So this is why they made up the term "conflicted emotions."
Dasha Moore punched the End Call button, then winced at her phone's black screen.
It was the third night she'd sold out Madison Square Garden. And the third night Dad "just couldn't make it."
As she tried to breathe down the ache in her chest, the air in her dressing room shifted with the movement of its other occupant. A leg, long and commanding, invaded her view. A camel Kiton suit clung to it in all the right places. The other leg entered her view, and now the owner of those tense, braced thighs gave a hard huff, emphasizing a case of thoroughly pissed-off that she'd recognized even if blindfolded.
"David," she pleaded. "Don't start, okay?"
"Don't start what?" came his rage-roughened voice. "Asking what lame excuse he came up with this time?"
"He's a senator," Dasha countered. "He has responsibilities." So many that he now has the perfect little aide leaving his voice mails for him. Crystal had even done the deed in less than sixty seconds. Was there anything the woman wasn't good at?
"Right. Responsibilities greater than his own daughter. Responsibilities that come up every time you invite him to a show."
Dasha bit down her retort. What option did she have otherwise? David was right; there was no point arguing, because that was what they'd do. It would be the same words, different setting. She'd protest about Dad's "duty" and "obligations" to his position. David would snarl about how the esteemed Senator Moore had an obligation to her first. Her frustration would mount with each word. His fierce, protective fury would climb in proportion.
And her adoration of him would grow because of it.
She grabbed a water bottle from the clutter on her dressing table, then attempted to drown that thought with a big swig from it. She kept telling herself it had nothing to do with David's recent breakup. What was this one's name again? Oh, right. Lilly. Like the split changed anything between her and David. Like it ever would. Like Lilly wouldn't be replaced in another month or two with some other strawberry blonde who stood demurely at his side, quipping three-word sentences.
Dasha grimaced. Damn it, she was a strawberry blonde, give or take a shade or two. As far as the vocabulary handicap...well, that was where she fell short. David didn't call her his "walking thesaurus" for nothing. She'd started wishing, with more frequency than she wanted, for just a few less IQ points, as well as a good dip in the sarcasm that earned her David's chuckles but not his heart.
Brooding was a completely unproductive pastime.
She put the bottle back down with a decisive thud, making the sequins of her stage outfit throw little prisms all over the room. Next to the bottle, she found an elastic band and used it to whip her long, thick curls into a high ponytail. In the mirror, she caught David's eyes on her, the dark gray depths now glittering, like some wildcat watching from a forest. The look entranced her so deeply that it stopped her, freezing her arms in midair.
"What?" she finally challenged.
His eyes narrowed, making him look even more predatory, tightening the knot in her stomach. "You're not going to say anything else?" he asked.
Dasha huffed. "Why? Because you want a fight? Because you don't have--"
She stopped herself from blurting something she'd really regret later. Or even right now.
"Because I don't have what?"
"No." His voice went lower, almost a growl. "I can't and won't read your mind, sweetheart. Spit it the hell out."
She was glad they now stared at each other via the mirror. She wasn't sure she could directly handle the do-it-or-else intensity that underlined his words. Or the dark energy that saturated his gaze again. She watched a cord in his neck go hard, pulsing against the collar of his white dress shirt. Their sparring matches had always been part of their friendship, but the edge he'd carved to his end tonight was new. And strange. And turning her pulse into five kinds of awake.
"Fine. I was going to comment on how testy you get when there's no bimbette on hand for you to order around."
To her shock, he snickered. On the heels of the shock came the embarrassment, which made her flush deeper. Which of course, made David laugh harder.
She flashed him a tighter-than-Spanx smile. "If the shoe fits, Mr. Pennington."
"Hey, no hating. Unless you're auditioning for the job?"
"And if I am?"
He shook his head, still grinning. "Ha-ha, babe."
But during those three seconds, Dasha spun back toward him. She didn't smile. Aside from the turn, she barely moved. Or breathed. She just waited, wordless--for--
Idiot. Like after five years, he's ever going to see you as something, someone, more than his employer. His paycheck. Maybe, just maybe, you qualify as a friend--but not a lover. No, you're not enough of a woman to be his lover.
The words stabbed her, sharp and accusing, plunging into the heart that tonight, of all nights, felt exposed and trampled. Dasha bowed her head as angry tears speared to the front of her eyes, then fell.
"D?" David only made the torment worse with his concerned rumble. She felt him move closer, his steps strong and fast. "Hey. What--"
She cut him off by acting, for once, on pure instinct. She lunged into him with every ounce of her strength. Before he could turn his stunned grunt into words, she captured his lips beneath hers and tasted him greedily, desperately. Joy rained through her when she felt the answering pressure from his own mouth, the seeking tilt of his head, the eager response of his tongue against hers, the hard grip of his hands at her lower back.
All too fast, he broke the kiss short.
"Dasha." The sound vibrated through his body, dark as his unblinking stare. "Wait. Whoa."
"No." It came out a sob, and she didn't care. "No 'wait.' No 'whoa,' damn it. Please, David, not tonight!" She slid a hand from his neck to his face, threaded her fingers through his hair. "Please, just for tonight...I need to know..."
"What?" he uttered into her hesitation.
"That I'm good enough." She squeezed her eyes shut against the humiliation of the words. "Damn it, that someone wants me." She shook her head. "No, that's not it. That you want me. I need you to want me, David. You have to know, just a little, how I feel. How I want it...from you."
Silence stretched. David released a heavy breath, though he didn't pull away. That had to be good, right?
But then he spoke again.
"Ohhhh boy," he muttered. "Dasha. Listen. Listen." He captured both her wrists as she tried to yank away. "It's not that I don't want you too, okay? Christ, there's a reason your fans adore you. You're incredible and talented, vital and gorgeous--beyond gorgeous. But, you and I, as lovers--" He exhaled hard. "I can't take care of your heart the way it deserves to be taken care of. And sweetheart, you do des--"
"I'm not your sweetheart." She dipped her head again. "Got your entire message, mister. Loud and clear. Now let me go."
His grip went tighter. "That's exactly my point." Then he tightened it again. The move, so deliberate, brought her stare back up in time to watch him slide an assessing stare all the way down her body. "If we were...together, you wouldn't be firing orders at me like that. Well, not without some punishment to follow. And I certainly wouldn't be letting you go. Not by a long shot. Not for a long time." One side of his mouth quirked. "As a matter of fact, I'd be thinking of which way to best hold down your pretty little ankles too."
Dasha got a shallow gulp in. "My--my ankles? And what do you mean, 'punishment'?"
He locked his stare back to hers. A trace of dark marine blue now danced in those gray depths, giving her the smile his mouth just teased at. "I'm a Dominant, Dasha. I enjoy a lot of control in my personal relationships. Granted, it's control that's freely given, but I push those limits. A lot. Do you understand now?"
"No," she managed to reply. And couldn't get out much else. Just the way his tone went lower, and harder, started doing things to her body...things other men had to physically touch her to incite. Her thighs began to ache. And the intimate flesh between them... God, were her folds actually pulsing?
"Okay, let me put it this way. I don't waste my time with women who can't think. All my 'bimbettes' have a master's degree or higher, some more than one. The reason they all took my 'orders' is because they chose to, as my submissives."
"As your what?"
He chuckled again. "Surrender can be fun, you know. And a lot more."
At that, he changed his grip on her a little, making it possible to rub the pads of his thumbs into her palms. Her breath caught. The caresses were better than his foot rubs. Dasha dragged her eyes up, forcing herself to focus beyond the pleasure and accuse, "Fun for who?"
"Fair question," he conceded. Though his gaze remained steady, a discernible tension now curled out from him. No, not tension. More like...anticipation, a sensual Tesla coil that radiated into her too. "And I'll be very honest with my answer." He pressed an inch closer. "You know you can expect no less."
She flashed a knowing smile. "I guess I do."
David didn't smile in return. Instead, the Tesla coil went into high drive. He squared his stance and nearly pressed their bodies together now. "The full term for the dynamic is 'BDSM,'" he stated. "The letters stand for Bondage, Domination, Sadism, and Masochism. The S is also sometimes for Submission." His gaze raked her face, which was surely stamped with every iota of her shock--and, she admitted, horror. "I know they're not words found on your usual Valentine's Day card--"
"You think?" she retorted.
"But to those of us who got created with the mental chip for it, those words are better than a Shakespeare sonnet." The angles of his face changed then, riveting her with a conviction that seemed nearly noble. "In D/s, it's not just an act of your body. We sometimes call them scenes because of the focus that's demanded. There has to be complete commitment on the part of both the Master and the submissive. Total focus from me. Absolute trust from her. Bondage is a way to signify that, even to help it. That can include ropes, cuffs, blindfolds--"
"Okay, got it." She squirmed for a second, but she knew David didn't miss the way she flicked her tongue over her lips, too--so yeah, he probably knew. He probably saw that hearing him talk like that, then imagining him using all those things on her, and asking her to be open to him like that...suddenly, it seemed less the stuff of a horror movie and more the fabric of fantasy.
Ohhh crap. The pulses between her thighs became a drum circle.
She had to refocus. She had to address the rest. The other words. The more frightening ones.
"What about..." She took a deep breath. "You said...sadism. And masochism. So there's--parts of the scenes that sometimes--"
"Hurt." He supplied it as a fact, not a question, and with brutal calm. Oh yeah, like a glassy lagoon hiding a water snake. "I won't lie to you about that either, D. Or about me. I'm a sadist, sweetheart. But a fun one. I play hard. I love the high of watching a lovely submissive writhe under me and for me. It makes my body rev and my blood sing. And I like to push limits too, when I know I'm with someone who wants it and trusts me with it--because I love what I give her in return."
"Wait." She cocked her head, brow crunching. "Did you really say someone who wants it?"
He jutted his jaw with enough force to command an army. His one-sided smile balanced the daunting effect. "Tell me something: Raife runs you and the dancers through a new routine and shows you moves that look like torture--"
"Because they are?"
"Then he makes you do the damn thing over and over until you think your body's going to come apart, right? But you trust that he knows where everything is going, how everything fits. And then, something happens. That moment comes when everything connects, and you get it too." He suddenly broke out in a huge smile. It was more beautiful than any she'd seen from him before. "And it's magic."
Dasha closed her eyes for a moment. The sincerity in his voice compelled her more than the words. But she had to separate the two, if only for a moment.
"Crap," she muttered. Then shot her tone with more anger. "So, what? Did these women just lie down and say 'hurt me, Davey,' now?"
His grin became a little smirk. "In a matter of speaking, yes. But not exactly like that. Most of them came to me with some previous experience in this unique lifestyle, so we had communication about what kind of things they enjoyed. And of course, the lines they trusted me not to cross."
"Really?" She slid it out with sarcasm but couldn't hide her surprise. So, even though submissives were--well--submissive, they got a vote about the conditions of their experience? "You mean there are choices? There's a...variety?"
If it was possible, his sexual heat intensified. And like before, it permeated her too. It turned his response into something that seemed an invitation to a deep, entrancing wonderland.
"Variety would be the understatement, sweetheart. Imagine all the flavors of chocolate and cheese you love, turned into toys for sensation and pleasure."
"And pain," she reminded.
"Part of the pleasure." It sounded practically an order, forcing her to look up again. To her surprise, that wolfish smile lingered at his elegant lips. "Marceline used to cry and beg me for riding crop welts. Katy liked rope bondage and fucking swings."
Okay, TMI. But Dasha kept the words to herself. Because somehow, standing here locked in his hold and bathed in his gaze, it wasn't too much information. Because now, it wasn't enough information. Every nerve ending in her body wanted to know more. Craved more of the feelings he'd now introduced to her muscles, her skin, her very breath...
"I suppose Lilly loved handcuffs and ankle shackles?" It escaped before she could help it. And sounded totally dorky.
"Only if we were into cop and criminal that night." He looked almost pleased with himself. "Lilly did love her costumes. But yeah, that was probably her favorite. Probably because I withheld her orgasm for hours."
Dasha shifted again. But this time, it wasn't to resist or squirm. She started to return the pressure from his hold, curling her fingers around his thumbs. "So you...handcuffed her?"
"And then...told her she couldn't..."
"And what did she do?"
"She said, 'Thank you, Sir.'"
Okay, bypass dorky. Barrel straight to what-the-hell. "She thanked you?"
"In more ways than one."
For a second, Dasha couldn't identify what she felt about that. Then realization slammed. Jealousy. Envy that she hadn't been in Lilly's skin, pleading with David...pleasing David.
The ache bloomed again between her breasts. She didn't hide her tears from him this time. "All right, then. Let me thank you in the same ways." Before he got in another protest, she rushed on. "I want to try it. I want you, David."
"Test me. Show me. How do you know I won't like it too?"
He chuffed. "By the way you had to practically choke that out?"
"You haven't even given me a chance."
"Oh yes, I have." Suddenly, his grip went from tight to unyielding. His stare bore into her with a feral honesty that turned the pain in her chest into chaos. "I've done exactly that, sweetheart. About a thousand times, in my imagination."
She didn't hide her reaction to that either. She let him take in the new desire that surely took over her face, to go with the thunder of her blood. This new knowledge about him, about this secret world to which he belonged...it shifted an important axis inside her. She admitted this was about way more than her disappointment in Dad's no-show. Now this was about confronting her need for David, acknowledging that she wanted to please him, in every way possible. Even if it meant trying it his way. Even if it scared the crap out of her. Maybe because it scared the crap out of her.
She pressed nearer to him. Clean, luxurious scents surrounded her. His sandalwood soap. The bleach in his shirt. A trace of aftershave. "And in your imagination," she murmured, "what did I do?"
She felt his breathing still. His stance stiffened. He pulled away by several inches but didn't relax his grip. "You did nothing," he answered. "At first."
"Because you were on your knees."
Dasha swallowed. She couldn't tell if the words were comment or challenge. It didn't matter. She accepted them as the latter. Using his hands for balance, she slowly lowered herself to the floor. She looked up, hesitant but achingly aware of his whole body now...and cognizant of the distinct ridge in his pants, right at her eye level. "Like this?"
David released one of her hands to stroke the hair from her eyes. His own gaze was hooded and molten...and consumed with her. Everything about the moment moved her in a deep, inexplicable way.
"Not quite," he finally replied.
The meaning of that came loud and clear. Definitely a challenge this time. And she never backed down from challenges, especially now. Taking a deep breath, she pulled her other hand from his and shirked off her shimmering tank top. A bra had been built into the costume, so now nothing barred his eyes from her exposed, full breasts. His eyes went from gray to kohl, their embers stoked into dark fire. The look hit her like a physical move. Her womb quivered. Her nipples puckered and throbbed.
"Then...like this, maybe?" she managed to rasp.
"Yes." He drew the "s" out, making it into soft praise. "Better. And beautiful." He stroked her cheek. "So beautiful."
Dasha's skin flowed with warmth; her mind soared with happiness. She smiled up at him. "So where did your imagination take it from here?"
She didn't expect his answer. He hauled her back to her feet in a sudden, fierce surge. She didn't get a chance to gain balance, toppling into him, gripping him for simple purchase. He handled her weight without stopping his own action, locking her against him, then kissing her without a second of hesitation or an ounce of mercy.
She opened for him because he gave her no choice; his possession was brutal and absolute, a consuming command. She whimpered, loving the thorough shock of it. He groaned hard in return. The sound vibrated through her as well. She thought he'd let her go then, but no. He tunneled a hand into her hair, seizing the roots, yanking back her head so he spread her wider for him. Now he went at her with his tongue in rhythmic thrusts, making no secret about other acts on his mind. Dasha reveled in every second of the assault. She'd never felt so consumed, so desired. It was exactly what she needed. And she wanted more. Much more.
He pulled away. But not by far. He still held her, cradling her head. His stare was almost black. His jaw was the texture of dark marble. His mouth, slightly parted, dragged in air. Raw heat shot through her bloodstream.
"Before I give you the answer," he said, "I need to hear that you trust where I'm going to take this right now."
She forced her reeling head to nod. "Yes," she answered. "Oh yes."
"I mean it, D." His fingers dug deeper against her scalp. "We've been through a lot in the last five years. We've been across the globe and back together. But tonight...this is going to be a very different destination. Our roles won't be the same, and you might not like it. I won't go grabbing you a bottle of water or an extra hairpin. I won't have time to worry about stashing your lip gloss." He raked his tongue along his teeth, looking hungry and hot as his gaze dipped to her mouth. "Actually, I'd prefer no gloss, with what I'm dying to do to those lips."
Desire deepened her dizziness. He was so close now, she nearly tasted him again with every syllable. His breath was laced with spices, a little imported beer, and a lot of arousal. It was all she could do to dip an eager nod.
"You'll have a way to tell me 'no,'" he assured. "It's called a safe word, something specific and definite between us. I expect you to use it if you need to."
"Uh...huh." She tried to slam some coherence onto her tongue. "Ruh-ruh-right." Oh yeah, that went well.
"But make no mistake about it, I'll be the one in charge." He framed her face with his hands as he gave the order. "Are we clear? This is a different playing field. I can't concentrate on reading your body and playing verbal ping-pong with you, so even the way we communicate will be regulated. Direct questions from me; honest answers from you. No using your safe word to control things either. Not that you could get away with that anyway."
Dasha vacillated between fear and way-turned-on. He was right; he'd always been able to read her like a butterfly under a magnifying glass. It was one of the reasons they made a successful business team. But now, confronting the reality of getting naked with him and then some, she knew he'd now have the biggest window into her soul. The recognition made her tremble in good and not-so-good ways.
She nodded again, more evenly this time. "All right," she said. "I--I understand."
"Are you sure? The rules aren't flexible here. Not right now. It's your safety at stake." He wryly hiked a brow. "And likely my sanity."
"I trust you, David." She pressed her soul into each word, wanting him to know how much she meant them. "I do."
He tilted her face up once more and took her lips again. This time, he lingered with it, tasting her deeply, sweeping her mouth with his tongue. But when he pulled away, every elegant line of his face was stamped with command.
"I'm going to give you another second to think about that while I lock the door," he stated. "I'm also going to tell the limo to wait, then I'm putting my phone on DND. If your answer's the same, then I want you kneeling on the floor next to the couch, naked and ready, when I get back."
She gave back the words with eager speed, almost needing to please him--only to have him catch her by the elbow, circling her back to face him again. "When we're together like this, the proper response to that is 'Yes, Sir.'" The glittering light in his eyes took away the sting of the words. "It's a sign of your respect for me, but how you say it also lets me know where your head is at, what you're feeling. Are we clear?"
"Yes," Dasha whispered and swallowed hard. "Sir."