Off the record, p.1

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Off the Record
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Off the Record
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  Author: K. A. Linde Chapter 1

  DAY ONE ON THE JOB

  Liz Dougherty could barely hear herself think over the deafening buzz in the conference room. So much was going on. Reporters from all over North Carolina were piling into the Raleigh conference center waiting to hear State Senator Maxwell deliver a speech. Cameras were being set up, photography equipment lined the room, and voice recorders were poised and ready to capture every word the Senator uttered. Reporters milled around the room chatting with one another and directing their crews for the optimal angle. Liz hadn’t expected her first press conference to be quite this…loud.

  Hayden Lane stood completely calm and collected next to her. She knew he had quite a bit of experience with press conferences, and was grateful he had included her, but damn, was it intimidating. How could he be so composed?

  Liz felt small enough standing next to the editor-in-chief of her college newspaper, but she felt like the tiniest minnow in the ocean compared to the legends in journalism surrounding her. She had joined the newspaper two years ago, and had put in her time, but she had always wanted to be a reporter. She had pushed and fought for it. She had watched for two years as other reporters took the prime spots, but as an upcoming junior she had the privilege of finally working her coveted position.

  She had interned at home for newspapers and had taken more journalism classes than she could count, so she knew she was prepared. She had done her homework, but it didn’t make her first real political press conference any less terrifying.

  “You ready with the recorder?” Hayden asked, digging into his messenger bag and pulling out a notepad, pen, and digital camera. The equipment was nothing compared to what some of the top-notch reporters surrounding them had, but it would do the job.

  “Yeah, I think I’m all set,” she said, chewing on her bottom lip as she adjusted her navy blazer and teetered in her nude high heels.

  “I wish we were closer. I’d love to get a question in. ” He peered around a camera to get a better look at the empty platform.

  “Do you think we’ll get a chance?” Liz asked, wide-eyed. In case she was given the opportunity to ask anything of the sitting Senator, she had prepared questions, but she didn’t think it was a real possibility. Hayden would probably laugh at her if he knew how much extra work she had put into the questions. But it was her job and she couldn’t help it. She had been so anxious last night anticipating the event, and it tended to make her meticulous. She hadn’t even been able to sleep.

  “Nah, probably not. If this guy is anything like his father, he’ll make his announcement and get out of there. Easier to keep winning if you don’t say too much. Know what I mean?”

  She stared into Hayden’s gorgeous face, and the full force of his charm hit her. She gulped and turned back to the podium. “Yeah, makes sense. ”

  “I wish we could get one question in, though. I’d love to peg him down about education policy,” he said.

  Liz nodded. After researching Senator Maxwell’s policy platform, she’d had difficulty narrowing her questions to the ten on education policy she had listed in her purse. He was a hard-core budget guy, just like his father, who was a sitting United States Senator. State Senator Maxwell had won his last two elections based on his broad, sweeping plan to balance the budget, and then he had done it. For the first time in twenty-five years, North Carolina’s fiscal books were in order.

  Not that she disagreed with the end result, but she wasn’t sure how much she agreed with his approach to the matter: cutting anything and everything that might be deemed superfluous—and one of those items happened to be education. Her father was a professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and Liz couldn’t imagine what it would be like to see all of his hard work slashed by a politician just out to line his pockets. Maxwell put business first and everything else after: Encourage small business, lower taxes, help the working class, but Liz didn’t understand how he expected to help the working class when they couldn’t even get an education.

  “Lane! Lane?” a perky redhead called. She pushed past another reporter and all but attacked Hayden.

  “Calleigh,” Hayden muttered, hugging her back. “So good to see you. How’s Charlotte treating you?”

  “Amazing, of course. You should come and visit me. I could get you an interview,” she said. She swished her red hair across one shoulder and smiled at Hayden like he was dessert.

  “I might take you up on that when I graduate,” he said. “Have you met our new reporter, Liz Dougherty?”

  Calleigh seemed to finally notice that someone was standing next to Hayden. “Oh, hi,” she said. “Are you taking over Camille’s old job?”

  “Uh…yeah. I’ve been mostly in editorials before this,” Liz explained.

  Calleigh Hollingsworth was a legend at the university newspaper. She single-handedly put the paper on the map last year by interviewing the President of the United States and busting up a sex scandal in the higher tiers of the school administration. Her byline had graced the front page of the university paper daily, and everyone at school knew her name. She had been offered a job at a New York newspaper, but had turned it down for Charlotte. No one knew why, but she was either crazy or a genius. Liz had only seen her in passing, and she was awestruck to be standing in the presence of someone with such fame.

  “Well, I hope you do her some justice. I know Lane wouldn’t choose someone incompetent. Good luck on the job,” she said, turning back to Hayden. “Lane, drinks before you leave, doll. This is not a request. ”

  And with that she traipsed across the room. Male eyes from all around followed her as she whisked past them and out of sight.

  “That was Calleigh Hollingsworth,” Liz said plainly.

  “Yeah,” he grumbled. “And I have to entertain her highness. ”

  Liz giggled. “Do you not like her?”

  Hayden shrugged. “She’s good at her job, but so annoying. After she got that interview with the President, fame went straight to her head. She acts like everyone should treat her like a queen now. ”

  “She kind of is a queen. ”

  “And that’s exactly why she acts like it!”

  Liz didn’t know Calleigh well enough to comment.

  A hush fell over the crowd as a tall, leggy blonde walked onto the stage. A series of flashes went off as the reporters adjusted their camera settings, anxious not to miss anything that was about to happen.

  “Was it leaked as to what he’s speaking about?” Liz whispered into Hayden’s ear.

  He shook his head slowly, never taking his eyes or camera from the stage. “I haven’t heard anything. I just got the buzz about it yesterday morning. Impromptu. ”

  “Strange,” Liz said. She watched the blonde’s heels as she walked across the carpeted floor.

  She was beautiful, almost unnaturally so, definitely unfairly so. Liz was happy to be on the shorter side most days, but not when that woman was onstage. And Liz had always thought she was above average in the looks department, with naturally straight blond hair that the sun highlighted in the summer, and blue eyes. She loved her pouty lips and high cheekbones, but her athletic build was far from that of the skinny minny standing onstage.

  “Thank y’all for coming out at such short notice,” the woman said, smiling at the crowd of cameras. “I’m Heather Ferrington, Senator Maxwell’s press secretary. He is only available for a short while, but he will be taking questions at the end. Please keep them to a minimum. The Senator will be out in a minute. ”

  As Heather walked offstage, all the reporters began speaking at once. The idea of actually getting an answer out of the State Senator was a real treat. His father had alwa
ys kept the family rather tight-lipped. Speculation circulated that it was because they had secrets to hide, but with thirty years of service in public office the Senator had a clean slate. They were a model family, and no one was surprised when Brady Maxwell III followed in his father’s footsteps. It was a logical step for him.

  “What are the chances we get a question in?” Liz asked. She edged forward in the crowd as it moved inward in anticipation.

  “Zero,” Hayden murmured, resting his hand on her hip so as not to lose her as the crowd heaved forward. Liz felt her side warm at his touch and tried to keep from purposely leaning into him. “Try to see if you can get a little closer anyway. ” He urged her forward.

  Liz followed his lead and nudged her way deeper into the cloud of reporters. One woman gave her a withering glare as she pushed past her, but Liz paid her no mind. Once she reached the best position she could stand in, she stopped and waited for the Senator to come out.

  Besides his work in cutting money for education, he had blocked NC Pledge, a piece of legislation that would make it easier for college students who maintained a certain GPA to afford a degree. She knew that he was pushing these measures to balance the budget, but it came at the expense of the most important thing anyone could ever offer. Senator Maxwell had received a great education at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, because his parents could afford it and he happened to be an exemplary basketball player, but not everyone else had those benefits. Tuition hikes after his budget cuts only exacerbated the problem.

  And she hadn’t heard a sufficient answer as to why he had allowed the cuts to education funding, even encouraged this to happen. The only reasonable explanation she could consider was that he had kept certain measures in the budget that his big-time donors benefited from and had cut education to make up for it. This led her to believe that the only thing he truly cared about, as a politician, was the money coming his way…just like most other politicians.

  Senator Maxwell walked onstage, and Liz’s mind went blank.

  She had seen a picture of him. Dozens, in fact. Probably more than that. What kind of reporter would she be if she hadn’t?

  She knew he was young. It was hugely controversial in his previous state elections that he had beaten two incumbent representatives at such a young age. But attractive? No, not attractive—gorgeous…breathtaking…delicious. She tried to stop her brain from continuing, but damn, pictures did not do him justice.

  She wasn’t certain why, but the ease of his stride stood out to her. He carried himself confidently in a damn sexy black three-piece suit. He had the air of someone who didn’t have to take what he wanted, but was instead handed it on a silver platter. His dark hair was cropped short and spiked in the front, and his intense brown eyes surveyed the crowded room as if he were here to accept an award. He smiled at the reporters waiting for the inevitable photo op and adjusted his red-white-and-blue tie knotted at the top of his crisp white button-down. He was freshly shaven, accentuating his chiseled cheekbones and strong jawline, and ever-looked the part of the young State Senator he was.

  As bulbs flashed in all directions, Liz stared up at the Senator, rooted in place. No wonder he had won election over previous incumbents. He could just walk into a room and win a crowd. It helped that his name was recognizable, considering he shared the same one with his father, but he didn’t need any help winning when he had that body and charm. She wondered if the demographics on the election were 95 percent women. She would believe it.

  “Thank you all so much for coming out here for this last-minute press conference,” Senator Maxwell spoke powerfully into the microphone. His voice was like an addiction—pulling you in, making you crave more, making you feel as if you could never get enough.

  “Liz, are you getting this?” Hayden asked, brushing against her shoulder and jarring her out of her daydreams.

  “Yeah, sorry,” she murmured. She fiddled with the recorder until the red button blinked, and tried to reorient herself.

  “I know you are all wondering why I decided to come before you, here in Wake County, on this lovely Saturday afternoon. ” He leaned forward against the podium. “Let me tell you a story first…”
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