Sample Sunday is back with a real old friend of mine. Real old. As in… old. Did I mention she was old? I’m not, of course. I’m very young. Sort of. In dim lighting. Anyway, please welcome Shirl Henke to my blog. She has a story timely for the season.
When my long-time writing buddy and fellow “Troglodyte” Marsha very kindly invited me to be a guest on her “Sample Sunday,” I was very grateful for the opportunity. Although Marsha refuses to call herself the savvy promoter of ebooks that she is, I am the genuine troglodyte, unlike the gal who has put together this fabulous site. I admit in my author’s bio that I only learned to use a computer after writing my first twenty books in longhand. It is impossible to get good quills these days, never mind that Marsha and I began writing with chisels on stone tablets. [blog owner’s note: her tablets were older than mine too *snort*]
I became hooked on historical romance back in the 1970’s, but did not work up enough nerve (I can hear Marsha snorting in disbelief now) to try it myself until 1983. However, when a storyteller begins stringing words together, she’s as unstoppable as a runaway freight train. I had completed three books before the first of them sold. After that I have twice been a RITA finalist and have won seven ROMANTIC TIMES Awards. In fact, the magazine’s founder Kathryn Falk and current publisher, Carol Stacy, gave me an idea for one of my favorite scenes in the “sample” I chose from SURPRISE PACKAGE, which is, appropriately enough, a Christmas novella. They were good sports to allow me to write them into the story.
SURPRISE PACKAGE combines romance, comedy and a pair of lovers who hide embarrassing secrets from each other. I don’t often have the opportunity to write contemporary fiction, as most of my thirty plus novels are historicals, but once I got the idea for this story, I ran with it and really had fun. I hope you laugh and sympathize with Gilly and Jeff as they fall in love during “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Please visit me at my website www.shirlhenke.com for book news and information about the life of a writer with a husband who’s even crazier than she is. I promise to answer every email. If you “friend” me on Face Book, I can only promise to try communicating. I haven’t figured out that medium yet. Remember, Marsha is the Cyber Queen. I’m still a Troglodyte in training. Hey, I even had a difficult time mastering the chisel!
“Surprise Package” opens with Gilly and her best friend making a rush for the subway during an early winter cold snap inNew York City:
“Someday my prince will come,” Gilly Newsom muttered fiercely. “If nothing else, he can rescue me from the five-twenty rat race.”
Her companion, also elbowing her way through the rush-hour crowds thronging the subway platform, grinned good-naturedly. “Romance is still alive in your cynic’s heart, then?” Charis Lawrence asked.
“Not really. Look around you, girlfriend. Most people are toting bags of holiday goodies, while I’m lugging twenty pounds of manuscript—three of the mere two dozen I’m currently assigned.”
“Stop whining. Look at it this way—no need to go to the gym,” Charis said, patting her briefcase full of marketing reports. “Besides, it’s called paying our dues inNew Yorkpublishing.”
“Easy for you to say when you’re going home to Bill, not a cold, empty flat inYonkers. I don’t even have a dog, for Pete’s sake. You have William Channing Lawrence, Esquire.”
A dreamy look came over Charis’s pert, pretty face. “True, Bill is very special, but someday there’ll be a guy just as great waiting for you. Well, maybe not quite as great—nobody could be.”
“You wouldn’t be just the least bit prejudiced in the matter, would you?” Gilly teased. Charis had always been able to lighten her mood, ever since they met back atOberlinCollegenearly nine years earlier. They’d quickly become best friends as well as roommates in spite of the fact that they came from such diverse backgrounds. Charis’s family was upstateNew Yorkold money, while Gilly’s folks were rust-beltOhioblue collar.
The subway car—already packed, as usual—pulled into the station, and both women shoved inside with the negligent ease of seasoned New Yorkers. “At least it’s semi-warm in here, with all the bodies doing the ‘subway sandwich.’ The temp may be twenty-two degrees, but the wind chill makes it every bit as cold as northeastOhio,” Gilly groused. “Too crowded to hope for a seat. I could use this time to edit.”
“Oh, yeah. I know you’re just dying to get back to Gwendolyn Gleeson’s Spanish-American War opus,” Charis said, rolling her eyes as she held fast to a subway strap when the car started up with a lurch.
“God save me from first-book authors like her. That manuscript is filled with almost as many historical errors as it is with purple—no, fuchsia—prose,” Gilly replied, shuddering.
“Just because she had the hero going toWashingtonto consult with the Defense Department and the Pentagon in 1898? Picky, picky.”
“That one was easy. I just substituted War Department and let it go. But when I came to her description of the heroine’s breasts as ‘a milky sea of white velvet topped with wild rosebuds,’ I wanted to write in the margin, ‘It sounds as if you’re confusing a window display at Bloomingdale’s with an ad for the Dairy Council.’ ”
Charis whooped with laughter. “Almost had you ripping your bodice with frustration, huh?”
Now it was Gilly’s turn to roll her eyes. “I suggested that the phrase was a mixed metaphor, that she’d be better off with something a bit less flowery, like ‘ivory with pale pink nipples.’ If only I could enjoy my job as much as you do yours.”
“You’re the one who wanted to be an English major,” Charis reminded her.
“I still love to read, and I’m a darn good editor—”
“Just underemployed.” Charis had heard this lament before. While she loved her job as assistant director of marketing at a small paperback genre fiction publisher, Gilly was frustrated with hers as an assistant editor. She ached to be in the big leagues, to work for a prestige hardcover house editing literary fiction. “I know it’s hard for a Phi Beta Kappa who graduated summa cum laude from Oberlin to edit historical romances, but this is just a stepping-stone for you.”
“More like I’m the stone. Honestly, Charis, I’ve had nearly five years of hearts and flowers. I want a real job.”
“What you want is a real hero. A man to bring some romance into your life, so you can believe in it again.”
“If I ever did.” Gilly had seen enough of men like her father, Whalen Newsom, even before her one time love Frank Blane delivered the final blow to her girlish dreams.
“Next month is Christmas, and you’re thinking of Frank again, aren’t you?”
“Frank was a loser. I’m much better off without him.” Gilly repeated the mantra.
“You’ve got that right. Imagine having both a wife over inJerseyand a kid with his girlfriend here in Midtown. You were lucky to find out when you did.”
“Yeah. Almost as lucky as I was when Brian Schwin dumped me to marry that cheerleader our senior year at Oberlin. Let’s face it, Charis, I’m just not cut out for happily ever after, which is probably why I dislike editing romance so much. Forget the heroes; I’ll settle for a brilliant career in publishing.”
“Now all we have to do is figure a way to get Farrar, Straus & Giroux to hire you,” Charis replied, tapping one well-manicured nail against her cheek.
“Wouldn’t that be sweet?” Gilly said, swaying as the subway began to slow. Then a staticky voice announced, “Forty-Second Street,” and she gasped, “What was I thinking? This is my stop!”
Charis gave a puzzled look. “You live all the way up inYonkers.”
Already working her way toward the opening doors, Gilly called over her shoulder, “The library won’t have late hours again until next Monday, and I have to check that reference book on the Spanish-American War they’re holding for me or it’ll vanish into the abyss again! See ya tomorrow.”
Desperation lent strength to her slender five-foot, three-inch frame when she caught the door just as it started to close on her. Escaping its jaws unscathed, she scooted quickly through the crowd, slinging her heavy tote bag over her shoulder. She began climbing the steep stairway to the cold, windy corner ofFifth Avenueand Forty-Second Street, near where two giant stone lions guarded the entrance to the New York Public Library.
Winter had come to the Big Apple early in November this year. The icy slush ofmiddayhad once again solidified into diamond-hard shards. Here and there the city snowplows had scraped paths as smooth as greased tinfoil, but lacking ice skates, Gilly opted to walk on the refrozen slush. Like most New Yorkers, she wore sensible shoes while commuting—in this case sturdy Eddie Bauer lace-up boots with rubber grip soles—and left her heels at the office, safely tucked in the bottom drawer of her desk.
A sudden gust of wind almost knocked her off her feet as she neared the daunting series of steps up to the library. Clutching her tote like a talisman, Gilly put her head down and walked into the gale, feeling the crunch of ice beneath her boots. Lord, it was cold! Her breath came out in burning white puffs, her lungs seared from the frigid air being forced into them. She would go back to working out at the gym—she would…just as soon as the holiday crush was over and Gwendolyn Gleeson’s interminable manuscript went to copyediting!
Jeff Brandt did not see the small figure laboring up the steps directly in his path until it was too late. Like her, he’d had his head lowered against the wind, watching the treacherous steps beneath his feet. Then a small booted foot somehow just appeared in the exact space where his big, sturdy Adidas was coming down. At the precise same instant that he was trying to rearrange his feet, a small woolen bundle smelling faintly of vanilla careened into his belly.
“Oomph!” was all he could manage before they went down together. Somehow the fact that the unguided missile in his path was female and much smaller than his six-foot, two-inch frame must have registered. He turned them in midair so that she fell on top of him rather than the other way around, the only chivalrous thing to do.
When they landed, he was no longer so certain chivalry had been the hot tip. She—or something attached to her person—landed on his gut like a Chuck Norris kick. Then Jeff became a human bobsled, he and his “rider” rocketing down the steps, his head clunking on every stair.
By the time they reached the sidewalk, he couldn’t even manage a strangled “umph,” just a low, feeble groan as he stared dumbly at the canvas tote gouging his ribs. Its contents were partially spilled, pages of something or other fluttering against the rubber bands holding them together. Above him, he could hear her voice, soft and breathless, concerned. A nice voice, he decided. Then his eyes focused on her face, pale in the artificial lighting from the street. Wind-kissed pink cheekbones set high over softly plump lips, a small button nose, and wide eyes of some light color he could not discern—blue or green. Slim, delicately shaped eyebrows arched with chagrin.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I ran right into you, practically knocked you down. This stuff is so heavy. I hope I didn’t break your ribs or anything,” she babbled breathlessly as she crawled about, frantically scooping chunks of paper back into the tote.
To Jeff, this looked about as easy as stuffing cooked spaghetti into a long-neck bottle, but somehow she accomplished it, all the while talking in fast little spurts. His skull pounding, he raised himself up on his elbows, observing her until he had recovered enough wind and presence of mind to say something himself. He considered asking, What the hell have you got in that bag, lady, an anvil? But he refrained. She was obviously flustered enough, and he had been raised to be a gentleman…sort of.
Gilly tried to conceal her embarrassment. She could tell the tall stranger had deliberately twisted her around so that he took the full force of their fall—a fall she had caused by not watching where she was going. He was nice looking, too, drat the luck. Why did she always mess up at times like this? He had a square jaw and dark, serious eyes, magnified by wire-rimmed glasses, which were now perched catawampus on the end of his straight nose. His features were angular, striking in a scholarly way, offset by shoulder-length black hair that gave him a hippie sort of look. No, make that a university student sort of look. Double drat. He’s probably younger than me.
“The collision was as much my fault as yours,” he replied. “In this wind, everyone is looking down, trying to breathe without frosting their lungs. Besides”—he grinned—“I’m a lot bigger. A little thing like you couldn’t hurt me—although the stairs may have flattened the back of my skull.”
He admired the view for another instant, trying to decide if her body was as shapely as he hoped beneath all the layers of winter clothing, then sat up and reached for her hand, helping her to her feet.
He was right about their size difference, Gilly saw. She wore flat-heeled boots, and he towered over her. She would definitely need “power” heels to measure up to this guy. Then her bemused train of thought came to an end when she realized that she stood with her gloved hand still held firmly in his grasp, staring up into his face as he reached with his free hand to straighten his glasses.
I must be gawking like a banked carp! She closed her mouth and broke contact, then stooped to pick up her tote—just as he scooped it up to hand it to her. Quickly catching herself, Gilly straightened up—just in time for her head to connect with his jaw. The heavy woolen cap she wore softened the blow, but she could hear his teeth click together. He touched his tongue experimentally against the bleeding edge of his lip.
Great! Maybe I could render him unconscious and drag him back to my apartment to have my way with him! “I’m so sorry. Does it hurt? What am I saying—of course it hurts. You’re bleeding! Here, let me…” She began to root frantically in her tote, searching for a handkerchief. All she managed to come up with were a couple of dog-eared grocery coupons and a lipstick-smeared tissue.
Jeff dug a handkerchief out of his back pocket and daubed his lip, grinning once again at her flustered agitation. “You know, we might be able to form a really funny circus act, except no one would insure us.” Before she could begin apologizing again, he said, “I’m Jeff Brandt. We may have, er, gotten off on the wrong foot, but that’s no reason we can’t start over.”
“I’m Gilly—Gillian Newsom. My friends call me Gilly.” Idiot. She was babbling again.
“Then I hope I can call you Gilly. The least I can do is buy you something hot to warm you up after that tumble on the ice. There’s a little coffee shop down the next block. I’ll even carry your tote. It looks pretty heavy.”
“That’s very sweet, but I have to do some library research for a book I’m editing.” The minute the words tumbled out, Gilly could’ve kicked herself. How often did she get an opportunity like this dropped into her lap—or, rather, her lap sort of dropped into it.
“But I could—”
They both spoke at once. When she stopped, he started again. “What I meant was that I’d be happy to wait while you do your research. Actually, I was just taking a break. I have at least two more hours to put in myself, reading back issues of the Times for a sentencing class.”
“You’re a law student?” She did some quick math in her head. The most he could be was twenty-four, maybe twenty-five. By comparison, her own twenty-eight seemed positively ancient.
“Yes. I finally managed to finish a B.A. and get into the NYU law program after four years in the Navy. I’m afraid you’re looking at one of those long-on-the-vine Gen-Xers who couldn’t decide what he wanted to be when he grew up…until he was pushing thirty,” Jeff said ruefully. “On the plus side, though, if I graduate in the top ten percent of my class, Bradford, Trent and Lange have an opening in criminal law. Very, very snotty outfit, but it would be quite a coup if they made me an offer.” Not that I’d accept it, but damn, it would—will—be sweet.
He wasn’t too young for her! Gilly brightened. But his next question caught her off guard.
“You said you were editing a book? Do you work in publishing?”
“Yes.” She paused then. This was always the hard part for her, explaining that she edited historical romances. Most people took romance editors about as seriously as they did romance writers, which was to say, not at all. She had heard more than her share of condescending remarks. Just what kind of research are you doing? Wouldn’t it be better to conduct it someplace a teensy bit less public than the library? Say, like your bedroom?
“I have a cousin who works in marketing for Houghton Mifflin. Where do you work?” Jeff asked.
“FS&G. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, that is.” The words tumbled out before she could stop them. Then, to make matters worse, she found herself adding, “I edit history and literary fiction. Right now I have to do some research on the Spanish-American War for a book I’m working on.” Well, that much was true.
“History, huh? My undergrad work was in American Studies. I even did a senior thesis onRoosevelt’s Rough Riders. We have something in common, Gilly.”
“Uh, yes, I guess we do.”
“Then we’d better get right to work,” he said with another heart-stopping Colgate smile, taking her tote and gently leading her up the icy steps to the library doors.
When they entered the reference room, Abbie Kunsler, the librarian, greeted Jeff by name. Obviously, he had used the facilities often over the course of his academic career. Gilly felt reassured. After all, this wasNew York, and she was by nature cautious. They both went to work on their separate projects, he scrolling through reams of old newspapers while she took careful notes from the antiquarian, non-circulating tome she had found to be an excellent resource to draw upon when correcting Gwendolyn’s historical vagaries.
Within two hours she was finished. Jeff was still deeply engrossed at his computer terminal. Gilly walked over to Abbie’s desk. The older woman smiled and adjusted her sharply delineated trifocals so she could make out Gilly’s face. How to say this? Gilly cleared her throat nervously.
“Uh, Abbie, I was wondering…”
“About Jeffrey Brandt?” The reference librarian didn’t exactly smirk, but there was a definite look of amused smugness on her angular, horsy face. “He’s such a nice young man. Studious and polite. Been using our facilities ever since he was an undergraduate. I believe he lives somewhere down in the Village, not too far from NYU.” Abbie paused to see if Gilly needed more data.
The information she had given Gilly was reassuring. The rest of what Gilly wanted was a little stickier. “I was wondering, Abbie, if you would do me a favor—well, not so much do a favor as…er…well, not do something.” At Abbie’s puzzled look, Gilly sighed and confessed quickly before she lost her nerve. “You know where I work, but I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t mention that to Mr. Brandt. He’s under the impression that I work for FS&G.”
“Oh?” One thinly penciled eyebrow rose above the trifocals.
Abbie wasn’t going to help her out here. Gilly struggled on, knowing her face was getting as red as the wild rosebuds on Gwendolyn’s milky sea of white velvet. “Well, I sort of gave him the wrong impression—not that I don’t plan to correct it, but…well, I’d rather do it in my own time.” Like by getting that job at FS&G.
“I never gossip, Gillian,” Abbie replied primly.
Before Gilly could speculate whether or not that meant the librarian would keep quiet, Jeff came ambling over to them. “All done?”
“Yes. I have my notes complete.”
“Good. Then do you want to get that coffee, maybe a sandwich?”
They thanked Abbie for her help and left the cavernous library. Once again braving the icy streets, they walked quickly to a nearby greasy spoon onForty-Second Street.
The place was small and crowded. Here, too, everyone seemed to know Jeff. The waitress, a frowsy, mid-fortyish blonde, handed them laminated menus that looked only slightly newer than the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“The cheeseburgers are very good, but the chili dogs are my personal favorite,” Jeff said while the blonde scribbled his order.
“I’ve always had a weakness for cheeseburgers—with Swiss, if you have it?”
The waitress looked at her as if she’d asked for fois gras, then nodded curtly and wrote up the order, adding the two cups of black coffee they requested. Gilly was careful to place her tote with the Gleeson manuscript on the floor where Jeff couldn’t see it. Gwendolyn’s working title was Cuban Ecstasy.
“So, when will you take the bar exam?” she asked.
“My coursework should be wrapped up by the end of this year. I’m planning to take a few months to review everything, then go for it.”
“Got to make that ten-percent cut.” She nodded, sipping the steaming coffee the waitress had deposited on the chipped Formica table a moment earlier. “It must be very exciting to have a top-level law firm interested in you. I imagine your family is really proud.”
He looked down into his cup, then took a swallow before replying. “Yes. BT&L has always been my father’s dream.”
Was there something in the tone of his voice, a faint hint of irony? Gilly couldn’t be sure, but she was curious. No more involvement with mystery men who had relatives—like wives and children—about whom she knew nothing. “Do your parents live nearby?”
“Scarsdale,” he said dismissively. “I don’t see them often. It’s much more…convenient to stay close to school. I live inManhattan, near NYU in the Village.”
“I know,” she blurted out, then blushed. “Er, Abbie mentioned it. Tell me about your family. Any brothers or sisters?” Any wives or children?
“One sister. Older, married. Two kids and a husband who’s a broker on the Street.”
His answers might have been a little on the laconic side, but it was quite apparent that he came from money. “Let me guess. Your dad’s a lawyer, too?”
“Definitely yes, but retired now. He and my mother travel a lot. Right now they’re inBermuda.”
“Sounds wonderful on a drearyManhattanday like this. I’d love to travel if I had the time.” And the money.
“It’s greatly overrated. I saw a lot of the world during my tour of duty. Everyplace fromTaiwantoRio. The rich play, and the poor starve. Just like home.”
Gilly cocked her head and smiled. “Do I detect a strain of social activism here? It may be passé now, but I like it. Sort of fits you.”
He grinned. “How so?”
“Goes with the long hair and wire-rimmed glasses, not to mention the beat-up old Adidas and the necklace.” She eyed the tooled leather with elaborate beadwork hanging partially revealed at the open collar of his shirt. Swallowing, she looked away before the sight of the dark chest hair peeking out around the odd piece of jewelry had her any more flustered. God, I’m acting like one of Gwendolyn’s virgins!
“This?” He held up the small pouch, smiling. “It was a gift from a friend, David Strongswimmer, an Iroquois construction worker. His father is a shaman. He makes these to keep the wearers safe from harm.”
“If they work high iron, I can see the need,” Gilly said, shivering. “Personally, I get a nosebleed on the observation deck of theEmpireStateBuilding.”
Jeff was not too keen on heights either, and he had given up a really well-paying job with Dave and his dad because of it. But he didn’t want to talk about his jobs any more than he did his family. Instead, he switched the conversation back to her. “Tell me about Gilly. You aren’t a native New Yorker.”
“My Midwestern accent gives me away, doesn’t it? I graduated from Oberlin six years ago and came to the Big Apple to set the publishing world on its ear.”
“Seems like you’ve done a pretty fair job so far,” he said, taking a huge bite out of his loaded chili dog.
They’d agreed jokingly on ordering onions ahead of time, since he loved them chopped on his hot dogs and she couldn’t imagine a cheeseburger without a slice. It was a mutual passion, he’d said, laughing as they trudged through the slush to the coffee shop. Gilly took another bite of her burger, using her fingers to catch the stringy wisps of Swiss cheese before they stuck to her chin. “I want to be an editorial director someday.”
“You’ll make it,” he replied, lifting his coffee mug in a toast to her.
When he asked her about her family, she debated. Then, remembering that his father was an attorney fromScarsdale, she reverted to the story that made life a little easier for her. The story she’d told everyone inNew York. “My parents are dead now. I have a sister living out on the West Coast. I’m afraid we’re not very close.” No lie about her and Liv, that was for sure. “I was born and raised in a little town in northwestOhio—you know, picket fences, apple trees, and Fourth of July parades. Pretty dull stuff to a native New Yorker.”
“Oh, I don’t know. There is a certain appeal to living a quiet, traditional life. AndScarsdale’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” His dark eyes studied her intently over the rim of his cup, noting the way her pale reddish-blond hair curled in spite of the heavy woolen hat she’d pulled off when they entered the warm coffee shop. Probably natural curl and color. It fit with her light green eyes and the faint sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of that adorable little dumpling of a nose. “Any current relationships?” he asked, surprising himself.
“N-no.” She cleared her throat. “I broke up with my fiancé six months ago.”
“And haven’t replaced him?” He looked dubious.
“No time.” Not to mention no heart, since Frank had pretty well fractured what little was left of it.
“So, a lady married to her career.” His smile could have melted the polar ice caps.
Her heart did a funny little flip-flop as she raised her mug in return. “Here’s to passing the bar.” Gilly, girl you’re in deep, and this barely even qualifies as a first date!
* * * *
“So, he’s a real babe,” Charis mumbled through the mouthful of bagel she was wolfing down.
Self-consciously, Gilly looked around the crowded deli where she and her friend usually grabbed a bite before they went to work in the next block. Once they were at their desks, there was seldom time for lunch. She still found it disconcerting that New Yorkers could sit two feet from a person and completely ignore the most private conversations. “No, he’s not a ‘babe.’ I don’t go for the ‘babe’ type.”
“Reminds you too much of cover model hunks, huh?”
Gilly rolled her eyes in disgust. “Just because I mentioned that he had longish hair. Believe me, he bears not the faintest resemblance to ‘The Blond One.’ He’s going to be an attorney. His family’s fromScarsdale, for Pete’s sake. He’s scholarly and…” She groped for the right word.
“Sexy,” Charis supplied helpfully.
Gilly sighed. “He’s too good to be true, Charis. We talked for hours in that coffee shop. He’s sweet, very bright, ambitious, and has a great sense of humor.”
“Must be fate.”
“I don’t know. My track record with men has pretty much stunk my whole life.”
Charis nodded. She knew all about Gilly’s family background, as well as her ill-fated love life. “I’m not saying fall on the guy and grope him after one date. Just give him a chance. Get to know his family. It’s a real plus that they live so nearby. No wives or fiancées hiding in the closets if he takes you home to Mama.”
“We’re hardly at that stage. He only asked me to take in a movie tonight.”
“Hey, it’s a beginning. Lighten up, Gil. This may be the one.”
* * * *
It looked as if he was. Over the course of the next few weeks, Gilly and Jeff went to see films and plays and ate dinner in ethnic restaurants. They discovered they both loved old Bette Davis movies, Robert Browning’s poetry, and tandoori cooking.
On the first Friday night in December, they saw The Barretts of Wimpole Street at a small art theater onSecond Avenue. The city remained unseasonably windy and bitterly cold, although the snow had finally melted. They found a small Italian restaurant more notable for its dimly lit corners than for its food, but neither was hungry…for food. They lingered over glasses of Chianti, discussing the romantic old film, poetry, and history—everything but what was really on their minds.
“I know it’s an old line, but candlelight does become you,” he said softly.
“Isn’t the line ‘moonlight’?” Gilly was suddenly breathless when he took her hand and held it over the checkered tablecloth. His large fingers worked the pulse point of her wrist with maddening delicacy, slowly circling the slim expanse. She knew he must be able to feel her blood racing. Then he raised her hand to his lips and leaned forward to brush her knuckles.
“This table’s too big,” he murmured, even though it was tiny. He stood up and stepped from behind it, never relinquishing her hand. Then he slid in on her side of the secluded booth. “Now, where were we…?”
“The table was too big,” she replied helpfully, amazed that she could even remember his last words, much less repeat them. The heat of his thigh seemed to be searing hers. Their shoulders brushed, and Gilly was aware of how large and hard his frame was compared to her own slenderness. She could feel the tension coiled in that big body as he leaned nearer, but he pressed no farther, giving her the opportunity to withdraw.
“I think I want to kiss you now. What do you think?” His light caressing of her fingers continued, his thumb working that magic circle on her wrist as he drew her hand once again to his mouth.
The feeling of his warm breath on her skin made her practically salivate. “I think it’s a great idea…absolutely sensational…brillian—”
His mouth moved closer to hers, and she raised her face, eyes closed, as their lips met. The pressure was light as gossamer at first, warm, very faintly moist. Every nerve ending in her body seemed to respond as he drew her closer in his arms and pressed her back against the wall in the dimly lit booth. Gilly’s arms just naturally fit around those broad shoulders, pulling him closer, her fingertips kneading hard muscle.
His lips traveled from the edges of her mouth up to her blissfully closed eyelids, pressing soft kisses against the fluttering lashes, then moving over to one small ear. His tongue scalded it with a swift whorl, then retreated, moving downward to her neck. He’s a devil for finding pulse points—should’ve been a doctor, not a lawyer. The thought flitted through her mind but evaporated when he returned his concentration to her mouth, which by now was open, breathlessly panting.
He tasted of the Chianti, spicy and mellow and male. She grabbed fistfuls of his hair and pulled him closer, giving him some tongue in return. When he growled low and intensified the kiss, Gilly felt her head spin. Whoa! Too much wine…too much man, theOhioside of her brain reminded her. However, theNew Yorkside, a side she had until now never had much occasion to notice, utterly ignored it.
Gilly ran one hand through his hair, twining her tongue with his, darting it into his mouth, as her other hand glided down his neck to the open collar of his shirt. Her fingers sank into the thick black hair that had so tantalized her. Before she realized what she was doing, several of his shirt buttons were undone, and her hand slid inside. His skin was as hot as a tenement roof in July, and his heart pounded against her palm.
When he slid his hand up under her sweater and cupped one breast, she moaned and arched against him. Dark little restaurant or not, Gillian Marie Newsom had never in her life put on such a display. And she was loving it! They twisted and writhed with wild abandon until the obligatory wicker-encased bottle with the candle in it began to wobble precariously on the tabletop.
Jeff came up for air just as the waiter, an elderly Italian man with bushy white eyebrows and a sweet, gold-toothed smile, cleared his throat. He stood patiently with the bill in his hand while the young lovers quickly uncoiled. When he reached nonchalantly to steady the bottle, Gilly felt like slithering under the table with embarrassment. Her sweater was pushed above her waist, and her bra was unfastened! Damn, Jeff had clever hands. She could feel her face flame as he paid the check and the little old man disappeared.
“I think we’d better put ourselves together and leave so Signor Monserra can close up,” he said, refastening his shirt buttons. All the while his eyes never left her face.
She could feel the scorching heat of them as she fumbled with her bra, then smoothed down her sweater. “Believe it or not, I don’t usually get so…engrossed…at least, not in public.”
He grinned. “I’m relieved to hear you don’t rule out in private. Next time we decide to do this, let’s pick a better place.”
But since he lived with a roommate, they had no better place. Gilly’s apartment inYonkerswas small, cheap, and dingy—all she could afford on an assistant editor’s pay. She kept meaning to fix it up but never seemed to have the time. Even if it had been beautiful, like Charis and Bill’sPark Avenuepenthouse, Gilly was still wary of becoming involved too deeply before she found out more about Jeffery Brandt. Already he had far more control over her senses than any other man she’d ever slept with—of course, there had not been all that many.
Gilly didn’t like to think of herself as a prude. Even if Charis said she was one. After all, she had been the only girl in her high school to reach her senior year still a virgin. Ken Planzer had taken care of that one night in the backseat of his father’s Olds 98. That had been enough to get her to swear off sex until her sophomore year at Oberlin. The two guys she’d become involved with in college were no great shakes as lovers, although after Ken, they seemed better than they were by comparison. Then she met Frank Blane and knew, for the first time, sexual gratification. Oh, Frank had been practiced all right—with good reason. But he’d taught Gilly a valuable lesson. She wasn’t going to fall for a guy again just because he sent her hormones into overdrive.
So she and Jeff had settled into a pattern of meeting when she got off work and he finished studying. Sometimes they spent evenings working in the library, then went for a quick bite at the coffee shop down the street. Whatever they did, the fiery interlude in the Italian restaurant was not repeated. Maybe Jeff, too, was having second thoughts about becoming romantically entangled. That thought did not console Gilly one little bit.
But what would happen if they really were right for each other? She’d told him a series of whoppers. Admittedly, they were the same sort of fabrications she’d resorted to with most people she’d met inNew York. Frank Blane was the only man to whom she’d told the truth. The irony of that did not escape her. She would just have to wait and see what happened between her and Jeff.
* * * *
One brisk, sunny Sunday afternoon Gilly and Jeff strolled casually along a path inCentral Parkwhen a jogger approached with two big rottweilers trotting obediently beside him. “I’d love to have one of those.” Gilly sighed as the dogs passed by.
“You had rotties back inOhio?”
“Not exactly, although I’m sure there was some rottweiler in Belvedere—he had a little of everything mixed in.”
“Belvedere?” Jeff’s tone was teasing. “You are a serious literary type.”
She shrugged, kicking a pile of ice-crisped leaves. “I was twelve years old and had just finished reading Morte d’Arthur. I figured he’d be the last dog I had before I left home.”
“You had lots of dogs growing up?”
“Three, counting old Rufus, who died when I was a toddler. I don’t remember much about him except that he licked off the food smeared on my face. Then there was Spike. He liked to chase cars. What about you? Any pets allowed inScarsdale?”
“My mother raised Afghans.” She made a face, and he laughed. “Okay, so they aren’t the brightest creatures, but I had an English sheepdog that was smarter than some of my law professors. Come to think of it,Raleighwas smarter than most of them.”
“I miss having a dog. That’s one of the tradeoffs for living in the Big Apple, I guess.”
“Why? Surely you could get a small dog of some kind. Look around you. There are people with dogs all over the place,” he said, indicating a sprinkling of various breeds, leashed and unleashed, roaming around the park with their owners.
“True, but they don’t have Danny DeVito in drag for a super.”
Jeff burst out laughing. “This person I’d love to see.”
“No, you wouldn’t. She’s just like Louie on Taxi, only not nearly as nice. And she hates dogs. Says they bark and wake up the other tenants.”
“Sounds as if the walls are as thin in your place as the shack where I live.”
Uh-oh. Gilly had been very careful to evade any questions about her apartment. After all, what FS&G editor would be living in a dump inYonkerslike hers? Since he lived and went to school in lowerManhattan, she had insisted that they meet in the city for all their dates. And, for work and home, she had given him only her cell-phone number. “No, actually, the place is really cool—it’s just Mrs. Kleinschmidt who’s the problem.”
“I’d like to see your place…one of these days.”
His words were laced with meaning as he looked into her eyes. But since he shared his apartment with a fellow student who was almost always home studying, that left him no privacy to bring in a date, and there was no way she could invite him to her place in Yonkers.
They shared a smoldering look. There had been a lot of those since that first kiss. But what could they do? Come to think of it, they both knew what they could do. Just not where they could do it!
* * * *
The music started, not the gyrating sort of hokum Gilly had been expecting at an office party strip show, but a popular holiday song. The man who had been ushering in the publishing house revelers was now wheeling a low, wide cart down the aisle. On it sat a large package, gift-wrapped in red and white foil with a huge red satin bow on the lid. When he reached the center of the room, he stopped and set a hand brake on the very substantial-looking vehicle that had transported the “entertainment.”
“Ladies, I give you Gentleman Johnny Jackson!”
With that, the emcee stepped away, and all eyes fastened themselves on the big box stage center. Slowly the lid began to rise and slide ever so slowly over to one edge. Every female present seemed to hold her breath, Gilly included.
It must be the screwdriver. I never could drink without getting giddy. Her eyes were glued to the top of that box just like everyone else’s. When the lid began to fall, a female sales rep sitting in the front row jumped up and caught it in her arms, peeking inside the box with a squeal of delight. A red satin top hat appeared first, tossed casually over the rim of the box by a white-gloved masculine hand. Now every woman leaned forward on her folding chair. The top of his head emerged, followed by a pair of broad shoulders encased in a form-fitting red satin tux. He was facing the opposite side of the room as he slowly stood up, revealing…
“Buns of steel!” a copyeditor sitting next to Gilly breathed in awe as the aforementioned tush began to move, ever so slowly, ever so sensuously, to the beat of the music.
The red satin tux pants looked spray-painted on his body as he stepped over the edge of the gift box and jumped lithely to the floor. He scooped up the top hat with one hand and placed it on his head at a rakish angle. Everyone was hypnotized by Gentleman Johnny.
“I never thought I’d say it, but I think this guy has a better bod than Bill—oh, God, don’t you dare tell him I said that!” Charis whispered without taking her eyes off the long-legged man in red satin.
Flexing his knees and ever so subtly moving his hips to the music, he swung the jacket over one shoulder and strode across the floor like a devil-may-care hitchhiker, Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. When he lowered the jacket around the shoulders of the contracts manager, she nearly swooned before he whisked it away and sent it flying into the box. Then he pulled off his tie and tossed it to the back row. There was a veritable feeding frenzy as women clawed each other for the small piece of red satin.
All the women gazed avidly as he popped the rhinestone cuff links from his shirt and put them provocatively into one tight pants pocket. Then he started flipping the rhinestone studs from the front of his shirt into the audience. Joan Rivers might have said that if God had intended women to get down on the floor and exercise, He would have strewn it with diamonds, but in this case rhinestones worked even better. A dozen women were on their hands and knees, seizing the faux gems as he unfastened the cummerbund at his waist and used it playfully like a back scrubber, all to the beat of the music. He applied the sash to a few other more imaginative places, then tossed it, too, into the box.
By the time he had the shirt peeled open, revealing a dark thatch of hair that narrowed enticingly at the waistband of his pants, the women were shrieking and stomping like Greek maenads. Cries of, “Do it, Johnny, baby!” “Bare your soul,” and, “Yesssss!” echoed around the room, almost drowning out the music.
He left the shirt gaping open and turned his attention to his shoes. How the hell could a man taking off shoes and socks be sexy? Oh, it was, it was. “Oh, God, even his feet are gorgeous!” a young billing clerk whispered breathlessly to her companions.
At the rear of the room several high-ranking publishing executives stood in the shadow of the door. None were certain whether to be horrified or amused by their employees’ enthusiasm. Deciding to go with the holiday spirit, they exchanged a few hearty chuckles and ordered more martinis.
“Omigod, he’s going to do it!” Charis whispered to Gilly as he began slowly lowering the zipper, but then he stopped, raising it once more.
Everyone groaned. He teased them again and again as he made his way around the circle, playing the largely female crowd for all it was worth. There was a palpable sigh of satisfaction when the zipper finally stayed down. He let the fly gape open, revealing the pattern of black hair arrowing past the navel in his washboard abdomen to disappear tantalizingly below. His narrow hips gyrated in slow sync with the music, emphasizing the way the skintight red satin pants clung to his lower body as he shrugged off the white silk shirt and flung it onto the growing pile of clothes inside the box.
“I wouldn’t have to do any Christmas shopping for my boyfriend if I could get my hands on that box,” one editor said to another. “But then again, I’d a hell of a lot rather see Johnny wearing those clothes than Sam.”
“I’d rather see Johnny not wearing them,” her companion replied, eyes glued to the man as he began to ease the pants down with excruciating slowness, letting the women work themselves into an even greater frenzy.
The tips were better that way.
When he finally peeled them completely off and threw them into the box, one shiny red pant leg dangled over the edge, swinging to the music. He was six feet, two inches of lean, sinuous muscles and looked lightly tanned…everywhere. The tiny briefs didn’t conceal much.
Now the money-making part of the event began in earnest. He gave them several minutes to look but not touch, dancing smoothly around the circle, almost but not quite daring them to make the first move. Someone always did.
It was an assistant art director, with a twenty-dollar bill and her business card. She boldly reached out and stuck both into the elastic band around his hips, whispering, “We simply must have you for a cover model. You’re utterly perfect. Call me, darling.”
He smiled and moved on as women began flinging bills of all denominations at him. Aware that two of the most influential women in the romance industry were sitting in the front row, he paused in front of them. They watched with rapt attention. Kathryn Falk, Lady of Barrow, stared up into the most fathomless brown eyes she’d ever seen, saying breathlessly, “I never carry cash. I suppose you’re not equipped to process a credit card…” Her attention again moved down to his undulating hips and the scanty covering thereon. “Hmm, foolish of me to ask. Would you by any chance take a check, darling?”
“Gentleman Johnny” nodded with a blindingly white smile. Kathryn whipped out her checkbook and began to scribble, all the while darting glances at the stunning entertainer. She had to tear up two checks before finally completing one that was legible.
As she jammed it into his G-string, Carol Stacy continued rooting through her Louis Vuitton handbag like a demented squirrel searching for a cache of acorns. All she could find was a crumpled twenty-dollar bill. She stuffed it into his G-string and said apologetically, “I’m sorry it’s so little. Oh, no! That’s not what I meant—I meant the money…really…you’re…fine…very fine.”
He grinned at her and gave her a wink, then moved on. Kathryn leaned toward Carol and said, “We have to get that hunk for our next cover-model pageant. Would he ever be an asset!”
Enjoying the retreating rear of “Gentlemen Johnny,” Carol only murmured, “Mmm.”
“Carol, are you listening?”
“I am, Kathryn, I am. He has a very fine asset…a superlative asset!”