What the fuck?
Pierce Holden narrowed his eyes and propped a booted foot behind him on the upscale honky-tonk’s wall, wondering what the hell he was watching, and why the hell it mattered to him.
Ella Gibson, his little sister’s best friend, was standing at a bar-high table along with a couple of other people, leaning forward, her chin propped on her hand. Tonight, her brown hair—longer than he remembered from the last time he’d been back in Colorado for a couple of days’ leave—framed her face and hung down her back.
A soft, oversized gray shirt slid from one of her shoulders, showing off her creamy skin, and her black skirt was several inches shorter than it should have been. If she bent over any farther, her ass cheeks would flash the whole world.
Why that thought bothered him, he couldn’t say.
Her long, muscular legs were bare. Since it was the middle of May, she only had the barest hint of a tan. Her cowboy boots were black with hot-pink angel wings embossed on the backs of them. Angel wings. That was rich, when she was dressed like sin.
Randall W. Thurston, Jr. walked over to the table and offered her one of the glasses he was holding. If Pierce’s guess was right, it contained whiskey. Neat. Absently, he wondered if Junior had sprung for the expensive stuff.
The two clinked their glasses together, and she smiled up at the slick attorney.
She took a sip then wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
Alcohol was never part of Pierce’s approach. He liked his subs to be sober. So much so, in fact, that he made it a requirement.
Pierce tipped back the longneck bottle and took a deep drink.
From what his sister had said recently, Ella had gone through a breakup a couple of years ago. It had devastated her enough that she’d avoided dating for more than a year.
Seemed to him as if she was on track to make a full recovery.
Pierce wished she had better taste in men. He wondered if she had any inkling that Junior was a Dom. If so, and she was still talking to him, she either hadn’t heard the rumors about him, or she was reckless.
From the outside, Junior appeared acceptable. The man had a fancy degree from a prestigious school. If he hadn’t already made partner, no doubt the announcement was forthcoming. He wore wingtip shoes that were glossed to a military shine. Pierce would be willing to bet the man hadn’t polished them himself. Maybe it was a chore he gave to a submissive. His suit was tailored and expensive. Unlike Pierce’s haircut, which was the result of a once-a-week pass with his own set of clippers, Junior’s hair lay perfectly, no doubt styled at an expensive salon.
The white, veneered smile couldn’t hide the fact the slick lawyer had cheated on his wife and helped a man get away with murder—both sins in Pierce’s structured world. None of that surprised him, though. Years ago, at a play party hosted by Joe Montrose, a good friend of his, a Dungeon Monitor had stopped a scene when Junior had refused to honor a sub’s safe word.
The band trailed off, and after the applause died away, they strummed the opening notes of Came Here to Forget, a song that couldn’t have been more apropos.
Behind Pierce, someone launched a cue at pool balls, shooting them across the green felt in an explosive boom. It was all he could do not to jump. Most men didn’t have trouble blocking out the sounds of people having fun at a bar, teasing each other, calling out which pocket they were going to sink the solid into, but to him, and to countless others who’d been under heavy artillery fire, the surge of adrenaline was inevitable.
Even when he was away from combat, he was always aware, always on guard.
To calm himself, from the noise as well as the sight of Ella about to walk into dangerous territory, he took another drink of the all-American lager. Nothing fancy. Serviceable. Affordable. And with an alcohol content below that of popular microbrews.
Across the room, Junior drank his whiskey in a single swallow then slammed the empty glass down on the tabletop and signaled for the waitress.
Ella placed her barely touched drink back down and rose, lifting the heels of her boots from the scarred wooden floor as she leaned forward, her body language flirtatious, in order to catch something Junior was saying. Her leg muscles flexed in a way that appealed to Pierce’s baser nature, and that damnable skirt rode up just a little more.
Instead of looking at her face, Junior glanced down her shirt.
“There’s something about Randall that I don’t like,” Morgan said, joining him.
Pierce turned toward his little sister and saw a ferocious scowl on her face. “That he’s a cheat?”
“Yes. That. But it’s more than that.” She shrugged. “I’m not sure. Something about the way he looks at me. It’s hard to explain. Like he wants to devour me. Creeps me out.”
“Is Ella dating him?”
“No. At least not that I’ve heard. And she would have said something. He’s a member of the country club.”
The way she looked down her nose and emphasized the last two words told him a couple of things. Junior belonged to the same club as their parents. And Morgan also believed that Junior was a pretentious ass. “Have you told Ella what you think?”
“You can bet I intend to. I don’t even know what he’s doing here. The Neon Moon doesn’t seem like his kind of place.”
“Slumming with us.”
“Hard to imagine, isn’t it?”
“Anyway, I need to go,” she told him. “Mom and I have mani-pedis at the nail salon tomorrow morning. And I’m sure mimosas will be involved.” She rolled her eyes. “God help us all.”
Their mother could be dramatic at the best of times. Factor in a little alcohol and she qualified for an award.
After shaking her head, Morgan glanced back at Ella and the other people at the table. “I’ll let them know I’m leaving. How about you?”
He shook his head. “Think I’ll stay a while. Finish my beer.”
“Are you kidding me? You’re always the first one to hit the exit at these gatherings, not the last.” She reached forward so that she could put her fingers on his forehead, pretending to take his temperature. “Who are you and what have you done with my brother?”
“Funny.” But she was right. He left the bar scene to others. If he hadn’t wanted to avoid spending time with his parents and talking about plans for tomorrow’s party, which his mother hoped would make the society page, Pierce wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to meet Morgan and a few of her friends at the Neon Moon—not that he’d spent much time talking to them. And until he’d seen Junior make a move on Ella, Pierce had been planning to go back to the hotel before eight, get in a quick workout, maybe a soak in the hot tub and a few minutes of mindless television. “Go home, Morgan.”
“Don’t forget Mom and Dad are expecting you to arrive in time to help set up tomorrow. By noon? Please?”
“I’ll be there.” Their parents were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary, though with the coldness with which they communicated, he had no idea how they’d made it that long. Determination, maybe. Stubbornness, for sure. And without a doubt, it was all for show.
His mother had started planning last year and had reminded him of the invitation at least once a month. A few weeks ago, she’d resorted to strategic measures and had enlisted Morgan’s help. His little sister had said, “It would help me if you came.” His parents, he could resist. Morgan? Never. “Twelve hundred hours,” he acknowledged in military time.
“It would be easier if you just stayed at their house, you know.”
In the bedroom that was part shrine and a total reminder that he’d failed to fulfill the dreams his mother and father had had for him? Last he’d been in there, a college acceptance letter still sat on the desk in mute condemnation. In his final days of high school, he’d destroyed his parents by enlisting in the army then heading to basic training without saying goodbye. “I’m fine at the hotel.”
“You sure? It’s a long drive.”
“Less than half an hour.” In military terms, that was nothing. And the small place had a hot tub to soothe his muscles and a workout area to burn off the nervous energy that built up every time he was forced to interact with his family.
“Take pity on me? I could use the buffer,” she admitted.
“You’ve gotten everything you’re going to get out of me, no matter how much I love you. But I’m happy to let you stay at the hotel with me.”
“Mom would kill me.”
“She’d get over it.”
“I’ve never been as brave as you, Pierce.”
“You’re just easier to manipulate.”
“That’s not true.” She wrinkled her nose. “Is that true?”
He didn’t respond.
“I hate that you’re right.”
“Go,” he said.
“Fine. See you tomorrow.”
“Don’t let Mom have too many mimosas,” he warned. “It’s going to be a long day. She needs to pace herself.” He watched Morgan walk up to Ella, and Junior’s smile faded at her approach.
Pierce didn’t have to overhear the conversation to see Ella smile and indicate she was staying.
His sister whispered something into her ear.
Ella’s back went rigid for a second. She glanced at Junior then back at Morgan. Then Ella reached across to squeeze Morgan’s hand, as if reassuring her everything would be okay.
The waitress returned with another round for the table, and Morgan took that opportunity to excuse herself.
With a last wave in his direction, she left the bar.
Pierce watched Junior down his second shot, and Ella scooted her glass to the side.
The Blake Shelton song playing in the background was replaced by an older ballad. A number of couples made their way toward the parquet dance floor. Seeming to take advantage of the new intimacy in the place, Junior moved nearer to Ella and skimmed his fingers across her bare shoulder.
In Pierce’s mind, a line had been crossed. An urge to protect drove him.
Junior might have helped a client get away with murder, but Pierce sure as hell wasn’t allowing the creep to put his hands on Ella.
Pierce slammed his drink on a nearby table, strode toward Ella then angled his body between hers and Junior’s. “Dance?” he suggested.
“I’m talking with Randall.”
“Were. You were talking to him. And you’re done.”
She scowled. “What?”
“Dance with me.”
“Do you have any idea how rude you’re being?”
“As a matter of fact…” He tipped his head to one side and grinned. “Yeah. I do.”
“Ella?” Randall asked, craning his head to the side.
“Now,” Pierce said, refusing to budge.
“It’s okay,” she told Randall with a forced smile. “I promised Pierce I’d dance with him.”
It shocked him how easily the lie had rolled off her tongue.
“Shall we?” With a show of male dominance, Pierce placed his fingers on the small of her back and looked at Junior, sending a stay back message.
Aware Randall’s gaze was fixed on them, Pierce smiled. Junior loosened the tie that Pierce would have liked to choke him with and signaled for the waitress instead of talking to the other people at the table.
“What in the hell is your problem?” Ella demanded, looking up at him.
How had he never really noticed how petite she was? He’d always seen her as his little sister’s friend, not as a woman in her own right. To be fair, he hadn’t spent a lot of time with her since he’d moved away. In the intervening years, she’d become not only attractive, but stunning. Her hazel eyes were wide and, fuck it all, her lips were an inviting shade of red. No wonder Junior was hot for her.
Thanks to a woman he’d dated for a while, Pierce knew the basic two-step. Nothing fancy, but enough to get Ella alone and not embarrass either one of them.
He pulled her toward him. His arms fit nicely around her, despite the rigid way she held herself away from him. The overhead lights reflected off the coppery tones in her hair. And, this close, he drank in her scent, that of sunshine and promise, an intoxicating, perhaps lethal combination that he suddenly wanted to sample.
Jolted, he shook his head.
“I asked you a question,” she said. “I’m not in high school anymore.”
“So I’ve noticed.”
“I don’t need rescuing,” she finished.
Despite her heated words, she moved flawlessly, following his lead. All of a sudden, he wondered if she’d be just as perfect in other ways, too. Rather than getting into an argument, he countered with, “What do you know about Junior?”
“Junior?” She frowned, her eyebrows drawing together. “You mean Randall?”
“He’d hate it if he heard you call him that.”
“I’m counting on it.”
She scowled at him. “I’ll ask it again. What is your problem?”
“I don’t like him hitting on you.”
“And?” She blinked. “What I do and who I do it with is none of your business.”
“I’m making it my business.”
She laughed. “Sorry to disappoint you, Pierce. You’re my best friend’s big brother, but that doesn’t give you any right to stick your nose in my business.”
“Someone has to look after you.”
“No. Really. They don’t. As I mentioned, I’m a big girl now. I can think for myself, choose who I want to hang out with. But thank you for your concern.” She gave him a dazzling smile.
He just wished it wasn’t as fake as it was big. And that it hadn’t walloped him in the solar plexus. “What is it about him that you like?” he asked, again trying to keep her off balance so that she could hear what he had to say. He needed to get her past her annoyance first.
“He’s a good conversationalist.”
Pierce schooled his reactions so he could keep a straight face. “He must have been talking about one of his court cases. Maybe how he impressed the jury. Or found the best witnesses. Give him a spellbound audience and he’ll go on for hours.”
“He was boring you, wasn’t he?” Maybe that was why she’d been shifting from foot to foot, the hem of her skirt swishing with every move. “Tell me I’m wrong,” he encouraged.
For a few seconds, he watched her struggle to suppress a grin. Being diplomatic, she didn’t respond to his challenge. Instead, she gave a different answer. “He’s successful.”
“That’s easy when you get into a good law school on a legacy admission.”
“Just because his dad and uncle went there doesn’t mean anything.”
“Oh? Any idea what his GPA was? Does he talk about that? Or the fact he had a cushy job lined up at his father’s firm?”
“Okay, that’s enough.” She pursed her lips in what he imagined was supposed to be a fierce manner.
It just made her adorable.
“I appreciate your concern,” she went on. “But I was having a good time until… Wait. Crap. Did Morgan say something to you? She doesn’t like him.”
“This is about me, not Morgan.”
“In that case, we have nothing left to say. Thank you for the dance. I’ll be getting back to Randall now.” She started to pull away.
“You know he’s into BDSM?”
She faltered, then she missed the next step.
Pierce pulled her close and eased her back into the dance. “So you do know.” He was stunned and delighted.
But she seemed appalled. “Oh, my God. What did Morgan tell you about me?” Twin lines of scarlet embarrassment stained her face. “She promised to keep it secret.”
“Is that what this is about? Do you need your ass spanked, Ella?”
“And what if I do?” Her words were laced with bravado and her eyes flashed with challenge fed by the brush of anger.
“Then I’m happy to oblige you.”
“You’re…” She trailed off then glanced around, as if to make sure no one was looking at them.
“Right here. Now, if you want. I can take you out back, or to my car, even to the ladies’ room, if you’re desperate.”
“This conversation is inappropriate.”
“Is it? Is that why you haven’t pulled away or slapped my face?”
“I just said that you’re my best friend’s big brother.”
“Could you be any more obtuse?”
“Enlighten me,” he said easily.
“We are so not having this conversation.”
“But you are willing to have it with Junior.” That thought pissed him off and tension crawled up his spine. “You know nothing about him. You’re willing to let him tie you up, maybe lay a belt to your gorgeous backside.”
“Okay, Pierce. Since you did so much work to get me out here, I’ll play along. What do you know about BDSM?”
“Is that an honest question? Or are you issuing a challenge?”
She took a small breath. Her indignation seemed to have vanished. “I’m curious.”
“I’ve practiced it for over ten years.”
Her eyes widened.
“I’ve been to clubs, to play parties, and I own an assortment of toys that would keep even the neediest, greediest sub happy. I prefer a flogger to anything else, but I’m competent with and happy to use a cane so you can have a few marks to remember me by. Would you like that? On the backs of your thighs?”
Her breathing became shallow.
Oh, yes. No doubt the petite spitfire wanted exactly that. His arousal spiked, hard and fast. He kept her against him because having her near was so fucking right. “You could show up at my mom and dad’s anniversary party tomorrow in a short dress and spend the evening wondering whether anyone could see the strokes of ecstasy that I’d seared into your skin.”
She still hadn’t run—she hadn’t even blinked. So quietly that he had to strain to hear her above the band, she asked, “You’re a Dom?”
“I answered your question. Now it’s your turn. What do you know about BDSM?” Why did the thought of anyone else marking her infuriate him?
“I know enough,” she replied.
“If that’s true, my questions shouldn’t unnerve you.”
“If you were a man I was considering as a Dominant, they wouldn’t,” she said.
“I’m telling you this, Ella. If anyone’s going to tie you up and beat you tonight, it will be me. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“I… We can’t.”
“Beyond the obvious? You’re in the military. I’ve had enough of men who move along when they’re assigned to a new duty station.”
He winced at that. His special operations team was deployed more often than most other members of the army. The assignments tended to be shorter, but also more frequent, up to six times a year. And he wasn’t based in Colorado. All of which were strikes against him in her eyes, he was sure.
“I understand what you’re saying.” Less than a year into his military experience, he’d made the decision not to become involved in a long-term relationship. He dated casually and enjoyed scenes with subs, but he was honest about his lack of availability and his aversion to commitment.
One woman he’d cared for had been convinced they were meant to be together, and she’d expected him to change his mind, especially once mutual friends had announced their engagement. When he hadn’t proposed at Christmastime, she’d given him a tearful ultimatum.
He’d held her while she’d cried, and he hadn’t flinched when she’d slapped his face before leaving. That night, for the first and last time in his life, he’d gotten drunk.
Ella glanced back toward the table. Her other acquaintances were still gathered around, but Junior wasn’t there. She frowned, and Pierce watched her scan the room, looking for him.
Ella noticed him a moment later. Junior was at another table, drink in hand, leaning toward a woman with his gaze focused on her chest.
Pierce hated for the fucker to hurt her, but he had to admit to being glad that she’d seen his real nature before she’d become involved with the bastard. “I’m sorry,” he said.
She pasted on a sunny smile, as fake as it was brave.
The song ended. The guitarist said the next song would be a line dance. People—most of them women—abandoned their drinks and partners, grabbed a girlfriend by the wrist and headed toward the dance floor.
Since he had no interest in boot-scootin’ across the floor, Pierce walked her back to the table.
Junior was still occupied, so Pierce took the man’s spot.
He faced Ella, which seemed fine since the other people at the table were deep in their own conversations. “Do you want to continue our discussion here or somewhere else?”
“There’s nothing to discuss.” She lifted her water glass with a shaky hand and drew a sip through the straw.
But the look she sent him from beneath her lashes told him his words had gotten to her and that she was thinking about what he’d said.
Junior returned. With a scowl, he snatched up one of Ella’s untouched whiskeys and gulped the shot in a single swallow.
“Want me to call you a cab?” Pierce offered.
Junior straightened his tie. “I’m fine.”
“From what I’ve seen, you’ve had more than enough. The bar’s going to be cutting you off. And you don’t want to get picked up for drunk driving. Daddy wouldn’t like it.”
“Can I give you a lift?” Junior asked Ella, ignoring Pierce.
“I’ll give her a ride home if she needs one,” Pierce responded.
“Why don’t we ask the lady?”
“Why don’t we?”
They both faced Ella to see the lady’s jaw was set. She drew in a deep, heavy breath. “I have my own car. I’ll see myself home, thanks.”
Pierce gave a feral grin. “This is where you say goodnight, Junior.”
“Fuck you, Corporal Holden.”
“Staff Sergeant,” he corrected easily, ignoring the obvious insult. Figured the pussy needed to get in one shot to feel better about himself. Pierce didn’t blame him. “Proud to serve my country so that others can sleep well at night, whether they deserve to or not.”
Junior rapped his knuckles on the table twice. “I’ll be in touch, Ella.”
Once he was gone, she turned her furious gaze on Pierce. “I can’t believe you sent him away.”
“You can thank me later.”
“Thank you?” she echoed. “Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea how influential his family is?”
“Doesn’t concern me.”
“Yeah. But not cowards like Junior, who use intimidation and coercion to get what they want. Rats who think they’re above the rules.” He shrugged. “Predictable in their patterns and behavior.”
“Do you always live recklessly?”
“But you like danger?”
“I wouldn’t say that, either.”
“Then…?” She angled her head, as if she was genuinely interested in his answer.
“All my risks are calculated. It’s the best way to stay alive.”
The waitress hurried over with a bill and a scowl, watching as Junior walked out of the door.
“He’ll take that,” Ella said to the woman.
Pierce frowned as he accepted the bill. A glance at the bottom line proved the fucker had indeed sprung for the expensive shit.
“The price of chivalry,” Ella said with another of those sunny smiles he was already starting to dislike.
He dug his wallet from his back pocket.
“Hope it was worth it.”
“You are.” He gave the server his credit card. “I would have paid ten times that amount to have you alone.”
The server accepted with a grateful nod, pressing the card against her chest. He’d have picked up the tab, regardless. No way would he have left Ella or the hardworking server to cover someone else’s bad behavior.
“So, back to the topic at hand. How much do you know about BDSM? Dabbler? Practitioner? Just curious?”
“I wanted to know more about you,” she countered.
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” He paused. “But not until you answer my question.”
“Uhm… I’m more than curious.”
Those scarlet streaks were back on her cheeks, brighter than ever.
The music trailed off and the band announced a brief intermission, leaving the bar somewhat quiet.
She leaned toward him, obviously so they wouldn’t be overheard, and his reaction was raw, unwelcome. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this turned on. Ever since Karen had stormed out of his life, he’d channeled his energy into his job and training for marathons. “So you’ve had some experience,” he surmised.
“The last guy I had a serious relationship with was a Dom. It was my introduction.” She toyed with her straw.
She swirled the straw around and around. He wondered if she was ever going to answer.
“Do you want me to be honest?”
She stared into the bottom of the glass before looking up. “I miss it.”
After glancing around to ensure others were occupied with their own conversations, she admitted, “Nothing as much as the physical contact.”
“Yes.” She nodded. “There’s something exhilarating about being pushed, about pushing myself.”
“So you do need a spanking.”
“I’m happy to give you one.”
Her mouth opened a little. He couldn’t look away. That damnable, kissable red lipstick was ready to drive him off a cliff.
“I can’t tell whether you’re kidding or not.”
“I don’t say things I don’t mean, Ella. Not when it’s important.” He met her gaze, held it. Something vibrant flared in her eyes, something that hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. The spark of temptation? If so, he was ready to ignite it. “You’re as safe with me as you want to be.”