Printer In Petticoats

This town’s not big enough for the both of us . . .Self-proclaimed spinster Jessamine Lassiter is striving to keep Smoke River’s newspaper afloat when Cole Sanders rides into town to start up a rival paper. Emotions run high as Cole’s constant, infuriating presence causes sparks to fly both in and out of the office!But does he truly desire Jess or is he just waiting to put her out of business? Whatever he wants, she is prepared to fight him all the way . . .
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Printer In Petticoats

   

“Do I make you nervous, Jessamine?”

   “What? Of course not. What would I have to be nervous about?”

   He took a step closer and she backed up. “Me, maybe?” he said. He sent her a grin that seemed positively wicked.

   “N-no,” she blurted out. “Not you.”

   “My newspaper?”

   “Of course not. I’m not afraid of a little competition.”

   It’s you I am afraid of. She cringed inwardly at the admission. She squared her shoulders and forced her eyes to meet his.

   “Yeah? Then how come you”re edging toward the door, Miss Lassiter?”

   “I’m not!”

   But she was. She couldn’t get away from those laughing blue eyes fast enough.

   

   It’s a myth that women of the Old West were solely wives and mothers. Women were as intelligent, courageous and enterprising in the eighteen-hundreds as they are now. Many of them ran ranches, owned and operated dressmaking and millinery shops, hotels, boarding houses, restaurants and saloons, and even newspapers—as this story will demonstrate. They also worked as teachers, housekeepers, nannies and cooks, and engaged in dozens of other ventures to make their livings. In addition women were engaged in the arts, as painters, writers, lecturers and photographers, and it is to these intrepid females we owe much of our knowledge and appreciation of nineteenth-century life and culture.

Printer in Petticoats Lynna Banning


   

   LYNNA BANNING combines her lifelong love of history and literature in a satisfying career as a writer. Born in Oregon, she graduated from Scripps College and embarked on a career as an editor and technical writer, and later as a high school English teacher. She enjoys hearing from her readers. You may write to her directly at PO Box 324, Felton, CA 95018, USA, email her at or visit Lynna’s website at .

   For David Woolston

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   Smoke River, Oregon, 1870

   Jessamine glanced up from her rolltop desk in front of the big window in her newspaper office and narrowed her eyes. What on earth...?

   Across the street a team of horses hauling a rickety farm wagon rolled up in front of the empty two-story building that until a week ago housed the Smoke River Bank. A brown canvas cover swathed something big and bulky in the wagon bed.

   She couldn’t tear her gaze away. A tall, jean-clad man in a dusty black Stetson hauled the team to a stop and jumped down. He had a controlled, easy gait that reminded her of a big cat, powerful and confident and...untamed. His hat brim shaded his face, and his overlong dark hair brushed the collar of his sweat-stained blue work shirt.

   She sniffed with disdain. His grimy clothes suggested he needed a bath and a barber, in that order. He was just another rough, uncultured rancher come to town with a load of...what? Sacks of wheat? A keg or two of beer?

   The man untied the rope lashing the dirty canvas over whatever lay beneath, and she stood up and craned her neck to see better.

   Oh, my father’s red suspenders, what is that?

   The barber, Whitey Poletti, and mercantile owner Carl Ness put down their brooms and ambled across the street to see what was going on. In two minutes, Mr. Rancher had talked them into helping him unload the bulky object. He loosened the ropes securing the thing, lowered the wagon tailgate and slid a couple of wide planks off the back end. Then he started to shove whatever it was down onto the board sidewalk.

   The canvas slipped off and Jessamine gave an unladylike shriek. A huge Ramage printing press teetered on the wagon bed.

   A printing press? Smoke River already had a printing press—hers! Her Adams press was the only one needed for her newspaper—the town’s only newspaper.

   Wasn’t it?

   She found herself across the street before she realized she’d even opened her office door. “Just what do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.

   Mr. Rancher straightened, pushed his hat back with his thumb and pinned her with the most disturbing pair of blue eyes she’d ever seen. Smoldering came to mind. Was that a real word? Or maybe they were scandalizing? Scandalous?

   “Thought it was obvious, miss. I’m unloading my printing press.” He turned away, signaled to Whitey and Carl, and jockeyed the huge iron contraption onto the boardwalk.

   “What for?” she blurted out.

   Again those unnerving eyes bored into hers. “For printing,” he said dryly.

   “Oh.” She cast about for something intelligent to say. “Wait!”

   “What for?” he shot from the other side of the press.

   “What do you intend to print?”

   “A newspaper.”

   “Newspaper? But Smoke River already has a newspaper, the Sentinel.”

   “Yep.”

   “So we don’t need another one.”

   “Nope.” He stepped out from behind the press and propped both hands on his lean hips. “I’ve read the Sentinel. This town does need another newspaper.”

   “Well! Are you insulting my newspaper?”

   “Nope. Just offering a bit of competition. A lot of competition, actually. Excuse me.” He brushed past her and hefted one corner of the press. Then the three men heaved and pulled and frog-walked the bulky machine up the single step of the old bank entrance and through the doorway.

   Well, my stars and little chickens, who does he think he is?

   She tried to peer through the bank’s dust-smeared front window, but just when she thought she saw some movement, someone taped big sheets of foolscap over the panes so she couldn’t see a thing.

   She waited until Carl and the barber exited and walked back across the street.

   “Afternoon, Miss Jessamine,” Whitey said amiably.

   Her curiosity got the better of her. “What is that man doing in there?”

   “Movin’ in,” Carl offered. “Gonna sleep upstairs, I reckon. No law against that.”

   Jessamine swallowed a sharp retort. She couldn’t afford to insult a paying customer, even one who was at the moment helping her competition. She needed every newspaper subscriber she could get to keep her paper in the black. She had to admit that she was struggling; ever since Papa died, her whole life had been one big struggle with a capital S.

   Carl marched past the bushel baskets of apples in front of his store and disappeared inside. The barber lingered long enough to give her a friendly grin.

   “Like Carl says, no law against livin’ upstairs. Specially seein’ as how you’re doin’ the same thing.”

   “That man needs a haircut,” she retorted. She was so flustered it was the only thing she could think of to say.

   Whitey nodded. “So do you, Miss Jessamine. Gonna catch them long curls of yours in the rollers of yer press one of these days.”

   Jessamine seized her dark unruly locks and shoved them back behind her shoulders. The barber was right. She just hadn’t had time between setting type and soliciting subscribers and writing news stories to tend to her hair. Or anything else, she thought morosely. There weren’t hours enough in the day to deal with everything that had been dropped on her.

   Wearily she plodded back to her office across the street and dragged out her notepad and a stubby, tooth-marked pencil. “New printing press arrives in Smoke River,” she scrawled. “Bets taken on longevity.”

   * * *

   Cole finished cleaning the last speck of trail dust off his Ramage press, dropped the kerosene-soaked rag in the trash basket and went upstairs to unload his saddlebags. In the small bedroom he found a narrow, uncomfortable-looking cot flanked by two upended fruit crates, one of which supported an oil lamp and a grimy china washbasin. Home sweet home.

   He plopped his four precious books on top of the other crate and stood staring out the multipaned window. Directly across the street he saw the Smoke River Sentinel office.

   He’d known there was another newspaper in town; he just hadn’t expected it to be located so close. Well, maybe that was a blessing. He could keep a sharp eye on the competition. Still, it was a mite more than he’d bargained for.

   Was that spunky miss with all the questions the typesetter? Or the sister of the printer? Or the daughter...maybe even the wife? Pretty little thing. Rude, too. Never even introduced herself.

   Well, neither had he. He must smell like a randy goat after the eighteen days he’d spent hauling that press from Kansas City. No wonder the little lady didn’t introduce herself. Better rustle up a bucket or two of water for a spit bath tonight.

   Tomorrow he’d stop in and make nice, but right now he was dog-tired. All he wanted was a shot of whiskey, a steak two inches thick and twenty-four hours of sleep.

   Two doors down, the Golden Partridge Saloon beckoned, and next to that was the Smoke River restaurant. Handy. He swiped his hand over his stubbly chin, finger-combed his hair and set off down the street.

   The whiskey was smooth, the steak rare and the bucket of water he hauled up to his living quarters was free. Couldn’t beat that. He stripped, sponged off four states’ worth of dirt and was just about to collapse onto the cot when he saw something out the window that stopped his breath.

   Directly across from his room was another set of windows with the shades drawn. A lamp of some sort illuminated what lay behind the shades, and—good golly Molly! The silhouetted figure of a woman was moving back and forth in front of them.

   A naked woman. Must be the Sentinel woman. Girl, he amended, assessing the slim form. High breasts, nicely flared hips, long, long hair, which she was brushing with voluptuous movements, her arms raised over her head.

   Well, hell. He sure as shootin’ wasn’t tired anymore. He watched until the lamp went out across the way, but by then he was so aroused he was awake most of the night.

   In the morning he checked the windows across the street. The blinds were up, but he couldn’t see a thing with the sun hitting the glass. Just his luck. He’d have to wait for tonight.

   The restaurant next door to the hotel served biscuits that just about floated off the plate and bacon so crisp it crackled when he bit into it. The plump waitress, name of Rita, was pleasant and efficient and nosy.

   “New in town?”

   “Yep.”

   “Passing through?”

   “Nope. Staying.”

   “Don’t talk much, do you?”

   “Nope.”

   “More coffee?”

   He nodded and left her a good-sized tip.

   He spent the morning setting up the press, then asked around town for a typesetter. Nada. By suppertime he’d given up, stopped by the barbershop for a shave and a haircut and a bath, then returned to the restaurant for dinner.

   “Know anyone who can set type?” he asked the attentive waitress.

   “No, but I do know someone who’d like to learn,” she said. She leaned toward him confidentially. “Young Noralee Ness. You’ll find her at the mercantile. Her father’s the owner.”

   “Her?”

   “Sure, why not? You got something against females?”

   “Not if they can set type, I don’t. How come she’s not working for the Sentinel?”

   “Oh, Miss Jessamine sets her own type. Always has, even before her brother died.”

   Cole lowered his coffee cup. “Died?”

   “That’s what I said. Irate subscriber shot him.”

   Hell... This was no better than Kansas City. He’d narrowly escaped the same fate as a result of an editorial he’d written on abolition. Actually sometimes he wished he had been shot; might have been easier than what he’d gone through later.

   “What was the issue?” he asked cautiously. “Not slavery, was it?”

   “Nah. Election coming up. People out here get pretty riled up.”

   It was full dark by the time he tramped up the stairs to his quarters, and he was dead tired. But not too tired. Quickly he washed and then doused the lamp and waited.

   Sure enough, about nine o’clock the blinds across the way snapped down and the light went on behind them. Cole watched until he couldn’t stand it any longer, then spent the next three hours trying to get to sleep. The next morning he could hardly drag himself off his cot.

   Noralee Ness turned up promptly at ten o’clock. Hell, she was only eleven or twelve years old, but her brown eyes snapped with intelligence, and she brought apples and cheese and a slab of chocolate cake for her lunch and shared it with him while he showed her how to arrange the pieces of lead type in her type stick.

   She was quick to learn and even quicker with her hands. By noon he had finished the last page of the story he’d been writing, and before three in the afternoon Noralee had typeset it right down to the last comma.

   Two Newspapers? Why Not?

   Why shouldn’t the Smoke River Sentinel have some competition? It’s a free country. You don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. Besides, the little popgun press in this town shouldn’t fear a bit of healthy competition.

   Or should it? Is it possible the Smoke River Sentinel has grown complacent because it’s the one and only newspaper in this fair community?

   I ask you—with an election coming up, isn’t it reasonable to present two sides to every question?

   Cole Sanders

   Editor, Lake County Lark

   That night before he crawled onto his cot he slipped a copy of his first edition under the door of the Sentinel office across the street.

   

   “Popgun press!” Jessamine screeched. “Popgun? Just who does this Cole Sanders think he is?”

   Elijah Holst, her printer’s devil, pushed his scruffy cap off his forehead with fingers stained black with ink and aimed a squirt of tobacco juice into the spittoon beside his stool.

   “Fer as I kin tell, Miss Jessamine, he’s the gent across the street with the fancy Ramage press.”

   “Gent! He’s no ‘gent,’ Eli. He’s an interloper. An opportunist. A muckraker.”

   “No, he ain’t. He’s jest another newspaper editor, same as you.”

   “He is not the same as me, not by a long shot. He’s rude and uncouth and—”

   “I hear tell he’s hired the Ness girl to set type fer him.”

   “What? Noralee? How could she?”

   “Beggin’ yer pardon, Jess, but you cain’t blame the girl. When she wanted to come work for the Sentinel, you wouldn’t hire her.”

   * * *

   Cole lowered his paintbrush, climbed down from the ladder and stepped backward across the street to admire his handiwork.

   Crisp black lettering marched across the doorway of the bank building he’d rented, and the name he’d carefully stenciled sent a surge of satisfaction from his brain all the way into his belly. By golly, this was better than a perfectly grilled rare steak. Better than the sight of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains. Better even than sex.

   Well, maybe not better than sex. Nothing was better than holding a woman in his arms, or undressing her slowly and...

   Hell and damn. He could hardly stand remembering how it had been. He’d spent long, heated nights in Maryann’s arms, stroking her body and thinking he was the luckiest son of a gun on the planet.

   Oh, God, remembering it felt as if something were slicing into his gut. Never again, he swore. Never, never, never again.

   He refocused on the name he’d chosen for his newspaper, the Lake County Lark. Then he climbed back up on the ladder and added his own name in smaller printing below, followed by the word Editor.

   This called for a shot of something to celebrate. He plopped his brush in a half bucket of turpentine and strode down the boardwalk to the Golden Partridge.

   The portly redheaded bartender gave him the once-over. “New in town, huh?”

   “Yeah, you might say that.” He reached over the polished expanse of mahogany to offer his hand. “Cole Sanders. Just came in yesterday with my printing press and a couple bales of newsprint.”

   The man’s rust-colored eyebrows rose. “Already got a newspaper in Smoke River, Mr. Sanders. Guess nobody told you, huh?”

   “Yeah, they told me. Decided to come anyway.”

   “Care for a farewell drink?”

   Cole laughed. “Sure. But make it a welcome-to-town shot of whiskey. I’m staying.”

   “It’s your funeral, mister. You met Jessamine Lassiter?”

   “Jessamine, huh? Works at the Sentinel office?”

   “Owns the Sentinel.” The barkeep moved away, sloshed liquor into a shot glass and slid it down to Cole. “Name’s Tom O’Reilly, Mr. Sanders. I’d welcome you to town, but I figure you ain’t gonna be here long.”

   “Care to bet on that? I just finished painting the name on my newspaper office. Paint isn’t even dry yet.”

   Tom moved out from behind the bar, tramped over to the batwing doors and peered out. “Lake County Lark, is it? Kinda fancy for a small town like this.”

   “Maybe.” Cole sipped his whiskey.

   “Gotta hand it to you, Mr. Sanders. Takes nerve to run a newspaper out West.”

   “Not as much nerve as running a newspaper in Kansas. An abolitionist newspaper.” He downed the rest of his drink in one gulp.

   A tall gent, nattily dressed in a gray pin-striped suit and what looked like a new bowler hat, pushed through the doors and approached the bar. He nodded at O’Reilly. “The usual, Tom.”

   “Sure thing, Mr. Arbuckle. You met the new editor of the Lake County Lark?”

   Arbuckle swiveled toward Cole and slapped his hat onto the bar. “Did you say newspaper editor?”

   Cole nodded. “Cole Sanders,” he volunteered.

   “Conway Arbuckle. Next Lake County district judge. Election’s in November. Can I count on your support?”

   “Well, I—”

   “The Sentinel’s backing my opponent, Jericho Silver.”

   “Yeah?”

   “Yeah. It’s really no contest, the way I see it. Me, I’ve got a law degree, whereas I’d swear that half-breed sheriff never got past grade school. He’s figuring on ‘reading law’ to pass the bar exam. His wife got him a set of law books for a wedding present, see, but then she turned around and had twins last summer. Not gonna help him study law, I’m thinking.”

   “You married, Mr. Arbuckle?”

   “Me? Nah. Never met a woman I couldn’t live without, know what I mean?”

   Cole signaled for another shot. No, he did not know. He’d lost the only woman he couldn’t live without, but he was still breathing in and out, so he guessed he was still alive. Some days it didn’t feel like it, though.

   He sucked in a deep breath. “On second thought, Tom, forget the refill. Gotta get back to the office. I’m training a new typesetter.”

   Arbuckle frowned. “What about endorsing my candidacy, Sanders?”

   Cole studied the man. Looked respectable, even with the shiny bald head under his new hat. Sounded halfway educated. Besides, a friendly rivalry between the two newspapers in town would boost his circulation. “Sure. Stop by the office tomorrow morning for an interview.”

   On the way down the street, he strolled past the Sentinel office to admire his paint job from her vantage point. Jessamine, huh? Pretty name. Starchy girl. But at least she wasn’t likely to burn down his press because he backed an unpopular cause.

   * * *

   At the sound of Eli’s scratchy voice, Jessamine dropped her gaze to the lined notepad on her desk and drew in a lungful of hot-metal-scented air.

   “You gonna hurry up and finish that editorial so’s I kin git to work on it?” Eli queried.

   She snatched the stub of her pencil from between her teeth and crossed out her last sentence. “In a minute, Eli.”

   “Guess I’ll eat my lunch, then.” He perched on his typesetting stool and unfolded a red gingham napkin to reveal four fat cookies and a shiny red apple.

   “Whatcha starin’ at out the window?”

   “That man across the street. He’s up on a ladder doing something suspicious.”

   “Like what?” Eli rasped.

   Jess pulled her attention away from the long legs on the fourth step of the ladder and studied instead the man’s muscular shoulders and the tanned forearms that showed where he’d rolled up his shirtsleeves. “I’d give a cookie to know what he’s doing over there.”

   “Want one of mine? Baked ’em myself. Brown sugar with raisins.”

   Eli boarded with widowed Ilsa Rowell. Jess paid her son, Billy, twenty-five cents each week to deliver the Sentinel to the town subscribers, but even with Eli paying for his room and meals, Jess knew Ilsa was having a hard time. The MacAllister boy, Teddy, took the newspaper out to the ranchers in the valley on his horse; she was happy to pay Ilsa’s son to do the town deliveries.

   “Whyn’tcha go on over and ask him what he’s doin’, Jess?”

   She jerked her eyes back to the article she was composing. “Don’t be silly. A good reporter learns by watching what’s going on.”

   “And askin’ questions,” he reminded her.

   Aha! Now the man was climbing down off his ladder, and it looked as though he had a paint bucket in his hand. He walked backward into the street, and Jess got a good look at his handiwork.

   “Oh, my goodness. The Lake County Lark? What kind of cockamamy name is Lark for a newspaper?”

   “Sounds kinda ladyfied, don’t it?”

   “It does indeed, Eli. I think we won’t worry about the Lark. It sounds too poetic for a newspaper out here in the West. And look! There’s his name underneath. Coleridge Sanders. Coleridge! No doubt he fancies himself a writer of elegant prose.”

   Eli crunched into his apple and Jess bent to finish the opening of her story about the new music academy in town. Maybe she’d also write an editorial about her rival newspaper in Smoke River.

   

   Jessamine waited impatiently beside the press as Eli swabbed the oily-smelling ink over the type and cranked out a proof copy. She snatched it off the press and with relish ran her gaze over her editorial.

   New Editor Raises Questions

   What red-blooded man would call his newspaper the Lark?

   Is it because this editor, Mr. Sanders, intends to peck away like a bird at his competition, your long-established and well-regarded Sentinel?

   Or is it because the man is just playing at the profession of journalism and has no intention of taking seriously the concerns of the Smoke River population?

   Or could it be that the new editor, bearing the highfalutin name of Coleridge, an English Romantic poet, is just that—a romantic dreamer who lacks the manly strength to cope with the rough and ready Oregon West?

   Jessamine Lassiter

   Editor, Smoke River Sentinel

   The following afternoon another issue of the Lark was slipped under Jessamine’s door.

   Whoa, Nelly!

   Is the editor of the Smoke River Sentinel questioning the masculinity of a rival newspaper editor based on his choice of Lark for a name and his parents’ choice of Coleridge as his given name?

   While this is not libelous, it is of questionable judgment for a supposedly unbiased journalist. This editor refuses to cast aspersions on the femaleness of Miss Lassiter. However, he does question the lady’s good manners. In such a personal attack I perceive a tendency toward biased news reporting. I would expect better of a good journalist.

   And I also expect an apology.

   Coleridge Sanders

   Editor, Lake County Lark

   That very afternoon Eli Holst marched across the street and handed Cole a copy of the latest edition of the Sentinel.

   “Read the editorial page first,” Eli hinted with a grin.

   Mea Culpa...

   To the editor of the Lake County Lark: I sincerely apologize for any inappropriate personal remarks made in the previous issue of this newspaper regarding Mr. Sanders’s masculinity.

   Jessamine Lassiter

   Editor, the Sentinel

   Cole settled into the chair at the corner table in the restaurant, stretched his long legs out to one side and picked up the menu. Rita bustled over, her notepad and pencil ready.

   He had opened his mouth to order steak and fried potatoes when he spied someone in the opposite corner, hidden behind a copy of his afternoon edition of the Lark.

   Well, well, well. Jessamine Lassiter. He recognized her dark green skirt bunched up under the table. Mighty flattering to find her reading his newspaper at supper.

   Before he could stop himself he was on his feet and striding over to her table. He reached out his hand and pressed down the page of newsprint she held in front of her face until her eyes appeared.

   “Interesting reading?” he inquired.

   “Very interesting,” she said, her voice cool. But her cheeks pinked and thick dark lashes fluttered down over her gray-green eyes.

   Cole signaled Rita and reseated himself at the table next to Jessamine’s. “Like I said, Rita, I’ll have steak and fried potatoes.”

   The waitress flipped over her notepad and turned toward Jessamine. “And for you, Miss Jessamine?”

   “She’s having a big helping of humble pie tonight,” Cole drawled. It might be the last time he’d get the best of his sharp-tongued competitor, so he figured he’d better strike while he could.

   Miss Lassiter gave him a look so frosty it sent a shiver up the back of his neck, and then she raised the newspaper to hide her face.

   “Chicken,” came her voice from behind the page.

   “Roasted or fried?” Rita asked, her voice carefully neutral.

   “It was a comment, not a supper choice,” Jessamine said. “On second thought, I’m no longer hungry.”

   Cole was on his feet before she could move, and once again he pressed down the newspaper she held aloft. “Truce, okay? You should eat supper.”

   “What concern is that of yours, may I ask?”

   “None. Just thought it would clear the air.”

   She leaned forward and pinned him with a look. “Nothing will ever ‘clear the air’ between us, Mr. Sanders.”

   Cole sat down and leaned back in his chair. “How come? A war doesn’t last forever. Even Bluebellies and Confederate soldiers have buried the hatchet.” Ostentatiously he shook out his copy of her latest Sentinel edition and propped it in front of his face.

   They both read in silence until Rita returned with their dinners. “Steak for you, sir.” She set the sizzling platter before Cole. “And chicken for the lady.”

   Jessamine huffed out an exasperated breath. “I didn’t order—”

   “Want to trade?” Cole interrupted. He lifted away her plate of fried chicken and slid his steak platter in its place.

   “Well, I—”

   Rita propped both hands on her ample hips. “Oh, go on, Miss Jessamine. He’s right, ya gotta eat.”

   Jess wanted to crawl under the dining table and bury her head in her hands. How could she have stooped to such low journalistic ethics? How could she?

   She knew better. Her father had set a better example than that. And Miles! Her brother had lost his life defending the Sentinel’s policy of responsible journalism. The least she could do to honor his memory was play by the rules.

   What had she been thinking?

   She stole a glance at the rugged, suntanned face at the next table. It was his fault. That man had pushed her over the edge. His newspaper made her nervous. His presence rattled her. He had self-confidence, something she dearly wished she had more of. He was unflappable. Arrogant.

   And he was laughing at her.

   She couldn’t stand being laughed at. Her father had laughed at her. From the time she was a baby, Ebenezer Lassiter had disparaged everything she had ever done, from making mud pies in the backyard of their Boston home to writing her first heartfelt poem to...well, just about everything she’d ever tried to do.

   It was a wonder she’d grown up at all with his belittling and not withered away to a husk. If it hadn’t been for her mother and her brother, Miles, she would never have survived.

   Sometimes she wondered if she had survived. Certainly she lacked confidence in everything she’d ever tried to do, and now she found herself saddled with running a newspaper, of all things. How Papa would have laughed!

   But Papa was no longer here to criticize her until she dissolved in tears. She squared her shoulders. She had not wept in over a year.

   * * *

   The next afternoon Jess looked up from her desk to see a figure racing past the front window, then another and another. The pounding on the boardwalk outside the Sentinel office sounded like thunder before a storm.

   She frowned and sank her teeth into her pencil. Where was everyone going in such a rush? Then she grabbed up her notepad and bolted for the door. Her nose for news, as Miles had described it, was twitching as if it smelled something burning on a hot stove. Whatever it was, she’d break speed records to report it before Cole Sanders heard about it.

   The crowd swept her along to the railroad station, where townspeople were milling about the platform. The train from the East had just pulled in. Pooh, that wasn’t newsworthy unless someone important was on it. Governor Morse? General Custer? Maybe Jenny Lind? She elbowed her way to the front.

   No one got off the train. Instead the engine rolled forward two car lengths to reveal the cattle car. Oh, for heaven’s sake, everyone in the county had cows! There was nothing newsworthy in that unless one of them had two heads.

   The crowd oohed and aahed and fell back to reveal the most beautiful horse Jess had ever laid eyes on, a handsome chocolate-colored mare. The animal stepped daintily down the loading ramp and Jess caught her breath. The horse was led by That Man. Cole Sanders.

   “That’s a purebred Arabian,” someone yelped.

   “Damn right,” That Man said. He caressed the animal’s sleek head, then leaned forward and said something she couldn’t hear into the creature’s silky ear. She could swear the horse nodded.

   “How come ya didn’t ride her out here?” an elderly man shouted.

   Cole looked up. “Would you hitch a thousand-dollar horse to a freight wagon?” he yelled.

   “Guess not,” the man admitted.

   Was there a news story in this? Jess wondered. Maybe. Something glimmered at the edge of her mind, something about a man called Coleridge playing nursemaid to a horse.

   She fished her pencil out of her skirt pocket, plopped onto a bench in the shade and began to scribble.

   * * *

   Cole watched the kid load newspapers into a saddlebag and ride out of town on his roan mare. He took his time saddling up Dancer, then cantered after the boy. Wasn’t hard to catch up; the kid stopped at every ranch along the road to Gillette Springs.

   Finally he trotted Dancer out in front of the roan and signaled. “Hold up, son.”

   The boy reined in. “Something wrong, mister?”

   “Nope. Just doing a little reconnaissance, you might say.” He leaned over to offer a handshake. “Name’s Cole Sanders. Editor of the new paper in town.”

   “I’m Teddy, uh, Ted MacAllister. I’m delivering the Wednesday edition of the Sentinel for Miss Jessamine.”

   “Mind if I ride along? I’m new to this part of the country.”

   “No, I don’t mind.”

   “Might have a man-to-man discussion with you about your subscribers.”

   Teddy’s chest visibly swelled. “Sure. Gosh, that’s a fine-lookin’ horse you got, mister.”

   “She’s an Arabian. Name’s Dancer. Like to ride her?”

   The kid’s face lit up like Christmas. “Could I? Really?”

   Cole reined up and dismounted. “Sure. Let’s trade for a few miles.”

   The boy slid off his roan so fast Cole thought his britches must be burning. He held Dancer’s bridle while Teddy mounted, then hoisted himself into the roan’s saddle.

   “Hot-diggety, a real live Arabian!”

   Cole laughed and fell in beside him. Kinda reminded him of himself at that age, young and green and working hard to hide it.

   Well, he wasn’t green now, and he had a score to settle. Not only had Jessamine Lassiter impugned his manhood in her editorial; she had implied he wasn’t a real journalist, that he lacked both concern for Smoke River and the strength to take on the rough Oregon West.

   No one, especially not a snip of a girl with a stubby pencil in her hand, said he wasn’t a professional journalist.

   

   The Sentinel newspaper published twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. Cole decided the Lark would publish on Tuesday and Friday. That way he could scoop any breaking story and be the first to print it.

   Each week he relished covering his chosen beat, the Golden Partridge Saloon, the barbershop, the potbellied stove at Carl Ness’s mercantile where the townspeople and ranchers gathered to shoot the breeze and complain about whatever was stuck in their craw. And the railroad station, where each week he picked up a bundle of newspapers from the East.

   The news was weeks out of date, but out here in Oregon it was still news. Custer and the Sioux, President Grant, new railroad routes. Cole discovered folks in Smoke River bellyached about everything, and that was rich pickings for a newspaper man.

   The ongoing sidewalk-sweeping war between barber Whitey Poletti and the mercantile owner next door to his shop raged until the winter rains started. The dressmaker, Verena Forester, ranted at length about a lost shipment of wool bolts from Omaha. Charlie the stationmaster got so tired of sending Verena’s “Where is my wool?” messages he started claiming the telegraph lines were down.

   Subscriptions to the Lark trickled in. Cole visited every farm and rancher from here to Gillette Springs to drum up business; he even paid Teddy MacAllister an extra twenty-five cents to deliver one free copy of the Lark to each Sentinel customer on his route.

   Billy Rowell, the young lad who covered the town circulation, perked right up at his offer of the same for including the Lark on his rounds. Jessamine Lassiter wouldn’t like it one bit, but the kid confided that his pa had been killed in a mining accident last year and his momma, Ilsa Rowell, was taking in washing to make ends meet. Cole promised to increase Billy’s take when the Lark subscriptions exceeded those of the Sentinel.

   He pushed away from his desk and rolled his chair over to where Noralee Ness bent over her type stick. “Doing okay?”

   “We’re running out of w’s, Mr. Sanders. What should I do?”

   “Improvise. Butt two v’s up together. Might look funny, but it’ll work.”

   Noralee sent him a shy smile. She was proving to be a great little typesetter, quick and conscientious, even though she could only work after school and on Saturdays. She even helped Billy load up the newspapers twice each week and she never let a word slip to Jessamine about the arrangement.

   He paid Noralee a dollar a week, and from the adoring look on her narrow face the first time he laid her pay envelope in her hand, he’d won a friend for life. Maybe newspapering out here in Smoke River wasn’t too bad.

   Except for Jessamine Lassiter. Damn woman could dig up more news from her ladies’ needlework circles and afternoon teas than he could keep up with. The new music school opening next week. Births and baptisms. Weddings and funerals. The latest fashion news from Godey’s Ladies’ Book, whatever the hell that was. Even recipes for oatmeal cookies.

   But the most galling was the Sentinel’s blatant editorials supporting Sheriff Jericho Silver for district judge. “Up by his own bootstraps” stuff. “Honest, hardworking, heroic.”

   Bilge. Nobody was that perfect. If he was going to support Conway Arbuckle, he’d have to dig up some dirt on Sheriff Jericho Silver.

   Later. Right now he spied Jessamine sashaying across the street and into his office, where she stood in front of his desk and announced that Sheriff Silver, the paragon of Smoke River, had caught the afternoon train to Portland to take his law exam.

   “You didn’t know that, did you?” she taunted.

   Yeah, he knew that. But when she thought she’d got the drop on him like that, her eyes snapped more green than gray, and sometimes he couldn’t remember what the topic was.

   “I didn’t know that,” he lied. He wondered if his eyes did anything to her insides, the way hers did to his. Then he caught himself and deliberately looked away. He wasn’t in the market for a woman’s glance. Or a woman’s anything else.

   “I’ll scoop you on the outcome, too,” she crowed. “Jericho talks only to me.”

   “Yeah,” Cole agreed. “But his wife, Maddie, talks to me.”

   “Oh?” Her eyebrows went up. “She does? Really? When do you—?”

   “When she’s hanging up diapers in her backyard. Sometimes when she’s out in front of her house, pruning her roses.”

   “Liar.”

   “Not. Maddie washes diapers every morning.”

   “And she feeds you tidbits of information every afternoon, is that it?” She puffed out her cheeks and released a long breath, making an errant curl dance across her forehead. Jessamine never wore a hat, he’d noticed. Maybe that was why she had a sprinkling of charming little freckles across her nose.

   “Besides,” he added, “along with some cookies and a good cup of coffee, Maddie tells me all the latest news from Pinkerton’s Detective Agency in Chicago. She’s an agent, you know.”

   “That,” she said with exasperation, “is cheating.”

   “No, it’s not, Jessamine. It’s called news gathering.”

   She gave him a look that would fry turnips and swished out the door. He watched her skirt twitch behind her hips with every step. He couldn’t wait until bedtime and another show behind her window blind.

   At noon, Conway Arbuckle paid him another visit. “Say, Sanders, whaddya think about running another editorial about my superior qualifications for district judge?”

   “Already ran two editorials this week.” Cole noticed that every time Conway visited the Lark office, Noralee turned her back, keeping her head down and bending over the rack of type fonts as if they were Christmas packages.

   “You got something new to say?” he queried.

   “Hell yes, I do,” Conway snapped. “Seems that Sneaky Pete sheriff’s run off to Portland. Wonder what he does in the big city?”

   “He’s taking his—”

   “Prob’ly a woman, wouldn’t you say?”

   “No, I wouldn’t say, Mr. Arbuckle. Sheriff Silver’s a married man with two kids. Twins.”

   Arbuckle leaned over Cole’s desk and spoke in a low tone. “So? I smell a rat? Cant’cha dig up some dirt on him? You know, a nice-lookin’ whore—”

   “Watch it, Arbuckle. There’s a lady present.”

   Arbuckle jerked upright. “Huh? Where? You mean your type girl? Hell, she’s only a kid.”

   “She’s a ‘she,’ no matter how old she is. Now get out and leave us in peace. When there’s legitimate news about Sheriff Silver, I’ll publish it.”

   Noralee watched the door close behind Conway Arbuckle and swiveled on her stool to turn worshipful brown eyes on Cole. “Do you think I’m really a lady, Mr. Sanders? I’m only eleven.”

   Cole rose. “Miss Ness, you are every inch a lady. I’ll stand up for you any day. Now, what about our W’s? You need any more?”

   “That man has bad breath,” Noralee remarked. “Could you write about that?”

   Cole chuckled. “Nah. Gotta have a Who, What, Where, When and Why to make a story.”

   But, now that he thought about it, maybe it was time in this election campaign to aim for the solar plexus.

   * * *

   Jessamine folded the last of her Saturday edition into Teddy MacAllister’s saddlebag and handed the rest of the stack to Billy Rowell for the town deliveries, along with a shiny new quarter for each boy. She frowned as she watched Billy lope off down the street. She’d seen him in town just yesterday, hanging around the Lark office with an expectant look on his face.

   You don’t suppose...?

   She most certainly did suppose. That snake Cole Sanders was trying to use her delivery boy! She marched out the door and across the muddy street so fast Eli sat up on his stool, his mouth hanging open.

   “Mr. Sanders,” she announced the instant she was inside his office.

   Her nemesis stood up behind his desk. “Miss Jessamine. Beautiful afternoon, isn’t it?”

   “Don’t change the subject,” she replied sharply. “You’re using Billy Rowell as a delivery boy, and I strongly object. Very strongly, in fact.”

   “Well, don’t. Doesn’t take much to get you riled up, does it?”

   She ignored the remark. “Stealing my delivery boy is unconscionable.”

   “Unconscionable,” he echoed. “Shockingly unfair. Unjust. Unscrupulous. But unconscionable? Kinda strong word for a simple matter of hiring a free agent to do a job.”

   Behind her she heard a spurt of laughter from Noralee Ness.

   “Billy isn’t a free agent,” Jessamine countered. “He belongs to me.”

   Cole liked it when she got angry. Her cheeks turned rosy and she bit her lips until they were swollen and the color of ripe raspberries. He was finding it hard to look away from her mouth.

   “On the contrary, Jessamine, Billy Rowell doesn’t belong to you or anybody else in this town except maybe his momma, who, by the way, seems mighty grateful for the extra money her son’s bringing home each week.”

   Jessamine’s raspberry-bitten lips opened and then closed. And opened again. “Of course,” she said in an even tone. “You are correct. I do beg your pardon for the use of ‘unconscionable.’ What about just ‘unfair’?”

   “Seems to me, Miss Jessamine, you go off half-cocked a lot.”

   “That, Mr. Sanders, is entirely your fault.”

   “For God’s sake, we’ve been squabbling for weeks now. About time for first names, isn’t it?”

   Another snort of laughter from Noralee.

   “Now,” he continued, noticing how Jessamine’s breasts were swelling against the buttons of her white shirtwaist, “what is it exactly that is my fault? Other than running my newspaper office across the street from yours?”

   She actually stamped her foot on the plank floor. “For one thing, you are—”

   Jess stopped midsentence. He was what? A competitor, yes. A man, with all the maddeningly masculine habits of men, a lazy, confident swagger when he walked; a slow, suggestive smile that made her insides turn mushy; a mouth that... Oh, she didn’t know what, but his lips too often drew her gaze and she just knew that he noticed.

   “I am...?” he prompted.

   “You disregard, um, propriety. You...drink. You...are backing that snake Conway Arbuckle for judge.”

   “It’s true, I do drink. I consider the Golden Partridge part of my news beat. But propriety? I don’t disregard propriety, Jessamine. I have never—”

   He broke off and swallowed hard. Yes, he had disregarded propriety. He’d swept Maryann off her feet right under the nose of her stepfather and run away with her before the old man could unearth his shotgun.

   “Also,” he continued, “Mr. Arbuckle asked for my support. Besides that, since I took him on, my subscriptions have increased almost twofold.”

   She sniffed. “That’s because people sense a fight between the Sentinel and the Lark over the election.” She sniffed again.

   “Naturally. We both want to sell newspapers, right? Competition brings in more customers, Jessamine.”

   She said nothing, just chewed some more on her lips. If she didn’t stop, he’d have trouble hiding his body’s reaction.

   Too late. He stepped sideways, out of both Jessamine’s and Noralee’s field of view, and surreptitiously adjusted his jeans.

   “Customers,” she murmured at last. “I see. Well, I suppose you are correct. I wonder why I didn’t consider that before.”

   “Seems to me you often speak first and consider later.”

   That elicited a choked laugh from Noralee.

   Jessamine said nothing for so long Cole thought maybe he’d gone too far. She stood motionless, studying her shoe tops and worrying her bottom lip.

   Jessamine realized she was standing tongue-tied in Cole’s office and couldn’t for the life of her remember what she’d come for. Think of something. Anything.

   “I...um...”

   “Yes? Something else on your mind?”

   “Yes, there is,” she admitted. “But now I can’t remember what it was.”

   His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Do I make you nervous, Jessamine?”

   “What? Of course not. What would I have to be nervous about?”

   He took a step closer and she backed up. “Me, maybe?” he said. He sent her a grin that seemed positively wicked.

   “N-no,” she blurted. “Not you.”

   “My newspaper?”

   “Of course not. I’m not afraid of a little competition.”

   It’s you I am afraid of. She cringed inwardly at the admission. There hadn’t been a male since she was twelve years old who made her heart thrum in irregular beats and her words dry up on her tongue. She squared her shoulders and forced her eyes to meet his.

   “I d-don’t scare easily, Mr. Sanders.” She thought he looked just a tad disappointed.

   “You don’t,” he stated. His tone said he didn’t believe her for one minute.

   “The newspaper business out here in the West is fraught with danger. If I were going to go all jelly-legged over something I would have done so when my father died and my brother was shot and left me running the Sentinel. As it is, you don’t scare me one whit.”

   “Yeah? Then how come you’re edging toward the door, Miss Lassiter?”

   “I’m not!”

   But she was. She couldn’t get away from those laughing blue eyes fast enough. She whirled toward the door and ran smack into Ellie Johnson, the federal marshal’s wife.

   Ellie reached out to steady her. “Jessamine?”

   “Ellie! I was just leaving. Please excuse me.”

   She fled through the open door and didn’t stop until she was all the way across the street.

   Cole watched her disappear through the Sentinel office doorway. “Don’t know what got into her,” he murmured.

   “Maybe she’s hungry,” Ellie offered with a laugh.

   “Nah, she just finished breakfast.”

   Ellie nodded. She was as tall as he was, with a slim figure and a graceful way of moving. He thought he recognized her from her photo in the Sentinel.

   “Mrs. Johnson, isn’t it?”

   “Ellie.”

   Cole nodded. “What can I do for you today, Ellie?”

   She smiled. “It’s about what I can do for you, Mr. Sanders.”

   Cole waited while her smile widened. “Uh, what might that be? You aren’t a typesetter, are you?”

   Behind him, Noralee gave a squeak of outrage.

   “Heaven’s no. I’m a music teacher. I came about tonight.”

   “Tonight? What about tonight?”

   “Why, the tryouts for the choir,” she explained. “At the church.”

   “Sorry, I’m not a churchgoing man.” He hadn’t set foot in a church since that awful day back in Kansas when he buried Maryann.

   “Oh, it’s not a church choir,” she said quickly. “It’s the new community chorus that I am directing. We’re doing a Christmas benefit for the new music school.”

   “Oh, yeah?”

   “Do you like music? Singing, I mean?”

   “I do. But not in church.”

   “Whyever not? What have you got against churches?”

   “I...” Cole faltered. He could never explain how he felt, that God had abandoned him to black despair when Maryann had died. He shook his head.

   “Do come,” she urged. “A little religion would do any newspaper editor good. Seven o’clock.”

   She was gone before he could say yea or nay. Mostly he thought nay. A little religion would never in a thousand years cure what ailed him.

   But then he thought of all the town news he might glean at choir rehearsals, and he changed his mind.

   

   Cole hated churches. He’d been married in one and a year later he’d sat through Maryann’s funeral and felt his heart turn to stone. Ever since then he’d steered clear of religious establishments.

   To his surprise, the Smoke River Community Church meeting hall wasn’t oppressive. The walls were painted a soft cream color, accented by dark wooden beams. Oak, he thought. Nice.

   About two dozen townspeople sat on benches around the perimeter, waiting for the tryouts to begin. Including, he discovered with a jolt of pleasure, Jessamine Lassiter.

   Tryouts, he discovered, involved singing alone, and Cole immediately felt uncomfortable about that. Trapped would be a better word. Maybe he should give up the idea. He had started to rise when the choir director, Ellie Johnson, impeccably dressed in a black skirt and a soft pink shirtwaist, clapped her hands and everyone sat up straighter.

   “Let’s start with the women’s voices.”

   The women sang selections from church hymns for their tryouts. Ellie selected four altos and three sopranos that blended with each other. One of the sopranos was Jessamine, who had spent all evening studiously ignoring him.

   The tenors tried out next. The director chose five, including Whitey Poletti, who had a whiskey-smooth tone and an extraordinarily high range. Whitey had launched into “Santa Lucia,” but got no further than the first stanza before Ellie smiled and nodded at him.

   By the time the director got around to the baritones, Cole was ready to bolt. He couldn’t sing like Whitey. He had no musical training, never sang in a church or any other choir and he hated the thought of doing it in public.

   He looked for the exit, but just then Ellie pinned him with an expectant look.

   He maneuvered to sing last, praying that those already chosen, including Jessamine, would go on home.

   No such luck.

   “Cole Sanders? Your turn.”

   Cole stood up, wishing a trapdoor would open beneath him. The director smiled encouragingly. “What would you like to sing, Mr. Sanders?”

   He felt Jessamine’s cool green-gray eyes on him, and his throat closed up tight. The director waited.

   “Uh, could I do this outside? Just the two of us?”

   She shook her head, and the onlookers began to whisper among themselves. Shoot sake! This wasn’t any worse than facing down a rabid mob of pro-slavery demonstrators back in Kansas. He drew in a deep breath.

   Jessamine waited. She’d bet the country bumpkin from Kansas couldn’t sing a note. Then he opened his mouth and started in.

   “‘Oh, my darling, Oh, my darling, Oh, my darling, Clementine...’”

   Suddenly the room was so quiet she could have heard a hatpin hit the floor. She sat straight as a ramrod and stared at him.

   “You are lost and gone forever...”

   She’d never heard a more beautiful male voice. Rich and full, like a hot mince pie warm from the oven. The director stopped him after “dreadful sorry, Clementine.”

   “Mr. Sanders, do you read music?”

   Aha! Jess would bet a million dollars in gold that he couldn’t. That was why he’d chosen a simple folk song for his audition, and besides that, his voice was entirely untrained.

   “Yeah, some,” he said. “My momma taught me when I learned to play the guitar.”

   “Then we would be honored to have you in our community choir. We’ll be performing selections from Handel’s Messiah at Christmas. Are you familiar with this work?”

   Cole shook his head.

   “In addition to the choral numbers, there is also a mixed quartet of voices included—soprano, alto, tenor, baritone. Perhaps you would consider—?”

   “Just four voices singing by themselves? ’Fraid not, ma’am. I—”

   The director stepped up close to him. “Please, Mr. Sanders. I am short one good baritone voice.”

   Jessamine clenched her fingers together in her lap. Say no, she urged. Ellie had chosen her to be the soprano singer in the quartet. The last thing she wanted was to stand next to Cole Sanders and sing. The very last thing. The thought made her cold and then hot all over.

   She caught Cole’s eye and subtly shook her head.

   He gave her a long, unreadable look. “I’ll do it,” he announced.

   Jess’s heart contracted. She sat numb with anxiety while Ellie selected two basses, rancher Peter Jensen and Ike Bruhn, who owned the sawmill.

   “That will be all for tonight,” Ellie announced. “Rehearsals will start next Tuesday when Winifred Dougherty’s grand piano arrives from St. Louis. Until then, pick up a score and look it over.” She gestured to a pile of music on one of the benches.

   “And for the quartet...” She glanced meaningfully at Cole and then Jessamine. “Please start learning your parts. We will rehearse separately, on Thursday evenings.”

   Jess pressed her lips together. It wasn’t enough to have Cole Sanders in her hair every day of the week, but nights, too? She considered dropping out of the choir, but she’d looked forward to singing the Messiah ever since Ellie had chosen it.

   She would just have to cope. She’d lived through worse than standing next to Cole Sanders. When Miles was killed she’d wanted to give up on life, but she hadn’t. Now singing was something that kept her alive inside. She prayed she could manage to learn her part. Even when she was a child, her father said when she sang she sounded like a sick cat.

   Cole made a move toward her, but she slipped out the side door. She was still trembling inside at the prospect of standing next to him twice each week. She comforted herself with the knowledge that it would only be until Christmas.

   But Christmas was weeks and weeks away. Oh, bother. She would just have to learn how to keep the man from nettling her at close range.

   * * *

   Cole stared down at the draft page of his latest editorial, scattered across his desk. Time to pull out all the stops, he guessed. He hated to ride Jessamine any harder, but newspapering was a business like any other.

   He dipped his pen in the ink bottle on his desk. Let’s see, now...

   “Arbuckle Opponent Cowers,” he wrote. Good headline.

   Yeah, that ought to do it. Something to elicit a response from the Sentinel and bring in some more subscriptions.

   “We note the recent absence of Sheriff Jericho Silver,” he continued. “And we wonder. Is it possible the man is hiding from confrontation with his opponent, Conway Arbuckle?”

   He ran his hand across his stubbly chin. He needed one more verbal jab to draw blood.

   “Only a coward would skulk in his jail-cell office instead of getting out and campaigning among the good voters of Smoke River.”

   “Noralee,” he called. “Set this up right away, will you?”

   * * *

   Tuesday night rolled around. Cole rode back into town after delivering the last of his papers to his outlying subscribers, hurriedly sponged off, ate a quick supper at the restaurant and made it to the choir rehearsal with five minutes to spare. He hoped Jessamine had read his editorial.

   The new music school smelled like fresh paint and new wood and had ample seating for the twenty-seven-member chorus now drifting in for rehearsal in twos and threes. Good acoustics, too, Cole noted as their chatter reverberated around the room.

   The morning rain had eased off, and outside the air smelled of frost. Felt like it, too. Women were bundled up in wool fascinators and fur muffs, and men lumbered in wearing sheepskin coats or wool mackinaws and leather gloves.

   Jessamine Lassiter entered, stamping her feet and blowing on her fingers. He knew she’d already read his latest edition when she sidled past him and hissed a single word at him. “Snake.”

   She took a seat next to the potbellied stove in the corner and glared at him with eyes like green jade. Her nose and cheeks were reddened from the cold.

   They all stood to warm up their voices, and then the director arranged them by vocal part, basses on the left, then tenors, baritones, sopranos and altos on the far right. The piano accompanist, Doc Dougherty’s wife, Winifred, struck a chord.

   Cole could hear Jessamine’s clear, sweet soprano soar above the others, and a shiver went up the back of his neck. Anger sure made her voice sound beautiful.

   Then Ellie Johnson dropped her arms. “I want to mix up the voices more, to get a better blend.” Instead of standing in vocal sections, she arranged them in quartets—one soprano, one alto, a tenor and a baritone, all grouped close together.

   Cole ended up standing beside Jessamine. She held herself rigid, as if her corset stays were made of iron, and he fancied he could see sparks pop off her body.

   The choir la-la-la’d up and down a scale, and now he was quite sure fury was affecting her voice. Her enunciation was so crisp her tongue could cut paper, and the tone... Jehosephat, it was so clear and beautiful it stopped his breath.

   “Jer-i-cho-Sil-ver-is-not-a-co-ward,” she sang up and down for the next scale. She glared at him for emphasis.

   He cleared his throat. “He-is-too-a-coward,” he sang.

   Her cheeks flushed as she attacked the next scale, this time in a minor key. “Just-you-wait-you-snake-la-la-la-la.”

   The rehearsal itself wasn’t near as much fun as the warm-up scales and the la-la-la battle with Jess. Then the words of the Messiah took precedence over the insults they were passing back and forth. Cole was halfway disappointed.

   But what almost did him in was standing next to her, catching the scent of her skin as the room warmed up, smelling her hair as that tangle of wild curls bobbed near his shoulder. He groaned without thinking.

   Watch out, Sanders. After Maryann you swore you’d never have thoughts about another woman. Well, hell, he wasn’t having thoughts. He was having feelings. Normal male feelings. Feelings of the most basic variety. Feelings of just plain wanting.

   But, he assured himself, his mind was in full control. A man could look, couldn’t he? Just as long as he didn’t let Jessamine Lassiter mean anything to him beyond admiration for a pretty rival newspaper editor. Just as long as she didn’t matter to him.

   Maybe he should just crawl onto his cot tonight and forget about watching her silhouetted form against the window blind across the street.

   At that moment she tossed her shiny dark hair back over her shoulders and he sucked in his breath. Or maybe not. Damn, she smelled good.

   Ellie had the sopranos sing the next section by themselves. Standing next to Jessamine, Cole tried to keep his mind on the music instead of surreptitiously watching her.

   “‘For unto us a child is born...’”

   He worked hard to screen out Jess’s lilting soprano voice, but with little success. He heard every single syllable, felt every indrawn breath she took until he found himself unconsciously breathing right along with her. It was a bit like making love, he thought. Instantly he wished he hadn’t thought it.

   She moved unconsciously when she sang. Just enough to bring her body an inch or two closer to his. He began to sweat.

   Too close.

   Not close enough.

   Despite the chill in the rehearsal room, his body began to grow warm. He fought an urge to rip off his flannel shirt, but he settled for rolling his sleeves up to his elbows.

   Big mistake. As she swayed beside him, the hair on his forearms rose as if reaching toward her. The urge to feel her skin brush against his was overpowering.

   Move toward me, Jessamine. Touch me.

   Shoot, he was going nuts. Another hour of this would make him crazier than a wolf in heat. He sidled away from her, and tried to control his hammering heartbeat.

   What he couldn’t control was his groin swelling into an ache. He wanted to toss her over his shoulder and take her...where?

   He suppressed a groan. To bed.

   Oh, God.

   That night he didn’t sleep at all.

   

   Jessamine headed across the street, her footsteps crunching against the frost-painted boardwalk; it was so slick she had to concentrate to keep her balance. Mercy, it was cold this morning! She saw no sign of life at the Lark office, so she bent and carefully laid the Wednesday edition of her Sentinel against Cole Sanders’s door.

   Back in her own office, she turned her backside to the potbellied stove in the corner and rubbed her frozen hands together.

   “Cold out, huh, Jess?”

   “You know it is, Eli. The temperature outside is below freezing.”

   “Gonna be a lot hotter when Sanders wakes up and reads yer editorial.”

   She ducked her head to hide her smile. “Cole Sanders is a grown man, Eli. Sticks and stones and so on.”

   “Yep, reckon so. Names ain’t never hurt you, huh?”

   Jess sobered instantly. Names had hurt her. When she was young and just starting out to help her papa and Miles on the newspaper, her schoolmates had teased her mercilessly about her ambition to be a journalist. “What d’ya wanna do that for? Too ugly to get a husband? Boys don’t like brainy girls, smarty-pants!”

   And it was names in an editorial her brother had printed that had cost him his life; that had hurt even worse. After Papa died, she and her older brother had moved out West and Miles had taken her under his wing.

   She had been just a young girl, but he had begun teaching her about operating a newspaper, things her father had never let her do such as cleaning the ink off the rollers and setting type. Miles had also let her try her hand at writing stories, and he instructed her in the basics of journalism—being accurate and objective.

   Then Miles had been killed, and now she was struggling to carry on the newspaper he had established in Smoke River.

   Jess didn’t really think Cole Sanders would shoot her for writing an inflammatory editorial. But she would wager he might want to. She bit the inside of her cheek. This morning she couldn’t help wondering what the no-nonsense editor of the Lake County Lark would do about the editorial she’d published.

   She kept one eye on the front windows of the Lark office across the street and set about planning her Saturday issue. She’d write a feature story about the new choir Ellie Johnson would be directing, and another article on the children’s rhythm band the music school director, Winifred Dougherty, was starting, together with the director’s plea for a violin teacher. Maybe she’d add an interview with the sheriff’s wife, Maddie Silver; what it was like being the mother of twin boys while also a Pinkerton agent?

   Across the street the front door of the Lark office banged open and Jess caught her breath. Then just as suddenly it slammed shut. Cole had picked up her newspaper and retreated inside. She waited, her heart pounding.

   Eli held up the flask of “medicinal” whiskey he kept under the counter. “Want a snort?”

   “Certainly not.” She tried not to watch the front door of the Lark office, and then suddenly it flew open again. She gasped and held her hand out to Eli. “Well, maybe just a sip.”

   Cole Sanders started across the street toward her, his head down, his hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans, and a copy of her newspaper stuffed under his arm. Jess uncorked Eli’s whiskey bottle and glugged down a double swallow.

   Cole marched straight for her office, his face stern, his boots pounding the muddy street. Jess bit her lip, stiffened her spine and laid her hand on the doorknob. She would do her best to smile and graciously welcome him inside.

   But she glimpsed his brown sheepskin jacket moving past her front window and on down the boardwalk.

   The air in her lungs whooshed out. What on earth? Didn’t he want to yell at her about her editorial? She’d used the word insidious more than once, and nasty at least twice. And her new favorite word, larcenous; she’d used that one three times. She really relished larcenous. She’d even put it in boldface type.

   Wasn’t Mr. Sanders livid with fury?

   She couldn’t stand the suspense. She grabbed her heavy wool coat and knitted green scarf off the hook by the door.

   “Hey, Jess,” Eli yelled. “Where are ya...?” She blotted out his voice and sped down the frost-slick sidewalk.

   Then her steps slowed. Drat. If Cole stopped at the Golden Partridge she couldn’t follow him. No lady entered a saloon.

   But he strode past the Golden Partridge and entered the restaurant nearby. Thank the Lord. She could unobtrusively steal inside, sit in one corner sipping a cup of tea and watch his face while he read her editorial.

   She tiptoed inside the deserted restaurant, shed her coat and scarf and hung them on the maple coat tree in the corner. “Hot tea, please, Rita,” she whispered.

   Cole sat with his back to her, calmly sipping a mug of steaming coffee. But he wasn’t reading her newspaper. He was gazing out the front window. And humming! She recognized the tune, “The Blue-Tail Fly.”

   Rita brought her a ceramic pot of tea, plunked it down and tipped her gray-bunned head toward the front table. “Kinda odd, you two settin’ in the same room but not havin’ breakfast together.”

   “Oh, Mr. Sanders and I are not together.”

   The waitress blinked. “No? Shoot, I thought—”

   “Sure we’re together,” Cole said without turning around.

   Jess jumped. The man must have ears like a foxhound.

   “You misspelled larcenous,” he called.

   “What? I thought you hadn’t read my editorial yet.”

   He maneuvered his chair around to face her. “Oh, I’ve read it all right. Like I said, you misspelled—”

   “I heard you the first time,” she retorted.

   “Never figured you for a sloppy writer, Miss Lassiter.”

   “I never figured you for a schoolmarm, Mr. Sanders.”

   “Point taken.” He rose and came across the room to her table. “Scrambled eggs?”

   “No, thank you. I am having tea.”

   “Rita, scramble up some eggs for me and the lady. Add some bacon, too.”

   Rita bobbed her head, hid a smile and disappeared into the kitchen.

   “Cold out this morning,” Cole said amiably.

   “Very.” Jess fiddled with her napkin, refolded it into a square, then shook it out and folded it again. “Very well, how do you spell larcenous?”

   “Hell, I don’t know. Got your attention, though, didn’t it?”

   She bit her lip. “It most certainly did. Are you always so underhanded?”

   “Nope. Hardly ever, in fact.”

   “Only with me, is that it?”

   Cole leaned across the table toward her and lowered his voice. “Jessamine, if you don’t stop worrying your teeth into your lips like that, so help me I’m going to kiss you right here in front of everybody.”

   Her eyes rounded into two green moons. “I. Beg. Your. Pardon?”

   “You heard me. Stop biting your lips.”

   She turned the color of strawberry jam. “What business is it of yours what I do with my lips?”

   “None at all. But I’m only human, and I’m male, so stop it.”

   She tossed her napkin onto the table and started up, but he snaked out his hand and closed his fingers around her wrist.

   “Sit.” He gave a little tug and her knees gave way.

   “Now,” he said in a businesslike tone. “We’re gonna have a council of war, Miss Lassiter, so listen up.”

   She opened her mouth, then closed it with a little click, and he proceeded.

   “Some things are fair in journalistic jockeying, and some things are hitting below the belt. What you wrote about Conway Arbuckle is below the belt.”

   “What things?”

   He dragged her newspaper from inside his jacket pocket, spread it flat on the table and tapped his forefinger on her editorial. “That he’s larcenous. And that he’s a cheat. You shouldn’t sling mud around with accusations like that unless you can back them up with facts.”

   “What if I can back them up?”

   “I’m betting that you can’t.”

   “How would you know?”

   “Jessamine, you keep this up and Arbuckle will sue you for everything you’ve got.”

   Her face turned whiter than the tablecloth. She studied the teapot, her spoon, the squashed napkin that lay on the table between them. At last she looked up at him, and his heart flopped into his belly.

   Tears welled in her eyes. Big shiny tears that made him want to lick them off her cheeks.

   “When Miles...” She bit her trembling lip and Cole stifled a groan.

   “My brother was always the brainy one,” she said on a shaky breath. “We came from a long line of newspaper publishers, our great-grandfather in England, and our grandfather and father in Boston. Papa taught Miles everything, and I...well, I just tagged along because I was a girl. When Papa died we came out West to start over on our own, and then...then Miles was killed and I—I am doing my best to carry on the family tradition. “

   “And you’re doing fine, Jessamine. But you might, uh, ask Sheriff Jericho Silver what his law books say about defamation of character. And libel.”

   The color drained from her face. “L-libel? Miles never talked about libel.”

   “That’s probably what got your brother killed. Jessamine, exactly how much do you know about editing a newspaper?”

   She drew herself up so stiff he thought she’d pop the buttons off her red gingham shirtwaist. “I know enough,” she said in a tight voice.

   “Not hardly.” He tried to gentle his voice, but he was irritated. Damn fool woman. No doubt she’d stepped up to fill her brother’s shoes and take on the newspaper, and he had to admire her for that, but wanting and succeeding were two different things. Doing it badly could get her killed.

   “There are rules,” he said. “Good journalists don’t go off half-cocked, and good journalists don’t sling accusations around without hard facts to back them up.”

   “Oh.” She sounded contrite, but her eyes were blazing. “Exactly why are you helping me, Cole? After all, we are competitors.”

   “You’re darn right, we are competitors. But look at it this way, Jess. We may be on opposite sides of the fence, but actually we’re helping each other. My subscriptions have nearly doubled. I’d wager your subscriptions are up, too. But if your newspaper goes under, there goes reader interest in the competition between my Lark and your Sentinel.”

   She gripped the handle of her teacup so tight he thought it might snap off. “I’ve sunk every last penny I have in the Sentinel,” she said in a shaky voice. “I cannot afford to fight a lawsuit.”

   “Then don’t. Get yourself a set of law books and start studying what’s libelous and what’s just legitimate criticism.”

   She opened her mouth to reply, but Rita interrupted. “Eggs and bacon, right?” She plopped down two loaded platters and stepped back. “You two aren’t gonna fight over breakfast, now, are you?”

   “Not this morning,” Cole said with a smile.

   “I guess not,” Jessamine said in a small voice. “Not when I’m this hungry.”

   Cole crunched up a strip of crispy bacon. “Hunger makes us good bedfellows.”

   She flushed scarlet and he suddenly realized how that might have sounded, but it was too late. Then with extreme care she upended her teacup and poured the hot liquid over his knuckles.

   While he mopped at his hand and swore, she calmly picked up her fork. “Bedfellows?” she said, her tone icy. “That remark is positively indecently suggestive. I should sue you.”

   Cole bit back a laugh. “Yeah, well, it just slipped out. But maybe you should think about it.”

   “Think about what?”

   Bedfellows, he almost blurted. “Libel,” he said instead.

   She pushed away from the table and stalked out, her behind twitching enticingly.

   * * *

   At the choir rehearsal that evening, Cole appeared with a bandage wrapped around his hand and an odd gleam in his blue eyes. Jess smothered a stab of regret over her impulsive act at breakfast and concentrated on not biting her lips.

   The director clapped her hands for attention, and the singers rose to begin their vocal warm-ups.

   “You’re dangerous, you know that?” he whispered when he and Jessamine stood side by side.

   “And you,” she murmured, “are insulting.”

   “I meant the word bedfellows figuratively speaking,” he intoned.

   Jessamine turned away, but she wondered at the niggle of unease that burrowed under her breastbone. She wished, oh, how she wished, she didn’t have to stand next to Cole Sanders one more minute.

   It wasn’t that he sang off-key. Quite the contrary. His voice was warm and, surprisingly, he read music better than either tenor Whitey Poletti or alto Ardith Buchanan. And he paid attention to Ellie’s directing better than she was at the moment.

   It wasn’t musical unease she felt. It wasn’t even unease about their competing newspapers. It was how he made her feel when she stood so close to him she could sense the sleeve of his blue wool shirt brush against her arm. She wanted to lean into his warmth, his strength. He made her feel small and fragile in a way she had never felt before.

   Even as a schoolgirl, she had never hesitated to double up her fists and pound any boy who made one of her friends cry. Miles said she had been a real stoic when Mama died and then Papa had succumbed to a heart attack.

   But the truth was that Cole Sanders made her feel not only fragile but both furious and frightened at the same time. Furious when he exposed how much she didn’t know about running a newspaper and frightened at the hot, trembly feeling that built inside her when she stood near him.

   As a dried-up spinsterish twenty-two, she was shocked by her reaction. But she was too old to force her hands into fists and beat him up for upsetting her. And Lord knew she was too young to know anything about men and what went on inside them. Cole had smiled at her, but what did that mean? The truth was that Cole Sanders kept her feeling off balance.

   And no matter what he said about the advantages of their newspaper competition, she would bet he was just waiting for her to make a dire mistake so he could force her Sentinel out of business.

   She straightened her spine. Whatever it was Cole Sanders wanted, she would never let him have it.

   

   “Mr. Sanders?”

   Cole kept his gaze on the page proof spread out on his desk. “Hmm? What is it, Noralee?”

   “How do you know when you fall in love?”

   “What?” His head jerked up. “What did you say?”

   Noralee scuffed her leather heels against the bottom rung of her stool. “I said,” she repeated, annoyance coloring her voice, “how do you know when you fall in love?”

   Cole stared into his typesetter’s guileless brown eyes. “Well, uh...”

   “My sister, Edith, she’s my twin, she says your head goes all fuzzy and your heart doesn’t beat right.”

   “She does, does she?”

   “Yeah. And she says your hands shake and—”

   “Noralee, you shouldn’t believe everything your sister tells you. Just ask yourself, how would she know?”

   “Oh, Edith says she knows everything.”

   “You believe that?”

   Noralee studied the type stick cradled in her palm. “I dunno. That’s why I asked you.”

   Cole studied the girl’s earnest face, then let his gaze drift out the front window. How did you know when you fall in love? Talk about a punch straight into his gut. Oh, shoot, he didn’t want to remember.

   “Mr. Sanders?”

   “Well, um...”

   “And don’t tell me you just know. That’s what Ma always says, but I think she says that cuz she doesn’t really know.”

   “Why wouldn’t your mother know? She married your father, didn’t she?”

   “Yeah, but... But I think she did it just cuz Pa kept askin’ her. Not cuz she was in love. And that’s what Pa thinks, too.”

   “Noralee, usually when people get married they care about each other. It might not be all flutters and blushes, but it’s real all the same.”

   “How do you know, Mr. Sanders? You ever loved anybody?”

   Cole shut his eyes. God yes, he’d loved somebody. And his heart had pounded and his head had gone fuzzy and all the rest. It had been the most earth-shaking thing that had ever happened to him, and he knew right down to the bottom of his boots that he would never, ever forget it.

   Or her. He swallowed over a sharp rock lodged in his throat and opened his eyes.

   “Well,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Well, I think that, um, you should be sure to take your pulse every morning to check your heartbeat and see if you can remember your multiplication tables to check your brain.”

   “Oh.”

   “You any good at math?”

   “Well, yes, but...”

   “Okay, figure me this—how many articles can you typeset in an hour?”

   “Depends on how long the articles are.”

   “Right. Now, about—”

   “You gonna answer my question, Mr. Sanders?” She poked out her lower lip and swung her heel against the stool rung.

   “Look, Noralee, I’m not going to lie to you. When you fall in love you’ll feel it in every single part of you, your head, your heart, right down to your big toe. You won’t be able to miss it.”

   Her brown eyes widened. “Really? Really and truly?”

   “Really and truly.”

   “Does it ever go away?”

   “No, honey, it doesn’t ever go away. So be careful who you fall in love with, you hear?”

   He had to clear his throat again, but it didn’t help. He could see Maryann in that blue gingham dress he loved, coming through the apple orchard as she always did when he worked late on the newspaper, and a sharp ache knifed into his belly.

   He wondered if he’d ever be able to think of her without feeling as if he’d been hit over the head with a spiked shovel. Two spiked shovels.

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