Airwaves, Revised Edition (excerpt)

Chapter One

October 1998

He was stunning. Flawless. Absolutely traffic-stopping gorgeous.

He was a sculptor’s perfection that smiled as if it were warm flesh—“Hello, Emily.”

And he was that voice . . . rich, like mink made liquid, smooth and flowing and filling the chamber of her car once she’d drawn close enough to catch and hold the FM radio signal—“I’m Colin Michaels.”

Of course he was. Now, in person, offering his hand to shake—and waiting while she stared like a groupie rather than someone who just might belong in the KDMD studio.

Emily placed her hand in his. “Hi. Thanks for seeing me today.”

“Thank you for making the drive,” Colin said as he claimed the other chair on the interrogatee side of Sterling Barclay’s desk. “I apologize for the wait; I got tied up in production.”

Sterling shook his head in dismissal. “We just got settled ourselves.”

Colin acknowledged that, and turned back to Emily. “How was it, by the way—the drive?”

“Beautiful, thanks.” And not a problem, the first week in October. Give it a couple months, and Lookout Pass, where the steady climb out of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho gave way to the gradual descent into Missoula, Montana, could be a dizzying mess of white. Hundreds of inches of snow per year, the ski resort at the crest boasted.

No, the challenge hadn’t been the 180 miles of I-90 to get here; it had been Sterling’s call on the listener line, and the all-nighter to prepare the resume he’d asked for. It was the three days of restless excitement that swirled in a whirlwind around her. And now that she was finally here, it was the gap between KBTS in Coeur d’Alene, and KDMD—the midnight blue limo parked in the lot, the lobby with its clean carpeting and matching furniture, and that logo on the back wall, KDMD in large mirror-silver letters with a white cowboy hat hanging off the left stand of the K.

And wasn’t Sterling Barclay, KDMD’s general manager, just as she’d imagined he would be, sitting his executive chair as if it were a throne, forearms resting on leather and palms curled over the wood accents.

The reality of it all swamped her. He’d invited her here. He liked the way she sounded. And she wanted it. Emily Erikson wanted this more than anything.

She turned to Colin; it was he, KDMD’s PD—program director—she had to convince. And he was a contradiction, a man who chose to be on the radio when, by that, he cheated every camera lens within a week’s drive.

He sat in the chair to the right of hers, ankle on the opposite knee and elbow on the edge of Sterling’s desk, his fingers arched over his coffee mug. But even the cup looked out of place, bits of the orange block letters missing and the beige background dull—and for another station, KMLA.

His left hand held his ankle, but his finger held no wedding ring. Farther up, the arm inside his blue oxford button-down connected with his shoulder in a bulk that started with his neck in a bold statement about how he spent some of his off-air time. He didn’t tug creases into his shirt, but neither did it hang lifeless. Higher still, the hair parted just off center swept back in layers and luxurious color over his ears, so brown it was almost black, before it fell in lush volume, length, and gentle curl over his collar.

As if he sensed her staring, Colin’s attention shifted from the mug, though only his eyes, not his head, moved; blue eyes impaled her, their deep color stopping her heart, their intensity puddling her blood. But then he looked to Sterling. Colin drew a deep breath and turned back. “Your resume is a little thready, Emily.”

Business; only business. So maybe he hadn’t noticed that she’d drifted a bit.

Emily sat a little straighter, and prayed.

Make it okay. Daddy’s wrong. I can handle this. I’ll show him. I’ll show You. I’ll show everyone.

“But your presence is strong,” Colin continued in that all-radio, all-professional voice with flawless diction, inflection, and levels. “That is, your delivery is good, you’re creative, and your voice carries well.”

How did he know all that?

“I’ve heard your show,” he added, as if he’d heard her thoughts.

Emily looked to Sterling, who explained, “I took the liberty of taping portions of it when I was in Coeur d’Alene. It’s so much more like the real you than a spec tape you record yourself.”

“You have nice pipes.” This from Colin. “Good female voices, with the depth to carry over a dusty speaker in the back of a muffler shop, are rare. But are you teachable?”

“How intelligent would I be if I said no?” Emily replied.

Colin stared as if she’d surprised him. Then he chuckled. “Not very.”

“Could you clarify what you mean by teachable?”

His eyes narrowed. “You have the personality for it, but it’s obvious Kyle hasn’t worked with you.” He shrugged just a little, as if in apology.

“You know Kyle?” Her general manager at K-93?

Colin nodded. “Oh, sure.”

This exclusive little community called radio knew no more barriers than the signals that brought its members together; not even Lookout Pass on the Idaho-Montana border kept any secrets.

“I worked with Kyle in a little AM station in Green River, Wyoming,” Sterling added.

Of course he did. Sterling Barclay had the voice and he had that presence, both learned from thousands of hours of public presentation, speaking with a command that said he was accustomed to being listened to. His cheeks might be a little jowly, but the classy cut of his hair made the silver on black look like it should come from a bottle, and his green golf shirt hung so crisp, it looked tailored.

While Kyle Larkin had also elevated himself to general manager, he was still at a not-quite station. Kyle didn’t golf; he drove a blue AMC Pacer that looked as if he’d rescued it from a car crusher, scuffed about on the hems of his trousers, and admitted he had a face for radio. Whatever it took to go further than where he was, he didn’t have it.

But Emily said only, “You worked with Kyle? When was this?”

Sterling rocked back in his chair. “Must have been the sixties. You weren’t even born—but you don’t have to respond to that. I’m not asking your age, you understand.”

Emily laughed. The distinguished exterior and that dignified name hinted nothing of the glint in his eyes—that Sterling’s sense of humor would find like company around a cowpoke campfire.

“I’m twenty-one, you didn’t ask, and I’m not accusing you of discrimination,” she told him.

Sterling’s smile was beautiful. “Good. Just wanted to make sure we understood each other.” He looked to Colin in a silent signal to continue.

And Emily wanted this more than ever. Don’t make me go back, begging for a job I just quit. Give this to me . . . Please?

“You rattle around, Emily. You aren’t consistent,” Colin told her. “But I can fix that, if you’re willing to listen and work on it.”

A little work? Practice, with Colin Michaels’ guidance? Bring on the W-4 form, insurance application, and the key to the front door.

Aloud she said, “Tell me more,” and crossed her legs—and tipped her coffee! It spilled. Hot!

She stifled most of her squeal before righting the mug.

She pulled her jeans away from her skin and looked to see if Colin and Sterling had noticed—as if they wouldn’t.

“Are you all right?” they asked in unison.

“Yes.” No. The cup was dripping on the floor. Where to set it? Sterling’s desk? Not there. Let it drip on the carpeting? Not that, either.

Then Colin’s palm thrust out to catch the drip. And he grabbed her wrist before she could jerk away from burning him. “No, it’s all right.”

Their eyes met; his said he understood her blunder and her nerves, and maybe even saw some humor in the situation.

“Why don’t you go to the ladies’ room?” he said in a soft tone, a smile in his eyes. “I’ll take care of this.”

On shaky legs, she breathed her thanks and darted for the door.

“Turn toward the lobby and follow the hall to the back of the building,” he said behind her.

Right. But in the ladies room, her leg burned and her cheeks flamed. Of all the things to do, she did that. So smooth, so polished; so ready to represent a powerhouse like KDMD.

Emily shook her head in misery and focused on repairing what she could, pressing a wet paper towel to her leg to ease the scalding. But there was no fix for the jeans that had been sky blue and so tidy below her rich green sweater. Now they were sky blue with a brown spot resembling a map of Brazil above the right knee.

It was tempting to stay in the restroom for a year or so, but it wouldn’t do to have Colin come looking for her. Emily retraced her steps and tried to soak in the lonely calm of a Saturday morning radio station. The only life among the darkened rooms, empty chairs, and silent phones rose from the stereo speakers that seemed to be hidden throughout the station. They sounded forth with a classy Diamond Country jingle—K-93’s were tacky, nothing like this—to one hard hit on a snare drum, followed by a flurry of beats and a melodious lead line on guitar. It could be the best rock on radio if it weren’t for the slide of select notes. Instead, it was country music.

But it was Diamond Country.

She paused at the doorway to draw a breath, composed her features, and smoothed her sweater over her hips. Then she strode into the room as if there’d been no disaster at all.

Colin ruined it; he glanced at her leg. “Are you okay?”

“Yes. Thank you.” She reclaimed her seat. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Sterling told her. “We’re just glad you’re all right.”

Her mug was on the desk, a white square of paper towel folded beneath it, and two packets of sugar beside it. The mug was full to the brim.

“We thought we’d give you another chance,” Colin said. “It’s obvious you take cream, but I couldn’t taste any sugar.” He illustrated by touching the tip of his finger to his tongue.

Laughter, from relief as much as mirth, burst from her. “No. Just cream.”

“Think you can handle it?” Colin asked.

“I think so,” she replied with grave solemnity.

Colin grinned. He nodded. Then he sat back and crossed his leg again. “Now, how’s your production, Emily?”

She groaned inside. If it were going to fall apart, this was where it would happen. But she wouldn’t lie—not for a job, not for anything. She had that much integrity left.

She lifted her chin and looked him in the eye. “Virtually nonexistent.”

His left eyebrow twitched. “Define that.”

“Three thirty-second spots.” It was humiliating; three lousy commercials.

“Did you mix them?”

“No. Kyle ran the recording equipment.”

Colin paused to sip his coffee. “At least I won’t have to break you of any bad habits.” The anxiety must have shown on her face, for he shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. You probably lost the work to the receptionist; she was handy and already on the clock.”

He didn’t like it, that was plain in the tone of his voice. The frustration made him grow more human than the picture of perfection he made, catching the sunlight spilling from the window behind him as if he were waiting for the portrait artist to arrive.

Job interview. Job interview.

“What shift do you have in mind for me?” Emily asked.

“Weekdays, six to eleven, with some production thrown in,” Colin replied.

“The same shift I had at K-93.”

He nodded. He seemed to know all, yet her resume wasn’t anywhere in sight.

“I put the station to bed,” she added.

“And attended classes the next day.” He paused. “So would you continue your studies here, at the University of Montana?”

Emily held the urge to wince, to run, to fold in on herself. No more demands, no more responsibility, no more life-defying sameness. It was time to have a place of her own, to add her name to the phone book, and to make plans without having to check the plans already made for her. Though he’d never see it; Daddy hadn’t even realized how serious she was until she began dropping makeup, shampoo, and earrings into a box, and carrying hangers of clothes to the car. The haste hadn’t been part of the plan, not without some farewell, and not at the crack of dawn, but he’d pushed it.

Oh, Daddy.

One hundred and eighty degrees, and one hundred and eighty miles from all that came before, that’s what she’d have now. Except church. That could stay, even if she didn’t belong there.

Emily said only, “No, I’m afraid I couldn’t betray North Idaho College by attending one of its rivals.”

The men laughed, and in that Colin revealed his only flaw: his right front tooth rocked on its side and overlapped its partner. It should have been an imperfection, except it was slight and . . . cute.

“You know, that’s the third time you’ve laughed,” he announced, “and it’s consistently pleasant.”

Heat flushed through her. Her laugh?

“Do you know country music?” he asked next.

“No.”

His eyes fell closed for a second. “Are you always so frank?”

Truthful?

“Yes.”

That eyebrow twitched again, while Sterling smiled behind his steepled fingers as if she were not only his discovery but his creation.

Colin’s dimple peeked from his cheek. “Okaaay. Do you like it?”

“Country music? I don’t know. I haven’t really listened.”

He motioned with his head toward the lobby. “Think you could learn?”

The tune was catchy, the harmony rich, and the beat undergirding it, strong. It was just so . . . twangy. But it was also freedom.

“Watch me,” she told him.

Navy eyes studied her, then Colin gave Sterling a minuscule nod, and the ruler over all this grinned a little wider.

Her new boss shifted in his chair. “Actually, Emily, the format is the least of your worries. I’m going to work you pretty hard. The songs are shorter in country than they are in a Top 40 format, and the intros are ghastly quick. It will move fast. And we carry double the commercial load of KBTS.” Colin stopped as if something just occurred to him. “You do realize, this is a part‑time position.”

Her apartment, her choices, her everything, galloped out of sight, spurred by the words he’d spoken.

“How many hours is it?”

“Thirty a week. No benefits.”

“And the rate?”

He recited the pay per hour. “Still interested?”

She stared at the edge of Sterling’s desk, mentally multiplying numbers. It was more than what K­‑93 had paid, but it wasn’t enough to live on. Not for long. She should have squirreled more money away. And what a lie, those carefree career-girl images portrayed in sit-coms and magazine ads.

Her stare shifted to her mug, whose logo towered over the parking lot, graced the doors of the limo, and branded the lobby, lest anyone who enter forget where they stood. She had to have this. She would not go back to where she’d been.

She turned to Colin, straight-on. “I need more money than that.” Before he could object, she explained. “I know you’re going to have to spend time with me. You already said that, but I’m going to be working just as hard. Harder. How about you give me a raise . . . later . . . when I’m where you want me to be?”

Colin tilted his head. A new interest sparked in his eyes. “You mean, like a probation period?”

Praise God, he hadn’t said no.

“Yes. A probation period.”

After an eternal moment, he nodded. “We could do that. Let’s say . . . three months, then we’ll renegotiate. How’s that?”

She’d come for a full-time job. But her clothes were already in the car. “Fine. I’ll take it.”

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