Read Crush Online

Authors: Crystal Hubbard

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #African American, #General

Crush

Crush

Crystal Hubbard

Genesis Press, Inc.

Indigo Love Spectrum

An imprint of Genesis Press, Inc.

Publishing Company

Genesis Press, Inc.

P.O. Box 101

Columbus, MS 39703

All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, not known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying, and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without written permission of the publisher, Genesis Press, Inc. For information write Genesis Press, Inc., P.O. Box 101, Columbus, MS 39703.

All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author and all incidents are pure invention.

Copyright© 2007 Crystal Hubbard

ISBN-13: 978-1-58571-547-3

ISBN-10: 1-58571-547-6

Manufactured in the United States of America

First Edition

Visit us at www.genesis-press.com or call at 1-888-Indigo-1-4-0

Dedication

This book is dedicated to Val.

I wish I had a fraction of your strength,

temerity, heart, and courage.

Acknowledgements

I would very much like to thank God and all His angels for giving me the gift of storytelling and allowing me to share it.

I would also like to thank my gang of superpals in Massachusetts. Every writer should be so fortunate as to have such good readers who are also such good friends.

To all of you readers who seek out and enjoy my books, I owe you the greatest debt of all. No story is complete until someone reads it, and without you, my work is left unfinished. Thank you for all of your encouragement and support, and please keep sending me your comments and questions at
[email protected]
.

Prologue

Miranda had one dying thought.
I should have stayed home.

The words formed within her head, but Miranda couldn’t hear them over the ear-splitting music and deafening wall of noise from the crowd. That crowd, that single-minded, ignorant beast that Bernie had so wanted her to be a part of, surged forward, pressing Miranda farther into the unyielding apron of the concert stage and closer to death.

Above the stage in a specially constructed cage of chain link, Lucas Fletcher played the bass solo of “Snatched,” his latest American and U.K. Number One hit. He was so involved in the moment, so attuned to his music; he didn’t notice security guards rushing from the wings and onto the stage. It would have been a familiar sight. At every concert, security swarmed the stage at least once to remove girls driven temporarily mad by Lucas Fletcher and Karmic Echo’s music. Female fans risked possible eviction from the venue and arrest just for the chance to let their fingertips glance off Lucas’s denim-wrapped thigh or the scuffed steel toe of his fashionably working-class leather boots.

At the sold-out London opening of Karmic Velocity, the band’s current tour, a fan from his hometown of Aberystwyth, Wales incredibly made it onto the stage and threw herself onto Lucas. She ripped off his T-shirt, along with a sizeable length of his chestnut hair. She might have pulled him bald if the Yellow Shirts, his personal security force, hadn’t tackled the girl and whisked her into custody. She and the friends that had pitched her onto the stage were later featured on two English talkies, where the girl displayed her coveted prize: the eight-inch long tress of Lucas’s hair.

The Boston concert was going well. “Snatched” was one of Lucas’s favorite songs, and the fans always responded well to it. Its driving bass solo energized Lucas as much as it electrified the crowd. Only when Arena security, in their heavy green jackets and black caps, joined the Yellow Shirts did Lucas glance down at the stage.

Dear God, it’s a crush
, he thought. Dread paralyzed him as he stopped playing mid-note. “Bloody hell!” he swore, dropping his bass and leaping out of the cage. He dropped eleven feet to a gigantic speaker, then jumped another eight feet to the stage. The crowd, still pressing forward, thought Lucas’s acrobatics were a part of the show, and they cheered and screamed as he raced to the edge of the stage.

Crush, crowd crush, body slams, music mashes—however named, always resulted in tragedy. Everyone dreaded catastrophes like the 1979 Who concert in Cincinnati and Pearl Jam’s 2000 concert in Denmark, where fans had been killed while the bands performed. No one had ever been killed at a Karmic Echo concert. Lucas prayed to keep it that way. As security guards lifted unconscious and injured concertgoers to the stage, dozens of other guards worked within the crowd itself, pushing back the frenetic mob. To facilitate the rescue of those being crushed, Len Feast, the lead guitarist, took to a microphone and pleaded with the audience to retreat.

Lucas, the muscles and cords of his well-defined arms and shoulders standing out, worked alongside the Yellow Shirts, pulling his fans to safety. The first five young ladies weren’t so bad off that they couldn’t find the presence of mind and strength to tear at his clothes and hair. He was shirtless by the time he grabbed his sixth victim. He kneeled, pulling her dead weight across his lap.

Under the bright wash of the stage lights, her terra cotta skin looked gray. Her full lips, which looked like they’d been built specially for kissing, were a shade of purplish-blue that Revlon hadn’t created. Her hazel eyes were half opened and remarkably lovely, despite their glassy sheen. Lucas might have gotten lost in the pool of jade centered within the chocolate brown if he hadn’t noticed the cold of her skin as he smoothed her long, molasses-dark hair from her brow.

“Miss?” He gently jostled her in his arms. She didn’t respond and he splayed a hand over her chest. “Miss?” He felt no movement, and his panic reached a crescendo.

He curled over her, bringing his cheek to her nose and mouth. Feeling no breath, he laid her flat on her back. All around him, security guards were clearing the stage, his band mates were securing their instruments, and Feast was attempting to calm a somewhat impatient Beantown crowd. Lucas was searching his brain for the right combination of breaths and compressions to revive the cold figure at his knees.

He pinched her nose shut and clapped his mouth over hers, breathing as he’d been taught ages ago while filming a public service spot for the BBC. He tuned out the rhythmic chanting and clapping of a crowd denied a concert they’d paid upwards of $150 a ticket to see. He didn’t hear the voices of the security guards restoring order to the venue. Lucas breathed for the fallen woman, compressed her chest, and he vowed to keep doing it until she fully opened her gorgeous eyes and drew breath on her own.

“Come on, lovely,” he pleaded as he externally pumped blood through her heart. Fat beads of sweat rolled down the sides of his face. “Open your eyes and tell me to get my bloody paws off you.”

“Lucas, the paramedics are here,” Feast said, his blue eyes filled with worry. “They’ll take care of her.”

Lucas hunched over her, breathed into her.

“Lucas!” Feast clapped a hand on Lucas’s shoulder. Lucas shrugged him off to continue his compressions. “Lucas, please, let the professionals at her,” Feast begged. Lucas breathed for her, willing her to open her eyes, to move and to fill her lungs on her own.

His wish was granted when a choking gasp escaped her. She coughed, her whole body convulsing from its force. She tried to sit up, and she would have fallen back to the stage if Lucas hadn’t caught her up in his arms. He took her chin and aimed her face at his.

Her eyes found his and remained there. With life now sparking within them, her eyes were even lovelier. Large and expressive, they were undoubtedly the most beautiful eyes he had ever fallen into.

She stared at him, too intent on breathing to speak. His collar-length hair, damp with perspiration, gleamed in the bright light as it fell forward to hood his face. He had striking features—a chiseled jaw, perfect cheekbones and a cleft in his chin—that were tense with worry, but his concern was most evident in his eyes, which were the color of a summer sky before a storm. Her breathing settled into a relaxed and comfortable pattern despite the pain in her chest, and she sighed. He shut his eyes in heartfelt relief and folded her into a close embrace. She didn’t have the strength, or will, to withdraw from him. She drew comfort from his strong arms and the hard, steady beat of his heart. She had the sense to realize that any woman would be deliriously happy to be exactly where she was now, in the caring and protective embrace of Lucas Fletcher.

But Miranda wasn’t any woman.

As paramedics moved in to take her, she drifted off, thinking, I really should have stayed home…

Chapter 1

Bernie’s voice entered the hospital room before the rest of him caught up at Miranda’s bedside. Armed with a final edition of Monday’s Boston
Herald-Star
, a big foam cup of Metro Medical Center coffee and a gaudy bouquet of birds of paradise and gladioli, Bernie stood beside Miranda, his ebony face split in a smile that revealed two rows of bright white teeth.

His black eyes glittered beneath his freshly waxed eyebrows. “Did you enjoy the concert?”

A dry laugh caught in Miranda’s throat. “Actually, I would have preferred watching the Red Sox give up twenty runs to Seattle’s rookie pitcher. And why didn’t you bring me coffee?”

Bernie set the
Herald-Star
across Miranda’s knees. “I didn’t want you to spit it all over me when you saw this.”

Miranda picked up the newspaper, looked at the front page, and still didn’t believe what she saw.

There, in living color, occupying the better part of the front page, she was. A
Herald-Star
photographer had captured the moment when Lucas had held her, tucking her body into his after breathing life back into her. His bare back glistened with perspiration. The overhead lights left blue and red patterns on his tanned skin. Miranda couldn’t recall having hooked an arm over his shoulder, but there it was in the photo for the world to see. She couldn’t remember having slipped her other arm around his waist, but that was there, too.

She took a measure of comfort in the fact that her legs didn’t look fat in her black velvet jeans. That comfort was short-lived when she read the one-word headline:
SNATCHED!

“Snatched?” Miranda said, aghast. “Who’s responsible for this?”

“Well, it sort of wrote itself,” Bernie smiled. “Lucas was playing that song when he—”


‘Snatched from the jaws of death by Lucas Fletcher at his Arena concert last night,
Herald-Star
sportswriter Miranda Penney is recovering at Boston’s Metro Medical Center after almost losing her life to the phenomenon known as crowd crush,

” Miranda read aloud from the accompanying article. “I can’t believe you let them do this to me, Bernie. I was getting squished to death last night while you were off somewhere interviewing Karmic Echo fans, and today I see that you let our managing editor slap me across the front page. I report news, I’m not supposed to
be
it!”

A wicked gleam sparkled in Bernie’s eyes. “It gets better.” He lightly blew on his coffee before he took a delicate sip of it.

Miranda read on, her eyes skimming over the highlights of each paragraph. “Kept overnight for observation, yes, that’s true,” she said. “Attended the concert in the company of Bernard Reilly, a
Herald-Star
music reviewer…”

“The chief
Herald-Star
music reviewer,” Bernie corrected with an indignant toss of his snowy aviator scarf.

“Who are you supposed to be today, the Red Baron?”’ Miranda scowled. “Halloween is two weeks away.”

Bernie stuck his nose in the air and patted the back of his closely cropped afro. “This scarf is a gift from my little darling Pierre, the photographer I met this summer when I went to visit my parents on Montserrat. He’s in Milan to shoot the debut show of an exciting new Ethiopian designer. This scarf is an Abu Ngatanze original made of virgin cashmere and—”

“Hold on…” Miranda interrupted, pulling her knees to her chest to bring the paper closer to her face.

‘Fletcher contacted the
Herald-Star
in the hope of initiating further contact with Penney, who has agreed to meet the popular musician. Penney intends to thank Fletcher for saving her life, and she has agreed to allow a
Herald-Star
reporter to document the event.


Miranda read the sentences three times. As her ire grew, she curled the tabloid into a tight baton. “I’ve been in this hospital all night. I haven’t agreed to anything. This is the first I’ve heard of any of it. Those harpies are behind this, aren’t they?” She narrowed her eyes at Bernie, referring to the
Herald-Star
gossip columnists.

“You got it, kid, but save the evil eye for them, not me.” Bernie took off his aviator’s jacket and elegantly draped it over the chair at Miranda’s bedside. “Meg LaParosa pitched the idea to King Rex, and Dee Fahey was there to second it. Lucas Fletcher is a big huge deal, way bigger than Jordan Duquette. Rex sold tons of papers when you were dating Jordan.”

“Meg and Dee printed so much trash about us,” Miranda sulked, her old resentment and anger surfacing.

“Actually, it was more like they printed a lot of things about Jordan and the women he was seeing behind your back.”

“And they’re just dying to do the same thing to me and Lucas Fletcher.” Miranda curled up on her side. She jerked the thin blanket over her head. “I won’t do it. I hope I never see Lucas Fletcher again. I’ll send him a thank you note, or some cookies or something.”

“The man saved your life.” Bernie sat on the edge of the bed. “And you can’t cook. He wants to see you. La and Dee didn’t make that part up. Lucas’s publicist contacted me about it first, since I covered the concert.”

Miranda threw off the blanket and sat up to shout in Bernie’s face. “You told those jackals that Lucas wanted to see me again?”

Bernie gave her a guilty shrug and wisely moved out of her reach. “I was so excited when he called, I just started screaming. I guess word spread around the newsroom.”

Miranda easily pictured the scene. It had happened before. When Tina Turner’s people called to thank him for the great job he’d done reviewing her last concert, Bernie had stood on his desk afterward, singing
“Proud Mary’’
at top volume.

“I don’t want to see him,” Miranda said, knowing that she didn’t sound very convincing.

“You may as well have dinner with the man. I would.”

Miranda chuckled. “Be my guest.”

Bernie gave her a playful swat on the knee. “He’s my type, all right, but I’m positive that I’m not his.”

* * *

“I assumed that this would be a private meeting.” Miranda shot a cold glance at the two women already seated in Rex Wrentham’s luxuriously appointed office early Monday morning.

“Miranda, dear, we’re old friends here, aren’t we?” Rex said, a toothy smile growing between his pale gaunt cheeks as he rose from his desk and crossed the room to greet her.

“No doubt she’s a bit testy from her harrowing experience Saturday night,” offered Meg LaParosa, the dominant half of
Psst!
, Boston’s premier gossip duo.

Miranda felt fine. Well enough, in fact, to snatch the platinum highlights from Meg’s overly frosted blonde hair and smack the smug, knowing grin from Dee Fahey’s chinless face.

“Come, Miranda, have a seat.” Rex eagerly took her elbow. While Meg and Dee occupied the comfortable, Italian-leather wing chairs facing Rex’s massive teak desk, Miranda was escorted across the room to the decorative settee situated near a Chippendale highboy housing Rex’s fine spirits.

The settee’s cushions were so stiff and unyielding, they didn’t give when Miranda set her weight upon them. She had a perfect view of the back of the leather chairs.

“Are you comfortable, Miranda?” Rex asked, starting away as if her answer didn’t matter. Of course, to him, it probably didn’t.

“Actually,” she began, grabbing the tail of his tailored jacket, “my doctors have recommended that I avoid sitting on rigid surfaces for the next few days. My back was injured in the crush, and I’d hate to go on bed rest for who knows how long as a result of sitting uncomfortably.” To emphasize her point, she clutched at her lower back with both hands and mustered a pitiful, “Ouch!”

His bushy white eyebrows drawn together, Rex snapped his fingers at Meg and Dee. “A chair.”

Meg studied her perfectly manicured fingernails. Dee, mumbling under her breath, grudgingly gave up her seat. She grumbled under her breath as she passed Miranda on her way to the settee. Miranda stuck her tongue out.

“We have very exciting things to discuss this morning,” Rex said happily once Miranda had been properly seated.

“Yes, about this meeting with Lucas Fletcher…” Miranda started.

Rex clapped his liver-spotted hands with finality. “Everything’s been settled. Quite frankly, I agreed with Meg when she told me that she saw no point in troubling you with the finer details while you were recovering from your terrible experience. We here at the
Herald-Star
do our very best to show our concern for our employees.”

Miranda’s left eyebrow rose. “I must have been sleeping when you called to show yours.”

Rex cleared his throat. “Well, these things happen,” he said quickly. “Now, Mr. Fletcher will send a car for you here on Friday, and—”

“Here?” Miranda said. “At the
Herald-Star
?”

“Certainly.” Rex’s steely blue eyes began to show his impatience. “You’re an ambassador for the
Herald-Star
in this venture. You attended the concert as Bernard Reilly’s guest and he was at the concert on assignment. None of this would have happened without the
Herald-Star
.”

“You’re damn right about that,” Miranda snapped. “If Bernard hadn’t dragged me to that concert, I wouldn’t have nearly been squished to death at Lucas Fletcher’s feet.”

“You’re only focusing on the negatives here, Miranda,” Meg said, sounding every bit like the bossy older sibling Miranda never had. “We have a chance here to give the public something they don’t ordinarily see. It’s a real-life Cinderella story.”

“Only because you’re trying to turn it into something it isn’t,” Miranda charged, frustration strengthening her reluctance to cooperate. “I was being crushed and he saved me. He did what any normal, caring person would have done. I saw the television footage of the crush. Lucas pulled five other people out of that wild crowd.” She took a deep breath and really launched into attack mode. “Do you know how hard it is for me to be taken seriously as a sports reporter in this town? This is Boston! It’s an old-boy,
all
-boy town. This fairy tale princess crap will undermine my credibility. I take enough heat if I dare to wear a skirt on the job, and I can’t have Lucas Fletcher hanging around my neck. Can’t you find some other sucker to manipulate?”

Rex spent a moment tapping his tented fingertips on his desk. Behind him, a dizzying view of Boston Harbor featured the colorful yachts and boats enjoying a pretty October day on the dark blue water. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but clouds aplenty formed in Rex’s sixty-five-year-old face.

“Quite simply, Miranda, Mr. Fletcher wants you,” Rex said. “I must say that I’m sorely disappointed in your unwillingness to be a team player for the
Herald-Star
. As the sole woman on my sports writing staff, I’ve always taken great pride in your ability to adapt to trying circumstances, both in-house and out in the field. I always thought you were made of tougher stuff than most.”

Miranda’s lips pulled into an icy smile. “Don’t make this personal, Rex.”

“Then let’s keep it professional.” He leaned forward, his palms flat on his desk. “Consider this engagement with Lucas Fletcher an assignment. If you don’t take it, then you won’t be fulfilling your end of your employment contract and I’ll be well within my rights as publisher to demote you, or even terminate you.” His ace in the hole played, Rex sat back in his leather swivel chair.

Miranda seethed. Seven years ago she had become the
Herald-Star
’s first full-time female sportswriter, and was still the only female member of the department. She had fought with managers and athletes in just about every sport, and waged full battles with an all-male editorial board that lived, ate and breathed all things sports…and therefore believed that they knew more than she did.

Ironically, the one person who had been her staunchest supporter was Jed “Hodge” Hodgekins, the head of the sports department. He had treated her the same as any of his other writers, perhaps even better in that he gave her a bit more leeway in pursuing stories. Miranda was a crackerjack writer and reporter, and she knew it. Fortunately, so did Jed. But even his support might not be enough to counter Rex’s threat. No matter how capable she was, or how much Jed admired and valued her, Rex Wrentham had supreme power. As owner and publisher of the
Herald-Star
, he could fire her in a heartbeat and no one could do a thing to stop him.

Meg broke the uncomfortable silence. “Most women would die for a chance to have dinner with Lucas Fletcher.”

“I almost did,” Miranda reminded her.

“It’s just one dinner, Miranda,” Dee piped in from the far corner of the room.

Just one dinner,
Miranda thought.
One dinner that I’m being forced into. One night of my life, which suddenly seems very much out of my control.

“Do I absolutely have to have a
Herald-Star
reporter with me?” Miranda asked.

“Of course.” Rex’s expression brightened, his thin lips vanishing altogether in his satisfied smile. “That’s the whole point of the arrangement. To share your experience with our readers.”

“Could I pick the reporter?” Miranda peeped over her shoulder at Dee.

Rex exchanged a meaningful glance with Meg, who winked at him as if to say, “I can handle Dee.”

“Okay,” Rex agreed. “You choose your reporter.” His knuckles tapped a merry beat on his desk blotter. “We have a deal, then? Dinner with Lucas Fletcher on Friday?”

“Sure,” Miranda said dispassionately. “Dinner. Friday. And I choose my reporter.”

* * *

“Hey, Penney, you’re alive!” called Joe “Sully” Sullivan, the head of the sports copy desk. “I thought you were a gone goose. Told you not to go to that fruity concert.”

“Yes, Sully, I was forewarned.” Miranda walked past his cluttered desk to a wall of cubbyholes and retrieved her mail. She stood at a horseshoe-shaped configuration of desks that comprised the sports editorial department and sorted through her mail.

“Lookin’ good, Penney.” Oren “Krakow” Piekarski, one of the copy editors, sidled up to Miranda. At six-foot-seven and one hundred fifty five pounds, Krakow was built like a stilt. Almost a full foot taller than Miranda, he loomed over her shoulder to nose into her mail. “Any promotional freebies for your ol’ pal, Krakie?”

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