"I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do for you."
Isobel Spice regarded the powerfully built, dark-skinned man behind the desk, who looked like he'd be happier thundering down a football field than dispensing temporary office jobs to aspiring actors. Or, in Isobel's case, withholding them. This was supposed to be the easy part. She had arrived in New York on the first of October perfectly prepared to claw her way into acting auditions, but not into an office survival job, too.
Isobel picked up the brass nameplate on the man's desk. He'd obviously given it the once-over with his sleeve that morning. She could see the streaks.
"James Cooke. Good stage name."
James snatched the nameplate from her and set it down. "You have no office experience."
"Of course I don't. I just graduated from college," Isobel said patiently. Having reenacted this scene at seven other temp agencies, all of which had turned her away, she knew her lines.
"Look, I'm sure you're very bright-"
"I'm smart, I'm reliable, I'm available, and, no, I've never worked in an office before, but I've been in many in my lifetime. Doctor's offices, professor's offices, the principal's office-" She flashed a disarming smile. "That was just once, in sixth grade. But I pick things up quickly, and you can't tell me that all your employees with years of experience are any better than I am. If they were, they'd have real jobs!"
James stared back stonily. "People temp for all kinds of reasons."
Isobel sighed. "I know that. I came to New York to pursue my acting career. I need to eat, I need to live, and I have no upper body strength. The one time I tried to wait tables, I dropped five boiled lobsters on a nun."
James glanced past her shoulder at the open door, then leaned forward, his left cuff pulling back to reveal a gold watch with half the gold scraped off.
"Listen, I've only been here a week," he said in a low voice. "The boss has strict guidelines about who we take on, and I can't jeopardize...I mean...you understand."
Isobel returned his whisper spiritedly. "Of course. But you understand too, then, don't you? I mean, how did you get this job?"
He sat back, bristling. "I've been in the recruiting business for five years."
Isobel threw her arms wide. "Then what are you worried about? You have experience! You won't have a problem getting another job."
James pushed away from his desk, but his chair bounced off a metal filing cabinet and sent him rolling back to her. He stood with a grumble and gestured toward the door.
"I can recommend other agencies that are flexible about taking people with less experience."
Isobel tried to stem a rising tide of panic. She was pretty sure she'd been to all of them, and they weren't flexible enough. Temp Zone was her last hope. If he didn't take her on, she didn't know what she'd do.
"If you give me a chance, I promise you won't regret it!"
A resonant guffaw escaped, unchecked, from James's gut. "Whenever somebody says that, I usually wind up regretting it double. I'm sorry, Miss Spice, but I can't send you out."
"I prefer Ms. Spice. Otherwise it sounds like you've put in too much coriander." She swiveled her chair and crossed her ankles daintily, recalling her favorite choreographer's observation that it was more flattering to the leg than crossing at the knee. But despite her attempt to be offhand, her heart was racing as she tried to figure out how to get James Cooke to change his mind. Unfortunately, his broad jaw was set in a determined refusal to be charmed by her. There was nothing left but the direct appeal.
"Can't you just give me a break? This isn't brain surgery!"
James walked over to the small, dusty window, craning his neck against his overly starched collar. Isobel took his discomfort as a hopeful sign and crossed the fingers of one hand inside the other.
He turned to face her again. "How many phone lines could you handle?"
"Four." She saw him frown. "Five-six! And I type fifty words a minute."
"Most of our temps type over seventy-five. Software?"
"Mac and PC, Word, Excel, PowerPoint..."
She was tempted to lie, but thought better of it. Even PowerPoint was a stretch.
"I could learn."
"The thing is-"
The metallic jangle of the telephone interrupted them. They stared at it, as it rang a second time.
"Aren't you going to get that?" Isobel challenged.
"Temp Zone, James Cooke speaking."
He sat down again and listened for a few seconds. Then he glanced at Isobel and quickly turned his back on her. "Mm hmmm," he said into the phone.
She leaped up, circled behind the desk, and thrust her face in his. "I can do it!"
James put his hand over the mouthpiece and whispered furiously, "You don't even know what it is!"
Isobel shook her chestnut brown ponytail so vigorously that it smacked her in the face. "I don't care!"
James waved her off. "This morning? By when?" He glanced at his fake gold watch. "I don't have anyone..."
Isobel didn't know what the job was, but she knew she had to have it. This wasn't simply a temp job at stake; it was her whole New York experience. She felt as if she were facing a cosmic test. If she landed this assignment, the rest would fall into place: her own apartment, her first professional acting job, new friends, and, with any luck, a boyfriend. Whatever this job was, it was a barometer of her future, she was sure of it.
Isobel bounced on her heels and jabbed an enthusiastic thumb at her chest, but James ignored her. Scowling, she grabbed a notepad and pen from his desk and scribbled, "You'd rather send nobody than me?" She underlined the word "nobody" twice and shoved the paper in front of him.
Beads of sweat dotted the ebony sheen of James's brow. He swallowed. "All right, I've got someone. Name is Isobel Spice. Sure...no problem. Glad I could help."
He hung up and ran a hand over his coarse, close-cropped head as if he were trying to erase whatever impulse had crumbled his resolve.
Isobel exhaled with relief and sank back into her chair. "Thank you!"
James took the top sheet from a stack of forms and briskly started filling in blanks. "Okay, they need you by ten," he said. "It's a last-minute thing...phones and light typing. Half-day until one o'clock. I'll be asking for feedback, so you'd better learn quickly." He tore off a pink copy of the form and handed it to her. "InterBank Switzerland, One Madison Avenue, seventeenth floor. Ask for Felice Edwards. She's the human resources director. And call me when you get settled."
Isobel took the paper and stood up. "James, you're a peach."
As he brushed past her to the door, she realized just how imposing his physique was.
James the giant peach, she revised.
He grasped her hand hard, but Isobel, who was proud of her own unexpectedly firm handshake, gripped it right back.
"Thank you for taking a chance on me," she said.
He glanced around, and then put his mouth close to her ear. "I gotta ask. What happened after you dropped the lobsters on that nun?"
"They rushed her to the emergency room to treat her for burns, and then they fired me. Or maybe they fired me first, I can't remember. It was a long time ago."
She flashed him another bright smile and hurried out before he could reconsider.
James Cooke returned to his desk and picked up the completed employment request form for InterBank Switzerland. He rattled the paper nervously.
Half-day, phones and light typing. How hard could it be?
He started guiltily. His boss, Ginger Wainwright, was leaning against the doorframe. An officious, brassy redhead of a certain age who dressed down in an effort to mask her obsessive personality, Ginger had a habit of sneaking up on her staff. She always claimed to be "just passing by," but she passed by an awful lot. After a week, James still wasn't used to it.
"How's it going?" Ginger asked.
"Fine. It's all good."
"The young woman who was in here earlier. Potential employee?"
He blinked away an image of Isobel's long ponytail smacking her in the face and nodded. "Could be."
"Good. Okay. I was just passing by."
"Uh, Ginger, just out of curiosity-I mean, for future reference-what do we do with candidates who are smart and well-educated, but have no practical experience?"
Ginger sniffed dismissively. "Send them to Temporama or Sally Nelson and let them get some training. Then if they're any good, we'll poach them."
"We don't ever take a chance and send them out? If they seem to have a lot on the ball, I mean."
She gave him a stern look. "We don't take chances at Temp Zone. That's why we're tops. Right?"
"Right," James answered, forcing his mouth into a deferential smile. "That's what I thought."
He listened as Ginger's heels clacked away down the hall, and her voice echoed into the office of another recruiter.
"Anna? How's it going? I was just passing by."
James got up and closed his door quietly. Then he returned to his desk and looked at the request form again.
He had a feeling he'd just made a big mistake.