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The phone on Rick Parker's desk rang three times before he looked down at the lit buttons. With everyone else in the office on a call, he pressed the button to bring the headset to life.
"Collier's Travel, Rick speaking."
"Rick, I'm glad to get you. This is Glen."
Glen Collier, the owner of the agency, wouldn't have had to identify himself. Rick immediately recognized his voice. He wondered what Glen wanted, since he rarely called the Seattle office without a good reason.
"So, what's up? I usually don't have the pleasure of a call from you."
"Come on, Rick, don't sound so skeptical. I don't call your office often because there's no need. I know you're doing a good job. It just so happens, I have a tour I need you to fill for me."
Rick relaxed. "What kind of a tour?"
"I have a group of twenty-six booked on a two-week tour of Scandinavia. I want you to fill the bus with clients from Collier's. Do you think you can book twenty senior citizens for it?"
Rick thought for a moment, and then nodded as though Glen could see him do so across the wire. "I don't think I'll have a problem with that. Christi took a group to Brazil last year. They're making noises about going to Europe this summer. I'll get her on it right away."
"Not so fast, Rick. I don't want Christi taking this group."
"Why not? She's one hell of a tour guide."
"That might be, but I remember how it went last summer. She came back exhausted. She's too young to enjoy the same thing the seniors do. It's not the stamina she doesn't have, it's the interests. I want you to do it. You're closer to their age and you're a damn good escort."
"There's more to itthan that," Rick interrupted. "This sounds like a bimbo sitting project to me. I haven't forgotten that fiasco with Patti from the Houston office last summer. Thanks, but no thanks."
"No bimbos, I promise," Glen said with a chuckle in his voice. "The original group is from the Minter, Wisconsin office. Janice Walters will be escorting them."
"Janice Walters?" Rick questioned, his mind spinning. He remembered Janice Walters all too well. They had met five years earlier on a company-sponsored trip to Hawaii. As he recalled, she was in her mid to late forties, with graying hair, was at least fifty pounds overweight and was obsessed with her husband, Ben. "You have to be kidding. You aren't planning to saddle me with her, are you? I mean Patti was bad enough, but she couldn't help being an airhead; Janice is..."
"Janice is one of the best damn escorts in the business," Glen said, finishing Rick's statement, but using entirely different words than the ones Rick planned to use. "Ever since Ben died, I haven't been able to budge her out of the office. This is the perfect trip to get her back doing what she does best. I want you along to give her moral support."
"Sure, now I get it. I'm going to be old bimbo sitting. At least I won't have to scour the discos trying to find her like I did with Patti." As soon as he said the words, he remembered Glen saying something about Ben's death. He hesitated for a minute to allow it to sink in. "Did you say something about Janice being a widow?"
"I most certainly did. Ben died I'd say about eighteen months ago. I thought you knew."
Rick swallowed hard, trying to remember what was going on in his life eighteen months ago. As he recalled, the entire period around then was a blur. If his calculations were right, Ben must have died just about the time Sandy decided to leave him for a younger man.
"I guess I didn't know. There was a lot going on at that time. Her being a widow doesn't change anything. After almost twenty years with this company, I'm beyond handholding. After last summer, I swore off of it. Find yourself another babysitter."
"Sorry, Rick, you're not getting out of this one. You and Janice are the best and I want both of you on this trip. I'm not giving you a choice. This is a direct order, so get used to it."
Rick groaned. It would do him no good to defy Glen. He already had the reputation of being a rebel and Glen warned him about it repeatedly. This time, Rick knew he couldn't change Glen's mind.
"If I don't have a choice, so be it. I'll take care of Janice; just don't ask me to enjoy it. If she gets started on Saint Ben Walters, I might just puke."
They talked for a few more minutes before Glen ended the call. Glancing down at the now clear lines, Rick buzzed Christi's line. "Can you come in here?" he asked.
Christi looked apprehensive when she entered the office. "Did I do something wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," he quickly assured her. "I need your file and mailing list for the group of seniors you took to Brazil last year."
Christi's worry turned to concern. "You aren't going to saddle me with them again, are you? Come on, Rick, I'll do anything. Pick up your laundry, bring you lattes everyday, I'll even clean out the employee refrigerator. Just please don't sentence me to another tour with the geezer patrol. I don't think I can smile through one more story about the good old days. To say nothing about having to dance with some old duffer who drools all over my shoulder."
"Calm down, you don't have to take them out again, because Glen saddled me with them. I need twenty people to fill a tour to Scandinavia. We should be getting an e-mail with the details soon, then you can start sending out the information."
After Christi left the office, Rick opened his e-mail account on the Internet. Adding the address for the Wisconsin office from his address book, he typed in a personal note in the message area.
Janice--Just found out we will be escorting the senior citizen tour to Scandinavia this summer. It should be interesting. Sorry to hear about your husband--Rick.
Janice glanced at the dashboard clock as she pulled into the lot of Collier's Travel. It read seven forty-five. She liked getting to work early. It gave her time to organize her day and sort through the numerous e-mails that came in overnight.
Glen's gray BMW filled her usual parking space, forcing her to take one farther away from the building in the area usually reserved for the clients. Thinking back, she remembered the group of seniors she suggested to Glen several weeks earlier. They usually took a trip in the summer and always wanted Glen to make the arrangements. It seemed like the only logical reason for him to be at her office at such an early hour.
"Good morning," Glen greeted her as he got out of his car.
"Good morning to you, too. To what do I owe the honor of such an early visit?"
"I thought you'd like to know that I booked the tour you suggested yesterday. That way you'll be prepared when the deposits start coming in."
Janice unlocked the door and led Glen into her office before continuing their conversation. "Let me guess, Pauline Sanderson liked the idea enough to book it. She certainly wasn't receptive to me, but then she always did like you best."
"Something along those lines. She finally got back to me and booked twenty-six seats."
Janice mentally calculated the number of seats on a tour bus. With a capacity of forty-eight, there would be twenty-two empty seats. "I know you well enough to remember you don't like to mix Collier's people with anyone else's. Which agency do you have in mind to fill the rest of it?"
Glen smiled broadly. "I'm afraid you know me too well, my dear. I gave the other twenty seats to the Seattle office. Rick will be able to pull it together without any trouble."
Janice could feel her brows knot as she considered the prospect of Margaret having to spend two weeks escorting a tour with Rick Parker. "Why did you give it to Seattle?"
"Because Rick is one hell of a good escort. He'll be perfect for their group."
"I was afraid you were going to tell me Rick would be taking this one out. How could you even consider him for the Scandinavia tour? He'll chew up poor Margaret and spit her out."
"No he won't," Glen assured her.
"What makes you so sure? I've never seen such a ladies' man in my entire life. I don't know how his wife puts up with him."
"For starters, his wife doesn't put up with him. She divorced him over a year ago. To answer your question, Margaret won't have to put up with him, because she's not escorting this tour, you are."
"Me! You can't be serious. I haven't done anything like this since-since..."
"Since Ben got sick," Glen said, finishing her statement. "It's time you got back to doing what you do best. I didn't force the issue when Ben was in treatment and I've respected your mourning period. Now I'm insisting you take this group. Pauline Sanderson wants you to act as their escort."
"I don't see why," Janice retorted. "I'm certainly not in her social circle."
"Well, you are now. With a group of this size, I don't intend to go against their wishes. Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly, I just don't know if I'm up to this."
"Believe me, you're up to it. It's been a year and a half. It's time you got back to the real word. You're one hell of an escort. I know it and so do you."
"Maybe, but can't you find someone other than Rick Parker to go along on this joyride? I just can't imagine spending two weeks with the playboy of the year."
"You're too hard on him. I realize he was giving off those vibes when you were in Hawaii together, but give him a chance. I think you'll see what he's really like."
"That's what I'm afraid of. Of course, you win. I guess I can play Little Red Riding Hood to his Big Bad Wolf for two weeks," Janice said, holding her hand up in mock surrender. "I'll escort Pauline's group and I'll tolerate Rick Parker. Just don't expect me to be ecstatic about it."
"That's my girl. You'll see he's not as bad as you think."
Janice looked up at Glen's comment. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"He's a flirt, I'll give you that, but I happen to know he was never unfaithful to his wife."
"What makes you so certain? Remember me, I'm the one who saw him in action. He was pawing every single woman on that trip to Hawaii you planned for us. Thank God I was married and didn't have to put up with him every time I turned around."
"I've seen him in action, too. I've also seen him shy away from a woman when she wanted more than he did. He loved his wife and he loves his kids. He's just one of those guys who like to flirt. Unfortunately, Sandy was one of those girls who liked to flirt as well, only she wasn't content to stop at that. She left him for a younger man."
"Poor guy," Janice lamented, her words filled with sarcasm. "My heart bleeds for him."
"Come on, Janice, be a little more sympathetic. You and Rick will get along just fine."
"I certainly hope so. Two weeks is a long time. I must assume he knows about this little field trip you've set up. Did you tell him I'd be the escort for this part of the group?"
"As a matter of fact, I did."
"You were pretty sure of yourself, weren't you?"
"I didn't have any qualms about getting you to do it if that's what you mean. Like I say, you're top notch. I want you for these people and they want you too, so it's not going to do you any good to argue with me."
"What about him, does he have a group in mind for this trip?"
"He has a list of potentials. They're seniors who went to Brazil from his office last year. They're talking about Europe, so why not Scandinavia? Since you're got twenty-six who are already interested, I gave him the remaining twenty slots to fill."
Janice mentally calculated the numbers. "Let's see, twenty-six from this office, twenty from the Seattle office, and two escorts: that means a full bus. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were matchmaking."
"Whatever gave you a crazy idea like that?"
"Those buses have twelve rows of seats with two seats on each side. If we go out full, which I think we will, all the seats will be taken and I get to sit with you-know-who. How close to the truth am I?"
"Not as close as you think. I just know you and Rick are the best. With this tour I'm looking at some good profits. The airline is giving us an override and I'm getting top dollar from the tour company. I want everything to go well. Besides, if I get good feedback from these people, you and Rick could be looking at a big raise in addition to a bonus."
Janice remained silent for a moment as she thought over what Glen just said. She certainly couldn't turn down the money. Although she owned the house free and clear, Ben's illness had depleted their savings. She found herself struggling to make ends meet. "All right, Glen, count me in, but don't expect me to hold Rick's hand for two weeks. Once we get there he's on his own. He'll probably go stir crazy with no one to hit on for that length of time."
Glen smiled broadly. "I knew I could count on you, although I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive."
"When have I ever said no to you?"
"You haven't, and I was counting on your consistency today."
Once Glen left the office, Janice contemplated the upcoming tour. She had four months to prepare herself to spend two weeks with Rick. She hoped it was enough time for her to come to grips with the idea of sitting next to the man for the entire trip.
She closed her eyes, trying to get a mental picture of Rick. After all, she hadn't seen him in the past five years. As she remembered, he was about six foot two inches tall with dark hair and brown eyes. He reminded her of Ben's Uncle Irvin. He'd been younger than Ben's dad and Janice always thought he would be an easy man to have an affair with. He seemed incredibly at ease with women. She knew he was a playboy, especially after having three wives and an ever-roving eye.
The opening of the front door stopped her musings. Expecting to see Glen return for one reason or another, she turned toward the noise. To her relief, it was Margaret who entered the office.
"I met Glen on the way in. What's going on?" Margaret asked, as she hung up her coat.
"He sold the group to Pauline. We should start getting deposits in this week."
"I was hoping he wouldn't be able to sell it to that group. I don't know if I can put up with that woman for an entire two weeks."
Janice couldn't help the smile that spread across her face. With her apprehensions about working with Rick, she'd forgotten about Pauline. She had such a sharp tongue she could rip a person to ribbons with it in a heartbeat. Add her to Rick and the two weeks in July would be very interesting.
"You won't have to worry about it," Janice assured Margaret. "I know I said you'd be escorting this one, but I just got shot down. Glen says Pauline asked for me. He didn't give me a choice in the matter; he just said that's the way it's going to be."
Janice noticed the look on Margaret's face. It mirrored disappointment. She couldn't call Margaret anything but a top-notch agent, it did no good, but she was in the business for one reason and one reason only, the travel. In Janice's book, there were two types of agents, those who loved travel and those who loved to travel. Margaret fell in the latter of those two categories. She did a good job in the office in order to travel as much as possible.
"Better you than me," Margaret quipped, the disappointment Janice saw earlier seemingly gone. "I never have gotten along with Pauline. Is Glen offering the rest of the seats to another branch?"
Janice nodded. "He gave them to Seattle."
"Seattle? Isn't that Rick Parker's office?"
"That's right and Rick will be escorting the Seattle group himself."
"Damn," Margaret replied. "Now I wish I were putting up with Pauline this summer. I wouldn't mind having a two-week fling with him."
"You'd cheat on Chuck?"
"You bet I would. Not that I ever have, but I've never had a chance to do it with someone like Rick. I think he's one of the sexiest guys I've ever met. Maybe you'll get lucky. With your new look, who knows?"
"I doubt it. Rick isn't my cup of tea. I can't imagine anyone being taken with a man like him." Even as she spoke the words, she knew they were a lie. Any woman would cut off her left breast if it meant Rick would look in her direction. Unfortunately, she was much too old for someone like Rick to even consider looking at in that way.
Without saying more, Margaret went back out to her own desk in order to get the office opened for the day, leaving Janice alone with her thoughts.
The first task, which of course she was late in doing, was to sort through the e-mails stored in the computer. As she did, she printed out the important ones and purged the junk. To her surprise an e-mail flashed on the screen with the Collier's letterhead. Not taking time to read the contents, she hit the print button.
After taking the e-mails from the printer on the back counter, she began to scan them. The usual announcements of specials from various companies made up the majority of the pages in the stack. At last she picked up the one with the Collier's letterhead. The words seemed to jump off the page at her. Although Glen assured her Rick knew about the summer group, she never expected to receive an e-mail from the man.
Going back to the original that was still on her computer, she hit the reply button and wrote her own short response.
Rick--Interesting indeed. Hope you can keep up with these seniors. Better get ready to eat lefsa and drink some good European beer--Janice.