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Wow, has it really been since September? NSFW

I’d like to say I haven’t been doing anything, but… yeah, you know I’m lying. I think I need to make 2019 the year I have at least one to two blog posts per week until it becomes a habit. Which is hard for me. Why? I’ll let you in on a little secret: I hate writing blog posts. It feels like I’m talking into the abyss. Plus, you know, I’m really a very boring person. My characters live far more exciting lives than I do. Still, I’m an author. I should be able to find something worth writing about that’s more often than, apparently, once every three or four months. Shame on me. Fifty smacks with a wet noodle… or maybe something harder.

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As it turns out, I actually have something to say today. Unfortunately, unless you’re a fellow author, you probably won’t find it very interesting. So, if you are a reader: Yes, I do have a new release coming. It will be available at the end of this month/beginning of February and found in the 3rd annual Black Light Valentine’s box set. I’d love to show you the cover, but at this point, I haven’t seen it yet.

Now, for the authors. Some of you know I host a lot of author challenges geared towards new authors, who need that encouragement to sit down and keep writing, but also towards established authors, who have a lot of deadlines or need help getting past life’s little obstacles, so they can rediscover their focus. This year, I’m only posting one challenge. It started on the 1st and will run month-to-month, each author setting their own monthly goals and updating their own progress. If you want to join, here’s the Facebook link.

In this group, every day I post memes of encouragement, plus tips and tricks writers can use to elevate their writing and refine their craft. Once a week, I’m going to challenge myself to get on this blog and post something that might help my fellow authors (regardless of publishing experience). Today’s topic: Writing Sprints.

rolling eyes supernatural

Don’t leave.

But they don’t work for me, you grumble.

Keep reading anyway.

Whether or not writing sprints worked (or didn’t) for you in the past, there are some very real reasons why you should continue (re-try) using them.

For those who don’t know and didn’t click the handy link I made above, a writing sprint is a timed countdown during which you challenge yourself to do nothing but write. No phone. No Facebook. No distractions. Last week I posted a link to two Facebook author groups which regularly host writing sprints. But there are also private programs that you can use. Write or Die is the first that comes to mind. It costs $30 to buy the program, but can also be used free online.
To be honest, I used to think I sucked at racing the clock. I thought surely the pressure of trying to work on my book while the seconds count down would turn my head blank, the words would refuse to come, and I’d end up frustrated and swearing, probably in some public coffee shop, scandalizing children and the morally sound until someone asked me to leave. I was pleasantly surprised. It is now my go-to process when I want to feel productive or I have got to get this freaking WIP finished.
golem no no
But we hates it, you say in your best Golem voice.
Tough noogies. You are a professional (or you want to be). Even if you are not a big believer in sprints, there are some very specific moments during the book-writing process when you really ought to give sprinting a try. Here are a few:
 
When Your Muse Isn’t Talking to You – When you sit down to do a sprint, you switch your brain over to a different creative setting. At that point, it’s all about getting it down on paper. You aren’t editing. You aren’t fixing. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to meet your word goal. So it’s almost like disengaging your brain and doing free-style writing. I have had some really awesome plot situations happen that I never would have considered had it not come spilling out during a sprint.
 
When Deadlines Are Looming
deadline
When you absolutely must get this book done or you won’t be included in that next great box set, or your publisher NEEDS your first draft so you don’t miss a window of promotional opportunity, then writing sprints can be your best friend. Whether your deadlines are self-imposed (because you need X-amount of books published this year to guarantee you make your rent every month) or imposed by forces outside your control, missing a deadline is a big deal. Holiday-themed WIPs that miss their publishing window won’t get published until next year and you won’t get paid. Nobody buys a Christmas story after Christmas. Want to get your WIP into the promo packet at that hugely popular authors’ conference coming up? If you miss that window, it will not go in the magazine and your work will not be seen by the hundreds if not thousands of people already planning to attend that conference. And it’s not just the promo packet. You might miss the deadline to get published in time for that convention, and those hungry-to-buy readers searching for a new author to love… they’re not going to find your book.
It’s not always easy to sit down, shut off all distractions and just write. You know you have to do it; but the longer you stare at your screen, the more it starts to feel as if your inner author is sprawled out, kicking, flailing and sobbing, like a three-year-old in the cereal aisle. Timed writing sprints shut your brain off and give you something different to focus on. That deadline, while it may be a very real thing looming up in your very-near future, it is still a distant, abstract concept. The next five, or fifteen, or thirty minutes, however, is not. That is real and immediate, and it helps to lock you in so you can focus on your work.
When Your Writer’s Block Lasts More Then One Day
writer's block
That’s right. One day. You are an author. You don’t get to have writer’s block that lasts for days or weeks or months, shutting you off from your craft. The best way to get rid of writer’s block isn’t to wait it out; it’s to work it out. In this case, writing sprints are your best friend. Again, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to get it down and keep going until you once more know where you’re going.
When Writing Feels Impossible
impossible
I went through a funk this last month. For days writing felt more like pulling teeth. I struggled over every single word. Finally, I pulled up Write or Die, I set it for 100 words and 5 minutes. And I did that, over and over again, all day for two days. Sometimes I didn’t hit that 100 words before time ran out, but my sprints don’t stop until I reach my word goal. Eventually, I reached some magical point where I snapped out of it and was able to return to my normal rate of word production. Remember, writer’s block and difficult-to-write scenes only last forever if you don’t push through them.
Sense of Accomplishment – On a good day, left to my own devices, I can write upwards of 2k words. On a day where I use Write or Die and join in on my fellow authors’ sprints, I can hit 4k or more. There is nothing like realizing, ‘Holy Hannah! I just wrote like one of those authors!’ You know, the ones who turn out 8k per day seemingly so effortlessly, while, somewhere in Kansas, you’re staring at your laptop, wondering what’s another word for ‘crap’ because you’re pretty sure that’s what you just wrote.
Or, is that just me?
Dang it.
The only writer to whom you should
Regardless of whether you’ve tried it in the past and you don’t feel it worked for you, if you’re wallowing in one of the points I’ve made above, give timed writing another shot. You don’t have to do it every day. You don’t have to do it every week. But, the success you have with it might just surprise you.

In light of Jimmy Thomas…

Okay, I thought I was going to say one more thing and then be done with it, but a lot of questions were raised by other authors, artists, and readers, and I’d love the chance to answer them where it won’t get lost in the Facebook ether.

First of all, if you don’t know what the hubbub is about, here is the rant made by Jimmy Thomas, which I understand he has since removed. I made screenshots.

 

Jimmy Thomas Part 1

Jimmy Thomas Part 2

#1.) Boycotting all existing books that have this man’s face on it, won’t hurt him. He already got paid. It only hurts the author and publisher, neither of whom deserve it if that book was released long before the comments were made. I don’t even believe that on the readers end, boycotting all books with his face on it needs to be the way to go. I think it needs to fall on authors and publishers not to buy his photos to start with.

#2.) No, authors do not get to choose with most publishers what goes on the cover of their books, HOWEVER, they are not powerless to prevent his picture from going on the next release. If you have a book already accepted for publication, contact your publisher with copies of these screenshots and kindly ask if it might be possible to use any other model but Jimmy Thomas on your book. I have never met the publisher who would not agree to that. Not once in 23+ years. If your book has just been accepted for publication, then before you sign the contract, ask that an addendum be added that stipulates no Jimmy Thomas stockphotos be used in the creation of your cover. That is such a minor point of conflict, I can’t imagine any publishing house that would not immediately agree to that.

#3.) If you have him on one or two past books, there are a ton of cover artists who have come out of the void offering to re-do your cover for FREE or at a greatly reduced rate. Take them up on this!

#4.) If you don’t care, don’t do anything. No one is going to force anyone to take any kind of stand on Jimmy Thomas. If you agree with him, fine. If you partially agree, but disapprove of the way he delivered his message, that’s fine too. If you feel as insulted as I do about his condescending, judgmental rant, then that’s great too. There is one very easy thing we authors, publishers and independent cover artists can do about it and that’s not to put our money in his pocket by purchasing his stockphotos for our Indie releases and by politely asking our publishers if they wouldn’t mind using anyone but Jimmy Thomas in the cover art they chose.

 

 

Come and party with us!

There’s five more author takeover parties left to go, and that means you’ve still plenty of chances to come meet the authors of Ladder 54, play our games and win some fun reads and awesome prizes!

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The next round of Takeover Parties are listed below. To join, simply click on the promo.

Sunday September 2nd:

BestSellers & BestStellars from 5:00 to 7:05 pm EST

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Author Stalkers Unite from 7:00 to 9:05 pm EST

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Monday September 3rd:

Dirty Minds Social Club from 6 to 8:05 pm EST

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Sweet and Spicy Lounge from 8:00 to 10:05 pm EST

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Tuesday September 5th:

Dirty Bad Boom Boom Room from 3:00 to 5:05 pm EST

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A Hero for Lauren by Felicity Brandon

It’s the Ladder 54 countdown and guess what? There’s no more days left!! At some point today, should the Amazon Gods be willing, this book will go live. If you haven’t yet pre-ordered your copy, then now is the time! Hurry, while the special pre-order price is still $2.99, because after today it’s going up to $4.95!

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What do you get when five smokin’ hot firemen put themselves up for auction to help with a charitable cause? How about anything a lady could want.

Five brand-new stories. Five weekends their ladies will never forget. These Doms have set the thermostat to ‘Panty Melting’… that is, if they’d let you wear them.

How about a sneak peek at the second story in the set?

Felicity Promo #2

Blurb:

He saved her once, but after Lauren wins a night with her fantasy firefighter, can Blake still be her hero?

Chapter One

She was so damn hot. Excited sweat drenched her body, and Lauren squirmed against the bondage, almost as though she was trying to resist it. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought she was in distress, but he knew she wasn’t. Far from it, she was heady with arousal as she writhed like a serpent over the muscular thighs of Assistant Chief Anderson, but he only chuckled as he held her in place.

What a vision she was. Young, blonde, and slender, Lauren ticked all of his boxes, but it was more than that. Lauren needed to yield. She needed to give herself to a man like him, and he was the lucky bastard about to claim her.

He raised his right palm again and brought it crashing down over her pert little behind. The sound of the impact resonated around them and, if he wasn’t wrong, it vibrated all the way through her gorgeous little body, sparking a fire in her sex. She gasped at the strike, but then offered him a small moan as her hips rolled backwards. This was all he needed. Her body was begging him to carry on, even if her mouth wasn’t able to comply just yet.

Blake spanked her again, his left hand holding her bound wrists in place in the small of her back. He glanced down at her face to see how she was doing. Pressed into the soft bedding, half of Lauren’s expression was obscured, but he made out one flushed cheek, her eye squeezed shut.

“Are you okay?” His words were stern, but he meant to offer her a life raft should she need one. “Do you want to me to continue?”

She wriggled over him, hardening the length of his cock beneath his pants. “Yes, Sir,” she panted. “Yes, please carry on…”

Blake smiled. Lauren clearly wanted this spanking. She’d had it coming a very long time, and it seemed she was fit to burst with the burden of it. That was okay… Blake Anderson was the type of man who could carry a burden, no problem at all. He raised his palm again, sending it crashing down over her upturned, exposed cheeks. The groaning woman over his lap responded beautifully, engorging his cock further.

Yes, Lauren needed this, but then, he needed it, too. Perhaps this is what they’d both needed for a long time…

* * *

Lauren awoke with a gasp. Sitting bolt upright in bed, she clutched a fistful of sheet against her heaving breasts. Dammit, it had been a dream. Only a dream… She fell back against her covers with exasperation, yet all the while the pulse at her core kept its steady and insistent beat between her legs. In less than two days she was set to meet Blake again for real, the first time since she’d laid eyes on him at the auction. Between now and then, she would have to find some freaking composure.

 

Chapter Two

It had been five weeks since the auction. Five weeks since she’d had the audacity to accompany Emma and seize the chance for a night with Blake Anderson. Lauren had stayed with Emma for the month after the black-tie event, and just about every night since then she’d dreamt about him. Each was a vivid fantasy of what their date would be like, and always climaxed with the spanking she’d envisaged since she was a teenager.

Lauren inhaled, squeezing her eyes shut as she fought to get control of herself. The date was today, and just the realization of it made her tremble, as a potent mixture of trepidation and excitement gripped her belly. Of course, she’d arrived at the cabin ridiculously early, desperate not to be late. Letting herself in with the key Sophie had arranged, Lauren found the large, open-plan lounge area. She barely recognized it from the busy auction night. The cabin may be made predominantly of wood, but this was a light and airy space.

Checking her watch for the fifth time in about ten minutes, she sighed. The anticipation was killing her, and all of the nervous energy was starting to make her feel a little nauseous. She scurried from the large window to one of the cream sofas, making herself sit down. Get a damn grip, Lauren, she scolded herself. What is Blake going to think if he finds you wandering around like a little lost schoolgirl?

Her mind drifted once again to the night of the auction. Emboldened by two glasses of wine, she had achieved her aim, out-bidding everyone else for her night with Blake. It had cost her more than two thousand dollars, money she couldn’t afford, but she didn’t care about that now. Right now, she was here, and this was really happening. She almost pinched herself to make sure it was real.

After the auction, Blake had found her in the crowd, her attempts to hide behind Emma apparently failing miserably. He’d shaken her hand, his blue eyes beaming as he’d introduced himself. Lauren remembered the way she’d responded with pathetic giggles, relieved mainly that he didn’t recognize her, but then, why would he? It had been years since he’d last seen her. They’d chatted for a while, Blake showering her with attention as they’d exchanged numbers. He was pulling an early shift the next day, so he couldn’t stay, but he’d promised her he’d text, and sure enough, the next day, he had.

A flurry of messages had followed. They were lighthearted and flirty, but Lauren had read and reread each one about a hundred times. Blake Anderson was messaging her? The thought made her pant, sending her heart racing out of control even now as she waited for him. They’d agreed to meet today, and she’d acquiesced to his suggestion of using the cabin as a neutral location. True to his word, he’d also organized the logistics, hiring a chef for their time here. Lauren looked around, taking in the aesthetic of the place again. She knew a little of what went on here, and she clenched her thighs together beneath her linen dress at the idea. This was a BDSM club. Emma had told her about it. People met here to play, and by that, Emma hadn’t meant chess.

“Lauren?” Blake appeared in the doorway, his muscular arm propping him up against the frame as his gaze surveyed the lounge area, landing finally on the young woman sat in the center of it. “Great to see you again.”

The look of him standing there made her flush. She actually felt the heat as it crept up her neck. Oh, my God, she thought, physically fighting the urge to pant, just look at him. He was so tall, so big, and so damn gorgeous. Exactly as she recalled from her childhood fantasies, colossal, with dark, chiseled features, except now he was even finer. His age and experience showed in the way he walked and how he carried himself, and of course, she was all grown up, too.

When Emma had called her with news about the auction, she’d known right there and then that she’d have to bid for Blake, and then she’d heard about the BDSM element, and that had sealed the deal.

And now he’d arrived—and he was all hers for the evening.

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If you haven’t got your pre-ordered copy yet, don’t delay! Because as soon as it goes live, the sale is over and the price will go up from $2.99 to $4.95.

About Felicity Brandon:

Felicity is a #1 international bestselling, and award winning writer of dark, spanking romance. Head in the clouds, you can usually find her either plotting her next book, hitting the gym, or rocking out to her favourite music. She lives to write though, and is happiest creating desire and kink at her keyboard.

Find Felicity here:
Website and blog: https://felicitybrandonwrites.com/
Subscribe to my sexy newsletter here and receive links to download a FREE BDSM short by me! https://www.subscribepage.com/FelicityBrandon
Facebook reader group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/FierceAF/
Amazon author page: https://www.facebook.com/FelicityBrandonRomance
BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/felicity-brandon

 

Sparked by Deception by Isabella Laase

It’s the Ladder 54 countdown! One more day until this brand-new box set is released!! The preorder has just gone live, which means the sale price of $2.99 is in effect! Get your copy now, because when Ladder 54 publishes on Friday, the price will jump back to $4.95!

Is it hot in here, or is it just this guy?

ladder54

What do you get when five smokin’ hot firemen put themselves up for auction to help with a charitable cause? How about anything a lady could want.

Five brand-new stories. Five weekends their ladies will never forget. These Doms have set the thermostat to ‘Panty Melting’… that is, if they’d let you wear them.

How about a sneak peek at the second story in the set?

Blurb:

For years, Claire Siracusa had allowed her twin sister Claudia the lead in planning their identical lives, but when she agrees to pool their resources and bid for the sexy Declan Kennedy in the kinky charity auction, the covert weekend quickly grows out of control. Attracted to the powerful dom, Claire must negotiate her emotional response to his firm hand while keeping her sister out of his bedroom.

Chapter One

Rushing adrenaline combined with an ominous silence as the crew of Ladder 54 approached the flames creeping out of the dark shadows. The three a.m. call had come during that window of uncertainty where night had not quite ceded to day, and the ensuing tension tied the team toward a common goal without the need for words.

Tucked into the corner of a cookie cutter neighborhood, the job was located among almost identical dwellings identifiable only through the color of their shutters or the above-ground pools and playsets peeking from the backyards. Despite the fast response from the county fire department, the single-story home was fully engulfed in a river of cinders and orange. Smoke poured out of the opened doors and windows, and a small, frightened family huddled under a gnarly, shadowed tree.

The entire firehouse had been dispatched on this one, and Declan Kennedy turned to see the smaller rescue vehicle, ambulance, and Walt Lassiter’s shiny red SUV pulling in behind the big truck. The deputy fire chief, Blake Anderson, was barking sharp orders before the trucks were at a complete stop. With Walt still fighting his battle against cancer, Blake was a well-respected substitute among their crew.

A sobbing woman broke from the clustered family. “Paul’s still in there… he… my son… he was sleeping in the basement, and the steps were on fire. My husband went back for him. He’s…” Without warning, her edgy calmness gave way to unrestrained hysteria, and it took both paramedics to block her from entering the house.

Declan cursed softly while Blake changed their strategy without missing a breath. “Get the line in the side door. Theo, get on the roof and cut the vents. Walker… you and Troy find the husband. Declan… survey the exterior and see what you can do with the basement windows until the crew gets to the kid.”

Already fully dressed in his bunker gear, Declan ran his hand through his short black hair before slipping on his helmet and grabbing an ax from the rig to begin his search. Large windows in the living areas were smoldering, a thick black ugliness framed by the peaceful night sky, but flames were licking at the melted vinyl siding near the garage. In the backyard, a wooden deck held a beat-up barbeque grill, folding porch furniture, and a few children’s toys, fiery cinders falling on the whole suburban picture like rain.

The tiny casement windows revealed nothing except more smoke and flames, but they were broken from the inside, most likely from the kid’s futile attempt to escape through the too-small exit. The third window, however, provided the necessary details. The teenaged boy was huddled in the corner, surrounded by smoldering blankets that covered the cinderblock walls of his makeshift bedroom. Coughing dramatically, his distress was apparent and the burning staircase made clear the extent of their challenge. Their gaze met briefly as the boy’s unchecked terror fought to defeat Declan’s stoic resolve.

Given the extent of the flames, the safest window for the victim was under the wooden deck, and Declan shouted an update into his radio as he maneuvered his six-foot-one frame under the tiny structure. “I’m going under the deck. I’ve got eyes on the kid, but you’ll have to cut through south of the stairs as far away from the wall as you can get.

Forced to keep his head low, Declan crawled on his belly through the dirt to reach the exterior wall of the house when Blake gave another update. “I don’t have a spare hose to put on the deck, Kennedy. I’ll give you five minutes before you have to get the hell out of there.”

He motioned for the kid to move away, but for several long, lost seconds the frightened teen clawed at the fixed window before he reluctantly obeyed. The glass broke with a crash under the force of the ax, and Declan grabbed the thin t-shirt. Like he’d anticipated, however, there was no way the boy could fit through the tiny egress. “Just relax, Paul…” shouted Declan. “I’m not going to let you go. Do you hear that? They’re cutting into the floor right over there, and they’ll be through in a minute.”

“My… mom… dad… they are…” coughed the boy, smudges of dirt and soot covering his tear-stained face.

“Your mom is safe with the other kids… they’re fine. Just relax.”

As he spoke, the update came through the radio. “I’ve got the father. He’s unconscious, but breathing. I’m bringing him out.”

“They’ve got your dad, too, Paul. Stay with me.” Even through his gear, the heat under the deck grew stronger, but that wasn’t his biggest concern. The unchecked fire in the basement crept closer and several sparks flew around the boy’s body. One ignited the t-shirt, but Declan patted it out quickly with his thick gloves.

Heavy saws finished the makeshift entrance to the basement with a loud roar as the joists fell to the floor, but before a rescue team could appear, the basement stairs gave way to the inevitable and crashed into a fiery pile of embers just a few yards away. With a mind of its own, the flames caught the blankets on the walls to bring the inferno closer, the screaming boy struggling to kick out of his arms.

“Relax, Paul…” He willed his voice to remain calm. “I’ve got you. This is the safest place until they get through. You don’t want to let go. The guys will be here in an instant and…”

It was a huge relief to see two of his fellow firefighters and a two-inch line lowered to the basement floor. Troy Channing grabbed the boy when Declan heard his chief. “Get out… now… Kennedy. The deck is fully engaged.” He didn’t have to be told twice and rolled until he cleared the burning structure.

The call came quickly. “The boy’s out. He’s good.” Freed from the fire, he took off his mask and helmet, staring at the darkened sky. Bright glimmers of stars provided a much needed focus for his racing heart, and he offered a small prayer of thanks to whatever deity might have been listening.

With a deep breath, he returned to the front of the house where paramedics were settling the kid on a stretcher. Alert and responsive, Paul held tightly to his mother’s arms as the orange glow was defeated by the crew of Ladder 54, the small house left in ruins, but mere possessions were clearly no longer the family’s priority.

Declan stopped to rest his hand on the kid’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re looking so good, Paul.”

The teen’s eyes brightened at the sound of his voice. “This is the guy who held me, Mom. He said he wouldn’t let me go, and he didn’t. I… he saved my life.”

Without speaking, she nodded numbly. Her arms were wrapped so tightly around her small family that Declan wondered if they could breathe, but her lack of an accolade was irrelevant. Real satisfaction in life came from personal reflection and a consistent integrity, and Declan had spent a lifetime practicing both. “Just take care of yourself, Paul. And no more bedrooms in the basement without an egress. They have fire codes for a reason, buddy.”

“Yeah… it’s just… I was tired of sharing a room with my brothers. They’re really annoying. I just thought, well, you know… I just like to be alone sometimes.”

“Actually,” said Declan with a laugh, “I do understand that one. That’s what a boy from Buffalo likes best about Montana. There’s a whole lot of space to just be alone… when you aren’t in a firehouse with a bunch of other guys, that is.”

“We should head out now, Declan,” interrupted the dark-haired paramedic from the next county. “His dad’s already been taken to the burn unit in Missoula. Paul’s going to be fine, but we’re going to head to the hospital to get him checked out.”

He moved back with a final nod, but Walker Daniels approached him with a grin before he could get his helmet back on. “Too late now, Dec. We got this one under control while you were taking a nap under the deck back there. Besides, you need to be careful. We don’t want to damage you before your date this weekend.”

Declan’s ominous scowl had absolutely no impact on his friend. He liked listening to Walker’s quips and generally gave as good as he got, but the shift was coming to an end in just a few hours. Walker’s bantering reminded him of his less than perfect weekend plans, and he needed to keep this date in perspective for everybody’s sake, but most especially his own.

“Give it up, Daniels,” he grumbled as they headed into the smoldering house. “It’s just a little babysitting for a good cause. I’m not coming home with a permanent roommate like you guys did.”

Walker patted him on the back with a laugh. “Sure, that’s what we’ve all said, until you get lost up there in the cabin. So when do we get to meet your new girlfriend?”

Declan’s normally sparkly eyes turned to a shade of blue ice that matched his tone. “Let’s get something straight, buddy. I’m doing this auction to support Walt and Sophie. I’ll go out there and fulfill some woman’s fantasy with a quick trip or two over my knee, but that’s all this is going to be. I pick my own submissives. I’m not taking on some lost soul who thinks they know all about BDSM because they saw some lousy Tinseltown flick.”

While his stern response always had a dramatic effect on his submissives, the dominant stand was clearly lost on Walker, whose easy laugh remained annoying as the two men walked through the house, tearing down smoldering curtains and other hotspots to bring the last measure of security to what was left of the family’s home.

“Hey, Declan,” added Troy, running his hand through his dark blond hair, dirt and sweat creased in his brow. “Are you ready for your weekend at the cabin? It’s a whole lot of fun to have that place to yourself. I don’t know why Sophie and Walt let others use it. If I owned the deed, it would be my personal retreat.”

Walker patted Declan on the shoulder in a frustratingly condescending manner. “Declan thinks he’s going to continue his bachelor ways after this weekend, but he’s holding out on us. Our conservative little friend here had a hell of a lot more fun at the auction than he’s ever admitted. He’ll—”

Declan interrupted with a snarl. “You guys talked me into a simple spanking weekend to raise money to support the Lassiters… that’s it. My leave starts at the end of the shift today, and I’ll be fishing out at my place by Monday morning… alone.”

“Whatever you say, dear,” mocked Troy. “But you were the one who talked all of us into this.”

“Me?” exploded Declan incredulously. “This was all your idea… and Walker’s. I’d have stayed home and eaten a pizza or something just fine.”

“I was innocently minding my own business when you guys dragged me off to that first BDSM event when I moved to Big Banks. This whole auction was all your idea, Declan,” said Walker with a laugh.

Blake spoke dryly from other side of the room. “If you hadn’t implied you had some kinky experience, Walker, we’d have left you at the kennel with the Lassiters’ golden retriever. But who are we kidding? Not one of us could have said no to Sophie… or Walt. Stop acting like a bunch of schoolgirls and clear out the furniture in the back den.”

“Okay, fine. But I’m still not coming home with a girlfriend,” grumbled Declan toward his boss. “Wait until your weekend comes up. You can listen to these idiots.”

They were right about one thing. Gruff Walt Lassiter had been an excellent mentor, and Declan was more than willing to support him. Delivering a good spanking to a willing bottom was no hardship either, but any expectations for a total BDSM experience with an untrained stranger, or worse, somebody like skanky Tammi Lou what’s-her-name who relied on her daddy’s checkbook for fun, was unrealistic at best, disastrous at worst.

The fundraiser itself hadn’t been as bad as he’d expected. Held at the cabin, the two-hundred-dollar-a-plate dinner alone had raised a lot of money for their cause. With the crystal-clear lake providing an elegant backdrop across the expansive lawn of the property, the party atmosphere was heightened by a full moon, clear skies, twinkling lights, a ten-piece orchestra, and a full dinner buffet with a mouthwatering prime rib. The whole setup was a carefully constructed, sophisticated evening of high-class entertainment for some of the community’s most respected citizens.

Sharp tuxedos and chic ball gowns had showcased the formality of the event, but when the five firefighters had arrived on stage, the kinky side of the Crystal Cabin crept happily into the evening. Wearing their gear and framed by big screen images brandishing fifty thousand pounds of shiny red firefighting equipment, their muscled, toned bodies had become the highlight of the auction. He and his four buddies had played along, dancing and posing with their rock-hard, shirtless bodies on full display. The catcalling and whistles from a roomful of elegantly dressed women had been a fun contrast to the formal event, but the fifty-something-year-old stranger with the expensive jewelry, flashing her paddle for him over and over had kept his weekend goals in perspective.

She didn’t win, but the bright lights from the makeshift stage blocked his view of the back of the room, and he never did get a good glimpse of his ‘date.’ As soon as it was over, he’d said goodbye to Walt and Sophie and left without meeting the woman who’d bid for him. His commitment was for a short weekend, not days of inane texts and shared donuts at the local coffee shop. There was no reason to make this a bigger deal than it needed to be.

Declan grabbed an end of a still-smoking couch while Walker continued, “I’ve got to admit, though, I never imagined someone into BDSM when I first met Sophie. I mean, she showed up with homemade chocolate chip cookies on my first shift. I’d pictured her as the grandmotherly type, then you tell me all about her kinky dungeon. It took me weeks to get past that mental picture.”

“Yeah, well…” admitted Declan. “I guess it would have been easier to see her at the cabin before you knew her as one of the town’s most influential citizens. My first trip out there was with my roommate when I was a college freshman, and I never knew either one of the Lassiters outside of the club until I graduated and was looking for a permanent job. But I mean it, this whole auction was just to support Sophie and Walt. I’m leaving town on Sunday afternoon, and I’ll be back to work after my two-week leave.”

Just like every promise he’d ever made, he’d fulfill this commitment and provide some woman a little fantasy that she’d probably dreamt about for years. He’d have a few casual meals, give a clothing-clad bottom a spank or two, and by Sunday afternoon, he’d be off on his two-week vacation on the Gallatin River a few hours outside of Bozeman. The cozy one-room fishing cabin was a few miles off the grid and had taken his entire life savings, well worth the tiny efficiency apartment he kept in Big Banks.

He might invite Walker and Rylee to come for the second week, but the first week would be complete with just him, his cabin, and the best fly fishing in North America… just the way he liked it.

* * *

“I don’t know how the hell I ever let you talk me into this.” Claire Siracusa spoke dryly to her twin sister. “This is probably the worst idea you’ve ever had, and you’ve had a lot of really awful ideas.”

Claudia’s muffled response came from deep inside their walk-in closet. “Stop whining, Claire. You thought this was a great idea when you found that flyer in the trash, but that place was harder to sneak into than Fort Knox. I really thought that old woman was going to outbid me at the auction, but the last few hundred dollars we weaseled out of Mom and Dad pushed it over, and we got the hottest firefighter in the whole place. I’m telling you, you are going to die when you see him in person.”

Claire continued her scowl as a red sundress flew from the closet and joined the growing pile at her feet. “This isn’t going to work,” she mumbled. “We haven’t pulled off a real switch in years.”

“Switching back and forth will be lot easier if we pack clothes we have in common.” The voice from inside the closet remained annoying. “You told Dad we needed to borrow the camper, didn’t you? Nobody can see inside, and it’s the perfect place for one of us to hide.”

“I did.” Claudia wasn’t much of a listener, so there was no reason to waste a lot of words. Besides, after twenty-two years, the identical twins had remained as close as they had for the nine inseparable months they’d spent waiting to join their large family. Her parents still talked about how thrilled they were to discover they were having twin girls to join the four active sons who’d already trampled through their house.

As annoying as she was, Claire could not imagine her world without Claudia. From the first visit to the toddler playground, mastering a two-wheeler, surviving middle school drama, and negotiating the early adult world, Claudia was always the leader, her counselor, and her soulmate. Claudia’s innate sense of style had created a dramatic flair every time the five-foot-ten, curvy identical twins walked into a room in their matching outfits and perfect accessories. Claire always blushed a little under the weight of so much attention, but Claudia’s powerful confidence made the scrutiny almost easy. Even the four years of college in Missoula had been planned by Claudia, and the identical business degrees had been granted just a few weeks earlier.

All of this auction stuff, however, was moving way too fast, and Claire curled her legs to her chest before wrapping her arms around her knees. With a pout, she said, “Seriously, I don’t think I can go through with this. You should just go by yourself. I…”

Claudia emerged from the closet with a frown, pulling her long, wavy brown hair into a ponytail. “You aren’t backing out now. You promised that you would do this. We put everything we had into that auction and even lied about the car needing a new alternator to get the money out of Mom and Dad. I mean it, you and I are both going to have fun this weekend.”

“This is crazy.” At a higher pitch than she normally used, her voice sounded as though it belonged to somebody else. “We don’t have any experience in this stuff. They… they’re all part of that sex club out in Big Banks, and we’ve never even been on a kinky date. I… I don’t think I can pull this off.”

“I know, honey. It’s scary, but we’ve talked this to death. It’s time we broke out of the Siracusa nunnery. We’re twenty-two years old, and we’re still sharing a room with twin beds at Mommy and Daddy’s house, for God’s sake. It’s time we get out there and get on with our lives, and we aren’t going to do anything kinky in Missoula. I think Alex and Greg are connected to every BDSM player in town, and I’m sure as hell not going to a sex club with my brothers.”

Claire shuddered. “Are you sure they don’t belong to the Crystal Cabin Club, too? The last thing I need is to run into one of them.”

“I really don’t think they do,” said Claudia with a shrug. “Obviously, I’ve never asked, but they’ve never talked about Big Banks, and they were both in Seattle the night of the auction, so I’m guessing they’ve never been out there. It would have been a lot easier if we could have afforded to bid on two doms, but with the camper in the parking lot, we can switch off as easily as we did in high school when you took my geometry tests for me.”

Being identical twins did have its advantages, but Claire had ended up with a C in third quarter Spanish while taking her second geometry test of the day for Claudia. As with all of Claudia’s schemes, there was always that tiny negative consequence, usually affecting Claire.

“Stop worrying.” Claudia moved on to her dismissive tone to signal the end of the conversation. “We’ve read a ton of books on BDSM, and it will be plenty to get us started. They advertised a spanking weekend, but any dom worth his salt will want to do more. They just can’t put it in writing because it would be… like… illegal. After we get our foot in the door, we can apply for one membership at the Crystal Cabin, and I bet we’ll get in. It’s only twenty miles away, an easy drive. Nobody will know our family. Nobody will know we’re sharing a membership. I’m just sorry we had the graduation ceremony, and then we both got sick, otherwise we’d probably already be members by now.”

That was the caveat, and Claudia knew it. Since they’d blissfully discovered the genre, the girls had spent a lot of money on erotic novels with wonderful descriptions of tingling bottoms and powerfully attractive men. Mental images of biting clamps and thick wooden paddles combined with writhing bodies cuffed to deliciously frightening, almost undefinable equipment. The whole idea appealed to her so strongly that even the publicity pictures of the five firefighters had ignited an ache between her legs that refused to be pacified. Finding the money and sending Claudia to the auction, however, had been easy compared to packing the suitcase and actually showing up for the weekend. “It’s going to be great, honey. I promise,” her sister continued, offering a distracted hug. “Where are your diamond earrings that Mom and Dad gave us? They’ll match everything we’ve packed. The simpler we keep this, the easier it will be.”

“In the jewelry box where they belong. I don’t leave my stuff lying all over the place like you do. But, you should at least go first. I… I’ll go second. Maybe just for an hour or so?”

“Stop whining, already,” mumbled Claudia, impatiently rummaging through Claire’s carefully organized dresser. “We’ve got the schedule all worked out, and the club organizer even agreed to an extra night since we’re getting there so late. Six four-hour shifts equal the first twenty-four hours, but we’ll adjust for sleeping. I went to the auction, so you’re going first, and I’ll be last.”

“But—”

“We’re identical twins, for God’s sake, Claire,” snapped Claudia. “Nobody except our family and close friends have ever been able to tell us apart, and they struggle if we don’t give up mannerisms and personality hints. The photographers even threw away your first-grade picture because they thought they’d taken the same kid twice.”

Claire had to grin. A twin was literally half of a whole other person. Almost every gift she’d ever received had a match given to Claudia. Sometimes the dresses were different colors or the dolls were two different characters from the same popular movie, but her world had revolved around Claudia since the day their mother’s egg had mysteriously split into two.

“You’ve got to have some trust in me, little sister,” added Claudia, shooting off her matching grin. “I’ve got this.”

There was no reason to remind Claudia that Claire was actually two minutes older. Claudia had always acted in the role of the big sister, and Claire was more than willing to play second chair. The last twenty-two years had taught her that life was a lot less stressful when she just followed Claudia. Besides, a spanking weekend with a hot firefighter was more than she could walk away from, and this might clearly be Claudia’s most brilliant idea to date.

With a shy smile, Claire picked up her suitcase with firm resolve. “Fine. Let’s get going before I start having a panic attack.”

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Sparked by Deception by Isabella Laase is available only in the Ladder 54 box set, scheduled to be published tomorrow, 8/31 and on SALE NOW!!

About Isabella Laase:

Cursed by a sarcastic sense of humor, Isabella works to blend her history loving, feminist side with the fantasy world of hot romance defined by the firm hand of a strong alpha male. Given choice within the confines of history and genre, strong women find balance in their lives while fulfilling their deepest sexual desires.

Isabella lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her very patient husband. Two tiny dogs complete the family and have learned to sleep under a laptop to gain any comfort from her side while she balances a job, political activism, and steamy spanking novels in the course of a single day.

“Writing is like playing in a virtual reality dollhouse. You can create any character you want within any world, time period, lifestyle, and personality. You can dress them, undress them, build conversations, relationships, heartbreak and romance.

You are only limited by your personal imagination.”

FAVORITE MEDIA CONTACT

facebook.com/isabella.laase

OTHER MEDIA CONTACTS

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Rekindled by Adaline Raine

It’s the Ladder 54 countdown! Two more days until this scintillating new box set is released!! The preorder has just gone live, which means the sale price of $2.99 is in effect! Get your copy now, because when Ladder 54 publishes on Friday, the price will jump back to $4.95!

ladder54

What do you get when five smokin’ hot firemen put themselves up for auction to help with a charitable cause? How about anything a lady could want.

Five brand-new stories. Five weekends their ladies will never forget. These Doms have set the thermostat to ‘Panty Melting’… that is, if they’d let you wear them.

How about a sneak peek at the third story in the set?

Blurb:

Dakota Channing returns to the sleepy little town of Big Banks hoping to gather enough courage to explain to her ex-husband why she left, instead she bids on him at a charity auction. Now she’s won a night with a Dom, in all the ways she could imagine, and even in some ways beyond her wildest dreams.

Troy Channing didn’t expect his ex-wife to come back home for a event at the exclusive CCC cabin, or ever. Can he forgive the love of his life for abandoning their marriage or will they turn their legal separation into a divorce for good?

Warning: Contains intense BDSM scenes, anal play, spanking.

Chapter One

Troy Channing changed out of his turnout gear and into a pair of black jeans and a black fitted tee shirt. Sophie had explained in detail about this event being black tie and warned them to dress the part if any of them attended, but Troy didn’t own anything close to fancy so this outfit would have to do. Blake had let him borrow a pair of shiny dress shoes. Speaking of, the much taller man was headed directly for him. Blake was a laidback guy, so the furrow in his brow seemed out of place.

“Hey.” Blake leaned one arm against the bar. “Come take a walk with me.”

“Even as attractive as you are, my friend, I’m not a submissive and we’re not supposed to play tonight.”

“I need to tell you something and it’s important. Come on. It will only be a minute.” Blake shot him with a look.

Troy busted out laughing. “Don’t give me those come hither bedroom eyes. They won’t work on me.”

“I’ll break out the smolder.” Blake raised both eyebrows up and down. “I’ll do it.”

“Hard limit. Seriously. I won’t recover from that shit.” Troy held up his palms in surrender. “Lead the way. I’ll go with you.” He followed his buddy out of the main room and into one of the playrooms. It seemed a bit strange to have a serious conversation with a Saint Andrew’s cross and a spanking bench in eyesight, but they had been in stranger locations before. But in those locations they were usually wrestling fires and not having intense conversations. “Do I at least get a safeword?”

“This is serious, man.” Blake pinched the bridge of his nose and then dropped his hand. “Did you know Dakota came home?”

Troy stared at Blake for a full minute, then walked over and sat on the edge of the spanking bench, needing to brace against something for support. Of all the moments to bring up his ex-wife, why would Blake bring her up during an important event? “I’d have been less surprised if you ordered me to put my hands over my head so you could tie me up and have your way with me.” He took a breath and rubbed the back of his neck. “Shit. No, I didn’t know. Have you heard from her?”

“Not exactly.” Blake walked over to the cross and leaned against it. “According to Sophie, Dakota has been back in town for a few months, and she’s quite interested in the lifestyle among other things.”

“I appreciate the info, but why are you sharing this information now?” Troy would bet he didn’t want to know the answer. All those overnight shifts the two men shared with nothing else to do but play cards and talk about life gave Blake more insight into his relationship with Dakota than anyone else at the auction save Sophie herself. It meant a lot for the other man to consider his feelings, and he realized somewhere along the path of craziness they experienced while being firefighters they had also become friends.

“Dakota is in the other room. She placed the winning bet, which gives her full access to you for one whole night. I didn’t want you to be blindsided.” Blake shrugged. “I wasn’t sure if she had approached you before.”

“Fuck! No, she hasn’t reached out in years. Are you sure you don’t want to tie me up? At least I’d have a chance to escape.”

“Well, no, you wouldn’t, but don’t worry.” Blake grinned despite the topic of conversation. “I’m not planning on it.”

“All right. Noted.” Troy shook his head. “Did you see her?”

“Yes, she’s all done up in a tiny little black dress. It doesn’t leave much to the imagination. I prefer more modest cuts myself.”

“I bet you do.” Troy got to his feet. “I’m not sure what to do about the sudden appearance of my ex. Why the hell did she show up and bid on me? Why did she show up here after four years?”

“Dakota is the only one who can answer your questions.” Blake moved to Troy’s side and clapped him on the back. “Go talk to her. Next week you can tell me all about what went down between the two of you.”

“We’ll have plenty of time considering we’re working three overnights in the span of as many days.”

“Sure, it will break up the monotony of kicking your ass at cards,” Blake chuckled. “Actually, I never get tired of that.”

“Uh-huh.” Troy clapped him back. “I appreciate your concern more than you know.”

“You’re welcome. That’s what I do, make sure my brothers are well informed and not blindsided by anything.”

* * *

Dakota accepted the drink but did not tip the bartender. Guilt panged through her, but she’d overspent her pennies today, big time. Dropping a ton of money, money she didn’t have, on an auction showed her desperation. The cause hit close to her heart, Walt and Sophie, who had been there for her when no one else cared. Three months ago, Dakota had showed up on Sophie’s doorstep begging for advice. Dakota had returned to Big Banks hoping she could rekindle something with Troy as she’d left him alone, devastated and had never offered any explanation or provided closure. Sophie wasn’t old enough to be her mother biologically but she’d always offered a warm drink and an open mind with just a hint of maternal know-how.

Dakota had leaned on Sophie a lot during Troy’s recovery. The two women had met in a bookstore of all places, nothing kinky, and they’d connected right away. Sophie had encouraged Troy to talk to Walt about becoming a firefighter. Troy’s military background gave him all the prerequisites to enroll, and he signed up to become an interior firefighter after his physical therapist provided him the medical clearance to do so. Fighting fires and saving lives provided Troy an adrenaline rush he pretended he didn’t seek, as well as helping their community directly.

Dakota would give her last scrap of food if it meant she could give back to her self-adopted parents. Unfortunately, she was currently balanced precariously on the edge of massive debt and personal bankruptcy. How could she justify the two thousand dollar throw-down?

Fanning her face, she blew out a breath overcome with heat. Troy Channing would be hers for one whole night to do with as she pleased. Well, not exactly as she pleased. He would only control her under the parameters she’d set.

What if he refused to play with her? No, Sophie wouldn’t let him refuse, and since he thought the world of the older woman, he would follow whatever plans were in place. Why had Dakota gotten herself into this mess? She could’ve donated any amount of money to Sophie without showing up at an auction and raining dollars on Troy, her very ex-husband. No, she reminded herself. Sophie had refused to take her charity, and instead sent Dakota running errands for the event and helping out in other ways.

Still, the other woman never said she should bid on Troy; it had all been on a whim.

Liar. It hadn’t been a whim. No, she’d pawned out the last pieces of her jewelry including her engagement ring and wedding bands to afford this event and auction. Troy would be so pissed if he found out, but she should eventually tell him. They were both romantic at their core, and perhaps the two of them could reconcile their differences and give their love another chance. Reconcile? Dakota scoffed. She had run away from Troy. Fled out of the state. Shit. When had this idea sounded good to her?

Glancing up at the entrance to the room, her breath hitched in her throat. Troy scanned the space, looking for someone, and then his gaze settled on her. Oh, no! Someone must have seen her and reported back. Could it have been Sophie? Mingling with him tonight hadn’t been on her list of approved activities, and she wished for an invisibility shawl. His stare weighed on her face as he approached, and time seemed to slow as he met the distance between them. Focusing on him dragged the memory of their first meeting the forefront of her mind.

* * *

Ten years earlier…

“Whatcha whistling, Dixie?”

“It’s called humming.” Dakota rolled her eyes at the interruption. She had been intently listening to the jukebox in the back corner play ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ by Def Leppard while humming along to the beat. “Does that line ever work for you?”

“Sometimes,” he grinned. “Pick your poison, and I’ll buy you a drink.”

“Did someone dare you to talk to me? Or maybe I scream desperate to you?” She finished off the sip of alcohol in her drink, savoring the drop at the bottom of the glass even though it was watered down. “You sure don’t seem desperate enough to talk to me.”

“I’m not desperate, and I don’t think you are either.” He glanced around at either side of her. “Why are you sitting here all alone?”

“I arrived here with my friends. Thank you very much. Why don’t you go and scurry back to yours?”

“I don’t have any friends, Dixie, so I’ll just sit right here.” He motioned for the bartender to come over. “Two Fireball shots. Please.”

“I didn’t say I wanted Fireball.”

“Then it’s a good thing they’re both for me.” The man smirked.

“Drinks are on me. Thanks for all you do.” The blonde bartender nodded to him as she slid the glasses across the bar.

“It’s an honor.” He raised a glass to the bartender then hit both shots in a row.

“I never said I wanted any company,” Dakota protested as she plucked the cherry out of the ice melting in her glass and bit it off the stem. She chewed thoughtfully as she looked him up and down. The man sitting next to her could be on a billboard somewhere modeling underwear. She could count his six-pack abs through his tee shirt. Military tags hung around his neck to indicate some branch, though she couldn’t read which one. His hair had been buzzed clean against his scalp, so whether light or dark she couldn’t tell. The dimness of the bar also prevented her from seeing the color of his eyes, but they were expressive. She never imagined someone like him talking to her.

“Well, your disappearing friends are real bitches.” He turned the seat around on the barstool so he could survey the entire room. “From the way you’ve been downing water in between drinks you aren’t sure if they’re coming back.”

“Those bitches are my friends.” She stifled a laugh despite his spot-on assessment. “Please don’t call them bitches. Just leave me alone.”

“Well, sweetheart, I can’t in good conscience leave you alone.” He tilted his head toward the back of the room. “Those men are planning to jump you once you leave. I won’t let that happen.”

“Oh? I find it sweet you want to defend my honor.”

“Nah. Honor has nothing to do with it. I just really want to fight.”

“Why should I trust you?” The thought about the group in the back attacking her did worry her, but what if he was messing with her?

“I have no reason to lie to you. I’m trapped here in this boring little town until I’m deployed to Afghanistan. I might be here a week or I could wind up stuck for a month, depending on how fast they push the paperwork. You might not know me, but I’m chivalrous as hell. I’m not going to sit here and watch some assholes hurt a woman. Especially not a woman as pretty as you.”

“Well, shit. It’s a good thing I’m not an ugly broad.” She stood at five foot nine, taller than most of the women in this town. With gorgeous tan skin and jet black hair that fell in waves down her back, she heard compliments before, but her curves gave her pause. Some men didn’t like a women with a little extra sand in their hourglass figures.

“Heh,” he grinned. “I’d still teach those dickheads a lesson, but I wouldn’t be working as hard to impress you.”

“Wait a second. Are you trying to impress me?”

“Yeah. Is it working?”

“Maybe.” She bit down on her lip, then conceded to give him the benefit of the doubt. “What’s your name? If you’re going to get beat up for me, I should at least know who to send flowers to.”

“I’m Troy.” He extended his hand and she shook it. “You won’t need to send me flowers, Dixie. If even one of those upstanding citizens lays a hand on me, it will be the sorriest move he ever made.” He winked at her. “Oh, did I forget to mention? I’m a Marine.”

* * *

Dakota snapped back to the reality of the moment. She was in the here and now. She couldn’t do anything to alter the course of their initial meeting.

Accepting Troy’s request to come back to his motel room with him about ten or so years ago had started their relationship. They’d stayed in bed for two days, only getting up to order food and to shower. He took her hard and fast, unlike any other man she had been with. She liked his dominating manner, and how much attention he paid to her body. It didn’t take long for her to fall hook, line, and sinker. She never expected them to be compatible, but underneath the tough military exterior laid a heart of gold. Their sex lives sizzled off the charts, as they both had the same voracious appetite while matching each other’s desires and fantasies. Three months later the paperwork got stamped with the final seal of approval and they married in a small ceremony. Marrying had been Troy’s idea in case anything happened while he was deployed. His decision proved to be the best one he could have made. After his catastrophic injury, there would have been a lot of red tape for her to unravel if they had only been together and not married.

Sipping from the tall stemmed glass in her hand bought her a moment, but no more than that. Sparkling apple cider looked like champagne as long as you didn’t taste it. “What are you doing in here?”

“I’ve been here all night. Didn’t you see me on stage?”

“Yes, I mean obviously I saw you, but why are you talking to me?” She cocked her head to the side.

“Come take a walk with me, Dixie.”

“I paid in cash. No backsies.” Despite her reservations, when Troy held his hand out, she laced her fingers in his. She missed him so bad it hurt her heart and her head to think about it, but she couldn’t tell him all the reasons why. Plus, they hadn’t parted amicably. Did he harbor resentment?

“I’m not going to renege on the auction unless you leave me with no other choice, but I’ve got some questions. Do you care to answer a few?” He led her down the hall and into one of the private rooms.

She followed him inside, scanning the small area. It held a cot, a small two-seater loveseat, three cabinets, and a folding table. These rooms were typically used for aftercare. Sophie had offered her a complimentary tour a few months ago after the older woman convinced her to give the community a try. Dakota never imagined it would have brought her and Troy together. Sophie kept the information about Troy attending the club to herself. Instead Dakota saw him in his glory one night when she came out to observe a party at the CCC. She’d barely been able to contain her surprise and arousal the first night she’d seen him play.

Floggers and whips were his specialty and where he shined the most during a scene. Troy got into a zone, cranked up rock music, and floated leather strips across women’s backs, thighs, and butts like they were his canvas and his implement a brush. It was a sight to behold, but she’d never gotten too close. No, she couldn’t risk him seeing her.

Dakota had struck up a conversation with a woman a few weeks ago who had played the part of said canvas, and Troy had brought her an incredible endorphin rush, providing aftercare as needed. Dakota listened with an open mind, but tiny pangs of jealousy and guilt flew through her at the time. She wanted to be the one tied up by Troy. She wanted his hands on her body, and to be in his arms afterward for cuddles.

“Dakota.” He cleared his throat and her head snapped up. “I asked you a simple yes or no question. Are you going to answer me, or do I need to get creative?” Troy stared down at her expectantly.

“Yes, I’ll answer.” Her stomach did flips at his tone. What did he mean by creative? Could Troy possibly mean something more along the lines of discipline? He also seldom used her first name, and it made her feel like a naughty child.

“How long have you been coming to the cabin?” Troy sank down into the loveseat.

“A little while.” She sat on the cot, near him but not close enough to touch him. It was a simple question but the reasons revealed a lot more than she was ready to share. “How long have you been a dom?”

“I’m asking the questions tonight, but I’ll humor you with an answer to this one. I’ve been a dom as long as I can remember,” he chuckled. “I always had an inkling you might be submissive but we never explored it.”

“Why not?” Dakota blew out a breath. “I mean, things might have played out sort of differently.”

“Maybe, but I came home in pretty bad shape, Dixie. I wasn’t quite running on all cylinders. We didn’t get to know one another in person until we had already been married for two years.”

“Not running on all cylinders is putting it mildly,” she agreed. “I understand and as much as I hated seeing you in pain, I wouldn’t change what we went through together for anything. I watched you overcome some terrible challenges. I cried so hard when I saw you in the hospital. You were so doped up on pain medication, I doubt you even remember it.”

“I remember it, but it isn’t relevant at the moment. Focus on this, the here and now, and not on the past.”

“Oh, okay.” She swallowed hard. A rush of memories flew to the surface, but she pushed them back. No, she needed to focus like Troy advised her to do. “What’s your next question?”

“You left four years ago without so much as a glance back. Why did you come home?”

“You want to know why I came home?” Dakota scoffed. She might as well paint a bullseye on her head and hand him a hammer. It all centered around him, and somehow getting the two of them on the same page again. His parents had moved all the way out here when he got injured and they treated her like their own daughter during the ordeal. She had no remaining family of her own, and being away had done nothing to help her situation. Yeah, she had lost weight and stayed sober, but she’d felt so empty inside. An emptiness only Troy could fill. Dakota sounded pathetic in her own head, she couldn’t possibly tell him all the details. “It doesn’t matter, not anymore.”

“Repeating everything I say isn’t exactly a conversation.” He clenched and released his jaw. “Okay, then I’ll get to a more important question that’s been on my mind. If you hate me so much, why did you keep my last name?”

Fuck. He got straight to the point. She shouldn’t have expecting anything less. “I don’t hate you, Troy. I could never hate you. Legal separation doesn’t require you to change your name.”

“Fair point. Why do you still call my mother every Sunday?”

“I paid for you for one night, not the other way around,” she chirped. Her noncommittal answer did not help her cause. His questions dug deeper than she anticipated. She never wanted to change her name back to her maiden name, a name she had hated from the first time she saw her father abuse her mother both mentally and physically. Dakota had hated his last name more with each passing day. The man who created her had pushed too far, and beat her mother to death. She’d slipped into a coma and died when Dakota was only thirteen years old. Plotting revenge came easy, but her father did himself in one cold winter night with a dropped cigarette and a gas leak. No tears were ever shed for the monster who gave her life.

At least Troy had a good reputation. A wounded veteran. A loving husband. Why had she let things get so bad? She had been so stupid to leave. Could he possibly forgive her for all the shit she’d put him through? His mother had remained the one strong light in her life. Somehow the woman had forgiven her even when she couldn’t forgive herself. She owed Troy’s mother her life.

“You’re a million miles away.” Troy reached over and took her chin in between his thumb and index finger. He tilted it upward until their eyes met. “Why did you bid on me tonight?”

His closeness distracted her, and she shrugged in response to his question. No, she wasn’t ready to divulge everything.

“When I ask you a question, Dakota, I expect a verbal answer. You have refused to reply more than once. If you are unable to grant me enough respect to provide an answer, then we can’t move forward. We’ll part ways, and you can go back to whatever you were doing.”

“Wait, please? I didn’t think I would see you tonight. Not with so many other things going on. I’d been under the impression you would be occupied with more important stuff or working later or something.” Wetness pooled in between her legs and she pressed her upper thighs together, mortified over how quickly her body reacted to his dominance.

“The only important matter I’m occupied with at the moment is this one.”

“Sophie encouraged me to come to the auction tonight.” Dakota sighed when Troy moved back, and he let go of her face. “She told me if I didn’t show up, she would find someone to beat my behind until I changed my mind.”

“I certainly believe Sophie could have arranged that.” Troy joined her on the cot, then leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms behind his head. “What else did she say?”

Dakota shook her head, a decision she instantly regretted when she found herself upended and then placed over his lap. Troy smacked her once across both cheeks.

“You-you can’t spank me in here. There are rules.” Her thin gown offered no protection. She gasped from the sensation but she was more turned on than irritated.

“You aren’t following any rules. Why should I?”

“I haven’t agreed to anything yet.” She squeaked in protest when his palm seared the top of each thigh but when he landed two smarting blows to her full cheeks, she moaned. “Oh.”

“Hm. What was that?”

“I’ll answer one question but you need to release me immediately.”

“Is that so?” Troy tipped her forward slightly. It put her at the perfect angle for his hand to land at the soft juncture of her butt and thigh without removing any of her clothing. She should have worn a slightly longer dress, but he was probably happy for the length in this scenario. Troy expertly hit his mark, and after four good blows to each side, she cried out.

“Please stop, Troy.”

“Whenever you’re over my lap I expect you to call me Sir.”

She swallowed hard, fighting back tears. She should have thought this through better. Dakota thrashed against his muscled thighs, but the struggle did not free her from the position. The intensity of each slap increased as well as the speed of his hand. “Please!”

“Please what?”

“Please let go of me.”

“Wrong answer.” Troy raised her dress and then he focused his attention on the roundest part of her ass.

Her outfit boasted a short hemline, and she had gone commando to prevent panty lines. Another bad choice this evening. The sound of flesh hitting flesh resonated off the walls. After several more rounds, she wailed. He continued to spank her, hard and fast, while she cried. Dakota definitely questioned why she had been so eager to come tonight. Yet being held by Troy in such a precarious position gave her more satisfaction than she had experienced in quite some time. At the very least he cared enough to find out why she was here. He could have easily escorted her out of the building since Dakota wasn’t exactly holding up her end of the bargain. Speaking frankly and honestly to each other as well as disclosing certain sensitive information had all been mentioned in the twenty-five-minute pre-auction. Dakota had to sign a form acknowledging as much. If only Troy knew what hoops she had jumped through to ensure she would have enough money to throw down. He would be so disappointed in her.

“I’ll answer every question you ask me. I promise.” Dakota slumped against his thighs, exhausted from the physical battle as much as the mental one. “Sir,” she added in defeat.

“Good girl.” Troy tugged her dress back into place, then smoothed the fabric over her skin. “Why did you bid on me tonight?”

“Be-because I wanted to talk to you.”

“I’m listening. Go ahead and talk.”

“You expect me to talk to you while being held face down across your lap?” she snapped. The way he was holding her irritated her on a deeper level. She also hated the sensations flying through her as a result from his attention.

“What was that?” Troy pinched the top of her left thigh and then her right. She yelped. “You want another round?”

“No, Sir.” She blew out a breath, but he made no attempt to let her up. “I figured you would see me and make some comment about the stunning transformation I’ve gone through.” Dakota had lost eighty-five pounds since they’d last set eyes on each other. It had been a lot of hard work, but she’d managed to lose the weight at a healthy pace. Had it really been four years since they’d seen one another?

“You’ve always been stunning to me, Dixie. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It’s a shame you can’t see yourself the way I’ve always seen you.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Troy had such a way with words. She knew he spoke the truth, just as he always did. He’d never made her feel bad about herself in any way. No, he’d always tell her how beautiful she looked. How had she managed to fuck up their relationship so badly? She could have explained what was going on in her head, but she’d stayed silent.

“What else do you want to talk about?”

“Nothing.”

“You got all dolled up, paid a crazy amount of money, all because you wanted to show me what you looked like?” Troy scoffed. “I call bullshit.”

“I might have missed you.”

“Oh? You might have?” He slapped his hand against her right cheek several times until she kicked her leg out. “I don’t like pulling teeth, Dixie.”

“That hurt! I missed you and I wanted to see you, and—” Her breath hitched in her throat. She swallowed around the sudden lump. “After I saw you playing at the CCC, I wanted you to spank me at some point.”

“You could have seen me without all this nonsense.” Troy turned her around, setting her next to him on the cot. He brushed a piece of her hair away from her face. “As far as spanking you? Well, I might have done that too if you’d asked nicely.”

“You didn’t have my permission to do what you just did.”

“Oh, I didn’t?” Troy chuckled. “You were given a fair warning. Just a little while ago, I promised to be creative if you refused to answer me. In fact, I gave you several chances.”

“I told you to stop.”

“You wanted me to spank you but only on your terms? Am I hearing you correctly? I want to verify.”

Shit. He’d painted her into a corner. Yes, she had wanted him to take her over his knee, something he seemed to do with ease, but only when she wanted it. However, she had rather enjoyed most of what they just engaged in. She trusted Troy more than anyone else in her life. What was her problem? Dakota bit down on her lip.

“I’ll make it real simple for you. Okay? Listen up, Dixie. You’re going to answer my next question without any bull. If the answer satisfies my curiosity, we can move forward with the terms of the auction. On the other hand, if you lie to me, I will go and find Sophie. I’ll pay her whatever amount you spent, and we’ll call it a night. No strings.” He slid his finger across her lip, and she stopped biting. “This is your last chance. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Sir.” Dakota hated how well the newly requested title slid off her tongue when addressing him. Damnit. Her body betrayed her by yielding to his demand, and she knew she’d better answer correctly.

“Did you come here with good intentions tonight?”

“Yes, Sir.” Dakota blinked back another round of tears. “I swear I did. I’ve seen you play, and I wanted to experience it myself. I should have gone about things a bit differently, but here we are.” She had so much more she wanted to say. Sorry for hurting you. Sorry for being a bitch. Sorry, so very sorry for walking out on you. Those words would come in time in hopes of getting him to trust her again. If he ever trusted her again.

Troy looked up at the ceiling. He rubbed his hand across the scruff on his chin, and seemed deep in thought. After several awkward moments of silence, he looked back down at her. “All right. I’ll take you at your word. What are you doing next Friday, Dixie?”

“I’m working. Fridays are my long days, ten plus hours. It’s the only day of the week where I’ve got the opportunity for a client lunch.”

“You don’t have clients out here.”

“You’re sort of right. I travel into the city, which is why Fridays are a bad day in general.” She blew out a breath. “I can check my schedule and text it to you.”

“We’ve got a few things to discuss before we get together. Limits. Fetishes,” he winked. “So, I’ll give you my email. I work three overnight shifts this week. Those are pretty brutal on my system since I picked up a few midday shifts as well. We’ll work out the details, line up our schedules, and then pick a later date. How does that sound to you?”

“Yeah, okay. I think it will work out.” She swore her world had tilted when the word fetishes fell from his mouth. When they were married, their sex life could be described as anything but boring, but knowing now he was into some of the things she’d only dreamed about, and read about, tweaked her buttons in a big way. “I mean it sounds good to me.”

“I wish you’d called me before the event and talked to me.” Rising to his feet, he then held his hand out to her. She accepted it once more, and she stood as well.

“I figured you wouldn’t want to talk to me, maybe ever again.”

“I’d say you were pretty bold to bid on me if you believed that. It’d be very awkward to spend a night together without speaking.”

“You’re right again, and I should’ve called you. Thank you for listening to me tonight. It was really nice to see you.”

“You’re welcome, Dixie.” Troy squeezed her hand, and then he led her out of the room.

Her thoughts were flying at a hundred miles a minute. Somehow she would fix the mess she’d made between them.

5ebbabe5cb1a9da4047957b4f0143c93

Rekindled by Adaline Raine is available only in the Ladder 54 box set, due to be released this Friday, 8/31 and on SALE NOW!!

About the Author:

Adaline Raine is an international bestselling author. She is an avid reader of all romance but loves contemporary and paranormal the most. What’s sexier than an alpha werewolf, dominant shifter, or bad-boy vampire?

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Light Me Up by Raisa Greywood

It’s the Ladder 54 countdown! Three more days until this smoldering new box set is released!! The preorder has just gone live, which means the sale price of $2.99 is in effect! Get your copy now, because when Ladder 54 publishes on Friday, the price will jump back to $4.95!

ladder54

What do you get when five smokin’ hot firemen put themselves up for auction to help with a charitable cause? How about anything a lady could want.

Five brand-new stories. Five weekends their ladies will never forget. These Doms have set the thermostat to ‘Panty Melting’… that is, if they’d let you wear them.

How about a sneak peek at the second story in the set?

Blurb:

Theo used to be Selene’s hero, but she doesn’t need one anymore, especially after he blew her off and moved across the country to get away from her. When she goes to Montana on business, she learns things about Theo that might make her change her mind about her childhood hero.

After escaping Greektown and his horde of well-meaning relatives, Theo is content in Big Banks, Montana. A chance meeting with a woman he’d left behind makes him rethink what he thought he wanted. Selene Alexiou fits none of his outdated stereotypes, but he wants her anyway.

When Theo and Selene meet for the first time as adults, chemistry isn’t the only thing sparking between them.

Chapter One

“You want me to go where?”

Selene Alexiou stared at her partner, Rick Jensen, across the cluttered expanse of her desk as she nursed her first cup of coffee. She had to work hard to keep her composure. Big Banks, Montana was the absolute last place she wanted to go.

Glowering at her, Rick asked, “Is there a problem with the location? This is your project, and I’m busy with my own.”

Shaking her head, she forced a smile. “It’s fine. I’m just not thrilled about Montana in April. They get more snow than we do.” There was no way in hell she was going to tell Rick the real reason she didn’t want to go to Montana. Big Banks, Montana meant Theo Papadakis, the last man in the world she wanted to see.

Rick grimaced. “Yeah. And don’t worry about the flight. The client’s sending a private plane. I guess the airport’s a little remote. It’s supposed to pick you up at Midway in a few hours.”

“Way to give a girl a little notice.” She shut down her laptop and gathered her files. “I’ll text you when I land, but email me anything else I should know. I’m taking the rest of the week off.”

“Hey! We have other projects going on!”

Scowling, she said, “I haven’t had a vacation in two years, but you went to Europe last spring, right? And you’ll be on family leave after Meghan makes you a proud papa.”

He held up his hands in defeat and gave her a sheepish grin. “You win, but in my defense, that was my honeymoon.” He dropped a stack of paper on her desk. “Here’s the flight information.”

“I’ll think of you when I’m lying on a beach in Mexico.” Selene tried to keep the irritation out of her voice as she put on her coat. The unwanted trip wasn’t Rick’s fault.

As Rick walked toward her office door, he said, “Just don’t let some smooth-talking stud take you away from us. This place would fall apart without you.”

“No chance of that,” she muttered. Rick was already gone and didn’t hear her irritable remark.

* * *

She had way too much time to think during the five-hour flight to the middle of nowhere. A few years older than her, Theo Papadakis had been the big kid who had earned her schoolgirl adoration when he’d beaten the crap out of her brother Hector for picking on her braces back in the fourth grade. Not that she’d ever let him or anyone else know about her crush.

Despite not having seen him for years, her father and Theo’s mother had thought it was a good idea to set them up for a lunch date almost a year ago. Their respective parents had grown up in the same Greektown neighborhood.

It seemed that Theo had moved halfway across the country to avoid the small commitment. A fucking lunch date, but he’d brushed her off with a humiliating message left with one of his sisters. Thanks to the well-fertilized Greektown grapevine, the message had made its way all over the neighborhood before it reached her.

Was the thought of dating her so horrible? Maybe. She hadn’t exactly been looking forward to the date herself, understanding the pressure their families would place on them. Most days she wondered if any family tree in Greektown had forking branches.

She looked out the window at flyover territory as she pondered what it was about Theo that made an otherwise capable, intelligent woman turn into a whiny adolescent. Why did she care so damned much what he thought? She was better than this.

Her trip to Big Banks was unavoidable, but the meeting would be quick, and she had no reason to linger. Even if she saw Theo in passing, he wouldn’t recognize her. She’d had surgery to correct her vision, her teeth were straight and perfect, and she’d learned how to use a flat iron on her bushy hair. The ugly duckling dressed in her cousin Lida’s castoffs had turned into a swan.

To her surprise, the pilot doubled as a chauffeur and drove her into town. After thanking the pilot for the smooth flight and the lift, Selene managed to complete her meeting in just a few hours. She kept a professional smile as she shook her client’s hand. They could have used videoconferencing to deal with his questions without dragging her to the ass end of nowhere.

She typed a quick follow-up message to Rick, then walked down the street in search of a coffee shop, her wheeled suitcase in tow. She didn’t have much; a few bikinis, shorts and t-shirts, and one little black evening dress, just in case. She was wearing the only warm things she’d brought; a wool suit with a pencil skirt hitting her just above the knee and a pair of sexy, heeled boots. It would be at least an hour before the pilot could take her to Missoula to catch a flight to Mexico.

Finishing her message, she looked up from her phone. The view of the mountains over the low buildings was spectacular. She’d never seen anything like it except in photos and movies, and looking at it in person was a whole new experience. She’d have loved to sip her coffee outside if only it weren’t so damned cold.

A brown awning over a storefront framed a wooden sign that read ‘Java the Hut,’ causing her to laugh out loud. Any place that used a Star Wars reference for a business name was golden in her book. A cheerful bell rang as she walked in, and she inhaled the rich scents of fresh beans and baked goods. After placing her order with the barista, she sat down at an empty table, her mind unwillingly returning to the gorgeous man who had caused her to second guess herself.

He’d always wanted to be a firefighter. While she was delighted he’d achieved his goal, why hadn’t he wanted to stay in Chicago? Grimacing, she realized he’d probably moved for the same reason she had; a desperate need to get out of Greektown. Did Theo come to this coffee shop? What would she do if he walked in right now? She lowered her head and fiddled with the buttons on her jacket. She could be brave at work, but the thought of confronting Theo in a social setting made her palms sweat.

The barista called her name, and she got up to collect her latte. As she wound her way through the dining area, a conversation between two older women stopped her in her tracks.

“We’ve got five firefighters ready for the auction, Sophie. Theo said he might be a little late, but he’ll be there by dinner.”

“I can’t tell you how much this means to us, Emma. You didn’t have to do so much.”

“Trust me, it’s my pleasure. You and Walt would do the same for any of us, and this auction is a perfect way to help cover the bills insurance won’t pay.”

Approaching strange women in coffee shops wasn’t exactly her forte, but hearing about a firefighter named Theo was too tempting. She stopped at their table with uncharacteristically shy hesitation.

“Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear you. Were you talking about Theo Papadakis?”

One of the women wore a curious expression. “Do you know him?”

“Yes, we grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood. I’m Selene Alexiou.”

The two women looked at each other, grinning as they invited her to join them. Selene’s eyes widened as they described their plan to auction five hunky firefighters for a date night at an expensive lakeside resort outside of town.

“My husband Walt’s just been diagnosed with cancer,” said Sophie. “This auction is our best hope of getting the funds we need so he won’t have to worry about anything but his recovery. Making plans for this kind of thing is hard, but he loves the Crystal Cabin Club and he’s been looking forward to this event for weeks. It will be a hell of a party.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Selene said, reaching out to touch Sophie’s hand. “It must be a great relief for you both to have such a supportive community. We do the same things in Greektown, but it’s always less beefcake and more… cake.”

Sophie blinked and cackled at Selene’s joke, her eyes filling with tears of mirth. “You probably make a killing on that, too. Theo’s given me some of his mother’s sweets.”

Emma pulled some paper from her bag, shuffling a few sheets aside before Selene could get a good look at them. But what she saw made her catch her breath. The photo was of a large dungeon play space, complete with a St. Andrew’s cross, spanking benches, and other equipment she couldn’t name. Damn. If she’d realized what Theo had been up to around here, she’d have been on the first plane to Montana a year ago.

Sophie touched her hand and tugged the photo away from Emma. “I hope we can trust you to keep a confidence, Selene. The Crystal Cabin Club is an open secret in Big Banks, but not everyone is understanding.”

“Of course. It’s nobody’s business what consenting adults do on their own time.” She grinned impishly and tapped the photo. “Nice cross, by the way. Is it custom?”

Sophie chuckled softly. “Yes, it was built to fit the play space back in the nineteen twenties. Do you play?”

“I’m kind of a dabbler,” Selene demurred. It wasn’t exactly a lie; she’d been interested in D/s for years, but had never had the opportunity to scratch more than the surface of the dynamic.

The auction sparked a brilliant idea, and the chance to see Theo under different circumstances came into focus. She didn’t want revenge for her humiliation. Not really, anyway. They each had their own lives to live, and she had no interest in a relationship, even with her childhood crush. No, she wanted her confidence back.

She wasn’t the ugly duckling anymore. Intellectually, she knew that, and finding a date had never been much of a challenge after she reached adulthood. She wanted to see a spark of interest in Theo’s eyes and know it was for her.

She could go to Mexico tomorrow. Smiling, she held out her hand to her new friends. “Where do I sign up for this thing?”

* * *

A black-tie affair normally called for the tailored tuxedo in his closet, but this wasn’t that kind of event. After a year in the Crystal Cabin Club, he knew what to expect, and skin was in. He’d be wearing the tux for the buffet supper, but the after-party dress code was turnout gear and nothing else for him and four of his closest friends.

Theo still couldn’t believe he’d agreed to be auctioned off for a spanking weekend with a submissive he might not know. The auctions, both for the firefighters and the silent one for donated goods and services, had been opened up to nonmembers. Who the hell would spend money on a dom for a night?

The benefit was to support Walt Lassiter, head of their fire station. The man had been a mentor and father figure for the Greek boy so far from Chicago. Walt, and his wife Sophie, had helped with the transition to his new Western home, teaching him the joys of Tejano food and tequila. He’d never tell Mama, of course, but Sophie’s carnitas were better than anything she’d ever made and had long since supplanted stadium hot dogs as his favorite food.

Though he sometimes missed them like crazy, his huge family had ruled his life for a long time. His move to Montana was the best one he’d ever made for establishing his own way in the world. When he found out the job included a town with a well-respected BDSM club at an expensive lakeside resort, he couldn’t join the rural county department fast enough.

His own family was so very, very Greek. Greek cooking, Greek schools, Greek friends, Greek Sundays… A year ago, just a few days before he was scheduled to start his new job with Ladder 54, his mother had even tried to set him up with Selene Alexiou, the geeky, buck-toothed daughter of a childhood friend. He hadn’t seen the kid for years, but he’d heard she’d gotten some fancy degrees. He could understand having one. Unless she’d gone into a trade like most of their Greektown neighbors, she’d need it. He didn’t understand why she needed a doctorate, but he supposed she must have had a reason. It seemed like a big expense for a working class family, though. She also wasn’t exactly a kid. If he remembered correctly, she was only a few years younger than him, making her twenty-seven or so.

He felt a twinge of guilt about that cancelled lunch date. He’d been in the midst of packing up his small loft apartment when his mother called to tell him about it. If he’d had more time, he might have taken Selene out, but he’d had only three days to make the drive and get settled in his new apartment. It wasn’t as if they were dating or anything; she wasn’t his type, and he probably wasn’t hers. Hell, by now, she was probably already married.

Damned cancer. Walt and Sophie deserved a lot more years together. If a woman was going to bid on a dom for the evening, she needed to see a stern alpha, but he’d have to give them a performance to drive the bids up. He and the other four participants had agreed that Theo would go last. He wouldn’t call himself a professional, but he’d danced before when he needed extra money. To his surprise, no one teased him, though he wouldn’t have cared if they had. He just hoped it didn’t end up on YouTube. His performance would be the last chance to get those bids soaring.

As he drove to the cabin, he wondered who would bid on him. He’d played with many of the subs who frequented the club, but none stood out as a likely candidate. Owned by the Lassiters and expanded by hundreds of members from four surrounding counties, the Crystal Cabin Club was housed in a gorgeous log framed hunting lodge on the shores of Crystal Lake. Filled with handmade vintage equipment, it had the best play space he’d ever seen, far outstripping the few clubs he’d enjoyed in Chicago.

The lot was mostly full when he arrived, and he let out a soft curse as he jockeyed for a spot near the back of the parking area. Grabbing the duffel bag containing his turnout gear, he strode between cars and followed a beautifully dressed couple past Walt’s Camaro and inside. Despite the cold weather, the woman wore a shimmery red silk evening dress covered by a lace shawl. Her date’s tuxedo-clad arm wrapped around her waist to help her negotiate the cobblestone path leading to the patio entrance.

He winced and sighed as he stole a quick peek back at the car. Walt had put it up for the silent auction accompanying tonight’s festivities. Theo knew it would go to a good home, but it was a damned shame Walt had to sell it.

Sophie greeted him, tugging on his jacket to pull him down for a kiss. “Thank you for agreeing to the auction, Theo. You don’t know how much we appreciate it.”

“It’s the least I can do. Where is the old fart, anyway?” He looked around, but didn’t spot Walt.

What he did see was a goddess with pin-straight dark brown hair and a curvy ass tucked into a tight black evening dress with a slit almost to her hip. One shapely leg flashed, terminating in a wicked black stiletto. A small tattoo of a Greek goddess on her shoulder peeked at him from behind the curtain of her hair. He couldn’t get a good look at it, but he thought it might have been Athena.

Damn, that ass made him run a hand over his mouth to check for drool. Sweat bloomed on his lip, and he swallowed hard. Arms hooked with Emma Reed and a woman he didn’t know, the dark-haired beauty walked toward her table. She looked vaguely familiar, but Theo was sure he’d have remembered meeting such a striking creature.

Fellow auction offerings and firefighters Blake Anderson and Troy Channing settled in their chairs on either side of him while they waited for the buffet line to diminish. Scents of prime rib with all the trimmings made his stomach growl, though the noise was hidden under conversation and music from the orchestra.

As Troy began to speak, Theo watched avidly as the goddess walked to the bar and turned to face him. The skin around those pretty brown eyes crinkled as she pursed her lips and smiled at him. The bartender handed her a rocks glass filled with clear alcohol. She dropped a bill in the tip jar and thanked him without letting her eyes leave Theo’s face. Lifting two fingers to red-painted lips, she blew him a kiss and winked.

Burning heat crawled up his collar for the first time in years. Damn, what he wouldn’t give to have that gorgeous creature to play with. He could picture her bound against a St. Andrew’s cross, her back painted with red stripes from his flogger. Blue wax would be perfect too, and his throat dried as he pictured her writhing body while the hot fluid landed on a tender nipple.

Fingers snapped in front of his face, and he tore his gaze away from her. Scowling at Troy, he asked, “What?”

“What’s got your attention, Theo? I’ve asked you three times when you want to hit the lake for some fishing. It’s too bad we all can’t get the same time off, or we could head up to Declan’s fishing cabin together.”

“I’d say his mind’s on the stacked brunette at his twelve,” Blake murmured. “Wonder if she’ll be bidding.” He scowled and jerked his chin toward Tammi Lou Butterworth standing next to her. “Looks like she isn’t a fan of our resident Sugar Baby, either.”

Theo had to hold back a laugh as Tammi Lou’s high-pitched giggle carried through the room. She said something to the group of men with her, making the goddess frown. Tilting her aquiline nose in the air, she picked up her drink and stalked off.

“Good thing she’s after Walker and not us,” Troy said. He shuddered and added, “I hope that brunette is bidding. Hell, I’ll pay her tab if she bids on me and wins.”

Theo choked back the growl trying to crawl up his throat. If anyone was going to have her, it was going to be him. He just had to figure out how to entice her to bid on him.

* * *

Despite knowing Sophie less than a day, seeing the adoration between her and Walt was palpable and heart-wrenching. Their cause made the auction much more than a simple way to attract Theo’s attention. The gods of commercial construction and a unique skill set had made her an in-demand engineer, and she commanded a high price for her expertise. The money she contributed would be a real gift to the lovely couple.

She crossed her fingers, hoping she’d bid enough on the Camaro. Though she had no intention of taking advantage of Theo’s services, she had no doubt she’d win him. But she’d seen too many men eyeballing her car to be entirely sure she’d offered enough. She couldn’t have been the only one trolling online auctions to find the market value.

The prime rib buffet was probably the best she’d ever eaten, and she was the veteran of many unpalatable charity dinners. Selene stole a glance at Sophie, seated at the head of the table, too close to a rather unpleasant blonde woman she’d had the misfortune of overhearing at the bar while she waited for her drink. She had half a mind to bid on every single man up for auction just to keep the blonde from getting her acrylic claws into any of them. Hell, they’d probably thank her. It was one thing to be overtly sexual; that didn’t bother Selene at all. But the woman had been openly predatory and rude.

The orchestra put their instruments away and left the stage. Thumping bass poured from hidden speakers and the sensual beat made her want to dance as the excitement in the air burned to a crisp edge.

Knowing about Selene’s plans, Emma grabbed her hand. “Come on, the auction is about to start. Let’s get a seat in the back so he can’t see you. When are you going to spill the beans about who you are?”

“I’m going to let Sophie take care of that, but I’ll speak with him if he approaches me. I’m planning on going to Cancun tomorrow.”

“But what about your auction night? You’ll need to stay around for a few days to collect on that.”

“I’ll donate it. He can find someone else, I’m sure.”

Emma blinked, her surprise evident on her pretty face. “You’d blow that much money just for a chance to tell him off?”

No. Well, yes, maybe. A twinge of guilt crossed her mind for the dirty trick she was about to play on Theo. “This isn’t really about revenge. I’m just going to show him what he gave up when he ran away like a pussy.”

Coughing out a laugh, Emma said, “Well, I think you’ve already managed that. He hasn’t stopped staring at you all night, but I don’t think he recognizes you.”

Allowing herself a triumphant grin, Selene said, “I know.”

Watching all five of those perfect specimens of manhood strip out of their turnout coats and helmets was beyond hot. Mist from a fog machine swirled around their feet, and she had to swallow hard to clear her throat.

It was the man on the end who caught her interest, though. The last time she’d seen Theo had been at his high school graduation. In the same class as her cousin Lida, he’d been slim with a youthful frame. Now, he was all chiseled muscle with a scattering of dark hair across his chest, leading into a sweet treasure trail she wanted to trace with her tongue.

Shouts and exclamations of horror drew her attention from Walker Daniels, the first man to be auctioned. To Selene’s shock, he stepped off the stage and ran toward the unpleasant blonde woman, reaching her in time for her to get sick all over his shoes. Selene winced as the woman raced away, crying as she held the back of her dress. Though Selene hadn’t wanted to see one of the men in her clutches, she hoped the other woman was okay. Walker lifted a hand to his mouth, miming taking a drink. Selene shook her head. What a waste of a great evening.

Forgetting the blonde woman’s distress, she turned to face the stage again. Though all the men were gorgeous, she didn’t raise her arm to bid. The thought of one of those massive hands spanking her bottom until it was red hot was a powerful incentive, though. When Declan Kennedy walked across the stage, she nearly bid on him. She could satisfy her curiosity and still show Theo what he’d missed.

Letting the paddle fall to her lap, she shook her head. Theo was too close, too much of a draw for her attention. Besides, Mexico was calling, and she didn’t want to stay in Big Banks any longer than she had to.

* * *

Theo stood with the others, his gaze straying to the lithe, sensual body in a killer black cocktail dress. She chatted with the woman sitting next to her, but her eyes met his more than once, and she looked away every time with a tiny smile.

Though Declan had been hesitant about the auction from the beginning, he grinned and flexed enough to gather a very respectable bid.

He scowled when his woman’s paddle twitched during Declan’s performance as though she were getting ready to bid on him. Theo was going to use that lighted piece of wood to spank her voluptuous ass for even thinking of bidding on someone else. Thankfully, the winning bid went to a woman in the back row of folding chairs.

Sophie clapped as Theo took Declan’s place on stage. When the crowd quieted, she said, “Ladies, let’s give it up for our very own Greek god, Theo Papadakis, for whom a quickie is anything under two hours!”

Ignoring the wolf whistles and catcalls, Theo focused only on his goddess, glad to see he had her attention, though she hadn’t yet made a move to bid. The stage lights in his eyes prevented him from seeing her face, and he could only make out her voluptuous body.

“This one is hotter than a four-alarm fire,” Sophie said into the microphone, swaying her hips as her tight dress swirled around her ankles. “Theo is a master with a flogger and impact play, ladies. The things he does with those leather falls make a grown woman whimper. His combination of ice and fire will have you panting at his feet, and he’ll turn your bottom red to make sure you stay still for the ride.”

He took a step forward, getting most of the light out of his eyes as the bidding soared. She sat quietly, her hair resting on her shoulders like a dark chocolate river. She wasn’t as calm and contained as she pretended, though. Straight white teeth dug into her lower lip and her brow creased with a frown as her ankle bounced in time with the music. It was time to make his goddess sweat, and he sauntered to the edge of the stage. He’d given this show before, and the little minx would learn exactly what she’d be missing out on if she didn’t raise that paddle for him.

“Go Theo!” shouted a feminine voice from the back of the room. He nodded and grinned easily as the music picked up a beat and several people began to clap.

His eyes never left her sensuous body, and his cock grew harder when he allowed himself to imagine what secrets she was hiding under the smooth fabric of her dress. With an easy grace, he ran his hands over his pecs and down his abs as he moved his hips back and forth to the music. When he pulled his belt out of its loops and cracked it with a snap, the crowd roared.

He didn’t hear the bidding calls, or the dollar amount as it rose higher but women shrieked in delight at the unexpected show. Though she smiled and laughed at something her companion said, she didn’t attempt to join the furious bidding.

As the music continued, Theo put his left hand behind his neck and threw his head back, then motioned to the crowd demanding more shouts. With a grin, he flexed his muscles and winked while sliding his hand down his abs toward his belt line. When he lowered his hand down the front of his pants, the crowd roared in approval.

To his irritation, his woman refused to move. If she’d just raise that damned paddle and made a large enough bid, he could be done with this entire show. He didn’t see any cameras or phones out, but if his little performance ended up on the internet, he was going to blister her pretty backside but good.

He burned from a combination of anger and frustration and it took a glance at Walt standing by the bar to keep him going. The bids were coming so fast he couldn’t hear them, so he released a suspender, allowing the heavy fabric to drop over one hip and reveal the crease of his groin and the room exploded with noise as several women shouted in a mini battle for his services.

At two thousand dollars, the room grew quiet and Sophie finally said, “Going once…”

God damn it! The goddess hadn’t so much as twitched an eyelash, but her paddle showed the tiniest sign of life.

“Going twice for two thousand…”

To his shock and gratitude, she lifted her paddle, but didn’t smile as she met his eyes. In a voice as cold as ice, she said, “Three thousand.”

The jump in bidding and the resolve on her face shut down the war with an oppressive silence. One more paddle went into the air, held by a sub he’d played with before. His mystery woman gave him a satisfied smirk as she outbid her rival.

Sophie whooped in delight, making the crowd laugh and applaud. “Sold to Dr. Selene Alexiou for three thousand, two hundred. Congratulations, Doctor, and thank you all for participating in our Date-A-Dom auction.”

Theo’s heart skipped and stalled before returning to a measured beat. Selene… Alexiou? He’d just been bought for a kinky scene by the buck-toothed, skinny kid with the older brothers who needed a good ass kicking every now and again? Her father was going to fucking kill him.

463f54ac45c1eeddaa94f5e10ba31d6e--hot-men-sexy-men

Light Me Up by Raisa Greywood available only in the Ladder 54 box set, due to be released this Friday, 8/31 and on SALE NOW!

About the Author:

Raisa is an up and coming author of romance with a dark and naughty twist. Her heroes are sometimes flawed but always the alpha in the room, while her heroines are atypical and can take anything those bossy alphas dish out.

She is the winner of the 2017 “Ignite the Flame” contest sponsored by Central Ohio Fiction Writers in the Paranormal category. The one thing that Raisa most loves is tipping tropes on their ears and making fun of them. She also adores alliteration.

She’s lived all over the world but currently resides in the Midwestern United States with her husband, two irascible cats, and a big bay rescue horse.

Check out Raisa’s newest release, Bastard’s New Baby, available now at all your favorite retailers. You can find the buy links at:  https://raisagreywood.com/books/bastards-new-baby/

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The Dance Card by Maren Smith

It’s the Ladder 54 countdown! Five more days until this hot new box set is released!! The preorder has just gone live, which means the sale price of $2.99 is in effect! Get your copy now, because when Ladder 54 publishes on Friday, the price will jump back to $4.95!

ladder54

What do you get when five smokin’ hot firemen put themselves up for auction to help with a charitable cause? How about anything a lady could want.

Five brand-new stories. Five weekends their ladies will never forget. These Doms have set the thermostat to ‘Panty Melting’… that is, if they’d let you wear them.

How about a sneak peek at the first story in the set?

MSTDCteaser3

Blurb:

Shy, awkward wallflower Rylee Mercer has never had the courage to stop watching the world around her and actually play with any doms at the local BDSM club, and especially not handsome, commanding Walker Daniels. But when she wins a date with Walker at a kink-themed charity auction by less than honest means, will he take it upon himself to punish her properly?

Chapter One

Rylee Mercer arrived at the Crystal Lake cabin a good ten minutes before she finally worked up courage enough to get out of her car.

“I can do this,” she whispered under her breath. She was strong. She was fierce. She was worth this; she deserved it. And besides, there was always a chance Tammi Lou might not attend tonight, so Rylee probably didn’t even need to worry about… well, that.

It still took ten minutes, each and every one of which was filled with the kind of whispered validations that would have done self-help guru Murphy Wallace proud, if only he knew she’d bought all his books. Or that she was his number one undeclared fan. Or, in fact, that she existed at all.

Which was the reason she’d started reading his books in the first place. Rylee Mercer was tired of not existing. She was tired of being the most invisible girl at any given party—the stalwart wallflower, always in a corner, watching the action because she lacked the nerve to do… well, anything. That she’d received an invite at all was only due to being a vetted CCC member and, therefore, on the automatic invite roster. Otherwise, she probably wouldn’t be.

“You’re fierce,” she whispered, brows drawn in determination, hands wringing the black felt of her steering wheel cover. “Get your fierce ass out of this stupid car.”

But getting out meant walking up to the cabin, with all those smokers gathered around the fire pit watching her come and knowing why. The embarrassment…

Oh, as if they weren’t here for the same damn thing!

But still… embarrassment.

Another car pulled in and parked, not next to Rylee who preferred sheltering under the warped boughs of the mutant Douglas fir that bent and bowed over the farthest corner of what was otherwise a neatly manicured circular parking lot. Even in her car, she was always in the corner. But, no. That new arrival parked among the twenty or so other vehicles that lined up side by side as close to the patio walkway as it could get.

Three people got out of the car. Rylee recognized two fellow members. She had no idea who the third woman was, but the instant they started walking, she jumped out of her car and hurried to catch up. Better to be part of a group than to make this journey alone—even if the rest of the group had no idea she was tagging along.

Sophie knew, though. Standing sentry at the cabin door, she smiled in greeting. But then, she smiled to everyone, and gave them each a cheerful hello as she held open the door.

“I’m glad you could make it,” she said to Rylee, but Rylee tried not to take it personally. Nothing if not a good hostess, Sophie did this at every play party too.

Still, to be polite, Rylee smiled back and murmured a shy, “Thanks.” Once she was in, however, she detached herself from the group and quickly ducked into the nearest shadowy nook to stop herself from hyperventilating.

She had this. She had this, damn it! Strong! Fierce! Don’t weaken now, you can do this!

She jumped when a man she didn’t know tapped her elbow. “May I take your coat?” He smiled, his gray eyes warm and inviting. Rylee didn’t take that personally, either. If he was taking her coat, that meant he must be working for Sophie. Being friendly would be part of the job.

“Thanks.” Feeling even more awkward than usual, Rylee relinquished her coat. Snagging her black sequined wallet out of the pocket, she quickly made sure the glittering skirt of her minuscule cocktail dress was tugged down over everything that ought to be covered, then made herself stop fidgeting. It was the only little black dress she owned and she’d had to go all the way to Missoula to get it. Every bit as sequined as her wallet purse, the V-neck collar was low, the shoulder straps were spaghetti-thin, and the skirt was cut so high up her thigh that if she wasn’t careful when she sat, she’d be showing off her panties. Something that happened all the time here at the cabin, albeit usually only on party nights. This was not a party night.

Tonight was special. Something that would likely never happen again, not in all the history of the BDSM group that called Big Banks home.

Tonight, they were going to auction off some of the group’s most eligible doms, each for a night of private play right here at the cabin, with all proceeds going to help Sophie’s husband, Walt, the fire chief of Big Banks, as he battled cancer. Like most people here, for a cause of that magnitude, Rylee would have donated anyway.

Big Banks wasn’t a huge town. Everybody pretty much knew everybody else. Most smiled and waved, and it wasn’t uncommon to see two vehicles stopped side by side in the middle of the road just so the drivers could chat for a while. Rylee had lived here all her life, she’d never once locked her front door—she wasn’t even sure the hardware store sold locks—and she still remembered sitting in the gymnasium during her eleventh-grade year when newly made fire chief Walt Lassiter had come to her school to instruct them on the dos and don’ts of fire safety. Even without the auction, she’d have donated money to help defray the costs of what she was sure were about to become massive medical bills. She might not have donated as much as was currently stuffed into her fancy, glittering wallet, but she would have given something.

That donating tonight would also win her one full day and night of Walker Daniels’ undivided attention was beside the point. It was, quite possibly, the only way Rylee would ever play with the ruggedly handsome dom who had caught her eye for the first time way back in high school. Now that he was divorced and back from Los Angeles, he’d caught it all over again. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one looking his way.

Walker was a service dom. Attending almost every party, he spent those nights jumping from partner to partner and scene to scene. Over the last year, that had made him one of the most highly sought-after doms at the Crystal Cabin Club. He played with anyone. Everyone, even… except Rylee. He didn’t even have to do the asking anymore. From the moment he arrived and descended the stairs to the basement dungeon, submissives flocked to him. And there he’d be, laughing, chatting, negotiating scene after scene until his dance card was full, and there she’d be, lurking in the shadows like some B-movie stalker, wanting him desperately, and just waiting for a chance to move in for the kill.

Except that chance never came, because every time she worked up nerve enough to head his way, something always happened. Most of the time that ‘something’ was her chickening out and veering off into the bathroom where she could quickly lock the door and hyperventilate as quietly as possible in a corner of the black-and-white-tiled shower. But once, that something had been Tammi Lou, falling off the cross where she had been receiving a relatively minor flogging. She’d landed practically at Walker’s feet, causing one hell of a commotion. For ten minutes straight, Rylee had watched in shadowy, stalker-y, simmering resentment while Walker and another of his fireman buddies gave Tammi Lou first-aid-style aftercare, much to Tammi Lou’s current sugar daddy’s ill-concealed annoyance.

Much to Rylee’s, too. She hadn’t said two words to Tammi Lou since that night, something that might have had greater impact if only Rylee could have worked up the nerve to talk to her before then.

Or if Tammi Lou had noticed.

She was such a mess. Resisting the urge to rub her face and ruin her makeup, Rylee fled to the quiet end of the bar. There were so many beautiful women here, what chance did she possibly have against so much competition?

Except, a quiet voice in the back of her head whispered, tonight it isn’t up to any of those women or even to Walker. Tonight, Walker’s undivided attention would go to whomever had the nerve and the cash to win it.

“Tequila,” she said, just as soon as Lance wandered down to her end of the bar and placed two used glasses in a bucket bound for the kitchen.

He poured one for her, then headed back to the busy end of the bar, where—true to past scene-hogging behaviors—Tammi Lou stood surrounded by fellow club members, laughing and absorbing all the attention she could, like the emotionally deficit sponge that she was.

“There’s only one man up on that stage I’m interested in,” she boasted, accepting the drink Lance passed to her. Waggling her shoulders to show off her boobs—even Rylee looked; Tammi Lou had great boobs—she settled in against the bar, smirking up into the eyes of an admiring dom. “I’m a bad, bad girl, and I can’t wait to do some really bad, bad things to him.”

“You might not be able to afford him,” another man said coyly. “Who will you be bad for then?”

A shiver of cold washed over Rylee, sparked by the other woman’s throaty laugh.

“Of course I can afford him, darling,” she said, letting her fingers do the walking right up his tie and adjusting the lay of the knot at his throat. “I’ve got my sugar daddy’s MasterCard. Excuse me. I’ll be right back.”

Ducking out of her group of admirers, she left them all shaking their heads while she left the bar in search of an unoccupied bathroom. An experienced party girl, she took her drink with her.

From her quiet end of the bar, Rylee watched as Tammi headed her way. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to Tammi Lou, but if she didn’t, she might as well go home right now.

Tipping back her head, Rylee drained her shot. It burned all the way to her stomach, but she’d have taken two or three more just like it if only there were time. There wasn’t. Courage, she told herself and, when Tammi Lou walked past her, Rylee slipped seamlessly into the perfumed breeze of her passing and followed her all the way to the powder room.

Tammi Lou glanced back over her shoulder as she pushed open the door. “Oh.” She startled when she saw Rylee. “Sorry. I didn’t see you.”

Rylee made herself smile. “That’s okay.” She was used to it, and it wasn’t likely that Tammi Lou would notice anyone… unless she thought they might give her something.

“Here,” Tammi Lou said, pushing her drink into Rylee’s hand. “A girl can never be too careful, but taking a drink into the bathroom is disgusting. You don’t mind holding it for me, do you?” Her smile was as fake as it was catty, nor did she give Rylee a chance to refuse. She simply went inside and closed the door, leaving Rylee with nothing to do but stand there, staring at the first aid kit attached to the wall and holding that stupid drink.

“So,” Tammi Lou called through the door, ever willing to be the center of attention, even if she had to strike it up herself. “Are you planning to bid in the auction tonight?”

“Yes, I am,” Rylee made herself say, which would have been the perfect moment to segue into what she really wanted to say, which was: “I know you really want Walker, but between the two of us, we both know you can get him at the snap of your fingers. So why not be nice just this once and let me have him?” Heat burned her face and, though her mouth opened, the pathetic plea refused to come out.

“Who are you bidding on?” Tammi Lou pressed, but with a smirk in her voice that Rylee could hear right through the wood.

Tammi Lou had access to more money than anyone with her self-centered, twelve-year-old, selfish-whore mentality ought to. She had men lined up to be her sugar daddy, and she ran through both them and their bank accounts with the kind of wild abandon that nobody except kings and presidents could afford for very long. Rylee didn’t have that kind of money. She was a day-trader with a trust fund, a few careful, long-term investments that kept her monthly bills paid, and a part-time job at the Big Banks elementary school library. There was no way she could outbid Tammi Lou if both their hearts were set on the same dom.

“Walker,” Rylee answered, staring at the first aid kit on the wall. Her voice sounded odd. As if it were someone else speaking from a tinny distance.

Tammi Lou laughed. “How funny is that?” she snickered, that audible smirk of hers deepening. “I guess we’ll be competing for the same man, then.”

“I guess so.” Rylee’s shoulders sagged. Tammi Lou was going to bid. No matter what Rylee did, she was going to bid and she was going to win.

It wasn’t fair. That horrible woman could have anyone she wanted, whenever she snapped her glossy-pink manicured fingers. Rylee had one chance. One. If she lost it tonight, deep inside her heart she knew there would never be another. She would never know what it was like to have a man like Walker put his hands on her, touch her with those same practiced strokes and caresses that she watched him use on the other submissives in the club. She would always be just another voyeur in the shadows.

“Well,” Tammi Lou said brightly. Behind the bathroom door, the toilet flushed, followed by the spraying sound of water in the sink. “I guess the only thing left to say is, let the best woman win.”

She laughed again, that throaty chuckle that said Rylee wasn’t even in the same competition much less Tammi Lou’s caliber of winner’s circle. She was right, too. Rylee wasn’t.

The door unlocked and Tammi Lou swung out, a mean little smile of victory twisting her perfectly painted lips. Rylee’s own face felt like brittle plastic and yet, somehow she still managed an answering smile when the other woman plucked her drink from Rylee’s numb fingers.

“I wish you luck,” she smirked. “You’re going to need it, honey.”

Knocking back her drink, the bombshell blonde rolled it victoriously across her tongue and swallowed hard just before her face screwed into a grimace. She gagged. “Ugh, word of the wise, sweetheart. Stay away from the tequila. I knew Sophie was desperate, but if I’d known she was cheap, I’d have brought her a bottle or two from home.”

Shuddering, she thrust the now empty glass back at Rylee and walked away, leaving the shorter woman to stare morosely at the wall.

She ought to just go home. At this point, why stay if all she was going to do was watch Tammi walk away with the hottest, most popular dom in the club?

What happened to fierce, a little voice in the back of her head whispered. What happened to strong? What happened to being willing to fight for what she wanted? If she thought for one second a poke in the nose would win her Walker for a day, Rylee would happily chase her down and slug her one. But this wasn’t about fighting. It was about money, and no matter how much she wished it differently, Rylee just did not have enough.

Her hands dropped despairingly to her sides, but Rylee had forgotten about Tammi’s glass until she felt it slip from her fingers. She jumped when it shattered all around her feet.

“Oh crap,” she dropped, guiltily scrambling after the broken pieces. But between the noise from all the cooks working in the kitchen, the music from the orchestra, and all the guests laughing and talking around the bar, nobody noticed what she had done. Pain lanced her fingertip. “Ow!” Yanking her hand back up, Rylee sucked back a curse as blood welled around the jagged piece of glass she’d stabbed herself with. No one noticed that, either.

Hissing softly, she plucked it out and immediately released a flow of crimson the likes of which neither the floor nor her dress would escape for very long.

“Damn it.” Pushing into the bathroom, Rylee washed her bleeding finger in the sink and hoped for a quick clot. When that failed, she wrapped her finger in toilet paper and hurried back out to clean up the broken glass before anyone else got hurt. Her throbbing finger soon bled through the toilet paper wrap, but fortunately, the CCC was a safety-first kind of club. It had first aid kits everywhere, including right here.

With one hand full of broken glass for the garbage, she unhooked the kit from the wall and went back into the bathroom. Throwing the former away, she set the latter on the counter by the sink and dug into it in search of a Band-Aid.

Funny, the things one’s eyes fell upon in moments such as this. It might have been a Band-Aid Rylee was looking for, but as soon as she propped the kit open, it was the little brown bottle wedged among the other ointments that she saw first. Syrup of ipecac.

A shudder moved up her spine, tickling at a distant memory of the one time when, as a very little girl, she’d eaten a mushroom from the yard and her panicking mother had shoved this very stuff down her throat.

If she couldn’t outbid Tammi Lou, that treacherous little voice in her head whispered, then she would have to make sure Tammi Lou was in no condition to bid at all.

Her finger throbbed. So did her conscience, but neither of those stopped Rylee from snatching that bottle from the kit and quickly stuffing it into her sequined wallet of a purse. Stuffing it down beneath her envelope full of cash—down to the dollar, every bit that she could afford to spare on a venture such as this—Rylee snapped it shut again, so no one else would see what she had done. No one else was in the bathroom, but from the moment Rylee raised her gaze to lock with that of her reflection in the mirror, all she could see was the guilt in her stare.

And the blood she was dripping all over the sink, her little black purse, and the outside of the first aid kit.

Shit.

It took almost ten minutes and four Band-Aids to staunch the flow. By then, she had a plan in her head that made the guilt growing on her face shine like a neon bar sign. She would have to get close to Tammi Lou. But if she could, then sometime before dinner ended and the auction began, all she had to do was slip the ipecac into Tammi’s drink. Ten to twenty minutes after that, if she got the dosage right, the effects would kick in and Tammi Lou would be too busy in the bathroom for another half hour after that to bid on anybody.

I wish you luck, Tammi Lou had snickered, right before she’d walked away.

Avoiding her own guilty face, Rylee drew herself to stand a little straighter. This was not her proudest moment, but she set her shoulders the way a strong and confident woman should.

“Good luck to you, too,” she belatedly told Tammi. She was about to need it more than she knew.

* * *

“How did I get talked into this again?” Walker asked, shrugging into his heavy fireproof work coat. Standing behind the massive show screen with the others who had volunteered, all he could hear was the beating of his own heart and the sounds of the women filing into the room on the other side of the screen. The dinner portion of tonight’s event must be done; he was dessert. Despite his own building excitement, he couldn’t believe he was doing this.

Beside him, Declan, arguably his best friend of all the guys who worked at Ladder 54, shrugged his eyebrows and said, “You wanted to do something to help bring in a lot of money and, like me, having nothing else of any real value, you decided… what the hell.”

To Walker’s left, Troy tipped back his head and prayed, “Please, dear God, don’t let me be bought by Tammi Lou.”

“Amen,” everyone grumbled at once.

Declan snorted. “She’s not after you, bud. She’s fixed on Walker.”

Walker wasn’t as annoyed by the acknowledgement as much as he was by the way his friend sang his name. “Tell me how to get rid of the problem and still keep my membership, and I’ll be happy to send her packing.”

“Just say no.”

“I ha—”

“Shh!” Blake shushed from the edge of the screen. He continued watching the audience for a moment, then came back to finish getting ready with the rest of them. “Boy, it’s packed out there. I never knew there were this many man-hungry submissives on the CCC roster.”

“There’s not,” Theo said with a grin. “Remember, Sophie said she sent those flyers out to every major BDSM group in Montana.”

On the other side of the screen, the microphone came on and Sophie Lassiter’s voice crowed her welcoming greeting over the loudspeakers.

“I feel like a piece of meat,” Declan said, flexing his neck and trying to relax as the men assembled into a ready line.

“Yeah,” Theo agreed, then grinned. “Isn’t it great?”

Declan and Walker both looked at him.

Blake whapped Theo’s arm. “This experience ought to be sucking the joy of strip clubs right out of you.”

Theo’s grin only broadened. “Try growing up in the same close Greek neighborhood I did, my friend. Trust me, it only whets the appetite.”

When the lights went out, Walker felt the jolt of nervous energy ripple straight down through the line of his brothers and up his back. It was a lot like staring into the gaping maw of a burning building: unsure if anyone was still inside, but knowing if someone didn’t check, a person could die. And he was that someone. That jolt of sizzling energy didn’t just dash up his spine, it shot down his legs now too.

Sophie was almost done spelling out the rules. She was going to introduce them soon, and the lights were already down low. They’d flash on soon. Then it was do or die time, and Jesus, he was first.

As he’d done with just about every other burning building he’d encountered in his career, Walker took the lead. Silent as fireman-clad ninjas in heavy boots and rattling helmets, they ducked out from around the screen and hurried to stand in a line in front of it.

“I feel like such a piece of meat,” Declan said again.

“I think I see my ex,” Blake said.

“What?” Everybody stared at him.

“Submissive,” he clarified. “Not wife.”

“You did that on purpose,” Troy accused, and the volume on Sophie’s speakers shot up to cover both Blake’s muffled chuckles and the cheers of the crowd. Women jumped out of their chairs, clapping and whooping, and nearly drowned Sophie’s spiel, making her shout the last of her introduction: “I bring you the bad boys from Big Banks’ very own Ladder 54 and the CCC’s first ever Date-A-Dom!”

Do or die. Walker managed to bow his head along with his coworkers just before the blinding stage lights snapped on. Even staring down at his own booted feet, at last he understood how the possums on the highway felt, pinned in the brights of his truck’s headlamps. Not the sort to get stage fright under normal circumstances, Walker usually loved performing in front of an audience. Heaven knew, he did it every play party night, dancing his dance with submissive after submissive. Sending them to fly in the heights of subspace through the steady application of his floggers, or the sharp biting snaps of his cane.

As one, his brothers removed their coats. Walker barely managed not to lag behind. His coat hit the floor perhaps only a half second after everyone else’s. Hopefully, he wasn’t so out of sync that anyone noticed. Like he had any reason to be nervous. Like he hadn’t already played with more than half of the CCC submissives in this crowd at least once. That was one of the best benefits to being a dom outside of a committed relationship. Or, in his case, any relationship. He could play with anyone he wanted, in any way he wanted, without fear of having to ask permission or worry about what touches might or might not set off his significant other.

“Walker!” Sophie called, startling him from his thoughts. She was supposed to introduce him, but his name and the subsequent cheering that followed was all he heard.

Shit. He was up already. He wasn’t prepared, and yet his long legs carried him to the front of the stage just as they’d done in their rehearsals. Every step felt like a leap of faith, though. The lights were so bright, he couldn’t see a thing. But he could hear and, wow, the language these submissives were using as they catcalled out of the darkness. He wasn’t a sailor, had never felt the urge to be one, but a sailor would have blushed at some of the comments he caught when he turned sideways to show off his physique and even struck a somewhat goofy pose. At least, it felt goofy. The ladies went wild, and damn if Sophie wasn’t egging them on.

“A master with both flogger and cane,” she shouted above the noise of the cheering crowd “If you’ve seen him play, then you also know he’s got one hell of a pumper!”

Oh, Jesus. Walker almost rolled his eyes. He cast a glare out over the audience he couldn’t see for the lights. Sophie had better hope she got out of here before he did, because otherwise, his chief’s wife or not, he was going to swat her ass.

Fuck it, he sighed. When in Rome… Flexing his biceps, he gave two sultry pumps of his hips, much to the delight of the women in the audience. Auction paddles flashed all over the room, like blinking red fireflies riding that sea of shadow beyond the glare of the stage lamps even before Sophie bellowed those infamous words: “Shall we start the bidding at one hundred dollars?”

The audience went off like a shot. Before he even thought to flex another muscle or pump his ‘pumper’ or, hell, rip his pants off and give the girls a show to match anything they’d seen at any beefcake show in Vegas, his cost soared over eight hundred dollars.

“Yes, ma’am,” he mouthed back over his shoulders to the rest of the guys.

“They’re overpaying,” his best friend Declan shot back, but they were all grinning.

His price topped a thousand, and Walker promptly struck another pose, showing the audience the size of his spanking hand and his best ‘You’d better mind me, little girl’ glare. The bidding, which had begun to slow down, shot up another two hundred dollars. It hit fifteen hundred when he shrugged out of his suspenders and took off the belt his uniform did not require, but which he’d thought might be a useful stage prop for a show like this. He doubled the worn leather over and crooked his finger to the audience. It was too bad he couldn’t see beyond the blinding glare of the stage lights, or he’d have walked out among those cheering ladies to pull the first willing one that he came across over his knee and mock spank her for the crowd. Which was also too bad, because there was so much more to him than just a man who liked to spank. What about his violet wand? His Hitachi wand? His multicolored low-temperature wax candles and play bag full of toys that revolved around bondage and sensation play? He could make a head-to-toe zipper in three minutes flat and rip it off again in a hell of a lot less. He was versatile and learned, and he took pride in various techniques that he’d studied in the lifestyle. Flogging and caning was only a single facet of who he was as a dom. But then, Sophie’s flyers had emphasized what these ladies were purchasing was one night of hot spanking fun. As much as he didn’t want anyone mistaking the Date-A-Dom auction for Purchase-A-Prostitute, he saw no harm in showcasing exactly how he might put the ‘hot’ into their evening, were they so inclined.

Grabbing a phantom head of hair, he mimed putting a woman on her knees and face-fucking her there, and damn if his price didn’t jump again. It was seventeen hundred now, although it was slowing down. The race seemed to be between two determined bidders, with one bidding immediately upon the back of the other, while the other was taking longer and longer to follow through.

Curiosity gaining the best of him, Walker approached the edge of the stage. From here, the lights were almost directly at his knees—still blinding, but the shift in vantage did leave him able to see the shadow of individual faces in that sea of blackness. He could also hear a little better. Whether it was because the disappointed bidders had fallen to pouting silence, or because others were as curious as he was to see who the last two bidders were, the audience had somewhat calmed. Beneath what catcalling and laughing continued on, Walker thought he heard something else. Something lower-pitched, like a grunt of exertion… or perhaps, distress. Either way, it was an unusual sound to make in the middle of a bidding war.

Stepping over the light directly in front of him, Walker hopped off the stage. The grunting sounded desperate now, deep and guttural and rhythmic, like someone in the throes of sex. He wasn’t the only one to notice either. Heads were turning. People kept looking back over their shoulders, trying to identify where that noise was coming from. A paddle came up in the back, flashing a blink of deep red and punctuating it with a grunt that drew his immediate attention.

“Yup!” called David, a fellow firefighter who had volunteered to act as Sophie’s auction spotter. He pointed to a flashing paddle in the front row as the bid climbed a hundred dollars higher.

Walker recognized the front-row submissive as a member of the CCC, although he couldn’t immediately place her name. She was a quiet one. The sort that liked to watch, but never seemed to play. At least, he’d never seen her play.

“I’m fine,” snapped a raspy voice, drawing Walker’s attention back to the far row again. A few seconds later, a badly quavering paddle rose high enough to flash out a single red blink, then immediately dropped out of sight again. The paramedic in him took over. Walker strode down the aisle, amazed that neither David nor Sophie had noticed the woman was bowing over, clutching her stomach and rocking.

“Excuse me. Excuse me.” Walker squeezed his way through the densely occupied row of women and folding chairs until he reached her. When he lay his hand on her shoulder, she raised her sweat-bathed face and—ah, hell. It was Tammi Lou, and just that fast her shoulders suddenly jerked and hunched, and bending double, she vomited all over his shoes.

The blowout must have affected both ends, because the woman on her other side squealed in disgust and leapt out of her chair, falling into the person on her left because they were too tightly packed to have anywhere really to go.

Flushed, panting, and now crying too, Tammi Lou grabbed both her mouth and the back of her dress. She all but climbed over everyone in her race for the nearest bathroom. Her sobbing echoed weirdly with the deep thumping base of the stripper music.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer girl, Walker thought and was instantly ashamed of himself for it. Nobody deserved that. Not even a shallow, selfish, money-grabbing person like Tammi Lou, whose only noticeable ambition in life seemed to be bilking money out of men in exchange for sex.

The music was still thumping, but now people were whispering. The laughing had fallen silent and so had Sophie.

“No, no,” he mouthed, waving his hand for her to proceed. “Too much to drink.”

From the bar, Lance brought cleaning supplies and a bucket of hot Pine-Sol-scented water.

“Was that Tammi Lou I saw tearing out of here?” Lance asked once he was close enough to be heard over the music. This wasn’t the worst mess they’d ever seen, and it didn’t bear much need for commenting beyond, “Carry on. Excuse me, ma’am. Nothing to see here,” as Walker waded back down the row to scrub the floor, chair, and his own shoes. “Carry on.”

Sophie was too far away and the music too loud for her to hear his mutterings, but she was a smart woman and she’d already drawn her conclusions. Her mic clicked on, her spiel started up again, and the crowd—made up of sensible women who’d been promised a good time—were more than willing to get back into the swing of the next auctioned male.

Trust Blake to provide a distraction when one was needed. His good ol’ boy wink and charm soon had the ladies cheering again. Leaving Lance to dispose of the bucket, rags, and filthy water, Walker ducked into the men’s room to wash his hands and make himself presentable to meet his winning bidder.

Was it the same young woman—her name still eluded him; R-something, wasn’t it? Rachel… Regan… Rebecca—that he’d seen before Tammi and her bout of sickness claimed his attention? Or had the winning bid been stolen by someone else? Ready to see who he’d be playing with, Walker dried his hands, combed his fingers through his short dark locks to make sure he didn’t have helmet-hair cowlicks standing up anywhere, and then headed out to meet up with whomever was waiting for him.

Only nobody was.

Walker searched the bar and circled the outskirts of the audience, every whooping one of them with attentions fixed on the stage, but he couldn’t find a single lady patiently waiting with a happy-expectant-nervous-apprehensive or any combination of those emotions on her face. No one was standing near Sophie, either, who was once more working the crowd, driving up the bidding being ‘yupped’ out by David each time a red-light-flashing paddle shot up in the air. Currently on the stage, Blake was air-humping and air-spanking to the music, and those ladies with their paddles were going crazy. If he kept that up, his auction price was going to clear Walker’s. Which didn’t spark seeds of jealousy so much as relief. He was glad Sophie and Walt were getting the help they needed.

Speaking of which, where had his own winning bidder gone?

A quick glance back over the crowd revealed only one other empty chair, and that had been in the spot R-something had been bidding from.

Yeah, like that didn’t hit him in the ego. She’d just shelled out two grand for him and then, what? She’d bailed? Without lingering to say ‘hi’ or exchange phone numbers, or solidify any date night plans?

Maybe she’d gone to check on Tammi Lou.

Curious, Walker left the noisy living room again and ventured down the hall. It was only because the back-patio wall was all windows and there was a fire still burning in the smoking area that he saw the shadows of R-something, head down, clutching her coat tight around her as she fled for the parking lot.

Okay, now that did hit his ego. Had he taken too long in the bathroom? Did she think he’d ditched her?

A flash of white light startled him. Turning, Walker spotted Lance, tucked back behind his bar with a camera in hand. “That little lady could not get away from you fast enough,” he said with a grin. Chuckling, he examined the digital picture he took. “Oh, yeah, this is going right up on the firehouse Wall of Shame.”

Yeah, this didn’t affect his ego at all.

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The Dance Card by Maren Smith is available only in the Ladder 54 box set, coming Friday, 8/31 but on SALE NOW for the special price of $2.99 for all five stories!!

About me:

Fortunate enough to live with my Daddy Dom, I am a Little, coffee whore, pain slut, administrator at my local BDSM dungeon, resident of the wilds of freakin’ Kansas (still don’t know how I ended up here) and submissive to the love of my life. An International and USA Bestselling Author, I have penned more than 120 novels, novellas and short stories, and am the author of the Masters of the Castle series.

CONNECT WITH ME

Visit Maren Smith’s blog here: http://badgirlscorner.blog

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Just when you thought summer couldn’t get any HOTTER!!!

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What do you get when five smokin’ hot firemen put themselves up for auction to help with a charitable cause? How about anything a lady could want.

Five brand-new stories. Five weekends their ladies will never forget. These Doms have set the thermostat to ‘Panty Melting’… that is, if they’d let you wear them.

Are you curious at all about what awaits behind this entirely too-lickable cover? Of course you are! So here it is, in the order in which the stories appear:

The Dance Card by Maren Smith

Shy, awkward wallflower Rylee Mercer has never had the courage to stop watching the world around her and actually play with any doms at the local BDSM club, and especially not handsome, commanding Walker Daniels. But when she wins a date with Walker at a kink-themed charity auction by less than honest means, will he take it upon himself to punish her properly?

Light Me Up by Raisa Greywood

Theo used to be Selene’s hero, but she doesn’t need one anymore, especially after he blew her off and moved across the country to get away from her. When she goes to Montana on business, she learns things about Theo that might make her change her mind about her childhood hero.

After escaping Greektown and his horde of well-meaning relatives, Theo is content in Big Banks, Montana. A chance meeting with a woman he’d left behind makes him rethink what he thought he wanted. Selene Alexiou fits none of his outdated stereotypes, but he wants her anyway.

When Theo and Selene meet for the first time as adults, chemistry isn’t the only thing sparking between them.

Rekindled by Adaline Raine

Dakota Channing returns to the sleepy little town of Big Banks hoping to gather enough courage to explain to her ex-husband why she left, instead she bids on him at a charity auction. Now she’s won a night with a Dom, in all the ways she could imagine, and even in some ways beyond her wildest dreams.

Troy Channing didn’t expect his ex-wife to come back home for a event at the exclusive CCC cabin, or ever. Can he forgive the love of his life for abandoning their marriage or will they turn their legal separation into a divorce for good?

Sparked By Deception by Isabella Laase

For years, Claire Siracusa had allowed her twin sister Claudia the lead in planning their identical lives, but when she agrees to pool their resources and bid for the sexy Declan Kennedy in the kinky charity auction, the covert weekend quickly grows out of control. Attracted to the powerful dom, Claire must negotiate her emotional response to his firm hand while keeping her sister out of his bedroom.

A Hero for Lauren by Felicity Brandon

He saved her once, but after Lauren wins a night with her fantasy firefighter, can Blake still be her hero?

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Pre-order for Ladder 54 will go live on Amazon tomorrow (8/27) at the special sale price of $2.99. The sale price will only last until Friday. So, mark your calendar and get your copy while the price is every bit as hot as the stories!

Also, join me tonight on The Lair’s Angels for fun, games, a chance to win a copy of the entire boxed set and prizes galore, not just from me, but from a whole wide array of authors and their new releases! You’ll need to join, but it’s free. So sign up now and have fun all day!

The Eighth New Book in the Masters of the Castle Witness Protection Program

The new exciting addition to the Masters of the Castle boxed set, Witness Protection Program, is now live. Eight new stories by ten awesome authors, for less than $1.25 each. Get your copy today!

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Want a sneak peak at the stories inside? Take a look at Guarding Grace by Katherine Deane and Kate Richards!

 

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Chapter One

 

Chris

 

Chris Nelson leaned against the wall, waiting for the women to enter from the small bathroom in Marshall’s office.

“Sorry about that,” Kaylee, Marshall’s wife, waddled to her chair, which her husband pulled out for her. “You know how it is.” She grinned and rubbed her very pregnant belly. She was due in eleven weeks and radiated a happy glow. So did the proud papa to be. Chris’ boss.

Marshall smiled as he helped the second woman into her chair. Gorgeous. Tall, maybe five-foot-nine, possessing a willowy figure with perfect curves in all the right places. She beamed up at him from under her dark sunglasses.

“Thank you.” Her voice was pure heaven, making Chris stand straighter.

“All right, now that everyone is accounted for—” Marshall began.

“Wait, you don’t want the rest of the staff here for this?” the new Dom, Stephen, interrupted.

“Thank you, Stephen.” Marshall turned a sturdy jaw and piercing blue eyes toward the newest Dominant at the Castle. “Everyone I deemed necessary to be here is here. Have a seat.”

“Yeah, okay.” Stephen puffed up his chest like he was the big boy on the playground and took a seat next to Grace. “Hey, we don’t wear sunglasses inside, little girl. Take them off.”

What the hell? Before Marshall could say a word—and it looked like he was about to lay into the younger man, hard—the perfect brunette pushed back her chair and swiveled toward Stephen, whipping off her sunglasses to show the most beautiful blue eyes Chris had ever seen. Gorgeous, full of fire. But unseeing. Shit. The woman was blind.

“I wear them so people don’t feel uncomfortable. Does my gaze make you uncomfortable?”

If a blind woman could glare, that was what she was doing. Staring down the young punk whose cheeks were reddening as if he had been chastised for stealing the last cookie.

“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Marshall stood, clasped the woman’s hand, and gave it a gentle squeeze. “You okay, Gracie?”

She turned toward him, then frowned and sat back down, leaving her glasses off. “I told you I can take care of myself.”

“Very true.” Marshall nodded. “I’m nodding right now, Gracie. You just can’t see it.”

She grinned.

Marshall continued, “While I agree you can handle yourself in almost any situation thrown at you, and any man…” He paused to glare at Stephen again, whose swagger unpuffed just a little. “You can’t protect yourself from this, and you know it.” He passed around a stack of manila folders. Jackson strode over to stand beside Chris and share his folder.

The room fell silent as they quickly pored over the information. The first section held a set of pictures of a bloody stairwell, followed by one of a body crumpled in the corner. Next were pictures of two more deceased men in different rooms.

“One gunshot, point-blank to the head. The other looks like his throat was cut, correct?” Chris was just there to observe, but hell, he knew these pictures. He’d seen this kind of death before.

“Yeah, how’d you get the second one figured out without seeing the front of the body?” Marshall asked him.

“The blood spray, amount, trajectory, the way the victim is lying.” He glanced at Grace, sitting there so stoically, and wondered how she fit into all of this. “Sorry if I overstepped.”

“No, you’re right in your assessment, and I have a job for you also.” Marshall stood and raised his voice. “Everyone, meet my cousin, Grace Barnes. As you can see, she is in the middle of some very nasty problems.”

Kaylee squirmed next to him.

“You’re telling me a blind chick killed three guys and is hiding out in our Castle?”

Oh God, when would Stephen learn to shut up? Chris felt a tremendous urge to go over and punch the smirk right off the man’s face, but Grace’s fists clenched—she was prepared to take the guy down another notch. She didn’t need to.

Kaylee jumped up and leaned her big belly right into his face. “All right, look. I don’t care if you are a new Dom here or not. Open your mind up for two stinking seconds and think about the possibilities. Does anything else sound feasible besides a beloved, blind, family member going all Xena: Warrior Princess on three innocent people? And for the record, if you really think that’s the case, why are you still sitting so close to her?”

His eyes widened, and he inched ever so slightly to the side. It could have also been to get the tummy away from him.

Marshall gave a small sigh. “Thank you, pet. Now, have a seat before you get yourself all worked up again. We don’t want to stress the baby out, do we? Maybe we should do some more lines later to remember to take it easy.”

Kaylee’s lower lip dropped, and she pouted up at Marshall as she sat. “Wish you could spank me instead of making me do those stupid lines,” she muttered.

“Sorry.” Marshall smiled and pulled her onto his lap to snuggle her into his chest. “No spankings this late in the pregnancy. The doctor said to take it easy after that last test, and I want you both healthy, so I’m not taking any chances. You’re doing lines for now, but don’t worry, little girl. I’m keeping a list for after.”

“You do know women have been having babies forever, right?” Grace turned to him grinning. “And working in fields, exercising, lots of things, right up until the baby comes.”

“You two stop ganging up on me, or we’re going to have a problem.” Marshall’s voice lowered into the tone that made even the strongest Dom flinch and avert his eyes. Kaylee reacted accordingly. Grace shrugged and turned back to the matter at hand.

“My cousin, here, has decided this is a safe place for me to hide out from the man who did these killings. The other two were witnesses to a murder, just like me.”

“But how could you witness a murder? You’re blind.” Stephen spoke up again, his ignorance showing. Why the hell had Marshall hired him last month?

“There are other senses, Stephen.” Grace sighed.

“That’s Master Stephen.”

“Not to me, you’re not,” Grace supplied.

God, Chris could fall in love with this woman.

Marshall took over the meeting again and explained what had transpired the past few weeks—the need to protect Grace, and what they had to look forward to—while Chris observed the confident, yet tired young woman. What was his job in all of this?

“Okay, so, Stephen, you’re going to be Grace’s official chaperone for the next few weeks.”

“What?” Stephen practically jumped out of his chair. “You’ve been giving me shit jobs like this for the past three weeks. I am ready for a real submissive.”

“Sit down.” Marshall’s deep tones oozed venom. “When I say you are ready for a submissive, I’ll damn well give you one. And not a second before. I don’t care who your father is or what he’s done for my Castle. If you call my cousin a shit job again, you won’t have one here. Do you understand?”

Stephen’s eyes widened, and he sat quickly. “Yeah, yeah, okay. What do you need me to do?”

“For all intents and purposes, you two will act like any other normal new couple to the scene. You’re a boyfriend and girlfriend who want to try out the lifestyle while on vacation. You okay with all of this so far, Gracie?”

“It makes sense. You don’t want me to stand out, but do I have to do stuff I’m not comfortable with?”

“Of course not. One second, please.” Marshall turned his attention to Kaylee’s sudden grip on his forearm and had a quick, quiet conversation with her.

It gave Chris a moment to really focus on Grace and her new Dom.

Stephen leaned toward her and whispered something in her ear. Based on the leer and his body language, it was probably something sexually suggestive. Once again, Chris felt the urge to move forward. Just enough to get the guy into a chokehold, maybe choke the asshole right out of him.

“Do I want to get my ass smacked in a BDSM resort while on my pretend vacation? Do I want to have an adventure and check out all the different ways the human body can be pleasured?” Grace’s loud, firm voice halted all conversation in the room. “Do I want to let go and have fun for a while and forget a psycho wants to kill me?” She glared toward Stephen. “Yes, to all of the above. Just not yet. I’ll let you know when I’m ready.” She stood. “Kaylee, do you need to go to the bathroom again? It’s been half an hour.”

Kaylee grinned and stood. “Sure. You guys go on without us.”

The two women, arm in arm, strode to the restroom in the corner and shut the door behind them. There went the woman Chris was going to fall in love with. He knew it in his heart.

Damn.

***

 

Grace

 

Grace couldn’t see the pictures they discussed, but she didn’t have to. The details of the murder were firmly entrenched in her mind. Not the visuals—of course not. When Chief Becker had called her into the precinct to discuss the event and danger she was in, he’d vividly—quite vividly—described each murder. It was bad enough that poor man had gotten shot and killed in their apartment parking deck, but Mr. Smith and Mr. Hemsley? They hadn’t done anything wrong at all. Just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like her. They’d both lost their lives. Brutally, based on the descriptions. But Grace? Holy Hannah, she hadn’t even seen anything. But the murderer didn’t seem to have any prejudice against the people in his sights. And Chief Becker said she was next.

She didn’t want to be here. Her cousin, Marshall was really putting himself on the line for her. What if this bad guy found her and hurt Marshall, or Kaylee, or their unborn baby? Grace almost got up and walked out of the room. If she’d had a chance to explore a little, she might have just walked out of the Castle, altogether. Yeah, girl. How many steps is it to the stairwell? How many to get down to the bottom floor? Yes, she needed to go right. She was pretty sure she had been led left when she arrived, but, overwhelmed by the noises and Kaylee’s excitement at meeting her, she’d ignored her golden rule—know everything about everywhere you go—so she was stuck. Plus, where would she go if she did get out of the Castle? She couldn’t remember how often the bus came. Would Marshall send that dork Stephen out after her to throw her over his shoulder and carry her back in? Bet Stephen would love that. Stupid kid was probably barely out of high school, she sniggered to herself. Probably didn’t even have peach fuzz on his soft, smooth skin. Either that or he was one of those guys who liked to wear a beard just because it looked cool. So not her type.

Then there was Kaylee, jabbering a million miles a minute, making Grace chuckle every once in a while, on one side of her, and Stephen on the other. Damn. She wasn’t going far. Not without an escort.

Jackson, the really super tall, beefy guy who’d practically squeezed her to death when they met an hour earlier, seemed nice. Especially for being head of security at the Castle. Weren’t security guys supposed to be angry and mean… and scary? Not him. Jackson had already cracked three jokes since she’d been there.

The only person she hadn’t figured out yet was Chris. He seemed to be Jackson’s friend and stood so quietly against that back wall she could barely hear him breathing.

That was Grace’s thing. Figuring out what people looked like before she touched them. Added bonus points for figuring out what made them tick. If she’d met Stephen out on the street, she would have pegged him for a millennial, rich-boy, gamer with a man-bun. The nasally voice, the way he cleared his throat when he got flustered, the low hum he did when pissed off. Heck, she’d only known him for thirty minutes, but she was calling big time dweebage.

“What do you do when you’re not playing Dom?” Jackson asked from the back wall, and Grace could hear the grin in his voice.

“I happen to be an independent contractor for some of the top gaming companies. My father belongs to the same country club as some of the big guys.” She could hear the pride in Stephen’s voice.

Nailed it. She returned Kaylee’s hand squeeze as Kaylee chuckled under her breath.

“Grace, we’ve put some thought into the different ways we are going to keep you safe here. We don’t want you to stand out.” That was Jackson. His low timbre practically rumbled through the room. He and Chris strode forward to sit at the table.

The heavier man took a seat across and to the right of her. The leaner one, though he was by no means less muscular, sat across from her. That was Chris. The one whose boots barely made a sound, whose breaths were practically nonexistent, but whose bearing immediately brought her senses to life. He smelled like woods and musk. Like a man who enjoyed working outside, the subtle scent of pine and wood and leather wafting toward her nostrils. Then there was his mouthwash. Something crisp and clean but not overpowering. Unlike Stephen, whose loud, hissing mouth breaths were making her lightheaded from not only the nail-on-the-blackboard sound but also the smell. Gawd, floss much?

“Grace?” Kaylee nudged her hip gently.

“Sorry, what?”

“It’s okay, you’re expected to be a little overstimulated right now. I was asking what code name you wanted to go by? We’re the only people who will know who you really are. We also are not putting it on paper like everyone else,” Jackson said.

“So, the name is what I go by for the time that I’m here, right?”

“We don’t want to take any chances on someone slipping up and calling you by your name when you leave your guest room.”

“Yeah, I need to eat, and I’ll probably go stir crazy staring at a wall all day.”

Stephen choked on his ice water. It was fun playing with him.

“So, what do you think? Something cool and chic, rock and roll, sweet, fairy tale, sexy…”

“I’ve always had a fantasy of being Cinderella. Maybe Ella? What do you think, Kaylee?”

Kaylee laughed. “It’s perfect! I was afraid for a second there you were going to suggest Cinder Grace, which wouldn’t have worked well at all.”

“Ella’s easier. Yeah, if you’re okay with that, Marshall, I think I’ll go with Ella.”

“Yes!” Kaylee grabbed her hand. “We can be in the princess program together! I’ve been dying to try on the new, sheer maternity ballroom gown Marshall got me last month.”

“I don’t know if I want to do much with the program.”

“It’s okay, Gracie,” Marshall said. “You can do as little or as much as you want. This is just something to give you your wristband so you don’t stand out too much. But it’s up to you.”

“Just consider it, please?” Kaylee said. “They have a masked ball on Tuesday night, and it would be so much fun to go with you.”

“Well, we would be the hottest women there,” Grace said.

“Totally. Wait, Marshall’s flicking me on the thigh again. I think that means I’m not supposed to push you too much. Ow. Stop it—”

“Anyway,” Jackson cut back in with a chuckle. “Now that we’ve got the name and program picked out, we need to talk about the big stuff. First things first.” He riffled through a stack of papers in front of him. “When you leave your room—with your escort at all times—you will need to be blindfolded.”

“Why the hell does she need to be blindfolded? She can’t see anything, anyway.” Ah yes, Stephen. He hadn’t fallen asleep during the meeting.

“Because she’s the only blind woman here and will stand out like a nun in a porn shop if she wears her special sunglasses,” Jackson said, irritation lowering his voice.

A heavy sigh came from the other side of the table. Chris?

“That makes sense. Okay. But won’t I stand out also, if I’m the only blindfolded woman being led into the dining room every day?”

“Gotcha covered there, too,” Jackson said. She didn’t know how she could hear a smile, but she could. When he smiled, his mouth opened wider, which elongated his vowels and his pitch. He continued, “Marshall is going to have different submissives, including Kaylee and some of the others, like my wife, Sara, blindfolded at different times throughout the next few weeks. There will always be other women and men being led through the Castle.”

They spent the next twenty minutes going over the Castle layout, the emergency exits, guest quarters, and what could be expected while staying at the BDSM resort in rural Ohio. Grace was thankful someone had taken the time to put everything into Braille for her. It made her feel a bit more in control to not just count on someone to read everything to her.

“Okay, that’s about everything. Do you have any questions, Ella?”

Kaylee nudged her again. “Ella. That’s you, girl.”

“Sorry. It’s going to take a bit to get used to being called something else.”

“No worries. Just think of it as your very own witness protection program, complete with new name.”

“Yeah, I listened to that movie. Didn’t the leader of the program try to kill Arnold Schwarzenegger and his protectee?” she sniped. Okay, maybe she was getting a bit tired after all.

“It’s okay, we will do everything to keep that movie from playing out with you in the lead role. Besides, we have someone Arnie didn’t,” Marshall said.

“Who’s that?” she grumped.

“Chris Nelson. The best damn team leader and former Army sergeant you’ll ever have the chance to meet. Sitting right across from you and tagging along behind you for your whole stay. Where you guys go, Chris follows. When you go to bed at night, Chris bunks in the room on the other side of your suite. If you even look for a second like you’re in some sort of trouble, he will come into play. And my guy doesn’t play. He fights, he wins.  He’s the big guns protecting you.” Jackson clapped the table hard. “Get used to having a shadow. You won’t even notice he’s there. But he will be.  And he will protect you with his life.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, tears filling her eyes. It had been so long since anyone had been quite so concerned about her safety, and it touched her. “If we’re about done, I wouldn’t mind taking a shower and resting for a bit.”

“Let’s get you settled in, then. Work on your name in your mind while you walk, okay?” Marshall leaned over and gave her a soft kiss on the forehead, like he had when she was a kid.

“Got it. Ella. Ella. Ella Ella. Thanks, everyone. I appreciate it.” When she stood, she heard three chairs scrape along the floor. Marshall, who hovered near her like he always had when she was younger; Jackson, who was probably being gentlemanly; and Chris, former Army awesome-guy/shadow, who leaned across the table and gripped her elbows gently within his large hands to help her stand. That meant Stephen was still seated, probably with a goofy look on his face.

Maybe the wrong guy was playing close-up bodyguard.

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Bio for Katherine Deane:

Katherine Deane is a multi-published, top 100 romantic and BDSM author and romantic at heart. She loves cheese, red wine, chocolate, and snuggling up with her daughters’ kittens while reading a good book. When not reading, or writing, you can find her knitting, sewing, crafting, or doing pretty much anything to keep her hands busy. She has taken over the dining room AKA craft room, much to her husband’s dismay. In one of her books, an energetic “craftaholic” would find herself over her husband’s knee for losing an important document in a pile of bi-cone crystals and mod podge. Her real life, and the people in them, give her plenty of ideas to work with. Katherine has dubbed herself the queen of cheese. Not only is she a former Midwestern Cheese Head; she also loves to incorporate it into her books. In her opinion, all romance deserves at least one cheesy scene that makes you cry.

You can catch up with her at: 

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Bio for Kate Richards:

Kate Richards divides her time between Los Angeles and the High Sierras. She would gladly spend all her days in the mountains, but she’d miss the beach…and her very supportive husband’s commute would be three hundred miles. Wherever she is, she loves to explore all different kinds of relationships in her stories. She doesn’t believe one-size-fits-all, and whether her characters live BDSM, ménage, GLBT, spanking, or any other kind of lifestyle, it’s the love, the joy in one another, that counts.

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