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"Jeffrey Connors, I do not want to hear that kind of language in this house," Kelsie Connors said, admonishing her nine-year-old son while trying to dry the fingernail polish on her right hand as she attempted to butter a slice of toast with the left.
"But, Mom!" Jeffrey whined, peering at his mother over the myraid cereal boxes on the kitchen table. "My pencil broke and I have four math problems to finish and the bus is gonna be here in five minutes!"
Kelsie's toast fell from her plate to the floor, landing facedown. An orange tiger-striped cat darted out from beneath the table and ran off with it. Kelsie dropped her knife and heaved a sigh. Murphy's Law would have to strike full force today of all days, she thought.
An enormous dog with shaggy black and brown hair pushed open the basement door and bounded into the kitchen, his nails clicking on the linoleum floor. He gave two enthusiastic barks, reared up, and plopped his massive paws on the table, toppling the milk carton, which spewed its contents over five cereal boxes and two hand-quilted place mats that belonged in the dining room.
"Damn!" Kelsie bolted out of her chair, grabbed a dishtowel, and began sopping up the mess.
"Damn!" echoed the parrot from its cage in the dining room.
"Mom, you swore!" Jeffrey said, smiling.
"Who let Bronco in the house?" Kelsie asked in a tone of voice that did not invite confession. The towel she had grabbed had stuck to her nail polish, and now the fingernails of her right hand were coated with fuzz.
Jeffrey pointed to his thirteen-year-old sister as she danced into the room, absorbed in singing her latest favorite song along with the radio.
"I did not!" the pretty blond girl denied automatically, glaring at her little brother.
"Cease fire!" Kelsie yelled, dragging Bronco by the collar to the back door. She tried to avoid brushing against his body because he shed year round, and she was already dressed for her meeting at Glendenning Advertising in downtown Minneapolis—which promised to be the most important meeting she'd attend since starting her talent agency for animals two years before.
With the dog safely out in the fenced backyard, she turned back to her children. "Now, listen up. I'll be a little late tonight because they're shooting that tissue commercial at three o'clock. The number at the studio is on the bulletin board; don't call unless there's blood. There are cookies in the cookie jar; don't eat them all. Supper is at six. Don't forget, I have a party tonight."
Elizabeth frowned. "I thought you were quitting that job, Mom."
Kelsie crossed her fingers and held up both hands. "As soon as I land the Van Bryant deal, sweetheart. If the people at Glendenning Advertising decide to use Darwin the chimp in the Van Bryant Department Store campaign, the first thing I'll do is turn in my Naughty Nighties home party kit."
When her marriage to Jack Connors disintegrated, Kelsie had found herself in a deep hole. She'd been twenty-nine years old with no solid work experience, two children to raise, and a mini-menagerie to feed. She'd kept a roof over their heads and food in the cupboards by giving lingerie sales parties. Then one day it hit her. Why not let her pets earn their own keep? The idea had mushroomed into a business—Monkey Business—named for Kelsie's first outside client, Darwin the chimp.
She had enjoyed a certain amount of success with the business, but she still was struggling a bit financially. This was her make-it-or-break-it year. With the Van Bryant account under her belt, she would definitely make it. Without the Van Bryant deal, she could end up working as a clerk at the 7- Eleven again.
Darwin the chimpanzee, dressed in a red polo shirt and jogging shorts, sat staring morosely at Steve Randall, an account executive for Glendenning. Steve and Kelsie, who had met while working on a series of ads for a local children's wear store, and Darwin and his owner, Millard Krispin, sat in the reception area outside the office of Glendenning vice-president Alexander L. McKnight.
"How's Darwin feeling, Millard?" Kelsie asked the wiry little man sitting beside the chimp.
"Ooh," Millard cooed, a worried look pinching his sharp features. He combed back a lock of unkempt brown hair and pushed his glasses up on his nose with his ring finger. "I don't know, Kelsie. He hasn't been himself since he worked that circus theme party at the Sons of Norway lodge in Coon Rapids."
"Cute little guy," remarked Mr. McKnight's secretary, Ms. Bond. Ms. Bond, Kelsie noted, had a voice like Yosemite Sam and bore a rather startling resemblance to Hulk Hogan.
Kelsie smiled and nodded, smoothing her hands over her khaki skirt and glancing at her watch. They had been waiting nearly half an hour. If they had to sit much longer, Darwin was bound to lose his patience.
"Forget it, Vena!" a male voice suddenly boomed from the other side of McKnight's door.
Kelsie jumped. Ms. Bond abandoned her typing, leaned toward Kelsie conspiratorially, and said, "His ex."
"Alec," the woman pleaded. "How can you turn me down?"
"Like this: No!"
Kelsie gulped. He sounded like the kind of man who kicked puppies out of his path. Steve had hinted he might be a hard man to sell an animal act to. Now they had to sell it to him on the heels of a fight with his ex-wife. Terrific.
Ms. Bond lit a cigarette. "Don't let this tragic act of hers fool you. She's a barracuda in Gucci pumps. Walks all over him, then has the gall to come waltzing in here asking for money for her sleazy boyfriend's 'fashion import' business. Har! Who ever heard of fashion originals from Colombia? If that
slimeball isn't a drug dealer, I'm Hulk Hogan!"
Feigning a coughing fit, Kelsie turned toward Steve.
"Alec, please!" the woman begged. "Won't you give me anything?"
"Vena," Alexander McKnight responded in a voice laced with cynical amusement. "If you were on fire, I wouldn't lend you my phone to call nine one one."
Steve turned pale and sat back in his chair.
"You bastard!" the woman yelled. "You made me fly all the way from New York just to turn me down!"
Alec McKnight laughed. "Sorry. Too bad you had to put all those miles on your broom for nothing."
The unmistakable sound of a face being slapped echoed into the reception area, then the office door flew open and Vena McKnight stormed out. She was a beautiful woman with enormous black eyes and a wide, pouting mouth that gleamed with cherry-red lipstick. Her black hair was slicked back from her face. She paused only long enough to glare at Ms. Bond.
"Where's Randall?" Alexander McKnight roared over the intercom.
Ms. Bond stubbed out her cigarette and jabbed a button on the machine. "On his way in, Mr. McKnight."
Steve turned a shade of gray that matched the pinstripes of his navy blue suit. Kelsie reached up and straightened his tie. "Get a handle on it, Steve. We both need this job."
Alexander McKnight was sitting behind a large oak desk when they entered his office. He looked formidable, Kelsie thought, unapproachable, and intimidating. She couldn't decide whether his hair was black or brown, but it had red highlights, was fashionably cut, neatly combed, and parted on the left. His profile was almost hawkish as he scowled down at something on his desktop, eyes narrowed above high cheekbones, his mouth set in a tight line beneath a nose that was just barely aquiline enough to save it from being nondescript. Rising from his chair, he adjusted his dark double-breasted suit coat and regarded the peculiar foursome with eyes the exact shade of the deep sapphire blue of his silk tie.
On a scale of really bad moods, Alec thought, the one he was in now would have to rank about a mile and a half off the chart. Seeing Vena was enough to open wounds that hadn't fully healed. Having her pour salt on them might have been a masochist's idea of a great time, but it wasn't his. He felt raw and angry. The fuse of his temper was frayed so short, he couldn't have gotten a hold on it with a tweezers.
Rationally Alec knew he shouldn't go into a discussion about the new campaign for Glendenning's most important client in such a state of mind, but the mood he was in caused him to lose all capacity for rational reasoning. It didn't matter anyway, because he had already seen Steve Randall's ideas for the campaign and had decided against them. Cute ads with cuddly animals weren't Alec's style. He preferred sleek, polished, sophisticated advertising.
Meeting with a man and his monkey didn't appeal to him in the least right now. Of course, he thought, having to meet with anyone wouldn't appeal to him.
Then he laid eyes on the woman who completed the quartet.
Her thick shoulder-length honey-blond hair was clipped back at the sides with black combs. Big eyes the color of faded denim stared at him from beneath brows that were a couple of shades darker than her hair. Too sexy, he thought, groaning inwardly, amazed that he could be so totally distracted by her when he was in such a rotten mood. No question, she appealed to him—enough to make him temporarily forget the headache knifing through his temples, enough to make him temporarily forget there was a chimpanzee in his office. She appealed to him from the tip of her upturned nose right down to the tan suede boots beneath her safari-look skirt. Everything about her appealed to him, even her direct stare—which was not unlike the stares everyone else in the room was focusing on him, including the monkey.
Steve Randall stepped forward nervously to make a round of introductions. "Kelsie, this is Mr. McKnight. Mr. McKnight, Kelsie Connors, representing Mr. Krispin. Mr. Krispin, Mr. McKnight."
Alec reached out to shake Kelsie's hand—the hand with the furry fingernails, she realized. He gave them a brief, curious look, but took her long, fine-boned hand in his, looked directly into her eyes, and gave her a charming smile that revealed gleaming white teeth, two deep dimples in his cheeks, and the hint of a cleft in his chin.
Kelsie's heart flipped over like a beached salmon. She wouldn't have said Alexander McKnight was extraordinarily handsome; some women may not have found him at all handsome. But that smile . . . it transformed his face so completely that the contrast took Kelsie's breath away. It was mischievous and charming, boyish yet dangerously male. It was the kind of smile that must have saved him from dozens of spankings as a little boy, the kind of smile that opened doors for a man—boardroom and bedroom doors. It was cocky, playfully self-confident, and absolutely irresistible.
"Miss Connors?" he asked silkily, taking notice of the fact that she wasn't wearing a wedding ring.
"Yes." She just managed to resist the urge to laugh giddily.
"May I call you Kelsie? It's a lovely name," he said in a voice like velvet. No, she thought, it was more like satin—warm, smooth black satin, like satin sheets . . .
"Sure." She sighed as he let her hand go. It dropped like a stone, shaking her out of the trance his voice and thousand-watt smile had cast over her. She blushed furiously. The future of her business depended on this meeting. She couldn't very well let this man think she was some kind of bimbo, especially since she had always prided herself on her professionalism. "I mean, thank you, Mr. McKnight. Yes, please do call me Kelsie."
Encouraged by the looks his boss was giving Kelsie, Steve grinned and said, "So, shall we get down to business, Alec?"
Alec shot him a scowl.
"M-Mr. McKnight," he corrected himself nervously, slinking down on a chair.
Alec gave Millard Krispin a pale smile and a brief handshake. The man appeared to have crawled out of a laundry basket. The chimp was better dressed. Better looking, too, Alec thought. Millard looked as if he were chronically nauseated. He wore a wrinkled white shirt with an ink-stained pocket full of ballpoint pens, ankle-length powder-blue polyester pants, and black half-boots. The sight was enough to bring Alec's headache back to his attention.
Millard leaned toward Kelsie as they all took seats. "No one introduced Darwin," he complained, hurt and offended.
Kelsie patted his clammy hand on the arm of the chair. "Mr. McKnight—"
His smile was instantaneous as he leaned his forearms on the desk. "Alec."
"Alec," Kelsie repeated, her cheeks heating. For Pete's sake, she hadn't blushed in years! She was reacting like a teenager with a hormone imbalance. Breaking eye contact with him, she gestured toward the chimp on Millard's lap. "This is Darwin, our star."
Alec nodded, his dark brows bobbing over his eyes. He wasn't quite sure how to respond.
"Say hello to the nice man, Darwin," Millard told the chimp. "Say, 'Hello, nice Mr. McKnight,' " he went on in a childish voice. " 'Pleased to meet you.' "
The guy was slipping a few gears, Alec thought. Kelsie pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, wondering if they had been wise in deciding to bring Darwin and Millard along. Steve had thought the chimp might be able to help their cause by charming McKnight. Darwin bared his teeth and hissed at Alec.
Alec sat back and cleared his throat. "I'm sure Steve has explained to you how we're handling this campaign, Kelsie, Mr. Krispin. Eugene Van Bryant, head of the Van Bryant chain of stores, has asked me to oversee the project personally. I've asked all our top people to come up with ideas for the campaign, ideas I will screen. Finally, I will present what I consider to be the best of them to Mr. Van Bryant. The ultimate decision will be his."
"Have you had a chance to look at my ideas, Mr. McKnight?" Steve asked.
"Ah—yes, I have," Alec said, shuffling through the papers in front of him. "I'll be honest with you, Steve. They're not what I had in mind."
Kelsie's heart sank. If Alexander McKnight didn't like their idea, Kelsie figured she'd be selling lingerie at night until she was eighty.
"But I'm willing to listen," Alec added, catching himself staring at Kelsie Connors's mouth. It looked so soft. He wondered what it would taste like, then shook his head. How could he be thinking about kissing Kelsie Connors when he should be concentrating on business? How he could be thinking anything pleasant about women in general after his visit from Vena was beyond him.
"That's all I ask." Steve grinned, his spirits lifting. He scooted to the edge of his chair, brown eyes glowing. "I see an entire series of ads—print and video—with Darwin as the star. Just Darwin and Van Bryant merchandise, which, I might point out, is very cost effective. Compared to what we would have to pay models or actors, Darwin here works for peanuts, or, I should say, bananas."