I did not see this coming.
Not when Dane and I checked into the Four Seasons, not when we headed out for a light bite, and not when we came back to the room to change into our clothes for Operation: De-dom the Dick. Not even when I hailed the taxi the two of us were about to exit.
I did not anticipate this nuclear bomb that just exploded in my belly, nor can I hide its effects from the man sitting next to me, already working some mad breathing techniques to hold his own shit together. Maybe if you’d stop wringing your hands like a lunatic mad scientist!
Dane reaches across the black vinyl seat and covers my hands with long, elegant fingers. “Master?” His voice is laced with concern and mental energy he cannot possibly have to spare.
Don’t be a drain, Marcus. Suck it up!
“How are you holding up, Dane?”
“Better than you?”
Something in his tone snags me like a life preserver tossed to a drowning man. As I turn and reveal myself to Dane, I recognize what I heard: strength. Despite all his misgivings, Dane is here because he trusts me, and he deserves the same from me. The words are on the tip of my tongue, but they won’t spill.
He needs his Master to be omnipotent right now. It wouldn’t be fair to show weakness. Defeated, I shake my head and look away.
Pull yourself together, dammit! I’m a pro. I can push this aside and do what needs to be done. I will be what Dane needs right now; I will not allow my doubts to come into play. Each affirmation is another brick in my wall of bravado. I know how to do this . . .
Dane’s quietly whispered word is a wrecking ball to my flimsy construction. My eyes are wet when they meet his. Despite everything, I’m smiling. “You just did that, Dane.”
Dane nods with a newfound confidence, but he’s not ready to let me off the hook. “What aren’t you telling me?”
That’s my boy, cutting to the chase. Damn Eleazar and his damn therapeutic methods! My tongue is glued to the roof of my mouth.
Dane presses me again. “You’re worried I can’t handle this?”
“No, Dane, that’s not it.”
He wants to believe me, but his eyes are holding a pain I cannot abide. I will not have Dane doubting my faith in him.
“You’re about to see some ugly things, Dane.”
“I can imagine. I have imagined.” He chuffs upon further reflection.
“Aro can be a bit . . . rough around the edges.”
Dane’s not buying it. “Okay.”
“You’ve never seen Edward with a whip in his hand. He can be—”
“With all—crap—okay, look, we’re almost there. Would you please be straight with me? I really need you to tell me what’s going on because I’m barely hanging on here.”
“You’re right, Dane. I’m sorry. Okay, here it is: you’re about to see a side of me you’ve never seen before, and I’m not sure how you’re going to feel about me after that. Not even the most cantankerous sub would get this treatment from me or Edward—or Aro, for that matter. I would never condone any dom behaving this way in scene. This isn’t going to be consensual; this is street justice, Dane, not BDSM. I hope you know I’ve never . . . and I will never again . . .”
“Master,” he interrupts, “I get it.” It’s uncanny how Dane recognizes when I need him to see me as Marcus and when as Master, but his intuition should not surprise me anymore. “I understand why you’re doing this, and I admire and respect your willingness to step outside yourself for me and for your values.”
“That’s just it, Dane. This thing is not ‘outside’ me; it’s a part of me, apparently.”
He squeezes his hand tighter around mine. “I can’t imagine there’s a part of you I wouldn’t love. We all have our darker thoughts; it’s what makes us who we are. It’s not as if you go around inflicting pain on unsuspecting people for sport.”
A dark laugh escapes me. “No, just the ones who ask for it,” I reply. My injection of sarcasm doesn’t even cause him to flinch.
“I love you, Master.” He lets those words sink in for a few seconds before tacking on, “And I plan to love you even more when we leave here tonight.”
That works for me, and I’m quite sure my massive sigh and face-breaking smile prove it. “I have no idea what I ever did to deserve you, Dane, but I will work to be worthy of that love every damn day for as long as you’ll let me.”
“Sounds like a solid plan.” As he leans over to kiss me, the taxi comes to a stop.
Clasping my hand firmly in his, he answers, “I am.”
My badass boots hit the pavement with a satisfying thunk. With each step, the heavy treads grind and swallow the clear chunks of rock salt strewn along the icy sidewalk. Dane’s boots are capable of the same sounds, but his delicate gait won’t produce them. The door is swiftly answered by one of the house subs, who asks my name, nods knowingly, and leads us to the room where the demonstration will take place.
Dane and I both pause in the doorway. We reach for each other’s hands at the same time and step inside with the synchronicity of our walks from his theater to the Fillmore Hotel.
Downstairs is exactly as I remember it—a true dungeon master’s medieval dungeon, complete with concrete floors and high ceilings, coal-colored wrought iron fixtures set off by stark wood furniture with only the most meager cushioning. The room is neat and sanitary, but preserved in the air is a musky scent that disinfectant can never fully erase.
Dane and I walk to the middle of the room. On one side of us, several rows of chairs are assembled—the peanut gallery. By Aro’s estimation, twenty or so of the area’s most influential leaders of the BDSM community will be in attendance. Dane draws a deep breath beside me, and I give his hand what I hope is a comforting squeeze.
“I need to check the equipment. Would you like to sit down?”
“No, thank you. May I help?”
“Sure. C’mon over.”
I start with the pulley system suspended from a complicated configuration of beams on the ceiling, showing Dane how to check the ropes and carabiners for defects.
“This reminds me of my stage crew days,” he says, running a length of rope between his fingers with astonishing dexterity.
Why on earth would I be surprised he’s proficient at this too?
The dungeon door opens with a loud creak, and both our necks crane toward the intrusion.
“You’re finding everything to your exacting standards, I assume?” Aro glides inside the room with the ease of a man utterly in his element, setting his beady eyes first on me—as convention would demand—but quickly shifting his focus to Dane.
I play the game, stepping toward Aro with outstretched hand and enduring his clammy, two-fisted shake. Was the man’s skin always the color of a full moon, or is this pasty complexion a recent development? Despite the unavoidable chill I always feel in the man’s presence, I can access his sincerity; there is a beating heart in there somewhere.
“Aro. Everything looks great. I can’t thank you enough.”
Aro slides one hand up my arm, exerting his superiority. “No thanks necessary, Marcus. You know this.”
Perfunctory greetings made and respect duly acknowledged, Aro is eager for the main attraction, Dane, and I oblige. “Let me introduce you.”
Aro’s face twists into an expression I can only assume he believes to be a charming smile as his attention shifts toward my submissive. “Yessss, I’d like that very much.”
My visceral, blood-curdling repulsion isn’t really fair. Though our methods sometimes diverge, I do trust Aro’s respect for protocol and know he would never disrespect me by making a play for my submissive under any circumstances—especially those that bring us here today. Still, my gut reaction is not something I can control.
Turning to Dane, I read much the same response in his tight expression. “Dane, come say hello to Sir Aro.” I telegraph as much love and protectiveness as I possibly can as I coax him forward. Without previous discussion or any kind of cue from me, my perfect boy knows exactly what to do.
Assuming his submissive stance and dropping his gaze to Aro’s feet, Dane gives him a reverent, “Sir, it’s an honor to meet you. Please accept my gratitude for all your kindness and generosity on my behalf.”
Aro’s jaw hinges open just before a wide, greedy grin cuts across his pale face. He takes his damn time soaking in every inch of Dane as if memorizing him for later, and I endure the examination along with my boy only because I have no choice. After gorging on Dane for far too long for my sanity, Aro turns to me and says, “I’m beginning to understand now why you gave up everything for this one.”
To the casual observer, the resulting shudder of Dane’s shoulders could be interpreted as a tic or insufficient balance—problems that might plague a lesser submissive working to hold a pose. Of course, I know better, and while I’d love to throttle Aro for his insensitivity, he’s not really the problem.
Moving swiftly to Dane’s side, I meet his hip with my own and burrow my fingers into the hair at the back of his neck. My thumb traces the leather knot of his necklace—you are mine—while I attempt to minimize Aro’s unfortunate accusation.
“Everything feels like a pretty insignificant trade-off for all I’ve received in exchange.”
Dane leans into my body ever so slightly, seeking more of my strength and perhaps more of my simple truth: There is nothing more important to me than Dane, and I cannot imagine a sacrifice I would not willingly make. Miraculously, the boy is starting to believe that.
“So it seems,” Aro replies. “Lift your eyes, Dane. Allow me the privilege of seeing how you regard your Master.”
Dane answers Aro’s request by turning his head in my direction and fixing me with his glassy-eyed stare. I’m fairly certain Dane is gazing into the mirror image of his devotion.
Aro’s wistful sigh slices through the intensity of our moment. “As I suspected,” he says. “Marcus, you’re a lucky man.”
“As am I,” Dane answers, raising all three sets of eyebrows in the room.
There’s a beat of dead silence, broken by Aro’s chilling cackle. “Touché, boy!”
Nervous laughter bursts from Dane, and I joggle him out of his submissive pose and give him a kiss. “Relax, Dane, you’re doing great.”
“He’s right, boy.” Aro places his hand on Dane’s shoulder. “You have nothing to fear in me. Come. Let me show you the crash test dummy we made.”
Dane’s heard this part of the plan, but he still registers shock and dismay as Aro retrieves the submissive body double from the closet, and I can’t say my own response is any more positive. Our entire plan hinges on Wayne buying into the concept of using a mannequin instead of a live submissive for the demonstration. Though my doubts run deep, I proceed with as much confidence as I can muster for Dane’s sake.
“The workmanship is excellent, Aro,” I say, stepping in for a closer look. A cross between a blow-up sex doll and a boxing bag, the model has all the appendages and orifices to characterize it as anatomically correct, if not a bit grotesque.
“Yesss,” he hisses as he runs his hands a wee bit too lovingly along the light-colored rubber flesh-substitute.
Dane shoots me a look of concern but follows my lead, joining Aro under the ropes. “Should we go ahead and cuff him up?” I offer.
Aro’s lips curl into a terrifying grin. “I thought you’d never ask.”
The three of us collaborate in this bizarre operation, hog-tying the decoy’s wrists and ankles together behind its back and with the pulley in the center of the room, hoisting the joined limbs toward the ceiling. We’re just giving our stand-in submissive the final heave-ho when Edward bursts into the dungeon.
“What the hell are you people doing, and why is there a giant plastic penis pointed at me?”
Dane loses it first, breaking into a giggle that he soon cannot contain, but it’s Aro who addresses Edward. “Ahh, Edward Cullen, always a pleasure to host you at my club.”
A nice little reminder of who’s in charge—subtle, yet commanding.
As usual, Edward disregards the warning. Striding across the room in his black cargo pants and tight t-shirt, he stops under the monstrosity, looks up, and draws his hands to his hips. “Seriously, this is the chum you’re using to catch our shark?”
Aro levels a death glare at Edward that lowers the temperature in the room by ten degrees. “Perhaps you’d like to volunteer your services as a submissive tonight?”
Edward turns to me, exasperated. “Marcus, you know I’ll play it however you say, but you can’t possibly think fish face is going to get a hard-on over this . . . Gollum/Ken-doll love-child . . . I really think we’d have a better chance of getting him to volunteer for the demo if you string me up instead.”
Now, there’s an image for the ages: Edward Cullen, naked and bound tip-to-tail, suspended overhead with the juicy bits hanging out for the crowd’s amusement.
And yet . . . no.
“Absolutely not, Edward—”
“—Because I should be the one to do it.”
All eyes turned to the one voice in the room nobody expected to hear.