This was turning into a three-doughnut morning.
Jenny Prillaman scarfed down her second hot Krispy Kreme doughnut, marveling at how something that tasted so light could have so many calories. Krispy Kreme doughnuts weren’t on the approved list of foods for the South Beach diet, and she would have to exchange half her meals for the day on Weight Watchers.
Sighing, she surreptitiously licked one of her fingers. Tough. Her boss wasn’t here and he really needed to be.
She barely brushed some glazed sugar from her chin before executive VP Marc Waterson burst through the door wearing an expression of controlled fury on his chiseled face. “Brooke Tarantino is coming in today. Where’s Sal?”
Jenny cleared her throat and rubbed her sticky hands together beneath her desk. Oh, wow. She’d thought he would send his assistant down to do the inquisition.
Marc Waterson had always struck her as a force of nature carefully concealed in a well-tailored Brooks Brothers suit. She suspected in another time period he would have worn his hair long and carried a sword. He was a lethally clever overachiever type and Jenny generally tried to avoid such types as she’d been forced to deal with a brother and sister cut from the same cloth since the day she was born.
Except, Marc was so hot he made her forget about her brother and sister, the overachiever part and everything but him. He was the kind of man she fantasized about instead of filing. She remembered the birthday wish she’d made after two martinis that if she ever got a chance to bed Marc, she would do it.
Easy enough wish to make. With the exception of a few times on the phone, the man spoke to her through his assistant. He would never notice her. And she wasn’t sure she would know what to do if he ever did.
Instead she worked for a tender-hearted artistic genius who unfortunately spent more time with whiskey than he should. “Sal’s not feeling well and he had to go to the doctor this morning,” Jenny told Marc. “Maybe we could reschedule. Or you could show her some of the sketches Sal has already put together.”
Marc, who was known throughout the company as Braveheart, studied her with a gaze so intent she felt as if she needed sunglasses.
Jenny bit the inside of her cheek to avoid biting her lip and prayed Bellagio’s most intense VP couldn’t tell that she was fibbing. She’d always tried to stay way below top management’s radar. It hadn’t been that difficult. Her body was okay, but she consistently fudged on her South Beach diet and found reasons to delay exercise. She had okay hair that was a pretty chestnut-brown color and blue eyes instead of the expected brown. It gave her a great sense of satisfaction to know that she annoyed her sister the attorney by wearing thin red-framed glasses.
He lifted his eyebrows. “If Sal has already done some sketches, then I’d like to see them.”
“I can get them for you,” she said, clasping and unclasping her fingers beneath her desk. “It may take me a little time to find them in Sal’s office, though. He sometimes puts his sketches in unexpected places.”
“How soon could you find them?”
“An hour, maybe less.”
“Brooke’s appointment was at nine.”
“But she’s usually over an hour late, and she—” She broke off, remembering that Marc was distantly related to Brooke.
“And she what?” he asked.
Jenny sighed. “Sal doesn’t usually need more time, but he did one other time. Brooke responded very well to a pedicure.” She cleared her throat again. “And a couple glasses of champagne.”
“Who did the pedicure?”
Jenny shrugged. “I did.”
He gave her a considering once-over. “You manage Sal and his issues and you keep the demanding Brooke happy. No wonder Sal won’t share you with anyone else. Get the sketches to me within an hour. I’ll decide if we need to order champagne or not.”
He left, closing the door behind him, and Jenny took a deep, shaky breath. She lifted her hands to her cheeks, praying they weren’t red with heat from her lies. Sal had obviously fallen off the wagon and she had to cover for him again. He probably wouldn’t call in until the afternoon.
If he weren’t so kind to her, and if he hadn’t hired her and given her such exciting, albeit secret, opportunities, then maybe she could out him. In her own clumsy way, she’d tried to intervene two times, but he’d brushed her off.
Worry gnawing at her, she shook her head as she rose and locked the office door. She knew why Sal drank, and he had some pretty sad stuff he faced on a daily basis.
Pushing her concern about Sal into another corner of her mind, she prepared to do what she did best.
When she felt bored, she doodled. When she felt stressed, she doodled. When she felt bummed, she doodled. The activity had gotten her in trouble in every class except art. But now she was almost getting paid for doodling.
From the bottom-left-hand drawer of her desk, she pulled out a pad of paper and thumbed through the sketches she’d already drawn of wedding shoes for the upcoming wedding of the century. Brooke Tarantino, Atlanta’s most notorious socialite, who had previously been described in the press as the debutante gone wild due to her escapades, was getting married.
Rumor had it that her father had put his foot down and threatened to cut off her expense account if she didn’t settle down.
Brooke liked attention, lots of it, as evidenced by how many times her picture appeared in every publication from the Atlanta Constitution to the National Enquirer. Brooke had even made People when she’d gotten arrested at one of the parties she’d attended in Miami last year.
Jenny added sequins to the white satin pump. Inspiration hit her and she sketched another pump, this one in leather with a sexy, revealing absence of material in the instep. Less leather, more skin. She enhanced the spiked heel with crystals.
Sal would call it a bridal version of “Come do me” shoes. Jenny smiled to herself. Since she’d started working for Bellagio, she’d learned a lot about shoes. For some people shoes were all about comfort. But for most, shoes were called upon to accomplish many other goals. “Come do me” shoes. “I mean business” shoes. “Look at me” shoes.
Jenny glanced down at her own shoes and wiggled her toes. Black leather sandals with wooden heels. The trendy nail polish and blue-sapphire toe ring were her only concessions to fashion and self-expression. Her fingernails were bare of polish. She wore “Don’t look at me” black slacks and jacket, and she’d pulled her hair back into a low ponytail. No competition for an heiress or anyone else. Jenny would be happy to just doodle her life away.
The telephone rang, jolting Jenny’s attention from the drawing pad. She glanced at the clock and swore. An hour had already passed. “Poop,” she muttered, and picked up the phone on the second ring.
“Did you find the drawings?” Marc Waterson asked.
“Yes, I did,” she said, adding a swirl of red beside the shoe to make the white shoe pop.
“Bring them up to the executive conference room so I can get a look at them before Brooke gets here.”
“No problem. I’ll be up in just a few minutes.” Her nerves jumped in her stomach, belying her calm tone. She hoped she could dump the sketches on Marc Waterson and leave. Moving through the corridor, she waved to a few of her co-workers and, out of concession to the doughnuts she’d eaten, she walked the three flights up to the tenth floor.
The tenth floor was a different world with lush oriental carpets over hardwood floors. Exquisite antique furniture served the top executives in lieu of the prefab stuff in her office. Passing one office, she caught the scent of cigar smoke and wrinkled her nose. She endured a curious glance from the corporate gatekeeper, also known as Thelma.
Thelma waved her toward the executive conference room, and Jenny felt her feet begin to drag. What if he thought the drawings sucked? What if Brooke didn’t like them? This experience reminded her of walking to school as a child. She dreaded having someone tell her she wasn’t measuring up. Her stomach knotted with tension and she briefly considered leaving the folder of drawings with the receptionist and running back to her office. Just outside the executive conference room door, she lingered over a Picasso.
The door to the room whipped open, startling her. Marc Waterson shot her a curious gaze. “Problem with the drawings, Jill?”
How flattering, she thought. He couldn’t remember her name. “Jenny,” she corrected.
“Sorry, Jenny,” he said. “Is there a problem?”
“Not at all,” she said, and extended the folder to him. “All yours.”
He opened the door wider. “Come on in.”
Her stomach dipped again. Did she have to watch his first reaction? Guess so, she thought, and reluctantly stepped into the lush room.
“We’ll use the back room.”
Jenny had never been in the back room, but she’d heard about it. Well stocked with the finest wine, the oldest Scotch and leather furniture as soft as butter, the “backroom” was reserved for use by Bellagio’s top executives and most powerful customers. Although Jenny knew Bellagio was planning to get publicity from designing Brooke’s wedding shoes, she hadn’t known it was that important. After all, Sal had been known to design shoes for movies.
Her stomach dipped again. What was she getting into? She followed Marc, noticing his extraordinary backside as he led her into the famed backroom.
“Take a seat,” he said as he settled into a leather chair beside a sofa.
I don’t really want to, she thought, but gingerly chose the chair across from him.
The silence in the room shredded her nerves. She needed to remind herself that if he didn’t like the drawings it wasn’t the end of the world. She could get another job. Lord knew, she’d been through dozens, much to the distress of her siblings. This one had been her favorite, though. She’d lasted the longest at this job.
“The satin pump is showy,” Marc said.
“I thought-” She cleared her throat. “Sal thought that would suit Brooke’s personality. She’s bold and likes to make a statement.”
“That’s an understatement,” he said in a dry voice. He picked up the drawing of the shoe with the stiletto heel encrusted with crystals. “This is unusual for Sal. He tends toward the more traditional for formal weddings.”
Uncomfortable, Jenny cleared her throat. “Again, I think he was thinking about Brooke’s personality. That design is more trendy.”
“And sexy,” Marc added.
“We’ll see what Brooke thinks.”
Taking that as a dismissal, Jenny started to rise. “If you want to tell me her thoughts, I’ll be happy to pass them on to Sal.”
“I want you to stay.”
Surprised, she sank back into her chair. “Are you sure? Did you want me to get some nail polish?”
“No. I just want you to keep me from killing my cousin.”
Jenny blinked. “Excuse me?”
Marc adjusted his tie. “We know Brooke is a demanding, spoiled little rich girl who thinks of no one but herself. I can stand about fifteen minutes in her presence without telling her what I really think.” His jaw twitched with impatience. “We’ve just succeeded in making a deal that will bring Bellagio unprecedented publicity for Brooke’s wedding shoes. Since Sal isn’t here, I need you to be here. You successfully managed her last time, so I want you to do it again.”
Five questions popped into her brain, but the irritation on Marc’s features discouraged any indulgence of her curiosity. It looked like she would be flying by the seat of her pants. Nothing new there. She’d spent half her life walking the high-wire with no net. Today would be no different.
She stood again.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’m just looking for the champagne,” she said, heading toward the refrigerator. “I wonder if this place has any chocolate.”
“It’s almost lunchtime.”
“In your world,” she murmured, opening the door to the refrigerator and nodding in approval. “Cristal, good. Veuve Cliquot isn’t enough of a treat and Dom is like an old Cadillac, grandma car, grandma champagne.” She peeked inside a cabinet.
“Grandma champagne,” he echoed. “What makes you say that?”
“Previous job,” she said with a shrug. “When I was a cocktail waitress, I learned a lot about what people want in a drink. It’s not usually about how the drink tastes. It’s more about what the drink projects.”
“Is that so,” he said, more than asked, leaning back into his seat and making a triangle with his forefingers and thumbs. A power position, she noted. Donald Trump did it all the time on The Apprentice.
His intense gaze made the back of her neck itch. “A businessman doing a deal doesn’t order a dacquiri or an umbrella drink. It’s usually Scotch or bourbon with a year and brand attached. When an older man wants to impress a woman with champagne, he chooses Dom. When a younger man wants to impress a woman, he chooses Cristal.”
“The psychology of liquor,” Marc said.
“Something like that,” she said, and opened another cabinet. She spotted a box of truffles and felt a rush of relief. “Oh, good. We’re set now. Chocolate and champagne.” She glanced at Marc. He was the unknown entity and she suspected champagne and chocolate weren’t going to do it for him at all. “Are you hungry? Would you like me to order something for you? A roast beef sandwich?” She glanced at the clock. “Is it too early for Scotch for you?”
“A soda will be fine with me,” he said, as if he knew she was trying to apply her bar psychology to him the same way she had with Brooke.
“Are you sure? You seem a little—” She broke off when he raised a dark eyebrow. The expression revealed he wasn’t accustomed to having his choices questioned. “You seem tense. Is there something else I can get that would make this appointment easier?”
“A different cousin,” he said with a cryptic smile.
Two minutes later Marc watched his cousin saunter into the room wearing a pair of low-slung jeans, a skimpy top, a Gucci bag, and what he suspected was a hell of a hang-over behind her dark Oakley sunglasses. Her hair was red today, cropped close to her head. She looked scary. “Sorry I’m late, cousin dear,” she said to Marc, and gave him an air kiss beside each cheek. “I had a late night and it was so hard to get up this morning.”
“I can tell,” he muttered.
She pouted. “Where’s Sal? He’s so much nicer than you.”
“He wasn’t feeling well. He had to go to the doctor,” Marc said, but he knew the truth. Sal was going to be out of commission for a while and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
“Well, tell him I’m sorry.” Brooke glanced at Jenny and paused. “You look familiar. Have I met your before?”
“Just once,” Jenny said. “Would you like some champagne? Maybe some chocolate.”
Brooke brightened. “Oh, that would be divine. So do we have any designs from Sal? Or did I come for nothing?”
“Right here,” Marc said. Spreading the drawings on the table, he noticed that Jenny opened the champagne with an expert hand. No lost champagne, just a gentle pop beneath the towel she’d used to edge off the cork. Although she’d lied for Sal, she hadn’t been lying about her experience as a cocktail waitress. She filled the flute three-quarters full and put the truffles on the table beside the sofa. She had a soothing kind of voice, he noticed. Almost nurturing. And her appearance was incredibly nonthreatening, he thought, taking in her black jacket and slacks. He wondered what her hair looked like down. And, for Pete’s sake, where’d she get those hideous glasses?
“Thanks,” Brooke murmured absently and slurped her champagne. She grabbed a chocolate and bit into it. “These are great.”
“The shoes,” Marc reminded his cousin, feeling his impatience ratchet up another notch.
She sighed and tilted her head to one side as she considered the drawings. “The sequins are okay. I think I like that one best,” she said, pointing to the shoe with the stiletto heel. “I’ll just have to take it off for the reception. I can run in heels, but dancing under the influence is a little tricky.”
“We could lower the heel,” Jenny suggested.
Brooke shook her head. “No, I like the height. It’s a little outrageous,” she said and smiled. “Like me.”
“Maybe we could design another shoe for your reception,” Jenny said.
Accommodating, Marc thought, adding the ability to his mental list. Sal’s assistant possessed the all-important quality of being able to listen.
Brooke gasped and tugged her shades down to peek over them. “I love that idea.”
“Well, you’ll also need going-away shoes,” Jenny added.
Brooke took another bite of truffle and nodded. “Yes, yes. This could work.”
“We need to start working on the shoes for your bridesmaids.”
Brooke shrugged. “I’m almost ready for that. I’ve narrowed down the dresses to two designs. As soon as I know, I’ll let you know.”
“The next meeting will be filmed,” Marc told Brooke. “So it would be helpful if you could be on time.”
Brooke’s eyes lit up. “That’s right. We should make it more dramatic than this.”
Marc’s gut tightened. “What do you mean more dramatic?”
She finished off a truffle and waved her hand. “Well, this is nice, but it’s boring. We need to see me try on some shoes. Can you make some models of them so I can try them on? You need to put in a few real losers like on those makeover shows.”
“Losers,” Marc echoed, clenching his jaw. The CEO, Alfredo Bellagio, would have a cow if Brooke said something like that publicly. “Bellagio doesn’t make loser shoes.”
Brooke sighed. “So touchy. Okay, not losers. But also-rans. Because I’m only going to pick one. Well three,” she amended. “When you count the reception shoes and the going-away shoes. But maybe we shouldn’t show which exact pair I choose because then it will add some suspense.”
In her own wacky way, he supposed she was right. But how was he supposed to keep a lid on his cousin if she wanted drama during her shoe selection?
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some champagne, too?” Jenny asked, clearly sensing his mood. “Or some Scotch?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m fine.” Someone had to think clearly here. “Drama is okay. Let’s just make sure it’s planned so it shows well.”
“Okay,” she said, lifting her glass for a refill. Jenny immediately filled it. “This is going to be so fun. A reality show about my wedding. Even Daddy is pleased.”
“A reality show?” Jenny said, shooting Marc a questioning glance.
“Oh, yeah,” Brooke said. “Didn’t Marc tell you?” She swatted at him. “Shame on you.”
“We hadn’t released a press statement yet.”
Brooke giggled. “Oops. I may have let it slip last night.”
Marc’s stomach began to burn. The reality show could take Bellagio Shoes to a new level. He was ready for that new level, but since he’d been given the assignment to make sure Bellagio was portrayed in only the best light, he didn’t know how in hell he could accomplish that without some control. And even though Brooke was engaged, she still wasn’t under control. He knew the wedding was being put together in a rush due to her father’s deadline. Brooke had put off committing herself until the last moment.
“That’s okay,” Jenny said. “Sometimes rumors can be more important than the truth.”
Brooke’s smile fell, and for a sliver of a second she turned serious. “How true.” She took another sip and gave a hard laugh. “And I’m an expert at generating rumors.” She pushed her glasses back in place. “Marc will make it all turn out right. That’s why the almighty Alfredo Bellagio put him in charge. He’s young, he looks great on camera, and he’s so level-headed he could run the country blindfolded, let alone Bellagio Shoes.” Brooke glanced at her watch. “My time here is done. Do you mind if I take the rest of those truffles?”
“Not at all,” Jenny said, offering her the plate and a napkin.
“And if you don’t mind, I think I’ll top off this glass and take it with me, too.”
Jenny picked up the bottle and paused. “You’re not driving, are you?” she asked.
“Nope. I’m being chauffered today. Daddy’s orders.” She pursed her mouth into a kiss while Jenny topped off her champagne. “See you later Marc. Don’t work so hard. You’re starting to remind me of my dad and that’s not good. Ciao!” she said and left the room.
Complete silence followed.
“Are you sure you don’t want some Scotch?”
Marc met Jenny’s gaze. “I’m sure. Now you know what we’re doing. Brooke seems to like your stuff. Are you up for the whole project?”
The champagne bottle hanging limply in her hand, she stared at him looking like a deer caught in headlights. “What do you mean she likes my stuff? The whole project?”
“I mean Sal didn’t really tell you he was at the doctor this morning, did he?” he asked.
She swallowed. “No, but he’s been having some problems, so I thought—”
“You thought he was at the doctor?”
She bit her lip but said nothing.
Loyal to the end, he thought. She would be perfect for the job. “Sal’s in rehab. He called me after you and I talked.”
Her draw dropped. “Oh.”
She met his gaze then looked away, her eyebrows furrowing. “I’m glad for him to get any help he might need. He’s been a wonderful boss.”
“And mentor,” Marc said, and watched Jenny snap her head up. “When I told him his timing was terrible, he said you’ve been covering for him for months. Called you creative, brilliant, innovative. He said you could handle the shoe designs for this wedding with no problem. So, are you game or not?”