Rowan picked up her sandwich and then put it down again, too riled up to take a bite. “Then the bastard actually thanked Mr. Conklin for the compliment. I spent three weeks on that damn proposal, and Franklin couldn’t even be bothered to look at it, but as soon as the top dogs took an interest, suddenly it was all his idea. He said it had taken a while to whip his team into shape, but things were coming together, now that he was in charge, which is total crap. I was standing right there, and he didn’t even nod in my direction. The nerve of that guy.”
Jenny set down her burger and fixed Rowan with a steady gaze. “It seems like all you ever talk about anymore is how much you hate that freaking job. It’s time to do something about it. You need options. Today we’re going to find you a new job.”
Rowan stared at her best friend as she processed what she’d just thrown out there. The thought of quitting—of just walking away from that bastard and all the messes he had created—shone like a sudden flare in the dark.
Then reality intervened. There were bills to pay and deadlines to meet. “You know I can’t just quit. The new fall lineup is coming out, and I still have six spreads to do.”
“Who cares? You don’t owe that clothing catalog company anything. Your boss has been stealing your ideas since he showed up at Whimsical & Necessary, and dumping all kinds of extra work on you to boot. When’s the last time you got a raise or even a decent performance review?”
The injustice of it pricked like hot tears against Rowan’s eyelids. She used to love going to work, excited by new ideas and the potential to really make a difference at the company. She missed Barb, her old boss, so much it actually hurt.
She’d been trying for months now to make it work with Mr. Franklin, but it was like spinning your car tires deeper and deeper into the mud. At first, she’d given him the benefit of the doubt—he was new to the department, he was still feeling his way—but as time passed, it had become clear that his arrival had derailed her once promising career, through no fault of her own.
Rowan sighed heavily as she faced the bleak truth of Jen’s words. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s gotten to the point I dread getting up in the morning. I can barely drag myself into work, and from the minute I get there, that son of a bitch makes my life a living hell. I hate to think it’s because I’m the only woman on the team, but he’s definitely singled me out for his special brand of torture. It’s like he gets off on it or something.”
“My point exactly,” Jenny agreed emphatically. “He’s threatened by your competence. He’s lording it over you to cover up for his own inadequacies.”
Rowan sighed again. “I love my job at W&N. At least, I used to. Even if I was going to quit, I have no idea where I’d find something better. You know how tough the job market is in this city, and I really don’t want to move.”
Jenny pulled her cell phone from her huge purse. “You don’t have to. I’m sure you can find something new—something even better. I’ve been meaning to tell you about this terrific site Mike turned me on to.” Mike was Jenny’s off-again, on-again boyfriend. Apparently now was an on-again time.
She tapped on her screen. “It’s a really cool off-the-grid job site. People just post stuff they’ve heard about. Mike knows two guys who found great jobs through this thing. I was thinking you might like to try something different. You know—keep an open mind.”
But instead of handing over the phone, Jenny scrolled through the listings herself. “Let’s see. ‘Wanted—secretary who can take shorthand and is available on weekends.’” She wrinkled her nose. “Shorthand? Who the hell uses shorthand anymore? And weekends? Forget that.” She moved her finger along the screen. “Oh, look. Here’s one right up my alley. ‘Wanted—paralegal for New Jersey law firm, competitive salary, references required. Advancement opportunities.’ That sounds good, except then I’d have to commute. Though I’d be going in the opposite direction of everyone else, so maybe that would be a good thing.”
“Focus, Jenny,” Rowan said with a grin. “You like your job. I thought we were talking about me here, not you.”
“Sorry,” Jenny said with an apologetic grin. Then her eyes widened. “Whoa, what the heck is this? I didn’t know this was that kind of site.”
“What kind of site?” Rowan asked, curious now. “What does it say?”
Jenny lifted her eyebrows and read aloud, “‘Wanted—Experienced Dominatrix. No sex required. Competitive wages plus tips. Hours flexible based on appointments. Ask for Ben at Serpent’s Den.’” She looked up expectantly.
Rowan snorted. “Like I’m going to call. Are you nuts? It’s probably just a thinly veiled appeal for prostitutes, anyway.”
Jenny shook her head. “No, it’s not. I’ve heard of these places. They aren’t against the law. They cater to the BDSM crowd—you know, people who like kinky stuff. I actually knew a woman who was a professional Domme back in California when I was in college. She made a ton of money. And like this ad says, there was no sex required. She just had to dress up in black leather and crack a whip around guys who liked to be ordered around. It costs like two hundred dollars an hour for a private session, and she got a big hunk of that. Easy money.”
Rowan leaned forward, intrigued in spite of herself. “Let me see that.”
Jenny finally handed her the phone. As Rowan read the ad for herself, her mind leaped back in time, her thoughts turning to Tim Dillon, though it had been eight years.
She’d only been eighteen—a freshman at NYU. Tim had worked at the local coffee shop where she sometimes hung out between classes. He was easily ten years older than she, and he wasn’t even that good-looking. But there had been something about him—a kind of dark, edgy charisma—that had fascinated her. An electric spark had passed between them the first time he’d handed her a mocha latte, and he’d stared into her eyes as if he knew all her secrets, even ones she herself wasn’t yet aware of.
She took to going to the shop every day, sometimes staying there for hours, pretending to work on her laptop, all the while surreptitiously eyeing the sexy barista. When he’d finally asked her out one afternoon at the end of his shift, she’d instantly said yes, even though she knew nothing about the guy.
They’d taken a long walk in Central Park, and they’d talked about all kinds of things. Rowan had felt so grown up to be with this older guy, and when he’d taken her hand, she’d let him. As they moved along the paths, Tim kept bringing up a BDSM trilogy he’d read, and talking about how intense that kind of thing could be between two consenting adults.
Rowan had been at once thrilled and scandalized by how easily and frankly he’d discussed the topic, and his interest in it. At the same time, she couldn’t deny her physical reaction to both his charismatic presence and the taboo nature of his words—chains, control, exchange of power, erotic suffering… Her nipples had been stiff with desire, her panties damp. While she wasn’t a virgin, she nearly was—her only real experience at that point had been with her boyfriend from senior year, and neither of them had had a clue what they were doing.
Her teenage hormones raging, when he’d invited her to his tiny basement apartment in a neighborhood not far from campus, she’d actually gone with him. Thinking back on it, Rowan still couldn’t believe she’d been so stupid as to go home with a near-stranger.
The one-room apartment was dark and cluttered, with roaches skittering along the baseboard. Tim had showed her his cache of BDSM toys, and suggested she get naked and let him tie her down and teach her what it was to submit. As he’d spoken, he’d stroked the rising bulge of his erection beneath his jeans.
All at once, she’d come to her senses. Her heart beating high in her throat, her palms wet with terror, she’d backed toward the door. “No,” she’d managed to squeak. “I don’t want to.”
Fortunately, he hadn’t lunged for her. He’d only shrugged, as if he truly couldn’t care less, one way or the other. “Your loss, little girl. If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”
She’d fled, heart racing, chiding herself for what an incredibly stupid risk she’d taken, desperately relieved she wouldn’t end up as another statistic—another missing girl.
Though, in retrospect, it was doubtful Tim was actually a serial killer, she’d never returned to that particular coffee shop. Nor had she ever told anyone, not even Jenny, about that day so long ago. While she definitely hadn’t been ready at the time for whatever it was Tim had been offering, she’d never forgotten the way his words had made her feel. Yet, though her masturbatory fantasies usually involved some kind of BDSM lite—she’d never actually found another guy interested in exploring that aspect of her nature, nor had she ever shared that part of herself.
What would it be like to immerse herself in the world of BDSM? How ironic if she were the one to take up the whip and the chains, and get paid for it, too. Imagine clearing a hundred dollars an hour just to boss guys around. Could she possibly pull it off? It was crazy, really, to even consider it.
She handed the phone back to Jenny with a dismissive laugh. “It says experienced Domme. I don’t know the first thing about it.”
Jenny shrugged. “So? How hard could it be? You’ve got the whole internet at your disposal. Take a course or something. I bet there are tons of them online. Or you could even find something hands-on, I bet. Hell, this is New York City. Just check out one of the BDSM clubs to get some leads.” She touched her cell phone screen, executing a few rapid strokes. “There. I just sent the link to the job site to your phone.” She glanced at the phone again. “Oh, shit. I better get back.”
As they tossed their trash and left the small park near their office building, Jenny urged, “Cheer up. Tomorrow’s Friday. And make sure you check out that job possibility. I hate to see you so miserable all the time. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? What have you got to lose?”
Back in the office, Rowan forgot about the want ad as she was greeted by a new pile of crap Henry Franklin, the boss from hell, had dumped on her desk in her absence. She used to love her job. When had it shifted from fun to drudgery? Actually, she recalled the precise moment—it was when Henry Franklin had been transferred from the Chicago office to the New York office.
Rowan, who was more than qualified to fill the position when Barb had left to have a baby and decided not to return, was passed over by corporate in Chicago in favor of a man who actually had less direct experience. She was furious and confused at not even being considered, until she found out Henry Franklin was the catalog owner’s son-in-law. How did you compete against that?
As she was leafing through her phone messages, Franklin bellowed from the corner office, “About time you got back from lunch, Stevens.”
Rowan pressed her lips together to keep from swearing out loud. She was only five minutes late, and anyway, he was one to talk. Franklin regularly disappeared for hours at a time and no one ever hassled him about it.
“Where’s that budget for the new men’s pants line?” he shouted from his office. “I wanted it yesterday.”
“You only gave it to me yesterday,” Rowan muttered under her breath as she hit the print button with what she’d done so far. “Be right in,” she called out, somehow managing to keep the snarl out of her voice, at least she hoped so.
Murray Shafer, her desk mate, shook his head. “Don’t take his shit, Rowan. Stand up for the masses. Fight back!” He shook his fist in the air and grinned.
Franklin chose that precise moment to stick his head out of his office door, which was right behind their desks. Murray quickly bent over his keyboard and began to tap furiously.
Suppressing a sigh, Rowan followed her boss’s retreating back into his office.
“Close the door,” Franklin snapped as she entered. He took his seat behind his desk. As Rowan sat down, her boss swiveled to his keyboard and began typing something. It was his usual MO to call her in and then make her wait. She closed her eyes briefly, willing herself to be cool, calm and collected. Fuck him and his stupid power games. She would sit him out as long as it took.
Eventually he tired of the game and looked up. “Let’s see the numbers,” he said gruffly, holding out his hand. Rowan gave him the one-page rough estimate she had worked up before going to lunch.
“It’s not ready, Mr. Franklin.” Rowan tried to keep the exasperation out of her voice. “I had to finish approvals for three layouts before I could get to it.”
“Spare me your excuses, Stevens. I had heard you were a real gunner—a go-getter, but you couldn’t prove it by me. When the boss hands you something and says he wants it tomorrow, you stay up all night if you have to and put it on his desk in the morning before he even gets to work. When I was your age, I would have busted my ass for the opportunities you’ve been afforded.”
When you were my age, you were an assistant bookkeeper with no prospects of promotion until you found your way into the boss’s daughter’s pants.
Franklin liked to perpetuate the myth he had risen by sheer grit and talent. He didn’t know the office scuttlebutt had followed him from Chicago via emails from insiders there who sent condolences about the new boss.
He threw down the unfinished budget with a snort of disgust. “You continue to produce half-assed work, Stevens. I’m getting the strong impression you’re not a team player. You’re just out for number one.”
Rowan stared down at her lap, gripping her hands to keep from leaping across the desk and strangling the asshole. She busted her ass to be a so-called team player, even when she was the one doing the lion’s share of the work. She bit down hard on her lower lip to keep from saying something she would regret.
His voice shifted from bark to whine. “Why didn’t you tell me the new line of children’s furniture wasn’t ready for production? Why did you throw me to the wolves and make me look like an ass? Do you exist merely to torment me?”
So that was what it was about. The idea he’d stolen, including all her preliminary research for a fun, affordable line of make-it-yourself children’s furniture must have gotten a red light from upper management. Which didn’t surprise her in the least, as she’d told Franklin on a number of occasions the work was still preliminary. She needed to do test marketing and product tweaking before they went forward, but, as usual, he’d ignored her protests, in too much of a hurry to steal her ideas and grab the glory.
No doubt, he hadn’t given her an ounce of credit for the concept, and now he was the one with egg on his face. Served the asshole right. Still, she couldn’t let his scathing, unfair accusations go without defending herself.
“Mr. Franklin,” she said through gritted teeth, “I told you the project was still in testing phase, but you decided to run with it.” Her smoldering indignation gave her courage she didn’t usually possess. “You took something that had a lot of potential and exposed it prematurely. You’ve killed something that could have been a real boon for this company. This is your fault, not mine.” Even as the words tumbled from her mouth, she wanted to take them back. All she would end up doing was pissing him off, and now he would make her pay.
Franklin stood, pressing his palms against the desk as he leaned forward toward her. His face was reddening, his eyes bulging from his head. A dribble of spittle appeared on his lip as he hissed, “How dare you speak to me that way? I called you in here to explain yourself and you accuse me of peddling your crummy idea before its time?” He wagged his head rapidly from side to side, the spittle flying. “I’ve taken a lot of shit from you, Stevens, because I thought you had potential and I wanted to nurture that in you. But this is the last straw.”
Rowan also stood, her hands curled into fists at her sides. She was so fucking furious she couldn’t see straight. Fuck Franklin, and fuck this job. “Mr. Franklin, you are a snake. A vile, repugnant snake who survives by sucking the life out of other people, by stealing their creativity and hard work and claiming it as your own.”
“You’re fired, Stevens.”
“Wrong, Franklin. I quit.”