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She was one hell of a looker. A hot body encased in ice. Pure ice, if her demeanor was any indication. But that didn't stop him from assessing the sleek line of her hair, the full curve of her breasts. Oh, she was hot all right. She just needed the right man to set her free.
Not that he was the man. Jake Mahoney shifted his large frame in the folding metal chair, wondering why in hell press conferences were always held in places without proper air-conditioning, and with seats that could easily pass as torture implements. Maybe to keep the reporters from staying too long.
He suppressed a smile and turned his attention back to the ice queen. Mary Catherine "Riley" O'Brien looked every inch the part. Slim and aristocratic, she'd give Jackie Kennedy's memory a run for her money. Especially if Carter O'Brien managed to win the election. But that remained to be seen.
In the meantime, he was stuck temporarily on the political beat, trailing the senator's daughter. And pretty package or no, she was the kind of woman he'd just as soon be on the opposite end of the planet from. He'd been chewed up and spit out by better. And he had no intention of making the same mistake twice. Especially not with someone like her.
"Want to meet her?"
Jake pulled his gaze from the podium and turned toward the sound of the voice. Edna Winston's smile was crooked. "Of course I want to meet her. Why the hell do you think I'm here?" He tried to hide his embarrassment with gruffness, but he could see by the twinkle in her eye that she wasn't buying. She'd seen his reaction to Ms. O'Brien.
"Well, actually, I've been sitting here wondering just that. I mean this isn't your usual stomping ground."
"Politicos, murderers," he shrugged, "is there a difference?"
Edna didn't bother to answer, just sat with one eyebrow raised, waiting.
"All right. I'm subbing for Walter. He's indisposed or something. I didn't ask." Walter Finley's affair with the bottle was a well-known fact.
"So this is a onetime shot?" She tilted her head toward Riley, and despite himself he looked.
"Oh yeah." The words came out with more force than intended.
"Well, then I suggest you make the most of it." Again there was a hint of amusement in the older woman's eyes. "I have a meeting with her immediately after this. It'd be easy enough to introduce you."
Edna Winston was a tough old bird. Been around longer than anyone could remember. She was a hell of a reporter, gutsy and tenacious. She could ferret out information when it looked as if there wasn't any.
"And why would you want to do that, Edna?" He eyed her cautiously. She wasn't exactly noted for her charity.
"Because I like you, Jacob."
Nobody called him Jacob, except his gran, and she'd been gone for a long, long time now. Still, he was here to do a job, and there was no sense looking a gift horse in the mouth. Even if it was more likely a gift cobra.
Her lips curled up at the corner, sort of a half smile.
If he didn't know better, he'd say the old broad had read his mind. "All right, Edna. I'm game. When this is finished, take me to the ice queen."
Riley O'Brien smiled politely, watching the crowd. Cannibals, every one of them. Carnivores. Waiting for the opening. One misstep, one misspoken word, and they'd be on her, devouring her, leaving nothing but bones behind.
The general public was gone, escorted out of the tent by members of Atlanta's finest. The risk of speaking at an abortion clinic had been calculated carefully against the gain of pushing forward her father's pro-choice agenda. The end result being Riley's presence as her father's emissary.
So it was one down, one to go. She'd survived the public speech, escaped the demonstrators, and gotten her father's platform across without incident. Which left the press. And given the choice of facing off with the protesters outside or the press corps in here, she'd take the pro-lifers any day.
She'd been in the spotlight most of her life, and she knew the drill, but that didn't make it any easier, any more palatable. Serving oneself up for slaughter every day was not her cup of tea. It was, however, unavoidable, and like everything else in life, she accepted it as a fait accompli. Part of the game.
"Miss O'Brien." The voice was decidedly male, deceptively soft and silky, southern steel encased in velvet. She shivered despite the warmth of the room, and her gaze collided with the deep indigo of his. Blue on black. His smile was slow, insolent, the hunter moving in for the kill. "You're a Catholic. And yet you're standing here at an abortion clinic, supporting reproductive rights. Don't you find that a little hypocritical?"
There wasn't a simple answer. And even if there was, she wasn't about to share it with a room full of vipers who didn't give a damn about what she really felt. They were looking for headlines. Something to titillate the public, to make a name, to garner ratings.
She held tight to her guarded facade. There was no sense in letting them smell blood. With a deep breath, she smiled, keeping all her emotion safely locked away. He waited, his dark eyes knowing. The son of a bitch was baiting her. But she'd played this game with far more worthy opponentsand won.
With a glacial smile, she broke eye contact, her gaze encompassing everyone there. "I am a practicing Catholic, yes. And as a Catholic, I try to hold to the tenets of my faith. . . ." She paused, trying to order her thoughts, her eyes drawn unbidden back to the stranger.
"However, I also believe that life is about choices, Mister" she glanced down at the seating chart and then back at the reporter. "Mahoney. And I cherish a person's right to make their own. And that includes all people. Women as well as men.
"My father also supports a woman's right to choose. And in so doing, he is not considering the definition of life, he is, rather, considering the definition of freedom. Intellectual as well as physical. And that, Mr. Mahoney, is what America is all about."
There was a smattering of applause, and although she couldn't be certain, she thought she saw a flash of amusement in the murky depths of his eyes.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm afraid we're all out of time. . . ." Maudeen Drake, her father's press liaison stepped up to the podium, and, with an almost imperceptible sigh, Riley stepped away, Maudeen's words fading to a hum. She'd survived one more round unscathed.
Her father would be pleased.
"Well that was a classic nonanswer." Jake watched as the lithe blonde exited through the curtained proscenium.
"You were expecting whata heartfelt confession? Riley O'Brien has been successfully dealing with the press since she was old enough to stand behind a podium." He followed Edna as they wound their way among the emptying chairs.
"That's just the point, isn't it? She's been programmed. There's probably not an original thought in her body. Daddy's little girl through and through."
"Spoken like a true cynic." Edna's voice reflected her amusement.
"And you're not? Christ, Edna, I don't see how you deal with these people day in and day out. They're one hundred percent plastic."
Edna shrugged. "It beats your predilection for the dead."
"Homicide is a puzzle, Edna. You have to put the pieces together. But once you do, the motivations involved are pretty straightforward. Give me a corpse over a politician any day."
"As usual, Jacob, you're oversimplifying. Politicians aren't all bad, you know. And I wouldn't classify Riley O'Brien as a politician anyway."
"Politician's offspring, even worse."
Edna turned to face him, her look turning serious. "She's not Lacey."
His ex-wife was a real piece of work, and the fact that her father had been a career brown-noser hadn't helped anything. "There's only one Lacey, thank God. But it's pretty obvious Riley O'Brien is cut from the same cloth."
"I'd be careful about jumping to conclusions, if I were you." Edna's gaze was smug. "You never know when they're going to jump up and bite you in the butt."
Riley resisted the urge to run a hand through her hair. It wouldn't do a thing for her image and, frankly, probably nothing for her peace of mind either. The press conference had been over for an hour, and this was her last interview.
They'd abandoned the tent for the clinic conference room, its subdued pastels at odds with the muted sound of the protestors outside. She'd be grateful to get out of here, away from prying eyes and intense scrutiny.
"You ready?" Maudeen Drake was a beautiful woman; even the fading of youth couldn't change that fact. She was a valuable asset to their political team, and, at least as far as Riley's father was concerned, a valued personal one as well. It was the latter that led Riley to keep the woman at arm's length.
Her father had a right to his own life. And as women went, Maudeen was a good one. But Riley couldn't seem to get past the feeling that her father was somehow being disloyal to her mother. Ridiculous thoughtconsidering her mother had been dead for almost nineteen yearsbut still one she couldn't seem to shake. With a lift of her chin, she forced herself to focus on the task at hand. "Let's get it over with. It's Edna, right?"
As if in answer, the reporter walked into the room, looking ready for battle, but Riley knew that underneath the razor edges there was a softness. She'd seen it once, a long time ago, at a cemetery in the rain. And she'd never forgotten. Edna was her friend. And Riley knew she couldn't claim many of those.
She relaxed, her smile genuine as she rose to greet the woman.
"Riley, I've brought someone to meet you." No by-your-leave or apology, but then, that was Edna.
Riley's smile froze as the man in the doorway stepped into the room, blue-black eyes mocking her. It was the stranger from the press conference. She struggled to remember his name. It came in a flash. Mahoney. Jake Mahoney.
He wasn't handsome in the classical sense. The lines of his face were too harsh, his jaw already dark with the shadow of his beard. His inky hair was curly, a little too long, and not cut in any discernible fashion. His shirt was expensive and perfectly creased, at odds with the faded softness of his jeans. She had the feeling the contradiction reflected the man himself. And despite herself, she was intrigued. There was an undeniable sense of authority about him. As if he'd been there already and done it all.
She told herself that he was just a man. A journalist at that. But there was no denying the effect he had on her. She felt like a schoolgirl with her first crush. Blood pounded through her veins and Riley fought to hold on to her forced calm. She wasn't a child, and she didn't have a crush. She didn't even know this man.
Maudeen reacted instantly, her face tightening into a polite mask of determination, her eyes meeting Riley's, waiting for a signal. Riley started to nod, to evict the man, to let him know who was really in charge, but somewhere along the way the message missed a nerve ending and she shook her head, holding her hands out to Edna. "Any friend of yours is welcome here."
The woman smiled, taking both of Riley's hands. "Well, I don't know that I'd call him a friend exactly. But I like the boy." She shrugged. "What can I say, I'm a sucker for a pretty face."
Riley didn't believe a word of it. The woman was listed in the dictionary under shrewd, but there was nothing to be gained in arguing the point. And besides, Mr. Mahoney was already in the room, his presence filling it, his strength of will almost palpable.
She met his eyes, keeping hers purposefully cool. "Mr. Mahoney." Her smile slid into candidate's daughter position. No sense in letting him see how much he unsettled her. "I don't believe we've met before."
"We don't exactly move in the same circles." He took her offered hand, and it was everything she could do not to jerk it away. Hot sparks danced along her skin. She blinked, trying to stay focused, confused by the intensity of her reaction to him.
"Meaning I don't have much time for the hollow platitudes of politicians." He was dismissive. Almost scornful.
"I see." She frowned. "I'm sorry, then, that you're stuck here with me."
"Don't be." His smile was slow, sultry, his eyes raking over her, his hand tightening on hers. "There are benefits to everything, Ms. O'Brien. One simply has to find them."
"And I'm sure you're very good at that." She narrowed her eyes, her voice one degree colder than frigid.
"I haven't had any complaints."
She swallowed, trying to wrench her gaze away from his, to find a way to gain the upper hand against this man. Which was probably laughable considering the fact that he'd managed to charm Edna Winston into introducing him. Edna was anything but an easy mark.
"I'd volunteer to leave," Edna interjected with a wry smile, "but I have an article to write."
Riley pulled herself together, embarrassed at the turn of her thoughts. She never let anyone get to her. Not romantically, not sexually, not any way. Ever. And certainly not a reporter. Heavens, she might as well commit political suicide, and take her father right along with her. She was made of sterner stuff.
"Do sit down." Waving at the sofa, she settled herself into an overstuffed chair, keeping her face pleasant, noncommittal. "I've only got a few minutes, so why don't we get right to it."
She sat back, firmly in control again, feeling regal in the wing back. It had been purposefully arranged at just the right angle, the soft light accentuating her to perfection. Sometimes she wondered what the world would think if they could see the real Riley, without the makeup, lighting, and scripted words. Fortunately, it was an idle thought. They wouldn't. They couldn't.
Not the world. Not Jake Mahoney.
Not if her father was going to be the next President of the United States.
Jake fought for breath, wondering what it was about her he found so compelling. She was a gorgeous woman, but beautiful had stopped doing it for him a long time ago. It was something more, something there in her eyes. Something that called to him.