The bullwhip sliced through the air and struck home, leaving a slash of black over white. Precise rivulets spread out only to be jolted to a halt by a second lash, a third, a fourth.
Rachel Moore paused, laid her whip down, and readjusted her haphazard topknot. She loved her long hair, except when it got in the way. Heavy hair made it a son of a bitch to keep up. Sweat-soaked tendrils curled around her neck, threatening to bring the mass of hair tumbling down.
Nothing like a good workout, though. This was bullshit work, something to get her creative juices flowing. Her muse loved the crack of a whip. It gave her creativity the kick-start it needed. Rachel rather liked it herself, most of the time. It got other juices flowing too. Unfortunately, right now that made her mind wander. Something this session was supposed to keep her from dwelling on.
She tied the edges of her paint-splattered white T-shirt into a knot around her waist and picked up the whip once more.
A mere extension of her arm, the whip slithered through the paint tray. It cut through red this time, viper-like, deadly. She flicked her wrist; droplets splashed onto the white drop cloth. She watched as a pattern emerged there. A possibility to keep in mind for the future, but not what she needed now--now she needed something to keep her mind off everything.
Rachel yanked the whip up and snapped it toward the canvas. Red bisected the black slashes. She dragged the whip toward her pan, mesmerized by the curvy trail of red it left behind.
Intriguing. A lover's scorching lick over bare skin came to mind. Slow and sweet. She shuddered at the thought and felt the pulse overtake her senses.
Letting the tool slip from her fingers, she stalked over to the painting. Closer inspection revealed tiny splatters of black and red, like microscopic fireworks caught in midburst. She fumbled for a brush from the cleaning jar on the nearby table, wiped it dry on her T-shirt, then drew the tip through the red and black. A tiny flame formed. She smiled.
A picture emerged in her head. She let it play out while she filled her palette with orange, yellow, more red, and--to make it interesting--blue and green. Rachel lost herself to the images exploding in her mind, her brush flying over the canvas. The crackle of flame, the crack of the whip. The lick of a lover and the fire he built. Burning hot, then the cool rush of spent sex. She created a swirl where the flames played out, a vortex where they merged. Her heart raced, breath quickened, and that ache that came with the truly sensuous filled her core. And there went her thoughts again.
A subtle shift in the room's air pressure told Rachel she wasn't alone. Only two people had a key. Since Will Sullivan was presently at work in Temecula, that meant her visitor could only be--
"I swear, your work would harden a eunuch."
Oliver Holbrook. He'd had a key since the day he became her mentor.
She smiled and looked around. "I take that to mean it meets with your approval?"
"As always." He pulled up a chair, turned it around, and sat astride it, resting his arms on the back. "So what are you calling this? It's very intriguing."
"Lick of Fire, I think." She canted her head to one side, studying all aspects of her creation. Yes, that was the perfect name.
"You left the party early."
"Did I?" Rachel added a series of twirls in the upper-left corner. "I got caught up in the drive to paint." She snickered. "All that underlying sensuality must have gotten to me." It was hard to deny. Her best friends, Julia and Lori, had each found their happy-ever-afters. It was a joyous celebration! The love and lust in that party was enough to... What was that Oliver had said? Ah...enough to harden a eunuch.
Oliver chuckled. "I'll admit the promise of sex filled the room. If only we could bottle that as an aphrodisiac."
"You never know." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, swiping paint across her cheek from her brush in the process. "Some enterprising chemist might knock on your door one day." Oliver loved helping people get a good start, providing that the business was worthwhile and that individual had the savvy to run it.
"Stranger things have happened. I know of a company up to the challenge."
The words jolted through her, like a whip snap that penetrated her gut and tugged at her spine. Enigma Vineyards and Botanicals. Rachel trembled inside. This was the reason for Oliver's visit. She'd wondered how long it would take for him to get to the point. Part of her wanted to do it for him. To get the confrontation over with. No, Oliver could work for this one. She scowled at him.
Oliver flexed his shoulders, rolled the kinks from his neck. He looked like he'd just come off a desert hike--the hint of whiskers darkening his face, worn jeans, equally worn leather hiking boots, and a dark blue T-shirt so faded the logo was unreadable--attire he rarely wore in public. Oliver was perfection in everything he did. Always the professional, the sterling example of wealth and command. Wise in his years, years the jeans and T-shirt carved away. Looking at him in his present attire, Rachel knew few would guess how much wealth and power Oliver commanded.
"So"--he draped his arms over the chair back once more--"you're the last one standing."
That gave her pause. Rachel had never thought about it that way. She was the last of his legendary triumvirate of Dommes. Some referred to them as the jewels in the crown of his world--Maneater, Soleil, Raven. Only Raven remained as Domme. Maneater and Soliel--Julia and Lori--had each found love and decided to leave the public lifestyle.
"How do you feel about that?" he asked, his voice soft, concerned.
She relaxed a little. Perhaps she'd misjudged Oliver's intent. He'd come out of concern for her. Maybe he was right to be worried.
How did she feel? Good question. She wasn't sure. She'd felt off for a long time now. At least a year. Everything she'd done in the past had been intertwined with Julia and Lori. Now, content in their new lives, they'd resigned. Without her sister dommes, with her best friends moving on in their lives...
Rachel stared into space. How did she feel? Unsettled? Antsy? Alone?
She thought about Julia and Lori, how happy they were with their men, their lives, how in love they were, away from all the trappings of full-fledged Domme-dom. She was all that remained of their threesome. Oliver's last jewel. Trotted out. Stared at in awestruck wonder. Feared.
"I feel like a freak show." Deep down, she hated every second and had for a long time. Only Julia and Lori had kept her going. Now they'd gone on to other lives, while she...
Rachel pulled in a breath, then pushed it out. "I'm done." Each word was filled with calm and peace.
"I had a feeling."
"Don't you always? A heads-up might have been nice."
"There are some things we have to discover for ourselves," Oliver replied.
"You're leaving Raven behind, not the lifestyle or me. I'm always here, always your friend. You'll always be one of my best girls. I'm not ambivalent. Are you?"
"Not at all. It feels like the most right thing I've done in a long time."
"You'll want your house key back."
His key ring jingled; then there was the plink of a key on the table. It was done. Final. Returning to her attention to her work, she lifted her brush to the canvas.
"I've learned a lot from you."
"And it would be foolish of me not to admit that I've learned a thing or two from you."
The compliment unsettled her. Oliver's tone suggested he was up to something. She dared a glance around. He stretched his back, his arms high as he twisted out the kinks.
"You're the best damn switch I've ever known. Few can go from Domme to sub with as much ease as you. Hearts will break, and tears will fall when people hear you've left that stage of your life behind. But everyone will be thrilled to hear you've settled with your men."
She froze in midstroke. "What men? What the hell are you talking about?"
"Ben Welsh turns thirty-two tomorrow."
Damn it all! She was right. This was about Ben and Enigma.
Her grip tightened on the brush, her strokes becoming short and sloppy with none of the elegance the painting required. She set her palette aside and made a production of cleaning her brush.
"I am aware of it." How could she not be? She'd been waiting for this day all year.
Oliver laughed. "I'm not stupid, Rachel. Any fool can see you've been moping around for the last year, ever since you learned Roger Welsh made you trustee over his estate...over Ben."
It was a stupid will, made years ago when Roger was still somewhat sane. She could only presume he'd had doubts about his son's abilities to run the business and the wealth that came with it. Doubts Ben had disproven many times over. Rachel didn't have a clue why Roger Welsh made her trustee over Ben. Her relationship with Roger had faltered around the same time he'd redone his will. She was only four years older than Ben. Ben should have contested the whole damn thing. No one would have argued the point. Her least of all.
"I have not been moping," she snapped. "Ben Welsh has never been my lover. I barely know the man. The first time I met him was when Enigma celebrated their purchase of Two Buds Winery in Napa." But what she'd seen, she'd liked very much. Roger Welsh had been "kind" enough to nip that friendship in the bud. Memories of that night still unsettled her. The promise of passion ruined by... "I don't need Ben. I have Will."
She glowered at him. "What the hell does that mean? I don't speak caveman, Oliver."
"I would disagree, but..." He shrugged. "Why aren't you handling this last piece of business in person?"
Rachel reorganized the bottles and jars, even though they were already how she wanted them. "There's no need. I signed the papers last week and had them overnighted. It's done. You want an appearance? You go. After all, you are the executor of his father's estate."
Oliver tsked. She hated that scolding click of tongue.
"You're going to hand over a fortune without even personally evaluating the man's competence?"
"I get frequent reports from Will."
Oliver laughed. A small squeak from the chair told her he'd stood. "His best friend? Your playmate?" he finished in a dirty little whisper.
"The CFO. Mr. Welsh has been CEO of his father's company for the last five years. Will Sullivan is the consummate professional. He would have advised me if there'd been any problems with Mr. Welsh's performance. Mr. Welsh has excelled. Rebuilt a company on the brink of--"
"Mr. Welsh. How formal." He paced around her, measuring her reaction. Why?
"Oliver, do sit down. You're making me nervous."
He snickered. "Am I? My bad." He returned to the chair. Rachel felt his grin boring a hole in the back of her skull.
Oh shit, now came the lecture where he tried to reason with her. She might as well give up now. Nah, let him work for it.
"Roger Welsh made you trustee for a reason. Can you really be so cavalier and sign off on something so important, sight unseen?"
Rachel snapped up a clean rag to wipe her hands. It gave her something to do while she turned and faced him. "I'm a very busy woman. This is a mere technicality."
"But an important one, nonetheless. It's an hour and a half drive from here to Temecula, two hours tops. If you hurry, you might be able to beat the Friday afternoon traffic. Besides...you'll get to see Will, something both of you will enjoy."
True enough, but...
Oliver stared, calm, accessing. Rachel broke the eye-lock first. With shaking hands, she grabbed a brush with a wider bristle to smooth out her earlier faux pas. Focusing on the painting ordered her thoughts.
She heard the chair creak again as Oliver stood up. She still jumped when he placed his hands on her shoulders.
"What's the real reason you don't want to go?" he asked, his thumb making circles on her shoulder.
"You were there when the will was read," her voice was barely above a whisper. "You saw the hate in Ben's eyes."
Deep brown eyes that took in everything around him. Intelligence and power had poured from that gaze. Ben Welsh was a force to be reckoned with. Who could blame him for being upset? The will had been a slap in the face. Invalid as far as Rachel was concerned. Why hadn't he contested it? It made no sense. None of it. Especially considering that pull of attraction they'd felt. Especially when he'd learned that she'd been his father's Domme for a brief time years ago.
The look she'd seen in Ben's eyes when the will was read... She'd never been more scared, more overwhelmed in her life. No one controlled Ben Welsh. His whole demeanor screamed alpha male. Pissed-off alpha male.
She'd avoided Ben ever since. Her reports on Ben and the companies came from Will. Rachel wanted to keep it like that. She also wanted no one to question Ben's right to hold all the keys to Enigma's kingdom. He'd saved it from the brink of ruin, made it what it was today. Him, and him alone. Maybe that's what Roger's will had really been all about--a hit below the belt, because Ben had fought for and won control of the company. He'd had no choice but to do so, once Roger's mental capacities had started to fail.
"I've never known you to back down from anything."
She felt Oliver capture a tendril of hair at her nape and slowly twirl it around his finger.
"It was a year ago, my sweet. And we all know you can kick anyone's ass."
Not Ben. Her insides churned. That dangerous ache below grew.
Rachel elbowed Oliver. "Don't patronize me."
"Wouldn't dream of it." He released her hair and stepped away. "You are a professional in everything you do, Rachel. Don't take this final responsibility Roger thrust upon you lightly. We know he had his problems, but Roger trusted you implicitly. Don't violate that trust. Give it as much consideration as you do everything else. That way, you'll know in your heart it was a job well done. Regret's a hard thing to live with."
"Experience talking?" She glanced over her shoulder and swore she saw him wince.
"Always." He gave her a halfhearted smile and started for the door. "Let me know what you decide."
He jerked his chin to her painting.
Rachel looked at what she'd done. Resignation slumped her shoulders. Ben's face stood amid the flames.
"I think we both know the answer to that."
He inclined a nod her way. "We do."
And like that, he was gone.
Rachel glared at the closed door. Yeah, she'd go, all right. She'd be meticulous, precise, and ruthless, inspecting every aspect of Ben's work. Nothing would blur the lines of responsibility. No one would question her decision or that Ben earned it all on his own. And with that final nod, the hate in his eyes would diminish; he'd see her as a woman and take her right there in Enigma's small conference room.
"Oh God." She pressed her forearms over her hard nipples. This line of fantasy was only going to end in disaster. She pulled in a shuddered breath and focused on her painting. One little tweak.
A clean whip, a little bit of yellow-gold reflective paint, and...
Rachel snapped the whip toward the canvas. The tip connected, leaving a spark of gold among the flames. Then another and another. Three, the perfect number. She imagined the cracks aimed at her clitoris, the sound, the puff of air that kissed her pussy. Her body responded at the thought, swelling her labia into the seam in her jeans.
Smiling and satisfied with her effort, Rachel shook her topknot free and shoved the red scrunchie onto her wrist. The ache below was too much. She needed relief. Needed to come.
Rachel wiped the whip clean, then coiled it around her fingers and made her way beyond the drop cloth to the nest of cushy love seats tucked in the corner. She tossed the yellow cushions to the floor, then stretched out on them. Eyes closed, legs wide, she tapped the end of the whip over her nipples. They hardened as she gasped. Her clit protested, demanded attention.
She rubbed her hand over her crotch and tapped her nipples again. The sensation shot downward, like a flare zinging through her body. Waiting was impossible. She slapped the whip against her inner thighs. The sting clenched her pussy. Again, harder. Now it was her ass that wanted attention. Rachel knew that was futile. She didn't need self-spanking; she needed a man's touch.
Rachel danced the whip over her crotch, teasing at what she was about to do. A sharp slap made her cry out. Another lifted her pelvis. Her clit was on high alert, screaming for release. She dropped her toy to the side, raked the zipper down on her jeans, and shoved her hand inside her panties. It felt like her clit leaped into her fingers.
She fumbled for the whip again, flicking nipples and thighs while she rode the mounting sensation and imagined Ben under her, helpless and hard, his cock buried inside her while Rachel had her way with him over and over again. And maybe Will too, behind her, doing as she ordered. She'd ride them both at the same time, and they'd never know...
Orgasm burst from her. She shuddered through the pulses that followed, limp and sated for the moment.
Yep, she was going to inspect him from head to toe, over and over again. By the time she was done, Ben Welsh wouldn't know what hit him. She'd wipe that hate from his eyes and replace it with a smile he'd never forget.