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The atmosphere around the Manhattan newsroom offices at NCTV seemed unusually charged as Evan McKenna pushed through the glass doors on the seventh floor of the Fifth Avenue television station. His assistant, Sarah, paced outside his office, steno pad and file folder in hand.
He'd just come from a quick breakfast across the street at the Neverland Diner, where the proprietor, his friend, a fiery Irish redhead with mesmerizing green eyes and the perfect spray of freckles on her nose, had distracted him a bit longer than expected. He had an important interview scheduled with presidential hopeful Buzz Campbell in an hour but that didn't explain the extracharged air or his assistant's frown. Sarah saw him coming and met him halfway.
"What's up, Sarah?"
She dropped the file into his hands, his favorite pen attached to the steno pad. "He's here already."
"Senator Campbell. I sent you a text, but you didn't answer."
He ran a hand through his collar-length black hair, his aqua eyes flashing regret. Of course he didn't answer. He'd been too preoccupied with Kelly Sullivan to heed the alert. He checked his watch. "He's thirty minutes early. Senators usually keep you waiting."
"Something about having another engagement. Last minute. He's in makeup with Steve and Dean."
She smirked. "He rode the elevator with the senator. Apparently they share the same fraternity. Dean made sure Campbell knew it and has been in the middle of the conversation ever since."
Evan shook his head. Dean was the type of office friend who would stay just thatan office friend. The guy was good at reporting stories, but his overenthusiasm reeked of insincerity. Evan seldom gave the guy much thought unless Dean was in his face for something. He could see Dean tripping over himself to get time with the senator in Evan's absence, despite the fact that Evan had landed the interview.
He pulled his pen from its holder and clicked it a few times. "Is the set ready?"
"Yes. They're waiting for my call."
"Okay. Tell them we'll be down in twenty minutes."
There were five people seated with the senator in the makeup room. Senator Robert "The Buzz" Campbell was holding court with the ease and confidence of a man who knew the effect he had on a crowd. Tanya, the makeup artist, had draped the senator's shoulders and was touching up his complexion, which honestly didn't need much help, under the glare of the white lights. He was average height but built like an athlete. His thick blond hair, summer tan and deep blue eyes exuded those movie star looks that would earn him votes from the female population.
Evan nodded to his silver-haired boss, Steve Fiore. With his hawk eyes, Steve never missed a trick and was, as always, a class act in a navy Armani suit. Steve had won the confidence of the network owners for ten years running, and his self-assurance showed. From the body language in the room, Steve occupied a position of favor, chatting with the senator from the right-hand side of his chair.
Evan ignored Dean Porter, whose brown suit and ugly striped tie compounded his lack of professional tact as he lounged in the empty makeup chair to the left of Campbell, as if they were longtime friends. Two other men and a raven-haired beauty who looked to be about thirty were the senator's entourage.
Evan headed straight for Campbell, offering him his hand. "Senator Campbell, sorry I'm late. I was expecting you in half an hour."
"Call me Buzz. No problem at all, Evan. Had an unexpected addition to plans. I thought we'd get an early start, if that's okay with you."
"Sure. I'm just sorry I wasn't here to greet you."
Evan glanced at his boss. He had danced pretty hard to get this early interview with Buzz Campbellbefore he announced his candidacy. The look on Steve's face spoke volumes that he was satisfied with Evan's ability to snag breaking news before any other news station. As a senator, Buzz Campbell's impact on the political arena garnered enormous popularity at the grassroots level. That he chose Evan and NCTV to announce his plans for the White House was huge for ratings. Evan tucked that satisfaction away as a perk for negotiating his next raise. Once again, his instinct had landed another first for NCTV morning news.
Out of necessity, Dean vacated the makeup seat next to the senator so Tanya's assistant could touch up Evan's face from the early morning show.
Senator Campbell winked at Evan's reflection in the mirror. "Dean here tells me breakfast at that diner across the way is like a religious experience. Hope you didn't rush on my account."
The wink acknowledged more than breakfast. Clearly, Dean had told the senator that the religious experience had more to do with the diner's owner than the meals. All the bucks in the newsroom flirted with Kelly, who managed to fend them off with amazing ease while filling their coffee mugs. To Evan, the woman's aloofness was part of her allure, and she was totally undeserving of the rogue attitude guys like Dean attached to her. Any insinuation that Kelly was available made Evan want to smash a fist into Dean's pointed snout.
Instead, he patted his stomach because sure enough, his late breakfast had been memorable. "Excellent down-home Cajun fare prepared by a cook who'd scare you off the sidewalk as soon as pass him, sir. You'd enjoy the experience."
Buzz laughed, exposing perfect white teeth. "Next time, for sure. For now, let's discuss some important questions I'd like you to ask me on air."
Evan's nerves thrummed deep under his controlled exterior. Beneath the hot studio lights, the set was silent except for the exchange between him and Senator Campbell. He'd already exhausted all the carefully choreographed questions Campbell wanted asked. His guest looked completely satisfied sitting across from him in his Brooks Brothers suit, blue shirt and contrasting yellow print tie. With a precious two minutes left, Evan would let the torpedoes fly with some hard-core questions of his own.
"Senator, America has been at war since 2001. How much longer can our country or our economy sustain war, not to mention the loss of America's sons and daughters on foreign soil?"
The momentary lift of an eyebrow on Campbell's face was lost on the viewing world since the camera was on Evan, but he hadn't missed the senator's surpriseor the delight at a challengethat rose in the man's eyes. With camera two recording his answer, Buzz Campbell replied with the face of a concerned father.
"America has no more time for war, Evan. We have to understand the cultural differences driving the forces behind the violence we're trying to subdue. We must understand the people with whom we are at war and make sure American interests are not violating humanitarian interests in those regions. I will work closely with the United Nations to create dialogues and set strategies for conflict transformation on all levels, insuring all interested countries across the globe take part in finding a plan for peace."
Excellent response. Kudos for the senator. Evan let his ease reflect his support for the senator's answer.
"We only have time for one more question, Senator. Given the raw nerve that has been struck by certain politicians and religious groups insisting the government set laws based on religious doctrine, what is your stance on religion influencing government?"
Campbell shook his head. "You know, Evan? Personal interests have always been the motivating factor behind any great society whether right or wrong. While America was founded by God-fearing men and women who used their moral beliefs to fuel our great beginnings, religious doctrine belongs in our hearts, not our politics. I'd like to believe that our leaders will govern our people with wisdom and intelligencewithout imposing any religious doctrine that would deny America the freedom of choice. We have to trust that Americans know the difference between right and wrong and will do what is right within this country's fabric of inalienable rights."
The senator's answer raised applause from the set workers, which made both Evan and the senator smile. What a great way to end the segment: with the down-home, middle American approval in the studio reflecting how many viewers would probably respond.
"Thank you for your time, Senator." Evan closed the interview by looking into the camera as he spoke the trailing statement. He didn't have to look at the senator to know he'd just earned the regard of the next president of the country.
The next morning, Evan plowed into Neverland after the show aired, all pumped up from the high ratings the segment with his interview with Buzz Campbell had garnered. He'd done it. He had crawled under the senator's defenses and forced him to answer some hard questions on camera, and America responded favorably.
Best result of the interview, however, was that Buzz Campbell had understood the gift Evan had presented him in his endorsement. Evan had just gotten off the phone with the senator, who had offered his personal cell phone number. If Evan needed quotes in the future, he could contact the senator anytime for his opinion.
Major score as a TV anchor.
Expecting to hear cheers and congratulations from the customers in Neverland, he was immediately struck with nothing. The big-screen television on the wallwhich was always tuned to NCTVwas playing the Robin Williams version of Peter Pan instead of the usual midmorning talk show that followed Evan's news program.
Kelly's almost-six-year-old son Matt called to Evan from the family booth, but the boy's eyes quickly returned to the oversize screen, enthralled with the sword battle between Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman playing the dastardly Hook.
Bewildered, Evan headed for his seat at the counter. Proud of their renewed friendship and Evan's success, Kelly had painted a gold star on the floor with his name stenciled on it.
Bunny greeted him first. The enthusiasm in her body language was a dead giveaway. Clearly, the manager was embarrassed his show hadn't been viewed.
"Morning, Evan. Ready for some breakfast?"
He motioned to the television. "Didn't you watch the interview?"
She scrunched her shoulders with discomfort. "No. Cable is down. Sorry. How did it go?"
Kelly Sullivan emerged through the kitchen doors. She stopped when his gaze, which he knew was full of questions, captured hers. She wiped her hands on the apron tied to her waste.
"Ah, himself, it is. Good morning, Evan McKenna."
Evan chose to answer Bunny's question, but kept his eyes on Kelly. Her agitation was not lost on him. "The interview was outstanding, Bunny. Actually, impeccable. I hammered the senator with direct questions and his answers probably launched his candidacy in the best light."
Kelly clucked her tongue. "Lies. All of them. I'm sorry, Evan. We watched fairy tales this morning instead of more politics. Really hope you don't mind."
Hell, yes, he minded. He didn't realize how much until he felt this blatant snub. He lowered his voice, not wanting the hurt to show. "You're my friend, Kelly. I told you yesterday how much this interview meant to me. Couldn't you have withheld your political sarcasm long enough to support me for this one important show?"
He inhaled a breath, really wanting to rant, but realized he sounded trite. He shook his head, needing to find a different tack other than personal insult. "Ratings, Kelly. You had a captive audience here. I could have used the help."
He didn't care that Kelly had gone pale, her mouth compressed as if her teeth might draw blood from those luscious lips. Something was very wrong. Kelly knew as well as he did that her support of NCTV was what brought the major portion of her regular clientele. Every employee at NCTV ate at Neverland at least once a week. Half the fun of eating here was watching themselves, their bosses or the celebrities they handled through the ranks appear on the big screen dominating the diner. Fans knew Neverland was the newsroom's hot spot and the place swelled with curiosity seekers. Was she giving him a rap on the knuckles because he had asked her on a date yesterday for the seventhor was it the eighthtime?
"Well, Your Majesty, the television cable line failed last night. I'm waiting for the repairman. The best I could do was play a DVD until he arrives."
Now he'd been out of line. Kelly might be brash but she would never blatantly snub him. If he'd been listening instead of getting insulted, he would have heard Bunny explain the same thing.
He was an idiot. She'd always supported him from the first time they met seven years ago until his return from a seven-year assignment in Europe just four months ago. He had been thrilled to come home and find Kelly now owner of the diner where she previously worked as a waitress. She'd transformed the old dinosaur into a retro hot spot and renamed it. The fact that she was still single added to his enthusiasm.
But the true shocker had been when she introduced him to her son, Matt, of whom she was very protective and curiously tight-lipped about his origins. Her casual responses to his subtle questions never failed to intrigue him. His curiosity was always piqued by this voluptuous Irish siren who occupied more and more of his thoughts.
But something didn't seem right. His usually bold and funny friend seemed distressed. Her hand had trembled when she pushed a copper tendril off her cheek. Had he upset her that much? He held up a stopping hand, chastened. "Kelly. I'm sorry. I didn't understand."
It took a New York second for her to snap back to her old self. "Indeed, Evan. As pompous an Irishman as ever I've met. So, will it be the usual? Or would you like an order of crow with your coffee?"