FOUR

Caught in Hunter’s intense stare, Carly felt her stomach rock with nerves as she ran through all her options. Leave. Stay and ignore him. Or choose confrontation.

His leather jacket was sleekly urbane, not Harley-riding-belt-and-spike. Paired with dress pants and a tailored blue shirt left open at the throat, he looked movie star classily casual. And this time when he’d tracked her down he wasn’t alone. Next to Hunter a gangly man slouched unceremoniously against the counter. Despite the crowded room, apprehension skittered up her spine at the thought of facing Hunter after today’s debacle. He was clearly here to see her, and ignoring him would only prolong the agony.

Because how could she interview last year’s winner and enjoy herself with him assessing her from afar, producing the goosebumpy awareness he always generated?

“Let’s just get this over with,” she finally said to Abby.

Carly forced her feet in his direction, her nerves stretching tighter with every step. As she drew near, she managed a bright smile.

“Mr. Philips.” She stopped in front of the two men. “Amazing how I keep running into you. If I’d known you were coming I would have worn a shorter skirt.”

“Pity I didn’t call you ahead.”

“This doesn’t seem like a place you’d usually hang out,” Carly said. “Are you here to compete in the pageant?”

Hunter’s gaze swept across the room and landed on a contestant—a drag queen sporting a figure-hugging miniskirt and a pair of killer wedge shoes even Carly would be afraid to wear lest she break an ankle. “My collection of miniskirts isn’t up to the task,” he said dryly. A second participant joined the first, sporting a Marilyn Manson look made of red latex. Hunter turned his iced blue eyes back on Carly. “Interesting job you have.”

“I’m trying to convince my boss to expand my column to include interesting community members.” Her smile grew bigger as she stepped closer. “Today I proposed I do a story on you. She said no, but I think once she watches our second show she’ll change her mind.” Ignoring his disconcertingly alert eyes, she leaned close, hoping to get a rise out of him. “I don’t think she’ll be able to resist the fascinating Hunter Philips.”

His cool demeanor didn’t budge. “Unfortunately she’ll have to.”

Carly stared at him. Was he furiously irate, mildly fuming or calmly annoyed at her for her blog post today? Damn it, she shouldn’t care. All she wanted was to interview last year’s drag queen winner, move past the ridiculous remorse and get her confident mojo back.

“If you’re so eager for my company you could just ask me out,” she said. “Instead you keep hunting me down.” She finally tore her gaze from Hunter to his scraggy brown-haired friend, eyeing him curiously. He wore a gaming T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Carpe Noctem’—Seize the Night—well-worn jeans, and ratty athletic shoes. “And this time you brought backup too. How very FBI of you.”

Hunter ignored her quip and nodded at Abby, as if he remembered her, before training his eyes on Carly. “Abby, Carly—meet Pete Booker,” he said, tipping his head in his friend’s direction. “Conspiracy theorist, computer genius, and—” he held Carly’s gaze as that secretive smile appeared “—my business partner.”

Unwanted remorse bloomed bigger in Carly’s gut as polite greetings were exchanged around her. Great, now she was looking at two reasons to feel guilty. Pete was cute, in a boyish kind of way that defied his description. Juxtaposed with the coiled, darker edges of his partner, he appeared downright innocent. And both men were looking at her with veiled accusation.

“I suppose your presence tonight is in response to the discussion on my blog,” she said.

“Discussion? The dialogue after your post was more like a...” Hunter’s voice died out, and he looked to his partner as if he needed help.

Carly knew very well he didn’t.

“Firing line?” Pete suggested helpfully.

“Bloodbath,” Hunter said.

“Or maybe a feeding frenzy?” his partner went on.

Hunter said, “Better still—”

“No need to go at it all night, boys,” Carly said dryly. She blinked back the wave of regret that had swelled the moment they’d started their repartee, but a small resigned sigh still escaped. “That wasn’t my intent.”

Despite the surrounding chatter, the electrically charged atmosphere popped. Two pairs of eyes were trained on her. Carly was only concerned with one set. Hunter’s.

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