BRITT GLANCED at the office clock as he laid down his pencil and stretched: 7:40 a.m. and already he’d put in a solid three hours – on warehouse drawings, no less. So much for a year with Sydney’s most prestigious architectural firm.
He turned out the light over his drafting table and lit a cigarette, then walked over to the bank of windows overlooking the harbor and its unfinished pearl. How cleanly the city gleamed, he thought as he looked out over her sun-stroked buildings and deep blue waters. How shiny and bright and bold.
But Britt had studied his history, and Sydney was no innocent, he knew. Flamboyant, wicked and strong she was, but he would conquer her yet. Some day she would belong to him as he had to her for all these years, and then he would reshape her contours and clothe her in the elegance so befitting her audacious splendor. In the meantime, duty called.
Britt checked his watch before gazing once more at his only remaining mistress: Sydney on the half shell – salty, raw, and succulent.
“And waiting,” he whispered. “And waiting.”
* * *
AN HOUR later more draftsmen drifted into the room. By 9:08 two more of Britt’s team had arrived, but McWhirter was still missing. Britt did some quick lettering and then looked at his watch: 9:10 and McWhirter had yet to appear.
Britt worked on. Time was ticking away, and his life was sinking lower with every scrunched up minute. They might be only warehouses, but it was an important account at Miller and James, and Britt’s job, not to mention his career, was on the line.
Clock: 9:15… Watch: 9:23.
“Where the hell’s McWhirter?” Britt called out when the minute hand finally hit six.
The adjacent draftsman shrugged.
“Surf’s up,” he said.
Britt muttered an obscenity and started drawing a little faster. He would have to skip lunch now for sure, and he’d never had any breakfast, either. He needed another cup of coffee but had no time to get one.
His mind was beginning to wander. Britt shook his head to clear it then bent over his work again. He had just gotten his concentration back when he realized someone was standing in front of him.
“May I have one of your cigarettes?” she asked. “I seem to have left mine in the car.”
Britt pushed his cigarettes toward her and continued drawing.
“And a light?”
He dipped his left hand into his pocket, pulled out a book of matches, and laid it on top of the cigarettes.
“Is there some place around here I could get a cup of coffee?” she asked.
“Down the hall to the left, last door on the right.” Britt slapped enough change for one cup on the table. “I take mine black.”
She took the coins without comment and returned a few minutes later with his coffee. He gave her a perfunctory ‘thanks’ without looking up and hoped that would be the end of it.
“I’m waiting for Jack Miller,” she said. “He doesn’t seem to be in right now. Do you know when he’ll be back?”
“Ask the receptionist.”
“I did. She doesn’t know.”
“Neither do I.”
“In that case,” she said, “perhaps you can tell me where I can find Britt MacFarlane.”
Britt raised his head for the first time to look at her. His gaze took in the firm, half-exposed breasts then moved ever so slowly up the aristocratic neck to a no less impressive face.
“He’s busy right now,” he told her, “and he doesn’t like to be disturbed while he’s working.”
“Then how would you suggest I go about speaking with him?”
He took a sip of coffee and lit a cigarette. “Call him at home.”
She rested her forearm on the drafting table and leaned toward him. “And just how might I get his number?”
He met her gaze. “Try the phone book.”
She whirled on a four-inch heel and headed for the door.
Britt’s gaze followed her hips out of the room. They were discreetly inviting—RSVP—the legs supporting them equally worthy of their task. Splendid. Positively splendid. And he always had been partial to short skirts.
Britt downed his coffee, wadded the paper cup into a ball and tossed it at the wastebasket. He missed.
* * *
IT WAS almost eleven o’clock when Britt was told the boss wanted to see him. The warehouse project, no doubt. He was behind schedule but could still make deadline if he really pushed it.
His apprehensions were eased as he entered the senior partner’s office to find Miller smiling. Britt relaxed. Until he noticed her. She was leaning against the desk leafing through an Architectural Digest.
“Ah, MacFarlane,” Miller greeted him. “This young lady has talked me into giving you a long lunch break today so that you two can dine together in style.”
“Ah... that sounds very nice, sir, but I’m afraid I can’t spare the time today,” Britt told him. “I’ve still got a good three hours to go on the Reynolds drawings you wanted by two o’clock.” He looked at her again, but she showed no sign of interest in the conversation. Britt turned back to Miller. “I am sorry.”
“No problem,” Miller said with a wave of his hand. “Just make sure the drawings are finished by five.”
“After all,” Miller added, “she is the daughter of our biggest client, not to mention a very close friend. So go ahead and enjoy yourself. Consider it part of the job.”
Still in some confusion, Britt glanced toward the lady in question. She gave him a mightier-than-thou look over her shoulder. He managed a smile.
“Just one of the benefits of the business,” Miller said with a wink.
Britt shot a meaningful look at the ‘young lady’ and started back to the drafting room. She followed, eyeing his open collar and rolled-up sleeves with obvious disapproval. He decided to ignore the implication.
“Oh, good,” she said as he was putting away his drafting tools. “You do have a tie.”
“Why? Don’t you carry a leash?”
She held out her hand. Britt didn’t bother to hide his distaste as he lifted the necktie off the lamp base and extended it to her on his forefinger. She buttoned the top two buttons of his shirt, slipped the tie around his neck and made a proper knot, giving it a tight jerk into place.
He grimaced and loosened the noose with his left hand while she rolled down and buttoned first his right sleeve, then the left.
“How do I look?” he asked as she stood back to admire her work. “Is my hair okay?”
“Your hair is beautiful.”
“I know. I just thought it might need to be combed.”
She gave him a reproving look.
“Would you care to shine my shoes?” he asked.
She took his arm and led him out of the office.
* * *
THEY HAD to wait for the lift. Britt thought about lighting up, but as sure as he did the lift would arrive and he’d only have to put it out again. He felt a sudden urge to pace as though marking off the same distance over and over again would somehow keep the walls from closing in on him. He managed to keep still by thrusting his hands into his pockets and balling his fingers into fists while reciting “Invictus” inside his head. He made it all the way to ‘the Horror of the shade’ before she interrupted him.
“I must say, you’re really being terribly decent about all this.”
“I am not ‘decent,’” he retorted. “I am merely hungry.”
“Hungry enough even to go to lunch with me?” she asked, her green eyes taunting him.
“Look,” Britt told her, “I don’t know how you did it or why, and frankly, I don’t care. The fact is you got me out of that hellhole for an hour of food and drink and fresh air, and for that I’m grateful. If you want to tag along while I chow down, why the hell should I object?”
“Decent,” she mused as the lift finally reached their floor, “but definitely hostile.”
Britt followed her into the lift and glared at her from his side of the cage. She was eyeing him quite openly now as though none of the other people sharing the lift with them was in any way participating in her time and space. Only Britt. He was her quarry, and she had him cornered.
What am I, he thought, grist for the mill? Meat for the grinder? What’s with you women, anyway? My God, I’d have to be rolling drunk to look at a woman the way you’re looking at me. How is it you sheilas are able to manage it so bloody well even when you’re stone cold sober?
People were jostling for position now as more lunch-goers entered the lift, but she never took her eyes off his body.
I had a woman once. I shared everything I had with her. I shared parts of myself I’d never even known existed. I gave her everything – everything – and I would have given her more if she’d only given me the chance.
And all I ever asked of her was that she not bother me while I was working. Hell, she couldn’t even get that right half the time. No, she just sucked me dry and then threw me a kiss and blew me away.
She met his eyes.
I’ll say one thing for her, though. She never looked at me like that. She never asked me how tall I was; she never put a tape measure around my chest; she never asked me to flex my biceps. She never worried about whether I would get big enough and long enough and hard enough to please her and she never kept count of how many times I came and she never, never – not even once – asked me what I expected my net income to be ten years down the road.
She let her eyes roam back down to his chest. Britt turned his head away. When he glanced around again, she was studying his face.
Finally made it to the face, have we? Well, that shouldn’t take long. Not much there, is there? Oh, the hair, of course. You all go crazy over the hair. And the eyes aren’t bad. At least, not in their natural state. Right now, of course, they’re bloodshot from overwork, never mind clouded with disillusionment, but they used to be quite lovely – or so I’ve been told. And kind. I remember that about them. They used to be kind.
Ah, yes. The nose. Well, a nose is a nose. I mean, a man has to breathe, doesn’t he? It’s hard to get excited about a nose. And yes, you’re right, the mouth is too wide, but at least it’s not too thin. And the jawline is good, don’t you think? A great clincher. Runs in the family.
Well, that’s about it. Just a normal ole face. Not too symmetrical, not too strange. Attractive enough without being overly handsome. It suits me well enough, I guess. At least, it used to. What do you think?
“Interesting,” she murmured, still looking at his face as they entered the main lobby of the building and headed for the street.
No, it is not ‘interesting.’ It is very plain, very dull, very bored, and very tired. So am I. What the hell do you want with me, anyway?
They were herded out the door onto the street with the rest of the lunch crowd. Britt slipped away from the mob as soon as he could and stood breathing deeply at the edge of the street. He shivered suddenly.
“You don’t like lifts, do you?” she asked.
“I hate them. Especially when they’re crowded.”
“How many people does it take to make a crowd?”
He turned to look at her. “More than one.”
She nodded. “That’s what I thought.”
The sudden sunshine had been a pleasant shock to his system. Britt felt much better now, lighter somehow as if all those unwelcome introspections had been spirited away by a breeze too brisk and cool to let such heavy, humid thoughts remain. He shifted focus and found himself studying her now.
She looked even lovelier in natural light. Younger, warmer, friendly even, as though she could laugh in the sunlight and be happy there. Perhaps he had imagined all the rest. Perhaps she had never looked at him in any way except the way she was looking at him now, which wasn’t so bad, actually. Not in the light of day.
“Let’s go,” he said suddenly. “I’m starved.”
He began to stride through the crowd.
“Where are you going?” she asked when she’d caught up with him.
“There’s a pub around the corner here that serves great sandwiches,” he told her.
“Oh, no,” she said, taking his arm. “We need some place quiet.”
“Yes, we do.”
She steered him in another direction.
“Because we have to talk.”
“I don’t want to talk,” he told her. “I want to eat.”
“And so you shall,” she said as they reached Macquarie Street. “Turn here. I know a nice, quiet little place just down the block.”
“I hope this nice, quiet little place of yours has good roast beef sandwiches,” he muttered.
“They don’t,” she told him, “but they have marvelous steaks.”
“Steaks?” he repeated, feeling hungrier by the second.
She nodded. “And oysters.”
“Oh, God. Are we there yet?”
“Almost,” she said, tossing him a glorious smile as she led the way to an unassuming townhouse with a discreet brass plaque proclaiming it to be the Post and Paddock.
“Wait a minute,” he said before they ascended the short flight of steps to the entrance. “Can I afford this place?”
“Probably not,” she admitted, “but it’s only lunch for two.”
“Two? You mean I’m supposed to pay for you?”
“Why should I?”
“So that I’ll owe you one, of course.”
“One what?” he wanted to know, but she had already crossed the threshold.
Britt followed and found himself standing on a very expensive Persian carpet in the dim foyer of one of Sydney’s less publicized restaurants of distinction. The maître d’ gave them an ingratiating little bow. He knew the lady, of course, and she had reservations (of course). Armed with two colossal menus, he led them to a secluded table in one of the small back rooms where recirculating waiters enforced a hostile truce until the appetizers had arrived.
The ‘young lady’ was still toying with her asparagus as the last raw rock oyster slid down Britt’s throat. He leaned back, in much better humor now, and waited.
“I guess you’re wondering what this is all about,” she said at last.
“Oh, no. Not at all.”
She gave a little laugh that echoed uncertainty.
“Somehow this is not turning out to be as easy as I thought it would be,” she said.
“What’s not as easy as you thought it would be?”
She looked down at her hands, bit her lip, then turned two beguiling eyes up to his face.
“I want to ask a favor of you,” she said.
“A favor! Christ, woman, you’ve already rooked me into buying you lunch in this hoity-toity restaurant. What more could you possibly want?”
“I want you to be my escort to the Cancer League Charity Ball.”
“What!” he exclaimed, then lowered his voice again. “Why?”
She glanced down at her discreetly painted nails once more before taking the plunge.
“I’m treasurer of the League, you see, and this is our big fundraiser of the year, so I simply must attend. I made all the arrangements months ago, but my escort broke his leg skiing last week and the dance is next Friday and of course everyone who is anyone is already spoken for and...” She stopped to take a breath and give him an appealing look. “Well, Uncle Jack was...”
“Oh, he’s not really my uncle. Just a close friend of the family.”
“Ah...” Britt nodded.
“So,” she continued, “I was getting rather desperate and Uncle Jack was over at the house a day or so ago and I asked him if he knew of anyone I could ask and...” She paused and gave a slight shrug. “He suggested you.”
“Mm. He did.”
Britt looked down for a moment, then locked on her eyes.
“Well, he said you were a young architect on the way up with a proper education and a respectable family background and that you were well-mannered and, ah –” her eyes wandered down his chest and back up to the probing blue eyes again “– not bad looking, either.”
He still looked suspicious.
“Well, I am desperate,” she reminded him.
The arrival of the main course cut off his reply. She poked gingerly at her lobster, keeping an eye on him as he worked his steak.
Britt looked up. “Well what?”
“Will you go?”
“To the dance, you mean?”
“I’d really rather not. Can’t you find someone else?”
“No. I can’t. I’ve explained that to you already. You’re my last resort.”
“Last resort, huh?”
She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again.
Britt raised his head. “Did I hear the lady say ‘please’?”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes.”
Britt grunted and went back to his steak.
“Will you go?”
“To the dance, you mean?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
“Because my father is a big client?”
“Because you have big tits.”
He moaned in protest as she pulled her suit jacket together over the scoop-necked shell.
“How old are you, anyway?” she asked when he had finished eating.
“Oh. Well, it doesn’t matter. You’ll pass for thirty-two.”
“You can dance, can’t you?”
“It’s been awhile, but...” He caught the dismay wrinkling the corners of her mouth and tried to look more optimistic. “I won a twist contest when I was sixteen.”
After they ordered coffee, Britt picked up his cigarettes, lit one and put the remainder in his shirt pocket.
“May I have a cigarette, please?”
He handed her one.
“And a light?”
He tossed her a book of matches and turned his attention to the pictures on the wall above their table. Perhaps they should put oats in the Melbourne Cup, he thought as he looked into the great, sad eyes of Australia’s legendary equine hero.
“Tell me, MacFarlane,” she said. “Were you born a bastard or do you have to work at it?”
“Oh, I usually have to work at it,” he admitted. “Unless, of course, I’m with a bitch. Then it comes naturally.”
He wondered if she had an unlimited supply of those plastic, sarcastic smiles. He suspected she did. Probably ordered them by the gross from Harrods.
“I have an appointment in half an hour,” she told him, “so let’s get this squared away, shall we?”
Britt did his best to look agreeable.
“Here’s my address and phone.” She wrote the information on a plain white calling card and gave it to him. “Do you have a tux?”
He made a face.
Whatever smidgen of fascination she may have held for him in the sunlight was dimming rapidly in the gloom of this very small, very exclusive, very ill-lit restaurant. It must have shown in his eyes, but she didn’t seem to notice. She was on a roll.
“The dance starts at nine but I should be there by eight-thirty, so pick me up at eight.” She slipped the gold-tipped fountain pen back into her purse. “That’s a week from Friday.”
Britt was studying the card.
“Anything else you need to know?” she asked.
“Just one thing.”
He looked up. “Your name.”
“Lisa,” she said. “As in fashion design.”
“Farnsworth,” she added. “As in banking.”
He gave a soft whistle. “I’m beginning to get the picture.”
“Congratulations. I’ll see you next Friday then.” She stood up to leave. “Oh, and MacFarlane, don’t skimp on the tip. I eat here often.”
He stared after her. “Bitch.”
“The gentleman wished something more?”
Britt looked up at the forgotten waiter and flushed in the semi-darkness.
“No, that will be all, thank you.”
“Very well, sir.”
The waiter returned with the bill on a small silver tray and placed it on the table. Britt sucked in his breath and barely restrained himself from yelling What??? when he saw the tab. He should never have allowed Lisa to talk him into ordering wine with the meal. And now a whole week’s beer money down the drain! Still, the steak had been good, and the oysters, too. As for the rest...
Oh, what the hell.
He left thirty dollars on the little tray before threading his way out of the artificial darkness into the glorious brightness of Sydney’s most advertised commodity. A cool August breeze danced flirtatiously around him as salt-tinged city air filled his lungs. Britt took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the sudden sunlight, then glanced at his watch and began sprinting back to the office.
The race was on, and he’d lay odds on a photo finish.
© 2016 Ann Henry, all rights reserved.