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It was official. Collier Channing "CiCi" Hurst (formerly Tank-ersley) was slowly but surely losing her mind. And what was her first clue? Could it be that she was seriously thinking about asking Daddy for a job?
CiCi had had a bad year and a half starting with finding her scum-sucking, low-life ex-husband studying the Kama Sutra with Marian the Librarian. Did William "Tank" Tankersley even know how to read?
CiCi gazed at the frilly pink canopy above her head. She was thirty-two years old and sleeping in her teenage bedroom under a faded Pearl Jam poster. It had been almost a year since she'd signed the final divorce decree and she was still rudderless.
Talk about pitiful!
There were so many things she could blame Tank for. He didn't want children, so CiCi put her dream of a big family on the back burner. Tank didn't want her to work outside the home, so her Stanford degree in adolescent psychology went unused. Tank didn't want—
The doormat phase of her life was over. It was time to move on.
Fortunately money wasn't a problem. Tank was a Pro Bowl right tackle for the National Football League's Green Bay Packers, and as a result of his lucrative contracts and a wise investment counselor, he was set for life. And since they were divorced in Wisconsin, which was a community property state, CiCi was financially secure, too.
But Tank's adultery and the subsequent divorce had taken a machete to CiCi's self-esteem, and that was probably why she was so indecisive. Meaningful jobs in her field generally required an advanced degree but she wasn't ready to delve into a master's program.
Back to the problem athand—despite a college degree and six years of volunteer work, the only serious employment CiCi had been able to find was as a substitute teacher. Considering the way some kids tested subs, that wasn't her dream job. And now that summer had arrived, even that opportunity had gone by the wayside.
Her divorced high school buddies had rebounded by snagging new husbands, always richer than the original. CiCi, on the other hand, wasn't about to risk tying the knot with another loser like Tank.
Just the thought of dating or having anything to do with the opposite sex was enough to give her a raging headache, so CiCi mentally segued to an easier problem—finding a place of her own. Retreating to Mama and Daddy's had given her a chance to regroup, but she couldn't stay there forever. The question was should she rent, buy or pitch a tent in the Galleria parking lot. Scratch that last one. Houston summers were as hot as the tropics on steroids.
This whole situation was making her crazy. It was day three hundred and forty of her self-imposed exile and it was time for a change. On that note, CiCi rolled out of bed and headed to the kitchen for breakfast. If she was really going to hit Daddy up for employment, it was now or never. What did she have to lose besides her pride…and dignity…and—
"Good morning, sleepyhead." Marianne Hurst, aka Mama, was at the stove, making breakfast. She was petite, blonde and beautiful. CiCi's sisters—Mackenzie and Minerva (Mac and Mia)—were carbon copies of their mother, whereas CiCi was tall with olive skin and dark hair. Mama claimed she must have come from a long-lost Gypsy bloodline.
"It's only six-thirty." CiCi plopped down at the long trestle table that had seen many Hurst family meals. "Is Daddy still here or has he already left for work?"
"Whatcha need, baby doll?" CiCi hadn't noticed her father rummaging in the industrial-size Sub-Zero refrigerator. Daddy was a business mogul with a Harvard education, but he also had the ability to magically morph into Texas Bob Hurst, owner of half the Cadillac/Hummer/GMC dealerships in the Lone Star State.
"Spit it out, kiddo," Daddy said, pulling a pitcher of orange juice from the fridge. "Would you like some?" He held up the carafe.
"Sure." CiCi handed him her glass. "I was, uh, I was thinking that maybe you might have a job for me at one of your dealerships." There, she'd done it and the sun was still shining.
"Oh, dear," Mama muttered, exchanging a glance with her husband. They'd been married so long they were able to communicate without words.
Winston "Texas Bob" Hurst chomped into his piece of toast. He paused, chewed some more, then shook his head. "The dealerships aren't hiring right now—we've been lucky not to lay anyone off. But let me think." Texas Bob took one bite and then another.
Things weren't looking good.
"What about doing something with the Road Runners?"
"The Road Runners?" Was he kidding? Daddy's National Football League team was the last place she wanted to work.
He might not have noticed, but CiCi hated jocks. Abhorred, detested, loathed and despised— Oh, never mind.
"I don't think so."
"Seriously, everyone else in the family is involved in the organization. Your mother oversees our charitable work. Mia's doing a great job as our director of public relations and Mac's having a ball working with the Road Runner cheerleaders."
"What do you suggest?"
Before Texas Bob could respond, a tiny blond dynamo dressed in Bratz pajamas whirled in, followed by her equally perky mom. CiCi wasn't the only sister who had retreated to the sanctuary of the family home. When Mackenzie and her quarterback husband split, she'd also made the move back to Houston.
"Mac, what do you think?" Mama asked. Darn it, she was double-teaming.
"About what?" CiCi's sister asked. A veteran multi-tasker, she was simultaneously filling her coffee mug, picking up her six-year-old daughter, Molly, and making toast.
"We're trying to talk CiCi into working for the Road Runners," Daddy answered.
Mac squealed but then she must have had second thoughts. "Uh, doing what?"
"That's what I'd like to know," CiCi grumbled.
"Could she help you with the cheerleaders?" Mama asked.
"Well, hmm." Mac looked as if she was working on a complicated mathematical equation.
"Don't stress yourself," CiCi snapped. God, she hated sounding so testy.
Mac blew her a raspberry. "Do you know how to dance?"
"Of course not." It was a standing joke that CiCi was the only Hurst to ever drop out of ballet class.
"Perhaps she could work in the accounting department," Mac suggested.
That one really got a chuckle. Math was not CiCi's strong suit—in fact, she wasn't sure she'd even been dealt a hand.
"Tell you what, baby doll," Daddy said. "Why don't you come down to the football minicamp this afternoon? We'll see what we can find."
CiCi hated to admit it but she was fascinated by the energy and glamour of the Road Runners. She didn't want anything to do with football players, but she could still admire the way they filled out their uniforms. Just because they were off-limits to her didn't mean she couldn't look.
The Road Runner cheerleaders were also beautiful, sexy and well endowed. Add it all together and it was quite a heady environment.
CiCi stood in the tunnel leading to the locker rooms. Al though there wasn't an audience, there was the residual energy left by 65,000 screaming fans. The skill positions— the quarterbacks, the wide receivers and the tight ends—were practicing the expertise that made the game so thrilling, and the cheerleaders were going through their first full day of rehearsal. All in all, it was an exciting place.
CiCi strolled across the artificial turf, watching as the athletes warmed up. These guys weren't the three-hundred-plus-pound behemoths who'd play on the defensive line, but they were fine specimens. Bulging biceps, muscled legs, broad chests— Whoa! Stop right there. CiCi had sworn off men. That was her story and she was sticking to it.
"Hey, sis!" Mac yelled. It was the only way she could be heard over the noise from the field. "Come here."
Mac was wearing a pair of low-slung shorts, a midriff top and a ponytail. She was in her midthirties but could easily pass for a teenager.
"I've got it," she squealed when CiCi strolled over. "I know the perfect job for you."
Sometimes Mac could be such a blonde, CiCi thought.
"You can be the chicken." She clapped her hands in glee. Her enthusiasm was almost catching. Almost.
"The chicken? Do you mean that thing?" CiCi pointed at Tex, the team mascot, who was standing on the sidelines watching the cheerleaders. The costume was supposed to be a road runner—otherwise known as a prairie chicken—but swear to goodness, it was a dead ringer for Foghorn Leghorn from the cartoons.
"Why would I want to do that? And what about the guy who's wearing it?"
"It's not a problem. Dwayne Scruggs has been trying to find someone to take over for him. I think he's in trouble with his probation officer and he wants to beat feet. He has a record, you know." Mac whispered the last sentence, not that Dwayne could hear her.
"Daddy hired an ex-con?" That was astonishing.
"I think he's only done county jail time. He got the job be cause he's Jake Culpepper's cousin."
"Who's Jake Culpepper?"
"Oh, sweetie, you are so out of the loop. Jake's our star tight end." Mac fanned herself. "And, man, are his buns tight."
As usual, her sister ignored her. "Hey, Dwayne! Get yourself over here," she shouted.
CiCi grabbed her arm. "Wait! I don't know if I want to do this."
"Sure you do. This is exactly what you need." Mac was so proud of herself she was almost dancing in place.
Tex nodded his head and waddled over.
"Dwayne, my sister wants to take over the chicken gig."
"I don't—" CiCi started to object but didn't get very far.
"No foolin'? Babes, it's all yours." Dwayne shucked out of the chicken suit so fast it looked as if he had a load of hot briquettes in his britches.
"Here." He tossed her a two-foot chicken head with a crest of glossy feathers that Sally Rand would have envied. "They're practicing the sideline show now." He waved toward the field at the bevy of buxom dancers in short skirts and tight midriff tops. "Check with the head honcho and see what she wants you to do." Following that suggestion, the former chicken raced off.
"What was that all about?" CiCi asked.
"Beats me. He's nuts." Then Mackenzie broke into a big smile. "But think of it this way. You have a job."
Yep, she did. However, jumping into a giant feathered costume in the middle of a Houston summer was almost as appealing as snorting Jell-O. It would be hot, sticky work—and bad hair was inevitable, but sometimes a girl had to gut up. If she could make this chicken shtick work, she'd be a part of the team and she'd have a job. All things considered, any position was better than unemployment.
The only thing that kept CiCi from breaking into a happy dance was her pesky inner voice that sounded like a rerun of Lost in Space.
Warning! Warning! Warning!
Her last experience with an athlete had ended in disaster, Would this be any different? Oh, boy, it sure better be.
CiCi glanced at the chicken head (okay, it was a road runner) and then studied the rest of the suit. She could flap her feathers with the best of them. The feet might be a bit tricky, but the wings would be a piece of cake. Now, if she could shut up that niggle of doubt, everything would be fine.
Jake Culpepper was going to freakin' throttle his lily-livered, dirtbag cousin Dwayne. That jerk had committed grand theft auto and was the reason Jake's prize Porsche was in auto intensive care. Thanks to him, Jake was reduced to driving a rusty, manure-covered pickup. It was the only vehicle available at his ranch that morning.
There was no need to get his blood pressure up—it was just a car, not the end of the world. Yeah, and comparing his sleek beauty to a common vehicle was like comparing the F-22 Raptor to the Wright Brothers' Kitty Hawk.
To add insult to injury, after Dwayne hit a telephone pole in the "borrowed" car, he'd abandoned it on the highway. But since the dweeb was already on probation, calling the cops on him wasn't an option.
And Dwayne was only the tip of the bad-news iceberg. On the family front, Jake's mom had hooked up with another loser. He loved her like crazy, but her taste in men sucked. Every time she got involved with a new guy, it cost Jake an enormous amount of time, money and heartburn.
The "biggie" was that Jake's contract was up for renewal. If the Road Runners didn't sign him, he'd become a free agent, and that would mean a move. And considering the trouble his relatives regularly indulged in, Jake really didn't want to leave Texas. He'd spent most of his life taking care of his family, and that was a hard habit to break.
In most professions a guy was just getting started at thirty. Not so for athletes. Thirty was pushing it, and although Jake had a great agent—who worked hard to earn his fifteen percent—the contract situation was still unresolved.
But on the bright side, Jake had plenty of money in the bank and his social life was, to say the least, hot. He'd been voted Houston's most-eligible bachelor two years in a row.
And best of all, he'd bought the ranch of his dreams— hundreds of acres of coastal plains grazing land. Overall, life was sweet. As long as he could keep cousins Dwayne and Darrell out of trouble. He'd never be able to change his mother's taste in men, but he did what he could to provide her with everything she'd ever want or need.
Oh, well, exercise-induced endorphins were the best pick-me-up known to man, and the field was the only place Jake could butt heads without getting arrested.
If Dwayne was smart, he wouldn't show his face at the stadium for at least the next decade. But that dude wasn't Einstein. In fact, Big Bird was probably smarter than his cousin.
Jake pulled the filthy pickup into the parking lot, hesitat ing a moment before claiming his reserved parking spot. If his luck held, he could sneak in and then gripe about the gardener taking his space. The truck let out a giant belch of smoke when Jake cut the engine.
"Cool wheels." That comment came from Cole Benavides, the Road Runners' quarterback and Jake's best friend. Jake had been so busy trying to see through the smoke he hadn't no ticed Cole pull into the adjacent spot.
Anonymity was impossible. "Up yours," Jake mumbled as he grabbed his duffel bag from the bed of the truck.
Cole acknowledged the wisecrack with a chuckle. "Good junior-high comeback."
In spite of himself, Jake grinned. "I'll show you junior high." He poked Cole in the ribs, initiating the ritual of goosing and grabbing they'd perfected during their four years at Texa s A& M .
"Seriously, what happened to your wheels?"