Hal closed his eyes against the bleak weather and cracked his neck for tension relief. He flexed his shoulder blades and then opened his eyes to a most peculiar vision.
A white BMW roadster—-with the top down!—-pulled into Finesse’s parking lot next to his Explorer. The driver, a blonde with her wild, curly hair half plastered to her head, seemed in no hurry to get out of the car. She sat there, fingers drumming on the wheel, as if she were enjoying the end of a song on the radio. As if sunshine and blue skies stretched as far as the eye could see, and not gray, chilly pellets of rain.
Nuts. She is completely wacko. The blonde pulled her keys from the ignition, opened the door and slid out two black-leather-covered legs that went up to her armpits. She stood, pushed the door shut, bent over and shook her head like a dog. She walked towards Finesse, her bright orange leather jacket gaping open, leaving her convertible’s top down.
Forget nuts. That’s criminal! But Hal was riveted by her.
The woman stopped just outside the door, under the small green awning. She pulled a pencil out of the breast pocket of her jacket and leaned over again, shaking water from her hair onto the sidewalk. She twisted the wet, curly mass and wrung it out. More water puddled around her black spike-heeled boots.
As he watched, fascinated, she secured her hair into a knot with the pencil pushed through it and righted herself. Then she opened the door.
Hal got up from among the cabbage-roses and addressed her as soon as she walked in. “You left your top down.”
“Hi,” she said, with an engaging smile. “You must be Saddam.”
“S–? Uh, yeah.” Hal pointed outside. “Your car!”
“I know, thanks. It will be fine.”
No it won’t, you crazy woman. But you sure are . . .
“Thanks for pointing it out, though.” Her white tailored blouse was soaked through and transparent. Hal tried his best not to look through it, but her nipples showed right through. His cheeks warmed. So did other parts of him.
“Your seats,” he said. “The car will be flooded.”
She shrugged. “So be it.”
She was Amazon perfection. Green cat eyes, delicate little nose, lips to make a man sob. Her breasts were full and taut; held in place by an unusual, unpadded bra. He could see little multi-colored happy-faces with tongues on it. Tongues. “Would you like me to go out and put the top up for you?” Do her panties match?
“No, thank you. Really, it’s fine.” She looked him over from head to toes—-not rudely, just appraisingly. “I’m Shannon, by the way.”
He put a hand up to his face self-consciously. He couldn’t believe he was thinking about this woman’s panties within 30 seconds of meeting her! Peg was right. He’d been dating his computer for too long. But Shannon Shane was stunning. No other word for it.
Hal felt like he was back in high school, gazing at the head cheerleader without a prayer. Cruel, cool blondes had surrounded him in his dreams, then, laughing and pointing at him while he stood naked and tried to hide his sexual longing behind his hands.
He was once again the skinny dork behind the heavy glasses. The victim of a cruel prom prank that he never wanted to think about again. Samantha Stanton. Shannon Shane reminded him of Sam Stanton, possessor of a sadistic streak a mile wide–and too cool for school.
He braced himself, locked his knees unconsciously. Stuck out his hand without a trace of warmth. “Hal Underwood, a.k.a. Saddam,” he said. “Reporting for clean-up. Shall we begin interrogations?”
She cocked her head at him in silent evaluation. “Sure thing. Right after I find a towel.” She showed him into her office and gestured to the visitor’s chair opposite her desk. “Be right back.”
Hal tried not to notice her black-leather clad rear end as it swung out the door but it screamed provocation and juicy, bad-girl, no-holds-barred sex. So much for his preconception of her. What kind of woman dressed like that for the office? Now hard as a rock, he needed to distract himself and . . . deflate.
He looked around her office. It screamed L.A. or Miami, not Farmington, Connecticut. For one thing, the walls were tangerine, and upon them hung framed black and white portraits of famous actors and actresses. A few framed and signed record albums were scattered artistically among them, adding color. In one corner stood a . . . what the hell was it? He didn’t know, exactly, but he liked it. A cross between a scooter, a bicycle and a lateral pull-down machine, the thing was painted in primary colors and splashed with secondaries like purple, turquoise, orange and lime green. Hal tried, but failed, to discern any use for the creation. Maybe it was some mod, wild sex toy? There went his mind again, straight into the gutter.
His gaze moved to Shannon Shane’s desk, which consisted of a huge sheet of thick, beveled glass resting on four tall, hand-blown Murano vases. How she had found four different vases of exactly the same height, he didn’t know. He questioned the stability of the desk—-not to mention the stability of its owner.
Behind the desk a Dr. Seuss calendar hung on the wall. How apropos. Hal had often wondered what the good doctor smoked, but the man never failed to make him smile. His gaze returned to the leather chair, and his mind to the gutter. He saw himself in the chair, with Shannon Shane astride him wearing nothing but that orange leather jacket.
Shannon chose this moment to return to the room with her jacket zipped over the wet shirt and happy-face bra. Thank God. He was hard enough without having to ogle the woman’s breasts. Not that he’d mind, exactly.
“So, Saddam,” she said. “I apologize for being late and wet.”
Wet. He almost groaned aloud. What was wrong with him?
“I got caught on the highway with the top down.”
“That’s okay,” Hal said.
He refrained from mentioning that there was a little button in her car that would have taken care of the problem. He wished he had a little button to take care of his.
Hal looked at the bizarre object in the corner again and pointed to it. “What is that?”
Shannon laughed. “That is a work of art by up-and-coming sculptor Gilbey O’Toole.”
“Do you like it?”
Hal nodded slowly. “Yes, I do. I was just a little mystified.”
“It reminds me of something Dr. Seuss would build. I love it. And Gilbey is the brother of a good friend of mine.”
Hal sat silent, unable to think of much to say, besides “Take me now!” which even he knew was socially unacceptable.
“He had a big show in Boston,” she continued.
Hal looked at her.
“And he sold every piece. He’s got another coming up in New York.”
She gazed at Hal expectantly.
“Uh. Great,” he said. God, those long, leather-clad legs . . .
They sat for another long moment. Shannon spun in her chair and pulled a legal pad from a drawer in her credenza. She made a note on it.
Hal read it upside down. Small talk, she’d written. Wonderful. She was noting down his failings while he drooled over her.
“I don’t like small talk,” he said. “It’s a waste of time.”
Shannon caught her top lip between her teeth. “Okay. Then why don’t we get straight to the point of why you’re here. Various people have ganged up on you: your mom, your sister . . . Why do you think they’re doing that? And why now?”
“I’m in the process of taking my company public. The underwriters are in full swing right now. I can’t really talk about it. But my legal advisor is on this tangent about how I’m the face of the company, and the future rests upon me . . . blah, blah, blah.”
“And what about Mom and Sis?”
“Yeah.” Hal looked down. “My mother wants me to produce hairless micro-humans.” All I want to do is practice. With you.
“Babies. Mom wants grandchildren. My sister just wants me to have a social life.” God, I sound like such a dweeb. Again, he was back in high school, being picked on by the Beautiful People. Except this was worse. He was now (figuratively) on his knees before a Beautiful Person, offering to pay her to de-Dork him. Painful. This is just painful. Inside, Hal cringed. Outside, he just blinked at her.
“What do you want, Hal?”
Amazing. She didn’t seem to be laughing at him at all. Probably because there was a fat check involved. “What do I want? Well, primarily I want my company to succeed. And I want them all off my back.”
And I want to find out who’s leaking information to my competition. No way did Greer Conover develop a prototype, on his own, that’s just like ours. Conover had always been a sneak and a slime, and he’d frequently cheated off of Hal’s tests in college.
“Okay,” said Shannon. “Then we’re looking at a multi-stage process. First we need to work on some surface stuff like a hair-cut, a shave and some new clothes.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“Painless, I promise.”
“Uh huh.” She had a beautiful smile and because of it, he didn’t trust a word she said. The smile was a tool.
“And by the way, underneath all that hair, I think you’re much better-looking than Saddam.”
Lay it on thick, baby, so I’ll write you a check. He flashed her a sardonic glance. “That’s not saying much.”
She laughed. “Okay, during stage two we’ll work on things like small talk and posture and media training. And during stage three, I’ll teach you how to become irresistible to women.”
“Absolutely.” Her voice was firm. Again, no trace of amusement. A damn good actress, was Shannon Shane.
“All this in the next 30 days?”
Hal sighed. “When do we start and how much is all this going to cost me?”
She looked at her watch, a platinum number that had probably cost some sucker boyfriend more than Hal paid Tina, his receptionist, in a year. “We start now. I made a tentative appointment with a stylist for you. He’s a good friend of mine, so he held a slot open.”
Stylist? The very word sounded ominous to Hal. Expensive and suspicious. “I go to a barber close to my office.”
“Not anymore, you don’t.” She gave him a sunny smile. Then she named a ballpark sum for her services that scandalized him.
Hal’s jaw dropped open. “Do you know how many computers I could buy for that money?!”
She met his gaze squarely. “You don’t need any more computers. Do you?”
Hey, a guy could always use more computers. He would admit nothing.
“And you do need a new image, right?”
A matter of opinion.
“So you’re going to need a lot of coaching, good suits for media interviews, new glasses, new shoes–”
“No penny loafers.” Hal laid down the law.
“Don’t even try.”
“Penny loafers? No, of course not. Nobody but a dyed-in-the-wool, New England preppie would wear those things. We’re going for a much more hip, intellectual but sexy image.”
Hal almost laughed at the idea that he could ever be hip or sexy. He looked again at Shannon Shane’s Dr. Seuss wall calendar. She was a kook. A gorgeous kook. But she wasn’t going to make him wear penny loafers.
“All right,” he sighed. And against his inclination and better judgment, he placed himself in Shannon’s too-beautiful hands.