The strangest, most bizarrely incapacitating pause stretches on as I stand before my new employer.

 

Christ on a bike…

 

He’s even more striking than I remember, the pictures Peyton showed me 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 mine, their arresting, flame-like hue vibrant against the thick, inky mane pushed away from his face.

 

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

 

Good God…

 

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

 

It’s like we’re frozen in time, following some odd, natural order, the weird suspension nothing more than par the course, just like our 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.

 

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

 

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

 

I 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 us, like living entities, watching our 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 my crotch. The marked, rhythmical throbbing below my belly instantly fans out, evolving into accelerated, acute pulsations.

 

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

 

It takes me a few seconds before I can find my own voice, but a “Y…Yes, sir,” is all I can seem to manage, my answer leaving me 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. I’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.

 

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

 

Another bout of silence follows. He just…keeps staring at me. It’s beyond unnerving and inarguably weird. And, to be honest, I’d be completely creeped out if I wasn’t stunned out of my mind. I should be creeped out. But I’m 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,” I say instead. “I appreciate Mr. Covington’s confidence in me. I’ll do my very best.”

 

Zane’s gaze finds mine again, a fleeting grin tickling his gorgeous lips, so brief I 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 my legs is unbridled now, hammering away with each frantic beat even as I try desperately to ignore it.

 

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

 

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

 

“It’s a Passage Pad,” he explains, clearly reading my 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 I know, could be some alien spaceship portal.

 

It certainly looks like one.

 

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

 

Or him.

 

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

 

“Don’t worry, Miss Myers. I assure you, the Pad is safe,” he says with confidence, sensing my 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 me 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.

 

I 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 I’m standing on thin ice.

 

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

 

My insurance policy, if you will.

 

But I keep just enough distance between us so that my 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 I hear the mechanical clank of metal disengaging. I look down to see the circle under us detach itself from the ground, rising slightly.

 

My stomach flips at the sudden motion, a shrill flutter hiking up my spine. A second later, we’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 my 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.”

 

I 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 us 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. I stare at it in awe in spite of myself.

 

I think this just redefined the word ‘touchscreen’ for me.

 

He taps and swipes a few buttons I can’t discern, his fingers swift. Tactical. But I’m 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 us to face the opposite direction right before submerging us into the ground.

 

***

 

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

 

We 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.

 

We make brief stops at three massive oil rig construction sites, the sights of which make me want to grind my 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.

 

We 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, I find myself shocked by everything I see, some of the preconceived notions I 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 us 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 I highly doubt I’d be able to cover every area of the HQ base even if I had the entire year to.

 

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

 

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

 

I glance at my watch as I step off, noting it’s already after nine o’clock.

 

“Wow,” I whisper, breathless, as though my legs were the ones zapping me about.

 

That was…incredible.

 

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

 

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

 

“What?” I blurt before I can stop myself, mimicking his brow arch, my 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, I take a step back as he closes in, my lungs fluttering, fighting for air, overwhelmed by the head on combination of his size and stare. My feet go flaccid as he brushes past me to the door, willing it open.

 

“Let’s show you to your office.”

 

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

 

In mere seconds, it whisks us to a completely new area. My steps slow, an acute sense of hesitation suddenly weighing on me. From the corner of my eye, I catch his profile as we 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 me 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.

 

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

 

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

 

I’m surprised by its size, much bigger than I’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. My 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 me—with my name engraved into it.

 

CONSTANCE MYERS

 

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

 

I continue to look around, trying to take everything in as I 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.

 

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

 

Like a predator.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

With forced but renewed attention to the new space, I 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.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Actually…I do,” I nod, forcing myself to meet his eyes again, resisting the urge to back away as I 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 mine and, suddenly, I start to think I shouldn’t have asked.

 

I’m 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,” I nod, hoping I can persuade him to consider at least some of the suggestions I plan on bringing up—although it’s clear my 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, I 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, I’m not sure which I’m more disappointed in; the fact that I was wrong, or the fact that I was 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 me out of my thoughts with the simple gesture. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

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

 

***

Series Navigation<< 21 Questions: Chapter Twenty-Two21 Questions: Chapter Twenty-Four >>
THIS MAKES ME FEEL...
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid

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