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"Head's up, Theo. We're coming to you in thirty seconds."
Thelonious Stokes acknowledged his field producer's warning with a nod. He adjusted his tie and smoothed a hand down each side of his Yves Saint Laurent jacket. Sucking in a deep breath, he blew it out nice and slow, rolling his shoulders to loosen the knots that surfaced whenever he went on-air.
Warmth radiated from the two production lights angled on tripod stands on either side of him, adding to the heat already filtering in from the sun directly above the open-air stadium.
Sara Faulkner, his field producer, held up her hand to start the countdown. "Ready?" she asked.
"I'm ready," Theo replied.
He heard the voice of Mike Townsend, one of the anchors in Sports Talk TV's New York studio, coming through the earpiece discreetly tucked in his right ear.
"Let's send it to a man who knows a thing or two about the big game. Nine-time Pro Bowler and current Sports Talk TV analyst, Theo Stokes.''''
Backing away, Sara counted out loud as she signaled with her hand. "In five, four, three, two."
"How are things in Honolulu, Theo? "
She pointed at him.
"It's Hawaii, Mike. How can it be anything but spectacular?" Theo began. He looked directly into the camera lens. "As Mike just mentioned, I'm coming to you from the beautiful island of Oahu, where, in six days, the players voted the best in the NFL will face each other head-on in this year's Pro Bowl. Join me and the rest of the Sports Talk TV crew as we broadcast live all week, taking you behind the scenes as the league's top players prepare to battle it out this coming Sunday, right here in Aloha Stadium."
"What can fans expect from Hawaii this week, Theo?" came Mike Townsend's voice as the cameraman spanned the viewfinder around the base of the empty stadium.
"Sports Talk TV has the island covered," Theo continued. "We plan to bring fans in-depth stories on their favorite players from both the NFC and AFC, including a special segment on two first-time Pro Bowlers." Theo smiled into the camera, hoping it didn't look as forced as it felt. "As a veteran of many Pro Bowls, I can tell you from experience that this will be an exciting week for those players, Mike. There's nothing like playing against the league's all stars."
"I'm sure there are many players who are happy to see you reporting from the sidelines instead ofplaying on the field." Mike's hearty, made-for-TV chuckle came though the earpiece. "We 'll check in with you guys throughout the week."
"Looking forward to it," Theo returned. He held a multicolored lei up to the camera. "And, Mike, if you behave while we're gone, I'll bring back one of these for you."
"And that's a wrap," Sara said. "Good job."
"Thanks," Theo replied. He relaxed his shoulders as he unhooked the earpiece and then handed it, along with the microphone, to the audio technician.
"I want to shoot a couple of the promo spots here at the stadium," Sara told him. "I also saw a really nice place for a beach shot, so we may do a quick stop on the way back to the resort."
"No problem. Just let me get rid of this jacket for a while." He peeled the jacket off and tossed it on the video equipment bag with complete disregard for the two thousand dollars he'd spent on it. He motioned to the portable cooler. "Is there any water in there?"
The production runner handed him an uncapped bottle of water. Theo gulped half of it down in one swallow.
"I don't remember it being so hot here," Theo remarked. Maybe because the longest he'd ever worn a suit on his previous trips to Hawaii had been the bus ride from the hotel to the stadium on game day. Not this time. He'd been forced to suffer in shirtsleeves and long pants since seven o'clock this morning.
That was Theo's first indication that this would not be his normal Pro Bowl experience.
He'd made the trip to Honolulu nine out of his twelve seasons in the NFLall as a member of the New York Sabers. As a player, the real work didn't begin until midday on Wednesday with the first team practice. Players could spend a day or two lounging on the beach, parasailing, or enjoying the Hawaiian nightlife.
As an analyst for Sports Talk TV, his work had started before he'd boarded the plane from New York yesterday. Jetlag still had his bones weary and his brain exhausted, but that excuse wouldn't mean jack to his producer. There were stats to memorize, players to interview, and promo spots to shoot.
Theo picked up the script and reviewed it again, even though he'd studied the three lines to the point that he could recite them in his sleep. The ten-second promo spot would run throughout this week on Sports Talk TV. It was imperative that he deliver his lines flawlessly.
If only it were that simple.
Theo had accepted the harsh reality that no amount of practice runs in his bathroom mirror would yield a perfect performance. An entire year on the job and those damn butterflies still wreaked havoc in his stomach.
Apparently satisfied with the playback she and the cameraman had been viewing on the laptop, Sara clapped her hands together and said, "Okay, let's get these spots done."
On cue, unease pooled in Theo's gut and sweat broke out across his chest. He retrieved his jacket and shrugged into it. Going through the calming ritual he'd utilized for the past year, Theo did his best to ready himself before the camera started shooting.
This was the career he'd chosen. No one had forced a microphone into his hand. It had been with much deliberation that he'd decided to quit football. And now that he was here, he was going to make the most of it.
From behind the obscurity of dark-tinted sunglasses, Deirdre Smallwood observed the melange of beach-goers strutting across the sand in an array of skimpy bikinis, colorful sarongs, and bare skin. She glanced down at her ankle-length sundressone of four she'd bought specifically for this trip to Hawaiiand felt overdressed.
Deirdre nestled her head against the beach chair and let the sun warm her face. Thinking about the twenty-degree temps back in New York, she was glad she'd finally given in to her sister-in-law Paige's insistence that Deirdre join her and Torrian, Deirdre's younger brother, in Hawaii for the NFL Pro Bowl.
Torrian's ticket to the Pro Bowl had been punched the minute the New York Sabers lost the NFC Divisional Playoff game. Coaching the Pro Bowl was a nice consolation prize, but Deirdre knew her brother would much rather have had the Sabers finally make a Super Bowl appearance. Still, a trip to Hawaii on the NFL's dime was nothing to cry over.
At first Deirdre had agreed to join them just to shut Paige up, but it was the invitation to participate in a celebrity chef cook-off that had sealed the deal. The NFL-sponsored event would raise money for outreach programs in urban areas around the country, something that was near and dear to her heart. Deirdre had to confess that being regarded as a celebrity had been one heck of an ego stroke, too.
As the gentle breeze grazed her skin, she acknowledged that there were worse ways to spend a week. Deirdre sucked in a lungful of salt-tinged air and caught a whiff of something spicy drifting from the resort's poolside restaurant. The exotic aroma reminded her that her own restaurant back in Manhattan was running low on turmeric. Had she added it to this month's supply list? Her sous-chef would be submitting the order tomorrow.
Deirdre pulled out her cell phone and speed-dialed the number for The Fire Starter Grille, but she disconnected the call before it could go through. The world would not end if the kitchen staff ran out of turmeric.
"The restaurant will be fine. You're here to relax," she reminded herself. She settled back onto the lounge chair and inhaled a relaxing breath. Seconds later, she jerked to attention at Paige's yell.
Hand on her chest, Deirdre turned and motioned for Paige, who fit right in with the rest of the bikini-clad beachcombers. Her brother's wife was gorgeous, with her short, cropped haircut and slim figure. Much to Deirdre's relief, she was just as beautiful on the inside.
When Paige reached her, Deirdre made a show of looking at her wrist, even though she wasn't wearing a watch. "What happened? You were supposed to meet me out here an hour ago," she said.
"I'm sorry I'm late, but I got distracted," Paige said.
"You probably don't want me to answer that since you always give me a look when I mention having sex with your brother"
Deirdre held up a hand. "Just stop right there."
Paige pointed at her. "See, that's the look." She stretched out on the lounge chair. "It's gorgeous out here, isn't it? A nice change from that sweltering kitchen."
It was on the tip of Deirdre's tongue to remind her sister-in-law that she enjoyed working in the restaurant's sweltering kitchen.
"Do you still want to tour the resort, or do you want to just hang out here for a while?" Paige asked.
"I've already toured the resort."
Paige's head popped up. "All of it? I'm not that late, am I?"
"I've been wandering around this place for the past two hours. I tried taking a nap earlier, but I couldn't relax."
A wicked smile tipped up the corner of Paige's mouth. "I could recommend something, but you'd just tell me to shut up."
"Shut up," Deirdre snapped. "You're worse than guys when it comes to all this sex talk."
"See, I was going to suggest getting a drink. Get your mind out of the gutter." Paige stuck her tongue out as she signaled for one of the waiters Deirdre had spied bringing colorful drinks to patrons on the beach for the past half hour.
"Aloha, ladies." The waiter, barefoot and dressed in white shorts, pulled a couple of leis from the bunch gathered in the crook of his arm and draped it around each of their necks. "What can I get you?"
"A pomegranate martini," Paige replied.
"Fruit punch with extra ice," Deirdre said.
"Whoa, there," Paige drawled. "You sure you don't want to start with something a little less crazy? Cran-Apple juice, maybe?"
The young waiter's mouth curved in a grin.
"The fruit punch is fine," Deirdre told him. When he walked away, she turned to Paige. "Did you bring me to Hawaii just to make fun of me?"
"No, I brought you here so you can have a little fun. Who goes on vacation and orders fruit punch?"
"You know I'm not a drinker."
"I didn't say you had to get drunk. You can start with something harmless, like a frozen pina colada. It'll help you loosen up."
"I'm loose," Deirdre said. Paige let out a mirthless snort. "Okay, so I'm not loose yet, but I'm working on it."
"After a week of this, I don't think you'll have a choice. I'm ready to lie back and do absolutely nothing. Don't tell Torrian, but I am so happy he'll be tied up in meetings and practices all week."
"He told me that he'll be busier as a coach than he ever was as a player," Deirdre said. She ran her thumb along the silky petals of the lei. "Paige?" She waited for her sister-in-law to look over at her. "I know Torrian is here to work, but this still doesn't feel right. This is like your honeymoon. I feel in the way."
"Don't you dare say that," Paige warned. "This is not my honeymoon, and I don't want you putting that idea in your brother's head. He promised me a honeymoon in the Azores when the season is over, and I plan to collect. Now, stop all this nonsense about being in the way."
Despite her sister-in-law's protest, Deirdre couldn't help but feel like a third wheel. The kind that squeaked and wiggled and slowed down the rest of the cart.
"Besides," Paige continued. "The Pro Bowl is just one of the reasons we came to Hawaii. We're also here to celebrate your birthday."
"Don't remind me," Deirdre groaned.
"Didn't I tell you that forty is the new twenty," Paige said.
Deirdre ticked the items off on her hand. "Pregnant, working two jobs and taking care of my teen-aged brother by myself. I don't want to be reminded of my twenties."
Paige winced. "Damn, girl. You are way overdue for a break. Just one more reason to enjoy this vacation."
The waiter returned with their drinks, handing Deir-dre a hollowed-out pineapple with a paper umbrella sticking out of the top. Paige took a healthy sip from her fuchsia-colored martini and let out a sigh. "Now this is how you relax."
Deirdre frowned into her icy fruit punch. "I'm not sure I even know how to relax anymore," she answered honestly. "It's been so long since I've had a minute for myself."
"Exactly!" Paige pointed an impaled olive at her before biting it off the tip of the toothpick. "And even when you do have the opportunity to relax, you don't take advantage of it. It's as if you have some aversion to having a good time."
"That is not true," Deirdre protested.
"That is so true," Paige insisted. "Forget that I had to practically get on my knees and beg you to take an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii. You never want to do even the simple stuff. Every time I invite you to join me at one of Torrian's away games, or to have a girls-only weekend, you come up with some excuse. You even refused to dance at Torrian's and my wedding reception."
"So I don't dance in public. Sue me," Deirdre said. "That doesn't mean I don't know how to enjoy myself."
Paige tipped her sunglasses down and peered at Deirdre over the rim. "Should I bring up the Theo issue?"
Deirdre choked on the sip of punch she'd just swallowed. "Excuse me? What's the Theo issue?"
"Oh, don't give me that. You know for a while there that man was all into you."
Was was the operative word, Deirdre mused. Theo may have been interested in her at one time, but she had managed to ice any warm feelings he may have had toward her. These days he barely spoke two words to her on the rare occasions they happened to see each other. She'd taken to staying away from the brownstone on those afternoons when she knew he'd be in Torrian's basement/rec room for the ritualistic dominoes game they played along with two other teammates, Cedric Reeves and Jared Dawson.