Carra Dalton hadn’t seen the man before today so she shouldn’t jump to conclusions about whether she could trust him, but even from a distance, something about him set her nerves on alert. There was a predator-like quality to the way he held himself and how he constantly assessed his surroundings.
As an employee of Rostel Holdings, she was accustomed to Elites coming and going from what she and her fellow Others called the compound. Most visitors were unimpressive despite their expensive clothing and sleek automobiles. There was a slackness to them. Granted, most of the men sported muscular physiques, but there was something off about the muscles as if they weren’t used for anything except lifting weights. In contrast, many Elite women were slender to the point of gauntness. As she ate all she wanted of what the Rostel gardens produced, Carra sometimes pondered what those well-appointed women allowed to pass their lips. Did men really want to wrap their arms around bone and skin?
The intriguing newcomer sat in the passenger’s seat of a Rostel all-terrain vehicle. Because it was roofless, she could see he was considerably taller than the driver. The two men were engaged in what appeared to be a serious conversation with the driver frequently looking his way while the newcomer appeared to be more interested in his surroundings. Did he see something hostile in the rolling fertile land? She didn’t see how that could be.
As they neared, she realized there was something vaguely familiar about him. His features resembled those of the two Rostel brothers who controlled everything as far as the eye could see. That meant the newcomer was related to the brothers and as such was someone she wouldn’t trust.
Familiar resentment rose in her, allowing her to dismiss the summer heat pressing against her bare arms and legs. Life as an Other was hard no thanks to Elites who treated her people as if they had no rights—which unfortunately they didn’t. Elderly Others spoke longingly of when it didn’t used to be like that, when there wasn’t a Society, but she didn’t dare think about anything except today’s reality.
“It’s him,” Jai whispered. “Pace Rostel.”
Carra glanced at her friend. “Who?”
“I told you about him. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the most complex and maybe the most dangerous male Rostel.”
Even more on alert, Carra willed her voice to remain calm. “What makes you say that?”
“It’s been so long. Damn, but he’s even more imposing than I remember. Built like a bull. I wonder if the stories about where he’s been and what he’s been doing are true. If they are he’s lucky to be alive.”
Jai Sahar had worked at the compound for around ten years, eight longer than Carra had. It was Jai who’d spelled out the activities that took place inside the sprawling building set in the middle of the vast acreage. Thanks to Jai she understood why there were so many rooms and why so many Elite men and women spent extended periods of time within the walls.
She tried to recall what Jai had told her about Pace, something about him never being around because he was in the military and as such charged with keeping Society land safe from less prosperous civilizations. Back then trying to figure out her place in the scheme of things here had been more important than learning about yet another member of the Rostel family, particularly when she might never see him.
“How is he related to Ogden and Lennor?”
“They’re first cousins.”
“Oh,” she said as the vehicle drew so close she could tell Pace Rostel hadn’t shaved recently. She would never call Ogden and Lennor by their first names in their presence. However, in private she and the rest of the Others made no secret of their mutual dislike for the two powerful and arrogant men. If Pace was like them, she wanted nothing to do with him.
“This could go sideways,” Jai warned in a whisper. “Especially if Pace realizes we have no right to these boards.”
It was too late to pretend she hadn’t just put down the two by fours she’d had over her shoulder, no way of concealing the hammer at her waist. Darn it. Other representatives—and she was one of the group—had repeatedly pointed out to management that their housing was falling apart, but their requests were being ignored. She didn’t see what she and Jai were doing as stealing, but a Rostel might not see it the same way.
“This is what your cousins have been talking about,” the driver said as he turned off the engine. “This is blatant thievery and needs to be punished.”
Carra didn’t know the driver’s name but she’d seen him around multiple times. He acted as if he owned the place. The way he’d stared at her left her with no doubt that he’d like to get his hands on her, specifically inside her shorts and between her legs. If he tried, she’d fight him with everything she had in her, including scratching, biting, kicking, and hitting. Whenever an Elite undressed her with his eyes, which happened more often than she wanted to acknowledge, she fantasized about grabbing his cock and twisting. She might not have status within the Society, but she was young, strong, and determined to stand up for herself as a result of her upbringing. Her courage hadn’t failed her for years. She liked sex all right, but it had to be on her terms.
With one of her kind.
“Let me get this straight,” Pace said. His deep voice plowed into her. “My cousins are up in arms because a couple of women want some boards that have been sitting unused on the ground for who knows how long. I don’t get what the big deal is.”
“These women are Others,” the driver said as if that explained everything. “They have no right.”
“What about responsibility?” Carra snapped.
“Don’t.” Jai punched her arm. “You’ll get us in trouble.”
As Carra pondered the wisdom of speaking her mind, Pace Rostel fixed his dark brown eyes on her. His strong, stubble-shaded jaw tightened as did the muscles under his well-worn shirt. He hadn’t done anything designed to intimidate but she’d be a fool if she tried to ignore the masculine aura practically radiating out from him. This was a man used to a hard life, hard in terms of survival and self-reliance. He was nothing like his self-indulgent cousins and their worthless-in-her-mind friends. A long still-healing scar ran from his right elbow to his wrist. Another less noticeable scar started just above his left eyebrow and disappeared into his hairline. Despite those imperfections or maybe because of them, she was certain she’d never seen a more perfect physical specimen. Her body took even more note. He looked military all right, a fighter.
“What do you mean by responsibility?” Pace demanded as he pushed open the half door and stepped onto the ground. His boots had seen countless miles, and his worn jeans did nothing to hide his rocklike thigh muscles. As for the bulge between his legs—impressive!
Jai muttered a curse then nudged Carra’s shoulder. Side by side, they faced Pace.
“We live and work on the compound,” she said. Despite his impact on her nerves, she’d present herself as an intelligent human being. “Having housing is supposed to be part of the arrangement, but what we have is inadequate. Unacceptable.”
“It’s been like that for a long time,” Jai said. “And it’s getting worse.”
Determined to back up what her co-worker had said, Carra threw back her shoulders. Given her D-cup breasts maybe she shouldn’t have since Pace was now looking at that part of her.
“Every Other employee who lives on Rostel property is paid less than minimum wage,” she said although she figured he knew. “The difference is supposed to be made up via a roof over our heads, but what we have are shacks. Every roof leaks, and with the rainy season coming up—”
“We took our concerns first to the foremen then to your cousins when we heard nothing from the foremen,” Jai continued. “We brought pictures documenting conditions.”
“I’d climbed onto the roof of my place,” Carra said, “and had taken pictures so they could see how much rot’s up there.”
“They’re exaggerating,” the driver cut in. “Pace, I was at that so-called meeting. Talk about disrespect on the Others’ part, particularly from the women, including these two. They interrupted. They kept insisting Ogden and Lennor come to employee housing so they could see for themselves.”
Pace sighed. “Which I’m sure my relatives refused to do. No surprise there. So—” Jabbing a finger at the boards at her feet, he took a step toward her. “What do you intend to do with the wood?”
“Make repairs.” No way was she going to let the muscle-bound hunk force her to back down. Hadn’t she learned what it took to survive anger and violence from an early age? Granted, the man warmed certain private parts of her in delicious, heady ways but that didn’t mean she’d let him run roughshod over her. Never had and never would because she’d probably be dead if she ever dropped her guard. One of the few times she had, she’d wound up with broken ribs.
“Do you intend to take off the old roofs?” he asked.
“Some of them are already gone. We pooled our money so we’d have enough for all the materials we believe we need. We’re doing the work ourselves and on our own time.”
“By materials you mean shingles and roofing paper?”
His cousins hadn’t asked a single question, which maybe she should take as a positive sign, but Pace might be deliberately misleading her. He had to be used to dealing with the Society’s enemies, which probably was how he viewed her.
“We’re also replacing some of the sheathing and more trusses than we’d hoped we’d have to. That’s why we needed some two by fours.”
“That’s stealing,” the driver insisted.
“Call it what you want. What matters to us is that we get the new roofs on as soon as possible.”
“Even if that means breaking the law,” Pace said.
“That’s how you see it?” she snapped.
“Disobedience backfires.” His tone was grim. “For the record, I was informed about this situation. My cousins have little patience for anyone who opposes them. What they don’t personally do is crack the whip, at least not in the current context. What’s your name?”
She swallowed around her dry throat. She didn’t want to fight with this big imposing man. In truth, not that she’d ever tell him, she’d rather spend her time with him engaged in an intimate activity. Fuck. You want to fuck him. “Carra Dalton.”
“I thought so. They specifically mentioned you as a ringleader. Much more defiance from you and they’ll fire you. You might be a good worker, but you aren’t worth the trouble.”
The thought of losing her job and being blackballed from getting another within the Society knotted her stomach. She hated having so little control over her life, but if she caved it would only get worse.
“I am a hard worker. We all are. All we ask is consideration.”
“You asked. My cousins refused. You should have waited until you had enough money for the entire project.”
Don’t back down. “We didn’t know what bad shape things were in until we’d removed the old shingles.”
“Take her to the big house.” The driver’s eyes practically glittered. “Have her try to explain her ridiculous stand in there. A little treatment and she’ll show more respect.”
“Is that what it would take?” Pace demanded of her. “You need disciplining?”
What was this? He’d just gotten here and already he was acting like he was in charge? She had no doubt he’d think he’d won the battle between them if she backed down, but she couldn’t. Wouldn’t. She wasn’t just standing up for herself but also for the dozens like her who deserved decent housing.
“I have a right to speak my mind,” she said around her nerves. “Power on your part shouldn’t rob me of a voice.”
To her consternation he chuckled. “Things have changed since I was last here,” he said more to his companion than to her. “How long has this rebellion been going on?”
“Rebellion? What about our human right to roofs over our heads?”
“I’m not in a mood to play word games with you, little lady. Go on. Grab the damn boards and finish what you were doing. You and I will settle up later.”
Not wanting to think about what he meant by settling up, she continued to return his stare. Arguing with Pace Rostel took her back to when his cousins had attempted to intimidate her enough that she’d agree to spend her days and nights inside the main building.
She’d stood her ground then and would now.
“What’s your official position here?” he demanded.
“I’m a general worker.” Nothing special. Doing what I need to in order to survive.
“And you live in employee housing? You don’t have to, if you get my drift.”
“I’m not interested in playing those games.”
“That’s how you see it?”
“Wouldn’t you if roles were reversed? My shack is in the back row. Last one on the left.”
“Shack, huh? You enjoy this.” His eyes shadowed, making her wonder if he was weary. Something about his stance said he’d rather be sitting. Now that she’d been observing him for a while, she sensed he wanted to be alone. “Standing your ground no matter the consequences.”
“I don’t know any other way to be.” She debated saying more and maybe would have if she hadn’t been intrigued by what might be exhaustion on his part. She couldn’t help but wonder what he’d been doing recently and how he’d been injured. “I wouldn’t be alive if I didn’t stand up for myself.”
“There’s believing and there’s pretending things are different from what they are.”
Unable to fully grasp what he was trying to tell her, she nevertheless nodded. “I understand reality. Had it driven into me at an early age.”
“Reality didn’t hit me until I was an adult, but it’s made up for the slow start.” He ran his fingers over the red scar on his forearm. “Left one hell of an impression.” Eyes hard, he shook his head. “Same thing is going to happen to you unless you change your attitude.”
“I don’t want to think what he was talking about,” Jai said as the compound vehicle disappeared from view. “It wasn’t a threat. It was a promise.”
“Why?” Carra stared in the direction he’d gone. Being around Pace Rostel was like being near one of the guard dogs kept chained outside the big house. “If he’s going to get that upset over our wanting a few boards—”
“Honey, we know Ogden and Lennor. They threaten, but they don’t carry through. Their cousin’s a different beast. I heard he and his brother—”
“There’s another like him?”
“I don’t know how alike they are except physically. They’re twins, fraternal.”
The notion of this place having to accommodate more than one big, intense, scarred man had her more off-balance than she wanted to admit. No matter how hard and long she worked today, Pace would find his way into her dreams.
Erotic dreams full of sweat and other body fluids. Crying out in the moment of climax and begging for another. Doing whatever it took to get something she craved.
“Tanner. Yeah, that’s the brother’s name.” Jai interrupted her thoughts. “From what I understand their parents are involved with international diplomacy, and the family moved around a lot when the twins were growing up.” She shook her head. “I don’t know how I’d feel about not having a home base but I’d love to see more of the world than I have. I know so little about what exists beyond the Society’s boundaries.”
Thanks to the limited education available to Others, there were many holes in her comprehension of the world. For the most part school had been boring. Her teachers had all been Others who churned out one programed lesson after another. Every Other student read the same books, worked on the same math problems. Geography was taught in the sixth grade, what passed for history in the eighth, philosophy the first half of the ninth. Because she hadn’t had access to any but the required textbooks, she’d been out of school and on her own before she began to grasp how much she didn’t know. She longed to add to her knowledge but suspected the Elites deliberately prevented that from happening.
“Do you envy Pace Rostel?” she asked.
“In a way. How about you? If you could, would you travel?”
“That and a million other things.” Carra had made list upon list of what she’d do if she had money, time, and a better standing within the Society but those lists only made her want to scream in frustration. Her world was what it was, small. “However, what matters is repairing the rafters before someone takes away these boards.”
“You’re right, unfortunately. We can only hope Pace decides he has better things to do than deal with us. I can’t imagine he appreciates his cousins dumping everything in his lap, but I’m sure they did.”
“He looked tired to me. Maybe he’ll head right for bed.”
Jai picked up the board at her feet. “If this is his homecoming you can bet his cousins have a party planned. A party complete with as many bed partners as he can handle.”
“I’m sure.” And I’m not invited, darn it. “I wonder if he intends to live here.”
“Maybe, at least for a while. As a Rostel, he has legal claim to a share of everything that carries the name. Hmm. I wonder if Ogden and Lennor aren’t crazy about having to share. What do I mean, wonder? They’re greedy. What would a feud be like?”
Snatching up the boards, Carra headed toward where the Others lived. She had no doubt the last thing Ogden and Lennor would want was to get into a physical altercation with Pace. He could do some serious damage to them.
And to anyone who tried to oppose him.
“You’re frowning,” Jai said. “What are you thinking?”
“About how excited I am to be getting back on that roof.”
The truth was there were a lot of things she’d rather do than look down at the ground while her long-healed ribs protested the strain she was putting on them, but being on the roof might be safer than standing toe to toe with Pace Rostel. He wouldn’t treat her as if she was an enemy soldier, but if he decided he wanted her to do something, he’d find a way to make her.
A way that might include ordering her to pull down her shorts and drape herself over his knees.
Was it more like a given?
“Welcome back!” Lennor exclaimed from his perch on the expansive porch as Pace headed for the stairs. “Sorry I missed you earlier, but Ogden and I were getting things ready for a party the likes of which you aren’t going to forget. I trust Cliff gave you the grand tour.”
Reaching his cousin, Pace wrapped his long, strong fingers around the whiskey glass he figured was for him. After the first few days following the attack that had nearly cost him his life, he’d refused to take anything for the pain but today his body was reminding him of what it had gone through. Hopefully a drink or two would distract him from the drawing sensation where a knife had sliced his forearm and the ache in his still-healing ribs.
Judging by Lennor’s ruddy cheeks, he wasn’t on his first drink of the day. Pace didn’t care enough about where Ogden might be to ask. Right now not a hell of a lot mattered beyond getting some sleep, hopefully dreamless sleep, followed by satisfying a certain itch.
“He did. That’s quite the rig.”
“Isn’t it? I like that it’s open.” Lennor lifted his glass to his mouth and swallowed. “Sit down. Nothing going to happen for about an hour when the first ladies are due to arrive. Plenty of time for you to loosen and relax. How was your flight?”
“Not bad. Unfortunately once I landed I had to spend too damn long debriefing at Society headquarters.”
“Is that it then? Your official commitment is over? You’re a free man?”
“It depends on what you consider free.” He indicated his forearm. “This is a permanent reminder.”
“At least you don’t have to go back, right? According to the news, peace talks are underway.”
Even though he’d never been in the service, Lennor should know the world beyond the borders was always in a state of flux. Something could blow up at any moment. Hell, something was always blowing up.
“I don’t know about peace talks, but the military’s backing off while the politicians take a run at establishing a longer lasting ceasefire.”
“Could you be called back to work?”
“Work? Interesting way of putting things,” he said as he settled himself in the chair next to where Lennor was sitting. He stretched out his legs, pleased to discover the chair was large enough to comfortably accommodate his body. If his cousins had selected this one with him in mind he appreciated it. “How is this year’s growing season going?” he asked to change the subject. “Do you think you’ll have enough hay for all your cattle?”
“Pretty sure. If we don’t we can always buy. We’ll have to if our negotiations about buying the Fletcher herd go through.”
“You want more cattle? “
“The Society will buy all the beef we can get to them so yes. They know we put out a quality product and more constantly than the Fletcher operation has done. Have you seen the horses?”
“From a distance. They look good.”
“Don’t they? I bet you’re looking forward to getting in the saddle.”
“I am, but my immediate priority is making sure Bruce gets here.”
“I told you about the dog I found in the Northland.” He deliberately didn’t mention that Northland was where he’d been wounded the last time. “I did my best to get him approved to fly with me, but the country’s falling apart. Warlords killing each other while the government tries to grab control of what banking exists there. Mark my words, our military isn’t done with them and might never be. “
“How big is this mutt? I hope he isn’t one of those scrawny street curs our dogs want to turn into lunch.”
There’d always been guard dogs at the Rostel property. His parents, brother, and he had spent what down time they had here when he and Tanner were growing up. He’d loved exploring the thousands of acres, most of the time on horseback. His dad had explained that their side of the family could have insisted the land be divided up long ago, but neither of his parents had wanted the responsibility.
Tanner and he might eventually decide to claim their birthright, but Tanner was still in the military and Pace was focused on one thing. That thing didn’t require much land just a few Rostel acres. One thing about being half owners, Ogden and Lennor had always been careful to remain in his and Tanner’s good graces. He just wished they were equally devoted to the business. Instead they indulged themselves and their hanger-on friends in what they called pleasures of the flesh and whips. Not that such pleasures didn’t have a certain appeal, but he had his priorities. They no longer included putting a submissive or wannabe submissive female through her paces.
“Bruce can hold his own in a fight,” he said. “He had to be tough to survive in that wrecked and desperate country.” He took another sip, concentrating on the whiskey burn. “Speaking of tough, I met two of your employees. The younger woman stood her ground more than I would have expected considering her position.”
“You have to be talking about Carra Dalton. I keep meaning to take her in hand but haven’t had the time.”
Lennor grinned. “Wait until things get going tonight. It won’t take long for you to remember what it’s like to be a dom. Some of the Others we employ are pushier than we want, which would be more of a problem if they weren’t such hard workers. The matter of bringing the rebels into line comes down to priorities for Ogden and me. We have a lot of responsibilities. We deserve to reward ourselves.”
Lennor grinned again, revealing a set of teeth too white to be natural. “You deserve to get back in the saddle more than we do.”
Pace knew what his cousin meant. He figured there wasn’t anyone within a hundred-mile radius who didn’t know about the BDSM activities that took place here. Hell, he’d been part of the scene during his late teens and early twenties, which now felt as if they’d happened a million years ago.
During the few days his brother had been here last winter, Tanner had told him that Ogden and Lennor had become even more addicted to carrying out the dominant roles in their relationships with women. The women had been willing enough to act like submissives. Some appeared to be totally onboard while he suspected money played a major role for others. Tanner had participated the first time the game had been offered to him but after that he’d found excuses not to participate.
“I don’t get make-believe whipping or being whipped. The damn game sure as hell didn’t turn me on,” Tanner had told him. “Not when there are plenty of valid and necessary reasons to bring a woman into line.”
Pace felt the same way, ever since he’d felt compelled to harshly spank a Northland woman who’d tried to steal his weapons. She’d been after something to trade for what she considered a necessity, but his weapons were the only thing that stood between him and death. He felt no hesitancy about killing a man intent on doing the same to him but he’d never killed a woman. Why would he when he had other ways of teaching her the error of her ways? Just thinking about applying his hand or belt to a naked feminine ass after he’d determined the owner of said ass deserved it heated his blood.
“So what did you think of your tour of the place?” Lennor asked. “Other than confronting Carra, I trust it was a welcome change from what you’ve been experiencing.”
You’ll never understand. “I had Cliff take me to employee housing,” he said. “Carra’s right. Where they live needs work.”
“All in good time. What the Others we employ don’t understand is how much time and effort it takes to expand our cattle operation. They know nothing about the market end of things. They think all Ogden and I have to concern ourselves with is their wants.”
“Have you explained those things to them?”
Lennor snorted. “I’m not about to open the books to the help. It’s operations like ours that keeps the Society’s economy going. We employ a lot of Others. They should be grateful.”
In a way Pace agreed. The Society had come into being in the wake of an economic downfall that had nearly destroyed the world. If it hadn’t been for moneyed Elites, invaders probably would have ransacked the land and everything on it. Instead, Elites had pooled their resources to finance the military, back the banks, and provide basic necessities for everyone. Now Elites were reaping the benefits of the risks they’d taken. The roofs they’d provided for Others might not be as watertight as Carra wanted, but it was a hell of a lot better than homelessness.
“Enough business talk,” Lennor announced. “We haven’t seen you in how long? Believe me, you’re going to be glad you came here.”
Not caring whether he agreed, Pace lifted his glass and swallowed. The longer he sat with alcohol in his system, the less inclined he was to do anything else. There was no need to be on guard, no wondering if he’d still be alive come tomorrow morning. No dreading middle of the night images. Bird and other sounds eased him past memories of weapons being fired and the cries of the wounded and dying.
“I trust you haven’t forgotten how satisfying it can be to have a woman at your knees with her mouth open and ready to receive your—”
“That’s on tonight’s agenda?”
Lennor punched his arm, frowning as his knuckles made contact with solid muscle. “Did you expect anything else? You’re going to have your choice of submissives delighted to do your bidding. In fact, you don’t have to choose just one.”
“Where do they come from?”
“Here and there. What can I say? The word has gotten out. I swear my secretary deals with daily inquiries from wannabe doms and submissives. We get a few duds but not many. It’s amazing how many people harbor the desire to walk on the dark side.”
Pace had once been part of what was referred to as a hobby. He’d become damn good at his role if it could be called that, but that was a lifetime ago. Back when he didn’t understand how precious life was.
“I need to clean up,” he said without moving. “There’s only so much I can expect any woman to endure.”
“Don’t worry about that. The ladies can hardly wait to meet you and do your bidding. Look, I don’t want to talk about this much because well, my brother and I figure it’s something you’d rather not think about, but if anyone deserves a good time it’s you. When you’re ready to tell us how you got that scar on your arm, just say so.”
His cousins didn’t know the half of it, not that he’d ever tell them. But Lennor was right. He wanted to forget.
He wasn’t sure he ever could.