It’s not me, it’s you. At first, I’d thought it was an inversion of the most tired breakup line in history. That was all it took for my heart to turn to lead and drop to my stomach, but as he kept talking I began to go from hot to cold so often that I idly wondered if it was possible for a woman to go through menopause at twenty-nine.
He’d meant exactly what he’d said, as it turned out. He was breaking up with me, and refusing to take any blame for it, though he was the one breaking my heart.
“I just think we’re ill-suited. You need a man who’s more… to your tastes.”
My lips had sealed shut somewhere during his diatribe, otherwise I would have told him that it was his job to satisfy my tastes. That a real man could have. But I didn’t say any of that—I didn’t say anything at all, and really, it was for the best. I could tell by the fever pitch of his voice that he’d probably agonized over this. He’d pay a fortune for this long-distance breakup call placed from Spain. Served him right, for being a coward. He was coming back on Friday—he could have waited to tell me then, in person. But even as my heart shattered into teeny, tiny pieces I wasn’t surprised. It was exactly the type of move I would have expected Daniel to make.
“Don’t you agree, Anna?”
Ah, now he was going to try to force me to agree that the breakup was a mutual idea? That I’d given the last three years of my life for nothing? Not a chance.
“And to be honest, I don’t think you need me. You’re very independent that way. Every guy wants to feel needed, you know?” he pressed on when I didn’t answer.
I did know. What I knew was that he was making a whole host of excuses and each one sounded hollower than the one before it.
“Anna? Are you there?”
I could make out the impatience in his voice, detectable over the line even though he was hundreds of miles away. I opened my mouth to reply, but realized I had nothing to say. Well, actually, I had plenty I wanted to say, but I knew none of it would make a difference. His mind was made up. So instead, without a word, I gently laid the phone back in its cradle and stared at it.
My mind swirled with nothingness. I felt, in that moment, half-dead, or as good as. I couldn’t make two thoughts string themselves together. I couldn’t move. I just sat immobile in my high-backed desk chair, looking listlessly at the phone. Every so often my gaze would stray to the pale yellow Post-its next to it.
I didn’t even turn toward the sound of the voice. Not that James would pause long enough for an answer. He always walked in like a whirlwind—I doubted he’d even notice my shell-shocked state.
“I was dropping by to do lunch. It’s Thursday. The restaurant is serving beef lo mein.”
It was a myth that every Asian person liked Chinese food. I thought about telling him that, but I still was having some trouble making my lips work. It was either that, or I simply lacked the energy to try.
Another voice. This one was Stephanie, my secretary. I forced myself to move my eyes from the silent phone—I couldn’t believe he hadn’t called back. I’d hung up on him while he’d been breaking up a three-year relationship. Didn’t that warrant another phone call? Didn’t I deserve that much? I tried to focus on Stephanie and her flushed, anxious face. Just the sight of it made me sigh.
As she launched into a harried, detailed explanation of some problem, I found my eyes drawn to James instead. He was leaning against the doorway, watching me with assessing brown eyes. I turned away and did my best to focus on Stephanie. I’d never liked when James looked at me like that—like I was a sub he particularly wanted to top. Any other man I’d stare down without a moment’s thought, but somehow the same withering glare seemed to have no effect on James.
“I am so, so sorry, Ms. Choo,” she was saying, tripping over her words to the point of blabbering. “I caught the mistake and while Dr. Zimmerman was very upset, he said that as long as it could be rectified…”
She was wringing her hands as she waited for me to respond. I still felt chilled down to the bone, noting her anxious eyes and pale face with detached interest. “It was an avoidable mistake,” I said without feeling. “What is Dr. Zimmerman wanting?”
“A f-free stay,” she stammered, her pale skin turning scarlet.
“Is that all?”
“N-no, ma’am. He’s requested… I mean, he says he… he has to see you i-in the d-dungeon while he’s here.”
“Hmm.” I tapped my nails on my desk, the click against the wood the only sign of my displeasure. “Very well. If this happens again, I don’t think I have to tell you what will happen.”
“Good. You may go.”
She didn’t need to get permission twice. Stephanie fled from my room as though her feet were on fire. Though, truthfully she was probably trying to escape before her ass was. I watched her go without comment.
I’d almost forgotten James was standing there until I heard his long, low whistle. Knowing that he wouldn’t leave on his own, I forced myself to turn toward him once more.
“I can’t do lunch today. I’m sorry.”
James walked into my office with long-legged strides without being invited. Not that he ever waited to be asked. “What’s wrong?”
I did a double-take. I thought my expression had been well-schooled. There was no way he could read anything that had happened on my face… could he? “Nothing’s wrong. What would be wrong?”
“I don’t know.” He picked up one of the apples I had sitting on my desk and took a bite. Munching, he said, “You sent your secretary off in tears, but oddly, you didn’t give her a reason to cry.”
Ah, of course. After her confession he’d been expecting a show. “You were standing there.”
“So?” He arched a dark brow. “That’s never stopped you before.”
I cleared my throat. “I have a lot of work to do, James, so if you could—”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he declared in his matter-of-fact way, plopping down in the chair across from my desk, “until you tell me what’s wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong!” I threw my hands up in exasperation, going from stiff and emotionless to irritated in two seconds flat. “I just want you to leave!”
Far from being offended, however, a slow smile spread across his face. Damn it. Only then did I realize what I’d done wrong. I never, ever raised my voice. Not to an errant secretary being called into my office on her third offense of the day, or to a disobedient subbie in the dungeon. And everyone knew it, none better than James. Damn him.
“You were saying?”
I got to my feet, taking advantage of the five-inch heels that added to my already five-six height. I gave him my most imperious stare and said frostily, “I have things to do. I’d appreciate if you’d leave me to them.”
If anything, his grin grew. In the frame of mind I was in just then, I wanted to stomp across the room and rip it off his arrogant face. “I told you: I will, but only when—”
“Fine, have it your way. Daniel broke off our engagement. Is that what you wanted to hear?” I snapped. My fists had unconsciously clenched at my sides.
That wiped the smirk off his face, and fast. I would have been glad, if it had been for any other reason. But now that I’d come clean to him without even half an hour to myself to digest this life-changing surprise, there would be no going back.
He was on his feet in an instant, moving toward me. Once I realized what he was going to do, I moved back, my hands up in the air.
“Please. Don’t.” The idea of having anyone touch me right now was nauseating. I knew once he did, I would be powerless to stop the tears that threatened. And then it would be all over. I was a dominatrix and I knew without having to check the guidebook that I wasn’t allowed to cry. Not here, where everyone knew me as an unforgiving mistress of both pleasure and pain.
James, following my train of thought, looked over at the open doorway. “I could close the door, if you want.”
“No. Not here. I just can’t.” I wasn’t accustomed to repeating myself, and certainly not to pleading, but all of my preferences flew out the window in that moment.
Heedless to my words, he turned and went to the door, closing it softly. “Are you going to tell me what happened?” he asked once we were facing one another again.
I shook my head. How could I explain something that I myself didn’t understand? Maybe I would tell him, once I’d had the time to process everything and come up with a lie that wasn’t quite as shameful as the truth.
“You know what, I think you should take the rest of the day off. You’re not in any shape to work today.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him to mind his own damn business and to leave my office. That’s what Mistress Anna would say, if not in such a crass manner. But I wasn’t Mistress Anna right now—I didn’t know who the hell I was. Damn Daniel and his stupid, out-of-the-blue breakup call.
“Anna? Do you need me to walk you to the car? Or do you need a ride?”
“No,” I said slowly, trying to get a hold of my thoughts that were, at that moment, slippery as baby eels at the bottom of the ocean. “I can’t leave. There’s too much to do—”
“And you’re not in any shape to do it,” he interrupted, his voice quiet but firm.
“Geoffrey isn’t here, and—”
“No, he and Nikki are still on their honeymoon. She made him promise no cell phones,” James said with a wince. “But I’m in charge, remember?”
Slowly, the fog around my brain began to clear a bit. “No.” I shook my head. That wasn’t right. “No, Geoff left me in charge. That’s why I’m in the office today instead of…” In the dungeon. Now it all seemed like such a mistake, the cosmos, or the powers that be playing a sick joke on me. If I’d been in the dungeon, I never would have gotten the call in the first place. Maybe Daniel would have changed his mind. Maybe he would have, at the very least, found a better way to tell me than the harsh, hateful words he’d used.
“And if you’re at home, I’m in charge.” His voice was still gentle, but there was an underlining authoritativeness that I couldn’t ignore.
“I’m not going home,” I said, but I was far from convincing. I could tell by the look on his face.
“OK,” he agreed quickly. Too quickly. I glared at him, waiting for him to reveal the card he surely had hiding up his sleeve. “You stay, but I’m putting it out that you’re not to be disturbed. No phone calls, no visitors, no paperwork. Got it?”
The only thing I could do was nod. Even that small movement of my head felt like too much effort. It was all I could do to make it back to my desk and plop back down in my chair.
I looked up sharply to see if he was teasing me, but I only saw concern in his features. “I really will be all right.” He nodded, but I didn’t believe me, either.
“I’ll get you some lunch. Any preferences?”
“Anything but lo mein,” I told him with a wry smile.
“Ouch. Got it.”
As soon as he left and the door closed behind him, I slid out of my chair and did something I hadn’t done since I was eight. I crawled underneath my desk and hid, hugging my legs to my chest and resting my head on my knees. Then and only then did I allow the first tear to come.
There was no doubt about it, I was worried. I hadn’t seen Anna cry since we were six years old, and even though I still hadn’t seen her tears, I was all too aware that I had come close. Too close. Some people couldn’t stand the sight of blood or vomit. For me, a woman’s tears were my kryptonite. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t just any tears—ones from a spanking, well-deserved or erotic, or happy tears were just fine. But when they were of the heart-wrenching variety, I just couldn’t bear to see them.
In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to track down that stupid, sniveling so-called ex-fiancé of hers and punch him in the mouth.
But I wouldn’t. Because what I also wanted to do was shake his hand.
Not for making her cry, of course, never that, but for setting her free to find someone much more worthy of her. Anna had never seemed to understand what I’d always known from the moment she’d shown me her engagement ring: that she didn’t belong with anyone but me. Actually, I’d known that since the third grade, but I’d done an admirable job of keeping it to myself.
Anna and I had grown up across the street from one another. She’d been my first friend, and a regular addition at the dinner table. Of course, at the time I’d been more interested in showing off my marble collection or hunting down bugs to add to my ‘museum.’ I had developed a grudging respect for Anna even then, because when I’d first shown her my box of labeled, dead bugs I’d expected her to scream. I’d been tensing for it, getting excited in a way that only a six-year-old can while anticipating scaring a girl. She’d regarded it with cool eyes and pronounced it ‘neat.’ She hadn’t even flinched. Not even that, but the next day we’d gone hunting for them together.
Things had gone much the same way for the next five years, though bug hunts eventually turned into horror movie marathons when our parents went out, or video game sessions when they were home.
Then, in third grade my dad got a new job in a different city. We’d made the two-hundred-mile trek, only after Anna and I had promised to write every day and call every week. It was a promise we’d kept, for a little while. But like all kids, out of sight, out of mind, and other things and relationships began to take precedence.
Maybe I never would have thought of her again, if we hadn’t both gone to the same college. It was kind of funny, in that weird way that things that are first embarrassing become funny. I’d hit on her the first day of freshman biology, when I’d glimpsed her pretty, oval face framed by a shiny curtain of long, dark hair. She told me, very politely in that rich, soft voice, to get lost. And I’d launched into a rebuttal I’d perfected in high school, the one telling her all the reasons why she should give me a chance. At the time, I didn’t think it a shame that I’d had to use it so often.
But then she’d turned her almond-shaped brown eyes on me, given a little half-smile, and said, “You never could talk me into changing my mind, not back when we used to fight over who got to be what piece in Monopoly, and you won’t now.”
I’d looked at her in true bewilderment, but slowly my mind began to tell me what she’d already known. Before my very eyes, her very beautiful, adult face changed until I could see my first playmate. I quickly shook my head to clear the vision.
“Oh, and that’s another thing,” she’d added. “Next time, get a girl’s name before you ask her out.”
I’d found it to be very sound advice—if I could keep a conversation going long enough to exchange names with a girl, it turned out she was much more likely to accept an invitation to dinner. Of course, by the time I hit junior year and started working out daily at the gym and exchanged my glasses for contacts, I had girls asking for my name. It had been that way ever since, not that either had seemed to do much to change me in Anna’s eyes.
It was a shame; she had such beautiful, expressive eyes.
Eventually, I’d gotten over my little crush. Or at least stuffed it down so deep that I didn’t even think about it until I happened to run into her at a college party—not that she seemed to go to many—or passed her in the hallway. Then that hope would spring up, an eternal flame, and die back down nearly as soon as it had come, because Anna hadn’t stayed to talk very long.
I’d met Geoff my final year of pre-med. I was going to be a doctor—I’d been walking the narrow path my parents had set for me from the day I was born—and I was always bored to tears. I never knew how Geoffrey could tell in one look, but somehow, he knew. He’d sat down to me one day in the cafeteria. I’d had my torts book in front of me, unopened. I was debating between finding the motivation to open it and perhaps pretending to lose it when he’d joined me. I’d seen him around before. We had been in a few of the same classes over the years, but probably had exchanged only a handful of words. Yet, when he took the seat across from me, Geoffrey talked to me like we were old friends.
After a while, we were just that. I couldn’t have said what drew me to him at the time. Now, I know I was seeing something of myself reflected in him. A need to belong to something more fulfilling, to create my own path. I’d known in a glance that Geoffrey came from a wealthy family. Most people would assume that would give him license to do as he damn well pleased, but I knew from that first conversation in the cafeteria that he was just as trapped as I found myself by my parents’ expectations.
When he’d first told me his plan for creating the Best Kept Secret, I was skeptical. Could there really be women who would pay to be dominated? Not that it wasn’t something I would do for free, but a man still had to make a living. Geoffrey was nothing if not a master with words. He painted pictures of a place where debauchery was something to be celebrated. A safe haven for every type of kink, where people didn’t need to fear being judged and could instead be liberated.
The counseling had been Anna’s baby, of course. I’d never forget the day that she met us at the coffee shop. I’d thought I was meeting Geoff there with his other business associate—when I saw her, in a clean-cut, white linen dress suit and her shiny, long black hair twisted up in a chignon, my eyes had grown wide for more than one reason. If Geoff had noticed my utter shock, he’d said nothing.
Anna had shaken my hand as though we were strangers. She didn’t seem put off by the fact that we’d been on a first-name basis since we could count to ten, so I’d tried to mimic her calm and had taken my seat. She’d immediately launched into an eloquent speech about why counseling as well as classes on BDSM and all things kink should be provided for spouses and significant others who wanted to understand and please their partner. It was something only a woman would think of, I’d thought at the time. I’d listened with a half-smirk, sure that Geoffrey would agree with me without my having to say a word.
But, much to my surprise, he’d greeted her ideas with enthusiasm. Apparently he too recognized the need for an outside perspective for partners of people who didn’t understand the deep, pulsing need of a certain fetish. Not only that, Anna insisted, but those who were willing could learn how to please their partners. When she finished her presentation, she sat back and gave me a pointed look as if daring me to disagree. There was no need—by the time she’d finished, she’d managed to half-convince me.
She’d had her reasons for thinking such a thing was needed, and, as it turned out, so did Geoff. Both of them seemed to have a fetish for domination that was either unknown or unshared with their partner. Now myself, I’d never had that problem. I seemed to have a gift for being able to tell what a woman was into merely by looking. Much like, it seemed to me, Geoff had found me. The only problem I had was not being able to find one who could hold my interest for long.
But Anna… she was a different story entirely. Not that I had much of a chance there. She’d made that clear years ago, and if her opinion had ever changed, she hadn’t given me any reason to suspect it. Still, I felt protective of her and seeing this normally clear-headed, focused woman crumple right before my eyes was unsettling. This was the part of dealing with women that I found downright unnerving. I was good with the kissing—boy, was I down with the kissing. I could even do cuddling, and needless to say, I knew how to make a girl come until she felt sure mine was the only name she’d ever had on her lips. But the whole shoulder-to-cry-on thing… that I wasn’t as good at. Not that I didn’t want to be. I understood that there came a time when it was a necessity of being in a relationship, but that didn’t mean it was my specialty. In fact, truth be told, I sucked at it, which probably explained why I didn’t manage to stay in a relationship for very long. The minute we got to the point where the waterworks started, I just shut down. Women, I’d found, didn’t take too well to that.
Maybe that was why I’d been drawn to Anna from the very beginning. She was a strong, independent woman. No one who’d ever spoken more than two words to her would ever be able to imagine her crying. Except that right now, she was close enough that I could see it happening, and soon, only I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do about it. If flying to China, or wherever the fuck that idiot ex-fiancé of hers was and beating his ass would have helped, I would have called my travel agent. Somehow, though, I didn’t think it would endear me any to the lady in question.
There was only one thing I could think of to do and it was the thing she’d told me she wouldn’t do. Funny, if it had been any other woman I would have insisted on having my way, but Anna was different. Hadn’t she spent every day I’d been in her company proving that? She didn’t need a man telling her what to do.
Still, I was running out of options. I made a quick stop by the onsite restaurant and picked up two sandwiches, a bag of chips, and an apple. While I waited I texted Fabio to let him know that Anna and I would be off premise for a short time and to hold down the fort. Once I’d gotten the lunch I’d ordered, I headed back to Anna’s office, walking with purpose and a grim determination. My mind was made up and she’d just have to accept it, whether she wanted to or not.
Only once I eased the door open, gently shutting it closed behind me, I turned around and saw that I was alone in an empty room.
“Anna?” I called out, my brow furrowing. I had told her to stay put, hadn’t I? Not that it would have been all that surprising if she’d done as she pleased—she’d made a habit of doing just that, and it wasn’t like she answered to me, anyway. “Anna, I got you some lunch. Are you here?”
I was starting to feel pretty ridiculous talking to myself until I heard it: a soft sniffling that was coming from somewhere in the room. Oh, man. She really was crying now, wasn’t she? “Anna?”
The only answer was a muffled, “Can you come back later?”
I hesitated, weighing my options. On the one hand, if she was a weepy mess, I didn’t want to see her any more than she wanted me to. On the other, if what she really needed was to get home—and I believed that she did—then she wasn’t going to get there on her own. Today might be the only day in history that she ever needed my help and I didn’t want the record to reflect that I’d shied away because of a few tears.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Her voice sounded more piteous than before, and I found myself bracing for what I’d find as I moved toward the sound. I realized, with some surprise, that she’d tucked herself away underneath her desk. I crouched down beside it and peeked inside. Her knees were pulled up and she’d made a pillow with her arms to bury her face into.
“Anna? It’s time to come out now. I’m going to take you home.”
“I don’t want to go home,” she objected, with little feeling behind the words.
I couldn’t help but think that, at present, she didn’t know what she wanted. It was so unlike the take-charge, give-‘em-hell woman that I knew that I couldn’t help but feel bad for her. “You’re no good here,” I said, as gently as I could.
“Ha,” Anna laughed bitterly. “To hear Daniel tell it, I’m little use to anyone.”
“Come on, now. You know that’s not true. But right now, you need to be taken care of, not take care of others. Come on out so that I can take you home.”
“I just need a few minutes and I’ll be fine,” she sniffled.
I was quickly losing my patience. I wasn’t used to having women argue with my orders—or, at least I wasn’t used to letting them. Anna had always been the rare exception, and it looked like I was going to have to change that, at least for now.
“I’m not going to ask you again.”
At the sound of my stern, forceful words her head shot up and as she glared at me I got my first good look at her tear-stained cheeks. I expected to be queasy at the sight—normally, that crumpled, broken look women got when they cried made me feel seasick. But Anna was every bit as beautiful beneath her tears and right now she was glowering at me with a fierce strength in her red-rimmed eyes.
Normally, such a look from her would have made me back off, but not this time. I knew I was right, whether she liked it or not.
“You need to go home,” I repeated, my voice just as firm. “Come on, I’ll drive you.”
“I just said—”
“I heard you,” I interrupted smoothly. “And I told you you’re going home. I’ve already told Fabio that he’s in charge, so the sooner we leave the better, before the littles lose all their nurses.”
That at least got her to crack a smile though she didn’t move a muscle.
“Come on, Anna.” I offered her a hand. Her lips parted, as though she would offer another argument, but before she could I grabbed her arm and gently began to pull her out, ignoring the indignant glower she gave me. “I brought you a sandwich.” I picked the bag up off the floor where I’d set it down and offered it to her.
She batted it to the floor, her fists clenching. “I don’t know who you think you are—”
“Master James,” I reminded her with a grin that was more amused that dominant at the moment.
“You are not Master James to me,” she reminded me through clenched teeth, “and you never will be.”
Oh, the gauntlet had been thrown. Unbidden, an image popped into my head of Anna being suspended from the ceiling while I whipped her with slow, stinging lashes. My cock was starting to tent my pants before I snapped out of it. Such a fantasy was ridiculous. Though she was on the floor glaring at me, looking as tightly coiled as any sub in need of a good spanking, she was Mistress Anna. It wouldn’t do to try to cow her now, when she was at her lowest. Besides, I was dubious that any man would ever be able to claim that honor.
“Fair enough.” I kept my tone even. “But you’re clearly in no condition to run a business right now. Any other day, and you’d be the first choice, you know that. But given your current… circumstances, you should go home and give yourself a chance to… recover.”
She glared at me a moment longer, pushed away the hand that was still lowered toward her, and stood, brushing off imaginary lint off her pants. “Fine. But I’m going to work from home and not because you told me to.”
I knew when to close the subject on a matter and this was one of those times. “I got you half a chicken salad sandwich and half a Reuben.”
Anna rolled her eyes as though she found fault with everything, including my sandwich choices, but I let it pass without comment. I knew that right now she’d find fault with anyone in front of her and I was just fortunate—or not so, as the case may be—to be that one.
“If we’re going, let’s go.”
If she were my sub right now, she’d be getting the daylights paddled out of her sweet behind, I couldn’t resist thinking. But I didn’t need to be thinking of Anna’s behind right now, at least not in any context other than getting it home.
Anna was stubbornly silent on the entire drive to her house, except for the few times I needed to ask for directions. It occurred to me that I’d never seen where she lived before. I didn’t know what I’d expected, really—I’d never thought about it. But somehow, when we pulled in front of her modest one-story house with its flowerbox around the mailbox and attractive white and charcoal brick columns, it fit her to a tee. I had the sudden feeling that I would have known it was her house even if I’d stumbled upon it on a casual Sunday drive around town. It just suited her somehow.
She didn’t even so much as mumble a thank-you. Instead, she flung open the passenger side door and climbed out without a word.
I hadn’t planned on getting out, but somehow that defiant gesture was one too many. When she stomped around to the curb I opened my door and joined her.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, her almond eyes narrowed.
“I’m walking you to the door.”
“I’m perfectly capable of—”
Before I even realized I was going to do it, my hand shot out and landed sharply on her bottom. I didn’t know who was more surprised—me, for my daring, or her for having been on the receiving end.
But it did accomplish one thing: as her eyes widened in surprise, her protests and angry glares stopped. Seizing the opportunity, my hand closed down around her arm and I began marching her to her front door. She didn’t protest again, nor did she try to pull away. I didn’t know what I would have done or said if she had, but I got the feeling she wasn’t willing to risk it.
“I hope you’re able to get some rest,” I offered softly. Deciding to surprise us both once more, I leaned down and kissed her on the forehead before I turned and headed back to the car. I didn’t look back, not until I had my engine turned back on and I was prepared to leave. Only then did I risk a glance at the door. The doorstep I’d left her on was empty, looking so peaceful and undisturbed that I could have thought I’d imagined the whole thing.