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Charlene "Charlie" Martin had known before she walked into this interview that she didn't have a prayer in hell of being hired by Ranger Security. She lacked a key piece of equipmenta prerequisite of sortsthat would have made her an ideal candidate for the job. A penis.
Nevertheless, she'd had to try.
Upon seeing her, Jamie Flanagan had widened his eyes in unmitigated shock, Guy McCann had choked on his coffee, but true to his cool, unflappable reputation, Brian Payne hadn't reacted at all. Not a single ripple on the pond of that admittedly attractive face. She studied him thoughtfully and couldn't decide if she more envied or pitied his wife. Breaking that icy exterior undoubtedly was its own reward, but putting up the effort to do it on a regular basis had to be exhausting.
"You're a third-generation officer, Ms. Martin, and you've been with the Atlanta P.D. for a long time," Payne remarked, studying the resume that had been thrust into his hands moments before. He looked up. "What has prompted the desire to thwart tradition?"
There were a multitude of reasonsshe was sick to death of the boys' club, the constant need to defend the few promotions she'd managed to snag since she'd come aboard six years ago, the most important of which had been her advancement to detective. She'd paid for her so-called police pedigree with snide remarks and pointed, knowing stares every time she received a pat on the back for a job well-done. Though she had a few friends and had earned the respect of the majority of her coworkers, frankly, the constant struggle to prove herself had sucked the joy out of the job for her.
When she'd decided to leave the police department, she'd made two lists. One featured the things that she liked most about the jobthe actual detective work, putting the details together.
Charlie had a knack for seeing things other people didn't see, for picking up on nuances that remained hidden to other observers. For instance, she'd noticed a tuft of cat hair clinging to Payne's leg, indicating he had at least one pet. Guy McCann had red-rimmed eyes and had missed a tiny row of whiskers on his chin. She'd be willing to bet he had a newborn. And Jamie Flanagan Well, the pink shimmer of lipstick on his ear meant he'd more than likely gone home for a nooner on his lunch break. A twinge of envy shot through her. She hadn't had a nooner or any variation thereof in more than two years and the prospect of changing the current status quo was dishearteningly bleak. But now wasn't the time to be thinking about her uninspiring, dismal sex life. She saved that for evenings in front of the TV, a carton of ice cream in her hand.
As for the second list, it had showcased her options, her ideal future employer.
Considering Ranger Security was synonymous with "the best," it was her first choice.
A lost cause? Probably. She was neither an army Ranger nor a man, but thanks to a non-gender-specific name and Juan Carlostheir secretaryowing her a favor, she'd walked in directly off the street this morning. She'd had tothe least little bit of digging would have revealed that she was a woman and then she'd never have gotten into the "inner sanctum."
More man cave than boardroom, the space she found herself in was littered with highend electronics, supple leather furniture, a kitchenette, a pool table and a beautiful view of downtown Atlanta. Though she'd passed each gentleman's office proper on the way to this room, it was clear that this was where most of their "work" was done.
As for "thwarting tradition"? She smiled. "I prefer to think of it as thwarting expectation, Mr. Payne." She gazed mildly at him, silently communicating that her reasons were her own. Naturally, her family hadn't liked her decision, but "It's time for a change."
A flare of admiration sparked in his cool gaze and she lifted her chin a fraction, acknowledging the respect.
"This is quite a resume," Jamie Flanagan remarked. "You graduated cum laude with a degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Georgia, spent the first three years in a uniform then were rather speedily promoted to detective." He paused, still reviewing the resume. "Several commendations," he reeled off, his tone even, speculative. "You teach self-defense classes at many battered women's shelters and college campuses."
She knew all of this, as she'd written it. Yet she nodded. "Yes. The women at the shelters are there because, typically, a man put them there." Bastards. She'd had a friend once who was in an abusive relationship and it had taken years to get her away from him. The physical damage was one thingit was the emotional turmoil that was truly insidious. "They need to know how to defend themselves." Her lips tilted. "The college girls come for the free pizza, but it's a good age to reach them."
"Why are you here, Ms. Martin?" Guy McCann abruptly wanted to know. "I'm sure Juan Carlos has told you that we only hire former militaryRangers, specifically."
"You're wasting everyone's time" wasn't said, but hung in the air like an unwanted stench.
All righty then. They'd reached the nut-cutting part of the impromptu interview much more quickly than she would have liked. But she appreciated brevity as well, so be it.
"I'm here because I want a job, obviously. With Ranger Security." She looked at all of them in turn, gauging their responses. Payne was in lock-down mode, not betraying so much as a twitch. Flanagan's face was set as well, but a tightening around the eyes told her that it was harder for him to remain impassive.
McCann didn't even try to hide his expression and he might as well have said, "When hell freezes over."
"I realize that I'm not former military," Charlie said, because in for a penny, in for a pound. She had absolutely nothing to lose at this point. "But I think my resume speaks for itself and I'm more than qualified to handle the sort of work you do here. Surely you could see the benefit of having a female agent on staff particularly considering how many of your cases have married women associated with them," she added. A gamble? Yes. But she'd never been one to play it safe.
Jamie Flanagan stood a little straighter and a blush crept across Guy's cheekbones. Payne still didn't move, though the icy gaze he directed at her would have made a lesser person quail.
"That's not public information," Payne said, studying her with unnerving intensity.
"Neither are your eBay IDs, your private email addresses or your most recent physical exams, but I've seen them." It hadn't been nearly as difficult as it should have been, considering their line of work. Thanks to a cool little program she'd written herself, it had only taken a few keystrokes. She mentally snorted. Their firewall was a joke.
No longer trying to imitate a stone statue, Jamie leaned forward, a mask of incredulous shock on his admittedly handsome face. "You hacked us?"
Charlie merely smiled at him. "I like the pendant you've picked out for your wife for her birthday. It's quite lovely."
The three shared a significant glanceone that might as well have communicated "doom"then Payne turned that arctic gaze on her. He did not smile. "Thank you for pointing out the flaw in our computer security, Ms. Martin. Clearly that is something that will need our immediate attention. That said, we aren't hiring at the moment."
At this precise moment, no, so it wasn't technically a lie. She seriously doubted Payne ever lied if he could avoid ithe wasn't the type. But, due to her computer reconnaissance, she knew they were looking for another agent and fully intended to hire someone within the next couple of weeks. Just not her.
Her blood boiled, burning away the instant disappointment. For whatever reason, she'd expected them to be smarter. To be better. To see reason. To look beyond her breasts and give her a chance.
"Right," she said, her eyes widening significantly. She knew exactly why they wouldn't hire her and knew her tone, which carried an edge sharp enough to cut granite, told them so. She stood and extended her hand. "Thank you for your time." Graciousness had been ingrained in her, though she wished she could have suppressed the impulse. The niceties over, she turned and headed for the door. She paused at the threshold and threw them all a look over her shoulder. "Give my congratulations to Major Weatherford, would you?" she said, her lips curving with biting humor. "I'm sure he's going to fit in much better than I would have."
And with that parting shotand the narrowing of Payne's pale blue eyes (a reaction at last!)she turned and made her exit.
"Well, hell," Jamie said, pushing a hand through his dark hair, his expression wavering comically between alarm and dumbfoundment.
Guy's lips twisted in irritation. "You've got the hell part of it right." His incredulous gaze shot to Payne. "Do you have any idea what just happened here?"
That was what Payne was trying to sort out, and a strange tension in his gut, one that was distinctly akin to discomfort, wasn't helping. He knew they were perfectly within their rights to hire whom they pleased, and not bringing on a woman who'd had the nerve to hack into their computer system and then tell them about it was completely justifiable. In truth, he could have threatened to have her arrested but didn't see the point, because if she'd been good enough to get into their system, then she was good enough not to get caught. He frowned thoughtfully.
But knowing they were within their rights and feeling good about what just happened apparently weren't willing to coexist. He reviewed her resume once again, mentally reexamining the forced interview, and came to a startling conclusionthe resume alone would have gotten Charlie Martin in the door. Would they have hired her if she'd been a man? He didn't know. But based on the resume alone, he would have granted the interview.
No doubt Juan Carlos had known that, otherwise he wouldn't have taken the risk.
"Juan Carlos," Payne called quietly. No need to raise his voice. He was certain the little Latino man was lurking just outside the door.
Looking equally guilty and put-upon, the office manager strode quietly into the room. "You called?"
Payne purposely let the silence lengthen and pinned him with his gaze. "If you ever do anything like that again, you're fired. Do I make myself clear?"
Though it should have been impossible for him to nod with his nose so high in the air, Juan Carlos still managed it. "Yes, sir."
Jamie gave an imperceptible nod, approving of this rebuke. Guy, on the other hand, clearly thought firing him now would be the better option. Other than being an occasional pain in the ass, Juan Carlos was a flawless employee, keeping the office running with a smooth sort of efficiency that made their lives considerably easier. Even Guy's, though he'd be loath to admit it. In truth, this was the first toe Juan Carlos had put over the line and Payne knew their office manager wouldn't have done so without good cause.
He wanted to hear it.
"I assume you owed Ms. Martin a favor of some sort?"
"What for?" Jamie asked, his voice still strained. He settled heavily on the couch and snagged a packet of candy off the coffee table. He was an emotional eater, his wife liked to say.
Juan Carlos's thin nostrils flared and color raced across his cheeks. "I'd rather not say."
Guy's gaze narrowed, his temper barely in check.
"You lost that right when you brought her in here this morning. Speak."
A muscle in Juan Carlos's jaw jumped and the heat that had colored his cheeks had painted the rest of his face, as well. Seeing the usually unflappable office manager so unsettled was concerning.
He took a small breath and released a smaller sigh, seemingly resigned. "Six years ago I met a friend for a drink in a club downtown. There were a couple of guys at the bar who heckled us, but I didn't think anything about it. After a while, it just becomes noise, you know?" He paused. "Fast forward an hour later. I paid the tab, left the bar and rounded the corner." He looked at Payne and his mouth turned into a mockery of a smile. "Before I knew it they were on me. It was Charlie who came to my rescue," he said, almost wonderingly. A bark of dry laughter erupted from his throat, his gaze turning inward. "This little scrap of a girl felled those big bastards like saplings." He paused as Payne and the others absorbed his story. Irony lit his gaze. "Needless to say, I didn't go to her self-defense classes for the free pizza." He shrugged. "We've been friends ever since. You took a chance on me, knowing what I am," he said, referring openly for the first time in his many years of service to his homosexuality. "Big, bad-ass military guys like you. I came to the interview fully expecting to be shown the door. You surprised me. Was it so wrong to hope you'd surprise her, too?"