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Make-Believe Cowboy Make-Believe Cowboy
Excerpt

Fitz Kelleran wanted to vault over the side of his Ferrari 360 Spider convertible, the way a thirty-four-year-old movie star should, but all he could manage was a creaky-kneed wobble out the door. Had he ever been this tired? Oh, yeah...last night. Same time, same place, same worn-out reasons.

He braced himself against the leather upholstery for a moment and let waves of disgust break over him. Disgust with the rock music throbbing from the balcony of his Malibu mansion and the strangers framed in the tall windows, sipping his booze. Disgust with himself for the music, the moochers and his careless tolerance of it all.

God, what a mess. He sure had a talent for it. But someone had to keep the fast food on all those tabloid press tables. Might as well be John Fitzgerald Kelleran.

He straightened and winced at the catch in his lower back. Bucking hay wasn't the kind of exercise regimen Hollywood trainers recommended. A soak in the hot tub would loosen him up a bit, but he'd still be feeling some twinges come tomorrow morning.

Good. He welcomed the pain. The little creaks and cramps, the dried sweat and streaks of dirt, the specks of alfalfa and manure that clung to his work shirt and jeans made him feel somehow cleaner and more alive, more real than he'd felt in a long while. Gramps had always said there was nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.

Samantha, his current lover, would hate it. She'd take one look, one whiff, and toss her $10,000 rhinoplasty in the air.

"No romp in the hay tonight for this cowboy," he muttered, shoving the car door shut.

And did he really care? Not anymore. She'd siphoned off enough celebrity from their relationship, and he'd satisfied his craving for her particular flavor. Time to rustle up the backbone to end the affair. Later tonight, when they didn't have an audience, he'd—

No, not tonight. She'd headed into the valley at noon to tape her guest spot on The Tonight Show and dine with her new agent, basking in the glow of her televised glory. No, he wouldn't dim her spotlight. Not tonight.

"Damn." Fitz angled his wrist beneath the beam of a security lamp and squinted at his Rolex. Too late to catch Leno's opening monologue, but he'd sure better catch Sam. If he didn't, there'd be hell to pay. Up-and-coming starlets demanded close-up focus on every detail of their self-absorbed lives. Tonight, for one last time, he'd play the supporting role.

He took a deep breath, chuffed it out and shouldered his way through the exotic tiled entry.

"Dude."

"Hey, Max." Fitz nodded a greeting at Sam's yoga instructor and edged past him, swinging by the wet bar to snag a Corona.

"Fitz. Finally." Burke Elliot, his personal assistant, perched on a bar stool, looking more stressed than usual. If Burke would ditch the type-A routine and the college prof glasses, his version of tall, dark and British would cut a wider swath through the single-and-available female population.

But Burke lived to nag, and he was just getting revved up. "I was wondering when you'd get around to checking in," he said. "Greenberg's been calling, nonstop.

Myron Greenberg, Fitz's pit bull of an agent. Probably itching to crack a few bones and suck the marrow out of the Eastwood project. "I was out at the ranch."

Burke's nostrils twitched. "Something told me that might be the case."

Fitz had once passed an empty afternoon trying to imitate the precise level of disdain conveyed in Burke's nasal twitch, but had failed to perfect it. "Didn't want the cell phone to spook the mare I was working with. Guess I forgot to turn it back on."

"I'm quite sure I don't need to know the details."

No one knew the details, and that's the way Fitz wanted to keep it. His ranch, his legacy. His escape from reality and his link to the past, all tangled up in a few tumbledown acres near Thousand Oaks. He wasn't sure why Gramps had hung that millstone around his neck when he'd died last year. But because it had been Gramps's place, and Gramps's doing, Fitz would likely drag it around until the day he died.

He took the edge off his exhaustion with a swig of cold beer before facing the news. Burke had slipped off his stool to hover, so it was probably bad.

"What's up?" Fitz asked.

"You can see for yourself after the next commercial break."

Fitz followed him through the house, past the clink of ice in cocktail glasses and the clack of billiard balls on felt, past wafting perfume and drifting cigarette smoke. He didn't recognize too many faces. This was Sam's set, Sam's friends and hangers-on, come to watch her go shoulder to chin with Leno.

He slipped into the crowded media room behind Burke and sank into an empty spot on one of the oversize sofas. Before he could draw his next breath, surgically enhanced cleavage pressed against his arm. The blond head above the bosom purred. "Hi, Fitz."

"Hi." He took another sip of beer. "I'm sorry...you are...?"

Collagen-stung lips pouted. "Sunday? The barbecue?" A fingernail dagger stroked down his shirt front. "You told me to be careful of the sun."

"Oh, yeah." He'd made the mistake of mentioning sunscreen and had been roped into smoothing a bottleful on several bathing beauties. Nameless, numberless, interchangeable beauties.

One of Sam's fans across the room called out, "There she is!"

Fitz glanced up to watch Samantha Hart, the former Miss Venice Beach currently tempting James Bond in wide release, saunter across The Tonight Show set. Air kisses for all, myopic wave to the studio audience. A tug at the too-short skirt to draw attention to the gorgeous crossed legs. Wet the lips, flash the dimples, giggle for Jay.

Down to business, baby: promote the movie, promote yourself. Wait for Jay's cue for a quotable sound bite. Here it comes: your special relationship with Fitz Kelleran, Hollywood bad boy and box office superstar. What's he like at home? Does he do the dishes, or just hurl them against the wall the way he did in The Madison Option?

Another pretty pout. God, did they teach that at the starlet studio? Fuss with the necklace—great delaying tactic, and draws attention to the cleavage. Tongue against the upper lip, slight frown between the perfect waxed brows.

Come on, Sam, what game are you playing now? The question wasn't that hard.

"Actually, Jay, things at home haven't been all that...well, you know," she said. "Fitz just doesn't...do it for me anymore, you know? Like, we're not together now. I walked out on him. A couple of days ago."

Fitz glanced at the occupants of his media room. Predatory consideration gleamed in the eyes staring back at him from the flickering semidarkness.

"I can't believe she dumped you, man. On the freakin' Tonight Show."

"That's so like, whoa, you know?"

"Cold, man. Sub zero."

"Dude."

"Sam's always been such a bitch," said Fitz's sofa mate. She ran her French manicure over his hand in sympathy and pressed her advantage. He wondered if her nipple would leave a permanent dent in his arm.

Then he wondered if Sam's PR bomb would leave a permanent dent in his offscreen image. As messes went, this one was Oscar worthy. Greenberg was probably hunched over his calculator at that very moment, running projections and figuring percentages.

Fitz was surprised he didn't feel something. Betrayed, relieved, angry, set free to go forth and sin again. Something.

Something other than this emotional flatline.

Burke's cell phone chirped. He checked it, frowned and shoved it back in his pocket before standing to shoo Sam's leftovers out the door. "Okay, party's over."

Fitz waited, calmly sipping his beer, while Sam's people scattered into the Malibu evening. He waited until the big front door slammed shut and the thumping music switched off, until the only sounds he could hear were the whispers of the surf beyond the windows and the echoes of Burke's shuffling steps coming down the hall. He waited until his assistant—his friend—came back into the darkened room and sank into a nearby chair, and then he said, "You knew about this."

"Yeah." Burke pinched the bridge of his nose. "Greenberg's been on my back all night. And Sam's new agent called after the taping. What a bastard."

"Because of the call, or because he took her on?"

"No, he really is a bastard. A twenty-four karat bottom feeder. Those two deserve each other."

"Speaking of people who deserve each other..." Fitz stared at the bottle in his hand. "What were all her fair-weather friends and slight acquaintances doing here? Helping her pack?"

"Making the scene, raiding your bar." Burke picked up a magazine and rolled it tight. "Watching the train wreck, up close and personal. I thought I'd keep them here, liquored up, away from the press. Postpone the collateral damage for a while." The magazine tapped a nervous staccato against his leg. "I seem to be doing a lot of that lately."

"Yeah." Fitz pulled up short of a shrug. "I know."

Burke leaned forward, elbows on knees. "You okay?"

"Yeah."

"I thought you'd be." He started to say something else, but nipped it off. Instead, he wound the magazine more tightly and squeezed.

Fitz tilted the bottle toward his mouth, hesitated, lowered it. "Okay. So, things have gotten a little out of control lately."

Burke lifted one skeptical eyebrow.

"And," Fitz added, "I should keep my name out of the tabloids if I'm going to get anyone with serious clout in this town to executive produce. I won't let this...this kind of thing happen again. I can't. I want to see this deal come together. I want it, bad."

He set the bottle on a table. "But it's not just the deal. I'm getting too old for this, Burke. God knows I feel too old tonight." He scrubbed his hands over his face and let them fall in his lap. "From here on out, the only offscreen role I'm playing is Boy Scout."

He angled his head back against the sofa and closed his eyes. "So, has she packed yet?"

"Not that I can tell."

Fitz sighed. Suddenly he was too tired to climb into the hot tub. Maybe he'd just sleep here for, oh, twenty years or so.

Burke was tapping again.

"Relax." Fitz stretched out on his side, crunched a throw pillow under his head, and tried to burrow deeper into the leather. "I can deal with it."

"You won't have to deal with it. You won't be here." Burke cursed and threw the magazine down on the coffee table. "The scheming shrew had perfect timing."

"What do you mean, I'm not going to be here?"

"There's been a schedule change on the location shoot. We leave for Montana on Monday. Bright and early."

Bright and early. An extra loud alarm and extra-strength caffeine. LAX and paparazzi on an empty stomach. "Aw, shit."

Burke sniffed and twitched. "You got it."



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From the book MAKE-BELIEVE COWBOY by Terry McLaughlin Imprint and Series: Harlequin Superromance, ISBN: 037371372X Copyright ©2006 by Teresa A. McLaughlin ® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. For more romance information surf to: www.eHarlequin.com.



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