Dan looks far too smug for my liking when I walk into the office on Monday afternoon. Already, I know I’m going to like the reason for her smugness. Usually, the only thing we argue about is my work ethic, or rather my lack of work ethic. Since Friday, when I told her that Jess agreed to do the interview, however, we keep locking horns.
My co-host says I’m too close to the subject, and maybe I am. Because ever since my first mock-interview with Jess, I’ve started thinking Kristy might be right about it being a set-up. Always, I rely on my gut to tell me when there’s something wrong. Now my instincts are screaming that the events of that night don’t add up. More importantly, my gut is telling me Jess is innocent.
I haven’t talked to anyone about my suspicions. Dan won’t listen to me speculate because she’s convinced my connection to Jess means I’m blind to the truth. I need to be able to prove it.
And that’s going to be the hard bit.
The fact Jess doesn’t think she had sex – I can’t believe she shared that with me – makes me feel that it’s more likely to be her co-star or the wife who set her up. Disturbingly, Grant Glendon could also be a victim. Not that I feel too sorry for him. He wasn’t motivated by loneliness when he pursued her. He’s not going to be labelled a homewrecker. Nor will he lose his career. It’s only Jess who stands to lose everything she’s worked for.
“What have you got?” I ask Dan, throwing my jacket over the back of my chair and then sitting down at my desk.
“Oh, nothing much,” she chirps.
A heavy weight settles in my stomach as if I just swallowed a few hundred burgers too quickly. Whatever it is that’s making her grin like a loon is big. “C’mon, Dan. Don’t keep secrets from me. You know you want to share.”
She clasps her hands together on top of her desk, in a similar fashion to someone who is about to report the news. “I spoke to Casey Kenzie today.”
I’ve already started investigating a little, but I wanted to talk to Casey myself before the interview which we’ve scheduled for next Wednesday – nine days from today. Unfortunately, Dan has beaten me to it.
“What did she have to say about things?” I ask casually.
“She’s going to join our interview.”
“Fuck, no way.”
“Way,” Dan says, her grin widening. “She’s more than happy to tell her side.”
And I already know what Dan is planning – to let Jess and Casey talk on the air. Which will boost our ratings, but will ruin Jess’ chance of swaying public opinion. Who will listen to my neighbour’s side of things when the ‘scorned ex’ of the man she slept with is weighing in on what happened?
Dan looks damn pleased with herself, and if it were any other interview, I’d probably be high-fiving her. Because when people are stressed, put under pressure, and confronted with the right questions, secrets comes out. Right now, however, I feel sick at the thought of what’s coming. Worse still, I feel like I’ve invited Jess into something that will destroy her.
The mock interviews we did both Saturday and this morning were a disaster. I might know there’s something fishy about that night, but to anyone else, it’s going to sound as if Jess is guilty as hell. The evidence is stacked against her.
“We don’t want to turn this into an episode of Jerry Springer,” I say to Dan. “With all the screaming and shit. We’re professional journalists.”
“Professional, my arse. I’m professional. You are too close to this one.”
“What do you want me to do? I can’t change the fact she’s a friend of a friend.”
“Then maybe you should step down and let me handle this one on my own.”
I’m not leaving Jess to deal with Dan on her own. If Jess says half the things to my co-host that she’s told me during our mock interviews, Dan will eat her alive. I’d rather tell Jess not to do the show.
“And don’t you dare tell Jess about Casey calling in,” Dan warns.
The look she’s shooting me promises retribution if I cross her.
Great, I’m screwed. How can I not tell my neighbour about Casey? I told Jess I’d prep her, and she’s trusting me to do that. But if I do tell her, there’s a good chance she’ll back out of the interview. Then Dan will figure out I said something, and that will put more strain on a working relationship which is starting to feel a little too uneasy.
“Don’t you think what you’re planning is a bit…mean?”
Kill me now. I just used the word ‘mean.’ I don’t think I’ve used that word since I was bullied in primary school. Dan looks like she’s having a conniption in response.
“You think I’m being mean? For God’s sake, Adam. We’re journalists. What the hell is wrong with you? You keep telling me your personal feelings aren’t a problem, yet you keep trying to pull the punches with this interview.”
Normally, the meaner, the better in an interview, but what Dan has planned will ruin Jess. I should have stuck to my guns and told Dan we couldn’t cover this story. I should have said no when she mentioned she was going to ask Jess to do the show. Dan would have asked my neighbour anyway, but Jess would never have agreed. She only said yes to me because I told her she should do it and I was going to coach her.
My heart comes to a complete stop in my chest as I realise I did this. I set Jess up for this fall. I told her she needs to face the music and deal with the storm, but I didn’t tell her I was going to make sure her career went down the gurgler when she did.
Jess is going think I did this deliberately. How could she not? I’ve been nothing but an arsehole to her since we first met, making it clear I don’t like her. Even when I asked her to do the interview, I told her to think of me as her enemy. I knew it would help her mindset, but I’m not her enemy. Not anymore.
I have to fix this, but how?
“Okay, mean is the wrong word,” I say, “but I don’t think she deserves this. Especially not the wrath of Casey Kenzie.”
“Why not? She deserves to pay for what she did with everything she has. The rich and beautiful get away with everything. People sleep with other people’s boyfriends all the time without any care or thought for the person they’re hurting.”
“People’s boyfriends, Dan?”
“I mean husbands.”
“But you said boyfriends. Did someone sleep with your boyfriend? Is that what this is about?”
“That’s none of your business, Granger!”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dan’s cheeks colour before. I think she’s embarrassed. Maybe angry too, judging by the way she’s holding the stapler that usually sits on her desk. She looks as if she wants to staple me to the wall or throw the thing at my head.
“Looks like you’re a bit close to this one, too,” I point out carefully, my eyes still on the stapler. “You’re trying to get payback on whoever slept with your boyfriend, and you’re pushing your agenda in this interview with Jess. That isn’t fair.”
“Screw fair! People like Jessica Skyler are all the same. They do what they want and fuck who they want without a care for anybody else. She deserves to lose everything.”
“No, she doesn’t.”
Dan looks shocked by my declaration, and I can’t blame her. My co-host doesn’t know I think Jess might be innocent.
But if Jess wasn’t innocent, would I still be defending her?
After seeing my parents try to hurt each other by sleeping with other people, it seems impossible that I would. So, maybe I wouldn’t defend her, exactly, but sometime between our conversation on the weekend and now, I’ve stopped believing she deserves everything coming her way. Even if there was no conspiracy or set-up – I no longer think Jess deserves to lose everything.
Hell, Dan is right. I am too close to the subject. Because before Jess came back from London, I would have thrown her under the bus the first opportunity I had. Like a messed up cosmic joke, everyone will finally begin to believe what I always have about Jess at the same time I’ve discovered just how wrong I’ve been about her. Not wrong about everything, but wrong about enough. And the shit that’s about to happen to her – the things that will come out about her – I don’t want to see her go through that.
I might feel worse about my sudden support for Jess’ side if Dan wasn’t also pushing her side of things for personal reasons. Neither of us can boast neutrality for this story.
“You know, Granger, you’ve become a real killjoy since we started working on this interview.” Dan pushes back from her desk and stands up.
“And you’ve become a giant…”
I can’t call my co-host a giant bitch, even though that’s what I’m thinking. One day I made the mistake of asking Dan if it was that time of the month for her. It’s a mistake I’ll never make again. Dan doesn’t forget or forgive without exacting a bit of revenge first. That week she took a shot at me on the air every day. And some of her ‘jokes’ got way too personal.
Despite those occasional hiccups, things have never been as tense between us as they are right now.
“I’m going to take a break,” Dan says, walking towards the doorway of our office.
In other words, she wants to get away from me. That’s fine. I need a moment to work out what I should do next.
My co-host stops in the doorway of our office and turns to face me “And, Granger? If Jessica decides not to do this interview because you say something to her, I’ll serve your head up on a platter to management. You know how much they want this interview, too.”
I shake my head at her threat, but she’s already turned her back on me once more. Probably gone for a smoke. She only smokes when she’s super stressed or super pissed.
I sit listening to the clock on the wall ticking, trying to figure out what to do. I can’t let Jess walk into this unprepared, but if I tell her what’s coming and she pulls out…Dan will make me pay for it for a long time. Not to mention the producers will be furious. They’ve already started plugging this interview with advertisers, and it will be a huge revenue maker for them.
Do I take trouble at work, or trouble with my friends and neighbours? When I put it like that, the answer is simple.
Music blares out of my car speakers as I pull into the driveway of my place. I always like to play my music loud enough to make my eardrums bleed, but it’s especially loud today because I want Jess to know I’m home early. Hopefully, she hasn’t gone out; I need to talk to her before I return to work. Considering I’m supposed to be on the air shortly, time is of the essence.
I turn off the car and slam the door behind me before walking over to Jess’s place, taking the steps two at a time.
As soon as I knock, Jess opens the door for me. “Adam, what are you doing here? I thought you’d left for work.”
“I should be at work, but I needed to talk to you about the interview. Can I come in?”
She still wears the same dark blue jeans and soft cotton t-shirt she wore during our second mock interview earlier. Since the day I barged into her room to motivate her into getting up, she hasn’t worn makeup around me. She looks a little bit vulnerable and too damn beautiful without it.
I push down the unwanted surge of male appreciation I feel at the sight of her; there are other things I need to focus on.
“Um, sure,” she says a little hesitantly, moving out of the way.
Once we’re in the living room, I don’t sit down, and neither does she. Instead, we stand facing each other.
“I don’t think you should do the interview.”
“Why?” she asks, her eyes wide as she stares at me.
Okay, that wasn’t what I’d planned to say on my way over here. I was going to tell her about Casey and talk about how we could handle her in the interview, but I can’t let Jess go through with this. It will ruin any chance she has of restoring her reputation.
“Because you’re going to be slaughtered by the media and this interview is just going to make everything worse. I can’t see you ever working in this industry or any kind of related field again if you go through with it.”
“But you’ve been prepping me,” she says, looking confused. “We’ve still got nine days. Don’t you think I’ll be ready on time?”
“Not for what’s coming.”
“What’s coming, Adam?” she asks softly, her large green eyes locked on mine. “What do you have in store for me?”
“It isn’t me, in all honesty. It’s what I found out today. Dani has contacted Casey. She’s agreed to phone in during the interview. It’ll be a free-for-all.”
“Oh, my God.”
I can see the moment it hits her. The colour drains from her face, and she starts to shake a little.
“Deep breath in. Deep breath out.”
“No, I can’t. I can’t go on your program. I can’t face her.”
“I know. I thought this would be the outcome, but I had to let you know and give you a choice.”
My producers and my co-star are going to have my arse for this, but keeping my mouth shut would have cost me more.
“I…I want to face her. I just don’t think I can.”
“I know I told you to do this, but it’s not going to be good if you do.”
She wobbles a little, and I move forward quickly, putting my hands on her arms to steady her before guiding her back towards the couch where she can sit down.
“I need a cup of tea,” she mutters.
“I’ll make you one.”
I step into the kitchen and put the jug on. I’m still trying to locate mugs and the tea bags when Jess walks into the kitchen.
She pulls out a cup from one of the cupboards I thought I’d already checked, her hand trembling ever so slightly as she puts the mug on the bench. “Do you want one?”
“I’m okay. I can’t stay long.”
We stand there in silence as Jess makes herself a cup of tea. When she takes a sip, she closes her eyes, as though she’s in heaven. Clearly, she has a thing for tea.
“Did you always drink so much of that stuff?” I ask. “Or did you get hooked on the drink in London?”
“Mum used to drink it, and I started early. I’ve always liked it. I did drink more of it over there, though.” Her smile is small but genuine, and I can’t help but return it. “It always makes me feel calmer in a crisis.”
“Jess, I’m sorry,” I say. “At the time that I suggested you come on the show, I thought it was your best option, and I had no idea it would turn into what it has.”
Jess takes another sip. “If I pull out of the interview, will it cause a problem for you?”
“I can handle it.”
She studies me. “You didn’t have to tell me. About Casey.”
“I probably shouldn’t have told you.” I grin. “My co-star might not forgive me, and my producers will probably take something out of my wages for financial compensation, but I couldn’t not tell you about what you were walking into. It’s going to be an ambush. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself for not giving you a heads up. I know I told you to think of me as the enemy, but I’m not.”
Our eyes lock and hold for a moment before her gaze drops back to her tea. “Do you think there’s any way to prepare me for what’s coming?”
“I don’t think so, no. You can imagine what Casey is going to say. And if Dan has people calling in…”
“An ambush,” she says.
“If I don’t go through with it, what then?” she asks. “I mean, how do I move past this…this thing that’s happened?”
I want to tell her that I’m planning to look into the idea of this being a set-up, but I can’t yet. I don’t know what her reaction is going to be, and I’d rather have proof of something – either that I’m right or wrong – before I say anything to her. Because if she was set up but I can’t prove it, her career is still over and she needs to deal with the possibility and have a backup plan.
“You were right when you told me I need to face this head on, Adam. Lying in bed day after day didn’t do me any good. I have to get on with my life.” Her eyes meet mine once more. “I have to put myself in the eye of the storm.”
“You can still do an interview,” I say. “Maybe with a magazine or something. That way you’re not going to bump into so much public opinion.”
“I can’t shield myself from it forever. It’s going to come at me, and I need to be ready.”
Nothing will prepare her for the storm that’s coming. This woman has been adored and liked by the public and everyone she knows. She’s not prepared for what the hate of a country will feel like. And I don’t know how to prepare her for that.
“You need to develop a thicker skin,” I say. “You need to accept this happened and deal with it. You can’t change the past. It happened. You behaved questionably, but you wouldn’t be the first person to do what you did.”
Whether she was set up or not, and whether she meant to or not, she probably did interfere with that marriage by befriending Grant.
She looks down. “That doesn’t make it right.”
“No, of course it doesn’t. But what’s done is done. You can’t un-ring that bell. All you can do is live the life you want to live now.”
“I don’t know how to,” she says, meeting my eyes again. “I don’t know what my life should look like anymore.”
“You’ll figure it out.” She must, and she has time. Speaking of time… “I should head back to work. I’m supposed to be on the air in a couple of hours, and I need to give them the news that the interview is a bust.”
“Adam,” she says, reaching out and gently touching my arm. “I…thank you. You put yourself on the line for me, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you telling me.”
Her eyes are full of gratitude, and the way she’s looking at me combined with the way she’s touching me sends currents of electricity racing through me. I take a step back.
“I talked you into it in the first place. I felt responsible. Besides, Kristy and Logan would have my arse if they knew I’d let you walk into the interview and you were ambushed like that.”
She nods. “You did this for them. Of course.”
I don’t understand the disappointment I see in her eyes, nor do I understand the way it knifes through me.
“Not just for them. For you, too, Jess. I meant what I said when I told you I’m not your enemy. I don’t want to be. And I’m serious about the two of us getting along. After all, we’re neighbours.”
“I owe you for this.”
“You don’t owe me a thing. I’d better get going.”
She walks me to the door. “I guess you won’t need to prep me for the interview anymore.”
“No, guess I won’t.”
I don’t know why, but the thought of eight or nine empty mornings ahead of me suddenly seems unappealing. Almost as unappealing as facing as my furious co-host and angry producers.
I lean forward and press my lips to her forehead. Her eyes are full of shock as I pull away from her and she stares up at me. They’re probably a carbon copy of mine right now. What the fuck did I do that for? Some simple kind of male instinct to provide comfort, maybe? Or a promise of friendship/alliance? I don’t know. I don’t kiss Kristy on the forehead. Apparently, when I’m not on guard and lashing out Jess, I’m acting on impulse and behaving like an idiot.
If I’m not careful, this woman will wrap me around her tiny finger the way she’s wrapped every man before me. Just because I no longer think she’s the devil, doesn’t mean I want to become one more man in lust with her.
I give Jess a tight smile, then walk away without looking back, determined never to make the mistake of kissing her – on the forehead or anywhere else – again.