24/7 (The Subs Club, #4)

24/7 by J.A. Rock
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-349-0
eBook release: 
Jun 6, 2016
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-350-6
Print release: 
Jun 6, 2016
Word count: 
89,300
Page count: 
324
Type: 
Cover by: 

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We started the Subs Club to make the kink community safer for subs. Except now the others are so busy chasing their happy endings, it’s like they’ve forgotten what Bill did to Hal and the fact that he got away with it. They used to think I was betraying Hal’s memory by hooking up with the owners of the club where he died. Now they don’t seem to care about any of it anymore.

Maybe I am sometimes angry with GK and Kel for giving Bill a second chance, but they’ve been mentoring me for a year now, and whatever else they’ve done, they make me feel incredibly safe. So I want to try something: I want to offer them my complete submission, 24/7. To serve the people who forgave Bill. That’s the way I want to hurt.

Except I’m starting to care about them in a way I never meant to—and I think they feel the same way. But after Hal, I don’t know if I want to be in love again. Because what I really need, more than anything, is to see Bill brought to justice. Even if I have to do it myself. Even if it means losing GK and Kel.

—Gould

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Chapter One

I stood naked in the kitchen and reached into the cloth bag that used to hold Scrabble tiles. I scooped a handful of marbles then let most of them fall. Used my thumb to roll the remaining two against my palm until one dropped. I made a fist around the winner and drew it out of the bag. Slowly uncurled my fingers.

Black.

Well, fuck.

Eight white marbles in the bag. Two black. The odds had been in my favor, so why—

It doesn’t do any good to think like that.

I stared at the marble.

You can handle it, whatever it is. As long as it’s for her.

My breathing slowed, and the knot in my gut loosened.

I gazed around the kitchen. At the dishes Kel and Greg had told me to leave in the sink after supper. I had an overwhelming urge to wash them and put them away. Instead I got a glass from the cupboard and filled it with ice and water.

I could swap out the marbles. That occurred to me on the rare occasions I drew a black one. I could just put it back in the bag and grab a white one. They’d have no way of knowing. But I never did it.

They trusted me.

Stop earning black marbles if you never want to draw one.

I closed my hand around the marble again and took a deep breath, then walked to the living room. The mint-colored walls were covered in artsy, black-and-white photographs: Kel in Caracas, pointing at the National Pantheon, one leg kicked up behind her like a pinup girl. Greg photoshopped on the back of a buffalo in Yellowstone, his eyes wide, his mouth open in an O. A boudoir photo of Kel on a white wooden chair, wearing skintight leather shorts, a chest harness with star-shaped studs, and motorcycle boots. Her large breasts hung between the harness straps, and her dark hair fell in loose curls past her shoulders. That picture got taken down when they had company, a print of Dal Lake put up in its place. Another photo, this one of their courthouse wedding here in the city—both of them in jeans and T-shirts. There was one photo on the side table, stuck by a corner into a four-by-six frame overtop of Kel’s cousin’s senior portrait, of the three of us downtown last fall, outside some sushi place.

Kel was sprawled in the faded red armchair, and Greg was straddling her, kissing her neck. I felt just a second’s envy. She glanced up as I entered, and smiled at me. That smile did what it always did—made my legs go numb, my skin turn warm, and my brain forget how words worked. She was one of those people who drew attention without demanding it. When I’d first met her, I’d had the stupid thought that she was like Waldo in a Where’s Waldo? book—she looked at home in any surrounding, to the point where you might not notice her at first glance. But once you spotted her, you felt like you’d found what you’d been searching for. Like in a sea of shopkeepers or gladiators or vampires, this was the person who mattered.

She pushed Greg gently off, and he stood beside her chair while she straightened, tugging her black top down over the exposed skin of her stomach. I dropped my gaze to the carpet and knelt carefully in front of Kel’s chair, holding out the glass of water. She took it and set it aside, then placed her hand on the top of my head in a wordless thank-you.

I spread my knees, because yeah, the spread knees, the lowered gaze, the hands clasped behind the back or the fingers laced behind the head . . . I liked this ritual, even though it felt kind of ridiculous. I wasn’t always sure I saw much difference between ritual and cliché. My parents held fast to a couple of random Jewish customs and holidays. But even those traditions had seemed hollow to me in recent years. Echoes of what they’d once signified. “We’re not super Jewish,” I’d heard my mother say once. “But we’d never want to abandon our heritage.”

News flash: You can’t abandon or change—really change, I mean—the things you inherit. Your nose or your laugh or your anxiety disorder. Your family’s choices, from your great-grandmother getting on a boat to your grandmother going to that college—the one where all the girls “went Sapphic”—to your mother running away with that man. You can try to ignore your inheritance or else sculpt over top of it—a sort of cultural plastic surgery. I’m agnostic now. I got my hair rebonded. I no longer have a separate sponge for scrubbing meat pans. But everyone can tell you’ve had work done.

I placed my arms behind my back, clasped my left wrist in my right hand, and bowed my head. My hair brushed the knees of her pants. I could smell the environmentally friendly fabric softener she used. She leaned down and held her cupped hand where I could see it, and I unclasped briefly to drop the marble into her palm. Reclasped.

She gave a low whistle. Her legs shifted slightly. “Greg. Look here.”

“Uh-oh.” He sounded like he was trying not to laugh. He’d been doing better lately at not making fun of me when I was in trouble, and I’d been doing better at not taking it so hard when he did. He touched the back of my neck, and my skin prickled there. “That had to be the only black one in there, right? And, like, a thousand white ones.” I stayed quiet but answered in my head: There were two black marbles. One for forgetting to bring the strap. Saturday the twentieth. One for missing the signal to get the gear bag. Friday the twelfth.

Kel stroked my hair gently. “What’s the tally, Gould?”

“Two black, eight white, Ma’am.”

“So you’ve been good this month?”

I made a face at the carpet. I hated questions like this. It was like being asked to “give your paper the grade you think it deserves” in freshmen comp class. “I’ve tried to be. But I could still improve, Ma’am.”

I waited for a snort from Greg, but there was nothing. When I’d started playing with them a year ago, Greg had teased me about being a brownnoser. He hadn’t meant it, really, but it had annoyed me. Submitting came a lot more naturally to me than it did to him, and I couldn’t help my desperate—and okay, probably obnoxious—need to obey.

I’d never told him how much it bothered me. Rationally I knew it was no big deal. The teasing, the way he tried sometimes to get me in trouble. It just fucked with my headspace to want so bad to please Kel, and yet always be anticipating Greg’s derision if I was too eager.

Maybe, deep down, he was afraid Kel wished he were more like me when he subbed. Which wasn’t true at all. She loved her husband in a way I could only dream about being loved. Loved the way he challenged her, loved watching him learn to please her. And she loved using me to humiliate him. When I stayed balanced on one foot during a rope scene while he struggled and hopped around: “Gould’s doing what I told him to. Why can’t you?” Or, if she pegged him, and he grunted and ow-ed through it: “Gould can take my cock up his ass without whining. What’s your problem?”

It had made me uncomfortable at first, because I assumed it hurt Greg’s feelings, made him resent me. But then I saw how much he loved being taunted that way. He got off on the humiliation of not being able to obey the way I did, of being told he wasn’t performing adequately. It creeped me out how well I understood that need. That desire to be found wanting, no matter how hard I tried to please. To be humiliated in spite of my goodness. Or maybe because of it.

Kel took her hand off my head and reached for one of the two cookie tins on the table beside her. Each was filled with slips of paper. The slips in the red tin all had rewards written on them. The slips in the purple tin were all punishments. We kept a jar of black and white marbles in the kitchen, and when I fucked up, I had to put a black marble in the bag. When I went above and beyond, I put a white marble in. At the start of each of our weekends together, Kel made me draw a marble to determine whether I’d be punished or rewarded. At the end of the month, she emptied the bag and we started again.

“You’ve been very good,” she said quietly. “But I have to say, I’m excited for the chance to punish you. I almost never get to.”

I didn’t answer. When she held the purple tin out to me, I rummaged in it and pulled out a slip of paper. Handed it to her without looking. My heart was thudding.

Relax. It’ll please her to do this to you. Whatever it is.

In my fantasies, I let her do anything to me. I let her hate me, let her terrify me, let her make me feel subhuman. She used me any way she wanted, with absolutely no regard for my feelings, and I took it all until I broke, until I really was nothing.

In reality, I started pissing myself over a fucking black marble.

I studied the shadows in the pile of the carpet while I waited for her to unfold the paper. Tried not to think about floor germs. My OCD was a halfhearted variety, Dave always said. I didn’t like watching odd-numbered TV channels, but odd numbers in general didn’t bother me. I had to pull the loops of bootlaces until they were perfectly even, but the laces on sneakers weren’t an issue. I’d massage or lick Kel’s feet no problem, despite the fact that feet were objectively filthy, but then get weird sometimes about sitting on the floor.

I could see Greg’s shoe and khaki pant leg off to the side, and I wanted, for a second, to press closer to him. I remembered the night they’d had me sit at their kitchen table and write out the list of rewards and the list of punishments. Remembered Kel checking my work, praising my ideas for punishments even though they were nothing like what I really wanted to write. I kept all my worst ideas to myself and instead wrote down things that sounded safe. It had been Greg who’d helped me come up with rewards when I’d been too embarrassed to ask for anything beyond “Getting to come.”

“Oh, look at this,” Kel said, like she was unwrapping a gift. “We’ve got the ol’ T & D.” She nudged my chin up with her knee. “How long, babe?”

“All weekend, Ma’am.” As if I could have made myself give any other answer.

Greg touched the back of my neck again. “Aw, you’re torturing her. She loves seeing you come.”

Kel didn’t break eye contact with me. She smiled. I couldn’t think of anything clever to say. When I was playing, my sense of humor went the fuck out the door. I saw the way Greg and Kel joked with each other during scenes, but for whatever reason, submission was still Super Serious Business for me.

Because I genuinely just fucking loved doing what I was told. Without protest, without jokes, without anything more than a Yes, Sir or Yes, Ma’am.

“I do like seeing him come.” Kel leaned back. “But I also like seeing him struggling not to.” She raised one bare foot and pressed her toes against my rising dick.

I wanted to look down—I still had trouble keeping eye contact when something felt good—but forced myself to hold her gaze. She bounced my balls up and down on her big toe. I didn’t make a sound, but my breathing started to quicken. “We’re going to Riddle tonight. So it’ll be fun to torture him there.”

I checked out for a moment, until the initial wave of nerves had passed. The club meant people watching me. Whispering about me—the old-timers getting the newbies up to speed. Yeah, Gould used to date that guy who got killed here. He’s the one who beat the shit out of Bill Henson. Then he helped run that review blog that pissed everyone off. Now he’s GK and Kel’s new toy. The gossip had died down over the past year, but it hadn’t gone away completely. I was pretty sure even my friends still talked behind my back.

Once, I’d been part of a group of five. My friends and I had met in our early twenties and started doing almost everything together. I mean, we just worked. There was Dave, our ringleader: charming but completely without a filter. Miles was slightly older than the rest of us—uptight, intellectual, almost aggressive in his maturity. Kamen was our resident dude-bro—incredibly sweet, not super bright, but open-minded almost to a fault.

Then there was me, and I didn’t know what the fuck I was.

And there’d been Hal, who was all the things others said he was: reckless, hilarious, immature, a jackass. Hal and I had dated for a year, and I’d seen just how reckless he could be. How hilarious, and how much of a jackass. I’d fallen in love with him, and eventually, unable to handle his unreliability—among other things—I’d broken up with him. Just over a year later, he’d done a bondage scene in one of Riddle’s playrooms with Bill Henson, a dom who’d left him tied up, alone, with a loose rope around his neck. The rope had—allegedly—caught on a section of the bench they were using and had pulled tight, strangling Hal. The DM had been in another room at the time. No one had noticed until it was too late.

It had been three years, and I couldn’t even . . . Still. Still, I couldn’t think about it without something coming loose inside my brain. The idea that Bill could have been that careless was inexcusable to me. He’d been tried for second-degree murder—no alternative charges like manslaughter or negligent homicide—and had been acquitted. And then last year, Kel and Greg had made the controversial choice to reinstate his membership to Riddle after supervising him through months of kink education and safety workshops. It had made me fucking furious. No legal consequences for Bill, and apparently not much in the way of social consequences either.

My friends and I had protested Bill’s reinstatement at Riddle by starting the Subs Club, an organization dedicated to improving safety in our community. Except we’d—I’d—gotten a little carried away in suggesting we set up a blog to review local doms. After that all blew up in our faces, we’d let the Subs Club evolve into a discussion group instead. Which felt about as effective as when my grandpa used to let me sit on his lap in the driver’s seat of his stationary sports car and pretend to drive. I sat behind my computer and blogged, and for what? To bring Hal back? To change the world? Bullshit.

And even the blog seemed to have fizzled out over the past couple of months. Sometimes I wasn’t sure my friends remembered that the club had originally been an attempt to revolutionize the community, to get justice for Hal. On the rare occasions we still assembled, we were no more revolutionary than a book club meeting.

Honestly, the best I’d felt about the whole thing was when I’d gone to Bill’s house shortly after the trial and landed a few good punches. That, at least, had been active.

“But you would never do anything like that,” Dave had repeated the day he’d picked me up from the police station. “You wouldn’t. I know you wouldn’t.”

My knuckles had been covered in dried blood, and I’d wanted to shake him and say, But I did.

It was almost like it had happened to someone else. Except that the consequences had been very real. Having my friends look at me like I couldn’t be trusted. Being served a protective order three weeks later: I wasn’t allowed within five hundred feet of Bill. Which was fucking fine by me, since I never wanted to see him again. But it was the only legal trouble I’d ever been in, and it had scared me.

“What time are we going?” Greg’s voice jerked me back to the present.

Kel glanced at the clock on the mantle. “In about an hour. I want to have some fun here first.” She refocused on me. “Eyes down,” she ordered softly.

I dropped my gaze immediately.

“On the rug, please, and lie on your back.”

I got on all fours and crawled to the braided rug in front of the fireplace. I stretched out, spreading my arms and legs. Kel snapped her fingers twice, which was Greg’s signal, not mine, so I relaxed. Greg walked over to her and bent so she could whisper in his ear.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said quietly when she was done. He straightened and walked out of the room.

Once he was gone, Kel rose from the chair and stepped toward the rug. She knelt and leaned over me, and the ends of her hair brushed my stomach. I shivered. I wasn’t sure where to look, so I just kept looking at her, because it was difficult not to. I had no fucking idea why someone as beautiful as Kel was interested in someone like me.

She traced a line down my chest with one finger. “I’ve been waiting all week to see you like this.”

I flexed my feet. Tease and denial was an easier punishment for me to handle than physical pain. Except she’d barely touched me, and I was already hard. And if I kept looking at her eyes—hazel, deep-set, lined in black—I was a goner.

She ran her finger up my dick. I tensed, my knees bending slightly before I caught myself.

“Gonna blue-ball you all weekend.” She leaned down to kiss me.

It was like I forgot, between kisses, how good they could be. My stomach dipped as her lips touched mine, and I almost raised one hand to run it through her hair. You don’t touch her without permission. Her mouth was citrusy from lemon breath mints, and I could taste vanilla lip balm for a second before her tongue slid over mine and stopped all thoughts beyond Don’t come, don’t come.

Greg returned then, but Kel didn’t break the kiss. I closed my eyes, tipped my head back, and let her explore my mouth. When she finally did lift her head, I was panting.

Greg knelt beside her. “Oh boy.” He was looking at my swollen dick and shaking his head like it was a busted pipe or something. “It’s gonna be a long weekend, huh?” He glanced at Kel. “You’re not even gonna help him out with a cock cage or anything?”

“Nope.” She held out a hand to him without turning away from me.

Greg handed her a coil of soft rope, a pair of yellow shorts. A collar, a leash. And a feather.

FML.

He set a pair of emergency shears on the end table and knelt beside us to watch.

Kel pulled me up and sat a few inches behind me, putting her legs out on either side of mine.

She picked up the rope, pulled it through her hand, and then started rigging a harness. Simple and not too tight—just a series of diamonds that wound around my torso but didn’t trap my arms, didn’t really bind me. As she worked, her nails scraped my skin, sending tiny jolts of pleasure through me. I concentrated on the smoothness of the rope, the pattern she was making. I tried not to look down at my body. Just wanted to pretend I looked as hot as I felt.

Eventually she urged my hips up and brought the end of the rope between my legs, then made a knot that rested just behind my balls. Shit. She’d done this one to me before—made me walk around with that knot rubbing the skin there, not quite touching my asshole or my balls. She tied the end to the back of the harness and helped me lie faceup again.

The harness relaxed me, made me feel held. She’d positioned the knots in the back so they dug in just below my shoulder blades and on either side of my lower spine. It actually felt good.

She tugged the front of the harness. “Who do you belong to, Gould?”

I opened my mouth to say, You, Ma’am, but hesitated.

For a year, our relationship had been just what I needed. The two of them had mentored me, helping me explore my obsession with obedience, sharing their experience and knowledge with me. I submitted to Kel and alternated between submitting to Greg too, and helping Kel top him. I’d learned a lot, and there was no pressure to commit, or to support them on some deep, emotional level. They had each other for that.

But something had happened over the past couple of months. This small but persistent voice in my head had started asking for more. Deeper submission. An opportunity to serve them for longer periods of time. She said things like “my boy” and “you belong to me”—phrases that were absolutely loaded for me—but she didn’t mean them. I was hers for a few hours on a Friday night. A long weekend here and there. But I didn’t belong to her.

“Gould?” Kel prompted. “Are you paying attention?”

I flinched, embarrassed. “I belong to you, Ma’am,” I said, with an edge I hadn’t intended.

She paused and gave me a look. Not angry or confused. Just thoughtful. She didn’t comment further.

She picked up the feather first. Dragged it over my left nipple. My breath caught, and it was a few seconds before I could let it out. My skin was super fucking sensitive to begin with—I’d once had an allergy test come up positive for everything but dogs and tomatoes—and between the cool air of the room, the heat in my balls, and that feather lighting up every nerve it touched, I was in serious danger of losing control. I focused on her face. The slight curve of her mouth as her gaze followed the feather’s trail. She ran the tip of the feather around my navel, then up and over my right nipple. I stayed silent. Watched her smile grow, partially hidden by the curtain of dark hair.

She turned to Greg. “You can play with him too. Since you’ve been a good boy today.”

Greg looked down at me. Picked up the leash and stroked the leather loop down my inner thigh. I curled my toes. Kel continued with the feather, zigzagging it down my chest, bumping over the rope. It was all I could do to keep my hands and legs against the carpet, to keep my hips from rocking as Greg touched the loop to my balls. He flipped it lightly against the underside of my shaft. I arched off the rug, just for a second. He grinned and bumped Kel with his shoulder. “You ought to punish him for breaking position.”

I gave him a very subtle middle finger.

He did a mock jaw-drop. “Oh. Definitely punish him.”

She turned to him. “And to think I just said you were being a good boy. Here you are telling me how to top.”

“No way!” he protested. “Did you see what he just did?”

“Did you hear what I just said?”

He ducked his head, still grinning. “Sorry, Ma’am.” He shook his head at me, and I offered him the slightest of shrugs.

Kel snapped her fingers twice at him. “You can go stand in the corner. Pull your pants and shorts down.”

He rose slowly. “Which corner, Ma’am?”

She nodded at one by the fireplace. “You can stand there on display until you’re ready to behave.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He headed to the corner, undoing his belt as he went. There was a time he would have argued, tried to slick-talk his way out of it, like I’d seen Dave do when he was in trouble. When I’d started playing with them, she was working with him on recognizing the subtle ways he sometimes undermined her authority. He didn’t do it to be a dick, exactly—he just knew her soft spots and seemed as compelled to take advantage of them as I was compelled to obey her.

Kel flipped the feather around. She placed the almost-sharp quill on the tip of my left nipple and pressed slowly. I grunted and tried to keep breathing.

“And you,” she said quietly to me. “Stay in position.”

“Sorry,” I whispered. She kept pressing until I made a stifled choking sound, and then she withdrew and circled the quill around the base of my nipple. I shook with the effort of holding still. Her breasts hung close to my face, and for a moment all I could think was ZOMG tits tits tits tits . . .

“Where are my eyes, Gould?” She didn’t raise her voice, and I could hear the amusement as well as the firmness.

I met her gaze quickly.

She took my hand and pulled it toward her. Slid it under her shirt until I was cupping one heavy breast. Fuck yes. Please.

She closed her eyes as I worked two fingers under the wire of her bra and stroked the soft, slightly damp undercurve of her breast.

I pushed my other fingers under the wire, pushing the bra up, grazing her nipple with my thumb. Her breathing grew harsher, and she arched her back. She reached under her shirt and caught my wrist. Placed my arm back on the floor.

“Greg. Come here,” she murmured.

Greg came to kneel again, beside and a bit behind her. His pants were still down, and his dick stuck out, hard and dark. His black hair, which had been combed back for work, had started to fall forward in little gelled waves. He was half Kashmiri and a quarter Cherokee, and was damn proud of being “both kinds of Indian.” And he definitely knew how handsome he was.

“Touch me,” she whispered to him.

He looked at her with so much love that a pang went through me—longing and confusion. I’d never counted on feeling so much affection for either of them. For both of them.

“How, Ma’am?” Greg asked.

She placed one of his hands on her breast the way she had with me. Then she lifted her hips and guided the other between her legs. While I watched, he massaged her breast, and she rubbed against the hand between her legs, her hips pumping in a slow, even rhythm. He kissed the side of her neck, and she turned toward him, smiling, her hair disheveled against his cheek. She reached behind her, found his dick, and began stroking it gently.

They knew each other’s bodies so well. They were inelegant, almost, but it made them all the more entrancing. Like young performers whose rawness made up for a lack of polish. I sometimes felt as though I could see segments of their history intersecting like a Venn diagram, creating a center where youth and uncertainty were overlaid with a clamoring adoration of each other’s bodies that masqueraded as confidence, and finally overlaid by a very sure and grown-up love.

I wanted to learn that kind of love.

She let go of his cock. Brought one arm up and bent the elbow so her palm cupped the back of his head as she rocked against him. He made small circles with his fingers on the front of her black pants. Kissed the side of her neck again as he pushed her breast up.

She winced. “Easy on the boobs. My nephew’s been punching them.”

Greg laughed. “You need to tell him that’s no longer appropriate at his age.”

“How old is he?” I asked.

Kel glanced at me. “Fifteen.”

What?”

She snickered as Greg nuzzled her cheek. “Kidding. He’s four.”

Greg set his chin on her shoulder. “Still, too old for boob-punching.”

“Or not old enough.” Kel rolled her eyes. “I let him do it once when he was, like, two, because it was kind of cute. And my boobs are huge—I could totally see why a toddler would find them fascinating. But now . . . ugh.”

I don’t even know your nephew’s name. The thought hit me hard. I wanted to believe I’d do just about anything for her, and yet . . .

Can you really care about her when you hardly know her?

Greg went back to stroking her breasts, more gently. I watched her eyes fall shut, watched little furrows appear between her brows. I made a soft noise—didn’t mean to, but they both looked at me. Her eyes flashed, dark and lovely.

“You wanna watch me come?” she whispered.

I nodded. So fucking much.

I just wished I could be the one to make it happen.

She sped up the motion of her hips while Greg continued to touch her. Suddenly her chin dipped, and her hair brushed my chest again. Her soft cries rose in pitch, and she ducked her head lower. Her hips stopped moving. With one final half pant, half whimper, she went still.

My balls ached, and all it would have taken to get me off was a hand on my dick. Luckily, neither of them tried it. Kel took a moment to recover, then sat up, her focus on me. I tried to look at the ceiling.

Kel ran a hand down my chest, almost to my groin, and I tensed until my thighs shook with the effort of not coming. She gripped the rope between my legs and pulled the knot hard against my taint. An ache started low in my gut, then spread, and a strange sensation, half faintness and half pleasure, took over my body. She pulled more firmly, and I choked back a gasp.

I closed my eyes. She ran her fingertips up and down my chest until I relaxed. Forgot about the room, forgot about my dick, and just focused on her touch. She let go of the rope.

“You liked watching that?” she asked. “Open your eyes and answer me.”

I opened my eyes, my mind hazy, my head pounding. “Yes, Ma’am. I liked it.”

She didn’t take her gaze off me. “Greg, would you get us some water, please?”

Greg rose. “Yes, Ma’am. May I pull my pants up?”

“No. And stay gone awhile.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He left the room.

Supporting my head, Kel used the harness to haul me up so I was kneeling, facing her. She stroked my hair, and I stared back at her, my thoughts so hopelessly jumbled for a moment that I was terrified of being asked a question and literally not being able to respond.

But she waited. Pushed her fingers into my white-boy ’fro so she could rub my scalp. Pleasure unwound through me, individual threads of it that seemed connected to the movement of her fingers. I could disappear into subspace faster than anyone I knew. Could lose myself in any kind of repetition—a voice, a touch, an action. My mom used to put on classical music in the nursery and come in later to find me lying in the crib, staring up at the ceiling like I was in a trance. Said she’d hear me on the baby monitor, babbling along softly to Bach. Unfortunately, it hadn’t given way to any real musical talent—except for a brief stint playing the police sergeant in The Pirates of Penzance in Hebrew school.

“Gould?”

I didn’t answer.

She tugged firmly on a handful of hair, and that helped me focus. “What was that about?”

“What, Ma’am?”

“‘Who do you belong to?’ You gave me the weirdest look.”

I’d never played with anyone as perceptive as Kel. I’d played mostly with guys until two years ago, and they’d rarely made an effort to read into the things I didn’t say. Plenty of doms, male and female, had gotten irritated with me for not communicating very well. Kel didn’t get annoyed. But she did call me out when she thought I was holding back.

I looked at the carpet. In a pool of lamplight, I could make out uneven vacuum tracks.

“No,” she said.

I glanced up again. “I don’t know. I got distracted.”

I’d rather take a correction for not focusing than try to explain, and she knew that. “We’re not through talking,” she whispered, tugging my hair again.

I nodded. I’d spent so much time searching for a kind of dominance that fit me, that I almost hadn’t recognized it once I’d found it. Kel was gentle, but she didn’t put up with bullshit. And I needed that. Too often, I fooled people. They assumed that since I wanted to obey and appeared to obey, they didn’t have to push me. But if they didn’t get after me, I’d feed them all kinds of crap. Tell them whatever I had to in order to get them to leave me alone, let me sink into the privacy of my mind.

Sometimes my life felt like it was divided between seeking that privacy, and feeling incredibly lonely because so many people were quick to grant it to me.

Greg entered the room again with clothes tucked under his arm and a glass of water in his hand. He stopped at the end table to grab the still-full glass I’d brought Kel earlier. Gave that to Kel, dropped the clothes on the back of the couch, then stepped toward me. I reached for the second glass, but he surprised me by cupping the back of my head and holding the glass to my lips so I could drink. Kel had assigned Greg and me goals over the past few months. I was supposed to open up more—to Greg, not just Kel. Greg was supposed to be less hesitant about touching me. He did a pretty good job in general, but he still gave off a bit of a But I’m a straight guy vibe when he was asked to handle me. Which in turn made me super uncomfortable, and yeah . . . Sometimes I just wished he could leave the touching to Kel.

Kel handed her empty glass to Greg and picked up the yellow shorts. “All right. I say we head to Riddle.”

The shorts were Spandex and assless—exactly what you wanted to be wearing in public when you felt about as sexy naked as a Nick Nolte mug shot. I knew Kel understood—she was overweight too; we’d talked about it. My friends fancied themselves social justice warriors. So yes, I got that I was supposed to look in the mirror and love what I saw. That I set a bad example when I allowed myself to be ashamed of my body. But I couldn’t fucking help it.

And my friends could pretend to sympathize, but they didn’t know. They were all thin and in good shape. Kamen had the kind of abs that could sell you a gym membership. Dave would stand shirtless in the bathroom of our apartment, staring into the mirror and complaining about, like, a mole, or a single hair sprouting from his shoulder, and I’d want to punch him just a little bit. They didn’t feel their stomachs paunch up every time they bent over to get fucked, or have to worry about what they looked like in assless shorts. Kamen’s body hair looked badass; mine looked like someone had covered my chest in Elmer’s glue and thrown a fistful of pubes at it.

You could pretend whatever you wanted, but aesthetics did matter in kink. The community was full of people of all shapes and ages and sizes, but it was just like every other arena of life—the young, pretty people seemed to see the most action. And the people like me got offers from doms to “put you on a treadmill.”

Okay, that had only happened once. On the internet. Dave said I was paranoid. “Look how many people at Riddle are overweight. No one cares.” What the fuck ever. I’d never bothered telling Dave that when a ripped guy approached me at the club, it was usually to ask, “Who’s your friend?” and see if I’d introduce him to Dave.

I lifted my hips so Kel could finish pulling my shorts on. She tugged the front pouch, adjusting my dick and balls. “Very nice. Get on all fours.”

I did. My ass felt god-awfully naked, framed by the tight nylon. The shorts fit awkwardly over the rope, and made the knot between my legs dig harder into the skin. I tried for a second to suck my stomach in, then gave up.

She stroked both cheeks. “Gorgeous.”

The way she said it—every fucking time she said it—I sort of believed her.

She left me there while she changed into the clothes Greg had brought her—dark jeans and a leather vest with columns of steel rings down the panels. She talked while she dressed. “Just like we’ve been practicing. Serve Greg and me in any way we require. Keep alert for nonverbal cues. Have at least one conversation with someone who’s not us.” She grinned.

I snorted. “Yes, Ma’am.”

She shrugged out of her bra and then pulled the vest on, zipping it over her breasts. “Greg. Collar him, please.”

Greg knelt and buckled the collar around my neck. A flimsy, faux-leather thing they’d gotten me a few months ago. I liked it, because it was from them, and it was cute if you were into cute shit—the cheap plastic padlock had an angry cat etched on it. But I wished sometimes that I had a real collar. One that meant something.

Greg finished fastening the collar and stood. Handed me a pair of sweatpants. I looked at Kel, who nodded. I stood, wincing as the knot dug in again, and put the pants on. She clipped the leash to the collar and led me to the laundry room, where she put a large overcoat on me. She only fastened two of the buttons. We headed out to the garage.

 

Chapter Two

Usually at eleven on a Friday night, Riddle was packed. But it was February and the weather was lousy, and the main lounge was fairly clear when we arrived. The music was quiet, even in Chaos, the largest playroom. Part of me was grateful for the emptiness—the fewer people watching me walk around in assless shorts, the better. But there was a certain anonymity in a crowd that I missed.

“GK!”

I turned as a woman approached Greg. Everyone at Riddle called Greg “GK.” It had taken me some time to get used to using his first name. Greg and Kel stopped to talk for a few minutes. I stood there, my gaze tracing the slack leash between Kel and me, trying to remember who the woman was. While I’d been a member of Riddle almost since it opened, Kel and Greg and I had run in different circles before we’d started playing together. I was getting better at learning their friends’ names, but there were a lot of names to keep track of. Fewer, I supposed, since Hal. Riddle had lost a good chunk of its membership over the past two and a half years, including a handful of people who’d claimed to be Kel and Greg’s close friends.

BellaSade was leaning in the doorway to Chaos. Bella wasn’t known for her enthusiasm, but we’d always gotten along well. She gave me what passed for a smile. I checked the club, as I always did, for any sign of Bill. Kel and Greg swore he never came here anymore, but what if he decided to make an exception? I noticed that despite the sparseness of the crowd, there was a DM stationed at each playroom. Before Hal, one DM, maybe two, would circulate through the whole club. Now three of them stood like museum guards in the doorways, silently watching the mostly empty rooms.

My friends and I used to come here together a lot. They could all stroll in and find play partners within minutes, despite the purported heterosexuality of ninety percent of Riddle’s clientele. We’d enter as a group, sit at the dry bar, and have a soda together. Then they’d go off with their chosen partners, leaving me to talk to Regina or whoever was bartending. Regina, who loved to play matchmaker, would try to introduce me to potential doms, but I usually bolted before they could ask me to do a scene.

Eventually I’d head over to the bookshelf in the lounge and read the dust jackets I already knew by heart. Or I’d hide in the coatroom under the pretext of checking my phone. Or I’d play this game I’d been playing with myself since high school. I started with one image: a wasteland or a jungle or a beach. A room in a fortress. An opulent dinner party. I placed myself there, and then started walking. It was kind of like a first-person video game. I’d hack through the jungle vines or crawl across the desert or make my way up a massive staircase. Occasionally I’d encounter people—feral children or zombies or hostile royalty—but the most important thing about the game was that I never let myself stop and think. Whatever appeared in my mind, I just had to go with it, just had to keep telling the story. Buildings crumbled, forests went up in flames. I fell through the ice and ended up in some sea monster’s underwater lair. And I kept going.

It had been an awesome distraction when I was a teenager, carrying me away from algebra lectures or the cacophony in the halls between classes. Now that I was an adult, it seemed pathetic. I saw how I used it to deflect human interaction. To space out during conversations or work meetings or scenes. Or sex.

The woman whose name I didn’t know walked away. Kel left Greg to put our gear suitcase on the racks while she led me to the coatroom. She unclipped the leash. Unbuttoned my overcoat and slid it off, helped me out of my sweats, then hung everything up. Stepped back and looked me over. “How are you feeling?”

“Okay.”

She smiled slightly. “Is that much of an answer?”

I snorted. “Sorry. Uh . . . I’ll be all right in a few minutes.” I couldn’t get my shoulders to relax.

She reached out and traced the rope diamonds over my chest. “Does this help?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” The harness did help. So did the collar. What would have been really fucking awesome right about then was a blindfold.

She gazed at me a moment. If I were less of a coward, I’d have asked if I could kiss her. If I could run my fingers over the soft skin of her cheek and smooth her hair over her shoulder. But I never made the first move.

Behind Kel, the curtain parted and a rope top named Rachel ducked in. She was completely naked and holding a silk robe. “Sorry,” she whispered. She grabbed a hanger and hung up the robe. It immediately slid off the hanger. “Shit.” She picked it up off the floor and tried again, twisting sections of it around the hanger to keep it up. She rushed out again.

How did people do it? Walk around naked like it was nothing?

Kel was still watching me. She hooked a finger in my collar and tugged until I looked at her. “Come here.”

I stepped forward, and she put her arms around me. I hesitated a second, then hugged her back. She smelled fucking amazing—not flowery like a lot of women, but like a combination of coconut and leather and metal and mint. I was in love with the softness of her body, the way her breasts pushed against my chest, the chill of her vest’s steel rings against my skin. I was a few inches taller than she was, but she still had a presence that made me feel like she was physically larger, stronger, and I appreciated that. She rubbed my back, sliding her fingers under a section of rope.

“You tell me if you’re having trouble.”

I stiffened. I always had a hard time with shit like this. I hated being so needy, and yet her reassurance meant a lot to me. It was like the old days when Dave would come find me in the club and make sure I was doing all right. I didn’t need anyone checking up on me. But I was secretly glad when he did. We’d had a term—PDF, for “perfect dungeon friend.” Someone who wouldn’t cock or vag block you, but who had your back. Dave had always been my PDF.

I tightened my arms around her, and I felt this soul-deep pull, like I couldn’t stand to lose this contact. And it wasn’t just me—something about the way she held me was more intense, more sexually charged than a typical mentor hug. We let go, and she stared at me with an expression I couldn’t read. She placed a hand on my chest. I looked down at her purple nails and swallowed.

You could tell her now. Tell her you’ll do anything for her. Tell her she doesn’t have to treat you like you’ll break. That you’ll dance on the bar in these fucking shorts if she tells you to. That she can use you as a footstool in front of all her friends.

“Okay?” she asked.

“Okay,” I whispered.

She led me out of the coatroom and into the lounge. I kept my gaze down until we reached the bar. Greg was sitting between two empty stools, and had placed a towel over the stool to his left. I went to the stool to Greg’s right and pulled it out for her. Waited until she was sitting before I went to the stool with the towel and took a seat. Regina came over to me, smiling. “Let me guess—a root beer, a Diet Coke, and a water.”

Greg grinned at her. “Making it easy for him.”

She laughed and put her hands over her face, shaking her head. “I know, I’m sorry. It’s just slow tonight.”

Regina had caught on quickly to the fact that I was expected to order for Greg and Kel when we were at the bar, and she often came right to me to take the order. Except part of what I was supposed to be working on when we were out in public was speaking up. Flagging down a server at a restaurant if we needed more ketchup or wanted to order dessert. Finding an employee in a store and asking if we didn’t know where something was. Things I’d avoided doing most of my adult life.

Regina started pouring the sodas. I wondered if she counted as someone I could have a conversation with who was not Greg or Kel. Probably not. I glanced around, looking for contenders. Gang Spank was crossing from Chaos to Tranquility, wearing a bright-green T-shirt and purple briefs. Kid was so skinny it hurt to look at him. I felt bad for him, since there were barely enough people in the club tonight to get his usual spank circle going. Like, literal spanking, not jerking off. His thing was to get passed from lap to lap until his ass was so bruised it looked like it was covered in charcoal dust.

I’d never really talked to him. Maybe tonight was the night to change that.

He disappeared into Tranquility, the room where Hal had died. I turned away.

A couple down at the other end of the bar was talking softly. “He looks like a starving Ethiopian,” the guy said.

“He’s trans,” the woman replied.

The guy shrugged. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Points for thinking being trans was no big deal. But points off for the starving-Ethiopian comment.

I’d never planned on joining the PC police. But being part of the Subs Club meant endless discussions about othering and microaggressions and off-color comments. So in my imagination, I spoke up. I told the guy that using Africa’s starvation epidemic as a way to make derogatory comments about someone’s appearance was not cool. That was the conversation I had tonight. And in an even more potent fantasy, I didn’t give a shit, because the world was an unjust and impolite place, and there was nothing I could do about that.

Regina brought the drinks to me, and I distributed them—root beer for Kel, Diet Coke for Greg.

“I love your collar,” Regina said to me. “That little kitty on the lock is cute.”

I laughed self-consciously. “Thanks.” And immediately my thoughts were on collars. Not cheap novelty collars, but slave collars. With padlocks you couldn’t break, that had to be unlocked by your Master. Thick, wide leather collars. Thin steel bands. Elegant chains.

I wasn’t sure why I’d been thinking about this stuff so much lately. I’d been content through most of my twenties to move through the kink scene without any particular MO. I didn’t have specific kinks like Dave, who wanted discipline, or Miles, who wanted pain, or Kamen who wanted . . . Okay, I didn’t know what Kamen wanted. From what I could tell, his dom Ryan liked dressing him up in panties and horse gear, and that did it for both of them.

And I still didn’t understand exactly what I wanted. I wasn’t a huge fan of pain, but I liked taking it because someone told me I had to. Being disciplined embarrassed the hell out of me, but sometimes I needed to be embarrassed. I liked sexual and domestic service. But I guess what I was most interested in was just . . . submission.

The word meant different things depending on who I was with. Submission was something I could give or take away without a dom even noticing. Some of them, they made me want to give it—and so I did. Let go and just fucking disappeared into the illusion of powerlessness. Others I obeyed because I liked obeying, but in my mind, I wasn’t theirs. Not even temporarily. I stayed in my own world, one they’d never see or know about. I was allowing, but I wasn’t submitting.

Occasionally those doms noticed something was up. “You’re so quiet.” Or “I can’t read you.” “I don’t know if you’re enjoying this.” “Are you paying attention?” Sometimes they got nervous, or frustrated, or both. Sometimes they gave me increasingly complex orders to try to engage me. Some of them hit me harder, like I was challenging them and inflicting pain was the only way to rise to the challenge. Some of them stopped the scene and tried to talk to me. But they couldn’t make me come out of my head if I didn’t want to. Unless the other person was someone I truly respected and wanted to obey, compliance was like scratching all around an itch without ever hitting the right spot.

from Publishers Weekly

**Starred Review** [D]efies stereotypes about straight and queer men, kink, and grief, drawing the reader into a moving tale of unconventional, undeniable love.

from Kirkus

**Starred Review** [B]ittersweet, beautiful, and deeply satisfying.