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Old 01-25-2006, 11:17 PM   #1
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The Next Best Thing - 3

Work stayed steady and the chores around her house never let up, so it wasn’t long before Raye’s fateful meeting with Lionel Arrington and his offer to invite her back to his home for a social visit was a distant memory. So much a memory that several months later, while checking her voicemail on a rainy Friday afternoon, it took her several minutes to remember who Lionel Arrington was. She’d have probably remembered him much sooner, had he left the message himself, but the voice requesting that she call Mr. Lionel Arrington at such and such number was most definitely feminine and certainly not British. Local secretary?, Raye wondered. Maybe girlfriend, she laughed to herself. But that was just being snide and besides, Leo seemed perfectly capable of handling such a menial task all by his self. Even if Raye weren’t delighted to have gotten a call from Leo, she had to admit to herself she’d have returned the call just to try and solve the quasi-mystery of who the young lady was. One of these days, my nosy streak is going to cost me dearly, she admitted to herself.

The mystery was quickly solved once Raye returned the call. Dialing Leo’s number, the same female voice answered the phone. “Arrington residence, Daneen speaking. How may I help you?”
“Hello, Daneen,” Raye replied, “my name is Raye Galloway and I’m returning a call to Leo, um, Mr. Arrington that actually you made. Is he available?”
“Ms. Galloway”, Daneen said with obvious enthusiasm, “how nice to speak with you in person. Leo’s spoken so highly of you. Apparently he was quite impressed with your work ethic.”
“Well I certainly try my best. I’m glad to hear he was pleased; did he have any trouble getting payment for the claim?”
“No ma’am,” Daneen answered. Her speech was much more relaxed now, as if she were talking to a friend. “As a matter of fact, everything went exactly as you told him it would. He was so worried there would be a problem; he’s heard such horror stories from the neighbors, you know. I tried to tell Leo those people were dissatisfied because they tried to cheat the insurance company and got caught, but sometimes I think he wants to believe the worst.”
“Well I’m glad he’s happy with the way it turned out,” Raye said, ignoring Daneen’s theory on Leo’s neighbors. She wasn’t in the mood for shop talk with a perfect stranger and wanted to get the conversation back on track. “I thought maybe you’d called because there was a problem. May I speak with him?”
“I’m sorry; I got us completely off track, didn’t I?” asked Daneen. “Leo’s in New York right now. He’s flying in tonight but not until about 11p.m. I was supposed to let you know that he wants to extend an invitation to you for lunch tomorrow, if you’re available. He said to tell you that he had a ‘photo opportunity’ for you.”
Raye hesitated for a moment, as random scenarios of what Mr. Arrington’s “photo opportunity” might be flashed through her head, none of them suitable for the PG-13 crowd. He’d seemed nice enough when she met him back in the summer, but who knows what kind of deviant to old coot might be? What’d he have in mind, anyway – some kind of ménage-a-trois with the chatty girlfriend on the other line? Or maybe he was the kind that liked to be watched… wanted Raye to catch he and Chatty Cathy in action on film so he could fondly critique his moves later. Raye felt a cold chill creeping up her backbone; this man had her cell phone number and knew who her employer was, what kind of car she drove. Was he the type to stalk her if she turned down his hospitality? Wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. What if he followed her home?
Raye’s panic continued to mushroom until Daneen was sure the line had been lost. “Ms. Galloway?” she asked. “Raye? Are you still there?”
“Um, yeah, uh,” Raye stuttered, trying to cover for her delayed answer. “I was, um, just checking my schedule for tomorrow.”
Daneen chuckled on the other end. “You don’t have to worry about Leo,” she told Raye kindly. “He’s exactly the gentlemen he seems to be. But if you’re nervous about having lunch alone with him, you don’t need to be; I’ll be here, too. If it’d make you feel better, though, we could meet at The Lighthouse. They have wonderful lunch specials and the view of the waterway is super.”

Raye cringed as she realized what her pregnant pause had insinuated. She was pretty sure she’d just insulted Leo’s girlfriend and they hadn’t even met yet! God, could I be any more of a goober?, she chided herself. OK – see if you can accept this lunch invitation without completely ostracizing the attendants, she instructed herself. Raye continued on, trying to salvage the conversation from taking an absolute nosedive.

“No, no, we don’t have to meet at The Lighthouse – unless that’s what you two would like. I’d be perfectly happy to have lunch with you guys at Leo’s; it’s such a beautiful home and I’d love to see his photographs again.”

“Whatever makes you comfortable Raye. If you’d like to meet here, we’ll be happy to accommodate you. Now as far as the menu, I don’t cook, but there’re three or four different places that we order from on a regular basis. Hmm, what do you think about maybe some Chinese? Is that OK with you?”

“I love Chinese, that’d be great. Shrimp mei fun is a personal favorite, although most anything is fine with me; I’m not really a picky eater. Just don’t go to too much trouble – whatever you two normally do for lunch is fine by me.” Raye gave herself a smug smile, pleased at how well she’d been able to be agreeable and smooth things over with Daneen.

“‘…Whatever you two normally do…’?”, Daneen was repeating, with obvious confusion. There was a slight pause and then the unmistakable giggling of someone who’s definitely laughing at you not with you. “Oh! No, no, no – you’ve got us all wrong, Raye!” Another giggling fit followed and Raye was certain that if she could will herself into nonexistence, now was the time the do it. So far, in the span of a single phone conversation, she’d convinced herself Leo was an aged sex-fiend, had been so apparent in her hesitance to accept his lunch invitation that she’d implied he was up to no good, and wrongly assumed that Daneen was Leo’s sweet young thing. She hadn’t been this wrong about her last two boyfriends and God knows they’d turned out to be disasters.

Daneen had managed to suppress the giggles and was continuing to explain her real relationship with Leo. “…would never consider dating me! Not that I’d accept the offer if he made it. No, I’m his Girl Friday; you know – personal assistant slash housekeeper slash tennis partner. Leo’s known my family since he bought this house ten years ago; I grew up in the green house across the street. When I was a teenager and he was traveling, I used to collect his mail for him, water his plants; that type of thing. And that evolved into what I do know.” She laughed good-naturedly and continued. “Which is basically keeping him company. He misses his wife a lot and it’s hard for him and his son to get together since Junior works in entertainment, too. My family and I are sort of surrogates for him and he’s kind enough to pay me for helping him until I can land a real job.”

Raye felt like such a heel. Too many murder mystery novels had apparently skewed her grasp on reality and she’d turned a perfectly respectable, honest-to-goodness gentleman into Ted Bundy. She made a quick mental note to switch to romance novels. They might be unrealistic, but at least your outlook on the world in general would be much rosier.
“You said his son’s ‘in entertainment, too’”, Raye asked. “Is what Leo used to do? I’d assumed he was retired. Of course, assuming things has already caused me enough trouble this morning, hasn’t it?”
“Don’t think twice about it, really”, Daneen said. “Leo’s pretty wealthy and I’m sure I’m viewed as a potential gold-digger by a lot of folks who don’t know us. I see it as just a job hazard and actually get quite a laugh out of it. It gives people with small minds something to talk about and that’s all the exercise some of the people around here will get in a day – so I’m actually doing them a favor.” Daneen laughed once more and Raye couldn’t help but admire the girl’s attitude. “As for Leo’s work,” she was saying, “he is mostly retired, but still keeps in touch with a few clients. Mostly on a social level, but occasionally he take a meeting to help one of them bang out a new deal with another agent.”

“What kind of work was Leo in?” Raye’s curiosity had gotten the better of her and was intrigued by the thought of knowing someone “in the business” – even if he was officially retired.

“Oh, he was a very successful talent agent in London for years,” Daneen answered. “Represented lots of big-time entertainers; mostly singers, but a few film and stage actors as well. I’m not really familiar with most of his actual clients – they were before my time – but the stories he could tell you about backstage meetings with guys like the Stones and Led Zeppelin…well, he never represented them, he’s just met loads of celebrities because of his connections, you know? But I’m sure you’ll hear all about that tomorrow. Can I tell him you’ll be here around 1 o’clock?”

“Absolutely”, Raye said. “It was nice talking to you, Daneen. I’ll see you both tomorrow.” Raye ended the call and began to wonder what she’d just signed on for. Maybe, like Daneen had said, Leo just wanted some company. And since he knew of her fondness for photography, they had some common ground. Regardless of it all, at the very least she’d have a good meal with pleasant company and interesting conversation. Beats eating fast food alone in my Pathfinder any day, she decided.

***************

They were seated on the oceanfront deck outside the great room, admiring the cloudless blue sky and marveling at what difference, indeed, a day makes. Gone were Friday's cold, gray skies and rain; they'd been replaced with comfortable temperatures in the upper 60s and a sky so crisp and clean you could almost look to the heavens and see your own face reflected back at you. Lunch had been eaten and the remnants cleared away by Daneen. She had just popped out onto the deck to say everything was put away and that she was gone until Tuesday. She gently reminding Leo she was going out of town with some friends for a camping trip in the mountains before the nights got too unbearably cold. Hugs and friendly pecks on each cheek were exchanged and then she was off.

Leo wasted no time getting to his point. "I didn't just invite you over so I'd have company for lunch", he told Raye. "I have a business proposition and think you're just the person for the job. Shall I continue?"

"Well", Raye answered hesitantly, "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't the least bit curious what you're talking about. But that's such an ambiguous statement; I've got to have more details before I commit to anything."

Leo chuckled in that grandfatherly way that Raye remembered from their first meeting. How did I conjure up such horrible thoughts about this man, she scolded herself. I definitely need some professional help.

"Fair enough", he was saying. "My son and several of his friends have a break in their travel plans next month and plan on joining me here for Thanksgiving. I know it may seem strange for a couple of Brits to be observing an American holiday, but when in Rome, you know." He flashed a perfectly charming smile and continued. "It's been ages since he and I were in the same country together, much less the same room, so we recently decided the Thanksgiving holiday was as good a time as any to see each other. His friends are just tagging along for a little R&R on the Carolina coast. I'd love to invite you to our holiday feast not only as a guest, but as our official photographer. I want to take some of the better shots and create a lovely collage for him for Christmas. Are you interested?"

Raye resisted the urge to shake her head until her shriveled brain tumbled out one of her ears like the characters in the Saturday morning cartoons used to do when they were confused. Instead, she kneaded her temples with her middle fingers for a moment before letting out a sigh and running both hands through her hair. She slowly leaned forward and, steepling her hands in front of her with both elbows on the patio table, asked simply but incredulously, "What?"

Again, a friendly chuckle from Leo before he answered. “I want to invite you for a weekend at my home, to photograph myself and my son in a relaxed atmosphere, and pay you for your work. What is there to not understand?” He spoke without sounding the least bit condescending and Raye didn’t know why, but it made her embarrassed for the way she was acting. She just couldn’t understand why he’d make her such an offer.

“Wait…wait a minute,” she squinted her eyes as she tried to match Leo’s tactfulness. “Of course I understand what you’re asking me. I just don’t understand why. Leo, I take pictures every day, but this isn’t ‘art’ we’re talking about. Moldy ceilings and smoke-damaged kitchens don’t take the same skill and interaction that portraits require – Hell, they’re not even as difficult as a decent snapshot. Surely you’d be in better hands with a professional photographer?” She smiled back at him to show that she wasn’t angry. Because she wasn’t…she was terribly flattered. But flattery didn’t change the fact that she wasn’t qualified for what he was asking and agreeing to his ‘proposal’ - even if it did come with generous compensation - was just taking advantage of the dear old man and Raye would have no part in that.

“Surely you’d not argue with me over how I see fit to spend my money?” Leo countered, with a little less of a smile now and the delivery a bit more stern. Raye got the impression suddenly of being a suspect in an interrogation room; things would go a lot more smoothly for her if she just cooperated.

“Well”, she announced, “when you put it that way, I suppose I can’t say no. But Leo, I’m not qualified for what you want. I don’t want you to be disappointed with my work product – I am not a photographer. At best, I’m just a novice schlepping around with an old Pentax K1000.”

Trying to reason with the man wouldn’t work (Did it ever?, Raye reminded herself); Leo had obviously put much thought into the issue and had an answer for her at every turn. “My dear, you’ve got the training – you told me of it, yourself – and you’ve got daily experience, albeit not exactly in the medium you’ll be using for me. But most importantly, you’ve got a good eye. I saw it in the shots you took for me back in September and I saw it in your admiration of the shots I have downstairs. Anyone with your enthusiasm and obvious love for a camera is always going to capture wonderful things on film… they just have to be given the chance to do so. And that’s what I’m offering you; a chance to do what you love.”

Raye realized she was sunk. He was right; she did love being behind the camera and she did miss shooting something other than the next insurance disaster. He had her pegged – there was no way she’d turn down the chance, and the smug grin that had just found a home on Leo’s face said he’d known it before he even presented her the offer. Damn, Raye thought, I wonder if he knows what color my panties are, too! But rather than ask, she just sighed dejectedly and accepted the invitation. She would often wonder later if it was desperation or inspiration that made her say yes, but in the end it didn’t really matter. The Fates had plans for Rayelle Galloway and even if she tried at every turn to throw away her destiny, They were not going to be denied.
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