The strangest, most bizarrely incapacitating pause stretches on as you stand before your new employer.

 

Christ on a bike…

 

He’s even more striking than you remember, the pictures Peyton showed you doing him no justice whatsoever.

 

Smooth, seemingly-airbrushed skin adorns his contrasting sharp features, meshing brilliantly with the hard, prominent lines of his nose and jaw. His eyes continue to pierce yours, their arresting, flame-like hue vibrant against the thick, inky mane pushed away from his face.

 

Richard Zane stands in silence, practically looming over you as his entrapping wolf eyes continue to stare you down.

 

Good God…

 

This is officially the most awkward “official” introduction of all time—without any actual introductions.

 

It’s like you’re frozen in time, following some odd, natural order, the weird suspension nothing more than par the course, just like your first encounter. And, yet, this also feels nothing like it, the former a result of an accidental bump compared to what’s going on right now; a very intentional, very planned meeting.

 

In his personal domain.

 

Your heart beats a million miles a second, the beginnings of its echo starting to form between your legs.

 

You grip your tablet tighter, praying you don’t end up accidentally cracking the screen before you actually get to use it.

 

You hold on to the new digital notebook like an anchor, tasking the thin piece of hardware with what it’s not designed to do.

 

It doesn’t help that this office is almost as intimidating as the man who owns it.

 

Multi-angled walls surround you, like living entities, watching your encounter unfold through their uniform, matte gray coating. Pieces of furniture look on like bystanders, inanimate yet judging, all glass and gleaming metal fused seamlessly together, intertwined with bits of neutral-toned upholstery.

 

It’s not a warm or welcoming environment, by any means; seemingly designed to make outsiders feel small and emphasize the character traits businesspeople in his position are renowned for.

 

Staunch. Shrewd. No-nonsense.

 

There’s not a potted plant or personal picture frame to be seen, and even the paintings on the walls are just splashes of black and white sprawled across their otherwise bare canvas.

 

“Was your transition okay?” he asks abruptly, the sheer depth of his voice shooting straight to your crotch. The marked, rhythmical throbbing below your belly instantly fans out, evolving into accelerated, acute pulsations.

 

Defying the laws of physics, muscle subdues metal as you clutch the tablet even harder, struggling to swallow.

 

It takes you a few seconds before you can find your own voice, but a “Y…Yes, sir,” is all you can seem to manage, your answer leaving you in just a shade above a whisper, the weight of his stare practically palpable.

 

“Are you settling in all right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And the housing facilities? Are they satisfactory?”

 

Satisfactory?

 

That would be the understatement of the century. You’d huff humorously at that under normal circumstances, but clearly, there is absolutely nothing remotely normal about this situation—or anything that has to do with this man.

 

You have to clear your throat before speaking again even though your answer remains the same. “Yes.”

 

Another bout of silence follows. He just…keeps staring at you. It’s beyond unnerving and inarguably weird. And, to be honest, you’d be completely creeped out if you weren’t stunned out of your mind. You should be creeped out. But you’re the furthest thing from it.

 

“Good,” he turns away suddenly, breaking his vise-like eye-contact. He slips his hands into his pockets, walking in the opposite direction.

 

Hell, even his stride is confident; his movements smooth and controlled despite his size.

 

“Mr. Covington informed me that he selected you to be your company’s representative,” he says. “While I imagine Earth Capital is fairly different, I hope you come to think of Zanergy as just as much of a home.”

 

Yeah…good luck with that.

 

“Thank you,” you say, instead. “I appreciate Mr. Covington’s confidence in me. I’ll do my very best.”

 

Zane’s gaze finds yours again, a fleeting grin tickling his gorgeous lips, so brief you barely catch it.

 

“Well, let me give you the grand tour, then. You’re going to be spending a lot of your time on the premises so we’d better get you acquainted.” He offers a firm nod, motioning. “This way.”

 

The heightened twitching between your legs is unbridled now, hammering away with each frantic beat even as you try desperately to ignore it.

 

You follow his lead, walking after him with more difficulty than anticipated. And it has little to do with the physical restrictions of your pencil skirt.

 

He stops in the center of his office, and you realize he’s standing inside a large, black circle, distinct from the rest of the floor. You look up at him, your face tantamount to a giant, blinking question mark.

 

“It’s a Passage Pad,” he explains, clearly reading your blank expression. “Just one part of an inter-connected transportation system between each and every physical zone of the headquarters, running through a private, underground channel over hundreds of thousands of acres. It’s the only of its kind in existence. Incredibly fast. Highly efficient. Completely safe.”

 

His eyes, despite their natural gleam, are absent of any pride as he elaborates on this so-called transportation pad which, for all you know, could be some alien spaceship portal.

 

It certainly looks like one.

 

And the last thing you need in your life right now is to be abducted by aliens.

 

Or him.

 

Then again, all it would take are those glowing peepers to beam you up.

 

“Don’t worry, Miss Myers. I assure you, the Pad is safe,” he says with confidence, sensing your apprehension. “And I also assure you that I won’t bite,” he adds, his grin spreading.

 

His voice lowers as he says it, peppered with an unanticipated edge.

 

For some reason, he gives you the distinct impression that, despite his words, biting is something that comes quite naturally to him.

 

With those consuming wolf eyes, he certainly looks like he might.

 

You take a deep breath, offering a tight, uncertain smile before stepping onto the large, circled Pad. The contrast is immediate. Sharp. The sensation disparate from the rest of the floor it’s connected to. It feels hollow, somehow; like you’re standing on thin ice.

 

Gingerly, you scoot a little closer to your new boss than you’d like, just so you can reach for him—or drag him down with you—in the event that anything goes wrong, no matter how infinitely small he claims the chances of that happening are.

 

Your insurance policy, if you will.

 

But you keep just enough distance between you so that your wildly erratic heart doesn’t beat itself to a mushy pulp from being so close to his sex-surging body.

 

A soft pop goes off abruptly, and you hear the mechanical clank of metal disengaging. You look down to see the circle under you detach itself from the ground, rising slightly.

 

Your stomach flips at the sudden motion, a shrill flutter hiking up your spine. A second later, you’re being surrounded by a forming cylinder of clear glass, with several, tiny holes scattered all over it which look like they’re for air.

 

Zane confirms your assumption. “The glass is reinforced, fire-resistant, freeze-guarded, bullet-proof and perforated for oxygen in the highly unlikely event that anyone gets stuck inside.”

 

You swallow, trying to focus on the specs of his foreign construction instead of the delicious voice conveying them.

 

The only hazard he forgot to insulate it from is himself.

 

The glass envelopes you completely, looping around the circumference of the circle it rests on. A quick beep follows right after, accompanied by a blinking, electric-blue light that suddenly appears.

 

Zane touches his fingers to it, prompting several rows of varied keypads. You stare at it in awe in spite of yourself.

 

You think this just redefined the word ‘touchscreen’ for you.

 

He taps and swipes a few buttons you can’t discern, his fingers swift. Tactical. But you’re more focused on how gorgeous and well-defined they are. Model-esque, for certain.

 

He hits another key, and the Pad rotates one hundred and eighty degrees, turning you to face the opposite direction right before submerging you into the ground.

 

***

 

In thirty-five breathtaking minutes, the Passage Pad carries you across a hundred and fifty-five square miles of what you can objectively call a physical, modern-day empire.

 

You start out with a comprehensive tour of the main administrative building, moving on to the extensive geology sector, integrated with well-logging and lithology subdivisions.

 

You make brief stops at three massive oil rig construction sites, the sights of which make you want to grind your teeth. All thirty-two of them damn near turn to dust when Zane casually mentions that he had the most recent one built for him just a few months ago by an associate who lost a bet to him.

 

You take one of the—supposedly—shortest routes through the main refinery, though there’s nothing short about it, following on to one of the pillar production plants before continuing to the drilling division. As the excursion goes on, you find yourself shocked by everything you see, some of the preconceived notions you had disintegrating with each stop while others are reinforced.

 

Petroleum labs. Drilling fluid storage centers. Subsurface geology and exploration. The department of transport that’s partially responsible for the state-of-the-art Passage system taking you to all these places. Piping. Natural gas. Fracking. The tertiary production department. Wild-cat and well development. The petrochemical division. Sedimentology centers. The hydrology department. Consolidated rock labs. And so, so much more.

 

Too much to take in in just half an hour, but you highly doubt you’d be able to cover every area of the HQ base even if you had the entire year to.

 

The condensed tour is nothing short of grand, delivered with unmatched efficiency despite its relative brevity. Just when you feel like your brain is on the verge of exploding, it comes to an end.

 

The Pad ascends, bringing you back up into Zane’s office before the glass cylinder slides down into the ground and the circle reattaches itself to the floor.

 

You glance at your watch as you step off, noting it’s already after nine o’clock.

 

“Wow,” you whisper, breathless, as though your legs were the ones zapping you about.

 

That was…incredible.

 

Despite your maintained reservations about the obvious inner-workings of an oil company, there was a lot you saw that threw you for a loop—in a good way.

 

You turn to find Zane staring at you intently, his eyebrow slightly raised as a tiny grin plays up his handsome face.

 

“What?” you blurt before you can stop yourself, mimicking his brow arch, your face getting hot.

 

He looks on with his practically flammable gaze, his grin broadening into a brief smile, as if he’s sharing an inside joke with himself.

 

“I’m glad you enjoyed the tour, Miss Myers,” he says simply, his voice notably deeper, diverging from the slightly toned-down severity of his expression.

 

He steps off the now immobile Pad, never breaking eye-contact, even briefly. Instinctively, you take a step back as he closes in, your lungs fluttering, fighting for air, overwhelmed by the head on combination of his size and stare. Your feet go flaccid as he brushes past you to the door, willing it open.

 

“Let’s show you to your office.”

 

Largely in silence—the tense, overbearing kind—you follow Zane to another transporter, unable to decide which is worse: being orientated by his assistant or him. They both make you nervous. But in very, very different ways. And for very, very different reasons.

 

In mere seconds, it whisks you to a completely new area. Your steps slow, an acute sense of hesitation suddenly weighing on you. From the corner of your eye, you catch his profile as you stop in front of a door, somewhat isolated from others scattered across the hallway. He motions over the knob and it rotates three hundred and sixty degrees before unlocking. He pushes the door open, holding it ajar as he gestures for you to go in.

 

“Ladies first,” he offers. Traces of a subdued smile amplify his already drop-dead gorgeous face, playing up all his other stunning features and revealing hints of dimples in his cheeks.

 

You shuffle past his soaring frame, your body just inches away from his. You realize you’re holding your breath, as if the simple, natural act of respiring will automatically make it haul itself against his uncontrollably. You step over the threshold tentatively, your eyes peeled forward, suddenly afraid to look at him.

 

Your legs, shaky as they are, manage to get you through the door, walking into a large, completely furnished office.

 

You’re surprised by its size, much bigger than you’d expect for an intern; fully equipped with a structured, polished desk, a wide, curved monitor luxuriously centered atop it, and a quality, ergonomic swivel chair. A matching pair of guest seats face it on the opposite end. A contemporary, velvet grey couch and its matching loveseat surround a centerpiece table on the other side of the room. Like other work and living areas at Zanergy, the color scheme is largely monochromatic. Your eyes scan the space, keeping themselves busy with inanimate objects so they don’t have to bear the crushing weight of the other pair in the room.

 

Inadvertently, they dart toward the edge of the desk…and immediately go wide.

 

A beautiful, horizontal glass plaque sits, staring back at you—with your name engraved into it.

 

CONSTANCE MYERS

 

The font is simple and, yet, the letters come together quite elegantly. It’s not like you, but you can’t help but bask in a bit of vanity as you regard it. You really didn’t expect to have an entire office to yourself, let alone one with your own name plate.

 

You continue to look around, trying to take everything in as you question the realness of this moment. Of this place. Of this “opportunity”.

 

The walls are completely blanched, accompanied by nothing save a disproportionately large mirror, its silver frame embellished with intricate, metal detailing.

 

You unwittingly catch Zane’s reflection in it. His large body comes into full view, your eyes gluing to his image, beholding him with an increasingly erratic heart as he walks up behind you. His exotic, golden eyes catch yours in the mirror, watching you as he moves, his body solid. Agile.

 

Like a predator.

 

You quickly look away when you realize you’re staring at him, too, forcing your eyes to land on something—anything—that won’t provoke the incessant tingling below your belly.

 

A blast of heat stings your cheeks, and at the rate your body temperature’s rising, your entire head is going to be the shade of a matador’s cape in the next minute or two. You resume viewing the office to distract yourself, feigning intrigue in your new surroundings just so you can keep your eyes and mind occupied by anything other than the dazzling specimen behind you, moving away from his big body as you try to put as much distance between you as you can.

 

He doesn’t speak for several moments but you can feel his gaze on you, piercing your flesh and scorching the surface of your skin like angry sun rays. His silence is unnerving and, because of it, you find yourself suddenly too flustered—and perhaps even somewhat afraid—to look up at him again.

 

You keep your eyes off the mirror, as well, just so you don’t end up accidentally catching his reflection in it again.

 

With forced but renewed attention to the new space, you realize that some of the pieces of furniture are sprinkled with silver ornaments and metal trimmings, just like the mirror, giving them a bit more detail.

The floor is carpeted with a soft, beige material, contrasting with the furniture sitting on top of it and matching a pair of drapes secured on either side of a non-traditional window, creating a sort of duo-hued effect. They’re really the only things that give the room some sort of illuminating factor, and pretty much the only things that offset the overly serious tone of the rest of the interior.

 

You do your best to diverge your focus, continuing to gaze elsewhere, but the accelerated throbbing between your thighs doesn’t go away. Or slow down. Or let you concentrate on anything but the man standing in this secluded office space with you.

 

“Do you have any questions?” he asks suddenly.

 

Your eyes impulsively dart to the mirror to find Zane looking at you squarely, but they rip away again just as quickly, the intensity of his stare making it hard to think.

 

You almost say no, the sole word on the very tip of your tongue as the need to physically distance yourself from this man gnaws frantically at you, but a thought occurs just before you voice it.

 

“Actually…I do,” you nod, forcing yourself to meet his eyes again, resisting the urge to back away as you turn to face him. “I was wondering if I could go over a more detailed briefing with you on the Z to A project…just so I can get better insight on it before we begin—especially since I was assigned to it last minute. It doesn’t have to be anything formal. I won’t take up a lot of your time.”

 

Zane’s expression remains static, his eyes still on yours and, suddenly, you start to think you shouldn’t have asked.

 

You’re literally on the verge of backtracking, fully expecting him to refuse.

 

“All right,” he agrees. “My schedule is completely booked for the entire day tomorrow but if you come in thirty minutes earlier, we can have a short sit-down in my office before the workday officially begins.”

 

“Thank you,” you nod, hoping you can persuade him to consider at least some of the suggestions you plan on bringing up—although it’s clear your presence here is little more than a formality itself and, even if it wasn’t, he seems like the type who doesn’t budge for anything once his mind is made up. And from how self-assured and overly confident he appears, he clearly has his mind made up on what he wants for this project in spite of the fact that he’s consulting with Earth Cap. In fact, the whole consultancy is probably just for show. Nothing more than legal decorum. An inconvenient but necessary cost of doing business. And Earth Cap’s just happy to be the one bagging his money. Typical case of one hand washing the other.

 

The realization hurts, and considering this is the norm in pretty much every industry, you shouldn’t be surprised. But, hell, this is Earth Capital. It’s supposed to be different. It’s supposed to be the exception to the rule. And, right now, you’re not sure which you’re more disappointed in; the fact that you were wrong, or the fact that you were actually naive and delusional enough to believe otherwise. It all comes down to money in the end. That’s the bottom line. Even for those who claim it’s not. At least, that’s how it’s starting to feel.

 

Zane offers a departing nod, effortlessly dragging you out of your thoughts with the simple gesture. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

Abruptly, he closes the distance between you before you can form another thought. Your heart literally stops for a second; one during which your bodies are only a hair’s width apart. You struggle to swallow, fighting to breathe normally as he brushes past you, your stomach doing a somersault when you get a whiff of his spicy cologne, marking his nerve-wracking presence long after he leaves.

 

***

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THIS MAKES ME FEEL...
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid

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