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Bedlam. Phones rang continuously. People shouted, muttered or swore, sitting or on the run. Typewriter keys clattered at varying paces from every direction. There was the scent of old coffee, fresh bread, tobacco smoke and human sweat. An insane asylum? Several of the inmates would have agreed with that description of the city room of the New Orleans Herald, especially at deadline.
For most of the staff the chaos went unnoticed, as the inhaling and exhaling of air went unnoticed. There were times when each one of them was too involved with their own daily crises or triumphs to be aware of the dozens of others springing up around them. Not that teamwork was ignored. All were bound, by love for, or obsession with, their jobs, in the exclusive community of journalists. Still each would concentrate on, and greedily guard, his or her own story, own sources and own style. A successful print reporter thrives on pressure and confusion and a hot lead.
Matthew Bates had cut his teeth on newsprint. He'd worked it from every angle from newsboy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to feature reporter. He'd carried coffee, run copy, written obituaries and covered flower shows.
The ability to scent out a story and draw the meat from it wasn' t something he'd learned in his journalism courses; he'd been born with it. His years of structured classes, study and practice had honed the style and technique of a talent that was as inherent as the color of his eyes.
At the age of thirty, Matt was casually cynical but not without humor for life's twists and turns. He liked people without having illusions about them. He understood and accepted that humans were basically ridiculous. How else could he work in a room full of crazy people in a profession that constantly exposed and exploited the human race?
Finishing a story, he called out for a copy boy, then leaned back to let his mind rest for the first time in three hours. A year ago, he'd left New York to accept the position on the Herald, wanting, perhaps needing, a change. Restless, he thought now. He'd been restless for… something. And New Orleans was as hard and demanding a town as New York, with more elegant edges.
He worked the police beat and liked it. It was a tough world, and murder and desperation were parts of it that couldn't be ignored. The homicide he'd just covered had been senseless and cruel. It had been life; it had been news. Now, he wiped the death of the eighteen-year-old girl out of his mind. Objectivity came first, unless he wanted to try a new profession. Yet it took a concentrated effort to erase her image and her ending from his mind.
He hadn't the looks of a seasoned, hard-boiled reporter, and he knew it. It had exasperated him in his twenties that he looked more like a carefree surfer than a newsman. Now, it amused him.
He had a lean, subtly muscled body that was more at home in jeans than a three-piece suit, with a height that only added a feeling of ranginess. His dark blond hair curled as it chose, over his ears, down to the collar of his shirt. It merely added to the image of a laid-back, easygoing male who'd rather be sitting on the beach than pounding the pavement. More than one source had talked freely to the façade without fully comprehending the man beneath the image. When and if they did, Matt already had the story.
When he chose, he could be charming, even elegant. But the good-humored blue eyes could turn to fire or, more dangerous, ice. Beneath the easy exterior was a cold, hard determination and a smoldering temper. Matt accepted this with a shrug. He was human, and entitled to be ridiculous.
With a half smile lingering around his mouth, he turned to the woman seated across from him. Laurel Armand—with a face as romantic as her name. She had an aura of delicacy that came from fine bones and an ivory skin that made a man want to touch, and touch gently. Her hair fell in clouds of misty black, swept back from her face, spilling onto her shoulders. Hair made for a man to dive his fingers into, bury his face in. Her eyes were the color of emeralds, dark and rich.
It was the face of a nineteenth-century belle whose life revolved around gracious indolence and quiet gentility. And her voice was just as feminine, Matt mused. It turned vowels into liquid and smoothed consonants. It never flattened, never twanged, but flowed like a leisurely stream.
The voice, he reflected as his smile widened, was just as deceptive as the face. The lady was a sharp, ambitious reporter with a stubborn streak and a flaring temper. One of his favorite pastimes was setting a match to it.
Her brows were drawn together as she finished the last line of her copy. Satisfied, Laurel whipped the sheet from her typewriter, called for a copy boy, then focused on the man across from her. Automatically, her spine straightened. She already knew he was going to bait her, and that—damn it—she would bite.
"Do you have a problem, Matthew?" Her tone was soft and faintly bored.
"No problem, Laurellie." He watched the annoyance flare into her eyes at his use of her full name.
"Don't you have a murder or armed robbery to go play with?"
His mouth curved, charmingly, deepening the creases in his face. "Not at the moment. Off your soapbox for the day?"
She gritted her teeth on a spate of furious words. He never failed to dig for the emotion that seeped into her work, and she never failed to defend it. Not this time, Laurel told herself as she balled her hands into fists under her desk. "I leave the cynicism to you, Matthew," she returned with a sweetness belied by the daggers in her eyes. "You're so good at it."
"Yeah. How about a bet on whose story makes page one?"
She lifted one fragile, arched brow—a gesture he particularly admired. "I wouldn't want to take your money, Matthew."
"I don't mind taking yours." Grinning, he rose to walk around their desk and bend down to her ear. "Five bucks, magnolia blossom. Even though your papa owns the paper, our editors know the difference between reporting and crusading."
He felt the heat rise, heard the soft hiss of breath. It was tempting, very tempting, to crush his mouth onto those soft, pouting lips and taste the fury. Even as the need worked into him, Matt reminded himself that wasn't the way to outwit her.
"You're on, Bates, but make it ten." Laurel stood. It infuriated her that she had to tilt her head back to meet his eyes. It infuriated her more that the eyes were confident, amused and beautiful. Laurel fell back on the habit of imagining him short, rotund and balding. "Unless that's too rich for your blood," she added.
"Anything to oblige, love." He curled the tips of her hair around his finger. "And to prove even Yankees have chivalry, I'll buy you lunch with my winnings."
She smiled at him, leaning a bit closer so that their bodies just brushed. Matt felt the surprising jolt of heat shoot straight through his system. "When hell freezes over," Laurel told him, then shoved him aside.
Matt watched her storm away; then, dipping his hands into his pockets, he laughed. In the confusion of the city room, no one noticed.
"Damn!" Laurel swore as she maneuvered her car through the choking downtown traffic. Matthew Bates was the most irritating man she'd ever known. Squeezing through on an amber light, she cursed fate. If her brother Curt hadn't met him in college, Matthew would never have accepted the position on the Herald. Then he'd be insufferable in New York instead of being insufferable two feet away from her day after day.
Honesty forced her to admit, even when it hurt, that he was the best reporter on the staff. He was thorough and insightful and had the instincts of a bloodhound. But that didn't make him any easier to swallow. Laurel hit the brakes and swerved as a Buick cut her off. She was too annoyed with Matt to be bothered by traffic warfare.
His piece on the homicide had been clean, concise and excellent. She wished she'd stuffed the ten dollars down his throat. That would've made it difficult for him to gloat over it.
In the twelve months she'd known and worked with him, he'd never reacted toward her as other men did. There was no deference in him, no admiration in his eyes. The fact that she despised being deferred to didn't make her resent him any less.
He'd never asked her out—not that she wanted him to, Laurel reminded herself firmly. Except for missing the pure pleasure of turning him down. Even though he'd moved into her apartment building, virtually next door to her, he'd never come knocking at her door on the smallest of pretences. For a year she'd been hoping he would—so she could slam the door in his face.
What he did, she thought as she gritted her teeth, was make a nuisance of himself in a dozen other ways. He made cute little observations on her dates—all the more irritating because they were invariably true. These days his favorite target was Jerry Cartier, an ultraconservative, somewhat dense city councilman. Laurel saw him because she was too kindhearted not to, and he occasionally gave her a lead. But Matt put her in the intolerable position of having to defend Jerry against her own opinion.
Life would be simpler, she thought, if Matthew Bates were still hustling newsprint in Manhattan. And if he weren't so impossibly attractive. Laurel blocked Matt, and her ten dollars, out of her mind as she left the traffic behind.
Though the sun was hanging low, the sky was still brilliant. Warmth and light filtered through the cypresses and streamed onto the road. Deep in the trees were shadows and the musical sound of insects and birds, creatures of the marsh. She'd always known there were secrets in the marshes. Secrets, shadows, dangers. They only added to the beauty. There was something exciting in knowing another way of life thrived—primitive, predatory—so near civilization.
As she turned into the lane that led to her ancestral home, Laurel felt the familiar mix of pride and tran-quility. Cedars guarded each side of the drive, arching overhead to transform the lane into a cool, dim tunnel. The sun filtered through sporadically, throwing patches of light on the ground. Spanish moss dripped from the branches to add that timeless grace so peculiar to the South. As she traveled down the drive of Promesse d'Amour, the clock turned back. Life was easy.
At the end of the drive, Laurel stopped to look at the house. There were two rambling stories of white-washed brick surrounded by a profusion of azaleas, camellias and magnolias. The colors, vivid and delicate, the scents, exotic and gentle, added to the sense of antebellum style and indolence. With the window down, she could smell the mix of heat and fragrance.
There were twenty-eight Doric columns that added dignity rather than ostentation. Ivy clung to each corner post. The grillwork on the encircling balcony was as delicate as black lace and French doors led to it from every room. The effect of the house was one of durability, security and grace. Laurel saw it as a woman who had coped with the years and emerged with character and gentility. If the house had been flesh and blood, she couldn't have loved it more.
She took the side steps to the porch and entered without knocking. Her childhood had been spent there, her girlhood, her adolescence. A wide hallway split the building in two, running from front door to back. Lingering in the air was the scent of beeswax and lemon, to mix with the fragrance from a bowl of camellia blossoms. The hall would have held the same scent a century before. Laurel paused only briefly in front of a cheval glass to brush the hair away from her face before she walked into the front parlor.
"Hello, Papa." She went to him, rising on her toes to kiss a cheek rough from a day's growth of beard. William Armand was lanky and handsome with dark hair just hinting at gray. While he ran his daily paper with verve, temper and tenacity, he chose an easier pace for his personal life. He smelled of good whiskey and tobacco. In an old habit, he mussed the hair Laurel had just straightened.
"Hello, princess. Good story on the mayor." He lifted a brow in puzzlement as he saw the quick flash of irritation in her eyes.
"Thanks." She smiled so quickly, her father thought he'd imagined that dangerous light. Turning, she studied the woman who sat in a royal-blue tufted chair.
The hair was pure white, but as full and thick as Laurel's. It surrounded a face layered and lined with wrinkles and unashamedly rouged. Olivia Armand wasn't ashamed of anything. Eyes as sharp and green as the emeralds in her ears studied Laurel in turn.
"Grandma." With a sigh, Laurel bent to kiss her. "Will you never grow old?"
"Not if I have anything to say about it." Her voice was raspy with age and stunningly sensual. "You're the same," she continued, taking Laurel's hand in her strong, dry one. "It's good Creole blood." After giving Laurel's hand a quick squeeze, she sat back in her chair. "William, fix the child a drink and top mine off while you're at it. How's your love life these days, Laurellie?"
Grinning, Laurel dropped down on the hassock at her grandmother's feet. "Not as varied as yours." She caught her father's wink as he handed her a glass.
"Hogwash!" Olivia tossed back her bourbon. "I'll tell you what's wrong with the world today, too much business and not enough romance. Your problem, Laurellie—" she paused to jab a finger at her granddaughter "—is wasting time on that spineless Cartier. Not enough blood in him to warm a woman's bed."
"Thank God," Laurel said with a grateful look at the ceiling. "That's the last place I want him."
"Time you had someone there," Olivia retorted.
Laurel lifted a brow while her father tried not to choke on his drink. "Not all of us," Laurel said smoothly, "have your, shall we say, bawdy turn of mind."
Olivia gave a hoot of laughter and smacked the arm of her chair. "Not everyone admits it, that's the difference."
Unable to resist her grandmother's outrageousness, Laurel grinned. "Curt should be here soon, shouldn't he?"
"Any minute." William eased his tall, angular frame into a chair. "He called just before you came in. He's bringing a friend with him."