Rose Bay socialite Louella Knight is the emotionally repressed friend who’s done everything expected of her for fifteen years—the perfect hostess and the perfect wife with the perfect life. But in the wake of her husband’s shock announcement and her subsequent divorce, her life is thrown into turmoil.
A death threat brings bodyguard Nick Aston into her employ, challenging her icy persona and awakening demons from the past that not even her girlfriends can help her overcome. One shocking experience after another pushes Louella past the limits of her emotional control and into Nick’s bed and his heart, but can she trust that the connection between them is real, or will it fade when the danger has passed?
Take an emotional rollercoaster ride where secrets, surrender and breathtaking sex will have you questioning—what is control?
Read an Excerpt
©Copyright 2016 Louise Cusack
Nicholas stood beside the wrought iron gate he’d opened, his expression patient as he asked, “Would you like me to go first?”
I shook my head, but otherwise remained still.
He didn’t frown, but I knew unplanned outings upset his nice predictable schedule. My sudden inability to move would only unsettle him further. Bodyguards didn’t like surprises. He’d told me that many times in the month he’d been working for me.
This excursion, however, was only a surprise for him. I’d been working toward it for years, so I wasn’t about to let an employee’s momentary disquiet affect me. I planned to gain as much satisfaction from this ‘treatment’ as I could, but first I had to get over my fear.
All I needed was to step through the gate and walk down the paved path, lined with its privacy hedges, to reach the front door of the very ordinary sandstone building where I knew extraordinary events were occurring.
“I’m fine,” I said, but I still couldn’t make myself move, and neither did Nicholas. He simply remained where he was, one large hand on the gate, wearing his uniform of jeans, a designer black leather vest, and a conspicuous tattoo on one impressive bicep. As far as deterrents to violence went, he had casual intimidation nailed.
I felt perfectly safe with him. He asked no questions and I paid for that. So he wasn’t about to query my hesitation, or my purpose in coming here. The burnished sign beside the gate said The Rocks Spa and he would imagine this was simply another beauty treatment among the many he’d accompanied me to, albeit that this appointment appeared to have been made at the last-minute.
I could have told him that they’d fitted me in, and I had to take the appointment or miss out, but our relationship wasn’t like that. I didn’t explain myself. He simply followed where I led, did as I asked, and worked on anticipating trouble, which I was sure he could handle, either physically, or with the pistol I knew was secreted in a holster on his calf.
I’d been paying Shadow Secure for his services since my ex-husband had first received death-threats, and over the weeks I’d come to relax completely in his presence. In fact, I was so accustomed to him being in the background, I’d occasionally experience a momentary shock of surprise when my gaze drifted over him at a business lunch or meeting, and I was physically reminded that I had a bodyguard.
As time had passed, the sense of impending threat had diminished in my mind, and today I was going to leave him in a waiting room and go where he couldn’t follow—where I didn’t want him to follow. I hadn’t told him that yet, and I needed to, but I was deliberately leaving it to the last minute—until he couldn’t object.
First, however, I had to get inside the gate, and despite my anticipation, I needed to overcome dread. So I did that the only way I knew how, by reminding myself of where I had come from, how much I had already endured, and what my ultimate goal was.
The golden fur…
I must never forget that.
Barely a minute after Nicholas had opened the gate, I flicked an imaginary piece of lint from the skirt of my beige silk suit and stepped over the threshold. My new black patent shoes with their very high scarlet heels were impossible to stride in, so I stepped, clutching my new black leather Fendi tote against my waist—a world away from the understated Hermes handbags I normally purchased.
But this was a new world, where I needed to be a new woman. Deep inside my bag was the key to a new life—an actual key to a suite in this very select establishment—a suite that was even now being prepared for me.
I’d told myself that I was prepared for what was inside it. But I wasn’t. There was no way to prepare for what I was about to do. I was ready, however. My readiness had been building through fifteen years of marriage and the months I had been separated from Marcus.
The brimming need to express my disappointment with marital life would no longer be denied, and when I’d realized that I could pay to express that frustration in a safe environment with no repercussions, I’d signed up eagerly. Perhaps even desperately.
I suspected that once I began, I would shock myself. But no matter what happened in that room, I could never regret it. I had to do something, and this was the safest thing I’d found. So the inevitability of what must follow calmed me externally. There was no avoiding this. I may as well try to enjoy it.
By the time I’d reached the front door of the double-story edifice, I was irrevocably through whatever invisible barrier had held me at the gate. I stood poised as Nicholas pressed the doorbell, ready to have my demons exorcized.
Discreet cameras above us would display our images to anyone inside. I’d been required to send a photograph of Nicholas, so they were sure that only the people they were expecting, would enter.
When the huge timber door swung wide, I had a polite smile ready to aim at the mature woman who stood before me, dressed in a severe black dress which clung to her elegant frame as though Dior had designed it. Glossy grey hair swept back from her temples into a high ponytail that looked chic and also slightly incongruous, like a jaunty cap atop a three-piece suit.
“Welcome,” she said, and shook my hand with a surprisingly firm grip. “How lovely of you to arrive on time.” I noted that she deliberately didn’t use my name. That was a good start.
She smiled and stepped back, gesturing for us to enter the white marble interior with its dramatic cacti corner-pieces—a completely appropriate setting for the Day Spa cover that their establishment advertised under.
“Are you ready for your treatment?” She smiled benignly, no doubt for Nicholas’s benefit.
“More than ready,” I said, smiling back. Then I turned to Nicholas. “I believe there is a waiting room…”
The matron of the establishment pointed down a corridor. “Door number fourteen. You’ll find refreshments inside, Mr. Aston. Please make yourself comfortable.”
If he was unnerved by the fact that she knew his name, he showed no sign of it as he ignored her to concentrate on me, his gaze more urgent now, as his disquiet became evident. He was used to accompanying me into every room so he could scan it for danger before he left me there.
This time, he wasn’t coming. I straightened my shoulders and forcibly calmed my voice. “I will be away for a little over an hour,” I said, and gazed at him pointedly.
He said nothing for several seconds, then he nodded. “Very well.” I’d given him no choice, but his voice sounded deeper than usual, and the rumble that usually calmed me, sounded suddenly like distant thunder.
Was he going to complain about this when we were alone? Would I have to remind him there were hundreds of qualified bodyguards in Sydney? Of course I didn’t want to replace him. He’d become so attuned to my routines, he could anticipate what I wanted almost before I did.
That was valuable. But obedience was even more valuable, and as our gazes clashed, I could see he was realizing that. Still, in the second before he turned away, I saw some inner disturbance—something that didn’t look like mere frustration.
Then there was only his broad back, the swirling tattoo on his upper arm, and the sound of his boots on the marble floor.
“This way,” the matron said, and I found I had to drag my attention off Nicholas to follow her down a different corridor. His disquiet had awoken my own and I tried to shake that off as we approached a black doorway. It was normal sized, but it appeared to be made of metal.
The heavy handle required some serious pressure to turn, if her movements weren’t merely theatrical. Then we stepped over a lip and she closed the door behind us. At that point we were standing in a small enclosure, like an airlock, and I had my first moment of real trepidation.
Anything could happen to me here and Nicholas wouldn’t be able to stop it. I’d deliberately left my alarm pendant in the back of the Bentley, and for a split second I wondered if that was wise.
“Sound deadening technology,” the matron said, matter-of-fact, as she turned to open the next door which was made of a similar material.
I’d managed to sound mildly interested, but my internal dialogue was racing. I feel scared. Your perfume is cloying, and I can hear muffled sounds. Suddenly I’m not sure if I’m safe.
I managed to keep that in and take slow breaths as I clutched the handles of my handbag against my stomach. I’d wanted this. I’d waited for this. I wasn’t going to let momentary fear rob me of the reward I deserved.
“This way.” She smiled a crocodile smile and stepped over the lip of the door onto plush black carpet that was so thick when I stepped onto it, I almost lost my balance and was forced to walk leaning forward as we traversed a narrow corridor.
“This trail…” She pointed at the floor where small silver lights were regularly spaced along the corridor ahead of us, “…will lead you back when you are finished. Simply exit your room and retrace your steps to this door. I’ll be waiting on the other side.”
While she’d been speaking, I’d heard a muffled cry, or a shout. But now there was nothing, not even the sound of our footfalls on the carpet.
A moment later she said, “Would you like to see some of the action?” She glanced over her shoulder. “Get some ideas?”
I faltered to a shaky stop, my composure sliding because I’d never expected this for a second. “Can people…see what you do?” There was no hiding the affront in my tone. In that moment, I was quite prepared to turn on my heel and walk out.
“Of course not.” She turned back to me with a shake of her head. “Only those participants who ask to be watched, who gain pleasure from displaying their talents, are in rooms with visibility. Your room is completely enclosed with solid walls and a timber door.”
I swallowed down disquiet. I was determined to check that for myself when I arrived at our destination. “Do these…exhibitionists know that we’re watching them? Can they see us?”
The last thing I wanted was to discover that one of the wealthy clientele was someone I knew, especially if they recognized me in return. I’d been promised complete anonymity, and now I was frightened that I hadn’t asked enough questions.
She shook her head. “Your identity is completely hidden within our walls. The only person who will see your face is me.”
We stared at each other for several seconds, and to her credit she simply waited, completely self-contained and assured in her ability to provide what I wanted.
It took me seconds to realize my shoulders were tense, and to relax them. “As you can imagine, this is all new to me.”
“I don’t need to imagine,” she said quietly. “I was new here myself once, and I know exactly what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, what you’re wanting.”
We stared at each other for several more seconds while I struggled not to show how unnerved she’d made me. At last I said, “Yes. I would like to see.”
The moment the words were out of my mouth, I wondered why I’d agreed. To delay the inevitable? Or to find a path forward, as she’d suggested.
I followed her to a side corridor with no silver lighting on the floor—a wider corridor that was dimly lit. As soon as I entered it, I could see that the illumination was coming solely from the rooms that ran down one side. The first had a large plate-glass window which I suspected was a two-way mirror. The moment I could see inside, I faltered to a stop, struck with a sense of shock and horrified excitement.
The matron positioned herself against the wall opposite the window, and I joined her there, pressing my silk-clad shoulders against the smooth plaster.
“He comes here every week,” she said softly. “To a new girl.”
I tried to swallow in a dry throat, to stop my cheeks firing with a combination of embarrassment and arousal. I’d never seen anyone have sex before. Not that this was sex. It was a naked man—a well-muscled and reasonably attractive man in his thirties perhaps—standing at the end of a narrow padded table, atop of which lay a girl in black underwear and a blindfold.
Her wrists were tied together, bound to the top of the table, and her stocking-clad legs were opened, her ankles tied to her thighs, right on the edge where he stood, presumably so he could have access to penetrate her.
She wore only a black bra and G-string, and one of his hands gripped her panties, as if he was about to tear them off. The other held a crop that alternately flicked one breast, then the other.
I instinctively wanted to put my hands over my own breasts, whether for protection or in excitement, I wasn’t sure. My nipples were tingling in sympathy, and I had no idea whether she was enjoying the pain or simply enduring it.
The matron gestured toward them. “Would you like to hear?”
“No!” I didn’t recognize my own voice as I looked away, upset about the woman’s humiliation, and yet undeniably stirred.
“Why…?” I swallowed and tried again. “Why does she like the pain?”
The matron beside me matched my soft tone. “Some people become aroused by it. They like the sensation of being dominated. It’s the only way they can orgasm.”
“Is that why they…offer themselves for this?” I couldn’t imagine any amount of payment that would induce me to let a man strike me.
“They are my clients, as much as you are,” she said, and when I stared at her in disbelief, she merely nodded. “They pay me for the opportunity to be dominated. Safely. No blood. No lasting bruises,” she reminded me of the rules.
“But any amount of humiliation?”
“There are degrees.” She held my gaze and it felt impossibly wrong to be having a business discussion while the woman in front of us was being whipped.
My face was so hot, I felt as though I might faint.
“I’ve seen enough,” I said softly, and forced my wobbling legs to take me back the way we’d come. While I’d been imagining what I might accomplish in this place, I’d never let myself think about the person who would be assigned to me. I’d never wanted to consider their humanity, their emotions, their pain.
If I let myself go down that road, I’d falter.
And I mustn’t.
I needed to concentrate solely on myself. Years of doing the opposite had brought me to this place. If I was ever to rehabilitate myself, to fill the aching chasm of humiliation my husband had created, I must be selfish.
The pendulum must swing back in the opposite direction—too far—before it would find balance.
The matron, unaware of my internal struggle, led me back into the main corridor with its silver lighting. “This way,” she said calmly, as if we’d never stopped, as if we’d never seen one person physically harming another—both paying for the privilege.
We walked on in silence until she stopped and said, “This is your suite. Number Fourteen.”
I stared at the ordinary looking door. “That’s the same number as the room you put Mr. Aston in.”
She nodded. “We store all Plus Ones individually. Husbands. Wives. Companions. Bodyguards.” She looked at me pointedly. “It would foster indiscretion if we allowed them to speak to one another.”
“Of course.” Again I could marvel that my voice sounded normal when I was grappling with two overwhelming realizations—firstly, that husbands and wives would accompany each other to a place like this, and secondly, that it had never occurred to me that Nicholas might find out what I was doing.
That thought created a momentary flash of horror until I reminded myself that the privacy agreement he had signed would protect me from publicity. Then there was the reassuring knowledge that I could fire him at any time, because I certainly wouldn’t want to see him again if he knew about this.
So I merely nodded to the matron, then I fished the old fashioned key out of my handbag. There would be symbolism involved, because they could just as easily have used hotel room technology and sent me a swipe card. Indeed, the number 14 on the door was as normal as you’d see on any hotel room.
And yet, an old fashioned brass key.
“Your hour starts now,” the matron said, nodding at the door. “Although you may certainly finish earlier if you choose. Many do, if they find it overwhelming. A full bathroom suite adjoins the playroom. And if you follow this corridor back…” She gestured toward the floor, “…you’ll see the silver lights are red from this direction. Simply follow the red trail back to me.”
I nodded, as though this was all matter-of-fact, as if I was receiving final instructions before entering a business meeting.
“Remember the rules and enjoy yourself,” she said, and smiled benignly. Then she was gone, leaving me with the key in my hand, not quite ready to open the door.
I wondered then, why she’d couriered me the key last week instead of simply opening the door now herself. Was it so I’d have the heavy brass talisman in my possession long enough to ensure my visit was fully premeditated? After all, anticipation can be half the pleasure of any encounter.
And I had anticipated this, although I’d been unsure about what I might do. Even now, my hands were shaking and in the moment of my fear, that was strangely exhilarating. I could smell my own perfume, and the light floral fragrance seemed duskier than I’d remembered.
The person inside the room wouldn’t see me. They would only hear me, smell me.
Touch and taste were sensations I planned to restrict. In thinking about my actions, it seemed too intimate to touch someone with my own skin. But the tools inside the room, I could use them to touch. To punish.
Open the door, Louella. Your future is inside.
I nodded to myself, put the key in the lock and opened the door, holding my breath, but inside the suite the hallway in front of me was an anticlimax. A Persian rug led to a dimly lit room at the end of the hallway, and beside me was a partly opened bathroom door. Inside was ultra-modern with grey marble and chrome fittings.
I shut the suite door behind myself, and then I sniffed the air. There was something…mechanical. It was faint, like the scent of an engine under the hood, which was out of place in the plush surroundings. I had no idea what it was, but the unexpected appeared to excite me. I placed my handbag inside the bathroom, ready for my exit, and realized that my skin was tingling, most especially on my arms.
It wasn’t sexual—nothing like the primitive reaction that had swept over me while I’d been watching the man with his captive submissive. This was all about secrets and danger—the sort of danger that my own actions could produce.
Hurry up. You only have an hour.
I turned back to face the playroom, dimly lit at the end of a hallway, and despite the voice of urgency, I wanted to take my time, to prepare myself mentally, because the tingling was spreading to my body, making me tremble, and I didn’t want to be anything but controlled in this situation.
Nicholas came into my mind then, and I visualized him sitting in the room he’d been allocated, staring at a wall. On the few occasions he’d accompanied me to hairdressing or medical appointments, he’d resisted the distraction of magazines, his phone, or the occasional waiting-room television. Instead, he’d gone to some internal place, staring at the wall, thinking… I had no idea what.
The first time I’d seen it, I’d imagined it was a momentary daydream. But the second time I’d watched him—unobserved—for several minutes, and he’d barely blinked. His resume said he had martial arts skills. Perhaps it was some form of meditation.
Whatever it was, the thought of him doing that now, calmed me down. I was safe. There was no expectation on me to do…anything. I could just as easily walk right back out of this room and leave the key with the matron.
Instead, I followed the Persian rug down to a lamp-lit room with rich, red lacquered timber paneling, expensive paisley armchairs and thick brocade drapes. To my left was the centerpiece.
The wall had a floor-to-ceiling segment of what looked like original sandstone brickwork—a beautiful feature that brought alive the history of the building. Against it stood a blindfolded man, bare-chested, with his arms above his head, wrists shackled in heavy iron cuffs.
He had dark hair and was wearing jeans, and for a flickering moment I remembered Nicholas, waiting patiently at the other end of the building. But this man wasn’t Nicholas. He was nowhere near as muscular, despite his toned physique, and he was younger. Perhaps only in his twenties. He also had no tattoos, which gave him a more vulnerable appearance.
I wanted that.
His head hadn’t turned in my direction because I’d entered silently, but now he lifted his chin and sniffed the air.
“You’re a woman,” he said, his voice quavering slightly, as though he’d been left to wait for far too long.
I lifted my own chin and used the voice of command I’d practiced for so long inside the safety of my own mind. “Silence.” He immediately clamped his lips shut. “You speak only when I tell you to, or to utter the safe word.”
He nodded nervously, then I saw his Adam’s Apple bob as he swallowed.
His safe word was Stop. That was simple enough, and I wondered if they’d organized that because I was a beginner. In any case, it was part of the rules to respond to the safe word by stopping all activity, and I promised myself I could do that.
I hoped I could do that…
I walked to the sideboard and selected a shiny red riding crop, running my fingers slowly over its length, feeling my heart pound in anticipation of what I would do.
“You’ve been bad,” I said, far more calmly than I felt. “And you will be punished.”
He nodded, his long fringe sliding over the blindfold. Then he licked his lips.
I stepped closer and the mechanical scent was stronger. It was coming from the range of products lining the sideboard, and perhaps the metal cuffs and chains that bound him to the wall.
Machine oil. Lubricant.
I swallowed down throbbing tension, knowing I shouldn’t speak again. He’d hear turmoil if I did, so I simply stood in front of him, and brought the crop to rest gently against his chest.
He trembled then, and I had a fleeting moment of wondering what he’d endured in the past, and from whom. And then the thought was gone, and there was only me, in control, my fingers tightening on the crop as flickering images came into my mind: hands on my body, turning me to face away. Humiliation. Unfulfilled arousal.
For some reason my breasts started to throb then, as if all of the pain was locked behind them, bursting to get out—dark pain, shameful, blurred by the alcohol that had allowed me to endure it.
But no more.
I was about to purge that pain, and as I withdrew the crop and smacked it down hard across his exposed ribcage, I felt the jarring of the impact like a frisson of electricity racing up my arm.
He hissed through gritted teeth, but I wasn’t watching his face. I was completely focused on the red mark that rose immediately against his pale skin. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, and knowing that I’d inflicted it, made me tremble with exaltation, which even in my current state I knew was inappropriate.
Unfortunately, there was no way to rationalize past the fact that this was the most terrifying and euphoric moment of my life. With the crop in my hand I felt savagely right about my decision to do this. Exorcism was worth any risk, and I closed my eyes for a moment to savor the heady rush roaring around my body.
My heart was pounding but I was instantly addicted, so I struck him again, just below the first, and he grunted. It was like a primitive symphony and I wanted more, so I slapped at his pectorals, deliberately hitting his nipples before widening the target area, creating a crisscross pattern that I told myself was art.
Then I slapped him through his thick jeans, across the tops of his thighs. His head fell back and his mouth dropped open as he gasped, but there was also a moan lurking deep in his throat, and then I noticed the crotch of his jeans protruding.
I flung the crop from my hand and heaved in a shuddering breath. Then I stepped backwards on shaky legs to put distance between us, because I was disgusted.
I had to stop—to leave.
But it was so hard to tear my gaze from the red marks my slapping had produced. Worse than that, however, was the sound of his ragged breathing. He hadn’t said a word, hadn’t even cried out.
Just like me, he’d internalized his pain, and in that horrible moment, instead of feeling sympathy, I actually envied his discomfort. Stinging skin would heal far more readily than the psychological damage I’d borne. Although, surely there was something broken in him to allow what I’d done—to enjoy it.
Before I could turn away, he said in a husky whisper, “Thank you…master,” and I caught my breath.
I hadn’t broken his skin or bruised him, exactly as the rules required, and the length of his ‘punishment’ had probably been five minutes, although it had felt like much longer. But the thought that he was grateful for being hurt made bile rise in my throat.
I stumbled away on legs that trembled and barely held me up, getting only as far as the bathroom before the horror of what I’d done, and the clenching control that I’d exerted, took its toll.
The scant contents of my stomach expelled violently, and I only just reached the toilet, slumping over it as I retched again and again, my arms barely holding me up. I hadn’t vomited in years so I was disgusted with myself, but I barely had time to think about that because my overwhelming desire was to get as far away as I could.
I flushed the toilet and dragged myself to the glistening grey marble sink where I rinsed and spat until I could feel my pulse slowing from pounding madness into galloping, and then merely racing.
I wiped my mouth and then stared at myself in the mirror, not recognizing the eyes that gazed back at me. They glowed with some inner vitality—madness—that turned pebble brown into glistening molasses, alive and shifting with infinite possibilities.
I was changed.
In fact, I was reborn. The categorization of ‘Rose Bay socialite’ that I’d always taken pride in when I’d seen it reported in the newspapers, felt suddenly like a bookmark in an old text that was no longer relevant.
The last half hour had shown me quite clearly that any identity I chose to inhabit was temporary—transitory, because if I could morph from philanthropist ex-trophy wife into a sadist-in-training, I was capable of anything.
Perhaps I always had been. But now, the thought of charity work and shopping and maintaining the careful façade of outward appearance seemed ridiculous.
Why would I bother? I had money and control over my life. Why would I care what anyone thought of me? I could remain in my home, perhaps install a playroom of my own, and… I swallowed sickly.
My newly emptied stomach churned. I needed to stop that. I had to exit this establishment with some measure of decorum.
Nicholas was observant. I mustn’t appear flustered or he would start wondering what sort of ‘treatment’ I’d had. He might even start investigating. The secrecy surrounding The Rocks Spa was as secure as they could make it, and the very exclusive private investigator I’d hired had taken months to discover it.
The fact that they did genuine beauty treatments—as well as these more illicit sessions—was clever, and starting at a thousand dollars an hour, they’d certainly keep the standard of clientele high.
So I’d felt reasonably confident coming in that I could hide my activities from Nicholas. But that would depend on how good an actress I could be.
Years of being the good wife had taught me subterfuge, but I didn’t have alcohol to smooth the rough edges anymore. I only had self-control, which at the moment was skating thin. My best plan was to focus on action so I couldn’t think.
I picked up my black leather tote and put it on the vanity to retrieve my repair kit of makeup and a change of clothes. The armpits of my beige suit were wet with perspiration but I wasn’t wasting time on a shower. So I stripped, wiped myself over with disposable wipes, re-applied deodorant, then slipped on a duplicate outfit and touched up my makeup.
My hair didn’t look right and that pulled my busyness to a halt. Before I’d left home, I’d swept my blond bob back from my forehead and over my head into finger-curls at the back of my neck. It was still flawlessly smooth and set, but it looked far too civilized for the volcanic eyes that gazed out at me.
A woman with eyes like that shouldn’t be able to control her hair so easily.
And she wouldn’t be wearing pearl stud earrings either. But I wasn’t changing any of that. My external appearance needed to match what Nicholas had last seen, so that required me to compartmentalize what was happening inside and to return that gaze to the banality it usually exhibited.
The sooner I was away from the young man, the sooner I could begin.
So I picked up my tote and let myself out into the corridor without a backward glance. The last thing I wanted was to remind myself of what I’d done by checking on the young man. And in any case, the rules on interaction were strict. I was to play and leave. Any contact with the submissive after the play would spoil their enjoyment.
It felt uncaring in the extreme, but I was grateful to put him behind me as I followed the red lights along the floor, down corridors toward my exit, toward the real world which I must now re-enter.
Thinking about normality helped settle my breathing as I forced my mind to my happy place, thinking about my girlfriends who’d been with me for two decades: Fritha with freckles we used to count as teenagers, Angela and her overbearing Mumbai mother who was always telling us what to do, and Jill, the orphan with a little sister to care for.
It was Tuesday, Fritha’s afternoon off. I wondered who she’d be sleeping with this week. She was a complete opportunist when it came to sex, so I knew she’d never settle down. But Jill was married, and Angela happily pregnant and about to wed. My girls were as settled as I could hope for, and I needed that now. I needed them strong and reliable. Because I was anything but…
“Finished?” the matron asked, unnecessarily, as I approached her. Then she opened the black metal door for me, smiling her benign smile.
“Thank you. Yes,” I said quietly, and stepped into the airlock. When we were inside, I added, “A very satisfying treatment.”
I knew I wasn’t at liberty to book further appointments until they’d assured themselves that the young man I’d left chained in the suite was pleased with our session. My stomach turned over as I imagined him reflecting on what I’d done, but I quickly shunted that thought aside.
I could rehash as much as I wanted when I was alone. First I had to leave this place, so I forced myself to imagine phoning Fritha and hearing her happy chatter about her teahouse Bohemian Brew, and the inevitable weekly bed-notch tally which she alternately bragged about or bemoaned, depending on her mood.
Thankfully, such everyday matters calmed me down immediately, so by the time I arrived back in reception, I was breathing easily and as far as I could tell, all signs of trembling had ceased.
We had to wait for Nicholas to be summoned from his waiting room and that was challenging with the matron beside me, smiling her knowing smile. But I resisted the urge to fill the space with conversation. That wasn’t my way. And despite the fact that I’d travelled very far from my habitual behavior, I was determined to retain my composure.
That was difficult, however, as Nicholas approached. His gaze was even more watchful than usual, and instead of scanning the environment, he was zeroing in on my face, and by the look of his frown, he wasn’t happy with what he saw.
“Mr. Aston,” the matron said as he drew closer. “Thank you for your patience.” Then she nodded to me. “Mrs. Knight.”
I couldn’t get out of The Rock’s Spa fast enough. Nicholas had to jump forward to reach the door before I did, sweeping it open so I could exit, my heels tap-tapping on the marble tiles in a rhythm that instantly reminded me of the slap-slap of the whip.
Don’t think about that.
But it was too late. My face was getting hot and my head felt light. Had Nicholas’s dark hair and muscular arms reminded me of the young man? I shook my head as I strode past the hedges, wanting to shake off the oily sense of wrongness that followed me out into the sunshine.
Again, Nicholas was forced to jump forward and open the wrought iron gate that led us onto the footpath, then I was clutching my bag against my waist as I strode for the car. I knew the cream leather interior of my Bentley would be cool and soothing and I wanted that so badly.
In fact, I wanted to dismiss Nicholas and drive myself home but that wasn’t sensible. I was starting to shake, and was certainly in no condition to concentrate on traffic. I should be slowing my pace and allowing him time to do his job—to assess threat. But I’d almost reached the car before he did, and was impatient as he opened the back door for me.
“Thank you,” I said, more because it was expected than out of any gratitude, because I wasn’t grateful in that moment. I wanted him gone.
He walked around and got into the driver’s door and started the car, firing up the air-conditioning. Then, unexpectedly, he turned in his seat and asked, “What happened?”
I continued to look at my hands in my lap and didn’t bother to say none of your business because we both knew the rules. He had no right to ask that. So either he sensed danger and was investigating that, or he’d suddenly developed an interest in my emotional life.
I doubted it was the latter. So I shrugged. “I may have overheated during the treatment. I feel dehydrated. I want to go home and lie down.”
That was probably the longest conversation we’d had since his initial interview, but I was so desperate to get away from him, I was babbling.
He didn’t drive, however. Instead he reached into the back of the car beside me and retrieved a bottle of refrigerated water, which he proceeded to uncap and hand to me. I didn’t look up, but I could feel his gaze on me, continuing to observe.
I took a sip of the water, then rested the bottle on my lap. “Are we not going home?” I’d tried to sound imperious, but we both heard the quaver in my voice.
“What do you need?”
I looked up then, and he was staring at me with probably the most direct gaze I’d ever encountered. Unfortunately, right at that moment I had no armor against it. I could feel my shaky barriers trembling, and was suddenly horrified by the idea that I might break down in front of him.
I swallowed and shook my head, completely incapable of speech. Then I lifted a trembling finger and pointed at the steering wheel.
“Are you frightened?”
I shook my head again.
“Then you need…comfort?”
I sucked in a shuddering breath and closed my eyes. There was no comfort in the world that could soften what I’d just done, where I’d just gone, and how badly I felt about it. The wrongness had seeped into my skin, permeating my whole body. I could scrub myself for hours and still not feel clean.
I was disgusting, and that thought reminded me of the look on Angela’s face when she found out Jill had been Husband Sitting—sleeping with married men for money. She’d been horrified, wondering what else Jill might be capable of, because she didn’t recognize her in that moment.
What would she think of me?
What would any of them think if they found out what I’d just done…
Nicholas took the water bottle out of my hands. “Put on your seatbelt.”
Tears squirted out between my tightly clamped eyelids and I ignored that to fumble the seatbelt on as the car pulled away from the curb. Then I put my shaking hands over my face and tried to hold it in, to not make an exhibition of myself, but it wouldn’t stay down.
It was boiling up, pressing against my throat in sobs that I could barely suppress while my burning chest ached. Jagged memories sickened and humiliated me and no amount of trying to shut them down, to switch over to thought of my girlfriends—my lifelines—was working.
All I could imagine was their horror, and I couldn’t bear that because I couldn’t live without them. Not now. Maybe later, when I was feeling stronger. But even then it was impossible to imagine what my life would be like without them.
We were four shades of personality that complimented each other, that reinforced each other, that understood when no one else could. If they were gone…
“Wait here,” Nicholas said as the car stopped. Then his door opened and closed. I heard the door locks click into place, and in that moment I realized we weren’t home. There hadn’t been time. But for some reason, I didn’t lower my hands. I didn’t look. I didn’t want to know.
All I cared about was getting myself under control, quieting the sobs that pulled at my throat and drying up the hot tears. But I couldn’t. I cried and cried and then the door locks clicked open again and the back door across from me opened.
My hands fell away in surprise as Nicholas slid into the back of the car with me, where he never entered. Then he locked the doors and turned to face me…with a tiny kitten in his very large hands.
The sob that had been threatening to escape faltered into a shuddering breath, and then another as wonder settled over me.
He reached into the seat pocket in front of him and retrieved tissues, which he handed to me, but I held them limply, doing nothing about the wetness on my face. I simply stared at the tiny tabby, squirming and trying to escape his hold.
“Would you like to hold it?”
I immediately shook my head. I couldn’t be trusted…
“Alright.” His rumbling voice was more gentle than I’d ever heard it, but I still couldn’t drag my attention away from the small creature with its wide green eyes. “You could pat it,” he said, and I nodded, still not moving.
I could do that. I wasn’t frightened to pat it. That couldn’t possibly harm it. So eventually I reached out, very carefully, to stroke the top of its tiny head with one finger. It stopped wriggling and snuggled down into his palms, tilting its head so I could tickle under one ear.
Another couple of faltering breaths shuddered out as I started to relax and let myself stroke along its body, feeling the birdlike bones underneath its soft fur. Its whiskers were long and fine, and when I accidentally brushed Nicholas’s hand while I was patting, I barely noticed.
I kept stroking in a slow even pattern to match my breaths until finally the kitten rolled onto its back and I could rub its soft underbelly and the fine hair under its chin. Minutes passed in complete silence until eventually I realized the kitten was asleep, and I stopped patting and returned my hands to my lap where the unused tissues still sat.
Belatedly, I looked up at Nicholas.
He was breathing evenly, staring into my eyes as if he’d been watching me the whole time, and I didn’t give a thought to the makeup smeared down my cheeks. I’d been out of control and now I wasn’t.
I couldn’t think past my gratitude for his intervention.
I didn’t want to consider the ramifications of what had happened between us, or what it meant to our future working relationship. I just wanted to hold onto the calm that he’d bought me.
“Thank you.” My voice was scratchy.
“It’s my cousin’s,” he said, as though we were discussing the day’s schedule and not the most traumatic half hour of my adult life. “I can keep it for a few days if you want.”
I stared into his clear blue eyes, seeing nothing judgmental at all, and that surprised me. But I accepted it. It was a gift, like the comfort of the kitten, and in that moment of not being his employer, but simply a human being accepting his kindness, I noticed he was handsome.
And that surprised me.
I searched my memory, and realized I’d consciously avoided looking at his face. Until now…
His eyes, which were usually hidden behind sunglasses, were beautiful, and they were gazing into mine as if there was a connection between us. His stubble and almost-scruffy dark hair seemed unutterably manly. The solid jawline. Biceps that were close enough to touch.
And then I registered his scent, which had been there all along but I’d been so intent on the kitten. It was clean like the ocean but mixed with something woodsy and masculine.
I must have smelt it in the past and not registered it, because it felt reassuringly familiar, and it made me feel safe, even as it created tiny swirls of disturbance in my stomach.