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One Woman's Poison:

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One Woman's Poison

With a good friend in hospital due to food poisoning, a recent quarrel with her husband tugging her conscience, her own stomach in knots, and a new boss waiting to meet her, Gloria is already having a bad week. And her work day hasn't even started.

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It was nearly ten when she finally reached the office. Grabbing her messages from the front desk, she marched heavily up the stairs. This was turning into a worse day than she had thought it would be, and she hadn't even met her new...

"Oh, bloody hell!" She took a long look at the person seated behind the manager's desk in the glass cubicle. Her mouth went suddenly dry, and she had to take several deep breaths before walking into his office and closing the door behind her. "What are you doing here?"

The man seated behind it didn't look up; his bored, pale blue eyes were riveted to the pages in front of him. "It is certainly about time you showed up for work, Gloria. Are you this late every day?"

She leaned against the door, barely breathing. "I've been working since eight. You know damn well I like to start early. What are you doing here, Paul? This isn't your kind of scene." She glared at the man behind the desk. In his mid-forties, heavy-set, he had dark blond, wavy hair, thick sandy brows drawn together in a frown, full cheeks and a well-trimmed beard. He hadn't bothered to touch up the beard with color, she noted; it was generously flecked with white. Obviously, he had done so with his hair, and quite recently.

He finally raised his head, pushed back his comfortable chair and passed his eyes lazily over her from head to foot. He shook his head slowly. "Still built like a brick shit-house, aren't you? And I'd bet you still throw a mean shot put, too-or coffee table, if that's your inclination. Some people never change." He smiled. "Well, my love, you look about the same as you did eight years ago, when you walked out after nearly destroying my apartment."

"Do I? Too bad I can't say the same for you," Gloria answered without returning the smile. "You've beefed up. And I didn't destroy your apartment, just one rather delicate item of furniture, accidentally. And as for walking out?" She drew a breath. Something in the way her palms had begun to sweat was very familiar and very unpleasant. "As I recall, I left when you introduced me to your fiancée. It seems I wasn't needed anymore."

"No? I wanted you to know where we stood with each other."

"With each other? I certainly knew where I stood," she replied between clenched teeth. "And for the sake of manners I suppose I should ask, how is Emily these days?"

"We're separated. She was a disappointment." He shrugged.

"Separated? I can't say I'm surprised to hear it. Who broke up your marriage? Anyone I know?"

"Too young for you to know, actually," he said smoothly, drumming his large, blunt fingers on the arms of his comfortable, leather-upholstered chair.

She felt her cheeks burn. "Still the same old bad habits? Screwing around with your protégées?"

"Still the same mouth I remember, too. I imagine you can still out-cuss a sewer cleaner." He gazed at her with an amused expression. Obviously expecting her reaction, and definitely prepared for it, she realized, he had her fully at a disadvantage. "Are you sitting down for this interview? I see on your personnel file-" he waved a folder absently, "that you're married now. That must be a recent development."

"I'm standing, thanks. Is this an interview? I already have a job." She bit off her words like chunks of bitter, black licorice. She wanted to smack that satisfied smirk off his face. Retreat now, her common sense warned. No good; a certain fascination, like the slow uncoiling of a deadly snake, held her rooted to the floor. She resisted the urge to dry her perspiring hands against the flanks of her khaki slacks, a dead giveaway of her nervousness. "If you've been reading my personnel file, then you must know everything about me that you need to know."

His calm gaze didn't waver. "And you resent my being here. I imagine I took you by surprise, showing up with no warning. I'd planned to let bygones be bygones, before I read this." He gestured with the file again. "Does your marriage make a difference to you? I know mine did."

She was as still as a marble statue, and felt about as cold, as she clenched her clipboard. "It makes no difference, Paul. Even if I were the last single woman on earth, I still wouldn't go near you. Are you going to answer my question? I deserve that, at least."

He heaved a deep comfortable sigh. "What am I doing here? Heartland has hired me as a consultant to bring this fossil of a newspaper up to date." He shifted some papers aside and picked up a copy of Thursday's Sun. "Any business suffers when staff isn't, shall we say, up to speed with available technology." He tossed the newspaper across the desk, leaned back in his chair, hands folded behind his head and a slight upturn to the corners of his mouth. "We'll be talking about a lot of these things in the next week."

"Say whatever you want about my work," she replied, regarding him steadily from the other side of the desk, her mouth tasting like cold metal. "But if you're planning to tell anyone about... about us, I'm warning you that this place is far too small for that kind of news. It wouldn't do either of us any good."

"If you're concerned about village gossip getting back to your new husband, you needn't worry. You know how good I am at keeping secrets." He smiled broadly, showing even teeth, pale lips surrounded by the coarse bristles of his full beard. She remembered the feel of those bristles. "Besides," he added, "I wouldn't want people to think I am unduly hard on you for personal reasons. In that case, you may call me Mr. Barrett-that has a certain charm, doesn't it?-and you'll be Mrs..." He paused, smiling. "Or is it Ms Trevisi still?"

"Sounds fine. That's the only small favor I'll ask." She turned abruptly and stepped toward the door.

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