I hate Liam Alexander.
I hate his Rolex. I hate his scowl. I hate everything his multi-billion-dollar company stands for.
When the pompous, rich, arrogant jerk comes strutting into the coffee shop, I barely manage civility.
But people make mistakes, and when I screw up, it’s epic.
I never expected the jerk would actually be a well-respected member of Club Verge.
I never should have trusted the masked stranger when he beckoned me.
I never should have taken him up on his offer.
And the biggest mistake of my life?
Letting him kiss me.
“It’s the justice of the situation, Chandra,” I tell her, while I push the button to grind the coffee beans. The fragrant aroma makes my stomach growl with hunger, which doesn’t even make logical sense because you don’t even eat coffee. “The separation of the classes in this city is just utterly maddening.”
“I agree, honey,” Chandra says, waddling over to me with a large sleeve of paper cups. Chandra’s hugely pregnant and ready to pop. We met in college a few years ago and became fast friends, so when my life imploded a few months ago, Chandra was the one who got me the job here at Books and Cups. Petite, with dark, coffee-colored skin and vibrant brown eyes, Chandra is beautiful. Pregnancy becomes her, as she’s grown pleasantly plump and fairly glows. Leaning against the counter, she rests a hand on the enormous bulge of her abdomen and giggles. “And apparently, the baby does, too.”
“Awww,” I say. “Is she kicking again?”
“He.” Axle’s growly voice comes from the doorway as he makes his way into the shop. Chandra and Axle haven’t figured out the sex of their baby, and it’s become a point of contention between us. I insist Chandra’s having a girl, mostly just to irk her husband, and Axle insists he’s having a son, mostly just to provoke Chandra. I really don’t care either way, but it’s fun to tease them.
“And what is the injustice we’re fighting today, Cora?” Axle bends down to brush a kiss to Chandra’s cheek, and I watch them with a sort of wistful hopefulness. They represent everything I want in life. After years apart from one another, they found each other again, overcoming so many obstacles to forge their way back into each other’s lives. Now they’re preparing to raise a family in the heart of the city. She adores the ground he walks on, and he dotes on her. She’s my friend, so I know it isn’t always sunshine and roses, and they have their moments like everyone else.
“The Greenery, Axle,” I tell him, my heartbeat accelerating as I take up my cause once more. “They want to pave over The Greenery because they’re building some other stupid high-rise. Because that’s what this city needs is another high-rise.”
“Who does?” he asks.
“Oh, who knows,” I tell him. I’ve only just begun research today, but as I’m studying investigative reporting at school, and I have a major paper on this subject due by the end of the month, I’ll do my research tonight.
After I finish my job at Books and Cups.
And make sure Ben and Bailey have done their homework and gone to bed.
And picked up some food at the twenty-four-hour supermarket on the way home.
After this, I’ve got a second job Chandra and Marla got me a few months ago, at Club Verge. Marla’s the bookstore owner and a long-term member of Club Verge. Chandra and Axle are members, too. At first, they were all hesitant to even talk to me about it, but there’s a reason I’m drawn to Marla’s bookstore. She stocks the largest selection of kinky romance in the city, and hell, I love those books.
So even though I’m not in the lifestyle… and I have no desire to be… I’m pretty open-minded. And hell, the other bartender, Travis, is cute and sweet.
My phone rings, and Chandra nods for me to take it when I show her the screen. We’re not supposed to talk on the phone when we’re on a shift, but bookstore owner Marla understands my circumstances are different. When I see it’s Bailey, I take the call.
“What is it?” I ask, turning my back to the counter and whispering into the phone. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah,” Bailey says. “I’m really sorry to bug you at work, Cora. I know you’re not supposed to take calls.”
“It’s okay,” I say quickly. “Why’d you call?”
“Yeah,” she says. “But I… well, I don’t know what to feed Ben for dinner.” She sighs.
I pinch the bridge of my nose with my thumb and index finger and lower my voice. I don’t like even my closest friends to know the reality of our situation. They all know I’m guardian to my two youngest siblings. That I fought the system and won, when my mother was put in jail for larceny and driving under the influence and my younger siblings were in danger of being tossed into the NYC foster care system. That I’m the one holding it together after she overdosed in prison and I’m left with two minors under my care. What they don’t know is that I barely make enough money to pay for the tiny apartment we live in. I need to stay in school if I’m ever going to get a better-paying job, and that means my jobs are limited.
Our cupboards are so bare, it makes me want to cry. Hell, I have cried. I’ve had nothing but a stale muffin all day long, and only because Marla was going to discard it because it wasn’t fresh anymore. I played it off like I was making an environmentally-conscious decision, and Marla might’ve bought it, but the truth was, we were totally out of food and I was starving. And now I feel guilty for eating a stupid stale muffin.
“There’s a box of mac and cheese in the cabinet,” I tell her. “I know there is.” It’s barely enough for the two of them, but it’ll do. They get free breakfast and lunch at school, thanks to the generosity of the NYC school system, but dinner’s another story.
“Yeah,” she says with a sigh. “But the little bit of milk we have left is bad, and there’s no butter.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” I say.
Someone clears their throat behind me, and I quickly swivel around. From where I’m standing, I can see there’s a man in a suit drumming his fingers on the glass countertop, but I can’t see much else. Damn it. Chandra’s three aisles over helping another customer. It’s just me here.
“Just a minute, Bailey,” I say, walking back over to the counter.
I look up… and up… and up.
This man’s huge. So tall and so broad, he’d look like a linebacker for the Jets if he wasn’t dressed in a suit that looks like it costs my yearly wages. But it isn’t just his height and breadth that makes my stomach tighten when I look at him. It isn’t the clench of his strong, chiseled jaw. Or the sapphire blue eyes that pierce right through me with utter disdain.
It’s that he’s fucking glaring at me, his lips pinched together like he’s just tasted something bad. I can’t decide if I want to apologize or slap him.
“Sorry to interrupt your conversation with your boyfriend,” he says, his tone riddled with disdain, and God, his voice sounds like sex. Deep and smooth, like gourmet chocolate.
Wait. Hold the phone.
“But I’d like to order a cup of coffee sometime today,” he finishes with a scowl. “Do you think you can tear yourself away long enough to fill that order?”
What the hell?
“Coffee,” he repeats, then makes a pouring motion with his hand and air-sips the pretend cup. Flicking his wrist, he looks at his obnoxious gold Rolex. “Today?”
To my surprise, there’s a tattoo that peaks under the bright white cuff of his shirt and it catches me off guard. Everything else about him seems so highbrow and conservative.
Like I give a shit.
“Yes, of course,” I tell him through gritted teeth. “I’ll be right with you.”
I turn my back to him and can swear I feel him seething from where I stand. My cheeks flame. Damn my fair, pale skin. He’ll see my pink cheeks and for some reason, I hate that.
“Bailey,” I whisper into the phone. “I’m sorry, babe, you’ll have to use water.”
She sighs. “Okay. Can you pick something up tonight?”
“Yes,” I tell her. “I promise.” Marla will give me my tips before I leave, and that’ll be enough for at least a few things. “I gotta go.”
We hang up and I square my shoulders to face the man at the counter. King Douchebag.
Most of the customers who come in here are pretty decent. We have our regulars, and many of Club Verge members come in here on occasion. But it’s NYC, and we also have our fair share of jerks.
“What can I get you, sir?”
I glare right back at the beautiful bastard with my hands on my hips, but at first, he doesn’t answer. Instead, he drags his gaze from my eyes to my collarbone, then lower, lingering on my cleavage. Figures, the one good thing my mama gave me was a decent set of boobs, but now I wish I was wearing a bulky sweater, and not this thin little V-neck top. But laundry day is Saturday, and the laundromat costs a lot of money, so I try to wear things a few times, and my clothing options are really limited.
He doesn’t stop there, though but lets his gaze roam over my softly-rounded tummy, the hands placed on my full hips, then once he’s given me a painfully slow once-over, he goes all the way back up to the top again until he finally meets my eyes. I’m so shocked by his bold perusal of my body my mouth drops open. I clamp it shut when I realize he’s smirking at me.
Yeah, I’ve made up my mind about him alright.
I want to slap him.
“Please,” he drawls, in that sexy-as-sin voice. “The largest cup of coffee you have.”
“Cream or sugar?”
I turn to pour him his cup of coffee when I realize the light’s off on the thing.
Shit. One of us must’ve hit the breaker by accident.
“Just a minute,” I tell him. “Unfortunately, it looks like our machine’s unplugged. I’ll have to make you another pot.”
He sighs with exasperation.
“Excellent. I’ll just wait here, then.”
“Why don’t you do that,” I mutter. I keep my back to him, and hear footsteps approaching. Marla’s making her way to us from the back room, her hair tied up in a ponytail, nose smudged with dust. She was likely doing inventory and came to check on the front end.
Marla’s a few years older than I am, with light brown hair and eyes, and a pair of slim glasses perched on her nose. She’s not only the bookstore owner, she’s become a friend to me, like an older sister, and I hate that she caught me at a bad time like this. I enjoy when she’s pleased with the work that I’ve done. And now…
“Hey, Cora!” she says cheerfully, then turns to face the stranger. “Oh, hello. Are you being helped?”
“Theoretically,” he mutters. I watch as Marla’s eyes widen, and she looks at me in surprise.
My chest tightens and tears prick my eyes. It matters to me to do a good job, and I dislike the insinuation that I’m not. Worse, I hate crying in front of people. Internalizing my anger makes me emotional, and I fucking hate that.
Marla shoots me a look of sympathy and leans in to whisper, “Honey, go take a break. I’ll handle this guy.”
I shake my head. Nope. I’m not gonna let him chase me off.
“I’m good, thank you.” She raises a brow, so I continue, “I can do this, Marla.”
Stepping a little closer to me, she whispers in my ear, “Of course you can. He just doesn’t seem super… pleasant. You sure?”
I nod. “So sure.”
“Interesting selection of books you have,” the man says, leaning against the counter and glancing at the titles on display. Marla takes pride in her eclectic little shop.
“Thank you,” she says. “Several were written by friends of mine, actually.” Chandra and Marla’s friend Giada both write kinky romance books and have quite a following of dedicated readers. We actually had a signing last month, and the line went all the way out the door for hours.
He shakes his head with a frown and a rueful chuckle. “What an excellent waste of time those books are.”
I’ve had enough of this asshole’s crap. I pour him the now-steaming coffee and hand it to him.
“What is and what is not a waste of time is totally relative,” I tell him. “For your information, those books provide endless hours of entertainment, and they’re written by excellent writers.”
Taking the coffee from my hand, he passes me a twenty-dollar bill.
“Entertainment?” he scoffs. He pierces me with a look while I fetch his change. “Books are meant to educate, yet those books are doing nothing of the sort. They make men into mythical creatures and women to be hapless victims. And worst of all? They glorify the BDSM scene with no real-world knowledge.” He shakes his head.
I open my mouth to protest but Marla shakes her head. Instead, I gather his change with tight lips, biting back every retort.
“Keep the change, Cora,” he says.
And then he’s gone. I stand with a stack of bills in my hand.
“He seems familiar,” Marla murmurs. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in here before. Have you?” Quietly she takes the bills from my hand, folds them, and places them in my pocket. “I’ll get the rest of your tips to you before you go.”
“Thanks,” I tell her. A part of me wants to take his stupid money and throw it at him, but… well, I’ve got mouths to feed. I don’t have the luxury of pride. “And no. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before. And frankly? I’ll be happy if I never see him again.”
When I finish up my shift, I take my backpack and sling it over my shoulder, then head to Verge. Even though I’m still unsettled with the whole interaction between me and the jerk, I’m looking forward to going to Verge. I love the people there. I have only a few close friends, and they’re all as busy as I am, and even though it’s a little weird to admit, the people at Verge have become like a second family to me.
I huff out a quiet laugh to myself. Figures, I’d find a second family at a sex club. BDSM Club. Whatever it is. But there’s something about that kinky crowd that I love… the way they’re free to be their quirky, crazy selves without fear of judgment or ridicule. And the feminist in me applauds the pursuit of sexual freedom. It’s partly why I love Marla’s store.
The lonely widow, snarky school teacher, harried stay-at-home mom. The powerful Wall Street executives, fearless leaders, intellectual visionaries. All of them are free to live out their fantasies in the pages of a book. And everyone needs a little escapism. Club Verge, to me, is kinda the same thing.
Braxton stands as bouncer to the door tonight. Tall and broad with a ready grin and sharp tongue, he’s one of my faves. His girl Zoe is feisty as hell, and a member of the NYC Police force.
“Hi, Brax,” I say brightly, as he holds open the massive black door to Verge so I can step inside.
“Cora. How you been, kiddo?” I haven’t seen him in a few days, and he acts like he’s missed me.
Something inside me warms despite the whole kiddo thing.
“Good. Working my ass off at school and stuff. The usual,” I say, and he gives me a sympathetic nod. “Zoe here tonight?”
“Nah. She’s got an overnight shift. I saw Diana and Beatrice head in a little while ago, though. I think Giada, too.” He rolls his eyes. “Not like anyone can tell, though.” He looks over his shoulder to make sure no one hears him. “Stupidest idea ever, to have a masquerade party like we’re some kinda fuckin’ sorority.”
I groan. I totally forgot tonight was Masquerade night at Verge. I’m told they don’t do holiday parties, but their competition apparently does, so this year Verge has decided to begin occasional themed nights.
“So people are wearing masks and stuff?” I ask him. It’s not uncommon for people who go to sex clubs to wear masks, but somehow knowing most people will be makes me a little uneasy.
“You could say that,” he says, but then he turns to face a couple entering behind me, so I wave good-bye and head into the club.
Club Verge is large and sprawling, clean and well lit. Current club owners, husband and wife, Tobias and Diana Creed, make sure to keep Verge classy by vetting members and enforcing strict adherence to basic rules. It helps that the most prominent members and dungeon monitors are long-term members of Verge, and several are officers for the NYPD.
Right beyond the entryway sits Tobias’ office to my right, and to the left, a lobby outfitted with comfortable furniture and paperwork. Contracts and the like are available for members to negotiate terms of play before they enter. It’s not required, as some are long-term couples and others are just here to observe, but new partners looking to scene are encouraged to lay down the ground rules before they begin. Tonight, though, the lobby is vacant.
Beyond the lobby is the entrance to the main bar area, and my place of business. The doorway opens to a massive floor. The gleaming bar with bar stools and bright overhead lighting that makes the glasses sparkle sits to the left, and to the right are small, round tables for members to sit together. Beyond that lies the pool tables and dance floor. This is the fun part, and where I spend most of my time, as people party and mingle and socialize. Just beyond this room, though, lies the area of Club Verge that piques my interest. I just haven’t been brave enough to venture there beyond my initial brief tour.
Down the hall is the dungeon… with every BDSM accoutrement one could hope for. And down the hall from the dungeon are all the private rooms for long-term members. The doors are color-coded and locked. I’ve never seen one, though they interest me.
That’s where the real fun happens. Or so I imagine.
I wouldn’t know.
I… hear things. See things.
And hell, I want to know more. But who has time for things like relationships? I’m a full-time college student and legal guardian to my younger brother and sister. And God, if Child Protective Services ever heard that I was involved in a kinky scene in a club, I can’t imagine what they’d do with that. It’s much safer for me here at the bar.
So much safer.
I place my bag in a locker in the small employee room near Tobias’ office. I eye the vending machines with envy, my stomach aching with hunger. That muffin seems like a long, long time ago.
I bite my lip. The cash in my pocket weighs heavily. It isn’t much, but hell I need it. Figures we live in one of the most expensive cities ever. We pay twice as much for basic groceries than the national average. I feel a little dizzy when I turn away from the machine and put on one of the clean aprons that hangs on a hook. We serve warmed mixed nuts at the bar, and employees are free to help themselves. That’ll tide me over.
I enter the bar area and can’t help but smile. Travis, who hails from Texas, stands at the bar dressed in full cowboy attire. He shoots me a boyish grin and tips his hat to me when I take my place behind the bar.
“Howdy,” I say with a snicker. He’s wearing worn leather jeans, a wide leather belt with one of those massive oval metal buckles, cowboy boots, a bandana or something tied around his neck, and a large, tan-colored Stetson.
“Howdy, purdy lady,” he says. I groan.
“You hit your older brother up for some…” I pause, searching for the right word. “Gitup?”
I giggle when he swats at me with a dishtowel.
“Supposed to be fancy dress night,” he drawls, shaking his head at me. “You didn’t get the memo?”
I stick my tongue out at him. “I have work to do, cowboy.”
“Hey, Cora.” I look up to see Diana and Beatrice approaching the bar. At least I think it’s Beatrice, as she’s dressed from head to toe in black leather in a Catwoman costume, whip and all. Diana’s one of my favorite people here, tall and graceful with long, super curly hair and kind eyes. I grin at her. She’s wearing a full-on Wonder Woman costume.
“You look awesome. Is that… Beatrice under all that black leather? Catwoman or Dominatrix?” She’s tiny, but tonight she’s wearing platform boots and carrying a scary-looking leather whip.
“Dominatrix my ass,” comes a growly voice to my left. Beatrice’s husband Zack, wearing just civilian clothing and a scowl, takes her by the elbow and draws her to him. “Remember what I said about that whip, woman.” He’s her long-term dominant, and one of the more serious guys around here. Pulling her close, he kisses her, then when he’s got her disarmed, he nimbly flicks the whip out of her hand.
“I’ll take that,” he says.
“Zack! You fooled me!” Beatrice playfully smacks his chest.
“Watch it,” he says, shaking his head and coiling the whip in his hand. “Lest you forget. I’m experienced in relieving people of their weapons.”
“He’s just jealous he doesn’t look half as good as you,” Diana teases, taking a glass of wine that Travis hands her.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Zack says, rolling his eyes. “Did you get something to eat yet?” he asks Beatrice. “They’ve got food over by the pool tables tonight.”
My stomach aches.
“Since when?” I say, trying to pretend like I’m not starving and just curious why they’re serving food.
“Well,” Diana says, taking a seat at the bar. “A few months back, we asked for member feedback, and lots of people wanted more food so they could stay longer, so we decided on our themed nights we’d have some tables set up in there. The problem is, people keep trying to sneak food in the dungeon, and that’s not happening.”
“Why not?” I ask. I have no idea what goes on in the dungeon, and I wonder what the reasoning is.
Beatrice giggles and Travis walks over to me. “There’s sex in there,” he says with a grin. “Bodily fluids? May not be okay with the NYC health department.”
“Oh, ew,” I say without thinking, wrinkling up my nose.
“Well,” Beatrice says. “Don’t ew it until you’ve tried it.” She bites her lip when she looks at Zack, who responds by giving her a flick of the whip. Squealing, she comes up on her toes, and I instantly feel my body heat from the sound of the crack.
“I just meant… about the food, not the… well… public sex.” My damn cheeks flame, so red, they likely match my hair, as if they all know my breasts are swelling and a pulse of arousal just flared between my legs.
I’ve been watching people interact here for months, reading every book I can at Marla’s, and telling myself this isn’t for me. But somehow that flick of the whip did strange, erotic things to my body. What the hell?
A few customers place drink orders, and I get busy filling them. I need to eat something, though. It doesn’t usually affect me like this, but I’m so hungry I can barely think straight. I’m handing a gin and tonic to a girl wearing a slinky mermaid gown, when I feel someone staring at me. The hair on the back of my neck prickles and I glance around the room. It takes me a minute until I see him, and when I do, I nearly drop the drink.
Standing against the dungeon door, he takes up the whole door frame with his massive height and breadth. He’s wearing nothing but head-to-toe black and a mask that covers his eyes and nose. It takes me a minute to realize he’s in a mime’s costume, yet his shirt is sleeveless, showing strong, muscled arms covered in tattoos. Like a sexy sorta twist on an age-old classic. Mute. Powerful. Cloaked in mystery. I want to see all of him. And why is he staring at me?
“Who is that?” I ask Beatrice on a whisper. I lift my finger to point, but before she turns to look, he crooks a finger at me. I blink. Once more, he beckons, then turns around and walks straight into the dungeon. He’s more than a mime. He’s a puppeteer, because I feel the tug like I’m attached to him when he walks away, like I need to follow him. To somehow satisfy an unknown hunger in me that’s as powerful as physical starvation.
“I don’t know who he is,” Beatrice whispers back. “Not sure I’ve seen him before. But, babe? If it were me? I’d go.”
“Go where?” Diana chirps up.
“The dungeon,” Beatrice says, filling her in quickly.
Diana gives me a grin. “Isn’t it around your break time?”
USA Today Bestselling author Jane has been writing since her early teens, dabbling in short stories and poetry. When she married and began having children, her pen was laid to rest for several years, until the National Novel Writing Challenge (NaNoWriMo) in 2010 awakened in her the desire to write again. That year, she wrote her first novel, and has been writing ever since. With a houseful of children, she finds time to write in the early hours of the morning, squirreled away with a laptop, blanket, and cup of hot coffee. Years ago, she heard the wise advice, “Write the book you want to read,” and has taken it to heart. She sincerely hopes you also enjoy the books she likes to read.