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A smart woman knew what she wanted, and how to get it.
Marni Clare considered herself damned smart.
Every step she'd taken up the career ladder had been weighed, calculated and carefully thought through. From starting her first newspaper in second grade, to choosing to work as a reporter at smaller papers instead of larger for a chance to build a stronger criminal-reporting portfolio. Right up to her move last year to shift from papers to Optimum, a renowned national magazine that'd give her a stronger gravitas.
Everything she wanted always boiled down to her career. And what she wanted right now was information on a patient who'd been admitted here a week ago. The huge explosion of a derelict warehouse owned by reputed mobster and current FBI prisoner Charles Burns had been all over the news.
What hadn't been on the news, but Marni had managed to ferret out using her super-reporter insider info, was that someone had been injured, requiring an ambulance ride to this very emergency room.
She wanted to know who that someone was. Everyone was focused on Burns. On the trial, on the odds of a conviction. Marni had the feeling that whatever had gone down in that explosion, whoever had been involved, was the bigger story, though. And she wanted it.
But sneaking patient information out of a very ethical nurse wasn't an easy task. It required stealth. A gift with reading people. A little bit of finesse.
And, of course, a bribe.
"I brought you cupcakes. Your favorite, chocolate with raspberry frosting," Marni said, setting a cute little purple basket on the counter and giving her cousin a bright smile.
"You brought me cupcakes?" Sammi Clare-Warren gave Marni a suspicious look. "Why?"
"Why would I bring my favorite cousin cupcakes?"
"You're up to something," Sammi declared knowingly. Still, she did slide the basket closer and sniff at the cupcakes. She gave a hungry little sound, as if she was sniffing at pure temptation, then pushed them back and gave her cousin a narrow look. "What do you want?"
Marni debated. She could tell the truth, that Meghan, Sammi's sister, said her twin had come home eight days ago raving about the drool-worthy, too-sexy-for-words FBI guy who'd been admitted to Emergency after a building exploded.
Or she could just throw herself out now, muttering a lecture on the sanctity of patient privacy and abuse of family ties.
"Wait.." Sammi gleefully drew the word out like she'd just discovered where Marni kept her secret stash of girly toys. "I know why you're here."
"Do you?" Marni wasn't sure if she should pull on an abashed look or go for guilty. It was hard to tell what Sammi suspected.
"You're hoping to meet someone." Sammi's grin was pure triumph. And now that she'd divined her cousin's nefarious scheme, she pulled the basket of cupcakes across the counter.
"Seriously? You think I'm trolling the emergency room for a date?" What was wrong with her family? Did they not know her, not at all?
"Why else would you be here at nine o'clock on a Friday night?"
Marni pushed her hand through her hair. Oh, now that was just pathetic. Just because she was the only one of her thirteen cousins still uncommitted didn't mean she was looking to change that status. Especially not like this. She didn't figure it conceited to acknowledge that she was a good-looking, intelligent, fun woman. If she wanted a guy, there were plenty of better places than this to find one. But she didn't want a guy. She wanted a career. A fabulous, famous, reporting-on-big stories career.
Which she'd told her family over and over and over.
"You think I'm here looking for, what?" She gestured to encompass the sterile, run-down room. "An old man with pneumonia and a fat inheritance he's looking to bequeath? Or a single, male accident victim with a good-paying job that doesn't live with his mother?"
Sammi peered around the glass partition toward the waiting room, as if checking to see if either of those potential dates had come in. Then she squinted at Marni.
"You make it sound like the only guys we get in here are all messed up."
"That's because other than the doctors, whom you've already deemed not worth setting me up with" thank God "the only guys you get in here are all messed up."
Choosing the cupcake with the most frosting, Sammi peeled back the paper liner and took a big bite.
"Then why are you here looking for a date?" she asked around her mouthful of chocolate.
Marni buried her face in her hands and groaned.
"Hey, some of those messed-up guys are pretty good-looking. There's a car accident victim in room five right now even you would drool over. He has that smoldering, sexy thing going on. And muscles. Talk about hot. His shoulders are to die for."
Sammi sighed so deep, she sent the papers on her nursing station fluttering. Marni wasn't sure any man was worth that much oxygen. Not even the one she was after.
Then again, what she wanted from him had nothing to do with the size of his
shoulders. And everything to do with the Charles Burns case. Indicted on SEC fraud and money laundering, the wealthy CEO was on his way to trial. After his dockside warehouse had exploded last week, rumors had started flying that the feds were going to bring new charges.
If she could get a handle on what they were, even an inkling about what had gone down with that explosion, she could write the article of her life. The one that would launch her out of the questionable fluff as the senior editor of Style and Entertainment and into the nitty-gritty of real reporting. Investigative reporting.
Marni gave a mental shiver of delight.
All she needed was a break. And that break was standing in front of her, licking frosting off her knuckles.
"You've had one sexy guy in here in the entire month, yet you think this is the place I should look for eligible bachelors?"
"You're the one who came in here looking for a guy." Touche.
"If I wanted a guy" which she wasn't saying she did "I wouldn't want one who was sick. I want a guy who's healthy. One who's strong, with a brilliant mind and an intense personality. Sexy and fit, with a body that you can tell he takes care of. Running, swimming, I'm not picky. As long as he's got a sweet ass and some solid biceps. Oh, and washboard abs. There's nothing sexier than a guy with a flat stomach in tight jeans and a T-shirt."
Whew. Marni almost had to fan herself over that image. Not that she wanted a guy. She really didn't. But the fantasy was pretty sweet to entertain, all the same.
"We get guys like that," Sammi assured her. "The hot-tie that's in here right now? He's all of that and more. I mean, not too many guys can look gorgeous after almost being blown to pieces. But this guy is hot, and not just because his hair was singed."
"Hair straightener gone wrong?" Marni joked with watchful eyes.
"Building gone boom."
"So what's his name?"
A name would tell her if he was really with the FBI. Marni's pulse raced. A name might, with the right research, even tell her what the case was that'd resulted in an exploding building.
"I nicknamed him tall, dark and sexy." Sammi shrugged. "But really, I just know him as 'ruptured inner ear and broken rib.'"
Tall, dark and sexy? What good did that do her?
Well, Marni considered, it might do her good if she was open to getting naked and wild with a guy. But hot sex was on page two of her goal list, something she could get to later. After she'd reached her career goals.
"How can you stand it?" She tilted her head toward the computer. "You claim the sexiest guy you've ever seen was in here, you have his vital statistics, home address, heck, even where he works all there in the computer. You're telling me you don't peek?"
How had she cornered all of the nosiness in her entire family?
"Peeking wouldn't be ethical," Sammi said, her lips a prim bow.
"What fun is your job if you can't peek?"
"Oh, and your job is better? Why don't you get to bring home all those fashions you're always writing about?"
Because the magazine had a strict policy against their reporters accepting products, figuring any gifts would result in a story bias.
Okay, fine. Ethics were a good thing.
But they weren't going to help her get that name.
"There's tons of intrigue and excitement in Style to make up for the lack of perks. You should see how crazy it is during fashion week." Marni didn't add that most of the craziness stemmed from her chafing over always being stuck covering fluff stories. She'd been thrilled to get on with a magazine like Optimum. An award-winning periodical with national distribution, covering everything from politics to human interest to entertainment with a little crime and world news thrown in, too. It was a dream job. Originally hired for her gift with human-interest pieces, Marni had quickly realized that wasn't going to get her any big attention. So she'd taken the only senior editorial spot and became the head of Style. But now nobody took her seriously. She was the pretty little blonde with an eye for spotting the next hot trend and a gift for schmoozing with the hoitiest of the toity. But not a real journalist.
This story was it, she vowed. The one that'd make them see her as more than a curvy Kewpie doll with a trivial byline. But first she had to get that name.
"I guess you're right, though." Marni put a heavy pout into her tone, adding a sigh for good measure. "The magazine really is a lousy place to meet single, heterosexual guys. So maybe you can help me out. Tell me more about the one with the singed hair. He sounds dreamy. Maybe I could meet him."
Marni wanted to cringe, to yell, Hey, doesn't anyone know me well enough to realize that's totalB.S.? But she knew better. It didn't matter how often she claimed her career was her life, twenty-six was old-maid status in her family.
"Really?" Sammi did a little dance in place, jiggling with enough excitement to dislodge the pencil from behind her ear. "You want to meet tall, dark and sexy? He's in exam room five, and has to walk right past us when he leaves. You can check him out yourself."
Was it the FBI agent? Was he working the same case? Grilling her cousin and trying to sneak out a name was one thing. But actually seeing the guy herself, being able to follow him, maybe even meet him? Holy cow. Marni almost did a little dance herself right there on the faded linoleum. It took all her control not to rush down the hall, trying to find the fifth exam room.
The women both turned, Sammi coming to subtle attention for the approaching doctor. "Hang back," she muttered to her cousin with a subtle shooing motion of her fingers.
Using patience she only expended on the job, Marni gave a cheerful nod and stepped aside. All the while pretending she didn't see the doctor trying to catch her eye.
This was it. Her shot. If she pulled off this article, they'd give her a slot as an investigative reporter. Working the crime beat. Digging for details, breaking the big stories. In a world where most reports in the papers and magazines were fed via carefully controlled press releases and media manipulation, she wanted to stand out. To be like the big reporters in the heyday of newspapers. The ones who squirreled out information, who were often as instrumental as cops in stopping crime. The ones who weren't afraid to expose ugliness.
She wanted to be like her aunt Robin. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, she'd given the cold shoulder to traditions, diving into the men's milieu when women were still chained to the oven by their apron strings. She'd jumped right in and made their world her own. She'd interviewed global leaders, had waded into war zones and broken stories on topics as varied as criminal justice and corrupt politicians. Her career was amazing.
Exactly the path Marni wanted for herself. She just needed her break.
And this FBI case, with the exploding building, art theft and rumored mob connections, was going to give it to her. She'd write a huge story exposing the truths, the reality of how the FBI had busted a bigwig CEO, and she'd get the inside scoop on the real crimes of Charles Burns before the trial got going. Fame, fortune, accolades
they were right around the corner.
"Marni." Sammi's impatient tone interrupted Marni's daydream. "This is Dr. Green. Maybe he could show you through the E.R." Huh?
Shaking off the dream of glory, Marni pulled her attention away from her ambitions and focused on the eager man standing next to her cousin. Forty, balding with bad plugs and a hint of garlic on his breath, he was looking at her as if she was his favorite centerfold come to life.
"Hello, it's nice to meet you," she offered formally, hoping the distant tone would clue him in to her disinterest.
"It's great to meet you," he said, shaking her hand just long enough to make her want to grab the antibacterial lotion off the nurses' station. "Nurse Clare-Warren explained that you're writing an article on our hospital?"
At Marni's questioning look, Sammi shrugged, then tilted her head toward the no-personal-visitors notice taped on the file cabinet. Then she held up five fingers and tilted her head toward the exam rooms.
Ooooh. Marni offered her cousin, and the good doctor, a big smile.
"You were interested in a tour of our emergency facilities?" he queried, making it sound as though he was extending an invitation to see the backseat of his Lexus. "I'll fill you in on the details of what I do here."
Sammi was now mouthing married behind his back and making faces.
Still, he could get her in closer eavesdropping range of exam room five, so she might as well take advantage of his interest. In the fake article, and in her body.
When a girl looked like Marni did, the choices were limited. Fight to be taken seriously, courting frustration and disappointment on a regular basis. Or accept that her curvaceous figure, Kewpie doll face, flaxen hair and big blue eyes were the stuff fantasies were made of, and use it to her advantage. Marni wasn't big on frustration, disappointment or losing. So she was all about the advantage.
"Sure. I'd love a tour, especially of the exam areas. That's the focus of the article," she lied. Smiling, she pulled out her ever-present notebook, making sure her elbows angled out so as to keep at least a foot between them. Noting exam rooms one and two to her left, she turned in the opposite direction.
And was pretty sure she heard her cousin giggle as she went. It was hard to tell, though, with the doctor rambling on about his qualifications. A few of them even applied to his job.
"Excuse me, Dr. Green?" An exhausted-looking guy in scrubs stepped out of one of the exam rooms and gestured for help. "A minute?"
The good doctor gave a frustrated huff, then asked Marni to wait.
Her gaze angled one door away, labeled five.
"Oh, sure." She bit her lip, then made a show of making a few notes. "I'll be fine here. I'll just get everything you said written down before I forget."
Giving the doctor a big smile, Marni stepped just a smidge to the left and let her eyes slide past the balding head to the open door of exam room five.
Her heart raced. Her pulse skipped. Her mouth went dry.
Those were definitely some sexy shoulders. Right there, above a very nice ass. The shoulders were bare, and Marni was pretty sure it was a crime that the ass was covered.
She'd never wanted anything more than her career.