Pleasantly buzzing from the cocktails his friends had pressed on him, Connor re-knotted the tie required at Trans-Global while he waited for the elevator in the lobby.
Work had been a nightmare since the CDC, the FDA and plenty of other alphabets had made their announcements about the genetic engineering disaster last year. First, the crush of investors scrambling to flee agriculture businesses had stressed Trans-Global’s stable of analysts.
Then symptoms emerged in the general population.
Nerves strung tight, Connor fidgeted with his tie. Frustrated investment brokers and technology did not mix. The increasing aggression the mutation provoked had taken a steady toll on the analysts—and the investment firm’s computer equipment. As Director of IT, Connor fixed what they fouled, replaced what they broke, and kept his head down.
The less attention he drew to himself, the better. Intense, focused awareness followed him no matter where he went or what he did now—when he couldn’t hold a challenging stare, every time he yielded to the near-constant invasion of his personal space, whenever they touched him. And they always touched him. Fingers rustled his hair. A proprietary palm smoothed over the base of his spine when he walked. A heavy hand clasped his shoulder as he showed an analyst how he’d messed up his email. Again.
They were breaking their computers to get to him.
Connor didn’t know what to do. So when his friends had demanded the extra hour at lunch, he’d caved. He’d needed the break from the hungry stares at the office and saying no to the drinks his friends poured down him hadn’t been an option. Not really.
His friends had grown as predatory as the brokers. Connor’s nerves were shot. His stomach knotted when he felt heat at his back, a towering body that edged too close behind him. Didn’t matter how often one of them moved on him. It always made him shake.
“The elevator’s arrived. Unless you planned to wait for another?”
His muscles tensed. God, that voice. Connor darted a glance behind him and tried not to gulp at the full lips that curved into a sexy smile inches away. So near, Connor only needed to lean to bring that mouth to his. Part of him wanted to sway against him. The guy was tall, thick with muscle, and the confident glitter in his dark eyes promised there was little he couldn’t handle. Including Connor. Especially Connor.
He’d been fantasizing about that mouth for months. And he didn’t even know the man’s name.
“Come on, pet.” The dark-haired stranger chuckled, his fingers settling at Connor’s waist to nudge him forward. “I’ll take you upstairs where you belong.”
Heart thudding, Connor let the man guide him into the elevator. He wedged himself into a corner, though there was plenty of room for the two of them.
“Seventeenth floor, right?”
He jerked his head for a brief nod and kept his gaze glued to the tile floor, unsurprised when the stranger growled a warning to an office worker rushing forward as the doors slid shut, sealing them inside. Alone.
Jesus, the guy smelled good—musky aftershave, the wispy scent of soap and, underneath it, the earthy aroma of aroused man. Connor’s mouth watered. A wave of lust heated his skin from the tips of his toes to the face he knew must be pink with embarrassment.
“You should wear your collar or your ID bracelet before you go out again. Something that identifies your master.” The man crowded him, raising an arm to prop it against the wall next to Connor’s lowered head. “Or have you slipped your leash?”
He swallowed. The shaming desire to press against the stranger’s long body churned Connor’s gut. He unglued his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “I didn’t sneak away,” he mumbled.
Technically true. He had no one to sneak away from.
“Then he’s a fool for letting you wander.” The stranger bent, his chin brushing aside the hair at Connor’s temple. The man sucked in a deep breath. “Christ, you’re beautiful.”
Connor trembled, both wanting and fearing that want all at the same time.
“He’ll lose you.” A finger traced the line of Connor’s jaw. “It’s not safe for you to walk the streets without a master’s protection. I’m tempted to take you myself.” He pushed Connor’s chin up, forcing Connor to meet his gaze despite Connor’s quiet whimper of protest. “Tell me. Is he careless? Besotted? Or stupid?”
Connor startled at his name, then bodily sagged, never so relieved to see the receptionist, even if she was gaping at him. Barb had grown possessive of him, in her way. She’d rescue him.
“Connor? Are you okay?”
The body caging his stepped aside. “He’s all right.”
No, he wasn’t. He was turned on, scared, and his heart was trying to gallop out of his chest. None of that remotely resembled “all right.” He slid bonelessly to the elevator floor.
“Just a lesson for the pet. And David Martin.”
Barb hurried forward, alternately screeching at the stranger and clucking over Connor like a mother hen. For once, Connor welcomed the attention. The receptionist’s firm grip on him as she shouldered him upright steadied him and his knees wobbled only a little when she guided him from the elevator. He could almost breathe.
He jumped when the stranger grabbed his hand. “My card.” He shoved it into Connor’s palm. “If David Martin is half the man I believe he is, he’ll contact my firm to protect you immediately. And if not . . .” The man arched an eyebrow. “My personal number’s on the back. Don’t let the other wolves have you, sweetheart. Come to me.”
* * *
Word traveled fast.
As Connor escaped Barb and the front lobby, his cell vibrated in his pocket in time with the insistent chirping of his office landline. He’d meant to hide in IT. Shut the door. Try to forget the incident had ever happened. He’d climb seventeen floors every day before he’d set foot in the elevator again. To hell with the fact that he hadn’t dared the isolated stairwells between Trans-Global’s three floors in months. He just couldn’t . . . He couldn’t be near that man again. He smelled too good. And he’d treated Connor like a . . . a . . . thing. A toy. Like a choice morsel of meat.
Connor shivered. He had to steer clear of the stranger. Before he did something stupid like angle his cheek into the man’s palm, before he curled against his body. Before he grabbed the man with both hands and begged him to never let him go.
He needed a few minutes to stop his head from spinning. Trans-Global’s staff had decided an upset Connor was a weakened Connor, though, and a weak Connor was fair game. Especially now that Scott was out of the picture.
That all of them swooping down on him might rattle him never entered their aggression-doped heads.
Connor couldn’t think. They always crowded around him, offering bottled water and juice from the vending machines, a shot from a flask, chocolate to boost his blood sugar. He didn’t know whose hands rubbed his shoulders. He didn’t know who’d taken off his shoes. Somehow, this time, his tie ended up trailing from his collar, and his shirt was untucked, the first two buttons unfastened.
They meant well. These people had been friends and colleagues before the world had turned upside down. They still cared about him. None of them meant to scare the shit out of him. They were stripping him, though, and how badly he’d wanted to throw himself at the man in the elevator rocked him to the core. No matter how many people circled him, concerned and in their way trying to be helpful, Connor had never felt so vulnerable or alone.
Richardson, from accounting, shoved a box of tissues into his shaking hands.
When, for God’s sake, had he started crying?
The crowd parted like the Red Sea for Mr. Martin, Trans-Global’s CEO, and wasn’t that perfect? When Connor knew the guy had probably been racking his brain for grounds to fire him all week? Given the escalation of unnecessary repairs the staff had rushed through IT to court him, Connor had been expecting the call for days. It was just that this afternoon, he couldn’t take it. He buried his face in a tissue and sobbed.
Mr. Martin threaded his fingers through the hair at the crown of Connor’s head, and that comforting stroke, the affection Connor craved, made it a million times worse.
“Back to work, everyone. I’ll handle this.”
Connor scrubbed at his leaking eyes, swiped at his dripping nose with a balled tissue. The last year had cost him everything and now it looked like it was finally going to rob him of his job, too, but he had some pride left. Not much. But a little. “I’m sorry, M-Mr. Martin. I didn’t mean to cause a scene.”
“I’m sure you didn’t.” One corner of the CEO’s mouth kicked up. “Follow me.”
Connor gaped as his boss pivoted and strode from the office. Then he scrambled to catch up. Had to leave his shoes behind, but at least he had Richardson’s tissues, which was good because the cursed tears started up again when he felt every eye track their progress to the exit in the lobby.
“I think you’ve had your fill of elevators today, don’t you?” Mr. Martin opened the stairwell door for him.
Connor’s toes curled on the cold, gritty cement under his socked feet while the CEO led him up three flights and onto the executive floor. More eyes on him. Curious eyes. Hot stares.
Of course, he was parading around Trans-Global half-naked. Well, maybe not literally, but it sure felt that way. With his shoes gone, tie loosened, and shirttails flapping, Connor must have looked like he’d been caught necking in the backseat past curfew on Homecoming Night. He glued his stare to the dignified line of Mr. Martin’s shoulders in his discreetly elegant suit and sighed in shuddering relief when they reached his office.
“Hold all visitors and calls, Gretchen.”
The door shut with a quiet snick.
Mr. Martin walked to a sofa flanked by two wingback chairs off to one side of the spacious executive suite, rather than to his desk. Settling at one end, he waved at Connor. “Sit.”
Connor hurried to the sofa, back ramrod stiff as he perched on the edge of a cushion.
“You have a business card for me?”
He blinked at the soggy rectangle still in his palm. Eyes wide, he passed it to his boss.
Mr. Martin glanced at the card. “Ah. Integrated Security, four floors up. I thought so. Excellent reputation.” He flipped the card over and chuckled. “The man himself.” His gaze flashed to Connor. “You told Emmett Drake that you belong to me.”
Drake. The name of the man in the elevator was Emmett Drake. Alarm streaked through him like electric current, tensing already rigid muscles to iron. Connor fidgeted. “He assumed.”
The CEO laughed. “He would.”
Connor squared his shoulders. “I’m sorry I embarrassed you, sir.”
Connor’s head whipped up.
His boss stared at him, black eyes cool and clinically assessing. “You may as well call me David.”
Connor’s heart seized. “W-what?”
“You didn’t embarrass me. And if you wish, you need never speak to Emmett Drake again.” Mr. Martin—David—slipped the card into his suit pocket. “You’ve been with Trans-Global how long?”
Connor couldn’t think beyond the roaring of his pulse in his head. “Six years.”
David nodded. “Seven, counting your college internship. You came into the firm the same year I was recruited. I kept my eye on you.” He steepled his fingers. “Even before the disaster, you were popular and highly respected. You demand a lot of your team, but no more than you demand of yourself. Your dedication to Trans-Global has been exemplary. We—I—won’t reward that loyalty by abandoning you when you need us most.”
Connor pressed his lips shut, heat rising in his already flushed cheeks.
“You don’t have any family nearby.”
He stared at the plush beige carpet. “They’re in Sandusky.”
“They haven’t called you home?”
Return to Ohio? He shuddered. “They’ve tried.”
David patted Connor’s knee. He quivered under the touch. “It must be safer for you there.”
“When I told my parents I was gay, my dad threw me out. I was seventeen.” His shoulders hunched. “Now my father thinks he can exploit . . . my problem . . . to cure me of my deviancy.”
David frowned. “Got a nice girl picked out for you?”
Connor’s balls shriveled to raisins. “I won’t go back to that. He can’t make me.” He dared a glance up through his lashes. “You can’t make me. Anything would be better.”
“All right.” His boss’s lips thinned. “What about your friends?”
He didn’t want to be here anymore. He didn’t want to answer these questions, but David’s loose grasp on his knee didn’t fool Connor. If he tried to leave . . . Well, he couldn’t. His boss wouldn’t allow it, so Connor swallowed what little remained of his pride and tried for succinct. “My friends think I should reconcile with Scott.”
“Like everyone else, I assumed he was your master. Then you surprised us all by kicking him out, which no boy would ever do.” David’s eyebrow quirked. “What happened?”
“Scott wouldn’t give me his protection until he said I’d earned it. And . . . and . . .” Could this get any worse? Probably not. “You saw what he did to me.” His stare bored holes in the carpet between his socked feet, but he resisted the urge to touch where bruises had colored his jaw and ringed his eyes. “Everyone saw what he did. What I let him do.” Connor shrugged a stiff shoulder. “I kept telling myself that Scott was struggling with the changes like everyone else and once his aggression leveled, he’d stop hurting me. But he liked hurting me.” He gulped, tried again. “If I wore Scott’s collar, who would protect me from him?”
Nobody. That had terrified Connor most of all.
“I’m sorry. I truly am.” David blew out a sharp breath. “I was willing to let you and your boyfriend sort your relationship out at your own speed, but I can’t allow you to continue at Trans-Global without a protector. This afternoon clearly illustrates why that would be unwise.”
“I understand.” Connor fought the burning in his eyes. How long could he live on his savings? A couple months? Three with whatever severance package they gave him, six if he cashed out his Roth IRA. He could possibly stretch that to twelve months if he ditched cable television, got rid of his landline, and developed a sudden devotion to Ramen noodles. After that, need would force him out. A year, tops. A year before some nameless, faceless stranger claimed him.
His stomach lurched. “May I finish out the week, sir?”
“No.” David slid a keycard from his suit pocket. “Use this to access the private elevator at the end of the hall. Turn left when you leave my office. That elevator is reserved for tenants in the residential suites on the upper floors—no one should bother you at this hour. The card also unlocks my suite. I’m in number two on the thirty-ninth floor.”
Connor’s jaw dropped.
“Don’t answer the door for anyone.” David pushed the key card into Connor’s palm and wrapped his numb fingers around it. “Take a shower or a bath, whichever you prefer. Eat something. Get some sleep. I’ll be up later.”
Panic squeezed his throat. He should’ve had six months. A year. He wasn’t ready. “I—”
“I’ll bring dinner home. We’ll discuss any questions you have then.” David stood, turning a dismissive back to him. “Go.”
Heart pounding, Connor scrambled to the door.