Ben hit the button for the parking garage on the elevator and rubbed his face. As the unit plunged down the shaft, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. His instincts warned him to pay attention.
To what? He looked up to read which floor he was passing and without thinking, hit the next one. The elevator stopped and the doors slid open. He put his foot against one side to hold it open, listening. His skin prickled. Yes, someone or something was here.
He stepped out, keeping his movements silent. Most of the lights were off, computer screens on screensaver. By seven-thirty, all five hundred twenty-three of his employees had left for the night. He rounded a corner and his senses sharpened when he caught sight of a woman’s arm lying on the floor, extending from one of the cubicles. He surged forward, the adrenaline already causing him to partially shift.
A young woman lay sprawled on her back on the floor, eyes closed. What in the—? As he lunged to kneel at her side, her eyes fluttered open and she shrieked. She scrambled up to stand. “M-Mr. Stone!”
He grasped her arms and lifted her to her feet, taking a deep breath and willing his vision back to normal. Something about the feel of her flesh under his palms made it harder to relax. He released her. Still, the hairs stood up on his arms, his instincts screaming for his attention. Why? What danger lay here?
“Oh, nothing!” the young woman exclaimed, smoothing her long reddish-brown waves back from her face. “I just… I have a migraine, and it affects my vision, so I didn’t want to drive. I was trying to meditate it away.” She spoke quickly, no doubt flustered to have the company’s owner and CEO in her cubicle. “I’m sorry, I’m sure it looked like I’d fainted or collapsed. I didn’t mean to alarm you.” Her blue eyes appeared shrunken with pain, but even so, her beauty was undeniable. High cheekbones, big eyes, and a wide, sensual mouth. As he looked at her lips, his vision domed again, bringing the peripheral into focus along with her face. He blinked, pushing back the threatened change, hoping his irises hadn’t changed color. She didn’t appear to have noticed anything. Strange… no human woman—hell, no female at all had ever had such an effect on him.
Too gruffly, he demanded, “Do you work here?”
The acrid scent of fear told him he’d made her nervous. Which was nothing new. The employees of Stone Technologies had learned in the three years of his reign to watch their step around him. He had little tolerance for any of them. He knew what they called him: Stone Man. Because he never smiled.
“Yes, Mr. Stone. This is my office. I’m a marketing assistant.” She grabbed a framed photo of herself and a girl who looked identical to her and held it up. “See? This is my desk.”
“You can’t have security clearance. How did you plan to lock up when you left after hours?”
Her eyes widened. “Well, Steve is still working down in R&D. He said I could stay as long as he was here.”
For some reason the thought of her getting cozy with anyone named Steve—whoever he may be—made him want to tear the man’s throat out. He gave himself a shake. What was wrong with him?
“What’s your name?”
“Ashley. Ashley Bell.” She held out her hand.
“Ben Stone.” He took her palm, once more experiencing a strange reaction to touching her skin. Heat tingled in at the contact, shooting up his arm.
“I know,” she said with a smile.
He yanked his hand back, unsettled by his reaction to the slip of a human female. “Get your things. I’ll drive you home,” he said curtly.
Her expressive mouth rounded into a little O. “Um, that’s not necessary, Mr. Stone. I can call a friend, or a cab, or—” She broke off at his stern gaze. “All right,” she said meekly. He caught a whiff of another smell, mixed in with the fear: arousal.
He stiffened. For him? The wolf in him surged and he had to steady his breath.
Ashley opened a drawer and grabbed her purse. A paperback book fell to the floor.
He retrieved it before she could snatch it up.
He turned it over to look at the cover. A man with a naked torso and washboard abs graced the front, wind blowing his shoulder-length hair. A romance reader. Cute.
“That’s… not mine,” she said lamely, a pretty blush coloring her cheeks.
His mouth twitched in a smile. “Right,” he said, handing it back with a raised eyebrow that caused her to blush again.
She shoved it in her purse and licked her lips. The sight of her tongue sent a pulse of heat to his cock. He took another breath and blew it out slowly, trying to understand what was happening. The girl was human, he was sure of it. Not his destined mate. Weak. Fragile. Not even able to withstand a marking. How could she be calling up his most base desires when no female—human or wolf alike—had ever done so?
He touched her back to let her pass and he thought he felt her shiver, the scent of arousal growing stronger. She stole a glance at him from under her lashes.
Closed in the elevator with her, her scent filled his nostrils. She wore a rich, vanilla fragrance, but it was her own natural scent underneath that made his blood warm. He wanted to touch her again, wanted to soften the line between her brows, the one that betrayed her pain.
Get a grip, Ben.
“So, how long have you worked for me?”
She looked up, her lips forming a pretty bow. “Almost two years.”
“Do you like it?”
She hesitated a beat. “Yes, yes, of course.”
“What don’t you like?”
“I said I like it,” she protested.
“You’re not the best liar.”
She flushed. “I’m really happy here. I’m just,” she licked her lips again, “looking forward to taking on more responsibility.”
He rewarded her with a glimmer of a smile. “Very diplomatic, Ashley. I appreciate that. It’s a skill I lack.”
She smiled and looked down at her feet as if to hide it. Clearly she’d heard all the rumors about him.
“So you’re bored?”
The elevator doors opened, giving him the opportunity to touch her back again to escort her out. Her hips swayed, heels clicking on the concrete.
“No… well, honestly? Yes. But I understand I have to work my way up. And I’m willing to do it.”
“I might have a personal assistant position opening up on the top floor, if you’re interested.” He didn’t know what made him say it. His secretary had been trying to act as a personal assistant to him since the day he’d taken over the company after his brother’s death, and he’d been pushing her away. But something about Ashley Bell intoxicated him. He couldn’t have her, but he wanted to keep her near, even if it meant giving up his coveted privacy and solitude.
Her eyes slid sideways. “Is that a glorified secretarial position?”
He resisted the urge to swat her sashaying backside. “Do you think it’s beneath you? I assure you the pay is at least twice, maybe three times what you’re making now.”
“No, I—” She blushed again.
He wanted to push her against his black Mustang and kiss her full lips.
“I’m sorry, that was rude. Would I be working for you?”
“Yes… do you find that daunting?”
She let out a short bark of laughter. “Yes,” she admitted. “But it would also be the main selling point.”
Her answer pleased him more than he wanted to admit. He needed to regain his footing. “Am I selling this job to you?” he asked drily.
“Oh—” Her smile vanished. “Of course not. I-I would be honored to be considered for the position, of course.”
He caught another whiff of her arousal. Was she turned on by his sternness? The same thing that made his employees complain about him? Wolves responded to dominance, but humans were a mixed bag. While he could make every one of his employees grovel with little more than a disapproving look, not all of them enjoyed submitting. This one, it seemed, lived for it. Maybe that was his attraction to her.
He opened the passenger side door for her and watched her shapely legs as she folded them into the car. When he climbed in beside her, he asked for her address and put it in his GPS. Then he began to grill her. “Education?”
“Bachelor’s in English/film studies from Colorado College.”
“Grade point average?”
“Three point eight seven, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa.”
“Three years as a barista at Starbucks, two years as waitress at Red Lobster. One internship with Channel Four News. Close to two years here.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-five.” She rubbed her temples.
He instantly regretted giving her the third degree. “I’m sorry, he said, softening his tone. “Am I making your head worse?” He realized she’d grown paler since they’d left the building.
“No,” she said, but he knew it was a lie.
“We don’t have to talk,” he said.
He muted the guidance system and followed the map, driving in silence until he reached her brick duplex in the hip but transitional Denver neighborhood.
“I’ll pick you up in the morning. Be ready by seven.”
Her mouth dropped. “What? Really?”
He wrote his cell phone number on the back of a card. “Call me if the migraine will keep you from going to work.”
She blinked at him, looking stunned. “You’re picking me up? In the morning?”
“Well, you left your car in the parking garage, didn’t you?”
He waved his hand impatiently with his usual rudeness, shooing her out of his car.
“Thank you, Mr. Stone.”
“Good night,” he said curtly, putting the car into gear before she even shut the door.
He needed to leave before he followed her in and tore her clothes off, marked her with his teeth, and claimed the little human… He shook his head. That couldn’t happen. Because she wouldn’t forgive it, for one thing. And he didn’t do relationships, for another. No, this very strange development, this sudden interest in a female human could not be pursued. Period.
He sighed and rubbed his palm over his face, her scent still lingering in his nostrils.
Despite the throbbing in her head, Ashley’s senses zinged from contact with Ben Stone. Talk about magnetism. Some said he had the personality of an ice cube, but all she’d sensed was pure masculine power. Even through his crisp designer suit, she’d seen the outline of sculpted muscles in his arms and chest. His dark, Latino looks dripped sexual prowess and the silence made him mysterious. And those pale green eyes had seemed to flicker to amber under the fluorescent lights at the office…
She dropped her things and started a bath, filling a washcloth with ice for the back of her neck. Heat on the body, cold on the head. Not that it ever worked. Nothing helped when she had a migraine. Her phone rang and she looked to see who was calling. Melissa—her twin sister. She hit talk. “Hey, how’s it going?”
Melissa lived two hours away in Colorado Springs, but they still spoke almost every day.
“Do you have a headache?”
“How can you tell?”
“Your voice gets all tight. I’m sorry. Did you try the hot bath, cold washcloth thing?”
“Trying it now. I’m taking you into the bathtub with me.”
“Just don’t drop your phone, you might get electrocuted or something,” Melissa teased.
She snorted. “I think that’s just with hairdryers.” She pulled her clothes off and stepped in the tub. “You’ll never believe who just took me home.”
“Ben Stone, the CEO and owner of Stone Tech.”
Melissa whistled. “Nice. How’d you swing that?”
She told her sister the whole story, from him finding her lying on the floor in her cubicle to telling her he had a personal assistant position open.
“So, what’s he like?”
“Super sexy in that dark, brooding Batman sort of way.”
“Did he say I’m Stoneman?” her sister asked, attempting a deep, throaty voice.
She giggled. “I wish I hadn’t had this migraine, because I screwed up my chances at the position by putting my foot in my mouth.”
“I don’t know, Ash. He’s picking you up in the morning. It kinda sounds to me like you have this one nailed.”
She tried to ignore the frissons of excitement her sister’s words caused. “I definitely wouldn’t say that. He’s a tough nut to crack. Totally unreadable.”
“What’s the scoop on him, anyway? He’s South American, right? And he moved here to run the company when his brother died?”
“Yeah, I read in Business Weekly that he’s half Latino. His mom was American and that’s where the name Stone comes from. He graduated from Harvard Business School and he’s only thirty. That’s about all I know. The company has sort of languished since Ben’s been CEO, but he refuses to step down and hire someone more experienced to run it even though the board has been pushing for it. He still owns the majority interest, so they can’t fire him.”
“So, you think he’ll get things figured out?”
“Well, he’s smart enough. Some people say he doesn’t care about the company, but I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t know, but I sure would like the chance to get close enough to him to form an opinion.”
“Well, tell him tomorrow when he picks you up.”
“Tell him what?”
“That you really want the job.”
Her pulse quickened just at the thought of sitting beside him in his car again. “Okay,” she said.
“You’re not going to,” her sister accused, probably catching the nervous twinge in her voice.
“No, I will. I will. You’re right. It’s worth groveling over.”
“So, guess who’s coming over here tonight?”
“Donny. The guy I met at the roller derby meet. Remember I was telling you about him?”
“Of course I remember.” She couldn’t always keep track—her sister was a bit of a serial dater. “That’s awesome. What are you going to do?”
“We’re just going to watch a movie we talked about that night we met.”
“Mmm hmm. Sure you’re just going to watch a movie,” she teased.
“Well, if stuff happens in the dark, I’m not going to call 9-1-1 or anything,” Melissa said with a laugh.
They chatted a little more and she hung up, leaning her head back against the cool porcelain of the tub, the ice tucked up behind her neck. This migraine had better be gone by tomorrow morning because there was no way she was missing out on another ride with Ben Stone.
The next morning, she changed five times before she finally settled on a short, fitted skirt and silk blouse. Her headache had mostly disappeared, although the aura of it still made her face feel tight and her eyes appear too small. She stood at the window of her duplex, ready to go by 6:45 a.m.
Even so, when the black Mustang pulled up, she snatched up her things and dashed out as if she were late. Ben was just getting out of his car when she came flying down the porch steps to the sidewalk. He stopped, leaning against the car, gazing at her with a speculative look. “Good morning, Ashley.”
“Good morning, Mr. Stone,” she said breathlessly.
She opened the car door and got in, holding her satchel primly in front of her. She suddenly wished she owned a nicer briefcase, not this old leather schoolbag that made her look young and immature.
“How’s your head?”
“Better,” she said, forcing a bright smile.
He scanned her face. “Not quite,” he said.
Her smile dimmed. “Mostly,” she said, oddly defensive.
The corner of his mouth twitched.
Her heart picked up speed. Did the man who never smiled find her amusing? She hoped, rather desperately, that he did.
“So… I, uh, wanted to apologize for that secretary comment I made yesterday. I didn’t mean to sound like a spoiled brat.”
Again, the twitch of his mouth as his eyes slid sideways to meet hers.
She caught her breath when their gazes locked and held, his dark-lashed green eyes melting her with each suspended moment. He looked back to the road and the spell broke.
She exhaled and tried again. “I hope you’ll still consider me for the position. I mean, I’d like to interview for it, or submit my application or whatever the process is…” She trailed off. She wasn’t usually this tongue-tied, but she found the gruff CEO more than a little intimidating. Which was half of the appeal. The other half being his brooding good looks and the power of his position.
“Three o’clock, my office.”
“Really? For an interview?”
He didn’t answer that question, as if he only had a certain allotment of words each day and he didn’t want to hit his limit answering stupid questions from her. She sat back in the seat and watched the skillful way he navigated traffic.
“Thank you for picking me up today.” Lame, Ashley. Very lame.
He didn’t even look at her this time.
Right. Keep your mouth shut, Ash.
When they reached the building, he pulled into his reserved spot, right by the elevators.
“Thanks again,” she said as they stepped into the elevator together.
He didn’t answer, but his eyes were on her face again, studying her. Her cheeks grew warm. His mouth twitched. “Where are you from?”
“Oh,” she said, drawing a breath to recover from the scrutiny of his gaze. “Here. Lakewood,” she said, naming the suburb of Denver where she’d grown up.
“I took State in swimming in high school,” she offered hopefully.
This won an almost smile.
The elevator arrived on her floor. “Well, um, thanks again. I’ll see you at three. I mean, I’m looking forward to our meeting,” she said, backing out of the elevator.
Only his eyebrow moved in acknowledgment. The doors slid shut and she exhaled, smiling as she walked to her cubicle. She had landed the interview. Now she just had to figure out how to impress him. What did Mr. Stone like in an employee? She feared there was no one at Stone Technologies who knew the answer to that question.
Ben didn’t have a clue what he would do with a personal assistant. He didn’t like anyone in his business or his space. He didn’t want to hear their whispers or smell their smells. He didn’t want to have to talk to them. What had possessed him to invent a personal assistant job? Ashley Bell, obviously. For whatever reason, he wanted to keep her close at hand.
Her scent still lingered, filling his mind with images of stripping her naked. He wanted to sink his teeth into her shoulder while he plowed into her from behind, hard and fast. But she was human. Hell, even if she was a shifter, with Carlos Sandoval out to kill him, he was not mate material.
He sighed and picked up his phone, asking Karen, his secretary, to make the arrangements to add a workstation to the office next to his.
“Yes, sir,” she replied, knowing better than to ask him who or what it was for.
He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk, and opened Ashley’s personnel file. It contained very little—her resume, application, references. Well, what had he expected, a life history?
He opened his computer and searched for her name on the Internet. It produced three references—one from her high school swimming championship and two from her college academic achievements. He searched her name on Facebook and perused her photos, which she unwisely shared with the public. The same girl from the photo she’d flashed him in his office appeared in many of them—a sister almost identical to her, except for the cut of her hair. They must be twins. Her relationship status was listed as single and very few guys appeared in the photos, which was fortunate, because he might have hunted down any man pretending to be good enough for her.
Karen called to say his top level management team had arrived for the morning meeting, so he picked up his coffee mug and headed to the conference room.
Jack, his brother’s best friend and vice president of development met him at the door with the same disapproving, pinched expression he always wore. Jack hated that Ben had taken the helm of the company and, in his opinion, was running it into the ground. The programmer had been part of the company since its initial start-up. Jack had helped design the first game software and been at Leon’s side during the lean years, helping him to grow it and get it where it was now.
When Leon died, Ben had thought about turning his share of the stock over to Jack and letting him have the company, just as he’d refused to take leadership of his brother’s pack, but in the end, it didn’t seem right. His brother had left the company stock to him rather than to his wife and young children, which told him something. If Leon had trusted Jack to run the company, he would’ve left the stock to Shayla, presuming she and their children would be cared for. By leaving it to Ben, it meant Leon needed Ben there to look after things, to ensure the profits continued for the benefit of his family. And so Ben was there, running a multi-million dollar company with no experience. But he owed his brother. If he had done his duty in the first place, Leon would still be alive.
He went into the meeting and listened as the team presented their weekly reports, which were dismal, as usual. Suma Games was rapidly taking over Stone’s market share. When he questioned the causes, he got excuses. In the first year, he had believed them, still getting his bearings and the culture of the company. Now he’d come to recognize the bullshit, but he hadn’t figured out what to do about it yet. As he stacked the reports in front of him, he hatched an idea.
When Karen buzzed him that afternoon to say Ashley had arrived, he told her to send her to the conference room. He picked up the reports his management team supplied him with and entered.
She jumped to her feet, knocking her rolling chair backward.
“Woof,” she said.
He arched a brow, hiding his amusement. No one talked back to him at Stone Technologies, but for some reason, on her, he found it cute.
She blushed. “Sorry,” she mumbled, settling back into her chair. “I was just making a joke…”
He walked around to the seat opposite her, but sat on the table rather than a chair, dropping the sales reports and financial data in front of her. “Sales are down. Costs are up. Find me ten strategies to rectify the situation and you have the job.”
She gaped at him, her blue eyes wide. “Um… okay.” She picked up the papers and began leafing through them. Her tongue darted out to lick her lips and he nearly groaned at the sight.
“You have one hour. Two if you need it.”
She exhaled. “Okay. Got it. Thank you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Her jaw dropped momentarily before she snapped it shut and blushed again. “Thank you, sir. I’m sorry, I don’t know the right etiquette, or protocol or whatever, but I’ll learn. I’m a quick learner.”
“I’m sure you are,” he said, standing up from his perch on the table and walking out.
He left her alone for an hour, then another. At five o’clock he opened the door to the conference room and found Ashley sweating, the reports and papers spread out in front of her.
She jumped up.
This time he actually smiled. He couldn’t help it. That she had tried her joke a second time after failing the first showed a confidence and resiliency he admired.
When she caught his smile, her face broke into a wide grin.
Torn between wanting to stare at its brilliance and needing to shut her down before she gained any further footing, he looked down at the papers. “Well?”
“I only found eight,” she said immediately, clicking the top of her pen. “But I’m sure I can find two more if you give me just a little more time.”
He hadn’t really expected her to find ten. Hell, he hadn’t expected her to find more than three. “Tell me what you’ve got.”
Ashley picked up a piece of notebook paper where she’d made a list. “The first one is phasing out the NE3 Game Stations. A lot of money goes into maintaining them, when if you’d just refuse to service them any longer, everyone would buy the E6’s.”
He nodded. The idea had occurred to him as well, but he hadn’t acted on it, mainly because the NE3 had been his brother’s first product, the platform for Robo Shooters, and the company, himself included, clung to it with a sentimental attachment. Hearing confirmation of his instinct from Ashley made up his mind. “Next.”
“Um…” She looked down at her paper. “Costs on a number of these products seem too high, considering what we’re charging. The profit margin isn’t large enough. I suggest we institute a cost reduction team, awarding prizes to engineers or teams who can reduce by the most.”
He liked the way she used the word ‘we,’ if they were already a team. It was presumptuous, yet it sounded right coming from her lips. “Good,” he said, throwing her a bone.
She lifted her eyes at the compliment, then looked at her paper once more. “My third suggestion is to recover the market we lost to Suma Games last year. This is sort of a two-part suggestion, so I counted it as number three and number four.” She raised her gaze again, as if checking to see if he would allow it.
“So, the first would be an advertising campaign. And the second would be product development to compete with their D-boy unit. I understand both of those will require an outlay of capital, but I do think the investment would be worth it.”
He didn’t comment.
“Okay,” she said, drawing another breath. “Number five is to thin out some of middle management.” She stopped, watching his face for a reaction.
“Right. Um, the reasoning is that you have an awful lot of people who sit around here and don’t do anything but tell others what to do and report further up the chain.”
“Speaking from experience?”
She hesitated. “Yes, sir.”
He liked that she remembered to call him sir.
She continued, describing her last three ideas, of which all but one seemed sound.
When she finished, he let her sit for a moment while he contemplated her in silence.
“So, as I said, I’m sure I can come up with two more—”
“Yes. I will expect you to. You can think about it tonight. You’ll start tomorrow. Karen will show you your new office.”
Her face split into a grin. “Mr. Stone! Thank you. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.”
He tapped the table. “See that I’m not.” He started for the door and stopped when he reached it. “Type up those suggestions and send them to me in an email, along with the backup data.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, still beaming.
He walked out, shaking his head, not at her, but at himself. Inviting her into his personal space was courting disaster.