Authors: Abby-Rae Rose
Luke snagged her as soon as she walked in the office at seven forty-five in the morning. “Fred needs you.”
The admin didn’t say another word, but something was bothering him. Those blue eyes were more serious than she’d ever seen them in the past week she’d gotten to know him. Normally reserved, he was always kind. It never really shocked her that he was so smooth, he possessed a charm that made everyone around him serene. She definitely didn’t see him with Sally, the harridan.
Elle saw the problem immediately once she reached the conference room. Fred, his hair standing up on ends, was flanked by Darren and Maxwell. Flustered by the unending questions, Fred was having trouble forming a coherent sentence.
While Elle had her own problems with Fred, she didn’t like seeing him like that. He wasn’t a bad person, just indecisive and uncomplicated. He loved toys though, and working for a toy company was an excellent choice.
“Mister Maxwell and Mister Darren,” Luke interrupted. A strange flush rose up his neck as he fleetingly looked at Darren before settling on Maxwell.
Elle ignored the strange interplay and took the moment to check on Fred. He was sweating and turning a bit green. This wasn’t good. It would only make Maxwell or Darren more suspicious, when really it was just bad nerves. Before either man could continue the questioning, Elle spoke up. “Fred, I’m sorry I’m late, I hadn’t realized we would start so early. What have we covered so far?”
Fred took the opportunity like a man grabbing a lifeline, his voice coming out a bit squeaky with nerves. “Elle, yes, Maxwell and Darren were just asking me about the regulations on the floor and the ordering process.”
Elle ignored the pounding of her heart and the warmth curling in her stomach as both men’s eyes turned toward her. Darren’s eyes were appraising and curious while Maxwell’s steel gray ones burned her where she stood. She needed to stay on track. Their little interplay last night couldn’t interfere with her ability to do her job today. She needed to lock up her fantasies right now or her future would be over.
It was a quick decision. These men weren’t going to walk all over her. Cool, calm, and collected —like Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada. That’s what she would be today. She was an actress and no matter how much she wanted to bow down to their sultry gazes and beg them for things she shouldn’t want, for today she was a high-powered executive.
Her promotion was on the line, time to put those acting lessons to good use and show Fred what she was made of. Shaking off any remaining trepidation, she imagined herself dressed in the highest fashion with the attitude to match. What would Miranda Priestly do?
“Gentleman, Fred and I would be happy to walk you through the entire order process. Luke, could you grab the projector? I have a PowerPoint presentation just for this.”
One look at Fred’s distraught face distracted her. Maxwell stepped forward. Before he could speak, she held up her hand. “I know you have a lot of questions, Mr. Stranton. I want to make sure we cover all the points of our process before you ask them. Our answers may make more sense. I know there have been a lot of concerns in the past on our approval process. I was not aware this was what was under scrutiny during your review, give me a few minutes and we can make sure everyone’s on the same page.”
Perhaps she was being a bit rude. However, Fred’s sigh of relief told her that she was on the right track. She might not seduce them, darn it if she wasn’t going to face them head on.
Luke excused himself from the room to get the projector.
Maxwell was not done, a frown marring his face. “Elle, these are questions Fred should be able to answer.”
A cold draft shivered down Elle’s back; the threat in his voice was very real. She was walking on treacherous ground. Something more was there too, a similar disapproving frown marred Darren’s face. She breathed deeply and dug deeper. “Fred doesn’t do well in big crowds.”
“There are just two of us.” Maxwell sneered.
“I helped put this process together and developed the presentation. Fred has graciously allowed me to step up on this project, and I’m probably better equipped to answer your questions.”
Darren stepped forward, his cerulean blue eyes tight and angry. “Are you telling me that you, a lowly analyst, have been running the team?”
Maxwell stiffened, while Fred gasped and finally spoke up. “No. Elle is not responsible for my team. But she’s right. She is better at explaining this.”
“What about the missing funds Mr. Zackary Stranton discovered? Are you going to be able to explain that too, Miss Norton?”
Elle stood her ground at Maxwell’s question. She wasn’t going to back down, no matter how much her real self-wanted to cower and beg for forgiveness for the anger and confusion she saw in Maxwell’s eyes. She didn’t know anything about missing funds. “I do not personally process the invoices, all of our team is very aware of the approval process and I’m sure any of them can answer specific questions. Intimidation will get you nowhere, Mr. Stranton.”
Heart thundering, she stood as Luke reentered with the projector.
She’d either just landed herself in hot water or was the bravest southern belle in existence. Her mother would have been proud. She could have won an Oscar for that performance. Darren and Maxwell put in their place, Elle setup the slide presentation with Luke’s help and tried to still her racing heart. A thumbs up from Fred told her that at least one person had appreciated her bluntness.
“I swear, another flick of that skirt is going to send me over the edge,” Maxwell said as he slammed the lid of his suitcase closed.
Darren swiveled in his chair and spun to face him. “She does have a nicely shaped ass, mate. Plenty of room to grab hold and ride her hard, don’t you think?”
Maxwell glowered at his friend. “Don’t be crass.”
“Hey, I’m just telling it like I see it. Between that and those stellar assets of hers—”
Maxwell spun the donkey’s ass around and hit him on the top of the head with a pad of paper. “Stop it.”
Darren grinned and began twirling his pencil, acting as if nothing had happened. “Knew it.”
“Knew what?” Maxwell skulked as he grabbed his coat.
“You like her. It must be the curvy American thighs and plump breasts. Or maybe that southern twang.” He emphasized the southern with a long drawl that made Maxwell want to throttle him.
Maxwell cursed Darren’s perceptiveness —the man knew darn good and well why he was attracted to her. “Have you ever thought it’s because she’s nice and has a personality?”
Darren considered that for a moment, a devilish smile creeping up on his face showing even white teeth. “Nah. Never been your type before, mate. Face it, she’s nice and sweet as apple pie and picnics. She ain’t going to go for what you need. Besides the dominance she showed today —that ain’t gonna work for us. Besides, Fred couldn’t take his eyes off her. She’s taken, man.”
Maxwell slumped into the chair and glowered. He replayed the day in his mind a million times. The sexy sway of her hips, the blush staining her cheeks, and the sweet smell of Elle. He got hard just thinking about her. The attraction was unmistakable, simple. Vanilla was sexy as hell as a scent, but left him cold and unaffected when it came to sex.
All day, he’d watched her, hoping and praying that she’d just give him an indication—just one—that she swung toward not just submission a bit of more—toward the sweet sensual delights of flickers of pain and pleasure delivered by strong steady hands and a sure whip.
He hadn’t gotten a read on Fred or their relationship yet. Her display of complete control over the situation this morning had sent him into a tailspin. Maybe he’d misread her southern charm for submission. If he misread her, this would never work.
“Darren, there’s something special about her.”
A smile briefly pulled at Darren’s lips before he became serious. “Elle’s not going to like it; she practically reeks of innocence, Maxwell. Might lean toward submission—I’ll grant you that. But only a smidgen, man and that’s suspect after today.”
“Tell me you don’t find her attractive. Fred’s not a problem—we’ve stolen many a woman from an inattentive lover.” Maxwell sneered. There was something more there that he wanted to explore, something better than the endless number of leather-clad women he’d had at his feet in submission over the years. That something warred inside of him and niggled at his conscious. He was wondering if he actually liked her southern charm and wicked tongue, things that had nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with his emotions.
“She’s certainly got my dick’s attention; but if she can’t handle the domination and the pain, she’ll break.” Darren stopped twirling his pen and leaned forward. “Listen, there are tons of women at The Den that would give their right tit to be with you. Don’t let this one get under your skin. There’s nothing but pain there.”
Maxwell knew he was right. His own brand of deviance wouldn’t allow him to have plain vanilla sex. No, he needed the excitement of a woman, or man for that matter, at her knees before him, taking his will and whatever else he wanted to give her. He loved breaking in new submissives, loved seeing them awaken to their own powers and the pleasure that awaited them.
“She’d be a challenge,” Maxwell murmured.
“Is it worth breaking her spirit for?”
Maxwell knew Darren’s crassness and brash language was all just to bring him out of his reverie. He’d been getting restless lately. With X Toyz launch, he was taking the first step toward setting up roots and he wanted more. There would be plenty of women out in L.A. for him to choose from —- women who knew what they were getting into. Women who could handle all of him, even the deviant part.
Straightening up, Maxwell shook his head. “No, you’re right. It’s not worth it. Elle’s meant for some southern boy who can give her lots of babies and a house in the ‘burbs.”
“That’s right. Come on. We’ve got work to do.”
Maxwell nodded and grabbed his suitcase. He needed to give himself space, loose himself in The Den for the weekend. This time next week, he’d have completely forgotten about this strange ache in his chest. He just had to get through tonight and this stupid dinner that Zackary insisted they attend.
An hour after leaving Darren and Maxwell, Elle still hadn’t come down from her high.
Even as she was leaving, Fred followed her out to thank her again. Unfortunately, she’d also seen Sally on the way out. She’d made some snide remark about having everyone in the palm of her hand before dumping a report in Elle’s arms with instructions to have it completed by the morning.
At home, Elle grabbed a quick snack and called Garfield to see what he was doing for dinner. Satisfied he wouldn’t starve himself and was in fact with old Miss Sutter playing gin rummy and eating dip, Elle stripped her suit off and breathed a sigh of relief.
Being a high-powered executive had been fun, exhilarating. As empowering as it had been to take charge, she couldn’t help but feel she’d let Maxwell and Darren down. It was something indefinable but somehow they had looked at her differently when she’d left that room today. There was a coldness in Darren’s eyes that hadn’t been there before, almost like he’d completely shut himself off from her, while Maxwell simply had ignored her, focusing on his notes and typing into his computer. She’d effectively been shut out.
Naked in front of her closet, she pushed her clothes one by one across the rack. Tonight she needed to feel sexy. Maybe something that showed off her legs and some cleavage. If Maxwell and Darren were turned off by her performance, so be it. There were plenty of other fish to fry.
She didn’t have much time and it was a rush to finish and get to the small Japanese restaurant five blocks away on South Street. She cringed as she realized the seats may be low to the ground in the traditional Japanese fashion. Her skirt wouldn’t be able to handle crisscrossed knees. Once inside, she was relieved to see regular sized tables.
Luke greeted her as she came in. “Finally, you’re here. I’ve saved you a seat.”
Inside the dining room, they were escorted to a separate area enclosed in rice panes. Six long, narrow tables were setup lengthwise across the room. People had paired off to sit across from each other.
“I’ve saved you a space next to me,” Luke whispered, his hand at her back and his demeanor more like a waiter than a friend.
Elle didn’t mind. Luke had always been very formal and she was relieved that she wouldn’t have to sit next to Fred, which she’d felt certain would happen. Luke didn’t care for Fred. Luke pointed to the two seats he’d saved —right across from Darren and Maxwell.
Before she knew it, she was seated across from Maxwell; her knees brushing his under the table.
“Oh, fiddlesticks,” she whispered. This would be a tough evening.
Damn the woman. Didn’t she know what she was doing to him?
Maxwell Stranton shifted in his hard seat, his dress slacks tight and uncomfortable under the table. He was miserable—the small bit of time he’d had after work at The Den had done nothing to assuage his needs. His concentration had been on one curly, honey brown-haired nymph with a cute round face and jade green eyes that sparked at him in challenge.
Curvaceous as hell from her strong shapely calves and grip-worthy hips to her full, tantalizing breasts; he couldn’t keep his eyes off her. Even now, with the dark light and the candles, he watched, hoping for just one glimpse of a smile, just the barest hint of those small, pearly teeth peeking out from her plump lips and the flash of those cute dips in her cheeks.
Fuck. Those things were going to be the death of him. He’d dreamed about them, fantasized about all the things he could do to her to get those dimples to flash at him.
No smiles tonight though.
Fred—the moron—had decided to spend what amounted to a ludicrous amount of money to invite everyone to this evening meal at this ridiculously overpriced and uncomfortable restaurant. The place couldn’t even have a reasonable table. Instead, they had just two feet and a few inches between them, so narrow that everyone was struggling to get comfortable without touching.
Attending this event had been the last of many mistakes directly tied to his attraction to Elle. The millionth of which was allowing himself to be seated across from this little mouse of a woman—the one woman he couldn’t have unless some miracle happened.
The brief glimpse at submission he’d seen yesterday had gone to the wayside today. He’d have to face the fact that she was no submissive. She’s a sexy little kitten with powerful claws and a dominant streak a mile wide. No, he should give her up and let her find happiness with a man who wouldn’t drag her into his depravities.
He hated it when Darren was right.
His held his breath as her leg brushed against his under the table. The caress, soft and light, just the touch of silk clad insole against his own legs, made him swallow. She was innocent—a country bumpkin complete with bunny slippers and a warm flannel nightgown. She was the kind you took home to your mother.
As he watched her, he caught the brief glance she sent his way—a spark of hunger and a brief apologetic smile—those dimples flashing like a primal red flag to his lust. The flush spreading along her cheeks sent his libido into overdrive even as he felt her knees clamp together under the table.
Only two feet separated them—closer than a dining room table. Others around them laughed as they adjusted for leg space under the table. Not his little country mouse though, she sat back from the table, refusing to engage. The chance to play with her just a little was too much—like a cat with a favorite toy. Maxwell couldn’t resist her.
Reaching under the table, he slid his hand down his leg. Slow. He didn’t want to spook her. This wasn’t a dark bedroom or The Den, he wanted to shock her but only a bit. His fingers met the smooth fabric covering her knees, binding them tightly together. He fingered the material, his touch light and tentative, and the skirt inching up to reveal the edge of her knees.
Her head snapped up, those green eyes glittering.
Entranced, he watched her as he jerked the last of the material up and slid it back. He raised an eyebrow at the quiet squeak and dared her to say anything—even as the sounds all around them continued. It was just the two of them, caught in the tableau, unable to breathe or stop the inevitable slide of his hands up her knees.
The material did his bidding, allowing him access to her thighs. Her eyes widened as his hand slid between them. Yet she continued to stay silent, never saying a word, her mouth slightly open and eyes glazing over. He couldn’t have asked for a more responsive woman. Just his touch had her on edge.
The rough skin of his fingers dragged against the slick hosiery as he slid up her inner thigh, spread her legs, and invited her to relax. Her thighs trembled at his touch, tightening, even as he pushed them apart. His knee wedged between her legs and held them apart as he memorized the soft skin of her inner thighs.
He wanted to linger, to reach further up and feel the hot heat of her. He wondered if she would already be hot and ready or if he would have to play with her, bringing her to the edge before she gave into her baser desires. Before he could be too tempted, he moved his hands around and neatly folded her skirt over her thighs.
Respectable once again, he hid all emotion from his face as he watched her relax. She swallowed and took a deep breath, her thighs letting up on their death grip on his knee. Before she figured out what he was up to, he reached around and grasped the legs of her chair, jerking the chair under the table.
With a startled gasp, her thighs opened and he slid his knee and leg between. Her body shuddered at the impact of the chair settling and his knee so close to her core. She sat there for several seconds, her body tense and tight around his leg.
Finally, when he made no further move, she closed her eyes and groaned —a small sound of capitulation—and relaxed. She opened up her mouth and seemed about to respond when Fred’s grating voice resounded through the room. “So I’ve brought you all here today for the launch of a brand new product—”
Maxwell ignored Fred’s rambling and shifted his knee again, just brushing the heat of her. He loved the blooming fire in her gaze. He was thinking of other delicious things he might do to taunt her, giving into his small seduction, when something was slammed down between them covered in black cloth.
A murmur rose from the table.
Fred shushed everyone. “Ladies and gentleman! The future of Z Toyz.” He motioned to the men located around the room and the black cloths were lifted to reveal a large square glass frame with several worms crawling around against the glass. Ants also took up residence and were building a rather large ant hill.
Gasps and shrieks ran up the table as several chairs toppled to the floor. Fred shouted in glee at the reactions. “I give you Vermilcitude!”
“Christ. No.” Maxwell groaned as he realized exactly what this was —a huge black hole. No wonder money was disappearing left and right from Zackary’s company.
“This is an exciting new toy that mixes the needs of our environment and the education of our children in a fun and exciting new way.”
Murmurs faded as each person stared at their Vermilcitude Farm. Maxwell couldn’t believe it. Worms. Fred’s idea of innovation was worms. “This had better be good.”
Fred nervously glanced up and down the table. He motioned for several plates to be brought out. Each plate held wilted lettuce and potatoes. “Each farm is opened from the top. There you can put your compost and then voila, you can watch what happens as the worms and other organisms digest the vegetables.”