Screwball comedy finds a sparkling voice in this debut novel.
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By Melanie Craft
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2004 Melanie Craft
All right reserved.
Chapter One"The captain's boy be no boy at all," snarled Delancey. "And I'll prove it to ye!"
Angeline gasped, stumbling as the first mate's thick hand jerked her forward. "No!" she cried. "He's a liar-"
"Liar, am I?" With one cruel motion, Delancey ripped her tunic from collar to hem, exposing the tight wrapping of bandages that she had used to disguise the curves of her bosom. She struggled, spitting and swearing at him, but he made short work of that last protective layer of cloth. A rumble of astonishment ran through the crew at the sight of her milk-white breasts. Delancey leered at her, close enough for Angeline to smell his stinking, rum-laced breath. "What do you say now, wench?"
"Very brave, Professor Shaw," said a voice just behind Molly. "Are you finally throwing caution to the winds, or are you just getting sloppy?"
Startled, Molly jumped, her leg knocking against the underside of the cafeteria table. Next to her laptop, a cup of lukewarm coffee sloshed into its saucer. Her fingers hit the key combination to activate the computer's screen saver, and the page of text was instantly replaced by a bucolic scene of blue water and gently cruising tropical fish.
Outside the student union, the view was somewhat different. It was snowing again, not an unusual event in Belden,Wisconsin, in early December. Through the tall windows, Molly could see a row of bicycles lined up haphazardly in a rack. They were frosted with white and slumped together as if huddled for warmth.
"Carter," she said, without turning around, "didn't your mother ever teach you that it's rude to read over someone's shoulder?"
Carter McKee came around the table and sat down opposite her. He was a small man, with rumpled brown hair, a rumpled brown jacket, a blue bow tie, and a crooked grin that made him seem more like a naughty schoolboy than a journalist.
"My mother taught me to salsa dance," he said, picking up Molly's coffee cup. He sipped, grimaced, and quickly set it down again. "She also taught me to mix a mint julep, and to rationalize the kind of behavior that might otherwise make me question my morals. I don't recall anything about shoulders, though."
"You're a snoop."
"Me?" Carter said innocently. "You'll feel terrible for saying that when you realize I was being helpful. Think what might happen if one of your students strolled by and saw his history professor madly typing 'milk-white breasts' into her laptop."
"I wasn't typing madly," Molly said. "I was typing steadily. That's different. You make me sound like some kind of crazed spinster."
"Either way, I assumed that the mysterious Sandra-"
Carter lowered his voice. "I simply assumed," he repeated, "that the mysterious Sandra St. Claire didn't want to be unmasked by a nosy freshman in the Belden College Student Union."
"You've got that right," Molly said. "We both know what would happen to me if the administration found out about this."
Carter's grin returned. "That would shake things up in this fossil pit."
"Not funny! This is my career we're talking about." "What, you think that your dean wouldn't be happy to learn that one of his elite faculty members wrote the novel that the New York Post just called ... what was it? A sleazy saga?"
"Swashbuckler," Molly said grimly. He chuckled with delight. "That's it. 'A sleazy swash-buckler, soaked with sin and shipwrecked by schlock.' I love it."
Molly groaned. "Do we have to talk about this?" "Not the greatest review," Carter said. "But you have to agree that it was an impressive use of alliteration."
"There's something very bizarre about having the New York Post accuse me of writing sleaze," Molly said. Carter shrugged. "Don't tell me you were hoping for a Pulitzer," he said. "You want credit for your brains, write an academic book."
"I did! Maritime Wives: a feminist analysis of the role of sea captains' wives on eighteenth-century merchant ships. I lifted it straight from my dissertation, and it sold forty-two copies, ten of those to my mother. I didn't make a dime." She paused, reconsidering. "No, actually, I probably did make a dime."
"I have a copy," Carter said. "Your mother gave it to me. But I thought that money wasn't the point with you professor types. Aren't you supposed to survive on the fruit of knowledge and the milk of reason?" He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Or something like that?"
"That's after I get tenure," Molly said. "Which will never, ever happen if anyone links me to Pirate Gold. They'll take away my library card. I'll be out on the street, holding a sign that says 'will deconstruct social theory for food.'"
Carter looked exasperated. "Why do you need tenure? You wrote a best-selling novel, for God's sake. Quit. Go buy a castle somewhere and write another one. Enjoy your life. What's so great about this place?" He gestured contemptuously around the half-empty cafeteria.
"Are you serious? You know how hard it is to get a teaching position at a top college, and this isn't just any top college. This is Belden. I was lucky to be hired." She paused, then couldn't help adding, "And despite what everyone says, I earned it."
"Are people still grumbling about that? It's been three years. They should drop it."
"Academics never drop anything," Molly said. "There are feuds on this campus that go back to the 1940s. When I'm seventy, and hobbling across the quad, they'll be whispering, 'There goes that Shaw girl. She had a very influential father.'"
"That," Carter said, "is a chilling thought."
"I agree. Which is why I'd like to distinguish myself in something other than the trashy novel field." "I meant that it was chilling to think that you might still be here when you're seventy."
"My father is seventy," Molly said. "And he's still here." "Exactly," Carter said. His sour expression betrayed his opinion of Molly's father, who-she knew from experience-returned the sentiment. "And how is the great Stanford Shaw these days?"
"Fine," Molly said. Her father, currently Belden's emeritus professor of history, was the top god in the college's academic pantheon. He was the author of The Chronicles of Civilization, a dry nine-volume series considered to be among the finest scholarly works of the twentieth century, and although he no longer taught regularly, he was a regular sight on campus. One glimpse of his noble white head was enough to raise the heart rates of impressionable freshmen, and to give everyone else the uneasy feeling that they were not living up to their potential.
"Everyone here is holding their breath, waiting for me to fail," Molly said. "I'm damned if I'll give them that satisfaction. I would rather be run through with a cutlass."
"Cheers," Carter said. "I salute your determination. Just one question, though."
"Do you like it here?"
"What do you mean?" Molly felt an upwelling of anxiety in her chest. "I spent my whole life working to deserve this job. Why wouldn't I like it?"
Carter shrugged. "Just asking."
"No, you weren't. You were making a point. I can tell by that smug look on your face. But you can forget it, Carter. I am not a trashy novel writer. I'm a professor and a historian. I have an excellent academic reputation, and I'm not going to throw all that away just because my hobby accidentally turned into something huge!"
He gazed at her, unfazed. "But do you like it here?"
Molly scowled at him. "You know," she said, "every historical detail in Pirate Gold was one hundred percent accurate. You could learn as much from that book as from an introductory text on the eighteenth century. Just because there was a little bit of sex in it ..."
"A lot of sex."
"Well, a reasonable amount of-"
"Molly," Carter said, "it was a lot. And then there were the kidnappings, and the keelhaulings, and the torture scenes, and that rather ... stirring ... episode in the waterfront bawdy house with Andre DuPre and the two ladies of the evening ..."
"Oh, all right," Molly grumbled. "Whatever."
"Don't try to explain to me why your novel has academic merit," Carter said. "I don't care. But I'd love to know why you want to stay at a place where you have to hide the fact that your book was on the Times best-seller list."
"I like it here," Molly said. "I like it here. Okay? Satisfied?"
"If you say so."
"I do! I have an office. I have students. I like teaching." "So come and live in Chicago, teach at the community college, and quit panicking when someone reads over your shoulder."
"Leave me alone!" Molly exclaimed, too loudly. People turned to look, and she blushed, avoiding the curious stares. On her laptop screen, the tropical fish meandered through their virtual ocean, electronically bright and perpetually placid. "I really don't want to talk about this."
He held up one hand. "I didn't drive an hour north in this weather just to argue with you. I do have another reason for being here."
"Good," Molly said. "What?"
"My new project." Carter picked up her coffee cup again and began to fiddle with it, turning it round and round in his fingers. He flashed her his most charming smile. "It's big. Very big. But it hinges on a couple of things. One thing, actually, in particular." He took another swallow from the cup and made the same face.
"Carter," Molly said, "would you like me to get you some fresh coffee?"
He shook his head. "No, listen. This is important. The project hinges on you."
"I need your help."
"What, as a consultant? You're doing some kind of historical piece?" It seemed out of character. Carter's writing style was aggressively commercial, the kind of work more likely to be published in Esquire than in American Antiquity. It was hard for Molly to imagine being any help to him on the type of project that he would consider "big."
"Not exactly," Carter said. His ears were turning red. He frowned. "I'm not sure how to put this."
Molly hadn't seen him look so uncomfortable since their senior year in high school, when he had tried to talk her into telling Kara Swenson that he had already asked Becky Lipinski to the prom.
"Out with it," she said. "What's this project?"
"Okay," he said. He put down the cup and stared meaningfully at her. "Two words. Jake Berenger."
Molly nodded. "And?"
He looked disappointed by her lack of reaction. "You do know who he is," he said reproachfully. "The hotel mogul? The resort developer? The billionaire?"
"Of course I know who he is," Molly said. "I read the papers. But what's so new about this? You told me a year ago that you were doing a profile on him. You said that the Miami Herald wanted to run it in their Sunday magazine. Last I remember, you were busy interviewing all of his former girlfriends."
"Not all of them," Carter said. "That would have been physically impossible if I wanted to publish in this decade. Anyway, it was getting redundant. They all said some version of the same thing. 'Jake was always a gentleman, but I could tell that underneath it all, deep emotional wounds were preventing him from ever trusting me with his heart.'" He rolled his eyes. "Yawn. Spare me, please, from the pop psychobabble of a bunch of models."
"You never showed me the article," Molly said. "How did it turn out?"
"It didn't. He wouldn't talk to me. Not in person, not on the phone, not even by e-mail. And then I found out that he never gives interviews."
"Never? But he's always in the papers. There are pictures of him everywhere."
"Yes," Carter said. "People take pictures of Jake Berenger. People write stories about Jake Berenger. But he never gives interviews. He may be the world's most publicly private person."
"How strange," Molly said. "Doesn't the head of a major corporation have to talk to reporters sometime?"
"Oh, sure, he does the earnings reports," Carter said.
"Very tightly controlled by the Berenger corporate PR office. But he's never done a single personal interview, not that every magazine and newspaper on earth hasn't been trying to get to him. Word on the street is that he hates the press." He chuckled evilly. "Can't imagine why, when we love him so much."
"Too bad. I hope you didn't waste a lot of time on him."
"It wasn't a waste. There's no shortage of market for articles about this guy. The fact that he won't talk only makes people more obsessed with him. But there's only so far you can go with an outside-observer piece. The usual tabloid trash about the girls, the race cars, the wild parties ... you know the tune. I think I can do better. A lot better. I'm going to write"-he paused, for dramatic effect-"a book."
"The one and only authorized biography of Jake Berenger. He doesn't know it yet, but he wants to work with me. I can feel it."
"He sounds like a shallow playboy. Why don't you pick someone more worthy to write about?"
Carter grinned. "He's worth one point one billion dollars, on a good stock day. That's worthy enough for me."
"You're unbelievable," Molly said.
"Share the wealth, Molly! This book will sell. It'll get my name into the mainstream. When they write about him, they'll quote me. If I can make this happen, it'll be the coup of the decade."
"Great. All you'll need to do is get a man who never even gives interviews to agree to help you write a book. Or did you forget about that small detail?"
"No," Carter said. "I didn't forget."
"So ..." Molly prompted. "How do you plan to succeed where a hundred other hungry journalists have failed?"
"The approach," Carter said. He nodded. "Yes. I truly believe that it's all in the approach."
Molly smiled. "Oh, you're going to ask him nicely?" "In a sense, yes. When you want to break through someone's armor, you look for the weakest spot, don't you?"
"I guess so."
"Right," Carter said. He had a determined look on his face. "Okay. Molly, when we were in college, and your car broke down on our way home from the Dells, who walked eight miles in the snow to get help?"
"You did. You were very brave."
"And who covered for you when we were sixteen and you were dating Greg Ackerman? You couldn't admit to your father that you had a crush on a football player, so you told him that you were studying at my house every Saturday night. And then you went home slobbering drunk that time, and Stanford was sure that I'd done it to take advantage of you."
Molly frowned. "I wasn't slobbering."
"He's hated me ever since," Carter said. "But most recently, who convinced you to send Pirate Gold to my agent in New York, when you were barely willing to let it out of a locked dresser drawer?"
"Carter, I agree that I owe you a favor," Molly said. "But I don't see how I can help you with this Jake Berenger project.
What do you want from me, a letter of recommendation assuring him that you're a decent guy? That you won't do a hatchet job on his life story?"
"You could include that when you talk to him," Carter said thoughtfully.
Excerpted from Man Trouble by Melanie Craft Copyright © 2004 by Melanie Craft. Excerpted by permission.
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Man Trouble turned out to be a great read. Melanie Craft is highly entertaining and funny. I look forward to reading more of her books.
Miami Herald reporter Carter McKee comes to Belden, Wisconsin to ask his pal college history professor Molly Shaw to help him gain an interview of billionaire hotel mogul Jake Berenger. Carter plans to write a bio on Jake, but needs an interview something the wealthy hotelier never gives. He wants Molly to pose as her alter ego romance writer Sandra St. Claire in order to seduce the reclusive Jake at his Gold Bay Resort. Though insisting it is a mission impossible, Molly agrees to help Carter. At the resort, a transformed Molly does her best, but Jake cannot see her as a femme fatale though he finds her very pretty and intelligent. He also realizes he needs damage control following an affair with actress Skye Elliot, who insists her lover is a druggie incapable of being a CEO. However, as Jake and Molly work their own agenda they fall in love, but what will happen when the truth surfaces. This entertaining contemporary romance stars two individuals who normally would never meet as they walk dramatically different spheres. The story line is fun to see the odd couple start off wary of one another, turn become attacted to each other, and finally realize they are in love. Though Carter¿s selfishness is so obviously over the top and readers will wonder how the intelligent romance writing professor fails to see it, fans will enjoy this fine tale of love between two apparent opposites. Harriet Klausner