Five years is a long time to be alone. Despite a near-eternity without the love and protection of a man, Esme remains on the sidelines – even inside the walls of Club Decadence. Though several prospective partners have expressed interest, she can’t bring herself to accept their advances, and sticks to her solitary game plan. On the outside looking in.
Keiran has no time for a social life, not to mention a new woman. But he’s also a man who knows what he wants, and there’s something about the beautiful, though obviously wounded, Esme that is exactly what he’s been longing for. Will his strength, skill, and patience be enough to revive the spirited beauty? Or is it too late for this gorgeous creature to be set free from the painful grip of her past?
This is book three in the Decadence L.A. series but can be enjoyed as a standalone.
Publisher’s Note: This steamy contemporary romance contains elements of power exchange.
Screams, startling and shrill, brought Esmerelda Burton bolt upright in bed. The pitch-blackness she encountered when she opened her eyes only intensified her fear and confusion. Covering her ears didn’t block out the piercing noise. It never did. Nothing could obliterate the sounds coming from her own throat, not tonight or the countless nights before this one when the never changing nightmare invaded her sleep.
Esme grabbed her pillow, clutching it to her chest. While she shivered in her sweat-drenched nightgown, tendrils of hair clinging to her face and neck, her tortured cries became muffled sobs as she vented her frustration into the damp linen. Why wouldn’t the awful dreams stop? It was going on four years now.
More than subconscious images conjured by her sleeping brain, these were vivid mental pictures that propelled her back in time to relive a moment she tried her best to suppress by day, but while lying in her lonely bed every night they haunted her tormented mind.
Something soft and warm rubbed her leg. When her face came out of her rumpled pillow she met a watchful green gaze. If Phineas weren’t a cat, she would have called the look he gave her concern. Reaching out with shaky hands, Esme scooped him up and hugged him to her chest. Any other time he would have protested, but when she woke like this, he seemed to know she needed his comfort and allowed it if only briefly.
After several long moments where she focused on nothing but slowing her breathing, the pounding in her ears abated as her racing heart slowed. When her hands weren’t trembling quite so badly, she rolled on her hip and grabbed her phone off the nightstand. She scrolled through her contacts, hit the wrong one twice, before the name she needed appeared on the screen as the call connected.
While she listened to the ring, she silently calculated the time difference between Baltimore and LA. He always said call anytime, but she hated to interrupt his sleep too. He had to work in the morning just like she did. It wasn’t yet midnight on the west coast, Pax didn’t sleep much either. He’d still be up so she didn’t feel quite so needy and pathetic.
“Esme, sweetheart,” he said when he answered, his voice conveying sympathy, but never annoyance. Ryan Paxton knew what she was going through and had never once been put out with her even though this same call happened at least twice a week. She didn’t call him every time the nightmare reoccurred; only when the screams woke her, which meant the vision had played through to the end in her head, to the very worst part.
“Pax,” she breathed out.
“The dream again?”
“Yeah, I hate to bother you.”
“You’re not a bother, how many times do I need to tell you that?” Her husband Andrew’s best friend and partner, they’d met in college, went through the academy together, served on the same unit for the Baltimore Police Department, and they both applied and became special agents with the FBI. During this time, she’d met and fallen in love with Andrew Burton, and Pax had become like a brother to her.
She thanked God for him every day because after she lost Andrew, she couldn’t have made it without his strength to rely on, and through their shared grief their bond had grown stronger. They supported one another, Esme being there for him when things got bad, too. But as time passed, the give and take became largely one-sided as he moved on, but she remained stagnant. Pax worried about her constantly, especially after transferring cross country to the LA field office, a few months ago. He’d tried to get her to make the move with him, saying a change would be good for her, but she simply couldn’t do it, not yet.
“Did you take your Ambien?” he asked, breaking into her thoughts.
“No, I got home late and got busy. When I remembered, I didn’t have a full eight hours left, so I had to skip it.”
“You know you need to plan for this,” he scolded gently.
“I hate being so weak. I should be able to sleep without being drugged.”
“You’re not weak, Esme, you’ve dealt with this better than most people would. But it’s worse when you don’t sleep. What’s your therapist always telling you?”
“Everyone grieves at different speeds.” But she seemed to be going at a snail’s pace. The dreams, if nothing else, should have decreased by this stage. “She thinks I should take you up on your offer.”
“Of course, she does. Two great minds as they say.”
“Right,” she drawled, and he chuckled.
“Seriously, sweetheart, it helped me just getting away from the city.”
“To an even bigger one like LA? Is it any different?”
“Yes, especially the weather.”
“I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. Her voice turned quiet when she added, “At least
here, they know me.”
“Fuck! It happened again today, didn’t it?” The explosively uttered expletive made her jump. “Dammit, why can’t they drop it?”
“Human tragedy sells papers, except it wasn’t a reporter this time.”
“That writer came by the house, again. He’s determined to make his story into a movie.”
Silence greeted this news.
“I told him no, like before. Hollywood is filled with screenwriters, Pax. It could be worse out there.” He lived north of the city, just minutes from the television and movie studios, close enough to camp out on her doorstep.
“I wouldn’t let that happen, sweetheart. And it would help if you changed back to Spade.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d made this suggestion. Even after moving and getting an unlisted number, the vultures had tracked her down. It made sense, especially with a fresh start three thousand miles away, but taking back her maiden name seemed like such a betrayal, as though she was trying to erase the man she’d lost entirely from her life.
“He was a cop, Esme,” Pax assured her, accurately anticipating her reaction. “If he were where I am, Andrew would have suggested the same thing.”
“I should be able to live in peace without giving up my identity.”
Again, there was a pause before he shocked her by saying, “Maybe you should do it, with editorial control over the script. You’d be set for life, sweetheart. Like you said, tragedy sells especially when there is a beautiful widow in the center of it all.”
“I can’t capitalize on his death.”
“Pragmatist Andrew Burton would tell you to go for it. Besides, the experience might be cathartic, to get it out there once and for all. Then the scavengers wouldn’t have your bones to pick over anymore.”
She grimaced at the visual. “That’s what Barb said, and that dealing with it might bring me to closure.”
“You’re paying $250 per hour for her counsel; maybe you should listen.”
“I know you’re both right, but I’m torn. We grew up here, Pax. My good memories of him are here as well as the bad. I worry if I move the good ones will fade away, but if I stay the bad will destroy me.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I drove by the coffee shop by accident.”
“I know, it was stupid even to be close to that side of town, but I had to go by the courthouse. There was a detour, and before I knew it, there I was.”
“Come to LA. I can take time off in a few weeks. I’ll fly out, help you pack, and we’ll rent a U-Haul for your stuff. You won’t escape all the memories, Esme, but you won’t have all the triggers. And you can stay with me until you find a place.”
“You’re wonderful to offer but having your best friend’s neurotic widow underfoot will cramp your bachelor lifestyle.”
“That’s BS and you know it. Besides, I’ve found a club, so my bachelor lifestyle will be perfectly fine with you here. I haven’t told you about it, but it’s something else, unlike any back East. When you’re ready, I’ll take you there.”
Whispering again, the thought of being with someone else, another dominant besides Andrew scared the crap out of her, “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.”
“Don’t say that. Andrew wouldn’t have wanted you to be alone.”
And she wouldn’t be anything other than that staying behind in Baltimore.
“Okay, Esme, I won’t push, yet,” he said when she didn’t reply. “How does the fifteenth sound? I’ll take the red eye and be there around lunchtime?”
“I haven’t agreed, yet. Give me time.”
“All right, but not an infinite amount. I won’t see you grieve yourself through your thirties and regret not having the family you talked of incessantly for years.”
“That was with Andrew.”
“And you’ll want it with another good man when the right one comes along. Hear me?” How could she not? His tone had deepened, taking on the stern, unyielding inflection Doms had when laying down the law. It dripped of authority and the unspoken consequences if you didn’t straighten up and fly right. Her husband had it, and Pax had perfected it. She had often wondered if Dom 101 was a required course at the academy, or in special agent training for the Bureau.
Something Esme knew for certain, if she ever did what he said, and found another man, he wouldn’t be a cop, but an accountant, a nerdy computer analyst, or a librarian, someone boring, with an inherently low-risk job, and utterly safe.
“I hear you, Pax,” she murmured to appease him.
“Yeah, but you don’t believe it.” His answer proved he knew her too well.
“I’ll think about it, okay?”
“I’ve heard that before. Think hard, Esme. I want you out here with me where I can put my arms around you when you’ve had a bad dream.”
“That would be nice. I’ll put it in the plus column.”
They spoke a few more minutes, about her work and his, then hung up, but she wasn’t going back to sleep. Not tonight.
Her throat raw from screaming, the horrific images still haunted her as she reached for her phone. He answered on the first ring.
“I’m putting in my notice tomorrow, after that, I’m calling U-Haul for a reservation. How big of a truck do you think we need?”
“Thank God,” he uttered softly. “Go to the post office and forward your mail, then start packing, Esme. I’ll take care of the truck and everything else.”
“California here I come.”
“Was it as bad as ever?”
“It’s always the same.” She knew he referred to the dream. “I miss him so badly.”
“Me too, sweetheart, but with us in the same city, at least we can miss him together. Try to get some rest. I’ll call you with flight information tomorrow. Good night, Esme.”
She hung up, threw back the covers and went to the bathroom to get a drink. When she came back, Phineas had made himself at home on her pillow. He didn’t protest when she picked him up, climbed back in bed, and cuddled him close.
“It’s a big move, Phinny. Do you think I’m doing the right thing?”
He meowed, but she couldn’t decide if that was a meow-yes or meow-hell, no.
Nothing was keeping her here. She’d sold the house within a year after she buried him, unable to live in the home they shared and not be tortured by constant memories. The apartment was only a little better. The drugs helped but walking around like a zombie during the day was a high price. She’d tapered them back to Ambien and the occasional Xanax months ago.
“We’ve got nothing to lose by going, do we, buddy?”
Moving by mid-month meant she’d be gone before the weather turned and the snow came—another mark in the plus column.
Los Angeles, one year later…
A hard palm met quivering flesh with a resounding crack.
Immediately after that, a throaty moan, equal parts pleasure and pain, rose in the air, further thrilling the rapt audience.
Dressed in snug black jeans and a fitted shirt, the Dom leaned over the naked submissive bound by wrists and ankles to the padded A-frame bench. His chest pressed against her back as his fingers sank into her thick wavy hair. The crowd around the red velvet roped-off station held their collective breath as he spoke softly in her ear.
“Have you learned your lesson yet, Cassie?”
The pretty blonde writhed in her restraints. Her trembling limbs and the dampness between her spread thighs which the Dom stroked with slow, steady movements revealed how aroused she was by his attention.
“No, Master,” came her soft, panting reply. “I’ll need a dozen more, maybe two, and, most definitely, your cock deep inside me to drive the lesson home.”
At the audacity of her response, murmurs and startled gasps rose from the spectators, but her Dom laughed, the low, deep sound filled with delight.
His hand fisted in the glossy mass of loose curls and he turned her head until his lips grazed hers. “Two dozen sounds about right, naughty girl,” he murmured.
“Then will you fuck me, Flynn? I mean, Master?”
“As tempting as you are, baby, how could I resist?” He took her mouth in a kiss so smoldering one observer fanned herself. It went on for several heartbeats before he broke away and kissed a path down her spine. His fingers left her pussy and slid up to smooth over her pink cheeks, spreading wide to squeeze and massage briefly. “But first things first.”
Another swat landed, and still another, as the Dom gave his cheeky sub the more she asked for.
Midway through, he traded his hand for a flexible leather paddle. The rosy tint blooming across the woman’s creamy skin growing more vivid with each subsequent swat, her ardent cries now soaring to the rafters.
Standing front row for the erotic scene, Esme Spade bit her lip to keep her moans from escaping. The connection between the two and their chemistry was off the charts. When his hand arched high and came down crisply, she imagined herself bound to the bench and receiving the hard but intensely sensual spanking. Her eyes drifted shut with the next resonant thwack and an image of Andrew standing behind her filled her mind.
Forcing her eyes open, she caught a flash as the Dom’s hand drew back for another swat. Squinting to focus, Esme realized it was the light glinting off the gold ring on his third finger. She glanced at the submissive’s left hand where it clutched the padded grip on the armrest. She wore a similar band paired with a large, sparkling diamond solitaire.
Reflexively, Esme stroked her thumb across her bare finger. When she finally took off her wedding rings and tucked them safely away in her jewelry box, the groove left behind had taken months to fade. That had been two years ago, three years after her life had been so abruptly and violently altered. Even now the pain of losing Andrew was like a knife in her chest, the emptiness left behind enduring. But five years was a long time to be without a man, especially for a submissive, which is why she was here, like it or not.
Glancing back at the scene, she watched the Dom continue to paddle his errant sub. It differed from before, however. Though the paddle fell just as firmly, he interspersed caresses between every few swats. He rubbed gently, squeezing and soothing the skin he had systematically made a bright rosy pink, or dipped his fingers between her spread thighs and glided the tips through the wet folds glistening with the proof of her desire. This new approach caused the sub to writhe helplessly in her cuffs and elicited cries which had nothing to do with punishment.
Esme closed her eyes again, trying to quell her surging need and the pervasive longing. She could block out the intimate images, but not the sensual sounds or the smells surrounding her. The rich, earthy scent of leather, the lemon oil they used to polish the wooden equipment and bring a shine to the thousands of square feet of gleaming hardwood floor, and beneath it, the pungent, yet heady smell of sweat and sex. Rather than unpleasant, the mix was intoxicating and stirred the long-suppressed cravings inside her.
Most would consider coming here, week after week, watching but never playing, an exercise in self-torture. At least three full months had passed since her first tentative visit with Pax. In the beginning, she hadn’t wandered far from his side, but after a few return trips, he’d deliberately distanced himself so that others would approach her. As he predicted, both men and women bombarded her with offers, including a few male submissives who mistook her for an aloof Domme. This had shaken her a little, but she didn’t correct them. One Mistress who had plans to tie her face up over a wooden barrel and use a braided quirt on her breasts and pussy then lick every inch of her to ease the pain had been very insistent, blatantly graphic—obviously—and scared the bejeezus out of her. Esme had politely declined, then run like hell. Topping a man or submitting to a woman wasn’t her kink. Surrendering to a dominant man was and always had been, but she turned them down too, not yet ready to do more than watch.
By coming here, submerged in the lifestyle, she could live vicariously through others and fill a small fraction of the emptiness inside her, which was enough for now.
At least she had thought so until she came across this scene with Flynn and Cassie. Many of the players had the kink down pat but lacked the emotional connection, and when Esme encountered it, like now, which wasn’t that often, it sparked bittersweet memories, intense envy, and it hurt.
The Dom’s deep voice counting out the twenty-fourth stroke penetrated Esme’s thoughts. She opened her eyes to see he’d dropped the paddle and moved to the end of the bench. His fly was open and his hard cock in hand—impressive in both length and girth. Master Flynn didn’t waste time with further foreplay; the entire spanking scene had been leading up to this moment after all. He bent over the woman strapped to the bench, his upper body draped the length of her much smaller frame, covering and enveloping her. Now, when he spoke in her ear, his words were solely for her. The observers leaned in to catch the thread of their conversation, a few outwardly frustrated when they couldn’t.
While they shared this intimate moment, his hand slipped between his hips and her rosy red bottom. From her vantage point, which was to the side of the bench, she had a direct view of what he was doing. Compelled to look away from the intimacy of the moment, she reminded herself they’d chosen a station in the vast public playroom for a reason, which by its very existence invited onlookers. Still, it seemed intrusive, and she wanted to look away, but his command of both his reaction and his submissive mesmerized her. She couldn’t look away not even when he stroked the head of his cock through the seam of her pussy, teasing but not entering just yet.
Esme picked up the cadence in his voice, how it rose in pitch toward the end, as if in question, but not the words.
“Oh, yes, Master, please,” Cassie pleaded softly to his unknown query.
“That’s my good girl,” he murmured, then his masculine hum of pleasure joined hers as his hips thrust forward and he entered her at last.
This wasn’t enough for him, evidently, because his hand curved beneath her jaw and he turned her mouth to his and went in for a smoldering kiss. Esme’s heart ached at the tender yet passionate scene playing out before her eyes.
This dominant and submissive had something special. Where one found joy in control and guided with a firm yet caring hand, cultivating the pleasure found in surrender, the other experienced bliss in yielding and in doing so, giving pleasure in return.
She’d had that with Andrew, as well as trust, respect, and love. Missing him and knowing she may never again experience a moment like the one being played out before her eyes, made her heart ache painfully. She wanted to look away, to run and hide, but also to punch, kick, and throw a childish tantrum, screaming why at the top of her lungs, asking the unanswered question as she had so many times before.
Unable to watch anymore, Esme turned, winding her way through the throng of onlookers, eager to move on to the next station, rather than stay for the big finish. This scene was too close to home and much too painful. As she broke through the crowd standing four and five deep, she felt a shiver of awareness shoot up her spine.
Twisting back, she scanned the faces, sensing something. They were all facing front, mesmerized by the scene—except one. On the far side of the station, on the outer fringe of people, a man stood with his arms crossed over his chest, body angled in her direction, ice-blue eyes intently focused on her, not the spanking happening on the bench nearby.
She’d met him when she’d joined, an interview required with the Master Dom for all potential members before being granted membership. Eric Dupree was intimidating and not just because he was huge. Most of the club Masters were; they seemed to grow them bigger here than back East.
After that first meeting, she’d avoided him like the plague. Wanting to keep a low profile and go unnoticed. Today, for some reason, she’d caught his attention.
What to do?
Deciding not hanging around to find out why was the best bet, she dipped her head politely—snubbing any dominant, let alone the one in charge was never a good idea—then got lost in the crowd, not glancing back to assess his reaction, either.
On a Saturday night, most of the membership turned out to play. Esme used that to her advantage, working her way to the back of the room. To further avoid the Master Dom’s potential pursuit, she squeezed into an especially large group gathered at a station. She pretended to watch the scene with the others, but instead, kept her sidelong gaze fixed on the people making the circuit around the stations. She’d hide out here for a few minutes then make her way up front and call it a night.
But a sound reminiscent of the prize wheel at the church bizarre as a kid, made her turn her head and look. She’d have to be blind to miss the man strapped to the eight-foot upright wheel as his Domme spun him slowly upside down and sideways. He was naked except for the steel cage enclosing his tender bits. Esme didn’t have the anatomy, but even she winced on his behalf. Though it wasn’t something she’d ordinarily watch—hell, it wasn’t something she’d ever seen—she couldn’t avoid it while wedged deep in the crowd.
It also meant she couldn’t escape easily when the scene took a turn, and the sadistic Mistress halted the wheel, hung weights from the poor man’s balls, then sent him spinning slowly again. From the groans emanating from the sub each time she flicked her crop on the weights, or in an upward slap directly between his spread legs making him squeal and sweat, he was enjoying his torment.
To each his own. And while she accepted that motto, it didn’t keep her face from flushing hot with squeamish embarrassment and a good deal of sympathy. She didn’t doubt it glowed like a beacon, rivaling Rudolph’s bright nose that foggy Christmas Eve. If not for the spinning wheel of torture, which even six feet plus Master Eric wouldn’t be able to see over, her face would have led the Master Dom to her location like a beacon.
By the time she collected her shoes, keys, and phone from the women’s locker room it was past midnight, and she’d convinced herself she’d imagined it. If Master Eric wanted something from her, he had a dozen dungeon monitors to help find her, as well as a slew of other dominants and over two hundred submissives who would narc on her in an instant.
Eschewing the lounge, the live music, and the free drinks—two per night came with the membership dues. That was the limit, or the dungeon was off limits. Esme wasn’t getting her money’s worth because she never partook. Instead, she skirted past the dance floor and bar and headed to the lobby. As usual, she didn’t make eye contact with either the receptionist or the security guard on duty up front.
This past month since Pax had gone on assignment, she came and went alone. She’d been lucky his job hadn’t demanded him before now. As unobtrusively as possible, she watched, absorbed what she could, but didn’t play. Then she made her sad trek to her modest Northridge home—the price of which would have bought three times the house back in Baltimore—and continued her dismal solitary existence.