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Authors: Kenzie Michaels

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Off The Clock

BOOK: Off The Clock
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Off The Clock

by

Kenzie Michaels

Freya’s Bower.com ©2013

Culver City, California

Off The Clock Copyright © 2013 by Kenzie Michaels

For information on the cover illustration and design, contact Taria Reed.
Cover art Freya’s Bower © 2013

Editor: Daenariea Irene

ISBN: 978-1-61798-093-0

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, any place, events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and story lines are created from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Warning:

This book may contain graphic sexual material and/or profanity and is not meant to be read by any person under the age of 18.

If you are interested in purchasing more works of this nature, please stop by www.freyasbower.com.

Freya’s Bower.com
P.O. Box 4897
Culver City, CA 90231-4897

Printed in The United States of America

Dedication

To the members of the Vincennes Writer’s Guild, who inspired me to write this story. And to Travis, I’m sorry I ‘stole’ your title!

Chapter One

Across the crowded reception hall, he watched his young assistant as she moved easily among the guests, gathering empty glasses, scattered napkins, and overflowing ashtrays. He’d hired her two weeks earlier, and had been unsure of asking her to be his hostess. But his date had cancelled on him, and his assistant had been the one who had taken the message.

She was a quiet person, who appeared every morning on time, did her work efficiently, anticipated his moods, and disappeared after hours. He wasn’t exactly sure how she’d handle a social situation, but if she was nervous, she hid it well.

“Austin! Where did you find her?” His best friend Ryan clapped him on the back. “She’s fantastic, man! Nothing like Leslie.”

“She answered my ad in the paper. She’s my office assistant.” Austin Harmon took a sip of his drink and followed her with his eyes as she paused to speak with an elderly couple.

“You lucky dog! You banging her or is she taken?” Ryan adjusted his striped tie.

A flash of anger welled up. “Stay away from her,” Austin warned. “Leslie left my office records a mess and Cara finished sorting everything out today. She’s a dream come true.”

“I’ll say. And are you kidding? Andrea would string me up alive if she even caught me looking at another woman. I was just thinking of you, man.” Ryan smiled and held out his hand.

Austin shook it. “After the Leslie fiasco, no more office romances. Harmony House doesn’t need any more visits from the Health Department.” He spotted one of his suppliers moving toward him and disengaged his hand.

“Excuse me a moment. Drew! How are you?”

“I’m doing well, Austin. Tell your young lady the delivery will be made at nine o’clock sharp on Thursday, and that I’m tossing in a surprise for her at no charge.” The middle-aged man with the bad comb-over smiled and pumped Austin’s hand. “I had no idea you had plans to improve the snack bar by the pool. Excellent idea, and I’ll be glad to fax over the new supply list in the morning.”

Austin’s smile froze. “New supply list?” he repeated.

Drew Daniels looked puzzled. “Yes, for the new line we just started last month, for healthier snacks. Didn’t Leslie tell you? I sent her the form a month ago. Cara called me yesterday, and I told her more about it earlier tonight.”

“Oh, that supply list,” Austin recovered from his slip. “I’m sorry; Cara did mention it, but we haven’t really had a chance to discuss it in detail. And Leslie is no longer in charge of my office.”

“Yes, so I’ve heard.” Drew adjusted his glasses. “If you don’t mind me saying this, I’d give Cara a raise. That girl has worked her magic. Everyone I’ve spoken to has sung her praises tonight, in a way they never spoke about Leslie, no offense.”

“None taken.”

“Good, good. I’ll be on my way then, Austin. Great party, and don’t forget what I said about a raise.” Drew shook his hand again and headed for the door.

Austin smiled and watched as Cara’s honey blonde head appeared at Drew’s side, receiving a hug before he left.

Over the next hour, as he mingled with the last of the guests, his eyes continued to follow Cara’s whereabouts as he accepted praise for hiring her.

“You are amazing,” he sighed when the final guest had gone. “I don’t know what you said to half of those people, but I’ve got suppliers telling me about new products, potential new members promising to sign up, and even corporate people wanting to sponsor events.”

“That’s great, Mr. Harmon.” Cara’s tiny face glowed softly in the candlelight. “I’m glad everything went well for you.” Her expressive turquoise eyes glanced at her watch. “I really need to leave in the next few minutes. Is it all right if Roxie helps you finish up?”

“Relax, Cara,” he smiled and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “You’ve done an excellent job. Let the wait staff do their jobs. I didn’t expect you to bus the tables. Go on, I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Thank you.” She flashed a shy smile and ducked her head, hurrying off to confer with one of the servers.

Austin watched her leave as he wandered over to the bar for one last drink. Where did his sweet young assistant go after work? Why had she momentarily panicked when he had asked her to host this important dinner tonight? Hell, for that matter, what did any of his employees do when they were off the clock?

Chapter Two

Cara Ziegler breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped out into the cool autumn night air. She was afraid she’d overstepped her bounds by the way she’d arranged for a few changes at Harmony House. Either her boss, Austin Harmon hadn’t noticed, or he was waiting to discuss it with her tomorrow in private.

She smoothed the skirt on her simple black cotton sheath. It was the nicest dress she owned, and if tonight was any indication, she was going to have to either find a way to make it more versatile or else go shopping for another cocktail dress. She’d had many customers inquire about Austin’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s parties, and she hoped that being his hostess tonight wasn’t going to be a regular occurrence.

Cara grimaced as her feet propelled her to her small car. Glancing around, she slipped off the two-inch pumps and tossed them into the front passenger seat. Flexing her toes, she wondered at the women who thought nothing of wearing stiletto heels all day long.

She started the car and headed for home, clipping her hands’ free Bluetooth device to her ear and dialing. When her mother answered, Cara assured her she was on her way home.

A barrage of complaints hit her ear.

“Mama, I’m sorry. I’m in traffic and I’ll be home in a few minutes. Isn’t Cody there?” Cara winced when she heard the answer. Damn it…couldn’t her brother make it through a few hours without starting an argument? “I told you. I had to work tonight. That’s why I asked Cody to help you. Calm down, Mama. I’ll be there as fast as I can.” She reached up, turned off the unit, and after checking her mirrors, changed lanes and stepped on the gas pedal. Her mother needed her.

Ten minutes later, Cara stepped through the door of the house she shared with her elderly mother, a full-time nurse, and a lazy black Labrador retriever. The dog met her at the door, purple tongue hanging out and liquid brown eyes beseeching.

“Hi, Shadow. How’s Mom doing?” Cara bent down to rub the overweight dog’s ears. “Did Uncle Cody feed you?”

“Hi, Cara.” Shelley, the respite worker, entered from the bedroom. “I’m sorry about that; your mother grabbed the phone while I was getting her medicine ready.”

“That’s okay. I’m getting used to it.” Cara straightened up and dropped her shoes by the brass hall tree. Removing her coat, she asked if Shadow had been fed yet.

Shelley’s mouth hardened. “That’s about the only thing Cody did right. The rest of the time he concentrated on irritating your mother.”

“I’m so sorry.” Cara closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. “I’ll make sure that Mr. Harmon notifies me in advance from now on if I ever have to work late again, so I can call the Visiting Nurses agency.”

“Honey, you deserved a night off,” Shelley exclaimed. “You had every right to ask your family members to spend some time with Rosalie. You’d think they were afraid of her or something.”

Cara opened her eyes and moved into the spacious living room. “Yeah, well, I’m the only one who was willing to stay home and take care of her. Alzheimer’s isn’t a quick disease, and I think I’m the only one who’s tough enough to watch Mom go through this.”

“It’s hard on everyone,” Shelley asserted. “Go on, get out of your party clothes. I’ll let her know you’re back and will be in to read to her.”

“Thanks.” Cara padded up the stairs to her room and changed into her favorite lounging pants and loose T-shirt. She pulled her wavy, shoulder length hair into a ponytail and returned downstairs to her mother’s bedroom.

“Hi, Mama,” she greeted the woman lying in the spacious king-sized bed. “Shall I begin where we left off last night?”

Cara dragged the flowered winged-back chair to the bedside and smoothed her mother’s green and yellow comforter.

Rosalie Ziegler frowned. “Stop that! Who are you?” She slapped at her daughter’s hands. “Roger!”

Cara backed off and sat down. “Mama, Daddy died four years ago. I’m your daughter Cara.”

“Cara? But you’re only in second grade. I just spent the past two hours in the principal’s office, trying to keep your brother from being expelled.” The elderly woman plucked nervously at the white sheet.

“I know, Mama. Cody had to transfer to another school when we were juniors. But we’re out of college now. I’m twenty-six, remember?” Cara kept her voice soft, even though it always turned her insides around whenever her mother lapsed and didn’t remember her.

Rosalie looked up. “Cara, you’re home! How was the party?” She smiled, then frowned. “Cody was here, asking me all sorts of questions. What happened to Grandma’s jewelry box? What did Dad do with his letter jacket? Would I give him a thousand dollars? When was my bedtime?”

Cara startled. “Why did he want you to give him a thousand dollars?”

“That’s what I asked him. He said it was for his phone bill.”

“You didn’t give it to him, did you?”

“Now honey, you know I’ve got more sense than that. Your daddy always took care of you kids’ expenses. He gave me some money each week, and if I ran out, then that was my fault. How can I give him money I don’t have?”

Cara breathed a sigh of relief. “Did you tell him that?”

“Yes. And then he started yelling at me. I don’t know why he thinks I have money, Cara.” Rosalie’s childlike blue eyes swam with tears. “Your daddy’s not around to give it to me.”

“It’s okay, Mama.” Cara went to her mother and hugged her. Getting a tissue from the box on the table, she tenderly wiped away the tears. “I’ll take care of everything. Now, are you ready for more of
The Thornbirds
?”

“Oh yes!”

* * * *

Thirty minutes later, Rosalie was sound asleep. Cara closed the book and marked it, placing it back on the bedside table. She moved the wingback chair back to its original location and dimmed the lights. Sometimes Rosalie awakened in the early hours of the morning, and needed a light on. She’d tripped over a footstool the previous year, nearly breaking her hip. Cara gladly paid the extra expense of keeping the downstairs lights on at night, rather than risking her mother’s health.

Knowing her brother’s temper, she padded into the den and opened the drawer where she kept the household accounts and the two checkbooks. To her chagrin, a check was missing. Damn him! This was the fifth hiding spot he’d found. She’d have to call the bank in the morning and keep it from being cashed. Cara gathered the bills and both checkbooks, taking them upstairs with her. She’d go shopping on her lunch hour for a lockbox or anything to keep her brother out of it. In the meantime, she’d stash them in her briefcase.

She slid beneath her cool sheets and pulled her ivory bedspread up to her chin. The party had been a success and she’d been able to snap her mother out of her confusion. The only problems remaining was the issue with Cody stealing one of her mother’s checks, and how her boss was going to react when he discovered the changes she’d made. Cara released her hair from the scrunchie and placed the black fabric band beside her alarm clock. After checking to make sure the alarm was set, she clicked off the light and drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Three

Austin Harmon placed the phone receiver in its cradle and punched his intercom button. “Cara? Could you come in here please?”

“Just a moment, Mr. Harmon.”

Austin drummed his fingers on his desktop, and as the door to his office opened, picked up a sheaf of papers and waved them at her. “Care to explain this?”

Cara’s complexion paled, but she continued to look him in the eye. “The snack bar is in need of an overhaul. The counter is rotting, the windows are cracked, and there’s no air conditioning out there. One of the microwaves needs replaced, and shelves need to be built in the storeroom.” She crossed the room as she spoke and settled herself in the oak chair in front of the desk. “Those are the estimates from bidders. I told them you’d make a decision by the end of the week. Repairs are set to begin at the end of the month.”

Austin struggled to contain his rising temper. “And how did you come by this information?” he demanded. “I hired you to straighten out my office, not to start running the place.”

Cara looked confused. “With all due respect, Mr. Harmon, I came across the initial plans for the renovations. I thought you’d want to fast-track them, since some of the changes are going to take several months.” She leaned forward with her right arm outstretched. “May I?”

Austin handed her the papers. “I don’t recall ordering any renovating to begin just yet.”

Cara shuffled the papers, looking for the right one. “Here it is: ‘Upgrades Recommended. Pool Snack bar, Tennis Courts, Playground, and Golf Course Tree Removal.’ Somewhere, there should also be a recommendation for the patio area and repairing the wheelchair ramp by the front entrance.”

The light bulb went off in Austin’s brain. “Ahhh…I understand now.” Taking the papers from her once more, he leaned back in his black leather desk chair and let his features relax. He placed the papers on his desk and laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

Austin shook his head. “Do you remember meeting Ryan Overland last night? Tall guy, dark hair, had the belt buckle with ‘Ladies Man’ on it?”

Cara rolled her eyes. “Oh, yes. He kept trying to buy me drinks. I’m sorry if he’s your friend, but I didn’t particularly care for him.”

“Well, Ryan’s father is a banker, and times are tough. Ryan figures I’ll apply for a loan to cover the costs of everything. He and my former assistant dreamed up the renovations so Ryan’s father wouldn’t lose his job as Loan Officer.”

Cara’s mouth dropped open and she quickly shut it. “Have you been out to the snack bar lately, Mr. Harmon?”

“Not in the last month. Why?”

“Because I personally went out there to inspect it. That was how I knew the microwave needed replaced; I tried to warm up a cup of water. The window has a crack in it, and the counter has some termite damage. My dad used to collect bugs; I know what termites look like. With all due respect, Ryan’s right. But you shouldn’t have to apply for a loan, your financial records are fine.” Cara relaxed against the back of the chair. “In fact, some of the companies bidding for your approval told me most of the work would be donated, keeping the costs minimal.”

The phone rang at that moment. Cara reached forward to answer it and placed them on hold. “Excuse me a moment. This is a call I have to take.” She replaced the receiver and stood, exiting the office and closing the door.

Austin watched the blinking amber light become solid and frowned again. Rising, he exited his office just in time to overhear Cara’s quiet voice arguing with whoever was on the other line.

“He did what? Isn’t there a way you could…yes. At twelve-thirty. Thank you.” Cara replaced the receiver and rested her head in her hands.

Austin cleared his throat. “Is there a problem?”

She jumped, her blue eyes wide open. “Nothing I can’t handle. I’ll be leaving a little later than usual for my lunch hour; I was about to clear it with you first.”

Austin held up his hand. “Take all the time you need, Cara. You’re not punching a time clock anymore. If you need some extra time, all you have to do is let me know.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, let’s go talk to Chet.”

* * * *

By noon, Austin’s curiosity about the planned renovations was satisfied. Chet Donovan, his head maintenance man, assured him the changes were needed, and the timeline Cara had outlined was correct. Austin clapped Chet on the back and left him to return to his office.

“I’m going to grab a bite to eat in the dining room,” he told Cara. “Want to join me? We can go over the bids together.”

“I have an appointment in a half an hour,” she bit her lip. “I should be back by one-thirty.”

“Go on. I’ll see you this afternoon.” Austin left her and spotted Ryan and his girlfriend at one of the tables. “Ryan, Andrea. May I join you?”

“Oh, please do!” Ryan stood up and offered his hand.

Austin shook it and sat down, waving away the menu the hostess offered. “Just bring me the sandwich special, with a side salad and fries, Roxie.” He spotted his best server, Stacy, heading his way with a large iced tea and turned his attention to his friends. “What’s new with you two?”

* * * *

Cara exited the bank; relieved the check Cody had forged had been recovered.
Thank God I called at the exact time he was trying to cash it!
She slid behind the steering wheel and clipped her Bluetooth headset to her ear. Before she dialed, she closed her eyes and rested her head in her hands.

Good God…do I have the strength to prosecute my own brother? Or do I just scare him a little?
She picked her head up and opened her eyes, looking at the bright sunshine. Slowly she dialed Harmony House and waited for Roxie to answer. “Hi, it’s Cara. Would you please give Mr. Harmon a message for me?” She paused, listening. “He is? Oh, thanks.”

She started the motor while she waited for her boss to take the call. “Hi, Mr. Harmon. I just wanted to let you know something’s come up and I’m going to need a little more time this afternoon. No, I’ve got everything under control…I think. Thank you.” Blinking back unexpected tears at her boss’s kindness and her frustration with her brother, she ended the call and drove to the police station.

She sat for a few moments, staring at the red brick building. There wasn’t any activity in the front. The town didn’t have a high crime rate like the big cities.
I’m really not brave enough to do this alone. But who could I ask? Certainly not Mama or Shelley! Catherine and Curt are busy with their families. Curt would just ask me what the big deal is and Cath would faint.

As much as Cara loved her family, her older brother and sister tended to ignore any signs of problems.
No, I can’t bother them with this.
Feeling like the world’s biggest coward, Cara put the car in gear and drove back to Harmony House. There was really only one thing left to do, and that was to seek Austin Harmon’s advice. At the very least, maybe he could recommend a good lawyer.

Smoothing her black slacks and light blue Oxford shirt, Cara locked her car and reentered the white building with the golden oak doors with the double “H” engraved in the oval glass windows. She went first to the office and slid her briefcase under her desk. Rapping lightly on the open door of the adjoining office, Cara observed Austin facing away from her, engrossed in his telephone conversation. She knocked louder a second time, and nodded when he swiveled around and waved her in, indicating the seat she’d occupied earlier. Ending the call, he smiled at her.

“Everything okay?”

Cara twisted her hands together. “I, ah, need some advice. I’m sorry to bother you with personal problems, but– ”

Austin leaned forward. “What is it? You’ve been a little preoccupied all morning.”

Her cheeks heating, she hesitantly told him about her brother forging one of her checks. “I don’t know if I should file charges or not, or even how to go about doing it. Do you know of a good lawyer I could talk to?” Her voice broke and she looked away to compose herself.

A tissue was pushed into her hand. Looking back, she noticed Austin had moved and was now seated in the other chair. “I’m sorry.” Cara wiped her eyes, but the tears continued to seep out.

“We all have troubling days,” he replied, handing her the box. “Is your brother still in custody?”

Cara sniffed and took another Kleenex. “Yes. I’ve never had to deal with anything like this before.”

“Fortunately, I have.” Austin stood up. “Come on, I’ll go with you.” He paused by the open door.

“Thank you,” Cara whispered, overwhelmed by his generosity. She gathered her soggy tissues and stood up, preceding him out of the office. She tossed the wadded mass into the trash and after retrieving her briefcase, waited while Austin conferred with Roxie at the hostess station.

“We’ll take my car.” Austin ushered her outside to his silver Pontiac Aztec and unlocked the doors.

Several minutes later, Cara spoke to the police officer who was handling the case, and filed the complaint. Next, Austin drove her to the courthouse and accompanied her to the prosecutor’s office while she told her story. She managed to keep her composure throughout the process, but once the paperwork was complete, the reality of what she had done left her shaking.

Austin’s arm went around her shoulder as he guided her to the SUV. Minutes ticked by and soon he was pressing a covered plastic coffee cup in her hands.

“Drink,” he told her. “You’ll feel better soon.” She heard the motor turn over and sipped the scalding coffee, glancing at him in surprise.

“How did you…” Her voice trailed off as she tasted her favorite latte flavor.

He flashed a smile as he put the vehicle in gear. “I’m your boss. I’m supposed to notice little details, like what you drink every morning. Besides,” he continued as he pulled out onto the busy street, “filing charges isn’t easy. When we get back to the office, I’ll give you Grant Coleman’s number. He handles all the legal details at Harmony House.”

“Grant Coleman? The gentleman whose wedding reception we just planned? Maybe he won’t want to take on a new client so soon.”

“Nonsense. Grant’s the best, and besides, he owes me a favor. Don’t worry about it. In fact, when we get back to the office, go home. Roxie and I can handle things for the rest of the day.”

Cara sipped her coffee, marveling at the fact that Austin was so understanding.
I’ve seen him bring staff members to tears and yet he’s really a compassionate man. Why can’t I find anyone like him?

Because right now you have no time for anyone else. Caring for Mama and staying employed are your top priorities, not romance!

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