I jerk up with a pain clenching my chest. I can’t breathe! Where am I? Throwing my arm out, I feel the satin between my fingers. As my eyes adjust in the dim light from the window, awareness returns. I am home. In my bed. “Geesh, Lexi! Get a grip,” I scold myself, rubbing my hands down my face. It’s always the same miserable fucking dreams that wake me with sweating palms and trembling insides. Things from my past that still haunt me. I hate this feeling. How do they keep causing me pain? They are long gone and will never be a threat to me again. And even if that weren’t the case, I could handle them now.
As I climb out of bed and head for the shower, I focus on stepping into my other self, the one the rest of the world sees. Under the scalding spray, I scrub away the uneasiness that still lingers from the dream. Feeling better, I step out and wrap my towel around myself. I stare into the steamy bathroom mirror and slowly repeat my mantra: “La’Sette Alexa Cruz. Twenty-one years old. My house. My rules. My toys. I’m the boss…” Well, shit. Once again, my mind goes astray. I can never seem to focus long enough to get it right. Or maybe I just don’t care enough. Fuck! What was that other shit I was supposed to remember? Oh yeah! “Blah, blah, blah…I am a beautiful young woman. I am loved. I am strong. I am independent…” By this time I am rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of this exercise—guess I was right about not caring—but I continue anyway. “…I don’t have to be so controlling and bossy. Those around me deserve my respect and trust.” Honestly, who the hell comes up with this shit? To think, I pay loads of money to that half-wit reject, Dr. Alpine, to “make me better.” Just because he doesn’t agree with the way I choose to cope doesn’t mean I need his self-confidence boosting bullshit. Fuck it. I wipe my hand across the foggy mirror and start getting ready for the day, effectively putting the dream and Dr. Alpine’s mumbo-jumbo out of my mind.
As I get off the elevator at my office, I get the usual reactions: men staring and tripping over their clumsy feet. Idiots. I’m wearing my new coral chiffon dress with the drastic V-neck. I’ve cinched it at the waist with a bulky black belt and paired it with my signature five-inch stilettos in a matching black. Strolling down the black marbled hall, I am completely aware of everyone’s gushing. And they should be gushing. I’m stunning. I know this. My half-American/half-Mexican descent gives me an envy-worthy complexion. I may be slight at 5’2”, but I keep my body fit and firm through gymnastics and self-defense classes. My long, flowing black curls and deep, dark brown eyes are the perfect contrast to my tan skin. Add curves in all the right places, and I’m the complete package. At least when it comes to looks.
As I glide into my office, I throw my overpriced bag on the sofa and hit the intercom button to summon Maggie. Maggie is my assistant. She’s also the closest friend I have. She’s fun and perky with her bleached-blonde hair and beach bunny body. But, best of all, she has an endless supply of gossip. It makes the mundane workday a little less mundane. She strolls into my office, grinning like a three-year-old who just got handed an ice cream cone, and I immediately know she’s got something juicy to spill. “Well, Mags, what’s got you all ‘OMG WOOOOW’ this morning?” I barely get the words out of my mouth before she starts spilling her story. I’m going to need some caffeine if I’m going to keep up with her this morning. “Hang on, Mags,” I say. “We need lattes.” Technically, since Maggie is my assistant, she should be the one getting me coffee. However, I hired someone else to be “our” assistant so that our gossip sessions wouldn’t have to be interrupted. Everyone thinks that’s all I do at work anyway. Gossip and drink expensive coffee. But I employ people to run my company for me. All they need from me is my signature of approval. It should probably bother me, but it doesn’t. I’m only twenty-one. I couldn’t care less about property or business. I never wanted a company of my own. At least not this one. I inherited Cruz, Inc. when my parents’ plane went down a few years back. The business has been in the family forever, and my parents made sure it stayed that way in their will. I’m really just the face of the company. The last name-holding survivor. All people expect me to do is sit back, look pretty, and enjoy the money. They don’t know my true worth. But, that’s okay. It’s not like I don’t deserve all this luxury. Especially when you consider all I gave up to take on this role. Before the crash, I was self-driven and attending college. I was determined to find success without riding my mother’s coattails. I had my own dreams and ambitions. Then, they died, leaving me this company and sealing my fate. I wanted a success that was entirely my own. I guess there are no coattails anymore, but this company isn’t my accomplishment or my dream; it’s an unwanted gift. I know I sound bitter, but honestly, people don’t know the half of it. No one ever bothered to ask me what I wanted. Instead, I was told it was my obligation to my parents to take on this role. So, I stepped up to the plate and did what was expected of me. I owed them that much. My dreams be damned. I just go along with the façade that is my life and try to find some sort of enjoyment in it along the way. “So, anyways,” Maggie continues once Jenny has dropped off our lattes, “now he wants to move in together! Can you believe it? Only six months in and we’re gonna live together!” Maggie is squealing and clapping her hands while she turns circles in that stupid, overpriced desk chair that only she ever uses. I’m happy that she’s happy, but I don’t understand how Alex makes her so giddy. It’s baffling to me. Boys are for entertainment, not attachment. The thought makes me cringe, which Maggie notices. “Oh, you will see one day, Lexi. It’s gonna happen to you, and I’m gonna be right here to say ‘I told you so.’” And with that, she high-tails it out of my office to go be productive, at least as productive as Maggie can manage to be.
Now, I am left to find my own entertainment. I take care of some business first, signing what needs to be signed. When that’s out of the way, I move on to Google and the tabloids. I see they’ve caught a great photo of me from my business trip in Tijuana. I was looking pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. Bored with celebrity gossip, I move on to more humdrum tasks: checking my e-mail and looking over some contracts, noting my approval of any changes that have been made. Once I’m finished, I summon Maggie to deliver the paperwork to the proper departments. That sends her on a trip twenty-nine floors down and back, but she could use the exercise. Not that she’ll be taking the stairs that far, but sitting behind that desk all day could get to her hips before she realizes it.
By lunchtime I’m tired of the silence and boredom, so I buzz Maggie to see if she wants to do lunch. She enters my office with a regretful look on her face and informs me that she already has plans to go to lunch with Alex and his cousin, Cameron. Apparently, Cameron is on vacation and visiting from Mississippi, so they are trying to keep him entertained. Whatever. I don’t really care what he’s doing here. I’m just pissed because his presence has taken away my lunch date. I know it’s childish and selfish of me to feel this way, but, damnit, I don’t like not getting my way. I mean, who does?
I’m sure my irritation is written all over my face, but Maggie doesn’t let it bother her. She knows she’s the only person on Earth allowed to blow me off. I mumble under my breath about penciling in a lunch date with my receptionist. The smirk on her face tells me she heard me, and I can’t help my answering grin. We both hear the ding of the elevator, and Maggie whirls and rushes off to greet the boys. Once she’s out the door, I let out a heavy sigh. I can’t begrudge Maggie her happiness. I’m just out of sorts today. It probably has something to do with the dream, but I don’t want to think about that. I’ve taken care of basically everything that needs to be done in the office today. Maybe an afternoon of shopping will help improve my mood. Maggie can reach me if anything important comes up. Like they’ll actually come to me with a problem anyway. I pay people to sort that shit out for me. As I set the out-of-office reply on my e-mail, I call out to let Maggie know I’m leaving for the day. I snag my purse off the couch where I slung it that morning and head for the door. I try to speed past her desk, but Maggie stops me for introductions. I couldn’t care less about meeting her boyfriend’s visitor, but I decide to do it for her. I’ve given her enough attitude today; I’ll allow her this. I’ve met Alex before, so he understands I’m not into these formalities. He may look like a beefed-up meathead with his bulging muscles, tanned skin, and gelled black hair; but he’s perceptive enough to know and respect my boundaries. I’m not sure whether it’s because he’s intimidated by me or by Maggie, but, either way, I’m grateful.
“Alex you know,” Maggie beams as she points in his direction. Alex gives me the typical guy head nod, and I return it. “And this is Alex’s cousin, Cameron Thompson. He’s the one I was telling you about who’s visiting from Mississippi.” Cameron, who is obviously not as perceptive as his cousin, reaches out to shake my hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Cruz. Maggie has told me so much about you. I must say, you are even more beautiful in person,” Cameron rambles as he waits for me to return his greeting. I eye his hand for a second, and then raise my gaze to his. The slackening of his smile lets me know he can see the disdain in my eyes. I don’t do touching. It’s disgusting. Boys do nasty things with their hands. I mean, I’m not against getting my hands dirty, but only on my terms. Besides, touch is too personal, too familiar. And that makes my skin crawl. I’m not looking for personal. I neither want nor need his flattery and politeness. His opinion is insignificant. I’d prefer he just give me my lunch date back.
I move my gaze to my perfectly manicured nails, emphasizing my disinterest, and move toward the elevator. I still haven’t uttered a word to either man, and I don’t intend to. However, as I walk past, Cameron reaches out and snags my elbow, stopping me in my tracks. I recoil reflexively and shake his hand off. He starts to say something, but I cut him off before he can say a word. “Let’s get one thing clear, Mr. Thompson. If you EVER put your germ-infested, undeserving hands on me again, I will cut off your penis and have it stuffed for my collection. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!”
I don’t even take the time to read the shock on his face. Turning on my heels, I storm toward the elevator and jab the call button forcefully with my finger. When it arrives, I stomp inside, not even glancing in their direction. Once the elevator doors close, I sag against the back wall, relieved to be away from them. Who does that guy think he is? What could possibly make him think he has the right to touch me? That filthy little boy. I should go back and slap his face like his mother never did. I am so livid I think I might have stabbed him in the throat if I’d had a sharp object on hand when he put his grimy hands on me. It’s probably best that I don’t tend to keep shanks on my person since I don’t know if even I could rock a prison jumpsuit. But Cameron deserves to be punished for his overzealous assumptions. Hmmm…that’s not a bad idea. I have been lacking in entertainment lately. The thought of punishing Cameron brings a devilish grin to my lips, and I immediately get lost in all the creative ways to make him pay for his disrespect.
As I sit on my balcony gazing out over the grounds, my thoughts are consumed by Cameron. At first it was the residual anger that kept him in my mind. I mean, who just grabs a complete stranger like that? Any normal person wouldn’t take that sort of liberty, especially with someone of my status. It was something I’m not accustomed to. His touch had startled me, thrown me off-kilter. I usually try to contain that sort of overreaction in public, but there was just something about his touch that rattled me to my core. And maybe that’s the problem: it wasn’t the fact that he touched so much as what I felt when he touched me. There was a tenderness to it that I haven’t experienced in years. I’ve spent the entire weekend obsessing over it. I couldn’t even find it in me to go out. I’ve just lounged around this huge house in my old college sweatshirt and leggings, lost in my thoughts. I’m too preoccupied over this whole incident. I don’t do gentle; I do brutal. That’s why I shouldn’t be dwelling on what his touch felt like. It shouldn’t matter. I should be focusing on what to do about him touching me, what his punishment should be. Even if he isn’t going to be around long, he needs to understand his place. No one touches me without permission, no matter how cute they are. And he definitely is cute. In my haste to get away, I didn’t take the time to appreciate his looks, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t notice that he was a fine specimen of male. He may actually make a fun little plaything for me while he’s in town. I should get Maggie to invite him back to the office under the notion that I am going to apologize to him for my rudeness. Yes, that would be a great way to get things going in the right direction. I know she wasn’t happy with the way I treated him, so she should be an easy sale. I have no intentions of apologizing; he owes me the apology. But she doesn’t need to know that. I just need her to set it up. I walk back inside with purpose and grab my cell to make the call. Maggie is delighted, of course, and says she’ll have Alex bring him by the office Monday afternoon. When I hang up with her, I feel more at ease. I have a plan coming together, and it gives me back the control I crave. I don’t like the unexpected. Cameron may have taken me by surprise in the beginning, but I have the reigns now, and he will follow my lead from now on. Now, I need to find the perfect outfit for our re-introduction. I think something especially tantalizing is in order for this occasion. The fun begins tomorrow.