HELP: I need your reactions as readers

[NOTE: This entry has been updated with the new version of this opening.]

Here I am again, openly begging anyone/everyone for comments/feedback. But . . . “THIS time it’s really important!” Yeah, right.

No, really.

I’m about to send the first three chapters of my Pundit novel to editor Kate Duffy, who invited me to send them when I thought they were perfect. I’ve read them over several times and really feel they’re good. But I don’t have any perspective.

Remember how I did that research project on Kate’s authors? The books I picked up were mostly heavy on the sex scenes. Maybe it was just the ones I picked up. Y’all know how I am about sex scenes.

Not that the books were ALL sex, but mine has sexual tension only. I wish I could like the “blockbuster” plots, but I don’t do melodrama or sad stuff or blasphemy (of ANYONE’S religion) or reunion novels (“three women reunite when their godfather gets blown up in a hot-air balloon at the Presidential inauguration and re-evaluate their lives in light of their ambitions as eighteen-year-olds”), either, because I like a romp. (The reason I don’t write sad stuff and “unspeakable evil” and so forth is that I need some uplifting. There must be other readers who feel the same way–for a while there, they were reading chick lit.) However, if we’re talking the best ME, I think this is pretty representative.

I’ve kept the chapters fairly short, at least short for ME. That means it isn’t an overwhelming stream of text.

I don’t expect a lot of you to read/review. I know how busy you are. Still, I need a few readers to look it over and give me advice on any parts that you think are confusing, story-stoppers, or whatnot. I tried to use the descriptions I give of the characters (from the other one’s POV) in the opening scene to hint at the romantic attraction to come, and if that doesn’t work, let me know. I’ve seen it done this way in many a single title romance.

The kind of feedback that I think I need: Can you visualize the truck thing, and the ankle thing, and the helping-up? I hope it isn’t jumbled and that it’s vivid. Do you get a feeling of budding attraction from reading the heroine’s mental description of the hero and his of her? (They notice particular things about one another.)

Does it bug you that they all call the show’s star PunditBoy and such nicknames? Staff tends to do that. In the hospital where my friend’s mom worked, the head physician who supervised residents (my grandmother’s family doctor, Dr. Page) was known as ZEUS to one and all on-staff. Another doc who married a bossy nurse was thereafter known as “whipped.” It wasn’t because of his food preferences. *grin* Your staff is NOT reverent in referring to you, especially informally or behind your back/out of hearing range.

If you have ANY comments at all that might be helpful, I’d appreciate hearing them. If you don’t want to comment here, you can do it by e-mail. I would like to get this out to the editor before the end of the week, or perhaps early next week. One reason I want to get it out there is that this editor is coming to the national RWA conference in Dallas this July, and I would like to have some reason to meet her. She’s going to auction off (for charity) the opportunity to escort her around on a tour of the local bookstores. *I* would be a perfect candidate for that, having lived here all my life (well, since I was six, in the 1960s!), but my cash flow is seriously strained. I’d still like to at *least* get to meet her in person. So we’ll see if I can horn in on some activity that she’s going to do. If she reads this and likes it, there’s a chance she might be willing to let me sit in on a talk or luncheon (not a mass panel discussion, but a more intimate gathering.) Is this asking too much of the Universe? I wonder whether it is, because anytime I try that visualization stuff, it seems to backfire. I must be seeing it in all the wrong colors. Can’t even do THAT right!

*ahem* I need people to read all three chapters. I’ll only post the first chapter here, though. Still, the excerpt is rather long. It’s under the cut. (HUGE simultaneous sighs of relief from f-list) (*I heard that!*) Or I could e-mail it to you as a text file, if you don’t want to click through. If you decide to devote some time to reading it, let me know. Maybe I could award prizes. (There’s nothing around here worth giving away . . . maybe a stack of semi-newish books? Such as the ones I just got through studying?)

In the Pundit’s Corner
(A romantic/screwball comedy with hints of suspense)
Chapter One

All the Underwoods have guardian angels.

Furthermore, most of them claim to have seen their angels at least once during this life. A few are sure they’ve barely missed out–having heard a rustled drapery or caught a flash of light just as the save took place, but being otherwise too occupied with the crisis as it happened to watch closely until it was too late and the angel had flown.

Kay Underwood Fisher was one of the latter.

She hadn’t seen her angel, but she knew she must have one. Because otherwise, that truck would definitely have taken her out a nanosecond ago.

“Help!” she shouted, flailing her arms from the muddy puddle she’d landed in at the curb. “I think I’ve broken my ankle.”

The parking lot of Dallas Cable Network was full of responsible types arriving to work right on time, so several passersby rushed towards Kay. A tall, skinny blond man was the first to reach her.

“Are you all right?” Then he apparently realized what she’d said, and amended with, “I mean, other than the ankle.” He offered his arm, a little awkwardly.

A quick mental inventory said that everything was intact, except . . . her left foot was numb. It didn’t hurt–it was oddly deadened, which worried her.

“I don’t know if I can get up just yet.” She tugged her skirt down over her knees. It had only scrunched up to reveal a few inches of thigh, but it felt as if it had flown over her head in exactly the same way her dresses used to do when she was five years old. She knew both her feet had been off the ground for a moment.

“Where does it hurt?”

“My pride,” she choked out as a cloud of exhaust blew past them. He sneezed.

Skid marks traced a circuit around the parking lot and out onto the main road. A few people were still looking in the direction Kay thought the driver had headed, but there was no sign of the truck.

The stranger studied the skid marks and gazed down the street to where the truck had vanished. “Looks like a pretty close call. What happened?” He had a Garrison Keillor voice, a flat Midwestern accent.

She’d seen a flash of movement behind her reflecting off the inside of her glasses lenses, felt cold metal brush against her thigh and rip her good pantyhose, had the wind knocked out of her as the concrete rushed up to meet her elbows–but she hadn’t jumped out of the way of the truck under her own power.

“I have no idea.” She didn’t want to say that the truck had come right for her. “I guess I tripped on the curb.”

“Hmm,” he said noncommittally. “A truck peeled out just as you fell?”

“I suppose. I wasn’t paying attention.” He didn’t look convinced, but she shook her head firmly. “Careless drivers.” She forced a smile. Her story was going to be that she’d kicked the curb with the toe of her new slingback, tripped over her own feet, and fallen flat on her J. Lo.

When she bent her knee to lever herself up, she found she couldn’t stand on the foot.

She looked at his arm, which he was still holding out, and grasped it gingerly. “I suppose you’re going to have to play Florence Nightingale.”

He reddened, but managed to get her to her feet without too much bodily contact–which, she reflected, was kind of a shame.

“All right?” He held her elbow until focus returned and she could steady herself.

She gasped as she tried again to stand on her left foot. It refused to take any weight, even though she’d recently lost fifteen pounds.

He looked grim. “Let’s get you to the nurses’ station.”

“I’d rather not.” She couldn’t believe–it couldn’t be that serious. “Surely it’s not broken. I don’t want to make a big deal, really.” She tested the ankle again, with similar results.

He looked genuinely surprised, running the fingers of his free hand through his wavy hair like a bemused teen. Now, why did that give her the urge to help him out with her own fingers? “I really think you should get that checked out.”

“Nonsense. I need to get to my department. For our weekly staff meeting.” She stepped down determinedly on the foot and almost fell again. Biting the inside of her cheek, she managed to suppress a gasp.

“Here, put your arm around my neck.” After a moment’s hesitation, he grasped her left hand and guided her elbow around the collar of his linen jacket. He had to be six feet, because she had to stretch to reach, even though she was five-eleven.

“This is so embarrassing,” she murmured, feeling an inappropriate heat running up her arm and down her backbone to her thighs. “I hate to impose.”

“No trouble at all.” He didn’t let go of her hand, but put his other arm around her and grinned. “Shall we go with the skaters’ waltz?”

She tried to smile back. “Are you sure you can bear my weight?” He was broad-shouldered, maybe not as skinny as she’d first thought. Lanky, rather. But solid, like a young John Wayne. Under his sportcoat he wore a starched white shirt and a wildly patterned orange tie that turned his hazel-ringed irises a mossy green. The effect was marred a bit by his Birkenstock sandals over white socks–each of a different length. He was probably some kind of executive and thus was allowed such sartorial latitude.

“Worry not. I’ve carried heavier stuff that wasn’t as pretty.”

The Blanche DuBois line, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” came to mind, and she ducked her head to avoid having to acknowledge the compliment–or think that he might be flirting. “I shouldn’t waste your time.” She needed to step forward, but she didn’t seem to be able to figure out how to proceed, like a centipede who has thought too long about which foot to move next. Except her choices were right foot, right foot, right foot.

“What now?”

“I keep trying to step on the wrong foot. They both seem like the wrong feet.”

“Can’t be. They’re attached to your very own legs.” He appraised her legs with unnerving intensity as he spoke.

“Just give me a sec to catch my breath.” Resolutely she hobbled forward, leaning on him as lightly as she could manage.

It seemed to take forever to get through the lobby and down the side hall to the company infirmary. She hated being a burden and knowing she was inconveniencing a virtual stranger, but all she could do was hobble and pray that the numb foot wouldn’t wake up until she could get some painkillers into herself.

He insisted on waiting with her until the clinic receptionist slid the glass window open an inch. “There’s a lady here who needs to be seen ASAP. She nearly got run over, and her ankle needs to be looked at.”

This almost woke the receptionist. “C’mon back and I’ll get the nurse.”

He handed her off to the receptionist-assistant. He was gone before she realized she hadn’t thanked him or even gotten his name. Or given him hers.

# # #

Whit Bradley left the infirmary and headed upstairs to the producers’ private conference room, wondering what kind of reception he’d get for being twenty minutes late. He’d just have to tell them he’d been assisting a damsel in distress.

Some great-looking damsel, too. She was a tall redhead with prominent cheekbones. Statuesque without being model-like, not stalky, bordering on well-fed, but appealing. Hair in a mussed French twist. Pale Irish complexion sprinkled with hazel freckles. Tortoiseshell glasses with lenses a little larger than the tiny lozenge shapes currently in fashion. Behind the glasses, guarded sapphire eyes. The accent of a Texas cowgirl, but nothing that would rule out her hosting a radio talk show. She reminded him of the young Kathleen Turner, or a slightly chunky version of Sigourney Weaver in her Ghostbusters period.

Not that he’d noticed all that much about her, of course.

He hadn’t told her anything about himself, which was probably good. His mission here was covert. His cover story was that he was an observer, here as an efficiency expert.

In the shadowy part of the upstairs hall–“Mahogany Row,” as it was called, its denizens vice-presidents and beyond–he stopped and pulled his CodeSafe out of his pocket. It was a wafer-thin passcode generator that looked like a small calculator, but which gave codes for entering the company confidential conference rooms. He glanced around to be sure no one was watching, then unobtrusively pressed the keys to get a new code. Holding it up to the key-coded door lock and pressing the SEND button, he heard the knob spring open with a satisfying thud.

Six executive types waited for him around the conference table, looking solemn under dimmed pinlights. It was showtime.

“Gentlemen.” He nodded as the door swatched closed behind him. “Sorry I’m late. I was unavoidably delayed.”

Underneath the insincere murmurs of “perfectly all right” was the rustle of papers, shuffling of feet, and pointed glances at watches, which meant he wasn’t forgiven. As quickly as he could, he connected his laptop to the audio/video system and began his presentation.

One of the suits almost immediately let out a heavy sigh. “What I want to know is, what kind of evidence do we have to continue this? I mean, are we sure this isn’t a snipe hunt?”

Uh-oh. “I can’t give you details at this time, but let me assure you, Homeland Security is taking this very seriously.” Whit and his supervisors had determined over the past few months that the twice-a-week Pundit’s Corner segments of Rusty LaBarbera’s political call-in cable show contained clues or instructions in some form for operatives in a terrorist network. After each Pundit’s Corner broadcast (always immediately following the East Coast showing, and never delayed until after the transcript was posted on the website), various movements of known terrorists or participants in terror rings told Homeland Security that information was coming across in the segments.

The past three weeks had been pretty much a wash: Whit had spent the first half of the previous month upstairs in the DCN production studios for the three shows that they’d narrowed the informants down to, but he hadn’t been able to smoke out anyone who seemed to have enough sense to be inserting secret messages or even to put together a coherent English sentence. He’d gone back to the Agency to report and spent a week convincing them with the evidence he’d brought back. They’d arranged with the network’s head office to let him return and study the processes in the production office itself more closely. Right now, he had his suspicions as to where the mole might be burrowed in, but it was really still a crapshoot.

The slideshow was, of necessity, mostly smoke and mirrors; he couldn’t risk revealing details that might compromise security, but there was enough to quiet the room as Whit clicked through the pages. He was thankful that he didn’t have much of a struggle convincing these skeptical powers-that-be of the link he’d discovered. Between fielding worrisome questions from the attendees (and trying not to sink any ships), his thoughts briefly returned to the cause of his unavoidable delay. He made a mental note to find out which department she worked in, and visit it before he left. He’d like to make sure she was all right.

Besides, he enjoyed resting his eyes on something appetizing now and then.

# # #

Kay limped out of the elevator and into the hallway.

Her assistant, Teri, was standing at the door of their suite of offices, looking down the hall as if watching for her. Despite the rising pain that gave her Frankenstein-jolts at every step, Kay smiled inwardly; although Teri was slight–only two inches too tall to qualify as a midget–with short chestnut hair haloing the pale freckled face of a teenybopper, employees all over the company knew they’d better take her seriously. She had watchful basset-hound brown eyes, a hawk-beak nose, and the ethics of a drill sergeant.

Under Teri’s wispy bangs, her forehead pleated with worry. “You’re late.” Then she shrieked and pointed at the crutches. “I knew something was wrong when you missed the staff meeting. You never ride the elevator!”

“I took a little spill, that’s all.”

“Shouldn’t you go to the hospital?” Teri hurried to take her arm, but Kay shooed her gently away with a crutch.

“I’ve just come from the nurses’ station. Got it x-rayed. It’s not broken. Merely sprained.”

“Which means?”

“Six weeks on these.” She rattled the crutches. They were new wooden contraptions, a little too tall for her, but the other pair they’d had were far too short. She grimaced as she forgot and tried to step down on the foot. “They told me that later on I should run down to the Doc-in-a-Box down the street and they’d put on an air cast, whatever that is.”

“You should go on over there,” said Pet (Petrina C. Mihelich to the HR department, “Her Majesty” to her detractors, “Pet” to everybody else) from her desk in the opposite corner. Pet’s raspy voice carried well, and whatever she said always seemed commanding, so Kay often had to fight the urge to obey with “Yes, Ma’am.” Even though, technically, Pet also reported to Kay.

Kay swung the crutches forward, and their tips sank into the deep pile of the suite’s show-offy white carpeting. “I can’t be out of pocket during working hours.”

Pet lifted her head, sending glints of rainbow light across the ceiling from the prism of rhinestone-decorated combs that held up her updo, and scoffed. Plus-sized, statuesque, Rubenesque–whichever description political correctness allowed these days–with thigh-length hair piled atop her head in an elaborate Renaissance-festival braided style, Pet was a force of nature. She always wore fashionable dresses in the latest style, favoring the colors purple and green–often together–and they looked great on her. “Who cares if you do it on company time? I’ll cover your phone.”

Teri shot Pet a look. “I’ve got it covered. Go to the doctor.”

“I’ll go after work, I suppose. I don’t think I could make it over there now without resting for a while.” Kay sank into one of the rolling side chairs by Teri’s desk.

Teri frowned. “You need to keep it elevated. Did they mention RICE?”

It was vaguely familiar. “Rest, Ice, Compression, Eleemosynary?”

“Close.” Teri pulled another chair over and propped Kay’s foot up on it.

Kay winced as her heel landed on the cushion. “It’s in an Ace bandage. Ice makes my joints ache, and I don’t want to mess with a dripping baggie. Really, I’m fine.”

Pet gestured into Kay’s private office. “A package came for you. It’s on your desk.”

“A box from Neiman Marcus.” Teri grinned.

“I haven’t ordered anything. I learned my lesson about shopping online a few years ago, when it was so awful paying off all those charge cards.” Kay started to lever herself off the chair, but decided that rolling into her office–using the crutches like ski poles–would work.

“Wait.” Teri fetched the box and brandished her letter opener. “Look, it’s a re-used box.” She pointed to the stickers along the sides, reading “Re-Purposed Box” and “Recycle For the Earth’s Sake.”

Checking the return address, Kay nodded. “It’s from the original environmentalist, my aunt Bitsy.” She struggled a moment with the spirals of packing tape her aunt had wrapped around the box. It finally yielded to Teri’s letter opener, popping open to reveal a short, low-cut black velvet dress. Strapless. With a burnout scarf in puce.

“Oh, my God–that’s gorgeous!” Teri said, fingering the scarf.

“What’s the special occasion?” Pet asked.

“I’m not sure what my aunt was thinking.” While the others admired the gift, Kay tore open the envelope she’d palmed out of the box and read the note silently.

“Hey, sweet pea. Yesterday at LAST CALL, I felt an irresistible pull toward this dress, as if I were having my hand tugged by a child. I resisted and didn’t pick it up, but then I found it in my stack at the checkout, so I realized I was being led to get it for you. Probably your Paulie, dear.” Kay’s guardian angel, so dubbed in childhood. “Naturally, I couldn’t help but follow through. You must have a big occasion coming up. Enjoy!”

Feinting towards the trash, she slipped the note into her purse. “Too bad I won’t have anywhere to wear it. Unless Greg asks me to come to the NMA banquet.” The National Management Association was holding its end-of-year bash and awards ceremony on the upcoming Saturday night. “But I’ve just about given up hope. While the managers dance, I’ll be home in my rocker listening to Prairie Home Companion on NPR.”

Pet frowned. “You could go by yourself.”

“I don’t want to.”

“That’s not very liberated.”

“Why don’t YOU come with me?” She held the dress up against her chest, modeling it as best she could without standing up. It was short enough to be scandalous, but long enough to sit down in.

Pet stuck out her tongue. “I have no reason to. I’m not even in NMA, and with luck I never will be. Besides, having to date other women–I’m not that desperate yet.”

“I can’t believe we’re still stuck in high school, waiting for some guy to call.” Teri’s lower lip edged into a pout.

Kay hurried to distract Teri from thoughts of her recent breakup with SlackerMan. “I’m sure he’ll ask, but if he doesn’t, I don’t care.” She struggled to her feet–to her foot–and spread the dress over herself, leaning against Teri’s desk with her butt propped on it as though it were a shelf; that way, no weight went on the bad ankle. The numbness was starting to fade, sensation leaking back twinge by twinge, and her foot felt awfully heavy.

“Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’re counting on Greggy-boy for all your entertainment needs.” Pet shook her head, flashing her rhinestones at the office’s glass front.

Teri reached out and pinched the scarf fabric appreciatively. “I hate to agree with Ms. Devil’s Advocate, but if you have any feminine wiles remaining, when he calls, you’ll tell him you’re SO sorry, wish he had called sooner, but you have a previous engagement. You’re just too available to him.”

“He’s been keeping you on a leash for years.”

“Arf!” Kay pretended to lunge her head to bite Pet. “I can’t help it. I am helpless against his charms.”

“Pfau.” Pet rolled her eyes. “That’s why he always waits until the last minute: he knows you’re always there. Like Lassie looking out the window waiting for her beloved master Timmy.”

Teri nodded. “You’re like that comfy old sweatshirt that’s always folded up in the drawer. Anytime he feels like reaching in, there you wait. Just once . . . don’t be.”

“Too risky. He’d run down to Wal-Mart and pick up three new ones. And they’d be thrilled to have him.”

Teri looked at Pet, and they sighed in unison.

“No doubt,” said Pet. “Just the other day I saw Gregster escorting some miniskirted bimbette around the cafeteria.”

“A new hire, I suppose.”

Pet wiggled her brows.

Kay frowned. “Oh, come on. So what if he takes other women to lunch or out on business? I trust him implicitly.”

“What is implicit is that you need to be more suspicious, like me. He might decide to change sweatshirts.”

Kay rolled up the dress and stuffed it back into its box. “He’s been wearing the same sweatshirt for five years with no complaints.”

“Has it really been that long?”

“As if she weren’t keeping track of every minute on her widdle calendar,” said Pet, drifting back to her computer.

“Shut up,” Kay said affably.

“And he’s never even asked you to move in with him.” Teri unrolled the dress and arranged it over the box as if dressing a doll, admiring the ruching up the sides of the strapless bodice. Then she snatched it up, along with the crutches, and carried them back into Kay’s office. She liked to take the initiative, always telling Kay that real assistants continually “assist.”

“But he’s always traveling. When he’s here, it’s more like he’s on vacation.” Kay slid off the desk and back into the office chair, suddenly tired.

“He’s not gone that much.” Teri bustled back out. “Want some help?” She grabbed the back of the chair and rolled Kay into the mouth of her office doorway, where she could survey her domain.

Pet sniffed, clicking her mouse. “The day he suddenly walks in here with some young bimbo on his arm and tells us that it was kismet and they’ve just married in Vegas, don’t come crying to me.”

“You’ve seen too many chick flicks. That’s not going to happen.”

Tall, dark, and bootylicious Greg Kimball walked in, carrying an armload of papers. “What’s not going to happen? Hi, tootsweet,” he said to Kay.

“Good morning, bossman.” Kay sank down into the meager padding of the secretarial chair, suddenly exhausted. Teri knocked her ever-present knitting casually off her desktop into her bottom drawer and shoved it closed with her hip.

“We were just talking about your career and how we expect to come along with you as you rocket to the top,” said Pet, tilting her head to show off today’s Edwardian updo.

He looked at Pet. “Don’t you have anything to do?” He plopped the stack of papers on Pet’s desk. “I’ve marked up BowTie Boy’s copy for the next three shows. Will you get right on it? It needs quite a bit of work to turn into a coherent narrative.” He shot his cuffs, which were studded with real silver links and peeked out of a custom-made Italian suit that went with his perfectly moussed hair. Greg was a classic metrosexual. “I e-mailed you the files, but I thought it’d be easier to work from the hardcopy.”

For once, Pet looked daunted.

He turned and shoved a DVD into the wall unit. “Here’s yesterday’s work. Y’all did great. Especially you, tootsweet.” Fumbling with the controls, he managed to eject the disc.

“Here, I’ll do it.” Teri tactfully took over and persuaded the morning’s broadcast of the pieces Kay had polished yesterday to start playing on the widescreen LCD TV.

“Why don’t I get any sound,” Greg mumbled, and finally un-muted the TV using the remote mounted next to it on the entry wall of the office (it was the only way of keeping the remote from wandering away.) The TV was supposed to be on at all times, but nobody could get anything done with DCN’s shows constantly flashing and blaring, so it spent most of its life muted.

Pet turned her office chair away from the screen and picked up the top item on the new stack. “I get all my news from Comedy Central,” she said, ostentatiously putting on her earmuffs against the sound. But that was all right, as she supported Carlton Zucker, DCN’s BowTie Pundit and commentator, not Rusty LaBarbera, America’s favorite down-home PunditBoy.

Greg let the opening spiel play, then fast-forwarded through most of the call-in part of the show, stopping just short of the opening of the Pundit’s Corner segment. It was a five-minute piece that LaBarbera recited from his erstwhile bully pulpit at the end of every show. Today his tics were in fine form: he pulled down on the brim of his trademark Chicago Cubs baseball cap, tugged his earlobes, and couldn’t seem to leave his shirtsleeves alone.

That Chicago Cubs cap, which Kay figured was his way of concealing his balding pate, had supposedly been chosen by the Large One to show his empathy with the disenfranchised by picking a poor, beleaguered team that hadn’t won a World Series since 1908. At least he wore the bill facing forward.

“If his hands were tied behind his back, the man wouldn’t be able to talk,” muttered Greg.

As far as content, though, it was the usual pundit-boy stuff. Rather than having any credentials as a journalist, LaBarbera was just an opinionated guy positioning himself as Speaking For The Real America, although Kay didn’t think his widely-flung inconsistent views represented any particular slice of American belief. He was “the mighty Wurlitzer” from an old movie house, a political echo chamber where factions of political parties and lobbyists as well as the party in power got their talking points expounded upon and entered into the media’s news cycle. He made a big public deal of having no staff writers, although there was one overworked co-op who had to type up the “notes” for each show from the mini-recorder, and then there was Kay, who went through to make sure that the opening lead-in and the Pundit Corner speeches were reasonably sense-making (in the grammatical sense only) and libel-free. Greg and the network execs didn’t want a repeat of last year’s slander and libel suits, so Kay was careful to blue-pencil most of the really egregious insults, but she couldn’t exactly delete the entire five minutes.

His philosophy wasn’t hers, but this didn’t really bother her, because good TV was circus TV. Besides, her lifelong ambition had been to work on just this sort of popular, high-profile show. He was either a professional agitator or a great patriot, depending on your point of view, but above all he was an entertainer, and a good one. She wasn’t sure where he got his wilder ideas–perhaps the locker room, perhaps hanging out at sports bars–and she suspected he recycled quite a bit of stuff from the blogosphere’s rumor mills. The funny part was that once his pontifications had run that circuit for a few days, they seemed to become legitimate news that “people are talking about” on the networks. It amazed her that there was no longer any fact-checking that she knew of on his pieces, except for what she did. He sometimes tweaked the copy she’d proofed, although Greg had told him recently to “read what’s there, exactly,” after a deluge of letters poured in over a couple of “misinterpreted puns.”

In fact, today he’d made a couple of changes to her copy. She frowned. Was he ad-libbing? Of course, that was his privilege. She was supposed to be vetting the copy, though, and she wouldn’t want anyone to think she didn’t know how to form the plurals of Latinate words. She’d have to look at the final copy she’d sent out.

But at least he didn’t pull any howlers or malapropisms this time. Teri watched raptly, while Pet pointedly pecked at her keyboard. After the five-minute segment ended, Kay breathed a sigh of relief.

“Another triumph.” Greg smiled. “Let’s talk in your office.”

Teri winked as Kay shoved off from the doorjamb and rolled smoothly into her glassed-in domain. It was easier on her underarms than fighting with the crutches, and it also delayed the inevitable confession of her lameness to Greg. She maneuvered carefully behind her desk, sliding into her own ergonomic desk chair as if she did it this way every day.

He quirked an eyebrow at her mode of transportation, but didn’t ask about the Ace bandage on her ankle. Nor did he seem to notice the crutches Teri had left leaning against the corner. As he walked in behind Kay, she caught a glimpse of Pet sticking out her tongue and crossing her eyes at his retreating back.

“There were only a couple of minor details we thought you missed.” He dropped a spiral notebook on her desk, licked his index finger, and paged through until he found a full sheet of notes. He tore out the page and tacked it to her Post-It-All wall. “Otherwise, keep up the good work.”

She resisted the impulse to scream.

“What’s THAT?”

She followed his gaze to the froofy dress arranged atop her desk’s organized chaos. “Oh . . . I . . . .”

“Works for me. And sexy.” He reached out as if to pat the fabric, but his hand took a detour and headed towards Kay’s chest like a suction cup.

Annoyed, she snatched his hand away. “I’m perfectly adjusted, so don’t fool around with the knobs. At least not during the workday.” She reached over to shove her office door closed, but the wall was partly glass, so that was mostly a formality.

He caught the chair and rolled her backwards up against the only solid wall, elbows on either side of her ears. “You’d better keep being nice to me. You know that’s the only reason you still have this job.” He winked lasciviously.

“Yeah, right.” What had gotten into him? “You’re usually not this obnoxious.” A little irritated with the repetition of that lame “teasing” that he suddenly thought was so amusing, she pushed him away and turned to her computer.

“You’re unusually fetching today. You should do ‘mussed’ more often.” He perched on the edge of the desk behind her monitor. “Did you get my email?”

Clicking furtively, she nodded. “I’m just about to read the attachment over for typos.”

“Well, trash it. Here’s the real Pundit’s Corner for tomorrow. The big guy decided at the last minute to throw out what he’d told me he was going to do and substituted this. It’s top secret hush-hush, so I didn’t send it electronically.”

She nodded. She knew the IT department monitored communications to make sure nobody was chatting with potential mail-order brides on company time.

He pulled two vertically folded pages of crabbed handwriting out of his jacket’s inner pocket. “Here you go. It’s pretty straightforward, but clean up the grammar and make him sound good.”

She waved him away. “I know what to do. You just said yesterday’s magic worked, didn’t you?”

“But you missed a couple of things that I think could’ve been phrased better. Today I want to be sure you have plenty of time.” The deadline was first thing in the morning, although she could push that forward to almost noon and still get the text put up on the prompter for Pundit Boy, if she gave them a text file on a thumbdrive to just plug in. Which is what they preferred, anyway. “He doesn’t want to leave anything such that the press can twist it and give a different meaning, or say that one of his jokes flopped. Take a close look at any quips, in fact.”

“Well, that’s going to take a lot longer, assuming I can identify such attempts in his pontifications. So get out of here and let me work.”

“Not so fast. I’ve also brought you the budget and my projections for the next sweeps cycle.” He pulled a thumbdrive out of his pocket. “Wanted you to proof it and make the justifications sound more convincing before I sent it to the big bosses. Take a look at projected expenditures. See if they look all right.”

She pasted on a smile. “Gotcha, boss.”

He chucked her under the elbow in a gesture she interpreted as affectionate. “I hate to put so much on you. But they always buy into it when I use your phrasings. You have a knack.”

“You know I do.” She smiled for real, and he leaned over to whisper his hot breath into her ear. She shook him off, but not very determinedly.

He made kissy noises. “You know I really depend on you. You’re the only one I can trust to keep this stuff under wraps until it hits the airwaves, and the best rewriter I’ve ever read. PunditBoy appreciates it, too.”

“Even though he has no idea that I rewrite him so much?”

“Oh, he knows. He knows somebody’s spiffing up what his staff puts out. I mean . . . he knows his staff,” said Greg cryptically. “At the board meeting they talked about streamlining departments, getting our budgets tightened up, and the pressure’s really on. So we need a boost. Fortunately, our Christmas present may come at the NMA meeting. You realize this month is the annual awards banquet.”

He knew she knew. “And you’re up for Manager of the Year.”

He preened. “I know.”

“So who’s your date?”

He laughed. Her fan club had been right: he’d assumed she’d come, just as they’d said, but she didn’t care; happiness swelled in her breast at the thought of going on his tuxedoed arm. She wasn’t good at relationship games, even the hard-to-get bit.

She clicked on her online calendar, and it flipped open. “That’s, um, this coming Saturday?”

“You know it is. And you’re counting on going. This dress will be great. Shows off your tits and your legs.” He wiggled his fingers as if to trace a figure eight. Then he reached towards her. “And your long, swanlike neck–mmm.” He leaned forward and faked a Dracula imitation, wet teeth on her jugular that sent tingles up her neck.

He normally didn’t pull such Public Displays at work, and it irritated her at the same time it titillated. He was a chronic tease, but she liked to keep work at work and save play for later.

She swatted at him, but he slid off the desk and hopped away. “Bring your toothbrush and sexy underwear for after. We’ll drive to the lake house and stay until Sunday night. How’s that sound?”

Her heart tapped out a jungle-drum beat. “I suppose that’d be okay.”

“You know you want it, baby. Schwing!” He did the Elvis-thrust move like a teenager, grinning.

“We’ll see,” she said coolly. No need to let him know how elated she was to be invited. “I’ll email this to you. Give me at least a couple of hours. And don’t send anyone down here with any more projects.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He mock-saluted. “I’m off to the regularly scheduled staff reaming. Oh, by the way.” He turned back, his hand on the doorknob. “I almost forgot. You know it’s time for the crew to sign up for benefits again.”

“Ahead of you. My staff has already done theirs, I’m pretty sure. I meant to get online and do mine–thanks for reminding me.” She checked her online calendar. “Today’s the last day.”

“Right. Yesterday for the executive package. But anyway, I wanted to let you know I put you as my beneficiary on my life.”

“What?” Her ankle twinged as she jerked, startled.

He ducked his head. “Just . . . my parents don’t need it and you know, you’ve been saying you need more signs that I’m committed to you, to US. So. . . .”

She didn’t know what to say. “Please–don’t do that.”

“I already have.” He met her gaze. “So I guess that means you can put me as yours. See ya.” And he was gone.

“Wait!” She forgot and tried to stand, but yelped as the ankle protested. It was the size of a grapefruit. A Ruby Red from the Rio Grande Valley.

Oh, God. Who was her benny now, anyway? Her parents, of course. But they didn’t need it: they had more money than it took to burn a wet mule. Greg was right. This would show the level of her commitment. It would show she could compromise on something he suggested. That they were partnered, even if they didn’t live together–yet.

Quickly, before she could change her mind, she got on the company intranet and signed herself up for the deluxe level of benefits, with Greg as her beneficiary. The website told her to come down to HR to verify the change in person, and she noted it on her to-do list.

Her desk phone rang. Caller ID said it was the head office.

The big boss’s assistant, telling her they were sending down a consultant. “He’s helping us streamline operations. He’s a methodology engineer.”

“A what?”

“A consultant. Methods engineer. He’s going to analyze your information technology usage and make suggestions as to how your department can be more efficient.” The minion was quite brusque. In fact, before Kay could ask any further questions, the minion said, “Expect him within the half-hour.”

Teri popped her head in. “So, is it a date?”

Kay waved her away. “She hung up in my ear.” After a stunned moment, she speed-dialed Greg’s secretary.

Mandy’s line went directly to voice mail. Well, that wasn’t helpful. And she’d never catch up to Greg now, hobbled as she was; she knew he was on his way to the weekly producers’ meeting two floors up. “Oh, hell.”

Teri approached, brandishing an ice/hot wrap that’d come out of someone’s break room freezer. It dripped frost as she wrapped it around Kay’s ankle over the Ace bandage. “Fifteen minutes on, fifteen off. Who was that?”

“They’re sending down a consultant. He’s a methods engineer.” Kay forced a smile.

Teri blinked. “A what?”

Pet came up behind Teri. “Bringing in a consultant? Well, fellow drones, get those résumés polished up. Layoffs and outsourcing are on the way.”

“Oh, my God. I’m sure you’re wrong,” Teri said.

Kay shooed them back to their desks. “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.”

Why hadn’t Greg mentioned this to her? Didn’t he know?

I changed the main character’s name from “Kate” to “Kay,” because that was the editor’s name.

I thought “Derry” was just too offbeat, and I am fed up with getting rejected for doing offbeat names. I considered “Jane” or “Simone” or . . . what? I’m open to suggestions here. She isn’t a “Tiffany.” She isn’t a “Marlee,” though I considered that one for a while. Maybe that one is still OK. What were some of the popular names twenty-seven years ago . . . that aren’t girly? Not “Paris,” for sure! Not “Brittany” or any variant thereof!

[EDIT: Have now settled on “Kay.” She seems like a “Kay.”]

Also, I’m thinking of running a contest to sponsor someone else to write the next scene in the book. Right now, there’s a placeholder at the opening of Chapter Four that needs to be rewritten. What happens is that Kate and Whit have been followed by Mandy, one of Kate’s biggest detractors at the company (a woman who would like to be dating the manager Kate has been dating, and who would like to find out what “secrets” Kate and Whit are discussing at this restaurant), and the woman leans over too far trying to overhear the conversation (she’s in disguise, just like in “I Love Lucy.”) She manages to trip a waiter and send a mess of plates headed straight for Kate and Whit, who dive under the table. Kate catches Mandy as she tries to escape, though, because the restaurant manager has stopped her at the front door (she can’t run out, because she’d be check-walking.) The ensuing confrontation is supposed to make readers suspect that Mandy is up to something, which she is. However, that’s not the tough part to write. The tough part is the scene of plates crashing and so forth.

If this were a screenplay, it would be so easy to put across. So much would be told through visuals. The camera angles, the stuff spilling off the tray, the actors’ reactions, their body language . . . it would be so much easier. It’s tough to put this stuff into words without doing too many words or making it read so “slowly” that the scene moves in slow motion. But you have to have the action->reaction go in the correct order, so whatever you’re going to write has to be detailed AND concise and not done as a mini-flashback.

It’s not easy. But then that’s why we get paid the big bucks!


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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