“This is the best deal I can get you, Mr. Cromwell,” the woman said coldly. “I suggest you take it.”
Cromwell looked back at the slender blonde in the masculine black suit, barely noticing the sheaf of papers in her hand. He felt utterly defeated. Even his own lawyer thought he was scum. “Penelope, can’t we fight this?”
If anything, the lawyer’s voice became even colder. “First of all, my name is Ms. Parnell, not Penelope. Second, your former employee has a case against you on which the court will convict. Especially with one of the best legal firms in the city behind her. Take the plea bargain. And try to remember this the next time you feel like assaulting your secretary.” She tossed the papers in front of him and sat down behind her polished desk.
Cromwell sat there, feeling numb. He stared past her for a moment, out the second-storey window. The trees lining the street were brilliant in the early autumn sunshine, indifferent to the morass his life had fallen into.
“Penelope,” he tried again, “I mean Ms. Parnell. It, it wasn’t like that. I didn’t mean anything. Hell, I was drunk, it was a party, everybody was fooling around, having a good time. I just got a little carried away. She led me on.”
“She has videotape,” the blonde lawyer snapped back, “and multiple witnesses. Her case is airtight.”
“But, but those witnesses are all her friends. Of course they’ll corroborate her story; the judge will see that.”
“The judge will also hear testimony from each witness that you made persistent and inappropriate advances to all of them too, won’t he.” Her blue eyes flashed.
Cromwell hung his head. How could this be happening? Two weeks ago he had gotten a little loose at a company party, nothing that hadn’t happened a dozen times before. Now that little minx of a secretary, barely 20 years old, was dragging him through the mud and making his life hell. He shook his head. The damndest thing was that the girl had the most awesome legs. Irrelevant, but still true.
At last he said, “I need some time to think about this.”
Ms. Parnell said, “Don’t take too long about it. The trial gets underway day after tomorrow. The deal drops the criminal charges if you settle for the full amount in the civil suit. That option won’t be available once the case is in session. I’d like to get this off my desk.”
For a moment Cromwell rebelled. He was being shuffled aside like so much paperwork! “You’re supposed to be my lawyer!” he charged.
The blue-eyed blonde was unmoved. “Not my idea, Mr. Cromwell. I’m only on this case at all because Mr. Ferguson doesn’t want to touch it. I can see why. I have other cases to deal with, real people with real problems; I haven’t got time to waste on a middle-aged cad who treats his employees as playmates for his sexual gratification.”
For a long moment they glared at each other. Her hair was tied up in a businesslike bun on the back of her head, hiding its true length. Her high cheeks, flushed with anger, were surprisingly pretty. She was young, not even a junior partner yet. She had been assigned to his case when Ferguson, his friend and confidant for years, had suddenly become “too busy” for him.
Cromwell rose and snatched the papers off her desk. “I’ll look at these,” he said, knowing he was conceding defeat.
Ms. Parnell did not get up. “Be in my office with the papers signed at 9:30 tomorrow. I need time to talk to the judge.”
He let himself out.
Fifteen minutes later Cromwell was seated in his favorite chair at his regular club, nursing his wounds with a strong drink. It wasn’t his fault, he told himself for the one thousandth time. It was all a set-up.
Things hadn’t been going well at home. His wife had lost interest. He went to work each morning horny and frustrated, which combined with his driven personality to make him short-tempered and sullen. More and more he found himself noticing all the attractive young women in the office.
Then one day Tawny had waltzed into his office, pert, cheerful and gorgeous. She announced, as if she had just won a school prize, that Human Resources had made her his new secretary. Cromwell had been stung. She was perfect. She was beautiful. She came to work each morning in yet another foxy miniskirt, apparently unaware of Cromwell’s weakness for legs. She seemed so innocent. . .
He sipped his Scotch, staring at the floor.
“Quite a jolly mess, isn’t it?” said the man beside him.
Cromwell looked up. “Excuse me?”
The man put down the newspaper that had hidden him so effectively. He was thin and bespectacled. “This mire you’ve gotten yourself into, Mr. Cromwell. This awful legal proceeding.”
“Excuse me,” Cromwell said again, “Do I know you? I don’t think I remember—”
The man interrupted him smoothly. “Just look at your situation. You’re facing both a private suit and a criminal prosecution. Your adversary is a twenty-year-old secretary the judge will love. I understand you’ve drawn Judge Harris; a competent jurist, but something of a crusader on harassment issues. The case against you is formidable, even though there is no convincing evidence of impropriety on your part, aside from inebriation. If you decide to fight it, the best you can hope for is a conditional discharge and a criminal record. Or you can accept the sleazy deal they’re offering and pay a six-figure sum for having too much to drink at a party.”
“What—,” blustered Cromwell, “Who are you? How do you know all—”
“Have you considered the, ah, social implications of your predicament?” the man asked, ignoring Cromwell’s questions. “How much respect will you retain at work once your whole staff thinks you’re a lecher? What will be your chances at that vice-presidency you have worked toward for so long? You will probably have great difficulty even finding a new secretary. Not to mention the effect on business when word of this gets out to your customers. Most important of all: how long do you think you can hide this little adventure from your wife?”
“You leave my wife out of this!” Cromwell stormed, fighting to keep his voice down. Then, after a moment: “She will understand.”
The thin man regarded Cromwell patiently through his dark-framed glasses. “Certainly she will understand. She will understand that you have handed her powerful new ammunition with which to belittle and intimidate you any time she wants something. She will understand how to exact a steep and continuing price for her forgiveness; she will understand how to use this incident to get her own way for years to come.”
Cromwell felt his face flush with anger. He started to say something, but the other man raised a hand, cutting him off. “Please, Mr. Cromwell, be honest with yourself. Your wife is a self-centered, manipulative bitch. She married you for money and prestige. I suspect you were so bedazzled by her looks that you didn’t see her true nature. I can’t say I blame you: fabulous tits.” He spoke in the same tones a man might used while discussing England’s chances in the World Cup.
Cromwell leaned toward him, his face a thundercloud. “Now look here, whoever you are, I—”
“Mr. Cromwell,” the man interrupted, “when was the last time you and your wife made love?”
Cromwell said nothing for a long moment. He looked away. Finally, in a low voice, he asked: “How do you know all this?”
“We do our homework,” the man replied. “Thorough background research is the key to ensuring our clients are satisfied.”
The man reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a plain white business card. He handed it to Cromwell. “I represent a company that specializes in situations like yours,” he explained. “I believe we can help you.”
Cromwell said: “I already have a lawyer.”
“Ah yes, Parnell,” the man responded, as if they were discussing golf. He folded his hands like a steeple. “Your lawyer is not part of the solution; she is part of your problem. She is an ambitious sourpuss who only wants to put this whole matter behind her. You need a more permanent solution.”
Cromwell studied the man sitting next to him. He was tall and proper. Dressed in a conservative grey suit and tasteful silk tie, he could have been an investment banker or a professor of economics. He spoke with a crisp, slightly British accent.
“Permanent solution? What are you talking about?” Cromwell asked, intrigued in spite of himself.
“I mean, quite simply, that we can make this whole ugly situation go away,” the man said evenly. “Disappear. Vanish. Cease to be a vexation to your spirit.”
“You can win my court case?”
“We can do better than that. We can have all the charges withdrawn, with an apology. We can make the parties involved regret that they ever displeased you and sincerely want to make you happy. We can do away with all these petty annoyances that are preventing you from enjoying life as it ought to be enjoyed. In short, Mr. Cromwell, we can fix things.”
“But, but—I still don’t understand. How do you propose to do this?”
The man flexed his fingers for a moment. “I’d rather not go into the methods themselves. In any case it’s highly technical. When you have decided to go ahead, just call the number on that card. They will take care of fee transfers and scheduling. I urge you to call soon, today if possible. We don’t have a great deal of lead time.”
Cromwell was staring at him, nonplussed. Was he really having this conversation? “How—how much?” he found himself saying.
The man beside him named a figure that made Cromwell’s eyes go round. “It’s entirely reasonable,” he explained, “when you consider what you receive in return. Besides, it’s less than you would pay in legal fees and penalties, assuming the suit against you is successful.”
Cromwell stopped to consider. The man had a point; the court case was bound to cost him dearly. And if they could do what he said they could do. . .
His companion got to his feet, folding the newspaper neatly beneath his arm. “Do give us a call this afternoon if you can. You won’t regret it. Good day, Mr. Cromwell.” He walked away briskly.
Cromwell stayed behind. He looked at the business card in his hand. It was entirely blank but for a telephone number, printed exactly in the middle. Cromwell couldn’t decide if that was the strangest thing, or whether it was the fact that the man beside him had been reading the Times of India.
Two hours later, Cromwell was sitting in his office, still staring at the business card. The chill in the office when he came in had been palpable. Friends and colleagues avoided him. People whispered behind his back. His outer office was empty. Tawny had been transferred, at her request. Human Resources had decided it would be best if Cromwell got by without a secretary, for the time being. He picked up the telephone and dialled the number.
“Hello! Thank you for calling,” said a sexy female voice.
“Uh. Hello. Uh, yes. My name is Cromwell, I—”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Cromwell!” The voice sounded delighted. “Have you decided to go ahead with the procedure?”
“Well, I, I guess, I mean, I think—Listen, I’d like to know a little more about it.”
“Oh, don’t worry about the details. Trust me, you’ll love our work. Did our representative talk to you about the fee?”
“Yes. Yes, he did. Shouldn’t I meet with your people to discuss my case?”
“No need for that. We have all the information we need in our files. We can begin as soon as the funds are transferred.”
“But, but, I still don’t understand—”
“Mr. Cromwell,” the voice said pointedly, “we offer a full money-back guarantee. None of our clients has ever asked for a refund.”
There was silence for a long moment. Eventually Cromwell said: “How do I pay the fee?”
“Make an electronic transfer to this account.” She named an account number of a bank in the Cayman Islands. “You’ve made the right decision, Mr. Cromwell. We’ll get right to work. Oh, one more thing. Did you write that account number down on a piece of paper?”
“When you’re through, throw it away, won’t you? Bye now.”
Cromwell hung up the telephone. He turned to his computer and transferred a large sum of money to an offshore account. He took the sheet of paper with the bank and account number written on it and dropped it through the paper shredder. Then he went home.
Cromwell’s wife was not home when he arrived. There was nothing unusual about that. Shana was usually out shopping, or visiting with one of her rich friends, or playing tennis, or participating in any of the innumerable events that constituted the social whirl in which she lived.
Cromwell didn’t mind. He was grateful for the free time. He still hadn’t told Shana about the court case. He was not looking forward to the fireworks.
Shana did not come home for dinner. When she hadn’t returned by late evening, Cromwell began to worry. It wasn’t like Shana to go so long without calling. He stayed up late, nursing a drink. When Shana still hadn’t returned by midnight, he decided he might as well go to bed.
He was awakened in the night by the sound of movement. He turned on the bedside lamp. Shana was there, changing into her nightgown. She looked haggard.
“Shana!” Cromwell cried. “At last. Where have you been?”
His wife looked at him wanly. “Honey, I’m really tired.” She clambered into bed beside him and closed her eyes.
Cromwell stared at her incredulously. “Shana, it’s—” he glanced at the bedside clock—“it’s 3 a.m! Where have you been?”
“mm not sure,” she mumbled, without opening her eyes. “Thin’ I wzz ‘ducted. These two men. . . put me ‘n van.”
“WHAT!” He sprang up in bed. “What? I mean, how? Who? Did they hurt you? Are you all right? Shana?”
His wife was breathing regularly, fast asleep.
After a moment Cromwell turned off the lamp. He stared into the darkness, perplexed. This had been one strange day.
Cromwell was having a dream. It was a pleasant, erotic dream. It had something to do with a beautiful secretary seducing him. His eyes fluttered open. Early morning sunlight poured through the bedroom windows. His bed covers had been pulled back. His wife was astride him, on her knees, slowly and lovingly sucking his cock.
“Wha?” said Cromwell.
Shana slid her glistening lips off his member for just a moment. She continued stroking him with one hand. “Good morning honey,” she cooed. “Did you sleep well?”
Evidently it was a rhetorical question, because she immediately lowered her head and drew him back in. Cromwell groaned. Through the intensely pleasurable sensations that Shana was producing, his mind registered astonishment. In the nearly seven years that they had been married, Shana had gone down on him exactly twice, both times with ill grace and only after his repeated requests. Now she was spontaneously giving him the best head he’d ever had. Shana did something with her tongue and Cromwell twitched.
There was something else odd too. As he watched his wife’s red lips slide eagerly up and down his tool, Cromwell realized Shana was already wearing her make-up. Earrings too; big gold ones that flashed and flew about as she bobbed. She was dressed in a red, strapless teddy Cromwell had bought for her years ago but Shana had never worn. The cups thrust her half-covered chest up and out, highlighting her spectacular tits. Her legs were dressed in shiny stockings with ribbons and bows on the garters. Her gaudiest pair of high-heeled red pumps were on her feet.
How early had she gotten up to prepare for this? And whatever for? Cromwell tried to ask a question, but Shana used her tongue again. Nothing came out but a squeaky gasp. Then she began to suck him hard, red lips compressed and her cheeks caved in on each upstroke, long hair flying on each downstroke. She brought Cromwell to the brink in moments. Groaning, he reached behind him with both hands and clasped the headboard. A moment later he cried out, his back arched upward, and he erupted like a geyser into her mouth.
The relief was exquisite. Shana stayed with him, sucking and swallowing hungrily until at last he subsided into sighs and twitches. She licked him clean, then gently let his softening shaft slip out of her mouth. “There,” she said with satisfaction, “isn’t that the best way to start the day?”
She slid gracefully to her feet. “Don’t hurry about getting up, honey,” she said. “I’ll get your breakfast while you shower. ‘K?” She slipped on a long, transparent robe, and without pausing to do it up she sauntered out of the room.
Cromwell lay there for a long time, catching his breath. What on earth had gotten into Shana? She was only nice to him when she wanted something. He went to the bathroom for his shower. Shana had laid out clean towels.
When Cromwell walked into the kitchen a little while later, straightening his necktie, he received another shock. Food was sizzling on the stove, filling the room with delicious smells. Shana was sashaying about the kitchen, humming to herself. She seemed perfectly at home in her high heels.
Shana cooking? For a moment Cromwell didn’t know what to think. If someone had asked him, what is the one thing your wife is less likely to do than wake you up with a blowjob, Cromwell would have answered: cook breakfast for me. “Uh, Shana?” he said uncertainly.
His wife turned to him, beaming. “Hi honey! Come and sit down, breakfast is almost ready.” She gestured to the kitchen table, where an elaborate setting was waiting for him.
“But, but, wait a minute. Last night, you were out, late; you said you had been abducted.”
She gave him an amused look. “Abducted? Don’t be silly. Yesterday I went out shopping with Nichole, and then. . . . Well, I don’t remember. Come on, sit. Don’t let the toast get cold.”
Cromwell sat. Breakfast was excellent. He sipped his coffee, watching his wife totter about the kitchen with a wary eye. The outfit she was wearing clearly reminded him of why he had married her. Below the rich cascades of cinnamon brown hair her figure was perfect: smooth, curved and sensuous, leading downward to the flawlessly tapering legs that seemed to go on forever. Despite what Shana had already done for him that morning, Cromwell felt his cock stir.
Eventually, however, he had to face reality. “Shana,” he said, “come here and sit down for a moment. We have to talk.”
“Of course, darling,” Shana chirped. She approached the table, but instead of taking the seat next to his, she slid into his lap. “What would you like to talk about?” She slid both arms around his neck. This action brought Cromwell distractingly close to those mesmerizing mounds that the man in the club had so accurately described as “fabulous”. He felt himself stiffening.
He drew a deep breath. “Shana, there’s something I have to tell you. Tomorrow morning, I have to appear in court to answer charges.”
She stroked his hair. “Oh, darling, that’s awful. Do you want me to go with you?”
“Wh-what?” It wasn’t the response he had been expecting.
“You know, to keep you company. I’d be glad to come along if you want.”
“Uh, no, that won’t be necessary.” She hadn’t even asked what the charges were.
She brightened. “In that case, do you mind if I do a little shopping?”
Cromwell was confused again. Since when did Shana feel she needed permission to spend his money? “Uh, no, I guess not,” he answered cautiously. “What in particular did you have in mind?”
She leaned closer, presenting him with an even better view of her glorious globes. Her voice sank an octave. “Well, I know how fond you are of teddies and things. But this is the only one I have!” She frowned prettily, as if puzzled by how this state of affairs could have arisen. “I really need to get some pretty new things. You know, for just around the house. For you.” Her fingers gently massaged the back of his neck.
“Oh, uh, I see. Well, yes then, please, go right ahead!” He looked at his watch. “Oops, honey, I have to get going. It’s almost nine, and I have to meet my lawyer at 9:30. I’d better get to the office.”
Shana planted little kisses on his cheek. “You could do that, I s’pose,” she whispered, snuggling up close. “You could go to the office, just for half an hour.” She paused to kiss him very thoroughly. “Or,” she husked, her lips close to his, “you could stay here and fuck.”
She kissed him yet again while he was deciding. Cromwell was as hard as iron. He chose the second option.
It was well past 9:30 by the time Cromwell wrestled himself from the arms of his newly amorous wife and headed off to the lawyer’s office. He called from his cell phone on the way to apologize for being late. The receptionist told him that Ms. Parnell had been detained in an earlier meeting, and would not be available to meet with him until later. She would call when she was free. Cromwell turned around and headed for the office.
The law office had not called by noon, so Cromwell called them. The receptionist told him that Ms. Parnell was “out”, but she promised to call back. Cromwell called again near the end of the day. The receptionist, now clearly covering for Parnell’s absence, passed him on to another lawyer, equally junior.
“Ms. Parnell has been called away from the office for a day or so,” the man lied, “so I’ll take your case in her absence. I understand we have a plea bargain in place, so the court appearance is mostly a formality.”
Cromwell hung up the telephone, frowning. Why didn’t anybody know where Parnell had gone?
As he drove the few miles home from his office, Cromwell turned to wondering about Shana. Perhaps her behavior that morning had been a ploy, softening him up for a megadose of bitchiness. Shana put that idea to rest when she greeted him at the door in a black velvet bustier that thrust out the flawless half-moons of her chest without covering the nipples, matching black velvet panties, shimmering dark pantyhose and funky black ankle boots.
Cromwell had a bit of a weakness for heavy ankle boots, but he couldn’t remember if he had ever shared that secret with his wife. Right at that moment, as he watched Shana shuffle toward him with a look of almost predatory lust, Cromwell wasn’t sure he could remember his middle name. She melted into his arms, kissing him like he had just returned from six months in the jungle. “Come on in and have a drink, darling,” she urged. “Dinner’s almost ready.”
Dinner was sumptuous and delicious. Shana did not change to eat. She sat across from him, her distended, red-topped nipples on full display, and gazed at her husband adoringly. Cromwell barely noticed the food.
After dinner Shana insisted that Cromwell relax with a second drink while she modelled all the pretty things she had bought that afternoon. She put soft music on the stereo and slowly changed out of one exotic outfit and into another in front of him. She was less than half way through the collection before Cromwell was hard and they ended up back in bed again. Or rather, on the livingroom rug, which was closer.
They made it into bed eventually. Cromwell hoped the neighbours hadn’t heard Shana screaming out his name during her orgasms. The next morning, his wife once again roused him without an alarm clock.