CHAPTER 17

Tiel’s cubicle in the newsroom was a disaster area. It usually was, but more so now than usual. She had received hundreds of notes, cards, and letters from colleagues and viewers, complimenting her excellent coverage of the Davison-Dendy story and commending her for the heroic role she’d played in it. Many were yet to be opened. They had been piled into wobbly, uneven stacks.

There weren’t enough surfaces to accommodate the number of floral arrangements delivered over the past week, so she had distributed them to offices and conference areas throughout the building.

Vern and Gladys had sent her a mail-order cheesecake that would have fed five thousand. The newsroom staff had gorged themselves, and there was still more than half left.

As anticipated, she had been the center of attention, and not only on a local level. She had been interviewed by reporters from global news operations, including CNN and Bloomberg. Because of the compelling human ele ment, the love story, the emergency birth of the baby, and the dramatic denouement, the story had piqued the interest of TV audiences all over the world.

She’d been asked by a local car dealership to do their commercials, an offer she declined. National women’s magazines were proposing feature articles on everything from her secrets of success to the decor of her house. She was the undeclared Woman of the Week.

And she had never been more miserable.

She was making a futile stab at clearing off her desk when Gully joined her. “Hey, kid.”

“I took the rest of the cheesecake to the cafeteria and left it there on a first come, first served basis.”

“I got the last piece.”

“Your arteries will never forgive me.”

“Have I told you what a great job you did?”

“It’s always nice to hear.”

“Great job.”

“Thanks. But it’s left me drained. I’m tired.”

“You look it. In fact you look like hammered shit.” She tossed him a dirty glance over her shoulder. “Just calling it like I see it.”

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you that some things are better left unsaid?”

“What’s the matter with you?”

“I told you, Gully, I’m-“

“You’re not just tired. I know tired, and this isn’t tired.

You should be lit up like a Christmas tree. You’re not your normal, hyperactive, supercharged self. Is it Linda Harper? Are you sulking because she got the jump on you and stole some of your thunder?”

“No.” She methodically ripped open another envelope and read the congratulatory note inside. I love your reports on the TV. You’re my roll [sic] model. I want to be just like you when I grow up. I like your hair too.

Gully said, “I can’t believe you didn’t recognize the Doc of standoff fame as Dr. Bradley Stanwick.”

“Hmm.”

Gully continued, undaunted in spite of her seeming disinterest. “Let me put it another way. I don’t believe you didn’t recognize him as Dr. Bradley Stanwick.”

The change in Gully’s tone of voice was unmistakable, and there was no way to avoid addressing it. She laid down the note from the girl who identified herself as Kimberly, a fifth-grader, and slowly swiveled her chair around to face Gully.

He looked down at her for a long moment. Her eyes never wavered. Neither said anything.

Finally, he dragged his hand down his face, the sagging skin stretching like a rubber Halloween mask. “I suppose you had your reasons for protecting his identity.”

“He asked me not to.”

“Oh.” He slapped his forehead with his palm. “Of course! What’s wrong with me? The subject of the story said, `I don’t want to be on TV,’ so, naturally, you omitted an important element of the story.”

“It didn’t cost your news operation anything, Gully.”

Her mood testy, she stood up and began tossing personal items into her bag in preparation of leaving. “Linda got it.

So what are you complaining about?”

“Was I complaining? Did you hear me complaining?”

“It sounded like complaining.”

“I’m just curious as to why my ace reporter wimped out on me.”

“I didn’t-“

“You wimped! Big-time. I want to know why.”

She spun around to confront him. “Because it got…”

She stopped shouting, drew herself up, took a deep breath, and ended on a much softer note. “Complicated.”

“Complicated.”

“Complicated.” She reached around him for her suit jacket, lifted it off the wall hook, and pulled it on, avoiding his incisive eyes. “It’s sort of like Deep Throat.”

“It’s nothing like Deep Throat, who was a source.

Bradley Stanwick was an active player. Subject matter. Fair game.”

“That’s a distinction we should debate sometime. Some other time. When I’m not about to leave for vacation.”

“So you’re still going?” He fell into step behind her as she left the cubicle and began wending her way through the newsroom toward the rear of the building.

“I need the time away more than ever. You approved my request for days off.”

“I know,” he said querulously. “But I’ve had second thoughts. You know what I was thinking? I was thinking that you should produce a pilot Nine Live show. This cancer-doctor-cum-cowboy would be a dynamite first guest. Get him to talk about the investigation into his wife’s death. What’s his viewpoint on euthanasia? Did he euthanize her?”

“He was motivated to, but he didn’t.”

“See? We’ve got a provocative dialogue going already.

You could segue into his participation in the standoff. It’d be great! We could show this pilot show to the suits upstairs.

Maybe air it as a special report one night following the news. It’d be your ticket to the Nine Live hostess spot.”

“Don’t hold your breath, Gully.” She pushed open the heavy exit door leading to the employee parking lot. The pavement was as hot as a griddle.

“How come?” He followed her out. “This is what you’ve wanted, Tiel. What you’ve worked for. You’d better grab it, or it could still be snatched away from you. They could give the show to Linda, especially if they ever find out you knew about Stanwick all along. Postpone this trip until this is settled.”

“And then I won’t be able to leave because of all the production meetings.” She shook her head. “Uh-uh, Gully. I’m going.”

“I don’t get you. Is it PMS, or what?”

Refusing to take umbrage, she smiled. “I’m tired of the dance, Gully. I’m weary of the constant jockeying for position, and the paranoia it breeds. Management knows what I can do. They’re aware of my popularity with viewers, and it’s higher now than it’s ever been. They’ve got years of my work, ratings, and awards to remind them that I’m the best choice for that job.”

She opened her car door and tossed her bag inside.

“They’ll be hearing from my agent while I’m away. I’m making Nine Live a condition of my contract. I don’t get the show, they don’t get a renewal. And I’ve received at least a hundred other offers this week to back up that mandate.”

She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, which had gone flabby with astonishment. “I love you, Gully. I love my work. But it’s work; it’s no longer my life.”

She made one stop on her way out of town-at a Dumpster behind a supermarket. She tossed two things into it.

One was an audiocassette recording. The other was the two-hour videotape from Gladys and Vern’s camcorder.

Tiel cursed the hopelessly snarled fishing line.

“Dammit!”

“They aren’t biting?”

Thinking she was alone, she jumped, executing a quick turn at the same time. Her knees went weak at the sight of him. He was leaning negligently against a tree trunk, his tall, lean form and cowboy garb in harmony with the rugged landscape.

“I didn’t know you could fish,” he remarked.

He’d come all this way to talk about fishing? Okay. “Obviously I can’t.” She held out the tangled line and frowned. “But since that’s what one is supposed to do when there’s a clear mountain stream running behind one’s vacation condo… Doc, what are you doing here?”

“Good news about Ronnie, huh?”

Ronnie Davison had been upgraded from critical to good condition. If he continued to improve, he would be released to return home within a few days. “Very good news. About Sabra too. She’s already back in Fort Worth.

I talked to her last night by phone. She and her mother are going to rear Katherine. Ronnie will have unlimited visitation, but they’ve decided to postpone getting married for a couple of years. Regardless of the outcome of his legal entanglements, they’ve agreed to wait and see if the relationship can stand the test of time.”

“Smart kids. If it’s right, it’ll happen.”

“That’s their thinking.”

“Well, Dendy can be glad he won’t be charged with murder.”

“No, but dozens of witnesses saw him attempt it. I hope they throw the book at him.”

“I second that motion. He nearly cost several lives.”

The conversation flagged after that. The silence was filled by the chirping of birds and the incessant, friendly gurgle of the stream. When the pressure inside Tiel’s chest reached the cracking point, she asked again, “What are you doing here?”

“I got a cheesecake from Vern and Gladys.”

“So did I.”

“Huge.”

“Humongous.”

Feeling silly holding the casting rod, she laid it at her feet, but immediately wished she hadn’t. Now she had nothing to do with her hands, which suddenly seemed excessively large and conspicuous. She slid them into the rear pockets of her jeans, palms out. “It’s a beautiful place, isn’t it?”

“Sure is.”

“When did you arrive?”

“About an hour ago.”

“Oh.”

Then, miserably, “Doc, what are you doing here?”

“I came to thank you.”

She lowered her head and looked down at her feet. Her sneakers had sunk sole-deep into the mud of the creek bed. “Don’t. Thank me, I mean. I couldn’t use the recording.

I had a video, too. From Gladys’s camcorder. The quality of the tape wasn’t very good, but no other reporter in the world had it.”

She took a deep breath, glanced up at him, then back down. “But you were on the tape. Recognizable. And I didn’t want to exploit you after… after what happened in the motel. It was personal then. I couldn’t exploit you without exploiting part of myself too. So I threw them away. No one ever saw or heard them.”

“Hmm. Well, that’s not what I was thanking you for.”

Her head sprang up. “Huh?”

“I saw your stories about the standoff, and they were great. I mean that. Outstanding broadcast journalism. You deserve all the accolades you received. And I appreciate your keeping our private conversations private. You were right about the exposure. It was bound to happen with or without help from you. I see that now.”

For once in her life, she had nothing to say.

“The reason I came to thank you is for making me take a hard look at myself. My life. How wasteful it’s been. After Shari died and all that followed, I needed solitude, time and space to think things through, reassess. That used up… say six months. The rest of the time I’ve been doing exactly what you said, hiding. Punishing myself. Taking the coward’s way out.”

The pressure building inside her now wasn’t tension, it was emotion. Maybe love. Okay, love. She wanted to go to him, hold him, but she wanted to hear what he had to say.

Furthermore, he needed to say it.

“I’m going back. I spent the past week in Dallas talking to some doctors and researchers, newcomers who share my aggressive approach to fighting this thing, doctors who are tired of having to go through umpteen committees and legal counsels to get approval of a new treatment when the patient is suffering and all other options have been exhausted. We’d like to take medicine out of the hands of lawyers and bureaucrats and return it to the doctors.

So, we’re forming a group, pooling our resources and specialities-” He looked hard at her. “Are you crying?”

“The sun’s in my eyes.”

“Oh. Well. That’s what I came to tell you.”

Economically, efficiently, in as business-like a manner as she could, she rubbed the tears from her eyes. “You didn’t have to travel all this way. You could have E-mailed me, or called.”

“That would have been cowardly too. I needed to say this in person, face-to-face.”

“How’d you know where to find me?”

“I went to the TV station. Talked to Gully, who also asked me to deliver a message.” A small bob of her head indicated that she was listening. “He said, Tell her I ain’t dense. I just figured out the meaning of complicated.’

Does that make sense?”

She laughed. “Yes.”

“Care to explain?”

“Maybe later. If you’re staying.”

“If you don’t mind my company.”

“I think I can tolerate it.”

He returned her wide smile, but his faltered, and his expression turned serious again. “We’re both pretty intense when it comes to our work, Tiel.”

“Which I believe is part of the attraction.”

“It won’t be easy.”

“Nothing worthwhile is.”

“We don’t know where it will lead.”

“But we know where we hope it will. We also know it will lead to nowhere if we don’t give it a try.”

“I loved my wife, Tiel, and love can hurt.”

“Not being loved hurts worse. Maybe we can find a way to love each other without it hurting.”

“God, I want to touch you.”

“Doc,” she murmured. Then she laughed. “Bradley?

Brad? How do I call you?”

“A simple ‘Come here’ will do for now.”

Then he closed the distance separating them.

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