Rafe Sterling strode through the door of his downtown Houston office and into a Monday morning predawn ambush.
To make matters worse, his shoulder hurt from where he’d landed on it during a bicycle race the previous day, he’d slept badly, and he hadn’t had a single cup of coffee.
Three women stood with their backs to the window, a terrifying army in silk and stilettos.
His mother, Rebecca, had her arms folded across her chest, wearing resolve like armor. His sister, Arianna, was in the middle, and she squirmed under his scrutiny. Good. At best, she was a reluctant accomplice.
The third woman, all the way on the right, he’d never met.
Her well-defined cheekbones were striking, and her lips were painted a wicked shade of fuck-me red. She wore her long brunette hair loose, the locks flowing around her shoulders. But it was the way she studied him, with total focus, that riveted his attention. Her eyes were a startling shade, not hazel but deeper, like gold. For a moment—a fascinating, unwanted, and mercifully brief flash of time—he imagined them swimming with tears of submission.
He cleared his throat, and she broke their connection by glancing toward the floor.
Fuck. Her gesture arrowed through his gut. For the first time in years—since Emma—he was captivated.
Rafe shook his head. He had no patience for relationships, not even with a woman who wore a skirt that hugged her enticing curves.
“Rafe, darling!” His mother broke ranks and took a couple of steps toward him.
Galvanized, he closed his office door behind him. Better to meet the battle head-on so he could get on with his day. “Morning, ladies.”
He crossed the room to drop an obligatory kiss on his mother’s cheek, then he noticed a pile of folders on his desk. Something to do with the visit from the unnamed woman, no doubt.
With distrust, he flicked another glance in her direction. Who the hell was she? “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?” Rafe eased into his leather executive chair.
His mother took a seat across from him and skipped any further pretense of pleasantries. “You need a wife.”
“Ah.” He slid the manila menaces to the edge of the desk and resisted—barely—the urge to knock them into the waiting trash can. “Understood. Now this is the part of the confrontation where I tell you I will find a bride when I’m damn well ready. Thank you for your time and concern.” He attempted a smile. Judging by his mother’s wince, the curl of his lips was closer to a snarl. “I’m sure you can show yourselves out.”
“Don’t be rude, Rafael Barron Sterling.”
He quirked an eyebrow. His mother hadn’t used his full name since he was in college.
“Your father is planning to marry Elizabeth.”
Rafe opened his mouth, then closed it without speaking. He didn’t need to state the obvious. His parents were still married.
“It’s imperative we make you the CEO of Sterling Worldwide. This madness must stop at once,” Rebecca finished.
“He bought her a forty-thousand-dollar ring. I saw a picture of it in his email. Gaudy. He has terrible judgment and even worse taste.” She shoved the manila folders back to the center of the desk.
Because of Theodore’s unstable behavior, his mother suspected her husband had the early stages of dementia. His physician disagreed, saying that Theodore was at an age where he’d acquired vast wealth and wanted to enjoy it. The motorcycles he couldn’t ride and the yacht that needed a crew were proof of that, as were the classic Rolls Royce, a chauffeur, a château in France, and a twenty-three-year-old mistress to enjoy it with.
Rafe suspected that both his mother and the doctor were partially correct. Theodore had never wanted any part in Sterling Worldwide. He’d been the unexpected and much pampered late-in-life and third-born child of Barron and Penelope Sterling. His parents had believed Theodore to be nothing less than a gift from God, and they’d treated him as such, indulging his every whim, allowing him to travel the world from a young age, buying him gifts that had been denied to his siblings. He’d also bypassed the boarding schools that the other Sterling children had attended. But his parents had insisted on a college education. They’d made a sizable donation to the university’s foundation to ensure he received passing grades. Surprising everyone, including himself, he’d excelled in business school.
When his older brother, Barron Sterling, Jr., had been killed in a hunting accident, Theodore had been thrust into the unwelcome role as heir and CEO of a worldwide hotel empire. He hadn’t known that his much more qualified sister couldn’t inherit the business. He’d hired attorneys, but in the end, the terms were absolute. Theodore had lost his freedom and his jet-setting lifestyle. Within weeks of his brother’s burial, he was married to the formidable Rebecca, a woman his mother had selected.
Now that Rafe had proven himself competent as the conglomerate’s Chief Financial Officer, Theodore had run away from his day-to-day responsibilities in favor of living the life he’d imagined.
Unaware or uncaring that her son hadn’t responded, Rebecca continued. “Ms. Malloy”—she pointed to the brunette—“has compiled a list of suitable candidates for your consideration.”
“To become your wife,” Ms. Malloy clarified, taking over the meeting. She crossed the room toward him, her hips swaying and her peep-toe shoes sounding a tattoo that did evil things to his libido.
When she stopped near his desk, her scent reached him, lilacs and summer, a contrast to the darkness that hovered over his life.
“The list has been narrowed to five finalists for your consideration.” Obviously she had no clue she was rearranging his brain cells. “Each of the ladies is qualified to be your wife. Of course, for your privacy, they only know certain things about you. A general description, the fact that you’re an executive, that you live in Houston. The women have been interviewed and prescreened. We have nondisclosures on record, so any exchange of information will be confidential. Because time is of the essence, a mixer on Thursday or Friday would be most expeditious. If you prefer, we can arrange casual meetings, coffee or breakfast, perhaps lunch as you narrow your selection to three. From there we will be happy to set up dinners. That way you can get to know her before actual social events. We can make it appear like a whirlwind romance and—”
“Stop.” He held up a hand and trapped her gaze. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I didn’t realize that you weren’t aware…” She glanced toward his mother, but Rebecca looked down to pluck a piece of lint from her skirt
Recovering, the brunette smiled. The gesture was quick, practiced, and polished—meant to impart confidence without being too familiar.
Irrationally, it—she—irritated the hell out of him.
“I beg your pardon. I’m Hope Malloy.” She extended her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Sterling.”
He ignored her gesture. “I asked you a question.”
As she dropped her arm, her smile vanished. When she spoke, her tone was more formal. “I own The Prestige Group. Celeste Fallon recommended my team to your mother.”
“We are an elite matchmaking service for the world’s wealthiest, most discerning individuals. We understand that it’s difficult for men such as yourself to meet appropriate—”
“You’re a matchmaker? You stick your nose in other people’s business for a living?” Stunned, Rafe swung his gaze toward his mother. “What the hell are you thinking?”
“Watch your tone.”
“You’ve got thirty seconds before I throw all of you out.”
“I know this is a shock, so I’ll forgive your bad manners. Prestige will be discreet on this search. No one needs to know it’s happening.”
He stood and slammed his palms flat on the desk surface. “You hired them to find me a wife?” The killer-heeled woman was here to marry him off to some nameless woman to safeguard the Sterling empire?
“Celeste has assured me that Ms. Malloy is the best.”
Of that, he had no doubt. Fallon and Associates was one of the world’s most exclusive crisis management firms. For more than a hundred and fifty years, they’d specialized in high-profile cases, restoring reputations, saving careers, ensuring people never talked. Like Sterling Worldwide, the Fallons had also kept the business private, and all owners had been related to the founder, Walter Fallon—who’d been part of a secret society at the University of Virginia with Rafe’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, John.
Along with five other young men who’d been in the same organization, John and Walter had become lifelong friends. Over the years, the Sterlings and Fallons had helped each other numerous times, including earlier in the year when Theodore and Lillibet had been caught in the first-class toilet of a commercial aircraft.
Thanks to Fallon and Associates, the investigation had gone away, and Celeste had managed to kill the story before a prominent East Coast newspaper could get anyone to verify the distasteful rumors.
As it was, only one blog had run the story, under the headline, Little Girl and her Teddy Join the Mile High Club! The teaser, as vile as it was provocative, had been a clever play on his father’s name and the ridiculous age difference between the lovers.
A week later, the website had vanished.
“Ms. Malloy has done a fine job. At this rate, we can announce your engagement within a few weeks.”
Undaunted, his mother went on. “It’s a matter of time before your father causes a disaster we can’t recover from.” Even though anger strung her words together, she didn’t raise her voice. As always, Rebecca was the picture of calm, focused resolve. “You’re over thirty. If you had done your duty years ago, we wouldn’t be facing this situation now.”
He winced at the truth of the accusation. Ever since Rafe was a child, his mother had been clear about his obligations. But to him, love equaled drama, and he despised both.
“You need to be sensible.” She brought her index fingers together and studied him.
Arianna joined them. “I know you don’t like people meddling in your life, but—”
“Meddling?” He’d had enough. “You call this meddling?”
“Things are going to get worse, not better, with Dad and his—” Arianna caught her bottom lip with her teeth. “With Elizabeth.”
Every day, Rafe hoped his father would return to Houston and his office, but since his dad and Lillibet, as he called her, had been ensconced in their St. Pete’s Beach love nest for two weeks, that didn’t seem imminent.
Rafe sighed. “I know you’re concerned, and I understand it.” More than ready to get out of this mess, he said, “I’ll talk to him again.”
“You’ve done so numerous times,” Rebecca pointed out.
Dozens. Maybe more. “If necessary, I’ll fly out there.”
“What if it doesn’t work?” Rebecca asked in a chilled tone. “This cannot continue. You’re a smart man, Rafe. You know how delicate this situation is. Let’s not make it any more complicated than it needs to be.”
Possible scenarios lined up in his mind and fired across his brain in a burst of nightmares, each worse than the last. Theodore asking for a divorce. His mother being awarded half of the company and the courts being involved in the painstaking divisions. It could drag on for years while his father played with his mistress. In a worst-case situation, Theodore might, indeed, commit bigamy, which would create a public relations quagmire that Sterling Worldwide might not recover from.
Rafe pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Noah stopped by the house Friday evening,” Rebecca said. “Your father isn’t returning calls. I understand from his assistant that Noah’s been dropping by the executive office every day. She’s been making excuses, but she isn’t convinced he believes her.”
Rafe struggled to hold his temper in check. His cousin, Noah Richardson, son of Rafe’s aunt, Victoria Sterling-Richardson, believed he had grounds to challenge Rafe’s position as heir apparent. According to the archaic terms of the trust, succession went to male descendants in birth order. Even then, the heir was required to be married.
Noah ran one of the divisions, was a multimillionaire in his own right, and he believed he was the rightful heir since Rebecca and Theodore hadn’t been married when Barron, Jr., had been killed. Noah itched to break up the corporation and sell it off, a philosophy Rafe was against. Noah had threatened to see Rafe in court numerous times. Rafe had responded that any challenge should have come a generation ago. But because Noah was married with children, there was a chance, however slight, that he might prevail in a court case. Even if the decision was in Rafe’s favor, the litigation could drag on for months, even years. The financial cost could be devastating.
“I’m sorry.” Arianna wrung her hands. “I hate this, and I didn’t want to be part of it. It’s awful that we have to coerce you into doing something you’re not ready to do.”
He believed her. Unlike him, she was a romantic, a dreamer shattered by her second divorce.
“Arianna and I will leave you to it.” Rebecca stood.
“I haven’t agreed to anything.” He refused to be railroaded.
“You’ll do what you need to.” His mother wasn’t backing down.
She closed the door with a decisive click, sealing him in with the enemy. Hope was a beautiful, seductive temptress, but the enemy, nonetheless.
“You’re a matchmaker.”
“It’s an honorable profession.”
“Is it? Much like operating an escort service. I hire you. I will end up paying to fuck a woman, one who’s interchangeable with any number of other candidates.”
“That’s as insulting as it is crass.” She set her chin and didn’t sever the connection of their gazes, meeting the heat of his anger with cool, aloof professionalism.
He wanted to shake it from her, strip her bare, discover what lay beneath the surface to leave nothing but aching, pulsing honesty between them.
Either not noticing the tension or ignoring it, she continued. “Throughout history, families arranged marriages all the time. In parts of the world, it still goes on. Today, there’s a bigger need for my services than ever before. I have clients all over the world, from all sorts of backgrounds and of all ages. Often, men in your position don’t have time to meet women in the traditional way. You’re far too busy, important, insulated.”
“Spare me the sales pitch.”
“It makes sense to select someone I’ve interviewed, a woman who suits the needs of a man such as you. A woman of the right temperament, with the same interests, goals, morals, outlook, political leanings, religious preferences. A woman who understands what is expected of her and is willing to assume those responsibilities.”
“A business arrangement.”
“If you like.”
Rafe took his seat and left her standing. It was undoubtedly rude, but justified. His mother had hired Prestige, but Hope had been part of the early-morning intervention. She could have refused, but she hadn’t. That made her complicit. “So that’s what’s in here?” He flicked a glance at the folders. “A money-hungry bride-to-be—I beg your pardon, candidate—who understands what she’s getting herself into?”
“These women all deserve your respect.”
“And an expensive engagement ring?” He leaned back. “Why should I trust you?”
“Five years of success. Thirty-seven marriages.”
“Much better than the national average. Yet five years in business means your experiment hasn’t made it to the seven-year itch yet.”
“Whether that exists or not is a matter of debate. There’s a study that suggests there’s a four-year itch as well as a seven-year one. Oh, and a three-year one. And most couples who divorce tend to do so after a decade. So that means there’s a twelve-year flameout as well.” She lifted one delicate shoulder in a half shrug. “Whatever your bias, you can find a study to support it. The truth is, each individual is unique, and so are their relationships. People divorce for a lot of reasons and after any length of time.”
“There are, however, a number of factors that enhance chances for success. I call them the Three C’s—compatibility, chemistry, and commitment.”
She tipped her head to one side. “I suppose that’s in the eye of the beholder.”
“Take my parents. They’ve been victims of wedded bliss for thirty-three years.”
“There are financial and legal benefits for people who are married.”
She’d sidestepped his point neatly.
“Couples who are wed, versus those who cohabitate, tend to live longer.”
“Or perhaps it only seems that way.”
She smiled, and it transformed her features, making her no longer standoffish and professional, but warm and inviting. No wonder lemmings turned to her for matrimonial advice. “Have you always been a cynic, Mr. Sterling?”
“About marriage?” Not always. But the few illusions he’d held had been shattered. “Can you blame me?”
“You can’t think of any positive examples?”
“Like my sister? She’s twenty-seven and going through her second divorce, and this one is more gruesome and costly than the first. My best friend and college roommate, Griffin Lahey? His wife of three years just walked out, dumped him, ripped apart their future, and took away their son. For the final knife in his heart, she’s suing for half of his estate because she met an artist who she fancies and wants to move to Paris with him. Noah’s parents live on separate continents. My grandmother had to be coaxed into attending my grandfather’s funeral. I’m told she was drunk at the time, and not from grief. On the morning he was to be buried, legend has it that she knocked back an entire bottle of champagne…from the private reserve he had saved for special occasions. So, no, I’m not anxious to stick my neck in the matrimonial noose.”
“You asked why you should trust me. You shouldn’t. You have no reason to, yet. I could give you references from satisfied customers. I could reassure you that I’ve signed a nondisclosure. Or that Celeste Fallon believes in me. But none of that means anything. You need results. If the potential women I’ve matched you with don’t suit your needs, I’ll give you another five. Or fire me and I’ll refund your mother’s fee.”
“Fee?” He narrowed his eyes. “How much do you charge?”
“I’m expensive, Mr. Sterling.”
“Ten thousand dollars? Twenty?” When she didn’t react, he tried again. “More than that?”
“A hundred thousand.”
“Shit.” People were willing to pay a hundred grand to meet someone? If it worked out, he’d have the honor of shelling out thousands more for baubles to go along with it? Then, when the shine wore off, she’d keep them and half his fortune?
“I’m worth every penny.”
“That’s pretty confident.”
“I am.” She folded her arms across her chest. “I work hard to ensure I satisfy my clients.”
He glanced at the top folder as if it were rabid. “How did you choose these particular women?”
“In normal circumstances, I meet with a gentleman so I can get a sense about him. Then he fills in a questionnaire. It’s rather detailed. Fourteen pages of likes, dislikes, things that worked in previous relationships. Things that didn’t.”
“Expectations around traditions are important as are roles in the relationship. To some, religion is important. I find out if he wants children. If so, how many? Will he want them raised in a particular religion? Where does he plan to live? In the US or abroad? Will the children attend private school? Boarding school? Will a nanny be hired? A housekeeper? After I’ve reviewed that, I have a second meeting with him for further clarification.”
“And they need you for this?”
“Most of the men I work with don’t have the opportunity to meet women they might be serious about marrying. They’ve often focused their attention on their careers or education. Some of them are famous, but they don’t want to settle down with a woman they’ve met on the road or someone who’s been part of their fan club.”
“And where do you find the women who are anxious to throw themselves at the feet of these rich men?”
“I belong to a number of organizations, and I’m active in Houston’s art and business communities. It may surprise you, but I’m often invited to high-society events. I’ve seen you at a few.”
Rafe regarded her again. “We haven’t met.” He would have remembered. Her eyes, her voice, the sweet curve of her hips, the way her legs went on forever in those shoes. Yeah. He would have remembered.
“No. I spend most of my time talking with women. Part of my value is that I’ve met all the candidates, interviewed them, watched them interact at social events.” She nudged a folder toward him. “Try me.”
“Have a seat.” Rafe wondered at his sudden offer of hospitality. He didn’t need Hope and her lilac-and-silk scent in his office while he looked through the files.
She sat opposite him, her movements delicate. Her skirt rode up her bare thighs, just a bit. He imagined skimming his fingers across her smooth skin while she gasped, then yanking down her panties, curving his fingers into the hot flesh of her ass cheeks.
Christ. He’d spent all Saturday working on next quarter’s business plan. In the previous day’s bike race against some of his friends, he’d pushed too fast, too hard, on a grueling part of the course and crashed. He’d had a shot of Crown before going to bed but skipped taking anything else for the pain. He’d slept like hell, and he’d spent too long working out cramps in the shower to even think about masturbating.
Now, he wished he had taken the edge off.
It had been over a month since he’d visited the Retreat, a BDSM club in a historic warehouse on Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston, and even longer since he’d enjoyed the singular pleasure of playing with a sub at the discreet second-story Quarter in New Orleans. Of course being this close to an attractive female after such an intense drought would give him an erection. Shit. He couldn’t force himself to believe his own fucking lie. Every day, he was surrounded by beautiful women. He wanted Hope. With her ass upturned, listening to her frantic breaths as she waited for his belt…waited for his touch. It was more than the sound of her voice or the innocent-yet-provocative shoes, it was carnal desire. Lust. The last time he was gripped by its power, he’d been in college and far more helpless than he was now.
He imprisoned his thoughts and focused on the task in front of him.
Picking up the first file, he flipped it open.
The top page had a name, a picture, and the vital statistics of a beautiful twenty-four-year-old blonde. She was a UT Austin graduate, a pageant winner who flashed a tiara-worthy smile and worked as a fundraiser for underprivileged schools.
In every way, on paper, she should interest him. She was attractive, knew how to handle herself in public, and she had philanthropic inclinations.
Naturally his mother would approve. And yet… He felt nothing—less than nothing. He was uninspired and disinterested. The hard-on he’d been sporting vanished. He glanced up at Hope Malloy. “You said chemistry matters?”
“She doesn’t appeal to you?”
“Not in the least.”
“Perhaps you’ll have better luck with another choice?”
After perusing the second picture, he glanced back at Hope.
“It’s possible the attraction would develop after you meet someone. Her choice of conversation, the way she moves or looks at you.” She shifted. “Pheromones.”
Those, he was starting to believe in. Keeping his mind on the folders, he said, “I see. My mother hopes I will select a bride, whether I want to fuck her or not?”
Hot pink scorched Hope’s cheekbones before she recovered. “So, you would rather have a spine-tingling attraction to someone who consumes you?”
“No.” He’d had that. Once. With Emma, in college. He’d been crazy enough about her that he’d bought her a stunning ring.
He had been invited to join her family for Christmas brunch, and he’d intended to propose then. Unbeknownst to him, Emma had been so intent on getting married that she’d been juggling dates with three different men. One of them had popped the question on Christmas Eve in front of the tree’s twinkling lights.
When she’d called to let him know, she wasn’t apologetic. She reminded him she wanted a wedding as a college graduation present, and Aaron had offered her just that. It was nothing personal. She would have been happy marrying any of them.
Rafe had hit the local bar near a shopping center. When he left, there’d been a red kettle set up outside. A man nearby was ringing a bell and asking for charitable donations. Rafe stuffed her ring through the slot and accepted the candy the bell ringer offered as thanks.
A sucker. If there’d ever been a more appropriate gesture, he didn’t recall it.
Rafe had spent every day until the new year in an alcohol-induced stupor, calling her at all hours, sending desperate text messages, even driving to her home in a stupid and embarrassing attempt to get her to change her mind.
“Mr. Sterling?” Hope’s questioning voice cut through the morose memories.
He flipped the folder closed without reading any of the pages. He refused to be out of control over a woman ever again. But if he was expected to marry and produce an heir or two, he should at least want to go to bed with her.
“Perhaps of the three C’s, compatibility and commitment are more important than chemistry?”
How much longer until he could dismiss her?
When he didn’t answer, she filled the silence. “Can you tell me what it was about the first two candidates that didn’t suit your needs? It will help me refine the search.”
“Ms. Malloy…” He struggled to leash his raging impatience. “Show some fucking mercy, will you? Until ten minutes ago, I didn’t know I needed a candidate.”
She edged the third folder toward him.
With great reluctance but with a sudden urge to get through this, he thumbed it open. Another blonde. Another perfect smile. Another impeccable pedigree. “Since I didn’t fill in your forms, I assume it was my mother who decided what college degrees and background were important?”
“Your sister rounded it out as far as activities you enjoy.”
“Yet I don’t see any of them who like to ride a mountain bike.”
“Not a huge demand in this part of Texas.”
“I’ll add that to the next search.”
He gave in to curiosity. “Was Celeste consulted?”
“I invited her to be part of process. She declined.”
If Celeste had been involved, perhaps there would have been a redhead or a brunette. Even someone with pink toenails in peekaboo shoes.
For the second time, he resisted the impulse to hurl the files in the trash. Instead, he opened his top drawer and swept the offensive lot inside, then slammed it shut.
Hope uncrossed her legs and leaned toward him. Then, evidently thinking better of it, she sat back and recrossed them.
He swore her skin whispered like the promise of sin.
“Perhaps you should consider the options at a more convenient time,” she suggested.
“I’ll see you receive full payment.” He stood.
“I’ve already received it.”
His mother had written this woman a check for a hundred grand? “Thank you for your efforts.”
He walked past her to the door and opened it.
She sighed but stood. After gathering her purse—a small pink thing shaped like a cat, complete with ears and whiskers—she joined him. Instead of leaving, as he’d ordered, she stood in front of him, chin tipped at a defiant angle.
Hope projected competence, but the heels and fanciful handbag gave her a feminine air. A sane man would think of her as a vendor or business associate, so he could slot her into the off-limits part of his conscience. She wasn’t a potential date or wife. Or submissive.
He wanted her.
She isn’t mine.
Fuck his conscience.
Before this ridiculous idea about finding him a woman to marry went any further, she needed to know the truth about him, the side he locked away and kept hidden unless he was at one of his favorite BDSM clubs, the side that Celeste should have informed his matchmaker about.
Bare inches separated him from Hope, and he halved that distance by leaning toward her. “Is there a place on your fourteen-page questionnaire to discuss sexual proclivities?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.” Her knuckles whitened on her purse strap.
“Let me clarify.” Rafe spoke softly into the thick air between them. “Kinks. Those nasty, scandalous things that people do in the privacy of their own homes. Things they don’t talk about in public. Salacious acts that make them drop to their knees in church as they beg forgiveness. Would you consider that compatibility or chemistry?”
Tension tightened her shoulders. “Is there something…” Her tone suggested she was trying for professionalism, but her voice cracked on a sharp inhalation.
After a few more shallow breaths, she ventured, “What do I need to know?”
“I’m into BDSM.”
Her beautiful, pouty mouth parted a little.
An image scorched him—that of him slipping a spider gag between her lips, spreading her mouth and keeping it that way. He’d force her to communicate with her expression and her body, like she was now. “Your eyes are wide, Ms. Malloy. Are you shocked? Interested?” Her soul was reflected in the startling depths. “Curious, perhaps?”
It took her less than three seconds to close her mouth and regroup. “No. I’m wondering how I should phrase this for your candidates.”
She’d lied. Instead of meeting his gaze, she stared at the potted plant near the window.
Rather than unleashing the beast that suddenly wanted to dominate her, he kept his tone even. “I’m sure you’ve had clients who like that sort of thing?”
Finally, after a breath, she looked at him. “I’ll make some discreet inquiries of the candidates. What is it you’re looking for?”
He ached to capture her chin and force her to look at him. “How much do you know about BDSM?”
She pulled back her shoulders, as if on more stable ground. “I’ve heard of it.”
“No personal experience?”
“That’s not relevant.”
Damn her dishonest answer. Some? None? Would he be her first? Could he take her, mold her into what he wanted?
What the fuck was wrong with him? He’d already decided she was off-limits. “There are as many ways to practice BDSM as there are people in the lifestyle. No relationship is the same.”
Mesmerized, he watched the wild flutter of her pulse in her throat. It was like oxygen to a dying man. He wanted more. “Some people prefer to confine their practices to the bedroom—at night, for example. Others, on occasion, indulge at a club or play party. A number of people practice it in varying degrees on a twenty-four-hour basis.”
“Where do your…proclivities lie?”
Until now, he hadn’t considered he might want a submissive wife. Over the years, he’d found it easier to go to the club. He was a Dom who would give a sub what she wanted, whether it was pain, roleplay, humiliation, a sensuous flogging, hours with torturous toys.
When he’d planned to marry Emma, he assumed she would work at a job that inspired her. Alternatively, she’d have been free to engage in social activities or charity endeavors like the wives of some of his associates. Giving up his clubs hadn’t been a consideration. Nor had he allowed himself to think of calling his bride at five p.m. and telling her to meet him in the foyer of his loft, naked, with her thighs spread and cunt shaved.
Now, however, he couldn’t banish the thought. And since his mother had already squandered a hundred grand, he figured he should be specific in his requests. More, he wanted Hope to know what she was getting into, even if she didn’t yet realize he’d chosen her. “I want my wife to be submissive twenty-four hours a day.”
“Can you clarify what you mean?” She clenched the handle of her kitty bag, seeming to pretend this was an ordinary conversation with a normal man.
Jeanine, the best executive assistant on the continent, entered the outer office. She’d been with Sterling Worldwide for almost thirty years, and with him for the past seven. With her polite smile and firm voice, she protected him against the world. “Morning, Mr. Sterling.”
She angled her head toward Hope. “Everything all right, sir?”
“Unscheduled meeting with the Prestige Group.”
“My mother arranged it.”
Jeanine scowled with understanding. Like a she-dragon, Jeanine would have protected him from his own mother. “Anything you need, Mr. Sterling?” She was asking if he wanted her to call security or to show the woman out. “Coffee?”
Her combination of savviness and loyalty made her indispensable.
“Just one cup, please. Ms. Malloy won’t be staying.”
He captured Hope’s shoulders and pulled her into his office so he could close the door. He held on to her for a whole lot longer than was necessary but not as long as he wanted to. How would she react if he eased his first finger up the delicate column of her throat?
Would she surrender? Fight the inevitable?
Forcing himself to resist the driving impulse, he dropped his hands and curled them into fists at his sides.
“Proclivities,” she prompted.
The word echoed in his head. “She’ll wear a collar—my collar…” And because he could no longer resist, he traced an index finger across the hollow of her throat. Her pulse fluttered, and her breaths momentarily ceased. “My woman will know that she belongs to me and she will behave as such.”
Hope’s gaze remained locked on his. When she spoke, her voice wobbled. “And this…collar. She’ll have to wear it all the time?”
“That’s what twenty-four seven means.” A devilish grin tugged at his lips. He kept his fingertip pressed to her warm skin. “It will be subtle, however. Nothing gaudy. Unless people knew, I doubt they’d think she was wearing anything other than a striking piece of jewelry. But her play collar, the one she wears in private with me or at a lifestyle event, may be different.”
“Like at a BDSM club or something?” She nodded, as if she were on ground she understood.
Not that he’d let her stay there long. “I enjoy showing off my sub. There’s a certain restaurant in New Orleans, Vieille Rivière, that she will go to. And she’ll join me when I visit people in similar social circles.” Including other Titans. But there was a limit to how much he should tell her. “There are certain things I would want her to go along with. Bondage. Sensory deprivation.”
“You mean like blindfolds and handcuffs?” There was no hesitation in her words, so he ascertained she’d made sense of what he’d said and decided that fell under the category of typical bedroom shenanigans.
“Among others, yes. I use blindfolds on occasion. I like gags so that my woman must beg with her eyes. Her tears are like dripping nectar from the gods.”
Wide-eyed, uncertain, she sucked in a deep, disbelieving breath.
“Clamps,” he added, skimming the column of her throat.
“On her nipples, among other places. And I will want to her to wait for me at the end of a long day, on her knees, head tipped back, her beautiful mouth held open by a dental dam.”
“You mean…she’d have to do this herself?”
“Prepare for my homecoming?” He imagined Hope parting her lips, sliding in the dam and positioning it, pictured her naked in front of the door, hungry for his touch. “Yes.”
She retreated a step. “Mr. Sterling, I—”
“My wife will focus on me and my pleasure.”
“That sounds rather old-fashioned.”
“Does it? What you’re not aware of is what I’m willing to do in return.”
“I wouldn’t expect a woman to give me everything she has to offer without me giving equal parts of myself. Her wants and desires will be my highest priority. I will give her the heavens if she wants them, the stars, the moon.” He paused. “Then I’ll take her to the depths of hell as she uncovers what sets her depraved soul free.”
“Can you find me all that in a candidate, Ms. Malloy?”
“You’re rather particular.”
“Indeed. I require a woman of impeccable breeding who presents her ass for my punishment when she displeases me.”
The air conditioner kicked on. The whispering cool air did nothing to dissipate the heat between them.
He slid his hand around to the back of her neck, then feathered his fingers into her hair. “I want to kiss you, Ms. Malloy.”
“Ask me to.”
“I won’t have you pretending that you’re not curious. When you’re at home this evening, by yourself with a glass of wine, horny and considering masturbating—”
“That’s not me.” She shook her head so fast it was obviously a desperate lie.
“No? Ms. Malloy, the room is swimming with your pheromones. Deny it.” She sagged a little against his hand, and he tightened his grip on her hair, as much to offer support as to imprison her. Then he continued as if she hadn’t interrupted. “You’ll remember this moment, fantasize about being mine.”
“Invite me to kiss you or tell me to release you. The power is yours. Yield to temptation or leave this room wondering if it’s as good as you imagine it will be.”
“Mr. Sterling, this can’t be happening.”
Despite her protest, she didn’t try to escape. “I agree. This is the first time I’ve had three women”—four if he counted Celeste—“attempt to force me down the aisle.” He paused. “And it’s the first time I’ve had this kind of sexual longing for an adversary. Ask me to kiss you,” he repeated instead of arguing. “Be sure to say please.”
He loosened his grip, and she leaned toward him, keeping herself hostage. Rafe didn’t smile with triumph.
“There’s nothing I’d enjoy more.” That wasn’t the entire truth. There were a hundred things he’d like to do to her, but he made no move
Her internal standoff lasted longer than he thought it would. Excellent. She had a stubborn streak.
Hope glanced away and sighed. Then she looked at him with clear, confident eyes. “Please kiss me.”
He could drown in her and be happy about it. He captured her chin to hold her steady. On her lips, he tasted the sweetness of her capitulation. “Open your mouth, sweet Hope.”
She did, and he entered her mouth, slower than he would ordinarily, softer than he would if she were his submissive.
Hope responded with hesitation, and he continued, driving deeper, seeking more. Within seconds, she yielded.
She moaned and raised onto her tiptoes to lean into him. A few seconds beyond that, she wrapped her arms around him. Hope, his adversary, had now become his willing captive.
He released her chin and moved his hand to the middle of her back, then lower to the base of her spine.
Rafe drank in the scent of her femininity. His cock surged, not from ordinary arousal, but from soul-deep recognition. Her eagerness sought the Dom in him. It took all his restraint not to press his palm against her buttocks.
Earlier he’d said she’d be thinking of him as she masturbated. The truth was, he wasn’t sure how he’d banish this memory of her—strength and suppleness in one heady package.
He plundered her mouth.
She offered more until she was panting and desperate, gripping him hard.
Instead of giving in to the driving need to rip off her clothes and fuck her, he distracted himself by tugging on her hair harder. As he’d requested, her eyes were open. So goddamn trusting. Did she have any idea how close he was to shredding the veneer of civilization that hung between them to claim her, mark her as his?
He ended the kiss while he still could. Her mouth was swollen, and he couldn’t stop staring at her lips.
Hope took tiny breaths that didn’t seem to steady her. She held on to him while she lowered her heels to the floor. Then, over a few heartbeats, she dropped her hands.
“Thank you, Rafe,” he prompted.
“Are you serious? I’m supposed to thank you?” She continued to look at him and undoubtedly saw his resolve.
Would she give him what he demanded? “Unless you want me to spank—”
“Spank?” Her chin was at a full tilt.
“Spank.” He repeated with emphasis. “Unless you want me to spank your pretty little ass so hard that you can’t sit down after you leave here.”
“That kind of behavior is unacceptable.”
“Under normal circumstances,” he agreed without hesitation. “Unless you ask me for it.” Part of him hoped she’d take him up on it. It would be a pleasure to prove she liked the feel of his hand on her bare skin. “I’ll go first.” He softened his tone, letting her glimpse his inner thoughts, a rare confession of his soul. “I enjoyed kissing you. Thank you.”
“I…” She smoothed the skirt that he wanted to rip off her body.
“Look at me.”
She followed his command. Then, with a soft and decidedly insubmissive tone, she said, “Thank you.”
“Ms. Malloy, as I said, it was my pleasure.”
Silence hung between them. Her inexperience thrilled him, and he wanted to give her another hundred firsts. Instead, he let her go. The real world—with its complex demands—was waiting. And if he wanted her at his feet, he had a lot of work to do.
“I’m not certain how much of what you said, and what we just did, is to get me to admit defeat, to quit…” She stiffened her spine.
“Maybe it started that way.” His father’s behavior had pissed Rafe off, and so had his mother’s ambush, even Hope herself. He’d wanted to shake her as badly as he’d been shaken. As he’d spoken to her, his desires had churned to the surface. Until now—until her—he had been willing to confine his kink to a club. “It didn’t end that way. That I promise you.”
“I will ask the candidates about their openness to your suggestions.”
Fuck. She wanted to retreat behind a facade of business, as if their kiss hadn’t changed something. “Requirements. Not suggestions. Requirements. Be clear about that. If I’m to be saddled with a woman that I don’t want until death do us part, there will be none of the hysteria that my family members seem to thrive on. My wife will know her place and her role, and she will meet my expectations. And to be clear, she will ask for my kiss. Like you did.” He opened the door.
Jeanine was walking toward his office with a cup of coffee, and he waved her off.
Then, voice so soft that only Hope could hear, he finished. “You have a fourteen-page interview form. I will have something similar for the women you bring to me. It will cover things such as anal play, being shared with others, edging, exhibitionism. Shall I send it to you first?”
“Please do. It will save some time in your selection process.” She started past him, and he snagged her elbow.
“And Ms. Malloy? She’ll fucking address me as Sir.” He was unaccountably furious at her rejection. At himself. “And if you come here ever again, so will you.”
Her hand trembled where she grasped her purse strap. She flicked a glance at his hand before yanking her elbow free and continuing.
She paused at Jeanine’s desk to say goodbye. Why did that matter so much to him?
He should have snagged the cup of coffee and returned to his office to call his father, but Rafe continued to watch Hope. Each damnable step made her hips sway, and his still-hard cock throbbed in response.
At the door leading to the hallway, Hope paused, her hand on the knob. She glanced over her shoulder and met his gaze without blinking. He might have unsettled her, even shocked her. But he hadn’t scared her.
Round one to the beautiful matchmaker.