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A selection from After the Party

Chase Trumbull's mood was in the toilet when he strode through the main doors of the New York skyscraper that housed Trumbull Toys' corporate offices. It was a gloriously sunny Friday in June, just four hours shy of quitting time for those who punched a clock, with the weekend weather forecast calling for clear skies and highs in the eighties. But it felt like a cold and cloudy Monday given the rumors that were circulating and the grim financial news he'd just received.

Even so, he wasn't blind, much less dead. So, in spite of his foul mood, his steps slowed and his gaze de-toured south to take in the view.

As backsides went, the one on the woman who'd stopped midstride in front of him was one of the finest he'd seen in a long time. It was firm, nicely curved and packaged in a narrow zebra-print skirt that clung to its contours like a glove to the proverbial hand. The legs that extended from the skirt's meager hemline were the perfect complement to a first-class ass. And the shoes—black with red soles that ended in daggerlike four-inch heels… Well, it was all he could do to hold back his groan. And that was before she bent over to retrieve something from the lobby floor.

Of course, this was neither the time nor the place to indulge base instincts, even if a toned butt, killer legs, animal-print miniskirt and stilettos ticked all of the boxes on his libido's wish list. He concentrated on the company's projected second-quarter profits. Those certainly were dismal enough to banish the triple-X fantasy that had started to play in his mind like the featured film at a bachelor party.

As it was, the sizable slump in sales from the previous four quarters had the board of directors on edge and stockholders beginning to defect. The finger was being pointed in a direction Chase didn't want to look. And then there were those damned rumors.

The woman straightened, turned slightly and, catching sight of him, smiled apologetically, leaving asymmetrical divots in her cheeks. One dent was midway between her mouth and ear. The other, just to the side of her lips.

"I'm sorry. I hope I wasn't in your way."

"Not at all," he lied politely. Another oddity in her features registered and good manners deserted him. He blurted out, "Only one of your eyes is blue."

"The other is brown. It makes it a little tricky when I have to fill out any official forms."

"I'm sure." He realized he was staring, and asked, "Did you lose something just now?"

"Actually, I found something." She smiled again and held out her hand. A single copper coin decorated its palm.

"That's a penny."

"A lucky penny," she corrected. "It's an omen." When he frowned, she said, "You know, a sign. A good one in this case. I'm here about a job."

The first layer of fantasy peeled away. Chase was too practical to put stock in omens. As for luck, he was of the firm belief that people made their own. His uncle was a case in point. Elliot Trumbull was the founder and creative genius behind a multibillion-dollar business that he'd launched four decades earlier with toys that remained beloved and collected the world over. Vision, passion, hard work—those were the ingredients for success. Not luck, even if Chase could admit that Elliot had run into a spate of the bad variety lately.

"And you think finding a penny on the floor in this lobby is going to help you with that?"

The woman shrugged. "It can't hurt. Right?"

Well, she had him there.

Together, they started for the bank of elevators, where nearly a dozen people outfitted in conservative business attire waited. They greeted Chase with nods and murmured "Good afternoon," before parting like the Red Sea. When the doors of the first elevator slid open, not one of them boarded it.

Chase was used to this. When Elliot had brought Chase back to New York from the company's California office eighteen months earlier, he'd come with the express purpose of turning around Trumbull Toys' flagging bottom line. Unlike his uncle, who was officially at the helm and remained the creative force, or Owen, Elliot's son, who was known to flirt outrageously with female workers, Chase believed in running a tight ship. As a result, employees feared him. When possible, they went out of their way to avoid him. The young woman, however, stepped inside the elevator without a moment's hesitation. Then she caught the doors before they could close.

"Isn't anyone else coming?"

She directed the question to the crowd at large. Several of them flushed. A few of them stammered incoherently. An intern from the marketing department looked as if he might faint.

"They'll catch the next car," Chase replied on their behalf.

"Oh. Okay." She released the doors and they shut.

Chase punched the buttons for floors two and seventeen. Human Resources was located on two. Top management offices, including his, were on seventeen. When the bell dinged and the doors opened one floor up, however, the woman made no attempt to leave.

"This is two," he prompted. "Aren't you getting off here?"

She blinked at him, one brown eye and one blue clouded with confusion. "No. I thought you were."

"Why would I be getting off here?"

"Well, you're the one who pressed the button," she reminded him.

"The human resources department is on this floor." He pointed down the corridor. "It's the third office on the left. That's where all job applicants check in to fill out paperwork before being sent on to department heads for their interviews."

"There must be some mistake."

"It's all right." He held the doors to keep them from closing. "You probably just misunderstood."

"No, what I mean is, I'm not here for an interview. I've already got the job. I'm meeting with my client on the seventeenth floor."

That was when it hit him. No…no…no.

Chase realized he'd muttered his objection aloud when she said, "Excuse me?"

He released the doors and they closed, sealing him inside the elevator with a woman who was every man's fantasy and, now that he knew her identity, Chase's worst nightmare.

Tone grim, he said, "You're the party planner."

"Guilty as charged. I'm Ella Sanborn." She sobered slightly. "Don't tell me you're Mr. Trumbull. Er, I mean you sounded…different on the phone."

He could only imagine.

"One of three. I'm Chase. You're here to see Elliot. He's my uncle."

"I am so sorry to hear he's dying."

Jaw clenched, he replied, "My uncle is not dying."

Her brow wrinkled. "But when he called, he said he wanted me to plan a wake. An Irish one. For him."

Chase rubbed the back of his neck just above his shoulders where a tight knot was already starting to form. "My uncle isn't Irish, either."

"I don't understand."

"A common occurrence," Chase remarked.

His uncle's quirkiness left a lot of people scratching their heads. Lately, he also had become unpredictable and absentminded to the point that some members of the board of directors were questioning his mental fitness and ability to continue as the head of the publicly traded company. Rumor had it that they were close to having the votes to do it. Chase didn't want to think what the board members who were still on the fence were going to think if his uncle went through with this wake.

Too late Chase realized that Ella thought his comment was directed at her.

"I can be a little naive at times, but I'm not an idiot."

"I didn't mean to—"

"Oh, my God. It's all a joke, isn't it?"

Chase frowned. In the span of a few seconds he'd gone from being contrite to being confused. "What?"

"The job, the supposed interview. Somehow Bernadette found out about my new business venture, and she put you up to this."

The elevator stopped on the fifteenth floor. Three men from the product development department were waiting to board. With one glance from Chase they scuttled away like crabs at low tide.

When the elevator was under way again, he asked, "Who is Bernadette?"

"She's my stepsister. Ex-stepsister, actually. Her mom and my dad are divorced now." Ella paused to add a dramatic, "Thank God!" Then, "But that hasn't stopped her from trying to make my life miserable."

"Well, this is no joke. My uncle is serious about wanting an Irish wake."

"Even though he's not Irish and he's not dying."

"He has his reasons." Ones Chase didn't quite understand and couldn't agree with. "My uncle can be… He's often…" At a loss for how to describe the man who had raised him from the age of ten on, Chase finished awkwardly, "He's just like that."

Especially lately.

"Like what?" Ella asked.

Chase clamped his lips closed. He didn't want to believe the rumors circulating about his uncle's deteriorating mental capacity. He certainly wouldn't help spread them.

Greeted with his silence, Ella said, "That's okay. I'd rather meet him and make up my own mind anyway."

Unfortunately, Chase had a pretty good idea of the opinion Ella Sanborn would form once she did.

The elevator dinged, heralding their arrival on the much vaunted seventeenth floor of the Trumbull Toys empire. Several years ago, Ella had seen a television special on Elliot Trumbull and his place of business. It had made toy stores seem drab and restrained by comparison. But when the doors opened, the sight that greeted her left her not only disappointed but baffled.

"Is something wrong?" Chase said.

"This is the fabled Trumbull Toy Company?" she asked before she could think better of it.

Chase frowned. "What were you expecting?"

Well, she hadn't been expecting beige walls and a nondescript sitting area. Where was the life-size Randy the Robot that she'd seen in the TV special? And the basketball hoops? The foosball table and minitrampoline?

She laughed weakly. "I guess I was expecting toys."

"Those are gone. I found they were too distracting and sent the wrong message to employees. This is a place of business."

Yes, and that business was toys. But she decided not to press the point.

Two women and a man sat at a horseshoe-shaped reception desk talking into headsets as they tapped away on keyboards. All three were dressed as conservatively as Chase in the muted colors Ella associated with storm clouds. Admittedly, she liked bright hues and fun prints, hence her zebra skirt and the poppy-red blouse. Still.

As a unit, they glanced in Chase's direction, but just like the group in the lobby, and the men who'd tried to board the elevator several floors later, not one of them maintained eye contact for very long. Ella's gaze slid to Chase. She could see why. In his dark suit, perfectly knotted tie and polished wingtips, Chase Trumbull cut an imposing figure. She shouldn't have found him approachable much less attractive. But she did. Oh, yeah, she did, all right.

She blamed the attraction she felt on his cowlick. She was a sucker for cowlicks, and his was a beaut. That little whirl of sandy hair just to the left of his part simply refused to go along with the rest of his fastidiously styled locks. It reminded Ella a bit of herself. She wasn't one to go along with the crowd, either.

All sorts of superstitions were attached to cowlicks. Some people saw them as the mark of the devil. Others insisted they were a sign of good luck. Ella's best friend, Sandra Chesterfield, meanwhile, claimed that men with cowlicks were exceptional lovers. She'd read an article to that effect on the internet. If that was true, a man with one displayed so prominently at his hairline must be.

Ella fanned herself.

"Hot?" Chase asked.

Yes, and that made two of them. But she smiled and said, "I'm fine. Cool as a cucumber."

His brows furrowed momentarily. Then, to the woman seated on the left of the reception desk, he said, "This is Ella Sanborn. She's here to see Elliot."

"Yes. He's expecting her."

"My uncle's office is the third door on the left."

The door in question was closed. Ella asked, "Should I knock?"

"Just once and then go right in. If you wait for him to answer, you might wind up standing there all day."

It seemed rude to barge in, even if she was expected. "You're sure he's not busy?"

Chase consulted his watch. "Oh, he's busy. It's nearly race time."


"You'll see." One side of his mouth rose. It wasn't quite a smile, but it was the closest she'd seen him come so far. It softened his features and left her a bit dazzled. It also made her wonder what Chase Trumbull would look like with a full-out grin plastered on his face and amusement lighting his eyes.

"Good luck. Of course you don't need it," he said solemnly. At her puzzled expression, he added, "You found that penny in the lobby."

"I did." Ella replied with an equal amount of seriousness, even though she was pretty sure that he was teasing her.

He disappeared into the first office, whose door bore a brass plate etched with Chase Danforth Trumball III, Chief Financial Officer.

She sucked in a breath and proceeded to the third door, passing one with a brass plate marked Owen Scott Trumbull, Chief Operating Officer. The name-plate on the third door wasn't brass. It was bright red, and its white carnivalesque script read, Elliot Trumbull, Purveyor of All Things Fun. In spite of her nerves, she found herself grinning. After she knocked and the door opened, that grin changed into delighted laughter.

Now this was more like it.

It wasn't an office. It was every young boy's fantasy, complete with a race track that snaked under, over and around the spacious room's eclectic furnishings.

"You're just in time," said a man teetering on the top rung of a ladder that overlooked the track.

Even though he was older now, she recognized him from the television program. Elliot Trumbull in the flesh. And he was indeed the purveyor of all things fun.

No stuffy business attire for him. He was dressed in a professional racecar driver's jumpsuit, complete with half a dozen endorsement patches sewn on the sleeves and chest. In one hand, he held a flag; in the other, a bright orange starter pistol. As Ella stood transfixed, he fired the gun into the air—the bullet a blank, she assumed, since it didn't take out any ceiling tiles—and declared the race under way. On the track, three vehicles about the size of her palm whirred into action.

"They're sound activated by the pistol," he told her.

"After that, a computer takes over and ultimately decides the race. Care to place a bet on the winning car?"

"Ten bucks on number seventy-seven," she replied, without stopping to wonder if she had enough money in her purse to cover her wager.

"Why that one?" he wanted to know.

"Because blue's my favorite color and seven is my lucky number."

"Sound reasons to pick it then," he agreed without a trace of his nephew's mockery in his tone. "I always go with red for the same reason. You must be Ella."

After climbing down from the ladder, Elliot picked his way over the track to her. She placed his age at late sixties and his weight at one-eighty with most of it centered at his waist. He had a shaggy mustache and a mop of salt-and-pepper hair that gave him a decidedly Einstein vibe.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Trumbull."

She would have shaken his hand, but he took the one she extended and kissed the back of it instead. Make that Einstein meets Sir Galahad.

"Call me Elliot. We don't stand on formality around here." His bushy brows pulled together in a frown and he muttered, "At least I don't. I run a toy company, for the time being, at least. That should be fun, don't you think?"

"I do," she agreed.

"Good. At least someone does. Would you like something to drink?" Instead of offering the usual coffee or tea, he said, "My secretary makes the best strawberry malts this side of the Mississippi. Probably the best on either side, come to think of it."

Ella's mouth watered at the offer, but she shook her head. "No, thanks."

"All right. Then, have a seat and we'll get started."

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