Spicing Up Trouble
By Mary Jo Burke
Crystal: Today I have the pleasure of hosting Mary Jo Burke. Welcome Mary Jo! I'm so happy to have you here today. Would you share a little bit about yourself with us today?
Mary Jo: I’ve been thinking of stories forever and writing them down for twelve years. I’m allergic to air so spring is my least favorite season. I listen to Bruce Springsteen songs every day because they are the best and make me happy. I have no pets, only children.
Crystal: Do you have a favorite scene you would like to share with us?
Mary Jo: When Alexia explains her career boost idea to her sisters.
"Sweetie, why so quiet?" Irene asked me.
A bold move required a first step.
"Good things come in threes," I said.
"Yeah like musketeers and stooges," Eleanor said.
"Don't forget caballeros," Irene added. "Wait, I thought death came in threes."
"Only in Hollywood," Eleanor replied.
The silent sister had let life pass her by—until now.
"I have a few announcements to make. First, I submitted my resume to Single Chicago and have an interview next week," I said.
"You will be touting your favorite sister's bar," Irene said.
"And your beautiful sister's boutique," Eleanor chimed.
"No promises, but if I'm hired, I'll steer someone to write an article or five for each of you. Second, the sommelier at the Bergen has agreed to work on the Thanksgiving menu at the newspaper's blog with me."
"What if you get the job at the magazine?" Irene asked.
"Then she can write a guest article. I'm going to mention it at my interview. I can deliver big names."
"Sweetie, is the sommelier acquainted with Single Chicago's more risqué serving dishes?" Eleanor asked, sipping her wine.
"Like the pasty chef's quarterly column?" Irene asked with a giggle.
"You mean pastry chef," I said.
"Honey, if you write for Single Chicago you better line up a few pasty experts too. There are some racy suggestions for weekend activities. Remember 'Wrap it in Whipped Cream?' I tried it on what's his name," Irene said.
"Charles. Whatever happened to him?" Eleanor asked.
"You have a fabulous memory. He married a stripper/dominatrix. I awakened a buried need in him to be humiliated," Irene said as she picked her glass for a toast.
"The effect you have on most men," Eleanor added as she tapped Irene's glass to hers.
"Don't sell yourself short, dear. Many of your exes have yet to recover," Irene said.
"Excuse me again," I said.
"Sorry, Sweetie, but you should know by now not to give us airtime," Eleanor said.
"She's right, honey. Now please continue," Irene said as she filled the wineglasses.
I knew they were reptiles or amphibians; they inhaled through their noses, exhaled, and talked at the same time. It explained so much.
"Thank you. Shelley Carpenter, the art critic, left the newspaper and had been lined up to interview Benjamin Cobb," I said.
"The reclusive, gorgeous, single, famous artist, Benjamin Nance Cobb?" Eleanor asked.
"He has been the modern art world for the last fifteen years. Tall, moody, and richer than all the Kardashians and Jenners," Irene said.
"How do you get to see him? He doesn't speak to the press or on the record to any other living soul," Eleanor said as she leaned toward me.
"I'm going to model for him," I said.
"What?" they yelled in unison.
The other patrons swiveled around and stared.
"My editor knows the owner of the modeling agency Cobb uses. He requested a blonde. On Wednesday, I'll go there. While he paints, I'll make conversation and covertly interview him."
Stone cold silence from my sisters. The minutes ticked by. They must be trying to set a new world's record.
Crystal: Where did you come up with the idea for your current release?
Mary Jo: Spicing Up Trouble sprung from my husband’s love of spicy foods and trying to make them.
Crystal: What are you currently working on?
Mary Jo: A story about a woman caught between the love of music and duty to family.
Crystal: Do you have any special routine that you follow when you are writing?
Mary Jo: I listen to classical music to clear my mind and help me focus.
Crystal: Did you have to do a lot of research for this book or any other? If so do you have a fascinating fact that you have learned you would like to share with us?
Mary Jo: I watched videos about food preparation and the use of spices. It looks easy when the professionals do it, but I tried one dish. I mixed up teaspoons with tablespoons of hot sauce in an enchilada dish. We used a lot of sour cream and avocados to cut the heat.
Crystal: Who are some of your favorite authors that you like to read?
Mary Jo: Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books are excellent. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake and Merry Gentry books are wonderful world builders. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books are funny and I feel I’m related to her grandmother.
Crystal: Is there any genre you haven't written that you would like to try?
Mary Jo: I’ve tried an historical romance. The research is a bit daunting, but interesting as well.
Alexia Hale works as a test kitchen writer for the Chicago News. But she gets her big break toward reporting "real" news when she's given the opportunity to interview the world renowned artist, Benjamin Nance Cobb.
The catch: to get it, Alexia has to pose as a nude model for Ben. What begins as an awkward assignment quickly turns into a real friendship...and possibly more. But when a photograph of Alexia is leaked to the press, their private life suddenly becomes very public. Ben's father isn't pleased, Alexia's sisters are shocked, and now she's being hounded by the press.
Dating a celebrity has its challenges and rewards. The only question is, which one will outweigh the other?
Contemporary Romance/Romantic Comedy
Gemma Halliday Publishing, 332 pages
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The Internet offered few details about Benjamin Nance Cobb's work. I needed to visit Chicago's Art Institute to do some research.
In the morning, out in front of the museum, I rubbed the paw of one of the lions. "Wish me luck," I whispered to the stoic predator and hurried up the stairs.
Once inside, I cheated and asked a docent to direct me to the Contemporary Art section. He pointed at a tour group, and I followed them. We entered a large foyer. The guide began to speak, and I saw my chance to escape.
Farther down the hall and to the left, two canvases took up an entire wall. First, a nude woman reclined on her back. Her lush black hair splayed on the pillow beneath her, her right hand laid in the tangles—eyes half closed, her lush lips pursed, her left hand limp against her side, her knees pulled together and slightly bent. Her whole body sated. She just had great sex. The plaque beside it read, "Satisfied by Benjamin Nance Cobb."
Next, a woman sitting on a bed, her back positioned toward the artist, the sway of her hip revealed the top of her butt, her arms and legs crossed in front of her, a hint of right breast showed, her face in profile, her eyes glanced over her shoulder, and her blonde hair mussed. I read the plaque, "Anticipation by Benjamin Nance Cobb."
How about Striptease for Benjamin Nance Cobb?
The paintings carried the same message: goddesses with an attitude. Power radiated from them. They owned the men who sought to possess them. Confident in their appearance and sexuality, the viewer of the portrait felt like an intruder, stumbling into the intimate setting. The discomfort was for the outsider looking in. I imagined being free not to care about others' opinions, living by one's own rules. Easier said than done.
A small blurb about the artist hung on the wall. I didn't get much passed his age, thirty-five, because next to it a photograph almost stopped my heart. The man himself glared at the camera. Not a posed shot, one stolen on the street by paparazzi. Black hair, ice blue eyes, nose and chin chiseled like a bust of a Roman god.
I stumbled away a little shaken by the portrait of the reaper of women.
Would I be released by my editor from this assignment? No. Would I gain the self-confidence required for public nudity in two days? Double no. Would my sisters ever let me forget I chickened out? Triple-dog no.
Not only my likeness would be captured, Cobb might prove capable of reaching down and finding my true self, ready to be exposed. Could this opportunity remake me into one of those women proudly displaying their attributes to the world? Was I willing to risk all for a taste of confidence like my sisters wore every day?
The new expressive me lay trapped inside the old mousy me. Where there was a will, there was a way, but no graceful way out.
I dodged my sisters' phone calls and focused all good karma on Wednesday. I arrived early for my exhibition; I mean appointment to a nondescript building with no sign or address, no names on the mailboxes. Subtle message, if you weren't invited, you shouldn't be here. I pressed the doorbell, heard footsteps coming to the door, and prayed I wouldn't faint.
The imposing oak door swung in, and the grail of my quest stood before me. The men of my dreams were book boyfriends. Men conjured up from another woman's imagination who yielded to her will. All were tall, muscular, ruggedly handsome, and smelled wonderful. Like them, this guy was all those myths come to life. Now I'd add a few revisions to include sparkling blue eyes enticing me to jump into those pools for a slow swim, full lips, and thighs like tree trunks. Forget breeders' hips, the sight of Benjamin Nance Cobb made my ovaries explode. He assessed me up and down then smiled. A slight dimple formed on his unshaven cheek. A kiss would fit perfectly on that indentation.
"I'm," he hesitated and stared at me.
He knew I was a fraud. Who would believe I was a model?
"I'm sorry, I'm Ben Cobb," he said, pushing the door all the way open to the wall. "You must be from the agency."
"Yes, I'm the model."
Of what, I didn't know.
"You look familiar. Have you posed for print ads?" His cordial tone sounded as if he had just parked my car.
What if he asked to see some credentials or my portfolio? I should have taken Eleanor's crazy advice about head shots or shots to the head. Right now, I was a bit confused as my fear and flight impulses beat against my brain. As a result, I stayed put and proceeded in. I didn't dare speak again, my voice hid under the covers, waiting for me to come to my senses.
"The changing room is to the right, I mean your left. There's a robe in there on the wall. On a hook on the wall. No, it's on the door," he said as he scratched the back of his head. "I apologize. I'm sure you're a professional and can figure it out."
Professional fraud at the moment.
"No problem, I'll find it." I strolled down a hallway.
Was he upset or nervous? Did I scare him? He probably thought, "How am I supposed to work with her?" Should I apologize in advance?
I found an open pink door. It was more of a renovated closet with a full-length mirror, an embroidered chair, and an ornate hook on the back of the door with a flimsy yellow robe attached.
I bit my lower lip as I began to undress. I tried to focus on why I put myself in this situation: a career boost and a chance to get in good with the new bosses. I forgot about impressing my sisters, they would be questioning my sanity about now.
Getting him to talk presented the ultimate challenge.
"So why do you paint nudes?"
"Do you pay them or do they pay you?"
"I'm a fan of your mom's work."
Helen Nance Cobb's books were special to me. They reminded me of my childhood before my parents died. Adele's Armoire, Benjamin's Bike, Celeste's Closet, and Daniel's Dugout were the first four books I could read by myself. Prose and illustrations represented all twenty-six letters.
A soft knock at the door brought me back to the present. I gripped the back of the chair.
"Is everything all right in there?" he asked.
If I shook anymore, I could make a smoothie. Yesterday I waxed, exfoliated, moisturized, and steamed myself. I wished I could pump up my courage too. Exhaling slowly, I opened the door to meet my new outlook on life or die trying.
The floor creaked as I ambled toward the easel where he stood, cleaning brushes.
"Where do you want me?" I asked as my fist clutched the robe shut.
He stared at me again. I must be the most hideous specimen to ever pose for him.
"When you're ready, take off the robe, and lay on your stomach on the pillows," he said, offering a slight smile.
I cautiously strolled over and sat on the floor with my back to the wall.
If a guy jumped out with a camera and yelled "Smile," I wouldn't be surprised. Being caught at the most embarrassing moment of my life made perfect sense right now.
"How long have you been a model, Miss?" he asked, shifting the canvas on the easel.
"I'm Alexia Hale. I've been modeling for two years."
Did it sound believable? Should I have used a fake name?
"Only with Perkins?"
Who or what was Perkins?
"I'm surprised they didn't send you earlier. I've asked for a variety of women, especially without endowments. Sorry, I mean a woman with natural beauty."
"My works takes me out of the country."
My nose was about to go Pinocchio on me, and he noticed my breasts. My nipples hardened up and rubbed against the polyester blend. Traitors.
"Where?" he asked.
"Paris, Vienna, Stockholm, and Hawaii."
All the places I would love to visit.
"Busy girl. Photography or painting?"
This one didn't count as a lie. I liked taking pictures, and I finger painted in kindergarten.
"Are you ready to start?" he asked.
I let the robe slide off of me and flopped on the pillows. He didn't flinch or move for three full minutes. He absorbed me into those piercing blue eyes.
"Excuse me," he said as he hurried away.
The sight of the nude me made him vomit. I stood, wrapped the robe around my shoulders, and sprinted toward the dressing room. I'd grab my clothes and dress on the sidewalk. He must be calling the agency to complain, and they would out me as a fraud.
He rounded the corner and almost knocked me to the floor. The robe swirled around my legs and landed in a puddle at my feet. My right arm went across my chest and my left hand fanned over my womanhood.
"Beautiful," he said under his breath as he swept my hair back behind my ear.
Me? I shivered from his touch. This was why the women looked enraptured in his paintings. They had sex with him before they posed. That would blow the wind in my sails, definitely a step out of character for me.
"Excuse me, I'm being totally unprofessional," he said as he leaned down, retrieved my robe, and handed it to me. "If you're uncomfortable staying and want to leave, I'll understand."
"No, I'm fine," I said as I fumbled with the robe, trying to put it on.
"Okay, let's get started."
I followed him back to the studio and pretended he didn't stir me up. I couldn't comment on my effect on him as I resettled by the pillows. The robe melted off me this time because I wanted him to see me.
"Please support yourself on your elbows," he said.
I stopped trembling, pushed up, and glanced at him.
"Like this, Mr. Cobb?" My voice squeaked.
"I'm Ben. Mr. Cobb is my worthless father," he swallowed hard, grabbed the back of his neck, and pressed down.
I touched a raw nerve.
"Look at me." he said. I only shifted my eyeballs, afraid to move anything else. "I'm going to tell you when to change your facial expressions like be happy, pensive, sleepy, or sad, understand?"
"Please follow my directions, and don't speak or move."
The artist had arrived and was all business. Time for me to do the same.
About the Author:
Long before DVDs, Mary Jo saw Gone with the Wind in the theater. She was ten. The story never left her. She read the book three times. She saw the movie every time it was re-released. GWTW will be seventy-five years old this year and is her favorite movie. She would only make a minor change: Leave Ashley to Melanie and hold on tight to Rhett. Her writing sprung from reading, watching, and always wanting to edit.
Mary Jo was born in Chicago and has never strayed far from home. She majored in Accounting and received her MBA in Finance. She worked in the investment and banking businesses.
Mary Jo is a member of the Romance Writers of America, Chicago North RWA, and Windy City RWA.
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