Boston, the year 1890
Talbot Bowdoin presented his invitation to the butler at the mansion's main entrance. In return, the manservant handed Talbot the bad news:
"Tonight's book reading is over, sir."
Talbot righted his slightly askew silk necktie, a red stripe pattern against a somber black background, all the rage in Europe that year. "Might I inquire if the author, Miss Veronica Cooper, is still here?"
"She is. A book signing follows her reading. Go right in, sir. Front parlor to the left."
After reluctantly entrusting the servant with his natty bowler and smart cashmere topcoat, Talbot limped off in that direction. Passing a buffet table laden with finger foods, he stepped into the overcrowded room and took up a position against the back wall, wedging himself between a potted fern and a shark. The plant's proper name escaped him; the toothy fish was otherwise known as Sidney Rowe.
Boston culture was a small pool. Generally speaking, painters floated alone, musicians treaded water in concert, dancers toed the surf in pairs, actors paddled about in groups, and writers clung to established schools — with the exception, naturally, of poets who swam against the tide while trying to make rhyme or reason of it all. And regardless of the talent, from guppy to whale in size, no artist was safe from the bottom-feeding newspaper reporter Sidney Rowe.
The man was a predator of the worst sort. A particularly malicious yellow journalist employed by the mud press, Rowe delighted in blackening reputations, ruining happy marriages, and ending flourishing careers. At the moment, he was tearing into a tuna salad sandwich. Hopefully, a full mouth would protect Talbot from his biting commentary.
"Bowdoin, old man, how could you have missed the most breathlessly anticipated literary event of the season?"
Chomp, chomp. The shark was circling.
In no mood to fight off a feeding frenzy that evening, Talbot answered with evasion in mind. "I did not miss the event entirely. The author will remain at the podium to sign books, at least according to the butler."
"Ah, yes, the butler." Rowe licked some leafy garnish from the corner of his mouth, then smacked his fleshy lips. "That would be James. I greased his palm earlier. In return, he told me who here is in bed with whom, both professionally and personally."
Talbot forced himself to smile. "Paying a sop to Cerberus, eh? Do tell."
Rowe brushed sandwich crumbs from his rumpled suit. "If that clever bon mot means I pay greenbacks for gossip, hell yeah, I do tell, and far too much, at least according to some people." He wiped his fingers on his lapel. "Present company excluded."
"But, of course." Talbot's smile thinned along with his patience.
"So, old man, what was it that kept you away from the reading — the writer's foul language or the book's obscene subject matter?"
When did you last beat your wife, kick your puppy…feel the need to strangle an impertinent scandal sheet reporter?
Loaded questions. And only the last applied to Talbot; he could easily throttle Rowe.
The shark smelled blood. If Talbot said anything, anything at all, he would find his name and quote plastered all over the next sensationalized edition of Around Town and in the Know, his words twisted, his remarks taken out of context.
"Kept me away?" Talbot drawled. "Why, nothing kept me away. I always make a habit of arriving fashionably late to social engagements, style dictating I make a grand entrance and all that."
A lie. In actuality, his tardy appearance at the Beacon Hill house party hosted by famed mystery writer Roger Rogers had been governed by circumstances beyond Talbot’s control. All the week prior, printing production at his small publishing company had faltered due to the erratic operation of the infernally temperamental linotype. That evening, right before he left his office, the equipment screeched to a grinding halt altogether. Hellish nuisance and damnably inconvenient. And, to make a bad situation worse, only Talbot knew how to fix the ancient apparatus. He was said to have a gift for machinery, wheels and widgets and weights, and not to forget, whatchamacallits. He was said to understand mechanical devices better than he did people. Not one to argue the facts, Talbot said nothing in his own defense. The truth was... if given a choice between man and machine, he would choose an automaton every time.
Without question, the linotype needed replacing. But they went back a long way together, and Talbot could not bear to part with such an old friend. So kissing his overblown sense of dignity adieu, he loosened his starched white collar, rolled up his pristine linen shirtsleeves, and started tinkering. As his ink-stained knuckles would attest, he had labored like a common journeyman for hours over the linotype's repair. Afterward, he had raced — a relative term and loosely used here — to the book reading.
No reason for Talbot to divulge any of that to a shark.
"How about I bring you a chair from the drawing room, old man, so you can rest your crippled leg? I notice how heavily you lean on that red cane of yours."
The ill informed and badly intentioned — dirt slingers like Rowe — might view the object in his hand as a cane.
It. Was. Not.
And calling it so was an insult to all well-groomed gentlemen everywhere. His walking stick was a modish accoutrement, one of many haute couture accessories that enhanced Talbot's impeccable style without once straying into obnoxious dandification. Like the waistcoats he changed daily, his sticks were his fashion signature.
Without which he would fall flat on his face.
No two of his walking sticks were alike. He had engineered his ladies — and he did think of them as such — to provide him with various functions, some lethal, most benign. Ruby accompanied him at present, a lady who took him far but whom he never took fast. Her slowness in... er... coming had contributed to his late arrival this evening, which caused him to miss author Veronica Cooper read an excerpt from her first novel, the critically acclaimed, semiautobiographical work entitled —
Drum roll, please.
Diary of an Eager Virgin.