One week later…
The following Friday morning, I head for Bob’s office with my second cup of coffee and my Von Gruber file under one. I’m still on a high after reading Knox’ latest article in the Melbourne Tribune, and more determined than ever to convince Bob that the board needs to send me to the retreat.
I knock on my boss’ door expecting his usual grumpy response, instead he smiles at me when I walk in.
No, he doesn’t just smile; he beams at me.
I almost do a double take as I take my seat. “Someone is in a good mood this morning. You got some sleep last night, didn’t you?”
“A little. Now let’s get this over with.”
His words imply he’s dreading the coming conversation, but his body language is open and relaxed, his smile wide. He almost appears…excited to talk to me.
“Um…” I start.
With Bob staring at me and waiting for me to speak, the script that our conversation usually follows flies out the window and I can’t remember exactly what I planned to say. I’m so used to fighting for him to listen to me that his full attention flusters me.
“This is the part where you tell me what you’ve learned about Von Gruber this week,” Bob reminds me.
I haven’t made as much progress as I would have liked to have, but I’ve still encountered a couple of odd things that I managed to trace back to the therapist. I launch into my findings, telling Bob about my latest discoveries. Once I’ve finished, I wait for him to tell me that I still didn’t have enough proof – that the price is too high. That the board will never sign off on it.
“You can go to the retreat, Reese.”
“Perhaps you could tell the board I…Sorry, what?”
He chuckles, something I haven’t heard him do in a very long time. “There’s a weeklong retreat coming up in around a month, isn’t there? The Board has agreed to send you. You’re going.”
“Are you joking?”
His amusement still shines in his eyes. “I would never be so cruel.”
“The board agreed? They’ll pay the twenty-thousand?”
Just last week, twenty thousand dollars was a price-tag out of reach.
“Ten thousand,” he says. “They’re going halves with the Melbourne Tribune.”
My stomach knots at the mention of my rival’s paper.
“Funny story,” Bob starts, his smile wide. “John Whittleman, the chief editor of The Melbourne Tribune and I went to college together. Occasionally, we still play golf together, and we keep in touch.” He leans in. “So, he calls me on Wednesday afternoon and asks me if I’ve heard of Lars Von Gruber. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I tell him that I have a reporter who has spent months researching him and has some evidence that is certainly suspicious. He then tells me that he has a reporter who is convinced something is going on and the client list of Von Gruber makes this story worth the price tag, especially if we can split it. We then proceed to speak and negotiate a deal to take to our bosses. After talking to the board yesterday, John and I finalized a deal that will see you and a partner there, ready to snoop until your heart is content. I get my dedicated reporter there and so does he.”
“Wow,” I say, feeling lightheaded, probably because I’m struggling to breathe.
“You’re in shock, aren’t you?” he asks, looking a little concerned.
“Who’s the reporter?”
My heart races uncontrollably as I wait for the answer, my ears ring with the sudden knowledge that I might be face-to-face again with my nemesis even if I don’t go to the reunion. As Bob has said many times, I have excellent gut instincts, and right now they’re screaming at me that I already know who the reporter is. It hardly makes me a genius. I mean, who else from the Melbourne Tribune would be interested in a Magpie Grove therapist?
“Knox Casey. You might have heard of him,” Bob continues, oblivious to my inner turmoil and the way my blood pressure has just spiked. “He’s actually from Magpie Grove. To be honest, he’s the reason the board signed off on my request in such a short time. He did his internship here around a decade ago. Jensen called him one of the most promising journalists he’s ever met, and from the few articles of his I’ve read, I have to agree the man is brilliant. He’s even been short-listed for The Golden Pen. It’s a shame he never stayed in Sydney.”
“Yes, a real shame,” I mutter before sticking my head between my knees so that I don’t faint and fall off my chair.
Knox is an excellent adversary. A worthy nemesis, and someone I enjoy competing with at a distance. You heard me. At. A. Distance. But he is the very, very last man on earth I want to pretend to be married to.
When he moved to Magpie Grove twelve years ago, I let down my guard with him. He became a friend, one I cared for and respected. One I fancied myself a little bit in love with. I really believed he got me. But he didn’t get me at all. He dumped me because he thought I was an ‘uppity bitch.’ A snob. And while I was walking around, dreaming of him and his lips and body on mine, living for our bets, and feeling jealous of the girls he dated, he was plotting his revenge against me. The moment he acted as if he wanted to spend time with me, I let him in all over again and wound up hurt, humiliated and betrayed.
How can I pretend to be married to someone who believed such horrible things about me?
“Reese,” Bob says. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” I tell him from between my knees.
“The shock is too much, isn’t it?”
He has no idea.
As soon as I think I can breathe without passing out, I lift my head and look at my boss, seeing the concern in his face.
“Is it all…a done deal?” I ask. “Set in concrete?”
“The paperwork and the funds need to be taken care of, but yes. I promise you that you and Knox are going to that retreat.”
I don’t bother asking him if I can take a different partner. He has no control over who I work with because it sounds as if Jensen only signed off on this assignment because of Knox. And as the major shareholder of The Sun, Jensen’s word is binding.
And as much as I’d rather work with anyone else, I am not walking away from this story. I won’t forget what Knox did, and I really – really – don’t want to work with him, however this story is important. I owe it to my brother and to my neighbours to find out exactly what goes on at the retreat, and I’m not willing to jeopardize my chances to get the answers. Knox took the internship I wanted. He took my heart and smashed it to pieces. I’m not about to let him take this story, too.
“How will the partnership work?” I ask Bob, needing to know just how closely I’ll have to work with Knox.
“You and he will research and investigate this story together. You’ll go to the retreat together, but you’ll write separate stories.”
“His will be for the Melbourne Tribune, I take it?”
Bob nods. “It might interest you to know that John and I have a bet riding on this. John told me he thinks Casey will run rings around you, but my money is on you, Reese. There’s no way Casey is as hungry for this story as you are.”
Feeling the knot in my gut loosen for the first time since Bob said I could go to the retreat, I offer him a small smile. My boss doesn’t realize he’s given me the shift in perspective I needed to make working with Knox bearable. This story will just be one more competition with Knox, and I’m going to focus on beating his arse. This time I won’t be runner up. Because this time, I won’t be distracted by my feelings for him. Never again will I let that man into my heart again.
“Thank you, Sir,” I say, standing up and heading towards for the door. “I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t. Because even if I hadn’t made a wager with John over it, the board are expecting this to put us ahead of The Sydney Herald in sales.”
If the board is putting up half the money for the retreat, they’re going to expect a pay-off. Meaning, it isn’t simply enough to wipe the floor with Knox by writing the better article. I need to produce news that will go viral.
“Casey starts here on Monday,” Bob announces just as I grasp the door handle.
Gripping the handle tightly so that I don’t collapse on the floor, I turn around. “What? Why so soon? The retreat isn’t for weeks.”
“The Tribune have agreed to loan him to us until the retreat – he’s going to freelance with us during that time. That way the two of you will be able to get on with researching together and still get some work done.”
“Yup, Jensen is very excited to have Casey back. Between you and me, I think he’s hoping to convince the man to work for us again. Who knows?” Bob shrugs. “Maybe he’ll decide he likes Sydney better than Melbourne.”
Crossing my fingers and praying that never happens, I thank Bob for his time and leave his office. The retreat takes place just before our ten-year high school reunion, so chances are good that Knox will go to the reunion after we’re finished at the retreat. Already, that puts him in the same state as me for too long. I just hope that he’ll leave as soon as the retreat and reunion are over because this paper – no, this town – isn’t big enough for the two of us.
“Hey Reese, it’s Max. Of course, you probably already know that. Listen…I just wanted to let you know I’m sorry for ruining dinner on Saturday night. I overreacted, and the things I said…” he sighs. “I was just frustrated. If you’re not ready to move in with me, then you’re not ready to move in. It’s not a big deal. I’ll wait until you’re ready to take the next step, whenever that might be. I love you. I miss you. Give me a call when you finish work, ok? Bye.”
I press five on my keypad and delete the voicemail message, leaning back in my car seat and closing my eyes. My plan to spend Saturday night with Max to take my mind off Knox had been a dismal failure. Knox never truly strayed far from my thoughts, and Max and I quarreled over how much time I spend working and whether I should move in with him so we can spend more time together.
The problem is, I like Max but I’m not in love with him. He’s a nice guy – a great guy – and I keep waiting to feel more for him. But it hasn’t happened yet. I want to believe it’s because I’ve been focused on the Von Gruber story and my work, but on Saturday night Max told me I’m holding back with him. He might be right, but I’ve let him in just as much as I can. I wasn’t even aware I had ‘walls.’
Opening my eyes again, I flip down the visor in my car so I can check that my makeup still looks okay. I need to forget Max and focus on the fact I’m about to go toe to toe with Knox again for the first time in a decade. I’ll need my wits about me. After touching up my lipstick, I flip up the visor, open the car and climb out before reaching back in for my handbag.
Slamming the door shut, I turn around and step straight into a solid wall of muscle.
The breath rushes out my lungs as I look up and find dark caramel eyes staring down at me. I wobble as I realise I’ve literally just walked into my old rival. Strong hands move to my hips, holding me upright, and immediately I’m transported back to the night of the prom, when I stumbled, and Knox caught me. I put my lack of balance down to the staggering sense of déjà vu I’m experiencing. Even the scent of him is familiar, his aftershave wrapping around me and awakening my brain more than the coffee I consumed on the way here.
The photos I’ve seen on him since we graduated haven’t done his good looks justice. His dark hair is shorter around the backs and sides and styled on top. His shoulders are also wider than they had been ten years ago, and he’s slightly taller now. He’s filled out. In high school he was lean and fit, with the build of a swimmer, but now I can see the outline of his muscles underneath the dark blue collared shirt he’s wearing. With the short dark stubble dotting his jawline, he looks devastatingly handsome.
His caramel eyes glint with amusement and his full lips twist up at the side, making my heart kick from the familiarity.
This man set out to make a fool out of me. He left me to watch him walk into Prom with Taya, after he insisted that we go together – that he wanted to take an old friend. I will never allow this man to distract me again.
His hand slides from my waist and he steps back, leaving me free to breathe more easily.
His eyes crinkle at the corners as his smile grows. “Hi, Reese.”
“Hello, Knox,” I return.