The continuous blare of bells jolted her to consciousness. Loud enough to wake the dead, Cassandra Dare groaned as she opened her eyes and glared daggers at the abhorrent windup alarm clock on the corner of her mahogany dresser. She considered hurling her pillow at it, but she knew it wouldn’t stop the incessant clanging. Amazed that she could hate a cheap piece of plastic and metal with such a passion, she acknowledged that the features she despised the most—jarring, loud, obnoxious—were what made it the perfect and only type of alarm clock that actually worked for her. Grumbling, she pulled herself from the comforts of her warm bed and quickly turned it off.
“I hate you,” she said, slamming the evil clock back on her dresser with more force than she meant to. She shook her head at the mangled mess of what used to be her last alarm clock crumpled in the corner next to her bed. Yawning and stretching, she went to the kitchen to make some coffee.
6:05 a.m. God, how she hated mornings… and alarm clocks. Measuring out four scoops of Folgers dark roast, she poured in the water and turned the Bunn on before making her way to the bathroom for a shower. She turned on the taps and then closed the glass shower doors. It always took a while for the hot water to reach her crummy third floor apartment. Not to mention, all the tenants seemed to be on the same morning schedule and she needed to be to work by eight o’clock.
Looking in the mirror, she ran her hands through her shoulder length thick black hair and then wiped the sleep from the corners of her pale blue eyes. She sighed, noticing the dark circles under her eyes. The stress of adjusting to a new job and early morning hours was beginning to take its toll. Heading back to the kitchen for some coffee while she waited for the shower, she longed for her old job as night manager for Walmart.
As she was adding her non-dairy creamer, the phone rang, startling her. “Who the hell is calling at this hour?” Looking for where she’d left the cordless phone, she answered on the fourth ring. “Hello!” Her voice reflected her non-morning person tone.
“Cassy, it’s me.” Jack’s voice came across the line. “I need you in early this morning. I have an unexpected court appearance at eight fifteen.”
“Dammit, Jack. I haven’t even got my first swallow of coffee down, let alone a shower yet,” she grumbled.
“Sorry, sweetheart, but I need you here by seven thirty. The Patterson case has an early arraignment hearing.”
“It snowed last night and I have to clean off my car and the…”
“Listen, Cassandra. I don’t need your excuses right now. We’ve been over your attendance record three times since you started here. Be on time.” Jack hung up before letting her say another word.
“Of all the nerve.” Cassy stomped down the hall, coffee in hand, taking it to the bathroom with her. “Inconsiderate prick,” she muttered, pulling off her sleep shorts and hastily unhooking her bra. At least the shower had steam rolling from it as she stepped in, adjusting the taps to suit her.
Glancing at her watch as she toweled her hair, she noticed it was six forty-five. “Shit, I’ll never make it across town in thirty minutes.” Gulping the rest of her coffee, she quickly brushed her teeth, combed her hair and dabbed a little concealer under her eyes to hide the dark circles.
Wrapped in her towel, she made her way back to the bedroom and pulled an outfit from her closet. The navy blue pencil skirt, white short-sleeved button up and her short black pumps would have to do. Cursing, she dug through her dresser for a pair of nylons. She was in a hurry and they all had runs. The only way these nylons would work was with a long skirt—Jack wouldn’t allow her to wear slacks and the only long skirt she owned was dirty. The back of her heels would have blisters if she wore her pumps without them, but at this point, she didn’t have a choice.
Turning off the coffee pot, she grabbed her purse and keys and headed out the door. Upon reaching the elevator there was a sign that read temporarily out of order. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” she stammered, making her way to the stairs. Slipping her heels from her feet, she scurried down the three flights as fast as she could.
“Hey, Cassy,” Sara called as Cassy rushed past her.
“Haven’t got time, Sara, I’m late as it is,” she called, not bothering to look back at her downstairs neighbor. Sara was the only real friend Cassy had in the whole building. She worked at Arvest Bank in Branson and had gotten Cassy a 3.4 percentage rate on the loan for her car. While filling out the paperwork, Sara had realized they both lived in the same apartment building in Gretna. When Cassy had asked her why she lived there when she could clearly afford better, Sara had answered her with just a word—divorce! Since then they had gotten to be pretty good friends.
Cassy dashed to her car as fast as she dared on the snow-covered walk. After starting it and cranking the heater up, she pulled the winter boots her mom sent her from the back seat, hoping to keep her feet dry while she cleared the snow from her windshield. It was a cold damp morning. The icy wind swirled around her, blowing her hair up in the back, giving her chills as she scraped at the ice on her windows with nothing more than her ATM card. Bits of ice and snow fell into the cuff of her blazer making her shiver even more. She really needed to invest in a good winter coat. Having come from Florida only six months ago to take the job at Jack Wilx’s law firm, she had not invested in one, or gloves for that matter. Her fingers were numb by the time she cleared a spot on the windshield. “Good enough,” she said. “The heater can clear the rest while I’m driving.”
As she started to back out of her parking stall, she noticed she’d forgotten about the back window. “Dammit!” she growled. “I don’t have time for this shit.” Instead of further damaging her ATM card, she rolled down her window and stuck her head out to make sure no one was behind her and backed out. Her tires spun as she pulled out of the parking lot and her little Ford Capri fishtailed as she pulled onto Gretna road. Easy, Cassy, she reminded herself. She’d never driven in snow before.
It was already seven twenty-five and Cassy was definitely not going to make it to work by seven thirty even though she only had five more miles to drive. “Jack’s just going to have to understand. Of all the days to expect me in early,” she sighed. But Jack was a lawyer and the last thing he was, was understanding. Cassy pushed down on the gas pedal hoping to be no later than seven forty-five. She accidently slid through a red light and luckily, she dodged the minivan coming toward her in the other lane and regained control of her car. After that, she drove no more than thirty miles an hour, as her heart thumped and her hands shook.
By the time she walked into Jack’s office it was 8:05 and her nerves were wound tighter than a rubber band about to break. There was a woman sitting at her desk with long silky golden colored hair. She looked like something off the cover of Vogue in a tight red top and a sleek black skirt. “Who are you?” Cassy asked.
The blonde gave her an uppity smile. “Vanessa. I’m Jack’s sister-in-law and you’re late,” she said sarcastically as she stood up. The woman had to be nearly six feet tall. Her long legs moved elegantly in her shiny black stilettos as she moved toward Cassy. “Luckily you’re here in time for me to make my nine a.m. appointment at the salon. I have a photo shoot in Springfield tomorrow.” The woman pulled her fingers through her long golden locks as she walked past Cassy.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. I’m not used to driving in snow. I nearly caused an accident on my way in,” Cassy said in her own defense, hoping the woman was more understanding than her boss was going to be when he got back to the office.
“Excuses are a dime a dozen, darlin’,” Vanessa said smugly. “Jack needs that stack of files dealt with before noon.” The snide woman pointed her finely polished red fingernail to the pile of papers on Cassy’s desk before taking her black silk wrap from the coat rack, and pulling it around her. “I only came in to take his calls until you got here,” she said as she slipped out the door leaving Cassy unable to say another word.
“Geez, and I thought all the uptight aristocrat bitches lived in Florida,” Cassy called after her as the door shut behind the woman. She stood for a moment next to her desk, half expecting the woman to have heard her and come storming back in. When she didn’t, Cassy went into the small conference room and made herself some coffee before digging into the stack of paperwork on her desk.
* * *
It was one fifteen p.m. when Jack strolled back through the door. Cassy immediately felt nervous knowing he was going to be upset with her for being late. He gave her a stern look as he hung up his jacket. “I have a one thirty due shortly. Send her into my office as soon as she gets here.”
That’s all he said to her before striding past her desk into his office, shutting the door behind him. Well, that was strange. Normally Jack was livid when she was late and went to great lengths to remind her that if it weren’t for him she’d still be living at home with her parents, feeling sorry for herself.
Six months ago, she had been searching the internet looking for free legal advice. Every response she got—when she got a response—said they couldn’t help her and she’d probably have a hard time finding someone who could. She just didn’t have a case.
Jack Wilx was different though. He had asked her to fax him copies of the police reports and any other paperwork she thought might be useful for him to build a case. A week after that he sent her an e-mail asking if they could talk personally and he left his home phone number with instructions for her to call after eight p.m. eastern standard time. The night she had called him, they had spent nearly three hours on the phone. He told her he needed more detail about what had actually taken place, and how what happened was affecting her abilities to move on with her life.
She had started crying several times while explaining to him how she had almost been raped. He’d been patient with her, telling her he would wait while she pulled herself together enough to continue. Jack’s kind voice encouraged her to continue when she explained how behind the dumpsters in the back of the Walmart parking lot, while she was taking the trash out at the end of her shift, while the man had ripped her jeans from her body, she had used her Swiss army knife to slice her left arm open deep enough to need a hundred and fourteen internal stitches and even more external ones.
When he’d seen what she’d done, he’d stepped back from her with a horrified look in his eyes. “What are you, crazy?”
“No, you slimy motherfucker! I just want to make sure you die for what you’re about to do. Remember me when you die of AIDS!” she’d screamed.
The man had picked up her cell phone and then turned from her and ran. What he didn’t realize was that his wallet had fallen from his pocket during the struggle.
After making it back into the store nearly half an hour after the incident, her friend Gail immediately rushed her to the hospital calling the police on their way. She was so strung out and upset by the time she got to the hospital the doctor almost had to sedate her in order to stitch up her arm. Gail helped her tell the police what happened before they left the hospital and they told her they would find Randy Ericson and get back to her soon. The only problem was, when they contacted Randy he didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. His wife vouched for the fact his wallet had been missing for over three days and that he was at home with her on the night in question. Without any physical evidence other than the wallet in Cassy’s possession, there was little the police could do. Not to mention, her report claimed he had not actually raped her.
Cassy couldn’t believe it. The cops even gave Randy back his wallet. She was scared to go back to work, afraid that he might be lurking, waiting for her so he could shut her up. She couldn’t just find another job either. What if he found out, or randomly happened to run into her? After two months of locking herself in her townhouse apartment in St Augustine, Florida, she ran out of funds for rent and had to move back home with her parents.
They tried to make her get help, see a therapist, or get into a support group for rape victims. Hell, they had a hard enough time convincing her just to go out to eat with them. At twenty-eight Cassy felt awful having to move back home. All it took was one day—one moment in time—and her life had gone from mediocre riches to less than rags. She’d been a manager at Walmart for four years, but after what happened, she couldn’t bring herself to find employment anywhere other than out of state. She knew she’d never feel safe. Her parents hadn’t liked the idea of her moving so far away and tried to help her find a lawyer. Cassy thought Jack Wilx was going to be that lawyer, but even after hearing her case and reading the police reports, he too, had been forced to tell her that unless she had more evidence it was little more than a case of finger pointing.
Even though Jack couldn’t offer her the help she wanted, he did offer her a job as a personal assistant at his law firm in Missouri. He agreed that moving out of state would help ease her mind and help her get back on track. For the most part it had. The new environment and a new job had given her back her sense of independence and helped her to feel less afraid of going places alone.
“Excuse me, Miss. I’m Tina Smith, here to see Mr. Wilx. I have a one thirty appointment.”
Cassy looked up from her computer screen to see a short redheaded middle aged woman still bundled up in her puffy but cozy looking beige winter coat. “Certainly, Miss Smith, I’ll tell him you’re here. Please feel free to hang your coat on the rack,” she said pointing to it. Cassy got up and knocked softly on Jack’s office door and then opened it far enough to poke her head in. “Tina Smith is here to see you,” she said.
“Send her in,” Jack said without looking up from his monitor.
“You can go right in, Miss Smith.” She told the short redhead waving her arm in the direction of Jacks office, which she’d left partially open so the woman wouldn’t feel the need to knock.
“Thank you,” Tina said, walking past Cassy and into Jack’s office.
She heard Jack ask the woman to close the door and have a seat while she returned to the spreadsheets she’d been working on. About twenty minutes later the woman came out of the office with some papers rolled up in her hand. She thanked Cassy and told her to have a nice day as she retrieved her coat and left.
“Cassy, can you come in here for a moment please?” Jack called.
“What do you need, Jack?” She asked, entering his office.
“Sit down, Cassy.”
Cassy took a seat in the soft leather armchair opposite his desk. “Yes, Jack?”
Jack didn’t look in the best of moods. In fact, he looked a little upset. He sighed, folding his hands together on his desk. “Cassy, I can’t tell you how much I wish I didn’t have to do this, but I’m going to have to let you go.”
“What?” She shrieked. “Why? Jack, if it’s about being late, I have a very good reason. I don’t know how to drive in the snow. I almost had—”
“It doesn’t matter, Cassy. Everyone has their excuses. In my line of work, I hear them all the time. I really needed you here on time today and you let me down. I have an image to maintain and I hired you to help me with that. This makes five times in the last six months. I told you when I hired you that my job was very demanding and that I needed loyalty and reliability. Your reliability isn’t working out for me. I’m sorry, but business is business and I cannot allow my business to suffer because of you.”
“But, Jack… please! You know I left Florida specifically to take this job. What am I supposed to do now? Oh God, Jack, please don’t do this to me. I promise I won’t be late again.” Tears were welling up in Cassy’s eyes and her stomach churned. She had to clasp her hands together to keep them from shaking.
“Cassy, I wish that were true, but I know you can’t make a promise like that. The past excuses for having been late aren’t going to just disappear. I know you’re not exactly a morning person and—”
“I fixed that, Jack,” she pleaded defensively. “No more radio alarm clocks and no more electrical ones either, just in case the power goes out again. I did just as you said. I got a windup one that rings extra loud. Please don’t fire me Jack. I’ve just started to really get back on my feet. Please… I need this job.” She couldn’t help the tears falling down her face.
“I’m sorry, Cassy, I just can’t. I can give you until the end of the month, and I’ll throw in a nice bonus that should keep your rent paid for a couple of months until you find another job.” The look on Jack’s face said he earnestly didn’t like having to do this to her.
“Was that redhead my replacement?” she asked, trying to regain her composure.
“Yes, she will be starting on Monday and I’d very much like it if you could introduce her to how things work around here. I really am sorry, Cassy. I hope that you can understand my position here. I need—”
“Need? Need works both ways, Jack!” she said boldly. “My needs don’t seem to matter to you at this point, so train your new assistant yourself.” She started to get up from her chair. “And you might want to give Tina Smith a call back and ask her if she can start tomorrow,” she said sarcastically taking a step toward the door.
“Cassandra Dare!” Jack said in a deep demanding tone. Cassy looked back at her boss, the chiseled features of his rugged face stern and his light blue eyes now dark and angered. He squared his broad shoulders. “You’re acting childish. I know that the news is upsetting, but I am offering to make it less so by offering you severance pay to keep you afloat. I think even you would agree that a different job, one with less demanding hours would be more suitable for you.” Jack got up from his chair, approaching Cassy.
Cassy really couldn’t argue about the less demanding hours. Even after six months, it was still hard for her to get up so early. “I’m sorry too, Jack.” She stood up perfectly straight, squaring her shoulders and tilting her head up defiantly. “I honestly don’t think I’d be doing you any good by staying until the end of the month. My performance will suffer because I won’t be able to focus on giving you my best work. I think it’s best we just cut ties, right here, right now.” She turned, walking out, listening as he followed her.
“I can’t offer you the severance pay unless you stay and help train your replacement,” he said sternly.
“Excuses are a dime a dozen, Jack! Isn’t that what you always say?” Jack was reaching for her arm, while she gathered her personal things from the top of her desk. “And don’t you dare touch me,” she growled. “You of all people know how I feel about that.” She wanted to start crying again, but she persevered. Even though it was pointless, her anger always seemed to get the best of her. “You can take your severance pay and shove it up your ass!”
Giving him a vicious look as she clutched her few photos and the African violet she had brought to decorate her desk. “Have a Merry fucking Christmas this year, Jack. It was nice knowing ya!” With haste and determination, she headed for the door.
“I’m sorry you feel this way Cassy!” Jacked called after her. “I know you’ll be okay. You’re a strong young—” His voice cut off abruptly as the door banged shut behind her.