“I’m waiting.” Julian Lodge leaned back in his chair. Though he was perfectly still, he gave off an air of irritation that Lexi Moore couldn’t possibly miss. “And you know I don’t like to wait.”
Lexi’s head was pounding as Julian Lodge stared at her across his ridiculously expensive desk. He was giving her “the stare.” She was sure he’d trademarked and maybe put a patent on it, because nothing in the world could be as intimidating as those silvery eyes staring holes through her body. Julian Lodge knew exactly how to intimidate a person. The only person who was worse was her stepfather, Jack Barnes. Unfortunately, he was attending this meeting, too.
“Do you have something to say for yourself?” Jack asked, disapproval dripping from every word. “Maybe an explanation of what you thought you were doing?”
She had lots of things to say for herself and to herself, but in the harsh light of day, she could only manage a weak, “I’m sorry.”
Julian’s fingers drummed along the surface of the mahogany desk where he kept a framed picture of himself and his two loves. Julian and Finn Taylor were resplendent in tuxedoes, and Danielle Lodge-Taylor was a vision in her white wedding dress. She hadn’t been there. She’d given a pitiful excuse to not go to her friends’ wedding.
God, she was running out of excuses.
Her stomach dropped. Was he really going to kick her out of The Club? How was she going to explain it to Lucas? Would Lucas even listen to her? Tears pooled in her eyes even as her head pounded. “I don’t know what else to say. The truth is I don’t remember much about last night.”
She remembered starting in on the bottle of chardonnay and then switching to tequila. It had all made perfect sense at the time. She didn’t recall much after a couple of hours with Jose Cuervo. She’d woken up in a suite above The Club to find her stepfather sitting in the living area waiting to give her the lecture of a lifetime.
“Would you like to see the tapes? I have them. Your father has seen them.”
Yep, she was going to throw up. She didn’t argue with Julian about Jack’s title in her life. He truly had been her father for the last couple of years. Her biological dad had died before she’d been born. Her first stepfather had been great, but most of the time he’d been in her life he’d been sick. Jack Barnes was the first male in her life who had expended an enormous amount of his energy to protect her.
“Well, you showed up drunk at my club for starters.”
Damn, she was in trouble when Julian used that voice. He had a strict policy of never allowing anyone more than two drinks in his bar. Julian Lodge ran the most infamous BDSM club in the south, and he ruled it with an iron fist. Consensual was Julian’s first rule, and consent couldn’t happen in his brain if the participants were drunk.
“How did I get past the bouncer?” There was security in The Club. One couldn’t wander in off the streets and there were rules even about club members coming in.
Jack’s eyebrows rose over his stern face. “You mean Martin?”
Lucas acted as her Dom when they were in The Club. They had started coming in roughly a year and a half before, when her curiosity finally overrode her heartache over the subject. Lucas had been the one to introduce her to the lifestyle. He was happy in The Club. Lucas was a true switch. He was happy playing the Dom and gained a great deal of satisfaction from submitting when the partner was right. Lucas hadn’t bottomed in years, and that was her fault.
“You talked him into it,” Julian explained flatly. “And you talked him out of a job. I fired him this morning.”
“Julian, you can’t do that.” She leaned forward, pleading. She couldn’t have cost that nice man his job.
He simply frowned. “Of course I can. It’s already done. I gave him a nice severance package, but he proved he can’t handle working here. He should have immediately informed me or Leo that you were causing trouble. As it was, you interrupted several scenes, and Leo was forced to pull you out of the Red Room.”
Jack shook his head. “You didn’t have sex, Lexi. That wasn’t at all why you went in there. You aggressively tried to talk the women in the room out of having sex. You went on and on about how they should protect themselves and that the men in the room weren’t worthy of them. I believe they found you highly annoying.”
She let her head find her hands. She rarely drank, but she’d been talked into happy hour the night before. Who was she kidding? She’d been drinking a bit too much lately. Lucas was out of town, and she’d been at loose ends. It had been months since she’d been kidnapped, and she was having horrible dreams again. She’d wanted to find a bit of oblivion, but she’d found a ton of trouble. “Tell me I didn’t drive.”
Lucas would kill her if she’d gotten behind the wheel.
“You took a cab. I tracked down your car and had it brought to The Club,” Jack said.
“Thank you.” Her hands were shaking. Jack sighed and walked out of the room for a moment.
“These people pay enormous amounts of money to belong to this club, Alexis.” Julian’s dark hair was pulled back in a severe queue. He looked like a man who could deal with mobsters and win, which, according to her mother’s stories, Julian had. She felt like a small, fluffy bunny in the presence of a leopard. “They do not expect to have to deal with my family issues.”
Though he didn’t say it, his meaning was plain. She wasn’t allowed into The Club because of who she was, but rather who she knew. Julian considered her family because she was Jack Barnes’s daughter and Lucas Cameron’s…whatever the hell she was to Lucas. Julian carefully vetted the members of his club, but not so much the people he considered family.
Well, she’d shown him…
“Julian, I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say. If I’d been in my right mind, I would never have done anything like that.”
Jack strode back in the room. He had a mug in hand and held it in front of her. “Coffee. It’ll help with the headache.”
She reached out for it. It was warm against her hands. Frustration poured over her. She was stuck, and she wasn’t sure how to get out. “Thanks.”
It was right there on the tip of her tongue. She wanted to say, “Thanks, Dad.” She wanted to, but she couldn’t. Just like she wanted to say, “I love you, Lucas,” and she couldn’t force the words from her lips. All the men she’d ever said it to died or walked away, because in the end, they didn’t want her love. She was trouble. So much fucking trouble.
“You’re welcome.” Jack took up his prior position behind Julian. He loomed over her like a big hawk staring down at something he wanted to protect. She always felt safe with Jack Barnes. It was precisely the reason she felt bad about letting the man down. When would she get her shit straight? She was twenty-five. It was way past time to know what she was doing in life. Most of her friends were getting married and settling down. She was adrift. She was utterly in a state of pause. Like the button on her remote was stuck.
“I’m terminating your rights in this club, Alexis.” Julian pronounced her sentence with what almost seemed like sympathy coming from him. His voice was softer than she ever remembered it sounding.
She’d expected it, but the decision hit her squarely in the gut. This was the place Lucas felt most at home, and now she couldn’t come here anymore. Fuck. She was going to lose Lucas. Her heart seized. She set the coffee back down on the desk untouched. She welcomed the physical pain her headache brought because it took her mind off the devastation Julian’s pronouncement brought her. And yet she knew begging wouldn’t work with Julian.
“All right. I understand.” She managed to stand, though her legs were a bit wobbly. She had one thought in her brain at this point. Get out with some semblance of dignity. “I appreciate the time I had here, Julian. Jack, please say hello to my mother. Tell her I can’t come down this weekend. I…I can’t.”
“Oh, I think he’s done.” Lucas’s voice rang out through the room.
She turned back, and he was standing there in the doorway looking tired and unkempt. His normally perfect clothes were wrinkled, and his handsome face was marred with worry and no small amount of indignation. She’d seen this look on Lucas’s face when he felt justice wasn’t being served. She wanted more than anything to run to him and fling herself against his strong body. She wanted to bury her head in Lucas’s shoulder and cry her eyes out. Lucas was her protector, her best friend, her whole stinking world, and now, as she sat looking at him, she wondered if she even deserved him.
“Yeah, I bet you were,” Lucas said, stalking into the office. He made a direct line for her. “You want to explain to me why you have my sub in your office without the courtesy of a fucking phone call? I had to find out from Finn who found out from Dani.”
“Both of whom will get a stern talking to from me.” Julian had gone positively glacial. “I didn’t call you, Lucas, because she isn’t wearing your collar. I called her closest male relative. It’s what I do. Call me what you like, but I believe in the traditional ways. Jackson is her father. As she has no permanently contracted Dom, I called him in because she’s in trouble. Would you prefer I simply shoved her on the street? I don’t do that with family. Alexis, would you have preferred I called in your mother?”
Dear god, no. That would be worse. “I don’t suppose you could simply consider me an adult and just talk to me?”
An unamused chuckle came from Julian’s mouth. “Heavens no, dear. After last night, I don’t consider you a functional adult at all.”
Well, she’d brought that one on herself.
Jack stepped forward. “You are not taking my daughter to another club, is that understood?”
Lucas’s jaw settled in a firm, stubborn line. “She’s mine, and I’ll do what I think is best with her. I’ve taken care of her for years, Jack. Fucking years. So you will back off. She belongs to me. And I quit. You can find another goddamn lawyer, brother.”
Whoa. She pulled away from Lucas. What was wrong with him? He loved Jack. He practically worshipped the ground the man walked on, and he was willing to walk away from him? Lexi shook her head. She couldn’t allow that to happen. She’d already cost a man his job. She couldn’t cost Lucas his relationship with Jack.
Jack and Lucas were staring each other down. They looked like the same damn man, but at different stages of life. Jack had ten plus years on Lucas, but they had the same eyes and face, and the same stubborn glare.
“Well, I wasn’t allowed to finish,” Julian said with a sigh. The testosterone flowing around the room didn’t seem to bother him at all. “I was about to map out a plan that would give you access to The Club again.”
“She doesn’t need access to a place that doesn’t appreciate her,” Lucas snarled Julian’s way.
“Nor does she need someone who enables her every self-destructive tendency,” Jack snapped right back. “I love you, Lucas. You’re my blood, my brother. She’s my daughter in every sense but biology, but I’m starting to wonder if the two of you aren’t going to be the death of each other.”
Lucas’s face went red. “You stay out of my relationship with Lexi!”
She moved between the two men. “Stop, please. Can we hear Julian out?”
Lucas looked like he was ready to continue the argument, but Jack took a step back. She put a hand on Lucas’s chest and realized she’d brought him here. She’d brought him here with all the things she wasn’t willing to say to him. She’d never told him she loved him with all her heart. After that terrible day when Aidan had left her, she’d shut down and simply accepted Lucas’s love without giving him much back. The time had come to move past what she’d lost. She needed to decide if she was brave enough to try a real life with Lucas, and that included this club.
“Please sit with me.” She knew how to get to Lucas. She softened against him. She put her arms around him and let herself sag into his strength. Just like that, the fight went out of him, and his hands found her hair.
“All right, baby. I’ll listen, but I reserve the right to pick you up and walk out. We can find somewhere else. I can talk to Taggart. His club is private right now, but I think if I offer him free legal services, maybe he’ll let us in. We all know that’s one man who is going to need a damn lawyer.” His words were soft against her ear, and he settled into the chair next to her. He held her hand as they looked to Julian. As always, Lucas was the strong presence anchoring her. He’d been her best friend for the majority of her adult life. He’d stood beside her when he wasn’t even sure why she needed him. It was way past time to stand up and be brave, and that meant facing the music with Julian Lodge and her stepfather.
She wasn’t so sure about Taggart welcoming them. He ran a security firm that Julian and Jack had funded. The man knew where his bread was buttered.
Julian Lodge leaned forward and began to speak.
* * * *
Lucas kept his eyes on the road in front of him, though every other cell of his being was intently thinking about the woman in the seat beside him.
Jack was right, damn it. Lexi was going to be the death of him. Why had he left Dallas? He’d known she’d been on edge the last week. Why had he thought he could waltz off to Chicago and leave her alone with her demons?
“It isn’t your fault, Lucas.” Lexi sounded tired.
“I wasn’t thinking it was,” he lied.
She laughed, but it held not an ounce of humor. “Yes, you were. I can tell from the way you’re holding the steering wheel. You’re wondering why you left me alone. Let me tell you why. You left because you have a job to do, and it isn’t babysitting a stubborn woman twenty-four-seven. I don’t want a babysitter. I want a friend, and I need to be one, too. I did the crime. I’ll do the time.”
His fingers tightened on the steering wheel as he turned up Good Latimer. “Maybe I don’t like the time you’re going to do.”
Julian’s verdict had been a strange version of parole with the possibility of a full pardon. Lexi was to enter into therapy sessions with Leo, and she had to be cleared by a Dom of Julian’s choice. That was the part Lucas had vocally objected to. Unfortunately, Julian had proven far more stubborn than any judge Lucas had to deal with.
He frowned. “You know I don’t care about the therapy sessions. I trust Leo. I have no fucking idea who this Master A asshole is.”
“You obviously haven’t been talking to Dani,” Lexi replied.
Her eyes drifted closed as she relaxed back into the seat of the Lexus SUV. They had left her car behind. He’d have someone drive it to her place later. After last night, he wasn’t letting her out of his sight for a day or two. It didn’t matter what she thought or what Julian Lodge believed. Collar or no collar, she was his responsibility. He wasn’t willing to let that go. No matter what Jack said, he was good for her. He had to be.
“What does Dani say about this guy, and why do you have to get cleared by him? Leo, I understand. He’s a psychologist. But he’s also the Dom in residence. Why can’t he clear you on both?” Lucas asked.
The thought of Lexi in some unknown Dom’s hands terrified him. His every insecurity was bubbling to the surface and had been since Finn had gotten the call early this morning. Lucas had gotten on the first plane back to Dallas.
She didn’t open her eyes, merely talked and turned her porcelain skin toward the sun. He loved her skin. It was lovely, like the woman herself. She brought out his every protective and possessive instinct. “Supposedly he’s a badass. He’s become Leo’s little protégé, and by little, I mean ridiculously big. He’s as big as Leo, and one of the other subs said he’s covered in scars, like he was wounded in battle or something. They say he’s one tough son of a bitch. He’s former Army, which is probably why Leo took to him. You know those military types. Dani says Julian brought him in a couple of months back. He’s some sort of cowboy now. He has a ranch.”
“Then shouldn’t he be on his ranch rather than setting himself up to play with my sub?” Yes, Lexi brought out his possessiveness, and this Master A asshole was going to bring out his need to kick some ass.
“You know all the other Doms have day jobs. Leo is the only full-time Dom, and he never plays with anyone he’s counseling. Dani says Leo is super high on this guy. He’s supposed to be hard, but fair. I’m not worried about it. I can pass whatever test this guy tries to give me.”
Her husky laugh went straight to his cock. Fuck. He hadn’t had a moment of sleep in forty-eight hours, but one laugh from Lexi and he was like a bull in rut.
“I can imagine. The question is what’s he going to do to you, babe?” she asked.
“Nothing, if he knows what’s good for him.”
Now there was a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach. Had he thought about it? Of course he had. He found slight refuge in defensiveness. “I’m not Dom enough for you? Maybe Jack’s right.”
He’d given it up a long time ago. He didn’t need it. He needed her. At one point he thought he could have both, but that had turned out to be a lie. Aidan had been the perfect solution to everything. He was gorgeous, and Lucas had been sure there was a spark between them. He’d felt it and he’d seen it plainly in Aidan’s eyes that he had, too.
Aidan O’Malley had been dominant down to his bone, but he hadn’t understood the lifestyle and certainly, in the end, hadn’t wanted Lucas himself. One night. He’d had one night before it all fell apart.
It hadn’t merely fallen apart. No, it hadn’t been some random act that had blown up their lives. Guilt washed over him. He’d done that to Lexi. He’d upended her whole world and caused her fiancé to leave. He owed the woman he loved everything.
“I don’t need it, Lexi. I need you. I need you so fucking much, but I can’t seem to do it for you. I can’t seem to find a way to be enough.”
It was true. He wasn’t what Lexi needed, and maybe he should honestly think about that. He was always the one to hold her while she cried, but eventually she would need more. She would need a real Dom. She would need someone who could give her everything.
“Stop this car right now, Lucas Cameron.” Lexi sat up straight in her seat now, her jaw firming stubbornly.
Lucas pulled over. Now he’d pissed her off, and that hadn’t been his plan. Damn it, he was fucking up again. “I’ll take you home if you want.”
Lucas shifted in his seat and faced the only woman he’d ever really loved. She’d been his friend, his heart and soul, his whole world since the day he’d met her, but he wasn’t that for her. Her whole world had walked out the door when Aidan O’Malley left.
“I love you, Lucas Cameron.”
His heart almost stopped. How long had he wanted those words? She’d never said I love you, not once. He’d waited to hear those words forever, but now he could hear the “but” somewhere in there like a jolt of poison waiting to kill his happiness. “You know I love you, Lexi. I’ve said it every day for the past couple of years. I’ve asked you to move in with me. I’ve asked you to marry me.”
“But you won’t sleep with me.”
It was the only thing he’d withheld. It had been easier when she was in Austin. He’d known her for years, been in love with her for that whole time, but they’d gone their separate ways while she finished school and he started a career. He’d thought he would never have her, thought she was out of his reach. She’d been ready to get married and have a happy life in Austin with her fiancé, Aidan. He’d been the one to screw that up. Yes, it had been much simpler when all he had were phone calls and texts and long instant messenger chats on the computer.
When Lexi moved to Dallas, his life had become a testament to the power of patience. She slept at his place more often than not. He took her to The Club. He’d introduced her to the lifestyle. He’d given her more orgasms than he could count but taken none for himself because he refused to be her rebound man. He wanted more. He wanted forever.
“Marry me and we’ll talk about it.” He wasn’t going to let her use him for sex.
She laughed. “God, you are exactly like your brother. Except I think he’s smarter than you.”
Jack went home every night to two subs who loved him and each other more than life itself. Jack had two gorgeous kids. Jack had a job that meant the world to him. Damn straight Jack was smarter than he was. “He got all the brains.”
She reached up to touch his hair. “Not all of them. Lucas, I did something stupid last night, and I hurt some people I care about. I don’t want to do that anymore. I need a solution, and it’s not going to come with you compromising. You’ve done enough of that for me.”
He felt like she’d kicked him in the stomach. This was the moment he’d been dreading for the last two years. She didn’t need him anymore. That was why she was willing to say I love you. It was a good-bye gift of sorts. She would steep it in all kinds of bullshit about how this was for him, but she was leaving. He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. He kind of wished she would get it over with now that the moment was here.
“I love you, Lucas. I won’t stop saying it. I’ve been selfish to hold it back. Selfish and afraid. I know if I had an ounce of sense, I would take what you’re offering and run with it, but I think we would end up unhappy.”
Bitterness welled. He’d done everything he could to prove how much he loved her. Why couldn’t he be enough? “Yeah, unhappy. Really, I’m thrilled with the fact that you’re breaking up with me. That’s going to make me really fucking happy.”
“Babe, what are you talking about?” Lexi put her hands on the sides of his head and forced him to look at her. “I am not breaking up with you. I could never do that. Ever. I need you, but I think we both need something more. I think we need to find a Dom. Even if it’s only for play, we need to admit that you’re missing something you crave. Come on. Let’s see how things go with this Master A person. Maybe he has something he can teach us. I want what my mom has, and I can have that with you. But we need to move on. Aidan left us.”
His heart ached, but he wasn’t about to show it to her. He needed to be strong. “Aidan was never with me.”
Lucas couldn’t remember it that way. “Damn it, he left you because of that night.”
Her lips curled up in a sad smile. “Because he couldn’t handle it. And he left us. That’s the way I’ve come to think of it. It wasn’t anything you did. He enjoyed what we did that night, and my only regret was that I didn’t get to have you. Aidan was far too busy playing the Dom to let us be together. It was an amazing, beautiful night and I won’t let Aidan’s cowardice taint it anymore. I want to move past Aidan. I have to. It’s killing me.”
A kernel of hope lit inside Lucas. He pulled her into his arms, loving the feel of her against his chest. This was where he lived. “All right. We’ll move past him. I love you, Lexi. I’ll never love another human being the way I love you.”
It was an easy thing to say since he’d only really loved once before, and Aidan was gone from him as surely as he’d walked out on Lexi. Aidan had left them alone and adrift. She was right. It was time to put the pieces back together.
She snuggled close to him. “And I still want to have wanton, disgusting, uncommitted sex with you.”
He groaned. “You are so frustrating.”
“I know.” Her arms tightened around him. “You’re right about the sex thing, Lucas. I want it to be special. I want it to be right.”
He would make it right. And poor Master A had no idea what was coming for him.