“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 of Damien’s picturesque home, 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 he was 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 grey 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 fall 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 an olive 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 unconventional 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 knelt.
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 leant forward to kiss one of Ben’s shoes.
From the front of the room, Damien looked over his shoulder 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. The man’s tone was commanding.
He pulled her back a bit, and she inhaled the unmistakable—and sexy—scent of leather.
In that same rich and rough, for-her-ears-only voice, he added, “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.
“Lana’s doing this of her own choice,” he continued.
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. He held her firmly against his body.
She still hadn’t caught a glimpse of her assailant.
“Do you really want to make a scene and embarrass yourself as well as your friend?” he asked softly. “Nothing you do or say will stop tonight’s proceedings. So I recommend you behave yourself.”
“Last warning,” he said.
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.”
Julia felt as if Marcus were speaking a foreign language.
“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 recognise it for what it is. A collar.”
“Collar?” Julia repeated. The word startled her so much that she didn’t think to ask what he meant by lifestyle.
“Some people use dog collars from the pet store,” he said.
“You can’t be serious.”
She wrapped her arms around her middle. “In this case, it appears to be an ordinary piece of jewellery, 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 of her own free will.”
Ben looked down at Lana and captured her chin before saying, “I offer you this collar as a symbol of my love, and as a promise to be a kind, consistent and honourable 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 meet her new husband’s gaze. Firmly she said, “I accept your gift. In return, I offer my humble devotion and a promise of my servitude.”
To Julia, the words sounded just as practised as their traditional 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 reassured and 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 honour. Sir, please collar me.”
“Lift your hair,” Ben told Lana.
Lana did. As Ben secured the lock in place, Lana looked up at her husband 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 knelt again. She cast her gaze at the floor. Then Ben gently placed his hand in her hair and eased her head back. Lana looked up. “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.”
Marcus again tightened his grip on Julia’s shoulders, silently warning her to be quiet.
Ben pulled Lana to her feet and kissed her deeply. It wasn’t a friendly peck, it was a hot French kiss. 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 notice 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. 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 turned to face her nemesis.
“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.”
A sense of self-preservation didn’t allow her to challenge him. Truthfully, looking at him had sucked the oxygen from her lungs. Rugged and broad, he looked at ease against the Rocky Mountain backdrop. His hair was dark, cropped short to emphasise his bright green eyes. He wore black boots and slacks, a crisp, white shirt and a soft, black leather blazer. His scent spoke of raw masculinity.
“They’re half undressed,” she said.
Was she the only one who had noticed how bizarre the event was? No one else even blinked. She accepted the offered glass and wished it wouldn’t be unladylike to gulp its contents.
“Face the happy couple,” Marcus instructed.
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.
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.
“Do it now,” he told her. “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 faced the front of the room, the impossible Marcus Cavendish standing next to her. She couldn’t help but inhale the sexy scent of his leather blazer and, this close, she noticed other subtle undertones. He smelt crisp, like the Rocky Mountain air. 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.
“To a long future filled with happiness,” Damien said. He was standing next to the duo, and all of them were facing their guests.
Damien raised his glass and everyone, including her, followed suit.
The bride and groom 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 such a doormat for any man. When the three of them had met for dinner two weeks ago, Julia would never have suspected Ben would be capable of this kind of behaviour. He’d been solicitous of Lana. Sure, 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. She’d never suspected what went on when others weren’t around.
She couldn’t make Lana’s choices for her, but Julia was sure of a few things—she’d never allow someone to determine when she’d had enough to drink. She would never kneel for any man. And she would certainly never let anyone put a collar on her.
“Refreshments are available in the dining room,” Damien said. “The bride and groom will join you shortly. In the meantime, please, make full use of the house.” He flicked a glance, she was sure, in Marcus’ direction before adding, “The dungeon is available should anyone need it.”
The crowd began to move away, some people towards the dining room and others towards the stairs, obviously accepting Damien’s offer.
She intended to speak to her friend then make her excuses and leave. Marcus placed a hand on her shoulder, holding her in place. She was reeling from shock. “This house has a dungeon?”
“It does. In BDSM circles, his house is known as the Devil’s Den.”
“He didn’t choose it. But since his name is Damien…” He trailed off.
She rolled her eyes.
“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 dungeon has a punishment horse, a St Andrew’s cross, stocks…”
“You could call it fully equipped.”
She was so stunned she was unable to speak.
“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.” He nodded towards the couple. “They’ll be performing a rose ceremony in private.”
Lana and Ben picked up the roses they’d placed on the mantel. Even from across the room, Julia noticed both roses 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 couple of feet behind him.
Julia finished the rest of her drink, then placed the empty glass on a server’s tray.
“No, thanks.” She needed to get out of there. The entire evening had been too much. From Lana removing her gown and kneeling, to Ben locking a metal contraption around her neck, to servers who were dressed in little to nothing. And the house had a dungeon?
“Be grateful you were invited,” Marcus told her. “Most times 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 knelt. The woman then pulled something from her pocket and affixed it to a collar around the man’s neck.
“Is that…” She trailed off, unable to complete her sentence.
“A leash,” Marcus supplied, looking at the pair. He took another drink and looked at her over the rim of his glass.
The woman walked from the room and the man trailed, on all fours, keeping some slack in his lead.
“I need to go,” Julia said, shocked that she could find her tongue to speak. She’d never imagined something like this was possible.
“Aren’t you in the least bit curious?”
“About what? People behaving this way? I’m more disturbed than anything. Appalled, even.”
“Those are some harsh words.”
“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.”
“Just a moment before you go issuing uneducated proclamations,” Marcus said, his tone unrelenting.
This was a man accustomed to issuing orders and having them followed. She bristled, but she was also feeling seduced by his authority. The insinuation that she was judgemental rankled.
“Did you see him protesting?” he asked. “Do you see anyone here being forced to do anything against their will?”
“Did you see what just happened?” she countered. “That man was just put on a leash.”
“He’s a big man. Do you suppose the woman with him, at least a hundred pounds lighter and six inches shorter, could have done that to him if he didn’t want to be leashed?”
“And, furthermore, you’d look beautiful leashed.”
“I’m not ever—”
“Don’t say things you may have to take back,” he interrupted smoothly.
“That’s a pretty arrogant statement.”
“Tell me your name,” he said, sidestepping her comment and defusing her indignation.
They were having this kind of conversation, and they’d never been introduced. Could this event be any more surreal? “Julia Lyle,” she said finally.
“Ms Lyle, the pleasure is mine.” He placed his drink on a nearby end table and extended his hand in greeting.
Mindful of what he’d said about rudeness, she accepted. 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, she was attracted to this man. 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 rather 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? Untamed energy beat in her when he touched her. Power exuded from him, and it was slightly 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, despite the fact that her instinct urged her to run.
“I’ve been a friend of Ben’s since college,” he said.
“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 labelled as kinky, but I think she probably should have told me more, or else not invited me this evening.”
“Everyone has heard about BDSM.”
She nodded. “Of course. But it’s a bit different seeing it in person. I thought it was all about toy handcuffs, maybe a paddle.”
“Let’s go somewhere a bit quieter.”
She thought about it for a moment. If she were as smart as she liked to think she was, she’d go outside and get in her car, drive back to her normal life and normal job as a statistician in Denver, forget this event had ever happened, pretend she had never met the overwhelming Marcus Cavendish, and ignore the adrenaline urging her to follow wherever he led.
But she wasn’t sure what had happened to the logical and linear part of her brain that made her such a good statistician. She was behaving like a female to his larger, commanding male. Biology. Her attraction was nothing more than basic biology.
Without waiting for her response, Marcus took hold of her elbow and guided her into the sunroom. She knew she should have protested, but she didn’t—couldn’t.
There were no other people in the room, and he continued to hold on to her until they stood in front of a floor-to-ceiling window. Since it was dark, she could only make out vague shadows. Being here, with him, felt intimate.
Because she needed to for her sanity, she pulled away from him. She turned to face him, arms folded.
He propped one foot on a window sill, obviously unconcerned by her hostile body language.
“Some people do use handcuffs in the bedroom, like you said. Maybe a scarf as a blindfold. All that is well and good, if it works for the couple. Some of us prefer something more complex, something that’s as emotional as it is physical. To many people here, BDSM is a much more serious construct, not just an occasional playtime in the bedroom. Some of us indulge twenty-four seven.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Every relationship between a Dominant and submissive has an agreed-upon power exchange. You heard Ben ask Lana if she willingly offered her submission. He didn’t demand her servitude. He didn’t threaten or compel her response. She gave it.”
“In return, you heard Ben promise to care for her. They negotiated their agreement over time, then they asked trusted friends to witness their public vows. Lana gave him power. He didn’t take it.”
“And I’m sure she can revoke it at any time,” she said, her tone tinged with sarcasm.
“Actually, she can. Most subs and Doms have a safe word, or even a series of them. A sub will use an agreed-upon word or term if she or he is feeling scared or if something is too much to handle, either physically or emotionally. The most important thing is communication. Most relationships could benefit from having that kind of arrangement, something that’s discussed ahead of time. No person can be a Dominant without the other agreeing to be the submissive.”
“It sounds like abuse to me.”
“Does it?” He raised his eyebrows, and she squirmed beneath his scrutiny. “You’ve been friends with Lana for a long time, I assume. Since she met Ben, has she looked like an abused woman to you?”
Actually, she’d been giddy. Julia, Lana and a few friends had been at a martini bar on Larimer Square celebrating Lana’s last days as a single woman when talk had turned to sex. Lana had been grinning and giggling as she had told stories about Ben spanking her and binding her wrists to their headboard.
A couple of the other girls had admitted they’d done similar things, and that, scandalously, they’d enjoyed it. They’d encouraged Julia to loosen up and be a bit more adventurous. Honestly, she had been intrigued by the ideas. She just hadn’t been with a man she had wanted to try it with. That night, though, with her supercharged vibrator, she’d had a few wicked fantasies…
“Julia?” he prompted.
“I thought they just had an occasional wild evening. I didn’t know they did this…”
He waited. “This?”
“You know, doing everything he tells her.”
“Despite what you may be thinking, he doesn’t just tell her what to do and have her jump to his bidding. Everything between them, everything, including punishment, is consensual. Ben will not beat Lana without her agreeing to it.”
Julia shivered. “That’s horrible.”
“Is it? I’d be willing to bet your friend has more orgasms in one night than you’ve likely had in the last six months.”
“Excuse me?” Suddenly, she was pissed off. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“Lucky guess,” he said. “But with your reactions tonight, you seem like a woman who has repressed sexual needs. You jump when I touch you. And when I use this tone…” He dropped his voice an octave or two. The sound sent little skitters of awareness up her spine. “You need the right man to set you free.”
“Could you be any more insulting?” She tilted her chin, hoping to project a confidence and disinterest she was nowhere close to feeling. “Are you always such an overconfident jerk? Let me guess, that’s why you’re here alone.”
He didn’t react, other than to smile. That infuriated her.
“Come on, Julia. Admit it. You might be protesting, but only because you think you should. Deep down, you’re intrigued.”
She curled her hands into fists at her side, more to keep him from seeing the way she was trembling than anything else. Damn him—he had snared her interest.
“You’re wondering what it might be like to surrender to a man. More specifically, you’re wondering what it might be like to submit to me.”
“Not in this lifetime.”
“When Lana was talking about the things she and Ben do, you listened, maybe even fantasised about being spanked, feeling an unyielding palm on your ass cheeks, perhaps being tied up helplessly while you wondered what would happen next. And tonight, you pictured yourself in Lana’s place, kneeling in front of a roomful of people.”
She coolly met his gaze and pretended her heart wasn’t racing. “You’re out of your mind. That will never happen.”
“You want to be taken in hand. You want to have someone enforce the limits so that you can release your fear and freely experience everything.”
She knew she should leave. Now. But she was fascinated, even as she was repelled.
“How would you react if I dug my hand into your hair, dislodging those carefully placed pins, then tugged hard, forcing your head back and holding you tight for my kiss?”
“You’ll never know, Mr Cavendish.” And if she persisted in her protests, neither would she.
He dropped his foot from the window ledge and took a purposeful step towards her. Apparently unconcerned by her forceful words, or totally disbelieving them, he took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him.
She stood her ground even though there were only inches separating them. The breadth of him filled her vision. His proximity overwhelmed her. If there had ever been a man to tempt her, it was this one.
Gently he traced the column of her throat. “Your mouth says one thing,” he commented, “but your pulse betrays you. The way you bit your lower lip betrays you. The way you’re trembling betrays you.”
“Maybe I don’t want you touching me.”
“Maybe,” he agreed. “So tell me to stop.”
It wasn’t just the scent of him that made her oh so aware of being a woman. It was also the seduction in his voice. He was speaking softly, so no one but her could hear him, and the rough gentleness made shivers dance down her spine.
He moved his hand so he could stroke her cheekbone. Julia stood there, mesmerised.
He captured her gaze, as if she were the only woman on the face of the planet. Despite her best intentions to prove him wrong, she dropped her hands to her sides.
“Shall I keep going, Julia?” He imprisoned her chin. “Or have I offended your feminist sensibilities with my boldness?”
None of the men she’d been with had evoked this kind of response from her. She’d had sex before—plenty of it—but she’d never been this aroused from something so simple. They’d been focused on their pleasure, rather than hers. Most of her boyfriends had performed the requisite foreplay, including eating her out, but none had taken this much time talking, looking, exploring.
“You’re beautiful, Julia. I’d love to see you naked, helpless, supplicant, on your knees with your mouth open to receive my cock.”
“I’ve told you that will never happen.” But… God. Her protests sounded hollow, even to herself. In truth, his words overwhelmed her, made her tremble. He wasn’t really saying these things to her, was he? She’d never enjoyed giving head, so she’d avoided it whenever possible. But heaven help her, she was so turned on.
“I’m not insulting you. I’m encouraging you to embrace all of who you are. There’s no shame in being a submissive. In fact, it’s very powerful. You’re always in the driver’s seat. You always have the control.”
Her heart beat madly. He couldn’t possibly be right.
“You want it, too. Admit it.”
His touch, commanding and compelling, felt as if it were everywhere at once. He ran his fingers across her nape, then pressed his palms against her back to draw her closer. He followed through on his earlier promise and dug his hand into her hair. She heard a series of soft clinks as pins dropped to the hardwood floor. Since her hair was such a riotous mess, she generally kept it pinned back or in a ponytail. But now, unconfined, it fell over her shoulders.
Being unconstrained this way made her feel slightly wanton, and she leaned closer to him.
“This will be consensual. Tomorrow, there will be no doubt you were a full participant in whatever happens tonight. Do you understand?”
Excitement drugged her. She felt his forceful grip on her hair. Shockingly, the pain only added to the bombardment on her senses. She wanted more.
“Ask me, Julia. Ask me to kiss you, to squeeze your nipples, to bring you off right here in the sunroom where anyone can see you surrender to me.”
His words stunned her. She blinked, then stared at him.
“Ask me,” he repeated. “Or tell me to release you.”