FRONT PAGE LOVE: Montana Skies Series
Paige Lee Elliston
About the Book
"You OK, Jules?" a voice asked. "You're lookin' lost in space."
Julie smiled at co-reporter Mandy Fairwell. "Out on an interview," she said. "It's so hot the rattlesnakes are wearing sun bonnets."
"You got that new cop piece, right? The cute guy?"
"That's where I was just now."
Mandy took a step closer. "How'd it go?"
"OK," Julie said. "He talked a lot about his car that'll go a bazillion miles an hour. Seems like a nice guy, though."
Julie's smile answered her friend's question.
"Ohh --- Nancy is looking for you," Mandy remembered.
"I don't know. She seems like she's all wound up about something." Mandy looked at her watch. "I gotta get out on the town council meeting. Catch you later, OK?"
Julie began to answer but then realized she would only be talking to her friend's back. After a moment, she headed to the newsroom, wondering what Nancy Lewis, her managing editor, needed from her.
Nancy was new to the paper; she'd come to Coldwater shortly before the drought began. The absentee owners, a communications conglomerate, had a pair of options at that time: either cut their losses and dump the paper or get someone into the front office who could bring the paper back to profitability. Nancy Lewis had the credentials, the experience, and the talent the owners wanted. At only forty-five years of age she'd yanked one small-town paper from the edge of bankruptcy and had guided two others from throwaways to well-read and respected publications.
Julie ducked into the ladies room and stood in front of the mirror. She sighed, rearranged some wandering lengths of hair, and left, thankful that she didn't use makeup beyond a bit of lipstick. Mascara and foundation would have long since melted.
Nancy's door was open, and she was sitting behind her desk. As ever, the surface of the desk was pristine and uncluttered, an uncapped Mt. Blanc fountain pen centered on a fresh legal pad. Both the in and out baskets were empty. She waved Julie in and motioned her to sit.
Julie chose the armed chair centered in front of the desk rather than the small couch to the side. She noticed Nancy's perfume as she sat and set her shoulder bag on the floor. The scent was light but exotic --- reminding Julie of spice and, for some reason, wildflowers.
Nancy smiled. No one would refer to her as beautiful, although her features were even and her eyes lively and open. The word that sprang to Julie's mind was patrician --- Nancy projected a presence that quietly demanded attention no matter where she was or what she was doing.
"How are things, Julie?" she asked. Her voice was smooth and well modulated, with the slightest touch of the South that tempered the hardness of her r's.
"Fine. No complaints."
Nancy's smile broadened. "None?"
"Well, you know how it is," Julie admitted. "Not much going on around here --- except the drought."
"I'm not completely sure about that," Nancy said. "Do you know specifically why the police department hired the new man?"
"The way I heard it," Julie said, "is that the chief was dead set against it, said he didn't need a new officer and that the force was fully staffed. It was the town council that demanded the PD bring on the new guy --- said they'd find the money to pay and equip him. The donated cruiser certainly helped."
"As it turned out, the council was right. Violent crime --- fights, threats, theft, even some cattle rustling --- has gone way up in the last six to eight months. That bar out at the end of Main Street --- the Bulldogger --- is opening at 8:00 in the morning now, and doing lots of business. Farmers, cowhands, farm help, other guys out of work have been spending too much time there, getting liquored up and arguing. There was a bad fight a couple of nights ago --- and a stabbing."
Julie nodded her head. "I've heard lots of rumors. Of course, that place has always been a dump. The town has even tried to close it down a few times."
Nancy nodded. "Yeah, but it's worse now. And it's not only the bar. There are too many people with nothing to do, too many people worrying about losing their farm equipment, their cars, their land, and even their homes, to the banks."
"It's the drought --- "
"Exactly," Nancy interrupted. "It's the drought. Records show this one is the worst since the Great Depression. That's scary, no?"
Julie nodded. "I talked with Cyrus Huller in the café last week. You know him, right? Anyway, he remembers the Depression. He told me how his family barely survived it --- how he got smacked if he came back without a possum or squirrel or woodchuck for each bullet his dad gave him to hunt with. Cyrus said they ate anything --- including snake."
"I know Cyrus. He's a wonderful source of history. I'm really pleased that you spoke with him --- and I think you'll be sitting down with him again quite soon."
"Yeah? Why's that?"
Nancy leaned slightly forward in her chair, her hands folded on her desk. "This drought is like a living thing. It's attacking the people here, and it's draining the blood from them. It's scaring them."
Julie didn't quite know how to respond, so she sat quietly, her eyes locked with those of her managing editor.
"You've done great work here, Julie. Your column has been working well. Your features and bit stories get read and talked about. The horse people, the cattlemen, the farmers, the businesspeople all trust you."
Julie could feel heat in her face. "That's kind of you to say, Nancy. I love the people and I love Coldwater, and I guess maybe that shows in my writing."
Nancy leaned back a bit. "OK. You're wondering now why the big 'attagirl,' right? Why'd Lewis drag me in here to tell me that I walk on water?"
"Well . . . it's great to hear, but . . ."
"Here's the deal," Nancy said. "I'm assigning you to an open-ended series on the drought in Montana and the effect it's having on the people in the Coldwater part of the state. I don't want fluff or sugarcoating. I want --- I demand --- in-depth interviews and from-the-heart writing. I want the perspectives and attitudes of the people you talk to, but I want yours too. I want to hear them talk to me through your words." She paused for a moment. "What do you think so far?"
"I . . . I uhh . . ." Julie stuttered.
"I hope I can anticipate more articulate phrasing in the articles, Ms. Downs," Nancy said sternly. Then she laughed. "You'll report only to me on the series. I'm taking you off everything else, and I've already written an editorial telling readers why your column will be discontinued while you're on this assignment."
"I'm really stunned --- and grateful, Nancy. I'll give you my best work. I can promise you that."
"I know you will. I'm afraid there'll be a couple of noses out of joint when I announce the assignment, but this series is something I believe in. I had to give it to my top performer."
Nancy ended the meeting with a smile. "OK. I want two thousand or more words per week, beginning ten days from today. Check in with me every couple of days or so. Any questions?"
Julie stood, her legs a tad shaky, and reached across the desk. Nancy stood too and took Julie's hand as if they were captains of industry sealing a multibillion-dollar deal.
"Go," Nancy said. "I've got work to do."
"Wow," Julie mouthed silently to herself as she walked dazedly to her cubicle. She dropped into her chair, clicked on her computer more from habit than intent, and stared at the icons that appeared on her screen but didn't really see them.
This is what I trained for --- an important story, a series that will have a real impact on the lives of my readers. The drought is on everyone's mind. Nancy's right. People --- all of us --- are nervous. Maybe through my words and pictures I can lessen that fear a bit, or offer a little hope, or...
Excerpted from FRONT PAGE LOVE: Montana Skies Series © Copyright 2017 by Paige Lee Elliston. Reprinted with permission by Revell Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.
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