Annabel Lawrence stood back from the mirror and sent a critical gaze at the image reflected. The blazing red lipstick looked fabulous against her makeup-lightened complexion. The leather corset was a bit loose, but that couldn’t be helped. She’d barely gotten out of bed those past three months since.
“So you’ve lost a little weight,” she said to the girl in the mirror. “Big effing deal. Skinny chicks are in.”
She pulled the corset’s rawhide laces tighter through the grommets, making the boned leather so tight it squeaked when she moved. Then she took up her brush and yanked it through her ink-black hair, not bothering to nurse the tangles. Clumps stuck out from the brush bristles when she was done. Oh, and her scalp hurt.
“It’d serve those cruel fucks right if I died.” The truth was that neither Jeremy nor Mr. I’m-Just-So-Manly Seth would care. No, an operatic, dramatic death wasn’t the answer. After all, Grandma had always said that the best revenge was living well.
She looped a large, faux-silver cross around her neck and spent a moment struggling with the clasp. Doing so revealed a small patch of copper had broken through the mass of black strands on the crown of her head. Root growth, she realized, showing the true color of her hair.
Bereft of money and home when Jeremy had kicked her out, Annabel had landed at her best friend’s house. Bruised and hysterical, Annabel had barely managed to sob out her story before JoBeth had pulled her through the front door and tucked her in her own bed. Nursed and embraced by JoBeth’s kindness, her only task was to, “Get better.”
There she’d stayed there for three months. Not in the bed, no. She’d relocated to the couch the very next day. When the leaves of autumn had started to fall, Annabel had found the energy to return to the world.
She’d spent her recent royalty check on a new wardrobe. No more slave silks for her! She wouldn’t to go to the quarterly Dungeon Romp looking like a rag. They would see a brand-new, ultra-fabulous Annabel, not some washed-out waif reduced by cruelty and lies.
This was Annabel’s rebirth.
Too bad it was late autumn in the northwest. The rain had come with the ending of summer but she wasn’t willing to hide beneath a hot hoodie despite the damp outside. Hiding wasn’t a part of her new life.
The tube of mascara beckoned. She snatched it up and spent moments applying the lash color. Finished, she tugged her hair into a severe knot atop her head, affixing it in place with long enameled sticks, then again examined her reflection. Not perfect, but doable. A quick touchup of black liquid eyeliner around her eyes and she was armed and ready.
“I’m here, bitches.” She winked into the mirror and headed out of the room.
The five-inch heels cracked against the tiles as she strode for the door. She envisioned using those boots to crush the heads of her enemies with each bruising step taken. Those who laughed at her troubles; those who became invisible after her breakup; those who nodded and muttered, “About time”; Seth and that damned lying weasel Jeremy.
Oh, she knew them, one and all, and they were about to face a reckoning because Annabel was back. She made sure to slam closed the apartment door. Just because.
* * * *
“I really appreciate you coming with me.”
Jeremy’s voice was oddly muffled by the sound of the car’s heater blasting warmed air out of the vents. “You’ve said that seven times in the last half hour.”
Zach checked his watch. Yep, they’d been stopped for over thirty minutes. Zach sweated while Jeremy shivered. Portland’s winter was no comparison to the chill of ’Stan, where—No.
The Burnside Bridge trembled as it closed its bascules, having opened them to let a large barge pass beneath. Jeremy put the car into gear and accelerated across the now open bridge.
Well, okay,” his brother continued, “but I really am grateful. It’s been hard these past months, with the whispering and the giggling from the kennel and the bullshit from the men. As if they’ve never had trouble with a slave…” His voice trailed off.
“I understand,” said Zach. And he did. Jeremy had been bitching about the slave-gone-bad business since he’d landed. He’d heard the complete story more than once. And his brother was off on the same topic again.
“I’m a laughingstock.”
Zach cracked open the window to let in the scent of ran and river. “That’ll pass.”
“It would’ve passed a long time ago if some spineless men would’ve muzzled their beasts.”
Not easy being the Master, is it?
But Zach refused to say that and substituted, “You’ll be fine.”
“I’m humiliated.” The Jag’s turn signal clicked as Jeremy guided the car down the bridge exit and turned a nearby corner. “And broke.”
“You’ll recover.” Zach knew that to be true. If there was one thing Jeremy knew, it was how to use the stock market to make money. How the slave had gone through that much money still blew his mind. What had she bought? Had she taken it all with her? His brother’s home wasn’t all that lavish for all its prime location. Where had all his money gone? And why? Why the fuck had Jeremy given his slave access to his bank accounts?
They drove along downtown’s streets until turning into the warehouse district. Zach caught sight of train tracks near the river—heavy rail this time, not the light rail. The presence of the load-bearing tracks indicated their entrance into the industrial zone. The Quarterly Dungeon Romp location wasn’t far away.
“There’s food at this gig?” His stomach rumbled.
“Plenty,” said Jeremy, as he pulled into a parking spot and killed the engine. He flashed a grin. “And slaves to serve. You do remember protocol, right?”
Zach rolled his eyes. Sure, he’d been forced to shelve his sexual preferences when he’d signed his name on the enlistment form, but he remembered his years in the life. “I know the protocol.”
They exited the car, he with a bit of trouble maneuvering his gimpy foot from the floorboard, through the door, and onto the ground. His new, nonmilitary trousers rasped over the still-tender scars that decorated his skin. Once he was standing, though, he looked and moved adequately, not too much of a limp thanks to the months of PT, but he wouldn’t be square-dancing anytime soon.
The doors opened and two girls exited into the lowering light. The little girl outfits, including pigtails and oversize lollipops, looked incongruous against the cigarettes they lit and sucked. He turned from the sight. Some folks liked age play. He didn’t. The thought of that special someone sucking his cock and calling him “Daddy” turned his stomach and in a seriously unpleasant way.
The brothers turned up their collars and dodged beneath the low overhang to avoid the rain. Dodging the girls, the brothers stepped inside. The door swung closed behind them and closed with a click. Around them, the warehouse opened up.
The mouthwatering smell of the potluck items filled the air, as did the quiet throb of the music. He followed the sound of laughter and located the BDSM players. Fetish gear and clothing spilled like a rainbow across the warehouse’s interior. Men dressed as French maids moved among the revelers, serving chips and dip, as well as drinks.
He stifled his instinctive wince. Sissy maids were another kink that turned his stomach.
Flashbulbs snapped. His gaze followed the flash and located what looked like people wrapped in giant spider cocoons hanging from the ceiling. Kinbaku—
Japanese erotic rope art.
Some folks called it lovely. He called it annoying. There was nothing more frustrating than spending an hour unwrapping a slave before they could play. Usually, by the time she’d been freed he was tired, grumpy, and the thrill was long gone.
“We’re over here,” Jeremy said.
Zach followed, catching sight of the silk-clad slaves of his particular kink. A bolt of lust kicked him in the stomach. It had been a long six years without the services of a tender and willing pleasure slave.
He reminded himself of his boundaries. If a slave today happened to be available and willing, then bang away, but don’t get attached or let her get attached. You’ll be redeployed as soon as the fucking leg is certified fit for duty. Be forthright about that. Honor always.
“Oh, here. Come with me.” Jeremy made an abrupt directional change. “Let me introduce you to someone.”
Zach followed. May as well greet the local community leader. The food could wait.
They approached a table where two men sat flanked by two girls. One wore a collar of steel and another wore a leather one with a buckle. His memories stirred. One slave in training and one owned.
The men stood as they approached. The girls came to their feet as well, which was accepted practice for the arrival of a visitor of his gender. Zach saw everyone’s considering gazes sweep his body and zero in on his limp.
Jeremy stopped beside the table.
“Mike? Seth? This is my brother Zachary, back from Afghanistan. Zach, this is Mike”—nods were exchanged—“and Seth, our retired slave master.”
“Welcome home.” Mike extended his hand. “How’d you make out?”
Zach shook his hand. “A little worse for the wear, but I’m alive.”
Seth stepped forward and offered his hand. “Seth. Marine. Operation Victory.”
Zach knew the Corps’s history. Operation Victory had been a brutal campaign in Iraq about ten years before his time. He took Seth’s hand in his own and shook it.
“Zach. Marine.” He also offered up the name of his most recent assignment. “J.S.S. Falcon.”
“Heard Falcon took some artillery a while ago.”
“Yeah, we had some rain, but we handled it.”
Seth’s smile and the glint in his eyes was ice-cold. “Ooh-rah
, devil dog.”
Zach grinned back, his expression no doubt equally cold.