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Amanda Bodine raced around the corner into the newsroom, sure she was late for the staff meeting. She skidded to a halt at the sight of her usually neat, workmanlike desk that now bloomed with a small garden of flowers. Above it floated a balloon bouquet with a streamer that fairly shouted its message. Happy Birthday. Her heart plummeted to the pit of her stomach.
She glanced at her watch. Two minutes until the editorial meeting. If she could just get everything out of sight…
"Ms. Bodine." The baritone voice dripped with sarcasm, and she didn't have to turn around to identify the speaker—Ross Lockhart, managing editor of the Charleston Bugle. "It seems your personal life is intruding into the office. Again."
"I'm sorry." It wasn't her fault the her large family seemed to take it for granted that they were welcome in her workplace. One noisy visit from two of her cousins had occurred when Lockhart was addressing the staff. He was not amused.
She forced herself to turn and face the man. Drat it, she never had trouble standing up for herself in any other circumstances. Why did her grit turn to jelly in the presence of Ross Lockhart?
Because if you get in his way, he'll mow you down like a blade of grass, her mind promptly responded.
"Get rid of it. Please." The addition of the word didn't do a thing to mitigate the fact that it was an order. "Editorial meeting, people." He raised his voice. "Conference room, now."
A rustle of something that might have been annoyance swept through the newsroom, but no one actually spoke up. No one would. They were all too aware that hotshot journalist Ross Lockhart had been brought in by the Bugle's irascible owner and publisher, Cyrus Mayhew, to ginger things up, as he put it. Lockhart seemed to consider firing people the best way to accomplish that.
Lockhart stalked away in the direction of the conference room before Amanda needed to say another word to him, thank goodness. She should have made sure she'd regained her professional demeanor before coming back to the office from the birthday lunch with her twin sister. Lockhart already seemed to consider her a lightweight in the news business, despite her seven years' experience, and she didn't want to reinforce that impression.
She moved two baskets of roses and daisies to the floor behind her desk and grabbed a notebook to join the exodus from the newsroom.
"Happy birthday, sugar." Jim Redfern, the grizzled city desk editor, threw an arm around her shoulders in a comradely hug. "Too bad you have to spend it in another meeting." His voice lowered. "Sittin' around a table doesn't get a paper out. You'd think the man would realize that."
"He realizes Cyrus expects him to turn us into number one, that's what."
Jim snorted. "Not going to happen in my lifetime."
Nor in hers, probably. Everyone knew that the venerable Post and Courier, the oldest newspaper in the South, was Charleston's premier paper. The best the Bugle could hope for was to break a surprise story once in a blue moon.
And keep 'em honest, as Cyrus was prone to say. Everyone who worked at the paper had been treated to his lecture on the importance of competition in the news.
He'd probably like to believe his staff shared that passion.
Entering the high-ceilinged, wood-paneled conference room, Amanda glanced around the table, assessing her colleagues. Cyrus's hope seemed unlikely to be fulfilled. His staffers were either just starting out, hoping this experience would lead to a more important job down the road, or they were old-timers like Jim, put out to pasture by other, more prestigious papers.
She was the only reporter who fit somewhere in the middle, with a year's experience at the Columbia paper, where she'd interned during college, and three years at the Tampa Tribune before the lure of the city she loved and the family she loved even more drew her home.
Except for Ross Lockhart, the exception to the rule— smart as a whip, newspaper savvy and ambitious. Above all, ambitious.
Lockhart took his place at the head of the long rectangular table, frowning as usual when he looked at them. He probably found them a pretty unprepossessing bunch compared to the company he'd kept at the Washington, D.C., daily where he'd worked before a public scandal had nearly ruined his career.
She sat up a bit straighter. Maybe they weren't the brightest tools in the tool chest, as her daddy might say, but at least they hadn't fabricated a front-page story, as Lockhart had been accused of doing. And it must have been true, since the paper had made a public apology to the congressman concerned and promptly fired Ross Lockhart.
Lockhart's piercing gray gaze met hers almost as if he'd heard her thoughts, and her throat went dry. Juliet Morrow, the society editor, romantically claimed he had a lean and hungry look, like some crusader of old. The contrast between the steel-gray of his eyes and the true blue-black of his hair, the angular lines of his face, the slash of a mouth—well, maybe she could see what Juliet meant.
But the look he'd turned on her was more that of the wolf eyeing Little Red Riding Hood. She was already sitting near the end of the table. It was impossible to get any farther away from him. Only the obituary writer was lower on the totem pole than she was. She held her breath until his gaze moved on.
He began assigning the stories for the next news cycle. Knowing perfectly well he wouldn't have anything remotely important for her, she fixed her attention on a framed Bugle front page that announced VE Day and let her thoughts flicker again to that birthday lunch.
She and her twin were thirty today. Annabel was well and truly launched on the work that was her passion. The others at the meal, more or less the same age, were all either soaring ahead in careers or busy with husband and family. Or both. Only she was entering her thirties stuck in a job where her prospects grew dimmer every time her boss looked her way.
Which he did at that moment. She stiffened. Was there another dog show coming to town that needed her writing talents?
"Bodine." His tone had turned musing. "Seems to me I've heard that name lately. Something connected to the military, wasn't it?"
Her breath caught. Was this the way it would come out—the secret the family struggled to keep in order to protect her grandmother? Right here in the newsroom, in front of everyone, blurted out by a man who had no reason to care who it hurt?
The others at the table were looking at her, their quizzical gazes pressing her for a response. Finally Jim cleared his throat.
"Somethin' about the Coast Guard, maybe? Bodines tend to serve there." He said the words with the familiar air of someone who knew everything there was to know about old Charleston families… all the things their boss couldn't possibly know.
Lockhart's gaze slashed toward him with an air of clashing swords. Then he shrugged, glancing down at the clipboard in front of him. "Probably so. All right, people, let's get to work."
With a sense of disaster narrowly averted, Amanda followed the others toward the door. Two steps from freedom, Ross Lockhart put out a hand to stop her. "One moment, Ms. Bodine."
She stiffened, turning to face him. Maybe her relief had come too soon.
He leaned back in the chair, eyeing her. She held her breath. If he asked her outright about Ned Bodine, the great-uncle the community had branded a coward, what could she say? She didn't much care what he thought, but if word got out, her grandmother might be hurt.
Finally his focus shifted to the sheaf of papers in front of him. "Mr. Mayhew wants to run a series of articles on the Coast Guard—the functions of the base, its importance to the local economy, maybe some human interest profiles. It seems your family connections might be a help to us in that."
Excitement rippled through her. A real story, finally. "Yes, of course." She was so excited that she nearly tripped over the words. "My father, my brother and my cousins are still on active duty, several stationed right here in Charleston. I'd love to write about—"
He cut her off her enthusiasm with a single cut of his hand. "These will be in-depth pieces. I wasn't suggesting you write them."
Disappointment had a sharp enough edge to make her speak up. "Why not? I'm the most qualified person in the newsroom on the Coast Guard. I did a series when I was at the Tampa paper—"
"Knowing something about a subject doesn't mean you're the best person to write the articles." His tone suggested she should know that. "In fact, I'm taking these on myself. Your role will be to get me access and set up the interviews."
Something anyone with a phone could do, in other words. Naturally he wouldn't let her actually write anything. In Ross Lockhart's eyes, she was nothing but a sweet Southern belle filling in time until marriage by pretending to be a reporter.
Her jaw tightened until she felt it might crack. She could speak her mind, of course. And then she'd go right out the door onto the street behind the other eight people he'd fired.
Finally she swallowed. "I can take care of that."
"Good." He shuffled through his papers, leaving her to wonder if she should go or stay. Then, rising, he held out a half sheet of paper to her. "Get this in for tomorrow's news cycle."
He strode out the door, on to bigger and better things, no doubt. She glanced down at her latest assignment and sucked in an irritated breath.
At least it was a change from a dog show. This time it was a cat show.
Amanda Bodine wasn't quite the person he'd originally thought her. Ross paused at his office door, scanning the newsroom until his gaze lit on her.
Oh, she looked the part, with her chic, glossy brown hair and her trick of looking up at you with those big green eyes from underneath her thick eyelashes. A stereotypical Southern belle, he'd thought—pretty, sweet and brainless. But she wasn't quite that.
The charm was there, yes, and turned on generously for everyone but him. At the moment she was chatting with the kid from the mail room, seeming as interested in him as she'd be if Cyrus Mayhew himself walked up to her.
Everyone's friend—that was Amanda. Even a crusty old reporter like Jim would pause by her chair, resting his hand on her shoulder long enough to exchange a quip before heading for his desk. Every newsroom had its flirt, and she was theirs.
Amanda was a lightweight, he reminded himself. She didn't belong here. Even if she wasn't quite as shallow as he'd first thought, she didn't have the toughness it took to make a good reporter. Just ask him. He knew exactly how much that cost.
Sooner or later Amanda would take her sweet Southern charm and her big green eyes, marry someone suitable, retreat into her comfortable Charleston lifestyle and produce babies who looked just like her.
No, she didn't belong in a newsroom. He threaded his way purposefully through the desks toward her. But that didn't mean she couldn't be useful. Amanda could give him entrée into a world he'd have trouble penetrating on his own. And that wasn't exactly using her. She was an employee of the paper, after all.
The lie detector inside his mind let out a loud buzz. That was an asset when interviewing the many people who didn't want to tell the truth to a reporter. Not so helpful when it turned on him that way.
Well, okay. He was using her. He'd use anyone, try anything, that would get him back to the life where he belonged.
You don't have to trick her. You could tell her about the anonymous tip. Ask for her help.
The voice of his conscience sounded remarkably like that of his grandmother. She'd died when he was a teenager, but the Christian standards she'd set for him still cropped up at inconvenient moments. For an instant he wavered.
Then his resolve hardened. He'd tried being the Boy Scout before, living by his grandmother's ideals, and look where it had gotten him. Clinging to the remnants of his career with his fingernails.
If Cyrus Mayhew hadn't been willing to give him a chance, the only newspaper job he'd have landed was delivering them. In Alaska.
So he'd do what he had to. He frowned. The called-in story tip had been annoyingly vague, as they so often were, but it had promised a scandal, fat and juicy, involving the Coast Guard base and kickbacks paid by local companies for contracts. A big story—the kind of story that, properly handled, could get him back on top again.
And Amanda Bodine, with her Coast Guard family, was just what he needed.
He stalked up to her desk, noting that just the sight of him was enough to send the mail room kid fleeing. Amanda had a bit more self-control, but she clearly didn't welcome his visit, either.
"Ms. Bodine." The balloons were gone from her desk. "Have you set up an initial meeting for me yet?"
"I… um, yes." A faint hint of pink stained her cheeks. "I spoke with my father. He'd be pleased to talk with you."
"Good." He'd done a little digging himself. Talking to Brett Bodine would be starting at the top. He was one of the head honchos at the local Coast Guard base. "When can we meet?"
Her flush deepened, and he watched, fascinated. When was the last time he'd met a woman who could blush?
"Actually, I'm on my way to a family get-together when I leave work. My daddy suggested you come along and have some supper with us. You can talk to him, and my cousins will be there…" Her voice petered out.
"I assume this is a birthday party for you." He lifted an eyebrow, remembering the birthday balloons and flowers. Clearly Amanda had some admirers.
"And my sister, Annabel. We're twins. Since our birthday is in the summer, we've always had a picnic at the beach." She clamped her mouth shut suddenly, maybe remembering who she was telling.
"It sounds charming."
Her eyes narrowed, as if she suspected sarcasm. "I explained to him that this was business, not social. If you'd rather meet at his office, I can tell him that."
The idea of taking him to a family gathering clearly made her uncomfortable, but it appealed to him. Get people in a casual setting where they felt safe, and they'd often let slip more than they would in a formal interview.
"No, this sounds good," he said briskly. "Give me directions, and I'll be there."