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Fighting the urge to pound the damn steering wheel, I shove open the Jaguar’s door and step outside, walking the sidewalk leading to my porch. The cool early evening air washes over me but it’s nothing compared to the ice in my veins. My role was protector to Rebecca, and Detective Jerkoff was right. I failed.

Had I not convinced Rebecca to return to San Francisco for me, she’d be alive today. Hell, had I not convinced her to be my sub, she’d be alive today. How am I supposed to live with that? How do I ever trust myself to be anyone’s Master again? Who am I, if I’m not that person?

Opening the front door to my house, I try not to think about the first night Rebecca came to my home, the night she started on the path to being my sub. But I remember all too well the way I’d stood at the window, watching her walk the very sidewalk I just did, in a skimpy dress I’d sent her to wear. I’d opened the door and she’d gone to her knees in the entryway.

Stepping inside the foyer, I don’t bother with a light. I’m feeling out of my skin, becoming a person I’ve not known for a decade, and don’t want to know. Control is how I left that person behind. Control is how I survived hell once before. It’s the only way I’ll survive now, and I have to survive. I have to do more than survive, since I’m faced with more than the monster that is Ava. I have the monster that is my mother’s cancer.

“She’s healing,” I remind myself, and I know she’ll be home soon and probably trying to work before she should.

And what do I do when her interim manager stops by my hotel room to have me sign off on a major purchase? With nothing more than a verbal agreement that it was “just a f**k,” I got naked with a woman so far from the submissive type she’s practically the poster child for dominant women.

Dropping my jacket on a black leather chair in my bedroom, I pull off my tie and kick off my shoes, then go to the bar in the corner that I rarely use. With a glass filled with expensive scotch and the bottle in hand, I settle onto the mattress of the four-poster bed I used to share with Rebecca. It’s far more empty than it’s ever been. Setting the bottle and my cell phone on the nightstand, I kick back the warm liquid, letting it roar a path down my throat. For a man who doesn’t like the lack of control that comes with alcohol, I’m definitely liking the way it burns away a bit of the acid eroding my veins right now.

Snatching up my phone, I check my messages and see one from Crystal. I punch the Play button, remembering her use of that word in the bathroom, then hear, “I have a problem I need to discuss. You said to call and, well, I’m calling.”

A problem. I suspect I’m her problem, and the variety of ways that could be true bite far more than the booze. And so does hearing her voice, all sweet and sexy with a hint of anxiety and vulnerability in its depths. The very fact I care that I might have put it there stirs even more guilt in me, when I’m already overflowing with the damn stuff. Crystal might have had a taste of BDSM, but she’s not a submissive, and she’s inside my head and too close to my family to be an escape. I need to find my escape at the club, to trust myself as Master again, and do it the way Chris Merit used to. A different submissive every visit.

I set my phone on the nightstand by the bottle and open the drawer beneath it. Removing Rebecca’s red leather journal, the one I’d found months ago between the mattresses, I open it. Having read it cover to cover several times over, I know there’s nothing inside it that would help put Ava behind bars, and I’m not offering up more of Rebecca’s private thoughts to anyone unless I’m forced. It’s mine—like she could have been, had I let her—and somehow, I keep thinking that the answers to what I don’t understand are in these written words.

I begin to read. . . .

March 2011

My father. My father . . . I can’t say those words out loud without them sounding strange. I never knew the man. I wanted to, but my mother wasn’t having that. I know this because she confessed it to me on her deathbed, when she told me everything I needed to know about him. As I’d suspected, he didn’t know I was alive. My mother had kept her pregnancy from him. I’d been furious until she’d told me his name. Then I understood, though the anger didn’t go away. Kenneth Burgendy: the notorious crime lord deeply rooted in the mob. It was a shock to digest. He was the man I’d hungered to know, who I’d been certain was the missing link in my life. The hole I could never fill.

And then I’d met . . . him—my Master. And I started to believe he was the missing link. Only he has no desire to love me. He just . . . wants me. He has his business and his private club, where he is Master of both, as he is of me. I wonder if the coldness that allows him to be with me, but not love me, makes him like my father? But my father has hurt people, and I don’t believe my Master wants to hurt me. He thinks he’s protecting me, but while he does, I fall more in love with him. And love is as brutal as it is sweet, when you’re doing it for two people. When you’re experiencing it and living it . . . alone.

I shut the journal, tormented by how badly I’d hurt her and how blind I’d been to it. Though the club would be an escape right now, I refill my glass, not able about to trust myself to be Master of anyone right now.

Maybe Crystal’s real appeal is that she isn’t a damn submissive. She let me tap into the raw sexuality that I funnel all the shit in my life into, with none of the pressure to protect and guide that I’d had with Rebecca. I didn’t call her mine, and she didn’t call me Master. The way Rebecca had.

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