"I should have known you would be a woman."
Jo Chesney, publisher and proprietor of the Avon Journal, looked up with a start. She was in her office, at her desk, studying the latest edition of the newspaper, hot off the press, and was taken aback by the stranger's presence as much as by his offensive words. This was Thursday, the day they got the paper out. She hadn't time for interruptions.
Her first thought was that he was an actor. He had that look--tall, dark, and dramatic rather than handsome. He had presence. And this was, after all, Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, and at this time of year there was always a play being performed in the theater or in the open air.
She wasn't unduly alarmed when he took a step toward her. There were plenty of people about, and Mac Nevin, the managing editor, was in his office across the hall, or in dispatch. All she had to do was call out and someone would come running.
All the same, she was aware that he had her at a disadvantage. For one thing, he was immaculately turned out and she was wearing a smock to protect her clothes. For another, he was looming over her like a great beast of prey. She evened the odds by getting to her feet.
Obviously, he was laboring under a misunderstanding. He must have entered the wrong building and mistaken her for someone else. Misunderstanding or no, she took exception to his insulting manner and tone of voice. She was a respectable lady who also happened to run a successful business. No one talked to her like that.
Her gaze as chilly as his own, she said, "These are the offices of the Avon Journal. If you've lost your way, I'd be happy to give you directions."
"I haven't lost my way. You are J. S. Chesney, I presume, the owner of this scurrilous piece of refuse?"
She hadn't noticed that he had a copy of the Journal tucked under one arm, not until he tossed it on the desk.
Scurrilous piece of refuse. If he wasn't an actor, he must be a politician. No normal person spoke like that. He was trying to be offensive. He couldn't have known how well he was succeeding. The Journal was more than a paper to Jo. It was her late husband's pride and joy. When John died, it seemed that the Journal would die with him. She wouldn't allow it. Against everyone's advice, she'd stepped into the breach and kept the paper going. In her mind, John and the Journal were inseparable.
"Yes," she said. "I'm Mrs. Chesney. I own the Journal. What did we do, misspell your name? Give you a bad review?"
"A bad--" His brows slashed together. "You think I'm an actor?"
Obviously not, but since the idea seemed to annoy him, she added fuel to the fire. "You certainly look the part." She studied him for a moment. "You could pass yourself off as the hero if you stopped glaring and minded your manners."
For a moment, she thought she'd gone too far. His lips compressed, but only momentarily. He said slowly, "I was right. You don't know me at all, do you, Mrs. Chesney?"
"You write about me as though you know me . . . intimately."
She didn't like his choice of words. But whether the innuendo was deliberate or unintentional was debatable. She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
She lifted her chin a notch. "If you have a complaint, I suggest you talk to Mr. Nevin, our managing editor. I'm the publisher. I don't have control of everything that goes in the paper."
"A typical female response! If all else fails, find some man to bail you out of your difficulties. Oh, no, Mrs. Chesney. Your name is on every edition of the Journal--J. S. Chesney. You're the one who will pay the toll, unless, of course, you are married. Then your husband, poor devil, will be held to account for your misconduct."
She wanted to lash out and scourge him with a few well-chosen words. What stopped her was the sudden realization that he was serious. This sounded like litigation, the courts, punitive damages. She had to hear him out.
"I don't stand in any man's shadow," she said quietly. "I'm a widow, as I'm sure you've already discovered."
"No, I didn't know." He seemed to be hesitating, as though he were about to apologize, but went on instead. "It doesn't make any difference. I want this stopped."
He reached out and flipped the Journal over so that she was staring down at the back page. london life, the heading blazed. This was fairly new, an unapologetic commentary on the comings and goings of London's rich and famous. Readers, it seemed, even those who lived as far afield as Stratford-upon-Avon, couldn't get enough of these celebrities--what they wore, what they ate, where they lived, what they did.
It was her friend Chlo' who had come up with the idea and Chlo' who wrote the rough copy using the pen name Lady Tellall and sent it by express from London every other week. She was ideally suited for the job. Though now a widow, Chlo' had married well and moved in the upper reaches of polite society.
Polite society, according to Chlo', was anything but polite, except on the surface. Beneath the surface raged dangerous currents, explosive passions, tempestuous liaisons. In short, Chlo' said with a laugh, everything that made life interesting. And every week, Jo published enough from Chlo''s correspondence to fill the back page with the salacious secrets of the rich and famous.
Since the inception of London Life, the Journal's circulation had soared.
Now Jo understood. The irate stranger must be one of Chlo''s glamorous celebrities, and he had obviously taken exception to what Chlo' had written about him. But which one was he?
She sank into her chair, rested her linked fingers on the desk, and made a slow perusal. She saw an athletically built man in his early thirties, immaculately turned out in a black coat and beige trousers. She couldn't see his boots, but she knew they would be Hessians, possibly with gold tassels, and polished to a mirror shine. His hair was dark, but it wasn't black. There were shades of mahogany in those crisp locks that brushed his collar. On his left cheek, close to his mouth, was a small scar. But most telling of all, and something she should have noticed and would have noticed if she hadn't felt under attack, was that he was leaning heavily on a cane that had a distinctive silver handle.
"You're Waldo Bowman!" she declared.
When he inclined his head in acknowledgment, the small knot of tension between her shoulder blades gradually receded. He might look reckless and dangerous, but according to Chlo', the only thing he was guilty of was taking advantage of the fact that he was irresistible to women. A breaker of hearts, Chlo' called him, but she said it without malice. She admired Waldo Bowman.
Chlo' had a fondness for rakes that Jo did not share.
He was studying her with as much interest as she studied him. She knew she looked a frump in her smock, with her awful red hair swept severely off her face and tied back with a ribbon. She wasn't going to apologize for how she looked. Getting a paper out was a messy business. There was no reason for her to feel awkward or embarrassed.
There were ink stains on her fingers. She resisted the impulse to wipe them surreptitiously on her smock.
Her eyes jerked up to meet his. "I didn't hear that. What did you say?"
There was a short silence while he regarded her thoughtfully. At last, he said, "You don't move in my circles, so I know you are not the author of this scandal sheet." He shook the paper. "Her name, Mrs. Chesney. Give me her name, and you and I shall be quits."
She shook her head. "My sources are confidential. You won't get her name out of me."
He splayed one hand on the desk. His eyes had chilled by several degrees. "Let there be no misunderstanding between us. I won't tolerate having my name bandied about in a second-rate broadsheet that can only appeal to the vulgarly curious. Have you no conscience? Or is your only object to sell papers?"
The reference to her conscience left her unmoved. It was the word broadsheet that fanned the flames of her temper. Broadsheets were one-page news sheets and were lurid beyond belief, and generally despised by intelligent people. He had delivered the ultimate insult.
When she rose to confront him, two spots of color burned in her cheeks. He had the foresight to take a step back before she rounded the desk.
Her voice was low and trembling with anger. "I publish the news, Mr. Bowman, and you happen to be news just like"--she snatched the newspaper from the desk and held up the front page--"just like William Hogg, who murdered his wife and buried her body under the floor of his barn. So don't talk to me about conscience. If you had one, you wouldn't appear in my paper."
His eyes narrowed unpleasantly. "You're comparing me to a murderer?"
"Of course not! The point I'm trying to make is that you've developed a following. My readers want to hear about you, just as they want to hear about the Duke of Wellington or the prince regent."
"You never write anything derogatory about them."
"I don't publish anything derogatory about anyone, not even Mr. Hogg. I publish the truth."
An insolent smile curled his lips. "The truth as you see it."
She mimicked his smile exactly. "Correct me if I'm wrong. Did you or did you not present your latest flirt with an emerald pendant when you ended the affair?" His jaw seemed to have locked, so she went on deliberately, "And did you or did you not, only last month, fight a duel with Lord Hornsby in Hyde Park?"
He unlocked his jaw. "If you print that in your paper, I'll sue you for defamation of character!"
"Hah! You'd lose! How can I defame the character of a rake?" She folded her arms under her breasts and stared doggedly into his eyes, challenging him to contradict her.
He moved his cane to his other hand and studied her face. Gradually, the heat died out of his eyes and he began to look amused. "You're not going to print the story of our duel?"
"Not to save me embarrassment, I'll wager. Then it must be to protect Hornsby. Do you mind telling me why?"
"I wouldn't lift a finger to protect Hornsby."
She said impatiently, "Lady Hornsby has been shamed enough by her husband's indiscretions. I've no wish to add to her humiliation."
"You don't want to shame Lady Hornsby," he said slowly, "but it's all right to shame my relations?"
"You're not married."
"I have a mother and sisters."
"It's not the same."
"How is it different?"
"The difference is . . ." She floundered a little. "The difference is . . ."
"Oh, you know what the difference is. Your indiscretions can't hurt a mother or sister the way they can hurt a wife."
His voice rose fractionally. "At the risk of sounding redundant, may I point out that I'm not married."
"No," she said, warming to her subject, "and that's all to the good. Let's be frank. You're hardly a matrimonial prize, Mr. Bowman. All the same, innocent young girls and others who should know better are thrilled when you make them the object of your attentions. Each thinks that she will be the one to reform you. They're all doomed to disappointment."
"I don't want to be reformed!"
"Of course you don't. Bad boys never do. And if those London debutantes and their foolish mothers would only read the Journal, they'd soon come to realize that your case is hopeless."
She didn't think he was angry, but something had darkened his eyes, something quick and dangerous. When he snagged her wrist, she sucked in a breath.
"That sounds like a challenge," he said.
He wasn't wearing gloves, and the heat of his skin on her bare skin was highly unsettling. In polite society, members of the opposite sex did not touch each other in this intimate manner unless they were closely related.
Intimate! That word again! She shivered for no apparent reason.
"What?" She'd lost the thread of their conversation.
He was no longer amused, but frowning faintly. "You're trembling."
"No. I think it's you."
It was a lie but the best she could come up with to save face. She wasn't going to give him something to laugh about.
It was that thought that kept her from crying out when he tugged on her wrist and brought her closer. He grinned, lethally, and with a will of its own, her pulse began to flutter.
He said softly, "If I kiss you, will you write about it in your paper?"
"No," she managed in a credibly calm tone. "I'll shoot you."
He laughed and let her go. "A word of advice, Mrs. Chesney. If you want to preserve your good name, don't take mine in vain."
She took the precaution of hiding her hands in the folds of her smock. "Are you threatening to spread lies about me?"
"You do have a low opinion of my character, don't you? No. I was thinking of the Journal's good name. If I sue and you lose, your paper will be discredited."
"I won't lose."
His lips quirked. "Is that another challenge?"
They were interrupted when the door opened to admit a young gentleman, also in the height of fashion, whom Jo knew quite well. Henry Gardiner, at thirty-two, was the most eligible bachelor in the county, largely because his father, Sir Robert, owned half the county, or so the locals claimed.
"Waldo!" exclaimed the newcomer. "Ruggles said this would only take five minutes." He smiled at Jo. "It's a pleasure to see you again, ma'am. I hope you don't mind the intrusion, but our coach is waiting, and the wedding can't go forward without my friend here."
For some odd reason, Jo had been feeling that Mr. Gardiner had caught her red-handed. On hearing his last remark, however, she brightened considerably.
"Wedding?" she said, eyeing Waldo speculatively. "Who is the lucky lady?"
A look of amusement crossed Waldo's face. "You're way off the mark, Mrs. Chesney. I'm not getting married."
"Eh?" Mr. Gardiner stared, then gave a chortle of laughter. "I beg your pardon," he said, regaining his composure. "I suppose anything is possible. No, no, ma'am. A mutual friend is to be married today in Warwick, and Mr. Bowman is to be his groomsman."
"Warwick?" she said. "That's at least eight miles away. Then I won't delay you." She smiled brilliantly. "Good-bye, Mr. Gardiner, Mr. Bowman. Have a pleasant journey."
From the Paperback edition.