Taylor had learned the trick from Worthington early on. Make them wait a bit. Take your time to assemble your thoughts. Clear your desk. Be cool and collected. She added the soothing step of refreshing her lipstick, taking comfort in the crisp, clean line.
When Steve knocked to escort Kirliss in, Taylor was composed and ready.
“Mr. Kirliss.” She picked up the file folder she’d deliberately left out on the otherwise immaculate desk and slid it into the shallow top drawer as he walked in. The image of a busy woman putting her work away. She glanced up, stood and held out a hand over the glossy desk. “The early numbers are looking good. I think you’ll be pleased.”
If possible, he looked better, and more dangerous, than ever before. He raised a sardonic eyebrow at her demeanor. He took her hand and shook it, all politeness, then wrapped his fingers around her wrist, suggestively cuffing the slender bones. Refusing to rise to the bait, Taylor smoothly withdrew her hand. His fingers tightened a moment before releasing her.
“You made me wait.”
“I apologize, Mr. Kirliss—today has been quite busy.” Nicely done, she congratulated herself. The most important part of any meeting was to take control immediately and keep it. So she’d never had to pull this tactic before. The stakes were higher now.
“I understand. And I understand the value of making someone wait.” His golden-brown eyes glinted with amusement, then deliberately perused her with a long, sensuous look. “I look forward to making you wait. And beg.”
“Mr. Kirliss.” At the image, Taylor clenched her teeth on the surge of desire. “I won’t leave this office if you’re going to talk to me that way.”
He glanced around the office, looking interested. “An office always presents many interesting opportunities for games, though I’m surprised you’re willing to take that risk already. Still, whatever you wish, M.”
Taylor folded her arms and glared. Kirliss laughed, tossing his head back with it.
“Shall we?” He gestured toward the doors. “I made reservations for noon and I’d hate to lose them.”
“You’re not going to chicken out now, are you?”
“You think you’re something.” Taylor grabbed her purse. “But I am hardly afraid of you.” She headed out the doors, letting him follow. “We’re off, Steve.”
“I sent the newest data to your BlackBerry, Ms. Hamilton,” Steve replied. “Mr. Kirliss, always a pleasure to see you.”
The men shook hands and Taylor walked with Kirliss to the elevators.
“He’s a good assistant,” Kirliss commented. “Sharp.”
“The best I’ve ever had. He’s been with me for three years now and I’m going to have to promote him before long. Which means training someone new.”
“I have something at Jaguar that might be perfect for him.” Kirliss looked thoughtful. “What are you paying him now?”
“Don’t you dare poach my assistant!” Taylor laughed. Then she caught herself, surprised that she’d fallen into the pattern of banter they’d enjoyed these last months.
They rode down in the elevator in silence. Taylor practiced her speech.
“I thought we’d walk—it’s great weather today.” Kirliss took her elbow to guide her in the right direction. “So, how are you planning to break up with me?”
“I don’t have to break up with you,” she returned, “as we don’t have a relationship.”
“Everybody has relationships. It’s just a matter of determining what kind.”
“Well, then I’m determined that you and I will have a business relationship.”
“Negotiations are always fun. I look forward to hearing your business plan. And presenting my own counteroffer.”
Taylor pressed her lips together. How could every damn thing this man said sound sexual?
They sat at a table on the deck overlooking the harbor. Taylor enviously noted that some of the other women were enjoying golden wine in full-bellied glasses, but she opted for iced tea. She didn’t need the afternoon sleepies—or to let down her guard with Kirliss, who ordered a café Americano.
Taylor opened her mouth to begin her speech, then bit down on it when he reached into his jacket and withdrew a rose to lay on her plate. Extraordinarily large and perfect, the rose’s pristine white petals were tinged scarlet at the edges, as if they’d been dipped in blood. She brushed the velvety texture with tentative fingertips, oddly moved by the gesture.
“‘For even the love that is purest and sweetest has a kiss of desire on the lips,’” Kirliss quoted in a husky voice.
She looked up to find him observing her with inscrutable brown eyes. She raised her eyebrows, deliberately arch. “Love poetry? And here I thought this was about sex.”
“That too. Desire is about both, don’t you think? O’Reilly thought so.”
Taylor gazed at his intent expression, feeling off balance again.
“What I think,” she said in a crisp tone, deliberately setting the rose aside and starting her speech, “is that you and I are business associates. A sexual…dalliance is not appropriate.”
“None of the good stuff is,” he agreed in an easy tone. “But when your life is all about the job, like it is for you and I, we have to find ways to work around that.”
“I’m not interested.”
“The hell you aren’t. You’re just afraid of the way you lose control with me.”
Taylor sipped her icy tea. “What happened last night was—”
“A horribly inappropriate fluke.”
“Don’t you believe in love?” Kirliss leaned over his plate, steepling his fingers. “In the intimacy of sex and the dark desires people can share?”
“Never mind that you’re mixing emotion and lust—what I believe is irrelevant and immaterial to this conversation, Mr. Kirliss.”
“I’ve decided I like how you call me ‘Mr. Kirliss.’ I picture you whispering it, hands tied behind your back, kneeling naked at my feet.”
Taylor’s heart thumped, her groin clenching with unexpected heat. She cast about, looking to see if anyone at the nearby tables had overheard. The ladies who lunched at the next table laughed and clinked their wineglasses, in another world. The suited men on the other side were talking loudly of the stock market. Still, enough was enough. Taylor carefully folded her napkin, laid it across her plate, started to stand.
Kirliss’s hand shot across the table, steel fingers wrapping around her wrist, wrapping her heart in that scary feeling of helpless need.
“Let go of me,” Taylor said softly.
“I’ve only just got a hold of you—how can I?”
“I can’t do this.”
“You’re afraid of it. Afraid of how much you want it.”
“Hi, folks. Sorry to keep you waiting. Ready to order your lunch?” The chirpy waitress fluttered at Kirliss, eyes only for him.
Kirliss released her wrist, turning the gesture so he stroked her palm with slow heat. “Well, M, what did you decide on?”
Taylor could see herself walking away. She could tip her wrist and exclaim at the time on her silver watch, cite an important meeting she’d forgotten. Kirliss watched her, brown eyes intent. This was absolutely the moment for her to walk.
She ordered the crab salad. And a glass of Chardonnay.
She didn’t hear what Kirliss ordered, her ears too full of rushing blood. She hadn’t agreed to a damn thing, she told herself. It was just lunch.
“So, what does the M stand for?” Kirliss sat back, relaxed.
“Have you had your OCD professionally diagnosed?” Taylor returned in the same conversational tone.
Kirliss chuckled. “You know well that I can be quite obsessive about details I’m interested in. I’m interested in you, M. I’m looking forward to uncovering that sweet, hot, gooey center that Taylor protects so carefully.”
“I find it…unsettling, that you talk like I’m two different people.”
“And yet, you don’t argue the point.”
“Debates with you tend to end up in one place, I’ve found.”
“Oh yes?” Kirliss purred. “Is this the place where you’re naked and I’m ravishing you?”
“I haven’t agreed to anything.”
“Haven’t you? You’re still sitting here.”
Taylor shrugged. “A girl needs to eat.”
“And yet you were about to get up and walk out five minutes ago.”
The chirpy waitress brought Taylor’s wine, sighed in Kirliss’s direction and reluctantly left again. Taylor sipped it, watching Kirliss warily over the rim.
“First rule, M—you may not walk out of any situation I put you in, unless you call your safe word.”
Sapphire. She hadn’t forgotten. A wise woman would have defused this entire situation with that one simple word. All along she’d had the key to escape. But she hadn’t used it. Not last night. Not today. Her blood ran hot. Did she dare put herself in this man’s hands?
“Perhaps I don’t choose to use that word because I refuse to engage in your game.”
“It’s understandable. You need to put up a token effort for the propriety of your conscious mind. You maybe find the struggle thrilling. I’ll let you in on a secret.” Kirliss leaned forward and stroked the petals of the rose. “I confess I like it when you struggle too. It…stirs me.”
Taylor gathered herself. Desire raged through her, filling her with life. Everything seemed sharper: the blue of the sky, the gold of his eyes, the crisp oak of the wine. Lust and curiosity drove her. The words came out of her mouth before she fully formed the question in her mind.
“Let’s say I don’t use my out. What would the other rules be?”
Triumph flared in the eyes across the table. “It’s very simple, M. You do as I say, without hesitation.”
The waitress set their plates down, but Kirliss never glanced at her, he was so focused on Taylor. As soon as she left again, he continued in that quiet, relentless voice.
“I will never interfere with business or cause you to consider that your career or reputation might be harmed. What goes on between us is, and always will be, private. But I will ask a great deal of you, M. Things that Taylor might not be comfortable with.”
Taylor couldn’t meet his eyes. Her chest felt too tight for breath. She tasted some of the succulent crab. Surreal, having this conversation. Feeling the arousal pulse through her.
“So I just let you do whatever you like to me. Unless I cry off.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“Oh no, M. It won’t be easy. I intend to break you apart and rend you open. You’re right. This isn’t about love. Nor is it just about sex. It’s about possession and knowledge. I want all of you and I will open every secret, dark corner of you until I’ve had it all.”
Taylor stared at him, terrified and aroused. How was it possible to feel both things at once?
“And then what?” she asked, her voice unsteady.
Kirliss shrugged. “Who knows the answer to that at the start of any relationship?”
He had a point.
“I seem to recall you saying you weren’t interested in having a slave?”
He flashed white teeth at her. “I’m not. I’m interested in having a lover. One who shares my particular bent.”
“And you think I do.”
He leaned forward, fingers tightening around her wrist. She trembled at the touch and she knew he felt it.
“If I slipped my hand into your panties right now, I’m sure I’d find you dripping wet. Shall I tell you to accompany me to some dark corner so we can test my theory?”
She stared at him, helpless to answer. Part of her wished he would pull her into that corner and do all the things he’d done the night before and more. The other part protested that she couldn’t allow it.
He rubbed his thumb over her pounding pulse and smiled at her. “Hold that thought—we’ll take it up tonight.”
Taylor tugged her hand back to fork up some salad. “I’m supposed to do whatever you say in all aspects of my life? What happens if you tell me something like that and I have another engagement—a business dinner or if I need to work late?”
“That’s what your safe word is for.”
“What if—” Taylor took a bite and pointed her fork at him, “—I don’t choose to use that word.”
“It’s not a capitulation to use it. It’s a way of communicating.”
“I’ll communicate how I choose. What if I can’t meet one of your demands and I don’t use the get-out-of-jail card?”
“If you tell me no without the safe word, you’ll be punished.”
The crab stuck in her throat. “Punished? How?”
Kirliss shrugged and flipped careless fingers at the perky waitress for the bill. “However I choose. That’s part of it.”
“If I do…meet you tonight, what happens? Dinner? Full-out kinky sex or what?”
He chuckled, shaking his head slowly. “Oh no, Taylor, you don’t get to control this. That’s the whole point.”
“Well, how do I know what to wear?” she snapped. He seemed to find her buttons with uncanny accuracy.
He raised his eyebrows. “Why, darling, you’ll wear what I tell you to.”