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Ben Garrett did his best work under pressure. He thrived on challenges, deadlines and delivering the impossible. Obstacles were nothing more than hurdles to be jumped, shifted or removed as he saw fit. But the part of the game he loved best was developing strategies to alter or influence the public's perception, and he always played the game to win.
His clients paid him handsomely to see that he did. The hard muscles of his athletic frame shifted beneath his tailored three–piece suit as he moved from the unanswered front door to the side gate of the modest beige duplex in the working–class suburb Hayden, Pennsylvania. The toylike, earth–green Volkswagen he recognized as Jillian Hadley's sat parked under the carport that belonged to her unit. It was a good bet that she was around there somewhere.
Ben's specialty was media relations for The Garrett Group's high–profile clients; Washington, D.C."s movers and shakers, and the rich and famous—or infamous—who wanted their images enhanced, subdued or altered completely. In the fifteen years since he'd earned his MBA from Yale, he'd also earned a reputation in those rarefied circles as the expert at damage control. That ability was why his father, the senior partner in their prestigious public relations firm, and William Kendrick, his father's close friend and a longtime client, had both insisted that he handle Miss Hadley himself.
The good news was that he would get to her before the press descended on her like vultures on carrion. The bad news was that the information he'd been given about William's newly disclosed daughter left him little to work with. All he knewabout Jillian Hadley was that she taught grade school, that her sole meeting with William had not gone well and that no one had been able to reach her to warn her about yesterday's press conference. What concerned him most, though, what concerned them all for that matter, was that she was a potential powder keg in the scandal that had broken twenty–four hours ago.
There hadn't been a newspaper, television station or radio talk show in the country that hadn't jumped on the stories about William's youngest daughter, Tess, being blackmailed by her ex–husband, and about William's newly revealed affair and offspring. The gossip had gone international at the speed of light. The London Daily Star had announced the Crisis in Camelot in bold type on its front page. Headlines in Paris, Rome and on the Internet had leaned toward the theme of Tess paying for the sins of her father and speculation about whether his unnamed daughter had been paid for her silence.
Since no one had any idea what Jillian might say, it was Ben's job to keep the powder keg she represented from blowing. Part of his job, anyway. William had also been adamant that she be protected from the media for her own sake as much as to protect him and his family from any potentially damaging comments she might make.
He reached a small side gate in the white picket fence surrounding the backyard. Letting himself through, he strode past the neat, profusely blooming flowerbed at the side of the house. He had allotted himself twenty–four hours to accomplish his goal with Miss Hadley. As he absently checked the date and time on his Rolex, he hoped fervently that this aspect of the "affair situation," as it was being referred to in the office, would go as smoothly as the press conference he'd arranged and scripted yesterday. He was in the middle of a little family crisis of his own.
He rounded the corner of the tidy little yard that looked much like the small yards on either side of it. Fruit trees and flower beds took up most of the space both sides of the duplex apparently shared. The bulk of his attention, though, settled on the slender brunette standing barefoot in the grass by a redwood picnic table.
He recognized her delicate cameo–like profile from the photos of her he'd seen yesterday. And her hair. The long, wild curls tumbled past her shoulders in a cloud of unrestrained dark silk.
In the space of seconds his glance shifted over her gentle curves. The white tank top and the khaki knee–length skirt she wore were the antithesis of the corporate, chic and designer attire worn by most the women in his sphere, the sophisticated Kendrick women included. If she was wearing makeup, he couldn't tell. As she sensed his presence and glanced toward him, she simply looked tanned, healthy and far younger than the thirty–three years he knew her to be.
Still assessing her, he felt himself frown. He hadn't expected her to appear so…natural. He didn't expect how cheated he felt, either, when the smile of greeting that curved her lush mouth and lit her beautiful dark eyes died at the sight of him.
From that soft smile, she'd clearly expected him to be someone she knew. At the very least, she hadn't expected to be faced with a total stranger.
Not wanting to alarm her by getting close enough to offer his hand, he stopped near the opposite end of the table and motioned toward the house.
"I rang your doorbell but no one answered," he told her, explaining his presence in her backyard.
"I'm Ben Garrett, Miss Hadley. William Kendrick's public relations manager."
Jillian's heart gave an unfamiliar little lurch as the lean hunk of dark–haired, blue–eyed perfection in the expensively tailored suit gave her an easygoing smile. The rich, deep tones of his voice held equal notes of reserve and friendliness. So did the strong, decidedly handsome lines of his face. The combination might have struck her as rather remarkable to achieve had she considered it. As it was, she was too busy dealing with dismay at his presence to worry about his effect on her pulse.
"William said someone was coming when he called this morning." William Kendrick had actually called her twice before that. So had his secretary. Theirs had been four of the messages waiting for her last night on her answering machine. "I'm sorry he didn't reach you in time."
One dark eyebrow slowly arched. "In time?" "To tell you that coming here was unnecessary." She looked back to the rocks and twigs she'd gathered for her classroom's new terrarium and began placing them in a plastic bag. The kids wouldn't return to school for a few days. This week was for teacher preparation. Yet, rather than class sizes and curriculums, it seemed every conversation she'd had or overheard had included gossip about William Kendrick's mystery daughter and the affair tainting what had been long regarded as his and Katherine Kendrick's perfect marriage. Sympathy had leaned heavily toward the wronged party, the beautiful Katherine. After all, her husband had cheated on her. Worse, he'd had a child by that other woman.
That woman was her mother.
Jillian had stayed as far from those conversations as she could and tried to tune out what she couldn't help overhear. When Carrie Teague, her teaching partner for the past two years, had noticed her lack of participation in the discussions and asked pointblank what she thought about the scandals, Jillian had offered the excuse of being too jet–lagged to care about anything but school and sleep. That comment had, mercifully, led to questions about her vacation and the uncomfortable subject had been dropped. Temporarily, anyway.
From the messages Jillian had listened to last night, she now knew that William had made an honest effort to reach her before his broadcast, to explain what he felt he had to do. Deep down, she supposed she even understood that he'd done the only thing he could do to protect and to clear the name of his real daughter, as she thought of Tess. She had also been infinitely relieved to learn when William had called that morning that he hadn't divulged her name or anything about her to the press. None of that changed her opinion of him, though. Her other reasons for feeling so resentful toward him remained firmly in place.
In an ideal world, she would never even have heard the Kendrick name.And Ben Garrett wouldn't be standing in her backyard messing with her heart rate.
He hadn't offered anything remotely resembling a goodbye. he'd done nothing but remain with his size–elevens planted firmly on the lawn studying her as a scientist might some intriguing, or unexpected, specimen he needed to identify and catalogue.
"Actually, I'm afraid my presence is necessary. Or will be."
His too–thorough scrutiny unnerved her. Preferring that he didn't notice how her hands were shaking, she left the sack on the table and crossed her arms. "You said you're in public relations?"
"Then, honestly," she insisted, "we really don't have anything to discuss. I don't deal with the public. Not in the sense you do. William said no one knows who I am," she said, not knowing what else to call the man she refused to refer to as "my father."
"I'm perfectly happy to remain anonymous. The Kendricks have their lives. I have mine. I'd prefer it remain that way."
Her gaze remained direct and uncompromising. Like her words, that expression spoke more of conviction than challenge. It was her body language that told him how valiantly she was trying to hide how upset she was with William and what he'd done.
It also seemed as obvious as the uneasy way her glance finally flicked from his that she lacked either the sophistication or the practice to effectively pull off that feat. Anxiety had her hugging her arms tightly enough to leave white marks on her skin.
It relieved him to know she wanted to remain unknown. She wouldn't get her wish, but that desire meant she wasn't interested in running out to sell her story, whatever it was, to the highest bidder. That desire, however, also gave him a new concern. All she would have to do is repeat in public what she'd just told him and the press would be all over her preference to have nothing to do with the Kendricks. As persistent as the media tended to be, they'd hound her into the ground trying to find out why.
Rubbing the side of his nose, he considered how best to help her face how complicated her life was about to get. "Things aren't quite that simple, Miss Hadley. William didn't tell the press who you are," he confirmed, deciding to simply lay it all out. "But you won't be able to avoid them. I figure you have somewhere between a couple of hours and a couple of days before reporters show up here."
Her expression held infinite patience as she cocked her head. "If he didn't tell anyone who I am, then how will they find me?" "One of William's attorneys learned this morning that a tabloid paid an undisclosed source a small fortune for copies of the photographs. The ones William refused to describe or show during his press conference," he explained. "One of those pictures contains a shot of the two of you in what looks like an embrace…"
Confusion entered her tone. "There was no 'embrace." He might have tried to put his arm around—"
"Another shows you in what looks like an argument," he continued without pause. "Both show the two of you beside a Volkswagen with Pennsylvania plates. William said the car was yours.
"The tabloid probably already knows who you are," he warned. "And any news editor who gets his hands on those photos will use his contacts to run those plates just like William's attorney did."
Confusion gave way to uneasy comprehension. "Is that how you found me?"
He shook his head, stepped closer. "We already knew you lived in Hayden. You'd told William," he reminded her. "Locating you was just a matter of plugging your name and town into the Internet."
"I'm on the Internet?"
"Just about everyone is," he assured her.
"Anyway," he continued, more interested in making his point than in her apparent ignorance of what could be obtained for five bucks from the right search site, "the attorney ran your plates just to see what anyone else running them would come up with.
"What they'll get is your name and address and the name of the lien holder on your little Beetle out there. Once they know who and where you are and you're recognized as the woman in those photos, your anonymity will be history."