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

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“Friends are important to me, too, but if one of mine was in trouble, I’d hop on a plane instead of packing up and moving.”

She jerked a rubber band from her pocket and snared her hair back into its disheveled ponytail. “I was planning to leave Seattle anyway. Just not for Rawlins Creek.”

They passed a sign advertising sheep for sale. She mentally sorted through her closest friends, trying to find someone she could hit up for a loan, but they all had two things in common. Warm hearts and abject poverty. Brinia’s newborn had scary medical problems, Mr. Grey could barely scrape by on his Social Security, Mai hadn’t recovered from the fire that had wiped out her studio, and Tonya was backpacking in Nepal. Which left her dependent on a stranger. It was her childhood all over again, and she hated the too-familiar fear she felt building inside her.

“So, Beav, tell me about yourself.”

“I’m Blue.”

“Sweetheart, if I had your dubious taste in men, I wouldn’t be too happy, either.”

“My name is Blue. Blue Bailey.”

“Sounds phony.”

“My mother was a little depressed the day she filled out my birth certificate. I was supposed to be Harmony, but a riot had broken out in South Africa, and Angola was a mess…” She shrugged. “Not a good day to be a Harmony.”

“Your mother must have quite a social conscience.”

Blue gave a rueful laugh. “You might say.” Her mother’s social conscience had led to Blue’s currently empty bank account.

He tilted his head toward the rear of the car. She noticed a tiny hole in his earlobe. “Those art supplies I put in the trunk…,” he said. “A hobby or an occupation?”

“Occupation. I do portraits of children and pets. Also some murals.”

“Isn’t it a little tough to build up a clientele moving around like you do?”

“Not really. I locate an upscale neighborhood and stuff the mailboxes with flyers that show samples of my work. It generally does the trick, although not in a town like Rawlins Creek where there isn’t an upscale neighborhood.”

“Which explains the beaver suit. How old are you, anyway?”

“Thirty. And, no, I’m not lying. I can’t help the way I look.”

“Safe Net.”

Blue jumped as a disembodied female voice invaded the interior of the car.

“Checking in to see if we can be of assistance,” the voice purred.

Dean passed a slow-moving tractor. “Elaine?”

“It’s Claire. Elaine’s off today.”

The voice was coming from the car’s speakers.

“Hey, Claire. I haven’t talked to you in a while.”

“I had to go visit my mom. So how’s the road treating you?”

“No complaints.”

“On your way to Chicago, why don’t you stop off in St. Louis? I have a couple of steaks in my freezer with your name on them.”

Dean adjusted the sun visor. “You’re too good to me, sweetheart.”

“Nothing’s too good for my favorite Safe Net customer.”

When he finally disconnected, Blue rolled her eyes. “You’ve got them lined up and taking numbers, don’t you? What a waste.”

He refused to play her game. “Don’t you ever get the urge to settle down in one place? Or does the witness protection program keep you on the move?”

“Too much world to see for me to settle down. Maybe I’ll start thinking about it when I’m forty. Your lady friend mentioned Chicago. I thought you were going to Tennessee.”

“I am. But Chicago’s home.”

Now she remembered. He played for the Chicago Stars. She gazed longingly at the sports car’s impressive instrument panel and gearshift paddles. “I’ll be happy to take over the driving.”

“It’d be too confusing for you to drive a car that doesn’t give off smoke.” He turned up the satellite radio, a combination of oldies rock and newer tunes.

For the next twenty miles, she listened to music and tried to appreciate the scenery, but she was too worried. She needed a distraction, and she considered ruffling his feathers by asking him what he found most attractive in a man, but it was to her advantage to maintain the fiction that he was gay, and she didn’t want to push him too far. Still, she couldn’t resist inquiring if he wouldn’t rather find a station that played Streisand.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” he replied with starchy dignity, “but those of us in the gay community get a little tired of the old stereotypes.”

She did her best to sound contrite. “I apologize.”

“Apology accepted.”

U2 came on the radio, then Nirvana. Blue forced herself to do a little head banging to keep him from suspecting how desperate she felt. He accompanied Nickelback with a mellow and fairly impressive baritone, then joined Coldplay in “Speed of Sound.” But when Jack Patriot launched into “Why Not Smile?” Dean switched the station.

“Put that back,” she said. “‘Why Not Smile?’ got me through my senior year of high school. I love Jack Patriot.”

“I don’t.”

“That’s like not liking…God.”

“Each to his own.” The easy charm had vanished. He looked aloof and formidable, no longer the happy-go-lucky pro football star pretending to be a gay model with dreams of movie stardom. She suspected she’d gotten her first glimpse of the real man behind the glittering facade, and she didn’t like it. She preferred thinking of him as dumb and vain, but only the last one was true.

“I’m getting hungry.” He turned a mental switch that let him revert to the person he wanted her to see. “I hope you don’t mind going through a drive-in window. Otherwise, I have to find somebody to watch my car.”

“You have to find people to watch your car?”

“The ignition key’s computer coded, so nobody can steal it, but it attracts a fair amount of attention, which makes it a big vandalism target.”

“Don’t you think life’s complicated enough without having to hire a babysitter for your car?”

“Living an elegant lifestyle’s hard work.” He hit a button on the dash and got directions to a picnic spot from someone named Missy.

“What did she call you?” Blue asked after the conversation ended.