Being that person, that man is how I define myself, how I allow the rest of the world to define me as well. And now, with a terrible loss shredding me inside out and someone trying to destroy my family to punish me, control is more important than ever. It is everything. It is what I need. It is all I need. Or maybe I just need…her.
I shut the door and then motion to the small, round conference table in the corner. “Let’s sit.” I’m irritated that I’m aware she’s wearing the same outfit she’d worn the first night I met her, several weeks ago.
She nods and moves with the same pace, the same confident steps, confirming that she is not my type. As she once said, we’re too alike, two bulls fighting for the same red flag. We come together at the edge of the seats, neither of us voluntarily claiming one first, standing toe to toe, our gazes locking.
A band seems to tug our bodies closer; I feel our shared connection in my chest and see it in the dilation of her soft blue eyes. The howl of memories is like a heavy wind that refuses to be ignored. I’d buried my pain over the news of a search for Rebecca’s body in Crystal’s body. I’d been weak, drunk, hurting. I’d tried to recover with a business-from-this-point-forward talk.
But when I’d walked Crystal, not Ms. Smith, to a private jet the next day, I’d needed to touch her, to taste her one last time—the “one last time” I’d never had with Rebecca. My weakened armor had dropped, and I’d pulled her to me and kissed the hell out of her.
And damn it to hell, I want to do that again.
But I won’t. Ms. Smith lifts her hand to touch me, the way I’ve often let her and no one else do, though I still don’t understand why. Then she seems to sense the change in me, pulling back before contact.
“How are you?” she asks.
The rasp in her voice edges down my nerve endings and evokes emotions that, on some level, I want to arouse in her, though all I should desire from any woman is passion and lust. Those needs are within the realms I have always controlled, so they are acceptable.
But I sense Ms. Smith wants more. And what I want from her is more—which infuriates me.
“How am I?” My words are as tight as my spine. “Ready to get back to normal. Sit.”
Her brow furrows in silence at the command, a prelude to the many battles I suspect are before us, but she claims her seat, as I do mine. Setting my briefcase on a chair, I pull out a document and set it in front of me, intentionally building her expectation as to what it might be.
And I think she knows that, since she refuses to look at it. I narrow my stare on hers, wondering if there’s more behind her iron will than growing up in a rich family with dominant men. And in doing so, I see the slightest hint of discomfort in the depths of her eyes, the weakness I’m looking for to push her well beyond her comfort zone.
“I have the answer to my first question,” I state. “Clearly, we still want to fuck.”
Her lips part in surprise, then a look of incredulity slides over her delicate features as a disgusted sound slips from her lips. “Funny. I thought your first question would be ‘How’s my mother?’ Or ‘How’s my father?’ Or ‘How is the staff, after they’ve taken a beating from the press and customers pounding them with questions?’ ”
“We’ve had that conversation three times in four days, including last night. I trust you. That’s the point.”
“No. The point seems to be us wanting to fuck again.”
My lips quirk at her bold statement. “I’ll take your lack of denial as confirmation you agree. And us wanting to fuck has everything to do with us working together on a day-to-day basis, Ms. Smith.”
“Crystal,” she amends. “You know ‘Ms. Smith’ bothers me, since long before we got naked together. Not even the staff calls me that.”
“Formality is how I manage and how I operate. It’s not a slap. It’s not a reflection on us getting naked together. I simply cannot maintain structure with the staff by treating you differently, nor would we be able to avoid questions.”
She inhales and lets it out. “Point taken, Mr. Compton.”
“Thank you, Ms. Smith.” I pause for effect. “My plan is to be by my mother’s side as much as possible, and leave you with your present duties if you’re agreeable. I’ll simply help you navigate the ship in the more treacherous waters.”
She nods. “I have a list of powerful clients and prospective clients who represent large dollar figures, and it’s taking time to earn the trust that you’d have in one phone call. So I need backup.”
“You have it.” I lean back and study her a moment. “You treat this company and my family as your own.”
“Is that a question?”
“No. I’m just trying to figure out why you’re doing it for us, since your own family owns one of the largest tech companies on the planet. That’s a lot to walk away from.”
“You did the same: Riptide is one of the largest auction houses in the world. And, like I told you, my father and brothers are very controlling, much like you. In fact, I’d say they are equally overbearing.”
I arch a brow, amused at her boldness.
“You think I’m overbearing.”
“You take pride in being overbearing.” I incline my head. “It works for me. But my mother wrote the book on overbearing—yet here you are.”
“It’s different. She isn’t them.”
“But I am?”
“You’re arrogant, intolerably bossy, often rude, and infuriating, but—you’re my boss, not my family. And I’ll point out that you chose to open your gallery across the country, despite being emotionally close to your parents.”
“Birds of a feather,” I say.
“But there’s more to your story.”
“There’s more to yours.”
I lean in closer, lowering my voice to a soft rasp. “I never take what isn’t given to me freely, Ms. Smith.”
She smiles. “Nor do I, Mr. Compton.”
The unexpected reply curls my lips. “You are nothing that I expect.”
“Because you never expect anyone to be like you. Two birds of a feather. Remember?”
“I’m fairly certain you won’t let me forget.” We’re close, a mere lean-in from a kiss, one I crave more each moment I’m with her.
I lean back before I forget my agenda. “Whatever the rest of your story is, when I look into your eyes I see honesty and sincerity, qualities I value more than ever. Qualities I owe you in return. That means giving you a clear understanding of who and what I am—because the past few weeks have not been an example of those things.”
Her gaze lowers and she says softly, “I know I’m a gateway to a place you’re using to cope with . . . things.” Then she looks at me. “Maybe I even am that place. You’ve just lost someone important to you. You fear losing your mother to cancer. So anything you feel with me is about them, not me. Sex is an escape for you.
“And it is for me, too. It’s how I’ve handled the emotion all of this creates in me. So I don’t need or want your guilt. We’re clear on everything.”
But we’re not; the muddied water we’re traveling is dangerous. Worse, she makes me want to believe we can continue. But she brings out a part of me I don’t want to exist; if I let it, I will deserve the guilt.
“If we’re clear up to this point,” I reply, sliding the contract across the table, “then you understand why it’s so important that we’re equally clear on what our relationship is or isn’t going forward.”
Her eyes hold mine and she swallows hard, before her gaze drops to the contract. She stares at the first line, “Master and Submissive Contract,” for two beats and then calmly hands it back to me. “I told you. I will never be your submissive.