Saturday, August 31, 2013

EXCERPT: The Best Man

Title: The Best Man
Author: L. A. Witt

Walking through the front door of Wilde’s was like stepping into another world.

Seattle was blessed with numerous gay and gay-friendly clubs, and Wilde’s was one of the somewhat higher brow places: Live music, top shelf liquor, a strict dress code, low lighting everywhere except the dance floor. It was relaxed, but swanky, with leather booths and bow-tied bartenders. The music was just loud enough to warrant getting extra close to someone to talk, but not enough to leave a person’s ears ringing after they left.

Gulping back my nerves, I paid the cover and checked my coat. The atmosphere here was just subdued enough to keep me from shying away. This whole thing was intimidating enough without blasting music and wild lighting to assault the senses. Walking through the crowd, I couldn’t recall ever feeling quite so out of place. So lost.

A few times, I considered backing out and heading home, but since staying here meant not spending the evening at home pining over Craig, I convinced myself to face an intimidating night out on the prowl.

On the prowl. Christ, I don’t even know what I’m looking for.

A knot twisted in my gut as I headed for the bar for a little courage on the rocks. It was entirely too soon to even think about a relationship, so if I met anyone tonight, it was either casual sex or friendship. Glancing around at the guys getting close on the dance floor and even closer in booths, friendship was pretty much off the menu in a place like this.

I had never been particularly promiscuous. I wasn’t against casual sex on principle, it had just never been my thing. Craig had often ribbed me about being a serial monogamist, and maybe he was right.

But tonight, I told myself as I took one of the available bar stools, I would just see what happened.

A bartender materialized in front of me. “What can I get you?”

I gave the top shelf selections a glance to see if anything sounded good, then went for my usual. “Jack and Coke.”

He nodded and went about mixing it as I pulled my wallet out. I took my drink and he took the cash, and then I turned my bar stool enough to give me a wide view of the club and its patrons.

The place was crawling with attractive men, some of whom caught my eye and exchanged smiles—even suggestive grins—with me. But I didn’t know where to start.

Hi, I’m Jon, care for a fuck?

My name’s Jon. I’m emotionally fucked in the head right now but wouldn’t mind a roll in the hay.

I shuddered. This was just not me. What the hell was I doing? What was I thinking?

Maybe this was a bad idea. Oh well. At least I’m out of the house for once.

Sighing, I turned back around to face the bar, and my breath caught in my throat.

Leaning casually against the counter below the top shelf bottles was a different bartender. Even the club’s dim light didn’t detract from his striking, pale green eyes, and I couldn’t look away from him if I wanted to. He didn’t seem to mind the fact that I was staring, though. After all, he was looking right at me.

When I could finally look somewhere other than his eyes, I wasn’t disappointed.

The tux shirt perfectly emphasized his broad chest and shoulders, while the black cummerbund subtly drew my attention to his narrow hips. It seemed that everyone else on staff in this club was clean-shaven, but stubble heavily shadowed his angular jaw. Still, he didn’t seem out of place. He had a kind of classy, dignified air about him that let him get away with not shaving, even with a tux shirt and bowtie. As he wiped down a rocks glass with a white towel, I noticed then that his sleeves were unbuttoned and pushed partway up his toned forearms. He must have had some seniority if he could show up unshaven and with his sleeves rolled up so casually.

“Refill?” He nodded toward my empty glass.

“Uh, yeah, how about—” I looked down at my glass, trying to remember what the hell I’d been drinking.

“Jack and Coke?”

“How did you know?”

He smiled as he set the rocks glass down and dropped some ice into it. “I saw Zach pouring the first one. Figured you were a creature of habit.”

“Perceptive.” I folded my arms on the bar and leaned on them. “Anything else you figured out about me while I wasn’t looking?”

“Well,” he said, pouring what looked like more than a single shot of Jack Daniels into the glass, “I’m guessing you’re either new in town or newly single.”

My eyebrows jumped. The corners of his eyes crinkled with amusement and he finished making my drink. When he set it on the bar, I started to pull a five out of my wallet, but he held up his hand.

“On the house.”

“Is the psychic reading free, too?”

He laughed. “The drink’s on me. As for the psychic reading, the only charge for that is that you might have to put up with my lack of conversation skills for a few more minutes.”

“I haven’t noticed anything lacking so far.” I lifted my glass.

“Likewise,” he said with a wink.

My cheeks burned and a second later, so did my throat. I was right, he definitely put more than a single shot of Jack into the drink. Just the way I liked it.

“So, what makes you think I’m either new in town or newly single?” I asked.

He rested his hands on the bar, his shoulders lifting slightly as he shifted his weight. Nodding toward the door, he said, “The ‘fish out of water’ look on your face when you came in.”

I shrugged. “Could just be that I’ve never been to this particular club.”

He shook his head. “I see a lot of new people come through that door who have obviously been around clubs, just not this one.” His smile turned into a cocky grin that suddenly made my drink taste like water. “But then there’s the people who come in looking like they’ve just arrived from another planet. And over the years, I’ve found that most of those have either just moved here or are trying to move on after a relationship.”

I raised my glass. “Very observant.”

“So, if it’s not too forward of me…” His eyes narrowed a bit as if he was trying to read between the lines of what I thought was a neutral expression. “Should I be welcoming you to the Emerald City, or buying you another drink to commiserate?”

I drained the last of my drink and rolled it around in my mouth as I set the glass in front of him.

“Sorry to hear it.” The amusement faded from his face as he pulled another glass out from under the bar and filled it with ice.

“Just make it a Coke this time.” My head was already light, but I couldn’t tell if it was Jack or… whatever his name was.

He nodded and topped the glass off with Coke.

“So if you’re commiserating,” I said. “I’m guessing you’re recently out of one too?”

“Ooh, yeah.” He grimaced. “Three years, and he picks up and walks away like nothing ever happened.”

“Ouch.” I sipped my drink. “I’ve actually been single for a while, just didn’t feel like meeting anyone right away.”

“Understandable,” he said. “It’s only been a couple of weeks for me. S.O.B. hasn’t even gotten all of his shit out of my apartment yet.”

“You haven’t done the ‘come and get it or I throw it out the window’ ultimatum yet?”

He laughed, but some of the humor disappeared from his expression. “I have. I think he just wants to make it as miserable as possible. Anything to draw it out, even if he initiated it.” He dropped his gaze for a second.

“I’ll bet I can beat that.”

“Try me,” he said.

“My ex came by tonight to tell me he’s getting married.”

His eyes widened. “How long did ago did you say you split up?”

“Six months.”

He whistled. “He doesn’t wait around, does he? Er, sorry, no offense.”

“None taken.” I put my finger on the end of my straw. “But it gets better.” Keeping my finger on the straw, I lifted it out of my glass and put the other end on my tongue. As I let my finger go so the Coke would come out of the straw, I noticed his eyes were following. When I ran my tongue around the end of the straw, his lips parted and he looked away, clearing his throat.

His cheeks colored. “So, um, what happened?”

“He wants me to be his best man.”

The bartender blinked. “You’re kidding.

“Maybe we should introduce our exes.” I paused. “Well, if they were both still single, anyway.”

He opened his mouth to speak, then glanced down the bar. “Shit, I need to take care of some other customers.” He looked at me again. “You going to be here a while?”

I am now. I smiled. “Not going anywhere.”

With a wink that made my head spin, he stepped away to see to his other customers. It was only when he was gone that I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. Ever since I’d turned around, since I’d first laid eyes on him, I hadn’t drawn a proper breath.

I thought of the way he’d watched me with the straw and shivered. The way he’d looked at me when I first turned around. I wasn’t imagining it, was I?

As he tended to customers a few feet away, smiling and laughing politely with them, he cast me a quick look and his smile faded. It didn’t fade in the sense that he was suddenly embarrassed or annoyed by my presence or the fact that I was looking at him. Quite the contrary.

His eyes said nothing if not, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

My heart pounded. I knew nothing about him beyond his job and the fact that he was recently single. I didn’t even know his name, but I suddenly wanted to hear him growling mine in my ear.

We continued that way for a while, shooting the breeze while he was between customers. Every time he was sure that every glass and bottle on the bar had been filled, he came right back to me.

At one point, while he filled drinks, several more bartenders appeared and a few others left. Shift change, I guessed. When he caught sight of one of the newcomers, his expression changed. This time, it was annoyance. As the other bartender approached him, they exchanged a few brief and, by the looks of it, terse words. Then they disappeared into the back.

It was almost fifteen minutes before he came back into view, his jaw set and his eyebrows knitted together over narrowed eyes. He kept his eyes down as he approached me. Before I’d even said a word, he went about filling another glass with Coke. Glancing back the way he came, he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket.

“My boss is here, and he’s on the warpath today, so I can’t chat.” He put the drink I hadn’t ordered on a napkin, slid it toward me, and tucked the piece of paper under it. Then he met my eyes. “I’m off in an hour.” Tapping the bar beside my drink, he said, “If you want to talk someplace quieter, I can meet you there.”

With that, he turned to go.

“Wait,” I said.

He paused and came back, glancing over his shoulder and swallowing nervously.

“Do I have to wait until then to find out your name?”

He smiled. “Liam Sable. Yours?”

“Jon Beatty.”

“I’ll see you in an hour.”

EXCERPT: The Only One Who Knows

Authors: Cat Grant, L. A. Witt

Chapter 1

Coronado, California

Three Years Ago

“Goddammit, Lieutenant Walker! Get the fuck up off the motherfucking ground right fucking now!”

Josh grimaced at the sound of Chief Flint’s voice and forced himself to his feet. His legs were done. Completely fucking done. How long had they been running in full battle rattle on soft, slippery sand? The December sun wasn’t even that hot—not that it mattered; lugging around a forty-pound rucksack still had him drenched in sweat. He’d lost track of time ever since his vision had started to sparkle and he’d had to concentrate on forcing his legs to work instead of crumpling underneath him.

The other guys panted and grunted and swore, but they kept going. Josh fell behind. Caught up. Fell behind again. And this time, he couldn’t catch up.

And of course, this time, Chief Flint was watching.

Flint called the entire group to a halt and gave them permission to drop their rucksacks. Before Josh’s had even hit the ground, the chief got right up in his face. “You think I’m going to let you lead a fucking team of goddamned SEALs into hostile fucking territory when you can’t even stay up on your goddamned feet, Lieutenant?”

“No, Chief.” Josh licked his parched lips. “I’m sorry, Chief, I—”

“I don’t want your fucking apologies!” Flint screamed at him. “I want you running at the front of the fucking pack, not stumbling around like you don’t know what your motherfucking legs are for! Am I fucking clear?”

Josh gritted his teeth. “Yes, Chief.”

Flint narrowed his eyes. Quieter now—but no less menacing—the chief snarled, “This is the third time I’ve seen you drop, Walker.” Stepping closer, he added, “I’m starting to wonder if you’re cut out to be a SEAL at all.”

Josh’s heart skipped. “I am, Chief. I am cut out to be a SEAL.”

“And why the fuck should I believe that?” Flint gestured at the rest of the men. “Why in the fucking hell should I believe for a second that you are SEAL material when all you’re showing me is someone who couldn’t have made it through enlisted boot camp if he tried?”

A couple of the enlisted guys snickered. Josh set his jaw. Officer training was intense, but the enlisted guys never let the commissioned ones forget they’d been through worse.

“You know, Walker.” Smirking, Flint folded his arms across his camo blouse. “I don’t think you’d last a day in Marine basic.” He leaned in a little closer, their faces almost touching. “I think you, Lieutenant Walker, would be one of those pussies who ran out of Basic with his fucking tail between his pussy little legs. Am I right?”

“No, Chief.”

“Am I right, Lieutenant Walker?”

“No, Chief!”

Rage turned Chief Flint’s face red. “Then when are you going to fucking prove it, you piece of shit?”

“Whenever you want me to, Chief.” Josh tried not to cringe. Something told him he’d be eating those words before long.

Chief Flint stepped back. He held Josh’s gaze for a long, unsettling moment. Then, without breaking eye contact, he barked, “The rest of you are dismissed. Walker, you stay here.”

Josh swallowed.

The other men scattered, some offering murmurs of “Good luck, brother” or “Nice knowing you, LT,” as they went by.

Once they were alone, Flint stepped up right in front of Josh again. His eyes tried to drill holes into Josh’s skull. This was one of the few times Josh didn’t pay attention—much attention—to the fact that Chief Flint and his physique were prime examples of why Josh had had more than a few fantasies about SEALs.

His tone was…not gentler, but not quite so hostile. “What happened out there, Walker?”

Josh gulped. “I didn’t stay properly hydrated, Chief. I thought I could handle it, but the sun and the exhaustion caught up with me.” He took a deep breath. “It was my mistake, Chief. It won’t happen again.”

“Isn’t that what you told me two days ago?” Chief Flint cocked his head and raised his eyebrows. “That you wouldn’t fucking puss out on me again? On your motherfucking team again?” He didn’t give Josh a chance to respond before he said, “I’m not getting through to you, am I, Lieutenant?”

“I…don’t understand, Chief.”

“I’m aware of that.” Flint beckoned sharply and started walking. “This way. Now.”

Josh followed Flint toward the mess hall and then around behind it. Josh’s stomach twisted. He’d heard the stories from the fleet about fan room beatings. Some idiot couldn’t get his shit together, his fellow sailors took him into one of the fan rooms on the ship and beat the fuck out of him. Straightened most of them out in a big hurry.

Was this the SEAL training equivalent? Shit.

Behind the mess hall, Chief Flint grabbed a metal folding chair that had been propped up against the door. He carried it over to where Josh was standing and set the chair down with an emphatic bang. With his boot, he nudged it until its legs were just a few inches away from where the shade from the mess hall ended and the bright sunlight scorched the ground.

Then he sat. In the shade, of course. He folded his arms across his chest and glared up at Josh. Gesturing at the ground in front of him, he said, “Push-ups.”

Fuck. What the hell was this? Boot camp?

“Now, Lieutenant.”

Josh took a deep breath, then got down on the ground. The sand was hot enough to sting his hands but wouldn’t cause any actual damage. He looked up at Flint. “How many, Chief?”

“You’ll fucking keep going until I tell you to stop.”

Josh eyed him. “Isn’t this hazing?”

“Nope.” One boot heel landed between Josh’s shoulders. Then the other. “But I’m pretty sure this is.”

“Chief, with all due—”

“Push-ups, Lieutenant. Now.

Josh obeyed. He was already exhausted, overheated, in dire need of rest, and Chief Flint’s boot heels bit into his back, and the added weight made every motion agony. Josh’s arms shook. He clenched his jaw and forced himself to breathe in and out through his teeth. No point in passing out, but he wasn’t so sure he had a choice.

“Chief…” Josh’s head fell forward. Almost hit the ground. “I can’t, I’m—”

“No fucking excuses,” Chief Flint snarled. “Push-ups, Lieutenant. Until I’m good and fucking ready to tell you to stop.”

Sweat trickled through Josh’s short hair and down his face. A drop burned its way into his eye, and he focused on that pain instead of the relentless burning in the rest of his body. His chest was nearly on the ground, the warmth from the sand radiating onto his face and torso. He ordered his body, then begged it, to cooperate, and struggled to push himself up.

He couldn’t. He simply had nothing left.

His elbows buckled. He collapsed to the ground, barely keeping his face from hitting the hot dirt.

He’d barely collapsed before the boots on his back disappeared.

Flint dropped to his knees beside him and grabbed the back of Josh’s blouse. “Is this the kind of motherfucking SEAL you’re going to be, Lieutenant? You going to drop out like a motherfucking pussy right when things get tough?”

“No, Chief.” Josh loathed the weakness in his voice as he croaked out the words. “No, Chief. I’m not.”

“Then why the fuck are you caving in after a few fucking push-ups?” He released Josh’s blouse, almost shoving him away. “Answer me, Lieutenant!”

Josh let his forehead hit the scorching sand.

“Push yourself the fuck up, Lieutenant,” Flint shouted at him. “And don’t fucking tell me about how fucking tired you are, goddammit. When I send you out into motherfucking Kandahar or fuck knows fucking where, and one of your fucking teammates takes a goddamned bullet, are you going to leave him there because you’re too fucking tired to haul his ass out?”

“N-no, Chief.”

“Because it’s times like this, Lieutenant, when your body can’t take another goddamned second, that your team needs you to push through. Do you want to come home from fucking Afghanistan or Iraq and tell a man’s widow you let her husband fucking die because you were motherfucking hot and tired?”

Josh tried to moisten his lips. “No, Chief.”

“Then when you muster tomorrow, I fucking expect you to act like it. Am I clear?”


“Am I motherfucking clear, you son of a bitch?”

Yes, Chief.”

Chief Flint stood. His boots were just a few inches from Josh’s face. One well-placed kick away from giving him a face full of sand. But he didn’t.

“Get up.”

Standing had never been as difficult as it was just then. Josh’s muscles were done. He was shaking. Light-headed. He got to his knees, and as he tried to make it all the way to his feet, his vision darkened.

A strong hand grabbed his upper arm. “Take it easy, Lieutenant.” Now Flint’s voice was gentle. “Just go slow.”

The hand around his arm became an arm around his shoulders, and Flint eased him to his feet. The chief led him in through the back door of the mess hall and guided him to one of the tables.

Josh sank onto one of the benches, closing his eyes and exhaling from the sheer relief of being off his feet and no longer forced to perform.

Flint touched his shoulder. “You all right?”

Josh nodded. He wasn’t in any danger. He’d had heatstroke enough times to know when he was in trouble, but right then, he just felt like shit.

“Don’t move,” Flint said.

Josh folded his arms on the table and rested his head on them. His sleeves were soaked with sweat. His skin felt sunburned, but he doubted it was. He’d surfed his way to a solid bronze tan before he came to BUD/S. It would take more than a few miles and some push-ups in the sun to burn him.

Chief Flint returned a minute later and handed Josh three bottles of water. “Here. Go easy on it. Don’t drink it all at once.”

Josh nodded. “Thank you, Chief.”

Flint sat across from him, dog tags rattling quietly as they bumped the table’s metal edge. He folded his hands on the table and watched Josh struggle with the cap on the first bottle.

“Need a hand?”

There was already plenty of heat in Josh’s cheeks, but a little more showed up anyway. “I’ve got it, Chief. Thanks.” And finally, the seal broke, and the cap came off. Water had never tasted so fucking good.

Chief Flint didn’t speak. Neither did Josh. He probably wasn’t allowed to, and he sure as fuck wasn’t inclined to. He did allow himself a look at Flint. When the man wasn’t screaming at him or anyone else, when he was in a calmer state, he was damned easy on the eyes. Probably fair-skinned most of the time, but he spent most of his waking hours under the California sun, and it showed in his deep tan and bleached hair. Fucking ripped. He’d stripped off his camouflage blouse and just wore a brown T-shirt, which stretched across chiseled abs and an amazing set of shoulders. Shame he was such an asshole, though the cold water in Josh’s hand made him wonder about that.

About the time Josh was three quarters through the second bottle of water, Flint broke the silence. “Feel better?”

“Yes.” Josh started to take another drink but paused to add, “Yes, Chief.”

Flint sat up a little, folding his arms and leaning over them. His green eyes weren’t so full of rage now. Intense, still, but that must have been their natural state. “Do you think I’m tougher on you than I am the other trainees?”

Well, now that you mention it…

Josh pressed one of the cold bottles against the side of his face. “I…um…”

“I am,” Flint said. “I’m going to tell you that right now. I am harder on you than any other man in your class.”

“Um. Okay…”

“Do you know why?”

Josh shook his head. “No, Chief.”

“Because I see something in you that I don’t see in any of the other men,” Flint said. “What I see in you is the raw beginnings of the type of SEAL who puts himself on top of a grenade to save his men. Or carries out a SEAL with a broken leg even though you’ve already taken a bullet to the chest. Exactly what every SEAL should be, and what all the most exceptional ones are.”

Josh swallowed. “Really?”

Flint nodded. “You’re team leader material, Lieutenant. Not just a SEAL. A team leader.” He leaned closer, screwing with Josh’s blood pressure. “Am I wrong about you, Walker?”

“No, Chief. You’re not.”

Eyes locked on Josh’s, Flint reached across the table and put his hand on Josh’s forearm. The gesture forced all the air from Josh’s lungs.

Speaking so softly Josh could barely hear him, Flint said, “Prove me right, Lieutenant. Because we both know I am.”

Josh found just enough breath to reply with, “I will, Chief.”

“Good.” Flint squeezed his arm, then pulled his hand back and got up. He looked down at Josh. “Get yourself cleaned up, and get some rest.” The cold, hardened chief was back. “And tomorrow, you’d damn well better have your shit together, or you can kiss your shot at a trident good-bye.”

Josh managed a whispered, “I will, Chief.”

Flint started to walk away.


The man turned around, eyebrows up.

“Thank you, Chief.”

Flint nodded sharply, then turned and continued out of the mess hall.

Every muscle in Josh’s body ached from the run and from the push-ups he’d forced himself to do. His body was still hot from the sun and exertion. But on the back of his arm was a distinctly cool spot, the place where Flint’s hand had been.

Of course it was just a platonic gesture. A touch meant to reassure, or…or something. Josh couldn’t quite figure out what. Definitely wasn’t meant to have any kind of sexual effect on him, but that didn’t stop him from getting goose bumps under his uniform. His body was too damned exhausted for any response beyond that, though. And pity it was just a fantasy. It was a good one.

He finished the water Chief Flint had given him, then forced his aching legs to work. He headed back to the barracks to get cleaned up.

And tomorrow?

Tomorrow, there was no way in hell he was disappointing Chief Flint. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

EXCERPT: Reconstructing Meredith

Title: Reconstructing Meredith
Author: Lauren Gallagher

Chapter One

King. Queen. Jack. Ten. Nine. All spades.

Only a well-practiced poker face kept me from grinning. With a king-high straight flush in my hand, the only thing that could save any of my opponents was a royal flush.

Kristen, one of my girlfriends, eyed me from across the table, undoubtedly inspecting my expression for anything that might betray the hand I held. I just looked back at her, put my cards facedown on the table, and folded my hands over them.

She laughed quietly. Why she still tried to read me, I didn’t know. My poker face was as rock solid as her own.

To my left. Steve, tonight’s host, scowled at his cards. His visible frustration was too intense to be a bluff. He was probably thinking his shitty hand meant he was fucked. Which I supposed was true, but it was really my hand  that meant he was fucked, not his.

And it was about damned time, too. I was already down almost fifty bucks tonight, and most of that was in the pile of chips in front of Kristen. It was high time I got some of that back.

Matt, Kristen’s other boyfriend, tapped a five-dollar chip on the table. “Kris, you’re opening.”

She didn’t hesitate, picking up two fivers and tossing them into the center of the table. “Ten.”

Steve’s scowl intensified. He chewed his lip for a second, then threw in two chips. “Call.”

I did the same, minus the display of frustration. “Call.”

Matt raised the bet to fifteen. Kristen and Steve both raised their eyebrows. That five-dollars could have been cockiness or, knowing him, a bluff. Still, I wasn’t worried.

Matt tapped the deck with two fingers. “Kristen, how many?”

She pulled two cards out of her hand and slid them across the table. Matt dealt two and sent them her way.

He raised his eyebrows. “Steve?”

“Four,” Steve muttered. They exchanged cards.


I started to speak, but my cell phone vibrated in my pocket, startling me. As I pulled it out, I said, “None for me.”

I looked at my caller ID. The number was unrecognized, so it was probably a wrong number. I debated kicking it over to voicemail, but since they were calling at past nine on a weeknight, there was always the possibility it wasn’t a wrong number and was important. Keeping my voice as quiet as I could, I answered.



The woman’s voice raised the hairs on the back of my neck. It couldn’t be. Not after all this time.

I cleared my throat. “Uh, yes, this is Scott.”

“Oh, thank God.” She was almost whispering. “It’s…”

My heart pounded. “Meredith?”

Kristen met my eyes from across the table, eyebrows up and lips apart.

“Yeah,” Meredith said softly. “It’s me.”

I nodded. Kristen’s eyes widened.

To Meredith, I said, “This is… unexpected.”

Matt and Kristen’s voices murmured in the background, behind the blood pounding in my ears and the tense silence on the line.

“…someone you know?”

“…his ex-girlfriend…”

Meredith took a breath. “Listen, I know I’m probably the last person you expected to hear from, and…” She dropped her voice a little lower. “Scott, I need your help.”

If there were five words in the English language that could make me abandon a king-high straight flush when I was fifty in the hole, those were the ones.

“Hold on a second.” I pushed my chair back. To the other players, I said, “I need to take this. I’m out.”

Kristen shot me an inquisitive look, but didn’t say anything.

I ducked into the kitchen so I could speak to Meredith privately and not disturb the other players. “So, what’s going on?”

“It’s a long story. There’s—” She exhaled. “A lot’s happened in the last few years.”

Something cold wrapped itself around the base of my spine. Her voice was different somehow. I couldn’t decide if she sounded exhausted or on the brink of tears. Or both.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She took another breath, and the raggedness of it only tightened that chill coiling around my spine.


“I’d rather discuss it in person,” she said quietly.

I swallowed. “When?”

“Whenever. The sooner the better, but it’s not a dire emergency.”

That allowed me a little bit of relief. Not much, though. I wouldn’t rest easy until I had the full story.

“What about now?” I asked.

“On such short notice? Scott, I don’t want you to drop—”

“Where are you? I can leave now. Just tell me where you are.”

“It’s not an emergency,” she said. “I don’t want you to drop everything.”

“Do you need my help?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then let me help you,” I said. “Tell me where to be and when to be there.”

The breath she released was pure relief, as if she’d worried I’d turn her away. I hoped she knew me better than that; whatever was in our past, I would never leave her high and dry.

“Can you meet me at my apartment?” she asked.

“Text me the address,” I said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

She said nothing for a moment, then whispered, “Thank you, Scott.”

We hung up a moment later, and my heart pounded as I stared at my now dormant phone. I looked up just as Kristen stepped into the kitchen.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“Yeah. I have to go, though.”

“What’s wrong?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. Meredith says she needs my help, but fuck if I know what that means.”

She put her hands on my hips. “You think she’s in some kind of trouble?”

“No idea.” I slid my phone back into my pocket. “Hopefully it’s nothing serious, but if she’s calling me after all this time…”

“Maybe it has to do with her husband.”

That cold something wound itself a little tighter. I nodded slowly. “I’d be willing to bet it does.” I hoped it didn’t. I hoped I’d been wrong about him from the beginning, but I doubted it.

Matt appeared in the doorway. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I think so, but I have to go.” I grinned and ran my fingers through Kristen’s long hair. To Matt, I said, “Guess you’ll have to take care of her on your own tonight.”

Matt chuckled. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

“Didn’t think it would be.” I looked at Kristen. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

“Damn right you will.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Don’t get mouthy with me, woman.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

I laughed. “I’m going to—” I paused when I put my hands on her waist. I squeezed gently, noting the stiff, thick fabric beneath her unassuming sweatshirt. Then I released a long breath through my nose. “You’re wearing the black corset tonight, aren’t you?”

She batted her eyes. “Maybe I am.”

“Vile temptress.” I leaned in to kiss her. My phone buzzed, probably signaling that Meredith’s text message had come through. “And on that note, I have to run.”

“Okay.” Kristen stood up on her toes to kiss me one more time. “Give her a hug for me.”

“Will do.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.” We parted with one last brief kiss. Then I shook Matt’s hand, cashed out my chips, said goodbye to everyone else, and left.

Steve’s apartment was on the second floor, and I was thankful we’d had poker night at his place this week. Several of the other players were on some of the higher floors, and at least from here, I could just take the stairs instead of losing my mind waiting for the painfully slow elevator.

On the way down the stairs and out to the parking lot, my thoughts went back to my short, cryptic conversation with Meredith. What was going on? Why me? Why now?

I hoped against all hope it wasn’t what I thought it was.

We’d parted almost amicably after living together for a couple of years, and things were strained for a while after that. Time eased the resentment, though, and eventually our friendship had flourished. In the back of my mind, I’d held on to the hope that we might get back together, but I was content with friendship if that was the best thing for us.

Then she met Rich.

I gritted my teeth at the very thought of him. I punched Meredith’s address into my car’s GPS, and then turned out of the parking lot and followed the directions.

Rich had sent up all kinds of red flags from the very beginning. I never actually met the son of a bitch, but when Meredith abruptly cut off contact with me after seeing him for two weeks, alarm bells went off in my head. She stopped returning my calls and blocked my e-mail address. Within a month, she’d stopped communicating with any of our mutual friends, and before the second month was up, she’d quit her job and moved out of state with him.

Last I’d heard, they’d married about six months later. That was five years ago, and to my knowledge, no one in our social circle had heard from her again.

I’d thought about her often since then. I’d alternated between being hurt and angry to worrying myself sick. For five years, I hoped she’d call, reappear, send a smoke signal to me, someone, anyone, but she didn’t.

Not until tonight, anyway. I white-knuckled the steering wheel. The bitter taste of resentment tried to work its way in, but I forced it back. Meredith was a proud woman. If she was willing to admit she needed help and she was willing to come to me for that help, then this was no time to bring up the past. And if Rich was the asshole I’d long suspected him to be, then I had no business holding any of this against her.

The clock on the dash showed a few minutes ’til ten when I pulled into an unfamiliar apartment complex on the other side of town.

“You have arrived at your destination,” the unemotional voice of the GPS announced, and my heart beat faster.

I locked my car and pocketed the keys as I looked up at the building and wondered what waited for me inside. On the way across the parking lot, I glanced around, and icy dread tingled beneath my skin. Aside from my own, there wasn’t a car in this lot that had been manufactured in the last five years. Maybe even ten. On every window of the aging brick building were black bars. Across the street, a rundown convenience store was backed up against a tavern with dark windows and bright neon signs. The place looked crowded for a Wednesday night, and it looked like one of the places that frequently appeared on the evening news with blue and red flashing lights in the background.

All of that added up to an area where one wouldn’t expect to find a surgeon living with his wife, which led me—and the knot in my gut—to believe she lived here alone.

At the entrance to the building, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Then I buzzed her apartment number. A second later, the lock on the door clicked open. Inside, I pulled the heavy metal door shut behind me, the clang echoing up and down the deserted stairwell. I started up the stairs under the weak light of the only sconce whose bulb hadn’t burned out.

The hallway was somewhat better lit. At least enough for me to make out the weathered, faux brass numbers on each door.

Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-place-where-a-three-used-to-be.

Twenty-four. I steeled myself against whatever conversation awaited, and knocked.

My heart kept time with the muffled footsteps on the other side.

“No, no, get—” Her voice raised my pulse a few more notches. “Would you get out of the way?”

The chain on the door scratched, then rattled. The deadbolt ground, then clicked. I couldn’t breathe. I sent up one last prayer that this wasn’t what I thought it would be, and the door opened.

My heart dropped into my feet.

Meeting my eyes across the threshold, one hand on the doorknob and the other arm restraining an irritated orange tabby, was a shadow of the woman I’d once known. Her face was gaunt, shoulders poised as if she was ready to shrink back or recoil at any second. She smiled, but that didn’t mask the darkness under—or the worry in—her eyes.

“Wow,” she said softly. “I can’t believe how long it’s been.”

Forcing a smile, I said, “Neither can I.”

“Come in, come in.” She stood aside. The cat squirmed under her arm.

I stepped past her, glancing at the cat and chuckling. “Opinionated little creature?”

She groaned. “Oh, God, you have no idea.”

“Trust me, I do.” I scratched the cat’s ears. “I have one that drives me crazy.”

“Guess they’re good for that, aren’t they?”

“Sometimes I think that’s all they’re good for.”

She laughed, then set the cat down. It trotted out of the room, leaving us in awkward silence without our easy conversation piece. Meredith kept her eyes down, and as she folded her arms across her chest, her shoulders were bunched with tension. She chewed her lower lip, something unspoken furrowing her brow.

I opened my mouth to speak, but she suddenly gestured down the hall.

“Sorry, I’m being rude,” she said quickly. “Let’s go in the living room so we can sit. Do you want some coffee?”

“No, thank you.” Caffeine was the last thing I needed tonight.

I followed her down the hall into the small, spartan living room. She’d always had elegant taste, but what little she had in this room—a couch, a couple of chairs, an old television on an older makeshift TV stand—was probably all secondhand. The furnishing of someone who’d had nothing to her name and probably not a lot of money, and just needed a few things to get by for the time being.

At her invitation, I took a seat on the couch. She sat on the other end, keeping a cushion between us. Completely at a loss for how to break the ice, I watched her hug her knees to her chest and look anywhere but right at me. Conversation had come so easily for us back then, but we were strangers now. I searched her face and body language for signs of the woman I once knew. A hint of her unshakable boldness, her wry sense of humor, something.

Nothing. I found nothing.

What’s happened to you, Meredith?

She finally managed to look at me. “Thank you for coming over. On such short notice and all of that.”

“No problem. You said you needed help, so…”

She bit her lip again, dropping her gaze to watch her fingers pluck away a phantom piece of lint from her pant leg.

Pulling my knee up on to the cushion between us, I turned toward her. “What do you need?”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she faced me. “I need your help finding a Dom.”

“You— ” I blinked. Of all the things I thought she might ask me tonight, that hadn’t even crossed my mind. “What?”

“I mean, assuming you’re still involved with the lifestyle?”

“I am, yes.” I eyed her uncertainly. “I didn’t think you were. But—” I shook my head. “That’s why you called me over here out of the blue after all this time? So I could help you find a Dom?” Anger and jealousy surged to the surface, but I shoved them back. There had to be more to this. “What’s going on, Meredith?”

Shrinking away from me slightly, she ran a hand through her hair, and the hint of a tremor gave me chills. I wanted so badly to move closer to her, to put a hand on her knee or an arm around her shoulders, but something deep down told me she’d draw away. Not from me per se, but from any advance. Like a beaten dog flinching from the hand that tries to pet it.


She suddenly met my eyes, and amidst the fatigue and worry in hers, there was a spark of fierce determination. Finally, a piece of the woman I once knew.

She moistened her lips. “It’s a long story.”

“I know, you mentioned that on the phone.” I inclined my head slightly. “I have nothing but time.”

Swallowing hard, she dropped her gaze. “You probably heard I got married.”

“I did, yes.”

“Rich wasn’t just my husband. He was a…” She swallowed again. When she met my eyes once more, the faint shimmer of tears took my breath away. “Rich was my Dom. My… Master.”

A tremendous weight forced what little breath I had left out of my lungs. My shoulders fell. That controlling asshole called himself a Dom? Short of telling me he was a mass murderer, there wasn’t much she could have told me that could have turned my stomach more violently.

I found just enough breath to whisper, “What did he do to you?”

She blinked a few times. Sniffed sharply. Fixed her gaze on her wringing hands. “I’d been thinking about being a submissive for a while. It intrigued me for a long time, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it, what it entailed, that sort of thing.”

Inwardly, I cringed. Jesus, if I had known, I could have guided her into it. Shown her the ropes like I’d done with Kristen.

Meredith went on. “Rich saw that in me. He saw that I was inexperienced, but wanted to be a sub. Even though I hadn’t said anything, he knew.”

I winced, not even caring if she saw it. I’d seen the sub in her too, but she hadn’t been interested in kink while we were dating. Either uninterested or simply not ready.

“So he…” She trailed off, closing her eyes as she gnawed her thumbnail. “Long story short, he made me his sub. His slave, actually.”

“He forced you into submission,” I breathed.

She nodded. “It was hell, Scott. Every day, for two and a half years, it was hell.”

Rich, so help me God, if I ever get my hands on you

“I assume you’re divorced now?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I left a couple of years ago. I’ve only been back here for a little while, but the divorce has been final for almost eighteen months. Rich is out of the picture.”

“Good,” I said. “What I don’t understand, though, is why you want a Dom now.”

“Because he was right about one thing,” she said. “I am a submissive. I wasn’t ready to become one yet, I certainly wasn’t ready to be his, but I am a sub.”

“But, after everything he put you through—”

“I need someone who will help me pick up the pieces,” she said quietly. “I want to know what it’s like to enjoy being a sub.”

I swallowed hard. I knew what it was like to be a damaged sub. I’d been one years ago, albeit to a lesser degree, after a traumatic experience with a Domme before I became a Dom myself. But two and a half years of twenty-four/seven slavery with an abusive Master? How the hell did anyone pick up those pieces?

“Do you understand what it is I’m looking for?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “But are you sure? I would think you’d need to spend some time with a therapist before—”

“I have.” She gestured sharply and shook her head. “I’ve been to four. They’ve all helped me grieve my so-called marriage and move past the abuse, but when it comes to the sex and the kink…” She shook her head again.

I sat up and moved a little closer to her, barely resisting the urge to put a comforting hand on her arm. “What do they say about it?”

“They all think I need to just focus on relationships, try to get back into a ‘normal’ sex life, that kind of thing.” She looked at me, and there were more tears in her eyes now. “Rich ruined enough things for me, Scott. He took away a few years of my life. He beat me, he raped me, he let other people—”

I flinched, sucking in a breath. “Fucking hell.”

“They think I should focus on dealing with the abuse instead of exploring kink, but they don’t understand that part of letting him go is taking back my sexuality and making it mine instead of his. I need to take this back from him.” Meredith put her hand over mine. The cool dampness of her palm raised goose bumps along my arm. “It’s a part of who I am, Scott, even if I never got the chance to explore it before him.” She sniffed, then cleared her throat. “You were the only one I could think of who’d understand, and you’re the only one I trust enough to help me find someone who won’t hurt me like he did.”

I turned my hand over underneath hers, lacing our fingers together. “What if I told you I know a therapist who understands kink?”

She blinked. “You do?”

I nodded. “She’s involved in the lifestyle herself, and she’s helped a lot of traumatized subs.” Squeezing her hand gently, I said, “If I give you her number, will you call her?”

“Will you—” She hesitated. “Will you go with me to see her?”

“If that’s what you want, yes.”

“It is.”

“Set up the appointment, then. I’ll be there.”

She smiled. “Thank you.”

I returned the smile, pretending this wasn’t all killing me from the inside out.

“What about the rest?” she said. “About helping me find a Dom? Will you?”

I said nothing for a moment, nor did I look at her.

She ran her thumb along the side of my hand. “Scott?”

“There’s only one Dom I’d let anywhere near you right now,” I said. “And that’s me.”

Meredith’s spine straightened and her hand twitched in mine. “Scott, we’re—”

“Do you trust me?”

She gulped. “Yes, of course. That’s why I called you.”

“Then let me help you.”

“But what about our—” She bit her lip, twin creases appearing between her eyebrows as a grimace threatened. “Our past?”

“It’s in the past,” I said. “I’ve never given you a reason not to trust me, though, have I?”

She shook her head.

“Which puts us well ahead of the game versus if I paired you with a Dom you’d never met.” I slid my other hand under hers.

“I can’t ask you to do this,” she said, dropping her gaze.

 “I want to.” Lifting her chin, I said softly, “I don’t care what happened between us before. I want to help you now.”

She closed her eyes, pressing her lips tightly together as if struggling to keep her emotions in check.

“If you’re not comfortable with me,” I said, “I can find you someone else. But I’ve guided inexperienced and traumatized subs before. And I’ve been there, you know that.”

“I know.” She opened her eyes. “And I do trust you. I’m just…” She bit her lip, looking away once again.

“You what?”

She blinked a few times, and a tear slid down her cheek. She reached up to wipe it away, but I beat her to it, brushing it away with my thumb.

I caressed her cheek. “Talk to me, Meredith.”

“There are…” She met my eyes. “There are scars.”

Sweet Jesus, what did that bastard do to you? “What kind of scars?”

“Ugly ones,” she whispered.

I moved a little closer to her and stroked her hair. “Do you really think I’d be repulsed by some scars? I’m not that kind of man, Meredith, you know that.”

She looked me in the eye, and when she spoke, her voice shook. “You haven’t seen them.”

“Doesn’t matter.” I touched her face again, then gently pulled her to me and kissed her forehead. “That son of a bitch hurt you, and I’m not about to let a few scars keep me from helping you pick up the pieces.”

She managed a slight but genuine smile. “Thank you, Scott.”

“You’re welcome.”

Ages-old habit took over, and before I realized what I was doing, I leaned in and kissed her lightly. It was only when my lips had been against hers for a few long seconds that panic swept through me. I pulled back, thankful I hadn’t gotten completely carried away and deepened the kiss like I’d very nearly done.

“Sorry, sorry,” I whispered. “I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t be.” She put her arms around my neck. When she spoke again, her voice shook more than before. “Do you know how long it’s been since someone’s kissed me like that?”

I shook my head.

She drew me closer. “Way too long.”

I wrapped my arms around her. “Do you want me to do it again?”

She nodded, and when she swept her tongue across her lips, a shiver ran down my spine.

I moved in slowly this time, certain with every inch I gained that she’d come to her senses and pull back. As the nearness of her breath warmed my lips, my heart beat faster.

Just before I kissed her, she stopped me with a gentle hand on my chest. Another cool rush of panic surged through my veins.

“What? What is it?” I started to pull away, but she held me to her.

“It’s been a long time, Scott,” she whispered. “A long, long time.”

I ran an unsteady hand through her hair. “I know. If you want me to stop, I—”

“No, it’s not that.” She moistened her lips again. “I just want you to know that if you kiss me again, there’s a good chance I won’t want you to stop.” She swallowed hard. “At all.”

“So you’re saying,” I said, my heart pounding so hard I was surprised it didn’t add a vibrato to my voice, “that if I kiss you again, you won’t want to stop at just a kiss?”

“No, I won’t.”

I slid my hand around the back of her neck and drew her to me. “Thanks for the warning.”