“I can arrange for her safe departure and arrival to her destination,” Kurt offers.

Blake nods. “All right. But she leaves with him when she leaves.” He turns to me. “Jacob will take you back. I know he’s safe, and he’ll keep the press off you.”

“Fine,” I agree impatiently, and turn to Kurt. “Let’s go.”

He motions me toward the second stairwell that leads down to Mark’s private quarters. I start forward, and Blake grabs my arm. “My fiancée was murdered,” he says softly. “I let my need to make her murderer pay consume me. Meeting my wife saved my life, but my guilt and anger didn’t make it easy on her.”

My chest tightens. “Did you want to be saved?”

“Not before I met her. I lived on the edge, inviting death every chance I got.”

I nod at the grim knowledge that I’m headed for a fight. “Thank you for sharing that with me when you barely know either of us.”

He releases my arm. “Call me if you need me, no matter what the time.” He steps back and leaves me to Kurt, who motions me forward. I follow him down the stairs, wondering what I’ll find. The tender family man that I’ve glimpsed as he’s cared for his mother? The hard businessman who shut me out after the last time I was here and kept me at a distance? The broken man from the hotel room?

We reach the bottom of the steps and though we turn left, to my right is a dungeon door—which makes me consider another option. Maybe I’m about to see the true Master that I’ve encountered only once before in a bathroom in New York. The memory of him ripping off my panties and demanding that I beg “Mr. Compton” to lick me heats my skin and sets my nerves to jumping. I’d asked, not begged, damn it, and I’d been aroused—which confuses me for reasons I try never to think about.

Kurt stops walking and I realize that we’ve arrived at Mark’s private quarters. He rings a buzzer, and then faces me as the door pops open, giving me a nod. Without so much as a word, he leaves me to enter on my own.

I push open the heavy wooden door and enter the familiar room that seems dipped in a soft glow, a massive four poster bed the centerpiece to various erotic adventures draped in sheer curtains. Those curtains do funny things to my belly that I do not invite, nor do I want to explore. But inching forward, scanning for Mark to no avail, I am forced to search the depths of the room, unable to truly see what’s inside, but certain there’s no human outline.

Finally, my attention goes to a huge archway opening that appears to lead to another room. I swallow hard and move forward. At the entryway I freeze, finding Mark standing in the center of a room with curtains surrounding what looks like another archway leading to a room meant for bondage.

I was right. The Master is here—and he’s the man that I’ve been avoiding. The man who is everything that I do not want.

Mark

Crystal stands in the doorway, looking tired, worried, and beautiful. The spike of desire I feel is instant, and I want it to be about sex, about escape, and the control this club has always been for me. But here, now, tonight, it is not. It’s about something more she stirs in me—something Rebecca stirred in me that I never saw. It’s the way Crystal both soothes my raw nerves and awakens the man in me all at once simply by entering a room. I tell myself my reaction is my rebounding after the loss of Rebecca. There’s no other explanation and to use her in a such a way is unfair, and damaging in a way she doesn’t deserve, as is my need to grab her and hold her and ride out this storm with her in my arms.

“Come here,” I order Crystal softly, aware of the trepidation on her face, in her eyes, aware I’m about to give her reason for those feelings.

She crosses her arms defensively beneath her breasts. “I think I’ll stay here. What happened with Ryan?”

“We talked.”

“And?” she prods, pushing the way she pushes, without limits.

“And come here, Ms. Smith,” I command, preparing to show her limits, and to do so in a way I’d never do to a submissive in training. But then, I’m not training Crystal. I’m driving her away.

“I know what you’re doing,” she snaps.

“My playroom. My rules. Come here and explain yourself.”

“Explain myself? Sure.” She starts forward, long strides carrying her toward me, as she adds, “And you can explain yourself.” I meet her in the middle of the room, standing toe to toe with her as she continues. “You can’t go after Ava and Ryan. Think of your family.” She wraps her arms around me, defying every rule of this room. “Please. Please don’t do it. There are other ways.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Why does she feel soft and still so right, when she’s supposed to be wrong? “I don’t want to talk about Ava or Ryan.” I slice my fingers into her hair, rough by intent, yanking her face to mine. “Why do you think I came here? I want to forget right now. And for me, fucking is forgetting. And not your way—fucking my way. Get down on your knees.”

She pales, and the look in her eyes confirms everything I’ve suspected. Her need for control is a way to hide from something, and I want to know what. Yet I never ask a submissive what they want to escape; I just make sure they do.

“No,” she says. “I told you. I won’t do this. It’s not me.”

“But it is me. You want me, you want this. And you’d better prepare yourself. I’ll force you to stop running from whatever you’re running from, and in the process I’ll make you cry. I’ll make you hate me. But you’ll face it, and you’ll be glad you did.”

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