Fetish Queen, Part One: Reborn
Lille sat on the bumper of the cream-colored Mercedes convertible that Paul had bought her as an engagement present and looked out at the South Florida waves. It was strange to be near the beach without a sweater. Even during the spring and summer, San Francisco Bay tended to be chilly. The wind threatened to tear off the scarf that covered her hair, but she wasn’t too worried about it. She had a dozen others in her red leather shoulder bag, and this one was hardly her favorite.
She glanced down at her naked ring finger in the early morning light and rubbed it absently. She didn’t regret breaking off her engagement; she’d known from the beginning that Paul wasn’t right for her, but she missed the sparkle of the ring on her finger.
A smile flickered over her full lips. Maybe I am my mother’s daughter, she thought with just a hint of self-mockery. Mom was still in Vegas, still bouncing from one man to another, always trusting her new man to take care of her, buy her pretty things. Lille didn’t understand her and probably never would. She’d gotten in touch with her mom several years after she’d run away—she’d tracked her down with the help of a private investigator—and discovered that her father had beaten her mother to within an inch of her life right after Lille had fled, and then he’d been sent back to prison. But he’d been let out on parole a year ago, around the time Lille had started dating Paul. Paul had proposed to her three months later.
Lille brushed a strand of hair away from her face and leaned back, sighing a little. Poor Paul, she thought, vaguely ashamed. She’d let him believe that she was sweet and charming, but she’d never let him see her darker side, the side that enjoyed, more than a little, the thrill of dominating. She’d been pretending—in one manner or another—her whole life, but she’d never looked for a man to take care of her until Paul. She’d thought it would make her feel safe—to be in a relationship with someone so normal. Instead she’d felt . . . trapped.
Before Paul she’d always dated guys who made no bones about the fact that they were self-centered and arrogant. She liked the thrill of charming them—of making them realize that they were as susceptible as everyone else to a pretty face. She liked it when they begged her to take them.
Issues of control, absolutely, Lille silently saluted her therapist. But I like what I like.
It hadn’t taken a therapist for Lille to realize that her need for control came from her past. For months after she’d run away to San Francisco, she’d had to protect herself any way she could. Finally she found work in a nicer part of town. She’d learned to use both her beauty and innate fashion sense to her advantage and had found a job in a boutique, working for a gay couple. They’d rented the room above the shop to her, and a few years later she’d started going to college part-time to learn fashion merchandising. She’d met her best friend, Mary, at a craft fair on campus. Mary was one of the only people Lily had ever learned to trust, largely because Mary herself was so trusting. Lille had always felt like she had to look out for her.
A month ago, Mary had shocked the hell out of her by moving to Florida. Mary’s mother, whom Mary had never met, had passed away and left her a sex store called the Fetish Box. Mary had asked Lille to help manage it, which Lille hadn’t considered at first, not really, but the thought of it, the chance to manage a store that unlocked your wildest fantasies, the idea of starting somewhere fresh, nagged at her.
And then she got the call that changed everything: someone had broken into the store and attacked Mary. Lille suddenly felt powerless and out of place, as if she wasn’t where she belonged. As if she was needed somewhere else.
In the end, it was an easy choice. She’d run away before—she could do it again, only this time she would be running toward something. So she’d done it. Two weeks after she’d given the ring back to Paul, she’d packed her things into the car and driven all the way from San Francisco to Hollywood, Florida.
The smile grew into a battle grin as the waves crashed in front of her and the wind finally won the battle with her scarf, tearing it from her hair and sending her smooth, golden locks whipping in the wind.
The sun chose that moment to break free of the low clouds on the horizon and send shafts of golden white light over the waves. She’d never seen the sun rise over the ocean, she now realized, and between the wind whipping through her hair and the clean light of the sun, she felt energized, almost reborn, just as she had felt when she first looked out at the waves in San Francisco at fourteen, when she’d decided who Lillehammer Marceau was going to be.
It was time to decide again, she thought, and stood, brushing sand off her 1950s-style suit and smoothing her hair. She marched to the driver’s side, opened the door, and slid onto the immaculate white leather seats. She fetched another scarf from her bag and used the rearview mirror to tie her hair back again and freshen her lipstick.
“Fetish Box, here I come,” she told her reflection, and blew herself a kiss.
A loud honk woke Max Jobman up from a sound sleep, and his German shepherd, Bambi, scrambled up beside him. He’d been so knackered when he’d finally gotten home from his pub last night that he’d passed out on the couch while petting the dog. Friday night had been busier than usual since it was so close to Halloween; he hadn’t been able to pick Bambi up from Mary’s house next door till after three in the morning. Mary was both his neighbor and business partner. When her mother, Mandy, died a few months back, she’d left her half of Jobman’s—the pub his uncle Bryan had opened in the 1970s—to Mary. It had sure shocked the shit out of him at the time. Mandy had been like a mother to him, but he’d never known she had a daughter. Max had already inherited his half of the business when his uncle died not long before, and he’d expected to get the other half when Mandy passed away, but instead, her pale, dreamy artist of a daughter had come to town. And now there were more surprises. Mary had mentioned that she was expecting her best friend, Lille, to arrive early this morning, but he hadn’t expected it to be at the ass-crack of dawn.
He certainly hadn’t been looking forward to the new arrival. Things had just settled into what felt like a normal routine after the upheaval of the past month or so, including the recent break-in at the Box, and from the way that Mary described her best friend, he figured that she wasn’t likely to be much of a calming influence on any of them.
He thought about ignoring the honk for one brief second, but the incidents of the past month compelled him to get up and check. He knew he would never get back to sleep anyway. He’d been feeling restless lately, and powerless in the face of everything that had happened at the Box. He hadn’t even been in the mood for a quick romp with Cherry last night.
He snatched up his T-shirt from the arm of the couch and pulled it over his head. Bambi stood in front of him, grinning, eager to investigate. Max stood and stretched before locating his jeans on the floor. He tugged them on, going commando as usual, and snatched up his keys from the coffee table. Barefoot, he padded across the cool tile to the front door, where he slid on the flip-flops that he kept there for easy access. Bambi trotted at his side as they made their way down the sidewalk in front of his part of the property and rounded the corner to the street that led to the beach. Mary’s house sat diagonally to his on a shared lot, with her corner facing the beach. His uncle and Mandy had lived together in the house for years before they were married. They’d bought the property together and built Max’s house later. Mary was coming out of her garage just as he reached the drive.
A beautiful blonde wearing a red scarf in her hair and oversize sunglasses pulled up to the curb in a classic 1960s Mercedes convertible. It was creamy and round and reminded Max of the white chocolate Godiva truffles that they sold at the Fetish Box. Mandy had left the Box—as they called it—to Mary as well. Max didn’t own any part of it and didn’t want to.
The blonde, Lille, he assumed, stepped out of the car wearing a suit that was downright ridiculous for the beach, but absolutely perfect for a set of curves that made his mouth fall open, just a little. She came toward them and raised her sunglasses, revealing eyes as green as the rolling hills of his homeland, Ireland.
“Hey, baby,” Lille said to Mary, and shot him a flirtatious glance under her thick lashes.
He didn’t know exactly what prompted him to say it, self-defense maybe, but his response to the blond bombshell in front of him was a surly “Do ye know what fucking time ’tis?”
Her smile widened impossibly, revealing perfect white teeth. She made a pout with her lips as if she was disappointed in him, then blew him a kiss.
“You must be Max. Love the tattoos. Are you always this grumpy in the morning?” she teased, and handed him her bag. “Carry this in for me, darling,” she ordered him airily, and turned back to Mary.
She said something to Mary; Max wasn’t sure what. Suddenly all he wanted was to rip that scarf off her head, toss her over his shoulder, and take her to his house and fuck her. He wouldn’t even undress her, just shove that ladylike little skirt up to her hips and take her from behind, her breasts in his hands as he rode the attitude out of her.
He grimaced, his grip tightening on the thick leather of her bag, shifting it to cover his front. His dick was tenting the front of his jeans, not that he gave a piss whether anyone saw his hard-on.
Next to him, Bambi whined a little and wagged her tail. She was undoubtedly hoping they were headed to the beach.
He realized the blonde had left, heading into the house, so he pinned his glare on Mary.
She was laughing at him, her large gray eyes crinkling at the corners, pale skin luminous in the morning light.
“That gel is going to be a pain in the ass,” he muttered with utmost certainty.
She made a moue of her lips and patted him on the cheek, mimicking her friend, which made his snarl all the fiercer.
She actually laughed at him. “Think of it this way . . . she’s bound to liven the place up now that we’ve all settled into our nice, quiet, boring lives.”
“This place needed livening up like Carl needs another pair of sunglasses.” Carl was his stepbrother. Mary’s mother, Mandy, had been like a mother to him as well.
“Max”—she shook her head at him—“you’re not afraid she’ll cause trouble. You’re afraid she’s too much even for you.”
Too pissed to reply to that bullshit, Max just shoved the bag under his arm and stalked up the leaf-strewn path into the house. He wasn’t about to let a pair of tits get the best of him, no matter how perky and gorgeous they happened to be.
The blonde was sitting at the table when he finally made his way into the kitchen. She sat straight-backed and ladylike, looking as lovely as a 1950s movie star. She had a heart-shaped face with a pointed little chin and thick, soft-looking blond hair that probably curled when it was wet. He lost his breath again, just for a moment, and that pissed him off to no end.
He set her bag down on the table in front of her with a thunk. The thing weighed a ton.
“Thank you.” She quirked an eyebrow at him. “Where’s your dog?”
“My—” He turned around; he’d left Bambi outside.
He heard the front door open and after a moment, her happy shepherd face came around the corner of the living room, tongue lolling and tail wagging.
Mary followed, looking relaxed and comfortable in a tank top and pajama bottoms, her feet encased in a pair of Ugg loafers that John, her lover and manager at the Box, had purchased for her.
She handed him a plastic-wrapped newspaper from the yard as she walked by, smacking it against his chest. He took it with a grunt and sat down. Bambi made her way under the table and lay down on top of his feet.
Weak sunlight streamed into the room from a kitchen window as the scent of coffee filled the room. Mary crossed the kitchen and wrapped her arms around John. He was making coffee, undoubtedly for the blond queen of the universe. Atticus, John’s one-eyed Maltese, sat at John’s feet with his tail curled up over his back.
“Mmm, coffee,” Mary murmured, and kissed John’s shoulder. Atticus jumped up on her legs and she bent and picked him up.
“Hello, white dog,” she murmured to him, and nuzzled his neck while he licked her face.
Watching Lille from the corner of his eye, Max saw her smile at the scene. It was a soft, sad smile that made her seem human . . . almost.
Suddenly, as if she sensed his regard, she turned those green eyes on him and the softness disappeared from her expression. She studied him as if he were a damn cut of beef at Whole Foods. Strike that. The shoppers at Whole Foods had more warmth. He didn’t know whether she wanted to fuck him or collar him like a stray dog and have him begging at her heels.
He rubbed his arms unconsciously, surprised as always that he couldn’t feel his tattoos as well as see them. He felt the need to get another, maybe a banshee intertwined with his dragon—just a bit of a warning like, he told himself, because while he knew Lille was spoiled and no doubt expected to be catered to at all times, she was also the prettiest damn thing he’d ever seen. He hated that he wanted her almost as much as he hated the disruption he knew she was about to cause in his life.
“Anyone want a croissant?” Mary set a plate of the buttery goods down on the table and swung herself around the edge to take a seat next to her friend. Atticus followed Mary and joined Bambi under the table.
Lille took a pastry and turned her body away from Max, just a little, and he was able to relax enough to grab a croissant and pull off a chunk, scattering flakes that resembled fish food flakes. He ignored them for the moment, enjoying his breakfast while the women chatted about Lille’s trip and what was going on at the Box.
After a moment, John, who’d been Max’s best friend long before he’d been Mary’s lover, brought over the mugs of coffee on one of the brown serving trays from the pub. He set it down gently in the center of the table.
“Thanks, honey.” Mary winked at John before taking the mug with Garfield on it. John had been managing the Fetish Box for Mandy before she died, and he stayed on as a manager when Mary took over. Max wondered what was going to happen now that the queen of the universe had arrived.
“Yes, thank you,” Lille added, and took the mug with the wicked stepmother from Cinderella. Appropriate, Max thought snidely.
John pulled out a chair and joined them, settling his lean, rangy frame with ease at the small table. He eyed Max knowingly and wiggled his brows in Lille’s direction as he picked up his own mug from the tray: Slimer from Ghostbusters grinned at Max from the surface.
Max kept his arms crossed over his chest for a moment, but not even he could resist coffee for very long. John had placed a small metal pitcher of milk on the tray as well, but so far only Mary had used it. He guessed the queen preferred her coffee black. His mug was green and covered in rainbows and a pot of gold. John had been entirely too cheerful since he’d been getting laid on a regular basis. Max grimaced, but he wasn’t sure whether he was irritated with John or himself. Hell, he didn’t know what his problem was, but he thought a cigarette would help enormously.
He started to get up, but the mention of the Box drew his attention back to the women and their conversation.
“Everyone just calls it the Box,” Mary was explaining to Lille, which seemed to amuse the blonde.
“Just the Box, huh?” She had a dimple on one side of her mouth, for fuck’s sake.
“Yeah.” Mary was smiling her gentle smile, the one that made you think she was all innocent and nice, which she was . . . mostly, though she had a wild streak. The other one, Lille, didn’t seem nice at all . . . and her streak of bitch couldn’t have been more obvious if she’d tattooed it all over her body.
“I have some ideas for it,” Lille was telling Mary now. “You’re going to love them. I promise.”
Ideas. Max scowled. He didn’t like that she was coming in and acting as if she had the right to make changes. Mary hadn’t done that and she owned the place. Of course, he’d done his best to freak Mary out when she’d arrived and that hadn’t worked . . . so maybe he understood women even less than he’d thought.
He kept the scowl on his face as she turned to look at him.
“Problem, darling?” Lille asked him.
Max cracked his knuckles and shrugged. Mary was giving him her disapproving look, but she didn’t seem that serious about it.
“Just not sure why you’re bothering, luv. Surely it won’t take you long to find some rich man to put a ring on your finger. Why pretend you’re even interested?”
Mary’s eyes widened, but the blonde just looked at him for a moment. She seemed both amused and resigned at the same time. She leaned in, her bright green eyes holding him very, very still. Up close, her skin was peaches and cream, her lips maraschino-cherry red. She was like the 1950s pinups that his tattoo artist had on display in her parlor.
“Sweetie”—she reached out and ran one long nail down his cheek—“I’m sure you’re a great fuck and I have no doubt that we’ll get along splendidly in bed, but you don’t know the first thing about me.”
His cheek was tingling as if he’d just splashed on aftershave, which he rarely bothered to do.
“I’ve known women like ye.” He shrugged, shifting backward casually, but he wasn’t so sure anymore. Now he really itched for a cigarette, but he’d left them on the coffee table over at his house. “Rarely worth the trouble.”
She leaned back as well, mimicking him, her eyes cold and considering as she opened her blouse, just a little, and parted her lips on a sigh.
“That’s too bad,” she breathed, green eyes piercing him. “I’ve always liked a man with tattoos.”
“Is that right?” Max swallowed. He knew she was fucking with him, but damned if he wasn’t falling for it.
“Oh, yeah.” A small smile of triumph made her eyes gleam. She leaned forward again, giving him a glimpse of her cleavage. “I like to trace them with my tongue. Has a woman ever done that? Traced them with her tongue while you lay there, helpless?”
Max flicked a glance at John and Mary, who were staring, unabashed, but Lille didn’t move, her gaze holding him fixed and fascinated.
“I have,” he snapped, though he hadn’t. He wasn’t a big fan of being tied up and helpless.
She relaxed and leaned back, lifting her coffee, dismissing him. “Well, that’s a shame. I do like to be the first.”
Max didn’t know what do with the volatile mix of lust and faint horror that was rolling around in his stomach. She was . . . she was . . . like no woman he’d ever met in his life, which made her unpredictable, dangerous.
“I’m off to the pub,” he snapped, standing abruptly and dislodging Bambi from her position on his feet. He heard the scramble of her nails on the tile floor as she hurried to follow him into the living room.
He yanked open the back door with more force than necessary and waited just long enough for Bambi to clear the opening before he slammed it shut.
The dog was the only bitch that he’d ever been able to stand for any length of time, and he didn’t see that changing anytime soon.