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"MILLA, SWEETIE. Not to be a bitch or anything, but for being the absolutely gorgeous woman that you are? You look like crap today."
Milla Page glared with no small amount of envy at her coworker's mirrored reflection. She and Natalie Tate had taken the elevator from their shared tenth-floor office in San Francisco's Wentworth-Holt building down to the much roomier second-floor ladies' room since theirs was yet again under renovation.
Looking at the other woman's caramel skin, deep coffee-colored hair and vibrant green eyes was a welcome change from Milla's staring at her own reflected deathlike palette of white and, um, even whiter.
That's what she'd been doing now for five minutes at least, staring and wondering what she'd been thinking, letting herself out of the house this morning without so much as a brown paper bag over her head.
"Crap pretty much covers it," she finally replied, sighing heavily. "Though originally I was thinking pasty. Like a ghoul. Or a zombie. Maybe even a corpse."
"Whatever. You're definitely hovering near the transparent end of the pale scale." Natalie tossed the words over her shoulder, latching the stall door behind her.
Well, yeah. The ghoul-zombie-corpse-pasty-death look would definitely be the wrong end.
This is what happened, Milla mused, when one stayed out too late, ate too much food, drank too much drink, slept too little sleep, did it too often in the company of men who were poster children for single-hood being a good thing, and had to get up the next morning and do it again that night.
What in the world had she been thinking, taking a job with the San Francisco office of MatchMeUpOnline.com that essentially madedating her career? She was a glutton for punishment. There was no other explanation. Dating as recreation was bad enough, all that waxing, shaving, polishing, styling...and for what?
Shaking her head, she reached into her pebbled leather tote for her makeup bag, setting her blush on the restroom's brown marble countertop, and wavering between the soft Sweetie Chic lipstick or the bright Chili Pop. She went with the former, certain the latter would make her look like a fat-lipped bloated clown.
Even though she had lived in San Francisco since graduating from university here six years ago--giving her a decade's worth of experience with the ins and outs of being single in the city by the bay, and earning her the Web site's choice restaurant and club review gig--she was still at a clear disadvantage when it came to doing her job.
Basing her thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether or not the hot spots she was assigned to review worked as locations for intimate dates meant...dating. Dating was hardly a solo gig. Dating meant finding men. And since she hadn't been in a serious relationship since college, finding men meant work.
At least her two female coworkers did what they could to help out. Both Amy Childs and her husband Chris, and Natalie and her fiancé Jamal were good at fixing up Milla with really great guys. When it had become obvious that nothing was going to develop but the shared chemistry of friendship, she kept a couple of the men on the hook for regular dates.
Knowing that she would show them a good time, get them into the toniest of places, and pay for the food, how could they say no? And for Milla, it seemed so much easier to deal with the sure thing than with the iffy.
Unfortunately, it also defeated the purpose of what she'd been assigned to do. Gauging a club's up-close-and-personal potential with a man who was only a friend didn't always provide her reviews the same zing as would a more, uh, heated encounter.
Then again, if taking that leap into the unknown as she'd done last night was going to mean dragging into work the next day with a ghoul-zombie-corpselike pallor, fuggetaboutit! Except now that she'd been given this newest assignment--the best sort of challenge, her boss, Joan Redmond, called it...Milla groaned, and called it pure torture.
For the next three Friday nights before they headed into the Thanksgiving holiday, she would be torturing herself in a coordinated endeavor with her online counterparts in Seattle, Denver, Austin, Miami and Atlanta as each checked out three new properties in their respective cities. The clubs and restaurants on each city's list had purportedly been designed to ensure couples complete privacy, offering an anything goes atmosphere.
Milla had not been told that her job was on the line, but the undercurrent was there. Office scuttlebutt had it that the Web site's advertisers weren't happy with Joan's safe, middle-of-the road approach to showcasing the city. They wanted a November full of action. They wanted sex appeal. They wanted heat and steam and the rawest of exposés.
That meant they wanted Milla. And right now, all Milla wanted to do was to go home to bed. Alone.
The thought of spending three weekends in a row reviewing a particularly sizzling singles' scene held zero appeal. In fact, the only thing keeping her from telling Joan she just couldn't do it and walking off the job was that her date for tomorrow was Chad Rogers, one of the good friends she'd made through Natalie and Jamal. Whether or not Chad could make the next two weeks was still up in the air.
Natalie flushed, heading from the stall to the sink. She washed her hands, studying Milla's mirror image with concern while drying. The look was hardly encouraging. "Let me see what you've got in that bag," Natalie said once she'd tossed the paper towels in the trash and plucked the lipsticks from Milla's grasp.
At this point, Milla was just tired enough to hand over the management of her entire existence to her trusted friend. Starting with her makeup could not be a bad idea; there was a reason Natalie was in charge of the Web site's fashion pages. Today she appeared to have stepped out of a Salvador Dali canvas--and she made the rather surreal look work.
"So, tell me about last night," she said, digging through Milla's things and coming up with her eye-shadow quad.
Had Milla even remembered eyeshadow this morning? She closed her eyes at the wave of Natalie's hand. "It was a new Italian place and had the potential to be very romantic. Soft music. One small lamp hanging over each table. And gorgeous floral watercolors."
"But?" Natalie smoothed the pad of her thumb over Milla's eyelid to blend the shadow she'd brushed on.
"The tables were practically on top of one another." She backed away to sneeze, and at her girlfriend's
"Bless you" said, "Thanks. Anyway. Good food and quiet conversation, yes. Under the table hanky panky, no."
"I don't care about the food or the ambience," Natalie said, moving from Milla's right eye to her left.
"That's your job, not mine. I want to know about your date. Was he one of the recycled men?"
Milla smiled as she did every time Natalie used the expression to refer to the dating pool created by the single women in the building's various offices. It was in the lounge off this very restroom, in fact, where the Sisters of the Booty Call held their Monday lunch-hour meetings. Milla remembered her very first one, and how intrigued she'd been by what sounded like an urban legend but turned out to be true.
Pamela Hoff, the regal blond financial consultant from the building's fifteenth floor, was the mastermind behind the tradition. After a streak of bad dating luck had ended with a night out in the company of an uncouth John Wayne-loving buffoon, she'd considered celibacy as an option to finding a suitable man.
Instead when after a lengthy phone harassment campaign he'd arrived in person to see if she'd received his flowers, she'd taken a more proactive approach to the problem, tucking the bouquet into his pants and adding the water from the vase to let him know she meant business.
Giving the cowboy the boot had been a liberating experience. Pamela had determined then and there that the women in the building had to watch one another's backs, and the dating service was born.
Now, the original etched-glass vase shaped like a boot sat on the center of the lounge's mahogany coffee table. Any woman who wanted to participate would drop into the boot the business card of a man she'd gone out with, one with whom she hadn't personally clicked but one who had promise.
She would also write a descriptive note on the back, telling the sisters a little bit about the man. When it was her turn to need a date, she'd draw a card from the impressive collection. It was a good way to weed out the scum and the sleaze, and to prescreen prospective dates.
But it was not a guaranteed road to romance as Milla had been made well aware of last night.
"Well?" Natalie prompted. "And you can open your eyes."
Milla did, watching the other woman pull concealer and a blush from the bag. "I tossed the card. Another round of recycling will only get up too many hopes. His, and some poor unsuspecting sister's."
"If he was such a loser, what was he doing in the boot to begin with?" Natalie asked, blotting concealer over the dark circles beneath Milla's eyes.
"One of the girls from the travel agency, I think it was Jo Ann, dropped him in," Milla said, looking up at the ceiling while Natalie worked. "She said they met on a tour of a new cruise ship, and he was the life of the party."
Her own fault, really. She should've known better than to call him in the first place since life-of-the-party guys were so not her style. Not anymore. Not since college and the party that had ended four years of romantic bliss. She'd been wounded by the breakup, yes. That didn't make her any more innocent than the other man involved....
Having finished with both sets of eye baggage as well as the blush, Natalie asked, "What do you think?"
Milla turned toward the mirror. Her chunky blond layers framed her face as always, hanging just beneath her chin and flipping this way and that. The ghoulzombie-corpse likeness was gone. She still looked tired, but at least now she didn't appear to have fallen from Death's family tree.
"Nat, you are the best." Milla wrapped her arms around her friend and hugged. "Now, if I can make it through today and manage to get a full eight hours tonight, I might actually show Chad a decent time on Friday."
Natalie bowed her head and began packing Milla's makeup. "Uh, about Friday."
Uh-oh. "No. Please. Don't even say it."
"I'm sorry, sweetie. Jamal and Chad both got put into surgery rotation," Natalie explained, zipping the bag and tucking it into Milla's purse. "Jamal sent me a text message just before I headed down here."
"Then that does it. I'll call it off, and spend the weekend sleeping, eating and watching a season or two of my 'Gilmore Girls' DVDs," Milla said with a sigh, dipping a toe into fantasyland before Natalie smacked her back to reality.
The smackdown wasn't long in coming. "Don't make me laugh. You'll tell Joan...what exactly?"
"Joan will understand a last-minute glitch," Milla said, fluffing her hair.
"She might," Natalie said, pointing one finger at Milla's reflection. "Except your last minute glitch has the potential for throwing off the coordination between all the city Web sites involved in this project. And for giving our advertisers even more to bitch about."