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Author’s note:

I. Am. So. Sorry. All of you have been so supportive and here I am months late with the next installment.

If it’s any consolation at all, this installment is just about twice as long as the last one. There should be either one or two more chapters coming after this one. I hope you enjoy it! As always, your thoughts, constructive criticism, anything — all are appreciated whether in the comments below or direct feedback. Thanks for reading!

~~~~~

“So I told her, of course, to pack up her desk first thing – I mean, can you imagine? Poor girl, but she had one job, and she had Kearns sign on all the wrong lines–“

“Ruby,” Aspen said suddenly. They were eating dinner at his loft; he’d made a shrimp scampi with linguine. Nothing he’d ever heard her praise in particular, nor object to. A neutral dish, just like the while oxford shirt and dark jeans he wore: neutral. It was a strategy. “I think – I think we should take a break.”

Shit. That wasn’t how he’d planned to say it. He didn’t want to give her false hope – he didn’t think he could be with her anymore, and that wasn’t likely to change, not ever – not after what he’d done to her.

You’re definitely not breaking up with her for him, Aspen reminded himself. Even if it is because of him. The thought was supposed to make him feel better.

It’d been three days since the scene in her office. Ruby had been miffed, as he’d known she would be. He was supposed to have nodded and shook hands and kept his mouth shut. Only his protestations that it was the flu, and did she want him to just get ill right there in the hall? seemed to be grudgingly accepted.

He’d played off that flu excuse to avoid her the next day, feeling horribly guilty the whole time. Sunday, though, he’d been unable to continue the excuse; they’d made brunch plans with some client Ruby was wooing, and he knew if he bailed it would be, in Ruby’s eyes, an unspeakable betrayal, rivaling even infidelity. And then she’d come over that night, though she hadn’t balked when he told her he was exhausted, still recovering, and just wanted to sleep. It suited her just fine, actually. Ruby liked sex, certainly, viewed it almost as a sport, a competition in which both parties won–but she wasn’t interested in having it all the time. She preferred sex to take place at times scheduled in advance, so that she was perfectly coiffed and smooth and ready. Sometimes Aspen wondered if she came prepared with a minute-by-minute plan for how best to use the time to maximize pleasure.

It hadn’t bothered him before, not much. It was one of her quirks. He’d never been a sex addict, anyways – oh, sure, he liked it as much as anyone else, and he’d had his fair share of it, but the urge to copulate had never controlled his life. At least, up until now.

He didn’t know what was wrong with him. He barely knew Cary – he was stifling the voice in his head that told him that the man’s eyes were honest, if mischievous, the curve of his lips fair and good natured, his touch gentle but strong – and yet Cary was all he seemed to think about. Cary, in his suit. Cary, out of his suit. Cary, in his bed. Cary, in his boxers – no, wait, he must wear the sexy kind of underwear I could never pull off – sitting at his kitchen table with an espresso and the paper.

Sometimes before he could control himself Aspen would see himself with Cary. He tried to stop himself from slipping into ridiculous fantasies but sometimes it’d flash before his mind’s eye, unrelenting: two bodies, one large and deeply tanned, muscular with a fine sheen of sweat, the other paler and slighter, toned but lean, pinned beneath the first. Naked, just like Cary had growled right into Aspen’s ear, breath hot on his skin. (Sometimes his hands were tied. Aspen had never had his hands tied; he’d honestly never even thought about it. Now he was thinking about it. Fuck, he was thinking about it.)

“You’re joking, darling,” Ruby said, almost startling him. She seemed surprisingly calm.

“What? I’m not joking, Ruby. I’m just, you know, going through some stuff right now and –“

“Aspen, what the fuck?” It was rare for Ruby to curse, but she said it without real rancor. “What’s gotten into you? You promised to come with me to Maryann’s wedding next week. You’re not getting out of it.”

“I – this isn’t about that!”

“Maybe not, but you haven’t wanted to go from the moment I brought it up,” she cut him off. Well, that was true. Maryann was Ruby’s catty best friend, a woman with an artificial smile who was quick to criticize. Aspen was sort of friends with her fiancé Paul – poor guy, Aspen thought.

“You’re not listening, Ruby. I can’t – I can’t be with you anymore.”

“Fine, we’ll take a break. But you’re still coming to the wedding with me.” She told him, matter of fact. “They already have a place card for you, darling, and it’d be so tacky to show up with someone else, though I wonder if I asked Cary if he might -“

“Fine,” canlı bahis Aspen ground out. “I’ll go with you to this – but I mean what I said, Ruby, I need -“

“Yes, yes, I heard you,” she said, standing in a businesslike way. “Well. Thank you for dinner, Aspen.” He could see she was upset now, putting on a face. She usually preferred to address Aspen by silly pet names, darling or dear or sometimes – he winced to think it – honey. At least she’d given up on cutesy abbreviations of his name after he’d refused, point blank, to respond if she called him either Aspy or Penny.

She walked around the table and gave Aspen a kiss goodbye, right on the lips, as if it were an absolutely normal night. “Less garlic next time, darling.” Maybe she wasn’t that upset.

As Aspen locked the front door behind her, he distinctly felt that he had only been granted a temporary reprieve. If that.

It was later that week, as Aspen was leaving the paper’s offices downtown, that he noticed the dark car with tinted windows that was parked just in front of the building. Almost as if it were waiting for him.

The sight did not please him.

He strode directly up to the car and knocked on the dark backseat window. It was only a moment before it began to roll down to reveal gold hair, gold skin, gold eyes fixed on his. The anger that had flared inside him was warring now with a liquid heat that seemed to rush through Aspen’s veins at the sight of the man. God, he’s gorgeous. Bastard.

“I’m sorry,” Cary said, before Aspen could get a word out. “I really am. But I need to talk to you. This is really important, Aspen, otherwise I’d just leave you alone – well, no, I probably wouldn’t,” he added, almost as if to himself, “but the point is –“

“I get it,” Aspen said, and the man looked astonished that he was capitulating so easily. “You’re not going to leave me alone until I hear you out, are you?” He was annoyed, but resigned to it.

“No,” the man said, grinning. His smile made Aspen’s lips twitch despite the stern face he was working to maintain. “Hop in.”

“Do I have to?” The words were out before Aspen could think better of them. He blushed. “I mean, can’t you tell me about this over the phone, or send me an email –“

“I hate to come across as paranoid so soon after we meet,” the man told him, “but I have my reasons for wanting to talk in person. Come on. You can sit up front with Nelson if you don’t trust me.”

Aspen didn’t want to sit next to Nelson. He wanted to be pressed against that strong, hard body. “I don’t trust you,” he said. “And no promises that I’ll help. I’m just listening to what you have to say so that you’ll get off my back.”

Still, though, he walked around the car and opened the door to the back seat. He made a show of buckling himself in and did not look at Cary until he was settled. When he at last dared a glance, it was to find Cary’s eyes already on him.

“So,” Cary said after a moment. “Come here often?”

Aspen blushed at the memory of the last time he’d been in this car. It was a stupid joke, really, and overused. But those eyes were so damn warm as they tracked him.

“Where are we going?” Aspen asked, as the car pulled away from the curb and made its way down the street.

“Someplace public,” Cary answered. “I figured it’d make you feel safer. You know,” he added, “since last time I – how did you put it? – mauled you?”

Aspen flushed again. He felt off balance. Cary was grinning.

“Don’t worry,” the man said, smile fading. “I won’t try anything.”

Aspen looked at Cary, took in the tailored dark blue suit he wore with such ease, the thoughtful furrow in a dark blonde brow, the now serious lilt of those full lips, lips that had stretched so perfectly around his cock–and he was pretty sure his thoughts were plainly written across his face, for the man sucked in a breath: what if I want you to try something?

“But don’t tempt me,” the man murmured.

Aspen bit his lip in an effort not to smile. He didn’t know what he was doing with this mostly strange man who somehow felt comforting, like he’d known him his whole life. It suddenly felt as if the tension between them had broken, and it was easy to just be there, sit beside him. They didn’t speak for the rest of short ride, but it was a comfortable silence, not at all what Aspen had expected.

The coffee shop that Cary led him to wasn’t the kind of place Aspen would have expected some hotshot corporate suit to frequent, either. It was small and two storied, with little to no decor to speak of; the woman at the counter was not some twentysomething barista with a nosering but a pleasant woman who could have been anywhere from sixty to eighty years old. She was well preserved and smiling, but with a tiredness that looked to run deep.

Cary ordered them both the cafe special, doubleshots of espresso poured over sweet condensed milk, and carried Aspen’s drink and saucer upstairs. He headed for a table bahis siteleri in the back without hesitation, clearly his usual spot.

Aspen had taken two sips of the drink – it was deliciously rich – before Cary spoke again.

“Are you hungry? They make the best media noches in the city – Camilla’s direct from Cuba,” he said. Aspen shook his head mutely. The tension between them was mounting again: that easy atmosphere had gone, and Aspen felt an intense curiosity for what was to come.

“How much do you know about Ryder Corps?” Cary asked abruptly a moment later. That was the company he and Ruby worked at; a large umbrella corporation, valued at many millions, though still a relatively new player in the market. They produced a number of household products under several brand names: dishwashing liquid and window cleaner and the like.

Aspen took another tiny sip. “Not a lot. You stay out of the news for the most part, don’t you? Most of what I know about the company is from Ruby.”

Cary nodded. “Yes, we’ve been quiet as a corporation for the past few years. No major changes. No crazy acquisitions or groundbreaking new projects. We’re coasting. It’s been a strategy,” he said, not looking entirely happy about it. Aspen waited for him to continue.

“Look, Aspen, I’ve only been at Ryder for about a year now. They dogged me for months before I even agreed to talk to them – I had a high flying position at Macrofirm at the time, sure, but the amount they were offering was absurd. I was curious.”

“You took a job because you were curious?” Aspen asked skeptically. Cary shot him a look.

“Well, partly. The absurd salary may have played a factor.” He winked at Aspen. “They made me senior vice president of corporate strategy and service. It’s actually a good fit for me. But I haven’t forgotten how aggressively they courted me for it. Money, promises – they even started feeding me my old boss’s secrets, all his under-the-table deals I never would have agreed to. Ryder did its homework on me.”

Aspen was pensive. “What does this have to do with me?”

“I’m getting there.” Contrary to his words, Cary seemed to be taking his time. He sipped at his espresso, put it down on its saucer, toyed with the handle.

“Ruby works directly below me,” he said finally. “Can I assume you know what it is our team does?”

“I’ve asked. Ruby gets as far as incubation centers and pilot programs before my eyes start glazing over,” Aspen admitted. The man laughed, a rich, low sound that Aspen wanted to keep.

“Yes, that’s part of what we do. I’m not surprised Ruby describes it in that way – that’s her favorite part of the job. But we aren’t just developing new projects. We’re also keeping an eye to the big picture, you know, making sure the machine is working smoothly – seeing what brands and divisions overlap and could benefit from collaboration, identifying ventures to be trimmed back…well, suffice it to say that we’re granted considerable oversight over the corporation as a whole.”

“Okay,” Aspen said slowly. He was getting a vague idea where this might be heading.

“My predecessor was fired – a man named Larry Tish. That’s rare – usually a SVP would be asked to resign, quietly. No one’s making any secret that Tish was fired, though no one can tell me exactly why. And the man’s dropped off the map since.”

“You mean he’s missing?” asked Aspen, intrigued despite himself.

“I don’t know about that. I just know that someone of his standing should have had another job lined up minutes later – probably nothing amazing, but at least a new board of trustees gig. But there’s been nothing. Professionally speaking, Tish is a ghost.”

Under the table Cary’s knee bumped Aspen. He knew he should move his leg, but he let the contact linger. Cary’s lips twitched, but he continued.

“At first the job seemed straight forward. Usually when you inherit a position – especially when your predecessor has been fired – you’re inheriting a load of issues, as well. From the start, it’s been fairly quiet. Maybe too quiet, which was why I started digging deeper.”

“And?” Aspen asked despite himself.

“Look, this is where I need your help. I think – I found something. A cover up, I don’t know. I don’t want to say too much in case I’m totally off base, I need a clear perspective. I need you to look into it.”

“Why not your team? Or one of Ryder’s lawyers? You know, someone who’s actually trained to investigate this stuff. Why are you coming to me?” But dread was already settling into the pit of Aspen’s stomach. There’d be only one reason that Cary would come to him for this.

“Because I don’t know who I can trust within the company. And because you did it for Solysis Inc.” Cary sat back and looked at Aspen. Aspen felt suddenly too hot and quickly ducked his head to stare into his drink. Here was a man who already set Aspen on edge in both the best and worst way, and he was talking about the most horrible period bahis şirketleri of Aspen’s life like he knew what had happened. He couldn’t speak; words refused to form on his lips.

Cary continued, but his voice was softer. “You graduated a year early from Northwestern with high honors, double majoring in environmental science and journalism. You landed a job right away with the Chicago Tribune–“

“It was an internship,” Aspen corrected him through numb lips.

“An internship,” Cary acknowledged, “that turned into a job. You were writing articles for them after less than a year editing. Under the name William Altier. Why William?”

“It’s my middle name,” Aspen heard himself explaining as if from far away. “I was hoping to limit the jokes about someone named Aspen writing about environmental issues.”

“But you switched your byline when you moved here.”

“I had to,” Aspen said. “But you probably know all about that, don’t you?”

“The basics,” admitted Cary. “I’ve known Irene for years.” Irene was Aspen’s editor at the paper. Traitor, he thought without real heat. Irene, an old family friend, had been his staunchest ally four years ago when it felt like his world was crashing down around him. She’d even offered him a job when he’d feared he’d never be hired again – Aspen would forever be in her debt. He was tapping his foot anxiously, he was suddenly aware.

“I’d like it if you told me what happened yourself,” Cary said, still in that softer tone, but it wasn’t so much a request as an order, silk over steel. Aspen was surprised to find himself answering. Even Ruby didn’t know the details.

“It was actually all an accident,” he told Cary, who was watching him carefully. Both men had abandoned their drinks half full. “I’d been writing for the Trib for nearly two years at that point. Nothing serious – I was only, what, twenty two at the time? Barely ready. Anyway, they were sending me out on fluff human interest pieces mostly. I was interviewing people for this ‘day in the life’ series – you know, postman, city alderman, that sort of thing. I told you it was fluffy,” he added, seeing a corner of Cary’s mouth quirk up, but the man nodded for him to continue.

“This guy worked at one of Solysis’ manufacturing plants just outside the city, and I was just following him around for an hour. Anyway, I had gotten pretty much what I needed – how he saw his work as impacting the community, what his family thought, you know, that kind of bullshit. He was a real open guy – didn’t need much prodding to talk about his life, gave me details I really didn’t need to know. I don’t even think he thought twice about what he was showing me, he was just going through his normal routine.”

Cary was nodding in all the right places and made no attempt to interrupt. Aspen hadn’t told the story in so long. He found it was easier to get out with Cary’s golden gaze fixed on him, like it was keeping him upright.

“He was just showing me how he closed up shop for the night – pull this lever here, push this button. I was hardly paying attention when he mentioned, casual as hell, that the water used in production each day was stored until it was picked up along with the rest of the plant’s waste to be taken out of state for disposal. All but the runoff, he said.

“The way the machine had been built, you see, allowed just a little seepage – not much, by most counts – maybe a gallon a day total. It was manufacturing flaw – a ‘quirk,’ he said. Everyone knew about it. They put a big bucket to catch the runoff, and someone would dump it into grass by the side of the factory. I probably looked horrified at this point – that’s when the guy says, it’s just a little water.

“Just water, for Christ’s sake! I mean, unbelievable. Just cadmium-contaminated water. That’s carcinogenic, you know. And sure, nothing was pointing to any human harm from it, not yet. But you know what the kicker is? They made solar panels. They were marketing themselves as these bastions of environmental saintliness and meanwhile weren’t reporting even the 12 million gallons of contaminated water per year that they were disposing of legally, by industry standards, because there’s no regulation requiring them to, let alone the illegal run off. I mean, come on, it was a story begging to be written.”

Aspen had officially gotten worked up now. He usually did when telling the story – it hadn’t become any less infuriating. At some point he had picked up his paper napkin and begun to year it to shreds. When Cary reached out a hand to stop him, one large hand folding over his, he found that he didn’t mind, despite the man’s assurance that he wouldn’t touch him.

“So you discovered a violation of the EPA.”

“Yes,” Aspen responded stiffly. “It wasn’t going to shut down the company, obviously. They’d broken the law by not disposing of biohazardous material in the proper way, but it’s not as uncommon as you’d think. Still, it was going to be my big headline. I was going to use them as an example for the way supposedly environmentally-conscious companies use sketchy laws and loopholes to misrepresent the energy footprint used in production. Their public image was going to take a serious blow.

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