Business or Pleasure?

byDamned_Yankee©

For a second, I toyed with the idea of inviting her to join me for dinner one-on-one. There's no doubt in my mind she would have said yes. No question that any request I made of her short of actually asking her right then and there to have sex with me would have been accepted. She would look amazing in my client's warm ups, better in their running shorts, hair in a ponytail tucked through a cap with my client's logo on the front. In six months' time, she'd be the newest ingénue, and she and I would spend a lot of time together making that happen. Acting inappropriately with her now would make that all weird and uncomfortable. But, more importantly, she was beholden to me for a major step in her blossoming career, and exploiting that to satisfy my own sexual needs would have been terribly wrong. I stepped back, looked at that huge smile on her face, and reminded myself that she was almost exactly the age of my daughter-in-law. We said our goodbyes and I gave her my card with my cell phone number on it, and half hoped as she walked out to the parking lot that she would call me.

We met with her agent that afternoon - I'm pretty sure he had to look up her file to know who we were talking about when we called - and were able to work out the framework of an agreement that my client could live with. He was trying to be a dick about residuals, but I could be a dick, too, and I was sure he'd get over it. We wanted rights for three years, and with the money we were offering, his client would make him see reason.

I had a couple of hours at O'Hare between flights, and I used that time to call Phil Letourneau. We had needed to add a half-day to the schedule at FSU, and it would cost someone about ten thousand dollars.

"Phil, Collin Halloran here. How are you?"

"Good, Collin, thanks. How are you?"

"Oh, I'm ok. I've got an hour between flights and wanted to take a minute to call you and talk about FSU."

"Oh, great. I just looked at the footage this morning, and it looks great." "Footage" was an archaic term referring to film, but lots of older guys still used it. If I had been talking to someone in his twenties, they would have said "files" instead.

"Well, I wouldn't expect anything less of your outfit, Phil."

"Thanks, Collin."

"So, I spoke to Bill Beatty yesterday and he told me that you had billed us about ten grand for the extra half day of shooting."

"Yes. I know that wasn't in the budget, but we had to add the half-day to make up for lost time. The half-day rate was in the contract."

"I think the issue, Phil, is where does responsibility for that half day lie? I'm sure you would agree with me that we can't make the client responsible for that."

"Of course not."

"You know where this is going, Phil. I don't feel that HSDO should be responsible, either."

"Collin, the contract is clear - all production expenses are HSDO's responsibility."

"Well, funny you should mention the contract, Phil. Because the contract is also pretty clear that you were supposed to hire your regular crew and pay their travel expenses. The idea of that was to avoid this kind of issue and make sure we have responsible crew given the importance of this client. Your production day rates were predicated on you bringing your home crew and paying their expenses."

"Well, I ..."

"I know what you did, Phil. You thought you could get away with hiring some local grips - I mean who would know, right? You could save a few hundred bucks a day that way. The trouble is, this one bit you in the ass, Phil."

Phil was silent.

"I'll tell you what, Phil, I'll make you a deal. I'm not going to let you profit from this. But I will pay the half-day rates of your crew, so at least you're not out of pocket on this."

"Thank you, Collin."

"But Phil, going forward, I can't work with partners who don't do what they say they will do. Understood?"

"Loud and clear, Collin."

"All right. Well, have a great weekend. We'll talk next week."

I got into town just in time to rescue Max, my dog, from the kennel. He was overjoyed to see me, and he and I spent the evening together - a long walk, then we had a couple of beers sharing the sofa while I watched a Yankees spring training game on TV. Well, I had the beers. He sat there content beside me, his big brown eyes watching my every move. If I looked at him, he'd wag his tail. His chin was in my lap, and every so often he'd lick my hand. Even my kids don't love me as completely as he does.

Saturday I went into the office. Had to, really. If I didn't sign off on the payroll, no one would get paid the next week. I had checks to sign for vendors, emails to write, mail to sort through. This is what my predecessors in this industry had secretaries for, but our margins were too slim for such an outdated luxury. Secretaries came with big retainers, which, it turns out, are not a twenty-first century concept.

I stopped for a bagel on my way in, and standing in line waiting to pay, I thought about the young black woman again for the first time in a week. I looked for her, of course, but no dice. I guess I'd have to wait a while for my beautiful African American girl fix. She was beginning to fade a little from my memory, which maybe was a good thing. Obsession is disquieting. In fact I made a silent promise to myself that I was done obsessing over strangers in the bagel shop. That promise lasted about twenty-four hours.

Sunday morning I was back at the bagel shop for my usual - an everything bagel with plain cream cheese - and the place was packed like it was every Sunday. I spotted a table outside on the patio and grabbed it, then ran over and got Max out of the car so he could sit there with me. I bought him a bagel, too - plain, no cream cheese (his favorite) - and used it to keep him quiet and focused. It was still chilly out, since spring didn't officially begin for a few days yet, but the sun was out and I was comfortable in a light sweater and my old, worn but comfortable, Harris Tweed jacket.

I felt a little bad for taking up this table for four, as other people with their hands full of bagel and coffee went looking for a place to sit, but not so bad that I was willing to give it up. Several people looked at the empty seats, and I lost a couple of chairs to other parties who added them to their table, but no one actually asked if they could sit there, which was a relief. Losing the chairs helped, because now only one other person could join me, and most of the crowd at this hour was couples and families. I had my head in the New York Times, reading about the latest recruiting scandal in college sports when I sensed someone standing nearby.

When I looked up, it was my fantasy girl, looking around for a place to sit, stylishly dressed in workout gear that did a great job of showing off her trim physique. It took me just a beat for my brain to engage after I realized her problem.

"You're welcome to this chair if you don't mind sharing a table," I said.

She hesitated, looking around for an alternative solution, clear that she didn't want to sit with a stranger. I went for broke, flashing my most genuine smile.

"I won't bite, I promise."

She laughed, just a chirp, really, and grabbed the lone chair opposite me. She dragged it to the far end of the table, and sat there quietly, looking at some magazine and keeping to herself. A few minutes later, a little disagreement broke out nearby over who had first claimed a table that had emptied and we both looked up and watched while they sorted it out. Or, rather, she looked over at the ruckus while I looked at her. When her eyes came back my way, I pretended to be busy reading the paper.

"I never thanked you for offering to share your table," she said. "I don't know what happened to my manners. Is this place always so busy?"

I revised my assessment of her immediately. This was no African American woman. African, for sure, but her accent did not allow for the possibility of her being raised in the states. She wasn't Canadian, of course - they sounded like Americans who dropped their H's and turned simple statements into questions. Was she Australian? I didn't think so. Her speech was too clipped, too precise.

"Sundays are always jammed here," I said, without missing a beat. "The rest of the week, not so much. But, I've seen you here before during the week, right?"

"Yes." She smiled. "You're always the gentleman, holding the door for me."

She sounded vaguely English, but I spent enough time in London to know it wasn't a British accent.

No, this woman was African. I smiled back. "Ah, yes. Force of habit."

At that moment, Max noticed that my attention was no longer focused exclusively on him and got up to investigate. One sharp bark got her attention.

"Oh, you brought your dog?" she said. "What's his name?"

"This is Max." Max went over to greet her, and this reserved beauty I'd just met, squatted down to greet my dog, petting his back, ruffling the hair on his head and making silly noises to him. Any woman who likes my dog is pretty special in my book. She looked to be in her element with Max, honest and natural. It was like I had a little window into what she was like when she was being herself. I liked what I saw through that window. Liked it a lot.

"Be careful. He's quite the lady's man."

"He's so beautiful."

"Handsome." She looked at me a little quizzically. "He's very sensitive about his masculinity. Insists that he's handsome, not beautiful," I added with a grin.

"Yes, you're a handsome boy," she said to him, just before he reached out and licked her face. She squealed just a little, and ducked back in time to miss the second swipe. "Oh you are the lady's man, aren't you?" She gave him a final pat on the head and sat back down.

"I so envy dogs," I said. "He gets away with murder."

She laughed, then sipped her coffee, and turned her attention to her food, a yogurt and a cup of fruit. I went back to the Times, but had trouble focusing on it. Changed sections, and went to The Week in Review. I kept stealing glances at her as she sat kitty corner across from me. She really was gorgeous. Looking at her up close, I noticed things I hadn't seen before, like a tiny dimple in her chin and a smaller beauty mark just under her lip. Her eyes were big and brown, but really dark, just this side of black. She was in great shape, clearly worked out regularly, but she was no skinny little girl. She had curves and a softness to her that came through despite the workouts.

She was looking at some newsprint magazine with something of a perplexed look on her face, going back and forth between it and her phone.

"I'm sorry to disturb you," she said. My ruse of pretending to read the paper had worked. "I'm trying to find an apartment but I just don't know what parts of town I should look in. What would you recommend?"

"Happy to help." More than happy, really. There was nothing I wanted to do right now more than engage this beautiful young woman in conversation. "So the first question is, city or suburb?"

"Um... city, I guess? But only if it is safe. I've only been here a couple of weeks and I've heard some horror stories."

"Well, parts of the city are safe, and parts aren't."

She had her magazine open to what looked like a map of our town.

"These parts," I drew a big circle around two neighborhoods, "are safe enough. These," I X'd out two others, "are very much not safe."

"Oh, ok, thanks. What about suburbs?"

"They're all safe enough. East side is more affluent. West side more working class."

"Thanks. That helps a lot, actually."

"So I take it you've just moved here?"

"About three weeks ago. My company put me up in one of these extended stay hotels. I thought I'd be out of there by now, but, well... this has been a bigger adjustment than I bargained for."

"Where are you coming from?"

"Johannesburg."

"Ah... I've been trying to place the accent. I had it narrowed down to Africa." I smiled again. I seemed to be doing a lot of that.

She grinned. "Narrowed down to a whole continent? Very perceptive of you."

I laughed, and she joined in.

"I'm sorry, that sounded snarky."

"In my defense, we Americans are a little isolated over here. And beautiful women with an accent usually leave me very distracted, so it's a miracle I came that close."

I watched her eyes for a reaction and for just a moment, she looked down. When she looked back up, she had what looked to me like a forced smile.

"Well, I guess I've distracted you enough, she said, suddenly all business. "I need to get moving and call some of these apartments. Thanks again for sharing the table."

"Thanks for joining me."

"Bye Max," she said, giving him another pat on the head as she left. He wagged his tail happily.

I watched as she walked away from me, cursing myself for my "beautiful woman" line. Well, at least she likes my dog, I thought, and hoped I would get another chance with her.

Then, I realized, I never asked her name, nor offered mine. I clearly had been away from this boy-meets-girl thing for too long.

Monday dawned on a frantic new work week, and it was noon before I came up for air. I was beat. I hadn't had enough time to recover from the previous week, and it was looking like this week would not be much better. I no sooner had opened my laptop to check my email when Bill Beatty was at my door.

"By the time I got back from Tallahassee, you'd left on your trip, so I never got to tell you that sending me down was exactly the right thing to do. Sharon was tickled pink to see me there and I think we're in good shape with that client."

"Great Bill, I'm glad to hear it. They're so important to us as we try to build that part of the business."

"I know they are. Letourneau called me this morning. I don't know what you said to him, but he was contrite, to say the least. Told me to tear up the bill, that he's be sending us a new one without the half-day charges on it."

"Glad to hear it. Phil's not a bad guy, but I sense that he was taking us for granted."

"Are you going to use his company for this campaign you were just casting for?"

"I'm not sure. I'm inclined not to, to be honest. But he has some good people. I'll wait and see how the FSU work comes out."

Bill had no sooner walked out than Jim, an account executive who had been with the company for four or five years stuck his head in the door.

"Got a minute?"

"Yeah, come on in. Have a seat."

Jim had been a slow starter, but I had the sense over the last six months that he was beginning to reach his stride. He'd brought in a new client, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children, and they were slowly starting to turn into a decent money maker. We had recently completed a big series of billboards for them, and they had loved them, and had ordered a series of smaller versions they could use at events.

"So this Thursday is the big fund raiser for the Children's Fund," Jim started out hesitantly, perched on the edge of his chair like he was a little kid being called into the principal's office. "They really want you to come."

I will admit that a little groan may have escaped my lips before I could stifle it. My reluctance to go to work related social events was legendary. I loathe cocktail parties. Abhor political fund raisers. Get physically ill at the thought of rubber chicken dinners.

"Why me?" I asked. "You know I hate these things."

"Because you know everyone," he said. "They like the idea of you being there, mixing with their donors. They think if people know you support them, they'll raise more money."

"That's bullshit," I snapped. "They overestimate my influence."

At that point, I wasn't thinking, just reacting.

"OK, OK," Jim said sheepishly, starting to get up from his chair. "You're right. I'll let them know."

His obsequiousness pissed me off even more.

"For Christ's sake, don't back down on something that's important to your client just because your boss is a little irritable," I said. I could see he was completely confused. "I pay you to do what's right for your client, not kowtow to me."

"Yes, sir. This is right for the client."

I considered it a moment. I knew what I needed to do, but I didn't like it.

"OK, I get it. When and where? "

"Hyatt Regency Ballroom. 7 p.m.," Jim said, relief evident on his face. "Here's your ticket."

"Thanks. And I've told you to quit calling me sir."

I threw the ticket on my desk while Jim beat a hasty retreat. I let it rankle for a while, really resenting that my Thursday evening would be ruined. Then I took a deep breath. I know that I intimidate some men, but I have always worked at setting my own employees at ease under the theory that I want and need them to be honest with me. I don't know if it was my height, or the look on my face or some other subtlety, but my efforts seemed to be lost on Jim. And, God knows, I had not improved the situation.

I have an old friend I call Farmer John who was a recovering alcoholic. He shared some AA wisdom with me once when he saw me in a state much like the one I was in after Jim left my office.

"Bearing resentments is like drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die," he'd said, and it had always stuck with me. So I made a conscious effort to let it go. I grabbed the leash, and got a very excited Max to sit long enough to attach it to him, and we went for our walk.

While we walked, I thought about how it used to be easier to make excuses, when I had a wife who I could claim kept me hopping with social engagements. In truth, we both had been homebodies, and really cherished that time together as a family when my kids were younger, and later as a couple. Now, the best I could do is claim Max needed me, but then one of the young women who work for me would volunteer to bring him home with her and I'd be out of excuses.

As Max and I walked down into a little pocket park by the river near my office building, that thought led inexorably back to my favorite obsession of late - the woman I had shared my table with at the bagel shop yesterday. I had been too focused on how sexy she looked to even think to introduce myself. Maybe if she knew something about me, she wouldn't have been so frosty after I made that stupid remark about beautiful women. It frustrated me that at this point in my life I could still feel like a bumbling fool in the presence of a pretty girl. The whole thing was maddening.

Back at the office, I idly picked up the ticket Jim had put on my desk and groaned again when I read it: Black Tie Optional, which meant I had to dig out my tux, and get it to the cleaners along with the shirt and get it back before Thursday. It said "Optional" yes, but I knew that anyone who was anyone would be wearing a tuxedo, and if didn't wear mine, my hosts might think it showed a lack of respect.

Goddammit.

On Tuesday morning I got a call from the Children's Fund's Executive Director, Judith Christopher.

"Collin, how are you?"

"I'm well, Judith, how are you?" No one who knew her ever made the faux-pas of calling her Judy. It simply wasn't done, and, if it was, it was promptly corrected.

"Jim tells me you're coming to our little event on Thursday. I'm so glad - it's been ages since I've seen you."

"I'm looking forward to it, Judith. Happy to show my support for your organization. How are Jim and his team treating you folks? Well, I trust?"

"Oh, Jim is terrific. Your agency has done so much for us in just a few months. Collin, I was wondering, would you mind looking me up when you get to the Hyatt? There are some people I'd like to introduce you to from my board, and if we have a few minutes, I'd like to get your take on our plans for a new project we're thinking about for next fall."

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