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"Sabrina! Where is Sabrina?"
With disbelief, Sabrina Cameron stepped out of the ladies' room of the Austin Herald to hear her name shouted in the distinctive gravelly tones of new editor-in-chief, Frank Roberts.
Only a month before, she'd said goodbye to New York City, and her U.S. Senator father, along with a high-profile political column at a renowned newspaper. So much for thinking she'd left behind the hectic life where being hunted down in the restroom was the norm.
"Sabrina!" came another shout, as Frank barreled around the corner and into the hallway, his tall, lanky frame in pursuit of his targether. The man was high-strung, with a penchant for long hours filled with hectic demands, usually made by him of everyone else.
His hard, gray eyes narrowed as he took in her appearance. Surprise flickered in his keen stare as he noted her long, brunette hair, worn loose now for the first time since her arrival, and then her unusually casual attire: a pale-blue Western shirt tucked into her black jeans.
Lips thinning disapprovingly, he demanded, "Why are you dressed like that? Where's the suit you had on this morning?"
"I'm reporting from the Kyle Strawberry Festival this afternoon," she said, looking forward to a fun night without the pressure of having anyone analyzing her political views versus those of her father. Oh, and the cowboys. She was really liking the combo of tight Wranglers with scuffed boots that the men wore like business suits here in Texas. You never knew what was under those Wranglersa millionaire or a ranch handand no one seemed to care. It was refreshing. And sexy.
"Put the other outfit back on," Frank ordered brusquely, snapping her out of her momentary Wrangler fixation. "You're going downtown for a press conference with the mayor."
"Oh, no," Sabrina insisted, "that's not my area. I don't do politics. Not anymore." Nor did she want anyone to know she ever had. So much so that she'd taken a pseudonym to ensure no one would connect her with her past. She needed her own life, her own identity, an ability to make decisions without becoming manipulated by how they might impact her father's career.
"I need you on this," he said, his arms folding in front of him. "You're going."
"No politics," she repeated, shoving her fists to her hips. "That was a condition of my employment."
"I've given you a fifth-grade 'Dare' graduation, a 5k run, and now apparently a silly strawberry festival," he bellowed. "Now you're giving me this. You need to get your backside to that press conference and not in those jeans."
"You gave me those stories because that's what we agreed I'd do the first six months," she said, her voice low as she quickly made sure no one else was around before continuing. "Fluff stories that establish me as someone other than who I was back in New York. Stories that keep me off the radar. I moved across country to make a new life for myself. A press conference with the mayor is not a good enough reason for me to risk jeopardizing that."
"Then I guess you didn't hear that an American soldier, one of our own, robbed a bank last night, and he was connected to a drug cartel. That's big news. The right take on the story could get you a television mention, or maybe even an interview."
"I heard," she said. "People do stupid stuff every day. It's sad but it doesn't require me to report on it personally. And you aren't going to use me to get your own press. The last thing I want is a television mention that will destroy the entire reason I'm hereto get away from the pressure of the spotlight."
"You know that world," he said. "You can find out what I want to know."
"'That world'?" she said. "You mean politics? Yes. I do. And I wish I didn't. Exactly why I came here and took a job with specific duties that do not include 'that world.'" She was thirty-two, long past having every breath she took approved by her father.
"What if I told you I have a person on the mayor's staff who says the mayor not only knows this soldier, but he's trying to bury this story."
"Why would he do that?" she asked, before she could stop herself.
"Maybe the mayor is dirty and I know how you hate a dirty politician," he said. "Maybe he's even involved with the drug cartel. The possibilities are endless. That's why I need an expert on this story. Do I have your attention now?"
"No," she lied. "No, you do not." She'd come here to create a new life, not move the old one to another state. "This isn't why you hired me. And you know my father is known to be highly ambitious and that he's rising as a leader for his party. I don't need to be in the middle of a scandal involving a Governor. Especially not one of the opposing party, which this one is."
"If anyone can get inside this story"
"I don't want inside this story," she said, cutting him off.
"Well, I do," he said. "And that means you do. This is investigative reporting, Sabrina. Not political-opinion commentating. It's about facts. And no one can judge you for the truth."
"Is to do what I tell you to do," he said. "And mine is to report the news by using every resource possible. Strawberry festivals are beneath you. Period. The end."
His eyes sharpened, his voice firmed. "The press conference is at four o'clock. Be there."
She ground her teeth, fighting the part of her that yearned for more substantive reporting, the part she'd dismissed to get her life back. She liked plans. And this story didn't fit her plan.
"Sabrina," he said.
"Oh, all right, Frank," she said. "I'll go, but I don't want my name attached. Have someone else write the story with my notes."
His lips twitched and he turned with a mumbled, "We'll talk," and headed toward the newsroom.
Sabrina debated pursuit and that "talk" right now, but Jennifer Jones, the petite blonde veterinarian who was the newly established pet-advice columnist appeared in her path, rushing toward her.
"What the heck was he shouting your name for?" She stopped in front of Sabrina. "I swear I'll never get used to this place. I need to get back to my clinic. Barking dogs and hissing cats are so much nicer than hot tempers and demanding bellows."
Sabrina might have laughed at the flustered look on Jenn's face, if not for the knots in her own stomach. "Can I go with you?"
"Depends," Jennifer said, smiling. "How do you feel about chickens? I hear I have someone bringing one in this afternoon."
"A chicken?" Sabrina asked, laughing. It had only been a month, but she already considered Jennifer a friend. The woman and her silly animal stories hit all the right notes at all the right times. "You can't be serious."
"As a mama hen," she said. "This is Texas. People take their chickens seriously. This one belongs to a high-school kid in Future Farmers of America."
"In New York," Sabrina told her, "it's the rats we take seriously, only they aren't school projects or pets."
Jennifer snorted. "And here I thought New York City didn't have wildlife." She smiled. "Did Frank's shout mean you are otherwise occupied or can you grab some lunch before I retreat to the animal kingdom of my clinic?"
Sabrina blew hair from her eyes. "It means I need a margarita and some chocolate, though I'll settle for lunch and dessert. But I need to"
"Drive," Jennifer said for her. "I know."
Sabrina frowned. "You do?"
She nodded. "We've been to lunch three times, and every time you found a reason to drive. Just like you have to fill your coffee cup to an exact spot. You're a control freak."
Sabrina opened her mouth to deny this, but Jennifer held up a finger. "Let me go grab my purse." Jennifer rushed away toward the newsroom in a flash of long blond hair and bubbly personality.
Sabrina stood absolutely still, frowning over Jennifer's assessment that she was a control freak. She wasn't a control freak. Her father was. And she intended to prove that fact to Jennifer over lunch.
An hour later, seated in a red-leather booth of a family-style restaurant, the main course completed, Sabrina helped herself to the huge brownie, covered with chocolate and ice cream, in front of her.
"I'm not a control freak," Sabrina insisted, having just taken Jennifer into her confidence with a confession of how and why she'd come to Texas.
Jennifer arched a brow.
Sabrina pursed her lips in rejection of that silent challenge. Darn this woman for seeing so much, for forcing her to face facts. "Fine. I admit it. I'm a control freak, but it has been by necessity. Back home, every step I took was analyzed, dissected for political gain. I'm out of that environment now, and I want to be free, but it's hard."
Silence followed as Jennifer savored a big bite of brownie, and then said, "Have you ever watched the Dog Whisperer?"
Sabrina laughed in disbelief at the off-the-wall comment that seemed to fit nowhere in this conversation. "Big Fan," Sabrina admitted. "And not because I'm trying to be a dog whisperer. I don't even have a dog. It's the way those animals instantly submit, well that kind of control is really sexy."
Jennifer set her spoon down. "Listen, this isn't going where I meant for it to go. We are talking about giving away control, not making it sexy."
"Oh, good grief," Sabrina said in realization of her mixup. "I'm completely conflicted. I'm in way worse shape than I thought." And on that note, she did the only logical thing she could doshe took a huge bite of her brownie.
"We're all confused," Jennifer assured her, but not before she stifled a laugh. "It's called being human."
"Then maybe you have the right idea," Sabrina said. "Spend all your time with animals." She frowned. "Oh, wait. You're married, though, right?"
"I'm married, yes," Jennifer said and wiggled an eyebrow. "And thankfully Bobby knows all the right times to be an animal." They shared a laugh, and then she continued, "What I was going to say is this. In the Dog Whisperer, when a dog is aggressive, Cesar shows people how to make that animal become submissive. He has the animal lie on its side in the middle of other dominantsto learn to accept a submissive position."
"Okay," Sabrina said. "Just for the record, I know you're a vet so I'm not going to be offended by you comparing me to a dog. But I still don't get the point."
"The point is that he conditions the dogs to see that less aggressive behavior gets them what they want, which in their case is praise," she said. "I think you need to condition yourself to let go of control, so you can see that the world won't shatter because you do." Her eyes lit up. "And I know just how you can do it."
"If it involves a chicken, I can tell you right now, I want no part of it."
"Skydiving," Jennifer said. "It's perfect."
Sabrina gaped. "Skydiving." That was the last thing she'd expected to hear. "Are you crazy? You want me to jump out of a plane? Surely you can think of something less dramatic?"
"Bobby and a few of his Army pals own Texas Hot-zone, a skydiving operation thirty minutes outside of Austin. You can make your first jump with Caleb. He's one of Bobby's best friends. A nice, soft-spoken guy who's gentle. You can give him control without feeling like you really gave it away, and he'll keep you safe."
"No," Sabrina replied, setting her spoon down in rejection. "The idea behind me moving here was to live life. In other wordsI don't have a death wish."
Jennifer shrugged. "I jump and I love it. But then, I'm not a control freak. I guess that allows me to enjoy things you can't."
"Oh, that was a low blow," Sabrina chided, narrowing her eyes on her friend. "Really low."
"I know." She leaned in close. "But it worked and you know it." Her watch beeped. "Shoot. I need to go." She reached for her purse. "I won't be back to the paper until next week." She set a business card on the table. "That's the address of Texas Hotzone. Meet me there on Saturday before two. That gives you three days to chicken out, but don't do it. You moved across the country to change your life, so change it. Don't relocate the old one." She pushed to her feet. "I dare you."
Sabrina sat watching Jennifer depart without really seeing her. She'd moved across country, left her job, changed her name, and all for what? To remain captive to her father's world?
She grimaced. Who was she kidding? She didn't want to report on strawberry festivals. It was simply that strawberry festivals were safe. Frank had been right. Reporting facts was different from writing her political POV as she had in New York. And investigative reporting had been her roots, the way she'd started in the media years before.
She wanted to go to this press conference. She wanted to find out the facts. She wanted to write the story she wanted to write. To choose the friends she wanted to choose. To choose a man because he was exciting, not safe, either.
Heck, she wanted to be able to have a one-night stand if she so desired and not worry about being gossip fodder. But she'd never dared such a thing before. She gave that a moment's consideration, picturing a set of rock-hard abs, perfect pecs and wild, erotic passion.
She sighed and discarded the idea, inhaling a spoonful of her half-eaten dessert and deciding to savor every bite. The brownie was the closest thing to orgasm she was going to get anytime soon. Maybe she'd better go with skydiving. At least jumping out of a plane came without the risk of scandal. The risk of scandal. Would she ever be free?
It was Saturday afternoon, a hot time at the Hotzone for Ryan "Cowboy" Walker, who sauntered behind the front desk to complete the day's log. He was outta here early today, taking off for the first time in a month, since their grand opening.