Adoration

Act One, Scene Four

Saturday

Joe met Frank at a coffee shop near Montvale's office to go over the cover the two of them had devised. Given Frank's caffeine addiction, the location didn't surprise Joe, but the time did. Nine in the morning on a Saturday was way too early. He entered the café to find his brother – head bent over a stack of papers – nursing what had to be at least his second cup of coffee. Given the size of the stacks, Joe figured, it could be the third.

He crossed over to Frank's table, sat down heavily in the empty chair, pushed aside some of the papers with his elbows, then dropped his head into his hands. "Explain to me why we had to be here so early," he complained. "I don't have to be there until eleven. What can you possibly have to tell me that'll take almost two hours?" Frank simply sipped at his coffee until Joe lifted his head. "What?"

Frank put the mug down and glanced critically at his brother's face. "You know, if you went to bed at a reasonable hour, nine in the morning wouldn't seem so early."

Joe blinked several times before responding. "You know, it's funny," he finally said, "I see your mouth moving, but all I hear is 'blah, blah, blah.'" He yawned and stretched. "Look, can we just get on with this? What did you and agent-man come up with?"

Frank gave Joe an annoyed look that spoke volumes. "Montvale saw your picture in the paper and asked you to stop by to discuss a possible modeling career."

"What?" Joe spluttered, all traces of sleepiness now gone. "That's the best you could come up with? That's got to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard! Modeling? Why would I even be remotely interested..."

"You know," Frank said, irritation filling his voice, "I'm not sure the folks at the counter heard you. Care to shout a little louder?" Joe flushed, and Frank shook his head disapprovingly. "Did you give Kara this much grief about your cover when you went in after me?" Joe noticed some of the irritation had been replaced by curiosity and nodded warily. "Yet she still agreed to go out with you. Well, I guess wonders never will cease." He shook his head again, drank more of his coffee, then pushed the mug aside. "Look, Joe, you many not like it, but it makes sense. The blond haired/blue-eyed look is in right now, and even I have to admit you're not that bad looking."

"I'm touched. Really."

Frank cleared his throat. "To continue. You told him you weren't interested. As you were leaving you bumped into Anna – literally bumped into her – and asked her out to lunch to apologize." Joe bit back the smart remark he was about to make and instead started twirling a spoon on the tabletop. "She agreed to go, and you hit it off." He paused. "It's always best to keep a story simple. You'll be repeating it often enough that you won't want too many details to trip over. Besides, the press will add in whatever they think is missing." His eyes darkened as he paused, watching the spoon spin in circles. "On a more serious note, you need to go about this carefully. Cut back on the charm a bit. Apparently, she's not all that thrilled with this solution. Montvale had to ram it down her throat a bit."

"What do you mean? It's for her safety."

"Joe, how much do you know about Anna Gold?" Frank neatened the piles of paper in front of him.

Joe shrugged. "Teen movie star. Gorgeous. Now she's trying to prove she can really act. Why?"

"Did you ever wonder why she disappeared from the screen?" Joe shook his head, then sat open-mouthed as Frank explained about Anna's history. "She's going to need to trust you. Keep the charm for the cover. Stick with sincerity for the meeting." Joe nodded and went back to fiddling with the spoon. "I'll be meeting with Montvale later on to find out more about what's been happening." He gave Joe a wry look. "Also, you do realize this case will have to be your primary focus for a while."

The spoon clattered to the floor, and Joe bent over to pick it up. "What do you mean, 'primary focus?' What about our other cases?"

"You're going to be spending a lot more time in the paper, little brother. That cuts out surveillance for a while," Frank responded. "And you'll more or less need to be at Anna's beck and call." Joe's face fell, and he absently started twirling the spoon again. "While I do expect you to make appearances at the office, scheduling appointments will be difficult. Any appointments." A stormy look covered Joe's face, and he looked away. Frank reached out a hand and stopped the spinning utensil. "I've never seen you this uneager to spend time with a beautiful woman. Are you feeling all right?"

"I don't like feeling like a lap dog, okay?" Joe retorted, his voice tinged with anger. "And case or not, she's not the woman I'd be choosing to spend all my time with right now."

"Joe, look at me." Frank's voice was steely. Joe turned back to face his brother. "It's a role you're playing for a job. You won't make it real." His eyes narrowed. "Besides, I thought you'd be all over the not-having-to-work-so-hard aspect of this. I mean, when I get sent undercover – which generally involves real work, I should mention – you get stuck doing everything at the agency yourself. I figured you'd enjoy leaving me to do all the heavy lifting for a change."

A smile slowly formed on Joe's face. "I did consider that benefit, now that you mention it. Usually you're the one abandoning me to all the paperwork. Turn about is fair play."

Frank stared back in mock-astonishment. "Turn about? You realize you're comparing deep cover to babysitting a movie star, don't you? Your being at parties while I'm stuck doing your paperwork isn't what I'd call fair play."

Joe started twirling the spoon again. "Yeah, 'bro, but – freak that you are – you like paperwork. I only do it because I have to."

"Tell me about it," Frank groaned. "Speaking of which, I read the Patterson report, and..."

"You were actually at the office this morning?" Joe was incredulous. "It's Saturday! You really are a freak." A beeping sound came from his watch. He pressed a button, turning off the alarm, then looked back at Frank. "And as much as I'd like to continue with that line of thinking, that's my cue." He pushed back his chair. "Wish me luck."

"Break a leg." Frank finished his coffee, making a face at its now-cold temperature, and started gathering his papers.

"What?"

"Theater slang for good luck." Joe nodded absently, his mind obviously somewhere else. "Maybe I should be the one doing this," Frank commented. "At least I know the lingo." Joe started to open his mouth, and Frank rolled his eyes. "Just go. Some of us have real work to do. Like rewriting their younger brother's report so the client has the ability to understand it." Joe grimaced out a smile, then stood and headed for the door.

He turned back for a moment before exiting and saw Frank smile and nod reassuringly. He let out a breath, nodded back, then pushed the door open and left for his appointment.


The meeting didn't start off well. When Joe entered Montvale's office, Anna Gold was sitting sideways in a chair in the corner of the room, hiding in the shadows. She refused to speak to or look at him directly, allowing her raven black hair to hide her face and only stealing the occasional glance at him from the corner of her eye as Montvale greeted him and made small talk. When Montvale left the room to take a call, she tensed, drew her feet up onto the chair, and sat with her arms wrapped around her knees. Joe groaned inwardly. If it's like this every time, this is going to be a long assignment. Finally, he stood and crossed over to her, his hands out in front of him. "Hi. My name is Joe Hardy, and I'll be your playing the role of your boyfriend for the foreseeable future. Would you like to hear the specials?"

That got him his first real look. She shook the hair out her face and gazed up at him with brown eyes so dark, they were almost black. "What?" Her voice was deep and rich. He could almost imagine her singing the word rather than speaking it.

"It's a joke. You know... actors... waiters." He shrugged his shoulders. "Okay, maybe not. Do I at least get credit for trying?"

Her expression remained suspicious, but Joe could see a smile hovering around her lips. "Half-credit. It wasn't that funny."

He knelt down so he could look in her eyes. "Look, Ms. Gold… Anna, there are three things you need to know about me. First, I won't hurt you; I promise you that. Second, I'm going to do my best to make sure no one else hurts you, either; that's my job. Third," he paused and cleared his throat, "I have a girlfriend. I'm not looking to use this assignment as a way to hook up with you. Once we catch whoever's doing this, I go back to spending my free time with her."

She looked at him, the suspicion gone, replaced by astonishment. "That's very... forthcoming. And your girlfriend doesn't mind?"

Joe blew out a breath. "She doesn't know yet." Anna raised her eyebrows in surprise. "She's an FBI agent. I figure she'll give a minute to explain before she shoots." He paused, remembering his last conversation with Kara. "At least, I hope so. "

Montvale walked back in the room. "I'm so sorry. That took longer than I..." He froze, seeing Joe and Anna so close together.

"No worries," Joe said, standing and shaking out his legs. "We were just about to leave for lunch." He turned to Anna and offered her his arm. "Ready for our debut?"

She unfurled herself from the chair, and threaded her arm through his. "Ready as I'll ever be. How do you feel about burgers? I know a great place not too far from the theater."

Joe grinned. "A woman after my own stomach. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."


Sunday

Frank met with Montvale at the agency the next day. Joe had reported that his and Anna's lunch had gone well. Not only did Anna seem comfortable with him, but one of the other diners had gotten several pictures of them together and had sold them to an entertainment website that posted pictures of stars doing everyday things like shopping and laundry. The Internet was now buzzing with the news that Anna Gold had been seen out with a new guy. Frank hoped the stalker had taken notice as well. Now he needed to get to work finding out who was after Anna.

"Thank you for coming,” he said, ushering Montvale into his office. "I'd like to see the police reports on the notes Anna has been receiving since she came to New York. Can you get them for me? I'll also need the reports from the LAPD, so I can compare them."

Montvale sniffed, an unmistakable gesture of disdain. "We haven't notified the police."

Frank was flabbergasted. "Your client left L.A. because she was being stalked, and you didn't notify the police that the harassment had started up again?"

At this the agent squirmed. "Stephen felt the publicity wouldn't be good for the play. They're having enough trouble with all those churches picketing the theater every day."

"I thought all publicity was good publicity?" Montvale shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and Frank got the feeling he wasn't going to answer the question. "Tell me you at least still have the notes so I can examine them for clues."

Montvale looked down at the floor. "I'm afraid they are gone. They were upsetting Anna, so..."

Frank's face formed a cold mask. "I'm beginning to wonder if there really are notes. Does Ms. Gold really need protection, Mr. Montvale, or is this a publicity stunt of a different kind?"

"She really is being threatened, Mr. Hardy!" Fear was evident in Montvale's voice. He straightened and leaned forward in his seat. "The notes were all variations on a theme – how awful it would be for the play if something happened to her, how dangerous New York can be for a woman alone – things of that nature. They were printed from a computer on plain, white paper and left at different places in the theater. I swear when... if another appears, I will make sure you get it." His eyes pleaded with Frank. "I have to keep her safe, Mr. Hardy."

Frank stood. "We'll do everything we can, Mr. Montvale. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some work I need to finish." He showed the agent out, then sat back down at his desk. He pushed aside his laptop and grabbed a piece of paper and a pen. He really was afraid, Frank thought, but how much of that fear was for Anna? He stared at the paper for a minute then started writing a list:

1. Contact LAPD for details on their investigation of Anna's stalker case

2. Have Joe talk to Anna about the notes received in New York

3. Find investor list for Adoration

4. Look into Montvale's other clients and business ventures.

He knew he could use his FBI contacts to get the first item taken care of with no problem, and Joe would know when and how to approach Anna for details of the current round of notes. He sat and looked at the third item, remembering the expression on Montvale's face as the man spoke about the play and publicity. And I'm pretty sure I know whose name is going to appear on that list of backers. If he was right, affection wasn't Montvale's only motivation for his concern; if Frank was right, he had a vested interest in the play's success. Or its failure. I wonder which is more important.


Wednesday

Kara showed up at the agency in the morning looking exhausted, a tabloid magazine rolled up in her hand. Joe ushered her into his office, a smile lighting his face. "When did you get in?" He reached out his arms to hug her, stopping when she unrolled the paper and he got a look at both the picture on the front page and the stony expression on her face. His heart sank. "Kara, it's not what you think. Please, let me explain.”

"Really, Hardy? Then what is it?" Kara's voice was quiet and cold. "I hope it's a good story, because I'm not in the mood for anything else right now."

Sweat broke out on Joe's forehead. "It's a security detail." He ran a hand through his hair, trying to hide his nervousness. "Stalker case. I know what it looks like, but we're not really dating. It's just a cover. I had to have a reason to be hanging around her so much." He paused. "Frank's working the clues to see if we can find out who's harassing her." He held his breath, waiting for a reaction, relief flooding through him as her rigid stance relaxed. He put his hands gently on her shoulders and pulled her toward him, letting out a long relieved breath as she wrapped her arms around his waist. "I told her about you first thing," he said quietly. "I wanted to make sure she knew I was involved with someone." He buried his face in her hair. "I think she was relieved."

"Good." Kara's voice was muffled, but Joe could hear the ferocity in it. "I... I didn't know what to think, and after the week I've had..." She pulled away and looked at him intently. He'd never seen her look so drained. "We're still on for the presentation?"

Joe nodded. "I told them I had somewhere else I had to be that night." He put a hand under her chin. "Kara, I'm going to be there for you. I promised."

"I just needed to be sure. I have to know I can count on you." Her voice was so soft, Joe had to lean over to catch the words. "Right now I'm so tired, I don't know my own name."

He hugged her to him again and kissed her gently on the forehead. "Go home before you fall over. I'll come over..." He stopped, realizing he didn't know when that would be. "When I can," he finished.

Kara cocked her head to one side, then reached up and pulled his face down to hers. "I know," she whispered, then she kissed him. Joe felt his skin tingle where she touched him and for a moment wished his office door had a lock on it. He tightened his arms around her, reveling in the feeling of her in his arms. Then she pulled away, her hand grabbing at her pocket. "Malone," she said as her cell phone touched her ear, then she sighed. "Fine. I'll be right there." She threw Joe an apologetic glance as she put the phone away. "I have to go."

He kissed the palm of her hand. "I miss you."

She arched an eyebrow at him. "You keep saying that. Good." The door closed behind her.

Joe closed his eyes, sighed, and hoped they'd find the culprit soon. Anna made a good friend, but Kara was much more, and he didn't think he could stand spending much more time apart from her. He kicked the floor once in frustration, then went back to his desk to see what Frank had left for him to do.

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