CONFLICT OF INTEREST
by LORI HUGHES
“So, I guessed right. I win.” He went to his desk. “Is there a prize?” He clicked a key on his computer and the venetian blinds, stretching across the floor-to-ceiling glass wall, closed. The outer office disappeared. They were alone.
The mood shifted from all business to all-relaxed.
He said, “You know what I forgot? I never found those contracts you wanted.” He went to a pile of documents on the coffee table.
“Later,” she said. “Send them in the morning.” She didn’t want to go back to business. For the last few minutes her feelings had run in the other direction and she didn’t want them to stop. They were vivid – and dirty – but under control, pulsating between her mind and her core.
He was engrossed in his search. “Gotta find ’em … or never will. And that wouldn’t please my nuts and bolts partner.”
Fighting self-control, she moved to the sofa next to the coffee table. She marveled at him. Behind his intensity was commitment; behind his charm, a zest for life; behind his knowledge, a ravenous intellect. And behind it all, a rebel streak, a maverick – a high risk, don’t-give-a-damn, adventure-seeking guy. She didn’t doubt that part of him would rather be in jeans and chaps, trying to tame a wild bronco instead of wearing custom-tailored suits and trying to persuade investment bankers – even attractive females. I’d love to be his bucking bronco.
Sitting on the sofa as he rummaged, she chuckled, and he gave her a don’t-make-fun-of-me look. She was enthralled, absorbing every inch of his energy. Then she set her wine glass down, moved next to him and started going through a stack of files. She didn’t give a damn about the files, just followed her urge to be closer. The search was beginning to frustrate him, and he didn’t notice how he brushed against her when he moved. She noticed. Her heat was rising, mouth drying, inner thighs warming. She had to separate. She kicked off her heels and moved to the corner of the sofa. The space helped, a little.
“Got it.” He triumphantly held up a wad of papers.
“Great,” she said. “Now that’s the end of work.”
He grinned like a kid who had just caught his first fish. It reminded her of a boy she had a crush on when she was seventeen. His name was Alan. He wasn’t much of a catch, but he loved to fish and one day caught a big catfish and gave it to her. She hated fish. But not boys. Back then she wasn’t much of a catch, so she rewarded Alan by giving him her virginity. But she really was a tomboy, not a prom- queen. Long, gangly legs and nicknamed “Skinny Minnie.” She wasn’t unpopular, just ordinary. So she dated a little and studied a lot. By the time she was in university her beauty, as her father said, had ‘blossomed,’ which was confirmed by most guys declaring her the ‘hottest Kappa’ in the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. But despite a waiting list of overheated dates, she was in love with learning and driven to be independent.
He went to the kitchenette. “More wine?”
He poured the Chardonnay and then did what he shouldn’t have. Sat next to her and stretched his long, legs across the coffee table. All of him, on full display, within arms-length. I could reach over and touch ‘him’ without even spilling my wine … control yourself girl.
He was soon reminiscing about his days at Stanford and how he’d always planned to have his own business. He said his plans went on hold for a few years before focusing on what was now Apogee Holdings.
“Why on hold?”
He glanced at her. The answer was there, but he didn’t offer it.
“I know what your resume says, Hewlett-Packard, SpaceX – some day you must tell me about Elon Musk. But that’s not putting things on hold.”
“HP and SpaceX were good years, no regrets. Learned to fly.”
She couldn’t deny the pull. She touched his arm. “But why on hold?”
She got an unexpected response. She wasn’t sure if it was to her question or her touch. And didn’t care. He laid his hand on hers, mesmerizing eyes drawing her in. His grip was firm.
“I got tangled up in a problem – unintended – that tied me up, damn near strangled me. Was involved with a lawyer – a woman – who got me into a deal that had a huge upside. It seemed so good I never questioned her due diligence – the lack of.” He grimaced. “We did the deal, but when I dug further, didn’t like what I saw. But it was too late. I was in. We were partners. The company had great value but it, and her, didn’t reflect my values.” He frowned. “I sold my shares and fired her. We wanted the same thing, wealth, but came from different worlds, and had different ideas about how to get it. She came from money––with expectations and questionable practices. But I didn’t see her for who she really was.” He shrugged. “In the end, it worked out because through the deal, and her, I got this chance to buy back Xcryption. With the help of your $400 million.”
For the first time, she saw vulnerability. Was it the woman? She risked the next question not sure she wanted the answer. She squeezed his arm “You said partners. As in married?”
“Hell no. My only marriage is to this insufferable company.” He shifted. “I’m a monogamous man, and the company gets all my attention. Make quite the couple … you think?”
“I need her, she needs me. Has to be – ”
“Do you believe all work and no play makes Yale a dull boy?”
He laughed. And stroked her arm. “You think I’m dull?”
If you stroke my arm again, I’ll suck every ounce of dullness out of you.
“Not at all, I just – ”
“Bored with me?”
She placed her other hand on top of his and an inner voice said, don’t! Her voice started from somewhere beyond her dirty thoughts and sounded too sultry. “I’ve never been bored, not for a moment. We’re going to be working together, very closely” … that was too suggestive. She uncurled her legs and nestled against him.
Domination crept into his eyes. Without a word, he slipped an arm around her waist, pulled her into his chest, pressed his leg against hers and held her for a long moment.
Nuzzled against his torso, she slipped into the scent of his skin. It was so natural and as he drew his head back, her mouth searched upward. He took it. There was no thought, just need.
She wanted to let herself go. But couldn’t. She had to be in charge, not give into his sexual magnetism. She slid a hand between them and forced him, hard, against the back of the sofa. She whispered, “I’m in charge.” He sank submissively into the cushions as she pulled up her skirt and straddled him. She pressed into his groin, forcing her heat against his erection and he grabbed her shoulders, crushing his lips into hers. Tongues penetrated, and a commanding hand slipped between her thighs, possessing her wetness. Sexual desperation mounted as his fingers eased inside her panties, opening her swollen desire.
Then her mouth pulled away. Her heat receded, and she rose above him, escaping his fingers, lifting away …
He opened his eyes. A gasp of raging need rushed out. “What the –?”
“I … I … I mustn’t … stupid. I’m stupid. I never…. What the hell am I thinking?” Between pursed lips, she was berating herself, colliding emotions swelling in her temples. She stood up and pushed her skirt down. It was as if she’d just been ripped from a bad dream, having saved herself from plummeting off a cliff into a whirlpool of ecstasy. She was trying to compose herself. The shock was severe, the disappointment wrenching, the anger suppressed … But control was imperative.
“Victoria? What the – ?”
She blurted. “Fuck.” And turned away, crossing the room, running fingers through her hair and quelling her still boiling heat. She stopped in front of the windows, staring into the darkness. “Fuck!”
“You can say that again,” he said, and sat up.
She turned to face him. He didn’t seem ruffled. “Yale, I’m sorry … my fault. Never should’ve happened. Won’t happen again … I look forward to being your business partner, nothing more.”
“I think – ”
She raised her hand. “Stop.”
He said. “It’s okay, we can keep things separate, don’t have to – ”
“There’s no room for this,” she said. But couldn’t avoid his gaze. Hot. Demanding. Still hungry. She turned back to the windows and spoke into the blackness hanging over Central Park. “This was a mistake.” But she heard her inner resentment. I fucking want him. Badly. Why can’t we just fuck and be done with it. But this was not about business. This was a long way from business. Someplace she liked very much – and so did he. Until something clicked in her head. Something about him, something warning her to proceed with caution. Yes, she’d almost surrendered to his sexually magnificent body, but he hadn’t resisted either. She’d seen a shift in his eyes, a knowing, a glint, an anticipation of … victory. Was this all business for him, including the sex? All for the love of money? The doubt was maybe what stopped her? Zapped her carnal craving and allowed her to regain control. She sure as hell wanted him but proved she could resist him. She took a deep breath, “We both wanted this. And we know we can’t.”
He stood up. “Understood.” He looked cool. Felt cool. “No need for this to be a problem. We can play it anyway you want.”
Play it? You think this is a game? She repressed her rising heat, anger mixing with need.
He went to the kitchenette for a bottle of water. “Just as long as there’s no problem between us … this is business. That’s it! Money, technology, focus. You’re a financial whiz, a brilliant woman, a source of money. That’s what I need … this is just a delightful side benefit. A dividend payment.” He smiled.
She knew detachment when she saw it. But he’d certainly penetrated her protective edge, opening up something that was frighteningly real. And risky. She’d reached past his well-honed persona, but was uncertain if this was all just ‘playing it’ the way he wanted?
He was back to all-business and whatever they’d shared was gone. Maybe for the best? But it sure as hell didn’t feel that way. One thing was certain, the conflict of interest wasn’t gone.
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