Savannah threw off the blankets. She couldn’t sleep. It had been days since she slept and though her body dragged with exhaustion, she lay awake night after night. Stumbling out of bed, she started pacing. When that wasn’t enough she hummed to herself, hoping to drown out the memories.
Old pain, fear and anger—no less potent after all these years—churned and bubbled inside her. Giving in, she went to her computer, signing in to the email she used only when she needed it, only when the darkness was so thick she felt as if she were drowning.
Within ten minutes the plans were made.
Hating herself for wanting this, Savannah started packing her special case. Maybe this time would be the last, maybe this would be enough to let her forget the past. Forget him.
* * * *
The room held its breath as she lifted the cane. When it landed with a crisp crack, reactions were as varied and wide-ranging as the observers. The watchers tried to be silent but each strike elicited a small flurry of sound—a sharp gasp from an elegant blonde curled on the floor; a high-pitched moan of pleasure and longing from a brunet strapped to the wall, his torso crisscrossed with chain; guttural sounds of fear from a mousy dishwater blonde who had curled herself around and between the legs of her Master, who sat stiff and watchful in the chair above her. For the most part the Dominants in the room were silent, the few sounds that were made coming from the submissive men and women who were with them.
There were varying degrees of understanding among the Dominants in the room as to what exactly was happening on the central raised platform. For the beginners, it seemed to be a harsh game, more severe than most. Dominance and submission, the sexual passion that united all those in the large room, meant different things to different people. What the Domme in the center of the room was doing was something only those with experience could understand.
The sub on the central platform was a laughing, gentle, forty-something man in his life outside the chains. He had a mature, open face and a body still thick with muscle but beginning to show some middle-aged padding. A likeable guy with deep-seated submissive sexual tendencies, he was familiar to most in the small community.
The woman however… She was an unknown.
His body was spread in the classic X, chains to the ceiling and floor holding the leather cuffs around his wrists and ankles so every inch of his flesh was accessible to her.
She was standing to the side and slightly behind the sub. When she moved she was a predator, her actions sharp but controlled. Most Dominants moved slowly, surely, as if showing the world how in control they were with their measured strides. Not her. She stalked around him, her body wrapped in the classic black bodysuit, but instead of shiny cheap vinyl hers had the muted sheen of leather. There was elaborate stitching, black on black. A vaguely Celtic pattern started on each shoulder, moved down over her breasts and then parted to continue down her hips and the outsides of her thighs.
A leather-and-lace mask covered the upper part of her face. Starting from her hairline, it covered her brow, nose and upper cheeks, the leather then giving way to lace that lay close to her skin. Unlike the catsuit that molded her curves, the mask sparkled, jet and crystal beads worked into the lace where it was darted into the leather. It drew the eye, causing the viewer to crave the answers the mask hid.
Some, those who had had the privilege to see her up close, would know there was a teardrop crafted in crystal beads under one eye. The contradiction, the complication, was compelling and frightening.
“Slave.” Her voice was low, smooth, but thrumming with power, tension—her concentration, her being, clearly centered on the sub before her.
The blow she landed with the cane was sudden, unexpected. The rattan cane, stained dark brown, was a blur as it arched up from below, striking the inside of the sub’s left thigh. His cry was sharp, desperate, his back arching before he hunched in on himself.
“Oh God, oh God, please, do not stop.”
His words echoed in the room. He was gone, lost in sub-space, so far into the world of darkness there was no light. And she had taken him there simply, easily.
Her voice was low now, just for him. “I will touch you once more, and only once. Your body and mind are fractured now, but you will survive. I will let you down and your mistress, your wife, will take you home and care for you, and you will love her all the more for having danced on the edge.
“Know what good fortune you have that there is someone to care for you now. When I release you and walk away, I will forget you.”
Her voice was hard, cruel, cutting him in ways and places a knife could not reach. His body and mind warred between his insane and desperate need for more of her dark attention and the haven of the arms of someone who loved him.
As he shook in his bonds, his mind at war, his body foolishly straining toward her, she turned, sweeping the room with her gaze.
Let them feel true fear, true pain, and appreciate what they have all the more. Let them see what it is to truly need to punish, to need to inflict pain rather than simply using it to express desire.
When all had felt the soulless weight of her gaze, she turned back to her broken partner. In this dark moment her heart died a little—as it always did. Horror began to seep into her consciousness, easing the fog of rage and sadness that motivated her.
It was this damnable weakening, this traitorous softness in her—when she knew the world had no softness to give her in return—that made this last blow the most horrible, the darkest. She did not temper the blow. Pulling back the cane, she brought it forward with stunning force, cutting a line along the top of his ass. For a moment a white line blossomed there, straight and sure across his body. In the next breath, white morphed to red, horrible red, pain red.
And in a room that echoed with the sound of the crack there was silence, until he threw his head back, his scream at once hopeless and beautiful. Blood began to seep from the mark of the cane.
Stepping close once more, she pressed her fingers against the raw flesh and, leaning in, whispered, “Forgive me.”
She strode from the room, scooping up the pack as she went, and was gone.
Savannah dipped her sponge into the cloudy water and carefully lowered her arm into the well of the vase she was throwing.
In her mind’s eye, she could see it, a thin-walled straight-sided pot, awash in bold colors. She drew her fingers up, using slight inward pressure to counteract the outward force the wheel.
She took her foot off the pedal and the wheel slowed to a stop.
Reaching around, she used a wire to slice cleanly through the base where it was attached to the wheel and then rose. The piece was still too wet to be moved.
Her arms were wet to the elbows with clay. Moving to the large industrial sink, she turned on the faucet before plunging her arms into the cool water. The shorts she wore—purchased in the boys section because they were the only kind equipped with enough handy pockets, buckles and flaps—hung low on her hips, emphasizing rather than disguising the femininity of her body.
Casually wiping her arms against her clothing to dry them, Savannah left the concrete-floored pottery room with its high industrial ventilation ducts and entered the airier painter’s studio.
“’Chelle! Where are you?”
A dark-brown head peeked up from behind an easel in the corner of the room. “Hi. You done already?”
“Yep,” Savannah said, wandering over. “I have a good feeling about this one.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Michelle said, her attention on her canvas. Unlike Savannah, who needed silence to work, Michelle was able to talk at the same time. “Since you came back your stuff has been amazing, like totally amazing. I mean wherever you go there must be something in the water. You could probably bottle it and sell it and make, like, a million dollars. Not that you need to because you already make that as an artist, which is amazing anyway. Um, where was I going with this?”
“I have no idea,” Savannah said with a smile. Michelle was a sort of apprentice, as well as a friend. Though they were only five years apart in age, Savannah felt twenty years older than the younger woman.
Bright and cheerful, Michelle’s personality was only a thin veneer for her raw passion. She had the makings of a truly important artist. As scattered as her speeches could sometimes be, Michelle had hit on one very important truth.
Savannah’s work had been much better since she returned. Her demons exorcised, for now, her heart was able to follow the light to brighter side of life and express that in her work.
Amazing what a three-day sadism binge with a twenty-hour session as a Dominatrix could do for a girl’s mental health. Though she tried to stop it, a memory of her time with the sub flashed before her eyes.
* * * *
“Do you want to know why I did that, slave? Do you wish to know what you did to deserve such harsh treatment?”
“Yes, Mistress… Please… Tell me so that I might not do it—”
His plea was cut short when Savannah lashed him, creating a matching welt on the inside of his thighs.
“I will not tell you.”
She’d never been told why she was hurt, what she’d done to deserve the treatment she received.
The tip of the cane traced his chest, following the pattern of the stripes she had already laid. She took a step closer to him, taking his left nipple between her finger and thumb.
“Offer me something, slave, try to please me.”
“Mistress, whatever you want is yours to take.”
She twisted the nipple, his breath hissing through his teeth.
“But I want you to offer something to me. What do you think will please me?”
Those who had a view of the front could see the poor man blinking furiously, his breathing fast and uneven.
“Mistress, if it pleases you, you have not touched my cock.”
Savannah twisted the nipple harder, wringing another cry. “Are you, slave, asking me to suck your cock? You think so highly of yourself and so little of me?”
“No! No! No! I offer it for your pleasure, whatever it may be.”
Without another word, she stepped back, moving to a small rolling case resting on the floor near the platform. There were gasps as those closest saw what she brought out. The rest of the room waited, breathless.
“Open your mouth, slave.” Instantly his lips and teeth parted. She placed the cane between his teeth, whispering, “Bite.”
Gloved fingers took the man’s genitals in hand, gathering his semi-erect cock and balls together, squeezing and manipulating the flesh until she was able to wrap her fingers around the base, pulling both cock and balls away from his body. His small sounds were muffled against the cane. With her other hand, she carefully wrapped a cock strap studded with inward-facing spikes around his genitals.
Ten spikes, tips blunted like a fencer’s blade but each over an inch long, were forced against his soft skin as she fastened the strap. When she stepped back, everyone could clearly see the silver spikes pressed into his flesh, held in place by the wide leather circle. A terrible cry echoed through the room as she released her hold on his cock and balls, allowing them to take the full impact of the device.
The savagery of the item was beautiful and terrible. The sub’s eyes were on the horizon, the cane still in his teeth. His breath whistled around the piece of rattan.
She took the cane. “Look down, slave. See what I have done for you.”
The man dropped his head to his chest, a sob coming from between his teeth at the sight of his tortured cock.
“Where does it hurt, slave? Tell me.”
“My… My cock. I can feel the spikes, digging in, they’re sharp. And my balls, oh God—my balls. It… It…hurts.”
“I want it to hurt. I want you to hurt.”
God help her, she wanted to make him suffer, as if his pain could erase her own.
“Yes, Mistress.” The words were a plea.
“We are near the end now, slave.” A welt to the outside of his thigh, right ass cheek, left shoulder.
“Do you think you have pleased me? Do you? Have you considered the possibility that you haven’t? What if none of this will ever be enough? What if all the lashings, the debasement, will not bring you low enough for me?” More welts, now to the other ass cheek, thigh and the soft flesh covering his left triceps.
The words poured from her soul, reflecting back the blackness within her.
“God cannot help you. I’m afraid he never comes here.” Her right hand cruelly twisted one nipple. “But you have a secret, don’t you, slave? A deep secret. It is not God who could rescue you, but someone else. Someone in this room.”
His eyes moved over her shoulder to someone behind her.
She wanted to hurt him, but she also wanted to save him, to see him find comfort and love after the pain of what she was doing to him. There had been no one to save her, but this sub would be rescued.
Savannah looked over her shoulder. A tense-looking woman sat in the chair closest to the stage, her eyes roving over every inch of the sub.
“That’s right. She loves you still, and so you are safe, forever safe.” Stepping close, Savannah whispered into his ear, “And I hate you for that.”
Reaching down, she grabbed the leather strap and lifted, the spikes digging into his balls. He screamed, not merely a cry but a true scream. Around the room people jumped, some of the Doms moving as if they would interfere, but no one did.
“Beg me for more!”
The words were ragged, raw, his vocal cords strained. “Please—please—please Mistress, use me…more…more…more, ah God, it hurts.”
She pinched a fold in the leather, drawing the spikes on the sides in. Another scream followed.
“Please, Mistress, more, I beg you, more, more, more. Use me, use me, use me.”
“Offer yourself up.”
“My…my body…is yours.”
“And what of your soul, your mind, your heart? Can you feel me there too, pressing, hurting, squeezing?”
“Yes… I will never, never, never forget…forget.”
“And you will never be the same.”
With a vicious twist, she released the leather so the strap fell away, the spikes pulling from the groves they had dug in his flesh. The returning blood caused pain so deep he threw his body back, his mouth open but no sound emerging.
He was brought back as she viciously caned his ass, then spanked and squeezed his cock with her gloved hand. He swelled at her touch, rising hard and fast so that his dick nearly touched his belly.
Despite the pain, he was wildly aroused, to the point he would have let Savannah do anything to him. It was time to pull back.
* * * *
“Little mental health breaks are good,” she told Michelle.
Michelle looked up from her painting but, uncharacteristically, didn’t comment. She knew from past experience that Savannah wouldn’t talk about where she’d gone or what she’d done while away.
“So you’re finished with all the pieces?” Michelle asked instead.
“I think that’s the last one,” Savannah said. She went to her sketch area, a bright corner of the painting studio, and picked up the sketch she’d done for the series. The pot she’d just thrown was commissioned. An office building in DC was redecorating the lobby and the space she’d been commissioned to fill was an odd one—a long, narrow ledge twenty feet above the reception desk in the three-story open lobby.
Savannah had designed a series of thrown vases. The shapes and heights varied, so that when the pots were placed in a line the profiles would flow smoothly from one to the other, the colors moving from cream to turquoise, dark blue in the center, and fading to kelly and pastel green.
The drawing she held showed a sketch of the completed idea. When the piece was complete, this signed drawing, which she’d hand-carried to the interior designer’s office in DC, would be framed and hung in the lobby.
Though she’d thrown the last pot, she was far from truly done. She had to fire that pot, finish glazing and second-firing several others, and box them up and drive them the almost six hundred miles from Savannah, Georgia, to DC.
“Are you sad it’s done?” Michelle asked. She’d risen from her easel and was cleaning her hands with a cloth.
“A little,” she said, setting down the drawing. “But there’s always another project.”
“When are you going to Chicago?”
“Next week. The sketches are ready. I’m really looking forward to this one, so I hope they like the drawing.” Savannah flipped to a sketch she’d done in charcoal. It was a pair of lovers wrapped around each other, bodies contorted to the point of surrealism. She’d drawn inspiration from Rodin’s marble sculptures for the positioning. The building she was designing it for had an entirely black marble lobby. When the interior designer contacted her, he said the client wanted something visceral that would cause controversy and draw reactions.
For Savannah there was nothing more visceral and emotional than love, or the illusion of it.
If the client liked the piece she’d sculpt it larger-than-life size, from clay and plaster, then have it cast in bronze or copper to complement the black marble of the lobby. The fifty-thousand-dollar price tag, plus five grand for materials, was very attractive. It was an expansive project, one she desperately wanted, as most of her commissioned pieces were not nearly as evocative and interesting as this.
* * * *
Roman tapped the edge of his headset, which was buzzing discreetly, indicating an incoming call. “Roman,” he said smoothly.
“Roman, it’s Peter. I just wanted to check we’re still on for lunch tomorrow.”
“Of course,” Roman said, leaning back in his chair. Normally he would expect his secretary to confirm these details, but Peter was a solid business acquaintance. Almost a friend.
“Good, good. It will be nice to see your sunny, smiling face,” Peter said.
Roman let out a bark of laughter, one side of his mouth twitching in what passed for a smile. “Tomorrow then. No business talk. I promise.”
“No, no business talk. Not as long as you insist on buying those disgusting residential properties.”
“Tomorrow,” Roman said, not willing to honor Peter’s lame joke with a second laugh. One was enough for this conversation.
He tapped his headset again and ended the call. He actually was looking forward to lunch tomorrow. Peter owned a commercial design firm. For years he’d been Roman’s go-to man for renovating office spaces bought as part of his real estate development firm.
Appearances could be everything in business, and companies were willing to pay top dollar to rent or purchase buildings that were state of the art and beautiful. Roman and Peter were both tapping into this, though in different ways.
It was five o’clock and Roman’s secretary, a thin blond man, ducked into the office to see if there was anything Roman needed. There wasn’t, and his secretary ducked out again.
Around him his office went quiet. He ran his empire from a small set of rooms in one of the first commercial buildings he’d bought in Chicago. No penthouse suites here—he reserved those for the rent-paying clients. His office was on the fifth floor, with a view of the building next door.
There were showcases spaced in other buildings he used, but this was a place for work, the place he was the most comfortable.
As the lights in the outer office clicked off and the sunlight faded, Roman turned on his desk lamp and kept working.
* * * *
So much for getting away from the humidity.
Savannah shrugged out of her tailored jacket, throwing it over her arm. It had been a muggy July day in Savannah, the air so thick you could practically eat it, and Chicago seemed to be no different.
She passed a tourist stand offering the Ferris Bueller tour of Chicago and headed toward the short man with a heavy mustache who carried a placard with “Savannah Jones” written on it in blocky letters.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Savannah.”
He smiled wide. “Hello there, Ms. Jones. Great accent.”
Savannah offered him a brief smile, inwardly amused. Apparently Yankees really did love a Southern accent.
He led her to a Lincoln Town Car, air-conditioned to near arctic cool. Savannah was instantly grateful she’d accepted the designer’s offer of a ride. She hadn’t let him buy her plane ticket, though a business-class ticket would have been nice rather than the on-sale coach one she’d bought herself, but she wasn’t comfortable owing the designer that much.
The driver’s jacket had a company logo on the pocket from a rental service so he wasn’t a personal employee of the firm. No need to pump him for information.
Her driver had tucked Savannah’s small carry-on bag into the trunk, but she had her portfolio with her. She flipped it open, the charcoal sketches protected by plastic sheets. She rehearsed her description of the creative process, including snippets about Rodin and his influence, the impact of metal sculpture and the details of the production process as the driver made his way through Chicago.
Details and factoids about the art and the artist were usually as valuable to the designer and client as the piece itself. They wanted to be able to walk through their impressive building, point at a piece and tell people, “You know, the artist, whom I met, drew her inspiration from Rodin…”
Forty minutes later she was seated at a conference table with Peter, the designer. He was on the third page of the folio and Savannah was already sure she’d gotten the job. He had some pictures of the renovation of the lobby of the building, which was nearly finished. Her piece was perfect for the space.
Peter reached the end of the book, flipped back to the first page, and smiled. “I love it.”
Savannah gave him a slight smile in return. “Thank you. After looking at the photos, I really think the piece is going to enhance the space.”
Peter checked his watch. “My client was planning to join us. If you don’t mind I’d like to give him a few minutes.”
“That’s fine by me,” she said.
“If you’ll excuse me.”
Peter left the room, presumably to check in with his client. Aware of the large glass wall at her back, Savannah didn’t relax in her chair. The deal wasn’t final, but she was damn sure she was going to get the job. She tipped her head to look at her sketch, not with a business eye, but an artistic one.
The man was down on one knee, bent forward to kiss the woman, who lay on her back, draped over a rock. Her body was arched, her breasts in distinct profile. One of the man’s hands was on her hip, the other rested on his thigh, a dagger clenched in his hand.
The woman’s arms lay against the base of the piece, alongside the rock she was draped over. Her hands were contorted and flexed, her wrists wrapped in chain, which melded into the stone under her. And yet the woman’s face was turned toward the man, her face a study of longing and desire.
These details were as clear in Savannah’s eyes as if she’d taken a photo of models posing, but in reality they were only hinted at. The proportions of the man and woman were off. The man’s back was too broad, his hands too large. The woman’s arms were too long, her features—heavy and almost coarse—were clearly visible while the man’s were limited to a nose and the indentation where eyes should be. The dagger was only a suggestion of shape, seeming to be part of the leg unless viewers knew what they were looking for, and the chain, which grew less distinct the farther it got from her wrists, seemed to be part of the rocky base on which she lay.
Savannah looked away, out the window, and fought to swallow the dark, painful feelings that rose within her. Not now, not here. There was no outlet for her terrible rage in this brightly lit office space.
She’d sketched this piece, conceived it, just before she “went away” as Michelle called it. She’d been in one of her dark moments, unable to escape her ghosts as she knelt on the floor of her studio, hands clenching her head as she screamed. She’d screamed until she was hoarse, then she’d sketched, coal-dusted hands flying over white paper, dirtying it with the darkness inside her.
Savannah could feel sweat forming on her lower back. She wanted to get out of here.
Pull yourself together.
She closed her eyes and brought up a vision of the ocean. Vast, timeless, the deepest gray-blue—her refuge. It was not the temperamental Atlantic she pictured, but the endless Pacific.
The conference room door opened and Savannah opened her eyes.
“Sorry about this. My client’s in a meeting and his secretary doesn’t have a good guess as to when he’ll be out. Are you going to be in town for a few days?”
Peter took his seat and set a pad and pen down. “I know he isn’t available tomorrow. Well then, why don’t you tell me a little about yourself and your process?”
“I was inspired by Rodin. The exaggerated positioning of the bodies and the hints of details are some of the more distinctive…”
An hour later, signed contract and check for the materials in hand, Savannah left the conference room. She was elated to have landed this job, not just for the money but because it was an interesting project. And maybe making this piece would hold some of her ghosts at bay for a few months.
She’d left the majority of the sketches with Peter so he could show his client. She kept three, each from a different angle and bearing Peter’s initials, which she slipped into her bag as she crossed the lobby. She looked up, scanning for the driver, who Peter had arranged to take her to her hotel.
A tall man, shoulders broad in a gray suit jacket, walked past. His tightly curled chestnut hair glinted in the sunlight. Savannah stopped mid-stride, her breath caught in a painful gasp. She turned to watch the man disappear into the elevator.
Turn. Turn around. Show me your face.
He slid into an elevator. As he turned the doors closed, hiding him from her. Savannah stood in the lobby as if rooted there while people flowed around her. Her hands were shaking, her fingers ice cold.
She pulled herself together and exited the lobby. The driver was waiting there, leaning against the car smoking a cigarette, which he stubbed out as she approached. The man inside reminded her of someone, someone she used to know.
Used to know.
Though really, she’d never known him at all. If she had, she might have been able to protect herself. Instead she’d succumbed to a brilliant smile, laughing eyes and chestnut curls.
It was the sketches. They’d made her think about him, and because she’d been thinking of him she’d imagined she saw him. But it wasn’t possible. He was in California, or Hell. As far as she was concerned they were the same place.
The darkness she’d tamped down was rising again. She needed an outlet, though it had been only a few weeks since her last “exorcism” as she liked to think of them. With a grimace she pulled out her cell phone and opened her email.
* * * *
Roman slid into the elevator. He shook his wrist and looked at his watch, grimacing. He hated being late. The day had devolved into a disaster. He’d spent the morning having a building inspector tell him the residential building he was in escrow on had severe electrical problems.
He was beyond late for this meeting, and with everything else he had to do today he would have preferred to skip it, but the devil was in the details, and the Fennelin Building was such a huge investment he couldn’t afford to overlook anything. The art in the lobby was as important as the type of marble he’d laid on the floor and security system he was installing.
Commercial leasing was a tough business. There was money to be made, but companies looking to lease had plenty of options. If name companies were going to choose your space, it had to be exceptional. He needed Fennelin to turn a profit if he was going to stay in the black this year.
Peter was standing at the reception desk, conferring with a colleague who held a design panel in one hand. He looked up as Roman stepped off the elevator and waved away his employee.
“Roman,” he said, walking forward, hand extended, “glad you could make it.”
“The artist is gone?”
“I sent her back to the hotel. I have all the details and she’s sending over some written stuff. I’ll have my office work it up for you.”
“Come in to the conference room. Have you eaten lunch?”
“No,” Roman said, the corner of his mouth kicking up.
“Sarah, will you get us some sandwiches?”
Peter led him into the conference room. Roman looked around, admiring the space. Peter’s office was, of course, in one of Roman’s buildings. Peter had done an exceptional job with his suite of offices, making sure they were a working example of his skill.
He’d updated them several times, ensuring the décor never got dated. This building was probably due for a basic renovation—carpet, paint—but it would have to wait. Roman made a mental note to check into it.
Shaking his head, he took a seat. He had enough going on without worrying about updating a building that was in working order. After the residential properties turned a profit and he finished Fennelin…
“Did we find it?” he asked Peter as a young woman wheeled a coffee cart into the conference room.
Peter held his gaze in a long look, then grinned. “Definitely.”
“Good,” Roman relaxed slightly. Another piece of this project checked off.
The young woman set sandwiches, bags of chips and cups of fruit in front of each of them along with a bottle of sparkling water.
Roman unwrapped his sandwich, only then realizing how hungry he was. He rarely remembered to eat. There was a time when he would have been like Peter—smugly aware of hole-in-the-wall cheap eats and excited to go out and try new food, desirous of turning each meal out into an event.
Those days were gone, as was the woman who’d sat across from him, laughing and licking her fingers as they ate dripping tacos or juicy fruit puffs.
He chewed in silence, filling his body but taking no real pleasure in the food.
When he was done he dusted off his hands and leaned back. This unexpected break in the day wasn’t helping his schedule, but Roman was realistic enough to know when he needed to take some downtime. That was over; it was time to work.
“What can you show me?”
Peter pushed away their wrappers and pulled out a black artist’s portfolio. Roman tensed for a moment, then forced himself to relax.
“You’re going to love this. The artist came highly recommended and she’s done commercial pieces before—mostly in the South—but still she understands our schedule and won’t pull any artistic license crap.”
He flipped it open to the first image and pushed it over to Roman.
“It’ll be controversial, there’s no doubt about it, but I think that means we can get some coverage—”
Roman lost the rest of what Peter said. He couldn’t hear over the ringing in his ears.
The lovers were close, bodies flowing together. The male was above the female, unquestionably mastering her. The woman was submissively bowed before him. The lines of their bodies were alternately precise and flowing, as if these people were emerging from the sculpture. The woman’s face gave an impression of desire and passion. The man didn’t have as many features—just a strong jaw, large nose and forbidding brow.
Roman turned the page. From here he could see the man’s hand, the hilt of the dagger it held. Both his hand and the weapon were only hinted at, not as defined as the face, but there was no mistaking what he held.
He flipped the page. Here the details of the cuff around her wrist, the straining of her hand, were visible.
He hated it, hated everything about it. What it showed, what the shadowy menace implied, was wrong.
“My favorite part,” Peter said, unaware of Roman’s absorption, “is that the guy looks like you. I mean, as much as a statue without real features can look like someone. It’s more of an impression.”
Roman looked up sharply then flipped through the images until he arrived at one that showed the man’s face clearly.
There was his nose, his forehead. There were no lips, and no eyes, but Roman recognized himself.
It was him, five years ago.
Memory rose, quick and wild as a butterfly. He saw himself, naked from the waist up, the upper half of his wetsuit dangling around his legs as he hopped out of the car. He stood on the doorframe to unstrap his board from the roof and a pair of long-fingered hands rubbed his thighs, reaching around to squeeze his butt. He looked down to see her still seated in the car. She wore sunglasses and a ridiculous hat. Her heavy bag full of sketching materials was on her lap. She grinned at him, her lips full and glossy. Her skin was beautiful cream, thanks to the hat that protected her from the sun. His Georgia peach.
Heart beating fast, Roman forced the memory down and turned to the image of the woman. Did he recognize her? There wasn’t enough of her face to be sure, but the long fall of rain-straight hair could be her.
“The artist,” Roman said, voice hoarse, “is a woman?”
“Yes, beautiful too. Savannah. Savannah Jones.”
Savannah pulled the black catsuit out of her bag. Sitting on the side of the bed in her generic hotel room, she cursed herself for bringing it. If she didn’t have it with her she wouldn’t be able to go to one of Chicago’s notorious BDSM clubs. Instead she would have had to lie here, order room service and watch TV.
That sounded lovely. A night away from her studio so she couldn’t feel guilty for not working. A night to take in a bad made-for-TV movie while indulging with fries and a burger.
But if she spent her evening that way, she would never sleep, haunted by the ghost of a young man and woman she’d once known.
To test herself, Savannah stuffed the catsuit into the bag and lay down on the bed. She thought back to the last scene she’d done.
* * * *
Ten times more she caned his ass, the blows quickly followed by spanks to his cock and balls, some straight on, some coming from beneath to bruise and abuse his sac. They were both in a frenzy, his body arched in a bow, every muscle defined, she a controlled fury, savage and cruel.
She stopped. Faced him. “Slave, what do you need?”
“The spikes the spikes, please put them back… Oh God, please!”
“You cannot have them. What else?”
“Please, please, don’t stop caning me… Just a few more… Please, please.”
“Where, where do you need them?
“All the soft places, my ass, yes please…my ass and my nipples, right across them please, please, please. And balls, cane them, cane them.”
“What if I break you, so no other can have you?”
* * * *
Cursing, she opened her eyes. That memory wasn’t helping.
She turned the TV on, volume up, and tried to relax.
Car insurance, window cleaner and grocery store ads flashed on the screen. Her mind wandered to a past she tried so hard to forget.
A brightly lit loft near the beach. The roof sloped, skylights meeting the floor-to-ceiling windows so there was a seemingly endless expanse of glass. It let in the light from the west, from the beach. If she stood on a chair, she could see the ocean over the roofs of the houses that stood between her and the water.
He’d bought it for her, bought her the light that streamed, golden and wonderful, into the room, warming the wood floors and her toes.
No, no, no. Watch the TV.
A sitcom about a family with some improbable quirk came on. Savannah tried to concentrate on the plot.
* * * *
She sat before an easel in the bright light, a ragged bit of canvas carefully placed beneath it to catch flying flecks of paint. She couldn’t have a potter’s wheel in here, but there was a co-op not far away with wheels and two badly dilapidated kilns.
She was happy, blissfully so. She painted scenes of red and purple, lovers dancing in the dark. She used a single swipe of precious cerulean to highlight the woman’s dress.
The door opened. He was home.
She jumped from her easel, the work she’d devoted the past week to forgotten. She skipped to the door, throwing herself into his arms. If she got paint on his suit they didn’t care. If his briefcase scuffed the floor as he dropped it, they didn’t notice. There was nothing and no one else in the whole of the world.
Their friends said there were too old to behave like high schoolers in love—they were twenty-five, they should be more dignified—but they didn’t care. He was her prince, her beloved. She dug her fingers into his chestnut curls as he pressed her against the wall.
“Play?” he asked, his eyes promising dark and wonderful things.
* * * *
Savannah sat up, heart beating so hard she felt she might choke on it.
There would be no escaping memories tonight. She brushed at the tears that had formed in her eyes. She’d been happy there. It was the last time she could remember being happy.
But memories of the loft were only the backdrop for memories of him, and memories of him would soon lead her to places of darkness and suffering she dared not go. At least not as Savannah.
She pulled the catsuit from her bag, stripped off her clothes and put it on. In this suit, in the persona she’d created, she could go to those dark places, remember those dark things.
She put on jeans and a turtleneck to cover the suit, leaving the hood-piece and mask off. It was early and the summer dusk still lingered. She would walk, use the time to morph herself into the monster.
As Savannah stepped into the elevator, the phone in her hotel room began to ring.
Roman put down the phone. He clenched his hand into a fist and stared at it. What was he doing? It had been four years since he’d made a vow to himself to give up on her.
She’d run away, left him.
But more than that she’d called him a monster, smeared everything they’d had together and torn out pieces of his soul.
She’d left him and never looked back. After months of chasing her he’d let her go. In the process he’d lost the smiling, gregarious, confident man he had been and become this cold, dark thing he was now.
But was it her? After all these years, was she this close?
Savannah Jones. The girl he’d lost had not been “Jones” but she’d been Savannah. His Georgia peach.
Roman paced the floor of his townhouse on the outskirts of Chicago. His skin itched with restlessness. The urge to follow up the ten phone calls he’d made with a personal visit was nearly overwhelming.
Peter had assured him that the artist didn’t know his name, that it had never come up, but it wouldn’t have been hard for her to figure out. She knew the name of the building she was designing it for, had sketches with the architecture firm’s logo on them, knew Peter. Any of those things could easily lead her back to him.
Was this an elaborate game of cat and mouse?
If it was, then the woman named Savannah wasn’t the woman he’d known. His Savannah was light and bright, with quick wit and startling blue eyes. All she was, all she wanted, was on the surface, exposed fearlessly to the world.
This was making him insane, thinking of her.
As he paced, the question of why, why, why circled around him like a chirping bird. Why had she left him?
He had to stop thinking about her.
Roman sank down into his overly stuffed brown leather recliner and flicked on the TV. Five minutes later he turned it off.
Head back, he let himself remember.
* * * *
“You’ve been a naughty girl,” he said sternly.
Savannah, eyes bright, hair spilling in straight ribbons around her bare shoulders, shook her head. “No, I haven’t.”
“Oh, but you have.”
“What did I do?” She tossed her head, flicking her hair behind her shoulder, drawing attention to her bare breasts. Their tips were rosy in the fading sunlight seeping in through their wall of windows.
It was dusk. She knelt naked on the floor of their loft. Her easel and his stacks of paperwork were put away. The white couch with its mint-green pillows was hidden under a dark-blue cloth. When they played, they set the stage and played hard.
“You back-talked,” he said, raising a brow. She fluttered her lashes, teasing him. They were still early in the night’s play. Soon there would be no banter, no teasing, only raw power and sex.
“You make me want you too much,” he said, voice rough. God, he loved her.
“How much?” The teasing light was gone from her eyes and her chest was rising and falling, her nipples now hard. She shifted her weight and he knew she was getting wet.
He caught her long hair in his hand, wrapping it through his fingers. He jerked her head back. She gasped, licking her lip as she looked up at him.
“I would die for you,” he whispered. He kissed her. Her hands came up, cupped his neck, but he pushed them away and down. She did it again, slowly, deliberately.
He stepped away, to their toy box.
He was the Master, her Master, but he was under her spell. If she didn’t want to be restrained she would have kept her hands to herself after the first warning, but she wanted to be tied tonight and he pulled a few lengths of soft nylon rope from the box.
His cock, already hard, swelled to bursting as he forced her to her feet. He bound her arms so they were folded behind her back, multiple loops of rope easing the pressure on her elbows and wrists.
The position thrust her breasts forward. Roman took them in his hands, thumbs flicking the nipples. She spread her legs.
“You’re mine,” he said, looking into her eyes.
“Yes, Master.” She whispered the last word. They were still playing with it and it could be awkward, but on this night it felt right.
He needed to have her, now.
Roman savaged her lips with a rough kiss, pinching and tweaking her nipples with his fingers.
He spun her around, braced a hand at her hip and bent her forward. She swayed, almost falling, but he slid his arm under her belly, holding her in place.
With his free hand he positioned his cock, rubbing the tip through the wet crevasse of her sex. She was hot and slippery. She wanted him, wanted this, as much as he did.
He’d never had the courage to indulge in these fantasies before he met Savannah. He had no secrets from her.
He pressed the tip of his cock forward, slipping it into her. He pushed her upper body farther forward and slid his cock fully into her.
He wanted to ask her if she was okay, if he was hurting her by holding her like this, but he didn’t want to break the mood. Instead he held still, though he desperately wanted to thrust. Savannah was patiently still beneath him. Her body’s weight lay trustingly on his arm, her head was bowed, hair sweeping nearly to the floor.
Roman grinned, happy and in love.
“I’m going to fuck you.”
“Fuck me, fuck me, please. I need to feel you in me, filling me.”
She shifted her hips, squeezing him with her sex. Roman groaned in pleasure. He pulled his cock from her warm channel then thrust back in, sinking balls-deep into her.
He fucked her, long and hard. He controlled her body, pushing it away as he withdrew, then slamming it back onto his cock as he thrust forward.
* * * *
Roman pushed himself out of the chair. He paced his living room, running his hands through his hair.
He remembered the feel of her skin under his fingers, the smell of her hair. It had been five years since he last saw her, but he’d forgotten nothing.
He had to get out of here, he would go insane if he stayed. He thought about calling Peter and going out to a bar but he wasn’t in the mood to play games. At least, not those sorts of games.
He grabbed his cell phone and placed a call to a private BDSM club in the heart of the city. He didn’t want to participate but he was in luck. There was a special show tonight—just announced. Some famous Domme was in Chicago and would be performing.
That was just what he needed, something dark to match his mood. A Domme wouldn’t remind him of Savannah and what he’d lost when she left him.
* * * *
The room was crowded and only his reputation got Roman a seat. He ended up on a couch, pressed next to another Dom, whose sub was curled up on his lap. As the Dom tickled the girl, whose hair was up in pigtails, her ballet-slipper-shod feet kicked Roman’s thigh.
He turned and gave the Dom a long, cold stare. He didn’t recognize the man, who was portly in the extreme. The Dom looked him up and down, sniffed when he saw that Roman didn’t have a sub with him, but pushed his own sub off his lap. She curled up on the floor, cooing and batting her lashes.
Roman turned to the stage. He didn’t have a regular sub, but once he’d had the most beautiful and graceful of women. He’d had a woman whose passion and fire could be expressed in submission. A woman who’d followed him into the darkest parts of the BDSM world.
And he’d lost her.
The show started, tearing Roman from his dark thoughts.
The house lights went down and the packed crowd of BDSM enthusiasts fell silent. The majority of the women in the room were subs, the men Doms, but they all wanted to see the Domme.
The single spotlight on the stage lit up, illuminating a naked man. He wore a collar, the leash dangling down the center of his body like a too-long tie. The Domme stepped into the light.
Roman sat up, eyes wide in surprise, then narrowing. The Domme wore a black catsuit over a too-thin body. A black half-mask covered her face, crystal beads catching the light as she walked around the sub, her gloved hands skimming his chest and arms.
It was the hair that gave her away. Auburn hair fell to the middle of her back in a straight curtain. The tilt of her head, the way she stood, weight back on one leg, hips tilted, were all familiar.
Roman’s heart was thumping so loudly he could barely hear. It was Savannah, his Savannah.
No, it wasn’t. This woman was too thin, pronounced cheekbones showing under the mask. Savannah was curved, perpetually failing at diets as she tried to lose ten pounds. She had a round face with full cheeks and hair more black than red.
But there was something about this Domme that reminded him of her. Surely he was seeing things, seeing Savannah because he’d been thinking of her.
He watched the Domme skillfully torture the sub. The sub’s face was a picture of ecstasy. The Domme engaged his body and his mind, taking him deep into sub-space but not allowing him to become passive. The audience watched, breathless, as the Domme wielded the whip. She had been whispering to the sub, but now she spoke a command loud enough for them to hear.
It wasn’t Savannah. This Domme had a faint Southern accent. Despite Savannah’s name she wasn’t from the South. She’d talked about moving to Savannah, Georgia, where her grandparents lived, but it had only been a daydream, no more. He couldn’t imagine his beach-loving California girl giving up the beach and palm trees for the South.
Roman relaxed and tried to focus on watching the show. It wasn’t Savannah.
The sub sassed her, a gentle teasing meant to show her that he could handle more. The Domme threw her head back and laughed.
Roman sat up.
A million memories flooded him—Savannah sitting on his lap, laughing at one of his bad jokes, her out with friends at the bar, head thrown back, her giggling softly as they lay together in bed, covers up over their heads to block out the rest of the world.
The Domme was too skinny, her hair too red and her accent wrong. But with that laugh all Roman’s doubt was washed away.
It was Savannah.
He was so stunned that for the next fifteen minutes all he could do was stare at her, at the tableau before him. He felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. Around him the audience gasped, moaned and fell silent in response to what they saw, but Roman sat silent, too shocked to react. When the performance was over those around him clapped, and the sound of their applause knocked Roman into the present.
While most of the audience was busy indulging in the arousal the show had awakened, Roman slipped backstage. Emotions rolled through him, making his muscles tremble with tension.
The Domme leaned one shoulder against the wall, her back to him. A bottle of water dangled from her fingers.
He tried to say her name and failed. If he was wrong, if it wasn’t her, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stand the disappointment. And yet, he didn’t want it to be her, didn’t want this dark creature to be the laughing, loving woman he’d once known.
The Domme slowly straightened away from the wall.
“Savannah,” he sighed her name. It sounded like a prayer.
She turned. The mask was still in place, hiding her from him. The anger he expected to feel wasn’t there. Instead he was filled with sweet relief. He’d found her.
He’d heard his own name a million times, and yet when she said it, it was different.
“I’ve missed you.” It wasn’t what he meant to say. He didn’t want to admit softness. Since she’d left him he’d learned to protect himself. He never again wanted to be hurt the way she’d hurt him.
“How dare you?” Her voice was trembling with rage. Roman fell back a pace as she took a step. “How dare you?”
“How dare I?” Roman stepped forward, regaining the ground he’d lost. He wanted to rip the mask from her face. “You came to my city, designed a piece of art for my building and perform in my club, and you ask me how I dare?”
“I didn’t know it was your building. If I had I wouldn’t have come. Why aren’t you in L.A.?”
“Where did you get the accent?”
She took a deep breath then shook her head. She turned to a chair behind her and grabbed a pair of jeans, which she put on over the catsuit.
“Not until you answer my questions.” He’d found her, after all these years. The questions he’d lived with for five years were going to be answered, right now. “Why? Why did you leave me?”
The shirt she was in the process of putting on fell from her hands. “How could you ask me that?”
“You left me. You walked away without ever looking back.”
“I left you?” She turned, gaze scorching him. “You’re pouting because I left you?” She threw her head back and laughed.
Angrier than he’d been in a long time, Roman grabbed her arm. They froze. His hand tingled from contact with her, even if it was through the leather. Their gazes met for half a second. Roman thought he saw longing, passion, but then her gaze went hard. Savannah reached for the cane that rested on the chair. She lashed his arm. Roman jerked his arm back, a stinging line of pain on his forearm making him grit his teeth.
“Don’t touch me. Don’t you ever touch me again.”
“If you hated what we were doing, if we’d gotten too deep in the scene, you should have told me.” Roman clenched his hands into fists. “Instead you walked away, told me I was a freak for wanting the things I did. You were the only person I’d ever trusted enough to try those things with, and you used it against me.” It rankled that she was here, in a BDSM club, clearly a master of the art. She’d left him because he liked BDSM, and yet it was clear she’d been an active player for years. The club had called her a famous Domme. That didn’t happen overnight.
That could only mean it wasn’t the BDSM she’d left, but him.
“You cannot possibly think you are the injured party.” She looked up at him and he got his first clear look at her eyes through the mask.
“You left me.” I loved you, so very much, and you tore me apart.
“I left you? You betrayed me,” her voice caught on a sob. “You murdered me.”
The anger and grief were thick in her voice. Roman stared at her, startled by the pain she showed.
Savannah picked up her shirt and ran. She slammed out of the building, setting the alarms blaring as she exited through a fire door. As people came running, shouting questions, Roman stood, as still as a statue.
He’d pictured that first meeting with Savannah many times. He imagined she’d be cool, haughty. She’d flaunt the white-picket-fence life she’d left him for. She’d look down her nose at him and call him a perverted freak. He’d respond with cool civility, flaunting his success and wealth.
Instead she’d seemed almost frightened of him. What was going on?
Roman returned to his house and poured himself a glass of scotch. Midway through the second glass, Roman found himself thinking back on the last time he’d seen Savannah.
They’d gone away for the weekend, to a BDSM house party near Santa Barbara.
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