Business or Pleasure?


"Sure, Judith, I'd be happy to. I'll look for you when I come in."

We made some polite small talk, and the call was over in a couple of minutes. I admit I was curious about what Judith wanted to talk to me about, and whether there were implications for our business. I had known Judith for years, and she had never sought my counsel before, so I was guessing it was another of the free services we offered our clients.

Thursday came soon enough. I dropped Max off at the sitter after lunch, feeling guilty and imagining that the look he gave said, "I can't believe you're doing this to me again." But I could pick him up late tonight after the event and I could always use Max as an excuse to leave if it dragged out too late.

All day, the tuxedo hanging on the back of my office door tormented me. When it finally was time, I closed the door and changed, struggling a little with the gold cufflinks to my shirt, and making sure they could clear my watch. My forearms had always been big and muscular, and I have big hands. To look right, my watch had to be big as well. I own three or four watches, but this one was hands down my favorite. A big, gold Rolex Oyster that Amy had given me for my fiftieth birthday. Other than my car and my house, this watch was the single most valuable thing I had ever owned. Amy had been so proud of herself, managing to order it and pay for it without me finding out. She had even had the band sized correctly, by bringing in one of my other watches so the jeweler could make the appropriate adjustments. She gave it to me over dinner at Sardi's, just off Times Square in New York. She had planned a whole weekend away for my birthday. The boys stayed with friends, and she picked me up at the office early on Friday to go to the airport. We had tickets to a Broadway show Friday night, tickets to a Yankees game on Saturday afternoon. Dinner at Sardi's Saturday night and at brunch on Sunday, she had arranged for my best friend from college to join us. I had never felt more loved and cared for than I had that weekend.

The memory was sweet, and I congratulated myself for being able to savor it without getting all choked up. Looking at myself in the mirrors in my ensuite bathroom, I had to admit I didn't look bad. The black tux and white shirt went nicely with the gray at my temples and otherwise black hair. It was just a little snug around the waist, reminding me I needed to get back into my gym habit asap, but otherwise, not bad. The Hyatt was only a couple of blocks from our office and it was a glorious night, so I took my time walking down there, stopping for a minute on the bridge to admire the view of the river. It was nearly 7:30 when I got there, and the ballroom was already quite full. I sighed, and made my way into the room. Jim spotted me right away, and immediately put a drink in my hand and led me over to Judith.

"Collin, so nice of you to come."

"Happy to be here, Judith," I said. "Looks like you have a nice crowd."

"Oh, we're very fortunate tonight," she said. "This event always draws a crowd. I think, personally, people like an excuse to dress up. That's why I won't hear of dropping the 'black tie optional.'"

I smiled, and nodded my head like I couldn't agree more.

Judith turned and whispered a couple of directions to a subordinate who dashed off on a mission, then returned to me. "Bill Brandt and his wife are just over there. Do you know Bill?"

There was no doubt why Judith was in this job. She was a whirlwind of energy, and immediately started dragging me around introducing me to people, even though it was clear after a few moments that I knew half the people there. More than twenty years in business even in a relatively big city like ours, meant that I knew most of the movers and shakers. And all the usual suspects were there.

For an hour, I endured merciless small talk as Judith and I walked around engaging people in conversation. At one point, Judith put her arm through mine and it put me immediately on guard. Judith was an attractive woman, no doubt, and was very much single and had been for quite some time. Her ex was well-known in town, and there had been talk that he had run off with a younger woman, but I had learned never to rely on scuttlebutt. But regardless of her attractiveness and her availability, if there was one rule more ironclad than the rule about talent, it was the rule about mixing business and pleasure with a client. No good could come from that, and whether I was just imagining it, or whether it was real, I managed to escape Judith with the excuse that I needed to freshen up my drink.

As I wandered over toward the bar I heard a familiar voice. "Where's Max tonight?"

I turned toward the voice, and what I saw made all the torment of the evening suddenly worthwhile. My new African friend was there greeting me with a big smile and looking beyond gorgeous in a green cocktail dress that set off her brown skin so perfectly that she seemed to glow.

"What are the chances that I'd run into one of the two people I've met here outside of work?" she said to me, offering her hand.

I must have been standing there with a stupid look on my face for just a minute, surprised to see her here as well, and, honestly, a little taken aback by her beauty and simple, raw sex appeal. The pause went just longer than I could get away with.

"You remember, at the bagel place on State Street?"

"Sorry, surprised to see you here... No chance of me forgetting you, none at all," I said, recovering. Then, in burst of honesty, "You look amazing tonight." I was doing my best to look at her face, but it wasn't easy. The dress was perfectly sculpted around her breasts, leaving just a hint of cleavage and hung beautifully on her frame, emphasizing hips and pelvis and trim thighs.

"Thank you," she said, holding my gaze and, I thought, blushing just a little. It was hard to tell in that lighting, and with her skin tone. "You look great in your tux."

I smiled. "This meeting of the mutual admiration society is now called to order."

She laughed, and I noticed she had a little twinkle in her eyes. Positively bewitching.

"What brings you here?" I asked.

"The company I work for bought a table," she said. "I don't know a lot about it, just trying to get to know all the players. And you?"

"We recently signed them as a client, so I'm here, showing the flag and making nice."

"You don't sound thrilled."

"Really, am I that transparent?" I asked. "I need to watch that."

"Maybe I just recognize a kindred spirit."

"Cocktail parties with complete strangers not your cup of tea?"

"It's been a long day," she said, smile gone. "My brand new car wouldn't start this morning and had to be towed, so I'm doing cabs and public transportation and arguing with the dealer about a loaner while they work on mine. Very frustrating. I don't want to be stuck in that hotel all weekend with no transportation."

"Really? What could be wrong with a brand new car that would take that long to fix?"

"They have to replace the computer, apparently, and it will be days before a new one comes in. They claim they don't have any loaners. I'm really losing my mind..." she tailed off a little and closed her eyes. When she reopened them, she added, "And now I have to get a cab home. A bus in this dress and these shoes just isn't happening."

"Well, I can maybe help there, if you'll take it."


"Well for starters, I can give you a lift home," I offered.

Her face brightened at that, but then, drooped a little, "I couldn't ask you do that."

"It's no trouble, really. I'd love to do it. In fact, I would love it if you went to dinner with me. There's a really nice little place between here and my office, and we would need to go that way, anyway, if you're going to let me drive you home."

"I ... don't know..." she was hesitating, I thought about to make an excuse, looking anywhere but at my face. When she looked at me again, the forced smile was back.

"Your wife might object," she said crisply, with a deliberate glance at the wedding ring I still wore on my left hand.

It was like a sucker punch. I had been struggling with these feelings of guilt, worried that I was somehow being unfaithful to Amy for the feelings I had, not really ready to move on at all, and yet yearning to do so. And in a simple statement, it felt like she had cut me to my core. Now it was my turn to force a smile.

"I see," I said, trying to think of a graceful way of exiting. "My wife died a year ago January. I sometimes forget I still wear the ring,"

Something shifted in her eyes, but I couldn't look at her anymore.

My tone and rigid spine were beginning to tell on the emotion her careless accusation had evoked. "Excuse me."

With that, I turned, and resumed my walk toward the bar. I made it only a couple of steps before she grabbed my arm. I turned back to her, confused and hurt and a little pissed off.

Her hand left my arm, and took my hand, which she then held in both of hers. The warmth of that gesture added a layer to my confusion. When my eyes settled on her face, I saw the familiar warmth there, mixed with embarrassment and genuine regret.

'I am so sorry," she pleaded. "I didn't know. I saw the ring and made an assumption about you that was so wrong. It's just... I ..." She stopped herself, and I could see a struggle play out over her face.

I waited.

When she spoke again, it was just a bit quieter, and she stepped closer to me, her hold urgent now on my hand. "There's no excuse. What I said was uncalled for. Please, can you forgive me?"

I didn't know what to feel. In the space of two minutes I had gone from being totally enthralled by this woman, to being devastated by her, to standing here, with my hand in hers and looking down into those huge brown eyes, her warmth slowly thawing my resolve.

"You couldn't have known," I said grudgingly, not quite ready to forgive.

"Yes, but I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions about your intentions. I'm so sorry for doing that," she said, smiling again, just a little. "At least give me 'til after dinner to decide whether you want to toss me into the trash bins."

That drew a little laugh from me. "I don't want to throw you into the trash, not by a longshot," I said. "It's ok, really. I should probably stop wearing the ring. I just haven't had the heart to take it off."

"I think it's sweet that you still wear it," she said. "You honor her memory by doing that."

I looked at those big, dark eyes, and thought it just might be possible to get lost in them.

"You know, I never asked you your name. "

"I'm Mthandeni Mdimba," she said, "But my friends call me Deni."

"So pleased to meet you," I said. "I'm Collin..."

"Oh, I know who you are," she said, cutting me off, the twinkle back in her eyes. "Everyone here knows Collin Halloran. I did my research, though not enough, obviously."

"So, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing," I said, my eyebrows going up just a tad.

"I'll never tell," she said, and the twinkle dissolved into a genuine laugh.

That's when I realized we were still holding hands. And that the crowd had thinned markedly, the event winding down.

"Dinner would be lovely," she said. "I didn't eat a thing here."

We made our way to the door, now with Mthandeni putting her arm though mine. We stopped and congratulated my client on a well done event. Judith seemed a little shocked to see me with someone else, and made no effort to hide her annoyance. I was, after all, leaving with the best looking woman in the room and a woman at least 25 years my junior at that. I did not know Judith well enough to know if her age - about five years younger than mine - was a sore point with her. But given her somewhat proprietary affect earlier, this felt awkward for me. From the look on her face, I gathered it was more than just awkward for her. It dawned on me that her request to go over some plans with her was laying the groundwork for her having some time with me to herself. My spontaneous dinner invitation to Deni, in effect, was a rejection of that plan. It seemed that, by extension, Judith considered it a rejection of her.

Going to dinner with Judith would have been a business obligation. Going to dinner with Mthandeni was pure pleasure. At the same time, I didn't want to alienate Judith, and the look she was giving me was not good. So I called an audible.

"Judith, perhaps we can get together tomorrow or early next week to go over those plans you mentioned? Maybe for lunch?" I asked, hoping to limit the damage. "I'm very eager to hear about them."

"Oh... Yes, I'd like that," Judith replied, perhaps somewhat mollified by my offer. She was still looking daggers at Deni, but there was nothing I could do about that. "I'll call you in the morning."

I figured tongues would be wagging tomorrow at the Children's Fund, and for a moment that bothered me, until I turned back to Deni and saw the twinkle again.

Screw them.

Chapter Two

My alarm went off at six the next morning and I got up, thinking I had drunk at least one glass too many from the bottle of wine I had shared with Deni. Dinner had been pleasant. We talked and laughed for almost two hours, and in the end, Deni had indeed allowed me to drive her home.

Before we left the restaurant, Deni had excused herself to go to the lady's room, when the owner, my friend Vito, came over to clear the table. He had waited on us personally, which I was pretty sure had more to do with my dinner companion than any fealty to me. Vito and I had known each other for many years. His restaurant had been our favorite when Amy was alive, so much so, that after her death it was months before I could come back. When she died, Vito had been there for me, bringing me food and comfort, even closing his restaurant after her funeral to accommodate my family and friends.

"Your date is a very pretty lady, Collin," Vito said.

"She's not my date, Vito," I responded, a little taken aback by the concept. "I just offered to drive her home, 'cause her car is in the shop. I'm... We're not dating."

Vito nodded, as though he accepted my explanation and fussed over the table some more, handing some glassware to his busboy, who quickly disappeared. He shook out Deni's napkin, then folded it carefully and put it back on the table at her place.

He gave me a long look, leaning over the table to put his hand on my shoulder.

"It's been what, Collin, eighteen months?" Vito asked, not expecting me to answer. The look of genuine concern on my friend's face, coupled with the whirlwind of conflicting emotions I had been feeling came together to form a huge lump in my throat. I didn't trust myself to respond in any case.

"It's ok, you know. It's time."

"Time for what?" Deni asked, coming back just as Vito straightened.

He glanced at me then smoothly covered. "I was just telling Collin that I'm going to have to throw you two out; it's closing time."

I sat on the edge of my bed the next morning, looking at the picture of Amy and I that had been on my bedside table for years, replaying the whole incident in my mind. I knew on some level that Vito was right, but I felt this awful combination of guilt, loss and denial about the idea of moving on. Moving on seemed to me so utterly disloyal to Amy and her memory and all she had meant to me. It seemed like the ultimate act of selfishness.

But I was torn, because there was no question about my attraction to Deni, this exotic creature who had come into my life and had immediately commanded my attention. Dinner with her had made last night the most pleasant night I've had since Amy died.

Dropping her off last night, we sat in my car outside the hotel and it was clear neither of us wanted the evening to end.

"Thanks so much for dinner," she said. "I had a lovely time. Your friend Vito is a character."

"He is that," I said, chuckling at the memory of Vito fussing over Deni the whole evening. "He seemed pretty taken with you."

"Well, tell him I'm pretty taken with him, too," she said.

"I've got a better idea," I said. "Come back with me, and tell him yourself."

We had both turned in our seats to look at each other, and I loved how the lights of the hotel played off the highlights on her skin and eyes, and made her seem so darkly mysterious. When she laughed, even in the darkness, her smile lit up her face.

"I would love to do that," she said, quietly.

I never really decided to kiss her, but our heads drifted closer together and then we were kissing, gently, sweetly at first. Then she put her hand on my neck, and slid her fingers up into my hair and pulled me closer, mouth opening, tongue playing over my lips, suddenly more urgent. My left hand found her side, just below her breast, and worked up as her other hand slipped under my tuxedo jacket. Deni dropped her hand under my jacket to my lap, briefly tangling with the seat belt. My mind recorded all of this in some kind of auto mode, while I was completely in the moment, focused on her mouth and mine.

We broke to take a breath.

"You're so beautiful," I said, losing myself in those eyes. We kissed again, and held each other briefly, to the extent the console would allow, while I breathed in her scent, feeling the softness of her cheek against mine. I loved the contrast of her skin against mine. We were really polar opposites. My once entirely black hair was part of my Irish heritage, but so was my skin which is quite pale, especially after a long winter with little sun. When I put my hand on her face, even there in the dark, the contrast was sharp, which made me appreciate the beauty of her chocolate skin tone even more.

When I kissed her again, I was really on autopilot, and I'm pretty sure she was too. My hand went to her breast, fondling and squeezing just a little, then playing with her nipple as it bulged through the fabric of her dress. She responded with a sharp intake of breath and began rubbing my erection through the trousers of my tuxedo, then quickly unzipped me, and let her fingers play over the tops of my boxers. My hand dropped to her leg, and moved quickly up past her thigh-highs to her panties, where my index finger traced a pattern in the rapidly dampening fabric. I eased her panties aside and started fingering her, as she stroked my hard cock in the darkness. I was able to move my thumb under her panties as well, found her clit and rotated my thumb slowly around it, as Deni got more and more worked up. She leaned over and put her head on my far shoulder, making it slightly harder for my thumb to reach her clit, but I never lost contact completely. Now I was just lightly brushing the tip. I could feel Deni tensing, and her arm had my neck in a vise, with little moans escaping her lips.

Meanwhile her stroking my cock had me right on the verge of making a mess of my tuxedo. I was almost ready to say something, when Deni reached her orgasm and all bets were off. She convulsed once, then twitched a little, but without missing a beat, dropped her head to my lap and took me into her mouth, where I exploded. When I was finished, she put her arms around my neck again and pulled me close.

"Oh, Collin, I .. I didn't plan that, not at all," I looked at her then, and she looked a little stunned. "I'm really not a sex on the first date kind of girl."

"It's been a really, really long time for me...I wasn't expecting..."

The headlights of another car pulling in broke us apart suddenly, and we both laughed. It was a little like we were a couple of teenagers, caught making out by an adult.

"Would you think I'm horrible if I didn't invite you in... I need a little time... "

"No, it's ok. I'm sorry, I got carried away."

"Don't apologize," she said, as she reached up and straightened my hair. "And as for getting carried away, well, that makes two of us. We kissed again, briefly, and she hugged me and thanked me for a lovely evening and was out of the car and on her way into her hotel room. I stayed in the parking lot for another few minutes, letting my heart rate settle, and absorbing what had just happened. Then I drove off to pick up Max and bring him home to a house full of memories.

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