Bared to You (Chapter 3)
The converted warehouse Parker Smith used as his studio was a brick-faced building in a formerly industrial area of Brooklyn presently struggling to revitalize. The space was vast, and the massive metal delivery-bay doors offered no exterior clue as to what was taking place inside. Cary and I sat in aluminum bleachers, watching a half-dozen combatants on the mats below.
"Ouch." I winced in sympathy as a guy took a kick to the groin. Even with padding, that had to sting. "How's Stanton going to find out, Cary?"
"Because you'll be in the hospital?" He glanced at me. "Seriously. Krav Maga is brutal. They're just sparring and it's full contact. And even if the bruises don't give you away, your stepdad will find out somehow. He always does."
"Because of my mom; she tells him everything. But I'm not telling her about this."
"She won't understand. She'll think I want to protect myself because of what happened, and she'll feel guilty and give me grief about it. She won't believe my main interest is exercise and stress relief."
I propped my chin on my palm and watched Parker take the floor with a woman. He was a good instructor. Patient and thorough, and he explained things in an easy to understand way. His studio was in a rough neighborhood, but I thought it suited what he was teaching. It didn't get more "reality based" than a big, empty warehouse.
"That Parker guy is really hot," Cary murmured.
"He's also wearing a wedding band."
"I noticed. The good ones always get snatched up quick."
Parker joined us after the class was over, his dark eyes bright and his smile brighter. "What'd ya think, Eva?"
"Where do I sign up?"
His sexy smile made Cary reach over and squeeze the blood out of my hand.
"Step this way."
Friday started out awesome. Mark walked me through the process of collecting information for an RFP, and he told me a little more about Cross Industries and Gideon Cross, pointing out that he and Cross were the same age.
"I have to remind myself of that," Mark said. "It's easy to forget he's so young when he's right in front of you."
"Yes," I agreed, secretly disappointed that I wouldn't see Cross for the next two days. As much as I told myself it didn't matter, I was bummed. I hadn't realized I'd been excited by the possibility that we might run into each other until that possibility was gone. It was just such a rush being near him. Plus he was a hell of a lot of fun to look at. I had nothing nearly as exciting planned for the weekend.
I was taking notes in Mark's office when I heard my desk phone ringing. Excusing myself, I rushed over to catch it. "Mark Garrity's office – "
"Eva love. How are you?"
I sank into my chair at the sound of my stepfather's voice. Stanton always sounded like old money to me – cultured, entitled, and arrogant. "Richard. Is everything okay? Is Mom all right?"
"Yes. Everything's fine. Your mother is wonderful, as always."
His tone softened when he spoke of his wife and I was grateful for that. I was grateful to him for a lot of things actually, but it was sometimes hard to balance that against my feelings of disloyalty. I knew my dad was self-conscious about the massive differences in their income brackets.
"Good," I said, relieved. "I'm glad. Did you and Mom receive my thank-you note for the dress and Cary's tuxedo?"
"Yes, and it was thoughtful of you, but you know we don't expect you to thank us for such things. Excuse me a moment." He spoke to someone, most likely his secretary. "Eva love, I'd like us to get together for lunch today. I'll send Clancy around to collect you."
"Today? But we'll be seeing each other tomorrow night. Can't it wait until then?"
"No, it should be today."
"But I only get an hour for lunch."
A tap on my shoulder turned me around to find Mark standing by my cubicle. "Take two," he whispered. "You earned it."
I sighed and mouthed a thank you. "Will twelve o'clock work, Richard?"
"Perfectly. I look forward to seeing you."
I had no reason to look forward to private meetings with Stanton, but I dutifully left just before noon and found a town car waiting for me, idling at the curb. Clancy, Stanton's driver and body guard, opened the door for me as I greeted him. Then he slid behind the wheel and drove me downtown. By twenty after the hour, I was sitting at a conference table in Stanton's offices, eyeing a beautifully catered lunch for two.
Stanton came in shortly after my arrival, looking dapper and distinguished. His hair was pure white, his face lined but still very handsome. His eyes were the color of worn blue denim, and they were sharp with intelligence. He was trim and athletic, taking the time out of his busy days to stay fit even before he'd married his trophy wife – my mom.
I stood as he approached, and he bent to kiss my cheek. "You look lovely, Eva."
"Thank you." I looked like my mom, who was also a natural blonde. But my gray eyes came from my dad.
Taking a chair at the head of the table, Stanton was aware that the requisite backdrop of the New York skyline was behind him and he took advantage of its impressiveness.
"Eat," he said, with the command so easily wielded by all men of power. Men like Gideon Cross.
Had Stanton been as driven at Cross's age?
I picked up my fork and started in on a chicken, cranberry, walnut, and feta salad. It was delicious, and I was hungry. I was glad Stanton didn't start talking right away so I could enjoy the meal, but the reprieve didn't last long.
"Eva love, I wanted to discuss your interest in Krav Maga."
I froze. "Excuse me?"
Stanton took a sip of iced water and leaned back, his jaw taking on the rigidity that warned me I wouldn't like what he was about to say. "Your mother was quite distraught last night when you went to that studio in Brooklyn. It took some time to calm her down and to assure her that I could make arrangements for you to pursue your interests in a safe manner. She doesn't want – "
"Wait." I set my fork down carefully, my appetite gone. "How did she know where I was?"
"She tracked your cell phone."
"No way," I breathed, deflating into my seat. The casualness of his reply, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, made me feel ill. My stomach churned, suddenly more interested in rejecting my lunch than digesting it. "That's why she insisted I use one of your company phones. It had nothing to do with saving me money."
"Of course that was part of it. But it also gives her peace of mind."
"Peace of mind? To spy on her grown daughter? It's not healthy, Richard. You've got to see that. Is she still seeing Dr. Petersen?"
He had the grace to look uncomfortable. "Yes, of course."
"Is she telling him what she's doing?"
"I don't know," he said stiffly. "That's Monica's private business. I don't interfere."
No, he didn't. He coddled her. Indulged her. Spoiled her. And allowed her obsession with my safety to run wild. "She has to let it go. I've let it go."
"You were an innocent, Eva. She feels guilty for not protecting you. We need to give her a little latitude."
"Latitude? She's a stalker!" My mind spun. How could my mom invade my privacy like that? Why would she? She was driving herself crazy, and me along with her. "This has to stop."
"It's an easy fix. I've already spoken with Clancy. He'll drive you when you need to venture into Brooklyn. Everything's been arranged. This will be much more convenient for you."
"Don't try to twist this around to being for my benefit." My eyes stung and my throat burned with unshed tears of frustration. I hated the way he talked about Brooklyn like it was a third-world country. "I'm a grown woman. I make my own decisions. It's the goddamn law!"
"Don't take that tone with me, Eva. I'm simply looking after your mother. And you."
I pushed back from the table. "You're enabling her. You're keeping her sick, and you're making me sick, too."
"Sit down. You need to eat. Monica worries that you're not eating healthy enough."
"She worries about everything, Richard. That's the problem." I dropped my napkin on the table. "I have to get back to work."
I turned away, striding toward the door to get out as quickly as possible. I retrieved my purse from Stanton's secretary and left my cell phone on her desk. Clancy, who had been waiting for me in the reception area, followed me, and I knew better than to try and blow him off. He didn't take orders from anyone but Stanton.
Clancy drove me back up to midtown, while I stewed in the backseat. I could bitch all I wanted, but in the end I wasn't any better than Stanton because I was going to give in. I was going to cave and let my mom have her way, because it hurt my heart to think of her suffering any more than she already did. She was so emotional and fragile, and she loved me to the point of being crazy about it.
My mood was still dark when I got back to the Crossfire. As Clancy pulled away from the curb, I stood on the crowded sidewalk and looked up and down the busy street for either a drugstore where I could get some chocolate or a cellular store where I could pick up a new phone.
I ended up walking around the block and buying a half-dozen candy bars at a Duane Reade on the corner before heading back to the Crossfire. I'd been gone just about an hour, but I wasn't going to use the extra time Mark had given me. I needed work to distract me from my crazy-assed family.
As I caught an empty elevator car, I ripped open a bar and bit viciously into it. I was making strides toward filling my self-imposed chocolate quota before I hit the twentieth floor when the car stopped on the fourth. I appreciated the added time the stop gave me to enjoy the comfort of dark chocolate and caramel melting over my tongue.
The doors slid apart, and revealed Gideon Cross talking with two other gentlemen.
As usual, I lost my breath at the sight of him, which reignited my fading irritation. Why did he have that effect on me? When was I going to become immune to his hotness?
He glanced over and his lips curved into a slow, heart-stopping smile when he saw me.
Great. Just my crappy luck. I'd become some kind of challenge.
Cross's smile faded into a frown. "We'll finish this later," he murmured to his companions without looking away from me.
Stepping into the car, he lifted a hand to discourage them from following him. They blinked in surprise, glancing at me, then Cross, and then back again.
I stepped out, deciding it would be safer for my sanity to take a different car up.
"Not so fast, Eva." Cross caught me by the elbow and tugged me back. The doors shut and the elevator glided smoothly into motion.
"What are you doing?" I snapped. After dealing with Stanton, the last thing I needed was another domineering male trying to push me around.
Cross caught me by the upper arms and searched my face with that vivid blue gaze. "Something's wrong. What is it?"
The now-familiar electricity crackled to life between us, the pull made fiercer by my temper. "You."
"Me?" His thumbs stroked over my shoulders. Releasing me, he withdrew a lone key from his pocket and plugged it into the panel. All the lights cleared except for the one for the top floor.
He wore black again, with fine gray pinstripes. Seeing him from the back was a revelation. His shoulders were nicely broad without being bulky, emphasizing his lean waist and long legs. The silky strands of hair falling over his collar tempted me to clench them and pull. Hard. I wanted him as pissy as I was. I wanted a fight.
"I'm not in the mood for you now, Mr. Cross."
He watched the antique-style needle above the doors mark the passing floors. "I can get you in the mood."
"I'm not interested."
Cross glanced over his shoulder at me. His shirt and tie were both the same awesome cerulean as his irises. The effect was striking. "No lies, Eva. Ever."
"That's not a lie. So what if I'm attracted to you? I expect most women are." Wrapping up what was left of my candy bar, I shoved it back into the shopping bag I'd tucked into my purse. I didn't need chocolate when I was sharing air with Gideon Cross. "But I'm not interested in doing anything about it."
He faced me then, turning in a leisurely pivot, that ghost of a smile softening his sinful mouth. His ease and unconcern aggravated me further. "Attraction is too tame a word for" – he gestured at the space between us – "this."
"Call me crazy, but I have to actually like someone before I get naked and sweaty with them."
"Not crazy," he said. "But I don't have the time or the inclination to date."
"That makes two of us. Glad we got that cleared up."
He stepped closer, his hand lifting to my face. I forced myself not to move away or give him the satisfaction of seeing me intimidated. His thumb brushed over the corner of my mouth; then lifted to his own. He sucked on the pad and purred, "Chocolate and you. Delicious."
A shiver moved through me, followed by a heated ache between my legs as I imagined licking chocolate off his lethally sexy body.
His gaze darkened and his voice lowered intimately. "Romance isn't in my repertoire, Eva. But a thousand ways to make you come are. Let me show you."
The car slowed to a halt. He withdrew the key from the panel and the doors opened.
I backed into the corner and shooed him out with a flick of my wrist. "I'm really not interested."
"We'll discuss." Cross caught me by the elbow and gently, but insistently, urged me out.
I went along because I liked the charge I got from being around him and because I was curious to see what he had to say when afforded more than five minutes of my time.
He was buzzed through the security door so quickly there was no need for him to break stride. The pretty redhead at the reception desk pushed hastily to her feet, about to impart some information until he shook his head impatiently. Her mouth snapped shut and she stared at me as we passed at a brisk pace, her eyes wide.
The walk to Cross's office was mercifully short. His secretary stood when he saw his boss's approach, but remained silent when he noted that Cross wasn't alone.
"Hold my calls, Scott," Cross said, steering me into his office through the open glass double doors.
Despite my irritation, I couldn't help but be impressed with Gideon Cross's spacious command center. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the city on two sides, while a wall of glass faced the rest of the office space. The one opaque wall opposite the massive desk was covered in flat screens streaming news channels from around the world. There were three distinct seating areas, each one larger than Mark's entire office, and a bar that showcased jeweled crystal decanters, which provided the only spots of color in a palette that was otherwise black, gray, and white.
Cross hit a button on his desk that closed the doors; then another that instantly frosted the clear glass wall, effectively shielding us from the view of his employees. With the beautiful sapphire-hued reflective film on the exterior windows, privacy was assured. He shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on a chrome coatrack. Then he returned to where I'd remained standing just inside the doors. "Something to drink, Eva?"
"No, thank you." Damn it. He was even yummier in just the vest. I could better see how fit he was. How strong his shoulders were. How beautifully his biceps and ass flexed as he moved.
He gestured toward a black leather sofa. "Have a seat."
"I have to go back to work."
"And I have a meeting at two. The sooner we work this out, the sooner we can both get back to business. Now, sit down."
"What do you think we're going to work out?"
Sighing, he scooped me up like a bride and carried me over to the sofa. He dropped me on my butt; then sat next to me. "Your objections. It's time to discuss what it's going to take to get you beneath me."
"A miracle." I pushed back from him, widening the space between us. I tugged at the hem of my emerald green skirt, wishing I'd worn pants instead. "I find your approach crude and offensive."
And a major turn-on, but I was never going to admit it.
He contemplated me with narrowed eyes. "It may be blunt, but it's honest. You don't strike me as the kind of woman who wants bullshit and flattery instead of the truth."
"What I want is to be seen as having more to offer than an inflatable sex doll."
Cross's brows shot up. "Well, then."
"Are we done?" I stood.
Wrapping my wrist with his fingers, he pulled me back down. "Hardly. We've established some talking points: We have an intense sexual attraction and neither of us wants to date. So what do you want – exactly? Seduction, Eva? Do you want to be seduced?"
I was equally fascinated and appalled by the conversation. And, yes, tempted. It was hard not to be while faced with such a gorgeous, virile male so determined to get hot and sweaty with me. Still, the dismay won out. "Sex that's planned like a business transaction is a turnoff for me."
"Establishing parameters in the beginning makes it less likely that there'll be exaggerated expectations and disappointment at the conclusion."
"Are you kidding?" I scowled. "Listen to yourself. Why even call it a fuck? Why not be clear and call it a seminal emission in a preapproved orifice?"
He pissed me off by throwing his head back and laughing. The full, throaty sound flowed over me like a rush of warm water. My awareness of him heightened to a physically painful degree. His earthy amusement made him less sex god and more human. Flesh and blood. Real.
I pushed to my feet and backed out of reach. "Casual sex doesn't have to include wine and roses, but for God's sake, whatever else it is, sex should be personal. Friendly even. With mutual respect at the very least."
His humor fled as he stood, his eyes darkening. "There are no mixed signals in my private affairs. You want me to blur that line. I can't think of a good reason to."
"I don't want you to do jack shit, besides let me get back to work." I strode to the door and yanked on the handle, cursing softly when it didn't budge. "Let me out, Cross."
I felt him come up behind me. His palms pressed flat to the glass on either side of my shoulders, caging me in. I couldn't think of my own self-preservation when he was so close.
The strength and demand of his will exuded an almost tangible force field. When he stepped close enough, it surrounded me, closing me in with him. Everything outside of that bubble ceased to exist, while inside it my entire body strained toward his. That he had such a profound, visceral effect on me while being so damn irritating had my mind spinning. How could I be so turned on by a man whose words should've turned me completely off?
"Turn around, Eva."
My eyes closed against the surge of arousal I felt at his authoritative tone. God, he smelled good. His powerful frame radiated heat and hunger, spurring my own wild desire for him. The uncontrollable response was intensified by my lingering frustration with Stanton and my more recent aggravation with Cross himself.
I wanted him. Bad. But he was no good for me. Honestly, I could screw up my life on my own. I didn't need any help.
My flushed forehead touched the air-conditioned glass. "Let it go, Cross."
"I am. You're too much trouble." His lips brushed behind my ear. One of his hands pressed flat to my stomach, the fingers splaying to urge me back against him. He was as aroused as I was, his cock hard and thick against my lower back. "Turn around and say good-bye."
Disappointed and regretful, I turned in his grip, sagging against the door to cool my heated back. He was curved over me, his luxurious hair framing his beautiful face, his forearm propped against the door to bring him closer. I had almost no room to breathe. The hand he'd had at my waist was now resting on the curve of my hip, tightening reflexively and driving me mad. He stared, his gaze searingly intense.
"Kiss me," he said hoarsely. "Give me that much."
Panting softly, I licked my dry lips. He groaned, tilted his head, and sealed his mouth over mine. I was shocked by how soft his firm lips were and the gentleness of the pressure he exerted. I sighed and his tongue dipped inside, tasting me in long leisurely licks. His kiss was confident, skilled, and just the right side of aggressive to turn me on wildly.
I distantly registered my purse hitting the floor; then my hands were in his hair. I pulled on the silky strands, using them to direct his mouth over mine. He growled, deepening the kiss, stroking my tongue with lush slides of his own. I felt the raging beat of his heart against my chest, proof that he wasn't just a hopeless ideal conjured by my fevered imagination.
He pushed away from the door. Cupping the back of my head and the curve of my buttocks, he lifted me off my feet. "I want you, Eva. Trouble or not, I can't stop."
I was pressed full-body against him, achingly aware of every hot, hard inch of him. I kissed him back as if I could eat him alive. My skin was damp and too sensitive, my breasts heavy and tender. My clit throbbed for attention, pounding along with my raging heartbeat.
I was vaguely aware of movement, and then the couch was against my back. Cross was levered over me with one knee on the cushion and the other foot on the floor. His left arm supported his torso while his right hand gripped the back of my knee, sliding upward along my thigh in a firmly possessive glide.
His breath hissed out when he reached the point where my garter clipped to the top of my silk stocking. He tore his gaze away from mine and looked down, pushing my skirt higher to bare me from the waist down.
"Jesus, Eva." A low rumble vibrated in his chest, the primitive sound sending goose bumps racing across my skin. "Your boss is damned lucky he's gay."
In a daze, I watched Cross's body lower to mine, my legs sliding apart to accommodate the width of his hips. My muscles strained with the urge to lift toward him, to hasten the contact between us that I'd been craving since I first laid eyes on him. Lowering his head, he took my mouth again, bruising my lips with a fine edge of violence.
Abruptly, he yanked himself away, stumbling to his feet.
I lay there gasping and wet, so willing and ready. Then I realized why he'd reacted so fiercely.
Someone was behind him.