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Jake Durham was evil.
Okay, so fine. It was Monday morning and Ava Christensen was never at her best until it was past noon and she'd had at least three cups of coffee, but she needed neither caffeine nor sleep to know the truth about the man sitting behind the big fancy desk.
"I hope you understand this was a difficult decision to make."
Ava just stared at him. Jake Durham, Entertainment News Now executive producer. Aka: Evil Incarnate. Alias: Beelzebub. Pseudonym: Norman Bates. Seriously, she must have been blind to ever think he was even sorta, kinda, maybe hot.
Well, even the most brilliant reporters made the occasional mistake. And it had only taken her a month to uncover the truth. Probably wouldn't have even taken her that long had she not been on a six-month dry spell. She needed to get out more.
She swallowed and tried not to think about how, even as he was callously and carelessly crushing her dream, she could still find him attractive. "Who is getting the position?"
The position. Said so casually, so free of emotion, as if it was no big deal. Ava swallowed again, wishing she had a coffee to wash away the bitterness coating her mouth. Why hadn't she poured herself a mug before attending this morning's meeting?
And why had she told her mother that she was a shoo-in to be the next cohost at Entertainment News Now?
"Tommy." Jake studied her closely. Too closely.
"Tommy?" The little tug of recognition that always twisted her stomach when he looked at her like that was overridden by a sudden roiling. Her fingers curled around the arms of the cheap plastic chair she was sitting in. "Tommy Langtry?"
"No." He couldn't be serious. Could he? But there was no sign of humor in his dark gray eyes.
But Tommy? It didn't make sense. While she'd been a regular reporter on the show for the past three years, Tommy had only been around six months. He wasn't even a regular reporter, but more of a correspondent who was lucky to get a piece to air every couple of weeks. And he'd only gotten the job because his uncle was Harvey Langtry, the station owner.
Her blog on the station's website was incredibly popular. It not only satisfied the appetite for celebrity gossip that couldn't be covered in a thirty-minute program, but it also drove viewers to the show with teasers and tidbits about on-air exclusives. And she was the replacement host when the regulars were sick or on vacation. To date, Tommy's greatest achievements were stuffing Mentos and Coke into his mouth until they exploded in a gush of foam and convincing his uncle to host a holiday party with a top-shelf open bar.
Even for someone who'd been around for only a month, like Mr. Big-Shot Executive Producer, giving her the job was a no-brainer. "You think he's ready?"
Jake clasped his hands on the desk. Long strong hands that Ava had no business remembering the feel of. "We felt he brought something extra to the show. Something that had been missing."
Something that she'd been missing? Her spine stiffened. Garbage. Unless they were planning on adding a stupid-human-trick segment to the show that she hadn't heard about, there was nothing in Tommy's repertoire that she didn't do better.
"And we liked the dynamic between him and Danica."
Jake's voice softened. "We like you a lot, but we just didn't feel you were the right choice in this situation."
"Oh." To her horror, Ava felt tears prickle behind her eyes. Great. Just great. She blinked rapidly, pretending a speck of dust had lodged in there until she got herself under control. But she knew it was a temporary reprieve. She needed to get out of here before the tears returned and a weepfest ensued. Talk about unprofessional. She started to rise. "Well, thank you for telling me in person."
At least he'd had the courtesy to let her know before the news swept through the station at warp speed. But it was a small consolation when it felt as if he was grinding her career to dust beneath his heel.
"A minute." Jake waved for her to sit back down. Ava was torn between ingrained good manners and the need to get out of there before the tears began rolling down her cheeks. "I'm sure that you're disappointed," Jake said, "but I trust that you understand it was a difficult choice."
Yeah. Or not, considering Tommy was related to the station owner. Yay for nepotism. She clutched the arms of the old chair harder. "Of course."
She hated the warble in her voice. God. She was a trained media professional. She should be able to speak without sounding like a fan meeting one of the Twilight kids. For the record, she had and her voice hadn't warbled a bit.
Jake leaned forward. "You were a strong candidate."
Instead of consoling her, the assurance made her feel worse. The prickle behind her eyes became a full-fledged ache. No. The chair arms were going to leave lines in her palm. She didn't care if the hard material sliced right through her skin. She was not going to cry. Not here. Not now. Not in front of him.
"An extremely strong candidate." Jake glanced around his desk and came up with a crumpled napkin from Starbucks.
Ava looked at it, but didn't take it. She didn't want to accept anything from him except his heartfelt apology when he realized what a mess he'd made of things. And he would realize it. She'd make sure of it.
He looked at the napkin when he realized she wasn't going to take it and then slowly folded it into his palm before sinking back into his chair. "You probably just need some time to take it all in."
Anger surged forward, hot and fierce. Some time? As if a good night's sleep or a pint of ice cream was going to make up for losing out on her dream job? Not likely. But she forced her expression to remain neutral, a trick she'd learned during her years of dealing with spoiled celebrities and their publicists. "I'm fine." Because turning into a female version of the Incredible Hulk and upending his desk wouldn't solve her problems. Even if it would feel good. "If there's nothing else, I should get back to work."
Jake balled up the napkin and tossed it in the wastebasket beside his desk. "If you have any further questions, I'll be happy to discuss them with you."
She even managed a cool smile, though it just about killed her. Phhht. As if she'd ever discuss anything with him. "I appreciate that."
"Glad to hear it." He smiled back.
She felt it like a punch to the gut.
It was all Jilly's fault. Ava stormed down the hallway toward her best friend's office, the heels of her glorious black shoes clacking like bullets. She never should have gone to that stupid anti-Valentine's Day party Jilly had organized two weeks ago, never should have flirted with Jake Durham while she was there, never should have almost kissed him.
Thank God she'd come to her senses before anything had happened. Heat rose to her cheeks at the memory. The way his hand had rested on her shoulder when they'd gotten shoved together in the corner of the booth, how his breath had tickled the nape of her neck, the feel of his body as he turned in to her. She so needed to get out of here.
She bypassed the door to her own office without glancing at it. So much for that pretty nameplate she'd been hoping to have made. The one that would read Ava Christensen, Co-host, in gold lettering.
But when she arrived at Jilly's office—Jilly insisted everyone at the station call it an office even though as the studio's makeup artist, her space held no desk and was twice as large as any real office in the building—Ava found the door closed. An unanswered knock confirmed that no one was inside.
Well, she wasn't hanging around until Jilly finally turned up, which probably wouldn't be until noon anyway. This was a time for action. Mostly because Ava was afraid if she waited, she'd lose what little composure she still had and would end up saying something she'd regret. Something like, "Jake Durham is a rat bastard and I can't wait until his three-month contract is over and we can get a real producer in here." She didn't even want to consider what her mother would say about that.
She stomped back down the hall. Not only would her mother kill her, but there was a strong possibility that at the end of Jake's contract, Harvey would offer him a long-term permanent placement. And then she'd be stuck forever with a boss she'd called a rat bastard.
She stopped at her non-gold nameplated office only long enough to grab her coat, bag and umbrella—it was late February in Vancouver, which meant cool temperatures and a high likelihood of rain—and left the building. Before she'd even made it partway down the block, she had her BlackBerry out, fingers flying over the tiny keyboard.
Are you up yet, Jilly? Emergency. Meet me for coffee. Now. FYI: This is a Red Alert.
Jilly's response was almost instantaneous.
Did you get it? Of course you got it. Eeeeee! Did you kiss McHot Stuff when he told you? (You know you want to.)
No and no. Devastation being held off momentarily. See you at Bucky's in ten.
"You have got to be kidding." Jilly's face held just the right mix of surprise and disgust. She was a true friend. "Tommy? He picked Tommy?" She huffed in indignation. "Well, one thing is clear. McHot Stuff is a McHot Ass."
"And he's no longer McHot Stuff. He is cut off." Ava sliced a hand through the air. "Plus, he's not really cute." Which was totally true. She'd never thought Jake was cute. He was too dark and rugged to be called cute. And dark and rugged was so not her type.
"Not smart, either," Jilly said. Her hair, currently dyed a bright red that was probably called Spicy Ginger or Fiery Sunset, flashed as she shook her head. "I don't understand it. You're perfect for the job. What has Tommy ever done?"
"You mean besides be born into the Langtry family?" Ava shrugged and took a sip of her latte. "What else did he need?"
Starbucks was warm and steamy with the scent of roasted beans in the air. People were scattered around the room, lounging on chaises and chairs, their chatter blending with the sound of the grinder behind the counter. Jilly had managed to nab a pair of squashy leather chairs in the corner, which was normally Ava's favorite spot, but today she just couldn't feel grateful.
She put the latte down since it was only spreading the bitterness around her mouth. Nothing like the comfort she'd imagined it would be in Jake's office. "You know what really kills me? He didn't even give me a good explanation. Just said that it was a difficult decision and that they thought Tommy brought a new dynamic to the show. Guess they never clued in to the fact that Danica can't stand him."
"Well, to be fair, Danica doesn't really like anyone."
"True." To say Danica was icy was crediting her with warmth that Ava had never seen the tall blonde show. She let her head fall back against the soft chair. The scent of leather blended with the aroma of coffee. She didn't care who Danica liked or didn't like. Not right now. "I flirted with him," she said, closing her eyes. "At that anti-Valentine's Day party. I flirted with him." And almost kissed him.
"Well, he was still McHot Stuff then."
Ava opened her eyes but didn't lift her head. "I flirted with him and I didn't even get the job."
Jilly lifted an eyebrow. "Is that why you flirted with him?"
"Of course not." Ava sat up straight. "But I just feel foolish now."
"Because you flirted with an attractive man."
"I told you." Ava waved her hand again. "He is cut off." Snip. "Like my chance of ever being cohost." Her insides twisted at the words. She picked up her cup again but didn't drink from it. She was too depressed.
"Don't say that." Jilly's green eyes were bright with loyalty. "You'll get it next time. You're too good not to be a host."
Ava stared down at the foamy drink. "What if there is no next time?"
It wasn't something she wanted to think about, but she had to consider what it meant for her if Tommy and Danica made such a great team that they hosted the show for the next thirty years. She'd die if that happened. Die without ever being more than a stand-in.
"That won't happen."
"It could." She wasn't that young anymore. Oh, sure, she still felt about the same age as the girls on MTV's Teen Mom, but her driver's license told another story. She, unlike Tommy, was over thirty, and this chance might not come along again until she was considered too old for the job. Her stomach twisted painfully and she took a sip of her latte to try to soothe it. It didn't help.
"It won't happen," Jilly repeated, her hair flickering like an aggravated flame in the watery light that came in through the window. "If you don't get to host here, then you'll get scooped up by some other station that recognizes your greatness."
"Really?" Ava knew she sounded pathetic, but if a person couldn't sound pathetic in front of her best friend after finding out she'd just been denied the promotion of her dreams, then when could she?
"Absolutely." Jilly's tone brooked no argument, which was good because Ava didn't think she had the energy for it. "And now, your day can only get better, right?" That was Jilly, always looking on the bright side.
"I hope so."
"I know so. Drink your latte."
Ava picked up her drink without sipping. "What am I going to tell my mother?" Normally, she wouldn't have even mentioned that she was applying for a promotion. But she'd been so confident, she hadn't been able to keep the news to herself.
Now she was going to have to listen to that brief pause of disappointment before her mother made a few appropriate noises of concern, which would just be a mask before she could ask how Ava might have done things differently. She'd probably want her to make a list, too.
The very idea made Ava's bones ache with exhaustion. Maybe tonight was too soon. She could call her mother tomorrow instead.
"Maybe she'll forget?"
Ava shot her friend a look.
Jilly sighed. "You're right. Just get it over with quickly and then change the subject." She handed over the chocolate croissant she'd been eating. "Here. You need this more than me."
Ava bit off a huge chunk of the delicate pastry, refusing to even consider the calories. They didn't count today. Everyone knew that when you were depressed, chocolate was a mood lifter and the fat found its way out of your body without making a pit stop on your hips.
The croissant was still warm, the chocolate melting before it even hit her tongue. She reveled in the sweetness for a moment, wanting to lick the chocolate from her fingers, but wiped them on a napkin instead. "I'm so glad to be leaving town on Friday. Rockdale could not have come at a better time."