When everyone had returned to the conference room, Andersen led the apprentices to their stations. Dara’s first good look at the engineering department overwhelmed her. Nothing had prepared her for the reality of being a part of Magnum’s team. For one crazy moment, she felt like hugging and kissing Andersen, her competitors, and the senior engineers. Her giddiness, however, didn’t last very long.
“Huh,” Ryan said, about an hour later, interrupting Dara’s train of thought.
“Is there something you need?” she asked, reluctant to tear herself away from the engrossing problem Andersen had given them. She looked up to find Ryan studying her with a condescending grin.
“No, but it’s obvious that you need something,” he said, his tone superior.
Andersen and the senior engineers looked their way. Javier continued working, giving no indication that he was paying attention, but Dara felt certain he was listening just as intently as everyone else.
“What are you talking about?” She clenched her hands so tightly she could feel her nails biting into her palms.
Do not let him get under your skin. That’s just what he wants!
“You’ve taken a very...interesting...approach.”
“Oh? How do you mean?” She fought to keep her tone neutral.
“Here and here.” He leaned over her station and pointed. She knew he was deliberately getting as close as possible, the better to push her buttons.
“Come on, Dara. Don’t you remember first year engineering?” He laughed in disbelief, shaking his head, and Dara’s face reddened. The temptation to punch him was so strong, she could taste it.
He proceeded to explain her mistakes at length, and she went from red to white. He was right; she should have caught them. Tears pricked at her eyes, but she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry. Instead, she carefully smoothed her features.
“Thank you for your help, Ryan,” she said in as dignified a voice as she could muster. Andersen made a notation on his tablet, causing her stomach to twist so viciously that she feared her lunch might make a reappearance.
“My pleasure, Dara,” Ryan said, speaking to her like an indulgent uncle to a rather slow child.
Dropping her gaze, Dara began working furiously, all the while trying her best not to let her warring emotions play out over her face. By the time Andersen sent them to the conference room to await their evaluations, her head throbbed so insistently she could hardly think straight.
“You can’t afford stupid mistakes like that,” Letizia hissed.
With a curt nod, Dara turned her head. Fighting back tears, she pretended to be very interested in her left blazer cuff, so that she wouldn’t have to look at Ryan gloating.
“Nice catch out there, LeTour,” Javier drawled once they were alone in the conference room. He lounged in his chair, looking entirely at ease with being in a room with a guy who would happily slit his throat to secure the position as assistant.
“I’m so flattered you noticed, Gutierrez. It could have happened to any one of us, I suppose. We are under a lot of pressure here.” Ryan’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
Dara smiled through gritted teeth, angry with herself for her inability to hide her emotions from him. If she let him see he unnerved her, he would mark her as easy prey.
“I guess that explains why you took such a simplistic approach to the problem,” Javier said, casually studying his perfectly groomed nails.
“What?” Ryan asked, all pretense gone. He studied Javier with naked malice.
“You must have been so busy spying on our work that you didn’t have enough time to do even a halfway decent job with yours.”
“Is that right?” Ryan crossed his arms over his chest. He ambled a bit closer to Javier, every line of his body radiating aggression. Dara sucked in a breath, unable to tear her eyes away. Surely Ryan didn’t intend to lose his temper here and now?
“I expect you’ll find out, once we get our scores. You always managed to hold your own in class, but it’s a lot tougher in the real world, isn’t it?”
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Ryan didn’t bother feigning cordiality. He leaned down, getting right in Javier’s face, but Javier just smiled.
“Temper, temper,” Javier sighed, shaking his head.
Just as Dara felt like her lungs might burst, the door opened and Andersen and the senior engineers stepped inside. Letizia raised an eyebrow and Walters frowned, but Chen seemed oblivious. Andersen’s cold gaze, however, appeared to take in every minute detail of the room.
“Apprentice LeTour, I suggest you find a seat so that we may begin discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each of your approaches,” Andersen said, staring.
For a split second, Ryan lost his composure, plainly horrified that Andersen had caught him in the act. Then, almost as quickly as it had appeared, he wiped the expression from his face and returned to an attitude of the utmost obsequiousness.
“Yes, sir,” Ryan responded, moving crisply to a seat some distance away from Javier.
Letizia’s face was impassive, but she kept her eyes on Ryan. For once, Dara wouldn’t mind Letizia grilling her for every detail. She was dying to talk to someone about it.
For the next half hour, Andersen went over their solutions. When he brought Ryan’s up on the screen, Dara immediately saw that Javier was correct.
Simplistic and inelegant, she sneered to herself. Still, this made her feel only a little better. She couldn’t undo the moment of incompetence Ryan had exposed.
“As for you, Apprentice Morrow,” Andersen said, bringing her work up on the screen. Her throat constricted and she could barely breathe. “Your solution was quite ingenious.”
Surprised, Dara hazarded a glance at Letizia, who gave her a searing glare.
“It’s unfortunate that you made such an inexcusable error in the beginning,” Andersen continued, staring at her. She felt like sinking down in her chair, through the floor, and continuing on down into the depths of the earth. “Had Apprentice LeTour not caught it, your solution would have resulted in even more extensive damage. An innovative mind is a useless quality in an engineer who makes stupid errors, errors that could cost Magnum millions.”
Dara went completely numb. She felt as though her fingers and toes had turned to ice, and she feared they might begin to crack, shattering her into a million tiny pieces. Still, that would probably be far less painful than the public dressing down she’d just received.
“Cheer up,” Javier murmured as they left the room. “He did say your solution was quite ingenious.” Surprised, Dara glanced at him. He grinned crookedly at her.
“Um, thanks,” she said.
Warming up to him, she smiled ever so slightly. “Thanks for what you said to Ryan too.”
“Don’t think that means we’re on the same side, Dara. There can only be one of us left at the end, and I don’t like you that much.” He winked.
Feeling her spine stiffen, Dara nodded curtly and increased her pace, leaving him trailing in her wake.