Gossip is news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress. — Columnist Liz Smith
Smooth, moneyed and used to having things fall in his lap.
In short, Kayla thought disdainfully, as she watched him move toward her with a thin gloss of civility, he was everything that her family history had taught her to avoid.
Noah Whittaker. She’d spotted him instantly when she’d arrived at the cocktail party tonight at one of Boston’s finer hotels to celebrate a retired Formula One race-car driver’s newly published autobiography.
Her headline about Noah in that morning’s Boston Sentinel flashed through her mind: Caught with Fluffy, Huffy Calls It Quits. Will Buffy the Man Slayer Be Next for Noah?
She supposed he hadn’t liked her story one bit. But she didn’t make the news, she just reported it. And he gave her plenty of material to work with. He had, in fact, become a popular figure in her column.
And writing about him was easy. She knew his type. He acted as if the world were his cocktail, served up dry with a twist just for him, exactly as her biological father did.
She watched him approach and pushed aside the irritating twinge of nervousness. She had nothing to be nervous about.
She knew that, for some women, thoughts of sin and Noah Whittaker went hand in hand. But she’d been inoculated at birth against the players of the world—though she could dispassionately assess the attraction: Noah’s hair, closely cropped but thick, looked as if he dried it with a blow-dryer set on scorch, its shade a burnished bronze. Over six feet tall, he had the honed body of an athlete. He’d had a brief but meteoric career as a race-car driver, though these days, he was better known as a vice president of Whittaker Enterprises, the family conglomerate in Carlyle, near Boston.
Noah stopped in front of her. “Kayla Jones, right?” He paused for a moment, his face all lean, hard planes of masculinity. “Or should I say,” he added, his tone betraying a hint of derision, “Ms. Rumor-Has-It?”
Her chin came up. If he thought to faze her, he had another thing coming. She’d gotten plenty of practice handling barbs from the pampered and privileged at the fancy prep school she’d attended on scholarship. “That’s right. It’s nice of you to remember.”
One side of his mouth quirked up. “Hard to forget when you’ve been wielding a machete all over my social life. Or is that part of your job description as the Boston Sentinel’s resident gossip columnist?”
Her shoulders stiffened. They’d seen each other a few times at various social events, but this was the first time he’d deigned to speak with her personally. “I prefer the term society columnist. I write for the style section of the Sentinel.”
“Is that what they’re calling the fiction part of the paper these days?”
She made an attempt at a dismissive laugh. “If I hadn’t heard that line before from more people than I can count, I’d say you were trying to insult me.”
He cocked his head, seeming to consider her question. “That depends. Are you trying to spread lies about me, or is that just a nice little fringe benefit in your line of work?”
“For your information, all my columns are carefully researched and my sources checked for reliability.”
“Obviously you need to work harder.”
“Are we by chance discussing my column in today’s paper?”
“Oh, yeah, we’re discussing that all right. And last week’s column. And the one before that. One guess as to what they all have in common.”
“There’s no need to descend into sarcasm,” she said. “I’m aware of how often I’ve mentioned you in my column.”
“Are you?” he asked silkily. “And are you also aware it’s your fault that Eve Bernard—or as you’ve referred to her, Huffy—broke up with me?”
From what she’d heard, Eve had done more than break up with him. According to eyewitnesses with whom she’d spoken, Eve had delivered the news—along with a slap to the face—in the presence of dozens of departing guests at a glittering banquet on Saturday night. A Sentinel photographer had gotten a great shot of Noah, glowering at Eve and holding her by the forearms.
But what did he mean it was her fault?
“As a result of my column?” she asked with skepticism. “Don’t you mean as a result of your cavorting with Fluffy?” At his sardonic look, she caught herself. “I mean, Cecily?”
He chuckled cynically. “Cavorting? My, my, what colorful language you society columnists use. All the better to write innuendo, I suppose?”
She tossed her head. “Whatever,” she retorted, dropping all pretense of politeness. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed other guests had begun to throw curious glances their way. “There was a photo of you and Cecily kissing outside the Kirkland Club.”
“And we all know a picture is worth a thousand words, right?” he responded. “Or, in this case, a thousand lies. In fact, if you had done some inquiring instead of relying on that shot that your photographer snapped, you would have discovered that Cecily caught me by surprise with that kiss.”
“How nice for you.”
He ignored her. “You see, Cecily has this weird idea that making the gossip columns will bolster her fledgling acting career—and so much the better if the guy on her arm happens to be rich or famous. So she plastered herself to me the minute she spotted the Sentinel’s photographer.”
“Perhaps then,” she said sweetly, “you should reconsider the risk of dating publicity-seeking aspiring actresses. Or, for that matter, intellectually challenged models. And, hmm—” she pretended to consider for an instant, tilting her head “—I seem to recall at least one ruthless reality-show contestant as well.”
“Oh?” he responded, letting his gaze rake over her from head to toe. “Considering that the field doesn’t yet include any gossip columnists, I don’t think my tastes can be called into question.”
“From what I’ve been able to see, your tastes can best be described as blond, platinum-blond and strawberry-blond.”
“Are you calling me shallow?”
“If the shoe fits,” she retorted.
He shook his head. “So young and yet so bitter.”
Bitter? No, she was cautious, but that’s how a single woman budgeting to make rent payments had to be. And how the product of a fling between a slick, social-climbing financier and his young college intern knew to be. But then Mr. Playboy Whittaker didn’t have a clue about the struggles of ordinary people.
Aloud, she countered, “We journalists have jobs that require us to think, and thinking doesn’t appear to be high on your list of criteria for a girlfriend.”
“Whether it is or not isn’t anyone’s business but mine,” he responded.
“For your information, I didn’t just rely on the photo. I called Huff—I mean, Eve—about it and she confirmed she was planning to break up with you over the, ah, incident.”
“That’s because Eve was thinking of her public image. She believed me when I said your column had misconstrued things because she knows Cecily is a publicity hound. But, as she put it, publicly she had to at least look like she was punishing me for being a naughty boy.”
Kayla felt her lips twitch. “Well, that’s not my fault, is it?”
“It is your fault,” he disagreed. “You’re printing salacious gossip and you’re wreaking havoc on my social life.”
“So find yourself another aspiring starlet,” she retorted. “In fact, I think Buffy the Man Slayer is between men these days.”
“Right, and that’s another thing,” he said tightly, “I don’t need you trying to line up dates for me. Particularly not with someone known as a barracuda in heels.”
“Now that’s not nice.” She spread her hands in an expansive gesture. “You should consider expanding your horizons.”
He braced an arm on the wall near her head and she took an involuntary step back. He leaned in, his gaze, green and grim, boring into hers. “You know, I wonder why you consider me such a fascinating subject. Is it because you wish you were one of those women I date?”
“Don’t be absurd,” she snapped.
He gave her a slow once-over, dwelling on her ring-less hand and letting his eyes linger on her chest before coming back to meet her outraged expression. “You do appear a little uptight. What’s the matter? Wish your life had a little more zing in it?”
“No thanks. My mother taught me to stay away from the players among men.”
“Ah,” he said. “Now we’re getting somewhere. The intrepid reporter is repressed.”