“A thousand candidates?”
He made an mmhmm noise as he took a bite of dessert. “To be my personal housekeeper? Those were only the ones who made the initial cut. There were a total of nearly two thousand, more than half of whom lacked the proper skill set. Eliza does nearly everything for me. She cooks, does my laundry, cleans my personal quarters, and sees to any other household needs. Shopping, tailoring, the like. She works more hours than most corporate CEOs, and in compensation I pay her a salary that those same CEOs would be murderously jealous of.” He fed me another bite of dessert, speaking as he did so. “I demand excellence, and, if I am satisfied, I compensate most generously.”
“She cleans this whole place by herself?”
“Oh, no. I have a private firm that comes twice a week. They are under contract, of course. But they are not allowed in my private quarters. No one is. Eliza is the only person who has ever been there. Not even Harris has crossed that threshold.”
“So you trust Eliza, then.”
“Totally.” His voice grew tense with emotion. “She has been in my employ for twenty years. She was my very first full-time employee, and she has seen my business grow from a seedling to what it is today.”
“I’m confused. You said you chose her out of a thousand applicants. But you also said she was your first employee. How did that work?”
He sighed. “You are sharp, Kyrie. A thousand people is a lot, but I chose her from my father’s roster of employees. It was…a kind of test, I suppose you could say. He gave me the freedom to choose any one employee from his ranks, and only one. He wanted to see who I’d choose.” A pause, the scrape of the spoon seeking the last of the crème brûlée. “The joke was on him, though, because Eliza was from his own personal household staff. She was being groomed to be his housekeeper.”
“I bet he wasn’t happy with that turn of events.”
“No, he wasn’t. He tried to change the agreement, but I’d made him sign a written contract.” He laughed. “I learned from the best.”
“Who is your father?”
His voice went sharp. “Nice try, Kyrie. You will learn my identity in due time.” I yawned. “It is growing late, and you have had a trying day. Allow me to see you to your room.”
“Well, I don’t have a choice. I will have to allow you to do that since you’re the only one who can see.”
“The blindfold chafes at you, doesn’t it?”
“Obviously. I hate relying on anyone for anything. This is the definition of helplessness.”
He stood, the chair grating on the floor, and then he took my elbow, sliding my chair out as I stood. “That is the point, Kyrie. Reliance. Dependence, helplessness. You have had no one but yourself to rely on for so long. So long. And now it is your turn to allow me to take care of your every need.”
“I thought it was about control. And privacy.”
We walked in silence for several moments before he responded. “Yes, that is true as well. The blindfold serves many purposes.”
“And when will you take it off?”
“When I feel you and I are both ready.”
“And when will that be?”
He pulled me to a stop, turned me, and pressed my back to the wall. I felt his presence before me, trapping me, huge above me. His voice, so close, came from well above my head. “Do you trust me?”
I swallowed hard. “I don’t know what you want from me. I don’t know what’s happening. To me. Between us. Why there’s an ‘us’ here at all. Part of me feels—I don’t know—coerced. Blackmailed. But you’re right, I do feel a—a connection. A possible connection, more like. A chemistry. That kiss was…intense. But I still don’t know what I want. What you want.” I hesitated. “I looked at the file.”
“You shouldn’t have,” he said.
“I almost wish I hadn’t,” I said. “But I did, and…thank you. For protecting me from him.”
“Of course. I couldn’t sit by and allow him to hurt you.”
“So…that goes a long way toward helping me trust you. But…it’s not that easy. Not for me. I don’t…I can’t just decide to trust someone. It takes time. Effort.”
“And that is why the blindfold must remain.” One finger touched my chin, tilting my face up. “Kiss me.” It was a command.
“You’re not grasping the arrangement, it seems.”
“I don’t do commands very well.”
“And I don’t repeat myself.” His voice grew sharp. “But, just this once, for you, I will. You want to know what I want? What this is about? It’s about trust. Obedience. Compliance. You obey, I learn to trust you. If I trust you, I will give you my name and allow you to see me. Then I’ll allow things to go further. If I don’t trust you, this will take much longer, and be much harder.”
“You said you wouldn’t force me to do anything I didn’t want to.”
I heard a smile in his voice. “And that kiss, at dinner? Did I force that on you?”
“And I am not forcing you to do anything now.”
“You’re commanding me to kiss you.” God, I hated how petulant I sounded.
“And don’t you want to?”
I smelled his cologne, felt his heat. I couldn’t help but remember the kiss, and I knew he was right. I did want to kiss him again. I didn’t want to desire the kiss, but I did. I wanted to feel his hand on my cheek, his lips on mine.
“Damn you,” I breathed.
“I can read you like a book, Kyrie. You’re flushed. Breathless. You feel my presence. You want this. You want me. You’re afraid of your own desire, and you’re even more afraid of me. But you don’t need to be afraid.” He placed both of his palms on my cheeks. Tilted my face up. “Now…kiss me.”
I obeyed his command. I kissed him. I pressed my back against the wall and lifted up on my toes, touched my lips to his. Our mouths met as I sighed. It was an outbreath of need, of eagerness, of relief, of frustration. He sucked my sigh into his mouth and pulled my face to his, gently yet irresistibly. Our mouths, and his hands on my face, these were the only points of contact between us, yet…I felt him surrounding me. I felt as if he’d somehow blocked out the whole world, including my own fears. As if one taste of his lips erased my nerves and my fears and my hesitation, so all that remained was his mouth upon mine.