Rock HardBy: Nalini Singh
Charlie-mouse Meets T-Rex… and Things Happen
Charlotte closed the final updated folder with a smile.
Pushing back from her desk after shutting down her computer, she stretched to loosen up the kinks, then decided to visit the restroom before heading out to catch the 6:15 bus home. It was a good bet it’d be blissfully empty this late on a Saturday since most people were coming into the city while she was heading in the opposite direction.
She could sit against the window and people-watch as the bus snaked up and out of the city’s central business and entertainment district. Maybe she’d read the little booklet that described the spa treatments she planned to indulge in tomorrow. Her best friend had given her a gift card months ago, back on her birthday, but with work being so frantic as the interim management team tried to hold things together, followed by all the prep for the arrival of the new boss on Monday, she’d had no chance to use it.
Nudging her wire-framed glasses farther up her nose as she exited the restroom, she let herself back onto the floor, her mind already on the spa treatments she’d booked. The idea of a therapeutic mud bath had her close to a giggle—she’d chosen that one just so she could tell Molly she’d blown the gift card on fancy mud. Her friend would get a kick out of it.
Tonight, however, she had a date with the oven; she was itching to try out her new recipe for banana-nut cupcakes with buttercream frosting. All she had to do was grab her purse and coat and catch the elevator down. An easy five-minute walk to the bus stop, and if the service was running on time, she’d be on her way home soon afterward.
It was as she passed the fourth cubicle down that she heard it. A door slamming lightly against a wall, as if someone had pushed it a little too hard… or bumped it while trying to move with stealth.
There was no one else here. And no one was likely to have come in during the few minutes she’d been away from the floor. The others who’d been in today were long gone, their workstations silent. She had to have imagined it.
Another noise, this one duller. The kind an overstuffed manila folder might make as it fell to the carpet.
An invisible hand choked her throat.
Her body shook.
And her mind threatened to blank.
No. She straightened her shoulders. I am not a victim. Not anymore. Not ever again.
Repeating the mantra that had kept her sane for the past five years, she reached into a pants pocket to retrieve her phone. She never went anywhere without it, not even into the shower at home, having bought a waterproof case the same day she’d bought the phone. It was a crutch, but as Molly had said, so what?
If having the phone within reach allowed her to function, to step outside into the world, to not live in a cage, then no one had any right to judge her. It had taken Charlotte time, but she’d stopped judging herself for the need, too. In the grand scheme of her screwed-up psyche, her reliance on the safety net of a phone was a blip on the radar.
Unlocking the screen with icy fingers, she crouched behind the dark blue wall of a cubicle that belonged to a temp in Accounts and speed-dialed her best friend. “Pick up, pick up,” she muttered near-silently as she chanced a peek around the corner.
When she concentrated, she was able to track the sounds of ongoing movement to the records room. As the records clerk, Charlotte had intimate knowledge of what was inside that room: computers full of sensitive commercial information as well as rows and rows of legal documentation including contracts and draft tenders, not to mention the personnel files for every employee who worked for Saxon & Archer Corp.
When Molly’s answering machine came on, Charlotte realized she’d accidentally called Molly’s home line rather than her friend’s cell phone. She glanced at her watch. Molly was a librarian who worked Saturdays, but she should’ve been home by now, might just be in another room. “Molly,” she said when the beep sounded, her voice trembling despite herself. “Please pick up.”
Nothing. No response.
About to hang up and try Molly’s cell phone, she heard the sound of the receiver being handled. Molly came on the line a second later, her tone sharp with concern. “Charlie, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, you’re home.” Charlotte swallowed in a vain effort to wet a throat so dry it felt as if it were lined with broken gravel. “I just…” Taking a deep breath when her pounding heart threatened to drown out everything else, she said, “There’s someone else in the office, and there shouldn’t be. I came back from the bathroom and heard them moving around.”
“Leave.” Molly’s voice was urgent.
It was good advice, but Charlotte didn’t want to run, to hide. Didn’t want to be a coward as she so often was.
Finding courage from the intense, painful frustration inside her, she said, “No.” And though her skin was hot and her breath shallow, her pulse in her mouth, she rose from her crouch. “It’s probably only the building security guard doing an unscheduled round,” she added in an attempt to convince herself there was no reason to fear, “but could you stay on the phone with me while I go check it out?”
“I’m right here.”
Grabbing a large stapler from the cubicle opposite where she’d been hiding, Charlotte slipped out of her low-heeled slides and padded down the beige of the carpet, trying to calm herself with rational thoughts. There was no reason for an intruder to break in to commit industrial espionage—everyone knew Saxon & Archer was in trouble; trouble so bad that even the sharks who usually circled dying companies had declared them of no interest.
That dire state of affairs was why the new CEO with his reputation as a ruthless negotiator with a razor-sharp mind had been brought on board. Rumor was the powers that be had been so desperate to secure his services they’d given him a chunk of the tightly held company as part of his pay package.
Of course, those shares would be worthless if he didn’t manage the herculean task of hauling Saxon & Archer out of its death spiral—and Charlotte couldn’t think about that, about the possibility of losing her job, without breaking into a cold sweat, so she shoved that line of thinking aside to focus on the here and now.
Right now it made no sense that someone would want to steal data on a floundering company. And there was nothing else here to steal. Unless this was one very aggressive recruiter who planned to poach Saxon & Archer personnel and was laying the groundwork. Yes, that was going to happen. Not.
It had likely just been files falling to the floor, or a door moving because of a draft generated by an air-conditioning vent, or—
Screaming as she saw the shape of a very big, very muscular man move out from inside the records room, she threw the stapler.
He caught it in one big hand, stared at it with steel-gray eyes, then at her. A single raised eyebrow. “Perhaps you’d better answer that.”
Charlotte realized he was talking about her phone. Her fingers had a death grip on it, and she could hear Molly yelling her name even from this distance. Bringing it to her ear as her face flushed to a no doubt horrific shade of red, she said, “I’m fine” to her best friend.
“I’m glad to hear that.” With those words, the dark-haired and very familiar man across from Charlotte held out the stapler. “You might be needing this… Ms.?”
“Baird,” she said in a croak of a tone. Coughing, she managed to clear it to a rasp. “Charlotte Baird.” She held the phone against her chest and forced herself to meet the penetrating gaze of the six-feet-five, broad-shouldered, and dangerously gorgeous man she’d recognized a split second after she threw the stapler.
There were few people in the country who wouldn’t recognize Gabriel Bishop, former pro rugby player, decorated captain of the national team, and holder of on-field records unbroken in the seven years since he’d been forced to retire because of a severe Achilles tendon injury. “Thank you… sir.”
A nod, his hair glinting blue-black in the overhead light. He was gone a second later, a legal file held in his hand.
Walking back to her cubicle on shaky legs, Charlotte collapsed in her chair and buried her face in one hand, elbow braced on her desk. “I just met my new boss,” she groaned into the phone. “Or more specifically, I threw an industrial-strength stapler at his head.”
Molly laughed in open relief.
“Oh God, Molly, what if he fires me?” Charlotte didn’t know how she’d find a new job. Interviewing for this one would’ve left her a nervous wreck if the human resources manager at the time hadn’t been an older man on the verge of retirement who’d reminded her of her father.
“He’s not going to fire you,” Molly said. “You were in the office being a diligent employee, remember?”
“Right, that’s right. I—”
Jerking around at the sound of that deep male voice, Charlotte said, “Yes.” It came out a squeak.
“Have you been here all day?” Gabriel Bishop’s eyes—cold, hard, incisive—pinned her to the spot, his big body blocking out the light.
She nodded, her voice having deserted her totally by this point. The man was a wall of pure muscle, like some Greek god carved by an adoring artist.