Author: Aleksandr Voinov, L.A. Witt
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
“Oh, ow, that stings,” Richard hissed. His welt-covered back flinched away from Nick’s touch.
“I know it does.” Nick kept his voice gentle. “Just relax. It’ll help.” He continued smoothing lotion onto the sub’s scourged flesh.
Richard didn’t quite relax. He was still new at this, still hadn’t gotten used to that burn in his skin when he started coming out of subspace and his nerve endings remembered what they did for a living.
“Is that really necessary?”
“It is if you want to be able to wear a shirt or lean on anything tomorrow, yes.” Nick capped the lotion bottle and put it aside. Then he set his hands—lightly, of course—on the lotion-slicked skin, and made more smooth, gentle circles over the welts. He grinned over his handiwork; he always did love the cool patterns a cat-o’-nine-tails left on a sub’s back. Made his masochistic clients so much more fun and interesting than the regular “fuck me and I’ll pay you” johns.
His grin faded, and he kept rubbing the lotion on, but with less enthusiasm. His muscles ached a little from swinging the flogger, but mostly he was just tired. That kind of bone-deep tired that hit the mind harder than the body. Less like he’d fucked a businessman this afternoon and flogged Richard this evening, and more like he’d just spent days on end studying for an exam he couldn’t afford to fail. “Friday night at five” tired.
“How do you feel?” he asked Richard.
“Good.” Fatigue weighed down the sub’s voice. “Feel good.”
“Doesn’t sting anymore?”
“A little. Isn’t bad.”
Nick smiled. Richard had come back down from subspace, returned to terra firma, and now was hitting that lethargic state that would eventually knock him out for the rest of the night. Mission accomplished.
Once Richard was all right for the evening, Nick took the folded bills off the bureau—they’d learned after the first or second night to have the money ready to go because Richard would be asleep before Nick left—and called a cab. He checked one last time to make sure Richard was in a good state, and then he was gone.
The night was cool, especially for someone wearing no shirt under a leather jacket, but the shock of evening air on bare skin helped centre Nick and return him to the real world while he waited for his cab.
He could have sworn there’d been a time when he was flying high after he left clients’ houses. He distinctly remembered feeling like he could take on the world, like he could move a mountain with nothing more than a glance. Maybe he was just burned out now. Who knew? But the last few times he’d stepped outside to wait for his ride, he’d felt a dull heaviness in the pit of his stomach. One he couldn’t quite explain.
He glanced back at Richard’s terraced house. His lack of enthusiasm was weird because this was one of the clients he actually liked, although he didn’t really know him. He didn’t even know if Richard was the guy’s real name. Most of his clients gave him fake names. Nick gave them his real one. He liked the in-your-face quality of it, the ballsiness of saying, “Yeah, my name is Nick, and I fuck men for a living.”
There was really nothing to be ashamed of. As far as some people were concerned, just being gay meant he fucked everything and everyone. Taking money for it was just the icing on the cake. The job suited him just fine. Or at least it had until recently.
The cab pulled up and Nick slipped into the back just as his mobile started buzzing in his pocket.
“Hang on a sec,” he told the driver, and pulled the phone out of his pocket.
He had a sixth sense for timing, that guy. The prospect of roast chicken sounded great, especially when the alternative was collapsing in front of the TV for another two hours before he rolled into bed. And an evening with Spencer—a late night dinner followed by anything Nick wanted—was always tempting.
But Nick hesitated. He’d been doing that lately, ever since that night a couple of weeks ago when he hadn’t taken Spencer’s money. The night things had changed. Their relationship was on weird footing now, footing Nick hadn’t quite adapted to yet, and he caught himself hesitating like this every time he considered going over there. Of course he always went—over the last couple of weeks, he’d been at Spencer’s house every night he hadn’t stayed with a client—but the momentary hemming and hawing kept happening.
A second text came through:
Vanquish. Well, all right then . . .
Nick gave the driver Spencer’s address. After three months and a little, he didn’t have to check it anymore on the phone.
En route to Spencer’s, Nick checked his emails. He’d recently set up a website and that thing needed work. For whatever reason, it attracted way too much spam. He also needed to get some professional photos. Maybe if he pushed harder into the D/s side of things, he could start his own studio and hire a couple people for the grunt work.
Being unashamed of something and being stuck doing it forever were two very different things.
In front of Spencer’s house, Nick paid the cabbie, tipping well as usual, grabbed his bag, and stepped out.
Before Nick had even reached the front door, Spencer opened it, looking gorgeous in jeans and a dark red cashmere sweater, barely protected by an apron. He grinned wide as if Nick were the guy from the National Lottery. “Come on in.”
“Cheers.” Nick slid in and Spencer closed the door behind them.
The house smelled of rosemary and roasting bird. After the dark outside, the warm light squeezed oddly against his heart, and Nick dropped his bag beside the door.
“Glad you could make it.” Spencer’s hand was warm as he slid it beneath Nick’s jacket onto his bare waist.
“Thanks for the invite.” Nick drew Spencer down for a quick kiss that turned into a long one. They wrapped their arms around each other, Spencer’s sweater soft against Nick’s skin wherever the apron didn’t get in the way. Sometimes after he’d been with a client, the last thing Nick wanted was to be touched, but Spencer’s hands and his embrace and his tender kiss were exactly what he needed right then. An entire bottle of wine couldn’t relax Nick the way this did.
They separated, and when Nick swept the tip of his tongue across his lip, Spencer shivered. Then he let Nick go and gestured down the hall. “I should check on the bird. Come on in.”
In the kitchen, Nick leaned against one of the work surfaces.
“Tea?” Spencer asked after he’d checked on the chicken.
This was all so oddly domestic: Spencer pouring tea into a pair of matching mugs, offering cream and sugar, and the two of them quietly sipping it in the fragrant kitchen. If someone had peered in through a window, they might have mistaken the two of them for a respectable couple instead of a corporate lawyer and his prostitute boyfriend. With that gentle kiss still tingling on his lips, Nick might have made that mistake himself, and he didn’t know quite what to make of that.
He put down his mug. “You didn’t roast that bird yourself, did you?”
“I did. Stopped at Smithfield Market, came face-to-face, well, in a manner of speaking, with the biggest chicken I’ve ever seen. The butcher said it’s a capon. A castrated chicken. Told me how to cook it, too, but it took quite a while longer than he indicated.”
“Ahh,” Nick said. “That explains why it’s just about ready at this hour.”
Spencer laughed. “Tell me about it. I didn’t set out to eat at”—he glanced at the microwave clock—“ten thirty at night.” His laugh turned into a gentle smile. “But I’d say it worked out. Meant we could have a proper dinner together.”
“So we can.” Damn, but these fuzzy, romantic feelings were alien to Nick. He cleared his throat. “I, um, didn’t know you cooked. It’s been all restaurant deliveries so far.”
“Shoving some oranges and limes up a dead bird’s bottom and throwing him in an oven isn’t cooking,” Spencer insisted. “I was just . . . in the mood.”
Nick smiled and crossed his arms. “Next thing I know, you’ll bake gingerbread cookies.”
Spencer laughed again. Then he nodded at Nick’s chest, which was bare under his leather jacket. “Want a shirt?”
Hmm. Interesting. An attempt at domesticity. But having dinner half-naked might just be a bit weird.
“I probably should.” Nick uncrossed his arms. “But nothing of yours is going to fit me.”
“Just a sec.” Spencer rushed off, and Nick exhaled. Damn, nothing about this was as awkward or unnatural as he kept convincing himself it should be. He pulled down the zip and slipped out of his jacket, then hung that up in the corridor. The kitchen was plenty warm with the roast going.
“Here.” Spencer came back with a slinky running top in black that wouldn’t hang off him like he was trying on an older brother’s clothes. Nick pulled it on, gratified that Spencer stole a long glance at his chest.
“Thanks,” Nick said, and picked up his tea mug again.
Spencer watched him for a moment. “Long day?”
“Do I look it?”
Nick clasped his hands and stretched his arms out, trying to release some of the tension in his shoulders. “Why do I feel like I just put in a week atjob?”
Spencer laughed. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t even know, really.” Nick rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Just exhausted. And it’s less physical than mental. Which is weird.”
“Huh. That’s kind of—here, turn around.”
Nick eyed him. “What?”
Spencer gestured for him to do as he was told. Odd, the sub ordering the Dom, but right about then, Nick didn’t care about playing games. And besides, they weren’t in the bedroom. Equal footing out here in the kitchen between an oven full of roasting bird and a table set for two.
So he turned around.
Spencer’s hands materialized on his shoulders. He pressed his fingers and thumbs in, and Nick closed his eyes as Spencer kneaded the exhausted muscles.
“You okay?” Spencer asked. “You are really, really tense.”
Nick wanted to answer automatically with “I’m fine” or “I’m just tired,” but Spencer’s hands were like tactile truth serum. Gentle but firm pressure that completely destroyed Nick’s resolve—and maybe his ability—to bullshit his way out from under the conversation.
He exhaled, tilting his head forward so Spencer had more access to his neck. “I don’t know what it is. The last couple of weeks or so, I’ve just . . .”He sighed and shook his head. “Maybe I just need a holiday.”
“You just took one a few weeks ago.”
Nick stiffened. Right. That “holiday to Spain” he’d supposedly taken. Guilt clawed at him; he still hadn’t been entirely truthful to Spencer about that. He cleared his throat. “I don’t think it was enough. Maybe I, um, need another.”
“Maybe you do.” Spencer’s hands slowly climbed Nick’s neck, sliding under his longish hair in search of the tension Nick obviously couldn’t keep hidden from him. “You’ve got a physically demanding job.”
“I’ve had a physically demanding job for a long . . .” He shivered as Spencer’s thumb pressed into a particularly tense spot.
“Yes,” he said through his teeth. “But keep doing it.” Man, he really was tense. He hated the feeling of someone massaging out a particularly knotted muscle, hated that persistent pain as muscle fought fingers before finally giving in and relaxing. Right now, though, that obnoxious sharp pain was the promise of relief, so he pressed back, pushing against Spencer’s fingers even though his eyes watered.
After some work on Spencer’s part and swearing on Nick’s, the muscle gave. The pain faded to a dull ache, and Spencer worked his way back down to Nick’s shoulders.
“Anyway.” Nick released a breath. He carefully tilted his newly relaxed neck to one side, then the other. “It’s not like I’m new to this job. After all this time, you’d think I’d be used to it.”
“Maybe you’re burned out.”
“I don’t know.” Nick had studied burnout in-depth at university, but was that what this was? He sighed. “I don’t know what it is. Like I said, it’s not my body that’s tired.” Nick turned his head as far as he could, just enough to bring Spencer into his peripheral vision. “That’s what I meant when I said it felt like I’d been at your job all day.”
“Brain stuffed with wet wool?”
Nick laughed, facing forward again. “Yeah. Exactly. I mean, maybe it is burnout. I just . . .” Feel like there’s more to it than that? Maybe he was overthinking it. Trying to self-diagnose something strange and obscure like every psych student eventually did.
He closed his eyes and enjoyed Spencer’s magic hands as they travelled down his back. Spencer’s thumbs pressed in on either side of his spine, and his fingers kneaded the outer muscles until they relaxed. Nick completely lost track of time, and very nearly forgot where he was until Spencer stopped.
Rolling his relaxed shoulders, Nick turned again. “Fuck, you’re good at that.”
“Thank you.” Nick realised right then how close they were, but just when Nick thought a kiss was inevitable, Spencer stepped back. He had a good sense of physical space. Nick couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever crowded him. And the man was bigger and taller than he was.
“Well, let’s see what our dinner guest looks like now.” Spencer grabbed two oven mitts again and opened the oven. A waft of oily, citrusy, rosemary-scented heat escaped. He took hold of the roasting pan, lifted it out of the oven, and put it down on two slate plates.
Nick eyed the immense bird. “I think they sold you a goose.”
“Looks like it, doesn’t it?” Spencer stabbed the alleged chicken with a two-pronged fork and moved it onto a carving plate. In short order, he’d cut and carved the monster and put plenty of white meat on two plates with honey-roasted carrots and green salad. “I’ll just get the wine.”
Nick lifted an eyebrow. “You sure about the wine?”
“It’s a good bottle. Gift from a client who’s investing in wines.”
No sex, then? Or at least no games. “I’m not that tired,” Nick defended.
“What? Oh. Well, we . . . we don’t have to do anything tonight.”
“If I’ve had more than a little to drink, we can’t. Anything more than a glass.”
“That’s all right. Tomorrow?” A hint of strain in his voice suggested that he very much hoped it would be tomorrow. But Spencer wasn’t pushing for it. He wasn’t a needy sub manipulating his way to a beating or sex.
“Okay.” Nick grabbed the plates. “You deal with the wine.”
With the chicken served and the wine poured, they took their seats at the table. Spencer gestured at the food. “Please, by all means.”
Nick nodded. “Thanks.”
The chicken was surprisingly moist and tender. “If I’d known you were this good a cook,” he said, “I’d have suggested this sooner.”
Spencer smiled over the rim of his wineglass. “We’ll have to do it again, then.”
How . . . domestic. There was just no other word for it. This wasn’t the first meal they’d shared, but the first that seemed so homey and normal. And for that matter, the first time a meal together hadn’t explicitly served as foreplay of some description. Eating together for the sake of eating together.
Nevertheless, looking at Spencer meant seeing sex. Meant seeing that unconditional surrender, that sweetness in him that surfaced when he overcame the pain, his brain stewed and softened in nature’s hormone cocktail.
Nick swallowed a sip of wine. “How was your week?”
“Finally closed the big deal. Paperwork is all signed and done. I’m taking a little time off. Tomorrow and Monday.” He paused to slice off another bite of chicken. “At least that’s the plan.”
“Sounds like I’m not the only one who needs a holiday.”
Spencer looked down at his plate and sighed. “I’m not even sure that’s enough, to be quite honest.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I go on a holiday,” Spencer said dryly, “I still have to go back to the firm when it’s over.”
“I thought you liked your job.”
“I thought so too,” Spencer said, almost more to himself than to Nick.
“So you . . . don’t like being a lawyer?” Nick looked at him over the rim of his wineglass. “Isn’t that what you always wanted to do?”
“It is. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer.” Spencer picked up his own wineglass, but just cradled it between his fingers. “I liked the idea of being one. But these days”—his gaze slid towards Nick, and his eyes echoed the exhaustion in his voice—“I’m not so sure I’m happy with the reality of it.”
“What don’t you like about it?”
“The hours, the stress, the office politics.” Spencer exhaled hard. “I’m still closeted at work because I’m afraid of the consequences if I come out.”
Nick quirked an eyebrow. “They can’t fire you for that, can they?”
“Not directly.” Bitterness laced the edge of Spencer’s tone. “But there are ways of persuading undesirable employees to seek employment elsewhere. Or put them on the chop list when there’s another round of downsizing.” He tilted his head to one side, then the other, as if some tension had crept up the back of his neck. “Sometimes I’m tempted to come out and just be done with it. I can’t imagine they can make me any more miserable than I already am.”
“Wow,” Nick said. “I hadn’t realised you hated it that much.”
“The actual job itself isn’t so bad. I enjoy what I do. It’s the atmosphere and everything else that comes with it that I hadn’t bargained for, you know? And it’ll be the same at any other firm, so I don’t . . .” He sighed and shook his head. “I really don’t know what to do.” He looked at Nick again, his expression mirroring the fatigue Nick felt. “You know my job is the whole reason I came to you in the first place?”
“It—” Nick paused, clearing his throat. He was amazed at how casually Spencer could bring Nick’s profession into a conversation, never seeming to bat an eye. “It is?”
“Percy convinced me I should give it a go.” Spencer sipped his wine, then put the glass down. “Said I was on a fast track to an ulcer and a heart attack, and I needed to blow off some steam. And what you did, it was . . . it was what I needed.” He smiled, and Nick returned it. The smile faded a little, and he added, “I feel better, and I’m happy with you, but the fact is I’m still on that fast track.”
Nick swallowed. “Have you thought about changing careers?”
“Seems like a waste of all the time and energy I spent getting this far.”
“Seems like an even bigger waste to me to spend your life doing something that makes you miserable.”
“Fair point.” Spencer cut off another piece of chicken.
Nick watched him for a moment. “Negotiating all that job stress and . . . me can’t have been easy. When we were still trying to figure things out, I mean.” And have we figured all those things out? “Sorry for adding to your pile.”
“No.” Spencer put down his fork and knife. “You’ve kept me sane, Nick. I was on the verge of burnout when we met. I still am, but you . . . gave me an outlet I didn’t even know existed. You helped recharge me.” He smiled. “Who knew pain was such a stress-buster?”
“It gives your body something to worry about besides the fight-or-flight adrenaline response.”
“Or office-related bollocks.”
Nick laughed. “That too.”
Spencer’s eyes lost focus. He slowly swirled his wineglass, but didn’t look at anything in particular, Nick included.
“Something wrong?” Nick asked.
The lack of focus remained for a moment, but then Spencer lifted his gaze and met Nick’s eyes. “Does this, what we’re doing, have anything to do with how you’re feeling?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re stressed and tired too. I mean, you’re a sex worker. And now we’re in a . . . I mean, we’re . . .”
“In a relationship.” Still felt so strange to say those words.
“Right.” Spencer stopped swirling the glass, but held onto it, like he needed some sort of concrete handle on the universe. “Does it bother you? What we’re doing along with your job?”
Nick’s normal knee-jerk response would have been to insist that their relationship had nothing to do with anything, but the words caught in his throat. Was it an issue? He’d been so relieved just to break the tension and be back in Spencer’s world after that long, silent gap that he hadn’t considered how all of this might affect him. Affect either of them, for that matter.
“If it’s an issue,” Spencer said quietly, “we don’t have to.”
Nick sipped from his glass and looked down at his plate as he rolled the dry wine around on his tongue. He swallowed it, wondering when his throat had gotten so tight. “Maybe it’s just an adjustment period.”
Spencer’s chair creaked, so Nick chanced a look. He’d leaned forward, resting his elbows beside his plate and loosely clasping his fingers together. “I don’t want to be a source of stress for you, though. You’ve done so much to reduce my stress, and I . . .” He shook his head. “I’m not doing that to you.”
Nick moistened his lips. “You’re not. But I’ve . . . Look, you and I are crossing some lines I’ve learned to be cautious about crossing. I haven’t had a boyfriend in ages, and getting involved with someone who started out as a client is particularly unnerving. It’s . . . it’s something I need to adapt to. Slowly. Figure out where the new lines are.” He paused. “Figure out where exactly this differs from all the other men who still pay me.”
He watched Spencer, waiting for the flinch, some indication that Spencer really didn’t like the idea of Nick having sex with other men, never mind for pay. But the flinch didn’t come. He just kept looking at Nick, calmly and quietly waiting for him to continue.
Nick took a breath. “I think we just—I just—need time to settle into this. That’s all.”
Spencer nodded. “I think we both do. I’m new at this too. I mean, I told you about my ex—the one who went to New York City and then claimed the time difference made everything impossible.”
“Him.” Spencer smiled, but he didn’t seem wistful. He was over the guy, though maybe not over having been treated like that and having made such a dog’s dinner out of something that must have started out good and right and hopeful once upon a time. Always interesting how that first blush of love could turn to shit if you weren’t careful. “I’m thinking, as long as we talk about things, we’ll be fine.”
The offer was clearly on the table: Let’s talk.
“You’ve never had a relationship with a Dom, Spencer. Of course you’re out at sea. But this can be whatever we make it. I’ll make sure your needs are met, and you’ll meet mine.”
Spencer shivered—just a hint, and Nick wouldn’t even have noticed if he didn’t know that man so well. Something in Spencer’s expression changed, and the submissive crept in. The man who looked up to his Dom and needed him to be in control. They were far from Spencer’s bedroom, surrounded by everything domestic and eerily normal—by society’s standards, not Nick’s—and still, in the space of a comment and its subsequent, unspoken response, the power balance was shifting.
“I still have to make a living.” Nick put it out there mostly to gauge Spencer’s reaction.
Really? Was Spencer really accepting it? And why? Obedience? Respect for lines Nick had drawn pretty much from day one? Tolerance? Resignation? He’d have to get underneath that and peel the façade away. It was the most likely weak point, the most natural breaking point.
“Are you really okay with what I do, Spencer?”
Spencer’s eyes lost focus for a moment, but then he nodded. “Yes. I am. What about you?”
Nick blinked. “What about me?”
“Are you okay with what you do?” Spencer cradled his wineglass between his fingers, and looked straight at Nick. “I mean, are you okay with your job alongside our relationship?”
“Of course I am,” Nick said quickly. “I’m maybe a bit burned out, but . . .”
Again, Spencer was quiet for a moment. “I think we need to acknowledge the fact that it’s unhealthy, the amount of stress on both of us right now, whether it’s because either of us needs to make a change in our professional lives or not.” Definitely the lawyer talking here, and he unflinchingly held Nick’s gaze. “I don’t want this”—he gestured at himself and then Nick—“to be the reason for that.”
Nick’s heart jumped. “Meaning?”
Spencer didn’t answer immediately. He took a deep breath, released it slowly, and only then did he say, “It means we need to take care of ourselves. And each other. And if it comes down to it, make some difficult decisions.”
The flutter of panic in Nick’s chest unsettled him; he didn’t like that feeling. That sense that he was rapidly losing control of a situation, which made him want to not just regain control, but grab it in a chokehold. He swallowed. “It’s way too early to be choosing between this and our jobs.”
Spencer nodded. “But sooner or later, something’s going to have to give, and I just think we ought to be aware of that.”
“Right,” Nick said with a nod. “As it stands right now, I don’t want to change a thing.” Especially this. Please, not this.
“Neither do I.” Spencer paused, still cradling his wineglass, and smiled a little. “I want to get rid of the stress, not the stress relief.” He winked, and laughed softly, which settled some of that fluttery feeling in Nick’s chest.
Nick managed a soft laugh himself. “I don’t want to change this either. We’ll . . . we’ll figure everything out.”
“I know. I just want to make sure it’s all out on the table. So we can figure it out together.”
“Agreed,” Nick said quietly. “And while we’re putting everything out on the table, I should mention that at times, I’ll have a bad day. Normally, I don’t really mingle right after a night like that. I need space when things go wrong. To regroup. It’s not to get away from you, though.”
Spencer nodded again. “Understood. That can happen in my job, too. And it doesn’t help that when things get intense in the office, I might not even come home. Hell, I have slept in my office some weekends.”
“I’ve heard stories like that. That’s fine. We both have demanding jobs.” Spencer traced the foot of his wineglass with a fingernail. “There’s no reason why this shouldn’t work, though. We manage . . . sexually.”
Not just manage. Sexually, they were hand in glove, Spencer so natural as his sub that Nick’s pulse sped up just thinking about that. Normal life, though? That was something entirely different.
“Well.” Nick drained his wineglass—there wasn’t much left by this point—and set it back on the table. “All we can do is take it one day at a time.”
A grin played at Spencer’s lips. “And the nights?”
Nick returned the grin. “If they ain’t broke . . .”