Prime Time


By Sandra Brown

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A cable TV reporter looking for her big break is determined to secure an interview with a war hero — but a protective and tempting man stands in her way . . .More than anything else, cable TV reporter Andrea Malone wants a network job. And it could be hers if she gains a coveted interview with the aging General Ratiff — especially if she uncovers the secret that drove him into seclusion at his Texas ranch. But Lyon Ratiff, the general’s watchdog of a son, is making things difficult. Andrea may have a plan, but she has no way of knowing how Lyon’s unexpected, undeniable effect on her will change everything, how they will both face a storm of suspicion and betrayal — and how Andrea Malone will have to choose between the ruthless demands of her profession and the equally strong passions of the heart.


Chapter One

Are you sure he'll be here today?" Andy Malone asked impatiently and shifted her weight into a more comfortable position. The "padded" stool in front of the counter was inaptly named—what padding there was beneath the red vinyl was lumpy and hard.

"Nope, sure ain't," Gabe Sanders, proprietor and chief cook of Gabe's Chili Parlor, said as he ran an unbleached muslin towel around the rim of a clean, but cracked and stained coffee mug. "All I said was that he was likely to be in today. That don't necessarily make it so, ya see? He's likely to do just what he damn well pleases." The grizzled old man chuckled.

Andy's trained instincts twitched with renewed anticipation, and she forgot the hard, uneven surface of the barstool she was sitting on. She knew better than to attract the attention of the other lunchtime customers or to show too much interest in her quarry. At any moment Gabe Sanders might decide she was a nosy outsider and stop answering her questions altogether.

"Oh?" She took a nonchalant sip of iced tea. It had been served to her in a red plastic glass with the teaspoon standing upright in it. "Does Mr. Ratliff strike you as an impulsive person?"

The moment it was out, she knew the question had put Gabe on his guard. The towel stopped trying to polish the hopelessly stained coffee mug. Gabe's bushy eyebrows dropped low over shrewd, now perceptibly less friendly eyes. "Just why're you asking so many questions about Lyon Ratliff? Huh?"

Quickly composing a cover story, Andy leaned forward in what she hoped was a confidence-inspiring pose and said conspiratorially, "I had a classmate at SMU who came from here. She told me about this man who lived on a big ranch and drove a silver El Dorado. I thought he sounded like someone out of a movie."

Gabe eyed her speculatively, and her self-assurance seemed to seep out of her slowly as his eyes peeled away her facade. His look frankly told her she looked too old to be a college student and that that was just one of her fibs. "Who was she?"

Completely disconcerted, first by Gabe's intuitive appraisal of her and now by his question, she stammered, "Who was… who?"

"Who was that classmate of yours? I probably know her. Been serving chili and burgers here since '47. Know most the families in Kerrville."

"Oh, well then you wouldn't know… uh… Carla. Actually she grew up in San Antonio and only came here in the summers to visit cousins or something." Andy reached for the glass of tea and took a deep swallow as though it had a restorative tonic in it.

Ever since arriving in this community in the Texas hill country a few days ago, she had felt like a fish out of water. The careful, polite inquiries that usually got her through doors that remained closed to anyone else, had gotten her nowhere. It was as though the citizenry of Kerrville were protecting Lyon Ratliff and her ultimate target, his reclusive father.

General Michael Ratliff was the last surviving five-star general of World War II. Andy had vowed to interview him for her television program. And if the sketchy news reports of his failing health were true, it would have to be soon. So far, her trip had produced not even a flicker of hope that she would accomplish that feat. Now Gabe Sanders was being as reticent and stingy with information as everyone else she had encountered.

Determination raised the chin of her heart-shaped face, but the corners of her mouth lifted into a sweet smile. Her sherry-colored eyes shone beguilingly. "Mr. Sanders, would you by any chance have a slice of lime for my tea?" Her self-confidence returned when Gabe seemed momentarily flustered by the radiance of her smile.

"How 'bout lemon? Will that do?"

"Wonderful! Thank you."

She pushed back a strand of golden-brown hair. She used her attractiveness to wheedle out information only when she was forced to, and it always galled her. She'd rather be able to tackle a story with the same forthrightness granted a male reporter simply by virtue of his sex. But when necessary, she wasn't averse to using any advantage, and if someone found her extraordinary coloring intriguing, there was no harm in being cordial. Her father, who had had a poetic flair, had once compared her to an ice cream parfait made with vanilla ice cream, Amaretto, and caramel sauce.

"Thank you," she said when Gabe returned with two lemon wedges on a saucer. She squeezed the juice of one into the glass of tea, which had been presweetened and tasted like syrup to her, since she rarely used sugar in anything.

"You're not from around here, are you?"

She was tempted to invent a lie in answer to Gabe's question, but suddenly the fun had gone out of the game. "No, I'm not. I live in Nashville now, though I grew up in Indiana."

"Nashville, huh? You with the Grand Ole Opry?"

She laughed, shaking her head. "No. I work for an independent cable company."

"Cable?" Gabe's eyebrows jumped, and Andy decided they were his most expressive feature. "Ya mean television-like cable?"


"Are you on TV?"

"Sometimes. I have an interview show that's syndicated to cable stations across the country."

"Interviews?" He looked beyond her shoulder and around the room at his other customers, as though looking for someone she might consider interviewing. Then his eyes swung back to her with sudden comprehension. "You wouldn't be thinkin' 'bout askin' Lyon for an interview with his daddy, now, would ya?"

"Yes. I am."

He studied her for a moment. "There wasn't any classmate at SMU, was there?"

She met his eyes steadily. "No."

"I didn't think so." There was no censure in his voice.

"Do you think Mr. Ratliff will refuse to let me interview his father?"

"Sure as hell do, but we're fixin' to find out, 'cause that's him a-comin' in now."

Andy's eyes dropped to the wet ring her glass had left on the counter top just as her stomach dropped to her feet. The cowbell that hung on the metal bar across the door clanged loudly as he pushed through it.

"Hey, Lyon," someone said from the corner of the diner.

"Lyon," another customer called out.

"Jim, Pete." His voice was deep and raspy. The sound rippled toward her, pricked the small of her back like a needle, and generated a shiver that feathered up her spine.

She had hoped he would take a stool on either side of her, so it would be easy to strike up a conversation. But the footsteps she tracked with her ears took him to the end of the bar, to an extension that ran perpendicular to the counter where she was seated. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a blue shirt. Gabe ambled toward it.

"Hiya, Lyon? What'll ya have? Chili?"

"Not today. It's too hot. Besides Gracie fixed chili the other night, and it took two doses of that pink gunk to get my stomach back in shape."

"Could that bellyache have had anything to do with the margaritas you were drinking with that chili?"

A low laugh rumbled out of what must surely be a massive chest. "Could've been, could've been." That voice. What kind of man had such a stirring voice? Andy didn't think her curiosity could hold out much longer. Surrendering at last, she looked at him just as he said, "Give me a cheeseburger basket."

"Comin' up."

Andy didn't even hear Gabe's reply to Lyon Ratliff's order. She was too taken with the man who had given it. He wasn't at all what she had expected. She had pictured him as older, well into middle age, probably because General Ratliff was in his eighties. Apparently his son had been born after the war. She estimated Lyon Ratliff's age at around thirty-five.

Thick, dark hair lay in sculpted strands around his head. It was threaded at the temples with silver. Two sleek, dark brows arched over eyes whose color she couldn't determine from that distance. Her eyes followed the length of the Roman nose, which reminded her of actors who play in Biblical films, to the sensual mouth, which reminded her of actors who play in another type of film.

"Is that Ratliff beef you're frying up for me on that grill?" he asked Gabe.

Again Andy was intrigued by his voice. It was resonant, but quiet, as if you might miss something of great importance if you didn't listen very closely. The hoarse quality lent a sexy undertone to everything he said. Definitely more like the second type of actor than the first.

"You bet," Gabe said. "Best beef a body can buy."

Lyon's dark head tilted back slightly, and he chuckled. He was lowering his head and reaching for the glass of icewater Gabe had set before him when his eyes accidentally slid over her. Momentum earned them a few inches past her before they braked, reversed, and backed up slowly.

Andy could log the journey those gray eyes—yes, they were gray—took over her face. They started with her own eyes, and she read in his the expected surprise. It was the usual reaction of anyone who was looking into her eyes for the first time. They were a captivating tawny-brown, surrounded by thick, dark lashes.

The gray eyes lifted to her hair. Did the ponytail held in place on the nape of her neck by a tortoise shell clasp make her look too young? Or, God forbid, did she look like a thirty-year-old trying to look young?

Don't get paranoid, Andy, she warned herself. She knew her caramel-colored hair with its golden streaks was attractive. But the beads of perspiration along her hairline? Could he detect that? Even though Gabe's twenty-year-old sign in the window boasted Refrigerated Air Inside, Andy was aware of a sheen of perspiration glossing her entire body. Indeed, she was suddenly acutely aware of every pore of her body, every nerve. It was as though she had been slit open for dissection, and Lyon Ratliff was a scientist who was taking his time about examining this particular specimen.

When his eyes moved to her mouth, she looked away. She reached for her glass and almost let it slip through her fingers before taking a drink. Then she was afraid that rather than diverting his attention from her lips, she had only attracted more attention to them.

What was the matter with her? She had a job to do. For three days she had been stalking this man, asking leading questions about him and his father, gathering whatever crumbs of information were thrown to her, enduring rude dismissals. For hours she had sat in that tacky beauty salon and listened to all the local gossip, hoping for the mention of his name, and all the while refusing, kindly but firmly, to have her hair permed "just to give it body." The only thing she learned there was that Lyon had had to miss the last country club dance because his daddy had taken a turn for the worse, and that new plants had been ordered for his ranch house, and that the resident manicurist had been trained by the Marquis de Sade.

Now, here he was, sitting a few feet from her, and she was sweaty and tongue-tied for the first time in her life. Where was all her cool confidence? The sheer bullheadedness that always kept her from taking no for an answer had deserted her. The objectivity that distinguished her was swamped by sexual awareness of a man. She had met kings and prime ministers and presidents, including two presidents of the United States, and she hadn't been intimidated by one of them. Now, this… this cowboy strolls into a greasy spoon of a diner, and I'm all aflutter.

Stubbornly trying to restore her control, she raised her chin and looked at him defiantly. His eyes could have been twin boulders that rolled over her and crushed her bravery. His jaw was tilted at an arrogant angle. He could have spoken aloud, and she couldn't have gotten the message any clearer.

Yes, I've heard of the equality of the sexes, and I think it's fine in its way. But right now I'm looking at you and thinking of you only as a sex object, and there's not one damn thing you can do about it.

Well, there was one thing she could do. She could stop him from thinking what he was thinking. She'd inform him in a calm, professional manner who she was and why she was here… just as soon as he finished his cheeseburger, she decided, as Gabe set the heaping plate in front of him.

Andy studied Gabe's dusty-greasy menu, which had been updated through the years by ineffectually painting over the old prices to paint on the new. She suffered another glass of the oversweetened tea. She watched as a mother wiped the catsup off her little boy's mouth, then watched as another red smear replaced the first one when a whole french fry disappeared into his mouth. She fidgeted with the wire rack in front of her that contained three varieties of steak sauce. She pulled four paper napkins from the dispenser and blotted up the puddle her tea glass seemed bent on replenishing.

Finally she glanced toward the end of the counter and saw that Lyon had eaten most of his meal. He was sipping a cup of coffee, his long, slender, strong-looking fingers wrapped possessively around the mug. His absorption with the midday traffic outside the wide windows ended just as she slipped off the high stool, and he looked at her. She smiled and wished it didn't feel like a girlish, flirtatious, wobbly facsimile of one.

"Hello," she said, managing to walk over, despite shaky knees, to stand beside his stool.

His eyes made a slow and thorough appraisal. He looked at her with barely suppressed amusement and an air of sexual assessment not even moderately suppressed. Was he that accustomed to strange women approaching him in cafés? "Hi."

So, he was going to make it difficult, give her no leadins. Okay, Mr. Ratliff. She took a deep breath and said, "I'm Andrea Malone."

Andy couldn't have guessed that his facial expression could change so rapidly and so drastically, or that the eyes beneath those dark brows could harden and freeze over so quickly. He stared coldly at her for a long time, then presented her with a back view of his broad shoulders as he turned away. As though she didn't exist, he insouciantly took a sip of his coffee.

She glanced at Gabe, who was ostensibly concentrating on filling a salt shaker but whose ears she imagined were peaked with avid listening. She moistened her lips with her tongue. "I said I'm—"

"I know who you are, Ms. Malone," he said with a condescending sneer. "You're from Nashville. Telex Cable Television Company."

"Then you read the return address even though you didn't deign to open my letters before sending them back. Is that right?" she asked, in what she hoped was a haughty challenge.

"That's right." He took another drink of coffee. His indifference was irritating. She had an intense desire to take the coffee mug from his hand—if that were physically possible—and hurl it across the room, just to get his attention. However, she predicted that such an impulse could result in bodily harm. He seemed to radiate a strength of body and will, and she didn't want to trifle with either if at all possible. She was stubborn, but she wasn't stupid. "Mr. Ratliff, you know—"

"I know what you want. The answer is no. I believe I told you that after receiving your first letter several months ago. That one I did answer. Obviously you don't remember the contents of that letter. It said, in essence, for you to save your breath, your strength, your time, your money, and"—he raked her with cynical eyes—"your new clothes. I'd never consent to letting you interview my father for that television program. My sentiments are the same today as they were then." Rudely he turned his back on her again.

She had thought her new jeans and western boots would blend into the local scenery. Was she that conspicuous? All right. She had made one blunder. Perhaps all her sneaking around the past few days had been unprofessional, but she wasn't going to give up now. She squared her shoulders, unknowingly stretching the western-cut cotton shirt over her breasts. "You haven't even listened to what I propose, Mr. Ratliff. I—"

"I don't want to hear it." His head swung around to her again and his eyes unintentionally encountered her breasts on a level that was disadvantageous to them both. She stood perfectly still, as though to move would admit to the untenability of the situation. After a considerable time he raised his eyes, and she caught her breath at the fierceness of his look.

"No interviews with my father," he said in a low, tense voice. "He's an old man. He doesn't feel well. Others, bigger and better than you, Ms. Malone, have come asking. The answer remains irrevocably no."

He pushed himself off the stool, and she realized when she found herself looking at his collarbone that he was very tall. She took a step back and watched with fascination as his hand dug into the pocket of his tight jeans to extract a five-dollar bill. The intrusion of his hand, pulling tighter the already taut denim, sent hot color rushing to her cheeks. He laid the bill down next to his plate. According to the grimy menu, it was more than twice what a cheeseburger basket cost.

"Thanks, Gabe. See ya."

"See ya, Lyon."

Andy couldn't believe she was being so blithely dismissed when he sidestepped her on his way to the front door. "Mr. Ratliff," she said on a grating note, following him.

He stopped and turned around with slow deliberation, much more menacing than if he'd whipped around quickly. She felt that she was being lacerated by tiny rapiers as his eyes sliced down her body from the top of her head to the toes of her shiny new boots.

"I don't like pushy broads, Ms. Malone. You impress me as such. I will not permit my father to be interviewed by anyone, especially by you. So why don't you pack up your new clothes and get your cute little butt back to Nashville where it belongs?"

She flung her purse on the bed and collapsed into the uncomfortable chair in the small, stuffy motel room. Eight fingers were pressed against her forehead while her thumbs rotated over her pounding temples. She didn't know if it was the heat, or the arid climate, or the man, but something had given her a whale of a headache. The man. No doubt it had been the man.

Standing up after a few minutes of rest, she pulled off her boots and kicked them aside. "Thanks for nothing." She went into the bathroom to swallow two aspirins with lukewarm water out of the cold-water tap.

"Why didn't you slap his smug face?" she asked her image in the mirror. "Why did you just stand there like a big dummy and take that abuse?" She released her hair from its clasp and shook it loose, a motion which did her headache no good. "Because you want that interview, that's why."

She dreaded calling Les. What would she tell him? He didn't take disappointment well, and that was putting it mildly. Possibilities of what she would say were still bouncing around in her mind when she dialed the longdistance number. She called collect and person-to-person, and after being channeled through the switchboard operator at Telex to Les's office, she heard his querulous growl. "Yeah?"

"Hi, it's me."

"Well, well, I was beginning to think you'd been taken hostage by cattle rustlers or something. It was nice of you to take the time to call."

Sarcasm. Today's mood was sarcasm. Andy accepted it with resignation, as she accepted all Les's moods. "I'm sorry, Les, but I didn't have anything to report, so I didn't call. Remember your memo last month about unnecessary long-distance calls?"

"But that doesn't apply to you, Andy baby," he said more cordially. "How's it going down there in cow country?"

She rubbed her forehead as she answered. "Not too well. I got nowhere for the first few days. All I found out for certain was that there was some landscaping being done at the ranch house. That's it. That, and where Lyon Ratliff, the son, sometimes eats lunch when he comes into town. Today I had the pleasure of meeting the gentleman."

She stared at her nylon-covered toes, remembering not the hateful way he had spoken to her before he stalked out the door, but the way he'd looked at her the first time their eyes had met. She hadn't felt that way in the presence of a man since… she'd never felt that way in the presence of a man.

"And?" Les prodded impatiently.

"Oh… and… uh… it's going to be tough, Les. He's as hardheaded as a mule. Impossible to talk to. Stubborn, rude, insulting."

"Sounds like a real nice guy." Les laughed.

"He was bloody awful." She toyed with a string on the Spanish-red and black bedspread. "I don't feel right about this anymore, Les. Maybe we shouldn't be forcing the issue. What if the old general really is too ill to be interviewed? The reports on his health may be inaccurate. It's possible he's incapable of withstanding the strain of a series of interviews. He may not even be able to talk. What would you say to my giving up this one and coming home?"

"Andy baby, what's happening to you out there? That Texas sun baking your brain?"

She could just see Les now. He'd lower his Hush Puppy-shod feet from the desk and bring his chair forward to prop his elbows on the littered desk in his "earnest" pose. The horn-rimmed glasses would either be shoved to the top of his head to perch on his red hair or would be taken off altogether and set down amidst the overflowing ashtrays and empty candy wrappers and week-old scripts. If she were there rather than a thousand miles away, she would become the victim of startling cold blue eyes. Even through the telephone wire she could feel those eyes boring into her.

"You aren't going to let a bad-tempered bully stand in your way, are you? Baby, you've come up against worse. Much worse. Remember those union goons in that picket line? They threatened our photographer with billy clubs, yet you had them eating out of your hand in ten minutes. Course, they were all hot for your body. But then so is any man with—"

"Les," she said tiredly. "Please."

"Please what? I'd like to hear you say, 'Please, Les.' Anytime."

She and Les Trapper and Robert Malone had begun their careers together at a small television station. Les had produced news shows. Robert had been a reporter. Andy had co-anchored the evening news broadcasts with a myopic dolt who had been with the television station since its inception and whom the management didn't have the heart to fire.

Even after she and Robert had gotten married, the friendship among the three of them remained inviolate. When Robert was hired as a correspondent for the network, he was away from home much of the time. Les had helped relieve the lonely hours, but always as a friend only.

She remembered vividly the night Les came to her house and told her that Robert had been killed in Guatemala, where he had been covering an earthquake. Les had cushioned her for weeks, taking over responsibilities that were too grim for her to handle. For months after Robert's death she had used him as a shield between her and the rest of the world. He relished the role of protector.

Since then they had continued to be friends and worked together now for Telex. She knew better than to take his ribald suggestions seriously. Les was never, nor ever had been, without a woman, or women.

His only real love was his work and always had been and always would be. He was ambitious to a fault. He wasn't above doing anything to get a story. He was shrewd and, more often than Andy wanted to admit, lacking in sensitivity. His language was foul, his moods unpredictable.

But he was still her friend. And her supervisor. And she'd better come up with something fast.

"What if I got Lyon Ratliff to consent to an interview? He would be—"

"Dull as hell. Wouldn't tell us a damn thing. And who the hell cares about him? We need the old man, Andy. And we need him now before he kicks off. You still want to go to network, don't you?"

"Yes, of course. More than anything."


On Sale
Sep 1, 1995
Page Count
256 pages

Sandra Brown

About the Author

Sandra Brown is the author of sixty-nine New York Times bestsellers, including the #1 Seeing Red. There are over eighty million copies of her books in print worldwide, and her work has been translated into thirty-four languages. She lives in Texas.

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