Authors: Sarah Cameron
'He rejected you once, Zoe,'
she reminded herself bitterly, but the other part of her – the optimist – disagreed.
'And so what?'
'You want something bad enough? You fail, you pick yourself up, you try again. Goal achievement 101, babe.'
Satisfied with her ambition, she decided she would, indeed, try again. Because once before she had approached Damian Hunter with all the sincerity of a confident woman who knew her heart and believed in her sexuality, and he had turned her down. Extremely rudely, even. But she knew rude and sullen was a way of life for him, so she had not taken offense, though she had grown quite easily intimidated by him ever since.
'That has to stop.'
Nodding to herself resolutely, it occurred to her that this must be the reason she had climbed to the top so quickly. Her
to quit. To give up. Her tenacity and the stubborn manner in which she pursued all her goals. If only she could have her dreams come true, because what she dreamed of most was
'Naked. In my bed.'
A swift torrent of lust coursed through her body at the thought and all eyes settled on her at that exact moment, dousing her passion. Suddenly nervous, she wondered why they all looked so shocked – all except the Hunters, who were quietly curious. But the awkward moment passed as abruptly as it had come, leaving Zoe wondering what they were going to say about her idea.
Damian Hunter tried to maintain his inner beast locked inside, but as usual, Zoe Jameson tested his control like no one else could.
He wondered for a second what it was about this woman that appealed to his baser urges to such an extent.
'Maybe it's her courage,'
he reasoned, knowing Zoe Jameson was one of the most fearless women he could find. In business she wasted no time with bullshit and she could face the most vicious sharks without sweating. That she spoke so self-assuredly in front of this board of directors was proof that she presented qualities normal people lacked, even though she didn't know
they were. For some reason, though, Damian had the feeling she could handle knowing about their kind, about
Therianthropy was not something a normal, sane human considered as part of their reality, but changing into an animal form had been Damian's life. It was as valid to him as was breathing, and he'd seen so much in all his 250+ years of existence that hardly anything surprised him anymore. He'd been born in the 1750s and had fought as an admiral in the American War of Independence, where he'd obliterated any of his enemies that he encountered, getting noticed by Leon Hunter, the oldest of the Hunter brothers.
The truth was, they were not brothers. They weren't even born in the same century, let alone of the same parents. Leon was over
old, while the others were anywhere from 170 to 500+ years old, Dominic being the youngest. Damian himself was the second youngest, if roughly two hundred and sixty years old could be considered young.
But in his entire life no one had managed to shake him to the core like this woman did. Her mere presence made him dread these meetings. She made him weaker, vulnerable to superfluous feelings, such as lust and desire. He had no use for them, of course, just as he had no use for
He had a constant string of women to appease his lustful rages and moreover, she was his employee.
Yet he couldn't help being aware of her whenever she was in his proximity, as though pulled by a magnet. He remembered her outright approach back when she had asked him out on a date and he had refused her. It had been so hard to, too, when all he'd wanted to do was grab her and find the nearest flat surface to spread her on.
Shaking his thoughts away, he returned to the question at hand: why had she been aroused?
That he was a shifter gave him superior senses, including an outrageous sense of smell. Everyone on the board with the sole exception of Miss James was a shifter – an unwritten company policy. Her being an outsider was why Dominic had been sent to the last few meetings: to assess her worthiness of being among them. In an age when humans developed weapons for the fun of it, shifters couldn't afford letting out that they were not exactly human, but a new species, superior to Homo sapiens in every way. Their survival skills were off the chart, and so was their IQ, and that was only scratching the surface about their genetic makeup. So they stuck together, had formed alliances for centuries, realizing that they needed to be united in keeping their origins and identity a secret.
Being a shifter had allowed him and everyone else at the meeting table to smell Zoe's blatant arousal for all of one second, as though a wave of lust had washed over her, dissipating as soon as it had come. He – much like most red-blooded males present, he assumed – was very much interested in the reason she had felt that way. The very odd thing about the whole situation was that he was feeling jealous that the room seemed to be coated in pheromones now, a blend of scents that spoke of the lack of disinterest from his fellow board members. Frowning, he wondered how to keep them from approaching her, shocked by his possessiveness.
His brother was the first to break the awkward silence after her detailed description of Akiko, a robot he admitted he was very impressed by. The fact that every time she mentioned its creator she smiled did not please him as much.
Growing surlier by the minute, he decided to stay out of the conversation, as he always did when she was present. With the exception of a few words, he always managed not to get into a conversation with her, because he didn't know how he might react.
She didn't belong there, he concluded.
“Thank you, Miss Jameson,” Jones said, smiling at her the way a proud parent smiled at their child, which appeased his instincts. That they were scattered at all mad him nervous. And edgier than usual. All he wanted was to return to his lab and work on the new formula he was developing. His work was the leading research in the pharmaceutical industry, but virtually no one knew it came from him. MedFuture had a classified division that came up with the most revolutionary drugs and formulas, and he was in charge of it. Research was his passion, his highest priority, although there were a few other things that came in as close seconds. Still, he had dedicated many of the last years to his work, positively consumed by the need to develop cures for different diseases and solutions for different problems of the locomotory system. He'd used shifter genes in the attempt to speed up the healing process, but so far there was no luck of maintaining human DNA while doing it – shifter genes were entirely too aggressive, triggering chain reactions of DNA mutation instead of just doing their job. Still, he felt he was close to a solution and it kept him going.
“However, I fear you have not presented the risks of such a huge step as thoroughly as you have presented them to me in private. Please do so, Miss Jameson.”
Damian was startled by her secretive smile and the surge of emotion the sight of it brought through him. That he was letting a woman affect him in such a way proved he was off his game.
“Mr. Jones, for that part I will invite Professor Ikeuchi himself.”
Wondering if that was the man he had felt arrive fifteen minutes prior, Damian had to admit he was intrigued. She'd staged her speech in such a way that she could invite her good friend just in time for the details. Of course, he was curious to meet the Japanese genius even he had heard of before, but he had to admit to himself that he disliked her familiarity with him.
Opening the door, she spoke in a hushed tone, inviting 'Kuro' in. He noted she was speaking to him in Japanese, which impressed him.
“Douzo,” she said to Professor Ikeuchi as she held the door for him to enter, closing it behind him. Immediately, the atmosphere in the room changed. It was clear that Ikeuchi was not as equally unintimidated by them as Miss Jameson was – although she was not completely unfazed, either. And when a predator smells fear, he pounces. Visibly, the board members' stances changed. They leaned forward in their seats, their eyes trained on every detail. The poor man was a prey, and he had no idea. There was a thrill one couldn't control as a shifter, a power surging through the body like electricity, begging to be unleashed whenever there was prey nearby. Damian was no stranger to it – had lived with this instinct his entire life.
“Welcome, Professor Ikeuchi,” Dominic greeted, shaking his hand and congratulating him for his idea and thanking him for sharing it with them. “Miss Jameson tells us you can give us the full extent of risks we would be taking if say yes to your pet project.”
“Yes, w-well, first of all, thank you all for having me here. It's a – I mean it's the greatest... it's an 'onor,” he finally managed, his words jumbled together as though he were a schoolboy unnerved by a particularly daunting teacher, the thickness of his Japanese accent giving them a sharp sound. “Thanks to Zoe my work reached all of you and I am very grateful.”
Damian's jaw clenched at the familiarity with which the 'nerd' – as he had taken to calling him in his mind – addressed her. For a moment all eyes were focused on the woman in question, who was smiling warmly at her genius friend in a way that made Damian want to square his shoulders, grow some fur and frighten the shit out of the guy. That was unacceptable, though. Or so his brothers told him.
“Kuro, please tell us the risks we would be facing if we were to give Akiko the green light,” she requested warmly, launching the nerd into a lecture that lasted a full twenty minutes.
“Thank you, Kuro,” she said at the end of his speech, touching his arm in an intimate way that sent Damian's blood boiling. “Now are there any questions?”
A few of the board members pertinently asked the accomplished Professor about a few matters of safety and security, and he answered to each, offering satisfactory solutions. Damian could already tell that Akiko would be given a go, which meant that the illustrious Professor Ikeuchi was going to be spending an awful lot of time in the headquarters of MedFuture – close to Miss Jameson, one would be correct to assume. Damian refused to think about that longer than necessary, his reaction to this woman growing more alarming by the second.
“Damian, what do you think?” his brother asked, leaning back against the back of his chair in a posture that spoke of relaxation. In contrast,
was feeling completely on edge, his shoulders tense and his forearms on the table, his face a complete mask of hostility.
The tension in the room was raised by a notch, everyone anticipating a caustic or surly remark of some sort. He tried to ignore Miss Jameson's gaze on him in particular, but found it impossible. Her focus on him behaved like a magnetic force drawing all his molecules toward her, making him feel as though his skin was trying to peel itself off his body to get to her.
With a calm voice at odds with his inner conflict, he spoke. “It's quite a bold project. I like Akiko as a concept, though I'm weary of
that have that much power and of the fact that a single man is the authority on it – so that's something I think will need to be addressed – but my vote thus far is a yes.” Great job, Miss Jameson, he would have said, but the words hadn't come out.
“Spoken like a true wolf,” Dominic commanded, making his brother frown at him menacingly. All men from the table smiled conspicuously, while the two humans in the room were oblivious to the exchange.
“I can ensure you that entrusting Professor Ikeuchi with MedFuture's future will not bring problems. I vouch for him.”
“And who will vouch for you, Miss Jameson?” Damian couldn't help but ask, his eyes hard and his gaze unrelenting, relishing her sharp gasp and the way her heart suddenly lurched into a marathon.
“Professor Ikeuchi, thank you for coming and presenting your idea,” Dominic interrupted, “we'll take it from here.”
With a tight-lipped smile, Miss Jameson led her Japanese friend to the door and spoke a few quick words to him, both of them nodding. “I'll be in touch,” she said just before she closed the door behind him.
“Mr. Hunter, regarding your earlier question, I-”
“Your explanation is not necessary,
,” Damian spoke, his deep, gravelly voice carrying across the room smoothly. “My point was to make it clear that this is an important matter, and even if you vouch for your friend, that would not be sufficient reason to believe he would not abuse the power entrusted to him.”