WHACK. The golf ball came out of nowhere, and in less than a second Paxton Thorvaldsen was at once drenched in iced tea and speckled with blood from his own bloody nose. He was not having very good luck with his beverages lately. Yesterday, he flooded his computer keyboard with coffee when he received a piece of urgent news from his contact in Belgium. It was because of that piece of news that Paxton was where a golf ball could hit him, and this latest drenching was only the beginning of his troubles.
Prior to receiving the message, Paxton’s day had begun ordinarily enough for a February day in New York City. Sleet had fallen during the night, and by morning the sidewalks had become an obstacle course of patchy ice. Paxton picked his way along the frozen ground as best he could as he tried to hurry along against the cold, but he paused when on the way he passed a chocolate shop that had put up an elaborate display for Valentine’s Day. The centerpiece of the vignette in the window was a rosy-cheeked, golden-haired cardboard cupid with a drawn bow in its hand that pointed at passers-by like a recruiting poster; “Cupid Wants You,” it seemed to say. Below its golden-sandaled feet lay an array of garish red and white heart-shaped boxes, elegant little golden packets tied with black ribbon, tiers of neatly dipped chocolates, and trays of colorful handmade marzipan animals.
Paxton had been wrestling with the idea of giving one of the little treasures to Jordy, the hot new guy at the office, and every day since the display went up, he stopped to wistfully admire the tempting offerings. Jordy was everything Paxton wasn’t, but he was everything Paxton wanted. Handsome and stylish, he was as colorful and reckless as Paxton was staid and deliberate. Whenever he came near, Paxton felt a shiver of excitement, as if a wild animal had entered the room.
Unfortunately, Paxton was no closer to buying those chocolates yesterday than any of the other days, so he ended his musings in front of the window with a heavy sigh and continued on his way as he decided that a nerd like him was of no interest to an exciting man like Jordy.
Twenty-four hours later, Paxton’s worries about his romantic prospects were set aside as he arrived at the exclusive Olympic Golf Club in San Francisco to see a man about a large sum of money. The afternoon sun had burned away the characteristic marine layer that usually cocooned that side of the city, and the now-warmed air carried the tang of salt water, new-mown grass, and cypress trees. A chipper teenager came trotting over to greet him when he stepped out of his rented car at the portico of the clubhouse.
“I’m here meet one of your members, Paul Bartleby,” Paxton told him.
“Ah, yes sir, you would be Mr. Thorvaldsen. Mr. Bartleby left word that you are to wait for him on our veranda. He went out today with a ten o’clock tee time and should be in anytime now. If you will follow me to the veranda, sir, I can find you a comfortable spot to sit while you wait.”
Following the young man inside, Paxton noticed the clubhouse was hushed except for the ruckus coming from the adjacent bar. When Paxton walked through it on his way to the club’s outdoor dining area, he couldn’t help but notice the source of the noise; it was a group of well-dressed twenty-somethings clustered around a well-built man who acted as if he were holding court. Paxton watched with fascination as the young people clustered around the man were obvious in their adoration. By the looks of him, Paxton guessed he was the athletic type, and although he wasn’t exactly gorgeous, his high cheekbones and shock of dark hair gave him an exotic look that Paxton found attractive. The man caught sight of Paxton out of the corner of his eye, and like a cat that had spotted a bright shiny object, locked his gaze onto him as he walked by. Flattered, Paxton returned the gaze but quickly looked away when he got the distinct feeling the man was undressing him with his eyes. The sensation was vivid enough that before he walked past the man Paxton tugged at his suit jacket to make sure his ass was covered.
From his seat on the sun-warmed veranda, Paxton enjoyed a tranquil view of the verdant fairways and could watch as golfers putted out on the close-by 18th green. Paxton had just settled down to a tall glass of iced tea and was musing about how nice it was to be away from the wet and cold of winter in New York City when a golf ball shattered the glass in his hand and hit him on the nose to boot. Stunned, Paxton didn’t stop to figure out what had happened but instead tried to clean up the mess with his napkin.
“Dude, I’m sooo sorry. I had a bet with my buddies that I could get that ball to land on the green from the patio of the bar. It must have ricocheted off that tree over there instead. Oh shit, you’re bleeding,” said a voice that went from apologetic to alarmed.
Paxton looked up and saw that it was the man he had locked eyes with earlier. When he looked down again he saw, to his horror, bright red blood blending with the brown iced tea, which were both ruining his shirt. Paxton had just started to dab at the spreading stain when chaos erupted. In a clamor, the wait staff rushed in to clean up the mess while a hand suddenly clamped a handkerchief over his nose.
“Don’t panic! I’ve got you,” Paxton heard the man’s voice say at the same time his head was forced back. Paxton struggled to extricate himself from the man’s powerful grip when he felt himself bodily lifted from his seat and dragged inside the clubhouse, where he was shoved down onto a sofa with his glasses askew, half-suffocated.
“There, I think it’s stopped. Take it easy, you’ll be all right,” the man said as he removed the handkerchief from Paxton’s face and then proceeded to loosen the sodden tie under Paxton’s collar.
“Stop it. Stop it! Get your hands off me. You again. Who are you, anyway?” Paxton demanded as he batted at the strange man’s hands and hauled himself up to a sitting position.
“Oh, sorry. I’m Oswald Van Outen. You can call me Ozzie.”
Paxton raised a hand to straighten his glasses but to his consternation found the frame bent. “Well, I can’t say that I’m glad to meet you,” Paxton said stiffly while he tried to dry the tea speckled lenses of his eyeglasses with a wet handkerchief. “I’m here for a very important meeting, and I’m afraid I won’t make much of an impression looking like this.”
“Gee, I’m sorry, but look: my uncle is on the board here. I can put in a good word for you and fix everything.” Ozzie said it with such surety that Paxton half believed him.
“I’m meeting someone named Paul Bartleby. He’s a lawyer. Do you know him?”
Ozzie’s face split into a grin. “Paul Bartleby? You’re meeting Uncle Barty? There’s no problem then. He’s a family friend. Come on, we’ll go see him together, and we’ll have it straightened out in no time,” Ozzie said brightly as he dragged Paxton up by the arm.
Paxton winced and stumbled along as Ozzie dragged him back outside with an unrelenting grip. When Ozzie had manhandled him back to the veranda, he flagged down one of the staff. “Julian,” he called, “we’re waiting for Uncle Barty. Let us know when he comes in from his round, won’t you?”
Julian gave a little deferential tilt of his head before he replied apologetically, “I’m sorry, Mr. Van Outen, but Mr. Bartleby has already come and gone. It seems that his appointment for this afternoon did not materialize.”
Paxton shot Ozzie a murderous look. “Don’t worry, it’s not a problem,” Ozzie assured Paxton with confidence. “Not a problem at all. I can reschedule for you. Uncle Barty is flying to Paris this evening, but I can get you an appointment with him when he gets back at the end of the month.” Ozzie appeared surprised when Paxton collapsed into a nearby chair with a keening moan.
“Hey, you’re not in any kind of legal trouble, are you, um, um.... Say, what is your name anyway?” Ozzie asked in a quieter voice, seeming to realize for the first time that the problem at hand was more about Paxton than about himself.
Paxton blew out an exasperated breath. “It’s Paxton, Paxton Thorvaldsen. And no, I’m not in any kind of legal trouble, but this could cost me my job.”
“Aww now, can’t be that bad. Why don’t you let me buy you a drink, and you can tell me all about it,” Ozzie said softly while giving Paxton’s shoulder a squeeze. For the first time, Paxton could glimpse the man hidden in the whirlwind that had blustered into his life a few minutes earlier. His anger faded when he saw genuine concern in Ozzie’s eyes, and by the time Ozzie had used the full force of his charm on Paxton, the shy academic had agreed accept a drink from the stranger who had just thrown a monkey wrench into his carefully planned life.