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ANTHONY VERDUN knew he should feel guilty, but he hadn't felt anything but free since three o'clock Friday afternoon when he fired Clarista Phillips. He drew a deep, cleansing breath as his feet pounded the pathway between the pond and the artists' gate of Central Park on his Monday morning jog.
The woman was great with word processing and ap-pointments, but her flirtatious manner had become em-barrassing. Her fixation on Anthony had culminated in a pair of red lace panties in the interoffice mail, along with an explicit invitation involving peaches, whipped cream and silk scarves.
It wasn't that he had anything against silk scarves, or lace panties for that matter. But he was an old-fashioned guy. He preferred a little dinner, maybe even a drink before the first blatant proposition. He tapered his run to a jog as he exited the park, slowing for the traf-fic lights on Sixth Avenue, and finally switched to a walk.
His wet, khaki T-shirt clung to his skin in the warm, September breeze, while beads of sweat dampened his short, dark hair. He stretched his neck from side to side, listening to the vertebrae pop in relief as he crossed the street and headed for the Moulin Coffee Bar. The bells on the door jingled against the rush hour traffic sounds, and the aroma of fresh coffee beans greeted him like an old friend.
He approached the counter, picking up a newspaper from the rack and stuffing it under his arm as he smiled at one of the regular counter clerks. "Large, black Co-lombian, please."
Young and pretty, with a tousled ponytail and bright red lips, she returned his smile as she rang in the pur-chase. The glint in her eyes invited conversation, but Anthony had a full day aheadof him. And after Friday's experience, he sure wasn't in the mood for ingenuous chitchat.
He pulled his cell phone from the hip pocket of his jogging shorts, pressing the speed dial for Kent Living-ston's direct line. As he waited for the connection, he considered the bagels and sticky buns behind the glass case. He'd made time around the lake this morning, and he was in the mood to celebrate, so he pointed to the sticky bun and held up one finger.
Kent picked up on the first ring. "Livingston, here." "Hey, Kent. It's Anthony." "Anthony," Kent cooed in a singsong voice. "You sly son of a bitch."
Anthony handed the clerk a twenty, trying to zero in on Kent's meaning. Had he heard about Clarista? If so, it was more than a little embarrassing. He sure world knew why he'd fired his assistant.
"Thanks," he muttered into the phone, dropping a couple of bills into the tip snifter and pocketing the rest of his change. He carefully balanced the coffee and the bun while working out an exit from the confusing con-versation.
"Zane Randal's worried about the promotional copies making it to Berlin on time," he tried.
"Not a problem," Kent responded, his voice turning more serious as he shuffled some papers in the back-ground. "I'll confirm with marketing this morning. Is Zane heading over on Friday?"
"Thursday," said Anthony, pushing open the coffee shop door with his elbow, giving up the buzz of con-versation for the honks of Sixth Avenue. "His publicist set up a couple of radio spots and a reading."
"That's what we like to hear," said Kent. "The mar-keting rep will catch up with him on Saturday morning. He's at the Hilton?"
"He is," said Anthony, pleased that this pivotal leg of Zane's book tour was under control. As he paced up the sidewalk toward the Prism Literary Agency of-fices, he mentally clicked through the other priorities involving Kent.
"I'll have to call you this afternoon on the new Jules Burrell contract," he said. He was still waiting for a phone call from Joan to confirm the manuscript deadline.
Kent chortled. "Think I'll be passing that one up to Bo."
Anthony paused. They were passing Jules Burrell to Bo Reese? That didn't make sense. As the vice-president of author development, Bo was one of the top power-wielders at Pellegrin Publishing. He usually didn't bother with anything under seven figures.
"I figured you'd do that," Anthony bluffed, wonder-ing if Bayou Betrayal might have hit a list. "I'll have to call you back."
He snapped the phone shut before Kent had a chance to realize Anthony had been caught off guard. Then he quickened his pace for the last two blocks, biting into his sugary breakfast and guzzling enough caffeine to jump-start his brain.
He nodded to the security guard in the lobby and took the elevator to twenty-two, where he said good morning to the receptionist at the Prism offices.
"Nice move, Anthony." Rosalind smiled and winked as he walked by, finishing off her greeting with a perky little salute.
Anthony didn't break his stride. Could Rosalind memo or something?
He passed through his outer office, draining the coffee and tossing the paper cup into the trash. He'd take a quick shower before looking into the status of Bayou Betrayal. If the book had made a list, all kinds of things were possible.
"Verdun!" boomed Stephen Baker, bursting through the office door behind Anthony. "What a coup!"
Anthony swiveled to face his boss, hoping against hope this was a Jules Burrell matter and nothing to do with Clarista.
The barrel-chested, thick-necked Stephen slammed a copy of the newspaper on Anthony's oak desk. "The New York Times no less!"
Anthony quickly glanced at the newspaper. It was folded open to the front page of the lifestyles section. The name Jules Burrell jumped from the headline.
A write-up? A first page write-up?
Hot damn. A sizzle of excitement rushed up his spine.
He picked up the paper, trying not to look too sur-prised. But then he caught the name Joan Bateman in the opening paragraph, and his heart all but froze in his chest.
"No," he rasped, fists crumpling the flimsy pages. Stephen clapped him on the shoulder. "Brilliant move. Brilliant."
Anthony shook his head. "I didn't, "
Son of a bitch.
Joan Bateman was going to have him fired. No. Joan Bateman was going to have him killed. The only thing she'd asked in all these years was that Anthony protect her true identity.
Stephen pulled back in obvious surprise. "It wasn't you?"
Anthony's voice went up an undignified octave. "Of course it wasn't me."
Stephen hesitated. "Maybe it was Joan." "Not a chance in hell." Then Anthony's brain sud-denly engaged. Clarista. Clarista must have found a way to access the confidential files.
"I fired Clarista on Friday," he told Stephen, squeez-ing his eyes shut for a split second and pinching the bridge of his nose.
His boss raised a bushy eyebrow. "What for?" "Inappropriate use of the interoffice mail." "That's a firing offense?" "It was on Friday." Anthony quickly scanned the rest of the article.
"And you think, "
"Of course I think. She swore up and down I'd regret it."
Stephen snorted. "Well, I don't regret it one little bit. The woman did us a favor."
"This is not a favor."
"Sales are skyrocketing."
"And Joan's going to fire me. In fact, Joan's going to fire the whole damn agency."
Stephen's expressive brows knit together. "You know you can't let that happen."
As if Anthony would be able to stop it. "Anthony?" "I don't control her, Stephen." "Well, you'd better figure out how to control her. Get your ass to Indigo."
"So she can flip me off in person?"
"So you can put those good looks and charm to use." Right. Stephen was really scraping the bottom of the barrel with that strategy.
He snapped the paper from Anthony's hands. "Don't think I don't see the admins panting after you."
Clarista. And Anthony didn't get the impression Cla-rista was particularly selective.
"Fix this," said Stephen, an edge coming into his voice. "Charm her. Flirt with her. Sleep with her, for all I care." His dark eyes turned to flints, and Anthony was instantly reminded that he was talking to the senior partner, and that Stephen hadn't got there by accident.
"This is one of those moments, Verdun." Stephen's voice was gruff with warning. "You can prove your worth to this firm, or you can make us a laughingstock."
Anthony swallowed. He got the message. He was going to Indigo, where he was to move heaven and earth to keep Joan in the fold.
AFTER TEN YEARS in Indigo, Louisiana, Joan Bateman
was still considered a newcomer. Most days, that was a minor inconvenience. Today it was an out-and-out problem.
Back in Boston, she knew how to wield influence. She knew who was who and how to get to them. The Bateman family could call up a senator, sway a con-gressman or suggest when and where a newspaper editor should send a reporter.
But Indigo was different. She had no family here, no political connections. Cultivating influence, and doing it quickly, was her only hope of saving her beloved town.
Sitting at the dining room table in her neat little stilted Creole cottage, she puzzled over the guest list for Sunday's tea. The mayor, certainly, and perhaps the matriarch, Yvonne Valois.
Officially, everyone in town had expressed support for the plans to increase tourism. But Joan knew that couldn't possibly be true. Like her, others must be opposed to ruining the quiet serenity of Indigo. Her strategy was to quietly get to those who were opposed and give them the courage to speak up.
Trouble was, she had no idea who they were. Worse, she didn't know the interests or the histories of the town players, and what would motivate whom.
Her primary adversaries were obviousAlain Bou-dreaux and Marjo Savoy. A strong supporter of the music festival, Alain was influential because of his deep family roots and his position as chief of the police department. Marjo, the funeral director, was head of the committee to restore the opera housethe centerpiece of the tourism push. The town had already agreed to fund emergency roof repairs to the building while they tried to get permission for a full restoration.
Joan tucked her shoulder-length hair behind her ears, as she laid out sheets of embossed card stock. Then she carefully opened her wooden box of callig-raphy pens and stretched out her fingers to make them limber. She was going to do this right. A classy invita-tion to half a dozen influential people, salmon mousse, fine champagne, possibly caviar, then she'd pepper the event with subtle messages on the wisdom of keeping Indigo small and quietjust the way it was.
That would be the beginning.