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Song of Erin #2: Ashes and Lace\
A Most Respectable Man
* * *
It's the jewel that can't be got that is the most beautiful.
NEW YORK CITY, EARLY NOVEMBER
Jack Kane sat in his office at the Vanguard, pondering, not for the first time, at what point his fascination with Samantha Harte had deepened to love—and exactly what he was going to do about it.
It was an autumn-apple-crisp Monday morning. The past week, typical of New York, had been wet and gray, but today seemed to promise at least a glimpse of late fall as depicted by the poets: brisk and clear and golden.
Jack's mood was almost light, if somewhat distracted. He had more than enough work to keep him busy the rest of the day, yet he seemed incapable of concentrating on anything but Samantha.
How had things come to such a pass?
He had scarcely touched the woman, after all, other than an occasional clasp of the hand. The one act toward her that might possibly have been construed as something more than merely a harmless, friendly gesture had occurred weeks ago, when he'd come treacherously close to kissing her: an impulsive move and one quickly halted when Samantha virtually recoiled from him. Ever since, Jack had almost religiously exerted his self-control when they were together.
A priest could not have been more restrained.
But hang it all, he was no priest, and for all his earlier intentions be nothing morethan her employer and her friend, he was more bedazzled by the woman than ever!
He had managed to maintain his self-imposed discipline not merely because he was determined to win her trust—although that was at the heart of it—but perhaps just as much because he feared he might frighten her off altogether. Although Samantha had told him hardly anything about her previous marriage, she had at least confirmed Jack's suspicion that she'd been mistreated. How badly, or what form the mistreatment had taken, he didn't know—perhaps never would—for Samantha was obviously either unwilling or unable to speak of it. In fact, she had seemed to indicate that she hadn't even confided in her parents.
On one level Jack longed for her confidence—he coveted her trust, if not her affection. Yet at times he felt something akin to relief that she had kept her silence, for he wasn't at all sure he could handle the truth.
He could not bear the thought of Samantha's being hurt; indeed, he cringed at the very idea. The few times he had allowed himself to wonder about the circumstances of her marriage to Bronson Harte, a treacherous kind of fury would invariably rise up in him. Perhaps he was better off not knowing the details.
He couldn't help but wonder if this might not be a form of cowardice, but then again, he had no doubt but that if Samantha should ever choose to unburden herself to him, he would be quick to listen and even grateful for her confidence.
The truth was that he desperately wanted Samantha to trust him, no matter what it took to achieve that trust.
He wanted her to trust him. He wanted her to need him.
And he wanted her to marry him.
Jack sighed and leaned back in his chair. He was in a bad way, no doubt about it.
He found himself wondering if his exemplary conduct was having any effect at all on Samantha. Was he only deluding himself that his campaign to win her over was actually working? He could never be quite sure what to make of the woman.
She had a way of looking at a man, Samantha did, that seemed to peel right past any and every layer of subterfuge while revealing nothing of her own emotions.
More than once Jack had been struck by the discomfiting suspicion that she was only too well aware of the effort required of him to play the gentleman. And while he might not go so far as to say she found his attempts amusing, on occasion she would regard him with a certain quirk of the eyebrow that made him wonder if she wasn't simply biding her time, expecting him at any moment to trip over his newly cultivated respectability.
He let out another long sigh of exasperation, but he couldn't quite suppress a smile at the thought that he was going to see Samantha today. Indeed, if all went well, he hoped to see her later this morning and again tonight.
His mood brightened considerably at that point, and he pushed away from the desk in anticipation. This could be a very important day in his life, and he didn't want to waste another minute before getting on with it.
* * *
Samantha had been expecting Tommy Ryder with the day's copy, so she wasn't surprised when someone rapped on the door a little after eleven.
Tommy was late, which meant that she would have to really push in order to have the proofing ready for the afternoon pickup. Even so, she felt no real annoyance, only a mild relief when the boy finally arrived.
Her smile quickly fled, however, when she opened the door to find not the youthful messenger from the Vanguard but the owner of the Vanguard.
He stood there, tall and dark, filling the doorway like a lean black bear. Under one arm was tucked the day's copy; in his free hand, he held a small bouquet of fall flowers.
Samantha stared, her gaze going from his slightly smug smile to the bouquet. Flustered, she couldn't seem to find her voice.
Even now, after months in his employ and despite the odd—and often confusing—sort of friendship that had developed between them, Jack's presence still unnerved her.
To say the least.
His smile widened, as if he found Samantha's discomfiture highly gratifying. "It seems that I'm your messenger boy today," he said smoothly, extending the bouquet. "May I come in, Samantha?"
Samantha stared at the bouquet without making a move to accept it. "Oh—well, actually, I don't know that that would be a good idea."
She thought she had long since passed the time when Jack Kane—or any other man, for that matter—could make her stammer like a schoolgirl, but even as she struggled to regain her composure, Samantha felt her mind go to mush.
She reminded herself that she was not a schoolgirl—indeed would soon be turning thirty—and she could think of nothing less becoming to a mature woman than to suddenly start behaving like a mindless chit.
She supposed she should invite him in; despite the difficulties of their relationship, he was still her employer, after all. But if her landladies downstairs, the Misses Washington, should learn that she had allowed a man inside her apartment, even for only a moment, they would be scandalized.
She suddenly realized that Jack was watching her with a decidedly amused expression, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
"No doubt you're anxious about offending your delightful landladies," he said. "You needn't worry. I believe the dears actually find me rather charming."
Samantha stared at him.
"Oh, I met Miss Rena and her sister on the way in," he said, as if in answer to her unspoken question. "They were bringing in the flowers from the stoop—they seem to think we'll have frost tonight, you see—and I offered to help. I explained that my call is rather urgent and strictly business, and they were most understanding. And very helpful," he added, still smiling cheerfully.
"So, you see, Samantha, it's perfectly all right to have me in. We'll leave the door open, of course, but I assure you that both Miss Rena and Miss Lily have the utmost confidence in me. Apparently, I look every bit the gentleman to them."
He looked, Samantha thought worriedly, like a pirate. A pirate in a perfectly tailored suit, as it were, and with a white posy in his lapel.
But a pirate all the same.
Again Jack extended the bouquet, and this time Samantha practically yanked it out of his hand. "All right, then, I suppose you might as well come in."
"Why, thank you, Samantha," he said, making a quick little bow and then breezing by her. "I was hoping you'd ask."\