Authors: Anya Howard
For Robert Perry, my husband, true love, and best friend.
Thank you for your everlasting encouragement and inspiration.
This novel is published with great appreciation to several unforgettable people. Author & friend, Devyn Quinn, who believed in this story and my writing. My good friends and colleagues of Wild AuthorsâAnnmarie Ortega, Devyn Quinn, Marianne LaCroix, Stephanie Kelsey, Adrienne Kama, Sara Reinke, and Tyler Blackwood. I also wish to extend my gratitude to faithful friend and proofreader, Claudia McRay.
artly out of habit, partly out of need, Bruce Wolff dug into the long pocket of his robe and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lighter. Putting one between his lips and lighting it, he glanced over at the coffeepot. He'd not even started brewing that yet. Any other day he'd have made a pot before even lighting the first cigarette. He knew he must be depressed; his routine was never screwed up like this. And he knew already he was going to take a day of sick leave from work. Just the thought of having to go in and babysit the convicts on his block chafed. Pervs and murderers, all of them, their needs and wants taken care of by the taxpayers. He hated listening to their complaints, threats, and nonsense.
Bruce sighed and turned to look for an ashtray. There was one on the dishwasher and he picked it up and carried it to the den, where he sat down in the recliner. He knew he should probably eat, too; he'd lost his appetite last night when he'd realized Gillian wasn't going to show. But he couldn't eat or even worry about the coffee. He could think of nothing but her.
The thing was, they were worlds apart. She was an artist, supporting herself with a gig as a night waitress, a job she hated. Fair enough. Slinging hash and refilling coffee cups for truckers wasn't fun. No wonder she longed to escape into a fantasy worldâand she'd given him a glimpse of it in her sketchbooks.
He'd never seen drawings like that. Not remotely based on real life, of course. She'd created an imaginary realm peopled with devotees of BDSM. But it was discipline with a magical difference. Women out of his wildest dreams, costumed for bondage, made to obey by dominants that were sometimes male, sometimes female, and sometimes not human at all.
And he'd had to go and ask her if she had a secret life on the side. She'd taken her time to answer while he was thinking up about a hundred ways to chastise her naked ass. And then she hadn't said a thing.
Scared off any chance I had,
he thought bitterly.
A pang of remorse swelled in his chest. For the first time in many years Bruce felt close to tears, and pressed his thumbs to the corners of his eyes until the sensation passed.
“Jesus,” he groaned. “I'm going to be alone forever.”
The house seemed to echo in agreeing silence. Bruce closed his eyes and deliberately tried to think of other women he knew, fresh conquests that awaited him. The world is full of women, he told himself; appreciative women, women not so young and strange as Gillian Nordstrom.
His thoughts were interrupted by a rap on the door in the kitchen. Bruce's breath caught in his chest, and he listened to make sure it wasn't just the wind banging the screen. The rap came again, a definite knock made by someone at the door. Bruce rose to his feet and strode swiftly into the kitchen.
He drew back the little shade on the door window and was disappointed to see a guy standing on the stoop. He wore a long gray coat, unbuttoned, and a black ensemble of trousers and sweater. Not old, not young. Bruce figured he was one of those fire-and-brimstone types, the kind that made it their habit to tout their religion door to door. Easy enough to get rid of.
Opening the door, he squinted at the dude and cleared his throat. “What do you want?”
He expected the usual invitation to be saved. Too late for that. Way too late, pal, he wanted to say. But the guy smiled gently and said, “Hello, Bruce. I would like to speak to you about the women.”
Bruce shook his head, uncertain he'd heard clearly. “Women?”
The stranger glanced around. “It's cold out here. May I come in?”
Bruce crossed his arms and glared at the stranger. “What did you mean, the women? Who are you? Are you selling something?”
A soft pale glow came over the stranger's features. There was something strangely calming in his soft brown eyes; something that eased a little of Bruce's wariness.
“I do not come to sell you religion,” the stranger said. “Or to sell anything else. My name is Sethlucius and I come to show you a way outâ”
The hair on the back of Bruce's neck stood up. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“If you'll allow me a few minutes' conversation, you will understand. I know you are dissatisfied with your work and lifeâ¦and how very distressed you are by what has happened with Gillian Nordstrom.”
That wasn't public information. Unless she'd blogged about it. Bruce grew impatient, and his voice was fierce. “Are you a friend of Gillian's?”
Sethlucius exhaled slowly, a dulcet sound in the quiet winter air. “I know of Gillian, but she's not the reason I am here. You are virile and strong-willed and have more insight about the spiritual nature of passion than you realize. Because of your qualifications, I've been sent, as I tried to say, to show you a way out of the numb existence you call reality.”
Bruce felt more wary than ever. But there was something disconcertingly candid about this Sethlucius, as if the man was reading his own consciousness. For a moment Bruce thought he was dreaming. This couldn't be a real person, nor could this discussion be real. Maybe Gillian's freaky talent for fantasy had changed the way he thought. Whatever. He was spooked.
When Bruce closed his eyes and wished the vision away, he heard the lilt in the man's voice, “And who knows, maybe I can coax you to brew that coffeeâif not for yourself, then as hospitality for a guest?”
Mind reader. Bruce eyed the man for several moments. He wondered if he should go get his gun or call the police. What the hell. He'd play along. Nothing better to do at the moment.
“You said qualifications,” Bruce said at last. “Are you offering me a job?”
Sethlucius nodded. “Yes, as a matter of fact. I am. A job with better benefits than you'll ever find working as a correctional officer here.”
The way he'd said this piqued Bruce's interest a little. “You're looking for a guard, then?”
“Yes, we are.”
Bruce was still hesitant. “Take off the coat and leave it here.”
Sethlucius lifted a bemused brow. But he removed his coat and folded it over the handrail. “You can pat me down if you need.”
Bruce was embarrassed, but he did this, too. And once he was certain the man carried no weapons, he let him inside. The snow was falling heavier now, and the color of the sky had changed to a rich cobalt blue. This shade calmed Bruce somehow, and as he closed the door, he turned toward his strange guest.
His heart nearly stopped when he saw the room had disappeared. The two of them were enclosed by pure iridescent light. Bruce looked back at the door, saw it, too, was gone. Staring at the man, Bruce urged his rational mind to awake his sleeping consciousness and end this walking nightmare.
“It is no nightmare, I assure you,” Sethlucius said. The next moment a white cup appeared in his hand, and Bruce could even smell the bitter aroma of the coffee and see the steam that rose over the rim. “Here, I made it myself.”
Bruce felt his patience flee. “I don't have time for this. I choose to wake up now.”
Sethlucious shrugged. “Drink, Bruce. I think it will prove just how very awake and more importantly, how alert you are now.”
Bruce contemplated the cupâimaginary, surely, but he took it anyway. He raised it, and sipping, his lips were scalded. Sethlucious lifted an eyebrow.
“I should have warned you, it is hot.”
Bruce gulped the beverage, almost savoring the scorching liquid. The deliberate act made him feel he might have some control over this wild vision.
“I want you gone,” he muttered. “Dreams are useless inconveniences.” Suddenly, the thought gave him some hope. Perhaps when he woke up he would find the last several days had all been part of this dream; that Gillian was still in his life, that he still had a chance with her.
Sethlucius's brow furrowed a bit. “That's all you really want, isn't it? But I'm sorry, Bruce, I cannot give you Gillian. You must pursue your own destiny, claim your own right to your satisfactions in life, just as Gillian must find hers.”
The truth of those words tolled in Bruce's heart. Whatever this being was, he knew the situation, and Bruce was too close to cracking to care whether he was real or not. In fact, he hoped this Sethlucius was real; his offer was genuine. All Bruce hoped for was a chance to forget his past mistakes and what could have been. He wanted nothing more than to find a way to escape the despair that threatened to suffocate him altogether.
“Very well,” he said, trying to stifle the desperation in his voice. “Tell me your offer. But first, explain your illusionist's act. I don't appreciate lame tricks.”
Sethlucius blinked, looking startlingly innocent and younger than just a moment before. “I have no tricks, Bruce. What you see is what is.”
Bruce cleared his throat, about to argue that he was no idiot, when he saw two great silhouettes rise from Sethlucius's back. These were shaped like a pair of great wings, and as he stared at them he could see they were covered with plumage, brilliantly, flawlessly white. Bruce was cold with fear, and the coffee cup fell from his hands. Where it landed he didn't know, and his attention was captured by the rosy aura around Sethlucius. The man grew to an extraordinary height. Bruce found himself trembling like a child beneath a countenance radiant with an understanding that what he sensed came not from dreams or hallucinations, or for that matter, anything akin to life as he knew it.
“This mortal delusion has held you long enough,” Sethlucius said. “Come with me, Bruce, to a place where your fulfillment awaits. Where you indeed may know and luxuriate in the man you were meant to be.”
The words sounded surreal to Bruce. Yet despite the voice of prudence that told him to turn his back on this angel-man, Bruce knew that he was not hallucinating.
At length Bruce nodded and gave Sethlucius his answer. “I will go with you.”
The sigh of the breeze through the Smoky Mountain pines was cruelly seductive. It had often tempted Gillian to run to the mountains and disappear there into the lush and wild darkness, to abandon all for the possibility of fulfilling a fantasy she had long cherished in secret.
But she'd never wanted anything more than Bruce Wolff. How could she, however, in good conscience, allow him to get involved with her? She knew she'd never be satisfied with a man who didn't share her BDSM penchants. Bruce, as sexy as he was, was still an officer of the law. She had never been able to trust many people, and when she did she wanted them to know her for what she truly was. The thought of baring her soul to Bruce, just to lose him, was a prospect she wasn't prepared to face. Showing him her sketchbooks had been a mistake.
Tonight on her break, Gillian had escaped to the parking lot. She wanted to try again to shake off the habit of looking around for Bruce while she worked. It was silly and selfish, she knewâbut she still expected him to stride through the doors at any moment, to rally her with one of his jokes and undress her with his smoldering dark eyes.
The need for a cigarette blocked out the woeful mood that the mountains so often stirred in her. She drew her lighter from the pocket of her uniform dress and a cigarette from the pack stuffed deep in the bottom. The first inhale of the cigarette was the first calm breath she had had since coming to work that afternoon. She started smoking only days after starting work as a waitress at Thomas Family Steak House. The cigarettes settled her nerves. Most students at ASU did not smoke except pot, but she found she needed somethingâand preferably something legalâin order to deal with the harpy who actually ran the steak house.
Leaving on a light in the restroom or accidentally ladling an ounce of gravy more than the manager's stingy rules allowed had already cost more than one job. And heaven forbid any female employee eye the manager's husband.
Not that Gillian or any other waitress was interested in that pussy-whipped personage. He was as undesirable as the usual male patrons, whether they were the tight-assed fundamentalists or one of the hippie professors who regularly showed up to satisfy their munchies at the salad bar. Once in a while a good-looking businessman came in for dinner, and sometimes other correctional officers came in while escorting prisoners back and forth between the county jail and their last trek to the state prison.
She thought of Bruce painfully as she drew on the cigarette. Several times over the last few weeks she had asked his fellow officers if they had seen him, and they replied he must have taken an unexpected vacation. She even called the prison once and asked if he was on duty, but of course they were not about to give out information about one of their officers to a nonâfamily member. Countless times she had gone to sleep with potent images of him in her mind. The fantasy of him handcuffing her to the backseat of his vehicle and ravishing her with a bestial and remorseless passion was still with her.
Shooting a look around the lot and seeing no one, she arched her back until her breasts pressed against her uniform. She imagined Bruce's lips skimming over them, his tongue prodding her nipples, his teeth nibbling until they were rosy and sore. Hearing her breath grow rapid, Gillian sighed miserably. Twenty years old, and she had never been with anyone. She was starting to believe there was something wrong with her.