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Copyright © 2016 by Claudia Vann
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There is nothing more imposing than my boss’s stare. Granted it wasn’t as if I had much to weigh it against, but I had encountered a few situations in my 28 years which called for mature problem-solving skills. I was proud of my ability to handle whatever I needed to with witty banter and the occasional flirtatious hip shake, but when Benjamin Cartwright fixed his emerald green eyes on me, my composure wilted and left me dumbstruck.
We stood face-to-face in his kitchen the first time he gave me the look I now refer to as The Moment Before the End. In fact, the night had been full of firsts; the first time my boss saw me drunk, first time I set foot inside his home, and the first time he called me by my first name, and while so many firsts should have made the evening exciting, they hadn’t. The whole night was a disaster, and the worst part was, I had no one to blame but myself. My boss hadn’t forced me into his car, and I had been the one agreeing to go back to his place instead of my apartment. That was bad enough, but the most humiliating part came when I made a move on him, so the downward spiral of the night was a direct result of an Amanda Harrington Classic Mistake.
To compound my demise, I was stranded. My car was miles away, and there was only one other person who knew where I was. My boyfriend sat alone in Washington D.C., clueless about what I was doing and too far away to help even if I was dumb enough to call, so all I could do was apologize and hope my boos wouldn’t toss me out the door.
“I’m really sorry.” I had said the same words at least four-hundred times since chasing him from the car, but he still refused to respond. “I didn’t mean to spy on you and your friend! I was turning in my report and heard voices, and when I got to your office the door opened, and…” My throat was dry from panic and the amount of alcohol I had guzzled at the bar, so my attempt at swallowing the desperation in my voice failed. “I didn’t see much,” I croaked. “I swear. And, I won’t tell anyone, so it isn’t like your reputation will suffer.”
Not that it mattered. Anything I said would just confirm the rumors, but I didn’t think it would be helpful to my case. Yes, I was embarrassed that I watched him during what I considered a pretty amazing sexual encounter, but my ultimate humiliation came from their discovery of an audience and the subsequent foot chase through the office. I managed to keep enough distance between us that, for a few blissful minutes, I believed I would stay your run-of-the-mill voyeur. I almost made it, but in the end my cell phone cost me my anonymity. The ringtone of Rod Stewart’s If You Want My Body had screamed through stairwell, and while my lack of personal relationship with Mr. Cartwright might have been enough to keep my secret safe, once the same outdated song filled the backseat of his fancy car and I started sweating like a 500-pound man running a full marathon, the gig was up.
Mr. Cartwright’s shoulder muscles were tense beneath his dress shirt, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as the silence between us stretched well past uncomfortable and slid into excruciating. Air whistled through his teeth, the force of it tickling my cheek, and the muscles of his forearms contracted as he pushed his sleeves up to his elbows with slow, calculated movements.
His eyebrows furrowed. “So,” he said, “you like to watch.”
Heat surged to my cheeks. “No.” The word came out as a squeak, so I cleared my throat and tried again. “No, it isn’t that.” The dull thud of my heartbeat filled my ears, and I wondered if I was going to pass out and clinch the title Worst Day of My Life. “I told you, I didn’t mean to see anything. I was turning in my report, and the door was open! I couldn’t help it.”
His voice was low, but he didn’t sound angry. In fact, I thought I detected a note of humor in his tone, and when I risked looking up to see if I could read his expression, there was a definite upturn of his lips.
My hands shook. “Really. I mean, once I saw what was happening I tried to turn around and leave, but I was so startled I tripped, and then I figured you’d fire me if you knew I had seen you in there so I ran ….” I rubbed my forehead and groaned. “Mr. Cartwright, why didn’t you lock your door?”
He laughed, the sound loud enough to make me jump. “Do I need to? That’s my personal office, and it is customary to knock before entering a person’s office.”
He was right, of course. There was no excuse for what I had done, and my shoulders dropped in defeat. “No, you’re right. I’m completely at fault.” Here it was. I was going to get fired, and I deserved it. “I apologize. You don’t have to say anything else; I’ll make sure to have all my things packed and out of the office by nine o’clock Monday morning.” The back of my eyelids prickled with tears, but I held his gaze to keep the lingering bit of pride I had left from shattering.
The edges of his smile lifted. “Ms. Harrington, there are two glaring errors in your statement. One, you haven’t been fired, so there’s no need to pack your things. Two, even if you were fired, there is no way you would be packed up and out of the office before nine a.m. when you haven’t managed to get yourself downtown before ten the past five weeks.” My jaw dropped, and I struggled to close it as he continued. “I am more aware of what’s happening in the office than you all seem to think. I admit when you told me you and all think I’m blind to what’s going on, I was a bit surprised. It’s obvious you have no idea how much I know.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond, but he didn’t seem to care. He took a step toward me, his smile slipping into something more seductive that the easy grin he had been wearing moments before, and his eyes sparked with a heat that made my stomach tighten.
I tried to swallow again. “May I have some water?” The dryness in my throat was reaching Sahara Desert level, and if I didn’t get something to drink soon, I was going to start seeing mirages instead of glistening granite countertops.
He turned and crossed the kitchen in four strides, his footsteps silent on the wood floors even in his dress shoes. “Of course. I should have offered you some before.” The refrigerator opened with a whisper, and he reached in to remove two bottles of water, both of which he opened before handing one to me.
I grabbed it with less decorum than I would have liked. “Easy,” he warned. “I have more, so there’s no need to get it all in one gulp.”
I wiped the lingering water drops off my chin and sighed. “I’m probably a good four liters away from being properly hydrated after tonight. If I have any hope of me waking up in the morning without wanting to remove my head, I’ll need to drink a lot more than this.”
He took a sip from his own bottle, and I tried to look away before he caught me staring. He was so far out of my league we weren’t even playing the same game, and there was also that one pesky detail that he was my boss, so drooling would do nothing more than make him think I was begging. Which I wasn’t. Not really.
I wasn’t quick enough. “Ms. Harrington, I think you have an affinity for watching.” His eyebrow lifted, and he set the bottle down on the counter without looking away. “Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe you couldn’t help yourself. Perhaps the sight of us was just too much for you.” His chest rose and fell as his breathing deepened, and his voice slid over me like cool silk. “Watching can be fun, of course, but next time, you should join in.”
He took a step forward, then another, his eyes darkening as he moved. I held my breath, trembling and waiting to see what he would do next. The skin on my arms rose into goosebumps as he came to a stop in front of me, but I stayed silent, not daring to believe what I was seeing reflected in his eyes. My boss had proven himself to be unpredictable at best, and I didn’t want to risk another mistake by letting yet another misguided interpretation escape my lips.
He lifted his hand and reached toward me, his eyes never leaving mine. Blood raced through my veins, and I moaned as the heat from his hand pulsed against the sensitive skin of my neck. His finger slid along my collarbone, the touch gentle, a whisper really, but my skin erupted into a thousand sparks of light as he traced his way from my shoulder to my throat. Without a word he ran his hand around to the back of my neck and then he stilled, the heat from his palm burning my skin like the edges of a flame.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” he murmured. His body slid against mine without warning, and the scent of him invaded my senses making it almost impossible for me to breathe. “I know you would.” His eyes flashed with urgency and his hand slid upward, his fingers pulsing against the nape of my neck until they snaked their way through my hair. He tugged the strands once, then pulled harder, not enough to hurt but enough to make me squirm, and I dropped my head back as desire ignited in the center of my stomach.
“Look at you. Your neck is one of the most vulnerable parts of your body, and here you are, exposing it to me without even thinking about it.” His breath caressed my skin, and my nipples tingled. I ached for him to kiss me, to touch me, something, so I shifted my weight to get closer to him. The bulge of his erection pressed against my hip, but other than a quick intake of breath and a tightening on his hand, there was no indication he knew what I was asking for.
“I could lift you up and take you right here on the counter,” he whispered. I bit my lip and closed my eyes, inhaling what I hoped was a breath big enough to lift my breasts to his mouth. “I’d undress you slowly, making sure to see and touch all the beautiful parts of you as I went, and then I’d run my tongue along your skin, lick every inch of you I could get my hands on…”
I groaned. “Oh God, yes.” The desperation in my voice surprised me. I wasn’t vocal during sex, but something about Benjamin Cartwright dulled all my inhibitions. My mind spun, and the closeness of his body made it impossible for me to remember my morals or why I cared about who he was in the first place. The way he felt against me silenced all rational thought, and I stood there utterly powerless against the magnetic pull of his seduction.
His lips brushed against the pulse in my neck, and then with a growl that sent a bolt of electricity straight to my core, he yanked my head upright. His face was so close to mine I could only focus on his lips hovering just a few millimeters from my own, and when the tip of his tongue appeared between them, I whimpered, knowing what that tongue of his was capable of.
My knees shook and I opened my mouth in anticipation, my breath coming out in short bursts of eagerness. His eyes held mine captive, the green so dark they were almost black, but instead of kissing me, he ran his tongue along his lips, and the sight of it sliding along his skin made me ache all the way to my toes.
I tried to shift even closer to him, but he pulled back. “In a hurry?” A few strands of dark hair fell across his forehead, and I resisted the urge to brush them away. “You know what they say about those who wait.”
My hands curled into fists. “I do know, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.” My voice was low, breathless, and if his growing smile meant anything, the force of my exhales gave away what I was feeling throughout every fiber of my being.
He bent his head and I closed my eyes, hoping and praying he would finally kiss me. The smell of leather and rain, the scents that caused images of my boss to surface every time I smelled them, surrounded me, and before I could brace myself completely, his lips found mine.
It was a gentle kiss at first. Our lips caressed each other’s in search of a rhythm we could agree on, but the peaceful intent didn’t last for long. The moment he increased the pressure of his mouth against mine the fire in my stomach surged, and I lifted up on my tiptoes to get even closer. His tongue slipped into my mouth to wind its way around mine, and the combined feeling of heat and smooth expectation made me sag against him with a moan. His hand tensed against the back of my neck, but he didn’t pause as he slid his other hand down to my ass to pull me closer. His erection throbbed against my stomach, and I opened my mouth wider to suck on his tongue as the pulse of desire surged to my clit.
He let me take control for only a moment before tearing his mouth away. His chest heaved, and his breath tickled the base of my neck as he exhaled. “Damn, you taste amazing,” he murmured. “Your lips, your tongue, everything. Each part of you I taste ends up being sweeter than the spot I just left.” He ran his thumb along my lower lip, his jaw tensing and relaxing. “I’m willing to bet everything about you tastes good.”
His eyes were wide, his expression unreadable, but I was done caring about right and wrong. My nipples were aching, my clit literally buzzed with need, and I could only focus on getting some relief from what I knew must be a raging hard-on.
I whimpered, and his eyes blazed. “Do you want me to?” he asked. “I could eat you until you screamed, and then I could snack on you some more.” He squeezed my ass and slipped his hand down to the back of my thigh. “Or, would you rather I bend you over and shove my big, hard cock inside of you?” My stomach clenched, and he lifted my leg to wrap it around his hip. He yanked me tighter against him so his thigh pushed against my clit, and I bit my lip, refusing to make any more noise until he did his part to extinguish the fire between my legs. “I could slip it inside of you now, Amanda. You’re so wet, my dick would slide right in. I could make you come, and then we could do it again.”
I was panting. He was going to make me come just by talking, but I wanted to feel him inside me, not listen to what could happen. “I don’t care,” I whimpered. “Just do it.” My pussy was soaking wet and desperate to be filled with either his tongue or his cock, and I couldn’t silence the small moan that escaped.
“How bad do you want it, Amanda?” His eyes flashed, their color burning bright green as he stated at me. “How badly do you want me to make you come?” He brushed his thumb across my nipples, the touch sending bolts of pleasure down my legs, and I gasped out loud. He held me against him as I squirmed, his grip tight enough to keep me from getting any sense of relief at all.
The pulse in his neck jumped. “How bad?” he asked again.
“Bad,” I squeaked.
My hands shook as I clung to his shoulders, and the muscles of his arms tensed. “I need to hear you say it, Amanda. What do you want so badly you’re willing to beg for it?”
My mouth opened, but before I could say the words, I closed it again. I was weak with need, but even with the frantic pulsing of my pussy and the desperate ache in my clit, I couldn’t make myself say what he wanted to hear.
“Tell me,” he whispered. There was a beat of silence as I blinked at him, silently begging him to put me out of my misery. “Maybe you need some motivation then.” Before I could reply he pinched my nipple between his fingers, and I squealed from the combination of pain and release. Flames erupted from where his leg pushed against me, and I ground my hips against him while pushing my chest against his fingers. “Say it!” he demanded.
“You!” I cried. “I want you.” I reached out to grab the front of his shirt, but he blocked my hands before I managed to touch him. “You,” I said again.
He held both of my wrists in one hand, and my nipples strained against my bra at the sudden absence of his fingers. His other hand gripped my ass even harder, the fingers of his hand digging into my flesh, but I didn’t care. My hips churned, and a surge of passion etched with fear coursed through my chest as the pressure of his fingers around my wrists increased.
“What do you want me to do to you?” His breath caressed my cheek, the touch of it against my skin seductive and dangerous. “Tell me what you need, Amanda.”
Tears pricked the corners of my eyes. Embarrassment, confusion, and desperation were making it impossible for me to stay in control of my emotions, and with one final moan, the last of my resolve crumbled. In that moment he owned me, and he knew it.
“I need to feel you inside me. I haven’t been satisfied by a man in a long time…” I bit my lower lip, mortified by my admission yet surprisingly turned on, too. “Please, my boyfriend can’t make it happen anymore. He doesn’t care that I’m left without-”
“Boyfriend?” His eyes widened, and his fingers tightened around my wrists. “Wait a minute. You have a boyfriend?”
“Yes,” I breathed. So what? Why was he stopping? Did he suddenly find a moral compass buried somewhere in his Playboy heart?
I attempted a smile. “I’m not cheating on him. This isn’t cheating.”
With an exhaled curse, he dropped my hands. “Damn right you aren’t cheating on him.” He took a step backward, glaring down at me with contempt. “I don’t get involved with women who are in relationships, Amanda. I never have.”
Before I could speak, he took another step backward. “You lied,” he seethed. “I don’t waste my time with liars.”
“I didn’t lie!” I reached for him, desperate to explain, but it was too late. My hand dropped against my side with a dull thud, and my skin tingled with loss. “I swear I didn’t.”
His gaze was steady, but the rise and fall of his chest betrayed his calm façade. The air that had been crackling around us just moments before now lay heavy against my skin, and I crossed my arms over my chest, waiting for him to say something and not daring to move in case the movement reminded him he was in charge.
“What would you call it then?” His voice was low, angry. “I don’t remember you mentioning a boyfriend before.”
I struggled to make sense of the change between us before answering. Why did it matter to him if I had a boyfriend? He was notorious for having handfuls of women at his disposal, never once hinting any of them were relationship material, so it wasn’t like he was interested in anything long term. He was a man secure in a social circle I could only dream of and more money than one person would ever spend, so there it wasn’t a confrontation on earth that could scare him, so what was the problem?
His eyes narrowed. “Well?” His fingers flexed and then curled against his palms as he waited, his loose cufflinks catching the light overhead and sending sparkles of rainbows across the floor. His shoulders were so tense the material of his shirt stretched across his chest, and I couldn’t help staring at the outline of well-defined muscles.
“Ah, no, I didn’t.” I licked my lips and forced myself to meet his gaze again. “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t think it was important.”
“You said you were going home alone tonight,” he countered. The muscles in his jaw clenched making the shadow of whiskers on his cheeks appear even darker. “When I asked, you told me there was no one who could be with you this evening.”
I fought to remember our conversation outside of the bar. It was a bit fuzzy, which wasn’t a surprise considering the amount of alcohol I had, but the adrenaline rush when he offered to bring me back to his place had brought our discussion afterward into a sharp focus. I stayed in a state of hyperawareness the entire time, so I had no trouble gathering enough of my memories to prove him wrong.
“No, that isn’t exactly what I said.” I cleared my throat and crossed my arms in an attempt to muffle the pounding of my heartbeat. “You asked if I lived alone, but I never answered you. I did, however, tell you there wasn’t going to be anyone but me in my apartment this weekend, and that’s the truth.” I lifted my chin, daring him to contradict me. “You told your driver to come get us, and that was the end of it.”
He stared at me, and I bit my lower lip to keep it from trembling. As usual his expression was impossible to read, but the anger in his eyes dimmed to a simmering annoyance as he thought about what I said, and finally, he sighed.
“Maybe,” he conceded, “but not telling me is just another form of lying. It’s a lie of omission.”
“It’s not like I would know how you felt,” I shot back. “We’re basically strangers! I mean, up until a few minutes ago I thought you were a glorified male whore, so your moral standards weren’t my top priority. I’m sorry if you feel like I lied to you, but that wasn’t my intent.”
His eyebrow lifted. “’Glorified man whore’?”
The ice in my veins thawed, and my cheeks burned. “Ah, well, that might have been a bit of an exaggeration. You have to admit you have a reputation for being with a lot of women, but that might not have been the best way to say it.”
“No, probably not.”
The mood had been severed, so there was nothing left to lose by asking my next question. “So… What happens now?”
He raked a hand through his hair and frowned. “Nothing. You can sleep in the guestroom, and in the morning I’ll have Marcus take you home.” His gaze held mine, heavy with expectations. “I trust this particular lapse in our thinking won’t be discussed with anyone at any time.”
I nodded. He didn’t have to worry because no matter how I looked at it, I was the one who looked like a fool.
“I’m not in the habit of mixing business with pleasure, and I’m sure we both agree this brief encounter was a mistake. I promise it will never happen again, Amanda, and as long as you agree, we will put it behind us.”
“Okay,” I murmured. What else could I say?
“I’ll show you to the guest room. There is water and aspirin in the bathroom. I suggest you make good use of both.”
He turned to make his way down the hallway and I followed a few steps behind, my heart and pride wounded. I had been a mistake, a momentary lack of judgment, and it was clear he regretted every second of it. I wasn’t worthy of being in Benjamin Cartwright’s world, and even though I agreed, it still hurt to be pushed away.
The next morning I gathered what was left of my pride and left the guestroom without bothering to make the bed. Since the only other room I was familiar with happened to be the kitchen, I made my way down the hall, hoping that what I smelled really was the heavenly aroma of coffee.
I was both relieved and uneasy when I stepped into the room; relieved because there was, in fact, coffee and uneasy because Mr. Cartwright’s tall, undeniably sexy form blocked the path to the coffeemaker. He was dressed in jeans and a casual button-down shirt, but other than the obvious change of clothes, he looked just as put together as he had the night before. I, on the other hand, had refused the silent offerings of t-shirt and sweatpants left outside the guestroom door, and my wrinkled work clothes did nothing but emphasize the embarrassment of tangled hair, stubborn streaks of makeup, and distinct odor of regret.
“Here.” Mr. Cartwright turned, and I allowed myself a moment to admire the muscles in his arm as he reached up to grab a mug from the cabinet. I took the cup from his outstretched hand without a word as I brushed passed him, and I mashed my lips together, refusing to break my silence between despite an intense dislike of black coffee. I forced my expression to stay neutral as the acidic liquid coated my tongue, and I kept my focus on the complicated dials of the coffeemaker until a muted beep coming from his direction sounded.
“Marcus, please come up to the main house. Our guest needs to get back to the city and will need a ride.”
Mr. Cartwright might have been speaking into the intercom on the wall but his eyes were on me, no doubt watching to gauge my reaction to his dismissal. I ignored the flash of annoyance at his assumption that I’d care and took another sip of coffee, considering my next move and the consequences I’d then have to live with. “Wow, you have the moment narrowed down to the second, don’t you?” Really, there was no reason to stifle the obnoxious side of my hangover when my ultimate humiliation still hung between us, so I decided to ignore the warning bells going off in my head and say what was on my mind. “Then again, I suppose when you’ve had a lot of experience tossing women out the next morning, you’d have the process down to an exact science.” I ignored his scowl and faced him with a what I hoped he perceived as a relaxed smile. “Still, your uncanny abilities in both business and personal endeavors continues to amaze me, Mr. Cartwright. Well done.” I placed the mug in his stainless-steel sink and enjoyed an immature flash of satisfaction as a stray drop of coffee slid from the rim and settled onto the otherwise spotless surface.
“Ben,” he said.
I lifted my head and frowned. “Excuse me?”
“My name. It’s Ben. You should try using it.”
The corners of his eyes crinkled, and I bit my lower lip. He was damn cute when he smiled, but I wasn’t going to let the swirl of desire in my stomach ruin the illusion of control I was trying to convey. “I don’t think I should,” I replied. “It feels a bit informal for a business relationship.”
His smile widened. “Maybe, but I think it’s safe to use each other’s first names outside of the office, don’t you?”
I pursed my lips and pretended to think it over. “Hmmm…. No, I don’t.” A look of surprise flashed across his face, but in an instant it was replaced with a neutral expression. “I think that might… confuse things. We both understand and agree our relationship is purely a business one, so we should keep things professional.” There was no way he could hear the strange tempo of my heartbeat, and he was probably oblivious of my hands shaking in my pockets, but if I gave into the very real, very present desire to faint, there would be no way to hide how nervous he was making me.
Why had I said those things? I leaned against the counter for support and crossed my arms, wondering what was taking Marcus so long and considering the possibility I might be suffering from some sort of delayed alcohol poisoning rather than my usual overzealous stupidity. He was still my boss, for now anyway, and I wasn’t helping myself keep my job by being a bitch.
He ran his tongue over his teeth, the perfection of their alignment no doubt responsible for funding a high-priced education for some orthodontist’s kid, and my gaze followed its movement. I had firsthand knowledge of what that tongue could do, and although it would never come close to achieving in me what I knew it was capable of, I wanted to memorize the way it slid across his lips so I could use it later.
“If that’s what you want.”
His voice was low, husky, and I struggled to regain my composure before my body betrayed me.
“Thank you.” I couldn’t look away from him. His eyes were amazing, but I had never spent more than a quick moment looking into them before the scene at the bar. In the office our interactions were quick and business-driven, so the sparks I felt when those emerald green eyes settled on mine had been easy to ignore. Now, however, my skin felt alive with electricity, and my fingers itched with their desire to touch every inch of his body.
The sound of a door opening broke our staring match, and the breath I had been holding whooshed out of my lungs. “That’s Marcus,” Mr. Carwright said. “Do you have all your things?”
I waved my purse in the air. “I didn’t bring much, so yes, I’m all set.”
Mr. Cartwright nodded and gestured toward the front entryway. “I’ll see you out.”
I followed him down the hall, and when he stopped at the front door, I stepped passed him into the bright sunlight. “Thank you for letting me stay,” I said. The sun glittered off the dark sedan in the driveway, and I shaded my eyes with my hand. “I’ll see you on Monday.”
The trip into town was silent, which was no surprise considering I was alone. Marcus was intent on the road in front of us and gave no indication he was interested in a conversation, so I rest my head against the window and let my eyes drift closed, lulled into a state of half-sleep by the sway of the car as we sped along. I was no closer to answers than I had been the night before, but I was too tired to care. I would worry about it later, preferably when my head stopped pounding and the tears burning the back of my eyelids disappeared.