The Collar

By Tara Sue Me

Coming July 7, 2015!

Nathaniel and Abby are struggling to navigate the challenging waters of their own relationship, when they get a surprising phone call from their partners in play, Dena and Jeff, who are in need of a helping hand…

Seven years ago, blonde, beautiful lawyer Dena Jenkins was tired of her carefully controlled life. Desperate for something exhilarating to help her escape the pressures of her demanding job and her senator father, she joined a steamy, local BDSM club as a submissive. There she met brooding Dominant, Jeff. The attraction between them was undeniable, and, despite Dena’s doubts, they couldn’t stay away from each other.

Except, as the years have passed, their blazing connection has proven difficult to maintain. Dena and Jeff have a history they’d rather forget, but Dena can’t let go of the past, and Jeff is ready to move across the country to give her space. Now, to save their passion, they’ll have to rediscover what it means to trust each other—and give themselves to each other completely.

——————

Chapter One
Present day

Jeff Parks knew it was taking all of Dena’s willpower not to look his way. And since he had once had that willpower bend to his command, he was well aware of the strength involved. On any other given night, he’d be using his own willpower not to stare, but in light of his recent decision—

“Have you been listening to anything I’ve said in the last five minutes?” his friend and fellow Dom, Daniel, asked.

Jeff looked back to the man standing at his side. It was late on a Thursday night and their local BDSM group meeting had just ended. No one was in a hurry to leave though. Everyone wanted to stay around and talk with Nathaniel and Abby. At the moment, Nathaniel stood beside Daniel, grinning. The guest Dominant had led a discussion about keeping D/s relationships from getting stale. Considering the two scenes Jeff had participated in a few months ago with the married couple, staleness wasn’t an issue between Nathaniel and Abby.

“Sorry. What?” Jeff asked Daniel.

“Nothing important. Just going over plans for the play party tomorrow night.”

“Your house at ten.”

“At least you remember that part,” Daniel said in his not-quite-teasing voice.

“I’ve got a lot on my mind.” He might as well go ahead and tell Daniel everything. He’d find out eventually and the two of them had been friends for long enough that he deserved to hear the news from Jeff himself. “I’m moving.”

“You’re what?” Daniel asked in shock.

“Why?” Nathaniel asked at the same time.

Jeff’s gaze automatically found Dena again. She was talking with Abby and Julie. Daniel’s submissive must have said something funny, because Dena snorted with laughter, shaking her head. Her long blond hair swayed with the movement.

“Ah,” Daniel said.

“It’s not what you think.”

Daniel cocked an eyebrow and crossed his arms. “Julie told me about watching you two play.”

Jeff had imagined as much; in fact, he would have been more surprised if Julie had not told Daniel. That night, months ago, he and Dena had played for Julie while she was trying to decide if she could accept her submissive nature. Though that night had helped Daniel and Julie, for Jeff it’d served only as a catalyst for his decision to move. He gave a nod in reply.

Daniel watched the two women. “It slips my mind sometimes. Your history with her.”

“Nothing slips your mind.”

Daniel tipped his head. “Does her work within the group bother you?”

Dena was the most experienced submissive within their local group. As such, she was often called upon to participate in demonstrations. She also worked with Daniel and other senior Dominants when they had mentees.

Jeff had uncollared her years ago, and he knew he no longer had the right or authority to dictate what she did and did not do with other Doms. He told everyone it didn’t bother him. The truth was, though, it did.

But that was what he wanted, wasn’t it? Wasn’t that why he’d worked so hard to keep distance between them?

“No,” he said in answer to Daniel’s question. “That’s not it. Her work here doesn’t bother me.”

Jeff really didn’t want to talk about it. Months later and he still couldn’t forget that night off. Having Dena kneel before him again, for her to offer herself for their mutual pleasure. To have her back in his house and arms. He wasn’t sure he could shake it off.

Dena finally looked his way, saw him watching, and dropped her eyes. It hadn’t done her any good, either; odds were she was still dealing with her own memories of the night.

Daniel, of course, noticed Dena’s slight response when she caught Jeff’s gaze. “How many times have you played since you two broke up?” Daniel asked.

“Once. That time Julie watched.”

“I see.”

“Moving really doesn’t have anything to do with Dena.” He wondered if the lie sounded as wooden to Daniel as it did to him.

“Of course it doesn’t.”

Daniel didn’t say anything further, but instead kept his gaze on Jeff as if expecting him to confess everything. Had Jeff not used the same tactic himself numerous times before, it might have worked.

“It doesn’t,” Jeff stated again. “We split up years ago. We weren’t right for each other. She’s high society and I’m a high school dropout, a loser.”

“Bullshit,” Daniel said. “You’re a successful man with your own business. And you’re my friend.”

“And mine,” Nathaniel echoed. “In fact, if you tried to tell me we couldn’t be friends because of something you did when you were sixteen, I’d kick your ass.”

“It’s different. Besides, I’m moving to Colorado—at least for a while,” Jeff said. “I need to go help Dad with his business. He needs to retire, and he’s been asking me to help get everything in order.”

Daniel’s laughter drew the attention of several group members. “Insurance? You?”

Jeff’s father ran an insurance company he’d taken over from his own father. That Jeff wanted nothing to do with it had always been the bane of his dad’s existence. Jeff had opened his own business, a security service, eight years ago. It was a two-man operation, small, but profitable enough. They offered personal protection and also security services for other businesses.

“It won’t be forever, just a few months. Tom said he could handle the business here.” His partner had actually been less than thrilled, but he’d realized he didn’t have a choice.

“Hell, you’re serious,” Nathaniel said.

Jeff just nodded once.

“Have you told Dena?” Daniel finally asked.

He resisted the urge to look at her. “No.”

“I heard her father’s on the short list for vice president.”

Dena’s father was a senator with career aspirations that reached to the White House. That, paired with Jeff’s past, had been part of what made him decide to break things off with Dena three years ago. He forced himself not to think of the other reasons.

“From what I know of Senator Jenkins, he’ll get it.” Jeff wasn’t surprised at the bitterness in his voice.

The two men looked at him sharply but seemed to sense his unwillingness to discuss the man in question. Jeff had come to terms with the senator a long time ago, but that didn’t mean he liked him or wanted to talk about him.

“You’re still on to be dungeon monitor tomorrow night?” Daniel asked, changing the subject.

“Yes. I’ll be there.” His last play party with the group. He wondered if Dena would be attending with anyone. Would his last sight of her be watching as she offered her submission to another? Maybe it would be better that way. If he knew she had someone to look after her, perhaps then he could somehow find the strength to leave her once and for all.

Julie laughed at something Abby West said. Dena hadn’t been listening to the lively brunette submissive whose husband, and Dominant, had just finished leading a group discussion. Dena’s attention had been on the tiny piece of paper on the floor, because if she looked at it just so, she could see Jeff out of the corner of her eye. He was talking to Daniel and, from all appearances, trying very hard not to look her way.

“So, Dena,” Abby said, making her abandon the paper on the floor. “What do you do?”

“I’m a criminal prosecutor for the State of Delaware.”

Most of the time when she told people what she did for a living, they looked surprised. Abby simply nodded as if that’s what she expected her to say.

“That sounds like a challenge,” she replied.

“It is, but I love it and can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Dena couldn’t help but notice that the entire time they talked, Abby was totally engaged in their conversation yet still fully aware of her Master on the other side of the room. Ready to move at either his command or perceived need.

Dena had once served Jeff in a similar manner, and watching Abby was an almost painful reminder of what she had lost.

“They’re looking over here again,” Julie said, leaning close to Dena. “Daniel not so much, but Jeff can’t keep his eyes off you.”

“Stop,” Dena said, glancing at Abby, but once more the other woman appeared completely unsurprised.

“I’m serious. He hasn’t stopped looking this way since the meeting ended.”

“Probably because you keep looking at him.” Dena couldn’t help but smile at Julie’s liveliness. Her friend, the newly collared submissive of one of the group’s most senior Dominants, had certainly flourished following her collaring ceremony. If she was honest, most of the time Dena was happy for her, but sometimes it hurt her heart. It was all too easy to remember the heady feeling of belonging to the one you loved.

“Jeff doesn’t even know I’m standing here. He’s too wrapped up in you.”

“Let’s change the subject,” she said, not wanting to talk about things better left in the past. But a movement behind her caught her attention—was Jeff leaving?—and she couldn’t think of anything to change the subject to.

“How are things with you and Daniel?” Abby asked Julie, apparently picking up on Dena’s inability to think about anything other than Jeff. “Not that I really need to ask. You both look blissfully in love.”

As always, a smile lit up Julie’s expression at the mention of her Dom. “He’s asked me to move in with him.”

That tidbit of information from Julie was enough to capture Dena’s attention. “Are you?”

“I don’t know. Probably. I’m at his house eighty percent of the time anyway.”

“Do I hear a ‘but’ in there somewhere?” Abby asked.

Julie’s gaze drifted to where the men were talking. “It’s just a big step, you know? Selling my house. And I’ve never lived with anyone before.” Her hand drifted to her throat. Traced her collar. “But then I think how much I’d like being with him all the time. . . . I know you don’t like talking about your past, but with Jeff? Did you?”

Dena suppressed her sigh. So much for changing the subject. “I didn’t live with him at first, but I eventually moved in with him. I’d already moved out before he took his collar back, though.”

Julie’s eyes danced with numerous questions. Friend that she was, she didn’t voice them.

“That’s all I’m saying about it, other than no, I never once regretted moving in together.” She did regret moving out. Maybe if she had stayed, they’d still be together.

Julie nodded. “The commute to the shop would be longer.”

“That’s something to take into consideration.”

“But I don’t think it’ll really matter all that much. Not when compared to all the positives.”

Dena didn’t tell her that she’d walk to work, uphill both ways, if it meant she could wear Jeff’s collar again and live in his cabin once more.

You just need to get over him, she told herself. It’s never going to be the way it was.

Dena forced her gaze away from Jeff. “You’ll make the right decision. For you and Daniel both.”

“Sorry, girls,” Abby said, interrupting. “Master just signaled that he’s ready to leave. I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

Dena and Julie said their goodbyes and then watched as Abby joined Nathaniel. The tall, dark Dominant watched his wife with a look of masculine appreciation laced with red-blooded lust.

“I really like her,” Julie said. Across the room, Nathaniel whispered something in Abby’s ear and then ran his hand down her back. “But Nathaniel seems so intense. He’s harder to read.”

“Jeff’s intense. Intense can be good.”

Julie didn’t look convinced.

“You’ll see what I mean at their demo tomorrow night,” Dena said.

“We’re also doing a demo at the party tomorrow.” There was a combination of excitement and nerves in Julie’s voice.

“I remember. How do you feel about it?” It would be her first time playing in public. Dena made a mental note to call her before the party so she could walk her through any-last minute jitters.

“I’m looking forward to it, but at the same time, I’m not quite ready for it to be tomorrow yet.”

Dena laughed. “I understand completely.”

“More than anything, I’m excited about showing Master—”

“Showing me what?” the man in question asked, coming up behind Julie and wrapping his arms around her.

Daniel was almost the polar opposite of Jeff. Not just physically, although Jeff had dark hair and eyes compared to Daniel’s dirty-blond hair and blue eyes. The men’s personalities differed, too. Yet even with Daniel’s easygoing and friendly ways, Dena had always been drawn to the more introverted Jeff.

“We’re talking about tomorrow night,” Dena said, looking over Daniel’s shoulder to see if she could find Jeff. He didn’t appear to be in the room anymore.

“He just left,” Daniel said.

“Oh, I wasn’t . . .” she started, but then stopped at Daniel’s expression and rolled her eyes. “All right, I was looking for him.”

He gave a self-satisfied nod before dipping his head and whispering into Julie’s ear. Julie whispered back, lifting an arm to wrap around his neck.

“Okay, you two,” Dena said. “That’s it. I have to leave. You guys are so sweet my teeth hurt.”

And she was hoping, more than just a tiny bit, that she would run into Jeff in the parking lot. She walked quickly, but not so fast that it would be obvious she was rushing, down the hallway and out the community center’s main door to the parking lot. Just in time to watch the taillights of Jeff’s truck pulling out.

“You wouldn’t have done or said anything anyway,” she said out loud in the darkness. What was left to say?

She replayed the evening in her head as she drove to her apartment. In her mind she tried to see if Julie had been right about Jeff watching her most of the evening. She’d felt the heavy weight of his stare numerous times, but she’d acted as if she didn’t.

A foolish game, she realized. They weren’t in grade school. The next time he stared at her, she’d call him on it and insist on knowing what his problem was. She smiled at her decision. She’d done it in the past. He really should know better.

He’d be at the party the following night, but acting as dungeon monitor. Since it’d be his responsibility to ensure order and safety, he really wouldn’t be free to pay her any attention. It would be the same as always, each of them pretending there was nothing between them. No past, no present, and sure as hell no future.

The thought made her feel empty inside.

She parked her car and made her way to her apartment, the empty feeling growing with each step. She was in her thirties, unmarried, lived alone, and didn’t even date seriously. Sure, she loved her job, but she knew that wasn’t enough to keep her satisfied in the long term. And though reminiscing about the past served no purpose, she imagined briefly what life could have been like if she’d made different choices.

“Waste of time,” she muttered to herself. “Does no good living backward.”

She unlocked her door and bent down to pick up the delivery menu some food joint had shoved under her door. Maybe it’d be something new. She was always on the lookout for new take-out places.

But instead of a menu, it was a handwritten note, and she felt faint when she read the words printed with red ink.

Better watch out, bitch.

Her body shook, but she composed herself enough to close and dead bolt the door. She glanced around her apartment. The lamp in the living room gave off enough light for her to see that nothing looked out of place.

Her cat, Bentley, was curled up on the couch. He stretched, then hopped down to welcome her home by weaving in between her legs. The apartment was secure. No one could have gotten in, but she picked Bentley up and checked all the rooms anyway.

When she finished her perusal, she went back to the note. Her first thought was to call the police, but she quickly decided that was not the best thing to do. With her father being who he was, word would get out, and before she knew it, she’d have around-the-clock security. While that could be a good thing, she’d worked too hard to get out from under her father’s scrutiny to throw away her freedom.

She sank down onto the couch. She had to do something, though. Things were starting to escalate. At first there were the phone calls she didn’t think much about. They could easily be written off as crank calls. But then they started happening in the middle of the night, and she knew it was more than a wrong number.

When she answered, no one ever spoke on the line. Whoever was calling simply breathed into the receiver. Now, unless it was a number she recognized, she let it go to voice mail. But that was akin to ignoring the problem in the hopes it’d go away. And problems never went away on their own.

She couldn’t prove the person who’d been calling her was the same person who left the note, but nothing else made sense. Harassing by phone she could sweep to the side. A note slid under her door, she could not. The note could be from anyone: a criminal she put away, an enemy of her father’s, or simply an attention seeker who wanted fifteen minutes of fame. There were too many variables, and the only thing she knew for sure was she couldn’t ignore it. Whoever it was knew where she lived, and while she was reluctant to go to the authorities, she wasn’t stupid.

She needed someone knowledgeable and discreet. Someone she could trust not to run to the police or the media. But someone experienced in personal protection.

There was only one person she knew like that. With a resolute sigh, she admitted the inevitable. She needed Jeff.

Jeff was in the middle of packing up his kitchen when his cell phone rang. With a huff he placed the half-filled box on the countertop and glanced at the caller ID.

“Daniel?” he answered.

“Jeff, hey,” his friend replied. “I need your help.”

He leaned a hip against the counter. “Sure. What can I do?”

“Julie’s been up all night, throwing up.”

“Sorry to hear that. Hope she gets better soon.”

“I’ll tell her, but listen, about tonight.”

“The play party?”

“Yes, would you mind taking over? Since it’s at my guesthouse, I’ll serve as dungeon monitor, but I need someone to do the demo.”

Daniel wouldn’t play with anyone except Julie now that he’d collared her, so Jeff wasn’t surprised he was looking for someone to take over. He just wasn’t sure he was in the mood to be that person.

“I thought Nathaniel and Abby were doing the demo?”

“They are, but they’re doing a more-advanced session. Julie and I were going to do something less intense.” His friend sighed. “Didn’t you hear anything at the meeting?”

Jeff decided not to answer the question. Hell no, he hadn’t been paying attention at the meeting. He’d been watching Dena. “You sure Julie’s really sick and it’s not just nerves at playing in public for the first time?”

“I should be offended you even asked me that, but I suppose it’s a reasonable question. Yes, I’m sure she’s sick. I was with her all night, holding her hair back for her.”

With Daniel’s words, a memory threatened to wash over him, and he grabbed on to the counter to steady himself.

She was on her knees on the bathroom floor, rocking back and forth. Between bouts of vomiting, she held her lower abdomen. She hurt and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do. She wasn’t even happy he stayed in the bathroom with her. He’d never felt so helpless in his life.

“This isn’t normal,” he said as another spasm hit her. “You need to call the doctor.”

“I’m fine. It affects everyone differently.”

“Not like this. Either you call or I will.”

She mumbled something that may have been in agreement with him, but then a particularly hard wave of nausea overwhelmed her and, no matter what her wishes, he moved behind her. Gently, he pulled her hair back while she emptied what was left in her stomach. Afterward, she collapsed into his arms and he silently cursed himself for being useless. It wasn’t something he was used to, and he hated that he couldn’t take her pain away. So instead he held her, stroked her hair, and whispered that everything was going to be okay.

But when she moved, there was blood between her legs and they both knew things would never be okay again.

“Jeff?”

He shook his head. “Huh? Sorry. What?”

“This is starting to become a bad habit. I was giving you a rundown of what I’d planned to demo. Did you hear any of it?”

“No.”

Daniel sighed. “Maybe we should just cancel the whole thing.”

“No. It’ll be fine. Repeat what you were saying.”

“We were just going to do a light flogging scene. I thought we should offer something more basic, especially with the increased interest in the lifestyle.”

“Yes, that’s fine. Who have you lined up to sub?” The silence from the other end of the phone made him suspicious. “Daniel?”

“I haven’t called any subs yet. I wanted to discuss it with you first.”

“I’ll call. Who’s on the list?” He wasn’t all that happy to potentially be playing with someone new. But it’d be a light scene, and as long as they were able to talk some beforehand, it’d be okay. Besides, once he found out who was free, he could probably pick someone he knew.

“Well, funny thing.” Daniel cleared his throat, and Jeff had a feeling what he said next wouldn’t be funny at all. “There’s only one sub available, and it’s only because she had a business conference fall through at the last second.”

“Lucky for us. Who is it?”

“Dena.”

Jeff arrived early at the party the next night. His demo with Dena was scheduled after Nathaniel and Abby’s. Since they were using the same room, he couldn’t set up yet. To pass the time, he found a seat and settled in to watch the couple he’d met in Delaware.

He’d seen Abby three times. The first time, she’d been drunk at a nightclub and found herself in trouble. Jeff had been the one to help her and get her home to Nathaniel. And hadn’t that been a surprise? He happened to be in New York only because of a meeting he had scheduled with Nathaniel West.

When Nathaniel found out he was a Dominant, he’d invited Jeff to participate in two scenes he had planned. One was just the three of them, but the second involved two other men.

In the far corner of the room, Nathaniel was setting up for his demo. Tonight the scene would involve the two of them only. Though the two scenes he’d been in with the couple hadn’t involved much participation on his part.

He still smiled remembering how Nathaniel had made clear in no uncertain terms exactly what he was allowed to do with Abby and what he was not. Jeff respected that. It was a Dom’s responsibility to ensure his submissive was treated appropriately. For Abby, that meant he’d been invited to watch and there would be no sexual touching. He’d heard Nathaniel West was a hard businessman to deal with, but he had the feeling that was nothing compared to Dominant Nathaniel.

Right now he had Abby bound with her arms above her head, held in place by chains bolted to the ceiling. They had their eyes locked on each other and he spoke softly to her. Abby nodded at whatever he said, but a noticeable shiver shook her body. Nathaniel kissed her briefly and then blindfolded her. It wasn’t until he slipped earplugs into her ears that Jeff understood the shiver. Sensory deprivation could be intense, especially in a strange place.

Nathaniel ran his hands over her body a few times to ground her and then addressed the growing crowd. “As you can see, I’ve used both a blindfold and earplugs on my submissive. By taking away her ability to see and hear, I’ve put her in a very vulnerable position. And she’s bound, which further intensifies that vulnerability.”

Jeff glanced around the room. Nathaniel had certainly drawn a crowd. In addition to Daniel, who was overseeing the demo, there were about ten people in the room watching from an appropriate distance. A fairly high number for this early in the evening. Dena, he noted, wasn’t present.

“What are some things I need to keep in mind as the scene continues?” Nathaniel asked the crowd. Several people replied back, and he acknowledged each person’s answer. Yet even though he spoke effortlessly with the group gathered, he remained by Abby’s side, completely aware, it seemed, of her every move, no matter how slight.

“I haven’t gagged her for two reasons,” he continued. “One, she needs the ability to safeword, though I could have given her a bell to drop. And the second reason is I want to hear her, because my Abigail makes the most delightful sounds when I have her like this.”

Jeff noticed additional people had entered the room. He stood up and walked toward the back in case Daniel needed help.

“With her sight and hearing gone,” Nathaniel said, stepping behind her, “her sense of touch is heightened. Keep in mind, she hasn’t heard any of what I’ve been saying.” Then, to prove his point, he addressed her. “Abigail, if you can hear me, say, ‘Yes, Master.’”

There was silence from the bound woman.

“When you have your submissive in a position like this, you need to remember that sensory deprivation can be very scary. Of course, it’s up to you if you choose to alleviate that fear or ramp it up.”

There were chuckles from the Dominants watching and mumbled protests from the submissives.

Nathaniel grinned. “I’m not opposed to a good mind fuck, but Abigail has been a good girl this week.” He cocked his head. “Mostly. So I won’t be too mean. Regardless, she always yelps the first time I touch her when she’s like this.”

As if proving his point, he ran one finger down the inside of her arm, and there was a faint murmur from the crowd when Abby squeaked in surprise.

“So deep inside her mind,” Nathaniel said, continuing to run his hands up and down her body. “She expects my touch, but isn’t sure when or where it’s coming from. Every move I make is so much more intense because it’s the only thing she has to focus on.”

He had captured the attention of the entire group. No one moved as they watched him stroke the beautifully bound submissive. He moved his hands against her in a slow and sensual manner, eliciting a low moan from Abby.

“One downside of removing your submissive’s hearing is the inability to talk with her. She can’t hear your questions. It seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many Dominants forget this in the middle of a scene.” He placed a kiss on the nape of Abby’s neck and she sighed. Nathaniel continued speaking with a smile. “She won’t be able to hear you give permission for her release. Again, play that any way you want. I told Abigail before we started that she could come whenever she wished. She replied that she didn’t think she’d be able to come at all. I’m taking that as a challenge.”

Jeff shook his head. From what he knew of Nathaniel, the man wouldn’t stop until he’d made her come.

Nathaniel slipped the fingers of one hand inside her while remaining pressed against her back. While he worked her body, it seemed as if he closed out the crowd around them, focusing all his attention on his wife. Though Jeff had watched many scenes in the past, the one before him seemed somehow more intimate than the others. Nathaniel and Abby appeared to breathe in unison they were so connected.

“Oh, fuck!” Abby panted.

“Give me what I want, baby,” Nathaniel murmured, obviously knowing she couldn’t hear.

Abby rose to her toes and started babbling German. Jeff chuckled, remembering it was her way of delaying orgasm.

“None of that now.” Nathaniel shifted his fingers. “You’re going to come for me.”

She was obviously fighting it for some reason, but Nathaniel was undeterred, rocking his hips against her backside while still working his fingers.

“You’re going to come, and you’re going to come now.” His mouth was at her neck as he spoke; then he nipped her shoulder.

“Holy fucking shit!” she shouted, the German forgotten as her husband obviously then did something new with his hand. “I can’t . . . FUCK.”

Her body stiffened briefly, and then she babbled as her climax rippled through her. A satisfied hum fell over the crowd, and Nathaniel kissed her shoulder and pulled out the earplugs.

“That’s my girl,” he said before unbuckling her and removing the blindfold. He looked around the room, searching, and his gaze fell on Jeff’s.

A room, Jeff thought. He’d want a private room to take her to.

He pushed back from the wall, found Daniel, and mouthed, “Blue bedroom.” Daniel nodded in agreement. The blue bedroom was used exclusively for aftercare at parties. Jeff waited until Nathaniel had Abby gathered in his arms before leading him down the hall to the bedroom.

He checked the room to make sure it had an adequate stock of blankets and water; then he closed the door behind him, giving the couple the privacy they needed. Jeff was sure people would have questions for the visiting pair, but it was understood those would have to wait.

Out in the hallway, he looked again for Dena but didn’t see her. He’d go set up the room for their demo and then check again for her.

She still hadn’t made it to the party when he finished setting up for their demo. Impatient and worried, he waited for her outside on one of the guesthouse’s private porches. The possibility she wouldn’t show existed, he decided, recalling the conversation he had with her when he’d called her about the demo.

“Julie’s sick? But I spoke to her last night and she was fine.”

“I’m just telling you what Daniel told me.”

“I swear, if I didn’t know her better . . .”

“Yes?”

“Nothing.”

“Listen, Dena, if you’re not up to it or don’t want to—”

“No. It’s fine. I’ll be there.”

Jeff saw the headlights of her car approaching and slung his bag over his shoulder. As he watched, she parked and got out of the car. Wrapping her coat tightly around her body, she glanced over her shoulder before walking toward him.

She nodded at his bag. “I thought you said basics? You pack your entire playroom?”

God, he loved her wit. In the years since their split, he’d been with enough women to know he’d never find her equal. Aside from her physical beauty, she had a lively intellect and a carefree attitude. And though she was a brilliant attorney who could command an entire courtroom, it was when she submitted herself to his control that she fully came alive.

“Don’t ask a question you don’t want the answer to,” he said. Half the fun of play was getting inside her mind, and he’d always enjoyed catching her off guard.

As expected, his words sobered her up. “You’re right, Sir. I apologize.”

“You were almost late,” he said.

“But I wasn’t.”

He nodded. “We’re going to be in the sitting room off the kitchen. I want you in position in twenty minutes. Proper position this time. None of that sloppy business like the last time, unless you want to see exactly what I have in my bag in long and excruciating detail. Understood?”

Her chin lifted. “Completely, Sir.”

Seventeen minutes later he walked into the sitting room and frowned. Dena was nowhere to be seen. She had three minutes left, but it wasn’t like her not to be at least five minutes early. After Nathaniel’s demo, he’d positioned a padded table in the room. Daniel had planned only to demonstrate a flogging, but Jeff had decided to add a bondage element as well.

He glanced over the people moving through the guesthouse. The crowd had grown since the earlier demo, mostly new people, though he did recognize quite a few of those present. His gaze fell on a large clock. One minute left. Was she baiting him?

Five minutes after the demo was supposed to start, he looked across the room to Daniel and raised an eyebrow. Daniel looked out into the hallway and shook his head.

Jeff sighed. Well, fuck.

“Sorry to disappoint everyone, but it looks like we’re not going to be having the scheduled demo,” Jeff said to the crowd.

There was murmuring as the crowd broke up. Nathaniel had been standing near the back with his arms around Abby, but as the crowd left, he took her hand and led her to where Jeff stood.

“What’s happening?” Nathaniel asked.

“Missing a submissive,” Jeff said. “I know she’s here. I spoke to her when she arrived. Gave her plenty of time to get ready.”

Abby whispered something to Nathaniel. At his nod, she spoke. “Is it Dena, Sir?”

“Yes. Have you seen her?”

“Our paths crossed in the bathroom. I was walking out, and she was walking in. I only remember because she was on the phone and I thought that odd.”

Jeff glanced at Nathaniel. “Do you mind if Abby goes to see if she’s still there and if everything’s okay?”

“Of course not.” He turned to his wife. “Abigail?”

“Be right back, Master,” she said, spinning to walk out the door.

“Has she done this before?” Nathaniel asked.

“Never. She’s always on time. Early even.” Jeff looked up as Daniel came back into the room. “Is she ever late for a mentor session?”

“No. She’s always early,” Daniel said.

So what was her problem tonight? Jeff wondered. He had a sinking suspicion it was him. He was the reason she hadn’t shown up. Hell, she hadn’t sounded like she wanted to do the demo in the first place. That much had been obvious when he’d called her.

“You probably should have asked another Dom to run the demo with her,” he told Daniel.

“No,” he answered. “She should have spoken up if she had an issue with it. She’s experienced enough to know better.”

“Where is everyone?”

The three men turned toward the door. Dena stood there with her hands on her hips. She was still wearing her party outfit, which was against the rules for a submissive in a demo.

“And she should know better than that,” Daniel added with a pat on Jeff’s shoulders. “You were the Dom in the demo; I’ll let you handle her.”

“Thanks,” Jeff muttered. He’d been looking forward to the demo with Dena; this coming confrontation he was not looking forward to.

“Dena.” Nathaniel nodded to her on his way out.

“Sirs,” she said as he and Daniel walked by her.

The two men closed the door behind them, leaving Jeff and Dena alone.

“Where did everyone go?” Dena asked. “I thought we were going to do a demo? Why—”

Jeff snapped his fingers, and she stopped talking. “On your knees. Now. No talking unless I ask you a question.”

She huffed but knelt down where she was.

“The demo was scheduled to start twenty minutes ago. You didn’t show up, so I canceled it.”

“I was just running a little late—”

“Did I ask a question?” He wasn’t sure what had gotten into her tonight. She was never this disrespectful or belligerent.

“No, Sir.”

“Then you are not to speak.”

She exhaled deeply.

“I’m extremely disappointed in your behavior tonight. I had a scene planned and prepared. I came early to set up. You didn’t even have the decency to show up on time. That was your only job tonight—to show up on time—and you didn’t do it. Then, when you did decide to stroll in, you showed up in your clothes.” He kept her in his sight while he talked. She was shaking a bit. Probably afraid of what he was going to do. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I lost track of time, Sir.”

“Lost track of time? I’ve known you for years and you have never been late. Are you okay? Is there something going on?” Because her behavior was so out of character, he had to be sure.

“No, Sir. I’m fine.”

He walked to where she knelt. “Look at me.” When she lifted her head, he continued. “I’m not fine. I’m the opposite of fine. It’s your fault, and you’re going to deal with the consequences.”