Copyright 2012 Raina James
All rights reserved a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Cassandra trudged into the office, hair dripping, face red, stylish new black trench coat covered in a layer of orange cat hair.
Ensconced behind the semicircular desk at Reception, Michelle stared wide-eyed. "Cassie! What happened to you?"
She held up her hand, stop-sign fashion, and kept going. "Don't ask." The heavy black satchel started to slide off her shoulder. With an irritated jerk, she settled the wide strap back in place, trying not to wince as her stockinged feet squished wetly in her black leather wedge heels.
"Mr. Michalek said you're to join him in conference room B when you're settled."
Cassie stopped walking. Her shoulders slumped. Shit. The conference call with Baltimore. With everything else going on this morning, she'd forgotten all about it. She slid up the cuff of her trench coat and looked at the slim gold watch her parents had given her on her graduation from business college. Almost thirty-five minutes late, which meant the conference call started fifteen minutes ago.
"He didn't seem angry," Michelle said in an obvious effort to make her feel better. Cassie glanced over her shoulder to see the other woman on her feet, leaning forward over the high shelf of the reception desk. On Michelle, the cordless headset for the phones looked like a fashion accessory. Her milkmaid-pretty cheeks, auburn hair pulled into a sleek twist and wide, deep-blue eyes made Cassie even more aware of her own drowned-rat state. "Really," Michelle said. "When I told him you called to say you had car trouble, he said he'd see if Richardson's EA could take notes until you got in."
"Great," Cassie said, trying to mean it as she started to escape to her cubicle.
"Uh, Cassie? Maybe you should swing by the ladies' room on your way." Michelle gestured discreetly at her own eyes with the tips of her fingers.
Wonderful. Did she have raccoon eyes? "Thanks."
"Hey, what are friends for? Are we still on for lunch, or do you need to work through again?"
"Unless David needs me for something specific, we're definitely on. After the morning I've had, I'm in dire need of some of Petrelli's lemon mousse."
Michelle nodded sympathetically. "I hear you."
With a sad attempt at a cheerful wave, Cassie tightened her grip on the strap of her satchel and headed for the ladies' room. Her nylons clung damply to her legs and she tried to remember if she had a spare package in her desk. She kept her head down and tried to send out don't-talk-to-me vibes. She sensed heads turning and her coworkers' stares as she trudged through the maze of cubicles and past the breakroom.
Pushing through the door to the ladies' room, she almost collided with Amber Pilecky. The woman's eyes widened in surprise, then lit with barely contained laughter.
"Omigod, Cassie," her nemesis purred. "I almost didn't recognize you."
"Hello, Amber." Cassie tried to go around, but the other woman casually placed a hand on the wall, blocking her.
"But then I saw that distinctive wrinkle between your eyes and I knew it had to be you."
Cassie resisted ? barely -- the urge to glare. She couldn't help it. Amber always brought out the worst in her. "That's not a wrinkle; I'm just trying not to sneeze. Must be your perfume or something."
"I'm sure." Amber smirked. Her skillfully applied makeup and the thick waves of her shoulder-length, pale blonde hair made Cassie feel even more bedraggled than Michelle's prettiness had. It didn't help that Amber was her least favorite person in the universe. The dislike had been instant and mutual upon their meeting a few years before when Amber arrived at the company like one of the popular kids gracing the losers with her presence. Of course, Amber got along with the male employees a lot better than she did with the women.
"Doesn't Mr. Roland need you to make him coffee, answer the phone, or bend over to pick up a pencil?"
"Not at all. Rolly," Amber said, using the diminutive usually reserved for the chief executive's cronies, "prefers just a bottle of water when he's on a conference call. Say," she said, thoughtfully tapping one perfectly manicured nail on her bottom lip, "aren't you supposed to be in on that?"
Cursing under her breath, Cassie shoved past Roland's office bauble. As the bathroom door closed, she heard Amber's mocking laugh and gritted her teeth.
What she saw in the mirror made her want to groan. God, it was worse than she'd suspected. Her mascara was waterproof, so hadn't run. The good news ended there. Her eyeliner, once applied in an artfully thin stroke on her upper lid to emphasize her leaf-green eyes, had morphed into black blotches Alice Cooper would have envied. Rosy cheeks that made Michelle look like a sweet young thing gave Cassie's paler complexion an almost clownish appearance. Where it wasn't slicked to her head like ratty dreadlocks, her golden brown hair frizzed in a pouffy corona barely contained by the gold clip at the base of her neck.
Slinging her satchel onto the counter, Cassie took off the trench coat and tossed it over her bag. Water darkened the collar of her sage-green shirt. A number of splotch marks marred the fabric where water had soaked through her coat. Her nipples formed ice-cube-hard points visible even through the lace of her bra and the delicate cami she wore under the thin blouse. So much for dressing to play down her generous breasts.
She thought of the vengeance she'd like to wreak on the driver of the SUV that had roared through the puddle under the McCarthy Street overpass. Puddle didn't do it justice. It was typical of her luck to reach that section of road at the exact moment when the heavy downpour overwhelmed the storm sewers to form a minilake in the dip in the road. With water lapping midway up the hubcaps, it was enough to bog down her little Camry, a Prius and a boat of a Malibu. Hoping to assess just how bad the damage was, Cassie opened her car door in time to get a faceful of rooster tail as the SUV powered through like a kajillion-horsepower speedboat. The other stranded drivers were sympathetic but unhelpful as they waited for the tow trucks to arrive. She'd have to call the garage when she got a moment and find out how much it would cost to make her drowned little car roadworthy again. Hopefully, all it needed was drying out.
Sighing, she unbuttoned her blouse and slipped it off. A convulsive shudder racked her, then subsided into shivers. Gooseflesh pebbled her skin. The water dripping down her spine from her sopping-wet hair didn't help. Waving her hand under the motion-sensitive dryer to get it going, Cassie held her blouse under the blast of hot air. The warmth soon eased her shivers and she anticipated sliding the fabric back on. When it was mostly dry, she hung the blouse on a hook in one of the toilet stalls. She looked at her watch and grimaced. She'd lost another ten minutes.
Going back to the counter, she avoided her reflection and turned the faucet on as hot as she could stand it. Pumping a scanty froth of bubbles from the soap dispenser into her palm, she hurriedly scrubbed her face free of makeup. The best she could do with her hair was brush it out and plait it in a French braid, securing it with a hair elastic she kept in her bag for emergencies. Lastly, she put the blouse back on. It had lost its crispness, but at least she was warm enough she wouldn't be embarrassed by the nipple alert.
Cassie grabbed her satchel and coat and slammed out of the ladies' room, almost running to her cubicle. Dumping her things in her chair, she opened her desk drawer to take out a tiny recorder, notepad and a pen.
She straightened and paused. Someone had left a pretty little box on her desk.
Positioned in the center of her blotter, the shiny red box bound with a gold ribbon looked out of place amidst the orderly arrangement of files, computer monitor, multiline phone, manual Rolodex and other office paraphernalia. A touch of whimsy in a tableau of the everyday. Clutching her notepad to her chest, Cassie picked up the box. About the size of a coffee mug, it felt solid, but not too heavy. Turning it this way and that, she searched for a tag or label, but couldn't find one. What was it? Who had left it on her desk? It wasn't her birthday.
A burst of laughter from the direction of the breakroom startled her from her musings. Her eyes went to the clock on her monitor. Crap. No time to puzzle over it now. She put the box back on her blotter and hurried to conference room B. Without knocking, she eased open one of the oversized doors and slid into the room.
One of the managers stood at the head of the table, using an LED pointer to indicate something on a chart on the easel at his side. A slim wall-mounted monitor mirrored his move as it displayed the feed going out to the senior managers gathered in a similar conference room in Baltimore. The dozen or so executives around the table either watched the presentation or took notes.
Cassie's eyes met David's. Another shiver went through her, this one owing nothing to her chill. He had the whole Clark Kent, sexy-geek thing going on -- black hair just long enough for a slight curl, intelligent blue eyes and sharp-planed features that were saved from austerity by the almost lush bow of his lips. It was easy to imagine bulging biceps and washboard abs under the well-tailored business suit. He even wore glasses, though the thin gold frames were nothing like the Man of Steel's horn rims. At the moment, his blue eyes seemed almost black behind the shining lenses, which reflected the glow of the wall-mounted monitor in the dim room. Cassie, certain the twitch of his lips indicated his amusement at her appearance, felt her cheeks flush. "Sorry I'm late," she mouthed.
David tipped his head and gave a tiny shrug she took to mean it was no big deal.
Seeing Shelby, Larry Richardson's executive assistant, seated in one of the chairs placed against the wall by the door, Cassie joined her. Sharing a smile of greeting, Cassie clicked on her recorder and flipped open her notebook.