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Dangerous: A Dark Mafia Romance by Piper Stone – Sample

Chapter One

Blade

I’m a bad, bad man. Or so everyone tells me. They also insinuate that I have no conscience, able to perform the most horrific deeds without blinking. Yeah, I’ve killed a couple of people while doing my job, all enemy targets, men who attempted to crush the lifestyle I’d grown accustomed to and the man responsible for providing such a glorious fucking life.

Wealth, women, and wine.

All the finer things in life. At least that’s what I’d been indoctrinated into all those years ago. I’d been a stupid kid then, vulnerable to all three and I’d partaken in scandalous acts, enjoying the hell out of myself.

Until recently.

Why? Living the lie had finally taken a toll. I’d paid my debt long ago, but there’d been no release from my prison of choice. I hated what I’d become, nothing more than a hired gun. My reputation was bigger than my acts, but in Miami and around dangerous men, reputation was everything. Was I a cold-blooded killer? In my heart, the answer was no, but I allowed everyone to think that way in order to stay alive.

Mi amigo, you’ve finally arrived.” Opening his arms wide, he waited until I moved closer, giving the traditional Sanchez hug, one hand gripped in a firm handshake.

Only there was nothing traditional about the man or his organization. Diego Sanchez was ruthless, powerful, wealthy, and sought after by both men and women alike. His hold over Miami, as well as the surrounding areas, was legendary.

The bloodbaths following his reign of terror—notorious.

His hold over me? Forever. That part of the payback hadn’t been thoroughly explained. Then again, I’d reacted on emotion. A stupid kid believing he could save his family.

“Sorry to be late, Diego. I had some business to attend to.” My business had been to clean up after the man himself, a particularly violent night of passion. Perhaps I’d grown weary of being a glorified babysitter as well, but I’d continue to play the part. After all, I appreciated breathing.

As I leaned in, his whisper was direct and clear, his command without question.

“Tomorrow I will need your assistance, mi amigo. Casablanca Casino.”

I didn’t need any further instructions or even an address. I’d been through this before, many times. I was Diego’s bodyguard as well as his confidant. I was also his assassin. His affinity for gambling was well known, and in my opinion far too much so. Diego had an increasing number of enemies, men hungering to be in his position. Any weakness was a deadly opening to overthrow the empire built from the blood and sweat of others. My boss considered himself a kingpin, a man of honor. Stomaching the concept was becoming increasingly more difficult.

“Of course, El Hefe.” I was the only one allowed to use the term and I did so sparingly, but tonight was a celebration of sorts and I knew he’d be in excellent spirits.

Letting me go, Diego burst into laughter, slapping me on the back. “You always amuse me, Erik. I appreciate that more than you know. Grab a drink, maybe two. I’ve made certain there are menu items especially for you. I think you’ll find them particularly tasty.”

Menu items. He talked about the party girls he accumulated as if he was preparing for a feast. Granted, there would an orgy later, bodies intertwined, more pussies and cocks than I cared to see at one time. I glanced around the room, surveying the various members of the Sanchez ‘family,’ as well as the guests, recognizing a creative mixture of celebrities as well as corporate moguls. For a usual private affair, Diego had certainly opened up the invitation list.

The reason why I was curious about.

Being indoctrinated into the family or Borgata, as some of the New Yorker members liked to call the organization, wasn’t for the faint of heart. I didn’t need a sixth sense to know that within the hour, several of the esteemed guests would need more than a shot of alcohol to soothe their stomachs.

“I’ll do just that. Thank you.” As I moved through the room, several of the women undressed me with their eyes. I could have any of them I wanted by simply wagging my finger. Yeah, I was some bigshot all right. Almost no one called me by my given name of Erik Chenault any longer. I’d been coined Blade after six months for my expertise in weaponry of a certain kind. Well, that and the fact I’d body slammed a freaking moron attempting to gut the El Hefe, the jagged edge of the blade leaving a permanent scar on the right side of my face.

I’d grown used to the nickname as well as my unscrupulous reputation. The name served me well, especially during the occasional turf wars. Fortunately, Miami had been quiet as of late, leaving me with more relaxation time on my hands. However, my red flags were always on high alert. Quiet usually meant another faction was waiting in the wing, preparing for a turf war. I weaved my way through the expansive beachfront home in search of one of the bars. Tonight, my thirst required quenching. I loathed the official activities, the pomp and circumstance. As I moved outside, the light breeze floated a nostril full of sea air in my direction.

I loved the beach and the ocean. Any strip of white sand along any shore and I was a happy man. However, what brought me to Miami in the first place had nothing to do with living the high life. I’d been on a mission to save a soul, and not my own. Had I been successful? In truth, I had no idea. One thing I did know. I was ready to get the hell out. I had a single choice, but in doing so, I’d be hunted for the rest of my life. At this point, I couldn’t risk doing a damn thing. Yeah, I was frustrated as fuck, angry most of the time, including tonight.

“Hey, hey. There you are! The party has officially started.”

The boisterous call could be heard over the raucous laughter as well as the island music. I slanted my gaze in my buddy’s direction, finally cracking a smile. Breaker Wallace had come up through the ranks at the same time I had, and in the same brutal manner. He was perhaps the only person I felt I could trust—to some degree.

“Had some shit to deal with,” I said under my breath as I nodded to the bartender. The young man already knew what I liked. Diego made certain every member of his staff was well versed in preferences. If they didn’t learn, they ended up floating up on some unknown beach.

“You always have to deal with some kind of crap. Shit, man. You have more patience than I do.” Breaker nursed his drink, his eyes scanning the exterior perimeter, always on duty. There were armed guards everywhere, but we certainly couldn’t be too careful.

“Yeah, well, it pays the bills.” I tossed a hundred dollar bill in the kid’s direction, no doubt making his night. When Breaker guided me around the side of the lagoon-style pool, I knew something was up. “Spill it.”

“Word on the street is that there’s going to be an attempt made on Diego.”

“When?” My keen senses caught bits of several conversations from the closest guests, my eyes roaming like a hunter.

“Sometime this week. That’s all we got in the way of information.”

I nodded as a loud noise drew both our attention. The yelps and passionate moans were already exaggerated, and it was only a little after eight. Going to be a long ass night. “I’ll keep an eye out. You know he won’t change his itinerary.”

“Naw, I know. Just warning you,” Breaker said then took a gulp, allowing the ice to rattle in his glass. “Hey, new club on the strip. What you say we go later?”

I wasn’t into the bar scene, but tonight? Yeah, I craved some company. “Why the hell not?”

“Fucking fantastic. About damn time.” His laugh was genuine.

The vantage point was a good one, allowing us to see the entire back of the house as well as the beachfront leading up to Diego’s house. If any goons were stupid enough to make an attempt to infiltrate the compound tonight, they’d have to get through some heavy firepower. I turned my attention to the ocean, concentrating on the sound of the waves. I found some solace in the rolling swells, even if I felt dead inside. Within a few minutes, the exterior lights flashed, forcing a sigh.

“Hey, we’re being summoned,” Breaker chortled. “This should be good. Damn recruit is wet behind the ears, no clue what he’s getting himself into.”

“Weren’t we all that way? Once.” I snorted and swirled my drink, watching as certain guests headed for the main room inside. Everyone knew their place. The party girls, dancers, and other ‘sex toys’ would wait, preparing themselves for the real party to begin. I rubbed my forehead before following behind Breaker. I’d seen my share of this shit during my tenure. Breaking in a new recruit meant testing his resolve, as well as his pain threshold. Instead of being numb, I’d grown more incensed.

“Yeah, you’re right, but either the recruits are getting younger or we’re getting old, my man.” Breaker punched me on the arm.

I hadn’t hit thirty yet but there were very few patches of skin on my body devoid of a scar. The business was brutal, barbaric. “Speak for yourself, jerkoff. Let’s go. Craving pussy tonight.” How many times had I spoken the same words? They’d become expected of me. No one knew I was a one-woman man, longing for a solid relationship. Maybe I was just dreaming. There was no such thing as a happy every after, not for a man like me.

“Fuck, me too. More than one, man.” He rubbed his crotch and gave me a sly grin.

Sighing, I turned away. I could stand in the back of the room, easily able to see over the crowd. At six foot five, I towered over the majority of people, especially Diego. His diminutive size had garnered him the nickname of Napoleon, a punishable offense in Diego’s eyes. The chatter continued, the drinks flowing, guests completely at ease. Only the rather ominous-looking bench complete with thick iron shackles gave any indication of the event they’d all been invited to watch. I darted a glance at the rolling fire, the wood-burning, walk-in–style fireplace custom built using Diego’s specifications. A quick shiver ran down my spine. Things had certainly changed since the day I was welcomed into the family.

When Diego appeared out of the shadows, the entire room moved to complete silence. He stood with his hands behind his back, an unassuming man with a convincing smile. Few comprehended that he was a true monster.

But I knew.

He’d removed his jacket. Now standing in only a crisp white shirt and black linen pants, he appeared almost nonchalant, as if hosting a barbecue. Well, in a sense he was.

“Friends and family members, welcome to my humble abode,” Diego said, his smile increasing. He moved toward several of the closest women, taking each one by the arm. His formal greeting? A kiss on the mouth. A brush of his hand in all the inappropriate places. Women were nothing more than possessions to him. When he was done fondling the guests, he slowly began to roll up his sleeves. I started to get antsy, especially since the dumb kid who’d agreed to this bullshit stood in an entranceway leading to what Diego called a place of peace. What Diego couldn’t say in front of his conservative friends was that he was the proud owner of a torture chamber. I’d been there twice, once for specialized discipline. I’d vowed never again.

My exhale must have been exaggerated given the few nasty looks I received. A sneer curled on my lip. Fuck the rest of the people. Let them enjoy the damn show.

Diego motioned for the men holding the kid’s arms to enter the room. While there was no hesitation, I could see the look of terror in the kid’s eyes. At least he’d been warned what he was about to face. After this? The kid was set, with a job paying well over what anyone at the age of nineteen could make doing something legitimate. If he lasted five years in the family without fucking it up, he’d earn his way to owning a condo, perhaps even on the beach.

It might be similar to the one I’d been gifted years before: floor-to-ceiling glass, sweeping views of the ocean, a chef’s kitchen, and all leather furniture.

The thought left a bad taste in my mouth. I polished off the drink as Diego went on about honor and respect, how his entire world had been built by men like Michael Sheffield. I hadn’t heard the kid’s name up until now and had only met him once. He wouldn’t last a year before running home to Mommy’s skirts, hiding for the rest of his life. But one day, he would be found. There was no leaving the family, at least if you wanted to live.

Michael was led toward Diego, his eyes moving back and forth in rapid succession. Even from where I stood, I could see the beads of sweat already rolling down the sides of the kid’s face.

“As you know, loyalty is more important in my family than anything else.” Diego casually said the words as he walked closer to the fire, his hand wrapping around a thick piece of iron, placing the already heated end on a special metal holder.

A few gasps could be heard coming from the guests.

Breaker gave me a look and wiped his forehead, a slight tic appearing in the corner of his mouth. At least my friend didn’t like this crap any more than I did. I shifted back and forth from foot to foot, growing more antsy. Only when Michael’s shirt was stripped away did the nonfamily guests seem to understand what they were about to witness.

Michael was going to be branded. This wasn’t a small nodule, perhaps a letter of Diego’s name. The dragon was ornate as well as large, the wound taking weeks to fully heal. I took several deep breaths, clenching my hand around my crystal tumbler, trying to keep my shit together. Diego always laughed about the ceremony, claiming this separated the men from the boys.

As Michael was tied down, several female guests began voicing their objection, strangled whispers echoing in the room. If Diego was annoyed, he certainly didn’t show it, merely giving the command to shackle Michael down. Within a few minutes, the iron was red hot. As Diego slipped into thick gloves, whistling some fucking show tune, Michael began to struggle in his bindings. I could hear the crackle and popping coming from the fire, burning a blistering hole into my mind.

I admit, not the best timing, but I’d had enough. My thudding footsteps pissed off one of the bosses. Tony was from the old school, primitive ways that he’d tried to get Diego to adapt to.

“Get your ass back here, Blade.” Tony’s hand wrapped around my arm, jerking.

I reacted on instinct and within a split second, my hand was around the asshole’s throat, Tony’s body slammed up against the wall with enough force that the area around us shook.

There were squeals from the women, several from the male guests, and even the sounds of guns being cocked. This kind of shit wasn’t supposed to happen. I dug my fingers into Tony’s skin, cutting off his air supply. I’d lifted him three feet into the air with ease, the adrenaline kicking my ass. Yeah, I was pissed off and ready to pick a fight. This would no doubt amuse Diego even more.

“Let him go, Blade,” Breaker encouraged.

I snarled my answer.

When the barrel of a gun was placed at my temple, only then did I hear Diego’s voice.

“Don’t fuck with Blade, for Christ’s sake. He can do any damn thing he pleases in my house.” Diego clapped his hands twice, forcing the break in the ceremony to end. The guns disappeared, as if they’d never happened.

“Come on, let the dude go,” Breaker whispered in a husky tone as he flanked my side. “You and me. Let’s grab some air.”

Issuing a slight growl, I finally allowed Tony to slip to the floor. I took long strides, heading outside and away from the pool, Breaker following me. I’d never made a scene before, never drew much attention to myself, but tonight just frosted my ass. I sensed by the sounds that the wretched ceremony was about to being. Maybe I was just through with everything, the lies and the games. This wasn’t me and never had been. I’d always been good at pretending, but I was exhausted and worn thin.

“Damn. Don’t blame you in there, but I don’t have to tell you that Diego can’t let that shit go. You know that. Your ass might be on the same damn block tomorrow night.”

“Then I’ll fuckin’ kill him.” My words were spit out with no thought, but I was serious. I wasn’t going through that shit again. Ever.

Breaker paced back and forth, his hands on his hips. “Tell you what. Why don’t we get out of here, go to that bar I mentioned? I think you need a break.”

I glanced back at the house, half expecting to see one of the other bosses storming outside to find me. There was no one. Thank God for that. “Yeah, a good idea.”

Chapter Two

Crystal

“Hey, sweet thang, how about another beer?”

Wiping sweat from my brow, I issued a badass glare at the man sitting on the other side of the bar. Mark was a jerkoff, the kind of prick I wanted to pick a fight with, even if he outweighed me by a solid hundred pounds. He and his buddies were also considered dangerous. Tonight, I didn’t care. I was tired and cranky.

“Can it, Mark.” He sneered when I used his real name, a mistake he’d made paying with a credit card one night. His nickname? Savage. The kid was scraggly, tattoos covering his neck and half his face. All gang-related. Why this bar?

“Now, come on. You know what I like,” Mark hissed, making sucking sounds.

“Sweet pussy.” The deep bass vibrated all around me.

The second asshole was even bigger, Ramrod’s arms covered in tattoos. I generally liked the looks of an inked man, kind of sexy if you ask me, but in this case, there was nothing attractive about the Neanderthal. Hence, his nickname. His reputation was a bad as his nasty attitude.

Ignoring them, I tugged the stuffed trash bag from the container, huffing as I dragged it toward the back door, swearing under my breath. Maybe I was just exhausted from working every night for the past ten days, but the flaming asshole was getting on my nerves. I remained outside, trying my hardest to calm my anger, my fingers tapping on the dumpster. Unfortunately, the stench of stale cigarettes and empty liquor bottles assaulted my nose. Mixed with the extreme humidity, the vapid odor made me dry heave for a few seconds.

At least I had tomorrow night off, and I had a date, first one in several months.

Whoopedy-do.

The moment I walked back in, my anger shifted into full blown rage. “Hey, jackass. Get your ass from behind my bar or so help me God, I’ll toss you out permanently.” The asshole had sneaked behind the bar, my bar in an effort to grab another beer. Every customer inside of the Sandpiper Lounge seemed to be waiting to see what I would do, the quiet in the usually jumping joint far too conspicuous. Many of them were terrified, a few regulars staying away. That just pissed me off even more.

A leering sneer crossed Mark’s face as he snapped his head in my direction, the cold brew still in his hand. “Ah, sweetheart, you were busy. Thought I’d help myself. I think you need a lot of help if you ask me. Man style.”

When he groped himself, jutting his hips forward, the others laughed.

Undaunted, I planted my hands on my hips, swaggering closer. “Listen up, bub. I’m not your sweet thang, your sweetheart, or your gal. In fact, no woman in their right mind would bother with the likes of you, given your teeny tiny dick and all.” I didn’t mind pushing certain limits, even though I realized the three amigos, as they liked to call themselves, had certain ‘connections.’ Who the hell didn’t these days? I was far too over their bullshit to worry about the consequences. I’d been warned more than once about the Desperados, the gang the amigos were mixed up in. They were supposedly several hundred strong, ruthless and bloodthirsty.

“Whoa!” the third companion exclaimed, laughing as he slapped the bar top. The skinny blond was usually the logical one of the three, but tonight I could tell they were all sparring for a fight, even with a woman.

“Oh, shit!” This was the exclamation coming from several of my customers.

I’d known Mark and his buddies since arriving in Charleston. I’d been warned about them from almost day one. Gang members. A few of the regulars accused them of being murderers. I’d learned a long time ago not to judge a book, at least at first. My instincts screamed they were all low players, soldiers without a real cause. They enjoyed razzing my customers, including fondling my waitresses, and while they’d never actually accosted me in any manner while they were sober, I knew they had a dark side. However, when they were intoxicated, all bets were off. The second Mark held the bottle out in front of his groin, humping and grunting, I’d had enough.

“Get the fucking hell out of my bar!”

Mark stood to his full height, jerking the bottle over his head as if planning on tossing the chunk of glass into the wall of mirrors and bottles.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Mark. I have no problem calling the police and making certain you spend some quality time behind bars.” I refused to budge, merely lifting an eyebrow. The dude was menacing in his own right, just over six feet of solid muscle, but I refused to be afraid or back down, especially given I’d moved into the enraged state. Once upon a time I’d been a real lady. I’d learned the hard way to take care of myself.

“You. Wouldn’t. Dare,” he hissed. “You don’t know who you’re messin’ with.”

“You threatening me, Mark?” I asked as a few of the customers backed further into the shadows.

Mark shook his head, laughing and mumbling under his breath. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.”

From somewhere came a bolt of sirens getting closer to the bar. Not that they were going to stop for any reason. The police seemed to avoid the place, but the jerkoffs didn’t know that.

“Come on, bro. Let’s get the hell out of here.” Chuck jerked to his feet, slapping Ramrod on the arm and reaching for Mark.

“I’d listen to Chuck if I were you,” I stated as firmly as possible. Every eye in the place was on the long wooden bar, folks sitting on the edge of their seat.

Mark slowly lowered the beer, dropping it into the sink full of ice. “You’re a bitch, Crystal. You know that?”

“Whatever it takes, Mark. Get. Out.” As he walked toward me, his eyes roaming down the length of my body, he groped his crotch.

Keeping a snarl planted on my face, I shifted in order to allow him to pass. When he was within inches, he leaned over, giving a suckling sound as he flicked his tongue over his teeth. His stench was almost as disgusting as the basic trash.

“One night, sweetheart. You and me are going to tumble.”

“Come on, Savage,” Chuck encouraged.

The adrenaline was flowing, keeping my entire body rigid as I followed them to the exit, catching the eye of two of my waitresses. Their eyes were huge.

“You’re on fire today, boss lady,” Daphne whispered after breathing what sounded like a sigh of relief.

“You’re going to get yourself killed, Crystal. Jesus Christ. You’ve heard the stories,” Tina mumbled. “They aren’t the kind of assholes you mess with.”

“Yeah? Maybe not but they’re aren’t going to take control over my bar.” Every muscle in my body was tense from the interaction and as soon as the door swung shut, I allowed an elongated breath to escape. Managing a bar was a pain in the ass. At least the clapping and whistling given by the regulars gave me a slight smile. Even the waitresses were thrilled. “Okay, ladies. Get back to work.”

“Sorry you have to take that shit, Crystal. You don’t deserve it.” The rather sultry voice came from a man who always sat in the same spot. Pappy was a gentleman as well as a generous tipper. Rumors surrounded him that he was an extremely wealthy man, but his attire was always disheveled, his shirts frayed around the edges, as if they’d been worn for years.

“It’s okay, Pappy. I can handle myself.” The truth was, everyone who came to the Sandpiper Lounge as well as those in this section of Charleston were afraid of the three amigos as well as their gang. The only reason they’d attached themselves to this bar in particular was because of the off the beaten track location. The Sandpiper certainly wasn’t in the best area of town but it was close to their turf.

Pappy shook his head. “Wish there was something the police could do.”

“They make idle threats. They drink. Like I said, I can handle myself.” The police weren’t interested in the thugs, at least not on a regular basis. Another rumor floating around was that the Desperados had certain officials in their back pockets. I scanned the crowded environment, making certain none of their other friends were lurking in the shadows.

All the drama aside, I actually enjoyed working at the bar, even though the hours were a killer. Fortunately, I’d been able to save up some money. Some. One day, I’d pick up on where the all-American dream had dumped me.

One day.

At least I had a decent job, one that paid the bills.

When the entrance door opened, I bristled, deciding then and there to bring a gun to keep behind the bar. Seeing my best friend’s face, I softened and grabbed the empty beer bottles and trash the boys had created, clearing a space. “What are you doing here?”

“Can’t a girl have a drink with her best friend, even if said best friend doesn’t ever call her or find any time to be with her best friend? Wait a minute, do I even know you, Crystal Cummings?”

Jessie Tatum wasn’t the kind of girl I ever thought I’d be friends with. Where I was poor, barely making ends meet, Jessie had wealthy parents and a dazzling beach house, complete with sweeping views of the ocean. I often envisioned her with cabana boys she kept locked away, although I’d never seen anyone else at her well-coiffed home. But from day two of my arrival in town, we’d been fast friends.

“Very funny and you know I can’t drink on the job.” I pitched the items in the trash after giving her an evil eye.

“You work all the time, honey. Can’t you get one of your other managers to take a shift?” Jessie asked as she sat down. “I want to play.”

I grabbed a rag, wiping the scarred top of the bar, more in a perfunctory motion. Everything in the joint had seen better days. “I’m a manager down right now. Had to take all the extra shifts. I do have tomorrow night off.”

“Then we’re going out and I’m thirsty.” Going out to her meant bar hopping, trying to pick up guys, something I wasn’t into.

“Unfortunately, I can’t.” I knew exactly what Jessie would order, the same thing she ordered no matter what bar or time of year. Merlot poured to the rim. I grabbed a wineglass and the special bottle I’d purchased for Jessie’s infrequent but always interesting visits.

“Don’t you give me that shit. Hey, Pappy. How are things?” Jessie grinned.

“You just missed the ruckus. Our girl here is tough.” Pappy lifted his beer in a request for another.

Jessie lifted her eyebrow. “Should I ask?”

“No. Don’t.” I placed the wineglass on a cocktail napkin before yanking a bottle of Bud from the chiller, sliding the beer down the length of the bar.

“Why don’t you call the police on those guys?” Jessie demanded.

“And what good will that do? Nothing. I’m fine.” Jessie knew better than to second-guess me, especially when I was in one of these moods. I played it tough while working, but my bestie knew the other side, the scared little girl who had no idea what she was doing in her life. At least Jessie had never judged me, never made fun of my little house.

“Then at least tell me why you can’t go out with me tomorrow night.”

The tenacious wench wasn’t going to let this go. I glowered at her before leaning over the bar, whispering, “I have a date. Okay? Don’t make a big deal about it. I mean it.”

“You have a date?” Jessie’s booming voice carried across half the bar. She wanted everyone else to know I wasn’t the wallflower of the year.

“Shut your mouth or I swear to God.” Heat rose from the base of my neck, crowding across my jaw. No matter my rambunctious actions with nasty customers, I was very private, loathing anyone who tried to weasel their way into my mind.

Or my body.

Or my heart.

Jessie snaked her hand over the bar, grabbing my wrist. “I’m just so happy for you. That gives me a huge smile.”

“This is one date, nothing more. I doubt I’ll have a second one.” Snatching my arm away, I absently dragged a strand of hair from my face, smoothing it behind my ear. I wasn’t the dating kind and had never been. I wasn’t the gorgeous blonde like Jessie, a Barbie doll with long legs and the perfect hourglass figure. I’d come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t stunning, just a plain Jane. Normally I was fine with that. For some reason, I was bothered more today. Maybe thinking about the reason I’d accepted the date in the first place was the culprit. The man had been rather insistent, trying his best for almost two weeks to get me to say yes.

“Would you stop doing that? I’m serious. You’re beautiful and sexy. Any man would want to have you. Obviously, the assholes who continue to frequent this sad little place do.” Jessie gave a wicked grin as she swirled the tip of her finger around the rim of her glass.

“You’re hilarious today. Did you get a promotion at work? Did you win the lottery?”

“Let’s just say that Randy and I are getting along very well.” She fanned her face.

I shook my head in response. Jessie was with a different man at least every six weeks. On my end, I hadn’t met that many handsome men in Charleston, at least up to this point. Not that I was looking. The guy who’d convinced me to say yes was sweet and kind of cute, but certainly no stud muffin. Still, Carter Garris seemed like a gentleman. “I’m glad. Just leave my date alone.”

“Only if you promise to allow me to bring you that red dress you like so much.”

The last thing I wanted to do was borrow a dress for my date; however, Jessie was well aware I was a jeans and tee shirt kind of girl. I owned three dresses and not a one of them were right for anything but church or a funeral. And I certainly hadn’t been to church in years. The hallowed building would burn down if I walked inside.

“I won’t stop bugging you until you agree,” Jessie said, humming as she looked from side to side.

“You’re a ball buster. Did you know that?” I asked between clenched teeth. Secretly, I was glad to have one friend with excellent tastes.

“That’s why you love your best friend to death. I’ll drop the dress by in the morning. Oh, and some gorgeous pumps I have. Deal?”

“Fine. As long as you shut up about this.” A dress and shoes. Wonderful. I hadn’t walked in heels in years. I had a terrible feeling the date was going to be a disaster.

Jessie held up her hand. “Honest Injun.”

“You’re such a bad liar.”

By the time I’d finished double-checking the receipts, the rest of the staff were already gone, and it was after two-thirty in the morning. All I wanted was a hot bath, a tall glass of vodka, and hours of peaceful sleep. Everything locked, I hit the alarm and closed the back door, refusing to breathe in the nasty stench as I walked to my truck, keys already in hand.

Plink!

I’d just inserted the key into the driver’s side lock when I heard the sound. I was always on edge, mindful of the any lurkers hanging around on the fringe. The bar was off the beaten track, more of a local hangout than anything else. Hair stood up on the back of my neck as I twisted my head to the side. There were several ancient lights surrounding the area, even a streetlight illuminating the now empty parking lot, but the ominous shadows created several nasty connotations in my mind. Swallowing hard, I opened the truck door as quietly as possible, tossing my things inside.

Ping!

The sound was closer, raising my hackles. An odd outline passed over one of the lights, forcing my attention back to the parking lot. I could swear I noticed the silhouette of someone running at full speed and headed in my direction. Refusing to become a victim, I jumped into the cab, jamming the key into the ignition. “Don’t fail me now, baby girl. I need you.” My old Toyota had seen better days and when the engine chugged, acting as if it wasn’t going to turn over, I thought of every ridiculous horror movie I’d ever seen. Come on, you bitch. Start.

Trying to keep my wits, I made certain both doors were locked and counted to ten, my eyes sweeping the entire area. A glint caught my attention and I noticed that something was rolling in my direction. Now, near panic almost settled in. “One. Two. Three. Start.” As the engine roared to life, I jammed the gear into drive, yanking the steering wheel then hitting the accelerator. Tires squealing, I floored the old girl as I neared the exit, able to glance in both directions at an empty street. The truck jumped over one side of the curb as I rolled out, speeding off.

Every inch of my body was shaking, my heart racing as I glared into the rearview mirror every few seconds. If the mother fuckers believed they were going to scare me… I couldn’t even allow the thought to finish. If their reputation proved to be true, the amigos would be revenge-seeking assholes and I had a terrible feeling I hadn’t seen the last of their wrath. The streets were almost empty, and I surpassed the speed limit by a significant amount on my way home. At least I’d left several lights on.

As soon as I opened my truck door, I heard the wonderful sounds of my dog barking. The very first thing I’d done after finding a house was rescue a puppy. Relief flooded through every muscle in my body as I grabbed my bags, racing toward the front door. Zorro greeted me as he always did, his paws on my shoulders, his tongue licking every inch of my face.

“Baby boy. I’m so happy to see you too.” My huge black lab had no idea just how much I was glad to be home, especially tonight. He was the most loving creature I’d ever known, but given his aggressive bark and his size, he was intimidating as hell. Any would-be attackers would think twice if Zorro was on the loose.

I was still shaking as I let him out the back, standing with my arms folded, scanning the perimeter as if I expected the boogeyman to jump out of the darkness. Why did the assholes bother me so much tonight? I honestly didn’t have the answer and had never really felt fearful of the neighborhood. I adored the little house, no matter that the appliances were old and the siding needed to be replaced. This was mine alone. Well, a rental, but one day I’d be able to afford a house. I had to admit, at least tonight that I wished I had closer neighbors. The street was on a dead end, a juggernaut of older houses in a less fashionable neighborhood. The majority of folks were in their sixties, certainly in bed long before three in the morning. If I screamed, it was likely that no one would hear my cries of despair.

Or come to my rescue.

“Let’s get back inside, big boy. Both you and Mommy need a treat.” As he scampered back inside, I kept my hand on the screen door, listening for any wayward sounds. I felt certain that no one had followed me. I also doubted the amigos had any idea of where I lived. There wasn’t any listing in the phonebook since I didn’t have a landline and Jessie and Carter were the only two people, at least up to this point, who’d been to my house. The only reason Carter had been allowed inside was to perform various maintenance duties as allowed by my lease.

A trusted man. And the single reason I’d accepted his request for a date. While Zorro didn’t consider Carter his best buddy, the discerning pup had never attacked him either. Another vote of confidence.

Exhaling, I locked everything down tight before refreshing Zorro’s water. Time for a huge drink to calm my nerves. “How about some hot dogs? Would you like that, baby?”

Zorro woofed his appreciation, his tail thumping against the linoleum.

I shoved four into the microwave before fixing a tall screwdriver and while he ate, I jumped up on the kitchen counter, sipping then guzzling my drink. Within seconds, tears began to fall, sliding down until they dropped to the floor, one after the other. I almost never cried, rarely if ever allowed anyone to see any emotions. I’d learned the hard way years before to tamp them back, to pretend everything was just fine.

I feared my iron mask was slipping, allowing the bitter anger and sadness to creep back inside. That couldn’t happen. Not now. Not ever. I wiped my eyes furiously, sucking in several hard breaths as my inner voice tried to be soothing, telling me that everything was going to be all right. Yes, I’d saved a few thousand dollars, but I had no other significant skills in order to get a better job. Hell, I’d been lucky the owner of the bar had taken pity on me, giving me a waitressing job after I’d bugged then begged him for it. Six weeks later, I’d been promoted, allowing at least a certain amount of stability.

A laugh pushed past my lips. A broken-down truck. A broken-down house. A broken-down life. I was all alone, with no family and few friends. At least Zorro loved me unconditionally.

“You’re pathetic, sunshine.” Another laugh bubbled up from my throat and I lifted my glass as Zorro sat back on his haunches, licking his chops. “To the most pathetic girl in all of Charleston.”

Woof!

“Thank you very much, big man. I don’t need your affirmation on top of this crappy day.” His goofy face made me laugh, a much needed release. “Okay, let’s get you a real dinner then Mommy is going to take a bath.” After that? I had a date with my sexy new spanking book, a real paperback I’d purchased from a recent yard sale. The thought was tasty. You never knew what went on behind closed doors.

I was on my second screwdriver when I moved into the bathroom, filling the tub with hot water as well as a sprinkle of foamy beads. There was nothing better than taking a bubble bath; well, other than a heated round of sex.

And maybe a hard spanking.

Jesus. I’d made plans for a single date and now I was craving discipline? Where had that even come from? From my darkest desires. For all the badassery that I allowed to be seen at the bar, the inner girl was entirely different, longing for a dominant man and one with a firm hand. I’d never really understood that side of me, or maybe I just ignored the woman inside. I certainly shouldn’t feel that way after my experiences with… Nope. I wasn’t going to think about the lunatic asshole and ruin the rest of my night.

After peeling off my clothes and tossing them in the dirty hamper, I made faces at my reflection, twisting and turning as I studied my body. “Ugh.” My copper-colored hair seemed dull in the fluorescent lighting. Even my skin had a sallow look, as if I’d been sick for a very long time.

Huffing, I held my hands under my breasts, squeezing until the slight pain made me moan. They were full, or what a couple of men had called ‘more than a handful.’ My nipples were a deep rose in color and rock hard when excited, although that had been a while. I stuck out my tongue, realizing I wasn’t entirely certain just how long. I hadn’t even masturbated in months.

Maybe tonight was the perfect night. Just to get ready for the date. Blowing a kiss at my reflection, I hunkered down, searching through the cabinet, hunting behind the cheap can of hairspray and deodorant until I located my waterproof vibrator. The velvet bag was matted, the gold rope frayed, but I wouldn’t trade this baby in on a Hitachi. Giggling, I flipped the switch, shocked there was any oomph left at all given its lack of use. This was going to have to do since my last four batteries had been slapped into one useless flashlight.

Zorro had already found a spot on my bed, his back legs quivering in his sleep. Comforted, I eased into the nearly scalding water, the purple passion joystick in my hand. My favorite sex toy had been in my tattered suitcase during the move, one of few reminders I’d once had another life. I sank further into the suds, closing my eyes and trying to relax. Flicking the switch, I rolled the nubbed end against my chin, enjoying the massaging effect.

I planted my feet on the edges of the tub, leaving a wide space between my legs. I slid my hand over my pussy, fingering my clit. Even the way the hot water sloshed against my pussy left me with tingles. I dragged the vibrator down from my neck to the swell between my breasts. The sensations were electrifying, forcing a slight moan from my mouth. I kept my eyes closed as I swirled the tip around first one nipple then the other until they were fully erect, standing proud. I longed for a man to pluck and twist them until I cried out in pain.

Visions of the man who filled my fantasies floated into the back of my mind. I could almost see his rugged face, carved with high cheekbones, a wide forehead, and eyes that drew me in like luminescent pools. Almost. I eased the vibrator between my legs, pulling the shaft up and down over my clit. I could almost hear his deep voice, commanding me to undress and stand in front of him naked so he could inspect every inch of my body. His property. His pet.

“Mmm…” The thought was truly wicked. Turning the vibrator onto high, I pushed a few inches inside, allowing the whirling action to drive me to a delicious state of nirvana.

“Come here, pretty pet,” he demanded, his fingers dancing down my arm.

I inched closer, waiting as he cupped and lifted my breasts, feeling the weight in his hands. When he flicked his thumbs across my already hardened nipples, I fought issuing any sound. I was to remain quiet until he was finished with his examination. A slice of raw anguish ripped through my torso as he pinched my erect buds, twisting and pulling in a brutal manner.

“Tonight, you need a hard whipping, my pretty pet,” he stated as he locked eyes with mine, his gaze mesmerizing. “Is that not true?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I think the cane will come in handy.” He fisted my hair as he walked around me, raking the nails on his other hand all the way down my spine. I hated the cane, the whooshing sound as the thin wood was snapped through the air, the way the stinging burned for days.

I stood exactly where I was, my hands by my sides and my legs together. When he tapped me on the buttocks several times, my lower lip quivered, an infraction.

“Don’t be afraid, my pretty pet. Daddy knows exactly what you need.”

I jerked myself out of my fantasy, sloshing water all over the floor. I was panting, beads of sweat sliding down my face. I’d shoved the vibrator all the way inside and every muscle was tweaking, my hips bucking as I thrusted. White-hot heat poured into my veins as adrenaline kicked into high gear. It wasn’t going to be long before I orgasmed.

“Bend over, my pretty pet,” he instructed.

I did exactly as I was told, leaning over the back of the chair, my hands positioned on the seat cushion and my fingers flexed open. I was tingling all over, the anticipation of the severe punishment stealing my breath. The whooshing sound seemed to go on forever until the first strike was slapped against the rounded portion of my bottom, followed by another. And another. I was forced to bite back a cry when my master sliced the birch against the tops of my thighs. The pain was excruciating.

“Shit. Shit!” The visions rolled, vivid images of the hard spanking, of being caned like a bad little girl. And I loved it, sensations rolling up from my toes, sending jolts of current straight into my pussy. My breath sounds ragged, I couldn’t hold back the raging climax any longer. As the orgasm rolled into my body, I threw my head back, squelching a scream.

Just like I’d been taught.

“You look perfect, my darling,” Jessie feigned a haughty accent as she stood back, clapping her hands.

“Not too much?” I asked before smoothing down the front of the dress for the fifth time. At least. I had to admit, not only did I love the color, flaming red, I adored the way the slinky material hugged every curve.

“Seriously, you look amazing.” She glanced at her watch. “I should get going. Your date, whoever mystery man is, will be arriving in ten minutes.”

Shit. Why in the hell was I nervous? I’d been on dates before, starting as early as fifteen. I chuckled at the thought. I thought I was a powerhouse in my teens. “I appreciate you bringing everything over.” As I stepped into the stilettos, I gave myself a mental high-five I hadn’t wobbled from the get-go.

“When are you going to tell me who this guy is?” Jessie now had a demanding tone.

“If he makes it to the fourth date, then I’ll tell you about him.”

“Oh, come on. One hint,” she begged.

I frowned but was unable to stop the laugh pushing past my lips. “Carter is a down to earth guy. A little older. He’s very handy, can fix almost anything.”

“But is he fuckable?”

I hadn’t even thought about him in that regard. I wasn’t even certain he was assertive in any manner. Dominating. Powerful. Using a firm hand. Why in the hell was I thinking along those lines? A single bead of perspiration would be a dead giveaway for a woman like Jessie—Miss Know It All. “He’s sexy. Now go. I’ll tell you more later. Much later.”

“Wow, I’ll be ever so grateful.” Rolling her eyes, she grabbed her keys and headed for the door. “Have a great time or else. Oh, and lunch tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at eleven-thirty. Period.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I closed the door, letting a strangled breath pop up from my throat. Lunch would mean Jessie trying to weasel information out of me. What was there to tell? He’s a nice, safe guy. Safe. The term alone would make my bestie roll her eyes. Carter really did seem like a nice guy and maybe that’s exactly what I needed at this point in my life. Boring. I huffed at my inner voice. We’d shared a cup of coffee or a soft drink three or four times as we sat out on my back deck. He’d told me all about himself and I’d told him… Some. Maybe I was actually the boring one. After spritzing perfume, I grabbed my purse and took careful steps into the kitchen to wait. Even Zorro had his head cocked, his big brown eyes staring back at me.

“Don’t you give me that look.” His whine made me laugh. I tried to envision Carter with a brush, a paddle, or even a belt in his hand as he prepared to spank me. Nope. He wasn’t that kind of guy.

The rapping on the door drew me out of my not so glorious fantasy. “He’s here. Be good.” The words issued to Zorro, he remained sitting on his haunches as I opened the door.

“Whew. You look amazing!” Carter said, his eyes lighting up.

“Why, thank you.” I was surprised that Zorro hesitated before trotting toward the door, his tail whapping in all directions.

“Hey, big boy. I’ll take good care of your mama. I promise. You ready to go?”

“You know? I’m more than ready.”

I was actually surprised how easy it was to talk to him over dinner. He listened intently, asked only appropriate questions and by the time we were drinking coffee, I was completely relaxed. I knew a little about his upbringing, what had brought him to Charleston and his hopes for the future. In turn, he gleaned through a few pointed questions that I was a completely different woman underneath.

As we stood at my front door, a single moment of awkwardness settled in. “Would you like to come in for a nightcap?” I finally asked, especially since he was staring at me with a certain look in his eyes, creating a wave of heat between my legs.

“I’d love to.” Carter closed the door behind us, bending down to greet Zorro.

“Vodka all right?”

“That’s perfect.”

I made the drinks and hadn’t noticed that Carter was standing in the doorway to the kitchen until I turned around. This time, his expression appeared more dominating. “Is something wrong?”

“I have a question for you.”

“O-kay.”

He inhaled before asking, “Would you like a hard spanking?”

I was floored, immediately flustered and knew my face had turned a bright shade of red. However, the heat was now sweltering along my inner thighs. “What?”

Walking closer, he took the drinks out of my hand, easing them onto the table. “I think you heard me. Do you need a whipping?”

I blinked several times, trying to determine if he was teasing. “I…”

“You don’t have to be embarrassed. Some women thrive on being given a regular spanking. I know my mother received some form of discipline at least a couple times a week. I asked my father about it once, and he said their decision to have him in charge brought harmony to the house. I sense you’re that kind of woman.”

There was a significant part of me that wanted to accuse him in a nasty way of being too forward. The words ‘how dare you’ were on the tip of my tongue. Then I was intrigued, my nipples rock hard. The realization I was excited for the first time in months was unnerving. Still, I had an odd sensation in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t explain why, but Carter wasn’t the fantasy I desired. “Carter, I appreciate what you’re saying, but that’s not what I’m looking for.”

He gave me an odd look, as if I’d insulted him.

Then Carter simply kissed me goodnight, made certain I knew he’d call, and he left.

He actually left.

I wasn’t certain whether to be amazed.

Or pissed off.

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