After Professor Johnson’s first class, only a few students showed up for the second. But word got around that the following week’s classes were going to include role-playing with a local stud, so the classroom was full once more.

The screen displayed:

Flirting Fundamentals – Part Two

- Self-esteem

- Humor

- Approach

- Goodwill

- Entering the zone

- Make your move

 

In front of the class, the professor gleefully welcomed everyone back before launching into the topic at hand. “We all know how important it is to have high self-esteem when interacting with the opposite sex, buttercups,” she said. “Who would like to fill us in on the importance of having a great sense of humor when dating?”

Gigi’s arm shot into the air. “Y’all, he duddn’t care about YOUR sense of humor, no siree,” Gigi said, trying her best to replicate Dr. Johnson’s accent. “He wants you to fawn over HIS. Laugh at his jokes, darlin’, and let him know what a charmin’ trooper he is.” Gigi’s drawl was probably as close as anyone raised north of the Mason-Dixon Line could have faked it.

The other students rewarded Gigi’s portrayal of Professor Johnson with a round of applause, with their instructor joining in. “Nicely done, sugar. And you’re right; you need to have a fun approach. Remember, you don’t necessarily want to marry the Joe, just have a good time. A playful spirit is important. Men want women who are running away, not those chasin’ ‘em. And absolutely no looking over Bubba Joe’s shoulder to see if someone more intriguing is behind him. Engage BJ in conversation about himself. Men just L-O-V-E to talk about themselves. Anything, ask him about his hobbies. That’ll be good for at least a few hours. Stay current on events. Politics, sports and music—you need to be able to talk to him about topics that he is interested in. The rule: before you allow yourself to indulge in this week’s People magazine, you must read at least five articles in The Economist.”

Many of the women expressed curiosity. Seemingly few were familiar with the latter magazine.

Anna Becky—I mean, Professor Johnson—Hanna Karp did not include economist as a career option, so I don’t think that’s necessary,” chimed Gigi. “But she did teach us about becoming interior designers and real estate agents, so might I suggest we replace The Economist with Architectural Digest?”

“No, sugar smacks—remember, we’re talking about engaging the men in topics they want to talk about, not what you want to talk about. Capice? Moving on. Let’s discuss goodwill. This is where us Southern gals have it all over you Yankees, including you, Gigi.” Professor Johnson winked. “We are sweet as pie and we know how to treat our men, and we end up with way more than our equal halves.”

“I get the first four points, Professor Johnson,” said Grace. “But does the fifth one on your chart—Entering the zone—mean getting into his personal space?”

“Darn tootin’.” Anna Becky Johnson clicked her remote control a few times until, on the screen, was a graphic of a circle with a stickman inside it labeled MAN OF ATTRACTION with three concentric circles surrounding him. The outermost ring was labeled Social Zone, three feet to six feet away from the center. The middle ring, the Personal Zone, from eighteen inches to three feet away, and the Intimate Zone, less than eighteen inches.

“A nice flirtatious glance at the bar is in the social zone, where you feel comfortable, but have made no direct commitment to conversing with just him. As you move—or he does—into the personal zone, your conversation becomes more engaging, giving you the opportunity to better communicate with your body language—arms, legs, eyes.” She demonstrated by placing her hands on her hips and slowly sliding them down her thighs. “Once in the intimate zone, it’s a done deal. You’ve got ‘em.”

“Do you realize the first letters of your Flirting Fundamentals spells shag ‘em?” asked Grace.

“You’re a smart one. Lucille told me to watch out for you. Now, who would like to do a little role playing?” No one raised her hand. “What, no risk-takers amongst y’all? Okay, let’s see if this will get y’all hankering for more.” Professor Johnson strutted to the door in her Kate Spade black-and-white polka dot dress. “Ladies, I’d like to introduce you to the one, the only, our very own super-stud—Jake.”

The sound of cowboy boots swaggered in before the sandy blonde hunk of a man. Cowboy hat, boots, tan—Jake was the Marlboro Man without the lung cancer.

“Professor Johnson, can’t you just bring in a mall security guard with a beer gut and comb-over rather than a hot special forces freedom fighter with a six-pack?” Gigi brought the back of her left hand up to her forehead and fanned her face with her right hand.

“It would make it so much easier for us to concentrate on our work rather than wanting to shag ‘em right here and now,” said Hanna Karp. The instructive biker slouched against the wall at the back of the room. “Yeah, hey, girls, it’s me. I’ve been requested to take some tips from Professor Johnson’s charm school here.”

Grace and Gigi turned toward the back wall where Hanna stood next to a door that led to her classroom.

“Our dear Jake is one of the most eligible bachelors in the Bay Area, according to San Francisco Magazine.” Professor Johnson flicked her screen past giant photos of the latest issue’s sexiest bachelors. Grace was reminded of the one-sided grin of the handsome cop who had saved her life almost two weeks before at the revolving doors at Renata. “Jake is a very special friend of Finedale and has once again agreed to participate in my Flirting at Finedale class…”

“Or FLuF for short.” Jake pouted into a sultry, testosterone-based stance.

“As you can imagine, Jake has extensive experience with FLuF. So I’d like to have him run you through the man’s perspective. Jake, the floor is all yours.”

Jake slowly walked in front of the U-shaped arrangement of desks, the tips of his right fingers lightly skating across the wooden desktops. His eyes looked at each woman’s face; sometimes he’d tilt his head, sometimes he’d lick his lips, sometimes he would make an mmmm sound. As he reached Grace’s seat, she felt him linger there. She met his eyes, but broke contact after the first few nanoseconds. She quickly looked down and concentrated on the wedding ring she still had on her left ring finger. She then nonchalantly slid it off and put it in her pants pocket.

“Well, you are all looking mighty fine, so young and alive. As Professor Johnson mentioned, I have some experience in this department. I know some of you are eager to get back out to the singles’ scene, and some of you are probably dreading it. But it can be real fun. Is anyone willing to role-play with me? Nothing kinky, I promise.”

“Grace would!” Gigi’s desire for acceptance occasionally overpowered her vow to decorum.

Grace stared at Gigi. “Uh, no, I wouldn’t…”

Before she could finish, Jake was on his feet and moving toward her, his mouth in a deliciously wicked smile.

Oh shit! Grace’s face turned bubblegum pink.

“Don’t be scared, little lady. I won’t bite, at least not right now.” He winked at her.

Grace stood up, and Jake slid his hand across her back before putting his arm around her shoulder. He was so close; Grace could smell his Axe aftershave and feel the heat radiating from his firm, muscular body as he escorted her to the front of the room.

He led Grace to a stool, then gently spun her around and lifted her to the seat. Grace feared her heart would burst right through her chest. She couldn’t slow it down; it was like the start of a panic attack, but this sensation bordered on arousal, not fear.

Jake turned to face the class. “What men want to know is whether a woman is interested enough for us to make the effort,” said Jake with his deep, baritone voice. Grace fidgeted, tried to control her rapid breathing and wished she could disappear into the woodwork. “So here’s how it’s going to work. We’re going to pretend my new friend, Grace, here, and I are at a bar, and I’m going to try to engage her in conversation. I’ll know how I’m doing not only from her words and body language, but by whether she’s in the zone. You can all play along by giving her encouragement. Got it?”

Her body froze, although she was able to nod her head quickly. As she looked at her fellow classmates around the room, none of them had their eyes on her, including Hanna Karp, who had opened her shirt by another button and chugged up her bosom deliberately. The only glance Hanna won was from her scowling colleague.

“Precious, pumpkin, I know the Finedale uniform leaves a lot to be desired in the area of sexy, but let’s get you better situated.” Professor Johnson unzipped Grace’s hoodie down to smack between her breasts, revealing the little cleavage Grace owned. “I reckon this’ll help. Now, go ahead—roll it out slowly and let him enjoy the game.”

Grace reluctantly turned back to Jake and smiled. She opened her mouth but nothing came out except a tiny wheeze that teetered between a giggle and a panic attack. Grace glanced at his eyes before her gaze drifted to the clock on the opposite wall. The airport clock, Brett’s stockings, the blonde bombshell, Raymond’s mink. They haunted her confidence. She was a complete, unadulterated disaster at flirting and nothing could change that. I’m a klutz, a ditz, a bull in a china shop; she was inadvertently tossing her head back and forth until Jake placed his hand under Grace’s chin and directed her attention to his face. That beautiful, rugged face with the distinct cheekbones, long eyelashes and sumptuous smile. Grace tried to stand up, move, speak—anything.

Gigi was painfully embarrassed for her friend. “Why don’t you show us northerners how to do battle, Professor Johnson?”

“Challenge accepted, my little magnolia blossom, or mah name ain’t Professor ABJ.” Professor Johnson cooled her face with her imaginary fan while Grace fled the stool and crumbled into her desk.

Slowly, the professor unclipped her hair from its ponytail and gave a gentle shake of her head, letting her wavy blonde hair unfurl over her shoulders. Turning to her handbag, she withdrew a thin tube and mirror, and applied a fresh coat of lip gloss. Twirling a curl of hair around her right index finger, she coyly locked eyes with Jake. Her body thrust around the perimeter of the desks like a wildcat and moved closer and closer. With every step, the grin on his face expanded and his head tilted just so slightly.

“You come here often?” Professor Johnson walked through his social zone and straight to the personal.

“Can’t say that I do.” His eyes gave her body the once-over. “But maybe I should.”

“That’s some mighty fine hat you’ve got there.” She ran her finger around the brim of his cowboy hat.

“You like it? Would you like to try it on? I’ll take it off for you.” Jake took his hat off and put it on her head.

“Oooh, there are so many things you’ve got that I’d like to take off you.” The professor stepped into the intimate zone.

“I’m all yours,” he said.

With that, the instructor brushed him off and spun around victoriously.

“Why stop there?” yelled Hanna from the back of the room. “Jake gets paid to do a lot more than this tame little demonstration. Let me at him…”

The professor burned her eyes into Hanna. “I don’t think anything’s rubbing off on you like Lucille was hoping, my little swamp rat,” she said with a heaping of sugar and a scrunch of her perfectly sculpted nose. “It may be a better use of your time to get a makeover in the spa.”

* * *

“And in conclusion…” Grace dropped her index cards with the outline of her presentation written on them. A sudden wind gust from the open window scattered them across the floor. “Good design is never out of style.” She bowed and got on her hands and knees to gather up her index cards while Gigi gave her a standing ovation.

“You totally crushed it, Grace!” shouted Gigi. The others in the class clapped politely.

As she had with each Finedale guest, Hanna Karp had tasked Grace with spending a theoretical $10,000 in her designated field, interior design, in order to complete a project and present it to the class. Grace’s uneasiness in front of an audience was something she worked on daily in front of the mirror in her suite.

Grace chose to redecorate a loft for a young couple living in San Francisco’s trendy Dogpatch neighborhood. She had enjoyed poring over interior design websites and periodicals in the Finedale library. She’d reflected back on how she and her sister, Nicole, would play their version of make-believe. Grace would peruse through their mother’s old Architectural Digests and Nicole through their father’s Garden and Gun, and they’d come together for a very eclectic version of Home Improvement.

For the assignment, Grace used a palette of cream, taupe and plum for the living room and dining room, and found used furniture on Craigslist that she suggested be recovered to keep costs low. For the hypothetical couple’s bedroom, Grace replicated Brett’s guest bedroom using varying hues of blue.

“Debbie, you’re up.” Hanna Karp checked her watch. “Hey! Daylight’s burning, kittens—quiet. Two more of you princesses to go. Show some respect. Please.” Hanna Karp’s sessions with Professor Johnson may have actually curbed her tongue somewhat; nevertheless, please was painful for her.

Debbie held no index cards as she stood before the class, her feet apart, one inch wider than her shoulders; she clasped her hands behind her back in an at-ease position.

“Assigned to spend $10,000 on fine art as an art consultant, I discovered that Picasso’s big old Marie-Thérèse sold for over $65 million, and so I had to rethink the assignment,” she said. “Since it is impossible to acquire such for less than ten K, unless you steal it, I chose to spend the fee to help catch international art thieves.”

Grace and Gigi reflexively glanced at one another with surprise and admiration for Debbie’s choice of topics. Debbie had divulged nothing of her background to anyone, not even Gigi or Grace. But apparently, if Debbie had history, it maybe was not in the realm of frivolous indulgences. She did not seem worldly at all, though. Debbie was one of those women who could blend in no matter where she was, completely disguised by her averageness.

Debbie pulled up slides on the screen with the top paintings that had been stolen from museums, galleries, and auction houses across Europe and the United States over the past half-century, including van Gogh’s View of the Sea at Scheveningen, valued at over $25 million, and Vermeer’s The Concert, the most valuable painting ever stolen, with an estimated value of $200 million. Each was contrasted to the approximated black market price, which was usually between 5 percent and 10 percent of the value.

“Art theft is prevalent now more than ever given the oil-rich Russian billionaires looking for any way, legal or otherwise, to get their money out of the country.”

“Hear, hear,” said Gigi.

“So the oligarchs either commission a thief to steal a particular piece of art,” said Debbie, “or they pick up masterpieces on the black market. If something has been collecting dust for too long, the price will drop precipitously. The FBI and INTERPOL have aggressive departments full of agents, yet it is nearly impossible for them to gain legal access to private collections.” Her tale of the global black market kept her classmates and panel of judges enraptured as she weaved the tale of the biggest art heist in history; the involved stolen art was worth more than half a billion dollars and had baffled the FBI for over twenty-five years. Grace wondered how Debbie knew so much more about the underbelly of the art world than it seemed a Google search in the library would have uncovered.

“You kicked ass, Debbie,” said Hanna. “And although you did not exactly address the assignment, your overview was most enriching, as Professor Johnson would say.” Debbie appeased Hanna with a smile, but Grace could see on Debbie’s face that art consultant would not be a title on her business cards anytime soon. Hanna laughed raucously and then barked again. “Gigi, you’re up! Let’s do this!”

Gigi had finally shown up for class—not because she wanted a career, but because she had exhausted all the procedures available at Finedale and was getting bored without her newfound friends. Hanna Karp had deemed Gigi an event planner, despite Gigi never having demonstrated any proclivity toward the job or any shred of discretion with spending. But that didn’t seem to bother Gigi or Hanna. As the final presenter, Gigi had dressed for the occasion. Gone were the Tods, lululemon yoga pants and ponytail. Instead, she had shown off her sassy new ombre bob, ash blonde on top to deep pink on the bottom, thanks to Finedale’s hair salon. She reached the podium in her navy shift dress. She looked the part.

Bonjour, mes amis et fellow students.” Gigi raised her arms in self-congratulation. “When the spa director told me I was the first-ever to have tried everything on the menu, I decided I needed a fresh challenge. I am your host for the must-attend event of the century. My client, Ekaterina Rybolovleva of Russia, is turning thirty. The theme of this extravaganza is Thirty Nights in Thirty Hours.” Gigi’s irrepressible grin seemed to hover in thin air like that of the Cheshire cat.

To her riveted audience, she wove an intricate tale of an ostentatious, country-hopping party. Even the Sultan of Brunei might have blushed at such excesses. Gigi kicked it off with a masquerade ball on Skorpios—the Greek island Ekaterina personally owns. She cupped her left hand over her mouth and confided to the nine students, “Ekaterina, or Kat to her friends, was gifted the island by her father who bought it, as well as other hundred million dollar plus properties around the world, to dwindle down his wealth in anticipation of his divorce from Ekaterina’s mother, Elena. Sound like Stage B characteristics?” She folded her arms across her chest and shook her head purposefully. “The next morning, breakfast will be served on board a private 737 to Ibiza, off the coast of Spain, where they will relax on the beach before clubbing all night. Back on board, they head to Casablanca, Morocco.” Gigi continued explaining her plans, covering a full eight cities. “…And finally, Elton John will perform with a huge fireworks display over the Stade Louis II in Monaco, the home field for the soccer team Kat’s father owns. Voila.”

She was pleased with herself, if for no other reason than that this was probably the most effort Gigi had put into anything remotely resembling a job in her adult life.

“Gigi, I’d love to be invited, especially to Monte Carlo to maneuver those roads on my Harley. Oh, and by the way, I just did the calculation, and the party would last for far longer than thirty hours. But do you really think you would be able to budget all that for $10,000?” asked Hanna.

Q’est que c’est? I thought that was supposed to be my fee. If I’m going to work, I sure as hell am not getting up before ten for less than ten grand—and that’s a friends-and-family discount! But it doesn’t matter—Ekaterina’s father is worth over eight billion dollars. She can afford it.” Gigi strutted back to her seat, trying to whisk her newly shortened hair back in a grand flick.

Hanna nodded her head in pleasure that she had accomplished her task of inspiring everyone to try a new career—that accounted for 50 percent of her bonus. 

 

READ CHAPTER 12