Authors: Jennifer Blake
“But you would be paid stuntmen rates, as well as being seen in the final film. Your group might like these perks. What do you say?”
“I say you’d be better off with professionals. Your insurance company might not be too thrilled if some of us amateurs got hurt.” Putting obstacles in the man’s way was second nature; Trey didn’t even have to think about it.
“That’s my worry, isn’t it?” Peabody returned. “All you have to do is get out there and show your—ah, horsepower.”
The man was the backend of a horse himself, in Trey’s opinion. “We’ll see.”
“So we shall.” The actor’s smile was the epitome of confidence. “Next time you’re at the fairgrounds, I’ll see you’re measured for the armor.”
Armor on a bike, heavy, rigid, movement constricting armor? Trey shuddered to think of it, given that balance and agility often made the difference between control and loss of it.
Peabody turned from him to Zeni, giving her his order for coffee and a slice of her coconut pie with the mile-high meringue. Weird, but Trey wanted to deck him for that, too. He’d watched her take orders from men a thousand times, but this was different.
He didn’t want her serving the actor/director in any capacity whatsoever. That was the long and short of it.
“Gloria?” he said, and gave the waitress a straight look while tipping his head toward the movie man.
“Yes, sir,” she said at once.
The girl was quick and smart as a whip. Taking the coffee pot from Zeni that she’d just picked up, she bumped her aside with one hip and took over the order.
Peabody left a short time later, when it became obvious he had no chance of carving out time alone with his Zenobia. At least, Trey assumed that was it, as he looked frustrated as hell. Beau and Carla followed soon after, with a backward glance or two that said they thought he and Zeni might like a little privacy. Quitting time for Gloria arrived, and she left to go study before joining an online conference for one of her classes.
It was the slack period for the coffee shop, after lunch and before happy hour. He and Zeni actually had the place to themselves, at least temporarily. Trey waited with some anticipation for the explosion sure to come.
Zeni glance at him, and then away again. “We missed lunch,” she said. “Do you want a hamburger or something?”
Was that all she had to say? He was disappointed for some strange reason.
“Not right now. But you go ahead.”
“I’m not hungry either.”
“All this is enough to kill your appetite, all right.”
She gave him a dark look, then picked up a damp dish cloth and began wiping the counter top. He watched her get rid of crumbs and water rings, and then drop the cloth into the sink to wash the glass coffee pot she’d emptied and dunked into the sudsy water.
The way she handled the slippery glassware, with gentle yet firm control, the way the warm white lather slid over her hands, was almost unbearably sensuous. Trey felt a tightening in his lower abdomen and closed his eyes in exasperation. Everything she did turned him on these days.
It was all he could do to keep his face bland and unconcerned when she let the dish water out of the sink, wrung out her cloth and hung it to dry, and then turned to look at him.
“What was the big idea just now, proposing like that?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning one hip against the counter. “Wasn’t it enough to tell them we were engaged? Did you have to give them a lip-lock demonstration?”
“Lip-lock,” he repeated, bemused by the term. It was so descriptive, yet lacking when it came to the kiss they’d shared.
“You know what I mean, so don’t try to distract me. I hate being in this position.”
“As my bride-to-be.” He wanted to be absolutely clear before he started explaining.
“Pretend bride,” she said with every sign of loathing. “Fooling Gloria, your friends, and everybody else in town about what’s between us. Or what’s not.”
“I’m not sure he’s fooled at all, or else he doesn’t give a damn.”
Trey gave her a tight look. “If he bothers you too much, let me know.”
“And you’ll do what? Bloody his nose?”
“Maybe, since he’s extra protective of that surgical wonder.”
She scowled at him. “If a woman had said that, she’d be labeled catty.”
“Just call me Midnight’s pal.”
She refused to be deflected by humor. “Lay a finger on Derek, and he’ll have you arrested for assault before you can turn around.”
“Or not, since I have close connections with the sheriff’s office,” Trey returned at once.
“Which won’t matter if he calls in a big city law firm.”
He lifted a shoulder. “It could be worth a few months in jail.”
“Don’t say that!”
“Why Zeni, it’s almost as if you cared.” He watched her with a certain amount of sympathy since he knew he was being obtuse.
“I’d rather not have to visit you there.”
“You’d come see me?”
“I’d have to or leave town,” she said with scathing precision. “People here would never understand if I abandoned you, not after you going to jail for defending my honor.”
The drama of that almost made him smile. “Don’t worry. It’s not going to happen. Peabody has a movie to make and a career to protect. He’ll film what he wants and then he’ll leave. And that will be that.”
“Maybe.” She gave him a dark look. “But then we’ll have to fix this mess you’ve made.”
“Hey, you almost sound as if you’d rather see me in prison.”
“It’s a thought,” she said before drowning out any reply he might have made by punching the start button on the industrial-sized dishwasher he’d installed to save her the time and effort of washing up three times a day.
She didn’t mean it; Trey knew that very well. She was just worried, chafing against the situation he’d created. He liked that about her, that she felt the pretense was wrong. It didn’t much bother him, however, not if it kept Peabody at bay.
He wasn’t worried in any case. She’d be all right no matter how things turned out; he would see to that personally.
Meanwhile, he’d had his kiss, the one he’d fantasized about for months. He’d had it, been swept away by it to the point of forgetting their audience, and she hadn’t slugged him afterward. He considered that a win.
He should be satisfied. Not likely.
All he could think of was holding her again. Yes, and maybe brushing his lips across the tattoo on her back and then over her shoulder to her breasts, kissing every inch of her before sinking so deep inside her that he could feel her heartbeat.
He wanted her. He’d wanted her for ages, wanted her to stop frowning at him and be happy to see him, to stop snipping at him and say—what? That she loved him deeply, devotedly and desperately?
He was the one who’d said that. And if need be, he might say it again.
The mayor and the medieval fair committee were pushovers. Either that or geniuses. They agreed to allow the modern element of motorcycles in the ring tournament but, in return, insisted on the parade that led off the festivities being filmed for use as background while the movie’s credits rolled. If the footage made it into theaters, it should be invaluable promotion for Chamelot’s future fairs.
Trey went around tight-lipped and out of sorts after hearing about the agreement, but soon fell into line with doing his civic duty. Over the next week, he and eight of his biker buddies, including Jake Benedict, another cousin from over toward Turn-Coupe, spent hours in a field outside town. There they practiced guiding their bikes with one hand and holding onto lances borrowed from the medieval fair committee with the other.
Riding back and forth at top speed, they vied with each other, attempting to skewer one of the metal rings dangling from lines attached to a makeshift support—though it looked more like a goalpost than the traditional archway for the tournament. It was hot and dusty work in the extended Indian summer they were having, and the whole crew was in and out of the Watering Hole often. Over water, coffee and cold draft, they held loud and longwinded discussions about the best lance lengths to carry, the maximum speed for effect and efficiency, and how to judge wind direction and velocity for the best chance of collecting rings.
The whole thing sounded dangerous to Zeni, especially after one or two of the riders limped into the place following spills. She wished she had never gone near the cattle call that had started the whole mess, never met Derek Peabody. She dreaded to see the actor walk through the door for fear he’d say something that might set Trey off, making matters worse than they were already. It was a great relief that Derek usually showed up while Trey was away.
She came close to backing out of her part at least a dozen times. What stopped her was recognizing that it would change little. The thing had gone too far.
It did help that she had the protection of the engagement; at least Derek paid lip service to it most of the time. If she sometimes suspected he saw it as a challenge, one he couldn’t resist trying to overcome, she had no reason to call him on it.
How relieved she’d be when the movie and medieval fair were both done and things got back to normal. This, in spite of knowing the special moments with Trey would then be over, moments when he casually dropped an arm around her shoulders, swung her into an impromptu dance to some tune on the jukebox or wiped powdered sugar from a doughnut off her lips and then licked it from his fingers. The teasing, the touches and fleeting kisses to please the customers, gaining their good wishes and congratulations, would be through, finished. Yes, and so would the strain.
Oh, but what then?
Zeni tried not to think about that, though she sometimes caught Midnight up and held the kitten’s small, soft body against her face while asking him what she was going to do. He was a good companion, always glad to see her, keeping her company while she read herself to sleep and curling against her back during the night. But he never answered her question.
As the week wound down she had a call asking her to come out to the movie location for a costume fitting. The notice made the scene she was to play more concrete. And if it made her feel sick with nerves as well, she almost thought she deserved it for getting involved in the confounded business.
It was with some trepidation that she showed up at the cheap trailer brought in to serve as the wardrobe room. The inside of the thing was basically one large, open space. An enclosed office with a single plate glass window took up one corner, with a seating area directly outside it and a door marked as a restroom just beyond. The remaining space held racks of clothing and costumes of all shapes and sizes.
The wardrobe mistress, a matronly figure wearing a smock stuck with pins over her street clothes, introduced herself as Millie. She stood back a second, looked Zeni up and down, and then turned to pull a costume from the nearest rack.
“Try this on for size, honey.”
Zeni felt the stir of anger and chagrin. The outfit was far too skimpy, like some male designer’s idea of what might be worn in a harem, or else the costume worn by the female genie in the old sitcom
I Dream of Jeannie
“I don’t think that will work,” Zeni said as firmly as she could manage without shouting.
“No,” she said, and repeated that single negative again, and yet again, as the wardrobe mistress presented three similar versions, one after the other.
Zeni had researched the warrior queen of the desert, so had a fair idea of what she might have worn. Nothing she’d been offered came close. She began to explain, but Millie barely listened. Replacing the rejected costumes on the rack, she took a cell from her pocket and tapped in a text message
“I think this is a problem for Derek,” she said, her face set in grim lines. “He’ll be here in a few minutes.”
Surely he had more important matters to oversee? But that was all right. Zeni had a few things to say to him if he’d ordered the costumes she’d been shown so far.
“Is there a problem here?” the actor/director asked, mild annoyance in his voice as he came through the door.
The wardrobe mistress got in her accusation first. “According to Miss Medford, the costumes selected for her are unsatisfactory. Amazing, for a bit player.”
“Zenobia was a queen, ruler of Palmyra and lands as far away as Turkey, not some female shut up in a harem,” Zeni said, her gaze direct and voice level. “She considered herself on a par with the Caesars of Rome, and actually was a Roman citizen through her father’s family. In most paintings, she's shown wearing clothing similar to the Romans.”
“That may be, Zeni, darling,” Derek said, coming forward to take her hand. “But you’ll be acting in some modern guy’s wet dream, not a historical epic.”
“Your wet dream, you mean.”
He tried to look humble, but failed. “I suppose you could say so, as I’ll be playing the lead. But what does this football hero know about history or how the queen of Palmyra might have dressed? He’s seeing her not as she was, but as he’d like her to be.”
“There you go,” Millie said, backing up her boss.
“You might as well forget Zenobia, then, and use any harem girl,” Zeni replied.
“The point is that this noble warrior queen develops a yen for our modern guy, and sets out to seduce him.”
It was the first she’d heard of that development, since she’d yet to see a script. She wasn’t at all sure she liked it.
“The action is meant to be an indicator of his attractiveness on one hand and the way he sees himself on the other.”
looks and vision, she thought with sardonic recognition, while brushing that argument aside. “You’ll give the audience a totally false impression. Zenobia should be a role model for young girls, an example of a powerful female ruler, not some exotic bimbo.”
“But the half-naked female is the fantasy of the audience—that is to say, of the frat guys who love skin mags and get off on the idea of invading a harem. We have to be reasonable.”
“You may, but I don’t.” She turned away from Derek and the wardrobe mistress, picking up her shoulder bag from the chair where she’d left it. “This is my body we’re talking about here, and I decide how much of it to show off. Yes, and also how and when.”
The wardrobe mistress sucked in her breath in shock. Derek jerked his head back, less than pleased, but he recovered quickly. “You can’t just quit.”
“I believe I can,” she said without heat.
“You don’t mean you’ll just—just give up this opportunity.”
She didn’t bother to answer, but started toward the outside door.
He was standing between her and her goal, and didn’t budge. Instead, he sent a brief glance toward the wardrobe mistress. “Take a coffee break, Millie. Give us half an hour.”
Zeni’s nerves tightened, but she saw no need for alarm. The trailer had thin walls and was in the middle of a movie location with dozens of people shuttling back and forth around it. Regardless, she didn’t put down her shoulder bag.
As the door closed behind Millie, Derek eased closer. Lifting a hand, he ran the backs of his fingers down her arm from shoulder to elbow while watching her with narrowed eyes. “You don’t really want to leave, do you? This part could be the beginning of big things. We could work together on other projects, go places you’ve never imagined.”
“I like Chamelot,” she said, stepping back from him so his hand fell away. “And I’m not sure I care for the movie business if this is the way it’s going to be.”
“Your principles become you, my dear. But I think you’ll discover that they can be a handicap when it comes to getting what you want out of life.”
“That’s a very cynical view.”
“Rather, a useful one.”
“Do you think so? I think the handicap is having so few principles you fail to understand those who cherish theirs.” She made as if to move around him. “Now, if you don’t mind?”
“Don’t go, please. Try on a couple of the costumes. Let me see what can be done to make them more acceptable.”
Did he mean that? Zeni wasn’t sure. At least he backed away from her, settling onto the loveseat in the seating area. He propped an ankle over one knee, stretching out his arms along the backs of the cushions on either side of him in a pose that was probably meant to look nonthreatening.
She did see possibilities in a couple of the costumes that lined the walls, but wasn’t about to make use of the flimsy screen in one corner that served as a dressing room. She considered the gender-neutral restroom, nodding to herself. A moment later, she plucked two different ensembles from where they hung. Looking them over with a critical eye, she added another. Then she whisked into the restroom with them and closed the door.
“Don’t be prudish,” Derek began in protest.
It was too late. Zeni snapped the lock without a care for what he might think about it. Muttering under her breath, she hung her costume choices on the hook screwed into the back of the door, then began to undress.
Ten minutes later, she was ready. Turning this way and that in front of the small mirror over the sink, she thought the amalgamation of items she’d put together hadn’t turned out too badly. The heavy kohl eyeliner and other makeup she’d added, similar to that created for her screen test, was icing on the cake.
Derek gaped when she glided out of the restroom with her head held high. His mouth moved but no sound came out. She looked about right for the part, Zeni knew, but his surprise seemed excessive. All she’d done was repurpose the various costumes into something closer to what she’d seen in paintings of Zenobia online.
The result was a cream-colored, ankle-length tunic banded in gold and worn with a long purple-red stole that draped from her left shoulder, behind her back and under her right arm, and then over her left shoulder from the front. A wide, braided belt encased her hips, emphasizing her waist, while the long ends falling to the floor swung gracefully as she walked. A dagger in an embroidered scabbard hung suspended on chains from its knot. Her hair, braided and wrapped her head, supported a gold and gemstone diadem that gleamed with blue, green and red fire in the feeble overhead light.
She felt regal, she looked regal, and so she was regal.
“My God, Zeni,” the actor/director said, exhaling on a quiet breath as he rose slowly to his feet.
It was fitting homage for a queen.