NOTE: Content is intended for adults 18 and older only.
Gabe checked the clock again and frowned. He’d expected Olivia Watterson nearly an hour ago and he was starting to get concerned. What the hell had he been thinking, agreeing to allow a woman a week and a half out of the hospital to stay with him here, at his currently under-renovation bed and breakfast?
The security system beeped and he glanced over at the monitor. A small SUV was just coming up the driveway. He headed outside, wanting to be there to meet his new…what? Guest? Housemate?
He leaned against the porch railing and waited, taking a few seconds to put on his genial host face. Not that it was an act, because he genuinely enjoyed meeting new people and hosting them at his inn, but this was different. Olivia’s story had made the news, and he’d been shaken by it. As a former firefighter, he still had a lot of friends on the line, and the accident that had injured her could’ve happened to any of them. He’d agreed to this as a favor for a mutual friend, and in spite of some reservations he still had, he wanted her to feel welcome here.
She turned off her car. He didn’t think she’d seen him, because she sat for a minute, her head tipped back against the seat, her eyes closed as if she were praying. When a minute turned into two and then into three he grew worried, but as he pushed himself away from the railing, she got out of her car, looking around with interested eyes.
He came down the steps and offered his hand with a practiced smile. “Olivia?”
She smiled back tentatively and placed her smaller hand in his. “You must be Gabe.”
Her smoky voice was hotter than hell, especially with the faintest hint of a British accent to it, and the jolt he got from her simple handshake was nearly enough to fry his synapses. Now he remembered what he’d been thinking about when he’d agreed to let her stay here—his visceral reaction to the photograph of the confident, gorgeous woman that had been shown on television and in the newspapers. But the picture hadn’t done her justice, at all.
He released her hand and she broke their visual contact, her eyes dropping down and away. As a Dom, he found her innocently submissive gesture tempting. Arousal pooled low in his gut and anticipation sizzled inside him, but he tamped both reactions down. Just out of the hospital, he reminded himself. Not a potential playmate.
“Welcome to Bondage and Breakfast,” he said. Her cheeks pinkened slightly, giving her far-too-pale skin a much-needed bit of color. He reached out a hand. “Here, let me get your bags.”
“No, I’m fine, thanks.” She tilted her head stubbornly, a firmness to her jaw he’d seen in many a headstrong sub. “I’ve got them.”
He nodded once and stepped back, watching her carefully. She looked as if a soft breeze could blow her over, but he figured that had more to do with her recent hospitalization than her normal fitness. She was fairly tall, about five-eight to his six-one, and as a firefighter, she’d need to be in great shape. She had more strength in her than he’d figured, because even just out of the hospital, she managed her bags without any issues.
He circled around her on the porch and held the door open. She murmured her thanks and stepped inside, setting the bags on the floor as she looked around the foyer. She seemed fine with stairs, which was good, because all the bedrooms were on the second floor.
“Let me show you to your room.” He grabbed her bags before she could, and waved away her denial with a grin. “Hey, as an inn owner, it’s what I do. I take everyone’s bags upstairs.”
The urge to argue flitted across her face, but then she shook her head and smiled slightly. “I take it you’re used to getting your way.”
Arousal surged, hard and fast. While he’d insisted his friend tell her what kind of inn Bondage and Breakfast was, he had no idea what she’d been told about him, personally. Either way, her words and her expressions were a challenge to his dominance he wanted desperately to accept. “Most definitely. After you,” he said, gesturing at the steps. “At the landing, turn left. Your room is two doors down.”
With the last of the renovations still going on from the fire that had temporarily closed Bondage and Breakfast, he’d put her in the suite that had a king-sized bed, a luxurious bathroom and a small sitting room that overlooked the back garden and wooded area behind the house. It was the same view his personal rooms shared, a view he loved, and he hoped it would give her some peace. Besides, the house was empty, so why not give her the most spacious suite he had?
He shifted the bags to one shoulder, pulled the key from his pocket and unlocked the door. He handed it to her with a flourish. “The keys to your temporary kingdom, Princess Olivia.”
Funny, he didn’t look kinky, and neither did his bed and breakfast.
The inane thoughts were bouncing around Liv’s head, so much so she almost missed what Gabe was saying. She caught the tail end of it, though, and she groaned. “I’m going to kill Marcus.”
“Oddly enough, I said the same thing about him a few weeks ago, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He laughed, but he looked puzzled at the same time.
She felt herself turn scarlet. She’d walked into that one. She shrugged, laughed a little. “Princess Olivia. That’s what he took to calling me in the hospital. I’ve asked him not to call me that a million times, but he insists. I don’t care for it.”
That wasn’t entirely true, but she was sticking with that story. Marcus had spent a lot of time with her at the hospital over the length of her recovery, and if she were being honest with herself, he’d not only saved her life and her spine, but those visits had also saved her sanity. She owed him, and he could call her whatever he wanted to.
Gabe opened the door for her, and she gasped, stepping inside. “Oh, it’s beautiful. Are you sure it’s okay for me to stay here?” She turned and looked up at him, only to find his eyes already on her. Her heart sped up at the intensity in his gaze.
A small smile quirked the corner of his mouth. “Why wouldn’t it be? There’s no one else here, and it’s the nicest guestroom in the house.”
When he’d met her outside, he’d worn a reserved, professional smile that didn’t quite meet his eyes, and she’d wondered what Marcus had promised him for agreeing to let her stay here. But now she was wondering if this was a setup. Marcus wouldn’t do that to her, would he?
Sure he would.
She stifled a sigh. She needed time away from her family and their well-meaning but overbearing attitudes, and Marcus and his fiancée, Bella, knew it. At dinner earlier this week, they’d told her about Gabe McConnell and his unique business, a kinky twist on a traditional bed and breakfast. Regardless of the fact Gabe was a former firefighter and Marcus thought the world of him, she hadn’t been sure about staying with someone she didn’t know—until she got back to her apartment and found her mother there, yet again, loaded down with food and lectures about the unsuitability of her job. She understood her parents’ concerns and worries, but she was thirty-four, not eighteen. It had to end, or she’d lose what was left of her mind.
So here she was.
Gabe McConnell was tall, lean but fit, sexy as hell with his close-cropped dark hair and penetrating gray eyes. He exuded intensity from every pore, stirring the attraction she’d always had for powerful men. Bella had told her he was a Dom and explained what that meant. Seeing him now, Liv had no problem imagining his intensity transferred to the bedroom.
Another time, she’d have been sorely tempted. Unfortunately, though, now wasn’t the right time for her to indulge in possibilities. Goals, she reminded herself. First things first. Get back in shape, get back to her life, get back on the line.
The timing sucked, no matter how attracted to him she felt.
She ignored the queasy feeling that always rose in her stomach when she thought about going back to work and turned her attention to Gabe.
He set her bags on the bed and walked across the room, opening the door to what she assumed was a bathroom. “It has its own sitting room, and this bathroom has whirlpool tub. I understand you have physical therapy to do, so I thought you might enjoy that. When I was rehabbing my knee after my injury, I used a whirlpool whenever I could. The heat and jets felt great.”
Oh, right. Marcus had told her he’d blown out his knee on the job. She poked her head in the bathroom and her jaw dropped. “Wow.”
He stood right behind her looking over her shoulder, and she swore she could feel the heat radiating from his body. It took everything she had not to lean back into him, but instead focus on the room. It had the tub as he’d said, but he hadn’t mentioned it could seat four. This was the most decadent, elegant bathroom she’d ever seen. She looked around, her eyes lighting on the large glassed-in shower, the marble vanity that held all sizes and shapes of white candles, the green plants everywhere.
“Like it?” he said quietly, his breath teasing her ear and making her body break out in goose bumps.
“I love it.” She didn’t bother to hide her admiration or appreciation, but she did the best she could to mask her attraction. “Thank you for letting me stay. And for thinking of the whirlpool. Sometimes my back aches deep inside, not the muscles or the surgery sites. A soak in the tub usually helps that, so this will be lovely.”
He stepped back into the bedroom, past the iron four-poster bed covered in sumptuous linens and a myriad of pillows. Her eyes followed him as he walked, but flew back to the bed. If she wasn’t mistaken, there were circular hooks on each of the posts. One set way up high, one set low near the mattress. Odd.
He caught the line of her gaze and that small smile quirked his lips again. “Every room in the house is outfitted with furniture and fixtures for restraint. You do understand what kind of bed and breakfast this is, right? Marcus explained?”
“I do,” she said. She wouldn’t tell him how intrigued she was at the thought of the things that went on here, though it was likely the flush she felt crawling into her cheeks would be a dead giveaway.
“I’m not expecting guests, but I can’t promise you won’t run into things that surprise you or shock you.” He pointed up above his head. A large eyebolt was set into the ceiling. “Every room has at least one of these for restraining a submissive. Including the bathrooms. I’ll let you discover the rest of my little secrets yourself.”
Oh, that sounded like a dare, and she could never pass one of those up. “Works for me.”
He grinned, and it changed his face from merely attractive to devilishly, devastatingly handsome. No. She had a plan, and she needed to follow it. Period.
“Do you want to take a bit to get settled in? Or I have lunch ready for us, if you’re hungry.” The loud whine of a saw split the air and he winced. “I am so glad this part of the renovation will be done in a few days. Maybe we can have that lunch outside. Away from the house.”
The sudden noise was deafening, and she wasn’t sure how he dealt with it. “Outside sounds wonderful.”
They ate at a bench in a secluded garden in the woods behind the house. She’d never have guessed it was there, but it was lovely and quiet, a small fountain bubbling in the center. The food was delicious, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, she had an appetite. Maybe it was all the fresh air. Maybe it was the man beside her. Funny, but it didn’t bother her when he watched her eat her meal, not like it did when her mother counted every single bite she took.
Well, it bothered her, but in a completely different, very arousing, totally bad-timing way.
And the silence wasn’t awkward as it normally was between two people who don’t know each other. Gabe seemed to know when to speak, and when to let her stew in the chaos of her own mind. She appreciated that, especially after the constant interruptions in the hospital.
She finished her sandwich and sat back against the bench, careful not to twist too far to the side as she faced him. It was that twisting motion that aggravated whatever was going on in her back now. She’d give it another few days before she mentioned it to her doctor. It might be nothing but, after all she’d been through—the accident, multiple surgeries to remove small bone fragments threatening her spinal cord, not knowing how permanent her injuries would be—the thought of another surgery was more than she could bear. Head in the sand much, Olivia? “That was delicious. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” He smiled at her, and his face turned serious. “I don’t know how to ask this except outright, but will you tell me what happened? I saw the news reports but they were vague.”
She shuddered as her stomach did a slow roll, making the food she’d eaten not such a good idea. She hated talking about the accident that had brought her to this point, but he was being gracious enough to open his home to her, and she got the feeling he wasn’t asking out of prurient curiosity. “Marcus and I were in the same Fire Med refresher class, and during training we got called to a live fire. We were on the ladder truck, and I’d just scaled it to start soaking the roof. I asked for water and I felt the hose expand, but I couldn’t get the nozzle to work.”
The sick feeling she’d gotten on the ladder returned. She’d known something was wrong right away, but it had been too late to stop the chain of events. “The rest is a blur to me, and I’m not sure how much of this I actually remember or how much of it is what I was told. Apparently there was a defect in the hose. The pressure blew a hole in it and the force pushed me off the ladder.”
She shuddered and looked over at Gabe. He was still, his face blank, but he was listening intently. She forced herself to continue even though she wanted to never think of it again, even though it took several long heartbeats to make her voice work again.
“From what I’m told, I hit the truck on the way down and then landed on my SCBA.” She had a vague recollection of falling and blinding, intense fear, but that was it, thank God. She couldn’t share the rest, not now, so she made it short and not-sweet. “Hospital, surgeries, rehab, and here I am.” She took a deep breath and blew it out, digging deep inside for strength and calm.
He reached out and squeezed her hand. “Thank you for telling me. I know it wasn’t easy. So how are you feeling? Is there anything I should be looking for, or anything you shouldn’t be doing?”
Her eyes widened, dismay flooding her body. “Did Marcus ask you to watch over me? Because I’ll kill him.” She wouldn’t be surprised. They’d developed quite the sibling-type relationship and, while he teased her with the occasional whine, whine, whine, he’d made sure she didn’t push herself too hard.
He held up his hand. “Don’t go after him yet. He didn’t ask me to babysit you.”
She sagged against the bench. “Okay, I’ll let him live. Maybe.”
He laughed. “Even if he did—and he didn’t—he only has your best interests at heart. That’s just how Marcus is wired. Something I need to remember too,” he added, almost to himself.
“What do you mean?”
He looked startled he’d spoken aloud, then his face grew grave. “Marcus did something that felt like a betrayal at the time. I blamed him for not warning me about the investigation into my business and my life, but he was stuck between a rock and a hard place.” His face lightened, and a rueful grin landed on his lips. “I know that now. And now I’m going to have to make it up to him, damn it.”
She cocked her head. “Does it have to do with the fire and the renovations?”
He nodded. “I’m not sure how familiar you are with BDSM, so I apologize if it sounds like I’m talking down to you.” He paused, almost as if he was waiting for her to share her experience level with him. When she didn’t answer—because she didn’t have one to give him—he continued. “BDSM stands for Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism. I hold classes and host seminars for people into BDSM play, along with running the inn. I’m a firm believer in safe, sane and consensual rules of play, or SSC. This means every person who plays here or stays here must be here willingly, and I reserve the right to refuse entry to anyone who doesn’t follow those rules.”
He stopped, waited to see if she had any questions. She didn’t, at least not yet, so she nodded.
“A few months ago, I refused to allow a couple who didn’t follow SSC rules to attend a seminar. I could tell right away this Dom was abusive, and he went ballistic when I wouldn’t let them in.” His shoulders heaved in a deep sigh. “Two months later, after an arson spree that affected all of the other couples who were here that weekend, they wound up here, where they tried to burn the house down. She was so young, and he was a manipulative, sociopathic Dom who took advantage of her, twisting what domination and submission means to his advantage. He messed with her head, and in a very bad way.”
Her stomach churned all over again. “Oh, wow. I’m so sorry to hear that. But the police got them?”
“They got him. She died in the fire.” Gabe scrubbed his face for a long moment. “Anyway, Marcus was part of the team investigating the fires, which didn’t sit right with me.”
“Well,” she said, shrugging one shoulder slightly, “it’s not like he would’ve been allowed to tell you, right?”
He smiled wryly. “It took you thirty seconds to come to that conclusion. The correct one, as it were. It took me a little longer.”
She couldn’t help but grin back. The story was sad, but he was still alive, and a house could be repaired. She didn’t say it, though. As a former firefighter, he knew that firsthand.
“Would you like to go for a walk?” he asked, holding out his hand.
She blinked. “Don’t you have work to do? And don’t you need to be here to oversee the construction?”
He laughed, an incredibly appealing sound that made her heart skip a beat. “It’s good to be in charge,” he said, winking. “The construction crew is small, just four local guys, and I trust them all. They’ve worked here before.”
She put her hand in his, allowing him to tug her up to standing. Her fingers tingled, and her body flooded with heat, which settled low in her stomach. Being around him was like touching a live wire. She dropped his hand but walked beside him on a narrow path, their arms occasionally brushing, keeping her on edge.
“It feels good to walk out here in the fresh air. There were days I thought I’d never…” Her voice drifted off. Bloody hell, had she really just said that? She never told anyone about that fear. No, it was more than fear. It was her worst nightmare, abject terror that kept her from sleeping, and those nights she had slept, she’d woken covered in sweat, her heart racing. She’d never spoken it aloud, afraid that voicing it might make it happen. Daft thought, but then panic never was rational. She slid a glance his way.
He looked at her and nodded once, not commenting.
Thank God he understood she didn’t want to talk about it.
The woods thickened as they traveled in silence, then the path and the tree line suddenly ended at a white wooden fence that encircled a lush green pasture dotted with sleek horses. There was another bench near the fence, but instead of sitting, she rested her arms on the top rail. “Oh! Are they yours?”
He leaned against the fence the same way. “Nope. Neighbor’s, but he doesn’t mind me letting my customers sit and watch his horses. I like to come out here, too, especially at night when the moon’s out.” He looked almost embarrassed by his words, but she was thoroughly charmed by them. And then he turned to her, his eyes intent. “You haven’t said much about my choice of inn. Most people are either appalled or intrigued, but I don’t get either vibe from you.”
Her heart stuttered, and she searched her mind for something to say. Nothing came, though. Nothing she was ready to share, anyway.
He looked back at the horses, breaking their eye contact, and sighed. “Sorry. That’s just me being nosy. It’s not really important to you staying here while I don’t have guests.” His phone chirped, and he looked at the display and swore. “I need to head back to the house. Do you want to stay and enjoy the view, or walk back with me?”
She figured now was as good a time as any to head back and get unpacked. “I’ll walk with you, thanks.” Before they left, she looked up at the metal pole standing between them. A twisted bit of rope hung from one of the hooks on either end of its crossbar. “Looks like you need a new flag.”
He shot her a puzzled frown, and she pointed at the shreds of rope. “Your rope frayed.”
His eyes blazed fiery hot and locked with hers. “That’s not a flagpole, princess. It’s a whipping post.”
Text Copyright © 2013 by Jodie Griffin
Cover Art Copyright © 2013 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.