Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Rules of the Game

Nora Roberts

  Chapter 1

  “A jock. Terrific.” Brooke took a long swallow of strong black coffee, tipped back in her glove-soft leather chair and scowled. “I love it.”

  “No need to be sarcastic,” Claire returned mildly. “If de Marco wants to use an athlete for promotion, why should you object?” She gazed absently at the chunky gold ring on her right hand. “After all,” Claire continued in her dry voice, “you’ll be making quite a bit directing the commercials.”

  Brooke sent Claire a characteristic look. Direct, uncompromising gray eyes bored into the soft blue of the older woman’s. One of Brooke’s greatest talents, and her greatest weapons, was her ability to stare down anyone from a corporate president to a temperamental actor. She’d developed the knack early as a defense against her own insecurity and had since refined it to an art. It was an art, however, that didn’t impress Claire Thorton. At forty-nine, she was the head of a multimillion-dollar company that she’d started with brains and guts. For nearly a quarter of a century, she had run things her way, and she intended to keep right on doing so.

  She’d known Brooke for ten years—since Brooke had been an eighteen-year-old upstart who had wheedled her way into a job with Thorton Productions. Then she’d watched Brooke work her way up from gofer to gaffer, from gaffer to assistant cameraman and from there to director. Claire had never regretted the impulse that had led her to give Brooke her first fifteen-second commercial.

  Intuition had been the basis for Claire’s success with Thorton Productions, and intuitively she had sensed sharp talent in Brooke Gordon. In addition, Claire knew her, understood her, as few others did. Perhaps it was because they shared two basic traits—ambition and independence.

  After a moment, Brooke gave up with a sigh. “A jock,” she muttered again as she gazed around her office.

  It was one small room, the pale amber walls lined with prints of stills from dozens of her commercials. There was a two-cushion sofa—reupholstered in chocolate-colored corduroy—not comfortable enough to encourage long visits. The chair with a tufted back had been picked up at a yard sale along with a coffee table that leaned slightly to the left.

  Brooke sat behind an old, scarred desk that had a drawer that wouldn’t quite close. On it were piles of papers, a gooseneck lamp and assorted disposable pens and broken pencils. The pens and pencils were jammed in a Sevres vase. Behind her at the window, a dieffenbachia was slowly dying in an exquisitely worked pottery bowl.

  “Damn, Claire, why can’t they get an actor?” Brooke tossed up her hands in her one theatrical gesture, then dropped her chin on them. “Do you know what it’s like to try to coax ballplayers and rock stars to say a line without freezing or hamming it up?” With a disgusted mutter that gave no room for comment, she pushed the pile of papers into a semiordered heap. “One call to a casting agent and I could have a hundred qualified actors parading through here itching for the job.”

  Patiently, Claire brushed a speck of lint from the sleeve of her rose linen suit. “You know it increases sales if a production’s hyped by a recognizable name or familiar face.”

  “Recognizable name?” Brooke tossed back. “Who’s ever heard of Parks Jones? Stupid name,” she muttered to herself.

  “Every baseball fan in the country.” The mild smile told Brooke it was useless to argue. Therefore, she prepared to argue further.

  “We’re selling clothes, not Louisville Sluggers.”

  “Eight Golden Gloves,” Claire went on. “A lifetime batting average of three twenty-five. He’s leading the league in RBIs this season. Jones has been at third base in the All-Star game for eight consecutive seasons.”

  Brooke narrowed her eyes. “How do you know so much? You don’t follow baseball.”

  “I do my homework.” A cool smile touched Claire’s round, pampered face. She’d never had a face-lift but was religious about her visits to Elizabeth Arden. “That’s why I’m a successful producer. Now you’d better do yours.” She rose languidly. “Don’t make any plans, I’ve got tickets for the game tonight. Kings against the Valiants.”


  “Do your homework,” Claire advised before she closed the office door behind her.

  With an exasperated oath, Brooke swiveled her chair around so that she faced her view of Los Angeles—tall buildings, glittering glass and clogged traffic. She’d had other views of L.A. during the rise in her career, but they’d been closer to street level. Now, she looked out on the city from the twentieth floor. The distance meant success, but Brooke didn’t dwell on it. To do that would have encouraged thinking of the past—something Brooke meticulously avoided.

  Leaning back in the oversized chair, Brooke toyed with the end of her braid. Her hair was the warm soft red shot with gold that painters attempted to immortalize. It was long and thick and unruly. Brooke was feminine enough not to want it cut to a more manageable length and practical enough to subdue it into a fat braid during working hours. It hung down the back of a thin silk blouse past the waistband of overworked blue jeans.

  Her eyes as she mulled over Claire’s words were thoughtful. They had misty gray irises, long lids and were surrounded by lashes in the same fragile shade as her hair. She rarely thought to darken them. Her skin was the delicate ivory-rose her hair demanded but the frailty stopped there. Her nose was small and sharp, her mouth wide, her chin aggressive. It was an unsettling face—beautiful one moment, austere the next, but always demanding. She wore a hasty dab of rose lipstick, enameled dimestore earrings and a splash of two-hundred-dollar-an-ounce perfume.

  She thought about the de Marco account—designer jeans, exclusive sportswear and soft Italian leather. Since they’d decided to move their advertising beyond the glossy pages of fashion magazines and into television, they had come to Thorton Productions, and so to her. It was a fat two-year contract with a budget that would give Brooke all the artistic room she could want. She told herself she deserved it. There were three Clios on the corner shelf to her right.

  Not bad, she mused, for a twenty-eight-year-old woman who had walked into Thorton Productions with a high school diploma, a glib tongue and sweaty palms. And twelve dollars and fifty-three cents in her pocket, Brooke remembered; then she pushed the thought aside. If she wanted the de Marco account—and she did—she would simply have to make the ballplayer work. Grimly, she swung her chair back to face her desk. Picking up the phone, Brooke punched two buttons.

  “Get me everything we have on Parks Jones,” she ordered as she shuffled papers out of her way. “And ask Ms. Thorton what time I’m to pick her up tonight.”


  Less than six blocks away, Parks Jones stuck his hands in his pockets and scowled at his agent. “How did I ever let you talk me into this?”

  Lee Dutton gave a smile that revealed slightly crooked teeth and a lot of charm. “You trust me.”

  “My first mistake.” Parks studied Lee, a not quite homely, avuncular figure with a receding hairline, puckish face and unnerving black eyes. Yes, he trusted him, Parks thought, he even liked the shrewd little devil, but . . . “I’m not a damn model, Lee. I’m a third baseman.”

  “You’re not modeling,” Lee countered. As he folded his hands, the sun glinted on the band of his thin Swiss watch. “You’re endorsing. Ballplayers have been doing it since the first razor blade.”

  Parks snorted then walked around the tidy, Oriental-designed office. “This isn’t a shaving commercial, and I’m not endorsing a mitt. It’s clothes, for God’s sake. I’m going to feel like an idiot.”

  But you won’t look like one, Lee thought as he drew out a fragrant, slim cigar. Lighting it, he studied Parks over the flame. The long, lanky body was perfect for de Marco’s—as was the blond, unmistakably California look. Parks’s
tanned lean face, navy-blue eyes and tousled curling hair had already made him a favorite with the female fans, while his friendly, laid-back charm had won over the men. He was talented, easy to look at and personable. In short, Lee concluded, he was a natural. The fact that he was intelligent was at times as much a disadvantage as an advantage.

  “Parks, you’re hot.” Lee said it with a sigh that they both knew was calculated. “You’re also thirty-three. How much longer are you going to play ball?”

  Parks answered with a glare. Lee knew of his vow to retire at thirty-five. “What does that have to do with it?”

  “There are a lot of ballplayers, exceptional ballplayers, who slip into oblivion when they walk off the diamond for the last time. You have to think of the future.”

  “I have thought of the future,” Parks reminded him. “Maui—fishing, sleeping in the sun, ogling women.”

  That would last about six weeks, Lee calculated, but he wisely kept silent.

  “Lee.” Parks flopped into a Chinese-red chair and stretched out his legs. “I don’t need the money. So why am I going to be working this winter instead of lying on the beach?”

  “Because it’s going to be good for you,” Lee began. “It’s good for the game. The campaign will enhance the image of baseball. And,” he added with one of his puckish smiles, “because you signed a contract.”

  “I’m going to get in some extra batting practice,” Parks muttered as he rose. When he reached the door, he turned back with a suspiciously friendly smile. “One thing. If I make a fool of myself, I’m going to break the legs on your Tang horse.”


  Brooke screeched through the electronically controlled gates then swerved up the rhododendron-lined drive that led to Claire’s mansion. Privately, Brooke considered it a beautiful anachronism. It was huge, white, multileveled and pillared. Brooke liked to imagine two black-helmeted guards, rifles on shoulders, flanking the carved double doors. The estate had originally belonged to a silent movie idol who had supposedly decked out the rooms in pastel silks and satins. Fifteen years before, Claire had purchased it from a perfume baron and had proceeded to redecorate it with her own passion for Oriental art.

  Brooke stomped on the brake of her Datsun, screaming to a halt in front of the white marble steps. She drove at two speeds: stop and go. Stepping out of the car, she breathed in the exotic garden scents of vanilla and jasmine before striding up the stairs in the loose-limbed gait that came from a combination of long legs and preoccupation. In a crowd, her walk would cause men’s heads to turn but Brooke neither noticed nor cared.

  She knocked briskly on the door, then impatiently turned the handle. Finding it unlocked, she walked into the spacious mint-green hall and shouted.

  “Claire! Are you ready? I’m starving.” A neat little woman in a tailored gray uniform came through a doorway to the left. “Hello, Billings.” Brooke smiled at her and tossed her braid over her shoulder. “Where’s Claire? I haven’t the energy to search through this labyrinth for her.”

  “She’s dressing, Ms. Gordon.” The housekeeper spoke in modulated British tones, responding to Brooke’s smile with a nod. “She’ll be down shortly. Would you care for a drink?”

  “Just some Perrier, it’s muggy out.” Brooke followed the housekeeper into the drawing room then slumped down on a divan. “Did she tell you where we’re going?”

  “To a baseball game, miss?” Billings set ice in a glass and added sparkling water. “Some lime?”

  “Just a squirt. Come on, Billings.” Brooke’s smoky contralto became conspiratorial. “What do you think?”

  Billings meticulously squeezed lime into the bubbly water. She’d been housekeeper for Lord and Lady Westbrook in Devon before being prized away by Claire Thorton. On accepting the position, she had vowed never to become Americanized. Edna Billings had her standards. But she’d never quite been able to resist responding to Brooke. A naughty young girl, she’d thought a decade before, and the opinion remained unchanged. Perhaps that was why Billings was so fond of her.

  “I much prefer cricket,” she said blandly. “A more civilized game.” She handed Brooke the glass.

  “Can you see Claire sitting in the bleachers?” Brooke demanded. “Surrounded by screaming, sweaty fans, watching a bunch of grown men swing at a little ball and run around in circles?”

  “If I’m not mistaken,” Billings said slowly, “there’s a bit more to it than that.”

  “Sure, RBIs and ERAs and putouts and shutouts.” Brooke heaved a long breath. “What the hell is a squeeze play?”

  “I’m sure I have no idea.”

  “Doesn’t matter.” Brooke shrugged and gulped down some Perrier. “Claire has it in her head that watching this guy in action will give me some inspiration.” She ran a fingertip down a shocking-orange ginger jar. “What I really need is a meal.”

  “You can get a hot dog and some beer in the park,” Claire announced from the doorway.

  Glancing up, Brooke gave a hoot of laughter. Claire was immaculately dressed in buff-colored linen slacks and tailored print blouse with low alligator pumps. “You’re going to a ball game,” Brooke reminded her, “not a museum. And I hate beer.”

  “A pity.” Opening her alligator bag, Claire checked the contents before snapping it shut again. “Let’s be on our way, then, we don’t want to miss anything. Good night, Billings.”

  Gulping down the rest of her drink, Brooke bolted to her feet and raced after Claire. “Let’s stop to eat on the way,” she suggested. “It’s not like missing the first act of the opera, and I had to skip lunch.” She tried her forlorn orphan’s look. “You know how cranky I get if I miss a meal.”

  “We’re going to have to start putting you in front of the camera, Brooke; you’re getting better all the time.” With a slight frown at the low-slung Datsun, Claire maneuvered herself inside. She also knew Brooke’s obsession with regular meals sprang from her lean adolescence. “Two hot dogs,” she suggested, wisely buckling her seat belt. “It takes forty-five minutes to get to the stadium.” Claire fluffed her silver-frosted brunette hair. “That means you should get us there in about twenty-five.”

  Brooke swore and rammed the car into first. In just over thirty minutes, she was hunting for a parking space outside of Kings Stadium. “. . . and the kid got it perfect on the first take,” Brooke continued blithely, swerving around cars with a bullfighter’s determination. “The two adult actors messed up, and the table collapsed so that it took fourteen takes, but the kid had it cold every time.” She gave a loud war whoop as she spotted an empty space, swung into it, barely nosing out another car, then stopped with a jaw-snapping jerk. “I want you to take a look at the film before it’s edited.”

  “What have you got in mind?” With some difficulty, Claire climbed out of the door, squeezing herself between the Datsun and the car parked inches beside it.

  “You’re casting for that TV movie, Family in Decline.” Brooke slammed her door then leaned over the hood. “I don’t think you’re going to want to look any further for the part of Buddy. The kid’s good, really, really good.”

  “I’ll take a look.”

  Together, they followed the crowd swarming toward the stadium. There was a scent of heated asphalt, heavy air and damp humanity—Los Angeles in August. Above them the sky was darkening so that the stadium lights sent up a white misty glow. Inside, they walked past the stands that hawked pennants and pictures and programs. Brooke could smell popcorn and grilled meat, the tang of beer. Her stomach responded accordingly.

  “Do you know where you’re going?” she demanded.

  “I always know where I’m going,” Claire replied, turning into an aisle that sloped downward.

  They emerged to find the stadium bright as daylight and crammed with bodies. There was the continual buzz of thousands of voices over piped-in, soft-rock music. Walking vendors carried trays of food and drink strapped over their shoulders. Excitement. Brooke could feel the electricity of it coming in
waves. Instantly, her own apathy vanished to be replaced by an avid curiosity. People were her obsession, and here they were, thousands of them, packed together in a circle around a field of green grass and brown dirt.

  Something other than hunger began to stir in her.

  “Look at them all, Claire,” she murmured. “Is it always like this? I wonder.”

  “The Kings are having a winning season. They’re leading their division by three games, have two potential twenty-game-winning pitchers and a third baseman who’s batting three seventy-eight for the year.” She sent Brooke a lifted-brow look. “I told you to do your homework.”

  “Mmm-hmm.” But Brooke was too caught up in the people. Who were they? Where did they come from? Where did they go after the game was over?

  There were two old men, perched on chairs, their hands between their knees as they argued over the game that hadn’t yet started. Oh, for a cameraman, Brooke thought, spotting a five-year-old in a Kings fielder’s cap gazing up at the two gnarled fans. She followed Claire down the steps slowly, letting her eyes record everything. She liked the size of it, the noise, the smell of damp, crowded bodies, the color. Navy-blue-and-white Kings pennants were waved; children crammed pink cotton candy into their mouths. A teenager was making a play for a cute little blonde in front of him who pretended she wasn’t interested.

  Abruptly Brooke stopped, dropping her hand on Claire’s shoulder. “Isn’t that Brighton Boyd?”

  Claire glanced to the left to see the Oscar-winning actor munching peanuts from a white paper bag. “Yes. Let’s see now, this is our box.” She scooted in, then lifted a friendly hand to the actor before she sat. “This should do very well,” Claire observed with a satisfied nod. “We’re quite close to third base here.”

  Still looking at everything at once, Brooke dropped into her chair. The Colosseum in Rome, she thought, must have had the same feel before the gladiators trooped out. If she were to do a commercial on baseball, it wouldn’t be of the game, but of the crowd. A pan, with the sound low—then gradually increase it as the camera closed in. Then, bam! Full volume, full effect. Clichéd or not, it was quintessentially American.

  “Here you go, dear.” Claire disrupted her thoughts by handing her a hot dog. “My treat.”

  “Thanks.” After taking a healthy bite, Brooke continued with her mouth full. “Who does the advertising for the team, Claire?”

  “Just concentrate on third base,” Claire advised as she sipped at a beer.