Rock Hard(3)By: Nalini Singh
The fact he was young and in good shape was a bonus to the fortune hunters; it was his money that was the draw. As long as they had access to a healthy bank account, those women would coo sweet nothings into the ear of a toothless old man of ninety-eight. So while Gabriel knew he was attractive enough and had never had trouble finding a woman with whom to heat up the sheets, it wasn’t as if he thought of himself as God’s gift to women. However, neither was he an ogre.
Except Charlotte Baird, whose personnel file he’d looked up after meeting her, seemed to strongly disagree with the latter. Petite and pretty, she’d been sitting so petrified through dinner that anyone would think he’d attacked her rather than the other way around. Her fear roused his temper, which only made her fingers clench tighter on her cutlery, until the fine lines of her bones were outlined against creamy skin dusted with gold—which further exacerbated his temper.
Realizing she’d starve if he didn’t allow her to leave, he motioned the waiter to their table. “Box Ms. Baird’s meal to go. Add the blackberry cheesecake.”
Her eyes flicked up, hazel and clear behind her glasses, her lips parting. “No, it’s okay,” she said in a rasp of a voice even as the waiter cleared away her meal.
“I’m paying for the damn meal, Ms. Baird. You might as well enjoy it.” He didn’t care about the cost; what he cared about was that the woman across from him had eaten exactly two tiny bites in fifteen minutes. It wasn’t as if she had flesh to spare—though she wasn’t skin and bones. No, she was just small, her weight in perfect proportion to her bone structure. So she ate. Just not with him.
Having shut up at his snarl, skin paling, she didn’t say another word until they’d left the restaurant.
“Where’s your car parked?” he asked, not wanting her on the streets alone given the high number of sports fans who’d poured into the city while they were in the restaurant. Most were fine, in a cheerful mood, but it was obvious a few had started drinking early.
“I catch the bus,” she said, shoulders hunched under that hideous brown coat that swallowed her up. “I only live just past St. Lukes.”
Gabriel’s first instinct was to offer to drive her to the suburb. It was what he’d have done with any other woman in this situation. However Ms. Baird’s bones might well chatter themselves out of her skin if he suggested she get into a confined space with him for longer than a few seconds.
Leading her to a taxi stand instead, he said, “Take a cab and file an expense report on Monday.”
“Take the damn cab.” It came out through gritted teeth. The idea of any man hurting a woman made Gabriel see red. The fact Charlotte seemed to think he’d hurt her scraped against his every nerve.
Flinching, she didn’t argue again when he pulled open the back door of the cab and told the driver she needed to go toward St. Lukes.
“Ms. Baird,” he said once she was seated, “don’t forget that expense claim. I’ll be checking on it personally.”
Huge hazel eyes locked with his for a second. Beautiful eyes, he thought, clear and striated with gold and green behind the transparent lenses of her spectacles. Her eyes went with the soft blond curls she’d tied into a ponytail, a few wisps having escaped to kiss her flawlessly clear skin.
A petite but tempting morsel. Too bad she was terrified at the sight of him.
Charlotte didn’t say thank you to Gabriel Bishop for the cab, instead sitting frozen in her seat until he shut the door and the driver pulled out. Probably not the best thing to do if one was trying not to get fired, but her nerves were shot. One more minute in his company and she might just have burst into tears.
Pathetic, Charlotte. You are a pathetic excuse for a woman.
Her teeth clenched at the ugly echo of Richard’s voice; her hands fisted so tight her bones hurt. She hated that despite all the work she’d done, all the success she’d achieved in overcoming that horrible year of her life, fear could still creep into her heart like this, incapacitate without warning. Hated even more that Richard’s voice could infiltrate her thoughts even now, the ugly things he’d said dripping venom into her veins.
Monday would be a nightmare. All she could hope was that Gabriel Bishop would forget about the inconsequential mouse he’d taken to dinner and stay focused only on the higher-ups.
T-Rex Goes on a Rampage
She’d filed the expense claim. Putting down the phone after checking with the accounts department, Gabriel wondered what Ms. Baird would do if he decided to pay her a visit and ask her how her Sunday had gone. Probably jump out of her skin, her bones clattering against one another.
Scowling, he continued to go over the documents in front of him. Saxon & Archer was an old company with a good, strong core. Unfortunately, that core was buried under multiple layers of mold, courtesy of serious mishandling by the past CEO—a man who’d given the appearance of competence, but who, from what Gabriel could tell, had spent the majority of his time playing golf with his cronies. He’d all but driven the company straight into bankruptcy.
As a result, the luxury department stores that had long been the jewel in Saxon & Archer’s crown were faltering; retail and corporate employee morale was so low that attrition was at an all-time high. As for the supply centers that created branded Saxon & Archer goods—once considered a premier brand—they’d been badly managed to the point that online review sites had begun to joke about knockoff Saxon & Archer goods being better than the originals.
When the board had woken up at last and terminated the idiot CEO’s contract, they’d also voted unanimously to offer the position to Gabriel. Two major reasons underlay their decision. The first was his consistent track record in hauling ailing businesses out of financial hot water and putting them on the path to stellar success. The second was his ability to fire people who needed firing.
After spending the past week going over the personnel and financial files at his home office, then rechecking details this weekend, Gabriel had a long list. “Anya,” he said into the intercom, “get Legal up here.”
The portly and bald sixty-year-old in-house lawyer was in Gabriel’s office five minutes later, his shoulders stiff and his lips pressed into a thin white line against the deep brown of his skin.
“I’m not firing you,” Gabriel said, waving the older man into a seat. “You’re actually one of the few competent people on the senior staff.” Age didn’t matter to Gabriel; it was what the individual brought to the table that counted.
Blinking quickly, the lawyer took a seat and pulled out a sheaf of documents from the briefcase he’d brought with him. “I’m assuming you want to know if there are any legal or contractual issues you need to be aware of before you begin to terminate contracts?”
Gabriel smiled what one business opponent had called his “shark” smile. “Like I said, you’re competent.”
Charlotte hid out in her cubicle after reaching it without running into Gabriel Bishop. Word filtered down by midmorning that he was causing carnage in upper management. More offices had been cleared out in the past two hours than in all the time Charlotte had been working at Saxon & Archer.
She looked up at the furtive sound to find Tuck leaning with his arms on top of her cubicle wall.
Smiling at him, the lanky nineteen-year-old mail clerk one of the few men with whom she was totally comfortable, she said, “Careful you don’t get caught ‘lazing about’ or Mr. Varma might decide he doesn’t really need a clerk.” Charlotte herself had been working nonstop since arriving at her desk; Anya had been driving her hard as Gabriel Bishop made demand after demand.
“Nah.” Tuck looked left, then right, before leaning even farther over the wall to whisper, “Mr. Varma’s too worried about his own job. Did you hear the new boss just fired Mrs. Chang?”
Charlotte’s eyes widened. “Wow.” Dolly Chang had been running the PR department for over ten years… though she did have a tendency to take long lunches with her friends and bill it to the company. Not to mention she constantly copied the old campaigns of offshore companies, making just enough minor adjustments to get away with it. The fact most of those campaigns had no relevance in the New Zealand market seemed to either escape her or cause her no concern.
“I guess I’m not too surprised,” Charlotte said slowly. “Mr. Bishop does have a reputation for coming in and cleaning house.”
He cemented that reputation over the next eight hours. Two-thirds of senior management was gone by the end of the day, the remaining third too busy to worry about anything but work. Five members of the junior staff received unexpected promotions, while others were demoted or warned to improve their performance if they wanted a job at the end of the month.
Once again, Tuck had the gossip. “I heard one of Dolly’s juniors say the boss said he wouldn’t blame her for her shoddy work to date since she’d had a bad supervisor,” the teenager told her as they left the office together.
“That’s kind.” Not a word she would’ve associated with the man who’d snarled at her to take the damn cab. Like a bad-tempered T-Rex, she thought.