I swore ten years ago that no one by my side would ever get hurt again. Yet in the dangerous gray that lies between black and white, I’ve already crossed lines with Ms. Smith.

No more. There is no in between.


Two

Mark . . .

Stepping confidently into Crystal’s open doorway, I find her behind her glass desk, gaze fixed on the file she is studying, her long, shapely legs crossed. Seconds tick by before, in the midst of turning a page, she freezes. Her gaze lifts, landing on me, and she pops to her feet. My eyes sweep the way her formfitting pale pink suit hugs her curves and complements her sleekly styled long blond hair. My cock thickens and heat that I don’t deny or dismiss blazes in my veins, allowing myself the right to be unapologetically a man and a Master.

When my gaze returns to hers, I don’t hide the predatory gleam in mine. It’s part of the message I’m here to deliver. Sex is my release, my way of dealing with life.

“Hi,” she says, her stare remarkably unwavering as the sexual tension between us crackles like a live current. “And before you ask what kind of greeting that is,” she adds, reminding me of something I’d said to her a week before when we’d burned up the sheets in a California hotel room, “the answer is the same as before. It’s my kind.”

Her kind. The kind that simply doesn’t work for me as a Master. But it does, apparently, work for the man beneath the armor I fully intend to restore. I have restored.

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 your 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.”

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