“Are you sure about this?” my friend Tori asks, shooting me a doubtful glance as we pull into the drop-off lane at the Austin airport. She frowns. “I still don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“You’re one to talk,” I tease as I open the door. “I swear I saw rope marks on your wrists this morning.”She has the good grace to blush at that.
I open the passenger door as Tori slams the car into park and gets out to follow me around to the back. Damn, but that woman can be persistent. It’s one of the many reasons she’s one of the top FBI agents in the field office where we both work, and why I love being assigned to work cases with her. That and the fact that she’s one of my closest friends, along with Kate, the other female agent in our office who’s the third member of our bad-ass girl gang.
“If you want to see if you like being tied up, fine,” she continues as I lift my carry-on bag out of the trunk. “I’m not judging, I promise. I just don’t think your first experience with BDSM should be at a weekend retreat out in the middle of nowhere where you don’t know anyone. Find a guy you like, get to know him, and then explore your fantasies with him. ”
“You’re the one who told me about the retreat,” I remind her.
She rolls her eyes. “I thought you were asking for a case.”
I love Tori, but she has no idea what it’s like to be me. She’s married to one of the sexiest and most self-confident men I’ve ever met, who in addition to being rumored to have singularly erotic tastes, also happens to be charming, wickedly funny, an incredibly talented singer, and completely and unequivocally in love with his wife.
I set my bag down and look her in the eye. “That would be ideal,” I agree, “but men like Drake are rare. You’re lucky that you found someone who’s not intimidated by your job. Men are only into me until they find out who I am or what I do. After that they either run for the hills or become groveling idiots. After eight to ten hours a day of being a bad ass, I just want someone else to take charge. Is that so wrong?”
Tori sighs. “Of course not. I just don’t know if this is the best way to go about finding what you want.”
“I can’t think of a better way,” I say resolutely. “This is actually perfect. I can explore what it’s like, and what I like, without any strings attached, and I won’t run into anyone I know since it’s in Denver. And you said yourself that your brother-in-law’s friend who organized the retreat is both classy and experienced with this…this kind of thing.”
Tori nods slowly. “That’s true. He’s owned an exclusive club in Houston for years and I know he’ll make sure things stay safe and consensual.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” I assure her. “I catch bad guys for a living, same as you. You should know better than anyone that I can protect myself.”
“I’m more worried about your heart,” she mutters darkly as I give her one last hug before walking into the airport.
My heart is the last thing I’m worried about. I’ve given up on finding anyone worthy of it, and I certainly have no intention of giving it to anyone. My body, on the other hand, is another story. It craves a man who can own it, who can take my senses, my power, and my choice and give me freedom in return. I want a man strong enough to possess me, a man I can surrender to, who can take what he wants and in the process, pry the world from my tight grip and set me free to just feel and experience.
I sigh. If I didn’t know a man like that existed, maybe I’d be content to settle for less. But I found it once, and that one man who made love to me a lifetime ago has ruined me for everyone since. I don’t even know why I’m thinking about Marcus Dunn now. It’s been ten years since he pinned my hands over my head and drove into me with a force that sent me spiraling into pleasure I’d never experienced before or since. I shake my head, trying to rid myself of the unwanted memory of him—the sculpted hard planes of his tanned face, his powerful body that he worked hard to keep in prime condition, the way his smile reached his expressive brown eyes, and his naturally commanding presence that demanded respect and deference from everyone he came in contact with.
I shake my head, mentally shoving the memories back into the box distinctly marked Do Not Open. I distract myself by talking to the sweet five-year-old seated next to me, and when my plane lands in Denver, I’ve successfully banished all thoughts of the man I shared the best summer of my life with. I’m ready to have some fun, and if things work out the way I hope, some mind-blowing sex!
I pick up my rental car and begin the hour-and-a-half long drive to the lodge that’s hidden in the mountains northwest of Denver. It starts to snow, and I watch the flakes melt on my windshield with awe. Living in Austin for the last two years and Miami before that, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen snow, and it’s absolutely beautiful.
I don’t think it’s quite as beautiful an hour later when I’m standing in it beside the rental car, freezing my butt off while I consider my options. One flat tire, no spare anywhere to be found, nonexistent cell service, and night quickly falling leave very few. I’ve about to decided to start walking when I see approaching headlights. Thank God!
My hazards are already on and I step out into the road and start waving my arms. Thankfully, the car pulls to a stop. The middle-aged couple inside immediately offer to take me to the nearest town and I gratefully climb into the backseat of the sport utility. They look harmless enough and I have excellent instincts, but I have my gun tucked into the waist of my jeans just in case I’ve misjudged them.
“Thank you so much,” I say politely. “I wasn’t looking forward to walking God knows how far in the snow at night.”
The woman shudders. “I can’t even imagine, my dear. You shouldn’t be driving out this way alone,” she tsks. “A beautiful young woman like you out here by yourself after dark! Thank goodness we came when we did. We almost took another way home, didn’t we, Herb?” Her husband’s grunts in affirmation. “Don’t you watch the news? All those stories of abductions and sex trafficking rings and bad things happening.” She shakes her head. “You can’t be too careful nowadays.”
I contemplate assuring her that I’m one of the good guys who stops those bad things from happening, but it might shock the curl right out of her perm if she knew the woman she picked up on the side of the road is an FBI agent. Most people don’t believe me when I tell them at first anyway. I don’t know what they expect, but it’s usually not me.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say dutifully.
They drive me to the next small town where they seem to know everyone, and an hour later they leave me in the capable hands of a beefy and thickly-bearded man named Clyde who runs the town’s car repair shop and has agreed to drive me back to my car with a spare tire.
“He’s good people,” the woman, whose name is Margaret, assures me in a low voice. In the short time we’ve been together, I’ve learned she has a son who lives in Chicago, a daughter with a tattoo who never calls her, a bad case of bursitis and a hankering for grandchildren. “You’ll be safe with him.”
By the time we get back to my car and Clyde changes the tire for me, despite the fact that I assure him I’m more than capable of changing it myself, it’s almost nine o’clock and I realize with sinking disappointment that I’m going to arrive at the lodge after the evening’s festivities have started. So much for easing into things!
I stop for a sandwich at a small diner, and by the time I pull into the gravel parking lot at the Five Pines Lodge, it’s almost ten o’clock. I stare at the cheerfully lit, snow-covered, stone and wood lodge surrounded by mountains for a long minute with excitement tinged with a little trepidation. This is it. Time to find out if there’s any hope for me and my love life. I so desperately want to meet someone who overwhelms my senses and sets my mind and my body on fire. I really do. But I’m starting to wonder if it’s ever going to happen again. I can’t help but feel like this is my last hope.
When every guy I dated after Marcus left me feeling bored and disinterested, I’d started reading romances, trying to figure out exactly what was missing in my own love life. The stories of domination and submission, of ropes and bondage and erotic punishments had been my favorites, and after my last relationship with a perfectly nice but perfectly boring accountant ended, I’d vowed to visit a BDSM club at least once and see if that might be the spark I needed. And now here I am at one. Sort of.
I grab my bag, take a deep breath, and step through the heavy wooden doors and into the lodge. It’s ruggedly beautiful, with walls and ceiling made of exposed pine, a roaring fire in the big stone fireplace that dominates the room, and rugs in jeweled tones scattered over the stone floor adding warmth. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was about to check in at a typical ski lodge. Then I see a man dressed in black leading a beautiful, exotic-looking woman by a leash attached to a collar that’s fastened around her neck, and another man is sitting on the rich brown leather sofa in front of the fire, his head thrown back as a woman kneeling between his legs gives him a blow job.
Well, shit. I don’t know what I was expecting—this is a retreat for kinky people after all—but the reality of it is a little overwhelming. Tori was right. I should just leave now, find a nice guy to date, and forget all of this.
And die of boredom. I at least owe it to myself to see if this is what’s been missing, if I can somehow find someone who can make me feel alive like the bastard who broke my heart did. Surely he can’t be the only one who can chart my deepest desires like a cartographer mapping the stars. Besides, Tori had assured me there would be no pressure to participate, and there are some interesting classes I’ve signed up for tomorrow. If it’s really not my thing, I can always check out early and spend the next two days playing tourist in Denver. I’ve got this.
I take a deep breath, tilt my chin up and approach the check-in desk where a slender, ridiculously pretty man in his early thirties is frowning at the computer screen.
“Hi. I’m Ariana McKnight. I’m checking in for the weekend retreat.”
He looks up and flashes me a smile.
“Welcome,” he says cheerfully, his fingers flying over the keyboard. “I’m Gavin.”
“Sorry I’m late. I had a flat tire.”
He looks at me sympathetically. “Well that’s no way to start your vacation, but no worries. You’re here now! Are you here alone?”
“Are you a top or bottom?”
I frown. “I thought I asked for a private room when I registered. I didn’t realize there were bunks.”
“I meant sexually,” he says, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a smile. “Are you a top or a bottom? Dominant or a submissive?”
“Oh,” I say, blushing. “Right. I’m, um, submissive.”
“Is this your first time with us?”
“It’s actually my first time anywhere!” I admit.
He stares at me. “You’ve never been to a BDSM club?”
I shake my head.
He nods knowingly and gives me a conspiratorial wink. “Just some kinky play at home, huh?”
“Not really.” I’m pretty sure the fantasies in my head and my vibrator don’t count.
“Shut up!” he drawls incredulously. “What on God’s green Earth are you doing here?”
I fix him with an icy stare. “Is that a problem?”
“Of course not,” he says quickly. He studies me closely. “Are you sure you’re not a Domme?”
“I’m not sure of much when it comes to all this, but I’m absolutely sure about that!” I say with a sigh. “But trust me, you’re not the first to think so.”
“So how did you find out about us?” he asks curiously.
“My friend Tori knows the guy who’s in charge of it. I think Dominic is his name?”
His eyes light up. “Tori as in Tori Black?”
I nod. “Yep. The same Tori Black who, depending on how things go, might be dead after this weekend,” I say darkly. Forget that she’s the one who tried to talk me out of coming in the first place.
“Girl! Why didn’t you say so sooner? I adore that girl. She’s enough to make me wish I was straight.” He pauses to consider for a moment, then shakes his head. “Nah! Not really. But if I were straight, I’d fight her hunky husband for her. On second thought, maybe I’d fight her for her hunky husband.”
I can’t help but laugh. He’s like a puppy with ADD.
He cocks his head at me, considering. “Listen, since it’s your first time and you’re a friend of Tori’s, if you want I could introduce you to a Dom that I know you can trust who could show you around tonight until you’re comfortable.”
I smile at him. “That would be great!” I say with relief.
An hour later, I’ve hastily unpacked, freshened my makeup and dressed for the evening’s theme—pirate night—in a white, long-sleeved, lace-trimmed shirtdress that barely reaches mid-thigh, a black leather corset that’s laced over it, a jaunty little black pirate hat, and black stiletto boots that conceals the smaller of the two guns I brought with me. What can I say? Agents always believe in being prepared.
Downstairs in the lobby, there’s no sign of Gavin. I wait ten minutes, but when he still doesn’t appear, I decide to take the bull by the horns. Gavin or no Gavin, it’s time for me to find out once and for all if this is what will fulfill my needs. Even if it’s scary. When you’re five-foot-four, small-boned and your father is the head of the FBI, people tend to think that nepotism is the only way you got the job, and from my first day at the academy to every job I’ve been assigned to since, I’ve always had to work harder and be tougher than everyone else to prove myself. I’ve gotten where I am by never letting my fear get the best of me. I’m not about to let it beat me now.
Resolutely, I walk into the great room where this evening’s party is being held. Although it looks kind of like a nightclub with dim lighting, throbbing music and people mingling and laughing, the assortment of equipment—from huge X-shaped structures that I’ve read are called St. Andrews crosses to padded benches and hooks on the walls—is an unsettling reminder that it’s not.
First things first. I go to the scarred wooden bar and order a whiskey. According to the bartender, there’s a one alcoholic drink limit at play parties, so I figure I’d better make the most of it. I drink it in one gulp, set the empty glass on the bar and then wander around, taking it all in. There are people on the small dance floor, which seems normal enough, as well as several stages set up around the room where demonstrations are taking place.
I watch, fascinated, as a man in a long leather coat that’s opened to reveal a smooth, muscled chest wields a flogger over the back and buttocks of a pretty blonde who’s chained to a St. Andrew’s cross, her tanned skin turning a dusty rose as the leather strands kiss her bared flesh. I give a little shiver of apprehension mixed with anticipation, pressing my thighs together as my vivid imagination sets my own nerve endings on fire as I imagine what it would feel like to be chained there helplessly as a man warms my skin so erotically.
“It’s quite sensual, isn’t it?” I’m so involved in the scene in front of me that I jump at the low voice near my ear. I turn my head and look into the handsome face of a man who looks like he walked straight out of a Calvin Klein ad—blond, All-American good looks, hard body, and penetrating blue eyes. He’s a bit younger than me, but he has an air of confidence and authority about him that leaves no question that he’s a Dom. I nod, suddenly at a loss for words.
“What’s your name?” he asks kindly.
“Ariana, but my friends call me Ari.”
“Well, Ari then, as I hope we’ll be friends, it’s nice to meet you.” His smile is warm and it sets me immediately at ease.
We talk for a few minutes, and I learn that his name is Michael, he’s from Portland and he’s a paramedic. I tell him I’m originally from Virginia and currently live in Texas, but I leave out the part about my job. I suddenly want more than anything to see how this goes without anything screwing it up.
“Do you like the flogger?” he asks as casually as if he’s asking if I like coffee.
“Um, I don’t know,” I admit. “This is my first time. But it looks interesting.”
He smiles at my admission, and it lights up his entire face. He is amazingly attractive. How did I get lucky enough to meet this gorgeous, nice guy right off the bat?
“Would you like to try it? Maybe pick out a flogger and see if you like the feel of it?”
When I hesitate, he adds encouragingly with the hint of a smile, “We’re in a room full of people. All you have to do is say ‘red’ and an army of monitors will be there faster than you can blink.” He cups my chin in his hand, bringing my gaze to his. “I promise I won’t hurt you. That is, unless you want me to.”
I swallow hard as butterflies flutter tentatively in my belly. Do I? “Yes, I’d like to try it,” I whisper.
I follow him over to a wall where a variety of floggers are displayed, and he straightforwardly explains the differences between them—how the wider strands, called falls, feel more thuddy and the narrower falls deliver more of a sting. Apparently, what the flogger is constructed of makes a difference as well, and I learn that suede is the least painful and oiled leather the most. At Michael’s suggestion, I choose a black and red suede one with a thick braided hilt, and with more than a little trepidation, I follow him to one of the padded benches.
“Is it okay if I restrain you?” he asks.
My stomach drops to my toes. My pulse is racing and my palms feel slightly sweaty, but this is what I came for. I nod.
“Say yes or no,” he instructs.
“Yes,” I say. It comes out louder than I intended and I flush with embarrassment.
Then his hand is on my upper back, pressing me forward until my chest is flush with the padded surface of the bench, my left cheek resting against the cool leather. He gently takes one of my wrists and fastens a leather cuff that’s attached to the bench around it, and then repeats the process with my other wrist. I pull against the restraints, testing them. My heart beats a little faster as I realize I can’t move my arms at all. Oh god.
I can feel Michael move behind me and then he flips the short skirt of my dress up, exposing my ass. Oh crap! I’m wearing nothing under the dress except a sexy, black scrap of a thong —it had seemed to fit the pirate theme when I put it on—and I feel utterly exposed. I squeeze my eyes closed, trying not to think about the fact that everyone who walks by can see my bare butt. I can feel the cool air of the room whisper across my skin and then Michael’s hands are on me, kneading and stroking each cheek until I feel myself begin to relax.
He removes his hand, and seconds later I feel the thud of leather against the warmed flesh of my buttocks. It’s pleasurably noticeable, but not painful at all, and the rhythmic dull impact of the soft leather against my bare skin lulls me into a slightly foggy-headed stupor, like when I get a massage.
“Ah, there she is!”
Gavin’s distinct drawl yanks me straight out of my blissful state of relaxation. My eyes fly open. Two pairs of masculine legs fill my vision—one muscular pair clad in black with an unmistakably large bulge at the crotch and the other pair slimmer and ensconced in black leather boots. The boots disappear and Gavin’s face appears.
“Looks like you already found someone to show you a thing or two,” he says with an impish grin. He inclines his head toward my bare posterior. “Michael’s a good guy, but I wanted to introduce you to the Dom I was telling you about.”