A gorgeous football star...
A lonely Colorado highway...
A woman dressed up like a beaver.
Life's funny that way.
NATURAL BORN CHARMER
Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Now available in paperback from Avon Books
It wasn't every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of a road, not even in Dean Robillard's larger than life world. "Son of a"" Dean slammed on the brakes of his brand new Aston Martin Vanquish and pulled over in front of her.
The beaver marched right past, her big flat tail bouncing in the gravel, and her small, sharp nose stuck up in the air. Way up. The beaver looked highly pissed.
She was definitely a girl beaver because her beaver head was missing, revealing sweaty, dark hair pulled into a scraggly ponytail. He'd been praying for a little distraction from his own depressing company, so he threw open the door and stepped out onto the shoulder of the Colorado road. His newest pair of Dolce & Gabbana boots emerged first, followed by the rest of him, all six feet three inches of steely muscle, razor-sharp reflexes, and unsurpassed gorgeousness"or at least that's what his press agent liked to say. Still, it was pretty much true, although Dean didn't have nearly as much personal vanity as he let people believe. Even as a kid, he'd figured out that looks didn't take you far, but emphasizing the superficial was a good way to keep people from getting any closer than he wanted them to be.
"Uh, ma'am" You need some help?"
Her paws didn't break rhythm. "You got a gun?"
"Not with me."
"Then I've got no use for you."
On she marched.
He grinned and set off after her. Between his extra long legs and her shorter, furry ones, it took just a few steps to catch up. "Nice day," he said. "A little warmer than I'm used to for May, but I'm not complaining."
She hit him with a pair of grape lollipop eyes, one of the few curvy things about her. Most of the rest of her came to sharp angles and delicate points, from a set of fragile bladed cheekbones, to a petite, arrow tipped nose, to a chin keen enough to cut glass. But after that, things got dicey. A razor-edged bow marked the center of a wide and startlingly plump top lip. Her bottom lip was even fuller, giving him the disconcerting feeling that she'd somehow escaped from an X-rated nursery rhyme.
"An actor," she said with the trace of a sneer. "Just my luck."
"What makes you think I'm an actor?"
"You're prettier than my girl friends."
"It's a curse."
"You're not even embarrassed?"
"Some things you have to accept about yourself."
"Brother"" She gave a grunt of disgust.
"Name's Heath," he said, as she picked up the pace. "Heath Champion." "Sounds phony."
It was, but not in the way she meant.
"What do you need a gun for?" Dean asked.
"Murder an old lover."
"Is he the one who picked out your wardrobe?"
Her big ol' paddle tail smacked him in the leg as she spun on him. "Beat it, okay?"
"And miss all the fun?"
She gazed back at his sports car, a lethal, midnight black Aston Martin Vanquish S with a V-12 engine. The machine had set him back a couple of hundred thousand, but even that hadn't made much of a dent in his net worth. Being the starting quarterback for the Chicago Stars was pretty much like owning a bank.
She nearly poked out her eye as she pushed a sweaty spike of hair away from her cheek with her paw, which didn't seem to be detachable. "I could use a ride," she said.
"Are you going to gnaw my upholstery?"
"Do not mess with me."
"Apologies." For the first time all day, he was glad he'd decided to get off the interstate. He tilted his head toward the car. "Hop in."
Even though this was her idea, she hesitated. Finally, she shuffled after him. He should have helped her inhe did open the door for herbut then he just stood back to watch the fun.
Mainly it was the tail. The sucker was basically spring loaded, and as she attempted to wedge herself into the leather passenger seat, it kept smacking her in the head. She got so frustrated she tried to rip it off, and when that didn't work, she stomped on it.
He scratched his chin. "Aren't you being a little tough on the ol' beaver?"
"That's it!" She started to take off again down the road.
He grinned and called out after her. "I apologize. Comments like that are exactly why women have lost respect for men. I'm ashamed of myself. Here, let me help you."
He watched her struggle between pride and necessity and wasn't surprised to see necessity win. When she returned to his side, she let him help fold over her tail. As she clutched it to her chest, he guided her inside. She had to sit on one cheek and peer around the tail to see through the windshield. He climbed behind the wheel. The beaver suit emitted a musky odor that reminded him of a high school locker room. He cracked the window a couple of inches as he pulled back out onto the road. "So where are we off to?"
"About a mile straight ahead. Take a right at the Eternal Life Bible Church."
She was sweating like a linebacker underneath all that malodorous fur, and he turned the AC to full blast. "Are there a lot of career opportunities in beaver work?"
Her derisive look told him she knew exactly how much entertainment he was having at her expense. "I was doing some promotion for Ben's Big Beaver Lumber Yard, okay?"
"When you say promotion""
"Ben's business has been down lately"or so I've been told. I just got to town nine days ago." She nodded straight ahead. "This road leads to Rawlins Creek and Ben's lumberyard. That four-lane highway back there leads to Home Depot."
"I'm starting to get the picture."
"Right. Every weekend, Ben tries to hire somebody to stand out at the highway with a sign to draw some of the shoppers his way. I was his latest patsy."
"Being the new kid in town."
"It's hard to find anybody desperate enough to do this job two weekends in a row."
"Where's the sign? Never mind. You left it with your head."
"I could hardly walk back into town wearing a beaver head."
She pointed this out as if he were slow-witted. He suspected she wouldn't have been walking back into town wearing a beaver suit, either, if she had anything on underneath it. "I didn't see a car parked back there," he said. "How did you get out here in the first place?"
"The owner's wife dropped me off after my Camaro picked this morning to permanently give up the ghost. She was supposed to come back an hour ago to pick me up, but she didn't show. I was trying to figure out what to do when I saw a certain scumsucker whip by in a Ford Focus I helped pay for."
"The one you're getting ready to murder."
"Keep pretending that I'm kidding." She peered around her tail. "There's the church. Hang a right."
"If I drive you to the crime site, does that make me an accessory?"
"Do you want to be?"
"Sure. Why not?" He turned onto a bumpy, semi-residential street where some scrappy ranch-style homes sat on weedy lots. Although the town of Rawlins Creek was only about twenty miles east of Denver, it didn't seem to be in much danger of becoming a popular bedroom community.
"It's that green house with the sign in the yard," she said.
He pulled up in front of a stucco ranch where a couple of metal deer stood guard over a row of sunflower whirligigs and a sign reading "Rooms To Let." Except some comedian had drawn a big letter I between the To and Let. A dirty silver Focus sat with the motor idling in the drive. Next to it, a leggy brunette rested her hips against the passenger door and smoked a cigarette. As she saw Dean's car, she straightened.
"That must be Sally," the Beaver hissed. "Monty's latest loser. Me being her predecessor."
Sally was young, thin, with a big rack, and lots of make-up, which put the sweaty-haired Beaver at a distinct disadvantage, although showing up in a sporty Aston Martin with him at the wheel might have evened out the playing field. Through the windshield, Dean saw a long-haired, artistic looking dude in small, wire-rimmed glasses emerge from the house. This could only be Monty. He wore cargos, along with a woven shirt that looked like it had been handmade by a band of South American revolutionaries. He was older than the Beavermaybe mid-thirtiesand definitely older than Sally, who couldn't have been more than nineteen.
Monty came to a dead stop when he saw the Vanquish. Sally ground out her cigarette with the toe of a bright pink sandal and stared. Dean took his time climbing out and making his way around the hood to open the passenger door so the Beaver could start her killing spree. Unfortunately, as she tried to swing her paws to the ground, her tail got in the way. She attempted to angle it, only to have it unfold and knock her in the chin. That pissed her off so much that she took a swing at it, which threw her off balance, and she landed flat on her face at his feet, that big brown paddle waving in the breeze over her butt.
Monty stared down at her. "Blue?"
"That's Blue?" Sally said. "Is she a clown or something?"
"Not the last time I saw her." Monty switched his attention from the Beaver, who was trying to climb up on all fours, to Dean. "Who are you?"
The guy had one of those fake upper crust accents that made Dean want to spit tobacco and say "y'all." "A man of mystery," he drawled. "Loved by some. Feared by many."
Monty looked mystified, but as the Beaver finally made it to her feet, his expression changed to hostility. "Where is it, Blue? What did you do with it?"
"You lying, hypocritical, poetry spouting jerk!" She shuffled down the gravel drive, sweat glistening on her sharp little face, murder in her eyes.
"I didn't lie." He spoke in a condescending manner that even got Dean's hackles up, so he could only imagined how the Beaver was taking it. "I've never lied to you," he went on. "I explained everything in my letter."
"Which I didn't get until I'd blown off three clients and driven thirteen hundred miles across the country. And what did I find when I got here? Did I find the man who'd spent the last two months begging me to come out here and give him another chance? Did I find the man who'd spent the last two months begging me to leave Seattle and come out here? Did I find the man who cried like a baby on the phone, talked about killing himself, and said I was the best friend he'd ever had and the only woman he'd ever trusted? No, I did not. What I found was a letter telling me that the man who swore I was the only thing keeping him alive didn't need me any longer because he'd fallen in love with a nineteen-year-old. A letter also telling me I shouldn't let this kick up my abandonment issues. You didn't even have the guts to talk to me in person!"
Sally stepped forward, her expression earnest. "It's because you're a ball buster, Blue."
"You don't even know me!"
"Monty's told me everything. And I'm not saying this to be a bitch, but you could benefit from therapy. It'll help you stop feeling so threatened by other people's success. Especially Monty's."
Blue's cheeks grew bright red flags. "Monty makes his living traveling to poetry slams and writing term papers for college kids who are too lazy to write their own."
The way Sally dropped her eyes suggested this was exactly how she'd met him. But she didn't let herself be thrown off course for long. "You're right, Monty. She is toxic."
The Beaver clenched her jaw and started advancing on Monty again. "You told her I was toxic?"
"Not toxic in general," Monty said, haughty as all hell. "Only to my creative process." He poked his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. "Now tell me where the Dylan CD is. I know you found it."
"If I'm so toxic, why haven't you been able to write a single poem since you left Seattle? Why did you say I was your fricking inspiration?"
"That was before he met me," Sally interjected. "Before we fell in love. Now I'm his inspiration."
"It was two weeks ago!"
Sally tugged on her bra strap. "The heart knows when it meets its soul mate."
"A crap mate is more like it," the Beaver retorted.
"That's cruel, Blue, and very hurtful," Sally said. "You know Monty's vulnerability is what makes him a great poet. And that's exactly why you're attacking him. Because you're jealous of his creativity."
Sally was even getting on Dean's nerves, so he wasn't surprised when Blue rounded on her. "If you say one more word, I'm decking you. Got it? This is between Monty and me."
Sally opened her mouth, but something in the Beav's expression must have given her pause because she shut it again. Too bad. He'd have enjoyed seeing the Beav take her. Although Sal looked like she worked out.
"I know you feel betrayed now," Monty said, "but some day you'll appreciate my honesty."
Dean decided the guy had graduated right at the top of stupid class. The Beav rose up on her paw tips. "Honesty?"
"I'm not fighting with you," Monty said hastily. "You always want to turn everything into a fight."
Sally nodded. "You do, Blue."
"You are so right!" With no more warning than that, the Beav hurled herself through the air, and Monty went down with a thud.
"What are you doing? Stop it! Get off me!"
He was screeching like a girl, and Sally hurried forward to help. "Get off him!"
Dean leaned against the Vanquish to enjoy the show.
"My glasses!" Monty howled. "Watch my glasses!"
He tried to curl himself into a ball as the Beav landed a chop to the side of his head. "I paid for those glasses!"
"Stop it! Get off him!" Sally grabbed the Beav's tail and yanked on it for all she was worth.
Monty was torn between protecting the family jewels and his precious glasses. "You've gone completely crazy!"
"Your influence!" The Beav tried to bitch slap him, but it didn't go well. Too much paw.
Sally had some pretty good biceps, and she started making headway pulling on the tail, but the Beav had game, and she wasn't planning to give up till she drew blood. Dean hadn't seen a pile up this entertaining since the final thirty seconds of last season's Giants' game.
"You broke my glasses!" Monty whined, pressing his hands to his face.
"First your glasses. Now your head!" The Beav took another swing.
Dean winced, but Monty finally remembered that he had a Y chromosome, and, with Sally's help, managed to push the Beav off and scramble to his feet. "I'm going to have you arrested," he shrieked like a pussy. "I mean it. I'm pressing charges."
Dean couldn't take any more, and he ambled forward. Over the years, he'd seen enough film of himself to know the impression he made when he ambledthe way his long physique displayed itself to full advantage. He also suspected the afternoon sun might be setting off some fairly inspirational pyrotechnics in his blond hair. Up until he was twenty-eight, he'd sported a honkin' pair of diamond ear studs, but that had been youthful overkill, and now he only wore a watch.
Even with broken glasses, Monty saw him coming and blanched. "You're a witness," poetry boy whimpered. "You saw what she did."
"All I saw"" Dean drawled, ""was one more reason we're not inviting you to our wedding." He made his way to Blue's side, wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and gazed fondly into her startled lollipop eyes. "I apologize, sweetheart. I should have believed you when you said William Shakespeare here didn't deserve closure to your relationship. But I had to go and encourage you to come talk to the poor son of a bitch. Next time, remind me to trust your judgment. But you have to admit that you should have changed out of your costume first like I told you. Our sex life isn't anybody else's business."
The Beav didn't seem like the kind of woman who could easily be caught by surprise, but it seemed like he'd done it, and for a man who made his living with words, Monty's verbal well seemed to have run dry. Poor Sally could barely manage a croak. "You're marrying Blue?"
"I couldn't be more surprised myself." Dean gave a modest shrug. "Who figured she'd have me?"
And, really, what more could they say after that?
When Monty finally got his breath back, he started whining again about Blue doing something with "it," which Dean finally figured out was an apparently valuable bootleg CD of the original press of Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" that Monty had accidentally left behind at the rooming house.
"There are only a thousand in existence!" he cried.
"Nine hundred and ninety nine," the Beav retorted. "Your copy went out with the trash the minute I finished reading your letter."
Monty was pretty much a broken man after that, but Dean couldn't resist twisting the knife. As Poetry Man and Sally began climbing in their car, he turned back to the Beav and spoke just loudly enough for his words to drift in their direction. "Come on, sweetpea. Let's head for the city so we can get a start on buying that two carat diamond you've got your heart set on."
He swore he heard Monty whimper.
The foregoing is excerpted from Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.