Bared to You (Chapter 2)
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.
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.
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."
"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."
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.