Monday, December 28, 2009

Turning Ash by Crymsyn Hart


Chapter One


Ashling stared at the pale stranger before her. If she hadn’t seen a picture of him, she never would’ve believed that Devlin was standing there. She wouldn’t have committed to meeting him in person unless she had talked to him on the phone first. Before that, there were hundreds of text messages and emails where she had spilled her heart out to this man. He didn’t judge her for the choices she made. Moreover, their long talks had blossomed into a good friendship. Finally, he suggested they should meet.
Half shrouded in shadows, Devlin leaned against the glass of the empty coffee shop. His shoulder-length hair was caught back in a ponytail. The illumination of the lights made his skin even paler than in his snapshot. A strand of hair, escaping the binding of the elastic, played along his high cheekbones in the gentle breeze. He was even more beautiful in real life than staring at his photograph. Ashling had committed his image to memory just in case she woke up and the photo was somehow gone.
She stood on the corner, still in the shadows, feeling the energy of the environment playing on her skin. She drew in the strength of the night, letting it warm her and feed her deep hunger. This man was also a psychic vampire. She licked her lips. Part of her wondered if she blinked would Devlin disappear? My nerves are getting the better of me. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. There were many stories of women meeting strange men from the Internet, and the women were never heard from again. She gripped the sides of her skirt and wiped her sweaty palms on the fabric. She sucked on her tongue ring, pushing it up and down inside her mouth, and clinked it against her teeth. Even her toes shook. This is ridiculous. He won’t hurt me. I’ve been talking to him for over a year now. I know him.
“Yeah, but how much do you know him?” Christa’s voice echoed in her mind.
More than I ever knew you before I told you what I was. And that didn’t stop you from hanging around me. Ashling dismissed her friend’s statement and drew in a breath. She pushed up her glasses. Car headlights blinded her, so she threw up her hand to protect her eyes from the glare and withdrew further into the velvet darkness concealing her even from Devlin’s eyes. Her eyeteeth tingled. A slow burn unwound in the pit of her stomach. This isn’t good. It meant her hunger was unsatisfied. The energy of the night wasn’t helping. Ashling had fed before she came to meet Devlin. Christa had allowed her to draw in some of her energy before she left. Normally, Ashling liked to feed while she was asleep and dreamwalking, but tonight her nerves were burning through the energy. She ran her tongue over her teeth and willed the hunger away. At times like this, when her hunger raged, it seemed she possessed actual fangs.
Smoothing the fabric of her skirt one more time, she stepped into the dim light of the café. Devlin wasn’t there. Somehow he had disappeared in the few seconds she blocked her eyes from the oncoming headlights. She turned and searched Massachusetts Avenue for him. If he was playing with her, there were too many shadows for him to be concealed in. Shit. He must have thought I wasn’t going to show and left. Regret consumed Ashling. Maybe it was all my imagination. Maybe I didn’t really see him.
A deep laugh erupted next to her ear, a velvet purr; she wasn’t sure it was coming from a human throat. Ashling spun around and found Devlin now resting against the telephone pole, gazing straight at her. A wide grin spread on his sensuous lips. The smile made him more breathtaking than the dark brooding photo he had sent her. A ladder of silver hoops hung in both of his ears. His smoky eyes were surrounded by long onyx lashes. A sprinkling of stubble ran along his chin. In the picture, his face was angled down so she hadn’t seen his eyes that closely.
“Devlin?”
“Ashling.”
Her throat went dry while she struggled to find the right words. Here was the guy, her savior sometimes, who had listened to her and helped her through the horrible bouts of hunger she’d had, the depression, and the rejection she’d experienced over the past year. It wasn’t easy being a psychic vampire in the world. Most of the populace thought she was insane for being what she was. When she finally found a small niche to belong to, a whole new world had opened up. She had discovered kindred souls among the online communities. There was always the possibility they were yanking her chain, but she was good at reading people. Just as she’d read Devlin the first time she had gotten a personal IM from him.

* * * *

When Devlin’s instant message box popped up, she was browsing some threads on a message board. She had almost ignored it, but something in the way he phrased his question intrigued her. His icon on the forum was a smiley face. Most of the logos reflected something of their owners’ dark personalities. Hers was a little picture of one of her Living Dead Dolls, Lilith to be exact. The smiley face should’ve turned her off, but staring at the blinking cursor while he waited for a response, Ashling studied his introductory question. It read:
“Are you happy, Ashling?”
Was she happy? What an inane question to ask. Of course she was happy. Her fingers poised on the keyboard of her laptop ready to make some snide reply, but the query echoed through her thoughts. Was she happy? She had a boyfriend. She was keeping the hunger at bay. She had a job she liked. Her roommate was great. There were no problems in her life and the online community was revealing more psychic vampires every day. Even though she was finding them, a small part of her never felt they were completely like her.
So she typed her response. “Most of the time.”
“What about right at this moment? If you could capture it and freeze it, would you be happy?”
“Yes,” she replied, but doubt lingered in her mind.
There was a pause, as if he was laughing. A low chuckle echoed through her darkened bedroom. I’m hearing things. It’s my imagination giving this crazy guy a personality.
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Why? Can you make me happy?”
“I don’t know. I was only posing the question. I love to make people think.”
Ashling snorted when she read the response. He certainly made her think. “Well, are YOU happy?”
“Of course. I’ve just met you.”
Blood rushed to her cheeks. Why am I blushing? I don’t know this guy from a hole in the wall? He could be a depraved serial killer for all she knew. “Well, that’s nice of you to say, but you don’t know me.”
“But I want to know you.”
“Well, I don’t want to know you.” Ashling closed the lid of her laptop, shutting off the contact with the mysterious IMer. For the rest of the day, their small conversation stuck in her head. Even while she was at work pouring drinks, the band on stage couldn’t pull her mind off the conversation. When she arrived home that night, exhausted, smelling like cheap beer and cigarettes, she opened her laptop. The little white box remained, waiting for her to reply. She shook her head and closed the computer again. If the guy really wanted to talk, then he would have to wait until she had showered and gotten a little shut-eye.

* * * *

“Are you daydreaming?”
Ashling blushed and looked away. She had completely tuned Devlin out. “Sorry.”
“No need to apologize. You’ve always been so down to earth when we talk and not up in the clouds.” Annoyance peppered his voice. Devlin lived a few hundred miles away in New York City, while she was in Boston. They had arranged the meeting a few weeks ago when they both had a few days off, so she didn’t want him to think his trip was a waste of time.
She shook her head. “I’m not, really. I was just thinking about the first time we met. When you IM’ed me and asked me if I was happy.”
“Are you?”
“Yes.”
He smiled this time, which lit up his dark eyes. Ashling bit her lip harder, tasting blood. Fantasies of her and Devlin threatened to overwhelm her, but she had a boyfriend. She and Evan had dated for three years now. They were good together. He was a normal college student, but underneath his Polos and khakis lived a rocker with some outrageous tattoos. Ashling hadn’t told him about her nature, and he wasn’t pleased when she informed him that Devlin was meeting with her.
“Why don’t we go inside? It’s getting a little chilly out here.”
She nodded and headed toward the café. Ashling reached for the door, but Devlin got it first. Blood seared her cheeks, hurting her face from blushing so hard. She’d had butterflies in her stomach on the subway ride over, but those fluttery little insects had morphed into dive-bombing hawks, churning her stomach. She ducked inside, glad the interior of the café was dim. There were plenty of nooks and crannies where she could hide, especially upstairs. They walked to the counter. She got a hot chocolate with shaved dark chocolate on top of the whipped cream. Devlin ordered peppermint tea. He didn’t seem the type who went with tea. She assumed he was a hardcore kinda guy who drank his coffee black. Devlin followed her up the winding staircase to her favorite spot next to the window. Tonight she paid no mind to the bustling street below because she was too enamored with having Devlin here in the flesh. Part of her yearned to reach out, touch him and fling her body against his to feel if he was solid. Devlin slid into the chair across from her, careful for not even his boot to bump her knee under the small table.
Ashling poked at the dark chocolate slivers with her spoon, not able to meet his eyes yet. She tried to keep her hands steady. What do we talk about? I’ve told him all my secrets. He knows so much about me. Even more than Evan. Devlin could be my best girlfriend. She tried to place her spoon on the rim of the saucer, but it clattered and spattered her with hot chocolate droplets.
“Shit,” she muttered. Her right eye started to twitch. Ashling grabbed a napkin, dabbing at the spots on her cheek and then on the table. Devlin’s fingers landed on the white napkin, pinning it to the wooden surface still leaving centimeters between them.
“Ashling, focus.” His voice was soft yet commanding. She dared a look into his smoldering eyes. They reached into her soul and captured her. She drew in a breath, nearly choking on the air. The heat from his fingers brushed against her flesh and enticed the hunger. The temptation to pierce his aura and drain it slowly, savoring it, pressed on her mind. Her teeth ached again. His gaze held hers, but she regained control and finally looked away.
“Sorry, Devlin. I’m normally not this discombobulated when I meet new people.”
“I don’t bite, Ashling.”
She laughed. “You could if you wanted too.” Devlin also professed to drinking blood on occasion, but mostly he got by on energy the way she did.
Devlin flashed her his perfectly white teeth. His canines were long, giving him natural fangs. “You’re absolutely correct. I could bite if I desired, but there’s no one appetizing in here at the moment. Except you, of course.”
Ashling snorted. “Now I know you’re lying.”
His eyes and his expression darkened. “I’m not kidding. You don’t give yourself much credit. I’ve been typing to you for over a year now, and you always come off as this cocky, self-sufficient woman who has her shit together. Maybe I was wrong about you. They do say meeting people in person can squash the preconceived ideas we have of them and what they will be like. Do I have the wrong idea?” He drew back in the chair, crossing his arms over his chest, putting up his guard again.
Ashling closed her eyes and gathered her wits. His words stung, but she didn’t want him to get the wrong impression. Sure, she was freer to talk on the Internet because there were no walls, no inhibitions. Fantasies were created and enacted through chat rooms or online games every day. A sudden chill wrapped around her spine from the draft. She opened her eyes and stared down at the passing pedestrians. They were near Harvard Square, only a few blocks from the illustrious college. Most of the walkers were students and weren’t plagued day by day with an incessant rage burning through their veins. They didn’t believe in vampires. They focused on term papers and grades. Each mind, each aura, was like nails in her flesh. On the nights she was particularly pissed off, she could barely be around anyone. Sometimes Evan thought she was anti-social, but he didn’t know the half of it. She had confided everything to Devlin, and now he was questioning his judgment. Why did he come out here then? He must think I’m a total ditz.
“You’re not wrong, Devlin. Sometimes, being what I am, what we are, I forget that I’m still a person. I haven’t been bullshitting you all these months.” Ashling switched her gaze from the window and met his. She wished she could read his eyes. They were so cold. “I’m sorry if you thought I was a flake. Look, I’m ecstatic that you drove here to meet me, but you’ve never told me what you’re like in person either. We’ve talked on the phone, yeah, but that doesn’t mean that I get to watch your expressions when you talk. Have you been jerking me around this past year?” Now it was her turn to sit back in her chair and cross her arms over her chest, mirroring him.
Silence hung in the air between them. The clanging of spoons and the din of voices from the lower level of the coffee shop filtered up to their table. Her fists were clenched. Devlin’s face twitched, and then deep, rich laughter tumbled from his lips while more strands of dark hair escaped his ponytail.
“Ahh, Ash. You’re something else and you’re correct. I’ve never hinted at my moods. I know more about you than you do about me.”
“Well, then, why don’t you impart some of your glorious history to me?” Ashling picked up her mug of hot chocolate and finally took a sip. The destabilized cream had melted into the hot beverage. The sweet and tart flavors of the dark chocolate lingered on her tongue after she swallowed.
Devlin played with the tag on his peppermint tea. His long fingers wrapped around the ceramic cup, and she noticed he wore an onyx ring set in silver on his left middle finger. The stone matched his eyes. “I have too many secrets to tell you all in one night. Some of them you wouldn’t believe.” Devlin’s right hand left the warmth of the cup, sliding across the table. His fingers remained a hairsbreadth away. She wondered why he still didn’t touch her.
Ashling leaned across the table feeling her hair sweep over her shoulder, blocking her view of anyone coming up the stairs. She didn’t touch him, respecting his space. “Devlin, you can tell me anything. I won’t judge you. You haven’t judged me.”
His gaze flicked to the stairs. He inhaled, struggling with whatever he desired to tell her. Before he answered, her hot chocolate splashed her face, dropped into her lap, scalding her legs and messing up her glasses.
“Ouch! What the fu—” A whoosh of air went past her head. Suddenly she was shoved to the floor and had her glasses knocked off. Screams erupted around her, and there was the clamor of feet on the stairs. Squinting, she tried to make out what was going on, but without her glasses, everything was blurry. There was more commotion downstairs, the sound of breaking glass and a very human groan. Dark laughter. She felt around the floor for her glasses until her fingers latched onto something soft and squishy, not her glasses.
Heavy footfalls pounded on the stairs again. She strained and saw Devlin’s blurred, black form in the corner with someone else behind him. Her fingers found her glasses. Drawing herself up, she sat on a cushioned bench, wiping her eyeglasses on her shirt. She settled her glasses on her nose and discovered one of the lenses was cracked. Thankfully, she had another pair at home, but then she saw her friend. Devlin had a man pinned against the far wall, with his hand wrapped around his neck. A terror-stricken look adorned the man’s features. Devlin’s long black hair tumbled to the middle of his back and hid his face. Her gaze darted to the table where they had sat. A large silver knife protruded from the spot where her hot chocolate mug had been. Trails of drying chocolate ran down the walls and the window next to the table. White porcelain was scattered all over the table and the floor. There was another knife embedded in the wall a few millimeters from where her head had been.
What the fuck is going on? Who the hell is that guy? Why did he attack us? She got up and walked toward Devlin.
“Stay back, Ash!” he growled.
Ashling nodded while backing up a few steps. Her gaze locked to the man Devlin held.
“You’re pretty. It’s a shame you have to die too.”
Before she could respond, Devlin punched their attacker in the stomach with his free hand. The assailant barely flinched. “Who sent you?” Devlin asked.
The man grinned. “I’m only the welcoming committee. More will come.”
Devlin said something under his breath, and a look of terror washed over the man’s face. Devlin released her attacker and stepped back, but the man was still pinned against the wall. Ashling froze. An unseen force descended over the room. Purple energy crackled around the man. Suddenly the air was ripped from her lungs. She tried to pull in a breath, but was too focused on the horror before her. Her attacker’s chest was smashed in by some invisible force. The cracking of his ribs echoed in her ears. The sound reminded her of someone popping bubble wrap. Blood spattered all over the wall, dotting her glasses and landing on her cheeks.
Blue energy gathered around Devlin. He was the one unleashing the power that was covering the man. Devlin pulled on the energy again. This time, he pierced her aura. Her hands flew to her throat. She gasped for air, but she was choking. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from her assailant. His face was flattened. Sirens and shouting erupted outside. Devlin smiled, dipped his finger into the blood covering his victim’s torso and licked it. He drew in more energy. This time, it seemed someone crushed her windpipe. Her limbs grew cold, and darkness crept in on the edge of her vision. Ashling desperately tried to draw in a breath, but Devlin didn’t notice. She fell to her knees and reached out to Devlin. Right before she passed out, her attacker’s brains exploded on the wall, mixed with the crimson of his blood.

Caging the Tiger by Michelle Houston

Kyle ran his fingers over the crinkled edge of the letter that he had read so many times—he knew the contents by heart. In high school, his teacher had encouraged the class to reach out to someone in the community, someone in a field they admired or with whom they shared a common interest.

He’d chosen a young magician named Meric. At the time, he couldn’t really explain what had caused him to write to the illusionist. Certainly it wasn’t any great belief in magic. Having grown up in a series of foster homes, many of them not the best environment for a young man, he had long since lost his innocent belief in such things.

Yet the illusionist drew him.

So he took a chance and wrote him a letter, never expecting to hear back.

Now, almost five years later, he had well over a hundred letters and postcards from Mark, bearing postmarks from all over the world. Focusing his attention back on the letter he held, Mark’s latest to him, he closed his eyes and recited the words aloud, needing to hear them, imagining what the other man’s voice sounded like.

Kyle,

I have finally managed to book a show in your town, and would like to invite you to attend. Enclosed is a set of five tickets. Please, feel free to invite some of your friends.

I do hope to finally meet you. It’s been such a pleasure the last five years.

Sincerely,
Meric/Mark


Opening his eyes, Kyle rubbed his thumb over the signature, tracing the gracefully flowing lines. So much had changed in the last five years. It had only been a year into his pen-pal relationship with the magician that he discovered a dormant side to himself.

Now, he wondered if there were others like him. Thanks to the press about Meric’s new act, he had to wonder if his friend carried the same secret in his heart. Could the other man also turn into a tiger?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Corporate Seduction by Bridget Midway

Chapter One

Would it be possible to have sex on that thing?

May Davenport licked her lips as she stared at the waist-high laser fax-copier-printer monstrosity, rumored to have been an accomplice in an office tryst. Who knew Hewlett-Packard could be an aphrodisiac, she thought.

Damn, she needed to get a life and get laid if thoughts of sex in the office consumed her time. And she needed to stop reading those damn erotica novels.

Reading them had her believing that the situations contained in them could be possible. Take-charge hunks. Hot, sweaty public sex. Happily ever after. Not in this office building, and not with anyone working here.

May cocked her head as she stared at the machine, as though willing it to share its secrets. Who was on top? Did anything break in the process? If they left the lid open, did it get any good pictures?

The rumor running rampant at Crystal Industries would have the entire twenty-five floors believing that such an act would not only be plausible, but indeed had happened between a junior associate who worked on the second floor and a female executive from the seventeenth floor who was not known to fraternize with anyone below her floor.

Stupid people. Why in the world would they risk their careers for the sake of hot sex? Sure, that kind of arrangement worked out in romance novels. Everything always worked out in those things. But this was real life. And real life had a way of kicking people in their asses.

May could kind of see the lure. The executive had power and the junior guy had hunger, sexual or otherwise, at least that was how another executive assistant from that floor had described the two to May during a good gossip session in the bathroom.

Damn, she needed to get a life.

What she really wanted to know was what possessed two people to throw caution to the wind and be so reckless as to risk getting caught going against Company Policy No-No Number Two. According to the Crystal Industries’ Employee Handbook, the Number One rule involved giving up stock trading tips. Priorities. How fitting that the company would care more about its bottom line than the interactions of their employees.

She chuckled to herself, sitting at her desk, which faced the main door. She had her back to her boss’s office. The bastard wanted to be sure he could look over her shoulder at a moment’s notice to make sure she didn’t pass time surfing the Internet or worse, looking for a better job.

So close to heaven, being this high off the ground, she thought she would have been happier.

What would make her extremely happy would be to move up in the company, for them to finally recognize her skills and talents in the financial department instead of being relegated as simply an executive assistant. Hell, she might as well say it. A secretary.

The thought made her grind her teeth. She knew her pinhead of a boss held her back. Other assistants were allowed to sit in on meetings. She had heard that some even ran them. Damn bastard.

What fueled her to stay at Crystal Industries, more than the pay and the health benefits that paid for her grandmother’s medication, was the fact that one day May would make it to the top and would have the distinct pleasure of telling her windbag of a boss to kiss her ass.

As she thought about the man planting his lips onto her cheek, her face felt flush. Sure he was a jerk, but he was a pretty good-looking jerk. Well, if tall, clear blue eyes and straight, white teeth turned a woman on, then he could be classified as handsome. For May, it did.

Some days she imagined her boss on his hands and knees, crawling to her, begging for her forgiveness. She wanted Winston Biggers to suffer. More than putting him through sheer misery, she wanted him as her secretary. Give him a taste of his own medicine.

She would tell him to answer her phone and lie to whomever she was dating at the time, like he did. She would make him fetch her meals, and have him drive all the way to the oceanfront instead of going to the office cafeteria to pick up her lunch. Above all, she would do to him what he never had done to her. She would treat him like a sex object, stare at him as he worked and make comments about how good he looked and smelled.

In her imaginary world where she ruled over her boss, she would also have him as her own personal fuck toy. She closed her eyes and imagined feeling his tongue against her pussy, stroking her nether lips and diving inside of her until she came hard. But she wouldn’t stop there. She would make him fuck her until she was exhausted or grew tired of him. She would use him in the same way he’d been using her.

Get this. Get that. Fuck you!

Absently, she tugged at a loose piece of string at the end of her sleeve. With one pull, she managed to unravel the stitching going up the arm, making a nice, long opening at the inside seam.

“Shit.” She tossed the useless thread and attempted to close the hole. “My favorite sweater, too.”

The good thing about the gaping opening was that it created a Saturday night project, since May didn’t have a date and had no prospects of getting one in the near future. Calling numbers at the local bingo hall and taking her grandmother to and from the doctor’s office offered little in the way of finding suitable dates, or any dates for that matter.

The next obstacle would be to get out of here on time. Before she could look at her watch, a bellow broke her thoughts.

“Maybelline, come in here,” the jerk du jour said as though he’d known her immediate plans.

Why did he have to use her full first name? He knew she hated it. The name constantly reminded her of her southern roots and her mother’s ignorance about popular cosmetics.

“I thought it sounded sweet,” her mother had said.

She used to correct her boss constantly the first year she worked for him.

“It’s May, just like the month. Just call me May.”

Four years and a Bachelor of Arts degree later, he still called her the name that made her skin crawl.

Pushing herself back from her pressboard-and-steel desk, she grabbed a notepad and pen. The man never asked her in his office for something simple. Not once. He spouted orders like a drill sergeant, always without looking her in her eyes.

Lack of eye contact suited her fine. She’d always been a sucker for blue eyes, even if they were in the head of the most insensitive man she’d ever met.

Plants died around him. She’d tried keeping a fern in his office. Within a week, it turned brown and suffered a horrible death. She thought about bringing in a goldfish but she imagined he would swallow the thing whole like a snake.

She took a deep breath, calming her queasy stomach and giving herself the strength to walk through her boss’s door, hopefully for the last time today. She glanced at her watch. Five minutes to five. He had better make it quick.

Behind a desk big enough to crush a Mini Cooper and surrounded by so many windows, he could have leased a portion of his office to a gardener as a greenhouse. Winston Biggers reigned in his office and, by most people’s accounts, ruled all of the twenty-third floor.

Different shaped awards decorated a four-tiered glass shelf that sat next to his private bathroom. His diploma from the University of Virginia hung on the opposite wall above an elliptical trainer. Guess even the King of Mean needed to keep in shape.

Thanks to the fresh flowers brought in each week, his office reeked of jasmine and lavender today. Even the sweet aroma didn’t raise Biggers’ spirit.

At a good six-foot-four and dressed in tailored clothes, his presence overwhelmed an entire room. He looked expensive, from his daily barber-cut brown hair with a light streaking of gray strands, down to his shined shoes that must have been worth more than a small house here in Virginia Beach.

May breathed easier seeing his head down, his gaze trained on the piece of paper on his desk. She cocked her head and stared at the top of his.

He wasn’t balding like the rest of the high-level executives in the building. Didn’t mean he would be immune to the follicle failure. It happened to all execs. Bald heads, ulcers, bad marriages. And they kept putting these guys in high-rise buildings. Men like Biggers were walking poster children for stress-related suicides.

The sight of his hair brought her back to her daydream of having him between her legs, her knees wrapped around his head as she held a good chunk of his hair fisted in her hand.

She chewed her bottom lip and wondered if he ever had fantasies. Didn’t all bosses fantasize about their secretaries? In her sexy erotica novels that she loved reading so much, they all did.

Not that she cared. The only thing she cared about involved walking out of the office by the time the big hand hit the twelve and the little hand camped out at the five. If he didn’t look up, she could get away fast and still get off on time.

Princess Watkins promised her a drink and she knew her friend wouldn’t wait for her for very long. But then again, with a name like Princess what did May expect?

“Flowers,” Winston said, breaking May from her rambling thoughts.

“Sir?”

Working with the totem pole with style for years, she had grown use to his shorthand way of speaking. Right now he had her stumped. She had to stop thinking about sex so much at the office.

Maybe the idea of having a margarita in about twenty or so minutes made her stumble. She could almost taste the burning tequila on her tongue. Thinking about the bitter salt that would cover the glass rim made her suck in her cheeks. Sugar, definitely sugar on the rim tonight.

“I need an arrangement ordered and sent to a young lady.” His deep voice rolled over the desk and nearly bowled May over. He swiveled in his chair and retrieved a piece of paper behind him.

“Yes, sir,” she said. She wrote on her pad, “guilt flowers” and underlined it.

Men were so easy to read. It was no longer a sport for her to figure them out. Now it became second nature to decipher their inner workings.

Biggers proved to be an easy read. Controlling in all aspects of his life. No personal attachments like pets or children (he would have considered both to be in the same category). Girlfriends that lasted six to eight months. Long enough to develop a comfortable rhythm but short enough to avoid the annoying marriage question.

He probably had a cordial, almost too proper relationship with his parents. More than likely an only child, and if he did have a sibling, especially a brother, they competed on every aspect of their lives from jobs to relationships.

To think of him now, May felt a tiny twinge of sadness. As soon as he spoke, a sensation that compared to a caterpillar crawling across her naked belly disappeared.

Probably just hunger pangs anyway since she worked through her lunch thanks to some new reports Biggers wanted prepared.

“I need the arrangement sent to her tonight.” He scribbled something on a notepad. “Something big, but tasteful. Nice and sweet, but heartfelt.”

“Perhaps a stuffed animal with it?” May started to write that on her pad.

If she couldn’t have a man there to wring his neck when he skipped out on dinner then a stuffed animal would do nicely.

He slipped on a pair of glasses with short, rectangular, wire frames that reminded May so much of her granny’s glasses. His blue-eyed gaze cut over the top as though he looked down on her and her opinion.

Years of smiling with his deep, long dimples caused him to have two distinct creases in his cheeks that made him look even more distinguished and handsome. Didn’t help that he also had a cleft in his chin.

Men. They get older and look even better. Women constantly had to overhaul their looks.

Now that he glared at her like she just disrespected his family, his stare turned her off. She hoped the woman he would be standing up tonight never got this chilling look. It caused a rippling shiver from her toes to the top of her head. She gripped her pen and pad tighter to calm herself.

“I want something classy, not gaudy.”

May bit the inside of her lower lip, trying hard not to spit on him.

What did he know about class? Designer clothes and working close to the top floor didn’t give him any sort of prestige.

“Yes, sir.” She wrote “asshole” on under her initial comment and underlined it twice.

“On the card I need to have written, ‘Can’t make it to dinner tonight. Sorry. Some other time. Win.’ Got that?”

As though she could not get that pathetic excuse for an apology.

But she obliged him and repeated his message. “Unable to make it to dinner.”

He cut her off. “Can’t. Not ‘unable to make it.’ I can’t.”

“There’s a difference, sir?” Not that she meant to be insolent, but his pettiness wore on her nerves, especially now.

He leaned back in his black, leather swivel chair and removed his glasses. “‘Unable’ makes it seem like I could go but don’t want to. ‘Can’t’ says that I cannot physically make it to dinner. And I can’t go. I just can’t.”

His voice held something that said he had a bigger but not necessarily better excuse for not showing. If she didn’t know any better, she would have thought he sounded exhausted.

So this was what Winston Biggers was like as a boyfriend. He created the rules. He set the pace. His wants. His schedule.

Bastard.

Did he ever once think about his woman’s needs?

What was May thinking? This was the same man who’d given her a day to get over the flu.

But a man who worked this many hours and rode her hard had to have had a story for why he became the man he was today. Not that May necessarily cared. But he did intrigue her. How could a handsome man manage to never marry and seem so unfulfilled?

She wanted to kick herself for asking, but a good employee, the one who desperately needed and deserved a raise, would do so. “Did you have some extra work that needed to be done that’s preventing you from meeting this woman for dinner? I could help you if that’s the case.”

He stared at her, his face and expression looking softer than she’d ever seen it. At that moment, the crow’s feet around his eyes didn’t look as sinister. His lips parted but he uttered nothing. Was he actually touched by her gesture?

She blinked and directed her gaze back to her pad and pen. Her hand trembled and she shook it as though that would somehow reset her feelings.

“No,” he answered, finally. “Something else came up.”

She nodded, relieved he didn’t suggest more work. “Can’t make it to dinner tonight. Sorry. Some other time. Win.”

He nodded. “Here’s her name and address.” He handed her a paper.

May stared at the name. A gasp rose up her throat but she swallowed it down before it had a chance to become audible.

She kept her expression neutral. “She won’t be happy.”

“It’s not like she hasn’t canceled a million times on me when she got a break in one of her cases.” He folded his glasses and slipped them into a small, brown leather case.

Yeah, but Courtney Vanderloo wasn’t just any detective. To say she’d been highly decorated throughout her career would be like saying Americans were moderately pleased Saddam Hussein had been captured and executed.

To think the woman wouldn’t want to have dinner with someone special tonight would have been an even bigger error in judgment.

May’s gaze cut to the open newspaper on Biggers’ desk. Vanderloo Nabs Child Porn Distributor splashed across the top. A picture of a petite blonde leading a burly man with a jacket over his head into the Virginia Beach jail coupled the article.

So, blondes were Biggers’ type. Again, not that May cared. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Biggers wouldn’t give her a second glance. Not because she was an African-American, or that her full hips and thighs classified her as voluptuous and not petite, but because of her position.

He looked down on her because she was only an executive assistant. Given the chance, she wanted to do more. She could be more if only she didn’t have this blue-eyed roadblock in her way.

She craned her head to read a part of the article about Courtney when her boss snatched the paper off his desk and folded it. He shoved it into his briefcase.

“You know the flower shop to use and they have my charge account number.”

“Yes, sir.”

She wrote “feeling inadequate” in her list and underlined it three times. Her minor in psychology had to be good for something.

With a quick turn on her heel, she rushed back to her desk. As long as the phone line remained clear to the flower shop, she could still make it to downtown Norfolk from downtown Virginia Beach in about twenty minutes.

His voice halted her again. “Maybelline.”

She cursed under her breath while her back faced him. She pivoted. “Yes, Mr. Biggers?”

He lifted his briefcase while slinging his suit jacket over his arm. With a confident gait, he strolled to her. As she watched him, she wondered if he’d been taught how to act like he owned the room from one of the many prep schools he must have attended.

Like positive sides to two magnets repelling each other, May felt the need to move back from him, easing to her desk the closer he got. With his long legs, he made it to her, trapping her in the doorway.

The man always had a way of crowding a person’s personal space. May had thought he did it only to her. Then, others came forward like victims to the same crime. He’d violated all of their spaces and probably didn’t realize what he’d done.

Or maybe he did. Maybe it was his way of lording over people. Maybe he did it as an intimidation factor. This time, though, she would look the beast in its eyes. She wouldn’t be bullied today.

As he stood so close, May took in a deep breath. A crisp, clean-smelling cologne wafted from him body. Not too overpowering and not a heavy, musky scent. If she didn’t know any better, she would have sworn he’d just put it on before she entered his office. The light aroma belied his power. But it worked.

She let out her breath to steady her unsettled stomach. Why did this guy make her so nervous? She epitomized a strong, young black woman. Educated, smart, independent. No way a corporate white guy who probably ate mayonnaise sandwiches without the crust could make her feel intimidated.

Yet, there she was, her knees knocking, her heart pounding, sweat forming on the back of her neck. She grabbed the doorframe behind her to keep from slipping down to the floor.

“Plans tonight?” he asked.

Without her stopping it, she blinked at his question. Seemed odd he would ask since he’d never asked her about her life outside of the office. He usually wanted to know how to keep her in the office working more.

She nodded, cleared her throat, then answered. “Yes. Meeting someone.”

He raised his eyebrows, then opened his mouth like he wanted to ask her more questions. She never noticed the subtle glow of his sun-kissed skin.

Yes, Courtney would be very pissed she missed her date tonight. If the man didn’t speak, he could be doable.

“Oh.” His tone sounded both curious and almost disappointed. A strange combination. “Thank you for staying over to do this for me. I appreciate it.”

Just how much did he appreciate it? She tightened her grip on the wall and summoned as much courage as she could.

“Appreciation can be shown in a lot of ways,” she began.

Biggers’ eyes widened as he moved himself out of the doorway and into the main office, holding his briefcase in front of himself. “Really?” His tone turned even more curious as though he imagined some possibility.

Not on his life. The man cared about nothing but himself. Any woman who hooked up with him was asking for heartache. She’d been through enough to not want it to happen to her again.

Besides, he was her boss. That would have been a violation of Crystal Industries’ Rule Number Two. Among other things, May had time to memorize the company handbook.

She nodded, turned her gaze down for a moment then back to him. “My bonus. A raise, sir. I know it may not be the right time to ask for them, but—”

“You’re right,” he said, interrupting her. “It isn’t. The company is going through a rough time financially so there may not be any bonuses this year. Your annual review comes up in another four months. We can discuss it then.”

Four months? Four fucking months to wait to see if she’d be granted a raise especially since there wouldn’t be any bonuses? Another raise coupled with the many years she worked at the company would put her in the salary bracket that would grant her less expensive healthcare for the same coverage. She could do so much more for her family with that type of benefit.

Sorry, Granny. Can’t get that medication you need because I have to wait four months for a raise from my stingy-ass boss! And the story about the company going through its own depression was bullshit. She knew the financial status of Crystal Industries better than most executives. They had money to spare.

Instead of screaming at the top of her lungs at this jerk or quitting right on the spot, she smiled and slipped down into her wobbly chair. The cheap bastard wouldn’t even spring for a decent chair.

“And I know the company encourages individual style to a limit, but in the future I would like to see you wear appropriate clothing to work.” He nodded toward her. “Nothing with holes in them.”

Her gaze dropped to the newly formed hole in her sweater sleeve. “Sir, you don’t understand. I—”

Without a word, he walked out of the office. She waited to hear the ding of the elevator down the hall and the subsequent sound of the door sliding behind him before she let out a groan.

That capped off her helluva day.

Snatching the phone from its cradle, she hit the speed dial number to Flower Power, the company’s floral arranger.

“Flower Power. What occasion can we decorate for you?” the perky salesman asked.

“Hi, Chip. It’s May.”

May stared at her notes. Her anger displayed with each assessment. She ran her finger over the last two words, “feeling inadequate.” She felt the deep grooves and impressions on the page.

“All The Way May!” he chirped. “How are you?”

“Overworked and underpaid.” She let out a long sigh. Feeling inadequate, she thought.

“I hear that. So what can I do for you tonight?”

“Are you still gay?”

“Out and proud.”

“Then I’ll settle for a floral arrangement for Bighead.” She had other nicknames for the man, but Bighead seemed like an okay one to use for now.

“What is it? Funeral? Promotion? Birthday?”

“Ditching a date.” She heard Chip flipping through some papers.

“Ohh, worse kind.” He tsked. “Shoot.”

May described the type of arrangement she would liked to have gotten if a date had dumped her. Something big, full of roses, baby’s breath, daisies and calla lilies. After getting a brief rundown of their different types of vases, May settled on one that sounded the most appealing.

“Anything else?” he asked.

“Yes.” She stared at the trite statement on her notepad. The guy was an asshole, but Courtney deserved better. “The card. Write ‘I wish I could have been there tonight to celebrate. I am proud of you. Please accept my apologies.’” She struggled with the signature but her romantic side won. “Sign it ‘Love, Win.’”

How could he not love a woman who fought against pornography?

“Oh, girl. Sounds serious.” Chip smacked his lips, audible even through the phone.

If Biggers found out what she did, it would be serious. Or maybe he would thank her. The uptight man needed to get laid. Then again, so did she. First things first. Make her boss happy and she would be happy.

She gave Chip the name and address of the woman who would receive these flowers.

“Anything else?”

May ripped off her notepaper and tossed the wad into the trashcan under her desk. “Yes. You have any stuffed animals?”