Excerpt: Simple Gifts
“I don’t believe in miracles,” Karen said, looking at her sister-in-law with her lips pressed tightly together. Sunlight shone on Karen’s shiny-clean face, making her look like the “before” photo of a model without makeup. But lack of makeup only revealed perfect skin, high cheekbones, and eyes like dark emeralds.
“I never said a word about miracles,” Ann replied, her voice showing her exasperation. She was as dark as Karen was fair, half a foot shorter, and voluptuous. “All I said was that you should go to the Christmas dance at the club. What’s so miraculous about that?”
“You said that I might meet someone wonderful and get married again,” Karen answered, refusing to remember the car wreck that had taken her beloved husband from her.
“Okay, so shoot me, I apologize.” Squinting her eyes at her once-beautiful sister-in-law, Ann found it difficult to believe that she used to be eaten up with jealousy over Karen’s looks. Now Karen’s hair hung lank and lifeless about her shoulders, with split ends up to her ears. She hadn’t a trace of makeup on and with her pale coloring, Karen looked like a teenager without it. Instead of the elegant clothes she used to wear, she now had on an old sweat suit that Ann knew had belonged to Karen’s deceased husband, Ray.
“You used to be the most gorgeous girl at the country club,” Ann said wistfully. “I remember seeing you and Ray dance at Christmas. Remember that red dress you had, slit so high your tonsils were visible? But how you and Ray looked when you danced together was worth it! Those legs of yours had every man in the room drooling. Every man in Denver was drooling! Except my Charlie, of course, he never looked.”
Over her teacup, Karen gave a faint smile. “Key words in that are ‘girl’ and ‘Ray.’ Neither of which I am or have any longer.”
“Give me a break!” Ann wailed. “You sound as though you’re ninety-two years old and should be choosing your coffin. You turned thirty, that’s all. I hit thirty-five this year and age hasn’t stopped me.” At that Ann got up, her hand at her back, and waddled over to the sink to get another cup of herbal tea. She was so hugely pregnant she could hardly reach the kettle.
“Point made,” Karen said. “But no matter how young or old I am, that doesn’t bring Ray back.” When she said the name, there was reverence in her voice, as though she were speaking the name of a deity.
Ann gave a great sigh, for they’d had this conversation many times. “Ray was my brother and I loved him very much, but, Karen, Ray is dead. And he’s been dead for two years. It’s time you started living again.”
“You don’t understand about Ray and me. We were…”
Ann’s face was full of sympathy, and reaching across the table, she clasped Karen’s wrist and squeezed. “I know he was everything to you, but you have a lot to offer some man. A man who is alive.”
“No!” Karen said sharply. “No man on earth could fill Ray’s shoes, and I’d never allow anyone to try.” Abruptly, she got up from the table and walked to the window. “No one understands. Ray and I were more than just married, we were partners. We were equals; we shared everything. Ray asked my opinion about everything, from the business to the color of his socks. He made me feel useful. Can you understand that? Every man I’ve met before or since Ray seems to want a woman to sit still and look pretty. The minute you start telling him your opinions, he asks the waiter to give him the check.”
There was nothing that Ann could say to contradict Karen, for Ann had seen firsthand what a good marriage they’d had. But now Ann was sick with seeing her beloved sister-in-law hide herself away from the world, so she wasn’t about to tell Karen that she’d never find anyone who was half the man Ray was.
“All right,” Ann said, “I’ll stop. If you are bound and determined to commit suttee for Ray, so be it.” Hesitantly, she gave her sister-in-law’s back a hard look. “Tell me about that job of yours.” Her tone of voice told what she thought of Karen’s job.
Turning away from the window, Karen laughed. “Ann, no one could ever doubt your opinions on anything. First you don’t like that I love my husband and second you don’t approve of my job.”
“So sue me. I think you’re worth more than eternal widowhood and death-by-typing.”
Karen could never bear her sister-in-law any animosity because Ann truly did think Karen was the best there was, and it had nothing to do with their being related by marriage. “My job is fine,” she said, sitting back down at the table. “Everyone is well and everything is going fine.”
“That boring, huh?”
Karen laughed. “Not horribly boring, just a little bit boring.”
“So why don’t you quit?” Before Karen could answer, Ann held up her hand. “I apologize. It’s none of my business if you, with all your brains, want to bury yourself in some typing pool.” Ann’s eyes lit up. “So anyway, tell me about your divine, gorgeous boss. How is that beautiful man?”
Karen smiled — and ignored the reference to her boss. “The other women in the pool gave me a birthday party last week.” At that she lifted her eyebrows in challenge, for Ann was always saying snide things about the six women Karen worked with.
“Oh? And what did they give you? A hand-crocheted shawl, or maybe a rocking chair and a couple of cats?”
“Support hose,” she said, then laughed. “No, no, I’m kidding. Just the usual things. Actually, they chipped in together and got me a very nice gift.”
“And what was that?”
Karen took a drink of her tea. “Aneyeglassesholder.”
Karen’s eyes twinkled. “A holder for my eyeglasses. You know, one of those string things that goes around your neck. It’s a very nice one, eighteen-karat gold. With little, ah, cats on the clasp.”
Ann didn’t smile. “Karen, you have to get out of there. The combined age of those women must be three hundred years. And didn’t they notice that you don’t wear glasses?”
“Three hundred and seventy-seven.” When Ann looked at her in question, Karen said, “Their ages total three hundred and seventy-seven years. I added it up one day. And they said they knew I didn’t wear glasses, but that as a woman who had just turned thirty I would soon need to.”
“For an ancient like you, support hose are just around the corner.”
“Actually, Miss Johnson gave me a pair last Christmas. She’s seventy-one and swears by them.”
At that Ann did laugh. “Oh, Karen, this is serious. You have to get out of there.”
“Mmmmm,” Karen said, looking down at her cup. “My job has its uses.”
“What are you up to?” Ann snapped.
Karen gave her sister-in-law a look of innocence. “I have no idea what you mean.”
For a moment Ann leaned back against the bench and studied her sister-in-law. “At last I am beginning to understand. You are much too clever to throw away everything. So help me, Karen Lawrence, if you don’t tell me everything and tell me now, I’ll think of some dreadfully way to punish you. Like maybe not allowing you to see my baby until she’s three years old.”
When Karen’s face turned white, Ann knew she had her. “Tell!”
“It’s a nice job and the people I work with are — ”
Suddenly, Ann’s face lit up. “Don’t you play the martyr to me. I’ve known you since you were eight years old, remember? You take extra work from those old biddies so you’ll know everything that’s going on. I’ll bet you know more about what’s going on in that company that Taggert does.” Ann smiled at her own cleverness. “And you let your looks go so you don’t intimidate anyone. If that dragon Miss Gresham saw you as you looked a couple of years ago, she’d find some reason to fire you.”
Karen’s blush was enough to tell her that she was right.
“Pardon my stupidity,” Ann said, “but why don’t you get a job that pays a little more than being a secretary?”
“I tried!” Karen said vehemently. “I applied at dozens of companies, but they wouldn’t consider me because I don’t have a university degree. Eight years of managing a hardware store means nothing to a personnel director.”
“You only quadrupled that store’s profits.”
“Whatever. That doesn’t matter. Only that piece of paper saying I sat through years of boring classes means anything.”
“So why don’t you go back to school and get that piece of paper?”
“I am going to school!” Karen took a drink of her tea to calm herself.
“Look, Ann, I know you mean well, but I know what I’m doing. I know I’ll never find another man like Ray who I can work with, so maybe I can learn enough to open a shop of my own. I have the money from the sale of Ray’s half of the hardware store, and I’m managing to save most of what I earn from this job. Meanwhile, I am learning everything about running a company the size of Taggert’s.”
Karen smiled. “I’m not really an idiot about my little old ladies. They think they use me to do their work, but truthfully, I’m very selective about what I agree to do. Everything in that office, from every department, goes across my desk. And since I always make myself available for all weekends and holidays, I always see what’s most urgent.”
“And what do you plan to do with all this knowledge?”
“Open a business somewhere. Retail. It’s what I know, although without Ray there to do the selling, I don’t know how I’ll cope.”
“You should get married again!” Ann said forcefully.
“But I don’t want to get married!” Karen nearly shouted. “I’m just going to get pregnant!” After she’d said it, Karen looked at her friend in horror. “Please forget that I said that,” she whispered. “Look, I better go. I have things — ”
“Move from that seat and you’re dead,” Ann said levelly.
With a great sigh, Karen collapsed back against the upholstered banquette in Ann’s sunny kitchen. “Don’t do this to me. Please, Ann.”
“Do what?” she asked innocently.
“Pry and snoop and generally interfere in something that is none of your business.”
“I can’t imagine what you could be referring to. I’ve never done anything like that in my life. Now tell me everything.”
Karen tried to change the subject. “Another gorgeous woman came out of Taggert’s office in tears last week,” she said, referring to her boss, a man who seemed to drive Ann mad with desire. But Karen was sure that was because she didn’t know him.
“What do you mean, you’re ‘going’ to get pregnant?” Ann persisted.
“An hour after she left, a jeweler showed up at Taggert’s office with a briefcase and two armed guards. We all figure he was buying her off. Drying her tears with emeralds, so to speak.”
“Have you done anything yet about getting pregnant?”
“And on Friday we heard that Taggert was engaged — again. But not to the woman who’d left his office. This time he’s engaged to a redhead.” She leaned across the table to Ann. “And Saturday I typed the prenuptial agreement.”
That got Ann’s attention. “What was in it?”
Karen leaned back again, her face showing her distaste. “He’s a bastard, Ann. He really is. I know he’s very good looking and he’s rich beyond imagining, but as a human, he’s not worth much. I know these…these social belles of his are probably just after his money — they certainly couldn’t like him — but they are human beings and, as such, they are worthy of kindness.”
“Will you get off your pulpit and tell me what the prenupt said?”
“The woman, his bride, had to agree to give up all rights to anything that was purchased with his money during the marriage. As far as I could tell, she wasn’t allowed to own anything. In the event of a divorce, even the clothing he bought her would remain with him.”
“Really? And what was he planning to do with women’s clothing?” Ann wiggled her eyebrows.
“Nothing interesting, I’m sure. He’d just find another gorgeous gold digger who fit them. Or maybe he’d sell them so he could buy a case of engagement rings, since he gives them out so often.”
“What is it you dislike about the man so much?” Ann asked. “He gave you a job, didn’t he?”
“Oh, yes, he has an office full of women. I swear he instructs personnel to hire them by the length of their legs. He surrounds himself with beautiful women executives.”
“So what’s your complaint?”
“He never allows them to do anything!” Karen said with passion. “Taggert makes every decision himself. As far as I know he doesn’t even ask his team of beauties what they think should be done, much less allow them to actually do it.” She gripped her cup handle until it nearly snapped. “McAllister Taggert could live on a desert island all by himself. He needs no other person in life.”
“He seems to need women,” Ann said softly. She’d met Karen’s boss twice and she’d been thoroughly charmed by him.
“He’s the proverbial American playboy,” Karen said. “The longer the legs, and the longer the hair, the more he likes them. Beautiful and dumb, that’s what he likes.” She smiled maliciously. “However, so far none of them have been stupid enough to marry him when they discover that all they get out of the marriage is him.”
“Well…” Ann said, seeing the anger in Karen’s face, “maybe we should change the subject. How are you planning to get a baby if you run from every man who looks at you? I mean, the way you dress now is calculated to keep men at a distance, isn’t it?”
“My! but that was good tea,” Karen said. “You are certainly a good cook, Ann, and I’ve enjoyed our visit immensely, but I need to go now.” With that she rose and headed for the kitchen door.
“Ow!” Ann yelled. “I’m going into labor! Help me.”
The blood seemed to drain from Karen’s face as she ran to her friend. “Lean back, rest. I’ll call the hospital.”
But as Karen reached the phone, Ann said in a normal voice, “I think it’s passed, but you better stay here until Charlie gets home. Just in case. You know.”
After a moment of looking at Ann with anger, Karen admitted defeat and sat back down. “All right, what is it you want to know?”
“I don’t know why, but I seem to be very interested in babies lately. Must be something I ate. But anyway, when you mentioned babies, it made me want to hear all of it.”
“There is nothing to tell. Really nothing. I just…”
“Just what?” Ann urged.
“I just regret that Ray and I never had children. We both thought we had all the time in the world.”
Ann didn’t say anything, just gave Karen time to sort out her thoughts and talk. “Recently, I went to a fertility clinic and had a complete examination. I seem to be perfectly healthy.”
When Karen said no more, Ann said softly, “So you’ve been to a clinic and now what?”
“I am to choose a donor from a catalog,” Karen said simply.
Ann’s sense of the absurd got the better of her. “Ah, then you get the turkey baster out and — ”
Karen didn’t laugh as her eyes flashed angrily. “You can afford to be smug since you have a loving husband who can do the job, but what am I supposed to do? Put an ad in the paper for a donor? ‘One lonely widow wants child but no husband. Apply box three-five-six.’”
“If you got out more and met some men you might — ” Ann stopped because she could see that Karen was getting angry. “I know, why don’t you ask that gorgeous boss of yours to do the job? He beats a turkey baster any day.”
For a moment Karen tried to stay annoyed but Ann’s persistence thawed her. “Mr. Taggert, rather than a raise,” Karen mimicked, “would you mind very much giving me a bit of semen? I brought a jar, and, no, I don’t mind waiting.”
Ann laughed, for this was the old Karen, the one she’d rarely seen in the last two years.
Karen continued to smile. “According to my charts, I’m at peak fertility on Christmas Day, so maybe I’ll just wait up for Santa Claus.”
“Beats milk and cookies,” Ann said. “But won’t you feel bad for all the children he neglects because he spent the whole night at your house?”
Ann laughed so hard at her own joke that she let out a scream.
“It wasn’t that funny,” Karen said. “Maybe Santa’s helpers could — Ann? Are you all right?”
“Call Charlie,” she whispered, clutching her big stomach; then as another contraction hit her, she said, “The hell with Charlie, call the hospital and tell them to rush a delivery of morphine. This hurts!”
Shaking, Karen went to the phone and called.
“Idiot!” Karen said, looking at herself in the mirror and seeing the tears seeping out of the corner of her eyes. Tearing off a paper towel from the dispenser on the restroom wall, she dabbed at the tears, then saw that her eyes were red. Which of course made sense since she’d now been crying for most of twenty-four hours.
“Everyone cries at the birth of a baby,” she muttered to no one. “People cry at all truly happy occasions, such as weddings and engagement announcements and at the birth of every baby.”
Pausing in her wiping, she looked in the mirror and knew that she was lying to herself. Last night she’d held Ann’s new daughter in her arms and she’d wanted that child so much that she’d nearly walked out the door with her. Frowning, Ann had taken her baby from her sister-in-law. “You can’t have mine,” she said. “Get your own.”
To cover her embarrassment, Karen had tried to make jokes about her feelings, but they had fallen flat, and in the end, she’d left Ann’s hospital room feeling the worst she had since Ray’s death.
So now Karen was at the office and she was nearly overpowered with a sense of longing for a home and family. Making another attempt to mop up her face, she heard voices at the door, and without thinking, she scurried into an open stall and locked the door behind her. She did not want anyone to see her. Today was the office Christmas party and everyone was in high good spirits. Between the promise of limitless free food an drink this afternoon and a generous bonus received from Montgomery-Taggert Enterprises this morning, the whole office was a cauldron of merriment.
If Karen hadn’t already been in a bad mood, she would have been when she realized that one of the two women who entered was Loretta Simons, a woman who considered herself the resident authority on McAllister J. Taggert. Karen knew she was trapped inside the stall, for if she tried to leave the restroom, Loretta would catch her and badger her into hearing more about the wonders of the saintly M.J. Taggert.
“Have you seen him yet?” Loretta gushed in a way that some people reserved for the Sistine Chapel. “He’s the most beautiful creature on earth — tall, handsome, kind, understanding.”
“But what about that woman this morning?” the second woman asked. If she hadn’t heard all about Taggert, then she had to be the new executive assistant, and Loretta was breaking her in. “She didn’t seem to think he was so wonderful.”
At that, Karen, hidden in her stall, smiled. Her sentiments exactly.
“But you, my dear, have no idea what that darling man has been through,” Loretta said as though talking about a war veteran.
Standing against the wall, Karen put her head back and wanted to cry out in frustration. Did Loretta never talk about anything but the Great Jilt? the Great Tragedy of McAllister Taggert? Wasn’t there anything else in her life?
“Three years ago Mr. Taggert was madly, insanely in love with a young woman named Elaine Wentlow.” Loretta said the name as though it were something vile and disgusting. “More than anything in life he wanted to marry her and raise a family. He wanted his own home, his own place of security. He wanted — ”
Karen rolled her eyes, for Loretta was adding more to the tale each time she told it: fewer facts, more melodrama. Now Loretta was on to the magnificence of the wedding that Taggert had alone planned and paid for. According to Loretta, his fiancÉe had spent all her time having her nails done.
“And she left him?” the new assistant asked, her voice properly awed.
“She left that dear man standing at the front of the church before seven hundred guests who had flown in from all over the world.”
“How awful,” the assistant said. “He must have been humiliated. What was her reason? And if she did have a good reason, couldn’t she have done it in a more caring manner?”
Karen tightened her jaw. It was her belief that Taggert waited until the night before or the day of the wedding to present his bride with one of his loathsome prenuptial agreements, letting her know just what he thought of her. Of course Karen could never say that, as she was not supposed to be typing Taggert’s private work. That was the job of his personal secretary. But beautiful Miss Gresham was much too important to actually feed data into a computer terminal, so she gave the work to the person who had been with the company the longest: Miss Johnson. But then Miss Johnson was past seventy and too rickety to do a lot of typing. Knowing she’d lose her job if she admitted this, and since she had a rather startling number of cats to feed, Miss Johnson secretly gave all of Taggert’s private work to Karen.
“So that’s why all the women since then have left him?” the assistant asked. “I mean, there was that woman this morning.”
Karen didn’t have to hear Loretta’s recapping of the events of this morning, as it was all the office staff could talk of. What with the Christmas party and the bonus, yet another of Taggert’s women dumping him with almost more excitement than they could bear. Karen was genuinely concerned for Miss Johnson’s heart.
This morning, minutes after the bonuses had been handed out, a tall, gorgeous redhead had stormed into the offices with a ring box in her trembling hand. The outside receptionist hadn’t needed to ask who she was or what her errand was, for angry women with ring boxes in their hands were a common sight in the offices of M.J. Taggert. One by one, all doors had been opened to her, until she was inside the inner sanctum: Taggert’s office.
Fifteen minutes later, the redhead had emerged, crying, ring box gone, but clutching a jeweler’s box that was about the right size to hold a bracelet.
“How could they do this to him?” the women in the office had whispered, all their anger descending onto the head of the woman. “He’s such a lovely man, so kind, so considerate,” they said.
“His only problem is that he falls in love with the wrong women. If he could just find a good woman, she’d love him forever” was the conclusion that was always drawn. “He just needs a woman who understands what pain he has been through.”
After this pronouncement, every woman in the office under fifty-five would head for the restroom, where she’d spend her lunch hour trying to make herself as alluring as possible.
Except Karen. Karen would remain at her desk, forcing herself to keep her opinions to herself.
Now Loretta gave a sigh that made the stall door rattle against its lock. Since Loretta had told every female in the office all about the divine Mr. Taggert, she wasn’t worried about anyone overhearing.
“So now he’s free again,” Loretta said, her voice heavy with the sadness — and hope — at such a state. “He’s still looking for his true love, and someday some very lucky woman is going to become Mrs. McAllister Taggert.”
At that the assistant murmured in agreement. “The way that woman treated him was tragic. Even if she hated him, she should have thought of the wedding guests.”
At those words, Karen could have groaned, for she knew that Loretta had recruited yet another soldier for her little army that constantly played worship-the-boss.
“What are you doing?” Karen heard Loretta ask.
“Filling in the correct name,” the assistant answered.
A moment later, Loretta gave a sigh that had to have come straight from her heart. “Oh, yes, I like that. Yes, I like that very much. Now we must go. We wouldn’t want to miss even a second of the Christmas party.” She paused, then said suggestively, “There’s no telling what can happen under the mistletoe.”
Karen waited for a minute after the women were gone, then, allowing her pent-up breath to escape, she left the stall. Looking in the mirror, she saw that the time she’d spent hiding had allowed her eyes to clear. After washing her hands, she went to the towel holder and there she saw what the women had just been talking about. Long ago some woman (probably Loretta) had stolen a photograph of Taggert and hung it on the wall of the women’s restroom. Then she’d glued a nameplate (also probably stolen) under it. But now, on the wall above the plate was written “Miserably Jilted” before the M.J. Taggert.
Looking at it for a moment, Karen shook her head in disgust, then with a smirk, she withdrew a permanent black marker from her handbag, crossed out the handwritten words, and replaced them with, “Magnificently Jettisoned.”
For the first time that day, she smiled, then she left the restroom feeling much better. So much better, in fact, that she allowed herself to be pulled into the elevator by fellow employees to go upstairs to the huge Taggert Christmas party.
One whole floor of the building owned by the Taggerts had been set aside for conferences and meetings. Instead of being divided into offices of more or less equal space, the floor had been arranged as though it were a sumptuously, if rather oddly, decorated house. There was a room with tatami mats, shoji screens, and jade objects that was used for Japanese clients. Colefax and Fowler had made an English room that looked like something from Chatsworth. For clients with a scholarly bent there was a library with several thousand books in handsome pecan-wood cases. There was a kitchen for the resident chef and a kitchen for clients who liked to rustle up their own grub. A Santa Fe room dripped beaded moccasins and leather shirts with horsehair tassels.
And there was a big, empty room that could be filled with whatever was needed for the moment, such as an enormous Christmas tree bearing what looked to be half a ton of white and silver ornaments. All the employees looked forward to seeing that tree, each year “done” by some up-and-coming young designer, each year different, each year perfect. This tree would be a source of discussion for weeks to come.
Personally, Karen liked the tree in the day-care center better. It was never more than four feet tall so the children could reach most of it, and it was covered with things the children of the employees had made, such as paper chains and popcorn strings.
Now, making her way toward the day-care center, she was stopped by three men from accounting who’d obviously had too much to drink and were wearing silly paper hats. For a moment they tried to get Karen to go with them, but when they realized who she was, they backed off. Long ago she’d taught the men of the office that she was off limits, whether it was during regular work hours or in a more informal situation like this one.
“Sorry,” they murmured and moved past her.
The day-care center was overflowing with children, for the families of the Taggerts who owned the building were there.
“If you say nothing else about the Taggerts, they are fertile,” Miss Johnson had once said, making everyone except Karen laugh.
And they were a nice group, Karen admitted to herself. Just because she didn’t like McAllister was no reason to dislike the entire family. They were always polite to everyone, but they kept to themselves; but then with a family the size of theirs, they probably didn’t have time for outsiders. Now, looking into the chaos of the children’s playroom, Karen seemed to see doubles of everyone, for twins ran in the Taggert family to an extraordinary degree. There were adult twins and toddler twins and babies that looked so much alike they could have been clones.
And no one, including Karen, could tell them apart. Mac had twin brothers who had offices in the same building, and whenever either of them arrived, the question “Which are you?” was always asked.
Someone shoved a drink into Karen’s hand saying, “Loosen up, baby,” but she didn’t so much as take a sip. What with spending most of the night in the hospital to be near Ann, she’d not eaten since yesterday evening and she knew that whatever she drank would go straight to her head.
As she stood in the corridor looking in at the playroom, it seemed to her that she’d never seen so many children in her life: nursing babies, crawling, taking first steps, two with books in their hands, one eating a crayon, an adorable little girl with pigtails down her back, two beautiful identical twin boys playing with identical fire trucks.
“Karen, you are a masochist,” she whispered to herself, then turned on her heel and walked briskly down the corridor to the elevator. The lift going down was empty, and once she was inside, loneliness swept over her. She had been planning to spend Christmas with Ann and Charlie, but now that they had the new baby, they wouldn’t want to be bothered with a former sister-in-law.
Stopping in the office she shared with the other secretaries, Karen started to gather her things so she could go home, but on second thought she decided to finish two letters and get them out. There was nothing urgent, but why wait?
Two hours later Karen had finished all that she’d left on her desk and all that three of the other secretaries had left on their desks.
Stretching, gathering up the personal letters she’d typed for Taggert, one about some land he was buying in Tokyo and the other a letter to his cousin, she walked down the corridor to Taggert’s private suite. Knocking first as she always did, then realizing that she as alone on the floor, she opened the door. It was odd to see this inner sanctum without the formidable Miss Gresham in it. Like a lion guarding a temple, the woman hovered over Taggert possessively, never allowing anyone who didn’t have necessary business to see him.
So now Karen couldn’t help herself as she walked softly about the room, which she’d been told had been decorated to Miss Gresham’s exquisite taste. The room was all white and silver, just like the tree — and just as cold, Karen thought.
Carefully, she put the letters on Miss Gresham’s desk and started to leave, then, on second thought, she looked toward the double doors that led into his office. As far as she knew none of the women in the secretarial pool had seen inside that office, and Karen, as much as anyone else, was very curious to see inside those doors.
Karen well knew that the security guard would be by soon, but she’d just heard him walking in the hall, keys jangling, and if she was caught, she could tell him that she had been told to put the papers in Taggert’s office.
Silently, as though she were a thief, she opened the door to the office and looked inside. “Hello? Anyone here?” Of course, she knew that she’d probably drop dead of a heart attack if anyone answered, but still she was cautious.
While looking around, she put the letters on his desk. She had to admit that he had the ability to hire a good decorator; certainly no mere businessman could have chosen the furnishings of his office, because there wasn’t one piece of black leather or chrome in sight. Instead, the office looked as though it had been taken intact from a French chateau, complete with carved paneling, worn flagstones on the floor, and a big fireplace dominating one wall. The tapestry-upholstered furniture looked well worn and fabulously comfortable.
Against a wall was a bookshelf filled with books, one shelf covered with framed photographs, and Karen was drawn to them. Inspecting them, she figured that it would take a calculator to add up all the children in the photos. At the end was a silver-framed photo of a young man holding up a string of fish. He was obviously a Taggert, but not one Karen had seen before. Curious, she picked up the picture and looked at the man.
“Seen all you want?” came a rich baritone that made Karen jump so high she dropped the photo onto the flagstones — where the glass promptly shattered.
“I…I’m sorry,” she stuttered. “I didn’t know anyone was here.” Bending to pick up the picture, she looked up into the dark eyes of McAllister Taggert as all six feet of him loomed over her. “I will pay for the damage,” she said nervously, trying to gather the pieces of broken glass.
He didn’t say a word, just glared down at her, frowning.
With as much in her hand as she could pick up, she stood and started to hand the pieces to him, but when he didn’t take them, she set them down on the end of the shelf. “I don’t think the photo is damaged,” she said. “I, uh, is that one of your brothers? I don’t believe I’ve seen him before.”
At that Taggert’s eyes widened and Karen was quite suddenly afraid of him. They were alone on the floor and all she really knew about him personally was that a lot of women had refused to marry him. Was it because of his loathsome prenuptial agreements or was it because of something else? His violent temper maybe?
“I must go,” she whispered, then turned on her heel and ran from his office.
Karen didn’t stop running until she’d reached the elevator and punched the down button. Right now all she wanted on earth was to go home to familiar surroundings and try her best to get over her embarrassment. Caught like a teenage girl snooping in her boss’s office! How could she have been so stupid?
When the elevator door opened, it was packed with merrymakers going up to the party three floors above, and even though Karen protested loudly that he wanted to go down, they pulled her in with them and took her back to the party.
The first thing she saw was a waiter with a tray of glasses full of champagne, and Karen downed two of them immediately. Feeling much better, she was able to calm her frazzled nerves. So she was caught snooping in the boss’s office. So what? Worse things have happened to a person. By her third glass of wine, she’d managed to convince herself that nothing at all had happened.
Standing before her now was a woman with her arms full of a hefty little boy and juggling an enormous diaper bag while she frantically tried to open a stroller.
“Could I help?” Karen asked.
“Oh, would you please?” the woman answered, stepping back from the stroller as she obviously thought Karen meant to help her with that.
But instead, Karen took the child out of her arms and for a moment clasped him tightly to her.
“He doesn’t usually like strangers, but he likes you.” The woman smiled. “You wouldn’t mind watching him for a few moments, would you? I’d love to get something to eat.”
Holding the boy close to her, while he snuggled his sweet-smelling head into he shoulder, Karen whispered, “I’ll keep him forever.”
At that a look of fright crossed the woman’s face. Snatching her child away from Karen, she hurried down the hall.
Moments ago Karen had thought she’d never before been so embarrassed, but this was worse than being caught snooping. “What is wrong with you?” she hissed to herself, then strode toward the elevators. She would go home now and never leave her house again in her life.
As soon as she got into the elevator, she realized that she’d left her handbag and coat in her office on the ninth floor. If it weren’t zero degrees outside and her car keys weren’t in her purse, she’d have left things where they were, but she had to return. Leaning her head back against the wall, she knew she’d had too much wine, but she also knew without a doubt that after Christmas she’d no longer have a job. As soon as Taggert told his formidable secretary that he’d caught an unknown woman — for Karen was sure the great and very busy McAllister Taggert had never so much as looked at someone as lowly as her — in his office, Karen would be dismissed.
On the wall of the elevator was a bronze plaque that listed all the Taggerts in the building, and toward the bottom it looked as though Loretta’s new recruit had been busy again, for a piece of paper had been glued over McAllister Taggert’s name that read, “Marvelous Jaguar.” Smiling, Karen took a pen out of her pocket and changed it to, “Macho Jackass.”
When the elevator stopped, she didn’t know whether it was the wine or her defiance, but she felt better. However, she did not want another encounter with Taggert. While holding the door open, she carefully looked up and down both corridors to see if anyone was about. Clear. Tiptoeing, she went down the carpeted hall to the secretaries’ office and, as silently as possible, removed her coat from the back of the chair and her purse from the drawer. As she was on her way out, she stopped by Miss Johnson’s desk to get notes from her drawer. This way she’d have work to fill her time over Christmas.
Karen paused with her hand on the drawer handle; she didn’t have to look up to know who it was. McAllister J. Taggert. Had she not had so much to drink, she would have politely excused herself, but since she was sure she was going to be fired anyway, what did it matter? “Sorry about your office. I was sure you’d be out proposing marriage to someone.”
With all the haughtiness she could muster, she tried to march past him.
“You don’t like me much, do you?”
Turning, she looked him in the eyes, those dark, heavily fringed eyes that made all the women in the office melt with desire. But they didn’t do much for Karen since she kept seeing the tears of the women who’d been jilted by him. “I’ve typed your last three prenuptial agreements. I know the truth about what you’re like.”
He looked confused. “But I thought Miss Gresham — ”
“And risk breaking those nails on a keyboard? Not likely.” With that, Karen swept past him on her way to the elevator.
But Taggert caught her arm.
For a moment fear ran through her. What did she really know about this man? And they were alone on this floor. If she screamed, no one would hear her.
At her look, his face stiffened and he released her arm. “Mrs. Lawrence, I can assure you that I have no intention of harming you in any way.”
“How do you know my name?”
Smiling, he looked at her. “While you were gone, I made a few calls about you.”
“You were spying on me?” she asked, aghast.
“Just curious. As you were about my office.”
Karen took another step toward the elevator, but again he caught her arm.
“Wait, Mrs. Lawrence, I want to offer you a job over Christmas.”
Karen punched the elevator button with a vengeance while he stood too close, looking down at her. “And what would that job be? Marriage to you?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” he answered as he looked from her eyes to her toes and back up again.
Karen hit the elevator button so hard it was a wonder the button didn’t go through the wall.
“Mrs. Lawrence, I am not making a pass at you. I am offering you a job. A legitimate job for which you will be paid, and paid well.”
Karen kept hitting the button and looking up at the floors shown over both doors. Both elevators were stuck on the floor where the party was.
“In the calls I made I discovered that you’ve worked the last two Christmases when no one else would. I also found out that you are the Ice Maiden of the office. You once stapled a man’s tie to your desk when he was leaning over you asking for a date.”
Karen turned red, but she didn’t look at him.
“Mrs. Lawrence,” he said stiffly, as though what he said were very difficult for him. “Whatever may be your opinion of me, you could not have heard that I’ve ever made an improper advance toward a woman who works for me. My offer is for a job, an unusual job, but nothing else. I apologize for whatever I’ve done to give you the impression that I was offering more.” With that he turned and walked away.
As Karen watched, one elevator went straight from the twelfth floor down to the first, skipping her on nine. Reluctantly, she turned to look at his retreating back. Suddenly, the image of her empty house appeared before her eyes, the tiny tree with not much under it. Whatever she thought of how he treated women in his personal life, Taggert was always respectful to his employees. And no matter how hard a woman worked to compromise him, he didn’t fall for it. Two years ago when a secretary said he’d made a pass at her, everyone laughed at her so hard, she found another job three weeks later.
Taking a deep breath, Karen followed him. “All right,” she said when she was just behind him, “I’ll listen.”
Ten minutes later she was ensconced in Taggert’s beautiful office; a fire burned in the fireplace, making a delightful rosy glow on the table that was loaded with delicious food and what seemed to be a limitless supply of cold champagne. At first Karen had thought of resisting such temptation, but then she thought of telling Ann that she’d eaten lobster and champagne with the boss and she began to nibble.
While Karen ate and drank, Taggert started to talk. “I guess you’ve heard by now about Lisa.”
“Mmmm, yes, the redhead.” He refilled her glass. “On the twenty-fourth of December, two days from now, Lisa and I were to be in the wedding of a good friend of mine who lives in Virginia. It’s to be a huge wedding, with over six hundred guests flying in from all over the world.”
For a moment he just looked at her, saying nothing. “And?” she asked after a while. “What do you need me for? To type your friend’s prenupt?”
McAllister spread a cracker with a pâtè de foie gras and held it out to her. “I no longer have a fiancÉe.”
Karen took a drink of the wine, then reached for the cracker. “Excuse my ignorance, but I don’t see what that has to do with me.”
“You will fit the dress.”
Maybe it was because her mind was a bit fuzzy with drink, but it took her a moment to comprehend, and when she did, she laughed. “You want me to pose as your fiancèe and be a bridesmaid of some woman I’ve never met? And who has never met me?”
“How many bottles of this have you drunk?”
McAllister smiled. “I’m not drunk and I’m absolutely serious. Want to hear more?”
Part of Karen’s brain said that she should go home, get away from this crazy man, but what was waiting for her at home? She didn’t even have a cat that needed her. “I’m listening.”
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but three years ago I was…” He hesitated and she saw his eyelashes flutter quite attractively. “Three years ago I was left at the altar of my own wedding by the woman I planned to spend the rest of my life with.”
Karen drained her glass. “Did she find out that you were refusing to say the lines ‘with thee my worldly goods I share’?”
For a moment McAllister sat there and stared, then he smiled in a way that could only be called dazzling. And Karen had to blink; he really was gorgeous, with his dark hair and eyes and a hint of a dimple in one cheek. No wonder so many women fell for him. “I think, Mrs. Lawrence, that you and I are going to get along fine.”
That brought Karen up short. She was going to have to establish boundaries now. “No, I don’t think we will, since I do not believe your tragic little-boy-lost story. I have no idea what really happened at your wedding or all those other times women refused to marry you, but I can assure you I am not one of these lovesick secretaries who think you were ‘Miserably Jilted.’ I think you were — ” She halted before she said too much.
Enlightenment lit his face. “You think I was ‘Magnificently Jettisoned.’ Or do you think I am a ‘Macho Jackass’? Well, well, so now at last I know who the office wordsmith is.”
Karen couldn’t speak because she was too embarrassed — and how had he found this out so quickly?
For a moment longer he looked at her in speculation, then his face changed from feel-sorry-for-me to that of one friend talking to another. “What happened back then is between Elaine and me and will remain between us, but the truth is, the groom is her relative and she is going to be at the wedding. If I show up alone, with yet another fiancèe having left me, it will be, to put it kindly, embarrassing. And then there is the matter of the wedding. If there are seven male attendants and only six female, women get a bit out-of-sorts about things like that.”
“So hire someone from an escort service. Hire an actress.”
“I thought of that, but who knows what you get? She could audition lady Macbeth at the reception. Or she could turn out to know half the men there in a way that could be awkward.”
“Surely, Mr. Taggert, you must have a little black book full of names of women who would love to go anywhere with you and do anything.”
“That’s just the problem. They are all women who…well, they like me and after this…Well…”
“I see. How do you get rid of them? You could always ask them to marry you. That seems to cure every woman of you forever.”
“See? You’re perfect for this. All anyone has to do is see the way you look at me and they’ll know we’re about to separate. Next week when I announce our split, no one will be surprised.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“I’ll pay you whatever you like.”
“One of the engagement rings you give out by the gross?” She knew she was being rude, but the champagne was giving her courage and with every discourteous thing she said to him, his eyes twinkled more.
“Ouch! Is that what people say about me?”
“Don’t try your sad-little-boy act on me. I typed those prenuptial agreements, remember? I know what you are really like.”
“And that is?”
“Incapable of trust, maybe incapable of love. You like the idea of marriage, but actually sharing yourself, and above all sharing your money, with another human, terrifies you. In fact, as far as I can tell, you don’t share anything with anyone.”
For a moment, he gaped at her, then he smiled. “You certainly have me in a nutshell, but coldhearted as I am, it still embarrassed me that Elaine left me so publicly. That wedding cost me thirty-two thousand dollars, none of which was refundable, and I had to send the gifts back.”
Refusing to give in to his play for sympathy, she repeated, “What’s in it for me? And I don’t want money. I have money of my own.”
“Yes. Fifty-two thousand and thirty-eight cents, to be exact.”
Karen nearly choked on her champagne. “How — ?”
“My family owns the bank in this building. I took a guess that it might be the bank you use, so I tapped into the files after you left my office.”
“More curiosity. I was checking to see who you were. I am offering you legitimate employment, and since this is a very personal job, I wanted to know more about you. Besides, I like to know more about a woman than just the package.” Taking a sip from his champagne glass, he looked at her the way a dark, romantic hero look at a helpless damsel.
But Karen wasn’t affected. She’d had other men look at her like that, and she’d had one man look at her in love. The difference between the two was everything. “I can see why women say yes to you,” she said coolly, lifting her glass to him.
At her detachment, he gave a genuine smile. “All right, I can see that you’re not impressed by me, so, now shall we talk business, Mrs. Lawrence? I want to hire you as my escort for three days. Since I am at your mercy, you can name your price.”
Karen drained her glass. What was this, her sixth? Whatever the number, all she could feel was courage running through her veins. “If I were to do this, I wouldn’t want money.”
“Ah, I see. What do you want then? A promotion? To be made head secretary? Maybe you’d like a vice presidency?”
“And sit in a windowed office doing nothing all day? No, thank you.”
McAllister blinked at her words, then waited for her to say more. When she was silent, he said, “You want stock in the company? No?” When she still said nothing, he leaned back in his chair and looked at her in speculation. “You want something money can’t buy, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said softly.
He looked at her for a long moment. “Am I to figure out what money can’t buy? Happiness?”
Karen shook her head.
“Love? Surely you don’t want love from someone like me?” His face showed his bafflement. “I’m afraid you have me stumped.”
At that McAllister spilled champagne down the front of his shirt. As he mopped himself up, he looked at her with eyes full of interest. “Oh, Mrs. Lawrence, I like this much better than parting with my money.” As he reached for her hand, she grabbed a sharp little fish knife.
“Don’t touch me.”
Leaning back, McAllister refilled both their glasses. “Would you be so kind as to inform me how I’m to give you a baby without touching you?”
“In a jar.”
“Ah, I see, you want a test-tube baby.” His voice lowered and his eyes grew sympathetic. “Are your eggs — ?”
“My eggs are perfectly all right, thank you,” she snapped. “I don’t want to put my eggs in a jar, but I want you to put your…your…in a jar.”
“Yes, now I understand.” Looking at her, he sipped his drink. “What I don’t understand is, why me? I mean, since you don’t like me or exactly think I’m of good moral character, why would you want me to be the father of your child?”
“Two reasons. The alternative is going to a clinic, where I can choose a man off a computer data bank. Maybe he’s healthy but what about his relatives? Whatever I may think of you, your family is very nice and, according to the local papers, has been nice for generations. And I know what you and your relatives look like.”
“I’m not the only one who has been snooping. And the second reason?”
“If I have your child — in a manner of speaking — later you won’t come to me asking me for money.”
It was as though this statement were too outlandish for McAllister to comprehend, because for a moment he sat there blinking in consternation. Then he laughed, a deep rumbling sound that came from inside his chest. “Mrs. Lawrence, I do believe we are going to get along splendidly.” He extended his right hand. “All right, we have a bargain.”
For just a moment Karen allowed her hand to be enveloped in his large warm one, and she allowed her eyes to meet his and to see the way they crinkled into a smile.
Abruptly, she pulled way from his touch. “Where and when?” she asked.
“My car will pick you up at six a.m. tomorrow, and we’ll leave on the first flight to New York.”
“I thought your friend lived in Virginia,” she said suspiciously.
“He does, but I thought we’d go to New York first and outfit you,” he said bluntly, sounding as though she were a naked native he, the great white hunter, had found.
For a moment Karen hid her face behind the champagne glass so he wouldn’t see her expression. “Ah, yes, I see. Based on what I’ve seen, you like your fiancèes to be well coiffed and well dressed.”
“Doesn’t every man?”
“Only men who can’t see beneath the surface.”
Karen blushed. “I apologize. If I am to pretend to be your fiancèe, I will try to curb my tongue.” She gave him a hard look. “I won’t have to play the doting, adorable female, will I?”
“Since no other woman to whom I have been engaged has, I see no reason you should. Have some more champagne, Mrs. Lawrence.”
“No, thank you,” Karen said, standing, then working hard not to wobble on her feet. Champagne, firelight, and a dark-haired, hot-eyed man were not conducive to making a woman remember her vows of chastity. “I will see you at the airport tomorrow, but, please, there’ll be no need to stop in New York.” When he started to say something, she smiled. “Trust me.”
“All right,” he said, raising his glass. “To tomorrow.”
Karen left the room, gathered her things, and took the elevator downstairs. Since she didn’t feel steady enough to drive, she had the security man call a cab to take her to a small shopping mall south of Denver.
“Bunny?” Karen asked tentatively as a woman locked the door of the beauty salon. Looking at Bunny’s hair, Karen couldn’t decide if it had been dyed apricot or peach. Whatever, it was an extraordinary shade.
“Yes?” the woman asked, turning, looking at Karen with no recognition in her eyes.
“You don’t remember me?”
For a moment Bunny looked puzzled, then her fine pale skin crinkled in pleasure. “Karen? Could that be you under that…that…?”
“Hair,” Karen supplied.
“Maybe you call it hair but not from where I’m standing. And look at your face! Did you take vows? Is that why it’s so shiny and clean?”
Karen laughed. One of her few luxuries while married to Ray had been having Bunny do her hair and give her advice on makeup and nails, and pretty much anything else in life. For all that Bunny was an excellent hairdresser, she was also like a therapist to her clients — and as discreet as though she’d taken an oath. A woman knew she could tell Bunny anything and it would go no further.
“Could you do my hair?” Karen asked shyly.
“Sure. Call in the morning and — ”
“No, now. I have to leave on a plane early in the morning.”
Bunny didn’t put up with such nonsense. “I have a hungry husband waiting at home, and I’ve been on my feet for nine hours. You should have come earlier.”
“Could I bribe you with a story? A very, very good story?”
Bunny looked skeptical. “How good a story?”
“You know my gorgeous boss? McAllister Taggert? I’m probably going to have his baby and he’s never touched me — nor is he going to.”
Bunny didn’t miss a beat as she shoved the key back into the lock. “I predict that hair of yours is going to take half the night.”
“What about your husband?”
“Let him open his own cans.”
“Just Curious” copyright © 1995 by Deveraux, Inc.