“It's rare to read a book that is incredibly smart, supremely sexy, and wonderfully human, but Off the Clock is all those things and more. Roni Loren's first Pleasure Principle novel is a complex, interesting, emotional, decadently erotic romance that will both satisfy you and leave you begging for more." --Wit and Sin book blog about OFF THE CLOCK
LOVING YOU EASY
Book 9 - The Loving on the Edge Series
SEPTEMBER 6, 2016
Three lovers really click in the latest from the New York Times bestselling author of Call on Me—
Cora has an amazing sex life. She’s beautiful, daring, and the most popular submissive in Hayven. Too bad none of it’s real...
IT specialist Cora Benning has figured out the key to her formerly disastrous love life—make it virtual. In the online world of Hayven, she’s free of her geek girl image and can indulge her most private fantasies with a sexy, mysterious master without anyone in her life discovering her secrets. Until her information is hacked and she finds herself working to fix the breach under two very powerful men—one who seems all too familiar...
Best friends and business partners Ren Muroya and Hayes Fox were once revered dominants. Then Hayes was wrongfully sent to prison and everything changed. Ren wants to get back to who they were. Hayes can’t risk it. But when they discover the new IT specialist is their online fascination, and that she’s never felt a dominant’s touch, the temptation to turn virtual into reality becomes all too great…
READ CHAPTER 1
Copyrighted Material Roni Loren 2016 - All Rights Reserved Berkley Publishing Group
*18 and over only*
*pre-edit version, may contain typos
February 14th—Log-in time: 11:26 p.m.
I know how to recognize dangerous men .
My mother taught me from an early age what to zero in on. The way a man looked at you. The way he spoke. The way he tried to get you to do something or see his point of view. The way he made you feel when he came close to you, that visceral, bone-deep sense that there was danger present. Your instincts know, Cora. Don’t ignore them.
It’d been a lot to teach an eight-year-old.
I doubt Mom wanted me to have to face that kind of fear so early on, but when you’re a detective and there’s a killer on the loose with a vendetta against you, you do what you have to do. My mom never caught the killer, and I never forgot the lesson.
So even though he’s only a form on a screen, a cartoon really, I know the instant that he strides into the game what Master Dmitry is. I know what my body is trying to tell me even as I sit in the safety of my bedroom on the other side of a screen. Danger. Back away.
But I don’t. I can’t.
Dangerous men scare me. And I’m fascinated. After years of being mostly ignored, of failing at the dating game, of making high art of being put in the friend zone, I want to know what it’s like to be someone else. To not play it safe. To be desired.
I use my wireless controller and have my character, Lenore, flip her hair to catch his attention. She’s so unlike me, Lenore. All flowing blond locks and epic curves. Feminine with a capital F. She’s the girl the guys fantasize about. I want to be that girl for a little while. Feel what that’s like.
He turns and faces me. His hair is long and the color of the deep ocean, pulled back with a leather band. He’s chosen to wear all black. Most of the dominants in the Hayven game wear the same, but somehow it looks more fitting for him, like he was made to only wear that color. He hasn’t designed his character to be overly muscled. He doesn’t look like a comic book superhero like most of the male players in Hayven, but he’s tall and broad and intimidating. Quietly powerful.
“So, you’re Lenore.”
The deep voice in my headset makes me jump. I know the sound is affected by the voice changer the game has. Hayven has layers of identity protection. That’s why I’ve chosen this game, why I can be someone else without worry. But still, the sound of him in my ear is enough to send goose bumps prickling my skin. I lick my lips, force the word past my lips. “Yes.”
He doesn’t correct me, tell me to call him sir. I like that. I like players who don’t make assumptions.
He steps closer. We’re in the public part of the game. You can create whatever environment you want in the private spaces, but the main part of the game has zones—the park, the island, the city, the forest, and the main house. Right now we’re in the forest. A place with towering trees and limited moonlight. There’s a map in a small box in the corner of my screen where a few red dots glow, indicating other players are nearby, but I can’t see anyone. That’s why I was here. I was looking for others to watch. That’s what I do. Harmless fun. But with Dmitry moving toward me and the first-person style of the game, I feel like I’m suddenly alone with this man. Red Riding Hood to his Wolf. I’m looking through Lenore’s eyes and there’s nowhere to run.
“You’re popular around here,” he says, that deep voice a stroke against my ear, the sound intimately close in my headset. Despite the name, there’s no accent.
Popular. Ha. There’s a word that’s never been used to describe me before. Unless it was to designate most popular girl to play against in a video game battle or most popular chick to invite to guy’s poker night. But I remind myself that he’s not talking about me. Tomboy. Proud geek girl. He’s talking about Lenore. Pretty, voluptuous Lenore. “I do all right.”
The night sky is black behind him until a streak of lightning cuts across it, making the leaves of the digital trees turn to a thousand silhouettes. The gamemasters are brewing a storm, playing with the many toys this game has. Dmitry doesn’t appear to notice. If anything, he looks as if he’s called the lightning himself, his presence making everything feel electric. “Why do you think you’re so popular? Besides being beautiful. There are lots of beautiful women here.”
Yeah, no shit. No one’s going to make an ugly avatar. Hello, beauty of video games. But I don’t know how to answer the question. I’m not sure why I get a lot of friends or attention in the game. Maybe it’s because I’m involved but mysterious. I’m a watcher, a tease, not a participator. “I’m here a lot. People get to know me.”
His blue hair is blowing in the wind now, a few strands pulling free of the tieback. “You’re here on Valentine’s Day.”
The words hit me like icy drops of rain, yanking me briefly out of the game world and back into reality. Like I need a reminder. Like the TV isn’t playing a marathon of every romantic movie ever made. Like the dudes at my shitty job didn’t spend the day incessantly talking about how they’re so getting laid tonight because they threw a box of chocolate or some flowers at a girl. Like the guy I’ve been sleeping with for three years didn’t balk when I asked him if he wanted to do something tonight.
Why? It’s not like we’re dating, Cora. We’re just great FWB. You’re like a bro with a vagina. Sex without the drama of things like Valentine’s Day. Which made me realize a) I thought I had a boyfriend and didn’t, b) I’ve been sleeping with a guy who uses chat abbreviations in actual speech and c) he actually said bro with a vagina like that was an okay thing to call me. I’m not sure which one disturbs me more. Probably that I let this “bro with a penis” in my bed. For three years. It’s too pathetic to even cry about. Okay, maybe I cried a little.
“I’m not a romantic. Hallmark holidays aren’t my thing.” I ignore the half-empty heart-shaped box of Russell Stover candy I bought at the Walgreens on the way home.
“Guess we have that in common, then.” He’s close now. If this were real life, the wispy dress Lenore is wearing would be whipping in the breeze, brushing against his skin. He looks like he wants to rip it off. I kind of want him to, until he lifts his hand.
My fingers, so in tune with the controller by now, automatically shift to make Lenore take a step back. My heartbeat has picked up speed. The danger signals are going off in my head, the virtual world playing tricks on my real brain.
“Why are you scared to play, Lenore?” The voice caresses my senses, startles me with its quiet edge as he lowers his hand.
“What? I’m not. I just . . . like to watch.”
“I know. I’ve watched you watch. I’ve also watched you deftly deflect any offers. You’re good at the tease. Good at playing the less-experienced dominants and keeping them panting after you.”
My throat tightens and I reach for my beer to take a sip. I’ve seen glimpses of Dmitry in the game. But if he plays, he does it privately. And he doesn’t seem to have any regulars he talks to either. He’s like a shadow. That guy at the bar who comes in, drinks, and leaves. But somehow he knows. He knows that despite the submissive designation on my character, I’ve never actually played that role in the game. “You watch, too.”
“Yes, I do. But I also study. There’s a difference. I’ve studied you.” He steps closer and this time my fingers are frozen against the controller. There’s so much that I don’t know. I don’t know what he really looks like. I don’t know how he smells or if his real voice is that deep. But somehow with his words in my ear, the soft sound of his breath, my body reacts anyway, knows there’s a real man on the end of this phone line. My skin is warming, my blood pumping, arousal and a hint of fear twining together. He reaches up and brushes hair away from Lenore’s face. I shouldn’t feel a tingle against my brow where his fingers would be, but I do. “I’m tired of watching.”
“Oh.” My voice is small, an afterthought. My persona as Lenore the Confident Vixen slips out of my reach as my real self invades.
“I think you are, too.”
I close my eyes, the words filtering through my blood, my defenses rising, trying to put up some sort of fight against my galloping libido. “Why would you think that? You don’t know me.”
“I know enough,” he says with utter calm. “I know that you’re smart and that anytime someone gets you close to participating in the game, you make jokes, get sarcastic, and protect yourself. You’ve got a sharp wit and a smart mouth, Lenore. I bet in your life, you’re a force, a successful woman with a lot on her plate. You don’t give in to men. You don’t give in to anyone.”
The truth of the words rattle me. This man doesn’t know me, but somehow it’s like he’s peering through the computer screen and seeing my life.
“And that’s exactly why you crave this so much. Why you’re here so often. You want to know what it’s like and it terrifies you.”
My throat is dry, the words sticky against my tongue. “This is just a game.”
“It’s been a very long time for me, Lenore, and I know this is a game. Believe me. But ignore the window dressing on the screen. What’s real is that I’m here and you’re here. Whatever roles and labels we have in real life aren’t with us right now. All that’s left is this: what we want to do right now, alone, with no one else watching or judging. No one will know what happens tonight except us. You can let go. You’re safe.”
My mother would say that word is its own kind of lie, but I want to believe it. Right now, I do. The truth tumbles out of me. “I don’t know how to do this.”
“Close your eyes.” The words are gentle but commanding.
I can’t do anything but listen. My lids fall shut.
“All you have to do is listen to my voice. You can always say no at any point, but trust that I’ve got your pleasure in mind. I can give you what I know you’re craving when you watch. All I ask is that you’re honest with me, in your reactions and in what you’re telling me you’re doing. And I’ll give you the same.” He pauses for a long second and when he speaks again, his voice has grit in it, his own need sneaking through. “Give me tonight. I want to hear what you sound like when you surrender to it, how you sound when you come.”
I swallow hard and something tightens low in my belly. I knew all along where this was leading. From the very moment he walked into my corner of the game. That’s what Hayven is about ultimately—sex. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t use what I watched in Hayven for fantasy fodder. But I’ve never taken the step of sharing that experience with another player. It seems a little too . . . far. Too personal. Like it stops being a game and becomes part of my life. And maybe a piece of me had thought it would be like cheating on Kevin—Kevin who was never my boyfriend. But there’s no more Kevin and the temptation is beating through me like a wild drumbeat.
“Don’t you want to know what it’s like? To give up the power for just a little while? To let go of any responsibilities and just listen and act?” His voice is like a dark, winding river, rumbling against my senses, dragging me into the current. “To let me bring you to your edge? To know you’re bringing me to mine?”
I inhale deeply, keeping my eyes closed, and focus on just his voice. Not the game. Not Lenore. Not the romantic comedy playing in the living room. Not the fact that everyone else I know is on a date tonight. Just the unfamiliar sound of a sexy dominant man making irresistible promises in my ear. Let me bring you to your edge.
Your instincts know, Cora.
I’ve spent my life avoiding dangerous men.
I won’t tonight.
In the tell-no-secrets safety of my bedroom, I say yes.
Four months later
BigMan232: I need you naked and at my feet tonight. You’ve been a bad girl. Time to pay up.
Cora kept her phone in her lap as she surreptitiously read the message lighting the screen and tried not to roll her eyes. Ugh, get a clue, dude. She clicked Ignore and Block. She thought she’d done that the last time BigMan had contacted her in the Hayven game but apparently not.
She quickly checked her inbox to make sure she didn’t have a message from the guy she really wanted to hear from, but there was nothing there. Bummer. He’d been quiet the last few days.
“You better not be working over there, cupcake,” Grace said from across the table, her voice barely cutting through the din of voices and music at the party. She popped a stuffed mushroom into her mouth and gave Cora the cocked eyebrow of challenge.
Cora pressed the button to make the screen go black. “Not working.”
“Liar.” Grace leaned forward on her forearms, her silver bangle bracelets jangling against the table and her poker-straight blond hair turning gold under the soft lights of the winery’s gorgeous cedar and glass event space. “Well, cut that shit out. This is called a networking party for a reason. No hiding in our phones. We’re here to drink loads of local wine and to mingle.”
“The wine I can do. But mingle? Have you met me?” She held her hand out across the table. “Hello, I’m Cora Benning, you’re mingle-averse best friend.”
Grace ignored Cora’s outstretched hand. “Mingle-averse.”
“Yes. It’s a thing, actually—like an allergy.”
“Uh-huh,” Grace said, deadpan.
Cora gave her a grave look. “I should’ve made you aware ahead of time. I could break out in hives or something, or you know, go anaphylactic on you—throat swelling, eyes bulging. Not pretty. Really, I should be carrying an EpiPen with me just being around all these strangers who require small talk. This is why I went into IT. Medical safety.”
Grace tossed a balled-up napkin at her, missing left. “Well, you’re going to have to get over it, smartass. You’re the one who wanted to start her own company. And part of that is putting yourself out there and meeting new people. Mingling. Mixing.”
Ha. She loved that Grace framed it as Cora wanting to start her own company instead of the truth—that she’d quit her last job in an unplanned blaze of non-glory only to find out afterward that she had no decent job options that didn’t involve working overnight at a call center. Yay for expensive college degrees that apparently meant diddly without a recommendation from your previous employer.
“You need bigger jobs than setting up virus protection for Marv’s Auto Parts or helping your mother out at the police station—which, by the way, she should be paying you more for. You’ve been getting intern pay for how many years now?”
Cora shrugged. “You know I don’t do the police stuff for the money. It’s a good cause.”
Plus, she’d never admit it to her mom but she loved the challenge of working on cases. In a different world, she may have gone into the field herself, but her mom had always warned her away from it. Too dangerous. Crappy pay. Find yourself a fancy office to work in, Coraline. Capitalize on that brain of yours.
“Yeah, the good cause of keeping your mother off your back. But I promise you, if they contracted that work out to someone else, they’d be paying whoever it was a helluva lot more. Playing Good Samaritan doesn’t pay the bills. Your landlord isn’t going to care that you’re doing good deeds when you can’t make rent.”
Cora groaned and took a big sip of her wine, trying to focus on how delicious the Water’s Edge Tempranillo was and not on the cold splash of reality Grace insisted on giving her. Last thing Cora needed to think about was the dwindling number in her bank account. She’d had a decent savings when she’d left her job at Braecom, but she’d had to lean on that to get her business started. And though the part-time gig at the police station helped provide some steady income, it wasn’t enough to sustain her once her little nest egg dried up. She needed to land some bigger accounts.
However, that didn’t mean she’d suddenly developed the ability to mingle. Business meetings? Presentations? She could handle that stuff. But small talk with strangers? Ugh. She’d only been half-kidding about the hives. “I can make business contacts by email. I’m better in writing. Or on the phone.”
Where I can control things and not have to be charming.
“No, babe. That’s called spam and is the chickenshit way of going about it. You’re better than that.”
Cora rearranged the food on her tasting plate. Cubed chorizo and smoked Gouda became little Monopoly-style neighborhoods, the spicy mustard a moat in between. She resisted the urge to level the whole gourmet town with a sweep of her hand. Grace didn’t get it. The woman sparkled at these functions. She could talk to a wall and make it interested. Cora could make that same wall feel awkward and want to excuse itself to grab a drink.
When she felt Grace’s stare burning into her, she looked up and attempted a deflecting smile. “So I’m a chickenshit. Exactly when did I hire you as my business coach? Because this motivational talk is really helping. I mean, I feel like I need a poster with a dude jumping off a cliff into the open sea or something. Or maybe that one where the cat sees the lion in the mirror.” She held up her hand and curled her fingers like a claw. “Rawr.”
Grace pointed at her. “Don’t get snippy with me, Benning. I’m acting as your benevolent and helpful mentor, which means I’m not above kicking your ass. I don’t want you living on ramen by the end of the year or worse, going to back to Braecom to beg for your job back.”
“Not gonna happen.”
No fucking way. She’d sell hot dogs on the street before she returned to Braecom. When her boss had gotten wind that she’d been sleeping with Kevin, Cora had gotten a talk about how to conduct herself professionally. A week later, he’d told her that she was no longer being considered for the supervisory position she was in line for because the rest of the guys on the team wouldn’t respect her as an authority figure.
And what had Kevin gotten? Her promotion. Fucker.
“It’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be,” Cora said, trying to sound upbeat and swallow past the bitterness the memories dredged up. “I have prospects. The other day, I had a lady offer me two grand to hack into her ex-boyfriend’s Instagram. I think there’s a business opportunity there. Cora Benning—Avenging Hacker for Victims of Cheating Assholes.” She spread her hands like she was seeing the words on a sign. “Though we may have to play with the company title. That may be too much to put on a business card.”
Grace snorted. “Yeah, let’s try to focus on things that won’t land you in handcuffs. You don’t need go to the dark side to make money.”
“But it wouldn’t really be the dark side. I mean, technically yes, but it’d be for a good reason. Only shitty people would be harmed. It’d be like Dexter or that show Cheaters, hacker style.” She gave Grace a bright grin, knowing it’d only piss her off.
“Okay, Robin Hood of Hackerville. Let’s not give your mother a reason to throw you in jail, all right? You just need to get out there and rub elbows with people who actually have cash and could use your services—the legal ones. You’re a badass, motherfucking, white-hat hacker. They need you.”
“Now that’s what should be on the business card. Badass motherfucking hacker. I’d get loads of business.”
“Not if you don’t speak to anyone ever.”
Cora deflated at that, her mood souring further. “Come on, Grace. I’m a start-up. The people here are big deals. We’re at some hoity-toity winery for God’s sake. That big-ass cowboy who was welcoming everybody when we came in? Yeah, that’s Grant Waters, the owner. He’s got so much money that he’s lost count. These people walking around? They own corporations and yachts and shit. They’ve already got a team of IT security on their payroll. They’re here to drink expensive wine and network with other CEOs, not people like me. I appreciate you getting Jonah to snag us an invite to this, and I love you for thinking I’m at this level, but I need to start smaller. Like way smaller.”
Cora’s phone vibrated in her lap again, and she forced herself not to check it. Grace knew she was always online but assumed Cora was just a workaholic. She’d die of shock if she found out her best friend was a regular player in a kinky online game. And then Cora would promptly die of embarrassment. Yes, my sex life is now one hundred percent online. No, that’s not pathetic at all.
“You don’t know that these people don’t need you,” Grace insisted.
“But I do.” Cora glanced out at the milling crowd. There were no tuxes or sparkly cocktail dresses. From the outside looking in, these people didn’t look important with a capital I, but she knew better. In the dot-com world, the more casual someone looked, the more money they probably had. The thought of pitching to any of them made her stomach knot, especially after the trauma of the job interviews she’d had right after leaving Braecom. You could only hear “not the right fit” so many times before you started to wonder if you’d accidentally been assigned to the wrong planet. She looked back to her best friend. “Plus, let’s not pretend you finagled an invitation to this party for my benefit. You’re here to meet hot Internet moguls.”
Grace put a who-me? hand to her chest. “Is it so wrong to have a two-pronged reason for being here? That’s called being efficient. And I don’t see how that would be bad for either of us. Your on-the-rebound dry spell has gone on for way longer than is healthy.”
Cora stabbed a toothpick through the Gouda tower she’d built on her plate. Was it really being on the rebound if the relationship hadn’t actually been a relationship? “I’m not in a dry spell. I’m on hiatus by choice.”
Truth. Sort of.
“No. You’re avoiding.” Grace lifted a hand when Cora tried to protest. “Since the Kevin incident and quitting Braecom, you’ve used starting up your business as an excuse to shut down your social life. That worked for the first few months, but I’m not buying that excuse anymore.”
Cora sniffed. “Exactly when did I have this booming social life?”
“You used to at least go out after work sometimes. And you’d let me drag you to bars. And before Kevin, there was that guy you saw for a while—Nick, Nelson.”
“Neil? You’re going back that far? We went on three dates in college. He liked to talk about dorm room beer-making. And smelled like old bread.”
She flicked a hand. “Details. Now you shut me down anytime I ask for anything that involves you going out after seven. I bet if this hadn’t been work-related tonight, you would’ve canceled on me. You would’ve turned down free wine and fancy cheese.”
True. She almost had. And really, turning down free fancy cheese was probably on her personal checklist of The-Girl-Ain’t-Right signs. But she’d agreed to go because she’d wanted to see Grace, and she knew Grace wouldn’t let her get away with inviting her over just to hang out and watch movies again. “I have a lot going on.”
“I know you do. But you can’t let all that stuff shut down your whole life.” Grace gave her a pointed look. “It’s my duty as your best friend to not let you become a crazy, sexless cat lady because some asshole wronged you. It’s in the handbook.”
Cora smirked. “I’m allergic to cats. And I’ve had sex. You’re cleared of liability.”
She cocked her head in that take-no-bullshit way she’d perfected. “Had being the operative word there. Had, Cora. I get that you needed some time. But don’t let what happened with Kevin turn you into a hermit. You thought you had something with him and you didn’t. He was a jerk about it.”
“He called me a bro with a vagina, Grace.”
“Okay. Fine. More than a jerk. A complete asshole. But I don’t think this is even about him. That night we had too many margaritas at Rosa’s, you told me the sex was sufficient. Who the hell wants to have sufficient sex? You never got stars in your eyes when you talked about him. He was cute and convenient. And safe. And he saved you the trouble of being out in the dating world. That’s what you’re mourning. Not him.”
A bitter taste crossed Cora’s tongue, and she had to take another sip of wine to clear it. She wished there was some magical app where you could just wipe a certain time in your life out of your head. One click and it went into some unrecoverable trash bin. But that trash bin would be overflowing by now. Reading too much into her hookups with Kevin had just been the final dating mistake in a long list of them.
In the end, it’d been a good thing. She’d finally accepted her place in the dating pecking order. She was and had always been a tomboy and a geek, never quite comfortable in the skin she’d been given until she’d accepted that “proper girl” trappings and behaviors were not for her. But that had set her up to be the girl to hang out with, the buddy. She was the one they’d sleep with if they had no one else better lined up. Sufficient. Nothing more. Not the woman anyone lusted over. Not the girl anyone fantasized about.
And really, after accepting that, the loss of her dating life hadn’t been all that tragic. Dating had always been painful and awkward for her. The sex . . . uninspiring. These last few months, taking that off the table completely, had been a weird kind of relief. She had friends to hang out with. She had Dmitry and Hayven. She knew how to take care of her sexual needs. Not everyone needed to pair off like little plastic pegs riding in the car in The Game of Life.
“I’m not in mourning or unhappy, Gracie,” Cora said, hoping her friend could hear sincerity in her voice. “Truly. You don’t have to fix anything. I’m fine. I don’t need a guy right now. I’m a busy girl and a wizard with a vibrator. Who needs more than that?”
Grace’s lip curled, her silver nose ring catching the light. “A wizard? Does that mean your vibrator is magical?”
“Hey, they don’t call it a wand for nothing.” Cora held up her toothpick and waved it around. “I’m working on my sex Patronus. I’m thinking mine will be shaped like a naked Chris Pratt riding a T-Rex.”
That earned a laugh, but concern lingered in Grace’s eyes.
Cora sighed and dropped the toothpick onto the plate. “Look, seriously, I’m fine. Why don’t you go and circulate? Do what you came here to do. I promise I’ll finish my wine and work up some liquid courage to do the same.”
Her green eyes went catlike, skeptical. “Yeah?”
“Sure. Drunk, chorizo-breath Cora will leave great impressions wherever she goes. All introverted tendencies will transform into glittering wit and brilliant sales pitches.”
“Cora.” She said it in the tone Cora’s mother used when she’d catch her playing video games instead of doing homework.
Cora shooed her with a flick of her hand. “Go. I swear I will leave this table once I’m done with my wine and will attempt to interact with fellow humans.”
Grace considered her for another second but then pushed her chair back and stood. She jabbed a purple-nailed finger Cora’s way. “I expect a fistful of business cards to be handed out, Ms. Benning.”
She saluted. “Yes, ma’am.”
Cora watched her friend go and then stared into her wine, wondering how long she could make it last. Maybe she could sneak a refill and drag this out. She took a teeny-tiny sip and let it roll around in her mouth, pretending she actually knew how to do this whole wine-tasting song and dance.
“Is this seat taken?”
Cora glanced up to find a well-dressed guy with a nice smile looking down at her. His hand was on the back of the chair Grace had vacated, and Cora was almost too surprised to speak. She swallowed the wine, half-choking. “Uh, yeah, I mean, no. It’s not taken.”
His grin went wider. “Great. Thanks.”
She took a breath, mentally preparing for a conversation with a cute stranger. She was still capable. Maybe. “So, some party, huh?”
Wait. That was her opening line? Maybe she had been hanging out in her apartment too long. Why not just ask about the weather while she was at it?
But the guy didn’t hear her anyway. Because instead of sitting down, he picked up the chair and walked away, bringing it to another table that was overflowing with laughing people.
The air whooshed out of her and heat flooded her face. Oh. Right. Of course.
She stood, her chair scraping hard against the floor, and drained the rest of her wine. Sitting alone at a table with one chair in the middle of a party was just a little too high on the pathetic scale, even for her. She left her empty wineglass and looked for a wall she could decorate with her presence.
She found a contender, one where the lighting was low and she could blend into the background. She started the excuse-me-pardon-me dance across the room. But as she made her way through the crowd, her phone buzzed. She grabbed it from the outside pocket of her purse, thankful to have something to make her look busy and not like she was escaping.
Dmitry: I’ve been thinking about you all day.
They were just little black letters on a screen, but God, did it unknot something inside her. Warm, sweet relief filtered through her. She typed back as she walked.
Lenore: Same here. Long, long day.
Dmitry: Plans tonight? Your dance card looks crowded.
She smiled. In Hayven, she never had a shortage of offers, especially since others knew she was now actively playing with the mysterious Dmitry. But she rarely watched anyone else’s scenes anymore. Since that first night with Dmitry, she’d developed a bit of an addiction for the man. He’d gone easy on her the first time, had led her through a scene where he told her exactly how to touch herself and for how long. He’d teased her for an hour before letting her come. It’d been simple. But it’d been one of the best orgasms off her life. And it’d made her forget all about being alone on Valentine’s Day.
After that, the boundaries had nudged farther out. He’d sometimes give her instructions. They’d be waiting for her on her phone when she woke up in the morning. No panties today. No touching yourself until you talk to me again. Somehow he could set her off balance with the simplest commands. There was something about having a secret that only the two of them shared that was intensely sexual. So even when she was alone during the day, she knew he was out there, pulling those invisible strings, maybe thinking about her like she was thinking of him. There was an odd sort of comfort in that. An intimate connection without the angst. Someone waiting for her to get home even though he wasn’t there physically. In a short few months, Dmitry had become a touchstone for her in her day.
Not that he still didn’t intimidate the hell out of her sometimes. Her instincts about him being dangerous still flared up. When he went into full dom mode, he was formidable as hell. But in the conversations in between, she’d found him to be smart and interesting and funny. They could play the game and push limits. But they could also have a normal conversation outside of the game. They’d become . . . friends.
And he used full English instead of text speak, which was odd and surprisingly refreshing. No FWB Kevin anymore.
Lenore: You’re the only one I want on my dance card. But I’m trapped at a boring work thing right now. Short of a zombie invasion, I’m stuck for a while. Will be home later, though.
Dmitry: Boring work thing? Since when is international espionage boring?
She laughed as she squeezed through a group of people and then coughed over it when she realized how loud the laugh had come out.
Lenore: That’s your guess? International spy? That’s what I had YOU pegged for. Well, after I ruled out Batman.
It was a game they played, guessing each other’s job. They knew neither would ever tell the truth. The beauty of the thing was in the anonymity. They didn’t want to know. Neither wanted the illusion shattered.
Dmitry: You got me. I’m currently hiding in the coat closet of a drug kingpin, gathering intel. *Types quietly*
She could almost picture that. She had no idea what Dmitry looked like in person, but his game persona would be fit for a spy.
Lenore: *looks at closet* Shit. You found me! Sorry that I have to kill you now. It’s been fun. *bang*
Dmitry: *catches the bullet between my teeth and spits it out*
Lenore: Oh no! You ARE Batman.
Dmitry: *captures you, strips you naked, and ties you to the bed*
Her stomach dipped, the scene turning vivid in her head. This was how things went with Dmitry. Their conversations could go from playful to hot in a few short exchanges. She reached the wall she’d been planning to park herself against. If she stayed there, she’d have a nice view through the picture windows that lined the left side of the room. She could make the excuse that she wasn’t avoiding the party but was enjoying the moonlit rows of grapevines and admiring the looming, cedar-and-stone building in the distance, presumably Grant Waters’ massive ranch home. But her face felt warm, and she was afraid that if Dmitry continued down this texting path, it would show all over her expression.
So instead of stopping, she slipped into a darkened hallway off the main room. The noise of the party softened instantly. Two doors labeled Storage were on the left, but no was around and nothing looked to be in active use. The quiet was more than a little welcome, and she let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding.
She glanced down at her phone.
Dmitry: *spends all night touching you and not letting you come*
She licked her lips, her temperature kicking up a few notches more, the words and the wine blending together in her blood. She should probably go back to the party, tell Dmitry she’d talk to him later. She’d made a promise to Grace and was supposed to be mingling. Instead, she moved deeper into the dark and stepped between two stacks of plastic storage crates. Only the dim blue light of her phone screen filled the space.
Lenore: *struggles but secretly likes having your hands on me*
Dmitry: You like the idea of being captured?
The question wound through her like sweet temptation. Never before would she have considered that a desirable scenario. She’d spent half her life being scared someone would grab her. Her mother and the cases she’d worked had put that fear in Cora. It was a legitimate fear. But playing that kind of game with someone she could trust? Facing that nightmare scenario and twisting it into something sexy? She’d never be able to trust someone that implicitly, but virtually, she could go there in her head.
Lenore: Only if you’re the captor.
Dmitry: Mmm. I’d like to watch you struggle for my touch. I’d make you ride your edge until you beg. I bet you’re beautiful when you beg. I know you sound sexy when you do it.
Goose bumps chased over her skin. Since she couldn’t picture the real man, she pictured the version of him from the game. She imagined him knotting the ropes around her wrists and ankles, touching her everywhere, searching fingers and hot skin, making her want all the things he could give her.
Dmitry: Are you struggling now, L? Are you getting wet at this boring work thing?
She shifted in her shoes. Her blood was pumping, the place between her thighs growing warm. The dark felt like a cloak around her. Safe. Secret.
Lenore: Yes. It’s not feeling so boring now.
Dmitry: Where are you? Meeting? Your desk?
Lenore: At an event, stepped into a hallway.
Dmitry: Are you wearing a skirt?
She frowned. Never. She’d never felt comfortable in the things, despite her mother’s repeated attempts to get her to wear them. She glanced down at her pinstripe dress pants and white silk tank top. Grace had given her a thumbs-up on the outfit, but Cora doubted Lenore would wear such a thing.
Dmitry: Perfect. Part your knees. Pretend I’m there with you running my hand up your thigh.
Despite the fact that she wasn’t really wearing a dress, she stepped a little wider, imagining his hand gliding up her legs and along her overheated skin, causing her to shiver. Her nipples became obvious points beneath her shirt.
Dmitry: Did you do it?
Dmitry: Picture my fingers beneath your dress, trailing up your thigh, pulling your panties to the side. Can you feel them, teasing you, not quite giving you what you want yet?
Sensation traced over her skin and she tilted her head back against the wall. God, she longed for that feeling, wished she could will him into existence right in front of her.
Dmitry: Tell me what you need.
Lenore: You. Your touch.
Dmitry: I bet you do. You’ve been good for me, so I won’t make you wait. I can feel how slippery you are against my fingertips. I slide my finger lower and push inside.
Cora shuddered, her breath quickening.
Dmitry: You’re so wet for me, L, and I can feel you tighten around me. You need this so badly. You want to beg for more, but you have to be quiet. No one would know what I was doing to you. The event would just go on around you. You’d wear a nice polite smile while I fucked you with my fingers and made you come all over my hand.
A gasp slipped past her lips as her inner muscles clenched hard. She was steps away from a crowded party, but she could almost feel his hand on her, thick fingertips finding her sex and pushing inside her. She closed her eyes and pressed her thighs together, trying to put pressure where she needed it most. Her pulse pounded in her ears, and her nipples turned sensitive against her bra. She wanted to touch, to get relief. Her fingers curled against her thigh. Maybe she could just press the heel of her hand . . .
“So I think it’s time for our very important business meeting.”
Cora’s eyes popped open, and her breath caught at the sound of the unfamiliar male voice. She automatically clutched her phone to her chest, blocking the light.
A woman laughed. “Oh, is that what you’re calling it?”
Two shadowed forms came into view and passed by Cora as they headed toward the back of the hallway. The fine hairs that had escaped the twist in Cora’s hair fluttered against her face as the couple kicked up a breeze in their wake, but neither noticed her. She was just another shadow.
Cora squinted. There was enough light that she could make out the height of the man, the petiteness of the woman, but not much else. They were walking close together, obviously sneaking away for something and in a hurry. Cora glanced toward the entrance and the rectangle of light that led back to the party. She needed to bail.
“Keep it up with the laughing,” the man said, his voice low but ringing with authority. “See how long it takes me to shut you up.”
Cora stiffened and her attention swung back to the couple.
But the woman made a sound like she’d just taken a bite of the best chocolate. “Look forward to it, sir.”
Sir. The word rang through Cora. Reverberated. Sir. It meant a very specific thing to Cora. But this couldn’t be that. Her mind was just stuck on Dmitry and the game. This was probably some assistant and her boss sneaking off to make out. She needed to leave, make it known that they weren’t alone. Hello, innocent bystander here! I was just leaving. Don’t mind me!
And she was all prepared to do that until she heard the sound of a zipper and shift of fabric. She turned her head automatically toward the noise, the harsh unzipping like a beacon.
The woman’s breaths were sharp in the darkness—quick, anticipatory. Sexual.
Cora tried to pull her attention from them, tried to make her feet work.
Look away, Cora. Look away!
The man’s voice sliced through the silence like a bullet. “Suck it.”
And she didn’t look away.