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Rock Kiss 02 Rock Hard

By´╝ÜNalini Singh

1

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.

Impossible.

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.

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