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So there I was in Paris at one of the greatest restaurants in the world, and stomach flu picks that night to turn on me, between the pigeon aux olives and the baba au rhum."
"Oh, no. Imagine that." Hannah O'Reilly swallowed another mouthful of tepid champagne and glanced desperately behind the large pallid lump named Frank who'd inflicted himself on this portion of her evening. At a New Year's Eve party in an ostentatious mansion outside of her home city of Philadelphia, wearing one of those dresses saved all year for parties like this, she should be dancing wildly with a hot stranger. If she wanted boredom, she could have stayed home.
A waiter wafted by with a tray of tidbits. Hannah grabbed one, not sure what was in it, but assuming it cost more than her daily food allowance. Gerard Banks, owner of both this house and the newspaper that employed her, The Philadelphia Sentinel, threw a fancy New Year's Eve party every year for his staff, friends and family. Hannah didn't know which category this guy Frank belonged in, staff, friend or family, but she wished he'd bludgeon someone else with his stories. She was here for a healthy serving of hedonism.
"Another time, in London, I ate an oyster and felt movement between my teeth." He mimicked checking in his large mouth and pretended to hold something up. "Turned out to be a worm. Never ate oysters after that."
"I don't blame you." She laid her hand on his jacket sleeve to cushion the rejection. "You know I think I'd like a refill on my champagne. It was great talking to you."
"Sure." He sighed and lifted his soda in a resigned toast. "Happy New Year."
"Same to you, Frank." She escaped,breathing a guilty sigh of relief, maneuvered between a chatting couple and a chartreuse settee, set her glass on a table full of similar empties next to the stone hearth and went searching for a champagne-bearing waiter. Then she was going to find some wild single hottie and flirt her head off. Because she was determined that this new year would launch a fabulous new chapter of her life. Careerwise, familywise and manwise. Out of the rut, into the rutting.
Bingo. Tuxedoed waiter ten paces ahead, carrying a tray of fizzing delight. She dodged between a ficus and a ceramic statue of a leopard. With any luck she could cut him off on the other side of the orange suede couch, and
"Hannah, how's the year winding down for you?" Tragically, her boss, Lester Wanefield, neither wild nor single nor with an extra glass of champagne, stepped into the few remaining feet between her and her next dose of bubbly. "Hey, now don't you do good things for red sequins."
"Oh. Thanks." She loved how she looked in this dress, but enticing her boss made her wish she'd worn sackcloth.
"Great party, huh?"
"Mmm, yeah." If she could keep herself from thinking the money should be used for something more worthy. Like charity or education or disease research or Hannah's bank account.
She kept her eye on the waiter. This could still work. If he moved a few feet to his right and glanced her way
"I've been thinking about your next assignment. Not for your Lowbrow column, but a feature story. Maybe start it on the front page."
Lester had her full attention thenall rotund, gray-bearded, bespectacled, five-foot-six-inches of him. Now that she'd been at the paper over a year, she'd been pestering himwell, hinting first, suggesting second, pestering third for more substantial assignments than the powder-puff stories he'd been tossing at her and burying in the back sections. "That would be fabulous, Lester. You know, I've actually been researching a story. There's a little-known side effect of the drug Penz"
"A story about boobs."
If she punched him in his large stomach, would he squeal like the pig he was? "Boobs."
"Women who've had boob jobs, to be precise. How does having a bigger rack alter their dating habits, their sex lives, their ability to attract men and does it change the type of men they score with?"
"How interesting." He had to be kidding. "But I was actually hoping to do"
"We'll call it 'Rack of Glam.' And I want lots of pictures." He leered at a well-endowed woman strutting past. "Lots of pictures."
"I know you would, O'Reilly. But you don't get your 'rathers' in this business until you've been around a lot longer than you have."
"So you've said." Ad nauseam. "But I"
"No butts." He gave her bare shoulder a condescending squeeze and winked. "Just boobs."
She approximated a smile, knowing further argument would only cement his opposition. But grrrrrr. How much girly news could a nongirly woman stand? Girly dress tonight aside.
She needed to find a story on her own, something bigger and sexier than the drug side effects, something so compelling that even Pig Lester couldn't turn it down. A huge scoop with enough popular appeal to hook him, but enough substance to further her career and get her on such sound financial footing that if her parents' lives imploded again she could be the one they could depend on.
Yeah. Like that.
She blew out a breath and spotted another waiter, wished her boss a Happy New Year that she barely managed to keep from sounding like Damn You and Your Family to Hell, and followed, determined to score more alcohol, this time to numb the frustration. A story about boobs. Whoopee. The year ended in approximately fifteen minutes and as far as she was concerned, good riddance. Landing what she thought would be her dream job hadn't worked out. Again. Her last boyfriend hadn't worked out. Again. Her determination to lose ten pounds hadn't worked out. Again. Twenty-nine years old and she thought she'd be set for life by thirty.
At least circumstances had miraculously turned around for Mom and Dad. Though fat lot of help she'd been able to be.
The waiter stopped to serve an evening-gowned trio. This was her chance.
"Hannah." Her closest work-friend, business reporter Daphne Baldwin, snagged her hand and dragged her into the library. "You have to meet this person Dee-Dee something. Royco or Rosmer or Rrrrrr I forget. But you have to meet her."
"Why?" Hannah glanced wistfully at the top of the retreating waiter's head, his tantalizing tray just visible above the crush of people. So close, and yet
"Because, she's wait." Daphne searched the room and frowned. "She was just here."
Daphne made a face. "He wouldn't come. Said he didn't see why he should get dressed up in uncomfortable clothes and hang around people he didn't know and didn't want to know, when he could stay home and be comfortable drinking without having to worry about driving drunk."
He had a point, though Hannah wouldn't dare admit it out loud. There were times she felt Daphne's mellower half would be happier with a woman who matched his nonenergy, and that Daphne needed more of a live wire, but Daphne insisted he was her life's ballast. Hannah thought he was more her life's punching bag. "So you're a wild single tonight. He better watch out."
"I don't know, Hannah, he's been acting weird lately. Doesn't want to do anything with me."
"You mean he no longer jumps to do everything you want to do?"
"Ha ha ha." Daphne continued to scan the crowd, unperturbed by Hannah's bull's-eye zinger. "I'm serious. He's been distant and I don't know, unresponsive. Like there's something really bugging him, but he won't tell me."
"Do you think he's cheating?"
"What?" Daphne's horror was immediate, and so impressive that nearby heads turned.
Oops. Where was the Reverse button on this conversation? Obviously Hannah had struck a nerve, and it wasn't her place to torture her friend by planting suspicions. "No, no, I don't think he is, I just Isn't that what you always suspect when"
"Paul would never cheat. He doesn't have the time. Or the initiative."
Oof. As much as Hannah loved Daphne, sometimes she thought Paul should cheat, just to stop her from taking him for granted. "Something at work?"
"He'd tell me that. It's probably a midlife crisis. Men get those all the time, don't they? Serves them right for not being slaves to hormones every month like we are." She frowned and plunked her hands onto her enviably trim hips. "Now where the heck is that woman?"
"Why do I need to meet this person?" Hannah sighed, queasy over her friend's relationship attitudes and feeling generally cranky. She didn't want to make small talk with any strangers, not even Mr. Hot-Wild-Single-Whoever. The dress was wasted. The night was wasted. The year was wasted. Her life was on its way to being wasted. Only she wasn't wasted because the damn waiters were avoiding her.
Fine. She'd ring in the New Year, butt-kiss Gerard for spending gazillions on people he underpaid, and get home to the city before the predicted ice storm hit. Too bad about her fantasy of spending the night enraptured with a new love, but probably just as well. It was always the same tired story. She fell for men like stemware during an earthquake, then when they sensed the depth of her passion and excitement and hope for the future, they abruptly moved on. No matter how hard she tried to act indifferent, men could always tell. Maybe she should make a resolution tonight to avoid the gender altogether.
"Come on." Daphne dragged her out of the library into another room, some sort of study, then another huge garish living room, as if the front living area the size of Hannah's entire apartment wasn't enough. "Don't see her here, either. Let's go back."
"Ooh, wait." Hannah caught a glimpse of Rory, the VP of advertising whom she had a minicrush on, standing alone, looking a little lost. At the office Rory barely acknowledged her in her usual attire of jeans and baggy sweaters. Should she test her slinky red-sequined minidress out on him and see if he
Argh! What was she, some kind of addict? Ten seconds and she'd already forgotten her resolution. Men bad, Hannah. Alone good. Alone safe.
Alone, boring and predictable.
"Let's try this way."
Hannah dug in her feet before Daphne could continue bulldozing. "Would you mind telling me what is so thrilling about this person?"
"Oh. Right. Duh." Daphne thwacked her forehead, making her fabulous brown curls bounce. "She's close to Jack Brattle."
Zip. Hannah's gaze left Rory's tall form at light speed and fixed on her friend. "Jack Brattle?"
"Knew that'd get your attention."
"Where is she?" Hannah grabbed Daphne's rock-muscled arm, not even indulging her usual envy for Daphne's discipline in the gym. "Find her. An interview with Jack Brattle could get me"
"I know, I know, world renown and riches galore. Why do you think I wanted you to meet her?" Daphne pulled Hannahor was Hannah now pulling Daphne?toward the house's huge foyer into which spilled a staircase worthy of Scarlett O'Hara's Tara. And at this staircase, oh happy day, Daphne proceeded to point. "There she is."
And there she was, a little-black-dress-clad platinum-blond bombshell cliché, sauntering down the steps on requisite spike heels. A perfect candidate for Lester's "Rack of Glam" article.
"I'm sorry, is there a Pamela Anderson look-alike contest tonight?"
"Shh." Daphne positioned herself at the bottom of the staircase. "Hi, Dee-Dee."
"Hey." Dee-Dee reached them, shook back her mane of peroxide and flicked a glance at Hannah. "Cool dress."
"Thanks. Thank you." Hannah gave her best ingratiating grin. "I love yours, too."
"This is Hannah O'Reilly. She works with me at the Sentinel."
"Yeah?" Another shake of overcooked hair.
"She writes the Lowbrow column."
"Oh!" Something approaching life quivered in her too-taut face. "I love your column! You're always fighting with that guy who writes the Highbrow column, D. G. Jackson. Too funny!"
"Yes!" Hannah gritted her teeth. Way too funny. Mr. Jackson took malicious delight in thumbing his nose at her column, which extolled the virtues of inexpensive food and entertainment around the city of brotherly love, while his dwelt on places and things no normal person could afford and no sane person would waste that much money on. She'd responded to one particularly degrading remark by sending him a case of Grey Poupon and blogging about it. He'd reciprocated with cans of spray-cheese. Word got out, and now both their editors were fanning the flames all in the name of circulation and buzz.
Circulation and buzz. Yeah, superdeedooper. What about the news? She wanted to write news.
"So what does this D.G. guy look like?" Dee-Dee tipped her head and started playing girlishly with a fried strand, making Hannah want to tell her D.G. could be Liberace's surviving twin. "His articles are so charming and funny and classy all at the same time."
"I've actually never met him." Hannah smiled, aching to change the subject to Jack Brattlewhere was he, how soon could she meet him? "But maybe I can arrange to set you up sometime for lunch."
"Oooh, I'd love that. I have this feeling about him " She giggled. "Would you really do that for me?"
"Sure, no problem." Hannah hadn't been serious, but it didn't hurt to promise one favor right before she asked for another. And maybe she could work a date with the grievously tacky Dee-Dee into another joke on Mr. Highbrow. "So Daphne tells me you're best buddies with Jack Brattle."
"Oh." Blink-blink of false eyelashes. "I don't know about best buddies. I shouldn't even have told"
"Well." She looked uneasily between Hannah and Daphne. "I've met him."
Hannah sent Daphne a sidelong glance. Met was a far cry from close to. "When was this?"
"Oh, a while back." She gestured vaguely. "I'm really not supposed to tell. It just sort of slipped out."
And thank God for that. Jack Brattle had kept himself out of the public eye as effectively as his late gazillionaire father had kept himself in it, which meant the absence of a Brattle in the news left that much bigger a hole.
An interview with Harold Brattle's son and heir Or, given that Dee-Dee was full of hot air as well as silicone, even snippets of inside information on Jack's whereabouts, his habits, tastes, sexual preference Any reporter would give up major organs for that scoop.
Many had tried, none had succeeded. Not since the disappearance of Howard Hughes had a missing person generated this much mystery and excitement. Yet by all accounts Jack Brattle continued to run his father's empire while remaining invisible. From time to time people claimed to have encountered himlike people kept seeing Elvisbut the sightings always turned out to be hoaxes or misidentification.
"Whatever you can tell me would be great. I'll handle it all very discreetly. No one will ever be able to trace anything back to you."
"Oh gosh. I'm so not supposed to."
"I know." She laid a sympathetic hand on Dee-Dee's soft arm, wanting to pinch her. "I completely understand. I've put you in a really tough position.