Next morning, Carla was up and about before I even began to wake. In fact, when I finally opened my eyes I found her waving a coffee under my nose, already dressed in full business regalia and with her competent, determined business face on.
"Time to get moving, I'm afraid ... you need to get home and back to Borough by about 12:30. I'll make sure they're expecting you at building reception, you just pitch up and talk a bit about CastList. By that stage I should have them pretty receptive ... we got quite a lot of the way yesterday ..."
I admired her confidence, even as I was bundled out of bed and had a load of clothes thrust into my arms. I was aching a bit, no doubt about that, and I was still more than slightly confused by the events of the previous days. After all, you don't go from semi unemployed freelancer to prospective multinational consultant in a few days with any regularity. Not that Carla seemed inclined to discuss anything much, or even to acknowledge my existence, for that matter. She was "in focus", clearly, concentrated totally on the meetings to come. For the moment, I was simply an impediment, the tenderness between us the previous night filed away for future reference. Or not. I couldn't see any easy way of raising the issue and, frankly, I wasn't brave enough to try.
So I was on the tube back home before I had a chance to actually think. Undoubtedly a force of nature, Carla. I'd only met her two days before, and already I'd slept with her and apparently become a significant part in her plans for business expansion. And while I thought maybe that I was a little bit in love with her, I was also increasingly aware that in about four hours I was due to do a serious business presentation to a bunch of corporates who I'd never met. Who, in fact, were in a league I never even wanted to play in. It was quite nice that my new friend seemed to think that this was no problem, but I was nothing like as confident.
Actually, sitting there on the tube, it did occur to me that a nice simple way of dealing with the situation would be to just go home, turn off the mobile and hide. Not that I would normally be so recalcitrant, its just that things were getting a little out of hand, events spiralling quite quickly out of control. Frankly, I had been quite happy with my life as it had been only too recently, working when I wanted to on stuff I found interesting. Now, it looked like I was getting into a major enterprise, major, life changing commitments, on the basis of a more or less chance meeting.
Assuming that I managed not to screw up the next few hours, anyway.
Strangely, it was that thought that made the decision for me. OK, I had serious doubts about the wisdom of what I was doing and a complete lack of faith in my ability to actually deliver any of it. Against that, though, there was something about Carla that I found very hard to resist. Something which included that fact that I found her physically incredibly attractive, obviously, but which had rather more to do with the fact that I'd simply never met anyone like her. Anyone so confident, so instantly decisive, so able to move so easily between roles and even virtually personalities. I was, I decided, fascinated by the fact that she played such a powerful game in the business world and was still such an amusing and intelligent companion outside of it. Maybe it was just a romantic folly, but I decided that I didn't want to give it up just yet. And, hey, I could always run away later.
So it was back to my tiny one bedroom flat, a quick shower and a change into my single business suit. I found a tie, eventually. Then onto the PC and half an hour adapting a presentation on CastList for a new audience, removing the jokes and adopting a rather more conservative design, before scrabbling round for a key drive and finally - and in context somewhat surprisingly, for me - actually remembering to save the thing as a powerpoint file rather than OpenOffice native. And then I was back out the door again.
I got down to the city ridiculously early, of course, texted Carla to let her know I was ready when she needed me and went and got a coffee in a cafe just beside Southwark Cathedral. This being a regular haunt, I got a few jibes about the fancy dress but mainly ignored them and sat down to imbibe caffeine and, well, wait. Which wasn't for long.
PCW inhabit a strange looking building right beside the Thames, a sort of red stone and glass shrine to corporate narcissism, and one with an unpleasantly angled set of steps from street level down to the main entrance. Not wishing to make my entrance memorable by coming down these arse first, I concentrated on my feet and thus failed to notice the reception committee waiting for me just inside the lobby. Carla was there, of course, looking serious and checking her phone, standing beside a couple of suits. Both tall, white men, identikit cropped hair and rimless glasses, both looking sort of efficient and somehow profitable. Obviously I decided there and then that I didn't like them.
I think the feeling was probably mutual. Suit #1 looked slightly incredulous as I walked up to them - I think he had thought I was the new mail boy or something - but recovered professionally when I greeted Carla and stuck out his hand. Bone crunching handshake, of course, and stacatto introductions. One VP European Theatre, the other a Senior Partner (Operations). Didn't catch their names; did wonder which was likely to be more senior. And whether the vaguely military feel to the job titles was conscious. Then I was being led briskly through security (these guys clearly weren't in the searchable classes) and into a lift. No small talk, just a brief smile from Carla and the inevitable checking of phones on all sides. I thought of joining in with that one but then realised that even my phone would strike these guys as a joke. I began to wish that I'd turned up wearing jeans and a lefty T-shirt - at least I'd have failed for obvious reasons. As it was, I just felt that I didn't fit in and that they knew I didn't fit in and that this was somehow my fault.
I was still musing on my general inadequacy as I was led down a plushly carpeted, discretely lit corridor and into a board room. More suits, more bruising handshakes, more incomprehensible job titles. Mineral water and stuff on the table. All very competent and professional. And very quick: I'd only just been invited to take a seat (plush,undoubtedly stylish and expensive, not actually comfortable) when I was asked to say my piece, give them the rundown on CastList.
Which threw me. I'd been hoping to get a feel for the meeting and the people, perhaps to get a bit of spin from Carla on how she'd been approaching the situation, who were likely to be the difficult people in the audience, but: No. Was this because Carla had sewn the thing up already or had they simply decided that I was out of my depth and to get it over with quickly? I didn't know, had no way of finding out. I couldn't even make eye contact with Carla - she was sitting down the table from me and currently chatting to a Director of something or the other. So I did what I usually do in these circumstances and got angry, in a carefully controlled way. Its a good trick if you can pull it off.
In this case, I was faced with a room full of pricks, arrogant bastards who wouldn't normally have given the likes of me (or anything or anyone I cared about) a second thought. They probably drove Porsches, flew private jets, sent their daughters to private schools. Class enemies, in fact. And I was here to talk to the shitheads about a programme I was proud of, a programme designed to facilitate a way of working and dealing with people that was probably outside their conception. So I did. Talked for about half an hour to a totally silent room. OK, I was a bit shaky at first but got into my stride when I started to talk as me, not as I thought they would expect me to. Even tried a few jokes and got a couple of slightly glassy smiles in response. Well, I wasn't expecting applause.
Instead, I finished to the same silence, the same expressions that I'd met at the beginning. I didn't even invite questions, just sort of stood there, unsure as to whether I was allowed to sit back down or should just turn and go. It was an uncomfortable moment. Broken by the VP Europe or whatever. And even he didn't speak, just looked at Carla, nodded and smiled broadly.
With which the floodgates opened. Lots of questions, lots of discussion. Not that I was actually involved, to any extent: Carla was the star of the show, conspicuously the only woman in the room, fielding questions, reinforcing points with complete aplomb. A couple of times she turned to me for some technical stuff about the programme and the way people were already using it but otherwise it was her show. I was in awe of the woman, frankly: I know I'm good at working a room, guiding discussions, leading meetings to sensible (ie, my) decisions but this was something from another planet. I didn't even freak when I heard myself described as Chief Operating Officer of Bronstein Associates (Europe) nor when I learnt that we'd have a corporate base up and running in six months, and have deliverable "product" within the year. I think I found out what shell shock is like.
And then there were more attempts to maul my fingers, even a firm pat on the back from one enthusiast, and we were back out on the street. I looked at my watch: We'd been in there three hours. I'd have sworn it was five minutes, if anyone had bothered to ask.
Carla was back to nice Carla, though, shrugging off the corporate action woman persona even as we passed through the plate glass doors. She was clearly still focused, however, as she turned to me and said, "You know, I think I'd like a drink ..."
We went to a pub about half a mile South of the river, the walk giving me time to begin to collect my thoughts (or at least gather up a few remaining brain cells). We didn't speak, or touch, just walked in companionable silence. I got the drinks in - strong bitter for me, a large vodka for her - and sat down across a table from her. She raised her glass, touched it to mine, laughed happily.
"Dave, you were brilliant. Just perfect. I'd been trying to convince them you were onto something really different, something they needed badly, and you pitch up looking like you'd dressed in a charity shop and gave them a virtually marxist rant - they didn't know what hit them. Actually, I still don't think that they actually understand all the implications but they know an idea with potential and they're going to put their money behind it. Quite a lot of their money, actually. So its a result. I hope you're pleased?"
I nodded. "I think so. I'm not sure I understand all the implications, either, and I feel that I've just had my life radically changed without my really deciding to do anything of the sort, but yeah, I'm glad it went the way you wanted. I guess I'll have to get back to you on the other stuff - I mean me as COO - could you not find someone vaguely competent for that sort of role? Or do I have to find a better class of charity shops to buy my suits in?"
This got me a grin and a pout, but then she got serious.
"I've been trying to sell a paradigm shift, Dave - a possible revolution in corporate planning and management. I can't deliver that and they know I can't - too involved, too contaminated by present ways of working. This only goes ahead with you at the helm. I've got guys working with me in the States who can provide expertise and I'll be on the end of a phone, but we really need you to make it work. Thing is, you have a mind set, beliefs, assumptions that are just radically different from those in the corporate world. Actually, they're so much part of you you probably don't realise you even have them, but believe me we need them." A laugh. "Think about it, you could be the first person ever to get rich from having ethics. And now I think I need another drink ..."
She went to the bar, came back with drinks, crisps. I realised that I was ravenously hungry. Carla set out what she saw as the next steps - I wasn't about to argue - talking about office space, corporate structures, recruitment strategies, the whole caboodle. I thought it all sounded a bit expensive, told her so. She snorted. Money was not a problem. And then she mentioned that PCW had committed half a million euros as "seedcorn" funding, a sum her partnership would match in the first instance. I fell off my chair.
Once I was restored to the vertical - and had had another swig at the beer - I suggested that we might think about getting something to eat. She agreed, but to my surprise suggested that what would be nice would if I cooked something at my place. Of course, I agreed, despite the fact that I'm no more than a competent cook, largely because I was still in some sort of shock and it just seemed easier than trying to think of another restaurant. So that's what we did. Actually, we went back to the Savoy where she left me in the lobby while going back to her suite to change, emerging seemingly seconds later dressed in jeans and a silky black vest top and carrying a small bag.
It was still early enough that the public transport was relatively quiet - well, not too traumatic, anyway - and within an hour we were back in my home patch. I made a quick stop at the local Turkish shop for some peppers and stuff and Carla stepped in to pay for them ... and a bottle of champagne. Oh, and some condoms. I didn't like to point out that I'd bought some of those in the same shop earlier on, but I think Birsen's smirk as she processed the card might have given it away.
And then we were back at mine. Carla must have been taken aback by the size of the place (thankfully I'd some cleaning fairly recently) but managed not to sneer too openly. Instead, she quickly stashed the champagne in the fridge, produced a bottle of malt from her shoulder bag (how had she kept that hidden on the way back?) and suggested that I find some glasses. Which I did - I even found some clean ones - then suggested that she take a seat - OK, the seat - in the living room and put some music on while I got changed and began to get some food together. She did move out of the kitchen and I heard her say something uncharitable about my CD collection while I quickly changed in the bedroom. I heard the Dead's Wake of the Flood as I went back into the kitchen, and then she was behind me. She put her arms round my waist, as I began to chop onions, and nuzzled the base of my neck.
"its been a great few days, Dave", she said, "And I'm almost sorry to be flying home tomorrow."
"Almost?", I said, turning to smile down at her. "So should I abandon my plan to give you food poisoning and keep you in the UK for a bit?"
"The possibility had occurred to me", she said with a glance round the kitchen, "But I don't think you're the type. To do anything like that deliberately, I mean - and I'm sure your food hygiene is better than it first appears. But I need to be back in San Francisco and taking care of the business. I really do think that this European stuff will be a massive success - and great fun, too - and I'm really looking forward to working with you for the next few years, but all of this is your game, now. I need to get back to the corporate ball breaking that I specialise in, that actually I get off on, hard though that might be for you to believe."
I put the knife down and turned to her, kissing her briefly on the forehead. "It seems to me that there's something you're not saying, here." I don't know where the thought came from, but there was something in her tone of voice, something that suggested something significant was being left out. There was.
"Well, maybe. OK, yes. I don't really now how to put this, but last night was wonderful - in a sort of constrained way" She gave a sort of bitter laugh. "And I'm looking forward to a slightly more comprehensive experience this evening, but ... But I'm not offering a long term relationship here, Dave. I know I should have told you this, but there's someone else in the States, someone I think may get serious. So while I'd like to fuck you again this evening, and I want to work with you - closely - for as long as I can, I need you to know that this is a bit of an interlude and not one I want to repeat."
She paused and I continued to look down at her, hyper aware of the hair coming loose from the pony tail, the arch of her eyebrows, the slightly turned up tip of her nose. Perhaps I held the gaze for a little too long, as she pulled away and asked me in a nervous voice whether I was OK, what I thought.
Eventually, I replied, "Well ... I suppose I should have been expecting that; I mean its hard to believe someone like you would find it hard to find a Significant Other, but ... I'm not sure how I feel about being a holiday fling - I mean, it would have been nice to be clear from the start. More to the point, how will this play with the bloke in the States? Or will you simply not tell him?"
I'm afraid that there was undoubtedly a note of disdain in that last question and it upset her. Which I didn't mean to do. Hell, it was her life, I'd enjoyed the time I spent with her and had been given an opportunity that only a few days ago I would simply never have imagined. And, I realised, I probably wouldn't have acted the way I had if she had told me in advance. So no huge problem, really.
Carla, though, was upset. She'd pulled away from me and stood there looking small and terribly vulnerable. Her eyes were wet and there was a slight shake to her hands. So I hugged her again, muttered reassuring nothings, told her it was OK. We kissed. Ever the practical one, she reached behind me, turned off the hob I'd been frying spices on and pulled me out of the kitchen.
Back in the main room, still locked in an embrace, we sort of fell onto the futon, almost immediately tumbling onto the floor. I got a painful rap on the shoulder, felt rather than heard a glass tip over, and found myself lying on the floor with Carla sitting on top of me. She leant forward, lying fully against me and began to kiss me passionately, her hips grinding against mine, the belts of our respective jeans catching and clicking in an absurd rhythm. I began to laugh and so did she, lying on the floor, hugging and cackling like idiots.
My turn to be practical, so I reached out behind my head and found the unspilt glass of malt, offered it to her. She took a gulp from it, coughed slightly and sat up, her knees to either side of me, looking down. "Do have sip or two yourself", she said with a smile and while I was doing so, reached down and pulled her top over her shoulders. Another black bra, this one with purple lace. It matched, I thought, stupidly, the purplish tinge in her jet black hair. And then the bra was gone too, and I was looking at her small, pointed breasts, nipples pointing directly at me. I leant forward and began to kiss and nuzzle them, Carla drawing me forward with her hands on the back of me head, then stroking my back through my t-shirt, pushing me back as she tugged it up over my head, tossed it away. She kissed me again as I played with a nipple with one hand, holding myself up with the other. Breaking the embrace, she pulled herself upright, and, murmuring that she should have worn a skirt, kicked off her shoes and then her jeans. I belatedly got to help by pulling down her panties, even as she was tackling my jeans. Hey, I thought, we were naked, again ...
Carla continued to look down at me for a moment, her eyes travelling from my face - flushed and probably with a stupidly anticipatory expression - to my straining penis. I took in her gaze - face also flushed, I noticed - her breasts, her tight mass of pubic hair, the glistening on her inner thighs.
"I don't want to rush things, or anything", she breathed, "but what did I do with those condoms?" I didn't reply, verbally, just reached up to where I'd left the ones I'd bought beside the futon, handed them to her. She ripped off the cellophane, took one out, looked down at it, looked at me. I nodded.
She put the thing on and sat down on me in almost a single motion, exquisitely moist warmth enveloping my dick even through the rubber, and began to very slowly move up and down on me. She began to pant, slightly, exerting herself a little more as her excitement built, as I began to caress her breasts and squeeze her buttocks. She grasped my shoulders, staring hard into my eyes, breathing now coming quick and hard. I moved my hand from her hips, brought it round in front of her, began to stroke her labia as she rode me. Before long, she moved my hand directly onto her clitoris, her finger on mine, totally concentrated on the sensations she was feeling, hips now grinding hard against mine, me as fully inside her as I could go. I felt her contractions beginning, heard her panting turn to moans, saw her eyes lose focus ... She came with a brief scream and a violent shudder, collapsing on top of me with a long gasp of pleasure. And lay there for a moment, stroking my hair and kissing me as her breathing returned to normal.
"God, that was good," she murmured after a while, "but now I think we'll go for round two." With which she pulled off me, stood up slightly shakily and then turned to kneel in front of me, leaning into the futon, arse thrust up in the air. She reached underneath herself and began to stroke her clitoris, holding her pussy lips apart with the other hand. It was a fairly obvious invitation and one again I was thrusting into her, my hands on her buttocks, watching her anus contract and dilate with each stroke. I was pacing myself, still quite on edge from Round One, as it were, but Carla seemed to be continuing the previous high, beginning to jerk back against me and groaning roughly as soon as I entered her, rapidly getting to what I sensed was a point of no return. When her contractions again began to squeeze me ever more tightly as I pounded here I lost what remained of my self control and started riding her hard and fast, feeling my orgasm build. I came even as she screamed and gripped me almost painfully in the throes of her own climax.
We collapsed into a sweaty panting heap, laying there for a few minutes until I found myself laughing again.
"You still OK with bajhis and a lentil chilli?", I asked.