Authors: Nancy Warren
There was a kind of choking sound coming from the phone. “I—I have to go.”
“Enjoy your party.”
Lise put down the phone slowly, as though it were a baby she’d just rocked to sleep and it might start to wail if she wasn’t very, very gentle. “He thinks I’m a party girl,” she said.
Sonia snorted with laughter, pretty much as she would have expected. “It’s eight o’clock and we’re still in the office. When does the man think you party?”
“It was your dress,” Lise said, “that’s what gave him the idea.”
“And the way you spilled the goods, so to speak,” Sonia agreed.
“Don’t remind me,” Lise dropped her head in her hands on a groan. “And you know the worst part of all?”
“There’s something worse?”
“He said it was the best part of his day.”
“You know, I like the sound of this guy. I think he likes you. He’s gorgeous and he likes you.”
“He thinks I’m a total flake, underwear-challenged, and a hard core partier.”
“You see? It’s what I keep telling you. Men really go for that stuff.”
And she could really go for Steve, Lise realized. She didn’t think her stomach had yet recovered from the impact of first staring into those mesmerizing green eyes. It was totally like being Sleeping Beauty and waking up to look into the eyes of the handsome prince. Except, of course, in fairy tales princesses tended to have a stricter dress code. Her poor stomach. Between the stress and the lack of sleep, she didn’t think her gastrointestinal tract could survive unrequited lust for a man so good-looking he’d never give a woman like her a second glance.
“He likes women like that because they’re the kind he usually hangs out with. He’s either a professional model or a surfer boy they picked up off the beach somewhere. He’s into partying, girls, no responsibility—” She gasped as a dreadful thought occurred to her. “I’d better tell him that drugs are absolutely forbidden while he’s working with us. Can you imagine what would happen if—”
“You know, you worry too much?”
“Thank you. Yes. I know. But someone has to take life seriously.”
Sonia shrugged. “Not me. I finished proofing all that ad copy. I’m going home. You should, too.”
“In a minute,” Lise said, already getting back to her computer.
“I still think he likes you.”
“Well, he’ll see the real me tomorrow,” Lise said, feeling a momentary pang for the loss of Steve’s mistaken version of her.
“What if he didn’t?” Sonia said in a totally different tone.
“Pardon?” She glanced up to find her assistant and friend, back in her own dress, since Lise had stopped by her apartment to change on her way back from the airport, leaning against the credenza and staring at her.
“Simple. You need to keep his attention so you can train him. He likes the party-girl type. He thinks you are one. So why not keep dressing that way? It’s not difficult and frankly, it would do you a lot of good to dress like a woman in her twenties instead of a matron of a correctional institute.”
“I’m not that bad!”
“A middle-aged matron.”
Lise gasped. “I can’t think about this right now. I have to get our schedule arranged for tomorrow. Here are the scripts for the TV spots. Can you make sure there are enough copies before you go?”
“Thanks.” She sighed. “He may be a great surfer, but I sure hope he can act.”
“You should do some acting, too,” Sonia said as she picked up the script. “Start acting like a woman in the prime of her life.”
“There are three things a man likes Down Under,” Steve said into the camera, “a warm woman, a cold beer, and a Crane Board flying over the ocean. And a real man likes them at the same time.”
“Okay. And now you wink at the camera,” Lise said, in as carefree a tone as she could manage.
What she really wanted to do was throw her head down on the boardroom table and wail. Right after that she was going to have to send her resume out, because based on this reading, her career was over. There was a pause that had so much weight to it she could feel her shoulders slump.
“You want me to wink at the camera?”
“Yes,” she said through gritted teeth. “It’s in the script.”
Steve Jackson had been pretty easygoing at first, but instead of improving, his delivery was growing more wooden. In the last four takes in front of their in-house video set-up, he hadn’t winked once. He glared at her, clearly trying to get some message across that she wasn’t receiving. She glared right back, wondering why she couldn’t have gone into medicine like her parents wanted. Surely blood and gore and broken bones couldn’t be any more difficult to deal with than temperamental models who couldn’t act worth a damn. Well, he was messing this up so badly, there was no way they could call today a success, and she didn’t have the energy to go through it again. She rose, stiffly.
“Why don’t we take a break?” She smiled at the camera crew, at the script writer, at Sonia, and even at Steve.
“Steve, let’s you and I rehearse this a bit more before we put it on film.”
He didn’t even answer, merely nodded in a curt manner she found both rude and high-handed. He was gold, she reminded herself, as her stomach threatened to burn right through the front of her clothes. Jen adored him. Jen believed in him. It was Lise’s job to get him up to speed. Once everyone but she and Steve had left, she closed the door. She grabbed the back of her neck and squeezed, almost yelping in pain.
“Okay,” she said, “let’s try it again.”
“What’s the matter with your neck?” he asked in that voice that seemed to resonate from the floor beneath her feet and travel through her bones. Why the hell couldn’t he talk with that intimate timbre when the camera was turned on?
“I’m a little tense,” she said with a tight smile. In fact, she was so tense she wasn’t sure she’d ever turn her head again.
“I’m a bit tense myself,” he admitted.
All right. This was good. He was admitting he wasn’t doing a great job. Excellent. Yelling at him would be counterproductive. She remembered all this from her communications course at Berkeley. She just hadn’t realized when learning all those theoretical notions of communications that she might be intellectually pleased that a spokesperson admitted he was performing badly at the same time she might want to stuff his stubborn head up his ass. Breathe, she reminded herself, but she felt as though her lungs were welded shut.
“Is there anything I could do to make you a little less tense?” she asked sweetly, thinking that if the reply was hookers with whips she’d do her best to comply. She felt like her job, her whole future, was riding on this one.
“Yeah, you can take off your jacket.”
Her head snapped up as she glared at him. “I beg your pardon?”
“I don’t know what it is.” He shrugged but she felt he was almost as tense as she was. “I’m not good with suits. Everyone in the room except for me is wearing a suit.”
He gestured to his body in a sweeping motion and she nodded. He wasn’t wearing a suit. He wore jeans so well-worn they’d molded to his body, kick-ass boots, and a shirt advertising some rugby team she’d obviously never heard of. He looked elemental, dangerous, and good enough to eat. And he was worried he wasn’t wearing a suit?
“Nobody cares what you wear, Steve. This is just a practice session. I thought you knew that?”
“Yeah. I know. But look at this from my perspective. I’m up here in a T-shirt and everybody else looks like they came out of a fashion catalogue. Even you. It puts a bloke off.”
She blinked. “You’re telling me you flubbed your lines because you didn’t like what the people in the room were wearing?”
“Yeah.” Pause. “Well, and the lines are crap.”
“Of course the lines are crap, Steve. This is advertising. For Beat poetry readings, head down to Union and Filmore.”
Immediately she wanted to bite out her tongue. He wouldn’t know what she was talking about, and her sarcasm wouldn’t help anyone. To her immeasurable surprise, he laughed.
“I’m not sure how many surfboards you’d sell reciting
, but it would certainly catch their attention when it came on the telly, eh?”
“Right.” She agreed weakly. He must have read his San Francisco Now and come across something about Ginsberg. Still, he’d thrown her for a second.
He threw her even more when he said, “I s’pose this is hard on you, too. All right. Let’s give it another go.”
“Are you sure?”
“Great. I’ll call the others back.” She walked to the boardroom door and he blocked her exit, his body so big and rangy she felt absurdly small and feminine.
“No. I only want you.”
The words echoed around and around in her head and she wished so much they were true. This man, she realized, was going to sell a hell of a lot of surfboards if she could find the way in to get him pronouncing all his lines the way he’d just said, “I only want you.” His shirt was soft with many washings and smelled faintly of soap and sexy man and something foreign and exotic that she assumed was Australia. She had to look up to catch his gaze.
“You’ll read the lines as written if I practice with you alone?”
“Including the wink?”
He rubbed his jaw and she saw a hint of the humor she’d noticed the day before. “The wink’s negotiable.”
She could yell at him and tell him his contract specified winking and he was damn well going to wink, but the twinkle in his eyes intrigued her and besides, she wanted to prolong standing here in his personal space where it was all sex and heat and possibility.
“You want to negotiate the wink?” she asked, trying to keep her voice firm but reasonable.
“I see. What are your terms?”
“Take your jacket off.” She blinked. Even a simple Huh? seemed beyond her. “You looked more . . . I don’t know, approachable yesterday. I thought I knew who you were and I liked what I saw. Now, today, you’re all done up in this suit and your hair’s . . .” he pointed to the simple coil at the back of her head, “different. I liked you better before.”
Well, she could tell him that she’d been in another woman’s clothes yesterday. And she could explain that her hair was in a bun because she’d been at the office until midnight last night making sure everything was ready for today’s read-through (which he’d blown), so she hadn’t had time to style her hair this morning and had therefore bundled it up wet from the shower. Or she could play along. She didn’t think they’d ever covered this contingency in her communications course at Berkeley, but was pretty sure this was an unorthodox way to run a commercial taping.
“So,” she said, ignoring the flutter of awareness that danced across her chest, “if I take off my jacket, you’ll wink.”
“Nah. If you take off your jacket, I’ll read those crap words properly. I told you, the wink is negotiable.”
“You haven’t told me the terms.”
He didn’t grin. His lips never moved, but there was some seriously evil grinning going on in the green eyes. “I’m making this up as I go along.”
“Well,” she snapped, “I’ll only go so far.”
Her own words seemed to echo in the air around them, adding to the charge of sexuality that seemed to hum whenever he was around. Never taking his eyes from hers, he murmured, “What if I want you to go all the way?”
She couldn’t resist the urge to give in to the skittering sensations tripping over her skin and play a game she’d never been much good at. Because, unless she was very much mistaken, the most amazing looking man she’d ever seen was flirting with her. And she really liked it. The challenge was there, in the barely banked green fires of his eyes.
Instead of answering directly, she slipped the jacket off, feeling the slide of soft wool down the skin of her arms and hung it on the back of a chair. Beneath it she wore a sleeveless white silk tank top. She’d never before thought of it as a remotely sexy garment, but when Steve’s eyes dropped to her chest she felt as though she were the sexiest woman alive. All of a sudden she was reminded of the moment when he’d looked at her naked breast spilling out of Sonia’s dress yesterday and she’d wanted this total stranger, and his eyes seemed to telegraph the same message back at her. She swallowed and moved out of seduction range to reset the video camera. She felt his eyes follow her every step of the way and her body had never felt so fluid or alluring. He walked to the front of the room where he’d stood before and repeated the spiel.
“Well,” she said carefully. “That was better.” Better like frozen soup was better than canned, but nowhere near the fresh homemade taste she’d been promised.
“You didn’t give me much incentive,” he explained.
“I took off my jacket,” she reminded him curtly.
“I need more.” He stepped closer and she decided to clobber him if he tried to take off any more of her clothes. But he only reached behind her and unfastened her hair. With a tiny gasp, she felt the thick, soft slide of her hair around her face and falling to her shoulders. She put a hand to her head, knowing it must be a mass of kinks since she’d coiled it while it was still wet. “Leave it,” he said, stilling her hand. “I like it like that.”
He went back to the front once more; this time, he leaned forward so his hands rested on the edge of the board room table, reminding her of his strength. He stared at her as though she were the only person in the universe and said, “There are three things a man likes Down Under.” He paused as though he were letting her in on a great secret. “A warm woman, a cold beer, and a Crane Board flying over the ocean.”
She was mesmerized. In her wildest dreams she hadn’t imagined him capable of this. He paused again, then moved slightly closer as though instinctively reaching for a close-up.
“A real man likes them at the same time.”
She knew exactly what he said, but what she heard was, “You are the most beautiful woman in the world and I want you.” She felt each word as though he were saying it solely to her. In fact, when he stopped speaking and silence fell, she longed to run out and buy a Crane Board.
“That was so much better,” she gushed. He cocked an eyebrow and she reviewed the take in her mind. “There was just one thing missing,” she said, enjoying herself so much her stomach forgot to hurt, realizing they were playing some kind of game here where she had no idea of the rules. But she didn’t care, she was making it up as she went along, too. “You forgot to wink.”
“Ah, for a wink I’d have to feel that I was really winking at someone, and for a reason. I’m not a trained actor, you know.”
“I can understand that,” she agreed. “What kind of incentive would you be looking for?”
“Well, let’s say I’d just kissed a beautiful woman. I might wink at her.”
Her throat felt so dry, and at the same time her lips felt so moist and dewy, she could barely believe they were both attached to her body.
“Yes,” she said huskily, “I can see how you might wink at a woman you’d just kissed.”
“A beautiful woman,” he reminded her, stepping closer and closing his hand on the back of her head.
She felt his fingers moving in her hair and her oh, so heavy head tipped back of its own accord. The pounding ache that had lived with her for days began to subside. Her eyes slipped shut and her lips parted. And Steve Jackson, the most gorgeous man in the world, kissed her. It was a simple kiss, just his lips warm and sure against hers. No tongues, no body bumping, just a kiss. So why the hell did her toes curl and her temperature climb? Why did she have to school her own tongue to stay in her mouth and her own body to hold itself back from rubbing against him with suggestive abandon?
He walked back and she returned to the video camera, hoping her hands weren’t shaking. Steve stared right at her and said the words. And then he winked and she felt that wink right down to her toes. Sure, it was corny. But it didn’t matter. When Steve Jackson winked at a woman, she felt winked at. More, she felt important, sexy, cherished. The room was so silent she heard the whir of the videotape and the sound of the traffic down on Market Street, and even the quiet hum of the air conditioning system.
“That was great, Steve. I think we’ve got enough for today.”
“Will you go out with me tonight?” Steve asked, the lips that had just kissed her moving to form the words.
And reality snapped back. He thought she was a party girl. What on earth was she going to do with him? She wasn’t a casual woman who partied with anyone she felt like, who was winked at by gorgeous men on a regular basis. She was a twenty-four-year-old professional who had far too much in common with a spinster twice her age for her own peace of mind. Sonia’s borrowed feathers couldn’t have given a more false impression of the kind of bird she really was. On the other hand, Steve didn’t know that. And he wasn’t going to be around long enough for it to matter. She might not be the most experienced girl on the block, but she knew there was sex in the air. A man like Steve Jackson didn’t normally look at a woman like her twice, but he’d gotten it into his head that she was his kind of girl, and for a couple of weeks, she’d like to see what that might be like. So she blinked, took a deep breath and a big fat gamble that she could be the bird Sonia’s feathers proclaimed her—at least for a few weeks.
“Yes,” she said, with an assumed casualness that impressed her. “I’d like that.”
“Great.” His smile was warm enough to roast marshmallows.
“I’ve got, um, some things to do first.”
“No worries. I’ll look around a bit. I was pretty tired yesterday, so I didn’t see as much as I wanted.”
“Right. Of course. How’s the jet lag today?” He’d looked so good she hadn’t thought to ask.