Natural Born Charmer (Chicago Stars #7)(16)

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“You’re strong and others aren’t.” Blue had grown up hearing those words. “You don’t have to live in fear. You can make your own way. You don’t need to worry about soldiers breaking into your house and dragging you off to prison.”

Blue also didn’t have to worry about soldiers doing much worse.

She tried never to think about what her mother had once endured in a Central American prison. Her sweet, kind mother had been a victim of the unspeakable, yet she’d refused to hold on to hatred. Every night she prayed for the souls of the men who had raped her.

Blue gazed across the passenger seat toward Dean Robillard, a man who took being irresistible for granted. She needed him right now, and maybe the fact that she hadn’t fallen at his feet gave her a weapon, although admittedly a fragile one. All she had to do was keep him interested, and herself fully clothed, until they got to Nashville.

At an early evening rest stop just west of St. Louis, Dean watched Blue standing by a picnic table with her cell. She’d told him she was calling her old roommate in Nashville to make arrangements for a place to meet tomorrow, but she’d just kicked a charcoal grill and slammed her phone back into her purse. His spirits rose. The game wasn’t over after all.

A few hours earlier he’d made the mistake of taking a call from Ronde Frazier, an old teammate who’d retired to St. Louis. Ronde had insisted they get together that night, along with a couple other players in the area. Since Ronde had protected Dean’s ass for five seasons, he couldn’t beg off, even though it screwed up his plans for a night with Blue. But it didn’t look as though things were working out the way she wanted. He took in her disgruntled expression and watched her limp back toward him. “Problem?” he said.

“No. No problem.” She reached for the door handle then dropped her arm. “Well, maybe, a small one. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Like you’ve been doing such a good job of handling things so far?”

“You could be just a little supportive.” She jerked open the door and glared at him over the roof of the car. “Her phone’s been disconnected. Apparently, she moved without letting me know.”

Life had just handed him a frosty mug of cold beer. Surprising how satisfying it was to have a woman like Blue Bailey at his mercy. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said with all kinds of sincerity. “What are you going to do now?”

“I’ll come up with something.”

As he pulled back out on the interstate, he decided it was too bad Mrs. O’Hara didn’t believe in answering her phone or he could have told her that he was on his way to the farm…and bringing along his first overnight guest.

“I’ve been considering your current difficulties, Blue.” He shot past a red convertible. “Here’s what I’m going to suggest…”

Chapter Four

April Robillard closed out her e-mail. What would Dean say if he knew the real identity of his housekeeper? She couldn’t bear thinking about it.

“You want the stove hooked up. Right, Susan?”

No, dude, let’s pop a geranium in it and make a planter. “Yes, hook it up as soon as you can.”

She stepped over the shredded remnants of the dancing copper kettle wallpaper the painters had stripped from the kitchen walls. Cody, who was younger than her son, wasn’t the only workman who invented excuses to talk to her. She might be fifty-two years old, but the boys didn’t know that, and they kept swarming. It was as if they could still smell sex on her. Poor babies. She no longer gave away her goodies so easily.

She grabbed her iPod so she could drown out the noise with some vintage rock, but before she stuck in the earpieces, Sam, the head carpenter, poked his head through the kitchen door. “Susan, check out the upstairs bathrooms. I want to make sure you’re okay with the exhaust fans.”

She’d checked out the exhaust fans earlier that morning with him, but she followed him into the hallway, maneuvering around a compressor and a pile of drop cloths to get there. The house had been built in the early nineteen hundreds and rehabbed during the seventies, when the plumbing and electrical had been updated and air-conditioning installed. Unfortunately, that modernization had also included avocado green bath and kitchen decor, cheap paneling, and gold vinyl floors grown dingy and cracked from use. For the past two months, she’d dedicated herself to erasing those mistakes and restoring the place to what it should be, a traditional farmhouse, luxuriously updated.

The early afternoon sunshine streaming through the new sidelights caught floating dust particles, but the worst of the construction mess was over. Her sandals with their jeweled T-straps clicked on the hallway’s hardwood floor. The bangles on her wrists jingled. Even amid all the dirt and disorder, she dressed to please herself.

A dining room that had once been a parlor opened off to her right, and a newly enlarged living area, part of a later addition, off to her left. The frame and stone house had been built in the Federal style, but the various additions had turned it into a hodgepodge, and she’d knocked out walls to make the space more livable.

“If you take long showers, you want a good exhaust fan to keep the steam from building up,” Sam said.

Dean liked his showers long and hot. She remembered that much from his teenage years, but for all she knew, he could have become one of those men who took short showers and dressed in five minutes. Painful to know so little about your only child, although she should be used to it by now.

Several hours later April managed to slip away from all the noise. As she stepped out the side door, she drew in the scent of the late May afternoon. The distant whiff of manure from a neighboring farm drifted her way, along with the fragrance of the honeysuckle growing in a happy ramble around the farmhouse’s stone foundation. It fought for space with overgrown day lilies, floppy peony bushes, and a leggy tangle of hearty shrub rose planted by farm wives too busy growing the pole beans and corn that would carry their families through the winter to fuss with demanding ornamentals.

She stopped for a moment to survey the weed-choked garden laid out decades earlier in the no-nonsense square common to rural households. Just beyond it a newly poured concrete slab extended from the back of the house, where the carpenters would soon begin erecting the screen porch. In the far corner, she’d etched her initials A.R. in tiny letters, so she could leave something permanent behind. One of the painters working upstairs gazed down at her from the window. She pushed a blade of long blond hair away from her face and hurried past the old iron pump before someone tried to stop her with more unnecessary questions.