Authors: Nancy Warren
Steve Jackson gazed out of the airplane window at the sparkling city below. He couldn’t stop the thrill of excitement when he saw the Golden Gate Bridge arch below him like a leaping dancer’s spine. He’d worked on a good few bridges, hefting steel and welding sections that were never elegant, but which somehow became so once the whole of it was put together. But few bridges, and he’d seen his fair share, were as beaut as this one. As much as he enjoyed his first sight of San Francisco, he reckoned he’d be a lot happier working at home with the ring of metal on metal in his ears and the smell of soldering lead in his nose, strapped high over the world doing an honest hard day’s work for an honest day’s pay.
Shifting uncomfortably, he wished for a pair of grubby jeans, an old shirt stained with the sweat of a full day’s work, and that he was heading to the pub with his mates. Instead he wore clothes that made him feel like one of those plastic fashion dolls his little sister loved to dress up. And instead of a decent job a man could do and still hold up his head, he was going to be prancing around like a bloody shirt lifter in a pair of bathing trunks to sell bloody surfboards to bloody Yanks. He grew hot just thinking about it. Think of the money, he reminded himself.
He was sitting here in first class, on his way to a few months of ridiculously well-paid work, and he consoled himself that he was so far from home none of his mates would ever know. He’d been right cagey about where he was going, saying only he was having a bit of a holiday. He glanced back at the People magazine open in his lap. He’d taken to leafing through such publications in hopes of working out how they acted in America. If it was like on telly and in the glossy magazines, he was going to have a half-decent time.
He wasn’t here only for the money; he quite liked the look of those California girls. As far as he could make out, all they did was party. Maybe he could do a bit of partying himself while he was here. Why not? He’d have a bit of extra money, and there was something about those girls with their long blond hair and perfect white teeth, their convertibles and light beers. Steve Jackson was determined to enjoy this crazy job that had landed in his lap. When he wasn’t prancing around half-naked for this silly job, he was going to have the time of his life.
The plane banked and showed him more of the city. There was Golden Gate Park and a rocky island out in the harbor that had to be Alcatraz. Down there somewhere were cable cars and steep hills and—and a woman who was going to “groom him,” according to Jennifer Talbot. Turn him into some git with bleached blond hair and oil on his muscles doing a body-builder pose, he reckoned. His stomach turned over queasily, which could have been at the thought of what awaited him, or from the sudden movement of the plane. In truth, he was a lot more used to buses than planes.
For all the money they were offering—and he had to admit that would come in handy—he still might have refused the job if it hadn’t been for Cameron Crane. When he met the man himself, he instantly saw a blighter he recognized. A rugged bloke who likes a beer and can play a round of footie without crying.
They’d met and shaken hands, and Cam had looked at him with eyes that understood and said, “Well? What do you reckon?”
He’d shrugged. “Dunno.”
Crane had understood everything he needed to from that one word. “Don’t you let those Yanks make him too pretty,” the big boss of the operation had warned Jennifer Talbot, and at that moment Steve had believed it might just work. “He’s a man, he surfs like a man, he looks like a man, right?”
“Of course. He’s perfect. I don’t want him to change,” Jennifer Talbot had said in the exasperated tone of someone who’d said the same thing a million times.
Still, he was glad to hear they weren’t planning to turn him into something he wasn’t. Now as he headed for foreign soil in a brand new suit that felt like a posh stranger’s, he wondered if taking the job had been the right thing to do.
“Only one way to find out,” he mumbled as the plane bumped to the ground.
He rose to retrieve his swish new carry-on bag, careful not to let his head bump the ceiling. It didn’t, but it was a close-run thing. Beside his bag was a tartan affair that he recognized as belonging to the older woman across the aisle. He passed it to her and she thanked him.
“Oh, would you mind getting my bag as well?” A younger woman who’d been eyeing him throughout the flight batted her eyes at him.
“Sure. Which one?”
“The green one.”
He reached for the bag and almost recoiled when he touched it. Crocodile skin. And if the poor croc hadn’t had enough to put up with, being hunted and turned into a lady’s bag, he’d been further humiliated after death by being dyed to match the inside of a kiwi fruit. He passed the bag over briskly, trying to rebuff the woman’s efforts to chatter at him as they left the plane. Thank goodness he was being met—and by a woman, he thought—as the crocodile bag and its owner tagged along by his side.
They’d already been through immigration in Hawaii, so all he had to do was grab his bags and go. The crocodile woman was clearly disappointed when his single bag came off the carousel and her fourth still hadn’t appeared. Having hefted the first three off for her, he was amazed the plane had remained airborne. As he emerged into the meeting lounge, he glanced around for Jennifer Talbot, although he hadn’t really expected her to be here.
There were a few people with signs but none had his name on it. Lots of people were hugging, a few crying, as families and friends reunited. A few tired souls were gathering in a bedraggled crowd under a tour company’s logo, and a few breezed out clearly knowing where they were going. Steve felt utterly and completely alone. Well, he reckoned someone would show up sooner or later, so he decided to find a cup of coffee and sit in the lounge and wait.
As he made his way through a seating area he saw his first party girl. Or, more accurately, his first morning-after-the-party girl. In fact, what caught his attention was the soft mound of a smallish breast perilously close to committing indecent exposure in an already eye-catching dress. The owner of both the dress and the breast was asleep, her bright, red-painted mouth open slightly on a gentle snore. Her bag was open on her lap and he guessed she’d had quite the party based on the large bottle of headache tablets and the economy size bottle of antacid.
Her thick brown hair was a sexy tumble and her dark glasses were skewed across a face that was unremarkable but for the full red lips. She must have quite a hangover, he thought to himself. Even her lip stuff was a bit sketchily applied. He shook his head. Eight hours or so ago and he’d have liked to make this lady’s acquaintance. He thought about waking her to let her know her purse was wide open and her dress all but, then decided she’d be better off for her sleep. He made to walk on past and stepped on something that snapped like a dry twig in the bush. The sharp sound had him glancing down to see his name staring up at him. He looked back, puzzled, at the woman who’d jumped at the sound. Her eyes were wide open but with the blank expression of a rudely woken hangover victim. That final jiggle as she’d jerked awake was all it had taken. Her left breast, about the size and shape of a mango, lay on top of the bright dress. Her skin was so white, he thought, and her nipple the exact shade of caramel toffee. Following his gaze, the woman made an indeterminate sound between a squeak and a moan. She clapped both hands over the escaping boob, her face filling with embarrassed color. Even her chest seemed to be blushing.
“What are you doing?” she whispered in outrage.
The humor of the situation was fast gaining on him. He bent down and picked up the now broken dowel with the sign attached.
“I’m Steve Jackson,” he said. There was a moment when he seriously thought she might disclaim all knowledge of him or the sign. But, after a moment, she pulled herself together.
“Oh. Well. I’m Lise Atwater. Welcome to San Francisco,” she said and keeping her left hand clamped over her breast, offered her right to shake.
Her voice was soft and clear and her eyes were a rich chocolate brown. At least, he assumed they were both brown. The wonky sunglasses covered one eye and left one peering at him with a mixture of mortification and censure. His aunt Gwen would clip him a good one if she could see him standing here trying not to laugh while the girl sat there frozen, one hand clamped over her chest and the color in her cheeks fluctuating between deathly pale and fevered. Maybe it was the thought of Aunt Gwen, but he suddenly remembered his manners. He pulled off his suit jacket and popped it right over the woman’s top half so it blanketed her from shoulders to thigh.
“Thank you,” she said stiffly.
He turned, partly to act the gentleman and partly to release a grin worthy of the green bag in its former life.
“All right,” Lise said, determined to be all business.
She glanced up into that meltingly gorgeous face and stifled a sigh of longing. On the negative side, she’d made a complete fool of herself, flashed her less-than-impressive assets all over San Francisco International Airport, and snoozed when she should have been meeting the man who was going to be her most important project to date. On the plus side, she knew Crane’s US spokesmodel wasn’t gay. It wasn’t simply that he’d stared at her breast—anyone would stare at a woman whose breast fell out of her dress at the airport; it was the frankly carnal way he looked at her.
This guy had more testosterone than ought to be legal in one man. No wonder Jen had been so enthusiastic. On TV he was going to be amazing. Still pictures showed his way-too-perfect-to-be-real looks. But in the flesh, his animal magnetism and blatant manliness somehow imbued his face with ruggedness. She was going to suggest to Jen they do as much as they could with TV. Once people recognized him from the tube, she’d be willing to bet they’d never look at a still photo of him in a magazine, newspaper, or grinning down at them from a billboard without adding in for themselves the strong personality behind the face that they’d already seen on television. And movie trailers, she mentally added.
“All right,” she repeated, realizing that she was staring and that he was gazing back at her with barely banked amusement.
Great. She was supposed to be his guide and mentor, the woman who would transform him into the perfect face, voice, and body of Crane Surf and Boogie Boards, and he thought she was a joke. Since she was pretty sure all her body parts were tucked back where they should be, she held out his coat to him. Feeling at a disadvantage to be sitting here staring up at a man so very much taller than she’d imagined he’d be, she hoisted herself to her feet, trying to keep the wobbling of her ankles to a minimum.
“You must be tired,” she said primly as she tottered along beside him, knowing he was half-crippling himself to keep to her pace. Couldn’t Sonia at least have let her keep her own shoes?
“No. I’m right, thanks. I slept on the plane.”
“Oh.” She felt at a bit of a standstill. She’d assumed he’d want to head to the hotel and go straight to sleep.
“We should check you in first anyway.”
“All right. Then I’m ready to go to work.”
“I really hadn’t planned to start until tomorrow.”
“That’s fine. I’ll look around a bit.”
She nodded. “I can arrange a car and driver.”
He looked at her as though she’d just tossed her breasts out in the open again. “I’ve got legs. I’ll walk.”
“Don’t get lost.”
He was expensive property. Already plans had been made, campaigns toyed with around his image. If he wandered into the wrong area and got murdered, she’d lose her job.
“Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself,” he said, and she realized that he was probably six foot three and had the muscles of a bodybuilder. Still, she ought to go with him, but not in these shoes.
“Where are the rest of your bags?” she asked when she realized he had only one modest carry-on piece, which looked expensive and new, and a well-used backpack.
“This is it.”
“Oh,” she said faintly.
So he was both manly and traveled light. Two surprises. She hoped there wouldn’t be any more today. She was pretty sure she’d reached her quota.
“Nice place,” he said when they pulled up in front of the hotel.
“I’m glad you like it. It will be home for a while.”
She checked him in and he stood meekly behind her. They rode the elevator in silence up to the executive level, and she led him to his suite. He didn’t say “nice place” when he saw it. He didn’t say anything at all, merely walked through twice, then opened the sliding door and peered out at the view.
“Is everything all right?”
“This whole place is for me?”
“It’s enormous,” he said.
Steve watched Lise roll her head around on her neck as though it were too heavy to hold up. The gesture caused her hair to dance and her dress front to shift about. Since he’d already had a tantalizing glimpse of exactly what was under that dress, he was hard-pressed not to stare. Sexy, she was, but then you’d expect that of a hard-partying California girl. She closed her eyes briefly, then dug into her purse for the headache tablets he’d spied earlier.
“Do you mind if I get some water?” she asked.
He shook his head. “You want to take it easy.”
Those sexy brown eyes blinked at him slowly. “That’s what everyone tells me. But you’ve only known me an hour.”
“I’ve got eyes, haven’t I?”
A knock sounded on the door and before he could move, she was opening it and ushering in the bellhop with his single bag. A bag he was well able to carry himself without help, but he’d felt so oafish and out of his element in the swish hotel that he hadn’t protested when a uniformed bellhop picked up the bag he’d dropped at his feet.
“Can you put that in the bedroom?” she asked and fished out a bill.
It was hard to tell with all the American bills looking the same, but he thought it was a fiver. “Did you tip that bloke five dollars?” he asked her once the boy had gone.
“Yes.” She seemed surprised at the question, then nodded briskly. “Right. I forgot. You don’t tip much in Australia. It’s very important to do so here. Especially at the hotel or anywhere where anyone might associate you with Crane Enterprises.”
“Well, Crane’s from Oz, too. I doubt he tips.”
“When he comes to the States he will. Image is everything. Believe me, you don’t want it showing up on some online gossip site that you stiffed the waiter at Chez Panisse.”
Since that sounded both French and expensive, he doubted the waiters there had anything to fear from him. “Gossip site?” He couldn’t imagine any online site having any interest in Steve Jackson and his tipping habits.
“Steve, once the campaign gets underway, you can’t be too careful, so it’s better to practice now.” She pulled out an electronic notebook and scribbled something on the screen. “I’ll get Sonia to put together a tipping guide for you.”
“Ta,” he said, wondering what madhouse he’d stumbled into.
“Oh, and here’s some cash for incidentals,” she said, handing him a fat white envelope.
He felt strangely as though he’d flown, not to another continent, but to a parallel universe. Once Lise Atwater had gone, Steve stripped out of his fancy suit and into jeans and a white T-shirt, and felt much more like his old self. His real self, and he’d better remember that. He slipped into his boots, stuffed some of the American bills into his wallet and the rest carefully into the safe the hotel provided inside the closet, and headed out.
“Taxi, sir?” asked a deferential guy in uniform who held open the door for him.
And he was free to set foot as he pleased on American soil. The hotel was on a hill, so he followed the slope down toward the sea. Then, working from the tourist map he’d found on his hotel desk, he headed for the busier area. Fisherman’s Wharf and so on. He let it all flow over him. The voices, with their different accents, the endless cell phones, the atmosphere of Europe mixed with the drive of America.
He bought a newspaper and sat at an outdoor café drinking frothy cappuccino while he tried to work out the who’s-who of California politics. Maybe he was jet-lagged after all, for the politics here seemed too complicated for words. People-watching was more rewarding anyway. So he sat idly in the sunshine and watched the beggars and hustlers, the business types and shoppers, the tourists and students and masses of people who could be anyone out doing anything.
After a while he got up, bought a few postcards, and wandered on down the street, where he bought two slices of pizza. After he’d devoured those he discovered he was still hungry, so he went into a likely looking pub and ordered a beer and a hamburger with chips. The waitress came back with a mound of potato chips on the plate beside the burger.
“I asked for chips,” he reminded her politely.
“That’s what those are, honey. Potato chips.”
He was a friendly man by nature, and the busty woman seemed nice in a harried way, so he decided to ask her for his first lesson in American.
“Where I come from we’d call these crisps.”
“Huh,” she said, wiping his table clean of beer rings.
“What do you call the long, deep-fried potato sticks?”
“French fries, honey.”
“Right, thanks a lot.”
“You want me to change these for you?”
“No, that’s all right.”
Steve wolfed down his first American hamburger while half watching a golf game on the telly mounted behind the bar. Not so very different from a Saturday afternoon at home, he decided, as he finished his beer.
Since he didn’t have his tipping guide yet, and for all he knew, the fellows in baseball caps at the next table could be spies for some online site he’d never heard of, he tipped the waitress five dollars.
She seemed happy, giving him not only a big smile, but her home phone number, “In case you need somebody to show you around.”
He thanked her politely. He’d been receiving similar requests since he’d left his teens, and he was always polite about it. He wouldn’t toss the scrap of paper with her name and number on it until he was out of sight. Steve walked for miles, his long legs eating up the up and down streets, watching the streetcars whiz by, and the cars, and the people, and when he was tired, he made his way back to his hotel.
He settled back with a second beer, this one from his own personal mini-bar, and wondered what his family would make of this. They all seemed so impossibly far away just now. He calculated the time and figured he’d just catch them at home. His uncle picked up the phone and was as delighted to hear from him as though he’d been gone a month.
“How are they treating you over there, son?”
“Great. I’ve got a nice room in a decent hotel. All the comforts.”
“How are the birds?”
“Not bad so far.” Though in truth he’d only met one American woman who’d whetted his appetite for more. “A pretty girl in a sundress met me at the airport,” he informed his uncle.
“Nice pair. Well, I only fully saw one, but it was very nice.”
“Young dog,” his uncle chuckled as Steve had known he would. “I know you’re only teasing, but you watch out for those girls. They’re terrible, with their cosmetic surgery and take-no-prisoners divorces.”
Steve rolled his gaze. “You been watching those real housewives again, haven’t you?”
“All right, all right,” his uncle muttered. “Your aunt wants to talk to you.”
Steve grinned into the phone. He hadn’t lived with them for years now but he could picture the scene because it hadn’t changed in longer than he could remember: the working-class row house, rising astonishingly in price now that Sydney real estate values had climbed to such absurd heights, but that didn’t make a damn bit of difference to his aunt and uncle. They’d never move. After his mum got sick and his dad left, his aunt and uncle had stepped in. When his mum had died, they took the younger children to live with them while seventeen-year-old Steve went to work on his first steel rig. It was the only real fight he ever had with Aunt Gwen and Uncle Sid.
“You’re smart, you could get a scholarship to the uni, boy. You don’t need to go to work. Don’t be a fool.”
But what kind of man didn’t stand up and do what was right? What kind of man didn’t support his family? A man like his dad, and that’s the kind of man he’d never be. After talking to Aunt Gwen for a few minutes, and having a quick chat with Sara, his younger sister, who was studying for an exam, he felt better. Sometimes you made sacrifices for the people you loved. Sara was going to get the chance to use her brains and go on to university next year, and this job was going to get her there. Not that staying in a swank hotel and getting paid to have your picture taken was exactly a hardship, but if this adventure ever got out back home, his life wouldn’t be worth living. The few people who knew the truth he’d sworn to secrecy. To his mates he’d merely said he was taking a trip to America. Since he was likely to be laid off for a few months nobody was surprised. “Lucky bugger,” was about all the interest they showed.
When he hung up, he noted the message light was flashing. Someone had called when he was on the phone. But who had his number? Lise Atwater, that’s who. He heard her breathy voice sounding half panicked that he wasn’t answering at—he glanced at the clock on the desk—eight o’clock at night.
“Please call me as soon as you get in,” she pleaded and left two numbers.
Since he didn’t believe in torturing women—and besides, he quite liked the sound of her voice—he gave her a ring back right away.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re safe,” she gushed.
He was amused, but also mildly irritated. He wasn’t the sort of person to run into foul play in broad daylight in a tourist area. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s a good thing you called. Bloody dangerous city this. I was nearly run down by a tram.”
“Cable car,” she corrected, then laughed dutifully. “This is an important job for me. I can’t let anything go wrong.”
“Well, I’m safe tucked in for the night,” he said. “You can go off to your parties without a thought.”
She laughed a second time, a lot more genuinely, he thought, and he found he liked the sound. He wondered what it would have been like if he’d met her at a party. And damn, he wished he could get the image of that single, tantalizing breast out of his mind.
“I’m putting together your schedule for tomorrow. How about I come and pick you up at nine in the morning? We’ll do a script run-through back at the office.”
He made a face at the phone. But it’s what they were paying him for, so he’d be there. “Sure. Fine.”
“Listen,” she said after a short pause, “I’m really sorry about earlier today—when I picked you up. I can’t believe I fell asleep.”
“No worries,” he said in utter sincerity, thinking again how a glimpse of unexpectedly intimate flesh could be amazingly erotic. “That was the nicest thing that happened to me all day.”