Main The Architect (Nashville Neighborhood #3)

The Architect (Nashville Neighborhood #3)

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On the surface, my new boyfriend is a stiff, buttoned-up architect. He plans every detail of his life while carefully maintaining the walls he’s built around his heart. But when the biggest project of his career pulls him away, Clay’s solution is both temporary and unconventional. It even comes with a name—Travis.

This handsome stranger is sweet and thoughtful. He’s only meant to be a stand-in, to fulfill my needs under Clay’s watchful direction, yet these two men couldn’t be more different. The one thing they share? Well, I guess that would be me.

One gets off on my pain, the other on my pleasure, and it awakens a desire none of us knew existed. But it can’t last.

Eventually I’ll have to choose.

And it’s going to destroy us all.

Nashville Neighborhood
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Stephanie Muller
Such a good book, I swear...
05 August 2021 (05:25) 

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	A loud, insistent banging came from my front door, caused by an angry fist, and I froze.

	First of all, it was dark and pouring rain outside. There wasn’t an overhang or porch to cover whoever was knocking on my door. And second . . . what the actual fuck? I lived in the guest quarters behind my parents’ house, and their property was surrounded by a fence.

	So, I didn’t get visitors. Anyone coming here would go to the main house first.

	It meant the owner of the fist pounding on my door in the dead of night—and during a storm—had come onto my family’s property without permission.

	Every hair on my body stood at attention with alarm.

	“Lilith?” a male voice asked, sounding urgent. “Are you home? It’s Clay Crandall from next door. I need your help.”

	Like the snap of a pair of fingers, the tension in my body shifted and I couldn’t get my door open fast enough.

	He stood on the concrete path with his head tipped down to keep the worst of the rain from falling into his eyes. He was drenched, and the water molded his clothes to his body, showing off every perfect inch of him. Clay was in his late thirties, meaning he was at least ten years older than I was . . . and exactly the type of guy I preferred.

	Jesus, he was so fucking hot. Even with anxiety stricken across his face.

	I stood stock-still with one hand on the doorknob, ignoring the rain splattering my legs, and gawked at him. Behind his dark-rimmed glasses, his eyes were the same shade of brown his hair was when wet, as it currently was. He was fit and toned, and had a body made for sex. The kind I was sure could turn a smart girl like me stupid.

	Which it had, because I hadn’t invited him in to get out of the rain. I stepped back and gestured inside. “Come on in. What’s going on?”

	He shook his head. “No, I—” He struggled to find the words. “You’re a veterinarian, right?”

	“No, I’m a technician.” It wasn’t the first time someone had made that assumption. I was more like a nurse, who assisted the doctors at the animal hospital where I;  worked.

	But this answer must have been close enough because he nodded and backed up, urging me to follow him out into the storm. “I need your help . . . at my house.”

	There was something odd about the way he’d said it. His voice was full of discomfort, like he was reluctant. Or perhaps he was shy.

	I’d only had one conversation with my next-door neighbor since he’d moved in more than a year ago. Once he put up his curtains, I never saw him again. The guy was rarely home, and when he was, he stayed hidden. The rest of our neighbors were friendly and chatty, or nosy, or all of the above. Everyone knew each other’s business. But Clay?

	He was a ghost.

	No one came by to see him. There weren’t visiting cars parked in his driveway or the street beside his house, not even on holidays. A lawn service took care of his yard.

	My mother joked he was probably a serial killer.

	No way. He was too good looking for me to believe that, even when I knew serial killers could be attractive.

	I put my hand up to shield the rain from my face. It was a feeble attempt to save my eye makeup as I tried to dart out into the storm, but his hand came up to stop me.

	“Wait,” he said.

	“What is it?”

	His gaze dropped to my feet. My open-toe pumps had a summery floral print and four-inch heels. I’d bought them off-season last year for a total steal.

	His face took a dubious cast. “Don’t you want to change shoes?”

	“No, I’m good.” Because I loved my shoes. Stilettos, or sandals, or any kind of sexy heels . . . My closet was full of them, and I took every opportunity I could to wear them.

	We didn’t talk as we hurried across the path that led to the gate in the fence, and my shoes were slick on the stones. The rain was cold as it pelted me, soaking my ivory shirt and squishing between my toes, but I ignored it and did my best to keep up with Clay’s fast clip.

	The exterior lights surrounding his large house were on, making raindrops glint, and his garage door was open. We went through it, passing by his Ford pickup truck and up the two steps to the door that led into his home.

	I stood in the side entryway, dripping on the tile floor, waiting for him to explain, but he didn’t. Instead, Clay’s gaze bounced around frantically as if he wasn’t sure where the emergency was.

	“There’s a cat in here somewhere,” he said.

	I blinked. “Um, okay . . .?”

	He rubbed the back of his neck, and his expression was full of embarrassment. At least, I assumed it was, based off his tone. I was totally distracted by the flex of his bicep peeking out from under his shirt sleeve.

	He said it quietly. “I think I hurt it.”

	Everything in me went still, and my voice flash-froze into ice. “What?”

	“It was an accident.” His eyes filled with remorse. “A few weeks ago, this cat randomly showed up at my place. Maybe you’ve seen it? A black and white one?”

	I hadn’t. He peered at me, waiting for a response, but my stone-cold demeanor didn’t change, and it forced him to continue.

	“It keeps trying to get into my house. Every time I open a door, the cat’s there, like he’s been lying in wait. It rushes for the door.” He hesitated. “When I got home, I didn’t realize he’d followed me into the garage.”

	“Oh, no.” I tensed. “You hit him with your car?”

	Thankfully, he shook his head. “I’d just come in when I saw the cat charging for the steps, so I tried to shut the door before he made it in.” Clay swallowed a breath. “I . . . wasn’t fast enough. His tail got caught in it, and—shit—the howl he made was awful.”

	Dread and urgency descended on me. “Where is he now?”

	Clay cast a hand toward the entryway and the house beyond. “I’ve been looking everywhere for at least twenty minutes.”

	My gaze left his and scoured the space, searching. “Hurt animals like to hide.” I took two steps toward the living room before pausing. I should probably ask if he were cool with it before I began wandering around his house. “Is it okay if I—”

	He nodded quickly. “Please.” He took his glasses off and used the hem of his shirt to clean the raindrops from his lenses. “I’ll take the upstairs. You search this floor?”

	“Yeah,” I answered. With the game plan sorted out, his feet carried him swiftly across the hardwood and toward the staircase, leaving me to begin my self-guided tour of his place.

	His living room was nice, with a plush rug in the center and a matching couch and loveseat, but I didn’t find a wounded cat hiding beneath them. If I’d had more time, I might have lingered by the built-in bookcases and examined the pictures displayed there, but my focus was elsewhere right now.

	My goal was temporarily derailed when I turned the corner and stepped into the kitchen. Or what was supposed to be the kitchen, because the space was torn apart. An island of cabinets was perched in the center of the room, but there was no countertop. What looked like backsplash samples were taped to the wall under the space where a range hood was probably going to be installed. He was renovating the kitchen, but how come I’d never noticed a construction crew parked out front?

	There were at least a dozen open boxes scattered around the room.

	I searched each one, but no luck.

	“Here, kitty, kitty . . .” I called softly, but no cat appeared. It was a longshot, but I had to try, didn’t I?

	Once I flipped the light switch in his dining room, the chandelier warmed the darkness. This room was formal, elegant, and traditional. I got down on my hands and knees and peered beneath the side cabinet, hoping to catch two reflective eyes staring back at me, but it was empty. I’d probably wasted time looking since the cabinet was really low to the ground, but cats were also liquid and could fit into tight spaces.

	I sat back on my heels and stared at the cabinet for a moment. It struck me as odd. For a guy who lived alone and never seemed to entertain, why did he need it? It was expensive and high-quality. The same for the large dining room table and its chairs.

	Overhead, a floorboard creaked, announcing Clay hadn’t found the cat yet either and I needed to get back to work.

	Across the hall from the dining room was his study, and I checked every spot I possibly could, fighting against my curiosity to snoop. I was nosy-natured, and he was an enigma, so it was tempting, but somehow I managed to resist. Only the things out in the open were allowed to grab my attention—like the drafting table next to the bay window. There were blueprints clipped to it, except they didn’t seem to be for his kitchen remodel. Whatever this building was, it was huge.

	My focus had to move on.

	There was a bedroom on the main floor, and once I realized it was the master suite, it was torturous to stay on-task. This was his room, full of dark-colored wood and secrets only someone close to him would know. Like how he slept on the left side of his big bed.

	And he wore boxer-briefs.

	I knew because the chair in the corner had become a catch-all of clothes, including a black pair of underwear. I began to picture what he’d look like in them, and then immediately forced it from my mind.

	Come on, Lilith. Stop thinking about banging your next-door neighbor for two seconds.

	There was nothing hidden under his bed except a pair of discarded socks. Where the heck had this cat run off to? I strode through Clay’s bathroom and into his large closet, but a thorough scan confirmed I was the only creature in here. Surrounded by his suits and dress shirts, it felt . . . intimate. I put a hand out, brushing my palm over the soft fabric of his suit sleeves—

	“What are you doing?” His tone was brusque.

	I nearly yelped in surprise, dropping my hand, and spun to face him. “Sorry.” Embarrassed warmth crawled along my cheeks. He stared at me through his sexy glasses, his chest rising and falling with his hurried breath.

	Only I had the strange feeling he wasn’t irritated at me. The longer I gazed at him, the more I began to wonder if this was something else. His expression was impossible to read. Was he anxious?

	Or intrigued?

	I lifted my chin and pretended he hadn’t just caught me petting his clothes like a lunatic. “I take it you haven’t found the cat yet?”

	He set a hand on his hip and let out a sigh. “No.”

	Silence seeped into the space, bringing tension along with it. It seemed like he realized it at the same moment I did, just how alone we were in this small space with him blocking my exit. My brain warned me it was possible the cat didn’t exist. This man was my neighbor, but he was still a stranger, and I’d walked willingly into his house. Right into what could have been his trap.

	But if that were true, why did he look like he was the one who’d been cornered? His hands hung awkwardly at his sides and were curled into loose fists. Not with anger, but . . . maybe discomfort? As if my presence in this space was causing him distress.

	A voice inside me whispered the cat might not be the only wounded animal inside his house.

	“I don’t know where he could be.” He sounded defeated. “I’ve looked everywhere.”

	“It’s okay,” I said quietly. “We’ll find him.”

	Clay was skeptical as he used a knuckle to push up the dark-framed glasses on the bridge of his nose, but he nodded.

	“I can look upstairs—” A thought struck me. “Wait. Don’t you have a basement?” Most houses in our subdivision didn’t, which was why I remembered. “My mom and I walked through an open house before you bought this place last year.”

	If he was uncomfortable I had invaded his closet, now he looked downright terrified at the idea of me going deeper inside his home. Something like panic flitted through his eyes, and his words came out in a rush. “He’s not down there. I always keep the door shut.”

	Well. His quick response made me quirk an eyebrow. Maybe he was a serial killer.

	He straightened and attempted to act natural. “He’s probably somewhere on the main floor. The kitchen, or the laundry room, or maybe the study.”

	“Laundry room?” Oh, I was an idiot. “It’s off the kitchen, right? I totally missed it.” I’d gotten distracted by all the boxes and the renovations.

	He led the way, both of us moving quickly out of his bedroom, down the hall, and through the kitchen.

	The laundry room wasn’t much bigger than his closet. There was only space for his washer and dryer, but I put my hands on top of one of them and leaned over to look behind. Beneath the accordion dryer vent, I spotted a patch of white fur.

	“There you are,” I said softly.

	“How the hell? He’s behind the dryer?”


	I straightened just as Clay went to lean over to see better, and our shoulders brushed against each other. It made my breath catch, and I wanted to laugh in surprise. I was comfortable with both my space and others’. Some might even label me as the overly friendly, touchy-feely type. I was a confident woman, the kind of girl who ate weakness for breakfast and had no problem making the first move.

	So, why the fuck did something as innocent as my shoulder brushing against his make my heart flutter?

	Was it how he seemed equally affected by it? He hesitated like a scientist who’d just received an unexpected test result. His gaze shifted to the appliance in front of us.

	“I can move the dryer, but not enough to get back there to get him out.”

	I shook my head. “Let’s try to coax him out first. Do you have food we could use, like cheese or a can of tuna?”

	He considered it before nodding. “Yeah, I think so.”

	I stayed in the laundry room as he disappeared, and a moment later there were sounds like he was rummaging around in his pantry. A whir of a mechanical can opener rang out.

	“Should I put some on a plate?”

	“No, just bring me the can,” I answered, climbing up on top of the washing machine.

	He turned the corner to find me sitting there with my legs crossed and my hands braced behind me. His steps slowed as he approached, trying to keep his thoughts from showing on his face—yet he failed spectacularly.

	My provocative pose wasn’t intentional, but if his mind happened to go to the idea of him fucking me on top of his washer during an aggressive spin cycle . . . Well, I wasn’t the least bit mad about it.

	Maybe later we could make that idea a reality.

	I reached forward, took the small can from him, then turned to lower it behind the dryer. It didn’t take much to entice the cat. The scent of the fish grabbed the animal’s attention immediately, and two orange eyes stared up at me with interest.

	“You hungry?” I asked.

	I knew I had the cat hooked when I lifted the can and he followed, bounding up on top of the dryer beside me with a soft thump.

	“That’s a good sign,” I said quietly so I didn’t startle the cat. “He’s interested in eating, so he’s probably not in much pain.”

	I set the can down, and as soon as the cat took its first bite, I did a visual evaluation. The tuxedo cat had his weight evenly distributed between his paws, and when I nudged the can across the top of the washer, he hurried after it. His gait was normal.


	“She’s not favoring one leg over the other,” I said, “so that’s good.”


	“Yup. This cat’s a female.”

	I held out my hand to let her smell me, but she was far more interested in her meal than anything else. I ran a hand along her spine, checking for any signs of trauma, and when she arched into my touch, the tip of her tail wagged happily.

	I grinned at Clay as I stroked the cat a second time. “I don’t think she’d be moving her tail if it were broken.”

	As if to help reinforce my claim, the animal began to purr, and the rumbling sound grew louder as she opened her mouth to take another bite of fish.

	I inspected her fur, which seemed clean and free of fleas. She was skinny, though, and there was a scratch healing on the top of her head as if she’d been in a fight with another animal recently.

	“You can bring her by my clinic tomorrow and we can check her for a microchip, but I don’t think she’ll have one. I’m betting she was a stray until she found you.”

	“Tomorrow?” Clay’s tone was dubious. “Wait a minute, what—”

	I ignored him and gave her some scritches behind her ears. “You’re too pretty and sweet to be homeless, aren’t you?”

	He said my name the same way I expected he’d tell me to get serious. “Lilith.”

	I gave him a plain look. “This cat risked life and limb to adopt you as her owner.”

	Anxiety and confusion tightened his shoulders. “No. I don’t want to own a cat.”

	“Why not?” It just fell out of my mouth, loaded with double-meaning. “You don’t like pussy?”


	Surprise at my innuendo made Clay jolt, but the way he recovered in a blink of an eye turned it right back around to me. His gaze slid from mine, down to the thin, wet top I wore and how it molded to my breasts. My pebbled nipples jutted out, and when he zeroed in on them, desire flared in his eyes.

	Then he took a deep breath and licked his lips, making heat warm my cheeks and a dull ache throb between my legs.

	Oh, yes.

	It was silent in the room, but the way he brazenly lusted at me was deafening. It rumbled through my body just as the thunder outside reverberated through his big house.

	But his wicked look slowly faded into a serious one. “I like . . . cats just fine. What I meant is, I can’t own a cat.”

	“Why? Are you allergic?”

	He pressed his lips together for a half-second. “No, but I have to travel for my job.”

	“Really?” Confusion tugged my eyebrows together. “Seems like you’re home all the time to me.”

	His expression shuttered. He didn’t like the idea I was keeping tabs on him, and his tone turned accusatory. “Oh, am I?”

	I shrugged without shame. “You’re hot and mysterious, and I’m curious.”

	A statement like that would fluster some guys, but not Clay. He simply blinked behind his glasses. “I’m not mysterious. I’m . . .” He searched for the right word. “Private.”

	“Okay.” I stroked the cat. “Private guys can care for cats, you know.”

	“So can nosy neighbors,” he fired back. “You work for a veterinarian. Don’t you think that makes you a better fit?”

	“This cat didn’t pick me, dude, she picked you. And I think you owe it to her after slamming her tail in the door.” I slid down off the washing machine and was thrilled when he held his ground. It meant we were standing close enough to each other I could pick up the faint hint of his cologne. “Besides, as much as I’d like to, my landlords have a strict no-pets policy.”

	He looked dubious. “Don’t you live with your parents?”

	“No. I rent from them.”

	Yes, I was twenty-six and resided on my parents’ property, but as far as I was concerned, I lived on my own. My parents’ guest house was a complete space, including a full kitchen, two bedrooms, and one-and-a-half baths. I paid my rent and utilities and came and went as I pleased.

	But Clay continued to look at me like I was making it all up.

	“If I didn’t live there,” I said, “they’d rent my place out to someone else, and they’d be the ones keeping up with the main house.” I pushed a swath of my dark brown hair back over my shoulder. “You know my folks are never home anymore, right? Last year my dad retired, and now they’re doing all the traveling they’ve been wanting to since they had kids.”

	“Oh,” he said. “No, I didn’t know. Where are they now?”

	“Vietnam.” Wait, was that right? “Or maybe Myanmar? I don’t remember their exact itinerary.” Just that they wouldn’t be home for another month, and they weren’t planning to stay home long. South America was booked for September and October. “Anyway, my dad’s allergic, and my mom’s always been super anti-pet, so me having a cat is a dealbreaker for them.” My mother’s aversion to pets had played a big role in why I worked with animals. “Honestly, I couldn’t afford a place half as nice on my salary, so I’m not about to risk it, even if this cat is adorable.”

	I massaged the scruff of her neck, and she purred like a motor.

	Clay sighed. “It’s not like I’m heartless. She is . . . kind of cute,” he admitted softly. “Look, I’d take her in if I could, but I’m heading to Florida tomorrow morning, and I’ll be gone the rest of the week. Maybe longer.”

	“What is it you do?” I asked. “All my mom told me is you’re in tech.”

	He cocked his head in confusion, then a half-smile tilted his lips. “I’m not in tech. Architect,” he corrected. “She must have misheard me.”

	“Oh.” Well, the drafting table and blueprints in the study made a bit more sense now. “You’re building something in Florida?”

	“We’re in phase two of a new hospital tower in Jacksonville, which, as you can imagine, is a big project. I’ll be back and forth all the time for the next six months.”

	My gaze dropped to his tile floor while I contemplated what to say next. The one solution I came up with was crazy, and he probably wouldn’t go for it, but what was the harm in asking? I lifted my chest and flashed the biggest, most persuasive smile I owned.

	“So . . . I have an idea,” I said. “You have pet-friendly space, but no time. I have the time, but no pet-friendly space. Let’s make a deal. I’ll take care of her while you’re gone. I mean, I’m right next door. It’d be easy for me to pop over and check in on her.”

	Clay looked at me like I’d just offered to rotate his tires. “I’m sorry, what?”

	“We’ll share the cat. I’ll even let you name her.”

	His tone was dubious. “You want to . . . own a cat. With me.”

	“Sure, why not?”

	“Because I’m a stranger?”

	I waved a hand, brushing off his silly statement. “No, you’re not.” I smiled widely. “I know where you live, Clay. Just think of it as joint custody. We both get something out of this arrangement. I get to own a cat, and you don’t even have to take care of it.”

	He couldn’t have looked more conflicted if he’d tried. “We can’t do that. That idea is . . . crazy.” And yet, it was clear he hadn’t ruled it out. Was he actually considering it?

	“Cats are easy,” I added.

	His gaze shifted away from me as he thought long and hard about it. “I don’t have any stuff, like cat food, or—”

	Hurried excitement crept into my voice. “I can go to the store right now. I’ll pay for everything.”

	“It’s not a money thing.” He lifted a hand like he could pluck the answer out of thin air. “How would it even work?”

	I tentatively placed a hand on his arm and fought the urge to squeeze the muscle that lurked beneath the damp cotton of his shirt. “I just need a key or your garage door code. I can check on other stuff for you while you’re gone too,” I said, “like I do for my parents. Water your plants, let you know how the remodel is going.”

	His attention went to my fingers resting on him, and I couldn’t tell if he liked my touch or not. Part of him seemed excited by it, but a much larger part seemed guarded and uneasy. I retreated, not wanting to turn him off.

	“I don’t need an update on the remodel,” he said. “I’m the one redoing the kitchen.”

	Really? I stared beyond him to the box of tiles just outside the door. “By yourself?”

	He straightened. “Yes. I enjoy the work, and—as I mentioned—I’m a private person. I . . .” His voice went uneven and low. He wasn’t sure he should reveal it. “This is my space. I don’t like strangers in my house.”

	My heart quickened.

	Had it had been hard for him to ask for my help and let me in? He’d been uncomfortable when he’d caught me in his closet.

	“I’m not a stranger,” I said softly and strived for a light, playful tone. “You know where I live.”

	“I do,” he said.

	I licked my lips and peered up at him. “We could get to know each other better.”

	When his gaze drifted back to me, my breath caught.

	The desire was back in his eyes, but there was something else too. A strange kind of power. I’d thought I was luring him in, but it made me wonder if he was doing the same to me.

	“Maybe we could name her Noir,” he said.

	I blinked back my surprise. “Because she’s black and white?” It was a far more original name than ‘Oreo,’ which was what all the tuxedo cats that came into the clinic always seemed to be. I smiled. “Noir. I like that.”

	The first few days, my focus was solely on our new cat. As I suspected, she wasn’t microchipped, and there hadn’t been any recent calls to the animal shelter in town inquiring about a missing black-and-white domestic shorthair. After Dr. Johnston gave her a clean bill of health and her vaccinations, I coaxed Noir back into her carrier and took her home.

	Well . . . her home, at Clay’s place.

	After we’d struck the deal of jointly owning a cat together, we’d gotten into his truck, driven to the nearby Target, and purchased enough supplies to last Noir a week. I fought him on who got to pay, but he insisted, and in the end, I gave in and let him do it.

	“Can I ask a question?” I said once we were back in his truck, heading home. “Is there a specific reason you don’t like strangers in your house?”

	For a moment, the only sound in the car interior was the soft ticking of his turn signal. Then his quiet voice filled the space. “No, it’s just a general thing.”

	I wasn’t sure if he was going to elaborate, but he drew in a deep breath, like he was preparing for a challenge.

	“Being around unfamiliar people,” he continued, “makes me uncomfortable. Honestly, sometimes it’s exhausting. I can deal with it when I’m at work or out at a job site, but then I need space afterward.” His hand tightened on the steering wheel. “Not to sound like a jerk, but most of the time I’d rather be alone.”

	It was the same for me, but instead of telling him, I bit down on my bottom lip. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

	He took his eyes off the road for a fraction of a second so he could glance at me. “No. Don’t worry, you didn’t.” The corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. “I mean, you should. You’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, and the most unexpected things come out of your mouth, but for some reason you don’t make me uncomfortable.”

	Pleasure washed through me at his compliment, and I shifted in my seat, subtly leaning closer to him. “Why do you think that is?”

	He considered his answer for a long moment, and then didn’t give it to me. “Do you like people?”

	“Like, am I outgoing?” I shrugged. “Yeah, sure.”

	“I mean, do you like being around people?”

	I stared out the rain-splattered windshield and into the darkness of the night. “I like animals better, if I’m being honest. They’re less, I don’t know, complicated.”

	“Yes.” He nodded.

	Seduction slid into my voice. “But I like being around certain people.”

	A short laugh punched from his lips. “If you’re in any way implying me, well—I’m about as complicated a person as you can get.”

	“Oh, yeah?”

	He nodded but didn’t explain.

	The short drive ended as he swung the truck into his driveway, and as soon as we got back inside his house, we were focused on getting Noir squared away. After that, he walked me through the process of disarming his home security system, which was so advanced, I had to take notes on my phone.

	And once we were done and Noir began exploring her new home, Clay rummaged around in a drawer in his study and extracted a key. He held it in his hand, and his gaze traced over the silver notches on one side. I understood his hesitation. This was a big step for him, and I wanted to do everything I could to make him feel comfortable with me—not just in his home, but as a person.

	“You can ask me anything, you know.” My tone was playful. “I’ve heard communication is super important when you’re co-parenting.”

	A smile twitched on his lips, and Clay’s fingers unfurled, holding the key out to me in the palm of his hand. “Okay. Can I ask how old you are?”

	Instinctively, I straightened, trying to make myself look more mature. “Twenty-six. You?”

	If my age surprised him, he didn’t show it. He simply nodded. “I’m thirty-five.”

	It was a question I probably should have asked sooner. “Have you owned a pet before?

	“Yeah. My mom had a cat when I was young. She was pretty—all-white—but she only liked my mom and merely tolerated the rest of us.”

	“What was her name? Wait, let me guess. Snowball?”

	“No, it was way more original than that. It was Kitty.”

	“How creative.” I laughed lightly. “So, Noir will be your first pet since then?” When he nodded, I grinned. “Well, I’m glad I get to share her with you.”

	Clay looked pleasantly surprised. “Me too.”

	We lapsed into silence, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. If anything, it was warm and inviting.

	When our shared moment was over, his gaze turned to the window, and he moved to pull an umbrella out of his entryway closet. “Can I walk you home?”

	It wasn’t raining nearly as hard as when he’d dashed over to my place to ask for help, and as we walked together, fat raindrops pitter-pattered against the large black umbrella. I loved being under it because it gave me an excuse to linger close to him.

	But when we reached my door, he announced he needed to pack for his work trip, thanked me for my help, and said good night before I could invite him in or make a move.

	I was able to quickly temper my disappointment, though—he’d given me both his number and a key to his place, and I’d have ample opportunities over the next few weeks to learn what made him such a complicated man.

	I went over every day the first week and got in the habit of texting him pictures of Noir. Sometimes I had to be quiet and sneak into the house to catch her curled up on a couch cushion in the sun. If I made too much noise, she’d run and hide at first. Like Clay, she was shy in the beginning, but warmed up quickly when she realized it was me.

	I did my absolute best not to snoop through his house.

	He’d said he was a private person, and I was determined to respect that. But— damn—I felt like one of the wives in the Bluebeard folktale every time I walked past the door to his basement. Was there a bloody chamber behind it, full of all his dead wives?

	Why had he been so nervous when I’d mentioned going down there? My curiosity grew each day. At least he’d be back tomorrow, and when I stopped by to say hello to both him and our cat, I’d find a way to casually bring it up in conversation.

	Except I didn’t get a chance. I was sitting on the rug in his living room, scratching Noir’s chin exactly the way she liked it when a loud bang came from below, startling both of us.

	“What the fuck was that?” I demanded.

	Noir looked at me with the same question in her eyes as she leapt to her feet, her body on high alert.

	The bang had been loud enough it sounded like something heavy had crashed to the floor. I ran different ideas in my head, from a light fixture breaking to the water heater malfunctioning, and all of them warranted investigation.

	Or at the very least, a peek down the stairs.

	My heartbeat kicked up a notch as I wrapped my hand around the doorknob. The anticipation had been building all week, and excitement zipped through me like nervous electricity. I turned the knob and pushed the door open, only to stare down the dark and disappointingly normal staircase.

	I wasn’t the only one curious, though.

	A half-second later, Noir bolted down the stairs and turned the corner at the bottom, disappearing out of view.

	“Well, shit.”

	I flipped on the light and descended the stairs after her.

	Last time I’d been in this basement, more than a year ago, the space had been set up as one large bonus room, a couch on one side and a play area for kids on the other. When Clay had moved in, he’d changed it dramatically. The carpet was gone, replaced with laminate floors, and more lights brightened the room.

	He’d converted it into a workshop, sectioning it off into stations. One corner was an impressive work bench and table saw. Another held materials stored in tidy, labeled compartments, and beside it—the items too big to go into drawers or bins, like lumber and reams of black and red fabrics, which were either vinyl or leather.

	I forgot all about my cat as I walked through the space, marveling at the sophisticated organization and flow of the work room.

	Clay built custom furniture, and by the looks of it, it wasn’t just a hobby—it was a side business. An order form was pinned to a board, the specs highlighted, and handwritten notes were inked in the margin. Materials for the ‘pillory stocks’ build had been ordered and were supposed to arrive next week.

	My gaze slid away from the piece of paper, moving toward the finished piece that stood in the corner behind the stairs. I was immediately struck by its sleek lines, but it also took me a moment to make sense of what I was looking at.

	When I did, my mouth dropped open, and heat rushed through me.

	“Holy shit,” I whispered.


	Clay had told me he was a complicated man, and as I stared at the sexy piece of furniture he’d crafted, I peeled back one of his layers.

	This St. Andrew’s cross was slightly different than the ones I’d seen online, but there was no mistaking its purpose. The beams still crossed in a giant X, but this one also had crossbars at the top and bottom, so it was more like two triangles kissing.

	The hourglass silhouette of it was outlined with metal, and rings were placed at every intersection. There’d be multiple places to hook on to. Spots to attach handcuffs, rope, or chains. The cross itself was covered in black and accented with red, and I couldn’t help myself. I reached out to touch the leather and found it buttery-soft.

	It was so fucking sexy and stunning, it stole my breath.

	My quiet, studious looking neighbor built custom, high-end BDSM furniture.

	I marveled at the craftmanship as I walked around the St. Andrew’s cross. It was angled back just a bit, and a support beam jutted out the back, probably to give it extra stability. It was impossible to look at it and not imagine what it’d feel like to be bound spreadeagle to it. I wouldn’t care which way he’d have me—either facing him or away, my body exposed for whatever he wanted to do to it.

	Would he spank me?

	Flog or whip me?

	Fuck me?

	I burst into flames at the idea. I’d never explored any kind of kink before, but I was a ‘try everything once’ kind of girl, and this had always fascinated me. A quick look at my internet browser history would reveal my sexual appetite was healthy and I had wide tastes.

	And to do it with Clay? I imagined him delivering a sexy spanking, and then using that same hand to push his glasses back up on the bridge of his nose. He’d evaluate me with an exacting look and then adjust my positioning or correct the arch of my back with a firm hand or a dark tone.

	An ache of need radiated through my body.

	There was a W-shaped logo carved into the back of the cross, matching the letterhead of the order pinned to the board. I trailed my fingertips over the carving.

	“Wicked Architecture,” I read aloud.

	I dug my phone out of my back pocket, typed it into Google, and found the company website in the search results. Like the piece of furniture in front of me, his website was slick and sexy. When I clicked on the portfolio page, I stared at the pictures of the various pieces he’d created.

	Some of them were easy to understand how they were used. There was a barrel shaped horse and a spanking bench that sort of reminded me of a small, padded picnic table. He’d already done a more traditional cross, and then something labeled a milking table, which was long and padded, had a hole cut out of the center of it, and sat on top of a cage.

	I got how the kneeler and the item described as Catherine’s wheel worked, but what was a queening chair? The licking bench looked complicated, and I couldn’t figure out who went where or what was even being licked. His portfolio was full of gorgeous pictures of furniture, showing off his high-quality work, but having a model in some of the images would have been helpful.

	My curiosity carried me back toward the order form. The price tag for the stocks he was building was seven hundred dollars. The figure didn’t surprise me.

	Clay may have used math to build it, but his architecture was more like art to me.

	Noir had finished exploring the rest of the room, and she cautiously prowled toward the cross, eyeing it with skepticism. She sniffed it once, slinked around one of the beams, and then stretched up, latching her claws into the leather.

	“Noir, no!” I cried, scooping her up into my arms, and extracted her claws as delicately as I could. Thankfully, it didn’t seem like she’d damaged the leather; I’d gotten her just in time. From now on, I’d make sure to keep her out of here and the door to the basement closed.

	She squirmed in my hold, since she was a cat and preferred her independence, and reluctantly I made my way to the stairs.

	It was then that I noticed there were thick planks of wood standing upright, resting against the wall, like they’d been stained and then left there to dry. Only one of them was on the floor at a strange angle. The board must have slipped.

	“That’s what fell,” I told the cat.

	She didn’t care. Noir was far more interested in being released. I hurried up the stairs, closed the door, and set her down. She skittered away, temporarily annoyed with me for confining her.

	My gaze drifted back to the door, and my mind wandered down to what Clay was building in his workshop. He’d made pieces of restraint and confinement, and—fuck—it was so sexy. I wouldn’t be annoyed with him if he wanted to confine me . . .

	In fact, I was sure I’d be thrilled.

	Saturday morning, I had a shift at the clinic, as did my best friend Cassidy Sheppard. We’d meet two years ago when she began interning, and although she was a lot younger than I was, age was simply a number when it came to her. She’d turn twenty-one in a few months, but I’d swear she was in her thirties, maturity-wise.

	Cassidy was an old soul, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Her boyfriend was in his early forties.

	I spent the afternoon desperately fighting back the desire to tell her what I’d found in Clay’s basement. It wasn’t that I worried she’d judge him. I mean, she got up to all kinds of shenanigans with Dr. Lowe—or Daddy, as I sometimes called him. I’d sort-of-jokingly-but-also-seriously nicknamed him that behind his back, which she hated, but then again, she was sleeping with a guy who happened to be her ex’s father.

	I didn’t confess my discovery to my friend because every time I thought about it, a voice in my head would pipe up.

	Clay’s a private person, it scolded.

	So, I kept it a secret, no matter how much I was dying to talk about it with her. Plus, I didn’t tell her how I’d spent last night studying every piece of BDSM furniture in his portfolio. Or how this morning I’d devised a plan to broach the subject with him next time I saw him.

	“What are you doing tonight?” Cassidy asked me as she finished wiping down the table in exam room two. Had she sensed the excitement I was trying to hide, or was she simply making conversation? Daddy wasn’t on-call this weekend, and that was such a rare thing, I knew she’d be occupied.

	“Not sure.” I played it cool. “I might go over to Clay’s.”

	She stopped what she was doing so she could stare at me like I’d just said I hated wearing heels. “You’re going to spend your Saturday night alone with your cat?”

	A sly smile curled on my lips. “Hopefully not alone. Clay got back last night.”

	“Oh, I see.” She grinned. “I’d say good luck, but I doubt you’ll need it.”


	Cassidy tossed the paper towel in the trash can, and then made a production out of looking me over. “You asked a stranger if he wanted to own a cat with you, and he said yes. Trust me, he’s interested.”

	“That’s the thing, though. I can’t tell if he is.”

	She turned skeptical. “You’re super hot.”

	“Thanks.” I laughed lightly. “Except I’ve been super hot for the past year, and he never noticed me before,” I mused.

	She was well aware of the way I’d lusted over Clay when he first moved in, and she shrugged. “I am kind of surprised the cat made a move on him before you did.”

	Cassidy had a point. Usually, if I saw something I wanted, I went for it. “Maybe I’ve been playing the long game with him.”

	She feigned seriousness. “Uh-huh, sure.”

	It reinforced my plan for this evening, and once my shift was over and I was seated in my car, I thumbed out a text message to Clay.

	Me: Hey! Is it cool if I stop by for a visit?

	Clay: Yeah. I won’t be home until later.

	I frowned. That wasn’t part of the plan.

	Me: Hot date?

	As soon as I sent it, my frown deepened, because now I was terrified I’d just made it weird, or worse—he’d tell me the answer was yes.

	Clay: Ha ha. I’m in Smyrna, picking up cabinets.

	I brightened with relief. Smyrna was only thirty minutes away. I could make that work.

	Me: Okay. I might still be there when you get home.

	He sent me a thumbs-up emoji, and I grinned wickedly to myself.

	It was June, and already one of the hottest summers on record for Nashville, and yet I shivered.

	I was sitting on the leather wingback chair in Clay’s study, the one that had wooden armrests, and it was directly under an air conditioning vent, so the frigid air was blasting me. Also not helping my situation . . . I was naked except for my favorite pair of high-heeled sandals. The sexy black straps crisscrossed over my feet and all the way up to my ankles.

	I’d been seated like this for a while, sitting in the chair with my legs crossed and my dark brown hair loose around my shoulders as I waited for Clay to return home. Noir had come to say hello to me, but once the air kicked on, she slinked away in search of a less drafty place.

	This was risky plan, and I’d been shivering long enough in my spot to begin to second-guess myself. It could backfire and embarrass me, but at the same time, I thought it was unlikely. Clay was attracted to me. He’d said I was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen, and his desire had been unmistakable the night I’d talked him into adopting Noir.

	He wanted me. He just needed a little push.

	And I’d make it as easy and clear as possible I wanted him, too.

	I had confidence, but it threatened to run away from me the moment I heard the mechanical hum of the garage door. The sound came from all the way across the house, which meant I had time. I could grab my stack of clothes and dart into the hall bathroom, then emerge once I was dressed. Clay would never know I’d been naked in his study, my bare skin pressed to his leather chair.

	A door opened, and the alarm system chirped.

	Footsteps crossed the tile floor of his kitchen, followed by a clatter as keys were dropped on a counter. Then, silence . . . as if he had paused.


	No turning back now. I straightened my posture, lifted my chin, and spoke like my heart wasn’t threatening to beat out of my chest. “I’m in here.”

	Clay followed my voice, his feet carrying him down the hall toward the study. I sucked in a preparing breath, leaned an elbow casually on an armrest, and curled my lips into a provocative smile.

	When he stepped into view, every muscle in my body tightened. He wore a simple gray t-shirt, jeans, and his sexy black-rimmed glasses. Shit, he looked good. But he pulled up short at the sight of me.

	His eyes went wide, and his mouth dropped open, but he didn’t produce a single sound. It was like everything in him had shut down and quit working, including his brain.

	“Hey, neighbor.” My tone was sultry. “Welcome home.”

	He didn’t blink, and his chest wasn’t moving. Had he forgotten how to breathe? Everything inside me buzzed, thrilled at how I’d stunned him speechless.

	I’d hoped to surprise him, and I certainly had, but . . .

	It had been cold under the vent, and the longer he stood there and stared at me without moving or saying a word, the worse the chill on my skin became. Time dragged, and dragged, and I swallowed thickly.

	“Clay,” I whispered, “are you okay?”

	Behind his glasses, his eyes clouded over before his gaze dropped to the floor. “What happened to your clothes?”

	I wasn’t prepared for his harsh tone, and it cut through me like a knife. Of all the different emotions I’d anticipated, anger hadn’t been one of them.

	“I . . .” My confidence tumbled off a cliff, and I shot to my feet, blood rushing hotly to my face. “I thought you’d like this, but I must have misread the situation. I’m sorry.”

	I reached for my clothes on the desk, but his sharp command froze me into place. “Stop.”

	The stillness of the room was oppressive, and I was sure if he didn’t say anything else, I’d be frozen like this forever with breath halted in my lungs.

	“You thought,” his voice was as precise as the blueprints spread out on his drafting table, “that I’d like this? Seeing you naked?”

	Oh, God. My mouth went bone dry, preventing me from speaking.

	When he lifted his gaze to mine, it rose slowly up the length of my body, evaluating each curve and every inch of bare flesh.

	“You’re right,” he said finally. “I like it a lot.” His expression heated as he took a step closer, but he arched a disapproving eyebrow. “But I don’t do well with surprises. I don’t like the unexpected.”

	I had no idea what to say. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

	He acted like he hadn’t heard me, because his expression remained stern. “I don’t like my plans being disrupted.”

	It bubbled up out of habit. “I’m sorry.”

	“And I had plans for you. This,” his gaze swept over my nude form, “is way ahead of my schedule.”

	If he had sounded playful or teasing, I would have laughed with nervous excitement—but he hadn’t. If anything, his tone hinted at his annoyance, and it had a strange effect. I was eager to please him, to alleviate his irritation with me, even when I had no fucking idea how. I was already naked and throwing myself at him. It spun me for a loop that he was upset about it. Especially when he’d said he had plans for me and getting naked was on his schedule.

	I crossed an arm over my stomach and gripped my elbow, wanting to reach for him but unsure of how he’d feel about it. I regrouped, shifted on my heels, and let go of my elbow so I could put my hand on my hip.

	“Oh, yeah?” I tried to achieve the same sultry tone I’d used earlier. “And did your plans include us going downstairs to your workshop?”

	My question caught him so off-guard he reared back a step and tension flooded through his frame. “Excuse me?”

	Oh, shit. I’d misread his reaction. He wasn’t surprised by my question—he was offended.

	His eyes narrowed, and I shrank perfectly in time with them. My brain fumbled and searched for a way to fix it. “It’s beautiful, you know,” I said quickly. “The cross you’ve built, and all of the—”

	“I don’t remember giving you permission to go into my basement.” He was hard and cold, even as his eyes burned with outrage. “That’s my private space, and you had no right to be there.”

	“That’s not entirely true.” I didn’t like his accusation. “You kept the door closed, and I respected that all week, until I couldn’t avoid it. Yesterday, when I was over here, there was a huge crash, and I needed to make sure something terrible hadn’t happened.”

	He paused. “What?”

	“Those boards you’d left leaning up against the wall? One of them fell over. I had no idea what that sound was, so you can’t blame me for checking it out. What if it had been part of the ceiling falling or a beam collapsing or something?”

	Clay’s gaze slid away from me as he considered this new information. We had to look ridiculous, me standing there buck naked in his study while he was fully clothed.

	“I wasn’t snooping, I promise,” I added. “I was trying to be helpful. Trying to be good.”

	He repeated the word like it was unfamiliar. “Good.”

	“Yeah. I didn’t plan to go down there and find your workshop, but”—I shrugged—“you can’t blame me for looking. I was interested. Don’t worry, I didn’t touch anything, even though I wanted to.”

	He looked at me cautiously, unsure if I was telling him the truth.

	“And I’ll say it again.” I wanted him to hear the honesty in my words. “The stuff you’ve built? It’s gorgeous. Like, the fucking sexiest art I’ve ever seen.”

	His shoulders lifted as he drew in a deep breath, and when he pushed his glasses back on his nose, Clay seemed to collect himself. My compliment had a powerful effect on him, which he tried not to show. He straightened. “It’s not art.”

	“Why not? Because it serves a function?” I smiled wickedly. “Okay. Let’s go downstairs and you can show me.”

	He scrubbed a hand over his mouth, mostly to muffle the “fuck” he muttered under his breath, but the action gave him back some of the control he’d lost. Curiosity lurked in his expression. “You’d be up for that?”

	When I nodded, he walked the few steps toward me until there was no space left between us, and he peered down with a discerning look. The shift in him strengthened until power radiated from him. It was formed like a question, but it rang in my ears as a demand. “Can I touch you?”

	I nodded.

	Rather than put his arms around me, he slid one of his hands into the hair at the nape of my neck, cradling the back of my head and angling it up. His voice was as smooth as warm honey. “You want me to strap you to the cross and do what, exactly?”

	His gaze traced over the curves of my face before landing on my lips. My pulse raced, and he was so close, I could barely breathe.

	“You can do whatever you want to,” I uttered.

	“Hmm.” It was the perfect answer because sinful darkness danced in his eyes. “Maybe I want to punish you for screwing up my plan.”

	Did he mean his plan of getting me naked?

	The air in his study was thick with lust, and Clay’s strong hand cupping the back of my head made it hard to think straight. I pictured myself in cuffs, bound to his beautiful St. Andrew’s cross downstairs while he teased and tortured.

	He tilted his head a single degree, adjusting to a better angle to plant his lips over mine. “Would you like that?”

	My body was clamoring for it. “Yes.”

	A smile curved his mouth. He already knew my answer. “Is that what you need? A little bit of discipline?”

	Awareness lurked in the back of my mind. He was older and obviously more experienced, but my eagerness made me ignore the warning. I was hungry for his kiss, looking forward to whatever punishment he wanted to dole out. “Yes,” I whispered.

	He slid his hand away and stepped back so abruptly, I swayed at the sudden absence of him.

	“All right.” His tone was cool and indifferent. “Then, you’ll get dressed right now and go home.”


	My heart thudded to a stop. One second ago, Clay’s lips had been a scant inch from mine, and now he was gone.


	He said it plainly. “You wanted to be punished. I’m punishing you,” he casually tossed a hand toward me, gesturing to my nakedness, “and I don’t want to encourage this behavior.”

	My body refused to move, so I stood there dumbfounded and with my mouth hanging open. “Are you kidding me?”

	“Do I look like I’m kidding?”

	No, he certainly didn’t.

	His expression was fixed, and all the heat between us dissipated in an instant. My brain couldn’t process what had just happened. How had he turned himself off so quickly? Disappointment descended on me like an avalanche, and hot irritation quickly followed.

	I closed my mouth with an audible snap, and as I reached for my clothes in a huff, the last thing I expected to hear from him was a deep, satisfied chuckle. But that was what he did, and the sinful sound reverberated through me.

	“Look at you,” he said darkly. “All upset you didn’t get your way.”

	My hands slowed. What the fuck? He was being an asshole, and I glared at him, ready to unleash my tongue—

	“God, you’re even hotter when you pout.” Seduction threaded his voice. “You’re so fucking hot, Lilith, I can’t even stand it.”


	He gave me emotional whiplash, and I blinked rapidly, trying to understand him. But it was impossible because he stared at me now like a starving man, his expression dripping with desire, and all thoughts emptied out of my mind.

	“I’ve changed my mind,” he declared. “Turn around. Put your knees on the seat of the chair.”

	I was still processing his command when he grasped my elbow and guided me to the leather wingback chair I’d been sitting on when he came home. He set his fingertips on my back and eased me forward, until I had my knees buried in the cushion and my forearms draped over the top of the chair.

	It caused an arch in my back, and my bare bottom jutted out toward Clay, and he skated a finger along my spine, tracing a line from my shoulders to my hips. And then his featherlight touch was gone.

	“You want to be punished.” It was a statement, but it was clear he was waiting for confirmation from me, so my head bobbed in a nod. “Good,” he said. “I hope you’re not fragile.”

	His hand came down quickly, and although the smack of his palm against my ass sounded loud, his blow fell painlessly across my skin. A stunned smile buzzed my lips. I’d never really been spanked before, and this was what I’d hoped for. Part of me was disappointed I wasn’t bound to the beautiful cross he’d built, but the rest of me was pleased. I’d yearned to sexually explore, and it didn’t matter that much where or how it happened.

	I was grateful he was willing to partner with me.

	Clay spanked my ass again, and this one had more of a kick to it, but I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from giggling. Was that supposed to hurt? Because it didn’t, not by a longshot. I understood, though, how he was testing me. Better to start soft and build up to it, rather than do too much, have to back down, and potentially scare me off.

	His palm cracked against me once more, and this one was serious enough to make my body jolt—but it was simply from the force of it and not in pain. My breath came and went in quick bursts, but otherwise I didn’t make a sound. Could he tell my short breath was caused by anticipation and not discomfort?

	He sounded begrudgingly impressed. “You’re awfully quiet.”

	“Guess I’m not fragile.” For added effect, I wiggled my hips.

	He let out a short laugh, and it sounded very much like, “We’ll see about that.”

	The wood floor beneath his feet creaked as he adjusted his stance. Then the sharp smack of skin meeting skin punched through the quiet of the room, quickly followed by another slap.

	And another.

	He alternated between sides, spreading the blows around, varying tempo and placement.

	I gasped at the rhythm he created, the warmth that bloomed over my skin, and a muscle deep in my belly clenched in pleasure. When a moan slipped from my lips, he hesitated, making it possible for me to hear he’d become as out of breath as I was.

	“It feels good,” I said quietly.

	He sounded surprised. “It doesn’t hurt?”

	I turned over my shoulder to glance at him and subtly shook my head. Fucking hell, he looked so incredibly sexy as he stood behind me, desire hazing his eyes.

	A moment stretched heavy between us before he asked it. “Do you want it to?”

	His posture was rigid, announcing everything hinged on my answer, and a dark voice inside me spoke up, encouraging me to try something new.

	I’d always had a high threshold for pain—at least that’s what I’d been told. I didn’t mind a blister or a shoe strap cutting across the top of my foot. I dealt with the discomfort because I loved my heels and enjoyed both the ache and the release of slipping off my shoes at the end of the night.

	Would it be the same now? Would the pain he gave me, followed by the absence of it, be pleasurable? I was eager to find out. He’d asked me if I wanted him to make it hurt, and it was startling how confidently my answer came.


	He exhaled loudly, and with deep satisfaction, and the sound gave me a delicious shiver. I licked my dry lips as his focus swung to his desk, and then on to the drafting table. Whatever he’d been searching for, he found it there.

	He strolled to the table, picked up a long, silver ruler, and seemed to evaluate its weight in his hand. It wasn’t a flat, normal ruler—it was one of those triangular drafting things with three sides, each ending in a point.

	If I had any doubt about what he planned to do with it, it vanished as he smacked one end of the ruler against the palm of his other hand. He hadn’t done it as a threat. In fact, he wasn’t even looking at me. He studied the ruler and his open palm, evaluating it. Satisfied, he turned toward me.

	Oh, my God.

	Blood rushed loudly in my ears, dulling the sound of Clay’s footsteps as he came close. My gaze was fixated on what was clenched in his hand, and goosebumps burst across my arms and legs.

	While I was focused on the ruler, his gaze burned into me. “You understand what I intend to do with this scale?”

	Was that what the ruler was called? “Yes,” I said, squeezing it out between my short breaths. “I do.”

	“You’ll show me you’re okay with trying this,” he said, “when you cross your wrists behind your back.”

	The feeling coursing through me was the same one as stepping onto a rollercoaster and pulling the bar down to lock me in place. I knew what was about to happen. It would probably feel scary but exhilarating, and I went to it willingly. Eagerly, even.

	I leaned forward, resting the flat of my chest on the top of the chair back, and put my hands behind me, stacking one wrist on top of the other. My long brown hair draped down over my face and toward the floor, and I shut my eyes, mentally preparing myself for what would come next. Not that I had any idea what that triangular-shaped ruler was going to feel like when it—

	The cold metal kissed my skin, and I flinched reflexively. Both of my hands resting on the hollow of my back curled into fists.

	He hadn’t actually spanked me.

	All he’d done was set the scale against my ass, creating two chilly lines on my bare skin, and my overreaction to it caused a chuckle to roll out of Clay’s throat. But then his voice turned serious. “Have you ever done something like this before?”

	My eyes popped open and my hair shimmered as I shook my head.

	The cotton of his t-shirt and the heat of his body was abruptly warm on my back as he leaned over, bringing his mouth right beside the shell of my ear. “I’m glad I get to be the first.”

	I swallowed a breath as he straightened, and a split second later, the ruler slapped against me in a sharp, quick strike.

	It stung. The sensation of it forced me to suck in a breath through tight teeth.

	But apparently this wasn’t the reaction he’d been hoping for, because Clay repeated the action, and this time the crack of the ruler brought fire. Pain throbbed and lingered in the aftermath of the metal biting into my skin.

	“Fuck,” I swore.

	His tone was sinister. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

	My head spun at this version of him. Up until yesterday, he’d been my shy and quiet next-door neighbor. I’d never expected him to be assertive. Or so . . . dominating.

	And, shit, I hadn’t expected to like it so much.

	I wished I had known sooner, because I would have come over asking to borrow a cup of sugar. Except I would have been hoping for something other than sweetness.

	He struck my ass again, hard and unapologetic and right across my cheeks, and the pain from the contact seared through me. As it radiated down my limbs, I whined and squirmed, trying to make the feeling dissipate faster.

	“Does it hurt?”

	“Yes,” I groaned.

	It was like his dark voice was inside my head. “Do you want me to stop?”

	“No,” I said softly. My emotions were fractured, all over the place. But I felt strangely more aware and present in the moment than I ever had before. I didn’t want him to stop, but my voice was barely a whisper. “Is that weird?”

	His answer was resounding and excited. “No.”

	I turned as best I could to see him and marveled at the way his lips were parted so he could drag heavy air in and out of his lungs. The ruler was clenched in a white-knuckled fist at his side, and an impressive bulge pushed at the zipper of his jeans, tenting the front of them.

	“You like the pain?” he asked, studying me. “Does it turn you on?”

	Yes? Well, more like maybe. I didn’t know the answer with certainty, so I stuck with the truth. “I like the way you look right now.”

	That was what was turning me on. How he was in complete control of what we were doing. The way he gripped the ruler at the ready and stared at me with excited urgency, willing to do what had to be done to his naughty neighbor. He was prepared to get me back in line.

	I shouldn’t like what he was doing. He was hitting me hard enough to leave marks, and I was aware I was in way over my head with him. And yet, why wasn’t I nervous? Why did I feel . . . safe?

	Perhaps it was because he hadn’t done anything I hadn’t agreed to or asked for. The unforgiving ruler was exactly what I’d been craving.

	I had to strain over my shoulder to see him as he grabbed a handful of my skin where the raised red lines crisscrossed each other, and he squeezed until I clenched my teeth. His grip intensified the lingering ache in my sensitive, welted skin, but it was oddly pleasurable. The connection of his touch only turned me on more.

	He grunted a sound of approval as he grasped my tender flesh. “I like the way you look right now, too.”

	When he released his hold, I sighed in contentment, only for him to bring the ruler crashing down with a brutal slap. I cried out, canting my hips to run from the pain, and dug my nails into my palms.

	But just like the way he stared at me, the hurt and the longing for him to do it again was inescapable. I was adrift and fell further under his spell as he used his free hand to undo the button of his jeans and drop his zipper.

	It was clear that, just as I did—he ached.

	A look of desire twisted on his face as he dug his hand inside his undone pants. I gasped at how hot it was, both the visual and the idea that he was getting off on what we were doing.

	A yelp ripped from my mouth as I took another hit, and I lifted a foot, all the way until the back of my stiletto heel touched my burning skin. It offered me some protection and a reprieve, and Clay stroked himself. He twisted his grip and pumped his fist, and the edges of his jeans and underwear worked down over his hips until his dick was exposed.

	While he wasn’t exactly naked, he was where it counted, and it was satisfying he was nearly as vulnerable as I was. He fucked his fist with vicious need, like a man who had no other choice. I watched the head of his thick cock turn white as he thrust through his tight fingers, stoking the fire raging inside me. The throb pulsating in my flesh shifted, sliding down to the center of my legs.

	And with it, the atmosphere in the room changed, like the sun outside had suddenly been blotted out by the clouds. Everything closed in around us. I sensed the reckless hunger building inside Clay, and I quivered in anticipation, my heart thundering along at breakneck speed.

	The whoosh of the ruler cutting through the air announced how fast it was traveling, and I heard the smack of it before the pain registered. Agony stormed through my body, white-hot and cruel, and there was no time to consider how to react. I groaned and recoiled from his merciless ruler, using one hand to brace myself and grip the chair’s armrest, and my other hand to shield me from another blow.

	There was no need to tell him to stop or utter the word no. When I’d uncrossed my wrists, it had announced that for me. Clay’s tool of punishment clattered to the floor, and as I struggled to heave air into my body, he dropped to his knees behind me.

	“Oh, fuck,” I gasped.

	Because he flattened his palms to my hot, irritated skin, peeled me apart, and pressed his mouth right between my legs, where I was soaking wet.

	And desperate with desire.

	The tip of his tongue coursed through my pussy, found my clit, and focused in, fluttered over it. I jolted from the shocking, acute pleasure. I loved it when a guy went down on me, but this? It was insanity, and it’d never felt like this before. Each lush stroke of his tongue caused static in my body. It was so good, it short-circuited my brain, and my body didn’t know how to handle the overload.

	I clenched my hand on the armrest, my fingers straining. It felt like I needed to hold on to something while I endured this new type of lashing, where instead of a cold, metal ruler, the instrument of torment he used was the velvety-soft flat of his tongue.

	My legs quivered, and when he increased the pressure of his strokes, moans seeped from my mouth. His lips closed around my clit and sucked gently, feeding my building pleasure until the only thought pounding in my mind was my approaching orgasm.

	I was primed to explode, and I detonated when Clay’s fingers curled inward. He raked the sharp edge of his fingernails over the swollen lines his ruler had caused on my skin, and the pain mixed with my pleasure, setting me off.

	My orgasm was an electric shock as it traveled up my spine and burst out through my limbs. It was icy cold and scorching hot, and my cry of ecstasy filled the room. I reached my hand back to him—either to touch him or push him away from my overly-sensitive body—I wasn’t sure. The climax swept through me violently, draining and weakening and taking until it felt like I had nothing left.

	But I wasn’t allowed to touch him, or perhaps he wanted me to stay exactly as I was, because his hand closed around my wrist and pinned it to my back in the same spot it’d been when he’d used the ruler. And he climbed quickly to his feet, moving with efficiency.

	His one hand on me wasn’t much of a restraint, especially since my other was free. The thing keeping me in place was the powerful sensation he’d given me, which was still making me shudder with bliss. As it began to diminish and my breathing slowed, his ramped up. He had his fingers wrapped around my wrist, but his other hand worked himself over at a frantic tempo.

	Holy fuck, it was hot.

	Intense concentration etched his handsome face as he stared down at his furious hand, watching himself jerk off right over my bare ass—the one he’d marked with both his ruler and his fingernails. His chest rose and fell dramatically as he pumped his fist, the tip of his cock brushing against my knuckles of the hand he held down.

	When he came, Clay exhaled an enormous breath, groaned loudly, and his fist slowed to a measured tempo. Hot, thick liquid splattered onto my back in spurts, and dripped onto my fingers. His grip on me had tightened nearly to the point of pain, but tension went out of him as he recovered from his orgasm, and I wondered if his hold on me was more about connection than anything else now.

	The cadence of his breathing gradually returned to its unhurried pace, and as that happened, awareness rolled through me. I’d come to his house and gotten naked in hopes of seducing him. And yeah, he’d gone down on me, but . . . we hadn’t had sex. I hadn’t touched him. In fact, he’d barely touched me in a way I was used to.

	And we hadn’t kissed.

	Instead of his mouth pressed to mine, he’d given me red, angry welts on my ass and his cum splashed on my skin. I wasn’t upset about what we’d done. Just disappointed we hadn’t done . . . more.

	“Stay still,” he said softly when I attempted to move.

	My muscles were taxed from being in the same position for so long, not to mention the amount of tension I’d had while maintaining my posture, but I did as he asked. His fingers slid away from my wrist, and I left my hand where it was, resting awkwardly on my back.

	There was a box of tissues on his desk, and Clay went to it, pulling several out, and then returned to me, gently cleaning up the mess on my back and fingers.

	His voice wavered, less confident than before. “How are you feeling?”

	I wasn’t sure how he meant.

	Physically? Emotionally?

	The truth was I didn’t know. The welts on my body were still smarting, but I kind of liked it. It was an aching reminder of what he’d done, and mentally, my head was foggy. Not exactly dreamy, but sort of . . . floaty.

	It was nice and made me bold.

	“I’m feeling,” I said, “like I wish we had kissed before we . . .”

	He let out a tight breath. “I can fix that.”

	Then his hands were on my shoulders, easing me back off the chair. For the first time in ages, I tottered on my heels like they were brand new. Like I wasn’t comfortable standing or walking in them, even though I wore high heels every chance I could since I’d turned twenty.

	Shit, this floaty state was distracting.

	I shuffled in place, turning beneath his guiding hands to face him. Clay studied my lips with the same focused look he’d given me earlier, and it didn’t allow my racing pulse a moment to slow down. This time when he touched me, he used both hands. He slid them into my hair so he could cup my face and hold me still, then lowered his mouth to mine.

	Like everything else had been, his kiss was not what I expected. It wasn’t controlled or restrained, but it wasn’t deep or passionate either. It felt . . . calculated. It gave me a strange thought that he’d drafted how he’d approach kissing me, even down to the specific angle he’d use. Had he designed it to the exact degree? If I went poking around in his papers, would I find it sketched out somewhere?

	His kiss felt planned.

	It wasn’t a bad thing, though—just different. It still had heat and intimacy, enough to make me feel lightheaded. There was just a hint of tongue, and as soon as I tried to reciprocate, it was gone.

	The kiss was over.

	He drew back, keeping my face cradled in his hands, and an emotion I couldn’t place drifted through his eyes. Regret? I hoped not.

	“I had planned,” he said, “to have a conversation with you before we went any further, but—”

	“I disrupted your plans.”

	He nodded, his expression serious. “We still need to have it, but before we do, you didn’t actually answer me. Are you hurting? Do you want ice or a pain reliever?”

	I wasn’t hurting, mostly just uncomfortable, and I was too curious about what he wanted to talk about to care much about the dull heat banding across my skin. “I’m all right.”

	His discerning look said he didn’t believe me. His hands slid away, did up his jeans, and collected my stack of clothes off the desk. “Come with me.”

	I wasn’t given a choice, but I didn’t need one. I was just like the cat slinking around his house—too curious for my own good.

	He led me into his bedroom, not bothering to turn on the lights. The evening sun was setting on the far side of the house, making the room dark and moody and sexy. He deposited my clothes on the top of his dresser and motioned to the unmade bed. “Lie down on your stomach.”

	He wanted me to get into his bed? I didn’t need to be told twice. I put a knee on the mattress, crawled along the sheets in a way I hoped he found seductive, and lay down with my head on what I suspected was his pillow. The sheets smelled faintly sunny and woodsy, like the scent of his detergent battled for control over his cologne and body wash.

	I’d expected him to join me in the bed, but instead he disappeared into his bathroom, flipping on the light and moving deeper inside, out of my view. There was the sound of a door opening, perhaps the linen closet, and then the faucet ran for a moment. I propped myself up on my elbows and peered through the doorway to watch him wring out a towel.

	It was only a few moments later when he brought it into the bedroom and draped the cold, damp towel over the marks on my skin. I flinched, but the coolness of it soothed me instantly.

	“Thank you,” I said.

	Clay sat on the side of the bed, turned toward me with one leg tucked on the mattress and a contemplative look streaked his face.

	“What did you want to talk about?”

	He drew in a heavy breath. “Remember how I said I’m complicated?”

	I nodded. I’d thought he meant the BDSM furniture, but the way he was now made me unsure. He looked more nervous than he was the first time he’d used the ruler on me.

	“I can do relationships,” he said. “I completely understand the need for commitment and trust. And even monogamy if that’s what my partner wants.” He frowned, like the next part was difficult for him to say. “But I don’t do romance, Lilith.” His gaze trapped mine. “Which means I don’t date.”


	I blinked, trying to digest what Clay had just said. “Why?”

	“I’m no good at it, and more importantly, I’m not interested. I’ve never been.”

	The look he’d given me before—the one I couldn’t place—made sense now. It had been guilt.

	“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “If that’s what you’re looking for from me, I can’t give it to you.” He pushed up his glasses and straightened his shoulders. “As a rule, I don’t scene with someone unless they know already. I’m sorry about how I handled that.”

	I swallowed a breath. “So, what you’re saying is . . . you don’t want to be my boyfriend?”

	He went utterly still, but when I laughed and he realized I was joking, he returned to life.

	“Don’t sweat it, Clay.” I grinned. “I’m not looking for any of that right now.” My last several relationships hadn’t gone so well. Maybe I was like him. “I’m not any good at dating either.”

	My response was so unexpected to him and, God, the way he looked at me. As if I were a structure he wasn’t able to figure out, a puzzle he couldn’t solve.

	I mashed his pillow beneath my chest. “Do you do this a lot?” What was the word he’d used? “Scene?”

	He hesitated, but it didn’t seem to be reluctance. More like he was trying to word his answer carefully. “I haven’t in a while.” He reached out, tracing his fingertips over the curve of my shoulder. “You liked what we did?”


	His tender touch was disarming. “I’m meeting a client tonight at Club Eros.” He pushed a lock of my hair back and his tone was cautious. “Are you interested in coming with me?”

	“Club Eros,” I repeated. I’d never been to a BDSM club, and suddenly now I was dying to. What would it be like? I said it teasingly, even though I was serious. “Are you going to show me your world?”

	His gaze snapped to mine, and his intensity made me shiver with excitement. “Yes.”

	I wore a black corset top, paired with a teal skirt, and the same black heels from earlier. The strapless satin corset was the sexiest thing I owned, and I’d never been brave enough to wear it before tonight.

	I sat beside Clay in the back seat of our Uber as it drove us toward the club. He’d given our driver the address, and I wondered most of the drive there if the guy knew what kind of club he was going to deliver us to. Clay was dressed in a black suit without a tie, and the collar of his white shirt was unbuttoned. He looked nice and professional, and not at all like he’d be the type of guy to spank me with a metal ruler hard enough that sitting was still uncomfortable hours later.

	But I liked the sensation. I spent every quiet moment thinking about who had caused my discomfort, and heat flushed through me.

	When I climbed out of the car and stared up at the club, I was surprised at how unassuming it looked. The rest of the block was warehouses, but this building was a house. Two-stories tall and brick, it was set back a little from the road, and had no signage other than a backlit chrome E glowing beside the door. I wouldn’t have even known it was a club if it wasn’t for the black-suited man standing on the porch out front. He was clearly security. Otherwise, the place was dark and quiet.

	I strolled alongside Clay, moving across the sidewalk and up the porch steps to the entrance.

	The security man seemed to recognize Clay, because the guy smiled and opened the door for us. He gave me a casual once-over. Not leering at all, more simply curious. Clay said he didn’t date, but he’d probably brought other women here before me. Maybe the bouncer was interested in who this new girl was at this regular customer’s side.

	The guard gestured politely for me to go first, and I stepped across the threshold into the club.

	The walls and ceiling of this small entry room were painted black, and subdued lighting lit the woman sitting behind the counter. She was older, but had a bright, youthful smile.

	“Welcome back,” she said warmly to Clay before her gaze turned to me. “Can I see your IDs?”

	“She’s new,” he explained as we both pulled out our drivers’ licenses. “Not a member yet.”

	I set my ID on the counter, and the woman’s smile widened. “That’s great. I’ll get you all squared away, honey.”

	She scanned our IDs and typed into her computer, nodding along to the soft thump of music that could be heard coming from deeper inside the place. I was handed a clipboard with a release to sign and date, which I did.

	After the paperwork was completed, she looked pleased.

	“Your membership’s been approved,” she said, handing back my license. “The new member fee is twenty.”

	Clay must have been expecting this because he dropped a credit card on the counter, right next to his ID. She picked up his license and got to work scanning it in.

	“The cover for her will be ten,” she continued, “and for you—”

	The scan of his license popped up on her screen, and the title ‘Preferred Member’ flashed along the top.

	“Oh.” She straightened in pleasant surprise. “So, the total will be just sixty.”

	I blinked. Just sixty? I lowered my voice to a whisper so only he’d hear. “How much is it regularly?”

	His expression was fixed. “For the guys who are regular members, it’s a hundred a night.”

	“Jesus.” That was a lot for one night, not to mention sexist, but also . . . it didn’t surprise me. The strip club I went to years ago with my guy friends had no cover charge for women. Maybe this place wanted to entice as many women as possible like other clubs did.

	The woman turned her attention to him. “Do you want to give her the tour, or would you like me to call someone from staff?”

	“I can give it to her.”

	She nodded and focused on me. “All right, the rules are easy for women. Really, the only one is no phones are allowed. If you get caught using one, you’ll be asked to leave. You’re allowed to go anywhere inside the club, except staff areas, behind the bar, or the restroom that’s opposite the gender you identify as. Also, if anyone makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, just let someone on staff know immediately and we’ll take care of it. Staff is all around the club. They’re the ones wearing gold nametags.”

	Done with her spiel, the woman swiped Clay’s credit card, tore off the slip, and passed it to him to sign.

	“If you’re interested in watching,” she added, “Mistress Theia’s show begins at eleven thirty. Any questions I can answer for you?”

	It was clear she was asking me, but my brain was buzzing over what she’d just said. Show? Mistress? I was anxious to go inside. “No, I don’t think so.”

	“Okay. You two have fun.” She slipped her hand under the counter and must have pressed a button, because the door to the club buzzed softly.

	Ever since I’d been told about this place, I’d tried to picture what it’d be like. In the movies, sex clubs always seemed either scary industrial, full of metal and leather, or elegant and opulent, with red velvet drapes and flickering candles.

	Eros wasn’t like either of those.

	At first glance, it was like any regular nightclub. There was a bar along the back wall and a dancefloor in the center, complete with strobing lights and music that was heavy on the bass. There were elevated platforms at the edge of the dance space. One was a cage and the other a pole, but currently both platforms were empty.

	It was relatively dark in the large room, and subdued lighting was cast down on the individual tables scattered on the carpeted area.

	There weren’t many people out on the dancefloor, but I couldn’t tell if it was because it was too early in the evening, or the cause was the song that was currently playing. It was sexy, but it was also slower. Too slow to make me want to dance.

	Several couples and groups of friends sat at the low tables, talking and drinking while watching the handful of people moving to the music on the dancefloor.

	My gaze followed theirs, and I did a double-take.

	One of the women out dancing lifted her dress clear up to her waist, flashing the crowd with her perfectly bare lower body. When I turned to Clay to see his reaction, he wasn’t surprised. Only a faint smile hinted on his lips.

	He had to lean close so I could hear him over the music. “Guys have to be dressed in the common areas on this floor, but not women. Once you’re through the front door, you can take everything off if you want to, Lilith.”

	It was suddenly difficult to catch my breath. Obviously, I wasn’t shy, but I’d never been a true exhibitionist before, mainly because I worried getting naked in public would get me in trouble. My gaze went back to the dancefloor and the woman who swayed her hips, teasing the couple closest to her as she showed off her pussy. Was I interested in that?

	I didn’t have time to consider it right this second, because there was still a lot to take in.

	I found the clientele interesting and unexpected. There was a huge range in ages—people of all shapes and sizes and levels of attractiveness—and the vast majority of them were dressed up like Clay and I were. Fancier skirts, dresses, and suits seemed to be the standard, rather than leather or latex.

	“Let’s get a drink, and I’ll give you the tour,” he said.

	When I nodded, Clay gestured toward the bar. One side of it was occupied by a few guys who sat on stools, and their gazes were fixated on the dancefloor—until I walked by.

	Awareness trickled down my spine. I looked good tonight in my corset, short skirt, and stilettos, and these men had noticed. The atmosphere surrounding me thickened.

	It was the same experience as a group of guys zeroing on me at a bar when I’d been separated from my friends.

	It felt like I was being watched by predators. As if these men were a pack of wolves and I was fresh meat plunked down in front of them. Had Clay sensed it too? He set his hand on the small of my back, and my heart tripped over itself. Maybe it was just a helpful gesture to guide me, but I doubted it. He’d done it to lay claim.

	And I didn’t mind that one bit.

	While we waited for the bartender to mix our drinks, I ticked my head toward the men on the other end of the bar. “What’s the story with those guys?”

	“Single men are only allowed at the bar.”

	“They can’t go anywhere else?” Confusion made me press my lips together. “They pay a hundred bucks to, what? Just sit at the bar all night?”

	He found my question amusing as he tipped the bartender, grabbed our drinks, and handed mine to me. “No. They can leave the bar if someone invites them to join them.”

	“Oh, I gotcha. If a woman picks them up, then they can—”

	“Yeah, except it’s almost always couples.”

	“Really?” I grinned scandalously. “Threesomes?”

	He was so matter-of-fact about it. “Sometimes, or the husband just wants to watch.”

	Oh, my God. My gaze flicked to the men perched on their barstools who looked like they were waiting for someone to punch their dance card. “If I hadn’t come with you tonight, would you be sitting with them?”

	Not that he’d have to wait long. He had the whole Clark Kent thing going on, which was incredibly sexy. At least, it was to me. I’d always though Superman was the hottest when he was hiding behind his plain clothes and glasses.

	“I’ve been a member for more than five years,” he said, “and I’ve been vetted, so I have the same freedoms as you.”

	“Yeah?” I lifted an eyebrow and pretended to be skeptical. “Why don’t you get naked and prove it?”

	It was so much fun to catch him off guard. His eyes would widen behind his black frames, and I could see how disoriented he became when things didn’t go exactly as he planned. He recovered quickly, though.

	“I stand corrected. I have almost the same freedoms as you.”

	He took a sip of his drink, then motioned beyond the dancefloor. There was a doorway on the far side of the room that led to the rest of the club, and I was eager for the tour, but before I could take a step, my heart lurched.

	There was a man seated alone at one of the tables with his hand wrapped around a tumbler of amber liquid, although the drink looked untouched. He wore a beautiful gray suit and blue tie, and when he lifted his hand to wave, a brilliant smile broke on his face.

	I didn’t know him, but blood rushed through me, heating my body regardless.

	Clay was handsome and sexy, exuding intelligence and competence. He was like a Hollywood version a hot nerd.

	This stranger waving at me was the Hollywood version of a hunk, and even though I usually liked Clay’s brand of guy best, it was impossible to ignore how good this man looked.

	He was younger than Clay, but older than I was—maybe the guy was thirty. He had sandy-colored hair that was perfectly unruly, the ends curling as they fell to brush his ears. And—sweet Jesus—his friendly smile. It lit up the room.

	I waved back, keeping my gaze locked on him, even as I whispered to Clay. “Why is that guy waving to me?”

	He chuckled. “He’s not.”

	When Clay waved back at the man, embarrassment slammed into me. How freaking cocky had my question been? To just assume the guy was interested in me, and not Clay? He’d told me twenty seconds ago he’d been a member at this club for more than five years. Surely, he’d met other regulars and become friends.

	Another idea dawned in me. “Is he the client you’re meeting?”

	“No.” I’d expected him to say more, and the long silence prompted him to reluctantly continue. “He’s a . . . friend.”

	“Oh?” Interesting. “Let’s say hi before we start the tour.”

	But he didn’t move. Instead, his gaze sharpened on me. “Why?”

	What did he mean, why? “Because it’s polite?”

	“Hmm, is that it?” His slight smile was teasing. “I’m sure the fact that he’s attractive has nothing to do with it.”

	I played dumb as my gaze drifted back to the man. “Is he? I hadn’t noticed.”

	“Right.” He laughed at my outright lie. “Maybe we can say hello after the show if he’s still here. I want to make sure I have enough time to show you around before my meeting.”

	“Okay,” I said. It was clear he had a plan, and it didn’t include introductions with the hottie in the gray suit. The guy’s gaze followed us as we strolled past the tables and dancefloor, but he never made a move to rise from his seat or motion us over to him.

	The next room was a swanky lounge. On one side, a couch and several cushy chairs were gathered around a glass table. On the other, there were two open doors, leading into rooms that were dark.

	“If a door’s closed,” he said, “it means the room’s in use.”

	He stuck his hand in and flipped on a switch, lighting up the room that contained two couches that were so small, they were more like loveseats, and a side table that was only big enough to set drinks on. It was tight in the room, but the couches were deep and inviting, and it wasn’t hard to picture what probably went on in here.

	Clay turned off the light and led me down the short hall. To our left was a gorgeous L-shaped wooden staircase, but he went right, taking me into a room with a glossy black floor and dark red walls. There was a small platform, like a stage, at the end of the room, and a strip of exposed brick served as the backdrop, framing the St. Andrew’s cross mounted to it.

	I swallowed a breath. I didn’t need to see the logo carved in the side because I recognized the style instantly.

	“Yours,” I said.

	There was a hint of pride from him. “Yes.”

	This cross wasn’t like the modern one he had at home. It was the traditional X, made of wood and decorated with iron bands and rings. The warm oak looked great against the brick, and it fit the space perfectly.

	“It’s beautiful,” I said.

	“Thank you.”

	The cross had drawn my attention since it was the focal point, but my gaze shifted to take in the rest of the room. I got the feeling that the black folding chairs were typically set up in rows facing the cross, but tonight they were placed in a circle, leaving the center of the room empty.

	Whatever the show was, it’d be happening there, rather than on the stage.

	Disappointment skittered through me. “They’re not using your cross for the show?”

	The corner of his sexy mouth quirked up. “No, it doesn’t look like it tonight.” He jerked his head toward the doorway. “Come on. Let me show you upstairs.”

	The wooden staircase was ornate and had to be original to the old, converted house. The stair treads creaked and groaned loudly as we ascended. I didn’t know if it was a stupid question, but I was too curious not to ask and lowered my voice to a hush. “Is everyone gonna be naked up there? Will people be fucking?”

	Amusement dashed through his eyes. “I doubt it. I mean, it’s still pretty early. Things usually start happening around midnight.”

	He was right.

	No one was having sex or even naked. It was because there wasn’t a soul on this floor, other than a staff member sitting on a stool at the top of the stairs. The second story of the house was smaller than the main floor, and the few rooms were basically more lounge areas. The only doors on this floor were for the bathrooms.

	The biggest room had an impressive stone fireplace and a huge black leather sectional in front of it. An oversized matching ottoman rested in the center of the U shape the couch formed. Like the rest of the club, the space was tasteful. It was sexy with mood lighting and sultry music wafted from speakers mounted in the corners.

	The biggest difference between this lounge and the one downstairs was what rested on the side tables. Tissues. Antibacterial wipes. And . . .

	“Is that lube?” I asked.

	“I think so, yeah.” He gave me an evaluating look, maybe as curious about my reaction as I was about him. “So, thus ends the tour.” He took a sip of his Manhattan. “Thoughts so far?”

	“It’s,” I had no idea how to put it in words, “interesting.”

	He understood. “Not what you were expecting?”

	I nodded. “Not in a bad way. Just . . . different.”

	He shifted on his feet, bringing him close and cutting down on the space between us. His voice dipped low, making it sound impossibly sexy. “Don’t be disappointed. The night is young.”

	“I’m not disappointed.”

	His gaze roamed over my face before settling on my eyes, and I’d swear he could see right past the lie I’d just told. “Sure you are. You thought there’d be whips and chains. Maybe a dungeon, or an orgy.” A gentle smile tilted his lips. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting that stuff, but it’s better this way. There’s a lot I’d like to show you, and it’s easier to learn how to swim in the shallow end.”

	How did he do that? His words filled me with this dark, impatient craving.

	Clay’s hand slid onto my back, then down over the curve of my ass, squeezing me just hard enough to remind me of the marks he’d put there.

	“I really like your enthusiasm, though,” he whispered.

	Fuck, I nearly melted.

	But instead of doing anything else with me, he glanced at his watch and announced it was time for his meeting. I followed him back down the noisy staircase and into the main floor lounge, then sat down in the chair he directed me to, while he sat on the couch.

	While we waited, I surveyed my surroundings in greater detail. The music was loud as it streamed through the open doorway to the nightclub room next door, but I could also hear activity in the red room down the hall. Perhaps they were finishing setup for the show.

	One of the doors to the private rooms across the way was closed now. In use, he’d said. There was a tall, narrow window framed between the two doors, but it was dark. Was it a functional window where the shade was drawn, or had it been painted black? I couldn’t see any bodies moving beyond it, and suddenly that was all I wanted.

	I’d been at this sex club for thirty minutes, and other than the woman who’d flashed her pussy on the dancefloor, I hadn’t seen any sex. It was so much tamer than what I’d done with Clay this afternoon, not to mention . . . this all felt normal. It only ramped up my sex drive.

	And I felt like I was fucking starving.

	Clay’s client was a skinny man in his fifties, who had a ponytail and wore black leather pants over his lanky legs. The guy’s southern accent was thick—much deeper than a Nashville one, and I wondered what he sounded like when he ordered his submissive around.

	As he evaluated the different swatches of fabric Clay had given him, the man talked about wanting extra padding on the kneeler. His sub was older, he said, and he wanted to be careful of her knees.

	That little detail caused unexpected warmth to slide through me.

	Up until now, I only knew the commercialized stuff when it came to BDSM. Porn and countless movies had conditioned me to think only young, beautiful people were allowed to play, to enjoy. But this guy and his older sub were real people—not the manufactured stories I’d seen. I was surprised by how much better I liked reality.

	So, I wouldn’t call Ponytail Guy good looking, but . . . was it strange I found him sort of attractive in his own way? His confidence and ease were undeniable. Or maybe it was the level of care he had for his partner. As the men continued their conversation, the guy revealed his wife was currently at the table in the other room with their friends. He’d snuck away for this meeting, because he was having Clay build the custom piece as a surprise for her.

	While details were hammered out, the window across the room abruptly lit up, and my gaze flew to it like it was magnetized.

	Holy shit.


	The woman was curvy and, although she was larger than I was, she had beautiful proportions. She wasn’t entirely naked because her skirt was bunched around her waist, and a black collar wrapped around her throat, but everywhere else she was bare. Her large, sexy tits swayed each time the man behind her slammed his hips against her ass. Since she was bent over, she braced herself on the window with her hands, her fingers splayed out on the glass.

	Had she sensed me? The woman peered out through the glass, her gaze searching, and when she found I was watching, she locked in on me. A sultry smile bowed on her lips, wordlessly announcing how she wanted me to watch.

	Jesus, I was on fire, but I didn’t dare look away.

	The way the man fucked her was rough. The slap of his body rippled and reverberated across her skin, and his face twisted with pleasure. The woman definitely liked it, but it seemed like she was enjoying me even more. To put a finer point on it, she leaned forward and flattened her breasts to the glass. Her tits became two perfect circles of pale skin surrounding her dusky nipples.

	Clay’s voice was sharp enough to break through. “Lilith.”

	My attention snapped to him, only to discover both men on the couch were looking at me expectantly. Clay had been sketching something on a notepad he must have been carrying in his suit pocket, but his pen was frozen mid-stroke.

	The client laughed. “Your sub didn’t hear a word I said.”

	I jolted. He thought I was Clay’s submissive?

	Was I?

	I didn’t correct the guy. Instead, I pinched my knees together and squeezed against the ache the thought of belonging to Clay caused. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I, uh, got distracted.”

	Clay helped me out. “He was complimenting your shoes.”

	“Oh, thank you.” I smiled, hoping to appear grateful and not embarrassed.

	I smoothed my hands down my skirt, suddenly not sure what to do with them. Even though my gaze was fixed on the men, I could feel the man and woman next door fucking against the window. It was like they were pressed against me, trying to get inside my brain.

	Clay’s pen resumed moving, and it gave me something else to focus on. He drew in bold, confident strokes as he explained where he’d place the attachment rings.

	“Good.” The client nodded. “She still hasn’t mastered how to stay still.”

	The understanding look Clay exchanged with the man made goosebumps lift on my legs. God, did I want to know what he’d do to me if I couldn’t stay still. Would he give me a disapproving look over the top of his glasses? Maybe use the ruler again? Or would it be something with an even sharper bite?

	I clamped my teeth to hold in my moan.

	When the discussion finished, Clay promised to email over a rendered proof by the end of next week, and once he had approval, he’d be able to come up with a delivery date. The men shook hands, I nodded my polite goodbye, and then the man was off to return to his unsuspecting wife.

	My gaze darted to the window. The couple was still there, still fucking, and her gaze was still pinned on me.

	“I’m surprised,” I tried not to sound breathless, “that you like coming here.”

	Clay pocketed the notepad and pen and settled back in his seat, his drink in hand. “Why’s that?”

	“You said you’re a private person.” I motioned to the window. “Doing something like that’s not exactly private.”

	“No, it’s not.” He smirked. “But I don’t do that.”

	“What?” I asked. “Lift the shade when you—”

	“I don’t fuck while other people watch.” His tone was serious. “I’d rather do the watching.” He blinked slowly, his eyes heavy with desire, and swirled the drink in his glass. “What about you? Is that your kink?”


	He paused, and—shit—his intense look trapped me in place. “Being watched?”

	This question was too hard to answer while looking at him, and my gaze fell to the glass tabletop. Even there, I saw his muted reflection watching me. He was so good looking, it wasn’t fair.

	“Maybe,” I said. “I’m not shy.”

	Had he been holding his breath? His chest rose and fell like he’d let out a deep breath. “No, you’re not.”

	I lifted both my gaze and my shoulder. “I’ll try anything once.”

	“Is that so?” Electricity crackled between us, and it intensified as his attention swung to the window. “Prove it.”

	Oh, Jesus. My mouth went dry and my voice faltered, even as I wanted it to sound strong. “How?”

	“She seems to like you. Why don’t you go to the window and give her a kiss?”

	I nearly laughed with delight. It wasn’t just easy and safe—it was sexy too. “Okay.”

	The woman watched me with interest as I stood and sauntered toward the window, and a smile grew on her lips as I closed in. When I put my hands on the glass, she followed suit, placing her hands on the other side right where mine were. Like we were touching.

	I leaned forward and planted my lips against the glass, leaving behind the faintest stain of lipstick. As soon as I drew back, she eagerly leaned forward, parted her lips, and dragged the flat of her tongue over the spot. It was as if she wanted to lick up my kiss, and it was erotic. I turned to see what Clay thought about it, only to find him standing beside me.

	His fingertips glided across my bare shoulder as he moved to cup the back of my neck with a hand. He didn’t speak, but I swallowed thickly. This simple action of his hand on me felt possessive and controlling, and God, did I like it.

	His voice was quiet but powerful. “That was my fault. I wasn’t specific about where I wanted you to kiss her.”


	The dominating hand on me began to press down. “On your knees.”

	Fuck. Was it possible to shiver from heat? Because that was exactly what I did.

	Clay urged me down to kneel in front of the window. The couple on the other side hadn’t slowed down. If anything, my participation had turned them on even more. The man’s thrusts were relentless, making her tits jiggle and bounce violently.

	My knees abraded on the stubby carpet as I stared up at Clay, awaiting his instruction, and watched his lips part to take in a breath. Having me on my knees and under his command was so satisfying to him, for a moment he looked overwhelmed. But he blinked away his haziness and leaned over me, bringing his mouth right against the shell of my ear.

	As he spoke, his hot breath brushed against the sensitized skin of my neck. “I want to watch you lick her pussy.”

	There was a power that took hold of me when he issued his command. It was a need I didn’t know existed until he put it into words, and now it was real and living. There was no indecision or questioning if I wanted this. He wanted it, so now I did too.

	I pressed my palms to the glass, tipped my forehead to the cool pane, and waited. It announced to the couple what I needed, and as soon as they realized, the man shoved her forward. Her hips and the delta of her thick thighs pushed to the window.

	I’d kissed a girl once when I was in college at a house party. The upside-down margaritas had been flowing freely, and someone had dared us to do it. Maybe she’d been the one who’d dared me . . . the night was fuzzy. I remembered the kiss as being nice but not earth-shattering. Kissing girls wasn’t any different than kissing boys, I’d discovered.

	And for as curious as I was in life, it was surprising I wasn’t more than mildly curious when it came to women. I’d always been far more attracted to men. And I was certainly interested in this self-proclaimed complicated man whose demand made me shudder in excitement.

	Following his order would be easy, and I wondered if it was possible the simulated sex would be even hotter than the real thing. I tilted my head, opened my mouth, and slicked my tongue across the glass, right over her neatly trimmed landing strip.

	“Fuck,” Clay groaned appreciatively. “Again.”

	Satisfaction washed down me in waves. I did as asked, dragging my tongue along the smooth glass that was damp and smudged from my first pass.

	“Look at you,” he said, “being such a good girl now. I think you should stand up and show her what happened when you weren’t.”

	He extended a hand to help me up, and I took it. “You want me to—”

	“Show her the marks your bad behavior earned you earlier today.”

	It was intoxicating being with him, and exhilaration simmered in my blood, like I was high. As soon as I was on my feet, I turned around, bent slightly at the waist, and lifted the back of my skirt.

	Cool air drift over my exposed cheeks. I’d worn a thong tonight, not just to prevent panty lines, but to avoid putting anyt