Authors: M.Q. Barber
Tags: #Romance, #Erotic, #978-1-61650-533-2, #BDSM, #Menage
“He’s fine, Henry. A bruised jaw and a highly satisfied ego.” She waved it off as nothing. “Probably listening to his harpy’s complaints over how it looks to their friends.”
Henry loosed a single chuckle. “I suppose he let Cal get in a free punch to make a clear case? In front of witnesses, no doubt.”
“You’d have done the same thing yourself for him.” Emma chose one of the little cakes, orange with white icing, and ate it in two dainty bites.
“Sanctions?” Watching Emma, Henry squeezed Jay’s shoulder. Reassurance. No matter how the subject disturbed Jay, he’d refuse to leave.
“He accepted disciplinary action equal to Cal’s, a two-week suspension, for provoking the altercation.”
God, to have heard William take down that prick. He’d proved to have a quick tongue when it came to goading Cal.
Henry snorted. “Would they have suspended Cal otherwise? Or do we no longer even have the votes for enforcing basic civility?”
“We could.” Emma squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “If you stand for Jacob’s seat.”
Henry and Emma studied each other in silence. Tension hung between them.
“So we’ve come around to the real purpose of your visit, have we?” Unflappable, Henry settled back as if he’d expected Emma’s gambit.
Were subtlety and sly moves a submissive approach? It wasn’t
approach. Except when she and Jay had worked together in January to forestall disaster. Henry had seen through them in an instant.
Yeah, he had. But he’d still given them what they needed.
“You have the support among the voting members, Henry.” Emma picked up speed. “Victor was grooming you for the job.”
She’d have killed for her laptop to take notes.
“Your behavior is above reproach.” Emma ticked off points on her fingers. “The novices respect you.”
This conversation had taught her more about Henry’s standing at the club in three minutes than she’d discovered in the month and a half since she’d learned the place existed.
“Andrew would back you. His niece and her husband thanked you at their wedding, for God’s sake.”
“And six years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated.” Draping his arm over Jay, Henry patted his chest. “Even two years ago I might have considered it.” He rubbed his other hand along her ribs and squeezed her close. “But I have other priorities now.”
“You don’t think they’d benefit from it, Henry?” Emma narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “I know you’ve ideas for updating the code of conduct. For providing better protections for submissives and specific safety and training requirements for dominants. They’re good ideas.”
“I’m not saying the job isn’t worthwhile. I’m saying it would take too much of my attention from the people I love.” He raised his hand from Jay’s chest in a dismissive wave before settling again. “Find someone else to implement the ideas. Will would relish the greater involvement. More time away from his…lovely wife.”
“If he hadn’t just baited another long-standing member into a fight, I might agree with you.” Emma sighed. “But the older members see him as a hothead. One who needs more seasoning. Whereas you followed protocol. Your subs conducted themselves well and so did you.”
Emma set her coffee cup on its saucer and laid them on the table.
“I nosed around afterward, Henry.” She leaned in, her elbows resting on her knees, her hands clasped. “A good portion of the people watching Alice’s punishment considered it a well-choreographed show.”
Alice nudged forward, certain she’d misheard. “They what?”
Emma nodded. “Many of them have seen Henry direct scenes. Some have had instruction from him.”
She shoved aside the voice in her head asking what the hell that meant.
“He showed up with subs when he normally attends alone and has for years. It created a buzz.” Emma spread her hands, palms up. “They saw what they expected to see, a lesson in trust, affection, and gentle discipline, with you, Alice, cast as the unwitting novice, and Cal as the villainous poacher, and Henry teaching the appropriate course of action. A dominant must always put the health of his sub first and adhere to proper behavior, even when provoked. He must remain in control.” Emma shrugged lightly and leaned back in the chair.
All the confusing emotions swirling in her head, the sobs she’d been embarrassed by, the fear that she’d disappointed Henry, her anger at that man—was it better or worse if no one had known how real the punishment had felt to her?
“Alice gave them the emotional center.” Crossing her ankles, Emma shifted her attention to Henry. “You gave them the calm control. Jay highlighted the sweeping romance. Several players interpreted him as your loyal watchdog eager to attack the enemy but instead playing the defender, cradling Alice to his chest. A bit of Lancelot. Honestly, Henry, if I didn’t know you so well, I might’ve thought it scripted myself. But you would never put an untried sub through that deliberately.”
“No.” Henry growled, thick and heavy. “A scene fraught with emotion, soaked in bitterness and violence—I would not have chosen
as an introduction.”
She’d forgiven him. The outcome hadn’t been his choice. She squeezed Henry’s thigh, hoping to offer comfort without breaking any unwritten dom rules, and combed her fingers through Jay’s hair. No rules against offering him comfort, and he’d retreated. Her carefree playmate found refuge in submission and silence. “Wait. If William only let Cal take a swing at his jaw, why was he suspended?”
“He let Cal take the first swing.” Ducking her head, Emma only partly concealed her broad smile. “And then he took the bastard to the floor, not gently, and held an arm across his throat until a bouncer got to them. I received a thorough report.”
“I wish I’d seen that.” She scratched Jay’s scalp in slow circles. Her tender stud deserved fierce defenders, friends who shared Henry’s decisiveness, compassion, and protective nature. Tonight’s dinner had acknowledged Emma’s effort, but William had done his share, too. “I want to thank Santa.”
Henry kissed her forehead. “We’ll discuss something appropriate, sweet girl.”
“You’re certain I can’t persuade you to take Jacob’s seat?” Emma rubbed her hands together. “He intends to step down before Christmas and spend half the year in Arizona with his grandchildren.”
“I’m sorry, Em, but I don’t think so. My strength belongs to my family.” Henry deepened his hold on them. “It’s been a difficult week, and we’ve more work to do.”
“Teach a class, then.” Nodding, Emma almost stepped on the end of Henry’s answer. “You’re still training Alice. It’s an excellent opportunity.”
“Take her back, you mean. No.” Henry shook his head, and Jay echoed the movement beneath her hand.
She couldn’t, at this moment, unreservedly say going back rated high on her to-do list, either.
“I have no intention of returning, Em.”
Emma rippled in a single shudder. Concussive blast, a woman standing too close to a building demolition shoved back by the force.
Alice studied Emma differently from the way she had all night. Not considering what Henry might see in Emma or want from her. Not considering how Alice herself might measure up beside her. What did Emma see when she looked at Henry?
“You have—” Emma cleared her throat. “Henry, may we speak in private?”
Jay curled tighter, rustling Henry’s pants and clutching his knee.
“I’m afraid not, Em.” Henry rested his hand on Jay’s neck, rubbing his thumb back and forth. “Not tonight.”
Alice stared, beyond caring about the rudeness. She needed data. If she hadn’t been staring, she’d have missed the tightening around Emma’s mouth. The tension in her calf as she flexed her leg. Emma had acted pleased for them earlier, for their little family or Henry’s happiness. Her friendship with Henry had begun when Alice and Jay were in elementary school. And now Henry had placed himself in their corner.
“No intention at all?”
Emma’s requests wouldn’t budge him.
Voicing her sympathy wouldn’t help. Apologizing for having Henry’s support when Emma feared losing it smacked of gloating.
“Not even if they asked? If they needed it?” Emma gestured toward Alice and Jay, but her eyes stayed with Henry. “Do you recall what we discussed last summer, the irreparable harm—”
“Emma.” His voice a low command, Henry tightened his arm around Alice’s shoulder.
She barely dared breathe. This near stranger might know things about her. Private things.
“We spoke in confidence.”
“But your concerns were unfounded, weren’t they?” Emma’s voice rose in volume and speed. Their eyes met, Emma’s tight and pinched and ringed by deep lines beneath drawn brows. Emma flipped her gaze to Henry, her fingers tapping the chair arm. “Here she sits, accepting your discipline and your love—”
Emma’s gaze dropped to her feet.
Alice almost expected her to fall into a waiting pose. She felt the impulse herself. Hell, Jay had startled as if that tone had carried instructions for him.
“Your behavior tonight—” Henry shook his head. “Victor would have taken—”
A high, thin note pierced Emma’s clamped lips and cut off in an instant.
Henry’s struggle, his leashed anger, spilled into Alice’s skin. He turned his face into her hair and breathed out, hard.
Across from them, Emma curled bloodless hands in her lap.
Henry left a ghost of a kiss against Alice’s head.
“Emma.” Henry softened his voice. “
. Even were I to renounce my membership at the club, our friendship would not end.” He took another deep breath.
Alice attempted to identify what he’d said. A command? An apology? A nickname? Her lack of knowledge itched at her.
“But we’ve finished with the subject for tonight. I won’t hear more about it. Not one word.”
Without looking up, Emma nodded once. “Not a word, Henry. Of course.”
“Good. We’ve kept you overlong in any case. Jay.” Henry patted his back, encouraging him to rise. “Retrieve Emma’s coat, please. It’s late, and she ought to be getting home soon.”
Jay rolled off the couch and onto his feet, trotting to the armoire that served as a coat closet. If he moved fast, well, Jay did everything fast unless Henry specified slow. But his hope for some alone time manifested in every bouncing step.
Emma, in her stillness, rode the inverse line. Head bowed, she wore the blank face she’d had accepting Henry’s judgment at the table. If not for her slow blink, she’d have been a store-window mannequin.
Alice scrutinized Emma for a shift from potential energy to kinetic. A sign of irritation. Of frustration or resentment at being silenced. But it didn’t come. Maybe Emma didn’t feel she’d been treated like a child. Or was accustomed to it. Or had the good sense to recall she was a guest in Henry’s home. Or maybe Alice didn’t know her well enough to know what the hell went on in her head. Dammit. She’d tie herself in knots trying to figure it out.
“Yes, thank you, Henry.” Emma straightened. “I’m…tired. A bit of sleep will set me to rights again.”
Refinement. Poise. Emma had it in spades. She accepted Henry’s reproach without complaint. Took the excuse he offered her with grace.
She’s a better submissive than I am.
Alice resettled her shoulders, channeling Jay’s clinginess, wishing she had Henry to herself right now.
Henry cupped Alice’s head and kissed her cheek, his forehead warm against hers. “A moment, sweet girl,” he murmured. He stood, leaving her on the couch alone. “Of course, Em. I’ll walk you out.”
Jay brought the light dress coat over while Henry helped Emma to her feet. Henry accepted the coat, thanking Jay, and held it open. Polite words rolled off Emma’s tongue, thank-yous for the lovely dinner and the gracious host and the opportunity to spend time getting to know Jay and Alice better. She turned her back and allowed Henry to slide the coat up her arms and onto her shoulders. He didn’t button it for her. Emma didn’t reach for the buttons herself, either.
He might do it for her downstairs. Where their interaction wouldn’t be seen.
Ugh. Her jealousy was unworthy of her and them. He wasn’t having an affair with this woman. The hour was late, and although the guest parking area was well-lit, he wouldn’t send his guest out alone. Couldn’t, not and still consider himself a gentleman. She didn’t understand what they were to each other, but he wouldn’t hide an affair.
Ex-lover, though, that was possible.
* * * *
Jay closed the door behind Henry and Emma. Turning, he cocked his head like a puppy trying to understand a new command. “You’re thinking.”
“Huh?” The dishes hadn’t been taken care of yet. Jay had cleared, but he hadn’t rinsed them or loaded the dishwasher. She could do that now.
“You’re thinking something.”
“Not really.” Yes really. All sorts of things. None remotely worth mentioning to Jay.
He followed her into the kitchen. “Yes, you are.” He nudged her with his hip as she opened the dishwasher. “What’d you think?”
“Think?” Why had he chosen now to be perceptive? If he could tell, Henry would know in an instant. “I think—” She’d better not be thinking when he returned. “She’s very—”
Get it out and let it go.
Jay slouched against the counter, facing her as she rinsed salad plates. “Funny, you don’t sound catty when you say that, so I know you don’t mean old.”
“She’s elegant.” She kept moving under his stare. Loading dishes. “Poised. Refined.” They could have the place cleaned by the time Henry came back. “Very, umm…”
“Art crowd. Upper crust.”
“Yeah.” And now Ms. Upper Crust had Henry downstairs spending time with her. Talking about things Henry liked. Things they both liked. Things she didn’t even know Henry liked.
Jay slid closer, boxing her in with his body, the sink, and the dishwasher rack. Leaning his head against hers, he kissed her cheek. “I used to think it, too, you know.”
She set the glass down. Jay couldn’t really read her mind. She traced the edge of the hammered copper sink apron. “You did?”
“I was a massive bundle of insecurities, and for months I couldn’t have sex without panicking, and my hobbies were nothing like Henry’s. Of course I did.” Wrapping his arm around her back, he pressed her toward him. “You’re thinking, ‘What does he see in me? What if I’m not good enough for him? He could have all that class and sophistication if he snapped his fingers, and I’m just