Hope O'Shea thought she'd never set foot in The Sunset Strip ever again. She'd been out of the scene for two years, which had been good for her. She shivered, remembering the handful of times she'd come here.
On her return to LA, Melina, the Mistress who owned the popular BDSM nightclub, contacted her to redesign the whole place. Dammit, the things she did for old friends and new clients.
This Saturday night, like most, the club's otherwise inconspicuous entrance saw an overwhelming amount of foot traffic. Housed in a '50s-era office building, it was impossible to guess what the dark brick walls held, so long as one ignored the interesting mix of characters entering and exiting.
Hope shook her head, exorcising thoughts of the past. Strands of newly cut and dyed auburn hair flew into her eyes, and she brushed them away. She missed the convenience of ponytails, but her stylist assured her the shorter hair was "chic and professional".
"It's now or never, Hope." She nodded at her reflection in the visor mirror and used the lure of a giant paycheck to shore up her courage before leaving the safety of her SUV.
Her spike heels, three inches high and fire-truck red, clicked on the pavement from the large parking lot across the street to the club entrance. Clammy hands smoothed invisible wrinkles out of her new black pantsuit. It wasn't proper scene attire, but it would have to do, because even if her old corsets and lingerie hadn't been too big on her, she wouldn't have worn something seductive for a business meeting.
The red French doors loomed ahead and an invisible weight settled on her chest. Despite her work with a therapist and her progress, panic attacks still loomed like storm clouds.
Too tense, that was her. She poured herself into work, eschewing any distractions in order to build her client list. Maybe once she had her business up and running she could try to find vanilla recreations.
But no more BDSM. No more vulnerability.
She eyed the club and appreciated the irony. Myriad outlets for her anxiety could be hers for the night, if only she asked.
As nice as one night of submission might be, it would be a step backward. It would be her relying on someone other than herself.
One of Melina's security team, decked out in leather pants and black T-shirt, opened the door for her. A quick thanks and she was inside, heading down the short hall to the main office. She wanted to get this over with as soon as possible, before temptation overruled her better sense.
The door was open, but Mel was not there.
She cursed Mel for insisting that they meet during her busiest night so Hope could get a feel for how the club had grown and understand how to meet its new design needs.
She always met clients face-to-face the first time. Body language told a much richer story than words, and tapping into those cues made her a better designer, often fulfilling the intangible, unspoken goals of her clients. Once she tackled this meeting, she could return during the week to sketch her first round of suggested renovations and decor updates. No loud music, no BDSM and fewer flashbacks to the pleasures she'd had here.
If she'd been able to just meet with Melina in her office and leave, Hope could have managed. She was in her element during client meetings. But instead, she'd have to go traipsing through the club.
Hope dug her fingernails into her palms, letting the pain sap away some of her nerves.
She returned to the main entryway and gave her name to the gatekeeper, the man sitting behind an innocuous little desk who vetted members and guests before they were allowed to enter the main club.
"Ah, Ms. O'Shea. Mistress said you'd be coming by around ten. She's in the far back room, the Victorian one. She said you'd know the way." He opened the door into the dark main room of the club, revealing little except ear-popping music and the occasional flash of skin.
The air vibrated with pounding music. She knew Doms were flogging to the driving base beat, and subs had their blood thumping along with each thud of leather on skin. Her nose twitched at the memory of being latched to the whipping post in the main room and flogged for all to see. She'd loved it then, would probably love it now.
Not that she'd be confirming her theory.
Club Sunset's main room housed a stage full of rigging equipment and larger props. Tables and chairs were scattered around it, and the bar along the left wall was doing brisk business. Men took her measure--she could feel their eyes crawling up her jacket-covered spine--and she purposefully scanned the room to avoid their curious and hungry looks.
On the opposite wall, several vendors had set up shop. Nothing like the club scene to make you want that third--or tenth--flogger. In the corner opposite the entrance, a hall and staircase led to smaller playrooms. She beelined for the hall, not meeting any eyes or looking around too much. She'd seen it all before--too much exposed flesh, warm red patches on the backs and thighs and breasts of subs, boys playing at being dominant, and the occasional Dom whose very aura demanded submission from the submissives around him.
That's how Gabriel Cassidy had been, dominant to the core. Impossible to resist.
The music swallowed her wry laugh as bittersweet memories found her, and for a moment she could have sworn she saw Gabe heading up the stairs. Hope's heart stuttered and she dug her nails into her hands once more, willing the apparition away.
According to her recent phone call to Melina, Gabe left California shortly after their breakup. Mel had mentioned he was doing something on the East Coast, but she'd had no inclination to discover the specifics, despite the woman's knowing voice tempting her otherwise.
Relief flooded her as she reached the more confined space of the hall and she paused to savor it, running her hand through her hair and grimacing when she hit shoulder instead. She still wasn't used to this short haircut.
Hope was a visual person; sounds didn't evoke the same memories as did the accoutrements of the club or a live scene. Maybe she could stay in the hall and wait for Melina to come her way.
She moved to readjust her glasses, only remembering she now wore contacts when her finger hit the bridge of her nose. Another suggestion from her stylist. Hope appreciated the polished look, though she missed the comfort of the so-called "fashion rut" she'd been in. It certainly would have been reassuring tonight.
Moans and whimpers and the sounds of impact play drifted through the open doors lining the long hall that ended at the Victorian room, painted a royal purple and presiding over the smaller, less-ornate rooms.
Two men left from one of the closer doors and made their way to her, walking side by side down the narrow hall. Though barely taller than her--with the heels--they probably each outweighed her by fifty pounds of muscle. The one closest nearly crashed into her as he passed.
"Oh, excuse me," she murmured, rubbing her now-aching shoulder.
He whirled on his heel and invaded her personal space. "What was that, slave?"
God help her if these two were the high-protocol, high-on-dominance kind. She dropped her gaze to the floor, just in case. "Uh, excuse me?"
His body and arms caged her in against the wall. "The proper response is, 'I apologize, Master.' And you should have moved out of the way or been on your knees in the first place. Snotty cunt, aren't you. I know what girls like you need." He ground his erection into her belly.
For a moment, he sounded like Joseph, her first and only Master. Before Gabe, before she knew better.
Evil visions of that past clawed at her brain and she gasped for breath as if she'd been socked in the stomach.
The asshole turned to his buddy. "Ah, see, she does like it." One meaty hand latched on to her arm in a bruising grip while the other wrapped around her neck.
Hope drowned in panic and spots danced across her vision. "Blue," she rasped out, the house safe word for "stop right now".
"Blue? Slut, the only blue I know is black and blue. Like your ass is gonna be when I'm done teaching you respect for your betters." His evil cackle raked down her spine.
"Safe word," she choked out.
The other man joined in the laughter.
"Oh look, the uppity slave thinks she can tell me what to do." His hand released her arm to reach down her blouse and pinch a nipple.
Hope's eyes watered in pain and humiliation and nightmares of Master Joseph.
"What say you we take her to one of the private rooms, eh?" his crony piped in. "We can put her in her place."
The first thug snarled in her face. "Not so disrespectful now, are you, slave?"
Hope couldn't respond. She withdrew into herself, searching for that safe haven she'd carved out as a slave, the place she returned when she desperately needed to lock away her emotions. But it wasn't there anymore. She'd done too much in therapy to ease her need for such an escape.
Panic had her frozen in his grasp, not that it mattered. Yelling, kicking, biting--all were impossible at that point.
"See, she just needed--"
The second man's words were cut off, but Hope couldn't see or think clearly enough to know what happened until her captor was ripped from her as well. She stood unmoving as two bouncers struggled to cuff the men. A third newcomer lingered in the shadows, his stance exuding pissed-off vibes the way only a strong Dominant could.
Hope wanted to stay out of his way.
"C'mon, assholes, you've got a date with Mistress Melina," one bouncer said.
The Dom nodded at them and the bouncers perp-walked the assholes into the main room. She didn't envy them their discussion with Mistress Melina, who could turn from total sweetheart to a vicious bitch in an instant. Kept people on their toes, she said.
Hope begged for the man to walk away and let her recover her equilibrium in peace. Instead, he eased closer. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, making every muscle shiver. Her eyes fluttered closed and she focused on slow, deep breathing, as she'd been taught. Arizona had truly changed her for the better, inside and out.
And those physical changes might just save her from this encounter. Her face looked more sculpted now from the weight she'd lost. The broken nose--the product of hazarding her mother's convulsions to hold her down--only made it more foreign. And with her hair darkened and bobbed, glasses gone, even she sometimes looked in the mirror and didn't recognize herself.
With that and the time between their last encounter, she knew few people from her past would easily recognize her either.
"Are you all right?" the man rumbled. A hand landed on her shoulder and she flinched against the contact before it was pulled back.
That little contact was enough for his scent to waft past her nose and Hope was jarred from reaching a state of calm. Her eyes shot open.
She knew those arms, covered in tattoos. Some old, some new.
She knew that voice too, dammit. Her legs gave out. One shock too many.
The man scooped her up against his work-muscled chest. He carried her to the darkened room that had been vacated by the Master Assholes. No, no, no, her mind chanted, but there would be no escaping this fiasco.
She buried her face in his chest, inhaling the familiar, heart-rending smell of Gabriel Cassidy.
Mel's insistence on meeting on Saturday made complete sense now, damned interfering woman.
"Are you hurt?"
She shook her head, just wanting him to leave before she was ensnared once again by the Dom who'd showed her kindness then broken her heart.
"I'd just like some time to compose myself, if that's all right. I'm here for a meeting with Mistress Melina," she whispered, hoping he wouldn't recognize her voice. A small, treacherous part of her, however, was a little hurt that he didn't recognize her behind her updated appearance.
"And you thought you'd find a good meeting place in one of the playrooms?" He deposited her on a couch and stood over her, arms crossed.
She bristled but kept her face averted. "We were supposed to meet in her office, but she's still in the Victorian room." She sighed, wanting to get the hell out of the club but needing Mel's business.
He snorted. "Play session probably ran long, knowing Melina." She watched out of the corner of her eye as he walked to the door and looked each way down the hall before standing sentinel against the doorframe. "How about you wait here and I'll check to see if she's almost done."
The last thing she wanted was a favor from Gabe. "You've been lovely, thank you for your help, but really, I'm fine, you don't need to concern yourself--"
"Yes, I do," he said from the door.
She imagined his forehead wrinkling in concern as she'd seen far too often during their fights. The fights she'd picked with him.
Guilt ate at her.
"Besides," he said, "I have to stay to see Melina's reaction to the situation with those two jerk offs. It'll be priceless."
The first set of lights flicked on, giving the room a soft glow. Though the couch didn't face the door, the whole opposite wall was mirrored, giving her an open view of Gabe's every move.
She scanned the room's reflection, anything to take her mind off the broad shoulders so protectively blocking the door. This was the "office playroom", complete with a large oak desk, filing cabinets and whiteboard. Oh, and hooks galore to hang rope, floggers, crops... Her heartbeat rose.
Gabe flipped on the rest of the lights and Hope forgot to breathe. Fully illuminated, he looked even more delicious than he had before, and she was only getting his reflection. A full-on view might give her a heart attack.
Gabe's head poked out the door and into the hall once again, allowing her to peruse his reflection at her temporary leisure. He'd shaved his head, but the hair was making a stubbly comeback. Hope would have rued the loss of his soft black hair but--damn. He looked fierce, and the goatee he sported only added to the look. Hope had never been one to like the facial-hair, shaved-head combo, but Gabe wore it like a pro. He had on black slacks and a tight black T-shirt that hugged the muscles he'd earned from hours of leather working and welding. His black motorcycle boots showed wear from being well used, but had been recently shined.
Gabe radiated power and control. The clothes were just window dressing, but oh hell did they dress him nicely. He'd either gained more muscle since she'd last seen him or her memories were shoddy, because he looked more ripped than before. She wouldn't put it past her subconscious to downplay how fit he'd been in order to protect her tender post-breakup heart.
One arm propped him up from the doorframe as he leaned out of the room, and that position made his muscled torso bulge. God, she wanted to trace with her tongue along every muscle-cut line she could see and all the ones she couldn't. Arms and back and abs and thighs were corded with muscle, and he still had an ass made for fantasizing.
He'd always made her feel so petite and delicate. And protected, at least until the end.
His gaze flicked to the mirror, and she looked down at her shoes to avoid meeting his reflected eyes, sneaking glances the whole time.
"Why are you meeting with Mistress Melina?"
Nosy. Demanding. She answered anyway. "She hired me to redecorate the club, top to bottom."
His back straightened and he cocked his head in curiosity, an inquisitive look he'd given her over and over during their short time together. "Interior designer?"
"Just started my own company." She really didn't want to be dropping clues about herself, but her control--as always in Gabe's presence--was consumed by his desires. And he wanted answers.
"Congratulations. Tough stuff, starting your own company. I'm actually in the same boat. Leather goods, not decor." He gave a little smile then turned to look at her in the mirror once more with a studious wrinkle in his brow.
He shook his head, then turned and left without another word.
She paced the room in his absence, trying to decide whether to leave or stay when a voice cleared behind her. She straightened and turned, shoulders tight.
Their eyes met and his face went hard. "What the holy hell are you doing here?"