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"Oh, my Lord, you!"
Stevie Corbett slumped against her front door, which she had just pulled open. She was wearing a short kimono-style robe that overlapped across her chest and was tied with a self-belt at her waist. The light green silk looked as cool and fresh as a ripe honeydew melon.
The details of her attire were noticed by the sports-writer, her nemesis, and the last person on earth she wanted to talk to at that moment.
"I thought you were somebody else," she said.
"Obviously. Who's the lucky dog you were expecting?" His voice was heavily spiced with insinuation.
"My doctor is sending over some medication. I thought you were the delivery boy."
"That's what peepholes are for," Judd reminded her, tapping the small round hole in the door.
"I didn't think to look."
"Got your mind on other things, huh?" She glanced beyond his wide shoulders, hoping for a glimpse of the expected pharmaceutical delivery. "Yes."
"Like making a fool of yourself at Lobo Blanco Tennis Center this morning."
Her eyes snapped back to his. "As usual, Mr. Mackie, your choice of words is inflammatory and incorrect."
"Not from the way I hear it."
"The way you hear it? You weren't there?" She drew a sad face. "What a pity. You would have tremendously enjoyed my humiliation."
He smiled and the lines in his tanned face deepened. "I'm graciously volunteering my shoulder for you to cry on. Why don't you invite me in and tell me all about it?"
"Why don't you go straight to hell?" In contrast to her words, her smile was positively angelic. "You can read about my ignominious fall in your competitor's column."
"I don't have a competitor."
"Nor do you have any modesty, or scruples, or talent, or taste."
He whistled. "That tumble you took this morning did nothing to improve your rotten disposition."
"I have a lovely disposition around everybody except you. And why should I? I'm not a hypocrite. Why should I be pleasant to the columnist who writes scathing articles about me?"
"My readership expects me to be acerbic," he said blandly. "My acid wit is my trademark just like this single long, blond braid is yours." He reached out and ran his fingers over the plaited strands, starting at her shoulder and following it down to the curve of her breast.
Stevie slapped his hand away and tossed the heavy, thick braid over her shoulder. "I ducked the press today. How did you slip past?"
"I know who to bribe for home addresses and such. Why are you ducking the press?"
"I don't feel well, Mr. Mackie. I certainly don't feel like swapping insults with you. If I'd known you were on the other side of my door, I certainly would never have opened it. Please leave."
"Why did you faint?"
She slammed the door in his face, almost catching the hem of his jacket in the crack. For a moment, she rested her forehead against the wood. Judd Mackie of all people! Only yesterday his column had made snide mention of her playing in the tournament at Lobo Blanco.
"This writer can only wonder what the fashion-conscious Ms. Corbett, who recently got lucky at the French Open, will wear to dazzle her adoring hometown fans," he had written. "If only her backhand had as much swing as her cute little skirts."
For years, since she'd become a top-seeded player, Mackie had taken potshots like that at her. If she won, he credited luck for the victory. If she lost, he cruelly elaborated on the reasons why.
Sometimes he was painfully correct in his observations. Those were the times she resented his columns most. He never had a charitable word to say about her either as a person or as an athlete.
Lately, however, she hadn't given his poison pen much room to maneuver. She'd been winning-most recently The French Open, which had put her halfway to getting the Grand Slam. Next, Wimbledon. Wimbledon?
Where the very word usually generated expectation and excitement, it now evoked foreboding. Right now, Judd Mackie was the least of her problems.
Absently she laid her hand over her abdomen and headed toward the kitchen to brew herself a cup of tea. Sometimes drinking something warm made her feel better.
No sooner had she filled the kettle again and set it on the heating burner than her doorbell rang again. This time she wisely used the peephole, but saw through it only the distorted, fish-eye view of a prescription bottle. She opened the door.
Judd Mackie was still lounging against the door-jamb, idly shaking the brown plastic bottle of pills in front of the peephole.
Stevie uttered an exclamation of outrage and surprise. "How did you manage that?"
"With a five-dollar bill and my sincere promise to hand-deliver the prescription. I passed myself off as your concerned brother."
"And he believed you?"
"I have no idea. He took the money and ran. Smart fellow. Now are you going to ask me in?"
Sighing with resignation, she stepped aside. For several moments after the door closed behind him, they stood regarding each other closely. For all the name-calling and backbiting that had gone on between them over the years, this was the first time they'd ever been alone together.
Well, there had been that one time years ago in Stockholm, but they hadn't exactly been alone and Ste-vie doubted that he even remembered.
He was taller than he looked from a distance, she realized. Their paths often crossed at local sporting or social or charity events. Sometimes he even waved at her from afar, cheerfully waggling his fingers in a smartalecky manner that never failed to set her teeth on edge.
Perhaps it was his clothing, which could be described as "casual" at best, that made him appear shorter. With him standing this close, however, she was surprised to discover that her eyes were on a level with his collarbone. She hadn't remembered until he removed his sunglasses that his eyes were hazel-heavy on the gray.
She reached for the bottle of pills. He held them above his head of unruly chestnut hair and out of her reach. "Mr. Mackie!"
The teakettle suddenly whistled shrilly as though ending a round on an impasse. She turned on her bare heel and marched toward the kitchen. He followed her through the wide, airy rooms of her condominium.
"For a writer that's extremely trite," she said, pouring boiling water over the tea bag in the mug. "Would you like some herbal tea and honey?"
He winced with disgust. "How about a Bloody
"I'm fresh out of Bloody Marys."
She spooned honey into her tea and took a couple of sips before fixing his cold drink. When she passed it to him, he asked, "Tummy ache?"
"My mother used to make me drink tea whenever
I was recovering from a pukey bout with a stomach virus."
"Fou have a mother?"
He sternly lowered one eyebrow. "That had as much sting as that serve that aced Martina last month."
"As I recall you failed to mention that ace in your column, which said that Martina just had an off day."
"You read my column?"
"You watch my matches?"
Smiling with enjoyment over their verbal sparring, he took a drink from his glass and lowered himself onto a bar stool with a bentwood back. Stevie thrust out her hand. "May I have my pills now, please?"
He scanned the label on the small bottle. "These are pain pills."
She bared her front teeth, exposing them for his examination. "Want to see my molars?"
"Your molars look fine from here," he drawled, his eyelids lowering a fraction.
Stevie gave him a contemptuous glance. "The pills?"
"Muscular injury? Tennis elbow? Sprained shoulder? Stress fracture?"
"None of the above. Will you please give me the medicine now and stop behaving like a jerk?" With a shrug, he set the bottle on the bar and slid it across to her. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. You look like you need them."
"How can you tell?"
"Tension around your mouth." He touched one corner of her lips, then the other.
Stevie yanked her head away and quickly turned her back. She filled a small juice glass with tap water and swallowed two tablets. Retrieving her cup of tea, she sat down on the bar stool next to his.
She drank most of her tea in silence. He studied her every move. Obviously the adage that "if you ignored something long enough it would go away" didn't apply to him.
"What are you doing here, Mackie?" she asked wearily.
"I'm on assignment."
"Isn't there a ball game of some sort you could be writing about this afternoon? A golf tournament? Other matches at Lobo Blanco?"
"You're the big sports story of the day, like it or not."
She averted her eyes and muttered beneath her breath, "I don't like it."
Judd set his elbow on the bar and propped his cheek in his hand. "Why did you collapse out there this morning? It couldn't have been the heat. It wasn't that hot."
"No. It was a perfect day for tennis."
"Stay up past your bedtime last night?"
She gave his dishevelment a critical glance, her disapproval coming through loud and clear. "I never carouse the night before a match."
"Might do your game some good if you did," he said with a crooked smile.
Wryly she shook her head. "You're hopeless, Mackie."
"So I've been told."
"Look, I'm very tired. I was on my way to bed when you showed up the first time. Now that I've taken the medication, I'd like to get some rest. Doctor's orders."
"Your doctor recommended bed rest?"
"Hmm," he said, taking a sip of his drink. "That could mean anything. But I guess if you were drying out or going through drug rehab, you'd be hospitalized."
"You think I've been on alcohol or drugs?" she demanded indignantly, her sagging posture improving dramatically.
He leaned closer and, pulling down her lower eyelids, examined her eyes. "Guess not. No dilation. I doubt you're chemically dependent. You've got good skin tones, no needle tracks, clear eyes."
She angled her head away from his touch. "Yours certainly wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny."
Undaunted, he gave the rest of her an appraisal. "No, come to think of it, you look too healthy to be dependent on anything except low cholesterol, high-fiber foods. Get hold of a bad batch of bean curd?"
She dropped her forehead into her palm. "Would you please just go away?" She was disheartened on several counts. Chief among them was that she needed to be with someone right now, anyone, and Judd Mackie was the only one around. As much as it cost her to admit it, his obnoxious presence was preferable to solitude.
"That narrows down the possibilities considerably," he remarked.
"To what?" In spite of herself she was curious to hear his hypothesis.
"Give me a break," she moaned. "I don't need it."
"Right," he admitted grudgingly, "you're already hyping enough products to keep your face smiling out of magazines and TV screens for years."
Narrowing his eyes, he assessed her through a screen of thick, spiky lashes. "Are you sure you didn't just fake a fainting spell to get out of playing that match?"
"Why would I do something like that?"
"That Italian broad is supposed to be good."
"But I'm better," Stevie staunchly exclaimed.
"You've been good," he conceded reluctantly, "but you're getting up there in age. What is it now, thirtyone?"
He had struck a sore spot and she lashed out, "This has been my best year. You know that, Mackie. I'm on my way to getting a Grand Slam."
"You've still got to win Wimbledon."
"I won it last year."
"But your younger competition is breathing down your neck, players with a hundred times more talent and stamina."
"I'm noted for my stamina."
"Yeah, yeah, along with your saucy braid. You're not an athlete."
"As much as any football player in the NFL."
"You don't look like an athlete. You're not even built like one."
Stevie, angered over his sneering accusation, followed the direction of his gaze down to her chest. Her robe was gaping open, revealing the smooth, pale slope of one breast. She hurriedly gathered the fabric together in her fist and stood up. "It's past time for me to throw you out."
Unperturbed, he continued smoothly. "Maybe your collapse was brought on by anxiety, pure and simple."
Stevie was seething, but said nothing. She wouldn't honor his ridiculous theories with a response. Her expression remained impassive.
"You've always known, deep down, that you don't have what it takes to be a real champion. You're one bowl of Wheaties short," he said tauntingly. "You're a flash in the pan."
"Hardly that, Mackie. I've been on the pro tour for twelve years."
"But you didn't do anything significant until about five years ago."
"So, I'm improving, not declining, with age."
"Not according to what happened this morning."
"My age has nothing to do with why I-"
He sprang to his feet and bore down on her. "Come on, give, Stevie. Why did you faint?"
"None of your damn business!" she shouted.
"Cramps? Hmm? Is all this hullabaloo over a case of cramps?"
"No! Definitely not cramps."
"Ah." Judd released the word slowly. Tilting his head to one side, he let his eyes slide down her body again, searching for a telltale sign he might have previously missed. "Is there any particular reason why it's 'definitely not cramps'?" he asked in a lilting voice. "Like a b-a-by perhaps?"
Her eyes rounded. "You're crazy."
"And you're pregnant," he concluded bluntly. Drawing his face into a stern frown, he demanded, "Whose is it? That Scandinavian cobbler who designed your special tennis shoes?"
"I'm not pregnant."
"Or is the happy father that polo player from Bermuda?"
"Brazil, then. The guy with all those chains on his chest and at least four dozen teeth."
"Stop right there."
"Or don't you know whose it is?"
"Stop it!" she screamed, folding her arms across her abdomen. "There is no baby!" She repeated it more softly, more tearfully. "There is no baby."
Tears began to roll down her pale cheeks. "And before long there probably won't be anything else there, either. Because when they take out the tumors, they'll probably have to take out everything."