Sunday, August 24, 2008

Asian Spice by Dana Littlejohn

Taniea drove her car frantically along the downtown streets of small town Anna, Ohio. Screeching to a stop in front of the Chase One building, she stomped across the lobby and tapped her foot while she waited for the elevator. She reached her floor and stomped down the hall, walking right up to the cowering secretary who sat frozen watching her approach.

“Where is DeMarcus?” she demanded.

“He’s, he’s in a meeting, Ms. Onyx, but—”

She turned on her heel and headed down the hall as the rest of the secretary’s words faded behind her. Taniea listened at the different conference room doors as she walked by them, and when she heard voices she pushed the door open with a hard slam.

“DeMarcus Green, who do you think you are?” she yelled.

The stunned men at the table with DeMarcus turned to her and then back to him as he jumped to his feet.

“Taniea, what are you doing here? I’m in a meeting.”

“Yes, I can see that you’re in a meeting.” She looked across the table at the men and scoffed. “This isn’t a meeting, this is you and your boys trying to figure out where to go for lunch,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

He smiled. “It’s still a meeting, Taniea, and you’re interrupting it.”

She waved her hand to dismiss what he said. “Who do you think you are? You leave a message on my voice mail dumping me? What kind of punk does that?” she asked with her hands on her hips.

DeMarcus looked at the men then back to Taniea. “Can we discuss this later, Taniea?” he asked in a low voice.

“No, if I wanted to discuss it later, I would have come later. I want to discuss it now.”

He sent them another look and spoke calmly. “Well, I didn’t want this type of confrontation, Taniea. That’s why I left the message.”

“You didn’t want a confrontation? You didn’t think that message would lead to a confrontation? What kind of crap is that?”

He chuckled softly and shook his head. “Okay, you know what, gentlemen, will you excuse me? It seems I have some pressing business to handle before we can continue with our meeting in peace. Go ahead to lunch; I’ll catch up with you.”

The men nodded and left as Taniea tapped her foot watching them leave, then turned back to him. “So what’s your real problem, DeMarcus? Now that you don’t have people to front in front of you can tell me the real deal.”

He smiled. “Okay, Taniea, I will. I heard you were up for that expansion project leader position at Honda,” he said and sat back down. “Is that true?”

She sat on the table and shrugged. “Yes, it’s true. It’s between me and Robert Jackson actually, but it’s all unofficial. So what.”

“I have no doubt that you will get it, Jackson isn’t a people person like you are.”

She wrapped her arms around her chest. “What’s your point, DeMarcus?”

“My point is if you get that job your income will take a major jump going north on the dollar scale. I don’t want to be in a relationship with a woman that makes more money than I do.”

She dropped her arms and her mouth fell open. “You’re not serious, are you?” she asked with a disbelieving chuckle.

“Oh, yes, I’m very serious. I have noticed in my experiences that no man wants a woman whose income is greater than his. A man should always make more money than his woman because he is the man and should be able to handle everything. If your woman makes more than you, she’ll think she’s wearing the pants in the relationship, and that’s not a relationship I would care to be in.”

She stared at him for a moment than shook her head and that disbelieving chuckle escaped her again. “Okay, let me get this straight. You dumped me because I’m up for a position that could possibly bring me more money than what you make? Is that about right?”

He nodded. “That and you are just too demanding. I simply don’t have time to give you what you want from me.”

She rubbed her temple. “So, my wanting you to date one woman at a time and spend some quality time with me so our relationship can grow was demanding? It was asking too much from you?”

He thought for a moment. “Yes, that about sums it up.” He laughed at the confused look on her face.

“So what are you saying, you thought I would stay at my current position forever? You knew I wanted more when we hooked up. Why did you pursue me in the first place if you knew I would eventually seek more money and a better position? Did you think I was so demanding then?”

“Because you’re fine, that’s why. You have a pretty face and a banging body. Every man wants a fine woman on his arm when they’re out and about, so his boys can give him props. Look, I realize you’re probably devastated over loosing me, but the bottom line is I don’t want you anymore. The ends and outs are irrelevant and so is whether you agree or disagree.”

She was stunned. “What?”

He continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “But I will give you some helpful advice because I think you’ll need it. Back down a little, you’re entirely too aggressive for a woman. No man wants a woman on the same lines as he is. Even in bed. You’re just too damn aggressive. You women say you want to be equal, but you don’t, you want your man to dominate over you. Stop trying to be the man and back it down a little.” He looked into her shocked expression and continued. “If you backed down, as fine as you are with that fine-ass body of yours, you can have any man you want. I may even consider taking you back.” He picked up the phone.

“Security, yes, can you send someone up to the main conference room on the eleventh floor? I have an unwelcome guest.” He hung up and leaned back in his chair smiling at her. “So, as you can see I’m a very busy man and I don’t have time for drama. Security will be here shortly to escort you out to the pavement.” He chuckled as he picked up his glass.

She hopped off the table and tapped the bottom of his glass before it touched his lips dumping the contents into his lap.

“Nobody wants a punk ass man who’s afraid of a strong, independent woman, anyway,” she said crisply and stomped out of the room.

Angry and confused she drove back to the Honda plant, stopped at the bathroom to freshen her tear streaked make up and drop some Visine into her eyes before going to her office with her best smile in place.

“Hi, Taniea, Mr. Barkley called to speak with you.”

She groaned. “Really? What did he want?”

He didn’t say, but he did ask that you call him when you returned from lunch.”

“That’s just great, thanks, Betty. Can you get him on the phone then transfer it to me?”

“Sure thing.”

She closed the door and sat heavily in her chair with a sputter. “Who needs him? He couldn’t kiss, anyway...slobbering and what not all over my face.”

“Taniea, Mr. Barkley is on line one,” Betty’s voice said over the speakerphone.

“Thanks, Betty.” She took a deep breath and picked up the receiver. “Hello, Mr. Barkley. How are you today?” she asked pleasantly then paused. “That’s good, I’m fine, too. So, Betty said you wanted me to give you a call.” She paused again. “Of course, I can. I’ll be there shortly.” She put the phone back in its cradle and sat back.

“Okay, let’s see if this day can be recovered or if it goes down in history as my worst work day ever,” she muttered as she left her office. “Betty, I’m going upstairs to have an impromptu with Mr. Bradley. I don’t know how long it will take so just hold the fort until I return. If it goes badly you’ll see me sailing past the window at ninety miles per hour. I’m having one of those days.”

Betty chuckled nodding as her boss left. Taniea took the elevator to the third floor. The employees called it Suit Row because all executives had their offices on the third floor. As she went down the hall to Mr. Bradley’s office, she saw Robert Johnson coming toward her.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t Taniea Onyx...the competition,” he said with the biggest grin she’d ever seen.

She stopped in front of him and gave him her best practiced smile. “Hello, Robert, how are you? Did you have a meeting with Mr. Bradley, too?”

“As a matter of fact I did. It went very well, too. It seems he’s found the man for the position as manager over the expansion project that he wanted.”

She kept her gaze steady concentrating on keeping her smile in place and not letting her jaw drop, then she realized he was waiting for her to say something and forced the corners of her mouth higher.

“Oh, well, that’s great, Robert, congratulations.”

His smile seemed to widen too. “Yes, well, thank you, Taniea. I guess the best man won after all. So, you’re about to have a meeting with Mr. Bradley, huh?” He watched her nod blankly and wrapped his arms around his chest. “What do you think your meeting will be about?”

Her smile faded and she twisted her lips, but took a deep breath before answering him. “I don’t know, Robert. Why not get out of my way so I can find out.”

“Of course, of course, but you be sure to let me know when you find out,” he said with a flip of his hand and continued down the hall laughing.

Taniea rolled her eyes. “Jerk.” She continued down the hall shaking off Robert’s comments before knocking on Mr. Bradley’s door.

“Yes, come in!”

Mr. Bradley was an older man, large and intimidating in appearance. He was at his desk with his glasses low on his nose going over a folder when Taniea poked her head in.

“Hi, Mr. Bradley, it’s Taniea.”

He smiled. “Yes, yes, please come in, Taniea.”

She closed the door behind her and sat in the chair in front of his desk. “So, what’s this little meeting about, Mr. Bradley?”

He removed his glasses and closed the folder. “Taniea, I’ll come right to the point. You probably have heard the rumors that you and Johnson were the lead candidates for the supervisor position on the expansion project.”

“Yes, sir, I heard about that,” she replied shifting in her chair.

“Yes and I’m guessing from your demeanor that you passed Johnson in the hall and he couldn’t wait to tell you that I offered that position to him. Am I right?”

She shifted again. “Yes sir, he did mention that bit of information. So what is this, my official let me down easy session? Sorry you weren’t chosen, but we picked the better man for the job or a man for the job?” she said with a snappy edge to her voice.

Mr. Bradley smiled. “Absolutely not. The reason I gave that job to Johnson is because I didn’t think he could handle the job I’m about to offer you.”

She stopped avoiding his gaze and her head swung back to him. “Excuse me?”

He chuckled. “Honda has chosen to open a new plant in Greenburg, Indiana. It was announced just recently. This plant has been asked to supply them with a competent person to help open the new site, get the training started and eventually assist the lead trainer train all other employees.”

She listened to him explain the job to her and though she had questions for him, her brain and her mouth seemed to have lost their connection.

“We’re not the only plant supplying personnel, of course. Other plants will be asking their staff if they’d like to relocate, too. Someone from the main plant in China will be relocating over here as well to work at the plant as the other trainer. That’s the position I want you to take, Taniea, trainer. You and the person from China will be doing the training for all of the employees together. This way we have someone representing both countries running the plant. You will have to go to China and train for two weeks, at Honda’s expense, of course.”

With minimal connection returning to her brain she could only nod as he spoke.

He chuckled and continued. “With this new position you would be required to relocate to Indiana directly after the training in China is over. Do you understand?”

The partial connection gained potential as what he was saying to her started to sink in, but all she could manage to get out was, “Uh-huh.”

“It would mean a promotion to Plant Trainer and a considerable raise, of course. In fact, it pays more money than the expansion supervisor position does because of the relocation,” he added with a wink.

Suddenly full cooperation was restored to the connection between her mouth and brain and she sat straight up in her chair.

“Wait a minute. Let me see if I understand what you’re asking of me. This position would mean I leave Anna and live in Indiana?” She watched him nod. “Okay, but before I do all that I first have to go to China for two weeks to train and they pay for all that?”

“Yes, but acceptance of this position would also mean several other trips to China during the year, at least four, to keep the plant employees updated on any changes that they may have in their policies.”

She eased back in her chair. “Hmm...”

“I’m aware that taking this position would be a life altering decision. I can give you some time to think---“

“I’ll take it.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll take it. I accept your offer.”

“Taniea, wait, maybe you should take a little time to think it over. Why not sleep on it or perhaps discuss it with your family, significant other or—”

She laughed. “Mr. Bradley, there is no significant other and the only family I have is my parents, and they’re in Florida. Flying to them from Indiana won’t be any different than flying to them from Ohio.”

He chuckled. “Well, that is true.”

“Besides Mr. Bradley, I’ve been here all my life and even though I like my job this is the chance to go for something new and believe me, I’m due for a change.”

“Excellent!” He opened his top draw and pulled out a folder sliding it across the desk to her. “Here is some information you will need about the job, some other stuff you will need to know once you’re in China and also some information for you to help you to relocate more quickly. Since you agreed so quickly, I can call them and have the training set up to start next week. You leave in three days.”

“Three days?”

He smiled. “Yes, I was going to give you those three days to think it over, but you sound like you’re ready to start a new life. Three days is enough time for you to get your affairs in order, isn’t it?”

She flipped through the folder and smiled. “Three days is plenty of time.” She stood and extended her hand as her smile expanded. “Thank you, Mr. Bradley, for everything.”

“You’re very welcome, Taniea, and good luck. My secretary will contact you at week’s end with everything you’ll need to leave.”

Taniea floated back to her office to give Betty the good news and get her to work on relocating her. She sat in her chair heavily for the second time in one day, but this time her mood was the opposite as she spun around in circles laughing.

Binding Ben by Violet Summers

Stacey Stanton smiled demurely, her blue eyes scanning the guests filling the elegantly appointed club. She sipped her white wine quietly, tapping her long red nails against the crystal glass. There were more people here than usual for a Sunday night get together. Not that she minded. She was hoping to meet some new faces.

She adjusted her silver sequined mask; it fell to just below her nose, covering most of her face. She enjoyed these parties. They enabled her to indulge in her dominant nature, but at the end of the evening, she could go home alone.

A low murmur swept the room, and Stacey’s eyes darted toward the foyer where Alex Johnson was standing. He’d just arrived, and now many party-goers rushed to greet the well-known Dom. Stacey suppressed another small smile and the urge to join the crowd. Knowing Alex, he’d seek her out soon enough, and she wouldn’t have to compete for his attention. Alex had been her instructor ten years ago, training her how to be an effective, powerful Domme. Though their teacher-student relationship had ended, their friendship had not. When her relationship with Ben self-destructed three years ago, it was Alex she ran to.

The older man comforted her through many tears, lectured her sternly on the perils of hiding who she really was, and eventually introduced her back into the lifestyle she had given up the moment she met Ben Reynolds.

She leaned back against the wall, patiently watching Alex maneuver through the crowd in her direction. A man followed closely behind him.

Stacey was unable to make out anything about Alex’s companion, other than his height, in the dim lighting. She wondered if this was Alex’s new pet. Though he claimed he was a raving heterosexual, Alex would occasionally train a male submissive. Stacey knew that in this world sexuality was fluid, not so much black and white.

“Mistress S. So good to see you made it.” Alex’s smile lit his face. He kissed her on each cheek.

“It’s good to see you as well, Master A.” During these parties, they rarely used first names. It fostered trust as well as the anonymity that so many preferred.

Unless you had a relationship with your sub, it was best to keep things neutral.

“I want you to meet a new friend of mine.” Alex waved his hand over his shoulder and the man who had been standing a few paces behind him, approached.

His head lowered and he kept his eyes to the floor. Stacey licked her lips as her gaze traveled up his rather large, muscular frame. His black leather pants lovingly cupped his thick thighs, and the matching leather vest hung open, displaying a gorgeous, ripped torso and a delightful pair of golden nipple rings.

The standard, black leather collar he wore buckled in the back and had a plain silver ring on the front. Like him, it was new.

“You may look up and address Mistress S.” Stacey waited with baited breath as the man slowly raised his eyes to her face.

Her wine glass fell sharply from her suddenly trembling hand. A thousand thoughts raced through her mind, piercing her with well-remembered pain. She covered her shock by looking at the floor where the crystal lay shattered.

“Oh, sorry. I am clumsy tonight.” She bent to retrieve the broken stem, fumbling as she stepped away from the wall. She felt the strong hand of the sub grasp her wrist and Alex spoke softly.

“Allow my pet to take care of that, love. I don’t want you to cut yourself.”

Her paralysis broke, and Stacey snatched her arm from the man’s grip. Her wrist burned. It couldn’t be, not here, not now... She wanted to flee, run away from the house, the party, and the memories.

Ben, her Ben, was kneeling before her, cleaning up her mess—as a sub!

“May I have a private word?” Stacey couldn’t speak past the lump in her throat, she thought it might be her heart. She managed a half nod and allowed Alex to lead her away from the mess.

“Slave, you are to stay here. I will send along someone to take care of the mess.” Ben’s beautiful, whiskey-brown eyes lifted to Alex’s face. “Eyes cast down,” the Dom rapped out sharply.

Adarkan's Salvation by Becca Dale

Three hundred years of battle smoke cloaked the crescent moon as war raged through the darkness and humanity lost itself to fear and self-preservation. The clash of steel overrode the screams of fallen horses, reverberating through the valley, while bitter flames, fueled by hate and distrust, lit the horizon.

Kylean stood watch on a knoll overlooking the riverbank. He would come soon. Her pulse drummed and her breast rose and fell in agitation as she struggled to still her fears. The cool autumn wind pressed her skirt tightly to her trembling legs and sent shivers dancing down her back. Her mother and father might disown her for this night, but she could not run to their sheltering arms.

She smoothed the virgin’s gown of Cavalier lace her mother had so painstakingly sewn for a wedding night that would never happen and adjusted the ribbon in her carefully washed, lavender scented hair that lay in a thick rope against her racing heart. She had taken special care to make herself worthy of the talon king, the dark creature who commanded her thoughts and desires.

A twig snapped and she turned to see him, tall and strong in the shadows. He leaned casually against a cragged oak. His long black hair partially hid his features, but she knew him. His dark eyes would glow red when she angered him and settle to cool obsidian when he was at peace, a state she rarely witnessed. His sharp features never relaxed, even when he cajoled her to do his bidding, and the corded muscles of his limbs could effortlessly rip a man apart, a fact which fed her desire and her disquiet.

“Why have you come to me?” he asked, as if he had not commanded her from her bed.

“Why have you called me?” She dared to tease him only because his plans went beyond a night’s feasting. He would not gorge himself upon her flesh and destroy the future of his people any more than she would jeopardize her family and humankind in general.

He shifted away from the tree and rose to his full height with a restrained snarl. “Do you mock me, girl?”

A red glow flared in his eyes and his lip curved above his sharpened fangs. Her mouth went dry and her throat tightened, but she stepped boldly toward him. “No. Would you have me cower? If you seek a trembling creature, destroy me now and find another more suited to your purpose.”

He remained silent, staring steadily until she feared she would melt and plead for forgiveness. With a controlled breath she moved one step closer. He blinked at her boldness before chuckling softly. “You are too brazen, ik kara. Tread with care that you don’t push me too far.”

“Perhaps I’ve not pushed you far enough, my lord. Am I not, as you say, the chosen one? If I’m mistaken tell me, and I’ll not bother you again. I did not come tonight to destroy my future, but rather to save it.”

“Do not ever threaten me.” His savage snarl chilled her blood as he shoved her roughly.

Kylean tripped over her long skirt and sat down hard on the frozen ground. She clenched her jaw against a futile scream. With an irritated jerk she pulled the offending material aside and rose. She stood inches from his massive chest and glared up at him. “Do you mean to frighten me, my lord? I don’t bow before man or talon. If you seek resolution, then treat me with respect. I don’t expect tenderness from you, though that which I offer would demand it, but I will not willingly accept abuse. I’m a seer, a princess among my people, a healer, and a virgin prize. All these things make me worthy of you, my lord. Don’t value me below my nature or social decree or you may find my claws sharper than your own.”

His nostrils flared and his great hands clenched in anger. “Go then. Leave me.”

“No.” His savage reputation flitted through her mind. Unsure how he would react to such audacity, she hid her trembling hands behind her back.

His strong hands engulfed her waist and lifted her to her toes. Hot breath brushed her cheeks as he struggled for control of his emotions. “Have you lost your mind, girl? How dare you defy me?”

“I believe in ending the wars, my lord. I want a part of that.” She hesitated a moment before touching his tight jaw. He could so easily destroy her, but she prayed he would not. “Don’t send me away, Rakar. Join our peoples. I see no other way to end this relentless feud.”

The muscles in his jaw jumped beneath her fingertips before he yanked her close. “I can smell your fear no matter how you try to hide it, Kylean. What frightens so bold a girl?”

Smiling, she relaxed in his arms. Savage and cold he may be, but her faith in him had not been misplaced. “I fear only the unknown, my lord. I would face this night with trepidation were you a mere man. I can’t help the disquiet that stirs my soul at the thought of lying with the talon king, yet I would rather face that fear than live with failure.”

He released her without a word and spread his cloak on the ground, but his black eyes swirled with crimson emotion. He wore only the short, deerhide kilt of his clan, and his dark skin glowed in the pale moonlight. His beauty stole her ability to reason.

Then he was upon her.

His rough kiss warmed her as he bore her to the ground and stripped away her human trappings with a savage rip. The material held at the waistband but left her naked from there up. The cool air competed with his heat, sending chills to dance with his hands across her exposed skin, and she trembled in anticipation. When he broke the kiss, he moved downward and captured her nipple in his teeth. He would offer her no gentleness; this she understood and accepted as she arched upward, begging for his commanding touch. The remnants of her clothing shredded to nothing beneath his claws, but he sheathed them when he stroked her unprotected flesh.

The clouds above swirled with a brewing storm, proof that what they did would change the world. For a moment she questioned her decision as the great talon king knelt between her thighs, his eyes as turbulent as the sky above. So many obstacles stood in the way of peace.

“What we set in motion can’t be undone, Kylean. You will face ridicule and threats from both our kind, and I can’t protect you. I ask again, ik kara, do you come to me with a sure heart?”

His question ended hers. “Without reservation, Rakar.”

He closed his eyes and tipped his head to the heavens as if praying for guidance before he flipped aside his kilt. She had not imagined he would be so large. Surely a human female could not accommodate such mass, but before she could pull away, he shoved her knees wide and drove his engorged penis deep inside her moist vagina. She screamed as he entered. Arching off the ground, she beat on his shoulders. “Get out! We’re not meant to join!”

But he remained locked inside her throbbing body.

He shifted her upward against his chest so her thighs embraced his hips, then held her tightly. “Be still!” he growled as he pressed her face to his shoulder. One strong hand clasped the back of her head and the other pressed flat against her spine. His claws pricked her tender flesh to keep her steady.

She could not breathe and struggled to free herself, but he remained relentless. Finally, in a frantic plea for oxygen, she bit down hard on his sinewy shoulder. With a snarl, he jerked her head back but did no more as she gasped desperately for air. When her breathing returned to normal, she reclined against his arms. The pain of his entry had lessened, and though he still stretched her greatly, she no longer feared their joining.

His wolfish grin told her he knew. “Shall we create a son and end the wars forever, ik kara?”

When she nodded her consent, he laid her back against the soft velvet of his cape and came down over her, a beast looming above its prey. The unsettling thought drifted away as he made slow impassioned love to her. Each heart stirring caress, each thrust and pull, lifted her higher as he whispered words she did not understand. Unwilling merely to receive his gift, she lifted her hips to meet him until her body acknowledged his mastery, and the darkening sky shattered above her. The talon king set his seed deep inside her human womb as thunder and lightening crashed above and the night screamed with fear and joy at what they had done.

Vertical Tease by Jude Mason

Groaning, Carl Jackson ran his tongue around inside his mouth. It felt thick, too big, and his mouth was as dry as a peanut butter fart. He tried to roll over but couldn’t move much, couldn’t feel much either. He wriggled; that was all he could do, and even that was limited to his hands and feet. Like flippers, he thought, and realized he must look ridiculous. He stopped wriggling.

Sweat dripped—no, trickled—in tiny, annoying, rivulets down his back and sides. He was warm but not uncomfortably so. Something held him upright, something tight—yet forgiving. It wasn’t straps. It was more like a swimmer’s wet suit glued to the wall with him inside it, spread-eagle.

Air brushed his hands and feet, the exposed side of his face.

His reason for being there came to him in a flash: an advertisement on a website that caught his attention. Visiting the site, he found local addresses and phone numbers. Then, he found her: a woman, Lady Jasmine, who would help him explore a fantasy he’d had for as long he could remember. He emailed her several times, and they’d become—something. There were no words to describe what she meant to him, but she knew his secrets and didn’t laugh, didn’t ridicule him. Such ridicule had always been his biggest fear.

That’s why he’d never told Karen, his wife, about it. What would happen if she thought he was perverted, sick? She’d leave him, for sure. He couldn’t bear that.

Weeks of emails followed, back and forth, during frantic moments alone. Furtive phone calls left him more turned on than he’d ever dreamed he could be. Finally, his heart in his throat, he asked if he could come to her house. She made him wait a long time before she replied.

After a little more talking, and a lot more begging on his part, they’d arranged to meet.

“You think you’re ready to come to my house?” Her voice had been very deep, very stern.

He was breathless, excited, his hand buried in his crotch—not masturbating, but pressing against the aching bulge, trying to ease the unbearable tension. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said, in a determined, but much weaker, voice. “I know it’s a big step. Trust and all. But, I—”

“It’s a big step for you,” she interrupted. Another pause. “Are you sure you trust me?”

Her question caught him off guard. Of course, he trusted her. How could he not? He’d dreamed of her, fantasized about her. She’d sent pictures of herself, and he believed they were real. Her voice had just the right touch of femininity along with the sternness he so desired. Trust? Yes, he trusted her. At thirty-two, he felt as if life was passing him by. He couldn’t bear to be one of those men who went to his grave wishing he’d done—something.

So, there he’d sat, in his living room, shirt off, nipple clamps firmly affixed to his tits, and his hand thrust between his thighs. He whispered into the headset, “Yes, Ma’am, I trust you.” For a moment after he’d said it, he froze, terrified he’d said too much, trusted too easily, desired too fervently. His heart drummed wildly, painfully, threatening to burst through his chest.

“Good, for me,” she replied easily. She was quiet after that, but then she laughed. It was the most beautifully cruel laughter he’d ever heard.

* * * *

That was two weeks ago. Two weeks of his wife flying out to visit her mother in the next state, two weeks of frozen dinners and late nights of fantasizing. He sent Lady Jasmine a check, an installment on their first session, as she called it. He was careful not to masturbate, at her direction, but each evening he surfed the Internet, valiantly searching for the most arousing, degrading porn he could find, also at her direction. He trembled with lust. For hours each day, the front of his slacks tented, showing his erection and a spreading stain of darker material where he leaked at an alarming rate. The closer it came to their meeting, the more he trembled and the longer his erections plagued him.

The night before, excitement and a nagging case of blue balls kept him awake. The next morning, he took an extra long time preparing. He shaved his face carefully, trimmed his sideburns, and clipped his nails. He wanted to make the very best impression he could. He pulled on the brand new black thong, knowing she wouldn’t see it, but also dreaming about her tormenting him while he slid the elastic into place. It was a good thing the pouch stretched, or he’d never have been able to cover himself. She’d said a white shirt, and he pulled one on. His hands shook so much, he fumbled for nearly five minutes with the buttons. His slacks were almost as much trouble as the shirt. His prick throbbed and his balls ached; getting his slacks zipped and buttoned took forever.

Finally, shoes shined, nails clean and filed, breath freshened by three brushings and two gargles, he stood at her door—trembling like a school boy on his first date. It was a large white house in an exclusive area of the city. His bladder felt full, although he knew it couldn’t be. He took a deep, shuddering breath and reached for the doorbell. With his finger poised over the small white button, he wondered for an instant if he should, if he dared. Then it was too late; his finger jabbed down, the bell rang, and he jerked his hand to his side.

He waited, scarcely able to get a breath. Would she answer, or leave him standing there like some unwanted relative, ignored, laughed at? He shifted his feet. Sweat trickled down his sides, and he willed it to stop.

Footsteps approached from inside. The click, click, click of heels on hardwood got closer. He stopped breathing and waited, eyes fastened on the door knob. It turned and the door swung inward slowly.

“Carl,” said the most amazing looking woman he’d ever laid eyes on. Tall, almost as tall as his six feet, she was slender but had curves in all the right places. The full-length, black, leather dress hugged her like a second skin from shoulders to knees. She’d piled her dark hair on top of her head, and her make-up was striking. The wine glass she held was half full of amber liquid. She posed, regally, a hand on the door and a look of disdain on her face.

He shifted nervously again and replied, “Yes Ma’am, Lady Jasmine, I’m Carl.” His voice sounded gruff, as if he hadn’t spoken for awhile.

“Last chance,” she said sneering at him. “You’re sure you want to come in? Now’s your last chance to leave. You come in, and you obey my rules. All of them”

Carl’s heart picked up its pace. He clenched his fists to keep from grabbing himself. “I’m sure. I can’t turn back now.”

She stepped aside, allowing him in.

His knees shook, but he made it in without stumbling.

Lady Jasmine remained where she was, forcing him to bend and remove his shoes while trapped very close to her. Her scent intoxicated him—a sweet, musky aroma that made him light-headed. He straightened up, and for a moment, dared to look into the eyes of the woman he’d been dying to meet for as long as he could remember. He wanted to say something, explain how excited he was, but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out but air.

She pushed the door closed and turned her back on him. “Follow me—on your hands and knees.”

It was now or never. After an instant of heart-stopping wonder, he dropped to his knees. He crawled forward, incredibly aware of how tight the thong’s strap was and how it cut into the crease of his ass; how his cock and balls were squeezed. He eased his knees a little wider apart and hurried to keep up with his hostess. Her scent thickened, and his vision blurred.

He remembered very little after that until he regained his senses, held tightly against the wall.

* * * *

Twice Born by L.E. Bryce

Tharril did not remember what it felt like to be dead.

The ordeal that led to his death—the beating that shattered his jaw and broke his body, the knives that cut his face and then his hands when he lifted them to defend himself, even the cold air scouring his tattered flesh moments before his tormentors flung him into the sea—those things he remembered. But the sting of the blade as it opened his throat, the shock of the water slamming into him, or his life bleeding out into the ocean—his imagination supplied what he could not recall, until those details became a kind of truth.

One day, his body rolled onto shore with the morning mist, and those who came to gape at his white hair and mortal wounds recoiled in horror when he suddenly drew breath. Color flooded into bloodless limbs as they began to twitch, the wounds closed, leaving no trace, and the people flung themselves down beside him, covering him in warm cloaks, touching his damp hair, his fingers, any part of him that could bestow the Lady’s blessing.

Shumadi, they whispered. Soon he learned what the word meant: twice-born, first among the talevé, the Lady’s mortal consorts.

Born, dead, and reborn. And still, he did not remember what it was to die.

In time, the other talevé in the Blue House of Sirilon realized he could not answer their questions about the hereafter. Even the curiosity in their eyes faded, as he was no different than they, and took no pains to remind them of things better left forgotten.

Ritual would not let him forget. A shumadi walked before the other talevé, crowned like a prince, bearing the Lady’s triple wave Water rune on his mantle, dispensing the blessings expected of Her most holy consort. Questions brimmed on a thousand lips, brightening a thousand eyes that believed he possessed the key to the great mysteries of life and death that held them in terrified awe.

My touch cannot cure anyone. I cannot restore your dead or dying, he wanted to tell them. Better you hire a physician than ask for my prayers.

Death should leave visible signs. But the face in the looking glass was flawless, not the tattered ruin it had been before he went into the sea, and was crowned by a talevé’s foam-white hair. Ordinary folk called him beautiful, a word he hardly would have used to describe himself. In his mind, he remained the thin, sandy-haired farmer’s son from Entippé whose parents despaired of ever finding him a proper bride.

His mind rejected certain memories. Apart from a few recollections of his family, whom he not seen or contacted in a decade, and brief, stolen moments of joy with his lover in the slave quarters of Tajhaan, his life had begun on the shores of Sirilon. The Lady of the Waters was his mother and his consort, though not his greatest love, and to reach for anything beyond the moment She entered his life was to invite pain, and rage he could not answer.

* * * *

Spring warmed the air, sunlight banishing the early morning fog and stirring life in the gardens of the Blue House, which had lain neglected over the long winter. Talevé tended flower beds and fruit trees, clearing debris from the lily pond and dead leaves from the paths. Maintaining these spaces gave them something to do after the long winter, and for those who had no formal duties in the House of the Water, the work provided necessary diversion and a sense of purpose.

Fresh strawberries, packed in ice for the trip downriver, arrived from the orchards of Emerrás. Like undiluted wine, the fruit was a rare treat, hoarded by the cooks for preserves and pastries. Even the priests thought twice before approaching the kitchen, and had to settle for the local strawberries, which were not as plump or juicy by comparison.

Strawberries became late spring’s currency in the Blue House, worth a favor or afternoon tryst, yet almost impossible to obtain.

“Like a distant lover,” said Adhial, fondly gazing at the healer Olveru, who pretended not to notice. “I think Emerrás sends us the gift to torment us.”

“If you don’t want your share,” commented Dyas, “one of us will gladly take it. But stop pining like a lovesick boy and thank the Lady you get any at all.”

Mindful of his audience, Adhial flushed bright red. For years, he had sighed over Olveru, who showed no interest in anyone; his persistence and constant disappointment had become the butt of jokes among the talevé. “You have no manners,” he muttered.

Dyas grinned at him. “That is why I became a lawyer.”

As shumadi, Tharril enjoyed no special privileges when it came to the strawberries or any other novelties sent to the Blue House. So he could not smother his surprise when his lover met him in his bedchamber and, closing the door behind them, uncovered a small porcelain dish of strawberries.

“Where did you get these?” Tharril stared at the succulent fruits. Just obtaining one would have been a challenge, and that one would have sufficed for whatever game Erred meant to play.

“The cooks cannot always watch their goods,” replied Erred.

Deep scarlet, the strawberries were at their ripest, perfect for gorging. “Olenwë and Elentur tried that. How did you manage?”

“That is my secret.” Erred’s mouth curved in a seductive smile. From the dish, he plucked a strawberry and teasingly rubbed the tip against Tharril’s lips. “Would you care for one, or do I have to eat them alone?”

Only then did Tharril notice that under his woolen outer robe, Erred wore a shift that left almost nothing to the imagination. “How long have you been planning this?” he asked, staring at the hazy nipples visible through the thin silk. His throat went dry.

“That, too, is my secret,” answered Erred.

Not that Tharril really cared at this point. When Erred, still holding the dish, took him by the hand and led him to the bed, he did not resist. Kicking off his shoes, he lay down on the mattress and let Erred feed him a strawberry. Nothing could compare with the taste of fruit from the orchards of Emerrás, blessed with abundance by Sirrë, the Earth Mother, the city’s patron goddess.

Tharril closed his eyes, savoring the morsel, even as he became increasingly aware of the warm body leaning against his. Erred’s breath feathered his cheek.

“Do you want one?” asked Tharril.

“What makes you think I have not already had one?” Erred laughed and plucked a second strawberry from the dish. “These are for your pleasure.”

With the third strawberry, Erred changed tactics, placing the bulbous end between his teeth and, leaning in across Tharril’s chest, teasingly inviting him to take it from his lips. As Tharril opened his mouth to claim his prize, their lips met, tongues darting out to taste each other even as Tharril bit the strawberry in half.

Fingers moved up his chest, lingering on the buttons, undoing them. Tharril swallowed the morsel he had been chewing and let his hands travel up Erred’s arms, pushing back the wide sleeves to caress bare skin, then down again to clasp his wrists. “Where did you learn to do that?” he asked.

Erred hesitated a moment before answering, “In the same place I learned all the other arts of love.”

Tharril tensed, wishing then that he had not asked. “In the house where you were first sold as a slave?”

“I know what you think, but the akeshi broker and his tutors did not teach me everything.” Erred dropped a light kiss on the tip of his nose. “There were two other akeshi in the royal palace. They taught me things a common bed slave would not have learned.”

“What things?” Tharril asked cautiously. In asking, he ventured into perilous territory; the akeshi in their master’s house had been spiteful, uncouth creatures, best left forgotten. . The only things they had taught Erred were jealousy and fear, and Tharril hated to think he might have endured the same in the palace of the High Prince of Tajhaan.

Erred gave him a knowing smile. “They taught me to perform traditional Tajhaani dances, arrange flowers, and paint henna tattoos on the hands and feet,” he replied. “Did you think I meant sex?”

“I remember the others demanding sex for simple favors.”

“That is because our master was a vulgar man who allowed such behavior,” said Erred. Our master. Both he and Tharril remembered the man’s name. Both refused to utter it aloud. A man’s name is his legacy, his immortality. When it is dust, he will utterly die. “You never saw what it was like in the palace. In the household of a true nobleman, the slaves are often well-born, and they are expected to be discreet and dignified. Hasir and Neshuru welcomed me as a brother and a friend. While I was with them I learned many useful things.”

Tharril watched as Erred took a particularly red, juicy strawberry from the dish and rubbed it slowly across his lips, flicking his tongue over the tips, before sliding it into his mouth. Suddenly Tharril wanted that mouth, those lips and tongue, on him, and the rising heat in his groin told him exactly where he wanted it. “How useful?” he croaked.

Still holding Tharril’s gaze, Erred uncovered a porcelain tureen next to the bed and daintily dipped his finger into the thick, clotted cream with which berries were usually served. “For one thing,” he purred, “they taught me how to properly play with one’s food.”

There were moments when Tharril sensed that his lover initiated sex solely to please him, and that, if offered a choice, would prefer celibacy. Erred seemed to have no innate hunger for lovemaking. The contraband strawberries were props in a planned seduction, as anyone could see. Even without such aids, Tharril felt a certain emptiness in their encounters. He wondered if Erred knew how to be spontaneous, how to let go.

Lips touched his. Which of the bed slave’s twenty-one different ways to kiss is this? he wondered. Is there anything we do together that you didn’t learn in Tajhaan? The only passion he felt was his own. While hard, he could bear it, but afterward he lay cold and disillusioned beside Erred, rehearsing a thousand speeches he would never make.

As Erred drew back from the kiss, Tharril’s gaze focused on the cream dripping from his finger, and the tongue that darted out to lap up the white droplets. His groin twitched at the sight of Erred sucking his own finger into his mouth, moving it in and out like a miniature cock. Still watching, Tharril’s hands sought the laces of his leggings.

Fingers closed around his wrist, stopping him. “Let me do that,” murmured Erred.

Tharril felt a light touch ghost over his groin, barely touching the fabric or the bulge straining against it. Erred unlaced him, yet ignored his erect cock to undo the buttons of his tunic and draw it back over his shoulders to expose his chest. Tharril squirmed at the wet finger that painted circles around his left nipple, and groaned at the warm tongue that followed.

In a moment of greater clarity, Tharril might have dwelt on who else Erred had done this with, yet in the closeness of the sunlit room, far from the barren vistas of Tajhaan, no other lovers existed.

Reaching down, he gathered up the hem of Erred’s shift, caressing the bare skin he uncovered; Erred pulled away long enough to pull the garment over his head and toss it aside.

Now that he knew the game, Tharril felt adventurous enough to improvise. Dipping his finger into the cream, he smeared it over Erred’s lips before kissing him. Sweet cream mingled with salt and the faint taste of strawberries.

Tharril clasped Erred to him and rolled them over so he lay on top, pinning his lover to the mattress. He found the porcelain dish, reached for the last strawberry, and began to toy with Erred as he had been teased, stroking the scarlet tip around and over a hard nipple before bending to taste the path he had made. Erred gasped, pulling his head close, but Tharril refused to be led, or do anything that was not spontaneous.

With his teeth, Tharril broke the skin of the strawberry and rubbed it over Erred’s lips, moistening it with juice, then withdrawing it when Erred tried to seize it with his teeth. Comprehension lit Erred’s eyes, and he smiled. They kissed again, their tongues lingering over the taste of summer.

Tharril sat up and drew the strawberry tip over his own skin, circling his nipples and the hollow of his navel, winking at Erred as he popped it into his mouth. Everything he knew about lovemaking he had learned from Erred in the slave quarters they shared in Tajhaan. As Erred had been taught to give pleasure to the men to whom he was given, so he had tried to teach Tharril to do the same with the guards who abused him and survive.

Now that they were both free men, Tharril had no reservations about taking what he had learned—those hateful lessons—improvising, and turning it back upon his teacher.

Sliding down Erred’s body, parting his legs with firm hands, Tharril made it clear who was now the seducer. He nibbled at Erred’s inner thighs, his lips and tongue seeking the places he knew would bring his lover to ecstasy, following with his fingers until in his excitement he forgot everything but the salty taste of Erred’s skin and the shuddering gasps and hands clutching at his head, his shoulders, blindly urging him to continue.

Some nights Tharril lay beside Erred and, as the sweat cooled on their bodies and their breathing returned to normal, asked yet again for his pledge. In his mind, there was no reason why they should not be joined in a Water-lover’s rite of marriage. Where he considered it a token of his commitment, he could not comprehend how Erred would regard it yet another form of bondage. I don’t want to own you, he thought. I want to give myself to you and have you do the same because I love you!

And he had said it aloud, raising his voice to make Erred understand the depth of his feeling, but though his eyes grew soft Erred had answered that he could not give what he did not fully possess himself. All Tharril heard was that Erred was torn between two lovers, would always be, and not even the most tender words or passionate lovemaking in the world could change that.

If he experienced a certain proprietary fulfillment in bringing his lover to orgasm, Tharril could not help it, for it was the one moment in which Erred was truly his. Erred’s bliss was as delicious to him as a few stolen strawberries, and just as rare.