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Cortez Wallace had changed drastically in the last eight years. He'd gone from an unknown entity to one of the most powerful and respected anchors in the industry. True, his journalistic prowess helped him garner a fair share of the accolades. But everyone knew his sinfully handsome features were the real asset. Women blatantly admitted that a man like Cortez Wallace made even the most heinous news story a pleasure to hear.
That morning, however, Cortez was feeling anything but pleasure. A scowl contorted his face as he bounded down the corridor to his office suite. In his eight years working for WPDM, he'd never been so eager to leave.
Cortez's assistant, Sara McBride, saw her boss on his way down the hall, and her smile widened with a syrupy sweetness that gained in intensity the closer he came to her desk.
* * *
"There he is," Sara sang, only to earn a sinister glare from the man who stormed past her.
Cortez stopped just before entering his office. Hands braced on either side of the doorway, he bowed his head. "Sara, come in here, please," he said without turning to look at her.
Sara's smile disappeared in a flash. She bit her lip while standing up to do as he'd asked.
"What's going on around here?" he demanded to know, rolling up the sleeves of his midnight blue shirt to reveal muscular forearms. "I mean, I feel like I'm on a sugar high with everybody being so sweet to me. What? Have I been given six months to live and everyone knows but me?"
Sara watched him in disbelief as she took a few steps toward to his desk. "Well, haven't you seen the society page this morning?"
The way she phrased the question, as though she were asking if he'd had coffee with his breakfast, set Cortez's scowl even more firmly in place. "The society page," he said, stroking his light beard as though he were making an effort to recall. "My chances of seeing it are about as likely as my decorating a wedding cake, I'm afraid."
Sara tapped a nail to her berry-colored lips and grinned. "It's funny you should mention wedding cake."
"I'm losin' patience, Sara."
Quickly, Sara extended her hands and made a move for the door. "Sorry, Cortez, just hold on a minute, all right?" she asked, racing out the office. She returned some ten seconds later carrying a newspaper.
"The society page, I presume?" Cortez inquired dryly as he leaned against the edge of his desk.
"The article's circled," Sara told him as she passed him the paper.
Cortez scanned the article that had been ringed with hot pink highlighter. After a few seconds of reading, muttered curses spilled past his lips and the paper crinkled as his grip upon it tightened. "What the hell? " he bellowed finally, causing his assistant to jump. When he tossed the paper aside and looked up, Sara was already at the entrance to the office.
"Get her in here," he ordered, massaging his neck as he stood.
"This is a joke, right?" Julia Kelly calmly inquired of the five men seated in the conference room. Her expression, however, spoke volumes and said that she knew they were dead serious.
James Sealy, vice president of programming for Outlook T V, leaned forward over the cherry-wood table. "Julia, I'm asking," he said—though it sounded close to begging— "to please go along with us on this. It's a good idea and we want to see it through."
But you want to keep me happy, too, Julia thought silently. The last thing the popular cable network wanted to do was lose their hottest producer. Of course, she wasn't nice enough to let them off the hook so easily. "I suppose you four have forgotten," she began, glaring at the executives seated before her, "that I came to you four months ago with a similar idea of my own?" she asked, watching the men fidget in their seats before she turned to the fifth man in the room, Kenrick Owens.
"No offense, Ken," she apologized unsympathetically, before turning on the executives once more, "but my idea is far more fresh, and besides, I've got years more experience." She recrossed her long legs, which were covered by silver-gray trousers. "My show is a few steps beyond your investigative exposés. It brings the public to the places in L.A. they wouldn't go if their lives depended on it. By bringing attention to these places, improvements could be possible. Change could be affected. Real change." One silver-gray-and-black pump dangled as she crisply relayed her pitch. "I'm not only offering a voyeuristic peek into L.A.'s seedy side, guys. I'm offering hope for improvement. Not to mention the fact that my host is a woman." Julia's dark eyes narrowed then as though she'd just made the discovery of the century. "Now, that couldn't possibly be the reason you guys are giving it the boot?"
"We are not giving it the boot," James promised, tugging nervously at his collar, "we only want to try Ken's approach first."
"Right," Julia sighed, setting her elbows on the arms of the chair she occupied and lacing her fingers together. "That's right, give the men a go first, since it's got real potential. Then, if it fails, give the little girls a shot."
At once the men began to plead and insist that she was wrong. It was obvious how determined they were to have her on board.
"Enough, enough," she urged, casually raking her fingers through glossy, jet-black locks that she now wore in a gorgeous boyish cut. "Don't worry, fellas, I'm not gonna run home crying and then turn in my resignation because I've been screwed. If that were the case, I doubt you'd have one woman left working at this damned network."
"Julia, wait!" Bennett Daniels, Outlook's public relations and marketing vice president, called when she got up to leave. "We need you to do more than just go along with us on this."
Julia turned, propping a hand on the banded waistband of her chic cuffed trousers. "What? You want me to rework Ken's concept and write the show's copy, too?"
Sounds of cleared throats and sighs filled the room and drowned before Ben continued.
"We have several candidates in mind for this thing, Julia, but there's only one we're highly interested in. Trouble is, he's the top man at a respected station in Detroit."
Julia pulled her hand from her hip and stepped closer to the conference table at the mention of her hometown. Her silence prompted Ben to continue.
"We want Cortez Wallace in the top spot."
Julia almost lost her ability to stand. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice her unease.
"We know you and Cortez were acquainted," James said. "So we figured that since you two know each other…"
"What? You just figured on having me charm him to get him to sign on?"
"Damn it, Julia!" James spat, while his colleagues uttered similar responses at her insinuation. "Just calm down, because the attitude is not necessary."
"Oh no, James?" Julia challenged, glaring into his reddened face. "Not even when you guys shoot down my idea and then ask me to help you make the show you really want instead? "
"Would you just think about it?" Bennett urged. "Kenrick's already agreed to give you coproducer rights if you just meet with Cortez when he decides to come out for a visit."
Julia froze, her dark, oval face a picture of stunned unease. "He-he's coming out here?"
Again, the group shuffled restlessly in their seats.
"He hasn't agreed yet," James admitted, "but he did sound intrigued by the possibility. Besides, he's been with WPDM for almost ten years, and we're hoping he's ready for a change. He knows you, and a familiar face may make the possibility of relocating more appealing."
Hmph, Julia mused. Her face wasn't the only thing Cortez Wallace was familiar with. How many times had he run across her mind during the last eight years? She'd forbidden herself to even tune in to the online broadcasts from Detroit. She never asked about him when she spoke with family or friends. She'd finally succeeded in safely tucking him away in the deepest recesses of her past, right?
She realized they were all watching her expectantly. In a soft, demure and completely un-Julia-like way, she smiled and nodded. "Um…could I just have some time to think about it?" she asked.
The guys exchanged uncertain glances and nodded slowly. Clearly, they couldn't believe she'd even agreed to do that. Julia said nothing more and left the conference room shortly afterward.
When the door closed behind her, Ben's eyes fluttered closed as he massaged the bridge of his nose.
Matthew Henderson, another executive who'd been present at the meeting, had decided to play it safe by not speaking. "Damn, she's one tough woman," he let out finally.
James shook his head. "Makes you wonder what she's like in bed," he quipped, smiling as each man quietly uttered words of agreement while happily envisioning that very idea.
"What the hell are you doing giving comments like this?" Cortez demanded when Renee Scales stood in his office twenty minutes after he'd asked to see her.
"I don't see what the problem is," she responded in her vaguely haughty manner. Folding her arms across the front of her smart, peach skirt suit, she appeared cool and poised—her usual demeanor. "We have been seeing each other several months—"
"Those were business dinners to discuss stories," he corrected. "And now we're engaged?" Cortez asked, as though seeking clarification for something he felt was utterly preposterous.
Renee rolled her light eyes. "It says nothing like that," she said and waved airily at the article now lying crumpled on Cortez's desk. "Of course, it does leave the impression that we're in a committed relationship and that an engagement may be on the horizon…unless you have issues with that phrase?"
Cortez frowned. "Unless it says 'committed to work,' you're damn straight I've got issues with it. And there is most certainly no engagement on the horizon."
Renee shrugged nonchalantly, though the look in her eyes was one of distinct uneasiness.
Cortez was so in awe of the situation that he couldn't grasp any of it. "Listen, Renee," he sighed, sounding as though he were struggling to maintain his calm. "We're public people, and comments like this can easily be misconstrued. We're reporters, and you know we don't need much to run with, even if it is a lie."
The look on Renee's attractive café-au-lait face grew stormy. "So our relationship is all business, nothing else at all?"
Cortez's groan almost smothered the sound of his phone ringing. How the devil had a few meals in public turned into this? he marveled. "Wallace," he said as he answered the call.
"I'm very upset with you." Cora Wallace's high-pitched, nasal tone drifted through the receiver. "But I'll forgive you as soon as you tell me when this engagement will be made formal."
Instead of responding to his mother's inquiry, Cortez stood. "It's for you," he told Renee, and he passed the phone to her before he left his office.
He can't come here, he just can't, Julia had been thinking since she left the conference room. She headed back to her office after the meeting, not even stopping to wave or chat with her coworkers like she normally did.
Cortez Wallace…she hadn't seen or talked to him in eight years. The morning after his argument with Correll, Julia told him she was sick. After he'd left for the station, she packed her things, typed a letter of resignation and mailed it to WPDM. She made a hasty show of saying goodbye to her family; she didn't think her mother ever forgave her for leaving so abruptly. Anyway, Julia had said to hell with it and set off for Los Angeles, which was as far as she could get on limited cash and no job prospects on the horizon. She had a girlfriend out there and roomed with her for about five months. All the while, she was determined to make it—away from Cortez.
She'd snagged a copyediting position with Haven Network, the parent company of Outlook TV. Her dedication and diligence quickly made her a valued employee. She moved up so fast within the ranks that when Haven launched Outlook, Julia was pulled aboard. Snagging a position as producer was a dream, and Julia went on to produce many of its most popular shows. Now she'd made a name for herself all over L.A. and beyond.
Still, the name Cortez Wallace had the power to make her feel the same way she did on the night she'd overheard his brother say those terrible things about her. Those words made her feel unworthy and cheap. The last eight years proved she was anything but, even though she'd known that all along. Still, a part of her wanted to show the Wallace family just how far she had come. Moreover, she wanted Cortez to know it—she wouldn't allow herself to think he already did. And besides, deep down, a part of her still wanted to delight in the pleasure she'd always found in his arms. After experiencing that pleasure just once more, maybe—maybe—she could truly move on with her life and let him do the same.
Right, Julia. Easier said than done, an annoying voice told her. After all, this was Cortez Wallace—tall, caramel-skinned, dark-eyed, steel-bodied Cortez Wallace. Her eight years in L.A. weren't nearly enough to make her forget what a physical specimen he was.
"Forget it," Julia chided herself, raking her fingers through her short hair. What she needed to focus on was making it clear to Cortez that he'd just be reopening a can of worms by relocating and working with her in California. Maybe if her chauvinist colleagues couldn't get Cortez to sign, they'd forget the show completely. That way, Cortez would be back in Detroit where he belonged. He wouldn't be in such close proximity every second, easing his way back into her heart.
"Ma, how many times do I have to tell you that article was inaccurate?"
Flashing Renee a murderous glare, Cortez fell silent and reclined in the chair he'd occupied for the past twenty minutes. Cora had insisted that he and Renee come out to her house for lunch. Cortez only agreed on the condition that he and Renee spend the time convincing Cora that she, and probably all of Detroit, had been misinformed.
Renee, however, hadn't lived up to her part of the bargain. She practically beamed as Cora went on and on about the engagement party she wanted to give them. Cortez massaged his eyes and silently chanted the phrase "calm down." He knew that once his mother was fixed on an idea, there was little that could dissuade her. Clearly, Renee was in no mood to do so.