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Bad Boys Next Exit
By Shannon McKenna Donna Kauffman E.C. Sheedy
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJane hugged her lunch booty to her chest as she stepped out of the elevator. A mocha frappuccino, chicken and pesto on a baguette, a fresh fruit cup, and just one tiny, perfect precious jewel of a dark chocolate champagne truffle rattling around all on its lonesome in a white paper bag. She silently repeated the resolution of the day to herself; no more skipping lunch because of her frenetic boss Charlene's crisis management style. From now on she was going to take at least a few minutes to eat, and she would chew each bite properly, too, like a civilized human being. It wasn't so much to ask, considering how she busted her buns for this place.
Mona, the receptionist, held out a thick sheaf of pink message slips and rolled her eyes expressively as Jane walked by the front desk. "Charlene couldn't find you. She's freaking out. Where'd you go?"
"I have to eat." Her voice sounded guilty and defensive to her own ears, so Jane took a calming breath and smiled at Mona as she took the messages. She was in control. Dignified. And now she was going to sit down to eat lunch at her desk, as was her God-given right and privilege.
Erica, one of her coworkers, grabbed Jane's arm as she passed her cubicle. The frappuccino listed dangerously to the side. Jane barely managed to catch it in time.
"There she is, the woman of a thousand voices! Sylvie and I are fishing for marketing managers, but we've hit a wall. Would you make some of your magic calls for us, Jane?" Erica pleaded. "Pretty please? Be the spoiled southern belle. I love that character."
"Oh, no, be the English dowager duchess," Sylvia begged. "She's my favorite. That snooty old bitch always gets results."
"No floor show until after I've eaten my lunch, you guys," Jane said firmly. "Then I'll be anybody you want me to be. I promise. OK?" She marched onward to her office, avoiding Erica's and Sylvia's imploring puppy dog eyes. She was such a hopeless sucker for guilt.
The whole headhunting firm took shameless advantage of Jane's well-honed theater skills. She could impersonate anyone, fooling the most suspicious receptionists or secretaries when it came to ferreting out the names and titles of her prey. And once they had identified the most likely executives, she and her colleagues then did their best to lure them away and place them elsewhere. For a nice, fat commission.
She was good at it. Scarily good. But first, lunch. Everyone deserved to eat, and a hardworking headhunter was no exception.
She had just settled in at her desk and raised her sandwich to her lips when Charlene burst into her office. "Jane! Finally! Where on earth were you? What's the status of the Brighton account?"
Jane put down her sandwich with a sigh. "You gave me that file forty minutes ago, Charlene. I've barely had time to read it, let alone-"
"Turn up the heat on this one, Jane!" Charlene gestured frantically. "Everything else goes to the back burner. Brighton Group just lost their general manager to Corinthian Hotels and Resorts. I want you to find a hot candidate, soon! Al Brighton just called me, and the man practically had a stroke on the phone. I want to throw him a bone. Like, now!"
"Yes, I know," Jane said patiently. "I read the file. I understand the situation, and I was just compiling a list of their main competitors. I'll start making the calls as soon as I finish eating my-"
"Start with Crowne Royale Group. Their management team rocks. Everything they touch turns to gold. And I've got the number right here. I looked it up for you. Am I a peach of a boss, or what? Go on. Call 'em."
Jane cast a longing look at her melting frappuccino. "Of course I will, as soon as I-"
"I need your killer instincts on this, Jane. Brighton will fork out two hundred thousand a year for a kick-ass general manager, and if you get lucky, Pierce and I will renegotiate your contract. Twenty-five percent of each commission, starting with this one. You do the math. And we can even sweeten the pot by tossing in a nice, fat contribution to that youth theater group of yours, hmm? Never let it be said that Grayson and Clint don't support the arts."
Dollar signs flashed in Jane's mind. The headhunting firm took fifteen percent of the first year salary of each candidate she placed. Twenty-five percent of that sum would be hers. $7,500. If her bosses kicked in a donation on top of that-oh, boy. She would almost have a budget for the fall project for her theater troupe of at-risk neighborhood kids, the MeanStreets Playhouse. Rehearsal space, sets, props, lights, costumes, none of it came cheap. She and the other Playhouse founders were always scrambling for funding.
The Playhouse was the only thing in her life that she really gave a damn about. Being able to personally guarantee the kids' fall project ... oh, it was tempting. Even more tempting than a melting frappuccino.
Jane exhaled slowly. "I need a strategy." She could feel her voice harden as she slipped into work mode. "I'll be a writer. I want to write a fawning feature article on their hotel, so I need a tour from the GM."
Charlene grinned in toothy triumph. "Go on. Call 'em up. I love watching our prim little Jane morph into a ruthless shark."
Jane dialed. "Crowne Royale Group," a young woman responded.
Her acting skills clicked into high gear. "My name is Jane King. I'm from Europa Air Inflight Magazine," she lied smoothly. "I'm writing a series of articles on luxury accommodations, and I hope to feature Crowne Royale Group. I'd like to organize a preliminary tour so I can get an idea how I want to proceed. Is your general manager available?"
"Um, actually, he's in a meeting right now," the girl said. "One sec while I check his schedule ... oh, wait. How about today at three?"
Jane blinked. It was already almost two-thirty. It was never this easy. "Uh, that'll be fine," she said. "And I'll be meeting with ...?"
"The GM's name is Gary Finley," the girl told her.
Charlene beamed as Jane scribbled down directions. "Well? Don't just sit there! It has to be destiny! Freshen up your war paint!"
Jane's dutiful smile faded as soon as the door clicked shut. She sincerely liked her flamboyant, high-maintenance employer, but she had no energy to spare for drama right now. She fished her makeup bag out of the desk, set up the mirror and stared into it with critical eyes.
Yikes. Fluorescent lights would make even a Hollywood diva look like death warmed over, she reminded herself. She'd been tossing awake, staring at the ceiling every night, and it had started to show.
She should be feeling pleased with herself. She was the best headhunter in the firm. She'd dragged in a lot of revenue for Grayson & Clint. Problem was, she was sick of the intrigue, the power games.
It had started out innocently enough. Her budding theater career had gone straight down the toilet four years ago in the wake of her disastrous affair with Dylan. She'd needed money, and a distraction. This job had provided both. She'd been edgy, angry, in the mood to jerk people around. Headhunting the way she did it was an outlet for her thwarted acting skills, and a way to crawl out of the hole that Dylan had put her in. She'd never meant it to be permanent.
She wasn't angry and edgy anymore. She was tired and lonely, and her personal life was a flinty wasteland, but hey. One problem at a time. It was a longish cab ride to the Crowne Royale Group's executive offices. No time to mope, or to eat lunch, either. She had to pop into a phone booth and emerge as the headhunter from hell.
She pulled off her glasses, and popped in her contacts. She dug out some hairpins and proceeded to twist and tuck until she had a smooth French roll. She liked the smidgen of extra height, the Gwyneth Paltrow air of restrained elegance. The brown skirt and nipped-in blazer were fine. Shimmering mocha lipstick, translucent powder to soften the freckles, a sweep of mascara, and her face was in order. She slipped her feet into the pumps that added three inches to her well-rounded five-foot-three frame, and watch out, world. She was good to go.
The job ahead of her was simple: to inveigle herself cleverly into Gary Finley's office without compromising his current job. If he looked promising, she would then persuade him that he would be better off working for Brighton Group than for Crowne Royale. Too bad she hadn't worn a low cut blouse, but no biggie. Her boobs commanded respect even when she was buttoned up to the neck. So, unfortunately, did the breadth of her hips, but it was better to accentuate the positive, right?
It was well worth jerking around a few overpaid hotel executives if it let her fund the MeanStreets kids' fall project. So what if she lied through her teeth to get past the receptionist? Big fat deal. She was a good actress, not a bad person. Maybe she should've become a spy, and used her talents for deception in the service of her country. She gazed into the mirror, affecting the steely poise of a Hollywood superspy.
"The name's Duvall," she said coolly. "Jane Duvall."
She snorted at her own goofiness, but hey. If she had to lie like a dog to make her living, she should at least try to have some fun at it.
The executive office of Crowne Royale Group was located in a side wing of the Kingsbridge Crowne Hotel. It was a former nineteenth-century timber baron's mansion in the Queen Anne district, and had been fully restored to its original splendor. Jane looked around the reception area, grudgingly impressed. Sixteen-foot ceilings. Sumptuous furniture, the kind you sink into with a grateful sigh, but need a crane to get yourself out of. Antique area rugs. Sunshine blazed through the windows, rare for a Seattle afternoon even in the summer. It lit up the rich tones of the dark, gleaming parquet. The minimalist arrangement of blush pink orchids on the receptionist's desk probably cost hundreds of dollars by itself. The place practically dripped money. Ripe for the plunder.
The only jarring note was the girl behind the desk. She was strikingly pretty, with liquid dark eyes, but her gleaming dark hair was twisted up into strange, spiky knobs over her ears. Hair sticks were stuck through, decorated with bobbing beads on springs that looked for all the world like insect antennae. Her lush mouth was painted a bright, frosty purple. "May I help you?" the girl asked politely.
"I'm here to see Gary Finley," Jane said. "I'm Jane King."
The receptionist's grin showed off a mouth full of braces. "Oh! The writer from the magazine, right?"
Ah, excellent. Jane smiled. An ingenuous receptionist was a hard-bitten headhunter's dream. "Yes. I had an appointment with-"
"With Gary, I know. I have some bad news. We had an emergency at one of the restaurants. Gary had to run off and fix it."
Jane sighed inwardly. I see. Can I reschedule?"
A thoughtful frown tugged the receptionist's brows together. "I have a better idea," she said, her dark gaze oddly intent upon Jane's face. "I'll just have you meet with Mac. He used to be GM. He's been everything around here, from busboy on up. Who better than Mac?"
A prickle of tension ran up Jane's back. "And who is Mac?"
"Our CEO, Michael MacNamara," the receptionist said proudly. "He knows everything there is to know about this place, believe me."
It was clear from the girl's expression that Jane should be pleased and honored. It took all of Jane's iron self-control not to look aghast. The last person she wanted to chat up was the guy she was plotting to steal a key employee from. "Oh, I don't want to bother your CEO-"
"No bother! It'll do him good to remember where he came from. He gets too big for his britches sometimes." The receptionist stood, revealing a very bare and enviably flat midriff. "Come with me. I'll just put you in his office until I have a chance to tell him about you."
"Oh, no, really!" Jane said desperately. "I'd rather reschedule-"
"Don't worry! Mac is great. You'll like him. Follow me." The girl's antennae bobbed jauntily as she strode down the corridor.
Jane followed, running rapidly through her options. She could cut her losses and bolt, or she could bluff this out in the hopes of contacting Finley later. Charlene would be very unhappy if she blew this before she'd even made contact. Damn.
Oh, whatever. For the MeanStreets kids, she could spin out this charade for a few extra minutes. She was a trained actress, after all.
Wow, that purple leather miniskirt was fearless. The girl was like something out of a rock video superimposed onto an ad for luxury real estate. "Amazing hair ornaments," Jane commented.
The receptionist grinned over her shoulder. "You like them? I bought them on my lunch break. Mac's gonna have kittens."
This CEO had some problems getting respect from his subordinates, if this girl was any indication. She was awfully likeable, though, and certainly beautiful. Maybe she traded on her looks. The girl flung open the door to a large office and gestured Jane in with a flourish. "Make yourself comfortable. Mac will be along any second. I'm Robin, by the way. Can I bring you some coffee or tea?"
"No, thank you." Jane was charmed at Robin's friendliness in spite of her awkward predicament.
Out of force of habit, she scrounged a piece of company letterhead out of the printer. She was tapping names and titles into her Palm Pilot when she heard the commotion. A furious, rumbling bass. Robin's light alto responding, protesting. The noise grew steadily closer.
"... enough of your garbage, Robin." The words were spat out like bullets. "I'm sick of you testing my patience. Get those damn things out of your hair."
"I'm just expressing my individuality, Mac-"
"Individuality, my ass. You knew that Danny and I had a three-thirty with Carlisle and Young, and still you schedule me to babysit a magazine columnist? That's a job for Gary!"
"But Gary's not here! The sous chef at the Copley was having a nervous breakdown, and Gary had to go deal with it!"
"So why didn't you schedule her to come in on another day? Use your brain, for God's sake!"
Oh, dear. She'd landed smack in the middle of an internal power struggle. If there were a back door handy, she would slither out of it and to hell with Gary Finley. But there was no back door.
The voices were getting louder. Jane braced herself.
"I never claimed to be a secretary, Mac. I'm just trying to help. If you don't like how I manage your schedule, maybe you should fire me." Robin's voice was supremely unrepentant. "Go ahead. Make my day."
"Goddamn it, Robin-" The door was slapped open so hard, it crashed against the wall. Jane flinched back.
He filled the door frame. Utterly filled it.
Excerpted from Bad Boys Next Exit by Shannon McKenna Donna Kauffman E.C. Sheedy Copyright © 2004 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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