see what his vision is for color schemes. The right colorpalette can enhance the ambiance without working too hard at it.”

She grimaced. “I don’t know.”

“I have faith in you, Charisma. This will help you gauge whether or not you want to pursue interior design full time.”

“OK. I’ll give it my best shot.” Charisma bit her lip. “I’ll see if he’s available today.”

“Good. The business is growing to a degree that I can’t do it allby myself anymore.”

“You meanAutumnis a really good reason not to work so much anymore.” She grinned.

“Yes.” He smiled back. “Being in a relationship has made me more open to delegating. I’d like to see you grow with it. There are a few books you may want to read if you’re still serious about learning interior design. These books are all staples for me. I think you’ll find them interestingpre-reading for the courses you’ll need to take. You can find most of them at Morgan and Michelle’s bookstore. If something’s not in stock, I’m sure Michelle can get it for you.”

“Absolutely.”

Charisma and Jared continued to their offices. Once there, she plopped down in her chair.

She liked the elegant décor at the Slap Shot but had always thought it could use a feminine touchand a few bold changes. Hopefully the owner would be receptive to it. Derek’s previous choices were rich, dark leathers and athletic-themed memorabilia that draped the walls. In order to convince him to go with her design ideas, she had to be prepared. She’d get out the fabric swatches and look through a few catalogs to give him examples of what she was thinking of doing.

Charisma perusedthe Slap Shot file and retrieved Derek’s phone number. The call went to voicemail after two rings. The sound of Derek’s deep, velvety voice was so enthralling she was at a loss for words when she heard the beep. Trying to sound as professional as possible, she eked out the words. “Hello, Derek. This is Charisma Reed, Jared’s cousin. I was hoping to stop by the Slap Shot this afternoon, around two.I’d like to run some ideas by you. Please call me back if it’s not a good time. Thanks.”

Charisma ended the call, still thinking of the sensual sound of his voice. His demeanor in post-game interviews was that of a gruff, bearded grizzly bear. This Derek sounded sexy and up for anything.

 

* * *

 

When Derek arrived at his bar, he waded through the flashing cameralights and questions from the paparazzi without saying a word. The news of his breakup with Phoebe was flooding out faster than he’d hoped, and he was being hounded everywhere he went. It was bad enough his off-season hiatus was getting off to a rough start, now this drama with Phoebe was taking over his life.

He’d decided to shut all of that out and focus on the renovation. There was alot of construction going on, but all that bustling activity stopped when he walked into the main dining room. He headed over to Ian, the project manager, for an update.

“Ian, how are things?” Derek shook his project manager’s hand. He was usually a pretty serious guy, but today Ian had a big smile on his face.

“Everything is going great. Wait until you see the smaller dining room.We knocked out a wall and opened up the space. There will be more room for multiple private parties.”

“Good.” Derek looked around. “Are we still on schedule for the grand reopening?”

“Yes. Construction will meet the target completion date. But it might be a good idea to get the interior design portion in motion.”

“I’m meeting with Jared’s assistant today to go over the details.If you need me, I’ll be in my office.” He turned to leave, but Ian stopped him.

“You have a visitor.” Ian’s cheeks burned. “She popped in about an hour ago. She insisted on waiting for you.”

“OK.”

Derek could hear the commotion coming from his office from down the hall. It sounded like someone was tearing up the place. He opened the door and ducked just in time to avoid beinghit with the crystal hockey puck paperweight he kept on his desk. It was Phoebe and she looked pissed.

“Phoebe, calm down!” Derek shut the door before the construction workers could get an eyeful and took cover behind his high-back desk chair.

“I will not!” She scouted the room for something else to throw.

He cringed when she picked up the crystal decanter of scotch that wassitting on a table next to the leather couch. “That’s really expensive liquor you have in your hand.”

“What the hell, Derek! How dare you break up with me right before the biggest movie release of my life?”

He wanted to approach her but thought it was best to stay put. “We both know it hasn’t been working out for some time now. We fell into this relationship. And then there’s all thefighting. Right now is a good example.”

There was a knock at the door. He let out a sigh of relief. He prayed Phoebe would stop the madness if there was an audience around. She was obsessive about her image in the media. Her PR people were branding her as America’s new, adorable girl next door, and it wouldn’t be good for her public persona if reports of her losing it surfaced.

“Comein!” Derek yelled.

A lump rose in Derek’s throat when Charisma Reed sauntered through the door. She was early for their meeting, but he was happy to see her nonetheless. Jared and Morgan’s cousin certainly knew how to make an entrance. They’d never formally met, but he’d seen her in the bar a few times with that idiot Lamont Brayer. She was beautiful and had a sassiness about her that madeher stand out. He couldn’t understand why she’d ever dated Brayer. He’d never liked the pompous wide receiver. Lamont was brash and made no bones about expressing his dislike for Seth.

“Hello, Charisma.”

“Derek Popovich, you’re a hard man to pin down.”

“So I’ve been told.” Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Phoebe winding up to throw the decanter.

“You’ve been cheatingon me with this cheap skank?” Phoebe screeched and hurled the decanter, hitting the painting behind him and smashing into pieces. The contents splashed around the room and some of it landed on Charisma.

“What did you call me?” Charisma dropped her purse into a chair beside her.

“Ladies, let’s not say things we might regret.”

Derek moved from behind his desk with lightning speed,but it was too late. Phoebe had already charged at Charisma, and it all went downhill from there.

 

 

If Charisma had known she’d be walking into a volatile lover’s spat, she would have worn more sensible shoes. When she’d seen the media frenzy outside, she assumed they were there to get post-season comments from the gorgeous hockey star. Now this screechy, bottle-tossing actresswas throwing random punches at her, but none of them made contact. She did, however, manage to land one to Derek’s mouth. Charisma could only imagine what crap Derek had told Phoebe before she walked in on them. But it was impossible that the starlet didn’t know about his reputation.

Derek wedged himself between them with his hands raised, trying to keep them apart.

“You asshole!”Phoebe shouted, turning her ire back on him. “You were just using me!”

“I can’t believe this crap.” Charisma let out a dry laugh.

That had been the wrong thing to say, since it pulled Phoebe’s attention back to her. “So this is just a big joke at my expense? How long have you two been together?”

Anybody who read a reliable gossip rag knew Derek’s reputation for fast and furiousshort-term relationships. The combination of good looks and combustible sex appeal had women throwing themselves at him, even while he was on the ice playing a game. He was voted Sexiest Distraction in the NHL for five years in a row for a very good reason. Apparently Phoebe had delusions of changing him, like every other woman he’d dated before her. But that didn’t give Phoebe the right to lumpher in with the insanity.

So instead of hanging around in the madness, Charisma turned and left the office, storming out into the main restaurant area. Unfortunately, Phoebe gave chase, still yelling wild accusations, and that meant Derek came along as well.

The construction crew did their best not to stare, but it was too much of a train wreck for them to help it. Derek tried to calmhis ex-girlfriend down, but she wouldn’t cooperate. Charisma sighed. Is this what she’d looked like when she was with Lamont? Manic and desperate?

“Phoebe, you have this all wrong,” Derek protested.

“You’ve been avoiding me for weeks,” the actress panted. “And to think I came to Philadelphia to spend your birthday with you.”

“I’ve been busy. I told you I needed time to focuson work. In case you missed it, we didn’t advance in the finals.” He ran a hand through his hair.

“No, you were sneaking around behind my back. That’s why you didn’t have time to call.” She sneered at Charisma. “And clearly you’ve lowered your standards. She’s fake from top to bottom. That isn’t even her real hair.”

“I gave you a pass in the office, but I will beat your ass senseless.”She stalked toward the belligerent star, but Derek grabbed her by the waist and easily picked her up. “Put me down!”

“Don’t move,” Derek commanded as he planted her behind the bar next to the row of beer taps. He ran back around in time to catch Phoebe coming their way. “Phoebe, it’s over. I think we both know we fell into this relationship and now it’s time to get out.”

“You jerk!”

Charisma watched as Phoebe continued to hurl expletives until Derek slung her over his shoulder and headed for the door. When they were finally gone, the restaurant was very quiet. She spied her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. She straightened her clothes and smoothed her hair back into place. She pulled back the protective plastic cover on the bar and retrieved a glass. She wantedsomething more potent, but all she could find was some club soda in one of the mini fridges underneath the counter. It wasn’t bad enough that she’d just been in an unexpected fight with a client’s crazy ex, but she couldn’t even find some decent booze.

She sipped her disappointing beverage and contemplated her next move. Derek would probably be outside for a while trying to calm Phoebe down.It was time to leave. She could always come back in a few days once things had settled down. The best way to make her escape would be the service elevator. The last thing she wanted was to get caught up in the mess that was Derek’s very public love life.

She realized she had rushed out of the office so quickly that she’d left her purse. She hurried back to the office, carefully steppingover the broken glass on the floor. She held up her ten thousand dollar purse and groaned at the scotch stains splattered on it. It was one of the few things Lamont had given her that she’d kept and now it was ruined. Maybe it was the universe’s way of telling her it was time to let go of material thingsandto stay away from athletes. Hot men like Derek were the reason women like her lost allcommon sense.

 

* * *

 

Derek saw the cameras flashing as he neared the front door, but he didn’t care. He maneuvered through the crowd and hailed the first cab he saw coming down the street and poured Phoebe into it. Knowing the paparazzi would chase the cab, he paid the driver a two hundred dollar tip to circle the city twice at a reasonable speed before returning herto her hotel. He looked at her and mouthed, “I’m sorry” before closing the cab door. The angry actress continued cursing and banging on the window. He tapped the top of the cab to signal the driver to take off. The cab pulled into traffic and sped away.

One problem temporarily solved. Now to deal with the aftermath inside. Derek dashed back to his office just in time. Charisma had gatheredher things and looked like she was ready to leave. She also didn’t appear to be in any better mood than Phoebe.

“Sorry about that,” he said.

“Your girlfriend ruined a really expensive purse.” She glared at him and held it up in the air.

“I’ll buy you another one.”

“That’s not the point.”

He ran a hand through his hair. “Isn’t it? She damaged your nice handbag andyou deserve to be compensated for it.”

“So it’s that easy for you?”

“What?”

“Did it ever occur to you that if you’d handled your love life better there would be no need to pay for a mess or break up fights? No wonder the tabloids can’t get enough of you.”

He folded his arms over his chest. “That’s rich coming from you.”

“W-what?” she stammered.

“You’re no strangerto scandal. Some would even say you’re very close friends with it.” He raised an eyebrow.

“I admit I was once the poster child for outrageous behavior, but that all ended when I dumped a certain wide receiver.” She bit her lip. “I’m sure you’ve heard the story of Seth’s fight with Lamont.”

“Yes, it was the inspiration for the remodeling.” He scratched at his beard. “I was at an awaygame that night, but I banned that jerk Lamont for life. I don’t like men who hurt women and mess with my friends.”

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