Blue-Eyed Devil Page 85

"You manipulative old coot," I said. "Why do you have to go messing around in my private life?"

"Because I love you."

"Love means respecting someone else's rights and boundaries! I'm not a child. I'm . . . no, you don't even think of me as a child, you think of me as a dog you can lead around on a leash and control in any way you — "

"I don't think of you as a dog," Dad interrupted, scowling, "Now, settle down and — "

"I'm not going to settle down! I have every right to be furious. Tell me, would you pull this kind of crap with Gage or Jack or Joe?"

"They're my sons. They're men. You're a daughter who's already gone through one bad marriage and was likely headed for another."

"Until you can treat me like a human being, Dad, our relationship is over. I've had it." I stood and slung my bag over my shoulder.

"I've done you a favor," Dad said irritably. "I just showed you that Hardy Cates isn't good enough for you. Everyone knows it. He knows it. And if you weren't so hardheaded, you'd admit it too."

"If he really agreed to this deal with T.J.," I said, "then he doesn't deserve me. But neither do you, for doing something so rotten in the first place."

"You're going to shoot the messenger?"

"Yeah, Dad, if the messenger can't learn to keep his interfering ass out of my business." I walked toward the doorway.

"Well," I heard my father mutter, "at least you're through with Hardy Cates."

I turned back to scowl at him over my shoulder. "I'm not through with him yet. I won't be gotten rid of without finding out the reason. A real reason, not some half-baked business deal you and T.J came up with."

There was no one I could talk to. I had been warned by everyone, including Todd, that this was exactly what I should expect from Hardy Cates. I couldn't even call Liberty, because he had done something similar to her once and she couldn't say it was out of character. And I felt like such an idiot, because I still loved him.

Part of me wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. Another part was ripping mad. And another part was busy analyzing the situation and trying to figure out the best way to handle it. I decided to cool down before I confronted Hardy. I would call him tomorrow after work, and we would talk everything out. If he wanted to break everything off between us, I would deal with it. But at least it wouldn't be done third-party, by a couple of manipulative old geezers.

The office was unusually subdued when I went in at eight on Monday morning. The employees were quiet and busy. No one seemed inclined to share details about their weekend as we usually did. No water-cooler gossip, no friendly chitchat.

As lunchtime approached, I went to Samantha's cubicle to ask if she wanted to go get a sandwich with me.

Samantha, usually so vivacious, looked shrunken and despondent as she sat behind her desk. Her father had died about two weeks earlier, so I knew it would take some time before she was back to her old self.

"Want to go out for lunch?" I asked gently. "It's on me." She gave me a wan smile and shrugged. "I'm not hungry. But thanks."

"Let me at least bring you a yogurt or a — " I stopped as I saw the glitter of a tear beneath one of her eyes. "Oh, Samantha . . . " I went around to her side of the desk and hugged her. "I'm sorry. Bad day, huh? Thinking about your dad?"

She nodded and rummaged for a tissue in her desk drawer.

"Partly that." She blew her nose. "And partly . . . " Her slender hand reached across the desk and nudged a sheet of paper to me.

"What is this? A billing sheet?" I frowned curiously. "What's the problem?"

"My weekly paycheck is on direct deposit, every Friday. So I checked my account balance last week, and it was a lot lower than I expected. Today I logged on to the office computer and found out why." She smiled crookedly. Her eyes pooled again. "You know that huge flower arrangement the company sent to my father's funeral? The one with all your names on the card?"

"Yeah." I almost didn't want to hear what she was going to say next.

"Well, it cost two hundred dollars. And Vanessa took it out of my paycheck."

"Oh, God."

"I don't know why she'd do something like this," Samantha continued. "But I've made her mad somehow. I think it was those days I took off after Dad died . . . she's been weird and cold to me ever since."

"You took those days off to go to your father's funeral, Sam. No normal person would hold that against you."

"I know." She gave a shaky sigh. "Vanessa must be under a lot of pressure. She told me it was the worst possible time for me to be absent from work. She seemed so disappointed in me."

I was filled with volcanic rage. I wanted to storm through the office like Godzilla and trample Vanessa's desk underfoot. If Vanessa wanted to attack and belittle me, I could handle it. But to crush poor Samantha right after the death of a beloved parent . . . it was too much.

"Don't tell her I complained," Samantha whispered "I couldn't handle getting in trouble right now."

"You won't get in trouble. And Samantha, that two-hundred-dollar deduction was a mistake. It's going into your account right away."

She gave me a doubtful glance.

"It was a mistake," I repeated. Pulling out a clean tissue, I dabbed at her eyes. "The office is paying for those flowers, not you. I'm going to fix this, okay? "

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