“I don’t know how I let you talk me into this.” Nell made an effort not to stare, unlike her two companions. “Stop ogling everyone’s butt, Tori.” She elbowed her friend.
“No way. You’ve always nixed any plans to go to a BDSM club or a leather bar. I’m not missing my chance to play with a real Dominant.” Tori smiled at a tall man across the room and raised her glass. “It’s Las Vegas, Nell Armstrong. What happens in Las Vegas, blah blah blah.” She tossed back the tequila shot and grinned.
It was difficult to know where to look. The whole bar contained evidence of kink. There was a man in a booth with the woman on a leash who knelt on a pillow at his feet. There was the woman in a gray business suit who stopped her female companion from eating and hand-fed her while holding her wrist in a controlling vise.
“After all those policy meetings, I’m going to need a lot more alcohol,” Gina said and waved to the bartender.
“It was important for the new company to clarify the employee agreement we signed.” Nell knew she sounded prim. She couldn’t help herself. Even with her two closest friends.
Tori snorted. “Right. My favorite is when they breezed over the fraternization section but spent two and a half hours on sexual harassment.”
“Well, you have to admit that section is strange,” Gina said with raised eyebrows.
“Not to mention the fact that the great Atticus Paulus thought he had to give us the whole spiel in private,” Tori added.
“I noticed you didn’t ask any questions,” Gina said and nudged Tori with a playful elbow.
Tori shook her head. “No way. Atticus Paulus makes me nervous.” She cleared her throat and turned to Nell. “What did it say? Something about a D/s relationship? It was weird.”
“I’ve got it right here,” Nell said and reached in her bag.
Tori shook her head. “Don’t you ever stop working?”
When Nell dragged out the file she’d jammed under her purse, she glanced up to lock gazes with the sexiest man she’d ever seen. She froze and drowned in a pair of dark brown eyes that focused on her face like a laser. He assessed her slowly, and not in an “I want to fuck you” way but something…more potent. The bar was filled with several of ConFed’s upper management, so she wasn’t shocked that he seemed familiar. Something about the way he considered her went beyond a casual perusal, and she had the sensation that the floor had dropped out from beneath her feet. She took a deep breath and tried to make her pulse slow. It seemed ridiculous, but she clutched the papers in front of her like a shield, wanting to hide from the knowing evaluation.
“Let me see that.” Gina snatched the papers away. “Yep. Here it is. ‘If any employee of ConFed declares themselves available for a Dominant/submissive relationship within the confines of company policy, they shall be employed by the most senior officer for such relationship.’ Can you imagine?” She laughed. “Being sold to the highest bidder? Or in this case, the highest ranked officer.”
With an effort, Nell focused on Gina’s words and turned away from the man’s compelling appraisal. “That’s not what it says,” Nell said and met Gina’s amused gaze. “It has several stipulations that imply the relationship must be consensual.”
“You just say that because it’s always been your secret fantasy to be dominated,” Tori said with a wicked grin.
“Not secret enough, I guess,” Nell said sharply. She hadn’t concealed it, but she hadn’t acted on her desires, and Gina knew it. A lot of it had to do with finding someone she could trust enough to try something different with. That hadn’t been easy to do.
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.” Tori raised her hands in surrender. “You’re vanilla. You’re normal. Hell, you’re the most efficiently normal person I know.”
“I am most definitely not vanilla, and you know it,” Nell said hotly and then wondered if she’d been drinking too much. Nope. There was her shot glass, still full.
“You won’t let me take you to the gatherings,” Gina stated. She was right, and Nell had to admit it if only to herself. Gina had offered to take Nell to get-togethers for kinky people in the Los Angeles area. Even though Nell had looked the gatherings up online, she still balked at attending one. Dabbling online anonymously was a far cry from real, face-to-face meetings, but she couldn’t take that next step. Munches or clubs or gatherings all meant she had to reveal there was one aspect of her life she didn’t do perfectly, and that was her sex life.
“I know,” Nell said and laughed. “Okay. The whole thing is insane. I checked with legal, and they said that it’s a slippery slope. In other words, if an employee denies making the declaration, there’s definitely an out.” In fact, the company lawyer had been clear that he’d never seen anything like it and was sure there was no legal basis for it. For that reason, he said signing it actually committed her to nothing. What was very odd was the clause seemed to be part of the upper management’s agreements only, which included Gina, Tori, and herself as support staff.
But the clause had brought Nell’s intense desire to explore her submissive side to the forefront. As the stress of the preceding six months bore down on her, those desires were the last thing she needed. Yet, even as the section of the agreement, a section that seemed aimed only at a few of them, posed questions in Nell’s mind, she didn’t broach the subject with any of the senior staff from ConFed. Interestingly enough, neither did her two friends.
“I can picture it now,” Gina said and clasped her hands in front of her. “Oh, please, Master, please can I file that form?”
Nell giggled. “Stop it.”
Tori snickered. “It’s more like ‘Oh, Master, don’t spank me, but I forgot to staple that contract.’”
The three of them degenerated into laughter. “It could work,” Nell finally said. “It’s better than any other offer from a man I’ve had lately. Besides, there’s something arousing about being spanked for a typo.”
“A man with a flogger isn’t going to waltz in and ask you on a date,” Tori said and nudged Nell’s shot glass closer.
“Well, one should,” Nell said drily. What the hell, she thought, and tossed the drink back. It burned her throat and belly. “I just haven’t had time to find one. I’m working.”
“It’s not a good idea to look for him at work,” Gina said, and something in her bitter tone made Nell peer closer to study her friend’s face. Gina had been moodier lately, but Nell had attributed that to the takeover, which was a huge mess for those who worked in the public relations department. Of course, the whole takeover had caused a lot of chaos, and Nell hadn’t had a chance to have a good bitch session with her friends.
“No, I suppose not, though Atticus Paulus was one of the hottest men I’ve seen in a purple tie.” Nell sighed. Why wasn’t she attracted to the acquisitions officer from ConFed? His dark East Indian features gave him an exotic look that appealed to her but didn’t translate into something sexual. She guessed things about Atticus though, subtle hints to his personality that most people might not have caught. Had Gina and Tori? The man was clearly a sexual Dominant. Nell couldn’t put her finger on what made her sure of it, but it was there. Maybe it was the way he delivered his financial numbers or his confidence when he’d open her door, as if it was more than a courtesy. He had never done anything remotely inappropriate, but Nell was positive he would be at home at those gatherings Gina had mentioned.
Sure enough, Tori snorted. “That guy is a smooth-talking ladies’ man.”
Gina giggled. “He’s amazing. He made me crazy when he talked about sexual harassment in the workplace. And he’s
one of those senior officers.”
Tori raised her eyebrows. “Are you saying you’d have a kinky relationship with him?” She wagged her finger. “Careful. That could be viewed as making yourself available. And you’d have to tell him you swing for both teams.”
At Gina’s pinched look, Nell stepped in. “You should keep your voice down,” she said. “There are a lot of our coworkers here.” Not to mention the man with the mesmerizing brown eyes still lingered at the bar.
Nell scanned the bar and was impressed with how it was set up. It had clearly been built to give patrons privacy. The booths were in small recesses with partitions that hid what went on behind them. In those spaces, a man could have a woman on her knees, servicing him, his hand buried in her hair to hold her in place.
Nell shook her head. After everything that had happened in the last six months, she could use a mind-bending sexual experience where she didn’t have to give a written memo to have an orgasm. Despite her giggles at the fraternization clause, it aroused her to think she could be taken over, a demand for submission. It was one thing, however, to fantasize about getting on her knees on command and quite another to actually do it. It seemed to require courage she didn’t have.
“Admit it, Nell,” Tori said with a grin. “It’s a declaration you’d love to make.”
Nell opened her mouth to refute Tori’s statement but couldn’t. “You know I would. I can’t deny that I’m tempted. But I can’t see it ever happening.” She sighed and shook her head. “Can’t we talk about something other than work?”
Movement to her left caught her eye, and she noticed the man with the gorgeous brown eyes carried two drinks away from the bar. He’d probably heard the whole embarrassing conversation. Shit.
Nell sighed. Another good-looking man chased off by her real self. Why was she surprised?
Gina and Tori both ordered more shots. They were going to get good and drunk after four days of policy meetings and reorganization information.
There were two more—no, three more shots. Nell was dizzy, and the room spun a bit. Tori gave her a playful shove. “You need more practice.”
“I sure as hell need more something,” Nell quipped. “Hanging out with you two does mean I might get more free drinks. Men love the tall, goddess types.”
Her two friends were definitely the center of attention. Gina wore her long hair down tonight, and the dark tresses spilled over her shoulders like a romance novel heroine. She had a gypsy look that she emphasized with off-the-shoulder peasant blouses so few women could pull off. Though she was average height, she wore neck-breaking high heels to give her an imposing look.
Tori was a blonde. That alone would have been bad enough, but she had sea-green eyes and flawless skin. Plus, she was tall and statuesque. Very few men towered over her, but Atticus Paulus did, which was probably why Tori didn’t like him.
“Ha! Men love the demure type too,” Tori stated, her green eyes glassy.
“Demure? Is that another word for boring?” Nell joked.
“I don’t know. Let’s ask.” To Nell’s embarrassment, Tori turned to a tall man who lounged next to them, his elbows on the bar behind him. “Is demure another word for boring?”
The man had gray eyes and dirty-blond hair that was neatly trimmed. Nell was sure she’d seen him at the conference along with the man with brown eyes. There had been several ConFed executives, yet this one stood out. His suit exuded power and confidence. His gaze was assessing and intense. “That isn’t the first term that comes to my mind.”
Tori lunged for Nell’s arm and almost yanked her off her bar stool. “You’d never know it to look at her, but her nickname at work is ‘Dragon Bitch.’ She’s a hundred and twenty pounds of mean. But she looks demure.”
Nell wished the floor would open up and swallow her. She was very conscious of the man’s measured gaze as she felt heat climb over her cheeks.
Those gray eyes twinkled. “Right now she looks uncomfortable. How about another drink?”
“Absolutely,” Tori said.
The man paid for their shots and disappeared into one of the recesses. Nell watched him, curious about the vibes she’d sensed from him. She leaned forward to get a glimpse of who sat with him and was not surprised to see Atticus Paulus and the mystery man with the brown eyes.
Gina had drifted off, and Tori mumbled something about the bathroom. Nell studied the men with Atticus. Power suits, power ties, shined shoes, and strong hands seemed to be the common attire for these men.
Atticus, his black hair slicked back and his dark eyes sharp and clear; the gray-eyed man who had looked through her as if he could read her mind; another man who was just as handsome but not her focus; and her mystery man. All of them sat talking and drinking.
They were the top echelon, the men behind ConFed, the ones who strategized to take over Sunsoon. She’d seen them at the conference, going to meetings, assessing the employees of their newest acquisition. They were brilliant, ruthless, and persistent. They were an irresistible force. She was well aware that the innovative ideas to reorganize the company had come from the minds of ConFed’s higher-ups. Adding to that, Nell got the impression all of them were alpha males with a thin veneer of business civilization. They were intensely attractive to her inner submissive.
She staggered off her stool, the room spinning and her stomach unsettled. The whole room had taken on a fuzzy quality. In her red high heels, she could barely manage the distance to the group at the table, but she did it.
Urging her forward were a pair of dark brown eyes that seemed riveted to her face.
“I TAKE IT the transition wasn’t too rocky?” Mark Conners asked Atticus Paulus.
“It might have been much worse, but I had some unexpected support.” Atticus glanced at the bar where three of Sunsoon’s most valuable assets were drinking shots. “As a matter of fact, Ms. Armstrong was a large help in smoothing over the transition. They all admire her.” He sipped his glass of whiskey. “You were right to believe she was the key to success.”
Mark stared at the petite woman. At first, he’d observed her meetings with ConFed officers because she was the confidential secretary to Ernest Dover, a man who seemed to keep Sunsoon’s secrets. Soon, he watched for the pleasure of seeing Anelda Armstrong at work. Until the meetings clearly showed Sunsoon would be acquired by ConFed, she’d resisted all attempts to lure her away from her employer. Once the takeover was inevitable, she fought hard to keep every employee working.
She had most definitely earned the nickname “Dragon Bitch,” but she also stirred something within Mark he’d never felt before. He’d always wanted a secretary submissive, someone who would partner in his work as well as his personal life. It seemed more efficient to combine the two needs into one, but no employee had ever fit the bill. Atticus agreed she was a closet submissive, a caretaker of the best kind, who used efficiency and discipline to help her coworkers.
Mark longed to see her hair down and her face flushed. Lust was a definite factor in his desire to court her. He saw the potential for sexual submission in her that would satisfy them both. He’d played with inexperienced submissives before, but this was a challenge he was determined to meet. His plan regarding Anelda Armstrong was simple: tempt her, charm her, and let her natural desires do the rest. He was sure she would enjoy the results. She was everything Atticus had described and more. Mark had done his homework and was familiar with her work, her boss, and her contributions to the company. But when he’d finally observed her in action, he’d been riveted by her mixture of deference and defiance. Soon, he’d wanted her as much as he wanted the company she worked for. Maybe more.
“I know that look,” Anthony Fedder commented, and Mark shot his partner a glare.
“I’ve seen the same expression on your face when you study a company prospectus that you know we need to own,” Tony stated with a grin. “I take it she is one of the employees with the added fraternization clause.”
“I wanted to give her something to think about,” Mark said and kept his gaze on Nell. “She’s efficient, cerebral, and very meticulous. The clause will give her the excuse to say yes when I finally charm her.” If he was successful. Doubt was not usually an emotion he dealt with too much. But to win Nell, he would have to step carefully, take his time, and not rush things.
“I’m not sure you will,” Atticus stated. “She was extremely loyal to Ernest Dover, and you drove him into retirement.”
“Our source was clear about Dover. He wasn’t the mastermind of the financial expenditures that weakened Sunsoon, but he helped cover it up.” Mark shook his head. “He was loyal to Victor Tourine to the last. There was no way to win him to our side.”
“You don’t think there might be trouble?” Dimitri Caruso’s dark gaze darted around the room, keeping an eye on all the employees that dotted the tables around them. As their risk manager, he usually had a cynical viewpoint on human nature.
“There have been some rumors,” Atticus added. “I don’t like the vibe I get from the office in L.A. The other software plants have fallen in line, given us no trouble since we kept their management intact.”
“Los Angeles was Sunsoon’s headquarters,” Anthony said with a sharp nod. “It makes sense.”
“I don’t know that I should take over the office there,” Mark said, his gaze still on Nell’s curves. Of all people, he should back away and let Dimitri or Atticus handle the L.A. office. His past might interfere with the reorganization.
“This is what we’ve worked for,” Atticus said.
“It could be dangerous,” Mark warned. Even though he’d wanted this more than any other acquisition they’d implemented, he worried that his closely held secrets could damage their reputation.
Tony gave Mark a steady look. “We’ve discussed the possibilities. Stop worrying.”
For a moment, Mark felt that embarrassing combination of kinship he lacked from his family. Tony was his family now. He’d looked after Mark, stood by him, and had been a good friend.
“Look out. Ms. Armstrong is heading our way,” Atticus said and then raised an eyebrow as she wobbled on her high heels. “And I’d say she’s not entirely sober.”
Mark stared. Nell was the most self-contained woman he’d ever met, and this was not what he was used to seeing from her. She staggered across the floor, making a beeline for their table, her gaze locked with his.
As always, she electrified him, tempted him. Even when she met his stare, it was brief, and she would glance away, an intoxicatingly submissive action. When she stopped at their table, she addressed Atticus. “Atticus, I would like to discuss my employee agreement.”
“Miss Armstrong, I believe you’re a little the worse for wear.” Atticus raised an eyebrow and frowned at her.
Nell blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. “You think? After a few tequila shots, I have decided that I would like clarification about my contract.” She slurred the word clarification.
Paulus started to protest again, but Mark stopped him with a raised hand. “What would you like clarified, Miss Armstrong?”
“How exactly does an employee declare that they are available for a Dominant/submissive relationship? Officially, I mean.” Nell’s tone was filled with drunken amusement.
“Ms. Armstrong—” Atticus started, but Nell cut him short.
“I mean, the stip-stipulation was clear that there must be mutual consent.” She stumbled over the words. “But it wasn’t specific.”
Mark wondered if she realized how she sounded. Amused? Yes. Also, she sounded interested, almost wistful about the possibility. He felt a thrill of satisfaction that his plan had worked and a little anxiety that she was so bluntly addressing it. “With some, we require written documentation. With others, no verbal or written declaration is required.”
Nell blinked. “Excuse me?”
Mark rose from his chair and stood beside her, shielding her from the crowd beyond their table “There are some who declare their availability without saying a word, Miss Armstrong.”
He held her gaze until she lowered her head, confusion in her beautiful hazel eyes. Her voice was faint. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. Drop to your knees, Miss Armstrong.” He barked out the command, and Nell slid to her knees, her hands clasped behind her back, her gaze on his shoes.
It was as if she reached inside him and plucked out his favorite fantasy. He hadn’t meant to do this here and now, but she had seemed to reach out for this moment. Every tremble of her fingers and every hitch in her breath cried out for domination. His.
He placed his hand on her head. “Do you need further proof, gentlemen?”
All the men murmured their negative. Paulus spoke, his voice firm. “She isn’t completely coherent,” he stated. “You know the rules.”
Mark stroked her hair and nodded. “Three days. Make the arrangements to delay my flight until Monday.”
Suddenly, Nell lifted her head and gazed at him. “Does that mean I belong to you now?”