Game On
Author:Wylie Snow

chapter 9


CLARA CAUGHT HERSELF BEFORE SHE went sprawling face first on the dark hardwood floor. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him start forward, as if to catch her, but she managed to correct her trajectory and stay upright. She mumbled something about a misstep, but the heat gathering on her neck and cheeks eroded her effort to remain unflappable, the cool poise she’d mustered gone.

“Clara! You’re here!”

“Charlie?” she said, surprised to see her boss standing next to him. She shifted her gaze to Bartel, then back to Charlie, carefully avoiding Luc’s hooded eyes.

Lovely. Her own personal firing squad. “What’s going on? Why are you… did I get our meeting time wrong?”

“No, no, dove,” Charlie clucked. “It’s spot on eight. You get an A plus for punctuality. Shall I make the intros then?” he said, with a glance to Bartel. “Right, then. Clara, this is Luc.” Charlie took her by the arm and tugged her closer. “Luc Bees-kaay,” he said, drawing the name out with awkward emphasis.

Luc, dangerously handsome in a dark grey suit with navy shirt and tie, zeroed his gaze on her mouth. If spontaneous combustion were triggered by embarrassment, she’d be ashes in a matter of seconds.

“Hello Luc,” she said, finding just enough air in her lungs to force the words.

“Clara,” he replied.

It was impossible to tell what he was thinking with that one hoarse word, but he caught her eye with a dagger-like stare.

She swallowed the excess saliva in her mouth and said, “I didn’t know you’d be here—”

“Nor I, you.”

“Oh splendid!” Charlie interjected. “You two know already each other? You met at the party then, did you? Looks like our work is half done, Kingsley, eh?”

“Charlie, what’s happening?” Clara asked under her breath as they settled in the chairs around Bartel’s desk.

“It’s all very exciting, Clara. You’ll see.”

Bartel remained standing, or more accurately, lording, while Luc, Charlie, and Clara perched on the edge of their seats. “Newspapers, magazines, the entire print industry, has been in a state of flux for the past ten years,” he began. “The old Fleet Street model is archaic, practically obsolete in this digital age. BMG has always prided itself for being on the leading edge of new technology, of keeping up with market trends. Our Atlantic division was the first to embrace the smaller broadsheet, and while the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicles were busy bleeding money, we were gearing up for full heat-set color print runs. We were one of the first to present our product online, ignoring the naysayers who insisted on monetizing the industry first, and yet we still managed to grow our paid subscriptions by three percent a year since. Our strong brand identity, respected journalism, and ability to deliver an affluent demographic to advertisers kept us alive in this rapidly changing world.

“However,” he said and let a moment of silence punctuate his message. “That doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. The world is changing, the industry is once more at a critical turning point, once more in the throes of a revolution and, rather than go the way of the dodo, Bartel Media intends on leading the charge. We’re going to reimagine this business, beginning with a massive restructuring.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Clara saw Charlie’s chins quiver in an enthusiastic nod. She wished she could share his zeal but she had a knot of fear growing in her gut about where this was going.

Leading the charge, Bartel said. Was that not just an expression of change? And restructuring always led to layoffs, which is more than likely why she was sitting here. But why must she endure the pony show? Couldn’t he have simply said “Get out” like any decent employer?

“You’re probably wondering how that’s going to affect you two?” he said, pointing to Clara and Luc. “The world is getting smaller. And younger. We need to appeal to the savvy, educated, world-conscious youth market on their terms. So, in addition to offering a web-based version of our dailies, we’ll also be launching a blog to showcase our most popular writers. I envision bridging the gap between the United States and Europe by pairing photographers with political essayists, music critics with technology experts, editors with opposing world views. But you two,” Bartel said, opening his arms to encompass them within an implied circle. “The two of you will be our opening act, the launch of the new site, the cornerstone of our initiative. Together, the two of you will represent the cultural marriage of our favorite pastimes: our obsession with sports and love of exquisite cuisine.”

The buzz of his private line interrupted him. He stuck his finger in the air and lifted the receiver.

“I thought America’s favorite pastime was baseball,” Clara said under her breath.

“And I thought our second favorite pastime was sex,” Luc countered.

Clara would have found it hilarious under different circumstances, but for now it was infuriating. So she jabbed back with, “I’d hardly call your Denny’s Grand Slam exquisite cuisine.”

“Pshht.” Charlie glared at the two of them, eyes wide, mouth tight. “Behave.”

But… but… but surely Charlie would stick up for her! “How do you expect us to co-write? How can we possibly conjoin his kind of sports with my kind of food?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Luc sniped.

“I don’t write about day-old hotdogs and nachos dripping with faux cheese, and I doubt you’ve ever cracked a bottle of Beaujolais nouveau during the second quarter.”

“Periods.”

“Excuse me?”

“Hockey has periods, three of them, not quarters.”

“What does that have to do with food?”

“If you’re going to write about hockey, you should at least know the basics.”

Bartel placed the phone in the cradle and eyed the three of them. “Problem?” he asked, probably in response to the misery on their faces.

“Mr. Bartel, I just don’t think…” Surely, someone would tell her this was a big joke, a ruse to make her quit instead of coming out and firing her. “Charlie? Tell him!”

“Now Clara, I think Kingsley’s plans are spot on—”

“But Char—”

“And if you just calm down,” he interrupted, “and look at the numbers, you’ll see that it makes perfect sense. This marriage could revitalize our industry; put the pep back in journalism!”

Bugger! Clara felt trapped. Helpless. Betrayed by her former best-boss-ever.

“You’ll have to excuse our Clara, Kingsley. She was ever-so attached to her little dog, and I think she’s still in mourning.” He patted her hand, which had a white-knuckled grip on the arm of the leather chair. “Just look at the bags under your eyes, dear. You should speak to Sue about a nice soothing eye mask.”

“You were actually the inspiration for this, Clara,” Bartel said.

“Me? How?”

“Our marketing department failed miserably in coming up with a grabby promo. I was just about to fire the lot of them when Charlie’s weekly report landed on my desk. It contained news of your dog’s death. Charlie suggested we needed to find you a new Biscuit.”

“Biscuit? That was your dog’s name?” Luc gave an agonizing groan as he leaned forward and dropped his head into his hands.

“Yes,” she said, looking between Luc and Bartel. “Why?”

“What do you know about Luc?” Bartel asked.

Clara shook her head. How was she supposed to answer that?

I know he makes me laugh. I know he has the most luscious mouth I’ve ever kissed. I know his touch can bring me to orgasm in minutes. I know I want him, desperately, to look at me like he did last night, like I was beautiful and desired.

But she couldn’t say that, so she shrugged and hoped nobody would notice the dampness on her upper lip or see the tremble in her fingers as she tucked her hair behind her ear.

“Did you know Luc played pro hockey?”

“Yes. I mean no. I mean, yes I knew that he played ice hockey, but pro, no. It didn’t really come up,” Clara explained with a side-eye toward Luc, who was shaking his head like he wished he were anywhere but in this room. He pushed up from his chair and began to pace.

“I’m surprised, Miss Bean. Luc is as recognized on this side of the pond as Mr. Beckham is on yours.” Bartel chuckled.

“Oh.” Lydia was going to laugh herself blue. “But I don’t understand. What’s this got to do with my dog?”

“Ah! You will love this. I promise.” Bartel’s eyes sparkled with amusement as he sank into a deep, throne-like chair behind his desk. He steepled his fingers and leaned forward, as if he were about to tell her something profound. “Luc is from Quebec, Miss Bean. He’s French Canadian, so although his last name is pronounced biskay, it is spelled B-I-S-Q-U-E-T.”

Tired, cranky, and sick of playing games, Clara shook her head in confusion.

Bartel smiled, clearly loving this little game. “Early in Luc’s career, during a particularly significant game, the Olympics to be exact, some idiot sportscaster mispronounced it, said it phonetically, and it stuck. Miss Bean, you are looking at hockey legend Luc ‘The Biscuit’ Bisquet.”

“Brilliant, isn’t it!” Charlie gushed. “See Clara? And you were worried about getting a new dog. This is better, eh?”

It was Clara’s turn to groan. Couldn’t they just get her another dog?

Having made semi-peace with the fact that she was about to join the ranks of the unemployed, Clara wasn’t disinclined to fight Bartel on this ridiculous scheme because she simply could not co-write with him! He’d find out she was a fraud. Fear unfurled in the hollow of her gut. Panic squeezed her lungs, her brain, making it difficult to think rationally, let alone get enough air to keep from asphyxiating. She couldn’t let this happen.

“Pray tell, how I am expected to keep my anonymity when forced to parade around with a sports icon?” she argued. “I’m a restaurant critic. I don’t merely pop in for a quick late night meal. In order to do my job properly and professionally, I visit an establishment no less than three times. I choose different meal times on different days so I get the full scope of the place, get a feel for the atmosphere, observe how the restaurant handles busier periods. Words are powerful, Mr. Bartel, and for the sake of my professional credibility, I must insist you reconsider.”

She leapt to her feet so no one would see her shaking. “Charlie, tell them that it’s important they don’t know who I am. It would ruin everything!”

“A simple disguise would be most effective, Miss Bean.” Bartel’s words cut through her panic attack. She dropped back into her chair.

Bartel took a deep breath and sat on the side of his desk. His tone was fatherly when he spoke. “Clara. Just hear me out and I know you’ll understand why this pairing is a stroke of genius.”

Clara looked up and tried to appear interested but couldn’t relax her facial muscles enough to unfurrow her brow.

“Everyone relates to your pieces, Clara. Am I right, Charlie?” She didn’t have to look over to see the chins jiggle in acquiescence. “You cross socio-economic lines, age, gender. I know, young lady, because Charlie’s been forwarding your fan mail. And why? Because you bring a human dimension to your pieces. You write about the emotional aspect of eating, whether you’re in a French bistro or a Greek taverna. Food is universal, the pleasure of something delicious on your tongue, the satisfaction that a great culinary experience evokes. It speaks to everybody.

“Luc,” he said, turning his attention to her new partner, who had slumped back into his chair, looking as defeated as she felt. “You write hard facts and play by plays and are widely read because of who you are. People watch your television spots, listen to your radio interviews because they trust you. Why? Because you’ve been on the ice, experienced the sport personally, the highs of winning, the lows of losing, so when you pass judgement on a play, they nod their collective heads and quote you.

“I envision a symbiotic relationship,” Bartel said, opening his arms to them both. “You, Luc, could learn something about Clara’s punchy, personal style, and teaming her with you would be a good way to introduce her to American audiences. This dinner and a game approach makes hockey, or sports in general, I’m hoping, more accessible. A perfect date that will attract both male and female audiences. It will differ in content from your usual fare, so those that read your blog and love your words will seek you out in print. Bottom line? We. All. Win. And now, if you’ll excuse me a moment,” Bartel said, rising. “My secretary has been trying to get my attention for the last few minutes.”

“Are you nuts?” Luc said the minute Bartel had stepped from the room. “You don’t argue with Kingsley Bartel.”

“Perhaps you don’t mind your journalistic integrity undermined,” she said through clenched teeth. “I do.”

“Perhaps you don’t care that the most powerful man in media can end your career before you can press the down button on the elevator,” he retorted. “I do.”

Sick to her stomach at the thought of trying to pull this off, she dug into her handbag for an antacid. Instead, she pulled the tissue out to blot the sheen of moisture from the bridge of her nose. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Luc watching her.

Cocking her head sideways, she meant to skewer him right between his baby blues, but the look on his pale, drawn face was pure lust. Amidst the cauldron of bubbling acid in her stomach, Clara felt the tiniest thrill.

It only lasted a millisecond.

“Luc.” When Bartel said his name, his face became a mask of indifference. “Riley Sutter is waiting for you in his office. He’s got Shelagh with him—she’s our travel coordinator,” he said for her and Charlie’s benefit. “And they need your input on the cities and games you’ll want to see. Then we’ll get you, Clara, together with our food editor, Spencer James. You and he will go over a list of potential restaurants. Once the arrangements have been solidified, you, Miss Bean, will have what, about two weeks? Luc, is that when the season officially starts?”

“One,” came the terse reply.

“One, then. One week to get home, pack for the month, and get back to the U.S.” Bartel looked inordinately pleased with himself as he smiled and nodded to each of them. “Good. Right. Any questions? Great. Off you go.”