Of all the clubs she could have walked into, she had to pick his, Aric Calderwood thought sourly, paraphrasing his favorite actor's famous quote. She spelled trouble for him, and he would rather do without the headache. When she sat down at the bar, he waved off the regular bartender and headed over to her.
Sleek strands of chocolate-colored silk spilled over her shoulders. His fingers twitched with the need to touch them, but he pushed away that need as he had every time he'd felt it. A spike of annoyance went through him. Last night, he'd told her not to come to Insolence, yet here she was. Disobedience didn't sit well with him, and usually, he didn't tolerate it. He wasn't going to tolerate it from her either. Not this time.
A pale, heart-shaped face turned up to his as he stopped in front of her, the width of the bar's gleaming surface between them. Peridot eyes gazed at him defiantly, and his gut clenched. He really didn't need this tonight. She would have to go.
"I'll have a Jack and Coke," she said in a firm voice that did nothing to hide the sensual, husky cadence of her natural tones.
"I don't think so," Aric replied, crossing his arms over his broad chest.
Her eyes narrowed, and Aric resisted the urge to check his chest for a poison dart. He hardened his heart against her. She didn't belong at Insolence, and he'd told her so. Showing up here in spite of his warning threw his annoyance into high gear. No one disobeyed Aric Calderwood. He was probably the most powerful Dom in the community, yet one pushy, bossy woman thought nothing of thumbing her nose at his orders.
"It's just a drink, Aric. I'm not here to poach on your subs."
The hard, determined expression on Ainsley Connor's face reminded Aric of the last time she'd been in town. They'd met for dinner as they usually did. They'd chatted about the same stuff they usually did. Yet, Ainsley had seemed different. Her demeanor came off edgier than usual and held a hint of despair he didn't want to speculate on. When she'd hit town yesterday, they'd gone to dinner again, but this time Ainsley's despair had been replaced with belligerence.
"That's not the impression I got from you last night, Ains." He leaned over the bar, bringing his face closer to hers. "You said you wanted to come here. You said you were interested. I know you, Ains. You're a loose cannon, and I won't have that in my world."
Her pale green eyes flashed, and for a moment, Aric could have sworn he saw hurt there before defiance took over. "I never realized you didn't like me," she said in a flat tone, a muscle twitching in her jaw.
"Don't put words in my mouth." Anger speared through him. Talking to Ainsley when she was in this kind of mood would try the patience of a saint, and he was about as far from that status as one could get. "I've liked you since the first grade. We go to dinner every time you come to town. We talk on the phone a few times a month. Hell, I talk to you more than I talk to my own father. You're my best friend, but that doesn't mean I don't know what you're like. You're a whirlwind sweeping everything before it. I like my world ordered not chaotic, especially at Insolence."
Ainsley put her hands flat on the bar. Aric glanced at the long, elegant fingers, and his gut tightened again. He hated how she had the ability to tie him in knots with just a touch or a look. When she spoke, her voice lowered to a register that sent warning bells through Aric's mind.
"I just want to--"
Aric sucked in a breath and ruthlessly cut off her explanation. "You just want to pick out a nice sub and have some simple fun just like any other dominant female in here."
Aware that his harsh words were fueled by anger at his lack of self-control around her, Aric felt the warning bells become an acute alarm. He didn't care what she wanted. She'd disobeyed him. The urge to punish her set his senses alight, and he fought for control. Only Ainsley had ever been able to shake his much vaunted self-possession. All the more reason to keep her out of his club and out of his world, except for the periphery where she already stood.
"I know you, Ainsley. Nothing is ever simple with you, and I won't have you turning my place into some kind of flesh auction or wrestling pit as the subs fight to be with you!"
The shimmer in her eyes might have been tears if he thought she had it in her to cry.
"Don't put words in my mouth," she shot back.
The warning bells inside him turned from an alarm into full-blown sirens as the emotion in her eyes deepened. No way. In a million years, he would not believe that Ainsley Connor could cry. Slug someone who hurt her, yeah. Drop kick someone who put her down, absolutely. Cry? Never!
"I don't want a sub, Aric. That's not why I'm here."
He stared at her, the inexorable fact of her tears glaring back at him. Shock rippled through him, and he suddenly wanted to kill whoever had made her so vulnerable that tears misted her beautiful eyes.
"Then why are you here, Ainsley? Why did you disobey me?"
She turned her hands over so the palms faced him. She pushed them across the bar toward him. "I want you to punish me for disobeying you, Aric." The soft words barely registered above the noise of the music and the raucousness of the crowds. "I'm here to be your sub."
Aric took a step back from the bar. Her words slammed into him almost physically. No. Fucking. Way. She was no submissive. He knew it. She led. She never followed. She created chaos wherever she went. She didn't have a submissive bone in her six-foot-tall body.
Those eyes glittered up at him, and her lush mouth turned down at the corners. "You've known me longer than anyone else so I thought maybe you would understand why I came. I can see I was wrong."
Her words were choked with emotion, her voice thick from the tears. She curled her fingers into her palms and pulled her hands back toward her.
Acting solely on instinct, Aric snapped his hands out and caught her wrists, clamping down, her fingers biting into his palms as he held her immobile. Emotion began to unfurl within him. "Why?"
Now, the eyes turned angry and defiant, their expression familiar to him.
"Because this is who I have always longed to be. Who you never let me be." Her whispered words rasped harshly, raw with emotion.
Aric's heart rate had pretty much gone into cardiac arrest zone. It beat so fast and hard, he expected it to stop at any moment. Ainsley spelled danger. To him. For him. She always had, so he'd made it a point to keep part of himself back from her. In the beginning, it hadn't been that way, but somewhere during their junior high years, he'd figured out that she had the rare ability to get beneath his skin as no one else could. He'd begun to keep parts of himself from her.
Looking at her now, he thought perhaps she had done the same thing, because he sure as hell didn't recognize this wet-eyed woman who asked him to dominate and punish her. Her lower lip quivered just a tiny bit, giving away her lack of confidence.
A crack in Aric's defenses appeared. The wall within him suddenly gave way. Ainsley had been a model of confidence the entire time he'd known her. He'd always admired that in her. As he got older, the admiration had turned to desire. But she was his best friend, and he couldn't take advantage of that. Now, he could not let another man-- another Dom--take advantage of what he knew must be a temporary weakness on her part. To keep her safe, he would risk anything, including his heart.
As desire swept through him, freed at last from a place deep inside where he'd banished it years before, he realized that being with her would challenge his control, his self-confidence, and the plans he'd made for his life. He didn't know what would happen after being with her, but he knew it would change everything.
His fingers eased on her wrists, his thumbs stroking over the wild pulse that beat there. He liked that her reaction to him seemed intense despite her stillness. She let her hands lay lax in his grasp, not initiating any move herself. Unbidden, the thought rose in his mind. Just like a good sub.
He tugged at her hands, and she lifted her eyes to his, a question in their depths. He fought back a smile. A good sub wouldn't have done that, raised their eyes without permission, but he understood why she had. They were in public, and nothing was settled between them. She had a right to question his intent.
"Let's go up to my place."
Confusion filled her face. "Not the dungeon?" She glanced over her shoulder at the entrance to the club's play area.
Revulsion rose within him, shocking in its intensity. He'd been a Dom for nearly a decade, but the thought of parading her through the dungeon, of dominating her and fucking her in front of the club's patrons, turned his stomach. Bile rose in his throat. This was too personal for the club. She meant too much to him. No way could he do anything to her in public. Besides, his body already trembled at the thought of making love to her. He didn't think he could control himself enough to participate in a scene with her. But since she didn't know that, he'd give her a taste of his dominance, get his libido under control, and then find out just why the hell she'd come to him asking to be his sub.
"No," he said firmly. "You're my best friend. I don't fuck people I care about in public nor do I participate in public scenes with them. We're going up to my apartment."