Authors: M.Q. Barber
Tags: #Romance, #Erotic, #978-1-61650-533-2, #BDSM, #Menage
The conversation meandered down lighter paths, the main course served and lauded.
Irritation itched at her shoulder blades. Henry wasn’t Emma’s dominant. Whatever her training, her years of experience, she didn’t have the right to act as if he was.
A sliver of doubt wedged itself deep. Every last bit of Emma’s perfect, poised, submissive charm and grace revealed Alice’s shortcomings. She’d never be this woman. A woman Henry admired and cared for. A woman brimming with praise for his culinary skills as forks slowed and plates emptied.
“Thank you, Em. It’s always lovely to have one’s efforts appreciated and acknowledged. But you haven’t come to dinner merely to compliment me on the output of my kitchen.”
“I owe you an apology, Henry.” Emma laid her fork down with precision and gazed at each of them in turn. “All three of you, truly.”
“If you feel you must, Em.” Kindness emanated from Henry’s voice, his eyes, even the tilt of his head. “Was there an egregious breach of which I am unaware?”
“You asked me for one thing, Henry, and I failed to manage it. In the past—” Lips pinched in a thin line, she glanced at Alice and Jay. “You’ve never failed me when I needed you. You asked for such a simple thing. I should have been more vigilant. My failure led directly to traumatizing young Jay and leaving poor Alice to cope with a situation far outside her experience. Victor would have been disappointed in me.” She rubbed her necklace like a talisman. “I’m disappointed in myself. I concede your right for recompense in this, Henry, and submit myself to your judgment.”
Alice struggled not to gape, her fork held in nerveless fingers.
Jay, too, had stopped eating.
Judgment. Not forgiveness.
“You believe you deserve punishment for your actions, Em?” Henry slipped into unreadable neutrality, the tone of game nights and safeword demands.
“I believe your Alice suffered a punishment as a direct result of my failure to alert you to Cal’s presence in the club. If you judge I ought to share in that punishment, so be it.”
“Jay.” Henry’s voice was quiet.
Fuck. He wouldn’t play with Emma the way he played with them.
“Yes, Henry.” Jay’s whisper drifted from a trembling lip.
Never send Jay to fetch a flogger or a paddle or whatever implement suited the grievance.
“Do you feel Emma is responsible for the injury you suffered last week?”
“No, Henry.” A sworn vow, Jay fervent and overflowing with feeling. No way was he ready to watch that. No way would Henry make him.
“Do you feel she deserves to be punished for her oversight?”
Jay studied each of them in silence, but his gaze rested on her last and longest. “I think whatever Alice feels is fair is right.” He tapped his fork on the edge of his plate, a chiming metronome in disarray, gaining speed. “Emma thinks she failed us all, and I know I failed you and Alice, and you probably think you failed us, too. But Alice is the only one who got punished.”
Jesus. Did she want him to punish Emma? Was that seriously the question? Ask an eye for an eye when the person truly at fault suffered no punishment. Cal. That fucking jackass and his bully tactics, trying to intimidate Jay, trying to intimidate her, threatening to harm them and—
Henry held out his hand, and she put hers in it, letting his touch calm her.
“I don’t blame Emma.” Trust. Understanding. The sexual exclusivity their contract demanded wouldn’t prevent Henry from disciplining another player in some other fashion.
“She doesn’t owe me a share of the punishment.” He loved her. He understood the precarious nature of her footing in this new environment. He wouldn’t intentionally slight her.
“What she feels she deserves and what you feel owed are”—she forced the rest of the words out—“are your decisions. I won’t interfere or usurp your right to determine what’s best. But for me, no. The one responsible is Cal. If he were punished, I’d be satisfied.”
The smallest tic jumped in Henry’s cheek as he squeezed her fingers. The flash in his eyes cleared with his blink. “Tell me, Em, where did the failure originate? You took steps, I’m certain, to prevent the outcome that arose.”
“Yes, Henry. Of course. I flagged him in the database. Had he reserved a room or requested special equipment, I’d have been informed well in advance. I investigated his visit log. Saturday nights only. He hadn’t attended on a Friday in more than a year. The door and desk staff knew to inform me if he arrived, a small lie about a matter regarding his membership. I intended to know in an instant and send a runner to warn you.” She shook her head. “But I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there, and by the time I’d heard, you’d already gone.”
“What drew you away, Emma? Some trivial matter, easily handled by another?”
“No, no, not then. Ultimately, yes. One of the patrons had chest pains and slurred speech. His partners caterwauled like children and refused medical assistance. They wouldn’t trust the discretion of the private ambulance service on call. I had to calm the fools before they’d allow him to be moved. Useless. Utterly useless. All the while a true emergency was happening, and I did nothing to stop it. Of no more use to you than those idiots were to their dominant.”
“You took extensive precautions on our behalf, and fate intervened. I might as easily say I should have taken Alice and Jay home sooner. Let their first night on display together be a short one. My own desire to see them enjoy themselves blinded me to the potential difficulty.”
He couldn’t possibly believe those things.
“Or I might have refused them permission to leave my side. Taken them myself. Spent more time training them beforehand.”
What was she thinking? Of course he blamed himself.
“Perhaps my desire to surprise Alice with a night out overrode my sense of caution.” His dispassionate delivery concealed the guilty currents. No telling how deep they ran.
“Shall I go on, Em? We might play this game all night.” Henry tapped the table twice in quick succession. “Or we might accept that what’s done is done, and for all the possible missteps each of us made, the one person whose actions caused this is Cal.”
But Henry would shoulder the responsibility to fix it.
“All other things being equal, his choice to pursue my dear ones, to corner them and verbally assault them, was the choice of a man who cannot control himself. And a man who cannot control his own actions has no business attempting to control others’.”
She’d slept in safety and comfort. He’d spent hours chewing over concerns she’d given no thought to. Repaid his selflessness with selfishness.
“You won’t accept my apology, then?” Emma bowed her head. “Nor punish me for my failure?”
“The latter is unnecessary, Em. Any failure on your part was a single snowflake in an avalanche. His voice, not yours, shouted it down. No, I will not punish you, as I perceive neither negligence nor malice in your actions.” Henry pushed his chair back and stood. “I will, however, accept your apology on behalf of my family.”
He stepped around the corner of the table and touched the pearls at Emma’s throat with two fingers.
Alice bit her tongue and swallowed a pained gasp. If Henry had put collars around her and Jay and another dominant tried to handle them, surely he would’ve taken personal offense. The closeness and trust in Emma’s acceptance of Henry’s touch struck her like a blow.
He used the same fingers to lift Emma’s chin, and she gazed at him with eerie calm. Jay’s acceptance without the joy. A neutral mask. If Henry weren’t the man he was, he could slap Emma across the face right now and she’d thank him. Not the sort of pain Alice enjoyed. Emma seemed more of a masochist, and even she wanted to ban Cal’s brand of sadism. How much of an ass did he have to be for a masochist to find him unappealing?
Henry bent at the waist, the bulk of his body a fair distance from Emma’s, and pressed a closed-mouth kiss to her forehead. “I accept the apology of Victor’s gentle flower, knowing she intended no offense, and grant her forgiveness. The debt is paid.”
Emma sighed, soft and low. “Thank you, sir.”
A ritual. Some kind of ritualized apology, and no she wouldn’t leap across the table and demand Emma not call him
like she had a right to. Because she was the hostess here, and it would be poor manners, and she wasn’t a child, and Jesus Christ it still hurt.
Pink-lipped and pouty, Jay blew her a kiss across his fingertips.
She soaked up the welcome in his deep brown eyes and caught his kiss against her cheek and held it there. Thanked him silently. Her sweet boy. Hers and Henry’s.
Henry straightened and turned from Emma.
Alice hastily lowered her hand.
A flicker of something crossed his face.
“Coffee and dessert, please, Jay. In the living room.” Henry rounded the table with controlled swiftness to reach her side. He held his hand out. “Ladies, if you’ll join me?”
She laid her fingers in his and let him help her to her feet. A formality he didn’t insist upon when they dined alone. Trying to meet Emma’s expectations. Or set Emma at ease with behavior she’d find familiar. The woman crackled with upper crustitude.
But Henry had reached for
hand, though he’d had to leave Emma’s side to come to hers. He gestured Emma in front of him to the living room, where she took the plump formal armchair angled toward the couch.
Henry seated Alice at the end of the couch nearest their guest. He settled beside her, leaving no gap. The warm weight of his hand against her spine pressed her closer.
“Comfortable, sweet girl?” he rumbled in her ear.
Never more so than in his arms. “Very.”
Realization dawned. Henry intended his possessive behavior as a lesson for
Emma already knew who held Henry’s heart. Across the coffee table, she tucked unknowable thoughts behind a wistful smile.
“Perhaps you’d care to choose a topic for conversation, Emma?” Henry leaned against the cushion and wrapped his arm around Alice’s back, squeezing her hip.
“You’ve already accepted my apology, Henry. I may have exhausted my conversation starters for the evening.” Emma sat as straight as she had at the table, her legs neatly together.
“Em.” Henry chided with familiar firmness. “We both know you’ve more than an apology on your mind.”
Jay knelt beside the coffee table and set the tray down. Henry hadn’t made a complex dessert but a variety of bite-size pieces. Fancy little cakes, she and Jay had dubbed them. Petits fours, he’d insisted.
“You’ve always been good at that, Henry.” Emma accepted the coffee Jay offered with quiet thanks. “What gave me away this time?”
“You haven’t relaxed, Em. If the apology were all that weighed on you, forgiveness would have been enough. And you would have set the stage for it with flowers or a fruit basket earlier in the week.” Turning, Henry addressed Jay. “No, thank you, my boy. You’ve provided lovely service this evening. Come join us on the sofa, hmm?”
Jay popped one of the little cakes in his mouth and sat beside Henry. He squirmed, his body straight and tense, as unsure of his place as she’d been of hers all night. He’d probably rather be snug in his waiting pose at Henry’s feet.
Henry studied Emma. “You learned something more recently—last night, perhaps?—that affects us.”
If he’d tensed, Alice would’ve followed suit. But he rolled his shoulders, settling comfortably against the back of the couch and rubbing his hand over her hip.
Relax. Henry’s not worried.
“So, Emma, tell me,” he continued, his voice casual. “How did the board meeting turn out? Was there a challenge?”
Jay stiffened, a rabbit in a hawk’s shadow.
Henry touched his shoulder. “Lie down, my dear boy.” He patted his thigh. “Head here, please.”
The younger man settled on his side in a loose fetal position, his head in Henry’s lap. He draped a hand over Henry’s knee, fingers moving in a steady pattern of gentle squeezes.
Alice ruffled his hair, and he let out a quiet hum.
“You’re good, Henry.” Emma sipped her coffee. “But this time you’re not quite on target.”
“Cal didn’t object? I admit, I’m surprised. I expected he would attempt to bring a complaint over what he perceives as an inadequate level of punishment.”
If he’d expected a problem, why the hell hadn’t he mentioned it to her and Jay?
Because he’s the dominant and you’re the submissives, Allie-girl.
This was part of it, and she’d have to get used to it. Sometimes she’d be insulated. Sometimes he’d worry and wouldn’t say a word until and unless the trouble directly affected her.
I don’t like that.
As his partner, she had to be allowed to support him and share his burdens.
Emma clinked the saucer as she set her cup down. “He didn’t have the standing, not after last week.”
The startled reflex in Henry’s muscles didn’t sound in his tone. “I know the board wouldn’t have revoked his privileges for being an ass, Emma. You haven’t the votes, and his behavior has been overlooked before.”
“Not revoked, no. But suspended.” The glee on Emma’s face matched Alice’s at the idea of cutting off Cal’s balls and feeding them to him. “For fighting.”
“Fighting?” Henry frowned. “It’s unlike him to be baited into blatantly violating the rules.” He stroked Jay with a light touch along a smooth cheekbone. “He’s more likely to take out his frustrations on the defenseless in private.”
In the chaos of the night at the club, the image she’d seen over Jay’s shoulder as Henry shepherded them out had stuck with her. The one question she needed answered tumbled free. “Is Santa okay?”
Henry whipped his head around and studied her with a look not unlike the shrewd one on Emma’s face. Approval and a whiff of admiration, if she hadn’t imagined it.
“William really does earn the nickname, doesn’t he?” Emma’s smile might have reflected her affection for William or her enjoyment of teasing Henry by withholding the answer. “I keep telling him he ought to shave, but—”
“Em, delightful as it is to see you bonding with Alice, I would greatly appreciate an answer to her question
you enumerate Will’s various charms.”