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Chapter One


“He’s here!  He’s here!”

Excitement buzzed through the predominantly female crowd, causing women she had previously thought to be relatively level headed to nearly swoon at the pronouncement that the object of their obsession was just about to appear before them.  Cailey Stewart cringed as she watched the wave of hysteria wash over them – wrinkly, age spotted as well as perfectly formed and tanned arms alike began to flutter their CDs and magazines above their heads, ripe for his autograph.  An unusual bit of nastiness flitted through her mind as she thought that, for a large portion of those females, that was probably more exercise than they’d gotten in several decades, but then she quickly found herself entirely unprepared for the crush of humanity that followed and she was carried, against her will, towards the front door where the object of their affection would be appearing momentarily.

She’d never experienced any iota of claustrophobia in her life until then, when she was alarmed to note that she had little control over her own body, swimming, as she was, valiantly, against the tide of fervent, squealing femininity.  Of course, she’d never been to a rock concert – or any other kind of concert, either.

Even with her back to the door, she could tell the second he appeared in the flesh because the temperature of the bodies around her rose at least ten degrees as they crushed even further forwards, nearly crushing her into a faint.  But she remained on her feet, if only through sheer stubbornness.  Not only did she not want to die this way, but almost more importantly she did not want anyone mistaking the reason she lost consciousness, and in this crowd, she knew that they would all assume she had been overcome with love and lust at the sight of him.

Not likely.

She wasn’t in the habit of breaking promises to her friends, but Grace was just going to have to understand.  Now, if it had been Steven Tyler or Freddie Mercury – however impossible, especially for the latter - she might have at least evinced a bit more interest, although she knew that, even for those two, she would never be caught dead in a crowd like this.

Forcing herself to draw a deep breath, and cursing the politeness her mother had drilled into her, not to mention the diminutive height she’d inherited directly from her maternal ancestors that had put her into this dangerous situation – as well as the man who was fostering all this hysteria from every woman in the room sans her, it seemed - Cailey did her best not to panic, and simply concentrated on trying to extricate herself from the crushing clutches of the fevered masses.  As far as she was concerned, her mother was just going to have to excuse her multiple trespasses against others, and it was no holds barred as she practically had to climb across that sea of femininity, standing atop an instep here, and using a handy shoulder there, in order to find her way out of the terrifying estrogen maze in which she found herself trapped.

When she finally managed to break through the last outer ring of females – who were the larger, less athletic ones – which only made her last push just that much harder – she didn’t even stop to catch her breath.  Her one and only thought was that she had to get the hell out of that house - Decker Steele be damned – whoever the heck he was, she thought, with an unladylike snort.

 

 

No matter how long he was on top, Deck knew he would never get used to the thronging masses – who were usually predominantly female - who seemed to hang on his every movement.  It was a wonderful ego trip – in which he did his best not to indulge himself, and, luckily, his loving family, with whom he had very carefully surrounded himself from the beginning, was only too happy to tug him crashing back down to earth whenever he got any too uppity, as far as they were concerned.

His sister, Gracie, had decided to throw him a birthday party, and he knew she really hadn’t intended it to turn out like this, but it seemed any time he got around a group of female fans the situation quickly descended into a kind of pandemonium that even he couldn’t really control, despite what seemed like their mindless devotion to him.

At first, he did his best to sign and kiss and hug everyone who wanted it, but then he found his eye caught by what was for him a very unusual sight:  someone’s backside – and a very nice one, indeed, his body noted in silent salute - as she was fighting her way through the crowd - away from him.  She looked as if the devil himself was chasing her, almost panicking at several points until he could actually watch her collect herself and make more successful attempts at working her way out of the crush of humanity that he seemed to inspire more often than not.

Deck tried to help her, asking in his command voice for everyone to make way for whoever it was that was trying her best to leave him in her dust – although he hadn’t phrased it that way at the time – but there was just too much noise and commotion for anyone to hear him.

Every time she faltered, he found his heart lodged in his throat, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to get to her in time to help her if she truly went down in this crowd.  But she pulled herself up every time and went on until she finally found her way out.

He was amazed – and not a little horrified - at himself when he realized that he had fully expected her to turn back and try to make eye contact with him once she’d extricated herself, a crushed look on her face – and maybe even a tear or two - at the thought that she probably wasn’t going to get his autograph or a hug.  But instead she didn’t give him a backwards glance as she headed for what he knew was Grace’s back door in a manner that suggested that her only goal was to put as much distance between them as possible.

“Could you sign it ‘To my good friend Allie, Love Deck’?” Yet another CD was pressed into his hand, as well as a pen, and he dutifully did as asked, but not before he made a mental note to ask Gracie about whom the hell that was.  It had been a very long time since his body had registered anything near this kind of interest in any woman, much less one who was trying her best to get away from him. He’d been too busy fighting his way to the top of the recording industry to spend much time pursuing the opposite sex, although there had been a very few instances where he’d dated a couple of women, but those were more for publicity than any real interest – on either of their parts.

He found himself wishing that the CDs everyone was waving at him were album covers instead – at leas then he might be able to use something to cover the raging hard on that watching the escapee had given him.  As it was, he did his best to turn his mind away from her – as she’d turned away from him – and settle into the role he knew all of these women expected him to play – that of Decker Steele, the war hero, country-slash-pop star with old fashioned ideals and the intelligence and manners – or the fists, as the situation dictated - to back them up.

Decker Steele was considered something of an anachronism, even in the flag waving, country loving, conservatism that pervaded country music.  He was an honest to God war hero, for one thing, with more than a fistful of medals to prove it, having done three tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan before retiring at the ripe old age of thirty eight to pursuit a career in music in Nashville.  When he visited the troops, which he did with more regularity than any other performer besides Bob Hope, they knew that he knew exactly what they were going through. The military was probably his other largest contingent of fans besides women, and they showed him their love by boosting his record sales in the States as well as markets all over the world.  No commander ever had to make attendance at one of his concerts mandatory, because he or she knew that it was going to be much more of a problem keeping the ones working who couldn’t attend, instead.

When the crowd inevitably surged to their feet at the beginning of the traditional rousing first song of his set – which included clips of unabashedly patriotic songs like the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” – and he landed, in uniform, center stage – often from a parachute jump – to stand at attention to salute his audience, it was a real damned salute, not some limp wristed, actor wannabe approximation.

He had been seen with a relatively small assortment – considering how popular he was - of attractive ladies, which drove his female fans crazy, but had never really been romantically linked to any of them, despite how hard the press tried to concoct stories to that effect.  There was a “starter marriage” in his background that only lasted a little more than a year, but he never spoke of it, and – to her credit – neither had the young lady who was involved.

Despite the fact that he didn’t seem to be sleeping with anyone in particular – privately or publicly – there was never any question as to his sexual orientation.  He just knew he didn’t have the time to indulge himself the way he wanted to with a woman – nor had he found one that he was willing to give up time in the studio – or on tour – for.  He wasn’t celibate, but rather was extremely choosy and even more discrete, which was a trait he required of his occasional companions – that and the willingness to sign a non-disclosure agreement that clearly stated that if he discovered that she had said one word to the press about their relationship, it was over, and she could be subject to a civil suit, if he chose.

Luckily, that situation hadn’t come up, but one had to be extremely careful when everything one did was subject to public scrutiny – and even more so when one had predilections that would cause a firestorm of highly negative publicity if they were ever exposed to the limelight.

Tini Alvarez – a well known up and coming actress – was only woman he’d dated who had even mention that they’d gone out.  And that had been a mistake.  It was such a rarity to find anyone that Decker Steele had been romantically involved with that reporters had taken to stalking her, to the point where Deck had voluntarily offered to arrange a joint press conference so that they could present the facts while maintaining a certain amount of control over the situation, and hopefully make her life more livable in the process.  And that was where his reputation with women was really solidified. 

Tini had nothing but great things to say about him, and, although he knew no one would believe it so he didn’t bother to say it, but he had not coached her in the least beforehand.  It was his protective stance towards her – both in setting up the meeting as well as his obvious care to physically protect her as they faced the press together, holding her hand throughout - and always referring to her with the utmost respect and affection even though they were no longer together - that made his bones with his feminine fans, even more so than he already had with the occasional, achingly tender, song.  It was as if he’d put his words into deeds right in front of their eyes, even to the point of putting his own body in front of Tini’s as they exited through the crowd and he bundled her carefully into her limo.

Despite his reluctance to discuss his rare romantic encounters, he had to admit that, after that press conference, his already astronomical sales skyrocketed even more.  His agent, Robert Kelly, took to ribbing him about it, asking him if there were any other old girlfriends they could drag out of his closet whenever a single or album wasn’t selling quite as quickly as he wanted it to.

He was a throwback to a bygone era in other ways, also.  No alcohol had ever passed his lips.  He didn’t like it, and he let it be known early on that he wouldn’t tolerate those around him who drank to excess, regardless of their prowess in any other area.  The same went for recreational drug use.  Deck had rarely had a sick day in his life – had, indeed, barely taken more than a handful of aspirin since he was born - and he wasn’t going to look the other way when others around him indulged.  It just wasn’t in his nature to be able to do that.

In fact, he had been instrumental in helping several close friends – who had succumbed to alcohol and/or drug addiction – get real help.  He donated generously to many different treatment centers, and fully paid for those friends – whose lives were in such a state that they were completely unable to do so on their own – to attend the facility of their choice, for as many times as it took to get them clean and sober.

And although he wasn’t a part of any organized church, he instead tithed ten percent of his considerable income to the charities of his choice, all of which he did with the only stipulation that he maintain complete anonymity.  Deck was firmly of a mind that charitable donations should never be made with an eye to publicity, much to Robert’s consternation, considering what a huge chunk of money that ten percent ended up being by the end of a year.

Not that he hadn’t had his share of run-ins with . . . enthusiastic . . . fans.  He had.  They’d managed to get on his bus and into his bed while he was touring – especially when he first began to make it big and his security wasn’t what it ought to have been.  They’d secreted themselves in bathroom linen closets and room service carts in hotels, and one brave girl had even tried to make it onto his private jet, but by that time he had good enough security that she barely made it out onto the tarmac.

And if they weren’t after him physically, which was the largest portion of them, then they were frustrated songwriters or singers who wanted him to give them a leg up in the business.  He had no problems sponsoring new talent and was dedicated to giving young artists as many breaks as he could, but not when they put themselves in physical danger to do so.  He couldn’t see his way to rewarding such behavior.  It went completely against his grain.

Just when he thought he was going to be signing autographs all night, Gracie appeared – somehow – at his elbow to lead him through the crowd, who all looked terribly disappointed that they weren’t going to be next in line.  For some strange reason, his mind flashed on the woman who had done her level best – at considerable risk to life and limb, fighting upstream all the way – to get away from him.  Just the thought of her flitting through his mind, even when he really hadn’t even gotten a proper look at her, for crying out loud, had the erection he had finally managed to tamp down stiffening again; the unwanted bulge threatening to bust through the zipper of his black jeans.

He’d never reacted to any female like that in his life, and he didn’t like doing it now, for sure. 

As Gracie led him to her big, well lit backyard, he half growled under his breath to her, “Who was the woman who left early?”

She looked appalled at the thought, and he wondered if he was the only one who had seen her.  “Who left early?” she repeated back to him.

Deck sighed and patted her on the head like he used to when she was just his kid sister.  “That’s what I’m asking you!”

Gracie frowned and thought a moment, then looked around and sighed.  She knew there had been someone missing from this celebration.  “Dammit.  I knew she wouldn’t keep her promise.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

But they were in front of a big box, and he knew he was going to have to wait to get the answer to his question.  It had better be his cake, baked by her own two little hands.  It damned well better hadn’t be a present, he thought, his frown deepening.  He didn’t need or want anything, and he certainly didn’t want her spending her money on him, regardless.

It was nearly four hours later before he managed to catch up with her again.  His right hand was cramped from signing magazines, posters, and the occasional breast, but he didn’t let that stop him from reaching out and grabbing her arm just as she was about to deliver a tray of delectable looking hors d’ouvres outside to feed the hungry masses.

“What’s with you?” she asked, wrestling her arm from his hold, knowing full well that she was only able to do so because he graciously allowed her to.  He’d been her big brother for entirely too long for her to have any illusions about pitting her strength against his.

“I want an answer to my question.”

“What question?” 

It was obvious that Gracie had completely forgotten about their earlier conversation.  Deck sighed.  “I asked you about who it was that I saw ducking out of here just as I arrived, and you said something like you knew she wouldn’t keep her promise to you.  Who is she?”

“That’s Cailey Stewart.  You’ve heard me talk about her before.”

The name did sound somewhat familiar.

Gracie wasn’t that patient with him.  “She’s the one who works with rescue animals.  I got Lenny and Squiggy from her, and we’ve become good friends.”

Lenny and Squiggy were Grace’s two cats.  “Oh.  I remember you talking about the person you got them from.”

“Well, that’s her.”

“That was an awfully long time ago.  Why haven’t I met her yet?”

Grace put the tray of tiny treats down on the kitchen counter while Deck handled a near apoplectic fan who was thrilled – very nearly to death – to have found him pretty much alone in the kitchen.  The fact that his sister was less than ten feet away was not cause for acknowledgement, as far as most of them were concerned.  Luckily, Grace was used to it.

When Deck finally managed to send the girl on her way, happily clutching a copy of one of the People magazines on which he had graced the cover, she said, “That’s why.”

“What’s why?”

“Why you haven’t met Cailey yet.  She’s definitely not a fan.  In fact, I’m beginning to think she’s downright allergic to you, or something.”

A grimace settled over his face, although he wasn’t quite sure really whether the fact that she wasn’t going to fawn over him was a good thing or not in this situation.  It was a novelty he hadn’t experienced in quite a while – someone who didn’t know or care anything about who he was - and maybe that was the reason for the instant attraction he felt towards her.

He’d always had good luck with the ladies, though, even before he’d become famous.  His more than pleasant features broad, tall build and old world manners saw to that, and it had seemed – and been mentioned in several media outlets of note – that he had even managed to get better looking as he got older – not that he paid any kind of attention to that kind of thing.  But Robert and his publicist – who was a woman – certainly did.

Unlike the current trend, he kept his midnight black hair cropped very close, so much so that he was pretty much always in line with military grooming standards.  He used to have a year round tan, courtesy of the U.S. military, but now the color of his skin was determined by just how much vacation time he took, which was next to nil, except when he had to tan for the job, which was one of the few things he objected to about this occupation, but did anyway.

“Not a fan as in doesn’t know much about me or actively hates my guts?”  He couldn’t for the life of him think of anything he might have done to inspire such vitriol, but the internet was full of people who seemed to wish that he would die a slow, horrible death, so he had to ask.

“Not a fan as in doesn’t know much about you and doesn’t want to know much about you.”  She began moving methodically around the kitchen, cleaning up the inevitable messages that appeared during parties like this, and pathologically unable to leave them be until later.  “We’ve been friends for – well, as long as I’ve had the cats, which is almost six years now – and she’s had multiple opportunities to meet you, all of which have been politely but firmly declined.  I mean, I don’t broadcast who I am, but it’s kind of inevitable that she would know, and she has never ever asked me for anything special from you or even asked much about you, unlike ninety five percent of my female friends.  If I end up talking to her about you, it’s because I introduced you as a topic.”

“Huh.”

“I don’t think she has anything against you in particular.  But I don’t think that she’s a fan of country music.”

“Oh yeah?  What does she like for music?” 

“I don’t think I know.  It’s never really come up.”  Gracie sauntered up to him while he stood there, looking lost in thought.  “What’s your interest in her, anyway?” she asked him, giving him a skeptical, one eyed look.

Deck crossed his arms over his chest and returned her look in spades, saying, “That wouldn’t be any of your business, now would it, Gracelyn Maureen Everett?”  Time was when a look like that from him would strike fear into her heart, but those times had apparently long gone.

Instead, he found himself smacked sharply on the arm for his efforts.  “Of course it would! I like her, and I don’t want her getting hurt.”

“And I’m likely to hurt her, you’re saying?”  How he managed to look even bigger than he really was, she’d never know, but he often did with her.  Especially if he thought she was doing something he wouldn’t approve of.  She’d found out often enough when she was younger that it did not pay to cross her brother, and she had a feeling that, even now, when she was grown and married, that he wouldn’t hesitate to lay down the law on her rear end if he thought that her husband, who was Robert, his manager, wasn’t already doing so on an alarmingly frequent basis.

She’d already turned back to her mess, but then twisted around and glared at him.  “No, I’m not.  It’s your chosen profession that I’m worried will chew her up and spit her out.  You know I can’t stand what some people already say about you online, and I couldn’t bear it if they were let loose on her, too.  She’s too . . . I don’t know.  Innocent.  Not very worldly.  And I don’t want her hurt – by you or anyone else.”

There were tears in her eyes, and that always did it for Decker.  He couldn’t bear to see his little sister unhappy.  He reached out and tugged her into his arms, holding her tight against him and swaying them both back and forth just a bit.  “You’ve been reading the boards you’re not supposed to, again, haven’t you?” he asked gently as he rubbed his big hand over her back.

“I have not!” she murmured vehemently against his shoulder.  “At least, not in a while, anyway.  Robert won’t let me.”

“But you’re not supposed to be reading them at all, are you?”

She pulled away from him, out of his arms entirely. “Stop helping me!  I get into enough trouble on my own, thank you -”

Of course, Robert chose exactly that moment to saunter into the kitchen.  “Yes, you do, don’t you?” he asked, kissing the breath out of her before she could defend herself – against him or her brother.  “And what exactly are you doing now that you’re not supposed to?”

Deck merely raised one eyebrow at his sister.  “Either you tell him or I will, sis.”

Gracie sighed heavily, sticking her tongue out at her brother and meaning it, more than she usually did.  “Nothing too bad, Robert, really.”

“That doesn’t answer my question, Grace,” he reprimanded gently, and Deck took that as his cue to leave, but not before he heard his sister trying to squirm out of what Deck knew – because he knew how much he and Robert were alike – was going to be a lasting comeuppance, delivered squarely to the seat of the shorts she was wearing.

“I just looked at some websites, is all,” she squealed as he heard a big palm descend on that relatively defenseless rump, just once, since this was neither the time nor the place.

Made him wish at the time that the little escape artist had decided to stick around, although Deck had known even then that he was going to have to pursue her, whether she wanted him to or not.

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