Kathryn sat on a buttery-soft leather couch in the office of Mr. Paco Robles, giving him more than a once-over. Across from her sat the right-hand man to the CEO of Drake Global Industries, hiding so many secrets, she wondered just how many he held in that handsome head of his.
They were kindred spirits from the start, during her worst interview ever, when he’d become a last-minute stand-in as her interviewer for an investigative position in insurance fraud with Wolff Investigations, a close partner of Drake Global Industries. Half intending to blow her chances, she’d proclaimed herself a washed-up ER nurse needing a change of pace.
Despite his immaculate attire and unmistakable wealth, Paco had been casual and kind as he asked her a litany of questions, eventually exposing the pain in her heart. And very quickly, she’d understood.
They were one and the same.
Kathryn had gotten the job, and they’d been close in the three years since. But today, she rolled the dice on testing the depths of their friendship. No, she wasn’t sizing him up for a baby-daddy proposition or anything. If only it were that easy.
Somehow, as they brainstormed over the perplexing particulars of her latest case, his innocently asking, “How have you been?” gave her an invitation to spill her deepest, darkest needs.
Then again, it’s Paco. Obvious case of voodoo.
His question was warm, sincere, and rather ordinary in the moment. The man literally asked how she was doing. But he was here. In Colorado. And the opportunity was too good. It wasn’t until she heard her own insane words aloud that she realized the extent of his black-magic truth spell.
“Paco,” she asked, “how much do you know about BDSM?”
As quick as a whip, he charmed her with a smile and blurted out his standard response to any question that started with “How much do you know about . . .” You could fill in the blank with almost anything, and his answer would always be the same.
“Enough to be dangerous,” he answered confidently.
But he was more than a friend. She trusted him. There weren’t many who made that cut, and fewer that she’d let in on the lascivious lockbox of her soul. Besides, it was Paco, tough as nails with a soft side. Like her, he hid his heartbreak behind his smile, and would do anything for a friend. Or almost anything.
Asking him for a favor seemed harmless enough at the time.
“Listen, I’m becoming . . . curious.” Her statement came out more like a question, and his smile just egged her on. “Maybe, you could, um, show me what you know?”
“Kathryn, I’m flattered, and honored, that you’d want me to help you through this journey. But, and maybe I’m slipping in exuding the right aura . . . I’m gay.”
“And that makes this even more perfect.” The unmistakable confusion on his face prompted her to explain. “I’m just learning the ropes. Literally, right? And I don’t even know if this is something I really want or will like. And without a doubt, I don’t want to muddle my emotions with s-e-x. I’m going in scientifically. From a . . . clinical perspective.”
His eyebrows rose, clearly shouting bullshit without a word.
Kathryn sighed. “Fine. I admit, I’m not really sure what I want. Maybe just to explore a little.”
“Or a lot?”
She huffed out a laugh. “Or a lot.”
Grinning, he stood and scooped her up into a bear hug, dropping the sweetest kiss to her temple.
“Paternal head kiss,” she mumbled against his chest. “It’s the nicest letdown I’ve ever had.”
Without letting go, he squeezed tighter. “I hope you know me better than that. I don’t do disappointment. I find workarounds. And, Ms. Kathryn Chase, I’d like to propose one hell of a counteroffer.”
Relieved to tear his gaze away from the strain of his computer screen, Jake Russo smiled for the first time that day. Seeing the Caller ID pop up was just the excuse he needed to escape the virtual hamster wheel of chasing lines of code.
Like a kid, he shoved his executive chair away from his desk, rolling back, and answered as it swiveled to a stop. “Mr. Paco Robles. What Pan-dora’s box have I just opened by picking up your call?” Eager for the dis-traction, he shoved away his twinge of suspicion.
“One that I’d rather discuss in person. How about a drink? I’ll buy.”
Music to my ears.
Wherever Paco went, excitement followed. He did a great job of hiding the dirt beneath the nails of his perfectly manicured hands. His real job remained a mystery, but one thing was for certain.
No one had ever accused the man of being boring.
Ready to kick his snooze-fest of a day in the balls, Jake embraced the suggestion. An adrenaline rush was headed his way, and God, did he need one.
His laugh echoed off the walls of his large home office, bouncing off the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bright Colorado mountains. “Ha-ven’t you ever heard there’s no such thing as a free drink? I’m pretty sure that saying originated because of you.”
Paco’s chuckle was casual. “Well, if it’ll ease your mind, you can buy the drinks. You’re gonna need one for this conversation.”
So they required privacy. Unsaid, but understood.
“Sure,” Jake said. “I can be in New York in a few hours.”
“As a matter of fact, I’m in town.”
“How convenient.” Unsurprised, Jake rolled with it. “My place? You ha-ven’t seen the new digs. And you’re welcome to crash here if you’re stick-ing around.”
“I’m taking off tonight, though I appreciate the offer. But your place it is.”
The words barely had a second to push through the speaker phone when Jake’s security system pinged, announcing a visitor. The sensor alerted him of movement at the tall iron gate protecting the entry of his mile-long driveway. He clicked over to the camera’s live feed.
Free of any actions from him, the gate opened. Paco slipped his arm back into the car, having just swiped a card across the security panel.
“Seriously, man,” Jake grumbled. “You give new meaning to the term all-access pass.”
“The perks of your house doubling as a headquarters. As if you don’t slip in and out of places on a whim. You just do it in cyberspace.”
Amused, Jake smirked. “No comment.”
Normally, Jake would enjoy the social graces of giving Paco a full tour of the house with a double scoop of small talk, but this wasn’t the time. As Jake opened the front door and ushered Paco inside, he detected some-thing brewing behind his guest’s normal poker face.
“Okay, Mr. Robles, we’ll get down to business in a minute. But the im-portant stuff first. Let me present you with our full drink menu. Whiskey neat. Whiskey with water. Whiskey on the rocks.”
Paco nodded at the assorted bottles of Jake’s favorite liquor. “I’ll take whatever you’re having, but I need a glass of pure Rocky Mountain tap water too. The altitude hits me hard if I don’t stay hydrated.”
As Jake poured their drinks, Paco cut to the chase. “Two things. First, a case is about to cross your path.”
“Sure, what is it?”
Hesitating, Paco shook his head. “Nope. We all agreed. Because of the players and the unique opportunity the situation presents, it needs to un-ravel for you. We’re staying out of it.”
“Who’s we? You and Alex?” Alex Drake, the Drake of Drake Global In-dustries.
Jake and Alex knew each other casually, though the man always man-aged to check on him without intruding.
My boss? “Hold up. You’ve got to give me more than the universe will bring you a case.”
“Oh, we might puppet-master the universe a smidge, but the case was headed your way with or without us. And we’re all keenly interested. But that’s all I can share right now.”
Jake gave him the hairy eyeball.
Smirking, Paco averted his gaze, winding up to throw him a fast one. “Let’s change the subject. Are you seeing anyone?”
He’s got to be kidding.
Jake’s head dropped, heavy with the weight of disinterest. “No. And no.”
When Paco responded with a popped brow, Jake tossed back the rest of his shot rather than drag out the conversation with leisurely sipping. “Sorry you wasted a trip if matchmaking was on your mind.”
Undeterred, Paco took his lowball in one hand, his water in the other, and made a leisurely stride to the rustic leather sofa in the great room. He sat, making himself at home with a broad cheesy grin.
Jake grabbed his own water before reluctantly shuffling over. “You’re fucking worse than my mother, you know that?”
“I love Grace. How are your folks doing?”
“Great. Had you been here a few days ago, the two of you could’ve tag teamed. Picked my wardrobe, cosmos overflowing, and swiping right all over the damn place.”
Paco chuckled, and Jake joined him.
“Well,” Paco said drolly, “there are things I know about you that Grace definitely does not.”
Jake breathed through the candid conversation, presented with a clearer picture of where Paco was going. “That was years ago.”
Paco sipped, then eyed the amber liquid sliding down the inside walls of his glass as he gave it a gentle swirl. “So, it was just something you did, and not who you are?” His gaze shot to Jake.
Jake swallowed whatever lie he’d teed up. Lying to Paco was like lying to his own reflection. What was the point? “Too much has happened since then.”
Paco’s nod was heavy with understanding. “Trust me. I get it. Casual one-nighters fill the void, but the reality is that it’s easier to avoid rela-tionships than settle for half a life.” When Jake rolled his eyes with a cau-tious grin, Paco gave him a serious look. “Listen to your elder on this one. I’ve been single for ten years because faking it isn’t my style. I need to be fulfilled. Accepted for all I am. Dirty hands, kinks, and all.”
“Fuck.” Jake huffed out the curse with a smile. “If this is your idea of a pep talk, you’ve got some serious room for improvement.”
Paco held up a hand. “Let me finish. I know where you’re coming from, and I’m not judging. You have a chance to tear out of that cocoon you’ve built around yourself.”
“There’s safety in a cocoon. And not just for me.” Jake gave his head a slow shake. “I lost half my team. I should’ve died myself. Doms can’t have anger management issues. Look at me—it’s been years, and I never know what’s going to set me off.”
“And I get it. Valid point.”
“But . . .” Paco blew out a breath, staring at the liquid he swirled in his glass. “I’ve got a friend. A close friend. She’s . . . looking for something. I can’t give her the kind of help she needs, but you can. Let’s just say she’s been bottling herself up in a way that worries me. Like, any day now, she’ll crack and be impulsive because she’s under so much pressure, she’s about to explode. I know her. She’ll hit the gas hard, blow right past her caution and common sense, and throw her vulnerabilities into the hands of whoever binds them. Jump on Craigslist or some crazy shit like that.”
Jake frowned. “So, what? Your friend needs a list of safe places she can try?”
“She won’t go for it, for two reasons. One, like you, she’s insanely pri-vate, almost reclusive nowadays. Thank God she’s got a small group of trusted friends, or she’d never get out. A few years back, her world changed.” Paco paused, giving Jake a knowing look. “She’s going through the motions day in and day out, but now she wonders if some of what she needs is to slip into submission. And she has no idea what she’s looking for. She needs a safe way to explore. Someone who will push her bounda-ries without breaking her. Really understand her from the inside out.”
Listening intently, Jake knew Paco wouldn’t be involving him unless it was in some bizarre way important. “I’m intrigued, but still not sure I’m entirely interested. It’s a relationship. At least, it should be. I’m not exactly on the Dom-for-pay market.”
Paco shook his head. “No problem, because she’s not looking for that. Just as she’s not exactly looking for love. So much so, she has a teensy lit-tle hard limit. But just one.” He chuckled as he lifted the whiskey back to his lips. “No sex,” he said, pouring the last of his drink through his smiling lips.
Jake scoffed. “I’m a Dom, not a monk. I think you’re confused about which lifestyle I gave up. I assure you, that wasn’t it.”
“Think of it as her way of making you earn her trust.”
“And that’s the issue. There’s no relationship to earn trust from. Pun-ishing a sub is only half the role. Doms are here for the rewards too. Funishment. Pleasure. Sorry, man. Her hard limit is my hard pass.”
Paco caved. “You’re probably right. It’s a lot to ask, but like I said, I had to try.” He stood, buttoning his perfectly tailored navy blazer, and headed for the door as he added nonchalantly, “With it being Kathryn Chase and all.”
Jake jumped in front of the man, blown away by the grenade just tossed between them. “Wait. I’ll do it. Where? When?”
Paco cocked his head. “What? Now you’re interested? Well, I guess that makes sense . . . since you’ve been on-again, off-again stalking her for years.”
Defensive, Jake sank back on the couch. “It’s not like that, and you know it. She lost her job, and maybe herself, all because of me. I’ve just been keeping tabs on her to make sure she’s all right. I didn’t want to in-terfere with her putting her life back together. Who knows how she’d re-act to seeing me. I . . .” He hung his head, letting his words trail off. “But I’d do anything for her. Anything.”
Paco’s hand landed firmly on his shoulder, and he met Jake’s troubled gaze with assurance. “I know. Like I know with every fiber of my being that you’d never harm a hair on her sweet head. I have faith in you, maybe more than you have in yourself. There aren’t many people I’d trust with my life, and fewer that I’d trust with hers. You know the consequences if she ventures out in the wrong hands.”
A serious silence hung between them.
Contemplating the statement, panic focused Jake. “Tell her you’ve got just the Dom.”
“Good. I’ll set everything up. Sometime soon.”
“But to do this right, she has to be unrestrained in the moment. Willing to let go of everything she’s holding back. At least for our first meeting, she can’t know it’s me.”
Paco’s face filled with intrigue. “What are you gonna do, dress up like Zorro?”
Jake chuckled. “If she’s into it, next time. But I had something more tra-ditional in mind.”
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