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“You’ve got some nerve, showing your face ’round here.”
Sophie didn’t acknowledge the man’s sneering comment, keeping her smile bright and her chin high as she beat an unhurried path across the crowded hotel bar.
She hadn’t expected that her recent article exposing how a top-ranking government official had paid off his pregnant, underage mistress—and prompting his resignation—would make her the most popular journalist at the party conference.
She hadn’t thought it would make her feel like the most hated woman in Britain, either.
A chorus of jeers muttered behind the backs of hands swelled around her like mid-ocean waves as she eased past clumps of men with rosettes pinned to their lapels. With the day’s agenda concluded, she’d planned to mingle in the bar to get a sense of the mood amongst the delegates. She had no choice but to carry on—retreat would look cowardly—but she didn’t relish the prospect of making small talk with people who clearly ranked her somewhere between Pol Pot, Mussolini, and Satan himself.
The scents of beer and cheap cologne pervaded the bar. She searched the room for a sympathetic face but every set of eyes she met narrowed into a scowl. She smiled easily, but her heart hammered. Alcohol and righteous indignation weren’t gentle bedfellows. Maybe she should call it a day after all.
She turned automatically at the sound of her name. Her heart immediately leapt from an apprehensive throb to the uneven, skittering, painfully familiar rhythm that the mere sight of Ebon Brody had prompted since the day he’d walked into her sixth-form economics class.
He waved her over to an empty stool at a tall table already occupied by a couple of reporters from local papers in Manchester. Relief bloomed warmly in her chest, but she kept her expression carefully neutral.
She nodded a greeting to the two other reporters before exchanging a characteristically stiff hug with Ebon, pushing aside the thrilling awareness of a muscled body hardened by adulthood.
“Tough crowd,” Ebon offered, diplomatic as always.
She shrugged. “It’s not my fault one of their prized MPs has a penchant for teenage girls. Anyway. Get much today?”
She didn’t miss the way Ebon kept quiet, letting the two locals launch into their tales of the day’s triumphs and rejections. She didn’t blame him. In the small world of British political reporting, he was her fiercest competitor. She wouldn’t give him a glimpse of what she’d been up to, either.
Tension left her neck as she accepted a glass of white wine from the bottle on the table. She laughed at the other reporters’ stories, and laughed even harder at Ebon’s wry observations. With their standard awkwardness out of the way, Sophie relaxed into the friendship she’d enjoyed with the youngest Brody brother for more than a decade.
Soon the wine bottle was empty, and the pair of Mancunians headed to the bar together to replace it.
Sophie elbowed Ebon. “Is there something developing between those two?”
“Maybe.” He watched them weave through the crowd, blue eyes thoughtful behind his black-framed glasses. He’d had a haircut recently, the thick, chestnut mane tamed into razor-sharp professionalism—a far cry from the floppy mop he’d sported at university.
Bitterness tinged her fond smile. He’d never know how he’d broken her heart when he’d waved off their one-time encounter that night at university—a night she’d hoped would finally open the door to the relationship she’d always wanted with him. Until then, Ebon was the only man who’d seen her as a woman with needs and fears and dreams, not just the too-smart, too-ambitious, too-focused competition.
Except the morning after hadn’t been the first of many spent dozing, kissing, and basking in their shared affection. Instead Ebon was evasive, apologetic, and eager to brush off the best night of her life as a foolish mistake.
She’d laughed right along with him that morning. She’d spent most of her life smiling away the pain of abandonment and loneliness. What was one more forced grin? She’d vowed never to let him know how he’d hurt her.
If anything, he’d done her a favor. As the years wore on and the trail of aborted relationships in her wake grew, she more closely circled the bull’s-eye of abandoning monogamy altogether until her most recent breakup had her landing square at its center.
Not that there was anything wrong with her ex—in fact, that was the problem. He’d been great, an ideal long-term prospect, but the more she’d thought about their future, the less she’d been able to stand the sight of him.
After they’d broken up, she’d decided she was turning over a new leaf. She wasn’t good at commitment, so she finally gave herself permission not to want it.
Ebon was the lone, glittering star in her occasionally yearning sky. But whenever her attraction to him began to verge on unmanageable, she reminded herself how he’d failed to even ask if she’d consider moving over to the London Phoenix, the newspaper he’d bought with his brothers. Working for a historic paper in turnaround—working with Ebon—made it the only place in the world she wanted to be, and she still didn’t totally understand why he didn’t seem to want her.
Never mind. With every byline he racked up under the Phoenix’s banner, the more determined she became to show him exactly what he was missing. And the investigation she was chipping away at now—a potentially earth-shattering revelation about a group of high-ranking political figures who shared a propensity for abusing trafficked domestic workers—might finally be the splash that earned her a corner office at the Phoenix.
He turned to her suddenly and she took a keen interest in her purple-varnished nails, hoping he hadn’t caught her staring.
“I liked your article,” he told her in that quiet, earnest, annoyingly heart-melting way of his.
“Don’t say that too loudly. The mob might descend. I reckon those rosettes double as ninja throwing stars.”
He snorted. “As if any of these plodding party loyalists are that creative. Although that Burnley lot do look a bit crafty.”
“It’s the East Anglians you have to watch out for. I heard—”
“You’re Sophie Caplan, aren’t you?”
A gray-haired man whose waistcoat strained to contain his barrel chest stood in the space the two other reporters had vacated. The ire twisting his mouth made her think he already knew the answer to his question.
“Look, mate,” Ebon began, but Sophie put a silencing hand on his arm.
“I am. And you are?”
“You should be ashamed of yourself. People’s private lives are their own business. Stop being a nosy bitch and get a proper job.”
“I appreciate the feedback,” she replied cheerily, but the man didn’t hear her. He was busy scowling at Ebon, who’d raised a peacemaking palm.
“Truth hurts, but we’ve just got to be big boys and get over it,” Ebon informed him, the sharp retort wrapped in a tone made friendly and jocular by the lingering vestiges of his cheeky-chappie Tottenham twang.
The man turned an unhealthy shade of burgundy but redirected his displeasure to her. “You’re bloody lucky no one’s given you a slap in the mouth today. If I weren’t a gentleman, I might do the honor myself.”
“Thank God your mother brought you up to be so well-mannered,” she agreed pleasantly, refusing to give him a glimpse of the anxiety tightening her shoulders. People at neighboring tables had paused their conversations to take an interest in the brewing drama. The crowd immediately behind her unwanted guest had contracted and inched closer, blocking her view of the rest of the bar.
“That’s the problem with London hacks like you. Think you’re better than the rest of us. Superior. Smug,” he added with a flourish, visibly delighted to have landed upon the word.
“Well, I wouldn’t—”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” he asked, interrupting. “To laugh at us. You don’t care about this party, its policies, or the decent, hardworking voters who believe in what these leaders have to say. This is all a big joke to you. Sorry we didn’t all go to Oxford, love, but—”
“Cambridge,” she corrected, and instantly regretted it as his eyes narrowed in anger.
“Listen here, you posh bitch, if you think you can waltz in here like—”
“We’re leaving.” Ebon stood up abruptly, calmly stepping between her and their visitor while she shakily climbed down from her stool and shouldered her purse.
The gray-haired man edged closer. “I’m not done talking to her.”
“Yes, you are.” Ebon’s posture was relaxed but Sophie could see he’d straightened, emphasizing his significant height advantage.
As she watched him square up to her detractor, a sizzle of attraction flashed through her sense of impending danger. She touched his wrist to signal that she was ready to leave, but he didn’t look away from the man in front of him—or the encroaching group of rosette-wearers circling them.
While the man continued his tirade, she spotted their two local journalist friends peering quizzically over the shoulders of the observing delegates. She jerked her head to indicate she and Ebon were about to leave, hoping that’s exactly what would happen.
She squeezed Ebon’s hand and he shifted his weight, suggesting he was turning to go. The gray-haired man must’ve noticed, too, because he chose that moment to poke his finger in Ebon’s chest.
She sensed Ebon’s coiling anger and held her breath, but he simply brushed the man’s hand away and said firmly, “Don’t touch me.”
Before anyone could utter another word, a black-clad security guard appeared seemingly from nowhere—or evidently from somewhere he couldn’t see both sides of the proceedings, because he directed all of his disapproval toward Ebon.
“Time to go, mate.” The security guard grabbed Ebon by the elbow and ushered him toward the door.
“Hang on, he instigated this,” Sophie protested, pointing to the gray-haired man whose expression embodied that vocabulary word he’d been so proud of—smug.
The security guard paused, considered, and then took her by the arm as well.
“This is absurd! We’re members of the press with full credentials. We have every right to be here,” she insisted, but her outrage fell on deaf ears as the guard continued to semi-shove them through the packed bar.
Ebon walked in silence, either accepting their fate or hatching a plan, but she was too furious to be quiet. She searched desperately over her shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the two local journalists hurrying parallel to them, their phones raised to film the incident.
“I’m a reporter for the Star and Herald and I’ve behaved in absolute accordance with the rules of this conference,” she shouted loud enough for them to capture. “This ejection is unwarranted, immoral, and a blatant attempt to silence objective press coverage.”
One of the locals gave her a thumbs-up as they reached the door to the street. The security guard held it open with one arm and steered the two of them outside with the other. With a clunk and a click he was gone, leaving them alone on the dark, drizzly street. The hotel was part of an enormous event complex in Manchester, and with only a few shuttered shops and darkened offices nearby, it felt like they’d just been dropped off in the middle of nowhere.
The dramatic transition from warmth and light and noise to silent isolation had Sophie blinking to regain her balance, but within seconds, the wave of indignant adrenaline roared up again. She turned to Ebon, already puffing up with vexation—and burst into laughter instead.
“How on earth did you get his walkie-talkie?”
“Came off in the scuffle.” Ebon winked, placing it on top of a rubbish bin beside the door. “How long do you reckon it’ll take him to notice?”
“Longer than I want to stand here waiting to be accused of property theft. What do we do now?”
He shrugged. “Try to get back in?”
“Not sure it’s worth it. We won’t get anything worthwhile out of anyone in there, and it weakens the martyr angle if we’re only barred for ten minutes.”
“Martyr angle?” He arched a brow.
She batted her eyelashes innocently. “We’re victims of anti-journalist discrimination. A flagrant effort to suppress media scrutiny. It’s a lofty moral high ground, and not one I intend to climb down from anytime soon.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels, regarding her with a hint of amusement curling his lips. “A confrontation with a mouthy yob becomes a political strategy to undermine press freedom. I have to hand it to you, Soph. You’ve got a nose for news.”
“I know,” she told him cheerily. “Anyway, my phone is vibrating so much it might rip through my bag. I’m guessing our local friends put their videos of the incident online.”
“And I’m guessing we need to call both of our editors before they see this on social media.”
She smiled. “Want to get out of this conference wasteland and find a pub?”
They fell into step side by side, an easy rhythm ten years in the making—a comfortable familiarity as tempting as it was incredibly dangerous. Ebon was her best friend, her one-time lover, and the biggest threat to her career—and her heart—she’d ever dreamed possible.
End of Excerpt