Read an Excerpt
"Ever think maybe you're in the wrong line of work?" Dana, the reporter from the Atlanta Daily News, asked in a bored tone as she flipped a Skittle into her mouth.
"No. Why?" Jessica Huell shrugged. So much for the great article the reporter planned to write about Atlanta's Most Interesting Professionals. Clearly, Jessie's execution of her current job was proving to be a dud, and she'd really hoped the exposure from the proffered feature in the newspaper would swing a little more business her way.
Movement caught her eye. "Wait, get down," Jessie said, as she pushed Dana's head below the dashboard.
Both women scrunched low, toward the floor-board of Jessie's car, which was littered with sacks of fast food they'd eaten earlier that night.
Jessie listened. They'd cracked the windows for a little air and to hear the night sounds more easily. At two in the morning, this residential street in Atlanta was quiet. She easily heard the clap of high-heeled shoes on the sidewalk. The opening and closing of a car door. The turning of an engine.
After counting to ten, Jessie poked her head up over the steering wheel. The blue car. Bingo. She watched as it drove down the street, then turned left. She counted another ten seconds and then slowly took the same path.
Dana sat up in her seat and rubbed the muscles of her neck. "This wrecks that 'female private investigators are cool' thing I was going for."
Good. Jessie curled her fingers around the steering wheel in satisfaction. Being an investigator could be dangerous and exciting, but when people were drawn to the job for those qualities, that's when folks started getting hurt. Her job entailed hard work, long nights and little sleep. With "boring" thrown in to smooth out the rough edges. A whole lot of boring.
"Whew, I'm glad that's over," Dana said as she rummaged in her purse for something, obviously ready for her one night of undercover to be over. "I don't know how much longer I could stand being in this car."
"Well, we still have a ways to go."
The reporter stopped applying her lip gloss. "Why? You already have the picture of him with the woman."
Jessie dropped back farther from the car she was trailing. Even in a big city like Atlanta, a car closely following another would be suspicious after 2:00 a.m. "A picture tells only part of the story. We don't know who the woman is. What her relationship is to Mr. Roberts."
Dana scoffed. "She hugged him, then stayed in his home for over three hours. I don't think she was the maid. Not with those shoes."
Those were some pretty sexy stilettos. Not that Jessie was much of a shoe person. Not much call for high-heeled sling-backs in her line of work, in spite of the Hollywood image.
Smiling, she kept an eye on the sedan several car lengths ahead. They were back on side streets, where only an occasional streetlight or neon sign broke the darkness. They'd be hitting a residential neighborhood soon. She gave a silent plea that the car would lead her to a house with an address rather than to an apartment complex. Those were the worst. A lot of effort wasted on a dead end.
Yes! The owner of the nonmaid shoes was pulling into a paved driveway. Jessie held back, waiting for the woman to enter her home before driving past.
Then she slowly moved forward, looking as casual as she could. Just an insomniatic neighbor out for a drive. Or maybe a desperate mother hoping to get her baby to sleep. Whatever. Blending in. Appearing like someone who belonged there. That was her strength; she'd never been one to stand out. She hated flash, and unlike the reporter beside her, Jessie had never applied lip gloss in a moving vehicle. She wouldn't even know how to take care of a highlight.
With a subtle glance at the number on the front of the house, Jessie was on her way.
"That was a little more fun. It was the closest we've come to getting caught," Dana said, her voice slightly breathless.
"We weren't anywhere near getting caught," Jessie told her dryly. She was all for exaggeration, but not if it made her come across as less than professional.
"No need to get irritated. I just meant it was the first bit of excitement we've had since blondie showed up in the first place. When I still thought this night would be interesting," Dana said with a wink. "What now?"
Dare she tell her? Jessie wondered. Dana was a reporter, after all. The woman dealt with facts. Hopefully.
Actually, Jessie herself should be delving only in facts. Conjecture shouldn't be part of her professional world. But in the lonely hours after midnight, The Speculation Game was often the only thing that kept her awake. And interested. Maybe Dana was right; maybe she needed a different line of work.
Okay, she was losing it. She loved her job. Giving another woman the truththat the man she was about to marry was a loserwas always good. Or even better, that the man she was about to commit a lifetime to, or at least the next several years to would be "on the level" with her. If only someone had been around to wake up Jessie before her own loser fiancé proved what a louse he was.
She glanced at her companion, whose laptop illuminated the front seat of the car. No, she probably shouldn't tell Dana that on a stakeout she often dabbled in assumptions and bizarre guesses. But then, at nearly three in the morning, common sense was asleep.
"Right about now I start thinking about where she's going."
"What do you mean? We just saw her go into her house." Dana stated, not bothering to look up from her typing.
"No, I mean, what does she plan to do with that stolen microchip he passed along to her?"
Dana stopped typing and gave Jessie an assessing look. "Stolen I thought he was just some guy who doesn't spend his Thursday nights with his girlfriend."
Jessie put on her best mock-serious expression. "Oh, no. He may come across as a mild-mannered accountant who worked overtime during tax season to buy an engagement ring, but in reality he's escaped from a faraway land. The secret agents from his country have found him."
"The country of Fabricatia, perhaps?" Dana asked, her body language suggesting for the first time this evening that The Speculation Game was something she could get into.
"Exactly. And now he's being stalked by that woman, but determined to keep his secrets safe."
"I knew there was something suspicious about those pointy-toed sling-backs. Those were total spy shoes. He slipped her a fake chip, I know it."
"But how long can he hold out?"
Dana laughed. "So, do you make up stories like this all evening?"
"Beats the reality of the job."
"No question about that. I was really hoping some irate couple caught in a clandestine tryst might come after you with a gun. Would have made this story a lot more interesting."
"Sorry I couldn't accommodate."
"That was before I knew you. Now I don't want you to get shot at. You can stay with your boring job," Dana said with a smile.
Jessie pulled her car into the parking lot of an all-night diner. "Then you're going to love this next part. You're about to witness the glamorous excitement of plugging this address into the database. Hopefully we'll make a quick hit."
"Ugh. Where's the excitement in that?"
"Did I mention the waffles?"
Cole crawford fished for the package of antacids in his desk, and after ripping open the wrapper, swallowed a few pills without water.
"I caught you," Nicole Reavis said as she poked her head in the doorway.
Cole grimaced. "Yeah, it's already starting out to be one of those days."
"Really? You mean, things aren't working out for the man with a special insight into the minds of women?" she asked with wide-eyed innocence. Fake wide-eyed innocence.
Cole kept his expression neutral. Lately the women in the office had taken to quoting from that fluff piece Dana Roberts had written about him in the Atlanta Daily News. Someday he might be able to live down the "sensitive bachelor" line. After a while the receptionist might even stop snickering when delivering mail addressed to "Hottie Producer," as the caption under his picture in the paper had read. Sure, his name was in the piece, but with it buried under phrases like "understands a woman's needs outside of the bedroom" and "has insights into a woman before she even knows them herself," who'd remember?
He regretted ever agreeing to do the interview. Atlanta's Most Interesting Professionals? More like Atlanta's Most Sensitive Pansy-Ass, a profile guaranteed to suck the testosterone right out of his body.
Never again. From now on, he'd leave the spotlight where it belongedon Eve Best, the star of Just Between Us. He'd spotted her talent back when he was stuck producing public-affairs programming for the station. He'd gone with his gut that time. And he'd stick to it from now on.
Nicole waved a newspaper clipping in front of him. "Looks like your favorite reporter has a new victim, and this 'Most Interesting Professional' might make a great segment for the show."
One of Nicole's jobs as a story-segment producer was to scour newspapers, magazines and the Internet for the kind of sex-themed hot topics viewers loved.
Unleashing your Inner Wild Child.
In Praise of Younger Men.
The last few topics on Just Between Us had been real winners. Each week brought more viewers. The pressure was mounting to top the previous show. And that was with actual hard work.
Several months ago, he, along with several of his coworkers at the station, had won Georgia's own Lot 'O' Bucks lottery. Thirty-eight million dollars generated a ton of press coverage, and the news division of the station had had a field day with interviews and live feed. So when a former colleague, Liza Skinner, had leaked to the media that she planned to claim part of their winnings, too, things had really gone crazy on the show. With the threat of a lawsuit and the hold up of the money, the advertisers were lining up. New viewers might tune in hoping to catch up on the latest controversy, but stayed because they produced a damn fine show.
With lawyers now involved, their group had opted to shy away from the media. But when one of the winners was Eve Best, star of Just Between Us, keeping quiet wasn't always easy. Luckily, the rest of them weren't in front of the camera. Jane Kurtz did the show's makeup. Nicole searched for stories rather than becoming them, and Zach Hass operated the camera.
He still couldn't believe Liza thought she was entitled to any of the money. Sure, she'd given her share into the lottery fund when she worked with them all, but she'd left town without any explanation, and eventually her money had ran out.
Their mistake had been to keep playing her number. Despite his current appreciation for sodium bicarbonate, Cole thrived on pressure. Which was a good thing. With half the staff taking time off for trips, moving in with one another and weddings, his workload had multiplied. Luckily, things were settling down just in time for the important November ratings period. Sweeps month always took priority over relationships.
He glanced at the newspaper clipping Nicole was now placing on the very large stack of reports, memos and requests already in his in-box. "A private detective?" he asked.
"She's got a bit of an edge. She basically guarantees dirt on anything with a penis."