Authors: Sherri Hayes
My guess was he hadn’t wanted to bring me with him. I was sure the part of his life that included me was not something he wanted those he worked with to know about. Just having me here with him could cause him problems. And then what? What would happen to me? Would he get rid of me or . . . ?
Stop it, Brianna! You won’t let that happen. You won’t cause problems for him. Make him happy with you.
And so here I was walking down a long hallway beside my Master with one major difference, I didn’t have my head down. With my eyes facing forward, I followed him until we turned a corner and walked into a brightly lit office the size of his living room.
“Hello, Megan,” Stephan said, smiling.
“Mr. Coleman.” She smiled back. I realized immediately that she was flirting with him. It was obvious Megan didn’t know.
“Is Lily in?” he asked.
Megan nodded and she leaned forward. Her actions were clearly deliberate, made to flaunt her generous assets. A shudder started to go through me as I thought of the obvious innocence of this woman. She had no idea who she was flirting with, or what the possible consequences of her actions could be. I did, which was why I just stood there in silence.
“Would you like me to get her for you, Mr. Coleman?” Her voice dropped an octave, trying for that sultry sound you always heard in movies.
It was strange. Some of the girls in my high school used to do that with the boys they liked. From what I remembered, most of the boys receiving the attention used to flirt back in response. My Master didn’t. Instead, he began to walk again, this time around Megan’s desk. “That’s okay. I’ll get her myself,” he said with a polite but dismissive smile.
Following him, we walked around what looked to be a thin paper-like wall similar to something in a Japanese restaurant before going down another hallway. This one was shorter, but we took it to the end where it opened up to another large room. Leaning over a big table filled with piles of large books was Lily.
She heard us enter and looked up. A huge smile broke out on her face. “Stephan.” Then she saw me, and before I knew it, her arms were wrapped around me, giving me a tight hug. “Brianna!” she squealed. I didn’t know what to do, but I didn’t want to offend my Master’s friend so I lightly hugged her back.
Lily did eventually let go of me, but she stayed by my side as she turned back to face Stephan. When I looked up for a second to see his face, he looked . . . happy. I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d done something right.
“Lily, do you think Brianna can stay with you for a half hour or so while I run upstairs?”
Her eyes fell to the clock and mine followed. It was four fifteen. “Sure,” she said. I wondered if she had somewhere to be tonight.
“Thank-you,” he replied, already moving toward the door. “I’ll make sure you’re not late, Lily.” He winked at her before leaving. Obviously, my original assumption was right. Lily had some place she needed to be.
I didn’t get a chance to dwell on that, however, as Lily pulled me farther into the room and started talking. “Come see what I’m working on.”
She dragged me to the table she’d been leaning over when we’d walked in the door. The books I’d noticed were full of fabrics, and there were pictures of large round tables and what looked to be some type of seating chart.
Lily noticed my staring and answered my unspoken question. “For the ball. I’m trying to find just the right fabric for the table dressing.” She picked up three samples on the other side of the table and placed them in front of me. “I’m down to these three. What do you think?”
Me? She was asking me? “Um. I . . . I don’t know.”
She smiled encouragingly at me. “Sure you do.”
I pressed my lips together in concentration. All three pieces of material were beautiful, elegant. Whatever ball this was for, I’m sure it would be beautiful.
Fabrics and fashion were never things I’d taken much interest in and for ten months, none at all. However, my eyes kept falling to the square of soft gold. Before I could stop myself, I pointed to it.
“Ooooh. I like that one, too. Good choice,” Lily said, beaming.
Then she looked at me, and her expression changed. It was pensive. “You’d look good in this color, I think. But then again, you look great in that blue you have on. Hmm. I wonder . . . Oh well, I’ll just have to think about it a little more. Not like we don’t have time,” she smiled.
Time? What was she talking about? “Lily?” I asked quietly. “Time for what?”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Time for the ball, silly.”
The ball? What ball? And then I looked down at the pictures again showing the large round tables with fake guests sketched in. At the top of the paper it said, 18th Annual Coleman Foundation Charity Ball.
Coleman. Stephan Coleman. This was my Master’s company.
He owns this place. Just like he owns me.
I felt myself start to panic. He was more powerful than I imagined. My new Master could do anything he wanted. To anyone he wanted, and it wouldn’t matter.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting down, and Lily was handing me a glass of water. I felt her hand brushing along my back, trying to sooth me. It was hard but I tried to calm down. Nothing had changed. Not really. The plan was still the same. Survive. Make him happy with me.
“Are you all right?” she asked, her hand on my arm in a comforting gesture.
“Yes,” I managed to choke out. “Thank-you.”
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
Should I? I wasn’t sure. But then again, I hadn’t been sure of anything since last Wednesday night. So I spoke. “He owns this.”
Lily pulled back a little before answering. “You mean Stephan?” I nodded. “Yes, he’s the president and CEO here.” Then she cocked her head, and her eyes squinted marginally like she was trying to get something into focus.
She didn’t get to say anything else as a knock sounded at her door a second before a man walked uninvited into her office. “Have you gotten . . . ?” his voice trailed off as his eyes fell on me. “Well, well. I didn’t realize you had company.” He walked toward me, and I instantly knew I didn’t like him.
This man had a predatory walk. He reminded me of Ian, and I felt a shiver run from my head to my feet.
Lily stepped in front of me to block his progress, and I could see his frown. “What can I do for you, Karl?”
“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend first?”
“Karl, Brianna. Brianna, Karl.”
“Brianna. Mm. Pretty name. Are you . . . ?”
“I’m assuming you came here for a reason?” Lily asked, pointedly cutting him off.
He sneered at her but answered. “Yes. I wanted to know if you had the new figures for me. My girls need to get the new number projections together.”
Crossing her arms, Lily faced him with a presence of someone twice her size. “No. I’m not done yet. I told you I’d send you the numbers as soon as I had them. You didn’t have to make a special trip down here.”
This Karl person just shrugged. “I was in the neighborhood so I thought I’d stop by. And I’m very glad I did,” he said, brushing past Lily to get to me. I cringed back as far as I could into the couch.
He wasn’t deterred, though, and reached out to brush a stray hair away from my face; his fingers lingering on my cheek. The first strains of panic began to rise. It was Ian all over again. And just like then, there was nothing I could do to stop him.
“Maybe we could go get a drink? Or something . . . ?” His voice dripped with innuendo.
“She’s busy.” I recognized the firm voice coming from the doorway. My Master.
She had laughed. It was brief, yes, but she had laughed. Another step forward. This was good. I liked seeing her happy.
The car ride home was solitary, as I expected it would be. Brianna wouldn’t speak unless I initiated the conversation.
She once again looked out the window, watching our surroundings. I had the impression Brianna had not gotten out much in the last ten months. This was another area of excitement for me. So many things would be available to her now, and I couldn’t wait to help her take advantage of them. All I had to do was get through that thick shell she’d put up to protect herself.
My phone rang, breaking my thought process. It was Jamie. One of our biggest contributors was reconsidering the amount of his donation due to the tough economy and needed my immediate attention; this wasn’t something that could wait until Monday. Looking over at Brianna, I told my assistant to have everything together for me by the time I arrived.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Brianna shift in her seat. She knew we were no longer going home and truth be told, I was a little nervous about bringing her to my place of business. It wasn’t that I was nervous about her, but more that I was nervous for her. Brianna had done well today, with the exception of the reptile house, and I didn’t want the pure magnitude of my office to overwhelm her.
That gave me the idea to leave her with Lily—someone she knew—and I was confident it would be a better alternative than coming with me. When I asked her if she’d like to see Lily while I took care of things, she answered with her normal
For once, she followed me out of the car, into the elevators, and along the hallway without me prompting her. I couldn’t help the small smile that tugged at my lips for a brief second, but then I remembered why I had to come into the office at four o’clock on a Friday.
Ross Builders. They were one of the largest construction companies in the area and had been supporting The Coleman Foundation since its inception eighteen years ago. Things were changing within their company because of Neil’s son, Cal. He didn’t have the same view on supporting local charities as his father. I had no doubt this latest development was all Cal.
By the time we reached the tenth floor, all I could think about was how I was going to talk to Cal Ross without losing my temper. Didn’t he know how many people would be denied medical help they needed if his company withdrew or reduced their commitment? And that was what really burned me. The commitment of donation had been made in January. It was April, and he was just now changing his mind.
I vaguely recalled asking Megan, the floor receptionist, if Lily was in and then walking back down the short hall to find her hard at work on the fall fundraiser. She’d been more than happy to have Brianna stay with her, and I quickly left them alone. I wanted to go upstairs and get this over with.
Jamie was a miracle worker. She had everything ready for me, including donation history, usage, and future projections. So with my weapons in hand, I sat down to call Mr. Ross.
Cal was arrogant and cocky, but one thing he wasn’t was stupid. He was playing with me, and I did not enjoy being played with. I was the one who enjoyed doing the playing.
After going over every piece of information I had in front of me, he finally relented and recommitted to his original donation. He’d come home from college last summer to take over the family business. It seemed he wanted to flex his muscles a little and prove just who was in charge now. I wanted to growl in frustration as I hung up the phone knowing it wasn’t just money he was playing with, but lives.
Shutting everything off in my office, I walked out to say goodnight to Jamie only to find she had a message for me from Diane. “Your aunt said to tell you she is expecting you and Brianna for Sunday dinner.” She paused, and then smiled as she said the last part, “I was also told to tell you that
would not be accepted.”
Great. Just what had Richard told her?
Obviously, that didn’t matter at this point. Once my aunt got something in her head, there was no changing her mind. I knew even if I called her and told her I had other plans, she’d guilt-trip me into coming.
I thanked Jamie for the message and went back down to the tenth floor. It was already a quarter till five, and I’d promised Lily I wouldn’t make her late. But nothing had prepared me for what I saw when I arrived back in her office.
Karl Walker was leaning over Brianna. My Brianna. His body language clearly spoke his intentions even before I heard the words come out of his mouth. He didn’t even jump when I spoke, but she did.
She’d already cringed away from Karl, obviously not wanting his attentions. He, on the other hand, seemed to be utterly clueless. “Busy, is she?” Karl turned his attention back to a wide-eyed Brianna. “Well, maybe next time.” With that, he stood back to his full height and walked by me. “Have fun, Stephan. She looks like she’d be quite the tiger. I’m sure you’ll have fun.” At his parting comment, he laughed. I could hear him chuckling all the way down the hall, and I clenched my fist in response.
“Can’t you just fire him?” Lily asked, exasperated.
Uncrossing my arms, I walked into the room. “No. Unfortunately. I have no doubt he’d try and sue us if I did, so unless you have something solid I can get him on, I’m afraid we’re stuck with him for now.”
Even though I was answering Lily, my focus was on Brianna. Karl had frightened her. Her head was down, her shoulders hunched over as if she were trying to make herself smaller, and her eyes were unfocused.
Taking another step forward, I stood in front of her just to the side. “Brianna.” My voice was firm, but not unkind. And just like a switch had been flipped, her posture straightened. Her head remained lowered, but I knew she was now listening to me. “I’m finished. Are you ready to leave?”
Instead of answering vocally, she nodded and stood. I turned to Lily. “Thank-you.” My hand found its way to Brianna’s lower back, and I felt some of the tension go out of her body at my touch, although she still held herself in the same position. I caught Lily’s eyes just before we left the room. They were worried and clearly asking me to take care of the woman before me.
We managed to make it home without further incident, but she was quiet. Not like she’d been for most of the day, but as quiet as she had been those first few days. I knew she’d retreated into herself, something she had to have learned to survive, but it was still frustrating. She and I needed to talk, but I had no idea now if that was going to be able to happen tonight, and it was all because of Karl.
Right now, I wanted to take my favorite whip to him and not hold back. Unfortunately, logic and reason told me I couldn’t do that.
We needed dinner, and I was in no mood to cook. Walking into the kitchen, I opened the drawer containing the stack of menus a little too forcefully, causing some of them to fall to the floor. Picking them up, I shoved all but the one I wanted back into the space from which they came.
There was a Chinese restaurant one block over, and they would deliver with the right incentive. I knew what I wanted, so I handed the paper to her. Reluctantly she took it. “Select what you would like for dinner, Brianna.”
I knew my voice was harsher than it should be. I needed to calm down, so I took the opportunity while she was reading the menu to walk into my bedroom. She wouldn’t follow me, I knew, because I hadn’t given her permission.
Heading straight for my bathroom, I turned on the cold water and splashed it on my face. Looking up in the mirror, I was pleased to see that the anger burning in my eyes had dimmed. I felt more in control, which was good. The last thing Brianna needed was to fear me even more than she already did.
My hand was reaching for the doorknob when I felt my phone vibrate. I pulled it from my pocket and looked at the caller ID.
Sighing, I figured I might as well get this over with. “Hello.”
“Stephan,” my aunt said, her voice resonating through the phone. “And how is my favorite nephew?”
Releasing the doorknob, I leaned back against the sink. “I’m fine. You?”
“Well . . . I was doing fine until I heard you have a new girlfriend that I haven’t even heard about.”
Closing my eyes, my left hand came up to pinch the bridge of my nose. Girlfriend. Not exactly.
Richard knew of my lifestyle. Diane did not. And even if I wanted her to know, this was not the time to tell her. “I didn’t mean to keep anything from you. It’s just . . .” What did I say? I had no idea, so I settled on “new.”
“Then I guess I won’t be too upset with you. Now I know Jamie gave you my message so I expect to see you and Brianna on my doorstep no later than one o’clock on Sunday. Is that understood, young man?” she said in her best matriarchal voice.
That got a chuckle out of me. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good,” she said, and I could hear her smile through the phone. “I can’t wait to meet her, Stephan.”
“We’ll see you on Sunday.”
And with that, I hung up. I still had no idea how Brianna would react to my aunt. She was very affectionate and I loved her dearly, but the young woman in the other room was shy and reserved. Her family situation was still a mystery to me, but obviously it wasn’t good or normal or whatever term you wanted to put on it. I would just have to deal with whatever it was and however she reacted to my aunt. Pushing myself away from the sink, I put my phone back in my pocket and walked back out to Brianna.
He was upset, more upset than I’d ever seen him. Obviously, I’d angered him with that Karl man, but I’d had no idea what to do. They didn’t appear to be friends, and Master seemed to be upset that Karl had touched me. But I knew what was coming. Knew that it was not Karl who would pay for what had happened; I would.
It didn’t matter. I had to keep telling myself that. There was more in my life now than I ever thought I’d have again. Whatever he wanted, I would do, no matter how unpleasant.
Before I knew it, he was walking back out into the room. His shoulders seemed a little more relaxed and the scowl was missing. As he walked closer, I quickly lowered my eyes, not wanting to anger him again.
“Did you decide?” he asked.
I nodded. “Sweet and sour chicken, please, Master.”
He didn’t say anything but instead went to the phone. His voice was calm as he spoke to the person on the other end of the line. It was good to hear him calm again, even though I doubted it would last.
Ian had always been good at putting on a show for others outside his group. If you were to meet him on the street, you would have no idea what he liked to do in what he called his “playroom.” I hated it in there, more than the dungeon even. At least in the dungeon, I would be alone. I was never alone in the playroom. He was always there, too.
My Master’s voice pulled me back from my memory, and for that I was grateful. “The food will be here shortly. Would you like to watch a movie while we eat?”
A movie? Really? He wanted to watch a movie with me?
I couldn’t help the excitement that flowed through me at the thought. I hadn’t seen a movie in so long. When I’d lived with my father, John, the nearest theater was over an hour away; and even though my friends would make the drive every once and a while, I was never allowed to go. The last time I’d seen a movie was in Dallas.
“Yes, Master,” I answered softly, still careful not to push things. He seemed to be back to normal now, but I knew better than to be complacent.
“There are movies in the cabinet beside the television. Pick what you’d like to watch,” he said and then walked back into the kitchen and began opening drawers.
Slowly I walked over beside the television. I couldn’t believe this was happening, that I was getting to pick out a movie for us. And what made this even better was that I knew he was really letting me choose. I was going to take advantage of it until he took it away. Which I knew he would, eventually.
When I opened the cabinet doors I was in awe; the number of movies to choose from was staggering. The DVDs went from floor to ceiling and were arranged in alphabetical order.
As my eyes ran over the titles, I realized there was a little bit of everything here. The movies ranged from action/adventure to girly romantic comedies. Of course, there were way more of the former than the latter, but I was still surprised to find them at all.