“And now, friends, Lana will offer her submission to her new husband,” Damien Lowell said.
Julia scowled. Submission?
Lana and Julia had chatted on the phone earlier in the week to discuss the final wedding plans. Lana had warned that the union would be a bit untraditional. She’d been vague about the details, but she’d made Julia promise to say nothing during the ceremony.
They’d been friends since they were ten, and there was no way Julia would miss the festivities, even if they were a bit odd.
Until now, everything had been what she’d expected.
Lana and Ben were being married at their friend Damien’s mountain home. Damien was also performing the ceremony.
About two dozen of the couple’s closest friends had gathered in the great room and, at dusk, Lana had descended the stairs, carrying a single, beautiful, white rose to match her full-length gown.
The only gift requested had been a candle. In a romantic gesture, the pair had said they wanted all their friends to light their way into their future.
As Ben and Lana had joined hands and faced Damien, fat snowflakes had fallen from the cloudy sky. The vows had included the word obey, which was somewhat unusual among their circle of friends. But everything else had been normal. Lana had placed her rose on the mantel behind Damien before she and Ben had exchanged rings.
“Lana?” Damien prompted.
“Yes, Sir,” Lana said.
‘Sir’? Until tonight, Julia hadn’t met Damien. She knew he was a friend of the groom’s, and drop-dead, movie star handsome. The man had rakishly long, dark hair that curled at his nape, and he wore an indefinable air of command as easily as he filled out his charcoal-gray suit. But still, for her friend to call him ‘Sir’…?
Lana cast her gaze at the floor and gracefully turned her back to her new husband.
Ben undid the row of tiny buttons that held her gown closed.
What the hell?
Ben drew the material from Lana’s shoulders and let the dress float to the floor.
Lana, wearing stacked heels, a merry widow and stockings, stepped out of the dress, and another man scooped it up and laid it across a chair.
Like Damien, this man was also ridiculously tall. That was where the resemblance ended. This man had a sun-kissed complexion that hinted at a Mediterranean background. His head was shaved. He wore black jeans and a black T-shirt that revealed a number of tattoos. A thick, knotted silver bracelet adorned his left wrist, and a silver stud pierced his right earlobe. He could have been a pirate in a former life.
Suddenly untraditional took on a whole new meaning. Julia had never been more distressed. Part of her wanted to make an escape, and a bigger part of her wanted to shake some sense into her friend. But she was riveted in place by her promise to remain silent.
With a grace that spoke of practice, Lana kneeled.
Jesus. All through college, they’d each vowed to keep their independence. They’d pushed against the glass ceiling, and they’d fought for their positions in corporate America. And now her friend was kneeling in front of her husband, almost naked, for their guests to see?
Julia wondered if she was the only one who was frozen in shock.
Lana spread her legs a bit farther apart, and she leaned forward to kiss one of Ben’s shoes.
From the front of the room, Damien looked at her, his eyebrows raised.
Firm, relentless hands landed on her shoulders. Her heart rate increased with her panic.
“Be quiet,” a man whispered harshly into her ear.
“I said be quiet.”
She gritted her teeth. His tone was rough, graveled with command. And because he was so close, she inhaled the unmistakable—and sexy—scent of leather.
In that same rich and rough, for-her-ears-only voice, he went on. “Or else I’ll haul your sweet ass out of here and turn you over my knee.”
For the first time in her life, she was rendered speechless.
“This is Lana’s choice.”
She struggled against his grip, but he dug his fingers deeper into her flesh.
“Surely she told you to expect some unconventional things.”
“Trust her,” he urged. “Like she trusted you.”
When Julia had given her promise, she’d had no idea what that had meant or how difficult it would be to keep her word. Julia spent her entire life in control, and she hung out with women like herself. And now a powerful man had her imprisoned while her friend was on her knees in front of a roomful of people. The experience was surreal.
With unshakable force, the man pulled her back a few steps, so they were several feet away from the rest of the guests.
She still hadn’t caught a glimpse of her assailant.
“Nothing you do or say will stop tonight’s proceedings. So I recommend you behave yourself.”
Julia struggled to escape him. In response, he imprisoned her against his hard, masculine body. “Let me go.”
His tone rang with an authority she didn’t dare question. He was speaking quietly, but that made his words all the more terrifying. He’d threatened to turn her over his knee, and in that instant, she believed he’d do it. She stopped fighting. “Who the hell are you?” she demanded in a whisper.
“Marcus Cavendish. A Dominant, and friend of the groom’s. I met Lana about six months ago. She’s come a long way in the lifestyle. Ben’s a lucky man to have earned the submission of such a lovely woman.”
The floor lurched beneath her.
“If you promise to behave yourself, I’ll explain what’s happening.”
At the front of the room, Lana stood and faced Ben.
“Would you like to offer your submission?” Ben asked.
Lana tipped back her head. “Yes, Sir, I would.”
Damien picked up something from the mantel and offered it to Ben. Julia stood on her toes, trying to get a better look.
“To the vanilla world it looks like a silver necklace with a lock on it,” Marcus said. “But those of us in the lifestyle recognize it for what it is. A collar.”
She wrapped her arms around her middle.
“In this case, it appears to be an ordinary piece of jewelry, but it likely has a hex screw so that she can’t remove it.”
Ben accepted the necklace from Damien and passed the chain through the flame of an enormous candle.
“He’s purifying the metal,” Marcus explained. “And then he’ll ask her again if her submission is given freely.”
Ben looked down at Lana and captured her chin, gazing deeply—maybe even adoringly— into her eyes. “I offer you this collar as a symbol of my love, and as a promise to be a kind, consistent and honorable Master. In return, I will demand your servitude. I will enforce the rules we have agreed to, and I will never touch you in anger.”
Lana linked her hands at the small of her back, while she continued to look up at her new husband. Her voice soft, she spoke. “I accept your gift. In return, I offer you my humble devotion.”
The words sounded just as practiced as their marriage vows had.
“We’re here in front of our friends and mentors, and I want everyone to hear your assurance that you are willingly agreeing to be my slave.”
The blood chilled in Julia’s veins. As if Marcus sensed it, he tightened his grip on her. Oddly the touch grounded her rather than annoyed her.
“I am joyfully agreeing to be your slave, Sir.”
Even from the distance and in the dim lighting, Julia saw Lana’s smile.
“In fact, I’m begging for the honor. Sir, please collar me.”
“Lift your hair, wife.”
As Ben secured the lock in place, Lana gazed at him with an expression of surrendered bliss. Julia wondered what had happened to the woman she used to know. The two of them had sat on their dorm room couch eating popcorn, drinking wine and making fun of old 1950s television shows where the wife cooked dinner in high heels and a dress. And now a man was placing a collar around Lana’s neck, and she’d asked him to do so.
Without being instructed, Lana kneeled again. She cast her gaze at the floor. Then Ben gently placed his hand in her hair and eased her head back. Dutifully Lana looked up once more. “Thank you, Master.”
“Master?” Julia whispered, more disturbed than she ever remembered being.
“Not all couples use that term, but they have elected to do so.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Damien said, “may I present Master Ben and his slave wife, Lana.”
Once again, Marcus tightened his grip on Julia’s shoulders, compelling her silence.
Ben pulled Lana to her feet and kissed her possessively. He had one hand on Lana’s bare bottom, and the fingers of his other hand were spread wide across the middle of her back.
Lana shamelessly rose onto her tiptoes and pressed herself against Ben. Julia had never seen anything so sexy at any other wedding. Her friend was showing pure, unadulterated happiness, and no one seemed to care that she was only half-dressed.
Some people applauded, others hollered and gave catcalls, but Julia kept her hands wrapped tightly around her middle.
“A toast!” the man who’d picked up Lana’s discarded gown called out.
On his cue, several servers moved into the room, bearing trays filled with glasses of sparkling wine. Their attire shocked her. The men wore bow ties around their necks, but no shirts. One had on a tight-fitting pair of shorts, the others wore slacks at least one size too small. The women wore aprons with thongs, stockings, and garters.
“What the hell is this?” She wrenched herself free from her nemesis and turned to face him. The first look at him sucked oxygen from her lungs and weakened her knees.
“A toast,” Marcus said drily. He snagged two flutes from a passing server and offered one to her. “And you’re going to continue to behave.”
She shouldn’t want to obey him, but a deep part of her yearned to.
Julia had never met anyone like him. Rugged and broad, he was at ease against the untamed Rocky Mountain backdrop. His hair was dark, cropped short, emphasizing his bright green eyes. He wore black boots and slacks, a crisp, white shirt and a soft, black leather blazer. His raw masculinity enveloped her.
“Everyone is half-undressed.” At a wedding.
She accepted the offered glass and wished it wouldn’t be unladylike to gulp its contents.
“Face the happy couple.” Command laced his soft suggestion.
When she opened her mouth, he raised his eyebrows. Having had a look at the size of his hands and their assorted nicks and abrasions, she wouldn’t put it past him to follow through on his earlier threat to turn her over his knee.
Why did the unwelcome image rocket a delicious shiver through her?
His air of authority annoyed her as much as her instinctive response to him. She was a modern woman who ran an entire department at work. Julia didn’t have a problem with a man being in charge. She had definite problems, however, with domineering men—like the one she was looking at.
“I will not tolerate your rudeness.”
Rude? Her manners were impeccable. Or, rather, they had been until this evening.
Bristling, ready to make her escape as soon as possible, Julia turned toward the front of the room, the impossible Marcus Cavendish standing next to her. She couldn’t help but inhale the scent of his leather blazer and, this close, she noticed other subtle undertones. He smelled cold, as crisp as the winter night. There was a layer of something spicy as well, maybe from his soap.
He was all man, with a capital M.
She tried not to let him overwhelm her. But something elemental in her responded to him.
Damien lifted his glass. He was standing next to the newlyweds, and all of them were facing their guests. “To a long future filled with happiness.”
As the crowd responded with enthusiastic cheers, Lana and Ben clinked their glasses together then sipped.
After she’d taken one drink, Ben took Lana’s glass and placed it on the hearth.
Julia clenched her teeth.
But no matter how much she might want to deny it, the truth was, she’d never seen Lana look more radiant. She didn’t appear concerned by her lack of clothing, and she’d barely taken her adoring gaze from Ben’s face.
For a moment, Julia stared before shaking her head. She’d never have suspected Lana would be a doormat for any man. When the three of them had met for dinner two weeks ago, Julia had not suspected he’d been hiding this kind of disturbing behavior. He’d been solicitous of Lana. In retrospect, Julia had found it a bit odd that he’d ordered Lana’s meal for her, but he’d consulted her first, and the two had touched constantly. Julia had found their relationship endearing. Had it all been a polite act?
She couldn’t make Lana’s choices for her, but Julia knew a few things. No man would decide when she’d had enough to drink. She would never kneel for any man. And she would certainly never let anyone put a collar around her neck.
Once again, Damien’s voice grabbed her attention. “Refreshments are available in the dining room. The bride and groom will join you shortly. In the meantime, please, make full use of the house.” He flicked a glance in Marcus’s direction before adding, “The dungeon is available should you need it.”
Was he serious?
Stunned, reeling from shock, and desperate to escape this whole, bizarre event, she decided to seek out her friend to say goodbye.
Before she could move, Marcus once again placed his large hand firmly on her shoulder. This time, she wiggled away.
Around them, the crowd dispersed. Some people moved toward the dining room and others headed for the stairs. “I need to go home.”
“I thought you might be curious.”
She shook her head. “I’ve seen enough.”
“You don’t want to understand your friend and her lifestyle better?”
Julia wasn’t totally naïve. She’d seen movies, read books, been to adult bookstores. But witnessing a demonstration…? Nothing could have prepared her for that.
“Perhaps try out the dungeon?”
Clearly she’d entered an alternate universe. “That wasn’t a joke?”
“In BDSM circles, his house is known as the Devil’s Den.”
“He didn’t choose it. But since his name is Damien…” He shrugged. “But it was easier to agree to meet out at the Den—outside of Denver—than to keep saying Damien’s place. Then somewhere along the line someone added Devil—the press, I believe, during an exposé—and it stuck. Some of us long-term guests still call it the Den. The basement has a punishment horse, a Saint Andrew’s cross, stocks…”
“Medieval. Thumb screws as well?”
“You could call it fully equipped.”
“Would you like to see it?”
“Good God, no.”
“Pity. I’d love to see you on the cross.”
“That, Mr. Cavendish, will not happen.”
“We’ll see.” He regarded her, and she did her best not to squirm. It was as if he saw through her words and into her darkest fantasies. “As Damien said, Ben and Lana will be back later. So you can’t say your farewells until then. Their rose ceremony will be held in private.”
Lana and Ben picked up the roses they’d placed on the mantel. Even from across the room, Julia noticed both stems still had thorns. Ben’s was red, in full bloom. Lana’s was white, and barely beginning to open.
Damien led the two from the room. Lana followed her husband, a step behind him.
Julia finished the rest of her drink, then placed the empty glass on a server’s tray.
“No, thank you.” She needed to be clear-headed for the drive back to Denver.
“I know Lana would want to see you.”
Was he trying to get her to stay?
“It was an honor that she trusted you enough to invite you to attend. Most collaring ceremonies are closed to the outside world.”
“Are you telling me I’m the only one here who feels as if she’s fallen down a rabbit hole?”
Behind him, a woman in spiky heels and a short, short skirt put a hand on her companion’s shoulder. Julia stared, wide-eyed, as the tall, broad man kneeled. The woman then pulled a long, thin strip of black leather from her pocket and affixed it to a collar around the man’s neck.
“Is that…?” Stunned, words failed her.
“A leash.” Marcus regarded her over the rim of his still-full champagne glass.
The woman walked from the room, and the man trailed, on all fours, keeping some slack in his lead.
Her knees wobbled. “That’s…”
This had to be a crazy dream. Had to be. Every time she thought she was understanding the evening’s events, something even stranger occurred. “I would never allow myself to be treated like that!”
“Like what? Someone who is deeply cared for?”
“If that’s how someone is treated when they’re being deeply cared for, count me out.”
“Things we don’t understand are easy to judge.”
She bristled. “Are you calling me judgmental?”
Rather than respond, he asked a question of his own. “Did you see him protesting?” He paused. “Do you suppose the woman with him, at least a hundred pounds lighter and inches shorter, could have done that to him if he objected?”
“And, furthermore, you’d look beautiful leashed.”
“I’m not ever—”
“Don’t say things you may have to take back.”
“Is it?” He shrugged, apparently unconcerned by her statement. “I’d like to know your name, if I may.”
How could he have such beautiful manners while being so annoyingly confident? And the fact they were having this kind of conversation without polite societal constructs made the entire exchange even more surreal. “Julia Lyle.”
“An absolute pleasure.” He placed his drink on a nearby end table and extended his hand in greeting.
Shaking hands seemed so…normal, a polite societal construct that she could embrace and understand. It momentarily grounded her.
He held her too long, though, and when she would have pulled away, he raised her hand and kissed it. He looked at her, imprisoning her gaze.
Electricity lit up her nerve endings. Despite her reservations—and maybe because of them—she was attracted to Marcus. She’d dated her fair share of men, and she’d been in a couple of long-term relationships. Unfortunately the last man she’d been involved with—Jason—had been domineering. At first, he’d been charming and wonderful. Over time, after she’d allowed him to move in, he’d tried to control her, choose her friends, isolate her from her family.
The experience had left her determined not to let any man make decisions for her ever again.
So why was she so attracted to Marcus Cavendish? At his touch, untamed energy thumped through her. Power exuded from him, and its effect was intoxicating. He was dark and dangerous. In short, he was everything she shouldn’t want, everything she’d vowed to avoid. Yet she wanted to continue talking, even though instinct urged her to run.
“I’ve been friends with Ben since college.”
“Has he always been this way?”
“A Dominant? I suppose, yes. He was a natural leader, even in school. So that he would behave that way in a relationship makes perfect sense.”
She extricated her hand. “I’m not sure what you mean by that.”
“Has Lana told you nothing about her lifestyle?”
Julia shook her head. “I knew she and Ben were doing things she called kinky, but I think she probably should have told me more.” She shrugged. “Or maybe she assumed I understood what she meant.”.”
“At this point, everyone has heard about BDSM.”
“Of course.” Her agreement was instantaneous. “But it’s different seeing it in person.” More sensual. More real.
“Would you like to go somewhere quieter?”
She thought about it for a moment. If she were smart, she would already be driving back to her normal life, forgetting this event had ever happened, pretending she had never set eyes on the overwhelming and gorgeous Marcus Cavendish.
But she wasn’t sure what had happened to the logical and linear part of her brain that made her good at her job as a statistician. She was behaving like a female to his larger, commanding male. Biology had her in its primal, inescapable grip. That knowledge, rationalization, didn’t help her, though.
Around them, attendees were in various forms of dress, some in club attire—latex, PVC, figure-hugging dresses—while others wore nothing at all.
“Shall we?” Without waiting for her response, Marcus entered the sunroom. She could have protested, but a wayward, reckless part of her didn’t want to.
Her pulse tripping over its beats, she followed him.