Natural Born Charmer (Chicago Stars #7)(4)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“You’re a real wise guy.” The landlady shot him a dark look and turned back into the house. Dean regarded her disappearance with regret. Apparently the fun was over.

He didn’t look forward to getting back on the road, despite the fact that he’d taken this trip so he could sort out a few things. Mainly the end of an unbroken string of good luck. He’d suffered his share of bumps and bruises playing football, but nothing major. Eight years in the NFL and he’d never broken an ankle, torn an ACL, or shredded an Achilles tendon. Not so much as a broken finger.

But that had ended three months ago with a fourth-quarter sack in the AFC Divisional playoffs against the Steelers. He’d dislocated his shoulder and suffered a SLAP lesion. The surgery was successful. His shoulder would serve him for another few seasons, but it would never be as good as new, and that was the problem. He’d gotten used to thinking of himself as invincible. Injuries happened to other players, not to him, not until now.

His charmed life had come to an end in other ways. He’d started spending too much time in the clubs. Before long, guys he barely knew were moving into his guest rooms, and naked women were passed out in his bathtub. He’d finally decided to take off on a solo road trip, but fifty miles outside the Vegas city limits, he’d concluded that Sin City wasn’t the best place to straighten out his head, which was how he happened to be heading east across the state of Colorado.

Unfortunately, he didn’t do solitude well. Instead of getting some perspective, he’d only ended up more depressed. The Beav’s adventures had been a great distraction that had, sadly, come to an end.

As he began to get back into his car, the shrill sounds of a female argument broke out. The next thing he knew, the screen door flew open, and a suitcase came sailing out. It landed in the yard, where it split open, spewing its contents: jeans and tops, a purple bra, and some orange panties. Next came a navy duffel. And then the Beav.

“Deadbeat!” the landlady shouted just before she slammed the door.

The Beaver had to grab an iron post to keep from falling off the porch. Once she got her balance back, she didn’t seem to know what to do, so she sank down on the top step and dropped her head in her paws.

She’d said her car wasn’t running, which gave him a good excuse to postpone enduring more of his own lousy companionship. “Need a lift?” he called out.

As she raised her head, she looked surprised to see he was still around. The fact that a woman had forgotten his existence was unusual right there, which further caught his interest. She hesitated, then came awkwardly to her feet. “All right.”

He helped her gather up her things, mainly handling the delicate objects that required manual dexterity. Like panties. As something of a connoisseur, he judged hers to be more Wal-Mart than Agent Provocateur, but she still had a nice assortment of bikinis in bright colors and bold prints. No thongs, though. And, most disconcerting, no lace. Since the Beav’s delicate, pointed face—minus the sweat and the accompanying fur—belonged in a Mother Goose book, there should have been lace.

“Judging by your former landlady’s attitude,” he said as he loaded her suitcase and duffel into the Vanguard’s trunk, “I’m guessing you’re missing eighty-two dollars’ rent money.”

“More than that. I had two hundred dollars tucked away in that room.”

“You’ve got a string of bad luck going for yourself.”

“I’m used to it. Not that it’s all just bad luck. Some of it is plain old stupidity.” She gazed at the house. “I knew Monty would come back here as soon as I found that Dylan CD under the bed. But instead of hiding my money in the car, I tucked it inside the new issue of People. Monty hates People. He says only cretins read it, so I was sure the money’d be safe.”

Dean wasn’t a regular People reader, but he had a certain loyalty. During his photo shoot, the staff couldn’t have been nicer.

“I’m assuming you want to go to Ben’s Big Beaver Lumberyard,” he said after he’d helped her inside. “Unless you’re trying to set a fashion trend.”

“Will you let it go?” The Beav had taken a powerful dislike to him, which was more than a little disconcerting, since she was female and he was…well…Dean Robillard. She spotted the map he’d tossed down. “Tennessee?”

“I have a vacation place not too far from Nashville.” Last week he’d liked the sound of those words. Now he wasn’t so sure. He might live in Chicago, but he was a California boy through and through, so why had he bought a Tennessee farm?

“You’re a country western singer?”

He thought it over. “Nope. You were nearly right the first time. I’m a movie star.”

“I never heard of you.”

“Did you see the new Reese Witherspoon film?”

“Yeah.”

“I was in the one right before that.”

“Sure you were.” She gave a long sigh and rested her head against the back of the seat. “You have an incredible car. Expensive clothes. My life gets suckier and suckier. I’ve fallen in with a drug dealer.”

“I’m not a drug dealer!” he retorted hotly.

“You’re not a movie star.”

“Don’t rub it in. The truth is, I’m a semifamous male model with ambitions of being a movie star.”

“You’re gay.” She made it a statement, not a question, which would have upset a lot of jocks, but he had a big gay fan base, and he didn’t believe in disrespecting the people who supported him.

“Yeah, but I’m totally in the closet.”

Being gay might have some advantages, he decided. Not the reality of it—he couldn’t even think about that—but hanging out with interesting women without worrying about leading them on. Over the past fifteen years, he’d expended too much energy convincing some very nice females they weren’t going to be the mother of his children, but gay men never had that problem. They could relax and just be pals. He glanced over at her. “Word gets out about my sexual preference, it’ll ruin my career, so I’d appreciate you keeping the information to yourself.”

She lifted one damp eyebrow. “Like it’s some big secret. I knew you were gay five seconds after I met you.”

She had to be putting him on.