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More than anything in the world, Anna Marie Williams wanted two things: 1) to tell her boss to shut up and 2) a night with Desmond Rockwell. However, she knew the latter was impossible and the former merely wishful thinking. Instead she sat and listened to her boss, Sandy "the Cobra" Martin, inside a cramped office whose view offered nothing but the sight of another equally ugly brick building like theirs. She glanced at a pigeon perched on the windowsill as a harsh wind ruffled its feathers, giving no sign that winter had passed and it was now spring. The wind threatened to push the bird off its ledge, but it remained unmoved.
Anna Marie mirrored the bird as she sat composed in her crisp gray suit, her sharp brown eyes serene while Sandy shouted at her.
"You are the most worthless employee I've ever had," she said, her booming voice making the room feel even smaller. Stacks of boxes surrounded her desk and file cabinets, evidence of Sandy's addiction to Internet shopping. "If I could hire a tree stump to do your job I would."
Anna Marie blinked with boredom and stared across the desk at her boss as though Sandy were talking about the weather instead of her incompetence. "Ms. Martin"
Sandy slapped her hand on the desk, snapping off one of her fake pink nails. She didn't notice as it flew across the room. "I don't care what your excuse is." She tapped a stack of papers. "How the hell did this happen? You're paid to make sure that nothing leaves this office without being thoroughly checked."
"You know?" Sandy said with a sneer. "Personally, I don't think you know a damn thing. This could have gone out and been printed. Do I have to do everything around here?" She threw her hands up in the air exasperated. "I'm surrounded by morons." She narrowed her gaze. "I'm not happy. And when I'm not happy I make other people's lives miserable." She turned her chair to the window.
Anna Marie stifled a yawn, used to Sandy's dramatic displays. Even when Sandy was happy she was miserable. She hadn't developed the nickname the Cobra for nothing. She could strike at any time and Anna Marie was used to her venomous tongue. Few things about Sandy were realnot her nails, her hair color or her chin. Anna Marie remembered Sandy when she didn't have one. She used to be a secretary before she slept with and blackmailed the right executive to get her present position.
Anna Marie didn't judge her strategy; she just wished that getting a management position would have made her happy. Instead she'd become a mi-cromanaging tyrant in a four-person office in the Virginia Department of Health and Human Services's human resources department. They were information specialists. It was a government job and while the pay was not significant, the benefits were great. Anna Marie's job wasn't exciting but despite this, she performed well.
She was responsible for editing and rewriting publications and reports written by other agency staff within HR to ensure that all grammar and punctuation were correct and appropriate for the intended audience. Twice a year Anna Marie worked closely with her coworker, Nancy Helm, to prepare HHS's biannual and annual reports. She looked at the papers on Sandy's desk with regret. She'd put Nancy in charge of layout and cross-referencing, but again, her coworker had fallen short. Unfortunately, Sandy had seen it before Anna Marie could cover for her. But as always, Anna Marie took the blame.
"You're not listening to a word I'm saying," Sandy snapped.
"Of course I am," Anna Marie replied in a soft voice that only made Sandy's frown increase.
"You're pathetic." She leaned back in her chair. "I'm the only one who knows how to get things done around here ."
Anna Marie glanced at her watch as Sandy continued her tirade, wondering how long she would keep her. Sometimes her rants would last half an hour and cut in to her lunch break. Her coworkers trembled in Sandy's presence, but to Anna Marie, Sandy's behavior was nothing new. She was used to abuse. Her parents had called her worse things and used their fists to emphasize their displeasure; Child Protective Services took her and her sister away.
Her first foster parents said she was stupid, her second told her she was ugly, her third that she was useless and her fourth that she'd never amount to anything. Then she'd met Mrs. Bell. Thankfully, she was her last placement. She was the fifth and the best and everything would have been perfect if Anna Marie hadn't run away.
"I hope I've made myself clear." Sandy shoved the stack of papers across the table. "Make it shine or else."
Anna Marie started to smile, wanting to call her bluffSandy would never risk firing herbut instead said, "I will."
"You will what?"
"I will, Ms. Martin."
"Good. Now get out."
Anna Marie stood, eager to leave. Suddenly Sandy swore. "Wait," she bellowed, looking in horror at her extended right hand. "I lost a nail. Nancy!"
Nancy appeared in the doorway looking like a scared mouse. "Yes, Ms. Martin?"
"Help me find my nail."
Nancy immediately fell to her knees and started looking despite the fact that she was wearing a red rayon skirt that would get filthy on the dirty floor.
"Where are you going?" Sandy shouted when Anna Marie began to leave.
Anna Marie motioned to the papers in her hand. "I have work to do."
"You can do it later. You're not that busy. I know what you do. Help Nancy look. I have a meeting this afternoon."
Anna Marie opened her mouth to argue then caught Nancy's anxious expression and closed it. She briefly scanned the floor, then saw the pink nail in the far corner. She walked over to it and crushed it under her heel, then picked up the ruined remains and placed them on Sandy's desk. "Now I'll get back to work."
Anna Marie returned to her desk and with a weary sigh rested the document on a side table. She turned to her computer and retrieved the electronic file and began making corrections.
Nancy popped up from behind the partition. "I saw what you did," she said. "Fortunately, the Cobra didn't."
"Yes, that was the point," Anna Marie said without looking up.
"Pretty bold of you. Especially since she has that important meeting this afternoon and wants to look her best."
"Not really. She stashes extra nails in her desk drawer."
Nancy's eyes widened. "Really?"
Nancy bit her lip. Anna Marie stifled a groan because Nancy only did that when she felt guilty. And she had every reason to. She was totally un-suited to her job. She had been a housewife until her husband of twenty years decided to remarry and start a new family, leaving Nancy, who had few administrative skills, with a son in high school and a daughter in college. Nancy was an attractive, impeccably dressed woman in her forties who could have looked younger if stress hadn't made her pale skin dry and patchy. "Are you okay?" she asked.
Anna Marie continued to type. "I'm fine."
"We could hear her screaming all the way down the hall." She lowered her voice. "Thanks for covering for me. I don't know how you can take it. She always makes me cry."
Anna Marie shrugged. She couldn't remember the last time she'd cried. "I've endured worse. She doesn't bother me."
"Did you tell her I did it?"
Anna Marie looked up at her, trying to be patient. "Has she called you into her office?"
"I'm really sorry. It won't happen again."
Anna Marie forced a smile, knowing that it would, but said nothing. She didn't want to discourage her.
Nancy disappeared behind her partition then reappeared. "The girls from the other department and I are going for Friday-night drinks later. Would you like to come?"
"I'm busy, but thanks." Anna Marie didn't have friendsnever had. She found it better that way, but it seemed Nancy was determined to try and be one.
"Well, if you change your mind, we'll be at The Hub until late."
Anna Marie smiled to soften Nancy's disappointment. "Okay."
She continued typing, waiting for Nancy to disappear again, but instead her coworker wheeled her chair around the corner. "I wish you'd give me a chance to thank you for all your help," Nancy said in a pleading tone.
"You've already thanked me. That's enough."
"But it doesn't feel like enough. I know I'm no good at this job, but you've made it work for me. I would have lost everything if it hadn't been for you. I needed this job. The hours and the perks are wonderful. I don't know what I'd do if I lost it."
Anna Marie nodded. Nancy was right. The perks were worth the hassle of tolerating the Cobra and Anna Marie prided herself on doing a good job. Her reports were always perfect, always on time. But since Nancy's hire six months ago, Anna Marie had seen her job record slipping and knew she would soon have to do something about it. She didn't know what, but she wouldn't abandon Nancy. She had a soft spot in her heart for the timid, sweet-natured woman.
If the Cobra would let Nancy take time off for two key workshops, she knew Nancy would learn some essential skills needed for her position, but she knew this would not happen. The Cobra treasured her job too much to educate her subordinates for fear that they would one day usurp her. "I only helped a little bit." Before Nancy could argue further, Anna Marie said, "You'd better get back to your desk before the Cobra leaves her den."
Nancy's face blanched and she wheeled away in her office chair.
Anna Marie worked until seven that evening, then went home ready to relax. She stopped in front of her apartment and for a moment let herself imagine that Desmond Rockwell was inside waiting for her. But that dream always died the moment she opened the door. Tonight was no different. When she opened the door to her apartment, she was met with a foul odor. She covered her nose and mouth then glanced at her boyfriend, Bruno Delane, who sat on the couchhis favorite position since he'd quit his job and decided to become a consultant. She still wasn't sure what he did. He was reasonably handsome and fitif one could ignore the slight paunch that stretched his Virginia Is for Lovers T-shirt.
He was certainly no Desmond Rockwell, but to be fair, Desmond had aged extremely well in her imagination. She'd last seen him when she was eighteen and she had no idea what the years may have done to him. She didn't care; to her Desmond would always be the handsome bad boy with a wicked smile who had stolen her heart.
"Welcome home, babe," Bruno said.
Anna Marie removed her gaze from him and surveyed the room. "What is that awful smell?" She had a sinking feeling that Bruno had been in the kitchen, which always proved to be a disaster. When it came to cooking, Bruno had as much finesse as a jellyfish trying to cross a highway. He'd once set fire to a dishcloth while trying to boil an egg.
He took a sip of his beer and shrugged. "Oh, does it still smell? I must have gotten used to it," he said and returned his gaze to their wide-screen TV.
"Gotten used to what?"
He motioned to the kitchen. "I burnt something in the oven. How come you didn't leave anything for dinner?"
Anna Marie took off her jacket. "I've been busy."
"You know I hate coming home to nothing to eat."
I didn't realize you'd left. "There are leftovers."
"I ate leftovers for lunch. I'm not going to have them again for dinner." He took another swig of his beer.
Anna Marie left her things by the door and headed for the kitchen. "I'll start cooking now."
"Never mind. I ordered something."
She stopped, dread now mingled with uneasiness. "What did you order?"
"I hate them," she mumbled. To her, calzones were like eating an oversize pizza meat pie. She hated meat pies.
She adjusted some live flowers she had on an oak table in the foyer. "Nothing."
He sat up, his voice hurt. "I heard you. You said you hate them. I'm trying my best to please you. I find nothing in the house and I order dinner and you tell me that you hate it?"
"I'm sorry. I know you forgot." As always. Anna Marie went into the kitchen. Dirty dishes lined the counter and others sat stacked in the sink along with a dirty dishcloth. She opened the oven and saw the blackened food that had spilled over and looked as if it had exploded.
"You didn't clean up," she said, taking hold of her gag reflex. What had he been trying to cook? It smelled like old broccoli and rotten eggs.
He crumpled his beer can and set it aside. "I'll get to it, babe, don't worry."
Anna Marie sighed and pulled on a pair of plastic gloves. She cleaned the oven, washed the dishes, wiped down the countertop, then began preparing somethinghe'd have to eat the calzone alone. As the chicken baked, Anna Marie sat at their dining table and went through her mail. She ripped open a bill, saw the amount owed and groaned. She looked at Bruno, whose position hadn't changed since she'd arrived home, and waved the bill.
"You bought a new portable hard drive?"
Their apartment was small so he barely had to look at her to see what she was waving. "I'll pay you back."
Anna Marie shoved the bill back in the envelope in disgust. Bruno's overspending kept them in debt. She heard the timer go off in the kitchen and stood. "Dinner's ready."