BRANDED SANCTUARY by Joey W. Hill
Book VII of the Nature of Desire Series
Chloe has always been a creature of joy and laughter. However, since a brutal attack nearly a year ago, the trauma she experienced from the event has gotten worse. Much worse, such that she has started hiding from her life, even putting up walls between herself and those she cares about most. However, during a panic attack one night, she impulsively calls a number that's been hiding under her lamp all these months. She met Brendan at her boss's wedding. With confidence and seduction, he easily steps into the role of helping her manage her fear. By the end of the long call, they've indulged in some serious flirtation and mindblowing phone sex – and she's feeling emotions and needs she's buried for too long.
However, the problem is that Brendan is the perfect male submissive – and Chloe isn't wired for the D/s lifestyle. While their attraction is undeniable, Chloe doesn't know if she can be everything Brendan needs. Whereas Brendan believes that, once he helps her overcome her fears, he must let her go. As a submissive, he'd never ask her to be something she's not – even if it will break both of their hearts to turn away from how they feel about each other.
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BDSM/Contemporary Erotic Romance
© Copyright 2010 - All Rights Reserved
With a wrenching scream, Chloe bolted out of her second bad dream of the night. She stopped, swaying in the middle of the room, fists clenched in defense, body cringing in anticipation of pain. Blinking, she stared around her, and slowly remembered that she’d left candles burning on the dresser so she wouldn’t start awake into the clutches of darkness. The small floating votives, shaped like lotuses, were still burning in their rose glass bowl, which told her she’d had the nightmare soon after her head hit the pillow.
Settling on the edge of the bed, her legs shaking, she scraped her hands through her hair and rocked herself for self-comfort. She needed to go to the bathroom, but the narrow doorway was a tunnel of darkness, and the mirror in there reflected the shadows from the flickering candle flame. Goddess, her heart wouldn’t stop its racing, sending alarming sharp pains through her chest.
Twenty-four was a little young for a heart attack, considering she was in pretty good shape and had no history of heart disease. A panic attack was far more likely, since she was plagued by nightmares of a man trying to beat her to death while enjoying the hell out of it, kicking her body, punching her face, overwhelming her and teaching her what being helpless really meant.
A lesson she’d give anything to forget.
Up until it had happened, she’d been a firm believer that all things happened for a reason. To teach lessons, increase wisdom, allow a karma exchange for all parties involved. But when something truly horrible happened, all that wonderful spiritualism sounded like New Age bullshit peddled by celebrities. She vacillated between anger, fear and something in between that kept her from doing anything to change it. That was the worst thing of all.
“Help me. Help me, please.” She didn’t even realize she was saying it until the whisper grated on her ears. For the first time she wished she lived in town, not in the rural area outside Tampa, in a rundown rented two-bedroom farmhouse practically buried in a forest of overgrown foliage. At this second, she’d give up her tiny garden and natural sanctuary for the comforting sounds of apartment neighbors watching late night television or walking down the hallway from a nightshift job.
She was so tired. Marguerite, her boss, would see the shadows. One of the reasons Chloe called her “M” for short, because she was like the savvy head of MI-6. Once dawn came—and please, let it come soon—maybe she should pull a flighty Chloe routine, call in and say she was staying home to hug trees all day to balance her chakras. But Marguerite was way too smart for that as well. Chloe didn’t ditch work. She loved being at Tea Leaves as much as she loved being at her own home. Or used to.
That was the crux of it, wasn’t it? She was afraid of everything, enjoying nothing. But she was being stupid. She could get through this.
She scrambled over the bed with a startled cry, knocking over the side table, the lamp and the cell phone on it. When she landed in the debris, the night table jabbed into her hip as she rolled over it. Snatching up the lamp in nerveless fingers, she scooted back into the corner, her intestines coiled in painful knots. No, no, no.
When the thump came again, her scattered mind struggled to place it. Gradually, over the momentous pounding of her heart, she realized it was the maple she hadn’t cut back. It held one of her bird feeders. The wind was up and it was striking the backyard shed. A noise she’d heard a hundred times.
She couldn’t take it anymore. Her chest constricted as if it was being crushed, her breath strangling in her throat. This was a panic attack. Full blown, and while one part of her mind rationalized it, the rest of her was freaking out. As she let the lamp fall to her side and pushed the side table off her legs, her hand brushed a slip of paper that had fluttered to the floor when she knocked over the table. Glancing down, she saw the folded note that she’d slid under the lamp base almost a year ago.
No, she couldn’t. She really couldn’t. She didn’t even know him, for Heaven’s sake. They’d met at Marguerite’s wedding. Yeah, they’d hit it off, and she’d meant to call him. She’d kept the dang note by her bed, after all. Of course, she and Gen had really had their hands full, running Tea Leaves while Marguerite had been on her honeymoon. But when that had passed and he’d tried to reach her a couple times, through Marguerite, she’d given this and that bogus excuse not to get in touch. Every time she thought about calling, she felt hesitant. For the first time in her life.
At one time, she’d been tremendously confident, buoyant with energy. She’d reach out to anyone, sure that she’d find something worthwhile in the contact. A gorgeous guy who’d seemed interested in her? Hell, she would have been on the phone to him the next day, practically before he had his morning coffee.
Her mental argument against calling now didn’t seem to matter. Her errant fingers had already flipped open her phone and were dialing. On the fourth ring, her good sense caught up. Oh, Goddess. She was calling him at three in the morning.
He answered before she could jerk the phone from her ear and snap it closed.
She cleared her throat. He’d been asleep. Obviously. She should just hang up. “Brendan?”
“Yeah?” Then a pause. “Chloe? Is this Chloe?”
“You recognize my voice?”
“Of course,” he said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to wake out of a dead sleep and recognize the voice of someone he’d only met once before. “I was hoping you’d call. In fact”—there was a sound like a throaty chuckle, sensuous and warm—”I think I was dreaming about you.”
“I—I’m sorry about the time. I didn’t realize it was so late.” God, didn’t that sound lame? Calling at ten o’clock at night—that was a mistake. Calling at the freaking dawn-of-the-dead hour, she had to be a vampire not to know what time it was. Or a mental case. She’d really liked this guy, and he was going to consider her completely nuts and never want to hear from him again. But oh, his voice sounded good, all sleepy and sexy.
“Yeah. I’m fine. I’m just—” A sob caught in her throat. “I can’t…I can’t breathe, Brendan. I had a nightmare, and I’m so sorry, I couldn’t call Marguerite or Gen, I didn’t want them to worry.” Her words tumbled over one another, making her incoherent even to herself. Maybe that was good. “Your number’s been on my side table, and I just found it and…”
What did that say about her desperation, keeping his number by her bed? Of course, she didn’t typically play coy with guys. So why was she worried about it now? It wasn’t like he was ever going to want to hear from Marguerite’s crazy employee again. “I’m sorry for waking you. I needed to hear another voice, and I’ve done that, so—”
She stopped at the quiet, one word statement. A gentle poke into the flashing spokes of the running wheel of her mouth. “Y-yeah?”
“Okay. What would you like to talk about?”
She blinked at the dark opening to the bathroom that seemed to be watching her. “Can you…can you just talk?”
“Sure. I’ll be happy to do that.” Just like that, he started talking. “You know, I was still hoping you’d call, even though I’d decided you weren’t as interested in me as I was in you.”
She stood up, made it two steps toward the bathroom. As she drew in some deep, calming breaths, she remembered the way he’d looked at the wedding. Beautiful in his tuxedo, his dark hair brushed back but too silky and fine to prevent several tempting strands from tumbling over his forehead. A childhood friend of Marguerite’s, he’d walked Chloe’s boss down the aisle to Tyler, then had taken a seat in the front pew next to Komal and Mr. Reynolds, more of Marguerite’s eclectic assortment of chosen family. The tips of his polished shoes had been near the hem of Chloe’s dress as she did her part as bridesmaid.
She’d noticed he had a lean swimmer’s body. Marguerite said he swam every day and that he taught drama at the community college. She remembered the shades of grey, green and gold of his hazel eyes. She visualized them now as she took another step. She really needed to go to the bathroom.
“No. I was interested. Am. Can you…keep going?”
“But then,” he continued, “I thought, well, she and Gen are taking care of the tea room while Marguerite’s on her honeymoon, so maybe it’s that. Maybe she’ll still call. So here you are.” She could hear the smile in his voice as he tactfully avoided all the months where Marguerite’s honeymoon wouldn’t have been an excuse. “I’m so glad you did. I’ve been thinking a lot about you. You made a big impression.”
She stopped again. Three small steps from the bathroom, she stared at it. Maybe she could hold it until daylight. Too many shadows. “A bigger impression than I’m making now?”
“If I could have picked one person in the whole world to call me at three in the morning, it would have been you.”
“Why?” She imagined him lying on his back in his bed. He slept shirtless, she was sure, and maybe he’d have one muscular arm propped behind his head, the other holding the phone. How delighted those sheets must be, sliding along that lean, bare body. Maybe he slept naked.
Okay, that was more like herself. She was at the threshold. Quickly, she groped around the corner and snapped on the light. She let out a short scream.
“Chloe?” The instant, urgent concern in his voice jerked her back.
“It’s okay,” she gasped. “Just clothes…hanging in the shower. Looked scary.”
“Oh.” She heard him draw a steadying breath as well. “Well, cotton blends can be menacing. I’m convinced my shoes come out of the closet at night and form a ring around my mattress, stare at me through their eyelets, like spiders waiting to pounce.”
It startled a giggle out of her. “You do not think that. You’re trying to make me feel better about being a big chicken.”
“On the contrary. You’re a petite, cute chicken.”
“Ugh.” She wrinkled her nose. “People always call me cute.”
“Try being a guy born with the innocent expression of Beaver Cleaver. I thought the longer hair and a bit of stubble would help, but all the hair does is make women want to pet me like a golden retriever. The stubble itched.”
“I didn’t think that at all. When I saw you, I thought you were a handsome guy.”
“Yeah, but if a bunch of terrorists had crashed the party, you all would have flocked behind Tyler and that other guy, Mac.”
“That’s because Tyler is ex-CIA or some other freaky secret agency thing, and Mac is a homicide cop.”
“And because they look manly and heroic.”
She smiled. “You’re being very manly and heroic right now. But I know what you mean. Just for once, I’d like a guy’s first impression to be how sexy I am.”
“I thought that. I would have jumped you at the wedding if you hadn’t been on crutches. It didn’t seem very sporting.”
She laughed outright. “I’m going to put you on hold a second, okay?”
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah…I just… I need to go to the bathroom. Can you wait a second?”
“As long as you need. But come back soon.”
It was amazing, but the soothing timbre of his voice stroked her as if he was standing in the room with her. She wished he was. While usually she could flirt and tease with the best of them, and virginity was a distant memory, she really didn’t go to bed with a guy on the first date. However, in this vulnerable moment, she’d take him to her bed in a heartbeat. She wondered if Brendan would be the rare type of guy willing to just curl around her, hold her without doing anything else, if that was what she wanted.
After taking care of her bathroom needs, she found her nerves had steadied even further. She was certain it was as much because of his presence as her now more comfortable physical state. She pressed the button. “Are you still there?”
“As promised. What can I do for you now?”
She sat back down on her bed. “Well.” She made a game attempt to be the person he’d met at the wedding, when everything had been magic and light, no room for fear or shadows. “You could tell me what you’re wearing. Sorry, I’m tired and I can only manage clichés.”
“Do you want me to go—”
“No,” she said, probably way too quickly, but he sounded pleased.
“Okay, then. When it comes to nakedness, guys really don’t consider anything a cliché.”
“You’re naked?” She squeaked it, then cleared her voice. “You’re bullshitting, to distract me. You probably wear footie pajamas, Beaver.”
“You found me out. No, seriously.” His voice lowered, murmured in her ear in a husky tone. “I am completely, entirely, head-to-toe, naked. Under a light sheet.”
“How far up is the sheet?” She held her breath, waiting for the answer.
“I can see my right hipbone. The other side is up a little higher, on my stomach.”
With a hipbone bare, if he was on his back and she stood at the right side of the bed, she would see his bare ass against the mattress. She pressed her lips together.
“What about you, le poulet petit? Are you naked?” The French rolled off his tongue like a native, and turned the remains of cold fear in her belly to heat.
“Would you like that?”
“I would,” he said. “But I’d like a nightgown as well. Sometimes what women wear is as provocative as the flesh beneath. You have a way of making the two work so well together.”
“What would you do first, if we were together?”
“Hmm… Well, considering we’re both naked…” He waited a pregnant pause and she stifled a giggle, refusing to answer. ”I’d pull you in my arms, and hold you. Just hold you, until all those shakes went away. Rub your back, stroke your hair. Wipe the tears from your face. Promise you no one is ever going to hurt you again, because I won’t let them. I’d make the nightmares go away.”
Chloe swallowed over a jagged ache developing in her throat. “Oh, Brendan. You’re really being far too nice. I’m never going to hear from you again, am I? You’re going to help this pitiful wretch through her nightmare and then decide you want to go date a nice normal girl who doesn’t call you at 3 a.m. I’d tell you I’m not usually like this, and I’m not, but I don’t know…lately I haven’t been myself.”
He was silent a long moment. “Chloe, you took on a crazy psychotic, a convicted felon who’d just served twenty years hard time. You fought him tooth and nail to protect a child. Jesus, he had to beat you nearly to death to get her away from you. You were brave as hell.”
“No,” she quavered, brushing away the few tears that rolled out of her eyes against her will. These days, she always seemed ready to cry, but she’d become tyrannical about it, refusing to allow more than a few to squeeze out at a time. A contrast to the easily emotional person she’d been, who’d accepted tears as easily as laughter, feeling both were cathartic. That was before.
“It wasn’t that. All I could think about was what he’d do to Natalie if he took her from me, and I knew he was going to. I knew I’d rather have him kill me than survive to find out what he’d done, all because I wasn’t strong enough to stop him. When Marguerite found me, I wanted to be dead. If she hadn’t gotten to her in time…”
“No, don’t think that.” He responded immediately. “No matter what happens in life, Chloe, no matter how bad it gets, you can get through it. There’s always someone out there whose hand you can hold, so the abyss doesn’t pull you in.”
“Like yours.” She wiped at her eyes again. “Thanks.”
“Like mine. From now on, I want to be the first person you call when you feel this way, okay? Then you’ll feel so guilty, you’ll have to go out with me.”
“You’d guilt me into dating you?”
“Oh, yeah, pretty much. With this pretty-boy innocent face, I don’t get many of the hot women.”
“Yeah, right. Now you are bullshitting me. I’ve seen you. Women would catfight to go out with you.”
“Anytime you feel like staging one, I’m there. Clothing optional. Heated body oil would make my year.”
Again the laughter rolled over her. Chloe curled back in the bed, pulling the covers up and watching the candles burn inside the glass bowl. “Thanks. Thanks for making me feel not so pathetic.”
“That’s the very last thing I consider you. Now, we were on the whole naked thing…”
She chuckled. “One-track mind.” On a whim, she wriggled out of the sleep shirt and panties. “Okay, I’m naked now.”
Another pause. “Really?”
“Really. I was wearing a Save the Whales sleepshirt and pink underwear.”
“Lace, cotton, thong?”
“Lace, cotton, no thong.” She smiled. “Not really comfortable for sleeping, but if you want to imagine…”
“Men prefer to think women sleep in teddies or thongs and demi-bra sets. And slip into stiletto heels when they get out of bed.”
“So their butts will do that provocative swing as they walk to the shower?”
“Absolutely. Are you really naked?”
“Brendan.” She laughed at him. “Tell me more about you being naked.”
“Is that a command?”
There was a curious space of time after the question that tingled with something unusual. Intrigued by it, she bit her lip. “Yes.”
“All right, then. I’m lying on my back. I’m using an ear piece, so I have both hands laced behind my head. I’ve propped up a knee, so the sheet has slipped.”
“What can I see now?”
“You’d pretty much see all of me, except for part of one leg, about to mid-thigh. I’m being a slut for you, but only to help you through your nightmare.”
“Oh.” Even as she smiled, her breath sighed out of her. “Will you…touch yourself?”
“I don’t know. May I?” That pause again that made her chest tighten, like the panic attack but far more pleasurable. “You have the control, Chloe. I’m all yours.”
She had to find her tongue, but when she did, the answer came without hesitation. “Yes.”
“All right, then. I’m sliding my palm down the center of my chest, over my stomach…slow…”
Chloe closed her eyes, imagined that tanned hand moving over muscular pecs, a taut brown nipple, down to the ridged abdomen she was sure he’d have. Down, down.
“Do you want me to go lower, Chloe? Touch myself there?”
“Yes,” she breathed.
“Your wish is my command. Do you prefer a certain word for…”
“What do you call it?”
“Depends on the day. Cock, dick. Bane of my existence, reason for living…”
“Cock.” She stumbled over it a little, grinning, but nervous, too. “I don’t like penis. It makes me think of my six-year-old nephew playing naked in the sprinkler. He kept shouting out the word penis to shock everyone.”
“Well, I definitely don’t want you thinking about that.” That sensual amusement was in his voice again. “So I’m gripping the base of my cock, stroking upward. I’m hard for you, Chloe. If that doesn’t offend you.”
“It doesn’t,” she said with a dry throat. Her nightmare seemed very far away.
“I wish I could see you. You had beautiful breasts. Perfect. I wanted to touch them at the wedding.”
“That might have been awkward.”
“Fortunately, I restrained myself. Will you touch them for me now? Imagine it’s my hands on them?”
She remembered his hands. She’d watched them avidly, whether they were clasping a utensil or wine stem, or holding out a chair for someone. When he’d asked her to dance, his hand had folded over hers, the other low on her back, warm and strong as they turned together. Why the hell hadn’t she called him earlier? He likely would have been in her bed tonight, and this never would have happened.
He was taller than she was, and her head had fit perfectly into the hollow of his throat. He’d laid his jaw on the crown of her head, and she’d almost fallen asleep as they swayed, because her injuries were still healing. Despite his joke about crutches, she’d actually been using a cane that day. Though her leg had ached horribly, she’d wanted one dance. By the time she finished that one song, he’d been bearing almost all her weight. He’d have carried her back to her chair if she’d let him.
Sliding her hands up, she cupped herself, feeling self-conscious, though of course she’d aggressively cupped them before in this room, when she’d pleasured herself. Imagining countless alpha heroes, she’d even fantasized about Tyler more than once. Not that she’d ever tell Marguerite that, but Goddess, no woman with a pulse could help but fantasize about that man. After the wedding, she’d fantasized about Brendan quite a bit, but with the nightmares, she hadn’t had the energy to see any of it through in some time. It had probably been six months since she’d managed an orgasm alone, let alone with anyone else. Of course, she would have to go out with someone to become more than a party of one, and that hadn’t happened either.
Regardless, her libido was stirring in quite an alert fashion now, as if recalled from sabbatical on a NASA rocket red-eye flight. She was pleased by his comment, because she had generous C-sized breasts on her short, curvy frame. It contributed to the hourglass look that Gen had said most women would cheerfully commit all manner of sins to have.
“Are you touching yourself?” he asked.
“Are you imagining my hands? I’m imagining yours. I’m imagining you stroking me, setting the pace, wanting to torment me as long as possible while I strain in your pretty small fingers.” When he spoke again, his voice was rough with a passion that told her his desire. “Do you want me to take this all the way, Chloe? Do you want me to come for you?”
“Yes.” God, yes.