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Here is a short sample from the book:
I slowly opened my eyes to the familiar call.
“Toy! Where are you?”
I blinked sleepily in the afternoon sun and looked out over the sweeping expanse of lawn. There he was, rounding the side of the greenhouse with a fifty-pound bag of fertilizer slung over his shoulder, the perfect specimen of tanned male beefcake.
He raised his head at the sound of the distant command, then took off up the rise at a brisk trot, his tree-trunk thighs making easy work of the climb. Even from my distance, I could see the smile on his face and the determined set of his square jaw.
He was Toy. I knew him by no other name. His mistress was calling him, and he would have been unwise to keep her waiting. Even on her kindest days, she was a demanding lady, this Mistress Paulina Martin, keeper of the estate’s grounds and of one muscle-bound boytoy.
I’d been staying at the estate for two weeks, and I’d settled into the flow of things with more ease than I thought possible. In the beginning, it was jarring to be strolling the grounds or relaxing on my porch only to have a 250-pound body-builder pop around a corner and race across the grass pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with sod.
It wasn’t so much the man himself that was startling, though his form was arresting. No, it was what he wore, or rather, wasn’t wearing. Toy’s apparel consisted of a skimpy leather loincloth, thick leather cuffs on wrists and ankles, and a leather collar around his neck. That was it. Startling, most definitely.
I shaded my eyes and searched for Paulina. I spotted her off by the edge of the orchard. Though she was distant, I could tell by her stiff, upright pose that she was displeased with her sub. Her platinum hair flashed in the sunlight, and I thought I could see her boot-clad foot tapping impatiently. Uh-oh, I thought, feeling a touch of sympathy for Toy.
A deep male voice sounded beside me. “He’s in for it this time, I fear.”
I glanced to my right and smiled. It was Xavier Martin. He stepped up next to my lounger, gazing after the racing Toy and his impatient mistress.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” I said.
Xavier smiled down at me. “It’s fortunate then, that Toy enjoys being in for it.”
I returned his smile. “Do you think he deliberately drags his feet?”
“That’s precisely what I think. I’ve told Paulina she needs to crack down on that sort of thing but she won’t listen. Ah, well, it’s her business, no?”
I nodded. Yep. I supposed it was. Odd, this conversation, another thing that took some getting used to. Xavier and Paulina were married, and Paulina was Xavier’s sub, but she was also Toy’s mistress, and Xavier was like a dominant trainer for Paulina, yet he didn’t have any sexual dealings with Toy himself. Convoluted stuff. Took me a while to work it all out.
Xavier nodded at the equipment he held. “I thought I’d catch some fish for dinner. I brought a pole for you. Care to join me?”
I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t say no. He knew it, too. Both he and Paulina were often after me to stay busy, to keep my mind off my troubles. I found it impossible to deny the wishes of these people who cared for me, provided me with meals and support. If they wanted a hand now and then, there was no way I could say no.
“Sure,” I answered, “but let me run back to my place and change clothes. I don’t need anything else ruined by fish guts.”
“Consider those smelly guts your badge of honor for mastering a new task.”
“Yeah, well, I think that badge would look best on an old t-shirt that’s already stained.”
“I’ll meet you at the dock.” He headed off down the lawn toward the small lake.
I managed to slowly heave myself out of the low-slung lounge chair. It wasn’t far to my cottage, and I was in no hurry. That was one of the things about life on the estate; I never felt like I was in a hurry. Even with Toy constantly racing around the place, I felt no pressure to imitate him.
I’d allowed myself to fall into life at this place too easily, I knew. Part of the reason for this was the warm way Xavier and Paulina had welcomed me into their realm. Another part was that this was Gibson Reeve’s home, and I wanted to be close to him. In a way, I needed it.
Then there was the estate itself. The grounds were immense, with greenhouses and orchards, multiple gardens and barns and a huge stocked lake. There were flower trails and wooded trails and even a sort of grassy trail that was kept wild and untended. I’d found numerous small streams and clever little hidden grottos during my hikes in the forest.
Wildlife was abundant, with birds galore, woodland, nesting, water fowl, guineas and peacocks roaming the lawns. Small animals like squirrels and rabbits scampered everywhere. I’d spotted deer wandering the property. One foggy morning I thought I saw a bear, but Xavier laughed at me and said that was unlikely.
This place was unto itself, and it sucked you into it. I felt like I never had to leave it for anything. I could catch fish for my supper, and pick vegetables from the greenhouses or the late summer gardens. Everything was provided.
Well, almost everything. Gibson wasn’t around much. But besides that annoying detail, life on the estate was practically perfect.
It reminded me of when I was a child and spent my summers at my grandparents’ farm. My parents never made much time for me, but my grandparents always seemed to love my company. They never complained that I tagged after them too much, or that I asked too many questions. They never acted like I bothered them.
For two glorious months every year, I lived on my grandparents’ farm. It wasn’t a profitable enterprise, that farm. Both Grandpa and Grandma had to hold down full-time jobs in town, so the farm wasn’t a business for them, but rather a labor of love.
I would happily traipse after Grandpa as he did his chores, feeding the cows and chickens, slopping the pigs. He’d let me pitch in, always giving me something to do that made me feel useful. And he listened to my chatter and chattered right back.
Grandma let me help her in the kitchen and with her gardening chores. She taught me how to crack eggs and how to properly fold a shirt. Over the course of the summer, she fed me a million warm, chocolate chip cookies.
The summer when I was twelve years old, my grandfather was badly injured in an accident at work. I was staying at the farm at the time, and I would forever remember sitting at the hospital next to my grandmother, her hand tightly wrapped around mine when the doctor told us that my grandfather might never walk again.
My parents came and took me home the next day. I fought them like I had never fought before. I wanted to stay, to help take care of Grandpa, to help Grandma. I was old enough to be of help, and I would always believe that Grandma thought so as well.
My parents wouldn’t be persuaded, however. They dragged me home, then shuttled me off to summer camp.
A month later, my mother called the camp and told me my grandparents had died in a house fire. I never knew all the details, only that their house caught fire and they were unable to make it out in time. I wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.
For years after that, whenever I thought of my grandparents, I mentally created a scenario where my parents allowed me to stay on the farm to help with Grandpa’s convalescence. The what-ifs were a nagging barrage. I imagined myself smelling the smoke from the fire, running into my grandparents’ bedroom, waking them up, and helping to get my grandfather out of the house. Just in time. Always just in time.
I was younger than them, more agile, and I would have smelled the smoke sooner, would have been able to breathe it longer. I would have saved them. And then they would have been alive, happy that I helped them. They would let me live with them forever.
Sometimes, I imagined that I didn’t smell the smoke quickly enough. Would I have sacrificed myself for them? I wondered. Yes, I would have, I believed. If that had been what was needed to keep them alive and safe. Yes, I would have sacrificed myself for them, those two people who cared for me and liked me more than anyone else in the world.
What wouldn’t I have done for them if I’d had the chance? But I wasn’t given the chance. It was taken from me, and I was only a child who had no way to seize it for myself.
In many ways, Xavier Martin had become a substitute grandfatherly figure to me. The way he listened, his careful advice, his aura of comfortable knowledge, all these traits were reminiscent of that long-lost figurehead. And he was close to my grandfather’s age when I was young. Xavier had salt-and-pepper hair, a distinguished look about him, a fit and strong physique, all of which reminded me of my grandfather.
Paulina, however, was not a grandmotherly type. She was a force of nature, a changeable hot and cold whirlwind. Yes, she could be kind. But sometimes, she could be brutally honest in a way that wasn’t kind in the least. None of which is to say that I didn’t like her. I did like her.
She looked ten years younger than her actual age, early-fifties. A beautiful, refined woman, she had a regal bearing and a penetrating eye. In no way did she physically remind me of my soft and gentle grandmother. No, Paulina did not play grandmother to Xavier’s grandfather.
I slipped into my cottage and quickly changed into my oldest, rattiest clothes. I say “cottage,” which implies it was small. It was not small, in fact. It was the largest home I had lived in since I left my parents’ house.
The cottage was a one-story structure, with four bedrooms, four full baths, two half-baths, two living rooms, a study, a workroom/studio, a huge kitchen, a dining room, a laundry room that would have made a professional laundress proud, two screened porches and a large deck out the back. Really, now. A cottage? Hardly my idea of one. If this was how the three bears lived, no wonder Goldilocks wanted to hang out there.
I felt the least at ease on the estate when I rambled around the cottage. After living for so long in the confines of small, one bedroom apartments, this place was over-sized, and it seemed too much of the space went unused.
It was a beautiful home, though, designed to complement the rest of the buildings on the estate, all of which mimicked the look of an aged Italian villa and grounds. There was even a small vineyard. No olive trees, though. Maybe they wouldn’t grow in this part of the country. I had never thought to ask Paulina about it and knew nothing about horticulture myself.
As I strolled down the lawn, taking a shortcut to the lakeside, I heard Toy off in the distance, shouting something. It sounded like grunts. I realized then what it was. He was counting. I grinned. I could picture what was happening.
Toy would be on the ground, doing pushups as penance for his sins, loudly counting out each completed one. Paulina would be sitting on his back, her legs crossed off to one side. She’d be looking thoroughly bored and would occasionally encourage the muscled hulk to go faster by tapping his bare bottom with her ever-handy riding crop.
Yep, I’d seen that often enough to know exactly what was happening over by the orchard. Everyone on the estate had seen it at one time or another, and there were quite a few people who worked there. One had to have an open mind to be employed at this place.
When I arrived at the lake, Xavier sat on the dock, his line already in the water, the red bobber floating on the blue surface.
I sat down a few feet away and readied my own line. I didn’t have a clue how to fish when I first moved in, but Xavier had taught me much in a short time. With an ease that made me feel proud, I loaded up my hook with Xavier’s special, super-smelly, home-made bait.
I flicked my wrist and sent the line sailing, noting with no small satisfaction that the hook went where I wanted it to go. I held the pole between my knees and opened the water bottle I’d brought with me, taking a few swigs before settling down to the serious business of doing absolutely nothing.
“Toy’s doing push-ups,” I said.
Xavier gazed out over the calm surface of the lake. “She let him off easy. Must be in a good mood.”
“It’s probably because Gibson’s coming home tonight.”
My heart thudded. Gibson. Home. Tonight. Oh my. “Oh,” I said, feigning ease that I suspected Xavier wouldn’t buy. “I thought he wasn’t due for a few more days.”
“Change of plans. He should be home in time for dinner.”
We sat in silence, my heart skipping more than a few beats. I hadn’t seen Gibson often since I’d been living on the estate, a handful of times only, and those were brief and awkward. Mostly, he’d given me updates on what was happening with his continuing efforts to rid the universe of any and all copies of the pornographic videos Michael Weston had posted of me on the Internet and sold as DVDs.
Gibson was relentless in his quest, and successful. I didn’t think the universe would have the cojones to deny him. As of his latest update, all known DVDs had been confiscated, and there had been no sign of my videos on the Internet for days and days.
I always welcomed his news and took comfort from it. But more than that, I welcomed conversation with him. I longed to know what, if anything, was left between us. Was a future possible? Could he care for me, be with me, as something more than a casual partner, after what happened? Those were questions I longed to have answered.
“He called this morning to let me know,” Xavier said. “Told me to invite you over for dinner at the big house.”
“Doubt he realized I’d have you catching your own supper, though, eh?”
I smiled vacantly. “Yeah. I mean … no. What?”
Xavier didn’t glance over at me, just kept his eyes on his line. “He didn’t invite Paulina and me. Asked me to prepare a meal for two. Guess it will just be you and him.”
“Well, guess I’d best show up. Can’t say no to the lord of the manor, after all.”
Xavier shot me a look. “You can say no, if you want. He wouldn’t want you to feel any obligation.”
I knew that, dammit, and it annoyed me that Xavier put me on the spot by saying it out loud. “I’m only kidding around. Ha ha. You know. The great Laird. The master. Monarch of the glen and so on.”
Xavier’s made no reply.
“Anyway, hmm …” I maintained a steady eye on my red bobber, my concern that there might be something happening out there under the water a mere pretense.
Xavier studied his own line and left me to my scattered thoughts.
Gibson had invited me to dinner. Sort of. He had, technically, asked Xavier to invite me to dinner. Why didn’t Gibson ask me himself?
He never called me anymore. He could have texted me. Why didn’t he text me?
Argh. I hated this wishy-washy, does-he, doesn’t-he crap. What was I — 15?
I wanted to shake myself all over, fling off my doubt and insecurity. And yet I didn’t. I wallowed in uncertainty.
Xavier reeled in his line, checked his bait, added some more, then tossed his line back into the water. “So, had any new ideas lately?”
I made a non-committal sound.
“Given any more thought to returning to school?”
“No, I won’t be going back to school. I’ve had enough of that.”
“How about Elaine’s offer? Have you given her an answer?”
Elaine Hoyte had offered me the position of manager in one of their stores.
“I told her no,” I said. “I don’t have any experience in retail. I wouldn’t want to screw up one of her stores just because she and Ron feel sorry for me.”
Xavier looked at me sharply. “We’ve talked about this.”
“I know. I just … come on. They offered me the job to be nice. I couldn’t do it.”
“That’s fine, but there’s no reason to assume you’d fail at the job. You’d have a lot to learn, but you’re capable of learning it.”
“So what’s the real reason you turned down the job?”
I sighed. “I don’t know.”
“Sure you do.”
“Could be pride.”
I pursed my lips. “Maybe.”
“So you’re an annoying man sometimes.”
I tugged on my line, took a sip of water. “If I’m so prideful then what am I doing here freeloading off of Gibson, and you and Paulina?”
“Oh, not me and Paulina. This is all Gibson. You’re freeloading off of him alone.”
I had a mental “ack” moment, hearing Xavier say it out loud the way he did. I could call myself a freeloader all I wanted, but it was different hearing someone else say it. “You’re right. I should leave.”
“No, you shouldn’t. And if you try, we’ll do our best to stop you. However …”
He paused for a moment, turned to catch my eye and held my gaze with his own warm, steady one. “Since I first saw you, before I ever actually met you, I sensed something in you, that you were someone on the verge of action. You wouldn’t be stopped from breaking free of whatever was holding you back.”
He turned to the lake. “And now, here you are. Stopped. A woman of action, refusing to move.”
My face flushed. I felt my pulse ramp up a bit. “I didn’t stop it. Michael did that to me.”
“At first maybe. But that’s not why you’re stopped now.”
I flicked my rod up and down, watched the bobber dance on the surface of the water. I wanted to snap at Xavier, tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about. Instead, I said nothing.
He gave a quick pull on his rod and the line tightened in the telltale visual that he had caught a fish. The rod bent as he rapidly reeled in the line. It didn’t take long before he landed a good-sized trout.
I complimented his haul as he removed the hook and tossed the fish into the holding basket. Soon, he had a freshly-baited line whizzing out over the lake.
He settled back and dug a couple of butterscotch hard candies from his shirt pocket. He handed me one and together, we unwrapped the candies and popped them in our mouths.
The sugary scent of the candy mingled with the lake smells. The water lapped gently at the dock posts, and dragonflies buzzed the surface of the water.
I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was that maybe this place had spoiled me, and I’d never been anywhere so magical, so perfectly easy, and maybe that was why I couldn’t make a plan, why I couldn’t move. Any plans I might make involved leaving. No one in their right mind would want to leave this place. Or these people.
Or one, powerful man in particular, a man who visited me in my dreams and called me beautiful, who touched me in a way that made me believe no one had ever humiliated or degraded me. With him I felt whole again. Maybe only with him. Maybe only here.
How could I move if the only path I could travel led me away from what I needed most?
But I didn’t say any of that to Xavier. We sat in silence and enjoyed the sweet butterscotch. And waited for the fish to bite.