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It was a measly internship in a Podunk town, but Autumn Beshkin was dressed to kill for her interview. One thing you learned cold as a stripper: Appearance counts.
She wore a designer suit and pricey pumps, though the look at the Copper Corners town hall seemed to be casual. And not Friday casual, either. Saturdaywashing-the-car casual, judging from Evelyn, the fiftyish secretary who'd ushered her to the folding chair outside the mayor's office. Evelyn wore a tracksuit, ball cap and running shoes.
The phone rang. "H-e-double toothpicks!" Evelyn exclaimed, dropping her fluorescent green knitting to grab it. The fat tabby lolling in her in-box gave an irritated meow, whipping its tail through the loose paperclips on her desk.
"Mayor's office." Evelyn tucked the phone against her ear and clicked her needles into gear again. "Heidi. Oh, yes, your friend's here." Evelyn smiled Autumn's way.
Autumn wiggled her fingers in greeting. Heidi had convincedAutumn to take this job to help Heidi's brother, the mayor, who was "desperate, just desperate" for help, since his accountant was on an early maternity leave.
Autumn needed an internship anyway and she'd be able to room with her best friend and fellow stripper, Jasmine Ravelli, who already had a job here costuming the Founder's Day pageant, so it seemed workable.
"Sure you can talk to him," Evelyn said into the phone. "Hang on a blip." She pushed buttons, then announced, "Mayor Mike, your sister's on line one."
Through the thin paneling behind her head, Autumn heard the mayor greet Heidi. She listened for him to express his gratitude to her for sending Autumn to his rescue.
Instead, he said, "How could you promise her, Heidi? I need a professional, not a college kid."
Autumn sucked in a shocked breath. "I don't care how mature she is," he continued. "I need someone who knows a P-and-L from the A & P. I don't have time to explain basic procedures. Hell, I don't know basic procedures"."
What theâ€¦? Not only was the mayor not grateful, he was bitching about her. Autumn's cheeks heated, which made her feel weak. She hated feeling weak.
Already, going back to school at age thirty-four had stirred up the mud at the bottom of her self-esteem pond, mucking up the water with doubts and fears.
Autumn felt competing impulses. Screw this lameass job in this jerkwater town, followed swiftly by, If I don't get this lame-ass job in this jerkwater town, I'll just die. Not quite, but it would throw off her entire program, which she couldn't stand.
"I know she's desperate," the mayor said. "Has to have an internship, yeah, right. Got it. Huh? I'll talk to her, but I don't see how it'll work. What? Hello?"
His muttered "Damn" told Autumn that Heidi had hung up.
The man thought Autumn was desperate? So not fair. He was the desperate one.
With her grades, Autumn could easily have scored an internship with a prominent Phoenix accounting firm like the rest of her classmates, but she'd decided this job would offer a broader range of duties. At the big places, she'd be competing with tons of interns and was as likely to get clerical work as quality accounting experience. This had seemed the better choice.
"I'm sure he'll be right with you," Evelyn said to Autumn, smiling reassuringly. She'd evidently read Autumn's alarm as impatience.
"No problem." She managed a faint smile. She had to get this rinky-dink job. All the Phoenix slots had been filled in early June and it was already the nineteenth.
Her eye fell on the motivational quotes sticking out from Evelyn's monitor on a knitted border: Winners Never Quit, Hang In There, Fake It Till You Make It".
They all seemed aimed at her. Autumn repeated them in her head, picturing a tiny cheerleading squad shouting out the phrases with a swish of pom-poms. If only she were as sure of herself in her new career as she was as a stripper.
She was doing well in school so far. Her straight A's were the golden treasure she opened in her mind whenever she got scared.
She poked a loose strand of hair into the French braid she'd put her hair in and re-crossed her legs. Her stockings rasped and her garters dug into her thigh. One of the cats where she and Jasmine were house-sitting had snagged her pricey panty hose, so she'd worn the stockings from her Leather Girl dance costume.
Autumn had felt so much better, she'd donned the rest of the outfit"a leather thong and a bra with cut-out nipples. Under her conservative suit, the wild underwear made her feel confident and in control. That would have to do until the new Autumn felt more sure in her skin.
Autumn pasted on her game face"friendly, selfassured and relaxed"and inched her real self back into can't-touch-me safety. Winners never quitâ€¦ Fake it till you make itâ€¦ Go, Autumn, go.
The fat cat from Evelyn's desk prowled over to her and began to eye her stockings as though they were flesh-filled scratching posts.
Don't even think about it, she silently warned, blocking her legs with her portfolio.
The cat looked at her with regal disdain"We are not amused"then launched its bulk onto her lap.
"Oh, excellent," Evelyn exclaimed. "Quincy is particular."
The cat gave her a look: Very particular.
Autumn set her portfolio on the adjacent chair and tapped the cat tentatively on the head. "I'm flattered," she said for Evelyn's benefit.
She was kissing up to a cat? A hot and heavy cat who was making her thighs sweat and streaking her expensive skirt with orange hair. It would be rude to push him off, so she jiggled her legs to make it less fun to sit on her.
Her move worked and Quincy shot her a jaundiced look, hitched to his feet and plopped onto the other chair, flat on her portfolio. Great.
Strangely enough, though, when next their eyes met, the cat seemed to want to reassure her. Relax. He'll be putty in your hands.
She grinned. Oh, she was in trouble now, accepting a pep talk from a fur-covered blimp whose life likely consisted of long naps punctuated by catnip breaks and the occasional torture of a rodent.
All the same, she felt calmer and when she heard the mayor's footsteps heading her way, she jumped to her feet, ready to demonstrate just how smart and quick and prepared she was for this measly job.
Noticing cat hair on her skirt, she was swiping madly at it when the mayor spoke to her.
"Autumn Beshkin?" He smiled.
She stopped mid-swipe and held out her hand. Before the mayor shook it a clunk drew their attention. Quincy had pushed her portfolio to the floor.
"Whoops," Autumn said, dropping to get it. The mayor crouched, too, and before she knew it they were having a tug-of-war over the black leather binder.
She won and they both stood. The mayor looked a little stunned. He probably hadn't expected a wrestling match. "Sorry," he said. "Quincy can be a pest." He held out his hand. "Mike Fields."
She shook his hand, careful to be firm, not knucklecrunching, as her career prep partner had described her practice handshakes. "Autumn Beshkin."
He looked at her. Really looked. Not the usual man stare. More like a therapist or a hypnotist or a priest waiting for a confession. What was the deal with that?
"Pleased to meet you," she said. He was handsome, with even features, a strong jaw, solid mouth and kind eyes that were a deep brown in color. His brown hair was short and slightly curled, not particularly stylish" neither were his khakis and golf shirt"but he carried himself as though he was used to getting his way without even trying.
"You're not what I expected," he said, almost as if the words surprised him, too.
He didn't expect a stripper, Autumn knew for sure. She'd made Heidi keep her secret. When men found out what she did, they got all dazed and weird and started thinking with their little heads. And that was the last thing she wanted on the first job she would earn with her brains, not her body.
"A P-and-L is a profit and loss statement, not a grocery store," she said levelly. "For a student, I'm experienced. And I am mature, just as Heidi told you."
His eyebrows lifted. "You heard me?" "Thin walls." She shrugged. "Sorry about that. It's just that my sister tends to exaggerate and."
"Not this time. Not about me. You'll see that, I promise." She stuck her portfolio out at him and held his gaze, determined to convey more confidence than she felt. He'll be putty in your hands. But not so far.
"Why don't we step into my office," he said, accepting her shoved portfolio. He looked funny"stunned or annoyed, she couldn't tell.
The needle clicks had stopped dead, so Autumn knew she'd sounded forceful enough to make Evelyn stare. But if you didn't fight for what you wanted, you'd never get it, right?
Autumn threw back her shoulders and strutted past him, ready to kick ass and take names, exactly the way she marched on stage. She was too good for this job, but she was damn well going to get it.
On the other hand, she felt a jolt of regret when the mayor shut the door on Quincy. She needed all the moral support she could get.
Mike stood in the doorway a second after Autumn passed, fighting for his composure. Had he really said that? You're not what I expected? Luckily, she seemed to think he meant her inexperience, not the fact that she was drop-dead gorgeous"a detail Heidi had failed to mention when she'd oversold him on the woman's qualifications.
Appearance was irrelevant to the job, of course, but he'd have liked a heads-up on her beauty. Even worse, while fighting her for her portfolio, he'd caught a glimpse of the sexiest bra he'd ever seen in his life. Black leather and, God help him, open at the tips?
She'd been too busy defending her credentials to notice that he was staring at her as if she was dinner and he was starving. Hell, he was likely to skid on his own drool.
Autumn knows what she's doing, Heidi had told him over the phone. Oh, yes, she did, he saw, watching her march into his office, every tilt, sway and twist absolutely intentional. Oh, she knew exactly what she was doing with that body of hers.
But he needed a skilled bookkeeper, not a student hot enough to melt plastic. What he had to do now was send her away without hurting her feelings.
Not easy, he'd bet, since her bravura struck him as something of a bluff. She'd jabbed her portfolio at him like a weapon she wasn't sure would fire.
She sat in his guest chair, crossed a leg with a swishing sound so sexy it hurt his ears and leaned forward.
She was all woman, with great curves, long legs, rust-red hair, a face that belonged in a fashion magazine and big green eyes that took his measure all the way to his socks.
You need it, boy, and soon. And I can give it to you like no one else.
She made him feel as if he'd been alone too long, even though he'd been dating steadily, thanks to the matchmaking service he'd subscribed to six months ago.
There was an edge to her. A mystery. As though she had a very cool secret. Take that bra, for instance. And did her panties match?
Stop thinking with your parts.
Grateful for the desk between them, Mike rested his clasped hands on her leather case. "Heidi told me this internship is important to you."
She leaned forward. "She told me you were desperate."
"In a way, I am. Because Lydia left so suddenly, she didn't have everything in order. The custom software she uses is complex, so I need someone with experience."
"I can handle it. If you'll look at what I brought." She leaned across his desk to unzip her binder and he closed his eyes against another shot of black leather and pale flesh. He caught her scent, a heady mix of spring rain and spices.
A tapping sound made him open his eyes. She was drumming her index finger on the plastic sheet over her rÃ©sumÃ©. The fingernail bore a tiny rhinestone in a star pattern. It was blunt-edged. How would those nails feel raking his back?
You're doing it again. "You can see, I've done bookkeeping for DD Enterprises and here are the classes I've taken so far." She flipped the page. "I've also included a class project." Three pages of a report crackled by. "References from two professors and my employer." Flip. Flip. "And finally, my transcripts. A four-point-oh, as you can see."
"for a student," he finished, closing the binder. Autumn Beshkin fixed him with her fierce green eyes. "I'm fast, I'm resourceful and I'll do what needs to be done."
"I'm sure you would, but I have neither the time nor the knowledge to train you. It's budget time, we're in the middle of an economic development plan, and I'm in charge of the founders celebration"it's our 150th anniversary"a very big deal around here."
"Which means you need someone now. And I'm here. Now."
But he had a call in to a woman who'd recently retired from the Cities and Towns Commission who would do fine. "Look, Ms. Beshkin."
"Autumn." Her hair was the color of her name"the striking rust-red of leaves in September. Stop. "This job can't be what you want, either. You need a mentor, formal feedback, written evaluations, someone who can spend time with you."
"You're turning me down?" She sounded more outraged than hurt. Like he'd better explain himself and it better be good.