Know the enemy and know yourself ; in a hundred battles you will never be defeated.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
She put down the book and nodded agreement. The simplistic Chinese philosophy, originally written as a treatise on how to wage and win war, had been introduced to her when she first entered advertising. Its rules could be equally applied to any aspect of life. From politics to psychology and from sales to seduction; anywhere where there was a need to control a subordinate; Sun Tzu’s wise words offered sage counsel and authoritative guidance. And this evening, once she had another conquest in her naked arms, she knew her victory would be a credit to Sun Tzu’s teaching.
“This is more intimate than I expected.”
“You were expecting some degree of intimacy?” Toni arched an eyebrow. She looked like she was playing the role of the first female James Bond. Her dark hair and Hollywood smile made her seem exotic, striking and confident. Sally wanted to use the word “desirable” but she wouldn’t let herself choose such a provocative description for another woman. Blushing, and hoping the cozy darkness that surrounded them would hide her embarrassment, she spoke hurriedly.
“I didn’t mean I was expecting intimacy.”
Sally used her wineglass to gesture at the single rose in the stem vase on the centre of the table. The movement of her pale fingers made the flames on the hand-carved candles tremble. Because the room was candlelit, the shadows around them broken only by the green eye of the background’s whispering CD player, the brightness flickered and fluctuated like the threat of a squalling tempest.
“I meant, I didn’t expect . . .”
“I knew what you meant,” Toni grinned. “I was only teasing.”
Sally sighed with a moment’s relief.
“I like to tease,” Toni added. Her sumptuous full-lipped smile twisted mischievously. Her eyes, the mesmerizing brown of melted chocolate, shone with a wicked glint. “You don’t mind being teased, do you?”
Sally deliberately avoided the question. Instead she asked, “Why did you invite me here this evening?”
Toni studied her in lingering silence and Sally got the distinct impression she was being appraised. In the depths of Toni’s dark eyes she could see her slender frame, ash-blonde hair and porcelain complexion all met with the woman’s salacious approval. Then Toni was shaking her head, tousling raven tresses across her brow, and Sally’s reflection was blinked away.
“Maybe I thought we should celebrate your new position?”
Sally had been promoted to head of advertising as Toni’s successor as Toni moved to a superior position in a different branch. Toni’s excuse would have been plausible if she and Sally had been friends during their two-year working relationship. Instead, because they had only passed a handful of pleasantries, and a daily exchange of curious and speculative glances, Sally thought the woman was keeping something from her.
“This is a celebratory meal?”
“Maybe not,” Toni allowed. “Maybe I wanted to say some things to you that couldn’t be said when we were in the office?”
“What sort of things?”
“Things I could only say when we were alone together.”
Sally’s cheeks grew warm. She was briefly thankful for the candlelight that would disguise her blushes. Toni’s voice was soft and seductive. It had grown mellower with each glass of wine. Now, with the remnants of their paella all but finished, and the bottle of chardonnay lying spent between their plates, her words were a velvet caress. The suggestive innuendo she imbued into every syllable was like the sultriest stroke of a tongue against bare flesh.
“I still don’t understand.” Sally sighed. “What sort of things?”
“In the office I can’t talk freely about who to trust and who to watch,” Toni began. “Tonight I can tell you about staff and clients with more honesty than if I was measuring my words in the office. Seeing you here I can openly warn you that Jenkins is a backstabber, Johnson is work-shy and Jamal is an eavesdropper. I can tell you, of the portfolios you’ll be handling, the Wingate executive constantly tries to batter the price down, the Walker rep always asks for six more ideas – and then settles on the first one you gave him. And the CEO of Winston’s expects sexual services as well as good advertising copy.”
Sally blinked at this. She had been about to take a sip of wine but paused: shocked by the final revelation. “Winston expects sex from you?”
Toni’s smile was smug with satisfaction. “Winston doesn’t expect anything from me,” she admitted. “Winston believes I’m a dyke.”
This time Sally knew the candlelight wouldn’t conceal her blushes.
Toni’s ambiguous sexuality was common fodder for gossip amongst her colleagues. The fact that the woman dressed in power suits, blocky shoes and heavy, masculine overcoats only fueled the speculation. Although no one had ever seen her linked with another woman she had never been seen with a man either. Her features were attractive and appealing – but better described as handsome than pretty. Also, in Sally’s opinion, there was something about Toni that radiated a predatory sexual allure. Sally had suspected the woman’s speculative interest each time they had been alone – exchanging innocent pleasantries. Hearing her most private thoughts put into words was acutely embarrassing. Struggling to remain calm and try to brush past Toni’s remark, she asked, “Why would Winston believe you were a . . .”
She tried to use Toni’s word but thought it was too strong.
Starting again she asked, “Why would Winston think you’re a lesbian?”
Toni shrugged and sipped at her chardonnay. “I don’t know,” she admitted airily. Fixing Sally with a challenging stare she asked, “Perhaps it’s because I fuck women?”
A phrase from Sun Tzu came back to her. For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence. The connotations of that sentiment, and how it could be applied to seduction, resounded through her thoughts.
The CD player had been crooning a selection of light jazz melodies. The sound of a sultry saxophone whispered from the shadows and added a decadent ambience to the atmosphere. As Toni made her shocking announcement, the disc switched off and the two women were left in thickening silence.
Toni stood up and placed a hand on Sally’s shoulder.