Natural Born Charmer (Chicago Stars #7)(8)

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“Boo. Short for Malibu. I grew up in Southern California and spent a lot of time at the beach. Some friends picked up on it.”

“Boo” was one of those football nicknames. That explained why People magazine had photographed him walking on the beach. She poked her thumb toward the car’s speaker. “All those smitten women…Don’t you ever feel guilty about leading them on?”

“I try to make up for it by being a good friend.”

He wasn’t giving away a thing. She turned her head and pretended to study the view. He hadn’t said anything yet about kicking her out of the car, but he would. Unless she made it worth his while to keep her around.

He paid for the fast food with a pair of twenty-dollar bills and told the kid at the window to keep the change. She could barely restrain herself from leaping across the car and snatching the money back. Having worked in the food service industry more than a few times herself, she believed in tipping well, but not that well.

They found the roadside picnic area a couple of miles down the highway, a few tables set under some cottonwood trees. The air had grown cooler, and she dug into her duffel for a sweatshirt while Dean took care of the food. She hadn’t eaten since last night, and the smell of the french fries made her mouth water.

“Chow’s on,” he said as she approached.

She’d ordered the cheapest items she could find, and she set two dollars and thirty-five cents’ worth of change in front of him. “This should cover my share.”

He gazed with open distaste at the pile of coins. “My treat.”

“I always pay my own way,” she said stubbornly.

“Not this time.” He slid the pile back at her. “You can do a sketch for me instead.”

“My sketches are worth a lot more than two dollars and thirty-five cents.”

“Don’t forget the gas.”

Maybe she could make this work after all. As the cars flew by on the highway, she savored every greasy fry and bite of hamburger. He set aside his half-eaten burger and retrieved a BlackBerry. He frowned at the small screen as he checked his e-mail.

“Old boyfriend bothering you?” she asked.

For a moment he looked blank, then he shook his head. “My new housekeeper at the Tennessee place. She sends regular e-mails with detailed updates, but no matter what time I call, all I get is voice mail. It’s been two months, and I still haven’t talked to her in person. Something’s not right.”

Blue couldn’t imagine owning a house, let alone having a housekeeper.

“My real estate agent swears Mrs. O’Hara’s great, but I’m getting tired of doing everything electronically. Just once, I wish the woman would pick up the damn phone.” He began scrolling through his messages.

Blue needed to find out more about him. “If you’re from Chicago, how did you end up buying a house in Tennessee?”

“I was down there with some friends last summer. I’d been looking for a place on the West Coast, but I saw the farm and bought it instead.” He set the BlackBerry on the table. “The place sits in the middle of the most beautiful valley you’ve ever seen. It has a pond. Lots of privacy. Room for horses, which is something I’ve always wanted. The house needed a lot of work, so my real estate agent found a contractor and hired this Mrs. O’Hara to oversee everything.”

“If I had a house, I’d want to fix it up myself.”

“I send her digital pictures, paint samples. She’s got great taste and came up with her own ideas. It works out.”

“Still…That’s not the same as being there.”

“Exactly why I’ve decided to surprise her with a visit.” He opened another e-mail, frowned, and whipped out his cell. A few moments later, he had his quarry on the line. “Heathcliff, I got your e-mail, and I’m not crazy about this cologne endorsement. After End Zone, I was hoping to get away from that kind of thing.” He rose from the bench and walked a few steps away from the table. “I was thinking maybe a sports drink or—” He broke off. Seconds later, his mouth curled in a slow smile. “That much? Damn. My pretty face is as good as an open cash register.”

Whatever the other person said in response made Dean laugh, a big, thoroughly masculine sound. He propped his boot on a tree stump. “Got to go. My hairdresser hates it when I’m late, and we’re doin’ highlights. Give the rug rats my best. And tell your wife she’s invited to a sleepover at my place as soon as I get back to town. Just Annabelle and me.” With a crafty laugh, he flipped his phone shut and shoved it back in his pocket. “My agent.”

“I wish I had an agent,” Blue said. “Just so I could drop the word into a conversation. But I guess I’m not an agent sort of person.”

“I’m sure you have other good qualities.”

“Tons,” she said glumly.

Dean headed for the interstate as soon as they got back on the road. Blue realized she was chewing on her thumbnail and quickly folded her hands in her lap. He drove fast, but he kept a steady hand on the wheel, exactly the way she liked to drive. “So where do you want me to drop you off?” he asked.

The question she’d been dreading. She pretended to think it over. “Unfortunately, there aren’t any really big cities between Denver and Kansas City. I guess Kansas City would be fine.”

He shot her a who-do-you-think-you’re-kidding look. “I was thinking more along the lines of the next decent-size truck stop.”

She swallowed hard. “Except you’re obviously a people person, and you’ll be bored without company. I’ll keep you entertained.”

His eyes flicked to her breasts. “Exactly how do you intend to do that?”

“Car games,” she said quickly. “I know dozens.” He snorted, and she hurried on. “I’m also an excellent conversationalist, and I can run interference with your fans. I’ll keep all those yucky women from throwing themselves at you.”

His blue-gray eyes flickered, but whether from irritation or amusement, she didn’t know. “I’ll think about it,” he said.

Somewhat to Dean’s surprise, the Beav was still in his car that night as he exited the interstate somewhere in west Kansas and drove toward a sign for the Merry Time Inn. She stirred as he pulled into the parking lot. While she’d slept, he’d had more than ample time to study the rise and fall of her breasts underneath her muscle shirt. Most of the women he spent time with had pumped themselves up to four times their normal size, but not the Beav. He knew some guys liked overinflated breasts—hell, he used to like them—but Annabelle Granger Champion had long ago spoiled his fun.