Playing The Master
BOOK 2 in the Pleasures In Disguise Series
A woman of mystery…
Ann Parker has been at the mercy of her vicious stepfather for years. Now he’s forcing her to marry a stranger, the coldly handsome Porter Navarro, in a week. She’s led a sheltered existence and had to develop a submissive attitude out of self-protection, but when she’s secretly made over and presented to Porter as “Violet,” she finally begins to taste liberation.
Porter Navarro is a renowned Master in some of the darkest sex clubs around the world. Initiating the fresh submissive, Violet, is an exquisite pleasure—especially when her streak of rebellion shows itself, challenging his ability to control her. The more he sees of her, the more fascinated he becomes, but she has already told him she won’t see him after he marries at the end of the week.
As the clock ticks down, the stakes heat up, and their deepest desires are exposed. Ann hopes Porter will throw over their marriage in favor of pursuing Violet, proving he has feelings for her, but what happens if her secret is exposed before then? She longs for true freedom, but it could cost not only her sensual teacher, but the man she’s grown to love…
"I’ll educate her. It would be my pleasure."
— Porter, discussing Violet, who is his wife-to-be, not that he knows it yet. Playing the Master
Playing The Master and Mastering Her Role are erotic romances originally published by the short-lived HarlequinE. They were released together in The Dani Collins Erotic Romance Collection, but they can definitely be read as stand-alones. They are about different couples and you’ll get a brief cameo of Jason and Arianne from Mastering Her Role in Playing The Master.
In writing this duet, I wanted to explore the fantasy and freedom of alter ego and secret identity. In Playing the Master, the heroine, Ann, goes incognito as Violet to a Paris sex club and lets her arranged-marriage fiancé, Porter, help her discover her true colors.
I’m mostly a contemporary romance author and that’s where the bulk of my time goes, but if you like erotic romance, also check out Taken By The Raider and The Secret In Room 823. I hope you’ll also check out my not-as-erotic, but still very sexy contemporary romances.
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Playing The Master
Removing her glasses so their yellow lenses wouldn’t interfere, Ann peered through the crack in the mirrored bifold door and watched the couple against the wall of the bedroom. The man’s hat was knocked to the floor and his pants hung loose around his thighs. The woman’s skirt was bunched to her waist, revealing her coffee-cream leg hitched on to the man’s thrusting hip.
They were doing it.
And watching them made Ann feel…hmm. Nervous, but not in the fearful way some of her observations made her feel. Excited.
She saw a lot doing this, standing quietly in a spot no one would think to look. Places like a closet with a door ajar were dismissed as empty, and she became a part of the room, like the furniture, silently witnessing all that went on.
She had learned a lot this way—how people really thought and felt. Whether they stole or simply admired beautiful things. Why they gave their loyalty to a man like her stepfather, Cain.
Despite the reason he’d brought her here, she liked Paris. The servants in this mansion weren’t on guard against her habit, and Cain was very distracted. More had gone on in the twenty-four hours she’d been here than had happened in the Al-Zahra mansion in a given year.
The woman seemed to like coupling with this man. In Al-Zahra, Ann had rarely seen men at all, mostly just Fonzo, the chauffeur. He’d been married to her best friend, Raina, the housekeeper. They’d been private people, especially about sex, but Raina had explained certain things when Ann asked. Like how it worked. Ann was deeply curious about the whole process. Did it feel better with someone else than it did alone?
This couple seemed to think so. They had stepped into the room, loosened and collided with urgency and subdued moaning. Their hips were locked together and grinding. What did that feel like?
A rush of heat pooled between her legs. Ann fought the sensation, tightening against it, but that only pulsed a sweet pleasure through her loins. It took all her concentration to stand very still and modulate her breathing.
She swallowed, glad the hushed noise of hands running over clothing and ragged gasps covered her own hitching breaths. The woman’s nails were scraping over the back of the man’s shirt. She arched her neck so her bright red curls bunched on her shoulder and met his thrusts with lifting motions of her hips. The man had his knees bent, his head dipped so his mouth was against her neck. His pale buttocks tensed as he pushed his groin into the woman’s again and again. Their pace grew fevered, their soughs of air sharper.
Ann burned all over. It was so much more exciting and visceral than the pornography Cain watched. That was very Tab A into Slot B, the actors’ faces never this expressive even when they were shown.
Rather than the squirmy mixture of repulsion and curiosity she felt when she glanced at that stuff, this sent flutters of real arousal into her abdomen. Her skin prickled under her loose abaya. Transfixed by the struggle, she held her breath, practically with them as she sensed their crisis looming.
“I’m coming, oh fuck, I’m coming,” the man ground out, thrusting hard into the blue evening gown bunched against the woman’s stomach.
The woman made noises between anxiety and approval, taut and tall as she accepted the pin of the man’s hips into her own. They held the position of stasis for a long minute, the woman’s face frozen in an expression of joyful anguish.
Is that what I look like when I fondle in the dark? When she was coming? Ann’s stinging blush turned to one of discomfiture, but she couldn’t wait for this interminable night to end so she could seek the privacy of her room and relive this experience.
Releasing pleasure-filled sighs, the couple relaxed and slowly disengaged from each other. The man stepped back to tug his pants up his hairy backside. Ann caught a flash of the woman’s mound before she worked her skirt down. Hairless?
As the man closed his fly and buckled his belt, he said, “Gracias,” but in the way of a sarcastic American.
“Mon bijou, thank you.” The woman’s breathless English carried an accent that was French, but she pronounced thank as “zank.” She wasn’t blue-black or tall like the Ethiopian maid they’d left in KSA, but her cadence sounded a little like her.
“Why did you want me to bring you here? Looking for new clients?” the man asked.
“I don’t troll, you know that. Invitations are strictly by referral. If you breathe a word of the club to anyone, I’ll bar you for life. No, this is lurid curiosity.”
“Uh-huh.” He sounded skeptical as he picked up his Stetson and positioned it on his ruffled hair. Glancing around the small dressing room, from its plush, round bench in the center to the closets that lined it, to the vanity table with its delicate lamp, he shrugged as though to say, Nothing left to do here. “Feel free to give ol’ Trev a call if you find yourself locked out of any more parties. That was a pleasant little knee trembler, Eloisa. Take care now.”
He pronounced her name with that same thick drawl. El-oo-ee-sa. Without even a kiss, he left, closing the door behind him.
Eloisa smoothed her satin gown into place. It hugged lovingly at her waist and across her round hips then revealed one smooth brown thigh through its high slit as she walked forward. Coming to the mirrors, she inspected her reflection for flaws, finger-combing her shiny red locks before cupping each breast to ensure the upper swells sat high over her sweetheart bodice. Removing a lipstick from her bag, she ran it over her capricious smile, eyelids drooped in smug satisfaction.
Ann’s heart pounded so loud she was sure the sound filled the room. She held her breath, counting the seconds as she willed the woman to finish grooming and leave.
Instead, Eloisa made one of those tiny shifts of posture and Ann couldn’t even blink. They were staring at one another.
She can’t see me. It’s dark in here—
Eloisa pressed the door open and their similar heights put them face-to-face.
Ann’s stomach plummeted into her knees. She dropped her gaze and fumbled her glasses onto her face. The lenses were greased by her clammy grip and caught, refusing to slide against the caked dryness of her face powder. She left them smudged and crooked.
Did Eloisa recognize her? Ann had made only the briefest of appearances downstairs when the guests had first arrived. Since then she’d been sidling into alcoves and stairwells, not comfortable being the focus of interest after so many years of being locked away and ignored. She definitely had not wanted to be noticed climbing the back stairs to this room.
“Quelle surprise,” Eloisa said in a facetious undertone.
Ann didn’t dare look into her eyes. People who were angry were cruel. You didn’t provoke them by being defiant.
A noise at the door lifted her startled gaze, but the bifold doors unexpectedly blocked her vision as they were thrown back into their rails. Enclosed in darkness once again, she had the barest sliver to view who entered the room.
Oh. Porter Navarro.
Her heart took a further tumbling drop to somewhere in the foyer two stories below. This would be bad. Now her stepfather would find out. If Porter backed out of marrying her, Cain would kill her. Literally. He’d told her so.
Her entire body quivered with an urge to flee, but as usual, she was trapped.
Porter said nothing as he stared at Eloisa.
She placed insolent hands on her hips and tossed her wild curls with bravado.
Ann hadn’t done anything so bold when introduced to him. She’d been too terrified, too conscious she was being sold to a man who looked more wicked and dangerous than her stepfather—which was saying something.
Thankfully, he hadn’t bothered to let his dark gaze linger on her the way he did with Eloisa. If he had, she hadn’t seen it while she’d stared at his shoes. How did Eloisa stand his scrutiny? He was intimidating, tall and ropy with muscle.
And yet, as Ann stole her first opportunity to study him without being observed, the sexy slithery feeling in her abdomen returned. He was even better looking in person than in the photos she’d looked up online.
His father was Spanish, but Porter had been born in South America, which leant warm Latin swarthiness to his skin. His brows weren’t too heavy, but they were intense over smoky gray eyes. He wore a precision-thin moustache with an equally ruthless narrow line of hair that started below his bottom lip and ran into a curving anchor that followed the edge of his strong jaw.
His mother was French, which accounted for the sensual lips, she supposed, but he was more worldly than that, having grown up around the globe as his father expanded the family oil interests. His accent had held a British boarding-school clip. His clothes were tailored either here or in Milan because his tuxedo fit his flawless build to perfection.
Everything about his appearance was excruciatingly perfect, from his shiny black hair swooped to the left to his polished black shoes. Even his companions, women of various ethnicities who’d been photographed by online gossip sites sprawled upon him in barely there bikinis, were utterly flawless.
But when Ann had looked past his brutal handsomeness and money and power, and read the titles he was given, “Sexual Adventurer,” “Master of Kink” and “Lady Killer,” taking her chances with defying Cain and making a run for it looked like the safer option.
Not that she had much say in the matter now. She curled her sweaty palms into fists, holding her breath, waiting for Eloisa to expose her. Waiting for Porter to speak.
They only confronted each other in silence.
Eloisa softened her posture first. She moved toward him with a swish of her hips.
“Mon bijou, this evening is full of the unexpected.” She sounded amused.
Ann dug her teeth into her lip so hard she expected to taste blood. Her nerves frayed as she felt the noose drawn a fraction tighter. A damp chill sat on her skin.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting to see you here.” He glanced toward the closet where Ann was hiding. “Find anything interesting in there?”
“Only your fiancée.”
Ann’s inner being drained from her eyebrows to her ankles in a sucking plunge.
“Is that where she got to?” Porter asked with disinterest, implying he thought she was joking. “People have been asking.”
Ann’s throat locked around a burst of hysterical amusement. Her stomach flip-flopped and all she could do was stand there motionless, waiting for Eloisa to release the blade on the guillotine.
“They want to see what kind of woman could leash the infamous Porter Navarro. From the brief glimpse I had, she seems intriguing.” Eloisa slid a familiar hand over Porter’s arm, lifting onto her tiptoes to attempt a kiss on his cheek. Her gaze cut sideways toward the closet from the corner of her swooped lashes. It was a teasing acknowledgment of Ann’s presence.
Before the kiss landed, Porter set a firm hand on her collarbone and pressed her to flat feet. “What are you doing here, Eloisa?”
“Ever the Dominant.” She tsked as he brushed her hand from his belt buckle. “I just told you. Like everyone else, I wanted a look at this paragon you’re planning to marry. Is she really a virgin?”
“According to Cain. Given how plain she is, I can’t imagine any man would touch her without other incentives.”
As Eloisa tittered, indignant heat crept into Ann’s cheeks. She didn’t know where it came from. Having witnessed how her stepfather had treated her mother, she had little interest in catching men’s attention. In fact, she’d spent the past nine years ensuring Cain found her less than interesting. Repulsive. Raina had helped her disguise the fact she’d grown into the body that had only been starting to blossom when her mother had been killed. Ann couldn’t peel back the layers at this point to reveal that, actually, she wasn’t half-bad. Not with Cain watching her every second, determined to get rid of her and her mother’s oil company in one ruthlessly lucrative stroke of his pen.
Still, it bothered her to know Porter thought she was unattractive. She feared it meant he’d be callous at best, harsh and vicious as her stepfather at his worst. That closed a door on her. Part of her had wondered if this marriage could be a turn of fortune, but apparently not.
“That’s another thing that has me curious.” Eloisa came toward the closet again and fussed with her hair. “You can’t need money. Why are you marrying for it?”
“I’m not,” Porter dismissed with a negligent shrug. “Cain wants to cash out, and if I don’t take this opportunity to absorb his company, someone else will. I like being on top, so I’ll take the steps necessary to stay there.”
“And consume a virgin along the way? Such a sacrifice.”
“Hell, no. She can save that for her next husband. Her stepfather has been living in Saudi Arabia so long he thought her virginity would make a sweetener for the deal. It drew interest from others, I’ll admit, but deflowering innocents doesn’t do it for me.”
“Overdosed in the early years, I imagine. When are you coming to the club? You know people started asking for you the minute you arrived in the city.”
He swept that away with a flick of his hand. “I won’t be there this trip.”
“What?” She spun around. “Why?”
“Reasons that are my own.”
“Something to do with your brother?”
He didn’t move, but he seemed to solidify into a hardened substance in a way that made Ann lean her weight back and hold her breath, gaze fixed on Eloisa, waiting to see if she reacted to his subtle descent into dangerous.
“I’m closing a business deal,” he said in a quiet voice that was deadly enough to lift the hairs on Ann’s arms. “It’s complex and requires a lot of my attention.”
Eloisa made a huffing noise, affecting disinterest as she checked inside her pocketbook, but Ann sensed the charge of hostility between them. “You said she’s from KSA? Saudi Arabia? That explains the lab coat, but they’re not Muslim, are they? Not the way he drinks. Where is she from originally? I heard England.”
“I have no idea. Why does it matter?”
Eloisa offered a smile that held her cheek in a tense bump against her profile. “Just curious.”
He folded his arms. “The marriage is a formality, Eloisa. Don’t feel threatened.”
“By whom? You?”
He lifted a weary brow.
“Of course I wouldn’t. We have no hard feelings between us,” she declared. Her hand pressed into the small of her back, fingers crossed against her spine.
Her cheeky signal made Ann smile despite how awful this was. She liked how Eloisa was standing up to Porter. She’d never had the nerve to stand up to anyone, especially a man who exuded so much power.
Her heart took a little swoop as she regarded him again. He was a quietly dangerous animal, like a panther or a raptor. The kind you wanted to look at through the glass at the zoo, because face-to-face, if he decided to make a move, you’d be gone before you knew what had happened.
And Eloisa was baiting him, treating this like a joke. Bringing Ann in on the secret as if they were conspirators. In a way it made her feel less lonely, just for second, but she was alarmed. She didn’t want Porter to discover her and think she was aligning with this woman. He didn’t seem very pleased with Eloisa.
“I can see your hand in the mirror,” he drawled. “This isn’t a love match. I wanted to buy the company outright and forego the marriage. Cain has made it a condition, because marriage will unlock her trust fund. It’s pure greed on their part, since the compensation for the rigs and drilling rights should be generous enough to hold them for a few years, but he won’t budge. So I’ll marry her to secure the merger and divorce her as soon as everything finalizes. You have no reason to feel slighted, Eloisa,” he finished in a condescending tone.
Interesting information to process later. Ann tucked it away and watched Eloisa drop her loose fingers to her side.
“Why would I feel slighted? We had a lovely affair and went our separate ways. We’re still friends.”
“That’s the way I remember it.” He strolled laconically across the roses in the area rug, becoming more threatening with each step.
Ann drew a slow, awe-filled breath at Eloisa’s strength in standing undaunted as he approached to loom over her.
“And even though I continue to like and respect you—” he began.
“Do you? Perhaps we have different definitions of that word,” Eloisa cut in with a hint of hardening frost.
“—I’m concerned about your motives.” He took hold of her chin.
Ann’s heart raced like a caught bird, fearful for Eloisa. She didn’t want to watch violence, but Eloisa didn’t so much as twinge with apprehension.
“Rather than calling me and asking for an invite, you fucked your way in here—”
“Would you have allowed me to come?” she interrupted again. Such insolence.
“No,” he stated implacably.
“There you go.” Eloisa jerked her chin from his grip and half turned away. “But how else could I see if she’s worthy of you? I failed to capture your heart and wanted to know who could,” she stated breezily. “That’s understandable, isn’t it?”
Ann thought she heard genuine heartache beneath. That was bad. If Eloisa regarded her as a rival, it would be very, very bad.
“Jealousy is a wasted emotion, especially on me. You’ve always known that, and in this case it’s even more misplaced.”
Eloisa turned to look up at him, lips widening in a flat, tight smile against her still profile. “The mighty will never fall?” she challenged, a rasp of bitterness threaded through her tone.
“No,” he assured her. “Not for you or any other woman. So there’s nothing to see here. You can leave. Now. As discreetly as possible.”
“Afraid if I stay, she’ll find out what kind of man you really are and refuse to marry you?”
He released an impatient sigh, but the way he briefly averted his gaze suggested there might be some truth to Eloisa’s accusation. “This deal has to happen. I won’t let you or anyone else jeopardize it.”
Warnings seemed to crackle in Ann’s ears at his determination, but before she could fully examine why, Eloisa distracted her, saying, “Promise to come by the club and I’ll leave without a fuss.”
“You’ll leave because I told you to,” he said with an arrogant look down his nose. “I’ll drop in for a drink if I’m bored,” he allowed with a flicker of patronizing indulgence.
“Oh, I can tell you’re bored,” she said sweetly. “I’ll ensure suitable entertainment is provided,” she added as further enticement.
When he said nothing and the silence drew out, she glanced very briefly toward the closet, then cocked her head at him, voice almost leaving a cloud of chill in the air. “No? Not interested in other women? Saving it all for your fiancée? What do you really know about her?”
This was it. The doors would be flung open. Curdles of dread soured Ann’s stomach as she held her breath again.
“I don’t need to know anything about her and neither do you. That’s the point I’ve been hammering since I walked in here.” He opened the door to the hall. “Now go. Down the back stairs and out through the kitchen.”
Eloisa’s response, something about not being his bitch, faded into the noise of conversation from below as they left the door open.
Ann released a slow exhale and waited a full three minutes, bemused, one hand over the sick knot lingering in her stomach. Porter and Eloisa had speculated on her virginity—which was intact. That only meant she was inexperienced, much as she was with all the ways of the world, but she wasn’t naive. As much as she’d like to believe there would be no repercussions from the unpredictable Eloisa, instinct told her that would be wishful thinking.
The real question, however, wasn’t what action Eloisa would take, or when, but how her betrothed would react. Porter didn’t have much of an opinion of her to start with, obviously, and he held her fate in his wide hand. Would he care that she had watched his lover coupling, or that she’d eavesdropped on his conversation? Would he tell her stepfather?
Despite years of wishing she could see her future, she’d learned that things had to play out in their own time. She could only respond when it happened, and then always in a limited way. Unless she made changes.
She trembled in a kind of shock as she stepped from the closet and slid the other side of the closet open, where wraps and overcoats had been hung by the servants. Fingering through the pockets of one damp raincoat, she found nothing and slid it across to the ones she’d searched before the approaching voices of Eloisa and her suitor had prompted her to step behind the bent door.
Paris was becoming less interesting and more dangereux. Perhaps not the best place to run away after all, but when would she have another opportunity?
This isn’t a love match.
If she bided her time and allowed the marriage, would she gain the trust fund that was rightfully hers and finally be free? She didn’t bother thinking about the greater fortune, the oil company. It might have been started by her father and inherited by her mother, but it had gone to Cain on her mother’s death and Ann had no interest in fighting him for it. Ridding herself of him was worth whatever he may or may not be stealing from her.
Skimming half of the notes from a cologne-scented pocket—a trick of subtle theft, she’d observed, was slower to be discovered—she tucked her find with the rest up the sleeve of the dress she wore beneath her abaya. A few minutes later, she used the back stairs and the pantry entrance to the dining room to rejoin the reception.
The band was on intermission. Perched on the piano bench, she hid behind the piano’s raised lid, skirt and slippers blocked by a potted fern. If she had the ability to buy stocks, she would have made a fortune on what she overheard undetected.
Her life might be on the verge of change. Paris might be a delightful switch of scenery from the arid Arab peninsula, but Ann still felt like the fairy-tale princess locked in the castle.
Porter, or rather his mother, was organizing the wedding—something Ann didn’t care about. She’d never been to a wedding, had had enough of protocol and tradition in KSA and planned to avoid marrying at all.
Running away was proving challenging, however. Cain had laid the groundwork that she was some kind of sleepwalking mental deficient who needed to be locked in her room at night and turned away from the front door during the day. Of course, Porter had sounded pretty insistent last night that the marriage-merger occur. Perhaps he was as much to blame for her imprisonment as Cain.
She still didn’t know what to think about all she’d seen and heard last night. Despite the possibility of gaining her trust fund, she couldn’t see marrying Porter. He was too big and scary and powerful. And Eloisa obviously didn’t want them to marry, so why hadn’t she exposed her? The perils closing in on her were so great, Ann could think about nothing except running from them, but she couldn’t get away.
At least the castle was wide open to her. Snooping through the upstairs bedrooms of the centuries-old mansion, she’d found a laptop no one was using. She hadn’t had online access since arriving here and was feeling the absence, even though she’d only ever had Cain’s desktop when he was out. Still, she was in the habit of surfing when she was bored, and she was dying to know if sites really were uncensored here in France, as she’d been led to believe.
The laptop was charging in her room right now while she wandered the back garden looking for possible escape routes. A stone wall rose from the rocky foundation of this river island, making the garden as much of a prison as the rest of the house, but the abundance of water here was such a marvel she paused to absorb it.
The wall came to a point where the Seine lazily zipped itself together from flowing down either side of what had to be a billion-euro property. The three-story chateau with its gold fixtures and crystal chandeliers was not the greatest luxury here, despite what the occupants might imagine. After more than a decade in a country where they’d had to set towels along the door cracks to keep out the dust during a storm, she gloried in the dank scents of algae and wet earth that filled her nostrils. When she rested her hands on the fur of mossy stones, light raindrops landed in gentle pecks against her knuckles. Water even fell from the sky here.
As she looked up, rain speckled her glasses and kissed her lips, making her smile. No wonder writers were so taken with springtime in Paris.
The dogs at the front, sleek pinschers she’d seen from the car when they’d arrived, exploded with vicious barks. The sound made her turn toward the wrought-iron gate she’d half-considered stepping through. It led to the paved stones of the front courtyard, which was fenced to twice her height and guarded by a man in a shack along with the hounds from hell currently lathered into a rabid fury because a toy poodle had dared to trespass. The little creature ran flat out down the side of the house, with the pinschers in manic pursuit.
Ann sucked in a horrified breath and started forward, terrified for the mite.
Her approach only scared the pup as he ducked under the gate. He veered into the shrubbery at the side of the house. The big dogs came up against the bars where they snarled and barked, pawing through the uprights, trying to follow.
Heart pounding, she scanned for the pup. Where would he go from here? Like her, he was trapped in this back garden unless he wanted to take his chances in the river. Trying to ignore the still snarling dogs, she moved to the garden bed and crouched, trying to spy the poodle in the warren of low-swept branches and bobbing tulip heads.
One of the doors onto the veranda opened. Porter Navarro’s long legs descended the wide stone stairs next to her.
She stood, not looking at him. No longer looking for the puppy either.
“Are they scaring you? They shouldn’t be barking at guests.” Walking around her, he spoke sharply and made a hand gesture.
The dogs circled once, offered a final yelp, but a stern word sent them away.
Paralyzed by his dynamic presence, Ann waited for him to go back into the house. Porter hadn’t acted differently last night from before and after the dressing room incident, only finding her once to say, “For what it’s worth, my mother is responsible for this circus. Not only does she make everything about her, she rightly suspects it’s her only chance to play mother of the groom.”
Ann hadn’t known what to say. His mother was a beautiful woman who dressed provocatively, drank excessively and flirted without constraint. Erico Navarro, Ann had observed from a quiet vantage of a recessed window, had taken a blonde into one of the guest rooms and stayed there for an hour. Another knee-trembler, she suspected.
Ann still didn’t know what to say to Porter and silently willed him to go inside so she could look for the puppy.
“It’s raining,” he told her.
Yes I know that, she wanted to counter, but didn’t have Eloisa’s audacity. She felt his gaze on her like another muffling layer over her hijab and abaya. Like last night, a sharp longing rose in her to show him she wasn’t really this plain. Beneath the dull olive powder that flaked on her cheeks and made her look unhealthy was a lovely English complexion. The narrow flatness of her lips was a habit she’d developed to keep her mouth pressed closed around Cain, since she wasn’t allowed to speak unless he asked her a direct question.
Would Porter even care if he saw her as she really was? She couldn’t compete with those leggy supermodels he seemed to prefer. He’d basically said so.
A branch trembled and a black nose poked out from beneath it. Pleading eyes stared up at them for a few seconds. The puppy whined once and worked himself out of his hiding spot, belly on the ground, head low.
“Is that what stirred them up,” Porter said with mild disgust.
Ann’s throat closed over an automatic protest. It wouldn’t be worth arguing with Cain if he wanted to kill the dog then slap her for feeling empathy toward it, but she didn’t know what to expect from Porter.
He crouched and held out a hand, beckoning the dog with a light snap of his fingers.
The poodle crawled forward, badly shorn, filthy and trembling with cold.
Porter picked him up and checked each of his limbs, his handling sure and gentle, but thorough.
“You’ll have to keep him in your room. Mother will have him thrown in the river if she sees him.” He handed her the dog.
His flat statement startled her into glancing up through the rusty-water hue of her glasses. He broke the eye contact as soon as her gaze met his, looking with pity at the dog, but she’d glimpsed into his soul and realized that even though it appeared black and empty, it was merely hidden in a very deep cave.
His mother was not a kind person, something Ann had already guessed, but she hadn’t considered what that would mean for a boy growing up. Now she sensed something not unlike her own adolescence.
Having pain in common was not the sort of connection Raina had meant when she’d assured Ann that she would one day find a man who was her perfect match, but emotional agony was a surprisingly strong and quick binding agent. Recognizing a like soul made her heart burst into a frightened beat like a panicked bird’s wings when it was unexpectedly snared. She didn’t want to feel anything for him. It was a trap, she was sure.
Nevertheless, cradling the wiggling, licking animal, she recognized that her first stirrings of physical attraction had taken a giant step into something more elemental and personal.
Nothing so dramatic happened on his side, though.
“Bathe him. Warm him up,” he said, and walked away.
Watching his economic movements, weakened by yearning and relief, she realized she hadn’t managed to conjure one word from her dry mouth.
A tiny tongue licked her bare toes.
With a grin, she crouched to pet Fonzo with three fingers. He was still shivering, but now it was with excitement. Clean, warm, fed, and apparently paper-trained, he was her real perfect match.
Someday you will find your own Fonzo, Raina had often said to Ann when she had despaired of having a life beyond Cain’s control. Raina had been referring to her husband and the love of her life. Fonzo and Raina’s deep love and seemingly perfect marriage had made Ann sick with envy. She wanted what they had, but she was used to making do when it came to fitting her dreams into reality. If she couldn’t have a protective, loving man devote himself to her, she’d call the dog Fonzo and regard him as her knight in shining armor. He’d already made her lighter of heart and happier than she’d felt in a long time.
Fonzo put quite a crimp in her plans of escaping, though. She couldn’t swim with him, not that that was her first choice of routes. How else, though?
She refused to succumb to doubts that escape was possible. Raina and Fonzo had never given up despite being indentured to Cain. They’d seized their chance when they’d all landed in Rome. Fonzo had been tasked with handing all the passports to the customs agent, but he’d kept his own and Raina’s. Seconds later, they’d disappeared. No doubt they were back in Raina’s native Philippines by now.
Ann didn’t blame them, even though Cain had accused her of helping them and had taken out his anger on her. The bruises were still fresh across her shoulders, but she took inspiration from their courage. If they could do it, so could she.
But where would she go?
That part blanked her mind and she didn’t have much time to figure it out. Last night’s “engagement party” was six days ahead of the wedding. She had a very narrow window to escape.
If only she had a reason to leave the compound. In Al-Zahra she’d taken semi-frequent trips to the women’s fitness center or mall. Raina and Fonzo had had the proper papers to take her that far, and Cain had known she couldn’t leave the country without his approval so he’d allowed it. Here, he kept asking for things to be delivered. There was a gym on the third floor if she wanted exercise. Stylists were being called in to arrange hair and wardrobes for the ceremony.
Standing on her balcony, Ann wrung the cold iron rail with restless fingers, peering to the paving stones below, wishing she could leap into the midday rain and a new future, but a jump from here would only result in two broken legs.
If she somehow did make it to the police, would they help her? Raina had promised her they would. Everything she’d read suggested non-Muslim countries allowed women to have more power over their own lives, but dare she believe it?
Oh, this silly poodle had more courage than she did and he was smaller than an alley cat.
He took off into the bedroom with an excited clip of his nails on the hardwood, alerted by the sound of someone entering the room.
Ann hurried to catch him and scoop him up, fumbling one-handed to set her glasses on her face.
“Mademoiselle—?” the maid broke off with a surprised look at the dog.
“Porter said I could have him,” she asserted quickly, then held her breath.
“But of course,” the girl accepted easily, making Ann’s heart pound like she’d had a close shave. “Perhaps leave him here, however. You are asked to come down.”
Ann waited until the girl had left to set Fonzo on his chair, then checked her hijab and followed. Her knees weakened as she descended the stairs, wondering who had asked for her. Cain? Porter? She didn’t know which would be worse.
Señora Navarro had summoned her to the quaint parlor overlooking the river. She and another woman sat in elegant comfort on matching Louis Quinze settees. They both wore silk dresses, both sipped from exquisite crystal flutes, and each clutched the dragon-shaped tip of a hookah hose. The cloying scent of hashish hung in the air. Ann recognized it as the same smell that had drifted from the neighbors in Al-Zahra.
The blonde woman’s gaze was surprisingly keen as she appraised Ann from head to fingertips, seeming quite alert despite her relaxed posture. That underlying sharpness sent a stab of unease into Ann’s belly.
“Bon matin, ma petite,” the stranger said.
“Don’t bother with French. She barely has English, as far as I can tell,” Porter’s mother said in a bored drawl. Her heavily darkened lashes sat low over the dull gray of her eyes. “But you can see what I mean about Porter continuing his assault of shame on us. Had I realized what a laughingstock she’d make us, I wouldn’t have planned last night’s soiree, but once she was here, the damage was done.”
I’m still here, Ann wanted to point out.
“Take off the glasses,” the stranger said in English, and when Ann complied, she said in French, “She needs what the Americans call a makeover. Simply putting her in a dress and cutting her hair won’t do. Does she have much of a figure? I have a great deal of work ahead of me,” she sighed.
“I’ve told Porter to call it off. Erico insists it happen. We’re not speaking.” She drew heavily on the pipe, making it bubble.
“Are you ever, chèrie?” the blonde asked with a droll lift of a brow.
Ann took a step backward, hoping she was dismissed, but the stranger made a noise of refusal. “Un moment. We must start or you won’t be ready. A week, chèrie,” she blustered lightly at Porter’s mother. “I can’t believe you have done this to me.” Picking up her mobile phone, she tapped then stared straight into Ann’s eyes as she said in a honeyed voice, “Eloisa, s’il vous plaît.”
Ann wanted to close her eyes as her muscles wilted, but she could only wait as if unaffected. Her neck hurt where her shoulder muscles bunched with tension. She had sensed something and now she knew what the niggling feeling sitting in her stomach was: the instincts of the hunted scenting a predator.
“Ma bichette, you must permit me a favor. I cannot do this alone. We have a young woman in need of your magic touch. Can you fit her in? No, we must start today. Parfait. I will bring her—”
“Cain said she wanders if she’s allowed to leave the house,” Porter’s mother interrupted, but it was halfhearted.
“They are very trustworthy,” the stranger assured. “Eloisa? We must be cognizant that she is very precious and guarded at all times, tu comprends? Merci, chèrie. I’ll bring her within the hour.” She ended her call and offered a cold, merciless smile.
Ann tried not to run as she hurried back to her room and the laptop. The last person to use it, Tomas, hadn’t bothered with little things like passwords so she was online in seconds, searching maps of Paris. Should she call the police?
Before she could get very far, out of nowhere, a window appeared on the screen. Porter Navarro’s name sat in block letters across the top.
Who is this?
Ann picked up her hands as if the keys had caught fire. She wasn’t a computer genius, had merely used Cain’s desktop in Al-Zahra when he was out. He had never been security-conscious enough to suspect her or even erase his history the way she’d learned to do. She didn’t know how to cover the fact she was online now, though.
You’ve broken into a private network and I’m tracing your IP.
It’s Ann, she replied quickly, then waited.
I thought my brother was back from the dead.
I’m sorry, she responded, smiling a little, but genuinely remorseful. That must have been a shock for him.
How did you get his profile?
Someone gave me his laptop, she prevaricated, and waited. And waited. The lack of response seemed bad. She wondered if he was coming to her room to take it back. She looked to the door and when she looked back, a new message had appeared.
Use these credentials. He included instructions for creating a profile under her own name. Set it up now. Confirm it works.
A few minutes later she had logged in as herself and looked for the window to message him. He was faster.
A funny shiver chased over her. I’m here. Thank you.
How’s the dog?
Good. She lifted her fingers, considering whether to be so forward, but talking through the computer made her brave enough. Can I keep him—after we’re married, she wanted to write, but she didn’t want to marry him. She hit Return.
If you like.
She sat back, stunned by his willingness to accept the stray.
Into her haze of warm feelings toward him, the maid knocked and entered. Señora Navarro’s friend, Madame Cosette, was leaving now. Ann should come down, rapidement.
Shaken, she leapt to her feet and flitted into several directions, wanting to collect her money from its hiding place, but the maid stood watching. She couldn’t take Fonzo either. Her movements felt jerky even though she worked hard to betray nothing.
As she followed the maid down the first flight of stairs, she glanced down the hall toward the one ally she might have. Porter had his back to her as he looked out the window, mobile phone to his ear.
Ann’s heart sank as Madame Cosette looked up at her from the bottom floor. There was no way to avoid Eloisa, not without the threat of exposure.
“You do as you’re told,” Madame Cosette said once they were seated in the back of a town car. The lilt of cruel amusement in her tone made Ann’s heart harden, until the woman added, “Porter will like that.”
The words rang in her ears, both grating and reassuring, distracting her from finding an opportunity to leap to freedom at a corner. The streets were a maze in the dimming light. Signposts and buildings and pedestrians whisked by so fast she wasn’t able to identify anything or memorize landmarks. She had heard the thunk as the driver had locked the doors, and sitting next to Madame Cosette, she couldn’t reach for the handle until she was ready to make her move. She didn’t know how much time she would have before the car would take off again, and she didn’t want to die trying to live.
Anxious as she was, she did her best to seem unperturbed, keeping her hands folded one atop the other, expression neutral and face forward while her eyes darted behind her yellow-tinted glasses, desperately seeking the opportunity she needed.
Stillness was something she was good at. She’d once stood for an hour on hot sand beneath a window, a scorpion sitting on her bare foot, the hem of her abaya flicking the insect into pulling its tail into readiness again and again. Partly she’d endured it because she’d been determined to hear everything her stepfather had been telling authorities about her mother’s fatal fall down the stairs. Another part of her had willed the scorpion to sting her and send her into the afterworld to be with her mother.
The car came to an unexpected stop in a narrow alley between very high brick walls. Ann’s belly tightened against renewed, turbulent sensations. She pushed away fear and naive wishes for things to be different. Those sorts of thoughts had never helped.
Her door was opened by a giant of a man who appeared out of nowhere, one she didn’t dare argue with as he instructed her to step from the car directly into the back entrance of a villa. Belly twitching in fear, she didn’t look back at Madame Cosette, already wondering if she’d have better luck with this other scorpion.
Her mother had had excellent taste, and the mansion in Al-Zahra had been faultlessly beautiful, if stiff and formal. The wingback armchairs and sofas, upholstered in silk, had worn reserved stripes of red and gold. The wooden end tables had ended their carved legs in knobby paws. Emptiness took up its own space in the marble-columned rooms of the only home she remembered, filled only with area rugs in geometric patterns. No family photos had warmed the place. Not even houseplants. Water was too precious. After her mother’s death, the house had become a shrine of sorts, the crimson drapes and decorative alcoves only used for hiding a scared and lonely young woman.
As for Porter’s home, the mansion was beautiful, but very old, with scarred wooden floors, small rooms and narrow doorways.
By contrast, the home she entered now was modern, open and exquisitely sensual. A wall of windows looked onto an inner courtyard garden while impressionist paintings decorated the opposite walls, elevating the giant colored dots in the carpet to a statement. French jazz played through an invisible sound system and a scent of vanilla and almonds hung subtly on the air.
The rear of the parlor was a narrow wall containing a fireplace that opened on both sides. Ann glimpsed a highboy dining table and chairs in the next room. A loft overlooked this one. Stairs descended from it in a spiral that landed in the corner.
Eloisa wore a sheer robe over a lace nightgown. She didn’t rise from sitting at the end of a curved white sofa, legs tucked alongside her hip. A laptop balanced on the arm casting a colorless light into her clean features as she lifted her gaze.
Distantly Ann was aware of her heart thumping steadily with fear. Her skin was as clammy as the moment she’d been discovered by Eloisa in the closet, but she betrayed none of it, not even glancing back when she heard a muted buzz in the door behind her that suggested she’d been locked in. The only escape appeared to be the wall of windows with a subtly cut door, but the birdcage chair hanging by the window would make a beautiful hiding place if turned into the wall and the coffee table had a skirting just deep enough—
“Remove your shoes,” Eloisa said in English.
They were only slippers, but Ann set them near the door and straightened, finally looking at this woman who had gone to enormous trouble to bring her here without revealing it to anyone. Why?
“My home is still new. I had planned not to allow guests at all, but I’ve changed my mind. I do that,” Eloisa added, as if talking about someone who exasperated her.
Ann didn’t know what response to make to that so only clasped her hands lightly together, hiding them behind the draping sleeves of her abaya.
“Do you speak?”
“Better. I prefer French,” she said in that language. “Any others?”
“Arabic.” The two main dialects, anyway. Her Gulf was mediocre and her Egyptian terrible. “Tagalog.”
“You’ve lived in the Philippines?” Eloisa’s tone lilted with surprise.
“The servants spoke it.”
“Of course. European languages?”
“I can read and write German and Spanish. My accent is poor.”
“A very honest statement from a dishonest person. You were picking pockets the other night.”
Ann didn’t react to the statement, even though her arteries exploded with a punch of adrenaline. She kept her gaze on a blood-red circle on the plush carpet.
Eloisa stayed where she was, letting the silence draw out until finally saying, “I didn’t arrive at that conclusion myself. A client who visited my club after leaving your party told me he was certain he had placed two-hundred euros in his pocket when he left his town house, but he could only find one. I assured him he must have miscounted and covered his taxi fare when he left for home.”
So you are in my debt, seemed to be the implication. The pit of Ann’s stomach became a bucket of gravel and glass.
“Where are you going with the money you’ve taken?”
Ann subtly locked her teeth, but it was less about refusing to speak and more about clenching to hold on to her control. This was her chance. She didn’t want it to billow away like desert dust, but she’d been discovered and it was all in jeopardy.
“You won’t tell me? Or you don’t know?” Eloisa asked with a sly smile.
That’s as far as Ann lifted her gaze, the naked lips curved into a superior tilt. Her fingernails dug into the backs of her hidden hands, all the bones and muscles in her body locked into a tense stand.
“I will guess from what I’ve learned about you that you don’t know,” Eloisa concluded, dropping her attention to her laptop long enough to close it. Then she flicked her gaze up to snare Ann’s startled one. “Yes, I’ve been investigating you, but you’re still a bit of a mystery. All I really know is that I hate to waste an opportunity, and I sense one in you.” She set aside her laptop and rose. Her figure was voluptuous and soft under the flow of thin silk, her feet bare. She arched and relaxed with a sigh. “It was a late night. I need coffee and a bath while I decide what to do with you. Come.”
To watch her bathe? I don’t think so, Ann thought, but one expectant look from Eloisa tugged her feet into following. It was something about her feminine authority, not imperious and arrogant, but straightforward and firm. It reminded Ann of her mother when she’d said, Baby we have to do what he wants. We have to.
Women might have influence over other women, but in her experience they were mostly powerless, which made her wonder who cracked the whip over Eloisa.
They stepped outside to the tiny garden. It was an enchanting oasis straight out of the Arabian tales that were nowhere near Ann’s reality. Evening birdsong lifted and fell in ardent whistles and peeps. The air was damp and warmer than she’d expected thanks to a round pool in the middle of the courtyard, its steaming water providing a tropical humidity for the broad-leafed plants that edged it.
High brick walls surrounded the little retreat, well disguised behind thick ivy. The harsh prison was further softened by trees covered in twinkling lights and fragrant cherry blossoms. Decorative pines rose in twisted spikes between the graceful red skirts of Japanese maples. Flowers she couldn’t even name bobbed their heads in greeting. A trellis hung over the short patio where they stood, entwined with more ivy—or perhaps it was grapes. Over the pool, however, was only dimming sky with pinpricks of faint stars beginning to show.
“Don’t worry, I take my privacy seriously. No one can access this courtyard from outside.”
Or leave it? Ann resisted the urge to fold her arms in dismay.
Eloisa tapped a panel and the pool began a rolling boil tinted with colored lights. She removed her peignoir and gown and walked naked along the handful of gleaming stepping-stones to the pool. Glancing over her pale shoulder, she asked, “Have you been in one before? I use salt water, not chlorine. Easier on the skin. Join me. I want to talk to you about Navarro.”
Ann didn’t consider herself a coward, just a survivor. A slender adolescent had no chance against an angry bear like her stepfather unless she was as quiet and quick at disguising herself as a lizard. This new climate, with a cat that watched her and seemed to be biding her time before pouncing, was deeply unsettling.
“Why are you hesitating? Do you have marks you don’t want me to see? Does your stepfather rape you, Ann?” She sank into the pool like a goddess, arms sprawling to the edges, her razor sharp gaze at odds with her casual body language.
“No.” Her voice was small because she knew Cain had done that to her mother—too many times to count. Hide when he’s in that kind of mood, baby. Just hide. He’d never shown interest in her that way, though—maybe because her mother had encouraged her to dress like the locals in hopes she’d make friends. Maybe because Raina had watched over her. Maybe because he’d seen her virginity as a commodity.
And he’d been scared after throwing her mother down the stairs. The Arab authorities hadn’t wanted much to do with the foreigners and their domestic problems, but a man from the British consulate had come to the house. There had been talk about what to do with Ann and the provisions made for her. It would go to the British government if she wasn’t alive to use it, she’d overheard. Now she understood they’d been talking about her trust fund.
Cain had confined most of his lashing out to verbal after that. Of course, she’d stayed well out of his way.
A diminutive woman came through the glass door at her back, meekly bowed her olive-skinned face and carried a tray with two cups and an urn to the flat stonework encircling the pool. Kneeling, she poured Eloisa’s coffee, waiting in stillness for Eloisa’s appreciative sigh before letting her shoulders relax.
“You’ve improved, Tsitsi. Now help our guest remove her clothing.”
Ann instinctively took a step back as Tsitsi approached.
“Don’t confuse her. She’s training as a submissive,” Eloisa said.
The odd remark gave Ann pause, enough that Tsitsi honed in on the pin beneath her chin that secured her hijab. Ann stiffened at the contact and release of silk, looking toward Eloisa.
“I don’t know what that means,” she admitted. Eloisa made submissive sound like an object, not a behavior.
Eloisa’s smile was mysteriously informed. “I think you do.”
Before she could decide whether to query further, Tsitsi nudged the layer of silk to fall back off her slippery hair. Ann automatically caught at it, disturbed. She didn’t observe the head covering for any reason other than that it was a layer of protection against Cain, but baring her head outside the safety of her room felt odd. Even knotted firmly in its bun, having her hair visible made her feel strangely exposed.
“Do they not allow women to wear contact lenses in KSA?” Eloisa asked.
Ann automatically moved her hand to keep her glasses secured to her face while Tsitsi tugged the shawl completely free and hung it next to Eloisa’s clothing.
“These are, um…” just terribly ugly glasses that provided one more shield to disappear behind.
Tsitsi lowered the zipper down her front. It was very disconcerting, and Ann looked over the woman’s head toward Eloisa, silently begging for rescue. Eloisa only cocked her head in amusement as Tsitsi skimmed her out of the abaya and revealed Ann’s snug workout clothes of yellow capri pants and faded red tank top.
“I don’t know what I thought women wore under those things, but that’s not it.”
“You can wear whatever you want,” Ann mumbled, folding her arms against a chill that was more a slow descent into shock. How was this happening? Hide, be still, accept. Those had been her mantras all her life. She didn’t know how to defy and fight back.
Eloisa continued to watch with amusement as Ann was jostled by the lowering of her pants. “You don’t shave?”
Ann dropped her hands to cover herself, longing to refuse this stripping. The hovering fear of upsetting Eloisa kept her from doing anything but registering her dismay by not making this easy for Tsitsi.
“You have to change for dinner anyway, so stop making Tsitsi feel as though she’s displeasing you. Let her take your shirt and join me.”
Ann gave in, partly because Eloisa spoke so sternly, partly because it was the quickest way to end the struggle and find cover. It’s not like she’d never changed in front of women at the gym, but she’d never had her bare, vulnerable body blatantly evaluated.
Seconds later, frothy water engulfed her, tickling and hot enough to make tension impossible to hold on to. She wanted to hug her knees and leave them poking above the bubbles popping under her chin, but as she sat on the bench across from Eloisa and watched Tsitsi pour the coffee, her limbs became loose and floaty.
“Work on your lists of punishments and rewards until I call you, Tsitsi.”
Ann couldn’t help following Tsitsi with her eyes, mind repeating punishment. And rewards? What kind?
“Did you have lovers in the Kingdom?”
“No.” Ann swung her attention back to see Eloisa gently swaying back and forth like a viper. Perhaps she was using one of the jets to massage her back. A powerful blast was punching her own tender shoulder. Ann shifted to a more comfortable spot that forced her to face Eloisa.
A lover? “No.” She’d been here two days. When would she have found the time? Or the know-how? As intrigued by sex as she’d been since puberty, she’d never had an opportunity to so much as talk with a male her age, let alone develop enough of a relationship to sleep with one. Flirting and seducing were beyond her.
She had dreamed of doing those things, though. She’d read romance novels and crushed on a dozen different movie stars and had longed for a young man in the mall to glance past her ugly disguise and see a girl he would want. One he’d fight to have.
Maybe it was laughable to yearn for such things, but she wanted to feel secure and loved and needed. Not ugly and unwanted.
“You didn’t ask for those bruises then. Your stepfather?”
Ann looked down, oddly embarrassed, even though it wasn’t her fault. At the same time, she pulled her brows together in puzzlement. Who asked to be bruised?
“Your sexual experience really is zero? Stop picking pockets, Ann. Do you know what men will pay for virginity?”
The facetious, I have an idea, that flitted through her mind must have shown on her face because the corners of Eloisa’s mouth deepened their curve.
“Perhaps you do,” she said. “Given the way your stepfather has put you up for sale alongside the family business. But it’s not Porter’s thing, despite this tremendously important deal he’s negotiating.” Her pithy tone denigrated how important it could possibly be. “I’m talking about auctioning yourself for cash. You could be well on your way to the freedom you’re looking for.”
“And not marry him.” She tilted her face so the steam wouldn’t fog her glasses.
“Exactly. Start your life elsewhere.”
So here came the discouragement of a rival she’d been expecting. A strange sensation of resistance rose in her, an inexplicable possessiveness that she put off examining because she needed to remain sharp around this woman. With Cain, she watched in readiness for a sign he’d strike out, staying tense and poised to run. Eloisa was a mental opponent, an unfamiliar one. She required focus to see all sides of every word and phrase so Ann could interpret her underlying motive.
“It sounds as if I could have money without sex if I go through with the marriage. Porter said he wasn’t interested in me, just the oil company,” she reminded.
“You could have as much as you want of both money and sex if you marry him. Porter can say he’s not interested, but one of the few things he’s not into is self-denial.” Her smug smile reeked of intimate knowledge. “But you’re not thinking about using your gifts for gain, are you? The only alternatives you see for yourself are running away or doing as you’re told.”
Frustration thickened in the back of Ann’s throat, closing over a protest that those were the only choices she had, but she wasn’t about to argue with anyone who spoke as confidently as Eloisa.
“It’s okay, Ann. I understand being controlled by fear.” Eloisa’s features became sober and sincere. “That’s why I allowed you to stay in the closet the other night. I could smell it on you when I found you, even though I think a part of you enjoyed watching us.” She twirled a lock of her damp red hair, but eyed Ann so knowingly Ann’s stomach knotted. “Is that true?”
Ann stared into the bubbles, not wanting to admit how many times she’d replayed the vision in her mind, how she’d substituted herself and Porter and found the thought arousing enough she’d had to rub away the throbbing ache between her thighs. A punch of sweetness hit her now, hidden but exaggerated by the heat of the water rushing against nether parts that usually had a bathing suit as barrier, not exposed folds that let heat seep into the most private and sensitive creases.
“I’ve never seen anything like that. Online content in KSA is censored,” she prevaricated.
“Tsitsi has to pull a punishment card if she is less than honest with me. Which is why you are here, by the way. Your naughty act of voyeurism last night, much as it amuses me, demands retribution. I always even a score,” she promised, her steady stare chilling Ann’s center where the heat of the water couldn’t penetrate. “I’d like to do the same with Porter,” she added with a thoughtful purse of her lips, gaze still fixed on Ann. “He needs to understand what it feels like to be led along then rejected.”
I think he knows, Ann almost said, thinking of his brief, strangely bleak expression in the garden. For some reason it seemed like a betrayal of a confidence to bring it up.
“But now I feel sorry for you,” Eloisa continued with self-disgust. “Men are such bastards. Women need to help each other when they can. Don’t you agree?”
“Of course,” Ann murmured, biting the inside of her lip, trying not to reveal how the word punishment was swirling in her mind, making her anxious. Her gaze went to the hooks in her periphery that hung empty now. Tsitsi had taken their clothes. She had nothing.
Desolation sat hot and thick in her throat, impossible to swallow, but she didn’t let it show on her face.
“Another lie.” Eloisa tsked. “Subs usually follow orders because they trust, but you’re the opposite, aren’t you? No trust at all. You have to change, Ann. If you can’t see that—” She snorted. “Well, it’s probably those glasses clouding your view. Take them off.”
She didn’t wait for Ann to decide whether to obey. She reached across and snatched them away, then held them up to look through them. “They don’t have a prescription, do they?”
Ann tried to think of a persuasive argument for keeping them, tried to work up the words to argue, but Eloisa tossed them carelessly to the grass then eased her arms and shoulders under the water, attention firmly fixed on her prey once more.
“No female lovers either? At school maybe?”
Something skimmed her thigh and Ann jumped, startled by the caress, realizing belatedly it was Eloisa’s foot that was now lodged against the wall next to her hip. The other pressed to the tiles on her other side. Eloisa’s ankles squeezed lightly into her hips, rocking with the churning water.
“You must have been propositioned,” she probed. “I have a friend who taught English in Dubai. She said you couldn’t enter a toilet without hearing a pair of students going at it in the next stall. Or teachers. Men are funny about it, of course. They’ll admit to topping another man while there, but only because the punishment for prostitution is so severe. No one is gay, just desperate.”
Ann said nothing, not willing to mention how often she’d seen two women enter a shower stall at the gym or what kinds of noises she’d heard over the spray. Or the certain type of look she’d received while being invited to chat over coffee after a swim. There hadn’t seemed any point in making friends of any kind when Cain would have used it as leverage to hurt her. “I’m homeschooled.”
“I’m offering to school you now, but it appears you have little interest in female partners. That’s a pity because you have a very pretty figure.” Sitting up, she pulled her feet back to her own side of the pool and took a sip of coffee, then smiled slyly. “The swirling water arouses me, but I’ll save it for others. Sexual freedom is as important as every other kind so you needn’t stare like that.”
Chastised, Ann dropped her gaze, thinking that Eloisa was probably right, but it frustrated her to acknowledge yet another level of freedom denied her.
“Oh God, Ann. You have so far to go. Listen, you think you have no power, but you’ve already learned that your mind is your own. I can see that about you and I’m impressed. I didn’t recognize that when I was in your position. I allowed myself to believe I was stupid because I was told I was. I believed I had no choices, but that was only true because I allowed a man to make all my choices for me. Find the courage to take charge of yourself. You’re halfway there, picking pockets, but think bigger. Value yourself. Use the assets you have to make a better life than running and hiding.”
What assets? Eloisa didn’t understand. Agility and silence were all she had.
“Do you really want to be a pawn and allow Cain and Porter to move you around then knock you off the board? Become a player. Use Porter against your stepfather.”
That snared her. “How?” It came out with such avid force, Eloise’s brows arched and she seemed to reassess her. Either that or she was teasing her, proposing vague solutions then withholding the details to torture her. Beneath the water, Ann hid the bite of her nails into her palms.
“Did I not mention your pretty figure? Seduce him into helping you.” Her tone was gently patronizing. That annoyed her. “Actually, don’t sleep with him. That would annoy me. And holding back is a better way to manipulate a man anyway.”
“He would have to be interested in me. He’s not,” she reminded, irritated to be a toy that had merely found its way into the hands of a new possessor.
“You haven’t shown yourself to him, have you? Men, even hardheaded ones like Porter, think with their cock. Take it in hand—and I mean that quite literally—and you can persuade them to anything.”
The idea of holding Porter’s…
No, Eloisa was being less than honest in painting him as easy to manipulate. He’d brushed aside Eloisa’s advances the other night, and if Ann had learned nothing else about this woman, it was that she knew how to use her body as a means to an end. Porter would not be any woman’s plaything. Despite a few light fantasies, Ann wasn’t ready to be intimate with any man, especially one as formidable and dangerous as Porter seemed.
“I wouldn’t know how,” she dismissed.
“So go home and let your stepfather sell you.”
Ann frowned, rejecting the passive route now that other paths had been revealed, no matter how outrageous they sounded. A hint of rebellion flickered in her. A fantasy where she decided her own destiny, even had the means to obliterate Cain. But how did one get there?
Eloisa smiled and rose like Aphrodite, foaming bubbles trailing down her shiny breasts and toasted-almond stomach. Her burgundy nipples stood out as she took a device from the tray and spoke into it. “Robes, Tsitsi.” With another glance at Ann she added, “And a facecloth.”
A few minutes later, Ann stared wide-eyed around a shop like she’d never seen. Trips to the mall had been for necessary items like sanitary pads and new underwear. She’d never had reason to enter upscale dress shops and never, ever had she stood next to a mannequin dressed in such suggestive clothing.
As Eloisa directed her to try on a dress, she reminded herself that it wasn’t wise to trust her. What did she know about her except that her relationship to Porter seemed both intimate and vaguely hostile? Ann was convinced a third player had entered this game, but she was still the pawn.
She tried on the dress because Tsitsi stole her robe again and she didn’t have anything else to wear. Fashion images abounded online and she’d whiled away many an afternoon like other woman, dreaming of wearing designer clothes as she walked freely down city streets. Foreign programs had been heavily cut, but she knew what a cocktail dress was and this might have qualified if there’d been more to it.
“Um…” She tugged at the skirt that hugged across her hips and ended in a cuff under her buttocks. The purple jersey had been sewn in stripes of equal width like horizontal bandages that circled up to cut across the slopes of her breasts. Two vertical strips over her shoulders held it up. As Tsitsi closed the zipper, the fabric pulled tight against the curve of her hips, emphasizing the narrowness of her waist while flaring over her rib cage and breasts.
“Take down your hair,” Eloisa prompted.
Since it would veil her bruises, Ann complied. The steam of the bath had prompted tiny curls to form at her hairline and now the heavy waves fell in a soft ripple that she fanned out to blanket her exposed skin.
“Fuck me,” Eloisa murmured. “How long have you been growing it?”
Ann shrugged, recalling that her mother had cut it a couple of times when she’d been little, probably to get a tangle out of it. There was a light tug on her scalp and the pressure of a touch at her tailbone.
“Wrap this around his cock and you’ll have him.”
If women spoke like this amongst themselves in the Kingdom, she’d never heard it. “You make it sound like men walk around with their things hanging out all the time.”
“They do around me, especially here. You need makeup.”
Her face was clean for a change, pale and glowing with the scrubbing she’d given it. Tsitsi stroked soft brushes over her eyelids and cheeks, directed by Eloisa, then Tsitsi helped her mistress with her own preparations while Ann stared at herself in the mirror. The reflection wasn’t entirely a stranger. It was the friend she saw when she was alone, the one who wore a comfortably thin baby-doll nightgown and sang into a hairbrush while swaying her hips to the beat of a rock song. Her eyes had never looked so attention grabbing, however, or her mouth so ripe and shiny, like she’d licked her lips in readiness to say something.
As she took in this amplified vision of herself, she wondered what here was. Eloisa had mentioned her club last night. They’d arrived at this shop through a long hallway with security camera bubbles on its ceiling. Each of the doors along the way had touch-pad panels, but had only been numbered, not labeled to indicate what was behind them.
“What…” It felt strange to break silence and ask a question. She’d only ever done it with her mother or Raina. If she couldn’t find out something on her own, she generally resigned herself to waiting for revelation or accepting a mystery. “What is this place?” she risked.
“Trust is a two-way street, Ann. Until I know that you’ll keep my secrets as securely as I’ll keep yours, we’ll just call this a visit to the spa. For most people, that’s all they ever see. Try these, do they fit?”
The shoes were ridiculously tall spikes under a stair-like curved platform. A delicate chain hooked over her second toe then connected to a circle around her ankle. Fragile ends dangled down the inside of her heel, tickling as she took a few hesitant steps.
“I don’t think I can walk in these.”
“It’s not far.” Eloisa wore a dark brown bolero over a gold corset.
To where? Ann thought fretfully, wondering if Eloisa’s evasiveness was part of her punishment. Not knowing what to expect was a form of torture Ann had been living for years, however. She knew how to watch and wait.
Eloisa was busy ensuring her tight chamois pants were tucked perfectly into brown boots that came to her knees. After Tsitsi fastened her jacket, Eloisa said to the woman, “You’re not to touch yourself while you wait for me, but I want you to write down each time you think about doing so and what thoughts and fantasies provoke the urge.”
An involuntary pulse of sexy intrigue went through Ann as she overheard the order, pouring illicit warmth into the unshielded place between her thighs.
Eloisa smiled knowingly as they moved through a different door. “You see? Seduction is a mental game as much as physical. Your nipples are hard. It’s pretty.”
Another rush of dampness made her self-consciously aware that Eloisa hadn’t given her underwear. Arousal had never simmered in her like this before. It made her mind reel so she didn’t realize until she was well into the restaurant that it was not a women-only establishment.
She hadn’t considered the possibility of men and women mingling. It was outside her norm to visit such a place. If she did, the women were covered and the men dressed with equal conservatism, wearing a ghutra, long sleeves and minimal jewelry.
The sight here stunned her into halting. Men wore their shirts open to expose a stretch of throat or gold chains against hairless breastbones. Some wore only sleeveless gym shirts that revealed more than they concealed. Many sat with their legs sprawled open, displaying their manly wares in their hide-nothing tight jeans.
Women had come to her engagement party in long gowns with plunging necklines, which had fascinated her, but here they wore dresses shorter than her own. Some were backless to the cleavage of their buttocks and others had cutouts that displayed the skin of their waist. Hair was styled into modern twists and flips. Impossibly high shoes competed with aggressive boots for attention.
Everyone turned to look at them as they made their way through the upscale bar—yes, a bar. Ann highly doubted all those iced drinks and wineglasses held soda and fruit juice. It was yet another culture shock that disconcerted her into following along like a trained poodle, breath held in anticipation of the next surprise.
As she trailed Eloisa’s path between the full tables, they were stopped constantly. Patrons greeted Eloisa with outstretched hands and affectionate kisses. She put them off with promises to say a proper hello later.
As much as Ann tried to be invisible, however, she wasn’t. Men and women alike took an eyeful of her naked legs, her prickling breasts and her loose flowing hair.
This was her punishment for hiding in a closet, she supposed. Enduring a high degree of exposure.
“New trainee?” she heard someone ask in a subtle undertone and recalled Eloisa’s phrase about Tsitsi. Training as a submissive. Her stomach knotted with anxious incomprehension. She had to start asking more questions.
“Something like that,” was Eloisa’s reply, and she continued them toward a flight of stairs that led to an upper level. “I’ll come back. We’re meeting a friend.”
A friend? Ann glanced up to the balcony and the sharp stare of her fiancé fell onto her like a golden lasso that looped and tightened in one swift flick.