Monday, December 28, 2009

Turning Ash by Crymsyn Hart


Chapter One


Ashling stared at the pale stranger before her. If she hadn’t seen a picture of him, she never would’ve believed that Devlin was standing there. She wouldn’t have committed to meeting him in person unless she had talked to him on the phone first. Before that, there were hundreds of text messages and emails where she had spilled her heart out to this man. He didn’t judge her for the choices she made. Moreover, their long talks had blossomed into a good friendship. Finally, he suggested they should meet.
Half shrouded in shadows, Devlin leaned against the glass of the empty coffee shop. His shoulder-length hair was caught back in a ponytail. The illumination of the lights made his skin even paler than in his snapshot. A strand of hair, escaping the binding of the elastic, played along his high cheekbones in the gentle breeze. He was even more beautiful in real life than staring at his photograph. Ashling had committed his image to memory just in case she woke up and the photo was somehow gone.
She stood on the corner, still in the shadows, feeling the energy of the environment playing on her skin. She drew in the strength of the night, letting it warm her and feed her deep hunger. This man was also a psychic vampire. She licked her lips. Part of her wondered if she blinked would Devlin disappear? My nerves are getting the better of me. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. There were many stories of women meeting strange men from the Internet, and the women were never heard from again. She gripped the sides of her skirt and wiped her sweaty palms on the fabric. She sucked on her tongue ring, pushing it up and down inside her mouth, and clinked it against her teeth. Even her toes shook. This is ridiculous. He won’t hurt me. I’ve been talking to him for over a year now. I know him.
“Yeah, but how much do you know him?” Christa’s voice echoed in her mind.
More than I ever knew you before I told you what I was. And that didn’t stop you from hanging around me. Ashling dismissed her friend’s statement and drew in a breath. She pushed up her glasses. Car headlights blinded her, so she threw up her hand to protect her eyes from the glare and withdrew further into the velvet darkness concealing her even from Devlin’s eyes. Her eyeteeth tingled. A slow burn unwound in the pit of her stomach. This isn’t good. It meant her hunger was unsatisfied. The energy of the night wasn’t helping. Ashling had fed before she came to meet Devlin. Christa had allowed her to draw in some of her energy before she left. Normally, Ashling liked to feed while she was asleep and dreamwalking, but tonight her nerves were burning through the energy. She ran her tongue over her teeth and willed the hunger away. At times like this, when her hunger raged, it seemed she possessed actual fangs.
Smoothing the fabric of her skirt one more time, she stepped into the dim light of the café. Devlin wasn’t there. Somehow he had disappeared in the few seconds she blocked her eyes from the oncoming headlights. She turned and searched Massachusetts Avenue for him. If he was playing with her, there were too many shadows for him to be concealed in. Shit. He must have thought I wasn’t going to show and left. Regret consumed Ashling. Maybe it was all my imagination. Maybe I didn’t really see him.
A deep laugh erupted next to her ear, a velvet purr; she wasn’t sure it was coming from a human throat. Ashling spun around and found Devlin now resting against the telephone pole, gazing straight at her. A wide grin spread on his sensuous lips. The smile made him more breathtaking than the dark brooding photo he had sent her. A ladder of silver hoops hung in both of his ears. His smoky eyes were surrounded by long onyx lashes. A sprinkling of stubble ran along his chin. In the picture, his face was angled down so she hadn’t seen his eyes that closely.
“Devlin?”
“Ashling.”
Her throat went dry while she struggled to find the right words. Here was the guy, her savior sometimes, who had listened to her and helped her through the horrible bouts of hunger she’d had, the depression, and the rejection she’d experienced over the past year. It wasn’t easy being a psychic vampire in the world. Most of the populace thought she was insane for being what she was. When she finally found a small niche to belong to, a whole new world had opened up. She had discovered kindred souls among the online communities. There was always the possibility they were yanking her chain, but she was good at reading people. Just as she’d read Devlin the first time she had gotten a personal IM from him.

* * * *

When Devlin’s instant message box popped up, she was browsing some threads on a message board. She had almost ignored it, but something in the way he phrased his question intrigued her. His icon on the forum was a smiley face. Most of the logos reflected something of their owners’ dark personalities. Hers was a little picture of one of her Living Dead Dolls, Lilith to be exact. The smiley face should’ve turned her off, but staring at the blinking cursor while he waited for a response, Ashling studied his introductory question. It read:
“Are you happy, Ashling?”
Was she happy? What an inane question to ask. Of course she was happy. Her fingers poised on the keyboard of her laptop ready to make some snide reply, but the query echoed through her thoughts. Was she happy? She had a boyfriend. She was keeping the hunger at bay. She had a job she liked. Her roommate was great. There were no problems in her life and the online community was revealing more psychic vampires every day. Even though she was finding them, a small part of her never felt they were completely like her.
So she typed her response. “Most of the time.”
“What about right at this moment? If you could capture it and freeze it, would you be happy?”
“Yes,” she replied, but doubt lingered in her mind.
There was a pause, as if he was laughing. A low chuckle echoed through her darkened bedroom. I’m hearing things. It’s my imagination giving this crazy guy a personality.
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Why? Can you make me happy?”
“I don’t know. I was only posing the question. I love to make people think.”
Ashling snorted when she read the response. He certainly made her think. “Well, are YOU happy?”
“Of course. I’ve just met you.”
Blood rushed to her cheeks. Why am I blushing? I don’t know this guy from a hole in the wall? He could be a depraved serial killer for all she knew. “Well, that’s nice of you to say, but you don’t know me.”
“But I want to know you.”
“Well, I don’t want to know you.” Ashling closed the lid of her laptop, shutting off the contact with the mysterious IMer. For the rest of the day, their small conversation stuck in her head. Even while she was at work pouring drinks, the band on stage couldn’t pull her mind off the conversation. When she arrived home that night, exhausted, smelling like cheap beer and cigarettes, she opened her laptop. The little white box remained, waiting for her to reply. She shook her head and closed the computer again. If the guy really wanted to talk, then he would have to wait until she had showered and gotten a little shut-eye.

* * * *

“Are you daydreaming?”
Ashling blushed and looked away. She had completely tuned Devlin out. “Sorry.”
“No need to apologize. You’ve always been so down to earth when we talk and not up in the clouds.” Annoyance peppered his voice. Devlin lived a few hundred miles away in New York City, while she was in Boston. They had arranged the meeting a few weeks ago when they both had a few days off, so she didn’t want him to think his trip was a waste of time.
She shook her head. “I’m not, really. I was just thinking about the first time we met. When you IM’ed me and asked me if I was happy.”
“Are you?”
“Yes.”
He smiled this time, which lit up his dark eyes. Ashling bit her lip harder, tasting blood. Fantasies of her and Devlin threatened to overwhelm her, but she had a boyfriend. She and Evan had dated for three years now. They were good together. He was a normal college student, but underneath his Polos and khakis lived a rocker with some outrageous tattoos. Ashling hadn’t told him about her nature, and he wasn’t pleased when she informed him that Devlin was meeting with her.
“Why don’t we go inside? It’s getting a little chilly out here.”
She nodded and headed toward the café. Ashling reached for the door, but Devlin got it first. Blood seared her cheeks, hurting her face from blushing so hard. She’d had butterflies in her stomach on the subway ride over, but those fluttery little insects had morphed into dive-bombing hawks, churning her stomach. She ducked inside, glad the interior of the café was dim. There were plenty of nooks and crannies where she could hide, especially upstairs. They walked to the counter. She got a hot chocolate with shaved dark chocolate on top of the whipped cream. Devlin ordered peppermint tea. He didn’t seem the type who went with tea. She assumed he was a hardcore kinda guy who drank his coffee black. Devlin followed her up the winding staircase to her favorite spot next to the window. Tonight she paid no mind to the bustling street below because she was too enamored with having Devlin here in the flesh. Part of her yearned to reach out, touch him and fling her body against his to feel if he was solid. Devlin slid into the chair across from her, careful for not even his boot to bump her knee under the small table.
Ashling poked at the dark chocolate slivers with her spoon, not able to meet his eyes yet. She tried to keep her hands steady. What do we talk about? I’ve told him all my secrets. He knows so much about me. Even more than Evan. Devlin could be my best girlfriend. She tried to place her spoon on the rim of the saucer, but it clattered and spattered her with hot chocolate droplets.
“Shit,” she muttered. Her right eye started to twitch. Ashling grabbed a napkin, dabbing at the spots on her cheek and then on the table. Devlin’s fingers landed on the white napkin, pinning it to the wooden surface still leaving centimeters between them.
“Ashling, focus.” His voice was soft yet commanding. She dared a look into his smoldering eyes. They reached into her soul and captured her. She drew in a breath, nearly choking on the air. The heat from his fingers brushed against her flesh and enticed the hunger. The temptation to pierce his aura and drain it slowly, savoring it, pressed on her mind. Her teeth ached again. His gaze held hers, but she regained control and finally looked away.
“Sorry, Devlin. I’m normally not this discombobulated when I meet new people.”
“I don’t bite, Ashling.”
She laughed. “You could if you wanted too.” Devlin also professed to drinking blood on occasion, but mostly he got by on energy the way she did.
Devlin flashed her his perfectly white teeth. His canines were long, giving him natural fangs. “You’re absolutely correct. I could bite if I desired, but there’s no one appetizing in here at the moment. Except you, of course.”
Ashling snorted. “Now I know you’re lying.”
His eyes and his expression darkened. “I’m not kidding. You don’t give yourself much credit. I’ve been typing to you for over a year now, and you always come off as this cocky, self-sufficient woman who has her shit together. Maybe I was wrong about you. They do say meeting people in person can squash the preconceived ideas we have of them and what they will be like. Do I have the wrong idea?” He drew back in the chair, crossing his arms over his chest, putting up his guard again.
Ashling closed her eyes and gathered her wits. His words stung, but she didn’t want him to get the wrong impression. Sure, she was freer to talk on the Internet because there were no walls, no inhibitions. Fantasies were created and enacted through chat rooms or online games every day. A sudden chill wrapped around her spine from the draft. She opened her eyes and stared down at the passing pedestrians. They were near Harvard Square, only a few blocks from the illustrious college. Most of the walkers were students and weren’t plagued day by day with an incessant rage burning through their veins. They didn’t believe in vampires. They focused on term papers and grades. Each mind, each aura, was like nails in her flesh. On the nights she was particularly pissed off, she could barely be around anyone. Sometimes Evan thought she was anti-social, but he didn’t know the half of it. She had confided everything to Devlin, and now he was questioning his judgment. Why did he come out here then? He must think I’m a total ditz.
“You’re not wrong, Devlin. Sometimes, being what I am, what we are, I forget that I’m still a person. I haven’t been bullshitting you all these months.” Ashling switched her gaze from the window and met his. She wished she could read his eyes. They were so cold. “I’m sorry if you thought I was a flake. Look, I’m ecstatic that you drove here to meet me, but you’ve never told me what you’re like in person either. We’ve talked on the phone, yeah, but that doesn’t mean that I get to watch your expressions when you talk. Have you been jerking me around this past year?” Now it was her turn to sit back in her chair and cross her arms over her chest, mirroring him.
Silence hung in the air between them. The clanging of spoons and the din of voices from the lower level of the coffee shop filtered up to their table. Her fists were clenched. Devlin’s face twitched, and then deep, rich laughter tumbled from his lips while more strands of dark hair escaped his ponytail.
“Ahh, Ash. You’re something else and you’re correct. I’ve never hinted at my moods. I know more about you than you do about me.”
“Well, then, why don’t you impart some of your glorious history to me?” Ashling picked up her mug of hot chocolate and finally took a sip. The destabilized cream had melted into the hot beverage. The sweet and tart flavors of the dark chocolate lingered on her tongue after she swallowed.
Devlin played with the tag on his peppermint tea. His long fingers wrapped around the ceramic cup, and she noticed he wore an onyx ring set in silver on his left middle finger. The stone matched his eyes. “I have too many secrets to tell you all in one night. Some of them you wouldn’t believe.” Devlin’s right hand left the warmth of the cup, sliding across the table. His fingers remained a hairsbreadth away. She wondered why he still didn’t touch her.
Ashling leaned across the table feeling her hair sweep over her shoulder, blocking her view of anyone coming up the stairs. She didn’t touch him, respecting his space. “Devlin, you can tell me anything. I won’t judge you. You haven’t judged me.”
His gaze flicked to the stairs. He inhaled, struggling with whatever he desired to tell her. Before he answered, her hot chocolate splashed her face, dropped into her lap, scalding her legs and messing up her glasses.
“Ouch! What the fu—” A whoosh of air went past her head. Suddenly she was shoved to the floor and had her glasses knocked off. Screams erupted around her, and there was the clamor of feet on the stairs. Squinting, she tried to make out what was going on, but without her glasses, everything was blurry. There was more commotion downstairs, the sound of breaking glass and a very human groan. Dark laughter. She felt around the floor for her glasses until her fingers latched onto something soft and squishy, not her glasses.
Heavy footfalls pounded on the stairs again. She strained and saw Devlin’s blurred, black form in the corner with someone else behind him. Her fingers found her glasses. Drawing herself up, she sat on a cushioned bench, wiping her eyeglasses on her shirt. She settled her glasses on her nose and discovered one of the lenses was cracked. Thankfully, she had another pair at home, but then she saw her friend. Devlin had a man pinned against the far wall, with his hand wrapped around his neck. A terror-stricken look adorned the man’s features. Devlin’s long black hair tumbled to the middle of his back and hid his face. Her gaze darted to the table where they had sat. A large silver knife protruded from the spot where her hot chocolate mug had been. Trails of drying chocolate ran down the walls and the window next to the table. White porcelain was scattered all over the table and the floor. There was another knife embedded in the wall a few millimeters from where her head had been.
What the fuck is going on? Who the hell is that guy? Why did he attack us? She got up and walked toward Devlin.
“Stay back, Ash!” he growled.
Ashling nodded while backing up a few steps. Her gaze locked to the man Devlin held.
“You’re pretty. It’s a shame you have to die too.”
Before she could respond, Devlin punched their attacker in the stomach with his free hand. The assailant barely flinched. “Who sent you?” Devlin asked.
The man grinned. “I’m only the welcoming committee. More will come.”
Devlin said something under his breath, and a look of terror washed over the man’s face. Devlin released her attacker and stepped back, but the man was still pinned against the wall. Ashling froze. An unseen force descended over the room. Purple energy crackled around the man. Suddenly the air was ripped from her lungs. She tried to pull in a breath, but was too focused on the horror before her. Her attacker’s chest was smashed in by some invisible force. The cracking of his ribs echoed in her ears. The sound reminded her of someone popping bubble wrap. Blood spattered all over the wall, dotting her glasses and landing on her cheeks.
Blue energy gathered around Devlin. He was the one unleashing the power that was covering the man. Devlin pulled on the energy again. This time, he pierced her aura. Her hands flew to her throat. She gasped for air, but she was choking. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from her assailant. His face was flattened. Sirens and shouting erupted outside. Devlin smiled, dipped his finger into the blood covering his victim’s torso and licked it. He drew in more energy. This time, it seemed someone crushed her windpipe. Her limbs grew cold, and darkness crept in on the edge of her vision. Ashling desperately tried to draw in a breath, but Devlin didn’t notice. She fell to her knees and reached out to Devlin. Right before she passed out, her attacker’s brains exploded on the wall, mixed with the crimson of his blood.

Caging the Tiger by Michelle Houston

Kyle ran his fingers over the crinkled edge of the letter that he had read so many times—he knew the contents by heart. In high school, his teacher had encouraged the class to reach out to someone in the community, someone in a field they admired or with whom they shared a common interest.

He’d chosen a young magician named Meric. At the time, he couldn’t really explain what had caused him to write to the illusionist. Certainly it wasn’t any great belief in magic. Having grown up in a series of foster homes, many of them not the best environment for a young man, he had long since lost his innocent belief in such things.

Yet the illusionist drew him.

So he took a chance and wrote him a letter, never expecting to hear back.

Now, almost five years later, he had well over a hundred letters and postcards from Mark, bearing postmarks from all over the world. Focusing his attention back on the letter he held, Mark’s latest to him, he closed his eyes and recited the words aloud, needing to hear them, imagining what the other man’s voice sounded like.

Kyle,

I have finally managed to book a show in your town, and would like to invite you to attend. Enclosed is a set of five tickets. Please, feel free to invite some of your friends.

I do hope to finally meet you. It’s been such a pleasure the last five years.

Sincerely,
Meric/Mark


Opening his eyes, Kyle rubbed his thumb over the signature, tracing the gracefully flowing lines. So much had changed in the last five years. It had only been a year into his pen-pal relationship with the magician that he discovered a dormant side to himself.

Now, he wondered if there were others like him. Thanks to the press about Meric’s new act, he had to wonder if his friend carried the same secret in his heart. Could the other man also turn into a tiger?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Corporate Seduction by Bridget Midway

Chapter One

Would it be possible to have sex on that thing?

May Davenport licked her lips as she stared at the waist-high laser fax-copier-printer monstrosity, rumored to have been an accomplice in an office tryst. Who knew Hewlett-Packard could be an aphrodisiac, she thought.

Damn, she needed to get a life and get laid if thoughts of sex in the office consumed her time. And she needed to stop reading those damn erotica novels.

Reading them had her believing that the situations contained in them could be possible. Take-charge hunks. Hot, sweaty public sex. Happily ever after. Not in this office building, and not with anyone working here.

May cocked her head as she stared at the machine, as though willing it to share its secrets. Who was on top? Did anything break in the process? If they left the lid open, did it get any good pictures?

The rumor running rampant at Crystal Industries would have the entire twenty-five floors believing that such an act would not only be plausible, but indeed had happened between a junior associate who worked on the second floor and a female executive from the seventeenth floor who was not known to fraternize with anyone below her floor.

Stupid people. Why in the world would they risk their careers for the sake of hot sex? Sure, that kind of arrangement worked out in romance novels. Everything always worked out in those things. But this was real life. And real life had a way of kicking people in their asses.

May could kind of see the lure. The executive had power and the junior guy had hunger, sexual or otherwise, at least that was how another executive assistant from that floor had described the two to May during a good gossip session in the bathroom.

Damn, she needed to get a life.

What she really wanted to know was what possessed two people to throw caution to the wind and be so reckless as to risk getting caught going against Company Policy No-No Number Two. According to the Crystal Industries’ Employee Handbook, the Number One rule involved giving up stock trading tips. Priorities. How fitting that the company would care more about its bottom line than the interactions of their employees.

She chuckled to herself, sitting at her desk, which faced the main door. She had her back to her boss’s office. The bastard wanted to be sure he could look over her shoulder at a moment’s notice to make sure she didn’t pass time surfing the Internet or worse, looking for a better job.

So close to heaven, being this high off the ground, she thought she would have been happier.

What would make her extremely happy would be to move up in the company, for them to finally recognize her skills and talents in the financial department instead of being relegated as simply an executive assistant. Hell, she might as well say it. A secretary.

The thought made her grind her teeth. She knew her pinhead of a boss held her back. Other assistants were allowed to sit in on meetings. She had heard that some even ran them. Damn bastard.

What fueled her to stay at Crystal Industries, more than the pay and the health benefits that paid for her grandmother’s medication, was the fact that one day May would make it to the top and would have the distinct pleasure of telling her windbag of a boss to kiss her ass.

As she thought about the man planting his lips onto her cheek, her face felt flush. Sure he was a jerk, but he was a pretty good-looking jerk. Well, if tall, clear blue eyes and straight, white teeth turned a woman on, then he could be classified as handsome. For May, it did.

Some days she imagined her boss on his hands and knees, crawling to her, begging for her forgiveness. She wanted Winston Biggers to suffer. More than putting him through sheer misery, she wanted him as her secretary. Give him a taste of his own medicine.

She would tell him to answer her phone and lie to whomever she was dating at the time, like he did. She would make him fetch her meals, and have him drive all the way to the oceanfront instead of going to the office cafeteria to pick up her lunch. Above all, she would do to him what he never had done to her. She would treat him like a sex object, stare at him as he worked and make comments about how good he looked and smelled.

In her imaginary world where she ruled over her boss, she would also have him as her own personal fuck toy. She closed her eyes and imagined feeling his tongue against her pussy, stroking her nether lips and diving inside of her until she came hard. But she wouldn’t stop there. She would make him fuck her until she was exhausted or grew tired of him. She would use him in the same way he’d been using her.

Get this. Get that. Fuck you!

Absently, she tugged at a loose piece of string at the end of her sleeve. With one pull, she managed to unravel the stitching going up the arm, making a nice, long opening at the inside seam.

“Shit.” She tossed the useless thread and attempted to close the hole. “My favorite sweater, too.”

The good thing about the gaping opening was that it created a Saturday night project, since May didn’t have a date and had no prospects of getting one in the near future. Calling numbers at the local bingo hall and taking her grandmother to and from the doctor’s office offered little in the way of finding suitable dates, or any dates for that matter.

The next obstacle would be to get out of here on time. Before she could look at her watch, a bellow broke her thoughts.

“Maybelline, come in here,” the jerk du jour said as though he’d known her immediate plans.

Why did he have to use her full first name? He knew she hated it. The name constantly reminded her of her southern roots and her mother’s ignorance about popular cosmetics.

“I thought it sounded sweet,” her mother had said.

She used to correct her boss constantly the first year she worked for him.

“It’s May, just like the month. Just call me May.”

Four years and a Bachelor of Arts degree later, he still called her the name that made her skin crawl.

Pushing herself back from her pressboard-and-steel desk, she grabbed a notepad and pen. The man never asked her in his office for something simple. Not once. He spouted orders like a drill sergeant, always without looking her in her eyes.

Lack of eye contact suited her fine. She’d always been a sucker for blue eyes, even if they were in the head of the most insensitive man she’d ever met.

Plants died around him. She’d tried keeping a fern in his office. Within a week, it turned brown and suffered a horrible death. She thought about bringing in a goldfish but she imagined he would swallow the thing whole like a snake.

She took a deep breath, calming her queasy stomach and giving herself the strength to walk through her boss’s door, hopefully for the last time today. She glanced at her watch. Five minutes to five. He had better make it quick.

Behind a desk big enough to crush a Mini Cooper and surrounded by so many windows, he could have leased a portion of his office to a gardener as a greenhouse. Winston Biggers reigned in his office and, by most people’s accounts, ruled all of the twenty-third floor.

Different shaped awards decorated a four-tiered glass shelf that sat next to his private bathroom. His diploma from the University of Virginia hung on the opposite wall above an elliptical trainer. Guess even the King of Mean needed to keep in shape.

Thanks to the fresh flowers brought in each week, his office reeked of jasmine and lavender today. Even the sweet aroma didn’t raise Biggers’ spirit.

At a good six-foot-four and dressed in tailored clothes, his presence overwhelmed an entire room. He looked expensive, from his daily barber-cut brown hair with a light streaking of gray strands, down to his shined shoes that must have been worth more than a small house here in Virginia Beach.

May breathed easier seeing his head down, his gaze trained on the piece of paper on his desk. She cocked her head and stared at the top of his.

He wasn’t balding like the rest of the high-level executives in the building. Didn’t mean he would be immune to the follicle failure. It happened to all execs. Bald heads, ulcers, bad marriages. And they kept putting these guys in high-rise buildings. Men like Biggers were walking poster children for stress-related suicides.

The sight of his hair brought her back to her daydream of having him between her legs, her knees wrapped around his head as she held a good chunk of his hair fisted in her hand.

She chewed her bottom lip and wondered if he ever had fantasies. Didn’t all bosses fantasize about their secretaries? In her sexy erotica novels that she loved reading so much, they all did.

Not that she cared. The only thing she cared about involved walking out of the office by the time the big hand hit the twelve and the little hand camped out at the five. If he didn’t look up, she could get away fast and still get off on time.

Princess Watkins promised her a drink and she knew her friend wouldn’t wait for her for very long. But then again, with a name like Princess what did May expect?

“Flowers,” Winston said, breaking May from her rambling thoughts.

“Sir?”

Working with the totem pole with style for years, she had grown use to his shorthand way of speaking. Right now he had her stumped. She had to stop thinking about sex so much at the office.

Maybe the idea of having a margarita in about twenty or so minutes made her stumble. She could almost taste the burning tequila on her tongue. Thinking about the bitter salt that would cover the glass rim made her suck in her cheeks. Sugar, definitely sugar on the rim tonight.

“I need an arrangement ordered and sent to a young lady.” His deep voice rolled over the desk and nearly bowled May over. He swiveled in his chair and retrieved a piece of paper behind him.

“Yes, sir,” she said. She wrote on her pad, “guilt flowers” and underlined it.

Men were so easy to read. It was no longer a sport for her to figure them out. Now it became second nature to decipher their inner workings.

Biggers proved to be an easy read. Controlling in all aspects of his life. No personal attachments like pets or children (he would have considered both to be in the same category). Girlfriends that lasted six to eight months. Long enough to develop a comfortable rhythm but short enough to avoid the annoying marriage question.

He probably had a cordial, almost too proper relationship with his parents. More than likely an only child, and if he did have a sibling, especially a brother, they competed on every aspect of their lives from jobs to relationships.

To think of him now, May felt a tiny twinge of sadness. As soon as he spoke, a sensation that compared to a caterpillar crawling across her naked belly disappeared.

Probably just hunger pangs anyway since she worked through her lunch thanks to some new reports Biggers wanted prepared.

“I need the arrangement sent to her tonight.” He scribbled something on a notepad. “Something big, but tasteful. Nice and sweet, but heartfelt.”

“Perhaps a stuffed animal with it?” May started to write that on her pad.

If she couldn’t have a man there to wring his neck when he skipped out on dinner then a stuffed animal would do nicely.

He slipped on a pair of glasses with short, rectangular, wire frames that reminded May so much of her granny’s glasses. His blue-eyed gaze cut over the top as though he looked down on her and her opinion.

Years of smiling with his deep, long dimples caused him to have two distinct creases in his cheeks that made him look even more distinguished and handsome. Didn’t help that he also had a cleft in his chin.

Men. They get older and look even better. Women constantly had to overhaul their looks.

Now that he glared at her like she just disrespected his family, his stare turned her off. She hoped the woman he would be standing up tonight never got this chilling look. It caused a rippling shiver from her toes to the top of her head. She gripped her pen and pad tighter to calm herself.

“I want something classy, not gaudy.”

May bit the inside of her lower lip, trying hard not to spit on him.

What did he know about class? Designer clothes and working close to the top floor didn’t give him any sort of prestige.

“Yes, sir.” She wrote “asshole” on under her initial comment and underlined it twice.

“On the card I need to have written, ‘Can’t make it to dinner tonight. Sorry. Some other time. Win.’ Got that?”

As though she could not get that pathetic excuse for an apology.

But she obliged him and repeated his message. “Unable to make it to dinner.”

He cut her off. “Can’t. Not ‘unable to make it.’ I can’t.”

“There’s a difference, sir?” Not that she meant to be insolent, but his pettiness wore on her nerves, especially now.

He leaned back in his black, leather swivel chair and removed his glasses. “‘Unable’ makes it seem like I could go but don’t want to. ‘Can’t’ says that I cannot physically make it to dinner. And I can’t go. I just can’t.”

His voice held something that said he had a bigger but not necessarily better excuse for not showing. If she didn’t know any better, she would have thought he sounded exhausted.

So this was what Winston Biggers was like as a boyfriend. He created the rules. He set the pace. His wants. His schedule.

Bastard.

Did he ever once think about his woman’s needs?

What was May thinking? This was the same man who’d given her a day to get over the flu.

But a man who worked this many hours and rode her hard had to have had a story for why he became the man he was today. Not that May necessarily cared. But he did intrigue her. How could a handsome man manage to never marry and seem so unfulfilled?

She wanted to kick herself for asking, but a good employee, the one who desperately needed and deserved a raise, would do so. “Did you have some extra work that needed to be done that’s preventing you from meeting this woman for dinner? I could help you if that’s the case.”

He stared at her, his face and expression looking softer than she’d ever seen it. At that moment, the crow’s feet around his eyes didn’t look as sinister. His lips parted but he uttered nothing. Was he actually touched by her gesture?

She blinked and directed her gaze back to her pad and pen. Her hand trembled and she shook it as though that would somehow reset her feelings.

“No,” he answered, finally. “Something else came up.”

She nodded, relieved he didn’t suggest more work. “Can’t make it to dinner tonight. Sorry. Some other time. Win.”

He nodded. “Here’s her name and address.” He handed her a paper.

May stared at the name. A gasp rose up her throat but she swallowed it down before it had a chance to become audible.

She kept her expression neutral. “She won’t be happy.”

“It’s not like she hasn’t canceled a million times on me when she got a break in one of her cases.” He folded his glasses and slipped them into a small, brown leather case.

Yeah, but Courtney Vanderloo wasn’t just any detective. To say she’d been highly decorated throughout her career would be like saying Americans were moderately pleased Saddam Hussein had been captured and executed.

To think the woman wouldn’t want to have dinner with someone special tonight would have been an even bigger error in judgment.

May’s gaze cut to the open newspaper on Biggers’ desk. Vanderloo Nabs Child Porn Distributor splashed across the top. A picture of a petite blonde leading a burly man with a jacket over his head into the Virginia Beach jail coupled the article.

So, blondes were Biggers’ type. Again, not that May cared. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Biggers wouldn’t give her a second glance. Not because she was an African-American, or that her full hips and thighs classified her as voluptuous and not petite, but because of her position.

He looked down on her because she was only an executive assistant. Given the chance, she wanted to do more. She could be more if only she didn’t have this blue-eyed roadblock in her way.

She craned her head to read a part of the article about Courtney when her boss snatched the paper off his desk and folded it. He shoved it into his briefcase.

“You know the flower shop to use and they have my charge account number.”

“Yes, sir.”

She wrote “feeling inadequate” in her list and underlined it three times. Her minor in psychology had to be good for something.

With a quick turn on her heel, she rushed back to her desk. As long as the phone line remained clear to the flower shop, she could still make it to downtown Norfolk from downtown Virginia Beach in about twenty minutes.

His voice halted her again. “Maybelline.”

She cursed under her breath while her back faced him. She pivoted. “Yes, Mr. Biggers?”

He lifted his briefcase while slinging his suit jacket over his arm. With a confident gait, he strolled to her. As she watched him, she wondered if he’d been taught how to act like he owned the room from one of the many prep schools he must have attended.

Like positive sides to two magnets repelling each other, May felt the need to move back from him, easing to her desk the closer he got. With his long legs, he made it to her, trapping her in the doorway.

The man always had a way of crowding a person’s personal space. May had thought he did it only to her. Then, others came forward like victims to the same crime. He’d violated all of their spaces and probably didn’t realize what he’d done.

Or maybe he did. Maybe it was his way of lording over people. Maybe he did it as an intimidation factor. This time, though, she would look the beast in its eyes. She wouldn’t be bullied today.

As he stood so close, May took in a deep breath. A crisp, clean-smelling cologne wafted from him body. Not too overpowering and not a heavy, musky scent. If she didn’t know any better, she would have sworn he’d just put it on before she entered his office. The light aroma belied his power. But it worked.

She let out her breath to steady her unsettled stomach. Why did this guy make her so nervous? She epitomized a strong, young black woman. Educated, smart, independent. No way a corporate white guy who probably ate mayonnaise sandwiches without the crust could make her feel intimidated.

Yet, there she was, her knees knocking, her heart pounding, sweat forming on the back of her neck. She grabbed the doorframe behind her to keep from slipping down to the floor.

“Plans tonight?” he asked.

Without her stopping it, she blinked at his question. Seemed odd he would ask since he’d never asked her about her life outside of the office. He usually wanted to know how to keep her in the office working more.

She nodded, cleared her throat, then answered. “Yes. Meeting someone.”

He raised his eyebrows, then opened his mouth like he wanted to ask her more questions. She never noticed the subtle glow of his sun-kissed skin.

Yes, Courtney would be very pissed she missed her date tonight. If the man didn’t speak, he could be doable.

“Oh.” His tone sounded both curious and almost disappointed. A strange combination. “Thank you for staying over to do this for me. I appreciate it.”

Just how much did he appreciate it? She tightened her grip on the wall and summoned as much courage as she could.

“Appreciation can be shown in a lot of ways,” she began.

Biggers’ eyes widened as he moved himself out of the doorway and into the main office, holding his briefcase in front of himself. “Really?” His tone turned even more curious as though he imagined some possibility.

Not on his life. The man cared about nothing but himself. Any woman who hooked up with him was asking for heartache. She’d been through enough to not want it to happen to her again.

Besides, he was her boss. That would have been a violation of Crystal Industries’ Rule Number Two. Among other things, May had time to memorize the company handbook.

She nodded, turned her gaze down for a moment then back to him. “My bonus. A raise, sir. I know it may not be the right time to ask for them, but—”

“You’re right,” he said, interrupting her. “It isn’t. The company is going through a rough time financially so there may not be any bonuses this year. Your annual review comes up in another four months. We can discuss it then.”

Four months? Four fucking months to wait to see if she’d be granted a raise especially since there wouldn’t be any bonuses? Another raise coupled with the many years she worked at the company would put her in the salary bracket that would grant her less expensive healthcare for the same coverage. She could do so much more for her family with that type of benefit.

Sorry, Granny. Can’t get that medication you need because I have to wait four months for a raise from my stingy-ass boss! And the story about the company going through its own depression was bullshit. She knew the financial status of Crystal Industries better than most executives. They had money to spare.

Instead of screaming at the top of her lungs at this jerk or quitting right on the spot, she smiled and slipped down into her wobbly chair. The cheap bastard wouldn’t even spring for a decent chair.

“And I know the company encourages individual style to a limit, but in the future I would like to see you wear appropriate clothing to work.” He nodded toward her. “Nothing with holes in them.”

Her gaze dropped to the newly formed hole in her sweater sleeve. “Sir, you don’t understand. I—”

Without a word, he walked out of the office. She waited to hear the ding of the elevator down the hall and the subsequent sound of the door sliding behind him before she let out a groan.

That capped off her helluva day.

Snatching the phone from its cradle, she hit the speed dial number to Flower Power, the company’s floral arranger.

“Flower Power. What occasion can we decorate for you?” the perky salesman asked.

“Hi, Chip. It’s May.”

May stared at her notes. Her anger displayed with each assessment. She ran her finger over the last two words, “feeling inadequate.” She felt the deep grooves and impressions on the page.

“All The Way May!” he chirped. “How are you?”

“Overworked and underpaid.” She let out a long sigh. Feeling inadequate, she thought.

“I hear that. So what can I do for you tonight?”

“Are you still gay?”

“Out and proud.”

“Then I’ll settle for a floral arrangement for Bighead.” She had other nicknames for the man, but Bighead seemed like an okay one to use for now.

“What is it? Funeral? Promotion? Birthday?”

“Ditching a date.” She heard Chip flipping through some papers.

“Ohh, worse kind.” He tsked. “Shoot.”

May described the type of arrangement she would liked to have gotten if a date had dumped her. Something big, full of roses, baby’s breath, daisies and calla lilies. After getting a brief rundown of their different types of vases, May settled on one that sounded the most appealing.

“Anything else?” he asked.

“Yes.” She stared at the trite statement on her notepad. The guy was an asshole, but Courtney deserved better. “The card. Write ‘I wish I could have been there tonight to celebrate. I am proud of you. Please accept my apologies.’” She struggled with the signature but her romantic side won. “Sign it ‘Love, Win.’”

How could he not love a woman who fought against pornography?

“Oh, girl. Sounds serious.” Chip smacked his lips, audible even through the phone.

If Biggers found out what she did, it would be serious. Or maybe he would thank her. The uptight man needed to get laid. Then again, so did she. First things first. Make her boss happy and she would be happy.

She gave Chip the name and address of the woman who would receive these flowers.

“Anything else?”

May ripped off her notepaper and tossed the wad into the trashcan under her desk. “Yes. You have any stuffed animals?”

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Feet by Dana Littlejohn

Keri stopped abruptly, stunned by Rueben's expression. His mouth had dropped open slightly and his eyes had glazed over.

What the hell?

His lush, dark eyelashes almost closed as she followed his line of sight even lower. She cocked her head to the side slowly, attempting to mimic him. The black band at the bottom of her dress had risen showing a good amount of her thighs, but that wasn't where his stare landed. He was ogling her foot.

Stunned anew, she looked back and forth between his eyes and her foot to confirm her suspicion, and sure enough, as her foot bobbed over her crossed leg his eyes bounced with it.

Is he really?

Kerri watched him curiously. Slowly she placed the glass on the table and moved her foot slowly to the left then to the right as his eyes followed. She smiled as the clues started falling into place. Gripping the sides of the chair, she bit her lip and uncrossed her legs then re-crossed them again, switching which foot bounced.

Rueben's stare stayed locked on her changing feet. His champagne hung in midair on its way to his mouth, never making it that far.

Wanting to test her theory a little more, Kerri slid one foot up her leg as far as it would go. His soft gasp was her reward. Satisfied, she broke his trance with a question.

"So, Reuben, is it you I have to thank for the shoes?"

Rueben blinked a few times and expelled a breath of air before finally bringing his drink to his mouth.

"Yes, I wanted to get you something for your birthday and thought you might like them."

"You were right. They're beautiful. Thank you."

"You're welcome. They look even more beautiful on you."

Kerri shrugged her shoulders and lifted her leg as high as it would go pointing her toe toward him. "You think so?"

Reuben lowered the glass to the table with a soft thunk. "Yes," he said with a gasp.

"Yes," Kerri hissed. "I get the impression you like shoes a lot. Or is it the feet that you like, Rueben?" She lowered her foot to his knee.

She could see the instant change in his demeanor. He could no longer sit still and his breathing had picked up considerably. His arousal was almost palpable as his erection grew before her very eyes. Reuben's stare focused on the foot that rested on his knee as he slowly licked his lips.

"I--I like feet," he finally panted out.

"Is it anybody's feet, or just mine?"

"I like feet, but your feet are extremely beautiful."

She slid her foot up and down the inside of his leg as she questioned him. "How would you know that? How many times have you seen my feet?"

Visibly shuddering, he closed his eyes in obvious enjoyment of her actions. She could see his cock pressing against the front of his pants as he licked his lips and stuttered out his reply.

"I--I saw you and Bianca getting a pedicure the other day."

"Really?" Kerri's smile turned into a devilish grin. She removed her foot from his knee holding it in the air. "Sit on the floor, Rueben. Take off my shoe."

Rueben obeyed immediately pushing the chair back and dropping to his knees. He held her foot in his hands sniffing it deeply. With slow deliberation his fingers undid the strap secured to her ankle. A gasp escaped him as the strap slid free of his grasp. His lips brushed across the top of her foot with reverence as he slipped off the shoe. Gently placing the shoe on the floor under the table, he turned back and sucked a manicured toe into his mouth. Rueben moaned loudly as he moved from one toe to the next.

Kerri was shocked at her own arousal. Never had she thought that this type of fetish play would turn her on and make her as wet as she was getting.

Rueben's hands roamed up and down her leg as he lay butterfly kisses on each toe and the arch her foot. Resting the shoeless foot on his shoulder, he took her other foot in his hands and gave it the same treatment. Setting the shoe aside, this time he placed her heel in his lap pressing the arch against the bulge in his pants.

"I can't tell you how many days and nights I dreamed of having you like this, Kerri," he whispered, lifting her feet to rub on the sides of his face. "I wanted to say something to you so many times, but could never get up the nerve."

His words and hands increased her already aroused state. She could barely control her heavy breathing. No one had ever loved on her like this before. She licked her lips to wet her dry mouth.

"Unzip your pants, Reuben," she managed to get out.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cane by Stevie Woods

Chapter One

June, 1855


Warm hands slid over his chest and down his flanks. Pieter sighed at the wonderful sensations flooding him. He reached up, pulling Joss' handsome head down so he could take those luscious lips in a passionate kiss, running his hands through that tight springy hair.

Pieter needed to breathe, and they parted. Pieter stared at his pale white hands framing the black skinned face of his lover. It didn't matter to him that the man he loved had a different color skin. To Pieter, this man was simply Joss.

The love he felt for the man in his arms never ceased to amaze him. It was incredible that the playmate he had teased and laughed with growing up had become this beautiful man, the most important person in Pieter's life.

Pieter knew they didn't have long; it was always a risk for them to meet like this, but their choices were limited. He dreaded what his father would say if they were ever discovered together but Pieter couldn't give up what he had found. Joss meant far too much to him.

Life at the Van Leydens' Spinnaker plantation on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten was timeless, or so it seemed to Pieter. His family had owned the plantation for over one hundred and fifty years; his relationship with one of its slaves would change nothing.

The island wasn't very large, only thirty-seven square miles in total, divided between the French who controlled the northern half, and the Dutch who controlled the south. It was a remarkably peaceful co-existence. The climate was perfect, warm most of the year but with the trade winds to keep any oppressive heat at bay. It did rain during the summer months, but luckily hurricanes were few and far between.

The Van Leyden money had been made during the infamous Tulipmania of the late 1630s, when huge sums of money were literally made and lost over the sale of one tulip bulb. In 1689, Gerrit Van Leyden had invested his profits in the new horizons of the Antilles, and, to honor where the money originally came from, Gerrit named the sugar plantation he created after the tulip that had brought wealth to his family.

After a slow start, the plantation had taken off during the eighteenth century, by the introduction of slave labor brought from Africa as part of the triangular trade route of the Dutch West India Company. Ships sailed from Amsterdam to collect captured Negroes from the West coast of Africa, taking those poor unfortunates to the Americas from where the company brought back sugar cane from the islands of the Dutch Antilles and from Surinam, their territory on the South American mainland.

Many years later, the plantation was still thriving, though not without difficulty. Much had changed. The market in the Caribbean for cane sugar had changed over the last twenty to thirty years, as other European countries had abolished slavery in their territories, which meant those still growing the crop with the use of slaves could garner a higher profit. Now, in 1855, only the Dutch and the plantation owners in the southern states of America still used slave labor.

The world might have changed around them, but for the Van Leyden family life went on, and it was expected that Pieter would take over running the plantation when the time came. He had never embraced the sugar trade the way his father had, let alone its ramifications, but it had always been an expectation he didn't know how to escape.

His father, Nicolaas, was the type of man to keep the reins of his business tightly in his own hand, which had meant he had had little time for his young son. Pieter's mother had been fragile, and she died when he was only four years old. He had been brought up mostly by Effie, his father's Negro housekeeper, and spent the vast majority of his time with her children as she kept the two-story plantation house in good order. The smell of baking and squares of golden sunshine falling through the tall windows, Effie's brisk voice drifting across the wide veranda surrounding the lower floor as she chivvied the housemaids about their duties formed the backdrop of so many of his childhood memories.

Matilda, whom everyone called Tillie, was three years older than Pieter, and it seemed to him that she had always been there, looking out for him. Joshua, her younger brother, had been born when Pieter wasn't much more than a baby himself. He was known as Joss, which was about as near as Pieter had been able to get to pronouncing Joshua when he was learning to speak. The three of them became inseparable as they grew up, running wild and free and happy together.

Pieter enjoyed playing with Tillie and Joss on the veranda or in the kitchen, but his favorite place was Effie's room at the top of the house, where the housekeeper and her children lived. It was a large room, simply furnished, but the old, well-polished wood of the two beds, chest and wardrobe and a rickety rocking chair shone in the warm light from the large window which almost filled one wall.

Pieter didn't understand why the children's father wasn't around and when he asked Joss his friend just shook his head. Pieter frowned, puzzled that the boy didn't seem to know.

Turning to the housekeeper who was sitting in the corner sewing, he boldly asked, "Effie, where is your husband?"

Effie looked startled for a moment before giving a wistful smile. "My man isn't with us anymore."

"I don't understand. What does that mean?"

She gazed at him for a moment but she didn't say anything further.

It was many years later that he discovered that Effie didn't have a husband, as slaves weren't allowed to marry, but that her man had been sold to another plantation before Joss was born.

Pieter cheerfully joined in when Effie gave her children chores to do for the Master. Indeed, as a child Pieter never took much note of the fact that their skin color was different to his, and certainly never understood how it made their lives so different.

When Pieter was seven, Nicolaas had arranged for him to have some schooling, which irked the boy at first, because he wanted to be out playing with his friends. Also, now he was old enough, Pieter was expected to spend the early evenings in the company of his father, who read with him and tried to teach him how to play chess.

He was seated on the veranda reading one evening when he heard his father's angry voice.

"I have repeatedly told you I want Pieter to spend his evenings with me and waste less time with your brood," Nicolaas said harshly. "You know how it irks me that I can't spend more time with him."

Pieter edged closer to the open door.

His father's voice had calmed as he continued, "You know what he means to me. He is already showing a pleasing intelligence and I have great plans for him."

"I know, master, I'm sorry, it won't happen again." Effie sounded nervous.

"No, it won't," Van Leyden snapped. "Your children will have no time to distract my son. You will keep them better occupied, remind them that they are no different from any of my other slaves."

"Yes, master," Effie replied quietly.

That was the first time that Pieter really understood there was more of a difference between Joss, Tillie, and himself than just the color of their skin.

As the years passed, he saw still more differences in how his father, his guests and his overseers treated his friends and their mother. Not that it ever affected Pieter's attitude, for he still loved them like siblings.

When Pieter was about twelve, he began to visit the fields, to learn what his father's plantation was really all about. He didn't fully understand, but he did realize that it was hard work for the Negro people and that the white men who worked for his father bullied the workers and threatened them with the short whips they carried. Pieter asked his father why the white men carried whips and shouted at the workers, but Van Leyden just told him it was necessary to make the slaves do the work and that Pieter would understand when he was older.

Pieter grew to realize that the very clothes his friends wore were a kind of uniform. At fifteen, Tillie was given a dress identical to her mother, plain black with a round neck and elbow-length sleeves. As she was trained to serve meals in the dining room she also began to wear a white mobcap on her thick black hair.

As Joss grew he was made to wear stronger work trousers and a shirt of thick material in a nondescript brown color, and soon learned that the hard-wearing clothes were necessary when he began to work in the cane fields. At first, Joss would come home with his hands torn and bleeding and Effie would put a thick cream on them that she said it would help them to not only heal but would also harden his skin.

Pieter began to ask his father more questions, questions that Nicolaas found irritating coming from the young man who would one day run Spinnaker and control the lives of the many slaves who worked for them. Pieter confounded his father at every turn, asking time and again, how could any man consider another man his property? How could any man professing to be a Christian buy and sell and mistreat the bodies of other men?

Nicolaas' answer, that black people weren't considered to be really human and that you couldn't compare their treatment to that of white men, infuriated Pieter in turn. He could not understand such discrimination.

It was hard for Nicolaas to argue with his son; world opinion on the continuation of slavery was against the Dutch and part of him agreed with Pieter's protests, but he couldn't allow himself to think like that. Pieter needed to learn that philosophy and religion were all well and good, but life was based on mundane truths. Business and trade kept the world turning, not pretty fantasies and fanciful thinking. Nicolaas was of the firm opinion that Christianity and business worked very well together; after all, hard work was a Christian tenet, so providing hard work for others couldn't be wrong.

Nicolaas came to the inescapable conclusion that Pieter would never understand this simple fact when the only life he had known was living beside the very people he would one day own and manage.

No, the only way for Pieter to learn, to understand, was to see another kind of life. Nicolaas decided to send Pieter to his cousin's family back in Amsterdam to further his education. He had much to learn and not only in the classroom. Three or four years living and learning in one of the most diverse cities in Europe should teach Pieter everything he needed to know about life in the modern world.

Pieter had been reluctant to leave his small island home, which was all he had ever known, to travel half way around the world to see a strange country and strange people, even if they were supposed to be his family. At the same time, Pieter had been excited at the idea of how much he would see, how much he could experience.

* * * *

Pieter felt out of place when he first arrived in Amsterdam. His family helped him to gradually fit in to the vastly different society of a European city. Pieter had always thought the plantation house at Spinnaker was large; it was certainly one of the larger houses on Sint Maarten, but compared to the Van Leyden merchant's house on Herengracht, his home was modest.

Willem Van Leyden's house was so large that it comfortably housed the three generations of the family, their servants—of which there were many—and still the top two floors were kept for storage. The style of house wasn't called a merchant's house for nothing; time was those floors were used as warehousing. The house had a narrow frontage, mostly of red brick with some sandstone facades around the windows and doors, but it was very tall, having five stories, and Pieter knew they could take him in and probably never notice the addition.

Their house was in the most fashionable area of the city and they entertained only the best people. Though at first Pieter was uncomfortable with the formality of these people, he quickly learned what they expected and how to behave.

He also developed friends among the other students at the university he attended; others were from far flung Dutch holdings in other parts of the world and they supported each other until they found their niche. Eventually, Pieter made a very particular friend, a native of Amsterdam called Barend Courtlandt, who was a couple of years old than Pieter. They gravitated toward each other, spending more and more time together, and they gained the nickname of ebony and ivory, which Pieter found ironic.

Barend had a dark complexion for a Dutchman, with eyes so dark brown as to be almost black and his hair had that blue-black sheen that invited hands to run through it to see if it felt as soft as it looked. In comparison, Pieter was very fair-skinned, with piercing blue eyes and fine features and, though his hair was still fair, it was a little darker than it had been as a child, almost golden now. They made a very handsome pair and the longer they knew each other, the closer they became.

It was Barend who helped him learn the truth about himself. Pieter felt closer to Barend than anyone else he had ever met, except for his childhood friends back home on Spinnaker. He found himself missing his new Dutch friend when they weren't together, thinking about the handsome young man more and more. When he realized that he thought a lot about the way Barend looked, the way he moved, how often they each seemed to touch each other casually, even lean against each other without any specific need, Pieter was puzzled and even a little afraid of how odd it seemed, odd and yet somehow right.

When Pieter was twenty, the dreams began. Pieter was confused and upset and knew he had to speak to someone; yet the person he shared everything with was the one person Pieter didn't think he could talk to about this. How could he tell Barend about the erotic dreams about him, how Pieter woke up as he climaxed following a highly charged fantasy of Barend leaning into him, both of them naked and touching each other?

Pieter wasn't stupid, he knew that it was possible, though wholly unacceptable, to have sexual feelings for another man. However, he had no idea if his thoughts and dreams were just a passing phase that all men went through or if he had a more serious problem.

He had to talk about it and his choices were seriously limited. Pieter couldn't possibly approach his cousin or a priest; that was unthinkable. The only person he could speak to was Barend, but he was afraid of his friend's reaction, but he didn't know what else to do. For days Pieter harbored his fears until Barend challenged him.

It was late one night as they were returning to the Van Leyden house, crossing the bridge across the Amstel that led to the wide avenue where the house was located. Barend's own home was in the same district. They were halfway across the bridge when Pieter stopped, moved to one side and looked down into the dark water below.

Barend stood alongside him, his back to the bridge parapet as he looked at his friend's profile, concerned by the pensive look in his eyes. "Tell me, Piet, I hate to see you look so worried."

Pieter turned, smiling at the diminutive of his name that only his father called him before Barend had taken to using it. "I'm worried because of what I have to confess, Barend. I'm afraid to lose your friendship."

"Lose my friendship? Piet, you could never do that. I... You mean too much to me, don't you know that?"

"Yes, I think I do. You're my friend, but what I've been feeling...what I... It's more than friendship and I don't understand... I don't know if it's real, if I'm just..."

"Say it, Piet, tell me what you feel. Don't be afraid. I think I understand."

Nervous but trusting this man he'd come to care for, Pieter confessed. "I have... feelings for you, more than just as a friend. I...I've had thoughts, dreams that... I should be ashamed," Pieter lifted his head and stared into Barend's dark eyes and somehow he wasn't afraid any more, "but I'm not. It doesn't feel wrong, Barend. It feels so right. Do you understand?"

"More than you know," Barend smiled. He lifted a hand to Pieter's face and stopped a bare inch away. "Can I touch you? I have longed to touch you, to kiss those wonderful lips."

Pieter gasped and Barend's fingers brushed his cheek and then feather-light they caressed his lips.

That was how it began, a simple caress, two men confessing the unacceptable. Then slowly, carefully, Barend showed Pieter how wonderful it could be to love a man. He discovered that a man's lips were eminently kissable, that a man's skin was as soft as velvet and that lying naked against a male lover aroused him so much more than anything ever had before. Barend showed him how wonderful it was for his cock to be kissed, licked, and sucked, how to pleasure his lover the same way. His friend taught him the many ways one man could enjoy another until Pieter felt confident enough to allow Barend to penetrate him. Barend was a very generous partner making sure that whatever he showed his younger lover, Pieter learned to do to him.

Pieter never told Barend he loved him. His friend seemed to understand that, though Pieter cared for his friend very much, it wasn't the all-consuming love that Pieter believed existed and that one day he would feel. Barend never used the word love, either, though he frequently called Pieter his lover; both men accepted they had feelings beyond friendship. Barend also knew that Pieter would have to return home one day soon and he once told Pieter that he wouldn't allow himself to fall in love with him.

Barend confessed that he loved Pieter as a friend, and that he hoped they would meet again one day, but fenced this declaration around with realities as he saw them.

"Of course, we will both takes wives, even if they are that only in name."

Pieter shook his head, saying, "I can't imagine feeling for a woman what I feel for you; no woman has ever assaulted my senses the way you do."

"I know; I feel the same. You know I've had lovers before, I know I prefer men, but I also know that would make me an outcast and that I refuse to be. It might be reprehensible of me but I intend to do my duty and take a wife, and yet still have a lover. I can't imagine surviving without a man in my bed."

Pieter stared at his friend, not knowing if he could live like that.

When it was time to go home to Spinnaker a few months later, he wondered if that was what his own future would be like.

* * * *

The young man who returned home to Sint Maarten shortly before his twenty-second birthday had learned so very much in the four years he had been away. He was very loving, very polite to his father, but he didn't tell the man all the thoughts in his head. Pieter had learned circumspection among the society of Holland's capital city, though it wasn't the most important, or the most surprising lesson he had learned.

* * * *

Pieter had been home for barely a day before he saw Joss again. Pieter had learned from one of the overseers where the young slave was working, and finding him on his own stacking tools at the edge of the field was perfect. For Pieter, the difference four years had made to the young man was breathtaking. Joss had always been tall and slim with lively dark eyes, but now he had added muscle and carried himself with grace. The twenty-year-old Joss brought only one word to Pieter's mind—beautiful.

They stared at each other, both smiling and apparently unsure of what to say or do. Then without conscious thought, they found themselves wrapped up in each other's arms, laughing and both talking at once.

"Pieter!"

Tillie's voice behind him sent shivers of warmth up Pieter's spine. She was carrying a large basket of food, lunch for the overseers, Pieter guessed. He had missed her so much. He had wanted to embrace her when he first saw her on his return, but with his father's presence in the room it hadn't been possible. With a last squeeze to the shoulders, he released Joss and turned to Tillie. Pieter swung his surrogate sister around, grinning happily.

"Oh God, I have missed you two so much!" Pieter said but found his gaze kept drifting toward Joss.

When Pieter had discovered his penchant for men in Amsterdam, everything had finally made sense for him. He had always assumed he was simply shy when it came to the girls he'd met growing up. The only one he had ever felt comfortable with was Tillie, but Pieter came to realize that he simply wasn't interested in women that way. He gravitated toward men and they to him. Barend had keyed him into the truth. The same truth Pieter recognized as he looked at Joss now. The young slave couldn't take his eyes from Pieter, either.

Getting Intimate by Victoria Blisse

It's still hard to get my head around. I've been with Terri for nearly six months and we're still going strong. My longest relationship before her lasted a matter of hours and that was only because someone needed to be with her at the hospital until her mum could arrive. I can't believe how lucky I am to have found Terri.

I was not spending as much time at the gym as I once did, since I was getting plenty of exercise elsewhere. But whenever I was there, Terri was on my mind. We met at the gym. We didn't exactly hit it off at first--I was bumbling and she was insecure but somehow we overcame that.

I wanted to do something special for her; our sixth month anniversary was in just over a week's time, but I was coming up blank. Even the mindless bike riding wasn't getting me anywhere.

"Hi, John, I haven't seen you here in ages."

"Oh, hi, Sam." I didn't stop peddling. I didn't even glance at her. If I looked her in the eye she would have me signed up for one of her charity events or something before I could blink.

"Where've you been?"

"Oh, you know, work and with my girlfriend."

"Oh, right. Well, there's a fun run next Saturday. You know, there's still time to sign up."

"Sorry, it's a special anniversary, I've got plans."

"Oh, right. Well, maybe another time, eh?" I felt her sticky, grabbing fingers on mine and looked up for a split second and met her simpering gaze.

"Yeah, maybe." I wanted to shake her hand off mine; she freaked me out. Not an ounce of fat or a womanly curve on her. Urgh. It made me squeamish. I let out a gentle sigh of relief as her fingers moved and I sensed her walk away from my bike. I peddled all the harder then, my thoughts fragmented. I still had to think of something good to do for Terri, something special.

"Hey." Terri sat on the bike next to me and began to pedal.

"Hey, you," I smiled back, "how're you?"

"I'm alright, but it's been a hard day. I'm not going to be here long tonight. I'm too tired for it. How're you?"

I watched her beautiful flesh bouncing as she cycled in place. My Terri was all womanly curves and I could watch her work out all day. Well, maybe not all day--I'd have to have her eventually.

"I'm alright. Just going to do another mile, then I'll warm down and have a shower. Want me to come home with you? Give you a rub down?"

"As tempting an offer as that is, John, I'll have to say no. I need an early night. I've got to be in at eight tomorrow, sorry."

"Oh, no problem," She sounded tired, her voice distant. She had a lot on her plate at work, though, so I understood why."We're still on for tomorrow night, yeah?"

"Yeah, I've got the table booked already."

"Okay, good. I can't wait."

She didn't reply straight away and when she did it was just to tell me she was moving on to the hand bike. She was worn out, I could tell. I really had to think of a good surprise for that anniversary.

It wasn't until I looked up at the notice board as I leant against that wall to stretch out my muscles that the idea struck me. I thought it out as I showered and cycled my way home and decided it was just the right thing. She'd love it.

* * * *

I could not believe it had been six months or so that I'd been putting myself through the gym torture. Granted, I felt better for it. I was more flexible and filled with energy, but I was not seeing my curves fall away in any significant manner. And of course, the curves that were going were the ones I wanted to keep! My bra had gone down a size and my hips seemed to have shrunk, but no amount of concentration seemed to make my podge of a belly disappear.

I persevered, though, mostly because of John and partly because of Mum. She had bought me the stupid gym pass in the first place and I've always been told it's rude not to accept a present graciously.

It wasn't so bad. At least the gym held good memories for me, and with John around I always had someone to talk to while working my bum off. I could look at him lustfully, too, and then take him home to have my wicked way. Although, he was perfectly capable of having his wicked way, too, come to think of it. He might have been a virgin when we first met, something I still found unbelievable, but he soon got the hang of things. And oh, he was imaginative. He kept me satisfied, but paradoxically that only made me want him more. I wanted to find out all the ways we could orgasm together.

I was lost in lurid fantasy as I pushed the door of the gym open. The usual mix of sweat and antiperspirant products mixed with hot plastic and rubber greeted me as I walked in. That was not what surprised me. What did surprise me was seeing my John talking to the stick insect.

It was a gym. The place was filled with lean, mean, perfectly-formed female bodies, but there was one I disliked more than all the others put together. I'd discovered from the simpering of her friends and her personal trainer's barked instructions that her name was Sam. But in my mind she remained the stick insect. She was as thin as a rail and beautiful with it. She had bright, natural blonde hair and sparkling eyes, and although I beat her hands down in the cleavage department hers was pert and always peeped out the top of whatever sports ensemble she was wearing. Men would literally drool down themselves when talking to her.

Jealous? Me? Well, okay, maybe I was just a little bit. She was everything I wasn't. She was effortlessly gorgeous and instantly charming. Most of the men in the gym wanted to fuck her and half of the women, too, but up until that moment I was sure that my John barely even realised she existed. He loved big women, real women. He adored my curves and told me that at every possible moment. He begged me never to lose them and I told him I couldn't if I tried. And boy, was I trying.

But at that moment my world shattered. I couldn't hear what was being said over the noise of the packed gym but her eyes were full of lust and he was pointedly not looking at her. Why on earth would you not meet the gaze of a person, unless you were trying to hide something or you were feeling guilty about something? I saw exactly what a moment later, when she covered my John's strong hand with her own thin, little dainty one and squeezed. He looked up at her then and smiled. She walked away.

I was stunned. My John had been captured by the stick insect. I carried on across the gym and took the bike beside him. I was still in a daze. He talked to me as if nothing had happened just seconds before. Another sure fire sign of his guilt, I thought. I had been ravenously horny as I walked in the building, but when he asked if he could rub me down I had to decline. I had to get my head ‘round this weird situation.

I couldn't get out of the date for the next night. I'd booked the table in advance and if we didn't show, my card would be charged for an exorbitant amount. Maybe we could sort the whole mess out over dinner.

I couldn't sleep that night. All I could see was her, touching my John. I tried to explain it away, I tried to think of a rational explanation, but every time I just came up with worse and worse scenarios. What if they were seeing each other? What if they were fucking each other? Damn! John could compare my body with hers. The thought disgusted me. There was no way I could compare to her.

* * * *

I knocked on her door promptly at seven o'clock. I had made a special effort not to be late. I knew how much that infuriated her. I didn't want to annoy her before the evening had even properly started. She had so much on her plate at work that I knew the stress boiled over into her private life sometimes. In the gym the night before, she'd seemed very stressed indeed.

She opened the door a few moments later.

"Oh hi, it's you. I'm not quite ready yet." Without another word she turned her back and ran upstairs. I walked in and closed the door behind me. I was baffled. Normally I'd receive a kiss and a cuddle, maybe even more. She had never bolted like that before.

I went to sit in the living room. I wanted to follow her upstairs, but there was something about her demeanour that made me feel I would not be welcome. It's fair to say that I don't have much experience with women. Before Terri, I'd only had a few dates. She was the first woman I was, you know, intimate with. Over the past few months, I'd learned a lot about Terri, her moods, and how to treat her right.

She was very patient with me. She had to be, I was a bumbling virgin idiot at first. With practice I got better at it, like riding a bike you could say. Not that I'd compare Terri to riding a bike. No, she was special. I loved her. I would have done anything for her. So, I sat quietly in the living room and waited. A little apprehensively, to be honest. She seemed upset and life had taught me that I was very probably the cause of her mood.

"Come on then," she said, as she walked in, "We've got reservations for ten minutes time."

"Okay," I jumped up and reached out to take her hand, but she had already turned on her heel and entered the hallway. I followed her meekly out. As she began to stride down the road I asked her how she was.

"Fine," she replied, not offering anything more. I asked her how her day had been.

"Fine," she said again, not even glancing at me.

By that point, I was certain that something was very, very wrong. I tried to work out just what it could be. My heart felt as if it was in the painful grasp of a tightening vice. I sensed I was about to lose the best thing in my life. Terri was my all, and the idea of her breaking up with me scared me to death. I didn't know what to say, though. Every time I tried to think of something to say that would make things better, I only came up with stupid questions and clichéd platitudes. I sucked. I had known it was too good to be true, that no woman could have put up with me for long without growing to hate me. Now, it seemed my theory was proven.

We got to Alfonzo's just in time. The waiter took us straight to our table, past those who were waiting for one to come free. They could end up waiting for a long time. Alfonzo's was always popular on a Friday night. It served good food at a very fair price, a rarity in the restaurant business. We barely said a word to one another as we perused the menu. Terri ordered the lasagne, further proof she was upset about something. She takes great comfort in pasta and melted cheese. I ordered a steak and a salad. The waiter busied off to do whatever magic it is that gets our order made into something we can eat. Silence fell at our table.

All 'round the room, people were talking and laughing. There was music underneath the buzz of voices, but you could barely hear it over the laughter and general joviality of diners enjoying a Friday night treat. Terri wouldn't even look at me. She was fiddling with a paper napkin on the table in front of her. I just couldn't take it any longer. I had to break the silence and let all hell break loose.

"What have I done wrong?" I guess I could have just asked what was up, but I was convinced I was the problem and I wanted to find out how I'd managed to ruin what had been such a good relationship up ‘til that point.

"Nothing," she answered with a shrug and a sigh.

"No, Terri, there's something wrong and it's more than just work. What is it?"

"I said nothing," She hissed, her brows knitting."Let's just enjoy our meal, like all the other people in here."

"I can't enjoy a meal when you're radiating anger and disgust, Terri. I've hurt you, I know it. I don't know how I've managed it, but I want to make it better. I love you."

I could feel tears pricking at the backs of my eyes; I'm such a wet blanket. But I did love her and the idea of losing her over, well, God knew what? It scared me half to death.

"You really don't know?" She huffed and crossed her arms across her lap.

"No, I really don't know. If I knew, I'd apologise for it and beg forgiveness. I'm a pillock, I know that--but I do love you and I'd never intentionally hurt you."

"You really don't know, do you?"

"No, I really don't."

Terri sighed and shook her head."Alright, I'll tell you what's been bugging me." She moved her hands from her lap onto the table, the fingers still interlaced together."Last night I walked into the gym after an exhausting day at work, really looking forward to seeing you and relaxing. But what do I see? You with that string bean of a blonde, holding hands and looking meaningfully into each others' eyes. You were flirting with the stick insect! It broke my heart."

"No, oh no, Terri, I couldn't, I mean I wouldn't I mean. . . ewww." I struggled to complete a sentence. My mind was so filled with shock and surprise. The waiter brought our food just then and it gave me the moment I needed to get my thoughts straight.

"Sam was asking me to do another one of her stupid little fun run things and I said no. Yes, she touched me, but it was sheer fear and disgust you saw in my eyes. Terri, trust me, I couldn't wait for her to go. She freaks me out. She's all skin and bone. Yuck! You know I like real women, Terri, you know I only have eyes for you."

* * * *

He looked sincere enough. He was looking straight at me, he'd not even taken a bite of his food--but how could I be sure?

"But she's way hotter than me, John. I'd understand if you fancied her."

"No, no, Terri, oh please, no. I can't even imagine what it would be like to kiss her, let alone…ewww, no, no, no. I love you Terri, I want you, no one else. No one."

If he was lying, he was doing so very convincingly. His face crinkled up in disgust and I saw real affection in his eyes when he talked about me.

"I love you, too, John, but please don't lie to me. It's happened to me too many times before. Men always leave me for a prettier girl . Ever since Patrick Delaney in junior school, who gave up sitting next to me in the dining hall to sit with Kelly Stanton, the skinniest, prettiest girl in our class. They've all left me for someone better."

"No, Terri." John reached his hand over the table and covered mine with one of his, "They we're just stupid boys who gave up on the best. I'll never do that, never."

I had tears in my eyes, and when I looked up and saw the sincerity written over John's face, one escaped and ran down my cheek. He lifted his hand and gently rubbed away the wetness with the side of his thumb.

"You should have said something yesterday, Terri. I'd have put you straight then. I'm so sorry I've caused you pain."

I sniffed, and smiled as I moved my hand to cover his on my cheek."It's okay. I'll spank you later for being a naughty boy."

He laughed and raised one eyebrow, "Promises, promises!"

The tension left us; the air was cleared."I do love you, John. I'm sorry for jumping to the wrong conclusion."

"It's alright, it's sorted now." John stuck his fork into his meal with gusto."Let's forget it and eat before our food goes cold."

"Good idea." I hadn't felt particularly hungry. The emotional wrangle had exhausted me. But as soon as one creamy, meaty bite hit my lips I discovered I was ravenous and destroyed the rest with gusto. John picked up the bill and we walked out, hand in hand.

I would give him another chance. He seemed genuine and I prided myself on being able to pick up on a liar a mile off. Even if he did fancy her. He had denied it, but I wasn't so sure. She was the female version of him. How could he not be attracted to her? He had definitely done nothing with her and that was the main thing. I could forgive an attraction to a person; it's a natural thing, after all. But I would never forgive him if he actually acted on that desire. How could I? Every time he touched me and my less than perfect body, I would know he'd be comparing it to perfection. I wouldn't be able to live with the shame, even if he could bring himself to touch me again.

"So, I'm coming back to yours, right?"

John's voice cut through my thoughts and I nodded.

"Yeah, if you want to."

"Please," he smiled, "I'd like that." He squeezed my hand.

"But you're going to get your punishment, just like I told you first, naughty boy."

"You're going to spank me?"

"Yes."

"Well, I guess I deserve that." He grinned and leant down to kiss my cheek."I'll do my best to take it as a man, Terri, don't hurt me too much."

"Oh no, I plan on hurting you just enough, love, but if it gets too much you should be able to scream a word to stop it all. How about ‘gym'? That seems kind of apt."

"Okay, I'll remember that."

"Good. When we walk in I want to start playing straight away. I need to spank you and then I'm going to have my wicked way with you, but there are going to be some rules. Are you up for that?"

"Oh, yes, yes I am." He was already getting excited, I could see it in his eyes.

"Okay, then. You will call me Mistress at all times. When you get in you'll go straight up to my bedroom, strip naked, and kneel at the end of the bed. You will wait for me there. You will do everything I say, when I say it and you won't answer back. You will only speak when spoken to. Am I clear?"

"Yes, Mistress," he replied, breathily, without a moment's pause. I could feel the sexual sparks in the air around us and I could not wait to get him home.

"Oh, and if at any time you want to stop the game, say ‘gym. ' Okay?"

"Yes, Mistress." He said it louder that time, growing in confidence and eagerness. Our strides lengthened, our hands still entwined. Both of us were eager to get inside and let the games begin.

I fumbled with my handbag when we got to my door. I'd like to say I did it on purpose, to drive him wild with anticipation, but I was just over excited and my hands were shaking. I eventually got the key into the lock and opened the front door. I held it open for John and he did exactly as told. He walked into the hall and literally ran upstairs. I walked into the living room and dropped my handbag onto the sofa. I took a breath to steady myself then started peeling off layers.

Not that there were many layers to lose. Even in the brutal north of England, August is hot. I had only taken out a light cardigan to cover the tops of my arms from the prying eyes of strangers. Beneath that was a light, sleeveless dress. I dropped them both and left them in a pool on the living room floor. As I had been mad at John when I dressed, I didn't have on the sexiest underwear in the world. Plain, white cotton knickers and a matching white bra. They were more practical than kinky, but I had no time to change and all my sexy undies were in the bedroom anyway. I shook my head, took a deep breath and walked upstairs.

I'm not a naturally dominant woman. I found my dominant streak when I learned John was a virgin. I took charge on that first occasion and enjoyed it. More often than not, I took control of things sexual. We both enjoyed it that way, but I had never before initiated something as kinky as this. I was shaking. I wasn't sure I'd be able to pull it off at all. I was tempted just to walk into my room and say, "Okay, that was your punishment, ha, ha, let's fuck," but I took a deep breath as I reached the top of the stairs and reminded myself that it was a game and decided to play along. It couldn't do any harm and if my dominance broke down after a while, who'd care? We'd be having sex. It's hard to care about anything else mid-fuck.

When I walked into my bedroom, I found him kneeling at the foot of the bed. He was facing away from me and staring at the floral duvet a few inches from his face.

"You've been a naughty boy, haven't you?" I walked up and admired his pert buttocks and strong back.

"Yes, Mistress," he replied immediately, his gaze set straight ahead. As I walked past him I brushed my fingers over his shoulder and heard him gasp in anticipation.

"Naughty boys need punishing." I stated and sat down on the bed in front of him. He didn't speak, he didn't even look up. I let the silence hang whilst I took in his naked submissiveness and noticed his cock straining away from his groin. He was really enjoying this.

"Okay, naughty boy, get over my knee."

He stood up then, eyes still directed down, his cheeks blazing red with emotion. He gently lowered himself over my lap, using his hands for balance. I could feel his hard cock and let my thighs fall open a little to give it space and enjoy the feel of it on my skin.

I ran my hand over his bottom. His cheeks were soft and giving, yet pert from all the cycling and running he did. I lifted my hand away and watched him tense, expecting a spank. I let my hand hang in the air for an extra moment. Just as he started to relax, I brought it down with a smack against his flesh. He yelped and I smiled. I decided I could get used to being the Mistress.

"Naughty boy," I scolded, slapping him again."You made Mistress feel bad, talking to that other woman, You're mine." I spanked him again, harder this time."You understand that, don't you?"

"Yes, Mistress," he groaned. His cock, hard and juicy between my thighs, made me want to pull him up and on top of me. I wanted to feel him between my slick lips, but I resisted and continued to play the game.