Rock Hard(5)

By: Nalini Singh

“Tell me about the Khan negotiation,” he said, setting the McElvoy contract aside to pick up a different one on which it looked like he’d already scrawled notes in deep blue ink. “Hill’s personal file on the situation is fragmented at best. Far as I can figure, Khan is happy to sell us the land for a parking lot but has a sentimental attachment to the building currently on-site. I’m assuming you kept better records as part of your job?”

Charlotte stared.

Gabriel Bishop shoved a hand through his hair, then leaned forward, forearms braced on a desk that had so many nicks and dents that she knew instinctively it had followed him from company to company as he did what he did best. “Ms. Baird,” he said, those cold eyes watching her with a relentless focus that made her every muscle tense to breaking point, “from the memos I see on these files, all of which were apparently created at your workstation, you’re highly intelligent. I don’t want to fire you, but I will if you can’t give me the information I need.”


In News That Surprises No One, Anya Is a Bitch

Charlotte was flabbergasted that he’d made a point of checking the origin of the memos for which Anya always took credit. She was so shocked that she might have frozen into silence again; it was the critical sentence “I don’t want to fire you” that gave her the courage to speak.

“Mr. Khan,” she said, coughing to clear her throat and pinning her eyes on the knot of his tie so she wouldn’t have to hold his gaze, “is playing hardball because he knows Saxon & Archer needs that land. There’s nothing else available.”

“Reasons for your conclusion?” Gabriel Bishop asked, making edits to another document as he spoke, his strokes sure, the red ink like blood on the page.

It was easier to speak when he wasn’t looking at her. “I’ve seen three or four of the e-mails he exchanged with Mr. Hill.” Bernard Hill had been terrible about saving crucial e-mails, but Anya had forwarded Charlotte the odd one to add to the file. “It’s obvious if you read between the lines. He says things like ‘I’m sure we can come to a compromise. I know how useful the land would be to Saxon & Archer, and I’m a reasonable man.’”

Her new boss put down his pen and leaned back in his chair, his attention now fully on her. “I see. Did Hill explore any other options on the parking situation?”

God, it was hard to think when the force of his personality was smashing against her senses. Lowering her gaze to the knot of his tie again, she said, “No,” then bit her lip and went with her gut. It might be twisted into a pretzel by now, but since he hadn’t fired her yet… “I did once see a memo from Brent Sinclair”—a very junior member of staff—“that suggested we implement a complimentary shuttle system from a major commercial parking lot about fifteen minutes away.”

A frown from the man on the other side of the desk. “I haven’t seen that memo. Forward it to me.”

Having already popped open her laptop, Charlotte was able to quickly locate and forward the memo, and after Gabriel scanned it, he asked her countless more questions about other ongoing situations. She barely had time to breathe for the next two hours. She certainly didn’t have time for nerves. The man’s mind was a steel trap, and he expected the same from her. How he even knew to ask the questions, some of them incredibly detailed and obscure, she didn’t know.

She answered everything as best she could, having to access the electronic records system for the more intricate details. Just when she thought they were done, he asked her how she’d book a last-minute Friday business trip to Saxon & Archer’s Sydney offices for him, with a dinner party thrown for corporate partners upon arrival.

Charlotte blinked but managed an answer; she’d handled such details multiple times. Anya usually drafted up what she needed, and Charlotte made it happen. Maybe, she thought suddenly, T-Rex intended to make her Anya’s official assistant. Not her dream job, since she’d be stuck in an office near the condescending Anya all day, but better than being unemployed.

“Enough.” Gabriel Bishop glanced at his watch. “Tell Anya to get Sinclair up here.”

Charlotte escaped as quickly as possible, sneaking away for fifteen minutes to go grab a stabilizing coffee from her favorite café half a block over. Walking around the entire block to calm herself, she returned to her desk to find an e-mail from Anya requesting a concise summary of a labor dispute the previous CEO had ignored for well over half a year.

The other woman had added: p.s. Guess you haven’t been demoted to being the tea lady just yet.

Relieved at the normality of the request and of Anya’s bitchiness, Charlotte knuckled down to work.

Having sent Sinclair off to draft a more detailed breakdown of his plan after grilling the younger man and confirming the strength of his idea, Gabriel considered the mouse who’d been in his office not long ago. Ugly brown suit, soft blond hair that was in a bun today, and clear hazel eyes shielded behind the lenses of her wire-rimmed spectacles, Charlotte Baird did her best to disappear into the woodwork.

What Gabriel had discovered today was that the mouse wasn’t only hardworking but was also highly perceptive and had a keen intelligence. In the miniscule fractions of time in which she forgot to be terrified of him, she’d… sparkled. Like there was a brilliant light deep inside her, stifled by a crippling lack of confidence.

An intriguing mouse was Ms. Baird.

Gabriel found himself interested, and he’d never before found a mouse interesting.

Setting aside the problem posed by having an employee who was clearly in the wrong position for her skill set, he turned his attention from the mouse to the flashy bird of paradise.

“Anya,” he said into the intercom. “Come into the office. And bring your laptop.”

Feeling as if she’d been through the wars, Charlotte ate a whole bag of chocolate raisins at her desk that evening while finishing up some work for Anya. Her brain felt like it had the consistency of noodle soup.

It wasn’t the work that had exhausted her. No, that had been hectic but interesting. It was the stress of not knowing whether she’d still have a job at the end of the week. Anya’s “tea lady” comment had been pure spite, but given Charlotte’s abysmal interviewing skills, she’d be lucky if future employers even trusted her to make tea.

That morose thought was still uppermost in her mind when Molly called at seven to ask if she’d like to grab dinner down at the Viaduct. “Yes!” she said to her friend, and decided then and there that she’d put the whole employment situation out of her head for the next few hours.

She did slip up and mention the fact she thought Gabriel was a T-Rex, which Molly found hysterical, but her news about work drama paled in comparison to Molly’s bombshell. After deciding on dessert before dinner, the two of them walked down to sit by the water, ice creams in hand as they waited for a super yacht to come in. That was when Molly confessed the aftermath of a cocktail party they’d attended the previous Friday night.

In short, her best friend had taken Zachary Fox, rock star and man voted “Reigning Sex God” by a men’s magazine three years running, up on his offer of a one-night stand.

Charlotte’s mouth fell open. “You—with Zachary Fox—” Throwing one arm around Molly, Charlotte smacked a big kiss on her best friend’s cheek, Molly’s skin a pure cream now touched with color. “My hero!” She pulled back her arm a second before her ice cream would’ve toppled over. “At least one of us will have outrageous stories with which to shock any grandchildren we might or might not have.”

Molly giggled and leaned into Charlotte, her wild tumble of black hair pulled back into a tight braid. Then, eyes on the water rippling with color from the lights of nearby businesses, Molly told her how the one-night stand had turned into a much more complicated arrangement that held the potential to tear open old scars so jagged and raw that Charlotte wasn’t sure the wounds had ever truly healed.

“Do you think I’m being ridiculous?” her best friend whispered. “About not being caught by the media with Fox?”

“Of course not.” Charlotte finished off her cone, balled up the napkin it had been wrapped in, and took Molly’s to the trash as well before coming back. “I was there, remember?” She closed her hand over Molly’s, heart hurting for her friend. “Did you tell Fox about what happened? So he knows it has nothing to do with him?”

Shaking her head, Molly pointed out the gleaming super yacht that had appeared in the distance. They watched the sleek craft glide in, the words they exchanged in the ensuing minutes layered with old pain.

Driven by her love for the woman who’d been her best friend since they first met in nursery school over two decades ago, Charlotte said, “I’m scared, Molly. All the time.” Until she couldn’t breathe sometimes. “You know why.”

Molly hugged her close, her voice fierce as she said, “We don’t have to talk about it.”

“No, it’s okay.” She turned to face Molly, looking into the warm brown eyes that had been the first thing she’d seen after she woke in the hospital bed just over five years ago. Molly hadn’t left her bedside for a single minute. “I miss out on so much because I’m scared—and the thing is, I’m intelligent enough to know it.” To be painfully aware she was living in a cage of her own construction. “That just makes it worse.”