Bedazzled Excerpt

KEELI

“We’ll miss you so much Keeli, but I am green with envy.”

“I wish I was as brave as you are, Keeli. Your life is going to be so glamorous and exciting. Lucky you.”

“Yeah, and no more Weinberg telling you what to sell. You can finally be your own boss, selling your own designs.”

“And making some decent money.”

The hugs and good wishes from Amelia and Sharon caught Keeli by surprise. So did their confidence in her ability to succeed. She could not remember the last time someone – other than herself – had believed in her talent.

Assuming she had never really fit in, Keeli was surprised by Amelia, Sharon, Keith and Steve’s generosity and good wishes. Because Keeli never bothered to share more than a “Hi, how’s it going?” with them, she was particularly touched by their kindness now.

It wasn’t that she was unfriendly. Keeli just tried to stay focused on her work, head bent low over her workbench or on her feet assisting with clients. She had put in ten-hour days, trying to get ahead and make enough in commissions to stay afloat. She carefully avoided office gossip and water-cooler chitchat but by doing so she forfeited the opportunity to connect with any of her colleagues. At this last minute, she regretted that she never made more of an effort. They might have been wonderful friends.

Too late now, I guess, but learn your lesson here. Yep, I will try to open up and let people in a bit more. It would be very good for me.

The women reached out to give Keeli a farewell hug and after a moment of awkwardness, Keeli slid a battered shoebox onto an uncluttered bit of countertop, freeing her arms to return their affection. The box contained the smattering of personal items that were a sad reflection of her time at Weinberg and Sons. The small box held the precious jewelry tools she had amassed over her brief career and a hastily rinsed coffee mug with a small chip in the handle. The red mug with the saying I’m a jewelry lady. See me bling! was wrapped in a rumpled scarf she forgot to wear home last Friday, the tools slid safely into that one warm glove; the other she lost weeks ago. She hoped the fabric would protect her few possessions if she were jostled on the train.

She tucked the envelope containing the Target gift card and congratulations card into the box under her tools for safety and replaced the box lid. The small group understood that things might get tough for Keeli, recognized how much more valuable a practical gift card would be than a spa certificate. They had given her the cards during a hastily thrown farewell party (cake and coffee in the break room) just a few short minutes ago.

How embarrassing that they are right about the Target card. It will be much more useful. Did they know when they bought it that it might mean the difference between groceries and hunger? Stop that. Think positive. It will not come to that.

After a few minutes of good luck wishes and laughter, Mr. Weinberg joined them, cutting himself a huge slice of cake and dropping bright pink frosting on the dress shirt straining over his bulging belly. His presence quickly altered the mood of the festivities, bringing them to an abrupt end. The awkward silence was a sure sign to Keeli that it was time to hit the road.

“Thanks again for the party, and the gift certificate. It was so generous. You guys are the best. I’ll stay in touch and let you know as soon as I know how you can reach me.”

Keeli meant it when she said it, although she never stayed in touch with prior colleagues for some reason. She was not a Facebook user, which would have been an easy way to stay connected, but she hated people knowing her business. That would change now that she was starting her own company. She had ordered a new phone line and accompanying Internet address for work, but she knew by the time both were installed she would have moved on with her life, leaving this group behind.

Disentangling from one final, group hug, Keeli found tears gathering behind her eyes and, knowing her voice would reveal her sudden emotion, Keeli settled for nodding farewell to the group. Standing straight and tall, she pasted a determined look on her face, slid her small parcel under her right arm, hoisted her raincoat and oversized purse over her left shoulder and used a hip-bump to push open the heavy glass door.

Heels echoed on the faded, mosaic floor as she strode away from her past and toward the elevators without a backward glance. For a brief moment, Keeli was reminded of “The Devil Wears Prada” when Anne Hathaway’s character described ‘clackers’. This floor was perfect for amplifying every step. Keeli imagined herself as Anne Hathaway, dressed in Chanel, makeup and hair perfect, and for a moment, she allowed humor to edge out her fear.

As if.

The image faded, allowing Keeli’s fear to hit her like a ton of bricks. Her straight back sagged against the cool marble wall as she waited for the elevator. Keeli felt terror wash over her. She just quit her third job in five years. True, each move had allowed her to move up in her profession, but it was still a lot of turmoil.

I should have been content with what I had.

Keeli had been battling herself for days. She had achieved more than enough success for most people with her background and education. She worked in Chicago’s prestigious jewelry district, getting pointers from skilled, experienced designers every day. She had been able to interact with the wealthy clientele that were her target market.

But Keeli was who she was. She would never be ‘most people’. She could never content herself being a sales clerk; she was a designer. She was eager to show the world her contemporary and unique style, but Mr. Weinberg insisted she push the traditional, more expensive pieces. It was his business. He was certainly allowed to call the shots, but he had promised Keeli an opportunity for growth when she joined his firm and she had waited as long as she could for that opportunity to materialize. At first, he had encouraged her to create her own designs, offering to place them prominently in his display cases. She created beautiful pieces that she placed lovingly onto the velvet only to watch him remove them. Eventually he explained that her aesthetic was not his.

After that, going into work had been harder and harder. It was more than the cold January rain and snow that made Keeli hit the snooze button every morning. One ten-minute snooze last month had grown to two this month. Keeli felt the dread mushrooming until she couldn’t breathe. Her commute, which she had previously enjoyed, was suddenly unbearable. Keeli’s heart was no longer in it. She had lost her enthusiasm for the job – again.

“Leave, stay, leave, stay.” It had been a battling loop in her brain ever since the Christmas rush ended. Two weeks ago, listening to the nagging voice at last, she handed in her notice. Mr. Weinberg made a half-hearted attempt to keep her but they both recognized, despite her talent and hard work, that she was no longer a good fit at Weinberg and Sons.

So here she stood, waiting for the elevator to take her to a solo life running Keeli Larsen Designs. From this moment forward she was financier, designer, manufacturer, sales woman and grunt. No colleagues, no steady paycheck, no safety net.

She had so many doubts and almost no friends or business associates. There was no mentor to dispense advice at this critical juncture, no cheering squad to support her dreams. Her small group of friends and family fell into two camps. Half believed she was making a brave and brilliant move. Half believed she could not hold down a steady job.

Keeli was not naive. She had enough smarts to know she was undercapitalized, with a weak professional network and no useful connections. From today forward she would have to churn out product and pound the pavement, find time to balance the need to design, create and market, keep books, save for taxes. Assuming she made any money. Keeli believed she could do it. If she hadn’t she would have found a way to suck it up and stayed in her job as she had been forced to do many times before. But from now on, no doubt about it, every penny mattered more than it had before.

If she had a good summer working the art fair circuit, that would help. The fairs had been helpful the previous two years with supplementing her income. She had hoped to be noticed, boosted by the venues, but nothing had happened yet and she felt she needed to devote the next four months creating an inventory that might springboard her at last.

She would have to survive at least six months on her small nest egg. That was her estimate of how long her money would last, so that was how long she had to get her business off the ground. If it took any longer, she would be in big trouble.

Speaking of longer, where was the elevator? Even for this old building, it was taking longer than usual. As an artist, Keeli appreciated the craftsmanship of the vintage building. She loved the elegant brass-work surrounding the doors of elevators that had once been operated by young men in livery, but right now, she wished for modern efficiency. Keeli could hear the faint mechanism of the old machinery as the car moved closer, then the ding of the old fashioned bell as the doors eased open.

No wonder it took so long to arrive. The elevator was as full as Macy’s on Black Friday. It must have stopped at every floor. Clustered to one side of the large space were Hassidic Jews heading home for their Sabbath. Barely looking at her, they retreated under their black coats and hats, conversing in rapid-fire Hebrew. The newer merchants, who were predominantly Indian, filled the remainder of the space. The two groups clustered tightly, creating an opening in between them. Watching her step, careful not to bump anyone with her parcel, Keeli stepped into the middle and moved toward the back of the car.

The chatter in the elevator lightened her mood immediately, reminding Keeli of all the people who had started with only a few dollars and a dream. In many cases, they had made it without knowing the language or customs of their adopted country. By comparison, she had many advantages and quickly felt better about her choice, more confident about moving forward on her own. Mr. Weinberg had let her take many of her pieces with her when she left his employ. There had been no severance check, of course, but having a ready inventory, even a small one, was a gift. Keeli let the confidence surge through her body, standing straight and looking ahead.

That was the moment she saw HIM. He was the best thing – by far- about working in this building. She was standing face to face with the virile, gorgeous, sexy man she saw in the elevator regularly. Well, almost face-to-face since he was a good 4 or 5 inches taller than her own 5’10”. He was what she would miss most about this job – those random opportunities to ride the elevator and watch him, getting to stand close to him, allowing her imagination to run wild with fantasies (all starring him of course).

Most of the time, he hid mysteriously behind a pair of Wayfarers, but the rain today afforded Keeli a chance to admire the intelligence and concentration in his azure eyes. He stood with his shoulders back, head towering over the bent heads of everyone else. Looking up, Keeli locked eyes with his and his mouth lifted in a half smile. Keeli shyly dropped her head as a blush rose to her cheeks and her heart sped up. She knew the smile was just because he was polite. She wanted so much more. She wanted him to notice her the way she noticed him, feel about her as she did about him.

If only he had the same visceral response to her that Keeli had to him, perhaps he would have talked to her by now. She could not overcome her shyness to initiate a conversation, but if he longed for her as she did him, maybe something might have happened. Obviously, he was not interested. Now she would leave this job and never see him again. Her disappointment was way out of proportion for what she should feel for a stranger. But he had this pull on her. Instead of thinking of him as a stranger, she thought of him as hers.

Hers. What a laugh. Wake up Keeli!

Everyone watched him – man and woman alike. She had noticed it in the elevator or when he walked through the lobby. Yes, he was particularly tall, a few inches over six feet. However, it was more than his height that drew the eye. He was compelling, confident, and assured. He was beyond handsome with his chiseled features, thick wavy hair and well-muscled body clad in custom suits. Keeli was drawn to him like a bee to honey. She had seen other women catch his eye, seen them smile and flirt easily. She was overwhelmingly shy around him, preventing her from ever making him ‘hers’.

Why, oh why is facing forward considered appropriate elevator etiquette? I just want to stare at him one last time. Today needs to be the day to think of something to say, some witty conversation opener. You are out of time, stupid.

Over the last 16 months, they crossed paths at the coffee kiosk or in the elevator at least once a week. She knew she was projecting her own desires, but sometimes it seemed to her that he was seeking her out. Even so, Keeli never exchanged more than a polite “hello” and he was always polite, but aloof. Although she longed for some reason to speak more than pleasantries, she was unable to move past that invisible barrier she felt between them.

Her brain searched now for a reason to speak, knowing it was her last chance. Instead, she reluctantly turned to face the doors. He was standing so close. She felt the warmth of his breath on the back of her neck, goose bumps travelling up her arms in response to the moist heat. She was rocked by her immediate, erotic reaction.

Reigning in her body’s response, Keeli reminded herself that the warm breath was just a result of proximity, not desire. She was a non-entity to him and had been for 16 months. His polished appearance, custom suits and elegant leather briefcase contrasted with her wild red hair, shabby jacket, scuffed shoes and faded Old Navy dress clearly delineated their differences. He epitomized elegance and privilege; she embodied shabby chic. Maybe not even chic – just shabby. She could never bridge the gulf.

Besides, he was Wyatt Lyons Howe IV. Unreachable, untouchable, unavailable to someone like her. He was the sun. She was lucky to feel a tiny touch of his warmth, to orbit occasionally. She was Pluto – far, far away.

Nonetheless, she was drawn to him, so she did her homework. He rode the elevator to the top – the executive floor for Lyons Howe Real Estate – the company that occupied the top four floors of the building. LHRE owned this building as well as at least 100 other buildings around the Loop, more throughout the Midwest and God only knew what else. The first time she saw him hit the button for the top floor she Googled LHRE.

There he was, his handsome face staring at her from the screen of her computer. His picture was at the top of the home page, just below the elegant logo for the prestigious firm and a serious-faced photo of his silver-haired father, Wyatt III, the CEO and President. Wyatt’s gorgeous blue eyes stared back at her, so compelling that he could entice her with only a professional headshot. Below his picture, his title indicated he was Chief Information Officer, obviously a top member of the LHRE executive team. He looked like a younger, more handsome, version of his father.

The family resemblance continued with his brother who appeared about ten years his junior, fresh faced and innocent, but already a vice-president. The beautiful woman pictured there was identified as his sister and Chief Financial Officer. She looked just a few years Wyatt’s junior, serious and aristocratic. Together they embodied the perfect example of a privileged family and a solid, trustworthy executive team.

Once she knew his name, Keeli devoured every bit of information she could find about Wyatt. She knew she was standing just inches from one of Chicago’s most eligible bachelors. Wyatt Lyons Howe was American blueblood, old money, European tours, private clubs and the best schools. Heir to the massive LHRE empire, he oozed success from every pore. He moved like he owned the world, or at least a sizable chunk of it.

Here she was, basking in the warmth of the sun that was Wyatt. Keeli knew if she just inched back she could be touching him. After all, she lusted after him, fantasized about him endlessly, dreaming with him, marrying him, growing old with him. He was everything she was looking for in her perfect man – intelligence, sophistication, a commanding air, sex appeal and those staggering good looks.

Oh yeah, and he had that power thing going too. He radiated power. It was such a turn on.

As she caught a hint of his clean, outdoorsy scent, Keeli pictured him behind her; his gorgeous face, that end-of-day shadowed jaw, the slight tan he sported even during a Chicago winter. Wyatt dominated her dreams, waking and sleeping. She had fallen in love with him the first time she heard him laugh a hearty, full-bodied sound that gave her a sense that he knew how to enjoy life. He was her dream man. He was her “complete package”.

So what if we have never exchanged two words? Details, details.

At that very moment, she envisioned him reaching out from behind her, slipping his arms around her and pulling her up against him. She could imagine the rough feel of his wool trousers, scratchy against her thighs, followed by the softer feel of his fingers sliding up her legs. She felt goose bumps rise on her skin as she fantasized about his lips caressing her neck moving from there to her cheekbone as he spun her around so she was pressed against him, his mouth, descending to claim hers in a kiss. She pictured herself dizzy with desire, all feminine softness clasped against the hard power of his thighs, the length of his erection…Oh my god, she was getting damp just standing near him, letting her imagination run wild.

Keeli’s heart thumped above the workings of the old elevator, so loud she wondered if Wyatt could hear it too. Was he looking at her with those piercing blue eyes? Was he flashing her his perfect smile, clear evidence of great genes or years of orthodontia? She wanted to turn around and get one last look at this beautiful man to store in her memory but she was so aroused she feared he would notice.

Standing in front of him now, Keeli’s head just reached his shoulder despite her own above average height. Her body itched to sway back the scant distance necessary to close the gap between them. She imagined resting her head upon his broad chest, feeling the softness of his fine shirt, leaning her rounded contours against the hard planes of his chest.

I will have to wear heels when we date. As if I would ever have an opportunity to stand beside him in any circumstance other than this one. Who am I kidding? Damn, did I think the elevator was slow? This ride is going way too fast.

They had quickly dropped from the upper levels of the building and the doors opened on the fourth floor. Two more people stepped into the already crowded space and automatically, Keeli backed up to accommodate them.

And it happened. In a split second, without thinking or planning, Keeli backed into Wyatt, her hand resting solidly against the front of his pants. Thank heavens he couldn’t see her face now, flaming every shade of red. He didn’t move at first, shocked perhaps, and then his large hand swiftly nudged hers away. Had she felt an erection? Wanting to die of mortification, Keeli feigned ignorance and Wyatt chose to do the same.

It was one thing to imagine it, but to do it, even by mistake. She wanted to crawl in a hole and die. In moments, they were at lobby level. The doors opened, the bell jingled, and Keeli felt the unmistakable feel of his hand on the small of her back, warm, strong and certain. It was solidly placed and it was electric. The sensuous touch heating her skin through her light dress caused Keeli’s whole body to vibrate.

Before she even registered the contact in her brain, her senses alerted her to the silky feel of his hand snaking its way over the curve of her hip in an unfaltering caress. The contact was swift but significant. He had her round derriere in the firm grasp of his large palm. He never looked her way, although Keeli would swear he had just quite intentionally grabbed her ass.

Am I wrong? Is this an accident? Could he really have been unaware?

The elevator was emptying as she stepped out, still feeling the erotic heat of his breath on her neck, and his hand moving on her behind. Flustered, she remained mute. He too said nothing, cool and composed as he stepped from the car. Then he was gone, moving from the elevator through the crowd with that long, easy stride, unaware of the overwhelming desire coursing through her.

He must have done it on purpose, right? He must find me desirable. Hang on, Keeli; maybe he thinks you’re a piece of meat. Who the hell does he think he is anyway? Dammit, am I supposed to be excited or offended? What a turn-on. I am an idiot; I just let a total stranger grope me. Of course, I did grope him first…

Her heart pounding, her skin tingling, Keeli was hot all over from the combination of her fantasy and the very real feel of his large hand on her ass. She basked in the sensations overwhelming her body, relived the moment until the fog lifted from her brain and allowed it to reengage. She regained her composure, shoved her arms through her coat and checked to make sure it was closed. She secured her box under her arm and headed with the crowd toward the revolving doors.

Rain was falling, cold and unrelenting. Keeli pulled her inadequate coat closer and stepped away from the protection of the building. She felt the warmth of her desire and her chances of seeing Wyatt ever again slip away as if running down the nearest storm drain, replaced by the chilly rain. She walked the short block to the “L” station getting drenched. With each step, the warmth of the unbelievable encounter disappeared to be replaced by the sad reality of cold, wet, and broke.

WYATT

Wyatt got all the way to the garage before he turned sharply on his heel and strode back to the elevators. A quick scan of the lobby and he knew the redhead had escaped. Aggravated, he punched the button for the elevator, stabbed at it repeatedly, impatiently. Wyatt entered the vacant elevator and prowled it like a caged panther until the doors opened at the top floor.

Wyatt had just crossed the line with that beautiful woman and he should be mortified. But in the last 16 months he had struggled to keep his hands off of her, stopping just short of smoothing her red-brown curls, staring rudely into her eyes, resisting brushing against her. Once he caught himself just before he leaned in to kiss that spot on the nape of her neck that was exposed when she tossed her head. Today was too much. He was too close. He could not stop himself anymore.

What is wrong with me? I am a grown man. I have a reputation to maintain of the cool, sophisticated dude and man about town. I have been around the block – several times. I always maintain control – always – except around her, damn it. She makes me lose it.

His heart was still racing and his pulse pounded in his ears. He was unashamed he had touched her. She felt amazing; soft and round, strong and sexy. Wyatt was completely turned on even as he imagined his mother scolding him for his behavior.

“You don’t grab a strange girl! That is not what my son does. I raised you to be a perfect gentleman, I did not raise you in a barn.” She loved to remind her children of their manners, conduct and good breeding by using that remark. As if any of them were unable to recognize that the Howe estate was the antithesis of a barn.

Wyatt wanted to blame her for touching him first, but he could not. He knew her hand had been an accident, an erotic accident. His grope had been intentional.

Get over her already. She is just a girl, like all the others. In fact, she is likely poorer than most of the women I mess with, so I need this to just stop. I absolutely cannot – will not – tangle with another user who pretends to want me when she wants what I can buy her. Pretty? Oh yeah, she is pretty. Sexy? Yes, unbelievably sexy. OMG, that ass was incredible. Shake it off now, boy. Poor girls only want you to open doors for them and buy them presents. They want one thing and it is not my heart. You already learned that the hard way Wyatt. Smarten up.

Wyatt freely acknowledged that he was drawn to this woman, to her combination of sexpot and girl next door. He loved the way she always said “good morning“ or “good afternoon” to total strangers. He found it endearing that she made small talk with the barista at the lobby kiosk and knew all about his family. The eloquent Wyatt Howe IV rarely found himself tongue-tied, but he had been unable to strike up a conversation with her for more than a year. He figured if he just had a simple conversation, he could move past this obsession. However, as soon as he saw her he was aroused – aroused and silent. His hormones ruled his brain just from a smile and a sweet, little hello. Seriously, he found it embarrassing. He found it a problem.

I think I could care about this one. She could do some serious damage when she walks away and they always walk away. Either I won’t marry them, or I won’t give them access to the money. Or I don’t take them to meet the right people. They all have some excuse. She could mess me up I think. I have been there before; got the t-shirt. I am done getting my heart broken.

In his effort to protect his heart and his wallet, Wyatt had been diligent about keeping his responses to a polite but cool “good morning” or “good evening” when she was in a crowd with others. No conversation alone. No smiles, no encouragement. It was not easy for him either. Not when she walked away, hips swaying provocatively, and he could stare at those long, long legs and that heart-shaped ass. He found himself struggling to put her out of his mind and today he decided to do something about it. He touched her. Oh man, did he touch her!

He couldn’t help himself. Today had just been one disaster after another and the pressures on him were heading toward a boiling point. Life was closing in, forcing him to make tough choices, squeezing out the ability to make good judgment calls. Wyatt was a little bit saint and a little bit devil and the two started warring the second she stepped on the elevator and he caught a whiff of her light floral perfume.

Don’t I deserve just a little treat? I have been working like a dog. Besides, I just did what she did and copped a little feel. I suppose I could have made it look more like an accident. It was beyond my control, if I am honest. The moment she made contact with my crotch, I was a goner.

Wyatt’s erection had been inevitable; his body responded so fast that he had no choice but to move her hand away. In one more moment, the effect she had on him would have been obvious. On the other hand, did moving her hand away just draw attention to the growing bulge?

Wracking his brain for an excuse, Wyatt knew that moving her hand did not logically extend to grabbing her ass. He meant nothing by the harmless, light hand he rested on the small of her back to steady her in the crowd. That was a well-meant, innocent gesture. Before he could control what he was doing, the innocent gesture gave way to a serious caress of her luscious behind. In that few inches of contact, done quickly, he managed to get a sense of her curves, of her softness and warmth. After that taste, he hungered for more.

Wyatt, you bad, bad boy. His saintly side chastised him.

Worried now that she might think him a dirty old man, he hoped that she thought his touch was reflexive, unintentional in the jostle of people.

I should have grabbed more. Way more. The devil prevailed.

He had fixated long enough. Today she opened the door and he stepped through it. He had been compelled to touch her and now he was compelled to take things further. This Friday afternoon felt different. Desperation gnawed at him, demanded he finally connect with her. He could not explain it, but suddenly he was forced to act, to move things forward; it felt like time was running out and he could not let her get away.

Stomping out of the elevator, Wyatt bulldozed through the huge glass doors with the large gold LHRE logo on them, barking at his assistant half a corridor away. She looked up through cat-eye glasses, unfazed by his shouting.

“Annette,” he bellowed moving across the plush carpeting toward her. “There is a girl getting off on the 12th floor every day, red curls to the middle of her back, green – no blue- no green eyes. About normal height, gorgeous long legs and really bad clothes. She has that sweet, girl-next-door personality, you can’t miss it. I need you to find her. I want to know everything about her by end of day Monday. Got it?” Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and headed for the door.

“Should I get her shoe size too, Wyatt? Are you planning to buy her a new wardrobe?” Annette quipped as he yanked the door open with force.

“I mean it, Annette. Find her.”

Wyatt relied on Annette for everything and she never disappointed. He knew that by this time Monday he would have the necessary info and by the end of week he planned to have that luscious body in his arms, that mane of red hair spread over his pillows. He knew Annette was a bulldog who would find her, and fast. Wyatt had a new confidence, a bounce to his step as he strode back through the double doors.

Yeah, she is probably just someone else to use me, but user or not, I need to see where this leads. I need to see if a date or two cures me of this obsession or intensifies it. Definitely. Annette will find her by Monday and I will ask her out next Wednesday. Don’t want to look too anxious.

Wyatt was almost correct. In only two hastily placed phone calls, Annette obtained the name of the showroom that employed Keeli along with the information that she had left with no forwarding email or phone. Wyatt was still striding through the garage when Annette also knew that Wyatt was a few hours too late. She would let him keep that bounce in his step a few days longer. Monday would be soon enough to let him know that the less-than-chic redhead had slipped through his fingers.