December Joy

Dawn can’t stand the thought of going home for Christmas, so when she sees an ad offering room and board to a college student in exchange for dog-sitting, she jumps at the chance. When she meets the handsome dog owner, Mark, her inner submissive swoons, and she’s excited to spend winter break with him and his dog, Billy. But try as she might, she can’t hide from her family forever, and when they get in touch, she goes out drinking.

Mark, the newest doctor on staff at the campus clinic, has to work long hours which doesn’t leave room for a relationship. He doesn’t even have time to take care of his own dog. Once a month, he goes to a local BDSM club and plays with a submissive in a setting where emotional attachments aren’t needed. Even though he’s attracted to his new roommate, he tells himself that she’s off limits, because he never really got over his first submissive, Noah.

Noah is having a night out at a gay bar with his friend, when he stumbles across a young woman named Dawn throwing up in the bathroom. He soon finds out that Dawn is there alone, and decides to help her get home. But when he learns that Dawn is living with his old dominant, Noah decides to drive her home himself, hoping to heal some old wounds. Will the confrontation that follows send them all on a path of further destruction? Or can the three of them find a path toward a Christmas together filled with love, acceptance, and joy?

Publisher’s Note: This steamy contemporary romance contains a theme of power exchange.

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Sample Chapter

Dawn’s melancholy mood started when she woke up. It was Tuesday, the first of December, and winter break would start in two and a half weeks. The thought of going home to her family made her skin twitch and ripple with unease. She hadn’t seen them for almost three months, and it still wasn’t enough time.

She bundled up before leaving her dorm room in Franklin Hall and walking across the street to Northern Oregon University’s main cafeteria for breakfast. Just inside the double doors, a line of students formed, waiting to swipe their ID cards or pay the cashier and gain entrance into the buffet-style dining room.

While she waited, she noticed a man walking past the line. He went to the wall next to the cashier, where there was a ‘message board’ for faculty and staff to put up flyers about local events, job opportunities and lost and found pets. The corkboard wasn’t particularly large, and it was always full, which meant new flyers got posted on top of older ones every day. The man took a moment to look through the things that were already posted, before picking a place to put his page.

Dawn was almost at the front of the rapidly moving line when he turned to leave, and she caught a glimpse of his face. His light blue eyes, strong jawline and neatly trimmed brown hair made her a bit weak in the knees. She’d always had a thing for slightly older men, and this guy looked to be in his early thirties. Once he was gone, she focused on the flyer he’d put up on the message board. It had a picture of a cute little Jack Russell terrier with its head cocked to the side looking into the camera. Expecting the large, bold words below the image to say ‘missing’ or ‘reward’, she was surprised to see the words ‘room for rent’.

“Miss?” a voice said.

Focusing on the cashier who had spoken, Dawn realized she was next in line. “Oh, sorry.” Instead of going forward, she turned to the guy behind her. “Go ahead.”

She stepped out of line and went to look at the fine print on the flyer. Under the words ‘room for rent’, it said:

Free room and board in exchange for pet care. My house is three blocks off campus, and the spare bedroom for rent is furnished with a bed, dresser and desk. My job keeps me away from the house for long hours at a time, and my dog needs to be fed, walked, played with, and let outside on a set schedule. Ideal situation for an NOU student. Must be available during winter break. If interested, please call for an interview.

Her heart raced. This could be the solution to all of her problems. She’d have a place to stay when the dorms were closed for winter break, she’d have a legitimate excuse not to go home, and she’d get to spend time with an adorable little dog. With a guilty little glance behind her, she took the whole flyer off the board instead of ripping off one of the eight little phone number tabs at the bottom of the page. She went to the back of the line, folded the paper, and stuck it in her coat pocket. As soon as she was done with breakfast, she made the call.

* * *

Dr. Mark Chambers arrived a few minutes earlier than usual for his shift at the campus clinic. Pamela at the admitting desk gave him a smile and a wave as he walked by. He swiped his badge to get into the back rooms, went to his office, silenced his cell phone, and pulled up his schedule for the day. A small groan slipped from his throat.

“That bad?” a female voice asked.

Mark looked up to see the head nurse, Isha, smiling at him from the doorway.

“It’s interview day,” he complained.

She walked to his desk and handed him a stack of papers. “Interview questions approved by Dr. Price.”

He took the papers and glanced at the questions. “How many are scheduled?”

“Forty-three people applied. Dr. Price looked through the applications and narrowed it down to twelve.”

“Really? Only twelve?” His day was looking up.

“Only twelve.”

Some days it worked in his favor to have Dr. James Price as the senior doctor on staff. James was in his late fifties and already looking forward to retirement. He was great when it came to cutting through red tape, but he wasn’t so great at taking any shift other than Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mark and two other doctors rotated shifts to cover the clinic which was open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, and he did at least two shifts per week at the emergency room affiliated with the college.

Isha handed him another stack of papers, “These are their applications. They are in order of the scheduled interviews.”

“I take it Dr. Price isn’t sitting in with me for them.”

“One of you has to be available for walk-in patients.”

“Right.” Mark nodded and smiled. “Thanks.” If Mark had the choice between conducting interviews or seeing patients, he knew which one he’d pick, so he didn’t blame James for leaving the chore up to him.

Isha went back to her duties and he quickly glanced through the documents. All the applicants seemed perfectly qualified on paper, so it would come down to personal preference.

Half an hour later when the first applicant arrived, Mark was ready to meet all twelve of them and pick the one who appeared to be the most professional. But as soon as he shook hands with Jade Epson, he knew he’d hire her for the position unless she really messed up the interview, because she was wearing a tastefully understated day collar around her neck. The general public would think it was just a silver necklace with an O in the center, but for anyone in the scene, it was a clear sign that she was a submissive. Most likely someone who identified as a slave in a committed relationship with a master who’d given her the collar. Probably the same person who had put the engagement ring on her finger. Since all the applicants seemed equally qualified, Mark’s personal preference was to hire someone kinky like himself.

Her handshake wasn’t particularly firm, but she maintained eye contact and gave him a friendly smile. “Hi,” she said.

“Hi, Jade. I’m Dr. Chambers. Thanks for coming in for the interview.” He gestured to the chair in front of his desk.

“Thank you for the opportunity.” She sat in the offered chair and folded her hands together on her lap.

He approved of her both as a professional and as a dominant. She was presenting herself well so far. Glancing at the list of questions, he asked the first one. “How did you hear about our internship?”

“My fiancé, Danny, is a policeman here on campus. Last week, he brought in a student with a cut on his arm from a fight. Danny saw the sign posted at the admitting desk and told me about it. Then I asked my student advisor about it and found out how to apply.”

Mark remembered both the student with the cut arm and the officer who’d brought him in. Nodding in approval, he jotted down her answer on the form and moved to the next question.

“Why are you interested in this position?”

“I’m in school to become a nurse, but I don’t have any real life experience on what that’s like. I think this internship would be an excellent chance for me to see doctors and nurses in action, so I’ll have a better grasp on what the job is actually like.”

Mark nodded again and jotted down a note about her answer. “It should definitely give you some exposure to the medical profession.” While making eye contact, he asked the third question. “What is your biggest weakness?”

With a self-deprecating smile, Jade answered, “Empathizing with people too much. It’s something I worry about. As a nurse, I know I’ll have to keep a professional distance, but that will be difficult for me at times.”

A feeling of déjà vu struck him so hard, he had to focus on the paper for a few seconds. Another submissive had said almost the exact same thing to him once before. His submissive. It was almost five years ago, and they’d only dated for six months, but he still caught himself thinking of Noah as his. Since then, he’d had several different men and women sub for him at clubs, but none of them felt like his.

Mark cleared his throat, forced himself to focus on the young woman in front of him and said, “Maintaining a professional distance is something that can make or break you as a medical professional. It’s a balancing act that you learn as you go. Too much empathy and you get caught up in other people’s emotional strife. Not enough empathy and you’re no good at your job.”

“Exactly,” Jade agreed. “So I hope to learn by example if I get this internship.”

“Good.” He read the next question. “What would you bring to this job that other applicants might not?”

“I’m an active listener, and I’m very discreet. If someone tells me something in confidence, it stays that way.”

Mark nodded. Almost all the kinky people he’d met over the years were discreet. They had to be if they wanted to have a professional career, because society at large did not approve.

“Last question,” he said. “How do you handle stressful situations?”

“Staying calm is key. And I’ve found that pausing for a second to take a deep breath really helps me to remain calm if I start to feel overwhelmed.”

“Perfect,” he said, making a note of her answer and then putting his pen down. “That’s all of my questions. Did you have any?”

With a smile, she answered, “Not that I can think of.”

He stood, and she followed suit. “Thanks for coming in,” he said, holding out his hand.

They shook hands once more and both said goodbye before she left. Once he was alone, Mark sat back down and tried to focus on the next applicant in line, but his thoughts kept going back to Noah and their time together.

* * *

By noon, Dawn’s newfound hope was almost dashed. She’d called the number on the flyer as soon as she’d finished breakfast, but no one picked up. After leaving an enthusiastic message about the position, she kept her phone in her pocket with the ringer turned up during her morning classes, but no one had called back. She was walking across campus toward her room, thinking about leaving a second message, when her phone rang.

Glancing at the number, she stopped walking and answered excitedly, “Hello?”

“Hi, I’m trying to reach Dawn,” a male voice said.

“This is she.”

“Hi, I’m Mark. You left me a message about the room I have for rent in exchange for pet care.”

“Yes, thank you for calling me back. I’d love to set up a time to meet you and your little Jack Russell terrier.”

“I know it’s a bit late, but would you be able to meet me at nine o’clock tonight? You could see the room, meet Billy—that’s the dog’s name—and answer a few questions.”

“Sure, I can meet you at nine.”

“Great. I’ll text you the address.”

“Fantastic. Looking forward to meeting both of you.”

“See you tonight.”

“Bye.”

Dawn grinned as she ended the call and continued on her way to her dorm.

Later that evening, Dawn hurried across campus in her puffy winter coat. She’d bundled up with her knitted hat, scarf, and gloves to make the seven-block trek, but by the time she reached Mark’s modest yellow suburban home, she was shivering.

She rang the doorbell and a dog barked on the other side of the door. She heard someone moving inside, and a few seconds later the door opened. The brown-haired man she’d seen earlier that morning was smiling at her and holding a white and brown wiggling dog. Now that the man wasn’t wearing his winter coat, she could tell he was in shape.

“Dawn?” he asked.

“Yep.”

He waved her in. “Come in out of the cold. It’s supposed to get below freezing tonight.”

“Thanks.” She stepped into the warmth as he shut the door behind her. The entrance opened into the living room. The kitchen was straight ahead. There was a set of stairs to her right, and on the left side of the living room, there was a hallway. The house smelled faintly of mint and she noticed a mug of something on the coffee table in front of the couch.

The dog whined and wiggled to get down. Mark said, “I’m going to put Billy down, and you’re going to have to say hi to him and pet him for a second or he won’t be able to calm down.”

“I’d love to say hi.”

Mark set Billy down and he immediately scampered to Dawn’s feet where he whined for attention, putting his front paws on her knee.

She took her right glove off, knelt down, and held her hand out for him to sniff. “Hi, Billy. You’re a very handsome boy.”

He licked her hand and she tentatively petted his head. Billy kept his front paws on her knee and shoved his head into her hand for more affection. Smiling, she scratched behind his ear and under his chin.

Looking up at Mark, Dawn said, “He’s adorable.”

“Yes he is, and he knows it, too. Don’t be fooled by his sweet face. He’ll use it to his advantage as often as you’ll let him.”

Focusing on the dog, she said, “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”

He whined and rubbed his head against her hand again.

“That should satisfy him for now.” Mark gestured to the couch. “Have a seat. Can I get you something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Hot chocolate?”

“No thanks. I’m good.” She’d never accept a drink from a stranger again; she’d learned the hard way not to. She gave Billy one last pat, stood, and went to the couch. As soon as she sat down, Billy jumped up and tried to get in her lap.

“Down,” Mark ordered sharply.

Billy jumped off the couch, sat near Dawn’s feet, and gave Mark sad puppy eyes.

Dawn’s breath caught in her throat at the commanding tone and she hoped her face was already a bit flushed from the cold so he wouldn’t notice her blush.

Mark pointed at the dog and said, “That’s what I was talking about. Just because you’re cute, doesn’t mean you can blatantly ignore the rules.”

Her stomach fluttered as he lightly scolded the dog. Hating her body’s natural reaction to that tone, she forced a smile as she took off her hat, scarf, and the other glove to cover any awkwardness on her part.

He sat on the other end of the couch in front of his mug. “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”

“My name is Dawn Kelley. I’m a student at NOU. I did my freshman year at community college while living at home, and I transferred to NOU last year. I didn’t really want to live in the dorms this year, but by the time I started looking for an apartment, they were all out of my price range.”

Mark nodded. “Where did you go to community college?”

“Salt Lake Community College in Utah. My parents still live there. Actually, my entire extended family lives there.”

“And you aren’t going home for winter break?” he asked.

“No. I’m the black sheep of the family. Staying here and watching Billy sounds a thousand times better than going home.” She looked down at the dog, who was now lying on the floor between their feet with his head resting on Mark’s shoe.

“What are you majoring in at NOU?”

“Philosophy, with a minor in religious studies. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do with my degree once I get it, but I’m committed to studying what interests me, not what will bring me the most money later.”

Mark nodded. “I’ve met plenty of people who went to college specifically to get a high paying job instead of following their passion, and most of them are miserable.”

“I’d rather not be miserable.” She almost added ‘anymore’ to that sentence but didn’t.

“Have you had any experience with dogs?”

“My family had a golden retriever named Alice. She’s actually the biggest reason I went to community college for the first year. She was old and needed pills and feeding on a set schedule. My parents both work and my older brother had moved out the year before, so I took care of Alice in between classes. How old is Billy?”

“He’s almost a year old, but I’ve only had him for three months now.”

“Was he from a shelter?” she asked.

Mark shook his head. “He was my sister’s dog. Ironically, they bought Billy as a gift for my niece’s fifth birthday, only to find out a month later that she’s severely allergic to dog dander.”

“Oh no. That’s rough.”

“It is. But Madison, my niece, seems just as happy with her new hairless cat. I personally find it a repulsive-looking little demon, but she loves it.”

Dawn chuckled.

“I’ve been paying this doggie daycare service to watch Billy while I’m at work, but they close at seven and I can’t always pick him up before then. I work at the campus clinic, and sometimes I have to stay late. When Billy has to spend the night at the daycare center, he’s prone to bad behavior the next day. He needs some consistency.”

Looking down at the dog, she said, “That works out perfectly because I could use some companionship. I don’t have a roommate this year, and living in the dorms without one can be pretty lonely.”

“Would you like to see the rest of the house? Then if you approve, we can talk about specifics for Billy’s schedule.”

“That sounds great.”

Mark stood and Billy jumped up to follow. Mark pointed to the stairs. “My bedroom is upstairs, along with a bathroom and my office.” Walking toward the hall, he said, “The spare bedroom is down here, along with a bathroom that would be all yours unless we have company. And a laundry room as well.”

He flicked the light on as he walked into a bedroom that was twice the size of her dorm room.

Trying not to grin, she nodded. “It looks perfect for me.”

* * *

The next day, Dawn spent her morning in classes and her afternoon packing up all of her stuff. Her new roommate/landlord/sexy older man, who was an actual doctor, was supposed to arrive with his car to help her move tonight at seven.

After their meeting the night before, Mark had taken down her information and then handed her a business card with his name, cell phone and email. She’d blinked a few times while staring at the words Doctor Mark Chambers. Thank goodness she hadn’t known that before meeting him, because she would have had trouble concentrating.

When she got home that night, she looked up the campus clinic’s website and saw a picture of Mark smiling back at her. He was one of the four doctors who practiced out of the clinic and, in her opinion, the best looking of the bunch. Then after getting into bed that night, she’d brought herself to climax thinking about Doctor Mark examining her.

Right at seven, her phone rang. Blushing about last night’s vivid fantasy, she tried to push those thoughts aside. “Hello?”

“Hi, Dawn; it’s Mark. I’m in the parking lot. Did you want to bring down the first load, and then I’ll follow you up to help with the second?”

“Sure, I’ll be right there.” She hung up, grabbed a laundry basket full of clean clothes and went to the elevator. “He’s just a man,” she mumbled to herself as the doors slid closed. “A nice man who has no interest in your nasty, kinky fantasies. He’d be more likely to think of you as a little sister than a sexual partner, so keep it to yourself.” The elevator doors slid open, and she put on a pleasant smile to meet her future roommate.

It didn’t take long for them to load up his car and even less time to drive back to Mark’s house. After greeting Billy, they shut him in the bathroom before unloading her stuff. Once they were done unloading the car, they paid some attention to Billy and let him smell all her things.

“Well, Billy and I should let you unpack and get settled,” Mark said, moving to the hallway. Gesturing toward the living room, he said, “As I said yesterday, the kitchen and living room are shared living spaces. You can watch TV and make whatever food you like whenever you want. If there are specific foods you want, just put them on the shopping list on the fridge. Billy’s schedule is on the fridge as well.”

Looking down at the dog, he said, “Come.”

Billy trotted into the hall next to him.

Dawn shrugged. “I’m not really a closed-door type of person. I’m going to leave my door open while I unpack, and it’s fine with me if Billy’s in here while I do that.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then I’ll let him wander where he wants.” He jerked a thumb down the hall. “I’m going to go watch something mindless on TV for a couple of hours. Feel free to join me when you’re done.”

“Okay.”

Billy followed Mark, but three minutes later, he was back in the room with her, watching as she put her clothes in the drawers of the dresser.

Without thinking about it, she started talking to Billy the way she used to talk to Alice, a soft running commentary on what she was doing to fill the silence and make Billy feel appreciated.

* * *

Mark sat in front of the television and flipped channels for a few minutes before settling on a home renovation show. He hadn’t lived with another person since Noah. Except that wasn’t exactly true, because Noah had never officially moved in. He just stayed over so often, it felt like he lived in the tiny studio apartment with Mark. So technically, Mark hadn’t lived with anyone else for seven years.

It was going to be awkward for a little while, getting used to sharing his living space again. But Dawn seemed nice enough, and it was going to save him a bundle not having to pay the doggie daycare center anymore. It was worth a little awkwardness to make sure Billy was being taken care of, and if he were being honest, a bit of friendship outside of work would probably do him a lot of good. She’d make this house he’d rented feel more like a home and less like a pit stop on his way to something better once his student loans were paid down.

Then he heard it. The soft little stream of a female voice, too faint to pick out words, but loud enough to know she was talking. He closed his eyes for a moment, soaking in the fact that he wasn’t alone anymore. A smile slowly grew on his face. Living with someone else was definitely going to be good for him.

Back in medical school, he’d lived with three other students during his first couple of years before getting the studio apartment for the last two years. He’d moved so he could have silence when he needed to study. Then when he had started his residency, he’d found a studio close to the hospital, but it was simply a place to sleep and eat. Now that he’d finished all that and started his career, it was past time to have a life outside of work. Maybe even consider finding someone to date instead of going to a club once a month to get his needs met with a random submissive.

With that thought in mind, he set the remote down and went back down the hall to Dawn’s room. He’d assumed she was on the phone, but it soon became clear she was talking to Billy. How cute. Smiling, Mark said, “Hey, I’m going to make some popcorn and maybe start a movie. Did you want to take a little break from unpacking and join me? I haven’t watched many movies over the past few years, so maybe you could help me pick out something that doesn’t suck.”

“Sure,” she replied with a grin. “That sounds great.” Turning to Billy, she added, “Should we go see a movie?”

He responded with a little bark and a wagging tail.

“Great. I’ll go pull up Amazon prime, and you can pick a movie while I make popcorn.”

“Okay.”

A few minutes later, when he came into the living room holding a large bowl of popcorn, he found Dawn sitting on the floor in front of the couch with Billy in her lap. She smiled up at him, and suddenly thoughts of friendship were pushed to the back of his head. Resisting the urge to ask her what she was doing, he sat on the other side of the couch and put the popcorn on the coffee table between them. “What are we watching?”

“How do you feel about murder mysteries?”

Pleasantly surprised, he said, “I enjoy them.”

“Have you seen Knives Out?

“Not that I remember.”

With a grin, she said, “Then that’s what we’re watching.” She started the movie, grabbed a handful of popcorn and focused on the screen.

A few seconds in, Mark couldn’t help himself. “Aren’t you going to sit on the couch?”

“Can Billy sit on the couch?” she asked, turning to him with a raised eyebrow.

Was that a challenge he saw in her light green eyes? He raised an eyebrow to match. “No.”

She turned back to the screen, and he swore he saw a shiver go down her back.

“I’m comfortable on the floor. Billy and I are bonding.”

Well, fuck. It was going to be difficult to pay attention to the movie with a young woman who wasn’t his submissive sitting at his feet the whole time. But as it turned out, the movie drew him in almost immediately, and by the time it was over, their seating arrangement had ceased to bother him.

 

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