Serial dater and greeting-card artist Wollie Shelley goes undercover in a media-training company suspected of video piracy, but when a dead body appears on the company’s property, she’s caught up in a conspiracy that goes way beyond some stolen DVDs.
Wollie Shelley isn’t happy about taking the job as a “social coach” at MediaRex, but the FBI makes her an offer she can’t refuse. If she agrees to infiltrate the company, they’ll guarantee that her schizophrenic brother will have a home at the federally subsidized halfway house he’s come to love. So Wollie launches into teaching three foreign celebrities how to cope with the customs of Beverly Hills, improve their English, and become Oprah-ready. And when a coyote-chewed corpse appears in the MediaRex compound, Wollie realizes that her colleagues are concealing some serious secrets of their own.
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When Judge Roberto Cohen spoke, the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance. Or so it seemed. Judge Cohen had a voice like Moses must've had, resonant with significance and authority. He pushed his bifocals up his nose and stared at us.
In the back row of the jury box, Mimi, the foreperson, stood and spoke in little more than a whisper. "We have, Your Highness." She stopped, stricken. "Your Honor, I mean."
To my left, Jeremy, juror number eight, snorted.
I laughed. The last thing I wanted was to incur the wrath of Moses of Santa Monica, but I have no defenses against snorts. I struggled with my laughter, trapped it in my nose, and by some physiological fortuity turned it into a sneeze. That got Jeremy snorting again. To my right, Romaine, juror number six, handed me a Kleenex.
Across the room, the defendant smiled at me.
Pretty confident, I thought, smiling at a moment like this. I looked away from him, back toward the judge.
Judge Cohen's stare was fixed on me, his eyebrows going up and down as he played with his hearing aid. I'd seen a lot of eyebrow displeasure from him, but had never before provoked it. I clapped a hand over my nose and mouth as if fending off an allergy attack.
Judge Cohen motioned to the bailiff. The bailiff brought him the verdict.
At the plaintiff's table, Miss Lemon was breathing too fast, her substantial chest heaving precipitously. She should've brought a paper bag to breathe into, I thought. Her lawyer should've brought her one, knowing Miss Lemon's propensity for drama, but he was oblivious, making notes on a yellow legal pad.
Judge Cohen handed the verdict back to the bailiff. His face gave away nothing.
At the defense table, the lawyer kept his eyes on Judge Cohen.
The defendant kept his eyes on me.
Why? I wasn't the prettiest woman on the jury--that would be Taylor--nor the best dressed (Louise), or the youngest (Taylor again). I was the tallest, and I took the most entertaining notes, filling my court-issued steno pad with cartoons, but that was my claim to juror fame. So why had the defendant, Mr. Milos, taken to staring at me the last few days? His family, too, in the row behind him? It wasn't just unnerving, it was embarrassing, and more than one juror had teased me about it during deliberations.
"Madam Foreperson," Judge Cohen said, "you may read the verdict. Loudly."
Mimi cleared her throat. "In the matter of Lucille Lemon versus MediasRex Enterprises and Yuri Milos, we find in favor of the defendant."
Mr. Milos reached over and smothered his lawyer in a bear hug. He did the same for his lawyer's flustered associate. Then he turned to his family and raised his fist in a victory salute. When told by the judge to contain himself, he sat and flashed a "drinks are on me" grin at the jury box.
"Mr. Berkita, do you wish to poll the jury?" the judge asked.
The plaintiff's lawyer rose, weary with defeat. "Yes, Your Honor."
"Jurors will answer yes or no to the following question," the judge said. "Did you find that the defendant, Mr. Milos, or his organization, MediasRex Enterprises, was substantially responsible for the injuries suffered by Miss Lemon on February fourteenth of last year. Juror number one?"
"Juror number two?"
The final count was ten to two in favor of the defendant, more than enough in a civil case. Once the polling was over, Judge Cohen took off his glasses and relaxed.
"I'd like to commend both sides," he said, "for conducting themselves in a civilized manner. The jury, too, behaved laudably, once we ironed out the cell phone problems. Juror number eight, my clerk will return yours now. I expect the battery is dead." He motioned to a motherly-looking woman to his right, who rummaged around in a desk drawer. "Members of the jury, I now lift my admonition. You may talk about this case with anyone you wish. You are also welcome to flee the building and erase the trial from your memory. That's it. Until your next jury summons, the State of California thanks you for your service and this matter is now concluded."
We stood and filed out like a class of third graders on the last day of school. I glanced over to see Jeremy being handed his cell phone, which prompted me to turn on my own, which distracted me enough that I didn't notice who was holding the swinging door for me until I was brushing against him.
"Juror number seven," a husky voice said. "Thank you."
I looked into the face of the defendant. "No problem," I said. His eyes, up close, were the color of sage. "Uh . . . congratulations."
"May I have a word with you?" he asked.
"Well, okay, but I actually have to--"
"Please." He took my arm, leading me out to the hallway, and whispered into my ear. "You see, I have a rather big crush on you. And an offer I think you'll like."
I didn't want to find him sexy. For one thing, he was too wealthy. His cuffs were monogrammed and he wore a huge gold watch and drove a black Porsche--I'd seen it in the parking lot. Secondly, he was too virile. I pictured him chopping firewood bare-chested or shoeing horses or one of those Middle Ages activities--he'd look at home in another century, wielding a scimitar. Also, he was a little old, old enough to be my father if he'd started young, and I imagined he had. He had eyes that crinkled at the edges, eyes filled with innuendo, eyes that saw it all and found most of it amusing. He'd even looked at Miss Lemon with warmth, all through the trial, as though she'd been wooing him rather than suing him.
"So will you talk to me, juror number seven?" he asked, his hand on my arm.
"Mr. Milos, I'm, uh--at the moment--" I tripped over my words, which annoyed me.
"No, headed for the bathroom, actually, but--"
"You're not married?"
"No, but I'm--in a relationship. Of sorts."
"What sort?" There was that smile again. Good teeth. Good skin. Tan, but not cancerously so. Even his bald pate was golden, suggesting yachting.
A woman pulled him into an embrace. She was his age, fifties or sixties, I guessed, but so well preserved it was hard to be sure. She was also quite beautiful. "Yuri, good job." She turned to me and held out a hand. "Hello, I'm Yuri's second wife. Donatella Milos."
"Juror number seven," I said, shaking her hand. "Wollie Shelley."
"Very impressive. How many centimeters are you?"
"Centimeters?" The metric system, I'm sorry to say, eludes me. "No idea," I said.
"What size shoe?"
As I pondered why a complete stranger was interested in my admittedly large feet, my phone rang. I was glad for the interruption, until I answered it.
"Miss Shelley? Mrs. Winterbottom at Haven Lane, in Santa Barb--"
"What's P.B. done?" I said quickly. "Is he taking his meds?"
"Of course. We insist on that. But your brother pays no mind to curfew, and last night he stayed out the whole night. This is a halfway house, not the Marriott, Miss Shelley. I'm afraid I'm going to have to report him to the Board of--"
"No! Please, not the Board of--"
"--Directors. Yes. I keep telling P.B. we have a long waiting list for his room, from service recipients who are far, far--"
"--wealthier, I know, and--"
"--more appreciative of Haven Lane, I was going to say, and your brother--"
"Mrs. Winterbottom, if I had it, I would pay you suitcases full of money--my brother really likes living there, which, for him--"
"Well, we can't simply--just a moment, please--I'm sorry, I see one of the service recipients has neglected to wear her shirt this morning. Your brother isn't the only mischief-maker. Miss Shelley, I must go." And with that, Mrs. Winterbottom hung up.
I hung up too and closed my eyes, offering a silent prayer to the patron saint of mental illness, if there was one. I opened my eyes and dialed my brother's room at Haven Lane. Voice mail picked up.
Mr. Milos, I saw, was returning the embrace of a much younger woman. She was beautiful, with long, blond, Barbie-straight hair. A daughter, I'd guessed, when I'd seen her in the courtroom watching the trial. I ended my call and began to sidle down the hall toward the exit, but Yuri saw me and flagged me down like I was a taxi.
"Miss Shelley," he said, pulling me back into the family circle, "this is Kimberly."
"Yuri's third wife," Donatella said.
"Oh," I said. "How many of you are there?"
"Just one of me," Kimberly said, shaking my hand. "I'm the current wife."
"The first one died," Donatella added. "Yuri, when do we start?"
"I haven't had a chance to ask her," Yuri said. "If you'll give us a few minutes alone, you'll both get your turn."
But Yuri was then taken aside by his lawyer just as Jeremy pulled me over to join the jurors who were exchanging phone numbers. Half of us wanted to stay in touch, bonded by three weeks of a common experience and the injunction not to discuss it. And Jeremy, attracted to the doodles I'd done on my juror's steno pad, was bugging me to illustrate a comic book he was writing. I was resisting, on the grounds that I had no interest in superheroines, and that I needed to actually get paid for my work. After handing out seven business cards to fellow jurors, I headed to the ladies' room. When I came out, Yuri Milos was waiting.
"Come, please," he said, and opened a door to a storage room.
"Mr. Milos," I said. "I'm guessing you want to offer me some kind of-- "
"We are not in trial anymore," he said, standing in the doorway with me, "so you must not call me Mr. Milos, but Yuri, and I will not call you juror number seven but Miss Shelley. Agreed?"
I sighed. "Oh heck, call me Wollie."
His smile grew. Point scored. "Wollie. Such a distinctive name. A diminutive of Wollstonecraft."
"How did you know that?"
"I was in the courtroom for jury selection."
"Oh. Right." Since he wasn't a criminal defendant, he'd been able to come and go as he pleased during the trial. Mostly he'd been there.
"You are a graphic artist by profession," he said. "You live in the Valley, and you have no biases that would interfere with rendering an impartial verdict, as far as you know. You are single. You did not mention a significant other to the judge, which was one of the jury questions, but you allude to one now." He looked at me pointedly.
I returned his look. "Mr. Mil-- Yuri. What is it you want from me?"
"I want your talents. Your very specific qualifications."
"I have a business."
"I know. I was in the courtroom too. I know more about you than you do about me."
"I doubt it." He looked at me appraisingly, but I didn't rise to the bait.
"I have no talents," I said, "that could be used by your company, unless you want me to redesign the MediasRex logo or paint you a sign. Or I could do a mural. Maybe all the celebrities you've represented, holding hands. Standing on a globe. But what I really do is greeting cards. Do you need greeting cards?"
"What I need is you. Do you always undervalue yourself like this?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"You starred in a show called SoapDirt, yes? Also Biological Clock."
"I wouldn't say 'starred in,' but yes, I did a few episodes of a cheesy reality show and an equally cheesy talk show, which-- "
"SoapDirt is a large hit in Belarus."
"I'm not. Belarus, Moldova, and Slovakia. And Ukraine." He smiled at what must have been a look of horror on my face. "Your soap operas are quite popular in that part of the world. To my friends, you are a celebrity. More interesting to me is your facility for dating."
"I have no facility for dating. What I've had is a series of odd jobs that involved dating, none of which I was particularly good at. What I am good at, apparently, is being single and needing the extra money that these odd jobs-- "
"If money is what inspires you, let us begin with salary."
"Money does not inspire me. But landlords require it, as do grocery stores, so-- "
"Yes, your living situation is not ideal. I am prepared to take care of that too."
I didn't ask how he knew about my living situation. Addresses weren't hard to come by and mine said it all. The Oakwood Garden Apartments was a complex that rented furnished or unfurnished units by the month, handy for people in transition, like actors during pilot season and men in the throes of divorce. This made for interesting, intense neighbors.
"Yuri, my living situation's fine, I'm not desperate for money, I'm not the person you're looking for, so . . ." I waited for him to cut me off and argue the point, but he was just looking calmly at me. "So," I continued, "nice meeting you."
"Do I scare you?" he asked.
"Why would you scare me?"
"Simple curiosity would dictate hearing my offer. Unless curiosity is overridden by fear."
Who likes to be called chicken? "Okay," I said. "Shoot."
He took two chairs, one in each hand, and set them facing one another. Closer than I'd have set them. He gestured to one. I sat.
"So," he said, sitting too. "Tell me your impression of my organization."
"MediasRex. Media training. You take people who are suddenly famous and unprepared for it and you teach them how not to make a fool out of themselves on Oprah."
He smiled. "I would describe it a little differently."
"How would you describe it?"
He turned his chair so he was straddling it, then leaned in. His shirt was black and purple, striped, with a blue tie. It was a color combination that should not have worked, but did. "I change the world," he said, "six or seven people at a time. Most from Europe. In three months they are comfortable with American culture and its media machine. They come as a baseball phenomenon from Madrid or a diplomat's daughter from Macedonia, and they leave as players, with an impact beyond their profession or the borders of their country. My business is transformation. You spoke flippantly, but consider: what would it take to get a shy person on Oprah?"
Excerpted from "A Date You Can't Refuse"
Copyright © 2009 Harley Jane Kozak.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
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