Her Secret Fling
What ever 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, a dainty hand to her abdomen 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 recognised 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 took one last, deep breath. Then she pushed through the double doors. Immediately she was surrounded by the noise and low-level excitement of a busy city newsroom. 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 came up as she walked the main aisle, following the directions she’d been given for the sports department. She tried to look like 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 and wrong when she was used to lycra, and the smell of stale air and coffee and hot plastic wasn’t incredibly strange to her 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 computer 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 columnist with the paper.
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 Sydney Olympics - 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 before we head into it.”
“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 mid-thirties and very tan, and Hilary was red-haired and 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 keyboards.
“This mob around here,” Leonard said, leading her around the partition, “keep an eye on motor sport. Meet our resident petrol heads, Macca and Jonesy.”
“All right. Our very own golden girl,” Jonesy said. He was in his late twenties and already developing a middle-aged paunch.
“Bet you get that all the time, huh?” Macca asked. He smiled a little shyly and ran a hand over his thinning blonde 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.
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 been awarded 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 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 around 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 realisation 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 pant 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 workplace.
“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 re-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 book photograph had only been a headshot but 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 Stevens 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 off on assignment, but you’ll meet them later. Your desk is over here.”
He headed off. She glanced at Jake Stevens one last time before following, ready to say something polite and friendly in parting, but he’d already turned back to his work.
She was frowning as Leonard showed her to her desk, wedged into a corner between a pot plant and a pillar - obviously a make-do location, slightly separate from the rest of the sports team. It was all pretty basic - white laminate desk, multi-line phone, a computer and a notice board fixed to the partition in front of her.
“Right,” Leonard said, checking his watch. “Have a bit of a look around in the computer, familiarise yourself with everything. I’ll get Mary, our admin assistant, to fill you in on how to file stories and all that hooplah later. Department meeting’s in forty minutes - in the big meeting room back 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 with a smile.
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 really 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 change to work with him, to learn from the best. But out of all of them, he’d been the least friendly. In fact, he’d pretty much been a jerk.
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 newspaper work? 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 for 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. Jakes Stevens was like a whole other 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 work, 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 up the back of the bus. Poppy watched him and decided she must have caught him at a bad moment earlier.
Then they moved into the second half of the meeting, a brain-storming session for future stories and features. With the Pan-Pacific Swimming Championship trials coming up, there was a lot of discussion around who would qualify. Naturally, all her colleagues turned to her for her opinion - everyone except Jake Stevens, 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 team mates 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 sportspeople had to have to get anywhere. She had something to contribute.
Then she glanced across at Jake Stevens 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 he stared at his meaningless drawings, as though he was enjoying a private joke.
It was the same whenever she spoke up 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 didn’t 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?