Authors: Maya Banks
He drove to Cattleman’s, a restaurant that was a regular haunt of his group of friends, Ren’s hand tucked securely into his the entire way.
It was a rustic-looking steak house that was a local favorite and the food was actually really good. And today he wanted Ren to relax. Casual environment. Laid back. He didn’t care as long as he got to spend time with her.
He zipped into the parking lot, got out and went around to open Ren’s door. As soon as she was out, he slid his arm around her waist, holding her solidly against him as they walked toward the restaurant entrance.
She flipped her head back, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Then she smiled and it lit up her whole face. “You’re right. It is absolutely beautiful today. I’m so glad I’m not spending it inside working.”
He dropped a kiss on her forehead. “No chance of that. I can’t be away from you for more than a couple of hours.”
They stepped inside and Cole waved to the bartender who jerked his thumb toward the back of the restaurant.
“Ah, good, my table is open,” Cole said as he guided her back.
Ren raised her eyebrows. “Your own table?”
“Well, sort of. I kind of share it with a few friends. Whoever happens to be in gets first dibs. It’s a little quieter. Out of the way and we get excellent service.”
“Sounds like you’re all spoiled,” she said with a grin.
He pulled out a chair for her and smacked her on the ass just before she sat. “You have no room to talk about anyone being spoiled.”
“That’s true,” she acknowledged as he took the seat across from her. “I’m not ashamed to admit I love being spoiled.”
“And I’m not ashamed to admit that I love spoiling you,” he added.
Her face flushed with delight and her eyes lit up. Yeah, it was good
to get her out. He wasn’t entirely certain what had made her so melancholy earlier in the morning, but she seemed to have come around now.
“Now, what would you like to eat?”
She studied the menu and then sent him a soft smile. “You choose. You know what I like.”
He motioned for the waiter and ordered two steaks, medium, two salads and a side order of onion rings. At the mention of the onion rings, Ren’s head popped up and her eyes widened in surprise and then she grinned.
“Oh man, it’s been a long time since I’ve had onion rings. I’m surprised you remember.”
“There isn’t much I’ve forgotten about our time together, Ren,” he said softly. “There were parts I didn’t choose to remember, but being back with you has made me realize just how good we were together.”
She reached across the table to cover his hand with her own and she squeezed, surprising him with the affectionate gesture. “We were, weren’t we?”
He leaned forward, picking up her hand and raising it to his mouth so he could kiss the soft inside of her palm. “And as good as we were then, we’re even better now.”
“If I was having this conversation with anyone else but you, I’d think I’d lost my mind. The idea of even contemplating these things with a man I’ve only been with for a few days is just …Well, it’s crazy.”
He smiled because he understood her befuddlement. “But we haven’t only been together a few days and I’m not just any man.”
She nodded. “Exactly. Still, it just seems so …fast. And maybe too good to be true.”
He chuckled lightly. “Still the straightforward Ren I’ve always known.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know how to be anyone else. Maybe I’ve
tried in the past, but that never seems to work out, you know? I’ve already decided that if I have to be someone else with a man, then I don’t need to be there.”
“And I’ve always maintained you were an extremely intelligent woman. But darling, it’s not too good to be true. It’s good, yes. But it’s real.”
“I know,” she whispered.
“So tell me how you came to be in Houston,” he said as he sat back in his chair. He had a much better view of her now and he liked looking at her. Liked knowing that at least for now she was his. His woman. His possession.
“Lucas,” she said by way of explanation. “We met in Vegas. He has a club here and maintains a residence here.”
Okay maybe that wasn’t the best question but now he’d opened that particular can of worms and hell, the man was a large part of her life and the reason that Ren was sitting in front of Cole now. He couldn’t be ignored even if it was what Cole most wanted.
“Then how’d you end up in Vegas?”
She made a face. “My last relationship. I sound like such a disaster, don’t I? Like I can’t make any decisions on my own and drift from man to man, following wherever they lead.”
The disgust in her voice was heavy and she shook her head even as she spoke.
“I didn’t live in Vegas. I was there with Grant for a pleasure trip.”
“Grant being the asshole you were involved with prior to Lucas,” Cole confirmed.
She nodded. “I met Grant in Los Angeles. I hadn’t been involved seriously with another man in two years. I dated but nothing heavy and definitely nothing that would lead to a full-time dominant submissive relationship.”
Cole sat forward a bit. “Okay, let me ask because now I’m curious. When you say full time. What do you mean exactly?”
She sighed. “I don’t trust easily, which probably sounds like bullshit to you. I probably come across as this naïve moron who trusts any man who seems authoritative in the least.”
“That’s not what I think at all.”
“I’ve had five relationships that I would call full-time, serious relationships where I readily gave up control to a man. Two of the five were you and Lucas. That leaves three in …hmmm …the last nine years since I’ve been with Lucas for the last year. Of the five, I’d say I only fully, unequivocally trusted you and Lucas. I’m not saying the two other than Grant were awful. They weren’t.”
Cole watched her closely, the consternation in her eyes and how fidgety she’d suddenly become. It was apparent she wasn’t comfortable discussing her past, but it was important to him to know what had happened in the ten years after he’d left her.
“But in between those steady relationships, I visited clubs, let off some steam, did a few scenes but I always hated it afterward because it felt so fake and put on.”
He stiffened as he imagined her in some dark ass dungeon club with a bunch of wannabe dudes in way too much leather and wielding whips and chains. Christ. Over his dead body would she ever venture into another one. The mere idea of what could have happened to her set his teeth on edge and made him weak in the knees.
She waved a hand airily. “Anyway, back to Vegas and how I got there. I was living in Los Angeles when I met Grant. I’d had a falling out with my parents after my last relationship because they dropped in unexpectedly to visit me. I lived in Nashville at the time. Let’s just say they saw more than a girl ever wants her parents to see. They were horrified. They called the cops and it was a huge mess to sort out and I was embarrassed as hell. Mom and Dad were mortified. I was mortified.
The guy I was with was pissed because he spent the night at the police station while I explained to the cops that I was in a consensual relationship and I wasn’t being abused.”
“Jesus,” Cole muttered. He could well imagine how that had gone down with her parents.
“I needed a clean break and some distance. Mom and Dad, after their initial horror, were pissed and disapproving and that’s the mild word for it. I was basically told I was unwelcome in their home as long as I chose to live a life of sin and that if I didn’t change my ways, I was going straight to hell.”
“Nice,” Cole bit out.
She shrugged. “You know how they are, Cole. You better than anyone know how set they are in their opinions. The first time they ever saw my tattoo I thought my mom was going to blow a gasket. She actually called and made an appointment to have it removed.”
“Still, that couldn’t have been easy for you even knowing or expecting their condemnation,” he said quietly.
She went silent for a moment. “No, it wasn’t. At first I thought I’d just give them some time. Make a clean break. Let emotions die down and then I’d contact them again.”
“No. I got out to L.A. and I could use the excuse that I was busy or that I was involved with my own life, but the simple truth is I was scared—I’m still scared—that if I contact them again or actually go see them, that I’ll get that door slammed in my face and I’m not sure I could handle that. Thinking or assuming that it’ll happen is far different from the cold reality of seeing it.”
“I understand,” Cole said. “Still, maybe …”
She nodded. “Yeah, I know. I keep saying maybe. Maybe one day. Perhaps one day I will. But then I got involved with Grant and maybe in the back of my mind I thought that they were right about me
because I was so miserable with him and nothing was right about my relationship with him. I just couldn’t face their judgment because a small part of me wondered if they’d been right about me all along and I had sprung from some mutant gene pool.”
Cole scowled, feeling the hot edge of anger tear through him. “And do you still feel that way?”
“No. It’s the way I felt then, but you have to understand I was a wreck and I over-dramatized everything. So to get back to the point of all this, Grant wanted to go out to Vegas for a weekend. I didn’t really want to go anywhere with him but I was still clinging to the idea that I owed him my loyalty and my obedience. I was stupid, but there you have it. I went and it was the worst weekend of my life.”
Cole’s eyebrow went up. He wanted to press. He wanted to know in exacting detail precisely what happened and he didn’t want anything left out. Lucas had covered part of it, but it had been vague. Ren had hinted at the things that Grant had done but Cole wanted hard facts because then he wanted to go kick the ever-loving shit out of the asshole.
“What did he do to you, Ren,” he asked softly.
They were interrupted by the waiter bringing their food. Ren looked relieved, but Cole wasn’t going to let it drop. He was a patient man, and this was key information.
He waited until she’d received her food and the waiter disappeared.
“Ren?” he prompted.
She set her fork down and her lips turned down into an unhappy moue. “This is so embarrassing. It sounds like something out of a frat party instead of a thirty-something man with a reasonable amount of intelligence.”
Cole pursed his lips. “I’d say you’re being generous on the intelligence factor, but continue.”
“He wanted to demonstrate his authority over me in a very public way. He was cruel and he humiliated me at every turn. If that wasn’t
enough, he also wanted to have a veritable orgy in his hotel room. An orgy he wanted me to participate in. I’m as kinky as the next person but my tastes just don’t run to women. He fucked their brains out but I had no desire to join in. All the while he taunted me with how much of a woman they were and how much better they were at following instructions, blah blah. Well duh, he was paying them a hell of a lot of money.”
“Son of a bitch,” Cole bit out. “Did he hurt you, Ren? Physically, I mean?”
She shook her head. “I can take care of myself, though that’s probably hard for you to believe. I was appalled at myself for putting up with his shit for as long as I did. I don’t even know why I did. He was there, he was comfortable—for a while—and I didn’t feel quite so alone when I was with him. At first anyway. After a while I think I felt even lonelier when I was with him simply because I knew the relationship was a disaster.”
She waved her hand again and shook her head. “Anyway, to make a long story short, I packed my shit and got my own hotel room. The next night I went to a club because I love music and I love to dance and I just wanted to lose myself for a while. I didn’t want to have to think or feel. The very last thing I wanted was to hook up with another guy, but I met Lucas and I’m still not sure what happened exactly. He took me home with him and I’ve been with him ever since.”
There was a hell of a lot she was glossing over. He let her eat and he concentrated on his own food for a while before he gently turned the conversation back to Lucas.
Ren sighed. “I used him. At first, I mean. He knew it. I knew it. He didn’t seem to mind and I was honest with him. But he helped me pick up the pieces and he gave me back something that I’d been missing since the whole incident with Mom and Dad in Nashville. He gave me back myself. My confidence. My sense of identity and he let me know
it was okay to be me and he refused to let me apologize for who I was or what I wanted.”
He wanted to hate the bastard. He really did. But damn it, he’d taken care of Ren when she needed it the most. How could he hold that against Lucas? If it weren’t for Lucas she might still be out in L.A. or Vegas or stuck in some horrible relationship with some bastard who didn’t treat her like the treasure she was.
The thought made him ill. The idea that he owed Lucas a hell of a lot of gratitude made him more ill at ease. He wasn’t even going to get into what he owed Lucas for these two weeks because he was going to be a complete bastard and fight for Ren with everything he had.
“The really bad thing was that before Grant and before that mess with Mom and Dad, I was perfectly comfortable in my skin. So it wasn’t like I didn’t know how to be okay with who I was or that I lacked self-confidence. I just lost it for a while and I had to find it again. In some ways I think I would have been more forgiving if I’d always been insecure and uncertain.”
The self-condemnation in her voice made him ache. “You’re being too hard on yourself, darling. You didn’t lose yourself for long and despite what you may tell yourself, there is no way you’ll ever make me believe that you wouldn’t have eventually gotten it all back without Lucas. I’m sure he helped and I’m glad he was there at a time you needed him. But I know you. You may have had a setback but no way would you have remained that shell of yourself for long.”
Her smile was more crooked this time. She perched her elbow on the table and cupped her chin in her palm as she stared over at him.
“You’re very good for my ego, Cole Madison.”
“And you’re just good for me, Ren Michaels.”