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TWO SMALL ROUND TABLES were shoved close together in the dimly lighted hotel lounge. There was hardly an inch of surface that wasn't covered with drinks, ashtrays, pretzel dishes and candle-burning globes. Almost a dozen chairs were crowded around the two tables, all of them occupied by men, except one.
Petra Wallis was the sole female in the group, but she was accustomed to that. At five foot nine she was as tall as most of them. Despite her khaki blouse and slacks of a mock-military fashion, there was nothing masculine about her. The very blandness of the unisex-designed clothes accented her slim willowy frame and served as a contrast to the long wheat-blond hair pulled away from her face and secured with a gold clasp at the back crown of her head. The length of it fell straight down her back in a shimmering silk curtain of gold.
Nature had blessed her with a flawless complexion and strong, classical features. Her jaw line slanted cleanly to her pointed chin. Her mouth was wide with a sensually full lower lip, her nose straight with the faintest suggestion of an upward tilt at the tip. And her sea-green eyes possessed a naturally thick fringe of dark brown lashes.
Pet, as her co-workers affectionately called her, had often been told she was model material, but she wasn't interested in being in front of the camera. She preferred being behind it.
In the confusion of several conversations and jokes punctuated with laughter, Pet asserted herself with ease. "Have any of you seen the inside of Charlie's van?" Her teasing question was answered by a couple of chuckles while Charlie Sutton, who was sitting across from her, smiled like the Cheshire cat.
"You rode down here with Charlie, didn't you, Pet?" one of the men prompted.
"I did. Although after I climbed in that thing, I wondered whether I was asking for trouble or Charlie was asking for a slap in the face!" Her laughter was a rich, husky sound. "The van looks so innocent on the outside."
"Did you get it all fixed up the way you wanted to, Charlie?" one of the other men asked.
"Almost," he shrugged with a twinkling light in his brown eyes. "There are still a couple of things I want to add."
"I can't think what they'd be!" Pet retorted in an exaggerated reaction, and turned to the others. "He claims he uses it to go camping. It resembles a bachelor's playpen on wheels—silver shag carpeting on the floor, walls and ceiling; a single bed with a black fake-fur spread; a built-in bar," she began describing the inside of it. "The stereo speakers are hidden throughout. A flick of a switch and you have music to make love by. There's even a compact refrigerator to supply ice for the bar drinks!"
"You should have put those mirror tiles on the ceiling, Charlie," someone suggested. "What do the wife and kids think about it, Charlie?" another person teased.
"Sandy loves it," Charlie insisted. "We can slip away for a weekend and have all the comforts of a motel room without the cost."
"It's all prepaid in the money you spent fixing the van," Lon Baxter stated from his chair next to Pet's, and reached for one of the glasses of beer on the table.
"Whoops! That's mine, Lon." Pet rescued her drink and put another glass in his hand. "This is yours."
"How can you tell?" He looked skeptically at the half-empty glass of beer she had substituted for the fuller one.
"Unless you've started wearing lipstick, this has to be mine." She laughingly showed him the peach-colored imprint on the rim of the glass.
"In this light I don't see how you can see anything." He groped in mock blindness, pretending to discover the bareness of her forearm. "Ah, what's this?"
Setting his glass down, he took advantage of the fact that Pet was still holding hers. He turned in his chaff to get closer to her while his other hand slid across her stomach, stopping on her rib cage just below the swelling curve of a breast.
"It may be dark, Lon," Pet smiled sweetly, "but I know exactly where your hands are. And if your left hand moves one more inch, you're going to get an elbow in the throat."
The warning was issued with deliberate casualness, but it was no less sincere because of it. Conscious of the others observing this little byplay, she knew she had to put Lon firmly in his place without making an issue of it.
Lon Baxter was one of the few single men in the camera crew. Young and good-looking, he made passes at anything in skirts, certain he was irresistible to women. Admittedly, Pet found him attractive, but she had learned a long time ago that if she wanted the respect of her fellow workers, she had to stay clear of any romantic entanglements with them.
Lon she probably would have avoided under any circumstances, since she doubted he had a faithful bone in his body, but there had been a couple of men she wouldn't have minded dating. She had tried mixing her social life with work a couple of times, but the involvement invariably caused friction on the job, so since then she had made it a rule to date only men who were outside the television industry.
With an exaggerated sigh of regret Lon withdrew his hand and sat back in his chair, reaching for his beer. His retreat was noted by the others with a few taunting chuckles.
"Shot down again, huh, Lon?" somebody teased.
"Ah, but I'm alive to pursue her another day," he winked. Pet hadn't believed for one minute that he had given up.
"Why don't you put the poor guy out of his misery, Pet, and let him catch you once?" Charlie suggested, knowing exactly what her opinion of Lon Baxter was.
"I know what my competition is going to be in these next couple of weeks," she replied, not taking offense at the ribbing. "I'm not in the class of Ruby Gale, singer turned sex goddess. Lon won't even notice me after he's spent a day looking at her through his camera."
"Ruby Gale, the new Jersey Lily." Andy Turner, the fourth cameraman in the production crew, lifted his glass in an acidly cynical toast to the star of the television special they had come to tape.
Pet, Charlie, Andy, and Lon made up the team of four cameramen. She loathed the tag "cameraperson." The term seemed unnatural and a needless attempt to differentiate her sex, but she usually had to endure the label.
"She is fantastic!" One of the sound technicians spoke up in the singing star's defense. "Do you suppose she'd mind if I asked for her autograph? My wife and I have every one of her albums."
"I wouldn't ask her for anything until the special is all done," Andy advised. "She can be a royal bitch."
"You've worked with her before, haven't you?" someone asked.
"On an awards special a couple years ago," he admitted. "All she had was one song and an award to present, maybe five minutes of the entire show, but her incessant demands created total chaos. I've seen my share of temperamental performers, but Ruby Gale is the worst! This isn't any picnic we're on."
"Dane can handle her," a lighting technician insisted.
A grimness pulled at the corners of Pet's mouth. "Dane Kingston, the big man himself, is going to be here. I understand this production is going to carry his personal stamp as both producer and director."
"I thought Sid Lawrence was the director," one of the gaffers questioned her statement.
"He's just the assistant director," Andy retorted. "When you're Ruby Gale, you can demand number one and get it."
"Dane is probably going to be on hand to protect his investment," Charlie suggested. "After all, this special is costing him a hefty chunk of dough. I'll bet he wants to be sure it stays within the budget."
"And I'll bet he makes a hefty chunk of dough out of it," someone remarked enviously from the adjoining table.
"I agree he's here to protect his interests," Pet inserted dryly. "Money as well as Ruby Gale."
"What do you mean?" Joe Wiles, one of the lighting technicians and the grandfather of the group, frowned at her comment.
"Dane Kingston and Ruby Gale are what the gossip columnists describe as a hot item. From all accounts, they're having a very torrid affair." A disdainful kind of sarcasm thinly coated the information Pet relayed. She tapped a cigarette out of the pack lying on the table.
Ever attentive to the female, Lon leaned over to light it for her. "Some say he wined and dined her just to get her to sign to do this special," he remarked.
"She's a highly talented performer, but if she's the bitch you say she is, Andy—" Pet blew out a thin stream of smoke while sliding a look at the sandy-haired cameraman "—then it seems to me that she and Dane Kingston are perfectly mated."
"What do you have against Dane?" Andy laughed. "I wouldn't wish Ruby Gale on my mother-in-law, let alone someone like Dane. Besides, I always thought you women went for him. At least, my wife tells me he's quite a hunk of man. And I've always been convinced that she knows a good thing when she sees it—she did marry me."
The joking boast drew the expected round of guffaws and heckling from the group. The conversation could have easily been shifted to another topic, but the mere mention of Dane Kingston had set Pet's teeth on edge. She knew the tension wouldn't ease until she had talked out some of the animosity seething within, veiling it so the rest of the crew wouldn't guess how deeply it ran.
"I have no doubt Dane Kingston can be charming if he chooses." She tapped a long finger on her burning cigarette to knock off the ashes into the half-filled ashtray on the table.
"Let's hope he uses all his persuasive skills to charm our sexy star into performing without her usual temper tantrums," Andy suggested dryly. "Otherwise we'll be in for a long miserable time."
"Who says we won't with Dane Kingston?" Pet countered in a low, venom-filled voice.
"What did Dane Kingston ever do to you?" Charlie asked, subjecting her to his narrowed scrutiny. "I always heard he was an all-right guy."
"Dane Kingston?" She arched one pale brown eyebrow in mocking question, refusing to join the male admiration society for a member of their own sex.
"Did you have a run-in with him or something?" Charlie frowned.
"Haven't you heard the story about Dane and Pet?" Lon Baxter leaned forward, smiling broadly.
Only a few members of the group made affirmative nods. The rest either shook their heads or admitted their lack of knowledge. Their expressions gleamed with curiosity. All of them who knew Pet were fully aware that she couldn't be pushed around, but she was also easygoing and easy to work with. Since she obviously had some kind of grudge against the producer, Dane Kingston, they were interested to know why.
"I don't remember you ever working on a production directly supervised by Dane," Andy commented.
"I haven't," Pet admitted stiffly.
"No, but you remember that variety series Dane produced last year?" Lon was eager to tell the story. "Pet worked on it. The very last show of the package ran into all sorts of problems, delays. You name it and it went wrong. It was way over budget. There was even some question as to whether it was going to be finished in time to make the airdate deadline. When the word finally filtered up through the ranks and reached Dane, he took action immediately and heads began to roll."
"I remember hearing about that," someone agreed. "He threw out the director and a half a dozen others in charge, and finished the last show himself."
"That's what happened," Lon agreed. "Of course, at the time there were a lot of rumors that he was coming to see what was wrong, but he didn't let anybody know when he would arrive. One minute we were talking about him, and the next minute he was there. It was hot that day, really hot. The air conditioner was broken, wasn't it?" He glanced at Pet, a little vague on that point.
"It was making too much noise and they had to shut it off," she explained indifferently.
"That's right," he remembered. "Anyway, he walks in and what's the first thing he sees? Our Pet in a pair of white shorts and a sexy red tank top. It was between takes and she was getting lined up for the next shot. Evidently nobody thought to tell Dane that we had a woman on the camera crew, because he immediately assumed she was somebody's girl friend. He lost his temper and began chewing her out—and everyone else around her—for messing around with an expensive piece of equipment. Did you know who he was, Pet?" Lon paused in his story to ask.
"No. And I didn't particularly care," she retorted.
"That's for sure!" he laughed. "Nobody wanted to interrupt him to explain who she was, for fear he'd start yelling at them. So finally Pet just shouted at him to shut up. It got so quiet in that place you could have heard a flea scratch. Then Pet began reciting her résumé and wound up telling him that it was idiots like him who didn't know their rear end from a hole in the ground that were causing all the problems on the show, and suggested that he should take a long hike."
There was laughter, but it was generally subdued. The glances that were directed at her, for the most part, held respect and admiration for the way she had stood up for herself. Yet she was fully aware that her defense had been dictated solely by the instinct of self-preservation. She had felt intimidated, overpowered and dominated by the raging giant who confronted her.
"What was Dane's reaction to that?" Joe Wiles was smiling.
"I thought he was going to knock her on her backside," Lon remembered with an amused shake of his head. "He gave her an ultimatum. Either she collected a week's pay and went down the road, or she changed out of the shorts and top into something more respectable and that reminded him less of a streetwalker."
"What did you do, Pet?" The question came from one of the younger men sitting in the shadows of the other table.
"I'm still working for Kingston Productions, so obviously I changed my clothes." Stiffly, she crushed the cigarette in the ashtray.
"It sounds like an honest mistake to me," Andy remarked after giving the story his thoughtful consideration. "You aren't still mad at Dane because of it?"
Pet had encountered prejudice before and usually dismissed it with a shrug of her shoulders. But Dane Kingston's treatment of her was not something she could forgive and forget.
"Dane Kingston is an autocratic, overbearing brute," she declared.
"Pet!" Charlie tried to shush her with a silencing frown.
"No, I'm going to say what I think. I don't like him, I've never liked him and I never will like him," she stated forcefully. "If he was here I'd say it to his face."
"Then maybe you should turn around," an icy voice suggested.
A cold chill ran down her spine. Pet turned her head slowly, her gaze stopping when it found the gold buckle of a belt around the trim waist of the man standing behind her chair. Traveling by inches, her gaze made the long climb up his muscled torso, past the set of huskily built shoulders, beyond the tanned column of his neck and the thinly drawn line of his mouth finally to reach the smoldering brown of his eyes.
Her pulse thundered in her ears, reacting to the male aggression of his presence. Pet's seated position intensified the impression that he was towering over her. Perhaps if she hadn't felt so threatened she would have acknowledged that he was a ruggedly attractive man. His dark hair was thick and full, inclined to curl while seeking its own style and order. The sheer force of his personality was enough to make her erect barriers of defense, rather than be absorbed by him.
"I believe there's an old saying that eavesdroppers never hear good about themselves, Mr. Kingston." Her voice was tight with the effort to oppose him.
The atmosphere around the two tables became so thick a knife could have sliced it. Someone coughed nervously while Lon shifted uneasily in the chair beside Pet. She continued to wage a silent battle of wills with Dane Kingston, refusing to be the first one to lower her gaze, but with each second it was becoming increasingly difficult to meet the iron steadiness of his eyes.
Andy cleared his throat. "Er—why don't you join us for a beer, Mr. Kingston? We can squeeze another chair in here."
"Miss Wallis can give me hers," Dane challenged, a mocking glint in his dark eyes. "I'm sure she's tired by now and ready to get some rest."
"Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not tired—and I have no intention of giving you my chair," she defied him. "Besides, I haven't finished my beer." She turned to pick up her glass as an excuse to look away from him.
Excerpted from One Of The Boys by Janet Dailey. Copyright © 1980 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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