Rock Hard(2)

By: Nalini Singh


“In that case,” he said, “I’m sure you’re hungry. We’ll go to a bistro I know nearby for dinner.” It wasn’t an invitation but an order. “You can bring me up to speed on certain issues.” His eyes went to the phone in her hand. “Five minutes.”

Waiting until his footsteps disappeared, Charlotte repeated his order into the phone, her stomach in knots. Even condemned prisoners got a last meal. Maybe Gabriel Bishop did the same for employees he was about to fire?

“Go,” Molly said. “And order the most expensive thing on the menu.”

“I’ll probably throw it up.” Her nerves twisted, then twisted again and decided to tie themselves into knots for good measure. “I better go—he said five minutes.”

Molly wished her good luck and they hung up. Tidying herself up by redoing the ponytail in which she wore her barely shoulder-length blond hair, the strands so fine they tended to escape and curl around her face, she got up and slung the strap of her purse over her shoulder. Picking up her warm but shapelessly blocky brown coat afterward, she slid her feet into her abandoned shoes, then walked to the elevator.

She had a feeling her new boss intended for them to go to a particular upmarket bistro—the gossip pages liked to spy on him, though he didn’t court the attention, and he’d been photographed there a number of times. Mostly with business associates. Every so often with a stunning model or pro sportswoman or heart surgeon. Once, he’d been seen with an up-and-coming member of Parliament. That had sent the gossip into the stratosphere.

His only “type” appeared to be tall and beautiful.

This would be the first time with a short, glasses-wearing blonde dressed in a badly fitting sweater.

At least she didn’t have to worry a journalist looking for a scoop would snap a picture, Charlotte consoled herself. The fact she wasn’t a date couldn’t be clearer if she’d painted it on her forehead. Another piece of good news was that the bistro was only a two-minute walk away, so she didn’t have to put on her coat; carrying the heavy brown mass gave her a way to hide her hands, which kept fisting and locking together when they weren’t trembling.

“Ms. Baird.”

Startled for the third time in seven minutes, she looked up to find her new boss—whom she’d attacked with a stapler—had taken the stairs to this level, when she’d expected to meet him in the lobby downstairs. “H-hi.” Not so much a squeak this time as a croak.

Charlotte didn’t think that was an improvement.

Pressing the elevator button, Gabriel Bishop nodded at her coat, his chiseled jaw bearing a hint of dark stubble. “It’s windy out.”

Hands feeling white-knuckled, she managed to say, “I’ll be okay.” It wasn’t a total lie. Instead of her usual work outfit of a loose skirt-suit, she’d worn jeans and a round-necked navy sweater. Saxon & Archer had always been a little old-fashioned about appropriate office clothing, but everyone was more casual on weekends.

Even the boss wasn’t wearing a suit, but well-loved jeans that had a rip at the knee and a stone-gray shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, his tanned forearms dusted with fine black hairs. What wasn’t on display was the tattoo she knew covered his left pectoral muscle and his shoulder before flowing partway down his arm. Thick veins ran below the skin of his forearm, his strength apparent even at rest.

Gabriel Bishop was definitely not a “normal” CEO in any sense of the word.

The elevator arrived then, and he waved her in before stepping in himself. The cage had never before struck her as tiny, but then she’d never before been in it with a man whose shoulders were twice the width of hers; it was obvious he stayed in shape despite not playing professional rugby anymore. Not that she hadn’t already known that from the photos she’d chosen for the new company brochure.

Anya was supposed to have organized that, but going through photos of the new boss was one task Charlotte hadn’t minded handling for the other woman, even if she had allowed herself to get sidetracked by searching out images from his playing days. She’d thought she’d appreciated the impact of him, but it was different seeing him in person.

The photos didn’t do him justice.

Gabriel Bishop wasn’t simply strong and tautly muscled—he was a force of nature.

The photos of him on the rugby field were unbelievably hot, but the seven years since then had honed him, made him impossibly more gorgeous. No wonder women across the spectrum fell at his feet. Only last week, Charlotte had seen a report of a flirtatious blog post where a singer with a recent platinum album had named Gabriel Bishop as the one man she wouldn’t kick out of bed for eating crackers.

Stepping out when the elevator doors opened on the ground floor, she gulped in a cool draft of air and managed a shaky smile at the security guard when Steven rose from his post behind what was the main reception desk during weekdays.

“Mr. Bishop, Charlotte, have a nice night.”

“Thank you, Steven,” Gabriel Bishop responded. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Then the two of them were walking to the sliding doors that led out onto the city’s main street. It was relatively quiet outside, the tourists and shoppers having gone home and the retail stores closed or closing up, while the clubbers and partiers hadn’t yet hit the streets. Before them would come the wave of people heading out to dinner at the restaurants in and around this area, as well as down on the waterfront.

Across the road, she glimpsed a group of men and women dressed in striped rugby jerseys, team scarves around their necks. It reminded her there’d been a special doubleheader at Eden Park today—it looked like fans who’d attended the first match had already started to trickle into the city for a post-match drink.

And all this mental procrastination wasn’t doing anything to lessen her awareness of the large, powerful man at her side. Twisting her hands under her coat, she told herself to make small talk, lessen the chance of being fired, but every time she went to open her mouth, nothing came out.

Finally, frustrated with herself to the point that she could feel tears building behind her eyes, she blurted out, “I’m sorry. I thought you were an intruder.”

“I survived.” No anger in his voice, though the eyes he turned on her were assessing. “The stapler was too heavy for you to throw with any accuracy. Next time, try a hole punch.”

Was that a joke?

Since she had no desire to rock the boat if he truly wasn’t furious, she didn’t say anything else and they were soon at the bistro where he was greeted by name and shown to a plum table by the window, though he couldn’t have made the reservation any more than a few minutes earlier.

“Your coat?”

Coloring at being caught holding on to it like a security blanket, she handed the coat over to the male server who had the training not to turn up his nose at the distinctly non-designer cut. “Thank you,” she said and pulled out her own chair before Gabriel Bishop could do it, not sure she could handle him at her back. He was too big, too overwhelming—and she hated strangers at her back regardless.

He watched her fight to pull the heavy chair back in under her but didn’t comment.

Face hot, she tried to focus on the words handwritten on the thick, textured paper of the menu, but it might as well have been in Swahili.

“Have you made your choice?”

Because he was looking at her as if waiting for a decision, she pointed randomly at a line on the menu and hoped she wasn’t ordering brains in a lovely mint sauce or something else equally unappetizing. The menu was whisked away a second later, water brought to the table.

“Now, Ms. Baird.”

She looked up, hearing something in his voice that told her he expected attention. Those steely eyes were focused on her to the exclusion of all else. “Y…yes,” she said, the word barely audible.

“Tell me about the current situation with the Hamilton land negotiation. It’s obvious the potential buyers want the site of the old factory. It’s equally obvious Saxon & Archer needs the capital. What’s the holdup?”

The file opened in Charlotte’s mind, her visual memory acute. She could hear her mental voice laying out the facts in a clean, crisp manner, but nothing came through her vocal chords; instead, her fingernails dug into her palms. Panic fluttered in her chest, a trapped bird with a sharp beak that pecked and pecked at her.





2


There Is Growling

“Let’s table that question for now,” Gabriel said when it appeared Ms. Baird was about to hyperventilate. “It’s Saturday night, and you’ve already pulled a full day.”

She gave a jerky nod and gulped down some water, her eyes anywhere but on him.

Gabriel was used to inciting a reaction in women. The tall, confident, sexy ones flirted with him. The not-so-confident ones smiled shyly at him, and even women put off by his physique generally changed their minds after speaking to him for a few minutes and realizing he wasn’t all brawn and no brain.

He knew many of the women who hit on him weren’t actually interested in him as a person. A few just wanted “a bit of rough” in bed, while others were after a trophy sports-star husband—enough to overlook the fact he was no longer on the playing field. Then there were the ones looking for a wealthy CEO who could keep them in diamonds.