Lila ignored the young man with the shaved head who stared at her from the side seat as the bus trundled along the street. Why did he keep looking at her? She glanced down at her pink lace tank top, wondering if her bra strap was showing or something. Had she spilled breakfast on herself? No, everything looked fine. So, why was he still staring at her?
The bus driver caught her eye in the mirror and waved her to the front of the bus.
“Is something wrong?” Lila asked as she sat down on the long seat nearest the driver.
“Not with you, miss. That young man has an eye for all the pretty girls. Best you stay up here with me.”
“Pretty girls?” Lila echoed. It took a moment for the driver’s words to penetrate. He meant her. “Oh. Thank you.”
“No big deal, miss. I like to avoid problems, rather than wait till they get started.”
The young man got off the bus three stops later, leering down at her as he passed Lila on his way out.
Lila turned her head. They were almost at her old house. It wasn’t large, just a bungalow set on a quiet street in Don Mills, one of Toronto’s older suburbs. But it had been home her whole life, until mom got sick and dad left. Lila wondered if the people living there now were happy. They hadn’t made many changes to the exterior, besides painting the front door blue instead of red. Everything else looked pretty much the same. She caught a glimpse of the gardens at the back of the house. Her mother had slaved over her plants, until she had become too ill to care.
Lila used to get off the bus and walk down the street, but lately that had made her feel like a stalker. Now, when she got the urge, she simply rode the bus.
The door opened and a little girl ran onto the porch, dancing with impatience. A man followed, holding the girl’s hand. Lila turned around, straining to see behind her. The man smiled down at the girl, and Lila’s gut clenched. Yes, they looked happy.
She checked the time again. It was still early and she had plenty of time to get to work. She would take the 25 bus back around the loop and get off at the subway stop to head back downtown to Yonge Street. Toronto Lifestyle, the magazine where she worked, was housed in an older red brick building tucked among high-rises in the middle of downtown. Grant Miller, the editor, had his own office, but everyone else made do with a cubicle. Lila didn’t care, she was just thrilled to have a job. Money had been tight since her father left, especially when she started paying back her student loans.
Toronto Lifestyle, a frothy compendium of the local social scene, was a step up from the weekly flyer where Lila had worked for the last two years. Grant had her covering store openings, local celebrities, and other groundbreaking stories, like the first baby born on New Year’s Day. She had even covered a local fashion show. Since she usually dressed in jeans and Converse sneakers, it had been a challenge. But Lila had listened to the comments from the people around her, done her research, and actually managed to pull it off.
It was a far cry from covering politics, her first love. Lila had caught the journalism bug when she joined her university newspaper as an extracurricular activity. She had spent a year stringing for a small local paper while she was still in school, but it took too much time and she had to give it up. Still, it was that experience that landed her the job at the flyer and then at Toronto Lifestyle.
Lila smiled, remembering her first day. She had been terrified, but Grant had been nonchalant as he showed her around the office.
“We’re pretty low-key around here, except when deadline approaches. So the last week of every month can get pretty crazy. Hopefully, you’ll thrive on the madness like the rest of us.” He stopped in front of a cubicle, surrounded by dusty beige baffle board. “You’ll have to share a desk with Castillo. He usually works out of the office, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Cruz Castillo was the photographer usually assigned to accompany her on assignments. He had quickly become a friend. He flirted with her on a daily basis, but only in fun, because flirting to Cruz was like breathing to everyone else. The other girls in the office swooned over his dark good looks and wicked grin, but he never dated anyone from work. The fact that he made this a strict policy only made the girls want him more.
“Lila, you get to spend so much alone time with Cruz. Don’t you want to hit that every chance you get?”
“We’re just friends. We work well together.”
“That’s it,” Kayla, one of the graphic designers, declared. “She’s in permafrost, as frozen as the icecaps.”
“Either that, or she’s still a virgin.” Eve was the head of the advertising department.
“Dude, I’m twenty-four. I’m just not into dating right now.”
“We’re talking about hooking up, my young friend. Doing the down and dirty. No commitments, just a good time.”
Lila was silent. When Kayla put it like that, it didn’t sound bad. In fact, it sounded damn good. But she just couldn’t do it. Her mother’s voice in her head would never let her.
“Shut up, he’s coming,” Kayla hissed.
Cruz stalked down the aisle toward them, fury oozing from every pore. When Cruz got mad—and he often did—everybody knew it. The other girls scattered back to work.
“Grant is such a fucking poser,” Cruz fumed as he stopped beside the desk.
Lila suppressed a grin. “But his new beard is so fashionable.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Grant reads some article about lumber-sexuals, and the next thing you know he’s sprouting full growth and enough plaid to fill a Land’s End catalog.”
Lila laughed. Grant’s frequent forays into the city’s trends was always the subject of office gossip. Since the man himself was pissy and narcissistic beneath his go-team attitude, the speculation was often unkind. He particularly galled Cruz, who possessed an easy confident masculinity that men like Grant aspired to, but never achieved.
“What did he do now?”
Cruz’s lips tightened. “It’s what he’s planning to do. Come on, I was sent to get you. We have a meeting with Grant in his office.”
“It’s a new story he’s thinking of running. And I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
The little white terrier lunged at the cage door, yapping enthusiastically as Adrian Kane hunched down, his long legs folded under him.
“Hey, boy, chill out. It’s okay.”
At the sound of Adrian’s voice, the dog’s ears dropped and he stopped barking, his tail wagging in anticipation.
“We just have to wait for them to unlock your cage.”
Maggie Bright, the shelter manager, waved him in when Adrian showed up for his weekly visit. As a volunteer at one of Toronto’s animal shelters, he did pretty much whatever was needed, from answering the phone to feeding the animals. But mostly he walked the dogs. And since Bandit, the little rascal currently standing in front of him and whimpering, was a headstrong little guy with a tendency to bite most of the people who approached him, it was Adrian who walked him.
“Careful, Adrian.” Maggie grinned at him as she unlocked the cage. “Once you go terrier, you never go back.”
Adrian smiled, but shook his head. “I don’t have time for a dog. That’s why I keep coming back to bug you.”
He took the leash Maggie proffered and, capturing the wiggling mass of white hair, deftly hooked it to the terrier’s collar.
“And we appreciate it. Enjoy your walk.”
The shelter was downtown, in a neighborhood sliding down the scale of economic hardship. Several of the surrounding buildings were nailed up and abandoned. But Bandit didn’t care. He took off down the street, pulling on his leash, until Adrian told him to settle down and pulled the dog in against his left leg. Bandit panted up at him apologetically. He wasn’t a bad dog, just high-spirited. His owners had surrendered him to the shelter because they couldn’t deal with both Bandit and a newborn baby. Adrian could only hope that Maggie found someone willing to adopt the dog. He didn’t want to consider the alternative.
They made their way to the small park a few blocks east, where Bandit made a careful circuit of every tree and shrub, sniffing and peeing until Adrian wondered how the little guy could hold so much in his bladder. The air was still cool this early in the morning and Adrian took a breath and rolled his shoulders. Walking the dogs always provided him with a rare island of tranquility in a life stuffed full of work and endless commitments. A park bench sat under the sweep of an old maple tree. Adrian sat down. Bandit eyed him, puzzled, before snuffling and settling down in the grass at Adrian’s feet.
The sun trickling past the leaves was warm on Adrian’s face and he felt a rare moment of contentment. When had his life become this—an endless round of tasks that he had stopped enjoying a long time ago? Life had to be something more than this. He just wasn’t sure anymore what that something else was.
When he was young, it had been all about the music, from the first moment he picked up a guitar. Adrian had started buying LPs long before it was considered cool, haunting used record stores and staying up all hours to play the songs he heard immortalized on scratchy vinyl recordings. Sure, it was a little weird how blues music spoke to him, a rich white kid living in a big house. But speak to him it did, enriching his life, until the night everything ended. His breath skipped a little, remembering the old pain. Adrian still went to clubs to listen to live music when he could and played music at home, but it was never the same after that.
Adrian jumped up, trying to shut down the memories that lately seemed to keep bubbling to the surface. He hadn’t been that man, more of a boy really, in a long time and he couldn’t go back. He was on his own now, accomplished and successful. The alarm on his watch beeped. Time to go.
Bandit trotted beside him as Adrian mentally sketched out his day, his thoughts far from the quiet little park and even his doggy companion. What was it his father used to say? Time waits for no man. A busy man like Adrian had no time to waste, not on the past and certainly not on regrets. He would go to London, sit through an endless series of meetings, and then he would come back home to play. And Club Chastise offered the best play in town.
Cruz stalked off. It must be bad if even Cruz thought she wouldn’t like it. Lila sighed and saved the story she was working on. She picked up her tablet and made a detour to the tiny staff kitchen to grab a mug of tea to bring with her. Grant tended to be long-winded and meetings sometimes went on for hours. At least she was gainfully employed as a professional writer, even if it was at a sometimes silly lifestyle e-zine with less than stellar circulation numbers. Living the dream, Lila told herself ruefully, and headed to Grant’s office.
The door was open and she walked in to find Cruz perched on the edge of Grant’s desk. He glanced at her and looked away.
Grant waved her to a seat. He cleared his throat. “Spanking is the New BDSM.” He leaned back in his chair, an expectant grin on his face. “What do you think?”
“Are you coming out as a spanko?” Cruz gave his trademark smirk, but something seemed off about him.
“Not me.” Grant leaned forward. “It’s the title for the new series I’m thinking of running.” He looked at Lila.
What did he expect her to say? As the newest writer on the e-zine, Lila felt she was still trying to fit in. Finally, she shook her head. “Honestly, Grant, I haven’t got a clue as to what you’re talking about. Is this a story about bad parenting?”
“You know, it’s the whole rough sex thing. Like that bestseller a few years back, Fifty Tints of Tangerine, or whatever.”
Enlightenment dawned. Grant nodded, and kept on talking.
“I’ve read a couple of recent articles about spanking in popular culture, so I’m calling it the new BDSM.”
“Honestly, Lila, it’s like you were brought up in a convent. BDSM stands for, fuck, what does it stand for anyway?”
“It’s an amalgam of different terms, essentially erotic experiences involving bondage, dominance, submission, masochism, that kind of thing,” Cruz put in.
“Oh,” Lila said, out of her depth. “Kinky stuff.”
“Exactly.” Grant beamed at her. “But kinky is rapidly becoming the new normal, or at least that’s what people are reading about. I want our readers to indulge their naughty selves by learning about the latest thing in hot sex, while boosting our numbers. What do you think?”
While Cruz examined his nails, Lila said, with a fair degree of caution, “It sounds interesting. You’re talking about online research, chat rooms, that kind of stuff?”
Grant shook his head, with a light in his eye that made her nervous. “I’m talking about visiting the belly of the beast. Undercover. Interviews, roleplaying, you name it, we’ll do it. It’ll be sensational!”
Lila chewed her lip. “I’m not sure about this, Grant.”
“Well, I am. And, since I’m the boss, we’re going to do this. Christ, if this works out we can raise our advertising rates. OK, you two, scoot. You can do some preliminary research online.”
“Sure thing, boss.” Cruz heaved himself off the desk, his expression carefully blank.
Lila stood up.
“Terrific. Get back to me by Friday with your slant on the series and an idea for the first installment. I want it to start running next month.” Grant nodded his dismissal.
Cruz disappeared and Lila wandered back to her desk. She clicked open the story folder on her computer and started a new file: Is Spanking the New BDSM? She had to admit the idea was clever. The public seemed to have developed an appetite for kink, well, for reading about it anyway. Why shouldn’t she jump on the bandwagon? It was just that Lila didn’t know much about it and that made her feel gauche and stupid.
Well, in the information age, knowledge was there for the taking. Two hours later, Lila closed the web browser in a daze. She had never dreamed of anything like this. Her mind was awash with images of women with bright red bottoms, moaning as they were soundly spanked; straps and paddles and canes with a side of nipple clamps and butt plugs. Her mouth was dry and, damn it, her panties were soaked. What was the matter with her?
“You okay, Lila?” Cruz stopped at the cubicle to stare at her. “You look kind of flushed. Are you coming down with something?”
“What? No, I’m fine. I’m tired, that’s all. I’m headed out for lunch.” Lila grabbed her purse from the desk drawer and stood up.
“Sure. We’ll meet up first thing tomorrow to come up with a game plan, right? Grant’s been on my ass about this spanking story all day.” Cruz grinned. “No pun intended.”
“Absolutely. I did some online research already. Well, later.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Cruz’s gaze was speculative. Lila hurried to the elevator and pushed the button. Maybe doing this particular story wasn’t such a good idea after all. Some things were better left in the dark.
Adrian slid the Jag into the parking lot outside Club Chastise. The valet hurried up as Adrian opened the door. He tossed the young man his keys, ran a hand through his expertly tousled hair, and cracked his neck. The flight from London had been a bitch. The whole trip had been an exercise in frustration, actually. He deserved a night off, a night to play, and Thursdays were always hopping at the club.
The receptionist offered him a warm smile as Adrian signed in. She was a lovely thing, and they’d enjoyed a scene a few months ago. But tonight he was looking for something different. He passed through the soundproof doors to the main lounge. The music surged over him, a pounding Latin beat that had dragged even the most reluctant dancers onto the floor.
Adrian spotted a girl dancing awkwardly with Cruz Castillo. Either she had absolutely no sense of rhythm or she was really nervous. The spotlight picked up the red in her dark hair. Killer body. Not tall, but curvy. Maybe Cruz would introduce them, if he didn’t want her for himself. Still, Cruz was usually cool with sharing.
The music shifted to a slower beat and he watched Cruz pull the girl closer, clasping her waist. She put her arms around his neck and nestled against him. Cruz bent his head to say something into her ear and Adrian watched the smile that chased across her face. She was even prettier when she smiled.
Adrian felt something clutch at his gut. It took him a moment to recognize the emotion. Jealousy. He wanted to be the one holding that girl while the music swirled around them, enclosing them in a private world of sensation. What the fuck was wrong with him? He didn’t do exclusive, especially here at the club, where the rules that governed the world outside didn’t apply.
Here, you did a scene with a girl, and you both enjoyed it. Sometimes it led to sex, but if not, there was always another girl available. It was why people came to Club Chastise—to connect in a way that most people still frowned upon. The only rules that applied here were the ones concerned with the well-being and safety of the submissives, who were only hurt as much as they wanted to be.
Darius Szabo, his partner and the club trainer, kept a watchful eye on the spanking rooms, stepping in if things got out of hand. If they did, it was usually because of an inexperienced top, who wasn’t sure just how far he or she could go. Darius offered lessons and provided supervision. Adrian had met him in a similar club in London. They had become friends, and when Adrian decided to open the club, Darius had come over to help run it.
The music sped up, and Cruz and his girl left the dance floor and headed for the bar. Perfect timing.
The bartender selected Adrian’s private label and poured it out. Cruz glanced over, a smile breaking over his face.
“Adrian, it’s been awhile.”
He nodded. “How’s it going?”
“Good, good.” Cruz took a hefty swig of beer and turned back to his companion.
Adrian jogged his arm. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
Cruz swung back, hesitated for a moment. “Sure.” He moved to the side. “Ellen, this is Adrian, an old friend of mine.”
He needed to touch her. Adrian extended a palm and Ellen placed her hand in his. His fingers closed over hers. She was so petite that she barely reached his shoulder.
“Pleasure to meet you, Ellen.”
A smile fluttered over her lips. She was pretty, not beautiful, with long-lashed eyes and a short straight nose. Her mouth was… spectacular. Finely carved lips, the lower full and plush. He imagined her parting those perfect lips to accept his cock and his groin tightened. What was it about this woman?
Ellen looked puzzled for a moment, and then he saw anger flash across her face. Adrian liked saucy girls. He especially liked them bent over his knee with their panties around their ankles.
“It’s not like that. Ellen’s a colleague.”
Ellen pulled away. His fingers tightened until he saw her puzzled glance and let her go. Her hand had felt so right in his. Strange, he wasn’t usually the hand-holding type.
Her voice was barely audible over the music, sweet and low.
“It’s okay. Adrian wouldn’t be,” Cruz paused, “an appropriate choice.”
Ellen looked him over. Her gaze was frankly assessing. Not so submissive then. Intriguing.
Adrian raised a brow. “Choice for what?”
Cruz drained his glass. “We need to talk.”
Lila followed Cruz and Adrian out of the lounge. They turned down a narrow corridor, blessedly quiet after the pounding music on the other side of the door, which led into a conference room. Adrian pulled out a chair for her. Nice manners. He sat down at the dark wood table, one arm stretched along on the surface. He wore an immaculately tailored shirt with expensive-looking cufflinks. Tall, with wide shoulders and trim hips. His dark hair was expertly cut, his clothes obviously custom. He wasn’t conventionally handsome. His eyes were deep set, a light, penetrating blue. His mouth was wide and thin-lipped. High cheekbones and a long jaw. She couldn’t take her eyes off him.
“What’s all this about, Cruz?”
“Our editor had the brilliant idea to write about the life in the e-zine. We got recruited to go undercover and do the research.”
Adrian’s lips quirked. “You, undercover? I gather he doesn’t know.”
Cruz shook his head.
What were they talking about? Cruz took pity on Lila’s lack of a clue.
“I’m in the lifestyle, just not out in my professional life.”
Lila swallowed. Talk about a fish out of water. She must look like an idiot, the last vanilla girl on the planet. That was what the websites she’d visited called girls like her.
Adrian whistled softly. “Sorry, Cruz, I just assumed…”
Cruz waved a hand. “It doesn’t matter. Lila’s a friend, I trust her.”
“Lila? I thought you said her name was Ellen.”
Lila rolled her eyes. “We could hardly go undercover using our real names.”
Adrian ignored her tart response. “Lila. Very pretty, it suits you.”
His pale eyes were full of heat. Why was he looking at her like that? Lila licked her suddenly dry lips. His gaze dropped to her mouth. Something flared to life, deep inside. A flicker of flame, fanned to life by the hunger in his eyes. She shook her head.
Adrian leaned back in his chair, a small smile playing over his lips. He looked like a jungle cat, ready to pounce, and that made her feel like a nervous mouse. Enough of this. She was a professional. Time to start acting like one.
“Well, Cruz, if he’s not ‘appropriate,’ why are we talking to him?” She glanced over at Adrian. “No offense.”
Adrian continued to smile. “You are a naughty girl, aren’t you?”
A spike of heat coursed through her. “Actually, I’m a journalist.”
Adrian laughed softly.
Cruz stared at them both. He didn’t look happy. “Adrian is one of the club owners. I think it’s better if we tell him what we need and get his cooperation.”
Lila nodded. This was Cruz’s world, not hers.
“Grant—he’s our editor, and an all-around asshole. He wants Lila to go undercover and pose as a potential club member. I’m here to provide support and keep an eye on her. Obviously, she’ll need to speak to some people. We’ll use assumed names, of course. It’s a chance to tell our side of the story.”
Adrian steepled his fingers. “Can you guarantee our club members their privacy?”
Cruz paused. “Are you thinking of a legal contract? I don’t think my editor will go for that.”
“I don’t think this is going to work out, Cruz.”
Cruz sighed. “I didn’t think so. The whole thing felt lame to me, too. But it’s not like Lila and I have a choice in the manner. Grant is really living for this story. To be frank, I can’t afford to lose this job.”
“What about you, Lila?”
“I’m in the same boat as Cruz. I need this job.”
“What if we could make everybody in this situation happy?”
“You thought of something?”
“We can give your editor what he wants, without endangering the privacy of our members. Lila can work with me.”
“What do you mean, work with you?”
Adrian turned to her, his smile brilliant. “You can infiltrate the club, but only with me beside you. I’ll walk you through the scene and teach you everything you need to know.”
Cruz rubbed his jaw. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Cruz, don’t you trust me?”
“I trust you not to hurt her, unless she wants you to. But I don’t trust you not to fuck her up somehow. It’s what you do.” Cruz turned to Lila. “He’s a real player—you don’t want to get involved with him.”
“This is a work assignment, Cruz, not an affair. Do you have another idea?”
Cruz blew out a breath. “Fuck.”
Adrian leaned forward. “She’ll be fine. Shall we go back to the bar? Things should be hopping by now.” He stood and held out a hand. Lila swallowed and then placed her hand in his. His fingers closed over hers in a comforting grip.
“It’ll be fine, Lila. You might even enjoy yourself.”
Not likely. “By the way, what’s a spanko?”
Adrian smiled at her. “You’ll see.”
That smile, it really wasn’t fair.