Natural Born Charmer (Chicago Stars #7)(14)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

He snatched it back before she could touch it. “It took me unaware, that’s all. I probably won’t hang it over my fireplace, but I don’t hate it. It’s…thought provoking. As a matter of fact, I like it. I like it a lot.”

She studied him to figure out if he was sincere. The longer he was with her, the more his curiosity grew. “You haven’t told me much about yourself,” he said. “Where did you grow up?”

She broke off a section of her doughnut. “Here and there.”

“Come on, Beav. You’ll never run into me after this. Spill your secrets.”

“My name is Blue. And if you want secrets, you have to go first.”

“I’ll give it to you in a nutshell. Too much money. Too much fame. Too good-looking. Life’s a bitch.”

He’d intended to make her smile. Instead, she studied him so intently he grew uncomfortable. “Your turn,” he said quickly.

She took her time polishing off her doughnut. He suspected she was trying to decide how much she wanted to tell him. “My mother is Virginia Bailey,” she said. “You’ve probably never heard of her, but she’s famous in peace circles.”

“Pee circles?”

“Peace circles. She’s an activist.”

“You don’t want to know what I was imagining.”

“She’s led demonstrations all over the world, been arrested more times than I can count, and served two stints in a federal maximum security prison for trespassing on nuclear missile sites.”

“Wow.”

“That’s not the half of it. She nearly died during the eighties when she went on a hunger strike to protest U.S. policy in Nicaragua. Later, she ignored U.N. sanctions to take medicine into Iraq.” The Beav rubbed a dab of frosting between her fingers, her expression distant. “When the American soldiers entered Baghdad in 2003, she was already there with an international peace group. In one hand, she held up a protest sign. With the other, she passed out water bottles to the soldiers. For as long as I can remember, she’s deliberately kept her income below thirty-one hundred dollars to avoid paying income tax.”

“Cutting off your nose to spite your face, isn’t it?”

“She can’t bear the idea of her money being spent on bombs. I don’t agree with her about a lot of things, but I do think the federal government should let taxpayers check off boxes stipulating where they want their tax money to go. Wouldn’t you like to make sure all those millions you give Uncle Sam went to schools and hospitals instead of nuclear warheads?”

As a matter of fact, he would. Playgrounds for big kids, preschool programs for little ones, and mandatory LASIK surgery for NFL refs. He set down his coffee mug. “She sounds like a real character.”

“Like a kook, you mean.”

He was too polite to nod.

“She’s not, though. Mom’s the real thing, for better or for worse. She’s been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize.”

“Okay, now I’m impressed.” He leaned back in his chair. “What about your father?”

She dipped part of her paper napkin into her water glass and wiped the doughnut icing from her fingers. “He died a month before I was born. A well he was digging in El Salvador caved in. They weren’t married.”

One more thing he and the Beav had in common.

So far, she’d given him a lot of facts without revealing much that was personal. He stretched his legs. “Who took care of you while your mother was out saving the world?”

“An assortment of well-intentioned people.”

“That can’t be good.”

“It wasn’t terrible. They were mostly hippies—artists, a college professor, some social workers. Nobody beat me or abused me. When I was thirteen, I lived with a Houston drug dealer, but in Mom’s defense, she had no idea Luisa was still in the business, and except for the occasional drive-by shooting, I liked being with her.”

He hoped Blue was kidding.

“I lived in Minnesota for six months with a Lutheran minister, but Mom’s a devout Catholic, so I spent a lot of time with various activist nuns.”

She’d had a childhood even less stable than his own. Hard to believe.

“Fortunately, Mom’s friends tend to be benevolent. I also learned a lot of skills most people don’t have.”

“Like.”

“Well…I read Latin, a little Greek. I can put up drywall, plant one hell of an organic garden, use power tools, and I’m a kickass cook. I’ll bet you can’t match that.”

He spoke damn good Spanish and liked using power tools himself, but he didn’t want to spoil her fun. “I threw four touchdown passes against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.”

“And set those Rose Princesses’ hearts a-fluttering.”

The Beav loved taking shots at him, but she did it with such open relish that she never came across as bitchy. Odd. He drained his coffee. “With so much moving around, school must have been a challenge.”

“When you’re constantly the new kid, you develop fairly sophisticated people skills.”

“I’ll bet.” He was beginning to see where her confrontational attitude came from. “Any college?”

“A small liberal arts school. I had a full scholarship, but I quit at the beginning of my junior year. Still, it’s the longest I spent in one place.”

“Why’d you leave?”

“Wanderlust. I was born to roam, babe.”

He doubted that. The Beav wasn’t a natural hard-ass. Raised differently, she would have been married by now, probably teaching kindergarten with a couple kids of her own.

He tossed a twenty on the table, and when he didn’t wait for change, she reacted with predictable outrage. “Two cups of coffee, a doughnut, and one uneaten muffin!”

“Get over it.”

She snatched up his muffin. As they headed across the parking lot, he studied the drawings she’d done of him and realized he’d gotten the best end of their deal. For the price of a couple of meals and a night’s lodging, he’d received some food for thought, and how often did that happen?

As the day advanced, Dean noticed the Beav growing more fidgety. When he stopped for gas, she took off for the restroom and left her grungy black canvas purse behind. He capped off the tank, thought about it for half a second, then went on an exploratory mission. Ignoring her cell phone and a couple of sketch pads, he pulled out her wallet. It contained an Arizona driver’s license—she really was thirty—library cards from Seattle and San Francisco, an ATM card, eighteen dollars in cash, and a photograph of a delicate-looking middle-aged woman standing with some street kids in front of a burned-out building. Although the woman’s hair was pale, she had the Beav’s same small, sharp features. This had to be Virginia Bailey. He dug deeper in her purse and unearthed both a checkbook and a savings account passbook issued by a Dallas bank. Fourteen hundred dollars in the first and a lot more in the second. He frowned. The Beav had a nice nest egg, so why was she acting as though she was broke?