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Nine months ago
Marcel Taylor believed there was no better way to start the day than surrounded by gorgeous women, which was why the fairer sex made up ninety-two percent of the employees at T&B Entertainment. And not just model types, though they worked there too, but all types of women. Tall, short, thick, or full-figured; Marcel loved them all.
At thirty-five, he'd spent three-quarters of his life probing, discovering, enjoying and reveling in what he'd termed "the essence of a woman." Anyone who laughed at the expression truly didn't know or understand them.
Now as he sat poised at the head of the conference table, a pair of long, shapely caramel-colored legs caught and held his attention. As they slowly crossed, a languid smile caressed his lips. His brows hiked as a beautifully manicured hand glided up her calf to midthigh. "Mr. Taylor?"
Solomon wrangled Marcel's runaway thoughts. "Yes?" He straightened in his chair and turned toward his colleague and best friend.
Solomon Bassett's face twisted into a frown. "And on that note, I think we're done."
Having been caught daydreaming, Marcel managed a lopsided grin. "No argument here."
Nora Gibson's eyes twinkled with amusement as she slowly uncrossed her legsthe source of Marcel's distraction.
The rest of the associates, one man and seven women, huddled around the long conference table quickly closed their briefcases and collected their things.
Solomon's lips hung on to their frown as he shook his head. "My presentation bored you?" he asked just low enough for Marcel's ears.
"I heard every word," Marcel affirmed with honesty.
"Except my joke at the end."
"It was a bad joke."
Solomon's mouth wrestled into a balmy smile. "I screwed up the punch line, didn't I?"
"As always." Marcel chuckled and slapped his hand against his friend's back. "But don't worry. I haven't given up on you. One day, you'll get it right."
Solomon shook his head. "That's good to know."
One on one, Solomon was an easygoing and funny guy, but put him in front of a crowd or small group and he was transformed into this awkward, almost geeky persona.
"What did you think about that new girl group Selena wants to sign?"
Marcel shook his head. "What kind of name is 2Juicy?"
"They'll definitely have to get rid of that name. And put on a little more clothing."
"Now let's not be too hasty," Marcel deadpanned. "They do have incredible bodies."
Solomon rolled his eyes. "I know that skin is in, but they need a little more than thongs and breast pasties, don't you think?"
Nora's syrupy voice dripped into their conversation. "I know my two cents might not count for much, but I like them."
The men turned and focused their attention on the approaching caramel beauty.
Marcel met her eyes. "Is that right? What do you like about them?"
"Well," she said, crossing her arms, "they have good stage presence and they write all their own material."
"Being naked on the stage isn't good stage presence," Solomon said, cocking his head.
"They grab the audience's attention, which is what's important."
"She has a good point," Marcel intoned. "But," he added, "I also have to agree with Solomon. They might be a little too over the top. If they rework their image and come up with some better materialsomething that makes them stand out from the other underdressed groupsI'll take another look at them."
Her eyes twinkled. "You're the boss."
Solomon groaned from beside them and then moved toward the door.
Marcel looked up. "Wait. I'll come with you. I need to talk to you about next weekend."
"Mr. Taylor." Nora stopped him before he could walk away. "Are we still crunching numbers over lunch?"
He hesitated before answering. "Not today. I have some other pressing matters I have to attend to. Just leave the numbers with Diane and I'll go over them later."
For a millisecond, disappointment, irritation and annoyance rippled across her face before she forced a smile. "Certainly." A strange and awkward moment passed before she turned and walked away.
"Are you feeling all right?" Solomon asked, staring at him.
Marcel opened his mouth ready to confess that everything wasn't okay. Though as close as they were and despite the many things they'd shared together, he wasn't ready to burden Solomon with his troubles. "I'm fine."
His friend's frown deepened.
"Really," Marcel assured him.
"Then excuse my shock," Solomon said, leading the way out of the conference room. "But I've never known Casanova Brown to brush off the attention of a beautiful woman, especially one who wants to 'crunch numbers' over lunch."
Marcel shrugged. "One should never mix business with pleasure."
"So you keep saying."
Breezing into Solomon's office, Marcel closed the door behind them. "About the ball next month"
Solomon clapped and rubbed his hands together as his eyes became as wide as silver dollars with excitement. "We're going to have a blast. Our first masquerade balla singles party at that."
Marcel's excitement didn't match his friend's. "It's just a costume party."
"Hey, no one throws a party like my uncle Willy," Solomon continued. "According to him, the women will outnumber the men four to one. We'll be like kids in a candy shop. Did you get a chance to read the rules?" Solomon dropped into his chair.
"I glanced at them. Why aren't we allowed to remove our masks or give out our real names?"
"To heighten the excitement and to give everything a mysterious flare. I personally like it. I'm going to be either Don Juan de Marco or Zorro. What do you think?"
"Please, don't ask me." Marcel lowered onto the plush sofa across from the bar and tilted his head back. "I'm not sure I'm going to make it."
"You're joking." Solomon's voice held a note of alarm. "You have to come. I've already promised Uncle Willy."
Marcel exhaled in an attempt to ward off the anxiety of others' expectations. "The last thing I need in my life is another party where I meet the same type of women: gorgeous on the outside but empty on the inside."
When a rush of silence followed his statement, he peeked over at Solomon's desk to make sure he was still in the room.
His friend stared as though he'd never seen Marcel before.
"All right. Out with it. What's bothering you?"
"Nothing." He shifted uncomfortably and then stared up at the ceiling. "I think I need a vacation."
"From everything," he confessed, feeling a ripple of relief after finally telling someone. "I need a change. I'm tired of dealing with shady industry people, artists' attitudes, traveling around the globe and then having nothing to show for it."
Solomon shared a half laugh. "Nothing to show for it? What are you talking about? We run one of the top labels in the music industry. We accomplished everything we set out to do. We have several homes, cars"
Marcel interrupted him. "Everything that doesn't mean a damn thing. At least nothing that's going to matter in the end."
"Come on." Marcel turned to catch his gaze. "What would you give up to win Ophelia's heartmarry her even?"
"I, uh "
Marcel laughed at the instant darkening of his friend's complexion. "Relax. It's not like she just walked into the room."
Solomon swallowed and then got up from his desk. "What's your point?" he asked, as he headed over to the bar.
"My point is I want what you have."
"Whatto be considered nothing more than a brother to a woman you're in love with?" Solomon reached for the bottle of scotch. "If so, then you're more screwed up in the head than I thought. Drink?"
Marcel waved off the offer, but stood up to join him. "Okay. Maybe not exactly what you have. But, at least you know who you want. Not to mention, Ophelia is a fine woman. She's beautiful, smart, independent"
"You're not about to tell me you're in love with her, too, are you?" Solomon tossed back a shot and then frowned through the burn.
"No." Marcel shook his head, ignoring the memory of once having a crush on the golden-eyed beauty. "I would never do you like that."
Relief shrank Solomon's shoulders. "Well, that's good to know." He capped the bottle. "So where does this leave us?"
"Restless," Marcel mumbled. "Bored."
"I can't believe my ears. Casa"
"Please, stop calling me that."
Solomon held up his hands in surrender. "O-okay."
Marcel shrugged. "Don't you ever get tired of it all?"
"With the job or with women?"
Solomon laughed. "The job sometimes. Women can't say that I have. Course, I don't pull in the numbers you do."
"I need time off to myself." Marcel gazed at an amber bottle of alcohol while his thoughts ambled restlessly. "If I told you something, would you laugh?"
"I'll try not to."
"I'm thinking about settling down." He refused to look up during the long silence, but plunged ahead. "One womanto have and to hold till death do us part. That kind of thing. Like our parents."
"Hey, I have something you might want to check out," Solomon said.
Marcel's gaze crept up when a card was thrust in front of him to read. "Dr. Michael Porter? You think I need a shrink?"
"It couldn't hurt."
They stared at each other.
"Look," Solomon began. "As much as I believe in the sanctity of marriage, I also believe that the institution isn't meant for everyone, especially someone with your track record. Let's face it, you bore easily."
"Fine." He finally grabbed the card and pocketed it. "A lot of good it will do."
A hard knock sounded at the door and the men barely had enough time to look up before Diana Guy stuck her head through the door.
"There you are," she said, locking gazes with Marcel and sliding her thick, black-wire-frame glasses up her slender nose. "Your father is waiting for you in your office."
Marcel straightened. "What's he doing here?" he asked, moving toward the door.
"I don't know, but he doesn't look too happy."
"Nothing new there," Solomon chimed, following his partner through the doorway. "Surely, he's not here because of the profit reports. We're up a full twelve percent."
Marcel shook his head as he strode down the hallway taking long strides. "I swear I regret more and more every day asking him to invest in this company. His constant interference is going to drive me to an early grave."
Solomon laughed. "Maybe we can arrange it so we can get out plots next to each other."
Opening his office door, Marcel gestured for Solomon to go first.
"Gee, thanks," Solomon mumbled under his breath as he entered.
Diane returned to her desk outside his office. "Five minutes," he instructed. She gave him a curt nod.
Marcel turned and entered his office with a broad, plastic smile. "Pop, what a pleasure to see you."
Donald Taylor stood from his chair. His extra two inches of height easily gave him the physical dominance he loved to lord over his son. "Marcel," he said with a slight nod. "I hope I'm not interrupting your business schedule."
"Of course not. You're welcome anytime."
"Well," Donald said, glancing over at Solomon, "I'm not here on business." He paused as if waiting for his meaning to sink in, but when it didn't he looked back at his son. "I was wondering if I could talk to you for a few minutes."
Marcel nodded. "Yes, of course."
Solomon remained mute while holding his painted-on smile.
"Alone," Donald added with another glance at Solomon.
"Oh," Solomon said, finally emerging from his stupor, and blinking with embarrassment. "Gotcha."
Marcel managed to suppress a laugh at Solomon's hasty exit and then glanced at his watch as he made his way around the desk. "Okay, now that you've cleared the room, what can I do for you?" He eased into his chair.
His father drew in a deep breath. "How much time do I have before Diana comes in here to excuse you to a nonexisting emergency meeting?"
The men locked gazes, before Marcel answered with brutal honesty. "Two minutes."
"Then I'll get right to the point." He erected his tall frame and blurted the news. "Your mother and I are getting a divorce."
Diana stared at her letter of resignation on her computer screen but lacked the guts to print out the damn thing. Quitting would be the right thing to do, the voice in her head assured her. A person with her education, experience and dedication should be able to find employment anywhere.
She moved her mouse to hover over the printer icon.
The other rational voice in her head cut in to stop her. Don't be stupid. You can't afford to quit. Have you forgotten about the stack of medical bills for your grandmother? Despair overwhelmed her as a list of responsibilities ran through her mind. You can't quit until you find another job first.
Resolute, Diana closed the document, checked her watch and stood up from her cluttered desk.
Marcel Taylor wasn't difficult to work withon the contrary. Despite his image as a ladies' man, Taylor was as competent as he was charming, intelligent as he was handsome. In her opinion, her employer was the total package: wealthy, attractive, smart, attractive, charismatic and attractive.
She shook her head and cleared her thoughts. Every woman at T&B Entertainment coveted the handsome president. With so many beautiful women adoring him, Mr. Taylor never noticed his plain-Jane secretary, Diana.
At Marcel's door, she took in a deep breath, knocked and entered. "Mr. Taylor."
She stopped cold at her boss's stunned expression and then glanced uncertainly at Donald Taylor, equally floored to see unguarded emotions on the older man's usual stoic face.
Marcel cleared his throat. "Diana, cancel whatever it is."
"Yes, sir." Her gaze swept over him a final time before she backed out of the office. After the door clicked behind her, she replayed the scene in her mind. Something's going on, she thought, returning to her desk. Something big.
Diana looked up at the always-stylish Nora grinning down at her with a stack of papers. "Can I help you?"
Nora's coral-colored lips beamed wider. "As a matter of fact, you can. Marcel instructed me to leave these figures with you." Unceremoniously, she plopped the mound of paper onto the desk. "By the way," she said, moving toward his office door. "Is he in now?"
"Wait." Diana stopped Nora before her hand landed on the doorknob. "He's in an important meeting right now."
Diana's brows arched, her expression clearly saying, That's none of your business.
Nora turned from Marcel's door and settled her hands on her hips. The ex-model's pose appeared provocative with little effort.
Diana's jealousy proved hard to ignore.
"How long have they been in there?" Nora asked.
Diana stood and removed the stacked reports from her desk and placed them on top of the nearest file cabinet. A few of the items on the top page, however, caught her attention and she lifted the top sheet. "My goodness."
"I know, I know." Nora rolled her eyes. "We're a little over budget. But it's not like we're not going to recoup the money from Belinda's CD sales."
"It's her first CD. There's no guarantee that we're going to recoup much of anything," Diana said, now picking up the second sheet. "There's no way Mr. Taylor is going to approve most of this stuff. Why does she need a top-of-the-line tour bus? She's only scheduled to do eight cities."
"It never hurts to ask for things. The most Marcel can say is no."