Into her fire (fantasy heights)

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Table of ContentsInto Her FireIIIIIIVVAbout Meg SilverAbout Fantasy Heights

Into Her Fire

Fantasy Heights, Book 6

by Meg Silver

Into Her Fire

Fantasy Heights, Book 6

by Meg Silver

Copyright 2012, Meg Silver

All rights reserved.

The author of this work holds sole publishing rights. For information regarding permissions, email Meg Silver at [email protected]

This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author's imagination, or have been used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental.

Edition Notes:

Mg12Ag47:Carbon

GR:061313

Into Her Fire

Fantasy Heights, Book 6

“Wow. I think I like restricted duty.”

Amanda nudged Eric Hernandez with her elbow. The pair of them stood just inside the front door ofThe Isle of Wight, Fantasy Heights’s most exclusive venue. Its oval-shaped dining area glowed with soft golden light shed by vast chandeliers and gilt wall sconces. Butter-yellow walls, white trim and crisp white table linen announced this space belonged to the innermost circles of the chosen few.

Right now, the room stood empty. Amanda and Eric were expected in one of the posh, private alcoves beyond the dining room.

Eric, six-foot-two of staid, observant muscle, glanced down at her. He was older. Probably forty-five, and quickly becoming one of Amanda’s favorite people. He’d been a constant presence these last two days since Gail Warnous had decided to play witch doctor. Eric’s boss, the brand new chief of security Jerod Hughes, had ordered him to make sure she spoke to no one about ‘The Thomas Disclosure,’ as she and Eric called it.

She found the resulting quarantine frustrating, but also a relief. Eric took the rules seriously. She liked that, and needed his safe, gloriously normal company to offset the week ahead. Bookings with Josh and Thomas loomed large and complicated, and of course her impending appointment with the mysterious Accord didn’t inspire confidence. She had no idea who or what the Accord might be, only that they had a say in her employment contract.

“We’ve got less than two minutes,” Eric said. “You’re sure you’re okay with this?”

Amanda reassured him. Yes, her scalp still hurt where she’d lost a chunk of hair to Gail Warnous, and yes, she was still leery of restraints and creepy, ‘no white hats’ whispering fantasy crashers, but this booking held nothing to fear. All she had to do was play prop in a demonstration for a familiar client and another performer she couldn’t wait to meet. Nicole, Derek’s regular girl, had finally returned from a short leave of absence, and none too soon. Amanda couldn’t handle another bout of Derek. Neither of them could keep the chemistry in check. Even the faintest memory of the way Derek had tongued and then fucked her that day in the interrogation room made her pussy clench with sensual greed.

“But what about… later?” Eric asked.

This time, Amanda smiled. ‘Later’ meant a booking with her mystery client. Eric wouldn’t be allowed on or near the set.

“Stop worrying. Everything will be fine.”

Amanda ignored another dubious grumble. Her mystery client’s great escape last time had not been forgotten, but neither had anything else he’d done, like telling her to run Fiona’s Internet search, then confess it to Thomas. Plus he’d warned her to stay away from Gail, and Marla by association. In hindsight, it seemed as if her mystery client knew what he was talking about, and yet she was moments away from seeing Lily Briggs, the third person on his caution list.

She nudged Eric a second time. “Come on. I appreciate the concern, but all this worrying won’t get you into the observation booth any sooner.”

Eric headed out a side door where a service corridor would lead him around to the booth. Amanda cut through the empty dining area, feeling like a scullery maid. She wore only a baby-blue silk robe and coral-colored boy panties. Her surroundings called for gowns and jewels.

Multiple archways lined the Isle’s back wall. She looked for the one marked with a seven and veered that direction. Beyond the arch, in a shadowed foyer, she came upon a single locked door. She took a keycard from her robe pocket and let herself into a room larger than she’d expected with dark red brocade wallpaper and flattering rose-colored light from shaded lamps.

Hollywood brothel special, she thought. Canopied bed, enormous gilded fainting couch. Once she got past the garish first impression, she noticed the cushioned bench lining the entire wall to her right. Two wide panes of mirrored observation glass flanked a door on the far wall. Wedged between the fainting couch and bench sat a heavy piecrust table hosting the stars of this particular show, a lineup of girl-on-girl toys. Lily, the client, would need to decide which sort of dildo she liked best for a fantasy taking place later in the week. They had booked The Zoo to host their private event. Amanda wasn’t looking forward to it as much as she normally might. Her part in the booking confined her to the shadowbox with Josh Taylor. Of all the ways she’d imagined seeing him again after finding out his wife had been murdered, and that Thomas was an FBI agent, being tied up in the shadowbox finished last.

Reminded that she was supposed to be naked and waiting, Amanda shed the robe and panties before taking her place at the end of the fainting couch. She’d barely made it into position before the opposite door opened.

In came Lily, who hid behind the name Emily while visiting the resort. The early-thirties, petite and tawny blue-chip client also hid behind a deceptively timid air. Amanda knew from her banking background that Lily was the socially influential wife of an even more influential attorney. Their marriage didn’t seem to be on the firmest footing. Lily came here with Tony Prosper, a bodyguard.

He wasn’t along for the demonstration. Instead, Lily entered with Nicole Desney, Derek’s regular girl from the custom fantasy team. Like Lily, Nicole was petite and sandy-haired, but with finer, more elfin features. Laugh lines around her eyes and bee-stung mouth made Amanda like her on sight. Nicole made a delicate, beautiful foil to Derek’s mischievous, masculine charms.

Lily greeted Amanda like an old friend. Amanda stood while Lily took her hands and kissed both her cheeks. Not the social air-kiss version, but a genuine exchange of affectionate warmth. Maybe it wasn’t proper to get attached to clients, but Lily had come a long way since that first shy exchange in the Palace. Amanda had too. Only natural, she supposed, to feel connected in some way.

Ever the maven, Lily made the introductions. “Nicole tells me the two of you have never worked together before. Nicole, this is Amanda Tate. Amanda, Nicole Desney.”

Amanda felt some of her positive impression crumble when Nicole smiled. There was a shallowness to it that set off alarm bells. Nicole’s head was not in this game. Distracted.

Still, her greeting seemed heartfelt. “It’s nice to meet you, finally. Derek and I really appreciate you helping out while I was away.”

“It was my pleasure. I enjoyed it.”

“I’m glad. Derek can be a handful and it made me feel less guilty, leaving him with such short notice. Anyway,” Nicole said, turning to their client, “you’ve got a full schedule tonight, so let’s get started. I thought it might be helpful to show you how some of the toys work. How they’re worn, and whether you think your husband might like to see you use them, or have them used on you.”

Husband? Surprised, Amanda glanced at Lily. Was Nicole mistaken, or had Lily brought her husband Brandon along this time instead of the bodyguard?

Hard to say. Lily’s only response was a small shrug and a nod.

Nicole asked Lily to sit beside her on the padded bench, and then motioned for Amanda to move closer. She picked up a strap-on harness.

“You wear it like a belt,” Nicole explained as she strung the harness around Amanda’s waist. The base of a modest seven-inch black dildo rested against her pubis. A second strap hung down toward her knees. Nicole picked it up, drew it back between her legs and fastened it to the waist strap. “Obviously, it’s a simulated penis, and pretty much all the sexual positions are possible with some cooperation. Next there’s a slight variation on the theme. Amanda, why don’t you take that one off, and lie down on the chaise for me.”

Amanda lay back and raised her knees up to rest her heels on the edge of the chaise. As usual, Lily made no attempt to disguise her curiosity. Her eyes fixed between Amanda’s legs. She only looked away when Nicole picked up a bottle of lube and squirted some onto her fingers.

Lily watched with interest as Nicole smeared lube over and around Amanda’s pussy. First she rubbed wide circles, then pushed two fingers inside, deep, before coming out for more lube.

Amanda caught Nicole glancing at the client to gauge the effect their show was having. Lily’s breathing had turned into shallow, erratic waves. Her fair skin was flushed, her pupils dilated.

Nicole squeezed more lube onto her fingers and once more reached between Amanda’s legs. This time, she said, “Knees to shoulders, please.”

When Amanda obeyed, Nicole painted a generous amount of lube over her anus before pressing into her ass. Nicole’s fingertip felt like a homing beacon for a million sharp, hot tingles, starting as far away as her knees and back and centering on that simple, intimate penetration.

Again Nicole’s attention focused on Lily’s reaction. Their client shifted her weight on the bench, hazy eyes unabashedly fixed on Nicole’s finger.

She removed it shortly, leaving Amanda time to settle. Nicole picked up the second strap-on. This one had a second six-inch dildo attached for the wearer. To ready it, Nicole ran the tip through the lube around Amanda’s pussy before sliding it in with tantalizing force.

Impossible not to let arousal creep in, Amanda thought. Being touched and played with, even while little more than a prop, didn’t distract her body one bit from the act of penetration. Nerve endings sizzled to vibrant life.

“Stand up,” Nicole ordered.

She offered a much-appreciated hand to help Amanda to her feet. Nicole again pulled the center strap back between her legs and fastened it onto the harness, same as the first. Amanda liked this strap-on better than the plain version. She’d used one like this on Neil in the throne room.

Wishing she hadn’t thought of that, Amanda booted the memory from her mind while Lily stared and imagined.

Whatever had been distracting Nicole at first seemed to return. Nicole gave Lily almost no time to consider the second strap-on version. After only a moment or two, Nicole unfastened the harness and pressed a hand against Amanda’s hip to make her lie down once more. “And then we’ve got the strapless versions.”

She eased the harness dildo from inside Amanda, leaving her to feel both deprived and depraved.

Next came the first of the strapless type. It looked like a long, curved dildo with a shorter, bulbous twin sticking out one side. Nicole smeared some lube onto the smaller end and then rubbed Amanda’s pussy with it. Amanda settled back and braced herself for penetration. Nicole didn’t do it as roughly this time. The thrust was firm and steady, but slower, until the wearer’s shaft was fully inserted and the longer shaft rested flush up against her. The shaft curved up over her pelvic bone, leaving a good seven inches of shaft for a partner to ride.

Nicole gave Lily even less chance to consider that version before gently pulling it out and presenting a variation. “This one is slightly different with an anal teaser sticking out the back. Most of the girls who use these frequently like the extra leverage, along with the stimulation. Others avoid the teaser, claiming it’s too much stimulation and they end up reaching orgasm way faster than their partner.”

To demonstrate, Nicole once again lubed up the wearer end of the toy and pressed it into Amanda, who couldn’t help a sharp inhalation when the device came flush. It exerted pressure from well beyond her anus all the way around to her pubis. Firm, steady pleasure. She could easily see how fucking someone else would over-stimulate the wearer.

And God how she wanted to indulge in some time trials. Nicole took hold of the partner shaft and simulated a thrust, driving the anal teaser hard up against Amanda’s anus. She could feel that tight ring of muscle rub against itself and the teaser, and it made her want to spread her legs wider and grind against the dildo.

Nicole must have sensed the heightening. A moment later, she pulled it all away again, giving Amanda a chance to corral her chemicals while introducing the next device.

“This one,” Nicole said, “is completely different. It gets strapped onto the bottom’s thigh. The top straddles the toy. Most people like to ride cowgirl style, facing away from the wearer, but of course a lot of lap dances are done face to face. Amanda, if you would, please. Cowgirl style.”

Amanda hoped no one could see the shaking in her thighs as she got up. Nicole had already fastened the simple strap around Lily’s right thigh, leaving a purple, seven-inch shaft sticking up for her to ride.


Page 2

This time, Nicole asked Lily to lube the tip, and their client hastily obeyed. As she did, Amanda felt a pang of sympathy. Lily’s hands shook, too.

“Now Lily, you grab onto the shaft to hold it steady,” Nicole directed.

Amanda, who had never yet used this style, improvised as best she could. She backed up and widened her stance, lowering herself slowly until she felt the cool, slick tip of the dildo press just behind her pussy. Adjusting, she moved back as gracefully as possible and then tilted her pelvis until the tip pressed between her cunt lips, poised to penetrate.

Lily leaned way back to watch between Amanda’s legs as she tightened her thigh muscles and let the tip disappear into her cunt.

“Here,” Nicole said. “If you want a better view, I have a different version you should try. I really like this one, personally.”

She patted Amanda’s hip to clear the way for yet another type Amanda had never tried. This one had a twenty-inch shaft and a pedestal base. Nicole made Lily lift her short, gauzy skirt and spread her knees wide. She placed the base between Lily’s legs. Once it felt stable, Lily closed her thighs around the shaft.

Amanda needed no direction this time. She turned around to be face-to-face with Lily, who smeared lube on the tip. Amanda closed in and found the tip was just about level with her pussy. All she had to do was raise one knee, rest her foot on the bench’s padding, and let Lily press the tip toward home.

She bent her knee and rolled her hips, helping the tip line up a little better. A glance toward Nicole yielded a small hand gesture, giving her the go-ahead to simulate a thrust or two. She lowered herself down two inches. Three. Before she reached four, Lily gave in to the temptation to touch. One hand rested on Amanda’s hip. The other reached up to cup a breast.

Amanda braced her own hands on the wall above and behind Lily’s head, and curled forward so that Lily didn’t have to stretch too far to draw a nipple into her mouth. Her client did it hesitantly, as if she wasn’t quite sure it was allowed. Obviously, Amanda wasn’t the only one who had noticed Nicole’s on-again, off-again distraction.

Lily exerted herself as the client, taking firmer hold of Amanda’s breast, tonguing her nipple. With her other hand Lily guided Amanda to ride the shaft, pushing her down farther onto it then guiding her back up. Pleasure from cunt and breast compressed into a dulcet thread, tightening with promise once Lily gave her nipple a hard, piercing suck. The older woman then released it to lean back again and simply watch the black latex shaft sink into and reappear from Amanda’s pussy.

“I like this one,” Lily said. “But I think I want to try the strapless version without the teaser. I think it’s more what the guys had in mind for us.”

Guys? Did that mean Derek and Brandon, or someone else? Intrigued, Amanda wished she’d been given a script. No one had bothered since she and Josh had such a minor part in the fantasy.

Nicole smiled. “Of course. And if that’s what you want, then let’s move things along. They should be just about ready for you at the spa. I’ll see you again after you’ve had your massage and dinner, and a little time to relax.”

Lily seemed reluctant to end the show. The hand on Amanda’s hip guided her to grind. She obliged, wishing she could slip a hand down the front of Lily’s blouse to find and pinch a nipple. Send some sort of signal that she was willing to continue if Lily so desired.

She ought to have known better. Half the battle with clients was manipulating their appetites. Since this demonstration had been just as much about anticipation as instruction, the show had to stop short. Before she knew it, Amanda was guided off the shaft. Nicole spirited Lily away.

Staring at the closed door, Amanda wished she knew Eric well enough to carry out Thomas’s pressure valve policy. As it was, she retrieved her robe and panties and headed out the back door into the service corridor, and across the hall into a staff greenroom. There, she hit the shower to wash away the lube. She rejoined Eric in the hallway.

“You mind hanging out alone for a while?” Eric asked. “Auditions for the gamer gig start today. I want to get in early.”

At first, Amanda was surprised he’d allow her to go anywhere on her own, but then she realized it was a show of trust. He didn’t worry about her speaking to anyone about Thomas. Really, there was no need. The only things she had to say about Thomas she planned to say directly to Thomas. Shout them at him, in fact, as soon as she saw him again. If the first words out of his mouth were anything other than “I’m sorry I threatened you about Josh,” there would be war.

She could forgive a lot of things. But not that threat.

The showdown would have to wait until after they’d finished with their client later in the week. She likely wouldn’t see him until then. Thomas had been gone the last two days seeing the Warnouses’ son back to his aunt. The only comfort to come from the whole debacle was the revelation that Gail and Robert didn’t have permanent custody. The boy had been on summer visitation only and was, by now, safely back in the hands of his legal guardian.

Not for the first time since it happened, Amanda relived that unforgettable moment in her driveway. Gail Warnous had cornered her, raving, wanting help to get onto the resort, demanding to know how Steph had gotten Robert to sing again. The look on that poor kid’s face… He had been so ashamed of his mother’s behavior. It hurt Amanda even to think of it, and couldn’t imagine how the boy must feel with his mother locked up in a psychiatric unit, and his father hidden from the world. According to Jerod, Robert remained sequestered in a guest cabin somewhere on the property under the care of Dr. Carpenter.

Amanda told Eric, “Go ahead. I wanted to check in with Jerod anyhow. See if maybe your new boss has learned anything more about the Whisperer.”

A muscle in Eric’s cheek twitched, making Amanda regret her choice of excuse. Eric felt terribly guilty about what happened on the staff fantasy set. She said, “Quit it, Eric. No one blames you, and I’m pretty sure the timing wasn’t a coincidence. This whole place was upside down with the old security chief getting fired. Gail and the Whisperer took advantage of the turmoil.”

“More like the old chief got wind he was getting the axe, and held the door for them.”

Amanda hoped that wasn’t true, though she feared he might be right. This wasn’t the first time Eric had implied the powers-that-be had waited far too long to rid themselves of the old security chief, Andrew West.

Never one to grind salt into a wound, Amanda asked about the auditions. “Are you trying out for something, or just watching?”

“Both. You have to see the whole thing play out to understand why it’s such a spectacle. These gamers and developers get together every year to simulate video game battles. Staff is the enemy. Clients are the good guys. Fun as hell, and it’s a huge moneymaker. Almost as big as the Three Sisters Ball.”

Eric had talked a lot about both events these last couple days. The gamer thing sounded fun, but Amanda was more interested in the ball. It was an annual event coming up very soon. All the owners and the Accord would be on hand along with highest-tier clients. Last year they had raised seven figures for a veteran’s charity.

Eric, on the other hand, was more drawn to a good fight. “Ben and Thomas are the only shoe-ins. Everyone else has to audition to fill a fighter class. We’ve gotten so good that the gamers train all year trying to beat us. And actually, hey. Have you ever worn opaque lenses, those contacts that cover your whole eye? Has Kara ever made you try them on?”

“No, thank God. That doesn’t sound pleasant.”

“Don’t hate. If you could wear them, you’d make a great princess for us to kidnap.”

“Screw princess. I’d want to play sniper class.”

Eric threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, man, you should audition once your restriction’s lifted. Ben’ll be using the center sound stage over in Meridian Place all week for tryouts. Today, even if you can’t talk to anybody yet, you could still watch from an observation booth.”

Yeah, and hold her nose to the glass and pretend she wasn’t infectious. “Nah, it sounds fun, but I think I’d better wait until the ink is dry on my contract.”

“Stop worrying about the Accord. Everything’s fine, so far. It just takes time for everyone to get here. They’ve got lives and jobs that have nothing to do with this place.”

“Thus ensuring they’ll be in a real great mood by the time they’ve uprooted themselves, blown off their families and schedules to review some random low-grade performer’s contract.”

“Low-grade? Everyone knows you’re a headliner waiting to happen. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Eric sounded certain, but Amanda had nothing like his confidence. Future headliner or not, she knew something about Fantasy Heights that could be used against its owners and the Accord. If she were in their position, she’d be looking to settle a non-disclosure agreement, not bind herself to a liability.

Eric ended the short, disgruntled silence by reminding her to text him the moment she was finished with her mystery client.

He struck off on his own and, free for the first time in two whole days, Amanda headed straight for her captor. The security offices were tucked alongside the main parking lot in a long, low building that looked more like a pool house than a technical nerve center. Inside, it was cool and quiet. No one would ever think, seeing the lone officer manning a high-tech monitoring station, that the place had been in complete uproar only a couple days prior.

Her eyes swept the monitors facing her direction. Security was handicapped by the resort’s ban on cameras or any other type of recording equipment. They were limited to infrared imaging, motion detectors and manual devices like panic buttons to alert them to trouble. Clients weren’t even allowed their phones on the premises if the devices contained a camera. Nearly an entire wall off to her left was lined with locked deposit boxes for valuables and phones.

The desk officer looked up at her and gave a quick smile of recognition. “Good evening, Miss Tate. What can I do for you?”

Amanda felt rotten. She didn’t know the officer’s name. “I was hoping I could see Jer… Mr. Hughes. Is he in?”

The officer’s expression changed. Suddenly he looked awkward, unnatural, like a brick wall attempting to smile. “He’s in a meeting with Ms. Watson.”

Steph. Unsure why a meeting between an owner and the security chief would inspire so much discomfort, Amanda scraped through a stilted, courteous thanks and left the office.

With not much else to do, she decided to spy on the auditions. She made her way to Meridian Place, the vast, sprawling structure that contained all the sound stages, including the throne room set. Also the much smaller Moroccan room, which she preferred not to think about just then.

Finding the right spot, she slipped into one of many observation booths ringing the bare soundstage and was immediately glad she’d come. Standing in the middle of the space, shirtless and gorgeous, was the blond-haired, blue-eyed Ben. He held a sword nearly as long as his legs in one hand, tip resting on the ground while he stood watching something else.

It took Amanda a beat or two to recognize what was happening, and once she did, she darted forward to slap the button on a sound-dampened wall to open the intercom.

Derek and Ridley stood nose to nose at center stage, eyes aflame. If they were acting out a screaming match, they were doing a great job.

And then she figured out what Derek was yelling. “…get sucked into that cult.”

“So provincial. It’s not a cult. DriveRate is a self-actualization program, not that you’d understand the difference.”

“Yes. I’m too stupid to know the difference between wise men and con men. And that’s not even the point, Ridley. The point is, you’re not in charge of this place. You had no right to report us.”

Ridley with her trademark curls pulled back into an artful ponytail, put her hands on her hips. “I had every right. I had a client in the booth who paid good money to watch your client’s fantasy on that interrogation set, and you guys went completely off script because you just couldn’t wait to fuck Thomas’s noob-let. If my client complains, I’m not taking the hit for it.”

“Oh, my God, you are such a bitch,” Derek snarled. “I can’t decide if you’re really that jealous of the noob-let, or if you’re just obsessed with your precious Paramour Project.”

Ridley bristled. For a moment, Amanda feared the redheaded bombshell might actually hit Derek. DriveRate and the Paramour Project, whatever they might be, were definitely sore territory for Ridley.

Derek, of course, tromped all over the topics. “Well, let me tell you something, honey. No amount of self-actualization or cult worship can help. You will never be a Paramour. They will never select you, and do you know why? ’Cuz you don’t give a damn about anyone but yourself.”

Amanda expected an explosion but Ridley went the opposite direction. “Damn right, I don’t, and why should I? Goals and strategy will get me a hell of a lot farther in this life than sweetness and light, and I will not apologize for striving to be the best at my profession.”

“Well, congratulations. If you’re striving to be a soulless, parasitic bitch, you’ve succeeded beautifully.”

Explosion imminent. Nicole stepped up alongside Derek and tried to pull him away. Marla imposed herself between them and stiff-armed Ridley back a few steps.

The redhead turned to leave, firing a parting shot. “When I run this place, you’re the first one I’ll fire.”

Derekmade a narrow-eyed face at her retreating back and raised both hands, middle fingers extended.

Marla made him put his hands down, but it was Ben who did the talking.

“Cool it, man. I know she’s a bitch, but you supplied the ammunition. You did go off-script, and she was already touchy about the noob-let.”

Derek sneered at him and shook Nicole and Marla off.

Amanda frowned. There was nothing worse than an indefensible position. She and Derek had screwed up. They deserved to be reported, but to be reported by Ridley, the self-righteous cow, made it suck ten times worse. And wasn’t it fantastic to have a complaint filed against her, just in time for the Accord to review her security clearance.


Page 3

Nicole said, “With good cause. Thomas and the noob-let are all I’ve heard about since I got back. There’s some pretty wild rumors about what happened after she wigged out and Thomas hauled her off set. If I were Ridley, I’d be upset, too.”

“You know, this is exactly how this crap gets started,” Marla argued. “Ridley has no reason to be jealous. Thomas would not hit that with a truck. The noob-let, though, is a totally different story. He was a robot before she showed up. And look at Josh. It’s like she raised him from the dead. Whatever she’s got, it’s working. It works on Derek, too.”

Derek glared at her. “Yeah. Make fun of me. That helps.”

“What? You think this is the first time anyone’s lost their head on set?” Marla asked him. “It happens to everybody. Sooner or later we all run into an Achilles partner we can’t work with, and good chemistry is twice as disruptive as bad. The schedulers have to work around it all the time.”

Derek shrugged a shoulder, still looking sour.

On Amanda’s part, she felt a jab of annoyance. No one had ever explained anything like that to her. If she’d known, she might have said something to Beverly that could have kept her and Derek out of trouble.

Ben said, “If it makes you feel any better, it works on me, too.”

“Oh, really,” Nicole said. “Do tell. What it is about the noob-let that has you guys all starry eyed?”

“She’s proud. And completely immune to control.”

What? What did that even mean?

Nicole said, “And here I thought it was some sort of forbidden fruit thing, or the fear of a severe beating from Thomas if you touched his property.”

“That’s just it,” Derek argued. “She’s no one’s property, and Thomas isn’t the one you need to worry about. The girl’s not helpless. Harmless, either. She’s got some seriously repressed anger. The smart ones always do.”

Anger? What was he talking about? She wasn’t angry.

Marla rolled her eyes. “Not a one of you can ever resist playing with fire.”

“Oh, like you can?” Ben challenged. “What about Gail Warnous?”

“I was under orders, so take it easy on the casting of aspersions.”

Amanda raised her eyebrows. Under orders from whom?

Ben scoffed. “Girl say big word. Me poke with metal stick.”

“Bring it, Blond-squatch.”

Marla, with a much smaller sword, sprang onto the wooden platform where Ben stood. Derek scrambled out of their way. Ben had no time to ready his weapon. Not that Marla stood a chance. She attempted some sort of elaborate spin move and by the time she tried to slice him across the knees, Ben had his sword gripped in both hands and thrust left to block the blow.

Marla cried out and dropped her sword, wagging her hand to dispel the sting of impact. “Bastard. That hurt.”

Just then, Eric arrived, dressed down in sweats and a tank top. The others were on him instantly, firing questions like bullets at an easy, unarmed target: What happened on the boat set? Did someone really attack the noob-let? Where did Thomas go? Why is Dr. Carpenter in trouble? What happened in the Hall? Why is everyone so mad at Steph? When are they firing the last two people on The Reaper list?

Watching Eric withstand the barrage, Amanda caught herself moving closer to the speaker. She knew the answers to some of those questions, but not all. And she would dearly love to know why Eric hadn’t mentioned any trouble with Steph or Dr. Carpenter.

She sighed. So much for earning Eric’s trust. Feeling defiant, she left the intercom on and watched Eric try to fend off the others.

He gave as many answers as he could. Security had carried out the two remaining dismissals that morning. The first one had worked in the IT department. The last was an observer, the former chief’s favorite henchman.

“The fun part,” Eric said, his tone oversaturated with sarcasm, “is Steph just filed paperwork to dismiss someone else. One more person’s getting fired before this purge is over.”

“What?” Marla demanded. “Who?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t think we’ll find out for a while. She told Jerod she wants to sit on it until the Accord meeting and he’s supposed to watch this person in the meantime. It set Jerod off like a rocket. When I asked him who Steph wanted fired, he threw a stapler at the wall, then slammed his door shut.”

“God,” Marla breathed. “This place is like hell stuffed into a pressure cooker lately. There’s another rumor going around that Josh and Steph aren’t speaking. Please tell me that’s not true.”

“I wish I could. I know they had words, and you know how Josh gets all quiet and polite when he’s trying not to take someone’s head off? It’s bad. I know things get tense when all the brass comes to the resort, but this time, I think it’s a good thing. Once Jennifer sees the state this place is in, she’ll knock some heads.”

Marla said, “Jennifer can’t fix the problem. Not when the problem owns fifty-two percent of the business.”

Steph owned fifty-two percent of the business. What did Marla mean? And who was Jennifer?

Amanda’s head ran every direction at once with the possibilities. She flew back to attention when everyone on the soundstage stopped what they were doing.

Jerod Hughes had come in. So close on the heels of Eric’s news about the additional dismissal everyone, including Amanda, went completely still, afraid to stand out lest they be fired on the spot.

Ben walked over to the weapons rack containing their practice versions with dull, unfinished edges. “Come on, kid. You can take it out on me. Unarmed, one-handed, or two-handed?”

“Dual wield. Battle axe and short sword.”

“Aha. Planning to challenge Thomas for the boss-battle spot this year?”

“No. I just really need to beat the crap out of someone right now.”

Every eyebrow in the room flew up and suddenly everyone looked away, ashamed of themselves for gossiping about dismissals. For them, another casualty was a distant disappointment. For the brand new chief of security, if he disagreed with Steph’s decision so strongly he had to throw office equipment at a wall, another dismissal was a brutal entry on his to-do list.

Ben tossed Jerod his weapons, and then reclaimed his two-handed sword. Everyone else double-timed it away from them. Amanda understood why when Jerod swung the axe at Ben’s head. She even reared back in her chair, shocked at the force behind the blow.

Ben had no time to block. He had to duck instead and, laughing as if he were overjoyed to face an opponent capable of kicking his ass, dropped back a few steps, leading Jerod onto the stage.

Amanda had no idea what actual weapons combat looked like, but this was no graceful, choreographed performance. Both men struck hard to injure or block. Bone-jarring blows often made them stumble. The noise and the strength required was incredible.

No way would she audition to fight in that group. With that sort of skill and power involved, her piddly two years of Tae Kwon Do and ballet training wouldn’t be much use.

Ben didn’t taunt Jerod the way he’d teased the others. Any slight distraction or hesitation let Jerod get close to land unblockable blows. Likewise Jerod, who wasn’t as quick to recover as his opponent, took the flat of Ben’s sword to his left shoulder so many times he began to favor that arm.

It was Marla who finally pulled the plug. “Enough. Stop before someone gets hurt.”

The combatants listened to her, and backed off to opposite sides of the stage. Both men heaved air in and out of their lungs, staggering.

Ben had no hard feelings. “Better?”

“Much. Thank you.”

The tension on the sound stage shot upward when Jerod quietly returned his weapons to the rack and walked out without another word.

Derek whistled and shook his head. “Poor kid. I’d hate to be him right now.”

The others must have felt similarly sympathetic because Jerod’s visit ended the gossip. Very little conversation interrupted the work as other performers came and went, running through various weapon sets and group configurations.

Amanda watched for more than two hours. With half an hour to spare before her mystery client booking, she left the booth and headed back toward the Menagerie, the rambling complex that housed the Zoo, the wardrobe department, and other group venues. She took one of the tunnels that ran underground through corridors of housekeeping, maintenance and storage rooms mixed with redundant business offices. She had never known of the tunnels’ existence until Jerod and Eric had used them to move her from one point on the resort to another without being seen.

The tunnels had been there for a long time. Much longer than the resort had been Fantasy Heights, from the look of things. Heaven only knew what this property had been before it became a fantasy fulfillment resort. A different type of resort, she figured.

Lost in speculation, she ran into someone as she rounded the final corner. Hands shot out to grab her elbows and hold her steady.

Seeing her savior, she fought a frown. The man was only a few inches taller than she was. Dark-haired and a bit older, he had hawk wings for eyebrows over sharp black eyes, refined bone-structure and a cruel set to an otherwise sensual mouth. Handsome in a wicked sort of way.

“I’m so sorry,” she told him.

A smile and low chuckle robbed some harshness from his looks. Not a lot, but enough that she felt absolved when he said, “You’re fine. I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“Neither was I. You’re not hurt?”

“Not at all.”

She hated to challenge him, but she did have responsibilities. Clients weren’t supposed to see the resort’s puppet strings like this. She did her best to be polite about it. “Are you just exploring? Or maybe I can help you find a venue?”

The man watched her a moment with the strangest expression on his face, as if he were confused and trying not to laugh at the same time.

Oh, lord, she thought. He was probably someone frightfully important, maybe even one of the Accord members, and she was making an ass of herself right now. She just knew it.

His smile widened, and then he tamped it down. “I’m not lost. I’ve got an appointment across the quad, and it’s raining outside. I didn’t want to get my suit wet.”

Now that he mentioned it, the suit really was something. Black as his eyes and made from the sort of summer-weight wool that cost the earth, tailored with extreme skill.

“Vanity,” he said. “One of my many faults.”

No deficit on charm, she decided, wishing she could borrow some. She had no idea how to retreat with any grace. “It’s a beautiful suit.”

She invented several new degrees of crimson when his eyes took a meaningful trip south to her blue robe and the belt that wasn’t tied as tightly as it might have been. She glanced down and saw a two-inch wide strip of skin visible all the way down to the coral panties.

While she was busy blushing half to death, the stranger let go of her arms to gently right the front of her robe. He wrapped the two ends of the belt around his hands. Looking back up into her eyes, he pulled the belt ends opposing directions, tying her up more securely.

Her body responded with hot enthusiasm to the gesture’s overt message, and suddenly the ten-foot-wide corridor felt very small and intimate.

The stranger, though, turned his face a bit to the side, his eyes still holding hers, but sending an easily understood message. He was attracted, but suspicious about something.

Why, she wondered. And of what?

He released the ends of her belt and let them slither free of his hands while he took two distinct steps backward. “I look forward to seeing you again, Miss Tate.”

Oh, great. He knew her name, but she had no clue who he might be. And when had she become ‘Miss Tate’ with strangers? She much preferred the oh-so-objectifying ‘noob-let’ to that.

Her stranger took off around the corner, then, and short of peering around the wall like a dork, she couldn’t watch him go.

She sighed, shook her head, and closed her eyes. This place was crazy. And now she had to meet her mystery client. Though she had mostly forgiven him for tricking her, she was determined to find out who he was. He knew too much about this place and the people in it to be a generic client. He had to be on the staff, and an insider, at that.

In wardrobe, she found Kara in a state of caustic agitation. Amanda made the mistake of asking if she could help in some way, and was treated to a ten-minute, stress-induced tirade about Steph turning uber-critical now that the bigwigs were about to descend.

“I’ve had it. I’ve friggin’ had it, I tell you. You know what her problem is? Everyone and their mother warned her not to get involved with Robert Warnous, but did she listen? Of course not. And now she’s embarrassed because her bad-boy rock star project was a huge fail. Duh. She has to save face so she’s riding everyone’s ass. You should have heard what she said to Beverly. And then Jerod… I swear you could hear the yelling from Connecticut.”

Amanda soothed her as best she could and meekly submitted to having her hair yanked tight into a ponytail, and only a little makeup dashed on. She was given a prissy pink bra and panties in curious contrast to an austere floor-length, sleeveless black jersey dress.

The last item to go on was a pair of long dangling gold earrings. They had clip backs, the wide, old-fashioned kind. Tight, and quite remarkably uncomfortable. “I have pierced ears, you know,” she told Kara. “Do I have to wear these?”

Kara pressed her palms to her temples. “Please don’t argue with me.”

Sorry she’d asked, Amanda escaped wardrobe and hurried toward the garage. She would have to drive all the way over to Haynes House. She arrived precisely on time, just moments before the sun slipped beneath the horizon and turned the sky over the lake a burnt orange hue. It was too pretty a scene to leave go ignored entirely. After lingering a couple moments appreciating the color’s reflection on a glassy lake surface, she hurried through the gate and up to the front door.

No observer greeted her, but the inevitable blindfold hung on the coat rack. Amanda snared it on her way past, making for that night’s appointed door. They would be in a different from the last time she’d met her mystery client in Haynes House. This door led into a smallish room without a bed. Practically empty, the room contained a highly polished, oblong dining table and two chairs. A number of covered silver dishes waited on the table. Like the bedroom, the outer wall of the dining room was glass, giving her another chance to appreciate a colorful, fading twilight.


Page 4

She crossed to the far side of the table and turned one of the chairs around to face the view. She sat and, crossing one leg over the other, indulged herself in another long look over the lake. Instead of fantasizing about unmasking her client, she wondered how many other people had looked out these windows at a gorgeous view. Who were they? How long ago? What had they thought about or longed for? Who had they loved or feared or wanted or needed?

Her mind perched, precariously, upon Josh Taylor. She missed him, yet shrank from the idea of seeing him again. She still had no idea what to say about the loss of his beautiful wife. No idea what to say about Fiona’s Internet search, about The Thomas Disclosure, about anything at all.

From behind her, Amanda heard the front door of Haynes House open and close. It was time. She slipped the black satin blindfold into place.

Safely blinded, she listened to approaching footsteps followed by the soft scrape of chair legs against aged parquet flooring. The sound travelled from her right to the front. Her mystery client had swung the chair between her and the glass.

He did not sit down. He came around instead to place something over the blindfold and secure it behind her head.

Reinforcement.

He must know, she thought, how strong the temptation had grown to unmask him, to challenge him about his disappearing act, and the things he’d said last time.

She desperately wanted to, but he was still a client, and the Accord was on their way. Another client complaint would not be good. And besides. If she truly meant to unmask him, the best time would come later. She knew when to catch him at his most unguarded. Helping him reach that point would hardly be a chore.

Memory and a gentle touch teamed up to awaken the signature chemical thrill he could always elicit. All he did was trail a finger down the side of her neck from earlobe to collarbone, but the hint of a playful mood set kindling instantly alight in her nipples and between her thighs.

Strong, strong chemistry. Automatically all her senses tuned into him, listening for the slightest sound, anticipating his touch and imagining his next move.

She heard a metallic scrape and soft clang near the table. He’d taken the lid off something. The tart scent of oranges hit a moment later. She took in a deep breath of it, filling herself with the clean, tangy smell.

Another cover scraped against silver. And another. What was he doing?

She found out quickly when he held something cool and firm against her bottom lip, prompting her to open her mouth. Once she did, the flavor of chocolate overtook her senses.

For a time, she forgot all about unmasking him as she zeroed in on him again, imagining. She couldn’t hear anything now. He couldn’t be far away but he was so silent and still it set her nerves on edge.

She did very nearly jump when she placed him again. He was close now. She felt the soft brush of fabric and a draught of cool air as he lifted the hem of her skirt, draping it up near her hipbones, exposing most of her thighs. He picked up her left hand and set it on the fabric, a silent order for her to hold the skirt out of his way.

A shaky breath rattled her lungs as the arousal took hold. She didn’t know what he was planning, but knowing him, it would set her on fire.

This time, she did jump when something hard and ice cold touched the inside of her left thigh. Multiple somethings. Sharp and chilled, and very close together. A fork, she guessed. A chilled fork to the inside of her thigh.

Melting a little, she tried to center herself, tried to stem the tide of the chemicals gushing into her system. Calm. Keep cool. Let him play, she chanted to herself. He wanted to play. He was the client. He was in charge.

His next move made her eyes squeeze shut behind the blindfold. In warm, pleasing opposition to the fork, he slid his palm and fingers slowly up the inside of her right thigh.

It was pure reflex to tense up her muscles and part her legs wider. When she did, she heard a faint catch in his breathing. A certain quality to it tripped her senses. There was a gruffness, a gravelly finish to the sound she hadn’t heard before. He had a cold, perhaps, or maybe he felt especially impatient.

Filing the variance away, she paid attention instead to the relentless path his hand took, squeezing that fleshy, ultrasensitive bulge at the peak of her inner thigh between his thumb and palm. He carried on until he was cupping her mound. Already she could feel the damp heat from her pussy radiating against his hand, and she held her breath, hoping he wouldn’t let the panties stop him.

She whimpered when he took his hand away and disappeared again. He must have ditched his shoes because she couldn’t hear his footsteps anymore. She lost him completely until noises from the table gave his location away. More scraping. A couple knocking sounds, and then there he was, taking her by the hands and pulling her to her feet.

Next he went after the dress. The zip came down with a quickness that proved he was on the usual track, cool and calculated starting out, but losing patience for games once his arousal grew past a certain point. She wished he’d stop playing to kiss. He was really good at it, and they could both stand to apply the brakes for a moment or two.

No brakes. He drew the dress down and helped her step out of it. He circled behind her again, hands at her hips. His fingers slipped beneath panties and slid them down until she’d stepped out of those as well. With one hand on the front of her left thigh and one hand in the middle of her back, he guided her to bend at the waist.

She nearly lost her balance when his next touch caught her off guard. He applied his tongue between her buttocks, wiggling a firm, pointed tongue directly against her anus. The stinging pleasure attacked her spine with hot, tingling sensation as if he were holding a sparkler too close to her skin.

Another flicker of surprise hit, then ballooned into a sharply inhaled breath as something ice cold pressed against the stretch of ultra-sensitive skin between anus and vagina. He was holding something against her. Or trying to. It had to be an ice chip, but the piece was so small, the heat of her body melted the surface, making it slide around.

She could hardly believe what he was doing or how strong the sensation when he worked the ice between her labia and pressed it into her vagina. The cold inside was sharp and uncomfortable but as the tiny shard began to melt and the water drip around his finger, a surge of purely wicked, erotic pleasure made her want to reach back, grab his wrist and help him bang her deep.

Her body quickened, desire for him billowing like a mushroom cloud. Again, he made a sound that didn’t quite match her memory. A growled undertone, deeper and gruffer.

She nearly said something aloud then, but he stole her attention back by granting her wish. He stood and slipped two fingers deeply into her cunt and held them still. Resting his other hand on her back, he pushed down to show what he wanted. She was supposed to pump against him, controlling the pace. She kept the rocking gentle, enjoying the pressure of his thick fingers against the sensitive ring of nerves inside her cunt lips.

Another sound, a light exhale revealed more arousal and less impatience. He slid his other hand up her back to unclasp her bra, and while she stripped it away, he drew his fingers out of her pussy.

There might have been a small twinge of triumph in her belly when, as he gripped her waist, she felt a tremor in his hands. Her veins were completely awash in some of the most volatile chemicals she’d felt yet, and to know he was similarly affected added an extra peppery kick to the cocktail. She wanted to fuck. Fuck his brains out and be the one in charge, for a change. Let him be the bound one, the one who had to tiptoe around the anonymous-client landmines.

Though her mind felt like a compressed roar, she had no way of gaining the upper hand unless she stripped off the blindfold. That would be no easy task, thanks to his reinforcement. And he kept forging ever onward, guiding her to the table and helping her onto it. When she lay flat on the hard, cold surface, he lifted her head to slip something—her dress, she thought—beneath it for comfort.

The next several moments left her nearly breathless with charged desire. He’d hardly touched her, simply bound all four of her limbs to the table legs with something soft but sturdy enough to withstand a few desperate tugs.

“Please…” she whimpered.

His answer was swift. He leaned down to close his teeth over the point of her hipbone, a spot so sensitive the bite had her arching off the table and crying out.

Then she heard a sound that definitely did not belong to her mystery client. Barely audible, but the low, raspy hum gave the imposter away.

Thomas. This was Thomas. Not her mystery client. As if her anti-submission response hadn’t been enough evidence, she knew that raspy hum. And now that she knew her client had been usurped by her trainer, the knowledge changed everything. It heightened the arousal to the point she found herself panting, undulating, struggling to tame a ferocious response.

It wasn’t anger. More like confusion and weapons-grade arousal.

A tiny grain of rational thought battled its way forward to issue a warning. The last time she’d seen Thomas, he’d just been outed as an FBI agent. He had left for several days without a word of explanation. Shouldn’t she be barking questions and yelling at him about the Josh threat? Shouldn’t she be grilling him about why he was here instead of her mystery client? Asking what, exactly, he planned to do if her client should show up and find her tied down to the table begging another man to fuck her?

Yes, she probably should be doing all those things, but it wouldn’t be wise. Thomas would not do this without a reason. The smart thing to do was submit. Let it play out. See how far he’d carry the ruse before revealing himself on purpose.

Apparently he did not intend to do so anytime soon, and she braced herself. All along, she’d prepared herself for the usual sexy and affectionate outcome her mystery client preferred. But this was Thomas—unpredictable, much more experienced Thomas—who did know how to incite a reaction. She nearly jumped out of her skin when his fingers closed over her earlobe and pulled until the earring came off in his hand.

He removed its mate with his teeth.

She could feel her heart pounding now. Keep cool, she reminded herself while fear, uncertainty and elation grappled to predict what he might do next.

Herback arched reflexively as Thomas reached out to pinch her right nipple. The pang travelled at light speed to her pussy, renewing that sultry ache for him. When he pulled, stretching her nipple, a heated murmur escaped, then choked off into a squeak when something made a snapping sound and clamped hard onto her nipple. It didn’t let go.

The earring. He’d clamped one of those damned clip earrings onto her nipple, and it hurt. Not in an injury-type way, but the constant pressure singed her nerves with fiery current. Every time she took a breath, the very tip of her nipple would throb.

Thomas repeated the act on the other side. The twin clamps pushed her beyond some limit where stimulation overcame spatial awareness. She willingly turned herself over to it, lost in Thomas’s carefully constructed storm.

She’d thought the pressure of the improvised clamps was a strong, tantalizing sensation. But it could not compare to what followed when Thomas took hold of both earrings. He gave them a light tug, pulled them out and then back in again. Not hard enough to pull them off. He used only enough force to make her boil with bottomless pleasure and desire.

After a time she felt his fingers wiggle their way back into her pussy. She welcomed the penetration. In a way, those fingers contact felt like the only thing attaching her to reality. To him. But he brought her ever closer by kissing her, hard and long. Branding her. Connecting. If she hadn’t already known he wasn’t her mystery client, she would have known instantly then. No one kissed like Thomas. He could communicate passion and possession via lips and teeth and tongue better than anyone.

And heaven help her but she kissed him back with all the longing and persuasion she usually held back. He soon took his mouth away. It made her regret the lack of restraint, but then he was back again, transferring something held between his teeth into her mouth.

Cold. Ice again. She caught and held it between her tongue and the roof of her mouth. Shivered a little. Then moaned with delight as the smoky-sweet taste of the melting liquid registered. Latte. Some kind of frozen coffee. He was feeding her coffee ice chips.

She felt a smile take root and didn’t rein it in. Asshole or not, this man knew how to elicit pleasure. And share it. He pressed his mouth over hers, sealing their lips, and then slowly, gently, carefully sucked some of the coffee back into his mouth.

That did it. She truly did want to fuck this man senseless. When he lifted his head again, her brain shut off completely. And caused her to make a dreadful, dreadful mistake.

“Thomas, please. Please don’t stop this time.”

She felt him pause, unable to tell if he was surprised that she knew him without seeing him, or whether he was caught off guard by what she said. And she still wasn’t sure after he withdrew his hand to reach up once more and give the earrings another tug, as if he knew it would flood her with sensation again. Make her stop talking.

Whimpered, pleading sounds had no effect on him but after a couple of tugs, he changed course utterly. With one large hand he curled his fingers under her head, lifting, until he could untie his reinforced blindfolds.

She had to blink a couple times to clear her vision. It was quite dark in the room. No candles, no lights on. Nothing but weak, natural light leaked in from outside. Too early for moonlight, and the twilight had long since faded. The wan glow turned Thomas’s skin a dark bluish silver hue. His hair seemed black as a void against the stark white of his button-down shirt.

Head turned to the side, she watched him pull a chair alongside the table and sit down. He propped his elbows on the tabletop and reached over with a withdrawn, absent expression to trace a fingertip over one aureole, then over the earring.


Page 5

She inhaled sharply at the threat of another deep pang. It was a struggle to maintain eye contact as he tugged the improvised clamp hard, then let go.

The resulting rebound sent a surge of shocking, dense hunger through her belly. And when his fingers returned to the earring, she almost snapped out a protest. If he was angry with her, there were less torturous ways to get his point across.

This time, though, he broke the eye contact and applied both hands to the earring, removing it with slow, careful precision. His hands were steady and he stayed quiet until both clamps lay on the tabletop beside her hip.

Breathing a bit easier now even though a renewed rush of stinging pain hit her nipples, she knew the answer but asked the question anyway. “Untie me?”

He ignored the request. “How did you know I wasn’t him?”

“You sound different. Why are you here? And what happens if my client shows up?”

“He’s not your client anymore. He won’t be back.”

She stared at him, searching for any sign that he might be lying. As if she could ever tell, with him. “Why did you try to fool me?”

“Probably for the same reason you didn’t stop me. I had a theory, and I wanted to see what you’d do.”

A frisson of fear gained a tighter hold on her throat than was strictly comfortable. “Why?”

He lifted a hand again to trace a meandering line from her right kneecap, up her thigh, straight for that hypersensitive hipbone again. Her muscles contracted involuntarily, making her tug at the leg restraint.

While she was still twitching from the blatant provocation, Thomas asked, “Who sent you here?”

“My mystery client booked this place, if that’s what you mean.”

Black eyes went very flat. “Cut the deliberately obtuse act. Keep lying, and you’ll find out I can turn real hostile in a real big hurry.”

“I don’t understand. You asked who sent me here, and I answered.”

“Don’t. Just don’t. The only thing I haven’t figured out yet is who you were supposed to target.” Thomas settled a hand on her abdomen, resting it there, feeling the rise and fall of her breaths. “If it’s me, good luck with that. And I don’t really care if it’s Warnous. Or Lily or Brandon Briggs. I’ll have to stop you, of course, but it won’t be personal.”

She wanted to defend herself. She needed to, but had no idea what he was talking about, or where such suspicion would come from. And this was dangerous. He’d made it very clear the other night that he didn’t want her to know he was an agent. He’d sworn at Steph, trying to stop the disclosure after the Warnous incident. He was angry, and it seemed his travels had left him with enough time on his hands to construct theories and convince himself of the worst.

He continued. “But just in case it’s Josh you’re after, let me repeat myself. Josh Taylor is a decent man. Sometimes I think he’s the only decent person left on this planet, and I will bury every last one of you fuckers if you come after him.”

Amanda had stopped breathing early in his speech. She remembered the last time Thomas had threatened her about Josh. She had been so utterly convinced that he would carry out his threat that she’d been furious with him ever since. This time, fear had begun to short-circuit all else.

“Thomas, I swear to you. I would never do anything to hurt Josh, and I don’t understand why you’d think I would come after him.”

“Right,” he said. Dry. Dismissive. “You messed up. You finally made a mistake I could point to as proof when Jerod asked if you wanted to stay at Fantasy Heights. Anyone else would think twice after what happened that night, but Jerod said you didn’t even hesitate.”

Viewing it from Thomas’s skewed perspective, she supposed she’d left room for concern. Gail and Robert Warnous had shown her in vivid detail that a very real potential existed for something crazy and violent to happen at Fantasy Heights. So why? Why had she been so quick to commit to staying? She must have asked herself that question seventy times in the last two days, and still hadn’t come up with an answer that made any kind of logical sense. How was she supposed to convince Thomas her motives were above reproach when she didn’t even understand them herself?

He changed course. “Let’s skip the posturing and make a deal. You tell me what you’re after, and who sent you. Once I’ve got my answers, I’ll let you walk out of here with no consequences, long as you never come back.”

A double helping of frustration piled onto her tone. “Thomas, no one sent me here. I’m not after anyone.”

“Okay, then let’s pretend you’re telling the truth, and let me show you how it doesn’t track. I’ve already done the work. I’ve made every excuse for you, wasted hours trying to find any legitimate reason for a jilted bank manager to stay here. Like maybe you were pissed off at the world, and this place is your way of kicking it in the teeth. Or maybe you wanted to hook up with some unsuspecting sex-starved rich guy, hoping to rebound your way into his trust fund. The worst, though, was when I thought maybe you were the demented Florence Nightingale type, helping the world ground their sexual third rails, one orgasm at a time.”

Hearing his theories, she almost felt sorry for him. How exhausting to spend so much time with someone he trusted so little. No wonder he sounded so tired and fed up. And somehow the truth came stumbling out without passing through the ‘it’s okay to say this out loud’ filter. “I guess Derek was right. I really am pissed off at the world because things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to. And when I came here, for the first few weeks, all I cared about was losing myself in sex. God, it felt good to be adventurous and rebellious. And physically, the sex was beyond anything I could have imagined. But I don’t think I was ever really here, mentally, until that day I saw Marla kiss Gail Warnous. I mean, I hated you at the time, but I still didn’t want you to be hurt. That’s when I started paying attention to the little things, noticing that things weren’t right, and how no one around here was exactly happy. And then Fiona Cornell broke into my house, and my mystery client slipped me a note. Who could walk away from that? Not me. Not most people. Most people need to stick around and fix the problems and make things right again for people they care about. It gives them a higher purpose than just converting oxygen into carbon dioxide.”

Thomas’s response was instantaneous and harsh. “Bullshit.”

“It’s not bullshit. You’re the same way, or you wouldn’t threaten me about Josh.”

Her arrow hit its mark. Now she was the one wearing the accusatory expression, and Thomas was the one starting to doubt. She could see it on him. Sometimes, if she got under his skin enough, he forgot to disguise his body language. When he rested both his palms on her belly and his fingers tensed up, the gesture had no menace. More like he was hanging onto her without actually allowing himself to grab hold.

He really did want to believe her.

A long, noisy silence settled over them while her mind raced, digging for the right thing to say. Finally, he let out yet another soft growl of frustration. “What the fuck is going on around here? It doesn’t track. It just doesn’t track.”

“Thomas, please. You’re scaring me.”

He lifted his head up, and she was instantly reminded of that moment out on the quad, when he and Josh had glared at Robert Warnous. Only this time, she was the enemy. “Good. Someone needs to teach you respect for the amount of power flowing through this place. And the amount of trouble it attracts. But it won’t be me.”

Her belly felt cold when Thomas lifted one hand to lean sideways and slip the knot binding her right wrist. Then he stood up and freed the other. While she sat up, he rubbed her skin with his thumbs, stimulating blood flow.

Apparently unconvinced that she was no threat, he left the ankle restraints. “What time is Eric coming for you?”

“I’m supposed to text him. Why?”

“Where’s your phone?”

“In my purse, out in the car.”

He turned and walked out. Figuring he’d gone to retrieve her bag, she freed her ankles and got off the table. It didn’t occur to her that he wouldn’t return. Not right away, but after a minute or so, she put her clothes back on, and began returning silver dishes to the table, and replacing covers over the chocolate, fruit, and chilled utensils.

It was the melting coffee chips that got her. A growl of agonized vexation leaked out when her throat started to burn and close. She wasn’t really going to cry about this, was she? She wasn’t really going to waste emotion on someone so unwilling to trust her that he’d choose to believe her a spy sent to infiltrate Fantasy Heights and destroy Josh Taylor, over the truth: that she wasn’t smart enough to flee this place and reclaim her safe, boring existence.

The unfairness was quickly swept away by an unprecedented anger. How dare he leave that way? Why did he think he could make all those crazy accusations and then simply walk out?

And what about her mystery client? What happened to him? Why wasn’t he coming back?

Worried, Amanda was about to drag herself out to the car when Eric came in, eyes bright with a frightened intensity as if he were expecting the worst.

She held her hands up. “Whoa. What’s wrong?”

Eric’s shoulders sagged, and then he reached over to his right and swatted a switch on the wall. “Son of a… Your client hit the panic button on his way out.”

Amanda sucked her teeth, carefully keeping her mouth shut. Eric didn’t know Thomas had taken the place of her mystery client. She convinced herself she preferred things to remain that way.

“Sorry. I didn’t realize.”

Eric shrugged it off and radioed security that they did not, in fact, need to storm Haynes House. After he took her home that night, he went to sleep in the guest room while she sat down in the dining room to stare at a wall. Bits and pieces of her day spun and collided, crunching and grating like rocks in a tumbler. Another performer getting fired. Everyone arguing. Derek talking about repressed anger. Ridley and her weird cult thing, and the Paramour Project. No more mystery client. Her own babbled admission to Thomas. His accusation that she had a target at Fantasy Heights. His renewed threat about Josh.

Maybe he was right, in a way, that she didn’t track. She hadn’t been herself since she’d arrived here, if that was even possible. Everything about Fantasy Heights was alien to her old life. Cast into this place, she’d been stripped of her social standing, her friends, her loyalties and old habits, everything that made up her identity. And not for the first time, she felt as if underneath all that had been someone unknown and untested, with a completely different set of interests, talents, and personal attachments. About the only thing this new identity shared with the old Amanda was the need to keep people from being hurt.

Someone needs to teach you respect for the amount of power flowing through this place. And the amount of trouble it attracts.

She thought about that for a long time, drifting. There was so much she didn’t understand about Thomas. Steph had said he ran background checks. Fine, Amanda could buy that, but Thomas could do that without performing on set, let alone becoming a lead performer who’d earned himself a huge, loyal following.

He didn’t track, either. Not for her, and she decided it wasn’t in her nature—old or new—to leave that alone. After obsessing for more than an hour over how to decode him, she hauled herself to bed, no better off.

The following day she spent gearing up for the Josh reunion. She hated to feel that divisive fear, the guilt over having no idea what to say. All she could do was hope that inspiration struck at the right time, because Thomas was right: Josh was a decent man. More than anyone around here, she would hate to see him hurt, and she would never forgive herself if she dealt the blow.

An assistant presided over wardrobe that evening. The department never ran as efficiently without Kara at the helm, but Amanda had no trouble getting ready for the event. She made it through with light makeup and her hair bullied into a mass of long, messy curls. For a costume, she wore flame-red bra and panties beneath a white silk shirt and another pencil-slim steel gray skirt. Last came a pair of black leather Mary Janes she wanted to keep.

Everything went fine until she realized she couldn’t remember how to get to the shadowbox. She retraced the steps Kara had taken that first night and quickly found the short hallway and the black door. Remembering how she’d felt back then, she went up the steps and slipped through to the blind.

This time, she didn’t feel nervous or uncertain, though when she thought about it, her situation hadn’t changed much. She was still mostly clueless. Still being tested. The only difference was that this time, when she stepped into the blind, she knew exactly what would happen.

No sign of Josh yet. She sneaked to the edge of the black-painted wall to peer out at the shadowbox and beyond. Outside the glass, she couldn’t see much. Just some vague shapes far afield in the darkened club.

A flicker of light overhead caught her eye, and she looked up to locate the panel of projection lenses casting images onto the blind wall. From her angle, she couldn’t see what they were, but she supposed movies or other erotic fare played while the shadowbox wasn’t manned by live performers.

Withdrawing, she meant to check around for the silk cords they’d need, just in time for Josh to arrive.

He didn’t say anything, simply appeared behind her. Naturally, Josh being Josh, both hands went to her buttocks, and she felt her pussy clench again as he slid his hands down to curl his fingers over the hem of her skirt. He lifted it, then drove a finger between her buttocks and beneath her panties in search of her slit. He closed his teeth on the back of her neck. She pressed against him, appreciating him more than ever. Josh had no idea what to say either, so he was skipping past all the awkward, straight to showing her how much she’d been missed.

He turned her around to kiss while he took inventory, visiting her hips, her jaw, her ribs and finally her breasts. His thumbs and forefingers carried on to pinch nipples still tender from Thomas through silk and bra. She stared up at him, waiting, knowing he could do whatever he wanted to her, and it would all be good.

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