Charlotte drew in a deep breath and released it, her muscles unraveling for the first time since she walked into the station at ten that night.
She settled in behind her desk, letting her long, silky black hair down from the perfectly smooth bun she usually wore, and tossing the blunt bangs which always sat just above her eyebrows to the side. One of the scanners crackled to life, and the chatter of emergency responders and 911 dispatchers filtered through her brain as she clicked through the station’s Facebook page to check for potential news tips.
None of the normal words which would peak her interest came over the scanners, so she paid it little attention. Routine ambulance calls weren’t news worthy. The WQUZ social media pages were filled with well-wishes for Mira Simpson, the much-loved crime reporter due to come back to work after a nasty run in with her stalker a few weeks before.
With both Mira and Cory, one of the evening photographers, out of the mix for several weeks, they found themselves even more short staffed than normal. Which meant Charlotte only had one photog to work with overnight if breaking news came down the line. Thankfully, that would all be ending in the next two weeks as first Mira, then Cory, came back to work following their recoveries.
Other than the posts wishing Mira well, no tips on any of their social media accounts would lead to a story for the morning crew. With a sigh, Charlotte clicked open the file holding all the press releases or the next day. Looked like she needed to do some searching to come up with viable stories.
“Hey, Charlotte. What’s shakin’ girl?”
Charlotte jumped at the unexpected voice behind her, heart ramming inside her chest at full speed. “Bekah, you scared me.” Charlotte pressed her palm against her chest, willing her heart to slow. “What are you still doing here? I figured you would have left hours ago.”
The short, curvy woman bounded up the two steps to the assignment desk pod, which sat in the center of the cavernous newsroom, and plopped down in the chair next to Charlotte, huffing out a dramatic sigh. “Nah, I’m working on a story pitch for Michelle and wanted to put together some footage to go along with, so I’m staying late to put it together.”
Charlotte nodded and tried to smile a little, but felt too off-kilter at the interruption to her routine to make it genuine. She liked her coworkers. She really did, but being social never come easy for her. Despite working at WQUZ since graduating college three years prior, it still took effort to make eye contact and small talk. The phrase, “Fake it ‘til you make it,” had been her mantra for years, though she still waited for the make it part to kick in. Thankfully, she had become adept at faking comfort in all sorts of situations.
But once everyone filtered out a few hours after Charlotte’s shift started every night, she found herself safe in her comfort zone again. Alone with nothing but the static from the police scanners and the occasional photographer walking through on the way to the edit bays to distract her. For the two hours at the beginning of her shift and an hour at the end of her shift, she forced herself to be friendly and sociable, chatting with the closest things she had to friends outside of Kim. However, the seven solitary hours overnight while she worked were her favorite.
Bekah arched one eyebrow, and Charlotte realized social protocol required her to inquire further. “What’s the story?”
Bekah perked up, leaning forward in her chair, causing her more than ample chest to push against the confines of her tight sweater. Charlotte would be lying if she said she wasn’t a little jealous of the woman’s voluptuous curves. Her own stick figure body left much to be desired in both the chest and butt departments. But she pushed the thought aside, dismissing it as too vain a road to wander down.
“Well, I chatted up a doctor the other day at a bar, super cute, but way too conceited for his own good. The ones with egos the size of Texas are always the worst in bed. You want the time of your life in bed, go for the average Joe. They’re eager to make you happy, but not so inexperienced that they’re fumbling around with no clue what to do. My tip to you.” Bekah winked like she had just shared the secret to making a million dollars in the next two hours.
“Anyway, he told me about this group of medical professionals who visit the poorest of the poor countries, with no access to healthcare facilities, and give free care to anyone who needs it. A group is leaving for Honduras in a couple weeks, and after I reached out to get more information, they invited a crew to meet them down there and live with them, see the problems facing the people and how they help out.” Bekah sucked in a breath before charging on. “So, I’m pitching that I go down with a photographer and turn around a series on the conditions there. What do you think?”
“Wow.” It took a moment for Charlotte to gather her thoughts after the barrage of information Bekah had just thrown at her. “It sounds like an amazing story, but I think it’s going to be a hard sell with how much it will cost to travel down there.”
Charlotte hated seeing the disappointment which made Bekah’s face fall from its previously ecstatic expression. The exact opposite of Charlotte, Bekah was outgoing, outspoken, and ballsy. She also wore her heart on her sleeve. Just being in a conversation with her made Charlotte’s heart race a little, her palms sweat, and her stomach twist with nausea. Charlotte rushed on to soothe the potential faux pas. “But, if you pitch it just right, and maybe look for a sponsor for the series to offset costs, Michelle will go for it. You know her. She’ll do anything for a great story.”
Bekah perked up at the suggestion. “That is an awesome idea. Thanks, Charlotte. You rock.” Totally recovered from her momentary trip down the tubes, Bekah tilted her head and squinted at Charlotte. “There’s something different about you, but I can’t figure out what it is.”
Charlotte shrugged; she never changed her look. Color had never once touched her silky black locks, she still wore the same tortoise shell framed glasses she had since her teens, and her simple black pants and pale pink long sleeved button-up shirt were right in line with her normal work attire. “I haven’t changed anything.” Ever, she added silently.
Suddenly, Bekah’s eyes grew to twice their size, and she leaned back again, seeming to take in all of Charlotte. “You’re wearing your hair down, and your bangs are out of your eyes for once. I’ve never seen it like that before.” She reached out, picking up a strand of Charlotte’s hair, ignoring the slight flinch Charlotte couldn’t contain. “Holy shit balls, Charlotte, your hair is amazing. I would kill to play with it for an hour. The braids and up-dos I could do with it would be out of this world.”
Charlotte felt her face warm at the compliment. She hated compliments. How did you politely accept one while also denying it? “Thanks? It’s nothing special. Just hair.”
“That is not hair. It is perfection.” Bekah dropped the strand of hair and gave her the same considering look again. “We should have a girl’s night. Sit around, drink wine, braid each other’s hair, talk about boys.” Bekah waggled her eyebrows up and down in a way that made Charlotte blush, giggle, and want to throw up at the same time. “What do you say? We both have Saturdays off.”
The idea of spending an entire night trying to come up with topics of conversation with Bekah made Charlotte’s head hurt. They had nothing in common, other than both working in the WQUZ newsroom. Bekah always talked about the guys she went out with. Charlotte hadn’t been on a date since college, when her mother set up a blind date with the son of a woman she had met in a grocery store and decided their children were soul mates. It had not gone well. At all.
Bekah did crazy things, like skydiving, riding motorcycles, and talking to people like they weren’t constantly judging her. The craziest thing Charlotte had ever done was buy a red push up bra, and she’d never even worn it. Just going to the website and clicking ‘buy now’ had been enough for her. It still sat in her top drawer, shoved behind all her simple white cotton bras from the discount store.
Occasionally, she would take the outlandish piece of lingerie out, hold it in front of her small chest, and look in the mirror. The bright color popped against her pale skin with slight golden undertones. Her light grey eyes seemed to deepen a shade, to an almost slate blue. For a moment, a Charlotte hidden deep inside would come to the surface. This version of her was pretty, maybe even sexy.
She was sure of herself and her sexuality. Owned it. Her fingers would skate across her soft skin, dipping between her legs before she could think about it too much. Eyes closed tight, she would picture a man like the ones in her fantasy books, strong with powers beyond reason, men who would be attracted to her odd combination of Chinese and Russian features; her father’s narrow almond shaped eyes and her mother’s wide thin mouth, all on a round face with sharp cheekbones. That wouldn’t be put off by her lack of curves or anything remotely womanly. Pressed against the wall of her bathroom, she would frantically bring herself to a fast orgasm dreaming about that man touching her, loving her, fucking her.
But as soon as the fantasy ebbed away, reality would crash back in. She’d remember that she was nothing more than a twenty-four-year-old virgin, who’d only ever had one sexual encounter. That she had the body of a thirteen-year-old. She’d remember and shove the bra back into its hiding spot, tucking away that inner Charlotte she never allowed to see the light of day.
“Oh, maybe we could invite Mira, too!” Bekah’s overly-excited voice broke into Charlotte’s introspection. “I know Chris practically had her on lockdown while she recovered. Now that she’s coming back to work, he has to loosen the grip a little bit. Plus, you know she still has some good painkillers left over from the hospital. Percocet and red wine go great together,” Bekah rambled on, unaware of Charlotte’s internal battle.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to mix prescription pills and alcohol.” That would be all she needed. Her first attempt at girl bonding ending in an ambulance ride and pumped stomach.
Bekah rolled her eyes in response. “I know, silly. I’m just joking. But not about girls’ night. In fact, I’m not taking no for an answer. I’m calling Mira tomorrow and setting it up. I’ll text you the time and place. You don’t show up, and I’ll never stop bugging you, so you might as well just give in now to my demands. Everyone does eventually.”
Charlotte's mouth opened, but no words came out. Bekah had completely steamrolled her, and she had no clue what to do about it. If she rejected the offer, she knew Bekah would think she was stuck up or a bitch, but if she went along with this girls’ night idea, it would only be a matter of time until she said or did something to embarrass herself. Faking it at work was one thing, but keeping up the act for an entire night, with alcohol in the mix? No way.
While she searched for a way out of the situation, Bekah once again rolled on with little acknowledgment of Charlotte’s lack of response. “Great, that is settled. Now I really need to get some work done. Mind if I sit up here while I do some research? I hate sitting all alone in the middle of the night. Besides, you could totally use some company. It must be so boring here night after night with no one to keep you company.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it quite like that.” Not at all. Charlotte loved the quiet peace of an empty newsroom. She hadn’t gotten into journalism for the adrenaline rush of a big story, like most of her coworkers.
No, she loved the puzzle of it all. Digging deep and putting the pieces together to form the bigger picture. Her favorite stories were the ones which, on the surface, seemed like nothing, but once you investigated it further, had the potential to affect hundreds of people. Those moments were rare of course, when you got a story with so many moving parts that it took work to sort them all out and get them to jive, but when it happened, she loved nothing more than to sit back and look at what they had discovered.
“So, you’re cool if I work up here?” Bekah asked again.
“I guess so.” Charlotte shrugged half-heartedly. She really didn’t want Bekah hanging around all night trying to talk. But she also didn’t want her to think Charlotte rude.
“Awesome!” Thankfully, the overly friendly reporter turned to the nearest computer and logged in, getting down to business.
Charlotte turned back to her own station, trying to shake the imbalance having someone invade her space caused. Looking at the clock, she realized she was ten minutes late for her first set of rounds calls. Damn it, she hated being thrown off her schedule. Logically, she knew ten minutes one way or the other wouldn’t make much of a difference. But she would always wonder if she had missed something in the amount of time Bekah had distracted her from the job at hand. Routine was important to someone like her, essential, and for the rest of the night, she would be thrown off by those ten minutes.
Steeling herself, Charlotte picked up the phone receiver, ready to make the first of her seven calls. The Pittsburgh emergency services department broke the city up into seven zones. Each zone had police, fire, and ambulance crews assigned to cover those neighborhoods. Each zone also had its own dispatch center. For bigger incidents, crews from other zones could be called in, but for the most part, they stuck to their own territory.
Each night, Charlotte called the non-emergency line at each 911 dispatch center to check in and inquire about the activities of that night. They were her rounds calls. She made rounds three times a night, and she was already late on the first.
Dialing the zone one number, she braced herself for the brief conversation. Talking on the phone came much easier to Charlotte. There was no careful dedication to keeping her face blank. No second guessing her every reaction. Talking on the phone with the dispatcher, she could pretend to be someone else entirely. A confident, take charge journalist who didn’t accept crap from anyone. But with Bekah sitting right behind her and undoubtedly hearing everything she said, it made the act seem silly.
“Pittsburgh dispatch zone one, how can I help you?” The gruff voice of the night supervisor at zone one, Marge, echoed down the line. Charlotte always wondered how much the lady smoked, because she sounded like she should start cutting back.
“Hi, this is Charlotte Orlov calling from WQUZ. Just calling to see if there is anything of interest going on tonight.” She tapped her short nails gently against the letters on her keyboard, ready to take notes on any incidents that may have happened since the swing shift assignment editor had called.
“Charlotte, I can’t believe it. You’re a whole ten minutes late. You feeling okay?” As soon as the dispatcher spoke the question, out a hacking cough, or laugh, burst through the phone straight into Charlotte’s ear.
Forcing out an uneasy chuckle, Charlotte tried to think of a response. She hated when the dispatchers tried to get friendly with her. Theirs was supposed to be a strictly professional relationship. All she needed was information, and every second she spent having to chit chat put her another second behind schedule. “Ha ha, yes, everything is fine, Marge. Just got distracted by a coworker.” Bekah snickered behind her. “So, anything happening?”
“Nothing you’d be too interested in, sweetheart.”
The endearment set Charlotte’s teeth on edge. This woman didn’t know her well enough to be using nicknames. Hell, not even her parents used cutsie terms of endearment with her.
“A couple of muggings, a bar fight or two, ambulance calls. That’s about it tonight. It’s a slow one for once. But the night is still young.”
“Okay, thank you for the information.” Charlotte typed in the little tidbits just in case something turned out to be bigger than originally thought.
“No problem. Talk to you again in a few hours,” Marge barked out.
The rest of the rounds calls went much the same way. Each commented to some degree on the tardiness of her calls. She found it totally embarrassing. Of course, she knew how much she clung to her schedules and routines. But was she really so regimented that even strangers on the other side of a phone line picked up her slightly OCD need to be on time?
By her last call, Charlotte felt shaken. A feeling that only increased when an unfamiliar voice picked up at the zone seven dispatch center.
“Zone seven, this is Trey. What can I do you for?”
Holy shit, that voice. It brought to mind honey, or maple syrup. Something smooth and sticky, that would coat you in the sweet warmth, placating you in its richness until you drowned in it, not caring one bit that it brought with it the end of your life. A deep, bass voice which Charlotte felt straight down to her panties. Something that shocked her more than anything else ever had.
She’d been attracted to people before, got aroused rather easily actually. But when she considered all the horrible outcomes that could come from a night of passion with a man, the fires of desire were quickly banked. And the one time she had tried to get intimate with a guy had been an unmitigated disaster.
But just this man’s voice had her wanting to drop the phone and run to the restroom, so she could shove her hand down her panties and frantically get herself off.
“Hello? Anyone there? Do you have an emergency?”
The deep voice took on a commanding tone, snapping Charlotte out of her dirty thoughts. “Um, no. I mean, yes. I mean, fuck. Yes, I’m here. No, it isn’t an emergency. Sorry.”
Trey chuckled on the other end of the line. A sound so thrilling, Charlotte nearly whimpered.
“No problem, what can I do for you?”
Oh god, so many, many things. Charlotte shook her head. This wasn’t her. She didn’t go weak at the knees over a man. Especially not just the voice of a man. The charms of men were largely lost on her. She saw through their games and bravado right away and couldn’t bother to try and look past all that. So why couldn’t she calm the racing of her heart over this simple conversation with an unknown man?
“Um. This is Charlotte Orlov, calling from WQUZ News, I’m checking to see if you were doing anything, I mean, if there was anything of interest going on. Tonight. In your zone. For the news.” Holy fucking shit. It wasn’t unusual for Charlotte to get tongue tied around people in general. The constant fear of saying something wrong, revealing too much, meant that she over analyzed every word that came out of her mouth. But nothing to this extent before. Never this verbal diarrhea.
“Charlotte, huh? That is a fantastic name. Old fashioned. Makes me think of gutsy novelists and regal nobility. Is that you? Gutsy and regal?” His voice held a teasing note, but she didn’t think Trey meant to make fun of her. She almost thought that was the way his voice must always sound. Like he held his own inside joke.
“Not even close. More like shy and neurotic. What about Trey? Makes me think of professional athletes and the creators of gross cartoons about foul-mouthed little boys.” Charlotte froze. What the hell had she just said? To a stranger? The phone began slipping from her grasp before she stopped it at the sound of his uproarious laugh.
“Definitely not an athlete. Though I can run up a twenty-story building in full gear carrying a fire hose and not keel over dead. So, I guess that is something. But I can’t draw for shit.”
“You’re a firefighter? What are you doing answering phones in a dispatch center?” A firefighter. Holy hell, that was hot. An image of a tall, buff man, dripping in sweat, carrying her out of a burning building invaded her mind. Stop that! Firefighter fantasies, really? That wasn’t her. Charlotte embodied everything safe and boring, craved all things safe and boring. Not men running into fires.
“That I am. Been with the PFD for going on six years now. But my aunt runs the zone seven dispatch center, and half her staff is out on sick or maternity leave, so she asked me to pitch in on nights until she can get more people trained. I worked here to put myself through college, so it made sense I’d help out while my knee recovers.” A tense note of frustration seemed to slip into Trey’s voice, and Charlotte became even more fascinated by this unknown man on the phone.
“What happened to your knee?”
“Eh, blew it out carrying a severely overweight old man out of his house a few weeks ago. No big deal. Should have waited for help but didn’t think there was time. Another week or two, and I’ll be good as new, ready to get back to what I love.”
God, it didn’t even matter what he looked like at this point. Just that explanation alone made her want to track this man down and thank him for his service by having her way with him. Which was hilarious considering Charlotte had never had her way with anyone, let alone a heroic, injured firefighter. She had never gotten around to losing her virginity.
Thought about getting drunk at some point and just getting it over with since it seemed like something she should have done by twenty-four. But she would need to actually enjoy drinking to do that. She hated the way alcohol made her feel, like she had no control of her own mind and body. She had done it once as a teenager when her cousin talked her into sharing a bottle of peppermint schnapps over Christmas vacation one year, but hated the fuzzy gaps in her memory so much, she never repeated the experience.
“Anyway, you called for a reason, not just to entertain the incredibly bored guy sitting in a near deserted dispatch center.”
“Oh my God, yes, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to take your time. I’m sure you have more important things to do.” Heat crept up Charlotte’s neck to wash over her cheeks. She’d been so distracted by the syrupy voice and sexy firefighting man, she’d totally forgotten the whole purpose of the call.
“I wouldn’t say I have more important things to do. I could honestly listen to your sweet little voice all night, sugar. But I should get back to work. I can’t be flirting with pretty young things all night, unfortunately.” There was that teasing tone again.
Why did Charlotte love hearing him talk to her like that? And when he called her sugar? Oh god. “Right, of course. So, anything we should know about happening there?”
“Nope, all is quiet on the southern front. Talking to you has been the most excitement I’ve seen all night.”
“Wow, I feel sorry for you then.” It went without saying that talking with Trey had been the most exciting thing to happen to her in weeks. Maybe in her whole life.
“You shouldn’t. I’m hoping you plan on calling back again real soon. I didn’t find out near enough about you.”
“Not much to know, trust me.” Tears stung Charlotte’s eyes. Despite their borderline inappropriate conversation, she spoke the truth. Not one single thing about Charlotte could ever interest this man. Or any man. For some reason, that knowledge made her incredibly sad. An emotion she stuffed firmly down.
“I guess I’ll get to find out. When are you calling back?” His voice left no room for discussion. That domineering tone did something to Charlotte’s stomach she didn’t recognize. It tumbled over itself, trying to find a way to please the bossy man.
“Around three a.m.” Her voice slid out reed thin.
“My shift is supposed to be done at two, but I’ll make sure I’m still here to answer. Until then, sugar.” Then he hung up.
Charlotte stared at the phone. What had just happened? Did she flirt with a man over the phone? Did he actually want her? Or was he simply entertaining himself?
A throat clearing behind her at an unnecessarily loud volume reminded Charlotte that she was not alone in the newsroom as she usually would be at that time. She looked over her shoulder to find Bekah staring at her in disbelief.
“What was that?”
Charlotte looked back down at the phone. “I have no idea.”