"Are you sure this is the right place?" Sterling asked doubtfully as they stepped inside and the door closed behind them. He had to blink and let his eyes adjust, but even then it seemed like maybe they'd gotten the address wrong. He'd never actually been to a BDSM club, but whatever he'd been expecting, it certainly hadn't been this.
It looked like a regular nightclub, and a reasonably crowded one at that. There was a bar along the back wall with the typical collection of college students and older people jostling for the bartender's attention. Two dance floors instead of the more traditional single one, but otherwise it seemed like just about every club Sterling had ever been to in his life. Not that there had been all that many, of course, since he was still half a year from his twenty-first birthday and he couldn't legally drink, but one of the benefits to living in an area that catered to two different universities was that the clubs were prepared to handle things like checking ID and keeping the underaged from getting their hands on any alcohol.
Hypothetically, at least.
But once he looked around a little more closely, Sterling saw that this club was different. In subtle ways, maybe, but careful observation showed that some of the patrons were wearing collars. Choker-style necklaces went in and out of fashion, and he didn't pay all that much attention to what women wore at any time--still, he did pay attention to men, and he was pretty sure he'd never seen a guy wearing a necklace like the ones he was seeing now. There were a few different styles, and the men wearing them seemed just about glued to the people they were with--some men, some women.
There was music playing, but it wasn't the loud, pounding-beat kind that Sterling was used to at nightclubs. It sounded more like top forty.
"Hello? Earth to Sterling?" Alex said, sounding amused, and Sterling blinked and forced his attention back to his friend.
"Sorry, what?" Even now, he found his eyes being drawn back to a couple sitting at one of the tables. Well, one of the two men was sitting at the table--the other was kneeling on the floor at his feet and looking up at him with an expression that might have been called worshipful.
"You asked if it was the right place," Alex said. "Then you looked around, and I guess you answered your own question judging by the way your jaw dropped. Play it cool, huh? We don't want to come off like tourists."
"Hey, you've been here before," Sterling protested.
"Only a couple of times," Alex said. "Plus Ray was leading me around by the dick--mostly figuratively, by the way, in case you were thinking about asking--so I was kind of focused on him."
Sterling nodded and watched as the guy sitting in the chair said something to the one kneeling beside him. Then he reached out and cupped the kneeling guy's head with one hand, stroking his hair. "Not too many people dancing," he said to Alex, trying to sound casual even though his heart was fluttering in his chest.
"There will be later," Alex said absently, his gaze scanning the crowd. "It's not exactly what people are here for though, you know?" He touched Sterling's sleeve. "Want to get a drink first and then I'll introduce you around? I see a couple of guys I know from when I was with Ray."
"Okay." They started toward the bar; then Sterling froze as one of the men sitting at it sharpened into someone he knew. "Fuck," he said, the curse half under his breath but getting Alex's attention all the same.
"That guy," Sterling said. "Brown hair, blue shirt, with the top two buttons undone?"
"Yeah? You know him?"
"He's a professor," Sterling said. "He taught my freshman lit class. God, what the hell is he doing here?"
"Huh." Alex studied the man thoughtfully. "He does look familiar. And I think he's probably doing what everyone else is--hoping to hook up, maybe. It looks like he's alone."
Sterling had a lump in his throat the size of a baseball; it almost hurt to swallow around it. Professor Sawyer, who'd stood at the front of the class and lectured about Shakespeare and Steinbeck and Gibson, sometimes smiling in a way that had made Sterling's cock sit up and take interest, was here. At a BDSM club.
"You look like you're about to pass out or throw up," Alex said and moved to shield him from a possible glance from Sawyer, a gesture that left Sterling feeling irritated rather than grateful because it meant that he couldn't see Sawyer anymore. Which made no sense; Owen Sawyer wasn't even close to what Sterling was looking for, after all. There was clearly a lot that he didn't know about his former teacher, but Sterling doubted that the man was a sub. No collar around that neck, and the relaxed way that Sawyer was sitting, with a faint smile on his face, made him look like he belonged here in a way that Sterling envied. "I seriously doubt he's going to report you to the dean; how can he?" Alex grinned impishly. "He doesn't still teach you, does he? Because I can see how that'd be awkward the next time you meet up."
"No, thank God," Sterling said. "He teaches mostly writing courses; not really my thing."
"Maybe he'll take you on as, like, an apprentice or something," Alex suggested, sounding like he didn't really mean it. But actually, it wasn't a bad idea.
Sterling watched as a woman with an impressive cleavage revealed by her low-cut blouse went over toward Sawyer. He went so far as to step to one side so Alex didn't block his view as the woman spoke with Sawyer, smiling and twirling a lock of her blonde hair around one manicured finger. Sawyer seemed bored by her, a realization that sent a little thrill through Sterling. "You think he would?"
Alex shrugged. "Can't hurt to ask. You can get assholes here, like anywhere, but most people are happy to help out new players." His expression brightened. "If he's into teaching, he might even get off on it."
Sterling didn't think that being a teacher necessarily meant that you were willing to train someone in the finer arts of being a Dom in your spare time, but he didn't point that out. There were a lot of ifs and maybes to be dealt with, but he was too much his father's son to let hesitation and uncertainty stop him from reaching out for something he wanted. The worst that could happen was that Sawyer would say no, and a no could always be changed into a yes if you knew where to apply the right pressure.
He noted that Sawyer's glass was almost empty. "I'm going to buy him a drink and say hi," he told Alex.
"Sounds like a plan. I'll get a beer, and I'll be over there if you need me," Alex said, gesturing to a corner table where three men sat chatting animatedly to each other. He patted Sterling's shoulder solemnly, a glint of a smile in his blue eyes. "Go and get an A for assertiveness."
The seat next to Sawyer's was conveniently empty--Sterling slid into it as the blonde woman walked off, looking disappointed, and said as smoothly as possible, "Hi. Come here often?"
He'd almost forgotten how cold Sawyer's gray eyes could get when he wasn't happy about something. Almost. One flickering, disinterested glance and Sterling was on his way to being hard and feeling combative, responding to being ignored the way he had in class when Sawyer had dismissed his take on a poem as juvenile or ignorant or both.
"I asked you a question," Sterling said.
Sawyer swallowed the last of his drink--whiskey by the look and smell of it, poured over ice that had melted enough to lighten the amber of the liquid to a pale straw--and set his glass down on the bar. "And I was remarkably kind and pretended that I didn't hear it or notice your presence in a bar when you're too young to drink." Sawyer stared at him directly for the first time, a hint of anger in his eyes but not a shred of embarrassment. "Go home, Mr. Baker. You don't belong here."
"You don't get to decide where I belong," Sterling retorted. "And I'm not too young to be here. To drink, sure--though not for much longer--but not to hang out. I came with a friend. How about you?"
"I don't come here to make friends," Sawyer said, his voice crisp. Listening to it felt like biting into an apple just picked off a tree; Sterling's mouth wanted to water. "You do know where you are, don't you?"
Sterling frowned. "Yes--I'm not stupid. Which maybe, if you weren't old enough to be getting senile, you'd remember. I know you didn't like me when I took your class, but since our grades weren't based on your personal opinion of our character, I did get an A." He sighed and rubbed a hand across his face--this wasn't the way he'd imagined the evening going. "Look, can we start over again? Let me buy you a drink."
"No, thank you. And I remember you from my class very well," Sawyer said flatly. "You were cocky, arrogant, and you owed your grade to the fact that when you wrote your papers for me you dropped the attitude and actually produced something worth reading." Sawyer picked up his glass and swirled the ice in it, watching it clash against the side of the glass. "You surprised me; I assumed you'd paid someone to write them initially, but a phrase here and there echoed something you'd said in class..." He put the glass down and gestured to the bartender for a refill. "So forceful in public, so keen to correct me...but when you were alone, not surrounded by your clique of admirers, you wrote in a way that showed you'd listened to me closely."
Sawyer's drink arrived, passed over with a smile that held a hint of the same adoration some of the subs in the room were showing their Doms. Sawyer took it with a nod of thanks and stood. "Enjoy your little field trip to the zoo--and, yes, some of the animals here do bite."
Fine, Sterling thought, watching the man's perfectly shaped ass as he walked away. Who cares? I can find someone else to show me the ropes--someone a hell of a lot nicer than that bastard.
It was all a little too forced, though, and he wasn't in the business of pretending, not even to himself; he had to admit that it bothered him that Sawyer didn't like him. Sure, he could be kind of cocky sometimes. He was sharp as a tack, and he knew it. Growing up under the watchful eye of his father, the esteemed and respected William Sterling Baker II, he'd had to learn fast and protect himself faster. He could handle someone like Professor Sawyer.
If he wanted to.
Eyes searching the room, Sterling found Alex and went over to join him and the small group of people he was talking to.
The table was big enough that there were two empty seats, and he took the one next to Alex, who turned and greeted him with a smile that quickly turned sympathetic when he saw Sterling's face. Sterling didn't want sympathy, and he really didn't want to talk about his failure. He gave the men at the table a friendly nod and got some interested, appraising looks back that were soothing, even if he wasn't drawn to anybody in particular. It didn't matter. He wasn't here to pick someone up; he was here to find a guide through the maze. He slid his hand over Alex's thigh under the table and reminded himself that even if things hadn't gone as planned a few nights before, the sex between them was still okay as long as they kept it vanilla.
The noise level at the table rose as one of the men, a slimly built redhead with sparkling green eyes, recounted some gossip that was met with laughter and then capped by the man beside him, who was snickering too much for Sterling to follow what he was saying. Alex turned away from the table slightly and murmured, "So what did he say? I asked about him while you were at the bar, and he's definitely got a good reputation; he knows what he's doing."
"Apparently he's even more of a jerk than I'd remembered," Sterling said. "He thinks I don't belong here and I should run along home and play with my LEGOs or something." He rolled his eyes, hoping he was acting convincingly nonchalant about the whole situation when, in fact, it was bothering him enough that he had a gnawing ache in his gut.
Alex's jaw dropped slightly, but he made a quick recovery. "Maybe it's a, uh, test or something and he wants to know if you're serious?" He scratched his jaw pensively. "I wasn't staring at you or anything, but from here you looked kind of, well..."
"What?" Sterling demanded, unwilling to admit that he hadn't even gotten as far as asking Sawyer to train him.
There was a couple walking by, the sub, tall, muscular, his arms bare, faded jeans clinging to his thighs and ass, walking a few steps behind an older man in a suit expensive enough to remind Sterling of his father. The sub looked unhappy, his head ducked down, a flush on his face, but as his Dom turned and looked at him, his head came up and he smiled tentatively, the happiness returning to his eyes as the older man, his face impassive, made some minor adjustment to the fit of the collar the sub wore. It was as intimate a gesture as a kiss.
"Like the guy not in the suit," Alex said succinctly as the couple walked away.
"What?" It came out sounding disbelieving, which was how Sterling felt. "Seriously?"
"Well, yeah." Alex shrugged and patted his shoulder. "Sorry, man, but it's true. I'm not saying it means anything--it's just how you looked."
Sterling sat back in his chair and thought about it for a minute as conversation continued around him, the music in the background blurring into the other sounds until all of it became meaningless. Which was what Alex's theory was. Wasn't it?
His whole life Sterling had struggled to come out on top in his relationship with his dad, and although the distance that going away to college had created made things easier, it didn't eliminate the conflict. Sterling's entire existence revolved around not letting himself play second fiddle to anyone, so it made sense that, drawn to the BDSM lifestyle the way he was, he'd be a Dom.
Of course, until a few weeks ago, BDSM had been nothing more than a term, one that brought to mind men in leather masks whipping people stretched out on a rack with blindfolds over their eyes and gags in their mouths. It had been a cartoonish concept; that was all.
Then Sterling's roommate Brian had dragged him, somewhat unwilling, to an off-campus party on a Friday night. Brian had hooked up with some little red-haired girl almost immediately, leaving Sterling surrounded by straight couples who were making out on every available surface and no way to get back to the dorm unless he wanted to walk. He'd been on the verge of deciding to do so, even though it had to be at least six miles, when he'd noticed two guys slipping downstairs. Following them in the hopes that there was a flat-screen TV and a DVD player down there, something to help kill a couple of hours, he'd found only a bedroom door, ajar several inches, and sounds that told him the two men were doing something a lot more kinky than getting ready to watch a movie.
He hadn't been able to make himself leave. Instead, he'd stood there, watching what he could see, his cock rock-hard in his jeans as the bigger man ordered the other--who'd turned out to be Alex--to suck him off. The words he'd used had been explicit, but it was the submissive yearning in Alex's voice as he'd answered that had made it clear this wasn't just two guys hooking up.
Afterward, still hard, Sterling had crept back upstairs and waited on the front porch for one of the two to reappear. Brian and the redhead left for her place, offering to drop him back at the dorm, but he'd shaken his head and stayed until Alex, blond hair mussed, had come outside and lit a cigarette with hands that trembled.
"Hey," Sterling said.
"Hey." Alex inhaled blissfully. "You want one?"
"Sure. Thanks." Sterling had only smoked a handful of times, but he felt instinctively that he wanted to create some kind of connection, and he'd take what he could get. "I'm Sterling Baker."
"Alex Ross." Alex lit a second cigarette and handed it over. "God, I'm wrecked. What time is it?"
"I don't know. Two, maybe?" Sterling took a drag, exhaled without coughing, and steeled himself. "Can I ask you something?"
That had been the start of their friendship, and now, with the background noise of the club sharpening again, Sterling looked at Alex with a mixture of affection and gratitude. He needed this, he knew it deep down, and Alex was the one who'd opened his eyes to this new world.
"It has to mean something," he said finally. "Just not what you're implying. Maybe it's because it's him and I'm remembering how it used to be when he was in charge of me in class. Sort of a conditioned reflex, you know?" It was a lame piece of reasoning, but Alex seemed to buy it, if his vaguely encouraging nod was anything to go by.
Sterling might have allowed himself to be convinced if he wasn't thinking about the few times he'd tried to give Alex what he needed and fallen well short of what they'd been aiming at. Faced with Alex on his knees, an expectant look in his eyes, his features settling into a serenity that was absent at other times, Sterling had panicked. Orders that needed to be voiced with utter certainty had been stammered, his voice hoarse and wavering. He'd contradicted himself, snapped at a patient Alex, frustration at his own failure sour in his throat, and ruined the mood spectacularly. The second attempt, a few nights later, had just been boring, though there had been the sense of something tantalizingly out of reach that kept him awake for hours, staring into the darkness of his room, his body aching, hungry.
Submissive. The one thing he wasn't and never had been. No. He just needed some experience, that was all, needed to soak up the atmosphere here. He'd always been a quick learner, observant, imaginative; every report card he'd ever had bore that out.
"We can try again tonight, if neither of us gets lucky," Alex murmured, his eyes bright as he passed his tongue over his lips. "God, I'd forgotten how horny this place makes me feel..." He made a sound very close to a satisfied purr and then turned his attention back to the conversation still occupying the table.
A minute later, though, everyone's focus was drawn to the couple in the center of the nearer of the two dance floors, and when Sterling glanced in that direction to see what the big attraction was, it felt like the bottom of his stomach dropped out.
Owen Sawyer--sometimes professor, sometimes Dom, if the way the woman with him kept her eyes cast downward had anything to say about it--stood there, some kind of flogging implement in his hand, eyes cool and distant.
The woman had straight dark hair, long enough to fall an inch or two past her shoulders, and she turned at Sawyer's direction, crossing her wrists behind her back and letting him bind them with a silky-looking scarf. Everyone near Sterling's table had gone quiet, so he was able to hear it when Sawyer murmured something in a low voice, something approving in the same tone of voice Sterling had heard him use in the classroom. He used the woman's name too: Carol.
Panic and excitement fought for ascendancy in Sterling as he stared at Sawyer. He wanted to be him--didn't he?--so completely assured, so in charge. Wanted to feel the cool, soft leather thongs of the flogger slide against his palm and through his fingers, wanted to make a gesture, just like that, and have a sub kneel instantly, a smooth, graceful movement that ended with them perfectly positioned for whatever he had in mind.
Sawyer's hand slid under the flowing dark hair and closed around Carol's neck. Sterling felt the echo of that possessive, claiming grip on the back of his neck and closed his eyes in despair and defeat, engulfed in an intense longing that made everything fade to gray.
God. He could barely keep himself together, painfully aware of how it would feel to kneel on that floor, the wooden surface hard against his knees, a sparking ache of fire traveling from bound wrists to shoulders. He could picture with perfect clarity the view from that position, the upward gaze along the line of Sawyer's body to his face.
His hands were trembling as he watched Sawyer take control of Carol. The man unbuttoned her blouse one button at a time, casually, as if he had all the time in the world and wasn't particularly interested in what he was doing. Sterling knew that part was an act, though. Carol's eyes, wide, tear-wet and dark, were mostly downcast, but occasionally moved up to look at Sawyer's face, searching for something there.
The audience was mostly quiet now, an appreciative murmur humming through the air. The music was muted so gradually that Sterling couldn't have said exactly when it ceased to be audible through the seashell roar in his ears. He heard the small, throat-caught sound Carol made as Sawyer slipped her blouse off to tangle around her bound wrists, though; he heard that clearly, and it brought an answering moan to his own lips that he hoped went unnoticed in the ripple of comment that went around the room.
Carol's small, rounded breasts were held in a wisp of white lace and silk, delicately feminine and concealing nothing, but Sawyer still took it from her, unhooking the clasp between her breasts with a deft flick. It was strapless, and it fell to the floor behind her, a pale splash against the dark wood. Carol was wearing tailored pants, and her feet were bare; the image she presented was a jarring mix that left Sterling unsettled. She didn't look like anyone else in the room; fully dressed, with her hair in a neat bun, she would have looked like an executive, a lawyer, maybe.
Half-naked on the floor, her breathing quick and ragged, slowing when the strands of leather were dragged over her shoulder, the only caress she'd been given, she looked like a fantasy come to life.
Not just any fantasy; hers, had to be--or maybe it was Sawyer's and he only went for women? Sterling stared at Carol and envied her without jealousy for what she was about to receive and for the way she'd gotten Sawyer's attention.
Even staring at her bare upper half, her flushed-pink nipples, did nothing for Sterling physically--he'd never been attracted to women--but at that moment he was so spellbound that he could almost imagine what it would have felt like if he was.