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Kat enjoys a six-night-a-week party habit, and frequently indulges in empty, meaningless sex. Then an accident lands her in the hospital. She wakes to find a menagerie of origami figures-and a gorgeous neurosurgeon-beside her bed. The complexity of the paper creations is nothing compared to the complexity of dark-eyed, authoritative Ryan, who seems determined to give her life some direction. Trouble is, Kat's just as determined to resist his efforts to tame her wild side.
With persistence, Ryan draws Kat into his world of dominance and submission, where quiet commands and lengths of rope awaken needs and desires she never knew she possessed. But Ryan's intimate, erotic shibari sessions frighten Kat as much as they excite her, for each simple knot requires infinite trust and inspires complicated emotions.
When a family crisis tests their love and threatens to snap the fragile ties that bind them, will fortune ever smile on this unlikely couple, or will fate tear them apart?
Kat leaned against the wall of the tiny bathroom, feeling the pounding house music vibrate against her shoulder blades. The beat was infectious. She tapped her foot along with the rhythm, although it might have been impatience that had her toes tapping. Or the pressure in her bladder.
She’d been waiting at least ten minutes and the line behind her trailed out the door. She couldn’t imagine how a club as big as Masquerade got away with having two measly bathroom stalls in the ladies’ room. There had to be some kind of building statute about it. Well, there were three stalls, but one was always out of order. Every so often, two were out of order and then the line was truly hell.
Marla, the attendant, smiled at Kat in sympathy before turning to spritz some perfume on another clubgoer. Marla was a big lady with a big heart and a big counter full of provisions. Hairspray, perfume, lotions, tampons, candy, condoms. Marla ran a tight ship—no drugs or sex in her bathroom. She kept it clean, pleasant, well-lit and well stocked. If only she were capable of installing another five or six toilets…
Finally a stall door opened and Kat ducked in. She hiked up her dress, yanked down her tights, and hovered over the seat, squatting rather than sitting. She wouldn’t have sat on a Masquerade toilet seat for a thousand bucks. She imagined they were Petri dishes for at least thirty-five previously undiscovered sexually-transmitted diseases. Blech.
Ah, so much better. Tights up, dress down again. She checked to be sure no sodden toilet paper was stuck to the bottom of her black patent platform shoes. They were her favorite pair, even scuffed up and worn down as they were. She had a habit of attaching sentimental value to anything she owned that hadn’t been involved in some clusterfuck. She would wear these until they died or until something whack happened while she was wearing them. And the latter would probably happen first.
She banged out of the stall to allow another straining, cross-legged girl to rush in after her. She smiled at Marla as she washed her hands. Then Marla’s eyes widened.
“Oh, I got you something. Wait.” The attendant dug in the tote bag beside her stool and whipped out a massive, gum-filled lollipop. “Just for you.” She winked at Kat.
Ha, very funny. Kat often helped herself to the normal-sized lollipops in Marla’s candy basket, but this one was extra-extra-large. Silly large. Kat gave her a huge tip and some true laughter. It touched her that Marla had thought to bring it for her. It was the nicest thing anyone had done for her in weeks. Sad that one of her dearest friends was the ladies’ room attendant at Masquerade.
Kat unwrapped the bulbous, gum-filled pop and stuck it in her mouth. It was so ridiculously huge it barely fit. She made some of the waiting girls giggle by pretending to fellate it. “Ooh baby, you’re so big!”
Marla laughed and shook her head as Kat pulled some bangs into place and then sighed, blowing them right back out of place again. Lipstick, okay. Face, a little sweaty, but glowy, not gross. Eye makeup okay, no raccoon shadows, hair… Well, impossible to fix.
“Don’t scowl so hard at yourself,” Marla said. “Didn’t your mama teach you your face would freeze like that?”
No, my mama never taught me that. She taught me a lot of things, but not that.
Kat’s mother disapproved of her current life choices. Katyusha, she would scold, get yourself a man. You’re not getting any younger.
Kat sighed and looked at her face, her features too ethnic and strange, her eyes a weird green color, her dark curls as always a total mess. No wonder her mother just shook her head at her. You will be the last one to find love.
And she knew, Kat’s mother. If anyone knew, she did. Kat’s mother was a fortune-teller, a respected one—as much as anyone claiming to be a fortune-teller can be respected. She didn’t have a fancy mystical name, a crystal ball or flowing, iridescent robes, but she amazed people with her insights, and had a huge clientele. She amazed and disturbed Kat all the time. She didn’t keep a darkened office with New Age music in which to receive her many important and wealthy clients, only a crowded, noisy, estrogen-filled Victorian on the west side of Boston.
Kat had three older sisters and two younger. All of them had husbands and most had children. At twenty-eight, with no man and no children, Kat was the aberration of the family. You are the smartest one, her mother mourned. Why are you still alone?
You tell me, Mama. I don’t know. Tell me what my future holds. More and more it seemed that life was hopelessly random. She figured the whole fortune-telling thing was a crock of bullshit. Sure, sometimes her mom hit on some pretty amazing truths, but it had to be luck or simple percentages. Any guess would be right around fifty percent of the time. No, Kat didn’t believe it, not for a second. Life was random. There was no way to know what was coming, and no sure way to get where you wanted to go.
Her father at least understood her. He was aloof, secretive, and silent like her. Elena, let her be. She is a perfect, beautiful princess just as she is. Her father remained eternally convinced she was a princess, although she’d long since been sullied by non-princes of every pedigree. He called her Princess more than he called her Katya or Katyusha, or even Ekaterina, her real name.
Her father had been a spy for many years, a bona fide Russian spy for the State Department. He’d returned home a bit strange, although they loved him just the same. He’d been very good at his work—too good. So good that he seemed to have lost some memory of whohe was. Sometimes, when speaking to him, it wasn’t clear if he was answering as himself or someone else he was in his mind.
In that way they were alike, because Kat wasn’t sure who she was either. It seemed patently unfair that she, the daughter of a fortune-teller and a spy, was not more savvy and all-knowing, that she didn’t have the world at her feet. But no. She didn’t know anything and didn’t understand anything, including herself. She was just a listless, lonely club girl with few friends and a dead-end job translating textbooks into Russian.
But all that—her job, her crazy parents and sisters and nephews and nieces and loud crowded home in West Boston—that was her other life. This was her real life. The clubs. She kept the two lives separate as much as she could. The club was her crystal ball, the only future she cared about, at least for the moment. The darkness, the swirling mist of fake smog and cigarette smoke. The press of bodies, the familiar faces every week—the only fortune she wanted to know. The music drowning out the emptiness, and later, if she wished it, strong arms around her, making her feel good until they slept and she could steal away. In this life she was not Ekaterina or Katyusha or Katya. She was just Kat, simple and easy to understand. Just a simple girl who wanted to become nothing, rub up against nothing, who didn’t want to face all the questions of what life was about.
She checked her teeth for lipstick, wrangled her bangs one last time, then left Marla and made her way back out to the club. The bathrooms opened right onto the dance floor so if you just kept walking you’d be swept into the fray. She pushed her way through the writhing bodies, passing by at least three guys she remembered fucking. They ignored her just as she ignored them. She tossed a quick glance at the bouncer near the bar, then went up the stairs and in and out among people until she’d threaded her way to the balcony.
The balcony was her spot. It was crowded, but not as crowded as downstairs, so you could actually get some air. Her favorite spot was near the DJ booth. She loved to watch him sort through his CDs and cue them up, his face screwed into a mask of concentration. She slept with every DJ she could get her hands on. She’d slept with this one too. Sam or Glenn or something. He’d been very nice. He was still very nice to her, always asking what she wanted him to play.
But she didn’t sleep with bouncers, not ever. That was a rule she stuck to, even though it was hard sometimes. DJs, yes. Bartenders, sometimes. The band, of course—but bouncers, no. Bouncers were, for her anyway, too protective and noble to debase with empty sex.
The best nights were nights when someone punchy was in the bar, when fights started up and the bouncers descended on them, flew down off their perches and broke up the fights with a hardened intensity that was spellbinding to watch. They picked up guys, no matter what size they were, dangled them from headlocks and carried them like refuse out to the curb. No fighting. You might hurt the women. We protect women around here.
Actually, they were protecting the club from a lawsuit, but she let her mind wander where it would. She loved to imagine when they scanned the dance floor, the bar, the bathrooms, that they were carefully scanning for women in distress. Every so often a woman would be in distress, harassed by some guy or involved in a catfight with another woman, so they too would be carried out, although not in a headlock.
But the most gripping occurrence, for Kat anyway, was when a woman passed out. They would sweep the hapless female up in their arms, romantic-hero style, to protect her from harm. Actually, all they did was carry the hapless female outside and set her on the curb until she came to and they could call a cab for her. But Kat didn’t think about that part, only the part where they lifted the woman’s limp and helpless form into their strong arms.
Lucky, lucky girls who drank to inebriation. How Kat wished, just once, to be one of those girls. To give everything up and slump to the floor, to be rescued and cradled in the arms of a man. A man like the bouncers, stern and impassive and solid. Unfortunately she was way too afraid to be that passed-out girl, even though she would have loved, just once, to experience it.
But she could fantasize about it, and she did from her place upstairs where she could see every bouncer in the club. The ones by the dance floor were the burliest and wore the most intimidating scowls. Kat knew all this because she came to Masquerade every Friday and Saturday night. Sundays she went to the gay club, Mondays to the Irish bar when she was up for it. Tuesdays she went to the dark, trembling emo club. Wednesdays she took off, Thursdays she went to a jazz bar sometimes,and then it was Friday again and here she was.
The fact that she reviled this glitzy hipster club and everyone who patronized it didn’t stop her from returning. Why? Because nobody knew her here, and everyone left her alone. She could approach any of these shallow, sweaty college students or tourists or yuppies without fear of rejection. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred she got exactly what she wanted, which was shallow, sweaty hook-up sex. Thank goodness for Marla and her unending supply of rubbers.
Kat swept her gaze from her favorite bouncers to the mass of humanity on the dance floor. She watched for a prospective boy toy to materialize. It was busy tonight, wall-to-wall. Some pretty women as always, but many more guys. She spotted one who looked promising—tall, built, with an earnest expression. She wondered why the other women weren’t all over him. Maybe he had some awful flaw, like bad breath, a lisp, or a mousy demeanor. With his physique, Kat didn’t care, so she kept watching. She’d give it awhile longer, then make her move.
She looked back at the bouncer by the stairs and found him looking at her. Not just looking. He and his frowning friend were talking about her. The bouncer looked away, caught, but the friend kept staring. She didn’t like the way he stared, as if he were judging her. Kat pulled the lollipop out of her mouth and made some suggestive licking motions before plunging it back between her lips. If he was going to stare, she would give him a show for shits and giggles. She could still feel him watching even though she’d looked away.
Kat had seen the guy here many times, hanging out with the bouncers. He always looked at her in that same reproachful way. She supposed he knew what she got up to every week, not that it was any of his business. Since she didn’t sleep with bouncers or their bouncer-wannabe friends, she didn’t care if he thought her slutty or undesirable.
He was nice to look at though. Tall, bronze, dark-haired like her. He was muscular, not in a beefy-bouncer way, but in the way of a guy you knew would prevail in a fight just because he was so alpha. She looked back to find him still staring. I know why you’re here. I don’t approve of it. Kat knew he was the one in one hundred who would turn her down if she propositioned him.
She looked away, lifting her chin, sucking on her lollipop. Stare all you want, fucker. I don’t give a fuck. Stupid eye-contact games. She could play them too. Whatever. She came here to have fun, not get all bent out of shape over the one guy in the bar who put her off her game.
But she still watched him out of the corner of her eye, so she knew the moment he headed toward her. He took the stairs two at a time. Broad shoulders, long thigh muscles flexing as he ascended. She looked away, feigning disinterest. He was probably coming upstairs to see someone else.
A moment passed and then she felt a touch, featherlight, on the small of her back. Just light fleeting contact, but she almost shivered. He leaned next to her on the banister, not close like he was hitting on her, nor too far away. He leaned over a perfect distance from her and pinned her with dark brown eyes.
“Candy will rot your teeth, you know.”
His smile was breathtaking. He was all tan healthiness, white, straight teeth and sensual lips. She slowly pulled the lollipop out of her mouth, determined not to react to his hotness or his proximity.
“I like candy. It’s an addiction.”
He pointed to her glass of ice water. “But you never drink.”
“How do you know I don’t drink?”
“Because I see you here every week and you never drink anything but water.”
“You’re monitoring my vices?”
“Should I be?”
He raised his eyebrows. She didn’t know whether to laugh or run away. He was flirting with her and as much as she liked it, she had a panicked sense of the tables being turned. He was in control right now, not her. She sucked the cherry-red lollipop back into her mouth and chose not to reply, trying to gain the upper hand.
“What’s your name?” he asked. “Why do you come here so much?”
“What’s your name, and why do you come here so much?”
“I asked first.”
She stared into his eyes, saw the corners of his lips quirk. Then he totally caved.
“Okay. My name’s Ryan.” He held out his hand and she shook it. He was a big man. It was so much more apparent close up than when he was standing beside an equally large bouncer at the bottom of the stairs. His hand completely engulfed hers. “And I’m here a lot because I do training for the bouncers now and again.”
“What kind of training?”
“Martial arts. Safe takedown. Things like that.”
Safe takedown. Why did that sound so sexy when he said it? She pictured him rolling on a condom before he pulled her to the floor. Probably not what he meant by safe takedown. She ran her gaze up and down his body. He was fit, all right. Maybe early thirties. God, his eyes… They were killing her. They were such a rich, deep brown, fringed by dark lashes, but that wasn’t what really captivated her. It was the alert intelligence in his gaze. It was ten times more seductive than his biceps, and ten times more threatening to her. She rolled the lollipop around on her tongue, pretending polite indifference.
“So you’re like, one of those karate sensei guys?”
He laughed. “No. I’m a brain surgeon, but I do karate too.”
She rolled her eyes. “A brain surgeon. Right.”
His crooked, easy smile unnerved her. He was so damn…healthy. So solid and nonrandom. She didn’t know how to relate to that or how to deal with the feelings he aroused in her. No. No bouncers. Or bouncer trainers.
“I’ve told you my name and why I’m here so much,” he said. “Your turn.”
“My name is Kat and I come here to watch people.” She threw him a flirty glance and smacked suggestively on the lollipop, only to receive another one of those reproachful looks.
Whatever. She decided to head back to the dance floor. She didn’t come to Masquerade to get the third degree from a fine man who didn’t approve of her. Where was that fucking idiot earnest-faced pretty boy when she needed him? Stupid brain-surgeon-bullshitter with his huge, warm hands and his creepy stare. She infused as much flounce as she possibly could into her “well, bye” and started down the steps before he could say anything else.
“Hey, baby.” A gruff voice and clammy hand stopped her near the bottom. Arms fastened around her waist, pulling her against a pudgy torso. She pushed away, rolling her eyes at the drunk guy, but he didn’t take the hint. He tightened his arms.
“Hey, gorgeous. I’ve been watching you all night. Come dance with me.”
“No. I don’t want to dance. Let go of me. I was just leaving.”
“You don’t have to leave here all alone.”
“Believe me, I want to.”
“Oh, baby, come on. Don’t be like that. I can put a smile on those lips. I’ll give you something really sweet to suck on.”
He leaned in so fast that she didn’t have time to stop him, otherwise she would have punched him in the face. He laid a kiss on her, stabbing his tongue between her lips. She pushed him away with all her strength.
“Ewww!” she said in a voice loud enough to shame him. She put the lollipop back in her mouth to take the sour alcohol taste of his kiss away. Blech, no kissing. No. She didn’t even kiss the ones she liked. She wouldn’t even have kissed tall, dark, and handsome karate guy staring down at her from the top of the stairs. Okay? his expression seemed to ask. Everything okay?
No, everything’s not okay. Everything’s so fucking sucky I can barely stand it.
She wiped off her lips and pushed past the kiss-stealer. She was done for the night. “Just fucking leave me alone,” she yelled back over her shoulder. She didn’t know if she yelled it at dark eyes or icky lips.
As she stormed off, she wondered if Ryan was watching her go.
* * * * *
Ryan watched her walk out the door, all tight skirt and beautiful ass. Gorgeous, shapely legs in black patent shoes. Kat. So early for her to be gone. He’d wanted to ask if she was okay but she’d flown without a backward glance.
Anyway, she wasn’t okay, not at all. Now that he’d talked to her, he was sure of that. She was just generally notokay. He’d seen enough of her shenanigans to know she was confused, troubled, and too beautiful for her own good. He never should have talked to her. She was more fun to watch from afar. Close up, the sadness rolled off her in waves.
He’d only worked a few months with the bouncers, a fun sideline from his stressful day job and an outlet for the martial arts training he’d practiced for years. The first time he saw her was his second week there, and he’d noticed her nearly every weekend since. There was something about her that fascinated him.
It was probably the fact that she was the only person in the bar who didn’t seem to be having fun. He hadn’t seen her smile once—not when she danced, not when she talked to the various beefcake guys she hooked up with. His gut feeling was that she needed a good, hard spanking. His hand twitched to give her one. That wasn’t the only thing that twitched when she was around.
But she wasn’t exactly girlfriend material, and he wasn’t going to keep up the club gig much longer. It was easy money, but he didn’t need money. He was getting too old for the club life. He had a career as a neurosurgeon to concentrate on. He was closer to forty than he cared to think about, and his best friend had recently married and become dad to an adorable baby son. Ryan had bounced the little critter on his knee over the holidays and been astounded at the changes in Dave and his wife. The three of them used to play kinky sex games together. They still did, but now Sophie and Dave were coupled up, their own family unit.
Ryan discovered to his shock that he wanted that too. Very much. So getting involved with a flighty club girl probably wasn’t the best move at the moment.
He didn’t know why he’d even talked to her. It was just that she was almost painfully attractive to him. She was so much his type that she was the prototype for him, everything he liked in a girl. Big tits, but not too big. Little waist, tight abs, curvy hips. An ass that was criminally tempting. What he wouldn’t give to have that ass in his hands. Her face was exotic, memorable. He’d never seen her smile, but even her frown was attractive, even the ambivalent absentia that usually resided on her face.
Now she had a name. Kat. Something about her actually brought a cat to mind. A kitten, a Persian, a pussy…
Okay. But she had this feline appeal. Something about the slow, graceful way she moved and her green, almond-shaped eyes. Like a cat, she exuded an air of mystery, along with an air of fuck you.
At the same time, she possessed a vulnerability that made him ache for her, that made him want to care for her. Whether she intended it or not, she set off his Dom radar like an alarm. He’d played around in BDSM circles for years and dated tons of beautiful, submissive girls with smiling eyes and lovely bodies he could bury himself in. He’d learned how to handle them, how to thrill them and, perhaps most importantly, how to pick them out of a crowd. He could spot a submissive girl a mile away, and there were tons of them out there. Some aware, some not so aware, but all predictably compliant once they were in his hands.
But her… Well…
He just didn’t know.
She seemed to almost revile men, the same men she constantly left with at last call. It was clear to Ryan that none of the men she left with fulfilled her. He’d see her the following weekend avoiding them like the plague. She was a wanton, a siren—but she was angry. Angry and slutty were never a good mix. He was pretty sure she also had a nihilistic, self-destructive streak.
The Dominant side of him wanted to attain her and then tame her, but another part of him knew that would be difficult if not impossible. I want to fix you. I want your submission, your obedience, your body. You’ll like it. What would she do if he approached her that way?
He didn’t want her as a one-night stand. He didn’t want to be one more notch on her hook-up belt, although he was certain he could have accomplished it easily. That held no interest for him. He wanted her as his submissive, or not at all. He wanted her, from the start, kneeling at his feet. Unfortunately, she seemed more apt to kick him in the nuts.
Well, no matter. There were plenty of fish in the sea and plenty of submissive women looking for a Dominant. He would be a fool to get mixed up with her, as tempting as the fantasy was. He wasn’t going after her. Not now, not ever. No.
* * * * *
Kat hit the pavement and started walking. She was so wrought-up that she chose to walk the few blocks to her house, even though a cab would have been safer at this time of night. She didn’t know why she was so unhinged tonight. Guys at the club accosted her all the time. She supposed it was because he’d watched the whole thing, he of the knowing eyes and judgmental smile. He’d seen that guy force his kiss on her, seen her push him away, seen her wipe her mouth and yell at the jerk like a child. Up on the balcony, he’d talked to her like she was a child, like he knew better than her.
What made Kat most angry was that he didn’t come save her, didn’t come bounding down the stairs to her defense. Didn’t level the guy with one well-placed punch to the windpipe and drag his sorry ass outside. And now there was no earnest-faced boy to go home with, only her own empty bed in her family’s house near Brighton.
When she got home, she climbed the stairs to the porch. She could hear a crying baby even from outside. Her sister Olga’s one-month-old. Darling during the day, devil all night. Kat brushed past her, suddenly bone-tired.
“Kat, rock the baby for me, please,” Olga begged. “Just for an hour. You’re always up at night.”
She didn’t even stop. “He’s not my baby. I’m tired. I smell like smoke.”
“I’m tired too. I’ve been up for hours. Please. Pozhaluĭsta, Katya.”
“No,” Kat said again, hating herself. She tumbled into bed, pulling the pillow over her head so she didn’t have to hear the baby wailing. It didn’t help.
She lay awake a long time thinking about Mr. Dark Eyes, thinking about the way he would have looked at her for not helping her sister. He knew she was a bad, selfish person. He knew.