Slightly Irregular

Freedom was three hours away. Technically, two hours and fifty-six minutes of work time; two minutes to go through the motions of straightening my office -we have a cleaning crew and it isn’t me -then two minutes to gather my belongings, hit the elevator, stroll through the lobby, walk out the front door and insert my key into the shiny handle of my practically brand new champagne pink Mercedes CLK convertible. Since it was Friday, I might even consider shaving a few minutes off my exit plan.

Fridays were the one days of the week when Maudlin Margaret Ford, firm receptionist and all-around pain in the ass did not get her feathers in a twist when I ducked out a few minutes early. Any other day of the week and she’d be sounding the alert to the senior partner. I could practically hear her voice in my head. “Mr. Dane, Finley left the building at four-fifty-five.” Margaret was passive-aggressive -extra order of aggressive on the side. She was a fifty-five-year-old woman with no life outside seeing to the organization of Dane, Lieberman and Zarnowski. Technically speaking, it was now Dane, Liebermann, Zarnowski and Caprelli. It’s a small but prestigious law firm just off Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. Until a few weeks ago, I was exclusively an estates and trusts paralegal.

The elevator door finally blinked open and I stepped inside the small compartment, then pressed the number ‘four.’ I’d been summoned to the executive offices. A summons used to have me shaking in my Jimmy Choos but not so much now that Tony Caprelli occupied one of the partner’s suites.

I sighed and fiddled with the cloisonné clip holding my blonde hair off my face. Before leaving my office, I’d carefully checked my lipstick -reapplied and then added some Stila gloss; and smoothed the front of my vintage Lilly Pulitzer dress. The circa 1960, pale periwinkle and spring green dress with ribbon and lace accents was -if I did say so myself -one of my finest bargain moments. I’d come across it on antiquedressing-dot-com and talk about a find. Classic Lilly with the metal zippers and original labels is well beyond my meager means. Made more meager since I was now carrying a hefty mortgage and most of my credit cards were near their limits. The catch? The hem was faded and stained. A disaster for most women but since I’m just shy of five-four, it was a snap for me to have the seamstress at my cleaner’s turn up a new hem without destroying the line of the dress.

I had a white cashmere sweater draped over my shoulders. It accentuated the cute white birds in the print and since the dress was sleeveless, it saved me from turning into a Lilly-shaped cube of ice. Florida isn’t the sunshine state, it’s the over-air-conditioned state.

I had just enough time to check my reflection in the polished mirrors surrounding the small compartment. I had on one of my favorite pairs of wedge sandals, white patent with seriously cute bows right at the peep-toe. My pedicure had held up nicely, the dark pink polish as shiny as my glossed lips. I couldn’t help but smile. I’d turned bargain hunting into an art. Short of an inspection by Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum, no one would ever know that I was a walking, talking tribute to gently worn, factory damaged and slightly irregular. And I wanted to keep it that way.

The elevator opened into a circular lobby. The -that’s with a capital T -secretary sat sentry at her desk. She glanced up at me over the tops of her reading glasses, then pressed the button on her Bluetooth.

“Miss Tanner is here to see you,” she said. “Yes, thank you.” She lifted her head and met my gaze. “You may go in.”

I quelled the urge to salute her, but c’mon, the woman was so stiff she’d be a natural at Buckingham Palace. We’d worked together for nearly eight years and never evolved past the point of addressing one another by last names.

“Thank you,” I acknowledged before pivoting to the right and heading toward Tony’s office.

My heart rate climbed with each step. Tony had joined the firm a little more than a month ago and in that short amount of time, he’d generated quite a bit of inter-office buzz. While everyone else was buzzing, I was actually training to work at his side.

No, I didn’t like the continuing education classes on litigation, evidence, witness preparation or police procedure. I didn’t like balancing all of that while renovating my new cottage. But I did like Tony. And not in an employer-employee way. The guy was hot. And polished and, well, perfect. He was over six feet tall with dark brown hair and eyes the color of rich imported chocolates. He wore tailored suits, monogrammed shirts and a top-of-the-line Rolex. A perfect man with a perfect watch. What more could a woman want in a man?

A date.

I sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. Therein lies the rub. I’m almost thirty, not thirteen. I know when a man is interested in me. I’ve caught Tony watching me when he thought I wasn’t looking. His fingers have brushed the back of my hand a few too many times for it to be accidental. He’s interested. But he’s also my boss. This is yet another example of why dating sucks.

Life really isn’t fair when I can recreate an iconic fashion statement from the 1960s but I can’t seem to find a way to let my boss know I’d like to go out with him. There are times when sexual harassment laws totally get in the way of good old fashioned get to know you dating.

Maybe I should slip into the ladies room quickly, paint ‘ask me out’ in liner on my lids and then spend the whole meeting with my eyes closed. Naw, too desperate.

Then again, I am on the precipice of desperation. Since I’d dumped Patrick after wasting two years of my life on him, the only men in my life were the ex-convict who was still doing some minor finishing work on my house and Sam, my dear, dear friend who had worse luck with men than I did. And Liam.

Kinda.

A shiver ran along my spine as I conjured his image. Liam McGarrity is everything I never wanted in a man. Very little polish and way too much testosterone. But one look into those piercing blue eyes and I start to think I can rework him into the man of my dreams. The practical part of me knows better. The libidinous part of me doesn’t care. Liam should have to wear a warning label around his neck -Danger! Man Needing Work. Keep out!

The only way I’ve been able to avoid the lure of those incredible eyes has been to keep my distance and screen my calls. So far, I’ve been successful. Who knows what will happen the next time we have to work together. And that time will come. Liam does a lot of the PI work for my firm. I won’t be able to avoid him forever. I’ll worry about that when-

“Sorry,” Tony said as his hands bracketed me, keeping me from falling back on my butt.

He smelled good, so good that for a second, his cologne rendered me mute. Or maybe it was the feel of his large hands gripping my arms. M y sweater had slipped so the heat from his hands was against the bare skin of my arms.

“Is everything in okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, stepping back so I could pick up my sweater and the pad I’d dropped when I’d accidentally run right into him. “Sorry, I must have zoned out there for a minute.”

“Not a problem,” Tony said, stepping aside to allow me to enter his office first. He looked good enough to eat in a dark, well cut suit and crisp creamy shirt and dark blue tie. Very GQ. Very much the opposite of shaggy, rumpled Liam. Both men are sexy, but they’re Polar opposites in appearance. Both men, however, sent my pulses racing and my libido into hyper-drive.

Tony had a great office. Used to belong to Mr. Zarnowski but he was mostly retired now. Too bad for me. Zarnowski had hired me. He liked me. Unlike Vain Victor Dane, the managing partner who always treated me like some annoying insect bite he couldn’t scratch but couldn’t ignore. Or Ellen Liebermann. The woman -a term I’m using in the broadest possible sense -thinks I’m a slacker since I didn’t go to law school. She seems to forget that I didn’t go because I didn’t want to go. I never wanted to be like her -working seventy hours a week with no life. And in her case, no access to proper hair care. She wears her gray curls pulled back in a rubber band; doesn’t even bother with a scrunchie from the dollar store. Her dresses are little more than sacks with slits and her signature look are those God-awful Jesus sandals from Birkenstock. Ellen might be a great contracts attorney but she is seriously deprived of discernable estrogen.

I started to clear a spot for myself on Tony’s couch when he reached out and placed his hand over mine. “No need. This is going to be quick.”

Turning slightly so we were face to face, I smiled up at him. “What do you need?”

“You.”

The room spun for a second as my brain tried to wrap itself around that word. “E-excuse me?”

He took my hands in his and gave a gentle squeeze. “I have tickets to The Magic Flute tomorrow night.”

“Nothing like a Saturday night with Mozart.”

Humor flashed in his eyes and when he smiled, I was treated to a look at the near-legendary dimple on his right cheek. “Right, your mother was a singer with the Met.”

“Yes she was. Now she’s a professional widow, divorcee or bride-to-be, depending on when you catch her.”

“Sorry?”

I waved my hand. “Bad joke. My mother is very fond of getting married. She just has a problem staying married. That said, she made sure my sister and I were exposed to Opera from birth.”

“How do you feel about The Magic Flute?”

“I liked the Kenneth Branagh movie version. Very stylized, like a Target commercial.”

Tony glanced at his watch. “I’ve got to be at the courthouse in like ten minutes. Is there any chance you’re free tomorrow night. I know it’s short notice but-”

“Short notice is fine.”

“Great,” he said on a relieved rush of breath. “Can you be at my place at about six?”

“Absolutely.”

Tony walked around to his desk and crammed some files into his briefcase. As he came around again he gave my hand a squeeze. “Thanks, Finley. See you tomorrow night.”

“At six,” I called as he left in such a hurry that the collection of drawings piled on his desk fluttered.

I picked up the one that fell on the floor and placed it in the center of his desk. It was a pencil sketch of some sort of bird but I didn’t give it any attention. My entire brain was fixated on the knowledge that tomorrow night would be my first date with Tony.

* “Just like that?” Becky asked the next morning when we met at The Gardens Mall. “No preamble, nothing?” “Preamble?” I said, laughing. “He wasn’t writing the Constitution, he was asking me out on a date.” We were standing outside Crate and Barrel, our usual meeting place. And also as usual, Liv was late. And since Jane was riding with Liv, Becky and I stood chatting while we waited.

Becky and I have been friends since college. We graduated from Emory together, then Becky went on to law school while I came back to Palm Beach and went to work for Dane-Lieberman. Becky joined the firm after graduation and I was thrilled to have my best friend back in town.

Becky works for Ellen in contracts and until the surprise addition of a criminal specialty, everyone assumed she’d be the next partner at the firm. I knew she was disappointed but I also knew she’d get there eventually. Becky is a smart, savvy attorney and clients love her. Male clients especially love her. For good reason. She’s tall, attractive and always put together. She’s on rust-orange-amber binge right now. She wears high-end, if conservative, clothing in various shades of rust or brown to set-off her reddish-auburn hair. She tones down the tailored look with fun, funky jewelry.

Jane, on the other hand, doesn’t tone down anything. She was fifty yards away in the parking lot and I knew it was her. I met Jane at a two-for-one gym promotion. We pretended to be friends to get the better price. The friendship lasted. My membership at the gym did not. Jane exudes sensuality. She can’t help it. She has long, dark hair and a toned body that most women would kill for. Everything up top is cut low and everything down below is hiked high. And why not? She has a perfect body and somehow manages to show skin without looking cheap. She’s an accountant, though to anyone getting their first glance at her, they’d probably think she was one of the Pussycat Dolls.

Liv was with her, handing something -most likely a generous tip -to the valet attendant. Liv makes the rest of us look like trolls. She’s a very successful event planner. Almost no one hosts a party or a wedding on Palm Beach without hiring Concierge Plus to handle the planning. Liv is an exotic looking woman. She eyes that match the ocean, clear turquoise, with midnight black hair. Kinda like a present day Cleopatra. The biggest perk in knowing her -aside from the fact that she’s a great friend -is she can slip us into a lot of the über-rich parties on the island.

Once the four of us were together, we made a mandatory swing through Starbucks. I was so excited about my first date with Tony that I’d had a hard time sleeping. I needed caffeine and a good concealer.

“He just asked you out of the blue?” Liv asked as we waited for our coffees to be placed under the pick-up sign.

“Geez! Why does that seem to surprise all of you?” I asked, minorly irritated.

Jane passed me my skinny vanilla latte. “Men aren’t usually that spontaneous. Think about it, Finley. He emailed asking you to come to his office so he could ask you out? Why not go to your office?”

“Or for that matter,” Becky said. “Why run the risk of asking you out at work?” “What risk?” I asked. Becky rolled her eyes. “We all know there was no risk you’d say no but Tony didn’t

know that. A smart guy -and he is that -would call you after work so there could be no

misunderstandings.” “Like?” Becky took a long sip of her chai tea. “Like asking while at work could be construed as

harassment. You could claim you felt pressured to go out with him because he’s your boss.” “That’s ridiculous.” Becky’s green eyes bore into me. “You’d better hope Dane and Lieberman don’t hear

about this. Especially Ellen. She’ll freak out if she thinks he’s risking creating a hostile work

environment.” “Anybody ever tell you you’re a major buzz kill?” I asked. Becky raised her hands. “Sorry I mentioned it.” “Okay,” I said, happy to have that bit of unpleasantness quashed. “It’s got to be black.

I’m thinking something subtle but I don’t want to look like a mortician. Shoes and a clutch.” “Um,” Jane began cautiously, “where does this fit into the budget we did for you?” “Whatever I get for tonight, I’ll wear to the rehearsal dinner. That cuts the cost-per-

wearing in half right there.” “How many little black dresses do you have in your closet?” Liv asked. “Not as many as you and besides, classic never goes out of style.”

“And Finley never gets out of debt,” Jane grumbled.

I looped my arm though hers. “Lighten up. I’m splurging this once, then I promise to return to living like mortgaged-to-the-gills-Mary. Okay?”

“You’re pulling equity out of your house. You have every right to do that. I’m just telling you, in my capacity as your financial planner, what I think.”

“Fine. Then be my friend, not my financial planner.”

Jane smiled. “Well, in that case, I say we go to Nordy’s and find you the perfect dress.”

“And shoes,” Becky said.

“And purse, and maybe some new jewelry,” Liv weighed in.

Three hours and four lattes later, I had a stunning BCBG Max Azria, belted one shoulder sheath dress. It was fitted jersey and fully-lined, and according to the sales woman, required nothing but a thong.

I’d found the perfect shoes in a matter of minutes. Stuart Weitzman peep-toe silk satin platform sling-backs with a wrapped heel. The sales woman raced over and grabbed the matching clutch as I yanked my debit card from my wallet. I found a stunning Judith Jack double strand pendant necklace and chandelier earrings to go with my new ensemble, finishing it off with three skinny bangles.

As I drove home, I didn’t have buyer’s remorse so much as I had paid-full-price remorse. If Tony would have given me forty-eight hours notice, I could have put something together online and even with expedited shipping, I wouldn’t have spent nearly two thousand dollars. Then again, it was worth it. If I parceled the cost between the Tony date: one thousand; and the rehearsal dinner: one thousand. I had already cut the cost in half. If I could think of another occasion to wear it, I could keep dropping the CPW -cost per wearing -down to a more reasonable number.

Who was I kidding? I looked, I liked, I bought. The veni, vini, vici of shopping.

I stopped on the way home and had my polish changed and a brow wax. Add another fifty dollars to my ever-growing debt. I’d rather add to my debt than have a straggler eyebrow hair. A girl’s got to have priorities.

By two-thirty I was on my way over the bridge to Palm Beach. Thanks to selling my soul to the devil -that would be my mother, the only living heart donor, I owned a very modest cottage on the beach. Thanks to my friend Sam, it was a showplace. It was sleek and beachy, comfy and posh all at one time. Handyman Harold still came by almost every day to tighten something or hammer something else, but for all intents and purposes, my home renovations were finished and stunning. And had me several hundred thousand in debt.

M y mother sold me a shack. I couldn’t wait to see her reaction when she finally decides to accept my standing invitation. She’s currently back in Atlanta helping my sister get ready for her enormous wedding. In three and a half weeks Lisa will be walking down the aisle to become Mrs. David Huntington St. John, IV. Actually she’ll be Dr. Mrs. David Huntington St. John IV. Except that David is a doctor too, so they’ll be Drs. David Hunt-who gives a shit.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore my little sister and I’m happy she found the man of her dreams. Proving her dreams are amazingly dull, by the way. David is nice enough but he’s a big geek. A very rich big geek but definitely not overly interesting. Of course my mother loves him. He’s rich, he’s a doctor and his family is old money. They are pillars of Buckhead, the toney suburb of Atlanta. Like my sister Lisa, David is an oncologist. He and Lisa met on one of those Doctors without Borders things.

I’m all for my sister’s humanitarianism but do you have any idea what it’s like to have to compete with a perfect sibling? Lisa went to med school. Lisa made something of her life. My mother considers me a failure. Maybe I am but on whole, I’m a happy failure. Lisa never looks happy. Maybe you can’t be a pediatric oncologist and be happy. Who knows.

I lingered in my spa tub, allowing the warm water to relax my first-date tension muscles.

First dates always make me tense. It’s like opening a can and not knowing whether there’s a

diamond in the bottom or if a dozen springy fake snakes will explode out of the top.

Tony didn’t impress me as the fake snake kinda guy.

I carefully applied my makeup, savoring every second of the anticipation building in the pit of my stomach. I wasn’t looking all that forward to sitting through The Magic Flute, but imagining all the delicious ways the evening could end made the notion of sitting through opera as a vehicle for comedy more palatable.

I was really pleased when I finished dressing. The only thing that would have made it perfect would be a pink oyster-face Ladies DateJust Rolex. Unfortunately, I didn’t own one. Yet.

I was well on my way, though. Since I couldn’t afford the actual watch, I’d begun collecting parts on eBay. To date I had several links, the screw down crown, an authentic box and a pending bid on watch face. At my current rate, I should have all the parts for my built-it-from-scratch Rolex by the time I’m thirty-five.

Grabbing a black pashmina from my closet, I took my keys and headed out to my car. It was a beautiful night but there was no way I would sacrifice my perfectly coiffed hair by putting the top down. Convertibles, lip gloss and long hair don’t mix well. I punched Tony’s address into the onboard GPS and after a second, a map appeared and a cheerful male voice with a touch of a British accent began giving me instructions.

I exceeded the speed limit on I-95 north since I hadn’t bothered to check Tony’s address, I didn’t realize he lived in Hobe Sound, seventeen miles north. I had eighteen minutes to make the twenty-five minute trip.

I made it too, hitting the Bridge Road off-ramp with six minutes to spare. Making a left on Federal Highway, I went a few miles, then followed the signs to The Falls at Lost Lake. I wouldn’t have pictured Tony as a golf course community kinda guy but as I scrolled through the keypad at the gate, I quickly came to ‘Caprelli’ and pressed the button.

“Yes?”

“It’s Finley,” I said, my heart pounding in my ears.

There was a beeping sound, then the gate swung open like the mouth of an alligator.

The British voice told me to turn right at the stop sign, then Tony’s house was the third one down on the left.

I pulled into the driveway and parked next to a vintage red Porsche. I’d never seen it at the office, so I figured it had to be his ‘fun’ car. I couldn’t imagine being so flush with cash that I’d have a car for work and a car for recreation but I’m sure I could get used to it.

I tucked my keys into my clutch as I walked past the garage and up a pathway to what was easily a five-thousand square-foot house. Like all the other homes in the community, the stucco was painted a shade of beige, in this case peachy beige -and the trim was fresh and white.

I went up one tiled step, took a deep calming breath, and then stood in front of etched glass doors as I pressed the doorbell. I mentally reminded myself not to look overly excited. Be cool and collected.

I heard a giggle just as the door swung open. I lowered my gaze and found myself looking into a pair of big chocolate brown eyes. The mini-Tony had to be the daughter, Isabella. She wore shorts and double tank tops. Her long brown hair was pulled up in a ponytail and when she smiled, I saw that she had inherited her father’s dimples as well. Lucky little sucker.

“I’m Finley. Your dad is expecting me.”

I heard the giggle again and looked past Isabella, expecting to find another child.

Wrong.

Very wrong.

A goddess of a woman dressed in a strapless red Prada gown came around the corner giggling into her champagne flute. Tony was right behind her, looking dapper and handsome in a

tux. His eyes met mine. He scanned me up and down as all the humor drained out of his face. I took in his uncomfortable expression, the woman dangling from his arm, and then replayed the invitation in my head:

“Are you free Saturday night?” “What do you need?” “You.” “E-excuse me?” “I have tickets to The Magic Flute tomorrow night.” “Nothing like a Saturday night with Mozart.” “Is there any chance you’re free tomorrow night. I know it’s short notice but-” “Short notice is fine.” “Great. Can you be at my place at about six?” “Absolutely.” “Thanks, Finley. See you tomorrow night.” Ohgod, ohgod, ohgod. He’d never actually asked me out. I wasn’t his date. I was the

freaking babysitter.