Game On
Author:Wylie Snow

chapter 2


Kingsley Bartel, who occupied the top spot on the multi-paged organizational chart of the Bartel Media Group, was the antithesis of Charlie Holmes. Tall, stately, and tanned, with a smile straight out of a Viagra commercial, Bartel oozed confidence, and not of the overinflated, misplaced variety. Most of his blond hair had turned to silver but it was still thick, wavy, and perfectly coiffed. Clara felt a twinge of sympathy for her boss and his receding hairline as he toddled forward into the dark-panelled conference room, his pasty English complexion a startling contrast as the men shook hands.

“Kingsley, old bean! How’ve you been then, eh?” Clara cringed at Charlie’s enthusiastically familiar greeting, but her shock turned to surprise when Bartel pulled him into a bear hug. And from the boney elbow that suddenly poked her ribs, Lydia was just as astounded.

“Busy, busy, Charlie. You know how it is,” Bartel said with a little shake of his head.

“S’not easy taking over the world, then, eh?”

“Harder than one would think, old man,” Bartel replied. Obviously, the two had bonded when Bartel was in London all those months back.

Clara was glad for him, glad that in this precarious situation, when livelihoods were at stake, Charlie had some collegial connection with the man who’d be deciding the fate of their futures.

“I see you’ve brought your stars,” Bartel said, motioning toward Clara and the others who’d shuffled in behind her.

“I have indeed,” Charlie nodded. “Of course you know my Sue.”

“Ah, yes. Home Sense with Suzie,” Bartel said, quoting Sue’s weekly contribution to EuroNow. “Delighted to see you again but, sweetheart, you promised to stop using Charlie as guinea pig for all those new recipes.”

Suzie Holmes, a dour faced woman who matched her husband in stature but sadly not in demeanor, put her sausage-like fingers over her lips and tittered at Bartel’s comment. Tittered! In all the years Clara had worked with Sue, she’d never, never seen anything that resembled a titter, not even when Charlie proposed via third page editorial. Clara shifted her eyes toward Lydia in hopes of exchanging a disbelieving eye roll, but was staggered to see her friend staring at Bartel with unabashed admiration.

Lydia impressed?

Lydia interested?

Lydia not trying to stifle a yawn of boredom?

Bartel must have sprayed some kind of magic dust in the air before they all arrived. Clara felt a bit like Alice, shoved into this Wonderland of oddities. Charlie’s colloquial mannerisms should have Bartel squirming with discomfort, Sue’s lips should be pursed in disproval, and Lydia should be examining her nails in utter distain.

“Suzie, Suzie, Suzie,” Bartel continued. “Must I make good on my threat and assign you to the health and fitness pages?”

“You might just have to,” Sue replied and patted Charlie’s stomach.

Clearly embarrassed, Charlie pushed his wife to the side and called, “Clara, where are you, love?”

Clara stepped forward, into Bartel’s shadow. Goodness, he was an imposing man, standing well over six feet and impeccably dressed in tailored navy suit, crisp white dress shirt, and ruby puff to match the tie. She imagined he smelled like Drakkar Noir and made a mental note to ask Lydia about it later, when and if Lydia had come out of her trance.

“Clara Bean, sir,” she said, holding out her hand, “of ‘Biscuit and Bean’.” She was quite proud of herself for saying it without sobbing. Not even a sniff. The epitome of a good English stiff upper lip.

“Ah yes, Clara Bean, our international food critic.” Bartel’s grip was firm and efficient—two pumps and a clean release. “Charlie tells me that Biscuit is no longer with you.”

Clara let her eyes drop closed, but only for the briefest moment of emotion-gathering. “That’s correct, sir, but—”

“Pity,” he said, cutting her off before she could assure him it wouldn’t affect the column. Much. “I need to see you in my office at eight tomorrow.” He dismissed her with a flick of his gaze.

Clara stepped back and tried to contain her sudden panic. She looked to Charlie for reassurance, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze. Why would Kingsley Bartel want to speak to her, alone, at eight a.m.? This was not good. No, not good wasn’t adequate. This was bad. Potentially very bad. Nothing good ever happened at eight in the morning. Early time slots were reserved for the heavy stuff, stuff you didn’t want hanging over your head for the rest of the day. Nasty business-type stuff that couldn’t be solved with a “pop in before you go to lunch” or “stop by at the end of the day.” And he hadn’t used the socially correct we as in “we need to chat” or “we should discuss,” but instead used the very distinct I, as in I am the boss and my will shall be done.

Clara felt the blood drain from her cheeks. Had he discovered she was useless without Biscuit? But how could he? He couldn’t have got to her medical records in Italy, surely. Then again, she had no idea what a man as rich and powerful as Bartel was capable of.

The conference room suddenly felt too hot, too closed in, too full of bodies. She backed up until she felt a strong, sturdy supporting wall at her back and took a few deep breaths. Where was Lydia? Surely Lydia heard what Bartel had said. So why wasn’t her friend by her side or, at the very least, exchanging ominous glances? Ah, there she was, waiting her turn to kneel before the new king, still in a very un-Lydia-like state of enchantment.

How on earth was she going to get through the cocktail party on Bartel’s rooftop patio when all she wanted to do was sit in the hotel bar with Lydia and down gin and tonics until it all made sense?

Yes, that’s what they’d do. They’d go up to his little soiree, meet the other members of the BMG machine, and duck out early. Lydia would talk her down from the edge, they’d have a good giggle, and dissect Sue’s tittering performance.

Feeling less claustrophobic, she concentrated on Charlie as he continued the introductions of EuroNow’s staff. Her friends, all of them. How she’d hate for them to be broken up and scattered.

“And this,” Charlie said, leaving the best to last, “is the incomparable, gorgeous, and talented fashion expert, whose reputation I’m sure, precedes her. Lydia Truelove.”

Clara winced at Charlie’s unintentional faux pas. The last thing Lydia needed was for her reputation to be remembered.

“Ah, yes.” Bartel took her hand loosely. His voice changed from affable to curt when he continued. “I understand you’re leaving us tomorrow?”

“Prada waits for no man, sir. I’ve a seven a.m. flight.”

Bartel’s eyebrows drew together as if annoyed. “I need a word with you. Now. You and Charles can follow the others later.”

Clara’s stomach did another nervous flip-flop. Poor Lydia. Poor me!

Bugger. Now she was projecting her own insecurities onto Lydia’s situation, which was utter nonsense. Lydia had absolutely nothing to worry about. Her dog hadn’t died, her byline was safe, and her reputation in the fashion industry was beyond reproach. Lydia had pretty much discovered Louis Chabot, the hottest designer to come out of France since Dior, and was given carte blanche access to every fashion house in Europe.

She looked reassuringly at her friend, but Lydia’s face, normally so calm and composed, had paled beneath her flawless makeup. Aha. So she wasn’t overreacting. Lydia was worried, too. She’d worked so hard to erase her scandalous past. Bartel couldn’t fire her for a ten-year-old indiscretion, could he?

Lydia flashed a confused look toward their editor-in-chief, who just shrugged, but Clara could tell by the way his cheeks splotched that Charlie had a fair idea what was happening. And it certainly explained his over-the-top introduction.

“The rest of you can go on up to the party. My assistant will escort you.”

While the rest of them filed out, Clara moved next to her friend. “Do you want me to wait?”

“No, no. I’m sure it’s nothing,” Lydia said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’ll see you on the roof.”

“How about I wait in the hall—”

“Don’t be silly, darling,” Lydia crooned and leaned to whisper in Clara’s ear, “The old fox probably wants some fashion advice. His ensemble is so two thousand and ten.” She gave Clara a push toward the door. “I’ll see you up top.”

Reluctantly, Clara followed the others, her precarious emotional state forgotten when the elevator doors opened into the glass foyer.

All of them slowed their steps as they emerged through the double doors, heads swivelling, jaws dropping. Who could have guessed that a stunning tropical garden existed high above downtown Miami? It was complete with potted palms, sculpted topiary, tinkling fountains, hibiscus bushes exploding with colourful blooms, trails of bougainvillea dripping from the pergola that surrounded the perimeter, all topped with enough fairy lights to land a plane.

It was magical and could only be an omen of good things to come.

It was seven-thirty sharp when Luc made his entrance onto the rooftop of BMG headquarters. He held back in the elevator foyer for a moment, scanning the crowd, as was his habit since the night two years ago that stole his career and changed his life. He looked for…what? He really didn’t know. Suspicious, long-coated men brandishing arms? It was a ridiculous paranoia, he knew that, and yet the saliva in his mouth dissipated and his pulse pounded a bit faster at his already-throbbing temples.

These were all BMG’s news division employees, he reminded himself. Just like Riley said, these were friends, colleagues, journalists and photographers, copy setters, editors, and administrators. Nobody here posed a threat, nobody here wanted him dead. With a final breath, Luc pushed the double glass doors open and strode onto the rooftop.

In the middle of his own private Eden, the king held court. Surrounded by BMG staff, lackeys, and general hangers-on was the head of the biggest media conglomerate in North America. Kingsley Bartel had created an empire that consisted of cable television networks, a publishing house, national newspapers, and radio.

Luc had worked for BMG long enough to know what the big man liked. Kingsley Bartel loved to surround himself with characters, much like a movie director casting roles. He was drawn to stereotypes, caricatures, and real-life performers, which explained why his social circle comprised mostly of politicians, newsmakers, and Hollywood’s finest. Married and divorced four times, his latest personal accessory was the lovely Valentina who, Luc knew from personal experience, was the epitome of a spoilt beauty queen. She didn’t appear to be on his arm tonight, a small comfort.

Luc had no delusions as to what role he filled. He wasn’t merely a sports figure—the world was littered with guys who could kick, hit, and throw balls. No, Luc was Bartel’s personal hat trick; a French-Canadian ex-hockey player, Olympic gold medalist, and victim of a sensational crime.

Though Luc had grown up in a bilingual suburb of Montreal and spoke flawless English, without a trace of accent, he always made sure to stay in character around Bartel.

“Monsieur Bartel,” Luc said, approaching with his hand out.

“Ah, bonjour Luc!” Bartel gripped his hand and patted his opposite shoulder.

“Bonsoir. Ca va?”

“Très bien, merci. Et vous?”

“Very well, thank you.” Luc switched to English in deference to his boss’s limited vocabulary.

“I’m pleased to see you were able to carve a few moments from your busy schedule to accommodate us this evening.”

“I wouldn’t have missed it.”

“Big night for BMG, Luc. Big night,” he said, taking two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter. “We’ve finally managed to recruit a European player, so to speak.”

“So I have heard. A newspaper, non?” Luc lifted his glass and murmured, “Salut.”

“Not just a newspaper,” Bartel said, returning Luc’s toast. “EuroNow. They have circulation in twelve countries. Their main office is in London, but they’ve satellite desks in Spain, Germany, and France. Ever heard of them?”

“Oui, I’ve heard, but not read.”

“There’s a stack of samples on the display table. Take a few back copies on your way out.” Bartel lifted the crystal flute to his lips. He lowered his voice and leaned in conspiratorially. “Study them, Luc. Familiarize yourself with the tone, the style, the cadence. We’ll discuss it in the morning.”

Luc pulled back and nodded, though he was puzzled. What did the cadence of a Western European newspaper have to do with him? Before he could press for an explanation, Bartel turned his attention to the next minion who approached his circle.

Luc shook hands with a few acquaintances as he made his way to where Riley Sutter was standing with someone from marketing. He thrust his chin in greeting.

“Do you not own a watch?” Riley asked.

“Sure. I got one free with my magazine subscription,” Luc said, mocking the latest BMG incentive. The marketing exec shot him a smirk and left.

“Your hour starts now,” Sutter said. “And didn’t I tell you no black?”

Luc shrugged. “The day I start taking fashion advice from a sports editor is the day I cover figure skating.”

He felt rather smug about his appearance, though it had taken him ages to search through his closets for the only non-sports-affiliated black he owned. He had chosen a feather-light, short-sleeved shirt he assumed was silk—a gift from his mother—and black dress slacks. He’d have been more comfortable in chinos and a golf shirt, but he lived for pissing off Sutter.

Sutter shook his head in disgust. “Have you paid homage to the king yet?”

“Just now.”

“So you know we’ve been summoned to the throne room first thing tomorrow?”

“Apparently, though he was short on details. What’s it about?”

Sutter gave a one-shoulder shrug. “I really couldn’t say, but I suspect it’s got something to do with this EuroNow business. Otherwise, he’d wait until they were gone.”

“He told me to study their paper.”

Sutter took the flute from Luc’s hand and downed what was left. “Let’s get some real drinks.”

They made their way through the crowd to the cabana-style bar. Once he had a scotch and soda in hand, Sutter picked the conversation up where they’d left off. “He’s played this whole takeover very close to the vest—keeps talking about ‘big plans’ but hasn’t told anyone squat. I tried to get some deets from O’Leary and Karakas at the last exec meeting, but they’re shrugging their shoulders like the rest of us.”

“And they would know,” Luc replied in reference to Bartel’s right and left hands in the news division hierarchy. “No use speculating since we’re seeing him in the a.m.”

“Eight o’clock, Luc,” Sutter said, tapping the face of his Rolex. “And you can’t be late for that one.”

“I’m French Canadian, Riley, not Stupid Canadian.” He knew better than to mess with Bartel. The old guy was friendly but ruthless when it came to the business end.

“Yeah, yeah, and don’t drink too much. Bartel can smell a week-old hangover.”

“Have you thought of adoption?” Luc asked while holding two fingers up to the bartender, the universal sign for make-it-a-double-before-I-murder-someone.

Sutter’s eyebrows drew together. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if you want children so badly, adopt one and stop treating me like your orphan.”

“I can’t help it, Luc. You’re such a lost soul,” Sutter said with a sympathetic shake of his head. “I’ll tell you what. See that gorgeous blonde over there?” Sutter cocked his head toward the reps from EuroNow who stood in a loose group across the terrace, dead-easy to spot because most were too overdressed for a rooftop party in Miami. The only two not about to expire from the humidity were the odd couple at the center. Sutter’s blonde wore an electric blue sheath dress and looked as if she just strode off a catwalk while the petite brunette standing next to her just strode into Luc’s next wet dream.

“She’s too tall for you,” Luc said without taking his eyes off the pixie. He wondered what color eyes went with the auburn streaks in her chestnut-brown hair. It was cut short, barely to her chin, but the ends curled, framing her heart-shaped face. And when she nodded or turned her head, it swung and bounced. Luc needed to touch it. He could almost picture his fingers delving into the silky mass, the tendrils wrapping around his fingers.

She wore a pale-pink-and-white striped sundress that complimented her looks—but if asked to explain how or why, he wouldn’t have the words. It just did. The flouncy skirt was made for twirling, and the tight bodice showed off her flat tummy. He’d be remiss in not paying proper homage to the cleavage, a hint of rounded flesh, just enough to tease any man with a heartbeat. It was demure but sexy, classy but fun, feminine without being nauseating. Thin straps met in a bow behind her slender neck, leaving her shoulders and arms bare.

Her skin was rose-tinted cream, smooth and flawless, made to be caressed, to be kissed—

“Not really,” Sutter said, interrupting his lustful perusal. “She’s wearing fuck-me stilettos that give her a four-inch advantage,” he said, referring to the blonde. “Convince her to bear my children and I’ll abandon your pathetic cause in a heartbeat.”

Luc let out a low whistle. “I’m only here for an hour, Sutter. I’m not a miracle worker.”

“You’re not a comedian, either. And you’ve been penalized for lateness. I get an extra half hour.”

Luc shook his head slowly, part of him hoping it would dislodge his eyeballs. He wasn’t usually one for staring, but the brunette was amazingly easy to look at. And it would be an interesting way to spend the next hour and a half.

“There are too many in the herd,” he mused, as much to Sutter as to himself. “You’ll only have a chance if you can isolate her from the pack.”

“That’s what I like about you, Luc. It’s all strategy.”