Page 7

So much for everything being all right.

“Thank you for staying behind, Ms. Girard,” Maryanne says as she walks over to me. “I wanted to speak with you about your work for the next few weeks.”

“I’m so sorry I was late.” I know Ethan cleared it, but I feel the need to apologize anyway. “It won’t happen again.”

“Don’t be silly,” she trills. “I understand completely. If Ethan had wanted to talk to me this morning, I probably would have blown off the meeting, too.”

Shit. It’s worse than I thought. Though she’s not admitting to it, my boss is angry. Really angry—hence the passive-aggressive wording of that last statement.

“I fell in the stairwell and hit my hip pretty hard.” I show her the now melted ice pack. “Mr. Frost was courteous enough to help me and ensure I got some ice.”

“So he told me. Are you feeling okay now?”

“Yes. I’m fine.”

“Good, because with the project you’re being assigned, you’ll have a lot of work to do.”

“The project?”

“Yes.” She eyes me coolly. “Whatever you and Ethan spoke about must have impressed him quite a bit. He’s requested that we put you on the research for the Trifecta merger. Have you heard of it?”

I feel my eyes widen and my heart rate increase even as I nod. I don’t know a lot about the Trifecta merger—no one does, as it’s been pretty hush-hush in the business papers—but I know it’s a huge deal. One that stands to make Frost Industries a lot of money, not to mention help them expand into another area of the biotech field.

I tell Maryanne what I’ve read about the merger, which, again, isn’t a lot, but she seems slightly mollified. “I just emailed you what you need to know about the research, along with an outline and timeline that Rick put together on what the lawyers need and when they expect to have it. Please follow the timeline—any deviations will need to be cleared by me.”

“Of course.”

“Do you have any questions?”

I’m sure I do, but until I look at the information she’s sent me, I won’t have a clue what to ask or where to start. So I settle for a simple “Not at this time.”

She must be a mind reader, though—or she understands just how out of my depth I am—because she says, “You will. When you do, start with Rick for answers. If he isn’t helpful, feel free to come to me.”

“I will.”

“Good.” She nods toward the door, her face nowhere near as welcoming as it was when I arrived here yesterday. “I suggest you get started.”

“I will.” Gathering up my tablet and purse, I head for the door as fast as my injured hip will let me.

Right before I get there, Maryanne calls, “And Ms. Girard?”

I turn back to face her. “Yes?”

“This is a big deal. The lawyers you’ll be researching for are extremely demanding. Don’t mess up.”

“I won’t,” I promise her.

She doesn’t say anything, just stares at me until I turn and leave. It’s more than a bit daunting.

As is the fact that I am now one of the key researchers for the Trifecta merger. Though I know the important stuff is done by the lawyers and the engineers and the VPs—not to mention Ethan himself—I’m still pretty sure the task I have in front of me is Herculean, especially for a first-week intern who barely knows which research databases to use.

I should be terrified, and a part of me is, but I’m not going to show it. Not to Maryanne, not to Rick, whose intense reaction in the conference room suddenly makes sense, not to any of the other interns who are staring at me like I’ve turned rabid—or traitor. I can do this. I have to do this. Because as I walk into the small area of cubbies assigned to the interns, I realize just how much things have changed in the course of one morning. Not only because of my new assignment but because yesterday Maryanne—like everyone else—addressed me as Chloe. Today I’m suddenly Ms. Girard.

With Jose it was a sign of politeness, of deference. Something tells me that with my new boss, it’s the exact opposite.

Chapter Five

I can’t do this. I just can’t. I’m in the women’s bathroom on the second floor of Building Three and I’m using every ounce of willpower I have to not cry. It’s stupid, I know. After all, I’ve been through much worse than this before. I’ve had people say nastier things to me, do nastier things to me.

But that was a long time ago, when I was expecting it. Hardened to it. Here, in this job that I was so excited about, at this place where I so desperately wanted to work and learn and contribute, it’s a million times worse than it ever was when I was younger.

To say the day has not gone well would be an understatement. Rick is a total asshole, a sanctimonious bully of the worst kind. He’s been the ringleader of the crusade against me—big surprise—and he’s done everything he can to make my day as miserable as possible. It all started when he stopped by my desk to “talk” about the Trifecta merger and “accidentally” spilled his hot coffee all over me. Since then, he’s bumped into me three different times, the last of which sent me slamming into a wall, injured hip first. I barely kept the tears out of my eyes then, but painful or not, I’ll be damned if I give that bastard the satisfaction of knowing he’s rattled me.

Of course, he is very much king of the intern castle, the one who sets the tone for the whole group and the one whose behavior they take their cues from, since he’s been here longest. Which means I’ve spent the day dodging everything from passive-aggressive comments to out-and-out confrontations. One of the women, I think her name is Beth, actually stuck her foot out and tripped me. Of course, she played it just the way Rick did, like it was all an accident and I was the clumsy one, but I’m not overly clumsy and I know her foot hadn’t been in my path until she very deliberately stuck it there.

I almost came out swinging from that one—I’ve learned that being passive is the worst thing I can do in situations like this—but when I looked up and found Chrissy laughing at me along with the rest of them, my mind went blank. No sarcastic comeback, no witty joke at my tormentors’ expense. All I could do was pick up the binder I’d dropped and all the papers that had scattered in the fall and go back to my desk.

Which is where I was, putting the papers back into some semblance of order, when Rick sidled up like the snake he is. This time instead of messing with me physically, he made some comment about me and my wide-open legs, and all I could think about was plowing my fist into his face. Or my knee into his dick.

But that isn’t done—at least not in an office building where all seven of my co-workers would swear that I’m the one at fault. That I started the fight.

So I walked it off instead, and here I am now, cowering in the bathroom, impotent tears burning in my eyes. But I won’t let them fall. Not now, not ever again. Besides, it’s not that I can’t take their insults and their bullshit; I can. But I want to fight back—I need to fight back. After I escaped my parents and that school, not to mention the untenable situation with Brandon, I swore to myself that I would never be a victim again. That I would fight my own battles and to hell with what the rest of the world said.

It’s worked during the three years I’ve spent at UCSD so far, but to be honest, I haven’t exactly had a lot of opposition. Nothing like what I went through before. And nothing like what I’m experiencing today.

So why didn’t I fight back? Why didn’t I tell Rick exactly what I would do to his balls if he insinuated one more time that I slept my way to the spot he’s spent two years working toward? Why didn’t I tell that bitch off for tripping me? Why didn’t I do anything?

Because this isn’t a schoolyard. This is a workplace and I can’t exactly plow my fist into someone’s face and call it self-defense. Especially if I’m the one striking first.

Bending over the sink, I splash some cold water on my too-red cheeks. Let it cool the red down, and cool my humiliation right along with it. Because while I’m angry and annoyed and, yes, even hurt by how quickly and easily my fellow interns turned on me, it’s not really them I’m angry at. After all, they’re just acting like the hyenas they are, circling and waiting to pounce until my strength gives out.

No, I’m angry at Ethan for putting me in this position. For sending me that stupidly inappropriate blender. For following me into the stairwell and making me freak out. For insisting I put ice on my damn hip. And for handing me this plum assignment that’s really more of a nightmare, for no other reason than because he wants to take me out.

And to be honest, that’s the real reason I haven’t fought back today. That’s the real reason I’ve taken all the abuse they can heap on me. Because while I am definitely not sleeping my way to a better position—the thought has never crossed my mind to do so—Rick and the others aren’t wrong when they imply that I only got to do the Trifecta merger research because Ethan likes me. Because he wants me.

I have no problem fighting back against bullies, but I do have problems telling them they’re full of shit when they aren’t. Rick has every right to be upset at being pulled off the project for someone with one day’s worth of experience—we’re all fighting for the best projects to pad our résumés and the best chance to show off our stuff so that we can actually get a job here at Frost Industries or somewhere like it.

Frustrated, annoyed, and more hurt than I want to admit, even to myself, I turn the tap off. Dry my face. Then run the towel under my eyes to catch the remnants of mascara that pooled there when I washed my face. Which obviously wasn’t such a great idea now that I think about it. I learned to use makeup as a shield years ago, to hide my emotions as surely as my bruises. Standing here without it now, I feel vulnerable. Defenseless.

It’s a feeling I like even less than being bullied.

I reach into my purse, pull out the pot of rose-tinted lip balm that I go through like water. I switched purses for my new job yesterday and in my urgency to get out the door and be on time, I forgot to drop in my usual makeup kit. I’d meant to add it last night, but then the great strawberry debacle had distracted me. And when I left the house this morning I was too exhausted to remember my own name let alone anything else.

Which, I realize, is just another thing I can blame Ethan for.

Since I can’t do anything about the makeup, I spend the last five minutes of my break doing the next best thing—trying to tame my mile of red curls into some kind of bun. In the end, I twist it up, securing it with two rubber bands and three pencils that I use like Chinese chopsticks. It’s not the most glamorous style in the world, but I’m not going for glamour. I’m going for control. And since there’s not a hair out of place, I think I’ve actually managed it.

I ride out the rest of the afternoon at my desk, speaking to no one and asking no questions—though I have about a billion on the best way to utilize the legal databases. Instead I blunder around a little, figuring things out on my own as I dig into the first case on the research list, one that doesn’t have anything to do with biomedical technology per se, but that does deal with issues of similar tech patents upon the merging of two companies.

It’s a huge case with thousands of pages of documentation, and the attorneys have prepared a list of thirty-five questions they want answered from this case alone. And while I manage to answer three questions in the two hours I have left in the workday, I know I have to learn to work the search engines better or I’m going to end up drowning in the crazy workload. I don’t mind that, but I don’t want to fall behind and look like a total idiot. Which is why, when I find an interesting interpretation of the case I’m working on, I add it to the pre-notes I’m making for myself and keep going. I don’t want to forget it—the case has some fascinating nuances about who owns what during a merger—but it doesn’t deal specifically with any of the questions on my list, so I don’t want to waste time on it right now, either. Not when there’s so much else to do.

Five o’clock comes and goes, but I keep working for about an hour after the other interns leave. I’m in the legal department, so I have plenty of company—the attorneys in a number of the offices around me are working late as well. But sometime around six-thirty my stomach starts to growl and I decide to call it a day. If I’m lucky, Tori will be up for making her famous strawberry margaritas tonight. God knows I could use about three of them after the day I’ve had.

But as I’m walking to my car I pass the main building—the one with Ethan’s office—and my indignation comes back all over again. Before I can change my mind, I walk straight into the building, check in with evening security, who I’m pretty sure think I’m going to the cafeteria to catch dinner, and then grab an elevator to the fifth floor. No more stairwells for me.