Your days are numbered . . .
The slightly wrinkled paper trembled in her hand. The words were written in big, bold stencil letters. Normally, Ava Cole blew off such threats. After all, as an investigative reporter who had built a solid reputation for bringing down corrupt politicians and businessmen, she had no shortage of people who would like to see her head on a platter. Usually, though, they were just harmless disgruntled people who understood that at the end of the day, she was simply doing her job. But this was the fourth message she’d received in the past two weeks.
Your days are numbered . . .
“Excuse me, are you all right?”
Ava jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She spun around to see a tall, muscular man standing over her. He had light brown eyes and wore his dark hair cut low and neatly trimmed. He looked ruggedly handsome in a pair of jeans and a New York Knicks jersey.
“What did you say?” Ava said.
“I said, are you all right?” he repeated with a look of genuine concern.
Ava shook herself out of her daze. She recognized the man from somewhere, but she couldn’t remember where. Was he the letter-writing type?
“Yeah, I’m . . . I’m fine,” she stammered, instinctively pulling the paper close to her. A homeless man had walked up to her as she returned from her lunch break, thrust the letter in her hand, then darted off.
“You don’t look fine,” he replied.
“Well, I am,” she snapped as she quickly stuffed the note down into her purse, out of sight.
The man took a step back, raising his hands in innocence. “Whoa, I didn’t mean to get you upset. It’s just that you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“No, I’m fine,” Ava said. In fact, she was quite rattled, but she didn’t need to share her fears with someone she didn’t know.
“Well, I didn’t mean to pry into your affairs. I was just walking by and noticed the distressed look on your face.”
Ava hadn’t even realized she was standing on the sidewalk in front of her office building, looking petrified. “Well, I’m fine, okay?” She didn’t bother hiding her aggravation.
He was looking at her like she had escaped from a mental hospital. “Okay, you’re fine.” He sighed. “Maybe I should start over. I’m Clifton Edwards, but my friends call me Cliff.” He extended his hand.
Ava didn’t bother taking it. “Thank you for your concern, Clifton.” She shifted her purse to her other shoulder. “But you can go spy on someone else.”
Ava wasn’t normally a rude person, but this letter had her nerves on edge. Each one she’d received talked about her dying. In the past she’d gotten letters telling her to go to hell, or calling her every name under the sun. She’d even had a couple wishing her ill will, but nothing ever like this.
“Ava, isn’t it?” he said as she brushed past him.
She sighed, wishing he would just go away. “Yes, it’s Ava.” She turned back to face him. He seemed perfectly nice. There really was no need to be nasty to him. “Ava Cole,” she said, smiling.
“I work there,” he said, pointing to the tall glass edifice next to her office building. They were connected by a glass skyway, but she seldom ventured over to that side. “At the National Star,” he continued.
Ava couldn’t stop a disgusted look from crossing her face.
He smiled like he was used to that reaction. “Well, it’s obvious you’re fine. I just wanted to make sure.” He backed away. “You have a good day,” he added as he walked off.
Ava debated stopping him just to apologize for her behavior, but she needed to get going. She was late for a very important meeting with her boss. I’ll apologize to him some other time, she thought as she hurried inside the building. Her boss had sent her a text saying she needed to come see him as soon as she got back from her lunch break. She’d run over to a shoe sale at Saks with her girlfriend, and even though she hadn’t bought anything, it had taken a lot longer than she’d expected.
Ava made up her mind that she would turn this letter over to the police. She hadn’t reported the others, but her gut was telling her it was time. Four was getting to be excessive.
Ava dropped her purse off at her desk, grabbed a cup of coffee, and headed to her boss’s office. She took a seat in front of Sebastian Mourning’s desk. “So, what’s so urgent?”
Two minutes later, her mouth was hanging wide open.
“Tell me that this is some cruel, cruel joke,” she muttered as she tried to process what Sebastian had just said.
He didn’t crack a smile.
“Sorry, Ava, you know I like you. You’re a damn good journalist, but it’s either this or move you to doing the obituaries for the New York News,” he said.
Ava stared at him in disbelief. “You want me to go work for a tabloid magazine? You want me to join the paparazzi?” She’d worked at the esteemed Newswire magazine for five years, and Sebastian actually expected her to go work for their sister publication, the tabloid magazine the National Star? Her thoughts flashed to Clifton—Cliff, she reminded herself.
“Don’t say it like that,” Sebastian quipped. “You’re still a reporter.”
“You can try to sugarcoat it all you want, but I’d be a tabloid reporter! I graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism and you want me to chase after celebrities?” she asked incredulously.
“I’m well aware of your credentials, Ava,” Sebastian said, rubbing his temples. “But I’m not left with much choice. They’re shutting down the investigative division here, so that means we are all being forced out. All of the media outlets are cutting out their investigative divisions, so the chances of you finding something else is slim to none.” He sighed heavily. “Now, I’m taking the retirement package. It’s time for me to get out of the game. No one cares about serious journalism anymore.” He held up a folder. “These are all the folks that I have to let go altogether. At least we were able to find a spot to move you to.” He dropped the folder onto his cluttered desk. “You can take the contract home and review it,” he said, sliding a legal-size piece of paper toward her. “Take it or leave it.”
Ava no doubt wanted to leave it. But then she thought about the seven-hundred-dollar-a-month note on her Lexus (even though she seldom drove it, she loved having her own car), the twenty-nine-hundred-dollar-a-month mortgage payment on her brownstone, and the countless other bills she’d stacked up since moving to New York five years ago. She knew she didn’t have a choice—she had to take it.
“Don’t look like that,” Sebastian said, trying to sound comforting, although he wasn’t succeeding. He released a sigh and slid another folder her way. “Your first gig is a doozy.”
Ava groaned as she accepted the folder. “What, Elvis returned from the dead and got Michelle Obama pregnant? Oh wait, Martians have invaded the White House?”
“Joke all you want, this is your career now,” he said matter-of-factly.
Ava rolled her eyes as she flipped the folder open. “India Wright?” She frowned as she stared at the eight-by-ten glossy of the country’s hottest pop star. She was bigger than Beyoncé, had sold more records than Celine Dion, and was now blowing up the big screen as well as the charts. “Who is this?” Ava held up a picture of a model-handsome man that had been nestled behind India’s picture. He gave new meaning to the term “tall, dark, and gorgeous.”
Sebastian stood and started gathering things off his desk. “That’s Fredericko de la Cruz, India’s soon-to-be husband. Look, I’m cleaning out my office, then I’m going to get drunk with some old colleagues so we can remember the way things used to be back when we still pounded out the news on typewriters. Your new editor, Eli Lacy, will fill you in on all the details tomorrow. They just wanted me to get you started.”
“Started on what?”
“Your assignment. India is getting married next week and you’re all over it.”
She jumped from her seat. “A wedding? You want me to cover a wedding?” He had to be kidding her. She’d won an Emmy for her exposé on a toxic waste plant. She’d been interviewed on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox for her coverage of the 2008 presidential election, and these people expected her to cover a wedding?
“I don’t want you to do anything. Your new bosses do. And judging by the garbage”—he stopped himself—“umm, I mean, the stuff they put in that magazine, they want much more than a simple ‘here comes the bride’ story. They want some dirt. Something that will have the magazine flying off the shelves.”
“And why do they think I’m the person to do it?”
He smiled for the first time since she’d stepped into his office. “You didn’t win those Emmys for investigative journalism for nothing.”
“What about my assignment today? I’m about to blow the whistle on that corrupt New Jersey banker. I meet with my contact over there this evening.”
Sebastian shook his head. “Unless that contact can give you some insight into India’s wedding, cancel it. As of today, there’s no more investigate unit at Newswire magazine.”
He held up his hand to cut her off. “I feel your pain. I really do. But it’s not my problem anymore.” He looked at his watch. “As of four minutes and thirty-nine seconds ago, I am no longer employed by Rhodes News Corporation.” He tossed a picture frame into a box. “Oh, screw it. I’ll come back tomorrow and finish this. I need a drink.” He looked at her sympathetically. “I’m sorry, Ava, but the ride is over.” He paused, and a hint of his usual newsman’s curiosity showed in his expression. “I will tell you this. India is hot, but she’s hiding something. And they want you to find out what that is.”
“But, I suggest you do it. If anyone can dig it up, you can. You’ll do it if you want to keep your job—your six-figure job—and I don’t need to remind you that six-figure jobs are very hard to come by these days.”
With that, Sebastian Mourning slung his coat over his shoulder and walked out of the office.
© 2010 ReShonda Tate Billingsley
A Good Man Is Hard to Find
After her company is bought out by a tabloid magazine, career-driven journalist Ava Cole is less than thrilled to be covering celebrity fluff stories—even if her first assignment sends her to Aruba for the high-profile wedding of pop star India Wright. Maybe a solo excursion far from home will help her forget about her crazy family and her suddenly ex-boyfriend, who seems to have trouble with two simple words: “I do.”
It doesn’t take long for the steamy island atmosphere to work its magic, and Ava finds herself enjoying a sexy flirtation with Cliff, the photographer shooting the singer’s nuptials. Just as their attraction heats up, Ava uncovers a bombshell of blackmail, deadly deceptions, and international intrigue that will all but destroy India Wright. With ominous threats closing in after the story leaks, whom can Ava trust with her explosive information, her heart—and her life?
Author ReShonda Tate Billingsley Talks About Her Previous Occupation
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Rachel Adams is trying to find a way to forgive her husband, Pastor Lester Adams, for having an affair. Her task is made all the more difficult by the reappearance of his former mistress, Mary Richardson, in their family’s church. Now pregnant, Mary claims that Lester is the child’s father and is intent on seducing him away from Rachel. Meanwhile, a tragedy rocks the foundation of the Adams family and everyone involved is confronted with an ultimate decision of forgiveness.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What does Rachel’s dream in the novel’s opening chapter reveal about her fears? How is she able to overcome these fears by the end of the book?
2. Despite Lester’s continual refusal of her affections, Mary protests that the love she feels for him is real. Do you think this is true?
3. Rachel fears that her anger is interfering with her growth as a Christian. Do you agree with her decision to leave the church until Mary is removed? Likewise, do y see more