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It took Daniella Duvall approximately ten minutes to realize that the man she'd convinced herself she was in love with was actually a jerk. But she let this new information settle slowly in her mind as she watched him from across the elegant restaurant table with its cream tablecloth, fine china and gleaming cutlery. The long-stemmed rose that sat on the table between them, looking elegant in an Austrian glass vase, suddenly seemed like a mockery of romance. She thought of throwing his glass of red wine in his face and watching the residue drip on his gray silk shirt. Daniella thought of slapping him, but that would be too cliche and could get messy. Besides, he would probably file assault charges against her. She thought of just getting up and walking away, but that wouldn't faze him. He'd expect her to come back. Women always came back to Pascal Bordeaux. She had to admit she was one of them; she was his ex but still in his life because he was a brilliant man to know.
During the time she'd been dating him, Daniella had learned a lot about him. She knew he'd been born Parry Baines in a small town somewhere in Georgia and because of a speech impediment had had extensive speech therapy to correct it. In college, he'd used a dialect coach to help him rid himself of his strong Southern accent, making it have a more mainstream cadence. He'd studied the famous actor, Sidney Poitier, who grew up in the Bahamas and had a thick island accent. When he had his first byline article printed in the prestigious University of Pittsburgh's magazine, he'd chosen a new name for himself that wasn't mainstream at all. Soon it became more than a pen name, it developed into a new identity, forcing him to fudge certain aspects of his past, such as his parentage and background, to make his name more plausible. Now he'd risen too high for anyone to refute his ownership of a French-sounding name, and his new identity suited him. He was an author and professor at the local liberal arts college.
What she didn't know was how lucky Pascal had felt to have found her and now he hoped to rekindle what had been lost. She'd fit perfectly into the life he'd created for himself and the image he wanted to maintain. And he enjoyed showing her off in public. Just like her two other sisters, she had inherited the Duvall stately beautyelegant neck, dark flashing brown eyes and skin the color of polished oak. He loved how her long, curly hair looked when she smoothed it into a French roll and the color that filled her cheeks when she was riled.
No, Daniella didn't know any of this and likely wouldn't have cared. Instead she watched his mouth move and set her knife and fork down trying to keep her voice from trembling once she regained the ability to speak.
"Cute? You think my article was cute? You invited me here to tell me that my story was cute?"
He reached across the table, covered her hand with his and smiled, an effective and practiced smile, to calm her. His eyes were warm and concerned, tinged with a hint of regret. "Dani, I wanted to see you and what I said I mean in the best possible way."
Daniella wanted to scream, but she drew her hand away and kept her voice level. "In the best way? How is that possible? You read my article describing my harrowing journey surviving a plane crash and you thought it was cute?''" She flexed her hand, taking control of her temper. She'd made a mistake in coming to see him. Why did he always put her down? And why did she let him? Why did she care?
Pascal glanced around the room as though embarrassed that their conversation could be overheard, although in truth no one was paying attention. "There's no need to get upset."
"Too bad because I am very upset. I'm furious!"
Pascal sat back and smoothed out the napkin on his lap in a quick, restless motion. "Why are you making such a big deal out of this? It's not like it's high journalism. It's just your regular work. You're a talented writer," he said, his tone just shy of patronizing. There was an element of sincerity that kept Daniella seated instead of walking out the door.
"Just not as good as you, right?" Daniella said, annoyed that she still craved and delighted in any crumbs of praise he sent her. It was because she admired him so much. She was still in awe of his Pulitzer Prize winning article about urban street kids being forced into slavery, by being "bought" by wealthy residents in a major U.S. city. He'd turned it into a book and a film documentary produced by Frontline, a highly respected TV show on PBS. She'd met him years ago while attending a journalism convention in Niagara Falls and instantly felt an attraction. Aside from being very handsome, eloquent and stylish, he was interested in the same issues she was. But she broke up with him when she realized he didn't see them as equals. And now as she stared at him across the table she saw that nothing had changed. She had worked hard on her article, hoping it would catapult her stagnant career to the next level, but he'd dismissed her efforts and with it her entire writing career as just fluff.
Daniella tapped the table. "This article isn't like the rest. I share the experience of eight other passengers and"
"And it's good work."
She gritted her teeth, his indulgent tone beginning to grate on her nerves. "But you could have done better," Daniella finished in a flat tone. His words hurt, although she didn't want them to. He'd touched her deepest insecurity. That he was rightthey'd never be equals.
He shrugged. "I didn't say that."
"You didn't have to."
Pascal took a sip of his wine and flashed another one of his soothing smiles. "Let's change the subject."
"No, this is getting too interesting." She pushed her plate aside and leaned forward, resting her arms on the table. No matter how harsh his words, she was ready to face them. She was determined to get her career to a level where she garnered the same respect he had. "Tell me what you would have done differently."
He sighed, resigned. "You're not going to like my response."
"I don't care, tell me anyway." She lied, knowing that she would care, but ready to accept what he had to say.
He sighed again as if he knew he'd regret his next words, but continued anyway. "First, I wouldn't have done a story about my experience." He held up his hand before she could argue. "I would have done a story on the pilot."
"The pilot died. He suffered a heart attack. It would be tragic to tell his story and cruel to his widow."
Pascal brushed her words away with a wave of his hand. "Not him. I mean the guy who rescued the plane. The one who you said jumped into the cockpit and took over and helped all of you to survive for four days in the wild." He pointed at her. "Now that's a story. It was staring you right in the face and you missed it."
Daniella blinked. "But that's not my story."
Pascal shook his head and flashed a sad smile. "The problem with you is that you just don't have the instincts. You had the perfect angle to launch your career into the stratosphere and you let it slip through your fingers."
"I knew other reporters would beat me to it," Dani-ella said in her defense, hating how close to the truth she knew he was. "They were swarming all over the guy when we were finally rescued."
"He's still a mystery. He won't talk to anyone. It appears as if his background is as bland as mud."
"Yet you were with him for four days. Do you know how much you can get to know about a person in that amount of time? There are memories locked in your mind about that man and the event that people would pay for."
"I wasn't the only passenger."
"But I can bet you were the only writer. You're trained to be observant. You probably know a fact that no one else does. You may have noticed something that could tell us more about him."
Pascal raised his hand. "No buts and no more excuses. They're all flimsy anyway. You should have done a human interest story on Richard Eagle."
"Correction, it's Engleright," she said.
"Right. If you'd done a story on him, that would have been impressive. I mean where was he trained? Why did he walk away? Why won't he talk about the accident? There's a gold mine of a story there."
He was right, there was a story there and she'd missed it. Pascal had always been able to see the right angle for any story. She didn't. She'd convinced herself that it was because after being with Richard Engleright for four days she'd wanted to forget about him. She hadn't been able to yet, but she would. Daniella focused on her food, but she saw Richard's face. Richard by the creek, Richard by the fire, Richard kissing her.. No she wouldn't think about that. It meant nothing. She stabbed her asparagus. She'd seen and learned a lot about the man but thought he had the right to keep his secrets. She wasn't a writer who dug for dirt.
"You missed a great opportunity, Dani, but that's okay. We both know that it's out of your league."
Daniella's head shot up. "No, it's not."
He laughed. "Dani, this guy is good. There's no way you'll be able to get his story when professionals can't."
"I am a professional."
"A professional travel writer, you write about luxury hotels or hot vacation spots. This is different. You'd have to find him, convince him to talk to you and"
"I can do it," she said, ready to meet his challenge.
He cupped her hand in his, his voice soft. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. Your story is really good and great for your portfolio."
"But it's not good enough."
He frowned. "Stop putting words in my mouth."
"Then stop talking to me as if I was one of your students."
"I'm just being honest."
"I'm going to get his story." Pascal began to grin. "I'd like to see you try." Daniella bit into her asparagus, mentally hoping that getting Richard's story didn't mean she had bitten off more than she could chew. But she was determined to wipe the smug grin from Pascal's face.
"Are you out of your mind?"
"He said my story was cute!"
Sophia Carlton, Daniella's best friend from childhood, and roommate, stared at her bewildered. They'd been instant friends and become even closer after Sophia's brother, Alex, married Daniella's sister, Isabella. Usually, as good friends, they bragged about being able to read each other's thoughts. This wasn't one of those times. They both sat in the living room of their stylish apartmentor rather what passed for stylish in the small town of Hydale, New York. They'd briefly lived in the city, but the cost was too much and the pace too fast. So they returned to their hometown close to their family where Sophia worked as a grants manager for a high-tech company. Daniella could always count on Sophia to be her support. .until now.
Sophia waved her finger. "I don't care if he said it was bubblegum, that doesn't mean you should try to find this stranger and write a story about him."
"I'm going to show Pascal what I'm really made of."
"You don't even know where to begin."
"Yes, I do."
Sophia folded her arms. "Fine. What are you going to do first?"
Daniella glanced out the window. It had been two days since her talk with Pascal and she still didn't know where to begin. "I haven't put my plan together yet."
"See? You're out of your element."
Daniella turned to her. "I can't believe you're taking Pascal's side on this."
"I'm not taking sides." She threw up her hands. "I can't believe you don't see how he's setting you up for a great big fall. Nobody's been able to get this guy's story."
"I'll find a way." And she would. She'd show them never to underestimate her again. Daniella could just imagine their faces when she showed them the printed article. Editors would pursue her for more stories, and maybe she'd even be offered a six-figure book deal. She began to grin, picturing Pascal's shocked expression as she signed her books in front of a large audience of fans and
"Don't do it."
Sophia's words cut through Daniella's daydream. She frowned at her friend. "Do what?"
"Whatever you're thinking about."
"You make me sound devious."
"Because you can be. Everyone thinks you're sweet and innocent, but I know you better than that."
Daniella sighed. Sophia certainly did. Growing up together and traveling as adults, the friends knew the "true" nature of one another. Most people paid little attention to Daniella because she looked young and naive. It had once been an advantage, but now had become a hindrance because people didn't always take her seriously.
"This is my chance to show the world who I really am," Daniella said.
"You mean Pascal. You're doing all this because of him."
Daniella tilted her head to the side and studied her friend. "You never liked him."
It was a rhetorical comment, but Sophia answered anyway. "No. I think he's a pompous ass and just as fake as his name."
"I told you that in confidence."
"It doesn't matter anyway. Now you feel the same way I do, right?"
I don't know." She sighed.
Sophia groaned, exasperated. "You're not sure? Only two days ago you came home telling me how awful he was and how you were going to 'show him.' Now you're telling me he's great again?"
"I'm not saying Pascal's great, but he's right. If I were really a storyteller I would have thought about doing Richard's story instead of mine."
"Your story was great. It was featured in two national magazines. That's excellent and the money was definitely real." She touched the new blouse Daniella had bought her to celebrate.
"That night you said I should go for it."
"Because I thought you were just talking. I was being supportive. I thought it was just bravado, I didn't think you meant it. Now, days later, in the cold light of day you're telling me you're planning to track down a mystery man who could be a fugitive hiding from the law for all we know."