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At the sound of the loud and piercing scream, Bryn Keller dropped the trade paper she had been industriously reading onto the comfortably stuffed love seat, sprang to her feet and rushed to the door, flinging it open.
In her year and a half of being a pseudoparent, she still hadn't learned to decipher which screams were of pain, and which were of play.
Luckily, this one seemed to have been play.
Brian, at the grand age of seven, the oldest of her nephews, had been the perpetrator of the sound. He met her eyes curiously as he saw her anxious stare.
"We're playing, Aunt Bryn." He puffed out his chest proudly and waved a plastic sword. "I'm Gringold! God of water and light! And I'm battling the forces of the Dark Hound."
"And I'm Tor the Magnificent!" chimed in Keith. He was six, and second-in-command among the trio. They only owned two plastic swords, and he carried the second.
"Oh?" Bryn raised her eyebrows and suppressed a grin. She didn't have to ask who had the honor of being the Dark Hound. Her eyes traveled to little Adam. At four, he was the youngest and therefore always elected to be the bad guy. The boys were using the tops of garbage cans as shields, but just as there were only two plastic swords, there were only two can tops. Adam carried a giant plastic baseball bat and a ripped-up piece of cardboard.
Adam graced her with a beautiful smile, and she forgot that she had been about to knock all three heads together for the scare they had just given her. She laughed suddenly, narrowed her eyes at Keith and raced over to Adam, stealing his baseball bat. "Tor the Magnificent, eh? Well, I'm the White Witch!" she told them all gravely. "And I'm going to get the lot of you for turning my hair gray way before its time!"
The boys squealed with delight as she chased them about the small yard, catching their little bottoms with light taps of the bat. At last they began to gang up on her, rushing her, hugging her and knocking her to the ground.
"Beg for mercy, White Witch!" Brian demanded.
"Never!" she cried in mock horror. Then she started as she heard the phone ringing in the kitchen.
"Cry for mercy!" Keith echoed Brian.
"Off! Off, you hoodlums! I'll cry for mercy later, I promise, but right now the White Witch has to answer the phone."
"Ahh, Auntie Bryn!"
The boys grumbled but let her up. Bryn threw them a kiss as she rushed back into the house and flew to the phone.
"Yes, of course, it's Barbara. What were you doing? You didn't take up jogging, I hope? You sound absolutely breathless. I didn't interrupt anythingor did I? I would just love for you to be doing something that I could worry about interrupting!"
Bryn gave the receiver an affectionate grimace. Barbara couldn't understand her friend's withdrawal from male society since her broken engagement. Especially since it had been Bryn who had made the final break.
"No, you didn't interrupt anything except for a wild battle between the forces of good and evil. What's up?"
"I've got something for you."
"Work? Oh, great! I'm just about to wind up those wildlife shots, and Cathy's ankle got better, so she returned to the dinner show last night. I've been worrying about finances already. What have you got, a dance gig or a shoot?"
Barbara's delighted laughter came to her over the phone. "Bryn! What a card you are. And what a lucky card to have me for an agent. How many people can sell you as a photographer, and a dancer?"
"Probably not many," Bryn replied dryly. "I can see the billboard now: 'Jack of all tradesmaster of none.'"
"Hey, don't undersell yourself, Bryn. You do damn well at both your trades."
Bryn remained silent. She was a good dancer and a good photographer. But she had learned through life that "good" did not mean success. It meant that, if you were lucky, you could keep working.
She laughed suddenly. "Maybe if I had decided earlier whether I wanted to grow up to be either Martha Graham or Matthew Brady, I might have made it as one or the other!"
"Maybe, but it wouldn't have helped you this time, chick. 'Cause I've got two jobs for you. One shooting and one dancing."
"Well, great!" Bryn approved enthusiastically. "Who am I shooting, and who am I dancing for?"
"They're one and the same."
"They are?" Bryn queried curiously. "That's strange. Who is this 'one and the same'?"
"The Native American rock star?"
"Half Native, and he refers to himself as a musician," Barbara said with cool aplomb. "Remember that, sweets."
"The half 'Native or the musician?" Bryn asked dryly.
"Both!" Barbara chuckled. "He never denies the Blackfoot blood, but he doesn't make a big deal of it, either. And he spent two years at Julliard, where his mother was a teacher, then two years at the Royal Conservatory. He has a right to call himself a musician."
"I don't know, Barbara. It makes me a little uncomfortable. I don't tend to care for men with purple hair who behave like sexual athletes and jump all over the stage."
"Honey, his hair isn't purple! It's jet black. And he's never acted like a sexual athlete. He was married for five years, and not even the National Enquirer could make an attack on the relationship. He's a widower now, and besides, you don't have to fall in love with him, just work for him!" Barbara exclaimed with exasperation. "And what's gotten into you all of sudden? You've worked for dozens of males of all varieties and disparaged the interested like the iceberg did the Titanic. Why are you afraid to work for a man you've never met?"
"I'm not afraid," Bryn replied instantly, but then realized that, inexplicably, she was. At the mention of Condor's name, hot flashes of electricity had started to attack her; now they ran all the way up and down her spine. She knew of him, just as she knew of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bono, and so forth, but there was absolutely no reason to fear the man or even to be apprehensive that he might be weird.
Still she was definitely afraid. Silly, she told herself. Ridiculous. And then she knew where the feeling came from.
A video that he had already done.
The kids had been watching an old Dickens classic on HBO one night, and when the movie had ended, the video had come on.
Lee Condor's video.
There had been no shots of the group with smoke coming from their guitars, no absurd mechanizations, or anything of the like. There hadn' t even been shots of Condor or his group playing their individual instruments. It had been a story video; the popular love song was based on a fantasy affair. The scenes had been as good as many movies: knights on destriers pounding through mist to reach the castle; a great battle; the heroine being rescued too late and dying in her lover's arms.
Bryn had found herself watching all four minutes without moving.
And at the very end, there had been a face shot. Not a full face shot, but a picture of the knight with his visor on, gold-glinted eyes staring dangerously through.
She could still remember those eyestoo easily. And even now, the thought of them disturbed her.
"I'm not afraid, Barbara," Bryn repeated more staunchly, her irritation with herself growing. "I just don't really get this. Why would Lee Condor come to Tahoe to do a video? What's the matter with Hollywood these days?"
"Hey, he went over to Scotland to film his last video. And he doesn't live in Hollywood. He has a home in Ft. Lauderdale, and one here."
"Yeah, he's owned it for years. But he seems to be a very private person, so few people know about it, or much about him."
"You seem to know enough," Bryn teased lightly.
"Ummm. I wish I knew a little more."
"You like that hard-rock type, huh?" Bryn kept up with a chuckle.
To her surprise, Barbara hesitated. "He's a strange man, Bryn. Cordial, and quiet. But you have the feeling that he sees everything around him and that that he absorbs more than most people. He's dynamite to look at, with those gold-tinged eyes and dark hair. Seems like he's long and wiry until you get close to him and see the real breadth of his shoulders " Barbara sighed. "I admit he does give me goose bumps. I've never come across a man so so male before."
Bryn laughed, but she sounded uneasy even to her own ears.
She had known a man like that before. Known him a little too well. Was that what gave her fever-chills of instant hostility? Had just that flash-fast glimpse of elemental fire in those gold eyes warned her that his sensual appetites were as natural to him as breathing, just as they had been with Joe?
There were signs of warning as clear as neon lights about such men once you learned to read them. Signs that might read: Women, beware! He can take you to the stars, and dash you back upon the gates of hell.
But a woman only got messed up with a man like that once in her life, never a second time.
Bryn shook away her thoughts and the uneasy feeling of fever along her spine. This was business.
"Okay, he's doing a video and hiring dancers. But where does the photography come in?"
"You know those promo shots you took for Vic and Allen when they started playing the Stardust Lounge? He saw them, stared at them for a long time and asked if I knew the photographer. Well, of course, I hopped right in with your name!"
"Thanks," Bryn murmured.
"What's an agent for?" Barbara laughed happily. "But listen, I've got to run. I have another twenty dancers to line up. Boy, oh boy, am I in love with the man! Think of my percentages! And I'm going to put on the old answering machine and dance myself. Oh, Bryn! This has been a heck of a windfall!"
This time when Bryn laughed, it was with honest delight. She and Barbara were a lot alike. Barbara spent her days as an agent and her nights as a showgirl in a popular nightclub that was part of a new casino. Barbara loved to wheel and deal, and she also loved to dance. She could easily have gotten Bryn a job in her own show, but Bryn considered it a little too risque for a woman who was raising children and also for her own comfort. Barbara was an efficient businesswoman and had concluded deals for a number of big names, but even so, this did sound like a nice windfall.
"You're right, the whole thing sounds great, Barb. I'm happy for you."
"Be happy for yourself, honey. You're going to make enough to come close to a real nice down payment for that new house you've been dreaming about."
Bryn bit her lip. Money was, unfortunately, one of the key factors of life. One you couldn't live without.
Before her brother Jeff's death, she had always felt that she had all she needed to survive. She could take the jobs she liked, turn down those she didn't.
If only he were still alive! Not because she resented her nephewsshe loved them and would fight hell and high water to keep thembut because because she had loved her brother, too, and life had seemed so normal once, simple, right and easy. She couldn't wallow in self-pity. She had to accept reality. Jeff was dead.
And he had died without a shred of life insurance. But growing boys had to be fed and clothed, taken to doctors and dentistsand brought to a baby-sitter when Bryn worked nights. Keith and Brian went to school, but Adam's day care was costly. She'd had to sell her two-seater Trans-Am and buy a small Ford van. And her pretty little two bedroom town house had become way too small. The boys had been moved into the darkroom, and the darkroom had been moved to the storage shed.
And the stuff that had been in storage
Well, it was stuck into closets, cabinets and any little nook that would hold anything.
Since she wasn't ready to fall back on being a showgirl, she couldn't afford to get fussy about jobs just because a man's eyesseen on screen!made her nervous.
"You still there, Bryn?"
"Be at the old Fulton place at ten sharp on Tuesday. He's a real stickler for punctuality."
"The old Fulton place?" The house was on one of the long roads leading to the desert; it had been built around the middle of the nineteenth century, and had been deserted for as long as Bryn could remember. School kids still dared one another to go into it, as it had, of course, acquired a reputation for housing ghosts.
"You won't recognize what's been done with it!" Barbara laughed. "Ten o'clock, with everything you'll need for a full workout."
"I'll be there," Bryn promised. "Oh Barb? How many days' work is it? And when do I take the PR photos?"
"Probably three or four weeks on the video. But there will be a day or two off during that time for the photos. I'll let you know when."
"Thanks again, Barb."
Another ear-splitting scream sounded from outside.
"Got to go, Barb. The natives are getting restless."
"Give them all a kiss and a hug for me!"
Bryn slammed down the receiver and raced outside again, anxiously scanning little faces.
Adam was crying his eyes out. And soon as he saw her, he ran toward her as fast as his chubby little legs would carry him and buried his head in her lap.
"What happened?" Bryn demanded of the older two.
"I think a bug stung him!" Brian answered worriedly, coming over and stroking his little brother's blond curls. "Adam"
Adam began to wail again. Bryn picked him up. "Come on, Adam, you have to tell me what happened."
He raised a red and swollen pinky to her, the tears still streaming from his huge green eyes just a shade darker than her own.
"Bug!" he pronounced with a shudder. "It was a bad bug! Hurts, Aunt Bryn "
She whirled and hurried into the house, where she plopped Adam onto the counter between the kitchen and the dining room, and filled a small bowl with water and ice cubes. "Put your finger in the water, Adam, and it will feel better, I promise."
Adam, his tears drying as he tremulously took a deep breath, did as he was told. Bryn glanced over the counter to see that Keith and Brian, their eyes frightened as they stared at their brother, had followed her.
She grimaced, then gave them an encouraging smile. "It's not that bad, guys, really. I think it must have been a little honeybee."
Brian compressed his lips for a minute, then lowered his eyes. Bryn frowned as she watched him.
"What's the matter, Brian?"
"He he "
"He what, Brian?"