Undead and Underwater


Page 8


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No: it was a Post-it note. She saw he had very carefully folded it with crisp corners, and folded it again, and again, so it was teeny and yellow and a bare half-inch across. "I have little pockets," he mumbled, his pale freckled skin blushing, "and didn't want to lose it, so I was careful when I stuck it in there."


"That is so adorable I might pass out." It was. I must stop saying these things out loud to him. She carefully unfolded it, observed her cell number written in handwriting not her own, then carefully refolded it (teeny origami!) and gave it back, feeling loads better. "I didn't write that." In fact, she had a solid idea who did. The relief that Linus seemed to like her for herself was enough to make her knees weak. Or was a residual symptom of his kiss. "I didn't leave that for you. Isn't that great?"


"Oh." His blush deepened. "I guess you didn't mean for me to have it, then. Here." He tried to hand back the teeny origami but she wouldn't take it.


"That's not what I meant! I'm sorry, I didn't mean-it's fine that you have my number. It's not a state secret or anything." She felt awful, knowing he thought she thought he'd been a creep and, worse, a creep she did not want to give her digits to. His dear face was rapidly nearing the color of a ripe beefsteak tomato. It was strange, but his mortification touched her almost as much as his kiss had. His sweet kiss and his dear face and now he couldn't look at her; he was in an agony of embarrassment and she had never felt more tender and protective of anyone, ever, in her life. "See? I can prove it. Like this."


Then she seized his shoulders, yanked him forward, and kissed him back.


CHAPTER EIGHT


Sometime later (seconds, hours, a month?) they both came up for air. They'd staggered around her office like two people trapped in a sack together, their arms around each other, kissing with the fury of two people who had remembered that often the best part of a relationship was the part they were embarked on right that moment, in her office, on her Corporate Yawn–colored carpet.


Linus hadn't even remembered when they'd left their feet. He was having trouble remembering any specifics at all. He had been so glad to see her and so happy to kiss her and so angry to realize she thought he was pretending to like her and then-pretending? What the hell? Who would? And why?


He had no idea how someone could fake being enchanted by a beautiful smart wonderful woman like Hailey Derry (hero, hero). He hadn't been able to think straight for days; who could fake that? The thought upset him all over again and he instinctively put a hand to her. She took it, turned it over, and planted a soft kiss on his palm that he instantly felt . . . somewhere else.


"I never thought the name Linus was especially erotic." She shook her head and let him take his hand back (not that he was in any rush to do so). "How little I know."


"That's right. More fool you!"


"It's the name. Do it to me, Linus. Fill me up, Linus. Ooooh, give it to me haaaard, Linus!" She raised her voice to be heard over his helpless laughter. "If you kissed me as some sort of negative reinforcement because I ducked out on lunch, it was an utter failure."


They were both sitting on the carpet, thoroughly rumpled. They'd both called a halt right around the time they both went for the other's shirt buttons. ("Uh . . . probably not the best idea." "Right." "In my office, I mean." "Right." "To be continued." "Damn right.")


He shook his head. "It wasn't negative reinforcement. I was just so damned glad to see you. You came rushing in like you do, in a hurry, and I've sort of been worried about you, but when you rushed in, you looked so gorgeous the reason I was waiting went right out of my head." He sobered, hopped to his feet, then helped her to hers. "Hailey, I've got to talk to you. And you have to stay in this room with me until you've answered my questions. I'm not trying to come on like some Rambo jerkweed chauvinist, but come on. Something's up."


"Rambo jerkweed chauvinist?"


He didn't smile back. "You disappear all the time, you come back looking like somebody's beat you up, your mind's on something else-a lot." He took a breath, then let it out. "I'm the new guy and even I know something's wrong. I talked to Audrey the Receptionist while we were waiting for her girlfriend to pick her up the other night, and she said you were totally fine, and that you're kind of a nut about your privacy, which I totally respect-"


"He said, butting into her privacy." But she was smiling, so he plunged ahead.


He tried again. "I know we haven't known each other very long-"


"Only a week! Isn't that amazing?" She looked so happy when she said that, every thought went out of his head except for, Must kiss pretty girl more now, yes, yes. "It feels like longer."


"Huh?" Must kiss pretty . . . Linus shook himself. "Right. But you're in trouble, Hailey. Aren't you? Tell me. Let me help." He took a breath. Waited. Thought, Yep, I'm really gonna ask her this. Said: "Don't get mad, but you're It Girl, aren't you?"


"Yes."


CHAPTER NINE


"Okay. I know it sounded crazy, but I just had to-wait. You said yes. You admitted it."


"Yes. Also, I hate that name. Rhymes with Zit Girl and Pit Girl and Hit Girl-people all over the Web think I'm plagiarizing Mark Millar." She'd finished adjusting her clothing and now stood on one foot, rested her hand lightly on his shoulder, then slipped her other shoe back on. "Now then. Since you didn't hack my digits, that means-"


"Hailey, come on. If you don't want to tell me what's wrong, you've at least got to agree to call a cop!"


"I'm It Girl." She actually shuddered as she said it. "That's what's going on. My God, I actually said it out loud and everything . . ."


"No, come on. Okay, I admit, it was a silly idea, okay?"


"Why?" She'd slipped her other shoe on, and was now unbuttoning his shirt (hooray!) and then rebuttoning it (boo!), this time with the appropriate buttons going into the appropriate holes. His head was still so full of her scent and her smile he was amazed he'd gotten any buttons into any holes. "What's so silly? Other than the absurdity of a grown woman finding out she's living the life of an escapee from a graphic novel."


He'd been almost sure, but her quick response threw him. "Look, I know you're in trouble. Please, please let me help. Okay, so you're not It Girl . . . It was a dumb idea. I mean, you work hard for us-when you're here-but you're kind of, um, disorganized . . ." He gestured; files were everywhere. "And you're always late or leaving early; and even when you're not at work, you're always rushing off somewhere. You're never around when . . . um . . . when . . ." Just like that, he'd talked himself back into the silly idea that Hailey Derry was It Girl.


"All those things you said, they're true."


This was not how it went in the movies. The cornered superhero would have all sorts of reasons why they weren't Superman or Vomit Girl or Hernia Boy or whomever, and they'd be able to back it up with airtight alibis by faithful butlers, statements that were typed and notarized. They didn't say, "Yep, you got me. You have found out my deep, dark secret. Woe, now the truth is out! Anyway, try not to blab it all over town."


"Look, I'll prove it."


They didn't say that, either.


Then Hailey rummaged through a desk drawer, pulled out a jumbo box of staples, and gulped down not only all the staples, but the box they were in, and then the stapler they'd been intended for.


Which, once he got over his shock, was the coolest-


"Linus?"


-thing-


"Are you all right?"


-ever.


"I've got you."


CHAPTER TEN


"Thank God." Hailey sighed when Linus opened his eyes.


"That was awesome," he said weakly. He moved his head enough to realize it was pillowed on her lap, that they were still in her office (thank goodness for doors that closed, and employees who, unlike Hailey, went to meetings in other parts of the building), then started to sit up. "And I didn't faint."


"No, no."


"I blacked out."


"Of course."


"Because I was a little shocked."


"Yes."


"And also extremely turned on. That was awesome! I never knew a woman could look so damn hot while chomping down staples. So all the blood left my head and rushed . . . uh . . . somewhere else . . . and . . ." She was laughing so hard she almost dropped him. "Okay, but we agree I didn't faint like a girlie girl, right?"


"Oh, yes. Absolutely. Your rep as a stellar stud who never faints when confronted by a freak who-"


"Don't say that." Surprised, she drew back a little. "Sorry. But don't, Hailey. You're not a freak. You're terrific. You are the polar opposite of a freak, okay? Run yourself down like that again and I'll kiss the shit out of you."


"That will certainly teach me, all right."


"And you suck at keeping your secret identity a secret."


"What secret identity? Do I have a costume? Do I rush around the country shoring up falling buildings or catching planes before they crash only to dash off and go back to my job as a mild-mannered HR director, always on the alert for evil and help desk seminars? No. If I'm in a situation where I can help, I do. I'm no different from an off-duty EMT. They'll help if they can, even if they're on their own time. That's just how things are for them. And me, too, I guess."






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