Temping Is Hell
by Cathy Yardley
Kate O’Hara can’t wait until this temp assignment is over. The woman who hired her is a psychotic pageant queen, her coworkers are convicts-turned-clerks, and it’s so boringly corporate it makes her skin crawl. Even her sexy-as-sin boss, famed billionaire Thomas Kestrel, isn’t enticement enough to keep her there. Once she makes enough to pay off her bills, she’s out. Or so she thinks…
Next thing she knows, she’s accidentally signed over her soul. Literally. And she’s discovered Thomas’s real mission: to kill thirteen bad guys in one year, in order to get his—now his and Kate’s—souls back.
From learning to boost the morale of some paper-pushing demons to navigating her way through blood-red tape, Kate has to work closely with her super-hot supervisor and get her flaky act together, before somebody clocks her out—permanently!
Praise for Temping Is Hell:
“Cathy Yardley’s TEMPING IS HELL is twisted fun and a Hell of a read!”
- Eileen Rendahl, author of DON’T KILL THE MESSENGER and DEAD ON DELIVERY, an urban fantasy series from Penguin
“Fresh, lively, very funny… Yardley takes a dose of paranormal and mixes it with creative chaos and twentysomething everyday life to come up with a witty, entertaining read!”
- Chris Marie Green (AKA Christine Cody), UNDEAD FOR A DAY
© 2013 Cathy Yardley
Kate O’Hara had no trouble finding her new work assignment. It was a sharp slash of a skyscraper, like a forty-five-story blade stabbed into Lake Merritt’s shore. Even if she’d managed to miss that somehow, the red windows were a dead giveaway.
The Oakland Tribune had dubbed the new Fiendish Headquarters building “Hell,” both due to the design and the company that built it. Rather than being offended, Fiendish had run with it, hanging a huge poster proclaiming Welcome to Hell! in a cheerful, blood-spattered font over the main entrance. Apparently it made the national news and increased sales by 4 percent.
Just like a huge corporation, Kate thought. Call them whatever, as long as it boosted sales.
After going through the irritating and invasive security, Kate finally made it onto the elevator. When the doors opened on the fortieth floor, she braced herself and stepped out.
It was like she’d gotten lost in a Hugo Boss ad. Everything—the employees, the furniture, the décor—was swathed in the Fiendish signature color scheme of black, white, and red. Everything also looked sophisticated, as sleek as the building itself.
Kate turned, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror-polished elevator doors. Her khaki skirt was wrinkled from the train ride; her sage green sweater was probably too casual. Her square glasses were already starting to slip down her nose.
Well, at least my hair’s red, she thought with an amused shrug. She wondered if there were dress code police.
“Kate? Kate O’Hara?”
Kate turned, and her eyes widened as she got a good look at the woman calling her name. Whoever she was, she was moving fast on blood-red “fuck-me” stilettos, as Kate’s best friend Prue would say. The shoes perfectly matched the red miniskirt suit, cut both a bit high on the thigh and low in the chest, and the can’t-miss-it red Louis Vuitton purse. Her fourteen-carat blond hair was lacquered with enough hair spray to withstand a tornado. She had the appearance of a twenty-year-old, until you looked at her eyes, which had that bright, shrewd, sort of bitchy glint to them.
“Hi, I’m Maggie Stillson, but you can call me Ms. Maggie.” Ms. Maggie’s smile was pageant big as she held out a hand. Kate shook it carefully, trying not to get stabbed by the long red acrylic nails. “Come on then, follow me. Tons to do. I have been crazy busy today, and I thought you’d be here earlier, so I’m running a bit behind!”
Kate had never heard anyone drawl quickly before. “I’m sorry. I thought my assignment started at nine.”
“Everybody at Fiendish arrives fifteen minutes early. Mr. Kestrel believes in promptness.”
Ms. Maggie said “Mr. Kestrel” the same way Kate’s grandmother said “The Pope.”
Kate was a little breathless by the time they finally stopped wandering through a labyrinth of hallways and corridors and got to their destination. Despite the high, jet-black fabric walls and glossy onyx computers, Kate knew a cube farm when she saw one. This eight-block setup was no exception.
At least the other people populating the cubes looked more like normal humans instead of escapees from Prada. Curious heads popped out from the side or top of various cubicle walls, staring at her like wary meerkats.
“Everyone? This is Kate, the newest addition to our happy little team,” Maggie announced.
No one responded, instead disappearing quickly back into their boxes.
Maggie waited for a beat, then sighed, turning back to Kate. “Well, I’ve gotta dash. Crazy busy, y’know!”
“Wait,” Kate said as Maggie turned to quick-strut away. “Uh, what do you need me to do?”
“Excuse me?” Maggie tilted her head.
“They weren’t that specific at the temp agency,” Kate said. “I’m not sure what project I should be working on.”
Maggie stared at her, irritation more in her eyes than in her perfectly smooth face. Kate was wondering absently about the possibility of Botox when Maggie finally spoke. “I’m in the middle of about seven different projects. I don’t have time to handhold every temp, and frankly, I was expecting you to be a little more proactive.” She shot Kate a smile of derision. “You’re a big girl, and I’m sure you’ll pick up how we work around here. Steffi? You can get Kate up to speed, right?”
“Of course, Ms. Maggie,” a middle-aged brunette woman said.
“Great. That’s settled. If you need anything, my office is at the end of the hall… the big one at the far end, about three lefts and a right? Well, never mind. ’Byee!”
“Um, okay,” Kate said, watching as the woman bolted away, her heels clicking like machine-gun fire.
“Kate, is it?” The woman Maggie had spoken to stepped out from her cubicle, wearing a navy blue suit and a white blouse with a coffee stain by the third button. “Hi, I’m Steffi. I’ve been here for four weeks, so I’ve got seniority. Welcome to Hell.”
“Is she always like that?” Kate nodded toward Maggie’s retreating figure.
“Ms. Maggie?” Steffi snorted, her voice dropping to a whisper. “No. Usually she’s worse.”
“Oh?” Kate murmured.
Wonderful. Because she was afraid that working for Fiendish wouldn’t. Suck. Enough.
Steffi shrugged. “Anyway, this is your cube: your password is ‘password’ and your login is ‘temp.’ There’s company e-mail already on it; they do check your Internet viewing logs—but don’t worry, they don’t care about that unless they think you’ll go postal.”
“So, yes on porn, no on guns?” Kate quipped, then winced.
Ah, crap. I said that out loud.
It had been a while since she’d been in a corporate environment. She’d surprised everyone by managing to last for three years at her old position with her uncle’s publishing company, but that job could be hardly be called “corporate.” Unlike at her uncle’s, Fiendish Enterprises didn’t seem like a hippie-haven of off-color jokes, zodiac birthday parties, and “clothing optional” days.
If she wanted to keep this job, even for just a few weeks, she was going to need to install a filter between her brain and her mouth pretty damned quick.
Fortunately, Steffi barked out a laugh. “You’ll do fine, kiddo. Keep that sense of humor.”
“Wait a sec,” Kate said, frowning as Steffi started to retreat to her own cubicle. “Maggie said you were going to tell me what I’ll be working on.”
“Executive staff has their own set of secretaries and temps who take care of the travel arrangements and meeting schedules and things. We only work for Maggie on her ‘special projects.’ For now, just do what we do.”
“Which is… what, exactly?”
“Look busy,” Steffi answered.
Kate blinked, counting the cubicles. “And she needs a staff of eight to do that?”
Steffi sighed. “Here’s the thing. Maggie’s got some relationship with the big boss—nobody’s sure what it is.”
Kate thought of Maggie’s skin-tight red suit, the “this-body-for-rent” hooker strut. Yeah, she could imagine what the “relationship” was—and probably what Maggie’s unofficial job description covered.
“Maggie is supposed to be Mr. Kestrel’s personal assistant, or secretary, or whatever,” Steffi continued, her voice conspiratorially quiet. “But she only takes on jobs that are either easy and make her look good or are hard and convoluted and nobody expects results. If we do a good job, she takes the credit. When the shit hits the fan, she just blames one of us. And sometimes, when she’s bored, she fires someone.”
“Wow,” Kate murmured. “Sounds…”
“Crazy busy, without the busy bit,” Steffi agreed. “On the other hand, I once got paid for eight hours of Farmville. I kid you not.” With that, Steffi wandered back to her cube, disappearing behind the black partition.
“Oh, joy.” Kate had known she would hate working here. She knew it.
She glanced up and down the hallway. It sounded like one of the temps was playing World of Warcraft; another was having an animated conversation with a wedding planner about centerpieces. Glancing around a corner, she saw yet another one scrolling through Pinterest. Kate ducked into her cubicle, picked up her cell phone, and hit speed dial.
“Jung at Heart,” a serene voice answered. “Come for the enlightenment, stay for the espresso.”
“Prue,” Kate said quietly. “I am in hell.”
Prue started laughing. “They can’t all be cute little publishing companies like Think Up,girl. Besides, you’re just temping, right?”
“It’s not funny. This is bad.” Kate grimaced, then dropped her voice to an almost inaudible hiss. “The woman who hired me is a beauty queen with a mean streak. To top it off, it’s frickin’ Fiendish. If Enron and Walmart got drunk in Vegas and had an evil corporate love child, Fiendish would be their rebellious teenage son.”
“When did you start?”
Kate glanced at her cell phone clock. “Um… about five minutes ago.”
“Oh, honey,” Prue said, and while there was sympathy, there was also a hint of impatience. “You know what my grandma always says?”
“Zen Japanese grandma, or Louisiana grandma?”
“Nan Temper,” Prue clarified. “She says if you don’t try, you can’t bitch.”
“I like your Zen grandma better. Nan scares the hell out of me.”
“And that’s just the stuff you know about her,” Prue said. “It sucks that your uncle’s company went under. It really sucks that you’re working in Hell. But you’ve just got to stay positive.”
“I’m in a scapegoat holding pen, waiting for a screwup to take credit for,” Kate pointed out. “Or just until the boss lady decides to play peasant skeet and fire one of us randomly. Where’s the bright side on that one?”
“So why’d you take the job, anyway?”
Kate groaned, leaning back against her Aeron chair. “In this economy? This is the first temp job the agency could get me in the past month. If I don’t get some cash in soon, my cell phone’s going to get shut off.” She bit her lip. “And… well, you know I had to move home.”
“Ah, shit.” Prue’s voice lost all impatience. “Right. Sorry, chica.”
“Yeah, so’m I,” Kate said. “It’s going to take a little while to get my reserves back up and move out.” And God, did she need to move out. “You’re right, Prue; I need to stay positive. I mean, I can just suck it up and stick it out here for a month or two. I’ve worked for lawyers. This can’t be worse than that, right?”
Prue snickered. “Atta girl.”
“The trick’ll just be making sure I last the six to eight weeks, that’s all.”
“Well, who knows? Maybe you’ll prove yourself and get promoted,” Prue teased, tongue in cheek. “You’ll make gobs of money, buy your own place. Hire an illegal immigrant to dog-sit your teacup poodle when you go on your yacht around San Francisco.”
“And somehow still manage to topple the warped bureaucracy of the capitalist pig-dogs from within,” Kate agreed as Prue hooted. “Gotta run, my Berkeley is showing. Hang out tonight?”
“After my late Tarot client,” Prue agreed. “Give me a call.”
Kate hung up, then squared her shoulders and stood. She just had to show she was valuable, that’s all. Then she could rack up the paychecks for a few weeks and get the hell out of Hell.
The question was, how to get through to the scatter-brained “Ms. Maggie” that Kate was worth keeping on?
Obviously the woman was an opportunist. The key to staying on the job, then, was to give Maggie what she wanted—something to impress Mr. Thomas Kestrel, big chief mucky-muck. Kate could offer to do something that Maggie could then take credit for. Kate grimaced. Her uncle Felix was sort of the same way, until, despite her best efforts, he’d finally driven the company into the ground. So she had some experience with that dynamic.
Ms. Maggie wanted proactive? All right. I’ll show you proactive.
After about twenty minutes of wrong turns and several asked directions, Kate finally managed to find Maggie’s office. She knocked, quietly at first, then with a bit more force.
“What?” Maggie snapped.
“Um, Maggie?” she said, opening the door. “I mean, Ms. Maggie?”
Kate paused as she took in the office. It was big and, like everything else she’d seen here, it was luxurious—more like a lawyer’s office, with plenty of leather bound books on the shelves and an exotic flower arrangement on a low credenza. The desk itself, on the other hand, looked like the coffee table at a frat house, with papers and empty to-go containers everywhere. Maggie was apparently enjoying a sizeable breakfast burrito and a huge Frappuccino. She was also staring intently at a cherry red iPhone—Kate suspected between the suit, the expensive-ass purse, and the phone, she must be using red as a signature color. At first, Kate thought Maggie might be texting or checking some news or something. Then, the telltale cry of an Angry Bird emerged.
Kate waited until Maggie lost the level, muttering to herself, before clearing her throat.
“What… oh, Kate, right?” Maggie asked, looking irritated as she shut off her phone. “I was just checking messages. Something wrong? Because I’m pretty sure I said come find me only if there’s an emergency.”
Actually, you didn’t.
But that didn’t matter. She was thinking positive! Proving she was valuable! Being proactive!
Not gagging while I do all that!
“Um, I don’t know if the temp agency sent over my resume,” Kate said.
“Of course they did.” Maggie said, shutting the power down on her computer screen. “You worked at some little bookstore or something, right?”
“Publishing company,” Kate corrected. “It was small, though, so I wore a lot of hats. I did some production, some ad trafficking, lots of computer work. I, ah, also did plenty of administrative stuff—special projects, file organization, work-flow systems.”
Maggie’s look said, And I care, why?
“I thought… if you had any projects that you wanted extra help with,” Kate said slowly, “difficult projects, or anything you wanted to finish up, I could pitch in.”
Instead of leaping on the opportunity, Maggie’s eyes narrowed. “Ambitious, aren’t you?”
“Not really,” Kate said, laughing. She’d been called many things, but ambitious had never made the cut. “Believe me, I’m not bucking to move up the ladder. I just—”
“No, I see.” Maggie studied her for a moment longer. “What, exactly, do you think you can do well, Kate?”
Crap. Mistake. Maybe Maggie wasn’t smart enough to realize that Kate was trying to help her out. Or she was too paranoid to want someone competent around her. Or both.
Still, Kate was in too far to reverse course now. “I’m told I’m a pretty good problem solver. And I work, um, quickly.”
“Really.” There was speculation in Maggie’s eyes.
Maggie got up, then motioned for Kate to follow her. She walked Kate down the hall, over to a closed door, which she then opened.
It was like a very small office—or a very large supply closet. There was a huge stack of file boxes, and a rickety black desk that looked like a bastard stepchild at the Fiendish furniture reunion. Still, there was one of the sleek desktop workstations setup, as well as a scanner, a web cam, and a printer.
“Mr. Kestrel appointed me with the important task of getting all this highly confidential information from everyone who works in the building,” Maggie said, self-importance and warning threaded through every syllable. “I made sure every single person filled out the questionnaire I created.”
“Okay,” Kate said, looking at the stacks of papers. What, did she want them alphabetized?
“Well, now Mr. Kestrel wants a phone directory of all his direct reports. Just the phone numbers, not all the other stuff.” Maggie sniffed. “So do that.”
Kate walked over to the desk, picked up one of the “questionnaires” that was littered across the surface. “Wait… these are all hand written?”
“Yes,” Maggie said. “So?”
So why didn’t you have everyone fill out an electronic form that was searchable? Kate thumbed through the paperwork. There were easily four pages full of everything—salary, social security numbers, passwords, you name it. All stacked haphazardly in boxes in an out-of-the-way, unlocked closet.
Nice and secure.
No question: “Ms. Maggie” was an idiot.
“What if someone has to change something?” Kate asked, appalled.
“They can fill out a new form,” Maggie said, rolling her eyes. “Honestly, Kate, it’s not that difficult. Some people even filled it out in pencil, so they could erase it if they had to.”
Kate bit her lip. “All right. I can make up a phone directory.” It shouldn’t take that long, she reasoned.
“For all these,” Maggie said, gesturing to the boxes.
Kate swallowed. Okay, strike that. It would take that long. “Um… when do you want it done?”
Maggie looked at her watch, then smiled, like a cat toying with a half-dead mouse.
“By the time I get in tomorrow will be fine.” Maggie’s eyes gleamed. “If you’re the whiz you claim to be, that should be more than enough time. And if you’re not… well, I don’t know how well you’re going to work out at Fiendish, dear. We expect a lot.”
“What, by nine in the morning? Tomorrow?” Kate echoed. Or I’m going to get fired?
“Eight forty-five,” Maggie corrected. “Guess you’re going to be crazy busy today, too, hmm?”
Thomas Kestrel had become a millionaire by the time he was eighteen years old, a billionaire by thirty. He was said to be one of the smartest, savviest, street-wise, self-made businessmen to hit the country in a century.
And here I am, lost in my own office building.
He scowled as he tried taking another turn. In his defense, he’d only transferred to the new headquarters a day ago; he’d been too busy tying up loose ends in the old building in North Carolina, including its demolition. And the labyrinthine design of the new headquarters, while deliberate and mystic and supposedly full of protective chi or some such, was also a real pain in the ass to figure out.
He was getting ready to stoop to using his phone’s GPS when he heard the strange noises. There was a ribbon of light spooling out from the bottom of a closed doorway.
His heart started pounding.
Who the hell is in my building at this time of night?
He approached cautiously. Fiendish Headquarters was built specifically to be an impregnable fortress, in more ways than one, but he knew better than to let his guard down.
“My anaconda don’t want none unless she’s got BUNS, honÉ”
His eyes widened.
Apparently, whoever was skulking around at one in the morning was a Sir Mix-a-Lot fan.
He opened the door cautiously, peering inside. The woman he saw was thin, maybe five-six, wearing an ugly gray-green blouse and a shapeless khaki skirt. That alone told him she didn’t work for Fiendish. His employees wore strictly Fiendish Fashion clothing, and he’d know if they sold anything that damned ugly. She had long, ruby red hair pulled up into a haphazard ponytail, with straggling curls escaping.
She was also “shaking her money maker,” every now and then, shutting a file cabinet drawer with one jaunty hip shimmy.
“. . .baby got baaaaaaaacccck!” she shrieked, finally catching sight of him.
He couldn’t help himself. He grinned broadly. She had square framed glasses that were slipping down on a cute nose. She looked like an absent minded librarian, or a vaguely frumpy co-ed. She held up a stapler like she meant business.
“Um, hi. Just heard somebody singing, thought I’d investigate.” He held out his hand. “I’m Thomas.”
“Hi. I’m mortified.” Putting down the stapler, she shook his hand, blushing. Then she moved in a whirlwind, popping folders back into place, scribbling on a pad of paper. Within seconds, it seemed, everything was neat as a pin.
“Big project, huh?”
She wrinkled her nose, grabbing the paper. “Just helping get the personnel files a bit more… user-friendly.”
“Maggie ask you to do that?” He vaguely remembered Maggie taking on that task last year, but she’d complained at the sheer volume and complexity of the task, and the fact that she didn’t want to work with the “geeks,” as she called I.T., about automating it. He’d wondered what the big deal was, but a lot of Maggie’s “special projects” seemed to garner the same description.
The girl smirked at him. She had a great smirk. “Sort of. She asked me to make a phone list, but this will be a little more comprehensive.”
“Done for the night?”
She shut down the computer. “I think so. I just need to leave a note for Maggie.”
“Considering the lateness of the hour, I’d better escort you to her office.” He knew where the elevators were from Maggie’s office… at least, he thought he did. Hopefully this redhead knew the way to the office itself.
“Good idea.” She shot him a self-deprecating grin. “I mean, there’s no telling what kind of weirdos you might run into at this time of night, right?”
He chuckled. “So, you have a name?”
“Kate. Kate O’Hara.” Her smile was warm, sweet. “I’m a temp.”
“How are you liking it so far?” he asked, as they fell into step together, strolling casually down the hallway.
“What, working here at Fiendish?” He watched as she kneaded the back of her neck with one hand. “It sucks like a Dyson. But hey, it’s a job, right?”
He stopped, staring at her for a minute. “You do have a way with words, don’t you?”
“Oh my God.” She shook her head, rubbing her eyes behind her glasses with her fingers. “I’m sorry. My internal censor clocks out at midnight. Actually, I think it took the day off.”
“Don’t be sorry. I like it when people are honest with me.” And she probably didn’t realize he was the founder and CEO. That was sort of refreshing. “So what sucks about it?”
“Other than being stuck here at one o’clock in the morning organizing?” she asked. “I guess I never thought I’d be working at a place like this, you know?”
His feeling of amusement waned. “What do you mean, a place like this?”
“Big corporate.” She wrinkled her nose again.
He struggled not to feel offended… or at least, not to let it show. “Fiendish Enterprises is a multi-billion dollar corporation, true, but it’s really a dozen different smaller companies. Fiendish Fashion. Fiendish Fun. Fiendish Escapes. Fiendish Films…”
She shrugged, obviously unimpressed.
Okay. Now he was definitely offended. “So, you’re telling me you have no interest in fashion, or traveling, or entertainment?”
Kate shot him a quicksilver grin, momentarily stunning him. “Look at me. Do I look like I’m all into haute couture?”
He glanced at her ugly outfit again, although this time, he took a bit more notice of the woman underneath. There were some curves there, he noticed, buried under the business casual, but it was as if she’d deliberately chosen clothes to hide what she had.
He was accustomed to women who flaunted their assets and used fashion as a weapon. If anything, Kate seemed to use fashion as a duck blind.
She’s honest, though.
“As for the rest, I’ve traveled some, sure, but I crash on people’s couches or stay in hostels. Fiendish Escapes has the whole five-star treatment, doesn’t it? Like, maids and lackeys and Egyptian cotton and Kobe beef and whatever?” When he nodded, she shrugged. “I’m not interested in shelling out the down payment for a house just so I can have a bunch of toadying and overindulgence for an entire week. Frankly, I don’t need all that.”
“Yes, but Fiendish isn’t about need,” he pointed out. “Sometimes, it’s about desire.”
She paused for a second, and her green eyes went wide, her cheeks flushing just a little.
He wasn’t sure why he was needling her so hard, other than that sanctimonious pleasure-deniers tended to get his boxers in a bunch. But there was something about challenging her, watching her expression go surly, that was actually entertaining.
It occurred to him that, for a man who had made his livelihood on expensive, extreme, and exclusive options for entertainment, he actually, personally, enjoyed precious little of it.
“So what about fun?” he prompted. “Got something against that, as well?”
“Sure, I like fun. What’s not to like?” Kate agreed absently, looking up and down the corridor, obviously more intent on finding Maggie’s office than on what she was saying. “But from what I’ve seen, actually working here isn’t fun.”
Now it was his turn to grimace. “It isn’t?”
“No. It’s working your ass off to convince other people to drop a wad of cash on stuff they don’t need, so they can momentarily pretend their lives don’t suck as they bust ass to afford the stuff we’re selling… Here we are. Maggie’s office.”
He crossed his arms as she tried to put a note down on the desk, only to find no clear space. Finally, she sighed and put it on Maggie’s chair.
“So what you’re saying,” he reiterated as they headed toward the elevators, “is that my job—and everybody else’s job here—is basically pushing expensive, self-indulgent, ultimately hollow crap.”
She was silent for a second. Then she sighed, and to his surprise, she put a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry. That’s unfair. I’ve had a crappy day, and not a lot of great experiences with big corporate, but I’m firmly against snap judgments. I apologize for that.”
Her apology, and self-awareness, threw him off.
“Besides, you obviously love it here,” she said in a low, serious voice, releasing his arm and walking. “I felt that way about the place I used to work, before it went under. I guess… I just miss the way things used to be.”
I know that feeling,he thought.
“Besides, one of these days, I really should learn when to shut up.”
He laughed at her abashed tone. “You’re sort of a neat person, Kate O’Hara. And a very inventive singer.”
“And you’re probably the coolest billionaire I’ve ever met, Thomas Kestrel,” she said with a little chuckle. “Of course, you may be the only billionaire I’ve ever met, so that kind of narrows the field.”
“You knew who I was?” The elevator arrived, and he followed her in, torn between feeling amused at her audacity and a little disappointed—was she just playing up the smart-ass act, trying to get his attention?
“Your picture’s in the lobby,” she pointed out. “We’re not talking Sherlock Holmes here.”
“So, knowing all that, you still panned my corporation?” he pressed. “To my face?”
“Apparently.” She was blushing again, like rose petals on milk. Suddenly, he got the strong feeling that she wasn’t acting. She was not only being herself—she was probably clinically incapable of being anything else. “Besides, I don’t mean to make it sound like this is, you know, that bad. It could’ve been worse.”
He studied her, paused for a beat. “Could’ve been Microsoft, huh?”
“Don’t even joke.” She shuddered. “Anyway, it’s later than I thought. I missed the last train. Guess I’d better call a cab.”
He could smell her perfume, if it was perfume. Maybe it was some kind of soap. It smelled sort of flowery, but not in an overpowering way. Like… lemon, he thought, and the white clover he used to stretch out in, back home in North Carolina. He took a deep breath and noticed he was standing a little closer to her than necessary.
He didn’t move.
Pulling out his phone, he tapped a text to his limo company. “Listen, I’ll have one of our drivers drop you off, okay? It’s too late for you to catch a cab by yourself.”
“That’s really nice of you.” She smiled at him, then surprised him further by giving him a gentle punch on the arm. “You’re a good guy, no matter what the papers say. You know that?”
He felt a surge of warmth, started to take one step closer. Then stopped himself abruptly.
What the hell am I doing?
It was one o’clock in the morning, and he was joking with a cute redheaded temp. Noticing her perfume. Smiling at her.
Don’t you remember why you’re here?
He closed his eyes. Thinking of the real reason he’d moved to Oakland. Thinking, for a moment, of the real—and deadly serious—purpose of the new Fiendish headquarters.
And it’s just the beginning.
“No, Kate,” he said in a low voice, finally taking a deliberate step away from her. “No, I’m really not a good guy.”
Kate fell asleep in the town car. To her embarrassment, the driver actually had to nudge her awake when he got to her parents’ driveway. She rubbed her eyes, thanking him, then stumbled up the walk, the motion-sensor security lights momentarily blinding her. She fumbled with the lock, opening the door as she yawned.
There was an audible click. Not the sound of the lock—the sound of a gun hammer being cocked back.
She froze, immediately awake.
The light switched on.
Her father stood there in his ratty boxers and a scruffy plaid flannel bathrobe in shades of faded orange and brown. His moccasins were scuffed and there was a hole developing in the sole, she noticed.
He was also pointing a gun at her.
“Damn. And I really wanted to steal that flat screen.”
“You always such a smart-ass when someone’s got a gun pointed at you?” He scowled at her, de-cocking the service revolver in his hand.
“I figure if you haven’t shot me by now, my odds are pretty good.” She’d meant for it to come out as a joke. Considering her history of trouble, she realized it would’ve been funnier if it weren’t so true.
“You break your cell phone?”
“I didn’t expect to work so late,” she said, hanging up her jacket on one of the pegs by the door and kicking off her pumps. She’d forgotten how uncomfortable heeled shoes were—she was wearing flats tomorrow, definitely. “And I’ve got to get back to it by eight forty five tomorrow, so…”
“You were at work?”
The clear doubt in his voice slapped at her. “I really am sorry I didn’t call, Dad.”
“You know we worry,” he said, and there was just a tinge of judgment to it. She was twenty-nine years old, not thirteen, but come home late, and suddenly it was like junior high all over again.
This is what happens when you move back in with your parents.
She straightened. “I got that temp job at Fiendish Enterprises. The lady I’m working for is…”
A real bitch.
“Demanding,” she said instead.
“Do they expect you to come home at two in the morning every night?” he asked. “And who dropped you off? Those headlights were like helicopter floods; they woke me up.”
“Town car. Company car,” she clarified. “The boss—the big boss—said I shouldn’t grab a cab so late. Little did he know that I’d be putting my life in jeopardy just by walking into my parents’ living room, huh?”
“Old habits.” Her dad grunted, putting the gun away. “Think you’ll be able to hold onto this job?”
She stiffened. “I held onto the job at Uncle Felix’s for three years,” she said, not even bothering to keep the resentment out of her voice this time.
“Felix isn’t exactly demanding,” he threw back.
“Dad, it’s late, and I’m too tired to have this conversation,” she said, heading for the stairs. “I was at work. I’m doing everything I can to keep this job. Okay?”
Her father’s hair was thinning, going from a sandy brown to a peppery gray. It was standing straight up—he’d obviously been tugging at it. “Are you getting paid well? At this job of yours?”
“Decent,” she said.
“Decent for you,” he asked, “or, like, a normal person wage?”
She bristled. “They’re definitely the richest company I’ve ever seen, and I’m getting paid a little higher on the scale than usual temps.”
Her dad sighed. “You know that we were okay with you moving back as long as you got a job,” he rumbled. “But you also knew that it wasn’t going to be permanent.”
“Trust me, I have no plans on staying permanently,” Kate said before she could stop herself.
Her father glared a little. “You’re not a kid. And we don’t want to make a habit of bailing you out.”
“Do you want me to leave?” she asked, keeping her voice neutral, mostly from the numbness she was feeling.
“No, no,” he said. “But I think that it would be best if you paid rent.”
Pride had her chest lifting up, her chin jutting out. “I have no problem paying rent.” It would mean that much longer before she could save up to move out, which stung. Still—if she paid rent, maybe she could actually be more like a tenant and less like the fuck-up teenager they seemed to still believe she was. “I’ll write you a check in the morning.”
“Fine.” He nodded at her. “Good night.”
She took a deep breath. “I love you,” she said. It wasn’t particularly graceful, but she meant it.
He sighed, weary. “Love you, too, Katie,” he said, then lumbered off toward the bedroom.
She went to her own room, turning on the light. It had been her bedroom in junior high and high school. She’d moved out once she got into college, even though Berkeley was only twenty-five minutes away. But the bedroom still had traces of that adolescence. A poster of Lord of the Rings on the wall. Dog-eared paperbacks crammed haphazardly into a white bookshelf. A signed CD from some high school band. Framed pictures of her with her brother, Tim, when he graduated from the police academy.
She still remembered when the family had moved here after the disaster in Southern California. The way they blamed her for needing to move back up here.
In too many ways, this place had never really felt like home. Now, fourteen years after she’d moved out the first time, it felt like a time capsule of failure and shame.
She had to get out. She’d pay rent. She’d take on a second job if she had to.
And if it meant catering to a psychotic prom queen in one of the lowest rings of corporate hell, then so be it.