Authors: Jennifer Blake
A Louisiana Knights Novel, Book 3
Streetwise Zeni is suspicious of her snap discovery by the producer of the film being shot in sleepy Chamelot, Louisiana. Yet the chance to play a bit part is irresistible—especially as her annoying boss, bad boy Trey Benedict, thinks she can’t make the cut.
Trey will miss Zeni’s constant insults if she leaves town, but he’s not worried; she’s too unique to fit the star mold. His help with her makeover is part of a bet, nothing to be taken seriously. Why, then, is he risking matrimony and his neck to keep her near?
TRISTAN ON A HARLEY
Copyright © 2016 Patricia Maxwell
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Published 2016 by Steel Magnolia Press, LLC
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
“What’s going on?”
Zeni Medford jumped a little, startled, as that deep-voiced question came from behind her. She turned from the front window of the Watering Hole coffee shop and restaurant, where she’d been watching a long line of vehicles pass by, led by a police car with flashing lights. She’d thought she was alone, since the usual customers were all standing out on the street for a better view.
Her boss, Trey Benedict, shifted position, moving so close that her bare arm, exposed by her tomato red tank top, brushed his elbow. The voltage that flashed between them was so strong she felt it down to her toes. It wasn’t fair. In fact, it was downright annoying that he still had that effect upon her after more than two years of working together.
“What does it look like?” she answered with scant grace.
“An invasion by aliens in black limos?” Trey squinted at the parade of vehicles heading toward the courthouse square. “And maybe a convention for monster motor homes.”
“It’s the movie people, of course. Where have you been that you don’t know?”
“Colorado mountain back trails. Not much news from sleepy old Chamelot lately.”
Zeni’s question had been completely rhetorical. She always knew where Trey was and what he was doing. On top of that, she’d been dutifully holding down the fort at the coffee shop, also looking after the convenience stores and truck stop he owned, while he’d been away at the High Rockies dirt bike competition.
She hadn’t realized he was back. No reason she should, of course; he had a house outside town, and came and went as he pleased. She didn’t expect him to check in with her. It might’ve been nice, but it wasn’t happening.
“I suppose you won,” she said.
“Not this time. Might have, except I crashed, had to stop and repair the bike in the middle of a lightning storm.”
“Going too fast as usual.” Busting his chops was a reflex action, but better than having him guess at how her stomach muscles clenched from the thought of him riding head-first into a tree, or maybe flying off the side of some slippery mountain trail.
“One of the old hands told me that if you don’t crash at least twice every lap you’re not going fast enough.”
“Did he now?” she asked with cool irony. “With an attitude like that, I’m surprised he ever got to be an old hand.”
The look he gave her was jaundiced, but without heat. The surprise for him would probably have been if she’d had no quick comeback. One day she was going to shock him and say what she really thought.
Yeah, sure she was.
“What movie is this?” he asked, turning back to the sun-drenched outside view, peering over the Watering Hole’s lettering on the glass. “And what people?”
“An L.A. outfit doing a romantic comedy. The producer/director is the big western star, Derek Peabody, who will also be playing the male lead.”
“Ambitious of him.”
“He’s apparently managed it before. That’s him and his entourage arriving now, minus the leading lady who will show up later. The word is he’ll be holding a cattle call in a couple of days.”
She gave Trey a brief sidelong glance, noting the damp, close-cropped waves of his hair that were dark brown but looked black in the dim light, the thick fans of his lashes that almost hid the gray of his eyes, and the square jaw with its two-day scruff of beard. He’d stopped long enough to shower before coming on to the coffee shop; the only scents she caught with her quick and stealthy inhalation were soap, fabric softener, and healthy male.
“Casting call is the official name,” she answered. “It’s a roundup of people from around town who aren’t actors but may be hired as extras for crowd scenes. The whole town’s learning movie lingo, you know.”
“And I guess you plan on being at this call up, or whatever it is?”
She lifted a shoulder. “Haven’t really thought about it.”
“Don’t waste your time.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rounding on him, she was distracted for an instant by the heat that radiated from his body, invading her very bones.
“I doubt you’re the type they’re after. They’ll want folks who look normal.”
The edge she put on that single word could have sliced through a steel cable. She wasn’t exactly bland and ordinary, but neither was she abnormal. That Trey could hint at such a thing was surprising. He might give as good as he got in their exchanges, but he wasn’t usually mean about it.
“Now don’t get on your high horse—I’m just saying you’d stand out too much in a crowd.” His gaze lingered a second on her long, wavy hair that she’d dyed grape juice purple the night before and pulled up into twin pony tails that stuck out on top of her head like cow horns this morning, also her hoop earrings the size of cereal bowls and the small gold ring in her right nostril. “You don’t exactly fade into the background, you know.”
Of course she didn’t; she never had and never would. “Why would anyone want to do that?”
“To catch a casting director’s eye, that’s why. They don’t want extras that draw attention and maybe distract the audience from what’s going on with the main actors.”
Zeni made a disparaging sound. “As if I could go that far.”
“You might, and it’s enough to get you disqualified.”
That sounded a little better than what he’d said before, though she wasn’t about to let him know it. “You understand all this, being such an expert on the movie business.”
“I’ve read a thing or two.”
“So have I. And I’m sure I could be as average as the next person if necessary.”
The look he gave her was searching. She could almost feel it skimming over her smooth, tanned skin, the width of her forehead, the wide spacing of her oversized brown eyes with their seven shades of eye makeup and goddess design drawn in henna, the straight slope of her nose and curves of her lips. Her breathing lost its easy rhythm, while her heartbeat kicked up a notch.
Endless seconds later, a wry smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. “Nah. You’re just too different. Besides, I’d have thought showing up for this call would be the last thing you’d do.”
“It might have been before you started in on the way I look,” she answered smartly.
He took a deep breath and let it out. “I was just making a comment, not saying you should change. You just—you’re you.”
“In other words, not like everybody else.” She wouldn’t let the pain of that show; the result from such weakness was something she’d faced ages ago.
“Well, yeah, but I thought you liked it that way. You go to a lot of trouble to make sure of it.”
He was right in a way. The reasons she did that were many—to avoid boring expectations, to express how she felt inside, to show people she didn’t care what they thought, to live close to the edge. And yet it all boiled down to the same thing, didn’t it? She wanted to be different, just not in the same way she’d been all her life.
Different had been good for a while. Now it wasn’t, not really. The question was whether she could find an acceptable reason to change.
She’d always been a freak, the child genius in math and science who made up a father because she had none, the daughter who sometimes frightened her mother with what she knew though she was also her best friend; the nerdy kid who handled the family finances from age six, and was so engrossed in her studies by sixteen that she barely noticed boys were on the planet. The girl who at 17 woke up one morning to discover that her mother had died in the night of an unsuspected aneurysm, leaving her alone in the world.
“That was before,” she said, her voice hard. “This is now.” And she wasn’t entirely sure whether she was answering her own thoughts or what Trey had said.
“You really might try out?”
He sounded disapproving as well as disbelieving. She could see only one reason for that. “If you think I’d neglect my job—”
“Not at all,” he said before she could finish. “You enjoy it, and you’re good at it. I just hate to see you disappointed.”
“I’m a big girl,” she said with her most deadly stare, the one that usually said any caffeine-or-alcohol-laden jerk who dared grab any part of her might draw back a nub. “I can take it.”
“Still what? You don’t think I have a chance of being chosen? You’re so sure of it you’re feeling sorry for me already?”
“I’m not, no. All I’m saying is it doesn’t seem like something you’d enjoy. You’re not much for pretending.”
That’s what he thought, Zeni told herself. And a good thing it was, too.
Trey had Zeni hemmed in, though she didn’t seem to realize it. A table with its four chairs sat at an angle behind her, forming a corner. The way he stood facing her closed off the open side. He could have moved, but wasn’t so inclined. He liked being in control for these few brief minutes. It was such a rarity, after all.
She could push past him at any time, of course. His superiority was all a mental game, one he played with no one except Zeni. Using physical strength against women wasn’t his style.
Zeni didn’t seem to mind his closeness, or maybe it was just that she failed to notice it, which was a definite downer. Her attention had been reclaimed by events beyond the window. The longer of the limos had pulled up at the street’s end. The mayor of Chamelot was descending the steps of the columned courthouse, hand outstretched to greet the visitors, flashing her whitened smile and wearing her best convention-going green suit that was a rather obvious complement to her red hair.
The guy who stepped from the limo was average in height with the ripped appearance provided by a personal trainer, home gym and unlimited time. His California blond hair and tan were both a little too perfect to be natural and the designer who provided his wardrobe too body-conscious, judging by the close fit of his shirt and pants. His sunglasses flashed dollar signs in the sun, and it was a toss-up which was shinier, his silk ascot or his patent leather shoes. He moved with languid steps, or as if it was beneath him to meet the mayor halfway. Barely touching the hand she offered, he waved his minions forward to be introduced, removing the necessity of making nice with the town officials.
Trey disliked him on sight.
“Who’s the big-wig again?” he asked in a tone like a slow ride over new gravel.
“Derek Peabody,” Zeni said without taking her eyes from the man. “He was the star of a western series that ran forever,
, or something like that.”
?” he ventured.
“That’s the one. It’s amazing that he chose Chamelot as the location for this production.”
She had a point. The sleepy old river town of barely 3,000 souls wasn’t exactly a film-making mecca, unlike other cities across the South. But Trey wasn’t about to agree with her.
“Not so amazing. I seem to remember when her honor, the mayor, met him at that big film festival in New Orleans—she couldn’t talk about anything else for a month. She must have given away most of Chamelot to get him here.”
Zeni gave him a quick glance over one shoulder. “She’s promised full cooperation from every business, including the Watering Hole.”
“We are to provide food for the cast and crew while they’re out on location.”
“Funny,” Trey drawled, “but I don’t remember agreeing to that.”