Print edition published
August 2005
E-book edition
September 2013

Gone with the Nerd

Although Zoe Tarleton is box office gold in frivolous movies, she wants respect for her acting, which means landing a role as a genius-level chemist. Nobody expects her to get the part, but she has a secret weapon. She plans a cabin-in-the-woods retreat with a guy who can teach her how to be a nerd – entertainment lawyer Flynn Granger, the most uncool person of her acquaintance.

Flynn accepts the challenge and discovers a Zoe that no one else knows. As unexpected sparks fly between the geek and the glam girl, eerie noises echo in the woods outside their cabin. Is it the legendary Bigfoot, who has been sighted in these woods? Or is it a stalker who’s targeted Zoe? As the danger escalates, Zoe learns that when the going gets tough, a girl can count on a nerd.

Chapter 1 & Chapter 2

Two blocks from the restaurant, Zoe Tarleton knew she was screwed. Slowing for the light, she grabbed her cell phone from her purse and speed-dialed her lawyer. “Flynn, forget the restaurant I told you. It’s a fuster cluck of reporters out front.”
“So I see. I’m two cars ahead of you.”
Zoe braced herself on the steering wheel and pushed up to see over the yellow Corvette in front of her. Sure enough, there was a white Honda Civic idling in traffic with Flynn at the wheel. One of the richest entertainment lawyers in Hollywood drove a ten-year-old sedan. And that’s why she needed him. Flynn Granger was the only nerd she knew.
“I’m assuming you mentioned this meeting to Leon?” Flynn sounded resigned.
“I had to. He wanted to schedule an interview and I had to tell him why I couldn’t do it.” And her agent, Leon Borowsky, had alerted the new publicist, Sandi. Good old Leon alerted the publicist every time Zoe stepped out her front door, even when she’d specifically told him not to, like now. But she had a movie out and Leon had a thing for the new publicist, which meant he’d gladly turn Zoe’s every breath into a photo op.
“Okay.” Flynn switched to his lawyer’s voice. “New plan. We’ll drive past and go to a different restaurant.”
“They’ll recognize my car if I drive past. As slow as traffic’s moving, I could still get waylaid.” Even if she put up the top, that wouldn’t save her.
“Switch cars with me.”
Now?
“Right now. You have about five seconds before the light changes.”
Zoe didn’t pause to think. Still clutching her cell, she flung open the door and ran past the Corvette. She and Flynn bumped into each other, mumbled apologies, and whirled toward their respective destinations. She made it into his car just as the light turned green.
With zero time to move the seat, she stretched her legs to reach the pedals and used the steering wheel to balance herself. The Corvette driver leaned on his horn during the nanosecond she needed to release the emergency brake and put the Civic in gear, but finally she was in motion, gliding down the street in Flynn’s nerd car.
Another horn blared from somewhere behind her, and she realized that Flynn wouldn’t have fit in her Boxster without adjusting the seat, so he must have taken longer to get situated. But he was moving now. She could see him in the side-view mirror, his prescription sunglasses glinting in the light, his dark hair ruffled by the breeze.
When he picked up a little speed, the end of his brown tie flapped into view. He needed to lose the tie and roll back the sleeves of his dress shirt. Then he’d be at one with that sports car.
Even so, he looked good driving a ragtop, surprisingly good, macho even. But he’d never buy one. According to him, cars were transportation, not toys or status symbols or – heaven forbid – compensation for sexual inadequacies. Cruising the coast highway with the top down and the radio up wouldn’t occur to Flynn as a way to spend quality time.
Perched forward on the seat, Zoe concentrated on not crashing Flynn’s car into the vehicle ahead of her. Flynn didn’t have a scratch on his Civic. Even the inside was immaculate – not a gum wrapper or soft-drink container to be found.
He was anal as the day was long, but that was fine with Zoe. That same meticulous attention had been applied to her studio contracts, and she gave thanks every day for a thorough lawyer like Flynn.
The car smelled like Flynn, too. No pricey aftershave for this guy. He was an Aqua Velva man. She’d learned that one day when she’d had to use the powder room adjacent to his office and had found a bottle of Aqua Velva on the counter. Taking off the cap to sniff, she’d immediately recognized the familiar mint scent she associated with Flynn.
Speaking of Flynn, she wondered if he was still connected via cell. She snagged hers from the seat where she’d tossed it. “Zoe to Flynn. Come in, Flynn.”
“I’m here, crammed in like a sardine.”
Zoe smiled. Only Flynn would complain about being behind the wheel of a freshly washed black Boxster. “Yeah, but you’re stylin’.”
“Not my goal.”
“I know. Listen, thanks for trusting me with your car.” She thought it might be harder for him to loan out an economy car he’d carefully maintained for ten years than for her to let him drive the Porsche she’d owned for less than six months, a car that had no sentimental value and was maintained by a member of her staff.
“No problem. Okay, we’re getting close to the restaurant. Lock the driver’s door. The others are already locked.”
“I will, but don’t worry. They’ll never look for me in this car.”
“Lock it anyway.” Zoe searched for a power switch. “How?”
“There’s a button on the door frame along the edge of the window. Take your finger and push it down.” He sounded amused.
“Oh.” She locked herself in. “I thought there was a switch somewhere.”
“I know.”
“You’re trying not to laugh, aren’t you?”
“I’m not laughing.”
“Yes, you are. Almost. So I haven’t been in a car with manual door locks in a while. So sue me.”
“As your lawyer, I don’t think that’s legally possible.”
“You are so laughing.” She checked in the side-view mirror again and there was a big grin on his face. Driving a sports car while showing off his pearly whites, he looked rakish and daring, two words she never would have associated with Flynn previously. Probably a trick of the light.
As she’d predicted, she slipped right past the restaurant without a single person recognizing her. No one moved; no cameras flashed. Flynn was not so lucky. Everyone on the sidewalk had been waiting for her Boxster. Zoe watched in the mirror as the crowd surged forward, creating a momentary halt in traffic.
Zoe could hear their shouts of frustration through the cell phone connection. “They’re not happy,” she said to Flynn.
“Nope. Not happy.” Eventually the Boxster continued on down the street, but Flynn was no longer smiling.
“You okay?” She hadn’t considered how the mob scene might have affected him. He wasn’t used to that kind of pressure.
“Sure, I’m fine. But I don’t know how you stand it.”
“It’s the price of fame. I’m willing to pay it, most of the time. I just wish Leon hadn’t decided to turn our meeting today into a media feeding frenzy. Maybe he’s ticked because I wouldn’t tell him why I was meeting you.” Or maybe Leon was making points with Sandi the publicist so he could score, but Zoe decided not to mention that possibility to Flynn.
“For that matter, you didn’t tell me why we’re meeting,” he said.
And she knew how he must have hated that. Flynn liked to have all available info before he did anything. “I will tell you, but not on the phone. Any ideas where we could go?”
He paused. “How about Venice Beach? You park by the boardwalk and stay in the car with the air on. I’ll get us some hot dogs and we’ll eat in the car.”
“Flynn, I wanted to buy you a nice meal.”
“Why, so you could soften me up?”
Bingo. He was too smart for her, but then, she’d always known that. Normally she liked that he was smart. “Okay, hot dogs in the car then.”
“What do you like on your hot dog?”
“Everything.”
This time he really did laugh. “Somehow I’m not surprised.”

* * *


Later, as Flynn ordered the hot dogs — one with everything and one with only ketchup and mustard – he speculated as to what Zoe wanted from him. Maybe she needed to find a way around her current studio contract in order to do some work for an indie company. If so, he’d have to burn the midnight oil to find a loophole for her. But she could have asked that over the phone.
Maybe she planned to fire him and wanted to tell him personally out of consideration for their five-year association. God, he hoped not. The timing couldn’t be worse, now that he was seriously thinking about marrying Kristen. He wanted to present a healthy financial picture when he proposed, and Zoe was his biggest client.
He had his game plan regarding Kristen all mapped out. He’d booked a hotel on Catalina Island for her visit next week. Assuming all went well, he’d propose to her there and ask her to take a year’s sabbatical from Harvard and live with him in LA. He thought she’d agree to that.
Carrying the hot dogs in a bag and two bottles of chilled water in his other hand, he approached the Civic from the passenger side. Zoe looked so out of place in the driver’s seat of that car. With her pricey sunglasses and her red hair cut in the trademark shaggy style she’d made famous, she belonged in a Boxster.
She was his complete opposite – a person who basked in the limelight and loved all the luxuries her star power could buy. Her seaside home in Malibu would make three of his town house in Pasadena, and the town house wasn’t exactly a hovel. But he did live below his means.
Like Zoe, he’d grown up poor, but unlike her, he was determined to squirrel away enough cash to guarantee he’d never be poor again. Zoe spent most of what she made, on either herself or others. Although he’d never seen her tax returns, he knew what she earned because he reviewed her contracts. And because he had a fair idea of her lifestyle and a good estimate of real estate values in Malibu, he could safely say that Zoe wasn’t putting away a whole lot for the future.
He tapped on the window with a water bottle to get her to unlock the passenger door. She leaned over and pulled up the button. “See how fast I learn?” she said as he climbed into the car.
“I shouldn’t have laughed.” He handed over her hot dog and one of the water bottles. “I’m sure you’re not the only person who expects power locks to be standard.”
“No kidding. Come to think of it, you might be the only car owner in LA with manual locks.” She pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head and smiled at him. “But the car switcheroo worked great. Thanks. And thanks for the food.”
“Not exactly Spago, though, is it?” He set the bag with his hot dog on the floor of the car so he could open the glove compartment and replace his prescription shades with his regular glasses.
“I don’t always eat at fancy restaurants, you know.” She braced the water bottle between her knees and unwrapped her hot dog.
“No?” He snapped the glove compartment shut and put on his glasses. The first object in his line of vision was her water bottle, which was propped between two of the most photographed knees in the world. Zoe had great legs, and right now she was wearing a denim micromini that showed off a good part of those assets.
Flynn hadn’t spent much time admiring Zoe’s legs, because their meetings had always taken place at either his office, where she was on the other side of his desk, or a restaurant, where those legs were under a table. He’d never sat in a parked car with her where he had the perfect position to ogle. And he shouldn’t be ogling, not even a little bit. In another week he’d probably be engaged.
“Sometimes I order from fancy restaurants and eat at home,” she said.
As he brought his attention abruptly back to her face, he had the uncomfortable feeling that she’d caught him staring. “Which pretty much cuts out Taco Bell,” he said, trying to sound cool.
“Pretty much.” She laughed and opened her mouth for her hot dog.
Flynn was bombarded with an explicit sexual image. Never in his wildest dreams had he expected this hot dog-sharing experience to make him think of oral sex. He’d come up with the suggestion as something quick and easy, something unlikely to attract anyone’s attention, so Zoe would have the opportunity to talk with him privately.
Maybe that was the problem. He’d never been in a totally private setting with Zoe. Outside the car the usual hurly-burly crowd of Rollerbladers and beach bums mixed and mingled, ignoring them completely. In the air-conditioned interior of the car he and Zoe seemed to be in their own little world, wrapped in a disquieting intimacy. That had to explain why he was watching her eating a hot dog and thinking about sex.
Worse yet, he was responding. He tucked his own water bottle between his legs and hoped the coolness would have some effect. Then he pulled his hot dog out of the bag at his feet and unwrapped it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t seem to eat it without noticing that the bun cradling the hot dog could easily represent something other than a bun.
See, that’s what he got for having a girlfriend who lived three thousand miles away, one he hadn’t seen in six months. Despite their busy schedules, they should have found a way to get together. He hadn’t thought he was feeling sexually needy, but this whole episode was proving him wrong.
“Are you busy this weekend?” Zoe asked.
With his thoughts still firmly in the gutter, Flynn choked on his hot dog.
“Oh, dear. Drink some water.” She twisted the cap from her bottle and handed it to him.
He took her water and drank. Surely she hadn’t been angling for a date or anything. Flynn was the last person in the world she’d want to be seen with socially. Besides, she had a romantic interest. According to all reports, she and her costar in the new movie were an item. Pictures of her with Trace Edwards were plastered all over the supermarket tabloids.
After coughing and clearing his throat, Flynn readjusted his glasses and glanced over at her. He was back in control. “Sorry about that.” He gave her his unopened water. “Here. We’ll trade.”
“If you insist, although I’m sure no self-respecting germ would dare invade your system.” She took the water. “So, as I was saying, I have a proposition for you.”
The discussion wasn’t improving. He tried to stay calm but decided against another bite of the hot dog at this juncture. “Such as?”
She turned to him, bringing all the beauty of that fabulous face into play. Those turquoise-blue eyes had bewitched millions, and those full lips had made grown men weep with longing. If Helen of Troy had launched a thousand ships, Zoe could launch five thousand, easy.
“I desperately need some help,” she said. “I’m hoping you don’t have any plans and can spend Friday night through Sunday night working with me.”
A man would have to be made of stone to refuse a woman who looked like Zoe. Flynn wasn’t made of stone. But first he had to make sure of the details. He pulled his cell from his breast pocket.
While most material possessions left him cold, technology was his weakness. He loved this sleek phone, partly because it was state-of-the-art and sheathed in space-age titanium, but mostly because Zoe had given it to him for Christmas. It was a perfect gift, which meant she understood him, and that was gratifying. “Are we talking about day after tomorrow?”
“That’s right. I know it’s short notice.”
He checked his electronic day planner. “It is, but I don’t have anything pressing. Nothing I couldn’t cancel.” Kristen had a conference in Chicago, so he’d planned to spend the weekend running errands. He shouldn’t be so happy to be spending time with Zoe, but he’d work on that problem. He returned the phone to his pocket. “What do you need?”
“I’ve booked a little cabin in Long Shaft, and I wondered if you would go there with me so that I can-”
“Excuse me — Long Shaft? Where the hell is that?”
“Northern California. We’ll fly to Sacramento and then you’ll rent a car. Can you go?”
He felt as if he’d walked into the middle of a movie. Nothing made sense. “Why? Why would you want the two of us to go to a cabin in a place called Long Shaft? And what kind of a name for a town is that, anyway?”
“Long Shaft is an old mining town. This place is totally off the map, and I don’t want anyone to know we’re there. I. . . uh. . . need some coaching.”
“On what? Trust me, I’m not a dramatic coach, and I can’t think of a single thing I know how to do that would come in handy in your line of work, unless you’ve suddenly accepted a role that involves contract law.”
“No, that’s not it.” She seemed uncertain, as if she couldn’t figure out exactly how to explain herself. “I don’t suppose you saw two copies of a script lying on the passenger seat of the Boxster.”
“No. I was too busy making sure the paparazzi didn’t vandalize the car.”
“I’m auditioning for a part next week. It’s a romantic comedy with some action/adventure thrown in, and the female lead is a chemist.”
He still didn’t get it. “I passed chemistry, but I wouldn’t say that’s my area of expertise. If you’re looking for a chemist, maybe you should consider someone from UCLA. I can’t imagine that you’d have to be secretive about it, either. Any chemistry prof down there would love to--”
“It’s not the chemistry part that I’m worried about. So long as I follow the script I’ll sound like I know my chemistry. It’s the character of Vera who worries-me. She isn’t like any of the others I’ve played. As you might have noticed, all my roles so far have been glamorous and sexy.”
“And that works, Zoe.” It was working on him right this minute. The conversation was weird to begin with. All their meetings until now had centered on contract clauses and legalese, and he didn’t think she’d ever been dressed quite this provocatively for those meetings, either.
He had trouble concentrating when she smelled so good and looked so incredible. She did amazing things for a low-necked blouse. He’d known that all along, but he’d never allowed himself to fully acknowledge Zoe’s sexual appeal. Today he couldn’t seem to help himself.
“I’m in a rut,” she said.
“It’s a damned nice rut, too. You’re a top earner at the box office. Why would you want to mess with success?”
She took a deep breath. “Because I’m tired of low-budget movies where I carry the whole thing but get no respect for my work.”
He’d become so engrossed in how a deep breath affected her cleavage that he had trouble absorbing her comment. Belatedly he realized that this was a damned serious topic that could have life-changing results. She was his top client and he needed to focus.
Clicking back to lawyer mode, he started gathering information. “What kind of respect are you after?”
“The kind that comes from working with A-list actors and award-winning directors.”
“I see.”
“That’s the league I want to be in. I finally figured out that if I keep playing myself in these throwaway films, I’ll never get there. This project, if I bring it off, could win me a Golden Globe.”
No doubt about it, she was shifting gears and he needed to stay alert. “Have you talked to anybody at the studio about this?” He could imagine some major resistance to this idea of hers.
“I have, and basically they don’t expect me to have a good audition for the part because this isn’t normally what I do.” She leaned her head against the seat and blew out a breath. “That’s why the studio is willing to let me go for it and fall on my face. If I’m no good, they don’t have to cast me, so they’re playing along, certain I’ll be awful.”
“How about Leon?”
“Leon thinks I’m out of my mind, but he expects me to go down in flames, too, so he’s not terribly worried. I’m determined not to fail. And I want you to help me get inside this character’s head, show me how to act the way she’d act so I can nail the audition.”
“I don’t understand how I can do that.”
“It’s very simple.” She paused. “No offense, Flynn, but I want you to teach me how to be a nerd.”

Top

Chapter 2

From Flynn’s expression, Zoe knew she should have found a more delicate way to broach the subject. No guy really wanted to be called a nerd even if he knew that’s what he was. “I apologize. I’ve offended you.”
“Not at all.” The tight lines around his mouth said otherwise.
She scrambled to find some way to repair the damage. “You’re not a complete nerd,” she said. “I mean, there are lots of cool things about you.”
“Name one.” Behind his black-framed glasses, his gray eyes gleamed as he issued the challenge. He looked well and truly pissed.
She searched frantically for an example and remembered the image of him driving the Boxster, but of course that was her cool car, not his. “Well, you . . . um . . . wear prescription sunglasses instead of attaching that flip-up kind to your regular glasses.” It was the best she could come up with on short notice. “That’s very cool!”
He snorted. “Even a dweeb like me wouldn’t wear the flip-ups. But prescription glasses aren’t cool. To be cool I’d have to wear contacts, so I wouldn’t need prescription shades in the first place. But I think contacts are too much trouble.”
“Actually, I like your glasses.” She surprised herself by saying so, but it was true. They gave him a sincere, scholarly air that she found endearing. “They suit you.”
“You mean they suit my nerd image.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your look. You’re true to yourself. You know who you are.”
His expression softened. “I think you do, too. And you’re definitely not a nerd.”
“I can learn to be a nerd. By playing someone very different from me, I’ll prove I have what it takes to work with top directors and actors. Getting this part would be an excellent career move.”
He studied her for several long seconds.
“You don’t see me doing it, either, do you?” How depressing to think that no one believed in her acting ability. She did, though. At sixteen she’d deliberately taken the part of a hard-drinking, meddling old biddy in the school play. She’d nailed that role, too.
But from the day of her first Hollywood audition, she’d been typecast as the bombshell. She loved the fame and fortune, but she hated the assumption that a glamour-puss was automatically an airhead who couldn’t act. Because of that prejudice she never got to work with the big names and she’d never win any awards. She craved both.
“I don’t know if you can do it or not,” Flynn said.
“Neither do I,” she admitted in a moment of brutal honesty. She’d played herself for so long she might be unable to change. Maybe she’d lost that nugget of genuine talent she’d had back in high school. “But I have to try. Will you help me?”
“Why can’t we just work on this at your house? Why go all the way up to this Long Shaft place?’
She took it as a good sign that he was asking questions instead of turning her down flat. Maybe she had a shot at making this work, but she’d have to be straight with him. “A couple of reasons. First of all, this won’t be easy, so I will need maximum input from you. I’m talking about total immersion, an all-weekend marathon.”
Flynn blinked as if she’d said something shocking.
Then she figured out why. He might think total immersion meant being her boy toy for the weekend in addition to coaching her on all things nerdy. Although Zoe didn’t play the game that way, the tabloids had helped give movie stars that kind of rep, so Flynn could easily misunderstand her intentions.
“The cabin has two bedrooms,” she said quickly. “I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea about what I’m asking.”
His startled expression disappeared. “I assumed there would be two bedrooms.”
No, you didn’t. “Of course.”
“I mean, you and Trace Edwards are practically. . . .”
“Yes, we are. Practically.” Practically nothing to each other. Their high-profile dating was all about publicity. She’d started worrying that Trace was getting emotionally involved, though, and she needed to find a way to call a halt to that, because she felt only friendship for the guy.
“And as for me,” Flynn continued, “as it happens, I’m committed to someone.”
Knock her over with a feather boa. “Is that right?” She stared at him in astonishment. “You never said! Who is she? Anybody I know?” Come to think of it, she had no clue about his private life, except that he was single. Of course he must date, but she’d never thought of him as having a steady girlfriend. The idea added a whole new dimension to Flynn’s personality.
“You wouldn’t know her. She’s a law professor at Harvard.”
“Perfect!” How fake and jolly that sounded, but she didn’t dare say what she really thought, that two law professors in the same relationship sounded as exciting as test-driving a golf cart. “You must have tons of things in common.” Tons of boring things.
“Uh-huh.”
“Do you have a picture?” She found herself feeling a wee bit territorial, which was stupid. Flynn certainly had a right to a life apart from his dealings with her.
“No picture. But she’s coming out here for a visit next week, so I’m sure we’ll take pictures then. Maybe you’d like to meet her.”
“That would be nice.” Not really. The more Zoe thought about this development, the less she approved. Long-distance courtships usually ended with someone moving. She didn’t want that someone to be Flynn. “You’re not thinking of living back there, are you?”
“No. At least not at the moment.”
Well, that sucked. He hadn’t promised to stay in California until hell froze over, which was the kind of statement of intent Zoe was looking for. Imagining Flynn leaving her life was unsettling. Extremely unsettling. She’d never realized before how much she counted on his solid presence.
“So what’s the other reason for heading off to Long Shaft?” he asked.
“Oh.” She’d become totally derailed by the prospect of Flynn involved in a cross-country love affair. “Vanity, mostly,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to know how hard I worked at this.”
He nodded. “In case it doesn’t go well.”
“Or in case it goes extremely well.” She struggled to hide her irritation. Honestly, nobody had faith in her. “Either way, I don’t want them to see me sweat. Using you as a coach would be our little secret. I hope you’re okay with that.”
He stared at her. “You think I’d want to tell everyone I’m the guy who taught you how to be a nerd?”
“Um, no, guess not. Good point.” She hadn’t appreciated before how touchy this subject might be. “So here’s my plan. We fly up on different airlines and go to the cabin separately.”
“Won’t you be recognized and followed?”
“I’m working on that. First of all, Leon won’t know a thing about this. Most of my public mob scenes are courtesy of Leon and the new publicist, Sandi. I’ll be recognized on the airplane, but I’m taking some nerd clothes and I’ll change in the airplane bathroom.”
“Nerd clothes.”
“Yeah, you know-polyester, drab colors, out of style . . .” She trailed off as she realized that she’d just described his white shirt, mud-colored slacks, and brown and white striped tie. “Functional stuff,” she amended. “Sturdy clothes.”
Amusement glinted in his eyes. “Now you’re getting the idea.”
And suddenly the tables were turned. He was the one passing judgment, and she felt the need to defend her choices. “But clothes can be a fun thing! They can lift your spirits! Colors have an effect on people. They’ve done studies on it!”
“I’m sure they have, but if you want to transform yourself into a nerd, you’ll have to give up worrying about your clothes. Because we don’t care. It’s not a priority with us.”
Zoe blew out a breath. “You’re right. And I will give up worrying about clothes this weekend.” She couldn’t imagine it – packing a suitcase with things she didn’t care about – but she’d try. Even her nightgowns would be boring, not that Flynn would see that, but she wanted to stay in character all the time, even when she was buck naked, not that Flynn would see that, either. . . .
But they would be living in the same cabin. At some time, they would each be naked. Maybe not at the same time and definitely not in the same room, but there would be disrobing going on. It was an interesting thought. More than interesting. She wondered what kind of a body Flynn had, and she’d never wondered, about that before.
“Okay, so you’re changing into nerd clothes in the airplane bathroom. Then what?”
She pulled her thoughts away from Flynn, naked, to deal with Flynn fully clothed and sitting next to her in the car. They had more details to settle. “If I’m dressed differently, I should make it through the terminal okay, and a friend’s picking me up at the airport and taking me to the cabin.”
“You have a friend in Long Shaft?”
“Strange as it sounds, yes. We were both cheerleaders at the same high school in Sacramento. And our last names are close in the alphabet, so we ended up together on class seating charts. She’s relocated to Long Shaft, and she’s the one who suggested the cabin. It’s rented in her name.”
He nodded. “That makes sense.”
“She’s been very helpful. She’s volunteered to help keep the residents from knowing who I am.” Zoe felt lucky to have reconnected with Margo Taggart after all these years. The last few months of e-mails and phone calls had been like old home week. Margo had followed Zoe’s career with enthusiasm, apparently, and was only too happy to do this favor.
“Sounds as if you’ve thought of everything.”
“I have your airline ticket and the car rental arrangements tucked inside your copy of the script.” She mentally crossed her fingers. He seemed to be going for it.
“My copy?”
“I thought we should both have a copy to read. That way you’ll know what I’m going for. I also thought. . .” She hesitated, not at all confident that he’d like what she had in mind. “It would be so great if you’d read through some scenes with me.”
He stiffened up immediately. “I’m no actor, Zoe. Not even close. There’s a reason I got into contract law. I had no desire to be a trial lawyer and spend hours in the courtroom.”
She didn’t try to argue with him about whether he could act or not. Chances were he’d be terrible, but that was okay. “It doesn’t matter. I just need someone to read the lines so I can deliver mine in response.”
“So no pressure to read them well?”
“None whatsoever. We can read a page or two once we get there. If you really hate doing it, then we’ll stop.” At least she had him debating whether he’d read the script out loud with her instead of debating the merits of going, period. “So you’ll go to Long Shaft with me?”
He didn’t answer right away. Finally, he nodded. “I will, on one condition.”
“You name it.” Victory! “If you want your hourly rate, I’ll gladly pay it.”
“That’s not the condition. I wouldn’t feel right charging an hourly rate when I’m not giving you legal advice. My condition is that I get to tell Kristen what we’re doing. I think she has a right to know.”
“Kristen is her name?”
“Yes. Kristen Keebler.”
“Like the crackers?”
“Uh-huh, although she’s not related to that Keebler and she hates that reference. She was called Kristen Crackers all through school. I’m sure she’ll be happy to get rid of that last name when we . . . well, assuming that we . . .” He paused and cleared his throat.
Marriage. Yikes. “You’re really serious about her, huh?”
“I am. She’s heading to a conference in Chicago this weekend, so I’d like to call and tell her about this before she leaves.”
Zoe didn’t like the idea at all. She didn’t know Kristen Crackers and hadn’t the foggiest if she could be trusted not to blab. “How about telling her after we get back?”
“I don’t want to take that chance. What if, in spite of your disguise, somebody recognizes you and takes a picture of us together? You know what the tabloid headlines would look like. And Kristen would be completely unprepared. She’d feel betrayed, and I wouldn’t blame her. For that matter, I think you should tell Trace, too.”
“I’m definitely not telling Trace.” He’d been acting possessive lately, and unless she told him all about the project, he might throw a jealous fit and bring in an army of reporters to break up whatever he might think was going on. She should clear the air with him, but not right now. He’d get suspicious of her reasons.
“That’s up to you. It’s your relationship on the line. But I have to tell Kristen. That’s my condition.” He pressed his lips together and set his jaw, which made him look almost soldier-like.
In the five years she’d known Flynn, she’d noticed in passing that he was an attractive guy – thick dark hair, squarish jaw, good cheekbones, and a well-proportioned nose. But at the moment he looked more than okay. He’d morphed into absolutely hot.
She’d never seen him take a resolute stand before, and as he stuck up for his lady love he was extremely cute. Zoe felt a pang of envy and wished she could be the woman whose tender feelings he was protecting.
Yet she was reluctant to have him give away their hiding place. “I don’t mean to insult Kristen, but after many years in the business I’ve seen how normal people get goofy when it comes to movie stars. I would hate for her to accidentally spill the beans during the conference cocktail hour.”
“She won’t. I’d trust her with my –”
“Okay, okay.” Now Zoe was truly envious. No man had ever said he’d trust her with his life, not even in a script, and she didn’t want to hear Flynn saying it about Kristen, either. She was starting to take an unreasonable dislike to the woman. “So tell her. But can you keep the details vague?”
“No.”
Zoe sighed. “Oh, all right. Tell her everything. Read her parts of the script if you want. Take pictures with your cell phone and beam them to her cell phone. Just so you understand that she could sink the whole project with one careless word.”
“It won’t happen.”
“Then we have a deal?” She held her breath.
“I guess so, if you’re convinced I can help. I have serious doubts about it, myself.”
Turning off the motor, she handed him the keys. “I have no doubts whatsoever.” She picked up her cell phone from the dash. “Come on. Let’s get your script and tickets from the Boxster. Then we can each be on our way. I can’t speak for you, but I have plenty to do before Friday.”
“I have a few loose ends to tie up myself.” He took the keys and opened the car door.
“Flynn, before you go.” She put out a hand to stop him and ended up touching his arm. He felt warm and surprisingly muscular under the fabric of his dress shirt. When he turned back toward her, she immediately ended the contact. She really didn’t want him to get the wrong idea. “Listen, thank you. Thank you so much. I appreciate this more than you know.”
He smiled at her. “You can thank me at the Golden Globes. Until then, we don’t know if I’ll be an asset or a liability.”
“You’re already an asset.” And she was only beginning to understand how great an asset he was. Funny how much more appealing a man looked when some other woman had staked a claim. Not that Zoe was romantically interested in Flynn. But he was far more intriguing to her than he had been a couple of hours ago.

* * *


Flynn dodged a Frisbee as he walked over to the Porsche with Zoe to get his copy of the script. Venice Beach was its usual crazy self, filled with bodybuilders and bathing beauties of every sexual persuasion. Most members of the crowd were hooked up to their own private music system, but a few old boom boxes hung around pouring rap into the atmosphere and obliterating the sounds of the surf and the gulls wheeling overhead.
Flynn stood out like a sore thumb in the array of color and noise, but he liked the place anyway. He’d never stopped to examine why, either. It might be the same reason he’d specialized in entertainment law. It wasn’t his world, but it sure was fun to watch . . . from a safe distance.
That safe distance had just been eliminated in regard to Zoe. He still couldn’t believe he’d agreed to spend the weekend with her. But at least now he knew exactly what she thought of him. He was her token nerd.
He hadn’t been called a nerd since college. Yeah, he supposed the label still fit, but he’d stopped thinking of it years ago. Was Kristen a nerd, too? Probably, which was why they belonged together. Still, he wasn’t entirely happy knowing Zoe’s true opinion of him, even if her opinion was pretty much on target.
The weekend should prove. . . intriguing. At least he wouldn’t be immersed in some Hollywood pleasure palace, which might have freaked him out. Instead he’d be staying in a place that would feel reasonably familiar if it lived up to its name. It might turn out to be like the ratty Arizona mining town where he’d grown up.
Only these days his hometown was a cutesy tourist trap, and his retired father regularly dressed as a gunslinger and joined his buddies to stage shoot-outs on Main Street for the greenhorns. His mother wore hoop skirts and ran a bed-and-breakfast. Their Wild West schtick earned them a comfortable living, which was a good thing, because the mine had gone bankrupt and left them with no retirement income.
Flynn had tried to give them money, but they wouldn’t take it. He supposed in their shoes he wouldn’t have, either. But their situation was another reason that he was so big on saving money. If he had to stage shoot-outs or run a bed-and-breakfast in order to make it through his golden years, he’d starve to death.
Zoe reached the car and turned back to him. “Keys?” He reached in his pocket, pulled them out, and handed them to her.
“Thanks for putting up the top. This sun turns the seats into little hot plates. I would have roasted my tush getting back in.”
“No problem.” He’d never considered doing anything else. You didn’t leave a Porsche sitting at Venice Beach with the top down. Anything could happen. But he supposed not roasting Zoe’s tush was also a consideration. The world’s male population would likely thank him for protecting Zoe’s tush.
As she beeped open the locks and leaned down toward the passenger door he got a full view of that valuable fanny and his mouth went dry. He’d better get a grip. Once they were tucked inside that cabin together, he’d be spending a lot more time within touching distance, and he absolutely could not be caught reacting. He’d just told her he was in a relationship, for God’s sake. Now he needed to make sure he acted like he was committed to another woman.
Zoe turned and handed him the script she’d picked up from the seat of the car. “Here you go. I’ll try to glance through it before we get there, but I might not have time. You might not, either.”
Flynn looked at the title page. “The Billion-Dollar Pill. What’s it about?”
“I read the treatment. She’s working on a drug that combines weight loss, anti-aging, and sexual performance in one pill.”
“Whoa.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of a spoof. I need to be an over-the-top nerd. Anyway, the company she’s working for thinks she might sell out to a competitor, so they hire a bodyguard, supposedly to protect her but really to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t try to smuggle the formula.”
“Interesting.” And he’d be reading the part of the bodyguard no doubt. “Is she going to smuggle it?”
“No, she’s very ethical and she’s insulted by the surveillance. Plus, she thinks the bodyguard might be a double agent trying to steal the formula. Then they become lovers, which complicates the whole thing.”
He wondered what kind of scenes she’d want to read aloud. Probably not a love scene. If she picked a love scene, he was in serious trouble, but she wouldn’t pick a love scene.
They’d probably read an opening scene, not a love scene. She wouldn’t expect him to get into that mushy stuff. “Sounds like a good story,” he said.
“It’s my ticket, Flynn. I feel it in my bones.” Her enthusiasm for this career move was contagious.
“I think you’re right.” Maybe at first he’d been insulted by her request for geek tutoring, but that had worn off. Now he felt damned good knowing that she’d turned to him. Beginning Friday night, he vowed to be all the nerd she needed.

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