The Best Thousand Dollars I Ever Spent

by Lubrican

Chapters : 1 | 2 | 3-7 Available On

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CHAPTER ONE

Brad Tarkenton sat back in the plush seat of the corporate jet that was winging its way through the impossibly blue skies over the Ohio Valley. He gazed out of the window, intrigued by the irregular pattern of tilled and wooded land, juxtaposed against the little lines that represented highways and county roads that crisscrossed the earth far below him. Occasionally there were clusters of buildings ... towns, he knew ... though they just looked like patterns of dots from up this high. The tracts of forest looked smaller than he thought they'd be.

All in all, the land looked empty to the CEO of Amalgamated Industries, a multi-billion dollar consortium of companies that did business in forty-seven countries around the world. To Brad, it looked like nobody lived in the Midwest. His jet had taken off from Reagan National and, for an hour, had flown over nothing but civilization. It was what Brad had once viewed as "progress". Now, seeing mother nature almost everywhere, he wondered about that. He idly thought that his view of things had changed quite a lot in the last few years.

He was on his way to Cleveland, a big city in this part of the country, but pitifully small from the air, when compared to the vast concrete jungles along the Eastern Corridor. He was on his way to a meeting with Josh Clinton, Amalgamated's regional Vice President for the Midwest, who was doing a truly impressive job of expanding the business into what had been thought to be a depressed market. He was doing so well, in fact, that the board deemed a visit from the CEO would impress on the young man how important it was to continue doing such stellar work. He was making the company money, and the board liked that.

Brad had met Josh only once, at a convention. He was typically handsome and in shape, a hard charger, but with a quiet air of confidence that didn't require that he fawn around the boss. He had chatted with Brad for only a few sentences and then, seeing that there were others in line to speak to the big man, had wandered off to network elsewhere. Brad had noticed he didn't have a young buxom tittering thing on his arm, like most of the other men who thought they were important did.

When, several months later he'd gotten a wedding invitation from Josh he'd had his secretary send back his congratulations, along with an appropriately worded apology that he couldn't attend. And a check for twenty thousand dollars.

Brad hated weddings. He'd been through three of them himself. The first had been wonderful, when he stood there unbelieving as the love of his life slowly walked toward him. Elizabeth had been everything he could have dreamed of in a wife. They had been deliriously in love and she had insisted that they have children immediately. Samantha and then Phillip had swollen her belly and the world had been complete.

Until a drunk driver had taken her from him. The children were only seven and eight at the time, and all of them had been devastated.

But by then Brad had been on the fast track in the company, and was a mover and shaker. He'd sublimated his grief in his work, hiring house staff to care for his children while he spent nights at the office, building a kingdom in which to wall himself away from the world. And the pain of missing Elizabeth.

His corporate need for a wife had resulted in his marriage to Jane, introduced to him by a man he'd thought was his friend, but who, in fact, had convinced his sister to marry his main competition. She'd spied on Brad and reported everything he was doing to her brother, who undercut Brad, or tried to steal his ideas. But she'd done it poorly, and couldn't convince anyone she was in love with her husband. Word got out and there was a quiet divorce. It was quiet by virtue of the CEO at the time informing both brother and sister that careers would come to a screaming end if there were any noise ... or demands in a settlement.

Jane had been heard screaming clear down in the basement, but the divorce was final with only a one time payout of "support" to the ex-wife.

Trudy had stepped into the void from the secretarial pool, and an affair turned into another marriage. Samantha, ten at the time, told her father in no uncertain terms that she didn't like the woman ... that there was something wrong about her.

He hadn't listened to her. After all she was only ten.

But time had proven Sam right when Trudy spent money like it was growing on trees and almost bankrupted Brad, who was making three hundred thousand a year at the time. Trudy hung on for three and a half years before Brad caught her with the pool boy and threw her out. His attorney convinced hers, who was working for a cut of the take, that the battle would be so long and so protracted that he would be an old man before he collected a cent if he didn't play ball. Trudy, like Jane before her, was heard to scream for quite some distance as she upbraided her lawyer for being spineless. But she too settled for a fast buck, which she went through in less than two months. The last Brad had heard she was living in a house trailer, drunk most of the time, and a chain smoker. Someone told him she'd gained sixty pounds in the six months since he'd seen her.

By then his daughter wouldn't speak to him, and his son had been expelled from three private schools. He threw money at the 'problem' and went back to work, climbing further up the corporate ladder. He also quit trying to find a wife.

He never wanted for companionship, during those few brief hours he'd let his passions surface. For a man with as much money as he had there were always women who were more than happy to grab their fair share in exchange for spending a few hours naked with him.

Truth be told, though, Brad didn't dally all that often. More often than not, when all was said and done, and the girl was walking out the door, Brad felt like all he had done was engage in complicated masturbation.

The rift between his children and him grew wider. They wanted to go to public schools, but he invariably sent them to some academy where they would be taught how to be rich and successful. They hated him for it.

Nobody loved him ... and he knew that. The one woman who had loved him for who he was, was gone, never to return. When Samantha graduated from High School, a graduation he missed because he was in Pakistan sealing a multi-million dollar contract, he pulled some strings and got her an acceptance letter to Vassar. For reasons he couldn't understand, she wanted to go to a State University instead. During the resulting argument she had stormed out of the house and disappeared off the face of the earth. He paid private investigators thousands to find her, but they all came up empty. Her social security number was inactive, meaning she wasn't working anywhere, or at least wasn't using that number. He still didn't know where she was. Phillip graduated High School and somehow managed to garner straight F's in his first semester at Harvard, which had let him in only because of the three million dollar gift that had come with him. But his complete failure as a student got them off the hook. Not even Brad could demand he be given another chance. No one in the school's history had failed every class he had taken in the first semester.

After that Phillip had gotten into trouble often enough that Brad had cut him off. The last Brad had heard from him was that he was in Arizona somewhere trying to start a home repair business, of all things. What Phillip knew about home repairs, Brad couldn't imagine. Brad's dictated letter back to his son had said "Good luck. It's a tough world out there." He had suspicions that Phillip knew where Sam was, but he could never get anything out of him.

Now, at age 42, one of the youngest CEOs in the big-time corporate world, Brad had nothing to show for his life. Except the multi-million dollar income that he did practically nothing with. It was just money, and he had so much that it didn't mean anything any more. Elizabeth would have known what to do with it. She'd have been involved with dozens of philanthropic organizations, or would be a volunteer for who knows how many worthy causes. She'd have given a lot of his money to people who actually needed it to get their own lives on some kind of decent track.

But there was no Elizabeth, and he had a hard time caring about other people's troubles when he felt so sorry for himself.

At some point Brad Tarkenton had realized he was a heartless bastard. The only real use anyone had for him was if he died, and then they could all have a shot at getting some of all that lovely money he owned. He knew that too. It was no wonder nobody out there cared about anything except what he could do for them.

That realization was when he made some fundamental changes in his attitude and in his life. And, ironically, those changes were what had made Amalgamated Industries the success it was. He ran his business like no other business was run. Outsiders looked at the kinds of things he spent money on and shook their heads. They couldn't understand why the company succeeded. Had any of them taken the time to get a job inside Amalgamated ... and watch, they would have understood within a month.

The company stewardess sashayed back toward his seat. The Lear jet seated sixteen in sumptuous comfort, but he was the only passenger. A lot of CEOs carted around an entourage large enough to take over whole floors of a hotel, but Brad wasn't interested in people hovering around him, sucking at his life force, trying to show over and over how badly he needed them. He had everything he needed on his laptop, and was glad to be away from his office, out of the crush of admirers and gold diggers.

What was her name? Oh yes ... Jackie. Jackie approached him.

"Mr. Tarkenton we're getting ready to land. Is your seat belt fastened? Is there anything I can do for you? Anything at all?" she simpered.

Brad knew what she hoped she could do for him, but Brad never played around inside the company. It was one of his hard and fast rules, ever since Trudy. You don't shit in the nest. It causes too many problems.

Not that she wasn't tempting. She was tall, and blond, with breasts almost bursting from her uniform blouse, which was tailored to fit her like a second skin. It was also just barely translucent, enough so that one could see the lacy pattern of her Victoria's Secret bra through it. She just oozed sexual gratification. But so did all those women who took his money and then either lay there like they were bored, or engaged in theatrics that any movie-goer would demand his money back after enduring.

Nonetheless, as Jackie bent over him, showing him her cleavage, Brad felt his lap dragon stirring in its lair, lifting its nose to sniff the air.

"Thanks, but I'm fine." said Brad in his well-modulated bass voice. "You've been spectacular Jackie. I'll put in a good word for you."

In the beginning of the flight she had served him a drink and made it crystal clear that she was his for the taking if he wanted - right there on the plane if he so desired. He'd taken the drink and smiled that carefully cultivated smile that made people think they'd gotten much farther with him than they ever would. Then he'd read the Wall Street Journal and looked out the window. Jackie wasn't stupid, and didn't press things. She spent the rest of the flight filing her three hundred dollar fake nails and talking to the Pilot and Copilot, probably seeing if they wanted to do a threesome during the three day layover while they waited for the Boss to do whatever he was going to do and then fly back home.

There was a limo waiting for him when he got off the plane, sitting not fifteen feet from the bottom of the stairs, door open, Chauffeur at attention. Brad got in and told the driver to wait for the crew. That was one of the things that had made him so popular with his work force. He didn't put on airs, even though airs were all around him. They'd be staying at the same hotel he was staying at, eating on the same expense account as he did. He took good care of his people and he expected them to take good care of him. It worked. People like his 'good buddy', who had used his own sister to try to get ahead in the company didn't last long in Amalgamated. And they didn't get good jobs when they left either, even if they sought jobs with the competition. If Brad Tarkenton didn't like you ... very few people would take a chance on you.

The crew piled in and chatted amiably on the way to the hotel. They split off once they got there, heading for the elevators. They already knew what rooms they'd been assigned to, and that the rooms would be open and ready, with a bell boy standing by to present them with keys and handle the luggage when it came up.

Brad went to the desk, however, to let them see his face. He'd found that that made hotel staff much more attentive. He acted like a 'regular guy', even though everybody in the place knew that he was somebody very important. The Amalgamated staff in Cleveland had ensured that. He collected the message he knew would be there. It said "Whenever you're ready" and was signed "Josh". Brad knew that the limo would be sitting out front, waiting for him whenever he felt like going over to the Cleveland offices.

On impulse Brad told the concierge to just have his bag put in the room and then turned and went right back outside. He hadn't made it ten feet past the front doors when the driver was out of the car, hurriedly putting on his cap and racing for the door. He made it just as Brad got there and wrenched it open.

"Sorry sir ... didn't expect you quite this soon."

"Relax, George" said Brad.

That was something else he made sure to do. He knew the names of everyone he was likely to meet on this trip. His staff was used to this quirk and had lists prepared for him ahead of time. It was something they appreciated and took pains to make sure got done correctly. When a limo had been hired, the driver's name had been added to the list.

Brad spoke to the driver. "We're not in a hurry. Why don't you show me a little bit of Cleveland."

"Yes sir." said the driver, surprised at how this fat cat treated him like a real human being. That was unusual.

There was a speaker system in the limo, which George used for the first seven or eight blocks, until Brad suggested it would be a lot easier if he just sat up front. George, astonished, pulled over, but couldn't make it completely out of the driver's door before Brad was out of the car and heading for the suicide seat. George climbed back in just as the customer settled back into the front seat and slammed the door.

"Sorry sir," he said automatically.

"I said relax. We'll be all formal later. For now, just show me your town."

Brad engaged in one of his favorite hobbies. What had gotten him to the top was his ability to put himself on the level of whoever he was dealing with. It wasn't mercenary, but he applied himself to the game is if everything hinged on making whoever he was dealing with want to be his friend. With people like George, it was for fun. He met some of the most interesting people at levels of society much lower than what most people would consider his to be. And, oddly enough, most of those worker bees never actually wanted a whole lot from him. If they worked for Brad Tarkenton they were already paid well, and knew it, and most of them had no concept of what it was like to be able to write a check for fifty or a hundred thousand dollars and never miss it. And so, when he "mixed with the rabble" as one senior vice president had once put it - a senior vice president who was now enjoying very early retirement - he usually had a lot more fun than when he was wheeling and dealing with the other corporate sharks who swam in his normal waters.

It wasn't love, but it was about as close as Brad thought he might get to having worthwhile relationships.

And so, for the next hour, Brad made another lifelong admirer as George showed him what George thought was great about Cleveland, including his own modest bungalow, wherein sat his wife, Claudette and five "rug rats", as George called them, named Mikey, Nicole, Charlene, Jimmy and Jake.

"Five kids?" asked Brad. "Impressive."

"You married?" ventured George.

"Tried it three times and gave up." said Brad. "Turns out I'm not the masochist I thought I was."

George chuckled, but then sobered. "Too bad. I don't know what I'd do without Claudette. She keeps me honest ... not to mention worn out so I don't chase after other women." He grinned, the equivalent of the 'wink wink, nudge nudge' that men share in bars as they brag about their exploits or prowess. "She wants to have another one! Claims she loves being pregnant. I don't understand that at all. Seems like all she does when she's all swollen up is complain about her back and how often she has to pee." George ventured further. "How 'bout you? Got any kids?"

"Two" said Brad. "Neither of whom wants to have anything to do with me."

"Sucks" commented George.

"Yeah, I screwed it up." said Brad.

"Important guy like you?" said George. "I'd think they'd be all about loving dear old Daddy."

"There's more important things in the world than money, George. Remember that. You're richer by far than I am just because you have Claudette and all those ankle biters waiting for you at home." Brad could speak the language too.

"Too bad." commiserated George. Knowing that the mood had soured a little, and being a professional, despite the unusualness of the current situation, George said "Well, that's about it. Cleveland Ohio at its best. Where to now, boss?"

"I've got a dinner appointment in an hour." said Brad. "Just drop me at the Riverview Room at the Ritz. I'll have a few drinks while I wait."

"You're the boss ... boss, but I have to tell you you aren't going to meet the dress code." said George. "That's a white glove kind of place."

"Believe it or not, George, that's one of the things money is actually good for." smiled Brad. "I imagine that none of the other diners will even know I'm there."

Twenty minutes later Brad was back in the "expensive seats" as George called them, and waited for George to do his job. George opened the door and leaned in, pointing. "Sir, that compartment over there ... it has a selection of ties in it. At least take one with you."

Brad opened the compartment. Selection wasn't the word. There were probably thirty ties on a pull out rack. He chose a muted blue, with thin red stripes that he knew would go with the suit he was wearing.

As Brad exited the car George said in hushed tones. "Ah ... sir? ... if you decide you'd like some company while you're in town ... I'm familiar with all the best ... escort services. I could make the arrangements while you're eating."

"Thanks George, but not tonight." said Brad.

"Very good sir." responded George, firmly back in his usual role. "I'll be here if there are any ... problems ... with the dress code." George handed Brad what looked like a cross between a cell phone and a pager. "Just press any button if you need me."

A doorman took over five feet from the car. "Ah, Mister Tarkenton, so good you could dine with us tonight. Andre is waiting to show you to your private dining room," he said, making it obvious he wasn't looking at Brad's open collar. Brad smiled as he heard George snort softly and the limo door clicked shut.

Josh and his wife, Julie, arrived thirty minutes later. While Josh apologized for being late, even though he wasn't, and said that if they'd known he would be early they would have been early too, Brad examined Julie.

If she was a trophy wife, Josh had chosen well. She was spectacularly beautiful, with the sultry look that some women had that brought every male in sight to the edge of his seat. Tall and what would have been slim but for the bulging abdomen sheathed in a dress that had to have cost a thousand dollars, she had long dark brown hair that fell carelessly past her shoulders. The dress cradled breasts that looked perfectly capable of feeding quadruplets already, showing cleavage deep enough to secure a Palm Pilot in. She was obviously four or five months pregnant, and every man who saw her had fleeting fantasies that he had been the one to plant that baby. She was beyond gorgeous, with makeup that looked like it had been professionally applied. She knew how to walk, how to smile, and how to break into her husband's babbling to say, "Hi, I'm Julie." She said it with just the right timbre in her voice, "I've heard so much about you. It's a pleasure to meet the man behind Amalgamated."

Had Josh not been there, Brad might have asked this vision of loveliness if she needed a husband.

But Josh was there, so Brad tore his gaze off the stunning woman and paid a little attention to his regional vice president in charge of development, who was red-faced at having forgotten to introduce his wife. They sat and talked about nothing more important than the menu and wine list, which was as extensive as any in a fine restaurant in New York. Then, over an aperitif and some appetizers, Josh made a valiant attempt at trying to find out, without coming right out and asking, why the big boss had come to little backwater Cleveland.

Again Julie broke into the conversation.

"Darling, Mr. Tarkenton will tell you why he's come when he's ready to tell you why he's come. For now let's just enjoy his company and get to know him a little."

Brad's opinion of her went up another notch. She had enough faith in her husband to believe that this visit was not sinister. She was either relaxed and comfortable, or the best actress Brad had ever seen.

Brad went with his impulse again. "Actually, let's just get that out of the way right now. Then we can give our full attention to relaxing." He turned toward Julie. "And please, call me Brad. I don't stand much on formality."

"How refreshing," she said in her beautifully modulated voice. "A stuffed shirt who isn't stuffy." She smiled beautifully, suggesting that the barb was all in good fun.

"Bunny!" gasped her husband. "You can't talk to the CEO of the company that way!"

"Bunny?" asked Brad. "My staff made no mention of any name other than Julie Diane."

Julie arched her eyebrow. "Your staff ... inquired about me?" Her tone indicated that she thought such a thing might be both frivolous and, perhaps, even objectionable.

"Julie!" barked Josh. He was pale and was beginning to look worried, rather than embarrassed.

Brad held up one hand, his palm toward Josh. "Let her be Josh. She's new to the family and doesn't know how things work."

Julie somehow looked both gorgeous and hostile at the same time. It was disconcerting, or would have been to a lesser man. "Yes ... Josh, shut up and let MISTER Tarkenton tell me how things work. Maybe Jasmine was right after all?"

"Jasmine?" said Brad. "Another name my staff missed. They'll be very disappointed."

Julie just waited, poised and cool, her dark eyed stare firmly on Brad.

"I like to know the names of people I might meet." said Brad. "I feel like people will be more receptive if I can call them by name, rather than going through all the social niceties of formal introductions."

She didn't smile. "So you game people and make them think you care who they are."

"Oh Julie please don't do this." moaned Josh.

Julie had a mind of her own, however.

"I have a friend, a girl I used to work with. She tried to talk me out of marrying Josh because she says the only guy she knows who works for Amalgamated is a bastard. She says he doesn't care about anything except making money and being powerful. I didn't listen to her Mr. Tarkenton. I love my husband very much, but maybe Jasmine wasn't so far off the mark."

Brad loved this woman. She could think. She had guts. She didn't back down or whimper at the thought that she might be ending the career of her husband. And with a baby on the way she had to know this wasn't a good time for said husband to be changing jobs. But she had the courage of her convictions.

"Well, you've raised several points." said Brad calmly. "Let me take them in order. First, if I didn't care about the people whose names I memorize, then why would I make the effort to do that? How would I even remember such information if it wasn't important to me? For example, the driver of my limo is named George. He's married to Claudette and has five children, two girls, Charlene and Nicole, and three boys, Jimmy, Jake and Mike. Now I may never need that information. But the fact is that George is a nice guy, and if I can remember his kids' names if I ever see him again, and ask about them, it will make George feel good. I suppose you could assume that the only reason I'd do that is so that if I wanted something from George I could game him. But I don't really think there's all that much George could do for me that he isn't already being paid to do."

There was a momentary startled look in Julie's eyes, and they lost the hard glint that had been there before. Brad also saw her jaw unclench slightly.

"Now," he went on, "my staff knows how I feel about that. They like me to be prepared, because they like me to be happy. So they take their responsibilities ridiculously seriously. That's what I meant when I said they'd be disappointed to find out you have a nickname. What's listed in Josh's employee records is that he's married to Julie Diane. I imagine there's no information there about 'Bunny'. But that's OK. I like to talk to people to get to know them, and too much background information can be detrimental there. For example, if I knew all about 'Bunny' I couldn't be curious and ask you how you got that name."

Julie's blinked. She was thawing, but still pretty cold.

Brad smiled again. "And I was kidding about how my staff will be unhappy because they didn't know about 'Jasmine'. They don't pry into what your friends' names are. If you were a business competitor, perhaps, but we don't do that to a member of the family. If your birthday, or anniversary was coming up soon, or had just passed, they'd have told me about that. But that's about as far as they go in their inquiries."

Julie sat back in her chair and her fingers relaxed where they were interlaced over her baby's bulge. It was a protective posture, but her relaxed frame made it look loving, rather than defensive.

Brad continued. "As for what Jasmine thinks about the man she knows, that's important to me. If she's right, and all he cares about is making money, then Josh and I will have to do something about that. That's not the kind of employee I want working for me. Money is important, but not more important than our relationship with our customers. It is, after all, our customers who bring us repeat business, and it's repeat business that generates profits. So while I may not have needed to know about Jasmine before I met you, I certainly need to know now."

Julie was less belligerent. "Jasmine isn't a customer, and never will be," she said. "So why care?"

Brad nodded. "We certainly don't need Jasmine out there in the world telling people that Amalgamated has a bunch of bastards running the show. That's not good for business either. And, for that matter, she's a prospective employee, but only if she thinks well of the company. So her opinion does matter."

Julie laughed then. "I doubt seriously that Amalgamated could afford to hire Jasmine. Not if they're going to pay her more than she already makes."

Josh jerked. "Julie, I'd like it very much if you were quiet now."

Julie laid one hand on his arm. "Oh darling, you're so up tight sometimes. Brad isn't mad at me, and I don't think he's mad at you either." She looked at Brad with eyes that were somehow very confident that she was correct.

Brad smiled widely. "Josh, she is completely correct. You can learn something from your lovely wife tonight, and that is that I appreciate candor, and I want people to be able to tell me what they think without being afraid of retribution. If I'm acting like a rat bastard, how will I ever know if nobody ever tells me?"

Two waiters appeared with a flourish and began serving them. There was too much activity to continue the conversation until the table had been set and the dishes arranged to everyone's satisfaction. The food was excellent.

Again it was Julie who spoke first. "So? You never did say why you were here." She dabbed her perfectly lipsticked lips with one corner of a linen napkin.

Josh choked, but got himself under control.

Brad chuckled. "You're right. I got distracted." He looked at Josh and cleared his throat. In a very serious voice he said: "Josh, you're doing a great job and the board is very happy with you." Brad went back to eating, forking a piece of prime rib into his mouth.

Julie had frozen, her fork halfway to her mouth. She put the fork down on her plate. "That's it?" she asked. "Good job? Pat on the back? You came all this way just to say 'Attaboy!'? No promotion?"

Josh started choking again.

Brad looked up and swallowed. "Julie, he's a regional vice president at age thirty. That's phenomenal. To move up he'd have to displace a person with ten years seniority over him and three times the experience."

Julie picked up her fork again. "Good. I don't want to move away from Cleveland just yet." She smiled her dazzling smile and began to eat.

Josh slumped in his chair.

Brad spoke one last time before giving the prime rib the attention it deserved.

"Josh I can see part of why you're doing so well."

It was an unabashed compliment to the woman who had just bearded the lion in its den. She knew it, and she flushed with pleasure. That flush went clear down to her chest. Somehow it made her breasts look even bigger.

The rest of dinner was pleasant, and Josh actually got to say some things to his boss, instead of trying to ride herd on his wife. Julie, for her part, said little, though everything she did talk about was light hearted and non-controversial.

Julie did prompt her husband occasionally, such as when she said, "Josh, aren't you going to ask him about tomorrow night?"

Josh looked uncomfortable as he faced his boss. "Well, there's a get-together with some of the customer base and some contractors we do a lot of subcontracting with. But it's one of those couples buffet dance kinds of things, so I didn't know if you'd be interested in attending or not." He left unsaid that Brad didn't have a wife to take to such an affair, and Brad knew it.

"I'm used to attending such functions stag." said Brad. He looked at Julie, who had perked up at the statement for some reason. "I've been married three times and two of them didn't work out," he said.

"Well, then that means one did." said Julie, using that engaging smile she was so good at. "It's a shame you didn't bring number three along on this trip. I'd love to meet her."

Josh groaned.

Brad was slightly disappointed in his regional vice president for development in Cleveland, who had not explained some things to his wife that would have prevented her from making the social gaffe she had just committed. But it wasn't Julie's fault.

"It was number one who worked out, but she died. I tried to replace her twice, but it turned out she was irreplaceable."

Julie paled. "Oh Brad, I'm so sorry," she said softly. "I didn't know."

Josh jumped as his wife's foot connected solidly with his shin. Brad pretended he hadn't seen it.

"It's OK," he said.

"It's sad," she said back. "And what makes it even sadder is that you've given up on women, haven't you?"

"Oh Julie, for pity's sake!" moaned the Amalgamated vice president for development in Cleveland.

"Well, it's true, isn't it?" she said, all perky again.

"I have to admit you're correct." said Brad. "The women I meet now just seem interested in either power or money, but not in me."

"Well, we're not all like that." said Julie. "You're too nice a man to go through the rest of your life alone."

Brad laughed. "Suddenly I'm a nice man?"

"I think so." said Julie, as if he hadn't referred to her confrontation of him only half an hour before. "And I know several women who would think so too."

"Ohhh I'm toast," moaned Josh.

His wife shot him a look and then centered her attention back on Brad. "How about I get you a date for tomorrow night. I can think of several women I used to work with who would be perfect."

"Bunny!" croaked Josh.

"Oh hush." said Julie. "Brad is the kind of man who will find out about it some day anyway." She faced Brad and took a breath. It did fabulous things to her cleavage. "Before I married Josh I worked for an escort service."

Several things became clear in Brad's mind immediately. Her suave demeanor, her appearance, her familiarity with formal dining, her excellent taste in clothing. All those things, despite her youth, were explained by the fact that she'd been a hooker. No, not just a hooker ... a call girl, and an expensive one, if Brad knew his stuff. And Brad knew his stuff when it came to expensive call girls. She hadn't completely adjusted to her new life, though. She was tense again, nervous, expecting her husband's boss to sneer.

Brad didn't sneer. "Well, that suggests that you didn't marry Josh for his money," he said. "Based on our short acquaintance I'd bet that you took a cut in salary when you married him." He didn't suggest she was still employed. She didn't seem like the type.

"Why thank you." she beamed. "I did lose money on the deal." She winked at Brad. "But he was such a sweet boy, and so needy, and there are certain compensations." She patted her swollen belly.

"And I'm sure your friends are just as beautiful and educated and fun to be with as yourself," said Brad, "but I've tried that too, and it has left much to be desired."

"Well," said Julie. She was sizing Brad up like she'd have sized up a customer in her sordid past. She had been very good at sizing up customers, which was why, when Josh had begged her to leave that life, she had taken the chance. "There are escorts, and then there are escorts. Here in Cleveland sex is optional, and the girl I have in mind for you is fun to be around under any circumstances. In fact, I don't know if she'd even agree to go. I was thinking of Jasmine. You said you cared about what she thought of Amalgamated, or at least the guy she was talking about. This would be your chance to find out. What do you say Brad?"

For a third time on this trip, Brad went with his instinct.

"Call her."

Julie smiled. "Don't you even want to know how much she charges?"

Brad smiled tightly. "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

Julie smiled again. "Yes ... there is that."

Julie went to the powder room while the men paid the bill. Brad looked around for the waiter, but Josh laid one hand on his arm. "It's already arranged," he said. "They're billing it to my account." He looked nervous. "About Julie ..." he said.

Brad stood up. "Josh, who you marry is your business. That you chose well is something I applaud. If you're lucky enough to be in love, don't ever let anything tear you apart. I like her Josh."

Josh was so relieved that there were tears in his eyes. "This is so stupid," he said, wiping them.

Brad clapped him on the back. "Love leaves us big tough men defenseless. Don't worry about it." Then he whispered. "Tell me about 'Bunny', quickly, before she gets back."

Josh's head jerked. But then he smiled. "It was her working name. So the men wouldn't know who she really was. Those women get stalked a lot."

Brad nodded as they both watched Josh's beautiful pregnant wife walk gracefully across the room. The eyes of every man in the place followed her.

"I can see why, Josh ... I can see why."

Somehow George knew that Brad was coming out, because the limo was parked at the curb and George was standing at attention with the door open. Josh and Julie walked Brad to the door.

"Hi George, isn't it a beautiful night?" asked Julie.

George didn't bat an eye. "It certainly is Miss Bunny. Congratulations to you both about your baby." It was obvious, though not surprising, that George and Julie knew each other. After all, women who charged what Bunny had charged to be with a man most often got picked up and dropped off in limousines.

"Thank you George," said Julie and she kissed him on the cheek as he blushed.

"I'm telling Claudette the next time I see her." joked Brad getting in the car.

"We'll call you about tomorrow night." said Julie.

George closed the door and Brad watched Josh put his arm around his wife's waist and walk her toward the parking garage.

George knew where to go, and started there without being told. The ride was silent, but when they stopped and George opened the door for him, Brad spoke as he got out. "Is she a good woman George?"

They both knew he was asking about Julie, and not Claudette.

"Yes sir, that whole bunch are good women. They have class sir."

"Good ... that's good." said Brad. Then he went into his hotel and to bed.

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