The Reluctant Wag
Author:Mary Costello

The Reluctant Wag - By Mary Costello

Chapter 1

Merise Merrick was serving a skinny flat white at an inner Melbourne fast food restaurant when her life changed utterly.

‘Have you ever done any modelling?’ asked the smart-looking middle-aged woman who had ordered the coffee.

Merise was taken aback. ‘Modelling? Ah . . . no, I’m a student. I don’t have much time for anything else. I’m doing journalism. Modelling isn’t really my thing.’

‘Pity,’ said the woman looking hard at her, ‘because you have a very distinctive look – very classy, very fresh, Grace Kelly updated I’d say.’

Merise laughed as she wiped the counter, and her small, fine-boned face came suddenly alive. The woman took in her huge, blue-green eyes; finely drawn brows; warm, peach-toned complexion, high cheekbones and wide, beautiful mouth. Somehow the girl brightened the ordinariness of the restaurant with its standard grey countertops and plastic seats.

‘Listen,’ the woman said firmly, ‘you think about it. I love your face and I know what I’m talking about. I run Melbourne Models; actually, I am Melbourne Models – Bev Beaumont.’ She handed Merise a business card. ‘My contact details.’

Merise took the card and looked at Bev Beaumont. Perhaps she’d been a model herself, years ago. She wore a fine, woollen suit in a bold red, and her bobbed dark hair perfectly complemented her mature beauty.

‘Please get in touch. I have plenty of work to offer and it pays well. In fact, I’ve got a brand-new project and I think you’d be just perfect for it.’

‘I don’t think so,’ Merise said politely. Not enough chips and chocolate for starters, she added mentally.

The Beaumont woman winked, took her coffee and left the restaurant in a clip-clop of six-inch heels. Merise stood watching her for a moment, then absent-mindedly pocketed the card and thought no more of the brief encounter – until she opened her post that evening.

There were more bills to add to the growing pile, and she was saving to pay the uni fees for the third year of her course. But the last straw was the notice that the rent on her tiny unit was about to rise by seventy-five dollars a week! Where was the money going to come from? She couldn’t work any more hours. During term time she already struggled to juggle twenty hours at the restaurant with her full-time course. And there was no way she was going to give up her course. She loved her studies. She appreciated the privilege of being able to spend her time doing the things she loved most – reading and writing. And once she’d qualified, someone would pay her to write for a living. Hold that thought, Merise, she told herself.

Besides, she couldn’t drop out of uni – her parents had worked so hard to pay for her private schooling, even during the worst years of drought when their farm was in serious strife. She owed them, and the best way to repay them was by getting her degree. And she dreaded ending up like them – powerless, always anxious about money, forever in debt to the bank as the crops failed year after year. She shuddered at the memory of the worst times, before the drought finally broke. It would take years for her parents to get back on track financially and she planned to help as much as she could.

That night, as she lay in bed worrying, she thought of Bev Beaumont’s offer. It wasn’t the first time someone had suggested she try modelling. As a career it held absolutely no interest for her. She loved writing, and she was determined to make a career in journalism. Modelling seemed a waste of time when she still had so much to learn; yet she needed the money – desperately.

She thought about the offer for two more days, but it wasn’t until her laptop finally broke down and was diagnosed as beyond repair that she dug out that business card. She couldn’t do without her laptop – no way – so, reluctantly, she rang Bev Beaumont.

‘I’m delighted you’ve called,’ said Bev, ‘and your timing is spot-on. That new project I mentioned – I have a meeting tomorrow about it, and I’d like you to come with me.’

‘Tomorrow? Seriously? But . . . it’s too soon. I wouldn’t know what to say or do. I’ve never done anything remotely like this.’

‘That’s precisely why you’d be ideal for it. They want a new face – young, fresh, healthy – and that’s you, Merise.’

‘Is it?’ Merise wasn’t at all sure. Could she really conjure up a dazzling smile at will? But then, what choice did she have? She’d just have to blunder through as best she could. ‘Okay. Where’s the meeting?’

‘At the Yarraside Football Club – the Wolves. We’ll be working on their season-launch campaign.’

Merise’s heart sank. She knew nothing about sport, and she hated football.

‘The club appointed Sports Media Oz – SMO – to design the campaign and they’ve come up with the theme of “New Season, New Captain, New Resolve”. They want to focus on the experience of a new footy fan. It’s all about new beginnings – new season, new captain, new fan. Okay?’

Merise hesitated. ‘But what exactly do I have to do?’

‘Just be the new face of Yarraside’s supporters. The campaign is going to centre on their marquee player.’

‘Why a “marquee” player? What does that mean, exactly?’

‘Haven’t the foggiest, dear; except that he’s really good and everyone adores him and they pay him an absolute fortune.’

‘Oh, so who is it?’

‘Cal McCoy.’

Merise thought for a moment. That sounded vaguely familiar. ‘I think I’ve heard that name somewhere,’ she said, ‘but I can’t seem to put a face to it.’

Bev guffawed. ‘I’ll say you’ve heard it – he’s only the highest profile sportsman in this sports-mad country. They call him The Real McCoy, for obvious reasons. He has a headline on the sports pages at least once a week, and if he’s not making the news for winning games off his own bat – or rather, boot – he’s in the society pages with some gorgeous thing hanging off his arm. The fact that he’s one of Australia’s most eligible bachelors won’t hurt either.’

‘Is he really?’ To Merise he sounded more like the quintessential jock. Probably a tattooed bogan with a shaven head and more money than was good for him.

‘Anyway, he’s just been appointed Yarraside’s captain, and the first game kicks off in March, so we’ve only got a few weeks to put the whole thing together. The club is very keen to capture the growing women’s market, to broaden the supporter base, and that’s where you come in. It’s important to get the right look.’

‘Fine. What does it involve?’

‘We’ll start with a photo shoot. They want shots for their membership drive and so on. You just have to look on admiringly while McCoy does his thing – you know, scoring goals or whatnot. And if that works, we’ll go to a TV ad. But to start with, the club has got to okay you, because you, Merise, are going to be the new face of footy.’

At the other end of the phone, Merise lowered ‘the new face of footy’ into her hands and groaned.

By nine-thirty on Wednesday morning Bev was briefing Merise in the foyer of the Hartley Centre – the Yarraside football club’s headquarters just outside Melbourne’s CBD. Merise had arrived early, in time to inspect the cases of historical memorabilia, the life-sized images of the current players in action and the trophy cabinets that took up most of the wall space. She’d also made a brief tour of the shop – stuffed with merchandise of every sort celebrating the Wolves and their achievements. This place was a temple to Australian Rules football, she thought, yet all she knew about the game was that they played with an oval ball called a Sherrin, and she only knew that because every boy at school used to have one.

She was feeling nervous and half inclined to bolt by the time Bev arrived.

‘We’ll be meeting with Paige Gorton, their media manager,’ Bev said, steering her towards the administration section. ‘She’s a bit of a pill, but she’s very important to the process, so impress her.’

‘How, exactly?’ Merise gulped.

‘Just smile, agree to everything, gush a bit if you have to and leave the rest to me.’

But when they were introduced, Paige Gorton merely gave Merise a quick, formal smile then turned back to Bev. ‘Cal has a very full schedule. We don’t want to waste his time, so we need to get this right first up.’

‘We will. We always do.’

Paige glanced fleetingly, doubtfully towards Merise. ‘I know we wanted a new face, but we really don’t have time for amateur hour.’

Merise felt her throat go dry and her heart harden against the carefully groomed Paige in her tight black dress and oversized designer jewellery. But Bev said with calm confidence, ‘No worries. That won’t be an issue with Merise.’

Paige looked sceptical. ‘I hope not. Everything’s arranged for the first photo shoot on Friday. Eight-thirty a.m. on the training ground. We usually get a small group of supporters at every training session and you’ll be among them,’ she said to Merise.

At that moment the door opened, a man strode into the room and it seemed to Merise that the very air stirred. So this was Cal McCoy. He filled up all the available space. He was six foot five, broad, muscular, and the most attractive man she had ever seen. His light chestnut hair was short at the back, but fell over his forehead in soft curls. His skin was a glowing golden hue, his teeth white and perfect, and a deep, deep dimple cleaved his sculpted chin. He was the perfect specimen of a strong athlete at the height of his powers, and Merise couldn’t take her eyes off him.

She wasn’t the only one; Paige Gorton was instantly transformed by his entrance. She jumped up to greet him. ‘Hello, Cal, darling!’ she stood on tip toes to kiss his cheek. He didn’t respond, just said rather gruffly, ‘Let’s get a move on, Paige. I need to get this over with ASAP.’ Then he turned and shot an inquiring glance at Merise. She instantly felt herself fold with embarrassment. Her face felt hot. Was she blushing?

The next moment, Bev was on her feet, making the introductions. McCoy came forward to shake Merise’s hand. It disappeared into his, and she felt tiny as she walked into his shadow and stammered, ‘Oh, hello. Good to meet you.’ His hand felt so hard, so hot. She felt a tiny tremor somewhere inside.

Cal nodded, and didn’t take his eyes from her face as he scowled down at her. ‘I wasn’t expecting someone so young. Are you still at school?’

‘No, I am not!’ retorted Merise. ‘I’m just about to enter my fourth year at uni.’

A faintly mocking smile lit his hazel-flecked eyes. ‘As old as that, eh? And have you done any modelling at all?’ He got straight to the point.

Merise paused for a moment, then said, ‘No, not, er, in the narrow sense. Have you?’

The smile reached his mouth. ‘More than I’d like.’ He turned back to Paige. ‘Okay, let’s get this done. What did you have in mind?’ he asked levelly.

He didn’t sit down during the brief meeting while Bev described the concept behind the photo shoot, and he kept a critical eye on Merise for most of that time. She was finding it hard to concentrate; McCoy’s presence was having an unsettling effect. It was those eyes. They seemed to penetrate deep inside her, exposing her private thoughts. She realised that she kept glancing at him, thinking she could get lost in that dimple.

‘SMO agrees with me that Merise has the look we’re after,’ said Bev. ‘We think she’ll create a lot of interest.’

‘Oh, she’ll do that all right,’ he said casually – but what did he mean, Merise wondered. Was he making fun of her? It was impossible to tell if he meant it as a compliment or an insult; she suspected the latter. She didn’t like that sardonic smirk of his, either. He wasn’t exactly living down to her concept of an inarticulate sports chump.

‘Let’s be totally clear about one thing – the focus will be very much on you, Cal,’ Paige chipped in, giving Merise a hard look. ‘She’ll be strictly on the sidelines – the adoring fan whose whole life is footy, who lives from game to game and worships the Yarraside heroes from afar.’

Merise snorted. There was no way she was going to act like an airhead.

Cal turned to look at her again, an unreadable glint in his eye. ‘And are you a barracker, Ms Merrick?’ he asked.

She hesitated. ‘A barracker?’

‘Ah,’ he said with a grim smile, ‘that answers my question. You have, I take it, no knowledge of and no interest in footy whatsoever?’

Merise shrugged. ‘No, no interest whatsoever,’ she said, but she was already biting her tongue. Of course she knew that a barracker was a supporter, but it wasn’t a word she’d ever needed to use, and there was no way she was going to barrack for him. Not that he thought much of her either – that was becoming clear.

‘At least you won’t be cheering on the opposition,’ he added wryly.

She almost smiled. Then he turned to Paige and said, ‘This threatens to be a serious waste of time, so I’ll leave you to sort it out, I’m due at a meeting.’ With that he left abruptly, without even a backward glance, and all the energy seemed to empty from the room.

Merise tried hard to focus on the arrangements being discussed by Bev and Paige, but she couldn’t stop thinking about him. She didn’t even know if she liked him, she told herself. He actually seemed to be a bit of a tool. She stifled a smile. Her dear old mum thought that a very vulgar expression, and it was one she wouldn’t normally use, but somehow McCoy had managed to disturb and annoy and intrigue her all at the same time.

‘Is that all quite clear, Merise?’ Bev’s voice cut into her thoughts and she shook herself, nodded and tried to look interested. She was also trying very hard to look as if absolutely nothing unusual had just happened – as if the most compelling man she’d ever met walked into her life every day of the week.

Cal McCoy hadn’t been thrilled when the club manager, Gary Rawlins, had told him about the new marketing campaign, but he knew it was a necessary evil.

‘It’s just like this, Cal,’ Rawlins had explained, ‘we’ve got the best list of players we’ve had for years, and now most of the boys have got a hundred games under their belts. We’ve made the finals for the past five years, came third last year, and we’ve had a first-rate pre-season. This has to be our year. This time we can go all the way and win that flag.’

‘We will,’ Cal responded evenly. ‘Leave it to me.’

‘We mean to, mate. But we want to create a buzz about this club – a buzz that’ll vibrate all over Australia. That’s why we need you out there in the media. You’re our number-one asset – the best leader I’ve ever seen, the way you fire up the players. You’ve got the talent to turn games with a few possessions.’

‘I’d rather do that than publicity.’

‘Yeah, but you also bring in the members, and you fascinate the media. Don’t know what you’ve got, mate, but whatever it is, we’re going to bottle it and sell it!’

‘Okay, okay, I’ll do it,’ Cal snarled, ‘but I don’t have to like it.’

He’d agreed for the good of the club; then he laid eyes on Merise Merrick. He’d noticed her the second he walked into the room. She had the most beautiful face he’d ever seen, and he’d known a lot of women. The whole time Paige was rattling on the way she always did, repeating herself, stating the obvious till she drove him mad, he’d been watching the girl. He liked what he saw: that defiant little pout, the way she told him what she thought of football, and of him. But was she trying just a little too hard? Was she really an ingénue, or was it all an act to get his attention? Plenty of women saw him as a quick ticket to success. She certainly thought a lot of herself, and he didn’t mind that. It’d be an interesting challenge, uncovering the real Merise Merrick, in every sense.

As he made his way through the sluggish city traffic after the meeting, he realised that the photo shoot they’d dreamed up was going to be harder than he’d imagined. Just keeping his eyes off that girl, even during training, was going to take discipline, and he needed to keep his mind on footy. Still, even a club captain was entitled to a little relaxation, he told himself; and if he decided it was worthwhile, he could have a lot of fun with the new, knock-out face of the Yarraside Wolves.

Less than an hour later, the first photo shoot had been organised and Bev was briefing Merise over coffee at Federation Square, the quirky collection of buildings and outdoor spaces in the heart of Melbourne. The day was warm and sunny, and as they sat outside the trendy Fleur Bistro, overlooking the Yarra River, Bev took note of the many approving glances that Merise drew from passers-by and other customers. The girl had worn a simple black-and-white dress for the meeting at Yarraside, and its very simplicity set off her radiant good looks. There was no doubt about it, she had serious eye appeal.

‘Well, what did you think of McCoy?’ Bev asked, scrutinising Merise’s face.

‘Oh, er, I don’t really know.’ Merise felt strangely flustered by the question. ‘He’s a bit beefcakey, I suppose.’

Bev laughed. ‘Don’t let the bronzed muscles fool you, dear; he’s a very cluey operator. He’s already well on his way to making a fortune in property development, and there’ll be a lucrative media career waiting for him when he’s finished footy.’

‘Really?’ Lucky him! A ‘lucrative media career’ would do her very nicely.

‘Yes, but he’s only twenty-five, so that won’t be for a while yet. Now let me tell you what we’ve planned.’

Merise listened carefully as Bev gave her a run-down on what to expect and what was expected of her. She was a fast learner and felt sure she could do whatever was required. But was she really model material? Would she be photogenic, or would she freeze when the camera began to flash?

‘All set for Friday then?’ asked Bev at last.

Merise nodded and swallowed a gulp. ‘Um . . . I think so.’

‘Good. We’ll need you at six-thirty a.m. sharp,’ said Bev, ‘for make-up, costume and so on. I’ll be there in person. SMO is an important client and this is a major account. They’ll have a rep present, too. Probably Tim Kerns. He’s a dear, but I want to make sure that everything goes well. Jay Willis will be doing your hair and make-up. He’s the best. You’ll look a dream.’

Merise pulled a funny face, but Bev patted her hand reassuringly. ‘Don’t worry, all you have to do is look good. See you then.’

Two days later, Merise and her best friend, Erica Walls, were having a picnic in the Alexandra Gardens, beside the Yarra. As Merise looked out over the slow-moving water, it struck her that one way or another, she’d been spending a lot of time on the Yarra’s banks over the past few days. Yarraside . . . Yarraside Wolves . . . him.

She gave herself a little shake and passed Erica a generous slice of focaccia from her favourite Italian deli. The girls had been friends all through secondary school and had moved to Melbourne together to take up their studies. Erica, who was studying physiotherapy, lived with her aunt’s family in Carlton, within walking distance of Merise’s apartment. She seemed more excited than Merise was about the modelling.

‘It’ll be so glamorous, Mer! Lovely clothes, being fussed over by make-up artists, exotic locations . . .’

Merise spluttered, ‘Huh! Try the Yarraside footy club – hardly exotic. More likely stinking of sweat and liniment.’ She looked at Erica. She loved her friend’s sweet face, with her big, round eyes and wiry brown hair sticking out in all directions. Erica was always so kind, so positive that just being with her made Merise feel good.

‘You know,’ Erica rattled on, ‘the Wolves is only the biggest sporting club in the country – a powerhouse on and off the field.’

‘And you follow footy, for some inexplicable reason.’

‘A bit. Mostly because my dad used to take me to games.’

‘Well, my dad followed the cricket, so it means absolutely nothing to me.’

‘It will, especially if you want to make a career in journalism in this city. You can’t afford to be an intellectual snob if you’re going to work in the media, Merise. Aussie Rules footy is huge. It’s a multimillion-dollar business. You have to realise that this is a fantastic opportunity for you to make contacts, to get your name out there.’

‘I’m not interested in writing about sport. This country is much too obsessed with sport, to the detriment of the arts and the sciences, Erica. How many Australians even know the name of our Nobel Prize-winning scientists?’

‘Australia has Nobel Prize-winning scientists?’ asked Erica with mock surprise.

‘You see? I rest my case. Besides, I want to write about the arts, about culture.’

‘Then you need to realise that footy is a key part of Melbourne’s culture.’

‘Maybe, but I’d rather go to a play than a game of football,’ said Merise, pouring coffee from a flask. ‘Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you – have you ever heard of Cal McCoy?’

Erica sighed and shook her head in mock-pity. ‘Yes, cupcake, I do just happen to have heard of the greatest player ever to have set foot on a footy field, and the fact that he’s one of the handsomest has also helped bring him to my attention.’ She expelled a mock-romantic sigh. ‘Absolutely no one takes a mark like Cal McCoy.’

‘A mark?’

‘Oh, Merise – you’re hopeless! A mark is when a player leaps high in the air and catches the ball. It’s one of the most thrilling things in footy.’

Merise rolled her eyes. She found it hard to imagine anything about footy being thrilling. ‘And Cal McCoy’s that good, is he?’

‘Oh, yes, and that gorgeous, don’t you think?’

Suddenly, Merise didn’t want to talk to anyone about Cal McCoy, not even Erica. It was enough that he disturbed her; no point in dwelling on him. She merely shrugged and said, ‘I didn’t particularly notice.’

Erica hooted with laughter. ‘Come on, Mer, who are you trying to kid? Apollo came down from Olympus and you didn’t notice? I’m really excited for you. What’s he really like?’

‘I didn’t get much of a chance to judge, but . . . I don’t know – a bit self-satisfied, I should think.’

‘Yes, but that’s the flip side of confidence, the self-belief that makes him such a winner on the field.’

‘And such a pain off it,’ added Merise with a little smile.

‘Don’t be so judgemental! It’s not like you. Look, he’s a real leader and that’s what the Wolves need. They’ve always been one of the top teams, but they haven’t won a premiership for donkeys’ years and the barrackers are getting restless. You see, McCoy’s father captained Yarraside to their last premiership, and everyone expects the son to carry on the family tradition. He’s . . . he’s their messiah.’

‘No,’ said Merise playfully, ‘just a very arrogant boy.’ Then she added, ‘So is he married?’

‘No way! I very much doubt that he’s the marrying type. I’d say he’s having far too much fun being single. He has loads of women after him – as you’d expect – but every time he appears in the papers, which is pretty often, he has someone new hanging on to him. Just about every beauty in Melbourne has thrown herself at him at some stage. He’d be quite a catch for a young actress or model – I don’t mean you – but someone trying to build a career in modelling or TV. Just being seen with him is worth money. When he finally does settle down with one girl, they’ll go straight to the top of the celebrity A-list.’

Merise laughed. ‘Yeah, but I suspect she’d have a bit to put up with if she’s going to get involved with the Yarraside Wolf-pack.’