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Authors: Evanne Lorraine

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The pungent aroma of expensive tobacco hit him a half a
second before Tiana flinched. The sodium pressure security lights illuminated
the parking lot, but left plenty of shadows. He caught the telltale red glow of
a cigar.

Travis Gregg, his ex-sub’s big brother uncoiled from where
he’d been leaning against Liam’s SUV. He removed the stogie, holding it between
his thumb, index and middle fingers. The smoke stayed close to his mouth. “Been
waiting to talk to you.”

“Another time.” Liam took another step toward Tiana’s truck.

“Fine, run away and hide. Beating up women is a lot easier
than facing someone who can hit back.”

Liam tucked Tiana behind him. “Not that it’s any of your
business, but I did nothing to your sister that wasn’t entirely consensual.”

The red tip of his cigar glowed when Travis took a puff. He
blew out a smoke ring. “Says you.”

“Ask her.”

“She’s too damn loyal to say shit.”

Liam widened the distance between them by a stride, putting
Tiana farther away from the potential menace.

“I see you’ve already found another victim. Since you don’t
have a sister for me to fuck up maybe I should get to know your new slave.”
Travis looked past him, leering at Tiana. The second he got an eyeful of her,
his voice lowered and his expression softened. “You like it rough, beautiful? I
have a single tail eager to get to know you real close and personal.”

Tiana’s small nails scraped Liam’s back as she fisted his
shirt, but she didn’t scream or run.

The hothead wanted to make an issue with him, fine. Bringing
Tiana into it crossed the line. Liam widened his stance, keeping his arms loose
and ready. “This is between you and me, pal. Leave the lady out of it.”

Security cruised toward them.

Travis ambled toward his Escalade with a sneer. “Catch you
later, Sterling.”

“Friend of yours, Sir?” Tiana sounded almost calm.

Liam caught the waver in her voice and saw red. He tried to
maintain a casual tone and failed. “Brother of an ex.”

“Ah, that explains his, uh, confrontational attitude,
Master.”

Liam opened the driver’s door and gave her an unneeded
boost. “Don’t worry about him. He’s all bark and no bite, plus I’m following
you home.”

After he made sure she’d buckled up, he closed the door and
sprinted to his rig. Travis’ taillights were already moving down the drive.

Liam stayed a couple of car lengths behind Tiana on the
county road that took them back to the freeway. Keeping up with her wasn’t a
problem. She drove carefully, slowing down for curves and signaling well ahead
of each turn.

Once on I-90 she accelerated to a law-abiding sixty and kept
it there until they slowed for the off ramp to Issaquah. The one traffic light
they sailed through stayed obligingly green. A few miles later, Tiana braked
lightly and turned on her right blinker for three hundred feet.

Liam followed her into an apartment complex with the gate
propped in the open position. They wound deeper into the blocks of identical
townhouses separated by pools of lawn and bordered by long carports. Most of
the units were already dark, the parking spaces filled with vacant vehicles.

She pulled into the end slot of parked cars. He stopped
behind her rig and met her as she climbed down.

“Thanks for seeing me home.” She waved to the south,
jingling her key ring. “I’m right there, Sir.”

He ignored the implied dismissal and guided her across the
pavement. “Away from the club, as long as we’re not getting busy, I answer to
Liam.”

“All right, S—Liam.”

“You have a view of the lake.”

“One of them. There’re several inside the complex.” She
unlocked the front door and turned toward him.

He stayed one step below her, bringing them level. He pulled
Tiana tight against him and cupped her head to keep her right where he wanted
her. Her slender curves fit him almost too perfectly.

Her hands clutched his shoulders and her lips parted on a
small, wanting cry. He plundered her silken mouth, stealing her breath and
giving her his.

She softened for him, melting against him, opening wider
while their tongues danced and he swallowed the delicious taste of her
submission. He wanted to take her home and keep her safe, but neither of them
was ready for that kind of commitment. So he’d settle for her phone number.

Reluctantly, he ended the kiss. “Put your number in here.”
Liam held out his cell. “Give me your phone and I’ll program in my numbers.”

“All right.” She accepted his phone and handed over hers.
Her focus moved to his cell. She gave a happy squeal. “Where did you find this
photo?”

He glanced at the dragonfly he’d caught hovering over a
lotus blossom. “Took it yesterday down by the lake.”

“Where’s this lake?”

“My place.” Her eagerness meant he’d made progress in spite
of the incident with Travis. He bit back a grin, took care of the number
exchange, handed back her smartphone and tucked his away. “I’d love to show you
the ranch someday.”

She gifted him with a dazzling smile. “I’d love to see it.”

“Maybe this weekend.”

The brilliant smile drooped and her eyes clouded with
regret. “I’m moving. Saturday is my last day here. Most of my furniture has
already left.”

“Where are you moving to?”

“Sterling Falls. It’s a small town, population 3,627 until
Friday when I become official resident 3,628.”

Warmth spread through his chest. “I know the town. I live
there. Technically, I’m outside the city limits, but I’m fairly sure they count
me a citizen.” Liam ran through the few unoccupied houses in his mind and
asked, “Did you buy Tilly’s farm?”

Her eyes widened. “She left it to me.”

“I live about a mile up the road from you. We’re neighbors.”

She dropped her lashes and nibbled her lower lip. “This is
awkward.”

“Why?”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I need to keep my
vanilla life separate from my bent side. I’d like our acquaintance to stay
private.”

Perfectly understandable and a damn smart choice. Her polite
request, and being categorized as an acquaintance, still rankled. This was the
perfect chance to agree and to explain how Ashley had burned him. After he
released her she’d told the half of the town willing to listen he was a bastard
who liked to hurt women for fun.

Moonlight shimmered on Tiana’s beautiful face and he ignored
the full-disclosure opportunity. He lifted her chin, forcing her to meet his
gaze, and feathered a kiss across her lips. “The lake isn’t going anywhere.
We’ll do it another time. Are you going to the club tomorrow night?”

“Yes, but I won’t be able to get there until nine.” She
worried her lower lip.

“I don’t want you driving alone. I’ll pick you up a quarter
before nine.”

“All right. I better get inside, big day tomorrow.”

He kept his hold on her waist. “What all are you doing
tomorrow?”

“I need to call my insurance company about the truck. The
sheriff’s office is sending some to inspect the damage. Plus there’s final
inspection of the house, coordinating with the movers and packing a couple of
millions things,” she rattled off her list.

“By yourself?”

She gave him a sliver of her earlier smile. “No, I have lots
of help, but I still need to be on hand.”

“I don’t want you driving around on your own.”

She squeezed his arm. “I was shaken up earlier and I
appreciate you helping me. But I’m certain the creep who rammed me was some
random jerk with anger issues.”

“Random jerks can be dangerous to your health.”

“You’re right. Please don’t worry about me. Rob, my brother
is picking me up at o-dark-thirty for the inspection appointment. He’s
over-the-top protective. You would like him.”

Liam’s mouth quirked at her breezy explanation. “Good. Lock
yourself in and get some rest.”

She leaned in and brushed her lips against his. “Yes,
S—Liam.”

Her innocent kiss took him by surprise and played havoc with
his head. Before he reacted she was inside and the lock snicked home. He stood
there for a long moment, breathing in the cool night air and savoring the
delicious hint of willing woman.

In the near distance a car door slammed and a motor revved
to life. Tires squealed too loud and clear in the quiet community. Angry
teenager or pissed-off lover were the most logical suspects, but no apartment
doors had slammed ahead of time to announce the angry departure.

Instinct sent him strolling around Tiana’s unit. Four patios
were separated by angled architecture and privacy landscaping. A lawn sloped to
the lake, connecting each private backyard into a common area. Paved paths
joined and followed the water’s edge. An occasional bench dotted the short
grass. A whiff of cigar smoke drifted past.

Liam searched for the nearby smoker indulging in his stogie.
There was no one around. The tobacco scent faded. Senses on high alert, Liam
retraced his steps. The distinctive odor was faint but most definite on Tiana’s
postage stamp-sized patio.

He pulled out his keys and twisted on the penlight. A fat
cigar butt with a fancy label lay on the dewy lawn. He used his hanky to pick
up the chewed end. The ash fell away when he moved it. The cigar was still
warm. The narrow beam picked up a trail of bent grass besides his. The
tailgater, the soggy butt and the squealing tires from a few minutes ago wove
into something menacing and not at all random.

Liam pocketed the dead smoke, turned off the small
flashlight and headed for his ride. He thought about warning Tiana, but the
lights in her apartment went off. No point in scaring her over suspicions.

He didn’t have any proof Travis had managed to trail them or
that she’d picked up a stalker. He could’ve called for backup, but there were
only a few hours ’til daylight. He wasn’t leaving. He found an oversized
parking space cattycorner for the SUV and settled down to keep watch. Hours
ticked by with only occasional arrivals and departures and one cat serenade to
break the peace. The sky started to lighten a little after five. By six the sun
had peeked over the horizon, the summer heat warmed the air and dried the dew.

A trickle of early-morning joggers stretched and headed
around the lake, commuters juggled bags, phones and coffee while opening their
cars.

The King County cruiser that parked behind Tiana’s truck
drew plenty of casual attention from her neighbors. A deputy climbed out of the
vehicle and inspected the rear of Tiana’s rig while entering data.

Within a minute, Tiana joined the officer, apparently
discussing last night’s hit and run. The deputy tore off a page from a multipart
form and gave it to her.

Shortly after the deputy left an extended-cab pickup rolled
to a stop in front Tiana’s place. A thirty-something man climbed out of the
truck—blond, tanned and solid. Liam guessed him around six four, two fifty,
damn little of it fat. Jeans, a gray t-shirt and steel-toed shit-kickers
covered his beefy frame. No obvious family resemblance, but he figured this was
the brother.

The door swung open half a second after beefy-boy knocked.
Tiana gave him a hug and relocked the door, stuffing her keys into a hot-pink
bag with enough room leftover for ID and lipstick. Liam watched her walk away,
appreciating the way her faded jeans cupped her adorable butt as her long legs
kept pace with her bigger brother and her ponytail swayed.

He wasn’t anxious to meet her brother or explain what the
hell he was doing in her parking lot, so he slumped down in his seat and tilted
his hat to hide his face. He waited for five minutes after they left the
complex before heading for coffee and to drop off the cigar butt he’d pocketed
with Jacques, his chief of security.

Chapter Four

 

Tiana stretched and covered a yawn. She had another long day
ahead tomorrow. Finally she was moving to Sterling Falls. The last trip would
include the things she didn’t trust to movers—a box of crucial household items,
her overnight case and Nana’s clock. She had a rental car, since her truck had
been vandalized while she was gone today and was in the shop.

As tired as she was from a restless night and a full day, she
never considered cancelling her date with Liam. He called to parts of her she’d
thought permanently frozen. More importantly, he only scared her once in a
while. The combination of excitement and mostly trust made him a rare Master,
one she hoped to know better.

She patted concealer under her eyes to hide the shadows,
swiped on lip balm and checked the time—a minute shy of quarter to nine. Her
experience with alpha males had taught her they usually valued promptness. She
grabbed her purse and hurried downstairs. The doorbell rang as Nana’s windup
mantel clock chimed.

“Right on time.” She smiled brightly at the tall serving of
manly goodness on her doorstep.

Her imagination hadn’t exaggerated Liam’s rough appeal. He
had the tall, dark and Dominant thing going full blast. Tonight he wore
summer-weight, gray wool trousers and a white-on-white striped dress shirt.
He’d rolled the sleeves, exposing corded, tanned forearms that drew her eye and
made her very conscious of his masculine strength. His shirt collar was open,
revealing an intimate peek of curly black chest hair. The dazzling white
stripes emphasized his bronze neck and white teeth. The same supple black belt
he’d worn last night threaded around his narrow waist. His clothes were
expensive, but standard business dress elevated to smoking hot by his sculpted
body. Although she hadn’t seen him naked, she was totally certain he wouldn’t
disappoint.

“Ready to go?”

“Yes.” She tensed, expecting him to push to come inside and
readied her explanation the apartment was in shambles from packing—completely
true. He surprised her by waiting politely for her to lock up then steering her
to where he’d parked. He hadn’t bullied her for an invitation last night
either. His palm at the small of her back felt warm—reassuring. She darted a
peek at him.

His dark eyes seemed to see right through her efforts to
look reasonably rested. “How are you?”

Something in his tone compelled her to candor. “A little
tired.”

“Tough day, huh? What did you have for dinner?”

“I had a late lunch.” Her stomach picked that moment to
growl in protest.

“Uh-huh, I’m going to feed you.”

She’d expected him to ask about the day she preferred not to
discuss. His easy acceptance disconcerted her. She smoothed the cobalt sheath
that concealed an ice-blue corset. The stays around her waist gave her the
instant reassurance of their perfectly controlled restraint. “Are you hungry
too?”

“Always.”

She understood he probably wasn’t talking strictly about
food, but she didn’t try to flirt back. The warmth of his palm lingered just
above her butt, giving her the confidence not to try to entertain him. She
relaxed a little bit more. She was almost sorry when he opened the passenger
door for her.

The distance between the ground and his ride’s cab was
greater than her narrow skirt permitted. She started to inch the hem up her
thighs, but Liam lifted her as if she weighed nothing and set her on the bucket
seat. “Thank you.”

He tugged lightly on the ruffle flaring from her waist.
“What do you call this style?”

“A peplum.” She swallowed to keep from adding the automatic
“Sir”.

“Pretty.” His white teeth flashed in a quick grin. His
approval warmed all her cold, empty places.

“Do you like sushi?”

“Yes. Very much.” Japanese food was one of the few options
she could enjoy while laced in the rigid corset. Not many men were so
perceptive about her needs. His thoughtfulness surprised her in a very nice
way.

Liam pulled out glasses with heavy black frames from a case
clipped to his visor and slipped them over his ears.

She thought they made him look like an intellectual sex god.
“I didn’t know you wore glasses.”

“Just to drive.”

Had she imagined the hint of defensiveness in his tone?

He drove with the same easy competence he seemed to do
everything. Tiana found herself comparing the natural confidence that was as
much a part of him as his smooth bronze skin with Richard’s constant stream of
criticism and demands. Her ex had been quick to blame her imperfect submission
for any and every disappointment—even hers.

The truly sad part of their sick relationship was she’d
accepted his verbal abuse for so long. She excused his cruelty as part of his
dominance, as her failure to satisfy him, as pressure from his job. She’d made
a thousand rationalizations while his anger and cruelty escalated. Unwilling to
believe he was just plain mean, she’d tried harder to please him. The two of
them had been locked into a sick game with increasingly violent consequences.
Never
again
.

Healthy D/s relationships were consensual and pleasurable
for both parties. Submissive didn’t mean doormat and she was so done playing
the victim. Each day, each obstacle overcome, made her stronger and gave her
more courage to own her choices—her life.

After her brother Rob had dropped her off at the apartment
she’d planned to take the truck to the body shop her insurance agent
recommended for an estimate. Instead she’d had to call the company again. This
time to report the truck’s smashed headlights and broken windows. Her agent
suggested having the truck towed to the dealer for a thorough check to be
certain there was no hidden vandalism. The damage made her angry, but nothing,
especially not some sick jerk with a bad case of truck envy, was going to make
her slip back into victim mode.

Determined to avoid casting herself in the distressed damsel
role, Tiana didn’t give Liam a chance to ask about her rotten day. She asked,
“What do you do?”

“Pamper a bunch of hayburners and ride herd on a couple of
brothers. Now and then I work—try to make a little money.”

He made it sound as if he were an itinerant ranch hand. His
ripped build made a life of hard work plausible, but she didn’t buy it. Cowboys
didn’t wear custom-made shirts and they couldn’t afford the Crucible’s dues.
Since she was more interested in his horses, she didn’t bother following up on
his business ventures.

“You keep horses?” She straightened her spine, fatigue and
her troubles dismissed.

“Several. You looking for a spoiled filly or two?”

“Not yet. The stable isn’t done.”

“Just as well, I’d have to put up with a lot whining from
the brats if I sold them.” He turned onto a busy arterial, merging smoothly
with the evening traffic.

“How old are your brothers?”

Liam checked his mirrors. “Kyle is twenty-four and a career
college student. Ben enlisted in the Marines and hasn’t been kicked out, so
far. Cam is getting set to follow in Kyle’s footsteps. He leaves for Berkeley
tomorrow.”

“Are your parents upset about having an empty nest?”

The skin at his temples tightened. “They’re dead.”

“I’m so sorry.” She blinked away tears for his loss.
Something
we have in common.

He clicked on the left turn signal, checked his blind spot
and pulled into the vacant middle lane. “Old news.”

“Some wounds remain tender for a long time. My mother died
when I was a kid and my dad passed three years ago.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. Time helps, but you’re right, the
pain never completely leaves. My folks died in a private plane crash almost
fifteen years ago. I still miss them.”

“You must have been very young.”

“Close to eighteen.”

“Who took care of you and your brothers?”

“I did—with a lot of help.” He leaned back, casually
increasing the distance between them.

“Even with help, it must have been hard. Seventeen is very
young to become an instant father.”

“Practically eighteen,” he corrected her with a flash of a
cocky grin. “It wasn’t all that bad, besides, the brats are my brothers. What
else could I do?”

Since he didn’t seem to expect an answer she kept quiet. No
matter what he said the loss of both parents would have been utterly
devastating. Her heart ached for the boy who had taken on a man’s job.

“Truth is I was a basket case for a couple of years. I
promised myself I would never depend on another person again.” His jaw hardened
as he watched the road. “I’ve never told anyone how lost and scared I felt.”

His admission caught her by surprise. She squeezed his thigh
and he covered her hand with one of his. Oddly there was nothing sexual in her
touch or his response, yet he’d burrowed right into her heart.

The intimate moment ended when Liam pulled into a parking
space in front of a one-story, white stucco building. Bold black lettering over
the door proclaimed,
Bakauma Sushi
. Below the heavy print was a
translation—very tasty sushi.

Instead of heading for Bellevue as she’d expected, Liam had
surprised her again. He’d brought her to a small mama-san, papa-san restaurant
across the arterial from a neighborhood strip mall.

Tiana felt him watching her and made herself meet his laser
gaze.

“Tell me about your rough day,” he demanded in his
nonnegotiable Master voice.

“I never said—”

He lowered his glasses, peering at her over the top of the
heavy frames. “Don’t lie to me. I don’t like it and I will always know. I
explained last night your Master needs to understand what is happening in your
life. No one else can tell me what’s going on in your head.”

She’d always wanted a Dom who truly understood her needs and
fears. Liam was exactly that kind of Master.

What she’d failed to consider was how much she hated anyone,
especially the man who made her insides flutter, examining her squishy spots
and ugly scars. The last thing she wanted to admit was being a walking trouble
magnet. But she was a pathetic liar, so she muttered, “Some nutcase vandalized
my truck while I was gone today.”

Liam continued to watch her with the same scary intensity.
He didn’t say a word.

Anxious to downplay the bad news, she lightened her tone. “I
should have bought a rust bucket. There’s nothing like buying a shiny new ride
to attract sickos, right?”

“Wrong. You’re working so hard at avoiding playing the
victim you’re minimizing a real threat. Beautiful women attract a variety of
men—some angry and dangerous. Their bad behavior is not your fault.”

Liam didn’t pull his punches.

She wanted to wince, because he was right. She was
overcompensating for having been Richard’s target for much too long. She’d
internalized her ex’s demoralizing commentary. After almost two years she still
caught herself listening to the steady stream of criticism in a dead man’s
snarky voice. The tailgater and the vandalism had triggered an old coping
method—pretending nothing was wrong. Her voice sank. “I do know, but sometimes
I forget.”

“Everyone does.” He gave her arm a tender caress. “We all
do. Last night I took a little stroll around your unit and found a cigar butt
by your patio. I don’t think the tailgater or the vandalism were random acts.”

Her lips parted, but nothing came out. The pretty corset
seemed to have shrunk to steel bands constricting her lungs. She couldn’t
breathe. Her vision started to gray around the edges.

Liam turned to her, unzipped her dress and loosened her
laces faster than she could have managed even if she hadn’t been
hyperventilating. “Breathe with me. In…out…in… That’s my brave pet, nice and
slow.”

He rubbed reassuring circles on her back while she caught
her breath.

Liam’s mention of the cigar had sent her into the
helplessness of a panic attack. Lots of men smoked, including the angry brother
of Liam’s ex. Stupid for her to let old memories of a dead man’s abuse or a
still-breathing nutcase ruin her evening. She forced away the last of the
chest-clenching fear.

“Thank you. I’m always thanking you, aren’t I?”

“I’m not tired of hearing it.” He redid her corset and
zipped the sheath. “Time for green tea and sushi.”

Her stomach rumbled in agreement. Liam helped her out of his
vehicle, steered her to the restaurant and held the door.

She stopped just inside and they both left their shoes in
the entry. Her mood lightened at the immaculate charm of the small eatery.

A smiling waiter ushered them into a private room and poured
them small bowls of hot cha. A low, lacquered table took up most of the space.
Liam gestured for her to sit on a large cushion. She folded her legs underneath
her and sat on her heels, grateful for her skinny legs and enough flexibility
to make the position comfortable, at least as comfortable as possible for a
woman cinched into fetish wear.

He sat cross-legged. His position pulled the lightweight
slacks taut over thickly muscled thighs, emphasizing his impressive package. “I
recommend the California roll, unless you’re feeling adventurous.”

“What do you recommend for thrill-seekers?” she teased.

His grin flashed again, making him look younger and even
sexier. “Me or you could try the omakase.”

“What’s that?”

“Here it’s a mixed platter of sushi and sashimi—literally
chef’s choice.”

“I’ll stick with a California roll for now.” She boldly
fluttered her lashes to signal she’d caught his first suggestion—to sample him.
Her cheeks warmed as she pictured where she would start nibbling.

The waiter reappeared and Liam gave him their order. When
they were alone, he turned his focus back to her. “I’d love to know what
thought caused your pretty blush, but you need to drink your tea.”

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