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.”

“This is how I operate.” A contract is about my responsibility for her well-being, being in charge of everything that she is and does. Yet that’s not really what I want right now. I want lust, desire. Short, intense BDSM sessions that let me exert the control I need in the rest of my life, strengthening me—but right now I’m too far to the other side to make that happen.

“This is how you operate,” she repeats slowly.

“Yes. The only way.”

“It’s not how I operate.” She stands up, in full rejection mode.

I push to my feet as well. “Have you ever been a submissive?” I ask, intentionally pushing her buttons. “Did you have a bad experience, and that’s why you’re resisting?”

She makes a frustrated sound. “All you need to know is that I will never be one with you.”

She walks away and I have to clamp down on a sudden urge to grab her, pull her to me, and demand to know what the fuck she meant. She is not for you, I remind myself. She is not for you.

She puts the desk between us. “I’d like to get back to my work now.”

Her voice quivers with hurt—not my intention, and proving how bad this could get if it continued. And what’s bad for us would also be bad for my mother. Slipping the contract back into my briefcase, I go for the close, standing directly across from her and pinning her in an unwavering stare. “Submitting to me would teach you things about yourself that I know, and you don’t.”

The hurt disappears, replaced by red-hot anger blazing from her eyes. “You know about me? Seriously? You don’t even know about you right now.”

Goal achieved. Believing that I’m an asshole lets her hold her head high; lets this end on her terms.

I press my hands on the desk, leaning toward her. “Oh, Ms. Smith,” I purr, “you’d be shocked to know just how well I know myself. You’d be even more shocked to know how well I know you. After fucking under my rules just once, I’d own you.”

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