Chris finished off his beer. “Here’s one for you. Would you rather bonk that Beauty and the Beast chick or Pocahontas?”
“Pocahontas,” Melvin replied.
“Yeah, Poc, for sure,” Willie concurred.
“You know who I’d like to f—uh, bonk,” Chris said. “Brenda Starr. Damn, she’s hot.”
Cal couldn’t hold back a grin at that one. God, he loved these jerks. Week after week they put their asses on the line to protect him. He’d been riding them hard lately, and he knew they didn’t like it, but the Stars had a chance of going all the way to the Super Bowl this year, and he wanted it bad.
It had been the worst year of his life. His brother Gabriel had lost his wife Cherry and only child Jamie, two people Cal had deeply loved, in a car accident. Since then, he couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to do anything except play ball.
He banked his next putt off the TV cabinet, combining his touch on the golf greens with his skill at the pool table, and put the ball within inches of the KFC bucket.
“Hey, that’s not fair,” Willie protested. “You didn’t say we could bank the shots.”
“I didn’t say we couldn’t.”
Melvin checked his watch and refilled Cal’s glass from a bottle of very old, very expensive scotch. Unlike his teammates, Cal seldom got drunk, but this was his birthday, he had the blues, and he was trying to make an exception. Unfortunately, he had a cast-iron stomach, and it wasn’t all that easy.
He smiled as he remembered his last birthday. Kelly, his former girlfriend, had planned a big surprise party for him, but she wasn’t good with details, and he’d shown up before any of the guests. He thought maybe he should miss Kelly more, but what he mostly felt when he thought about her was embarrassment that she’d dumped him for a twenty-three-year-old guitarist who’d offered her a wedding ring. Still, he hoped she was happy. She’d been a sweet girl, even though she used to irritate the hell out of him.
He was a yeller, by nature. He’d didn’t mean anything by it; it was just the way he communicated. But whenever he’d yelled at Kelly, she’d burst into tears instead of standing up to him. She made him feel like a bully, which meant he couldn’t ever completely relax and just be himself around her.
It was a problem he’d always had with the girls he dated. He was naturally attracted to the nice ones, the ones who cared about other people and weren’t just out for themselves. Unfortunately, girls like that tended to be wimps, and they’d let him run right over them.
A lot of the more aggressive women, the ones who might have been able to stand up to him, turned out to be money-grubbers. Not that he blamed a woman for looking out for herself, as long as she was up front about it.
Phoebe Calebow, the Stars’ owner and his nominee for best woman in the world when she wasn’t being a pain in the ass, said he wouldn’t have so much trouble with females if he’d stop dating such young ones, but she didn’t understand. Football was a young man’s game. He was young, dammit! And since he could pick and choose when it came to women, why should he choose a desperate thirty-year-old who was starting to turn brown around the edges when he could have a beautiful young woman with some dew-sparkle still left on her? He refused to think of himself as anything but in his prime, especially now that he had Kevin Tucker breathing down his neck. Cal swore he’d burn in hell before he’d let that cocky sonovabitch take over his job.
He finished the last of his scotch and felt the beginnings of the faint buzz that told him he was finally getting to the place he wanted to be, the place where he’d forget about the deaths of two people he loved, where he’d forget about Kevin Tucker and getting older and the fact that it seemed like forever since he’d felt the inclination to take one of those eager little dew-sparklers he’d been dating to bed. At the same time he noticed Chris checking his watch for the third time in fifteen minutes. “Going somewhere, Chris?”
“What? Uh, no.” He exchanged glances with Melvin. “Naw, I just wondered what time it was.”
“Three minutes later than when you last looked.” Cal picked up the putter and headed into the dining room, which had some kind of limestone floor and a pricey crystal chandelier, but no furniture. What was the point? He liked to keep things loose and easy, and he sure wasn’t planning any fancy dinner parties. When he entertained his friends, he chartered a plane and flew everybody to Scottsdale.
Besides, he didn’t believe in accumulating a lot of unnecessary possessions since living in the same place too long made him antsy, and the less he had, the easier it was to move. He was a great player because there was no clutter in his life. No permanent houses, no permanent women, nothing that could make him feel old and used up. Nothing that could cause him to lose his edge.
The doorbell rang, and Willie’s head shot up. “That must be the pizzas I ordered.”
All three of them charged toward the door.
Cal regarded them with amusement. All night, there had been something going on between them. Now it seemed he was about to find out what.
Jane stood in the spacious entry of Cal Bonner’s luxury condominium. With the fat pink bow tied around her neck, she was gift-wrapped and special-delivered.
Her heart beat so rapidly she was surprised the men couldn’t see the skin moving beneath the plunging neckline of her suit. She was also feeling a little muzzy, not at all like herself, and she suspected those pills Jodie had given her had kicked in.
Junior of the caterpillar eyebrow took her coat and whispered brief introductions to three men who could only be football players. The one named Chris was white with a prematurely receding hairline and the most massive neck she’d ever seen on a human being. Melvin was black, and his wire-rimmed glasses gave him a faintly scholarly look that was at odds with his enormous frame. Willie had warm coffee-colored skin that accented a pair of huge lady-killer eyes.
Junior finished his introductions and shoved his thumb in her direction. “Jodie done great, didn’t she? I told you she’d come through.”
The men assessed her, and Willie nodded. “Real classy. But how old is she?”
“Twenty-five,” Junior replied, cutting another year off her mythical age.
“Nice legs,” Chris said as he circled her. “Great ass, too.” He curved his hand over her right buttock and squeezed.
She whirled around and kicked him hard in the shin.
Too late, she realized she’d made a big mistake. A woman who traded in lust would hardly react so violently to being fondled. She recovered quickly and regarded him with all the haughtiness of an upper-class call girl. “I don’t give free samples. If you’re interested in buying the merchandise, make an appointment.”
Far from being offended, they started to laugh, and Willie nodded his approval. “You’re just what the ol’ Bomber needs.”
“He’s gonna be smilin’ tomorrow,” Melvin chuckled.
“Come on, boys. It’s party time!”
Junior pushed her forward, and as she tottered across the limestone floor on her ridiculously high heels, they all started to sing. Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you . . .
Dry-mouthed and terrified, she reached the end of the foyer. On her next step, her heels sank into the white carpet. She turned, spotted Cal Bonner, and froze. Even through her narcotic-induced haze, one agonizing fact became completely clear. The television screen had lied.
He stood silhouetted against a wall of windows with nothing behind him but the cold November night. On television she’d seen a country hick with a good body and bad grammar, but the man staring at her from the other side of the room had nothing of the hick about him. She had chosen a warrior.
He cocked his head to the side and studied her. His gaze was cold and grim, and it sent frightening impressions running through her head.
Gray eyes so pale they were almost silver. Eyes that knew no mercy.
Crisp brown hair whose tendency to curl hadn’t quite been tamed by a no-nonsense cut. A man who made his own rules and answered to no one.
Hard muscle and sinewy strength. A physical animal.
Brutal cheekbones and a ruthless jaw. No softness there. Not even a speck of the gentler emotions. This man was a conqueror, designed by nature to make war.
A chill traveled along her spine. She knew without question that he would be ruthless with anyone he decided was his enemy. Except she wasn’t his enemy, she reminded herself. He’d never know what she had planned for him. Besides, warriors didn’t care about things like illegitimate offspring. Babies were a natural consequence of rape and pillage and not to be given a second thought.
Rough hands, accompanied by raucous male laughter, pushed her toward the man she had chosen to be the father of her child.
“Here’s your birthday present, Cal.”
“From us to you.”
“Happy birthday, buddy. We cared enough to send the very best.”