tracy
"Everybody's Hero"
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Chapter One

It was over a jelly donut that Claire Marsden found the man of her dreams.

For her best friend, Trish, that is. Trish, who in high school, was known as Patti with an "i."

Of course, high school had been a time of pastel turtlenecks and friendship bracelets. Now Trish was more into skimpy, black knits and chunky quartz jewelry, and names ending with an "i" were definitely declasse.

But Claire, being Claire, was not about to let her friend's sophisticated transformation pass unnoticed. Whenever she felt Trish was acting a bit uppity, she referred to her as, "The Magazine Editor Formerly Known as Patti," a statement that was both annoying and true. And now that they were working together, Claire had ample opportunity to razz her friend.

Still, right now, Trish's morphing persona was the last thing on Claire's mind. In fact, she realized, it was hard to have anything on her mind, when in front of her appeared a vision of male glory that would tongue-tie even the most jaded Hollywood leading lady - with or without changing names.

Claire only hoped her cerebral shutdown was temporary. Because if she really wanted to be honest about her feelings, Jason Doyle could easily be the man of her own dreams.

After all, how many men pull up in front of Madison Square Garden in New York City on a fire-engine red Italian motorcycle, on time no less? But then, honesty about her own feelings was not something Claire analyzed with any great depth.

For now, she'd just enjoy the show. And thank the gods for delivering her next assignment, who, Claire was convinced, would be the perfect solution to Trish's current problems - and dreams.

Jason Doyle was also the answer to the professional hockey league's dreams. All two hundred and ten well-proportioned pounds of him. Recently traded to the New York Blades, his aggressive style and league-leading scoring appealed to men. The women weren't immune either, what with his devilish smile and sexy, comma-shaped scar that cupped the outside corner of his right eye. The combination made him look like he was slyly winking at some inside joke, which only he and that certain female understood. Naturally, any woman who'd ever applied lip gloss imagined herself to be that certain one.

Until now, Jason had limited his commercial - and bodily exposure - to a few tasteful endorsements and a calendar to support research for children's causes. Funny how those backlighted shots of his well-oiled biceps had landed in more than a few tabloids. Or maybe not so funny, Claire reflected, as she took in the way his black leather jacket hugged his broad shoulders.

Being a self-proclaimed cynic should have made her intrinsically immune to Jason's easy charm and over-the-top brand of maleness. But her cynicism appeared to have gone temporarily AWOL, especially when Jason pulled off his helmet and whipped off his mirrored sunglasses, as easily as spreading cream cheese on a warm bagel. Only a fool could ignore the way her stomach did a major flip-flop, and Claire's daddy didn't raise a fool. Jason Doyle was every bit as scrumptious; and twice as dangerous as in his photos.

Claire stiffened. That danger, coupled with that mega-powered motorcycle, signaled a personality that enjoyed living on the edge. She had had enough of that kind of life, thank you. These days, give her calm, boring consistency. Maybe a picket fence. Well, maybe not a picket fence.

But danger, or the allure of it, was just what the doctor ordered for Trish, and Claire was about to put her plan in motion. She was sure her friend would be pleased. Claire elbowed Trish. "Hubba hubba."

"You can say that again." Trish smoothed her hands down the sides of her black leather pants. "Didn't I tell you he would make some cover story? C'mon, let's meet hockey's gift to womankind."

Claire popped the last piece of donut into her mouth and wiped the powdered sugar off the front of her ribbed sweater. "Well, it's a tough assignment, but somebody's got to do it."

Despite the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m., a group of fans had already swarmed around Jason - no deterrent to Trish, who charged on through. "Jason, Trish Camperdown, features editor of Focus Magazine."

"Ms. Camperdown, a pleasure." Jason's high-wattage smile appeared genuine. He rocked back on his heels.

Trish, normally the epitome of cool sophistication, actually giggled. He widened his smile. A full array of white teeth, large but not too large - perfect for nibbling on a girl's earlobe - practically glistened against the gray of the Manhattan skyline.

Claire was standing back a few paces, but still felt the full wattage. "You still have all your teeth." She blurted out the first thing that she thought of. Well, maybe not the first thing.

Jason looked over as if seeing Claire for the first time. He lifted his chin, surveying her closely. Not that she wasn't used to that reaction.

Men often did a double take when they first saw Claire. She wasn't beautiful, mind you; not like Trish, Claire often thought. It was the fact that very few 30-year-old women had a dramatic gray streak in their hair. She'd had it since she was 18, and for a time in her life had actually tried to dye it. But at the age of twenty-four or twenty-five, she had just given up, accepting it for what it was, a genetic quirk passed down by her father - a typically flamboyant quirk.

Big Jim Marsden had been a world-renowned big-game photographer with a lust for life and a unique style all his own. If a giant rhino were charging at full speed, Big Jim could still hold a glass of bourbon in one hand and his trusty Leica in the other. All without flinching.

Jason Doyle didn't seem to flinch at a little sight of gray either. "I have other things intact also," he replied.

He didn't say it with a leer. That would be cheesy, and Jason Doyle was anything but cheesy. At six foot two, with four fingers of one hand slid into the back pocket of his jeans, and his thumb looped casually on the faded denim, the man looked as solid as Mount Rushmore, and radiated as much sincerity as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln combined. He was as true blue as they came, and Claire didn't doubt that on Memorial Day, he could be found in his little home town - the guy had to come from some place with a population of five thousand and wrap-around porches on white clapboard houses - placing tiny flags on the graves of the fallen war heroes.

No, when Jason Doyle said he had all his parts intact, Claire had no trouble getting the drift. It was where her imagination was drifting that had her more concerned.

"And you are?" He cocked one eyebrow and cradled his helmet against his jeans-clad hipbone.

"Claire - " An overeager fan pushed against Claire with bruising eagerness before she had a chance to finish. She bumped forward, her side landing against the hard plastic of Jason's motorcycle helmet.

He shot out a large hand, cushioning the blow. He grabbed her elbow and stopped her before her nose bumped his chin.

And what a chin. A small cleft. Early morning stubble. A slight scar along the side. That, and the one near his eye, gave him a sense of character that kept his features from being merely perfect. Claire gulped and looked up. Into tiger's-eye, flecked-brown eyes that spelled trouble with a capital T. "My mother warned me about guys like you," she mumbled. Claire shook her head, trying hard not to feel the sheer strength of his grip through her bulky sweater.

"That's the trouble with mothers." Jason's grin stretched wider. A devastating dimple marked one cheek. "They never look beyond the surface." Another surge of fans squashed Claire more firmly into his side.

Talk about surface. As she slammed against his body, Claire felt the energy vibrating from Jason's frame, his muscular legs straining against his worn jeans. And when she lifted her hand defensively, she felt his chest through his thin, black T-shirt, his well-defined pectorals and pancake-flat stomach.

Claire shook her head. This embodiment of masculinity was meant for Trish. She should not be receiving sensory impressions with the magnitude of an air raid siren. She raised one eyebrow, arched her neck, and gave him the slow once-over. "And a very nice surface it is, too. But there won't be much left of it if we don't get you inside."

She turned to look for Trish. Her friend's sleek chignon had come loose in the hubbub, and Claire didn't think her $400 Italian designer shoes could take much more of the stampede. And more fans were swarming their way. Quick action was needed. "Trish, why don't you and Jason fight your way inside? Grab one of the security guards over there to help you. We paid them overtime; they may as well earn their money."

Claire turned back to Jason. For a man about to be smothered by a band of adoring fans, he seemed remarkably calm. If anything, he was smiling more broadly than ever. "Something funny?" she asked.

"I don't think you need a mother to protect you, Claire-with-no-last-name. I think you can take care of yourself just fine."

"And something tells me you're not exactly a pushover yourself. But listen, get Trish inside. I don't think her Ferragamos can take much more of this."

"What about my bike?"" He nodded sideways.

"Keys."

"Keys?"

Claire held out her hand. "I'll take the bike around the back."

Jason hesitated. "My mother warned me about women like you." He pulled the keys out of his pocket. "I presume you can ride one?"

"Do bears pee in the woods?" Claire waggled her fingers for him to hand over the keys.

Jason placed them in her hands. They were warm from being next to his body. "You realize what this means, don't you?"

"I have the responsibility for a forty-thousand-dollar custom-built machine?"

"More like sixty thousand. But that's not the point. The real issue is that you now meet the first of my ten requirements for a perfect wife."

It was Claire's turn to look confused.

"Long ago, I decided that I would only marry a woman who knows how to ride a motorcycle," he said.

"Well, that's something I'm sure your adoring fans will be eager to know. But at the risk of a little too much adoration - " Claire looked over and placed Trish's hand on Jason's arm. "Trish. I think it's time you take our crowd-pleaser inside."

Trish, her hairdo and her demeanor jostled by the crowd, looked only too relieved at the suggestion. Of course, a mussed coiffure on Trish simply gave her that air of just-out-of-bed chic. Her retro, Persian lamb jacket hanging precariously off one shoulder and her skimpy little cashmere sweater doing the same, added to the waiflike look. "Don't worry about your bike," Trish said. She patted Jason's arm as she directed him forward. "Claire is very good with mechanical things. After a party while we were in high school, she once figured out how to circumvent the security system in my parents' house, so we could sneak in late without getting in trouble."

Jason seemed more impressed by that news than by Trish's soigne appearance. Over the crowd noise she heard, "I trust she hasn't continued this life of crime." He looked back in Claire's direction.

"I'm only tempted toward the end of the month when the paycheck's run out and the electricity bill is overdue," Claire said loud enough for him to hear.

An eager fan thrust a copy of the morning's paper and pen toward Jason to sign, and forced Claire to take a step back, giving her a better view of her gamine-like friend cozying up to hockey's hunk. And then the first thought of the morning hit her again. Here in the flesh was the answer to Trish's dreams. And while the thought should have sent her leaping with the joy and grace of a member of the Bolshoi's chorus, it was actually a little depressing. Strange. And when faced with internal confusion, Claire reacted in her instinctively glib manner. "Speaking of A-1 marriage material. You fit our bill for a fiance."

Her voice penetrated the din of the crowd. And Jason, who had started to turn into the building with Trish leading the way, turned his head back at the sound of Claire's voice. She smiled. For once, the calm assurance that naturally embued his features, seemed to flicker.

"Don't worry. It's for Trish, not for me," she called out.

(Copyright, Louise Handelman, 2002)

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