The Reluctant Wag
Author:Mary Costello

Chapter 4

Bev called her the following day.

‘We’ve had a terrific reaction to the photos, Merise, so SMO will be stepping up the campaign. Everyone’s asking me about you, and the ads have been mentioned on four different radio shows already.’

‘Have they?’ Oh yeah; apparently she wasn’t ‘a bad sort’, Merise thought.

‘Yes. You know, we really need to capitalise on the interest you’ve generated. It would help if you could get out and about a bit – be seen around town.’

‘Around where exactly?’

‘Well, there’s a Tennis Australia party on at the Crown Casino tomorrow night. I know you’re not sporty, but the Australian Open has just finished. All the big overseas names will be present. It would be good if you were seen there.’

‘I actually hate parties, Bev.’

‘Don’t we all, dear! But think of it as work. If you turn up and stay for an hour, I’ll see you get a decent appearance fee.’

Merise thought of the bill she’d run up at the university bookshop. Her books for the new academic year had cost over six-hundred dollars, and those fees were due in six weeks.

‘Okay,’ she said before she could change her mind. ‘What should I wear?’

‘It’s a casual affair, so I’ve got something for you – something relaxed but sexy by Oz Girls. I think you’ll love it. Okay?’

‘Fine. Send it on.’ At least she wouldn’t have to iron anything.

‘Great. And I’ll make sure there’s a ticket for you at the door. Try to circulate, and if any photographers approach you, just flash that lovely smile everyone’s talking about and you’ll be in the papers again tomorrow.’

That prophecy proved to be painfully true.

Merise worried all day about turning up at the tennis party alone, but forced herself to think of it as work. She would find someone to talk to, smile on demand and make her way out of there as soon as she could. It was the sort of thing she’d have to do as a journalist anyway, so she might as well get in some practice now.

At nine that evening she entered the exclusive Oak Room at the casino. She was relieved to see that there was such a crowd, it was unlikely that anyone would even notice her. That was a huge relief, because she felt like a traffic light in the dress Bev had sent over. It was short, tight, low-cut and positively scarlet. Merise hated it, and had tried to focus on her hair, which she’d piled loosely on top of her head, so that long curls fell artfully about her face. Unsure what to do, she made her way to the bar, already thinking that maybe she could slip away early. She ordered a mineral water and decided to just keep moving around the room, squeezing through the crowd. That way she wouldn’t look lost or alone, and she’d have done her duty to Bev and to SMO.

She spoke briefly to a few people but kept circulating. She noticed a number of tennis celebrities in the room, as well as actresses from TV soaps, singers, other sportspeople and plenty of models. She watched how the more experienced models positioned themselves near the top celebrities, posing for photos as the local paparazzi circled, looking for that one image that would capture the public imagination the following day.

She was standing at the bar nibbling some peanuts – she was starving – when she felt someone press against her from behind. She turned around to see a face that was vaguely familiar – the face of a man she’d seen on TV and in the papers. But she couldn’t place him at first. She just knew that he was uncomfortably close to her.

‘Ssssorry, lovely lady,’ he slurred drunkenly. ‘Didn’t mean to push you.’

She merely nodded and turned back to the bar. But the next minute he was pushing against her again, the smell of alcohol on his breath quite nauseating.

‘Excuse me,’ said Merise firmly as she attempted to get past him. It was time to go home.

‘Nah, c’mere, gorgeous. What’s the rush?’ he said. ‘What you wanna drink, lady in red? I’ll get it for you. They’ll serve me straight up. They know me here.’

As he said that the penny dropped. He was the footballer, Jason Murdoch. She knew about him, not because of his footy, but because he was currently Melbourne’s most badly behaved sports star, and appeared regularly in the papers embroiled in one escapade or other. He was often drunk and he was always in trouble. It was definitely time to get out of there.

She moved to slip past him, but he dodged to block her way. She moved in the other direction, and he blocked her again. She got angry.

‘Do you mind! I would like to leave now, please,’ she hissed.

‘Hold on!’ he suddenly exclaimed. ‘I know you. You’re the girl in the Wolves ad, aren’t you, darlin’? You’re bloody McCoy’s girl!’

‘I’m not anybody’s girl,’ she spat out furiously.

‘You should be. Wanna be mine, gorgeous?’ He lurched drunkenly towards her, grabbing her around the waist, trying to nuzzle against her neck with his wet lips. Merise was disgusted and tried to push him away. ‘Stop it! Get off me, you . . . moron!’

She glanced desperately around to see if there was anyone whose eye she could catch, someone who could help. But the crowd was thicker than ever and the music almost deafening. No one was taking any notice of them.

‘Come on now, babe, loosen up a bit. Jus’ a little kiss . . .’

She tried to slap his face, but he quickly pinned her arm behind her back. She felt his strength directed against her. She dug her elbow into his ribs, but was no match for a man who towered over her and who seemed to be twice her breadth. His lips were searching for her mouth now as she struggled to fight him off. She felt his hot tongue between her teeth. She was just beginning to panic when she heard a deep, commanding voice.

‘Oi! Mate, back off!’ And Cal McCoy grabbed Murdoch by the collar and tossed him easily to one side.

Murdoch stumbled and fell against the wall. The commotion drew the attention of a security man who quickly moved to help Murdoch up, at the same time signalling for a colleague to assist him. Together they bundled Murdoch through a side door and Cal turned to look down at Merise.

‘You okay?’ He had one hand on her shoulder. It seemed to burn through the flimsy silk of her dress. Still rattled, she merely nodded. He dropped his hand.

‘You want to get out of here?’ His manner was businesslike, even brusque. She’d probably interrupted his evening. No doubt he’d be at the centre of the in-crowd.

‘Yes please. I . . . I just want to go home,’ she added in a voice that sounded small and pathetic, even to her.

Something in his face seemed to soften momentarily, but then he took a firm grip of her elbow. ‘Let’s go, then.’

‘Oh no, I don’t want to spoil your evening. I can get a taxi.’

He merely snorted at that and muttered, ‘You’ve got to be kidding; this kind of thing is purgatory.’

She looked at him in surprise, but he was already heading for the exit. He easily steered a path through the crowd and they soon emerged into the lobby. Merise felt a wave of relief sweep over her, before she was blinded by a camera flash. A young photographer had stepped up as they came through the door of the Oak Room and snapped them together. Cal scowled but kept walking. The next minute they were outside and Cal had signalled valet parking.

‘Really, I can get a taxi if —’ Merise started to say.

‘No,’ Cal cut her off. ‘I’m taking you home.’

At that moment the valet arrived in the black Ferrari and Cal quickly opened the door for her. She got in, feeling suddenly overwhelmed with tiredness. As they eased through the city she sat silently, aware that he was looking at her from time to time.

‘You okay?’ he asked at last.

‘Yes, really, I am. Just tired and . . . and disgusted with Jason Murdoch.’

‘He’s a fool, and worse – he gets nasty when he’s drunk. Do yourself a favour and stay well away from boys like him.’

‘As if I don’t!’ she snapped back.

‘Hey! I’m sure you do. I just mean you can’t be too careful. Why were you there anyway? I thought the celebrity nightlife thing wasn’t your scene.’

That stung. Did he imagine she was some sort of publicity hound?

‘I am actually allowed to go out at night – to have a life, you know,’ she retorted. ‘Just as you seem to have a very full nightlife for someone who’s supposed to be an athlete.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Well, let me see; Lisette Masters at the Grand Prix Ball, somebody called Andrea at Nocturne, twin sisters at the Melbourne Cup launch party last year – the list goes on.’ As soon as she said it she could have bitten her tongue. Now he’d know that she’d googled him.

He was silent for a second. ‘I see you’ve been monitoring my media pretty closely. I’m flattered,’ he added with a maddening smile.

‘Don’t be. My interest is purely professional, in view of our ongoing working relationship,’ she responded with an angry flush. ‘Otherwise, I’m not in the least interested.’

‘Good, because I don’t like anyone intruding on my privacy.’

‘I . . . I wasn’t intruding —’ she spluttered indignantly.

‘Where do you live exactly?’ he cut in.

She told him and they were silent for the rest of the drive. When he pulled up outside her apartment complex he got out and opened the door for her. She was already regretting the things she’d said. She’d overreacted. He had, after all, rescued her from Murdoch – not that she’d really needed rescuing, but it had been an awkward moment, she’d felt really threatened and Cal had arrived just in time. She decided to be very civil as she stepped out of the car.

‘Thanks for bringing me home. You’ve been very helpful. I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you.’

She thought for a second that she detected the spectre of a smile around his mouth, but he only said, ‘No worries.’

As he walked away without looking at her, he paused and called over his shoulder, ‘And next time you go out at night, if you don’t want boofheads like Murdoch bothering you, wear something less . . . obvious – unless you enjoy the attention?’

‘Oh! You—’ she spluttered, gasping in fury as he walked away. She had an impulse to launch herself at him and, and . . . she could barely find the words to express her outrage. ‘What? What did you say?’

‘I said—’

I know what you said,’ she cut in furiously, ‘and I know what you meant – that I was asking for it, that it was my fault.’

‘Look —’

‘Don’t you dare talk to me!’ she snapped. ‘You’re so damned sexist; it’s always the woman’s fault, isn’t it?’

‘Actually, I’d say it’s never the woman’s fault. I think men should get a grip and take responsibility for their own actions. And I don’t think the fact that a man is pissed out of his mind is any excuse for behaving like an animal. But hey – assume I’m a sexist pig if it makes you feel better.’

‘Wait!’ But she was wasting her breath; he was already leaving. As he drove off, she flounced into her unit and banged the door behind her. If she never saw bloody Cal McCoy again it would still be too soon, she thought. But she saw him sooner than she expected.

They made the papers again the following morning, only this time it wasn’t the Yarraside advert. On page 5 of the tabloid, Melbourne Tribune, under the headline, ‘New Season, New Woman?’, there was a colour photo of Merise emerging from the Oak Room with Cal’s arm round her shoulder. It seemed like an intimate gesture and they looked like a couple. It had only been a momentary thing as he’d steered her away from the pouncing paparazzi. She was just looking at the paper in dismay when the phone rang. It was Bev.

‘Have you seen the Tribune? Fabulous publicity! Well done. We couldn’t have planned it any better!’

‘It’s not what it looks like —’ Merise tried to explain.

‘Who cares?’ interrupted Bev. ‘It’s just what we need to keep the focus on Yarraside. You’ve done well. In fact the campaign so far has been a runaway success. SMO want more, and as soon as possible. Are you available for a video shoot on Friday evening?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Yarraside are playing the Brighton Brumbies in a preseason practice game at seven-forty, and we’re planning a shoot with you in the changing rooms before the game.’

‘What? What would I, or rather, what would a supporter be doing in the changing rooms before a game?’

‘Ah, Merise, you know nothing about the footy world. Some fans pay thousands of dollars a year for club memberships giving them occasional access to the rooms before or after games. The corporates all do it, too – it’s a real earner for the clubs.’

‘But won’t I be in the way?’

‘No, you just have to stand in the corner and —’

‘Let me guess – look adoringly at Cal McCoy.’

Bev laughed. ‘You got it in one! I’ll email you through the details shortly.’

When Merise put down the phone she was surprised at her own mixed feelings. Her blood was still boiling at Cal’s parting shot from the night before; but while part of her was dreading the Friday evening session, she was strangely excited at the thought of seeing him again. She was annoyed at herself. She was acting like some besotted barracker drooling over her petty footy god. Why did he make her feel like this? She didn’t even like him, not really; he was just so damned . . . intriguing. Anyway, she should be focusing on her studies. Thankfully, classes started again the following week. That would help keep her mind off Cal. And she went to find one of her new textbooks and settled down to read.

Cal just knew. He sensed something before he even opened the paper that morning. He’d made himself a big breakfast and taken it out to the privacy of his courtyard garden. When he turned over the pages and saw the shot of himself and Merise the food almost stuck in his throat. But even as he registered his annoyance at the invasion of his privacy, he couldn’t help lingering on her image.

He hated the effect she had on him. She was nothing like the glamazons who normally fawned over him and made it clear that they were very available, in every way possible. It was the fact that the prickly Ms Merrick would certainly be very unavailable that made her so intriguing. Maybe some day he’d change her mind about that, and he’d really enjoy the challenge. He wouldn’t push her. She would need a lot of time and careful handling.

He remembered Murdoch manhandling her. He could have killed the idiot. Cal had noticed Merise earlier – no way he could help it in that skimpy number – but he was determined to stay well clear of her. No point in making things any harder than they were. Why the hell had she been there on her own anyway? He wouldn’t have picked her for the party type. Maybe she’d been seduced by the celebrity lifestyle after all. He realised that he really didn’t know Merise Merrick, and he needed to be aware that she was a future journalist. She was probably always on the prowl for news. He’d better watch his step; he wasn’t planning to be part of her first big scoop.

At first, the Friday night shoot wasn’t as awkward as Merise had imagined. She’d been instructed by the imperious director, Kyle, to simply stand off to one side with a group of other supporters, watching the players go through their warm-ups.

‘Just look interested, until Cal comes in – then you step forward and get excited, got that?’

‘Yes,’ said Merise tightly as she felt herself blush and squirm; she’d be getting excited anyway, but she’d actually be trying to hide it.

‘Then after a bit he’ll come over to you and chat for a moment before the rooms are cleared, okay? Got that?’

‘Okay’ she nodded, trying to seem impassive. She kept up that façade as the players gradually arrived and began stretching or going through handball drills. She wasn’t at all affected by the sight of so many young athletes flexing their well-developed muscles just metres away until Cal came in. As he walked through from the locker room he was talking animatedly to the head coach, already absorbed in the game to come. He wouldn’t even notice her, Merise told herself, which was just as well, because she was immediately aware that he wasn’t wearing his guernsey and the sight of his golden, muscle-hardened body was deeply disturbing.

She gulped and tried to slide behind a group of men who had sent up a cheer at the sight of the captain. But Kyle was instantly at her elbow hissing, ‘What are you doing? Come out of there. I said excited, Merise – now, please!’ and he pushed her forward into Cal’s path.

Cal turned, momentarily annoyed, then recognised her. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ he said unenthusiastically. ‘Damn it, I’d forgotten about this nonsense.’

She didn’t know what to say. She just wanted to disappear.

‘It’ll only take a moment, darling,’ said Paige Gorton, who had appeared from behind Cal. ‘Just say “rhubarb” and smile charmingly.’

He laughed at that and his whole face became at once so much more appealing. The forbidding frown cleared and he looked down at Merise with humour in his eyes.

‘Right, rhubarb it is then.’

She tried to laugh and moved closer to him. ‘And custard,’ she said, smiling for the cameras.

‘Oh really?’ he asked, playing along and grinning broadly now. ‘What about some pavlova to follow?’

They both burst out laughing and Kyle shrieked out, ‘Yes! That’s it. Now, Merise, you’ve asked to have a photo taken – Jim!’ And Jim stepped up, his camera at the ready. ‘Cal, can you put your arm around her, please? Please! That shouldn’t be too much of a trauma for you.’

For a second Cal looked as if he didn’t know whether to laugh or stalk off, but then he put one bare arm around her shoulders. Merise felt herself gasp at the sudden contact of his flesh. It was hard and soft at the same time. She felt the heat from his body, as if he were giving off a powerful energy, and knew that a blush was rising from her neck upwards. She didn’t dare look up at him. His side touched hers and she wondered if he could feel the mad beating of her heart. It seemed to her that it was thumping through her entire body. The photographer snapped away.

‘A couple more, to be sure,’ said Kyle. ‘I suppose a little kiss would be too much to ask, Cal?’

She felt him go rigid. ‘You suppose right, mate. Excuse me. Got a game to win,’ he said to Merise and he walked towards the race, pulling on his guernsey as the other players fell in behind him and Kyle stood wringing his hands.

Merise felt her face burning with shame as a club official led her to a prominent seat in the members’ area. He hadn’t wanted to kiss her, that was clear. He probably thought of her as a scheming wannabe celebrity, using him to get her name in the papers. That stupid photo!

Kyle and his team had set up in a side aisle off to her right. They would be filming her reaction during the game. She dreaded the thought of sitting there for three hours and longed to be at home. She wouldn’t understand what was happening anyway. But almost as soon as the whistle blew, she found herself caught up in the excitement. The crowd around her followed every kick, every handball, every tackle, and they erupted at every goal. And there were a lot of them. It was a high-scoring game, not at all like soccer. This was full of drama.

At some point in the second quarter Merise really began to feel the thrill. An opposition player had kicked long to the Brumbies’ captain who caught the ball on the run and raced towards the Yarraside goals. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Cal was upon him, tackling him to the ground. He deftly dispossessed him of the ball, then turned and ran hard in the opposite direction, bouncing the ball every few steps, all the while weaving his way among Brumbies players who tried to catch him. The stadium was electrified as he neared the Brumbies’ goals, Wolves fans on their feet, willing him on, yelling, ‘Go Cal!’ Even Merise was on her feet, her hands clasped under her chin, her mouth open in awe as he powered up the field, a perfect image of pure masculine power. He kicked and the ball split the middle of the goals, and Merise and everyone around her jumped and yelled with delight. She was only half aware of the cameras trained on her the whole time, and Kyle pacing agitatedly up and down the aisle, barking instructions and groaning every few minutes.

At the end of the game, when the Wolves had won by a whopping seventy-three points, Merise was approached by Kyle’s assistant, Dave. She was wanted at the race, he explained. She followed him to where Kyle was directing security guards to clear her way to the front of the race.

‘Okay, Merise, as Cal comes off, you hang over and touch him, okay?’

‘Touch him? Why?’

Kyle rolled his eyes, ‘It’s a fan thing – just do it.’

She could see Cal leading the victorious team towards the race, where crowds of elated supporters were pressing forward to congratulate their heroes. She noticed that Paige was hurrying along beside him, gabbling, trying to keep pace in her high heels and sinking into the turf at every step.

As he entered the top of the race she felt Kyle thrust her forward and leant down, her arm outstretched towards Cal. She was praying he wouldn’t even notice her, but just as he came level with her he looked up, cracked a smile that instantly dispelled her self-consciousness and grabbed her hand for a second before moving on.

‘Perfect!’ she heard Kyle exclaim behind her, but she was only aware of the way her heart was drumming in her chest. And it came to her as she stood there, being jostled by a mob of footy nuts dressed in black and silver, that Cal McCoy was starting to have a very, very disturbing effect on her, and what was worse – she liked it.

She spent the next two hours in the small suite of rooms under the stadium which had been the operations centre for the shoot. Kyle had wanted to talk to her about their next project – a two-minute ad of the players in the club gym with Merise moving among them as they trained.

‘What am I supposed to be doing there?’ she asked.

‘Who cares? We’re not shooting War and Peace, Merise. No one’s going to be questioning your motivation. You’re the face of the fan base and you’re getting access to training. It’ll be a blast – a glimpse of the inner sanctum with all those hunks working their abs or whatever, and you moving from one piece of equipment to the next, drooling.’

Merise lowered her head into her hands – more drooling. She’d look like such a fool.

‘Can’t I just, I don’t know . . . look at the honour board or something?’

‘No, babe – it’s all about the sexual tension; gotta generate it in spades and that’s where you come in.’

He finally released her and as she walked through the dim, empty underground car park towards the exit she heard heavy footsteps behind her. A little spooked, she spun around and saw Cal McCoy.

‘You’re still here?’ he asked, surprised.

‘Yes. No – just leaving,’ she said, relieved, but at the same time feeling awkward.

‘I thought you’d have escaped at the earliest opportunity.’

‘No. It was fun, and I had a briefing session with Kyle Carruthers.’

‘Oh yeah. Cecil B. DeMille. Did you enjoy the game?’

‘I loved it.’ Her enthusiasm was real. ‘Wasn’t nearly as boring as I thought it would be.’

‘Really?’ He was watching her closely. She felt a generous impulse.

‘You weren’t bad either.’

He smiled and somehow looked younger. ‘Thanks, glad you approved.’

‘I think everyone there approved, apart from some of the Brumbies fans, who actually said some very unkind things.’

He laughed. ‘I’ll bet – no need to elaborate.’

Three or four other players had now emerged from the stadium and called goodnight to Cal as they walked to their cars, casting one or two curious glances at Merise.

‘How come you’re all leaving so late? Is it to avoid the fans?’

‘No, not so much that. We have to go through our cool-down exercises, sit with our legs in an ice bath, get some physio if we need it. It all takes a couple of hours.’

‘Well, you must be exhausted. I’ll let you get home,’ she said, turning to go.

‘Actually, no, I’m so pumped with adrenaline I could run a marathon. I can never sleep after a game.’

‘What do you do?’

‘I usually go for dinner, to a little Spanish restaurant I know in Fitzroy. It’s quiet – a bit off the beaten track. No photographers and hardly ever any barrackers. Want to join me?’

The invitation was so casual, so unexpected that she simply said, ‘Yes.’ A second later she half regretted it, but at the same time she realised that she wanted to be with him. They should at least get to know one another, she reasoned. They should be able to work together as professionals without always crossing swords, and without her always feeling that her heart was about to explode.

‘Great,’ he said with one of his rare, devastating smiles, and trying to control the flutter in her stomach, she followed him to his car.