Harper Mathews stood outside the door to her boss’s office. She had no choice but to go inside, but she dreaded this meeting. It wasn’t exactly a meeting. More like a reprimand. A reprimand she’d been expecting for over a week now.
Actually, a reprimand would be the least he’d do to her. He would probably fire her, and then she had no idea what she would do. Jobs weren’t exactly easy to come by anymore.
“He’s waiting for you.”
Harper glared at Penny, her boss’s ultra-efficient, ultra-bitchy administrative assistant. No doubt he was sleeping with her, and that’s why she thought she could treat all of Ace’s employees like children. Harper took several deep breaths, smoothed down her pencil skirt, and frowned at the ridiculous name plate on his door.
Arturo Charles Easton, CEO ~ ACE Communications.
No shit. Who didn’t know that? He’d named his company after his initials, and insisted everyone call him “Ace” to reinforce the point. Having a cutesy nickname was supposed to make him more approachable.
If he really wanted to fit in with the peons, he should stop wearing suits and ties to work, and not insist his staff dress in business clothes as well. Such clothing had gone out of fashion in even the most uptight companies about five decades ago. Anything dressy or businesslike was almost impossible to buy because there weren’t too many vintage clothing stores underground, and the ones above ground were long gone from wind and flood damage.
The man was so pretentious about everything, from the way he dressed to the décor in this office complex. But a job was a job. It made good use of her skills, the pay wasn’t terrible, and she had to work somewhere. So she was likely in for some serious begging to keep it once she stepped into his office.
Penny’s second loud sigh had Harper rolling her eyes, but she didn’t bother turning around this time. She pushed open the door and blinked a few times, letting her eyes grow used to the dim light. They had plenty of sunlight lamps in their underground cities and more than enough electricity to afford having brightly lit offices, but Ace liked to keep his cave dim. As far as Harper was concerned, that was the mark of a man trying to hide something.
She stood waiting, but he didn’t glance up from his computer screen. Surely he knew she was there. She reached behind her and closed the door louder than she needed to, and still the smug bastard didn’t look up. If only he wasn’t so damn good-looking, it would be easy to dismiss him. But the man had starred in all her fantasies for over a year now, even since she’d been fortunate enough to land this job right out of graduate school.
Her MBA with a concentration in information systems had landed her the job, but her hacker skills would likely lose it for her now. Why had she done it? She knew he’d ask. The excuse of getting drunk with Traci Dawson wouldn’t fly with him since he was the reason Traci had been drunk in the first place.
Traci used to be one of Ace’s administrative assistants, until she’d wanted more than sex from him. Harper hadn’t known her all that well before she left Ace’s company for other work after Ace dumped her over a week ago. But she’d felt sorry for her the day she’d found her crying hysterically in the bathroom. A few pitchers of margaritas later at Traci’s apartment, and Harper had gone from being a rising star on Ace’s analysis team to one of the women who had hacked into his personal email accounts and photo sites.
She’d have to tell him the ugly truth and accept the consequences of his decision. He was her boss, after all. And he was a man. What would he understand about supporting another woman who wanted more than sex from a relationship, especially when men like him dumped women like Traci for no discernible reason all the time?
“You’re late, Miss Mathews.”
She rolled her eyes. Why did he have to call everyone by their surnames? “Sorry. I couldn’t get off the video chat in time.”
He finally looked up, and she dug her nails into her palms as the familiar lust raced through her. It would help if he’d shave. He always seemed to have a shadow on his chin, and it only made him look more rugged. She had imagined that stubble grazing her nipples so many times now that she could almost feel it doing so as her gaze rested on it.
“Take a seat at the table, please.”
She walked to the center of the room, taking in his dark gray suit, crisp white shirt, and his tie, which featured a design taken straight from a Van Gogh painting. The tie looked totally out of place, but perhaps that’s why he’d worn it? His dark eyes watched her with an unfathomable expression in their depths as she took a seat.
“Swipe open the tablet, please.”
What silly game is he playing? She swiped the screen, and then swallowed hard as one of the personal websites she and Traci had hacked into filled the screen. Harper didn’t look at him. What was the point?
“You and Miss Dawson were quite busy that night.” His voice was soft, but instead of the threat or anger she’d expected to hear, he sounded amused. She glanced up to find him advancing slowly toward her. Her gaze dropped to his crotch, and she forced it back to his face. Of course he noticed, and a smile played at the corners of his mouth.
He stood way too close to her, glancing over her shoulder, and Harper had to lick her lips because her mouth was now bone dry. It was difficult to find such things as cologne anymore, but he managed to, and he always smelled great. Its woodsy scent usually fueled her fantasies, but today it only made things worse. Now when he fired her, she’d have that smell in her head to remind her of this humiliation.
He reached across her and tapped the screen. “Did you find everything you were looking for that night?”
Harper sighed as one of the email accounts they’d hacked into stared back at her, mocking her. She and Traci had been so drunk, but he wouldn’t buy that as an excuse. “I honestly don’t remember, Mr. Easton.”
“Ace. You can still call me Ace. Why don’t you remember?”
She wanted to look at his face, but knew if she did he would see how embarrassed she was, and she didn’t want him to know that. “We were very drunk.” He didn’t answer. “Really, really drunk. I’m talking I had to stay at her place that night drunk because I wasn’t sure I could find my way home.”
He chuckled so softly she barely heard it. But instead of filling her with relief, all the sound did was make her angry. “Oh, I see. So hacking into my personal accounts was the result of large amounts of alcohol. I’m even more impressed now with your skills.”
This time, she did glance up sharply. “I’m not following you.”
“To be able to crack a complicated series of passwords while that inebriated is a pretty amazing accomplishment. So either you’re lying about having been drunk, or your skills are wasted in my analytics department.”
The man had no boundaries, but she’d already known that before his gaze traveled slowly over her face, down to her boobs, and rested on her hands. Those hands were now clasped tightly in her lap. When he finally looked her in the eyes again, his expression had gone hard and cold. Harper braced herself. This is it.
“Meaning I could better use you behind the scenes with those select few from my company who are looking for the bastards responsible for fucking up The Madeline Project.”
Harper stared at him, completely at a loss for words.
“And there are other conditions you’ll have to fulfill, of course.”
The predatory look was back. But first she had to clarify what he’d meant by outlining where her skills could be better put to work. The realization he wasn’t about to toss her out of the building finally made its way into the working part of her brain. “You’re not firing me?"
He chuckled again, but this time it was filled with derision. “That depends on whether or not you agree to the conditions of your new assignment.”
Oh … oh he wouldn’t. Yes, he would. He absolutely would.
She licked her lips again, wishing she hadn’t done so when his gaze turned lustful. She didn’t want him to think she’d just issued an invitation. “What are the conditions?”
He took a seat and pulled his chair so close their knees touched. Harper resisted the urge to push her chair back. It would only make her look silly, and she refused to show this man any emotion right now. She had to keep a clear head.
“I have a few wealthy and influential friends. Without our backing, the Storm Troopers wouldn’t exist. These cities wouldn’t be as well-equipped as they are, and the servers that stay up and running so you and your friends can hack into personal accounts would crash far more than they now do.”
“Traci isn’t my friend. I merely felt sorry for her.” The second it was out of her mouth she wished she could take it back. The cold, hard look in his eyes was replaced with humor and even more lust. The man moved closer, which she didn’t think was physically possible, but somehow he pulled it off. She could count his damn eyelashes now. His very long damn eyelashes.
“You felt sorry for her? Why?”
Oh shit. She could lie, but he’d see it. He was close enough to smell it oozing out of her pores, for heaven’s sake. “She was crying in the bathroom.” That wouldn’t be enough to satisfy him. “Over you.” His eyes clouded over with an emotion she couldn’t quite read. “Because you dumped her.”
He finally pushed his chair back, but only slightly. “I dumped her, as you say, because she wanted more than I was willing to give. There’s something you need to know about me, Harper. I don’t do the happily-ever-after thing. Traci knew that up front. Are we clear on that?”
Jeez Louise, calm down! “I’ve already got that part figured out.”
His smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Good. That should make it easier for you to agree to the conditions of your new assignment. Here they are. You will move your things immediately to a different part of this building, where a man named Tim Walker will show you what I expect from those on that particular team. Agreed so far?”
She nodded because she didn’t trust her voice right now.
“Then you will have dinner with me tonight, in my apartment, during which I will outline the other terms of our agreement. I’ll email you the directions, and will have a messenger send over what I want you to wear. Agreed?”
She averted her gaze for a second as her heart pounded. The excitement coursing through her body wasn’t unexpected, but this was the wrong time for her fantasies to jump up and down demanding attention. This wasn’t a daydream to fuel her imagination when she masturbated. This was the real deal. This man not only expected her to work for him, hacking into websites, but he expected her to have sex with him.
When she finally dared to look at him again, he waited with an expression on his face that was no more emotional than if he’d been perusing items in a grocery store. What the hell had Traci seen in him? He might be drop-dead gorgeous, but he was cold inside. “I wasn’t trained to be a hacker.”
“Then you shouldn’t have done what you did.” He spoke softly again, but with a note of command and finality that sent delicious shivers down her spine.
Don’t go there.
“I waited all this time to confront you because I was so angry you wouldn’t have wanted to have this conversation with me any earlier.”
She decided to ignore that comment because really, she had no defense. “As for the rest of our agreement, as you called it, you can’t force me into your bed, Ace. There are laws against that sort of thing.”
He leaned back in his chair and grinned. “You’re right. There are. But consider this. If I call HR, you’re gone. Fired. The friends I mentioned own ninety percent of the tech companies large enough to have a need for an analyst, a programmer, or any other job you’re qualified for. One call to them, and you’ll be looking for work outside the field you were trained in.”
“You can’t do this. It’s blackmail.”
He leaned forward. “No, it’s good business. I need your skills. You need a job. And you picked the wrong guy to spy on, no matter what your motives were for doing it. So you will agree to my other conditions, or I’ll do worse than fire you. I’ll call the police. Do you know what the jails are like these days?”
“Do you and your friends control those, too?”
A shadow of pain crossed his eyes, but it was so fleeting she thought she might have imagined it. “No, we do not. If we did, they wouldn’t be in such deplorable conditions.”
He had her by short hairs. She’d do anything to avoid prison. Finding a new job wasn’t a pleasant prospect, but she could do it. Traci had found another one, if the gossip in this building was to be believed. And if she quit before he fired her, he couldn’t force her to work in another department, or force his way into her bed. “And what if I just quit instead?”
“If you quit I call the police.”
He hadn’t even blinked. He’d been expecting her to say it. She had no choice. He had her backed into a corner. She rose. “Tell me where to take my stuff.”
He stood. “I’ll do better than that. I’ll show you myself.”
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