"You're done, Andrea," Roger Thornton said.
The editor-in-chief of World News Today had always been blunt, but his statement seemed a little harsh even for him. Andrea Blain sat up straighter as she faced her boss across the massive desk in his office. "Done as in fired?" she asked warily.
"You're not fired, but you're close. Do you know how much money we've spent the last six weeks helping you chase a story that turned out to be nothing?"
"It's not nothing. I just need more time to gather evidence."
"You don't need time. You need to refocus. You had a hunch; it didn't pay off."
"My source got scared off. I'll find someone else."
"It took you weeks to find him. Cut your losses."
She could not believe Roger was going to pull her off the story she'd been working on the past two months. She'd been talking to a potential whistleblower at a company that made car seats for children. There had been two fatal accidents involving the car seats in the last year. "If my hunch is right, my story could save lives."
"You'll have to work on it on your own time. If you had some real evidence, maybe I could give you another week, but all you have is a disgruntled employee and a lawsuit that was thrown out of court for lack of evidence."
"I also have two injured children," she reminded him.
"There's no concrete evidence the car seats were to blame."
"Not yet. But I think I can get it."
He frowned. "I'm sorry Andrea. You're out of time. I can't carry reporters on my staff who aren't actually reporting."
"Some stories take time to develop," she argued. "You know that."
Roger took off his glasses and rubbed a hand across his weary eyes. He was a big bear of a man, well over six feet tall and at least two hundred and fifty pounds. At age fifty-six, he'd been in the news business longer than she'd been alive, and she had a great deal of respect for him.
"I do know that, Andrea, and ten years ago I would have let you have that time. But we now operate on a 24-hour news cycle. If we don't have new content, we don't have readers. More importantly we don't have advertisers. We're struggling to stay alive in a world where most people get their news off of social media. I can't have reporters working on stories for weeks at a time. It's not cost effective."
"I understand the challenges—" she began.
He quickly cut her off. "It doesn't matter what you understand. We're moving on. I have a new story for you, one that will give you an opportunity to show the owners of this magazine that you actually work here, and that they have a reason to pay you a salary."
"What's the story?" she asked with a sigh, knowing that if the orders came from the top floor, there was no point in arguing any further.
Roger picked up a manila folder and pushed it across the desk to her. "Alexander Donovan."
"Who?" she asked, not sure she had heard him correctly.
"You know who he is. Alexander Donovan will be the magazine's Man of the Year, and you're going to write the cover story."
"Alexander Donovan is going to be our Man of the Year?" she echoed in disbelief. "Why? He makes computer games. He's a rich playboy. We should have someone serious on the cover, someone who is making a difference in the world. This is not my style." Andrea tossed the folder down on the desk and got to her feet.
Restlessness propelled her to the window. Ten floors below lay the busy streets of San Francisco, the city where she had come to find her dreams. World News Today was one of the top news magazines in the country, focusing on serious issues, politics, foreign policy and the global economy. The cover story was usually a plum job, one she would have loved to have if it had been anyone else, but Roger's choice of Man of the Year made the assignment seem like a joke. She turned back to face him. "Why are you doing this? Is the magazine changing focus?"
"Not at all. Alexander Donovan does more than make games. He's a philanthropist. He donates millions of dollars to schools and charity organizations. He runs camps for underprivileged children. He sends medical supplies to Africa. In a time when the world has become increasingly cynical, Alexander Donovan is the embodiment of generosity and hope."
"In other words, he's a master of public relations," she said cynically.
"He is a master, but don't close your eyes to the possibilities. I know this isn't your style. To be frank, it's not mine, either, but our publisher is convinced that Donovan will sell a lot more copies than some over-photographed politician. The cover will bring in readers that don't normally pick up the magazine. Your job is to keep them reading."
"How on earth will I do that?"
"Do what you do well, Andrea—find an angle."
"And if I can't?"
"Then you may want to start looking for another job."
She blew out a quick breath at his blunt statement. "It's that serious?"
"So Alexander Donovan is my get-out-of-the-doghouse card?"
Andrea sat back down in her chair and picked up Donovan's folder. "I don't know what you think I'm going to find that no one else has. I'm sure he's been interviewed dozens of times."
"He's been photographed thousands of times, but he hasn't done any in-depth interviews outside the celebrity magazine circuit. All we know about him is that he was born in Los Angeles. His parents died in an automobile accident when he was twelve. He went to live with his aunt. She died when he was seventeen. After that he made it on his own, no other relatives, not too many close friends. He made his first million before he was twenty-five years old, without the benefit of a college degree, and he hasn't looked back since. That was seven years ago. At thirty-two he is ranked among the top thirty wealthiest men in the country."
"That's amazing," she admitted.
"He's a success story, and people like to read about success stories, especially rags to riches. Our readership is primarily male, but Alexander Donovan will bring in the women. He's young, attractive and a billionaire."
"What more could a woman want?" she asked dryly.
"Exactly. But I want more from you than a fluff piece. I may have been pushed to put this man on the cover, but you're going to find me some reasons why he belongs there."
"All right. I'll do Alex Donovan." She stopped abruptly, realizing what she'd just said. "I mean, I'll interview him," she added hastily, ignoring Roger's grin.
"He's expecting you at his office in one hour."
"What if I have other plans? It's Friday night. I could have a date."
He raised an eyebrow. "You haven't had a date in months."
"Well, it's not because I haven't been asked," she grumbled.
"Oh, I know that, Andrea. You're a beautiful woman, but you're a workaholic, and while I appreciate your dedication, I know from firsthand experience that all work and no play equals burnout."
"Then why did you schedule a job for me on a Friday night?" she challenged.
"That was at Donovan's request. He's going to let you shadow him this weekend. I want to put this story to bed by the first of October. That gives you ten days. And one last thing—Donovan is not a stupid man. He also has a great deal of money and power. You're going to triple check every fact in your article. The last thing I need is a lawsuit."
The last thing she needed as well. "Got it."
She walked out of Roger's office and down the hall to her cubicle. It was in the far end of the newsroom and boasted one small window that overlooked downtown San Francisco. If she stood on her tiptoes at a certain angle, she could actually see the Golden Gate Bridge. Not that she ever took much time to look at the view—she was usually buried in her work. She loved her job, and she wanted to keep it. While she'd agreed to do the Donovan article, she was going to continue to work on her other story on the side.
Sitting down behind her desk, she opened the file of clippings Roger had given her. The photo on top was a picture of a man and woman leaving a party. The man was dressed in a sleek black tuxedo. He was tall with dark hair, a square face and a strong jaw. He was caught in midstride, the power of his movement clear even through the fuzziness of the photo. The expression on his face was a mixture of amusement and annoyance, and there was something about the thrust of his chin that seemed downright challenging.
The woman was pure eye candy, long cascading blonde hair, big breasts spilling out of a very tight and short dress.
Andrea sighed, turning the photo several different ways as she studied her next assignment. Did Alexander Donovan's eyes hide some sort of a mystery? Or was he just a good-looking man with too much money and too many women?
Whatever he was, she could handle it. She could handle anyone, as long as he wasn't a complete bore. Dull and uninteresting would mean death to her career—a career that was apparently on thin ice.
Her cell phone buzzed and she picked it up, seeing her friend Kate's number flash across the screen. "Hey, what's up?"
"I can't believe you actually answered your phone," Kate said. "You've been missing in action the last few weeks."
"Work," she said, knowing her friends were getting tired of that excuse, but it was the truth. She'd been so obsessed with her last investigation into the car seat manufacturer that she'd put everything else in her life on hold. She just wished she had something to show for all that time.
"We all work, Andrea," Kate reminded her. "But I didn't call you up to give you a lecture. Laurel and I are grabbing drinks tonight to discuss her bachelorette party. She said she's texted you several times but you haven't answered."
A wave of guilt ran through her. Her twin sister Laurel was getting married in a few weeks, and she wasn't doing a great job as the maid of honor. "I can't do drinks tonight. I have a work assignment. But I will try to be at brunch on Sunday. We can talk then."
"What kind of work do you have on a Friday night?"
"I've been assigned the cover story on Alexander Donovan, and he's agreed to let me shadow him this weekend."
"What?" Kate asked with a surprised squeal. "Are you serious? Are you telling me that you're going out tonight with Celeb Magazine's 'Sexiest Man Alive'?"
Andrea quickly leafed through the clippings in the folder in front of her, landing on the cover Kate had just mentioned. "I didn't realize," she said, a little mesmerized by the shot of a bare-chested Alexander Donovan. The man obviously did more than sit behind a desk all day. His abs were ripped.
"Where are you going with him?" Kate asked.
"I don't know yet. I have to meet him at his office in an hour."
"This is so exciting. He's attractive, single and rich. The two of you could fall in love."
Andrea laughed. Kate was a wedding planner and had been a romantic for as long as Andrea had known her. "You're crazy. This is just a job. And I'm sure the man has a girlfriend, probably more than one."
"Well, you never know. I can't wait to hear how it goes. Call me tonight. Or if it's too late, first thing in the morning, and don't forget brunch on Sunday. If you're not there, I will come and find you."
"I honestly can't promise I'll be there. It depends on where this story goes."
"Fine. If you're in bed with Alexander Donovan, you get a pass. Otherwise, you better be there."
She rolled her eyes. "I'm not dating him; I'm interviewing him."
"You have love on the brain."
Kate laughed. "I do. How can I help it? I'm surrounded every day with joyous brides. I want us all to have that same feeling one day."
"Well, Laurel has it," Andrea said, thinking of how happy her sister was to be in love and engaged. She couldn't even imagine getting to that point. Right now, a great date would be a welcome surprise. Her track record with men the last few years was not impressive. "I'll talk to you later. I have to get ready."
"Wear something sexy."
"Goodbye, Kate," she said with laugh. As she set down her phone, she picked up the photo of Alexander Donovan again. His sexy, laughing gaze made butterflies dance through her stomach. "Just an assignment," she told herself again. A story she needed to do well if she wanted to keep her job.
* * *
"You cannot escape the Raven's deadly shot." Alexander Donovan said the words with greedy intensity as he skillfully outmaneuvered the approaching monstrous villain known as Gaya.
"Gaya can outjump Raven." Thirteen-year-old Tyler Parker sent his warrior jumping into space with a quick maneuver.
"Not bad, but you made one mistake."
Tyler groaned as Alex's character turned the carpet into a missile that destroyed Gaya into a shattering kaleidoscope of color. "That's not fair."
"It's fair. I introduced the missile two levels ago," Alex said, sitting back in his chair as he watched the game calculate his award points on the sixty-inch flat screen television that hung on the wall of his office.
While he made video games and apps, he still loved computer games the best. He could add so many more complications, so many more opportunities to change plays with a variety of keystrokes. He pushed the keyboard away and smiled at the frustrated kid next to him. Tyler's competitive spirit would reemerge within seconds. He just needed a second to regroup.
As he studied Tyler's face, he realized that the boy was starting to change into a man. He'd grown two inches in the last month and he now seemed all arms and legs, with teeth a little too big for his face. Soon his voice would change, and he'd grow into his size eleven shoes. With those changes would probably come more attitude, but Alex could handle it. He'd never forgotten how hard the teen years could be, especially for a kid like Tyler, a kid who was growing up in the same harsh system Alex had lived through—foster care.
He'd met Tyler two years earlier when he'd volunteered to be a Big Brother. At the time, Tyler had been living with his mother, but she'd died of cancer a year later and with no other relatives available to take care of him, Tyler had gone into the system.
"Let's play again," Tyler said.
"Sorry, I can't," he said, checking his watch. "I have a meeting in a few minutes."
"On Friday night? Shouldn't you have a date or something?"
He grinned. "As a matter of fact, I do have a date. So you need to go home."
Tyler let out a heavy sigh. "I guess."
Alex frowned. "Is everything okay with the Monroes? Are they treating you right?"
Tyler shrugged his shoulders as he stood up and dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "They make me go to church on Sunday."
"It's good to be exposed to religion."
"And they want to see my report cards," Tyler said with another heavy sigh.
"I'll be happy when I'm done with school," Tyler added.
"School is important."
"You didn't go to college."
"No, but I wish I'd had the chance," he said, getting to his feet. "I told you that if you make it through four years of college, you have a job waiting for you here."
"That's in a million years," Tyler said with a roll of his eyes.
Alex laughed. "Time goes faster when you get older."
"Do you want me to come by tomorrow and help you with more game research?"
"On Saturday? Don't you have something better to do?"
"The Monroes are going to visit some old lady. They don't need me around."
Alex sat down behind his desk and sent Tyler a thoughtful look, worried by the undercurrents in his tone. "Did they tell you that?"
"No, but it's not like I'm their real kid." He kicked at a spot on the carpet. "It's okay. I don't really care. They're better than some of the people I've lived with."
Alex nodded in agreement, wishing he could tell Tyler that everything would be fine. But would it? He knew firsthand how tough life could be, especially for a kid on his own. "I've got some things to do this weekend. Why don't you come by Monday after school? I'm going to test a new game that's still in early development. I could use your opinion." He liked to involve Tyler in the games for two reasons: one, to keep the kid engaged in life, and, two, because teenage boys were his target demographic.
Tyler's face lit up. "Awesome. Can I run the train once before I go?"
Alex smiled. In addition to his game business, his company constructed some of the most sophisticated model trains in the world, and one of those trains wound its way around his office on sleek silver tracks.
Alex pushed the controller over to Tyler. "Go ahead."
While Tyler started the train, Alex checked his calendar to see what he had scheduled for the weekend: dinner tonight, sailing on the bay tomorrow and another party tomorrow night. It should be enough to keep a reporter from World News Today happy. He could show her the wonderful, exciting life he led. She would be dazzled, and he would be Man of the Year.
His smile turned into a sigh. Press was a necessary evil, but he didn't enjoy interviews, especially in-depth profiles. Hopefully, he would not have to answer too many questions.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the train begin its path around the office, through the tunnel, under the chair, and over the file cabinet. He'd always loved trains. And while they were only a small part of his business, they were probably his favorite part.
Tyler looked over at him in delight, his smile turning mischievous as they heard his assistant's voice outside the door. Alex gave a negative shake of his head, but as Ellen pushed the door open, Tyler hit the whistle. The shrill noise caused Ellen to take an abrupt step backward.
Tyler laughed, and Alex bit back a smile.
Ellen was a fifty-eight-year-old woman who'd been with him for the last five years, and while she was usually a good sport, she'd never been a big fan of all the games in his office.
"Very funny," Ellen said dryly. "Do I need to remind both of you that this is a place of business?"
"I better go," Tyler said quickly.
"Good idea," Alex said. "And get your homework done before Sunday night. I don't want to have the Monroes on my case about letting you hang around here."
"I will," Tyler promised, bolting out the door.
As Tyler left, Ellen handed him an envelope. "Baseball tickets for the Cougars game next Friday night, courtesy of superstar Matt Kingsley."
"Nice," he said with a smile. "If the reporter is still around then, that will give me something else to take her to."
"Having this woman around for a week is going to be a lot different than granting a one-hour interview. I don't understand why you agreed to it," Ellen said, bewilderment in her eyes.
"They caught me in a weak moment," he admitted. "And a cover story with a lot of free press just before the launch of my next game was impossible to resist."
"She's going to be digging into your life, Alex."
"She's not going to find out anything about me that I don't want her to find out. I'm an expert at this. Trust me.
"I did some research on Andrea Blain. She covers politics and wars. She's not going to be a pushover. She's a serious journalist."
"How serious could she be if she got this story?" He stood up. "I'm not worried. I can handle her. If she starts digging in too deep, I'll just turn her in the other direction."
"That would be easy if she were a dog on a leash, but I don't think she is," Ellen replied.
"You never know. Neither of us has actually seen this woman. If she's as hard as nails, she probably has a face like my aunt's old bulldog, a big pudgy nose and a fat pink tongue. In fact..." He stopped abruptly, realizing that he and Ellen were no longer alone. A slender, blonde woman stood in the doorway, her snapping blue eyes filled with outrage.
"Please go on," she said.
"Who are you?" he asked, even though he already knew.
She gave him a grim smile. "I'm the bulldog."