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At the instant Antonia Phillips whipped into the office of Eastern Edge editor Bill Austen, she sensed something afoot. Of the magazine's working editorial staff, she was the last to arrive. Four faces turned her way, each bearing a trace of guilt. Instinct told her that the odd welcome had nothing to do with her tardiness.
"Ooooops..." she murmured, stopping just short of the threshold. "Why do I have the feeling my slip is showing?" It was purely a figure of speech, for, in fact, she wasn't wearing a slip. What she wore was a smart cropped-jacket wool suit of loden green, whose stylish split skirt required no assistance in falling softly to a point below her knee, where it met the rich leather of her boot. She was undeniably attractive, tall and slim, the image of confidence in her own casual way.
"Come on in, Nia," Bill gestured, smiling with a hint of mischief that made her all the more alert. "We were just talking about you."
"Mmmmmm." She raised a speculative brow. "I thought so." She settled into the only free chair and deposited her oversized shoulder bag on the floor, then fished a notebook and pen from it before sitting back. "I'm sorry I'm late. I spent longer with Humphrey at the theater than I'd intended. But the story's good." Her apology was to the entire group, though it was outwardly directed at Bill. Again, she sensed an odd air of anticipation. "Uh...is something wrong?" Her violet eyes widened in the silence. "You did get my message, didn't you?"
"We got it, Nia. And thanks for stopping to call." Bill's grinwas overly indulgent, sufficiently out of character to add to her suspicions. He shrugged benignly. "We took the liberty of going ahead."
In a habitual gesture, she shook her head to flip the few windblown strands of her heavily layered mahogany hair into place. She needed no mirror to vouch for the acceptability of her appearance. Why, then, the continuing limelight?
"You were talking about me?" she repeated. Slowly, she perused the group, pertly challenging them to come forward with further information.
Priscilla Cole, the associate editor with whom she shared chores and an office, offered an indirect explanation. "We were discussing the feature assignments for the June issue."
That was no surprise. Hadn't it been the stated purpose of the meeting? This was March; they were right on schedule. "Great! Where were you before I so rudely interrupted?" Nia grinned, camouflaging curiosity in congeniality.
"The Ten Most Eligible Easterners." James Cabot, one of the two senior editors, supplied the clue, pronouncing each word carefully. He was middle-aged, intelligent and straightforward. Nia turned to stare at him.
"You've got to be kidding..." she chided.
Christopher Daly, the other senior editor, joined the exchange with a smug grin. "Nope."
Astonished, she looked at Priscilla. "You're not kidding."
The other woman simply shook her head.
"Bill?" Nia turned to their leader as a last resort.
"Why the surprise, Nia?" He was mildly critical. "We've discussed the possibility of doing this piece."
Nia winced. "To discuss it is one thing; to actually plan it, to put it on the schedule, is another. It's the kind of thing the scandal sheets do so well. We've always stayed a cut above." Her argument was not unfounded. Eastern Edge had established itself as a monthly magazine with class, appealing to a wide assortment of thinking people up and down the East Coast. It contained a balanced blend of humor, human interest, exposé and education and was both well written and beautifully presented. In the four years Nia had worked for the publication, she had never had cause for doubt.
"And we'll continue to stay a cut above, as you put it." Bill solemnly took command. "Our feature story will be done with taste and sophistication, and with just enough tongue-in-cheek humor to deflect any flack. We'll approach it with an attitude of intelligence rather than an eye for the spectacular. It will be researched carefully and written by the best."
He hesitated for a fraction of an instant to let his point sink in. "You'll be doing the men."
"Me? The men? Oh no you don't." Nia's gaze narrowed as she suddenly understood the nature of the apologetic looks cast her way by her colleagues. "I won't be saddled with it. Just because I wasn't here to defend myself "
"It's got nothing to do withyour lateness," Bill insisted, his customary curtness returning to his voice. "I'd decided to give you the assignment even before this meeting began."
"Why not..." She looked quickly around, but Priscilla was the only other female in the room. Priscilla Cole was a petite woman who was, at thirty-four, Nia's senior by five years. She was quiet and hardworking, excelling in articles that relied more closely on research and less directly on personal interviews. A talented writer, she was even more skilled as an editor, able to quickly diagnose and treat copy problems over which others might agonize for hours. But she was single and vulnerable, precisely the type who would be eaten alive by the nearest most-wanted man, Nia mused. Much as Nia was reluctant to handle this assignment, she couldn't, in good conscience, will it on Priscilla.
"Why not one of the staff writers?" she made a blind stab.
Bill only shook his head. "Not skilled enough. Or tested. In the hands of some of the staff writers, this piece could easily resemble something in those scandal sheets you scorn."
Nia's gaze shot to the men beside her. "Why not either James or Chris? They're competent enough." She grinned, only to have her amusement wiped away by Bill's summary dismissal.
"I want a woman to interview the men..."Fast Courting. Copyright © by Barbara Delinsky. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.