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by Ann O'Leary
Tall, athletic Joanna Kingston has a roguish way about her that draws women like a magnet. Yet, as too many lovers have discovered too late, though Joanna’s bedroom door is always open, she keeps her wounded heart under lock and key.
Knowing too well Joanna’s “love ’em and leave ’em” reputation, beautiful Fiona Maddison is determined to keep their friendship platonic—unless she can break through Joanna’s impenetrable public persona. But as the sexual tension between them starts to smolder, Fiona’s resolve starts to melt….
First Published by Naiad Press 1999
Joanna woke up suddenly. Disoriented, her heart thumping, she lay still for a moment, clutching at the loose threads of her dream and trying to get a grip on reality. With a gasp, she caught sight of a dark, huddled form on the chair in the corner of her bedroom. Leaning on one elbow, holding her breath, she stared, trying to focus.
As her eyes adjusted to the thin, dawn light, she released her breath. “Idiot,” she muttered, annoyed with herself. The night before, exhausted, she had carelessly dumped her clothes on top of the plump chair cushions before falling into bed. It wasn’t like her to be untidy. The bedside clock read five-thirty. It was still hot. She turned toward the light seeping through the half-drawn, butter-colored Roman blind.
Getting up, she went to the window and opened the blind fully, hoping a breeze might drift through and cool her naked body. But it was motionless outside. Her gaze fell on the elm trees lining the street. Slashed in half by the low, watery shafts of the sun, the treetops were washed in a pinkish-yellow glow, the trunks in shadow. Like outstretched arms, the branches seemed to be begging for a life-giving breeze, the leaves gasping.
She pulled on a long T-shirt and headed out to the kitchen. Taking a bottle of water from the fridge, she poured a glass, drank it thirstily, then poured another. A few drops of water spilled, glistening on the stainless steel counter. She wiped it dry with a fresh, white tea towel before sitting down on one of the high-backed stools at the counter. Her recurring dream had woken her again, where she was trapped in a small room, completely dark, from which she could never find a way out. As she searched desperately, feeling her way around the walls of the unidentifiable room, she began to panic, and it was always then that she awoke.
Joanna sighed, and held the icy glass against her neck. She’d had a similar dream often when she was a small child. You could understand it back then, she thought, but not now. It was a child’s fearful dream, but twenty or so years later, it made no sense.
Six months ago she had received word that her father, whom she hadn’t spoken to for ten years, had been taken into a nursing home. Hearing about his illness had stirred up memories of her childhood that for twenty years had rarely entered her thoughts. It was as though a door to an unused room in her mind had been opened, and the comfortable layer of dust coating an irrelevant past had been disturbed. Daylight memories could be largely suppressed, but apparently refusing to be ignored, they had evolved into a dream which regularly invaded her sleep. All the time, images of the dream hovered—a menacing shadow—at the edge of her otherwise contented life. Maybe she would take a vacation sometime soon, she thought. Life had become a bit predictable and a change of scenery would get her back to her usual self.
The sun had risen; yellow beams bounced off the counter into her eyes. It was still early, but she decided to get ready for work and make an early start. It was Saturday, and house-hunters would already be up, poring over the real estate pages in the papers. Prospective home buyers would be phoning her by seven-thirty. She finished her water, then padded across the plush living room carpet, up the few steps to her split-level bedroom and into the adjoining bathroom to have a shower.
A half-hour later, she ran her fingers through her wet, short dark hair, leaving it, as always, to dry naturally. Wide awake, she focused her thoughts on the busy morning ahead. In the real estate business, Saturday was the busiest day of the week. Apart from her taking buyers through property inspections and fielding countless phone inquiries, Saturday was also auction day.
In her bedroom, she pulled on a pair of linen, slouchy pants—light gray with a fine beige pinstripe—and tucked in a black silk sleeveless V neck. She slipped on the matching pinstriped vest, leaving it unbuttoned, wondering if her two auctions that morning would go well. It was a hot day and maybe a few of her wavering buyers would stay away.
She put on her small gold ear studs and gold rings. When she got to the office, she thought, she would call all her interested buyers, offering encouragement, and, of course, phone her vendors to reassure them. She didn’t like jittery vendors. When they lost their nerve they often rejected the best offer of the day, even when it was within reasonable market value. When a property was passed in at auction, Joanna faced weeks of private negotiations before a sale was eventually made and her commission paid. There was no extra money for the extra work. So good preparation, in the four to six weeks prior to the auction, was essential. But she loved auction day. It was a test of her skills, and a gamble. She could never be sure how buyers and vendors would react under pressure. Adrenaline began to course through her body, her muscles coiling up like springs, her senses sharpened. She could make a lot of money today, or none at all.
It was seven o’clock as she put on her watch. Time to switch on the mobile phone, she thought as she headed for the kitchen.
Pausing at the antique French roll-top desk in the living room, she grabbed her organizer and phone.
The sun, beating through the kitchen window, was heating up the room. She lowered the Roman blind. She spooned coffee into the coffee machine, and in moments, the delicious aroma filled the room. Her pulse quickened, her mouthwatering as she anticipated that first, heavenly mouthful. As she poured the coffee, the mobile phone rang.
“Hi, my name’s Nathan Smith. We saw your ad for a couple of houses we—my partner, Robert, and I—want to look at. Our friend Tim Jacobs recommended you. You sold him and his boyfriend an apartment a year ago?”
“Oh, yes. Tim.” Joanna couldn’t really recall Tim from the hundreds of clients she had dealt with over the past year. The fact he was gay didn’t help. Most of her clients were queer. With her free hand, she stirred some sugar into her cup.
“He said you were an absolute darling,” Nathan said with a chuckle.
Joanna smiled. She liked hearing of recommendations. Most of her business came from referrals. Thanking him, she checked her organizer and made an appointment to meet them at the first property in an hour. She needed to drop in to the office first, so she had to hurry. She gulped down her coffee, dropped her phone and organizer into her briefcase and went downstairs to the garage, accessible from a door opening off the entrance hall.
Pressing the remote control on her key ring, the garage door opened as she started the car. Apart from droning cicadas, the street was quiet as she backed out of the garage. Curtains were still drawn across windows. Blackbirds pecked around on lawns. A boy, gliding by on a bicycle, hurled newspapers that landed with a slap on concrete driveways. Joanna put on her dark sunglasses, switched on the air conditioning, punched in a rock station on the radio and, with INXS blaring, headed off to Inner City Realty.
* * *
It was close to eight o’clock when Joanna arrived at the office, which was already buzzing with activity. Sales consultants dashed in and out, mobiles glued to their ears. Karen, the receptionist and office secretary, was talking on the phone, and other lines were ringing. She gave a little wave and smiled as Joanna passed her desk. Joanna had worked there for eight years and Karen had been there for most of that time. Since Joanna was rarely in the office, she relied on Karen to take care of inquiries that concerned her when she was out of reach or her mobile was busy.
As a senior sales consultant, Joanna had a private office. She dumped her briefcase beside her desk and glanced across the corridor into Cathie’s office, directly opposite hers. Cathie was the rental department manager. Talking on the phone, leaning back in her chair, she wore a short red skirt that exposed her thigh almost to the hip. Her shapely legs were crossed, and one red stiletto, dangling from her foot, rocked back and forth as she gently swung her leg. Smoke curled from the cigarette she held between her manicured fingers. Joanna could overhear snatches of her conversation.
“…and some black olives, too, honey,” Cathie purred in her breathy, cultured voice. “...and don’t forget to take the towels out of the washing machine...” She was obviously talking to her girlfriend.
Joanna sat at her desk and took out her files. She had signed up two new vendors yesterday. She checked through the sales agreements carefully before placing them into new folders and neatly labeling them. On her way out, she would hand them to Karen to be processed. Nick, one of the company’s auctioneers, appeared in her doorway.
“G’day, Jo,” he said brightly. Nick was in his sixties, had been in the business all his life, and there wasn’t much he didn’t know about selling real estate. Joanna was always glad when Nick was scheduled to auction her properties. He was the best, enthusiastic but honest. Buyers trusted him and so did she. He knew by pure instinct when people were holding back. He could draw out that extra five or ten grand that a purchaser had to spend—knew they should spend—as easily as taking a rattle from a baby. Joanna needed to be able to rely on the auctioneer. For that heart-stopping half-hour or so, all her weeks of preparation were in the auctioneer’s hands. There was nothing Joanna could do except move among the crowd, whispering encouragement to the buyers she had nurtured, pat her client’s hand and hold her breath. “What’ve we got today,” Nick said, rifling through the pages on his clipboard. “Ah, yes. Monteroy Street at twelve and Palm Avenue at one.” He looked up with a grin. “Are your vendors sweet?”
Joanna smiled. “Yeah, they’ll be fine. I’ll give them a call in a minute.”
“Great. I’ve got the boys out now, putting up the street signs and auction flags at the properties.”
“I hope the heat doesn’t keep the crowds away.”
Nick shook his head. “No worries about the heat. Rain. That’s all we ever have to worry about, Jo. Bloody rain.” He wished her luck, said he’d see her later and continued on his way.
Getting out her list of the most promising buyers, she prepared to call them. One of the most important things she’d learned over the years was to know a real buyer from a dreamer. She had often tried to explain this to the junior sales reps. But they never got it. She watched them chase after time-wasters, like puppies chasing a ball. The junior reps had the wrong attitude. For a start, they lacked any appreciation for architecture, took no pleasure in seeing the beauty in a house or in assessing its potential and market value. And they didn’t get involved enough with their vendors and buyers, trying to understand them, matching them up successfully. They might as well be selling doughnuts for all they cared.
Cathie hung up her phone and looked over at Joanna. “Hi, sweetie,” she said.
Joanna gave her a smile. “Hi. Busy morning?”
“Fucking unbelievable!” Cathie breathed, brushing her tawny blond curls off her shoulders. “I was hoping this heat would keep everyone at home today.”
Joanna chuckled. “I want them out there in droves. I’m not on a salary like you are, remember.”
Cathie’s phone rang and she turned away to answer it. Joanna glanced from her own tidy desk, empty except for the open file in front of her, to Cathie’s desk. As usual, it was a clutter of files, strewn papers, cigarettes, overflowing ashtray, makeup purse—open, its contents spilling out—and, today, a posy of violets in a small vase. Despite what appeared to Joanna to be alarming chaos, Cathie was very good at her job and always knew exactly where to find everything.
Joanna smiled to herself. She and Cathie had been friends ever since Cathie began working there, six years ago. The day Cathie arrived, Joanna had stopped by the office briefly, to pick up some brochures. Karen was talking to a woman at reception and, overhearing them as she hurried past, Joanna realized the woman was Cathie Adams, the new manager of the rental department, due to start that day. Joanna was aware of a new, strong, sweet perfume hanging in the air. Cathie’s name was already fixed onto her open door. A glance into her office revealed a cigarette burning in the ashtray—precariously close to a stack of papers, and a lipstick and compact open, ready for use.
Joanna had just sat down at her desk when she heard the four junior sales reps in the open-plan office next door talking about Cathie—making lewd comments. Angry, Joanna got up and headed out into the corridor, intending to tell them to shut the fuck up, when she was nearly bowled over by Cathie. Also heading for the open-plan office, Cathie stormed past Joanna like a tornado, forcing Joanna to flatten herself against the wall. Her face fixed in an expression of black fury, it seemed that Cathie had overheard the men’s comments too. Fascinated, Joanna followed her.
“Listen, you stupid, fucking pricks!” Cathie shouted. The young men’s eyes widened in shock. They seemed to shrink into little schoolboys behind their desks. Cathie’s eyes were blazing, her fists clenched. “If I hear one more obscene, sexist remark from any one of you, I’ll sue all your fucking arses off!” Joanna gazed in delight at their reddening faces. “Have you bloody got that?” The schoolboys nodded dumbly, looking like they might burst into tears. With that, Cathie swept out of the room, heading for her office.
Impressed, Joanna went and introduced herself, asking Cathie out to lunch. In sharp contrast to her severe outburst, Cathie accepted warmly, with a disarmingly gentle charm. Joanna quickly sensed that Cathie was a dyke, which was a nice bonus. They left the office together, laughing, and after a lunch that went on longer than it should have, especially on Cathie’s first day, and after a couple of drinks too many, they had become firm friends.
“Jo?” Cathie called out across the corridor. “You’re going to Marie’s and Louise’s place for dinner tonight, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Should be good.”
“That new doctor’s going.” Cathie lit a cigarette. Her glossy candy-pink lips matched her nails exactly.
Joanna was only half paying attention. She was selecting the brochures she needed for the morning’s inspections and still had to make her calls. “What doctor?”
Cathie gave a loud, dramatic sigh. “God, Joanna! I’ve mentioned her before. Fiona! She works at the clinic with Sue and Marie.” Sue, Cathie’s girlfriend, was a physiotherapist; Marie was a doctor. “Fiona’s an old friend of Marie’s. I’ve only met her a few times, briefly, when I’ve popped in there to pick up Sue.”
“Uh-huh.” Joanna dialed the number for one of her vendors.
“Uh-huh.” The number was engaged. Joanna looked up the other vendor’s number.
“And single,” Cathie added quietly. She drew on her cigarette, eyeing Joanna, swiveling her chair back and forth slightly. She had that matchmaker look in her eyes again.
Joanna gave a patient smile. “I’ve got to make these calls quickly or I’ll be late for my first appointment.” Fortunately, Cathie’s phone rang again, and Joanna turned her full attention to her work.
A short time later, Joanna was ready to leave. Her vendors were optimistic. They had assured her that their houses were looking perfect with flowers everywhere, light classical music standing by on CD players, and her buyers still sounded keen. From her filing cabinet, she took out the two contracts of sale relating to her two auctions. Hopefully, they’d be signed before the day was over. She put them, along with the brochures she needed, into her briefcase. Grabbing the new sales agreements to hand to Karen, she paused for a moment, making sure there was nothing else she needed from her office for the next few days. Enjoying the freedom of being out on the road, she only came into the office when it was really necessary. Her days were spent driving around from one property to another, inspecting, giving valuations, negotiating, signing up new vendors and finalizing sales after, and occasionally before, auctions. When she needed a place to sit and make phone calls, write ads or meet with clients, she usually used her favorite hangout—Café Q.
“Good luck with your auctions, sweetie,” Cathie said. “You’ll still make it to cricket this afternoon, won’t you?”
“Mind you,” Cathie said, wrinkling her button nose, “it’s a shit of a day to be playing fucking cricket.”
“Don’t worry, babe,” Joanna said with a laugh. “We’ll kill ’em.” She said good-bye, then left to meet Nathan and Robert.
* * *
Joanna parked her car outside a townhouse in a row of modern terraces. Nathan and Robert pulled up behind her. She had just shown them an apartment on the other side of the city, which Nathan seemed to like but his boyfriend hated. From the hints Nathan had dropped about their budget, she suspected that they were viewing properties well above their price range. As she opened the house and invited them in, she felt, intuitively, that they were going to be difficult clients.
“The double garage is great, though, isn’t it?” Nathan asked Robert hopefully.
Robert shrugged, looking sulky. “I don’t like the carpet, and the light-fittings are hideous.”
“But those things are easy to change.” Nathan turned to Joanna, his expression apprehensive. “Aren’t they, love?”
Joanna nodded. “It’s best to focus on the layout and design. Don’t worry about the decor. Just allow for those changes in your budget.” Apart from the decor, the townhouse seemed to fulfill the requirements Nathan had outlined to her. His boyfriend was just being negative. “Why don’t I make some notes about your likes and dislikes.” Joanna got out her notebook. “Then, as we look at various places, we can build up a profile of what you both really want.”
“I want an old place—Edwardian, or something that’s got some character,” Robert said in a whining tone.
Impatiently, Nathan ran his hands through his long, blond-streaked hair and sighed loudly. “You told me you wanted modern, honey!”
God! Joanna thought. Don’t have a domestic. She had another inspection after this one, then her first auction at twelve, and she didn’t have time to mess around.
“Why don’t you both talk it over,” Joanna said, smiling warmly. “I’ll call you early next week and see if you want to view some period homes, okay?”
Robert shrugged and marched off toward the door. Nathan smiled and touched her arm. His manner was confidential. “Thanks, love. I’ll talk to you later.”
Joanna locked up the house and sped off to her next appointment.