Jake Stevens--star reporter and celebrated literary genius--is a snake. How else to explain the way he turns Poppy Birmingham's hero worship into loathing with a single conversation? So what if she's got a lot to learn about journalism? Aren't they coworkers now? On the same team? Jake can take his attitude and... Then during a job-related road trip, their relationship goes from antagonistic to hedonistic in no time flat. And suddenly Poppy can't think of anything more delicious than having a secret fling with Jake. But with all this intensity, can she really keep it no-strings-attached?
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December 31, 2009
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Excerpt from Her Secret Fling by Sarah Mayberry
Whatever you do, don't throw up. Poppy Birmingham pressed a hand to her stomach. The truth was, if her breakfast was destined to make a reappearance, that hand was hardly going to make a difference. She let her arm drop. She took a deep breath, then another. A couple of people frowned at her as they pushed through the double doors leading into the Melbourne Herald's busy newsroom. She was acutely aware that they probably recognized her and were, no doubt, wondering what one of Australia's favorite sporting daughters was doing hovering outside a newspaper office, looking as though she was going to either wet her pants or hurl. Time to go, Birmingham, the coach in her head said. You signed up for this. Too late to back out now. She squared her shoulders and sucked in one last, deep breath. Then she pushed through the double doors. Immediately she was surrounded by noise and low-level excitement. Phones rang, people tapped away at keyboards or talked into phones or across partitions. Printers whirred and photocopiers flashed. In the background, huge windows showcased the city of Melbourne, shiny and new in the morning sunshine after being washed clean by rain overnight. A few heads raised as she walked the main aisle, following the directions she'd been given for the sports department. She tried to look as though she belonged, as though she'd been mixing it up with journalists all her life. As though the new pants suit she was wearing didn't feel alien when she was used to Lycra, and the smell of stale air and coffee and hot plastic wasn't strange after years of chlorine and sweat. The rows of desks seemed to stretch on and on but finally she spotted Leonard Jenkins's bald head bent over a keyboard in a coveted corner office. As editor of the sports section on Melbourne's highest circulating daily newspaper, Leonard was the guy who assigned stories and had final say on edits and headlines. He was also the man who'd approached her six weeks ago and offered her a job as a columnist. At the time she'd been thrown by the offer. Since she'd been forced into retirement by a shoulder injury four months ago she'd been approached to coach other swimmers, to work with women's groups, to sponsor a charity. A chain of gyms wanted her to be their spokesperson, someone else wanted her to endorse their breakfast cereal. Only Leonard's offer opened the door to new possibilities. For years she'd known nothing but the black line of the swimming pool and the burn of her muscles and her lungs. This was a new beginning. Hence the urge to toss her cookies. She hadn't felt this nervous since the last time world championships were in Sydney when she had thrown up spectacularly before her first heat. She stopped in front of Leonard's office and was about to rap on the open door when he lifted his head. In his late fifties, he was paunchy with heavy bags under his eyes and fingers stained yellow from nicotine. Ah, Poppy. You found us okay. Great to see you, he said with a smile. It's good to be here. Why don't I introduce you to the team first up and show you your desk and all that crap, Leonard said. We've got a department meeting in an hour, so you'll have time to get settled. Sounds good, she said, even though her palms were suddenly sweaty. She was hopeless with names. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried to concentrate on linking names to faces, they seemed to slip through her mental fingers like soap in the shower. She wiped her right hand furtively down her trouser leg as Leonard led her to the row of desks immediately outside his office. Righteo. This is Johnno, Davo and Hilary, he said. Racing, golf and basketball. Which she took to mean were their respective areas of expertise. Johnno was old and pock-faced, Davo was mid-thirties and very tanned, and Hilary was red-haired and in her early thirties, Poppy's age. They all murmured greetings and shook her hand, but she could tell they were keen to get back to their work. This mob around here, Leonard said, leading her around the partition, keep an eye on motor sport. Meet our resident gear heads, Macca and Jonesy. All right. Our very own golden girl, Jonesy said. He was in his late twenties and already developing a paunch. Bet you get that all the time, huh? Macca asked. He smiled a little shyly and ran a hand over his thinning blond hair. Price of winning gold. There are worse things to be called, she said with a smile. Leonard's hand landed in the middle of her back to steer her toward the far corner. And last, but not least, our very own Jack Kerouac, he said. Poppy's palms got sweaty all over again as she saw who he was leading her toward. Jake Stevens. Oh, boy. Her breath got stuck somewhere between her lungs and her mouth as she stared at the back of his dark head. She didn't need Leonard to tell her that Jake Stevens wrote about football, as well as covering every major sporting event in the world. She'd read his column for years. She'd watched him interview her colleagues but had somehow never crossed paths with him herself. She knew he'd won almost every Australian journalism award at least once. And she'd read his debut novel so many times the spine had cracked on her first copy and she was now onto her second. He was wonderful the kind of writer who made it look effortless. The kind of journalist other journalists aspired to be. Including her, now that she'd joined their ranks. Heads up, Jake, Leonard said as they stopped beside the other man's desk. Not Jakey or some other diminutive, Poppy noted. His desk was bigger, too, taking up twice as much space as those of the other journalists. Jake Stevens kept them waiting while he finished typing the sentence he was working on. Not long enough to be rude, but enough to make her feel even more self-conscious as she hovered beside Leonard. Finally he swiveled his chair to face them. Right. Our new celebrity columnist, he said, stressing the last two words. He looked at her with lazy, deep blue eyes and offered her his hand. Welcome on board. She slid her hand into his. She'd only ever seen photographs of him before he was much better looking in real life. The realization only increased her nervousness. It's great to meet you, Mr. Stevens, she said. I'm a big admirer of your work I've read your book so many times I can practically recite it. Jake's dark eyebrows rose. Mr. Stevens? Wow, you must really admire me. The back of her neck prickled with embarrassment. She hadn't meant to sound so stiff and formal. Her embarrassment only increased when his gaze dropped to take in her businesslike brown suit and sensibly heeled shoes, finally stopping on her leather satchel. She felt like a schoolgirl having her uniform inspected. She had a sudden sense that he knew exactly how uncomfortable she was in her new clothes and her new shoes and how out of place she felt in her new environment. I suppose you must have interviewed Poppy at some time, eh, Jake? Leonard asked. No. Never had the pleasure, Jake said. He didn't sound very disappointed. Leonard settled his shoulder against the wall. Big weekend. Great game between Port and the Swans. Yeah. Almost makes you look forward to the finals, doesn't it? Jake said. The two men forgot about her for a moment as they talked football. Poppy took the opportunity to study the man who'd written one of her favorite novels. Every time she read The Coolabah Tree she looked at the photograph inside the back cover and wondered about the man behind the cool, slightly cocky smile. He'd been younger when the photo had been taken twenty-eight or so but his strong, straight nose, intensely blue eyes and dark hair were essentially unchanged. The seven years that had passed were evident only in the fine lines around his mouth and eyes. The photo had been a head shot yet for some reason she'd always imagined he was a big, husky man. He wasn't. Tall, yes, with broad shoulders, but his body was lean and rangy more a long-distance runner's physique than a footballer's. He was wearing jeans and a wrinkled white shirt, and she found herself staring at his thighs, the long, lean muscles outlined by faded denim. There was a pause in the conversation and she lifted her gaze to find Jake watching her, a sardonic light in his eyes. For the second time that morning she felt embarrassed heat rush into her face. Well, Poppy, that's pretty much everyone, Leonard said, pushing off from the wall. A few odds and bods on assignment, but you'll meet them later. Your desk is over here. He headed off. She glanced at Jake one last time before following, ready to say something polite and friendly in parting, but he'd already returned to his work. Well, okay. She was frowning as Leonard showed her the desk she'd occupy, wedged into a corner between a potted plant and a pillar. It was obviously a make-do location, slightly separate from the rest of the sports team. Pretty basic white laminate desk, multiline phone, a computer and a bulletin board fixed to the partition in front of her. Have a bit of a look-around in the computer, familiarize yourself with everything, Leonard said, checking his watch. I'll get Mary, our admin assistant, to fill you in on how to file stories and all that hoopla later. Department meeting's in forty minutes in the big room near the elevators. Any questions? Yes. Is it just my imagination, or is Jake Stevens an arrogant smart-ass? No, it all looks good, she said. It was a relief to be left to her own devices for a few minutes. All those new faces and names, the new environment, the Who was she kidding? She was relieved to have a chance to pull herself together because Jake Stevens had rattled her with his mocking eyes and his sarcasm. He'd been one of the reasons she took the job in the first place the chance to work with him, to learn from the best. Out of all her cowork-ers, he'd been the least friendly. In fact, he'd been a jerk. Disappointing. But not the end of the world. So what if he wasn't the intelligent, funny, insightful man she imagined when she read his book and his articles? She'd probably hardly ever see him. And it wasn't as though she could take his behavior personally. He barely knew her, after all. He was probably a jerk with everyone. Except he wasn't. Two hours and one department meeting later, Poppy was forced to face the fact that the charming, witty man she'd imagined Jake to be did exist for everyone except her. The first half of the meeting had been a work-in-progress update. Everyone had multiple stories to file after the weekend so there was a lot of discussion and banter amongst her new colleagues. She didn't say anything since she had nothing to contribute, just took notes and listened. Jake was a different person as he mixed it up with the other writers. He laughed, he teased, he good-naturedly accepted ribbing when it came his way. He offered great ideas for other people's stories, made astute comments about what their competitors would be covering. He was like the coolest kid in school everyone wanted him to notice them, and everyone wanted to sit next to him at the back of the bus. The second half of the meeting consisted of brainstorming future stories and features. With the Pan-Pacific Swimming Championship trials coming up, there was a lot of discussion around who would qualify. Naturally, everyone turned to her for her opinion everyone except Jake, that is. He didn't so much as glance at her as she discussed the form of the current crop of Australian swimmers, many of whom had been her teammates and competitors until recently. Hey, this is like having our own secret weapon, Macca said. I love that stuff about what happens in the change rooms before a race. Yeah. We should definitely do something on that when the finals are closer. Sort of a diary-of-a-swimmer kind of thing, Leonard said. Really get inside their heads. There's plenty of stuff we could cover. Superstitions, lucky charms, that kind of thing, she said. Yeah, yeah, great, Leonard said. Her confidence grew. Maybe this wasn't going to be as daunting as she'd first thought. Sure, she was a fish out of water literally but everyone seemed nice and she understood sport and the sporting world and the commitment top athletes had to have to get anywhere. She had something to contribute. Then she glanced at Jake and saw he was sitting back in his chair, doodling on his pad, clearly bored out of his mind. A small smile curved his mouth, as though he was enjoying a private joke. It was the same whenever she spoke during the meeting the same smile, the same doodling as though nothing she had to say could possibly be of any interest. By the time she returned to her desk, she knew she hadn't imagined his attitude during their introduction. Jake Stevens did not like her. For the life of her, she couldn't understand why. They'd never met before. How could he possibly not like her when he didn't even know her? She'd barely settled in her chair when her cell phone beeped. She checked it and saw Uncle Charlie had sent her a message: Good luck. Come out strong and you'll win the race. She smiled, touched that he'd remembered this was her first day. Of course, Uncle Charlie always remembered the important things. She composed a return message. She'd bought him a cell phone a year ago so they could stay in touch when she was competing internationally, but he'd never been one hundred percent comfortable with the technology. She could imagine how long it had taken him to key in his short message. The sound of masculine laughter made her lift her head. Jake was talking with Jonesy at the other man's desk, a cup of coffee in hand. She watched as Jake dropped his head back and laughed loudly. She returned her attention to the phone, but she could still see him out of the corner of her eye. He said something to Jonesy, slapped the other man on the shoulder, then headed to his own desk. Which meant he was about to walk past hers. She kept her focus on her phone but was acutely conscious of his approach. When he stopped beside her, her belly tightened. Slowly she lifted her head. He studied her desk, taking in the heavy reference books she'd brought in with her: a thesaurus, a book on grammar and the Macquarie Dictionary in two neat, chunky volumes. After a short silence, he met her eyes.