Stalking into the men’s john, Michael Rowe decided there was something downright malevolent about Fridays.
He despised how Fridays always brought unpleasant surprises. It seemed most of those bolts from the blue were disasters sent to derail him. He was a big guy—six foot, two inches in his stocking feet, and hard to knock down. Still, a staff of frantic employees could send the most stable executive right off the tracks.
From the last stall, the unmistakable sounds of retching echoed off the walls. A more sensible man would hightail it back to the sanctuary of the executive suite. Shrugging off the urge to leave, he rapped on the door.
“Bill, you dying in there?” he asked.
The toilet flushed. “Yes.”
“Hang on, buddy. I sent the new secretary out to pick up antacids.”
“You sent Bitsy to the drugstore?” Bill wheezed. “Are you crazy?”
Offended, Michael pulled back to glare at the closed stall. “Yeah, I sent Bitsy. So what?”
“She’s an idiot, that’s what. You never should have hired her.”
“She types eighty words a minute.”
“That’s not all she does.” Bill let loose a sickening belch. “Know why she needed a ride to work today? Her car is in the chop shop—third time this month. Haven’t you noticed it in the parking lot? The blue Mercury?”
“The demolition derby model is hers? I sent her out in the company car!”
“Good thing the Beemer’s insured. Bitsy’s young, blind and brutal on all things automotive.”
An image of the corporate BMW hurtling toward a tree accosted Michael. “Why didn’t you mention she’s a lousy driver?”
“It’s never come up. Hey, I’m busy puking here. Go away.”
On a groan, Michael changed the subject. “You shouldn’t let Violet get to you like this. Every time she cries, you puke. It’s got to stop.”
“Give me a break,” Bill shot back. “While you’re conveniently holed up in your office, she bleeds tears all over the art department. Which works for me, but then she heads for copy and scares the crap out of my staff. What is it with artists? Why do they fall apart every time they finish a project?”
“No idea.” Michael slapped the stall door in much the same way he’d slap Bill on the back. “If Bitsy isn’t back in ten, I’ll send Miriam out for the antacids.”
Returning to his office, Michael ran headlong into Terrence Kholer. Since it was Friday, Rowe Marketing’s lead artist displayed all the signs of full meltdown. Nuclear reactors couldn’t cause as much damage as Terrence when his core became unstable.
Terrence grabbed him by the lapels of his sports coat. “I’m going to kill Herman. I’ll decapitate him! Do you hear me?”
Michael tried shrugging free. “Slow down. What did Herman do?”
“He’s wrecked the computers again.” The art director backed him against the wall, an impressive feat given that Terrence had a slight build and the physical strength of a fashion model. “He lost ten of the images I was working on when he crashed the computers. He’s dead, do you understand?”
“Damn it, back off. Where’s Herman now?”
Terrence snapped his hands to his sides. “Don’t ask.”
“Like hell. Where is he?”
“All right, all right—he’s hiding under my desk. I heard whimpering.” The artist shot off a smug look. “It’s not my problem.”
Which, Michael knew, meant it was his problem. “Is he breaking out in hives?”
“Gads—his face looks like a pizza with a double serving of pepperoni. The eruptions are volcanic.”
“You scared the crap out of the kid again? If so, it’s your problem. Crawl under your desk and drag him out. And get him the calamine lotion from Miriam’s desk. You know where she keeps it.”
The mention of Michael’s secretary stamped fear on the art director’s face. No one at the firm messed with Miriam. One glance from her steely eyes brought order to any situation.
Terrence fiddled with his mustache. “You want me to fetch the calamine from the dreaded gatekeeper’s desk? Have you lost your mind? I refuse to go near her on Fridays.”
Michael offered his most surly expression, the one that usually brought instant submission. “Now, listen up,” he said. “I don’t give a damn what Herman did. He’d run the computers just fine if you’d stop scaring the shit out of him. Drag him out from under your desk and get the calamine lotion. While you’re at it, make Violet settle down. Is she still crying?”
“It’s not my problem.”
Irritation surged, but Michael battled it down. “Where is she?”
“In the cafeteria. Roaming makes her feel better when she’s overwrought.”
There goes breakfast. He’d planned to grab a granola bar from the vending machine before interviewing the tech applicant. No way was he going near the cafeteria now.
“Just take care of it,” he snapped.
He walked away. To the left and right, employees inside offices chatted softly or worked at computers. The satisfying aroma of coffee spiked the air, mixed with the gardenia perfume Violet favored on her moodiest days. He didn’t understand why Terrence’s assistant chose an old-fashioned perfume better suited for someone’s grandmother—it certainly clashed with her purple hair and punk rocker mien. Nor did he understand why the rest of the staff allowed the emotional girl to flood the cafeteria with tears when they ought to storm the Bastille and take the place back.
At Miriam’s desk, within inches of the relative safety of his office, he spotted the new secretary shrinking into the wall. Bitsy’s mousey hair looked wind blown. Recalling Bill’s warning in the bathroom, he wondered if the corporate Beemer was strewn in pieces somewhere in Fairfax.
From behind thick glasses, Bitsy’s eyes widened with the sort of quivering apology he knew he didn’t wish to hear.
He held up a hand, silencing her. To Miriam, he said, “Notify the insurance company.”
She picked up the phone. “I’ve already checked the company deductible.”
“Good deal.” He turned to Bitsy. “Did you get the antacids for Bill?”
“Yes, sir,” she squeaked.
“He’s in the men’s john.” When the secretary paled, he gave her the full force of his gaze. Confident he’d rendered her mute, he added, “March in there and slide it under the stall. Get moving.”
After the girl stumbled off, he asked Miriam, “Has she arrived?”
“She’s waiting. Her resume is on your desk.”
Michael went inside the massive cave he called an office. If wide, open spaces and lavish accouterments were the ticket to intimidating employees he figured he’d done himself right. A slab of granite served as his desk. A wet bar was tucked into miles of cabinetry. The carpets underfoot were thick and inviting. He strode across with his frustration rising.
There wasn’t time today to waste interviewing Miriam’s friend for the post of Systems Analyst and General Dragon Slayer. He needed a Titan, some guy with an I.Q. of 200 and enough computer savvy to get the damn computers running and keep them running.
His patience thinning, he strode past the woman seated before his massive desk. He dropped into his chair without giving her so much as a once-over. He’d grown tired of interviews. Not one applicant had been qualified. He’d already decided to fly up to New York City with a stellar pay and benefits package, and steal an IT pro from one of the national ad agencies.
When he looked up, Annie McDaniel returned his gaze with a level examination from blue-green eyes. Mythical eyes of a compelling hue—green one moment, blue the next. Her skin was a translucent sheath framed by blonde hair, her features delicate and her mouth so pink that it called up an image of spring’s first rose. He was still appreciating her eye-popping beauty when he realized she was waiting for him to speak.
“You’re Annie McDaniel,” he remarked, stupidly.
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