What's with the hair?"
"That's how you greet a man returning from war? Nice to see you, too, Harriet."
Dawson Scott resented her summons—no other word for it—and made his resentment plain as he took a seat, then sank down into a bona fide slouch. He propped one ankle on the opposite knee, clasped his hands over his concave stomach, and yawned, knowing full well that his attitude would crawl all over her.
She removed her jeweled reading glasses and dropped them onto the desk. Its polished surface symbolized her new status as "boss." His boss.
"I've seen soldiers who just returned from Afghanistan. None looked like something a cat threw up." She gave him a scathing once-over, taking in his three-day scruff and long hair, which, since his time out of the country, had grown well past his collar.
He placed his hand over his heart. "Ouch. And here I was about to tell you how good you look. You're carrying those extra ten pounds really well."
She glowered but didn't say anything.
Twiddling his thumbs, literally, he took a long, slow survey of the corner office, his gaze pausing to appreciate the panoramic view through the wide windows. By craning his neck just a bit, he could see Old Glory hanging limp atop the capitol dome. Coming back to her, he remarked, "Nice office."
"Who'd you blow?"
Under her breath, she cursed him. He'd heard her say those words out loud. He'd heard her shout them down the length of the conference table during editorial meetings when someone disagreed with her. Apparently with her new position came a certain restraint, which he immediately made his personal goal to crack.
"You just can't stand it, can you?" she said, gloating smile in place. "Deal with it, Dawson. I'm above you now."
He shuddered. "God spare me an image of that."
Her eyes shot daggers, but she obviously had a speech prepared, and even his insulting wisecracks weren't going to rob her of the pleasure of delivering it. "I have editorial control now. Full editorial control. Which means that I have the authority to approve, amend, or decline any story ideas you submit. I also have the authority to assign you stories if you don't come up with your own. Which you haven't. Not for the two weeks since you've been back in the States."
"I've been using up accumulated vacation days. The time off was approved."
"By my predecessor."
"Before you took his place."
"I didn't take anything," she said tightly. "I earned this position."
Dawson raised one shoulder. "Whatever, Harriet."
But his indifference was phony. The recent corporate shakeup had measured a ten on the Richter scale of his professional future. He'd received an e-mail from a colleague before the official blanket notification went out to all NewsFront employees, and even the distance between Washington and Kabul hadn't been enough to buffer the bad news. A corporate asshole, somebody's nephew, who knew slim to none about news-magazine publishing, or news in general for that matter, had named Harriet Plummer as editor-in-chief, effective immediately.
She was a disastrous choice for the position, first because she was more corporate animal than journalist. On any given tough editorial call, her top priority would be to protect the magazine against possible lawsuits. Stories addressing controversial topics would be watered down or canned altogether. Which, in Dawson's opinion, amounted to editorial castration.
Secondly, she was a card-carrying ball breaker who had no leadership qualities. She harbored a scornful dislike for people in general, an even stronger antipathy toward the male of the species, and big-time loathing for Dawson Scott in particular. As humbly as possible, he recognized that her animosity was largely based on jealousy of his talent and the respect it had earned him among his colleagues at NewsFront and beyond.
But on the day she was appointed editor-in-chief, the source of her hostility had ceased to matter. It was there, it was robust, it was enduring, and she was now in charge. That sucked. Nothing could be worse.
Or so he'd thought.
She said, "I'm sending you to Idaho."
She pushed a file folder across the desk toward him. "Our researchers have done the heavy lifting for you. You can acquaint yourself with the program on the flight out there."
"Give me a hint."
"Some group of do-gooders started taking blind people up in hot-air balloons and showing them the ropes. So to speak."
The cheeky add-on didn't get a smile out of Dawson, who kept his expression impassive. Leaving the folder where it lay, he asked, "And this is hard news?"
She smiled sweetly. Or tried. On her face, coyness didn't quite work. "To the blind balloonists it is."
Her smugness made him want to vault the desk and wrap both hands around her neck. Instead, he mentally counted to ten and looked away from her, toward the windows. Four stories below, the broad avenues of Washington, DC, baked under a midday sun.
"Despite your belittling description of the program," he said, "I'm sure it's worthy of national notice."
"Yet I sense a marked lack of enthusiasm on your part."
"It's not my kind of story."
"You're not up to it?"
An invisible gauntlet landed on her desk alongside the untouched file. "I come up with my own stories, Harriet. You know that."
"So come up with one." She folded her arms over her wide bosom. "Let me see that reputed genius of yours at work. I want to witness in action the writer everyone knows and loves, who's hailed as always taking a fresh approach, who writes with rare insight, who lays bare for his readers the soul of the story." She gave it a count of five. "Well?"
With as much equanimity as possible, he unclenched his teeth and said, "I still have vacation days. At least a week's worth."
"You've had two weeks off already."
"Not long enough."
"I just returned from a war zone."
"No one forced you to stay over there. You could have come home at any time."
"There were too many good stories to tell."
"Whom do you think you're kidding?" she scoffed. "You wanted to dress up and play soldier, and you did. For three quarters of a year. On the magazine's nickel. If you hadn't come home on your own when you did, I, as incoming editor- in-chief, was going to haul your ass back."
"Careful, Harriet. Along with your dark roots, your envy is showing."
"Nothing you wrote was ever short-listed for a Pulitzer."
"But you've yet to be nominated for one, ergo you've never been awarded one, so big fucking deal about those rumors, which you probably started yourself. Now, I've got other things to do that are much more important." She arched a penciled eyebrow. "That is, unless you want to turn in your key to the men's restroom here and now, in which case I'm more than happy to call Bookkeeping and request your severance check."
She paused for several seconds, and when he didn't move, she continued. "No? Then your butt is in seat eighteen-A on a flight to Boise tomorrow morning." She slapped an airline ticket on top of the research folder. "Regional jet."
Dawson pulled to the curb in front of the neat Georgetown townhouse and cut his car's engine. Raising his hips, he fished a small bottle of pills from the pocket of his jeans, shook out a tablet, and swallowed it with a gulp from the bottle of water in the console cup holder. After recapping the pill bottle and returning it to his pocket, he flipped down the sun visor and checked his reflection in the mirror.
He did look like something a cat threw up. A very sick cat.
But there was nothing to be done about it. He'd been sorting through all the mail that had piled up on his desk, when he got Headly's text: Get over here. Now. Headly wasn't that imperative unless something was up.
Dawson had left the remainder of his mail unopened, and here he was.
He got out and made his way up the flower-lined brick walk. Eva Headly answered the doorbell. "Hello, gorgeous." He reached across the threshold and pulled her into a hug.
A former Miss North Carolina, Eva Headly had aged admirably well. Now in her early sixties, she retained not only her beauty and shapeliness but also her dry wit and natural charm. She hugged him back, hard, then squirmed out of the embrace and slapped him none too gently on the shoulder.
"Don't 'gorgeous' me," she said, rounding off the r to sound soft. "I'm mad at you. It's been two weeks since you got back. Why are you just now getting around to seeing us?" Her expression was laced with concern as she took him in from head to toe. "You're as thin as a rail. Didn't they feed you over there?"
"Nothing like your Brunswick stew. And they've never heard of banana pudding."
She motioned him into the foyer, saying, "That's what I missed most while you were gone."
"What?" he asked.
He grinned, cupped her face between his hands, and kissed her on the forehead. "I missed you, too." Then he released her and tilted his head in the direction of the den. Lowering his voice, he asked, "Is he getting used to the idea yet?"
She matched his confidential tone. "Not even close. He's been—"
"I can hear the two of you whispering, you know. I'm not deaf." The gruff shout came from the den.
Eva mouthed, "Be afraid."
Dawson winked at her, then walked down the hallway in the direction of the den, where Gary Headly was waiting for him. When Dawson stepped into the familiar room, he felt an achy tug of nostalgia. Countless memories had been made here. He'd raced his Matchbox cars on the parquet floor, his mother warning him not to leave them for someone to trip over. His dad and Headly had patiently taught him how to play chess with the set on the table in the corner. Sitting with him on the sofa, Eva had coached him on how to win the attention of his sixth-grade crush. For the first time since leaving Afghanistan, he felt like he'd arrived home.
The Headlys were his godparents and had forged a bond with him on the day he was christened. They'd taken to heart their pledge to assume guardianship of their best friends' son should the need ever arise. When his mom and dad were killed together in an auto accident while he was in college, even though he was legally an adult, his relationship with the Headlys had taken on even greater significance.
Headly was wearing a parental scowl of disapproval as he took in Dawson's appearance. He was considerably shorter than Dawson's six feet four inches, but he exuded confidence and authority. He still had all his hair, which was barely threaded with strands of gray. A daily three-mile run and Eva's careful supervision of his diet had kept him trim. Most sixty-five-year-old men would covet the figure he cut.
He said, "By the looks of you, it was a tough war."
"You could say," Dawson replied. "I just had a skirmish with Harriet and barely survived it."
As Dawson took the offered seat, Headly said, "I was referring to Afghanistan."
"It was tough, yeah, but Harriet makes the Taliban look like pranksters."
"How about a drink?"
Dawson covered his slight hesitation by consulting his wristwatch. "It's a little early."
"Five o'clock somewhere. And anyway, this is a special occasion. The prodigal has returned."
Dawson caught the slight rebuke. "Sorry I haven't gotten over here sooner. I've had a lot to catch up on. Still do. But your text had a ring of urgency."
"Did it?" At the built-in bar, Headly poured shots of bourbon into two glasses. He handed one of them to Dawson, then sat down facing him. He raised his glass in a toast before sipping from it. "I'm drinking more these days."
"It's good for you."
"So they say."
"Maybe," Headly mumbled. "At least it gives me something to look forward to each day."
"You've got plenty to look forward to."
"Yeah. Old age and dying."
"Better not let Eva hear you talking like that."
Headly grumbled something unintelligible into his tumbler as he took another sip.
Dawson said, "Don't be so negative. Give yourself time to adjust. It's been less than a month."
"And counting, obviously." Dawson sipped the liquor. He wanted to chug it.
"Hard to come to a dead stop after being in the Bureau all of my adult life."
Nodding sympathetically, Dawson felt the warmth of the bourbon curling through his gut, settling his nerves, which the pill hadn't yet had time to do. "Your retirement doesn't become official until ... when?"
"Four more weeks."
"You had that much vacation time saved up?"
"Yep. And I'd have just as soon sacrificed it and stayed on the job for as long as possible."
"Use this time as a period of adjustment between your demanding career and a life of leisure."
"Leisure," he said morosely. "Soon as my retirement is official, Eva's got us booked on a two-week cruise. Alaska."
"I'd rather someone pull out my fingernails with pliers."
"It won't be that bad."
"Easy to say when you don't have to go. Eva's ordered me a prescription of Viagra to take along."
"Hmm. She wants you to make up for all the nights you couldn't come home?"
"Something like that."
"What's the downside? Knock yourself out." Dawson raised his glass.
Headly acknowledged the toast and, after a moment, asked, "So, how'd it go with Dragon Lady?"
Dawson told him about the meeting and the story Harriet had assigned him.
Headly leaned against the back cushion of his chair and studied him for an uncomfortable length of time.
Irritated by the scrutiny, Dawson said, "What? You got a comment about my hair, too?"
"I'm more concerned about what's going on inside your head than what's growing out of it. What's the matter with you?"
Headly just looked at him, not having to say anything.
Dawson left his chair and moved to the window, flipping open the shutters and looking out onto the well-manicured patch of lawn. "I talked to Sarah when I passed through London."
The Headlys's daughter was older than he, but, while growing up, the two families had spent so much time together that they'd been much like brother and sister, grudgingly caring about each other. She and her husband lived in England, where they worked for an international bank.
"She told us you'd 'passed through' without staying long enough to go see them."
"Flight schedule didn't allow time."
Headly harrumphed as if he didn't accept that as a plausible excuse to forgo a visit. And it wasn't.
"Begonias are thriving."
"Oh. How's the—"
"I asked you a question," Headly said with annoyance. "What's the problem? And don't tell me 'nothing.'"
"Like hell you are. I watched a zombie movie on TV last night. You'd fit right in."
Dawson sighed over his godfather's tenacity. He didn't turn around, but he propped his shoulder against the window frame. "I'm tired is all. Spend nine months in Afghanistan—trust me, it'll wear you out. Hostile terrain. Temperature extremes. Bugs that bite. No booze. No women except for the service members, and hooking up with one of them is tricky. A good way for both partners to get into some seriously deep shit. Hardly makes getting laid worth the hassle."
"You've had time since you got back to find an obliging lady."
"Ah, but there's a problem with that." He closed the shutters, turned around, and grinned. "You got the last great girl."
The levity fell flat. The worry line between Headly's thick eyebrows didn't relax.
Dropping the pretense, Dawson returned to the chair, spread his knees, and stared at the floor.
Headly asked, "Are you sleeping?"
"It's getting better."
"In other words, you're not."
Dawson raised his head and said testily, "It's getting better. It's not easy jumping back into the thick of things, returning to an ordinary schedule."
"Okay. I'll buy that. What else?"
Dawson pushed back his hair. "This Harriet thing. She's gonna make my life miserable."
"Only if you let her."
"She's sending me to Idaho, for chrissake."
"What have you got against Idaho?"
"Not a damn thing. Nor do I have anything against the vision-impaired. Or hot- air balloonists. But it's not my story. It's not even my kind of story. So forgive me if I'm finding it a little hard to work up any enthusiasm for it."
"Think you could work up some for a better story?"
Headly hadn't asked that casually. There was substance behind the question. So, in spite of his dejection, Dawson felt a tingle of anticipation. Because Headly hadn't been only his godfather and lifelong good friend, he'd also been his invaluable and unnamed source within the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Excerpted from Deadline by Sandra Brown. Copyright © 2014 Sandra Brown. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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