The best word to describe how the next ten days passed would be “easy.” Dane’s death-defying pauses were practically nonexistent; I’d even stopped carrying Tums in my pocket when I left the house. We fell into a routine with train rides and hotel stays so that we were never separated overnight.
Sustained by poetry and sex, healthy meals and vigorous exercise, deep conversations and comfortable silences, we moved forward together, leaving that hard place in the rear-view mirror. We challenged each other, bumping fearlessly against the conventions of our relationship, learning new corners of each other’s hearts and our own.
Through it all, I watched Dane for backlash with a careful eye, but Dane wasn’t flying any red flags. In fact, the two of us would have continued along our merry path of ordinary bliss if not for the romantic monstrosity known as Valentine’s Day shoving its greedy, red-hearted propaganda down our throats.
Or at least, that’s how I used to view the holiday—before I was actually in love with someone who felt the same way about me.
“So, Dane, about tomorrow . . .” I really should have done this with the lights off. I’m shit at keeping secrets from him anymore.
“I know we already agreed we’d spend the night in the city together, but I have some plans for us in Midtown . . . I need an hour at some point during the day.”
Dane unleashes one of his I’ve-got-a-squeaker-in-my-pocket grins. “I suppose I’ve got an hour for you . . . as long as we can be at lunch by twelve-thirty in Soho.”
And now I’m intrigued.
“Oh, Dane, what have you done?”
“Something perfectly reasonable,” he answers. Would that be a little challenge I hear in his voice?
“A little subversion is a very healthy sign,” Eleazar had told me last week during one of our check-in calls.
“I guess we better get an early start then.” I close out the conversation with one last kiss before turning out the light. “Can’t wait, sweetheart,” I murmur into the darkness.
There’s not much conversation in the car the next morning—I don’t want to ruin his surprise, and I don’t want to give away mine. There is, however, a whole lot of smiling and wondering going on as we make our way from the relatively quiet suburbs into the bustle of the city. If for no other reason than to ditch the car in a safe place, we valet and check into the Four Seasons. The desk clerk slides two long-stemmed red roses across the counter. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” he offers with a cheery—if canned—greeting. Two months ago, I would have politely taken the flower, thanked the clerk, and thought up a hundred different ways he could shove it up his ass. Today, I twirl the delicate stem between my fingertips and fantasize about dropping the petals on Dane’s pillow tonight.
I am one whipped master.
Every damn time Edward’s complained about being whipped, I’ve rolled my eyes and laughed . . . but no more. I am also not carrying the rose around Manhattan.
“Do me a favor,” I tell the clerk, “have them put these in our room?”
“Of course, sir.”
Dane checks his watch. “It’s eleven fifteen.”
I can’t help but smirk. “Yes, Dane, I’m aware. We better get a move on, then!”
I get a whatever-you-say smirk as Dane lets me drag him to the taxi stand. He recognizes the address as soon as I tell the cabbie, “Forty-first and ninth.”
Dane leans back against the black vinyl, huge grin on his face, not saying a word. He’s not the least bit surprised when we pull up under the awning for the Top Shelf Bookstore. While I pay the fare, Dane hops out and waits for me on the sidewalk: hands in his coat pockets, chin tipped up to the second floor window, huge teasing smile on his face.
My cheeks flare with a blush. “Mmhmm.” Looping my elbow through the crook in his arm, I start forward. “There’s somebody I want you to meet.”
We climb the stairs in our usual synchronicity. Halfway up, the tiny bell jingles and a warm voice calls out, “Welcome back, Marcus!”
I can feel Dane’s gaze moving from Marie’s face to mine as we trudge up the last few steps. I smile up at the shopkeeper, taking in today’s hair wrap—a tie-dyed affair—and is that lip gloss I see?
“Good morning, friend,” I greet her at the top, sliding my free hand into her outstretched ones and giving them a little squeeze. “Marie, I’d like you to meet my partner, Dane.”
Partner. The unpracticed label rolls off my tongue. Probably should have thought that one through, or at least asked Dane’s permission to introduce him that way. Shit. Will this relationship ever stop feeling like my first time with every milestone?
As usual, Dane is the placid sea to my inner hurricane. Giving myself a swift mental kick in the ass, I finish the fumbled introduction. “Dane, this is Marie, the wonderful woman who owns this shop.”
Marie turns her full attention to the man linked to me, a wide smile lighting her face. “So pleased to meet you, Dane. I see Marcus wasn’t exaggerating when he told me how handsome you were.”
Dane sloughs off her compliment with a shy shake of his head. “Very nice to meet you, too. I wasn’t sure Marcus was ever going to share you with me.”
Marie shoots me a knowing side-eyed glance. “He does like to hold things close to the vest, this one. Now, come on in, you two. Let me show you something other than the front door!”
We follow her soft giggles over to the living room setup at the center of the store, where she lifts a “Reserved” sign from the coffee table. “Take off your coats and make yourselves at home, boys. I’ll be right back.”
Even without gloves, my palms are first-date sweaty as we take our seats in the plush side-by-side armchairs.
“She’s sweet,” Dane says, sitting back and crossing his legs. From his comfortable perch, Dane surveys the shop and the smattering of solitary shoppers taking their time perusing the shelves. “I can see why you like this place.”
“I’m glad you like it . . . and Marie. You might be seeing more of her."
Confusion crinkles Dane’s forehead. “She attending the workshop next week?”
“Hell no!” I sputter. “She’s convinced me to fix her up with Randy.”
He leans forward in his chair. “Your brother?”
“Thanks for the reassurance, Dane. You can imagine how comfortable I am playing matchmaker.” I give him my best scowl, but he laughs.
“Sorry, no, I think that’s great. You just surprised me—again.”
“We are nowhere near even on that score, pal.”
“Pal. Partner. Whatever.” He rests back against the chair again, a smug smile firmly in place. Somehow, I have the feeling that after today, I will never catch up in the surprise department.
“Whatever,” I grumble as Marie returns with Dane’s present in her arms.
He sits up taller in his seat as Marie places the book in his lap, a thick red ribbon tied into a simple bow crisscrossing the simple white tissue. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Dane,” she says.
Dane gazes up at her. “Thank you.”
Marie giggles again and jabs a finger toward me. “From him.”
“Oh . . . of course.” He turns a sheepish grin my way. “Thank you, Marcus.”
“You’re welcome, sweetheart. Enjoy.”
Dane hops out of his seat and bends to kiss me. “Should I have a look now?”
“Yes,” Marie interjects. “I’ll leave you two alone. Take your time.” She gives me a little wink.
Dane sinks into his seat again, eyeing me while his fingers work the bow open. “Very romantic,” he twinkles.
Dane reveals the first corner of the blue-toned Whitman book Marie set aside for me after my last visit. My original thought had been to simply pick up the book, wrap it, and present the gift to Dane at home. Marie had other ideas, and today’s in-store “Valentine’s experience” is more a tribute to her salesmanship than any real planning on my part. Marie knows how to put the right book into her customers’ hands. Then too, she was determined to get that meet and greet with Randy when he comes up to visit in April.
“This is gorgeous,” Dane whispers as he thumbs through the pages. What a pleasure it is to give this treasure to a man like Dane—a man who understands how to take his time and savor and appreciate what he has.
As I appreciate him.
“—turn is it tonight? Marcus?”
Yep, I’m zoned out . . . and busted.
Dane chuckles at me. “I was just saying, I’m so glad it’s my turn to choose the poem tonight.”
“Nice try, Carmichael.”
His eyes pop wide open. “Seriously? You’re last naming me, Andrews?”
There’s not a chance that anyone encountering us right now would have a clue that this sassy boy was on his knees last night, clamped, cuffed, and cropped while sucking off his Master.
“You bet your sweet, sweet ass I am. Look at you, trying to get away with murder just because it’s Valentine’s Day.”
His smile is so wide, it might just crack his cheeks. “You’re a tease, you know that? You give me a hot fudge brownie sundae and tell me I can’t have a taste!”
“Where’s your self-restraint, boy?”
His next mischievous comment never sees the light of day. The impish grin becomes a did-we-just-go-there gawp, and just to toss a cherry on top, Marie chooses this moment to check in on us.
“Isn’t the Whitman breathtaking?” Her tiny hands clap together in front of her chest.
“Yes,” Dane responds. “I was just looking up ‘To the Stranger’ to see the photo he paired with the poem.”
Marie leans over the back of Dane’s chair as he shares his discovery with her. I have to admit to a very warm, fuzzy feeling settling around my shoulders. This unlikely place I didn’t even know existed two months ago suddenly feels like home.
“Ahh,” Marie says, inserting her finger into the book before he flips past the page, “this one is kind of perfect. Maybe he’d like to hear you read it now?” Marie slips away with a wink after dropping that little bombshell—wise woman.
“Would you?” Dane asks.
Without a clue which poem he’s talking about, I answer confidently. “Of course I would. But just so you know, tonight’s my night.”
He looks up over the heavy volume in his arms. “Noted. Now, may I read, please?”
“By all means.”
When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow’d,
And else when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d, still I was not happy,
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,
When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning light,
When I wander’d alone over the beach, and undressing bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my dear friend my lover was on his way coming, O then I was happy,
O then each breath tasted sweeter, and all that day my food nourish’d me more, and the beautiful day pass’d well,
And the next came with equal joy, and with the next at evening came my friend,
And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me whispering to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was happy.”
The nondescript door gives nothing away; neither does the suntanned, forty-something man who answers when Dane rings the bell. Dressed in a white button-down shirt casually rolled up to his elbows and tucked into a pair of worn-in jeans, the man might have just stepped out of one of those matchy-matchy family portraits taken on a perfect stretch of beach on a perfectly sunny day. I’m half looking for the rest of his family when the man’s hand meets Dane’s with a loud slap.
“Dane!” Grasping him tightly, the man pulls him into his chest for a clipped hug. “You look great . . . not that you ever haven’t looked great to me, but you know what I mean.”
Dane pulls back with a self-deprecating shake of his head. “Whatever you say, Cole. Let me introduce you to Marcus, my . . . partner.” Dane finishes the intro with a smug grin as he turns my direction. “Marcus, this is Matt’s cousin, Cole Barnes, the man behind most of the promo pictures you see on and off Broadway.”
Reaching past my why-the-hell-are-we-spending-Valentine’s-Day-here, I extend a hand to the rugged man. “Pleased to meet you, Cole. Would you be the one who took that head shot of Dane for the ‘Disaster’ program?”
Perfectly white teeth lined up in a perfect row reveal themselves as he smiles. “I am, indeed.”
Cole slips his hand away and rests it on his hip. “I can’t exactly take credit for making Dane look good.”
Poor Dane is bright pink and squirmy as a toddler at church. “Is lunch ready?”
Our host chuckles, tips his chin toward the back room, and leads us inside. “Right this way, gentlemen.”
My imagination has taken the wheel, and I’m sure my face holds a million questions, but Dane ignores my growing anxiety, simply taking my hand and eyeing the back of Cole’s head as we follow him. He delivers us to a large, open space with lighting and photography equipment strategically located around several different furniture setups I try really fucking hard to ignore.
“Why don’t you two have a seat and enjoy your lunch while I make some final adjustments?”
Cole slips away while Dane eases me to the corner of the studio, where a small, round table has been set with fine china and an elegant white linen cloth. “Lunch” consists of champagne, a silver platter loaded with white and red grapes, four different kinds of cheese, and an artfully arranged semi-circle of round crackers. Dane pulls out my chair, and I take my seat like a condemned man eating his last meal.
“You’re trying to get me drunk.”
“A little,” he admits, shaking out his napkin and spreading it across his lap.
My brave mask crumbles into smithereens. “Oh god, Dane, what are we doing here?”
“Hang on a sec.” Dane tears the foil off the champagne bottle and works open the wire muzzle. Aiming away from my head, he pops the cork and fills the two flutes. He lifts his glass, then waits patiently while I debate whether to seal the deal with a drink or manufacture some semi-believable reason to escape before the dreaded camera turns its harsh lens on my body.
With his simple two-word toast, Dane tips the scale toward staying. “To us.”
What kind of a monster would reject that sentiment? “To us.”
We each down the entire glass in one go, and Dane is quick with the refills.
Acknowledging my question with the briefest nod, Dane slides my glass into my waiting hand before answering. “Okay, remember when you were at my apartment, and you commented on those nudes over my bed?”
“What? Nudes? Ohmygod, Dane . . .”
His hand shoots across the table and covers mine. “Easy, Marcus. We don’t have to go there—unless, of course, you want to.”
“Ugh, just a minute.” I down the second glass of champagne, realizing a beat too late I haven’t eaten in four hours. “Is this food part of the set, or is it edible?”
Dane chuckles and pushes the platter forward. “Eat. I brought Tums—just in case.”
“Good thinking.” My stomach feels like the satellite pictures of Hurricane Jasmine.
Dane keeps a watchful eye on me while he smears brie on a cracker and pops it in his mouth. I manage to line my stomach with several more mouthfuls before reaching for my champagne again. My gaze follows Cole as he moves around the studio.
Leaning toward Dane, I ask, “You trust this guy?”
“Yes. He knows what he’s doing behind the lens . . . you’ll see . . . and he’s very discreet. I’ve already told him this is a very, very private shoot.”
The word “private” churns up acid in my belly. “I’ll take those Tums now.”
Dane frowns and pulls the familiar roll out of his front pocket. “I’m sorry. I suspected this might be uncomfortable at first, but I was hoping you’d warm to the plan.”
I’m such a shit. With all that I’ve asked of Dane, he’s never shrunk from a challenge.
“Okay, we’re doing this together, right? As a couple?”
His eyebrows lift at my hint of positivity. “Every step of the way. My idea was to have Cole capture us in motion together,” he gushes, the words spilling out in an optimistic rush.
In motion . . . with Dane. The idea brings a smile to my face. “Romantic.”
“You’ll do it?”
“Of course I’ll do it, Dane. This is a beautiful gift. Thank you.”
Dane shoots out of his chair. “Cole! Music!”
The man instantly drops the pretense of checking his equipment; he was doing nothing more than biding his time and giving us the space Dane needed to convince me not to turn tail and run. As if I’d disappoint my boy.
Cole pulls the phone from his pocket and activates the sound system. If he’s tuned to a satellite station, it has to be “porn tracks.” Despite my lingering modesty, I let Dane pull me to my feet and drag me to the center of an array of black and white fabric umbrellas. Cole hangs back behind one of the many tripods, slipping out of conscious thought as Dane yanks my hips to his, belly to belly and crotch to crotch. You have my attention.
My head jerks toward the shutter rapid-fire, but Dane pulls me back with his arms looped around the back of my neck. “Lose yourself in me, Marcus.”
Not much of a chore to allow myself to be dazzled by those pleading, dark brown eyes, that alluring, yours-for-the-taking smile. When his lips close over mine, there’s nothing else, no one else in the studio. The room tilts and spins in slow, sexy circles. The beat moves around us, between us, through us. I can’t deny the growing throb of desire crowding out the doubts and inhibition, even the indigestion.
Heat, desire, need, want.
His hands crawl inside my shirt, setting me on fire. Yes, baby, take it off for me. Rub your skin against mine. Shirts are shed; shoes are kicked away.
Cole moves closer, the man and the small black instrument at his eye. Whirwhirwhirwhirwhir.
Dane moans into our kiss, cups my ass, and grinds. The camera and the third man in the room are a perfect audience to rouse his little kink. Cole quickly picks up on Dane’s added enthusiasm, playing up his presence rather than shrinking into the background. Cole’s voice is a soothing backdrop for the whir of the camera.
“That’s it, Dane, so hot . . . show me how much you love kissing. God, you two are so beautiful together.” Clickclickclickclick. Purrrrrrrr. Cole circles us, a lion tamer with a wooden chair. Whirwhirwhirwhir, his shutter flies.
Punch drunk and horny as hell, I’m the one who cracks open the first zipper—my own—and Dane is more than willing to lend a hand and shove my jeans down my legs and kick them out of our way. Seconds later, he’s stripped down to his briefs, too, and shit is getting real.
Moving like a single, four-legged organism, we stumble to the makeshift bed sitting on the floor and collapse onto the mattress in a tangled heap. The photographer follows, that artificial, all-seeing eye floating above our kisses, our groping hands, our discarded underwear, our bodies—bare but for his necklace and my bracelet—embracing. Capture this moment, I urge Cole wordlessly: friction and passion, tenderness and urgency, need and love.
Delirious with desire, I crawl down Dane’s body mouth-first, kissing a trail down his belly and teasing at his tip with my tongue. Dane taps me on the shoulder as I pull his shaft into my mouth.
“Are you sure?” he whispers, as if the camera might be offended by the need to confirm.
“Fuck, yes!” I answer, swallowing him all the way down. The camera sings from every angle, but I’m so focused on getting Dane off, I’ve lost all modesty. Ass in the air, moaning like a two-dollar whore, I treat my lover to what might be my most enthusiastic blowjob ever.
He doesn’t lie still for it, pivoting his body underneath me until his mouth is around my cock. I pause only long enough to groan as Dane works me over with fingers and tongue and lips.
“So . . . fucking . . . hot, you two!” Cole interjects as the room fills with blowjob hums and the heavy musk of sex.
I lose it first, Dane’s cock slipping out of my mouth as I struggle for breath. The camera owns my orgasm, every single part of my body expressing unbridled bliss for the objective reporter.
Yes, record every twitch and spasm of ecstasy for Dane so he can see how he pleases me.
I capture him between my lips as soon as I regain my senses, cupping his tight balls and slipping a finger inside his hole. “Come on, my beautiful boy. Show the camera what a slut you are for me!”
“OH FUCK!” Dane yells, digging his fingers into the flesh of my arms as his climax tears through his body. I pull back for the money shot, leaving the camera to capture the cum spray on my face while my fist milks the last drops of his orgasm.
“Holy shit! You two are fantastic!” Cole marvels. I collapse next to Dane, my head nestled between his thighs. We bring each other back with tender kisses and soft nuzzles and sweet caresses. “Truly beautiful, gentlemen.”
Too tired to move a muscle, I’m relieved when Dane takes the initiative, aligning his body with mine, head to toe. Reconnecting in my favorite way, my fingers push the hair out of Dane’s face before I close the distance between us with a deep kiss. Clickclickclickclick.
A sluggish grin materializes on Dane’s face. “Thank you, Marcus,” he whispers.
“I can’t believe you just made me do that.”
Dane chuckles. “You’re kind of a cheap date. A couple glasses of bubbly and BOOM!”
I release a heavy sigh. Whirwhirwhirwhir. “These pictures ought to be interesting.”
“Very,” Dane agrees.
We both turn our attention to the man standing over us pointing a very long zoom lens in our faces. Clickclickclickclick. Cole gingerly releases the weight of the camera, and it settles against his chest on the thick leather strap.
“Are you sure this was your first time doing a shoot, Marcus?”
My face heats up, and I have to clear my throat before any sound will come out. “Pretty sure.”
“Well, I have to say, you surprised the hell outta me. I thought for sure you’d at least get under the sheets!”
“Yeah, um . . .” Dane amazes me by pulling the sheet over us and waving Cole out of the room.
Slightly buzzed and beyond comfortable in Dane’s arms, I can sense my eyelids getting heavier and heavier. “How long before he kicks us out?”
Dane’s chuckle is a warm breeze that jumps through my hair. “I’m pretty sure he’ll let us stay for as long as we want.”
“Mmmm, maybe we should cancel our room at the hotel. This bed is pretty damn comfortable.”
“I’d be comfortable on a cement slab if you were lying next to me.”
“Ah, you romantic fool, you.”
My snort rattles away the drowsy pull of sleep. “So, what’s your deal with Cole? Do we actually get any of the photos, because I have to say, the experience alone would have been more than enough for me.”
“He said we’d negotiate a deal, depending on how things went.”
“‘Depending on how things went’? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Cole has been after me for a while to do a shoot. My guess is he’ll give us the whole series for nothing, even toss in a few enlargements of our choosing, if we let him use a couple of the poses in his portfolio. I’d never sign off on anything without your blessing, of course.”
“You have my blessing on anything you want, Dane, including working one-on-one with Cole in the future.” I cup his warm cheek with my hand. “You’re gorgeous, at rest or in motion. If this is a logical extension of your talent, then go for it. I’d never hold you back.”
“That’s quite open-minded of you. You sure you wouldn’t mind?”
“Now that I’m thinking about it, I guess I would have a few conditions.”
Dane grins. “Such as?”
“Okay, at a minimum, please cover up with at least a thong. Not just for my sanity, but because one day, your career might take you in a different direction, and once that . . . cat is out of the bag, there’s no putting it back.”
“Fair enough. And?”
“And I want to see the photos. All of them. Just because I can never get enough of you.”
He rolls his eyes. “Okay, is that it?”
“I think you should have Cole come out to the house and photograph us in the dungeon sometime.”
His smile widens. “You mean that?”
“Sure. Why not?”
The shift is immediate and tangible—in the form of Dane’s erection knocking into my thigh. I grab his hip and hold him against me.
“That excites you, boy? Being watched while we play? Being photographed while you’re blindfolded and bound?”
He has just enough piss and vinegar left in him to force out, “Let’s just say you drive a hard bargain, Master.”
To my amazing readers/reviewers/followers: I hope each of you knows how much your loving support has meant to me. It's been almost 5 months' journey, and that's an awful long time to demand a reader's attention. Some of you have responded to every single chapter and others one or two. Some of you have PM'd me on Facebook or fanfic to share your thoughts, questions, concerns, and suggestions *wink*. I've really enjoyed sharing these characters with a small but mighty group who has loved them as fiercely as I do (or close!). Thank you all so much.
To Team RM- I'll talk to you after the epilogue! For now...MWAH!
See you all very soon with the epilogue. XOXOX