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Hip-checking a persistent blonde, Mel Ramirez broke through the clot of people to reach the star journalist who had packed half the Arizona State University student body into the auditorium. "Ready to head to the hotel?" she said to him.
"With you?" Noah Stone gave her a friendly onceover. "Oh, I'm down." He was clearly teasing, but sparklers went off in Mel's stomach all the same.
The blonde gave her the evil eye. Who the hell are you?
"I'm your driver," Mel clarified, her cheeks a bit hot. She'd jumped at the chance to escort the J-school graduation speaker to his hotel, but didn't want anyone to think she was propositioning the guy.
Cálmate, chica. Keep your dignity. She was no silly fan girl. She'd just graduated with highest honors and had a job at a prestigious newspaper, starting Monday. She and Noah Stone were now colleagues. The short drive ahead gave her precious minutes to glean secrets from a journalist at the top of his game.
Noah's reporting was incisive, searing, brilliant. She knew that. What she hadn't known was how flat-out hot he was.
His publicity photos didn't convey the knowing gleam in his caramel eyes, the friendly tweak of his mouth that let you in on a private joke, how he pulled you close with his voice, and that small dimple that peeked out when he truly smiled. The guy was mid-thirties, but looked more her age, twenty-five, and
"Happy to meet you, uh ?" He paused, waiting for her name.
"Mel. Mel Ramirez."
"A pleasure." He offered a firm grip, warm and solid. "So you're going to tuck me in?"
Tuck him in. Oh. Wow. She sucked in a breath. He'd read her as okay with a friendly come-on. Good. "More or less," she said, determined to match him, flirt for flirt.
"I vote more. You?"
The question stalled her thoughts, so she was relieved when Paul Stockton, one of her professors, approached, buying time for a comeback to occur to her.
"Torturing one of our top graduates?" Professor Stockton shook his head in mock disapproval. The two men had been J students at ASU ten years before. Professor Stockton told stories about Noah Stone in his classes. Even as a student, Noah had been known for risk-taking and relentlessness.
"I hope not." Noah shot his gaze to her, concerned.
"Was I out of line, Mel?"
"Not at all." She smiled.
"This whole show has thrown me off my game. My good friend here asks me to be his fill-in speaker, then introduces me like I'm some celebrity."
"You don't think a Pulitzer means star status?" Paul asked.
"I do my job, that's all. I got lucky with a few stories."
"It was great you could fit us in before Iraq," Mel said. On Monday, Noah would start his embed with the last of the troops in Iraq. Professor Stockton had convinced him to detour to Phoenix to speak to the graduates of the Walter Cronkite School of Communications as a personal favor.
Noah turned to her, as if surprised she knew his plans, so she continued, "And what you said about self-censorship being more dangerous to investigative journalism than shrinking news staff was important for us to hear."
"I was quoting Carl Bernstein, not me." He smiled.
"Congratulations on the job, by the way," Paul said to her. "You'll like it at Arizona News Day. The pay's modest, but the circulation's huge and some pretty big names cut their teeth there."
"You, for instance," Noah said. "You won, what, two Virg Hills?" The Virg Hill was the top journalism prize in the state. "Which was why National Record was hot to hire him."
"You got me that job, Noah. Don't be modest." National Record was the magazine Noah worked for.
"And thenpoofyou torpedoed your career."
"He means, I got married and started a family," Paul said.
"Not that there's anything wrong with that," Noah added.
"Man plans, God laughs." Paul shrugged, clearly not bothered by his friend's jabs. "And now I get to spend time with remarkable students like Mel."
"I'm jerkin' his chain," Noah said. "Paul's wife and daughter are great. They put me up last night. Or, I mean, put up with me."
ASU had paid him an honorarium and hosted two nights at a hotel, she knew. He'd evidently come earlier to spend time with Paul.
"You made Cindi laugh, which she needs these days. The guesthouse is yours anytime the in-laws aren't using it."
He nodded, then homed in on Mel. "So you nailed a job already?"
"Yep. I start Monday. I'm a photographer." The award-winning alternative weekly had a rare opening in the art department. "It was your recommendation that got me there," she said to Professor Stockton. "Thank you again."
"I only got you the interview. Your portfolio got you the offer."
Noah's gaze seemed to linger on her face, then he glanced at the dwindling crowd. "So, Paul, if you're okay with me cutting out, I'd like to take Mel up on her offer of a ride to the hotel."
"No problem." Paul paused. "Good luck over there, Noah."
"Thanks." The two locked eyes for a quiet moment, then hugged farewell.
Noah watched Professor Stockton walk away. "They don't come more solid than that guy."
"He's a great teacher. Everyone loves him."
"No doubt." He drew his attention to her again. "So where were we? Waiting for you to vote on tucking me in, I believe."
Her long-neglected libido voted yes, oh, yes, but the rest of her had some discretion.
Noah stood close and looked even closer, so clearly interested that if he were interviewing her, she'd want to spill her guts or take off her clothes. Settle down, muchacha. You 're his driver. Nothing more.
Yet. Oh, she was tempted. Mel had put herself through school by working full-time at a department store photo studio, which left little time to date. Sex was a misty memory.
Picking up her hesitation, Noah's dark eyes went gentle. "I'm being obnoxious. Your job is to drive me to my hotel. If you'd do that, I'd be grateful, Mel."
"Do you have bags?"
"Right here." He reached under a table for a scuffed black leather backpack covered in stickers from different countries. When he placed a friendly hand on her back, the touch burned through her blouse like a brand.
You melt from one touch now? she chided herself. Clearly, her sex drought had gone on too long.
"You coming to the bar?" a girl from her internet journalism class called to her from a group, eyeing Noah as though he'd be dessert.
Mel glanced at Noah, gauging his interest.
"If you want to go with your friends, I can get a cab," he said.
"No. I'm fine," she said to him. "Not tonight," she called to the girl.
"Where are they headed? We used to hit the Chuck-box. Older than dirt and grimy as hell, but the burgers were cheap and they didn't hassle you for tying up a table for hours."
"They go to Four Peaks Brewery now. Great food, good prices."
"They go? What about you?"
"I join them when I can. I've been working full-time, too."
"So you're a real journalist, not one of those 'mass communications majors.'"
"You mean, I reeeeally want to do news, I mean, totally, be on TV, helping people to understand, like, the world." She flipped her hair.
He laughed. "You've got that impression down solid."
"I've had many class hours to study it. I shouldn't make fun. They're young."
"And you're, what, all of twenty-two?"
"Twenty-five, thank you very much."
"Not that old. The difference is that you seem to know what you want." He looked her over again, holding the exit door so that she passed close enough to catch the dark spice and deep woods scent of his cologne.
She led him to her Jetta and unlocked the doors. The car was stuffy from the day's heat. It was only May, but the broil hit early in Arizona. Noah sat, then lifted something from the floorboard, which he held out. "Your portfolio?"
"Yeah. Thanks." She put it in the back. He followed it with his eyes, which she thought was cool. He seemed curious about her work.
"I liked your description of the nitty-gritty of an investigation," she said, making the most of the short drive to the hotel. "Combing through boxes of legal files, Dumpster diving for phone bills, waiting hours in a parking lot to ambush a bad guy trying to slip away."
"Yeah, it's a glamorous life, all right," he said, chuckling. "I've got the scars." He shoved up his sleeve to show her a bite mark. "Drug dealer's pit bull."
"Was that for the Life of a Banger series?"
"You read that?"
"I've read all your pieces." She hoped that didn't come out too breathless. Why wouldn't she study the best in the business? He said he'd just been doing his job and she intended to follow his lead. She couldn't wait to get started.
"Some of that early stuff was pretty rough." He shifted in his seat.
"Not that I could tell. And you got a Pulitzer for the pain-med racket series that came out before that."
"The team got the prize, Mel. And the magazine."
She liked his modesty. "How did you get that guy to give up the doctors' names to start with?"
"I found out his sister died of an OD, and when I mentioned her, he folded. It was pretty heavy. Sometimes you get deeper than you intend."
"But it was so worth it. Those stories led to new regulations."
"They were a factor, sure, but lots of people were in that fight."
She let a second pass, then said, "My favorite was your story on that national guard soldier who missed his child's birth due to redeployment."
"Yeah? That one was tough. I knew he'd get flack from his superiors for breaking rank and talking to me. Afterward, though, he told me he was glad. That's not always the case. A hell of a lot of people regret talking to me."
"But it's your job to get the truth, even when it hurts."
He shot her a look, then stared out the windshield. She could tell he liked what she'd said. The conversation felt so natural. It had to be their shared passion for journalism, but it felt good to her. Damn good.
She'd been thirsty for this kind of talk, dreamed of it from the first day of her first class, but rarely experienced it, because she never had time to hang with classmates or professors. And now she was doing it with Noah Stone, the best of the best.
The hotel sign appeared, signaling the end of the trip. Damn. She pulled in and stopped. "The reservation's prepaid for two nights, so you shouldn't have any charges or"
"Have a drink with me, Mel," he said. "In a couple of days, I'll be lost to the assignment and I won't come up for air until it's over. This feels good, talking with you. How about it?"
Yes, oh, yes, please. But she made herself look at her watch. "I guess I've got time for one drink ."
"Great." He reached around for her portfolio. "All right if I look at your stuff?"
"If you want to. Sure." She felt like pinching herself with excitement.
They headed straight to the bar, where they sat knee-to-knee at a small table, leaning in to hear each other over the soft piano someone played.
"This feels like a martini night to me," he said. "We're both about to take offme to Iraq, you to your new job. Sound okay?"
"Sounds great." She was celebrating her graduation, after all. The launch of her career. At last, she'd achieved what she'd worked so hard for. And she was doing it with Noah Stone, no less. This called for more than an ordinary glass of red wine for sure.
"Two martinis, up, two olives," he told the waiter. "With gin, as God intended."
As soon as the waiter left, Noah opened her book, shifted to the side so they could both look at the pages. They were so close she could see the crinkles around his eyes, the streaks of darker color in his light brown hair, which curled, untamed, to his collar. He had a beauty mark above one ear, and his cologne filled her head.
Their arms touched and they breathed in sync as he flipped the pages, commenting on the subtlest detail of shot after shot. His praise thrilled her, but she kept getting distracted by how close he was, how sexy, how mmm.
"I like these street graffiti ones a lot," he said.
"The gang-squad cop told me they signified a turf war. I thought the way the styles clashed told that story."
"Only because you got the right angles and depth of field. Your composition is, hell, poetry."
"Thanks." He really got what she'd been trying to do. And he knew what he was talking about, so it was high praise indeed. Meanwhile, his nearness electrified her. It was as though her skin was vibrating. Sparks flew so hot and fast she swore she could see blue flashes.
The drinks came and Noah tapped his to hers. "To good gin, remarkable art and great company."
"To all that," she said, and they both drank, watching each other over their glasses. The icy cocktail burned all the way to her toes.
"Good?" Noah asked, his chocolate-brown eyes twinkling.
"Mmm." She smiled. "Perfect."
He nodded, satisfied, then flipped to the next page. "This guy has a great face." He tapped the shot of a Hispanic man with a leathery tan and sad eyes beneath a white straw hat. "How'd you get so close?"
"It wasn't easy. He waved me off at first. People tend to stiffen, preen or shy away from a camera, but I hung around long enough to become scenery."
"Smart. Are Latino issues of particular focus to you?"
"I'm passionate about my heritage, but I won't let that limit me. There's a knee-jerk tendency to slot Latino reporters into any story that involves brown skin or speaking Spanish. I intend to resist that."
"Good for you." He closed the book. "This is great stuff, Mel. No wonder News Day snapped you up." He searched her face. "So why photojournalism? Why not art or commercial photography?"
"How can you ask that?" she demanded. "You know why. Journalism matters. And with people barely reading these days, photos are crucial. A picture stops you cold, makes you see what you'd rather ignore. Think of the photo of the Viet Cong soldier being shot in the head, the leash shot at Abu Ghraib. The starving children in Darfur. News photos galvanize people. They can change the world." She realized she'd gotten louder. "Sorry. I get carried away."
"Don't apologize. You need that kind of passion or this work will kick you in the teeth." He hesitated. An emotion she couldn't identify flickered in his eyes. Fatigue? Sadness?"Keep your fire, Mel. No matter what."
"What else is crucial in an investigative reporter? Personality traits, I mean." She was eager for his answer.
"You interviewing me, Ramirez?"
"Taking notes." She tapped her skull.