BY the time she turned twenty-one, the nightmares had all but driven her crazy. She had one friend, and her family wanted nothing to do with her unless she committed herself into an institution.
Alone in the coffee shop just a block from her apartment—she couldn’t stand to be too far from home on the more taxing days—Caera huddled into the corner and stared out the window into the miserable drizzling day.
Sometimes this was what her mind seemed like—dull and gray and dreary, with no signs of light or life. Her thoughts scattered like the pedestrians scurrying around out of the wet until all that was left were the dirty shadows.
She shuddered and steered her mind away from what the darkness inside her brought to the surface. She was not crazy. She was not certifiable, no matter what her parents or used-to be friends told her. She’d worked her way past that bad place where she listened to advice and criticism and bullshit.
In the window, her reflection glared back at her. She saw a fairly tall young woman with pale skin and heavy bags beneath green eyes dulled by endless fatigue. Straight shoulder-length blonde hair that was a bit lank and limp. Pretty enough features, she supposed, but she hated the fact she looked so much like her ever-so judgmental mother.
Disgusted at what looked back at her, Caera stared through her own image to watch the street. For mid-afternoon, and if you took the weather into consideration, outside the little coffee shop wasn’t doing too bad.
Once she’d wanted to work in a place just like this—a café, a book shop, or something along similar lines—where customers came regularly enough that they became almost familial. Conversations were not brief or stilted, but warm and sincere.
Caera sighed heavily and drank the last of her coffee. It tasted almost burned, the liquid bitter on her tongue. Nothing tasted right anymore, which only added to her depression. Not even chocolate could pull her mood up from the gutter sometimes.
Do I order another one? she asked herself as she glanced in the bottom of the cup. Is it worth it, just to put off going home to an empty apartment?
When she finally gave into sleep, the nightmares always claimed her. It didn’t matter if she kept herself awake for five days and nights straight, she was taken faster, pulled deeper. Downing coffee after coffee might keep sleep at bay for a few more hours, but Caera knew she always had to face what came for her.
Her cup hit the wooden table top with a solid thunk, and she just sighed. Life had become an inestimable cycle of boredom and repetition, spiced up with a pinch of fear, a splash of self-loathing, and a massive dollop of fatigue.
“Jesus Christ, Caera, you look like you’re ready to move on to the next life.”
Her heart vaulted into her throat. She shot an anxious look to her right and sagged visibly with relief. Part of her bristled at the comment; the rest of her acknowledged the truth of it without complaint. “Jennifer. Don’t you know better than to sneak up on me?”
Her childhood friend Jennifer Huxby stood beside the little table. Well, Caera supposed, after marrying the man who’d taken her heart, James Dyer, it would make her Mrs. Jennifer Dyer.
There was a decent age gap between the two, seven years in fact, but when eleven-year-old Jennifer had gone out of her way to take four-year-old Caera under her wing, the desperate child hadn’t had any defense against what Jennifer offered.
Friendship. Unequivocal, no-strings-attached, lifetime friendship.
“I mean it, Caera. You’re pale and you’re shaking.” Shrewd blue eyes flashed with impatience. “Let me guess, you haven’t noticed your hands doing this.” Jennifer demonstrated, using her own perfectly manicured, perfectly soft appendages. “You need to see a doctor, hun.”
A shudder of discomfort flashed down Caera’s spine. “Can you at least sit down and act like you’re happy to see me before terrorizing me with threats of doctors? You know how much I hate them.”
Jennifer slid into the chair opposite Caera and smiled sadly with lips painted a deep red to match the color of her long curly hair. Her blue eyes seemed to suck Caera in. “I know, darling, trust me. So believe me when I tell you, you need to make an appointment ASAP.”
Caera covered her face with her hands—damn it, now she realized her hands shook—and wished she’d gone home ten minutes earlier. She’d learned a long time ago that what Jennifer wanted, she usually got through fair means or foul. “No.”
“Come on, Caera. If you’re feeling anything like how you look, you need help. There’s a new practice just around the corner. Call in on your way home.” Jennifer lifted her hand to tag the waitress as the girl worked around the room. “I can sweeten the pot if needs be?”
“I have nightmares, Jen. I don’t need to live in one in the few dots of time I’m free of the damn things. I just want to be left alone to suffer and wither away in peace.”
Disapproval clouded her friend’s face like thunder boomers. “I’ll have you incarcerated before that happens, my girl, don’t you worry.”
This is what she hated. The constant opposition to what she wanted, what she needed, what she felt was best for herself. Her parents were most guilty; everything out of their mouths put her down, wore her down until Caera expected the pressure would just blow her apart.
Jennifer usually refrained from making comments; she knew some of what Caera’s parents had exposed her to, what nerves they’d opened and rubbed raw. Today was obviously an exception.
“If this topic of conversation is all you’ve got, Jen, I’m going home. We’ve been friends for seventeen years, so you should know by now what reaction you’re heading for.” Caera unfolded herself carefully from the table.
“Sit down, sit down. Jesus, you’re tetchy today.” Jennifer waved her back. “I have a proposition for you, Caera.”
She narrowed her eyes and regarded her best friend suspiciously. “Oh?”
The bell above the coffee shop’s glass door jangled through the clatter of cups, rumbles of chatter and laughter, and the hum and hiss of the coffee machines.
Caera’s eyes flicked over, assessed the wet couple who stumbled inside, and then dismissed them, her attention returning to Jennifer.
“Do you remember Harold? James’ grandfather?”
Trick question much? One did not forget the name of the city’s elite. The Dyer name was all but sung from the treetops, heralded by angels of good fortune and blessed by the Goddess herself. Harold Dyer was a bear of a man, all gruff smiles and merry gray eyes so like his grandson’s.
He’d built an empire in one city and expanded it throughout twenty-eight states and across the vast waters to England, France, Spain, Germany and…Ireland, Caera decided. Yes, definitely Ireland.
Dyer and Sons had become a household name for everything from carpets to lawnmowers, from bottles of bleach to roofing tiles.
Jennifer, lucky bitch, had fallen head over heels in love with young James Dyer, a mere five years older than she was, and now ran her own business designing wallpaper and creative canvases. How the hell she found time to be friends with a waif and stray like her, Caera didn’t know.
“Who could forget Harold?”
“Exactly my point. Well, actually that’s not my point but, you know…Harold gave us the use of his cabin up in Maryland, not far away from Chesapeake Bay, for our honeymoon. James and I fell in love with the place.” Jennifer smiled, a secret captured in the curves of her full lips. “Very kindly, Harold has gifted the place to us. He doesn’t have time to use it, and the truth is, I don’t think he’s feeling well at the moment.”
Antsy now, Caera made a sympathetic noise in her throat and wondered how quickly she could sneak away and go home to her cold, empty life.
“So, I decided that rather than let the cabin sit there until the next time we carve out a few days to get away from all this chaos—” Jen spread her arms to encompass the world around them and almost sent her drink flying off the incoming waitress’ tray. “Oh I am sorry. Thank you,” she said and turned her attention back to Caera. “As I was saying, I’ve decided to let you go stay up there for as long as you need to. It’s secluded, it’s beautiful, and it’s just what you need.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa. “I…what? I can’t just pack up my stuff and vacate to Maryland, Jennifer. I have—”
“You have what? A lack of self-respect and some serious ulceration going on, that’s what.” Jennifer’s voice rose an octave. “I love you, you idiot, and all you’re doing is destroying yourself. Bit by bit, day by day. You take this chance, Caera, you take it and you make the most of it, or by God, I will have you in the doctor’s office before you can blink.”
Sickness and fury, a familiar cocktail of stress, roiled heavily in her belly. Caera pressed a hand to the hollow in her stomach. “Please don’t threaten me, Jen. I’m not in the mood.”
Her friend leaned forward, eyes hard and uncompromising. “I’m not in the fucking mood to watch my best friend waste away. Your ride will be outside your apartment tomorrow morning at ten a.m. Pack what you need and take the favor.”
She wanted desperately to throw something, to have a hand in some form of physical violence. Her hands trembled viciously; she pulled them into her lap and tried to keep herself under control. “You think sending me into the middle of nowhere is going to stop the nightmares, Jennifer? I’ve tried everything. Do you think I want to be like this? I have no life, no prospects, and to cap it all off, I’m slowly losing my mind.
“My family decided that if I wasn’t prepared to lock myself away in a hospital, then I wasn’t worth the trouble. I’ve lost every job I’ve ever had. If Grandma hadn’t died and left me a substantial chunk of money, I’d be just another crazy homeless person on the street.”
“No, don’t Caera me, Jen. You have the perfect life. A gorgeous husband, a job you love but don’t actually need, and a house that could turn the Pope green with envy. You have the unwavering love of a man who thinks the world revolves in your eyes, and no doubt a very cute bouncing baby will be on the way soon. Best of all, you don’t have a fucking clue what it’s like to not be able to close your eyes in case you fall asleep. You’ve never gone a week surviving on as much caffeine as you could stomach, your nervous system crashing, your body vibrating so hard, all because the thought of sleep makes your skin crawl and sweat pour from everywhere you didn’t think possible.”
Caera sucked in a breath and cursed herself for the wounded look in Jennifer’s eyes. “You can’t fix me, Jen. I promise you that. There is nothing money can buy, or that wishful thinking, praying, and sacrificing a small goat can do for me. My avenues are closing down, and I’m heading down a one-way road. There’s no going back.”
Jennifer wiped at the tears trickling down her face. “You’re telling me you’re dying.”
Caera considered the statement. Exhausted, she rubbed her hands over her face and scrubbed the heels into her eye sockets. “Aren’t we all?”
“No, Caera. You are twenty-one years old and you’ve essentially rolled over and waved bye-bye to the rest of your life.”
She didn’t know how to explain how she felt. It wasn’t enough to say she was tired down to the bone or that her body felt old and frail. Her memory had started to cut out for short periods. More than once, she found herself torn between a quivering mess and a tempestuous bitch, for lack of better descriptions.
Her world was folding in on her, inch by precious inch, and Caera knew one day she would be locked inside the prison of her own body with no way out. Would she be too far gone, sunk too deep, to take her own life and end the misery? She wondered with a little frown. God, she hoped not. She wanted to leave this plane of existence long before her marbles rolled away.
“I’m twenty-one, a virgin, and sick of life,” Caera said wearily. She sighed heavily and looked at Jennifer. Fatigue dragged at her, making her limbs weighty and numb. “I’ve accepted the fact I won’t grow old. I’m sick of tests and pills, psychiatrists and evaluations. Whatever is up here,” she said as she tapped a finger against her temple, “it’s like a tumor. It’s big and black and ugly as hell. There’s no respite, and the symptoms get worse as time passes.”
“Maybe a break away from it all will help.” Hope stained Jennifer’s words and made Caera sad. Her friend’s hand closed over Caera’s cold fingers and squeezed gently. “You’ll love it out there. The cabin is set back in a little wood, there’s a stream that goes for miles until it reaches the bay. You can see deer first thing in the morning and just as the sun sets. The wildlife is unbelievable. And it’s quiet. Peaceful.”
Caera turned her gaze back to the window. Sad, resigned eyes stared back at her from a remarkably pale face; the expression was one she knew well. It reflected her submission, her resignation, at being made to do something she didn’t want to.
“What am I supposed to do out in the middle of nowhere?”
Jennifer’s hand tightened and then patted Caera’s before she pulled away to take a sip of her coffee. “Relax. Go walking, hiking if you feel up to it. Dip your feet in the stream, read a damn book. Put some weight on before you float away.”
Insult filled her. “You make me sound as though I look like a twig.”
“Not a twig, sweetheart, but you’re not exactly a healthy tree trunk either. Just pack what essentials you think you’ll need, I’ll take care of the rest. Don’t look so worried, Caera,” she said gently. “You’re not completely cut off from civilization. There are other cabins and a small town maybe twenty miles away. There’s internet and a phone line.”
“Sarcasm always was your first line of defense.”
“Leaving is my next line,” Caera retorted as she got to her feet. She felt sick, and she was tired now down to the bone. “I’ll talk to you later, Jen. I’m really not feeling well and I need to get home.”
“Caera.” The plea in Jennifer’s voice hurt Caera in the chest. “Don’t leave like this. Let me give you a ride home. You’re as pale as an albino monkey in winter. Let me make sure you get home safe.”
Caera blinked back tears. She couldn’t handle the blackmail or the tugs on her heartstrings and sucker punches of emotion to the solar plexus. “I think you’ve done enough today, Jen. But thank you.”
With her heart heavy and her mind clustered with uncompromising thoughts, Caera walked away with the weight of the world on her shoulders and a sense of dread creeping over her like the cold chill of a winter’s morning.
* * * *
“All work and no play makes Saul a very boring Dom.”
Seated behind a large wooden desk, a computer screen brightly lit in front of him, Saul Danvers only lifted an eyebrow at the playground taunt. His fingers tapped away like a maniac chicken at the keyboard, wishing his thoughts would flow easily onto the screen.
“Someone’s being a naughty boy and ignoring me.”
“Are you surprised, you idiot?” Saul chuckled absently and frowned at a suspicious paragraph. No, that sounded all wrong. Maybe…yes, that would work. “James, you are the world’s biggest living irritant. I don’t know how that wife of yours hasn’t smothered you in your sleep yet.”
“She loves me,” James Dyer said with the easy grace of a man who knew his wife adored him. He dropped into one of the big hunter-green armchairs in front of Saul’s desk. “I’d offer to let you borrow her but I’m not entirely sure she wouldn’t top you.”
Saul snorted. “Top me? Bitch, please.”
“I’m not messing with you, Saul. When she has her big girl thong on…” James whistled, low and long. “Jen could dominate any man she wanted to. They’d beg for it, believe me.”
“Because I know you love your wife and would murder any other man who dared lay a hand on her, I’ll graciously pass on the offer. If and when she gets rid of your scrawny ass, tell her to come see me.”
“I’ll let her know she scares you. Big bad Dominant Saul intimidated by the little woman,” James mocked with a mile-wide grin. He threw his head back and laughed. “Christ, could you imagine the stick you’d get? That new job you’ve landed might do a massive U-turn.”
Saul moved his hands away from the keyboard and leaned back in his chair until he almost mirrored his friend. “You know Ian McAllister as well as I do, James. The contract’s written and signed. Mac wanted a top Dom for his club, and he found one. I just don’t know if I can be bothered.”
All humor on James’ face washed away bit by bit. He sat up straighter. “What do you mean, you can’t be bothered? This is what you wanted, Saul. You’ve passed up opportunity after opportunity, and now that you’ve hit the jackpot you want to say no?”
“The opportunities presented weren’t right for me at the time. I didn’t have the experience or the patience I needed for the role. I’ve worked hard, James, for what I’ve got. The website, the blog…they suit me down to the ground and people are taking to them by the thousands.” Saul blew out a long breath. This had been bugging him since he told Mac he’d accept the position. “I can see where Mac’s going with expanding this side of the business. He has the high-end clientele eating out of his hand.
“Using this new club to pull in the middle-level crowd will give so many people the chance to participate in and observe what we do. I think Tess has had a lot of say in the matter,” he added with a smirk. “I just don’t know if I want to teach over and over again. Young studs who fancy themselves a Dom and should never be allowed near a whip and a woman in the same space. Wannabe submissives who couldn’t follow an order if the fate of the world depended on it.”
“BDSM is getting more and more popular. People want to learn and they want to learn from the best.” James shook his head slowly. “Your ego may not be able to handle this sudden expansion, but you’re pretty much the damn best, Saul.”
Saul scrubbed his hands over his face. “Maybe I’m just getting old. Time to find a willing young sub with a positive attitude and an open mind who I can train as my partner. Stick with websites and online interviews. Blow the rest of it off and just retire in peace.”
“Bullshit. You’d never settle for that. You’re thirty-three, for fuck’s sake! It would be like retiring a top stud in the middle of racing season. Think of all those young studs left to wander without expert tutelage. Carnage, just carnage. And,” James added soberly, “don’t forget all that young, malleable pussy that would be left…wanting.”
It took everything he had not to laugh at the stupidity of his best friend. “You kiss your wife with that mouth?”
“Among other things.” James winked before he pushed to his feet and began to pace around Saul’s office like a caged wolf. “Let’s just take a moment here. Drastic measures aside, maybe you do need a break. It’s what, five weeks, six weeks until you start work for McAllister, right?”
“Six.” Saul rubbed his hand over his chin. This was not getting his article written, polished, or sent to the editor.
“Okay, and it’s been how long since you got laid?”
“Simple question, pal. How long since you set the bed on fire?”
Saul closed his eyes and shook his head in silent denial.
“Okay, rephrasing the question. How long since you had sex that actually meant something to you, that had a connection in there somewhere? I’m not talking flogging a client and performing the mandatory thirty-second farewell. I’m talking making long, sweet love.” James drew the word love out like lurve.
Saul tapped his index finger rhythmically against his temple for a moment, and then in a robotic voice said simply, “Data not found.”
“Didn’t think so. That’s what has you at odds with yourself—a Dominant needs a submissive of his very own, Saul. You’ve denied yourself that one guilty pleasure and now you want to self-sabotage because nothing seems important anymore.”
“So sayeth the shrink…”
“Ha. Take the cabin, take the six weeks to chill out and relax and find the part of you that screams dominant. Then you get yourself to the new job and you show the wannabe subs just exactly who is boss. While you’re in the groove, you pray to every God you can think of that McAllister has some magic up his sleeve and finds you a nice innocent for you to have as your very own.”
Whether it was due to desperation or just plain exhaustion, Saul found James’ words were hitting all the right notes. He was a man in his prime, financially sound, and physically attractive. There was no reason he should be single if he didn’t want to be—and in all honesty, he didn’t.
He missed the scent of a woman when he walked through the door, the warmth and silkiness of her skin against his in bed. The companionship and comfort of another body.
It had been…Jesus, had it really been nearly two years since he’d had anything close to a long-term relationship? It stunned him, that simple fact. Time had passed him by without him entirely realizing it. And it wasn’t exactly like it was heartbreak that had him steering away from a connection with another woman; Tabitha had been a lovely woman, but just not meant for the likes of Saul.
“You know what? Fuck it.”
James blinked at him. “What?”
Saul stood and stretched out muscles stiff from sitting in one place for hours. “You’re right. I need a break before I shoot headlong into another venture. I need to give my best, not just to Mac or to myself, but to my clients.”
“You’ll take the cabin?”
“Damn straight. Maybe not for the full six weeks. I don’t know if wind through the trees and squirrels are going to be my thing.”
James got to his feet and clapped Saul firmly on the back. “Knew you’d make the right decision. Get your shit in order, my friend. You’re heading into the middle of fucking nowhere and you’re going to love it.”
“Whoa, whoa. Middle of nowhere?”
His friend cleared his throat sheepishly. “Twenty miles or so to the nearest town. It’s supposed to be relaxing, Saul. You’ll love it.”
Saul narrowed his eyes. “What do you get out of this, James?”
“Me? Nothing, nothing at all. Why would you think that?”
They were the same age. They’d been friends since they could walk. One from a privileged background, the other from working-class roots. They were the best of friends and could usually read the other like a book.
James, the sly bastard, was currently hiding all his tells.
“How well do we know each other, James?”
Now he grinned. His face lit up, a fleeting reflection of the somewhat gawky boy who grew up into a respected man. His blue eyes twinkled with humor, a gleam of something a little more wicked beneath the surface. His straight white teeth shined. Laugh lines bloomed around his mouth and eyes, a testament to his ability to find the funny in everything he could.
His wife adored him. Saul loved him like a brother.
“There’s nothing underhanded, Saul. Actually it was Jen who suggested you use the cabin for as long as you wanted. I think she’s a bit gutted we won’t be able to get up there for a holiday anytime soon, and it’s just sat there going to waste during the best months of the year.”
“Surely summer would be the best time for staying up there?”
James shuddered. “Oh, God no, can you imagine the bugs? Bugs and humid heat, bad combination. This time of year, you might get the tail end of the summer weather. But cool nights, a few logs on the burner, a bottle of something cold…shit, I’m coming with you.”
Saul laughed and his suspicions eased. Whatever James was hiding, Saul would get to the bottom of it. Knowing his friend, Saul knew he wouldn’t be in danger. James liked a good laugh, at his expense or someone else’s, but never at the cost to life or limb. “Not likely. I want some peace and quiet, not your dulcet tones screeching through the place when you see a spider.”
James threw his hands up. “Mercy! They’re the size of fucking dogs up there, Saul, I swear to God they are! Scuttling around on eight legs and staring at you with all those eyes.”
The air filled with the sound of Family Guy. James’ face creased with an almost guilty look as he fished his phone out of his jeans and answered. “Hey, gorgeous. No, no, I’m still with Saul. About to head back now.” He paused and rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes I did. Saul’s happy to take care of the cabin for a few weeks. Did you…oh, that’s good. Yes, yes. I’ll call Cooper and tell him to expect Saul either tonight or tomorrow.”
Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry? Saul wondered. They sure were eager to get him on his way. He settled himself back behind his desk, and with one ear on James, began to read through the pathetic bare bones of his article.
“I will, darling. Of course, yes. Okay. I love you too. I’m setting off now, yes. See you soon.” He disconnected on a relieved sigh, shoved his phone away, and came out with a set of keys. He plucked one off the chunky ring and tossed it onto the blotter in front of Saul. “The little woman’s summoning me home. That’s the key to the front door of the cabin. I’ll call the caretaker and explain you’re on your way up. If you need anything, just shoot me an e-mail.”
“I’ll have to resort to using carrier pigeons,” Saul muttered.
“It’s the woods, Saul, not a never-ending pit. Internet, phone lines, signal…it’s all set up and raring to go. There’s only one bedroom but you’ll find there’s a lovely compact office you might enjoy using.” As he spoke, James edged toward the door.
“Are you sure you don’t mind me staying there?”
“Wouldn’t have offered if I did,” was the cheery reply. “If you set off early in the morning, you should miss the majority of the traffic.”
James yanked open the door and saluted smartly. “Have fun, boss.”
And then he was gone.
Something fishy is going on, Saul thought to himself. Definitely something fishy going on, orchestrated by his best friend and no doubt aided by best friend’s wife. No, he thought. That’s the wrong way around; orchestrated by best friend’s wife and encouraged along by best friend.
Well, he supposed with a quick rub of his chin, whatever they had planned, it didn’t matter. As long as he had the peace and quiet he needed to concentrate on writing his article, he didn’t care what they were up to.
Saul smiled to himself. It had been a long time since he’d had time completely to himself or taken the time to give himself a break from the stress of life, from the demands of work and his clients. Such needy creatures they could be.
Oh yes, he was going to enjoy himself.