City lights illuminated the street to the point of daylight. Azalea Gothel turned the corner onto Main Street, which would take her to her targeted location. Hood raised to block recognition, she only had a few hours. Any more than that, and she would be found out.
She walked past a narrow storefront selling liquor and cheap thrills, mostly gambling from what the blinking neon lights advertised, and headed to the larger, more sophisticated-looking club. The building stood out from the rest on the strip, towering over all of them, and decorated in a much darker scheme than the rest.
The club resembled a Renaissance mansion, with ominous architecture and two large gargoyles perched on podiums overlooking the entrance. Two towers climbed to a second story with a third rising two stories higher than the others.
The owner had aptly named the club Tower, or maybe he’d built the club around the name.
It didn’t matter, and she had much bigger concerns at the moment. Her curiosity had driven her down to the city streets, out of the comfort of her suite where she lived with her mother. But she had only a few hours. If she didn’t return home before midnight, her absence would be discovered.
Having an overprotective mother had been annoying growing up. Now, it caused a desperation Azalea had never felt before.
“Hey there, beautiful.” A voice from behind her slithered over her shoulder. She quickened her steps. The owner of the voice cursed at her but didn’t follow her.
Tower may cater to upscaled clientele, but it brought out the seedy beasts as well. She wasn’t completely naïve; she knew better than to think she’d be able to walk the street without at least one man’s eyes on her. It was her hair. The golden tresses easily snagged attention.
She pulled her hood closer around her face and came to the entrance of the club. Taking a deep breath, she retrieved her small purse and dug out the cover charge.
“You alone?” The bouncer looked behind her. At such a late hour, the evening was already in full swing, yet there wasn’t a line.
“Yes,” she said and waved the bills in his direction. “Fifty dollars, right?” She pushed the money at him again when he didn’t accept it.
“Take off that coat,” he ordered.
She heaved a sigh. She would hardly hide weapons in such a flimsy overcoat, but if it would make the hulking guard take her cash and let her off the street, she’d play along.
Shaking off the garment, she threw it over her arm and thrust the bills at him again. “Okay?”
He looked her over. A smile grew on his lips as his gaze reached her chest, and brightened as it traveled downward.
Snagging the money, he nodded. “Yeah, but if I were you, I’d stay near the bar and not go wandering around. Less likely to get caught.”
She didn’t bother to ask him what he meant, since he’d spoken the words directly to her breasts, and made her way in.
Music with low, deep beats played, luring her into the club. She stopped at the coat check to drop her coat and stuffed the ticket into her bag.
As she walked into the main room, the life of the club erupted before her. The music grew more intense, or maybe it felt that way with all the scenes going on around her. The club catered to darker passions, the sort she’d been reading about, fantasizing about. It was how she found the club. Not having much to fill her days outside of her graphic design projects, she delved into every image Google had to offer on the naughty subjects.
Fog swirled across the flooring. She walked toward the bar, remembering what the doorman had told her. She’d get a drink, ease into the ambiance, and then she’d make her rounds. So much to see, so much to take in.
The sharp crack of a whip derailed her mission, and she followed the sound instead. Along the edges of each room, scenes played out. Some were simple—a woman on her knees being petted by the man towering over her—while others were more intricate. A woman hung from the ceiling, wrapped in rope in such a way that she looked more like a piece of art than a sexual plaything. Azalea took a moment to admire the knotting and the design of the rope around the woman’s torso and legs before a second snap got her feet moving again.
She made her way through the crowd, feeling men staring at her and hearing a crude murmur, but she paid them no mind. Surveying the room, she realized she was the only woman walking freely about the room without an escort. How had she missed that?
But her vision often became tunneled when she had her mind set. It was one of the flaws her mother had worked hard over the years to relieve her of without any success.
She arrived at the main scene, the large stage positioned in the rear of the club, and pushed her way to the front of the crowd. A man, a whip dangling from his hand, stood several feet away from the bound woman before him. The redheaded victim’s hands were tied over her head to the whipping post, her legs spread out by an iron bar shackled to her ankles. She had no recourse. Nothing for her to do but to accept the lashes of the man holding the braided whip.
Azalea focused on him. He wore only a pair of black slacks. She would have expected leather. His chest was completely bared to the audience except for the large tattoos covering his arms and pecs. He could have been one of the sculpted statues decorating the club, with his chiseled features and body. Everything about him appeared hard. Unyielding.
And the tent in his pants proved it.
“He better finish her off soon.” A whisper came from behind her. “I need to get you upstairs or I’m going to fucking come in my pants.”
Azalea glanced over her shoulder at the man who spoke. His eyes met hers briefly, and he grinned, pressing a kiss to the temple of the woman beside him. She appeared as aroused as her partner with her dilated eyes and her teeth biting her bottom lip.
When Azalea looked back up at the scene, her eyes caught in the man with the whip’s gaze. Her breath snagged, and she swallowed back a surprised gasp. He stared right at her, a deep crease building in his brow.
Such power, and it centered on her. Her breath came easier when he turned back to the woman on the post.
Six crimson welts crossed the woman’s slender back. Her forehead rested on the wooden pole, her muscles tight and waiting for the next lash.
The man circled her, watching her with his dark gaze; his brow furrowed. Azalea bit down on her lip as he stood before the whipped woman and pinched her nipples. A seductive moan crossed the stage and over the audience.
“One more for my girl,” he announced and released her breasts.
Azalea covered her mouth when he retook his position and pulled his hand back. She forced herself not to look away. His muscles rippled with his movement, his eyes stayed focused on his target, and the whip landed with precision. Another red mark bloomed on the creamy flesh, and the woman screamed, throwing her head from side to side.
He hung the whip around his neck and went to her, lightly tracing each mark with his fingers before placing a soft kiss to it. The crowd dispersed, moving back to whatever games they had been playing on their own or heading to the bar for more indulgence. Azalea stayed. She watched, mesmerized by the tender care he gave his tortured prey.
The man who’d whipped her with such power, such precision, brought her down from the pole and wrapped a blanket around her. Azalea caught the tiny wince she gave at having her back touched, but she also noted the sated look on her beautiful face. The man who had wielded the whip escorted her to the side of the stage and handed her off to another man who led the woman behind the curtains.
Something so intense, so barbaric in nature hadn’t been cruel at all. Azalea sighed to herself. If she’d arrived earlier, she could have seen more, but it had been hard enough getting out without being noticed. If she had left any earlier, her mother would have been informed. The guards would have seen her leave and tattled right away.
Once the man with the tattoos disappeared, Azalea headed to the bar. One drink and a small amount of voyeurism, and she’d head back home. If her mother caught her, it would be months before she could revisit the club.
She ran her fingers through her long locks and pulled them forward over her shoulder, covering most of her chest with her golden hair.
“What can I get you?” the bartender, a youngish man with a black skull tattooed across his throat asked.
“A glass of wine? White please?” She wedged her way between two couples and found a stool. The scenes along the wall in the alcoves changed. The trussed-up woman was let out of her bonds, and another couple moved into the area to start a new scene.
“Fantastic, isn’t it?” the bartender asked as he slid her wine to her. “You’ve never been in here before.”
“No.” She shook her head and handed money across the bar.
He shook his head. “No charge.” He smiled and pointed toward the main stage. “But Peter wants a word.”
“Peter?” she asked, looking where he had pointed. The man who had done the whipping stood center stage, glaring at her over the heads of the crowd. “Why?”
“Probably because you’re not allowed in here.” The bartender laughed, tapped the bar with his knuckles, and moved on. “Finish your drink. You’ll need it.”
Azalea tugged up on the neckline of the dress she wore, suddenly aware of the eyes preying on her. She’d only been able to grab something from her closet, and the deep purple dress had been the only one that seemed fitting for the club. And the only dress that fit, even poorly. Although the neckline was deep, all of her was covered. The skirt of the dress went far past her knees. Overall, she wasn’t much to look at. Not in comparison to the beautiful women of the Tower.
She decided not to be afraid. She’d come this far; she wasn’t going to let a little glare from across the room set her spine on fire.
Even if it did.
Sipping her wine, she turned away from the dark figure looming over the crowd. If he wanted to speak to her, he could damn well come down from his spotlight and do so. She wouldn’t be afraid. She had every right to be there.
Unless he knew her mother.
If he knew her mother, her being there in his club could be more dangerous than she’d bargained for when she’d descended the back stairwell of her house.
Familiar anger brewed within her. When would she ever get a say? She was tired of being pulled and yanked in whatever direction her mother wanted. And now it seemed she had men all over the city waiting for her to make a mistake.
Well, enough was enough. She put her empty glass on the counter and spun around with the intent to march through the crowd and tell Peter whatever-his-name-was to go to hell.
Only, when she turned, she smacked right into him. Peter. The bare-chested, glowering man had come through the crowd and right up to her without her so much as sensing him.
“Dammit.” She rubbed her nose that had been smashed in the collision.
“You shouldn’t be in here.” His deep voice vibrated through the noise. “If you want to work my club, you enter through the back entrance and you get assigned a handler.”
Work his club?
“What are you talking about?” She tried to retreat, but the crowd kept her pinned against him. “I’m not—oh my god—you think I’m one of the girls?” She covered her mouth to hide the nervous giggle starting to erupt. Her most annoying flaw, the stupid giggle. “I’m not. I just wanted to see the club. I’m not working—for anyone.”
He narrowed his gaze as it traveled down the length of her body. She tugged on her neckline again, not that it would do much good.
“You’re alone?” The accusation of being single came harsher than the accusation of being a working girl in his club.
“Yes.” She nodded, raising her chin. She wouldn’t cower. Not anymore.
Peter moved his gaze from her, over to the bartender. “Two drink max. Put it on the house tab,” he said, holding up two fingers.
“Are you trying to dictate how much I have to drink?” She didn’t bother trying to hide her annoyance at his arrogance.
“No.” He settled his dark stare on her. “I’m not trying to do anything. I’m doing it. Two drinks, that’s all. And if anyone approaches you that you don’t want, you signal that guy over there.” Peter turned to point at a security guard standing at the end of the bar.
“I can handle myself perfectly fine.” She curled her toes in her shoes. If that were the actual truth, she wouldn’t be in her current situation.
The right side of his lips curled up. Not a true smile, but at least his expression lightened.
“I’m sure that’s true—uh, what’s your name?” He leaned closer to hear her, but in doing so he brought his manly scent with him. She inhaled deeply, enjoying the musk and leather smell.
“Azalea,” she said softly.
He pulled back with a wrinkled brow. “How unusual.”
“It’s a flower. My mother has a thing for flowers,” she explained.
“Hmm.” He pressed his lips together. “Well, Azalea, you’ve already had one drink. You can have one more for the night.”
“You can’t go bossing around girls you don’t even know,” she snarled. She had already planned on having maybe one more glass of wine, if that, but she couldn’t allow his arrogance to go unchecked.
He quirked a black eyebrow at her, making his earlier glare seem like a pleasant greeting. “This is my club. If I say two drinks, then it’s two drinks. I could say no more. Would that get the message through clearer?”
She squared her shoulders to meet him head-on. She’d never see him again after this. Why not push the boundary just a little? Why not have a tiny bit of fun before she found herself locked away again?
“And if I have more? I could easily get one of these men to buy me a drink.” She waved a hand, gesturing to the crowd. Obviously, a single woman in the club was a rare thing, so it was an easy bet the men would fall at her feet if she asked.
His eyes narrowing a fraction, he placed his hands on the bar behind her, pinning her with a steely gaze.
“I don’t think you want to know what the consequence for disobedience would be.”
She gave a purposeful glance at the empty stage. “I think I may have an idea.”
His lips curved into a broad smile, like her statement pleased him almost as much as her cheek annoyed him.
“What you saw was play. A little show for the club.”
Azalea sensed the darkness in him, in the way his smile twisted and his brow quirked when he gave the veiled threat. A part of her should have been leery, scared even, but she found herself wanting to step into it with him. To be devoured, if only for a brief moment, by the darkness in him.
“Two drinks. Not a sip more. It’s for your safety, Azalea, not because I’m an ass.” He tapped the tip of her nose with his finger and stood back, giving her more air to breathe, more space to get lost in.
“And you put safety above profits for all your customers?” she pressed him.
“Only those worthy,” he quipped and gestured to the bartender. “She’s cut off after one more glass of wine. If you serve her, or any man that gives her a drink, you’ll be fired, on the spot, with no reference.”
Azalea gasped and looked at the bartender to gauge his response.
To her surprise, he only nodded. “Got it. One more glass of white then cut off.”
“That’s not fair. How could he know if someone is buying a drink for me?” she demanded of Peter.
He shifted his black gaze back to her and lifted a shoulder in an easy shrug. “Life is often that way, princess.”
She couldn’t logically argue the point. She knew that lesson well enough already.
“Maybe you are an ass, after all,” she retorted, and he laughed, a soft chuckle really, but it lightened his features.
“I never said I wasn’t. I only said that wasn’t the reason I’m cutting you off.”
The man was impossible, and he was wasting all of her time. She didn’t have long before she needed to hightail it back home.
“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes and turned her back on him, signaling to the bartender that she would like to have that last glass of wine. She didn’t really want it. But she wasn’t going to let the overgrown ape behind her think he actually had a say in what she did or didn’t do.
“I think someone really wants a spanking tonight.” His deep whisper ran along her ear. “You don’t have to be so naughty. If you want to play, come up to my office. The guard will let you in, and I’ll give you all the spankings you’d like. But if you keep being so bad, I won’t be able to make you feel good.”
She froze. Every muscle in her body refused to move. How the hell was she supposed to respond to that. Obviously, she couldn’t.
No, she couldn’t.
She didn’t have time.
And especially not with him.
“Maybe, if I have time.” She tried to sound dismissive, but she could feel the tremor in her voice. Hopefully, the sound was lost in the background noise.
“Well, I hope you do.”
She picked up her fresh glass of wine and turned back to him. But he was gone. She spotted him in the crowd; the sea of people simply parted for him as he made his way through. He jogged up the steps near the stage and stopped to speak to the guard. She noticed him point in her direction, and her cheeks heated. He really wanted her to go to his office?
For a spanking?
The small clutch hanging from her wrist vibrated.
“Shit,” she muttered, put her glass back down, untouched, and dug out the watch. Her alarm reminded her of the time, and the urgency with which she needed to get her ass moving.
Half an hour. Just enough time to collect her coat and get home before her mother’s meeting ended.
Forgetting the glass of wine, she pushed her way through the crowd and made for the exit.