“You obviously don’t want to have this conversation.” Ashley fixed the girl with a frosty glare. “The feeling’s mutual, I can assure you of that, but neither of us is going anywhere until we’ve thrashed this out. So, lose the attitude and let’s get it over with.”
A brief flick of heavily mascaraed lashes, a contemptuous glower, and then nothing. In danger of losing her temper, Ashley briefly closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The calm-inducing exercise she’d learnt at yoga was supposed to focus her mind, restore her inner peace, and quell the violent tendencies induced by her stressful working life. Faced with the girl’s blatant disinterest in her own transgressions, and unwillingness to offer any explanation for them, that premise was about to be severely tested.
Somehow, Ashley kept her cool, suppressing the desire to strangle her recalcitrant employee, and switched tack.
“Do you think you’re being fair to the others?” she asked.
The girl shrugged, her eyes focused on the surface of Ashley’s desk. As truculent expression went, she had the market cornered. On a scale of one to ten, this one definitely rated a twelve.
“Maria, talk to me.”
Another shrug. “Dunno, do I.”
“Every time you’re absent, it means the others have to shoulder your workload. That hardly does seem fair now, does it, especially when we’re so busy?”
“I was ill, wasn’t I? Can’t help that.”
Ashley pinioned her with a look. “Can’t you?”
“What are you saying?”
“This is the fourth time in as many weeks that you’ve been in this office.” Ashley’s gaze briefly skimmed the head-high partitioning that represented her personal space in this otherwise open-plan environment. It offered about as much privacy as a rush hour tube train, and considerably less comfort. “Some of your colleagues only ever get to see my inner sanctum once a year, at appraisal time. That’s because they pull their weight and don’t give me the slightest cause for concern. Why should you be any different?”
Maria’s gaze shifted off to one side, but when she remained stubbornly silent, Ashley finally lost it.
“Okay, you clearly don’t get the message, so I’m going to spell out a few facts of life.”
Maria rolled her eyes, as though an authority figure telling her how to live her life was all she needed. Tough! Ashley had had just about enough of her attitude.
“Firstly, I don’t believe you were unwell.” The belligerent girl leaned forward, her face stained with an ugly crimson flush. Ashley held up her hand to prevent her from interrupting. “I don’t know what’s eating you because you won’t tell me. If you’ve got problems that are preventing you from attending work, or from working properly when you do deign to put in an appearance, then I’d be happy to listen and see if I can help.” No response. Not having expected one, Ashley gritted her teeth and ploughed on. “But let me make myself crystal clear, Maria. I’ve run out of patience, and I’m not prepared to put up with your poor performance any more. Either shape up or get out.”
“Here, you can’t talk to me like that!” At last, signs of animation. “There’re rules. I know my rights.” I’ll just bet you do! “If this is a disciplinary hearing, you should have given me notice. I’m allowed to have a Union rep with me. And,” she continued, looking nauseatingly smug, “you’re not supposed to interview me alone.”
“Is that right?”
Her attitude didn’t surprise Ashley. The lazy ones always knew exactly how to play the system. They just didn’t count on Ashley having a few tricks of her own up her sleeve.
“Yeah, it is. Anyway, Human Resources have to give me written warnings before you can dismiss me.” Maria folded her arms across her torso. “I’ll tell them what you said.”
“Really.” Ashley quirked a brow, her tone rife with indifference. “Help me out here. What did I say, exactly?”
“Don’t try to backpedal.”
“Oh, I can assure you that I’m not. But the thing is, I don’t see anyone in this office other than you and me. If it came to it, whose account do you think would be accepted?” Ashley paused and fixed the hapless Maria with a gimlet gaze. “Human Resources will have to issue you with written warnings, that much is true, but who in this office has ultimate responsibility for your activities in the meantime?”
“Who could assign you to the Filing Unit for the foreseeable future, if she felt so inclined?”
Ashley leaned back in her chair and made a few notes on the pad in front of her, determined not to be the one who broke the uncomfortable silence that now stretched between them. Her ploy worked, and eventually Maria, with obvious reluctance, spoke.
“You,” she muttered, canting her head defiantly.
“Got it in one.” Ashley took a moment to let that sink in. “Now, I’ll ask you again, but this is your last chance to come clean. Do you have any problems that are preventing you from doing your work that you’d like to share with me?”
“It’s me boyfriend,” Maria muttered in a barely audible tone. “He wants to take a year out and go backpacking round India.”
“And you want to go, too, I assume.”
Alleluia! “So what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that he don’t want me to go.” She paused and met Ashley’s eye for the first time. “Well, not like I am now.” Eye contact proved to be a transitory affair since Maria’s gaze was now squarely focused on her folded hands. Her next words came out as a reluctant whisper. “I’m pregnant, and he wants me to have an abortion.”
“I’m sorry,” Ashley said quietly. “That’s a tough choice to make.”
Ashley’s heart jolted at this reminder of her own, childless condition. She waited for the guilt to kick in, as it always did when she was forced to confront the selfishness that was entirely to blame for her circumstances, but she was distracted from her introspective thoughts when Maria spoke again.
“Yeah, so am I.”
“What will you do?”
Ashley somehow managed to keep the longing out of her voice. How anyone, no matter how difficult their circumstances, could consider killing off the life they carried inside them simply because it was an inconvenience, was a mystery to her.
“I don’t know.”
To Ashley’s dismay, the girl started to sob quietly.
A quarter of an hour later, Ashley despatched Maria back to her desk, having promised to set up an interview for her with the company’s counsellor. It probably wouldn’t do much good, but feeling a spark of sympathy for the girl’s predicament, Ashley would do what she could to help her.
Martin, Ashley’s second-in-command, stuck his head over the partition.
“Sorted?” he asked, pulling a face.
Ashley rolled her eyes. “As if! The stupid kid’s is in the club.”
“Really?” His face lit up. “Does that mean we’ll be able to dispense with her services?”
“Doubt it. That one’s better acquainted with the rules of the game than ACAS. She’ll screw the company for every penny she entitled to, and then some.”
Ashley’s phone rang, Martin’s head disappeared, and the rest of the morning passed in a blur of meetings, dictation, rapid-fire decisions, and thinking on her feet. A day that had started badly suddenly seemed a lot brighter when she managed to track Matt’s missing reassurance claims to a document exchange sorting office in Hounslow. She called in a few favours, cut through the usual red tape, and got them quickly on their way to their intended destination.
Slowly but surely, organisation was emerging from the chaos. Under Ashley’s exacting direction, the chrysalis that was the company’s new head office had gradually developed into a life form in its own right. In spite of the Marias of this world, Ashley loved every second of the demanding, often frustrating, but immensely rewarding work.
Just before lunch, her internal phone rang. Recognizing the extension number, she smiled as she picked up the receiver and muttered quietly, “Ashley Wilde, how can I be of service to you today?”
A distinctly masculine, velvety smooth chuckle echoed down the line. “Get yourself up here and I’ll see if I can think of something whilst I’m waiting for you to arrive.”
“You mean you don’t already have a game plan?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
“Sounds intriguing. I’m on my way.”
Ashley unclipped her hair, ran a brush through her dishevelled red mane, and pinned it back in place. She renewed her lip gloss, picked up a few files as cover, and made her way through the half-empty lunchtime office. Ignoring the lift, she tripped lightly up two flights of stairs and found herself in the hallowed reaches of the directors’ suite on the top floor. Ashley waved to her boss’s secretary.
“Hi, Ashley. Go right on in. He’s expecting you.”
She tapped on his door.
“If only!” she said, sighing as she closed the door behind her and smiled innocently at her boss, Matt Templeton, CEO of Interactive Insurance.
“Stop putting ideas into my head, hussy!”
“I find it hard to believe that any ideas of mine won’t already be firmly lodged in that head.”
“You have no idea what I’m thinking right now,” he murmured, sucking in a deep breath. He then surprised her by walking up behind her, wrapping his arms round her waist, and kissing the nape of her neck.
“Oh, I think I can hazard a pretty astute guess.”
“Think you’re smart, don’t you?”
“That’s why you employ me, sir.” Ashley squirmed against him, almost purring with pleasure as his tongue rasped the length of her neck. “For my incisive brain.”
“Hmm, is that why it is? I’d been trying to think.”
“Need any reminders of my diverse talents?”
Matt chuckled. “Behave yourself!”
“You’re a fine one to talk. You started this.”
“And you look frazzled,” he said, turning her in his arms until she was facing him. “Hard morning?”
“Oh, nothing worse than usual. Maria Spendlove’s playing up again.”
“Then you’d better start down the disciplinary route this time. It’s time consuming, I know, but you can’t keep letting her get away with it.”
“Not that easy. She’s pregnant.”
Matt guffawed. “Foolish child.”
“Hmm, what? Oh, that’s nice. Do it again.” Matt obliged. “Since you’re being so amenable, and doing such extraordinary things with that tongue of yours, you deserve a reward.”
“Couldn’t agree more.” His tongue worked its way across the erogenous zone beneath her left ear.” What sort of reward did you have in mind?”
“Not that sort, unfortunately. We’re at work.”
He sighed. “Like I could forget.”
“You might like this almost as much, though.”
Matt shook his head, sending a thick lock of curly brown hair tumbling across his brow. “Doubt that very much.”
“I’ve located your missing files.”
“You have?” Matt ran his hands over her ass. “I knew you would. Where were they?”
“Hounslow! How the hell did they finish up there?”
“God knows, but I’ve cut a few corners, and they’ll be on their way again today.” She smiled up at him and pushed his wayward hair back into place.
“Thanks, babe. By the way,” he said, continuing to fondle her rear. “Have I ever told you what a gorgeous ass you have?”
“Not for at least a couple of days.”
“Hmm, well, I’d tell you again, but unfortunately now’s not the time.” He clearly had other things on his mind, but he didn’t release her immediately. Instead, he dropped a lingering kiss on her lips. “Do you have any idea how much I want you? How much time I spend thinking about you, and what I’d like to do to you, when I ought to be working my fingers to the bone?”
“You think about me?” She pretended to be surprised.
“Only all the time. You have a lot to answer for, Ms. Wilde.”
Empowered by the obvious passion underlying his words, and the frustration he was making no attempt to conceal, Ashley offered him a sultry smile. “Remind me again what it is that you do want to do to me.”
“Later!” He shook his head, ran his finger gently along her jawline and resumed his seat with obvious reluctance.
Ashley took the visitor’s chair on the other side of his desk. She had known that mentioning the missing files would bring his mind back to his growing business worries and wished now that she’d delayed the moment. They were obsessively careful about concealing the true nature of their relationship, and Ashley was fairly certain that no one had guessed. So far, at least. They almost never so much as touched one another during the working day, even if they were practically assured of privacy, and Ashley was surprised by Matt’s impulsive actions of a few moments ago. She was also cheered by all that they implied. The strain of watching her every move was starting to tell on her. Perhaps Matt was feeling it, too? Maybe, at last, he was ready to leave his loveless marriage and set up home with her?
“Did you wish to see me about anything in particular, sir?”
“Yes, gorgeous, I want to know where you’d like to go for dinner this evening.”
Ashley didn’t attempt to hide her surprise, or her elation. They hardly ever dined out together, just in case they were seen. If they did, it was always in small, out of the way places of Matt’s choosing.
“Anywhere I like?”
He smiled that alluringly sexy smile of his, the one that never failed to make her feel weak at the knees, and nodded. “Anywhere at all.”
“And what are we supposed to be celebrating?”
Ashley held her breath, instinctively understanding that they’d reached a defining moment in their relationship. She said nothing more though, determined to make him put into words exactly what was in his mind.
“Well—” He paused, the expression in his silver-gray eyes meltingly gentle, full of tender affection. “There’s a certain event that we should be celebrating on Thursday, but since I have to be in Southampton for the rest of the week, we’ll just have to bring things forward by a day.”
Ashley dropped thick curling lashes over her eyes as she attempted to disguise her disappointment. She had allowed herself to hope that he had something far more life-changing in mind that her thirty-fifth birthday. But now wasn’t the time to broach that particular subject. It was enough that he was prepared to risk being seen in public with her—a huge step forward.
“Why, Mr Templeton, I do believe you’ve remembered by birthday.”
“How could I forget?” He chuckled, a soft throaty sound that was so uniquely him. “And good girls can expect to receive special presents.”
“Ah, but therein lies a problem.” She chewed pensively at her lower lip. “You don’t like me when I’m good.”
“That depends upon your definition of good. I don’t, for instance, much care for girls who have good-looking young men in and out of their office all the morning, asking needless questions.” His eyes bored into her profile. “Are you going to tell me who he is?”
“What?” she asked, with wide-eyed innocence. “Surely you don’t mean Gordon, the new dispatcher I just employed? The one with the deep blue eyes, a cute dimple, sexy smile, and hunky body.” Matt growled at her. “Is he good-looking? Can’t say I noticed. Anyway,” she added, enjoying the sexual buzz she got just from flirting with him, “I’m almost old enough to be his mother.”
Matt fixed her with a disbelieving gaze. “Baby, the way he was looking at you when I walked past this morning sure ain’t the way a guy looks at his mother.”
“Isn’t it?” She could detect tension beneath his flirtatiousness. “What is it, Matt?” she asked, her smile fading. “Has something happened?”
He sighed. “Yes, another iffy death claim.”
“No, that makes three now.” She shook her head. “Same pattern as the others?”
“Yes, I asked claims to contact me direct if another one came up. I heard just now. A woman in her early sixties. She didn’t disclose any pre-existing conditions, but died from a heart attack.”
“And let me guess, it wasn’t her first.”
“It was, but she suffered from hypertension and took blood pressure medication for some years.”
“My sentiments entirely.” Matt’s phone buzzed. “Damn, Excuse me, Ashley.” Matt pushed the speaker button. “What is it, Lorraine?”
“Your wife’s here to see you, Matt.”
His expression of concern for the business gave way to a wild look of panic. He stared at Ashley without speaking. Although she was seated directly in front of him, he didn’t appear to see her, causing a frisson of alarm to spiral through her. It was awkward, but Matt’s reaction seemed way over the top. Ashley was well able to maintain a professional stance in front of his wife. Did he imagine that she’d go all girly on him and drop him in it by giving herself away? Really, he ought to know her better than that.
Before she could ask any questions, the door opened, and Ashley was treated to her first ever sight of the woman she’d heard so much about over the past eighteen months but had so far managed to avoid meeting. She examined her critically, disguising her acute interest beneath a cordial smile, and ruthlessly suppressed the gut-wrenching jealousy that wormed its way through her insides.
Matt’s wife was petite, well groomed, and extremely pretty. He’d got that bit right. Oddly enough though, there was one tiny little insignificant detail he’d forgotten to impart.
Eve Templeton, the woman Matt claimed not to have slept with for over a year, had to be at least five months pregnant.