I could tell a lot about a man by watching him handle his dog.
At the vet clinic where I worked, we had the Lovers, who indulged their dogs’ every whim, even if that meant the animals were shredding their own leashes or terrorizing our office cat until she hid on top of the file cabinets. These men had good intentions and truly loved their animals, but they had no concept of discipline. As a result, their dogs refused to follow the most basic commands.
Then we had the men I called the Haters. They were the assholes jerking on the leash, yelling and treating their dogs like they were a useless waste of time. It didn’t matter how hard the dogs wagged their tails, these men were never going to be affectionate. They’d probably bought cute puppies for their kids and now saw their grown dogs as nothing more than smelly chores. A dog’s loyalty and affection were wasted on them.
The bell hanging on our door jingled, and I looked up. Sheba’s human was my favorite client and in a class all by himself. I called him the Master because he made controlling a king shepherd look easy. He didn’t need to jerk on her leash or yell at her. Instead, he was as affectionate as the Lovers, while maintaining perfect control at all times. He and Sheba walked into the clinic as if they were participating in a dog show. She could have torn the place up in seconds, but instead sat quietly at her master’s feet and wagged her tail.
“Good girl,” he murmured in a soft voice that still managed to thrum with power.
I clenched my thighs together. The sound of him praising his dog shouldn’t turn me on so much. I wasn’t his good girl, though my body certainly wanted me to be.
Sheba looked at me, her tail swishing quicker against the floor, but she didn’t move from his side. We often boarded her for days at a time, and I’d started keeping her at my desk and taking care of her myself. She followed me everywhere and I’d been tempted to ask Dr. Wentworth if I could take her home with me rather than leave her in the kennel overnight.
He chuckled, then nodded in my direction. “Go on, I know you’re dying to say hello.”
She raced around the desk and dropped her head onto my thigh. I rubbed behind her ears and scratched under her jaw, her favorite places. She melted against me until she was draped across my lap.
He laughed again and I couldn’t help but look at him. Even though it was dangerous.
Charles MacNiall wasn’t your typical tall, dark and handsome sort of man. His hair—while dark—was curly and a little too long, and while he was taller than me, that wasn’t saying much since I barely top five feet. His physical size wasn’t impressive, but he was lean and tight and hard. He had the strength, both physically and mentally, to be alpha to a hundred-pound, extremely active dog.
More importantly, he had presence. Even though he stood on the opposite side of the receptionist counter, I could feel that warm power licking at my attention. That compelling heat that made me want to curl up at his feet like Sheba.
Always mindful of his power, he rarely looked directly into my eyes, as though he sensed I was far too vulnerable.
He allowed me to peek at him without trying to draw me out or catch me staring. I’d probably fall apart if the man looked at me.
My cheeks flushed and I stared hard at the computer screen, hoping he thought I was just shy, not appalled by my own stupid weakness. It didn’t matter how many times he came in. He always hit me like a sledgehammer between the eyes.
I held my breath for several moments until I regained control, then turned and gave him my best customer-service smile—without exactly meeting his gaze. “Good afternoon, Mr. MacNiall. Dr. Wentworth is almost ready for you. You’re our last client today.”
He smiled, flashing a killer dimple in his cheek. “I’m not in a rush.”
It was all I could do not to let out a ridiculous little sigh of pleasure. He wasn’t watching me, so I soaked him in quickly—the way his curly hair tumbled down across his forehead, his full lips, the warmth in his dark eyes. His cheeks and nose were ruddy, his hair windblown more than usual, as if he’d been outside a long time. If he were younger, I would’ve guessed he’d been sledding for hours, though there was hardly enough snow to make it worthwhile.
He rubbed his hands together and I noticed he didn’t have gloves. As if he’d heard my thoughts, he said, “I’ve been playing hooky. Sheba’s had me at the park all day.”
On Christmas Eve eve, our unpredictable Missouri weather had finally chilled enough to be called winter, putting me in an extremely rare holiday mood. It had to be a temporary sugar stupor that made me open my mouth. “We’ve got a pot of hot chocolate in the back. Would you like a cup to warm you up?”
“I’d love one, thanks.”
I bit my lip to keep from cursing out loud. I wasn’t supposed to engage him in conversation. It was too risky. I certainly wasn’t supposed to serve him anything. That led my wayward fantasies down a twisty, narrow corridor to a dark room equipped with a rack and a wall of torture implements. Relax. It’s only a cup of cocoa. I’m not hitting on him. He’s not hitting on me. This is just a nice, friendly offer of a hot drink on a chilly day.
I don’t have to go into take-me-to-your-dungeon territory.
I couldn’t stifle the kernel of anticipation that had sprouted in that dark secret corner of my mind. Even worse, that little sprout threatened to grow into Jack’s beanstalk when he and Sheba followed me into the break room. Clients never came back here, but I didn’t think Dr. Wentworth would mind. She claimed not to have any favorites, but Sheba was too perfect not to be on our office’s most-beloved list.
I started to scoop him a cup from the crockpot, then decided I’d better warn him first. “This didn’t come out of a box. It’s a recipe I came up with and now it’s become a sort of tradition at the office.” I took a deep breath, forcing myself to stop babbling. “It’s got coconut milk in it. Is that okay?”
He shrugged off his coat, and I looked away so I wouldn’t try to check out his muscles. “As long as it’s hot and chocolaty, I don’t care.”
And then he looked at me.
I mean, he really looked at me. Not at my breasts or checking me out, but as if he could see everything inside me. Everything I’d fought to fix and the things I pretended weren’t broken and painful. Some days those things ached so badly I was afraid I’d shatter into a thousand pieces. He saw that darkness in me. He saw how damaged I was.
And he didn’t turn away.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t blink. I couldn’t breathe.
With all that scorching intensity, he was either all in or completely out. No in-between. No safety net. No flirting. No escape.
A lot like me.
Which makes him entirely off-limits. I jerked my gaze away. Too dangerous by far.
He took a long drink and I was able to suck in a loud breath. I managed to get my heart beating again. My fingers were icy, my hands shaking, and as hot as my face felt, I was probably glowing as brightly as Rudolph’s nose. Desperate to hide my reaction, I knelt and concentrated on Sheba.
The dog gave me a knowing look, as though to say, I know he’s a great master, but he’s all mine, human. I scratched behind her big perked-up ears. If she jumped up on her rear legs she’d be almost as tall as me, yet, like her master, she was unfailingly gentle despite her power.
The soft tone of his voice made me close my eyes, even as I wanted to turn my face up to him and let my hunger show on my face. Hunger for him, for the control he wielded so effortlessly. I was already on my knees. It’d be so easy…
I buried my face against Sheba’s neck and made a sound I hoped he took for “Yes?”
“May I ask you a personal question?”
I clutched the big dog harder. She licked my cheek and made a low whuff in my ear. “Of course, Mr. MacNiall.”
“Mac,” he chided. “Hell, you could call me Charlie and I wouldn’t mind, though the only other person who called me that was Mom. I’ve been coming to Dr. Wentworth for a year and I’ve known you since the first day she hired you. Surely you can call me by my first name now?”
Had Dr. Wentworth talked to him about me? How much did she know about my past?
Considering she was Mom’s best friend, probably way more than I wanted her to know. But I was never late, I loved the animals and I was determined to do my best work every single day. I was holding it together. Nobody had any cause to suspect I might have a few screws loose. “Dr. Wentworth prefers for us to be professional at all times.”
“She calls me Mac. Why can’t you?”
I wished I’d never looked into Sheba’s human’s eyes. I wished I’d been able to crush that first hint of attraction. I wished he wasn’t such a dedicated pet owner, who brought Sheba in faithfully every month for grooming. I especially wished he’d never given me a hint of the kind of dominance he wielded so effortlessly. What that dominance could do for me.
How could I begin to explain it to him? If I cracked that door open even a little, the whole avalanche would slip free and bury me beneath roiling, uncontrollable emotion. It took all my will and effort to keep all that locked away so I could function. It’d taken me two years to get over the last man I’d dated.
Though dating wasn’t exactly the right word for that relationship.
“I have to get back to the front desk.” Without looking up, I pushed to my feet and carefully edged around him. Part of me hoped he would grab both my arms and haul me against him until I had no choice but to tell the truth. I refused to feel disappointed when he merely followed me to the front of the office.
I took my seat behind the high counter that walled me off from the world. I’d worked a long time to be able to communicate like a normal person. I had to for my job. But he’d always been different. If he looked too deeply into my eyes, he’d see all my secrets.
Instead, I studied his sweater, tracing the weave of each thread, the way the colors met and blended. That distracted me enough to answer him. “What do you want to know?”
He stared at me, waiting.
Oh God. This man was so dangerous. He knew how to play me. How to tempt me. I’d never talked to him about more than Sheba’s next appointment, but he knew the secrets I tried so hard to hide.
I didn’t want to let him in. I didn’t want to play his game.
That’s a lie. I want to play his game so badly I’m scared to death.
I’d been lying to myself. I threw out all my toys. I cut back on chatting in my favorite forums. I broke all contact with everyone I’d known in St. Paul before moving back home. I had a job and my own apartment. I fed myself and went to work every day and pretended everything was normal.
But I’m not okay. I’m not ever going to be okay. All he’s done is look at me and ask me an innocent question and I’m already slipping.
My muscles ached with strain. My body wanted to surrender and give him exactly what he wanted. There wasn’t any safe territory for me to play at mind or control games. My body had already decided it was his to command.
My mind was quivering with the need to be his slave. If he crooked his finger at me…
I gritted my teeth together. No. No!
For a moment, I was afraid I’d said it out loud. His eyes widened and he opened his mouth, though my heart pounded so hard I couldn’t understand whatever he said. My eyes burned from the heat coursing through my body. I wasn’t afraid of him, but if he didn’t stop, I’d humiliate myself in the office and lose my job. I fought to keep myself under control. To stay in my seat instead of sliding to my knees. But my mind was already picturing the way he’d look down at me as I unbuttoned his pants. I could almost taste his cock in my mouth. I swayed toward him.
Sheba rescued me from myself. She put her big head on my thigh and gave a little puppy bark that managed to break through the desire strangling me. My head ached abominably and my stomach churned. And the worst was yet to come, because he was still there.
He’d seen it all. Thank God he had no idea how close I’d come to embarrassing us both. All the man wanted was for me to let him in, just a little, and use his nickname. And I couldn’t even do that without wanting to give him a public blow job.
I rested my hand on Sheba’s head and fought not to cry.
The door to the examination room opened and Mrs. Summers came out carrying her extremely fat cat. She’d need to pay for Fluffy’s exam and schedule the next appointment. Numbed from battling myself, I raised my head, determined to face him. It’d be better if I got it over quickly, even if I didn’t want to see his relief that he hadn’t had time to make the mistake of asking me out.
Bracing his elbow on the counter, his chin in his hand, he watched me pet his dog with a bemused little smile that sent my heart somersaulting. He wasn’t backpedaling toward the door. And the warmth in his eyes was still there, molten chocolate and damnably sweet as he stared at me.
He didn’t say a word.
No, he still waited for me to give him what he wanted. He didn’t let Mrs. Summers approach the counter. For a relatively small man, he managed to take up a lot of space when he was determined, and this was a battle he wanted to win. One word. That’s all he wanted. Did I dare play along?
Why did he still want to challenge me when I’d already betrayed how easily my self-control could slip away? Even more, why now? It was like he could tell I’d been fantasizing about him more and more, ever since he’d helped me a few weeks ago.
One of Dr. Wentworth’s interns had asked me out. Jacob was nice enough, I guess. The other assistants sure flirted with him. But a regular guy off the street would never interest me, and after months of therapy, I knew better than ever what kind of guy I wanted, though I didn’t think I was strong enough for a relationship.
Jacob didn’t take no for an answer. He wasn’t an asshole about it, just clueless, with that macho attitude that said if he kept asking me, I’d eventually say yes. I was surely just playing hard to get.
Every time he asked me out again, my anxiety ratcheted up another notch. I didn’t want to deal with that constant worry every time I saw him. He made me start doubting myself. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I ought to give him a chance. I’d done it so many times before, dating some loser I didn’t want, just to have that feeling that someone wanted me.
As Jacob asked me out for the tenth time, Mr. MacNiall happened to come in with Sheba. I didn’t make a scene, not at work, but somehow he picked up on my anxiety. He didn’t raise his voice, but his tone took on a sharper menace that made my pulse skyrocket. Not with fear.
Without flexing his muscles or putting his hands on the larger man, Mr. MacNiall told him to leave me alone, with a dark look that sent Jacob scurrying out of the room with his tail between his legs. He never even looked at me again before his internship ended.
That’s the kind of power Sheba’s master had.
The kind of power I craved with my whole being. As I’d just shown, he wouldn’t have to command me to my knees. I’d want to live on them every moment I was in his presence, aching with the need for his next command. Losing myself a little more every single day.
How could I possibly hold it together long enough to even think about playing with a man like him?
But the challenge was there. The heady rush of adrenaline as I wondered how far he’d be willing to go. Every minute I played his games, I’d be gambling my stability and well-being.
I couldn’t resist. Even if I lost myself in the process.
I opened my mouth, determined to get it over with. “Charlie.”
I froze as soon as his name left my lips, shocked that I’d dared to use his mother’s name for him and not what all Dr. Wentworth and his friends called him. That was me, all right. Stubborn to a fault and then determined not to follow the rest of the herd.
He smiled so widely that the dimple reappeared, then backed away from the counter to let Mrs. Summers book her appointment.
I drooped in my chair. On autopilot, I rang up Mrs. Summers’s bill and wrote out a card for the next appointment.
Dr. Wentworth started to take Sheba to the back, but paused and turned back to me. “Ranay, did you have any luck finding Pepper’s missing file? Callie swears she filed it but she can’t find it now. I need those notes so I can schedule a follow-up.”
Giving myself a mental shake, I picked up the file I’d found earlier and held it out to her. “She did file it, but in the archived drawer of deceased pets.”
“Yikes. Let’s hope that was very premature.” Dr. Wentworth laughed and headed for the examination room. “Thanks, Ranay. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Leaving me alone with him.
He never stayed outside while Sheba was examined, even if all they were going to do was trim her nails. She hated it but she wouldn’t move a muscle if he was there beside her. I tried to remember why Sheba was in today. Surely he wouldn’t leave her for long.
“I wanted to ask you something, Ranay.”
Oh God, here it was. He’d ask me out. I’d politely refuse. And my fantasies would have to die a painful, lonely death.
A man like him wouldn’t take a simple no without an explanation. I’d have to explain why I didn’t date anymore.
I stared unseeing at the computer screen. I wished he would leave. Why did he have to go and ruin a perfectly good fantasy?
My therapist had told me that these fantasies were a positive sign of my recovery. It was healthy to picture myself connecting with someone again, maybe falling in love. I could pretend Charlie was as kind and generous as he appeared, while also wickedly sensual in bed and fierce with his punishments. He’d know without question what I liked and what I hated (and he’d do it anyway because he liked to see me squirm). He’d push me, play me, tie me up while he tried to find one, just one, limit I might have, even though I had none.
He wouldn’t be appalled at how far I’d sink, unable to stop myself from drowning in him.
More importantly, he’d hurt me until I wanted to die from the sheer bliss of his sensual punishment. He’d take me, own me, command me so deeply that I wouldn’t want to breathe without his will directing me.
A gentle, kind dominant I could respect and love. A viciously inventive master who could punish me without hesitation and own me heart and soul. Thanks to my therapist, I knew that’s what I wanted, though I never believed I’d have it. Such dichotomy didn’t exist in a single man. Someday, I’d have to settle for one or the other.
I didn’t want to face the reality. I didn’t want to admit that the man I’d been secretly fantasizing about was impossible.
“I’m going out of town unexpectedly tonight and I was wondering if you could do a favor for me. With it being so close to Christmas, Doc’s too full to accept Sheba for a single night.”
We only had space to board ten pets, and the holidays had been booked for months. I dared to look back up at him. He leaned on the counter again, all dimples and tousled curls, doodling aimlessly with his finger on the counter. I blinked, wondering if I’d finally lost it for good. The poor man didn’t have a clue that my greedy body lusted for him.
His finger stilled, drawing my attention from his graceful hand up his arm and shoulder and back to his face. He leaned toward me, skyrocketing my blood pressure again. I was dizzy from the highs and lows, mentally exhausted after talking with him a few minutes.
He wasn’t asking me on a date. He certainly wasn’t offering to show me his box of toys or take me to his dungeon.
The man wants me to babysit his dog.
I tried to clarify. “Would Sheba be okay at my house?”
“She’d do better in her own environment, if that’s not too inconvenient for you.”
Crap. A night in his house. Granted, he wouldn’t be there, but his presence would have permeated every room. His scent. Would I be able to restrain my curiosity?
He flashed that dimple again, as though he knew I would snoop and he hoped I found something that would pique my interest even more. “It’s only one night. I’d be back before dinner on Christmas Eve if you have plans with your family. I’d ask my neighbor to come check on her, but she doesn’t like to be alone. Plus she likes you, Ranay. She knows and trusts you.”
The soft, rumbly way he said my name made me quivery with excitement. Worse, I could tell he knew it.
“I like you too.”
I stilled, sudden dread squeezing my throat. I dared a quick look into his eyes to gauge his intensity, but he was still playful and light. Was I still reading too much into this? Or was he merely luring me into his den with an innocent request to dog sit?
“I hope you like us.”
I opened my mouth but couldn’t respond. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not very proud of, but I’m a terrible liar. Luckily, Dr. Wentworth and Sheba saved me from having to answer. I’d crawl across broken glass if you told me to.
“Your beautiful lady’s manicure was quick and easy today,” Dr. Wentworth said as she handed over the leash to Charlie. “That must have been one heck of a talk you gave her, Mac, because she didn’t give us one whimper. What’d you promise her?”
He winked at me. “Just a visit from a friend.”
“Oh, good,” Dr. Wentworth replied. “I’m so glad Sheba will have some company. Do you need directions, Ranay?”
I nodded, unable to trust my voice.
Dr. Wentworth launched into turn left here and then two rights, and didn’t I know where so-and-so lived twenty years ago. I was seriously regretting accepting.
But in the midst of her chatter, he slipped a folded note to me, keeping his fingers on the paper as I laid my own on it. I was tempted to touch his hand, but I didn’t trust myself. Especially not in front of others.
“Call me if you have any problems at all.”
It wasn’t a command, not exactly, but my entire being vibrated with anticipation. I wanted his commands. I wanted his control. Pain. Punishment. It would all be pleasure to me. My chest seized, my lungs aching because I couldn’t breathe. Not with him standing here so close. I was careening down a mountain road in the pitch-black night. And I don’t have any emergency brakes.
“I need to leave for the airport by eight.” He let me slip the paper free and lightened his voice enough that I was able to haul in a deep, shaking breath. “Any time after six is fine. Whatever’s easiest for you. I can come get you if you’re afraid you might get lost, but I thought you might rather have your own car at your disposal.”
After waving at us both, he headed for his car with Sheba at his heels. I didn’t have to ring his bill up. He paid a flat amount monthly, an automatic deposit to his account with us. The perfect client.
Dr. Wentworth insisted we close up early. She wouldn’t let me clean up the break room. “You need time to get home and pack so you can spend the night with Sheba. I’m sure he’ll need to show you all her routines. How much to feed her. Where she likes to walk.” But then she spoiled her reasonable arguments with a wink and a nudge that told me she wasn’t oblivious to my attraction to Mr. MacNiall. “If you get there early enough, you might even have time for dinner. Trust me, darling, he has a fabulous wine collection. Make sure you sample it before the holiday’s over.”
Convinced I’d made a terrible mistake, I headed for my car, determined to arrive a few minutes before eight. I certainly wouldn’t hope for dinner. Or wine. Or the thousand other inappropriate things running through my mind that involved naked skin.
Though I sure as hell wanted to know how Dr. Wentworth knew all about his fabulous wine collection.