Bree Donovan lowered the window on her rental car and inhaled the fresh scent of the waning afternoon. Late November in the Texas Hill Country, gave the air a fresh, crisp edge, a welcome change from the fumes that clogged the atmosphere in downtown Chicago. Even in the city of Austin the environment had a different tang to it, a different feel. Once again she sent a silent thanks to the client who had requested she come to Texas to meet with him. It got her out of the snow and biting cold that blew in off Lake Michigan and away from the mess she’d made of her private life.
Soon she would start her second Texas project, an office complex the owner wanted to reflect the history of the area. That’s where Bree had made her name in architectural circles—as a designer who knew how to weave history and practicality into a successful blend.
The invitation from the client had come at exactly the right time. She was still dealing with the misery of her emotional and messy breakup with Chad Sullivan. After a very intense year, she’d finally believed they had something permanent. Until the night she walked into Perfection and saw him engaged in public play with two other Dommes. Humiliation in front of a full house had tested her self-control. Somehow she’d managed to smile and leave with a touch of grace.
The final confrontation sat sharp in her mind, and with a deliberate effort she pushed it away. She’d welcomed this trip, partially in an effort to put it all behind her, and hadn’t really planned on seeking out company once her meetings were finished. Solitude within a crowd proved her best solution. But fighting through the mobs of people clogging the streets of Austin had depressed her more than it eased the still sharp pain. Sitting alone in her hotel suite, sipping a glass of wine and trying not to feel sorry for herself, hadn’t done much for her either.
The weekend loomed ahead and she wasn’t ready to go back and face everyone in Chicago yet. She needed some down time before that could happen. But wandering the streets without an agenda in mind, didn’t seem like an acceptable option. She needed the company of people like her, but in a very low-key situation. A little chatter. Conversation. Drinks and snacks. No expectations, and time to be herself.
Without stopping to think about it, she’d booted up her computer and begun to surf the BDSM sites in Austin and San Antonio for local activity. Now, here she was, late on Friday afternoon in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, heading toward a munch—a social gathering for people in the BDSM lifestyle. She could hang out, no pressure, not have to watch everything she said. Maybe even relax a little.
In the email that confirmed her invitation, the host, Emilio Dacosta, explained the event would be held at his ranch, about an hour and fifteen minutes from Austin. It intrigued Bree. She’d never been to a munch anywhere other than a private room in a restaurant or hotel, and once at someone’s very large house. Besides, how could she be in Texas and not see a ranch?
If there were any drawbacks to this trip, it would be the timing. A week after Thanksgiving, and every fucking store, restaurant, street, or whatever, sported Christmas decorations up the ying yang. With no Christmas spirit, she almost resented people who had it. She didn’t have much she felt like celebrating this year. Her personal life left a lot to be desired at the moment, and she didn’t need to wear her misery for others to see. If she had to endure holiday cheer at all, at least it didn’t have to be in Chicago. Too bad she didn’t have the same quick change for her mental state.
A speedy shopping spree outfitted her in jeans and very high-heeled western boots, since nothing she’d brought with her would be even remotely appropriate for what she read would be a casual get together. So she wrote the directions down carefully and programmed them into her GPS. She welcomed the chance to get out into the country, to escape the abundance of holiday spirit in Austin and throughout the hotel. Surely the ranchers would be too busy to bother with excessive decorations and tinny recordings of carols.
The quaintness of the names piqued her interest as she drove west on Highway 290 to Dripping Springs, then south on 281 to Blanco. Dripping Springs, for example, didn’t drip. In fact, as she passed, she noticed it had a steady stream.
She enjoyed the drive, the traffic was sparse, and the scenery relaxing. The landscape of Texas ranchland as it unrolled past her window, the flat surface of the pastures broken by the hills that gave the Hill Country its name made the drive pleasant and relaxing. Some of the land held herds of cattle, others, horses that romped and played or simply stood enjoying the freedom of the outdoors. Here and there she caught sight of a mounted rider, urging his horse through the slow-moving sea of what were obviously Longhorns.
She wondered if all the men in Texas looked as if they stepped right off the ad for the latest western movie or novel. Even her clients, in executive business dress, seemed to exude a testosterone that made the men in Chicago pale in comparison. What would it be like to have one of them as a Dom? Wait! She was the partner in charge in any sexual situation. Right? Maybe in her imagination she created a fantasy, because with the bitter words he’d hurled, Chad had nearly destroyed her confidence as a Domme—even as a satisfying sexual partner.
Forget it. Forget him. You’re out here today to enjoy yourself and see if the BDSM world still feels comfortable.
She deliberately wrenched her mind away from her distressing mental meanderings and paid more attention to the area she drove through. Other things caught her attention, like the sign for the Texas Olive Oil Company and the markers for the Texas Wine Trail. Wine Trail? In Texas? Really? She knew nothing about Texas wines and certainly had no idea the state had an olive oil industry. It surprised her that a state she’d categorized as filled with cows and horses, had such sophisticated businesses.
I don’t know enough about this state. I need to study it more.
She had immersed herself in its history and culture as she prepared for her meetings, but neither books nor the Internet could do it justice. The architecture that used so much adobe and limestone was unique to the area. The wide-open spaces filled with the pleasant fragrance of hay, grass, and dozens of different trees and natural shrubbery.
I wonder what it would be like to live here, surrounded by fresh air, but close to a lot of amenities.
Well, forget it. Chicago’s in your blood. Right?
Her GPS beeped, breaking into her reverie, and the mechanical voice told her to turn one half mile ahead. And there it sat, in the center of a long stretch of what the locals called a pole fence. The gateway’s sign proclaimed the entrance to Rancho Dominacion. She swallowed a chuckle. Emilio Dacosta, the host of today’s munch, was listed on the San Antonio BDSM site as a Dom with his own group. She wondered how many people thought the name merely implied his standing in the ranching community.
A long driveway wound between verdant pastures where horses grazed and romped. At the end of the driveway sat the ranch house, a two-story adobe structure in a Spanish style architecture people thought of as symbolic of the state. The red tile roof reflected the blazing sun while the pale adobe walls promised a cool interior. The house was huge, with four large picture windows reflecting the late afternoon sun and a long veranda with an iron railing. The upper story rose gracefully to a red barrel tile roof, shaded from the sun by an enormous oak tree that stood next to the house like an ancient sentinel. Bree wondered exactly how many people lived there.
She gave silent thanks that at least Emilio Dacosta hadn’t gotten in the Christmas spirit yet and decorated the hell out of his place. Handling that much cheer might be a problem.
Beyond the house she could see three large barns—how many did they need, anyway?—a couple of other adobe outbuildings, and an endless, open stretch of pasture. Here and there, for as far as she could see, trees and rocky extrusions the Texans called hills, broke the landscape.
Dozens of vehicles, a mixture of fancy pickups and high-end passenger cars, crowded the gravel parking area. Bree found a place to wedge her rental in close to the fence, and sat for a moment, still questioning herself. Finally she climbed out, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Music flowed from the rear of the house, the hum of conversation a counterpoint to it.
Why am I even doing this? I’m not looking to hook up, even for a night. I swore off everything after Chad. The emotional punch was too damaging. I’m better off alone.
But like the sirens that called to sailors at sea, the lure of the BDSM community proved as irresistible to her. She’d surfed the Internet in her hotel room and requested an invite to this munch, a social gathering of people in the community who she could visit—maybe connect with—all for that very reason.
No, no, no. No one new. Not for a very long time.
Yet here she dipped her toe in the water again. Maybe a strange pool would be better. Who knew? In any event, she could ease herself into the crowd, check out the situation and keep a low profile. Spend what she hoped would be a casual, pleasant afternoon among like-minded people.
Taking a deep breath and pasting on a smile, she followed the path around the side of the house to the rear, where a crowd jammed the patio and filled most of the available outdoor furniture. She stopped on the grass before reaching the huge paved area, wondering if she’d made a mistake coming here. For a moment she thought to retreat, even taking a step backward, but then a warm hand touched her elbow, holding her in place.
“It’s not polite to run off before you even say hello.” The deep voice rumbled through her body, making every nerve ending vibrate.
Bree turned her head and every bit of saliva in her mouth dried up. The man standing beside her was at least six four. He towered over her even in her stiletto-heeled boots, forcing her to tip up her chin to look at his face. A plaid shirt stretched across broad shoulders and jeans clung to narrow hips and long legs. That would have been enough to steal her breath, but his face mesmerized her. Framed by thick black hair slightly tinged with gray, it had a rough, masculine cast to it rather than handsome. Eyes that made midnight look pale, were bracketed by thick brows and thicker lashes, almost sinful on a man. Those eyes seemed to hold her in place.
For a moment she wasn’t sure her heart was still beating.
What the hell?
Had her hormones suddenly run amok? This man was no submissive. He might as well have been wearing a big fat sign that proclaimed Dominant across his chest. And Doms were not her thing. No, no. Uh, uh, uh. Too strong a Domme herself, she’d never be in a position of submission. Yet this man, with only a few words and a light touch, sent an erotic thrill racing through her. She didn’t even know if her heart was still beating.
Reaching for some semblance of control she finally managed to take a step back and get out a greeting.
“Hello.” Wow! Smooth greeting. Great impression, Bree.
“You have to be the out-of-towner.” He grinned at her, an expression almost lethal in its impact.
She tilted her head. “Out-of-towner? I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I’d intruded here. I thought it was, you now, just like the other munches I’ve been to.” She gave a nervous laugh. “If I’m being presumptuous—”
His laugh covered her like warm molasses. “Not a bit. Because we don’t meet in the city, we usually have the same people showing up for one of these. Sometimes a few will take a break, then decide to hang out again. Emilio posts it on the web as a reminder, but we don’t usually get too many who aren’t regulars.”
“Oh.” Bree took another step back. “I thought—I must have been mistaken. Like I said, I thought this was an open event.”
One corner of his mouth crooked up. Oh god, if she got past the body, the face and the deep voice, that grin might just be her undoing. How the hell could a Dom make her nipples harden into almost painful tips and moisture dampen her panties? No, no, no. Maybe she should leave.
“It is. And I’m definitely glad you joined us.”
“I’m just—” She held out her hands in a helpless gesture. “I happened to be in Austin on business, at loose ends, and needed some good conversation with people I could relax with.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place,” he assured her.
“I really want to be clear,” she added. “That’s all I’m looking for. Conversation.”
“No problem. That’s one of the things we do best.”
“Is it always held here? At his ranch?” She looked around. “That’s one of the things that intrigued me.”
“Yes. We all like to take this out of the city. And Emilio has some additional incentives, which you might get to see later.” His hand curved around her elbow again. “Anyway, we really are glad you’ve come to join us.”
Before they could move another voice interrupted them.
“Frightening away our guest before she has a chance to meet anyone, Rafe?”
Bree turned to see a man detach himself from the crowd and she wondered if out here in the ranch country, they grew all the men this tall. His body didn’t have width and musculature of the man who had approached her and was now standing inches away from her. Rather, she’d describe him as lithe. Not as broad in the shoulders. Still as filled with confidence, however. Much darker than the first man, he still exuded the same aura of confidence. Another Dom. Were there any subs here?
He held out extended his hand. “Emilio Dacosta. You must be Bree Donovan.”
She frowned as she took his hand. “Am I wearing a sign?”
“Not at all. But when you sent me a name for a reference, I asked him for a photo so I’d recognize you. Try to make you welcome.” He glanced at the other man. “Not isolate you as my rude friend here has done. Bree, meet Rafe Morales, often the bane of everyone’s existence.”
Rafe’s tanned fingers closed over hers and electricity shot along her arm. The heat from his touch surged through her. Puzzled and shaken, she pulled her hand away.
“Nice to meet you both. Emilio, thank you so much for letting me join your group today.”
“Your friend in Chicago said you were looking to enjoy some down time in our neighborhood.”
“Yes. It’s been a tough few months. A lot of demanding clients.” She pulled out her client smile. “I thought I’d combine a little pleasure with my business here.”
“We’re delighted to have you. Come. Let me introduce you to some of the others and get you a drink.” He looked at the man beside her. “No hogging the guest, Rafe. Besides, she’s too much a Domme for you.”
He urged her toward the patio, introducing her to people as they moved through the crowd. The body language of the guests, the casual smiles on their faces, the punctuation of easy-sounding laughter here and there made it obvious that most of them knew each other very well. Still, as they each gave her a welcoming look she began to relax. And would have done more so, if not for the man who continued to loom beside her, a hot sexual presence. As she accepted the drink Emilio handed her, sipped from it, made casual conversation with different people, she was acutely aware of Rafe Morales never more than one or two inches from her. Her skin still tingled from where he’d touched her and she could swear she felt the soft heat of his breath on the nape of her neck. An involuntary shiver skated along her spine.
As she chatted with people he often interjected a comment. Made sure he kept her drink glass refilled. Helped her balance a plate when snacks were passed. Although a curious glance or two came her way, no one commented. Either they were too polite or he normally behaved this way. But why? She knew the signal she gave off identified her as a Domme, not a submissive, so why stick so close to her? The physical effect he had on her, the accelerated heart rate, the socking moisture dampening her panties, the tingling of her nipples, puzzled her even more.
It pleased her to have found such a hospitable environment. Usually when she traveled, she took care of business or crashed in her hotel room. But often that was because she had a strong relationship with a submissive back at home. One that muted any interest she might have in playing in a strange place. Now, unfortunately, the one she had been so comfortable in, had exploded, burning her with the fallout, and she still wasn’t sure why.
With the holidays approaching, she didn’t look forward to facing the festivities.
She might have relaxed more if Rafe hadn’t made it his business to stay within a foot of her wherever she went. He never intruded on conversations or got in her face in any way but he was always there. Right where every nerve in her body could snap to attention at his presence.
In the middle of exchanging pleasantries about the area with a woman who had sub written all over her, the woman broke off in the middle of a sentence. “Oh, look.” She pointed over Bree’s shoulder. “Emilio’s going to make some kind of announcement. Maybe we’re going to have an event.”
“Here? Right now?”
But the woman didn’t answer her. Instead she tried to move closer to hear.
“Can I have everyone’s attention for a moment?” Emilio stood on a footstool; drink in one hand, waving the other. “I have a brief announcement.”
Oh, please. He’s not going to give me a mass introduction, is he?
She wanted so desperately to be low key. Blend in as one of the crowd. Hang out with like-minded people where she didn’t have to be on guard with everything she said. She didn’t know him but she hadn’t gotten the sense he’d be the type of person to embarrass her that way. She held her breath and waited.
A warm hand landed on her shoulder and Rafe’s breath caressed her skin as he murmured in her ear.
“Relax. This is nothing to get uptight about.”
Bree took a sip of her drink and made an effort to relax.
“I’ve had a lot of requests today,” he began, “to have an event tonight.” He looked at a couple standing a few feet away from him. “Sara and Drake will perform in the dungeon shortly after nine o’clock. After that, as usual, there will be a limited number of rooms available for private play. First come, first served. Everyone is invited. As usual, we’ll stop serving alcohol by six o’clock.” He started to step down, then stopped himself. “Oh, and in case anyone’s hungry, I’m having the grill set up on the other side of the house and we’ll be doing steaks and chicken. So eat hearty, drink sensibly and get ready to party.”
Bree turned back to the woman next to her. Dina Something. “He’s having the event here? In his house?”
Before Dina could say anything, Rafe answered for her.
“One entire wing of the house is a dungeon, with a big playroom and four private rooms.”
Closer than friendly contact, his torso pressed against her side, while his body heat seeped through her clothing, warming her flesh like the caress of a sensuous bath. Her mouth dried up again, and her pulse beat a frantic tattoo. For a very brief moment she wondered what it would be like to be a submissive to this man. As soon as the thought popped into her head she pushed it away. She didn’t have a submissive bone in her body. She didn’t even need to question that.
In her present state of mind, she didn’t think she wanted to find out. Except Rafe, practically glued to her body, disrupted her thinking process and her common sense.
Still, he’d peaked her curiosity with what he said.
“You mean you all come here to play rather than go to a private club? Or even a public one?”
Lightly touching her arm, he guided her to the edge of the crowd and onto the grass, away from the hum of excitement.
“Most of us here are very private people. And we like a certain type of environment.”
“Classy.” She guessed.
He nodded. “There are some public dungeons in San Antonio and Austin but most of us avoid them. It’s not only the décor; it’s the situation, too. A lot of us have to be careful who we run into.”
“I can understand that, but isn’t there a private club in either city?”
“One really good one in each, as a matter of fact. But again, this particular crowd likes its privacy.”
Bree looked at the people around her. “So everyone comes here to Emilio’s? Doesn’t it get a little crowded?”
He laughed, and the sound vibrated through her body.
“He has events like this once in a while. Usually it’s a small crowd and by invitation only. Today, the crowd you see is made up of the regulars. The core of our group.”
“That makes me an interloper.” Bree was suddenly uncomfortable. She took a step back from him, suddenly desperate to put some space between them, and looked toward the parking area. Maybe she should be smart here and leave.
Rafe studied her face, his gaze so piercing she was sure he could see all her sudden uncertainties bubbling deep inside her.
“Not at all.” One corner of his mouth crooked up in a lopsided grin. “When you posted your message, Emilio had the opportunity to withhold an invite. But he checked you out and whatever your reference told him, must have convinced him you’d fit in with the group.” He waved at the crowd of people talking and drinking, nibbling from the snack trays. “Some of the folks in this group here have a similar setup only smaller. And others prefer the privacy of their own homes. That’s why the munches we hold are so important. They provide an opportunity for folks in our lifestyle to meet since we don’t have a common club to hang out at.”
He took a swallow of his drink and Bree couldn’t stop herself from staring at the play of his muscles in his throat. She had an unwanted desire to lean closer and lick the heavily tanned skin. Could almost taste the flavor of him.
“I’m guessing it’s different in—where did Emilio say you were from? Chicago?”
“Uh, yes.” She gave herself a mental shake. “We have two very upscale private clubs, and the members are very carefully screened. Very few people invite others to play at their homes, unless they’re in a relationship. Or the beginning of one.”
The image of her last visit to the club at home, slammed into her, Chad bound and chained beneath a spotlight bracketed by Marie Delong and Nadia Varek. Two women who made a habit of poaching on other Domme’s territory. What had they said to Chad, done to him, given him to convince him to betray her that way? Would she ever forget the sight of one woman taking his cock in her mouth while the other played with a vibrator at his ass? She shut her eyes, hoping to wipe the image from her mind.
“Did I say something to disturb you?” Concern edged Rafe’s voice.
“No. No, not at all. I guess I’m more tired than I thought. Three long days of meetings took a lot out of me.” She set her empty glass on a low table. “I probably should be going.”
But Rafe stood so close their bodies touched, crowding her space, a man larger than life.
“Tired?” That penetrating look stabbed into her again, peeling back her outer layers of protection. “Or having second thoughts. Stay a while, Bree. The party hasn’t even started.” His gaze burned into hers. “You might find it relaxes you even more.”
Bree had the feeling he knew exactly why she wanted to leave. Was fully aware of his effect on her. Leaving would be the smartest thing she could do. The seductive presence of this powerful Dom overwhelmed her and took her in a direction she’d never thought to go. She didn’t want to take another sub, or God forbid, be someone else’s sub. She was pretty damn sure she didn’t lean that way. No, relationships of any kind were off the table for her, until she could be sure of protecting herself.
But persistent seemed to be Rafe Morales’s middle name, and his effect on her seemed to rob her of sensible choices.
“Stay for dinner and the beginning of the performance,” he coaxed. “If you don’t like what you see and you’re really tired after that, I’ll make sure you get home okay.”
She had to grin at that. “Won’t that be difficult? I’m staying in Austin and you live—in San Antonio, I’m guessing?”
He laughed again, that low, penetrating sound that unaccountably made her pulse pound in every available spot.
“Whatever it takes can be arranged,” he assured her. “Leave everything to me.”
“I think that might be a little too dangerous,” she told him, then regretted her words the moment they left her mouth.
He put his mouth closer to her ear. “I have a feeling you like dangerous, Bree Donovan.”
Her breath caught in her lungs and she couldn’t seem to get enough air. She needed space but couldn’t make her feet move.
“Maybe we should get something straight.” She held his gaze, to demonstrate she wasn’t what he thought her to be. “Before you get any misconceptions about me.”
“I can hardly wait to hear,” he teased.
“Seriously, Rafe. I thought I made it clear earlier. One, I’m not here to play today, only to hang out with some like-minded people. Two, if I were to play, it wouldn’t be as a submissive, and I can’t help but think you already know that.”
“Oh, I got that. There isn’t a submissive thing about you.” He bent his head closer to hers again. “But wouldn’t you like to find out, just once, what it’s like on the other side of the coin?”
She wet her lips, noticing the flare of heat in his eyes at the swipe of her tongue across the plump flesh. “I—I don’t know. I guess I never thought about it.” She forced herself to somehow take a step back. “But at any rate, I don’t think today would be the day.”
“Never say never,” he told her. “Besides, you might see something that really turns you on.”
Oh god, I hope not. That’s not why I’m here. I’m having enough trouble trying to figure out my reaction to this man as it is.
“Come on. I’ll introduce you to the performers. They’re a really nice couple.”
This time, instead of merely guiding her by her arm, he threaded his fingers through hers and tugged her through the crowd. Heat surged through her body and there went her pulse again. Bree had a feeling she’d found big trouble and hadn’t a clue what to do about it.
Since she claimed to be a take-charge person, why didn’t she take charge? A good question for sure, but she didn’t seem to have any answer.