Cover of the new book "Bound to be Dirty"

Bound to be Dirty

 

Warning: This excerpt contains adult content. 18 and over only, please.

Excerpt from “Bound to be Dirty”

Chapter 1

“Isn’t it time we tried a little bondage?” Marielle asked.

Lily Nyland frowned across the table at her. “You’re not serious.” The four members of their book club occupied a corner of the Gerard Lounge in Vancouver’s elegant Sutton Place Hotel. Lily had chosen this week’s meeting place, and the fireplace and cozy shut-away-from-the-world ambiance were perfect on a chill December day. The topic of conversation, not so much. Lily caught the eye of the waitress and gestured that she’d like a second martini.

Marielle flicked her dark, wavy hair back from the scoop neckline of her coral sweater. “We need to try BDSM. You know, dominance and submission, bondage, spanking, all that stuff.” Her slight Caribbean lilt gave the words a sultry nuance that, to Lily’s mind, the subject did not warrant.

“Could you say that any louder?” Kim, seated on Marielle’s left, asked drily. Her spiky black hair was streaked in shades of green and blue, complementing the pattern on her hand-painted denim jacket. In the windowless lounge with its décor of brown leather and glowing wood, accented by red Christmas poinsettias and pine boughs, the petite Chinese woman resembled an exotic bird perched in the middle of an English gentlemen’s club.

Fortunately, the lounge was only half-full and no one sat beside them. Still, Lily found it surreal to be discussing BDSM here, at five o’clock on a Monday afternoon. She’d agreed to read—and even, surprisingly, enjoyed—the historical erotica and the sexy cowboy novel the other women had chosen earlier this year, but to her mind, BDSM bordered on abuse. Only this morning a patient had come in with a broken arm, bruises, and cuts, saying she’d tripped on the basement stairs. Twice previously, she’d come in with serious injuries she attributed to her own clumsiness, and her body bore testament to other wounds.

“All that stuff,” Lily stated firmly, “is demeaning to women, and can be dangerous.” For the third time, Lily had given her patient a brochure about domestic abuse, information about women’s shelters, and a referral to a counselor. “I see patients who’ve been abused by the men in their lives. Believe me, there’s nothing sexy about it.”

“Of course not,” Marielle said, “but BDSM is different from—”

Leaning forward, elbows on the table, Lily interrupted. “The idea of a man dominating a woman, tying her up, and hitting her sounds awfully close to abuse to me.”

George, seated to Lily’s right, put down her glass of red wine. “I agree, and that’s not something I want to read about.” A striking redhead, her real name was Georgia but only her fiancé called her that. In her sage green wool suit, yellow blouse, and patterned scarf, she fit the classy bar perfectly.

George Malone, a marketing executive, always came across as professional and feminine. Marielle Clarke, with her ever-changing jobs, was more casual and chose vivid colors that complemented her Jamaican coloring. Kim Chang, an artist and budding entrepreneur, created her own distinct style. The three women were very different, and all beautiful.

Once upon a time, Lily, with her short wheat-blond hair and light blue eyes, had felt attractive. Now, the oldest of the group at thirty-two, perpetually tired and stressed, she knew she looked older than her years. Her taupe pantsuit and tailored white shirt were classic, yet today they made her feel drab.

Marielle, never quick to take “no” for an answer, said, “I haven’t read any BDSM, but it’s such a hot—pun intended—trend. I’ve heard successful career women rave about these books. I can’t believe the authors promote anything that’s abusive or demeaning. Women don’t fantasize about abuse.”

“I don’t really know what BDSM is,” Kim confessed cheerfully. “Ty and I might be doing it, and I wouldn’t even know.”

“I’ve done it,” Marielle announced.

“Of course you have,” Lily said, torn between amusement and dismay. Vibrant Marielle believed variety was the spice of life, and liked her own life highly seasoned—in terms of drinks, jobs, and men.

“What did you do, Marielle?” Kim demanded, her near-black eyes dancing.

“I met this superhot cop. He strip-searched me, handcuffed me to the bed, and made me give him a blow job.”

“That’s sex play,” George said. Then, questioningly, “It was sex play, right?”

“Yeah, a really fun game.”

Lily and her husband had never done anything like that. It was ridiculous. And yet . . . the thought of Dax strip-searching her triggered pulses of arousal between her thighs. She’d always found his bad-boy side extremely sexy. Not that she’d seen it in a long time.

He’d be home for the holidays on Thursday, after two months at a mining camp. A bush helicopter pilot, he’d been away more and more over the past couple of years. Clearly, he’d rather fly in the remote wilderness than be with her. Even when he was home, they barely spoke, and not about anything important. That distance made her worry that he was cheating on her, but she’d been afraid to ask. Afraid their marriage might be over. Now it was time to face that fear. She had to know the truth.

Life without Dax . . . A pang of soul-deep sorrow stabbed through her. When the waitress approached with her second martini, Lily reached gratefully for it. “Thanks.” She took a long swallow. I won’t think about Dax right now.

She refocused on Marielle, who was expanding on the strip-search scenario. “George is right,” Lily said. “That’s sex play. BDSM is no game.”

“Oh, you’ve read those books?” Marielle’s chocolate eyes twinkled.

“Of course not. But as a doctor I’m aware of a range of sexual behavior. At least from the physiological standpoint.” And just how stuffy could she sound?

“But sex is about more than physiology,” George said. “It can be—should be—about emotion.”

Once upon a time, making love with Dax was the most blissful, erotic, loving act Lily could imagine. They’d become lovers when she was seventeen, a virgin. Her sexy bad boy had initiated her, taught her to experience passion. In the past couple of years, though, it was like he was phoning it in. They both were: going through the motions, climaxing, yet never truly connecting. With so many doubts and fears on her mind, how could she surrender to intimacy?

Roughness under her right index finger made Lily realize she was twisting her wedding ring, the band of small diamonds Dax had put on her finger a decade ago.

George was still talking. “Is BDSM just a different kind of sex between two people who care about one another, or is it abuse?”

“Look how pathetic we are,” Kim said. “It’s this hot trend and we’re not even sure what it is.”

“If you want to know, research it online,” Lily said.

Kim reached for her glass of designer beer. “Fiction’s more fun. We’re a book club and this is a popular trend. We should read it and discuss it.”

“Thank you,” Marielle said. “So you’re in. George?”

The redhead’s topaz and diamond engagement ring sparkled as she lifted her wineglass. “I see Kim’s point.” She sipped then said, “Yes, I think we should read it. We’ll have interesting discussions.”

Lily made a sound in the back of her throat.

“She snorted,” Marielle said.

“Sounded more like a growl to me.” Kim grinned, then sobered. “Lily, do you really hate the idea? You chose the last book.”

Marielle nodded. “It was good, but man, it was dense. I had to concentrate on every word, and re-read whole pages.”

Lily pressed her lips together. She’d enjoyed the prize-winning literary novel for exactly that reason. Reading it absorbed her totally; she couldn’t stress over her failing marriage or worry about her crazy-busy medical clinic.

The waitress arrived with the platters of appetizers the women had ordered. When she’d gone, Marielle raised her fruity cocktail like she was proposing a toast. “Come on, Doc Lily. Open your mind.”

“It’ll give us so much to discuss,” Kim chimed in.

“If I can give it a try,” George said, “maybe you could too?”

In the ten months since the four of them, strangers with an interest in books, had formed the club, the others had figured out her triggers. Yes, she believed in keeping an open mind, being flexible, and trying new things—even if she sometimes had to be reminded. But the few minutes she stole from her busy schedule to read gave her the only pleasure and relaxation in her life. And while it was true that the two erotic novels the club had read this year had given her most of the orgasms she’d experienced recently, she’d rather read anything other than BDSM. Oh well, it was only one book. If she hated it, she’d skim. “Fine. Pick a book.”

Savory aromas drifted from the appetizer platters. Starving—no, a diet of yogurt for breakfast and coffee for lunch was not something she’d recommend to a patient—Lily spread hummus on a piece of grilled flatbread and took a big bite. Mmm, garlic and spice.

“We should read that book everyone’s been talking about,” Kim said.

George, who was lifting a ring of calamari to her mouth, stopped her fork. “That’s a series. Don’t you need to read all three to get the full story arc?”

“Oh yeah,” Kim said. “That’s a bit much.”

“It certainly is.” Lily shook her head. “No way do I want that much BDSM.”

Kim gave a quick splutter of laughter and tilted her head toward the neighboring table.

Lily realized that, as they’d been talking, the lounge had filled up and the four of them had automatically raised their voices. At the table beside them, a couple of tailored guys with big black cases—lawyer bags, in all likelihood, as the courthouse was a block away—shot surreptitious glances in their direction. Her cheeks heated.

“One book,” Marielle agreed, spearing a buffalo-style hot wing. “After we eat, I’ll pull out my iPad and we’ll choose. By the way, are we meeting next Monday? It’s Boxing Day.”

Because the club members led such busy lives, they’d discovered they could never agree on one full evening a month. Instead, they met every Monday for an hour after work. For Lily, who ran a busy family practice clinic, it had the benefit of getting her out of the place early for once. They’d also found that weekly meetings let them discuss their impressions as they read the books.

“I like sticking to our routine,” Lily said, and the others agreed.

In the first months, all their chat had been about books, but over time it had become more personal. Now she turned to Kim. “Did your parents arrive safely?” They were flying in from Hong Kong for Christmas.

Kim nodded, her color-streaked hair flicking like a tropical bird’s wing flutter. “Yes. They’ve been in Vancouver the last few days, and I’m driving them out to the ranch tonight. And guess what? UmbrellaWings is official now. The name and logo are trademarked, the company’s incorporated, and the board of directors is Ty, me, Mom, and Dad.” Kim, who had degrees in business administration and fine arts, was launching a company. UmbrellaWings would make umbrellas and parasols with distinctive shapes and patterns modeled after the wings of butterflies, birds, and other flying creatures.

“But it’s your company, right?” Marielle said. “You won’t let your parents tell you what to do.”

“They can suggest,” Kim said. “After all, they’ve built a successful business. But no, they can’t tell me what to do. I think they’re getting the message.”

Lily swallowed a mouthful of tender calamari. “Good for you.” She wished her own parents—who always thought they knew what was best for Lily and her younger brother—would do the same.

“It was tough for them to accept that I’m not moving back to Hong Kong,” Kim said.

“And not marrying a nice Hong Kong boy,” George said, “but living in sin with a sexy rodeo star.”

Kim grinned. “We downplay the rodeo part. To my folks, Ty’s the responsible owner of a successful family ranch. This week my parents will see how impressive the ranch is. We’re going to try to get them up on horses.” Kim, who’d never ridden before meeting Ty, now owned a rescue horse named Distant Drummer that she’d helped Ty heal and train.

“I hope everyone gets along,” Lily said. Her parents didn’t approve of Dax, which created strain at family gatherings. She wasn’t looking forward to Christmas dinner on Sunday.

“Are your parents staying with you and Ty?” George asked Kim.

“No way. That’d put a cramp in our sex life. They’ll stay with Ty’s parents.” After Ty had bought Ronan Ranch with rodeo earnings, his parents had come from Alberta to help run it. They lived in the old ranch house, and he’d built another house down the road from them.

“Are your parents hinting that you should get married?” Lily asked.

“Hinting?” Kim rolled her eyes. “Does a steamroller hint? Ty and I ignore them. We’re enjoying being truly, madly, deeply in love, for the first time in our lives.” A bright smile split her face. “Isn’t that cool, that it’s a first for both of us?”

“It’s pretty cool when it’s the second time, too,” George said. The redhead was a widow and hadn’t believed she’d ever find another soul mate—until Canada’s Mr. Hockey, Woody Hanrahan, entered her life earlier this year and turned it topsy-turvy.

“Chee-sy.” Drawing out the word, Marielle rolled her eyes. “The hearts and flowers and throbbing violin strings are making me nauseous.”

They all laughed, and then Lily said, “George and Kim, love looks very good on both of you. And Marielle, variety suits you.” She reached for her martini glass again, finding it almost empty. No one said that ten years of marriage looked good on her. If they had, it would be a lie.

Once, she’d been positive Dax Xavier was the love of her life. Over the years she’d met loads of men: cultured, intelligent ones; sexy athletes; physicians who volunteered in third-world countries. Amazing, appealing men. She’d been attracted to a few, but never with the same magnetic force as she was to Dax. But did she still love him? She was too confused and conflicted to be sure. If he was cheating on her, if he no longer loved her . . . then she had to protect her heart.

Last year, when she’d first suspected he might be having an affair, she had protected her body. She’d lied and told him she’d gone off the pill for health reasons so he had to wear a condom.

How bitterly ironic, to be using both condoms and the pill when the thing she most wanted in the world was children. Since she was a little girl, she’d known she wanted to be a mom. Now that want had become a soul-deep craving. Every time she held her baby niece, her biological clock ticked faster.

Though she and Dax hadn’t discussed having kids in years, she’d assumed they’d have a family when the time was right. His genes should make wonderful babies; he was smart, courageous, strong, fit, and handsome. What he wasn’t was there for her. She had to find out how he felt, how she felt, what they were going to do about their faltering marriage.

Stop thinking about Dax!

She’d been listening with half an ear as Marielle talked about family plans and holiday parties. Now Marielle said, “How about you, George? It’s your first Christmas with Woody. He’ll be in town, right?” The redhead’s fiancé was captain of the Beavers, the Vancouver hockey team.

“Yes, thank heavens, what with home games and days off. We’re hosting Christmas at our place.” George had moved into Woody’s penthouse condo in Yaletown this fall.

“Is his mom coming?” Lily asked. Woody’s mother had almost died of cancer, but was now in remission. He’d bought her a house in Florida and paid for a live-in caregiver companion.

“No, her health is still too fragile for a trip north, but we’ll Skype with her. My mom and her guy Fabio will come over. We’re being hopelessly old-fashioned—the girls cooking dinner; the boys watching football. A few of Woody’s teammates will be there. And a couple of special guests from Manitoba. Sam was Woody’s best friend and hockey buddy as kids, and his father, Martin, was Woody’s mentor and coach. They had some issues for a while, but they’ve reconciled.”

“Nice,” Kim said. “That’s the Christmas spirit.”

George turned to Lily. “How about you? Do you and your husband have any Christmas traditions?”

Arguing over whether they really had to go to her parents’ house, which they always ended up doing, which spoiled Christmas Day. “My parents have a family dinner at noon.” It was formal and more filled with parental fault-finding than with Christmas spirit. But she hated to say no to her parents. Bad enough that she, the daughter of a neurosurgeon mom and a cardiologist dad, had chosen the less prestigious field of family medicine and had married a guy from the wrong side of the tracks. She tried not to disappoint them in any other ways.

The waitress came by to offer more drinks. Longingly, Lily twisted the stem of her empty martini glass. She wasn’t driving, but two drinks were her limit. When the others all said, “No, thanks,” she echoed them.

Marielle pulled out her iPad and checked online for books. Kim, beside her, looked on. The two of them pointed, debated, and then agreed on one. Marielle turned her tablet to face Lily and George.

“Bound by Desire?” George said. “Okay, sure.”

Lily scanned the blurb.

International businesswoman Cassandra Knightley is at the top of her game, respected and even feared by colleagues and competitors. When it comes to her sex life, she picks, chooses, and discards men as frequently as she chooses the latest pair of designer shoes—because, ultimately, none satisfies her.

Billionaire Neville Winter guesses a secret that even Cassandra isn’t aware of. A man used to dominating in every area of life, including the bedroom, he initiates her into a new world of sexual pleasure. Though initially she’s intrigued by the notion of spicing up her sex life, it isn’t until she submits fully and puts her pleasure—and her pain—in Neville’s hands that she learns her true sexual nature. When she is bound by desire, can Cassandra find the true satisfaction that has always escaped her?

Lily barely managed to hold back one of those snort-growl sounds. “Whatever you want.”

“I’ll text you the deets,” Marielle said. “I need to get going. One of my friends has a staff party and invited me as his date.”

The staff party for Lily’s Well Family Clinic had been last week. She’d reserved a private room at a nice restaurant and arranged a sumptuous buffet. One of the receptionists, Jennifer, had organized a Secret Santa draw, which had livened things up. Lily had drawn Jennifer’s name and given her a gift certificate for her favorite cupcake bakery. She was very curious which of the doctors or staff had drawn her name and why they’d chosen a desktop Zen garden: miniature tray, sand, rocks, and teeny rake.

“I’m wrapping presents tonight,” George said. “Woody’s going to love the tee you made, Kim.” The redhead had asked Kim, who designed clothing as a hobby, if she’d create something unique for Woody.

Not having a clue what to give Dax for Christmas, Lily had seconded the request. The charcoal tee with its dramatic abstract design of a hawk would look perfect on her rugged husband. “And Dax will love the hawk one. Thanks so much for doing that, Kim. I know how much you have on your plate these days.”

“I thrive on it,” Kim said. “Life’s good. Speaking of which, let’s do gifts!”

They’d agreed to exchange gifts, but only small ones. Lily had found purse-sized notebooks with lovely Japanese-designed flower covers. Marielle gave lip gloss with fruity flavors, then Kim handed them each a roll of paper tied with a red ribbon. She’d done watercolor drawings of each of them, accurate but also flattering.

Lily gazed at the portrait of a short-haired blond with delicate yet striking features and wide blue eyes. “Wow, Kim, this is what I looked like ten years ago.”

“It’s what you look like now,” Kim said, “when you’re relaxed and having fun.”

George reached into her tote and handed them all packages, which turned out to be tank tops: hot pink for Marielle, vivid purple for Kim, and powder blue, the color of her eyes, for Lily. The cotton was soft and fine, the quality excellent.

“You went way over the fivedollar limit, girlfriend,” Marielle said.

“I didn’t spend a dime,” George replied. “They’re samples from my client, VitalSport. Part of the new spring line.”

“Great gifts!” Kim said. “Thanks, everyone. And now I have to run and pick up my parents. Ty’s mom is cooking up a feast.”

They all rose, and Lily thought about her own evening plans.

No feast to look forward to; she’d heat up canned soup to accompany a handful of rice crackers and a slice of Edam. No gift-wrapping; instead, an hour’s run along the icy cold seawall, a necessity if she hoped to sleep tonight. No party either. She needed to analyze the Well Family Clinic’s schedule. Her clinic’s priority—and her own true calling—was patient care, but the workload was expanding and she had to figure out a solution. Thanks to the book club’s new selection, she didn’t even have a good book to look forward to.

Also on the list of “not looking forward to,” there was Dax’s return home on Thursday, and the talk they needed to have. Maybe by the time Christmas dinner at her parents’ house rolled around, she’d be going alone. Alone, to be unfavorably compared to her perfect younger brother, the oncologist, with his perfect lawyer wife and the adorable baby girl who tugged at Lily’s childless heartstrings.

No, there wasn’t a single thing in life she was looking forward to.

Chapter 2

Dwayne Arthur Xavier—who’d gone by Dax since he was old enough to understand how geeky his given names were—stepped into the lobby of the condo building in Leg-in-Boot Square, just off Vancouver’s False Creek. An artificial Christmas tree decorated with silver balls stood in one corner. Dax shook his head, scattering raindrops. If you were going to have a tree, it should be a live one, its needles green and pliant under your fingers, its fresh scent bringing the wilderness into the room.

A six-pack of GranvilleIsland lager in one hand, he hiked his duffel bag higher on his shoulder and strode to the elevator. Would Lily be there? Likely not. Though it was the day before Christmas, it was also a Saturday. On Saturdays she volunteered at a health clinic in the Downtown Eastside. Besides, he was two days late. He’d swapped schedules with another pilot who’d had a family emergency. After all, it wasn’t like Dax had a lot to come home to.

He stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the fourth floor of the six-story building.

Home. Though he’d pumped a lot of his income—which was considerable, in his line of work—into paying off the mortgage, the two-bedroom condo didn’t feel like home. But then, when in his life had any place felt like home? Not the numerous rental apartments where he and his self-absorbed, drug-using parents had lived. Nor his mom’s parents’ house in ritzy Southlands, where she and Dax had gone for a few months after his dad was thrown in jail for killing a guy in a drug deal gone bad.

His grandparents had shunned his mom when she ran away to marry a bad boy whose parents hadn’t even set foot on the social ladder. But when, broke and desperate, she showed up on their doorstep with seventeen-year-old Dax, they took them in. That was how he ended up attending twelfth grade at the same school as Lily Nyland.

He unlocked the door to the condo, feeling, as usual, almost like an intruder. “Lily?” Nope, no answer. Hanging his battered leather bomber jacket in the hall closet, he made sure the damp fabric didn’t touch Lily’s coats.

Just like back in school, when their paths never crossed. The lovely, classy, brilliant blonde was busy with her studies, clubs, and equally wealthy, brilliant friends. Dax blew off school, drank too much, got in trouble, and hustled girls. Following in his dad’s bad-boy footsteps, as his grandparents said contemptuously. It had been the next summer, at CampSkookumchuck, when he and Lily had connected and his life had turned around. And now look where they were. Virtual strangers.

In the kitchen, he put his beer in a fridge that contained yogurt, skim milk, cheese, fruit, and a few condiments.

He walked into the living room. The only sign of Christmas was a pink-and-white poinsettia on the coffee table. The place was, as usual, immaculate. When Dax moved through the world of nature, he tried to never leave a trace. That was how Lily lived at home. She didn’t leave clothes, dirty dishes, or magazines lying around. When he first saw her family home, he understood where she’d learned to be so neat and unobtrusive.

When they took possession of this condo, he’d been heading off to fly for a logging company and had left the décor to Lily. Six weeks later, he’d come back to nutmeg-colored furniture, rugs with geometric designs, abstract art. It was comfortable, functional, and tasteful. Lily said she’d taken a decorator’s advice. He’d have chosen wilderness paintings and put a few pieces of First Nations art on the mantle, but what did he know about decorating? His parents had used thrift store junk, macramé, and ivy.

In this room, he saw no traces of the old Lily, the girl who’d gone a little crazy that summer at camp, away from her parents’ eagle eye. The one who’d snuck out from Heron cabin, where her young charges slept, to go canoeing at midnight or skinny dipping. Who’d made love on the beach with a boy her parents wouldn’t give the time of day to—a guy who worked with the construction crew that was building new cabins. The son of a killer.

Dax went into the home office, where he took his netbook from his duffel and put it on the bare surface of his desk. Lily’s desk held her notebook computer, her monitor, keyboard, and mouse, plus stacks of papers, all very neat and organized.

Over the years, she’d grown up and stopped playing. He’d forced himself to grow up too, to become responsible, to deserve the amazing woman he loved. He missed the kids they’d once been. The kids who’d fallen so head over heels for each other. Who’d made love with wild abandon, and spun dreams on moonlit summer nights.

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He moved on to the bedroom, and into the walk-in closet where he unpacked, slotting the few clothes he’d brought with him into their allotted space. Her half dozen tailored suits and shirts, three or four good dresses, and few casual clothes looked almost interchangeable in the browns, grays, creams, and white that she favored. The only touch of vibrancy was that one rose-colored sweater he’d once given her. No, wait, what was this?

Cautious of his rough fingers against delicate fabric, he separated Lily’s shirts to reveal one he’d never seen before. It was pale yellow, the style soft and kind of floaty. Butterflies covered it, painted in beautiful shades of blue and green, with gold outlining them. It was a work of art, feminine and sensual.

Sensual? He slammed the hangers back in place. Who the hell did she wear it for? And what would he do if he found out, for sure, that she’d cheated on him?

He stripped off his clothes, chucked them in the laundry hamper, and went into the master bathroom, where he turned the shower on full force. He stepped under the spray.

Infidelity . . . He had no proof, but over the past year or two his wife had changed. Her light blue eyes didn’t warm for him and she didn’t reach for his hand. When they had sex, she climaxed but didn’t show passion, much less joy. She’d told him he needed to wear a condom because she’d gone off the pill. Initially, he’d accepted it without question but now doubts drove him crazy. There were other forms of birth control that didn’t require condoms.

And then there were the books she read. Earlier this year, on one of his increasingly rare visits to Vancouver, he’d mistakenly picked up her Kindle rather than his own. When he clicked it on, he found a detailed, vivid, highly explicit sex scene. His wife had always read highbrow books. This book, The Sexual Education of Lady Emma Whitehead, was labeled an “erotic novel.” It seemed like soft porn to him, but what did he know about great literature? The next time he was back in town, he checked her reading material and found Ride Her, Cowboy, another “erotic novel.”

His wife was reading erotica—and she sure wasn’t bringing any of that erotic passion into their bed. Was she sharing it with someone else?

The pounding spray of the shower beat against his tense shoulder muscles but did nothing to relax them.

Dax was a take-charge guy. Always had been, until now. No one who knew him—not in the army where he’d earned a Medal for Military Valour for rescuing injured soldiers pinned under Taliban fire and air-lifting them to safety, nor out in the bush where he’d fought forest fires and rescued fishermen in the middle of a storm—would ever call him a coward. But that’s what he was when it came to his marriage.

“Fuck.” Roughly, he scrubbed his body with soap that smelled of lemon and eucalyptus.

He and Lily’d always been a mismatch. In the beginning, lust and love overcame the barriers, but now their marriage seemed to be nothing but barriers. Did some other man—a man better suited to her, a man her damned parents would approve of—have her passion? Her love?

It sure wasn’t like she needed Dax. She might look like a princess—fair, elegant, and delicate—yet she was smart, capable, and had an iron will. He admired her independence, couldn’t imagine being with a clingy, dependent woman, and yet . . .

His parents had been so absorbed in themselves and each other, they’d barely noticed him. Lily had a full life without him. He was a self-sufficient guy—a loner, some folks said—and it wasn’t like he needed to come first with Lily. It had been enough that she loved him, that they got together whenever they could and had a great time together. Now it seemed they’d lost even that. Or that she was giving it to some other guy.

He fisted his hand in anger and frustration and thumped it against the tiled wall of the shower, wishing he could punch whoever the hell Lily might be fucking.

Women came onto Dax, but he believed that if you said marriage vows, you stuck to them. Or else you split.

He turned his face into the shower’s needle-fine spray.

Was it that time? He’d hung in there over the past year, hoping they were just going through a rough patch, but he couldn’t take it any longer. He had to find out what the hell was going on. With her, and with them. As for him . . . Did he still love Lily? He’d never met another woman who made him feel the way she had in the early days, when he’d been crazy enough to hope that with her he might find the things he’d always secretly dreamed of: love and safety, a home and family. Over the years, growing up, he’d abandoned some of those dreams. He wasn’t cut out to be a dad; Lily’s clinic had become her “baby” and she put it ahead of everything else; neither of them was the type for a conventional home life. Still, he’d believed in their love, and it sustained him when they were apart. It got him through Afghanistan.

The thought of losing Lily was gut-wrenching. But maybe he already had.

When she got home, he’d put the questions out on the table, hear her answers, and fucking deal with them like a man. Resolved, he turned off the shower, reached for a towel, and dried off.

He ran a comb through his hair. Lily would think it needed cutting and so would her uptight parents, but that was their problem. Nor would he shave off the beard he’d grown out in the bush. Chances were, this marriage was going to blow up. “Shit.” Love, marriage, dreams. Should have known all along he wasn’t that kind of guy.

His muscles as taut as when he’d climbed into the shower, he strode jerkily to the closet and pulled on jeans and a tee. He checked his smartphone and found a text from Lily.

Working late. If you’re back, have dinner without me.

He hurled the phone onto the bed. Working late, or with a lover, or just avoiding him? She didn’t want to talk to him or she’d have phoned. But he wanted to talk to her. Damn it, he had to know the truth. He wanted to settle things tonight.

Her Kindle sat on her bedside table. He flicked it on. This time, she wasn’t in the middle of a book; the device opened to show several covers. One book, with a choker-style necklace on the cover, was titled Bound by Desire. More erotica? He opened it, skimmed the review quotes at the beginning, and his eyes widened. BDSM? Lily had chosen to read BDSM? Was she, maybe, into this kind of sex?

No, he couldn’t imagine it. She was no submissive; hell, she always had to be in control.

Well, not in the bedroom. There, in the beginning, he’d been the teacher. Once she’d caught up, he’d always thought they were equals. Had she fantasized about being dominated? About dominating? Did she get off on tying a man up? On spanking him? Had she found a man who satisfied those needs?

Dax grimaced. “Oh, fuck it.”

He ripped off the clothes he’d just put on, donned waterproof running gear, and headed out to try to release some tension. Though in some ways he preferred the pristine whiteness of the snowy north, he had to admit there was a lot to be said for being able to run outside rather than on a treadmill in a gym.

The rain still pounded down, dusk was falling, rush-hour traffic was at its peak. Lights from cars, streetlights, and buildings slashed in jagged patterns through sheets of rain. Dax’s shoes thumped the pavement, splashing water. He headed across the CambieStreetBridge, noticing the construction cranes with multicolored Christmas lights. Festive. The opposite of his mood.

He ran through Yaletown and into the West End, on Robson Street. Strings of sparkly white lights looped through the boulevard trees, clothing store windows showed party wear, and pedestrians chattered excitedly as they headed to restaurants and parties. He turned right on Denman, crossed West Georgia, and ran into StanleyPark.

The thousand-acre park, much of it undeveloped, was a frequent destination for him when he was in the city. A paved, six-mile seawall ran along the outside. This Christmas Eve, the seawall and the road beside it were quiet.

Normally, running outside made him feel free, powerful, and connected to nature. Tonight, nothing was going to make him feel good. He tried not to think, only to mindlessly push forward. He returned over the BurrardStreetBridge, then along the seawall on the south side of False Creek. By the time he got home, he’d run roughly ten miles.

He opened the condo door, dripping with rain and sweat. Doubting Lily would be home yet, he still called, “Hello?” No response.

Again, he headed for the shower, and again he dried off and dressed. He still felt like crap, but at least he’d worn off some nervous energy and filled an hour. He’d also worked up a bear of an appetite.

He rummaged through the delivery menus in the kitchen drawer, and phoned in an order for butter chicken and lamb vindaloo. Food at the mining camp was plentiful and decent, but basic. Then he took a beer and Lily’s Kindle, and settled at the table in the dining nook, facing the view over False Creek. It was night now, but Vancouver never got truly dark, not with all those streetlights, apartment lights, vehicle lights. He missed the midnight black of nights in the bush, broken on clear nights by crystal stars and a glowing moon, sometimes even by the rippling, dancing sheets of colored northern lights.

When he and Lily had gone house shopping after he left the army four years ago, his pick was a place with a yard, close to a park. The house was old, rundown, but he’d liked the natural setting. Lily had pointed out that his new career as a bush pilot meant he wouldn’t be home much. She didn’t have the time or interest to deal with a fixer-upper house and a yard, nor did she want a long commute to work. They’d settled on this condo: easy care, a ten-minute walk to her Well Family Clinic, and within nice running distance from StanleyPark and from PacificSpiritPark up by the university.

Turning away from the cityscape, he started to read Lily’s book. Normally, he chose outdoor stories or thrillers, either real life or fiction. Bound by Desire didn’t exactly hook him. A woman who was tired after a stressful business trip checked into a ritzy hotel, went to the bar for a drink, and flirted with a stranger, then accepted his invitation for dinner. She found him commanding and charismatic. Dax thought he was a bit of an asshole.

The building-door buzzer sounded and Dax took delivery of his dinner, put the takeout containers on the table, and found a fork. For a few minutes, he just ate, enjoying the taste of savory spices. Then he turned back to the book.

The couple ate dinner and put away two bottles of wine, flirting all the time. For dessert, he ordered a rich chocolate cake, and they shared it.

The cake was sinfully delicious, yet after only two bites, Cassandra found herself sliding the plate over to Neville. “You finish it.”

Watching the pleasure on his face as he ate it was even more enjoyable than tasting it herself. But after only a few more bites, he shoved it aside. “Come to my room.”

She gazed into his piercing black eyes. Truly, he was the most compelling, sexy, utterly masculine man she’d ever met. Decisive, powerful, charismatic. She’d always been drawn to strong men who weren’t threatened by a confident, successful woman. But never had she been as attracted as she was to the man seated across from her. Her body craved him so badly her panties were soaked. And her judgment, which almost always proved reliable, told her she could trust him. “I might be persuaded,” she responded, hoping her coy comment might win one of his dazzling smiles.

Instead, his black brows rose. “Persuaded? That’s not my strong point.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Cassandra, I’m a dom.”

“A what? You mean, uh, sexually? Like with BDSM?” She’d never been with a dom. The idea—okay, it titillated her, especially with a man as sexy as Neville—but it also horrified her.

“Exactly. And you’re a submissive.”

She jerked back in her seat. “I certainly am not!” At work she was known as a ball-breaker; no way would she ever submit to a man.

“You’re in denial.” He nodded. “Yes, I thought so. It will make tonight even more interesting.”

Glaring, she said, “If you think I’m going to let you, uh, let you . . .” What did doms do? Tie women up? Beat them?

“Let me? No, you’ll beg me to.”

Damn. So much for having great sex tonight. “You’re wasting your time. I’m not into that kind of thing.”

A slight smile edged his lips. “You say one thing but I can read you, Cassandra. You don’t enjoy vanilla sex.”

“Well, no. I mean, it’s nice, but . . .” Though she’d had sex with a dozen men in the past year, each experience had been too damned bland.

“Something’s missing, that you want very badly. There’s no spice, no fire, no passion. You feel like you’re standing outside your body, watching. You never truly connect intimately with your own body or with your partner. There’s no intensity. You climax, but it’s like a sneeze, a ripple. It doesn’t wrench you apart and make you scream.”

She squeezed her legs together, barely able to stop herself from squirming with arousal. Yes, that was what she wanted. Intensity. “All right.” Her voice sounded husky. “I wouldn’t mind spicing up my sex life. Playing a few kinky games. I thought you might be into that.”

“Playing games. That’s really not my thing.” He leaned forward, and she was unable to look away from his dark gaze. “Being a dom is not a game, it’s who I am. My true nature. As, I believe, being a submissive is your true nature.”

“No.” It was perverted, that kind of sex. She was a liberated woman.

“Let me show you.”

That deep voice, his compelling gaze . . . She found herself shifting her weight, as if to rise and go with him. He drew her, the way no one else ever had; something about him made her want to obey him, to please him. Struggling against an almost overwhelming urge, she said, “I can’t. It’s not me.”

“Then we’re done here.” He took the napkin from his lap and tossed it on the table. “A pity. We’d be good together. Imagining it has kept me hard since we first sat down.”

Hard. His cock would be as strong, as powerful as the rest of him. God, how she wanted him inside her. She wanted amazing orgasms—for him as well as herself. But he was rejecting her. How could she let him walk away? “You said you would show me. I don’t think that will happen. But maybe we could, uh, try one or two things? Nothing too, uh . . .”

“The relationship between a dominant and his submissive begins with a negotiation.”

That was encouraging. Sort of. At least he believed in negotiating, rather than just dictating terms. “But I’m not your submissive. Can’t we negotiate something else? Some non-vanilla sex, for tonight?”

He studied her, face impassive and eyes glinting with some emotion she couldn’t read. Was it annoyance? Humor? Desire? “You want to dip your toe in the deep waters of my world.”

“I guess I do. Without being in danger.”

“A sub never faces danger. Safe, sane, and consensual is the fundamental rule. And the sub has a safe word. If she speaks it, the dom stops immediately, without question.”

“Hmm. That’s reassuring, but it’s still way too much for me. Can’t we just have some kinky sex?”

After long, silent moments of staring at her, he finally said, “What is it about you, Cassandra?”

“How do you mean?”

“With any other woman, I would have walked away. But in you, I see so much. I see things you don’t let yourself acknowledge and I want to help you find your true self, your deepest pleasure. I’m drawn to you.”

Did he really mean it? “I’m drawn to you, too.” In ways she understood, for his charismatic personality and pure male sexiness, and in ways she didn’t understand, like a desire to please him and win his smile.

And now that smile flashed, so dazzling that it made her catch her breath. “Then you will come to my room and dip your toe, perhaps your entire foot. And once you’ve done that, I believe you will want to dive from the highest diving board.”

His meal finished, Dax rinsed the takeout containers and put them in the recycling. Noticing that the kitchen faucet had a persistent drip, he got the tool kit from the back of the hall closet and replaced the washer. Then, with another beer in hand, he took Lily’s Kindle to the living room and flicked on the gas fire.

His wife was a strong, independent woman like Cassandra. Had she too met a man who made her want to dip her toe in a taboo world of dominant-submissive sex? Or was it the connectedness and intensity that appealed to her? How had he and Lily lost that?

He settled in the recliner and began to read again.

When Cassandra stepped out of the bathroom, she was dressed as Neville had instructed, wearing only her thigh-high black stockings and four-inch-heel shoes. Proud of her toned, voluptuous body, the idea of flaunting it in front of him sent tingles of heat racing through her, as did the idea of a night of kinky sex games with this man.

He stood beside the king-sized bed in the bedroom of his luxurious hotel suite, watching her with a gleam in his dark eyes. He’d taken off his tie and suit jacket, undone a few buttons at the neck of his white dress shirt, and rolled the cuffs up his forearms. His powerful body was supremely masculine, his style casually elegant. His voice, when he said, “Come here, Cassandra,” was anything but casual, though. It was deep and commanding.

That tone of command sent quivers of arousal racing through her blood.

Just slowly enough to make a point, she strolled toward him.

He frowned. “I’m not sure you really want this. Perhaps you should go.”

After stripping off her clothes for him? Not likely. She wanted sex, kink, orgasms. “I do want it. Honestly, Neville.”

He shook his head. “Here, you call me master.”

“M-Master?” Her voice squeaked in disbelief.

“I agreed that tonight we only play games. But we’ll play them by my rules.”

How badly did she want a night’s walk on the wild side, sex that made her cry out with the intensity of her release? If he could give her that, she’d call him whatever he wanted. Besides, she still felt that inexplicable desire to please him and win his approval. “I’m sorry, master.”

“That’s better. Now my pet, I have jewelry for you. Let’s see how you like it.”

From a black case, he took a wide collar, black leather studded with what had to be rhinestones. It was sleek, sexy. Oddly, though, it had a ring in the center. “It’s lovely, but what’s the ring for?”

He studied her, his lips pressed together, then said, “There are a few things we need to get clear, and—”

“I’m sorry,” she said, tongue in cheek. “I forgot to call you master.”

“Cassandra.” He said it icily. “If you want to dip your toe in my world, you will respect me.”

“I do. And I respect that you’re a dom. But this is hard for me to relate to, because I’m not a submissive.”

“Forget the labels, and forget your fears. Put yourself in my hands. I and only I know your deepest needs and desires, and will fulfill them. Put your pleasure in my hands.” His deep voice caressed the word “pleasure” in a lingering way that made her skin quiver with need.

“I can do that.” There was something about Neville that made her suspect he knew how to bring a woman to screaming climax.

“Realize, though, that in order to achieve the deepest, purest pleasure, you will also experience pain. You can handle it, can’t you, my pet?”

Another thrill of excitement rippled through her. Spanking? Maybe nipple clamps? Tonight, she wanted to push the bounds a little. “Yes, master.” Somehow, the term came more easily each time she said it.

“Good. Now here are two simple rules. You will not question me, or even speak unless I give you permission. And you will obey my commands. Disobedience will bring punishment.”

“Punishment?” The word flew out of her mouth, and she quickly said, “I’m sorry, master. I shouldn’t have spoken.”

“Indeed.” He reached into his bag and drew out a black leather object with a handle and a flat, heart-shaped head. Perhaps he read the question in her eyes because he said, “This, pet, is a paddle. One that will set the sweet cheeks of your fine ass on fire.”

She’d anticipated spanking, but with his bare hand. Flesh on flesh seemed sexy, but leather . . . Not that he’d use the paddle on her, if she never disobeyed him. All the same, the sight of that heart-shaped leather head sent a tingle across her skin, a forbidden thrill racing through her blood. Maybe just the tiniest hint of disobedience, to get a taste of what the slap of leather might feel like on her tender flesh . . . One quick flick would hurt, but surely not too much. Just enough to break her through to a new level of sensual awareness and excitement.

“Now,” he said. “One final thing. Choose your safe word.”

“Uh . . .” She glanced around the room for inspiration. A cream-colored orchid plant sat on the dresser. “Orchid.”

“So be it.” His face lightened and he smiled at her, the same sexy, charismatic smile that had compelled her when he first spoke to her downstairs. “Now pet, let us begin.”

She nodded, body quivering with anticipation, then lowered her head to let him slip the collar around her neck. His fingers caressed her flesh as he lifted her hair out of the way and fastened the clasp. The cool, smooth leather settled against her skin, feeling oddly right there.

From the black case, he next took a coiled strip of black leather. A belt? Did he plan to hit her with a belt?

“This,” he said, “is your leash, my lovely pet. Down on your hands and knees, so I can attach it to your collar.”

Her mouth fell open. He was going to treat her like a dog? That sounded more humiliating than arousing. And yet, some instinct made her want to obey, to please him. After all, he had promised her pleasure beyond what she’d ever experienced before . . .

Dax broke off, shaking his head. Putting a woman on a leash like a dog? Sounded sick to him, and he’d had enough of this book for now. Shouldn’t Lily be home by now?

He reset her Kindle to the beginning of the book so she couldn’t tell he’d been reading, and returned the device to where he’d found it. Then, back in the living room, he turned out the light and paced restlessly, his path lit only by the subdued flicker of artificial flames. What did it say about his wife that she read this stuff?

She’d been a virgin when he met her, shy but eager to learn. He’d taught her a lot but didn’t figure she’d be into the really raunchy stuff. Yet she’d chosen a book about BDSM, after reading other erotic novels. An idea occurred to him. Fiction could be insightful and make you think, but it could also let you explore fantasy worlds. Maybe Lily wasn’t unfaithful, but bored with the sex that used to excite her. Cassandra wanted to kick her sex life up a notch; perhaps Lily craved that, too. His body, which hadn’t responded to Bound by Desire, tightened at that thought.

When they were teens, she, like lots of other girls, had been attracted to his bad-boy persona. He’d done his best to grow up, to deserve her. But maybe she missed his rougher side. He couldn’t imagine her wanting to be collared and leashed, but did she want him to be more macho with her?

He walked over to the window and gazed out. The rain had eased off. When would she get home? What would he say to her?

Why did women have to be so damned complicated? No wonder he spent most of his life in the bush. Weather and geography were challenging, but the challenges were straightforward.

Thinking of challenges and that first summer, he remembered the challenge he’d set himself then. She was on one path—to become a doctor—and he was on another, as a construction worker. She and her friends took college for granted but he’d never thought of going, and with his crappy marks and troublemaker record he wouldn’t get in. He might well turn out to be the same kind of loser as his dad. Drink, drugs, no impulse control. Maybe one day he and dear old dad would share a jail cell.

Lily deserved more, and Dax wanted to be that more. When she asked him what he’d choose if he could do anything in the world, the answer was, of course, to fly in the wilderness, but he also added going to college because he knew that’d be important to her. Both seemed like impossible dreams—until she did some research and told him about the ROTP, the subsidized Regular Officer Training Plan with the Canadian Forces. He could go to college, learn to fly, serve his country—and, down the road, become a bush pilot.

It was a lot to contemplate for a messed-up kid like him. But he figured he’d either straighten up or he’d fail, and if he failed, he didn’t deserve Lily.

On the day he graduated from the RoyalMilitaryCollege with top marks and Lily told him how proud she was, he proposed to her. Despite her parents’ disapproval, she married him.

Now he had another tough decision to make. Did he scrap his marriage or fight for it? A few hours ago, he’d almost reconciled himself to the idea that their marriage was over. And yet, they’d been together fifteen years. Their entire adult lives. That was a hell of a lot to just scrap.

Was it possible that he and Lily could recapture the passion and love they’d once shared? Did that book of hers hold the clues for doing it?

Dax paced again, slowly this time. No way was he putting a collar and leash on Lily, but what else might he learn from the book? Neville had looked past Cassandra’s words and read the way she responded to him. He’d told her to put her pleasure in his hands.

Once, Dax had been pretty good at figuring out what Lily wanted and making her happy, in bed and out. But now she was so reserved, so controlled. He stood as good a chance of getting his face slapped as of seducing her.

But hell, this was a challenge. Energy surged through him, filling him with resolve. With hope. “Hurry up and get home, woman.”