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Twelve years of representing some of the nation's top athletic talent had earned Dexter Brantley a reputation as a lucky bastard. The epithet was sometimes shouted in anger as in the time when a lucrative endorsement deal with a new shoe companyfounded by a former college roommateearned him and his clients tens of millions. Sometimes the moniker was spoken in dazed wonder, as in the time a snooty skating star had been reluctant to sign with him for fear of sacrificing her precious art for the sake of fat professional contractsuntil she'd seen exactly how much money Dexter could flood into her bank account.
After one of the most successful rises to the top of sports agenting imaginable, Dexter didn't mind the nickname no matter how it was used. In fact right now, as he sat in a nine-car pileup on the George Washington Bridge during the morning rush hour with a hundred cars honking behind him, he decided he'd give anything to feel like a lucky bastard again.
His cell phone rang as an emergency vehicle threaded through the pandemonium behind him, blocking out the shouts of the pissed-off Turkish cabdriver waving his fist just outside Dexter's smashed-up new Escalade.
Ignoring the cabbie and the steaming wreckage of a bread delivery truck silhouetted behind him, Dex answered the call and spoke into the headset that never left his ear while he was in the car.
"Brantley. What do you have for me?"
"I have a fairly angry catcher and his utterly livid new wife in your office who expected to meet you five minutes ago to discuss his free agency when"
"Trish, I'm going to need you to handle this one for me." Dex fought the urge to jump into the brawl thecabbie so obviously wanted now that the guy's sweaty nose was pressed to the window right beside Dex's ear while he screamed at him. "There's a huge mess on the George Washington. A tractor trailer rear-ended a bread truck that slid into a whole slew of other"
"No, Dex." Trish's voice was totally unsympathetic.
"You'd better be on that elevator on your way up here now because Mark Setano's wife is totally losing it in the waiting room. I think she just tore your autographed Bucky Dent jersey off the wall."
Through the growing fog of condensation on the driver's side window, Dexter heard a banging on the car and decided he was ready to give the cabbie the fight he wanted.
"If she hurts that jersey, I'm suing," Dex growled to Trish before he tore off the headset and forcefully threw open the car door.
Right into a cop who had apparently come over to ask about the accident.
The officer doubled over for only a moment before he half straightened with a snarl on his red face. "Oh God." Dex reached to steady the guy or extend an apologydamn, he didn't know what to do.
"It's his fault," the cabbie chimed in, pointing to Dex as he spoke in silky smooth English. "He was driving too fast, zipping in and out of the traffic on the bridge."
"Wait" Dex could see the inauspicious tenor of this conversation and realized his day was going to hell even faster on this end than it was in his Manhattan office right now.
The officer straightened fully, his injuries apparently not keeping him from reaching for the pink and yellow pad of tickets inside his jacket. Swiping away a small spot of blood from his nose, the cop looked meaningfully at Dex and then back at the cabbie as he clicked open his pen to get started.
"So what did he do?"
Dex slumped back against his car door, unwilling to open his mouth again since he had a way of making more trouble than he cleared up lately. Ever since he'd turned thirty-three and the rumors of the Brantley family curse had surfaced out of ancient history to bite him squarely in the ass.
Several of his biggest-earning athletes had experienced a freakish run of bad luck and when a national newswire picked up some hometown history article about the misfortunes of a bunch of his dead relatives, others left his agency. Then a chimney fire burned his Aspen home to the ground a week before his Manhattan apartment had an electrical fire.
Looking around at the traffic pileup behind the twisted hoods of wrecked cars and slow-moving emergency vehicles, Dex knew he couldn't avoid taking action to curb the downward spiral of the last six months. No one was calling him a lucky bastard anymore, and he hadn't realized until just this minute how much of his business had been built on that image.
He needed his luck back. And right after the cop finished writing the thirdno, make that the fourthticket, Dexter would swallow some pride and risk his libido to make the only phone call he could think of that might help the situation.
"CAN YOU GET THAT?" Lara Wyland kicked aside an empty paint tray and pulled out a crate of old case files as she called to her assistant.
In the two weeks since her move to new office space outside of Albany, New York, she hadn't managed to get much work done. The historic carriage house still smelled like the paint she'd slapped on the walls herself, the fumes aggravating her psychic senses even more than her nose.
Where was her folder full of her credentials? She needed the extra ammunition for a fiery letter she planned to send to an online community of psychics who'd recently launched a smear campaign against her business. The old biddies were her mother's friends, certain they knew the best way to do everything while the new generation of psychicslike Laradidn't know anything.
"Get what?" Jamie asked a moment later, sticking his head into her Moroccan-style office while juggling a coffee mug that read GhostFest 2007 and a stack of books from his morning class at the community college. At twenty-two, Jamie had gotten a late start on college after spending a few years in business for himself as a computer tech, but at least he knew what he wanted in life and hadn't let a delay in his chosen career path slow him down the way Lara had.
The phone rang almost as soon as he asked the question and he rolled his eyes in response.
"I hate it when you do that," he shouted to her as he jogged down the hallway painted in Tuscan Sunset to retrieve the cordless phone on his desk.
"Sorry," Lara called after him. Her brain had been backfiring with too much psychic energy from the lack of use in the past few weeks. Lately she shut down her computer just by touching it and her digital clock went back to 12:00 a.m. if she got within a three-foot radius. "I thought it had already rung once."
She couldn't help that she anticipated events. Although she usually only saw small things with her precognition like a phone about to ringrather than big, life-altering moments such as the murder of a friend's father in high school, Lara rarely sensed an event until it was just about to happen. So her moments of psychic forecasting were generally useless, unlike her deeper retrocognition gifts that had helped her build a thriving career in psychic investigations andwhen the situation arosethe occasional foray into ghost hunting.
The work was challenging and often meaningful when she helped locate missing persons or important evidence. Remembering as much prevented her from being too touchy when other psychics accused her of using her gifts like a carnival sideshow, as a recent letter to the editor of a well-known psi magazine suggested.
Her sideline work as a ghost hunter might seem a bit fluffy to people who hoped to refine the reputation of the psi community, but damn it, that kind of work provided the cash flow to her pro bono jobs for clients with missing kids.
And bottom line, her gifts were of the "use it or lose it" variety. She needed to exercise her talents or they started backfiring in strange ways, the unused energy messing with her personal electromagnetic field until she shorted out every clock, cell phone and laptop within a hundred yards. Witness the psychomagnetic explosions in her office this week.
"Lara?" Jamie shouted to her from the other room, their new intercom system not hooked up yet and probably not necessary since Lara usually knew when to pick up the phone anyhow. Apparently, she was off her game today.
Damn paint fumes. "Yeah?"
"There's a guy on the phone who would like to speak with you but declined to tell me why. A Mr. Dexter Brantley."
Lara wished she didn't remember that name, but five years after her one-and-only meeting with the almighty sports agent to the stars, Dexter Brantley, she hadn't forgotten. The man was lethally handsome, rolling in doughand completely dismissive of her work. Why would he ever call her when he had zero respect for her and her job?
"The sports agent?" She stalled, setting aside her folders to brace herself for whatever the hotshot New Yorker might want with her.
"He didn't reveal that, either," Jamie called, his voice getting closer as he stalked back down the hall to personally deliver the handset along with the book of fabric swatches she'd left in his office earlier during a debate about pillow coverings. He pressed the phone into her hand before spinning on his heel. "I thought maybe this was a personal matter."
He turned to grin at her over his shoulder before shutting the door behind himsomething he hadn't done in all the weeks they'd been conducting business while settling into the new space. But then, Jamie was a closet romantic convinced Lara needed a man in her life. No doubt he was only trying to help.
In his defense, Jamie had no idea what kind of man lurked on the other end of the phone. A memory of steel-gray eyes and a chiseled jaw flashed through her mind and as she held the phone with him on it, she thought she caught a glimpse of him in real time, pacing a floor somewhere with his tie undone, waiting impatiently for her to pick up.
Lara stared down at the cordless handset and finally turned off the hold button.
"This is Lara Wyland." She sent out a frosty vibe, unwilling to take any snide jokes from this man and his high-powered ego. Heart-melting good looks didn't win a guy any points in her book if he was judgmental on the inside.
"This is Dexter Brantley." He launched into conversation without bothering to greet her. "You may not remember me"
"I remember you."
She twirled an antique globe perched on her desk and had a vivid memory of this man laughing his Armani-covered ass off over her intention to remove a curse from a struggling NFL kicker's leg. Brantley had been the guy's agent at the time and he'd displayed great amusement at the player's belief that his Santeria-practicing grandmother had put a curse on Victor's kicking leg when her grandson had forgotten her birthday. She'd often wondered if the almighty Brantley had noticed Victor split the uprights his next thirty field goal attempts, before he'd fallen into a drug habit that had bankrupted him and prematurely ended his career, according to her local sports page.
"I won't waste your time, Ms. Wyland. I'm calling to find out if you're still in the business of removing curses."
"Call me Lara. And my work is far more wide-ranging than removing curses for people who actually believe in them." She couldn't deny the extra emphasis she put on the last bit, frustrated by the recent spurt of psychic-bashing in her life lately. "But I am open to such cases."
She'd accomplished too much in her decade-long career to subject herself to the scorn of disbelievers or the back-stabbing of holier-than-thou colleagues who didn't like the way she ran her business. But then, she and her mom had never seen eye to eye. It came as no surprise now that her mother would enlist her friends to publicly wage a battle she and Lara had carried on in private for years.
"I see." He paused briefly. "You're suggesting you won't work for people who don't buy into the idea of curses?"
"There isn't really a point then, Mr. Brantley, since a curse doesn't exist if the unfortunate individual doesn't recognize his problems as such." Shoving the globe aside she went to work organizing some aromatherapy oils in a glass case beside her desk, unwilling to give Brantley her full attention.
She'd moved into a more public office space to provide quality, beneficial psychic services to the masses and that's just what she was going to do. But damn it, she could draw the line at helping any friend of a man who thought her work was a hysterical waste of time, couldn't she?
"Call me Dex. And what if the unfortunate party simply wants to cover all his bases by investigating the curse angle in addition to some other reasons for all the bad luck?"
Lara opened a bottle of lavender oil and sniffed it in the hope of inhaling some relaxation.
"In that case, I would suggest all other avenues are explored first since, as some people are quick to point out, psychic services can be as efficient as the liberal use of snake oil on a problem." She recalled his assessment of her talent perfectly. And, to her mind, Dex's quick dismissal of her skills had been in large part to blame when her curse removal efforts had taken much longer than they should have.
Victor Marek had believed his leg cursed and thought Lara's help could "cure" him. And they probably would have taken care of the issue in about ten minutes of focused thinking and discussion if Lara had been left to simply do her job. But the slick sports agent's ridicule had madeVictor doubt her, himself and the truth of his grandma's curse in the first place. And Lara's confidence hadn't been helped by Brantley's sudden switch from flirting with her to when he discovered why she was therelaughing at her. They hadn't made real headway withVictor's problem until hours later when she'd finally ushered Brantley out of the house long enough to have a heart-to-heart with his client. "Right. I can see where people would think that way." There was a sound of paper shuffling on the other end of the phone and Lara wondered how many other things the man was trying to do while talking to her. She had no doubt but that the call was low priority. But then, why make it?
And did he even remember his cutting words of five years ago at the kicker's sprawling fifteen-thousand-square-foot home on the West Coast?
"Good luck solving the problem," she began, ready to finish the conversation and move on with her day.
"I'd like to retain your services for a few days to see what you think of the situation, Lara." His voice was firm. Resolved. No hint of an apologetic tone here.
"You want to hire me?" She couldn't possibly work for someone with such a low opinion of her work. Someone who laughed at her technique. Someone she'd like to tell to take a flying leap off a short cliff.
"Yes. Right away. And I'm willing to compensate you well to meet with me as soon as possible since clearing up this matter is an extremely high priority for me."
"One of your clients thinks he is suffering from a curse?" She thought she'd made her boundaries clearno help to anyone who scoffed at the problem, or the remedy.
Realigning the bottles of oil in the colors of the rainbow, Lara struggled to make order of chaos.
"No. Actually, it's me. I can provide room and board for the weekend. In fact, I'd insist on it since my home is on a remote island and we'd need to remain accessible to one another until we solved the problem."
He wanted help? The idea stunned her as her hand slid from a bottle of eucalyptus oil. He'd been so quick to dismiss her work. Just like all her mother's self-righteous friends.