Authors: Linda Cajio
“Is there a problem?” he asked.
“No.” She carefully added, “This seems to be more like a project for the whole staff to be on—”
“No.” His gaze was as adamant as his voice. “This is
project. Anyone has a problem with that, they can come to me. Bring in one of the techs to help you with the specifications. But basically I want this quiet.”
“That’s not going to be easy,” she told him.
“I know what the office politics are like, but I don’t want the specs blabbed. The less people know, the better. We’re going to have to come up with a unique solution for integrating the systems, which means there’s going to be a nondisclosure statement involved.”
Charity nodded in understanding. “Unique solutions” usually necessitated a nondisclosure so their competitors couldn’t find out what they were doing and steal it. That also meant only those within the
company who were cleared to work on the project would know its specifications. Unfortunately, a savvy person seeing what was coming into the warehouse could figure out the “unique solution” fairly well. They did this sort of thing for a living, after all.
She’d be damned, though, if she’d catch the blame when it got out that she’d been given a big project to work on. And it would get out. She and one tech couldn’t take this kind of time together without someone noticing and snooping around. Besides, Dave had a big mouth.
Jake spoke, drawing her attention back to him. “I don’t want it to get out prematurely if I can help it, even here at Wayans. Do you have a tech you can trust?”
She nodded. “Mary DeMario.”
“I’ll get the specs together for you. How about dinner tonight—”
“I’m sorry,” she interrupted, her insides tensing at his blatant gall. “I have a class tonight. I told you before.”
“Can’t you make it up or something? This is business.”
“No, I cannot make it up.” Men, she thought in disgust. They could sound like petulant children when they didn’t get their way. “Business will have to be during business hours.”
“Okay.” He smiled to show no hard feelings. “Then we’ll keep off-hours to the personal. How about a guided tour of Milton this weekend? You can’t have a class then.”
She had to admit she’d fallen into that trap. “If you’ve seen the Wayans building and Main Street, then you’ve seen Milton.” She took a deep breath. “I
prefer to keep my business relationships to business only.”
He stared at her for a moment, and she began to wish the floor would open up and swallow her. She’d never seen such a stony expression on a person’s face in her life.
“Wayans has no fraternization restrictions,” he said at last. “And if it does, I’ve just rescinded them.” His smile was so warm, so beguiling, she almost believed she’d imagined that flint-hard expression. “Come on, Charity. What’s so frightening about a little dinner?”
“Nothing,” she lied. “It’s my own personal policy and it’s a good one.”
“I think it’s lousy.”
She rose to her feet. “You don’t have a player on this one, Mr. Halford. While I’m flattered, I don’t socialize with coworkers. Or the boss.”
He stood too. “It’s just dinner, Charity.”
“And I appreciate it. But I must decline. Now, I have a test tonight and I need to study.”
She got out of that room as fast as she could. Once she’d closed the door behind her, she breathed a sigh of relief. Getting out of a date was too tricky for comfort. Working with him was one thing, dinner was another. It was far too intimate, which could lead to other far too intimate happenings.
She was terrified of the other intimate happenings—especially with a man who danced naked and howled at the moon.
“He asked Bill and Helga to take early retirement!”
“Oh, both of them were retiring next year anyway. But did you hear about his wanting to cut out the Christmas bonuses?”
“What bonus? All we ever get is a turkey from the supermarket.”
“Well, we’re not getting even that anymore! And he’s advertising classes for the men about some movement thing—”
“We’re in the right room for that.”
Inside a ladies room stall, Charity chuckled as she adjusted her skirt and listened to the gossip at the sinks. What she could contribute to the conversation would turn them all on their heads. Dances with No Clothes On was making a big impression without that, however.
She had a feeling these changes were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg and would be nothing
the ice melted. Even though she knew the company was doing too poorly to blame on a national recession, she still hated the elimination of the little things. It just made people disgruntled. The goodwill value of turkeys far outweighed the cost.
She emerged from the stall, and the room went completely silent. The four women at the sinks stared at her as if she’d suddenly grown two noses. It had been a week since Jake had assigned the government project to her, and the time she’d been spending with him had not gone unnoticed.
“What?” a woman in a stall called out. “I can’t hear anything!”
“That’s because I’m here,” Charity called back. “Charity Brown.”
“Oh.” She could almost hear the woman swallowing her embarrassment.
Charity smiled at the other women, who suddenly busied themselves with fixing their hair or getting back to work. Nobody could quite look her in the eye, and she knew it was going to get worse before it got better.
“I know, I know,” she said, washing her hands. “I’m hanging out with the Big Guy, and you’re all thinking I’m the latest in
If they knew the meetings she had with Jake were developing a serious undertone that had nothing to do with business, if they knew of the fierce longing growing within her to share something more intimate than computer specs with him … well, that would elevate the gossip level to explosive proportions. Every time she was with him she was all too aware of the way he smiled … the way he moved with a wholly masculine grace … the way he would look straight into her eyes, then lower his gaze to her mouth … and the way a lambent fire flared in his eyes whenever that happened. And it was happening more and more frequently.
“Actually,” she said, forcing her brain back to the
women, “he’s got a special project on that will be a big boost for Wayans.” It was better to give them a little bit than to have them speculate and start too many rumors. “He put me on the team directly. Not the usual runaround of the manager gets the glory and we get all the work. I can’t say anything more about the project. Nondisclosure.”
Everyone in the room was frozen, listening with rapt attention, brushes poised in midair. She took a deep breath and took a calculated risk. “I think, ladies, we will see that Halford understands who really does the work in this company.”
“Really?” It was almost voiced as one.
Immediately, the women began wondering what kind of changes would come to the company that would benefit them.
Charity heaved a mental sigh, grateful that she’d found a way to take their interest off her. Jake had to really understand, she thought. Otherwise, why would he have given the job straight to her rather than to Dave?
Her peeved boss was waiting for her when she returned from the lavatory.
upstairs called,” Dave said. He was a short man, slight dumpy, with pale skin. Charity always thought he had a frightened look in his eyes, as if someone were going to find out he was in over his head. She wanted to tell him he’d be much better at his job and at handling people if he quit reacting to office politics and just relaxed.
“We don’t have an upstairs, Dave.” She smiled sweetly. “I take it you mean Ja—Mr. Halford.”
“I think he’s crazy,” Dave said. “Why give this job
to you? I always do them. Besides, how can I get anything done if you’re always powwowed with him?”
Charity resisted the urge to tell him off. If he always did the job, then why did he need her to get anything done? A little diplomacy, she reminded herself. He was hurting and, knowing him, worried about his position with the company. She could afford to live up to her name. Lest she forget, she still had to work with the man after the project was done. “It’s not a big deal, Dave. But Mr. Halford’s requiring a nondisclosure statement for the ‘unique solution’ Wayans comes up with. It’s just standard paranoia. We know how ‘unique’ these solutions really are.”
Dave made a face that indicated his understanding and temporary defeat. “Halford’s still nuts. All the men have to attend a meeting this afternoon with him. It’s mandatory.”
“Mandatory?” Charity echoed, her brain scrambling to digest this implication. The meeting had been mentioned in the bathroom, but not this little tidbit.
Dave smiled smugly. “Just us.”
“Oh.” She shrugged and pulled out her chair. Whatever it was, she wasn’t going to let it get to her, she decided.
“Halford’s waiting,” Dave reminded her.
She hit a button and called up a file on her computer. “I need to finish those orders for Bickman’s first and get them to the warehouse. It’ll take only a few minutes.”
“Oh.” Dave looked stunned that she was doing her job.
Charity shook her head and grinned to herself. It didn’t hurt to signal to everyone that she knew where her priorities lay.
A short time later her second boss was nearly as crabby as her first.
“I called for you hours ago,” Jake said.
Charity decided to blow up the meeting that afternoon. Every male at Wayans would be there, but especially this one. She settled into the chair in front of his desk. “I had orders to get out for Bickman’s. You did instruct me not to neglect my job.”
“I did.” Shoving a big manila envelope toward her, he said, “I’ve got the specs for you, so you can begin.”
She picked up the envelope and opened it, scanning the materials inside. Her first glance told her more than Jake had. She looked up in dismay. “This is big. I don’t know if I can do this by myself.”
He smiled. “You have me, remember? I know it’s a lot of researching of the components and getting the right manufacturer and price locked in. I’ll be doing the negotiating of that, don’t worry. And we have plenty of time, for once. It can make the difference for Wayans this year, Charity. By the way, how did you get that name?”
She blinked in surprise at the unexpected question. “My parents, of course,” she said cheekily, then explained. “My father teaches colonial history at Boston University. And my mother is a tour guide for Olde Plimoth, the original village.”
“The one where everyone dresses and talks like the Pilgrims?”
She nodded. “My mother speaks fluent Elizabethan English, which is always interesting when she forgets herself at home. Anyway, they gave their three daughters Puritan names.”
“Faith and Hope?” he asked, taking the usual guess at her sisters’ names.
“Prudence and Virtue,” she corrected him, chuckling. “I think I got the better deal.”
He laughed, and she immediately wished he hadn’t. He had a wonderful laugh, genuine and full-bodied. And he was easy to talk to. Her blood slowed, teasing her veins with a subtle sensual lure. She could feel an indefinable attraction pulling her to him. It was becoming harder and harder to equate him with the crazy naked howler in the woods.
He was still smiling at her. “And you’re all expected to live up to your names, right? Wasn’t that the purpose of them?”
“Lord help us, yes. We did go through some rebellious periods, though.”
Hers had been spectacular in some ways. She’d left college four credits shy of getting her teaching degree, telling her parents she’d done everything they wanted and now she would do what she wanted. Her jobs had started with promise in various junior management positions, but never went higher. She’d settled for less each time, until she’d settled at Wayans. Going home would be a form of defeat, and she didn’t consider it an option. Yet she seemed to be working harder and harder for less and less.
She had been settling for less and less in the romance department too, after her long-ago engagement had ended. Funny how women clamped onto a relationship just because a man expressed interest in them, she thought. When she’d finally broken up with Cal, her last mistake in the male department, she’d decided she wasn’t settling any longer. All she wanted was a nice man. If she found someone, great. If she remained alone, that was fine too.
Frowning, she wondered about friends and realized
she didn’t really have any. Lots of friendly acquaintances, but no friends. Maybe she liked being alone a little too much. Night school didn’t help matters.
“So you were rebellious,” Jake said, drawing her attention back to him. His smile turned more intimate, sending her blood pulsing a little faster. Wild ideas rushed through her about other ways he could send her blood pulsing, and she instantly dismissed them. Jake Halford, she was certain, was not a nice man who would take care of her emotions in the aftermath. “Your childhood must have been interesting,” he went on, “but three girls! I have four sisters myself, all older, all the bane of my existence.”
Despite his words, his tone was affectionate, and she smiled. “Poor baby.”
“That’s about how they treated me, until I finally pointed out that I’d grown up. They weren’t thrilled with that.” He grinned devilishly, and she could imagine him easily sticking up for himself. His self-confidence was steady and noticeable, but not at the conceit level. He was obviously comfortable with himself as a man and as a person. So few people, male or female, were. He continued. “But I like the ancient values. I think we’ve lost something within ourselves over the last few hundred years, especially by denying them.”
He leaned forward, a gleam coming into his eye. “Look at us, Charity. Humanity has deteriorated into confusion and unhappiness. In ancient times men were the hunters, warriors, and protectors, and women were the gatherers, nurturers, and also protectors. They worked together, each in their own way and yet completely interdependent, to keep themselves alive and continue the species. One sex’s
work was no more important than the other’s. But something went wrong with both men and women over the centuries. We lost that togetherness, that unity. Women have finally found themselves again as equals to men. But men haven’t been able to find their equality. They’ve even lost the ability to fulfill their needs. And they’ve lost it through themselves. The men no longer take the boys and teach them how to be men. My own father left before I was born, and I rarely saw him afterward. I needed that man perspective, that closeness. The only way to recover that is by going back to the ancient ways, by mentoring each other again. That’s why I’ve called a meeting with the men of Wayans, so we can begin the process here.”