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Hunter Harding always knew when something was about to go seriously wrong. It would happen within hours, usually minutes, after the thought sprang into her conscious mind that life was going pretty well. This wasn't something that had evolved from being a journalist; her first experience went back to when she was sixteen, more precisely, on the morning she woke thinking how wonderful it was that her father was coming home that day from his latest assignment and would be there to see her dressed to go to the junior prom.
Her feet had hardly touched the stairs as she danced down to the kitchenonly to find her mother crumpled on the breakfast table, sobbing. Apparently, while Hunter had been in the shower, the phone had rung, the caller the station chief at her father's TV network in New York. The plane out of Colombia carrying her father, Nolan Harding, was missing and fears were that it had crashed in stormy weather. Days later, the wreckage was found, and they had the confirmation everyone had feared: there were no survivors.
Although they were financially stable, her mother sold their Mahwah, New Jersey, home and moved them back to Hunter's actual birthplaceSan Antonio, Texasto be near her maternal grandparents, since her father's parents had died some years before. Even though it was her senior year and she knew no one, Hunter learned to love Texas, made friends easily enough, and despite the hole in her heart, she determinedly moved on for her mother's and grandparents' sakes.
Then, just before her college graduation, when those she loved most were scheduled to watch her get her diploma and life was looking bright again, she thought it safe to sigh in appreciation, only to learn that morning that her roommate Danica's brother, foolishly tied up with unsavory types, had OD'd on drugs and was lying in a hospital in a coma.
This pattern of painful life experiences continued, the most recent the matter of her brief engagement to Denny Brewster. Hunter was still smarting too much from that episode to allow herself to dwell on the details for longer than a second. So when she woke in her San Antonio condominium early on a June morning and stretched with pleasure remembering yesterday's news that she and her newest co-anchor Greg Benson had almost achieved another week as the number-one-rated news program for the five and ten o'clock slots, the ringing phone automatically sent her body and mind into panic mode. She just knew that she was about to have a another reality check, the question was how traumatic?
Please, no, she thought. What's it going to take to end this hug-then-gut-punch pattern?
It turned out that the caller was KSIO's executive producer, Tom Vold, informing her that Senator George Leeds of Texascaught in a career-breaking scandal only days agowas advising the press that he planned to make an announcement this morning. Tom was convinced he would be tendering his resignation and wanted her to get to the station pronto to go live when that happened.
Under normal circumstances, such a development could be received as a career-enhancing opportunity, however it threw Hunter into a tailspin. She was due to fly to New Jersey to deliver the commencement speech at the high school she would have graduated from had she stayed on the East Coast. How was she to do the live spotif the senator actually went through with his resignationand still make her flight? What was she to tell the school's administration in New Jersey? "Hang on, I'll be there. Maybe?" But to ask her boss to get Greg, her relatively new co-anchor, to do the spot would send the message to him and their audience that she didn't see this as important news. If Tom wanted her to handle this, she needed to go.
Concluding that there would be little time to change tonight, she put on the red silk suit she'd planned to wear for this evening's event and rushed to work. Rarely fussy in her personal life, she believed in dressing up, not down, whenever possible as well as investing in quality clothing and accessories for her professional image. For example, she rarely wore anything less than fourteen-karat gold on the set. She believed the camera could tell or an abrupt movement would betray its inferior construction. However, when it came to shoes, regardless of price, she approached them all with equal resignation. She always joked to the set crew as she hunted for her discarded footwear that she had undoubtedly been a beach bum or bunny in a previous life.
By the time she arrived at the station, there was word that the senator would, indeed, step down. Luck was with them and they had a whopping forty minutes to formulate a strong package and cull quality guests. When the countdown came, she ably represented the network through his announcement and the guest interviews that followed.
"And that concludes our special report," she said some twenty-five minutes after the senator read his five-minute prepared speech. "I'm Hunter Harding. Please join us at five for a recap of today's important developments and at ten o'clock for the latest reactions from the White House, Congress and more. Until then, be well," she said as her outro, the newsroom jargon for an exit tag.
"We're off. Clean air as usual, Hunter," Wade Span-gler, her news director, said of the mistake-free segment right after the control room advised that the computer had done a hard out, taken over and slid them into a commercial break. Regular programming for that hour of the morning would also be handled by computers.
"Thanks, Wade and everyone," Hunter replied, adrenaline still pumping through her system. Pretending that she didn't have a 220-volt cord buzzing up her spine, she added, "Pizza is on me. Someone check with Joey at the security desk. It should be here by now."
As cheers of appreciation sounded from the control room as well as the set, Hunter pulled out her earpiece, unclipped her mike and slipped off the battery tucked at the small of her back inside the waistband of her suit in anticipation of the assistant assigned to collect them. At the same time, she slipped back into her high heels. The station would continue with the morning talk show out of New York, so there was no immediate need to rush off, but she did have to remind her bosses that she had a previous commitment for this evening and see about rebooking the flight that she'd missed. Collecting her notes, she gauged who best to speak to that might help move things along for her.
"Has anyone heard yet if our competition went live with the senator's resignation?" she asked the group in general. She might be feeling under the gun, but it would improve her mood greatly to know that they'd cornered the competition on breaking news.
A familiar voice from the control room announced, "No, ma'am. KAST picked up their mother ship on cable to handle this, and the other two didn't budge from their regular programming. Congratulations, Flash. You kept us on top of the podium, as usual."
Letting an apprentice she thought she remembered was named Kaci finish collecting her audio paraphernalia, Hunter signaled a thumbs-up. "Thanks, Fred," she said to Fred Gant, her producer in the control room. "Tonight, tell your wife she should kiss you once for me."
Amid hoots and chortles of laughter, Fred drawled, "And she'll say, 'After you bathe your stinky dog.' By the way, you're wanted upstairs," he added. "Pappy Yarrow himself requests the pleasure of your company."
Knowing the nickname was said with deep affection, she only cast a questioning look at the wall of windows at the back of the set, particularly at one balding head amid the sea of impressive and not-so-well-endowed coifs. "Seriously? I'm supposed to be at thirty-thousand feet somewhere over Arkansas right now. Does no one in this entire building remember that?"
"Glass half full, darlin'," Fred replied. "Maybe he wants you to take his limo to the airport to make up for things."
Pointing her finger at him, Hunter rose. "He's kind enough to do exactly that. Tell Kym that I'm on my way."
Under normal circumstances, she never minded being called to Henry Yarrow's office when he was in town because Fred was right that she enjoyed a special relationship with the CEO and president of Yarrow Communications, Inc., their parent company. Mr.
Henry, as she preferred to call him, had been a mentor to her almost since she began at KSIO as an apprentice while in college. But these days, the successful businessman could get a little long-winded, and time was precious today.
The Yarrow Building was forty stories, not the tallest structure in San Antonio but a glistening addition of glass and granite to the skyline. It housed all of the employees and operations of KSIO, the headquarters of Yarrow Communications, as well as thirty-three other businesses. In this day and age when large corporations were swallowing up smaller and weaker ones by the drove, YCI remained one of the few media businesses solely owned and operated by individuals, not a conglomerate.
Accepting the presence of security cameras as she rode the elevator up, Hunter automatically checked her hair and makeup in the highly polished wall panels. She still looked TV-camera ready: shoulder blade-length, mahogany-brown hair, glossy and neatly swept back behind her ears to allow a glimpse of eighteen-karat gold, lover's-knot earrings, bangs retaining just the right poof, mascara, liner and eye shadow untouched by emotion, an accidental rub or melted by the hot lights, and her suit was almost wrinkle-free. Despite the pressure of the morning, she looked much better than she had yesterday after the ten o'clock news when there had been declarations of abort in her ear as scheduled interviews didn't happen and remotes crashed. After most days under the camera, she was usually drooping in her clothing and hunting for the shoes she hated to wear. Granted, she could save herself a little of the stage meltdown if she wore more provocative outfits like the cable anchors were modeling these days, but she didn't believe that she was there to be eye candy for the crew or the audience.
When the elevator doors opened and she emerged on executive row, she saw that most of the secretaries were already on an early lunch break. Mr. Yarrow's assistant's composed face blossomed into a smile of welcome as she approached. When Mr. Yarrow's longtime secretary, Jean, had been forced to retire due to signs of early Alzheimer's, Kym Lee had been handpicked from the entire staff. Mr. Yarrow had wanted to hire from within the company for all of the obvious reasons: to encourage excellence, to satisfy employee aspirations for advancement and to build dedication to the company. It also helped that his new assistant was familiar with company policy, much of the staff and corporate affiliates as well as the business in general. When her title was tweaked to assistant to fit the times, there had been a bit of grumbling from her former workmates, but Hunter supported the change because she admired Kym.
The diminutive beauty rose when Hunter drew near. Born of Asian-American parents, she was also dressed conservatively in a magnolia-white suit and exuded the femininity and grace that Hunter admired. She gave her an answering smile.
"Hello, Ms. Harding. Please go in. You're expected."
Kym stepped to the carved double doors beside her desk, tapped lightly, then opened the right side.
"Thank you, Kym," Hunter said. She knew there was no use in trying to gauge what was up by Henry's assistant's expression. Whatever she might be privileged to know, the young woman was too much the grateful employee to give anything away. Then Hunter saw who else was inside, and she knew she could quit wondering and start worrying.
Hesitating midstep, her gaze locked with the gaze of the man standing beside Henry Yarrow at the floor-to-ceiling windows. She hadn't seen himat least not within old-fashioned, dueling distancein two years? It would have pleased her immensely to never lay eyes on him again, because if not for him, she would be married by now. Maybe have a child. The heartbreak and humiliation that he'd triggered had taken her months to overcome, the healing doubly difficult since she'd had to keep it all bottled up.
"Go ahead and take your lunch now, Kym," Henry Yarrow said with a nod and friendly half wave. "Come in, Hunter, dear. Marvelous job just now."
The TV in the corner by the black leather sofa and tan leather chairs was off, but Hunter didn't doubt that he had watched her segment. "I appreciate that, sir." Such praise would ordinarily have thrilled her if not for the presence of Cord Yarrow Rivers. The fact that he was Henry's grandson did nothing to improve her opinion of him.
Leaning more heavily on the cane than usual, Henry
Yarrow's once-square-shouldered frame seemed to have curved and become burdened overnight by an impossible weight. Henry indicated the far more virile man beside him with a tilt of his head. "Cord, you know."
Staying focused on his grandfather, Hunter murmured a dutiful, "Mr. Rivers."
"It's a pleasure to see you again, Hunter."
His response held a warmth that hers did not, and Hunter had to struggle not to display any feelings of resentment. He might be Henry Yarrow's daughter's only son, Henry's only grandson, but he had nerve calling her by her first name as though they were well acquainted or even friends. That said, she couldn't deny that time had been kind to him. What was hethirty-six or -seven by now? In his light gray silk suit, Italian leather shoes and with his dark brown hair expertly groomed by what she gauged was a six-hundred-dollar haircut, he looked the image of success, which he was. She couldn't deny him that. Darn the man, she thought with no small bitterness.
"Please have a seat," Henry said, easing into the chair behind his desk. "I'm afraid my age is catching up with me too quickly to afford the courtesy you deserve."
"Thank you for the flattery, but ceremony is unnecessary." Inside, however, Hunter thought, uh-oh. In the last months, especially the last two months, she'd been noticing him growing increasingly frail. Was he that seriously ill and about to announce that they were selling Yarrow Communications? It would be just like his sweet self to insist on preparing her for the possibility f being without a job. "I am sorry to see you looking unwell, sir," she said as though it was only him in the room. "I hope it's only temporary."