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Folks, I’m fixin’ to glom this whole LGBTQ/Poly Regency Series by Megan Mulry, which is available through @overdrivelibs – it looks like so much fun. The first book is “Bound to be a Groom” but I love the f/f clinch cover on this one so much, I’m linking it instead: https://www.overdrive.com/media/2153375/bound-with-love #steamylibrarybooks #collectiondevelopment
I read this one years ago – it’s the last in a series that I read out of order, and still enjoyed. Megan Hart tends to veer towards weepy-horny, but this is one of her more straightforward women’s fiction/erotica blends. She’s always an amazing writer, and if you haven’t given her a chance yet, I’d …
BookRiot had a great post about romance novels by WOC (link: https://bookriot.com/2018/01/25/read-harder-romance-person-of-color/), and I was so pleased to see some of my pocket friends on the list (including some authors I already featured, such as @RubyLang and Santino Hassel! And some I already have pending posts about, like Tracy Livisay!). I’ll be searching out library …
“What do you want?” I asked him softly, wanting to hear it, wanting his voice in the muted dark.
“I want you.” His breath hitched as I made an inquiring noise, and his chest jumped with it—the muscles stretched tight and long where he lay on the bed, hands pressed flat against the massive Victorian headboard. “I want you to touch me,” he said, and I ran a gloved hand over his chest, then dug my nails into his side.
The soft light of the moon came in through the windows, and a dim lamp in the far corner tinted one side of him gold. He was panting lightly. I stood next to him, one leg kneeling on the mattress, one on the floor. I wasn’t touching him with anything but my gloved hand. Still, his body arched as I stroked his chest and pressed fabric-dulled nails into his pressure points. His hands moved, arching, with the fingertips still against the wood. I removed my hand, shifted away.
“You don’t have permission to touch me, remember? Keep your hands on the headboard.” There was no indication he’d let go, the arched hands were from involuntary muscle contractions, but I said it anyway. I didn’t trust men to remember instructions, but I trusted this man’s kink to follow them. He would keep his hands on the headboard.
The way he shifted to keep his hands flat…it filled me with a rush of anticipation. Power. I had power over this man, and it was safe for me to have it here. He and I both had wristbands on, with panic buttons wired in. The buttons kept me relaxed, in control. They made it safe for both of us.
Even without the wristband, Richard would probably be fine. He wasn’t one of my clients who liked to be dominated, and then dominate at the last minute. I had a few of those. I enjoyed them, but they made me nervous. He didn’t try to hold out against using his safe word, either. Tonight would be the first time we had sex, and the rush of something new excited me and made me nervous. It made me hyper-aware of his reactions.
He was easy to read, happily—something that may have come hand-in-hand with his willingness to use his safe word. A lot of clients came to me badly trained, unwilling to say when they’d had too much. When we start out like that, it takes a long time to trust them. Both kinds of client made me glad that I worked out of this club, with a buzzer for security that sometimes made me feel like a little old lady. I bent over to bite his shoulder, and I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! flashed through my mind. When I sat up and examined the mark I’d left, my attention snapped back to Richard, refocusing on his body below me. He was gripping the headboard as he’d been told, and his lean, runner’s body was laid out for me to enjoy and to hurt. It would be better for both of us if I stayed in the moment. This was my job, but it was also a gift—one I shouldn’t insult by allowing distractions.
And who could be distracted for long? This man was a miracle, like all of my clients. His muscles were sinewy, his shoulders compact and lean—like The Flash from the comic books with Prince Charming’s face. His cock was hard and straining toward his bellybutton and it was already my favorite part of him. A part I’d seen before tonight, but hadn’t played with as much as I wanted to.
Ironic that he kept himself in such disciplined, tight shape, and yet the thing I really cared about was the one part he couldn’t exercise into a shape he liked.
I touched it gently, running my gloved fingers from the plum-shaped head, down the bi-colored shaft. It jumped in response. He was cut, and you could see where his foreskin would have rested by the flush of his erection.
“You shaved, like I asked you to,” I said, my voice quiet.
“Yes, Mistress,” he said, using my default title. I don’t care what they call me, as long as they’re respectful. Mistress Penny is standard. And his voice was respectful, almost reverent. That tone delighted me, and made my body list toward him. And tonight, I could finally indulge my own body, and take that beautiful cock inside me. I’d been seeing Richard for a year, and in that time we’d explored his desire for punishment. Every aspect of it, aside from the sexual part.
Tonight, we’d start on that, too.
The anticipation was killing me. I rode that anticipation as I looked at him, feeling myself growing wetter, thinking of what I’d do to him later.
I kept my voice soft. “You understand that I’ll fuck you after your discipline session, on my own time, and only if I feel like it.” He’d heard this before, but in the past, it was slightly different. I’d say I’ll only fuck you on my own time, if I feel like it, and we’re not there yet. And then I would hurt him until he was achingly hard, and leave him alone to handle it himself when I was done. The half-familiar words were making him squirm.
Though sexuality was part of my work, and I’d touch him in the course of it, I knew the law. The club was smart enough to hire a lawyer, to have a standard disclaimer, and to train us all on its use. San Francisco PD had set up a sting on S&M sex workers in the early 2000’s. It hadn’t touched us, but we were all still paranoid about it. I was very clear with my clients about what they were paying for, and what I was giving them freely.
“I understand, Mistress,” he said, and my throat squeezed tight for the next question. Paradoxically, my pelvic floor muscles squeezed tight, too—my body knew these steps, knew this dance, and wanted me to hurry up with it.
“Would you like that? If I wanted to?” We’d talked about it after prior sessions, discussed his limits, and he knew tonight was probably the night. I was still half-sitting next to him, on the bed. My gloved hand was wrapped loosely around the base of his cock. The question almost felt like a joke.
Clients were strange sometimes, though. I’d had men, and women, too, who would get close to sexual dominance, and then back away. It was rare, but I wasn’t going to force anyone over that line. I’d never fucked him before, and he was welcome to change his mind. I had to give him the space to do so. Consent is crucial, at every step—but he looked lovely, and lonely, and a little desperate with his hands still on the headboard, and I really wanted him.
His breath hitched when I asked the question, and I held mine until he answered. He was my last client of the night, and he looked delicious. Every inch of him, delectable. And I felt like I’d been waiting for him for so long.
“Yes, Mistress. You can do anything to me. I want it.” I think he was aiming for steady, stalwart. Instead, he was breathless, like a girl faced with a prom proposal. My throat relaxed, while the rest of my body felt flushed. I stroked my hand over him and he shuddered. I felt something in my chest vibrate in response.
Yes. Thank god. I would fuck him tonight.
I climbed onto the bed and straddled him, my silk dress riding high on the sides of my legs. I moved so that the material of the dress covered his cock, so I could feel it press firm against my pussy, but he couldn’t feel how wet I was getting. How wet I still was, in reality, from a session earlier that day. The meathead before Richard was satisfying to beat, but did nothing for me sexually. I’d seen Sasha earlier, though, and her tongue was a wonder of the modern world.
Three sessions in a day was an unusually heavy schedule, even for me, especially since there were sexual elements to two of them. And the release of tension after this session would be amazing, but exhausting – we’d spent a long time, building up to this. I would be so tired when I left that night.
Richard was staring up at me as I arranged myself over him, looking a little dazed as I found a good position. Once I was set, I took off my full-length gloves, pressing down on his cock but not moving. I took them off slowly, holding my arms so that they looked graceful as I rolled the sheer fabric down and off, dropping them to the side of the bed. The way he was positioned, he could only see part of me in the room’s dim light. Once I had the gloves off, I raked my nails down his chest, leaving four red stripes on each side. He moaned and pressed up beneath me, his hands moving slightly out of position.
“No, Richard,” I said. “Do you want me to get restraints? Tie you up with those gloves?”
“No, Mistress,” he whispered, his eyes closed and breath heavy. He was starting to go into subspace already.
“I like that I can trust you to be still for me, that you’ll keep your hands in place and let me do what I want with you. Are you switching that around on me?” I asked, thinking about what to do next. Punishment first, of course. But what kind? I wanted something special. One of this clients’ quirks was wanting to restrain himself, to stay still without rope or cuffs to struggle against. You could see his self-discipline in his body, the muscles of an endurance athlete.
I enjoyed that self-control. It was fun to see him struggle through our sessions, his willpower caging his body. His kink bleeding into his personality.
“No, Mistress.” He immediately stilled. I hummed happily, and rubbed against his cock lightly. I really did like seeing him there, held captive by his own will, willing to do whatever I said. Willing to let me do anything to him. I loved watching it eat at his control until he flailed for me.
Once he did, it was fun to rub it in.
He was usually still as stone until we were halfway through his punishment. The thought of fucking me had clearly thrown him off his game. I’d straddled him like this before, but I’d been clear there would be no penetration. He was almost always immobile at this point, rod-straight in body and penis, letting me do as I liked. I suspected that after those sessions, he’d go home and masturbate furiously to the memory, reliving it for days afterward…but sometimes my clients surprised me.
“Have you thought about fucking me, Dick?” I used the antiquated nickname as a joke. A slightly funny, slightly humiliating joke that made his…dick…twitch every time I used it. I’d noticed that the first session, and a full year of sessions later, it still felt like a little verbal spank every time I said it—half loving, half mean.
He jerked at my question and, impatient with it now, I slapped him across the face. Not hard, but corrective. He moaned and hot pre-cum leaked out of his cock onto my dress—I could feel the wetness. Yes, he’d thought about it. The prospect was making him crazy.
“Yes, Mistress. Many times,” he whispered quietly, after calming himself down. His tone was confessional, and everything in me went loose and liquid. I slapped his other cheek, softer, but still enough to rock his head to the side. Then I got off of him and went to my tool cabinet.
“Turn over, Dick,” I said over my shoulder, as I pulled a flexible leather cat-o-nine-tails from the shelf, and came back to him. “I need to concentrate for a moment, but then I’d like to hear more.”
He turned over wordlessly, keeping his hands on the headboard the whole time, which made him ungainly and awkward, especially as he tried to lower himself back down without grinding his poor cock into the starched white bedsheets.
I watched as his hips worked to make a comfortable position, though we both knew it wasn’t possible. I reached beneath him and grabbed his cock with one hand wrapped around the base, and pulled him up the bed with it. The noise he made—a soft “unf.” It made me want to make the same noise back. His hands were flat on the headboard again, elbows slightly bent. His face nuzzled against a pillow, his beautiful lean back and ass on display—and already descending into subspace? It was a perfect moment. I paused to enjoy it, and to appreciate his body, knowing that I’d have him inside me at the end of the session. I sighed happily.
It was times like this that made me love my work.
I softly kissed the two dimples above his ass, and then stepped back and hit him with the leather flogger. It was a kind that didn’t make you ache or burn—it was halfway between a caress and a sting—and I reminded him to keep still as I worked my way down his back, over his ass, and the backs of his legs. He was still, very still, and I knew he was sinking further into subspace, that trance that some people enter when too much sensation overwhelms them—especially pain.
Richard was easy to control. He went in fast, and stayed there for quite a while. That’s what made his desire for self-control so lovely, he had to stay at least a little bit aware to control his body.
I knew he liked more pain than this, this was just a warm-up. After a few sessions I knew his desires pretty well. He couldn’t communicate when he was deep in subspace, so every time we met, I talked with him while he stripped for me, and figured out what he’d liked about the prior session. He found that humiliating, which was delightful but a little counterproductive. It’s hard to get at the truth of what people want when they’re in an emotional state.
That’s why I hadn’t had sex with him yet—why it took so long before I was willing to get sexual with any client. Getting consent is hard when your partner is in subspace, and some Dommes won’t go there at all. The first few times I did a “prior session review” at the beginning of our appointment, he asked for more pain, but I noticed he had a hard time letting go if I started out with too much pain, too quickly.
After warming up his skin with the cat, I returned to the tool chest and got a flexible braided stick out. Even in subspace, he recognized the sound the cane made as I used it, tensing just before it hit. But he didn’t move. He stayed exactly where I put him.
I concentrated on his upper back and his ass with the cane—staying away from the kidneys and making sure not to hurt him deeply. His skin would sting terribly, but he wouldn’t be bruised. After a few passes, his body relaxed into the pain, and his breath became even.
That was it, where I wanted him. Relaxed, accepting, in pain. He looked so beautiful, the tiger-stripe welts spread over his back. I told him to turn over again, face up.
He did, his eyes slightly glazed, body as relaxed as I’d ever seen it—as I’d ever made it, and it made me feel triumphant. As he knelt and turned over at my order, I saw that his cock had formed a puddle of pre-come under him, and the head was red and shiny.
I climbed back on the bed and dusted my fingers over his chest, his legs, his freshly shaved balls. Then, when his eyelids fluttered, and he turned his head to look at me, I ran my fingers through his hair, just over his ear, petting him lightly.
“Can you talk, honey?”
“Yes,” he said, voice calm and oddly stronger than it had been earlier, before the beating. He was focused on me, but he was not entirely himself—still in a little bit of a trance.
“Tell me about what you imagined, when you imagined us fucking.”
He didn’t need any prompting.
“I think about you doing it to me. Climbing over me, like you were earlier, and taking me in your pussy. While I’m still warm and relaxed, with my cock hard for you.”
“You like the idea of me on top?”
“Yes. I want to be surrounded by you.” He kept looking at me, his eyes getting sharper as he talked, and I petted his hair. “I want it however you want it, Mistress. I want to make you come.” He was coming out of subspace enough to be less than honest. Dammit. I should have hit him harder.
I made my voice gentle. “We’re not talking about me right now, Dick.” He shivered. “And this may not happen at all. You know that.” I trailed my hand down to his cock, started rubbing it with my hand, petting it like I’d petted his hair. Too soft to be effective, but hard enough that he couldn’t ignore the sensation and calm down.
“What’s the dirtiest fantasy you’ve had?” I asked, still stroking.
“Oh. Um. You over me? You over my face, I mean, you ordering me to lick you.”
“Did I?” I took a little bite of his jaw, nipping the skin. He smelled like cinnamon gum.
“Yes, and then…oh, fuck.”
“Do I need to back off?” I asked. He knew he shouldn’t come without permission.
“Yes, yes. I’ll tell you,” he answered, and I moved my hand back up to his hair and pressed my kneeling legs closer to his side. I saw his arm start to lift.
“Hands.” It flew back to its perch.
“Sorry! I’m sorry, Mistress.” He was fully out of subspace now, and a little scared. “Should I go on?”
“Yes, Dick. Asking you to eat me out isn’t all that dirty. Tell me more.”
He looked a little offended that I didn’t think it was dirty. He made a slight whining sound in his throat. “You were holding on to the headboard, and your pussy was in my face, and in my fantasy, I asked…um…I wanted something.” Oh, this would be good. His face was so red. “I asked you to use a butt-plug on me. While I licked you.”
“Oh!” I smiled, a little pleased and a little disappointed. It wasn’t that dirty, but it clearly felt very dirty to him. He was trembling from the stress of telling me. “That does sound fun. Was there one in particular? Did I fuck your ass with it while you sucked my clit, Dick? Did you shoot off with no direct contact on your dick in this fantasy, Dick?” I sunk some cheerful meanness into the repetition of his nickname, grinning at him.
He was squirming his ass around a little, the starched sheets must be scratchy on his welts, but his eyes stayed on mine. “No, there wasn’t a specific…one you used.” He ignored my question about direct contact to tell me he didn’t want a specific butt-plug. Oh, he lied.
“I thought anal was one of your hard limits?” I said. He nodded before I’d even finished the sentence.
“For hurting. It’s a hard limit for discipline.” This was getting better and better.
“But you’re okay with it for fucking.” I ran my hand down his chest. “If I’m being sweet.” My fingers dipped to his balls and then behind them, softly tickling the ridge between his balls and his ass. He nodded, short and sharp.
“Would you like it in while I whip your front?” I’d use the cat for that, he knew. The stinging, tickling whip.
His eyes widened. “Yessss,” he hissed. I thought about waiting until our next session, seeing if he wanted to back off of the anal play when he wasn’t in the heat of the moment. But he was looking at me, his eyes big and dilated and sparkling. And it wasn’t that strange of a request.
I grinned at him. “Stay there.” I bounced up, feeling buoyant, went back to my tool cabinet, and got a small, fairly thin training plug. “Stay in position, Dick, but lift your knees to your chest.”
He followed my directions with almost no problem, his eyes fixed on the plug. I wondered if he did yoga.
I held the plug up, so he could see it clearly. It was innocuous as these things go, a nice purple silicon, and brand new. He could take it home with him tonight, if he wanted, like a pumice stone after a pedicure. “Sure you don’t care which one I use?” His eyes were wide as he nodded, hands on the headboard, legs tucked up.
“Maybe next time I’ll use the pony tail,” I said, amused, and lifted an eyebrow as I reached for the lube.
He didn’t say anything, but kept his eyes fixed on the plug until I put it down. Then he looked at me until I poured a cool drop of lube onto my fingers, and rubbed it against his asshole. At that, they closed.
They stayed closed as I pushed in a finger, rubbed a bit, and withdrew. Then I spread some lube on the butt plug itself, until the purple shaft shone, and went back to working as much slippery liquid as I could up his ass with my fingers.
He was shivering, making little noises in the back of his throat, when I finally pushed the lightly tapered end of the plug up against his entrance.
“Are you ready?” I asked, and he shivered hard, and nodded.
It slid in smoothly, with some resistance from the tightness of his ass, but sweet and slick. We both sighed when it was seated firmly inside him, the round hilt snug against his ass.
I pulled back, looked at his lean and limber and undeniably masculine body. He looked like a debauched Disney Prince, brown hair floppy and messy, and I loved it.
“Take a minute to stretch your shoulders. I’m going to work over your front, and then our session is over,” I told him.
He took a minute to process that, and swallowed his disappointment. I guess it’s hard to absorb the nuance in our disclaimers when you’re distracted. “I can take my hands off the headboard?” he asked.
“Forty seconds.” I replied, and picked up the cat.
He stared at me as he lifted his hands, groaned, and stretched his arms out in front and to the sides.
“Back up now.” He put his hands back on the headboard.
“God, that’s so much worse,” he said under his breath.
“Is that the right answer?” I said, though I knew he was right. It was horrible to get back into a static position after stretching.
“No, Mistress,” he said, then, “Yes, Mistress,” as he slowly lowered his legs so I could whip his whole body. I avoided his face and neck, of course—hard limits for a lawyer, even in San Francisco. But he was back in subspace quickly, while I was still laying stripes across his chest and his upper belly gently, careful of his organs.
I whipped his cock and balls hard, they could take more punishment than most people think, and the pain makes men last longer. And this was one of the gentlest of my whips. He took it beautifully, breathing steadily through the pain, and I watched, imagining the way that plug must feel inside him, hidden now. Our secret. Pressing deeper and flexing as his body twisted against the sheets, the base pressed down and around.
I stopped whipping when I felt myself breathing hard, and knelt next to him on the bed. While I’d whipped him, I’d thought about his fantasy—the fantasy about licking me while I fucked him with the plug. I loved it that he’d put himself in that submissive position in his own imagination. But I wanted his cock, and that’s what I would have. I rubbed my silk-covered body over his sensitized skin as I reached over him and into the side drawer to get a condom, and then rubbed more as I moved back over him, biting at his jaw again—narrow and sharp. I knelt up to roll the condom onto him and he opened his eyes, staring at me in a daze.
He couldn’t stop me now if he wanted to. His body belonged to me.
This was the other reason I talk about fucking up front with my clients, getting permission in advance—I like to start things when they’re still deep in subspace, and use the sweet contact of our bodies as part of their aftercare. It’s a wonderful way of showing trust and love—but you can’t really get consent in the moment. If someone is deep in subspace, sometimes they’re too tranced out to use their safe word. You need to get a feel for things beforehand—what they want and what they’re just saying they want. Read their body language. I enjoy exploring that edge, and it’s uncharted territory for so many of my clients.
And when things lined up right, like they did that night with Richard, it could be magic. I swung my leg over him and straddled him again—this time without fabric between us. It was beautiful to feel his cock sliding deep into my cunt, to clench down on it while he was still completely lost in how I’d mastered him. Feeling him, thick and smooth, while he was still reeling from my power. It was sharp and hot and intense, and I watched his face as he realized I was over him, that he was inside me, that I was giving him access to that part of myself and he was floating into awareness to meet it.
He blinked up at me, his face full of dazed pleasure, an expression that makes every face beautiful. Especially his, clean cut and pretty as he was. He kept his hands on the headboard, but his body arched, and his hips pressed up and into me. It felt sweet—his cock hard and thick, stretching me.
I started raising and lowering myself over him, giving my upper thighs a hell of a workout, and watching him react to me. His eyes grew sharper as we fucked, and jumped from my breasts—still covered by the dress—to my face. Then down my body to where we were joined—that sight also hidden by my slinky dress.
“Mistress? Please?” he asked.
“You want something, Dick?” I was short of breath, flushed a little and sweating, the satin of the dress was starting to stick to my body.
“Can I see you? Please?” he asked, and I laughed. He flinched when I did, which wasn’t what I wanted, during aftercare. I sat down hard on him, and kept his cock fully sunk in my pussy as I leaned forward to pet his hair.
“I’m not laughing at you, Dick. I’m laughing at the question. No, I won’t take off my clothes. I’m not on your level. I’m not here for you to enjoy. I’m here to enjoy you. You understand?” That I was a lie, of course. I do lie sometimes, usually in pursuit of the scene. Truthfully, I was there for him to enjoy, that’s why he paid me. And I kept the nightgown on because he needed the mystery—if he saw all of me and knew all my secrets, what would he imagine when he was beating off in his morning shower, before a day of taking depositions?
“Yes,” he whispered, trembling a little. He understood.
“Now, do you want me to keep going?” I squeezed him with my kegel muscles, his face became redder, and he swallowed.
“Yes. Will you let me come at the end?”
“Maybe,” I answered, and kept my face straight as I started to rock over him again.
Of course I would. Once I got mine, he could have his.
He nodded, and his breath grew short. He closed his eyes, and his body got stiffer and stiffer, still in his self-disciplined straight line. Holding back for me. That must be hard, if the butt plug was hitting his prostate as I rocked over him. The thought made me clench on him harder.
The sight of his body straining sent me higher, made me feel like a goddess looming over a poor, penitent man, and suddenly the fact that I was on top and I wasn’t touching my clit and my thighs were burning didn’t make much of a difference—I’d found that moment when an orgasm goes from something that would be nice to something that feels inevitable.
“Give me your hand.” He lifted one hand from the headboard and extended it to me, his eyes still closed. I took it in my hands and licked his thumb, getting it wet with spit. Then I moved it under my gown, positioning it against my clit.
He made a noise when I did that—one I would expect to come from the whip rather than from sex. But he rubbed me in sweet little circles, squeezing his eyes closed even harder, and I leaned back to drive his cock deeper into me.
I came quickly, hard and fast. It was over fast, too, despite his thumb. I knew from experience that if I was on top, that’s the best I could expect.
Still, he’d done very nicely.
I pulled his hand away, and reached behind me, finding his balls with my fingertips. I scratched them lightly, letting him feel the edges of my fingernails without hurting him.
He made a short, strangled noise in the back of his throat that sounded a bit like “grrrann”—like something that should be in an explosion balloon in a silver-age Batman comic.
“You can come now, Dick,” I said, and ran my fingers over his balls again.
“Hhhunn!” He gasped, and started moving under me. He realized his hand was floating out in open air—and he slammed it back against the headboard as he came. But the rest of his body went wild, arching up to get deeper into me, his eyes roving over me, and his frenzy gave me a second small, shivering aftershock as he finally met my eyes as he fucked up into my cunt, and exploded.
I knew I was smiling hugely, in a way that wasn’t very stern or professional, but I loved seeing him come like that. I loved feeling him lose control under me. Most of all, I loved feeling his skin against mine, feeling that human connection, in this place that felt so impersonal sometimes, almost clinical with its rules and protections.
After he was done, he laid there, shivering, and I lifted myself away, keeping pressure on the base of the condom as I did. Then I sat on the bed, next to him.
I petted his hair back from his face, smoothed it over his ear.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He nodded. His eyes were wide and blinking at the ceiling.
“You understand that last bit was outside of work, yes?”
His mouth opened and started to shape a word. Then he just nodded, again. His body was relaxed, all tension gone, but his hands were still against the headboard. He looked like he’d just woken up from a nap, aside from the wet condom, still on him.
“Do you need anything before I go?”
“No. I’m okay.” He blinked again, then turned to look at me. “Thank you, Mistress.”
I smiled, kissed him on the forehead, and left through the staff door.
I went to the staff locker room, which was nearly empty. I showered and changed into normal clothes, and in twenty minutes, I was ready to head home and start my weekend. On my way out, I stopped by scheduling to look at my upcoming calendar, and my already good mood got even better—Rachael would be coming in on my first day back! Rachael was my favorite.
I was about to head out on that high note, but as I was walking through the back hall and out the door, security stopped me.
“We have a situation with one of the paid dominants. A ten-forty-two,” he said. Otto was a former cop, retired from the force, but still really into abbreviation codes.
What was a ten-forty-two? A mental health situation?
“Is Damian here?”
“No, and he listed you as the best contact for this type of problem, in his absence.” Damn it, Damian. He had me listed as the best contact for everything in his absence. Some of the sweet afterglow from my session with Richard fell away, and I felt my mouth tighten as I contemplated Otto’s serious face.
“Okay. Tell me what’s happening,” I said, as he started to lead me down the hall.
“We have a sub that called security, used the wristband, and it looks like the Dom is out of it. Paid sub, paying Dom.”
“Is she okay? Or he?”
“Yes, she’s fine. She wants to tell you what happened. I need you to deal with the Dom.” We’d been walking as we talked, and when we hit the second floor landing, Otto led me to one of the regular rooms. This kind of room held a flogging station and a bed, and not much else. Jane, one of our most beautiful paid subs, was waiting for us in the hallway. She did look fine, aside from the fact that she was sitting on the floor, next to the door. Her green eyes were clear, and her long, wavy dark hair was pushed back from her face. She had a robe on, and looked up at us as we approached.
She saw us coming, and moved to stand, then stopped and sat down again, and looked like she was thinking of dropping to the floor when I got close—I hadn’t trained her, but she was imprinting on me. Since she’d never worked with me, she wouldn’t understand how I separated my persona during a session from my persona out of a session. I almost never worked in street clothes, and jeans were a clear sign I was off duty, so her actions made me uncomfortable. I only want demonstrations of submission in a scene, behind closed doors.
But she needed help more than I needed boundaries right now. Otto might think she was fine, but those mixed signals didn’t seem fine. Also, I needed to know what was going on inside that room, and being a Domme would get me the information faster. I stood up a little straighter and put my “official business” face on.
“Jane, stand up and hold my hand.” I held out my hand to her, and she shivered and then relaxed. Relieved someone would be in charge. She stood up and came closer. “Walk with me,” I said, when she took my hand timidly. I led her to the end of the hallway, where there was a window seat in a bay window. The club was housed in an old Victorian house, with weird rooms and offshoots, and a place to sit in every hall. This was a small one, but it would do, and I led Jane to it gently.
“Let’s sit down together, and you can tell me about what just happened. First of all, are you okay?”
She laughed a little bit as we sat, but it was nervous laughter. I pulled her hand into my lap and started rubbing her palm with my thumbs, but other than that, didn’t try to signal dominance. Her posture was a little wilted, and she had trouble meeting my eyes. I needed to reassure her, and the hand massage seemed to help—she was focusing her attention on it pretty hard. She seemed so small next to me, though she was only a couple of inches shorter, with slender curves. What had happened to her?
“I’m fine. I’m a little shaken, but it’s just because I’ve gotten used to experienced Doms, you know?” she said, and seemed to center herself as she talked.
“I don’t really,” I said, with a smile, making an effort to be charming. She glanced up at my face and relaxed a little more, seeing that I was joking. “Honestly though, even if I was a sub and understood completely; Otto didn’t tell me anything about what happened, he said you wanted to explain.” I should talk to Damian about that. We should update our training—Otto was standing at the other end of the hall, watching the display on his mobile security device. That wasn’t very helpful.
“Oh! Yes, I said that. Okay. Please don’t get mad at my Dom…” She paused for a minute, putting things in order in her head, I guess. “So—I’ve gotten used to Dom’s with experience, right? Even after my training period, I always worked with ones who have been coming here for a long time.” I nodded. That wasn’t always the case, but Jane was in pretty high demand, what with her green eyes, dark skin, and hair like Shakira. She had her pick of clients, and probably gravitated to the ones that could top her well. She seemed to like a variety of guys, but didn’t want to be exclusive with any of them. I rubbed the base of her thumb as she continued. “Even though they’re paying to be here, they usually have some background and know the score, right?”
I lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I think I know what you mean. This guy—” It was probably a guy. “Seemed a little green to you?”
“Well, not at first. One of my regulars moved out of town, and I thought I’d check out the new guys, you know? And I felt a connection with this one during a meet-and-greet last week. This was our first session together, and he said it was his first session here, but that he’d been to other clubs in the past. And he seemed real confident, right?” Her words were running faster. She took her hand back, and gave me the other one, absently. “For the first half, when we were establishing boundaries and stuff, he seemed on top of it.” I nodded and kept rubbing her hand. She was shivering a little, but I could only tell because I was touching her. I shifted in my seat, and pressed my calf against hers. That seemed to help, and she took a deep breath. “I told him what I was willing to do, and what I wasn’t, and I told him my safe word was ‘red light’ and if I wanted him to slow down or back off a little, I’d say ‘yellow light’ and we could adjust, because I wanted to go far for him.”
“Did you guys talk about anything but pain for this first session?”
“Oh, yeah. I told him that sex wasn’t on the table for the first five sessions with me.” That was normal for a female Domme, but subs usually knew if they wanted to go there by the third session. I raised an eyebrow. Jane hurried to fill in, “But he could touch himself, and he could order me to touch myself, and I might blow him during a session if we talked about it first.”
“I know it’s against club rules, but it’s only really fun if they order you to do it.” She shrugged nervously.
I sighed, but patted her hand. I appreciated that she told me the truth, and didn’t want to scold her for it. Even though we’re supposed to wait until the session is over, so that the sex is clearly outside of the bounds of the work relationship. That’s especially important when a new client starts at the club, so they understand where that line is.
But whatever. I needed to find out what was happening with her client much more than I needed to enforce club rules. Really, I didn’t need to enforce club rules at all—I wasn’t a manager. I just needed to clean up whatever this was so that everyone could go home for the night.
“Okay, Jane. I understand. When did things start to go south?” Her shoulders relaxed.
“Well, like I said, things were fine during set up, he didn’t push me to do anything that wasn’t part of my regular routine. I let him tie me up and spank me, and after that he seemed really hesitant, you know? So I suggested that I might like it harder, and he took his belt off and started hitting me with it.”
That sounded bad. But how bad? “Is that outside your boundaries?”
“Oh, no! Not at all. I mean, if the metal parts were waving around, it would be, but he had it folded over. It was more loud than painful.” Well, that was a relief. “But it was weird because it was so abrupt, you know? I wasn’t quite ready for it yet—but it wasn’t too painful. It wasn’t even as bad as a normal flogger. But he just kept going, and he didn’t move the belt around that often, so one spot on my ass was getting really sore. And I said ‘yellow light’ when it seemed like he didn’t know how long he’d been going. And he didn’t stop to check in, so I said ‘red light’ a few times to snap him out of it, and when I did, he made a weird yelling sound, dropped the belt, and sat in the corner.”
She looked puzzled, but wasn’t shaking anymore, and her breathing was steady. Talking about it was helping. That, or she was coming out of her submissive mind-set, which made everything more sensitive, every interaction more loaded. “The ropes are supposed to be safe-release, I know, but I couldn’t get them untied, so I had to buzz for security. And I feel kind of bad. Do you think he went off because I was topping from the bottom?”
I shook my head at her. I really hated that phrase. It just bred self-criticism in subs, and excused the stupidest behavior in Doms.
“You should never worry about that. Once he started acting uncontrolled, you did everything perfectly. I do wish you’d used your call button faster—you should never have to say your safe word twice.” I dropped her hand, put an arm around her shoulders, and gave her an encouraging hug. “I’m sorry this happened to you. When you left, what was he doing? Was he still in the room?” I realized I didn’t know his name. “And what’s his name, anyway? I didn’t get that from Otto, either.”
“Oh, his name is Master Jim. And he was in the corner, sitting on the floor with his head in his hands. I didn’t hear him move while I was waiting for you, and I stayed right outside the room. I wasn’t sure if I should go somewhere else or what.” Man, she really was a submissive. She’d been in a scene with an out-of-control amateur, but her conditioning to stay nearby kept her right by the door until I got there. It was a good thing she’d found the club, those qualities could make regular dating really dangerous for her. Jesus, I’m glad I’m not a sub, I thought.
“Okay, Jane. You did great. I’m going to go talk to him. You didn’t cause this, you’re just fine, you don’t need to worry about topping from the bottom or that kind of bullshit.” I squeezed her hand again. “You’re a professional sub, sometimes you need to lead your Doms where they want to go, sometimes they need that permission from you. Communication in these relationships flows both ways, you know?” She shivered again, one time. But she nodded.
“I’d like you to check in with Damian tomorrow because we may need to fill some holes in our Dominant training classes. He could use your advice.” She perked up at the mention of Damian. “And he may have some ideas about how you can control a situation more effectively.” Ugh, now she looked worried. “Not one like this—not one where your Dom is clearly having issues that are not your fault.” Now she just looked confused, but she nodded. I added, in my Domme voice, so it would stick. “If you ever feel unsafe, like your Dom is not in control of himself, get out of there immediately. Your safety is the most important thing to us. And we’re more important than your Dom, in every situation.” She looked a little freaked out when I said that, but she nodded again, and sniffed a little.
“Okay.” I echoed back. “You were very brave. Would you like to go to the medic now, and get some hot cocoa?” The sugar would help if she was shocky, and even if she wasn’t, who wouldn’t want hot chocolate? “I trust you to know if you’re hurt or not, but it’s best to be careful, and she can clear you to work again. And like I said, the club is most concerned with you. You’re one of our own, and we want you safe and healthy.”
She pulled her hand away to stand, and then leaned in fast and hugged me. “Thank you.” Oh man, she was crying. “I’m going to take good care of myself. Thank you.” I patted her back, and made shushing noises.
She pulled herself together quickly, and walk-ran down the hall to where Otto was waiting. I saw her tell him “Medic” and they went down the stairs to the medic’s office and out of ear-shot. She stopped when they were halfway down and waved to me from the switchback.
I stood and waved back, and steeled myself for what I’d find in the room. This situation didn’t come up very often, having to talk someone down. It came up more often for subs who were trying to prove how tough they were, and refused to say their safe word soon enough. But, I’d worked here for ten years—this wouldn’t be my first time.
I took a deep breath, and opened the door.
When I first walked in, I almost didn’t see him. He was in the corner, like Jane said, and was huddled in a ball with his arms over his head.
I went and sat next to him, a little further down the wall, out of arm’s reach. I wanted to put myself on his level, but not directly in front of him, which could be considered confrontational. Like with a strange dog, I planned to sidle up to him and not make sudden movements.
“Hello, Jim. I just talked to Jane. She’d doing fine.”
His arms pulled in a little tighter.
“You don’t seem to be doing fine, though. Can you tell me what happened?”
“I’m horrible,” he said, softly. Like he was talking to himself.
“Hmm. Okay, could you expand on that?”
“I hurt that girl.” His voice was muffled by his arms, but he’d raised his head a little bit, and I saw the shine of one eye. “Why did they send you? I could hurt you, too.”
I snorted. He could try. “I’m not the issue here, Jim.” I tried to keep the scorn out of my voice, and I mostly managed it. I sounded pretty calm. “You came to the club, and you wanted to top one of our subs. I’m not a sub. I’m not even club management. I’m just another Domme, and I’m here to help you get through a dark spot. Do you want to talk about it?”
His body trembled, hard, and he lowered his head further into his arms, so he couldn’t see me. “You’re a Dom, too?” He sounded doubtful.
“Yes. I’ve worked here as a Domme for ten years now.” I could see both eyes now, though his arms hid the rest of his face.
“You look a little young for that,” he said. He was sitting on the floor, arms over his face, and he was criticizing me. Jane flashed in my mind, waiting outside the door. Staying close to this mess. Sometimes I wonder what we do to deserve our subs, because he surely didn’t deserve her. It was a challenge to keep my voice calm, but I took a deep breath and did it.
“I started right out of college. But like I said, this isn’t about me. Tell me what happened tonight, Jim.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what happened. I just lost it. Jane…” Okay, now I felt a little sympathy. He sounded worried about her, almost brokenhearted.
“She’s okay. She was more startled than scared. You stopped when she used her safe word, which is good. You didn’t slow down when she gave you a warning, though, and she had to use the safe word a few times before you noticed. And you broke off the session early without checking on her or doing any aftercare. Do you remember what we said about aftercare in the club orientation?”
He squirmed. I wasn’t being very nice, but I was as gentle as I could make myself. I’d talked to Jane before walking in, and I’m a woman as well as a Domme. I couldn’t help but put myself in her situation. Since I’m not a sub, the situation made me really angry. On some level, I feel like all the subs at the club belong to me. He didn’t take good care of Jane. I found it offensive, and I had to explain why without alienating him. He thought for a minute, before answering me—I stayed quiet, and eventually he filled the silence.
“It’s important to make the sub feel safe, so they can find their way back out of subspace, so they’re prepared to deal with their daily life,” he said quietly, in a monotone.
“Yes, that’s right. Do you know where I found Jane?”
“She probably ran home once security came to untie her,” he said, sulkily.
“No. She was waiting outside the door. She didn’t want to leave you.” I should have asked Otto and Jane if that was her choice, or if Otto had just left her there. I should probably talk to Damian about it that, too. “You left the session open-ended, and freaked out, leaving her the person in charge. She knows how to handle that, she’s an employee, she’s been trained. But it’s a horribly uncomfortable position for a sub to be in. You were establishing a relationship with her, and it went to a place that was explicitly outside of her boundaries and interests.”
He’d picked his head up off his arms, and was paying attention to me now. “She was waiting outside? Is that safe?”
“We have cameras in the hallways, and security was keeping track of her the whole time. We always had eyes on her.” I shrugged a little bit. “But no, it’s not safe.”
“Where is she now?” His question made me hopeful. Did he want to take care of her? Or just make sure he was off the hook for hurting her?
“Hopefully the club manager is with her now. He’ll take care of her. If he hasn’t made it in yet, she’s with our on-staff medic.”
He sighed heavily, and sort of…listed to the side. Laid down on the floor. His arms fell away from his face and he looked miserable. Once I saw his face, I realized that I’d done the intake session with him, and he’d seemed normal. Together. Like a nice guy. I’d been the one to accept him for membership.
He didn’t seem normal now. Not that he realized that.
“I’m a nice guy,” he said. “I don’t know why this happens to me.” It had happened before?
“Do you have split personality disorder?” I asked him, before thinking it through.
“What? No.” He seemed offended. I looked at him and tried to figure out what to say.
“Okay. Because if you did, I could help you find a psychologist that might be able to help you.”
He sighed. “I feel like that would be easier to handle.” I raised my eyebrow. Multiple personality disorder didn’t seem like it would qualify as “easier” than most anything I could think of, but okay. He was still watching me, and he was talking, so that was good. He continued. “I’m a good dominant, I care about my subs, but once I get to a certain point and feel them pushing back, I just…I feel this haze come over me, and my vision goes red. Usually I can ignore it, but tonight, it just took over. I didn’t even clearly see what was happening. I just remember hearing her say red light and knowing I had to get away from her.”
Thank god that much registered for him. Thank god nothing terrible had happened to Jane before he controlled himself. Thank god I could keep him out of the club from now on. “Have you noticed any commonalities?” I asked calmly. “Anything else that triggers the red haze?”
He sighed. “I feel like it’s stronger, the more attractive my victim is.” His victim? Oh, great.
“Do you think of all of your sexual partners as victims?” I asked.
He blinked at me. My hands clenched into fists.
“Even if you don’t have multiple personality disorder, I think you should get some counseling. We’ll be happy to help you connect with someone who can help you work through these issues.”
“I’ve been seeing a counselor—coming here was part of my exposure therapy.” What? “I don’t know what happened. I really don’t know what happened. I’m trying to get past this…this fascination with pain, but I can’t and I don’t know what to do.”
Now he was crying. God, I’m so bad with Doms going through personal crises. And frankly, I didn’t know if I’d consider this guy a Dom at all. His motivations for seeking out a sub didn’t fall into the usual game-playing, safekeeping, personality exploring molds. I moved a little closer and patted him gingerly on the foot. I wouldn’t hesitate to hug and comfort a sub, but Doms could be weird about that, and the man thought of Jane as a victim. I thought back to his intake session. He came here parroting healthy ideals about safe, sane and consensual sadomasochism, apparently knowing he might lose it once he got into an active S&M scenario.
Under the circumstances, I found his tears a little disgusting. But, having been a baby Domme at one point, I knew he was in pain, and he was aware of the damage he’d done. Maybe.
So I kept gingerly patting his foot and ankle, and said, “When I started working here, it was obvious that I was doing things that my clients wanted. But I still felt a little weird about it. In other circumstances, it would be assault, and it still kind of felt that way. I had their consent, but it felt kind of wrong.”
He stopped crying, and was listening. I kept patting.
“That feeling of wrongness was part of what made it hot, you know? I think that wrongness is part of why they enjoy it, too. And as long as both of us agree to it, it’s okay to enjoy that,” I said, trying to stress the “agree” part.
“I just don’t know why I can’t be normal. Get turned on by giving a woman roses, or something…sweet like that.”
“Some of us just want the thorns.” Wow, how trite. I sighed, and wondered when I’d get to go home. “It’s okay to want these things, Jim. You’re looking in the right places, you’re trying to work on it with your counselor. But it seems like, on some level, it’s not sinking in for you.”
I was saying the right things, but he seemed to be closing in on himself again. Shutting down. “It’s shameful to hit women. To want to hit women. What kind of man wants that?” he asked, sounding like he was repeating someone else’s words.
“You tell me, Jim,” I said with some sympathy, and I kept patting. He looked away from me, and stared at the bed.
That’s how we were when Damian walked in with Otto. My grandma would say they looked like Mutt and Jeff—Damian tall and lean, Otto short and round.
“Did you see Jane? Is she still doing okay?” I asked.
“She’s fine. She’ll do some training with me tomorrow,” he answered.
Another violent shudder ran through Jim. “Did I…damage her?” God, the phrasing. Like she was a thing. I pulled my hand away, and made a disgusted face at Damian. Otto was doing the same.
“She’ll have a hard time sitting down for a while. But she’ll be fine in a couple of days,” Damian said, looking at me, his expression asking didn’t you already tell him that?
I nodded and screwed up my mouth. Of course I did, it was the first thing I said.
Damian tilted his head, and lifted a lip in a sympathetic little sneer, eyebrow still raised. Do I need to take over?
I shrugged, and nodded again. Yes, he won’t listen to me. I wasn’t sure how to telegraph, probably because I’m a woman, but Damian could figure that out for himself. It was pretty obvious.
He nodded back and, against my better judgment, I gave Jim one last pat. “Damian will help you figure out what to do next. He’s the club director, and he’s a great resource. Good luck, Jim.”
Jim sighed and levered himself to sit upright. He looked wrecked. Another man was there, though, and he had to put on his manly face. I felt a little bad for him, but the thought of Jane sitting alone in the hallway kept me from feeling any worse. My real sympathy was for her.
I was so ready to go home.
San Francisco is a beautiful city, in its own way. Concrete sidewalks on concrete streets with a few trees poking out, houses narrow and tall, everything rising up from the hilly earth to reach for and meet a foggy sky. Everything is gray as a lint ball, and walking home at night felt like walking through a cross between Frank Miller’s Gotham and Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper comic. But much less scary.
Okay, it was still a little scary, because I was a woman walking alone at night, but the club was in a nice neighborhood, and I lived close by.
At night, even in the summer, it was always cold from the wind blowing over the bay. Russian Hill is a lovely old neighborhood, filled with amazing houses, and the Club was in a spacious old mansion on a small lot, the courtyard garden one of the few green spaces in the area. Fernando, my boss—or my boss’s boss, really—had a rich submissive buy it for him in the 1970’s, and they started the club together. It was cheap, at the time, because it was far from Russian Hill’s cable-cars and the Muni lines, and couldn’t be turned into apartments.
This being San Francisco, Fernando decided to make his kinky hobby into a nonprofit corporation, and ran it for years as a sort of a combination kink outreach and social experiment. For the last few years, he’d been running it as a trust, from his retirement home in Barbados. He’d gotten nonprofit status by calling it a treatment facility for people with tendencies to self-harm, which everyone on staff thought was very funny, and also very accurate.
As I walked home, I thought about the club, and about poor Jane. And about Jim. Being sexually aroused by pain is a hard thing to deal with—but there are a lot of people who need that pain for their mental and sexual health. Either to give it, or to receive it. And whichever side of the coin you land on, it makes life hard. Sometimes it makes your own mental health hard to deal with, and our minds go to some twisty places, trying to accommodate our id.
But sometimes people aren’t actually aroused by pain, and are brought in to the BDSM community by any number of other needs or compulsions. I wondered why some of them don’t just go to a boxing gym—it would certainly be cheaper. Or turn into a vigilante, like Batman. Talk about someone suppressing his submissive side. His relationship with Catwoman made things a little obvious, but there are no delusions like self-delusions.
I spent a lot of time feeling bad for Batman, who was more fun to think about than people like Jim. Or even people like Richard, who took fitness to a Batman-obsessive level. What was the fun in punishing your own body like that? No one would give you a hug afterward. If you’re touch-adverse, that would be nice, I guess. Since I have the opposite problem, and get antsy without physical contact, I found it hard to wrap my mind around. I feel more like Harley Quinn—always chasing physical attention—with better taste in friends and better self-care practices, of course. I wondered what Batman would do for self-care after a solitary training session. Aftercare is a critical part of being a responsible Dom, but there aren’t good models for it in the DC Universe.
Anyway, as hard as it is to be a sub, (poor Batman), I always felt a little worse for the new Doms. It’s a hard thing, coming to terms with the fact that you want to hurt the person you want to have sex with, let alone the person you love. It’s taken me years of therapy to allow those two impulses co-exist. I still have a hard time with it.
My job helps. Rachael My therapist helps. She keeps me honest about confronting my issues, and not just processing everything by thinking about comics.
Reluctantly, I pushed my mind away from Batman and thought of Jim again. Frankly, I think it’s rougher on the men, coming to terms with their sexuality—especially the men who really love and respect women. They make amazingly good Doms once trained, and once they accept that part of themselves, but when they first land at our Club they’re pretty messed up, and have a lot of self-hate. So the nonprofit status of our club, though surprising at first, was truly well-earned.
When I was hired on as staff for the Club, I met Fernando, the original head of the club. An older man from Argentina, he was very smart and sweet, and his views on love and compassion were formed largely by the Catholic Church. I’m not sure I would have been able to work directly for him if he’d been running every aspect of the club like he used to—his personality was strong, and though he was a positive presence in a lot of peoples’ lives, he was a little overwhelming.
He’d been gray-haired and strong when he first interviewed me, but even then, he’d left most of the daily functioning of the club to Damian. Fernando had hung around the club a lot my first five years in the job, so I saw him often. Sometimes, after I’d finished a shift, Fernando would walk [HO1] with me, and we’d talk philosophy. At the time, I’d get a little impatient with him—his preoccupation with philosophical questions seemed like a distraction from the real questions we faced every day. But now, I often thought of him as I headed home at the end of a night’s work. Him, and Batman.
He’d be shocked at how much the city had changed in the past three years. He used to talk about the vast changes in the neighborhood since the 1970’s, how it had gotten more liberal, and richer—and it’s gotten even more expensive and less diverse since he moved away. The Victorian row houses I walked past were slowly getting more and more ornate—turning into little jewel box residences.
I still talked to him regularly on Skype, but it wasn’t the same kind of rambling conversations we’d had before. He thought of himself as our father-confessor, and truthfully, it was good to have someone I could share my work concerns with. I took up almost all of his time with those observations, and saved my insights into the human condition for my therapist.
The streetlights around Russian Hill were still sulfur-yellow and they made everything look less gray then it did on a foggy morning, when the bleakness of the streets and the clouds and the buildings and (especially) the grime sometimes got to me. I remembered a mindfulness meditation my therapist had given me, and paid attention to the world around me as I walked home that night; the things I passed, and their personal meanings. I started to relax, the sourness of that last half hour at work fading as I concentrated on the world around me, my legs a little sore as I walked, my body feeling well-used from my time with Richard.
In the two long blocks it took to get home, I passed a number of cute little restaurants, most of which were closed when I got out. There was a bar that served food and stayed open late, and I’d often stop in there if I didn’t feel like cooking. It was called Ishmael’s, and had a carved sign that looked like a wooden whale. I gave it a little smile as I passed.
I live with a friend, because although I make good money, San Francisco prices are crazy. My landlord and roommate was a stockbroker who had made enough money on dot-com investments that he’d been able to afford our flat. He’d blown every bit of his savings buying it, and once he was flush again, he’d decided he liked having me around. “You’re like the perfect pet. I barely notice you’re here, but when I want company, you wander in,” he’d told me. He’d kept my rent steady for the ten years we lived together, so although I paid a mint compared to my hometown standards, I was taking criminal advantage of Bruce by San Francisco rent standards.
When I wandered through our front door at 1:00 am, he was up washing dishes, which was unusual but not unheard of.
“Dinner party?” I asked, as I dropped my coat and scarf on the rack by the door before picking up a dish towel to help dry.
“Yup! Some of the folks from the European and New York offices are here, helping our new manager get settled in. He’s moving here from Tokyo, and he’s jetlagged. Up until all hours. He’s in my bathroom now.”
“You know you’re welcome to have people use mine when you have parties.”
“I know, and I think a few of them did.” He smiled at me. With sandy-brown hair and blue eyes, he looked as all-American and innocent as a farmhand. A very gay farmhand, who would get other farmhands to do filthy things in the hayloft. That look was misleading, because he wasn’t just gay, he was also asexual. “But I always point them to my bathroom first.”
Bruce was one of my best friends, and one of the few people outside of work who really knew me well. My family loves me, but I never see them; they’re starchy and non-demonstrative and were very confused that I wasn’t married to a straight, white, conservative version of Bruce. I think his family felt the same about him in an understated, Midwestern way. He’d hightailed it out of Iowa as quickly as I’d fled Wisconsin, and by the time we met each other, we’d settled into our new selves. Our true selves.
My clients came and went, but Bruce stuck by me, and his company combined with the leftover glow from my nice day, my sweet clients, and even the damp ache between my legs to relax me and make me feel full of love. I’d shaken off the unpleasantness from before, and was in a very good mood. It would have been nice to have someone special at home to pour that love into, someone to sleep next to at night, but that was…complicated. It had been a while since I’d had a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend, for that matter. Bruce didn’t love me in every way, but he did love me.
I thought of his comment about me being his favorite pet, and I bumped his shoulder with my head as we did the dishes, like a cat seeking attention, and said “Meow.”
At the same time, a voice came from the door. “Is this the roommate you were telling me about?”
I jerked upright, more surprised than embarrassed, and bobbled then caught the plate I’d been drying.
There was a guy at the entrance to our little galley kitchen, wearing a white undershirt and sweatpants, his dark hair just long enough to flop into his eyes. Not like he needed a haircut, just like he enjoyed having floppy hair. He also had on running shoes, and was carrying a business-like leather bag in one hand that looked incongruous with his gym clothes. When I registered how hot he was, I almost dropped the plate again—tall and muscled without being over-developed. In a city full of fitness obsessed gay guys, he was still a showstopper. Who did he look like? A younger Doctor Strange? Not quite. No mustache.
Bruce was smiling at him welcomingly. Bruce smiled at everyone welcomingly. He was one of the most outgoing people I knew. “This is her—Penny, this is Mike—he’s the new head of our section, just transferred in from Japan.”
I put the plate in the dish-drainer, dried my hands on the tea towel, and reached out to shake.
“Roommate and part-time cat?” he asked as he shook my hand. Good pressure, business-like eye contact. I felt a nervous flutter, and ignored it—he might be my type physically, but he probably wasn’t my type…sexually.
“You meet all kinds living here,” I answered. I briefly hoped he didn’t think that puppy and kitty play was my kink, and then decided I didn’t really care. “Heading to the gym?”
“Yes. Time zone adjustments are rough. If I work out now, I’ll be able to fall asleep. I hope.” He leaned against the kitchen table, and looked at Bruce. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Nah, we got this,” I said, and took another plate from Bruce. Dried it.
“Thanks for letting me change at your place, Bruce. The gym is on my way home, and the locker rooms at this time of night are a little dodgy.”
“You don’t say,” Bruce replied, with a raised brow. He might be asexual, but I knew he’d had a few encounters at the locker room in the Russian Hill 24-Hour Fitness when he was still figuring stuff out. I smirked. Mike seemed to realize he shouldn’t stick with that topic, and turned to me.
“Penny, I was checking out your book collection earlier. You have great taste in science fiction.”
“Thanks,” I said. His absurd hotness was making me feel a little hostile toward him, even before he’d made the comment about the locker rooms. I leaned against Bruce a little bit as he finished up the last plate. Just so I’d be touching him, giving and receiving silent support.
“You’ve a really wide range of eras on your bookshelf. Do you have a favorite?”
“Oh, that’s just because I’ve been reading for a long time. I like recent stuff the best—I feel like the genre is finally starting to reflect the world around it. I’m not an expert on it at all, I consider myself more of a comic book nerd than a sci-fi fan. But I have all of my comics stored in archival bins, so they aren’t on display.”
“Oh, neat. I used to be into comics,” he said, still friendly. Showing no sign of leaving.
“So how do you know Bruce?” I asked him, even though Bruce was standing right there.
“I work with him, I just joined his office.” Oh, yeah—this must be the new manager Bruce was hosting the party for. Mike’s hotness was making my brain short circuit. It was weird, I dealt with hot people all the time at work, unfazed. Or Mistress Penny did, at least. Mike continued, “We’ve been working on the same project for a while now, so we’ve been talking on the phone and over email a lot. It’s weird that I just met him in person, I feel like we’ve spent the last three weeks in each other’s pockets.” He shifted a little. “So, what do you do?”
“For a living, you mean? I’m a professional dominatrix,” I answered easily, a little surprised this hadn’t come up in conversation over the course of the night. All of Bruce’s coworkers knew, and it was unusual enough that people often remarked on it. It was one of the ways he habitually outed himself in casual conversation. Oh, my roommate Penny is a dominatrix, but our demographics don’t overlap at all, you know? We’re both still looking for the right man.
Mike looked flabbergasted, which was kind of funny. He clearly didn’t know what to say.
I took pity on him.
“You didn’t meet any of us in Tokyo?” I asked. There was a big S&M community there, among expats. It was a regular stop for touring Dommes. But if he wasn’t in the community, it probably flew under his radar. I tilted my head, waiting for a response.
He just blinked at me, clearly still trying to process. I look like a nice girl, so people sometimes think I’m joking when I say what I do.
“Japan is a very rigid society in some ways,” he said. “I don’t think I met any sex workers while I was there…” He trailed off when he saw our faces.
I’m pretty sure mine was amused and pitying, but Bruce’s was probably quite hostile, if it matched his voice.
“She’s not a sex worker.” He’s a lot touchier on that point than I am. Some Midwestern “defend the girl” gene kicking in. I think it’s a bit of a distinction without a difference, as an ex of mine would say. But it’s important to Bruce.
“I only get paid for hitting people,” I followed up, with an amused grin. “Any sex is on my own time. Which is why I was late coming home tonight.” I grinned at Bruce, who gave me an exasperated look. He was defending my honor, and I sometimes made it hard. I didn’t feel like my honor was connected to my celibacy.
Mike still looked confused. “Well, that’s awesome, man,” he said to Bruce, because I guess he liked making things worse for himself. “You’re a brave dude.”
Bruce put a hand on his hip, which was never a good sign. “She’s just my roommate, sir.” Oh shit, he called him sir. “I only date men.” And he batted his eyes. Honest to god, batted his eyes at him.
The farm-boy thing is deep in Bruce’s DNA, and it’s rare to see him act like a stereotypical gay man. He told me he’d tried when he first moved to town, but it wasn’t really him, and he got over it. So I had a hard time not laughing at his unusual behavior.
“Um. Maybe I’d better go,” Mike said, and picked up his bag.
“Have fun at the gym!” Bruce sang out, and walked to open the door for him. Our flat was big by San Francisco standards, but the journey only took around four steps.
“See you tomorrow,” Mike said as he walked out the door.
“Bye-bye now,” Bruce muttered as he closed the door behind him.
He looked up at me.
We both busted up laughing, inappropriately loud considering Mike was probably still in the hallway, and sound carried.
“Oh, dear! The gays in the locker room will get me!” I said to Bruce.
“A dominatrix, you say? How does that work now?” Bruce replied, with an affected confused voice.
“I should have slapped him across the face, and asked for twenty dollars.” I said.
Bruce laughed harder. “Oh, god.” He snorted a little as he gulped in air. “No, last time you almost got arrested for that.”
“We should be nice,” I gasped. “I don’t think he meant to be offensive.”
Bruce just kept laughing. “Slap him and ask for twenty dollars!”
I thought of what could happen to Bruce on Monday morning if I’d done that, and sobered a little. Bruce had a lot of buy-in at his company, he’d made them a lot of money. But if this guy was his new supervisor, it could be a problem.
“Is this going to be okay for you?” I asked. “I don’t want to make trouble for you.” Bruce was deep breathing, trying to calm down—my question re-focused him, and he looked at me and nodded.
“It’s fine, honey. I’m well above my targets for the year, and Mike’s supervising the people under me, so I’m not really his subordinate. That’s why I was the one to host the welcome party.”
“But socially? Won’t it be awkward?”
Bruce put his arm around me and led me over to the couch. “No. If he can’t handle this, he won’t be in San Francisco for long.” He squeezed my shoulders a little. “And he’s a nice guy. Good sense of humor. He’ll think it’s funny, too, by tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s good,” I said doubtfully, as I sat down. I wanted to groan—the couch was so comfy.
“Today is your Friday, right?” Bruce asked, settling in across from me. Then changing his mind, he stood up and went to the sideboard, where a few bottles of white stood open. He poured a glass.
“I need you to think about something for me,” Bruce said as he handed me the glass and sat back down again. “Take the weekend and give it some thought, okay?”
“Uh-oh. This sounds serious,” I said, trying to tease him. I took a sip of the wine. It was a nice one, tasting like citrus and stone.
“Yeah.” And he did look serious. “So, you remember last month when I went on vacation with my brother’s family?”
“The ones who aren’t Baptists.”
“Those are the ones.” He grinned. “His kids are getting pretty big now. The youngest ones are in elementary school and the oldest will be in high school pretty soon.”
I nodded. He’d mentioned that before.
He took a deep breath, waited for me to finish my sip, and made eye contact. “Penny, I want kids.”
I nodded again, not shocked. I’d seen how he smiled at babies and small kids. He’d told me years ago that he wanted to be a dad.
“I guess that you’ve looked into the options, and need to know when I can move out,” I said, and he looked surprised. Oh no. He cleared his throat a little, and shifted in his chair as he started to talk.
“The thing is, I’d like to have biological children. But I’d need to find a surrogate, and an egg donor, and I’d like to raise them with someone. And I thought, if you want kids…”
The lightbulb went off. Oh no oh no. My face probably looked like it had been hit with a shovel, I was so taken aback. But he’d gotten nervous and was looking at my knees, so he didn’t see it.
“We’re both getting to the age where if we’re going to have them, we should just do it,” he continued.
I was thirty-two, and he was forty. It seemed like a bigger problem for him than for me. He glanced up at my face. His voice was more hesitant as he continued.
“We’ve been living together for almost ten years now, we know we can get along.” He paused for a minute, studying my expression. I tried to look less shocked. “I think we’d be great parents.”
He was right, we’d be awesome. I almost nodded, but drank more wine instead. His face was falling, slowly, as he watched me.
“It hadn’t occurred to you at all that we’d do this together, huh?”
I shook my head no. I didn’t really want to swallow the mouthful of wine. I’d just drunk it so that I could cover my reaction. But now I had to talk. I gulped, and it felt like a stone going down my throat.
Oh, my Bruce. He looked so sad, it made me feel short of breath. I inhaled deeply.
“Bruce, you’re my best friend. And I love you. But I don’t even know if I want kids.”
“You should probably think about it. Female fertility drops dramatically at age thirty-five,” he said. I raised an eyebrow at him, and he looked slightly sheepish. As sheepish as Bruce could get, at least. “Yes, fine, that isn’t relevant. But it’s true, I did some research.” He took a deep breath. “Will you at least think about it?”
“I’ll think about it.” I agreed, readily. But I already knew my answer would most likely be no. I should probably make plans to move out.
“And you’ll keep an open mind?” He pressed.
“I’ll keep an open mind.” I owed it to him to take this offer seriously, to really think it through—he was my best friend, and a cornerstone of my life. I met his worried blue eyes and nodded. “I’ll think about it, Bruce. I’ll talk to Regina about it tomorrow.”
He looked reassured at that, and his shoulders relaxed.
“Yes, talk to your therapist about it. She likes me.” His regular Bruce half-smile came back. And the ropes around my chest loosened again.
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The phone rang, pulling Tabitha’s attention out of her textbook, and back to the small, dingy back office where she was stationed for the night.
Tabitha looked at the rainbow of highlighter-accented text covering both pages of the open law book in front of her, and let the phone ring a second time while she yawned and shifted in her chair—she was so tired, and this patent leather catsuit was a sorry, uncomfortable excuse for a work uniform. It was bad enough when she was standing up at the front desk. She’d been sitting for a while now, and she thought it was cutting off circulation to one leg. There would for sure be pins-and-needles when she stood up.
Two more weeks, then one more semester, Bar Exam, and my real career starts. The mantra was getting shorter as time went on, but it was also getting old. Real old.
She closed her eyes against the glow of her highlighter-covered book, feeling them burn, and picked up the handset before it could ring again.
“Fernando’s Club, sadism a specialty. You’ve reached scheduling. How can I help you?” She kept her eyes closed as she capped and put her yellow highlighter down (yellow was for facts of the case), then opened them again as she fiddled with the pink one, which had been resting next to it. Pink was for conclusions of law. Blue for the appellant, orange for the respondent. Purple for WTF. In Tabitha’s opinion, informed by two-point-five years of law school, legal textbooks should all have purple covers. It would save her a lot of highlighter money.
“Tabitha! I know that voice. How’s my best girl?” said a British-accented voice on the other end of the phone. Tabitha rolled her eyes at the flirting, but smiled and felt her shoulders loosen and her attention perk up at the voice of one of her favorite club patrons. Jason. Yum.
Phone tucked under her ear, she woke up her computer, and made a mental note to talk to management about getting her a different style of headset—the headband style was comfortable, but it would squash her softly puffy, braided updo, and she didn’t want to walk around with a permanent dent across the top of her head. But bracing the phone like this would give her a crick in her neck.
“Hello, Jason. Are you calling to set something up with Mistress Penny? Or with Tomas?” she replied, waking up the computer on her desk, and ignoring his flirtation.
Jason had been visiting the club since before Tabitha started working here, on and off, and he usually saw one of those two.
He was one of the few contractors who took his payment in club sessions—he was the club’s self-defense instructor. Fernando’s might be in famously liberal San Francisco—it might be downright respectable for a sex club—but it was still a sex club, and attracted a few crazies. Damian and Penny had decided a few years ago to make self-defense classes available for free to all employees.
She smiled into the phone, and pulled up his profile. He was listed on her computer as “SelfDefense, Jason” instead of a last name, which always made her laugh. He made her laugh, himself, when he stopped by the front desk, and chatted until her neck hurt from looking up at his giant, blond cheerfulness. He had a good sense of humor—one time he’d come in wearing a spandex cycling suit, to show solidarity with the reception desk staff and the stupid vinyl catsuits. He’d looked so uncomfortable too. She grinned at the memory.
Although, actually, it had been a while since he’d dropped by her desk to say hello, or to check in for a session. She looked at the “past bookings” line on her computer monitor—six months since his last visit? She blinked. He had a lot of credits pending.
“Err, no, I’m not scheduling anything tonight…” Jason said into her ear, his voice sounding almost shy.
“No? How can I help, then?” she answered, curious.
Jason was one of their few clients who almost made her wish she was into BDSM, almost made her want to work upstairs. Her memories of sex were getting a little fuzzy at this point, and the idea of teasing that hot, blond, eager man…instead of manning the front desk and phones in this stupid shrink-wrapped cat-suit…
But there was some cultural baggage that came with BDSM, and she couldn’t go there. She couldn’t even read “50 Shades of Gray”—she’d gotten a few pages in, but her Mom or Gran’s voice would keep calling out from the back of her head “what black woman would put up with this?”
It ruined immersion. But Jason was talking again.
“Well, Tabby Kitten, I’m calling to have you erase my profile,” he said, with a sigh. She blinked, surprised. “I just spoke with Damian, and I’m going to get paid in real money from now on, because…because I’m a taken man.” His voice was as deep and sexy as ever, but sounded a little shy, and a little proud at the news. The content of his words jarred her awake again, just as his lovely accent and the timber of his words were lulling and arousing her.
“Aww, we’ll miss you,” she said, and that was true. She’d never endanger her job by hitting on the clients—it paid a lot better than anything else she’d done, stripping aside. But Jason was so fun to flirt with.
And really, he was taken now? Somehow, she was shocked that he could be taken. Surely a man that hot, that laid-back, should be like …a public resource. Like a water fountain, available to everyone.
She looked at her huge tumbler of water. She was thirsty.
“Talk with me while I delete your profile,” she said, bracing the phone under her ear again, so she could type with two hands, and going to the master controls for his profile. “I’m really happy for you. Do we know the lucky girl? Or guy?” She knew she’d still see him at self-defense class, but…
Well, she felt a little deflated. Sad that he wouldn’t stop and chat with her at the front desk after a session, relaxed and cheerful, and probably post-coital. In those moments, when he chatted with her, she felt like she had a chance with him. When she was ready. When she had time.
Maybe when she was a hot-shot attorney, and didn’t work here anymore. Her eyes strayed to her homework.
Well, it’s not as if she would ever have enough time.
“No, he’s not a club patron. You guys wouldn’t know him. But he’s wonderful—and he’s a grad student, like you,” Jason said, sounding a little proud and very English, the heat of his voice making her feel warm. He remembered that she was in school? “Will I see you at the Dojang after finals are over?”
It always took her a minute to remember that “Dojang” was the Taekowndo term for a Dojo… or, as Tabitha thought of it, the self-defense studio, since she only attended the self-defense classes. Having grown up in dance studios, it was the term that made the most sense to her.
“Sure, you know I miss it when I’m too busy to come.” The self-defense classes were one of her only chances to use her body, now that she wasn’t dancing. And Taekwondo classes never gave her a chance to feel socially awkward or adrift. Her anxiety didn’t mess with her there.
As if summoned by the thought of her anxiety, an awkward memory of talking to him after class a few years ago, over-eager and running through her Grad school applications flashed to her mind, leaving her embarrassed in a way that the memory of Jason’s presumably post-coital smiles did not.
Ignoring that, she pursed her lips and imagined him with no shirt on instead. That made her happy. She asked, “Are you sure you want me to delete your profile, and not just put it on hold? Some of our people see couples, you know.” She didn’t have a script for closing out accounts, it didn’t happen often. She wasn’t sure if it was a stupid question or not.
Tabitha didn’t really know what happened during his appointments, because she only had access to the scheduling module of the Club’s software. She could usually make some educated guesses, based on the professional they saw, or the room they rented, or the special equipment the club’s Dom or sub requested. Jason saw both men and women, submissives and Doms, and they never requested any special equipment.
It gave her a lot to wonder about, when work was slow and she wasn’t staring at a pile of homework.
“Just delete the whole profile, Nate wouldn’t be into it. How’re you doing, girl? Still studying?” he asked. Tabitha mmm-hmmed as she keyed in the override codes, deleting his profile.
Once his profile was gone from the reservations section, she added, “Studying hard. I’ll be glad when this semester is over. I overloaded this half of the school year, so next semester will be light.” She stopped there.
Jason probably wouldn’t be interested in the details of her classes, any more than she’d be interested in the details of his business. Less, probably—she at least was interested in how businesses ran. She doubted that Jason was interested in the principles of International Arbitration.
The business aspect was why she liked this job—it was fun, seeing the financial and day-to-day operations of a business that was built on other people’s secret desires. Learning how the puzzle pieces connected behind the grand Victorian mansion’s facade, all the little things that made the club tick.
Feeling like she was part of over three-hundred peoples’ dirty little secrets.
Of course, this was San Francisco. A town where a BDSM club was almost respectable, and most people thought of their club as a public service—nothing was a real secret here. She shifted and watched the computer crunch away the last module of Jason’s profile. She pulled on the leg of her catsuit, where it was sticking to her skin.
The fancy, sleek computer booking system cycled back to its home page on the desktop, Jason’s profile eliminated.
“Okay, you’re all set, profile deleted. We’ll miss seeing you.”
He laughed. “I’ll still see you, it’ll just be at the Dojang instead of your job—I hope.”
“Knock on wood. I’ll have some free time next month,” she answered, and rapped her desk for good measure. She heard knocking on his end too. “Do you want me to email you a confirmation?” she asked, not actually sure how to do that.
“No, I trust that it’s sorted,” he answered easily. “So I’ll see you in December?”
“Roger that, sir,” she said, trying to sound a little flirtatious. He wasn’t a patron anymore, she could wink back now.
“Not your Sir,” he answered, sounding amused. “But I’ll talk to you soon.”
She waited for him to disconnect, and then hung up on her end, grinning, and turned back to the textbook.
Her grin faded. She’d been able to concentrate earlier, because it was a slow night on the phones. The Club itself wasn’t quiet, she heard a lot of people moving around upstairs, and saw a lot of employees passing in the hall outside, headed to the locker rooms in the Victorian mansion’s former servants’ quarters.
She’d been in the zone, studying, before Jason called, and now she was…slightly energized by talking to another person, a little sad her work crush was in a real relationship now, and so tired she didn’t think she could get back into her homework.
She was so tired, she wasn’t even sure she remembered what she’d just read. She turned her gaze back to the book. It looked thick and boring, and nothing like the fun YA fantasy novel she’d like to be reading. The one that had been sitting on her nightstand for two months now, taunting her. The latest in a series she’d been following since the books were age-appropriate.
Looking at the textbook made her moody. But she still had a half-hour of work left, and she knew it would be dead quiet. She should at least try.
The multi-colored highlights covered almost every strip of text on the page of her book, but none of it was purple, so that was good. The case involved…what? Oh yeah—a couple getting divorced and the woman getting screwed.
She sighed and ran her finger down the margin of the book as she scanned it, trying to figure out how the Judge justified this result. Oh, of course—it was from a non-community property state, and… She glanced at the year. It was old.
She made a note in her ring-bound notebook: “New York. Equitable Distribution. Living expenses paid by wife, savings by husband; husband got all savings in divorce.” And jotted down the year. Made a mental note to never get divorced in New York.
Kanye West had a point—she wasn’t a sucker, and law school was making her a fan of pre-nups. She moved on to the next case on her list for class tomorrow.
The phone didn’t ring again before quitting time, which was good, because the next case on her list was complicated. She drew a little family tree diagram to make sense of the facts, and then started in on it with her highlighters. Despite being too tired to concentrate well, she quickly lost herself in the work.
“Tabitha, it’s coming up on one in the morning.” A woman’s voice came from the doorway, startling her and breaking her concentration. “Your shift ended at midnight.”
She looked up and started blinking rapidly, her eyes burning from focusing on the text for too long. Penny, one of her bosses, was standing in the doorway, dressed in jeans.
That meant Penny’s shift was over—her last session ended at midnight, and she usually kept her last client a little late if things were going well.
If she’d already showered, changed into jeans, and wandered in here? It was way past quitting time.
Tabitha glanced at the lower right corner of the computer screen as she turned it off, then yawned, her body catching up to the news about the time. Penny grinned at her.
“Go home and get some sleep. You have class in the morning, don’t you?”
Tabitha nodded. “How can you still look so awake?” she grumbled. “I feel like I could sleep for a week.”
“Well, yeah,” Penny drawled. “I sleep late every day. Also, I just got laid.”
That was obvious.
The average height, thick-hipped woman was bonelessly lounging in the doorway, her newly dyed red hair loose, with a smug smile on her face. It made Tabitha feel a little wistful, seeing all the people who came to say hello to her after they just had sex. She remembered what it was like to get laid, barely. She hadn’t gotten any since starting law school, and was starting to feel like there were cobwebs on her lady parts. She scowled.
“You really should try to sleep more,” Penny continued with a mock-stern look on her face. “It’s like vitamins for every part of your body.”
Tabitha stopped scowling, and lifted one incredulous eyebrow, because Penny seemed serious about this mother-hening.
“Boss, I have an eight a.m. class.” Her voice was tart, with a lot of sarcasm sunk into the first word. “I’ll do what I can.”
“See if you can take a nap during the day,” Penny said. “Or on your breaks here. We have rooms with beds.”
Tabitha thought about what happened on those beds. Housekeeping at the Club was amazing, but they’d seen a lot of fluids over the years. She didn’t want to go there.
“I need to study on my breaks,” she said, then yawned again, her jaw cracking. Time to get away from this conversation, she really was tired. “But I’ll go home and sleep now, I promise. And before you ask, I don’t need a ride—there’s construction on Filmore, Muni will be faster.” Her work computer blooped a few times, as it shut down behind her.
Penny smiled at her again. “Okay then. See you tomorrow? Oh wait, no. See you on Friday?”
“I’ll be here!” she replied, and smiled, hoping she’d remember to leave the office on time tomorrow, without Penny around to snap her out of her study coma.
Penny started to leave, then stopped and turned around, as if a thought occurred to her.
“Oh hey, I was going to ask. Your schedule is more open over Christmas break, right? Are you doing any shows over the holidays?”
Tabitha shook her head sadly as she picked up her purse and listened to the computer’s fan shut off.
“No. I was in the Jingle Bells Burlesque last year, and they asked me to join again, but their rehearsals conflicted with my class schedule.” This semester had been brutal, and she knew finals week would be worse. She couldn’t take anything extra on—not right now. Not even something fun. Not even something that could make a dent in her credit card bills, which were piling up.
She didn’t miss stripping—her job before Fernando’s Club hired her—but she did miss burlesque. It was fun and active, and made her feel alive and pretty. Like her body was a joy. Like self-defense class did, but sexier.
But the crushing schedule of full-time school and full-time work was taking its toll. Even though this job was easy, and both of her bosses encouraged her to study during the Club’s downtime, it was still hard to do both.
She yawned again, and admitted to herself—silently—that Penny might have a point. The lack of sleep was the worst.
“So do you want to go see the show with me in December, if you’re not in it?” Penny asked, calling her back from thoughts of her bed.
“Huh? Sure!” Tabitha said, surprised, and then immediately regretted it.
She didn’t do well in social situations. Even with low-stress people like Penny. She looked at the other woman, who was cream-cheese pale under the fluorescent lights. She had always been very friendly, but had seemed a little closed-off when Tabitha first met her.
Then when she was promoted to Assistant Director last year, she’d turned into a sort of club mom. No one else would question Tabitha’s sleep habits, or bring her snacks when she worked a double.
It was weird—sometimes nice-weird. Sometimes just weird.
She and Penny had never done anything together outside of work. She grinned at Penny nervously, hoping she looked flattered to be asked, instead of like she was doing mental gymnastics to get out of it.
She needed alone time. Even after finals week was done, when she would be well-rested, she would need alone time. But maybe she was just anxious because this was new, and new things made her anxious.
Penny smiled back, looking pleased. As she did, Tabitha remembered that Penny was bi—was she hitting on her? Penny had a boyfriend, they’d been together for a year or so, was it an open relationship?
She noticed she was clutching her textbook too hard, and wished she could hug it without looking weird. Books never gave her social anxiety.
And she was too tired to deal with her social anxiety with any grace.
Thank god, Penny was either understanding or unnaturally chill, and pretended not to notice the book-clutching.
In fact, Penny wasn’t even looking at her—she was making a note on her phone.
“Great! I’m getting a block of tickets, and Damian and Bruce and Mike are all going. Jason’s a maybe, he’ll have a plus one if he attends. I’ll add you to the list.” The mention of Jason shot a jolt of awareness through her, and then Tabitha processed what that guest list meant.
Phew, Penny definitely was not hitting on her. Mike was Penny’s boyfriend, and if he was going, along with all those other people from work, she was just being friendly.
Tabitha felt her smile shift a little as she laughed at herself. What was she thinking? Penny didn’t need to hit on people. She just hit people, and then they’d hit on her.
She realized she was staring blankly at the other woman, who was still staring at her phone.
“Oh, just let me know the date and show you’re attending—I can get them to comp me a seat,” she said as she unclutched her book, and picked up her purse. If she did end up going, at least she wouldn’t have to pay for the ticket.
“Cool. I’ll email you the details,” Penny said, letting her phone fall to her side, and she headed toward the front door with a wave. Then turned back again and asked, with narrowed eyes, “Are you sure you won’t fall asleep on Muni?”
Tabitha made a face and waved her toward the front, and Penny left, shrugging and waving again.
Once she was gone, Tabitha blinked a few times, changing gears. She started running through her to-do list in her mind, remembering her thoughts about the headset as soon as Penny was out of earshot.
She swore softly as she walked down the hall to the employee locker rooms to remove the worst part of this job—the stupid white, shiny vinyl catsuit. Getting it on required a lot of talcum powder, and once it was off, her skin required a lot of lotion.
She went through her post-work routine step-by-step, the locker room shower making her even more tired. She was still tired as she put clothes on, as she waited for MUNI, and as she boarded and rode the weird train-bus hybrid back home with a bunch of strangers. She couldn’t let herself rest, because she might fall asleep on public transit, and that would be bad—so she rotated her ankles, stretching them out as she waited for her stop.
Tabitha was still in that place past sleep as she got off the train and let herself into her Mom’s first-floor flat.
Her mom had gone to bed much earlier, her job made her an early bird.
But her brother was sitting at the kitchen table when she walked in, and she relaxed at the sight of him—a line chef at one of the fancy hotel restaurants downtown, he had a late schedule too, and usually waited up for her if he got in first.
When she shut the door behind her, he looked up from his phone, stood, got a plate with toast and eggs on it out of the microwave, and handed it to her.
She smiled at him gratefully, grabbed a fork from a drawer, and joined him at the small, dented, blue Formica kitchen table.
“Late tonight,” he said, looking back at his phone as he sat down.
“Studying at my desk,” she answered, and took a bite of the eggs. They were still warm, but not hot. She glanced at the sink—his clean dishes were in the drainer. He must have waited for her before he got too hungry and started cooking. The eggs were still amazing, everything her brother made was amazing, even when he was exhausted at the end of his shift and refused to cook “real food.”
“How’s Cecile?” she asked as she started in on her toast. If he was glued to his phone, he was probably catching up on his girlfriend’s Facebook feed. Happily, they all were old enough now that this was restful instead of a drama-filled shit show, like it had been when he was younger. Or when he’d just started working and Cecile had just started university, and their opposite schedules made them crazy.
“Good. Killin’ it. She’ll be back in a week.” Cecile was working for a winemaker in Napa, a very prestigious one. It was part of her grad school capstone project. Her family had money, so she only worked internships while in school.
“That’s great,” Tabitha said, and meant it. She and Cecile hadn’t always been best friends, but they were close now, and she was glad that things were going well for her. Even if she resented it that Cecile could just concentrate on school.
God, if I could do that, my grades would be amazing, Tabitha thought for the thousandth time. Cecile’s parents were lawyers.
“I need to talk to you about that, T. You know she’s looking into a few different jobs, right? After she graduates?” Malcolm said, looking up from his phone. He started jogging his leg when she nodded, though she hadn’t really thought about it much. “I always planned to propose when she finished her degree. You know I can work anywhere. I can follow her.”
Tabitha felt her forehead wrinkle. She knew that Malcolm and Cecile would get married—she’d resigned herself to it in high school. Now, she was happy about it. However, she hadn’t realized the two of them planned to move away.
“I always figured you would open your own restaurant someday, but I thought it would be here,” she said. That’s part of the reason she was interested in real estate law, so she could help him with commercial leases and stuff. “There are a lot of wineries around here.” It hadn’t been a stupid assumption.
He laughed. “At San Francisco prices? No, no chance. Someday, we might end up in Napa, and I could open a place there—that would work. But for now…”
He looked at her, clearly worried, his big brown eyes peeking through his sparse, pointy eyelashes.
For now, he was planning to leave, which made her weirdly panicky. Since their dad died, her family had been through a lot, she’d been through a lot, but she and her mom and her brother—they’d always been together. Living here in this apartment.
Mal leaving… The thought of it made her sad, like it would break something important.
And then, of course, the thought of living with her mother alone, with no intermediary? That made her breath come short.
Could they even afford that?
She’d already accepted a job offer at the Morgan firm, where she’d spent the last summer as a clerk, and she’d be getting a decent salary. Once she passed the bar… She did the math.
Yes, they’d be fine. The firm had low-balled her on that salary, but they weren’t an AmLaw 100 firm, one of the 100 biggest firms in the country. They weren’t even an AmLaw 200 firm. They were a tiny real estate boutique, and the salary they offered reflected that—even if she knew she should rate better, going to one of the top 20 law schools in the country.
It would be enough to get by. She could pay her student loans, and finally pay off her credit cards. She could pay the bills and building maintenance fees. Mom could save for retirement, and pay off the loans for Dad’s medical bills.
Thank god she had a job lined up after graduation. She took a deep breath through her nose. She’d better pass the bar exam on her first try.
Even if it could work financially, Mal leaving still made her freak out a little bit. He was one of her safe people. She tried to calm down by focusing on logistics.
“Where has she applied? Where is she hoping to go?” There was still toast in her hand. She took a bite. It was very dry.
“She’s applied everywhere. The place hosting her externship isn’t looking to fill any entry-level spots right now, and California is full of Enology majors, so she thinks she’ll have a better chance of getting a good job with a small winery if we move.”
Tabitha nodded, and shoved more toast in her mouth with the unchewed bits already there. Mal stopped looking at her, and picked at a scar on the Formica.
He continued. “She’s hoping for a place at a small, high-end winery, either in Florida or Spain. Those would be her top choices.” Once he finished talking, he glanced up at her, then back down.
That was far—too far away to process. Florida might as well be Spain, frankly, it wasn’t like they could drive to either place. She chewed mechanically, and swallowed. Then she met his eyes, knowing why he was looking worried.
“What does Mom say?”
He snorted softly, and his mouth twisted. “I haven’t told her yet.”
Chicken. He knew it, too—she could tell by his tight shoulders. She wouldn’t call him on it now.
“When do you think you’ll go?” She put some of her crust back on her plate, dusting crumbs off her fingers.
“End of the summer. You both will be graduating around the same time.” That was good. If she passed the Bar, and her salary bumped from the law clerk level to the attorney level, it would be around that time.
“Okay.” She nodded.
“I need to buy a ring, first. I think we’ll just go to city hall. She asked if I wanted to elope a while ago—I said I wanted to get her a big rock first.” Tabitha squinted at him. Their Gran would kill him if they had a courthouse wedding, but it would avoid the question of what church to get married in, so Tabitha thought it was smart.
But that’s not what struck her the most.
Mal and Cecile had clearly talked a lot about getting married and they’d planned a lot for the future, if this conversation was normal for them…and she’d had no idea. Between her job and law school, she knew she’d been busy. She knew Mal was quiet. But she saw him more than almost anyone else, anyone she didn’t work with or have class with. She hadn’t even seen her mom for a month or so, and they lived together, but she saw Mal a few times a week, at least.
Maybe if Cecile were around more often, she would have found out about these plans…but it still made her feel weird she hadn’t known. Weird and disconnected.
“So that’s where your money is going this year?” He’d been home to meet her a lot lately, when he used to go out with the boys after work. Maybe he’d been saving up.
He grinned a little, looking sheepish. “Yeah.”
“Okay.” He looked like he was waiting for her to say something else. “Mom and I will be okay. Once I’m at the Morgan Firm, I’ll be making good money, even with my student loan payments factored in.” She tried not to think about living alone with Mom. She’d never be home anyway, as a first-year associate. That was probably good.
“There’s something else,” Mal said, as he reached behind him to pick something up off the kitchen counter. It was a small envelope, opened, from the City and County of San Francisco.
Inside it was a tax bill. She looked at the amount. “Damn.”
“Goddamn.” She and Malcolm split the utilities, grocery bills, the ever-increasing building maintenance fee, and all the living expenses for their place. Their mom had paid off the balance of the mortgage on their flat with their dad’s life insurance when he passed on. As far as Tabitha knew, she was still paying off the loans for his cancer treatments.
Her only remaining bill was the tax on the flat, and she’d almost defaulted on it the first year after he died, and had pointedly told them when she paid it every year since then. Mom still worked, but Tabitha had no idea how much pediatric nurses made. Her mom never talked about money. “Do you think she can pay that?”
“Do you think she should have to?” Mal asked. Of course he did.
He was the good child, Tabitha thought with a flash of resentment and love. But because she respected that about him, she stopped and thought about their mother, who pinched every penny until it screamed. About their grandma, moving to Oakland after the rent hikes in her Bayview apartment squeezed her out. About the looks they’d both given her when she’d started stripping and came home with the cash that let them keep the flat. The different kind of looks they gave Mal when he started working as a line cook, and applied to culinary school rather than college.
Tabitha sighed. “We’ll find a way.” She didn’t want to go back to stripping. And even if she did want to, she didn’t have time. Or the thighs for it—the last three years hadn’t left time for working out.
“We’ll find a way,” he said, and knocked on the wooden cabinet, next to his knee. She knocked on wood too.
Tabitha looked at the crust of bread, and even though she wasn’t hungry and her stomach hurt a little, she shoved it in her mouth. Don’t waste food, she thought in her gran’s voice.
Mal grabbed her plate and fork and stood up to rinse them off.
“Go to bed, schoolgirl,” he told her.
“Yes, chef,” she answered, and stood up to go to her room.
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