Authors: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Contemporary
Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Chicago Stars – Book 2
To all my old friends in La Leche League. Thanks for being the first ones to tell me that you liked what I wrote.
I don't need any damn bodyguard!”
The silver toes of Bobby Tom Denton's purple lizardskin cowboy boots flashed in the sunlight as the ex-football player stalked across the carpet and planted the heels of his hands on his attorney's desk.
Jack Aikens regarded him cautiously. “Windmill Studios thinks you do.”
“I don't happen to care what they think. Everybody knows there isn't a single person living in all of Southern California who's got a lick of sense.” Bobby Tom straightened. “Well, maybe some of the ranchers do, but not other than that.” He folded his lanky frame into a leather chair, propped his boots on the desktop, and crossed his ankles.
Jack Aikens observed the man who was his most important client. Today Bobby Tom was dressed almost conservatively in white linen trousers, a lavender silk shirt, his purple lizardskin boots, and a light gray Stetson. The former wide receiver didn't go anywhere without a Stetson. Some of his girlfriends swore he even made love wearing it, although Jack didn't quite believe that. Still, Bobby Tom was proud of being a Texan, although his professional football career had forced him to spend most of the last decade living in Chicago.
With his magazine cover good looks, woman-eating grin, and imposing pair of diamond-studded Super Bowl rings, Bobby Tom Denton was pro football's most visible glamour boy. From the beginning of his career, television audiences had loved his country boy manner, but those who'd played against him weren't fooled by good ol' boy charm. They knew that Bobby Tom was smart, driven, and as tough as they came. He'd not only been the most colorful wide receiver in the NFL, he'd also been the best, and when a disabling knee injury five months earlier in last January's Super Bowl had forced him to retire at the age of thirty-three, it was only natural for Hollywood to be interested in making him the newest hero of their action adventure movies.
“Bobby Tom, the people at Windmill have a right to be worried. They're paying you several million dollars to make your first movie with them.”
“I'm a football player, not a damn movie star!”
“As of last January, you became a retired football player,” Jack pointed out. “And it was your decision to sign a movie contract.”
Bobby Tom whipped off his Stetson, plowed one hand through his thick blond hair, and shoved the hat back on. “I was drunk and looking for new direction in my life. You know better than to let me make important decisions when I'm drunk.”
“We've been friends for a long time, and I have yet to see you drunk, so that's not going to work as an excuse. You also happen to be one of the smartest businessmen I know, and you sure as hell don't need the money. If you didn't want to sign that contract with Windmill, you wouldn't have done it.”
“Yeah, well, I've changed my mind.”
“You've been involved in more business deals than I can count, and I've never known you to break a contract. Are you sure you want to start now?”
“I didn't say I was going to break the damn contract.”
Jack rearranged two file folders and a roll of Tums. They'd been friends for a decade, but he suspected he didn't really know Bobby Tom much better than the barber who cut his hair. Despite his affability, the former football player was a deeply private person. Not that Jack blamed him. Everybody in the world wanted a piece of Bobby Tom, and the athlete had learned to protect himself. In Jack's opinion, he didn't always do a good job of it. Every ex-jock, shapely female, or hometown buddy with a hard luck story had come to regard Bobby Tom as an easy mark.
Jack peeled the silver foil coin off the end of the Turns roll. “Just out of curiosity, you know anything about acting?”
“That's what I figured.”
“I don't see what difference it makes. Movies like this, all anybody has to do is kick ass and undress women. Hell, I've been doing that since I was eight years old.”
That sort of comment was vintage Bobby Tom Denton, and Jack smiled. Regardless of what his client said, he had to believe Bobby Tom planned to make a success out of his movie career. He'd never known the ex-football player to take on anything he didn't plan to do well, from acquiring land to buying into new businesses. On the other hand, he certainly was taking his time about it.
Jack settled back in his chair. “I talked with Willow Craig from Windmill a couple of hours ago. She's a mighty unhappy lady, especially since you're the one who insisted that all the location shooting be done in Telarosa.”
“They needed a small town in Texas. You know how bad the economy's been down there, and this'll help out.”
“I thought you were doing your best to stay away from your hometown for a while, especially with all this craziness over that big festival they're planning to rejuvenate the town.”
Bobby Tom winced. “Don't remind me.”
“The fact is, you have to get down there. Windmill has already moved in their equipment and personnel, but they don't have you there so they can start shooting.”
“I told them I'd show up.”
“Just like you told them you'd show up for all those meetings and wardrobe fittings they had scheduled for you in L.A. two weeks ago.”
“That was chicken shit stuff. Hell, I've already got the best wardrobe of any player in the NFL. What do I need fittings for?”
Jack gave up. As usual, Bobby Tom was going to do things his own way. For all his surface amiability, the Texan was stubborn as a mule, and he didn't like being pushed.
Bobby Tom lowered his boots from the desk and slowly rose. Although he hid it well, Jack knew that he'd been devastated by his forced retirement. Ever since the doctors had told him he'd never play again, Bobby Tom had been wheeling and dealing with the ferocity of a man poised on the brink of financial ruin instead of a sports legend whose multimillion-dollar salary with the Chicago Stars provided only a fraction of his net worth. Jack wondered if this movie deal wasn't just Bobby Tom's way of passing time while he tried to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
Bobby Tom paused at the door and gave his agent that level, blue-eyed gaze defensive players all over the league had learned to dread. “How 'bout you get hold of those people at Windmill right now and tell them to call off their bodyguard.”
Although the request was mildly uttered, Jack wasn't fooled. Bobby Tom always knew exactly what he wanted, and he generally got it. “I'm afraid somebody's already on the way. And they're sending an escort, not a bodyguard.”
“I told them I'd get myself to Telarosa, and I will, If any damn bodyguard shows up and thinks he's gonna order me around, he'd better be one tough hombre because, otherwise, he's gonna end up with my initials carved in his. backside.”
Jack glanced down at the yellow legal pad in front of him and decided this wasn't the best time to tell Bobby Tom that the “tough hombre” Windmill Studios was sending went by the name of Gracie Snow. As he slipped the pad under a file folder, he hoped to hell Miss Snow had a gorgeous ass, a mankiller set of tits, and the instincts of a piranha. Otherwise, she wasn't going to stand a chance against Bobby Tom Denton.
Gracie Snow was having a bad hair month. As the humid night breeze of early July sent a kinky coppery brown lock flying in front of her eyes, she decided she should have known better than to trust a hairdresser named Mister Ed. She didn't believe it was productive to dwell on the negative, however, so instead of dwelling on her bad permanent, she locked the door on her rental car and made her way up the sidewalk to the house of Bobby Tom Denton.
Half a dozen cars were parked in the curving drive, and as she approached the sleek cedar and glass structure that overlooked Lake Michigan, she heard music blaring. It was nearly nine-thirty, and she wished she could postpone this encounter until morning, when she'd be better rested and less nervous, but she simply didn't have the luxury of time. She needed to prove to Willow Craig that she could efficiently discharge her first real responsibility.
It was an unusual house, low and sprawling, with a sharply angular roof. The lacquered front doors held elongated aluminum handles that looked like thigh bones, She couldn't say the structure was to her personal taste, but that made it all the more interesting. Trying to ignore the butterflies in her stomach, she determinedly pressed the bell and tugged on the jacket of her best navy suit, a shapeless affair with a hemline that was neither long nor short, simply unfashionable. She wished the skirt hadn't gotten so wrinkled on her flight from Los Angeles into Chicago's O'Hare Airport, but she'd never been good with clothes. She sometimes thought her sense of fashion had become warped from having grown up around so many elderly people because she always seemed to be at least two decades out of date.
As she pressed the bell again, she thought she detected the reverberation of a gong from within, but the music was so loud, it was difficult to tell. A small flicker of anticipation tingled at her nerve endings. The party sounded wild.
Although Gracie was thirty years old, she had never attended a wild party. She wondered if there would be pornographic movies and bowls of cocaine set out for the guests. She was almost certain she disapproved of both, but since she bad no actual experience with either one, she thought it only fair to reserve judgment. After all, what was the point of making a new life for herself if she didn't stay open to new experiences? Not that she would ever experiment with drugs, but, as for pornographic movies . . . Perhaps just a short peek.
She pressed the bell twice in a row and pushed another wayward lock of hair back into her lumpy french twist. She had hoped her new perm would eliminate the need for the unfashionable, but convenient, hairstyle she'd worn for the past decade. She'd envisioned something soft and wavy that would make her feel like a new woman, and the tight permanent Mister Ed had given her wasn't at all what she'd had in mind.
Why hadn't she remembered from her teenage years that her efforts at self-improvement always resulted in catastrophe? There had been months of green hair from a miscalculation with a bottle of peroxide and raw, inflamed skin from an allergic reaction to a freckle cream. She could still hear the howls of laughter from her high school classmates when the wadded tissues in her bra had shifted while she was giving an oral book report. That incident had been the final blow, and right then she had promised to accept the words her plainspoken mother had been dispensing since Gracie was six years old.
You come from a long line of homely women, Gracie Snow. Accept the fact that you'll never be pretty and you'll be a lot happier.
She was of medium height, neither short enough to be cute, nor tall enough to be willowy. Although she wasn't exactly flat chested, she was the next closest thing. Her eyes were neither a warm brown nor a sparkling blue, but a nondescript gray. Her mouth was too wide, her chin too stubborn. She no longer bothered to feel grateful for the clear skin that lurked between the freckles scattered across the bridge of her nose, or the fact that the nose itself was small and straight. Instead, she concentrated on being grateful for the more important gifts God had given her: intelligence, a quirky sense of humor, and an insatiable interest in all aspects of the human condition. She told herself that strength of character was more important than beauty anyway, and only when she was at her most dispirited did she wish she could trade in a speck of integrity, a dab of virtue, a morsel of organizational ability for a larger bra size.
The door finally opened, cutting into her thoughts, and she found herself facing one of the ugliest men she had ever seen—a hulking bruiser with a thick neck, bald head, and bulging shoulders. She regarded him with interest as his eyes swept down over her navy suit, neat white polyester blouse, and no-nonsense black pumps.
She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin a notch. “I'm here to see Mr. Denton.”
“It's about time.” Without warning, he grabbed her arm and pulled her inside. “Did you bring your own music?”
She was so startled by his question, she received only the vaguest impression of the foyer: limestone floors, a massive aluminum wall sculpture, and a granite boulder holding a samurai helmet. “Music?”
“Jeez, I told Stella to make sure you brought your own. Never mind. I've got the tape the last girl left here.”
“Bobby Tom's in the hot tub. The boys and me want to surprise him, so wait here while I get everything ready. Then we'll go in together.”
With that, he disappeared through a sliding shoji screen off to her right. She stared after him, her emotions catapulting between alarm and curiosity. He had obviously mistaken her for someone else, but since Bobby Tom Denton wouldn't accept any phone calls from Windmill Studios, she wondered if she shouldn't take advantage of the misunderstanding.
The old Gracie Snow would have patiently waited for him to return so she could have explained her mission, but the new Gracie Snow craved adventure, and she found herself following the sound of raucous music along a curving hallway.
The rooms she passed were like none she had ever seen. She had always been a secret sensualist, and sight alone didn't satisfy her. Her hands itched to stroke the rough pieces of sculpture sitting on oxidized iron pedestals and the granite blocks that held irregularly shaped tabletops that looked like cross sections cut from prehistoric trees. She wanted to trail the pads of her fingers over the walls, some of which were lacquered a pale gray, while others were covered with long swatches of distressed leather bleached to the color of human ashes. The deep-seated, low-slung furniture upholstered in canvas and zebra-print beckoned to her, and the scent of eucalyptus trailing from ancient urns tantalized her nostrils.
Mingling with the eucalyptus, she caught the scent of chlorine. As she rounded a massive set of boulders tumbling artistically from the wall, her eyes widened. The hallway opened out into a luxurious grotto, whose walls were constructed of sweeping sheets of sandblasted glass rising to the roof. Mature palms, stands of bamboo, and other exotic foliage grew from free-form beds cut into the black marble floor, making the grotto look both tropical and prehistoric. The black tiled, asymmetrical-shaped swimming pool gave the appearance of a hidden pond where dinosaurs might have gone for a midday sip. Even the starkly designed chaises and chunky tables made of flattop boulders blended with the natural ambience.