Authors: Merry Farmer
“I guess I should ask if your brother is in the room next time I attempt to have phone sex with you,” Ben chuckled.
More even than the word ‘sex,’ the flashing burst of promise that the words ‘next time’ brought with them left Jo hotter than her own words had made her.
“It’s probably a good idea,” she laughed.
“All right, I’ll let you go and talk to your brother while I read.” He paused and added, “And I’ll probably end up visualizing you as the heroine and masturbating while I do.”
Jo snorted with laughter and embarrassment…which was likely exactly what Ben had been going for.
His voice was soft and genuine when he said, “Thanks for being there for me to talk to.”
The abrupt switch from sexy and teasing to painful vulnerability—which she was certain he was trying to hide but failing—tightened Jo’s throat. “It will all sort itself out,” she assured him, spreading a hand across her chest to still her racing heart. “There’s other money in the world. One little set-back won’t stop you.”
Nick’s grin dropped to the kind of seriousness only a protective brother could manage.
“It will,” Ben echoed her words. “Thanks for being there anyhow.”
“I’ll always be here for you if you need me,” Jo said before she could stop herself.
Gah. No. Do not come off sounding like a needy schoolgirl with a crush
“I appreciate it,” he replied, still and quiet. “You have no idea.”
She swallowed. What the hell was she supposed to do with that? Was the man
to make her fall head over heels in love with him? Or did he really and truly need her? Jo’s emotions exploded in all directions inside of her.
Ben sucked in a breath, then grunted as though pushing himself up from a lying or sitting position. “Okay. I need to stop moping around. The real work starts tomorrow.”
“Yes, it does,” she agreed, thinking of the book she needed to write.
“Good night, Jo. Sleep tight.”
“You too, Ben. Sweet dreams.”
“They will be if they’re of you.”
She couldn’t decide if that was the sweetest or the cruelest thing anyone had ever said to her.
He ended the call. Jo lowered her phone, staring at it for a few minutes before sighing and putting it aside. She took up her spoon and resumed eating her cooling soup.
“So you met someone in a coffee shop yesterday,” Nick said, a hint of accusation in his tone.
“Benjamin Paul. He’s a Broadway director. He’s also very cute. The rest is none of your business.” She arched an eyebrow at him to underscore her statement.
“He might not be my business, but you’re my business,” Nick replied.
“No, I’m your sister. Your big sister. Your big sister who, frankly, has bigger things to worry about than a sexy man at the moment.”
“Please don’t ever use that word around me again,” Nick chuckled, shaking his head.
“Nick, I write sexy books full of sexy men having sex with sexy women. Get over it.”
“Would you like to see the photos I took for that boobie magazine last year?” he shot back.
Jo paused, her spoon halfway to her mouth. “Okay, we’re even. You’re a virgin, I’m a virgin, and neither of us has ever heard of the s-word before.”
“Just as it should be,” Nick agreed with a nod. He reached for a piece of bread, buttered it, and set it on her plate for her. “But so we’re clear,” he went on. “Long-distance relationships are a bad idea, and if any hot-shot director from New York City breaks your heart, I’ll kill him.”
“Duly noted.” Jo nodded.
The house may have been in jeopardy, she may not have had a clue what to write to save her career, Ben may have been in deeper trouble than he was letting on, but at least Jo was blessed to have a brother like Nick. She wondered if Ben had any siblings or family to turn to.
And contrary to what Nick implied, she was not about to land herself in a long-distance relationship with a man who’s reputation with women was less than stellar.
Nope. No way.
None at all.
Not gonna happen.
She signed, shifting in her seat to try to downplay the yummy ache that the sound of Ben’s voice had left her with, wondering how soon filming of
started up again.
Two days was not enough time to determine the trajectory of a career. Ben marched down the frosty Manhattan street, scarf wound tight around his neck, ignoring everyone around him. Two days was also not enough time for the Pollards to get their blackmail gears running. Orchestrating someone’s downfall on that level took time, serious time.
Keep telling yourself that, Benjamin
, he thought to himself as he turned the corner and headed to the coffee shop.
Maybe one of these days you’ll believe it
The fact was, with the Jett and Ashton pulling their support, everyone else he’d talked to had cold feet. The Lenhardts had given him a quick brush off. Ernie Precious had refused to take his call. Even Dilpreet Bajwa had given him some lame excuse when he’d run into the man at the dry cleaners, of all places. But it wasn’t over ’til it was over. At least he still had Jo to lend him a sympathetic ear.
Josephine Burkhart, Romance Novelist. She might have been miles away, up in the wilds of Maine, but he’d devoured two of her books already and had a third queued up on his e-reader. The woman wrote like she talked. Reading her words was almost like having her there with him. They also shed a little light on how it was possible for Jo to be so liberated in bed. If all romance novelists were like that, then men everywhere should start reading the genre.
With that thought in his mind and a knowing grin on his lips, Ben tugged open the door to the coffee shop. As usual, the line was long and the buzz of conversation was thick. He nodded to Kelly—whose eyes went round as saucers—and turned toward his usual spot.
He had his scarf halfway off before he realized his spot was filled. So was the chair where Jo had sat. The occupants blinked up at him with false innocence. Theater people.
“I’m sorry.” He stepped forward and attempted to handle the situation with as much aplomb as it required. “It’s an informal arrangement, but the shop usually reserves this spot for me.”
“Is that so?” the middle aged man leaning back in his chair said, implacable.
Ben would have swallowed, but his throat had gone dry. “I’m sure we can get management to seat you at the next table that opens up.” Who the hell did he think he was, using ‘we’ to identify himself, the Pollards?
“Thanks, I’m comfortable here,” the man in his chair said.
“Mr. Paul,” Kelly called behind him, tight and squeaky as a rusty hinge.
Ben turned in time to see the shop’s harried, middle-aged manager shuffling toward him through the crush of curious patrons.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Patel. Is there a problem here?” Ben took the bull by the horns. His stomach churned with acid, and the heat that crept up his neck was certain to splash onto his face any second, making him look like the embarrassed fool he was.
“I can’t reserve tables for customers anymore,” Mr. Patel jumped right to the point, using wide, sweeping gestures. “It’s against the rules.”
Of course, Mr. Patel was the one who made the rules. It was his shop, after all.
“I see,” Ben said. He did see. Too clearly. He wasn’t going to fight. Resistance on his part could only come off looking like a bratty child pouting over loss of a privilege he shouldn’t have had in the first place. “Do what you have to do.”
“I will, sir. I do.” Mr. Patel added a sharp nod to his words.
Ben turned to go. He made it three steps before turning back to say, “Tell me one thing, Mr. Patel.”
The coffee shop owner had shifted to return to his work, but stopped and faced Ben. “Yes?”
Acutely aware of the dozen sets of eyes watching and judging his every move, Ben asked, “Have you been reading theater magazines lately?”
Thank God, Mr. Patel understood the meat of the question. He lowered his shoulders in a shrug. “New York Times.”
Those three words hit like a rock dropping in Ben’s stomach. He smiled through the dread. “Thank you, Mr. Patel.”
As fast as he could without looking desperate, he darted back out to the street, searching up and down the crowded sidewalk. The winter air was crisp and sharp in his lungs, but that might have been the only thing allowing him to breathe at all. His hand shot instinctively for his pocket. He pulled out his phone and tapped it on, then paused.
Usually, he would have scanned through his list of industry contacts, looking for a lifeline. That wasn’t what he had the urge to do now. He opened his text messaging, tapped on Jo, and typed, “
Do you read the New York Times
Keeping his phone clutched in his hand, he strode down the street, searching for the nearest newsstand.
A few minutes later, Jo’s reply buzzed through. “
Ben couldn’t decide if he was relieved or disappointed with the answer. He paused long enough to type, “
I have a bad feeling I’m a featured player in today’s news
.” He hit send, then walked on.
There was a short line at the newsstand on the corner. He danced impatiently from one foot to the other as he joined it, hoping everyone around him would think it was because of the cold. Sure enough, his feet were turning numb, but it wasn’t because of the weather.
Yep. You’re in there
Jo’s reply text startled him.
How do you know
I checked online
,” she replied.
He would have shouted a string of obscenities right then and there if it wouldn’t have caused more trouble. His phone buzzed as he reached the front of the line. He ignored it for the span of time it took for him to buy the Times, then stepped out of the way.
Who is Pamela Parsons, and why would anyone assume you had something to do with her credit card fraud
Ben was suddenly glad he hadn’t been able to order coffee after all. He would have horked it all up on the pavement if he had.
Pamela. Gorgeous, sexy Pamela. Daddy’s little angel. Born with a silver spoon in her mouth and more brains that she could be trusted with. She had everything, but everything wasn’t enough. She’d taken to stealing credit card numbers and going on shopping sprees for big ticket items. She’d told him all of this proudly over drinks in his apartment one hot summer night, bragged about how daddy knew, but would keep it a secret because he did everything she said.
Daddy was a voter for the award he’d won.
Ben stepped inside a sheltered entryway to an apartment building and shook open the Times to the Entertainment section. It wasn’t there. He checked in Editorials. Still not there. No, he was in Section A, right at the front of the paper, on page three. “
Financier’s Daughter’s Legal Trouble Highlights Corruption in Awards Voting Process
He was almost too shaken to read the rest of the article. It was what he expected. His name was there in big, splashy letters, along with the implication that he’d slept and bribed his way into the prestigious award.
“That’s new,” he grumbled, trying desperately to find some humor in the situation. Bribery? He didn’t have the kind of money it took to buy votes. Thanks to the Pollards, he might not have any kind of money at all.
The article went on, and while he wasn’t directly connected to the feds catching up with Pamela’s credit card games yesterday, everything that the article pointed to without coming out and saying was that he’d tipped the feds off out of spite when Pamela dumped him once his award was in hand, and that he’d done so as a sign to other voters not to cross him.
It would be a better story if Pam and I had dated in the first place
, Ben thought. He hadn’t been any more deeply involved with Pamela Parsons than he’d been with—
His phone buzzed again. In the shock of the moment, he’d forgotten that he still held it. He gathered the paper into one hand, and turned his wrist to look.
I found a couple more stories on other news outlets online
,” Jo’s text read.
Ben puffed out a breath and leaned back against the frigid apartment wall. His breath curled like steam in front of him. He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see it.
Inevitably, his phone buzzed a second time. “
Is any of this true
He pushed himself straight, wadding up the newspaper and stuffing it into the nearest recycling bin, then striding on.
No need to panic yet
, he told himself.
I can always come out with a rebuttal, demand they print a retraction
Jo’s question weighed on his mind as he reached the front lobby of his apartment. He rushed inside, the wave of warmer air that met him causing him to break out in a sweat.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Paul,” Roger greeted him from the desk in the lobby. For the first time in the four years that Ben had lived there, Roger wasn’t smiling.
Ben managed a nod in reply, then lunged for the elevator. He fumbled to get his key card out of his pocket and to swipe it, starting the elevator on its long journey up. Each story that he rose brought tighter and tighter breaths.
My life is not falling apart
, he told himself.
These are rumors. Everyone ends up a victim of the rumor mill eventually. It will all blow over
When the elevator doors slip open, letting him into his apartment, he rushed inside. Phone in hand, he shrugged off his coat and scarf and hung them on the rack. Then he stared at the phone in his hand, looking hard into the eyes of Jo’s question.
There was no way to avoid it. Neck stiff from clenching his jaw, he strode into his living room. The expansive view of Manhattan and Central Park was only slightly less appealing than the liquor cabinet. He pulled out a bottle of scotch, poured himself a generous tumbler full, took a swig, then tapped to open text messaging.
Some of it’s true
,” he confessed into the silence of the screen. “
Most of it isn’t
He hit send, then took another big swallow of scotch. It burned through his throat, all the way down to his gut. This was only a minor set-back. Pamela wasn’t as smart as she thought she was. She’d probably seen the other articles and scrambled for someone to blame for her own troubles. His real friends would see that there was no way he would ever divulge sensitive information about the people he cared about.
Although, did he really care about Pamela?
His phone buzzed.
Not the way he cared about some people.
Okay, so which part is true
With a renewed sense of confidence in good triumphing over evil, Ben texted, “
Pamela is guilty. I knew her
.” He paused and backspaced over the last sentence. It sounded too Biblical, even if it was true. “
She’s an acquaintance. Not sure why she’s dragging me into her problems
.” Although he was willing to bet she hadn’t. The article didn’t contain any quotes from Pam, and nothing to indicated she’d pointed the finger herself.
He took his scotch and moved to the black leather sofa that gave him the best view of the city. Already, the alcohol was having a calming effect, although his growing sense of steadiness could just as easily have been coming from the messages Jo sent him. One of her novels sat on the coffee table beside the sofa. He set the scotch down and picked it up. The smoothness of the glossy cover and the passionate couple depicted there made him feel better.
Did you tell the feds about her fraud
?” Jo texted.
“Wow,” Ben spoke aloud. “That’s direct.”
,” he typed. “
I would never, ever sell a friend out like that
.” And the Pollards had better take that to heart.
After a pause, Jo returned, “
Even if you knew she was guilty
Ben blinked. Hold on, did she think that he
have reported her activities to the feds?
The thought brought a smile to his face and a sense of unexpected warmth. It’d been so long since he’d been around upright, moral people that he’d forgotten how wonderful it was.
Well, that wasn’t true. He had that sense of solidness when he was on set for
. Spence was one of the most down-to-earth guys he knew, and Simon was certainly getting there now that he was in a committed relationship. Even Yvonne had a healthy sense of right and wrong. He should really ask Yvonne what she made of the hole he found himself in.
I hadn’t thought about it
,” he replied to Jo. “
Honestly, I hadn’t thought about Pamela in ages. Too busy thinking about you
He grinned as he hit send, setting his phone down and opening her book. It was a stupid thing to say, frivolous and juvenile. Of course, that didn’t stop it from being true. He hadn’t thought of much else but Jo in the last few days, even with his world ripping at the seams.