Author: Lauren Gallagher
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?”
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?”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”