“Well, Ms. Krysta James. You’re okay by me,” Dixon Maddox said. “Are you ready to get worked over by my brother?”
Fuck. My eyes flitted to the white cowboy hat he’d laid on his big oak desk when we walked into his office.
I didn’t know I’d have to go through two of them to get this job at Maddox Brothers, Inc. I’d thought Dixon Maddox was making the decision.
He’d been easy. While I could see he was nobody’s fool, he wasn’t that hard to read. And I did have a Master’s Degree in psychology. He was a handsome ladies' man with the sparkly blue naughty-boy eyes that I was sure made women fall at his feet.
Totally not my type. I liked them more complicated. There was something about getting a stern, poker-faced man to laugh or display emotion that gave me a sense of accomplishment.
Of course, I was probably trying to get a redo on my relationship with my dad who’d died before we could fix anything between us.
Damn, I hated psychoanalyzing myself. Other people’s heads were my playground. My head was way too close to home.
“Okay, sure,” I said. I knew I appeared completely competent in my tortoise-shell glasses and shoulder-length chestnut hair. I’d planned my look carefully, balancing smart with a touch of sex appeal, since I would be interviewing with a man. “Do I need to schedule another appointment?”
I hoped I wouldn’t. I needed this job. I had two semesters left to get my doctorate. I’d been derailed before, but this time nothing was going to stop me from becoming a licensed psychologist.
With this receptionist job to support me, I could make the next semester’s tuition payment with what I’d already saved.
Unfortunately, the fund my scholarship was paid from had fallen victim to some Wall Street shenanigans and didn’t exist anymore.
Even with this new job, I wasn’t sure how I’d make it through my final semester.
“No need to make another appointment, unless you have to be somewhere else right now,” Dixon said. “I can take you right in to see him.”
He lifted his tight, blue-jean clad ass off his desk and led me to the door.
I had to admit, he had pleasant taste in office décor. The blues and khakis and light wood tones were more welcoming than most offices, but were combined with symmetrical shapes, so the place still gave off a masculine vibe.
Then I reminded myself how rich the guy was and that he probably had an awesome decorator. I’d learned from my last relationship not to give a rich guy too much credit.
Fresh anger coursed through me at the thought. It had been a year since Brandt had un-proposed to me. Time to get the hell over it. Soon, I’d be my own woman, dependent on no man. In fact, I planned for men to be temporary diversions in the future. No more relationships.
Yes, I was bitter. And I was obsessing about the Brandt situation again.
I mentally slapped myself, hoping I wouldn’t be tempted to physically slap my future patients when they didn’t change their harmful behaviors.
I followed Dixon Maddox into the hall. Stopping at the closed door next to his office, he knocked.
“Mase?” He threw the door open without waiting for an answer.
An annoyed grunt was the only reply from the dark-haired man inside, who was bent over his desk.
Dixon motioned gallantly. “Ladies first.”
I smirked and rolled my eyes up at him. He grinned mischievously.
We understood each other. He knew I found his type annoying, but he also knew no woman was completely immune to his charms.
I chuckled as I walked into the office, then came to a dead stop.
A really dead stop.
Because all around me there were dead things, staring at me with their fake dead eyes.
“Holy shit!” I blurted out. “What the fuck?”
“Tell me this isn’t our receptionist candidate.” Dixon’s brother didn't even glance up from his big mahogany desk.
“I think that was the most appropriate response I’ve heard to this freak show,” Dixon replied. “Have you looked around your office lately?”
“Pet Cemetery,” I mumbled, remembering the title of some old Stephen King movie my friends and I rented in high school.
Dixon laughed and ushered me to one of the guest chairs facing the other Mr. Maddox.
As I sat down, I had two thoughts. First, “Are these two twins?” And, second, “Could these two be any more different?”
Their faces were so similar, classically handsome with strong jaws and straight noses. But instead of jeans and a casual button down, Mason Maddox wore an expensive tailored suit with a dress shirt and tie.
I was sure, even if I examined him closely, I wouldn’t find one hair out of place or one spec of fuzz on his clothing.
I glanced back at Dixon for comparison. His hair, which was a few shades lighter than his brother’s, was tousled by design. Three of the buttons on his western-style shirt were undone in what I was sure was an intentional tease.
Any psych student could tell you which was the older brother and which was the younger of these two. Classic birth order case. As an only child, sibling relationships had always fascinated me.
“Krysta James, this is my brother and business partner Mason Maddox.” Dix parked his ass on the edge of his brother’s desk.
My eyes skimmed over Mason’s perfectly arranged desktop, every item on it equidistant from the next.
Control freak? OCD?
Mason’s eyes left the contract he’d been studying and zeroed in on his brother’s backside.
He took a deep breath, clearly exercising every ounce of restraint to keep from lunging at his younger brother and strangling him.
I pursed my lips, so Mason wouldn’t see how amusing this was to me. I needed to subdue my sarcastic sense of humor and make this work. I needed the money.
Besides, if I took notes while I worked here, I could probably get enough for a research paper, just from observing these two.
Dixon smiled at his choice for their new receptionist. She was attractive and smart with a good sense of humor. Nice rack, too, not that he noticed that type of thing nowadays.
And he liked that the chemistry between them was friendly and nothing else.
The six months of agreed upon “cooling off” time between him and Tessa would be over soon and he had every intention of continuing where they’d left off.
Most men wouldn’t have made the choice he did, but he’d been trying to allow enough time and distance so they could “reset” their relationship.
He didn’t want to be boss and employee. And he wanted some time to pass so she could forget the ridiculous misunderstanding out at Mason’s ranch.
They’d had a really weird beginning and Dix hoped to start fresh on her turf and get it right.
“Dix.” He turned and saw Mason’s eyes flick from him to the chair and back again.
Dix was in such a good mood from all the Tessa thoughts lately, he decided to throw his big brother a bone. He got off the desk and settled into the second guest chair a couple of feet from Krysta.
Apparently satisfied, Mason turned his attention toward her.
“Ms.—” He stopped short and stared at her.
That was strange. Dix wondered if his big brother had forgotten her name. Mason had seen her resume, and he had a photographic memory when it came to names and numbers.
His lips remained open as he blinked at Krysta.
Dix glanced over at her, noting the touch of cleavage peeking out the top of her red silk blouse. The gray suit she wore was cut close to the body.
Was that what Mason was tongue-tied over? Or maybe it was those hazel eyes with the alluring slant at the outer edges. Made her look like she knew something you didn’t.
Whatever the hell was going on, Dix decided he’d better jump in before she got spooked by his weird brother and ran off.
There wasn’t going to be any funny business in the office this time. They only wanted someone qualified who would be reliable and stick around for a while.
“It’s Ms. James.” Dix said. “Krysta James is the one who hates your dead animals.” He couldn’t help but have a little fun at his brother’s expense.
“It’s a collection,” Mason replied defensively. “I buy the most interesting ones.”
Dix watched as she leaned forward and tilted her head as if studying his brother. “You’re not a hunter?”
Here we go.
“No. It’s a hobby, like stamps or coins.”
She pressed her lips together as if trying not to laugh. “You see this as equivalent to a coin collection?” she asked. Dix could practically see the psychology wheels spinning in her head.
“Yes,” Mason replied.
“Um…okay.” She obviously wasn’t convinced it was anything like a coin collection.
And what was that expression on Mason’s face? It was as if her disapproval bothered him.
“Come over here.” Mason stood and moved over to the grizzly, standing on its hind legs in the corner. “I’ll show you.”
He’ll show her? Since when did Mason Maddox care anything about what their receptionist thought?
Dix watched as his brother pointed out the moose with the oddly shaped antlers and the coyote, whose dark spots formed the silhouette of a roadrunner on its coat.
Dix had always enjoyed making an impression on women in general, but Mason was different.
As Dix observed his brother, so intent on getting Krysta to see the validity of his bizarre collection, he remembered another woman Mason had bent over backwards to impress.
“Still find no merit to my collection?”
“It’s not about merit with me,” I replied. I smoothed my hair behind one ear, worried about the direction this interview was headed in. “I’m more interested in why people really do what they do.”
“And do you have a theory about a person with a collection like mine?”
“Hypothetically, you mean?”
“Well, normally these are kept by hunters as trophies to prove their virility and masculinity, but that doesn’t apply if the person doesn’t actually hunt.”
Mason’s eyes were transfixed on mine. The air conditioner kicked on and a fresh scent wafted over me. I liked the way it smelled…or did I just like it because I thought it was coming from him? I had an unsettling impulse to move in closer to him to find out for sure, but I stayed where I was.
“Go on,” he said. I had to remind myself what we were talking about.
“Oh…um, all the animals have something strange about them…”
My lips tingled. Was his chest heaving? What was going on here? This was not a sexy conversation. I broke eye contact and focused on the bear with the extra set of teeth.
“If I had to guess without any more information, I might say the person feels like a freak, an oddball, so he relates to these animals in some way. He collects them to make him feel less alone, without being out of control as he is with loved ones in real life. The animals can’t leave him or die on him because they’re already dead.”
Mason’s eyes seemed to turn from brown to black. He stopped blinking.
I’d opened my big mouth, again. Why did I have to be so honest? It bordered on a compulsion. A normal person would have come up with a flattering lie.
His hands clenched, and I had the feeling he wanted to grab me with them.
A strange sensation slithered through me, but it didn’t feel like fear.
I wanted those hands on me. I imagined them digging into my upper arms, pulling me in for a kiss.
“Get back to work.” Mason’s voice was as tight as his fists.
A shiver of excitement traveled through me at his command. I had the crazy urge to stay and see what he’d do if I didn’t follow orders. Then I remembered I couldn’t afford to find out.
“I don’t work here yet,” I said.
He let out an annoyed breath, visibly thrown off his game. “Dix is in charge of the help and he likes you.”
At the sound of his name, Dixon looked up from whatever had been absorbing him on his iPhone.
He chuckled and pointed his finger at me. “You’re hired,” he said. “Be here Monday at eight-thirty.”
A few minutes later, I was sitting in my car in the parking garage, considering the situation. I’d never gotten aroused in an office, or in all the time I’d spent in classrooms, for that matter. My libido had acted very inappropriately in Mason Maddox’s presence.
So, what had just happened?
Why did I find it thrilling when he spoke to me in that commanding tone of voice? And why was I desperate for him to grab me and “force” me to…
Somewhere inside me, I knew. A memory flashed into my brain. My mother was driving me home from church, lecturing me about whores, and the evils of fornication. Sex was dirty. Sex was bad. Good girls didn’t want to do it. That’s what I’d grown up with.
I’d suspected for a while that I would find being punished for sexual thoughts arousing, but I tried to avoid exploring that idea in depth.
Besides, I’d left that craziness behind and wasn’t about to dwell on it now.
It was best for me to do my job and avoid any unnecessary contact with Mason Maddox.
Dix paced back and forth in his office, getting more anxious by the moment.
In a few days, he was supposed to call Tessa. He wanted her every bit as much now as he had six months ago, and he hoped she still felt the same way.
He stared out the window at the skyline, framed in a background of blue. It wasn’t an unusual December day, for Houston, sunny with an expected high of seventy degrees.
He thought of Tessa alone in icy Michigan. He’d like to be there to warm her up. He considered the presents he’d already bought her for Christmas, but he didn’t know if he should mail them.
If she decided she wasn’t that into him, she might feel she had to go to the trouble of mailing them all back. Besides, he wanted to see her face when she opened them.
He couldn’t believe how nervous he was. When had he ever stressed over a woman? If he wanted one, she’d always wanted him back.
Sometimes it was because of the way he looked or his sense of humor. Other times it was his family name and the money.
The reasons didn’t matter so much when he was eighteen. But at thirty-two, he wanted a woman who loved him for him.
Oddly enough, Tessa seemed to want him that way, but she was uncomfortable with the trappings of money.
Maybe if he was on her turf, she could forget what he was and focus on who they were together.
He hoped he hadn’t overdone the presents. He’d grown up with money, so he wasn’t sure what she would consider too much.
Regardless, if all went as planned, he’d be spending a lot more time up north with her. And because she needed to stay near her mom and her job at Greenwood Manor, he might even move up to Michigan to be near her, since he could work from anywhere and travel to meetings.
But there was Mason to consider. At first, Dix had thought Mason would be better off without him here, so his brother would be forced to venture out and meet new people.
But, as the time neared, Dix felt guiltier about the idea of leaving.
As obnoxious and competitive as they could be with each other, he loved Mason and worried about him being alone.
And as stern as Mason appeared on the outside, Dix knew his big brother was actually the more sensitive of the two of them.
When their mother got sick, it was Mason and his wife Jennifer who moved in with her so she wouldn’t have to leave her home.
Mason nearly ran himself ragged going back and forth from the office to his ranch to their parents’ house.
Until the day Mason and Jenn were gone and the new nurse lost track of Mama for a few minutes. She’d hidden in a closet and tried to light a cigarette.
The family home had burned to the ground with their mother inside. The nurse barely made it out, since she’d spent precious time searching for her patient.
Dix never held his brother responsible, but Mason was devastated, guilty he hadn’t put Mama in a proper facility as Dix had suggested. Guilty he and Jenn had taken a day off from the stress at home for lunch and a movie in Houston.
That was when his mild germaphobia and penchant for neatness began to run amuck. And when Jenn died in a car accident six months later, he retreated from old friends. From germs to furniture placement, he focused on controlling everything in his environment.
As far as Dix could tell, his brother’s only contact with women in the past couple of years had been with surgical gloves, condoms, and possibly even plastic wrap between them.
But when Dix saw how Mason gawked at the new receptionist, he thought she might be the one who could tempt his brother back into some kind of normal life.
Unfortunately, it had been a week and a half, and Mason seemed to be avoiding her instead of trying to spend time with her.
Dix couldn’t leave him like this.
He picked up the contract that lay on his desk, wondering if this was really the right thing to do. But it was the only way he knew to get his brother to interact with the one woman he’d shown interest in since Jenn died.
He grabbed his desk phone. “Krysta could you come into my office, please?”
She came in wearing a slim skirt in a light tweed fabric and matching blazer. With her glasses on, she looked like a sexy college professor.
She was perfect for his brother.
“What can I do for you?” she asked. She always spoke in that tone that combined professionalism with the slightest hint of sarcasm. Dix really liked her.
What if she found this offer so appalling he lost her as his receptionist and Mason’s lifesaver all at once?
He took a deep breath. “I accidentally eavesdropped on your personal call the other day.”
“Accidentally?” She folded her arms and raised her eyebrows.
“I was walking by the copy room.”
“It takes about a second to walk by. What could you have possibly heard?”
Damn, she was too smart to pull anything over on. He was going to have to be blunt about the situation.
“You’re hard up for money to finish school.”
Her arms dropped to her sides. “Yeah. I lost some funding unexpectedly.”
“Maybe there’s a way we can help each other.”
“Really?” she asked suspiciously. “And how would we do that?”
Dix thought that, first, he’d better be sure this wasn’t going to backfire on him. “Are you attracted to me?”
She took in a surprised breath. Probably didn’t expect that from her boss.
“Define attracted,” she replied. She was likely trying to buy time to figure out how to answer without pissing him off.
“I mean, do you fantasize about sex with me or having my babies or anything?”
She burst out laughing. “No, I can see that you’re attractive, but you’re not really my type.”
“Good,” Dix said. “And what about Mason?”
The humor drained from her face. She opened her mouth and closed it a couple of times. It was fun to see her speechless, for once.
So, she was actually attracted to his weird brother, but she didn’t want to admit she was hot for a guy who’d be better patient material than perspective boyfriend.
Dix didn’t wait for an answer. “Krysta, my brother’s kinda checked out of life for a while now. He had several bad years when our mom’s Alzheimer’s got worse.”
She grasped the back of one of the guest chairs. The concern on her face reassured Dix that telling her the truth was the right thing to do.
“Then, she died and he felt responsible. Six months later, his wife was killed in a car accident.”
Dix knew Mason would hate that he was telling her this. He never spoke about any of this stuff.
“God, I’m really sorry,” Krysta said. “I didn’t know…”
Dix realized that instead of giving her two reasons to do this, he could use a three-pronged approach with her—sympathy, practicality, and professional curiosity.
“Before that, he was just hyper-organized and particular about things. Afterward, he took on a lot of OCD symptoms and germaphobia and replaced friends with dead animals.”
Slowly, Krysta paced around the chair and sat down. She put her elbows on her thighs and rested her cheeks in her hands.
After staring at the floor for several moments, she looked up at Dix and said, “Well…it all makes a lot more sense now.”
Dix picked up the contract, walked around his desk and perched on the edge.
“Here.” He handed her the papers. “I’m afraid if Mason goes on this way any longer, he’ll be permanently fucked up.”
She seemed surprised at the choice of words, but took the contract.
“This is the one way I know that might snap him out of it. If you cooperate, there’s ten thousand dollars in it for you, besides your salary.”
She glanced down at the contract then up at Dix again. “Ten thousand dollars? What the hell do you want me to do? You know I’m not a qualified psychologist yet.”
Shit. Here we go.
“I want you to agree to be disciplined. Punished. Completely dominated by Mason.”
“A sex slave?”
Dix saw the shock on her face and was afraid he’d made a terrible mistake.
I sat staring down at the contract, unable to read a word. The phrase Dix had used—“completely dominated by Mason”—kept going through my mind over and over. Each time it did, my insides grew hot.
I squeezed my thighs together in answer to my clit’s cry for attention.
Although I’d been terribly tempted in the past, I’d avoided websites discussing BDSM or novels portraying it.
As a future psychologist, I knew I would tell my patients that these kinds of fantasies and sexual role-playing were completely normal.
But since I was afraid my interest in bondage and discipline in the bedroom came from my sexually repressed religious upbringing, I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to believe I had completely escaped that lunacy.
What would happen to me if I let go and lived the fantasy?
Would I become completely dependent on a man to make decisions for me? Eventually become someone’s good submissive wife like I’d been brought up to be?
Or would I become addicted to the lifestyle and start frequenting weird sex clubs?
It wasn’t only the thought of being a sex slave that was tempting to me. It was the thought of being Mason’s sex slave.
What was it about him that made me find excuses to knock on his office door so I could ask him unnecessary questions?
“It’s a lot of money,” Dix was saying. “You get it even if he doesn’t take the bait. But if there’s physical contact without gloves or condoms, there’s a five thousand dollar bonus.”
That jarred me out of my thoughts. “Without condoms?” I repeated. “Who has sex without condoms nowadays?”
“You had a physical for health insurance when you came to work for us. Mason won’t do anything with a woman without being shrink-wrapped. And, since our mom died, he gets a physical every quarter, so he’s as safe as it gets. Are you on birth control?”
“Yes,” I answered. This was all too bizarre, and way too personal to discuss with a man I wasn’t even planning to have sex with. I stood suddenly. “I can’t believe what you’re asking me.”
“It’s a win-win. You get the money you need regardless. My brother has a chance to move on with his life. And there’s all kinds of psychology for you to study.”
The money was tempting. The psychology was tempting. But Mason was by far the most enticing part of the scheme. I remembered the fantasy where he grabbed me and…
No! There was no way I could even consider being a sex slave.
My curiosity still got the better of me. “Why’s the glove-condom thing so important?”
“Because the last woman my brother had any skin contact with was his wife. He claims it’s a germ thing, but I’ve seen him shake hands with male business associates without even flinching.” Dix threw his hands out and shook his head.
I didn’t like seeing Dix helpless like this. It was all wrong. He was born to be cocky. It worked for him.
A sense of sadness came over me as I replayed what he’d said about Mason.
“Fear of intimacy,” I said, more to myself than to him. “The two women he loved most died a few months apart. He’s trying to protect himself from intimacy because it’s brought him emotional pain in the past. The gloves are a physical manifestation of his need to shield himself emotionally.”
“Wow. I just thought of it as post-traumatic stress disorder or something.” Dix raked his hand through his hair. “But it sounds like you hit the nail on the head. He needs you, Krysta.”
My heart flipped over. At that moment, I sort of loved Dix.
Not in a romantic way, but I loved him for caring so much about his brother. And for being so much more than I gave him credit for when I met him. But I couldn’t possibly do what he was asking.
“I’m sorry…” I took a step toward the door.
I stopped. Dix stared at me thoughtfully for a moment. His gaze dropped to his desk. He pulled a pen up from the leather pencil holder, then dropped it in again.
He took a deep breath. “Let me ask you something.”
“Are you turning me down because it makes you sick to imagine getting that close to my brother?”
“No!” I replied way too adamantly. “Mason’s handsome and smart and—”
Dix looked up at me and I was stopped short by the naughty grin spreading across his face.
I’d walked into his trap. I was way too passionate in defending his brother, confirming Dix’s suspicions, no doubt.
“None of this is relevant, anyway. I hold a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and you want me to prostitu—”
“No!” Dix said it so loudly I halted mid-word. “I want you to help someone I care about, and this may be the only way to do it. And I want to help you in return. Take the contract home and think about it tonight.”
Dix grabbed his hat off the corner of his desk and left the room.
Oh, I thought about it all right. I couldn’t think of anything else. In fact, I spent the entire night in an argument with myself.
This is wrong. Having sex for money is degrading. Why have you put all this work in if you’re going to turn yourself into a prostitute?
Think logically. You need the money to finish school. Women take dinner and gifts from men all the time and have sex with them. What’s the big deal?
And all the time, the voices I didn’t want to hear were whispering in the back of my head.
Dominated by Mason. Mastered by Mason. Touched, teased, tormented by Mason Maddox.
Each time I let the thoughts slip into my consciousness, my nipples puckered up tight and my panties dampened.
What would he do to me if given the chance?
You don’t want a man to rule you. Don’t give him that much power over you. You gave Brandt the power over your heart and he broke it. What will Mason do with power over your body?
I slipped naked between my cool sheets, pushed away all thoughts, and willed myself to sleep.
I stood in Mason’s office, my heart pounding against my ribs.
“You’re late to work,” he said. “You know the rules. Take off your clothes.”
My chest heaved with excitement, but I couldn’t let a man treat me that way.
“You don’t own me,” I said.
“Oh, but I do.” He lifted the contract and waved it.
I stood there, undecided. He strode over and grabbed the two sides of my blouse at the neckline. He pulled them apart violently, sending buttons flying through the air.
I was appalled at his barbaric behavior. But I’d never been so turned on in my life.
Using one hand, he pinned my wrists over my head against the wall. With his free hand he pinched one of my nipples, hard. His mouth closed over the other breast. He sucked and bit at me like a ferocious beast.
Mason let go. “Take off your skirt while I get my whip.”
My pussy contracted at the word “whip.” I creamed my panties.
I awoke, throbbing and wet, realizing that, since I was naked, I’d actually creamed my sheets.
Imagining I was still with Mason, I reached down and spread the moisture from my pussy throughout my slit.
“Bend over my desk,” Mason said in my mind, as I rolled my wet finger over my clit.
His demanding voice was all I needed. I stiffened. Then I jerked and shuddered through an incredible release, working my clit until I’d milked the last spasm from my body.
The next day, I walked into the office still telling myself I would refuse Dix’s offer.
Never mind that I had signed the contract last night after my imaginary encounter with Mason. Never mind that I’d brought it with me instead of burning it.
None of that meant that I was going through with this.
When Dix came in an hour after I did, he casually glanced at my desk where I’d casually left the contract.
Without a word, he collected it and took it to his office.
I sat staring at my computer screen in disbelief. It was done. I’d agreed to go along with pretty much anything that was asked of me.
My fingers kept hitting the wrong letters on the keyboard as I thought of Mason, a few yards away in his office. Was he thinking about what he wanted to do to me? Was he even interested in me or was his brother completely off base?