Lee Sullivan has really got her life together as the mayor’s publicity chief and the respected Domme, Mistress Star. She doesn’t foresee any bumps in her life until she meets Branch Colby, self-made millionaire and a man who pushes her buttons. She has no idea that he is a full-out Dom who sees women as a challenge and this one more than most.
When Branch’s friend Max bets him he cannot get Lee to submit to him, Branch agrees to a high-stakes wager. The problem is he never expected to fall for her or what the consequences would be when she learned the details of the bet. He has to find a way to repair the situation and she has to decide whether giving her heart is worth the risk.
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Lee Sullivan detached herself from the group with whom she’d been chatting and moved with ease through the large gathering of people. The annual Colby, Inc. company picnic was in full swing. It was being held, as always, on corporate property, five prime acres north of the San Antonio city limits. Among other things, the site boasted a jogging track, a baseball diamond, and a park-like area with plenty of large oak trees, as well as an abundance of picnic tables and benches for outdoor lunches. Five years running, Colby, Inc. had won the award for best company to work for from the State of Texas.
As the mayor’s chief public relations officer, she had a lot of high-profile events on her calendar, but the annual Colby, Inc. picnic had never been one of them. Until now. The mayor was angling for a major gift from the company to restore a park and playground.
“I need you to put in an appearance.” Mayor Vincent had been firm about it. “I can’t go because a major conflict in my schedule popped up literally overnight. I know I promised you a free weekend, but the possibility of a major grant from Colby, Inc. is too big to turn down.” He shook his head. “I need you to represent me. You’ve done it before. You’re good at it.”
“I understand.” And she did. All too well. Subbing for His Honor was becoming more and more a regular thing.
“Take Clay with you,” he’d insisted. “Enjoy yourself.”
Spending a couple of hours with Clay Porter, the city attorney, wouldn’t be too bad. He was an acceptable escort, although not quite her type. She liked the challenge of the alpha male with the hidden submissive side. She had a feeling Clay would be no challenge at all. They were friends, as well, and often caught a late dinner or lunch together.
Oh, well, she’d told herself. What’s a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, anyway?
At the center of a group gathered at one of the food stations was the poster boy for it all, Branch Colby, as relaxed as if he was sitting in his own den. His face was very familiar to her. She’d seen plenty of him in newspaper and magazine shots. On television. At parties for five hundred of his most intimate friends, usually with some over-the-top gorgeous female hanging on his arm. Seldom the same female twice. But all of his dates wore the same expression: look who I’m with tonight.
Today, however, was the first time she’d been close to him in an informal setting. In the flesh, so to speak. She had to admit it was awesome flesh. A soft-collared shirt embroidered with his company logo paired with what she was sure were very expensive jeans barely disguised the leashed power of the tall, well-muscled, well-tanned body. Thick brown hair shot with streaks of gold was razor-cut in short layers to make it lie smooth on his head and flat against his nape. His long legs looked as if they could run a marathon without halting.
He stood in a relaxed, loose-limbed pose, hands in his pockets, but, even in such a casual posture, everything about him said command. Authority. I’m in charge, his body language shouted. Definitely a man comfortable in his own skin, he looked like nothing less than a jungle predator waiting to pounce on its prey. Confident. Self-assured.
He’d have to be, she thought, to own a company bearing just his name, nothing else to even identify the kind of business it was.
She’d read in Texas Monthly that he got his start working as a journeyman carpenter in construction, swinging a hammer and wielding a saw. He was a long way from his humble beginnings now, heading his own international land development firm. Every bit of what he had was built from that raw start, and he’d done it with sweat and savvy.
She watched the female guests, the married ones as well as the single, eye him with sexual avarice plain on their faces. Any one of them would give it all up for him if he crooked a finger, but she didn’t see that as his style. Branch Colby was the real thing. No doubt about it.
She knew plenty of men like him. In fact, he reminded her of many of her favorite submissives, men who held positions of authority. In the seclusion of Infinity, the private dungeon where she had a membership, she had brought many of them to their knees, quite literally. In the club, she was Mistress Star, a much sought-after Domme. These men bowed to her wishes without hesitation, aroused by the power shift and the excitement of giving over control to her. Of serving her.
She often caught some of these men on television or the news blogs, dressed in their custom suits and looking like the forceful titans they were. She’d smile, remembering them naked before her as they gave her pleasure, much as she gave it to them. Plenty of men at this picnic thought they were top of the heap—like Branch Colby. Some of them had even served as her sub at Infinity. There was nothing better than bringing out the inner sub in a powerful man, making him hers for one hour or one evening then watching him don his cloak of power as he stepped out of the club. Would Branch Colby ever agree to submit to her? She snorted. The entire polar ice cap would melt first.
Once someone had asked her if she worried that the truth about her sexual life would come out and affect her position with the mayor. She’d just grinned and shaken her head, knowing the men she played with would have to give up secrets of their own if they gave up hers.
If anything bothered her at all—and then only in the rare dark moments at night—it was the fact the excess of variety was beginning to wear thin. For the first time in her life, she wondered what it would be like to have a permanent situation, to bond with someone and create a life together. She had seen many others do it, but, until lately, she hadn’t thought about it for herself.
Lee allowed herself a tiny smile as she watched her host move with ease on to another group, different people, wearing his charm like a second skin. Sexual magnetism emanated from him like radio waves crackling in the air. It wasn’t just his good looks or the way he carried himself. It was the whole package, made even more tempting because he wasn’t throwing his power around the way some men did.
She worked the crowd as she’d learned to do, effortlessly, seamlessly, every point of contact casual and with ease, making sure to speak to the key people in attendance and pass along the mayor’s greetings. Thanking his political supporters and giving them a few extra moments of her attention. Watching for her opportunity to introduce herself to Branch and tell him how sorry Mayor Vincent was he had to miss the picnic. No reporters, thank the lord. Branch had made it a point when he started these picnics that they not be fodder for reporters. This was a private affair in all aspects, and he had the security force in place to back up his mandate.
When she had completed her circuit of required contacts, she left Clay in an intense discussion with a member of the city council and wandered off past the fringes of the crowd. Time to give herself a little breathing room. She could watch her host from afar, admiring the man’s air of absolute command. Did he ever let go of that tight control? A stray thought crept into her brain, and she wondered how he’d react to the demands of a Domme. Unbidden, an image flashed in her mind of the man naked and oiled and stretched out on a St. Andrew’s cross, waiting for her attention.
Feeling a hot flush creeping up her cheeks, she fetched a bottle of water from one of the bars set up at the perimeter and carried it to a nearby picnic table. As she lifted the bottle to her lips, she sensed a presence behind her.
“I must be doing something wrong. You can’t be enjoying yourself too much if you’re hiding over here under a tree all alone.”
And there he was, as if her thoughts had conjured him up. His voice was like warm syrup, covering her with a thick layer of heat, and an unexpected tremor skittered over her spine. She looked up into eyes, so dark they were almost black, framed by the kind of thick lashes women would kill for. Tiny lines bracketed his mouth and eyes in a face the word rugged did scant justice to, all painted with a deep tan speaking of hours spent outdoors. She knew he spent as little time in his office as possible, insisting that, while he had a business, he was not a businessman. He ran the corporation from a high-end laptop and cell phone, preferring instead to visit projects and indulge in outdoor activities. It was apparent it worked, judging by his rating in Forbes.
She pulled out her political voice, friendly but cool.
“On the contrary, I’m doing fine. More than fine.”
This was not a man you gave an opening to. She controlled the urge to check the clips holding her hair away from her face and smooth down her tailored blouse and thin cotton slacks. It wouldn’t do to let this man think she had a personal interest in his opinion of her. She held out her hand.
“Lee Sullivan. I don’t believe we’ve met before.”
“I know I’d remember it if we had. Besides, I don’t think the mayor’s spin doctor needs an introduction.”
Tiny lines crinkled at his eyes as his mouth curved in that high-octane smile and his large hand enfolded her smaller one.
The contact generated unexpected electricity. With practiced smoothness, she slipped her hand from his.
“And I think it would be hard not to know who you are, either, Mr. Colby.”
“The cost of doing business, but it’s Branch,” he replied. “Please.” One eyebrow lifted. “What’s Lee short for?”
“Lee.” She swallowed a smile. “What’s Branch short for?”
He laughed. “Point to you.”
“I didn’t know we were keeping score.” She looked up at him, into those dark eyes. “I should think you’d have guests a lot more important than me to spend your time with.”
“You know, the funny thing is, they all seem to be doing fine without me.” He swung in a lazy movement onto the bench opposite her, his posture relaxed. “I thought I’d come over and introduce myself.”
Lee looked around to see if Clay was anywhere nearby.
“Your date is in earnest discussion with a member of the city council,” he told her. “I wouldn’t have thought Clay Porter was your type.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “I didn’t know I had a type. What would that be?”
He shrugged. “Forceful. Commanding. In charge.”
Maybe on the outside, like many of her subs who held positions of power. Yes, she liked a man who had great inner strength and power, but one who gave it up willingly in the dungeon or the bedroom. She’d come to realize part of the attraction was the contrast. She would never be happy with a man who was a submissive in all areas of his life.
“Clay is a very interesting person to be with,” she told him. “We enjoy each other’s company.”
“You sound like you’re describing an evening with my mother.”
“Point to you,” she said.
“This is the first one of these you’ve attended.” He made it a statement, not a question.
She widened her eyes a fraction. “You can remember who attended each one with this mob scene?”
He winked. “Memory for people is part of my stock in trade. So what brought you today?’
“The mayor had an engagement he couldn’t change, so we hoped you’d think I was an acceptable substitute.”
“In that case, shouldn’t you have found an opportunity to drag me aside some time during the day?” His dark eyes were unreadable. “Talk to me about the project he wants me to fund?
Don’t you want to tell me how important it is? What a great thing I’d be doing?”
She shrugged. “Not today. This is a social occasion. If I wanted to make a pitch, I’d be more apt to make an appointment with you to discuss it. Besides, it’s obvious you know how important it is. ”
“Would we be working together on this project going forward?” he asked, those eyes still locked onto her like twin lasers.
Her pulse ratcheted up a notch, beating hard between her thighs, and heat flashed through her body. She lifted the water bottle and took a long swallow from it, hoping to cool her blood. She needed to be cool with this man, no doubt about it. He wasn’t only about control. He’d invented it. She could imagine the battle their dominant wills would engage in.
Everything about Branch Colby screamed danger, but damn! The light brush of his hand against her sent shivers skittering along her spine and her heart rate escalating. If she could find a way to loosen that control, to have him on his knees, not just wanting her domination but craving it.
She had plenty of other powerful men to play with—except that wasn’t quite what she wanted. Branch Colby would be a real challenge, although taking that challenge might be like walking into a fire.
She stared back at him, never breaking eye contact. She was good at that.
“Then you’re planning to fund it? The mayor and the city council will be very happy.”
Her boss would be doing the happy dance around his office.
“I’m on the verge of being persuaded.” He stroked the tip of one finger over the back of her hand, nothing more than a quick touch.
Lee took her cell phone from her pants pocket and pulled up her reminder list. “Great. Let me arrange a meeting with His Honor to—”
“No.” He touched her hand again, pressing it down to the table. “I want to discuss it with you.”
Her eyes widened. “Me?” Then she laughed. “That’s very flattering, but I’m not sure my boss would appreciate being left out of this.”
“He won’t be. You’ll report everything back to him. I’m sure you’re up to speed on the details?”
More than she wanted to be. She’d read the damn proposal so much she had it memorized so she could brief the press and answer questions every time the topic came up. She was also very aware that Avery Vincent, good as he was at his job, had a raging need to be front and center on everything. Only a critical policy meeting had kept him from this picnic today, a venue where he would have taken every advantage to make himself known. Preened, if she was truthful.
His voice shook her out of her mental wanderings.
“What will it be, Miss Public Relations?”
She frowned. “Are you making fun of me?”
“Not at all. I’m dead serious.” His hand still rested over hers, pressing down on the cell.
She eased her hand away. No touching, she told herself. A tactile connection seemed to run between his fingers and her brain, and she didn’t need that nude vision of him blasting back into her mind again.
“I’ll have to clear it with the mayor.”
Branch nodded. “Of course.” He took her cell phone from her and programmed in a number. “When you get it cleared, give me a call. We’ll set up a time.”
He rose, took a long, hard look at her as if he could see clear inside her, then ambled away. In a moment, he had eased himself into a group of people who were only too glad to be gabbing with the Branch Colby.
Lee sat where she was, immobilized. What had happened here? They had introduced themselves and had a business conversation. Right? Yet the grass beneath her feet felt as if it had turned into quicksand.
* * * * *
Branch handed a drink to the man standing near him. Maximiliano “Max” Ferlita, his longtime best friend and attorney lowered himself into one of the deep armchairs in Branch’s big office and stretched out his feet to rest on the ottoman. All the guests had left, and now the cleanup crew was doing its thing. Branch could have left, but he wasn’t yet ready to head back to his house, which had for some strange reason become too large for him.
“Good turnout today,” Max mused, sipping at the aged bourbon in his glass.
Branch nodded. “This is one of the few events I host I actually enjoy.” He dropped into an armchair at an angle to Max’s and took a sip of his own drink. “Although sometimes I wonder what it would be like to go to a party where no one knew who I was.”
“Good luck with that. I’m not sure there’s a place like that anymore.” Max laughed. ”You ever think about what it was like in the beginning for us?”
“You mean back when we scraped to have a nickel between us and had to scrape for everything?”
Max nodded. “Yeah. Back then. You were working construction, sweating your ass off in the summer and freezing it in the winter.”
“And you”—Branch pointed at him—“were hacking it at a call center during the day and going to law school at night. How much fun was that?”
“About as much fun as what you were doing.” Max studied him. “Did you ever, even for a minute, think we’d be where we are today?”
Branch took a long swallow of his drink and thought about what Max said. “No. Well, yeah. Maybe. When I was so dog tired I couldn’t lift my arms and wondered why I wanted to get up and go to work the next day.”
“Yeah, same for me.” He grinned. “Then that construction company you were working for went bust and we had a chance to pick it up for pennies.”
Max laughed. “That was all we had. I still don’t know how we pulled it off.”
“And yet here we are today, with Colby, Inc. and Ferlita Associates. A mega corporation and an international law firm. Two punks off the streets.”
Max sobered. “I don’t think I can thank you quite enough for giving me a piece of Colby, Inc.”
“In the beginning, it was a piece of nothing,” Branch recalled. “We’ve been lucky. Besides, you earn it every day keeping my ass legal and putting up barricades against the bloodsuckers.”
They raised their glasses in a silent toast and then drank.
“So.” Max nodded at him over his drink. “I saw the mayor’s publicity flack here today. His honor too tied up to make it?”
“I guarantee you, whatever conflict Vincent had he couldn’t get out of. He never misses a chance to suck my dick.”
“Personally, I’d rather have her doing it. Although that isn’t quite her style.”
Branch lifted an eyebrow. He had gotten no vibes from Lee Sullivan that she preferred women to men, and picking up vibes was something that was a talent of his..
“Are you telling me she bats for the other team?”
Max burst out laughing. “Far from it. You just hang out in the wrong places.”
Now Branch was getting irritated. “Do you want to tell me what the hell you’re talking about?”
“I guess you spend too much of your playtime at Ultra. Or your own bedroom.” Max laughed again, as if enjoying some kind of secret joke. “Unlike me. I like variety.”
“So you’ve visited Infinity. So what?”
Yeah, so what? One of the many things binding their friendship so tight was the fact that, after a friend had taken them to a public dungeon in their twenties, they had both realized they had strong Dom tendencies they needed to pursue. They soon found, if they wanted to play, they had to take instruction, and what an experience that had been.
“Enough of this shit.” Branch leaned forward. “Whatever’s on your mind, spit it out.”
“You know how Ultra has its own celebrities, Doms and Dommes who everyone wants time with? Oh, wait.” He snapped his fingers. “Aren’t you one of them? Right! Master B. The subs line up for an hour of your time.”
“You are pissing me off here, Max. What does this have to do with Lee Sullivan?”
“Infinity’s got its own celebrities, too, which you’d know if you ever got a guest pass like I did.”
“And?” Branch made a “come on” motion with his fingers.
“And I discovered when I visited there that the most in-demand Domme is Mistress Star.” Max leaned forward, watching his friend with an intent stare. “Who in real life is known as Lee Sullivan.”
Branch felt as if someone had taken a cattle prod to his balls. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Not a bit.” It was obvious Max was enjoying the reaction. He got up and went to the bar to refresh his drink. “I was given to understand that male submissives sign up well in advance to spend time with her.”
Branch frowned. “Was she there the night you were? Did she see you?”
“No.” Max shook his head. “I was in the lounge, in a corner with some friends, when she came in before a session.” He grinned. “She had a damn good-looking sub waiting for her. Anyway, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t mistaken, so I asked the friend I was with.”
“If it was her, you mean?”
“Uh huh. Because my friend knew I’d keep my mouth shut. Infinity is no different than Ultra. No one ever discusses anything outside those walls. Not who they saw or who did what with whom. You know very well there are people who live the lifestyle who make it known to anyone who asks them. Many of the couples even socialize outside the club, but you know the unwritten rule—what happens at the club stays at the club.”
“I suppose it wouldn’t do me any good to ask you to get me some details on her.”
Max shook his head. “You know better than that.”
“Damn.” Branch took another swallow of his drink. “I wonder if I should ask for a reciprocity pass for a couple of weeks.”
“Does that mean you’re going after her? Hell, Branch, you can have your pick of any woman you want.”
He lifted a shoulder. “It’s the ones who aren’t so ripe for the plucking that appeal to me.”
He sat back in his chair and idly shook his glass so the ice cubes tinkled. Lee Sullivan was a Domme? His cock hardened, and a slow ache generated in his balls. All kinds of images swirled in his mind. Lee in a corset, thigh-high boots with tall, skinny heels, hair a blonde cloud around her head, her lips painted a ruby red, and in her hand a coiled whip. Or handcuffs. Or a cock ring. Or—
He gave himself a mental shake. She didn’t fit on his preferred menu, for sure. He liked his women spicy and inventive, but there was never any question about who was in control. It was always him. One hundred percent. As he thought about it, though, he felt a smile tease at his mouth. What a challenge it would be to bend her to his will. To make her submit. To—
“Whatever you’re thinking about,” Max said, sitting down again, “you can forget it. Not happening, I can promise you that.”
“Everyone has a trigger,” Branch pointed out. “You have to find it. That’s all.” He stared at his friend. “Out of curiosity, have you ever, you know….”
“Played with Mistress Star?” Max grinned at him. “I’m tempted to say yes just to yank your chain, but no. Submission isn’t my style. Any more than it’s yours, if I may say so.”
“But I’ll bet I can make it hers, though.” Anticipation made his cock stir.
“It will never happen. No way.” Max shook his head. “No. Fucking. Way.”
“Yes, way. Are you saying I’m not up to the challenge?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact, I am. No one is. She’s a legend at Infinity.”
“You want to make that bet official?” Branch asked.
Max frowned. “What did you have in mind?”
“One night. That’s it. I get her to willingly submit to me for one night, and I win. Is it a bet?”
Max looked at him for a long time. “You know, one of these days one of your bets is going to get you into trouble.”
Branch leaned back in his chair and eyed his friend. “You think so? I don’t. Adds a little spice to my life.”
Max frowned. “Do you hear yourself? Spice in your life? Betting on something like this? When did you get so jaded? Don’t you think it’s time to settle down? We aren’t kids anymore, you know.”
“You first,” Branch told him.
Max gave him a quizzical look. “Don’t you ever get tired of all the phonies hanging on your arm? Don’t you ever want something a lot more?”
“I gave up expecting that a long time ago.” He couldn’t conceal the bitterness creeping into his voice. He knew without a doubt why the women he dated spent time with him. They used each other—he used them for sex and they used him for the high public profile that went along with being his companion. Not an honest emotion between them.
“Maybe that’s what makes me different than you. I still think it’s out there. I look for the connection, and you look for the challenge.”
“Maybe that’s what turns me on.”
And that’s the way Branch liked it. Neat and tidy, no messy emotions.
He hated to think Max was right. Jaded? Was he really? It was difficult to admit to himself Max might be right. And he hated to think he was turning into an object of criticism for his friend.
He didn’t want to admit it, but Max’s words hit a little too close to home. He’d spent all these years working his ass off and had built a business that had garnered him an international reputation. He was cautious in his relationships, aware his money and his power were very appealing to so many women. He’d learned long ago to guard his emotions to the point where now he wondered if he was meant to be single forever. Of late, however, he’d realized something vital was missing from his life. Something not even Ultra seemed to fill.
He wished he knew what.
He took another slug of his drink and tamped down his unpleasant thoughts.
“I’m fine, Max. Since when do you object to our little wagers, anyway?”
Max shrugged. “Maybe since I took a look at us and wondered if we’ve turned into overgrown frat boys. We both turned forty not too long ago. One of these days you’ll meet a woman who pushes all your buttons. Then your little habit—okay, our little habit—is going to come back and haunt you.”
For a moment, he was tempted to tell Max to forget the whole thing, but he liked a challenge. And Lee Sullivan, so cool, so self-possessed, impressed him as just that.
“I think you’re depressing me,” he said. “Are you in or not?”
Max hesitated a moment then nodded. “In, but let’s make it for something worthwhile because I’ll enjoy scoring it off you.”
Branch nodded. “You name it, then.”
Max studied his ice cubes for a moment. “Okay. A hundred grand. Let’s make it payable to the charity of the winner’s choice. I’ll feel better about it.”
Branch thought for a moment. The money wasn’t a lot to either of them, not these days. And they could do something worthwhile with it, so a bonus.
“We need a time limit, though,” Max told him. “I don’t plan to let you drag this out forever.”
“Time limit.” Branch nodded. “Fine. One month.”
“You may need more than that,” Max cautioned. “This is not going to be as easy as you think.”
“Is that so? How about doubling down if I do it in less?” Branch teased.
“God, you are a cocky bastard. Okay, less than a month and we double down.” Max chuckled. “I’ll give you this. You’ve got balls if you think you can get Mistress Star on her knees inside of one month. I’ll take that bet.” He rubbed his hands. “And start looking to see where I think the money will do the most good.”
Branch slugged down the rest of his drink. If Lee Sullivan didn’t call him by Tuesday, he’d contact her. He planned to come out on top here. In more than one way.
Only why did he all of a sudden feel as if he might be making a huge mistake here?