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I want you to bring me a day in the life of Jacob Covington. He's hot copy and I want your story to sizzle." It was an order, and Allison Wakefield knew that Bill Jenkins, editor of The Journal and her boss, meant what he said. The Journal was known for its titillating accounts of the lives of celebrities.
"You said you wanted a story on a typical day in his life. Are you telling me to dig into the man's privacy, to snoop? I'm a reporter, Bill, not a private eye, and I'm not interested in digging up anybody's skeletons." She'd heard that careers were destroyed hourly in Washington, D.C., and after her own experience, she didn't doubt it. She brushed her long brown fingers back and forth beneath her chin and straightened her shoulders.
"I can't stoop to that, Bill. I won't."
He lifted his shoulders in what appeared to be a careless shrug. "You said you didn't want any more assignments on the wives of visiting dignitaries; you wanted hard news. Well, this is your chance. You're after a story, and whatever you find had better go in it." He paused, allowing a grin to slide over his face. "But if you're chicken
" He let the thought dangle, but she understood what he didn't say.
"Refusing to muckrake is not the same as being cowardly." She knew she should hold her tongue, because she didn't want to leave The Journal until she had another job.
Oblivious to the implied insult, his gaze swept over her. "A reporter has to be tough, Allison. So get used to it. If you don't, the job's not for you. Bring me the story."
Allison turned away from her editor without thanking him for the chance of a lifetime. She collected her briefcase and pocketbook from her office several doors away and walked out of the building. Pausing in front of the eight-story structure at Fourteenth and H Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C., she breathed deeply of the warm, late June air. She hadn't regained her status as a top reporter, but she still had her soul. Maybe she should have shown some gratitude, but why thank him for the double-edged gift when she knew it could be her undoing?
Jacob Covington had an impeccable reputation, or at least that was the opinion of other reporters who had interviewed him since he'd become a bestselling author. Cut him to pieces? She knew her uneasiness was well founded; Bill Jenkins kept The Journal afloat with scandal, searing his subjects, and if she let him, he'd treat this story no differently; he wanted the dirt. Muckraking was what he expected, and she'd need all of her wits to circumvent him. Top-of-the-line editors didn't hire reporters who built their reputations on sleazy copy, and she wanted another chance at working for one of the best newspapers. But she couldn't do that until she erased that blot from her record. She meant to show her detractors that she could reestablish herself as a journalist, and she wouldn't trash Jacob Covington's reputation to do it.
Warren Jacob "Jake" Covington paused in front of his town house near the Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown and took a deep breath of warm, dry, early morning air, appreciating the unusually low humidity for the nation's capital. Returning from the steaming tropics, the type of climate he least liked, he walked into his house and dropped his luggage at the closet door in his bedroom. After hanging up his jacket and kicking off his shoes, he stretched out on his bed and gloried in the feel of his own hard mattress under his back.
He had just completed his first trip for the department in four years, and the experience increased his appreciation for his current job as the department's chief policy analyst. He wondered how he ever thought of his former job as an undercover agent as exciting and fascinating. He wanted no more of it.
An hour later, at the beginning of the working day, he reached for the phone on his night table and dialed his chief. "I got home an hour ago," he said. As a policy, he didn't identify himself over the phone. "We can't expect success with the present strategy. I'll have to come up with a better plan. I've got some ideas."
"All right. Glad you're back," the chief said. "Get some rest and check in with me tomorrow morning."
Jake stretched out again and grasped at sleep, only to have it elude him. As always, hours passed while he tried to climb down from the emotional high that consumed him when he was on a department mission. Long before he changed assignments, he had begun to tire of the ever-present danger and to want a home and family, something that he couldn't contemplate as long as he held that post.
"We don't have anyone else who can do this as well as you can and get back here safely," his chief had said, trying as usual to inveigle him back into his former job. Well, if he got caught or died, they'd find someone else; he wasn't indispensable. He had paid his dues, and he was out, a fact of which he intended to remind the chief as soon as he saw him.
Allison had never feared an assignment; indeed, the prospect of digging into a topic or an individual and finding something new and interesting always excited her. But she hadn't worked for a newspaper that touted the sensational or for a boss who reveled in it.
Roaming around her small town house in Alexandria, she considered giving her boss an ultimatum: take her off that assignment or accept her resignation. But until Bill Jenkins hired her a month earlier, she hadn't worked in eighteen months, had lived off her now-depleted savings.
I'll write the story, but I won't scandalize the man, and I won't cover up for him, either. That's a lesson I don't have to learn again.
The muffled sound of the telephone interrupted her musings. "Hello? Auntie! How are you?"
"Lazy. I just caught a huge striped bass, and that set me to thinking about you. Fishing's real good right now. You ought to come up here for a few days. It ought to be nice this weekend."
Allison thought for a second. "You know
that's not a bad idea. I'll be starting a new assignment in a few days, and it wouldn't hurt to rest up. I'll fly to Reed City, pick up a rental car, and get to Idlewild around eight Friday evening."
At exactly seven-thirty in the evening, Allison's rented Toyota stopped in front of her aunt's house, a yellow frame structure built in the 1920s, but renovated and well preserved. Frances Upshaw, tall and regal at eighty, rushed off the front porch to greet her niece who, along with Allison's brother, Sydney, constituted the total of the family members that she cared about. She made it a point to tell her friends that the other members of her family were "too supercilious" for her taste.
"We've got another hour before dark," she told Allison. "You're just in time for us to get our supper. Mr. Hawks passed here a few minutes ago with a good dozen catfish and pike. They must be jumping."
"Okay," Allison said, hugging her aunt. "Let me put on some sneakers. I have to wear leather soles when I drive."
She followed her aunt to the northern end of Little Idlewild Lake, baited her hook, and cast as far as she could.
"I'm getting rusty at this, Auntie."
"No such thing. Child, I've been rusty for years, but not when I'm fishing." Her laugh emphasized the insinuation. "When are you and Sydney going to settle down?"
Here it comes, she thought. "We're settled, Auntie."
"You know what I mean. Find yourself a- Oops! Will you look at what I got?" She reeled in a pike of about four pounds, the gleam of her white teeth expressing her pleasure as she put the fish in her basket. In less than half an hour, they had three fish each, enough for the weekend.
Around seven the next morning, Allison got her copy of Flying High, a folding chair, a big straw hat and dark glasses, and headed for the beach. As she sat facing Idlewild Lake and enjoying the crisp morning breeze, she thrilled at the thought that she could be sitting in the same spot where Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, or W.E.B. Du Bois once reclined. In its heyday, Idlewild, known as Black Eden, was famous as a black resort area, the first in the Midwest, attracting the most prominent black entertainers and scores of black intellectuals seeking a place to unwind.
Allison had often wondered how such a charming place with its winding roads, virgin forests, and beautiful lakes could have fallen into decline. She'd heard that integration made it redundant. She dug her bare toes into the powdered sand, leaned back, and opened her book. She liked being there alone when the birds chirped in the trees, a few people sailed on the lake, and a kind of peace flowed around her.
At the sound of a bird singing, she twisted around in the hope of getting a glimpse of it and gasped. Who was that giant of a man with a mouthwatering body rising from the lake like an amphibious Adonis, clad in only the tiniest of swimsuits? As he neared her, she lowered her glasses for a better look and could see the droplets of lake water on his flesh. Long, beautiful legs, tapered waist. Openly, she ogled the man, happy to acknowledge that example of God's perfect handiwork. He didn't glance her way, and she had never been happier to be ignored.
She returned her attention to her book, but the hero of Flying High took on the image of the handsome stranger, teasing and mocking her on every page. She closed the book and wondered about the identity of that spiritlike Adonis. Too bad, she would probably never see him again. Besides, he was probably married.
"Aunt Frances," she said, "I saw a really tall man, maybe six feet five or six, on the beach. He had a tan complexion and black silky hair. I'd say he's African-American with some Native American ancestors, and a knockout."
"Well, well, hit you where you felt it, did he? Sorry, but he doesn't live here in Idlewild. Must be a tourist. Why don't you stay for the week? You might see him again."
"Believe me, I'm tempted, but if I do that I'll probably lose my job, and you know how long I've been trying to get one. I have to leave here Sunday noon."
Frances rinsed her cup and saucer and rubbed her sides to dry her hands. "I'll keep an eye out for him, and you know I'll walk right up to him and ask him about himself. When you get to be my age, you can get away with anything."
On Monday morning, Allison telephoned Jacob Covington. The deep baritone voice invited her to leave a message but, struck by the beauty of his voice, she merely stared at the receiver. Recovering quickly, she said, "Mr. Covington, this is Allison Wakefield of
The Journal. My editor says you've agreed to give us a story. Please call me at your convenience." She gave her phone number, hung up, and pondered her next move. Later, checking The Journal's calendar of events for a potential story, as she regularly did, she noted Covington's scheduled lecture that night at Howard University's Andrew Rankin Chapel. She'd be there.
Allison took an aisle seat on the first row and nearly sprang out of it when Jacob Covington strode to the rostrum. Her awareness of him as a man surprised and disconcerted her, as her gaze caught the big giant of a man, who looked directly at her with long-lashed hazel eyes. With so little space separating them, he had to see that a glance at him had left her disoriented, so that she responded to him as surely as flowers rise to greet the sun. At the end of his lecture, she hardly recalled the gist of his talk, so intent had she been on concealing her feminine reaction. She stood in line for an opportunity to speak with him and stared in disbelief when he looked beyond those closest to him in the line and let his gaze linger on her. Common sense told her that she should tell Bill Jenkins to give the assignment to another reporter.
"Hello." The deep, sonorous voice curled around her, and the hazel eyes that punctuated the elegance of his rich, brown face seemed to look into her soul. Without thinking, she extended her hand. And he took it. Nobody had to tell her that, at that moment, she dealt with fate.
"Hello, Mr. Covington." She managed to keep her tone cool. "I enjoyed your talk, but I have a business reason for wanting to meet you."
His left eyebrow arched. Then he winked, bewitching her. "What kind of business?"
She handed him her card. "I'm the reporter Mr. Jenkins assigned for The Journal's story on you."
He looked at the card, then at her. "Your name's not familiar."
"I hope you don't have a case of gender insensitivity."
That wink, again. "Hardly. My concern is for competence and experience."
With so much at stake, she couldn't afford to show vexation. "And you can look at a reporter and know whether she's competent?"
"There are still a lot of people behind you. If you'll step aside, we can settle this later." Settle it? How? This was her chance, and if he had thoughts of refusing her interviews, he could forget it. Right then, she had the upper hand, because he didn't need bad press just as he was about to begin a national book tour.
"Suppose we walk out together," he suggested when the last of his audience had left. "I agreed to be interviewed reluctantly, because my publisher thinks a story in The Journal will widen my readership, but I have to tell you I have misgivings. What kind of story are you planning?"
She noticed that he shortened his steps to accommodate her and wondered at his height. "A day in the life of Jacob Covington. What do you say?"
He didn't miss a beat. "A working day in the life of Jacob Covington is what you'll get. My private life is my business, so if you've got plans to start on the day of my birth, and not miss a second of my existence until the day before the story goes to press, forget about it."
As they reached the door, she stopped walking and looked up at him. "I can write the story without a word from you, or I can do the decent, professional thing and interview you. I'm giving my boss a story one way or the other."
His hazel eyes took on a glaze, and his stare might well have been a laser, slicing through her. "Has some of Bill Jenkins rubbed off on you? A story at any cost? Damn the individual; the public has a right to know?"
She told herself to remember the stakes. "Let's start over, Mr. Covington. This assignment is important to me, and I'm sure you know that. Give me your ground rules, and I'll try to follow them."
He breathed deeply, as though resigned. "All right, Ms. Wakefield, nine to five, Monday through Friday, and whenever I'm lecturing, signing books, or being interviewed on radio or TV. At all other times I'm a private citizen. Okay?"
"Fair enough. Are you married?" He seemed taken aback at the abruptness of the question, and she could have kicked herself for having asked it in that fashion.