tagInterracial LoveBusiness or Pleasure?

Business or Pleasure?

byDamned_Yankee©

Chapter One

I saw her the first time at the bagel shop. It was the briefest of encounters, a quick "excuse me" from me, as I slipped past her to take my purchase to the register, then another moment as I held the door for her as we both left the shop and headed to our cars.

Two hours later, when I could grab a couple of minutes at my desk between meetings, I was still thinking about her, about her smile, about the way her crimson silk blouse molded itself to her body, about the way her brilliant white teeth and red lipstick contrasted with her dark skin, about the way her heels clicked on the floor as she walked. Work being what it was, I was distracted soon enough, but my thoughts returned to her more than once during the day.

I'm no kid. I'm not prone to infatuation the way I was in my teens, or at least I didn't think I was. But the next morning at the bagel shop, I ordered my bagel then sat down at a table.

"Hey, Mr. H, taking it easy this morning?" asked the young guy who ran the store when he brought my breakfast to the table. "You're usually in and out."

"Yeah, Rory, trying to slow down and smell the coffee," I said.

He snorted. "That'll be the day."

He knew me too well. It was rare that I sat down at a table to eat in. Today, I tried to tell myself it wasn't to allow more time to see if she came, but even I only half believed it.

About ten minutes later, bagel gone along with my pretense of slowing down, I grabbed my coffee and started toward the door when who should I spot walking in from the parking lot. I took just a second to check my reflection in the dark glass of the bagel shop windows, tugged my cuffs down over my watch and buttoned my blazer before I met her at the door. She had something of a frantic air about her today, like she was a little late.

"Good morning," I said, as I held the door for her again.

That earned me another one of those brilliant smiles and mumbled thanks before she was gone.

As I walked to my car, I replayed the contact in my mind. Was that smile recognition? Did she remember me from the day before? And then, as I realized what I was doing, I just shook my head and laughed at myself. Here I was, sixty-one years old, CEO of the company I founded and had run for the last twenty-odd years and I was behaving like a teenager. Or worse, I thought wryly, a lecherous old man.

I own an advertising agency called HSDO Advertising. The "SDO" referred to a group of partners whose companies I bought out in the early days, but who have long since gone their separate ways. The "H" refers to me, Collin Halloran. Advertising has been good to me. The work has supported me and my family comfortably and put two kids through college, but the idea that some people have that "because you own a business, you're rich" makes me laugh - they act like you're on easy street, no worries, be happy. Those people have never met a payroll, never faced down a big bank loan or faced a major crisis before you got to your desk.

"Collin, we've got to talk." The ominous words came from Bill Beatty, who would be my number two guy if he ever could figure out how to solve problems without involving me. Bill was in his mid-thirties and his work was outstanding. Clients loved him, he was always alert to new opportunities, made more than his share of sales. But put a significant obstacle in his way and he forgot how to think. He intercepted me just as I got off the elevator at our floor of offices in the downtown high rise that had been home to HSDO for 10 years.

"OK, Bill. Let me get some coffee and take my coat off."

Five minutes later, Bill was in my office, wringing his hands and looking like he lost his best friend.

"OK, so what's going on?"

"You know we have a crew in Tallahassee this week, shooting commercials for Florida State?"

"Yes, of course."

"Well, one of crew members showed up drunk, and got arrested by campus police for DWI. Now campus police is telling us the whole crew is banned from campus and they have the grip truck impounded."

"Jesus Christ, that's a problem." The grip truck was a big cube truck chock full of lights, C stands, reflectors, flags, sound blankets - all the stuff needed to shoot a commercial. "Who is the crew member?"

"A grip named Spike."

"Spike? Who the hell is he?"

"He's a local, apparently."

"Was he in an accident? How did they figure out he was drunk?"

"Not clear. No accident that I know of."

"Ok, first things first. Who have you talked to at Florida State?"

"Sharon O'Dell in Mar-Com, and this guy," Beatty referred to some notes, "George McDonald who is head of Campus Safety - that's what they call the campus cops."

"What did they say?"

"Sharon seems to be powerless to do anything. She's completely intimidated by Campus Safety. And this McDonald guy is just being an ass. Won't budge. Says the truck is 'evidence.'"

"Well, you know my rule?"

"Huh?"

"Never be too surprised when a cop acts like an asshole."

"Oh, that rule. Yeah, I've heard that before."

"OK. Do you have McDonald's number?"

Beatty pulled a sheet out of his notebook, and copied a number to it.

"Thanks. While I'm on the phone trying to talk some sense into him, will you call Sharon and tell her we're on it, and we'll get back to her shortly?"

"OK, boss, will do." Beatty started to leave my office.

"Wait, Bill," I called to him as he disappeared through my door. "I thought Letourneau was bringing his own crew with him?"

"He apparently decided to hire local crew to save money."

"I seem to remember having this conversation with him and deciding to pay more to have crew we could rely on. Am I imagining that?"

"No. I remember that, too."

"Then that is not cool. Do you know if that got into the contract?"

"I don't know but I have the contract on my desk, I'll check." Beatty started to leave again. "Oh, one more thing. In addition to the production schedule being totally blown up, the crew is threatening to find other gigs if they're not getting paid."

"OK. Buy us a day by telling the crew we'll pay them their usual rates for today. And call Phil Letourneau and make sure everyone else on that crew is sober."

"OK. Will do."

Five minutes later, I was talking to George McDonald, the head of Campus Safety. I had looked him up online and was able to learn that while his title is "Director" he fancies being called "Chief."

"Chief McDonald? This is Collin Halloran, from HSDO Advertising. We're the advertising agency of record for FSU."

"What can I do for you?"

"Well, chief, we have a problem, and I'm hoping you can help."

"You certainly have a problem," he said "We're very unhappy that you brought a drunk onto our campus and put our students at risk."

"Well, to be honest, Chief, I'm pretty unhappy about that, too. The production company we hired for this work was supposed to bring reliable crew with them, but they seem to have hired a couple of guys locally and this grip was one of them. I apologize for his behavior. Obviously, if I had known he was drunk, I would have never let him come on campus. But you know how it is Chief - you hire people and expect them to do their jobs and sometimes they disappoint you."

"I hear you, but I'm not sure how that affects the current situation."

"Well, Chief, I was hoping you could reconsider your decision to ban the rest of my crew from campus and release the grip truck from impound so we can get our work done."

"Why would I do that?" There was a note of hostility in McDonald's tone that didn't surprise me. "You people come down here and think you can do whatever you want with no regard for our rules. It's my job to draw a line."

"Chief, I'm sorry to hear that. When Jim Edwards hired us, he put his faith in our ability to help restore FSU's brand after those tragic shootings last year." Edwards was the FSU president, who was in the midst of a valiant PR battle to reassure parents of prospective students that FSU was safe after a lunatic shot four students last year in the library. "I'd hate to have to tell him that our efforts are being derailed because of the actions of one irresponsible person."

McDonald was silent for a moment. I was hoping he was pondering just who was being irresponsible.

"I certainly don't want to get in the way of that effort," McDonald said. "But if I hear one more report of your people acting irresponsibly..."

"You won't chief, don't worry. Thanks for helping us out. We appreciate it, and I'm sure President Edwards will appreciate it as well. Where do I send someone for the truck?"

"Just tell them to come to my office. That's a big truck - the tow was expensive - like three hundred bucks."

"We'll pay it, no problem."

For the last couple of minutes I was on the phone with McDonald, Beatty was standing in my doorway with what looked like a copy of the contract in his hand.

"OK, Bill, we're all set with McDonald. The crew is free to go on campus and get started. Send someone to McDonald's office to liberate the grip truck. Is that the contract with Letourneau?"

"Yeah, and we did call it out specifically in the fees section."

"OK. I can deal with him later. Let's make sure he gets the message that any more drunks on his crew and I'll hold him responsible. What's your day like, today and tomorrow?"

"Meetings, mostly internal."

"OK. I want you on the next flight to Tallahassee. Buy clothes down there if you don't have time to pack. Before the day is out, I want you in FSU's communications office talking to Sharon and reassuring her that we're on this. I also want an adult on the ground down there making sure we dot our i's and cross our t's. We can't afford another incident."

"You know Rick Stewart is already there." Rick was the creative director on this project.

"I know. You're the cavalry, riding in to the rescue. I send you down, it sends a message to FSU about how seriously we take this."

"OK, boss. On my way."

I made a mental note to tell Amy about this crisis when I got home tonight. Then, I experienced an awful, sinking feeling as I remembered that I couldn't tell her. Amy, my wife and confidant, the person I had shared all of these details with for the last 35 years, was dead.

When Amy died about eighteen months ago it left me pretty much adrift. There isn't an hour that goes by that I don't think of Amy. Not an hour that I don't feel a little lost and a little guilty that I'm here and she's gone. But every so often the habits of a lifetime together cut in and I think "I need to tell Amy about this" or "Amy will get a laugh from that." And when that happens, the next thought that comes into my head is that she's gone. And I feel awful all over again. It doesn't last long. I've grieved for Amy and tried to move on, but that's easier said than done.

I live alone now. My kids are grown and have lives of their own. I haven't dated; haven't really wanted to. Instead I work all the time. Often seven days a week; always six days. The sole comfort I have is my dog, who comes to work with me now that there's no one at home to entertain him. He barks at people, from the UPS guy to clients who come to visit, but I figure barking is his job. I tell people he's my Director of Security.

The Florida State debacle hijacked my morning. Three meetings I had scheduled were interrupted or cut short as I fielded updates from my guys on the ground there. It was about 10:30 that Rick Stewart called in to say that the crew was on campus setting up for the first shot. That was later than it should have been, but at least Letourneau got them moving. I would deal with Letourneau later, when we knew what this was going to cost us. We were now almost certainly going to have to add a half-day of shooting to make up for the lost time.

It was noon before I had a minute to myself. When I did, I closed the door to my office, turned on some music and sat at my desk for a minute to gather my thoughts. When I tried to remember where my day was going before it was hijacked, I remembered the stunning black woman from the bagel store. I found myself daydreaming about her as I went through the rest of the day, occasionally to the point where I had to almost shake my head to clear it.

In my two o'clock meeting, my COO and our tech guy were yammering on about the new phone system they wanted to install. Voice Over IP - VOIP - it was taking over the phone business. I knew this from reading the Wall Street Journal, not because of anything I heard in that meeting. I was replaying the bagel store encounter from this morning, except in this version a wittier me had grabbed her attention and...

"Collin? You with us?" Peter and the tech guy were looking at me like they expected me to say something. I tried to do an instant replay on the conversation, but I had been too far gone. I missed it entirely.

"Sorry, Pete," I said. "I must have zoned out there for a minute. Let's cut to the chase. What do you guys recommend?"

I could tell from the looks on their faces that it was their recommendation that I had missed, but it was one of the benefits of being the boss that neither of them was about to scold me for not paying attention. Now, I hyper-focused, asked a couple of pertinent questions and made a quick decision.

This girl had really gotten under my skin, and I wasn't sure why. She was black, and I've always been attracted to black women, but I work with black women all the time and they don't have this kind of effect on me. She was vastly appealing to me in a way that I hadn't felt in a very long time. She was young enough to be my daughter, but the thoughts I was having about her were far from paternal, and this made me feel irrationally and inexplicably guilty.

It was a familiar feeling. I'm no saint, and, as much as I loved my wife, over the thirty-five years of our marriage I had strayed. Someone told me once that an affair in the mind is a much a sin as an affair in real life, and while I didn't quite buy it, I know where she was coming from. I had affairs of the mind, many in fact, but I had an actual physical affair as well. It happened in a moment of weakness, when things at home were going poorly and I was stressed. That's not an excuse, it's not even an explanation, it's just context.

In the end, my wife learned about it from me. I came clean, ended the affair, and worked to restore trust. When she got sick, I cared for her, held her while she was dying, and did anything and everything I could to make up for my transgressions. Her last words to me, with a wan smile and a squeeze of my hand, were to tell me that she had always loved me. I cried, and thought I might never stop.

My kids and I eventually picked up our lives where we had left them and soldiered on without her. For months it was a dark, joyless existence. Then my son announced that he and his new wife were having a baby, and despite the bittersweet knowledge that Amy would have loved to have shared this, the sun peeked through the clouds. My younger son graduated from college, Summa Cum Laude, and more sun. The holidays were hard, and I'm guessing they always will be, but spring is coming and the sun is out regularly now. I can look at her picture on my desk now without tearing up. My kids and I can talk about her and remember the good times without me choking up. Time heals.

But this was new. I had not been attracted to anyone in a long time, and my emotional self was having trouble reconciling my new feelings with old guilt. I knew, of course, that my guilt was irrational. Amy was gone, and me living my life and being happy was no sin. And, anyway, this girl was half my age. It was confusing, so I did what I guess a lot of men would do: tried to ignore it.

That was easy enough for the next couple of weeks. Work took me out of town, first to Houston, then to the West Coast scouting talent for a major new series of commercials for a big client. The work was relentless. Twelve-hour days, watching auditions where beautiful but utterly talent-less women tried to read lines from one of our scripts with remarkably little affect. Lines that seemed to me and my creative team to be chock full of drama came across as listless and ordinary. No amount of direction could tease a little life out of them.

Now this was no surprise. I've been doing this for a long time, and it is remarkable how hard it is to find "talent" that actually has some. This production was well into six figures to make one commercial, and it rested on our ability to find one person who could make the concept work. I know it seems easy, when you're watching the finished product, but as an experienced producer told me my first year on the job, "Actors practice their whole lives so they can sound natural on camera. You want some kid to do it for $400 a day."

And so we slogged on. We looked at more than forty "actresses" in Houston; seventy-five or more in LA. It was utterly consuming and exhausting. But at the end of it, we found an attractive girl with the best "girl next door" looks I've seen in a long time who seemed to get it. And she was new - no major commercials under her belt, just a handful of regional theater productions. She had come to LA to make it big, but was still waiting tables. This could be her big break. I hoped so, for her sake. The fact that she was new was important. The client wanted a fresh face for their sporting goods line, one that we could sign to a multi-year contract. She was perfect.

When I called her to ask her to come back for a second read, her reaction told the whole story.

"Hey, Karen, this is Collin Halloran, from HSDO. How are you?"

"Oh, hi. I'm good thanks. "

"Karen, we're wondering if you would be available to come back in tomorrow morning to talk and maybe do a second read?"

"REALLY? Oh my God!" she could barely contain her excitement. "Just tell me when and where."

I gave her the details, and even as we were hanging up I could hear her tell someone, "Oh, my God! They called me back."

We met her the next morning over breakfast and I got to see her in a new light, literally. California sunshine flooded the hotel restaurant, reflecting and glancing off the glassware and table settings. The white table cloth served to bounce the light up onto her face in a way that allowed me to see what she would look like in close-up and I liked it. She was gorgeous. Flawless skin, blonde hair, a runner's physique; long, muscular legs, flat stomach, toned arms. That was the director in me talking. The man in me saw a great ass, perfectly proportioned breasts and eyes that could be seductive without even trying. Her eyes were an almost startling shade of blue, so much so that I had to ask her if that came from colored contacts. I admit to being a little mesmerized by her as she sat there at our breakfast table. She had this incredible combination of sexiness and innocence that was utterly irresistible.

When we said goodbye, I walked her out to the hotel lobby to fill her in on a few details. Before we parted she put her arms around me and hugged me, out of gratitude, I guess, but it surprised me - more so because she molded that insanely hot body to mine. I responded, like any man would I imagine, by putting my hands on her back and feeling the warmth and firmness of her tiny frame though the mostly see-through fabric of her blouse. I'm a lot taller than her, so her head was under my chin. I learned that her hair smelled vaguely like strawberries, that her breasts felt bigger than I would have guessed and she was a physical girl. She liked to touch and be touched. In that moment, the months I had gone without any feminine touch in my life surged over me, my longing for a woman's attention nearly overpowering my generally good judgment, and I had to consciously pull myself back.

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