CHAPTER ONE: DECEPTIONS
At first glance, Benno Strong was almost a caricature of a New York advertising executive. A fit 55, he owned – and ran – a small but growing agency that provided a good living and was beginning to get important industry attention. He was tall and angular with brush-cut graying hair and a good physique that allowed him to run when he could squeeze it in. Fifteen miles a week was his goal.
When a late meeting kept him from commuting home, he would jog on the city’s hard pavements, but what he loved most was a good run through the leafy roads in Connecticut where he lived. His wife wasn’t a runner, and even if she had been, they would never have run together. Each reserved certain parts of their lives to themselves. Running was his alone. Strong was a happy man, and a happily married man. Success and independence hadn’t come easily, so when they did come, he appreciated them all the more.
Like most people, he was not prepared for what came next.
When the young woman breezed into the conference room, she struck Strong absolutely dumb.
Jet-black hair fell over a lipstick red dress cut just above the knee. He saw her legs outlined beneath the tight wool dress. Her tan calf muscles rippled over red patent leather heels as she stood with her legs close together. He couldn’t look at her, and walked away when she tried to introduce herself. Her delicate perfume made him struggle to breathe. Good God, he was a happily married man – what in hell was he thinking?
Later, Strong sat in the back of the dark conference room, letting his henchmen negotiate a contract to bring her and her consulting team onboard for a month. As the owner of the advertising agency, he was a notorious tightwad, but he would have paid a million dollars to be sure she was on board. After the meeting, in his office, when the door was closed and they were alone, he looked at her as if she were on fire.
Natalia Tsukarova had heard about Strong. Madison Avenue was addicted to rumors. The rumor about Strong was that he was a creative but taciturn CEO of one of the best small agencies extant. Tomorrow she would lead a four-man team of computer graphics pros – at 33 she was the oldest by eight years – in a bid to win a month-long contract to bring Strong’s creative department up to speed. Computer technology changed so fast that just keeping up with the latest software was a full-time job.
Sitting at her dressing table, she wondered what he was really like as she brushed her hair and looked herself in the eye in a silk robe and nothing else . There was an early thread of gray down the center of her hairline. She was trim, she was pleased to note. Swimming endless laps on the weekends kept her stomach flat. She sat up straight and turned slightly to admire her profile, then grimaced to see her teeth. Someday she would have the slight gap between her two front teeth closed. She had been saying that to herself ever since she first came to America sixteen years ago.
Friday, the morning of the meeting, Natalia put on a dress that flattered her long silhouette, shot some perfume beneath each ear, then paused and gave one final spritz to her chest. This should be fun, she thought. She wasn’t nervous at all. Friday was her lucky day.
It was 10 AM when she walked in to Strong’s small conference room and conversation stopped. A distinguished-looking man with graying hair stared at her, then looked away and retreated to a distant corner. That must be Benno Strong, she thought. ‘Quirky’ is right! To hell with him. Let’s take his bucks.
They made the pitch, made it damn well, complete with large-screen graphics and digitized sound. Strong’s creative people tried not be impressed and failed. Natalia’s team got the job. She knew they would. They were that good. That’s food on the table, she thought. There had not always been food on the table.
In Strong’s office, after the others drifted out, she was suddenly aware she was alone with him. She turned to say something jocular, but from his look, there was nothing to say. He stared at her as if he were on fire. She felt completely exposed, stark naked.
Natalia took off her glasses, set the briefcase down and walked straight up to him. Strong watched her as she approached until she stood a foot away. He had his hands in his pockets but looked as if he might spring at any moment, like a puma. She stared at him for a moment, then slapped him, hard. The impact made an awful sound, a crack. Natalia thought for sure the secretary would hear through the closed door and dial Security. The blow staggered him. He rocked back, and his eyes lost their focus. His hands came out his pockets and groped the air for balance. Natalia reached out to steady him. She hadn’t meant to hurt him. She wanted to sober him.
“Are you all right?” she asked, horrified. She had never done anything like that in her life. He grabbed on to her arm in a daze to steady himself but almost fell.
Natalia left as fast as she could. The secretary watched her depart. That was how it began.
Strong sat at his desk with his head still ringing like a bell. Mid-day sun poured in the floor-to-ceiling windows and cast stark shadows on the carpet. Across his desk was a scattering of small, framed photos – Strong and his wife on a beach in Bali, with his daughter climbing Mt. Whitney in California, with his wife in a hot tub somewhere.
Business was booming. He had built it from nothing and now it was beginning to win prizes. Ad Age had profiled him a year ago. For two days he had felt like a movie star. “Nice bit in the trades,” strangers called out to him as he walked down Madison. He laughed it off, loving it. Billings topped $50 million. The agency had eighteen people packed onto the twenty-second floor of a good New York address.
He got up from his desk and headed for the door fifteen feet away, then strode down the long hall with turn-of-the-century posters his wife had selected on the walls. There was even an original Toulouse-Lautrec Bal Musette print. If the business died, he could always sell these and survive.
People were leaving for lunch, some of them young women. Strong liked working with women. He admired them, even loved them in an abstract, romantic way. For him they were bright spots to lighten the day, wonders to watch and admire from a distance.
There were a number of good-looking girls at the agency. Most of them didn’t realize what they had, the beauty and power they carried inside. With a turn of the head or a look or just walking between desks, cutting one short and rolling around it with their hip, they could suck the air right out of him.
Strong knew women who understood their power, and who made very good use of the knowledge. Not that they slept around – they were smarter than that. They got men in the palm of their hand and kept them there, so these men had to concentrate to be able to hear what these smart women said. Strong had met powerful men who talked softly to ensure people listened carefully. It was the same thing.
Recently he had found himself nearly overwhelmed. He fell in love two or three times a week. It didn’t mean anything. One time a new junior attorney had arrived for a meeting. She shook his hand firmly while her short blond hair slipped across her cheek.
“How do you do?” she had asked, giving her name.
Strong thought he might tumble face first into the cleavage at the top of her pinstriped, single-breasted suit. “Uh, fine, fine. Who are you? What was your name?” She repeated and he forgot it immediately.
He refused to look at her for the rest of the meeting, but noted that she crossed her legs exactly twelve times. He switched law firms the next day. At $350 an hour, he could not afford to be thinking about sex.
Another time, at a family gathering – he suspected he should be truly ashamed of this – his wife’s niece, all of 17 and bursting with energy, bounced up to him time after time with hors-d’oeuvres, drinks, anything to get close.
“Ben – I mean Mr. Strong – would you like one of these?” she asked, proffering a cheese puff.
Strong had a feeling she really meant her ample bust, but immediately dismissed the idea as fantasy.
“So, tell me all about advertising!” she said. The girl put down the puff tray and plopped down next to him on the chintz sofa, huge eyes wide with a look that asked him to jump right in. He pretended not to notice. His wife glanced at him from across the room. Signals were flying everywhere. Later he thanked his lucky stars he hadn’t ended up alone with this underage girl because he realized what she had in mind and he wasn’t 100 percent sure he would be able to resist.
Periodically in the country he got waylaid by a checker at the supermarket. Strong floated through with an occasional carton of milk or package of pasta. She always looked at him and said, “Oh, it’s you again.”
What the hell did I do? he wondered. At first he thought she was upset that he didn’t have the right change, or he had too many groceries in the express lane, but eventually he realized he must have done something to her -- touched her, affected her. He found that hard to believe. Apparently she was waiting to see him again. He was the highlight of her day. He charged the moment; he was a fantasy in a long day of fruit, meat and vegetables. To cover it up she played it down: “Oh, it’s you again.”
Once he understood, he always went to her line. She seemed to realize he had caught on and they both laughed and asked real questions. The express lane became a bright spot in his week. She had kids. He had a wife. He liked her a lot and thought of her as a friend. She probably thought of him as something else, but would never act on it.
But this young consultant had literally taken his breath away. She was right to have slugged him. He respected her for that. He had never been unfaithful, and he wasn’t going to start now.
Riding home on the train, his cheek still throbbing, Strong spread out his paper, nodded to an acquaintance, and started reading. He couldn’t get through a single sentence. Good God, what had come over him? Never before had he found a woman so beautiful that he had to walk away. He turned her over like a pebble in his mind, examining her this way and that as a small thrill began in his stomach and climbed into his throat.
Come on, he thought. You’re happily married. Why are you dreaming about some girl who’s twenty years younger – only a little older than Shelley? Shelley had started talking to him again following three years of teenage rejection. After two months in college she called and said in an angry voice, “Dad, you should have told me.”
“Told you what?” he asked. There was a time when they could complete each other’s sentences, but that time had passed.
“All the things you guys did for me.” He and his wife were now “guys”. On her own for the first time, Shelley was beginning to appreciate her parents. He laughed, and so did she.
“Well, I think I did but...”
“I know, I wasn’t listening too well.”
What in hell was he thinking? The young woman who had bowled him over was only a few years older than his own daughter! She wasn’t perfect; there was a small gap between her two front teeth, but she was tall; she stood straight and fearless; she was proud of her small chest; she had long, long legs; she looked right at him; she wasn’t afraid of anything, he was sure; her hair was like pitch. He shook his head violently and rubbed his eyes.
This is ridiculous, he said to himself. Stop it! Strong folded the paper, got off the train at his stop and, wrapped against the cold, kissed his wife as he climbed in the waiting car. He mumbled an excuse about his face, which made her take a second look. When they arrived home they shared a laugh or two and then he grabbed her from behind and she said, “Oh...” He pulled her into the bedroom and made love to her like he hadn’t made love in ten years. They were both breathless.
“Ben, I don’t know what you did in the city today, but I hope you do it again. Maybe you should run into a door more often,” she said touching his face, and they laughed.
Thank god, Strong said to himself later, when he realized he hadn’t so much as thought of the girl for one second the rest of the night. In the morning he jogged six miles, twice his normal distance.
When the graphics training began on Monday, Strong was there to greet everyone on the new team, especially the girl in her chic gray suit with blue pearls and her pitch-black hair. Open laptops covered the conference table. Each of his people had a trainer beside them, ready to go.
“Hey, everyone, happy Monday!” he said too loudly to the assembled crowd.
“Oh no, he’s here,” someone said in the back of the room.
“I heard that!” Strong said, and they all laughed.
He was glad she was there with her team. He had no ulterior motives. They were going to make a difference in the ads he produced and the speed they could get them out, Strong was sure. He looked at them all and said, “Start of a big day,” and clapped his hands as if it were cold. He could tell they were surprised the boss was there, but they were also pleased. The mood was electric, and it was only Monday.
Strong had wondered if he would get short of breath when she walked in, but he didn’t. Thank God – he was cured. An illusion, a deception, a silly whim had made him act stupidly. Was it only last Friday? He had been such a fool. He was so embarrassed. How do I handle this? he thought. What do I say?
He wanted to let her know his absurd infatuation was past, forgotten and gone forever. At the first opportunity, he walked up and said, “Hi! Look, I want to apologize. I don’t know what came over me. I’m so embarrassed. Please forgive me.”
“Thank you. But you barely know my name. And I am not dead sure of yours,” she replied. They had never introduced themselves in so many words.
“Oh. I’m Benno Strong.”
“And I am Natalia Tsukarova.”
“Ah.” He nodded as if he understood.
“It’s Russian. You won’t be required to spell it.”
He laughed. “Yes, well I hope you are OK,” Strong said. “I hope I haven’t … caused you any pain.” He wanted to run out of the room.
Natalia wasn’t sure what she was hearing. She had thought about him over weekend without knowing what to think. She had hit him full force in the face, and here he was talking about her pain. What was she supposed to make of a man who looked at her as if he saw right down to the soles of her feet? He had made her shiver. Then she had acted completely irrationally and slapped him. Stay away from this guy, she had decided.
Natalia foresaw either an inept come-on or complete denial. She had half expected to get fired. When Strong apologized, she found herself replying, “Thank you for saying that. It was exactly what I was thinking. I should also apologize.”
“No, no. I’m completely to blame.” He clapped his hands together again. People turned to look. “Now that we’ve got that behind us, if there is any way I can help you here, you must let me know.”
“I will. Thank you. I had better be getting started. Your face...?”
“Does it still show? You pack a hell of a punch, you know.” He chuckled. “I told everyone a beautiful girl hit me. They all laughed -- they didn’t believe me. Actually, that’s the only thing that really hurt.” She laughed despite herself.
“Listen, watch out for these guys,” he said. “They might try to trip you up sometimes. I’d love you to impress them.”
“I will do my best,” she promised, and they shook hands formally.
Back in his corner office, Strong shut the door. Well, that’s that, he thought. He was sweating and wished he still smoked.
At the end of the day, he found an excuse to drift down the hall to the reception desk to see her leave. It was after six o’clock. The place was abandoned. She came down the hallway looking frazzled and not particularly glad to see him. The gray strand of hair had come unraveled and hung over her forehead.
“Well, how’d it go?” he asked.
“Great.” she said. “They are arrogant as hell, but they’re listening. It is about as much as you can ask the first day out.”
“You mean we’re going to get our money’s worth for all this...” he left it hanging in the air.
“Crap,” she finished for him. She seemed a little miffed. “Good night.” She turned and was gone.
Strong began a slow burn. God was she touchy! Well, let her finish her job and get out of here. That was fine by him. To hell with her, he thought.
On the train that night, he read the paper all the way home without a problem.
As Natalia rode the bus to her apartment in the Village, she leaned her head against the cold window and drifted in and out of consciousness. She thought she had situation in hand but she was so startled by his concern when she had walked in that she dropped pencils and papers the rest of the day.
And then at the end, when he was obviously waiting to see her in the lobby, he had made that inane remark about training, and she had said something bitchy. Why in the world did she do that? You didn’t talk to a client like that. He got a hurt look in his eyes and she had left. Oh, to hell with this whole thing! Just finish the job and get out of there. Some situations were hopeless.