For Her Protection(6)

By: Amber A Bardan

Alicia slid from her chair. “Charlize, I know you’ve had a lot going on but I’ve never seen you like this—so angry. Is everything okay?”

A wave of exhaustion hit her. She couldn’t consider the question too closely. No one had bothered asking. “I’m fine, work’s just a mess. The way Uncle Steven left the place it’s all I can do just to wade through the muck. Not to mention, no one in that office takes me seriously. I’m just the owner’s pretty little daughter.”

“That’s bullshit. You’re twenty-five and have a master’s in business. More than any of those stiffs can say. You just gotta let them see what you can do.”

She nodded. “Thanks, Alicia.” Charlize stepped forward and gave her cousin a tight squeeze.

Alicia returned her embrace.

“I’m sorry I squealed down your gym.”

Alicia laughed softly. “Just don’t make it a habit.”

“You know if you need anything—like funding for a little wanker-proof equipment—you can just ask me?”

Alicia drew back and gave Charlize an exaggerated frown. “No way. I wouldn’t be able to pay you back without upping membership fees and you know I won’t do that.”

“You wouldn’t have to. Consider it an exchange for a free lifetime membership.”

“Thanks but I still couldn’t. Besides, you think I don’t know what you’re doing already? Crossing town to come to this place when you could go to La Formes and get spritzed with eau de toilette in the bathrooms and have massages between classes.” Alicia scrunched one eye and peered at Charlize. “On second thought, maybe you should go there. I think you could use the massage.”

“I don’t think they do the kind of massage I’m in need of.” Charlize gave a mocking shrug.

Alicia shook her head and laughed. “Oh I know. Just have another ‘private lesson’ with Connor. That ought to do it.”

“Shush.” Charlize gave Alicia a gentle push. “I better go before those stiffs think I’m a flake.”

“Before you do, Mom wants to know if you’re coming to her birthday party on Sunday.”

Charlize froze, a raw wound re-opening in her chest. “I take it Joyce will be there?”

“Yeah she’s our cousin too.” Alicia came closer again and rested her hands on the tops of Charlize’s arms. “You’re going to have to forgive her eventually you know.”

The ripped-open sensation intensified. “It’s not about forgiveness—it’s about being able to live with it.”

“Oh, Charlize…” Alicia whispered, the sharp angles of her features softening.

“I really need to get going. I have a busy day.”

Alicia nodded and dropped her hands. “Look after yourself, Cuz.”

Charlize smiled. She’d try—if there was time.

Chapter Three

Freaking fantastic. Charlize thumped her head once, then twice on the steering wheel. When it rained, it rained piles of steaming shit. Another picket line. Workers protesting impending mass job cuts and loss of benefits. Charlize hit her turn signal and veered left away from the crowd. She wouldn’t be able to park in her usual place, would have to find a space in the rear lot. Her father would die if he ever knew what had been done to his legacy.

At least she could be grateful for one thing—he’d never have to know. Dad had built a company based on loyalty, people and family. Her uncle had turned it into one massive ego stroke. Cutting costs by sacking frontline workers and pulling benefits, all while padding executive bonuses. She pulled into the car park, the polished wheels of her Mercedes kicking up a cloud of dust in the crushed-rock driveway.

She eased her car into a free space and cut the ignition. Charlize pushed a pair of glasses up her nose and pulled on her suit jacket, doing up the single button under her bust. Morning chill still hung in Seattle’s early summer air. Her stilettos wobbled on the rocks but she maintained brisk strides to the pavement. Rounding the building, she faltered as the chants of the workers jolted through the air.

Charlize sped up to join a group of women walking toward the entrance. Hopefully the crowd wouldn’t notice her. With thirty days until the first of the job cuts came into effect, the picketers became more boisterous by the day. They might not know it yet but she was not their enemy. She’d fix this, a few more weeks and she’d have things on a new path.

If she could pull off her plan.

At the entrance the workers jeered, shaking signs. People entering were forced to walk single file toward the large glass doors. Two security guards struggled with the crowd. Where the hell was the rest of the security detail? Was this all they’d allocated?

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