“R. L. Duncan, please come to the conference room immediately.”
The faceless voice blaring over the private intercom broke her concentration. Rylie whirled, her leg shooting out from the hip, and missed her target. She landed hard on the mat, helped along by a combination of her own momentum and a wicked kick in the ass by her opponent.
She rose painfully, ignoring the helping hand stretched out to her. Her head was still pounding from the night before. Usually a sweaty early morning sparring session was enough to chase away the lingering aftereffects of an occasional evening spent in the company of her friend Gentleman Jack, but last night she’d really overindulged. She couldn’t even remember getting into bed.
“Thanks, Ethan. Gotta cut our session short—the gods on the 44th floor are summoning me and I must do their bidding.”
“Nice job today, Rylie. You could test for your next belt any time you want.”
“Yeah, well, I’m a little old to care about acing a test. Besides, I don’t think a mugger in the parking garage at midnight is going to drop his gun and run if I whip open my raincoat and show him a tattered brown strip of cotton tied around my waist.”
Ethan laughed. “Point taken. I’m used to teaching execs who want to earn belts to impress their old college buddies or the latest hot chick they’re dating who’s half their age.”
She laughed. “That sounds like most of my colleagues. I’ll see you again on Thursday.”
Rylie headed for the women’s locker room, nervous about the unexpected summons from her boss. The space was a tiny cubicle, squeezed out of a corner of the men’s luxurious quarters in the executive gym only after she’d waged a hard-fought battle with the board of directors. With the title of vice-president in charge of legal affairs, she was the only female in the company qualified to use the room.
In the world of commercial construction, a woman in upper management was still a rarity. Zenith Contractors had plenty of mid-level female employees in its ranks now, thanks to a bumper crop of young women coming out of college with math and engineering degrees. But the highest ranks of the construction business in Atlanta were still dominated by the ‘good ole boy’ network, men who believed deep down that in an office, Southern women were meant to take dictation while giving head under the desk.
Wincing at the bright fluorescent lights, Rylie swallowed a double dose of aspirin and splashed a handful of cold water on her face. She yanked off her dobok, the uniform of loose white cotton trousers and top she wore for martial arts lessons, and stood naked in front of the sink. Fortunately, they hadn’t been sparring long enough for her to break a sweat, so she was able to save time by skipping a shower. Loosening the ponytail she wore for class, she twisted her auburn hair into a thick French braid set off center to curve over her left shoulder. After a swipe of loose powder and a dab of copper red lipstick, she hurriedly donned a white silk blouse and her black suit with the narrow gray stripes. Slipping her feet into a pair of heels high enough to remind her—and every man she met—that she was very much a woman, she dashed for the elevator while texting Judson that she was on her way.
The boardroom was full—half a dozen expensive suits in varying shades of blue and gray, with one grizzled redneck in faded jeans and well-worn alligator boots seated at the helm. Judson could dress any way he wanted. He paid the salaries of all the well-dressed men around the table.
“Nice of you to finally join us, counselor,” Judson drawled.
Rylie nodded and slid into the chair he pointed out at the other end of the mahogany table. “Good morning, Mr. Judson, gentlemen. I apologize for the delay.”
Judson waved her remark away. “We can dispense with the pleasantries. I’m sure you’re well aware of why we called you here this morning.”
Head pounding, Rylie stared from one expressionless face to another. “No, sir, I’m afraid I’m not.”
“It’s bad enough that you blew the negotiations for the most important contract this company has competed for in years,” one of the suits began. Simmons, that was his name, Rylie told herself, trying desperately to concentrate despite the throbbing pain in her head. “We hired you because you convinced us that you could handle delicate, high-stakes transactions. Obviously, you were in way over your head. And then to behave in such an unprofessional manner afterwards—well, that is simply inexcusable.”
“If you’ll recall, Mr. Simmons, I explained to all of you that I did not ‘blow the negotiations.’ I think I laid out my position quite clearly in our meeting yesterday afternoon.” Rylie was angry at the unexpected attack but she fought to keep her voice even.
“It was this board’s insistence on adding expensive extras as part of our bid that lost Zenith Construction the contract for building Cobb County’s new municipal complex,” she countered. “In my meetings with the county administrator, he made it quite clear that the newly elected commissioners were determined to slash costs to a minimum. They’re afraid they’ll be accused of squandering the taxpayer’s money, like the group that was just voted out. I have my notes from the numerous board meetings where I tried to convince all of you that the contract needed drastic cuts in pricing to get it approved.”
“Zenith Construction has certain standards to uphold. We refuse to build a substandard facility,” Simmons retorted, his face growing red. “It’s your fault we lost that job. If you had presented the contract properly to the commissioners, you could have made them understand the upgrades were necessary.”
“The plans they approved were not ‘substandard,’” Rylie argued. “Sullivan and Sons pared expenses to the bone in their bid. That’s why they won the contract. They went with local suppliers, skipping the imported marble and high-end fixtures where we make huge profits on the mark-up.”
“You made libelous assertions about all of us,” Watson piped up, waving his cell phone. “As an attorney, you of all people should know better.”
Rylie blanched. She’d been furious when she left the office the day before. The board had called her into a meeting just like this one and informed her that the contract she’d been working on nonstop for nearly a year had been awarded to their biggest competitor. She did something she hardly ever allowed herself to do and stopped at a liquor store on the way home. Rylie vaguely remembered storming through her apartment after a couple of drinks, ranting and raving to herself about how Judson’s execs had gotten used to treating the county coffers like their own private slush fund.
Working on this deal had been Rylie’s first task at Zenith Contractors. Poring over previous bids as part of her research, Rylie discovered that for years, Zenith’s top brass had been grossly overcharging the taxpayers on every project they built, then voting themselves big bonuses after each job. And they got away with it because the company did plenty of ‘favors’—unpaid work on the homes of nearly everyone who had a say in the awarding of the contracts. Rylie found out the last order of Italian marble the county paid for included enough to cover the floors in the brand new upscale condo of the mayor’s mistress.
The pounding in her head intensified, along with a sick feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. The battery on her cell phone was dead this morning and Rylie had a fleeting memory of making a call or two after her second—or maybe her third—shot of Jack. She rarely drank, knowing that a low tolerance for alcohol made her already sharp temper even harder to control. Had she been drunk enough and stupid enough to call Watson last night?
“Slanderous,” she finally retorted. Even under the circumstances, Rylie couldn’t keep the sarcastic tone out of her voice.
Watson looked surprised, then shook his head. “So you admit it.” He waved his cell phone again, this time in the direction of the company’s owner. “She certainly can’t deny what she did. We all have the voicemails she left us. She was stinking drunk. And now she doesn’t even have the decency to apologize.”
“I admit nothing,” Rylie replied. “I was simply pointing out your incorrect use of a word. ‘Libelous’ describes accusations made in print. If the remarks you object to were spoken, the word you want is ‘slanderous.’ And by the way, it is only slander if it isn’t true. I see no need to apologize to any of you for speaking the truth.”
Judson spoke up. “It’s too damn bad, Rylie. I always liked you, girl. You’re a spitfire. But you went too far this time. You made calls to every one ‘a these men—and to me too, callin’ me a ‘dumbass redneck’ for surroundin’ myself with these ‘stupid thievin’ assholes’ as my board of directors. Now I may agree with you about them bein’ assholes. Called a few of ‘em that myself on occasion. But I really would be a dumbass if I let you stay on here after pullin’ such an idiotic stunt.
“You’ve got a choice. Gimme your letter of resignation today and I’ll see to it you get a month’s pay as a severance package. If you don’t resign, you’ll be fired. And if you try any of your lawyer tricks and file some trumped-up wrongful termination lawsuit, I’ll see to it that every company you apply to from here on out gets a private phone call from me with comments every bit as nasty as the ones you made.”
A choice? Judson was wrong. She had no choice. Getting fired would look much worse on her resume than quitting. “You’ll have it on your desk in an hour,” she replied, her voice tight with rage. Rylie strode out of the room, head held high, stomach quaking.
Typing the letter of resignation took only a few minutes. Dealing with the memories surrounding the treasured mementos she’d brought in to give her sterile office a personal touch took much longer. She found an empty box in the supply closet and fought back tears as she packed the picture of her parents, taken just before Mom passed away. That was only a few months before she graduated from law school. Dad was lost without her, and as so often happens when couples are inseparable, he died barely a year later.
They were everything to each other—business partners and best friends as well as lovers. Rylie wanted desperately to have that kind of relationship, but so far the few men she’d dated fell short of her high expectations. Over the last few years, she devoted more and more time to her career, making a name for herself in the narrow field of commercial construction law. Now here she was, 38 years old, with no job, no family, a meager handful of friends, and a biological clock ticking so loud it often kept her up till 3 A.M.
The ringing of her office phone broke her concentration and she grabbed it. “R. L. Duncan,” she snapped.
“Rylie, this is Neill Sullivan.”
The deep voice on the other end of the phone brought a flush to her cheeks. He’d been the subject of more than a few hot fantasies of hers. Neill was head of Sullivan and Sons Construction. He was what her mother would have called Black Irish—gorgeous blue eyes peering out from under dark wavy hair worn a touch longer than what a no-nonsense businessman would tolerate. He had a devastating smile and the way he looked at her whenever they met made Rylie feel that she was the only person in the world who mattered to him at that moment. She was certain that every woman he knew felt the same way. It was hard to resist the full force of the Sullivan charm.
She’d run into him off and on over the past few years, most recently at a big charity gala. She noticed a sexy hint of stubble on his strong jaw that evening. Her mind immediately conjured up a vision of him ravishing his latest lover all night, then rushing straight to the black tie event after a long day on the job with no time to go home and shave. Although he spent most of his time nowadays behind a desk, Sullivan still had the hard, lean body of a construction worker under his fitted tux.
She blushed as though he could read her thoughts through the phone line. “Yes, I’m here,” she replied, keeping her tone businesslike.
“I want you to come to my office this evening—to discuss the phone message you left me last night.”
She stifled a groan. How many people had she called in her drunken ravings? “Mr. Sullivan, that message was…”
He didn’t give her the opportunity to finish. “That message was unlike anything I would have expected from you, to say the least. And frankly… well, that can wait. I’ll see you here in my office at 6 P.M.”
The last thing she needed today was a face-to-face meeting with another angry recipient of her inebriated tirades. “I… I can’t make it,” she stammered. “I have other plans.”
There was no hint of Irish charm in this conversation. His voice was cold. “Cancel them. Be here at six… or I’ll go public with that voicemail.”
She finished packing up her office, signed the letter of resignation, and dropped it off with Judson’s secretary on her way to the elevator. Zenith’s building had a fantastic view of the Atlanta skyline from the glass elevator on the outside of the building. As she headed down, Rylie couldn’t help wondering if the short ride was an omen of the direction her career would be taking from here on out—straight to the bottom. Although it was a major metropolitan area, Atlanta still operated like a small town, with a gossip network that could make or break a career. She’d been careful up till now, never even indulging in a tipsy one night stand that might leave her with the reputation of a slut. Image was everything for a woman in corporate law, especially if you wanted to be looked upon as a serious foe.
Now apparently she’d destroyed years of hard work with one night of reckless boozing. “What could I possibly have said to Neill Sullivan for him to sound so cold and forbidding?” she muttered aloud. She loaded her solitary box of personal belongings in the trunk of her car and headed for her Buckhead apartment.
The first thing Rylie saw when she opened the door was the empty bottle of Gentleman Jack lying on its side in the middle of the living room floor. Oh, God, I don’t remember drinking the entire bottle. No wonder I have such a headache. She headed for the bedroom, picking up stray pieces of yesterday’s clothing off the floor along the way.
The bed was still made, but the spread was crumpled as though she had passed out before getting under the covers. Rylie popped a couple more aspirin, downed most of a bottle of water and threw herself down on top of the bed again, hoping that when she awakened, she’d find that this was all a bad dream.
* * *
Neill put his cell phone back down on the desk, deep in thought. He had a sneaking suspicion that R. L. Duncan, attorney at law, didn’t remember most of the intoxicated rambling she’d done last night. The first time he played her voicemail through, he’d been furious. The uptight bitch didn’t even know him. Where did she get off saying such foul things? Sure, they’d met a few times at business events and casual greetings were exchanged. But although he had a sneaking suspicion that she was steaming hot under that stern façade she presented to the world, he’d never followed up with a date or even a phone call. Ever since Caroline died ten years ago, Neill had two priorities—raising their son Adam and building the family business that his father left him.
Adam was studying engineering now, a freshman at MIT. And thanks to the big contract Sullivan and Sons just scored, the company had all the work it could handle for the near future. After years of putting his own needs last, Neill decided that now that he was in his forties, it was time to indulge himself a little. And if he played his cards right, Rylie Duncan’s phone call last night had just given him the perfect opportunity to do so.
For the first few years after Caroline’s death, Neill hadn’t dated at all. Mired in grief, he buried himself in his work and spent every minute of his free time with Adam. When his physical needs became overwhelming, he took care of his sexual urges with a series of discreet paid companions, no strings attached. Later, there had been occasional dates with women that the wives of his buddies fixed him up with. But he hadn’t found anyone who meshed with his somewhat unusual requirements for a life partner the way that his beloved Caroline did.
Neill was a dom at heart. Not the leather-clad, whip-toting dom from a porn flick, but a dom nonetheless. He wanted a woman who was prepared to have him take charge—a woman who accepted the idea that in their relationship, his word was law. Caroline knew from the time they became engaged while they were still in college that if she flatly disobeyed him, she was in for a long, hard spanking, no matter how much she protested.
There had been other spankings too, spankings that Caroline hadn’t minded at all. Those were always followed by the hottest sex they ever had. But Caroline wasn’t just some meek, subservient coed. Like Neill, she was Irish, with a temper that could get out of hand at times. It was her fiery spirit, her tendency to throw herself passionately into whatever cause she believed in, that drew him to her in the first place. Neill relished the challenge of taming that fiery spirit with the occasional lengthy session across his lap. After all, there was no thrill in dominating a woman who was totally compliant all the time.
Rylie Duncan was as different from Caroline as night from day. Caroline had been dainty and petite. Rylie was tall, coming close to his six-foot-two eye level in those fuck-me high heels she’d been wearing the last time he saw her. Caroline used Southern charm to further her agenda for the homeless women’s charity she ran. Rylie simply walked in and took charge, no matter what setting she found herself in.
He’d heard her speak at a couple of county board meetings they both attended to pitch their respective companies for the contract to build the new county complex. The first time he met her, Rylie stuck out her hand and shook his with a firm grip that told him she’d spent her career surrounded by men. She gave him the same kind of cool once-over that he’d given so many women over the years, but she might as well have been wearing a sign that read ‘Look but don’t touch.’
He asked Suzanne, the wife of his best friend Mark, about Rylie shortly after their first meeting.
“Ah’ve heard about her, but ah don’t really know her, sugar. They say she’s smart as a whip, but all her brains couldn’t get her a husband—or even so much as a steady boyfriend.” Suzanne lowered her voice a little. “She comes across pretty tough… wasn’t raised with the good manners of us Georgia girls, bless her heart.”
Neill had lived in Atlanta long enough to recognize that all-purpose phrase that Southern women sometimes used to make even their most mean-spirited remark sound like it was being delivered in the spirit of Christian charity. Apparently Rylie had made the same tough choice he did to forgo personal relationships and focus on her career.
Back then, the last thing he needed in his life was the kind of all-consuming challenge he’d be taking on if he tried to bend a self-assured woman like Rylie to his will. So he ignored the stirring in his cock every time he saw those long legs that ended in a very shapely, spankable ass striding down the corridor in front of him at City Hall. But now that the house was empty and the new contract was in the bag, there would be no conflict with his duties as a parent or his responsibilities to the company if he decided to mix a little business with a lot of pleasure outside the office.
He sat back in his chair with a smile, closed his eyes, and planned his next moves with the same intense focus he brought to negotiating a huge business deal around the conference table. Neill Sullivan was definitely looking forward to this evening’s meeting.
* * *
Rylie rolled over and squinted at the clock, eyes still half-shut. Good, it was only 5:15. She could sleep for another half hour before jumping in the shower and dressing for work. She closed her eyes—then opened them with a gasp. All the horrible events of the morning flooded back into her mind. There was no job waiting for her. It was 5:15 P.M… and she was due at Neill Sullivan’s office at six.
Cursing, she stripped off her clothes and dashed into the bathroom. Showering and doing her makeup in record time, she pulled on her favorite lace bra and panties and reached for one of her power suits—severe black jacket and matching black skirt paired with a red silk blouse to lend her some much-needed confidence. Slipping her feet into a custom-made pair of black suede Manolos that had set her back the equivalent of a month’s rent on her Buckhead apartment, she grabbed her purse and headed for the door.
Fortunately traffic was streaming in the opposite direction at this time of day and she was able to make it back downtown in half an hour. Still, her watch read 6:10 by the time she found a parking space and stepped off the elevator into the Sullivan and Sons suite of offices.
A pleasant-looking woman in her mid-fifties met her at the door. Wearing a conservative beige skirt and blouse, she was nothing like the hot babe Rylie would have imagined a rich single guy like Sullivan would choose as his personal assistant.
“Ms. Duncan, Mr. Sullivan is waiting for you. Let me show you to his office.”
The woman opened the door to a spacious room paneled in dark walnut. The first thing Rylie saw was a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass, with a view of the city skyline against the setting sun and a light show from the stream of cars heading out of town that would choke I-75 for at least another hour. A deep voice coming from a dark corner of the room interrupted her thoughts.
“Thank you, Jean. I appreciate your staying late tonight.” He moved closer as he spoke, coming out from the shadows. “Why don’t you take some extra time off in the morning to make up for what will certainly be a longer commute than normal for you this evening? Come in around noon.”
“Thank you, sir. Can I get either of you anything before I leave? Coffee, a soda?”
Neill never gave Rylie a chance to respond. “No, thanks, Jean. I have everything under control.”
She smiled fondly at him, like a favorite aunt indulging a young boy asserting his independence. “I’m sure you do,” she replied with a meaningful glance at Rylie. Closing the door softly behind her, she left them alone.
“You’re late.” His tone was flat and he still hadn’t even looked her way.
“Rush hour traffic.” She responded in kind, without bothering to apologize.
“I would have thought that as a professional, you would factor that in when you decided what time to leave.” He turned to face her, finally. “I do not tolerate lateness. It’s rude and disrespectful. But we will deal with that issue later.”
Sullivan was wearing a pale blue dress shirt, a tie the color of Bordeaux, and charcoal gray slacks. His dark hair was mussed, as though he’d been running his hands through it. A navy blazer tossed over one of the chairs flanking a round glass table on the far side of the room told Rylie he’d been going over the stack of blueprints piled there.
“Sit down.” He pointed to a single wooden chair standing alone in front of the huge mahogany desk. Rylie sat. He took his place in the high-backed leather armchair on the other side of the desk. Taking off a pair of dark-framed reading glasses, he folded them and carefully placed them off to one side next to a brass lamp. The desktop was empty, except for a cell phone sitting alone on the bare surface. When he saw her glance at it and then quickly look away, he simply stared at her for a moment, still not speaking. She felt like a recalcitrant schoolgirl summoned to the principal’s office.
He picked up the phone, dialed his voicemail account, and hit the speaker button. Rylie flinched when her strident voice filled the room.
“Sullivan, you asshole, this is R. L. Duncan. Are you there? It figures. You’re probably out somewhere boozing it up with the county commissioners, now that you’re their new darling. Tell me, how many of them did you have to blow in the men’s room at City Hall to get that contract? You’ll need a few stiff drinks to get that taste out of your mouth…” There was a pause, then her voice went on, words slurred. “Thass gotta be how you did it. You sure didn’ build in enough money to buy them all off like those crooks that I work for at Zenith Construction always did.
“Maybe you promised the mayor that slut of his would get laid by a hard one for a change. I’m sure you volunteered to do that task yourself. I heard he likes to watch, now that he can’t get it up anymore. The little blue pill doesn’t work very well when it’s washed down with his mid-afternoon fifth of vodka. But be careful. He’s already whored her out to lots of other willing cocks. You might catch something nasty.”
A longer pause, then the sound of a bottle clinking against a glass. “Well, Mr. Neill Sullivan, I just called to say congratulations… and fuck the whole lot of you. You deserve each other. By the way, Billy Joe Reynolds, the head of the building department, spends a month every winter as a guest in Judson’s Miami Beach getaway. I hope you can offer him something equally as good next year. He’ll expect it—or you’ll start getting notices that your project is due for extra inspections. I hope you realize you won’t pass them unless you pay up, you dumb son of a bitch. You may have won the bid from that stupid bunch of rednecks who think they’re running the show now, but you’re still at the mercy of every dickhead who has any power in this county.”
Rylie closed her eyes as the drunken ranting played on. She’d listed half a dozen more local politicians by name along with two major law firms in town that she claimed they were in bed with. If Sullivan shared this voicemail with any of them, her chance of getting another job in her field in this town would be zero.
When the tape ended, Sullivan clicked off his phone and set it to the side next to his reading glasses. He leaned forward slightly across the desk and raised his eyebrows.
Rylie swallowed. “Mr. Sullivan, I’m deeply sorry for…”
He interrupted her. “I thought the image of me giving blowjobs to the county commissioners on my knees in the men’s room of City Hall was especially creative on your part. As for the mayor’s slut—well, I’ve already had her and she’s not that good. He’d have to pay me to fuck her again.”
She stared at him, speechless.
“No, I didn’t,” he said drily. “But if any of what you said about the others is true, you won’t get hired by another firm in this town. Not when word gets out that you know their secrets and you’ll spill them whenever you get pissed and then knock back a few too many drinks.”
“Mr. Sullivan, you’re right. What I did was stupid. I don’t handle my liquor very well. I should never have allowed myself to get so drunk that I lost my temper and made such inappropriate remarks.”
“Inappropriate remarks? That’s what I love about attorneys. You can reframe the worst behavior, the biggest crime, and make it sound like nothing more than a minor lapse in judgment. ‘My client didn’t really mean to kill his wife, your honor. He just used an inappropriate amount of tension when he was strangling her to make her quit nagging.’”
“Point taken. They were more than just inappropriate remarks. What I said about you was petty and mean-spirited and I sincerely apologize.”
“What about the things you said about all the other people on that tape?”
Rylie bristled. “I agree that it was stupid of me to go off on that tirade. But I will never apologize for telling the truth. Not to anyone. And the things I said about the others were the truth. I hope you’ll accept my apology as it relates to you and erase that tape.”
“Erase the tape? Oh, I don’t think so. Not just yet. First, I’d like to discuss a business proposition with you.”
Here it comes, Rylie thought. He’s going to say fuck me or I’ll make that tape public.
“I’d like you to come to work for me—as head of my legal department.”
Rylie’s mouth dropped open.
“Our in-house attorney is ready to retire. He came on board when my father started the firm and he’s done a great job for us. But now that we have our next few years of work already in the bag, he feels like he’s done his part for this company and he’s ready to spend time with his family and enjoy life a little. I have a position open here—and I’d like you to fill it.”
She was already shaking her head from side to side. Working for Neill Sullivan would be a big mistake. They were both headstrong people and the spark of sexual attraction she felt for him only added an extra problem that she’d have to face on a daily basis.
“Before you reject my offer, let me finish explaining the details of it. I’m suggesting a six-month trial period. During that time, here in the office you would be the head legal counsel for Sullivan and Sons, with all the authority to represent our firm, negotiate contracts, and give me your frank opinion on what actions to take. I doubt you’d have a problem fulfilling that last requirement. However, I work from my home office after hours, and I also need a personal assistant… someone to do everything from filing to typing letters and making sure the coffeepot is full. Along with your duties here in town, I’d expect you to come to my home for two hours each evening and do whatever I need during those six months.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but he went on. “Another thing. It’s clear to me that you’ve picked up several bad habits along the way in your life. One is drinking to excess. If you come to work for me, you lay off the booze—completely. It’s clear you can’t handle it. The other issue is your temper. I’ve seen you lose your edge several times in meetings when someone gets under your skin with a rude comment or makes a stupid remark about something you’ve just proposed. Instead of dealing with the idiot coolly and calmly, you’ve snapped, responded just as rudely, and given up some of your power.
“While you’re working for me, you will curb your temper. I think you have a great deal of potential and I plan to impose the kind of discipline that will help you gain control over your destructive impulses in the future.
“One last caveat. When you’re in my home, you’ll do as you’re told, with no arguments or complaints. I require complete obedience. Anything less will earn you an immediate spanking, delivered on your bare bottom.” He finished speaking and there was dead silence.
Rylie met his gaze and then started laughing. At first it was a little giggle, but before long she was holding her sides, tears running down her cheeks as she howled.
“Oh, God, for a minute there you had me,” she replied, once she had composed herself. “I deserved that. Bare-ass spanking! I guess I did act like a bratty little kid, making those calls. Point taken. Now, as for your job offer…”
Sullivan wasn’t laughing. If anything, his voice became even colder. “I wasn’t joking, Ms. Duncan. There will be no job here at Sullivan and Sons unless you also agree to accept the position of personal assistant at my home, abiding by the rules and restrictions I just went through, as well as agreeing to accept the consequences I laid out.”
“You can’t expect me to agree to something so barbaric, so sexist. You’d be breaking so many laws I can’t even begin to count them,” she snapped back.
“I won’t be paying you for the personal assistant position, so there’s no job-related violation. And as far as I know, there’s no law that prohibits you from consenting to abide by a certain standard of behavior when you’re in another person’s home during your personal time.”
“Apparently I don’t owe you much of an apology after all,” she retorted. “What I said about you last night was true—you are an asshole.” Rylie stood. “This meeting is over.”
Sullivan never moved. “I have a good friend who is a reporter for the business section of the Atlanta Journal,” he said. “I spoke to Tom earlier today and told him I might have a story for him—allegations of corruption among the highest public officials in the county, all on tape. You chose to leave the message on my voicemail, so you can’t claim I was taping your comments without your knowledge. The voicemail is my personal property. I can share it with anyone I choose. And if I do, you’re through in this town. You can rest assured you’ll be dragged into court along with everyone else from Zenith Construction. If you really have documents that show those overcharges to the taxpayers and kickbacks to the officials, doesn’t that mean you’re now an accessory after the fact, since you didn’t turn them in right away?”
Rylie sank back down in her chair. She knew in her heart that everything she’d said was true. She’d gone over the figures, seen the original invoices, overheard bits of conversation from the board members, and drew the obvious conclusions. But Rylie was an attorney. Hearsay and theories did not add up to hard evidence in court. If an investigation ensued, she’d be the one hung out to dry. With her word alone against all those powerful men, her claims would be dismissed as nothing more than the drunken tirade of a vindictive woman who got fired for blowing a big business deal.
“Mr. Sullivan—Neill—can we be reasonable? I know what I said was true, but I don’t have documents that would hold up in court. My reputation will be ruined. I’ll never get another job in Atlanta. I’ll end up having to move to some hick town and start over, fighting to get nasty divorce cases from pissed-off first wives whose rich husbands are dumping them.
“I’d be happy to represent your firm on any terms you choose,” she went on. Rylie realized that she was practically pleading now, sounding as desperate as she felt. “If you don’t want me as full-time legal counsel, I’ll work for you any time on an as-needed basis. And I’ll give you a hell of a good rate. If you’ll just erase that tape…”
Sullivan was shaking his head. “I’m afraid you’re not getting off that easy, Ms. Duncan. You’re somewhat of a loose cannon. If I erase the tape, what’s to stop you from leaving here, getting drunk again, and making even more false accusations about me to someone else? You’ve already called me a dick-sucker and implied that I’d whore myself out to get a contract.”
“You have every right to be angry, Mr. Sullivan. But I’m begging you—please erase that voicemail. What I did, what I said—that’s just not like me.”
Sullivan sat back with a little smile. “On that, we agree. See, I knew you were a good negotiator. You’ve managed to find common ground already. I don’t think the mean-spirited drunk on that tape is the real you. But if you continue to allow your hot temper to dictate your words and hit the bottle every time you’re under stress, it will eventually become the real you. I’m giving you a chance, Rylie. A chance to allow the warm, funny, smart, and capable woman I believe is inside you to come out and shine. I’m going to help you—by paddling your backside every time you step out of line until you’re able to give up those self-defeating behaviors.”
Rylie bowed her head, shoulders sagging, as though admitting defeat. Then she shot to her feet and grabbed his cell phone from the corner of the desk while striking out with the edge of her other palm. The move was designed to surprise him, not to do serious damage. But Sullivan moved just as quickly, wrapping his fingers around the hand with the cell phone while deflecting her blow with an upraised forearm.
He squeezed his fingers together around her hand and Rylie winced.
“The palm strike was a little slow in coming and you made two mistakes,” he said, all the while steadily increasing the pressure on her hand as it gripped the cell phone. “First, you telegraphed your move. Second, you checked the force of your blow. Unfortunately you haven’t learned there’s a difference between sparring in a martial arts class and actual street fighting. Now, if you’ll put the cell phone back down, I’ll let go of your hand… and I won’t press charges for assault.”
She swallowed and nodded silently, unwilling to trust that she could keep the rising terror she felt from her voice.
He gently brought her hand back down to the table and released his grip as the cell phone fell onto the desk.
“By the way, I backed up that voicemail to several different locations. I doubt you could find them all. So there’s no reason to search for it and try deleting it again when you come to work at my house. You’d just earn yourself a much harder spanking than the one you’re going to get for pulling that stunt. When our six-month agreement is up, if everything works out, you’ll have a full-time job here with an employment contract that you can draw up yourself. I’ll delete the voicemail in front of you and destroy all the copies, and your duties as my personal assistant will end.”
“Why are you doing this?” she whispered, unable to meet his eyes.
“Please, sit back down and I’ll answer your question,” he replied, his voice more gentle than she’d heard it since she walked in the door.
“Rylie, I think you’re one of the most effective negotiators I’ve ever seen. And there’s no doubt that you’re a brilliant attorney. Jerry worked hard to secure that contract for us. But I’ll be honest with you. We would never have gotten it if Zenith’s board of directors had listened to you and made the changes you were pushing for. They were too stupid to realize that you were right—and too bullheaded to take advice from a woman. I want you on my team for the next big deal, Rylie. You can be the best there is—if you learn to control those two dangerous habits you’ve allowed yourself to indulge.
“I think you can help me in my business—and I think I can help you in your personal life. Are you willing to accept all the terms of my offer?”
Rylie stared down at her hands. He was bringing that Sullivan charm out again. She’d heard respect and even admiration in his voice. Despite her anger, she felt a hot little thrill building deep inside. In all her years, Rylie had never met a man stronger than she was. Sure, they were often bigger, usually more muscular. But she’d never found anyone who sparked the tingle of excitement she felt now at the idea of being paired with someone who might actually be able to defeat her when it came down to a battle of wills.
In her experience, there were two kinds of men… bullies who lost their tempers and yelled or descended to threats of violence, and weak ones who simply retreated rather than square off against her. She’d never before met a man who responded to her tirades with calm assurance that she would eventually see things his way—and promised to turn her over his knee if she didn’t. That’s probably why I’m still alone, she thought. I’ve never met a man who was willing to go the distance with me and win my respect.
Deep inside, Rylie was suddenly aroused by the image of being mastered, being made to bend over the lap of a bigger, stronger male figure and having him spank her ass. She shut off the feminist part of her brain that was horrified at the very thought, and allowed her primitive self to emerge—the woman who found herself rocked by a jolt of raw sexual desire. She raised her head. Meeting Sullivan’s eyes, she responded with a calm that hid the torrent of emotions inside her.
“Yes, Mr. Sullivan, I accept your terms—in full.”
Sullivan stood up. “Good. Normally I’d reserve what’s coming next for when we’re in my home office. But we’re alone here and in light of your extremely poor recent behavior choices, I think it’s best that we start off on the right foot.” Sullivan stood and removed his tie. Rylie felt a flutter of fear mixed with anticipation when he came around the desk and began rolling up the sleeves of his blue dress shirt. “You’re getting your first spanking right now.”