Linda grabbed the chair arm of the witness stand, fighting to pull in a breath. Under her silk blouse, sweat dampened her back, and black spots danced at the edge of her vision. As her knees threatened to buckle, she tightened her grip on the curved wood. Will. Not. Show. Weakness.
Another breath. She pretended to look around, stalling and hoping she’d be able to walk.
Whispers skittered around the courtroom, but the jurors were silent, watching her with concern. The white-haired grocer’s expression was outraged--for her. The tiny housewife wiped tears from her face.
The prosecuting attorney stepped forward to help, but the jury’s warmth had put strength back into Linda’s body. She straightened, stepped down, and her legs held. Thank you, God.
Surely she could walk to the door.
She glanced at the defense attorney and his client--the balding, older man in his European-cut suit and diamond-encrusted watch--who was on trial for the murder of a nineteen-year-old college student.
Holly had been kidnapped. Enslaved like Linda.
Linda swallowed hard. She’d held the sweet-faced girl as she’d cried for her mother. She’d told her it would be all right. She’d lied. When the FBI raided an auction, freeing the slaves, it had been far too late for Holly.
The bastard sitting there so smugly had whipped her to death.
As Linda walked past, his patronizing gaze slid down her body, making her shudder and remember her own screams. Unable to escape, unable to fight. Beaten. Raped. She already felt dirty all the way to her core; his stare added another layer of filth. Ignoring the bile burning her throat, she forced herself to give him a dismissive look. Testifying had required all her strength, but she’d done what she’d come here to do. Chin up, head held high, she strode toward the exit.
The sandy-haired FBI agent, Vance Buchanan, waited there. “Well done,” he said in a low voice. “Only a few steps farther.” He reached out to assist her.
She flinched away.
As his hand dropped and he opened the door, she cursed herself for showing weakness. But she’d been a slave. She didn’t want to be touched.
After the overcrowded courtroom, the fresh air in the hallway was bracing, and then suddenly too cold. Her legs went boneless, and she dropped with a jarring thump onto the wooden bench. When she pushed her hands between her knees to hide the trembling, it only made the shaking of her knees more obvious. The dancing black spots had returned. Lovely.
“You did great, Linda.” Vance’s voice was washed away by her pounding pulse, and she--
“Goddamn fool, she’s shocky.” A voice from her dreams grated across her nerves, snapping her into the present. The bench squeaked a complaint as someone sat beside her. Arms closed around her, trapping her.
She shoved at his wide shoulders, panic rising like a flood tide.
“Don’t move, girl. You need to be held. Slap me later.” The rough growl of Sam’s voice was the rumble of an 18-wheeler carrying a truckload of safety.
Not trapped. Sheltered. He was warm--so, so warm. She sagged against him. I hate you.
“That a girl. Take a break for a second. You earned it.”
His chest was a brick wall, his arms iron bands, not comfortable in the least. Her body didn’t care, more secure than in the long, long months since she’d been freed from the slavers. With Sam’s arms around her, nothing would hurt her.
“What are you doing here, Davies?” Vance asked.
“Kim told me the asshole who’d killed their friend was being tried. I figured this one would testify.” The silence that followed sounded accusing.
Vance sighed. “Linda didn’t want to see you.”
“Yep. I can see that.” The dryness in the gravelly voice came through loud and clear.
When had she put her arms around his waist? She was gripping him as if he were a lifeline over an abyss. Her arms loosened.
His tightened. “One more minute, missy. Be a shame not to get your strength back before you bust my chops.”
Another minute sounded...just right. As she rested her cheek against his chest, the lazy lub-dub
of his heart tried to coax hers into slowing. His soft cotton shirt smelled of the outdoors, of hay and leather and sun. So very different from the stench of fear and sex. Of pain. Her stomach clenched.
He gave a hissing sound of annoyance.
She looked up.
In a face tanned to old leather, his eyes were a startling pale blue. His silvering hair needed a trim. “Whatever you’re thinking, stop.” He curved a hand over her nape and tucked her head back under his chin.
For a few more seconds, she’d... What in the world was she doing? I hate this man.
As her mind cleared, she tried to push away. “Don’t touch me.”
He grunted as if she’d hit him, and released her instantly.
Expecting to see amusement in his gaze, she saw only concern. It didn’t matter. She rose to her feet, rattled when he did the same. But he was the kind of man who’d observe that old-fashioned courtesy. A gentleman sadist. His aura of confidence--and menace--was disconcerting. She took a step away from him.
Distance didn’t help. He trapped her easily with the power of his gaze, his posture, his voice. “I want you to call me.”
“No,” she whispered, unable to give her refusal the strength it deserved. “I don’t want to see you.” The one hour of knowing him had been enough for her. He’d seen right to her core, and she’d learned how deep humiliation could go.
His hard mouth tightened, but he merely tapped her chin with a finger. “Submissives don’t get what they want. They get what they need.” He might as well have said the rest of what he was thinking: And you need me.
But she didn’t. She wouldn’t.
* * * *
Sam left his battered truck in the parking lot and strode across the street to the small city park. Beyond the palms lining the entrance, massive live oak trees cast dark pools of shade. The air was cool with a slight crispness. Almost into February, Tampa still had a few months before the daily rains would send the humidity to sauna-like levels.
He spotted Nolan King on a picnic bench across the green swath of grass. Sam glanced at his watch. Late. Linda’s testimony had lasted longer than he’d planned.
As Sam sidestepped a toddler chasing a beach ball, her mother on a park bench gave him a sharp look. He approved of her vigilance. The world held too many monsters. But Sam wasn’t someone she needed to worry about. He might be a sadist, but he only played consensual games.
Except for one time.
The scene he’d done at the slave auction with Linda hadn’t been what he would call consensual. To lead the FBI to the auction, he’d convinced the slavers he was a buyer and gotten himself an invitation. But the cops had needed time to block the roads, which left Raoul, his sub, and Sam in a nightmare. Wealthy buyers had roamed a ballroom, sampling the “merchandise”--the slaves chained to the walls.
Linda had been up for sale. Since Raoul’s sub knew her, she’d asked Sam to care for Linda. But there was no care to be had in a place like that. Disguised as a buyer, Sam’s only hope was to pretend to check her out prior to buying her. To whip her himself. He couldn’t risk telling her that he was a good guy and help was on the way.
Seeing Kim’s nod of approval, Linda had known Sam wasn’t a complete bastard. But was the scene consensual? Hardly. Not when her only choice had been him or another slaver.
Sam ran his hand through his hair. He was too damned old to play James Bond. He was a farmer, not a spy. He’d done his best by her, and she’d been the sweetest, most responsive submissive-masochist he’d ever met. The chemistry between them had been a bonfire. She’d trusted him, given him what he asked for, and in return, he’d transformed what might have been a nightmare of pain into something wonderful for her.
And then he’d made a mistake; to this day, he wasn’t sure exactly what. He had ideas, but hell, he could be totally off base.
Sam sighed. For the past few months, Linda’d lived out of state with a sister, and this morning, he’d had her in his arms again. She’d trusted him to hold her. The sound of her low voice, her citrus-lavender scent, her yielding body had been even better than his memories. Until she’d pushed him away.
As Sam approached the picnic table, Nolan looked up. From a small cooler, the hard-faced Dom removed a Mountain Dew and handed it over. “Figured you’d need something to wipe the taste out of your mouth. How’d the trial go?”
“The goddamned defense attorney took his questions into the gutter trying to shake her. Bad enough she gets raped by the slavers. To get raped again by a sleazy interrogation?” Sam popped the top as he sat. The icy drink washed the bitterness from his throat. “I wanted to shove a boot in his foul mouth.”
And then rip apart the balding slaver who’d killed the youngster. Holly had only been nineteen--the same age as his little girl. “I’m an adult now, Daddy,
” his pretty Nicole often reminded him. He growled under his breath. No matter what the law said, his daughter’s life had barely begun. And because of the slavers, one young woman wouldn’t grow any older. The police had found Holly’s body in a ravine where the killer had dumped her like garbage.
But after Linda’s testimony, Sam had seen the bastard’s conviction in the jurors’ faces. And he wouldn’t live long--not once the other prisoners saw pictures of the sweet-faced college student. “Linda held up like a trouper.”
“May have less muscles, but women got more guts than most men.”
“True.” They’d endure where a man would give up and die.
As a light breeze swept the park with the scent of brine, Sam listened to the children on the swing set.
“Look how high I can go.”
He relaxed. He’d needed the reminder of happiness. “Why the park?”
Nolan jerked his chin to the left. “Great scenery.”
Sam followed his gaze. Beth, Nolan’s submissive, knelt nearby, planting bright yellow flowers in a newly tilled garden. The glint of her red hair reminded him how Linda’s thick mane had brushed his fingers when he held her shoulders. Her hair had grown.
Nolan’s contented, possessive smile sent envy through Sam. He’d never had that kind of happiness with a woman. Probably never would since just the thought of his ex-wife drove ice shards into his gut. But he had a good life now. Wanting more would be stupid. “Beth ignoring you?”
“No. I brought her lunch and made her take a break. She just went back to work.” Nolan glanced at Sam. “You going to go after that submissive? Linda, right?”
“She’s not interested.” But dammit, the way she’d clung to him said otherwise.
“Want to tell me why not?”
Nolan’s sub had been abused. He might have advice. Didn’t matter. “No.”
“And they say I’m closemouthed.”
Sam shrugged. Nolan didn’t like to talk. Period. Sam just didn’t talk about personal shit. Too risky. Back in ’Nam, trails often held trip wires and mines. He’d seen friends blown to bits. Then when he married, he’d learned booby traps could be made of confidences. Could kill the spirit instead.
And wasn’t he a bitter fool on a sunny day? He nodded at the rolled-up sheaf of paper sitting on the table. “The plans?”
“Yep. If they suit you, I can have the concrete guys start in another week.” Nolan spread the paper out on the rough wood. “I think you’ll like the suggestions the architect made.”
Sam rose to take a better look. Good timing for this. Construction of a new stable would keep him busy for a while. Give Linda a chance to settle back into her life.
Then he’d see what was what.