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Marvin's toupee was slightly off-center and he was wearing his standard smile, one that promised low mileage to the public in general and headaches to Shay Kendall in particular. She sat up a little straighter in her chair and looked across the wide polished plains of her employer's desk to the view outside the window behind him. Thousands of red, yellow and blue triangular flags were snapping in the wind, a merry contrast to the cloudy coastal sky.
"I'm an office manager, Marvin," Shay said with a sigh, bringing wide hazel eyes back to his friendly face, "not an actress. While I enjoy helping plan commercials, I don't see myself in front of the camera."
"I've been promising Jeannie this trip to Europe for years," Marvin said pointedly.
Richard Barrett, a representative of an advertising agency in nearby Seattle, was leaning back against a burgeoning bookshelf, his arms folded across his chest. He was tall, with nicely cut brown hair, and would have been handsome if not for the old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses he wore. "You're Rosamond Dallas's daughter," he put in. "Besides, I know a hundred women who would give anything for a chance like this."
Shay pushed back a lock of long, layer-cut brown hair to rub one temple with her fingers, then lifted her head, giving Mr. Barrett an ironic look. "A chance like what, Richard? You make this sound as though it's a remake of The Ten Commandments instead of a thirty-second TV spot where I get a dump-truck load of sugar poured over me and say, 'We've got a sweet deal for you at Reese Motors in Skyler Beach!' Furthermore, I fail to see what my being Rosamond's daughter has to do with anything."
Marvin was sitting back in his leather chair and smiling, probably at the image of Shay being buried under a half ton of white sugar. "There would be a sizable bonus involved, of course," he reflected aloud.
He hadn't mentioned a bonus on Friday afternoon, when he'd first presented Shay with a storyboard for a commercial starring herself rather than the infamous "Low-Margin Marvin."
Shay sighed, thinking of all the new clothes her six-year-old son, Hank, would need before school started and of the retirement savings account she wanted to open but couldn't afford. "How much of a bonus?" she asked, disliking Richard Barrett for the smug look that flickered briefly in his blue eyes.
Marvin named a figure that would cover the savings and deposit payment and any amount of jeans, sneakers, jackets and T-shirts for Hank, with money left over.
"Just for one commercial? That's all I'd have to do?" Shay hated herself for wavering, but she was in no position to turn her back on so much money. While she earned a good salary working as Reese Motors's office manager and general all-around troubleshooter, it took all she could scrape together to support herself and her small son and meet the property taxes on her mother's enormous, empty house. Lord in heaven, she thought, if only someone would come along and buy that house .
Marvin and Richard exchanged indulgent looks. "If you hadn't stomped out of here on Friday," Richard said smoothly, "I would have gone on to explain that we're discussing a series of four spots, thirty seconds each. That's a lot of money for two minutes' work, Shay."
Two minutes' work. Shay was annoyed and insulted. Nobody knew better than she did that a thirty-second commercial could take days to perfect; she'd fetched enough antacid tablets for Marvin and made enough conciliatory telephone calls to his wife to know. "I'm an office manager," she repeated, somewhat piteously this time.
"And a damned good one!" Marvin thundered. "I don't know what we'd have done without you all this time!"
Shay looked back over the half dozen years since she'd come to work for Marvin Reese. She had started as a receptionist and the job had been so important to her that she'd made any number of mistakes in her attempts to do it well. Marvin had been kind and his wife, Jeannie, had been a real friend, taking Shay out to lunch on occasion, helping her to find a trustworthy babysitter for Hank, reassuring her.
In many ways, Jeannie Reese had been a mother to Shay during those harried, scary days of new independence. Rosamondnobody had suspected that her sudden tendency toward forgetfulness and fits of temper was the beginning of Alzheimer's diseasehad been living on a rancho in Mexico then, with her sixth and final husband, blissfully unconcerned with her daughter's problems.
Now, sitting there in Marvin's spacious, well-appointed office, Shay felt a sting at the memory. She had telephoned her mother right after her ex-husband, Eliott, then principal of a high school in a small town in Oregon, had absconded with the school's sizable athletic fund and left his young and decidedly pregnant wife to deal with the consequences. Rosamond had said that she'd warned Shay not to marry an older man, hadn't she, and that she would love to send money to help out but that that was impossible, since Edu-ardo had just bought a Thoroughbred racehorse and transporting the beast all the way from Kentucky to the Yucatan peninsula had cost so much.
Shay wrenched herself back to the present moment and met Marvin's fatherly gaze. She knew then that, even without the bonus check, she would have agreed to be in his commercials. He had believed in her when she had jumbled important files and spilled coffee all over his desk and made all the salesmen on the floor screaming mad by botching up their telephone messages. He had paid for the business courses she'd taken at the junior college and given her regular raises and promotions.
He was her friend.
"It's an offer I can't refuse," she said softly. It was no use asking for approval of the storyboards; Marvin's style, which had made him a virtual legend among car dealers, left no room for temperament. Three years before, at Thanksgiving, he'd dressed up as a turkey and announced to the viewing public that Reese Motors was gobbling up good trade-ins.
Marvin unearthed his telephone from underneath a mountain of paper and dialed a number. "Jeannie? Shay's going to take over the commercials for me. Dust off your passport, honeywe're going on the trip!"
Shay rose from her chair and left Marvin's office for the sanctity of her own smaller one, only to be followed by a quietly delighted Richard.
"I have three of the four storyboards ready, if you'd like to look them over," he offered.
"Why does Marvin want me to do this?" Shay complained belatedly. "Why not one of the salesmen or some actor? Your agency has access to dozens of people.. "
Richard grinned. "You know that Marvin believes in the personal touch, Shay. That's what's made him so successful. You should be proud; he must regard you as practically a member of his family."
There was some truth in Richard's wordsJeannie and Marvin had no children of their own, and they had included her and Hank in many of their holiday celebrations and summer camping trips over the past six years. What would she have done without the Reeses?
She eyed the stacks of paperwork teetering in her in-basket and drew a deep breath. "I have a lot to do, Richard. If you'll excuse me"
The intercom buzzed and Shay picked up her telephone receiver. "Yes, Ivy? What is it?"
Ivy Prescott's voice came over the line. "Shay, that new salesman Mike hired last Tuesday is well, he's doing something very weird."
Shay closed her eyes tightly, opened them again. With one hand, she opened the top drawer of her desk and rummaged for a bottle of aspirin, and failed to find it. "What, exactly, is he doing?"
"He's standing in the front seat of that '65 Corvette we got in last month, making a speech."
"It's a convertible," Ivy broke in helpfully.
Shay made note of the fact that Richard was still loitering inside her office door and her irritation redoubled. "Good Lord. Where is Mike? He's the floor manager and this is his problem!"
"He's out sick today," Ivy answered, and there was a note of panic in her normally bright voice. "Shay, what do I do? I don't think we should bother Mr. Reese with this, his heart, you know. Oh, I wish Todd were here!"
"I'll handle it," Shay said shortly, hanging up the receiver and striding out of the office, with Richard right behind her. As she passed Ivy's desk, she gave the young receptionist a look that, judging by the heightened color in her face, conveyed what Shay thought of the idea of hiding behind Todd Simmons, Ivy's fiance, just because he was a man.
Shay was wearing slacks and a blue cotton blouse that day, and her heels made a staccato sound on the metal steps leading down into the showrooms. She smiled faintly at the customers browsing among glistening new cars as she crossed the display floor and stepped out onto the lot. Sure enough, there was a crowd gathered around the recently acquired Corvette.
She pushed her way between two of the newer salesmen, drew a deep breath and addressed the wild-eyed young man standing in the driver's seat of the sports car. "Get down from there immediately," she said in a clear voice, having no idea in the world what she would do if he refused.
Remarkably, the orator ceased his discourse and got out of the car to stand facing Shay. He was red with conviction and at least one coffee-break cocktail, and there was a blue stain on the pocket of his short-sleeved white shirt where his pen had leaked. "I was only" he began.
Shay cut him off swiftly. "My office. Now."
The errant salesman followed along behind Shay as she walked back into the building, through the showroom and up the stairs. Once they were inside her office, he became petulant and not a little rebellious. "No woman orders me around," he muttered. Shay sat down in her chair, folded her hands in her lap so thatshe glanced subtly at his name tagRay Metcalf wouldn't see that they were trembling just a little. "This woman, Mr. Metcalf, is ordering you out, not around. If you have any commissions coming, they will be mailed to you."
"You're firing me?" Metcalf looked stunned. He was young and uncertain of himself and it was obvious, of course, that he had a problem. Did he have a family to support?
"Yes," Shay answered firmly.
"You can't do that!"
"I can and I have. Good day, Mr. Metcalf, and good luck."
Metcalf flushed and, for a moment, the look in his eyes was ominous. Shay was a little scared, but she refused to be intimidated, meeting the man's contemptuous glare with a level gaze of her own. He turned and left the office, slamming the door behind him, and Shay let out a long breath in relief. When Ivy bounced in, moments later, she was going over sales figures for the month before on her computer.
Despite the difference in their agesIvy was only twenty while Shay was nine years olderthe two women were good friends. Ivy was going to marry Todd Simmons, an up-and-coming young real-estate broker, at Christmas, and Shay would be her maid of honor.
"Todd's taking me out to lunch," Ivy said, and her chin-length blond hair glistened even in the harsh fluorescent lighting of the office. "You're welcome to come along if you'd like."
"How romantic," Shay replied, with a wry twist of her lips, and went on working. "Just the three of us."
Ivy persisted. "Actually, there wouldn't be three of us. There's someone I want you to meet."
Shay laid down her pen and gave her friend a look. "Are you matchmaking again? Ivy, I've told you time and time again"
"But this man is different."
Shay pretended to assess Ivy's dress size, which, because she was so tiny, would be petite. "I wonder if Marvin still has that turkey suit at home. With a few alterations, it might fit you. Why didn't I think of this before?" She paused for effect. "I could pull rank on you. How would you like to appear in four television commercials?"
Ivy rolled her blue-green eyes and backed out of the office, closing the door on a number of very interesting possibilities. Shay smiled to herself and went back to work.
The house was a sprawling Tudor mansion perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, and it was too damned big for one single, solitary man.
The dining room was formal, lit by two shimmering crystal chandeliers, and there were French doors opening onto a garden filled with pink, white, scarlet and lavender rhododendrons. The walls of the massive library were lined with handcrafted shelves and the fireplaces on the first floor were all large enough for a man to stand upright inside. The master bedroom boasted a checkerboard of tinted and clear skylights, its own hot tub lined with exquisitely painted tiles and a broad terrace. Yes, the place was definitely too big and too fancy.
"I'll take it," Mitch Prescott said, leaning against the redwood railing of the upstairs terrace. The salt breeze rippled gently through his dark blond hair and the sound of the incoming tide, far below, was a soothing song.
Todd Simmons, soon to be Mitch's brother-in-law, looked pleased, as well he might, considering the commission his fledgling real-estate firm would collect on the sale. Mitch noticed that Todd's hand trembled a little as he extended it to seal the agreement.
Inwardly, Mitch was wondering what had possessed him to meet the outrageous asking price on this monster of a house within fifteen minutes of walking through the front door. He decided that he'd done it for Ivy, his half sister. Since she was going to marry Simmons, the sale would benefit her, too.
"When can I move in?" Mitch asked, resting against the railing again and gazing far out to sea. His hotel room was comfortable, but he had spent too much of his life in places like it; he wanted to live in a real house.
"Now, if you'd like," Simmons answered promptly. He seemed to vibrate with suppressed excitement, as though he'd like to jump up in the air and kick his heels together. "In this case, the closing will be little more than a formality. I don't mind telling you that Rosamond Dallas's daughter is anxious to unload the place."
The famous name dropped on Mitch's weary mind with all the grace of a boxcar tumbling into a ravine. "I thought Miss Dallas was dead," he ventured.
A sad expression moved in Todd's eyes as he shook his head and drew a package of gum from the pocket of his blue sports jacket. He was good-looking, with dark hair and a solid build; he and Ivy would have beautiful children.