"I'm Luc Hudson. There's been an emergency with your sister, Nicki."
Gwen McCord's heart plunged into her stomach as she looked at the tall, handsome man with the watchful blue eyes standing on her front porch. She barely noticed her yellow Lab's barks over the panic racing through her. "Is she okay? Is she" The worst possible thought stole the rest of her words and breath.
"She's alive," he said and nodded toward the door. "May I come in?"
"Yes, of course," Gwen said, pushing a strand of her hair behind her ear, stepping aside and pulling June, her dog, away from the doorway. Lost in her concern for Nicki, some part of her noticed the man's height and broad shoulders as he passed by her. He smelled of rich leather and just a hint of a spicy male scent. She glanced past him, spotting the SUV he'd driven to her ranch. For a member of one of Hollywood's most powerful families, the Hudsons, to make a personal visit to her in Montana, something terrible must have happened.
Gwen's stomach clenched in fear. "Please go ahead and tell me. Is she in the hospital?"
"No, we put her in rehab," Luc said, resting his hands on his hips. "She was arrested for driving drunk. Driving the wrong way on a one-way street. The police clocked her speeding thirty miles over the speed limit. She narrowly missed a head-on collision with a family of four returning from Disneyland."
"Oh my God," Gwen said, feeling her blood drop to her feet. A sick dizziness rolled over her, and she felt her knees dip. Luc's strong arms caught her, drawing her against his hard chest.
His eyes searched hers. "Do you need to sit down?"
She nodded. "I think so," she said as he guided her toward the overstuffed sofa in the sitting area at the front of her ranch cabin.
"Where's the kitchen? I'll get some water for you," he said.
"Straight down the hallway," she said, resting her head in her hands, castigating herself. If only she could have made Nicki listen! She'd repeatedly begged Nicki to get out of the fast lane, but Nicki had ignored her. Her younger sister had been determined to make a name for herself one way or another, and lately there'd been much more attention paid to Nicki's partying than to her acting abilities.
Luc returned with a glass of water and shook his head when she started to rise. "You're still pale," he said.
She took a sip of water and inhaled a shallow breath. "I should go to her."
"You can't," he said. "No one is allowed to see her during the detox phase."
She stared at him. "Not even a family member?"
"No one," he said. "It was a condition of getting her into this rehabilitation center. It has an excellent success rate."
Unable to sit any longer, Gwen rose to her feet. "I tried to get her to stop. I was able to persuade her to come out to the ranch for a few days. I hoped the fresh air and peace and just being away from the party scene would help. But her friends were always calling and sending her text messages. She got antsy and left early. I made her promise she would be more careful."
"She'll get the help she needs now."
Gwen fought the tears that filled her eyes. "I feel like such a failure. I should have"
Luc put his hand over her shoulder. "She's an adult, free to make her own choices, right or wrong. You couldn't control her."
Intellectually, she knew he was right. She would have said the same thing to someone else in these circumstances, but it didn't stop the combination of guilt and helplessness gnawing at her.
Taking a deep breath, she felt a rush of gratitude for the Hudsons. They had gotten her sister to a safe place. "Thank you so much for taking care of her. I would have liked to have been the one to have been there for her, but at least she's getting help. It could have turned out so much worse."
He replied with a slow nod and gave her a long considering glance. "Everyone wants Nicki to get better. The problem is that this has happened at a critical time for Hudson Pictures. Nicki was supposed to be preparing to do promotion for The Waiting Room. Her stint in rehab could damage the way this movie is perceived by the press and the public."
Gwen remembered the PR routine from her years of acting. Although she'd left a promising acting career and Hollywood behind, she would have to have had amnesia to forget the promotional sprint required for movies interviews with magazines, entertainment and news shows, public appearances.
"That is difficult," she acknowledged, then shrugged. "But with Nicki in rehab, there's really nothing that can be done."
Luc met her gaze with a resolution that made her uneasy. "I disagree," he said in a velvet voice with an underlay of steel. "In this case, the press needs a distraction. After taking care of Nicki last night, we held an emergency meeting and came up with a solution."
Gwen shrugged again, not sure why she needed to know this information. Her concern was Nicki, not Hudson Pictures. "I'm glad."
His lips rose in a crooked grin of irony. "We'll see." His amusement faded as quickly as a flash. "In order to keep the focus off Nicki, an announcement was made to the press last night. The announcement was that you and I are engaged."
Shock slammed through her. Gwen stared at him in disbelief. She blinked, shaking her head. She couldn't have heard him correctly. "Excuse me?"
"As far as the press is concerned, you and I are engaged to be married."
Gwen shook her head faster. "Oh, absolutely not. I don't even know you. I don't want to know you," she added to underscore her refusal. "Part of the reason I left Hollywood was to get away from the public relations racket that never stopped. No"
"It's already done," he said in a firm voice. "If you don't want your sister's reputation to go down the toilet, then you'll cooperate."
The coolness in his voice dug at her. She took a second look into his eyes and glimpsed a ruthlessness that made her shudder. "This almost sounds like blackmail," she said.
"Call it what you want," he said. "I'm good, but I can't perform miracles. Your sister has made a huge mess, and someone's got to clean it up. Allowing The Waiting Room to tank because of her lack of maturity and discipline isn't going to help anyone, including her."
Gwen couldn't fight the urge to defend her sister. "You know nothing about the hurt Nicki has gone through. When my parents divorced it was at a very critical time for her, and she might as well have been orphaned for all the attention they gave her. She's been struggling with the damage ever since."
"That's what therapy is for," Luc said. "No one's life is perfect. At some point you have to grow up and take responsibility for who you are and what you want. Nicki is overdue."
Even if there was a bit of truth to his words, Gwen couldn't forgive his lack of compassion. "Easy for you to say that no one's life is perfect. I suspect yours has been pretty damn close. The perfect powerful Hudsons."
He shot her a wry smile. "The reason you think we're perfect and powerful is because I've done my job with the press. Just as I'm now doing my job for this movie and your sister."
Her sister was an afterthought, of course. His attitude infuriated her. "Nice try, but I can't believe it will work. I can't imagine that anyone would be interested in me anymore," she said. "I'm no longer in the Hollywood scene. As far as the paparazzi are concerned, I lead a quiet, boring life rescuing horses on my uncle's ranch. And that's they way I intend to keep it."
"Again, that's where you're wrong. You were a darling. Women wanted your combination of beauty and strength. Men just wanted you. Your last film came out a year ago, and when the DVD comes out in two weeks, it's projected to be a top seller."
Gwen swore under her breath. "So in PR terms, I'm one of the flavors of the moment," she said and felt the prospect of participating in Luc's scheme tighten around her like a straitjacket. "It still won't work. I have the ranch."
"The plan is for me to stay here at the ranch for a while. Then we'll make a big public splash in L.A. in a few weeks."
Her stomach turned. "I cannot fathom pretending to be your adoring fiancée for three seconds."
"You won a Golden Globe and were nominated for an Oscar. This will be cake."
"Cake," she echoed in disbelief. "I might as well be engaged to the devil. I was married to a man who only wanted me for" She broke off. The memory of all that had taken place between her and her husband was still too painful. "I can't pretend that way again."
"You can for your sister," he countered.
Gwen stomped to the front closet and grabbed her boots. She felt so trapped, so impotent that she could scream. This would be a fine time to muck out the stalls. Heaven knew, she needed to work off some of her extra energy threatening to erupt any second. She kicked off her shoes and shoved her feet into the boots, trying to ignore the tall, imposing figure of Luc Hudson standing three feet away from her.
"Where do you want me to stay while I'm here? You have a guest room?"
A few searing, scathing responses kicked through her brain about exactly where she would like Luc to go, but she bit the inside of her cheek to keep from saying them.
He gave a wry chuckle. "I realize you'd prefer I stay in the barn," he said.
"Oh, no. I wouldn't want to punish the horses," she said. "Go down the hallway and take the second door on the right. It has a brass bed and a sheepskin rug on the floor beside it. You can have that room," she said and left the house with a small sense of satisfaction. Although putting Luc in that bedroom meant he would be sleeping next door to her, entirely too close for her comfort, she loved the idea that he would be living in a pink room for the time he was here. She'd decorated the room with Nicki in mind, so the walls were pink, the balloon shades fashioned from a French floral sateen of pink and blue that matched the floral quilt on the bed. A lace bedskirt coordinated with lace pillows on the bed and a cozy pastel blue upholstered rocker sat beside the bed.
All that pink would drive Luc, a man dripping with masculinity, out of his mind. And if she were lucky, out of her house and life.
Luc carried his suitcase into his assigned room and surveyed his new digs. He wiped his hand over his eyes and face. The girly room was a far cry from the clean, cool lines of his contemporary home decorated in black and white. Glancing at the puffy window treatments, he felt his skin begin to itch as if he were having an allergic reaction.
How was he supposed to get any work done in this room? The dresser was covered with girly knickknacks. Luc couldn't stand clutter. His job was to fix the clutter and chaos that other people created. That was the reason he was here.
His mind wandered to the woman who would help him carry off the charade. She was even more potent in person than she'd been onscreen. With each change of emotion, her expressive eyes and face grabbed and held his attention. Luc was good at reading people within the first thirty seconds of a personal meeting, but Gwen was too complex.
It hadn't been necessary to read her dossier. Her history had been splashed on every magazine and newspaper. Rumors had swirled that her affair with a costar had caused the demise of her high-profile marriage to one of Hollywood's top producers. Then she'd disappeared.
Her beauty and talent obviously had not disappeared. Neither had the simmering sensuality that boiled beneath her composed surface. If Luc hadn't learned his lesson about getting involved with actresses, he would be tempted to learn Gwen's secrets in and out of bed, but he knew better.
His cell phone rang, and he immediately identified the ring that belonged to his brother Max. "Hey, I made it."
"I decided I should check, since I hadn't heard from you."
"It took me longer than I expected to rent the SUV. Gwen's ranch is dead center in the middle of nowhere. You can tell she wanted to leave the 'City of Angels' far behind."
"How did she respond to the news?"
"Depends on which news," Luc said, moving closer to the window and studying how to disconnect the curtains. "She was upset about Nicki, wanted to go see her."
"You nixed that," his brother said.
"And how did the lovely lady feel about your impending nuptials?" his brother cracked.
Luc frowned and shook his head. "The things I do for the family business. Let's just put it this wayI'm glad she didn't have any sharp instruments close by when I told her."
Max gave a low chuckle. "You mean she wasn't dying to get involved with one of the town's most sought-after bachelors?"
"You're having a little too much fun with this."
"Maybe you could have some fun too if you play your cards right. Gwen McCord was damn hot. Didn't she make the sexiest females list of some magazine years ago?"
Several magazines. Luc recalled one particularly memorable shot of her from one of her movies where she was dressed in a man's unbuttoned shirt and nothing else. The photograph had exposed a generous amount of creamy cleavage, hinted at dusky nipples beneath and revealed shapely legs that went on forever. The tip of her tongue touching her upper lip and long bangs covering one of her eyes was the stuff to fuel the fantasies of millions of men young and old. Luc pushed the arousing image from his mind. "The only way Gwen is hot right now is how furious she is with me and the Hudsons."
"Oh, she's lost her looks already?"
"No," Luc said in exasperation. "She's still beautiful, but she's angry that she's been forced into this engagement."
"She ought to be grateful we got her crazy sister in rehab so quickly," Max said.
"She is. She just doesn't want to be dragged into the public eye again." Opening the closet door, he found it mostly empty. Relief oozed through him. Thank God. He could stuff the knickknacks and lacy crap in there.
"You think she'll go along with it?" his brother asked.
"She doesn't have a choice. That's why she's so pissed," Luc said. "Her frustration isn't important as long as she cooperates."