The late September breeze ruffled the expensive scarf around her neck as Kara and Kristen walked along the path of the busy park. Children screamed and ran, chasing each other in raucous games of tag. Joggers sprinted past, music from their portable devices encouraging them to keep up the pace.
"I think they want to shoot the video over there," Kristen said as she pointed to a spot where a bunch of guys were engaged in an animated game of football.
"Do I get the football players, too?" Kara asked, shoving her hands in her jacket pockets. Her lips curled into a flirtatious smirk. "That would be fun."
"I don't think so," Kristen said, grabbing Kara's arm and dragging her closer. "I hope you'll cooperate tomorrow."
"Geez, Kristen, who's side are you one?" Kara asked as she slowly walked down the path. The football players voices grew louder and raucous shouts filled the air.
"I didn't know there were sides," she grumbled. She squeezed Kara's upper arm. "I thought you hired me to help you."
Kara sighed and stopped, watching the men chase each other in their attempts to get their hands on the football. "I did. But you know what the problem is and I don't think it's me."
"Kara," Kristen said as she flipped through the pages on her clipboard she carried everywhere she went. "Look at these numbers. The sales figures of your last album are way down. We really need a new album to skyrocket if you hope to salvage your career."
"What career?" Kara asked as she turned her back on the football game. "I mean, seriously?"
"You're Kara King, teen sensation!" she exclaimed.
"Shh," Kara chastised. "And I'm not a teen sensation. I'm so tired of that moniker. I'm nearly twenty-one for goodness sakes."
"If you'd just consider that new role they proposed…"
"Absolutely not. I'm not doing another teen TV show. I'm already a Barbie doll star manufactured from the stupid television company to entice little girls to watch their shows and boost their ratings."
"If it weren't for them, you wouldn't have a record deal," Kristen reminded.
"And how do you know, huh?" Kara demanded, clouds overcoming her soft features. "Maybe I would have made it on my own. Maybe then I could do my music and not this crap they shove down my throat."
"You sound ungrateful," Kristen pouted.
Kara sighed again. "I'm not. But I just don't want to do the little girl stuff anymore. I'd like to have a real career – sing real songs. I'd like the venues to be able to sell alcohol at my concerts instead of apple juice and kool-aid."
"You don't even drink," Kristen said.
Kara groaned. "I just mean I'd like adults to come see me. I'd like to be taken seriously." She shuffled her feet on the pavement. "I've already talked to a different recording label."
"What?" Kristen said, her eyes bulging. "Kara, why? You're still obligated to Kids' Kable."
"I'm going to get out of it. I don't want to do some stupid college version of The Mandy Show. No one is going to watch it anyway and all the execs will do is force more sticky sweet music down my throat. I'm ready to move on," she shrugged.
Kristen shook her head and focused on something over her shoulder. "What did this label say?"
"They're a little leery, of course, because of my fan base, or, what's left of it," Kara mused. "But, they said they would like to hear what I've come up with. They said they might consider me if I can get out of my contract but they don't want to be in the middle of some huge legal battle. I have an appointment this week."
"Black Records here in Chicago," Kara said. "I'm tired of California, Kristen. I want to come home."
She hugged her clipboard to her chest and puffed a shot of air at her bangs. "What do your parents think?"
"I am an adult," Kara reminded her. Kristen cocked her head and lifted a brow. "Okay, my dad agrees with me – he wants me to be happy. He is a little worried about the contract issues. My mom is a little concerned. She's afraid I'm going to turn into one of those child stars whose career goes flat and starts with the drugs and booze."
"She said that?" Kristen said.
"Yeah and I told her that if I didn't get away from Kids' Kable, I'd turn into that person."
"Oh, geez, Kara," Kristen groaned. "So, if you get out of your contract and Black Records takes you, are you moving back here? Are your parents?"
"Yes, I am. Mom and Dad already intended on moving out here. They're buying a house near Johnny and Lydia. Plus, the other boys are still here," Kara said, thinking of her older brothers. "I think Mom likes the idea of us all being in the same time zone again."
"Hey! Look out!" someone shouted as a brick wall bulldozed into Kara. Strong, muscular arms wrapped around her body, cradling her to a burly chest, as she crashed to the ground. Her breath whooshed out of her mouth as she closed her eyes.
"Are you okay?" a masculine voice asked, close to her ear.
She opened her eyes to find a pair of deep, muddy brown eyes peering at her in concern. She tried to smile but her body was trembling. Her lungs sucked at air, desperate to recover the lost oxygen.
"Yeah, I think," Kara said, her voice hoarse. The man extricated himself from her and stood, offering her a hand. She placed hers in his and he yanked her gently to her feet. She brushed the dirt off her jeans – a little shy to meet the stranger's eyes.
"I'm really sorry, miss. I didn't see you there."
"It's okay, really," Kara assured him, clearing her throat. "I haven't been tackled like that since the last time I played football with my brothers." She lifted her head and nearly gasped.
He was tall and built with dark brown hair wound in loose curls. The curls weren't tight – just curly enough to give him a boyish look. "I knew you looked tough," he said with a wink. Her heart fluttered.
"I guess we wandered in your way, huh?" Kara said nervously.
"Nah, Darren just overthrew the ball," he said. He plucked a leaf from her hair. "I'm Nathan, by the way. Nathan Blake."
"Kara Kingsley," she said, extending her trembling hand. He shook it with a lopsided grin. "This is my friend, Kristen."
"Hi, Kristen," he said, his eyes never leaving Kara's face. "You should let me buy you a drink to make up for running you over."
"Thanks," Kara blushed. "But I don't drink."
He lifted a shoulder. "Coffee? Tea? Hot chocolate?"
She wanted to accept – wanted it more than anything else. But she could actually feel Kristen's disapproval radiating off her body. Still, it'd been so long since Kara had felt normal…
"Are you finished with your game?" Kara asked, stalling for time.
"Nah, not yet. Maybe you'd like to hang around and watch? We're about to wrap up and head to the pub."
Kara snorted as she picked up the football by Kristen's feet. "Watch, nothing. I want to play."
His brown eyes sparkled as he reached for the ball. Kara snatched it out of his reach.
"Kara, we have a meeting," Kristen warned.
Kara glanced at her over her shoulder. "You can handle it. You know I don't actually need to be there."
Kristen smiled at Nathan and wrapped her fingers around Kara's arm. She dragged her a couple feet away. "Excuse us, please." He nodded. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going to play football then get some hot chocolate," Kara said.
"You don't even know these guys."
"I'm not going home with them," Kara said, her eyes narrowing.
"What about Toby, huh?"
"What about him?" Kara asked incredulously. "I'm not seeing him anymore."
"Tell him that," she said.
"I did." Kara heaved a huge sigh. "Look, go talk to the suits and I'll meet you at the hotel later. I have my phone and enough cash for a cab so don't worry. I won't go anywhere with these guys except to the pub."
"I don't like this, Kara," she warned.
"Well, I do." Kara tossed the football in the air and caught it. "I'll see you later." She spun on her heel to join Nathan and found another guy standing next to him. "Sorry. My friend is a little…"
"Overprotective?" Nathan asked with amusement in his beautiful eyes.
"Something like that," she mumbled. "And you are?"
"Darren Hutchins," the other guy said. He was just as tall as Nathan with blonde hair and hazel eyes. His grin was reckless and he had a fun air about him. "Nate said you're going to join our game. I gotta say," he said as his eyes swept over her body, "that I wouldn't mind being tackled by you."
Kara threw the ball at his face and his instinctive hands immediately caught it. "Nice arm," he said appreciatively.
"Thanks. My brothers taught me how to throw a spiral."
"Let's go," Nathan said, taking Kara's arm. "The guys are waiting."
"Brothers, huh?" Darren asked. "Big brothers?"
"Huge," Kara smiled. "And so protective of their baby sister."
"Could I take them?"
"Dude, you're a cop," Nathan said. "If you can't beat them, you can arrest them."
She stopped, frozen in her spot. "You're a cop?"
"Yes, he is," Nathan said, his lopsided smile reappearing. "We all are."
"Why? Are you a fugitive?" Darren asked, raising a speculative brow.
"No, but if all of you are cops and you're out here playing football, who's protecting the city?"
Darren guffawed and took her other arm, dragging her toward the waiting men. "I love this girl! She's hilarious!"
They introduced Kara to the others and she nodded, trying to remember the names. Nathan declared that she was joining his team. He informed her – and reminded the others - that they were actually playing touch football and he warned the others to watch where they touched her. She was, well, touched.
She was suddenly reminiscent of Thanksgiving Days in the past when she'd play football in her backyard with her brothers and cousins - back in the days before The Mandy Show changed her life. Back when life was simple and normal and she'd lived with her parents just outside of Chicago city limits.
Nathan appointed her quarterback after she proved she could throw the ball and the other team accused him of bringing in a ringer. She couldn't keep track of the score as it seemed to change constantly but after about an hour, Nathan declared that they won and the gang broke up.
"So, how about that drink?" he asked as he gathered his gear. "Me and Darren were just going to walk over to the pub and have a beer."
"Okay," she said, a tingle of excitement vibrating off her spine. "But, I guess I better tell you that I'm not old enough to drink."
Darren glared at her warily. "How old are you, anyway?"
She rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue. "Relax. I'm legal. I'm twenty, quickly approaching twenty-one."
"You're old enough for the pub," Nathan said as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. He hefted his bag and directed her toward the sidewalk. "We'll buy you a kiddie cocktail."
"Gee, thanks," she muttered.
They settled at a little table and ordered – Kara just a hot chocolate. Her body had not adjusted to the chilly Chicago fall weather yet.
"So, Kara," Nathan asked as he sipped his beer. "Do you live around here?"
"Actually, I live in California right now, but I'm relocating to this area very soon. I'm trying to find a place while I'm in town."
"Great," he beamed. "What do you do for a living? College student?"
"No," she said slowly. She released a nervous giggle. "I'm actually in the music industry."
"Hey, are you going to work for Black Records?" Darren asked.
"Um, well, I'm interviewing with them this week," she said.
"Are you here for that video shoot that's going on in the park tomorrow?" Nathan asked, his eyes scrutinizing her face.
"Yeah, actually, I…um…am."
He nodded and finished his beer. He signaled for another. "Darren and I are doing security."
"Oh," she said, nibbling my lip. "I'll probably see you then, huh?"
"Probably," he said quietly. He paid for the second round of drinks and took a long swallow.
"So, where are these big brothers of yours?" Darren asked.
She laughed as her face brightened. Her brothers were one of her favorite topics. "Johnny is married and he lives in the suburbs. He's a mortgage broker and expecting his first child soon. Joey lives in this area – he's a mechanic. He owns his own garage. And Jeremy is still in college. He's studying to be a lawyer."
"What's with all the Js?" Darren asked. "And how come you're not one?"
"My dad got tired of it and decided that I would be Kara," she smiled.
Darren's phone rang and he smiled as he talked softly. He hung up and stood. "That was the little woman. I have to get going. Nice meeting you, Kara."
"You, too," she said.
He bumped fists with Nathan. "See you tomorrow, Nate Dog."
"Yep," he said.
Once Darren left, Nathan concentrated on Kara. "Are you hungry? The food is good here."
"Sure," Kara said. "But you don't have to buy me dinner."
He laughed, his eyes so mesmerizing. "I want to. You led my team to victory."
She laughed with him as he motioned for the waitress. Conversation turned light as they waited for their food. When it finally came, she decided to grill him.
"How long have you been a police officer?" she asked.
"I joined the Academy when I turned eighteen and graduated high school. I've been with the force since then – about six years. Darren and I met at the Academy and just last year we were partnered. We're both going to take the detective test soon, though. I mean, it's cool patrolling the streets but we want to get into Narcotics."
She gasped, fear striking her heart. She barely knew this man but she couldn't imagine him going after drug dealers. She couldn't stand the thought of him getting hurt. "That's dangerous, isn't it?"
He shrugged. "I hate how bad the drug trade is. Little kids OD – good kids get hooked and turn bad. I want to help stop it."
She nodded, though it still scared her. She hoped selfishly that he wouldn't pass this test.
They finished their meal and he paid the check, over her objections, and gathered his things. "Let me drive you home."
"Um, you don't have to. I can grab a cab," she said.
"Nah, I'd feel better if I see you safely home," he insisted. He took her hand and led her to a dark car parked near the park entrance. "What do you say?"
"Well, okay, but I'm staying in a hotel downtown."
He smiled and opened the door. "Hop in."
He asked her about her parents as they drove and told her about his older sister and two little nieces. By the time he stopped in front of her hotel, she knew she wanted to see him again. But she'd have to be honest. She hated liars.
"So, Kara," he said as he turned to her. "How long are you in town?"
"A week, at least," she said.
"Maybe I can see you again?"
"I'd like that," she whispered. She gave him her cell number and he handed her a card with all his numbers on it. She tucked it carefully in her pocket. "There's something I have to tell you."
"Oh?" His brow lifted.
"Yeah. I…um…didn't tell you everything, you know, about my job," she began.
"What didn't you tell me?" he asked, a touch of amusement in his voice.
"Well, you know that video shoot tomorrow?" She waited for his nod. "Well, it's, um. Mine. It's for me. I'm Kara King."
"Ah, you're the one my nieces used to ramble about," he said as he leaned closer. He crooked his finger at her and she moved toward him, her heart thumping wildly in her chest. "I have a confession to make. I already figured that out."
"You did?" she asked.
He laughed. "Yeah. What kind of detective do you think I'd make if I hadn't?"
"I don't know," she stammered. Her heart beat harder and she was certain he had to hear it.
He cupped her cheek and eased her face closer. "Yeah. I was waiting for you to tell me. I thought if you didn't tell me I'd be really disappointed."
"But, since I did?" she whispered.
"Then I thought I'd do this." And he brushed his lips softly over hers. It was just a sweet, short kiss, but it held plenty of promise.
"I'm glad I told you," she murmured.
"Me, too," he said. He pecked her cheek. "Maybe we could get together after this shindig tomorrow?"
He chuckled. "I'll call you when my shift is over. You better get inside."
"Thank you, for everything," she said as she hopped out of the car. She raced inside and to her suite. Kristen lounged on the sofa, reading through a large stack of documents. Her eyes brightened and surprise flashed across her face.
Kara plopped down next to her, goofy grin covering her dreamy face. Her hands clutched at her heart. "I think I'm in love!"