For B.J. Carlyle, features editor at Alpha magazine, that fateful day in late October started out in abject wretchedness—and went downhill from there.
B.J. was not someone who hit the snooze button as a rule, but that morning she did. She hit it. And she kept hitting it every five minutes for over an hour. Eventually, she realized it was either get up—or admit she was taking a sick day. B.J. Carlyle did not take sick days.
So she crawled out of bed groaning and headed straight for the bathroom, where she dropped to her knees, banged the seat lid back and threw up. Repeatedly.
By the time she finally stopped gagging and staggered upright, it was much too late for her usual session on the Stairmaster, let alone her blenderized breakfast cocktail of fruit juice and vitamin-packed protein powder.
Okay, she told herself. Fine. Tomorrow for the Stairmaster.
And the protein drink? Skipping it was not a problem, considering that the thought of gulping it down had her queasy stomach threatening to bring her to her knees again.
B.J. ate three saltine crackers and grabbed a quick shower. Precious extra minutes went into her makeup. She troweled on the concealer in a mostly failed effort to hide the ravages incurred by five virtually sleepless nights in a row. Finally, she put on her favorite short black pencil skirt, and that cute pink Donna Karan silk blouse with the opera-glove sleeves and the wild spill of ruffles at the neck, and the black snub-toed Pradas with the four-inch heels. Though she was a tall woman—five-eight in flats—on a day like this, she could use all the extra height she could get. She pulled on a short, snug pink leather blazer over the blouse, grabbed her big black alligator bag and her briefcase, and went out the door without so much as glancing at her message machine.
That little red light was blinking and she knew it. It had been blinking when she came in the night before. She knew who’d called. She’d checked the display.
She wasn’t talking to him—she wasn’t even going to listen to his sexy, deep recorded voice. Uh-uh. Not a chance.
Downstairs, she waited, trying not to tap her toe, while sweet old Melvin, the doorman, got her a cab. Traffic on Broadway was a zoo—no surprise. The cab smelled of garlic and wet shoes. Her cell rang twice. Probably Giles, her right-hand man at Alpha. By now, Giles would be wondering where the hell she was.
B.J. ignored the calls. She stared out the side window at the sea of scurrying pedestrians and honking vehicles and told herself she was not going to vomit—garlic and stinky-shoe smell be damned. She was keeping down her three measly saltines and that was that.
At West 58th, she got out of the cab and sucked in a deep breath of lovely exhaust-rich, garlic-free air. She paid the cabbie. She tugged on her blazer and brushed at her skirt. Then she yanked her shoulders back, stuck her chin in the air and strode purposefully toward the black marble and glass building that housed the offices of Alpha magazine. B.J.’s father, L.T. Carlyle, owned the building. Alpha had the fifteenth floor.
B.J. spent the ride up to the offices trying not to look at her own reflection in the elevator’s mirrored walls and ignoring her cell, which was ringing again. She had that Bride of Chucky look around the eyes. Scary. Very scary. And she really should have used a little more blusher…
The doors slid wide and she was facing the Alpha reception desk, complete with stunning receptionist, Melanie, who had exotic slanted eyes and preternaturally large lips—lips that went with her breasts, as a matter of fact. Melanie automatically beamed her blinding big-lipped smile, as she’d been trained to do whenever the elevator doors opened.
Then she realized it was B.J. “Oh! B.J. You’re…late.” Melanie stated the obvious with a look of pure bewilderment. B.J., after all, was never late. And beyond the bewilderment, didn’t Melanie seem a little…guilty? She had a magazine open in front of her. She flipped it closed, folded her slim French-manicured hands on top of it and blinked three times in rapid succession.
Even with Melanie’s tightly clasped hands in the way, B.J. could see enough of the cover to make a positive identification: TopMale magazine. Apparently, Melanie felt guilty for checking out Alpha’s competition. Did B.J. care what the receptionist read while she was supposed to be working?
Not today, she didn’t. “Good morning, Melanie,” B.J. announced vehemently, and headed for the hallway to the left of the desk.
Melanie called after her. “Uh. Giles says he needs to talk to you. He’s been trying to reach you…”
B.J. stopped, pivoted on her mean black heels, and gave the receptionist her most terrifying smile. “And I’m headed his way as we speak, now aren’t I? Or I was, until you stopped me.”
“Uh. Well,” said Melanie, coloring prettily. “Yeah. Okay. That’s right…”
B.J. proceeded down the hall, sprinkling tight greetings at random colleagues as she went, careful not to make eye contact, which would encourage further communication. She was so not up for anything beyond “Hi,” right then—not that anyone tried to get her talking. In fact, they all seemed a little…strange, didn’t they? A little sheepish, their grins of greeting bordering on smarmy.
Or was she only being paranoid due to sleep deprivation, unremitting nausea and raging hormones?
Hm. Could be.
Giles had the office next to hers. His door was open. She had to walk past it to get to her own. She was tempted to try that—zip right by, pop into her own office and shut the door. Silently.
Which was absurd. No point in coming to work just to hide in her office.
She stepped boldly into the doorway of Giles’s narrow cubicle, which only achieved the designation of “office” because it had actual walls and a door he could shut. “What?” she demanded.
Giles tossed his head as he looked up. His sleek blond hair flew back out of his eyes. “God. I thought you must have died.” People assumed that Giles had to be gay, he was so pretty. He let them assume it. Women adored him. They felt safe with him, even though they weren’t. He loved to gossip and he cared about fashion. His last name was CynSyr, pronounced sincere—which he actually was, on occasion. Giles spotted her shoes. “Darling. I love those. All you need is a whip.”
“Is there a problem or not?”
“Unfortunately, there is.” He peered at her more closely. “Are you…all right?”
She stood straighter and lied—aggressively. “Fabulous.”
“Did you, ah, see the new issue of TopMale, by any chance?”
She scowled. “What is it with that? Melanie was reading it just now, when I came in.”
“You haven’t seen it.”
“Ah—first, the good news.” He grabbed the Starbucks cup at his elbow and held it out to her. “Decaf mocha almond. Venti. One packet of Splenda. Just the way you like it.” His golden brows drew together and he wrinkled his aquiline nose. “Sorry, but it’s lukewarm by now.”
She stepped into the room and took the latte from him. “Thanks. You do have your uses.”
“I figured you’d need it.”
“I do.” Assuming she could get it down without hurling. She gestured with the covered cardboard cup. “Okay. Let me have it.”
“Disaster, that’s all.”
Her stomach lurched. She swallowed. Hard. “I’m listening.”
“The Wise Brothers just broke up,” Giles said. “Their manager called Mike yesterday. They’re not going to be available for the Christmas cover story.”
The Wise Brothers were the biggest thing to hit popular music since…comparisons failed her. And this was not good. Very, very not good.
B.J. shoved a stack of back issues off of Giles’s lone extra chair and sank into it, dropping her briefcase to the floor, letting her bag slide off her shoulder. “Tell me you’re joking.”
Giles did nothing of the kind. “I’m as serious as a cheap tie. Trust me. ‘Christmas with the Three Wise Men’ is history.”
“But…a different slant, maybe? Their new solo careers? Their, uh…”
Giles was shaking his golden head. “They don’t want to do it. They are all, and I’m quoting Mike quoting the manager, ‘devastated.’ They’re also all in seclusion, or some such crap. Mike tried all day yesterday to get through to at least one of them. No luck. And we both know that if Mike can’t get to them, nobody can.” Mike Gallato, one of the best, was Alpha’s top contributing editor.
And B.J. Carlyle never gave up a major story without a fight. She shouldered her bag again, grabbed up her briefcase and shot to her feet. “I’ll make a few calls.”
“Been done. It’s hopeless.”
“Never use that word around me.”
“Hah.” She started to turn.
Gingerly, from behind her, Giles suggested, “Just…a point or two more.”
She whirled back to him. “Speak. Fast.”
“Arnie wants a meeting at eleven to discuss your plans.” Arnie Dale was the managing editor. In recent years, Arnie pretty much ran things at Alpha, though B.J.’s father, who had created Alpha on their kitchen table back when B.J. was in diapers, had never relinquished his twin titles of publisher and editor-in-chief.
B.J. prompted, “My plans for…?”
Giles looked at her patiently. “The new Christmas-issue cover feature.”
She blew out a gusty breath. “Fine. Meeting at eleven.” She looked at her watch. Nine-thirty-two. She needed to get going on those calls. “Anything else?”
“Ah. Yes.” Giles wore the strangest expression, suddenly. Pitying? Worried? She couldn’t read it. B.J. made an awkward wrap-it-up gesture with the hand that held her briefcase, after which Giles clucked his tongue and tossed his golden locks again. Then, at last, the perfect line of his square jaw hardened. His fine nostrils flared. He yanked open his pencil drawer and whipped out the latest issue of TopMale magazine—the one Melanie had been reading so furtively a few minutes before.
“Oh, please,” B.J. said. “As if I’ve got time to read that rag with my December cover feature dead at my feet.”
Giles stood—or sat, in this case—firm. “Darling. You need to read this.”
“Just give me the salient points.”
Giles only shook his head and shoved the magazine toward her. “I marked the page. Go in your office, sit down, drink your lukewarm latte and then deal with that. And when you do, keep in mind that it’s nothing but meaningless drivel written by a dickless ass.”
In her office, with the door firmly shut, B.J. set down her bag and briefcase, tossed the November issue of TopMale to the side of her desk, hung her jacket on the coat rack in the corner, booted up her computer, and made those calls.
Giles had been right, of course. She got nowhere. The Wise Brothers had called it quits, they weren’t talking to anybody, and she had no cover story for the issue that would hit the stands in twenty-eight days.
There would definitely be meetings. Several.
Her head pounded and her stomach churned. Still, gamely, she picked up her latte and removed the lid. She sniffed. Waited.
And didn’t gag.
Carefully, she sipped.
Oh, yes. Excellent. It was almost cold, but it went down fine.
Sipping some more, she considered. She had a half an hour until the meeting with Arnie. So? Email, phone messages—there had been several new ones while she was making all those hopeless calls—or TopMale?
She picked up the phone and punched the code for message pick up.
Big mistake. The first one was from Buck. She heard his voice—so deep, so sexy, so gallingly tempting. “B.J. Give it up. Give me a damn call.”
She slammed the phone down. Later for messages.
With a heavy sigh, she slid TopMale—by a corner—from the side of her desk to right under her nose. She sneered down at the eye-candy guy on the cover. A winning smile and six-pack abs. Not terribly imaginative, but effective.
TopMale didn’t have Alpha’s market share, or its cachet. After all, Alpha managed to be all things to a wide cross-section of men. From bon vivants to backwoods survivalists to your everyday Joe with a beer in one hand and the remote in the other, they all bought Alpha. Still, the upstart TopMale did have a solid readership, a readership that kept growing….
B.J. flipped the magazine open to the page Giles had marked for her. She drank her cold latte and began reading.
Well, okay. A reasonably catchy title. Then she read the byline: by Wyatt Epperstall.
The last time she’d seen Wyatt was the day four months ago when she’d told him she wouldn’t be seeing him anymore.
Her hand began to shake. Cool milk and espresso sloshed on her wrist and stained her pink blouse.
Oh, but he had.
You know her when you see her. She’s tall and she’s smart and she has great legs. Great legs and killer shoes on her narrow, perfect feet. You know the kind of shoes I mean. Shoes with fancy Italian names and price tags to match, shoes with high, pointed heels that have you dreaming of what it might be like if she wore them and took a walk on your chest.
If you’re lucky, she might do just that.
She makes the rules. And she makes sure you live by them. That is, until she’s through with you—which, believe me, will be sooner than you think.
Okay, big guy. I know what you’re muttering right about now. No driven, focus, powerful steam-roller career woman for you. You don’t go for that type.
Let me tell you. You would. You could. In the dark heart of every man lies a yearning for a dangerous woman he cannot control. She is that woman. She could have you if she wanted you. One glance from those frosty gray-blue eyes and you are her slave.
In bed, she—
B.J. shut her—admittedly—gray-blue eyes. But shutting them didn’t do any good. When she opened them again, the damn article was still there—the article about her written by her sleaze-ball ex-boyfriend, Wyatt. Oh, she should have known better than to ever get involved with him.
He’d seemed so…nice. So harmless. So sweet, really. At first, anyway. But then the niceness began to get on her nerves. The sweetness got cloying. She found herself doing what she always did with men she’d dated in the past six years: she compared him to—
No. Not the B-word. She wasn’t thinking about B—. No way. No more. Not today.
And she really, truly had to face it: she was good at a lot of things. Especially her job. But men? Not her forte. Every time she tried with one—which wasn’t all that often, no matter what Wyatt Epperstall wanted every TopMale subscriber to think…whenever she tried with one, it always ended badly.
Just like it had with Buck.
Oh, God. Buck…
And there. She’d done it. Thought his whole first name, again—twice—not thirty seconds after promising herself she wouldn’t.
Note to self: Do not think of B.
Second note to self: No. More. Boyfriends. Ever.
And really, she should never have taken that big sip of latte. Because, for some reason, her swallowing mechanism seemed to be malfunctioning. Her stomach was rising.
B.J. knocked over her chair as she stood. The latte went flying. It hit the floor and splattered—across the floor tiles, up the wall. She glanced frantically around.
Oh, God. What she wouldn’t give right now for the corner office—the one her father never used, the one with its own damn bathroom, for pity’s sake.
She spotted her wastebasket in the corner. What else could she do? Making hideous gagging noises, she staggered toward it…
Good thing she had Giles. Once she was through ruining both her blouse and the wastebasket, she buzzed him and he came right in.
He shut the door. “Darling, my God,” he said, wincing and wrinkling his patrician nose. Then he considered. “Ditch the blouse. Wear the blazer, buttoned up. It’s going to be fine. I’ll just crack the window…”
He went out while she changed and came back with one of the maintenance people. She escaped to the ladies room. When she returned, her office smelled of floral air freshener. The wastebasket had been replaced and the splattered latte mopped up. She gave the maintenance guy a massive tip and he took the blouse, promising he’d have it back, good as new, in a day or two.
“Alrighty.” She forced a grateful smile, thinking at the same time that if she never saw that blouse again, it would be more than alrighty with her. The janitor left her alone with her assistant.
Giles looked at her and frowned. “Go home,” he said.
“Not on your life—BTW, you are invaluable.”
“I am, aren’t I?”
“And it’s ten-fifty-five. Arnie awaits...”
The meeting was not a success.
They came up with zip. The alternate features simply wouldn’t do. Either the slant was wrong or the story wasn’t big enough for the cover. There was nothing in the works that could be effectively moved up. Fresh ideas were in short supply.
Arnie told her to “work it out” and get back to him by the end of the day.
After the meeting, there was lunch. B.J. took a pass on that. She at more saltines from the box she’d stowed in her desk and drank some water and racked her exhausted brain for a solution to the cover feature dilemma. Racking did nothing. Her brain refused to spit out a single viable idea.
The afternoon brought more meetings. Tense ones. She made frequent trips to the restroom and avoided the eyes of her colleagues. When she wasn’t in a meeting or hugging the toilet bowl, she received sniggering and/or sympathetic calls from acquaintances and associates who had seen—one even went so far as to say she had devoured—the “Man-eater” article.
At four-thirty she met with Arnie again—to tell him she’d have something for him by the next day. Arnie was not pleased.
At five, as she and Giles were brainstorming madly, her outside line, set on silent page, began flashing. She glanced at the display. Her father. So not the person she wanted to talk to right then. But also not someone she could ignore.
“L.T.” she said to Giles. Her father’s name was Langly Titus, but everyone, including B.J., called him L.T.
Giles nodded, got up, and left her alone.
She picked up. “Hello, L.T.”
“We need to talk,” said her father, and then fell silent. L.T. Carlyle fully understood the power of silence. He would make pronouncements, then wait. And wait some more. First one to speak was the loser. L.T. never lost.
B.J. allowed a full count of ten to elapse before prompting wearily, “About?”
More silence. Then, at last, “First, and of minimal importance, that piss-ant, Wayne Epstein.”
“Wyatt. Wyatt Epperstall,” she patiently corrected as her stomach gave a nasty little lurch. So. L.T. had read the “Man-eater” article. She wasn’t surprised. Though he rarely left his world-famous mansion, Castle Carlyle, upstate, L.T. made it his business to know just about everything that was going on in the outside world. He subscribed to every newspaper and magazine known to man, TopMale included. And he could read two thousand words a minute.
“Wyatt, schmyatt,” grumbled L.T. “A wimpy, whiny-assed piece of work if ever there was one. Didn’t I warn you about him?”
“Yes,” she said carefully. “I believe that you did.”
L.T. laughed his lusty laugh. “But I have to say, B.J. You make your old dad proud.”
“Oh? How’s that?” she asked, though she knew she wouldn’t like the answer.
He said, “Manhattan Man-eater. That’s my girl. Tough, smart and always on top. Takes after her old man, and that is no lie.”
“Gee, L.T. I never thought of it that way.”
“Do I detect a note of sarcasm? Stand tall. Be proud. Let the Waldos of the world whine and whimper.”
“Wyatt. The weasel’s name is Wyatt. And I’m sorry. But I don’t see it that way. That article just happens to be a total invasion of my privacy.”
Her father swore. Eloquently. “B.J. You shame me. You’ve got to do something about that Puritanical streak.”
That was way below the belt. B.J. was no Puritan, far from it. But she wasn’t an exhibitionist either. She wanted the details of her private life to remain exactly that: private.
She said nothing. She told herself she was exercising the power of silence on L.T. for a change, though in reality she was simply too frustrated and miserable at that moment to speak. Her head pounded and her stomach kept threatening to eject its contents all over her desk pad.
She hated to admit it, but maybe she should have stayed home today, after all.
L.T. moved right on to the next item on his agenda. “I heard about the Three Wise Men.” Again, no surprise. Arnie would have called him. “Too bad, so sad. And I’ve got it covered.”
She sat a little straighter. “Meaning?”
“I’m on top of the problem. I’ll tell you all about it. Tonight. Dinner at eight. Be here. We’ll put this situation to bed.”
“A story?” She sounded ridiculously grateful—and she didn’t even care that she did. “You’ve got my Christmas feature story?”
“I have. And it’s good. Very good. Puts those puny Wise Men to shame—if I do say so myself.”
“The story. What is it?”
“L.T., I can’t. Not tonight. I’ll be here at the office until nine, at least. I have a mountain of work to…” She heard the click, right there in the middle of her sentence. Her father had hung up.
During the limo ride upstate, B.J. tried to work. No way. Her queasy stomach wasn’t going for it. She ended up staring out the window, tamping down her frustration and resentment that L.T. just had to step in, that he’d ordered her presence upstate and refused to listen when she tried to tell him she didn’t have time for the trip. The loss of the Wise Brothers was her problem, her challenge to handle as she saw fit.
Or at least, it should have been.
I’m a true professional, she reminded herself—which meant she’d take any help she could get. And as autocratic as he could be at times, her father was a genius when it came to knowing—and getting—what was needed for Alpha. So if L.T. said he had her cover story, he probably did.
She shouldn’t be so put out with him—and she wasn’t, not really.
Not any more than she was put out with her life in general in the past five days. Or maybe not so much put out as freaked out. Since the stick turned blue, as they say. Since the panel said “pregnant.”
Six years since she called it quits with…B. She’d moved on. He’d moved on.
And then, seven weeks ago, she’d run into him. Your classic Friday night at that great club in NoHo, the underground one with the incredible sound system. Fabulous music and one too many excellent Manhattans and they ended up at his place. She wasn’t careful—with B, that had always been her problem: a failure to be careful.
Or one of her problems, anyway. To be painfully frank, there were several.
So she’d slipped up, she’d reasoned, feeling like a drunk off the wagon, a junkie back on the stuff. Once in six years. That wasn’t so bad she kept telling herself. Oh, no. Not so bad. Not to worry. She wasn’t taking his calls. He was out of her life and she’d make absolutely certain that what had happened in September would never happen again…
And then, just when she’d pretty much succeeded in convincing herself that one tiny slip-up did not a crisis make, she’d realized her period was late.
Thus, the disastrous encounter with the pregnancy kit five mornings ago. Now, everything was all messed up all over again.
And speaking of again, she was doing it. Again. Thinking about B, and what had happened with B and the result of what had happened with B—all of which was not to be thought about. Not tonight. Not…for a while.
The limo rolled up to the iron gates that protected the Carlyle estate. The gates swung silently back. The stately car moved onward, up the long, curving drive that snaked its way through a forest of oak and locust trees, trees somewhat past their fall glory and soon to be winter-bare.
At the crest of the hill, the trees gave ground and there it was: Castle Carlyle, a Gothic monstrosity of gray stone, a Norman conqueror’s wet dream of turrets and towers looming proudly against the night sky.
Roderick opened the massive front door for her. Roderick was tall and gaunt and always wore a black suit with a starched white shirt and a bow tie. He’d run the castle since before her father bought the estate from an eccentric Dutch-born millionaire twenty years back. L.T. liked to joke that Roderick came with the castle.
“Ms. B.J. Lovely to see you,” Roderick said with a faint, slightly pained smile. He wasn’t very good at smiling. Loyalty and efficiency were his best qualities.
“Roderick,” she said with a nod, as he relieved her of her bag and briefcase. “The oak room?” she asked. Roderick inclined his silver-gray head. She told him, “I’ll see myself in.”
“As you wish.”
Her heels echoing on the polished stone floor, B.J. proceeded beneath the series of arches down the length of the cavernous entry hall, past a dizzying array of animal heads mounted along the walls. For about a decade back when B.J. was growing up, L.T. had amused himself hunting big game all over the world. Being neither a modest nor a subtle man, L.T. proudly displayed every trophy he took—whether it was a handsome buck with a giant rack, or one of an endless string of gorgeous girlfriends known in the press as his Alpha Girls.
The oak room, named for the dark, heavily carved woodwork that adorned every wall, branched off toward the end of the entrance hall. The room boasted a long bar at one end, also ornately carved. L.T., wearing his favorite maroon satin smoking jacket over black slacks, sat in a leather wing chair near the bar, a Scotch at his elbow and one of his trademark Cuban cigars wedged between the fingers of his big, blunt-fingered right hand.
His current Alpha Girl, Jessica, had found a perch on the arm of his chair. Jessica was, as usual, looking stunning. Tonight she wore red velvet, her plunging neckline ending just below the diamond sparkling in her navel. As B.J. entered, Jessica threw back her slim golden neck and trilled out a breathless laugh.
L.T. and his Alpha Girl weren’t alone. On a brocade sofa across a Moorish-style coffee table from the pair, sat the one person B.J. did not want to see.
Buck Bravo, in the flesh.
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