In the Shadowlands that weekend, Sally set dirty glasses from a table onto her tray. The pounding bass of Nine Inch Nails from the dance floor drowned out her heavy sigh. I’m tired. My bare feet hurt. I want to go home.
As she stretched the ache out of her back, she looked around. On the left, a new Dom had completed setting up a suspension scene.
On the right, Mistress Anne was flogging a lanky male submissive.
At one time, Sally would have stopped to admire the slender brunette’s technique.
Then again, at one time, Sally had loved being in the Shadowlands.
But somehow, the magic had faded—damn you, Frank
—and she wanted it back. Maybe she could carry a Tinker Bell wand. Instant magic, right? Or maybe a stick like Harry Potter used. No, Tinker Bell’s wand was prettier and required less effort.
“Here you go.” A sour-looking Dom walking past handed her a dirty glass.
“Why, thank you, Sir,” Sally said in a saccharine voice. Someone was in dire need of a little happiness charm. What would he do if she bopped him with a magic wand? Nah, the sparkling dust might catch in his overabundant chest hair and look like stars in bondage.
Shaking her head, she swiped a wet cloth over the table. Jeez, she was in the Shadowlands. Why did she feel so miserable?
The BDSM club hadn’t changed. The sounds were familiar—the music, the slapping of whips, floggers, and hands against tender flesh, the crying and moaning punctuated by occasional sharp cries. The perimeter of the mansion’s bottom floor held St. Andrew’s crosses, spanking benches, cages, rope spiderwebs, stocks, and chain stations. In the center, at an oblong, gleaming wooden bar, members chatted with the gregarious bartender.
So if the Shadowlands hadn’t changed, the problem must be with her. What a purely upsetting thought.
She swung by the bar to unload the empties and nudged past some single Doms scoping out a group of unattached submissives.
Sally knew the Doms. Had played with most of them. Had usually annoyed them. None had clicked for her. And wasn’t that a stupid phrase? Had clicked.
Did that mean when meeting the right person, something inside would make a noise like hitting a button on a mouse—select
Didn’t that sound a little ridiculous to anyone else?
And yet, what she wouldn’t give to have some clicking going on. But face it, her God-I-want-you mouse selector was busted. None of her scenes had been that great, and she was tired of playing with bungling Doms.
She nodded a greeting at the men and headed out to clean more tables and take orders. Be fair.
Most of the guys weren’t incompetent. She was too fussy. And…and withdrawn. Even with skilled Doms, she somehow tucked her emotions away to a place where nothing could reach them…probably in the same location as her broken clicker.
With a snort of exasperation at her idiotic thoughts, she stopped to watch Master Marcus restrain Gabi in the stocks, then tease her with his hands until her face flushed pink.
Gabi and Marcus had clicked right away.
Why could everyone else find a good Dom, when she couldn’t?
For a little while, she’d thought she had found someone. She’d even quit the club’s trainee program to be his slave. Yes, Frank had been intelligent. Had been masterful. Had been perfect.
Frank had been Frankenstein.
“Hey, it’s good to see you, Sally. Where’ve you been?” A burly, older Dom smiled at her.
“I-I just took some time off for a bit.” Thinking I’d found the Dom of my dreams.
Her smile was so unsuccessful that his eyes narrowed in his bulldog face. “Right. I heard that you hooked up with—”
Before he finished, she pretended to recognize someone and hurried past. She felt the heat in her cheeks. Poor submissive couldn’t find herself a Dom, even after being a trainee for so long. Master Z felt sorry for her that she’d fallen for a loser. Maybe all the other Doms did too.
Excuse me, but did I issue invitations to a pity party?
She was the only person allowed to feel sorry for her.
“Oh, sister, what’s wrong?” Rainie walked over, a tray in one hand. The trainee’s belly dancer’s costume made the most of such lush curves that Sally felt underendowed. “You look like you just stepped on your pet turtle.”
Sally shuddered. “Ew. Major disgusting.” She could almost hear the crunch of the tiny shell.
“True, but that’s how you look.” Rainie bumped a hip against Sally’s. “You’re supposed to be overjoyed to be back, not all quiet.”
Bouncy Sally, that’s me. Scene with anyone, fuck them as well. The more the merrier.
Why had she thought screwing around with everyone would find her a Dom? “Guess I need to work my way back into it.”
“I know what you need—some fun. It’s time to raise some hackles, upset some Masters. How do you feel about pissing off the unpissoffable Mistress Anne?”
“Well.” Picking on the average Doms wasn’t a challenge, but going after the experienced, powerful Shadowlands Masters and Mistresses? That took skill. Courage. Daring.
Intrigued, Sally leaned a hip against an unoccupied leather couch. Pulling a joke on Mistress Anne would be about as safe as playing catch with nitroglycerin. Perilous pranks—a surefire way to raise her spirits. “We’ll die in pain, but it will be worth it. Got some ideas?”
“You know her submissive, Joey?”
“He says she’s squicked out by big bugs. Any big bugs.”
“Reeeaaally.” The idea was awfully tempting. “Being supportive trainees, we should help her overcome such an unreasonable fear.”
“My thought exactly.”
“Uzuri will want in.” Who else? Sally saw Maxie near the back of the room and shook her head. “Not Maxie or Tanner. Way too nice.”
No one ever called Sally nice. She’d never aspired to such a designation…until Frank. Then she’d tried, bent over backward to be his sweet slave. And failed miserably.
Rainie tapped her fingers against her tray. “We could get spiders. Cockroaches. Beetles…”
Sally yanked herself back into the plan. “The bugs have to be fake, or Master Z will make us catch them, then clean the entire room with toothbrushes.”
Rainie winced. “Not a good chore for me—my tits would drag on the floor. Imitation insects it is.”
“I’ll gather what I can. You and Uzuri do the same. Then we’ll figure out the perfect date for the Night of the Monster Zombie bugs.”
“There’s my Sally girl. Been really boring here without your clever, twisty brain.” Rainie glanced over at the front wall clock. “We’re off duty in a couple of minutes. The new Dom, Saxon, is going to commandeer the poly room for furry play. Want to be a kitten or puppy?”
She didn’t feel at all bouncy and cute…more like a badger. A very bad-tempered badger liable to bite off dangling boy bits. Imagine the mess. “Not this time.”
“Then I’ll see you later.” After a quick squeeze, Rainie cheerfully sashayed toward the rear of the room. Even the tattoos covering her back looked happy.
Sally felt the prickle of tears in her eyes. Face it, she’d only returned to the Shadowlands because she’d missed her buddies.
Not to find a Dom. As she filled her tray again, her shoulders slumped. Pretty sad to realize a dream had died. Years ago, her mama had blown bubbles, sending the iridescent balls floating over the green lawn. Sally had caught them. Time after time, the bubble would pop, leaving only a wet spot on her little hands.
There was a dirty analogy in the story, she knew, wet spots and things blown up and deflating too soon. But she wasn’t in a naughty mood. More of an all-my-bubbles-escaped mood.
Whining again. Sheesh.
She set her tray down on the bar top with an annoyed thump and realized she stood next to Master Dan.
“You look tired, sweetheart.” Although he wore the gold-edged black leather vest indicating he was serving as a dungeon monitor, he still came across as a detective.
Scary thought since she had a guilty conscience the size of Master Cullen. “My graduation’s coming up. Is Kari here tonight?”
“No. She’s home with Zane.”
“Home? But…” Kari loves the Shadowlands.
Sally bit back the words. She’d been immersed in grad school and hadn’t kept current. Her friend had a baby now; maybe her idea of what was fun had changed.
Instead of moving away as she’d hoped, Dan leaned an elbow on the bar. “Is Hoffman overworking you?”
“Nah.” Digging information out of computers was even more entertaining than playing online war games. “And the lieutenant is a good guy. Did I remember to say thank you?” Dan had pulled the strings to get her the computer forensics internship at his station.
She owed him…and instead, she’d snooped. Guilt tightened her shoulders.
“Not a problem. He says you’re more skilled than any software person there.” A smile lightened the angular lines of his face. “You going to stay on after you graduate?”
“Thinking about it.” As her remorse built, she couldn’t help shifting her weight and retreating a step.
His eyes narrowed. “Sally, what have—”
“Sir.” A young male submissive skidded to a halt beside them. “We need a DM in the back.”
“Coming.” Master Dan nodded to Sally and followed the sub toward the theme rooms.
Oh boy, saved by the subbie. I’m a bad Sally.
If he knew she’d snapped pictures of those Harvest Association documents—or worse, what she’d done with the information—he’d put her in handcuffs and not the fun kind. But really, that list of e-mail addresses on paper was a God-given sign she must lend a hand.
Those stupid Feds needed a good geek in their corner.
“How’s it going, pet?”
Sally blinked and pulled herself out of software-land to find Master Cullen watching her with his thick brown brows drawn together. “Uh. Fine.” She forced a smile. “All finished cleaning up my section.” She gave the tray a push forward.
He glanced at his submissive, Andrea. “Can you get that, love?”
Andrea smiled. “Si, Señor.” Before picking up the tray, the tawny-haired woman patted Sally’s hand. “You okay?”
Christ on a crutch, did she appear that wrung out? “I’m good. Just tired.” And frustrated and lonely and starting to grasp a sad truth. Even after she finished her Master’s degree and left school, her love life might not improve.
“The first shift of trainees is free to play now. Has Nolan set you up with someone yet?” Cullen asked.
She shrugged. The idea of doing a scene was…blah. She didn’t feel playful. Or sexy. Or anything. “No.”
She leaned her forearms on the bar top, her shoulders sagging. Might as well go home. She glanced around for Master Nolan. He was in charge of the trainees tonight and would get pissed off if she left without permission. Annoying Master Nolan wasn’t something any submissive wanted to do…although his sub, Beth, said she poked at him occasionally just to watch his face go all hard.
Wish I had someone to poke at.
She’d thought Frank would be that Dom, but his response to being teased had been horrible. The yelling hadn’t bothered her much, but when he’d backhanded her? That was not only the final straw but the entire pile of hay.
How humiliating to realize she’d chosen a man like her father.
She turned toward the sound of Nolan’s gravelly voice.
Oh hell. At the sight of Galen Kouros beside the Dom, Sally almost cringed. Surely the FBI agent hadn’t discovered what she was up to with Dan’s records. She took a hasty step back, bumped into a bar stool, and a person. “Sorry,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. Her stomach dropped.
The big man behind her was Vance Buchanan, Galen’s partner. He gripped her arm with a powerful hand to steady her. “Easy there, sweetie.” As he smiled down at her, his sharp blue eyes held both humor and something unrelated to crime—the potent regard of a man.
When she looked away from Vance, Galen had moved closer. Meeting his intense dark eyes was like being sucked into a black river whirlpool…and drowning.
“Breathe, little girl,” Vance said in her ear, making her jump.
God, these two.
He still had his hand wrapped around her upper arm. She glanced over her shoulder. “Let go.”
Vance’s lips twitched, drawing her attention to his face. Square jaw, flat, hard cheekbones like a Celtic warrior. Brown hair just long enough to tie back with a leather band. Yeah, she could envision him running over the Highlands beside Liam Neeson, wielding a broadsword.
And bedding everything in sight. After all, he and Galen were players. They didn’t do serious, wanted only fun and fucking. Normally how she preferred her guys, but these two were…scary. “Please, let go.”
He lifted his chin in acknowledgment and released her. The loss of his warm hand created an unsettling ache deep inside. But she could breathe again. She turned to Master Nolan, ignoring the FBI agents. “Master Nolan, I want to leave.”
“I agreed you’d have a scene with Master Galen and Master Vance,” Nolan said, his voice laying out her doom.
Her mouth went dry. How’d she forget the Feds were now Masters?
In the Shadowlands, the title was given only to very experienced, very powerful, and very conscientious Doms. In return for teaching and monitoring activities, the Masters received extra privileges, especially with the trainees.
In other words, she was screwed.
The infinitesimal deepening of the lines at the edge of Galen’s eyes meant he’d followed her thoughts. “Show us your cuffs.” His voice was deeper than Vance’s, with a strong Maine accent, and his dropped r’s
Wordlessly, she held her arms out.
“Yellow, blue, green ribbons means you enjoy mild pain, bondage, and sex. Is that correct?”
The pushy jerk.
He’d have already pulled her records and checked her limits list. Any Master would. So his question was pure intimidation to build anticipation—or apprehension—of what they might do. And it would be they
, since the two topped together. The tingle creeping up her spine said his technique worked, whether she recognized it or not. She nodded.
A tug on her hair drew her attention over…and up…to Vance. “You’ve never had a problem verbalizing anything before, sweetie. Don’t start now.”
Why did she let these two get away with shaking her up? She straightened her shoulders. “Yes, Sir. That’s very clever of you, Sir,” she said to Galen in a snotty tone before looking at the trainee Master. “Master Nolan, I don’t intend to stay. I’m not feeling good. At all. I need—”
“Are you ill, Sally?” Master Z’s rich voice made her close her eyes with a combination of hope and despair. No telling what the owner of the Shadowlands would decide. He could overrule Nolan. But he undoubtedly knew she didn’t feel ill. No one successfully lied to Master Z.
Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.
The skeptical tilt of Galen’s black eyebrows indicated he hadn’t bought into her I’m-so-sick story either. Not even close.
“I’m quite tired, Master Z,” she said truthfully.
Master Z smiled slightly and squeezed her shoulder. “You are, indeed. But I’d call it mostly mental and emotional exhaustion.” His brows drew together. “I don’t know what’s happening in your life, little one, but if you don’t shed some stress, you’re going to get flattened.”
“I just need to sleep,” she protested.
“Do you actually sleep when you go to bed?”
Step by step, he was backing her into a corner. She shook her head.
“I thought not. After your graduation, we are going to have a long talk. For now…” His attention shifted to the FBI agents. “She’s not up to her usual speed, so be careful,” he said quietly. “However, I think getting out of her head will be good for her.”
She actually glared at Z. “Don’t I have anything to say about this?”
His face turned…not cold, but unyielding. “In the Shadowlands, submissives always have a safe word. As a trainee, you have little else. That’s why you wanted to be a trainee…to surrender control.” He touched her cheek lightly. “That’s what will happen tonight.”
He nodded to Galen and Vance and walked away, Nolan beside him.
Sally’s gaze went from Galen to Vance, and she felt surrounded, even though they were only two men. “Well, you won. Now what?”
Galen studied her for a minute, his expression unreadable, and her flippant words bounced off him as if he wore armor. He stepped forward, invading her personal space, so close she could feel his body heat.
Her retreat bumped her into the concrete wall called Vance. He gripped her shoulders, firmly enough to stymie any chance of moving. He had her restrained without rope or chains.
A tremor ran through her at the exciting sensation. Dammit.
“Is all this crowding necessary?”
Galen cupped her chin in his palm, and his gaze effortlessly trapped hers. “I know we scare you, pretty little pet.” His lips twitched. “In your case, that’s a good thing. But don’t let fear lead you into being disrespectful, eh?”
He held her gaze…held it and held it, and with each fleeting second, she sank, dropping into acceptance, into calmness.
After an ocean of time had passed, he murmured, “Good.”
When he took his hand away from her face, she’d have staggered if Vance hadn’t had his body pressed to hers.
“Bondage table?” Vance asked.
Galen nodded and led the way across the room. Dressed in black slacks, button-down shirt, and shoes, he presented a smoother appearance than Vance—also in black but wearing jeans, tight T-shirt, leather belt, and boots. Forceful versus laid-back, sleekly muscular versus football-player size, darkly Greek versus Scottish warrior, smooth versus rugged. They shouldn’t be able to work together, let alone co-top, but they managed without missing a single step.
Vance tucked her against his side, his arm behind her giving her no choice except to follow.
Her heart was already hammering so violently she felt as if she were choking.
How could they affect her like this? She didn’t have this problem with the rest of the Masters. Sure, each of the Masters could and had made her submit, but they didn’t worry her. Maybe these two were more frightening because they ganged up on her? Every time she tried to take a stand, one would push and the other would trip her.
But she didn’t like being…intimidated. Not by them. “Listen, I don’t…”
Galen turned to regard her, and the words dried right up in her mouth. Was he always so…intense?
“Stand here, Sally.” His dark clothing made his eyes even blacker and more ominous. He ran one finger over the edge of her halter top, down the curve of one breast. “Remove this, Vance.”
Vance undid the ties and tossed her top onto a chair.
For the first time in forever, she wanted to shield herself. Her hands came up and, at a glance from Galen, went down. Galen studied her, his gaze lingering on her boy briefs.
Her breath stuttered as warmth pooled low in her belly. Damn him, she didn’t want to have sex with either one of them…and yet, she really, really did. When his lips quirked, a flush heated her cheeks.
“Not this time, pet,” he said. His smile transformed his face from terrifying to gorgeous. Compelling. “We’ll enjoy your body eventually, but tonight is for you.”
She stared at him. Seriously? But they liked sex. She’d heard the submissives marveling over how much they liked sex. Was something wrong with her that they didn’t desire her?
Galen patted the top of the bondage table and turned away without seeing if she obeyed.
Then she realized why he hadn’t worried. Vance gripped her waist and set her on the table like a doll to play with. Under his tight black shirt, his shoulders were huge and his biceps curved like boulders. He made her feel tiny.
“Down you go.” He pushed her onto her back.
To her embarrassment, her bare breasts showed just how bunched and tight her nipples had become. She tried to look away.
“Relax, Sally.” Tilting her chin up, he bent and kissed her. His lips were firm, his movements slow as he coaxed a response. When his mouth left hers, she tried to follow, and he chuckled. Then his hand was on her cheek, his mouth over hers, and he turned the kiss deep. Carnal. Making her tingle in a long surge downward.
And before she’d even caught her breath, he was using the straps on the table to restrain her arms to her sides. He put another over her waist.
“Did you know I like tying up naughty submissives?” The hunger in Vance’s gaze confirmed his words. His hands were firm as he roped her thighs together and then her ankles. A strap went across her knees.
Finished, he crossed his arms and surveyed his work.
She lifted her head and saw the ropes and straps covering her body. Jeez.
“Missed one.” Vance pushed her down and pulled another strap across the top of her forehead so she couldn’t lift her head. Couldn’t move at all. Feeling more immobilized than she’d ever experienced, she couldn’t keep from squirming. From attempting to get free.
Her body understood she was caught—trapped—and the table beneath her seemed to shake.
Vance’s mouth tipped up. “Now that’s just pretty,” he said before giving her an easy kiss. “She’s ready, pard.”
Both Doms walked around the table, tugging and checking the straps.
“Numbness, tingling? Cold?” Galen asked, his New England accent broadening his deep baritone.
Her attempt to shake her head got nowhere and set up an instinctive flutter in the pit of her stomach.
Vance’s smile increased at whatever he saw in her face. Although he seemed more easygoing than Galen, the depths in his dark blue eyes were disturbing.
“Well?” Galen prompted, pulling her attention to him.
“No, Sir,” she whispered, then scowled. Where oh where, has my backbone gone?
“I’m really quite fine, thank you, Master Galen. And how are you today?”
“You going to chatter the way you do for other Doms?” Galen asked.
He pulled a leather strip from their toy bag and tossed it to Vance. “Gag her.”
“Hey, I don’t like gags.” She started to struggle. What if she needed to talk?
Galen took out two small rubber balls and squeezed them to make them squeak. “These are if you need to safeword.” He tucked one into her left hand, then the right. “Show me you can use them.”
Her heart slammed against her ribs. She made the balls squeak and continued until they sounded as if someone was murdering a flock of baby birds.
“Sally.” Just one word in Galen’s bottomless voice and Sally couldn’t force her fingers to continue. Even though the squeaky toys went silent, her pulse made waves of sound in her head.
“Open, sweetheart.” Vance lifted the leather strip, snorted when her mouth clamped shut, then pressed a spot on the hinges of her jaw to open it. As he pushed the gag in and strapped it on, her hand closed convulsively on a rubber ball, getting a high squeak.
Vance leaned a forearm beside her and smiled down, his light brown hair falling over his forehead. “Too tight?”
“You are so cute.” His grin was devastatingly handsome and totally scary because he didn’t appear concerned about her answer at all. “One blink is yes. No blink means no. Is the gag too tight?”
Everything in her yelled for her to blink, but the straps weren’t uncomfortable. What scared her was their lack of concern for what she wanted or what she thought. They’d just shut her right up. She glowered.
His smile widened. “We pissed off a submissive, Galen,” he said.
“Oh, damn.” The amusement in Galen’s response made Sally want to hit him. He rested his hand against the side of her face. “We’re not going to hurt you, pet. Not even going to touch your pussy. We’ll play with you some and release you.”
Her muscles untensed…slightly. But why hadn’t he explained earlier? Her eyes narrowed.
“Why didn’t I tell you before?” Galen drew a finger over her cheek and around her ear. She saw no mercy in his face. “I didn’t want to.”