“So, a respected financial journalist and an award-winning interior designer walk into a BDSM club…” Caroline Preston trailed off as she perused her surroundings with typical Manhattan coolness, wondering where they’d stashed the stockades.
“And nothing. That’s the entire joke.”
Eliza, Caroline’s best friend since their days at Columbia, chuckled under her breath. “We just walked in. Try and last a minute before condemning it.” They climbed onto plush leather chairs at the ultra-sleek bar. “Who knows? You might even—gasp—have a good time.”
Caroline sent her a skeptical look. “One drink, and then we go get dumplings and fro-yo. That was the deal.”
“You’re forgetting that I’m here because you asked me to come.” Eliza tried to place a credit card on the bar¸ but Caroline beat her to it and signaled the bartender to start a tab. “Any other Friday night, I would have been in my pajamas watching HGTV, operating under the delusion that my career is more fulfilling than a social life.”
“Is there room under your delusion umbrella for one more?”
“Why? You’ve got your own.”
Caroline threw a good-natured scowl at her friend before leaning back in her chair to scrutinize the nightclub. It was a seamless mélange of grays, whites, blacks, and purples. Stainless steel fixtures provided minimal light, somehow dimming the volume of conversations to a collective purr in the darkness. Located in the Meatpacking District, just across the street from the Hudson, Serve appeared to be one of the many exclusive nightclubs in the area. The first floor gave that impression, anyway. Red velvet ropes, darkened windows, bouncers with earpieces looking judgmental. But everyone, even Caroline, knew what happened on the three floors above. Three floors that catered to guests with more…interesting tastes.
Well. Interesting to someone else, maybe. Just not her.
She’d only set foot in the place for one express purpose. To hate it. So far, no issues on that front. Although Caroline had to admit that the clientele surprised her. As a financial journalist, she rubbed elbows daily with Wall Street’s elite, which appeared to be Serve’s main demographic. Men who possessed that typical boardroom-executive bearing were tucked into shadowy corners, whispering in the ears of women wearing stylish, expensive clothes. Did they know what lurked above them? They must. People such as these didn’t walk into any situation without inspecting all angles, right?
Caroline’s shoulders drooped a little, remembering why she’d come. Her family’s esteemed financial magazine, Preston’s Daily Finance, was tanking. They were one month, tops, from declaring bankruptcy.
They’d spent weeks scrambling, trying to find new advertisers and even downsizing the staff. It wasn’t enough. Everything had seemed hopeless until her brother, Oliver, arrived at the board’s weekly meeting with a patently insane idea. He’d found someone willing to bail out the magazine. A Manhattan-based publisher of lifestyle magazines wanted to revamp Preston’s, combining finance with more exotic, adventurous themes directed at the wealthy.
Of course, she and her father had dismissed the idea as absurd, but Oliver had been dogged, insisting it would be a lucrative venture. It had given Caroline pause, seeing him so passionate about something, a total departure from his usual laid-back demeanor. So while her father had voted no outright, Caroline, the only other board member beside her brother, had agreed on a trial run of sorts.
She wouldn’t be trying out the amenities herself. God, no. She’d be doing what she did best. Writing what she saw. They would publish a short feature about Serve in the current version of their magazine and observe the fallout. Knowing there wasn’t a chance in hell of a positive response, the situation was a win-win for her. She didn’t cut her brother, who she loved, off at the knees. Plus, this risky and downright ridiculous idea went away pronto.
So here she was. Taking mental notes for a story on a place that specialized in bondage and domination. Not her typical Friday night.
Drinks being placed on the bar in front of her and Eliza brought Caroline back to the present. She raised an eyebrow at the red lollipop–garnished martini. Combined with the low strains of Tom Waits drifting across the spacious lounge and several discreet cage-themed fixtures adorning the walls, Caroline concluded the owner must have an odd sense of humor. One would have to, she reasoned, to build a business model on the foundation of spankings.
She chuckled under her breath at the thought.
“What prompted that sinister-as-hell laugh?”
“Nothing. I’m just wondering if there’s some sort of spanking sign-up sheet being passed around.”
Eliza took a testing sip of her drink and made a pleased sound at the taste. “I think it’s more of a conversation system.”
“Your hand, my ass…let’s do this. That type of thing?”
“Compelling, Caroline. I actually have goose bumps.”
They traded smirks. “Oh, come on. I don’t want to live in a world where spankings come with legal disclaimers.”
“You do everything else by the book. Why not outline the terms of your own booty bashing?”
Caroline nearly spit out her drink. “Don’t ever say that again.” She shook her head. “And I wouldn’t consider, on my worst day, having my…booty bashed—”
“Oh, you can say it?”
“—by some random weirdo wearing a clown mask.”
Eliza held up a hand. “Okay, wait. What the fuck are you talking about?”
Caroline pushed her hair over her shoulder. “Look. I might have ended up on some weird websites this afternoon. You know how I like to do my research. The point is—” She held up a finger when Eliza started to interrupt. “Dumplings. The point is dumplings.”
Eliza melted back into her seat with a pensive expression. “Caroline, I love a good dumpling. You know this about me.” She tapped the rim of her martini glass with her index finger. “But we never let ourselves…go. Shouldn’t girls our age engage in the occasional fling? You know, embrace our sexual freedom and give our middle finger to the man?”
“What are you saying? You want to be spanked by a clown?”
“No more talk of clowns.” Eliza shivered. “Besides, I think I’m more of a flogging girl.”
Caroline did a double take.
“What? You’re the only one who can do research?”
“N-no, of course not.” Caroline studied her best friend. They’d been inseparable since freshman year at Columbia when they’d been paired as roommates. She knew when Eliza was being serious. This appeared to be one of those times. “A fine time to spring this on me. We could have started small. Pottery classes or something.”
That got the desired laugh. “Listen, all
“Buy you a drink?”
Eliza and Caroline swiveled around to face the newcomer, a gorgeous, dark-haired man with a teasing smile and a hint of a British accent. He looked them both over with interest but winked at Eliza, who flushed red straight to the roots of her blond hair. “S-sure.”
“Perfect. On one condition. You bring it with you when we dance.” His grin was slow and sexy. “You don’t mind if I steal her for a bit, right?”
Eliza widened her blue eyes at Caroline and gave a subtle headshake. In other words, Don’t be a cock block. She couldn’t exactly say no, could she? Even if her worst nightmare consisted of sitting alone in this den of iniquity for an interminable length of time while Eliza got her freak on. After her friend’s speech about feeling restless in their predictability, she had a feeling upstairs was exactly where the duo would be headed. She’d barely had time to process her friend’s newly adventurous outlook before the dark-haired Brit had appeared. She recalled Eliza’s words, though, and they echoed now in her head. We never let ourselves go. If her friend wanted to subject herself to humiliation in the name of spontaneity, who was she to stop her? Later, though, they’d be having a heart-to-heart.
“Oh, go ahead.” Caroline gave the man a once over, memorizing his features in case she ever had to pick him out of a lineup. “He looks like Gavin Rossdale resurrected from the nineties. You can hardly say no.”
Eliza beamed. “Be back soon. Promise.”
“I’ll be here.” Caroline flounced back in her seat and watched the two disappear into the darkness of the dance floor. They were immediately swallowed by the writhing crowd.
Since Caroline and Eliza’s arrival, the music had increased in volume, dozens of customers apparently feeling loose enough from their alcohol consumption to dance. Bodies were pressed together intimately, some even kissing.
Caroline swung her attention back to the bar, pretending to be immersed in her drink. With one hand, she swirled the red lollipop, creating a mini-whirlpool in her martini. At least she’d have time to pepper the bartender with questions about what it was like to work in a place like this.
When a solid male figure leaned against the bar beside her, she tried not to look up, even though she could feel his gaze on her. She didn’t want to make eye contact with any member of the opposite sex. He might talk to her, and she’d inevitably be forced to rebuff his awkward advances.
But he smelled like Red Vines. Not a hint of spicy cologne or laundry detergent. Just red licorice.
Caroline had always been inquisitive, even from an early age. Hence the journalism degree framed above her office desk. Inconsistencies drew her. She needed to make sense out of this guy who smelled so different from every other musky-scented man in the club. That was the only reason she looked up.
Her gaze stayed locked on him for several more compelling reasons.
In addition to being curious by nature, Caroline had an odd habit of matching people she met with their celebrity look-alike. Eliza was a blond Alexis Bledel, post–Gilmore Girls, pre–Traveling Pants. Her brother, Oliver, resembled a taller, darker version of Chris Pine. This guy looked like no one. As she’d suspected, he was regarding her steadily through narrowed eyes. In the dim lighting, she couldn’t discern their color, but she guessed a deep brown. His light chestnut-colored hair was parted on one side, slightly damp and pushed over in one direction, as if he’d begun to slick it down, then forgot. His nose appeared to have been broken once or twice, something you might not notice unless you were searching for flaws. Components of him were imperfect, but somehow when combined, he was…extraordinary.
Caroline decided she could admit that irritating fact and still sleep soundly tonight. As long as she didn’t let him know she’d thought it. Bottom line, if he was in this place, he wasn’t the type of person she wanted to associate with. She gave a cursory glance to his wide shoulders, noting that his casual posture did nothing to detract from his overall ruggedness, and went back to staring into her drink.
She felt a shiver pass down her spine when his baritone voice filled the space between them. “Are you going to suck it? Or just play with it all night?”
Jonah Briggs felt a punch of satisfaction when the woman’s eyes flashed up at him dangerously from her lower, seated position. Not quite so indifferent now, are you, sweetheart?
He jerked his chin toward her drink. “The lollipop. When are you going to give in and suck it?”
When her lips parted, half in comprehension of his meaning, half in indignation, Jonah had to bite back a groan. Her mouth. It’s what had brought him downstairs in the first place. On Friday nights, he always remained upstairs, watching the operation run smoothly on several high-definition monitors, making sure his customers behaved themselves and left satisfied. Even now, he could hear the curious whispers floating around him. Patrons wondering what had brought him downstairs when the real party raged three floors above their heads. It was where he should be. He shouldn’t be bothering with this clearly uptight, disapproving sightseer. And yet, here he was. Trying to get her to suck a goddamn lollipop.
His fascination with the curve of a woman’s lips couldn’t necessarily be considered a fetish, per se. It had never been quite that extreme. Until now. She sat there, prim and righteous in her seat, tortoise-shell glasses perched on her button nose, melted-caramel hair straightened to perfection at her shoulders, with no inkling of the mental fantasies he’d already acted out with that mouth. Both of her rosy lips were plump, but the upper one was somehow bigger, more sensual. It rested on its counterpart like a lazy goddess lounging on a silk pillow.
He wanted to taste the fuck out of that mouth.
Jonah reined in his riotous thoughts, still irritated with himself for riding his private elevator down to the first floor just to see her up close, without the artificial glow of a monitor to detract from the shine she gave off. He knew her type. She’d been dragged here by a friend or otherwise coerced into coming. When he’d first noticed her from the comfort of his security room, her image picked up by one of more than a hundred cameras, he could practically feel her disdain through the electronic feed. He’d had more than enough judgment to last him a lifetime. He certainly didn’t need to seek it out. In his own club, especially.
At the reminder of just how sharply he’d been stung recently by the judgment of specters from his past, those who found his chosen profession repulsive, Jonah quickly shifted his attention to the girl’s toned, tightly crossed thighs. As if a hint of daylight between them would cause her to burst into flames. Jonah almost laughed out loud. No fire play down here, sweetheart. We restrict that to the third floor.