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Journalist Brandon Langard's blunder was the talk of the bullpen at Windy City Bizz. The odds-on favorite for a promotion to feature writer, he'd struck out in his attempt to get an interview with Jared Ryder.
Melissa Warner and the rest of the sixth-floor magazine staff watched the fallout with morbid fascination. The managing editor's door was closed tight, but through the interior window, it was obvious Seth Strickland was shouting. His eyes snapped fire, and his face had turned a mottled purple. Brandon's head was bent and still, his shoulders hunched.
"They've already designed the cover," photographer Susan Alaric stage-whispered over the low barrier between her and Melissa's desks.
"That's because Brandon swore it was a done deal," said Melissa, remembering his swagger last week when he'd announced the plum assignment.
"Nothing wrong with that man's confidence," Susan returned with an eye roll. Brandon's habit of bragging, flirting and ogling the female staff had long since alienated them.
"I was sure he'd pull it off," Melissa had to admit. Brandon might be obnoxious, but he was also driven and hardworking. And like all the journalists at the Bizz, he knew an in-depth article on Chicago's most elusive entrepreneur and bachelor would clinch the promotion to feature writer.
That Jared Ryder had made a fortune in the Chicago real estate market fit Windy City Bizz's mandate for business news. That he was the heartthrob of half the city's female population suited the magazine's new focus on circulation numbers.
Seth became even more animated, gesticulating with both arms as he rounded his cluttered desk to confront Brandon face-to-face. The occasional word filtered through the closed door. "…incompetent…unreliable… reckless…"
"Ouch." Susan cringed.
Melissa experienced a fleeting twinge of pity for Brandon. But then she remembered how he'd eavesdropped on her conversation with the Women in Business organization last month and presented the story idea as his own. She still owed him for that one. Or rather, he still owed her.
She paused on that thought.
It was true. He did owe her one. And maybe it was time to collect.
It would serve him right if she swooped in on this particular story. And why not? Seth clearly needed the Jared Ryder interview. And Melissa would kill for a chance at that promotion.
Through the window, Seth stopped talking. His breathing went deep, his nostrils flared, as he set his jaw in a grim line. Brandon bolted for the office door, and Melissa saw her chance. She quickly came to her feet.
Susan glanced up quizzically, assessing the determined expression on Melissa's face. She obviously came to the right conclusion.
"Do it," she begged with a grin. "Oh, please do it."
Melissa's heart upped its rhythm. She swallowed hard, trying not to think about the career-limiting consequences of failure. If she promised the interview and didn't deliver, she'd be in more trouble than Brandon.
Still, as Brandon yanked Seth's door open, she tamped down her fear and made her move.
Her colleagues' gazes hit her from all sides as she made a beeline for the editor's office. Some probably guessed her plan. Others would be simply shocked to see her approaching Seth before he had a chance to calm down. His tirades were legendary. They normally sent the staff scurrying for cover.
Brandon peeled off to the right, studiously avoiding eye contact with anyone.
Melissa rapped on the still-open door. "Seth?"
"What?" he barked, without looking up, rustling through a pile of papers on his cluttered desk.
She took a couple of steps into the office, clicking the door shut behind her.
His round face was flushed all the way to his receding hairline. There was a sheen of sweat above his bushy brows. His white shirt was rumpled, sleeves rolled up. And his tie was loose and dangling in two sections over his protruding belly.
"I can get you the interview," she stated outright, standing tall, her three-inch pumps giving her a slight height advantage.
"The Jared Ryder interview."
"No. You can't."
"I can," she insisted, voice firm with the confidence she'd learned facing down five older brothers. "I will. What's the deadline?"
"Ryder left Chicago this morning."
"No problem. Where'd he go?"
Seth glared at her without answering.
"I can do it, Seth."
"He turned Langard down flat."
"I'm not Langard."
"You're not," Seth agreed in a tone that told her she'd never be as good as Brandon Langard. Then he picked up his phone and punched in a number.
"Give me a chance," Melissa insisted, closing the space between the door and his desk. "What can it hurt?"
"We're out of time."
"A week," said Melissa. "Give me a week."
"Is Everett available?" Seth asked into the phone.
Everett was publisher of the Bizz, the head honcho, the guy who approved the lead headlines and the cover copy.
"Can we at least talk about it?" she pressed.
"Nothing to talk about. Ryder ran off to Montana."
That information took Melissa by surprise. "What's Jared Ryder doing in Montana?" Surely he wasn't building a skyscraper in Butte.
"He's holed up at his ranch."
Melissa hadn't known he had a ranch. Sure, there were rumors he was once a cowboy. But there were also rumors he was once a spy.
Seth gauged her confused look and raised his bushy brows. "You didn't know he had a ranch."
She couldn't argue that one.
"It's the foundation of the entire Ryder conglomerate. How're you going to save my ass when you didn't even know he had a ranch?"
"Because I will," said Melissa with determination. Just because she didn't happen to know Jared was a cowboy didn't mean she couldn't get an interview. "I'll fly to Montana."
"He hates the press. He really hates the Bizz. He'll probably run you off his land with—" Seth's attention went to the telephone. "Everett?"
"I can do it," Melissa said, feeling her big chance slip away.
"I have a situation," Seth said to Everett.
"I'll get on the ranch," she pressed in an undertone, her mind scrambling. "I'll go undercover. I will get you the story."
Seth's attention never left the telephone. "It's the Jared Ryder interview." He paused, face flushing deeper, while Everett obviously voiced his displeasure.
"Have I ever let you down?" Melissa went on. She hadn't. But then, she'd never tackled anything this big, either.
"Yes. I know I did," Seth said to Everett.
"Please," said Melissa, leaning forward. "I'll buy my own plane ticket."
Seth shoulders tensed. "Langard was the best I—"
While Everett obviously weighed in again, Melissa searched her mind for fresh arguments.
"I grew up with horses," she blurted out. Well, one horse, really. It had lived in a field, on the edge of suburbia, across the street from her new house. She'd nicknamed it Midnight. "I'll—"
Seth's glare warned her to shut up.
"—get a job on the ranch."
Seth smacked his palm over the mouthpiece. "Do you know who this is?"
She gave a small nod.
Melissa pursed her lips.
Seth's gaze glittered dark with warning as he went back to Everett. "The Cooper story can take the cover."
Melissa debated a split second longer. But bravery was one thing, stupidity quite another. She'd pushed Seth as far as she dared.
She retreated, and Seth's voice followed her back to the bullpen. "I'll get a photographer on it right away."
Like Brandon had done only minutes before, she avoided eye contact as she made her way to her desk.
"Susan," Seth bellowed from behind her.
With a darting look of pity at Melissa, Susan rolled back her chair, came to her feet and headed for the editor's office.
Melissa dropped into her own chair and stared at the randomly bouncing colored balls of her screen saver. She could have gotten that interview. She knew she could have gotten that interview.
"It's Lorne Cooper on the cover," said Susan as she slipped back into her seat.
Melissa nodded with resignation. "The sports-gear king." There was a new megastore opening on Murdoch Street, and "Cruisin' Cooper" was sponsoring a bicycle race to celebrate.
"The article's written. All it needs is an update and some new art."
Melissa pulled herself closer to her computer screen and hit the space bar. "It was written by R. J. Holmes," she pointed out, voice laced with self-pity. R.J. was one of the newest journalists on staff, and he was beating her out for a cover.
"I guess Seth wasn't feeling charitable toward Brandon."
"Or toward me." Melissa's screen powered up on a search engine.
"What've you got ready?"
"Myers Corp. or the Briggs' merger."
Susan didn't answer.
"I know," Melissa conceded, randomly poking the H key. "They're even lamer than Cooper." Not that any old cover story would clinch the promotion. There was only one story that would catapult her into the feature writer's job.
She backspaced to erase the H and typed Jared Ryder into the search engine.
In a split second, it returned a list of options that included the home page of Ryder International, Jared's speech last month to the Chamber of Commerce, contact information for his new office tower and a link to the Ryder Ranch.
Curious, she clicked the ranch link.
A brilliant green panorama of trees, meadows and rolling hills appeared in front of her. The sky was crackling turquoise, while a ribbon of pale blue meandered through the meadow, nearly kissing a two-story, red-roofed house surrounded by pens and outbuildings.
So that was what Montana looked like.
A row of thumbnail pictures lined the bottom of the screen. "Natural beauty," advertised one caption. "Surrounded by wilderness," read another. "South of Glacier National Park."
Susan shut down her own computer, rising to sling three cameras over her shoulder. "Gotta get to work."
"Have fun," Melissa offered, clicking on a thumbnail of summer wildflowers. Red, purple, yellow, white. They really were quite gorgeous.
Susan grinned as she pushed a drawer shut with her hip. "I will. Headshots today. Then there's a gala Friday night, and I'm going to hitch a ride on the channel-ten chopper for the bike race Sunday."
"Shut up," Melissa griped as Susan rounded the end of the desk.
Melissa would be sitting right here all week long, in the stuffy, hot office, combing through the minutes of various City Hall committees, looking for permits or variances or financial-policy news, anything that might lead to an interesting business story.
"What's that?" asked Susan, nodding to the computer screen.
Melissa refocused on the verdant green and bright flowers. "Montana," she answered. "Where I'd be if Seth had half a heart." Or half a brain.
She clicked on an area map. There was an airport in Missoula and everything.
"Not my cup of tea," said Susan, popping a jaunty plaid hat on her curly brown locks.
"Not mine, either," Melissa admitted, gathering her own straight, blond hair into a knot at the nape of her neck in an effort to let the building's weak air-conditioning waft over her hot skin. "But I'd fly there in a heartbeat to meet Jared Ryder."
"So do it," said Susan.
Melissa swiveled to face her coworker. "Because Seth turned me down flat."
Susan shrugged. "Tell him you're doing City Hall research from home. Then get on a plane."
Oh, now that seemed brilliant. "Lie to my boss and ignore his orders?"
"He'll forgive you if you get the story." Susan's lips curved in a conspiratorial grin. "Trust me."
Melissa let the hair slip out of her hand. The idea was preposterous.
Susan leaned in and lowered her voice. "If you don't get the story, somebody else will."
"At least it won't be Brandon."
"Result will be the same."
"Flying to Montana could get me fired," Melissa pointed out.
"It could also get you promoted." Susan straightened.
"Easy for you to say."
Susan shrugged the cameras into a more comfortable position, then adjusted her cap. "Up to you. But no risk, no reward. My biggest payday was when those vandals let the lions loose at Lincoln Park."
"That was insane," Melissa reminded her. Susan had been clinging to the branches of an oak tree with a hungry male lion pacing below when the animal-control officer had darted the thing.
"Are you suggesting that if I don't put myself in mortal danger, I'm not trying hard enough?"
Susan patted Melissa's shoulder. "I'm suggesting if