Authors: Starr Ambrose
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Suspense
“How’s your lady friend? Has she noticed you yet?” The sandy-colored stone slab held the bodies of five more trilobites, all giant specimens about a foot long. One lay nearly within reach of George’s outstretched antenna, as if he’d spent the past five hundred million years trying to get her attention. Maggie gave him a warning tap on the head. “Just keep those feelers off her ass, buddy. Girls don’t like that.”
Pulling a long dusting rod from beneath the checkout counter, Maggie began brushing invisible cobwebs off the displayed fossils—more chunks of ancient ocean mud, teeming with the bodies of prehistoric fish, crustaceans, and ammonites. They were popular items among her customers with twenty or thirty thousand dollars to blow on an interesting conversation piece.
She worked her way toward the front of the store, humming to herself as she smoothed silk wall hangings. She’d nearly forgotten about rude reporters when a tap on the front door made her look up. Through the glass, four men waved and signaled for her to come to the door. Two were from the parking lot, but the other two were new. Were there really that many tabloids? Her first instinct was to ignore them, but she realized they wouldn’t go away. They’d just wait until she opened for business and bother her while she had paying customers in the store. It might be better to get it over with now.
The four straightened alertly as she reached for her ring of keys and unlocked the two heavy front doors. They pulled them open before she had the keys back in her pocket. She stepped back as all four pushed inside, holding up both palms while blocking their path. “Hold it right here, fellas. I know you have questions. I’m willing to answer if it’ll get you out of the way before I’m open for business. Agreed?”
A chorus of agreements assaulted her, followed by a jumble of loud questions, with each one trying to talk over the other.
“One at a time!” In the brief pause, she pointed to one at random, a man in his mid-thirties, balding, with a thin ponytail. “You first.”
He held up a miniature tape recorder as three more arms shot out, all holding recording devices. At least she’d be accurately quoted. Shifting his camera strap aside, he moved the recorder under her nose and asked, “How long have you been seeing Rafe De Luca, and what’s the status of your relationship?”
She pushed his hand back to a polite distance, giving him a free lesson in manners. “I’m not seeing Rafe. There is no relationship.” She cut off his follow-up question, pointing at the next man. “You.”
“Why did you hit Rafe? Was that the first instance of abuse in your relationship, or have there been more?”
She frowned. “I told you, there’s no relationship. I never met him before last night. And I hit him because he made inappropriate suggestions and wouldn’t keep his hands off me.” This was going better than she’d hoped. There was obviously a serious gap in the facts, and they were listening eagerly to every word, allowing her to clear up the story. No matter what spin the De Lucas tried to put on it, at least her version would be out there to counter it. She pointed again, this time to the short guy from the parking lot. “Your turn.”
“Was Cara Rockford the reason for your breakup with Rafe?”
“Who?” Maggie shook her head. “I told you, there was no breakup. I don’t even know Rafe. We just met last night.”
The man nodded, as if she had just confirmed what he’d said. She hoped he replayed that tape before writing his story. Before she could move on, he insisted, “But what about Cara?”
“Never heard of her.” Speaking over his next question, she pointed to the tall man behind him. “You.”
“What’s your response to Blaster’s threats against you?”
She wrinkled her brow. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The Blaster—Rafe’s bodyguard. That’s the name he used in pro wrestling. He was fired after you assaulted Rafe, and he swore to get even. What do you have to say about it?”
Four pairs of eyes fastened on her as she shook her head. “I had nothing to do with his getting fired. I imagine it was because he pulled a gun, and had been drinking on the job.” Thank you, Cal. It might be a good thing he’d stepped into that mess after all, or she wouldn’t be this prepared. “It’s not my fault if the man can’t keep Rafe from forcing himself on women.”
They all grinned, and a couple nodded in agreement. “You certainly handled yourself well, Maggie,” the first one said.
“Thank you.” It was about time someone showed some appreciation for how she’d dealt with two bullies.
“Maggie, can you tell us who the mystery man is?” Someone spoke out of turn, and before she could reply, another one took off on the new topic.
“Is he an old boyfriend?”
“Did he force you to leave against your will?”
“What’s his name, Maggie?”
Her orderly system was breaking down in the face of their renewed excitement.
There was no way she was going to give them Cal’s name. And the way they used hers all the time was beginning to bother her, like they actually thought she might mistake them for friends. “I never saw that man before, and I haven’t seen him since.”
One man chuckled. “Aw, come on, Maggie, everyone saw you run out of there with him. Who is he?”
She shrugged helplessly. “Sorry, I don’t know him, and he didn’t stick around, so I can’t tell you anything about him.” There, that ought to satisfy Cal. He might be overbearing and arrogant, but she owed him something for helping her out of a jam. Maybe now the press would forget about him, and he could go back to shadowing Rafe. Cal’s theory about murdered girls might be far-fetched, but he could probably find several lesser offenses to charge Rafe with. She wished him luck.
Cool air swirled into the store as a new reporter opened the door and pushed his way inside. He stood on tiptoe, stretching a tiny recorder over the heads in front of him. “Can I get a quote on your relationship with Rafe De Luca?”
Responding to the new competition, the other four abandoned their brief fling with order. Questions tumbled over each other, getting louder with each second. She held up both hands, waving them like semaphores above her head.
“Stop! No more questions.” A flash made her blink back spots. Another one followed, stretching her patience to the limit. “Out!” Rather than wait for them to obey, she shoved past them and held the door wide until they all followed her onto the sidewalk. Like a pack of preschoolers, they continued badgering her with questions about Rafe, his TV show, his costars, and her dating history.
Sticking two fingers in her mouth, Maggie blew a shrill whistle. The babble faded. “We’re done!” she ordered.
“Just a photo!” someone insisted. She turned to find the ponytailed reporter giving her an encouraging grin. “Come on, a nice shot of you in front of your store. It’ll be good for business.”
Damn, he might be right. And a posed shot had to be better than any pictures they’d taken so far. Obediently, she stood beneath the dark green awning with the white letters reading, “Fortune’s Folly.” Cameras clicked.
“Okay, that’s it,” she said.
“One more! How about—”
Obviously, they’d never be satisfied. She turned away, leaving them on the sidewalk. Before closing the front door, she reminded them, “I answered your questions. I expect you to leave me alone during business hours.”
She locked the doors again, then lurked near the checkout counter to see what happened. Within seconds, they dispersed.
Maggie smiled. For her first encounter with the press, she thought she’d handled it pretty well. They were pushy, but she’d kept them at bay. Cal had made it sound like she’d be mobbed by unruly hordes that would rip her to shreds. If he showed up, he’d have to eat his words.
It was nearly three o’clock the next day when Cal walked through the front door. The paparazzi had been shooed away by the police, so they weren’t there to spot their mystery man. They’d missed her, too, when she’d stayed at Zoe’s last night instead of going home. Another day or two of this and maybe they’d get tired of stalking someone they couldn’t find.
The day had started out cold, but heated up to seventy degrees with a high blue sky. Both doors were propped open, letting the warm breeze play against the wind chimes just inside the door. Cal didn’t appear to appreciate the tinkling sound as he passed by. In fact, he didn’t seem to appreciate any part of the beautiful spring day as he zeroed in on her behind the display cases in the center of the store. It was too bad, because he really had an interesting face and she was betting it would look even better with a big, strong grin. Looked like she’d just have to imagine it, because he seemed incapable of smiling around her.
Maggie replaced a ring in the glass case and straightened as he strode up to her, his boots echoing on the worn wood floor. Despite his tight expression, she put on her friendly greet-the-customer face. “Hi, sourpuss. Is it just me who ticks you off, or don’t you ever smile?”
“It’s definitely you.”
Not even the slightest hint of humor softened the hard line of his jaw. Still, his bad day didn’t have to ruin her good one. “What did I do this time?” she asked, not because she cared, but just because he looked like he might explode if he didn’t vent.
“You’ve been busy, haven’t you?” He slapped a stack of papers on the glass countertop.
The banner on the top one read
. Tabloids. Mildly curious, she turned it to face her. “Did they mention me?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. Her photo filled most of the front page. One arm was extended toward the camera, and she appeared to be lecturing someone. From the pose and the grainy quality, she assumed it had been taken with a camera phone the other night at the Alpine Sky, probably as she faced down the Blaster. Anger wasn’t her most flattering expression. Against the dark background, large yellow headlines next to the photo proclaimed, “Rafe De Luca and Girlfriend Caught in Rowdy Bar Brawl.”
Maggie wrinkled her nose and shoved the paper toward him. “Don’t worry, I cleared that up yesterday morning.”
He gave her a tight smile. “I know.” Removing the
, he shoved the pile back at her.
The Hollywood Scene
lay on top. She blinked twice at the large color photo of her, mouth open in a startled expression, before recognizing the moment from the parking lot behind the store. They hadn’t wasted any time. Banner headlines declared, “Rafe’s Bar Bimbo Denies Criminal Past.”
“What!” Sudden weakness hit her knees so hard she leaned against the glass cabinet for support. Grabbing the paper, she held it in shaking hands. “I told that idiot I didn’t have a police record!”
“Obviously,” Cal drawled. “Which is exactly what he reported—you denied having a criminal past.”
She swallowed, but still only managed a whisper. “That bastard.”
Wordlessly, Cal took the paper from her hands and handed her the last one. Lurid red headlines on a white background proclaimed, “Rafe De Luca in Love Triangle with Local Hottie!” Next to it, a picture of Maggie smiling in front of the store cut off half the name, displaying just the word “Folly” above her head. Below, in a smaller font, “Mystery Man Flees the Scene,” and “Rafe Can’t Keep His Hands Off Me! Maggie Claims.”
“Oh, my God,” Maggie groaned. “It’s not over, is it?”
Cal lifted one eyebrow, studying her with disgust. “Lady, it’s only just begun.”
aggie paced the work area between the packaging table and her desk. She had to move; if she stood still, her brain froze up, displaying that startled image of her face with the words
next to it. That picture was on front pages at newsstands and grocery store checkout lines all over the country. Her grandmother would see it. So would her sisters.
She growled her frustration. “Those slimy bastards. They knew better, and they twisted the facts to suit their story.”
“That’s what they do.” Cal stood with arms folded, watching her pace. He didn’t even try to look upset on her behalf.
“Well, it’s despicable.” She wished the whole pack of them would show up just so she could have the pleasure of kicking their butts onto the street. What really ticked her off was that she’d given them the fodder they needed to write their misleading stories. “Damn it, I should have known better,” she muttered.
To his credit, Cal didn’t agree. He didn’t have to. She could see it on his face, that resigned look of contempt that said he’d known she would blow it. That part really irritated her. She should have been the one who knew what to expect. She dealt with celebrities all the time, both in her store and as part of the nightlife at the big ski resorts. Most didn’t attract reporters the way Rafe De Luca did, but they were never truly anonymous, and never truly alone. She knew that. So how come this cop from Oklahoma had anticipated the overblown media reaction and known how to handle it?
She faced him, hands on hips. “How’d you know the tabloids would be all over this?”
“Are you kidding? Haven’t you ever watched
Trust Fund Brats
He snorted. “You must be the only one. The show has all these twenty- and thirty-something rich kids who have grown up never knowing what anything costs because everything was always given to them. Then they give them a limited budget and a task, like feeding a family of four for a week, or fixing a leaky faucet, and watch them try to cope. America loves to see the rich people screw up the stuff we all deal with every day.”
She wasn’t sure she’d call an hour of Rafe De Luca making a fool of himself entertainment, but she took his word for it. “So he’s popular.”
Cal gave her a condescending smile. “It’s not that simple. De Luca’s good-looking, and outrageous in his excesses. Women fall all over themselves to be with him. He’s the guy we all love to hate. Perfect headline material. I’ve followed him around long enough to know he’s a paparazzi favorite. No matter where he is, cameras are never more than a few yards away.”
She’d had a demonstration of that two nights ago. Pacing again, she told him, “Their lawyer was here yesterday. You were right—they want to put a pretty spin on the whole thing and say Rafe and I had a lovers’ quarrel.”
“Perfect. Go along with it, and in a couple days you’re old news. It’s over.”
She shot him a hard look. “That’s not gonna happen.”
He rolled his eyes upward. “Somehow I’m not surprised.”
“What I need to know is, what’s their next move? You seem to understand how Rafe’s narrow little mind works, so maybe you can tell me what I should do to head him off.”
He faked a startled expression. “Are you saying you might actually follow my advice?”
Maggie gave him an evil squint. “Don’t you dare make fun—” She broke off as her sales assistant, Holly, poked her head through the doorway and made a loud “pssst” sound. “What is it?”
Holly nodded her head meaningfully toward the front of the store. “There’s, uh, someone here asking to see you.”
“Can you handle it? I’m kind of busy.”
“I think you better come.” Her eyes went wide and she mouthed the rest as if it were top-secret information. “It’s Rafe De Luca.”
Maggie’s mind froze up again. She looked at Cal. His casual pose disappeared as he crossed the room to her side. She smiled gamely. “I guess I’ll go find out what Rafe’s next move is.”
“I thought you didn’t want to draw attention to yourself. Besides, he’s not going to hurt me.” She clenched her jaw. “And I promise not to hurt him.”
She started forward, but he clamped a hand around her arm. “Damn it, Maggie, you’re the most stubborn woman I’ve ever met. I said you’re not going out there alone.”
She opened her mouth to snap out a nasty retort, then noticed the tight creases at the corners of his eyes and the drawn line of his brows. He was worried. She had a feeling that Cal Drummond didn’t worry without a darn good reason.
She gave him a cautious nod. “Okay, we go together.”
His grip didn’t relax. “And I won’t tell you what to say, because I might as well be talking to the walls, but please . . .” He closed his eyes as if offering up a prayer that had little hope of being answered. “Think before you talk.” Before she could object, he moved his hand to her back and guided her past Holly, sauntering into the front of the store like he owned the place.
Rafe stood by the rock and mineral display, hands clasped behind his back, idly scanning the museum-quality crystals. He might have been fascinated by the huge amethyst geode with its sparkly purple interior, but Maggie thought it more likely that he’d chosen that spot because it was near the large front window. On the other side, faces and cameras pressed against the glass. She wondered why they hadn’t followed him inside, until she looked at the front door. Two large men blocked it. From their long hair, tattoos, and bulging muscles, she guessed they were more pro wrestling dropouts.
Rafe didn’t turn, even though he had to know she was there—her footsteps were loud in the sudden silence. She realized with chagrin that the three women shoppers who stopped their excited whispering when she entered the room had probably recognized her from the tabloid photos. She glanced over her shoulder. They huddled together, staring, awaiting the next installment in the drama.
Rafe waited to turn until they were right behind him. Maggie enjoyed a tingle of anticipation, hoping to see a gigantic swollen nose, swaddled in gauze and taped in place. Maybe his eyes would be glazed by massive doses of painkillers, purple bruises blooming below them. She was almost smiling as he turned.
She looked at near perfection—wavy black hair, artificially tanned skin perfectly complementing his tailored pale yellow shirt. And a perfectly straight nose that was only slightly wider than usual. Her smile crashed.
Rafe flashed his teeth in a predatory smile and reached for her hand. “Hello, Maggie.”
She stuck her hand behind her back. “Why isn’t your nose broken? I thought I broke it.”
The smile became strained but stayed in place—playing for the audience. As she waited, he glanced over her shoulder, winked, and nodded. Giggles carried across the room. The press would undoubtedly get three excited accounts of his incredible charm when he dropped by the store to see her. Chances were she wouldn’t come off as well.
He finally graced her with his phony smile, speaking through gritted teeth. “I don’t think you want to talk about your unfortunate lapse in judgment, Maggie. You should just be grateful that I’m willing to make this look good for both of us.” Raising his voice, he announced loudly enough for the women to overhear, “Those bug fossils are pretty cool. I might be interested in buying one.”
“They’re not bugs; they’re trilobites.”
“Whatever. How much is the big one?”
George. As if she’d let Rafe touch him. “Thirty thousand. Unfortunately, I just sold it this morning.” She tried not to get sick over the lost income; he probably would have paid it without blinking.
His mouth twitched as he forced it into a polite smile. “Too bad,” he said, then lowered his voice to a quiet rumble. “We need to talk.” His gaze settled on Cal as if he’d discovered a clod of mud on his shoe. “Alone.”
“No.” She and Cal said it together.
Rafe looked Cal up and down, from his ordinary brown hair to his cowboy boots. From across the room it might have looked like he smiled, but up close it was more of a condescending sneer. “This must be the boyfriend.”
“That’s right,” Cal said. Maggie frowned and opened her mouth to protest, but he spoke over her. “And I’m not about to leave her alone with you.” Like Rafe, Cal kept his voice so low that she doubted the three ladies could hear.
Rafe took several seconds to assess Cal, head cocked. “That’s not going to work, cowboy. How will the press think she’s making up with me if you’re standing right there?”
“That’s your problem,” Cal told him.
Rafe seemed to find it amusing. “Afraid I’ll steal her from you?”
Cal gave a disinterested snort. “A spoiled piece of TV trash like you? Don’t make me laugh.”
Rafe’s smile disappeared.
She had to give Cal credit for backing her up even when he thought she was doing the wrong thing. But pushing him into losing his temper in front of all those cameras seemed unnecessary. And it almost worked. From the ripple along Rafe’s jaw he had to be grinding his teeth hard enough to crack their pearly white crowns. When he finally spoke he muttered through a fierce smile, “Your opinion doesn’t count for shit, asshole. Here’s how it goes. You make your little cunt girlfriend do what I need, my family’s lawyers kill the story, and I won’t have to look at your ugly faces again.”
Cal laughed, a sharp-edged insult. “
Maggie do something?”
Maggie didn’t see what was so funny. She balled her hands into fists, wishing she could hit Rafe again. “I’m not staging a kiss-and-make-up scene for your benefit.”
Rafe shook his head sadly over her ignorance. “Have it your way. I was willing to make it easy, but I don’t mind watching the press drag your name through the mud for a few days before you decide you’ve had enough.”
She sighed loudly, determined to set him straight. “You really don’t know how to take no for an answer, do you? This isn’t Hollywood, and I don’t have to suck up to you or your daddy. Nothing you do can make me change my mind.”
From the way he tensed, she knew she’d crossed some invisible line. He leaned closer so their audience couldn’t see the hard look in his eyes, or hear his harsh whisper. “Listen, bitch. You’re the one who doesn’t understand. No woman is going to make me look like a fool. Try it and my lawyers will crush you.” The hatred in his voice sent shivers skidding down her back.
,” Cal scoffed.
Turning to Cal, he stepped closer, something Maggie would have thought twice about, considering the icy look in Cal’s eyes. “And I’ll be more than happy to have them crush you along with her.”
She expected a rude response from Cal, but a slow smile tugged at his mouth. For a brief second her heart stuttered; she’d underestimated the effect of his smile, but didn’t have time to consider it. Leaning in until he was nearly nose to nose with Rafe, Cal said, “You think I’m afraid of someone who let a girl give him a bloody nose?”
Rafe’s head jerked as if he’d taken a jab to the chin. He drew a deep breath, his slitted eyes boring into Cal as he let air hiss out through his teeth. For a moment his eyes shifted toward the door and she wondered if he was thinking of calling one of his hired brutes over to twist Cal’s arm off and beat him senseless with it. If so, he thought better of it. His gaze touched on the women across the room, and he flashed a tight smile their way, a practiced move that spoke of a lifetime in the public eye. She knew how it would look to the three women: distracted and annoyed by the callous shop owner and her rude friend, Rafe still took a second to appreciate his fans. What a prince.
She’d give a hundred dollars to kick him right now.
Maggie darted a nervous glance at Cal. He looked as calm as usual, but she realized it was deceptive—something was fiercely alert inside him as he watched Rafe. He almost looked disappointed when Rafe took a step back and gave him an assessing look.
“What’s your name?” Rafe asked.
A muscle jumped beside Rafe’s eye. “We’re not done here.”
Cal’s smile gave her chills. “I’m counting on it.”
Maggie’s heart pounded at the implied violence, even though Rafe’s expression went bland again. He studied her as he nodded toward the window behind him. “You see those vultures outside? They’ll do anything for an exclusive with me. Last chance—either you go along with my story, or I tell them a completely different one guaranteed to make the headlines. Once I sic them on you, they won’t stop picking at you until your bones are clean.”
Mutely, she shook her head.
“Fine.” He startled her with a wink and a smile, back in full publicity mode. “You let me know when you’ve had enough, pretty Maggie. But I’m afraid the terms will be tougher next time we talk. I’ll be in touch.”
He gave them a friendly nod and walked away. She wanted to rip his throat out.
Cal must have felt her impending explosion, because he clasped her hand in his and led her firmly back through the door that said
only. Fine—she had a few things to say to him, too.
Cal knew she was ready to boil over. He didn’t like being the target of her fury, but it was better than letting her spout off at Rafe De Luca in front of half a dozen photographers. She should have already learned that lesson—any reasonable person would have—but reasonable didn’t apply to Maggie Larkin.