Shelby, a wanna-be sub, hasn't found a Dom strong enough to push past her need to be in control. Her experiences as a sub have been yawn-inducing. She's fantasized plenty, though, about Trevor Lawton, one of Dark Haven's legendary, mouthwateringly firm Doms.
As the stakes get higher at the charity poker match, Dom Trevor Lawton is fascinated by the woman kneeling across the table from him. Problem is, she's not a good sub. Oh, she tries, and she's lovely. But she's not very good at following orders. The woman needs a firm, unyielding hand...his.
When Holly left the Truckee pack, she left her family, her safety, and the two men she loved. Now she's in San Francisco training as a Domme at Dark Haven. She thinks she's found herself, but tonight, Tex and Hunter have found her. And they are not happy with their little wolf. She's been keeping secrets from them. Tonight, someone's gonna beg.
Additional Publisher's Warning: This book contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: anal play/intercourse, caning, sensory deprivation.
Real Doms terrify her, so Summer plays with lightweights only. And only in the safety of her club, Dark Haven. But on Western Night, the tough cop who wins her in a sub-roping game is as powerful as they come.
Virgil's first taste of BDSM was disturbingly enticing. Hoping to burn out his interest, he visits an infamous San Francisco club, where he wins himself the prettiest little sub he's ever seen. He's in a quandary. A man shouldn't render a woman helpless, let alone spank her ass. But the nervous little submissive clearly loves being in his ropes. Her need to be controlled is as powerful as his need to control. So he indulges himself, and her.
That one night could be the beginning, but instead it's the end. She won't play outside the club and he lives too far to come play. He'll just have to find a way to forget her...or get her in his ropes to stay.
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Loose Id, LLC
May 16, 2011
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Excerpt from Western Night by Cherise Sinclair
"It's your bet, Master David."
Silence hung over Dark Haven's makeshift poker room as everyone waited for Shelby's sometimes-dom to answer Master Trevor's challenge.
From her peripheral gaze, she noticed one of the dungeon monitors head for the door, presumably to fetch Master Xavier, the club's owner. The friendly game of poker to benefit a children's charity had just taken an interesting turn.
Shelby continued to kneel on the floor next to David's chair and told herself a good sub would keep her gaze on the floor. A good sub would mind her business while the doms conducted their wager.
A good sub would school her mind and focus on her dom's wishes. And David's wish was for her to behave so he'd look good.
Earlier, after he'd picked her up from her hotel, he'd told her he intended to play Master Trevor in tonight's charity Texas Hold'em tournament at San Francisco's Dark Haven. In fact, if all went according to his plan, the evening would end in a showdown between Trevor and David.
Shelby knew that her friend, David, had a complex relationship with Master Trevor, and six months ago, he'd lost a sub to other man. According to the story, David had been at Dark Haven with Janine, a fun but fickle sub who changed doms like others changed shoes. After seeing that Master Trevor was alone, she'd unfastened David's collar and tossed it over her shoulder before kissing Master Trevor's boots.
Although Master Trevor hadn't accepted Janine as his sub, hadn't even played with her that night, David's ego had still been battered.
And now that everyone else had folded or busted, the last hand of Hold'em had, indeed, come down to the two of them.
At the beginning of the evening, David had made a charitable contribution of a thousand dollars in exchange for poker chips. Earlier, he'd been up substantially. But over the last half hour, his pile had diminished rapidly. His bets had become more and more reckless, and it seemed as if he was barely looking at his cards, let alone the flop, before raising the stakes. If she'd noticed that, so had his opponent.
Tension rippled across the room.
Each man had already been dealt their first two -- hole -- cards. And only moments before, the dealer had turned over the flop, the first three of five potential community cards.
She had no idea what either man was holding in the pocket, but a surreptitious glance had told her the flop's high card was a king of spades. There were no pairs, no other face cards. A heart and a diamond meant a flush was unlikely, possible but not probable.
"Master David?" Master Trevor prompted a second time.
Shelby noticed David's hand form a fist alongside his right thigh, betraying his agitation. He'd run through his first thousand dollars. He was a lawyer in an area of town with a high crime rate. It was a decent job, she knew. It paid the bills, but David all but ran a nonprofit. He took on significant amounts of pro bono cases. His offices were run-down and beat-up, and he'd never met a sob story that didn't tug his heartstrings or hurt his wallet. His wages definitely didn't finance a luxury lifestyle.
Time dragged, and she shifted. Being a good sub, she was learning, wasn't as easy in real life as it was in her fantasies. She knew stealing a glance at either man -- especially Master Trevor -- might earn her a spanking from an angry David, but out of boredom mixed with healthy curiosity, she was contemplating the risk.
Even though she lived in Denver and only visited Dark Haven a few times a year, she knew of Master Trevor's stern reputation. Other subs dreamily whispered about him, wanting to experience his lash.
He stood well over six feet tall and commanded respect just by walking into a room. His broad shoulders, dark hair, unyielding jaw, and purposeful stride were the stuff of fantasies. Factor in his sexy, gravelly voice and she'd been a goner from the start.
If she were honest, she'd admit the other subs weren't the only ones to fantasize about him. Ever since she'd first seen him last fall, she'd masturbated to images of him, and she hadn't felt guilty doing so. He was exactly the type of man she wanted to dominate her.
She and David had known each other since college, and their friendship was more of a companionship than a relationship. Truth was, they were too good of friends to be fabulous lovers. Even their BDSM scenes had become a bit boring. She might not have a lot of experience, but she suspected he allowed her to get away with too much; being with him was nothing like her fantasies, nothing like the books she read or the videos she watched.
The last time she'd been with him in San Francisco, she'd tried to hide yawns she'd blamed on jetlag. She'd initially declined his most recent invitation, but when he'd mentioned that Dark Haven and its Western-themed night were on the agenda, she'd rearranged her client load so she could fly in and attend.
Even though she had been kneeling on the floor for at least an hour, seeing Master Trevor with a replica six-shooter strapped to his thigh made everything bearable.
A cowboy hat sat jaggedly atop his head, partially shadowing his steely, electric blue eyes.
He'd wrapped a dark blue bandanna around his throat, and a tailored Western shirt hugged his upper body.
Because she'd been placed on the floor like a good little sub, she knew his brown cowboy boots were authentic, marred and scratched by the years. He also wore a pair of spurs. The silver had dulled, but they had made a forceful sound when he'd walked across the floor earlier.
The dark color of his jeans had faded slightly, and he'd obviously worn them a number of times, long enough that the denim had broken in to hug his strong thighs.
Master Trevor sat easily in his chair, his shoulders relaxed. He toyed with several high denomination chips, turning them over between his thumb and forefinger.
Last night, after she'd packed her suitcase for the trip to the West Coast, she'd drizzled lube onto her bullet vibrator and lay down on her bed with her legs spread. She'd imagined him drawing her across a room and tying her to a spanking bench, her ass upturned for his hand or a flogger, whatever he chose. After tonight, though, and seeing the well-worn belt circling his waist, she knew future fantasies would include that supple leather against her backside.
Unable to help herself as the minutes dragged on, she sneaked a glance at the object of her desire. He looked at her -- apparently sensing her perusal -- and held her gaze captive.
A shiver of fear mixed with desire raced up her spine as they made eye contact.
In that brief second, his steel blue eyes promised one thing: punishment. If she were his sub, her out-of-bounds behavior wouldn't be tolerated. He'd expect, and demand, perfect submission.
Her breaths threatened to strangle her.
She wanted him. She craved his dominance. And her raw need scared her.
He raised a brow commandingly and nodded toward the floor.
Even though he wasn't her dom, she immediately dropped her gaze to stare at the wooden floor.
BDSM wasn't a way of life for her. Rather it was something she occasionally enjoyed, much like having dessert after a celebratory dinner. The weekends a few times a year satisfied her needs. Or they had, until right now, until this powerful reaction to Master Trevor's unspoken command.
She heard the echo of footsteps, and she dared another surreptitious look. This time, though, she didn't look up. She glanced sideways so it wasn't immediately noticeable that she was deliberately disobeying both Master Trevor and David.
Destiny, the club's receptionist who seemed to know everything and everyone, and Master Xavier had entered the room.
The club's enigmatic owner came in without saying anything. He didn't need to. Master Xavier electrified the air. An alpha among alphas, he was dressed in black trousers and a burgundy vest. His long black hair hung down in back in an oh-so-sexy braid. As if comfortable with his legendary status, he folded his arms across his chest, lord and master of all he surveyed. Everyone knew it; everyone respected his authority.
"Having trouble with your sub?" Master Trevor asked David, looking across the table and inclining his head in her direction.
Oh God. Oh God.
Startled, fearful, she looked at him.
This wasn't a man to be trifled with. He was as unyielding as his reputation suggested.
David dug his fingers into her hair and forced her head down. For long seconds he kept his hand painfully on her scalp. Her eyes watered, but she kept her mouth shut.
After his experience with Janine, she knew what her disobedience meant to David, especially in front of Master Trevor. More than ever, she wished she could behave better. In her mind, she was a much better sub than in reality.
Silence seemed to drag.
"What do we have here?" Master Xavier asked finally.
"We're waiting, My Liege," the dealer said. "It's Master David's turn to place his bet."
True to the club's theme night, the man looked every bit the part of an Old West poker dealer. He wore a long-sleeved striped shirt with a garter around his biceps. A knotted bow tie, gold brocade vest, jeans, and a hat completed his outfit.
David glanced across the table.
She knew they each saw the same thing. Master Trevor had the resources to call any bet he could make.
Pulling his money clip from his front pocket, David said, "Another thousand dollars in chips."
Shelby gasped. Another thousand dollars? Was he crazy? He'd be willing to bet that on two potential turns of the cards?
"While the children's charity will appreciate your thoughtfulness," Master Xavier said, "the evening has already been a huge success."
Shelby admired the owner's tact. He was offering a dom an easy and graceful way to back out of his aggressive wager. No wonder the man was so respected in San Francisco's BDSM circles.
"A thousand dollars," David repeated, peeling off bills and tossing them onto the felt-covered table.
Shelby had never known David to be reckless. Suddenly she was questioning everything she knew about him. Surely the experience with Janine had stung, but no way did the woman matter that much to him. So what the hell was he thinking and doing?
As the moments stretched, Shelby concentrated on her breathing and keeping her body still and being a good sub instead of shifting uncomfortably. Her entire body was fatigued, and she wanted this ridiculous display of David's masculine ego to be over.
Kneeling for several hours while the men played and she was ignored had not been what she was anticipating when she boarded the flight early this morning at Denver International Airport.
"My Liege?" the dealer asked.
Technically, this was against the rules. Chips needed to "purchased" up front, from the club's receptionist, Destiny. David was behaving more like he was at a casino than at a charity event.
The quiet conversation that had hummed through the poker room abruptly died as people eavesdropped, waiting for Master Xavier's decision.
"The children's charity is the beneficiary," Master Xavier said with a nod.
The dealer exchanged the cash for poker chips and then gave the money to Destiny for safekeeping.
For a minute, David sat there, as if considering his bet. "Five hundred," he said finally, pushing a pile of chips into the middle of the table.
That was an aggressive bet considering his remaining funds.
Master Trevor studied the flop, but he never glanced at his two cards. Then he thumbed back the brim of his hat. He allowed thirty seconds to pass before he said, "Call." He matched the other man's bet.
Master Trevor had more than enough funds to raise the bet. It seemed that, since he hadn't raised, he might be playing a bit of cat-and-mouse. Either that or the flop hadn't helped him.
The dealer burned the next card. As each player watched intently, the man then flipped up the next one, known as the turn. Ten of spades.
David reached for her and put his hand lightly on the top of her head. He all but petted her. His touch telegraphed confidence. Maybe he did know what he was doing. She hoped he had spades in the hole.
Master Trevor waited for David's bet.
"One hundred dollars," he said, adding the chips to the pot.
The bet was at odds with the way he was stroking her. Either his bet was a bluff or his relaxed behavior was.
"Raise," Master Trevor said. "Four hundred."
The other dom apparently had a better hand, or he was trying to force David's hand.
David was almost out of options. If he wanted to raise, he needed more chips. At this point, he had to fold or go all in.
Over the past few seconds, David's hand had tightened on her scalp. He might have a good hand, but he didn't have the funds to back it.
He reached for his money clip again.
Was he crazy?
Before peeling off the few remaining bills, he sat back and said, "Let's make it more interesting."
Master Xavier raised a brow.
Other doms, with their subs trailing behind, wandered over and formed a circle around the table.
"If I win, Lawton International remodels the Northwest Community law offices."
Shelby gasped. She'd been thinking this might be about Janine and a grudge. And it had nothing to do with that.
He'd maneuvered this entire evening to manipulate Master Trevor into donating his time to David's cause?
Master Trevor sat back in his chair. "You're asking me to put up something close to half a million dollars?"
"I'll buy materials."
"Generous," Master Trevor said.
For long moments he sat there quietly, a study in self-mastery.
Finally, Master Trevor nodded. "If I win, I want the sub."
Shelby's heart stopped.
"Wait a fucking --"
"Master David," Master Xavier admonished quietly. "I'll thank you to be more respectful in my club."
Despite the fact David's fingers were digging into her scalp, she looked directly at Master Trevor.
His gaze was pinned on her, hot, hard, as if he'd been waiting for and anticipating her inability to keep looking at the ground.
"Can't get your own subs, Trevor?" David demanded.
Master Trevor didn't respond. Rather, he continued to look at her.
She knew she should look down, show him the respect he demanded, but she didn't; she couldn't.
She felt scorched as his gaze trailed from her face, down her body, lingering for a few seconds on her chest. In keeping with the Western-themed night, she'd selected a white shelf bra and a fringed leather vest. She's spent a week shopping for a beautiful sterling bolo tie. It had cost a lot more money than she wanted to pay, but the way it caught the light when she moved made it worth every penny.
He continued his perusal and paused again at her pelvis. Unlike some of the other subs who were almost completely naked, her mound was covered by a pink thong. Still, she had felt completely exposed to him.
As if they were alone, he slowly took in her white leather chaps.
She knew he wouldn't be able to appreciate the sexy pair of heeled boots that completed her outfit. But his slow smile told her he found plenty he liked.
He'd taken his time looking at her, considering her. Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to be his sub and have his complete attention on her.
His gaze left her body, and he looked directly at David. "Do we have a bet?"
"This is an outrage," David said. He slumped in his chair.
"Does that mean you're not confident in that next card?" Master Trevor asked.
David sat up straighter and then leaned forward, glaring. "I accept your terms."
Shelby gave up all pretense of minding her business.
"Let's ask the sub if she agrees, as well," Master Trevor said to Master Xavier. "I'm not willing to force the woman to do anything she doesn't want to. But I think she'll be willing."
Was she that transparent?
Master Xavier folded his arms across his chest and nodded toward her. "Excellent suggestion."
All eyes were on her. Her heart thundered. How the hell was she supposed to deal with this?
Instinctively she looked to David for guidance. He'd already agreed she'd be his stakes, but she had the opportunity to call off this ridiculousness.
She and David had been friends since college. They'd hooked up a few times in the last decade, but they hadn't been exclusive for at least eight years. Despite their best efforts, their relationship was closer to companionship than spark and sizzle.
Still, she liked him, and she knew Janine's defection had burned, at least a little. She felt torn. She didn't want to cause his bruised ego any more damage, and her leaving tonight with Master Trevor would definitely batter David. On the other hand, the law center needed serious work. "Sir?" she asked David softly.
David drummed his fingers along his thigh. After a few seconds, he nodded without looking at her.
Master Xavier took control.
He walked over to her. He placed his finger under her chin and gently tipped her head back. "I don't know you."
"No, My Liege," she said quietly. She could hardly hear above the racing of her heart, and her tongue didn't want to form around any words. Now, of all times, she wanted to look at the floor.
"Tell me about yourself."
"I..." She blinked. "I'm afraid I don't understand the question." Belatedly she added, "My Liege."
"Shelby. Shelby Salazar, My Liege."
"And Shelby Salazar, I don't see a collar around your neck."
"No, My Liege. I don't belong to anyone. I mean, I'm not a lifestyle sub. I..." She sought for the best explanation.
"She's more of a dabbler," David supplied.
"But she's been here before," Destiny said, walking over with a digital pad.
Shelby had been introduced to the club's receptionist before. Destiny. Always outrageous, always welcoming, always on top of things. Nothing happened at Dark Haven that Destiny didn't know about.
"Tonight is the sub's fifth visit, My Liege," Destiny said. "Always with Master David."
Shelby nodded, confirming what Destiny said. "I live in Denver, My Liege, and I'm visiting San Francisco for the week."
"Are you staying with Master David?"
"No, My Liege. I have a hotel," she said.
"Do you know Master Trevor?"
"Only by reputation, My Liege."
"I'll amend my bet to say I'll take the sub for the week she's in town," Master Trevor said.
"Generous bastard," David muttered.
Master Xavier shot David a quelling glance. The other man shrugged and played with the few chips on the table. "Do you understand the stakes as Master Trevor has outlined them?"
"Tell me what you understand the stakes to be," Master Xavier said.
"I understand that Master Trevor..." She trailed off and looked over at the dom. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. He was unyielding, uncompromising, and attractive as sin in a pair of jeans. This was the opportunity she'd dreamed of, with a man she had a crush on.
Hormones flooded her body. She wanted him, but suddenly nerves swamped her. Was she really going to agree to this? She looked back at Master Xavier. "Master Trevor wants me to be his sub for the week that I'm in town."
"That means staying at my place," he added.
Being cut off from her regular life, from David?
"Are you willing to agree to the terms, Shelby?" Master Xavier asked.
"If Master David says so, My Liege."
"She does know how to behave," Master Trevor said. "I'd wondered."
Heat chased across her face. She wanted to show this man she could behave like a proper sub.
"I've already said I agree," David said.
"Winner take all," Master Trevor said.
"You're not being coerced, sub?" Master Xavier asked.
Master Xavier released her chin and stood. He nodded toward the dealer, and the man reached for the deck of cards.
The pot of money now a moot point, the dealer burned the next card before turning over the river, the fifth and final community card.
She held her breath, torn.
The jack of spades.
Several people in the room whispered. There were three spades showing. Definitely the potential for a flush. With the jack, a straight was a possibility.
She looked at David. His eyes were wide, and he nodded. Her friend definitely didn't have a poker face. He squeezed her shoulder. She released her breath. As much as she wanted the opportunity to play with Master Trevor, she wanted David to win. His work meant everything to him.
His thinking had been brilliant. He'd spent six months fundraising, and he was at least another year away from being able to afford the much-needed building renovations.
Time for the showdown.
The dealer nodded to David. He turned over his pocket cards. The eight and nine of spades.
She schooled herself not to smile. But that flush was likely unbeatable.
She looked at Master Trevor. Unlike David, his face was set in unreadable lines.
The dealer signaled for Master Trevor to show his pocket cards. He turned over the two cards lying facedown on the felt.
Ace and queen of spades.
David shoved back from the table and stood. Then, seeming to draw on the same reserve he used in the courtroom, he extended his hand toward Master Trevor.
The other man stood.
She was aware of the contrast between them. Master Trevor was a couple of inches taller than David. The other man's shoulders were broader, his arms much more muscular, his thighs more powerful.
Soon, she would be alone with him.
Her heart beat impossibly fast in her chest.
"Congratulations," David said as the two shook hands. His tone held no warmth. "I'll leave you two to get to know each other."
"She's in safe hands," Master Trevor promised.
"She means a lot to me," David said.
Master Trevor nodded. As if she were a true sub, he didn't address his comments to her. She was alternately thrilled and annoyed.
David crouched in front of her. "Behave yourself, sub."
"Yes, Sir." There was so much she wanted to say, needed to say. She ached to touch him, to reassure him.
"You've wanted something like this," he said quietly.
"We both know you weren't getting what you wanted. Try to enjoy it. I'll see you at the end of the week. I'll take you back to the airport."
"Call me if you need anything." He stood and gave her shoulder a reassuring pat. "Anything."
He stood. He didn't touch her again. After nodding to the dealer, to Master Xavier, and ignoring Master Trevor, he left the room.
A few seconds later, Master Xavier said, "Game's over, everyone. I invite you to enjoy the other pleasures at Dark Haven."
Destiny signaled to the dungeon monitor stationed near the door. Together, she and the man shepherded subs and Doms toward the exit.
Several people stopped to congratulate her temporary dom before they left the room.
Because Master Trevor had yet to give her any instructions, Shelby remained on her knees, her gaze downcast as the noise in the room diminished.
At this point, she realized it was probably a good thing he hadn't given any commands. Nervousness raced through her body, and she wondered if she'd be able to follow any direction, no matter how simple, he gave her.
"You're free to go," Master Xavier said to Destiny and the dungeon monitor.
Without a word, they left.
Master Xavier came over. "I trust this is only about you wanting to play with Shelby," he said to Master Trevor.
Time seemed to simultaneously drag and zip by. She wanted to be alone with her new dom, but the prospect also frightened her.
"I told Master David the sub is in good hands. You have my word."
"I expected nothing less," Master Xavier said.
"We'd like to use the punishment room."
"Consider it done."
She heard the tone of respect in Master Trevor's tone, but also the signal that, as far as Master Trevor was concerned, the conversation was over.
Master Xavier's steps seemed to echo off the wooden floor as he left the room.
The echoing silence, the realization that they were alone, and that for the next seven days she was his sub, suddenly overwhelmed her.
She remained on her knees, her pulse ringing in her ears.
"I want to know about you," he said. "How much BDSM experience do you have, sub?"
She kept her gaze cast down. "I... Very..." Her voice cracked. She sounded squeaky, lacking her usual confidence. In her job as a high-powered corporate mediator, she spent her days utilizing all her senses to tune into people's subtle nuances. Even when she wasn't feeling confident in her abilities, she squared her shoulders and projected authority.
But being on her knees, mostly naked, in front of this powerful man undid her.
"Go on," he told her.
She cleared her throat and tried again. "Very little, Sir. A handful of experiences."
"I could have guessed," he said. "You were given the choice, and you agreed to be my sub for a week. Does that mean you want more experiences?"
"Yes," she whispered.
"I can't hear you."
She swallowed. "Yes," she said again.
Continuing in his soft, probing way that reassured even as it demanded, he asked, "Do you know what that means?"
She could do nothing but look at his boots and be nearly overwhelmed by his presence. He was so close she breathed in his scent, that of crisp ocean air and raw masculine power. "Truthfully? No."
"You have ideas."
Who knew if they were close to reality, though?
"Tell me what you're expecting. Or what you're hoping."
The sound of Master Trevor's voice intoxicated her. It was deep, well modulated, firm, domineering. "I came to San Francisco because I want even more experiences. I've wondered..." She trailed off. She and David hadn't even had this level of conversation. She just went along with what he wanted.
They'd visited Dark Haven a few times, so she'd seen other subs and Doms interact. She'd seen one sub attached to a collar and leash. The man had crawled behind his master and seemed happy to do it. Another female sub had walked in front of her master, her head lowered; her dom's hand was fisted in her hair. And she did a fair amount of reading. Clearly no two D/s relationships were the same.
But she knew she wanted to experience more spice than she had with David. Their scenes were more like casual interludes with kinky clothes. At the end of the night, he dropped her at her hotel. What would it be like to wake up in the morning and be expected to continue the role of sub?
Master Trevor waited patiently for her answer.
"I have heard that you are harsh but fair."
"Probably accurate," he said. "And...?"
"If I am staying with you for a week, I understand you'll probably have a set of rules you'll expect me to follow."
"I do. And if you break a rule?"
"I imagine..." Oh God. Oh yes. The idea of his supple brown leather belt against her exposed buttocks definitely made her shiver. The fantasy just got better and hotter.
"Tell me what you just imagined."
"I don't tolerate shyness or hiding, sub. Tell me what you just imagined. Now."
"I imagined you..." She exhaled a shaky breath. "I imagined you punishing me."
"Sir," he said.
"I imagined you punishing me, Sir."
"Punishing you how, sub?"
"Good to know," he said. "Shall we begin?"
(c) Sierra Cartwright, May 2011
All Rights Reserved
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An Excerpt from Belinda McBride's Hunting Holly
Holly laid her trail carefully, taking a few side trips up rickety fire escapes and onto the roofs of various commercial buildings. The city wasn't like her home in the mountains; she couldn't use running water to mask her trail. But then, she wasn't leaving a visible trail for the men's sharp eyes, so the trade-off was good.
Briefly she considered a run to Golden Gate Park, where they could shift and race, but Hunter would probably stay on two feet. She felt a moment's sadness for him. She'd taken to her wolf these past few years out of survival. He'd locked away his wolf out of fear.
She wondered which of them was more pathetic.
Tex, though, he was healthy. Perhaps that was why she'd always craved his company. They'd spent hours together, often in peaceful silence. Sometimes she'd been privy to his innermost secrets. She knew he'd been afraid for his best friend Rico when the man had fallen in love with the very human Briony. Turned out Briony had some mysterious secrets hidden under her milk chocolate exterior.
She thought about Doc Bree with a pang of loneliness. When she'd run, Briony had been blossoming into early pregnancy. With a jolt, she realized the baby would be born by now.
She didn't even know if it was a boy or a girl. Eva hadn't told her. Tears burned her eyes, and she wiped them away, angry at herself. If she'd stayed within the safe confines of the pack, Holly would never have been able to walk among her friends and family as one of them. She'd never have been able to summon the strength to consider a job or even take a lover. More than anything else in the world, Holly wanted children...children who lived. She wanted a man who cherished her and would keep her fears at bay. She wanted a man who could unlock the mysteries of her body. She wanted a man like Tex, who radiated goodwill and happiness.
To her consternation, she had come to realize that Tex wasn't all that she wanted. She wanted Hunter too. Dark, moody, soul-torn Hunter, who'd been her silent shadow from her earliest memory. But like her, Hunter was damaged and broken, unable to embrace his wolfen nature. She saw it in his eyes: he thought she feared him after that wild, deadly rampage. He didn't understand that any of them were capable of the same thing. He didn't understand he'd been her salvation that horrible last day.
Holly made an agile leap from the roof of an old car and landed on the low rungs of a rusty ladder. From there she ran from landing to landing, jumping gracefully and with uncanny accuracy. Hunter hunted, and Holly could run. The thought made her smile. Perhaps she should shift and lead them to a park, or even down to the coast. If she moved fast enough, he'd be forced to change shape just to keep up with her. It offended her wolf that he'd rejected that vital side of himself. It crippled him, and Holly wanted him whole and healthy. She was willing to push him to the edge in a wild mating run. She could force him to shift and heal himself. But she realized he had to do this in his own time. If she forced the issue, she might end up alienating him.
Holly tilted her head, listening for the distant echo of pursuit. It was too late to change her plan; they were already coming.
She grinned and laughed in delight, looping in a giant circle, leading them back to where it had all started. Within minutes, she'd backtracked to Dark Haven.
* * * * *
"Damn, she's good." Tex's voice showed his admiration. They'd trailed her through alleys until her scent would mysteriously vanish, only to pick it up several blocks away. Eventually Hunter had thought to look up, to seek the trail on another level. That had sped up the pursuit somewhat.
Tex was a pretty good hunter for having no enhancements; he seemed to have a knack for locating the most likely route she might have taken. Once, they found themselves on a fire escape that was so fragile, it barely held both men. Another time they ran swiftly over flat rooftops, leaping from building to building.
As they hunted, Hunter's excitement increased, because, like Tex, he'd finally come to the conclusion that his little Holly was playing a game, leading them on a chase. This was flirtation and courtship, and she was initiating the game. It was the sudden awareness of what came at the end of the chase that had him aroused. Slowly but surely, they were heading back into the neighborhood from where they'd started.
When they arrived back near Dark Haven, the men moved at a silent, deadly pace, swifter than shadows in the darkness. They were only blocks away from the club when he spotted her.
"Is that her?" Tex's voice held amazement as they slowed to a stop. He'd never seen her human form before. Hunter hid a grin at what his companion had in store, because Holly... She was beautiful.
They hadn't caught Holly; she'd finally stopped running. And she now stood poised under the misty light of a street lamp. Wet asphalt glistened under her bare feet. She was waiting. His heart pounded frantically, unable to differentiate between lust and anger and flat-out joy.
There she was, beautiful as he remembered. Her black hair was long and sleek instead of cropped and dull. Instead of ragged bleached cotton, she wore tight denim jeans and a Western-style leather vest with nothing under it but skin and a lacy black bra. Though she was barefoot, he was willing to bet she'd left a pair of cowboy boots somewhere inside.
She saw them, and the wild emotions in her eyes reflected what he was feeling. She looked from one man to the other, and to his chagrin, Hunter realized she was equally drawn to them both. He glanced at his companion, almost amused at how transfixed Tex was.
He was a goner. Hunter knew Tex had sought out Holly over and over again since they'd come to Truckee. Most likely his promiscuous behavior had been out of confusion -- the subconscious knowledge that what he needed most was...somewhere. Never knowing she was right under his nose. Jealousy flared and then died at the dawning realization at what was happening right there and then. Something he'd never dreamed could happen...
Then she snared Hunter with that fathomless gaze, and likewise, he felt as frozen as a deer in the headlights. He was caught, and so was Tex. The knowledge wasn't as painful as he would have expected. His inner vision of the future shifted, making room for one more.
"I always knew she was my mate. Just didn't figure she'd be yours too." His throat felt so tight, it hurt to talk.
Tex tore his gaze from the woman and looked at Hunter in shock.
"Two of us? I've heard that dominant females will claim more than one mate...but Holly?" He looked back at her in surprise. "Eva's a dominant. She's with Harte only."
"Harte's an alpha. He's at the top of the pyramid in his pack. We're lower in the hierarchy. Dominant, but not alpha."
It made odd sense as the explanation came from his mouth. He'd grown up outside the normal structure of a pack, but it was clear once he was confronted with the reality.
Holly wanted them both.
Immediately his wolf rose in possessive jealousy. In reaction, Holly poised to run, drawing his hostility away from Tex.
"Oh no you don't!" Tex crouched slightly, poised to leap after her.
She was off and running, with Tex only yards behind her. Hunter sprinted to catch up with the other man, leaping over trash cans and debris that littered the alley. They dodged back into the side streets, clambered over a chain-link fence and into a parking lot. She was fast, and she was agile, easily keeping out of their reach.
"Give me space..." Tex grunted, and Hunter drew back, watching in amazement as the cowboy began to loop his lariat through the air. He stopped, braced, and the rope shot out like a snake, then dropped down over her arms. With deft skill, he snapped the rope, pinning her arms to her sides. She jolted to a stop, shock in her expressive eyes.
"Wow. I thought that thing was just for show." Hunter stood next to Tex, grinning as his partner slowly reeled her in.
"How'd you think I got a name like Tex?"
"Thought it was from your last name... Texiera?"
"Spent most of my summers on my grandparents' ranch in Texas. We lived there full-time for years before I moved back to Truckee." He smiled grimly. "Used to ride rodeo. Never went on the big circuits, but I could ride a bronc or rope a calf."
"Or a filly." Hunter couldn't resist the joke, even though Tex shot him a look of surprise.
Holly struggled against the rope that pinned her arms in place. She wanted to laugh, and she wanted to scream. She wanted to rush the men and throw herself into their arms. As Tex hauled her closer, she eagerly examined their faces, wrestling with the conflicting urges that surged through her body. In seconds she was close enough to touch, but she couldn't. Instead she stared at them boldly, summoning up every ounce of courage that she'd painstakingly cultivated over the year that she'd been on her own.
She tossed her head defiantly and gave them a pugnacious grin.
"Hello, Holly darlin'."
At the sound of Tex's drawl, her urge to struggle faded. All defiance fled when she looked at Hunter and saw the emotions ebbing and flowing in his eyes.
"Tex. Hunter." She lifted her chin and challenged the two men. She knew what she wanted, and now that the men were here, it was so close, just out of reach. And damn it! She didn't know how to ask!
"Why are you here?" She hadn't fully recovered her voice this year. It was still harsh and low. The sound of it embarrassed Holly, but it seemed to light a fire in Tex's eyes.
"Chase sent us on business. We caught scent of you and decided there was something more important to attend to."
She flushed slightly. She didn't ask what the business was; that could wait till later. Explanations could wait as well. Right now Holly had her two chosen mates standing in front of her, fire in their eyes and lust in their bellies. Deliberately she wiggled a bit, watching in satisfaction as their hungry gazes traveled down the length of her body.
This was a fragile moment, and she knew it. They'd both be reluctant to take her, fearing she might still be traumatized by her past. Hunter in particular. He'd seen her at her lowest point and had treated her like fragile china since.
Again she pushed away her doubts. That was the past. She'd wallowed in the past, relived every moment of pain and agony. She'd hidden away within her wolf for years, grappling with pain and loss. This past year, she'd held the wolf at bay, relearning to trust and live among humans again. She was ready. What Hunter didn't recognize was that he'd washed her soul clean with the blood of those men who'd abused her for so long.
He was her hero.
If they'd waited just a little longer, she'd have been in her heat cycle. There'd have been no doubt, no hesitation. They'd have been hers. Now she could only hope that nature would overcome their hesitation. If not, she hoped that they could trust her.
Hunter broke first. He stepped up and grabbed her roughly by the arms, then examined every inch of her face. He cradled her jaw and then lowered his lips to hers. The kiss was clumsy and inexperienced, drawing tears to her eyes. All these years he'd waited for her, keeping his love -- his lust -- to himself. She knew he wasn't a virgin; in the labs, virginity was only a state of mind. But if he'd taken a lover, she'd have known. As she'd done with Tex, she'd have scented it on him.
He forced his tongue into her mouth, and she felt his fangs drop slightly. She tasted blood -- hers. If her hands had been free, she'd have clasped him close to her body. As it was, their bodies strained together. He held her tightly, as though he drew his life from her touch. She never wanted it to end.
He broke away with a gasp and staggered back, horror in his eyes. She stared and didn't back down. Slowly she licked the blood from her lips and watched as his expression changed. The guilt ebbed away, leaving triumph in its place.
Cautiously she turned to Tex, who still held the rope that bound her.
This time he didn't grin. He didn't have a clever quip or a silly joke. The smile no longer lurked there in his bright blue eyes. He didn't even reach out to touch her. He moved close to Holly, slowly pushing her in Hunter's direction until she could move no farther. Her back was against Hunter's solid form, her buttocks pressed to his groin. Only when she was securely trapped between the men did he lean down to kiss her.
It was slow and deliberate, yet she sensed that he channeled every bit of his passion into that kiss. It was fierce and intense and incredibly gentle. He dropped the rope, reached around, and drew Hunter's arms forward around her waist. There they stood, in the darkness of an alley, three pieces of a puzzle that had suddenly been solved.
(c) Belinda McBride, May 2011
All Rights Reserved
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An Excerpt from Cherise Sinclair's Welcome to the Dark Side
My turn. Summer stepped up to the desk and waited for the two doms to notice her.
With dark hair and dark eyes, Simon and Xavier appeared like a matched set although Xavier looked flashier in his gambler's clothing. In his forties, Simon was older and attired as an 1860's banker. Rich, classy, powerful doms -- so not her kind.
"Summer, it's good to see you." Simon motioned her forward and asked quietly, "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine. Thank you, Sir."
"Are you being careful?"
After she'd healed, he'd given her a lecture on safety measures, and she'd listened carefully. One set of scars from a misjudgment was enough. "Yes, Sir. I never play anywhere but here."
He straightened, a crease forming between his brows. "That's taking prudence a little too far, pet. How can you form a relationship if you won't leave here?"
At the thought of being tied up and alone with a dom -- a real dom -- she felt as if someone had run a cold hand up her spine. "I'm happy being a sub here."
Xavier frowned also. "A sub? You're not submitting; you only go through the motions. Playacting."
Just team up on me, why don't you? And you're wrong. Her chin went up. "I believe that's up to me." When Xavier's eyes turned to black ice, she gulped out a hasty, "My Liege."
His forefinger tapped the desk for one beat.
She had a vision of being caged and hung from the ceiling like the last sub who'd displeased him.
Or up on the stage being used for flogging practice.
He finally nodded. "That is your choice."
She took a relieved breath. Thank you, God.
Xavier turned to the crowd. "Gentlemen, this is Summer. Who would like to win her submission?"
Oh great. Make a big deal of the submission part. Thanks, Xavier. She turned to see an ego-stroking number of hands had gone up. A couple of sadists, some younger doms, and -- her gaze was trapped by intent hazel eyes shaded by a black cowboy hat. The rest of the crowd blurred and faded away, leaving only the darkly tanned dominant she'd seen earlier.
He studied her; then his lips curved in a faint smile. He raised his hand to compete.
Her heart gave a nasty thud. Oh God.
"Virgil, I believe this little calf is a good one for you. She'll need a steady hand," Xavier said.
As if she were caught in a dream, she watched the dom -- Virgil -- move forward through the crowd. He looked appallingly big. A couple of inches over six feet. Dirk's height. Probably about as heavy too, but this dom was as solid as the mechanical bull. He wore a scuffed black hat, faded cowboy shirt, and well-worn boots; she doubted his western outfit was a costume.
As he stopped beside her, his level, assessing eyes met hers, and the floor seemed to shiver like quicksand under her feet.
He glanced at Xavier. "Thank you." He sounded pleased, thank God, since she really didn't want to annoy him. Why did he have to be as big as Dirk? He made her feel like a little calf, and she glanced down to make sure she hadn't grown hooves.
The sun lines beside his eyes crinkled. When he took her hand, hard calluses on his fingers scraped her palm. "Nice to meet you, Summer." His rough baritone voice curled around her in a dark embrace.
All the spit in her mouth dried up, yet she wanted to move closer. Confused much, Summer?
"Are you ready to play?" Virgil asked, unsnapping his shirt cuffs and shoving his sleeves up to his elbows.
Lord have mercy. Even his heavy-boned wrists were muscular. But he's not Dirk, and I'm going to be a calf. Her excitement started to rekindle. An ornery calf. "Only if you catch me."
His growling laugh almost made her knees buckle.
"I'm glad to see you here, Virgil," Simon said and added, "By the way, this little sub had a bad experience last year, but it's time for her to move past it."
Summer's jaw dropped. "You... Damn you, that's none of your busi --"
A hand covered her mouth completely, and a voice rumbled in her ear, "I'm new to the club, but I'd say that disrespecting a dom is a piss-poor idea."
Oh hell. Xavier came down hard on rudeness.
Seeing the cold stare he gave her, she tried to back away, except Virgil's unmovable, rock-hard body pressed right up against hers. Xavier turned his gaze to Virgil. "Are you still interested?"
"She will need to be reprimanded for her rude behavior."
Virgil didn't speak for a long moment, then said, "I understand."
"Very good." Xavier tilted his head toward the stage. "You're up."
Summer climbed the steps, way too conscious of the big dom behind her. He'd punish her? The thought of his strong hand coming down on her bottom -- of having a real spanking -- sent anticipation zinging through her. She glanced over her shoulder.
Such a serious expression, brows together, mouth in a tight line. But as he watched the stage where Aaron had just tossed Jen over his shoulder, laughter appeared in his eyes.
Summer smiled. He had a sense of humor after all. Oh, this might be totally great.
On the platform, the male sub directing the roping pointed to a big sack. "Boots and shirt go in there, Sir." He checked her. "Your boots too."
She got one boot off, but then Virgil removed his shirt and, oh Lord, her gaze got stuck on the impressive contours of his chest. With every movement, muscles rippled under his tanned skin. As he pulled his boots off, his biceps bunched, making her fingers tingle with the need to touch and discover if his muscles were as hard as they looked.
He caught her staring and smiled -- not a conceited I-work-out-and-have-a-great-body type smirk, but more of a I'm-a-boy; you're-a-girl; life-is-good. He nodded at her remaining boot.
Oh, right. She yanked it off.
"Okay, Sir and sub." The sub handed Virgil two pieces of short rope from a box and pointed to a taped line ten feet away. "When she reaches the yellow line, you give chase. If she gets to the far side or you can't restrain her within the time limit, you lose. No tackling."
"Got it." Virgil gave her a slow smile. "I don't think she's that fast."
She eyed him as he put the ropes between his teeth. God, this was too fun. Her competitive spirit ordered, Run like hell. Her inner submissive said, Let him catch me. The gung ho voice won, and she leaned forward.
The sub yelled, "Go!"
* * * * *
Feet slapping on the plastic padding, Summer tore across the stage as fast as she could. She passed the yellow line.
She heard him behind her, the sound of his heavy stride drowning hers out. Closer. Several feet before the end, he grabbed her arm, spinning her around him until she faced the wrong way.
She staggered, tried to regain her balance, and he moved on her like a massive bear. She squeaked and backpedaled.
Grinning, he swung his foot behind her right ankle and tripped her. With a yelp, she fell backward. Her hat went flying.
He caught her on the way down, his hand gently cradling her head as he dropped to one knee beside her. Before her brain had stopped spinning, he'd rolled her onto her stomach.
No surrender. She shoved up.
His knee on her butt pinned her to the mat. Despite her flailing and kicking and giggling uncontrollably, he caught one ankle, then the other, and tied them together.
When he reached for her left wrist, she yanked it away, holding her hands above her head and out of his reach. If she used up enough time, he'd lose.
"Stubborn little calf." His deep laugh sent quivers through her. As he slid his knee up to her midback so he could reach her wrists, his weight squished her breasts painfully against the padding. After grabbing her arms, he moved off and far too easily secured her hands behind her back.
She tugged on the ropes, feeling no give. She couldn't break free. No escape. No escape... Her breath hitched. Twisting her head, she stared up at him, and his size kept growing until he seemed huge -- bigger than Dirk. Nightmarish memories bound her tighter than the ropes. Tied. Trapped. Agony. Screaming.
"Whoa, sweetie." He lifted her to her knees and cupped her chin in his palm. His eyes were steady, not angry, not filled with lust. "You're all right, Summer." His rough croon, like a gravel road under soft tires, flattened out her fears.
She inhaled slowly. Idiot. This isn't Dirk. I'm on a stage. Couldn't get much more public or safer than that. "Sorry," she whispered.
He chuckled. "You're not the first calf I've terrorized in my time." He raised his hands in the air -- a rodeo gesture -- and, as the audience cheered loudly, pulled her to her feet. He hadn't even lost his hat.
She huffed a laugh; she hadn't had a chance against him. Still feeling a little off-balance, she asked, "You did rodeo?"
"In my wayward youth. I never caught such a pretty calf before, though." His lazy grin turned her insides topsy-turvy -- even before he tossed her over his shoulder.
All the blood rushed to her head. A sub scooped up her hat, carefully set it in with the boots, and handed the sack to Virgil.
"Thanks." Virgil stepped off the stage and sauntered across the room, giving Summer a dizzying upside-down view of the crowd: the receptionist, Destiny, almost naked except for plastic six-shooters. A dom with a lariat on his hip, his stalking gait that of a predator hunting a stray calf.
When Virgil turned, boots, purple suspenders, a leather thong, a chest harness, and a red velvet gown spun around her. She blinked and focused on something closer -- the thick, flexing muscles on each side of his spine, the tight fit of his faded jeans over his flat butt.
When he massaged the back of her thigh with a calloused hand, heat streamed through her. She'd carefully stayed away from big men all this year, and now her hormones apparently wanted to make up for lost time.
As Virgil carried her down the stairs to the dungeon, the sounds of sex and pain smothered the country-western music from above. They passed the punishment room, where a dom was using a belt on a strapped-down sub who wore only white chaps.
A tremor ran through Summer. What did Virgil plan to do for her punishment?
He walked halfway through the room, then set her on her feet in front of a chair and steadied her. "Kneel here, please. I want to talk with you before we do anything." He gripped her upper arms and lowered her until her bottom rested on her feet.
As he took a seat in the leather chair, she glanced around. The nearby spanking bench held a sub, restrained and gagged. Gagged. Unable to scream, to yell her safe word, to beg her dom to stop. God. The memory of being in that situation chilled her bones. "Untie me."
He had a hard face, all bone and muscle with a strong jaw, and the slow smile he gave her didn't transform his appearance into a nice, easy-going man. With his fingertips, he lifted her chin. "Now, Summer, I'm pretty new to BDSM, but even I know you don't talk to a dom in such a manner."
New to BDSM? And he made her head spin just from the power in his gaze? His hand held her face tilted up to him, so she couldn't look away. "I'm sorry," she muttered. She noticed with a thrill of anxiety -- and excitement -- that his shoulders were as wide as the chair back.
"Almost adequate. You can call me Virgil." His fingers loosened as he rubbed his thumb over her lower lip. A glint of humor appeared in his eyes, and his lips quirked. "I don't like the term Master, but I'm used to being called Sir."
His straight-shouldered posture and easy authority did remind her of military men. "Yes, Sir," she said. She regarded him for a minute. A tiny, pale scar showed on one cheekbone, another on his chin, making him appear a little battered, and somehow she liked that. His thick eyelashes were darker than his sandy brown hair and the same color as the beard stubble along his jawline. Reassuring smile lines creased the corners of his eyes and bracketed his mouth.
He released her and rested his thickly muscled forearms on his thighs as he studied her face. "Now tell me what you like and don't like, Summer."
Negotiations. She breathed out in relief. "I won't be gagged. No drawing blood or hard-core pain. No anal." She eyed him and decided on extra caution. "No bondage."
When she'd been ten, she'd had a solo in the school play. The spotlight would track her, focus on her, much like his intent gaze did now. One corner of his mouth turned up, and he ran a finger down her cheek. "Now, I don't particularly like gags. I enjoy the noises a woman makes. We agree on that one. I object to seeing blood or making welts or anything that won't disappear before the next day. We agree there."
Something in her relaxed a bit...until he added, "I do like anal play. Is your limit just for my cock buried in your asshole or for everything?"
Like his fingers? Or toys? She actually squirmed and saw him smile. "Um. For anything large?" Her gaze dropped to his crotch, where something very, very large bulged his jeans.
His laugh held a deep rumble. "I'll take that as a compliment, little sub." He toyed with her tiny spur earring, then stroked his finger across her shoulder, in the hollow above her collarbone, sensitizing her skin. "As for bondage, seems to me as if you're already in restraints."
Her jaw dropped. "Uh...that was to play the roping game."
"Then I'd say it's not a very hard limit. Simon said you'd had a bad experience. Anything to do with being tied up?"
Damn Simon. "No. Yes." She scowled. "It's got nothing to do with our scene." Because the session would occur here in the club, in public. Her muscles relaxed.
"It's odd, but I like seeing you in my ropes." His mouth curved, and his fingers touched her neck, rested on her thudding pulse. "And I get the impression you like being in them, sweetheart. Don't you?"
"But..." What could she say? He was right. Being tied up excited her. A lot. And worried her. A lot. "Yes. I guess."
"Then why don't we see how it goes with you in restraints."
Simon's warning had practically guaranteed Virgil would push her, dammit. But he was exerting only a slight amount of pressure...because he could tell she wanted the bondage. And she did. Somehow, she knew he'd be careful. God, she'd gone insane. "Yes, Sir."
"Good. What's your safe word?"
"It's safe word." She'd chosen something anyone involved in BDSM would recognize as a call for help. One more paranoia left over from before.
"Use it if that fear of yours gets to be too much. What about pain?"
How far could she trust him? "I don't like severe pain."
His fingers stroking her neck paused. "Then you're saying you enjoy some."
Those rugged, powerful hands. What would they feel like on her? Hurting her, pushing her, comforting her. She nodded.
He made a noise as if she'd hit him. "All right." His eyes focused on the nearby scene, and he muttered, "Fucking-A," under his breath.
From the sounds of slaps, sobs, and moans, the sub was getting off from the spanking.
His gaze came back to her. "I didn't hear any limit on sex. Or toys."
She felt herself flush. She didn't usually want more than a little domination and a spanking or hand-induced sex. Yet the thought of this...stranger...holding her down and pushing inside her sparked every nerve in her body.
"I..." Why did he have to keep asking for clarifications? Her buddies simply accepted her limits without studying her reactions or questioning her answers. She shifted uncomfortably.
"I know you're not completely at ease. That's good to a degree." He leaned down and dragged her completely between his legs. His thighs closed on her upper arms like iron bars. When he threaded a hand into her long hair and tugged her head back, she stared up at him helplessly, knowing the quivers in her stomach had more to do with anticipation than fear.
"Oh, you're excited, all right. I can see it," he murmured. He tossed his hat on the sack of clothing, and his mouth gently settled on hers. He tasted of mint. Clean and heady. His firm hand curved under her chin as he teased and nibbled at her lips
With her hands tied behind her back, head trapped by his grip on her hair, and his fingers on her jaw, she couldn't fight his assault -- didn't want to fight as heat flooded her veins. Her lips softened, opened.
"That's right. Let me in." He took her mouth hard this time, as forceful as a Midwestern twister, rocking her to the foundation.
When he sat back, she wanted to follow him, to crawl into his lap, to feel his hands on her. The way his knees tightened on her shoulders, pinning her in place, showed he knew...and wouldn't relinquish control and let her.
The knowledge finished off what his kiss had started. She felt the wetness where her bottom pressed against her legs. Her body was screaming, Yes, yes, yes. Sex!
He rested a hand on her shoulder, heavy and warm, and she couldn't help but remember the sure strength of his hands as he'd tied her wrists. "Well, sex does seem like a good possibility, doesn't it?" he said in a low tone, watching her with those careful eyes
Odd hazel eyes. Upstairs in the brighter lights, she'd thought they were green. Here, in the dimmer lighting, they appeared slightly lighter than his tanned skin -- a brown with mesmerizing golden flecks. And filled with an intimidating self-possession.