Show Me Baby A Masters of the Shadowlands Novella 1001 Dark Nights 17

  Such a scruffy cat for a sophisticated person like Master Z. The huge feline had scars, ragged ears…and narrowed eyes. That was one pissed-off kitty.

  “We’ve missed you at the Shadowlands,” Master Z said.

  God, she’d missed everyone too. She struggled to get her dejected expression under control. “It’s mutual.”

  When Rainie extended her fingers for the annoyed cat to sniff, Master Z watched. “My mother reports you plan to relocate to New York. Do you think you’ll enjoy it there?” His voice was relaxed. Just making conversation—as if the Shadowlands owner had ever made casual conversation in his life.

  “Probably. Hey, if the city were that bad, your mother wouldn’t live there.”

  He gave her an easy smile. “She wouldn’t reside in New York if her existence depended on it. Although she buys companies around the world, her home is Sarasota.”

  “Oh.” Rainie felt despair slide through her again. Soon she’d leave all her friends behind. “I’m sure I’ll adapt quickly enough.”

  “You make friends easily, yes. But, Rainie, you and Jake seem good together, and you love Florida. Why did you accept my mother’s offer?”

  He’d heard her talking with Jake. The…the snoop. Her mouth turned down, and yet, under his compelling silence, words slid right out of her. “I have to live in a place where people don’t know my past. And to become more…more. Besides, Jake found a better woman. Someone of…of his class.” Of Z’s class, as well.

  He regarded her thoughtfully. “I think you’re mistaken, pet. I doubt Jake is interested in anyone but you.”

  Joy zinged through her and then dissolved in the light of reality. “No. I saw them—I mean, I’m right.”

  He considered her as those silver-gray eyes held her in place. Then his grin flashed, taking her by surprise. “I’ll make you a wager, Rainie. If I lose, I’ll pay for Jessica and Gabi and Uzuri to fly to New York and help you get settled in.”

  Her fingers closed on the edge of the counter. Have friends with her in her new place? She wanted that. The only thing better would be Ja— Stop. “What’s the bet? And what if I lose?”

  “If Jake proves he’s not interested in…the other women…before Friday, you’ll return to the Shadowlands. And there you will spend the evening serving him with total trust and total submission.”

  “No,” she gasped.

  He lifted an eyebrow.

  Jessica and Gabi and Uzuri. In New York. They’d help her settle in, ease the strain of the move, relieve the loneliness.

  But, what if she lost? Could her heart withstand another night with Jake? “He won’t do it. He’s interested in…her, and even if not, he doesn’t want me any longer.”

  “We’ll leave the decision to him.” Z poked his fingers through the carrier’s wire door to stroke his battered cat. “I won’t tell him about the wager unless you lose. If you do, you’ll call me, and I’ll explain the rules to him that evening.”

  Friends in New York. One more night with Jake. “Okay, you’re on.”

  “Good.” Z’s silvery-gray eyes met hers, trapped hers, and his voice deepened. “Rainie, you’re wrong about who suits him. And who you are. And what is important in life. You think long and hard before you make a mistake.”

  * * * *

  His family had returned to St. Petersburg on Monday. On Wednesday, Jake took Saxon to supper at their house. The cook had outdone herself with preparing an it’s-nice-to-be-home meal, then gone home to her husband. So the casual dining room held only his parents, his younger sister, and his best friend.

  As the talk of their European vacations swirled around him, Jake contributed absent-mindedly while fuming inwardly. Rainie hadn’t smiled all week. Even the clients noticed. Mrs. Flanders had scolded him and ordered him to fix whatever was bothering her.

  Difficult to do. Damn him for being an idiot and getting involved.

  “…Jake?” Jennifer lifted her eyebrows.

  Everyone waited for his answer.

  “I missed that,” he said. “What did you ask?”

  “I ran into Nadia, and she said you two were dating. When did that happen?”

  “Who’s Nadia?” Saxon scowled. “Is this why Rainie hasn’t laughed for three days? You might have mentioned you broke up.”

  Fuck was the only word that came to mind. He ignored Sax to frown at his sister. “Since when does having a post-party drink mean I’m dating someone?”

  “Who is Rainie?” his mother asked.

  No, fuck wasn’t enough. Clusterfuck was more like it.

  His mother didn’t rule her children’s lives, but she was an advocate of staying informed. “Jake?”

  No help for it. “Remember Lynette, the receptionist Sax’s uncle recommended? She screwed up the office so badly I fired her. Rainie has been helping out.” He gave Saxon a flat stare. “However, Z’s mother, Madeline Grayson, offered Rainie a position in New York, and she’s moving soon. I’ll call in an ad to fill the receptionist spot tomorrow.” He should have acted sooner but hadn’t been able to face the task.

  “Well, that sucks.” Saxon scowled. “I wanted her to stay.” He glanced at Jake’s father. “She had Lynette’s mess straightened out within a day, took on the staff schedules and the payroll, as well. She’s been researching more efficient software. And she keeps notes on what’s required to expand into an emergency hospital.”

  “And you call her a receptionist?” Jake’s father laid his napkin beside his plate and leaned back.

  “She just completed her MBA,” Jake said. “Her last job was managing a towing company. Since the owner hated business, she kept on taking on new projects. She’s enthusiastic that way.” Not so enthusiastic about relationships.

  But he couldn’t escape the memories… Rainie surrounded by puppies. Coaxing a homesick cat out of the sulks. Dancing with heart and soul. Kneeling before him. Laughing with him.

  His chest squeezed painfully. He’d miss the joy she brought to everything she did.

  Now get over it.

  “Someone who thrives on multitasking is the perfect office manager for your clinic. If she likes that, she’ll probably find a large company a tad stifling,” Jake’s father said.

  Quite true. She didn’t seem to care though.

  As his mother poured decaffeinated coffee, his sister served the dessert.

  “Interesting name.” Jennifer set a piece of key lime pie on Jake’s plate and said, “I knew a Rainie once. A girl in my class who dropped out. She ran away from her foster home, which made me unhappy because I wanted to get to know her.”

  Jake stiffened. Rainie’d been in foster care. “Sounds like our”—my—”Rainie. Why’d she run away?” And why hadn’t she mentioned the running away part?

  “I’m not sure. I heard some nasty rumors about the foster home she lived in. The man—” Jennifer grimaced. “Well, there are always rumors. Like after that, Mandy said Rainie was staying with a drug dealer.”

  Mouth tight, Jake’s dad tapped his fingers on the table. “How old were you at the time?”

  “Um. I was studying for my driver’s license,” Jennifer said.

  Jake pushed his pie away, appetite gone. Then Rainie’d been sixteen…and living with a dealer? His softhearted woman who cried over old dogs and their owners?

  “So, big brother,” Jennifer said, trying to lighten the table conversation. “Were you dating this paragon of efficiency?”

  “Obviously not seriously or she wouldn’t be moving to New York.” He winced at the bitterness in his voice. With a forced smile, he added, “Which is as well. Her priorities differ from mine.”

  “Oh.” Jennifer’s gaze flickered over his face, and then she bit her lip and turned her attention to her pie.

  “Well…” His mother’s expression held sympathy. She’d always been able to read him like a book. “How is Nadia doing with her job?”

  “Fine,” Jake said. “She’s an excellent choice for Renard. One good snob deserves another
.” At his mother’s choked-off laugh, he smiled slightly, remembering when he’d thought Nadia exemplified the ultimate in womanly perfection. But young men grow up and learn to cherish the beauty hidden beneath the surface.

  Rainie was beautiful inside and out.

  Ignoring the conversation around him, he toyed with his pie and thought about Heather, his prior girlfriend. They’d been good together, and she’d been an easy person to love. He’d missed her cheerful company, but…but not with this profound ache, as if he’d accidentally sliced a hole in his chest.

  When he heard Rainie’s voice in the clinic, his body warmed, not with lust, but just…happiness. Seeing her with puppies, he felt like gifting her with a half dozen simply to keep that smile on her face. Always, he wanted to sit next to her and share in her joy.

  But her glow had been missing since the wedding. He’d done that—or she had.

  She was unhappy; he was unhappy. Couldn’t she figure this out? Why wouldn’t she talk with him, dammit?

  The plate and pie he was playing with disappeared, and he looked up with a scowl.

  Sax gave him a smile. He forked up a big bite of the half-smashed pie and popped it in his mouth. “Sorry, bro, but if you’re not going to enjoy something tasty, you’re going to lose it.”

  Chapter Twelve

  Late the next night in a restaurant’s private dining room, Jake sat back in his chair and listened to the other Masters and Mistresses talking. The various conversations were drawing to a close. The monthly Shadowlands M&M dinner was almost over.

  As the waitress set a beer in front of him, Jake smiled at her. “Thank you.”

  She gave him a timid nod. Poor woman. While taking their orders, she’d actually been shaking. But Z had eased her fears, Cullen had teased her, Marcus had paid her one of his silver-tongued compliments. Even Nolan had found a smile for her.

  She’d relaxed slightly…probably as much as possible when faced with all the firepower of the Shadowlands, let alone the conversational material. The argument they’d had about blood-play would disturb anyone but a sadist.

  “Any more concerns?” Z asked from the head of the table.

  “A small one.” Anne turned to Jake. “I heard Rainie is moving?”

  He nodded.

  “So we’re down to two trainees?”

  “Less,” Jake said. “Tanner told me he’s joining the Colton household. Only Uzuri is left.”

  “That’s a shame about Rainie.” Marcus frowned. His face was deeply tanned from his honeymoon. As he gestured, the wide gold band on his hand flashed in the dimly lit room. Gabi had told Jake she’d picked a ring so “ginormous,” every woman in Florida would see he was taken. “I’m going to miss the girl, and so will Gabi.”

  And so will I. The Shadowlands wouldn’t be the same. Rainie had added a special flash of brightness and color to the club. And to his life.

  He caught Z’s gaze on him and stiffened. Much as he respected the owner of the Shadowlands, Jake didn’t need his counseling.

  “In that case, meeting adjourned.” Z got to his feet.

  Jake rose with the others and after the general round of farewells, he took his beer to the bar to finish. Wasn’t as if anyone waited at home for him—except for a small dog and two cats. Pitiful, Sheffield. After all, his “black book”—the cell phone’s contact list—was filled with numbers to call if he wanted female companionship.

  He didn’t.

  “Hey, buddy, you’re still here?” Cullen’s voice boomed over the noise of the television and nearby conversations. He slid onto a barstool beside Jake. Probably a month or so past due for a haircut, he had to brush his brown hair out of his eyes.

  His dark red, button-up shirt fit him well—except for some rather suspicious bulkiness under the left sleeve. Gauze bandages, perhaps? Cullen was an arson investigator—not the safest of career choices.

  Jake nodded at Cullen’s arm. “What got you?”

  “Falling beam. Got a bit scorched before I knocked it aside.” Cullen caught the bartender’s attention and pointed to the Guinness on tap. “Beer’s a hell of a lot easier—and tastier—to swallow than pain pills.”

  Jake studied him. Cullen was probably well over two hundred pounds, but that wasn’t his first beer. “How about I drive you home when you’re done self-medicating?”

  Cullen drank past the foam to the dark brown liquid and heaved a pleased sigh. “No need. Andrea’s out with friends. When I told her I wanted to overindulge, she volunteered to pick me up.”

  “Good enough.” Jake turned his attention back to his beer.

  Cullen grinned. “Does this make me less of a man then? To ask my submissive for help?”

  Hell. Gunny would have said yes—that a Dom should manage his own problems. Jake rolled his beer bottle between his palms. He wasn’t sure he agreed; Cullen was one of the strongest Doms he knew.

  Cullen’s mouth tipped up when Jake didn’t answer. “Who told you a Dom couldn’t show weakness?”

  “Professor in grad school. A Marine Gunnery Sergeant who served in about every war zone since Moses and had so many medals he could’ve used them for weight lifting.” Jake frowned, remembering his first sight of the battle-hardened vet. Jake had been maybe twenty-one? Young enough to hang on the Dom’s every word. “He introduced me to the lifestyle. Mentored me.”

  Gunny’d missed the camaraderie of the Marines. Missed having younger men to supervise. Upon discovering Jake’s interest in BDSM… Jake grinned and shook his head. In hindsight, he realized Gunny’d been delighted to find someone like Jake to train.

  “Got it.” Cullen drank half his beer, and then leaned an arm on the bar top. “Not a surprising stance considering the Marine mentality. However, I disagree. Much as we Dominants hate to admit it, we’re human. You can pull off that infallible, invulnerable shit if the submissive only scenes with you occasionally, but the façade will fall apart in a relationship.”

  Jake stiffened. “You’re saying being strong is a pretense?”

  “Sometimes. We are strong. We also get hurt and need help.” Cullen glanced at his burned arm. “Last I looked, even Doms lose loved ones or jobs or pets. We need to mourn. We get depressed.” He smiled. “Some of the best sex of my life was the night Andrea bratted me out of a black hole. I needed her, and she knew it.”

  Jake scowled. “I don’t—”

  “Giving is a two-way street, buddy. Don’t deny your submissive the pleasure of being able to help you. Of knowing she’s needed.”

  The pleasure of helping. His mentor had denied anyone that satisfaction, hadn’t he? “I’m fine, Sheffield. Don’t need help.” Gunny’s color had been gray, his age finally showing after his most recent heart attack. He’d been crippled up. Jake had wanted so fucking badly to assist—and been refused.

  Was it strength that’d kept the old Marine from accepting any support…or a kind of weakness?

  “There he is. And Jake too.” Andrea’s slightly accented voice drifted across the bar.

  Jake glanced over his shoulder, relieved at the rescue. Fuck. Seemed like his life since meeting Rainie had been a mess of confusion.

  “Jake, it’s good to see you.” Andrea smiled at him, then her Dom. “Sir.”

  Cullen pulled her between his long legs. “Jake just reminded me you’re the best thing in my life.”

  “Jake is right.” Andrea’s smile softened into pure beauty. “I love you, mi Señor.”

  “I love you, too. Marry me, little tiger. We—” Cullen swore under his breath and released her. “Sorry. I’ve had too much to drink.”

  “Sí. I will.” Andrea’s answer was swift and sharp. “Marry you.”

  Cullen’s hands clamped onto her arms so hard she squeaked. “Sorry, love, but…you’ll marry me?”

  Her eyes gleamed with tears, but her smile would rival sunlight. “Sí.”

  “Fuck,” Cullen muttered. “You said yes—you really did.” His craggy face split in a huge grin as he pointed at Jake. “
You’re my witness.”

  “Got it covered.”

  “No escape for you now, love.” Cullen pulled his captive closer.

  Grinning and trying to give the two some privacy, Jake spun on the barstool—and came face-to-face with Heather. “Hey.” She’d cut her hair, he realized, and the brown strands curled around her face. “I didn’t realize you were in town.”

  “It’s good to see you, Jake.” She took the hand he held out and kissed his cheek. Her scent was still lightly floral, her lips soft. “I was at a convention in Orlando and popped over to visit friends here.”

  Of course, the Shadowlands submissives would be part of her gang of buddies.

  “We arranged for me to drop Andrea off so she can chauffeur Cullen home in his truck.” Her smile brightened. “And probably celebrate their engagement.”

  “Probably,” he agreed, hearing the sounds of someone being thoroughly kissed behind him.

  When a person at the bar muttered sourly, “Get a room,” Cullen laughed. With Andrea tucked against his side, he kissed Heather’s cheek, slapped Jake’s shoulder, and was out of the restaurant in seconds.

  “Well.” Heather stared after them. “I didn’t even say congratulations.”

  “I don’t think they noticed.” Jake took a drink of his beer. He was happy for Cullen, no question about that, but felt pretty damned sorry for himself. How pitiful was that?

  But the woman he wanted had dumped him in favor of her career. And here was Heather, who’d done the same. Fuck, he needed to reevaluate his handling of relationships.

  He motioned to the bartender. “What can I get you, Heather?”

  She hesitated before sliding onto the barstool Cullen had vacated. “Just a diet soda,” she told the bartender before asking Jake, “How is the clinic doing?”

  “Busy.” If they could have kept Rainie, they’d have expanded. “How’s your job?”

  “Wonderful.” Her smile was still sweet. “I’ve been promoted.”

  “Good for you. I’m sure you earned it.” She would have. As a submissive, she’d always given a hundred percent. He couldn’t imagine she offered less to her career. “You look happy. Apparently, you made the right decision.”