With her secretary busy on another line, Marilyn picked up the ringing phone on her desk. “Perfect Partners, Marilyn Ross speaking.”
“This is Miss Parsons at JetCorp headquarters.” Both voice and manner demanded that Marilyn be most impressed and humbly aware of the honor bestowed on her menial company by this grand event. “I have a call for Mr. Edwin Watson from Mr. Douglas Fountain Junior. Please hold and I’ll connect.”
“Mr. Wat—” Marilyn ground her molars together as the secretary on the other end cut her off with a decisive, electronic click. Executives who instructed their staff to make the telephone connection then get them online were one of her pet peeves. She prepared herself automatically to dislike Douglas Fountain Junior, who clearly considered his time more valuable than hers. But in her business as a head hunter, she’d learned to live with it. Live with it, but not like it.
The line clicked again, as if the connection had been made, but there were no other sounds for several seconds. Then, following another series of clicks, Marilyn heard one of the most fascinating conversations of her career.
“I am quite certain ‘Perfect Partners’ is not what you think it is, Doug,” Miss Parsons said, sounding even snootier than when she had spoken to Marilyn.
“No? And what do I think it is, Emma?” asked a male voice, husky, slightly raspy, but pleasant to the ear. Mr. Douglas Fountain Junior, Marilyn guessed. His subtly amused tone gave her an instant image of a cocked eyebrow, a faint smile. He sounded… not boyish, but certainly not old. Prime up-and-coming young executive, she thought, as the brief silence was broken by a delicately disdainful sniff from Miss Parsons.
“You think it’s a…a dating service, don’t you?” The JetCorp secretary’s tone had Marilyn envisioning an outraged glare.
“Actually, no,” he said, and something about his too-serious manner narrowed Marilyn’s eyes in suspicion. His next words brought an instant grin to her face: “As far as I know, it’s what’s euphemistically referred to as an ‘escort service,’” he said in a so-there manner that told Marilyn he thought no such thing. The rat! He was pulling his secretary’s leg. Another irritable, secretarial sniff suggested to Marilyn exactly what that reason could be. Miss Parsons sounded like a stiff-necked old prude, and likely Mr. Young Executive junior took great pleasure in teasing her.
Really, she should let the two of them know that this conversation wasn’t private. But before she could, the man continued.
“I also think,” he said, “that a company with a name like Perfect Partners might be exactly the place I’ll find what I’m looking for—a woman in need of a lucrative position. A semi permanent, or even permanent, lucrative position. After all, didn’t what’s-his-name end up with the hooker in that old movie?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Emma didn’t quite huff, but came close to it. “I do not watch films in which there are, er, hookers.” It was obviously a difficult word for her to say.
Marilyn was about to laugh aloud, thereby letting the secretary and Douglas Fountain Junior know that the line was open and she could hear every word, when he said, “Since the woman I seek is already accustomed to selling her commodity to a series of individuals, she should have no objection to selling it to one man on an exclusive basis over an indefinite period.”
Good heavens! Maybe he was serious! Now, not only was the line open, but Marilyn’s eyes and mouth and ears were all wide. Still, she couldn’t have hung up at that point if someone had threatened her with a flamethrower.
“I intend to make the terms very attractive to the right woman,” Douglas Fountain said.
Really? And what would those terms be, and more to the point, what kind of person would the “right” woman be?
Emma asked the question for her. “How attractive do you expect to find this woman, considering her past, er, activities?”
The man laughed. “I have utterly no intention of getting emotionally or physically involved with the woman, so what do I care about her past? My requirements are clear. She needs to be easy to look at, disease-free, socially adept, fertile, and willing to bear a son for me, maybe two.”
“How will you accomplish that without, er… physical involvement?”
Aha! Thank you Miss Emma Parsons. That was exactly what Marilyn had been wondering herself.
“Did you never hear of artificial insemination?” he asked, his voice silky smooth again. “I’ll happily provide a nanny to raise the children, which will make the whole thing a mere temporary inconvenience for her. One for which she will be more than adequately compensated before she’s dispensed with. And that’s all.”
“That is disgusting!” Emma took the words right out of Marilyn’s mouth. “You’re not serious about this?”
“Me? Not serious? When have I ever been anything but serious about business? Wouldn’t hiring someone to do the job provide a solution to the problem my grandfather expects me to solve?”
“A problem of your own making.” This time, Emma’s sniff was anything but delicate. “You should never have let Caroline go.”
Whatever the man might have said to that was lost in the sound of a door opening, and the secretary saying, “Sir, he’s on the pho—”
An older male voice, impatient, brusque, boomed, “Then he’d better get off it. We have business, Doug and I, and he knows it.”
A door slammed. Then, “Well, my boy? Your three months are up as of noon today. What do you have to report?”
“Excuse me,” said the man who’d been talking to Emma. “Have a seat, Granddad. I’ll be with you in a moment. I’m on the phone. Connect me now, please, Emma.”
There came another couple of clicks, then, “My darling,” he crooned into Marilyn’s ear. “I’ve missed you, and I’ve been waiting for your call.”
Stunned into silence, Marilyn stared at the phone for a moment before replying, “This is Marilyn Ross at Perfect Partners and I think you either have the wrong number or the wrong idea entirely as to what Perfect Partners is all about.” She was about to hang up when he spoke again quickly.
“I hope you’ve managed to rearrange your day, Marilyn, my love, so you can make lunch after all. My grandfather is more than eager to meet you. Will Edwin be joining us, too?”
Stupefied, she could think of nothing sensible to say. Obviously, he didn’t have the wrong number, which she’d known from the beginning, just the wrong conception, which she was beginning to believe. Though if he knew Edwin, her uncle and the former owner of Perfect Partners, he must know what services her company provided. And what they did not.
He leapt into the vacuum of her silence. “Not only do I want to see you—no” —he dropped his voice to an intimate, lover like tone— “make that need to see you, I’m also in need of Edwin’s advice again. I have an extremely lucrative position to offer, and I know he’ll be able to find just the right person to fill it. Could you either put him on the line, or ask him to join us for lunch?”
Marilyn found herself trying not to laugh. If she ever started, she might not stop, and the laughter would have a tinge of hysteria. Obviously Uncle Edwin was right; she needed a vacation. Too bad this kook couldn’t have waited until next Monday to call, when her uncle would have been the one in charge. By then, she’d have been enjoying well-earned rest lolling around in her own backyard, doing nothing more mentally taxing than figuring out which were good plants and which were weeds. This being her first spring in the Pacific Northwest, she had yet to discover all the little secrets of gardening in a rain forest. She knew only that things grew with amazing speed and the variety astounded her.
“Listen, whoever you are,” she said, knowing perfectly well at least his name, if nothing else about him, but unable to admit it, because then he’d know she’d been eavesdropping, “whatever your game is, you obviously don’t know that my uncle Edwin retired nearly a year ago. I’ve taken over his business. If you have a lucrative position that needs filling, perhaps you could explain it to me and I’ll see what I can do. I’m always willing to help one of Perfect Part-ners’ longtime clients.”
She paused for a moment, then the devil made her do it. She asked, “What did you say your name is?”
Doug’s mind went blank. How could he tell his supposed lover, right in front of his grandfather, what his name was?
Over the phone came a bubble of laughter, followed by a gentle, teasing question that brought an involuntary smile to his lips and an appreciative chuckle from his chest. “You do know what your name is, don’t you?”
He knew what his name was, and realized, also, that she probably knew, too. Of course she did. Emma would have announced who the call was from, so this woman, Marilyn Ross, undoubtedly had Who’s Who in Business open on her desk at that very mo¬ment and was scanning his entry.
She’d know by now that he was once married, once divorced, thirty-eight years old, CEO and heir apparent of JetCorp, a family-owned conglomerate worth billions. Try as he had since being shoe¬horned into the position he held with the company, he’d been unable to keep the low profile he’d have preferred. Trouble was, nearly everyone knew his family history, knew what he looked like, and all too often, women considered him fair game for those two reasons alone.
He certainly didn’t object to women or to their attentions, but it would be a treat, he’d long ago decided, to have one take an interest in him because of who he was, not who his family was and what they had, or what they thought his personal financial worth might be.
Marilyn Ross, he sensed, might be teasing him, but she wasn’t flirting. That intrigued him. He wished he knew what she looked like. Her voice, her manner, her warm laughter combined to create a tantalizing picture in his mind, one that lacked form, though not color.
“Marilyn, my love,” he said, and noticed on a de¬tached level that his voice had dropped an octave in a genuine and unexpected response to this unknown woman, “if your uncle Edwin can’t find just the em¬ployee I’m looking for, then my name is not Douglas Ellery Fountain Junior.”
She laughed again. “Oh, very well done, Mr. Foun¬tain. Nice recovery. Tell me, what would you have done if it had been my uncle on the phone when you first said ‘My darling’? More to the point, what do you think he’d have done?”
He couldn’t answer that with his grandfather lis¬tening, so he ignored the question, which he recog¬nized as just another way for her to taunt him.
“Please ask Edwin to join us for lunch at the Fountainhead. And also ask him for the rest of the day off. Remember, you and I have to look for that very special diamond, now, don’t we?”
Her sudden splutter of laughter delighted him. Thank heaven this woman had a sense of humor. He was beginning to think she might even be willing to help him out of this bind if he played his cards right. “Actually, darling, “ she said, “I much prefer emeralds.”
He chuckled. “Then an emerald it will be, my sweet. But perhaps surrounded by diamonds? From the moment of our first meeting, I’ve thought the fire in diamonds would enhance the fire in your eyes.”
“If this is an invitation to lunch, Mr. Fountain, it’s unique. Tell you what; I’m going to phone my uncle and ask him if he actually knows you and thinks you’re sane. If he does, I’ll meet you and your grandfather for lunch, because after all, business is business, and I’d hate to lose a client. But I very much doubt Uncle Ed will be joining us. He’s retired and spends most of his time at his beach house on the Sunshine Coast.”
“Ah, yes, that wonderful beach house of his! I meant to ask him if he’d lend it to us as a honeymoon hideaway. Do you think he will?”
“Maybe I won’t bother phoning him.” Marilyn laughed. “It’s obvious you’re not all there. I mean, diamonds and emeralds are one thing, but now we’re talking marriage and honeymoon? This is getting pretty serious, isn’t it, for two people who have never met?”
“I’m all here, darling, all six feet, three inches of me, all two hundred ten pounds, and all yours.”
“And your grandfather is listening to your end of this crazy conversation and for some reason you want him to think I’m your fiancée, so my refusing to have lunch with you would cause any number of problems, right?”
“Marilyn, I always said it was your brains that attracted me first.”
“What? Not the five-foot-two, eyes-of-blue thing? Or the three hundred twenty-five pounds of wanton, lovin’ woman all in one solid little package?”
Little? Doug gulped. Solid?
“Fine, then,” she continued. “The Fountainhead at what time? I do hope they have chocolate mousse for dessert.”