Love Around the Corner, Book 3
“Don’t do it, dilrod,” Melanie Sheraton growled under her breath, concentrating on the red SUV weaving erratically in and out of the lane ahead of her. The driver seemed impatient with the ten mile per hour pace set by the International Harvester tractor pulling two grain wagons. They also didn’t like Michigan all that much, judging by the vulgar decal on the rear window.
Mel risked a glance at her passengers in the back seat. The older one who’d impressed her immediately, Graham Tipton, blinked at the scenery slowly going by, but the younger one, Wheeler Lock, appeared to be watching her through his expensive-looking sunglasses. Nervousness tickled down her back, and she returned her attention to the aggressive driver ahead of her who, as she’d feared, was now attempting to pass about forty feet of farm equipment on a narrow road with a double yellow line.
The red vehicle lurched with sudden acceleration, and Mel put on her brakes, ready for an accident. Quick-and-busy up ahead had miscalculated how long it would take to pass that much agricultural machinery; so when another car appeared in the opposite lane, the driver slammed on the brakes and whipped the SUV back into the space behind the wagons Mel had left. The top heavy vehicle nearly tipped into the ditch, as he or she over corrected and slammed on the brakes several times in frustration.
“Headcase,” Mel muttered, allowing herself one little verbal expulsion before she clammed up. Larry had been very clear when he hired her for this chauffer job; no talking with the movie cast and crew in the vehicle. No personal information, no socializing, no screenplays, no movie reviews, no request for autographs, no auditions from the front seat. None of it. Don’t bother the talent.
Mel wanted this job and needed the paycheck, so she was happy to drive the out-of-towners wherever they wanted to go as silently and safely as she could. So far, the two actors in the backseat had been less troublesome than the kids she drove on the school bus every fall.
Their slowed pace might put her passengers behind schedule. She supposed she should apologize even though the cause of the delay was right in front of them, rattling along, clanking, and belching puffs of exhaust.
“Sorry about the slowdown. I bet he’ll turn off soon.”
“Quite all right my dear,” Graham, the British one, assured her. His cultured tones were like a dose of Masterpiece Theatre in west central Ohio. “It’s quite lovely to observe the fields at a slower pace rather than rushing along to the next thing like we usually do. I saw some birds, little brown ones with black tails. I wonder what they’re called? What is it you grow around here? I don’t recognize these crops.”
Mel considered this; talk of agribusiness wasn’t in any way personal. If he asked a question, she should answer. It was only polite, and Larry had also reminded all the drivers to be polite.
“Right now we’re in the middle of soybeans, and up ahead will be sugar beet and corn at the Kirkendall’s farm.”
“The tall one is corn, and the short one is soybean,” Wheeler Lock rumbled, looking as menacing as the characters he usually portrayed. She’d recognized him from a few of his movies where he’d played the tough, silent enforcer, and he’d been true to type as her passenger. He’d shaken her hand briefly when they were introduced and remained quiet up until now. Graham had been more interactive; he’d smiled at her immediately and asked her to point out anything interesting on their drive from the hotel where all the movie folks were staying.
On their journey to the set, nothing interesting had appeared. This didn’t surprise Mel. Nothing interesting happened in Muchichippi County except for the arrival of these movie people and all their equipment out at the Hansen place. It had been the talk of Palmer after the deal had been struck over the winter, and when the trailers and trucks arrived earlier in the month, no one could resist speculating what the Hollywood people would be like. In the twenty minutes she’d had these two in the rental car, they’d seemed to be pretty normal. Of course, driving along at a horse’s pace might wear on them soon. At least neither one had pulled out an iPhone and fiddled with apps.
“Sugar beets are short too,” she advised and could sense Wheeler Lock’s gaze on the back of her neck. Perhaps she’d overstepped; her bad habit of having to be the smartest one in the room had just bounced right out of her mouth like a SuperBall from a candy machine.
“And so is wheat, which we passed earlier,” the intimidating man growled out.
“Sorghum is tall, we’ll be seeing some of that soon enough.” Mel didn’t glance in the rearview mirror at the sure-to-be scowling Mr. Lock. He probably knew some sort of mixed marital arts and was contemplating an exotic way to choke his smart aleck driver as soon as they got out of the moving vehicle. He looked tough enough to do it. That had been her first impression of him; big, tough, and quiet. And extraordinarily handsome, which sent her sense of self-preservation into overdrive. There would be no crushes on Wheeler Lock coming from her. Shut your mouth and keep this job since you turned down other work to do it. The lure of high pay and little effort enticed her to commit the entire month of June to help out Larry, a perfect way to boost her income over the summer off from school.
“The birds are called morning larks.” Mel tried to smile at Graham Tipton when she said this and ignored Mr. Lock entirely.
Graham cleared his throat. “Thank you both for the information. I feel much more appreciative of what I’m seeing. It is lovely, so lush and bountiful. It’s no wonder we’re on location here. Tyler has a good eye.”
Mel considered this. The fields and farms of her county had always seemed very businesslike to her; planted, tended, harvested, no-till and fallow, and covered with snow in the winter. All with the purpose of producing nutrition efficiently and profitably. No matter how practical it was, Mel had to admit the green plants covering every tillable acre of land were attractive in the early summer, healthy and growing while interspersed with neatly kept farmhouses, pole barns, and the occasional hog barn or feedlot operation breaking up the monotony.
With a blast of a car horn ahead, her musings were interrupted as the red SUV again tried to pass, barreling out of their lane to accelerate on an upcoming straight stretch of road. There was another car approaching in the distance. Mel watched with interest to see if the driver was going to make it or end up rolling into a ditch.
The red vehicle shuddered as the driver rushed past the wagons, picked up speed as he cleared the tractor, and then cut in front with another blast of the horn, as if passing the equipment was an incredible triumph. The car approaching braked violently, the occupants swaying in their seats as they avoided a head on collision. Quick-and-busy sped away to terrorize some other drivers, and Mel sighed with relief.
“Very dramatic,” Graham Tipton observed, and she heard Wheeler Lock snort.
“That one didn’t have the sense God gave a goat.” Mel glanced back at them, preferring to make eye contact with the older man rather than see her pale reflection in Lock’s dark sunglasses.
“We appreciate your caution,” Mr. Tipton complimented her with a charming smile. He was about seventy years old and seemed as regal as a fading monarch, even though he wore a worn polo and jeans. Hardly the attire she’d expected from a renowned Shakespearian actor. Dull pewter hair covered his large head, and a prominent nose jutted from under his sparking blue eyes. He was quite charismatic, and Mel had to remind herself not to stare. Her other passenger just glowered, looking surly and mussed, his dark hair still damp from a shower. She was never going to stare at him. He probably expected female attention the way others expected oxygen and gravity.
“Mel. May I call you Mel, or do you prefer something else?” Graham spoke up.
“Mel is fine. Short and to the point.” She hardly wanted to have him call her by her full name, a feminine flight of fancy she rarely used since it never seemed to fit.
“Of course, thank you, and you must call me Graham.”
“Not Keebler?” Wheeler Lock broke in.
“Of course not. Impudent fellow, I know very well I played an elf once, but I’m hardly a cartoon spokesman of crackers.” Graham shut his companion down with a raised eyebrow, and Mel suppressed a smile, sure she didn’t want Wheeler Lock to notice her amusement. The tractor turned off on Mudsock Road, empty wagons bouncing, and Mel exchanged a wave with the operator. He was one of the multitude of blond Carter boys spanning several generations. She never could keep them straight.
“You’re just jealous of my action figure,” Wheeler Lock folded his arms across his chest as if he’d settled the argument. She told herself to stop stealing peeks in the rearview mirror.
“Hardly. When you are immortalized as a Lego mini-figure, we’ll compare.” Graham crossed his arms across his chest in counterpoint and shifted targets and topics. “Mel, I have to ask, since accents are a hobby of mine, and my role in this film is going to be underpinned by my mastery of the Midwestern American accent, why am I detecting something not quite right in yours?”
“It’s right enough.” Mel was dubious. Did she sound too country or too bookish? She’d always worried about those two extremes in her expressions. Three years at a good college had changed her vocabulary, but after she’d returned to her hometown, she tried to temper herself and speak the way others did so as not to antagonize anyone. More than once she’d been judged as hoity-toity for using a five dollar word. Nobody liked a show off.
“I meant no insult,” Graham assured her, and she glanced back at him to gauge his sincerity. “It’s simply that you aren’t quite matching up with what my dialect coach has been instructing.”
Mel nodded. “I suppose I wouldn’t. My mother was from northern Kentucky and my father is from southern Michigan, so it’s no wonder I sound a little off. You have a good ear.”
“Was? I am sorry to hear that,” Graham sympathized, and she nodded acceptance of his condolence and then shrugged to show it wasn’t as awful as it actually was.
“It was years ago. But thank you.”
Graham cleared his throat and continued, while Wheeler Lock sat silent as a toad next to him. Mr. Lock also wore a polo and jeans, but his fit perfectly and looked soft and incredibly high-end.
“Their disparate backgrounds would probably explain the different pronunciations I’ve noticed.”
“I always figured they settled in Ohio because they couldn’t agree on either of their home states. Just like they couldn’t agree on much else.” Mel blinked at her admission. She shouldn’t have said that, too personal.
“For the most part, you do sound very Ohio. Wheeler, did you know that many newscasters are sent to Ohio to hone their craft and learn the local accent? It’s considered regionally neutral for the rest of the United States. I believe that’s part of my problem; it’s so neutral there is nothing to get hold of when I try it on.”
“You’ll nail it, Graham, you always do,” Wheeler reassured him, his deep voice drawling as if he had all the time in the world. Mel checked the speedometer and accelerated two more miles per hour, a safe and cautious fifty-four for these rural highways. She had approximately thirteen minutes to get them to Hansen’s, and judging by their location she could do it, barring another issue with slow moving traffic.
“In any case, I would love to hear more of you, Mel. You have some interesting drawls and vowels. Perhaps my character can be from out of state and has had to suppress his accent to blend in with his neighbors.” Graham eyelids fluttered as he presumably contemplated backstory, and Mel glanced in the rear view to find Mr. Lock glowering at her again. Or not, it was hard to tell with the sunglasses.
* * * *
Christ, it’s flat here, was Thomas ‘Wheeler’ Lock’s first and only thought as he rode in the car next to Graham. The minor drama with the daredevil red SUV had caught his attention, and as the quiet driver started to speak, he found himself paying attention. When she’d picked them up, he’d been surprised by the woman’s height, which was near his own and that she was painfully careful not to talk to them. Her black shirt and khakis were too baggy on her. Loose clothing and silence were both attributes missing from most women his age he encountered. When the driver had expressed some tart opinions, he decided she was more interesting than unending fields of velvety soybeans.
Graham prompted her to talk, and she was being awkward about it, clearly uncomfortable with the attention, but his friend knew how to charm. It was one of the reasons he was a great stage actor; he could find a connection with people crowded in the dark theatre audience and rivet them. One young woman from nowhere trapped in a car with him wasn’t going to be able to resist.
“Perhaps you could tell me a story,” Graham suggested, happy with the prospect of being entertained and listening to her accent at the same time.
“What kind of story?” The driver, Mel, sounded suspicious. Mel, what kind of name was that? He’d expected a bulgy, middle aged man with dark and shiny hair when the PA told him ‘Mel’ was their driver. Instead, he’d been pleasantly shocked to find thick golden hair pulled into a knot and a potentially curvy female body gracing the person standing by the dark sedan that morning at the hotel. She was one of those healthy Midwestern girls that were scarce on either coast; confident but not pushy, built well enough to handle guiding a covered wagon across the plains, and looking as if she knew how to make a casserole.
“Any sort of story. A ghost story, a childhood story, a love story.”
“Ah.” Mel glanced back at them in the mirror and sighed after she caught him watching. It seemed she was not a fan of B list action star, Wheeler Lock. “Okay, here’s one; my grandmother was a feisty lady. Once, when she was a girl, she was mad at her sister and plotted revenge. She captured a tomato hornworm caterpillar. Do you know what those are? No? Well, they’re big, squashy green worms about the size of your thumb and pretty gross to contemplate. So anyway, she captures one and asks her sister to go on a boat ride in the farm pond with her. When they get to the middle, my grandmother throws this big nasty worm on her sister and just laughs as her sister screams and jumps over the side.”
Graham grinned at the image, and Thomas wondered what sort of women were in Mel’s family. No wonder her parents had fought.
“How was that one?”
“It was wonderful, Mel. Tell another.”
“Sorry, we’re almost there. Hansen’s is right up there at that crossroad.” She indicated a farm about five hundred yards away with trailers lining the drive and crew milling around in preparation for the day’s shoot. Thomas took a breath, preparing for work. This was going to be a good shoot. He had pleasant anticipatory feeling. He was prepared, and his character had a lot of range. For once he was going to act and not just beat up stunt people.
“And right on time,” Graham praised her. “Will you tell us another story tonight?”
“If I’m your driver.” A smile curved the small section of Mel’s cheek and lip he could see from the backseat.
“I shall request you to entertain me.”
“Huh, the Buckeye Scheherazade,” Mel grumbled as she slowed and pulled in the farm drive, coasting to a stop when there was nowhere else to go. The usual piles of equipment and clusters of people filled the space in front of the abandoned farmhouse scheduled for several scenes in Tyler’s independent production. Thomas felt the same rush of energy that hit him every time he was on a set. It was the only thing that convinced him to keep up with acting lately. Everything else about the business seemed to be increasingly hard to bear.
After reflexively patting his pocket to locate his kit, Thomas exited the car and left his friend to chat with Mel as he headed for his trailer, parked beside an evil-looking abandoned silo. Before he could get there, one of the production assistants found him, introduced herself, and then informed him his agent had been calling and would he please call her back immediately. It had been such a joy to learn that cell towers were few and far between in this part of Ohio, and he had given himself that as the excuse not to even glance at his phone until he returned to the hotel at night. Of course, Sandy would be able to track him down in the middle of a cornfield. She probably did it while she was having her protein shake and before her Pilates session. Or Zumba. No, not Zumba, that was too jumpy and undignified for Sandy. The poor PA reeked of desperation, so Thomas assured her he would return the call before he retreated to his trailer to wait for Graham to arrive and start his usual visit filled with tea-making, gossip, and speculation about where they might eat that evening. The presence of Graham and the impulse to help his friend Tyler with his first feature were what had compelled him to accept this part. He’d been working nonstop for over ten months, and after this job wrapped he wanted to disappear for a while and recharge his batteries by driving Route 66 or hiding on a tropical island, whatever it took. If he could get away from Sandy, that is.
Thomas’ trailer was bare bones standard; he never requested anything outrageous in his contract, so he never needed to check and make sure some poor assistant had completed every rider in order to massage his ego. Tyler’s production was bare-bones, low budget, and he was hardly going to demand luxuries. Pulling out his phone, he found he had reception, and he retrieved Sandy’s contact info and made the call while stretching out on the sofa, so Graham wouldn’t take it over when he arrived.
“Sandy. It’s Wheeler. Returning your call.”
“Yes, Wheeler, I’m able to read my caller ID. Is everything to your satisfaction?”
“The trailer is weather proof and level. That’s about all I need. Other than a working toilet. I’ll get back to you on that if there is an issue.”
“I’ll be waiting with bated breath. Have you considered my proposal?”
“Yes, the answer remains the same.”
“Let’s not be hasty. It would be perfectly painless and a great boost to your career. It’s done all the time and causes no harm to anyone. We’re getting some buzz already from this role and the new direction of your career, and we can build on that.” Sandy put a cajoling tone in her voice that grated on his nerves almost as much as her proposition.
“You make it sound like I’d be getting an immunization.”
“You’re so humorous, but comedy isn’t the right direction for you. We need you to be seen as the next Benedict Cumberbatch or Chris Evans. What’s the harm in dating someone as lovely and talented as Bree Hollow? She’s hot, young Hollywood at the moment, and there would be photos of you two in every magazine from here to Shanghai.”
“There was nothing in that sentence that appealed to me at all. Except maybe Shanghai. That would be a fun trip for me but not Wheeler.” He was still able to slip away and have some anonymity at this point in his career; to be regular Thomas Lock while the paparazzi and the general public left him alone for the most part. Thomas had seen enough of the publicity-crazed entertainment world to know he wanted to avoid falling into that shark tank. Going along with a fake relationship with Bree Hollow, who had her own reasons for wanting an arranged date or two, would tear apart whatever veil of privacy he’d managed to keep.
“I can get you some great press in Shanghai and commercial work if you like. What about a sex tape?”
“What?” Thomas spluttered, immediately imagining a terrible commercial for potency drugs dubbed in Mandarin.
“Do you have a sex tape we can release? That will get you press.”
I’d have to actually have sex with someone and be incredibly tacky enough to film it to have one of those. “No, I don’t. And I don’t think anyone would want to see such a thing.”
“Don’t be so sure, the camera really loves you.”
“That might be true, Sandy, but I don’t think it would enhance my attributes to the point that I’d want them analyzed on TMZ and critiqued on YouTube.” Not to mention the idea of it was repulsive.
“Now, Thomas, that’s my point exactly. You need to develop some bravado. Tough guy action stars know they have big attributes and they like to swing them around.”
“I’m a character actor, Sandy.” Thomas was sure of this, despite the existence of his action figure from his last movie. His plastic simulacrum was only an accessory to the big ticket item, a spaceship with LED lights and an ejector seat. He’d seen the small figures of himself and some of his co-stars in a clearance bin at the toy store when he’d been shopping for Star Wars Legos for his nephew. He’d been marked down to four dollars and ninety-eight cents. Definitely a character actor.
“No, you’re a star with massive presence and huge potential,” Sandy enthused, and Thomas wondered if they were still alluding to his genitals. Sandy would say whatever she needed to make one of her clients feel better about himself.
“It might be easier if I just trashed a hotel room.”
“No one would notice it if you did out there in Ohio. What would you do, tip a cow in the lobby? Think about Bree, she’ll be there tomorrow. Meet with her and make your decision then.” The call ended, and Sandy was off to her next assignment. Thomas heard a knock on the trailer door. It was Graham, lugging one of the two electric kettles he always had on set with him and a plastic bag containing his favorite tea and biscuits.
“Tyler will be by as soon as he can break away, so I wanted to get the kettle going,” the older man announced as he made his way to the kitchenette to rustle around and rearrange things to his satisfaction. Thomas dropped his phone on the table by the sofa and raised his feet up, sighing out the frustration and trying to regain his equilibrium before he was called to wardrobe and makeup to start the part that everyone was determined would transform his image.
“How is our Sandy? Still circling you like a Great White in search of a juicy haunch of publicity tuna, our young costar a remora in her wake?” Graham grinned at his complicated sentence and shook the kettle to judge how much water he’d added.
“Do tuna have haunches? Don’t you have to have a limb to have a haunch?”
“I believe you do, but since I was served tenderloin of ahi in a depressingly grim and outrageously expensive restaurant in Manhattan, I have felt free to use mammalian terms on fish parts ever since.”
Thomas grinned at Graham, happy he was working with the old man one more time. His sense of humor was as delightfully skewed as Thomas’ own.
“So, young Thomas, still unconvinced on the arranged marriage?”
“Christ, Graham, don’t even mention that word. And no, there is no way I’m whoring myself out to get my picture taken ducking out of a grim and expensive restaurant with a remora in tow.”
“It’s an old and acceptable tradition, Thomas, not at all whoring. And you would be an attractive couple. She’s a nice girl I’m sure.”
“Not going to happen.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, half his brain bouncing into the first scene they were set to film today, half contemplating what sort of carbs the local caterers might offer up at lunch.
“On set romances are very bright and shiny objects for the masses. Sandy and Bree have it pegged.”
“Well then, Graham, why don’t you volunteer to take on the task? That would be more publicity than anyone could manage.” Thomas kept his eyes closed so he could avoid Graham pretending to be solicitous. The diabolical man would love it if Thomas participated in a fake relationship. He’d trot it out in embarrassing ways everywhere he went.
“The entire planet would be revolted.” The hot water started to hiss, and Graham applied himself to making a pot of tea and arranging cups and saucers.
“Well then, unless Tyler cares to take it on, which I doubt he will, Bree will remain single and unadorned.”
“Perhaps she or her agent will locate a freshly scrubbed farm boy under a turnip leaf and have a lovely princess and pauper story to play up. There are some attractive folk walking around the area. Like our driver, Mel. She’s quite riveting.”
“You just like her because she told you a good story.”
“In the end, isn’t that one of the more important abilities? That’s our business after all; storytelling. Keeping the brain active is something that never grows old. That and kindness. I find those two attributes to be most attractive in a woman.” Graham gave the ceiling a pensive look from under his shaggy eyebrows. Thomas sighed, sure he was thinking about Tabitha. “Even though my sight is fading, I did notice that she has quite a figure under those concealing clothes.”
“Well, I didn’t see a wedding ring, so I think you’re clear, Graham. She could be your farm girl pulled out from under a turnip leaf.” Thomas tried to sound uninterested. Maybe Graham would arrange for her to be their usual driver and he could get a better view later. At this point, he could testify she had a nicely shaped neck and a lovely earlobe. Those had been the only parts he’d been able to study at length.
The older man gave him a sharp glance from his blue eyes. “Observing her hand, were you?”
Thomas sighed and decided not to make another comment Graham could pounce on. Their driver seemed like a decent enough person and a competent vehicular operator, so he was hardly going to start gossiping about her with Graham and the soon-to-arrive Tyler. If Graham had made a claim on Mel for the rest of the shoot, she would be in proximity every morning and evening, and he needed to maintain a professional distance. Graham could do the friendly and charming act, and that would leave Thomas to appear broody and run his lines in peace.