메인 Bared to You
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Home of all ????. Am glad to have came across this site on Facebook from a friend ????. Problems of looking for books ???? and borrowing is solved .
15 November 2020 (22:01)
Amazing ....it's really helpful to me...!
19 December 2020 (09:10)
Wow I've been putting reading this book off for some time and am glad i finally read coz wow am amazed and now i want more of it even though i finished the series
21 February 2021 (09:34)
Please can you write a book similar to this?
I love it
I love it
21 February 2021 (12:41)
Wow very interesting and mind blowing.utterly amazing
20 March 2021 (15:29)
I loved this book, its enthralling, sexy, insanely amazing, it overwhelms you in a good way
27 March 2021 (08:55)
Can I get another books please
30 April 2021 (16:54)
I loved this series so much. From the meet-cute, the hunky roommate/bestie/brother? to the I'd literally do anything to protect you and actually doing it. Won't give out spoilers. It was definitely worth the all nighter ?
03 May 2021 (17:52)
Thanks for the update
04 June 2021 (20:57)
I love this series so much it is amazing.. can I get some other update please ?
04 June 2021 (20:59)
this series kept awake for days just couldnt drop it
trust me its a good read, i swear on my dinner
trust me its a good read, i swear on my dinner
10 June 2021 (21:13)
por que n0o me sale para leer en español
18 June 2021 (03:22)
I read the entire series in 2 weeks. I couldn’t turn to the next page fast enough. This entire series was incredible.
26 June 2021 (18:31)
Praise for Sylvia Day “Sylvia Day is the undisputed mistress of tender erotic romance. Her books are a luxury every woman deserves.” —Teresa Medeiros, New York Times bestselling author “Sylvia Day’s writing is stunningly sensual.” —Jaci Burton, New York Times bestselling author “Un-put-downable.” —Lauren Dane, New York Times bestselling author “When it comes to brewing up scorchingly hot sexual chemistry, Day has few literary rivals.” —Booklist A Touch of Crimson “Angels and demons, vampires and lycans, all set against an inventive, intriguing story world that hooked me from the first page. Balancing action and romance, humor and hot sensuality, Sylvia Day’s storytelling dazzles. A Touch of Crimson is a paranormal romance lover’s feast!” —Lara Adrian, New York Times bestselling author “A Touch of Crimson will rock readers with a stunning new world, a hot-blooded hero, and a strong, kick-ass heroine. This is Sylvia Day at the top of her game!” —Larissa Ione, New York Times bestselling author “Sylvia Day spins a gorgeous adventure in A Touch of Crimson that combines gritty, exciting storytelling with soaring lyricism. This is definitely a book for your keeper shelf.” —Angela Knight, New York Times bestselling author “A Touch of Crimson explodes with passion and heat. A hot, sexy angel to die for and a gutsy heroine make for one exciting read!” —Cheyenne McCray, New York Times bestselling author Pleasures of the Night “So hot the pages should be on fire!” —Gena Showalter, New York Times bestselling author “Dreams have never been this hot! Pleasures of the Night sizzles as a romance, enthralls as a paranormal, and captivates with a fantastic cast of characters. I didn’t want the ‘night’ to end!” —Susan Grant, New York Times bestselling author “Sylvia Day delivers readers to a fantasy world as unique as it is erotic! Ms. Day is an up-and-coming talent in the world of erotic fiction.” —Toni Blake, award-winning author Eve of Darkness “Great charact; ers and terrific storytelling in a hot-blooded adrenaline ride. A keep-you-up-all-night read.” —Patricia Briggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author “Exhilarating adventure in an edgy world of angels and demons…Dynamic and vibrant, Eve is an impressive protagonist, and her fierce spirit and determination to make the best of her circumstances will keep readers enthralled.” —Publishers Weekly “Eve of Darkness is a sizzling, heart-pounding urban fantasy that thrilled and fascinated me from beginning to end. Eve is a smart, spirited heroine I won’t soon forget!” —Jeri Smith-Ready, award-winning author “Gripping, nonstop action and one hell of a heroine.” —Shiloh Walker, national bestselling author In The Flesh “Lush, evocative, inventive…Fans of Dara Joy will love this!” —Shayla Black, New York Times bestselling author This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. BARED TO YOU: A CROSSFIRE NOVEL Copyright © 2012 by Sylvia Day. All rights reserved. Edited by Hilary Sares. Copyedited by Martha Trachtenberg. Cover design by Croco Designs. Interior design by VMC Art & Design, LLC. Published by Sylvia Day 23905 Clinton Keith Suite #114-359 Wildomar, CA 92595 www.sylviaday.com The uploading, scanning, and distribution of this book in any form or by any means—including but not limited to electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of the copyright holder is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized editions of this work, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. ISBN: 978-0-9828571-9-9 ISBN: 978-0-9851146-0-2 (print) Library of Congress Control Number: 2012900464 Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Book Club/Readers' Group Guide Acknowledgments About the Author This one is for Dr. David Allen Goodwin. My love and gratitude are boundless. Thank you, Dave. You saved my life. My deepest gratitude to my editor, Hilary Sares, who really dug into this story and made me work for it. Basically, she kicked my ass. By not pulling her punches or letting me shortchange the details, she made me work harder and because of that, this story is a much, much better book. BARED TO YOU wouldn’t be what it is without you, Hilary. Thank you so much! To Martha Trachtenberg, copy editor extraordinaire. This book is an important one for me and she treated it that way. Thank you, Martha! To Victoria Colotta, for all her hard work on the interior design and typesetting. She took my plain text and made it gorgeous. Thank you, Victoria! To Tera Kleinfelter, who read the first half of Bared to You and told me she loved it. Thank you, Tera! To all girls who were at Cross Creek at some point in your adolescence: May all your dreams come true. You deserve it. And to Alistair and Jessica, from Seven Years to Sin, who inspired me to write Gideon and Eva’s story. I’m so glad the inspiration struck twice! “We should head to a bar and celebrate.” I wasn’t surprised by my roommate’s emphatic pronouncement. Cary Taylor found excuses to celebrate, no matter how small and inconsequential. I’d always considered it part of his charm. “I’m sure drinking the night before starting a new job is a bad idea.” “Come on, Eva.” Cary sat on our new living room floor amid a half-dozen moving boxes and flashed his winning smile. We’d been unpacking for days, yet he still looked amazing. Leanly built, dark-haired, and green-eyed, Cary was a man who rarely looked anything less than absolutely gorgeous on any day of his life. I might have resented that if he hadn’t been the dearest person on earth to me. “I’m not talking about a bender,” he insisted. “Just a glass of wine or two. We can hit a happy hour and be in by eight.” “I don’t know if I’ll make it back in time.” I gestured at my yoga pants and fitted workout tank. “After I time the walk to work, I’m going to hit the gym.” “Walk fast, work out faster.” Cary’s perfectly executed arched brow made me laugh. I fully expected his million-dollar face to appear on billboards and fashion magazines all over the world one day. No matter his expression, he was a knockout. “How about tomorrow after work?” I offered as a substitute. “If I make it through the day, that’ll be worth celebrating.” “Deal. I’m breaking in the new kitchen for dinner.” “Uh…” Cooking was one of Cary’s joys, but it wasn’t one of his talents. “Great.” Blowing a wayward strand of hair off his face, he grinned at me. “We’ve got a kitchen most restaurants would kill for. There’s no way to screw up a meal in there.” Dubious, I headed out with a wave, choosing to avoid a conversation about cooking. Taking the elevator down to the first floor, I smiled at the doorman when he let me out to the street with a flourish. The moment I stepped outside, the smells and sounds of Manhattan embraced me and invited me to explore. I was not merely across the country from my former home in San Diego, but seemingly worlds away. Two major metropolises—one endlessly temperate and sensually lazy, the other teeming with life and frenetic energy. In my dreams, I’d imagining living in a walkup in Brooklyn, but being a dutiful daughter, I found myself on the Upper West Side instead. If not for Cary living with me, I would’ve been miserably lonely in the sprawling apartment that cost more per month than most people made in a year. The doorman tipped his hat to me. “Good evening, Miss Tramell. Will you need a cab this evening?” “No thanks, Paul.” I rocked onto the rounded heels of my fitness shoes. “I’ll be walking.” He smiled. “It’s cooled down from this afternoon. Should be nice.” “I’ve been told I should enjoy the June weather before it gets wicked hot.” “Very good advice, Miss Tramell.” Stepping out from under the modern glass entrance overhang that somehow meshed with the age of the building and its neighbors, I enjoyed the relative quiet of my tree-lined street before I reached the bustle and flow of traffic on Broadway. One day soon, I hoped to blend right in, but for now I still felt like a fraudulent New Yorker. I had the address and the job, but I was still wary of the subway and had trouble hailing cabs. I tried not to walk around wide-eyed and distracted, but it was hard. There was just so much to see and experience. The sensory input was astonishing—the smell of vehicle exhaust mixed with food from vendor carts, the shouts of hawkers blended with music from street entertainers, the awe-inspiring range of faces and styles and accents, the gorgeous architectural wonders…And the cars. Jesus Christ. The frenetic flow of tightly packed cars was unlike anything I’d ever seen anywhere. There was always an ambulance, patrol car, or fire engine trying to part the flood of yellow taxis with the electronic wail of ear-splitting sirens. I was in awe of the lumbering garbage trucks that navigated tiny one-way streets and the package delivery drivers who braved the bumper-to-bumper traffic while facing rigid deadlines. Real New Yorkers cruised right through it all, their love for the city as comfortable and familiar as a favorite pair of shoes. They didn’t view the steam billowing from potholes and vents in the sidewalks with romantic delight and they didn’t blink an eye when the ground vibrated beneath their feet as the subway roared by below, while I grinned like an idiot and flexed my toes. New York was a brand new love affair for me. I was starry-eyed and it showed. So I had to really work at playing it cool as I made my way over to the building where I would be working. As far as my job went, at least, I’d gotten my way. I wanted to make a living based on my own merits and that meant an entry-level position. Starting the next morning, I would be the assistant to Mark Garrity at Waters Field & Leaman, one of the preeminent advertising agencies in the US. My stepfather, mega-financier Richard Stanton, had been annoyed when I took the job, pointing out that if I’d been less prideful I could’ve worked for a friend of his instead and reaped the benefits of that connection. “You’re as stubborn as your father,” he’d said. “It’ll take him forever to pay off your student loans on a cop’s salary.” That had been a major fight, with my dad unwilling to back down. “Hell if another man’s gonna pay for my daughter’s education,” Victor Reyes had said when Stanton made the offer. I respected that. I suspected Stanton did, too, although he would never admit it. I understood both men’s sides, because I’d fought to pay off the loans myself…and lost. It was a point of pride for my father. My mother had refused to marry him, but he’d never wavered from his determination to be my dad in every way possible. Knowing it was pointless to get riled up over old frustrations, I focused on getting to work as quickly as possible. I’d deliberately chosen to clock the short trip during a busy time on a Monday, so I was pleased when I reached the Crossfire Building, which housed Waters Field & Leaman, in less than thirty minutes. I tipped my head back and followed the line of the building all the way up to the slender ribbon of sky. The Crossfire was seriously impressive, a sleek spire of gleaming sapphire that pierced the clouds. I knew from my previous interviews that the interior on the other side of the ornate copper-framed revolving doors was just as awe-inspiring, with golden-veined marble floors and walls, and brushed aluminum security desk and turnstiles. I pulled my new ID card out of the inner pocket of my pants and held it up for the two guards in black business suits at the desk. They stopped me anyway, no doubt because I was majorly underdressed, but then they cleared me through. After I completed an elevator ride up to the twentieth floor, I’d have a general time frame for the whole route from door to door. Score. I was walking toward the bank of elevators when a svelte, beautifully groomed brunette caught her purse on a turnstile and upended it, spilling a deluge of change. Coins rained onto the marble and rolled merrily away, and I watched people dodge the chaos and keep going as if they didn’t see it. I winced in sympathy and crouched to help the woman collect her money, as did one of the guards. “Thank you,” she said, shooting me a quick harried smile. I smiled back. “No problem. I’ve been there.” I’d just squatted to reach a nickel lying near the entrance when I ran into a pair of luxurious black oxfords draped in tailored black slacks. I waited a beat for the man to move out of my way and when he didn’t, I arched my neck back to allow my line of sight to rise. The custom three-piece suit hit more than a few of my hot buttons, but it was the tall, powerfully lean body inside it that made it sensational. Still, as hot as all that magnificent maleness was, it wasn’t until I reached the man’s face that I went down for the count. Wow. Just…wow. He sank into an elegant crouch directly in front of me. Hit with all that exquisite masculinity at eye-level, I could only stare. Stunned. Then something shifted in the air between us. As he stared back, he altered…as if a shield slid away from his eyes, revealing a scorching force of will that sucked the air from my lungs. The intense magnetism he exuded grew in strength, becoming a near tangible impression of vibrant and unrelenting power. Reacting purely on instinct, I shifted backward. And sprawled flat on my ass. My elbows throbbed from the violent contact with the marble floor, but I scarcely registered the pain. I was too preoccupied with staring, riveted by the man in front of me. Inky black hair framed a breathtaking face. His bone structure would make a sculptor weep with joy, while a firmly etched mouth, a blade of a nose, and intensely blue eyes made him savagely gorgeous. Those eyes narrowed slightly, his features otherwise schooled into impassivity. His dress shirt and suit were both black, but his tie perfectly matched those brilliant irises. His eyes were shrewd and assessing, and they bored into me. My heartbeat quickened; my lips parted to accommodate faster breaths. He smelled sinfully good. Not cologne. Body wash, maybe. Or shampoo. Whatever it was, it was mouthwatering, as was he. He held out a hand to me, exposing onyx cuff links and a very expensive-looking watch. With a shaky inhalation, I placed my hand in his. My pulse leaped when his grip tightened. His touch was electric, sending a shock up my arm that raised the hairs on my nape. He didn’t move for a moment, a frown line marring the space between arrogantly slashed brows. “Are you all right?” His voice was cultured and smooth, with a rasp that made my stomach flutter. It brought sex to mind. Extraordinary sex. I thought for a moment that he might be able to make me orgasm just by talking long enough. My lips were dry, so I licked them before answering. “I’m fine.” He stood with economical grace, pulling me up with him. We maintained eye contact because I was unable to look away. He was younger than I’d assumed at first. Younger than thirty would be my guess, but his eyes were much worldlier. Hard and sharply intelligent. I felt drawn to him, as if a rope bound my waist and he was slowly, inexorably pulling it. Blinking out of my semi-daze, I released him. He wasn’t just beautiful; he was…enthralling. He was the kind of guy that made a woman want to rip his shirt open and watch the buttons scatter along with her inhibitions. I looked at him in his civilized, urbane, outrageously expensive suit and thought of raw, primal, sheet-clawing fucking. He bent down and retrieved the ID card I hadn’t realized I’d dropped, freeing me from that provocative gaze. My brain stuttered back into gear. I was irritated with myself for feeling so awkward while he was so completely self-possessed. And why? Because I was dazzled, damn it. He glanced up at me and the pose—him nearly kneeling before me—skewed my equilibrium again. He held my gaze as he rose. “Are you sure you’re all right? You should sit down for a minute.” My face heated. How lovely to appear awkward and clumsy in front of the most self-assured and graceful man I’d ever met. “I just lost my balance. I’m okay.” Looking away, I caught sight of the woman who’d dumped the contents of her purse. She thanked the guard who’d helped her; then turned to approach me, apologizing profusely. I faced her and held out the handful of coins I’d collected, but her gaze snagged on the god in the suit and she promptly forgot me altogether. After a beat, I just reached over and dumped the change into the woman’s bag. Then I risked a glance at the man again, finding him watching me even as the brunette gushed thank-yous. To him. Not to me, of course, the one who’d actually helped. I talked over her. “May I have my badge, please?” He offered it back to me. Although I made an effort to retrieve it without touching him, his fingers brushed mine, sending that charge of awareness into me all over again. “Thank you,” I muttered before skirting him and pushing out to the street through the revolving door. I paused on the sidewalk, gulping in a breath of New York air redolent with a million different things, some good and some toxic. There was a sleek black Bentley SUV in front of the building and I saw my reflection in the spotless limo tinted windows. I was flushed and my gray eyes were overly bright. I’d seen that look on my face before—in the bathroom mirror just before I went to bed with a man. It was my I’m-ready-to-fuck look and it had absolutely no business being on my face now. Christ. Get a grip. Five minutes with Mr. Dark and Dangerous, and I was filled with an edgy, restless energy. I could still feel the pull of him, the inexplicable urge to go back inside where he was. I could make the argument that I hadn’t finished what I’d come to the Crossfire to do, but I knew I’d kick myself for it later. How many times was I going to make an ass of myself in one day? “Enough,” I scolded myself under my breath. “Moving on.” Horns blared as one cab darted in front of another with only inches to spare and then slammed on the brakes as daring pedestrians stepped into the intersection seconds before the light changed. Shouting ensued, a barrage of expletives and hand gestures that didn’t carry real anger behind them. In seconds all the parties would forget the exchange, which was just one beat in the natural tempo of the city. As I melded into the flow of foot traffic and set off toward the gym, a smile teased my mouth. Ah, New York, I thought, feeling settled again. You rock. I’d planned on warming up on a treadmill, then capping off the hour with a few of the machines, but when I saw that a beginners’ kickboxing class was about to start, I followed the mass of waiting students into that instead. By the time it was over, I felt more like myself. My muscles quivered with the perfect amount of fatigue and I knew I’d sleep hard when I crashed later. “You did really well.” I wiped the sweat off my face with a towel and looked at the young man who spoke to me. Lanky and sleekly muscular, he had keen brown eyes and flawless café au lait skin. His lashes were enviably thick and long, while his head was shaved bald. “Thank you.” My mouth twisted ruefully. “Pretty obvious it was my first time, huh?” He grinned and held out his hand. “Parker Smith.” “Eva Tramell.” “You have a natural grace, Eva. With a little training you could be a literal knockout. In a city like New York, knowing self-defense is imperative.” He gestured over to a corkboard hung on the wall. It was covered in thumbtacked business cards and fliers. Tearing off a flag from the bottom of a fluorescent sheet of paper, he held it out to me. “Ever heard of Krav Maga?” “In a Jennifer Lopez movie.” “I teach it, and I’d love to teach you. That’s my website and the number to the studio.” I admired his approach. It was direct, like his gaze, and his smile was genuine. I’d wondered if he was angling toward a pickup, but he was cool enough about it that I couldn’t be sure. Parker crossed his arms, which showed off cut biceps. He wore a black sleeveless shirt and long shorts. His Converse sneakers looked comfortably beat up and tribal tattoos peeked up from his collar. “My website has the hours. You should come by and watch, see if it’s for you.” “I’ll definitely think about it.” “Do that.” He extended his hand again, and his grip was solid and confident. “I hope to see you.” The apartment smelled fabulous when I got back home and Adele was crooning soulfully through the surround sound speakers about chasing pavements. I looked across the open floor plan into the kitchen and saw Cary swaying to the music while stirring something on the range. There was an open bottle of wine on the counter and two goblets, one of which was half-filled with red wine. “Hey,” I called out as I got closer. “Whatcha cooking? And do I have time for a shower first?” He poured wine into the other goblet and slid it across the breakfast bar to me, his movements practiced and elegant. No one would know from looking at him that he’d spent his childhood bouncing between his drug-addicted mother and foster homes, followed by adolescence in juvenile detention facilities and state-run rehabs. “Pasta with meat sauce. And hold the shower, dinner’s ready. Have fun?” “Once I got to the gym, yeah.” I pulled out one of the teakwood barstools and sat. I told him about the kickboxing class and Parker Smith. “Wanna go with me?” “Krav Maga?” Cary shook his head. “That’s hardcore. I’d get all bruised up and that would cost me jobs. But I’ll go with you to check it out, just in case this guy’s a wack.” I watched him dump the pasta into a waiting colander. “A wack, huh?” My dad had taught me to read guys pretty well, which was how I’d known the god in the suit was trouble. Regular people offered token smiles when they helped someone, just to make a momentary connection that smoothed the way. Then again, I hadn’t smiled at him either. “Baby girl,” Cary said, pulling bowls out of the cupboard, “you’re a sexy, stunning woman. I question any man who doesn’t have the balls to ask you outright for a date.” I wrinkled my nose at him. He set a bowl in front of me. It contained tiny tubes of salad noodles covered in a skimpy tomato sauce with lumps of ground beef and peas. “You’ve got something on your mind. What is it?” Hmm…I caught the handle of the spoon sticking out of the bowl and decided not to comment on the food. “I think I ran into the hottest man on the planet today. Maybe the hottest man in the history of the world.” “Oh? I thought that was me. Do tell me more.” Cary stayed on the other side of the counter, preferring to stand and eat. I watched him take a couple bites of his own concoction before I felt brave enough to try it myself. “Not much to tell, really. I ended up sprawled on my ass in the lobby of the Crossfire and he gave me a hand up.” “Tall or short? Blond or dark? Built or lean? Eye color?” I washed down my second bite with some wine. “Tall. Dark. Lean and built. Blue eyes. Filthy rich, judging by his clothes and accessories. And he was insanely sexy. You know how it is—some hot guys don’t make your hormones go crazy, while some unattractive guys have massive sex appeal. This guy had it all.” My belly fluttered as it had when Dark and Dangerous touched me. In my mind, I remembered his breathtaking face with crystal clarity. It should be illegal for a man to be that mind-blowing. I was still recovering from the frying of my brain cells. Cary set his elbow on the counter and leaned in, his long bangs covering one vibrant green eye. “So what happened after he helped you up?” I shrugged. “Nothing.” “Nothing?” “I left.” “What? You didn’t flirt with him?” I took another bite. Really, the meal wasn’t bad. Or else I was just starving. “He wasn’t the kind of guy you flirt with, Cary.” “There is no such thing as a guy you can’t flirt with. Even the happily married ones enjoy a little harmless flirtation now and then.” “There was nothing harmless about this guy,” I said dryly. “Ah, one of those.” Cary nodded sagely. “Bad boys can be fun, if you don’t get too close.” Of course he would know; men and women of all ages fell at his feet. Still, he somehow managed to pick the wrong partner every time. He’d dated stalkers, and cheaters, and lovers who threatened to kill themselves over him, and lovers with significant others they didn’t tell him about…Name it, he’d been through it. “I can’t see this guy ever being fun,” I said. “He was way too intense. Still, I bet he’d be awesome in the sack with all that intensity.” “Now you’re talking. Forget the real guy. Just use his face in your fantasies and make him perfect there.” Preferring to get the guy out of my head altogether, I changed the subject. “You have any go-sees tomorrow?” “Of course.” Cary launched into the details of his schedule, mentioning a jeans advertisement, self-tanner, underwear, and cologne. I shoved everything else out of my mind and focused on him and his growing success. The demand for Cary Taylor was increasing by the day, and he was building a reputation with photographers and accounts for being both professional and prompt. I was thrilled for him and so proud. He’d come a long way and been through so much. It wasn’t until after dinner that I noticed the two large gift boxes propped against the side of the sectional sofa. “What are those?” “Those,” Cary said, joining me in the living room, “are the ultimate.” I knew immediately they were from Stanton and my mom. Money was something my mother needed to be happy and I was glad Stanton, husband #3, was not only able to fill that need for her but all her many others as well. I often wished that could be the end of it, but my mom had a difficult time accepting that I didn’t view money the same way she did. “What now?” He threw his arm around my shoulders, easy enough for him to do because he was taller by five inches. “Don’t be ungrateful. He loves your mom. He loves spoiling your mom, and your mom loves spoiling you. As much as you don’t like it, he doesn’t do it for you. He does it for her.” Sighing, I conceded his point. “What are they?” “Glam threads for the advocacy center’s fundraiser dinner on Saturday. A bombshell dress for you and a Brioni tux for me, because buying gifts for me is what he does for you. You’re more tolerant if you have me around to listen to you bitch.” “Damn straight. Thank God he knows that.” “Of course he knows. Stanton wouldn’t be a bazillionaire if he didn’t know everything.” Cary caught my hand and tugged me over. “Come on. Take a look.” I pushed through the revolving door of the Crossfire into the lobby ten minutes before nine the next morning. Wanting to make the best impression on my first day, I’d gone with a simple sheath dress paired with black pumps that I slid on in replacement of my walking shoes on the elevator ride up. My blond hair was twisted up in an artful chignon that resembled a figure eight, courtesy of Cary. I was hair-inept, but he could create styles that were glamorous masterpieces. I wore the small pearl studs my dad had given me as a graduation gift and the Rolex from Stanton and my mother. I had begun to think I’d put too much care into my appearance, but as I stepped into the lobby I remembered being sprawled across the floor in my workout clothes and I was grateful I didn’t look anything like that graceless girl. The two security guards didn’t seem to put two and two together when I flashed them my ID card on the way to the turnstiles. Twenty floors later, I was exiting into the vestibule of Waters Field & Leaman. Before me was a wall of bulletproof glass that framed the double-door entrance to the reception area. The receptionist at the crescent-shaped desk saw the badge I held up to the glass. She hit the button that unlocked the doors as I put my ID away. “Hi, Megumi,” I greeted her when I stepped inside, admiring her cranberry-colored blouse. She was mixed race, a little bit Asian for sure, and very pretty. Her hair was dark and thick, and cut into a sleek bob that was shorter in the back and razor sharp in the front. Her sloe eyes were brown and warm, and her lips were full and naturally pink. “Eva, hi. Mark’s not in yet, but you know where you’re going, right?” “Absolutely.” With a wave, I took the hallway to the left of the reception desk all the way to the end, where I made another left turn and ended up in a formerly open space now partitioned into cubicles. One was mine and I went straight to it. I dropped my purse and the bag holding my walking flats into the bottom drawer of my utilitarian metal desk; then booted up my computer. I’d brought a couple of things to personalize my space and I pulled them out. One was a framed collage of three photos—me and Cary on Coronado beach, my mom and Stanton on his yacht in the French Riviera, and my dad on duty in his City of Oceanside, California, police cruiser. The other item was a colorful arrangement of glass flowers that Cary had given me just that morning as a “first day” gift. I tucked it beside the small grouping of photos, and sat back to take in the effect. “Good morning, Eva.” I pushed to my feet to face my boss. “Good morning, Mr. Garrity.” “Call me Mark, please. Come on over to my office.” I followed him across the strip of hallway, once again thinking that my new boss was very easy to look at with his gleaming dark skin, trim goatee, and laughing brown eyes. Mark had a square jaw and a charmingly crooked smile. He was trim and fit, and he carried himself with a confident poise that inspired trust and respect. He gestured at one of the two seats in front of his glass and chrome desk, and waited until I sat to settle into his Aeron chair. Against the backdrop of sky and skyscrapers, Mark looked accomplished and powerful. He was, in fact, just a junior account manager and his office was a closet compared to the ones occupied by the directors and executives, but no one could fault the view. He leaned back and smiled. “Did you get settled into your new apartment?” I was surprised he remembered, but I appreciated it, too. I’d met him during my second interview and liked him right away. “For the most part,” I answered. “Still a few stray boxes here and there.” “You moved from San Diego, right? Nice city, but very different from New York. Do you miss the palm trees?” “I miss the dry air. The humidity here is taking some getting used to.” “Wait ’til summer hits.” He smiled. “So…it’s your first day and you’re my first assistant, so we’ll have to figure this out as we go. I’m not used to delegating, but I’m sure I’ll pick it up quick.” I was instantly at ease. “I’m eager to be delegated to.” “Having you around is a big step up for me, Eva. I’d like you to be happy working here. Do you drink coffee?” “Coffee is one of my major food groups.” “Ah, an assistant after my own heart.” His smile widened. “I’m not going to ask you to fetch coffee for me, but I wouldn’t mind if you helped me figure out how to use the new one-cup coffee brewers they just put in the break rooms.” I grinned. “No problem.” “How sad is it that I don’t have anything else for you?” He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Why don’t I show you the accounts I’m working on and we’ll go from there?” The rest of the day passed in a blur. Mark touched bases with two clients and had a long meeting with the creative team working on concept ideas for a trade school. It was a fascinating process seeing firsthand how the various departments picked up the baton from each other to carry a campaign from proposition to fruition. I might’ve stayed late just to get a better feel of the layout of the offices, but my phone rang at ten minutes to five. “Mark Garrity’s office. Eva Tramell speaking.” “Get your ass home so we can go out for the drink you rain-checked on yesterday.” Cary’s mock sternness made me smile. “All right, all right. I’m coming.” Shutting down my computer, I cleared out. When I reached the bank of elevators, I pulled out my cell to text a quick “on my way” note to Cary. A ding alerted me to which car was stopping on my floor and I moved over to stand in front of it, briefly returning my attention to hitting the send button. When the doors opened, I took a step forward. I glanced up to watch where I was going and blue eyes met mine. My breath caught. The sex god was the lone occupant. His tie was silver and his shirt brilliantly white, the stark absence of color emphasizing those amazing blue irises. Standing there with his jacket open and his hands shoved casually into his pants’ pockets, the sight of him was like running smack into a wall I hadn’t known was there. I jerked to a halt, my gaze riveted to the man who was even more striking than I’d remembered. I had never seen hair that purely black. It was glossy and slightly long, the ends drifting over his collar. That sexy length was the crowning touch of bad boy hotness over the successful businessman, like whipped cream topping on a hot fudge brownie sundae. As my mother would say, only rogues and raiders had hair like that. My hands clenched against the urge to touch it, to see if it felt like the rich silk it resembled. The doors began to close. He took an easy step forward and pressed a button on the panel to hold them open. “There’s plenty of room for both of us, Eva.” The sound of that smoky, implacable voice broke me out of my momentary daze. How did he know my name? Then I remembered that he’d picked up my ID card when I’d dropped it in the lobby. For a second, I debated telling him I was waiting for someone so I could take another car down, but my brain lurched back into action. What the hell was wrong with me? Clearly he worked in the Crossfire. I couldn’t avoid him every time I saw him and why should I? If I wanted to get to the point where I could look at him and take his hotness for granted, I needed to see him often enough that he became like furniture. Ha! If only. I stepped into the car. “Thank you.” He released the button and stepped back again. The doors closed and the elevator began its descent. I immediately regretted my decision to share the car with him. Awareness of him prickled across my skin. He was a potent force in such a small enclosure, radiating a palpable energy and sexual magnetism that had me shifting restlessly on my feet. My breathing became as ragged as my heartbeat. I felt that inexplicable pull to him again, as if he exuded a silent demand that I was instinctively attuned to answering. “Enjoy your first day?” he asked, startling me. His voice resonated, flowing over me in a seductive rhythm. How the hell did he know it was my first day? “Yes, actually,” I answered evenly. “How was yours?” I felt his gaze slide over my profile, but I kept my attention trained on the brushed aluminum elevator doors. My heart was racing in my chest, my stomach quivering madly. I felt jumbled and off my game. “Well, it wasn’t my first,” he replied with a hint of amusement. “But it was successful. And getting better as it progresses.” I nodded and managed a smile, having no idea what that was supposed to mean. The car slowed on the twelfth floor and a friendly group of three got on, talking excitedly among themselves. I stepped back to make room for them, retreating into the opposite corner of the elevator from Dark and Dangerous. Except he sidestepped along with me. We were suddenly closer than we’d been before. He adjusted his perfectly knotted tie, his arm brushing against mine as he did so. I sucked in a deep breath, trying to ignore my acute awareness of him by concentrating on the conversation taking place in front of us. It was impossible. He was just so there. Right there. All perfect and gorgeous and smelling divine. My thoughts ran away from me, fantasizing about how hard his body might be beneath the suit, how it might feel against me, how well-endowed—or not—he might be… When the car reached the lobby, I almost moaned in relief. I waited impatiently as the elevator emptied and the first chance I got, I took a step forward. His hand settled firmly at the small of my back and he walked out beside me, steering me. The sensation of his touch on such a vulnerable place rippled through me. We reached the turnstiles and his hand fell away, leaving me feeling oddly bereft. I glanced at him, trying to read him, but although he was looking at me, his face gave nothing away. “Eva!” The sight of Cary lounging casually against a marble column in the lobby shifted everything. He was wearing jeans that showcased his mile-long legs and an oversized sweater in soft green that emphasized his eyes. He easily drew the attention of everyone in the lobby. I slowed as I approached him and the sex god passed us, moving through the revolving door and sliding fluidly into the back of the chauffeured black Bentley SUV I’d seen at the curb the evening before. Cary whistled as the car pulled away. “Well, well. From the way you were looking at him, that was the guy you told me about, right?” “Oh, yeah. That was definitely him.” “You work together?” Linking arms with me, Cary tugged me out to the street through the stationary door. “No.” I stopped on the sidewalk to change into my walking flats, leaning into him as pedestrians flowed around us. “I don’t know who he is, but he asked me if I’d had a good first day, so I better figure it out.” “Well…” He grinned and supported my elbow as I hopped awkwardly from one foot to the other. “No idea how anyone could get any work done around him. My brain sort of fried for a minute.” “I’m sure that’s a universal effect.” I straightened. “Let’s go. I need a drink.” The next morning arrived with a slight throbbing at the back of my skull that mocked me for having one too many glasses of wine. Still, as I rode the elevator up to the twentieth floor, I didn’t regret the hangover as much as I should have. My choices were either too much alcohol or a whirl with my vibrator, and I was damned if I’d have a battery-provided orgasm starring Dark and Dangerous. Not that he’d know or even care that he made me so horny I couldn’t see straight, but I’d know and I didn’t want to give the fantasy of him the satisfaction. I dropped my stuff in the bottom drawer of my desk and when I saw that Mark wasn’t in yet, I grabbed a cup of coffee and returned to my cubicle to catch up on my new favorite ad-biz blogs. “Eva!” I jumped when he appeared beside me, his grin a flash of white against his smooth dark skin. “Good morning, Mark.” “Is it ever. You’re my lucky charm, I think. Come into my office. Bring your tablet. Can you work late tonight?” I followed him over, catching on to his excitement. “Sure.” “I’d hoped you’d say that.” He sank into his chair. I took the one I’d sat in the day before and quickly opened a notepad program. “So,” he began, “we’ve received an RFP for Kingsman Vodka and they mentioned me by name. First time that’s ever happened.” “Congratulations!” “I appreciate that, but let’s save them for when we’ve actually landed the account. We’ll still have to bid, if we get past the request for proposal stage, and they want to meet with me tomorrow evening.” “Wow. Is that timeline usual?” “No. Usually they’d wait until we had the RFP finished before meeting with us, but Cross Industries recently acquired Kingsman and C.I. has dozens of subsidiaries. That’s good business if we can get it. They know it and they’re making us jump through hoops, the first of which is meeting with me.” “Usually there would be a team, right?” “Yes, we’d present as a group. But they’re familiar with the drill—they know they’ll get the pitch from a senior executive, then end up working with a junior like me—so they picked me out and now they want to vet me. But to be fair, the RFP provides a lot more information than it asks for in return. It’s as good as a brief, so I really can’t accuse them of being unreasonably demanding, just meticulous. Par for the course when dealing with Cross Industries.” He ran a hand over his tight curls, betraying the pressure he felt. “What do you think of Kingsman vodka?” “Uh…well…Honestly, I’ve never heard of it.” Mark fell back in his chair and laughed. “Thank God. I thought I was the only one. Well, the plus side is there’s no bad press to get over. No news can be good news.” “What can I do to help? Besides research vodka and stay late?” His lips pursed a moment as he thought about it. “Jot this down…” We worked straight through lunch and long after the office had emptied, going over some initial data from the strategists. It was a little after seven when Mark’s smartphone rang, startling me with its abrupt intrusion into the quiet. Mark activated the speaker and kept working. “Hey, baby.” “Have you fed that poor girl yet?” demanded a warm masculine voice over the line. Glancing at me through his glass office wall, Mark said, “Ah…I forgot.” I looked away quickly, biting my lower lip to hide my smile. A snort came clearly across the line. “Only two days on the job, and you’re already overworking her and starving her to death. She’s going to quit.” “Shit. You’re right. Steve, honey—” “Don’t ‘Steve honey’ me. Does she like Chinese?” I gave Mark the thumbs-up. He grinned. “Yes, she does.” “All right. I’ll be there in twenty. Let security know I’m coming.” Almost exactly twenty minutes later, I buzzed Steven Ellison through the waiting area doors. He was a juggernaut of a fellow, dressed in dark jeans, scuffed work boots, and a neatly pressed button-down shirt. Red-haired with laughing blue eyes, he was as good-looking as his partner was, just in a very different way. The three of us sat around Mark’s desk and dumped kung pao chicken and broccoli beef onto paper plates, added helpings of sticky white rice, and then dug in with chopsticks. I discovered that Steven was a contractor, and that he and Mark had been a couple since college. I watched them interact and felt awe and a dash of envy. Their relationship was so beautifully functional that it was a joy to spend time with them. “Damn, girl,” Steven said with a whistle, as I went for a third helping. “You can put it away. Where does it go?” I shrugged. “To the gym with me. Maybe that helps…?” “Don’t mind him,” Mark said, grinning. “Steven’s just jealous. He has to watch his girlish figure.” “Hell.” Steven shot his partner a wry look. “I might have to take her out to lunch with the crew. I could win money betting on how much she can eat.” I smiled. “That could be fun.” “Ha. I knew you had a bit of a wild streak. It’s in your smile.” Looking down at my food, I refused to let my mind wander into memories of just how wild I’d been in my rebellious, self-destructive phase. Mark saved me. “Don’t harass my assistant. And what do you know about wild women anyway?” “I know some of them like hanging out with gay men. They like our perspective.” His grin flashed. “I know a few other things, too. Hey…don’t look so shocked, you two. I wanted to see if hetero sex lived up to the hype.” Clearly this was news to Mark, but from the twitching of his lips, he was secure enough in their relationship to find the whole exchange amusing. “Oh?” “How’d that work out for you?” I asked bravely. Steven shrugged. “I don’t want to say it’s overrated, ’cause clearly I’m the wrong demographic and I had a very limited sampling, but I can do without.” I thought it was very telling that Steven could relate his story in terms Mark worked with. They shared their careers with each other and listened, even though their chosen fields were miles apart. “Considering your present living arrangement,” Mark said to him, catching up a stem of broccoli with his chopsticks, “I’d say that’s a very good thing.” By the time we finished eating, it was eight and the cleaning crew had arrived. Mark insisted on calling me a cab. “Should I come in early tomorrow?” I asked. Steven bumped shoulders with Mark. “You must’ve done something good in a past life to score this one.” “I think putting up with you in this life qualifies,” Mark said dryly. “Hey,” Steven protested, “I’m housebroken. I put the toilet seat down.” Mark shot me an exasperated look that was warm with affection for his partner. “And that’s helpful how?” Mark and I scrambled all day Thursday to get ready for his four o’clock with the team from Kingsman. We grabbed an information-packed lunch with the two creatives who would be participating in the pitch when it got to that point in the process; then we went over the notes on Kingsman’s Web presence and existing social media outreach. I got a little nervous when three thirty rolled around because I knew traffic would be a bitch, but Mark kept working after I pointed out the time. It was quarter to four before he bounded out of his office with a broad smile, still shrugging into his jacket. “Join me, Eva.” I blinked up at him from my desk. “Really?” “Hey, you worked hard on helping me prep. Don’t want you want to see how it goes?” “Yes, absolutely.” I pushed to my feet. Knowing my appearance would be a reflection on my boss, I smoothed my black pencil skirt and straightened the cuffs of my long-sleeved silk blouse. By a random twist of fate, my crimson shirt perfectly matched Mark’s tie. “Thank you.” We headed out to the elevators and I was briefly startled when the car went up instead of down. When we reached the top floor, the waiting area we stepped into was considerably larger and more ornate than the one on the twentieth. Hanging baskets of ferns and lilies fragranced the air and a smoky glass security entrance was sandblasted with Cross Industries in a bold, masculine font. We were buzzed in, and then asked to wait a moment. Both of us declined an offer of water or coffee, and less than five minutes after we arrived, we were directed to a closed conference room. Mark looked at me with twinkling eyes as the receptionist reached for the door handle. “Ready?” I smiled. “Ready.” The door opened and I was gestured in first. I made sure to smile brightly as I stepped inside…a smile that froze on my face at the sight of the man rising to his feet at my entrance. My abrupt stop bottlenecked the threshold and Mark ran into my back, sending me stumbling forward. Dark and Dangerous caught me by the waist, hauling me off my feet and directly into his chest. The air left my lungs in a rush, followed immediately by every bit of common sense I possessed. Even through the layers of clothing between us, his biceps were like stone beneath my palms, his stomach a hard slab of muscle against my own. When he sucked in a sharp breath, my nipples tightened, stimulated by the expansion of his chest. Oh no. I was cursed. A rapid-fire series of images flashed through my mind, showcasing a thousand ways I could stumble, fall, trip, skid, or crash in front of the sex god over the days, weeks, and months ahead. “Hello again,” he murmured, the vibration of his voice making me ache all over. “Always a pleasure running into you, Eva.” I flushed with embarrassment and desire, unable to find the will to push away despite the two other people in the room with him. It didn’t help that his attention was solely on me, his hard body radiating that arresting impression of powerful demand. “Mr. Cross,” Mark said behind me. “Sorry about the entrance.” “Don’t be. It was a memorable one.” I wobbled on my stilettos when Cross set me down, my knees weakened from the full body contact. He was dressed in black again, with both his shirt and tie in a soft gray. As always, he looked too good. What would it be like to be that amazing looking? There was no way he could go anywhere without causing a disturbance. Reaching out, Mark steadied me and eased me back gently. Cross’s gaze stayed focused on Mark’s hand at my elbow until I was released. “Right. Okay then.” Mark pulled himself together. “This is my assistant, Eva Tramell.” “We’ve met.” Cross pulled out the chair next to his. “Eva.” I looked to Mark for guidance, still recovering from the moments I’d spent plastered against the sexual superconductor in Fioravante. Cross leaned closer and ordered quietly, “Sit, Eva.” Mark gave a brief nod, but I was already lowering into the chair at Cross’s command, my body obeying instinctively before my mind caught up and objected. I tried not to fidget for the next hour as Mark was grilled by Cross and the two Kingsman directors, both of whom were attractive brunettes in elegant pantsuits. The one in raspberry was especially enthusiastic about garnering Cross’s attention, while the one in cream focused intently on my boss. All three seemed impressed by Mark’s ability to articulate how the agency’s work—and his facilitation of it with the client—created provable value for the client’s brand. I admired how cool Mark remained under pressure—pressure exerted by Cross, who easily dominated the meeting. “Well done, Mr. Garrity,” Cross praised lightly as they wrapped things up. “I look forward to going over the RFP when the time comes. What would entice you to try Kingsman, Eva?” Startled, I blinked. “Excuse me?” The intensity of his gaze was searing. It felt as if his entire focus was on me, which only reinforced my respect for Mark, who’d had to work under the weight of that stare for an hour. Cross’s chair was set perpendicular to the length of the table, facing me head-on. His right arm rested on the smooth wooden surface, his long elegant fingers stroking rhythmically along the top. I caught a glimpse of his wrist at the end of his cuff and for some crazy reason the sight of that small expanse of golden skin with its light dusting of dark hair made my clit throb for attention. He was just so…male. “Which of Mark’s suggested concepts do you prefer?” he asked again. “I think they’re all brilliant.” His beautiful face was impassive when he said, “I’ll clear the room to get your honest opinion, if that’s what it takes.” My fingers curled around the ends of my chair’s armrests. “I just gave you my honest opinion, Mr. Cross, but if you must know, I think sexy luxury on a budget will appeal to the largest demographic. But I lack—” “I agree.” Cross stood and buttoned his jacket. “You have a direction, Mr. Garrity. We’ll revisit next week.” I sat for a moment, stunned by the breakneck pace of events. Then I looked at Mark, who seemed to be wavering between astonished joy and bewilderment. Rising to my feet, I led the way to the door. I was hyperaware of Cross walking beside me. The way he moved, with animal grace and arrogant economy, was a major turn-on. I couldn’t imagine him not fucking well and being aggressive about it, taking what he wanted in a way that made a woman wild to give it to him. Cross stayed with me all the way to the bank of elevators. He said a few things to Mark about sports, I think, but I was too focused on the way I was reacting to him to care about the small talk. When the car arrived, I breathed a sigh of relief and hastily stepped forward with Mark. “A moment, Eva,” Cross said smoothly, holding me back with a hand at my elbow. “She’ll be right down,” he told Mark, as the elevator doors closed on my boss’s astonished face. Cross said nothing until the car was on its way down; then he pushed the call button again and asked, “Are you sleeping with anyone?” The question was asked so casually it took a second to process what he’d said. I inhaled sharply. “Why is that any business of yours?” He looked at me and I saw what I’d seen the first time we’d met—tremendous power and steely control. Both of which had me taking an involuntary step back. Again. At least I didn’t fall this time; I was making progress. “Because I want to fuck you, Eva. I need to know what’s standing in my way, if anything.” The sudden ache between my thighs had me reaching for the wall to maintain my balance. He reached out to steady me, but I held him at bay with an uplifted hand. “Maybe I’m just not interested, Mr. Cross.” A ghost of a smile touched his lips and made him impossibly more handsome. Dear God… The ding that signaled the approaching elevator made me jump, I was strung so tight. I’d never been so aroused. Never been so scorchingly attracted to another human being. Never been so offended by a person I lusted after. I stepped into the elevator and faced him. He smiled. “Until next time, Eva.” The doors closed and I sagged into the brass handrail, trying to regain my bearings. I’d barely pulled myself together when the doors opened and revealed Mark pacing in the waiting area on our floor. “Jesus, Eva,” Mark muttered, coming to an abrupt halt. “What the hell was that?” “I have no freakin’ clue.” I exhaled in a rush, wishing I could share the confusing, irritating exchange I’d had with Cross, but well aware that my boss wasn’t the appropriate outlet. “Who cares? You know he’s going to give you the account.” A grin chased away his frown. “I’m thinking he might.” “As my roommate always says, you should celebrate. Should I make dinner reservations for you and Steven?” “Why not? Pure Food and Wine at seven, if they can squeeze us in. If not, surprise us.” We’d barely returned to Mark’s office when he was pounced on by the executives—Michael Waters, the CEO and president, and Christine Field and Walter Leaman, the executive chairman and vice chairman. I skirted the four of them as quietly as possible and slid into my cubicle. I called Pure Food and Wine and begged for a table for two. After some serious groveling and pleading, the hostess finally caved. I left a message on Mark’s voice mail, “It’s definitely your lucky day. You’re booked for dinner at seven. Have fun!” Then I clocked out, eager to get home. “He said what?” Cary sat on the opposite end of our white sectional sofa and shook his head. “I know, right?” I enjoyed another sip of my wine. It was a crisp and nicely chilled sauvignon blanc I’d picked up on the walk home. “That was my reaction, too. I’m still not sure I didn’t hallucinate the conversation while overdosing on his pheromones.” “So?” I tucked my legs beneath me on the couch and leaned into the corner. “So what?” “You know what, Eva.” Grabbing his netbook off the coffee table, Cary propped it on his crossed legs. “Are you going to tap that or what?” “I don’t even know him. I don’t even know his first name and he threw that curveball at me.” “He knew yours.” He started typing on his keyboard. “And what about the thing with the vodka? Asking for your boss in particular?” The hand I was running through my loose hair stilled. “Mark is very talented. If Cross has any sort of business sense at all, he’d pick up on that and exploit it.” “I’d say he knows business.” Cary spun his netbook around and showed me the home page of Cross Industries, which boasted an awesome photo of the Crossfire. “That’s his building, Eva. Gideon Cross owns it.” Damn it. My eyes closed. Gideon Cross. I thought the name suited him. It was as sexy and elegantly masculine as the man himself. “He has people to handle marketing for his subsidiaries. Probably dozens of people to handle it.” “Stop talking, Cary” “He’s hot, rich, and wants to jump your bones. What’s the problem?” I looked at him. “It’s going to be awkward running into him all the time. I’m hoping to hang on to my job for a long while. I really like it. I really like Mark. He’s totally involved me in the process and I’ve learned so much from him already.” “Remember what Dr. Travis says about calculated risks? When your shrink tells you to take some, you should take some. You can deal with it. You and Cross are both adults.” He turned his attention back to his Internet search. “Wow. Did you know he doesn’t turn thirty for another two years? Think of the stamina.” “Think of the rudeness. I’m offended by how he just threw it out there. I hate feeling like a vagina with legs.” Cary paused and looked up at me, his eyes softening with sympathy. “I’m sorry, baby girl. You’re so strong, so much stronger than I am. I just don’t see you carrying around the baggage I do.” “I don’t think I am, most of the time.” I looked away because I didn’t want to talk about what we’d been through in our pasts. “It’s not like I wanted him to ask me out on a date. But there has to be a better way to tell a woman you want to take her to bed.” “You’re right. He’s an arrogant douche. Let him lust after you until he has blue balls. Serves him right.” That made me smile. Cary could always do that. “I doubt that man has ever had blue balls in his life, but it’s a fun fantasy.” He shut his netbook with a decisive snap. “What should we do tonight?” “I was thinking I’d like to go check out that Krav Maga studio in Brooklyn.” I’d done a little research after meeting Parker Smith during my workout at Equinox and as the week passed, the thought of having that kind of raw, physical outlet for stress seemed more and more ideal. I knew it wouldn’t be anything close to banging the hell out of Gideon Cross, but I suspected it would be a lot less dangerous to my health. “There’s no way your mom and Stanton are going to let you come out here at night multiple times a week,” Cary said, hugging his stylish denim jacket around him even though it wasn’t more than slightly chilly. The converted warehouse Parker Smith used as his studio was a brick-faced building in a formerly industrial area of Brooklyn presently struggling to revitalize. The space was vast, and the massive metal delivery-bay doors offered no exterior clue as to what was taking place inside. Cary and I sat in aluminum bleachers, watching a half-dozen combatants on the mats below. “Ouch.” I winced in sympathy as a guy took a kick to the groin. Even with padding, that had to sting. “How’s Stanton going to find out, Cary?” “Because you’ll be in the hospital?” He glanced at me. “Seriously. Krav Maga is brutal. They’re just sparring and it’s full contact. And even if the bruises don’t give you away, your stepdad will find out somehow. He always does.” “Because of my mom; she tells him everything. But I’m not telling her about this.” “Why not?” “She won’t understand. She’ll think I want to protect myself because of what happened, and she’ll feel guilty and give me grief about it. She won’t believe my main interest is exercise and stress relief.” I propped my chin on my palm and watched Parker take the floor with a woman. He was a good instructor. Patient and thorough, and he explained things in an easy to understand way. His studio was in a rough neighborhood, but I thought it suited what he was teaching. It didn’t get more “reality based” than a big, empty warehouse. “That Parker guy is really hot,” Cary murmured. “He’s also wearing a wedding band.” “I noticed. The good ones always get snatched up quick.” Parker joined us after the class was over, his dark eyes bright and his smile brighter. “What’d ya think, Eva?” “Where do I sign up?” His sexy smile made Cary reach over and squeeze the blood out of my hand. “Step this way.” Friday started out awesome. Mark walked me through the process of collecting information for an RFP, and he told me a little more about Cross Industries and Gideon Cross, pointing out that he and Cross were the same age. “I have to remind myself of that,” Mark said. “It’s easy to forget he’s so young when he’s right in front of you.” “Yes,” I agreed, secretly disappointed that I wouldn’t see Cross for the next two days. As much as I told myself it didn’t matter, I was bummed. I hadn’t realized I’d been excited by the possibility that we might run into each other until that possibility was gone. It was just such a rush being near him. Plus he was a hell of a lot of fun to look at. I had nothing nearly as exciting planned for the weekend. I was taking notes in Mark’s office when I heard my desk phone ringing. Excusing myself, I rushed over to catch it. “Mark Garrity’s office—” “Eva love. How are you?” I sank into my chair at the sound of my stepfather’s voice. Stanton always sounded like old money to me—cultured, entitled, and arrogant. “Richard. Is everything okay? Is Mom all right?” “Yes. Everything’s fine. Your mother is wonderful, as always.” His tone softened when he spoke of his wife and I was grateful for that. I was grateful to him for a lot of things actually, but it was sometimes hard to balance that against my feelings of disloyalty. I knew my dad was self-conscious about the massive differences in their income brackets. “Good,” I said, relieved. “I’m glad. Did you and Mom receive my thank-you note for the dress and Cary’s tuxedo?” “Yes, and it was thoughtful of you, but you know we don’t expect you to thank us for such things. Excuse me a moment.” He spoke to someone, most likely his secretary. “Eva love, I’d like us to get together for lunch today. I’ll send Clancy around to collect you.” “Today? But we’ll be seeing each other tomorrow night. Can’t it wait until then?” “No, it should be today.” “But I only get an hour for lunch.” A tap on my shoulder turned me around to find Mark standing by my cubicle. “Take two,” he whispered. “You earned it.” I sighed and mouthed a thank you. “Will twelve o’clock work, Richard?” “Perfectly. I look forward to seeing you.” I had no reason to look forward to private meetings with Stanton, but I dutifully left just before noon and found a town car waiting for me, idling at the curb. Clancy, Stanton’s driver and body guard, opened the door for me as I greeted him. Then he slid behind the wheel and drove me downtown. By twenty after the hour, I was sitting at a conference table in Stanton’s offices, eyeing a beautifully catered lunch for two. Stanton came in shortly after my arrival, looking dapper and distinguished. His hair was pure white, his face lined but still very handsome. His eyes were the color of worn blue denim, and they were sharp with intelligence. He was trim and athletic, taking the time out of his busy days to stay fit even before he’d married his trophy wife—my mom. I stood as he approached, and he bent to kiss my cheek. “You look lovely, Eva.” “Thank you.” I looked like my mom, who was also a natural blonde. But my gray eyes came from my dad. Taking a chair at the head of the table, Stanton was aware that the requisite backdrop of the New York skyline was behind him and he took advantage of its impressiveness. “Eat,” he said, with the command so easily wielded by all men of power. Men like Gideon Cross. Had Stanton been as driven at Cross’s age? I picked up my fork and started in on a chicken, cranberry, walnut, and feta salad. It was delicious, and I was hungry. I was glad Stanton didn’t start talking right away so I could enjoy the meal, but the reprieve didn’t last long. “Eva love, I wanted to discuss your interest in Krav Maga.” I froze. “Excuse me?” Stanton took a sip of iced water and leaned back, his jaw taking on the rigidity that warned me I wouldn’t like what he was about to say. “Your mother was quite distraught last night when you went to that studio in Brooklyn. It took some time to calm her down and to assure her that I could make arrangements for you to pursue your interests in a safe manner. She doesn’t want—” “Wait.” I set my fork down carefully, my appetite gone. “How did she know where I was?” “She tracked your cell phone.” “No way,” I breathed, deflating into my seat. The casualness of his reply, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, made me feel ill. My stomach churned, suddenly more interested in rejecting my lunch than digesting it. “That’s why she insisted I use one of your company phones. It had nothing to do with saving me money.” “Of course that was part of it. But it also gives her peace of mind.” “Peace of mind? To spy on her grown daughter? It’s not healthy, Richard. You’ve got to see that. Is she still seeing Dr. Petersen?” He had the grace to look uncomfortable. “Yes, of course.” “Is she telling him what she’s doing?” “I don’t know,” he said stiffly. “That’s Monica’s private business. I don’t interfere.” No, he didn’t. He coddled her. Indulged her. Spoiled her. And allowed her obsession with my safety to run wild. “She has to let it go. I’ve let it go.” “You were an innocent, Eva. She feels guilty for not protecting you. We need to give her a little latitude.” “Latitude? She’s a stalker!” My mind spun. How could my mom invade my privacy like that? Why would she? She was driving herself crazy, and me along with her. “This has to stop.” “It’s an easy fix. I’ve already spoken with Clancy. He’ll drive you when you need to venture into Brooklyn. Everything’s been arranged. This will be much more convenient for you.” “Don’t try to twist this around to being for my benefit.” My eyes stung and my throat burned with unshed tears of frustration. I hated the way he talked about Brooklyn like it was a third-world country. “I’m a grown woman. I make my own decisions. It’s the goddamn law!” “Don’t take that tone with me, Eva. I’m simply looking after your mother. And you.” I pushed back from the table. “You’re enabling her. You’re keeping her sick, and you’re making me sick, too.” “Sit down. You need to eat. Monica worries that you’re not eating healthy enough.” “She worries about everything, Richard. That’s the problem.” I dropped my napkin on the table. “I have to get back to work.” I turned away, striding toward the door to get out as quickly as possible. I retrieved my purse from Stanton’s secretary and left my cell phone on her desk. Clancy, who had been waiting for me in the reception area, followed me, and I knew better than to try and blow him off. He didn’t take orders from anyone but Stanton. Clancy drove me back up to midtown, while I stewed in the backseat. I could bitch all I wanted, but in the end I wasn’t any better than Stanton because I was going to give in. I was going to cave and let my mom have her way, because it hurt my heart to think of her suffering any more than she already did. She was so emotional and fragile, and she loved me to the point of being crazy about it. My mood was still dark when I got back to the Crossfire. As Clancy pulled away from the curb, I stood on the crowded sidewalk and looked up and down the busy street for either a drugstore where I could get some chocolate or a cellular store where I could pick up a new phone. I ended up walking around the block and buying a half-dozen candy bars at a Duane Reade on the corner before heading back to the Crossfire. I’d been gone just about an hour, but I wasn’t going to use the extra time Mark had given me. I needed work to distract me from my crazy-assed family. As I caught an empty elevator car, I ripped open a bar and bit viciously into it. I was making strides toward filling my self-imposed chocolate quota before I hit the twentieth floor when the car stopped on the fourth. I appreciated the added time the stop gave me to enjoy the comfort of dark chocolate and caramel melting over my tongue. The doors slid apart, and revealed Gideon Cross talking with two other gentlemen. As usual, I lost my breath at the sight of him, which reignited my fading irritation. Why did he have that effect on me? When was I going to become immune to his hotness? He glanced over and his lips curved into a slow, heart-stopping smile when he saw me. Great. Just my crappy luck. I’d become some kind of challenge. Cross’s smile faded into a frown. “We’ll finish this later,” he murmured to his companions without looking away from me. Stepping into the car, he lifted a hand to discourage them from following him. They blinked in surprise, glancing at me, then Cross, and then back again. I stepped out, deciding it would be safer for my sanity to take a different car up. “Not so fast, Eva.” Cross caught me by the elbow and tugged me back. The doors shut and the elevator glided smoothly into motion. “What are you doing?” I snapped. After dealing with Stanton, the last thing I needed was another domineering male trying to push me around. Cross caught me by the upper arms and searched my face with that vivid blue gaze. “Something’s wrong. What is it?” The now-familiar electricity crackled to life between us, the pull made fiercer by my temper. “You.” “Me?” His thumbs stroked over my shoulders. Releasing me, he withdrew a lone key from his pocket and plugged it into the panel. All the lights cleared except for the one for the top floor. He wore black again, with fine gray pinstripes. Seeing him from the back was a revelation. His shoulders were nicely broad without being bulky, emphasizing his lean waist and long legs. The silky strands of hair falling over his collar tempted me to clench them and pull. Hard. I wanted him as pissy as I was. I wanted a fight. “I’m not in the mood for you now, Mr. Cross.” He watched the antique-style needle above the doors mark the passing floors. “I can get you in the mood.” “I’m not interested.” Cross glanced over his shoulder at me. His shirt and tie were both the same awesome cerulean as his irises. The effect was striking. “No lies, Eva. Ever.” “That’s not a lie. So what if I’m attracted to you? I expect most women are.” Wrapping up what was left of my candy bar, I shoved it back into the shopping bag I’d tucked into my purse. I didn’t need chocolate when I was sharing air with Gideon Cross. “But I’m not interested in doing anything about it.” He faced me then, turning in a leisurely pivot, that ghost of a smile softening his sinful mouth. His ease and unconcern aggravated me further. “Attraction is too tame a word for”—he gestured at the space between us—“this.” “Call me crazy, but I have to actually like someone before I get naked and sweaty with them.” “Not crazy,” he said. “But I don’t have the time or the inclination to date.” “That makes two of us. Glad we got that cleared up.” He stepped closer, his hand lifting to my face. I forced myself not to move away or give him the satisfaction of seeing me intimidated. His thumb brushed over the corner of my mouth; then lifted to his own. He sucked on the pad and purred, “Chocolate and you. Delicious.” A shiver moved through me, followed by a heated ache between my legs as I imagined licking chocolate off his lethally sexy body. His gaze darkened and his voice lowered intimately. “Romance isn’t in my repertoire, Eva. But a thousand ways to make you come are. Let me show you.” The car slowed to a halt. He withdrew the key from the panel and the doors opened. I backed into the corner and shooed him out with a flick of my wrist. “I’m really not interested.” “We’ll discuss.” Cross caught me by the elbow and gently, but insistently, urged me out. I went along because I liked the charge I got from being around him and because I was curious to see what he had to say when afforded more than five minutes of my time. He was buzzed through the security door so quickly there was no need for him to break stride. The pretty redhead at the reception desk pushed hastily to her feet, about to impart some information until he shook his head impatiently. Her mouth snapped shut and she stared at me as we passed at a brisk pace, her eyes wide. The walk to Cross’s office was mercifully short. His secretary stood when he saw his boss’s approach, but remained silent when he noted that Cross wasn’t alone. “Hold my calls, Scott,” Cross said, steering me into his office through the open glass double doors. Despite my irritation, I couldn’t help but be impressed with Gideon Cross’s spacious command center. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the city on two sides, while a wall of glass faced the rest of the office space. The one opaque wall opposite the massive desk was covered in flat screens streaming news channels from around the world. There were three distinct seating areas, each one larger than Mark’s entire office, and a bar that showcased jeweled crystal decanters, which provided the only spots of color in a palette that was otherwise black, gray, and white. Cross hit a button on his desk that closed the doors; then another that instantly frosted the clear glass wall, effectively shielding us from the view of his employees. With the beautiful sapphire-hued reflective film on the exterior windows, privacy was assured. He shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on a chrome coatrack. Then he returned to where I’d remained standing just inside the doors. “Something to drink, Eva?” “No, thank you.” Damn it. He was even yummier in just the vest. I could better see how fit he was. How strong his shoulders were. How beautifully his biceps and ass flexed as he moved. He gestured toward a black leather sofa. “Have a seat.” “I have to go back to work.” “And I have a meeting at two. The sooner we work this out, the sooner we can both get back to business. Now, sit down.” “What do you think we’re going to work out?” Sighing, he scooped me up like a bride and carried me over to the sofa. He dropped me on my butt; then sat next to me. “Your objections. It’s time to discuss what it’s going to take to get you beneath me.” “A miracle.” I pushed back from him, widening the space between us. I tugged at the hem of my emerald green skirt, wishing I’d worn pants instead. “I find your approach crude and offensive.” And a major turn-on, but I was never going to admit it. He contemplated me with narrowed eyes. “It may be blunt, but it’s honest. You don’t strike me as the kind of woman who wants bullshit and flattery instead of the truth.” “What I want is to be seen as having more to offer than an inflatable sex doll.” Cross’s brows shot up. “Well, then.” “Are we done?” I stood. Wrapping my wrist with his fingers, he pulled me back down. “Hardly. We’ve established some talking points: We have an intense sexual attraction and neither of us wants to date. So what do you want—exactly? Seduction, Eva? Do you want to be seduced?” I was equally fascinated and appalled by the conversation. And, yes, tempted. It was hard not to be while faced with such a gorgeous, virile male so determined to get hot and sweaty with me. Still, the dismay won out. “Sex that’s planned like a business transaction is a turnoff for me.” “Establishing parameters in the beginning makes it less likely that there’ll be exaggerated expectations and disappointment at the conclusion.” “Are you kidding?” I scowled. “Listen to yourself. Why even call it a fuck? Why not be clear and call it a seminal emission in a preapproved orifice?” He pissed me off by throwing his head back and laughing. The full, throaty sound flowed over me like a rush of warm water. My awareness of him heightened to a physically painful degree. His earthy amusement made him less sex god and more human. Flesh and blood. Real. I pushed to my feet and backed out of reach. “Casual sex doesn’t have to include wine and roses, but for God’s sake, whatever else it is, sex should be personal. Friendly even. With mutual respect at the very least.” His humor fled as he stood, his eyes darkening. “There are no mixed signals in my private affairs. You want me to blur that line. I can’t think of a good reason to.” “I don’t want you to do jack shit, besides let me get back to work.” I strode to the door and yanked on the handle, cursing softly when it didn’t budge. “Let me out, Cross.” I felt him come up behind me. His palms pressed flat to the glass on either side of my shoulders, caging me in. I couldn’t think of my own self-preservation when he was so close. The strength and demand of his will exuded an almost tangible force field. When he stepped close enough, it surrounded me, closing me in with him. Everything outside of that bubble ceased to exist, while inside it my entire body strained toward his. That he had such a profound, visceral effect on me while being so damn irritating had my mind spinning. How could I be so turned on by a man whose words should’ve turned me completely off? “Turn around, Eva.” My eyes closed against the surge of arousal I felt at his authoritative tone. God, he smelled good. His powerful frame radiated heat and hunger, spurring my own wild desire for him. The uncontrollable response was intensified by my lingering frustration with Stanton and my more recent aggravation with Cross himself. I wanted him. Bad. But he was no good for me. Honestly, I could screw up my life on my own. I didn’t need any help. My flushed forehead touched the air-conditioned glass. “Let it go, Cross.” “I am. You’re too much trouble.” His lips brushed behind my ear. One of his hands pressed flat to my stomach, the fingers splaying to urge me back against him. He was as aroused as I was, his cock hard and thick against my lower back. “Turn around and say good-bye.” Disappointed and regretful, I turned in his grip, sagging against the door to cool my heated back. He was curved over me, his luxurious hair framing his beautiful face, his forearm propped against the door to bring him closer. I had almost no room to breathe. The hand he’d had at my waist was now resting on the curve of my hip, tightening reflexively and driving me mad. He stared, his gaze searingly intense. “Kiss me,” he said hoarsely. “Give me that much.” Panting softly, I licked my dry lips. He groaned, tilted his head, and sealed his mouth over mine. I was shocked by how soft his firm lips were and the gentleness of the pressure he exerted. I sighed and his tongue dipped inside, tasting me in long leisurely licks. His kiss was confident, skilled, and just the right side of aggressive to turn me on wildly. I distantly registered my purse hitting the floor; then my hands were in his hair. I pulled on the silky strands, using them to direct his mouth over mine. He growled, deepening the kiss, stroking my tongue with lush slides of his own. I felt the raging beat of his heart against my chest, proof that he wasn’t just a hopeless ideal conjured by my fevered imagination. He pushed away from the door. Cupping the back of my head and the curve of my buttocks, he lifted me off my feet. “I want you, Eva. Trouble or not, I can’t stop.” I was pressed full-body against him, achingly aware of every hot, hard inch of him. I kissed him back as if I could eat him alive. My skin was damp and too sensitive, my breasts heavy and tender. My clit throbbed for attention, pounding along with my raging heartbeat. I was vaguely aware of movement, and then the couch was against my back. Cross was levered over me with one knee on the cushion and the other foot on the floor. His left arm supported his torso while his right hand gripped the back of my knee, sliding upward along my thigh in a firmly possessive glide. His breath hissed out when he reached the point where my garter clipped to the top of my silk stocking. He tore his gaze away from mine and looked down, pushing my skirt higher to bare me from the waist down. “Jesus, Eva.” A low rumble vibrated in his chest, the primitive sound sending goose bumps racing across my skin. “Your boss is damned lucky he’s gay.” In a daze, I watched Cross’s body lower to mine, my legs sliding apart to accommodate the width of his hips. My muscles strained with the urge to lift toward him, to hasten the contact between us that I’d been craving since I first laid eyes on him. Lowering his head, he took my mouth again, bruising my lips with a fine edge of violence. Abruptly, he yanked himself away, stumbling to his feet. I lay there gasping and wet, so willing and ready. Then I realized why he’d reacted so fiercely. Someone was behind him. Mortified by the sudden intrusion into our privacy, I scrambled up and back into the armrest, yanking down my skirt. “…two o’clock appointment is here.” It took an endless moment to realize Cross and I were still alone in the room, that the voice I’d heard had come through a speaker. Cross stood at the far end of the sofa, flushed and scowling, his chest heaving. His tie was loosened and the fly of his slacks strained against a very impressive erection. I had a nightmare vision in my head of what I must look like. And I was late getting back to work. “Christ.” He shoved both hands through his hair. “It’s the middle of the fucking day. In my goddamn fucking office!” I got to my feet and tried to straighten my appearance. “Here.” He came to me, yanking my skirt up again. Furious at what I’d almost let happen when I should be at work, I smacked at his hands. “Stop it. Leave me alone.” “Shut up, Eva,” he said grimly, catching the hem of my black silk blouse and tugging it into place, adjusting it so that the buttons once again formed a straight row between my breasts. Then he pulled down my skirt, smoothing it with calm, expert hands. “Fix your ponytail.” Cross retrieved his coat, shrugging into it before adjusting his tie. We reached the door at the same time and when I crouched to fetch my purse, he lowered with me. He caught my chin, forcing me to look at him. “Hey,” he said softly. “You okay?” My throat burned. I was aroused and mad and thoroughly embarrassed. I’d never in my life lost my mind like that. And I hated that I’d done so with him, a man whose approach to sexual intimacy was so clinical it depressed me just thinking about it. I jerked my chin away. “Do I look okay?” “You look beautiful and fuckable. I want you so badly it hurts. I’m dangerously close to taking you back to the couch and making you come ’til you beg me to stop.” “Can’t accuse you of being silver-tongued,” I muttered, aware that I wasn’t offended. In fact, the rawness of his hunger for me was a serious aphrodisiac. Clutching the strap of my purse, I stood on shaky legs. I needed to get away from him. And, when my workday was done, I needed to be alone with a big glass of wine. Cross stood with me. “I’ll be done by five. I’ll come get you then.” “No, you won’t. This doesn’t change anything.” “The hell it doesn’t.” “Don’t be arrogant, Cross. I lost my head for a second, but I still don’t want what you want.” His fingers curled around the door handle. “Yes, you do. You just don’t want it the way I want to give it to you. So, we’ll revisit and revise.” More business. Cut-and-dried. My spine stiffened. I set my hand over his and yanked on the handle, ducking under his arm to squeeze out the door. His secretary shoved quickly to his feet, gaping, as did the woman and two men who were waiting for Cross. I heard him speak behind me. “Scott will show you into my office. I’ll be just a moment.” He caught me by reception, his arm crossing my lower back to grip my hip. Not wanting to make a scene, I waited until we were by the elevators to pull away. He stood calmly and hit the call button. “Five o’clock, Eva.” I stared at the lighted button. “I’m busy.” “Tomorrow, then.” “I’m busy all weekend.” Stepping in front of me, he asked tightly, “With whom?” “That’s none of your—” His hand covered my mouth. “Don’t. Tell me when, then. And before you say never, take a good look at me and tell me if you see a man who’s easily deterred.” His face was hard, his gaze narrowed and determined. I shivered. I wasn’t sure I’d win a battle of wills with Gideon Cross. Swallowing, I waited until he lowered his hand and said, “I think we both need to cool off. Take a couple days to think.” He persisted. “Monday after work.” The elevator arrived and I stepped into it. Facing him, I countered, “Monday lunch.” We’d have only an hour, a guaranteed escape. Just before the doors closed, he said, “We’re going to happen, Eva.” It sounded as much like a threat as a promise. “Don’t sweat it, Eva,” Mark said, when I arrived at my desk nearly a quarter after two. “You didn’t miss anything. I had a late lunch with Mr. Leaman. I just barely got back myself.” “Thank you.” No matter what he said, I still felt terrible. My kick-ass Friday morning seemed to have happened days ago. We worked steadily until five, discussing a fast-food client and contemplating some possible tweaks to ad copy for a chain of organic grocery stores. “Talk about strange bedfellows,” Mark had teased, not knowing how apt that was in regard to my personal life. I’d just shut down my computer and was pulling my purse out of the drawer when my phone rang. I glanced at the clock, saw it was exactly five, and considered ignoring the call because I was technically done for the day. But since I was still feeling shitty about my overly-long lunch, I considered it penance and answered. “Mark Garrity’s—” “Eva honey. Richard says you forgot your cell phone at his office.” I exhaled in a rush and sagged back into my chair. I could picture the handkerchief wringing that usually accompanied that particular anxious tone of my mother’s. It drove me nuts and it also broke my heart. “Hi, Mom. How are you?” “Oh, I’m lovely. Thank you.” My mom had a voice that was both girlish and breathy, like Marilyn Monroe crossed with Scarlett Johansson. “Clancy dropped your phone off with the concierge at your place. You really shouldn’t go anywhere without it. You never know when you might need to call for someone—” I’d been debating the logistics of just keeping the phone and forwarding calls to a new number I didn’t share with my mom, but that wasn’t my biggest concern. “What does Dr. Petersen say about you tracing my phone?” The silence on the other end of the line was telling. “Dr. Petersen knows I worry about you.” Pinching the bridge of my nose, I said, “I think it’s time for us to have another joint appointment, Mom.” “Oh…of course. He did mention that he’d like to see you again.” Probably because he suspects you’re not being forthcoming. I changed the subject. “I really like my new job.” “That’s wonderful, Eva! Is your boss treating you well?” “Yes, he’s great. I couldn’t ask for anyone better.” “Is he handsome?” I smiled. “Yes, very. And he’s taken.” “Damn it. The good ones always are.” She laughed and my smile widened. I loved it when she was happy. I wished she were happy more often. “I can’t wait to see you tomorrow at the advocacy dinner.” Monica Tramell Barker Mitchell Stanton was in her element at society functions, a gilded shining beauty who’d never lacked male attention in her life. “Let’s make a day of it,” my mom said breathlessly. “You, me, and Cary. We’ll go to the spa, get pretty and polished. I’m sure you could use a massage after working so hard.” “I won’t turn one down, that’s for sure. And I know Cary will love it.” “Oh, I’m excited! I’ll send a car by your place around eleven?” “We’ll be ready.” After I hung up, I leaned back in my chair and exhaled, needing a hot bath and an orgasm. If Gideon Cross somehow found out I masturbated while thinking about him, I didn’t care. Being sexually frustrated was weakening my position, a weakness I knew he wouldn’t be sharing. No doubt he’d have a preapproved orifice lined up before day’s end. As I swapped out my heels for my walking shoes, my phone rang again. My mother was rarely distracted for long. The five minutes since we’d ended our call was just about the right length of time for her to realize the cell phone issue hadn’t been resolved. Once again, I debated ignoring the phone, but I didn’t want to take any of the day’s crap home with me. I answered with my usual greeting, but it lacked its usual punch. “I’m still thinking about you.” The velvet rasp of Cross’s voice flooded me with such relief I realized I’d been hoping to hear it again. Today. God. The craving was so acute I knew he’d become a drug to my body, the prime source of some very intense highs. “I can still feel you, Eva. Still taste you. I’ve been hard since you left, through two meetings and one teleconference. You’ve got the advantage, state your demands.” “Ah,” I murmured. “Lemme think.” I let him wait, smiling as I remembered Cary’s comment about blue balls. “Hmm…Nothing is coming to mind. But I do have some friendly advice. Go spend time with a woman who salivates at your feet and makes you feel like a god. Fuck her until neither of you can walk. When you see me on Monday you’ll be totally over it and your life will return to its usual obsessive-compulsive order.” The creak of leather sounded over the phone and I imagined him leaning back in his desk chair. “That was your one free pass, Eva. The next time you insult my intelligence, I’ll take you over my knee.” “I don’t like that sort of thing.” And yet the warning, given in that voice, aroused me. Dark and Dangerous for sure. “We’ll discuss. In the interim, tell me what you do like.” I stood. “You definitely have the voice for phone sex, but I’ve got to go. I have a date with my vibrator.” I should’ve hung up then, to gain the full effect of the brush-off, but I couldn’t resist learning if he’d gloat like I had imagined he would. Plus, I was having fun with him. “Oh, Eva.” Cross spoke my name in a decadent purr. “You’re determined to drive me to my knees, aren’t you? What will it take to talk you into a threesome with B.O.B.?” I ignored both questions as I slung my bag and purse over my shoulder, grateful he couldn’t see how my hand shook. I was not discussing Battery Operated Boyfriends with Gideon Cross. I’d never discussed masturbation openly with a man, let alone a man who was for all intents and purposes a stranger to me. “B.O.B. and I have a longtime understanding—when we’re done with each other, we know exactly which one of us has been used, and it isn’t me. Good night, Gideon.” I hung up and took the stairs, deciding the twenty-floor descent would serve double-duty as both an avoidance technique and a replacement for a visit to the gym. I was so grateful to be home after the day I’d had that I practically danced through my apartment’s front door. My heartfelt “God, it’s good to be home!” and accompanying spin was vehement enough to startle the couple on the couch. “Oh,” I said, wincing at my own silliness. Cary wasn’t in a compromising position with his guest when I barged in, but they’d been sitting close enough to suggest intimacy. Grudgingly, I thought of Gideon Cross, who preferred to strip all intimacy out of the most intimate act I could imagine. I’d had one-night stands and friends with benefits, and no one knew better than I that sex and making love were two very different things, but I didn’t think I’d ever be able to view sex like a handshake. I thought it was sad that Cross did, even though he wasn’t a man who inspired pity or sympathy. “Hey, baby girl,” Cary called out, pushing to his feet. “I was hoping you’d make it back before Trey had to leave.” “I have class in an hour,” Trey explained, rounding the coffee table as I dropped my bag on the floor and put my purse on a barstool at the breakfast bar. “But I’m glad I got to meet you before I left.” “Me, too.” I shook the hand he extended to me, taking him in with a quick glance. He was about my age, I guessed. Average height and nicely muscular. He had unruly blond hair, soft hazel eyes, and a nose that had clearly been broken at some point. “Mind if I grab a glass of wine?” I asked. “It’s been a long day.” “Go for it,” Trey replied. “I’ll take one, too.” Cary joined us by the breakfast bar. He was wearing loose-fitting black jeans and an off-the-shoulder black sweater. The look was casual and elegant, and did a phenomenal job of offsetting his dark brown hair and emerald eyes. I went to the wine fridge and pulled out a random bottle. Trey shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans and rocked back on his heels, talking quietly with Cary as I uncorked and poured. The phone rang and I grabbed the handset off the wall. “Hello?” “Hey, Eva? It’s Parker Smith.” “Parker, hi.” I leaned my hip into the counter. “How are you?” “I hope you don’t mind my calling. Your stepdad gave me your number.” Gah. I’d had enough of Stanton for one day. “Not at all. What’s up?” “Honestly? Everything’s looking up right now. Your stepdad is like my fairy godfather. He’s funding a few safety improvements to the studio and some much-needed upgrades. That’s why I’m calling. The studio’s going to be out of commission for the rest of the week. Classes will resume next Monday.” I closed my eyes, struggling to tamp down a flare of exasperation. It wasn’t Parker’s fault that Stanton and my mom were overprotective control freaks. Clearly they didn’t see the irony of defending me while I was surrounded by people trained to do that very thing. “Sounds good. I can’t wait. I’m really excited to be training with you.” “I’m excited, too. I’m going to work you hard, Eva. Your parents are going to get their money’s worth.” I set a filled glass in front of Cary and took a big gulp out of my own. It never ceased to amaze me how much cooperation money could buy. But again, that wasn’t Parker’s fault. “No complaints here.” “We’ll get started first thing next week. Your driver has the schedule.” “Great. See you then.” I hung up and caught the glance Trey shot Cary when he thought neither of us was looking. It was soft and filled with a sweet yearning, and it reminded me that my problems could wait. “I’m sorry I caught you on the way out, Trey. Do you have time for pizza Wednesday night? I’d love to do more than say hi and bye.” “I have class.” He gave me a regretful smile and shot another side-glance at Cary. “But I could come by on Tuesday.” “That’d be great.” I smiled. “We could order in and have a movie night.” “I’d like that.” I was rewarded with the kiss Cary blew me as he headed to the door to show Trey out. When he returned to the kitchen he grabbed his wine and said, “All right. Spill it, Eva. You looked stressed.” “I am,” I agreed, grabbing the bottle and moving into the living room. “It’s Gideon Cross, isn’t it?” “Oh, yeah. But I don’t want to talk about him.” Although Gideon’s pursuit was exhilarating, his goal sucked. “Let’s talk about you and Trey instead. How did you two meet?” “I ran across him on a job. He’s working part time as a photographer’s assistant. Sexy, isn’t he?” His eyes were bright and happy. “And a real gentleman. In an old-school way.” “Who knew there were any of those left?” I muttered before polishing off my first glass. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Nothing. I’m sorry, Cary. He seemed great, and he obviously digs you. Is he studying photography?” “Veterinary medicine.” “Wow. That’s awesome.” “I think so, too. But forget about Trey for a minute. Talk about what’s bugging you. Get it out.” I sighed. “My mom. She found out about my interest in Parker’s studio and now she’s freaking out.” “What? How’d she find out? I swear I haven’t told anyone.” “I know you didn’t. Never even crossed my mind.” Grabbing the bottle off the table, I refilled my glass. “Get this. She’s been tracking my cell phone.” Cary’s brows rose. “Seriously? That’s…creepy.” “I know, right? That’s what I told Stanton, but he doesn’t want to hear it.” “Well, hell.” He ran a hand through his long bangs. “So what do you do?” “Get a new phone. And meet with Dr. Petersen to see if he can’t talk some sense into her.” “Good move. Turn it over to her shrink. So…is everything okay with your job? Do you still love it?” “Totally.” My head fell back into the sofa cushions and my eyes closed. “My work and you are my lifesavers right now.” “What about the young hottie bazillionaire who wants to nail you? Come on, Eva. You know I’m dying here. What happened?” I told him, of course. I wanted his take on it all. But when I finished, he was quiet. I lifted my head to look at him, and found him bright-eyed and biting his lip. “Cary? What are you thinking?” “I’m feeling kind of hot from that story.” He laughed and the warm, richly masculine sound swept a lot of my irritation away. “He’s got to be so confused right now. I would’ve paid money to see his face when you hit him with that bit he wanted to spank you over.” “I can’t believe he said that.” Just remembering Cross’s voice when he made that threat had my palms damp enough to leave steam on my glass. “What the hell is he into?” “Spanking’s not deviant. Besides, he was going for missionary on the couch, so he’s not averse to the basics.” He fell into the couch, a brilliant smile lighting up his handsome face. “You’re a huge challenge to a guy who obviously thrives on them. And he’s willing to make concessions to have you, which I’d bet he’s not used to. Just tell him what you want.” I split the last of the wine between us, feeling marginally better with a bit of alcohol in my veins. What did I want? Aside from the obvious? “We’re totally incompatible.” “Is that what you call what happened on his couch?” “Cary, come on. Boil it down. He picked me up off the lobby floor, and then asked me to fuck. That’s really it. Even a guy I take home from a bar has more going for him than that. Hey, what’s your name? Come here often? Who’s your friend? What are you drinking? Like to dance? Do you work around here?” “All right, all right. I get it.” He set his glass down on the table. “Let’s go out. Hit a bar. Dance ’til we drop. Maybe meet some guys who’ll talk you up some.” “Or at least buy me a drink.” “Hey, Cross offered you one of those in his office.” I shook my head and stood. “Whatever. Let me take a shower and we’ll go.” I threw myself into clubbing like it was going out of style. Cary and I bounced all over downtown clubs from Tribeca to the East Village, wasting stupid money on cover charges and having a fabulous time. I danced until my feet felt like they were going to fall off, but I toughed it out until Cary complained about his heeled boots first. We’d just stumbled out of a techno-pop club with a plan to buy me flip-flops at a nearby Walgreens when we ran across a hawker promoting a lounge a few blocks away. “Great place to get off your feet for a while,” he said, without the usual flashy smile or exaggerated hype most of the hawkers employed. His clothes—black jeans and turtleneck—were more upscale, which intrigued me. And he didn’t have fliers or postcards. What he handed me was a business card made from papyrus paper and printed with a gilded font that caught the light of the electric signage around us. I made a mental note to hang on to it as a great piece of print advertising. A stream of quickly moving pedestrians flowed around us. Cary squinted down at the lettering, having a few more drinks in him than I had. “Looks swank.” “Show them that card,” the hawker urged. “You’ll skip the cover.” “Sweet.” Cary linked arms with me and dragged me along. “Let’s go. You might find a quality guy in a swanky joint.” My feet were seriously killing me by the time we found the place, but I quit bitching when I saw the charming entrance. The line to get in was long, extending down the street and around the corner. Amy Winehouse’s soulful voice drifted out of the open door, as did well-dressed customers who exited with big smiles. True to the hawker’s word, the business card was a magic key that granted us immediate and free entrance. A gorgeous hostess led us upstairs to a quieter VIP bar that overlooked the stage and dance floor below. We were shown to a small seating area by the balcony and settled at a table hugged by two half-moon velvet sofas. She propped a beverage menu in the center and said, “Your drinks are on the house. Enjoy your evening.” “Wow.” Cary whistled. “We scored.” “I think that hawker recognized you from an ad.” “Wouldn’t that rock?” He grinned. “God, it’s a great night. Hanging out with my best girl and crushing on a new hunk in my life.” “Oh?” “I think I’ve decided to see where things go with Trey.” That made me happy. It felt like I’d been waiting forever for him to find someone who’d treat him right. “Has he asked you out yet?” “No, but I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t want to.” He shrugged and smoothed his artfully ripped T-shirt. Paired with black leather pants and spiked wristlets, he looked sexy and wild. “I just think he’s trying to figure out the situation with you first. He wigged when I told him I lived with a woman and that I’d moved across the country to be with you. He’s worried I might be bi-curious and secretly hung up on you. That’s why I wanted you two to meet today, so he could see how you and I are together.” “I’m sorry, Cary. I’ll try to put him at ease about it.” “It’s not your fault. Don’t worry about it. It’ll work out if it’s supposed to.” His assurances didn’t make me feel better. I tried to think if there was a way I could help. Two guys stopped by our table. “Okay if we join you?” the taller one asked. I glanced at Cary, and then back at the guys. They looked like brothers and they were very attractive. Both were smiling and confident, their stances loose and easy. I was about to say, Sure, when a warm hand settled on my bare shoulder and squeezed firmly. “This one’s taken.” Across from me, Cary gaped as Gideon Cross rounded the sofa and extended his hand to him. “Taylor. Gideon Cross.” “Cary Taylor.” He shook Gideon’s hand with a wide smile. “But you knew that. Nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.” I could’ve killed him. I seriously thought about it. “Good to know.” Gideon settled on the seat beside me, his arm draped behind me so that his fingertips could brush casually and possessively up and down my arm. “Maybe there’s hope for me yet.” Twisting at the waist, I faced him and whispered fiercely, “What are you doing?” He shot me a hard glanc