Lisa Martinez wasn’t looking forward to meeting her ex’s friends at Perry’s Bar and Grill. But in a moment of weakness, she’d said she would, so there she was. No doubt Brian would have had plenty to say about her appearance, starting with the purple highlights in her hair and continuing on to her snug tie-dyed T-shirt and her choice of black jeans rather than slacks. Dammit, agreeing to show up didn’t mean she was going to follow through on Brian’s idea for her to open her own business. She’d landed a nice gig at Curls and Colors, a trendy suburban beauty salon, and was starting to get a good client list going after six months. It paid the rent. She’d rather transform someone’s appearance than get all caught up with finances and office work, even if the latter was more lucrative. And since the group she was meeting for dinner knew a lot about finances and nothing about hair, no doubt finances would be the subject for the evening.
It was hard to tell if Brian was really trying to help or if he was worried she’d be after his money if she didn’t get some of her own. Or maybe he wanted to set her up to fail so he could ride to the rescue. Their divorce settlement had given her enough money to move from Baltimore to Northern Virginia, and that was all she’d needed. It was a fair price for the sacrifices she’d made for his career. She didn’t intend to ask for more.
She wondered if he’d mentioned to his associates how frigid she was. Nearly forty years old and he still didn’t get that when you said things about people enough times, they usually found out. Maybe he had wanted her to hear. After ten years of marriage, she still wasn’t sure if he was her friend or her enemy. Probably both.
“Party of one, Miss?” asked the greeter, a college kid with tousled hair the color of whiskey.
“No, I’m looking to meet some people.” And since I’m ten minutes late, they’re probably here already. Someday I’ll get used to the traffic. What was the name of that guy again
? “Um, Bunch.” She knew that wasn’t quite right, so she kept her voice low, hoping he’d correct her. Where’s my brain today
? She knew the answer: the meeting had been stressing her all day, and she wasn’t her best under pressure.
Apparently, she’d gotten close enough, because the greeter’s eyes lit up in recognition. He also gave her the once-over. Stop it, kid. I’ve got at least a dozen years on you
. Still, she couldn’t suppress a grin. She didn’t get those kinds of speculative looks every day, and it felt good.
He led her over to a long table. A few people were seated there already, as she’d expected, and as she anticipated, they all seemed to know each other. But they weren’t the stuffed suits she’d been dreading. A big, older woman wearing a black T-shirt was at one end. There was an elegant-looking African American woman about her age, in office clothes, and a redhead she thought was probably younger.
Her gaze moved on to the men. A short, athletically built man with a tailored shirt, neatly cut brown hair, and a perfect shave sat with his hands folded in front of him. A nearly bald man sat across from him. Neither of them were her type, but she wasn’t there to find a date.
There were already menus at all the places, and the table seated more people than Lisa had thought were coming. She’d expected three people, maybe four, but she realized she hadn’t asked Brian the number. Fourteen place mats were laid out. She sat down, one place down from the crowd at the end, leaving an empty spot.
“Hello,” said the elegantly dressed woman. “I’m Miss Carter. My boy here”--she indicated the shorter man, who smiled shyly--“is Toby. Malcolm, Starlight, Mistress Madeline.”
Starlight? Mistress? What strange names
. “Ah. I’m Lisa. Pleased to meet all of you.”
People glanced up, and she got a nod from the redhead who apparently went by Starlight and the bald man named Malcolm, but they went right back to their conversation. Everyone seemed to be paying attention to the older woman, Madeline. Lisa couldn’t quite make out what she was saying, and rather than scoot nearer, she decided she’d concentrate on figuring out what she was going to order. Now that she didn’t have Brian nagging her about her weight all the time, she felt like being healthy for her own sake. The grilled chicken over penne looked like it would do the job: plenty of protein, enough carbs to make her feel full, and easy on the fats. She’d tried low-carb diets--was that at Brian’s suggestion too? She couldn’t remember--and they didn’t work for her.
“Tightened the rope on his wrists. The poor little...”
She blinked, looked up. Madeline was still talking and getting louder as she got more excited about whatever she was talking about. The grin on her face made Lisa shiver. The woman’s probably someone’s grandma, so why does she give me the feeling I don’t want to be alone with her in a dark alley?
“And then I took out the clamps and screwed them tight. Men are so busy thinking about women’s nipples I think they forget that theirs are there to be played with.” The woman’s gaze came to rest on Toby, and Lisa could swear she cackled. Nice business associates you’ve got there, Brian.
“Sorta warms ’em up for the main event, you know?”
“Sex?” asked Malcolm, his muscular arms crossed.
Another cackle. “Heck no. A little CBT.”
Malcolm snorted, and Toby and Starlight winced. The black woman patted Toby on the head.
“Madeline gets intense sometimes.” She hadn’t noticed the speaker sit down, but she noticed him now. Dark hair, blue eyes. Muscles strained the arms of his T-shirt. “Don’t let her unnerve you.”
“I wasn’t unnerved,” Lisa lied. She wasn’t about to ask what CBT was either. Hopefully the woman would be done bragging about her strange sex life, and she could get on with explaining she really wasn’t going to open her own business, thank everyone for their time, and head home. Brian made it sound like he’d arranged a meeting just for her, but she got the vibe that these people would have gotten together anyway. In fact, from the interest they showed in her, she could probably let them talk about accounting or whatever, when they finally got to it, and wait it out. The eye candy across from her would at least provide some relief from the boredom.
She realized she was staring.
“Good for you,” he said, with an upward turn at the corner of his lips.
A couple more people came: a perfectly ordinary-looking man filled the place between her and Toby, and a curvy woman in a very short, tight-fitting black dress sat between Malcolm and the hunk. The leather collar around her throat added to the effect; it was the last thing Lisa would have expected anyone to wear a meeting to discuss business connections. But maybe it helped explain why no one batted an eye at her purple hair. These people might actually be pretty open-minded, and one of them might be a client someday. She smiled.
What she wouldn’t give to do the hunk’s hair. Dark. Wavy. It wasn’t like there was anything wrong with it as it was, but she wanted an excuse to run her hands through it.
“Kiss,” said Mr. Average. It was said like an order, and the collared girl responded like it was one, leaning over and kissing him. Lisa stared, transfixed. That’s totally hot
. She didn’t know how long it had been since someone had offered to kiss her, much less demanded it of her. Months. Since way before the divorce. Mr. Average reached up as if he was going to hook his finger through the ring dangling from the woman’s collar.
“No playing in the restaurant, Adam and Carlotta,” said Miss Carter. Her voice was calm, assured, and obviously she was used to being obeyed. Adam tensed the way Brian used to when he was about to start an argument. Uh-oh.
“We don’t want to get thrown out,” said the hunk, and his words had a calming effect on Adam. “You two can play anytime, and there’s a party tomorrow night. But the best way not to get invited is to misbehave here.”
Carlotta pouted. Adam nodded slowly. “Nothing more than what I did. We’re cool.” He lowered his voice and turned away. “Hey, Malcolm, did you bring it?”
“You bet, Adam. Best I’ve done yet too. You’ll like it. And so will you, Eve.”
“My name’s Carlotta.” And then Carlotta added, without any more love in her voice, “Sir.”
A plastic bag was passed under the table from Malcolm to Adam. “Thanks, man,” he said, and then he looked around at the rest of the people at the table, although the sweep of his gaze didn’t extend to her. “Don’t worry, guys. I’m not going to be so silly as to open it here
“Good,” said Madeline, her voice again too loud.
Were they passing drugs under the table? These people are so weird. Well, some of them are anyway
. Madeline was weird. The redhead seemed normal. And she didn’t think she’d appreciate the “Eve” joke any more than Carlotta did.
Two more people filled in the two seats to the right of her: a couple, it looked like, in T-shirts and jeans. More nods of recognition, and the hunk shook the man’s hand.
Adam got up and headed for the bathroom. The plastic bag sat right next to her chair. She shrugged.
“Are you new to the area or just new to us?” asked the hunk. It took Lisa a moment to realize someone was actually talking to her.
“Um. New, yes, um, to the area, yes.” Just because he’s gorgeous is no reason to stumble over my words. He’s not going to be interested in me anyway
. She got control. “Six months.”
The blonde who’d sat next to her turned. “My name’s Virginia,” she said with a trace of an English accent. She offered a hand.
Lisa shook it. “Lisa.”
“Mike,” said the man with Virginia and offered her his hand too. She shook it.
“Darren,” said the hunk.
“So,” said Carlotta. “Sub or--”
But she didn’t complete her sentence, because the waiter arrived. “Drinks for anyone? Anyone want to put an order in?”
“We split the check at the end,” Virginia explained in a low voice. “Pay your share, and all is good.”
“Don’t,” added Carlotta, “and we make you spend an evening with Madeline.”
Good thing I came with cash on me.
Lisa put in an order for her food when Malcolm and Starlight both ordered dishes, and she went with a Diet Coke. She didn’t really like to have even one drink when she was going to drive afterward. She would have slowly sipped a beer if everyone else was going with alcohol, but she wasn’t the only one having a soda.
Darren was staring at her. It had to be her imagination. A guy who looked like that could get any girl he wanted, and it was only wishful thinking to think he’d be staring at her. She tried to look nice, but she knew she was no knockout. Yet when she looked up at him, he didn’t turn away but held her gaze for a moment. Time slowed down.
Somebody please say something.
“Have you been to one of these anywhere else, or is this really your first time exploring?” asked Virginia.
What an odd way to put it
. “Um, first time.”
Was it her imagination, or did Darren smile?
Carlotta leaned in toward her from the other side. “Sub or domme?” she asked.
“Oh, my, you are
new! Do you like to be in charge, or would you rather be ordered around?”
She frowned. “Are those the only options?” Not wanting to worry about financing and all the business stuff didn’t mean she didn’t enjoy working independently. “I’m not really into being the big boss or anything.”
“So that would make you a sub,” said Carlotta, leaning back triumphantly. “Welcome aboard, sister. Don’t hit on my man.”
Past her, Malcolm turned from Madeline’s end of the table to look at her. She really didn’t want to be the center of attention.
“I don’t think she came here to hit on your man, Carlotta,” said Darren drily. “And not everyone fits into neat little categories. Don’t feel like you have to conform, Lisa.”
A few people in business suits walked by the table, looking annoyed about something. Lisa smiled at Darren. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ve never been the conforming type.”
“I guessed.” Darren grinned at her.
“Are you accusing me of being a conformist?” demanded Carlotta.
“No, not at all.” Darren’s voice was smooth, unruffled.
“So,” boomed Madeline from the other end of the table, “another sub! Welcome, Lisa! Anytime you want some pain, feel free to come to Mama Madeline.”
How the conversation had been heard over there, especially over Madeline’s voice, Lisa had no idea. Was the whole table talking about her now? In a way that was what she was supposed to be here for--to plan out the business she had no intention of running.
“So,” she said brightly, “how do you all know Brian anyway?”
Every face went blank. She scanned them, and there was not a single trace of recognition from any of them.
“Sir, do you know a Master Brian?” asked Carlotta as Adam sat down.
“Just plain Brian,” Lisa interposed. “Brian Maxwell.”
Adam shook his head and then looked at Lisa as if she’d said something out of turn or had pizza sauce on her nose. “No. I don’t.”
Virginia murmured into her ear, “We don’t usually use last names, dear.”
A feeling of dread passed over her. Those people in business suits--they had looked exactly like she’d expected the folks she was supposed to meet. And these people weren’t right at all. “Oh my God. I sat at the wrong table.”
“You didn’t want the Munch group?” asked Darren.
“Munch?” No, that definitely wasn’t the name Brian had given her. She was sure it started with a B. If they didn’t use last names, Munch wasn’t anyone’s name. Curiosity got a hold of her. “Who, what, or where is munch?”
“Oh my God, she doesn’t know what a munch is,” babbled Carlotta.
Lisa was sure her cheeks were bright red by now.
“A munch,” explained Darren, “is a get-together for kinky people--people into BDSM--to chat, meet new people, and make connections in a safe public space.”
Sub or domme, Carlotta had asked her. She would have understood the question if she had known the context.
“Darren, if she didn’t know, she doesn’t belong here.” Malcolm then turned to her. “Sorry about the mistake, but we’re not here to be quizzed. I’m sure the waiter can find you another table.”
Her cheeks were still burning. But she was determined to deal with this with some kind of dignity. “I do seem to be at the wrong table, don’t I?” The waiter placed her chicken penne in front of her. For the first time that evening, the timing seemed perfect. She turned to the waiter. “Was there another party here? Something like Bunch, Belch, Bitch...” No way that was it. So much for dignity.
The word set off giggles up and down the table.
“Birch?” asked the waiter helpfully.
“Yeah, that was it.”
“They were here, and they left. I’m sorry, madam.”
Damn. Damn. Damn.
“Why don’t you stay, Lisa,” Darren said. “You’ll at least have an interesting evening, and I promise you we don’t bite.”
“Unless asked,” said Carlotta.
“Nicely,” added Adam.
“I’ll make sure they behave,” Virginia said, and the word “behave” in her British accent instantly made Lisa think of some naughty schoolboy being lined up for six of the best.
“Please stay,” added Mike.
Either she stayed or sat alone. She kept looking at the waiter, who had delivered the last plates of food and was waiting for her response. She watched him rather than look at the table. Doms and subs, hmm? The people who came as couples were clear enough, and Madeline was obviously a domme. What about Darren? All dom. He had to be. Those eyes, that build, the confidence he projected. She stood, not sure whether she was fleeing or just making an awkward exit.
“Sit down, Lisa,” Darren said.
She turned and sat down. The waiter moved on. Somehow the flame of embarrassment in her cheeks faded or was less painful. Then she realized he’d given her an order, and she’d obeyed. Just like that.
Time to get things back my terms.
“I’m not a sub. I’m not a domme. I’m just...curious is all, really. So. Why do you guys meet in a restaurant rather than some dark dungeon somewhere?”
Darren took charge of the question. “It’s simple really, Lisa. Sometimes we do meet in some dark dungeon somewhere, or more likely a bedroom or a club or someone’s house. But before you invite someone to a party, you want to get to know them or have someone vouch for them. Not everyone comes into the scene knowing someone. Lots of people have read books, or played on the Internet, and they want to find out what the reality is like. A few people attracted to BDSM are creepy and predatory. Not most, but a few. This is a place to meet on neutral ground.”
“So it’s where you filter people out.”
“Yes, but we don’t come here expecting to filter someone out, as you put it. We come here hoping to meet new people and help them start a journey to find their innermost desires. And because we’re friends, many of us, and we enjoy each other’s company whether anyone new shows up at all.”
Carlotta leaned forward. “You’ve caught Darren’s eye. Fair warning, between us girls: he’s the love-them-and-leave-them type, but from what I understand, the loving is worth the leaving.”
She hadn’t said it loud, but for a between us girls
comment she was pretty sure Darren and Adam could catch it fine. “I’m only here by accident,” she said. “I’m not looking to hook up with anyone.”
“Taken?” Carlotta looked pleased.
Darren was looking at her curiously. But I could make exceptions for particularly hunky guys
. She couldn’t say it, and if she had any chance with him at all, she’d blown it. She couldn’t even claim she was scaring some other guy away; they were all attached except Malcolm and Darren. She knew what she was doing: she was taking herself off the market so she wouldn’t be hurt when no one was interested.
“Do you like girls?” asked Miss Carter.
Okay, that backfired even worse than I thought
. “No. I like boys. I mean men.”
“There is such a difference, isn’t there?” Miss Carter smiled and turned away as the waiter approached her.
Darren leaned forward. “So, Lisa, what are your fantasies?”
Tell me, and I’ll make them true
, those eyes seemed to promise. But he couldn’t make her a princess whose favor was proudly displayed on her hero’s lance. She wasn’t going to become a movie star either. Those were her fantasies, right? Not the part where the winning hero claimed his lawful prize--her--in bed. Not the casting couch of the handsome actor-turned-producer who would give her the part if only she promised to do anything he asked of her. Those were just little twists, verisimilitude to make the fantasies seem more real.
“I’m just a hair stylist. Nothing special about me.”
“That’s not what I asked.” His voice was calm. But his words said she’d disappointed him. She wasn’t going to, couldn’t, tell him about the deep dark thoughts she had late at night. The way she’d start off imagining she was Nancy Drew and ended up tied to a chair. Helpless. Naked. Wet.
He had the look on his face she’d seen in her dreams, the look of someone she didn’t dare disappoint. “Sometimes,” she said in a small voice, “I dream of being cared for.” It was true too. The producer always fell in love with her. The knight-errant adored her. The criminal with ropes flew to Buenos Aires with her, and they both lived happily ever after.
“And of not being in control.” Brian had usually been willing to take care of that part everywhere but in bed, where she wanted it from him the most. She’d tried to go along for a while, then fought against it when she realized his vision had nothing to do with what she wanted for herself.
“I see. And what sort of things happen to you when you’re not in control?”
She stared into his eyes. Everyone was chattering around her. Virginia and Mike had started up a conversation on the left; Madeline was getting her two cents in, and other voices too were speaking to her right. But there was still a sense she was alone with Darren.
“My world gets turned upside down, and I get terribly unhappy.” It was the truth. Even if a part of her wanted it, she knew better.
“But that’s not how it works in your fantasies.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement.
“No, it’s not.”
A clever little tune sounded. She didn’t know the tune, but she could guess the source. Cell phone. Sure enough Darren fished a phone out of his pocket and pushed a button to quiet it. He put it next to his plate, turned back to Lisa, and smiled. “Sometimes you can have your fantasies, Lisa. Why not give it a try?”
Why not? How was a bigger question. Was he offering or pushing the kinky gospel? “Sometimes fantasies are meant to stay fantasies,” she said, nibbling at her noodles. It was decent pasta, in a smooth white sauce, but the chicken was overcooked. Safety first, she supposed.
The phone rang again. Darren scowled as he looked at it and sighed. “I really have to take this. I’m sorry, Lisa.” He pushed the Talk button. “I’ll call you back in a minute,” he said into the phone, pushing another button. He stood up and reached in his wallet. He took out a card and set it next to Lisa’s plate. “Party. Tomorrow night, eight o’clock. You’re invited. Be there or I’ll be horribly disappointed.” He flashed her a smile, set a twenty-dollar bill next to his plate, and walked away before she could say anything.
Lisa looked at the card. There was an address, nothing else. Party, huh?
Virginia smiled at her. “It’ll be a wonderful time. And you’re in safe hands with Darren. He’s a real gentleman. He gives the best parties too, and he doesn’t invite just anyone.”
Yeah. A real gentleman. “Be there or I’ll be horribly disappointed.”
She didn’t know if he was being sweet or bossy. Maybe both.
Carlotta smiled. “So happy to have another sister there!” Apparently, since she’d mentally paired her off with the hunky Darren, Carlotta didn’t see her as a threat to steal “her man” anymore.
She smiled and ate her food. There wasn’t anything to say really. She busied herself with bits of half-burned chicken and soda, and the others began their conversations again, leaving her out of them. Darren hadn’t come back by the time she finished her meal.
Twenty should cover it and more, she thought. She took a twenty out of her wallet--she didn’t always carry lots of cash, but she’d gotten a nice tip from a young woman whose hair she’d done in scarlet. That was why Darren put his twenty there too, she supposed; he didn’t think he’d be back before everyone else was done, and the waiter needed to pick up the check. Pity his food was going to go cold.
She set the twenty on the table.
“Leaving us already?” asked Virginia.
“I’ve got someplace I need to be,” Lisa lied.
“Well, we will see you at the party, won’t we? I can’t wait to see you and Darren together.”
“Being watched is definitely not one of my fantasies,” Lisa said. Except for the one where she was the secretary, and everyone knew she was doing the boss, and he kept leaving the door open. Her cheeks burned again. Fuck, two lies
. She thought of herself as a basically truthful person.
Virginia grinned at her. “You don’t have to play. Just come.”
“Oh, if she plays, she’ll come all right,” Carlotta said.
“Definitely won’t be there. But it was lovely to meet you all.” They seemed like nice enough people, although she wasn’t sure about Madeline or Malcolm, and she’d hardly interacted with the other people over at that end. It wasn’t a lie, not really. She got up, smiled, and turned to go.
“See her out, Virginia,” said Mike, who’d been pretty quiet.
“Yes, Master.” Virginia rose and walked with her as she left the restaurant.
“This really isn’t necessary,” Lisa said, not slowing down.
“It’s late. It’s good to have someone with you when you go to your car. Would you let me see your card a second? I don’t need to see the address. I have that. I’ll be at the party.”
Lisa couldn’t see the harm in it, so she handed the card to Virginia, who produced a pen and scribbled a phone number on the back of it. “If you ever want to get in touch with us, that’s my number. Or you can come here, any second Friday of the month, and you’ll see some familiar faces.”
“Oh. Thank you.” She really was touched.
“We’d love to see you again. We get a few odd ones, as you might imagine.”
Lisa smiled. As far as she was concerned, at least half the table was odd already.
To her relief, Virginia let her walk to her car alone, settling for watching from the doorway. When she looked back, she saw Darren, leaning up against the stucco wall of the restaurant with one foot propped up against it, talking into his phone. He reminded her of James Dean. He didn’t seem to notice her. That’s good, she told herself, even as a wave of disappointment hit her. She hurried her steps, got into her little hybrid, and drove away.
Sindra van Yssel