The Supplicant by Emma Woodhouse

  • The Supplicant by Emma Woodhouse – Part One

    Prologue

    “—and I thought he was going to pound me right through the mattress and the floor beneath it! I was seriously worried I was going to end up crashing down into the apartment beneath. Wouldn’t that give old Mrs. Kingston something to talk about?”

    Her best friend nudged her ribs hard with her elbow, but it was all Arden could do to keep from blushing. She wasn’t at all sure she was able to pull it off, and she knew that the sight of her pink cheeks would only egg Sylvia on.

    “But then I guess you can tell what a great time I had with him by the fact that I’m still walking funny two days later.”

    Everyone else was laughing uproariously at that and offering their own lurid stories of their weekend conquests. Everyone except Arden, who was quietly happy not to have anything to contribute—especially since that was the moment he decided to make his appearance, with that deep, rumbling baritone that disturbed her more—and in more ways—than she cared to admit.

    He made her tremble in a way that only one other man in her life had, and she found that wholly unacceptable and annoying in the extreme, blaming him as much as she did herself for her reaction.

    He wasn’t even mad to find them there—far from it. She almost wished he was—it would be easier to understand and cultivate a dislike of him if he was an asshole.

    “Good morning, everyone. I hope you all had a great weekend.”

    Loch Frazier, head of the ever-expanding empire of Frazier, Inc., practically had to duck through the door into the break room where his employees had gathered to chat and grab coffee before starting work. Greeting each of them by name as he made his way through the blatantly admiring sea of them, he asked after them and their families—flawlessly remembering the names of their significant others, their children or parents or whatever their hobbies were and managing, somehow, to sound as if he actually cared about each one of them as he did so.

    At least, that’s what they thought. His employees were true devotees of what could only be called his cult of personality. Somehow, he managed to inspire a deep, abiding loyalty in people. Many of them had been with him from the start—from when he’d been working on his software from a tiny room in his tiny apartment. And, although he was also known by his detractors as a slave driver, he had made sure that those who had stuck with him—through what was, in the beginning, thin and thin—were amply rewarded for their work and their fealty to him once the company began to turn a profit.

    In fact, he was far from the only multi-millionaire to have arisen from the computer and marketing genius he had shown in building his business. Those who had left his employ—in his good graces—had done so with large, lucrative severance or retirement packages that included both stock, which continued to split in a truly meteoric rise, as well as health care benefits for those retiring that were the envy those who had left larger companies that showed considerably less tangible concern for their former employees.

    Unfortunately, Arden had never understood what it was about him that held so many people—people she considered to be relatively intelligent—in rapt adoration of him. If anything, she preferred to avoid him, if at all possible. In fact, just the sight of him made her uneasy enough that—as soon as she caught sight of him—her cheeks blushing even brighter red for some unknown reason at the idea that he had probably overheard what Syl had said. She kept her eyes carefully averted from him, sliding off the counter she was sitting on and grabbing her purse, intending to escape as quickly as possible, saying, “And that’s my cue to leave this den of iniquity.”

    To her horror, Loch stopped in his tracks at her words, staring down at her and murmuring, his voice having the same effect on her as if they were alone and he was whispering it into her ear, “You needn’t go because of me, Ms. Valenti.”

    She smiled nervously up at him, looking down again quickly and heading towards the door. “Thank you, Mr. Frazier, but, since I’m not an employee, I’ll let you get to work.”

    He smiled and it was a disgustingly pleasant thing to behold. “Well, you’re welcome here any time.”

    “Thank you.”

    She would have ducked out, but Syl’s voice bellowed from the back of the room, caused her to stop before she was able to make a clean getaway. “Remember, it’s ‘Feed a Starving Artiste’ night. General Tso and I will be over at seven. You have Netflix fired up and we’ll catch up on Luke Cage. Have plenty of drool towels around, please.” She didn’t bother to suppress a sexual shiver at the thought that embarrassed Arden yet again.

    “Okay. Have a great day, everyone!” She was very aware of how squeaky her voice sounded and equally as glad that no one could see how red her face was as she accidentally caught Loch’s eye and he set her heart to racing at a dangerous pace when he very slowly, very deliberately winked at her.


    Chapter One

    The music was so loud that her ears hurt, and she could feel the bass literally vibrating beneath her feet and up her legs. The crush of people was suffocating, but having claimed a large table for their group helped a bit to keep the masses at bay. The rest of the group—minus one big hunk in particular—were on the dance floor, gyrating wildly to the beat that was rapidly giving her a headache. She felt like a stick in the mud—and knew she was acting like one, too—but she’d claimed a chair that faced the dance floor and the stage, and she wasn’t going to give it up until she decided to leave.

    Which, she determined, was at least an hour from now, if she was going to appear even slightly polite. They hadn’t even gotten to gift giving yet, and it was Syl’s birthday bash she was attending. She could hardly duck out early without insulting her best friend, even if the only man to whom she’d had any kind of reaction in ages—negative or positive—was sitting across the table from her. He’d been eying her all evening, only somewhat covertly, but she had no doubt that she was right, since every time he so much as glanced her way, every inch of her skin seemed to come alive in a very disconcerting way.

    She did clean up reasonably well, she supposed, even if she was in the only “nice” outfit she owned. Most of her clothes were ancient jeans and t-shirts, all decorated in various shades of paint spatters that never seemed to come out, no matter how often she washed them, but then, she had never much been into dressing to impress. Luckily, in her profession, that kind of thing didn’t matter much, and the love of her life couldn’t have cared less what she was wearing. The less, the better, as he would have said, in fact, waggling his eyebrows lasciviously at her and probably twirling a fake, Snidely Whiplash mustache at her.

    Putting her head down, Arden tried ruthlessly to squelch the direction her brain automatically went in—to stem the tide of tears that flooded her eyes at the merest fleeting thought of him, of the whole world she’d lost when she’d lost him.

    And, by concentrating so hard she blotted out everything and everyone else around her for a long moment, in a manner she’d had to learn the hard way—for self-preservation—she did manage not to let those tears overflow, blinking them back until they were gone.

    But when she raised her head again, proud of herself for not having given in to the overwhelming wave of grief, she realized that Mr. Frazier was no longer sitting across from her, but rather had taken—not one of the seven other unoccupied seats, but rather, the one right next to where she was sitting. The imposing sight of him surprised her, and she couldn’t prevent herself from starting a bit.

    Of course, hoping a man like that wouldn’t notice her small movement was entirely too much to ask from an unforgiving universe.

    “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you, but I hate shouting across the table and I did ask if it was all right.”

    Arden was sure he had. He’d probably asked when she was preoccupied wrestling with her own feelings, and when she’d bowed her head, he’d taken that as her assent.

    There wasn’t really a graceful way to get out of it now, either. She could hardly get up and move away from him, she supposed, without appearing to be downright impolite. Although it might be interesting to see if he followed her around the table if she did, she mused, in a sort of perverse, adult version of musical chairs.

    “No, it’s fine,” she lied blithely. “I just was off in my own head for a moment. Sorry.”

    “No need to apologize. Please don’t let me make you feel uncomfortable.”

    It wasn’t quite an offer to move, but then she didn’t know if she would have taken him up on it if he had. She didn’t want to be thought of—especially by him, for some unfathomable reason—as a ninny.

    “Although I have a feeling that this entire evening is making you feel uncomfortable, so me sitting next to you should barely register,” he continued astutely.

    The problem was that he was dead on—she hated this kind of place, but it was in Syl’s blood. She might have been in her mid-thirties for the third year, but she hadn’t slowed down a bit.

    Arden, on the other hand, had never once sped up in any way in her forty-plus-too-many years—she had never been able to match her best friend’s pace and had long since stopped trying.

    But worse than that, he was dead wrong about him not being a blip on her radar, because all kinds of klaxons were going off at his nearness—not just in her head, which she could have dealt with much more easily. But in her body, too, as if they had decided to join forces against her.

    It had been almost four years since her life had ended—well, that was what it felt like, anyway, even to this day—since the dearest man in the world—a man who, though he certainly had been up close and personal with her foibles for the past fifteen odd years of marriage, thought she could walk on water and nail Jell-O to walls—had left her.

    Frowning fiercely, she chastised herself for thinking of it that way. It wasn’t as if he had wanted to go. The cancer hadn’t been anywhere near polite enough to ask. Perhaps if it hadn’t been so damnably quick, if it hadn’t been so unexpected, she might feel differently, might have been able to let go of the pain more easily and find the happiness he had told her multiple times during his lightning fast decline that he desperately wanted her to discover when he was gone.

    But she just couldn’t, and she’d already made peace with the fact that she was going to be alone for the rest of her life.

    Her family and friends, however, were nowhere near as resigned to her fate as she was.

    And, apparently, she could now rank her own mind and body along with them, as they were on full alert at the presence of this highly masculine, almost threateningly potent man.

    She took a drink of her plain diet soda—the one and only drink she could afford in this place, frankly. And even it had been mind-bogglingly expensive—she’d been nursing all night, he’d noted. “You’re…not wrong,” she allowed on a drawl, studiously watching the band, although she wasn’t seeing any of them. All of her—more than she could even remember feeling with her beloved—was concentrated on the man seated next to her.

    And he wasn’t even touching her.

    He was, however, sitting there, manspreading wildly as if his knees had never met each other and looking as if he owned the joint, not a carefully cut, short black hair out of place. He was dressed in an expensively casual outfit of oxford shirt, surprisingly not unbuttoned to his navel, but there was still no mistaking the peek of dark chest hair that showed in the small V anyway, jeans that were undoubtedly designer and worth more than her house, probably, as well as a leather jacket that was probably quite pricey in its prime but that now looked as if it had seen better days.

    And it all looked absolutely gorgeous on him. It was the perfect outfit for a successful man who was going out with some of his employees—well put together and obviously not from Walmart, but not in-your-face rich looking, either.

    “I don’t think Syl would care if you snuck out early.”

    Arden had to chuckle at that. “Yup. Syl knows me well enough to know that I’ve already got my escape planned, and I did from the moment she let me know where she was having this shindig.”

    Damn, his throaty chuckle played hell with her nerves, skittering warmly along them, igniting what few he hadn’t already, simply by his nearness.

    What was going on with her? She didn’t react like this to men—never had! Even her husband had complained—once they’d gotten together—that she’d been much too reserved while they were dating, almost wary, taking two steps back for every one he took towards her. Luckily for her, he’d considered wooing her to be a challenge that he was more than up for.

    Unfortunately, she had a feeling that Loch Frazier would have much the same reaction—not that she’d ever allow him to pursue her in any way.

    “Would you like a real drink, Ms. Valenti?” He wondered if she didn’t indulge at all, for whatever reason. “It’s on me.”

    For once, she gave him her full attention, and he had a feeling he was being judged and found lacking, although he wasn’t sure exactly why, but he did like a puzzle. She was warm and pleasant and funny with everyone but him, and—although there was only curiosity involved—no emotion—he was mildly interested in why he seemed to put her back up by his mere existence. There was something about her—he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. She wasn’t spectacular looking, in fact, she was older than most women he’d been dating lately, the majority of whom looked like models. Arden was much more age appropriate for him, although he thought she was a couple of years younger than he was, perhaps.

    Maybe it was the delicate air of hurt around her, although that was hardly something he usually found intriguing. She was a small thing, and so obviously still deep in the grips of grief from the loss of her husband. He’d never lost anyone he’d loved, personally—probably because he’d never really loved anyone—but he found himself grappling with the most unfamiliar impulse to pull her onto his lap and into his arms to hug her and hold her and tell her that everything would all be all right.

    But that warred with another impulse that was at least as powerful—if not more so—to then flip her onto her back and remind her what it was like to be made to scream a man’s name while convulsing violently around him.

    At those two disparate thoughts, he took a sip from his own rocks glass.

    “That’s not necessary. I’m fine with my soft drink, but thank you.”

    “It might help you enjoy yourself a bit more. I’d be glad to drive you home, if it comes to that.”

    Arden snorted. “One drink is not going to incapacitate me. There was a time when I’d drink you under the table without batting an eyelash.”

    His eyebrow rose. “I would pay serious money to see you do that.” He signaled to the nearest wait person, who happened to be a young lady who practically gushed all over him, which was something that apparently made him feel uncomfortable.

    Arden had a hard time not grinning like an idiot at seeing him so discomfited when he always seemed as if he was so in command of himself and everything—and everyone—around him.

    “The lady will have a drink, please.” The insecurity vanished as if it had never been when his eyes settled on her. “Order anything you’d like.”

    She hesitated—disliking being maneuvered into accepting a drink from him—but he gave her an expectant look that, for some reason, she allowed to goad her into obeying him, then surprised—and impressed—him by ordering a well-regarded but relatively inexpensive glass of whiskey, neat.

    Before the waitress left, he murmured, his eyes still on Arden, “Make that a double, please.” He was rewarded quite simply and completely by the sound of her laugh. She looked more relaxed already, which was his goal.

    The young lady was back in record time, obviously hoping to curry favor with him, which set Arden’s teeth on edge, for some reason. But beyond a polite, “Thank you,” he ignored the poor girl in favor of looking as if he wanted to devour her whole.

    Desperate for something—or someone—else to look at besides him, Arden noticed one of the waiters who was bussing a table near them. He was tall and slim, which wasn’t usually her type, but with beautiful, almost delicate facial features. “Wow, way to rock the man bun,” she muttered to herself.

    Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Loch consider the man for a moment, then dismiss him. “I agree. He’s pretty perfect, if that’s the type you prefer.” His tone was almost too neutral.

    “And I suppose you should be the type I prefer, instead?” She didn’t usually say such things out loud, but this man made her nervous, and she tended to run off at the mouth sometimes when she was nervous. And the potent drink—that was so much better than she remembered—was only going to make things worse for her in that area.

    He gave her an annoying half-smile. “No, not necessarily. I’m not to most people’s tastes, but then, I only sleep with very select people.

    She wasn’t sure exactly how they’d gotten to the point of discussing who they liked to sleep with, and she knew she should simply smile and nod rather than engage him, but instead, she found herself saying, “Well, I don’t think I have a type, since I don’t sleep around at all—I’ve only ever had sex with people I loved.”

    He smiled—not unkindly, but definitely in amusement. “How quaint. Well, you’ve obviously had a very different life than I have. I don’t believe in love, so that wouldn’t even be possible for me.”

    Arden didn’t bother to curb how acerbic she sounded. “Somehow, I’m not in the least surprised to hear that. I, on the other hand, have pretty much been surrounded by it my entire life, and I was lucky enough to experience its truest expression with my husband before he died.” She couldn’t believe she was having this conversation with him—and she couldn’t even blame the liquor, since she was only on her second sip!

    “And I’d be willing to bet that you haven’t had sex since the last time he touched you.” Those dark eyes narrowed on her, making her feel a bit trapped.

    She cringed. “It’s that obvious, huh?”

    “To anyone who bothered to notice, yes.”

    Of course, he had.

    “Well, in my own defense—not that I feel I need to defend my choices to you…” he inclined his head in acceptance of that fact “…I pretty much figure I have nowhere to go but down, sex-life wise.”

    His expression was almost benevolent, flirting with condescending. “You might be surprised. You should try it sometime—sex with no emotional attachment—with the right man, of course. It might be an interesting experience for you. Might well be just what you need, since you obviously don’t think that any man who would want to be seriously involved with you would quite measure up. There would, then, be no hurt feelings, no expectations on either end if he didn’t.”

    Gathering all of her courage—liquid and otherwise—Arden turned in her seat to face him, finding her legs immediately trapped between his and knowing she should have been more worried about the inherent intimacy of her position than she was. “And are you suggesting, then, that the person with whom I should explore this idea is you?”

    Loch paused for what seemed like a long time, his already intense stare deepening, leaving her just on the verge of apologizing to him for having assumed that. “I’m not sure whether I am or not, truth be told.” He curved a big finger over his lips as if deep in thought while contemplating her.

    She actually squirmed beneath his stare before stifling the impulse. “Well, anyway, that’s obviously not part of my ‘deal’, as you put it.”

    Out of purely morbid curiosity, he asked, “But what—besides love—comprises the rest of it, I wonder?”

    He asked as if he was truly interested in her answer, although she convinced herself that he was merely amusing himself, playing with her to pass the time. Arden laughed softly. “I think I gave you the wrong impression, Mr. Frazier. I don’t really know you—and you don’t know me at all, and it may seem terribly old fashioned, but I’m not really in the habit of discussing my sexual preferences with someone I don’t know and care about.”

    “That’s another thing you should try sometime, Ms. Valenti. And don’t apologize for being old fashioned—it’s an interesting novelty.” He seemed to hesitate for a split second, then said, “But perhaps you should call me once you decide to let him go and stop clinging to your widow’s weeds as if they’re going to sustain you for the rest of what you’re inexplicably determined to make into a very boring, lonely life.”

    Furious at his attack, Arden stood, reaching for her coat, annoyed to find that he, too, was standing and holding it for her. There were so many things she wanted to say to him that she couldn’t get any of them out, so she settled for glaring at him fit to singe his hair and storming out.

    Loch looked at her drink and calculated that she’d not had enough to impair her, so she should be fine to drive. If he hadn’t thought so, nothing she could have said or done would have stopped him from getting her home safely, up to and including driving her there himself, if he had to. He’d’ve sent her home in his own car with his driver, if it was necessary, to know she was going to get home in one piece.

    Why he gave a damn about whether or not she did, he refused to examine any too closely.


    Chapter Two

    “Your boss is an insufferable boor.”

    They were on her couch, facing each other, both in their pajamas, spending the weekend in blissful pursuit of absolutely nothing besides their favorite junk food and their new favorite television program. They were shamelessly binging, which was appropriate since what they were watching was as many episodes of Shameless as they could cram into the time they had.

    Syl bobbed her head back and forth in exaggerated agreement. “Never said he wasn’t,” she said through a truly prodigious mouthful of chocolate peanut butter cup ice cream. “He definitely has his moments.”

    “Stop bogarting the ice cream!” Arden whined, reaching between her knees to make lazy grabs at the container.

    Her best girlfriend took another enormous spoonful, then reluctantly relinquished the carton to her cohort.

    “And he’s an asshole.”

    All Syl did was nod blithely in agreement, which was not to Arden’s liking at all.

    “So do something about him! He practically propositioned me at your birthday party—in a completely insulting way—and at which I think I lost about seventy percent of my hearing, by the way.”

    Even with that severe hearing damage, she could hear Syl’s eyes rolling without needing to look at her.

    “I can’t help it if you’re old, and I can’t help it if my boss made a move on you. He’s allowed. You don’t work for him. Whadja say?”

    “I said yes, which is why you can see him fucking me right now, right here, on this couch.”

    “I wish I could!”

    “Ew! Gross!”

    “Gross because I’m watching or gross because he’s fucking you?”

    “Six to one.”

    “You are such a liar! You are blushing so hard right now! You want him—you always have.”

    And now Syl had managed to insult her, too. “I have not! I never so much as looked at another man—”

    Her friend sighed as if horribly put upon. “I know, I know. Don’t get your panties in a wad, for Chrissakes. I didn’t mean that you had a roving eye beforehand. I’m saying that, since you came out of the severe depression you’d descended into afterwards and joined the rest of the human race again, you’ve been attracted to him. And that very thought disturbs you so much that every time he enters a room, you leave it—it’s like a compulsion or something.”

    “I do not, and it is not!” She tried not to sound huffy, but that was exactly how she was feeling, because she knew that Syl was being deadly accurate.

    The young woman nodded her head exaggeratedly up and down. “Every. Single. Time. Even though he’s told you every time you’ve been there that you don’t have to go when he shows up, but you scamper out of there like he’s a lion and you’re a tasty rabbit.”

    “Do not!” Arden crossed her arms over her chest defensively, reduced to a schoolyard response because she really didn’t have any ammunition with which she could refute what Sylvia was saying.

    The truth could be so annoyingly inconvenient—just like best friends, on occasion.

    “How’s the art coming?”

    It was a wise—if painful—change of subjects. Arden sighed, handing the ice cream back. “Not well. Take a good look around at this place—I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to keep it. Frankly, I’m about two months from living in my car, and with a mini cooper, that’ll be quite a feat. The medical bills are still astronomical because I don’t make enough money to pay anything on them. At least, they don’t charge interest like the credit card companies do, though, and you know we had to live off of those while he was sick because neither of us could work.” She rubbed her forehead with her hand, feeling depressed. “I don’t want to give up this place. It was in his family for generations, and it’s where we always lived. I can’t lose it!”

    Syl reached out her hand to her friend, and Arden took it gratefully, squeezing hard. “I’m sorry, Ard. If I had money to give you, you know I would.”

    “I wouldn’t accept it, and you know it. I’m not about to take food out of my goddaughter’s mouth.”

    “Well, at least, you can always come stay with me.”

    Arden was genuinely touched, but she knew she couldn’t take her friend up on that offer, either. She and Violet were crammed into a small place because Sylvia put every penny she could into sending her daughter to a really good private school. She’d only be able to stay with them if she could learn to sleep standing up.

    “I hate you so much. You’re da best!”

    “I hate you more.”

    Just when they’d reached the bottom of the container, Syl sat straight up, saying excitedly, as if she’d struck gold with her spoon, “Ard! I know exactly what you should do to get yourself out of this financial pickle!”

    “What?”

    “Borrow from Loch!”

    Arden snorted so hard she nearly choked herself. “I’d sooner ask for more gruel in a mid-nineteenth century English orphanage, thank you ever so. I’d sooner sell myself on the street.”

    She didn’t like the sly, shrewd look her friend was giving her. “Or you could sell yourself to him.”

    Sylvia never saw the pillow coming at her face until it was too late.

    “Hey!”

    “I am not going to sell myself to that man!” As if he’d want me, anyway, she thought but managed to keep it to herself. She certainly didn’t want Sylvia to think she was fishing for compliments.

    “Okay, okay! But he’s always giving to charities—especially those that help women, I’ve noticed. And he helps employees out all the time, too.”

    “You conveniently forget that I’m neither a charity case—yet—nor an employee. And even if I was a charity case, I can’t imagine ever going to him for so much as a paper clip.” She shuddered delicately. “I wouldn’t ask that man to spit on me if I was on fire.”

    Syl was grinning at her like an idiot and shaking her head. “You’ve got it so bad, you don’t even know it, girlie girl.”

    “Do not!”

    “That was an articulate rebuttal right there. Where’d you go to college again? You might want to write them and ask for your money back on your degree.”

    “Shut up and tell me whether you think the guy Fiona is dating is hot,” she said, successfully diverting her friend’s attention back to the TV program.

    But in the back of her mind, from that point on, Sylvia’s suggestion was all Arden could think about—no matter how absurd she knew the idea was—and it was all Syl’s fault!

    * * *

    She was so conflicted about the idea that she nearly gave herself an ulcer going back and forth about it, until one day, in the middle of a painting frenzy, she got a call.

    “You free at six?”

    “Uh, I guess I could be. What’s up? Need me to babysit?”

    “No. Please don’t kill me too badly.” She blurted it all out so quickly that Arden could barely make out what she was saying. “But I know how badly you’ve been stressing about the money so I mentioned your situation to Loch, and he wants to see you at six.”

    Silence. Not anger, not yelling, not anything, although Sylvia looked at her phone, and it said they were still connected.

    “Ard?”

    And then, they weren’t.

    She’d gotten the call at three, and Arden spent a full hour pacing in her small studio, debating with herself about whether or not she should go to this meeting.

    On the one hand, she might be able to save a house that was so much more than that to her and perhaps even pay towards some of her bills, depending on how much he was willing to lend her.

    On the other hand, she really didn’t want to so much as see him again, much less actually owe this man money. She didn’t even like this guy, after the arrogant and audacious things he’d said to her that night, and she certainly didn’t like the way she reacted and responded around him. It was embarrassing and uncomfortable and unacceptable.

    She was a married woman. She still wore her wedding and engagement rings, not to mention the cheap vermeil heart locket her husband had given her early on in their relationship. Even when they could have afforded for him to replace it with something in real gold, she wouldn’t let him because the original meant too much to her. She felt as married now as she had when she’d said, “I do.” His death hadn’t diminished that in the least for her.

    Widowhood, as far as she was concerned, had not in any way released her from her vows.

    But then, she felt that she was worrying about something stupid, that perhaps she had misread him that night. After all, he’d only ever been very polite and courteous to her up to that point.

    Eventually—with not a lot of time left to get to his office—she managed to convince herself that she might actually be able to do it—to ask him for some money, that she would, of course, pay back. Yet every step she took, in her one good businesslike outfit—a pretty suit she’d found at Goodwill for a steal—towards his door made her stomach cramp with nerves until she had to divert to the ladies’ room in order to calm herself down.

    After facing herself in the mirror, making sure her make-up—which she almost never wore—was right and her hair was combed neatly rather than piled onto the top of her head in a scrunchie with tendrils falling messily around her face as it usually was, she forced herself to return to the path to his office.

    The outer office was empty—his secretary having already gone home for the day—and the door was closed. She stood before it, drew a deep breath, and tapped on it lightly.

    “Come.”

    When she opened the door, he rose to greet her. “Ms. Valenti.”

    Suddenly coming face to face with the many reasons why she shouldn’t be doing this—at least, not with this man in particular—Arden suddenly felt shy, all of her bravado deserting her at once as he bore down on her, taking her hand in his and shaking it gently.

    “Thank you for coming in to see me.”

    It was an unusual thing for him to say, considering her situation and the fact that she was coming to him as a supplicant.

    “Please sit down. Make yourself comfortable.” He gestured towards the chairs in front of his desk, not bothering to go back to his own seat, but rather, leaning back against the front of his desk with those long legs crossed at the ankles.

    Arden sank into a seat more out of necessity than choice.

    “Before we discuss anything else, please allow me to apologize to you for making you so uncomfortable with me, while we were talking, that night that you felt you had to flee. I have many faults, not the least of which is bluntness—or so I’ve been told often enough that I ought to have long since learned when to hold my tongue.”

    What woman could resist such a charming smile? she thought, although she noticed that he wasn’t apologizing for what he’d said to her, but for making her uncomfortable by having said it.

    “Do I have your forgiveness?” he asked, and she had nothing but a sense of absolute sincerity from him.

    “Yes, of course, Mr. Frazier.”

    He inclined his head to her. “Thank you. And I think we can dispense with the formalities, don’t you, Arden? Considering what you’ve come here to talk to me about?”

    “Yes…” Having just agreed to be on a first name basis with him, her first impulse was to call him sir, regardless. “Loch.”

    It was the first time he’d ever heard his name from her lips, and his body was responding to it as if she was whispering it beseechingly while her face was buried against his suddenly, painfully erect cock.

    “I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised—considering your reaction that evening—when Sylvia came to me and told me that you might be open to making some kind of arrangement with me. I admit I had to think about it quite seriously before I decided to see you.”

    “Well, I think that’s wise—one shouldn’t jump into any kind of financial arrangement.” She leaned forward a bit. “And, Loch, I wanted to say how grateful I am that you’re even considering this. I realize that I have no real connection to you other than that you’re my best friend’s boss.”

    “But then, that just makes it better, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what you’re finally looking for? Something simple and easy without all of the usual strings attached?”

    She thought he was putting it in an unusual manner, but she supposed he could be referring to all of the paperwork necessary to apply for a loan through normal channels—although she was so overextended she would never get one anyway, which was one of the reasons she was sitting before him.

    “Yes, I guess that’s true.” Arden fiddled nervously with her fingers in her lap.

    “Shall we get right to the negotiations, then?” he asked, wanting to kiss those fingers and then give them something else to wrap around besides each other.

    “Uh, okay.”

    He leaned back a little. “I was thinking about a hundred thousand dollars.”

    Arden’s eyes opened wide, and she couldn’t help but laugh. “Wow—I’m flattered that you’d want to give me that much, but uh, no, thank you.”

    Loch looked confused. “No, thank you? Do you want more?”

    Still smiling, Arden answered, “No, I want considerably less.”

    His confusion deepened, and he actually walked back around to sit in his desk chair, regarding her with a puzzled look on his face. “You want less?”

    “Yes. Quite a bit less.”

    Feeling a bit lost, he nonetheless asked, “Well, how much were you thinking of?”

    “Twenty-eight thousand, nine hundred and seventy-four dollars and thirty-five cents.”

    He blinked slowly a few times, looking dumbstruck. “How, may I ask, did you come up with that precise a figure?”

    Arden wasn’t one to air her problems to someone she didn’t know, but she figured that he was lending her the money, so he had the right to know the reasons why she needed it.

    “My house is heavily mortgaged and I’m behind on the payments, to the point where I’m quite sure the bank is going to take some sort of action if I don’t come right soon. Some of that would bring me up to date. I have a mountain of credit card bills that are, I’m ashamed to confess, also in arrears, along with the medical bills—”

    He held up an enormous hand. “Say no more.” Loch pinned her with a stare that was quite blatantly hungry. “But I think you’re selling yourself very short, Arden. I’d be willing to bet that—even for just one night—you’re going to prove to be worth more than the hundred grand I offered in the first place.”

    He could see by the shocked look on her face that she had no idea what he was talking about. He’d already gotten his phone out to make the transfer, wanting to get this settled and more eager for her than he wanted to admit to himself, but that deer in headlights look stopped him dead in his tracks.

    Loch leaned back in his chair and asked, “Tell me, Arden. Why did you come here this evening?”

    At least now, he was saying something she understood. “To ask you for a loan. I thought that Sylvia had spoken to you about it and told you all about it. Is that not true?”

    He smiled, although he had a feeling he wasn’t going to be smiling, this evening, when he crawled into his cold, lonely bed.

    “I think that Sylvia and I—or Sylvia and you—or perhaps Sylvia and the both of us—got our lines crossed. You see, Arden,” he began, returning to his spot in front of his desk. “It was my impression from Sylvia—and I’m not necessarily saying that she deliberately meant to give me this impression—that the money I was going to give you wouldn’t be a loan in the usual sense of the word, but rather more of a-a gift in exchange for…services rendered?”

    She might not have been most men’s idea of gorgeous, overall, but she was absolutely beautiful to him when she was outraged, shooting up out of the chair with her hands clenched into fists. “Son of a…I am going to kill her with my bare hands!” She actually took a step towards the door, then stopped, forcing herself to turn around and face him. “That was certainly not why I asked her to talk to you. I am—was—going to ask for a private installment loan with monthly payments made to you. I have every intent of paying you back, but not in—”

    Loch delighted in watching her face grow redder and redder, and although he knew he shouldn’t have, he was definitely becoming aroused at her embarrassment. He smiled, although it didn’t make it to his eyes. “I understand that now, but you get my confusion, especially after what we were talking about that night. I thought you might have come around to my way of thinking.”

    If he turned out all the lights in the office, her face would have brightened it like the sun.

    She couldn’t look up at him. She just couldn’t, cowardly as it was, she supposed. “I’m sorry you were misled.”

    He crossed his arms over his chest. “So it’s entirely out of the question, then?”

    Her head shot up. “What?”

    Loch stood, putting his hands into his pockets as he looked down at her. “I’ll give you that hundred thousand for a weekend with you. No other repayment expected of any kind, except that you would submit yourself to me completely during that timeframe, which would be of my choosing, since I’m not an artiste with a flexible schedule. And I’m afraid, my dear, that would be the only kind of arrangement I would be interested in making with you. I have no interest in being your private bank. I don’t want money from you. No, I want something I think is much more rarified, much more valuable to me. I want your complete and total submission, so that I can show you that you needn’t spend the rest of your life as a nun because your beloved husband has died. I want to force you to recognize the fact that you can be brought to excruciating heights by a man who doesn’t know you very well or love you in the least and who will never make love to you, but that you can be fucked so hard you forget your name by that very same man.”

    Arden opened her suddenly parched mouth, but nothing came out. She couldn’t seem to wrench herself away from him, as if she was completely mesmerized by what he was saying. She should have been running away from him, running down the hallway and down the stairs and back to the relative safety of her car.

    But she felt as if her feet were rooted where they were, even as she stared down at them.

    Loch took a step towards her, watching her carefully, gauging her reactions as he took another step, so that she was now easily within reach of his long arms, surprised that she hadn’t backed away from him, but not willing to question his good fortune.

    “Don’t answer just yet, Arden,” he whispered, so softly she felt compelled to look up at him. That was when he reached out and tugged her into his arms, enjoying her slight, ladylike, “oof,” holding her against his hard, muscular body, plastering her blatantly against him and tipping her entire body just slightly towards him, so that she was off balance and had to lean on him to keep from falling forward.

    His fingers delved forcefully into that carefully coifed bun, pulling out the pins that held it in subjugation and letting her wavy tresses fall over his hand while he tilted her head back and kissed her in a way that was at once almost tender—but not quite—and almost ruthless—but not quite but that very definitely demanded a response from her.

    One that she found utterly impossible to deny him.

    Her mouth opened as if it always had and always would when his lips slanted across hers, and he took what she was offering without the slightest bit of hesitation, accepting her slight submission as his due and demanding more, bending her to him in every sense of the word as he claimed the deepest recesses of her mouth, plundering and possessing until—a long while later—he finally lifted his head.

    Loch’s eyes raked over every inch of her face, noting the slight sheen of perspiration, the heavy breathing that matched his rhythm perfectly, the lowered lids over enlarged pupils.

    Arden stiffened a bit in his arms as she fought for control—fought herself and her sense of morals and duty and commitment and loyalty—losing badly at every turn.

    And he would have none of it. “No, don’t fight me now.” He pressed his lips to hers in an almost gentle kiss. “You said that night that I didn’t know you, and in some ways, I don’t. But I bet I know more about you than you think I do.”

    It was all she could do to muster enough strength to raise an eyebrow at him.

    The fingers that had been buried in the hair at the back of her head slipped down to tug slightly at the delicate chain she’d proudly worn around her neck for more than a decade. “This is your collar. He was more than just your husband, wasn’t he? He was your dom.”

    That—more than almost anything he could have said or done—snapped her out of her trance and she wrenched herself away from him, reaching for the purse she had dropped on the ground by her chair.

    For his part, he let her go without trying to stop her in the least, his hands lingering in the same position they had been when he was holding her. He didn’t try to prevent her from leaving, but he wasn’t silent about it. “I didn’t say that the heights I’d bring you to would always be those of pleasure, Arden.”

    His words were almost soothing, although his tone abraded her flesh and her heart—but not in the same way at all.

    She made her way to the door, leaving it open behind her as she stalked down the hallway towards the stairs, just as she’d imagined she should have earlier.

    “My offer stands, Arden, whenever you decide to accept it. Don’t wait too long. I won’t be happy if I find out you’ve been homeless when you have the means to prevent it.”

    Surprisingly, of everything he’d said to her during that truly bizarre encounter, it was the last ones that kept running through her head.

    It sounded just like something her husband would have said—if he’d ever stooped low enough to find himself in similar circumstances with her, and that was much more unacceptable to her than anything else he’d ever said to her.


    Chapter Three

    How’d it go?

    She got the text even before she got home and ignored it, along with the eleven further texts that arrived not much later, as well as the seven emails, two phone calls and a voicemail that followed.

    If she was actually calling her, then Sylvia must have realized the error of her ways and was truly desperate to make up to her. She hated talking on the phone.

    Of course, every bit of it was overly apologetic, not that she bothered to glance at more than the first few words of the first few texts. She was sorry. Arden already knew that. She wouldn’t be surprised if her friend had already called Loch and found out what a fiasco it all had been, all on account of her.

    For her own part, Arden was inches away from sobbing as she walked slowly around a house that had seen so much love and laughter—not to mention sex, since they’d christened pretty much every room—between herself and her husband. And now, she was relatively certain that she was going to lose it, lose what had been her husband’s legacy and the center of all of their wonderful memories when they’d been meant to grow old in it together and die in each other’s arms.

    Well, one of them had been able to fulfill his destiny. Her, not so much.

    Not long after she’d fallen face down onto her bed, the one she’d shared with him, in a storm of tears for herself and the mess she found herself in, allowing herself for the first time in a long time to truly wallow in despair and self-pity, she heard someone banging on her door and knew exactly who it was.

    After forcing herself to get up, Arden stood in the foyer, glaring fiercely in her friend’s general direction. “Go away!”

    “Nope,” Sylvia answered flatly. “You knew when you ignored me that I’d show up here, and I’m not leaving, even if I have to spend the night on your verandah.”

    “Go back to Vi. She needs you. I don’t.”

    There was a long pause that reflected the depths of pain that existed on both sides of the door.

    Then a very quiet, very heartfelt, “Ouch,” drifted to her ears.

    For once, her best friend didn’t sound flippant in the least.

    “Okay, that hurt, and I know you’re really angry with me, and I’m sorry. And Vi’s with Mrs. Trumbull.”

    Since the old woman had neither chick nor child, she doted on Violet. Sylvia could stay as long as she needed to in order to wear Arden down.

    So, Arden decided to skip to the chase and removed the chain and the bolt from the door. Syl had long since been given her own key out of self-defense, so that Arden wouldn’t have to get out of bed to let her in. When she was going through a very bad divorce, Sylvia would often come stay at her best friend’s place rather than in an apartment in which she felt unsafe.

    “Look, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have meddled; I shouldn’t have interfered like that and set you up to get all huffy and mad at him over the misunderstanding—and at me for being stupid and impulsive and not considering the consequences of my actions. It was idiotic of me. I’m just so sorry.”

    Despite that she could hear the sincerity in that little speech didn’t mean that Arden was through ignoring her friend. “Just because I let you in so people didn’t think I have a vagrant on my porch doesn’t mean I’m talking to you.”

    At that, Syl casually flipped her off with the surety of long acquaintance, although Arden was pointedly not looking at her, so she missed it. They’d weathered worse things than this together and come out on the other side closer than ever, although Sylvia never again wanted to see her friend as devastated as she had been when she’d lost her husband. This wasn’t nearly that bad, but it was, admittedly, a major fuck up on her end.

    “You don’t have to talk to me; you just have to listen. I’ve never heard anything bad about how Loch treats his women, and you know what a hotbed of gossip most offices are and how people seem to want to tell me everything, like I’m some kind of priest in a confessional. If he was a dog with women, I’d know. He’s had a lot of women, yes. But all I’ve ever heard—and this is from friends of friends, not employees, because he doesn’t dip his wick where he works, which is a point in his favor—is that he’s phenomenal in bed. Now, of course, that means different things to different people, but still. I’ve heard that from several women, most of whom were sporting really nice jewelry he’d bought them—supposedly unsolicited—while they were seeing each other—and I know he completely paid off one girl’s student loans.”

    “Robbing the cradle much?” she murmured sarcastically under her breath while staring blankly at the contents of her fridge.

    But her friend wasn’t having it. “Why not, as long as they’re legal?”

    Arden huffed at that.

    “Look. It was wrong of me to do that, and you can feel free to beat me about the head and shoulders with a pillow any time you’d like as penance, but I just—I wanted you to live a little. You’ve been so bottled up, and you’ve kept yourself apart from almost everyone and everything except me and your family. I know you miss him. I do, too. He was my best friend, right along with you. And I know you’ll never find that kind of love again, but that doesn’t mean you have to become a nun, for crying out loud. You’ve got another forty something years on this planet, and I don’t want you to spend them alone.”

    “And if I was speaking to you, I might say something like, ‘hmm, that’s not your decision to make. Or butt the fuck out’. Or words to that effect.”

    Sylvia drew a deep breath and played her trump card. “It’s not what he would want, either, Ard, and you know it.”

    She paused in the act of bringing a platter of meatloaf to the counter, then resumed what she was doing a second later, as if she’d been buffering for a second. “And, knowing me—knowing me better now than any other person on the planet—you think that it would be a good thing for me, who has experienced true love in a way that most people never will in their lifetimes, who has slept with less than five people, all of whom I was in love with at the time—to sleep with a man who has already confessed to me that he doesn’t even believe in love?”

    Sylvia swallowed hard. “Yeah, I think he’s exactly the type of person you should sleep with right now. He might not be exactly what you would choose in that regard, but I’ve known him pretty well for a while now, and—love or not—he’s an honorable man.”

    Her friend blinked at her owlishly.

    “Look, he’s not looking for a commitment—”

    “No,” she interrupted. “Just the opposite, in fact. He’s looking for a very expensive prostitute.”

    Sylvia rubbed her forehead. “Well, put the money aside, for a moment.”

    “I can’t! It’s the whole reason I’m even still listening to you! It’s why I went to him in the first place, or I would happily never have laid eyes on him again!” To her horror, tears were streaming down her face while she yelled at her friend.

    As she broke down even further, Syl took Arden into her arms, holding her and rocking her, patting her back as she had so many times before. When the storm had passed, she led her to the couch and they sat down together, still holding hands tightly. “Look. You’re in a bind. He can help you out.”

    “By making me no better than a call girl.”

    Sylvia gave her a withering look. “A call girl? You’re closer to the friggin’ Virgin Mary than a call girl. You have an…an air about you—untouchable—almost innocent, without seeming smarmy or holier than thou. I know you—half of the guys you count as sleeping with never even fucked you—they just fingered you a little and you gave them a hand job! What woman of forty-some years old has only slept with two people?!”

    She was trying not to feel like a freak and not doing very well at it. “Yeah, well.”

    “Do you consider the women who let them buy him things to be prostitutes, too?”

    “No, of course not.”

    That got her the raised eyebrow look of haughty derision. “You see where I’m going here? He gave them what they wanted or needed, and he’d do the same for you.”

    “But a hundred thousand dollars for one night? That’s obscene!”

    Her friend looked stunned. “A hundred thousand? I thought you only needed less than thirty?”

    Arden nodded slowly. “I do only need less than thirty.”

    “Wow—he must really want you.”

    Her eyes narrowed and she grabbed Syl’s arm, pinching a bit with her fingers.

    “Ow!”

    “That reminds me—what did you say to him?”

    “Say to him? About what?”

    “About my…personal preferences, or about the…unusual nature of my marriage. About my collar, specifically.”

    Syl held her right hand up as if she was being sworn in as a witness in court. “Absolutely nothing. I might have wanted you to finally get a little something-something after all this time, but I did not go into specifics at all, in any way whatsoever, so help me Chris Evans.”

    Sylvia was an atheist, but she believed fiercely in the innate goodness—even if only as eye candy—of Chris Evans.

    Arden gave her a bit of side eye. “You’re sure?”

    “Christ, yes! Cross my heart and hope to die!” She even completed the child’s gesture that accompanied the vehement denial.

    “Yeah, well, you understand why I’m skeptical, considering that you were trying to sell me off to the highest bidder.”

    “I was not! And, no, I don’t understand.”

    Her friend wasn’t interested in elaborating, apparently, because she was looking anywhere but at Sylvia.

    And not much got by her friend, especially if it was of a sexual nature. “Holy shit, he guessed it, didn’t he? I tell you, he might not like emotional trappings, but the man is very astute about people, women in particular.”

    “Oh, I think I might argue that point.”

    “So,” Sylvia asked, leaning back against the couch. “He obviously wants you, and he knows exactly what you like, and he must be into that, too. And you’re as skittish around him as a virgin around a volcano, so we know where you stand on him—” Her friend opened her mouth wide to protest, but she held up her hand. “Don’t even try to go there with me, honey. I know you. You can’t act all above it all with me. What are you going to do?”

    “Damned if I know,” Arden groaned, not bothering to argue with her friend, although she could have lived without ever hearing the situation spelled out quite so rawly. She let her head loll back as she practically threw herself against the back of the couch, too. “Really, I haven’t the slightest fucking idea. All I know is that I have to do everything I can to keep this place.”

    “And does that include sleeping with one very handsome, very potently masculine man who’s completely fine with giving you a shit ton of money to do so for just one night?”

    “That sounds like the perfect technical term for it—a shit ton. But the truth is, I don’t want all that money.”

    * * *

    “You don’t?” he asked incredulously, about ten days later, while sitting across from her at a well-lit, highly popular restaurant.

    She’d done some work for the owner of the place, so she was able to request the table she wanted, and it was one of the cozy, more out of the way booths where she thought they could talk about this highly sensitive and unusual—for her, anyway—subject without being overheard, and in a place where she was comfortable.

    “Hell, no.” Arden nervously folded and unfolded the napkin that lay in her lap with her fingers.

    Although he smiled at her emphatic response, Loch didn’t much like how jumpy she seemed, but he was too happy—and not a little shocked—to be here with her at all. He’d already pretty much given up hope that he was ever going to speak to her again. And, considering the situation, he shouldn’t be surprised that she was nervous. He knew exactly why she’d suggested they meet here, and far from being unhappy about it—although it was hardly the place he went any more—or even, frankly, even before he’d made it rich—he was glad to go anywhere she felt safe.

    “That’s entirely too much pressure for one night, especially since, as technically inexperienced as I am, I’m not likely to be quite as, uh, skilled as you might be used to.” She was just about as anxious as she’d ever been in her lifetime, so much so that she was more than a little nauseous and still half thinking of ditching the idea entirely, even though she was the one who’d invited him here.

    Arden had made the decision to go through with it, finally, after having put it off just about as long as she could, deciding that two could play at his game. She’d give herself to him, let him do pretty much anything he wanted to with what she considered to be very few limits, if it came to that. And she had a feeling that with him it was likely to—but she would do her best to subscribe to his philosophy. She’d keep her emotions and her heart separate. He wasn’t interested in it anyway, by his own words, so he’d never notice he was only getting about twenty percent of who she was.

    And she’d resist him as best she could—passively, of course—by responding as little as was possible. She was a passionate woman—at least she had been, especially while she was married—and she wasn’t sure how well she was going to pull it off, but she was going to do her best to simply do as he asked, to concentrate on his pleasure, disregarding her own as much as possible.

    Most men would prefer that, anyway, wouldn’t they? Still, she couldn’t quite repress her sense of humor. “Besides, there’s no telling what kind of weird shit you might want to get up to for that amount of money!”

    He liked her smile, however tentative, as she peeped up at him.

    Unfortunately, the one he returned to her was less than comforting, leaning much more towards feral and hungry than amused before he saw her eyes widen and consciously set about reeling in his appetites.

    “Let me guess, you’ll only accept twenty-eight thousand, nine hundred and seventy-four dollars and thirty-five cents?”

    She had to admit, she was impressed. Intimidated as hell, still, but impressed. “I can’t believe you remembered that specific amount!”

    He shrugged. “I’ve always had a thing for numbers. They come easily to me.” He bit his tongue on the comment that most women came to and for him easily, also, knowing she probably wouldn’t appreciate it.

    “I bet that helped you in your career quite a bit.”

    “Absolutely.”

    The waitress was as unobtrusive as one could hope for in a place like this—which was a small regional chain of what most people considered to be pretty good steakhouses. They gave her their orders, and she left them alone.

    Loch cleared his throat. “I’d like to get this settled, Arden. Unless I miss my guess, you brought me here to talk about accepting my offer?”

    Now she was playing with her silverware, and he reached across the table to lay his hand over hers. “Fold your hands in your lap and put your eyes on mine,” he ordered quietly, but she sensed that it was not up for debate, so she did as she was asked with a relative amount of ease—at least, in regards to her hands.

    Meeting his eyes was another thing entirely, and she had to force herself to do so. If anyone could be said to have a dominant stare, it was Loch. As soon as their eyes met, her mouth went dry, but she kept her eyes steadily on him.

    “Very good. I’m kind of a fan of round numbers, so I really want to stick with the figure I chose.” His grin made her feel that she was the one on the menu tonight. “I am certain that I could come up with more than enough inventive things to ensure that I received my money’s worth. I can assure you, you’ll earn every penny and then some.”

    Her eyes slid from his for a second at that as her skin suffused with a lovely blush, although they found their way back to his very quickly.

    “But if the amount bothers your conscience—although I can assure you that it would cause me no hardship—perhaps we could adjust the number of nights, instead? Perhaps ten? Or fifty?”

    She chuckled. “Fifty? You can’t possibly want to spend fifty nights with me! You’d be bored to tears!”

    As their waitress appeared with their salads, he reached over—completely ignoring her—and took her hand in his. “Boredom, my dear, would be the very least of either of our problems, I can assure you.”

    She tried to reclaim her hand, her eyes darting to the waitress, who was waiting for him to let her go, but he held onto her until she stopped struggling and her eyes settled onto his again, at which point he released her and they were given their salads as well as a small loaf of Swedish rye bread before the girl disappeared again.

    “I’m not at all certain I’m going to make it through one night with you, much less any more than that,” Arden confessed, happy to be looking at her salad rather than him. She didn’t know what was wrong with her—her heart was pounding, she felt hot and cold at the same time, no longer nauseous but, instead, just slightly faint.

    She knew what it was, of course, but didn’t want to acknowledge that she was feeling a very deep, sexual attraction to this man.

    “That would be my responsibility.”

    “Yours?”

    “To make sure that you made it through the night with me—through every night you spent with me, as your dom.”

    He’d used that word quite deliberately, in order to gage her reaction, which was quite overt. She jerked, physically, looking wounded, as if he’d brought his crop down across her bare buttocks.

    “So, twenty-five nights, say, which would be four thousand a night? I’d have that in your account by the next morning or I’ll pay you double.”

    “I don’t want double!”

    That got an actual chuckle. “Well, there has to be a penalty to me for not holding up my end of the bargain, just as there will most definitely be penalties to you if you do not behave as I expect you should.”

    Arden outright gasped, choking on the bit of salad she’d inhaled in doing so, which prompted him to smack her on the back a couple of times.

    Damn! If he spanked anywhere near as hard as he’d slapped her on the back, she was going to be toast by the time he was through with her!

    “I will, of course, have paperwork for you to sign before anything actually happens between us. One should never go into a situation like this without spelling everything out.”

    “I understand.”

    “Do you have a lawyer?”

    “No.”

    He gave her an expectant look, but she just smiled.

    “I can’t afford a lawyer,” she stated flatly. “And I’ve been lucky enough to rarely need one.”

    Loch sighed, pushing his half-eaten salad away. “I have a friend who will take your case pro bono, all the while scolding me—and enjoying the hell out of it—for what I’m doing. That should make you happy.”

    She was smiling at the idea of him being chastised by anyone, much less a friend, he could tell, but her brows drew together in a frown, moments later.

    “Please ask him to run a tab for me, and I’ll pay him out of the money you give me.”

    “That’s not necessary, Arden,” he stated implacably and just a bit dismissively.

    Their dinners arrived just as she returned quietly, and just as implacably, “Yes, it is, or this discussion will go no further.”

    He stopped and stared at her, and she boldly met his gaze. He could see her strength of conviction, could see reflected both in her eyes and her body language how hard this was for her to do, although she hadn’t let that stop her. He admired her tremendously for that, but he had no illusions, either, and thus no doubt that if she thought she had any other alternative, she would never be here with him.

    And he had never wanted a woman as much as he wanted her in that moment.

    Suddenly, he reached across the table and stood up, grabbing her hand and, after throwing several hundred dollar bills onto the table—which would be equal to about four times their bill—he turned and tugged her along behind him, out to the parking lot, where he guided her to his car.

    As they stood at the passenger’s side door, he turned back to her just as she crashed into him. Since his legs were much longer than hers, she’d been struggling to keep up the entire time, and he had stopped quite abruptly. Luckily, he was steady as a brick wall, and his arms looped around her, preventing what might have been a nasty fall.

    “To hell with what should be in place before we fuck,” he growled. “I want you. If this wasn’t our first time together, I’d have you in my car.”

    Arden’s eyes went wide at that.

    A big finger tipped her chin up just slightly past the point of comfort. “Do you consent? Will you submit to me?”

    She desperately wanted to say no. She didn’t think he’d ever really understand just how badly she wanted to run away from him at this moment. He didn’t have the emotional capacity to do so, and, as far as she could tell, he had absolutely no interest in acquiring it, even if such a thing was possible at his age.

    This was happening much faster than she had anticipated. She had thought that things between them would be scheduled, that appointments would be made—that she would have more time to work through it all in her head and perhaps even back out.

    But here she was, in his arms, and he intended to have her that very night—hell, as soon as possible. As it was, she knew she’d have to hope he didn’t pull over somewhere on the way home and expect her to do the deed in the front seat!

    Loch knew he was pushing her, but he was perverse enough that that was what he wanted to do. He wanted to test her resolve, her commitment to this whatever this was, and she didn’t disappoint.

    He literally watched her square her shoulders and go from contemplating her feet as if she wished she could disappear into the dirt beneath them, to raising her head and meeting his eyes not quite boldly, but with a quiet strength that he couldn’t help but admire.

    Her voice was soft and a bit tremulous, but she nonetheless answered him clearly, “Y-yes.”

    All Arden could think of as he helped her into the car was that she hoped she wasn’t going to come to severely regret what she’d just agreed to, her mind flooding with the zillions of ways that this could come to a very bad end—much more so for her than for him, in every possible way.


    Chapter Four

    The impulse was there, once he’d gotten her into his house, to slam her up against the door or the wall next to it or any other flat surface he could avail himself of and empty his balls deep into her cunt, loud and hard and with little regard to how she felt about it.

    But, although he admitted to himself that that scenario was no doubt going to be played out—multiple times—between them in the future, it was not how he wanted her first time with him to be. She was too jumpy and high strung at the moment; however, he hadn’t been able to resist playing with her a bit in the car.

    She was in a pretty, gauzy dress that ended demurely at her knees, and he had reached over with his big paw—enjoying not only the feel of her leg beneath it when it landed mid-thigh but the stark physical contrasts between the two of them as well that went beyond size. He was tanned and strong, and her skin was pale and soft—as if she rarely crawled out from the safety of her little abode and into the sun, making her appear slightly frail because of it—and slid it back towards her hip, taking the dress with it.

    Oh, those gasps of hers, which he knew weren’t carefully cultivated or calculated in any way, were going to prove to be a mighty test to his strength of will.

    When the material had pooled at the tops of her thighs, completely exposing her legs, he whispered, “Spread for me, Arden,” almost hoping that she was going to balk or disobey him or outright resist him so that he’d have an excuse to pull over, besides the way his cock was straining uncomfortably against his zipper.

    He could feel her eyes darting to his, as if seeking reassurance, but he was minding the road quite deliberately. She would have to decide whether or not she was going to submit entirely on her own.

    Seconds later, her knees began to part very slowly, and he found himself wondering how long it had really been since any man but her husband had had her, so he asked, still not looking at her as he did so, although his hand remained high up on her left thigh.

    “I—uh—” His hand began to move as she spoke, creeping ever closer to the center of her desire.

    “Keep opening your legs, Arden. I’ll tell you when to stop.”

    His tone with her was so different from what she’d ever experienced in this realm. Her husband might have been her dom, but he was very loving about it—everything he did was because he loved her and wanted the best for her. Loch had no such things on his mind whatsoever, and his voice reflected it.

    As a result, her mind was occupied trying to obey him in that, and she received a sharp swat on her thigh for her slow response.

    “I expect you to answer while you open yourself for me.”

    Panting with nervousness, which only added to her uncoordinated efforts, she responded, her voice trembling, “W-well, we were t-together…” The word rose several octaves in pitch as his fingers found the elastic of her panties. And when one knee was resting against the gearshift and the other leaning against the car door, he finally told her to stop. But she knew better than to stop answering him. “…f-for fifteen years, it’s—ahhhhummmmm,” Without preamble, his fingertips plunged between her folds to find the source of her pleasure and began stroking it knowingly, as if he’d already made a study of how to bring her pleasure. “…been f-four y-years since h-he died, but I was in a pretty s-s-serious…” Arden had to swallow hard, her hands gripping the edges of the seat for dear life as she sat quietly in her seat and allowed him to molest her at will, fervently wishing she could say that she was sticking to her resolve and wasn’t enjoying it in the least. But she absolutely was, and he was just about to encounter irrefutable evidence of that fact.

    “…relationship b-b-before I met him, so, uh, so—nnnnggg—umm, about tuh-went-ty years or so.”

    “Jesus Christ,” he spat, not at what she was saying, although that was astonishing enough, but much more because he hadn’t expected he would be able to bring dripping wet fingers from her wide-open crotch to his mouth, closing his eyes for a short second as he suckled them clean as if they were covered in manna from Heaven instead of just her juices.

    “Close your legs, or I’m going to wrap us around the nearest tree, I swear,” came his clipped vow.

    Grateful for the respite, she did exactly as she was told, keeping her eyes focused straight ahead of her.

    The rest of the ride had been conducted in a tense silence as Loch wrestled with his own impulses and Arden did her best to clear her mind so that she wouldn’t either run screaming from him or break down and cry in front of him.

    She truly couldn’t decide which outcome might have been worse. Except that she wasn’t considering the actual outcome while she was pondering, the one where she was alone with him, in his house, and he was leaning back against the door, his fists clenched at his sides as the breath literally bellowed out of him while leveling that terribly intense look at her, and her alone. Then, suddenly, she watched him relax, bit by bit, and she knew he was forcing himself to do so through sheer strength of will.

    Eventually, he levered himself away from the door and walked past her. “Follow me.”

    She ended up in the largest bedroom she’d ever seen.

    Loch had already crossed to a credenza of sorts, on which there was apparently a bar, because he returned to her with about four fingers of whiskey in a beautiful cut glass rocks glass that she wouldn’t have been at all surprised to discover was Waterford crystal.

    “Drink it. All of it.”

    She opened her mouth to question him. That was a lot of alcohol for her. Arden didn’t usually drink much—or hadn’t recently, anyway—and she didn’t have much food in her stomach to absorb it, either, since her dinner had been quite rudely interrupted.

    But she thought better of that impulse, closed her mouth again and took a large, inelegant gulp, forcing herself not to cough or balk at it in any way.

    She finished it in four gulps, while he watched, and handed the glass back to him.

    He again found himself impressed by her. She’d obeyed him; she’d stopped herself from what he thought was probably going to be arguing with him, and she’d bolted downed a hefty amount of some pretty stiff whiskey in less than a minute.

    Now was the time that he was going to see whether her talk of a hollow leg in regards to alcohol was the truth or just bluffing. He’d unintentionally given her a larger drink than he should have, pouring as if he was making it for himself rather than adjusting it down to what he would normally have given her. He might well not have as much time with her as he’d like if it turned out that she couldn’t hold her liquor.

    But what the hell? If she fell asleep, he’d have her in the morning before she left. It would be a good exercise in denial.

    He’d become an expert at dealing with various aspects of that practice at an early age, and by now, he’d pretty much perfected it.

    Except, it seemed, when it came to her, or he never would have succumbed to that insistent feeling of curiosity and intrigue her ethereal reticence had always inspired in him during their brief, public encounters and put himself in the way of temptation by switching seats to be closer to her as he had that night.

    But that was all said and done now. There was no going back, and he could hardly argue with the way things had turned out since she was standing here in his bedroom, looking just shy of terrified, although she was standing her ground and he couldn’t see any signs that she was looking to bolt.

    He wondered errantly—for him—if she would regret not having done so in the morning, if she’d dress calmly and leave him—probably asleep—take an Uber to her car and head home to dissolve into tears, where no one would be able to see her pain or console her about it. The thought of her sobbing, alone, with no one to comfort her, disturbed him much more than he wanted it to.

    Wanting to divert his mind from wandering into that unfamiliar morass of emotion, Loch stepped up behind her, feeling her start as his arms crept around her waist and neck—not ungently—his hands finding their way beneath her dress, knowing it would feel somehow dirtier to the proper Ms. Valenti to be groped like this, as if he was copping a feel somewhere where they could be discovered, than if she was actually naked.

    And he was right.

    She squirmed slightly against him as Loch tucked the fingers of his left hand into the waistband of her undies while his other hand roamed freely over her beneath her dress, those big fingers nonetheless expertly unhooking the front closure of her bra, loosing breasts that were just as firm and full and high as any he’d ever cupped, while he felt her continue to try to squelch the urge to wiggle away from his touch or wiggle because of his touch. It didn’t really matter which one. He thoroughly enjoyed her struggle to remain still beneath his touch, regardless, and applauded her assumption that that was what he might prefer she do, having been given no guidance about it by him.

    Someone had trained her well. The twitches and squirming that got past her control could definitely be attributed to the fact that she hadn’t been touched in a while by anyone, a fact which he found entirely unacceptable. A woman like Arden was meant to be used by her dom on a daily basis, in one way or the other. She needed constant supervision and stimulation, strict and swift punishment, along with rewards that were at least as fierce and ferocious, if less frequent. She needed to be touched, intimately, as often as possible, and by someone who knew how to handle her, in particular—what she liked, what she hated—which wasn’t necessarily to be avoided—what her limits were and how to test them without losing her carefully won trust.

    And he intended to do it all—not as her husband had, by winning her heart first, but by cultivating what he believed would be an even more powerful connection with both her mind and her body.

    He was more eager than he wanted to admit to be exactly that kind of man for her and to her, although he was pretty sure he’d never be able to accomplish all that in the mere span of twenty-five nights with her, no matter how skillful he considered himself. But at the moment, although he firmly believed that one should begin as one meant to continue, he knew that he was getting ahead of himself.

    So, he clamped down on his own desires—and plans he wish his mind would stop making as he wasn’t at all sure they would ever be fulfilled—and gathered her dress into his hands, lifting it inexorably up and over her head, slipping her bra straps off her shoulders and letting it fall to the ground as she stood there before him in just her panties. And in very nearly all of her natural glory. She might not have been model gorgeous, but she had a pretty face and an amazing body.

    So much so that his own mouth went suddenly very dry as he looked at her, taking in the sometimes-dusky pink of her blushing cheeks as well as the places where it flared into a brighter pink, all the way down from her cheeks to her neck and into her chest, as if it was a sex flush rather than a blush, the color rivaling the beauty of her delicate, mauve nipples.

    It intrigued him to no end that she still blushed like that, as if it was her first time and he was her first man.

    The thought struck him that he would give ninety-nine percent of what he owned for that little scenario to be true, but he brushed the fanciful thought off in favor of dealing with the real world, as was always his preference.

    “Cup your breasts. Offer them to me.”

    He began to walk around her slowly, counting the seconds it took her to obey him and delivering the corresponding number of searing smacks to her behind as he made his way back to stand in front of her.

    She was biting her lip, having tried to stifle her groans as he spanked her after an uncontrollable moan made it past them at the first swat. Her hands were really too small to properly cup the bounty that was her breasts, but he loved seeing them overflow as they did, hardened nipples bobbing as she tried to lift them towards him enticingly.

    When he did finally latch onto one of those tight, hard buds, his desire was fueled again—very nearly out of his control—by the mere sound of her stuttering sigh, one he didn’t even think she realized she’d emitted. His other hand, which was more than large enough to cradle every bit of her goodness, took over from hers, and she didn’t try to interfere with him in any way, but rather removed her hands to let them hang at her sides. He might teach her later to fold her arms behind her back at a time like this, but he appreciated the docility of her action, as he felt he was pretty aware of what it probably cost her to do it.

    By the time he left off, each little mouthful of a berry was at least twice the size it had been, plumped out fully, wet and hot and straining for more. But he’d already gone on to stand behind her, slipping one finger into the crack of her bottom and feeling her jump, then correct herself at the unexpected intimacy, rudely cracking his palm across cheeks that he had suddenly bared as he tugged her panties down far enough let them drop to her ankles while he continued to watch what had been the pristine white skin of her surprisingly generous ass pinken prettily, then darken into an angry red.

    Each swat sent her arching forward—not necessarily because she was trying to avoid the pain of it—although he could hardly blame her if she was—but rather more, he suspected, because of the strength with which he was applying them, causing him to reach around to seize her sparsely haired cunny in order to hold her in place, forcing her to part her legs in order to accommodate his presence between them.

    He preferred to give her the benefit of the doubt about that, at least, at first. The truth will come out, as this would hardly be her last spanking. It might well not even be the last one she’d receive tonight, for that matter. She had the perfect bottom for it, firm and rounded just like her breasts, every wonderfully feminine bit of her fairly begging to be stringently tended to on a frequent and ongoing basis.

    Only when those cringing cheeks had attained the color he preferred, and he could hear that she was genuinely crying—although she hadn’t broken position once—did he issue a command with a last, crisp smack. “Over there, kneel on the little table.”

    He wasn’t exaggerating. It was a very little table, even for someone of her size. There was barely enough room for her to do as he asked, but apparently, that was exactly how he wanted it.

    Her knees fit on, as well as the heels of her hands, her fingers naturally wrapping around the underside of the table.

    “No, reach down and grab hold of the bottom of the legs.” He paused for effect before finishing with what sounded like an offhand comment, but it made her blood run cold. “And hold on for dear life, because, believe me, you do not want to let go during this.”

    The result of the awkward, humiliating position she found herself in was that her quim was presented to him at just about at the perfect crotch level for him, but the rest of her faced awkwardly and acutely downward, as if all he was interested in about her was her privates and what she was sure was that viciously red frame of recently punished flesh he’d created around them.

    For long, tense moments, during which her anxiety reached new heights about what he was going to do to her, he was quiet, neither moving nor saying anything, that she heard, anyway.

    Nothing could prepare her for being filled so abruptly, so forcefully—all at once, to the hilt. Not only was she long out of service, but her knees were clamped very closely together, which just made her that much tighter, and she couldn’t help the yelp that left her mouth before she could get ahold of herself, nor could she in any way prevent the way her head jerked up in surprise as she had no choice but to yield her most intimate self to his abrupt invasion.

    “Down.”

    It sounded uncomfortably like a command one would give a dog, but she obeyed it instantly.

    Not that that saved her from another spanking, this one that much worse because of the intimacy of the situation and the sensitivity of the territory, and it lasted all the way through the hardest fucking she’d ever received in her life. It had her biting her lip against crying out with every heavy thrust of that enormous weapon he repeatedly, ruthlessly forced her open with. So, not only was she trying to cope with the sheer size of him dragging against her long untried walls, but also the strength and vigor with which he was wielding himself.

    At first, it had out and out hurt, even though she mentally thanked him for the liquor, which was probably the only thing that allowed her to accept him at all and kept her from screaming out loud with every thrust, although she studiously avoided considering that part of that might well have been her own slickness. But, though uncomfortable, it did provide a bit of a distraction from the frighteningly methodical way in which he was making her bottom burn. But the longer he kept at her, the more those feelings abated, to be replaced by even less welcome ones—of a breathtaking pleasure, one that threatened to overtake her, but that she began to dedicate herself to ignoring, preferring, instead to concentrating on the misery of the spanking she was being subjected to.

    In the end, though, as she had been worried might happen because she’d experienced the phenomenon in the past, the two blended together within her mind and her body, feeding off each other and easily destroying the fantasy of her control. If he’d kept it all up just another minute or two, nothing on the planet could have stopped her from coming.

    Even as he—finally—exploded inside her, he continued to scourge her bottom, until he could move no more, either to violate or punish her.

    But he didn’t move away immediately, and she knew better than to get out of position without permission, so she waited, quietly, patiently for him to issue that permission.

    With a surprisingly gentle sweep of his hand down her spine, he came to her head and offered his hand, helping her up and making sure that she was steady on her feet before he disappeared into the bathroom, returning while he was still washing himself with a damp cloth that he then had her bend over in front of him so that he could apply it to her well used parts—although keeping it scrupulously away from her backside so as to offer no ease whatsoever there.

    After tossing the cloth into the hamper, he downed a glass of water, himself, and brought her one, before getting them each about half again the amount of whiskey he had given her previously.

    Arden looked surprised, but dutifully downed all of it.

    Loch smiled. “I didn’t necessarily mean for you to gun the whiskey, but I should have been more forthcoming. The water will help prevent dehydration, and I’m hoping that this might help you to sleep a little.”

    She nodded, biting her lip and wishing she had a robe or something. For some reason, standing there naked with him, she felt even more exposed than she had been moments ago, which she knew was ridiculous, but there it was. “It might well, at that. I haven’t had much to drink in the past few years.”

    “Good—not that I’m going to allow you to sleep long. I’m not one of those selfish doms who doesn’t believe in pleasuring his submissive.”

    “Oh, that’s okay. You don’t have to do that,” she remarked casually, slipping beneath the incredibly soft sheets. She stopped herself short of saying that she preferred that he didn’t.

    He got into the opposite side of the bed and gave her a considering look. “It’s not something that’s up for debate. I intend to watch you come, Arden. I have a feeling—considering how wet you were in the car and just now—that you put on quite a show, and I like to get my money’s worth.”

    He knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as it was out of his mouth. Loch watched her stiffen and pause almost imperceptibly at his words in the act of arranging the covers around her.

    On impulse, he reached out and pulled her to him. Arden offered no resistance at all, although he could literally feel the distance she was doing her best to maintain from him—and he wasn’t usually the type to notice that kind of thing. “Are you all right?”

    She knew he meant it as an overall question about her physical state and that he was definitely not referring to what he’d just said to her. “Fine, thank you.”

    She lay there against him, rigid in his arms, as if she couldn’t wait for the moment he would let her go. So, he did. It was his experience that most women enjoyed cuddling afterwards, but if that was not something she would enjoy, he wasn’t about to force her to do it.

    She didn’t quite scurry over to her side of the bed, but she made her way there quickly and efficiently, as he did to his own, and, seconds later, he heard her breathing become slow and regular, and he knew she was asleep.

    As he was not a man who slept very much, preferring work to almost anything else besides sex, he lay awake for a long while, his mind racing, this time full—not of thoughts about his next product or anything about the business, which was absolutely the norm for him, but of her, instead, and he realized with a start that—although he had absolutely no intentions of falling in love with her, he’d have to guard against becoming obsessed with her.


  • The Supplicant by Emma Woodhouse – Part Two Chapter Five Arden had no way to know it, but his mental image of what she’d done once she left him the next morning was eerily prescient, only she hadn’t waited until she got home to have a breakdown. She’d managed to keep it together in front of the Lyft driver, barely, but as soon […]
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    Chapter Five Arden had no way to know it, but his mental image of what she’d done once she left him the next morning was eerily prescient, only she hadn’t waited until she got home to have a breakdown. She’d managed to keep it together in front of the Lyft driver, barely, but as soon […]
    To access this post, you must log in. If you are not a member yet, you much purchase Woodshed Subscription.
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