Book IX of the Nature of Desire Series

(Can be read as standalone, but may wish to read Rough Canvas first to enhance experience.)

Release Date: May 31, 2016

Is he worth the heartbreak? At nearly forty, Julie isn’t so sure she’ll ever find a man who is, so she’s vowed that all her big 4-0 decisions will have zip to do with relationships. A successful theater manager, she agrees to travel to North Carolina and help a friend put her erotic performance theater on its feet. Julie has always been curious and drawn to the BDSM world, and now she can safely explore that world in the environment she knows best.

Desmond Hayes is the roofing contractor repairing their rundown theater building, but he’s also a rigger, well-known in the BDSM world for his rope artistry. He’s not just a top, though; he’s a Dom whose unexpected quirks mesh too well with Julie’s eccentric personality and awaken her submissive side.

From the time he was born, Des has been fighting the odds against him. Because of that, he’s kept his relationships inside the BDSM scene with clear boundaries. While Julie has almost given up on finding a person worth loving through better or worse—or pleasure and pain—Des never expected to receive that gift.

He’s not letting that treasure get away—no matter how much rope he has to use to bind her to him.

Chapter One Excerpt

@Copyright 2016 – All Rights Reserved

The radio beeped. “Julie, the roof contractor is here to discuss those leaks.”

“Great. I’m in front of the stage. Send him down, Harris.”

Putting her hands on her hips, Julie rocked back on her heels. It was coming together. The load-in for the first production was scheduled for next week, the arrival of rented sound and lighting equipment, the building of the scenery, the run-throughs with the cast, the tedious yet essential technical direction.

Today, the fire-retardant curtains had been delivered and installed, a particular thrill. They’d purchased a traveler curtain with a border and a simple fly system, the typical choice for a community theater with limited funds. Narrower curtains, the “legs,” shielded the wings of the stage. The acoustic panels for the walls surrounding the audience were also in place. Julie could already tell the difference in the sound, one of the biggest challenges in adapting a building to a theater purpose.

A whisper at a key moment in a BDSM session could change the whole mood and direction of a scene, so it was important that whisper be heard.

When Julie closed her eyes now, she could already see the set pieces. Lighting and sound set-ups, dialogue and visuals, were tools that could bridge the distance between audience and players. They’d balance powerful drama with touches of levity, and take the audience surfing on a wave of erotic discovery and emotional exploration.

Typical for amateur theater, the individuals Logan and Madison had auditioned were not, for the most part, experienced actors. However, they were confident and passionate about their skills in the BDSM world, and those core talents would drive this first offering.

Consent would be a montage of BDSM skits and skills, a tempting glimpse at what they’d be offering at Wonder.NOD-WTW-Cover-med

As Julie considered the dark blue color they’d chosen for the pleated velvet traveler, and how all the curtains made their playhouse look even more like a theater, she heard an exchange of voices, Harris’s and another man’s, the tone deep and even. It distracted her, because the unknown person had an excellent stage voice. Compelling and intriguing, especially when combined with the unexpected appearance of the man who possessed it.

She’d never met a professional roofer, but her assumption of what one of them would look like was set by the subcontractors she’d seen when driving by construction sites. Rangy, sun-darkened men in old clothes, with bill caps pulled down low over their stubbled faces. Cigarettes often dangled from their lips.

The man striding down the aisle toward her had the same body type, but there were key differences. He wore a long-sleeved T-shirt with a Celtic knot design printed on the front against a black background. The words “East Coast Riggers Hotlanta” curved along the edge of the design. The shirt was loose over jeans faded to a thin softness that hugged hips, groin and thighs. He was slim without seeming insubstantial. She noted he moved like a rock star, with a hint of a saunter that wasn’t cockiness exactly, but as if he was moving to music in his head. Heavy on the bass, with heart-accelerating drums and the occasional piercing strike of a guitar.

Several rope bracelets were knotted on his right wrist. The tattoo on his forearm, visible because he had the shirt sleeves pushed up, was Marilyn Monroe, restrained in a complicated design of rope that made the most of her voluptuous figure. On the opposite arm was Betty Grable in a different pose, but also an erotic arch, legs tied ankle to thigh, thighs spread and arms behind her, head falling back and full lips parted. Betty wore a dark green dress and Marilyn a gold one, both clinging to curves that were fully articulated.

“The ladies tend to be distracting. A friend was practicing her craft on me Friday night. They’re temporaries. They should wash off when I’m in the mood to give them a good scrubbing, but I haven’t had the heart to do that yet.”

When her gaze slid up to his face, she changed her mind about rock star. He was more like the guy in charge of all the roadies. She could see him in the shadows, absorbing the vibe, his sharp eyes, extensive experience and fully tuned intuition pulling in every detail. He was the guy who elevated the show from merely good to fully awesome.

Desmond_low_res_teaser@0,5xHe had dark brown long hair, loose around his tanned face. The natural curl in it made it thick and touchable. While a woman would despair of that thickness in the Southern humidity, Julie expected he tied it back with insouciant care and let it be a contained chaos of waves.

His face wasn’t classically handsome, nor pretty, but it was charismatic, interesting. He had a scar on his chin, it and his jaw layered by a couple days of dark stubble. A good jaw, strong, not weak. Great cheekbones enhanced it.

When she reached his eyes, she wasn’t sorry to have saved them for last, because she might have been caught there and missed all the rest. The irises were like the bands of a Grand Canyon wall. Shades of brown, gold and rust with a dark ring around the irises. The longer she looked, the more earth colors she saw, shifting with the light as he moved to stand before her.

“Your eyes detract from the ladies,” she said practically. “If someone looks at your face first.”

“Yet you didn’t.”

“You were coming down the aisle. I started with what I saw first.” She considered his work shoes. “You need new laces.” She counted three knottings where the strands had broken.

 “These still work.” His deep set eyes lifted from the laces. As he traveled to her face, she realized he was giving her as studied an appraisal as she had given him.

That was unexpected. An auditioning performer was used to her scrutiny, but when she unconsciously did it to a lay person, usually they became uncomfortable. They’d snap her out of the habit by shifting, or launching into purposed discussion. He did neither. He simply kept looking at her.

Well, she wished him joy in his perusal. The building in which they were standing had at different times been church, private school, homeless shelter and haven for victims of domestic violence. Madison had done a great job renovating the main areas before Julie arrived, sending Julie pictures of the layouts for her step-by-step input. But yesterday Julie had decided two small rooms that had been administrative offices for the school would be perfect as conference rooms for read-throughs, meetings with investors or between production staff.

However, since the rooms hadn’t yet been cleaned out or prepped, she’d been up since four, painting, sanding and hauling trash. She probably smelled like a teenage boys’ basketball team after practice, and looked like she’d been dipped in a glaze of sweat and rolled through dust, cobwebs and God knew what else. Contain your lust or take me now, honey.

Her hair was scraped into a ponytail. She too had naturally curly, thick hair, which turned into a rat’s nest without the aid of more hair products than she had time or patience to pursue.

“Are you scared of spiders?” He asked it in a conversational tone, but she noticed his glance had stilled on her shoulder. It reminded her of how her old cat, Meteor, would look when she saw a cockroach scuttling across the ceiling.

She would not look. She would not. “No. As long as it’s no bigger than a pencil tip, legs and all. If there’s something bigger on me, you’re about to see me freak out.” Okay, she was going to look.

He lifted a hand, drawing her attention, and caught her in his extraordinary gaze again. “Don’t freak,” he said in that same casual voice. “And don’t look away from my face. Even if I’m not looking at you.”


“Why not? It’s a pretty face, isn’t it? Prince Charming material, right?” He stepped closer. “I’m going to let him crawl onto my hand so the two of you can part friends.”

“You have an extraordinary voice.” It was like Heath Ledger’s, she realized. That oddly deep voice coming from a slim body that radiated strength and charisma.

He nodded. “So I’ve been told. I’d ask forgiveness for this, but my purpose is entirely appropriate, I promise.” He pressed the side of his hand against the top of her breast. She was wearing a baggy, soft T-shirt with the logo Small Town Theater, NYC curved over the pocket, along with the suddenly rather disconcerting motto: “Take a bite out of my Apple.”

“This is the most elaborate excuse a guy has ever used to touch my boobs,” she informed him. His eyes were concentrated on his task, his firm lips curved in a far too appealing way. The faint resulting smile was controlled enough to give them a sexy intensity. “If there’s not really a spider on me,” she added, “you better pull a big one out of your ass, or I’m going to sock you in the nuts with a broom handle.”

He stepped back then, showing her a dark brown spider the harrowing size of a silver dollar running over his fingers as he turned them to coordinate with the creature’s alarmed movement. “It’s just a wolf spider. Hand me that cup on the stage, love. Unless it still has coffee in it.”

It didn’t. She’d left it there after she’d finished her morning dose of caffeine. “Just put him on the ground and stomp him.”

“Uh, no. I did say I wanted you two to part as friends.”

 “I’ll feel very friendly about him if he’s dead.” But she handed him the cup, with a PTSD shudder. Bug control was the next place she was calling. She envisioned the audience entranced, silent, absorbed in a dramatic scene on stage…right before the man in row three leaped up shrieking like a girl and flailing, inciting a panic as he tore off his pants to deal with the spider crawling up his leg. He’d of course be a reviewer for the most-read local entertainment blog.

It was ludicrous for her to be squeamish, since she often encountered bugs even in the cleanest old theaters. But to her way of thinking, spiders were a whole different classification from the rest of the bug world.

The roofer dumped the spider in the cup, putting the lid over it, the small sip spout too small for escape. Maybe. “I’ll put him back out when I go.” He extended his other hand. “So I’m Desmond Hayes, your roof guy. Logan said you might want me for some other small jobs as well, since I’m also licensed for electric and plumbing.”

A godsend, though she wasn’t surprised. Anyone Logan sent her way was reliable and skilled.

Thinking about how she could use this guy professionally was being derailed by other ways she wanted to use him, though. Which, nice voice and provocative tattoos aside, was puzzling. He’d simply rested the side of his hand against her chest, providing the spider a ledge. From the warm tingling in her skin, the sensation of heat, it was obvious she’d been without the touch of a lover for too damn long.

“I’m also a rigger,” Desmond said. “A rope guy? I don’t perform, but I mentor other riggers. Logan thought you might want my expertise for tips on staging a rigging scene, since he said you’ll have a couple in your upcoming performance.”

She shoved herself back into her theater role. “It’s a shame you don’t perform. With your voice, you’d do well on stage.” His lean, intriguing body would be easy on the eyes as well, but she didn’t add that.

“I did it a couple times.” He shrugged and hooked a thumb in his jeans pocket, drawing her eye to the undulating Marilyn and the corded forearm she was draped over. “Then someone wanted me to do a suspension under a waterfall. Using blue rope and a bunch of fancy lights. I did it, but it was bullshit and took away from the main point, so I decided that was the end of my stage career. I have a sandwich for lunch. Want to share? I assume it’s past your lunchtime, too.”

She was able to roll with most topic changes, but that one was abrupt. “We can talk about your roof while we eat,” he added.

When she hesitated, he gave her a bland look. “I’ll even share my carrot sticks.”

“Carrot sticks?” She snorted. “Did your Mom make your lunch?”

“I like carrots. Don’t mock a man’s food choices, woman.”

She grinned. She was hungry, and she really didn’t want to waste the time to seek out lunch. “What kind of sandwich?”

Moving to the edge of the stage, he pulled a small pack off his shoulder and set it down. “I have a PB&J with homemade blackberry jelly, a chicken salad, a grilled cheese and one hummus wrap.”

“Just a little light lunch then,” she said dryly. “Or do you usually pack to share?” She swept her gaze over his slim form, head to toe. “If you tell me that’s your normal lunch, I’m going to break you in half like the pretzel stick you are.”

“You can try, love.” He curled his hand around hers and drew her over to the stage, the gesture so smooth and relaxed there was none of the discomfort she should have felt at having a stranger touch her with such familiarity. Though she did experience an unsettling flutter in her stomach as he set his hands to her waist and boosted her onto the stage.

Her mouth dropped open at the sensation of being weightless, as if he’d picked up a helium balloon. His eyes glinted, registering her reaction, and that little flutter expanded into something else as he lingered between her knees, bracing his hands on the stage on either side of her hips. He was decently tall, so despite the height of the stage, his face was still in her line of sight without a significant dip of her chin.

“I’m way stronger than I look,” he said. “Now, which of those sandwiches do you want? Or, since they’re quartered, you can pick and choose.”

He moved to boost himself on the stage next to her. If he’d lingered between her knees, she would have had to decide if it was in the realm of inappropriate, but instead she was left with a nice little surge of adrenaline that came with harmless flirting.  Though harmless might be the wrong word, since Des was obviously very accomplished at it and comfortable with making a woman feel womanly.

Not in a sleazy way, either. The pushy male vibe that said “I want to have sex with you right now,” was easy enough to shove away or ignore. No, his danger was he coaxed that reaction from the female recipient of his charms. She could picture having him right here, right now, on the stage. Or him having her.

She was back to being baffled with herself. Yeah, she might be sex-deprived, but he was skinny and…well, a roofer. One who seemed to think what they were doing here was bullshit. Well, she’d get to the bottom of that idiocy, and his answer would break this hormone-induced spell he was spinning over her.

“Why do you have the attitude about erotic performance art?”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to come off that way.” His flash of chagrin showed he was sincere. “I don’t mind people watching what I do, like in a club or dungeon, but the focus has to be on the connection between me and my sub. I want her to be lost in things, caught up in the power of the restraint, my control of her. Knowing she’s safe and yet subject to my desires in all ways. You put too many props into it, fireworks and crap, you lose that music.”

His gaze slid to hers. And held.

In the BDSM world, there were differences between a top and a Dom. She’d assumed, incorrectly, he was only a top. A top might enjoy taking the upper hand during BDSM play, and get into the mechanics of it, like the rope work. It didn’t mean he was a Dominant, a nature and distinction hard to describe but felt by those who reacted to it. Like her.

The way he held eye contact told her he’d detected the involuntary tells of her body language, the response to his words. That confirmed he was a Dom, as did the shift in his body language, the tone of his voice and the laser look from his eyes.

It flummoxed and intrigued her, because up until recently, her primary experience with a Dom, and therefore her mental picture of one, was Marcus. A nun who’d been in a convent since the age of six and didn’t know what sex was, let alone BDSM, would still recognize Marcus as a Master. His Dom-ness was that out front.

Desmond Hayes, on the other hand… As crazy as it sounded, it was as if he’d sent her an exclusive message. A message delivered to a place inside she’d only recently opened up to find what secrets she’d been keeping from herself, too busy dealing with the regular pitfalls of her unoriginally tragic love life.

Or maybe that was why that door had remained closed. To keep the treasures hidden in those chambers from being spoiled by her other failures. It was best that something special never be taken out and used, if the alternative was it becoming the same ruined, stinking mess as the rest.

Wow. She needed a rope to pull her out of that pig wallow of self-pity. Fortunately, she was sitting next to a rigger. She hid a smile as she tuned back in to the feast he’d been laying out before her.

The sandwiches, all quartered, sat on neatly unwrapped squares of waxed paper. A generous tub of carrot sticks was open next to them with a squat jar of peanut butter. He was loosening the tops on two bottles of water and placing one by her.

“Hummus, chicken salad, PB&J and grilled cheese.” He pointed to each. “Help yourself.” Pulling a small palm-sized device like a stopwatch out of the pack, he fitted it with a slim needle and did a quick stick of his finger, glancing at the screen. Appearing satisfied with the number, he detached the sticker, put it in a container and tucked those things back into the pack.

She had Type II diabetic friends who checked their blood sugar in such a matter-of-fact way before meals.  Seeing him do it was another surprise, since most of her friends who were Type II had weight problems and an aversion to strenuous exercise, but she expected every condition had exceptions.

The efficient, swift way he did it and put it away again without comment told her it was routine enough that he barely thought about doing it in front of a stranger. But his lack of comment also suggested he wasn’t inviting questions. Fair enough. A ten minute acquaintance hardly opened the door to personal health inquiries, so she sat on her natural curiosity. For now.

As she picked up a square of the chicken salad sandwich, she noticed he went for the PB&J first. Biting into her sandwich, she was surprised at the taste and freshness. “This is excellent. What deli did you get this from? I’m still new in town. I’ll have to stock up.”

“I made it. I make most my food from scratch. Ingredients come from the farmers’ market near me.” He bit into a carrot stick and gestured at her with the other half, his heels drumming lightly against the stage front as he shifted. “If you’re not into cooking, there are ladies who bring home cooked meals for sale. You can stock up and reheat them. They have the market once a week during the seasonal months. I’ll take you to it sometime if you like and introduce you to the folks who bring the best stuff.”

“Oh. Well…hmm.”

“We won’t call it a date. Just being neighborly, since you said you’re new in town.” He winked. “If we end up getting naked after, that’ll be because of my irresistible charisma. Like dinner and sex, only we’ll do farmers’ market and sex.”

She laughed and he grinned. He leaned in and touched the corner of her mouth with his thumb, taking off a bit of the chicken salad. She reached self-consciously for her napkin, but noticed he put the tiny piece of salad to his lips, licking it away, which made her mouth tingle as if he’d done it to hers. Suddenly she remembered that weeks-ago fantasy of rubbing chocolate off her lover’s lips, only to have him grasp her wrist and taste it from her fingertips himself.

“I’d love to see you in my rope and nothing else,” he said thoughtfully. “Have you done any scening in the local group yet? Or did you have a regular Dom or hangout in New York? Logan said you’d come from there. What’s your situation?”

She’d blanched at the forwardness of the first statement, but as he continued, she put it together. “Oh no. I’m just a theater manager. I’m just… I don’t… I mean, I’m flattered, but I haven’t…” She stopped and shot him a narrow look. “You’re laughing at me.”

“No. I’m pleased with you. You’re flustered. Which heightens my interest in ways you can’t even imagine.”  He’d drawn up one knee and had his work shoe propped on the edge of the stage, balancing that way with his elbow on his knee as he chewed his sandwich and studied her. Thanks to the short sleeves of the T-shirt, she noticed he had well-developed biceps.

She should be holding her own better in this conversation, using amusement and her tart tongue to put him in his place. Except he didn’t seem to be joking, just considering his own reaction to her. He acted like someone who spent a good amount of time in his own head, which she supposed he probably did as a roofer. However, he didn’t seem introverted, quite comfortable in the company of a stranger.

“I don’t pigeon hole people to get them to fit my fantasies,” he said. “But I’m getting the vibe that you are interested in all of this. Personally. Yet you haven’t explored it a whole lot, have you?”

No, she hadn’t. Having Marcus and Thomas show her around the scene in New York hadn’t appealed to her. Ironic, since one long ago significant event with them had been the trigger to her dormant interests, but she’d felt self-conscious pursuing it further in their company. She’d done a lot of online looking, though. Followed by and integrated with some serious fantasizing, which she’d assumed ever since would be like most of her relationships: better as vibrator material than reality.

After the initial meetings with the cast members, Julie had done more specific Internet research on what she’d learned from them. Suspension, fire, liquid nitrogen, whips, knives, rope. Role play—everything from interrogation and Victorian drawing room scenes, to puppy and pony play. It kicked off her own personal and professional imaginings, though she kept the former firmly channeled into the latter.

“Logan’s great at mentoring people who are curious,” Desmond suggested. “If it’s easier for you to take those first steps by calling it work, he’d do it under the guise of supporting what you’re doing here.”

“Don’t do that.” Her tone sharpened. “Passive aggressive jabs annoy me.”

The genuine surprise in his face reassured and shamed her at once. “Easy, New York,” he said. “It wasn’t a judgment. Plenty of people interested in this like to approach it in a more detached way at first. It’s a smart way of playing it safe, keeping it a little arm’s length. Only an idiot jumps into the deep end without being able to swim. Or even knowing if they’re going to like swimming.”

“Yeah. True. Sorry. Weird trigger.”

He picked up the tub and offered her some carrot sticks, taking a handful himself. “Let me guess. You had a boyfriend who liked to do that patronizing, ‘I’m only telling you this for your own good, even though it suits my purpose to emotionally manipulate you the way I want you to be’ thing. In the meantime, he made you feel like what wasn’t working for your relationship was all your fault.”

His wry humor made it difficult to hold onto offense at being so accurately read. She cocked her head, more sure of her footing, especially when he smiled at her. He had one of those smiles that went deep into his eyes and made a woman feel special. Danger, Will Robinson.

“So are you the reformed asshole who did the manipulating, or the recipient of the female version of it?” she asked. “Is that how you recognize the signs?”

“If I tell you that, I’ll ruin the fog of sexual mystery that clings to me.”

“I think you’re safe. It’s the carrot sticks that are keeping me enthralled.” She smiled and his own broadened.

At a buzz, she looked for her phone, but he’d already shifted onto one hip and reached behind him to withdraw his own.

“Hold on, my butt’s vibrating.” He glanced at the message and grimaced. “Well, shit. Gotta get back to another job.” He slid off the stage to face her. “I did go up on the roof before I came in. I can do you a decent patch job that will buy you another year until you get the theater up and earning some income. After that, Madison’ll want to do the full replacement it needed five years ago.”

He lifted his gaze to the ceiling. “You’ve had leaks in here during the recent rains, haven’t you?”

“Yes. And two or three in the back rooms.”

He nodded, unsurprised. “You’ll want that patch job before we have any hard summer showers. I can do it next week, as long as weather cooperates. Sound good?”

He fished out a card and handed it over, his fingers brushing hers. His hands were callused, knuckles chapped and nails painfully short, cuticles predictably ragged. A working man’s hands, the skin brown as oak bark. She found herself wanting to hold onto one of them, turn it over and explore his fingers, the lines on his palms. He smelled like male sweat and cinnamon gum, since he’d taken out a piece and was chewing it. He offered her a piece, which she took for later.

“The patch job will cost about a thousand,” he added. “Logan’s done some work for me, so I can cut Madison a discount and drop that amount off the full price when it’s time to do the replacement. I’m going to tell her all that, but I figure she’ll be asking you what you think.”

Madison would be pleased to get the break. A stage and auditorium had already been part of the building, a big selling point when Madison was considering her options. The private school had built it for student performances. But it had no backstage, so a wall had to be removed and the classrooms behind the auditorium renovated to become the backstage area. Other rooms had been converted into a dressing area and storage. The auditorium had stepped seating in a crescent around the stage, and they expanded that, knocking out additional walls so it could now seat a highly optimistic four hundred. Until the theater provided itself with ticket sales, further major expenses were out of the question.

Des had packed up the remaining sandwiches as he spoke, though he left one block of wax paper holding the remaining square of the chicken salad sandwich and two squares of PB&J, as well as three carrot sticks. “You kept looking at the PB&J,” he said with a wink, “so I figured you might want those two for dessert.”

The PB&J was what she’d really wanted to eat, but had thought she might look childish for liking it.

“Finish the chicken salad and carrots before dessert,” he said, as if reading her mind. “Be a good girl.”

She stuck her tongue out at him and he tsked. Shouldering his pack, he offered his hand. “It’ll be a pleasure working with you, Miss Ramirez.”

“Julie is fine.”

“Yes, she is. In every way.” His exaggerated ogle had her stifling a laugh, unsuccessfully.

“You’re a terrible flirt.”

“Actually, I’m very good at it. Your eyes are dancing, you’re smiling and you look less tired and stressed now.” His smile morphed into something else. “Seriously, don’t hesitate to give me a call about the rigging. I’m sure Logan will have recommended good people for your cast members, but there are a lot of good guys out there who dabble in rope, and don’t get enough training before taking it to more advanced levels. It’s important to me that people do what I do safely.”

Now his expression was as uncompromising as a police officer, which gave her all sorts of distracting fantasies. He was a fascinating mix. She’d taken his hand, and he was still holding it in a firm grip. As she met his penetrating look, she let the warmth that his hand spread through her take her a step away from sanity. “I’ve researched some of it online,” she said with forced casualness, “but I don’t have a real grasp of what it’s like. From the inside, so to speak. Would you be willing to show me what you do? Using me as a subject, I mean?”

She was astounded she’d said such a thing. Maybe it was being immersed in this environment that had propelled her to a tentative readiness to dip her toe into a submissive experience. Or maybe it was Des. He was the first Dom she’d met, in person or online, who’d made her feel she could take that step.

Yes, she’d met him only a few moments ago, so it should be ludicrous, but she didn’t feel that way toward the other performers, with whom she’d been working for several weeks now. It wasn’t that they gave her the creeps. Far from it. They’d been recommended by Logan and Madison, and, as Des had said, their choices emitted nothing but good vibes. A couple weren’t as experienced as the others, but they still had the right stuff for what they needed in this production.

Beginning and end of story, she felt like she could trust Des. His personality complemented hers, and she could double check things with Logan and back out if she was wrong. But she was already pretty certain Des was a pro at what he did. She was used to being around performers, and knew the real deal when she met them. He exuded a quiet confidence in his abilities. The overabundance of honest charm also didn’t hurt.

Since he wasn’t going to be in the production, there was no real conflict of interest. It also didn’t have to be personal. A lot of people did the Dom/sub stuff as friends or BDSM club arrangements, sans the minefields that came with a relationship. That was a big thumbs-up for her. Exploring it from that safe paradigm would make it all the more fun for her. Right?

As he’d pointed out, such explorations would increase her understanding for the productions. Despite her defensiveness, he was correct. Keeping it professionally motivated would allow her to explore her personal interests in a safe way.

Though admittedly, his reaction to her request made those professional walls seem a little thin. His hand held hers with more than a hint of the strength he’d warned her about. It was evidence of a man’s interest and desire, and she was far from immune to it.

When he stepped closer, his abdomen brushed her kneecaps where she sat on the stage. She had to fight a ridiculously powerful compulsion to spread her knees and invite him closer. He gave her another of those sweeping glances that made her aware of every curve she had.

“Use you as my subject to teach you about rigging?” He repeated her question. “I’d say that’s a meeting I won’t miss.”

She covered her unsettled response with a sniff. “You really are a flirt.”

“No, I’m not.” He braced his free hand on the stage, the heel of his palm brushing the outside of her thigh. Betty’s lush body, her helpless tied state, the pleasure in her eyes and parted lips, were distracting for more empathetic reasons now.

Though his jaw and mouth were relaxed, friendly and non-intimidating, that impression vanished when she met his eyes. “I just know what I like when I see it,” he said. “I already like you. Not only because you’re willing to let me tie you up, though I admit that just vaulted you from Miss America to Miss Universe.”

She snorted. “They’re far under my weight class.”

His smile disappeared, and he stepped closer, somehow parting her knees and standing between them. Or had they simply given way before his obvious intent? Rough palms curved over her thighs. She’d been a New Yorker for most her life. People did not get up in her face like this. She’d shove them back in a heartbeat, tell them to piss off, demand what the fuck or…something.

Maybe it was because she was sitting on the stage, and she had always experienced a shift there, as if she’d stepped into a world where the dramatic and unexpected were more acceptable. She inhabited a world of quirky people who could be infected with that same virus when they were close to a stage. Things that would seem over the top and out of place outside the theater were just the standard within it.

Or maybe there was an entirely different reason he’d caught her off guard.

Her pulse thudded against her throat as his gaze held hers. If she’d doubted the Dom thing before, she didn’t now. His captivating voice was a low croon, close to a growl, a thrumming note that her body answered with a hard quiver, coming from those chambers  that were suddenly wide open to him.

“Sometimes women get self-conscious about the way their bodies look when they’re tied up,” he said in a deceptively conversational way. “Like when I tie an ankle to a thigh, and they think the thigh looks too spread out, or the flesh of their stomach is squeezed between two wraps.”

His hands slid along her thighs, back toward her knees, a short, intimate stroke. “The things I could do with these thighs,” he murmured. He lifted his gaze to hers, and she discovered his eyes could look like a new penny caught in the rain. “When we first meet one another, we’re shells. The shell might be pretty, but what I learn about you when I bind you will take me to what’s deep beneath that. I suspect your eyes will look like heated molasses when you’re aroused.”

His gaze slid down. “Your nice breasts would become a pillow, where I’d rest my head and listen to your heartbeat, because when I tie you up, your submissive nature will rise. You’ll want to give me that gift, lie still to serve my needs and desires, because I think your instinct is toward care and compassion, serving a Master’s needs beyond his cock or orgasm.”

His gaze slid back up. “When I uncover that instinct, that’s when the shell completely vanishes and I’ll know just how beautiful you are.”

“You don’t really see someone until you see their soul,” she said, surprised she could even form words, let alone try to sound like she was reacting to his words as if he were giving her an instructional lecture, not a personal mandate.

“Exactly. That matters way more than what I see in a two-dimensional way. It’s the best way for you to get to know me better, too.” He eased back, though his hand whispered along her knee, a hint of how he could touch her. Maybe would touch her. “Like just now. When I was talking about tying you in rope, and things were all quiet and intense, were you seeing the skinny guy with questionable taste in second hand clothes, or did you feel the touch of a broad-shouldered god hung like a moose?”

She burst out laughing, as she was sure he’d intended, for his eyes sparkled with humor. The laughter brought a rush of warmth, that sense of ease again, which had a peculiar reaction with things that weren’t at ease at all, but on full, anticipatory alert around him. “Maybe something in between. Damn, you’re good.”

“I’m good because I’m honest.” She saw that flash of sincerity, the hint of dead seriousness, the gleam in his eyes that said he would do all of that and more to her if she opened the door. What’s more, he’d proven he could do it in less than a blink. The realization stole her smile and her breath at once, leaving her reeling.

“You have my contact info,” he said, shouldering his pack again. “Ball’s in your court, Julie. But I’ll be ready to hold onto it when you send it back. All right?”

The look he had upon her now expected—maybe demanded—an answer.

Though an innate part of him, Marcus’s Dom qualities always had a deliberate, calculated quality to them that was overwhelming. In contrast, this seemed second nature to Desmond Hayes, something he wasn’t conscious he was doing. Remarkably, it made him even more potent to her.

“All right,” she said. Was her voice breathless?

As he nodded and turned away, she had a feeling he’d registered it. The same way she’d recognized the answering heat in his eyes.

Good Lord, who was this guy?