"Fire me?" Gabe Madison came to a halt in the center of the carpet. Disbelief warred with outrage on his hard face. "You can't fire me. I'm a client. You don't fire clients."
"I do." Lillian Harte sat very stiffly behind her sleek, Euro-style desk, her hands clasped firmly atop the polished glass surface. She struggled to hold on to what was left of her temper. "I've been downsizing for the past few months."
"Downsizing is for getting rid of employees, not customers. What's the matter with you? You're supposed to be running a matchmaking business here." Gabe swept out a hand to indicate the expensively furnished office and the skyline of the city of Portland, Oregon, beyond. "You need clients. You want clients. You don't fire them."
"Some clients are more trouble than they're worth."
He narrowed dangerously green eyes. "And I'm one of them, is that it?"
"I'm afraid so." She unclasped her hands and leaned back in her chair. "Look, I'm sorry about this. Really."
"Oh, yeah, I can see that." His smile was cold.
"This was a mistake, Gabe. I told you that when you talked me into letting you sign on with Private Arrangements. I explained that it probably wouldn't work out well. But you refused to take no for an answer."
Which was hardly a major shock, she thought. It was a good bet that Gabe had not overcome his wild Madison familylegacy to build Madison Commercial, a very successful venture capital firm, by taking no for an answer. Only a Harte, such as herself, could fully appreciate the magnitude of his accomplishment. Only a Harte knew just how far Gabe had had to go in order to live down three generations of spectacularly failed potential to rebuild an empire.
Her father had frequently speculated that Gabe had been successful because he had mastered the art of self-discipline, a rare accomplishment for a Madison. But in the few weeks that he had been a Private Arrangements client she had begun to suspect that Gabe had done more than merely learn how to control the notoriously hot blood that ran in his veins. He had subdued it with such ruthlessness that she suspected he had also crushed a lot of perfectly normal emotions along with it. As far as she could tell, he did not allow himself any strong feelings. She was convinced that he had paid a far higher price for his personal triumphs than anyone had realized.
Gabe smiled with relative ease, but he didn't laugh out loud. He didn't seem to know how to have fun. She had seen him annoyed, as he was now, but she had never seen him lose his temper. Her feminine intuition told her that he was very definitely attracted to women, but she was pretty sure that he did not permit himself to cross the line that separated physical satisfaction from mind-spinning passion. She was willing to bet that Gabe Madison had never allowed himself to take the risk of falling in love.
And he had expected her to find him a wife? Not a chance.
"It wasn't a mistake on my part," Gabe said. "I knew exactly what I was doing and what I wanted when I signed on with you. You're the one who made the mistakes. Five of them, so far."
"The fact that all five of the dates that I arranged for you went bad, should tell both of us something," she said, trying for a soothing note.
"It tells me something, all right. It tells me that you screwed up five times."
She had known that this would be a difficult conversation but she had not expected him to be quite so rigid about the matter. After all, it was obvious that the project had not been a success. One would have thought that he would have been content with merely demanding that his money be refunded.
His icy determination not to be dismissed from her client roster was starting to make her a little uneasy. Belatedly it occurred to her that Gabe was accustomed to fighting for what he wanted. She should have known that he would not abandon a goal without a battle.
She propped her elbows on the desk and balanced a capped pen between her forefingers, buying herself a little time to compose her arguments. Nothing was ever simple between a Madison and a Harte, she reminded herself. The younger members of the two families liked to pretend that the old feud that had erupted between their grandfathers and destroyed a thriving business empire all those years ago didn't affect them. But they were wrong. The fallout had echoed down through three generations. Gabe was living proof that the past had the power to haunt.
"I feel I have lived up to my part of the arrangement," she said. "I have sent you out on five dates in the past three weeks."
"Big deal. Five dates. I paid for six."
"You have complained about all five dates. In my opinion a sixth date would be a total waste of everyone's time."
"Those five bad dates were your fault." His jaw tightened. "Or maybe the fault of your computer program. Doesn't matter. The point is, they weren't good matches."
"Really?" She gave him a small, brightly polished smile. "I can't imagine how they could have been anything but perfect matches. According to my computer analysis the women I paired you with met over eighty-five percent of your requirements."
"Only eighty-five percent? Well, there's your problem." He grinned humorlessly. "The real issue here is that you and your computer aren't doing a very good job. You haven't found me any one hundred percent matches."
"Get real, Gabe." She put the pen down very precisely using both fingers. "There is no such thing as a one hundred percent perfect match. I use a computer program, not a magic wand."
"So, go for ninety-five." He spread his hands. "I'm flexible."
"Flexible?" She stared at him, completely nonplussed for two or three seconds, and then she swallowed a laugh. "No offense, but you're about as flexible as one of those steel beams they use in high-rise construction projects."
And just as tough, she thought. His hallmark uniformexpensive steel-gray suits, charcoal-gray shirts, silver-and-onyx cuff links, and striped silver-and-black tieshad taken on near-legendary status in the Northwest business community, which tended toward a more relaxed look. But the classy attire was poor camouflage for an iron will that had been forged in a strong fire.
The evidence of that will was plain to see. At least, it was obvious to her. It was there in the way he moved with the unconscious grace of a natural hunter. It was clear in the way he held himself and in the cool, remote, watchful expression in his eyes. Always on the alert, even when he appeared to be relaxed. There was a centered quality to him that was so strong it formed an invisible aura around him. This was a man who did nothing on impulse. A man in control.
What worried her the most, she admitted silently, was that she found him both compelling and fascinating.
In one sense she had known Gabe all of her life. He hailed from Eclipse Bay on the coast of Oregon where her family had always maintained a summer and vacation home. Growing up she had encountered him from time to time in the small townbut he was a Madison. Everyone knew that Madison males were trouble. Nice girls might indulge a few fantasies, but they didn't date Madisons. That, coupled with their complicated family history and the fact that he was five years older than she, had formed a huge barrier. The stone wall had not been breached until the wedding of her sister, Hannah, to his brother, Rafe, a few months ago. The event had shocked and delighted the entire town, leading to much speculation about whether or not the infamous Harte-Madison feud had finally ended. The question was still unanswered in most quarters.
Meeting Gabe at the reception had left her unsettled and unaccountably restless. She had told herself she would get over it. But when he had walked into her office a few weeks later she had realized that, on some level, she had been waiting for him. She could not explain her anticipation but it had come as a cold shock to learn that he was there on business. His only goal had been to sign up as a client.
Still, she had allowed herself a few interesting daydreams.
Then, of course, he had filled out the lengthy questionnaire she used to feed client data into her program and she had realized just how hopeless it all was. No arty types. It was, she reflected, one of the few places on the form where she was pretty certain he had been completely candid in his responses.
"It's not my fault you picked five bad matches in a row," he said.
"I picked five excellent matches." She raised one hand, fingers bunched into a loose fist. "They were all college-educated." She extended one finger. "They were all within the age span that you specified." She extended a second finger. "They all had successful careers and were financially independent." Another finger. "They were all comfortable with the idea of helping you entertain your business clients." A fourth finger went up. "And, as you stipulated, not one of them could even remotely be described as the arty type."
"All five made less than subtle inquiries about my portfolio."
"Why shouldn't they have shown an interest in it? You certainly showed great interest in their financial status. You made a huge deal about it, in fact. You wanted someone who was clearly financially well-situated."
"Only because I don't want to be married for my money." He turned and started to prowl the room. "Another thing, all five acted offended when I brought up the subject of a prenuptial contract."
"You should have known better than to bring up a subject like that on a first date, for heaven's sake."
He ignored that. "All five talked about extended vacations in the south of France and second homes on Maui. I don't take monthlong vacations."
"Do you take any vacations?"
"I've got a company to run, damn it."
"Uh-huh." No vacations. A real fun guy. But she refrained from voicing that observation aloud.
"And another thing." He turned back around to face her. "All five of those women looked very high-maintenance to me."
"And you're not high-maintenance?"
He appeared genuinely startled that she would even suggest such a possibility. His expression darkened. "Of course not. I just told you, I'm a very flexible man."
She sat forward abruptly. "Pay attention here, Gabe. According to the feedback I got from the five women I sent you out with, you showed distinct signs of being bored and impatient within half an hour after each date began."
He shrugged. "That was approximately how long it took each time before I realized that you had picked another bad match."
"Did you have to start sneaking glances at your watch before the entrées arrived?"
"I wasn't sneaking glances. So I checked my watch occasionally. So what? Time is money."
"There was also a general consensus among all five women that you do not have a romantic bone in your body."
"Those dates weren't about romance." He sliced one hand through the air in a quick, thoroughly disgusted arc. "They were business meetings as far as I was concerned."
"Business meetings," she replied, keeping her tone very neutral. "Oddly enough, the women I matched you with did not view the dates in quite the same light."
"I'm looking for a wife, damn it. Not a girlfriend."
"I see." She cleared her throat delicately. "All five of the women reported that when they did manage to get a conversation going with you, it went nowhere because you are clearly paranoid about being married for your money."
"You'd be paranoid, too, if every person you dated wanted to know how much you had invested in high-tech stocks and how much in bonds and real estate." He broke off, looking thoughtful. "Maybe I should have adopted an alias for the dates."
"Oh, sure. Lying about your identity is a great way to start a long-term relationship. And for your information, I have had more than one date with men who took what I considered an unpleasant interest in my finances. I'm a Harte, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. Right. Harte Investments."
"Exactly. Anyone who knows me well understands that my brother and sister and I will each inherit a large chunk of my family's company. In addition, I haven't done badly with Private Arrangements."
He surveyed the well-appointed office. "I've heard that your client list is very high-end. And you sure do charge high-end fees for your services."
She gave him a cool smile. "In short, my balance sheets look very appetizing to a certain type of man. But I don't allow that fact to color my view of the entire male population. I'm not totally paranoid that every guy who asks me out is hoping to marry into money."
"Nice for you," he muttered. "But a little naïve, don't you think?"
She could feel her teeth starting to clench together. "I am not naïve."
He shrugged and went to stand at the window that looked out across the rain-swept city toward the Willamette River. She followed his gaze and saw that lights were coming on all over town. The late winter day was ending swiftly. Here in the Northwest there was a price to be paid for the long, long days of summer. That fee came in the form of very short days at this time of year.
"Okay, maybe I am a little paranoid about being married because of Madison Commercial," Gabe said quietly. "I've had a couple of close calls."
"Give me a break. Are you telling me that the reason you've never married is because you're afraid that every woman you meet is after your money?" She did not bother to keep the skepticism out of her voice. "I find that a little tough to swallow. You haven't always been wealthy and successful. Far from it. I know exactly where you came from, remember?"
He contemplated the mist that shrouded the darkening city. "During the time when I didn't have any money I was too busy with Madison Commercial to get seriously involved with anyone."
"Now that I do believe."
There was a short silence.
"It isn't just caution that kept me from getting married."
"I wasn't in any hurry to follow the Madison tradition."
She watched him narrowly. "Which tradition, exactly, would that be?"
"Messy relationships and divorce run in my family. We're not real good at marriage."
She straightened in her chair. "Sorry, you can't use that excuse anymore. Your brother put an end to that famous Madison tradition when he married my sister. Rafe and Hannah's marriage is going to work out brilliantly."
"You sound very sure of that."
"I am sure of it."
He glanced at her over his shoulder, intent curiosity gleaming in his eyes. "Why? You didn't run them through your computer program to see if they were a good match. How can you be so certain that their marriage will work?"
"You can feel it when you're with them," she said quietly. "There's a bond. I don't think either of them will ever look at anyone else as long as they have each other."
"You can feel it, huh?"
"Call it female intuition."
"Intuition is a funny word coming from a woman who uses a computer to match people. Wouldn't have thought you would be real big on intuition."
She stiffened. "Every woman likes to think she has good intuition." This was getting into dangerous territory. "Don't you believe their marriage will work?"
"Oh, yeah," he said with stunning casualness. "It'll work."
The absolute conviction in his words took her back for a second or two. "I beg your pardon? You just accused me of relying on intuition. What makes you so sure their marriage will hold up?"
"It sure as hell isn't my intuition."
"What is it?"
"Simple logic. For starters, it's obvious that Hannah is Rafe's passion. You know what they say about us Madisons."
"Nothing gets between a Madison and his passion," she recited evenly.
"Right. In addition, your family has a reputation for being good at marriage. I've never heard of a Harte getting a divorce. I figure that makes for a winning combination for Rafe and Hannah."
"I see." Time to change the topic. "Well, we seem to be in agreement on that point. Why are we arguing about it?"
Gabe turned away from the window and resumed prowling the room. "We're not arguing. I just wondered how you could be so sure of your conclusions when you hadn't run Rafe and Hannah through your computer, that's all."
She glanced uneasily at the laptop on her desk. She was not about to explain that in the past few months she had been forced to admit to herself that her computer program was not the sole secret of her success as a matchmaker. But the truth was too disturbing to discuss with anyone else, let alone a Madison. She was having a hard enough time dealing with it herself.
The realization that she was relying on her intuition and a hefty dose of common sense combined with the computer's analysis to get successful matches was fraught with disturbing implications. She was, after all, assuming a huge responsibility with each client. She guided and assisted them in making one of the most important decisions of their lives. The possibility of making a mistake weighed more heavily on her with each passing day. Although nothing awful had happened yet, lately she'd had the uneasy sensation that she was on extremely thin ice.
The time to get out was now, before disaster struck.
She was ready to switch careers, anyway. While her rapidly accumulating qualms about the risks of the matchmaking field were not the main reason she had decided to close down her business, they definitely constituted an added incentive to shut her doors. Fast.
She was not looking forward to announcing her intentions to her family. She knew only too well that the news would not be greeted with wild enthusiasm in the Harte clan. But she had made her plans. The only thing standing between her and her new profession was Gabe Madison. He was the last client left on her active list.
Unfortunately, getting rid of him was proving more difficult than she had anticipated.
Gabe came to a halt in front of her desk, shoved aside one edge of his sleekly cut jacket and hooked his thumb in his belt.
"Let's get to the bottom line here," he said. "You want to ditch me because I'm a Madison and you're a Harte."
She raised her eyes to the ceiling, seeking patience and forbearance. When she got no help from that direction, she took a deep breath instead.
WE WERE THE MULVANEYS
By Joyce Carol Oates
A WILLIAM ABRAHAMS BOOK
Copyright © 1996 The Ontario Review, Inc.. All rights reserved.