Watching Lady Wyre wander through the endless markets in Hoeng Gong was almost as fun as deciding how his next mark would die.
Sigmund Regret shifted the stack of parcels she’d shoved into his arms at the tea shop, careful to keep one hand free in case he needed to reach for a weapon. So much for being the galaxy’s most infamous assassin. He hadn’t accepted a contract in over a month.
At least he’d taken the first load of relatively small packets. He smirked as the other man of their party eyed the enormous—and still growing—stack of silks she’d selected.
“How much room is there in your hold?” Gilead Masters drawled in his distinctive Americus accent. “Surely not enough for all this.”
Sig laughed. “Large enough for Her Grace’s silks, surely, but I’m thankful that she’s not a collector of silver or we’d never get Oblivion out of the dock.”
“Humph.” Lady Charlotte Wyre tipped her nose to a haughty angle. “This is only my first day of shopping, gentlemen. These materials are fine for everyday gowns, but I intend to create a wardrobe that would dazzle Her Majesty herself. I’ve gone without the finer things in life for so long that I intend to make up for lost time.”
During the seven years she’d lived in hiding on the Americus colony, she hadn’t dared indulge her taste for the finery to which she’d been accustomed as Duchess of one of Britannia’s most powerful Houses. Sig couldn’t fault her for wanting to make up for lost time. He’d merely prefer to buy out the entire shop rather than stand around waiting while she sorted through each and every bolt.
“Then, of course, I must find a suitable modiste, not to mention matching trims, hats, boots and gloves. I must have daywear as well as evening, for I intend to wrangle an invitation into the Forbidden City so I might see the Emperor in all his glory. Not even Majel has accomplished that feat.”
Charlie paid the beaming shopkeeper an exorbitant amount of coin and gave instructions to have the silk delivered to their inn. Sig dumped the tea parcels on top of the shimmering mountain, ignoring the arched look she shot his way. The tea cost twice as much as the silks, but if she was entrusting her precious wardrobe to a delivery boy, she might as well have the tea delivered too. At the prospect of Charlie surviving without tea, though, Sig relented enough to pick up the largest parcel full of her favorite, golden-tipped assum.
Gil took her arm and they led the way down the crowded aisle. People of all colors and species filled the market, yelling in dozens of languages. Zijin was far enough away from the mighty arm of Britannia that trade flourished. Even species like the Razari—who’d barely survived Britannia’s cruel method of technological assimilation—risked sailing into the open market of Hoeng Gong, a tiny island satellite of the larger Zijin system.
The crush of people on all sides sent Sig’s self-preservation alarms into overdrive. He’d killed countless marks in situations like this. A slim knife slipped between ribs and he was away before the person even noticed something was wrong. Oftentimes their lungs were filling with blood before they even realized that prick they’d felt had been deadly. With his law enforcement background, Gil was equally uneasy, holding Charlie close to his side, his dark head turning this way and that, constantly scanning for danger. She tipped her face up to the other man and he bent down to hear over the clamor.
The sight of their heads so close together sent an ugly pulse through Sig’s gut, hard enough that he turned away so he wouldn’t have to look at them.
Surely the infamous Lord Regret isn’t feeling jealousy.
Oh but I am. I am.
It’d been easy enough in the beginning to accept that Charlie wanted two men in her bed. He was merely thankful they were all still alive and that she’d escaped Queen Majel’s Runners. He hadn’t even minded when she’d made love to him and then Gil, or vice versa. In the beginning, she’d often had them both in her bed, but they’d never interacted. It’d been very much a wait-until-it’s-your-turn situation. Not that he’d complained. She kept him well satisfied and he’d never felt slighted or neglected in any way.
But night after night after night in that small ship speeding through the galaxy had begun to wear upon him. Why, he didn’t know exactly. He loved her. She loved him. Gil loved her without question as well.
Sometimes love isn’t enough.
He winced at that thought and noticed he was stroking the hilt of his favorite knife tucked into a sheath on his hip.
Her hand settled on his forearm, drawing his attention to her face.
“What is it?”
He gave her a jaunty grin. “Merely dreading the next dress shop, Your Grace.”
Her eyes narrowed and she tilted her head as she studied him. He fought to keep his shoulders relaxed and his face smooth of any upset.
“I see.” She linked her arm with his and drew him alongside her and Gil. “I thought perhaps you’d received a new contract and were afraid to tell me.”
“I wish,” he muttered. A little killing always helped him keep the darkness at bay, and visiting her, of course, during those long years she’d hidden on Americus. While they traveled incognito, though, he couldn’t hope for a local contract to be made. No one was supposed to know Lord Regret was in port. Even if he accepted a contract today, it might take weeks to travel to the rendezvous point, assuming she’d even care to go with him, especially knowing he went specifically to kill someone.
Even with her admittedly divided attention, that same old uneasiness was beginning to gnaw at him. Soon, he’d be unable to sleep, tormented by old, shadowed pain. Pain he’d thought he’d left behind a very long time ago. “Why would I be afraid to tell you? You already told me you wouldn’t try to make me quit.”
He couldn’t help that small emphasis. He’d do anything she wanted, within reason, but if Charlie thought she could bat her eyes and make him stop being an assassin, then she’d be sorely mistaken.
She let out a low, rich chuckle that heated his blood, even while her words made him tense. “Don’t challenge me, Sig. You might not like the outcome.”
It was easy to slip the knife out and press the tip to her side before she even drew a breath. “Don’t challenge me, Lady Wyre.”
She hissed beneath her breath. “Don’t call me that, even here. One never knows where the Queen’s Ravens may listen.”
Blasted woman. She ought to be afraid of him, not the distant, albeit powerful, Queen hunting her all across the galaxy. He jabbed the knife a bit harder. “Do you honestly think Majel has spies here? Look around, Your Grace. Do you see a single red coat? Any Britannian ships in the docks? No. Hoeng Gong is open to everyone except Britannia, which is why so many people are willing to risk trading here. Even if Majel knew you were here, she couldn’t do anything.”
“You’re a fool, then.” Charlie’s voice chilled but her pitch didn’t rise with alarm. Calm and cool, even with a knife poking her in the ribs, she drew to a halt and stared up at him levelly. Masters cursed low under his breath. “Never mind, Gil. I’m fine.”
“That knife is pointed at your heart,” he replied grimly, his big right hand shifting toward the ancient pistol he kept beneath his coat.
Sig couldn’t help but grin, trying to antagonize the man. They’d clashed early on, and even bloodied each other a little, but she’d quickly put an end to their alpha posturing. Maybe a fight would put him at ease at least long enough for a contract to come through.
“No matter.” She shrugged, completely nonplussed. “He knows I’m always prepared for such events, don’t you, dearest? He was introduced to the corset I fondly call the iron maiden before I ever left Britannia.”
Indeed, their first meeting had gone rather like this, with him threatening to kill her, while she looked him in the eye and dared him to try. He hadn’t seen that steel-walled corset again. Had she brought it along on his ship? Would she have thought to wear it? Did he want to risk bloodying the woman he loved just to prove a point?
“You’re exactly right,” she continued in that annoyingly calm voice. “There were no Britannian ships in the dock. Not a single merchant vessel. And, yes, the Tongzhi Emperor did decree that no Britannian ships would be welcome in Zijin any longer in a futile attempt to curtail the influx of opium. Surely you know that the most powerful and arrogant woman in the known universe would never take such a challenge lightly. She wouldn’t send troops, not yet. Her Redcoats are all battling Napoleon for the Iberian system. Her Ravens are busy protecting the Queen from all the other people who want her dead, for I’m surely not the first nor last to be added to Queen Majel’s kill-on-sight list.
“But she has very likely sent Runners ahead to Zijin to prepare the way. She did it to the Razari, sending very normal-looking merchants eager to make a few coins to infiltrate the very lowest commoners and spread upward. For all we know, she’s managed to get a Runner into the Forbidden City itself. Any whisper of my true name will have them on us like a plague and it won’t matter in the slightest whether the Emperor has closed his ports to Britannia or not.”
Damnation. As much as it pained him, he had to admit that she was right. “No place will ever be safe for you.”
“No,” she replied gently. “That’s why I gave up hiding on Americus and sent my message to her. So what’s truly bothering you, Sig?”
He stiffened. Catching himself, he forced a casual shrug, but it was too late. Her dark eyes took note of that look of surprise and dread on his face. She turned away and for a moment, he allowed his shoulders to sag with relief. He’d taken care to shield her from the darker aspects of his life as much as possible. She’d seen him kill, certainly, but only to protect her.
She didn’t know his past. She didn’t even know his real name. She didn’t know the gnawing blackness spreading through his soul, threatening to drag him down to insanity. His fingers stroked the knife lovingly, but he finally sheathed it. Even though having a weapon in his hand made him feel marginally better, he didn’t need the temptation.
If Masters pushed him too hard and he struck him down, would she ever forgive him? He was terribly afraid she wouldn’t, which was exactly why he was tempted to do it. If he was forced to leave her, at least he could protect her from his taste for killing.
Pushing those bleak thoughts away, he followed them into the next shop. Chimes tinkled a welcome, but the tiny room was dark, lit only by oil lamps along the walls. Leather whips and straps hung alongside metal clamps and rings. Bamboo canes filled a vase in the corner. Spools of silken ropes in all colors and thicknesses lined a shelf below, along with anatomically correct male phalluses of varying thicknesses and lengths.
Bloody hell. She’s brought us to a sex shop.
Sig gritted his teeth, sure his face had exploded in fire. He shot a subtle look at the other man to see his reaction.
Studying the chains and clamps, Masters whispered, “I guess my handcuffs aren’t enough for her any longer.”
A surge of fury and shame swept through Sig so viciously he trembled. “Enough for me, you mean. Is that what this is about?”
Masters arched a brow at him. “I have no idea what the lady’s about. You know her better than I.”
Do I? Shaken, Sig slipped closer to her so he could overhear her quiet words to the young woman running the back counter. He tried to be invisible, making himself small and thin and dark, barely even breathing. But the young woman’s eyes flickered his way and she gave him a small, knowing smile.
“Very good,” Charlie said. “May I try a few to make sure I select the correct grip?”
“Of course.” The shopkeeper pulled down several short-handled crops and flails. “These look to be the best length for your arm and height. This one—” she pointed to a flail with thin tails of cloth, “—delivers the softest blow. This one uses beads and leather to deliver more pain without the same cutting strike. Which do you think will suit your needs best?”
Charlie chuckled softly. “I don’t honestly know. I’m afraid I’m a novice at all this. However…” She trailed her fingers over the braided detail of the leather flail. White cording made an intricate webbing about the black leather. “I find this design the most interesting. What do you think, Sig?”
“I despise it.” His lips felt so tight that he could barely speak. “Why would you even think I’d like such a thing?”
She tilted her head, her eyes wide with mock surprise that made him quiver with rage. “Why on earth would you assume it’s for you?”
He let out an ugly laugh. “Sure, sure. Your sheriff has decided he’d like to be hog-tied and whipped. He’s been taking lessons from me, right?”
He flinched back from her outstretched hand. “What kind of man do you think I am? Perhaps you’d rather simplify your life and get rid of the man with twisted desires.”
She clamped a hand on each of his arms and gave him a shake. Considering she was a foot shorter and a thin slip of a woman, she managed to rock him on his bootheels. “Stop it this instant. I want this. I’ve been thinking about trying new things. You might have given me a few ideas in the beginning, but this is my need to address. If you’re not willing to help me, then I respect your wishes. Do you honestly think I’d ever force you to do something you didn’t enjoy? To endure pain or humiliation just because I wished it? What kind of woman do you think I am?”
He dragged his gaze away from the piercing stab her dark eyes managed to strike deep into his soul. The young woman of the shop looked at him with what could only be pity. He backed away, only to run into Gil. The sheriff dared to put his hands on him, steadying him in what was supposed to be a friendly squeeze. With Charlie in front of him and her lover at his back, he felt too much. Raw, ugly, tearing sensations bubbled up inside him. He wanted to slash and hack all the way to the ship and never see either of them again.
“I don’t want this,” he ground out.
“What?” she whispered soothingly, moving closer so her skirts pressed against his legs. Reaching up, she cupped his face. “What’s wrong? If you can’t tell me, I can’t fix it.”
“Trapped,” he rasped out. “I feel trapped. I don’t want this. It’s too much. Too…”
“Real. You feel exposed.”
He jerked away from her tenderness and shoved the other man out of his way. “I can’t be bound, Charlie. I can’t do this.” Striding toward the door, he hesitated a moment, looking back at her despite his urge to get away as quickly as possible.
So beautiful. Her face and figure sculpted by the finest artisan in the land, her dark eyes large and bright with her incomparable intelligence and spirit. Those eyes shimmered with aching emotion, making him feel even worse. His throat closed off, his damaged heart pounding despite the assistance of her technology that kept him alive.
“Sorry,” he finally forced out. Then he pushed his way out into the clamor. The red-hued sun burned in the sky, blinding him, but he’d never felt so lost and alone in the dark.
Charlotte wasn’t normally a woman who succumbed to tears. She’d faced the most powerful woman in the universe, faked her own assassination, and evaded capture and torture for years without ever feeling the need to cry.
Yet watching the door slam shut after Sig very nearly brought her to her knees.
“We should have discussed it before I tried to implement my plans.” Her voice sounded strange to her ears, thin and fragile and breathy. She cleared her throat and willed the hot flood gathering in her eyes to seep back below her calm exterior. “I should have prepared him better. I forgot how vulnerable he can be.”
Gilead Masters might have the biggest hands she’d ever seen, but as he pulled her into his arms and stroked her hair, she’d never known anyone with such gentleness. “It’ll be all right, Charlotte. You know how delicate the male ego can be.”
She couldn’t help but snort, as he’d intended. “As delicate as handblown glass, yes.” Burying her face against his chest, she let out a shaking sigh. “I’m sorry, Gil. I should have discussed it with you too. I just saw the sign and decided to act first and talk later. That was a mistake.”
He cleared his throat. “Perhaps now isn’t the best time to discuss further.”
Goodness, she’d completely forgotten that they were in public. A small shop to be sure, and no one in Zijin knew their names, but she certainly didn’t intend to indulge in exhibitionism any time soon. She stepped back, smoothing her face into the serene, controlled mask of the Duchess she’d often worn when she made the social rounds in Britannia. “We’ll take it.”
The young woman waiting behind the counter was equally composed, though Charlotte took note of the sparkle in her eyes. “An excellent choice, my lady. Is there anything else I might show you?”
She moved toward the end of the counter so Charlotte followed her. With such a shop, the woman probably knew more about the burgeoning feelings she’d been trying to ignore than she did herself.
She’d never been interested in controlling her bedmates. Until Sig. Had the need always been there inside her, a sleeping, latent thing just waiting for the right man to come along and wake the beast with a kiss? Because she often did feel like a beast. A hungry, starving thing that quite frankly was more than grateful to have two men to feast upon.
“Sometimes extreme hatred arises from fear.” The shopkeeper lifted out a flat tray that looked innocuous enough. Small rings of various sizes lay inside, though they were too large to be worn on a finger. “Fear has many faces, not always born from reluctance or even dread of pain or danger.” She met Charlotte’s gaze levelly. “But of enjoying it too much. That fear of being swept away on a tide of passion, of losing everything we once thought we knew. Forgetting who we are. Some people crave that oblivion even while they fear it.”
Charlotte tried to think of how to convey her understanding without betraying too much of their privacy. “It might be real fear, though, so I’m reluctant to cause more harm. I know he’s been hurt in the past and I would rather die than add my name to the list of women who’ve hurt him.”
“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
Surprised, she at first dismissed the woman’s illustration as nonsensical, thanks to the cultural divide, but she couldn’t stop thinking about her own changing needs. Had she always tended to be controlling in bed, or had that only come with Sig? Did that need arise naturally with him because it was already there in her? Did it grow only because it’d found fertile ground to explore those needs with Sig and now Gil?
“Many wrongfully assume that a need for pain or submission in some way arises from a dark, tortured past,” the shopkeeper said. “However, I’ve always wondered how else a person might discover the pleasure in that pain if they’d never been hurt before. It must be especially rare for a gentleman to ask a lady to hurt him, even in Britannia. Besides, who would ask to be hurt if they didn’t know they’d find pleasure in it at the same time?”
Charlotte’s breathing stilled, her mind running incredibly fast. She’d assumed that whatever Sig had endured before leaving Britannia had been horrible enough to drive him to kill, so she’d been reluctant to dip too deeply into those feelings. But how could Sig ever have known he might enjoy being bound, if he’d never been made helpless in the first place? She’d only discovered his enjoyment by accident, when she’d bound him to the sickbed while he flailed out of his mind with fever. He’d nearly died, but in the process of healing, she’d learned about his secret need. A need to which she’d not only adjusted, but had also come to relish.
Perhaps he isn’t afraid of me torturing him. But of liking it too much.
She’d assumed that Sig’s rising anxiety and frustration had to do with their nontraditional lovemaking because he hadn’t requested much beyond basic bondage since Gil had joined them. Perhaps Sig’s upset went even deeper. Perhaps his need was changing, and that frightened him. They’d all been growing weary of their confines on the ship. While luxurious, Oblivion was rather small for three independent adults. They’d certainly been forced to endure only each other’s company for much longer than ever before.
She couldn’t deny that she was frightened by the growing depths of her need for both men. She’d accidentally committed great wrongs with her scientific research. Her nanobots had been used without her permission or knowledge to completely ravage an entire race. She’d never forgive herself for such atrocities.
Now she was considering giving pain to a person she loved, simply because she wondered what the flail would feel like in her hand. The strike and recoil in her arm. What sounds he’d make and how she’d respond.
Guilt choked her, squeezing her throat and chest.
Gil moved to stand beside her, and she couldn’t meet his gaze. What must he think of me? I never considered how he might react if he discovered I was whipping Sig. He must think me terribly depraved. As if forcing him to share my bed with another man wasn’t enough.
“What are these for?”
“They’re rings a man wears on his member,” the shopkeeper replied. “It helps increase his stamina by restricting blood flow.”
Charlotte risked a quick glance up to see his reaction. The tips of his ears were red, but he didn’t appear appalled. In fact, he couldn’t pull his gaze away from the tray, which melted her doubts away. “Is it painful?”
“I’ve been told most men enjoy the pressure and sensation of fullness. As his passion rises, the band tightens, restricting blood flow and delaying gratification.” Without his request, the shopkeeper demonstrated the clasp on the silver ring, showing how it could be removed if it became too tight. “We also have rings made with softer materials, like leather and rubber.”
“No,” he whispered in a low voice. Only slightly roughened, his voice strummed Charlotte’s spine because she recognized his tone. Arousal. “I like this silver one.” It was thicker than the others and slightly larger to accommodate a man of more-than-average size.
Which suited her sheriff perfectly.
The shopkeeper inclined her head, her small smile indicating a touch of appreciation. Charlie bit her lip to keep from saying, “You have no idea,” out loud.
“So we have a flail for the lady and a ring for the gentleman.” The shopkeeper slipped the silver ring into a box and laid it with the wrapped flail. “Might I make one more recommendation?”
“Please do so.” Charlotte took Gil’s hand and gave him a squeeze. Already her mind had raced ahead to trying out that ring as soon as they returned to the inn. She drew his arm against her breasts and whispered, “Should we get one for Sig?”
“After the way he reacted…I don’t know.” He flexed his arm against her, letting her revel in the delicious feel of his muscles. “He might want to pick out such a toy himself. Perhaps her recommendation can help.”
“This recommendation is actually for the lady.” The shopkeeper laid delicate silver chains out on the counter. “If you think a partner might be interested in receiving pain, it’s beneficial for you to have small pain too. It helps ground you in what you’re giving and, honestly, many dominants find it just as enjoyable as the submissive.”
Charlotte stretched out a finger and moved the chain around on the wood. She’d never thought of herself as dominant, but she supposed she did control the reins when it came to her bedchamber. It wasn’t something she’d necessarily thought about. She’d desired Gil, so she’d taken him to bed. He’d been more than obliging when she’d pushed him flat on his back that first time and ridden him hard. Sig had been different from the beginning, but even then, she hadn’t consciously decided to select a man who enjoyed being bound while she made love to him.
She’d been attracted to him before she’d learned that little tidbit. Perhaps it’d been titillation in the beginning, but now… She couldn’t imagine not giving him exactly what he wanted, because she wanted it just as much.
Small clamps at the ends of the chains gave her pause. She didn’t need an illustration to deduce that these metal pincers were designed to clasp even the most delicate of flesh.
Gil’s arm flexed against her. One of the things she loved most was when he used those big, calloused hands on her breasts, the more ungently the better.
The shopkeeper might have mistaken her silence for dread. “You can start out very softly with nary a pinch, or slowly increase the pressure with these screws. The chains are like jewelry, so light they won’t interfere with your natural movement, yet also beautiful to accessorize your body. Though I should warn you that loosening the clamps should be done slowly at first. The sensation of blood rushing back into the area can be quite intense.”
Charlotte could well imagine. If I timed it so that I loosened the clamps right at the moment we were climaxing… Shivering, she clamped his arm tighter to her. “I’ll take it, and I’d like to select a ring for the other gentleman as well. We should all have the chance to…accessorize…if he finds it interesting.”
After some discussion, she settled on a silver ring for Sig that wasn’t as thick as the other, but which had two smaller metal loops designed to cradle and lift his ballocks. He might not like it at all, but he also couldn’t claim offense that she’d done something for one man and not the other. With the packages tucked under her arm, it was all she could do not to drag Gil back to the inn as quickly as possible.