“Val, Val, Val… I give you credit for not claiming this was Photoshopped, but really– five years later you’re still calling her ‘Val’ but you opened me in my most private space just last night and you still call me ‘Julia’ so don’t tell me it’s over with her.”

“I said no interruption, if you recall.”

“Sorry.”

“I will probably start calling you “Jul” in time, but Julia fits you better, it’s prettier–like you. Anyway, we met when the board of Ladies World was running out of cash options and looking for an infusion of capital. She was part of the process. I liked her immediately. She was so headstrong and smart. Val is driven and able, she is like the salmon that swim upstream–always pushing, always forging ahead.”

She’s also got long legs, an hourglass figure, and red hair that draws men to her like a beacon, I think to myself, but refrain from interrupting him. He reads my mind.

“Val is very attractive, and that certainly doesn’t hurt. In fact, she uses it quite well when the need arises. She’s, well, she’s a lot like you—amazing and strong, attractive and inviting. But she also has some of the same pitfalls as you. She’s so driven she can’t stop. She’s up on power and out of balance about people. Eventually, we all exist to serve Ladies World in some way or another because it’s her real love. As much as I wanted her, I eventually discovered I’d never be anything more than a name in the contributor’s column of her life.”

My mind flashes back to Greg and the way I used him to dump my problems, dragged him to places because I was doing a story and generally set him on the back-burner through most of our love. I did love Greg, but not more than Lynx. I nod.

“She’s wanted to change Ladies World for a long time, to keep it relevant. So, when we were dating, she decided to do a series of edgy stories about the city and subcultures in it so she chose the BDSM culture and fetish clubs as a topic. We both thought it would be fun to get in some leather and hit the scene. We went to clubs, got invited to some munches, and tried out some of the stuff–spanking, collars, leather and lace, dominance and submission. Instead of bringing us together, it tore us apart.”

“Yeah, a bullwhip and a blowjob have a way of doing that,” I say sarcastically, even though my heart’s not really into this fight anymore. I’m just reacting. He scowls but continues gracefully.

“I got to know some of the couples, nice, neat people. And I discovered the power of dominance and submission as a lifestyle. I met female executives who dealt with the pressures of their power by submitting at home over the lap of a lover, much like you did with me. I learned the internal satisfaction of knowing I wasn’t just loving someone but guiding, helping and teaching them. It was a perfect world for me. Val just never got past the sex part. It was just a story and a game to her.”

“I don’t remember Ladies World running a fetish article. Where would they even put it? Between a recipe for homemade shortbread cookies and a photo spread on floral centerpieces for spring dances?”

“That’s exactly right. She worked that story hard, but the board refused to run it. They said it would alienate their base and bring them negative attention. Even Blake voted to can the piece. She went on to her next issue and wanted us to move on too. But I couldn’t. I found a home in that world and a way I wanted to experience and express my love. I refused to leave it behind. She left me behind instead.”

Mark’s eyes grow darker and his gaze seems far away. It is clear he loved her once, yet the tone in his voice, sad but strong, makes it clear he thinks he made the right decision and doesn’t regret it.

“After the board vote and her disappointment, she started an on and off affair with Blake. It’s perfect for them both. He’s married so he just wants something fun and nasty, and she’s able to get his vote to swing her way when she needs support. They are using each other, but they both seem happy with the arrangement. I don’t judge. Now, who took these pictures and how did you get them?”

I explain about the knock on the door and the envelope waiting for me. I tell him it isn’t the first incident, and talk about the text message warning me not to trust him, that I assume must have come from Valerie if she knows I’m dating her man. He interrupts me to remind me he is not anyone’s man at the moment. I chide him, but smile. It’s a fair correction.

He reaches over and picks up the pictures. His mouth curls upward into a nostalgic smile that breaks my heart anew, then points out some things I hadn’t noticed before. The couch has been reupholstered since then and though the color is similar, the pattern is not the same. Valerie’s hair is a lot longer than it was the last time I saw her, and her clothes are definitely out of style for today. That’s the biggest clue. Valerie James is never out of style.

I take a deep breath and look in Mark’s eyes, so deep, so beautiful. I place my hand on top of his while every cell in my body is remembering their rough touch as he holds my hips, the way he reaches inside me and enlivens my sexual core, the gentle sweet moments when those hands brush my hair from my eyes or trace a pattern down my neck to my br**sts. His hands are warm and my fingers stiff and cold.

“I don’t buy it,” I say.

“What?”

“It’s a beautiful story and why wouldn’t it be? Valerie is a lot of things but chief among them, even I have to admit, is that she is a damn good writer.”

“Oh my god, are you kidding me?” He throws up his hands in exasperation.

“Think about it Mark. What’s more likely? You and your long lost lover just happened to have a stack of five year old pictures laying around from intimate scenes you did in front of someone with a camera who you conveniently can’t remember or you put her in a red wig, got out your spanking paddle and took some shots, Photoshopping the couch later as a nice touch?”

“I can show you the receipt from the couch, if it helps. Or I can just tell you that these are pictures from a long time ago and I don’t know who took them. Or I can just call Valerie right now and clear this up.”

“You’d do that? You’d call her so I could hear?”

“Yes, I’m going to call her. I want to know who took these pictures, because there sure as hell wasn’t anyone in that room but us. And if it helps you get over this so you and I can move on then that’s a plus in my column.”


Tags: Priscilla West Billionaire Romance
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