tracy
"All I Ask"
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Chapter One

The doors were just shutting when Grace Harwood realized she'd entered the express elevator, whisking her silently to the eighteenth floor and points beyond. Wonderful, except she wanted to go to the fourteenth floor. Should she thrust her arm forward and block the closing doors, even if she might splash her large cappuccino on the two other riders in the elevator? After all, this was New York City, where pushing and shoving were as much a part of the culture as the Bronx Bombers and Brighton Beach. The answer was a resounding no.

For one thing, she was too polite. Any nice Southern girl would say you simply didn't make a fuss in public, and while she may have been living in L. A. for the past ten years, Grace still instinctively followed the behavioral dictates of her Tennessee heritage. Besides, more than social etiquette kept her riveted to her corner spot in the elevator. The truth of the matter was, she'd just witnessed a valiant attempt at a pick-up. Normally, this didn't hold any great entertainment value, but in this case the circumstances were anything but normal. For one thing, it was a woman hitting on a man. For another, oh, what a man!

"Jack, you're the answer to every woman's dream in a time of need." The woman with a froth of champagne-blond hair sighed.

Grace couldn't agree more. With shoulders like a linebacker, the unruly, raven-black curls of some swashbuckling pirate, and sapphire-blue eyes that would make a gem-cutter weep, "Jack" was a male specimen beyond compare.

He smiled sheepishly at the woman to Grace's right. "Need is good. I can deal with that."

The woman laughed. "How come I'm negotiating with those moronic night network buyers about air-time for a new hair color campaign when I'd much rather be spending time with you?"

"So play hooky for once. Come to Bloomingdales with me. I'm planning to go at lunch. There's a rug sale, and I could really use one. The wood floors in my apartment--they're so hard, so firm. You know what I mean?"

A dreamy expression filled the woman's face, causing Grace to sip her cappuccino very pensively. She could only guess what type of activity the woman was dreaming of on those firm, hard floors.

But then the door jarred open on the eighteenth floor, and the petite woman reluctantly stepped out, the stiletto heels of her Italian designer pumps tapping softly on the tiles. "Don't think it isn't tempting, Jack." She looked at him wistfully.

The man held open the door with his large left hand. Grace noticed it was ringless. "Another time, then." He shrugged, apparently unconcerned.

The woman pursed her lips. "Well..."

"Well, you know where to find me." He removed his hand, letting the door close. Grace could have imagined it, but she was sure she heard a muffled thud on the outside of the door as the cabin started to move upward. She pictured the small woman throwing herself at the elevator door in some wayward recreation of Anna Karinina hurling herself in front of an oncoming locomotive. Ah, the tragedy of unrequited love!

On the other hand, Jack seemed unaffected. He leisurely put his hands in his pockets and glanced over at Grace. Smiling politely, he turned his attention to the floor indicators illuminated above the doors.

Grace glanced at him through the corner of her eye. In profile, he was every bit as handsome as full-face--a long nose, a strong jaw. But the faint, jagged scar running down one cheek really caught her attention. Grace turned her head and stared at him openly until she saw him shift his eyes to her. He gave her a discreet, quick up and down, no doubt taking in more than her loose-fitting blazer, khaki pants, ribbed sweater, and high-tops.

He wet his lips, and Grace felt her cheeks flush.

And then the elevator stumbled to a halt and the doors reopened.

A woman in a short, red dress got on, and immediately flung herself toward Jack, kissing him on the cheek. "Jack, my favorite suit. There are days when I think life couldn't get any crueler, and then you come along. And suddenly, my heart's all aflutter." Hoops and beads from various pierced ornaments swayed provocatively over her body.

Grace wrinkled her forehead in confusion. In the advertising lexicon, the term "suit" was not exactly an endearment--creative members of an advertising agency, the copywriters and art directors, generally used it to put down the MBA, account management types. But from the way this woman had latched onto Jack, Grace figured the implications were hardly insulting, and she couldn't help feeling a bit like a spare wheel. She backed herself as far into the corner as possible, the brass handrail bulging uncomfortably against the small of her back.

"Always a pleasure to see my favorite art director," Jack responded with a smile. He gave a friendly pat to the bare upper arm of the woman, one of the few pieces of flesh not sporting a body adornment--hardly the intimate gesture of a lover. "How's that worthless boyfriend of yours treating you these days? I'm sure not nearly good enough."

"You've got that right. He's now my ex-boyfriend."

"I suppose this means you need cheering up?" he asked.

"Is that an offer?" the Woman-In-Red replied.

Grace covered her mouth with her coffee cup and looked at Jack.

He patted the woman's arm again. "Any port in a storm."

She leaned into him a little harder. "I prefer to think we'd be a storm in a port. Your apartment, for instance."

Grace gulped loudly.

The elevator opened.

"Isn't this your floor?" Jack asked. He had the look of a man trying to escape. That, and the fact that he was bodily escorting the woman off the elevator, while gently unwrapping her arm from his.

The woman's shoulders sagged slightly, but she quickly recovered, raising her chin and flipping back the wedge of auburn hair that had fallen forward from her short coiffure. "Well, you can't say I didn't try," she said. She looked at Grace. "And what woman wouldn't?"

Personally, Grace couldn't agree more, at least in her dreams. But this was reality, where she tried to exercise a modicum of restraint. Bodily throwing herself at a man in an elevator cabin might actually be considered bad taste within certain circles. After taking another look at Jack, Grace was trying to remember just why.

The doors shut. Jack looked at Grace. She looked at him. "I'm sure she's just under a lot of stress," she said, trying to cover the awkwardness she was feeling.

Jack raised an eyebrow. "Is that what you call it?"

"Well, you do seem to elicit strong responses from women."

He shrugged. "I suppose it's my cross to bear." He didn't seem particularly distressed.

Grace bit back a smile as the doors reopened at the twenty-third floor. On stepped a set of identical female twins, dressed in matching tight, white wool suits with black and gold braiding along the seams. They gave the impression of matadors who had made a wrong turn somewhere south of Castille. "Jack," they cried in unison.

He raised one hand in a flourish. "Ole. It's the twins from purchasing." He slanted Grace a look. "Any advice?"

Grace raised a doubting brow. "Why is it I don't think you need any?"

"Jack, we really need to talk to you," one of the twins said.

"It's about this Tabriz carpet," the other said.

"It's to die from." The women looked at each other and giggled. They thrust their chests forward, the benefits of the Wonder Bra adding an interesting dimension to their outfits. They each grabbed one of Jack's arms.

"We just have to show you," they cooed. The elevator slowed to a stop, leaving Jack very little choice.

He stepped off between them but still managed to look back over his shoulder at Grace. "Tell me you'll save me."

And wouldn't you know it? Some foolish part of her actually wanted to yank him away from those pythons from purchasing and have him all to herself. But Grace wasn't foolish. In fact, she hadn't been foolish in quite some time. Morty had seen to that. "Somehow I think you'll survive," she replied and casually went to sip some more coffee.

And that's when the doors closed. Leaving Grace alone, with a small stream of liquid dribbling inelegantly down her chin. She wiped it off with the back of her hand and stoically watched the indicator lights reach the top floor before heading back down to the lobby.

She hadn't quite known what to expect of the first day of her new job in the Big Apple at Reynolds Advertising, but sharing an elevator with a hunk of a guy, who seemed to have the entire female population of the building chasing after him, didn't come instantly to mind. While she would like to think that as a mature woman she had been unaffected by Jack's obvious charms, Grace could feel an odd yearning within the pit of her stomach. She squared the bill of her cap. Amorous urges at the workplace were better kept tamped down. Better to have the serenity of a solo ride.

That didn't last long.

The doors banged open. "Grace, I didn't expect to find you here." A large man, who looked like a lumberjack in a pinstripe suit, stepped into the elevator. He immediately hugged her. A warm, cuddly, and totally platonic hug. Grace couldn't help thinking of Jack and how his embraces might feel. She sighed and looked at Ben.

Ben Daniger was Grace's old buddy from her undergraduate days at Grantham University. They had been pals--strictly pals, fulfilling the role of brother and sister that each had never had. Grace had been an only child in a family whose emotional temperature hovered around freezing, while Ben had had to compete with five overachieving brothers. Now Ben was responsible for bringing her to New York to work for Reynolds Advertising.

"I think you can let go now." Grace gasped for air.

Ben released her and stepped back. "What's up?"

"What's up is that I goofed and took the wrong elevator. I guess I wasn't altogether with it--hadn't yet finished my morning coffee." She held up her cup.

Ben nodded. "Well, then let me escort you. There's a lot we need to catch up on that we never had a chance to talk about when I flew out west."

"That's for sure." Grace nodded at his well-cut, conservative suit. Ben looked the epitome of a rising young executive. At thirty-two, he was already a VP, in charge of the Blast soft drink account at Reynolds Advertising, number nine on the hit parade of biggest-billing agencies.

"Yeah, not exactly campus attire. Actually, you won't believe it. I commute from Grantham. I'm living at my parents' old house. They've retired to Arizona, so I'm the unofficial resident. You'll have to come down. That way you can meet Ingrid. I don't think I've told you about her, have I?"

Grace didn't think Ben was referring to his Swedish masseuse. Rumor had it that he had been snagged by a clinical psychologist with well-developed calves. Ben had always fallen for the brainy jock-types.

"No, you haven't told me about Ingrid," she replied.

"I also need to let you in on some other exciting news," Ben added.

"Business or personal?"

"Business, actually. And it concerns you." Ben straightened his yellow, paisley tie.

Warning bells went off in Grace's head.

"I know we hired you to head the creative on the Blast account."

"And I'm looking forward to toppling the largest selling soft drink."

"Of course. It's still all yours," he went on. A chime sounded as the elevator slowed to stop on the twenty-seventh floor. "It's just that there's this brush fire--actually more like a raging forest fire--that's suddenly come up on this major package goods account. What can I say? It desperately needs your special expertise."

"Ben, you know I don't do package goods. Let the other agency geniuses tackle the challenges of flogging soap powder."

"I'm sorry, Grace, but this was an urgent request from another account supervisor who happened to hear that you were coming aboard."

"And who happened to tell him?" Grace asked. She felt the elevator bump to a halt. "Or is it a her?"

"Actually it's a him, Jack to be exact, and--"

The doors opened.

"Jack. What a surprise!" Ben seemed to be grasping for a lifeline.

Grace swallowed. "Jack?"

"You called?" Jack asked Ben and stepped into the elevator. Then he smiled at Grace. "You've come to my rescue after all?" Grace could only wonder what had happened to the twins.

"You know each other?" Ben asked.

Grace turned to Jack. She immediately felt the full wattage of maleness. "I want you to know, this is nothing personal, but I categorically do not do package goods." She tried to keep her breathing steady. "The thought of getting involved with mind-numbing products like toilet pap--"

"Whoa, wait a minute. What's all this about you and package goods?" He stopped himself in mid-thought and squinted closely at Grace. "Hold on. Are you Grace Harwood?"

"In person," Ben chimed in. "Grace, shake Jack's hand."

Grace offered a desultory shake. She was greeted by a firm grip and the feeling of calluses on Jack's fingertips. They were the hands of a workingman, wrapped up in a five hundred dollar suit. The combination was overwhelmingly appealing.

Jack stared. "So you're Grace Harwood. You're not what I pictured."

Grace squared her shoulders defensively. "I realize the tabloids might have given the impression that Morty Leonard's ex-wife looked like some pneumatically blown-up bimbo, so I'm sorry if you're disappointed."

"Who said anything about being disappointed?" Jack replied.

Grace hesitated, not quite sure how to respond.

"Grace," Ben interjected, "this is not L. A. We're not into people's personal lives. In New York, we pride ourselves on not caring about people."

"And that's supposed to make me feel better?" Grace looked at him.

"Relax," Ben said. "Why not give Jack some credit for sensitivity?"

Grace couldn't deal with this. Not on her first day at work. Especially not when she had already spent far too much time cooped up with a man who made her want to jump his bones, a totally idiotic thought, though one seemingly shared by all other females over the legal drinking age.

The elevator reached the lobby, and the doors opened. Relief at last. Grace stepped out and swung around to deliver a decisive message when--she smacked right into Jack. For a big man, he moved surprisingly quickly. And quietly. The impact of the collision sent her wobbling.

He put a hand on her elbow to steady her, and the sides of his jacket flapped open. The crisply pressed material of his dress shirt brushed against the thin layer of her sweater. There was the unmistakable, combined smell of starch mixed with yellow bar soap--the soap of her Nashville childhood. Grace felt strangely at home. And totally unnerved.

She abruptly stepped back. "Listen, I'm sorry if I appear a little touchy. It's just that, at times, things could get a little crazy back in L. A. But more to the point, I'm really upset about is the way I'm suddenly involved in an assignment without being consulted." She paused. "How can I say this without appearing ornery? I know that advertising is made up of team players. And I've always been one. But I was hired to work on Blast. I uprooted my whole life to come work on that account. Now this other crisis mysteriously pops up, and I can't help wondering…" She glared at Ben.

"You shouldn't question Ben's motives," Jack said. "When all hell broke loose on this account, and I heard you were coming, I decided to cash in all my favors. I knew if anyone could tackle the problem, it was you. What can I say? I'm a total fan of yours. Largely because of your work, I now own three pairs of Manta athletic shoes. I've never even taken one of them out of the box, but I'm still thinking of getting the new model that's just come out."

Grace stopped to think. In this business of smoke and veils and fancy words, she'd be a fool to respond too quickly. His praise came across as genuine, and his self-deprecation was appealing. She could almost feel herself succumbing, especially looking into those hypnotic baby blues. Grace took a deep cleansing breath. "I tell you what, Jack. Jack what, by the way?"

"Carrera. Jack Carrera," he answered.

"Carrera? Like the marble Michelangelo used to sculpt the David?"

"Unfortunately, my family can't claim any sculptors, only masons. But we like to think it's a noble trade." He smiled.

Grace couldn't help looking at his scar once more. And she couldn't help sense her heart kick into high gear. "I'll tell you what. I'll think it over, but I promise absolutely nothing. In the meantime"--Grace glanced at Ben, who was staring at his wing tips--"you can usher me to my office. I'd like to inspect my pencil sharpener before I make any career decisions. Until then--" She tipped the bill of her baseball cap at Carrera and headed off with as much false bravado as she could muster toward the bank of escalators. After her ride on the wild side in the elevator, she decided that was the safer.

"By the way," Jack called out.

Grace stopped and pivoted on one foot.

"When I said I wasn't disappointed, I meant it." Jack cocked his head.

Grace felt the muscles in the base of her neck tense. "Oh yeah? Can you honestly say that when you found out who I was, your first thought wasn't, ‘Why the hell did Morty Leonard ever marry someone like her?' "

Ben cleared his throat.

"The truth?" Jack asked.

Grace didn't flinch.

"To be perfectly frank, my first reaction was to wonder why the hell Leonard ever let you go." With that, Jack strolled off.

Grace studied the floor a minute, then turned to Ben. "That guy's dangerous. He's smoother than a rattlesnake after he's shed his skin and every bit as lethal." She marched toward the escalators. Behind her, she could hear Ben hustling as he tried to keep up. "What's Carrera's hot potato of a package good that so desperately needs my attention anyway? Condoms?"

"Keep it down," Ben said softly. "The product's still in test."

Grace halted before stepping on the moving stairs.

"It's baby food," Ben whispered.

"You're kidding me." Stunned, she moved forward without thinking. And found herself trying to go up the Down escalator.

(Copyright, Louise Handelman, 1999)

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