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Owen Garrett tried to keep it cool but he'd already crumpled the newspaper in his hand because he couldn't stop imagining it was the neck of one nosy journalist who'd decided making his life miserable was her single goal in life.
He pushed open the glass door of the Dayton Tribune's office and went straight to the receptionist, with a demand to see the editor.
"She's not here." The woman, her name plaque identifying her as Nancy, arched her brow at his tone. "Perhaps I could take a message?"
He ignored her suggestion and barreled forward, too hot to follow the advice circling in his head. "Then, I want to see the general manager. And if that person isn't available, I want to see the publisher. There ought to be rules about what can and can't be printed without verifying the facts. Oh, wait, there are. If I don't see someone right now about this" He thrust the mangled front page in front of Nancy's face and she scowled but took the paper from his hand. He pointed at the lead story. "Then the next call I place is to my lawyer. This is slander and I want a retraction. Now."
Nancy exhaled softly and she plainly didn't appreciate his tone or his attitude but he didn't care. This was the third article that reporter, Piper Sunday, had written about his logging operation that basically painted him to be the "big bad logger" out to clear cut the forests without any consideration for the environment, which was complete and total crap. He'd tried to take the high road, but she'd pushed too far this time.
"The editor is out for the day and the managing editor is on vacation until next week. However, Ms. Sunday is here in the office. Perhaps you'd like to speak with her?" she asked in a voice so perfectly bland it could be taken only as a rebuke for his own hotheaded blustering.
Speak with Ms. Sunday? Hell yes. He tried to school his face into some semblance of calm, but he couldn't quite manage it. "I would love to speak with Ms. Sunday," he said.
Nancy picked up the phone. "Ms. Sunday, you have a gentleman up front to speak with you regarding a story you wrote in this week's edition." She returned the phone with a smile. "She'll be right up. Would you like to sit and wait?"
"It'd be my pleasure." Except he didn't sit, he stood, arms crossed and fuming. This morning he'd nearly choked on a chunk of his granola cereal when he'd read the lead storyLogger Proceeds With Flawed Harvesting Planprinted with big, bold type running across the page and he'd quickly and suddenly lost his appetite as he'd spewed a litany of curse words that made his German shepherd, Timber, cock his head in confusion and then walk away to flop on his bed with a sad expression. Somehow he'd known they weren't going for a walk after breakfast. Instead Owen had raced into town to deal with lying reporters, which was a waste of a perfectly gorgeous spring day in the Santa Cruz mountains. Yet another reason to want to strangle Ms. Sunday.
He'd only spoken on the phone with her once and she'd taken everything he'd said completely out of context. So when she'd called again, he'd ignored her calls. Well, he'd mistakenly thought if he offered no comment, perhaps she'd find a different story to chase after, but this woman seemed to have an agenda and it was to ruin him. She'd run the story without the benefit of his involvement and it made him look like an evil bastard.
A slim brunette, wearing soft, flowing, white linen pants walked into the foyer with a professional smile on her full lips. "I'm Piper Sunday. How may I help you?" she asked pleasantly.
"You can help me by not slandering me and my company. You have balls of steel, woman." He nearly amended the woman part when he noticed the white bow tied neatly in her hair. When she had little to no reaction, he introduced himself. "I'm the evil bastard you seem to enjoy vilifying in the press."
"Perhaps you could be more specific.."
"Owen Garrett, owner of"
"Big Trees Logging," she finished with a slow smile. "And the man who has an aversion to answering phone calls."
"You mean, an aversion to having my words twisted," he countered. "The one interview I gave you turned into a mess in print."
"That's your opinion."
"No, it's fact. And I'm about to sue this newspaper for slander if I don't get a retraction."
"First, if it's anything, it would be libel, which it's not. Second, you'd have to have a court order to get us to do a retraction. Out of curiosity, which part of the article did you take exception to?" she asked.
"All of it."
"That would be a very long correction, if I were of a mind to offer it," she said, crossing her arms. "And I'm not. Everything I wrote is true."
"I say it's not."
"Well, we're at an impasse. However, I would be happy to sit down with you for an exclusive interview for your rebuttal. I'm sure our readership would love to read your side of things."
Owen clenched his teeth. "I'm not kidding around here."
She held her ground. "Neither am I."
He caught the round-eyed stare of the receptionist as she enjoyed a front-row seat of their little drama and remembered himself. He was playing right into Ms. Sunday's game by appearing every inch the bullying blowhard she practically accused him of being in her articles. He dialed back his temper but it tasted like bile going down. "You'll be hearing from my lawyer," he said quietly, not trusting himself to continue.
There was the tiniest frown that betrayed her surprise when he called her bluff but she didn't try to placate him in order to make him change his mind. When she gave him a shrug as if to say "go for it," he swallowed a snarl and stalked from the office.
He didn't even care if he slammed the door. And in fact, he took perverse pleasure in the hope that the sound rattled the windows and echoed throughout the small building.
Oh, boy, was he mad. Piper stifled a nervous giggle. "He has a temper, doesn't he?" she remarked to Nancy.
"Yes, he does. And you've riled him pretty good. You sure you want to do that? He just might sue us, and you know how that will upset Mr. Cook."
At the mention of the publisher, Piper shrugged but the kernel of nervousness remained. She couldn't lose her job. She had big plans. Besides, Owen Garrett could holler all he wanted. It wasn't going to change the fact that she'd done her due diligence on all of her articles on Big Trees Logging. She studied her fingernail and frowned at the hangnail she saw. She nibbled at the offending skin. "It's not my fault that I write the stories that put people on the defensive," she said to Nancy, though the receptionist had already returned to her work, which meant she wasn't paying much attention to her. Piper exhaled and walked to her office where she'd been doing her research on the aging computer. A spinning rainbow greeted her on the monitor as the computer wheezed through her request without much success. "Damn archaic piece of junk," she muttered, wondering whether if she gave it a whack like they do in the movies it would miraculously start working. Instead of bitch-slapping her hard drive like she wanted to, she sighed and shut it down so it could reboot.
"Who wants your head this time?" a voice asked behind her. "It must suck to write the stories people love to hate."
She rolled her eyes before turning to face the owner of the annoyingly snarky tone. "Yes, and it must be tiring to have to be the one to write the stories nobody reads."
Charlie Yertz, the bane of Piper's existence, pulled a nasty face but didn't disappear as she'd hoped. Instead, he tilted his head and regarded her shrewdly, saying, "I think you have an agenda with that Big Trees guy."
She affected a bored expression. "An agenda? Pray tell."
"I don't know yet but I'll figure it out."
"You've been reading too many conspiracy-theory blogs," she said, dismissing him and turning her attention to her slowly booting computer. But it was hard to seem absorbed with nothing showing on the screen, so she busied herself with tidying her space. When Charlie remained, she glared. "Can I help you?"
"You're ambitious," he stated as if that were a revelation, which it wasn't. Everyone knew Piper had big dreams of landing a Pulitzer someday.
"Charlie, who knew you had such hard-core investigative skills. Now, go on, shoo. I have work to do."
"So smug. You didn't let me finish. You've been going after Owen Garrett like a dog with a bone. I can understand one story on the logging hunk. But three? Care to share?"
Charlie thought she had the hots for Owen. If it weren't so ludicrous, she'd be offended. He was not her type. She preferred her men cultivated, civilized and sophisticated, not rough, big and completely disinterested in protecting the environment. Oh, lord, if she were ever to bring home someone like Owen Garrett, much less the brawny man himself, her parents would wilt. Oh! Speaking of She made a buzzer sound for Charlie's benefit. "Wrong. However, two points for trying to think outside the box. Oops, actually you didn't. Not really. It's not a huge jump to try and draw a line between two single adults with some kind of cockamamie romance theory. Rest your little brain, Chuck. I'm starting to see smoke."
Charlie's face reddened and she bit back open laughter. It was just too easy with this guy.
"If I find out you're moonlighting behind the paper's back, I'll take great pleasure in ratting you out."
She kept her face implacable as she said, "I'm sure your uncle appreciates your loyalty."
"I am loyal," he agreed, his gaze hardening. "Unlike some."
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and instead, checked her watch. "Oh, look at the time. Gotta go. If you'll excuse me, I have a lunch date scheduled."
She moved past Charlie, who was no doubt plotting her death. The irony was that if he managed to pull off the perfect murder, her obituary would end up on his desk and she wasn't sure she felt comfortable with the idea of Charlie being in charge of her last words printed in the paper.
The funny thing was, for once Charlie had hit the nail on the head, though he was far afield with that romance idea. She was on to something with Owen Garrett and, really, it had nothing to do with his logging operation. She was digging into a bigger, better, far juicer story than the environmental angle her parents were pushing her to pursue.
And Owen Garrett was at the epicenter.
Of course, he was oblivious to the part he was going to play in her master planthe plan where she busted open a decades-old case involving Owen's late father and, in the process, earned herself a spot among the greats in journalistic history. Now that she had him good and riled, when she pulled the bait and switch on him, he wouldn't know what hit him. He'd be so grateful that she was dropping the logging angle, he'd likely tell her whatever she wanted to know about his father.
Well, that's how it played out in her head. Of course, her mother was fond of telling her that she had a terribly overactive imagination, which, coupled with her writing skills, would make her a terrific fiction writer. But she didn't want to write fiction. She wanted to write the next big story. She wanted to rub elbows with the likes of Judith Miller of the New York Times and Dan Balz of the Washington Post.
And Owen Garrett was going to make that possible.
But first she had to choke down a tofu casserole with her parents, when what she really wanted was a triple-decker beef burger with all the trimmings over at Buns and Burgers. She tried not to drool at the thought and resigned herself to a lovely luncheon marred only by the prospect of the menu.
"I want to sue the newspaper," Owen growled to his lawyer, Scott Everhall. "She refuses to print a retraction without a court order, so let's give her what she needs. I want to go to court."
"Calm down. Let's talk this through," Scott said as he grabbed a fresh tablet to take notes. "What's got you so full of piss and vinegar?"
"Piper Sunday," he spat.
"I read her stuff. She's good," Scott said, then quickly added when Owen gave him a dark look, "Well, I mean, as good as any small-town reporter, I guess. So what's she said that's upset you so much?"
"She wrote that I'm going forward with the east mountain project with a flawed timber harvest plan, which basically points me out to be some kind of bull-headed jerk who doesn't give a rip about the environment or the endangered fairy shrimp or whatever damn bug that's in need of protecting."
"Well, you are going through with the project, right?" Scott asked for clarification.
"I filed all the necessary paperwork and permits. I'm doing everything by the book. I was given clearance."