As the elevator started to rise, I took a deep breath. My palms were annoyingly sweaty. I hated that they did that. Trying to be nonchalant about it, I moved my left hand to the side of my hip and casually pressed it against my black pinstriped skirt. I did the same with the right after I passed my coffee into my other hand.
The attendant didn’t seem to notice at least. I smirked a little, feeling a bit proud of myself despite the boiling anxiety that was twisting my stomach up in knots.
I’m not sure why I was so nervous about this particular meeting, but ever since I’d walked in the door of Asher Enterprises this morning things had felt off in some way. I couldn’t quite put a finger on why. The service here was impeccable. When I’d first arrived, there was a woman waiting for me with a cup of coffee, and not just any coffee, my personal favorite latte from a boutique shop in the Gaslamp district complete with a healthy dose of salted caramel whipped cream. How they knew it was my favorite was beyond me, but I’d appreciated the treat nonetheless.
Now I was in a private elevator heading up to the top floor to meet with an executive from the corporation. I knew the basics of what they would ask from me. They wanted to buy my company. Out of sheer curiosity, I’d taken the meeting even though I had no intention of selling. I hadn’t worked this hard for this many years to have my work bought out by someone simply because they had a much larger bank account than me.
An MBA. Years of grad school. A PhD thesis that had gotten attention from every major pharmaceutical company in the United States. Getting a job working for someone else would have been simple, but I hadn’t wanted that. I’d wanted to take my research and bring it to the world. Myself.
I’d poured blood, sweat, and tears into creating my own company and I hadn’t needed anyone else to do it. Just two years ago, I’d finally broken down and hired a team of scientists as well as a medical science liaison to communicate with the general public and generate funding to expediate our research. I’d been successful. Incredibly so. We were on the cusp of a major breakthrough. The type of breakthrough that would put my compound on the map with companies like Pfizer and Roche and Johnson & Johnson and help people throughout the world.
This elevator was taking fucking forever.
The woman escorting me stood in front of me staring at the elevator doors. Occasionally, she’d look back at me and smile. I couldn’t shake the feeling that she knew something I didn’t, but I didn’t comment on it.
Finally, the elevator stopped at the fortieth floor and the door slid open in silence. I was ushered into a small sitting room where there was a single very well-dressed woman sitting at a rather ostentatious mahogany wood desk. She looked up at me and smiled before she walked around the desk to greet me. She reached out to take my hand and I shook it, not missing the way her eyes dipped just slightly to take in the outfit I was wearing.
My black pencil skirt fell just past my knees and my black kitten heels were cute, but more important, comfortable. My purple button-up blouse was soft, yet simple. I wasn’t here to impress anyone with my looks, but she most certainly was.
Every inch of her body was perfect. Perfectly curved with perfectly tailored clothes that obviously spoke to an incredibly expensive fabric that covered her perfectly toned body.
I did my best to ignore the small twinge of jealousy inside.
“Mr. Asher is ready for you,” she said, and I hated how musically perfect her voice was too.
“Mr. Asher,” I echoed. “As in Grayson Asher?”
“Yes. Right this way,” she answered.
The name Grayson Asher was a household one. He was the most famous eligible bachelor in the country and the one that most frustrated gossip blogs too. He didn’t date publicly. He didn’t even go out on the town much either. Magazines constantly featured him, trying to get at the crux of his type of woman, but they never really got anywhere. He was extremely rich, the owner of multiple Fortune 500 companies, and to the world’s knowledge he went to bed alone every night.
He was gorgeous. He had the kind of face that every woman dreamed about at night when she was lonely with only her own hand between her thighs.
My face heated.
Keep it together, Zoe. Be professional. This wasn’t going to amount to anything more than a business meeting.
I followed the perfect blonde to the door on the right and it slid open. She moved to the side and motioned for me to walk in, and I sucked in a breath and nodded my thanks. She grinned and I could have sworn her eyes had glinted with some sort of devious intention. I tried to ignore it.
The door closed, effectively hiding her judgment or whatever it was from me, and I turned around. I was in a hallway of some kind. I took a step forward onto the plush cream-colored carpet and lifted my head, pushing away the oddness of the morning and focusing on the matter at hand. This wasn’t my first rodeo dealing with business execs with ridiculously big egos. I’d hear what he had to say, nod my head at the right times, glance over whatever contract he’d put together in an effort to pull the wool over my eyes, and thank him for his time. I’d throw out the paperwork once I got home. In a week, I’d call back and politely reject his offer. I would take no counters.
I turned the corner to see a very tall man standing in front of a set of floor-to-ceiling windows. He was wearing a well-tailored suit, solid black and just as perfect as the secretary outside his office wore. His hands were folded together behind his back as he looked out on the whole of San Diego from his office on the top floor.
I could see the ocean from here. I had no doubt that it was probably the best view in the whole city. In spite of its beauty, I couldn’t stop myself from staring at the man right in front of me. His shoulders were wide, and I absentmindedly found myself wondering what they might feel like underneath my fingers. His shoulders tapered into a narrow waist, and for a second my gaze lingered on the perfectly round globes of his ass.
Yeah. That’s fucking nice. He was a tall drink of water, for sure.
Without warning, he turned around and those dreamy dark chocolate eyes found my boring blue ones. The pictures in the magazines had hardly done him justice. If anything, he was even more handsomely gorgeous in person. The lines of his chin were hard and sharp, softened a bit by the dark hue of a few days’ worth of stubble. His cheekbones were angular and just as flawless, but it was his eyes that captured me the most.
Their depths seemed endless. Within those dark irises, there were hints of yellow and green that sparkled amongst the coffee-colored hue. After a few moments, I forced myself to look away, afraid that he might think I was staring at him for too long.
“Miss Parker,” he murmured in greeting.
“Dr. Parker,” I corrected, and he smirked in a way that felt salacious and deviant rather than polite.
“That’s right. I apologize. It’s nice to meet you, Dr. Zoe Parker,” he answered. In some ways, it felt like he was chiding me, and it annoyed me. It was probably just the way he was. He was rich and used to being on the top of the world in every room he walked into. I may not have the dollars behind my name that he did, but I would.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Asher,” I continued.
“Please. Call me Grayson,” he smiled, and this time it was warmer.
I licked my lips.
“Grayson,” I echoed. For some reason his name on my tongue felt wrong, like I was whispering sweet nothings in his ear just by saying his first name.
I was being ridiculous.
I offered my hand in greeting and he took several steps toward me. His handshake was firm and sure, and I noticed at this proximity that he was so much taller than me. He was probably six foot three, or even six foot five. I tried not to be intimidated, but I was about a foot shorter than him and that made me feel tiny.
His skin against mine felt like fire, like I’d shoved my hand into a vat of molten lava, and I did my best not to pull away before he ended the handshake. I swallowed my sigh of relief when he released my fingers, trying not to focus on the way his touch lingered long after he let me go.
“Why don’t you take a seat?” he asked, proffering the comfortable-looking brown leather armchair situated in front of the grand wooden desk in the center of the room.
“Thank you,” I replied and moved toward it, glancing over my shoulder to see that his gaze lingered. He’d been checking out my ass. I was one hundred percent certain of it.
Maybe he did have a type.
I turned away just as quickly and sat down, not surprised that the chair was probably the comfiest thing I’d ever had the privilege to sit down in. I lifted my laptop bag off of my shoulder and placed it on the floor. Then I put my coffee down on a small table beside the chair and crossed my legs, waiting for him to begin.
He sat down in his own chair and placed his elbows on the desk, leaning toward me, and immediately it reminded me of a predator lying in wait for his prey.
“You’ve pursued a very impressive career path, Zoe. Top of your class at Stanford. Completed your PhD in four years at the University of California San Diego. The job offers must have been staggering for a graduate student making only thirty thousand dollars a year. I bet not a single one of them was under six figures,” he murmured, his voice gravelly and mildly curious.
“I did receive a great many tempting offers,” I answered carefully. His smile widened.
“Instead, you decided to take a big risk and continue your thesis research on your own. Tell me, Zoe, why did you decide to start your own company instead?” he pressed.
“I wanted to be the one to take my discovery and bring it to the world,” I replied. To be honest, that was only partially the truth. There was a lot more to it than that.
My company had one very simple goal. We were developing a biosynthetic compound that mimicked insulin closely enough to be recognized and utilized by the human body. It could fundamentally change the current world of insulin production. Right now, insulin was ridiculously expensive in the United States and could only be produced in a biologic manner, which limited the quantities available at any given time. My technology would change all that.
I was certain of it.
He stared back at me, a curious look painted over his face. It was as if he was trying to read my mind to see if I was telling the truth, or if there was more hidden away beneath it all.
I didn’t let it show.
“An honorable venture, to be sure, but certainly one that means more debt to your name. Research doesn’t come cheap,” he finally answered.
“That it certainly doesn’t,” I said, putting on a polite smile.
“I’ve been watching your company for quite some time now. You’ve been working very hard. It’s been growing steadily, receiving consistent funding and even a number of grants, hasn’t it?” he said, and there was almost a sense of pride in the way that he said it.
“Yes. That’s right,” I grinned.
“How many people are currently under your employment?”
“I have a team of six working for me now,” I answered simply.
“I think you’ve done something really amazing, Dr. Parker. I have a great amount of experience with companies like yours and have successfully grown six or seven of them now. I think the potential of Parker LLC is vast and with the right kind of funding it could take off sooner rather than later. If you have more money and manpower, you could escalate your production that much faster,” he began.
I already knew where this was going, so I tried to steer it in another direction.
“Would you like to invest in my company, Mr. Asher? We could put together a stock portfolio for you, or perhaps you could contribute in some way to my research? A grant, perhaps?”
“I already told you, call me Grayson,” he scolded. I blushed slightly but held my ground.
“I apologize. Grayson,” I corrected, dipping my head slightly with respect. Something crossed his face, and I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Interest. Desire. Curiosity. Whatever it was, it left me feeling a bit unsettled.
“Thank you. And no. I’m not interested in only a piece of your business. I’d like to buy it outright. You would remain in the lead position. I am not naïve in that the company needs you for its success. Your employees would also stay. The only thing that would change is that you would work for me,” he said.
“And why would I do that?”
“Money makes things move faster. Everyone has a price and I’m willing to pay it. I have the right connections to make clinical trials move faster. Drug development isn’t cheap, and it comes with a certain amount of red tape that I have the ability to buy my way through. I’ve done it before and I’d do it again,” he explained.
I sat back and crossed my arms over my chest.
“You could employ more scientists. Buy more reagents. Begin the process of mass drug production. I could get you factories, people, whatever you need,” he continued. I couldn’t decide if he was being arrogant or if he just had the kind of money that made those kinds of things just happen. It kind of felt like the latter, but I wasn’t entirely sure.
I wasn’t going to fall for his offer though. I’d made it this far on my own. I didn’t need anyone to help me of the rest of the way. I’d be successful jumping through all the right hoops at the right times all by myself.
I’d play his game for a little while though. I didn’t want to be rude. I’d hear him out at least.
“In the next five years, the insulin industry is forecasted to be worth almost thirty billion dollars. My company will be responsible for a significant piece of that in the next few years. What we’re developing will change not just the industry, but the world,” I answered. I allowed myself to be cocky, just a little bit. I’d earned it.
“I know. Your company stands to put the insulin industry on its knees,” he replied. I couldn’t read his expression. I licked my lips, trying to study the darkness in his gaze and getting nowhere.
“I don’t want to sell my company,” I finally said softly.
“Everyone has a price, Zoe. What’s yours? Ten billion? Twenty billion? Name your price and it’s yours,” he responded. There was no sarcasm or judgment in his voice. In fact, there was something about it that pulled me in.
Would working for him be so bad?
I wasn’t just running my company for kicks or for my pride. I was doing it to honor my mother.
Her image flashed before my eyes, and I gritted my teeth.
My mother developed type one diabetes in her teenage years. Insulin wasn’t as expensive back then, but that was before she had me. I’d never met my father. My mom wouldn’t tell me anything about him. For all my life, it had been me and her. We’d taken care of her diabetes together and for a while, we managed. But then the price of insulin started to rise. And rise. And fucking rise some more.
Soon, we had to choose what bills not to pay so we could get her insulin. Sometimes we went hungry. I never got new clothes for school. Going shopping meant picking through the leftovers of the church lost and found or if I was lucky, a trip to Goodwill. One time, I’d found a twenty-dollar bill on the ground and Mom had let me spend it all. It had felt like I’d won the lottery.
My mom began hiding her insulin use. She’d tell me she’d given herself a dose, but I’d never see the needles. I’d stopped checking in. I’d trusted her to take it. Sometimes she even sent me to get it, but those times grew rarer as time went on.
What I hadn’t known was that she was rationing it. She was only buying it when she had the money and sometimes, she didn’t get it because she had to choose to buy us dinner or pay the rent instead.
She didn’t tell me she’d stopped buying it in the end because we couldn’t afford it. I didn’t find out until our landlord rushed her to the hospital. She hadn’t been testing her glucose levels. She hadn’t taken a dose of insulin in months and her kidneys started failing. By the time she made it to a doctor, it was already too late.
She’d died just a week after that.
Parker LLC was for people like my mom. The type of medication we were synthesizing would keep people alive because they’d be able to afford it. My company wouldn’t force them to choose between eating and staying alive. I was the only one who would make sure that mission came to life.
Involving a man like Grayson Asher could ruin that. He was interested in the bottom line. He’d want to ensure the drug made a profit and a handsome one at that.
In all likelihood, he’d cut me out as soon as I outlived my usefulness.
“I don’t have a price. Parker LLC is my company and I aim to keep it that way. You could offer me the world and I wouldn’t take it,” I finally answered.
His jaw tightened, not with anger, but with a smile of some sort.
I didn’t want to meet his hard stare anymore, so I took a sip of my coffee instead. I was grateful for the break in eye contact, honestly. Just being in his presence felt intense and I needed a second away from it.
I glanced back at him, only to notice that his smile had grown that much wider. I didn’t know what to make of that and somewhere deep inside me, a balloon of anxiety blossomed to life.
Slowly, he pushed his hands against the desk and rose to his feet. He rounded his desk with intention, steadily moving but not rushing until he stood behind my chair. Nervously, I pressed my thighs together, trying to decide whether I should run or not and debating exactly how I far I could get. My heart pounded in my chest and the coffee mug shook a bit in my hands, so I put it down before he could see how much of an effect that he was having simply by standing next to me.
I sat back and decided to be brave.
“You are everything that I hoped you’d be, Dr. Zoe Parker,” he murmured, and I stiffened. For a moment, I sat there speechless, trying to figure out the meaning behind his words. He caught me off guard when his fingers grazed along the expanse of my shoulder. I jerked away, but he pressed against me more insistently. His touch was gentle, but I hated the way it felt like it was setting fire to my skin.
“Take your hands off me,” I gasped.
He didn’t. His palm cupped the back of my head and when I moved to lean away, his fingers dug roughly into my hair. I squeaked in surprise as a fierce stinging pain radiated across the back of my head, but it didn’t stop there. He forced me to stand, never letting up, and twisted me around so that I faced him. He pulled my hair so effectively that it was if he had a handle on my body. I tried pulling away and that only made it hurt more.
“What are you doing? Stop this instant!” I shrieked.
He silenced my screams by covering my mouth with his. He kissed me deeply, possessively, and for a second I forgot myself and started to kiss him back. His lips were like a dark obsession, and I lost myself in them, but then his free hand started to linger down the cusp of my shoulder, down the line of my back until he cupped my ass and squeezed it hard enough to hurt.
I remembered myself then. With both hands, I shoved against his chest. I used every ounce of strength that I had to do it, effectively breaking the two of us apart. My lips throbbed. He’d kissed me hard. I wondered if he’d bruised them and even though I wanted to reach up and touch them to see if they were swollen, I didn’t.
Instead, I slapped him so hard that the sound echoed fiercely throughout the room.
His hand released my hair and those dark brown eyes bored into mine. To his credit, he didn’t reach up to soothe his cheek even though it was beginning to turn pink. For a moment, we just stared at each other as I tried to grapple with what had just happened between us.
He’d crossed a line. Maybe there was a reason Grayson Asher was single all this time. Maybe he’d tried to take more than his fair share. Maybe he’d paid the right amount of money to the right people to keep his reputation a secret.
I wasn’t going to stay and find out. This meeting was over.
“I reject your proposition, Mr. Asher,” I spat, and I turned to storm out of the room. I made it almost to the end of the hallway before his hand closed around my upper arm. His fingers held me firmly, digging in just enough to ache a bit but so hard that it would bruise.
He pulled me back into his office that way and I fought him with every step.
“Let me go. You have no right,” I demanded.
He simply chuckled.
“Listen, asshole. I said no. I’m not going to sell my company to you no matter how much money you throw at me. I don’t have to stay to find out what more you want either,” I snarled.
He dragged me toward his desk. I didn’t go quietly. I dug my heels into the carpet, using the power in my legs that I’d developed through years of spin classes, at-home workouts, and running at the gym. I was strong, but he pulled me along like I was nothing more than a bag of rice.
I tried to twist away. I tried to kick him so that he’d let me go. I tried to push at him in hope he’d release my upper arm, but none of it worked. Right then, it was as if he had the strength of the Hulk. Nothing I could do would be able to fight against that. I knew that, but I still didn’t make it easy on him.
He pulled me all the way over to his desk. With surprising swiftness that I wasn’t prepared for, he pushed me face down over it, and just when I slapped my hands against the surface in an effort to stand back up, his hand flattened across the middle of my back.
He kicked my legs open. He used his foot to spread them wider.
“You bastard. You won’t get away with this,” I spat. “You can’t force yourself on someone just because you have money.”
He still didn’t answer. He ran his fingers along the curves of my hip until he grazed the lower part of my bottom cheek. I was grateful that it was still covered by my skirt.
“Stop it, you bastard. I’ll have your balls for this,” I screamed. “Goddamn motherfucker. Is this the only way you can get a woman? By forcing yourself on her?”
His fingers continued to explore my backside, just skimming back and forth like he owned it.
“I’ll sue you for every single cent that you’re worth, asshole. Let me go and I’ll just forget that this whole thing ever happened,” I growled.
He just kept surveying my body with that sure and steady hand. I continued to call him every name in the book. I threatened him. I did everything I could think of to warn him off, but his touch never wavered. Not even once.
With intention, his hand dipped beneath my skirt. He didn’t pull it up. Not yet. Instead, his fingers just slipped underneath and slid along the flesh of my bottom until they crept close enough to touch the cusp of my thighs.
“Stop! What are you doing?” I cried out.
He continued to ignore me, and I stiffened as three of his fingers pressed against the gusset of my panties. The only thing that was separating my bare skin from his touch was a thin piece of lacey fabric that felt so sheer, it was as if it almost wasn’t there.
Without my consent, my clit pulsed wildly with arousal.
A rather pitiful sound of shock and needy desire escaped my lips and I clamped them shut. I pressed my forehead against the desk in shame. There was no way he wouldn’t have heard that and nothing I could do would take it back.
His fingers lingered, teasing me delicately through the thin cloth. With everything in me, I forced myself to keep still, but every stroke was awakening something deep in me and I was doing my best to ignore that impulse.
I didn’t want to want him.
I refused to think anything more about it, but as his fingers continued to tease me, it became more and more difficult. My legs shook just the tiniest bit and then he slid his hand far enough away to slip his fingertips beneath the lacey hem of my panties. I stiffened and tried to press my thighs back together, thinking I might block him from touching my pussy directly.
With cruel intention, he grasped my panties and tore them clean off.