Rock Hard(4)

By: Nalini Singh

Tuck zipped up his multicolored jacket with its dozens of pockets. “Yeah, but then he said if she didn’t improve over the next three months, she’d be out.” He drew a line across his throat. “I figure that’s fair, right? Especially now that she has a chance to get a promotion since Dolly isn’t around to push her favorites into the best spots.”

“Yes,” Charlotte said. “It’s very fair.” Harsh, but reasonable.

However, if she’d thought that first day was the end of it, she was wrong. She came into work the next day and quickly learned that T-Rex wasn’t finished. The atmosphere on her floor was muted and tense and hyperactive all at the same time as people tried to show they could do their jobs.

Anya kept Charlotte busy until Charlotte barely had five spare minutes to gulp down lunch at her desk. Charlotte wasn’t naïve or stupid; she knew full well the other woman was taking advantage of her. Charlotte’s job was in Records, not as Anya’s assistant—but as long as Anya was too lazy to do her job, Charlotte’s would be secure. The fact was, with Records now so well computerized thanks to Charlotte’s own work, she’d worried she’d be seen as redundant, her head on the chopping block.

Especially with Gabriel Bishop on a mission to clean house.

He really was a T-Rex, stomping through the company, chewing up people and spitting them out left, right, and center. But the T-Rex wasn’t looking Charlotte’s way, and that was fine with her. She’d just be a quiet, industrious little mouse in the corner, not worth bothering with but too useful to fire.

Then the carnivorous creature decided to notice her.

Tuck was handing her a stack of mail that afternoon when the dreaded call came. “Boss wants to see you,” Anya said, a smirk in her tone. “Now. And bring your laptop.”

Her pulse in her mouth and her cheeks hot, Charlotte smoothed her hands down the dark brown linen of her calf-length skirt before pulling on the matching jacket over her white shirt. “Off I go to get eaten alive,” she said to Tuck, trying to make a joke out of what was no doubt her execution and failing abysmally.

The idea of those hard gray eyes on her, that icy focus… Goose bumps broke out over her skin as she picked up her laptop and slid it into a bag. She wasn’t sure she could carry it in her hands without it slipping out of her grasp; the fine tremor in her bones had her barely able to sling the strap of the bag over her shoulder.

“If he fires you,” Tuck said, his brown eyes stark with distress, “he’s an idiot.”

Charlotte wondered if Tuck would still say that if he knew she’d thrown a stapler at the boss’s head. As far as first impressions went, it couldn’t get much worse. Unless, of course, said stapler-throwing employee then lost the ability to speak while out at dinner with the same boss, instead doing an excellent impression of a statue.

Stomach knotting at the reminder of how badly she’d screwed up, she stepped out of her cubicle. Her skin prickled. It was obvious from the number of sympathetic eyes on her that people had guessed where she was headed and why. Not surprising. Three others from this floor had made the trek. None had returned, their belongings packed up by assistants assigned the task.

Some of her colleagues called out soft words of encouragement, but she could tell that despite their sympathy, they all thought she was a goner.

One of the senior people in Legal was more blunt when Charlotte passed her office. “I told you to apply for Anya’s position when it first opened up.”

Yes, she had, not seeming to realize the extent of Charlotte’s shyness. Charlotte’s inability to sell herself as an employee was pathetic. After being fired, she’d probably end up working for a mail-order business out of her home, never speaking to any other human except Molly. Eventually, she’d turn into a crazy woman with bird’s-nest hair who frightened small children and random telemarketers.

Shut up, Charlotte. This is not helping.

A second later, she was off her floor and climbing the stairs that led up to the managerial level. Taking several deep, gulping breaths when she reached the landing, she gripped the strap of her laptop bag and entered the floor. Everyone was too busy up here to stare at her—and quite a few offices were empty, the occupants booted out.

All too soon, she was in front of the automatic glass doors that guarded the CEO’s domain, the walls on either side of the doors also clear glass. The expensive renovation had been done by order of Bernard Hill, the previous CEO. Anya’s office lay in the section immediately beyond the glass, and it had a glorious view on the right as you walked in, courtesy of a floor-to-ceiling window that drenched the area in natural light.

The CEO’s office with its rumored even more spectacular view of the city lay behind the PA’s office and attached waiting area. It had its own door, no glass anywhere in sight. Likely so Bernard could nap in quiet privacy while Saxon & Archer fell into ruin.

Anya noted her entrance and waved her into the den of the T-Rex without bothering to rise from the clear glass—of course—sprawl of her desk. The other woman was all perfect makeup and poise, her glossy brown hair expertly blow-dried and her grape-colored dress hugging her svelte form while appearing businesslike.

According to the rumor mill, the other woman had set her cap for Gabriel Bishop. One of the general admin staff had heard Anya talking to the CFO’s personal assistant about her ambition to be Mrs. Bishop. She’d said something along the lines of having him eating out of her hand inside a week.

Charlotte didn’t think anyone could manage Gabriel Bishop if he didn’t want to be managed, but physically at least, Anya fit his type: tall, beautiful, together.

“Go in,” Anya said with a roll of her eyes when Charlotte hesitated in front of the closed door to the CEO’s office. “It’ll only take him a minute to give you your marching orders.”

Then who’ll do your work?

Throat dry, Charlotte didn’t utter the snarky thought. Instead, determined not to let Anya see her flinch, she swallowed and, opening the door after a quick knock, went in. She made sure to close the door behind herself. If she was about to be fired, she could at least save herself the humiliation of having Anya listen in.

The view was spectacular, and the previous CEO’s pristine glass desk was gone. Charlotte knew about that desk because she’d seen it being brought in by the movers. It had been a stylish designer piece that Tuck had seen in the office itself. Apparently, Bernard had kept it clear of everything but his phone and a single gold-plated pen, the desk’s surface shining and clean.

Gabriel Bishop, in contrast, was seated behind a heavy and scarred mahogany desk covered with paper and binders as well as two laptops running different programs. He was currently scowling at what looked like a contract with one of their suppliers. His dark blue tie hung loosely around his neck, as if he’d tugged impatiently at it, and the sleeves of his white shirt were folded up to his elbows to reveal just a hint of the extensive ink on his body.

He seemed unaware of the breathtaking view at his back, the waters of the Hauraki Gulf glittering under the icy-white autumn sunlight.

“Ms. Baird,” he said without looking up, “for what earthly reason do we still have a contract with McElvoy Shoes when the stores have had to send back multiple shipments for shoddy workmanship?”

Palms sweaty, Charlotte gripped the strap of her laptop case even tighter.

T-Rex raised his head, those steely gray eyes laserlike in their intensity. “Sit down before you shake apart.” A snarl.

Charlotte sat.

And he went back to flipping through the contract. “Ms. Baird, an answer before I’m eighty-five would be nice.”

Realizing his question hadn’t been a rhetorical one, she closed her eyes so she couldn’t see him and blurted out, “Mr. Hill was friends with old Mr. McElvoy, and when McElvoy Senior was in charge, the workmanship was exemplary, the delivery dates never missed. But now he’s handed the reins to his son and things are slipping.”

“The many and various people in management who had to be aware of this didn’t bring it to my inept predecessor’s attention?”

Peeking out and seeing he was still looking through the contract, his scowl even heavier, Charlotte said, “I think they tried, but Mr. Hill was very loyal to his friend.” Or too lazy to handle the matter when it was so much less stressful to let it slide and go play golf instead.

Given his work habits—or lack of work habits—Charlotte had no idea how Bernard Hill had managed to rise to the position of CEO of Saxon & Archer, but then, as shown by Anya, the world didn’t always reward those it should.

Her skin grew cold at the reminder that she was about to end up just as unemployed as Mr. Hill.

“One thing’s clear,” Gabriel Bishop said now, his jaw set in a brutal line. “McElvoy Junior has been hosing us with these charges.” Grabbing the phone, he made a call to Legal. “Terminate the McElvoy contract. They’re in breach for the tenth time—and get the damn penalty payments.”

Having utilized the momentary break to retrieve her laptop from the bag, Charlotte waited to be asked to hand it in since it was company property. Why he’d made her carry it up herself, she didn’t know. Everyone else had been called up as they were. Maybe he wanted to punish her in some extra way because she’d thrown a stapler at his head.