“I’m not going blindly,” Sandra said gently. “It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. I’ve researched endlessly, which was what brought me to The House. I’ve toured the premises. I’ve been there during its busiest times. I know what to expect. And Damon has assured me that, especially for my first visit, I will be very carefully monitored.”
They were interrupted when the waiter brought their entrées, but food was the last thing on the women’s minds now. Their plates sat in front of them untouched as their conversation continued.
“I just wanted to know what it was like for you and Ken,” Sandra said softly.
Again, pain glittered in Karla’s green eyes. She pushed her dark hair behind her ear in an effort to disguise her hesitation, but Sandra didn’t miss it and she wondered what the hell was going on with her friend. She seemed . . . unhappy. And maybe it had been there for a while now, but Sandra had been so self-absorbed that she hadn’t paid attention to the people around her.
“Is there something you aren’t telling us, Karla?” Sandra demanded.
Karla looked at once guilty and then surprised. “No, of course not. And to answer your question, when it’s right, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. I never regretted giving Ken my complete submission. He always took such wonderful care of me. Cherished me. Protected me with his every breath. I was always his priority. And he was so demanding.”
Sandra frowned because every example had been said in the past tense.
“Is that not the case now?” Sandra asked.
Karla smiled brightly. Too brightly. “Of course it is. I was just saying. And well, perhaps it’s not as perfect as it used to be, but that’s to be expected. Ken has been so busy making his business a success, and when the newness wears off any relationship, it’s easy to fall into a routine. Don’t worry. We’re not divorcing or anything,” she said with a laugh.
But the forced gaiety bothered Sandra. She shoved aside her sense of foreboding to focus on the matter at hand.
“Again, if this is too personal a matter to discuss,” Sandra said. But Karla waved her off and motioned for her to continue. “What kinds of things do you and Ken do? I mean are you into bondage? Pain? Floggings? Or is it a simple matter of you obeying his commands and him calling the shots?”
Sophia looked as though she’d be ill, and she fiddled with her food as if she were trying to block out the conversation. Her face had grown pale, and Sandra began to have second thoughts about bringing this up in front of her. But she hadn’t wanted Sophia not to know. She owed her sister-in-law that much. To let her know she was going to at least try to move on and perhaps become involved, even if temporarily, with another man. It certainly wasn’t something she wanted Sophia to find out by chance. She wanted her to hear it from her.
“I think it’s a matter of what you want,” Karla said quietly. “Yes, we practice all of those things and much more. I am his to do with as he wishes. He knows how far he can go. We’ve been together long enough that he well knows my boundaries. Perhaps better than I know myself. But it’s important in the beginning that you’re very honest with your partner and that you set boundaries. He needs to know exactly what you are and aren’t comfortable with. And you’ll need a safe word until your relationship evolves enough that he knows just how far he can push.”
“I feel like a kid in a toy store,” Sandra said ruefully. “I want to try everything. At least once. I don’t know my boundaries. I won’t know until they’re crossed.”
“Then it’s even more important that you pick the right guy. One who understands that you’re new to the scene. That you want to experiment but that you reserve the right to pull the plug at any moment. And for God’s sake, Sandra don’t agree to go home with a guy until you know him very well. Stay at the club. Do all your experimenting there in a public facility where there’s plenty of security.”
Sandra nodded. She’d already considered that, and no way was she bringing a guy home. To the place she and Clement had lived and loved. It would be the height of disrespect to practice what would have appalled her husband under his own roof. And neither would she agree to go off with some stranger where God only knew what could happen once he had her alone and at his mercy.
It wasn’t that she hadn’t considered all the risks. She had! She’d visited The House more than once. She’d questioned Damon Roche endlessly, and the man had exhibited a huge amount of patience and understanding. But now she was having second thoughts listening to Karla’s warnings.
But no. She’d thought this through. It was all she’d thought about over the last months. And while moving forward with her new life on the three-year anniversary of her husband’s death may seem tacky, for her it was symbolic. She wasn’t backing out now.
She’d positively shivered when Karla had stated that she was her husband’s. That she belonged to him and he could do as he wished. Sandra wanted that. She craved it with a dark need she didn’t even fully understand. It wasn’t that she hadn’t belonged heart and soul to Clement. She had. She’d held no part of herself back from him.
But this need for dominance went deeper than just belonging. She wanted to be . . . owned. Cherished. Utterly adored. All the things her husband had given her but . . . more. She wanted to cross that gray line. Wanted to shatter her boundaries. She wanted to discover what they were and just how far she was willing and wanted to go. How would she know if she never tried?
“You’re going to do it, aren’t you?” Sophia asked quietly. “I can see it in your eyes, Sandra. I know that look. You’re actually going to do this.”
Sandra nodded, feeling a sense of relief at affirming it.
Karla reached across the table to catch Sandra’s other hand and squeezed it until she was holding on to both her friends’ hands.
“Then I wish you luck,” Karla said.
“Hey, don’t you have to go?” Sandra asked, suddenly remembering that Karla had mentioned several days earlier that she and Ken were spending the afternoon together. “Isn’t Ken expecting you? I don’t want to keep you. I just wanted to ask you those questions.”
Again that barely discernible flicker in Karla’s eyes before she dropped her gaze and her hold on Sandra’s hand.
“No,” Karla said lightly. “He had to cancel. An important matter came up at work.”
Sandra grimaced. “Sorry. I know you were looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I do have to run. I need time to prepare for tonight. Though I’ve made up my mind about it, I’m still nervous enough to need time to get ready and talk myself into going through with it.”
Karla smiled. “I’ll expect a report first thing tomorrow, and if I don’t get it, I’m coming over. And if you aren’t home, I’m calling the police!”
Sandra smiled. “Of course I will.”
She rose after placing several bills on the table to cover lunch. Sophia stood too.
“I’ll walk you out,” Sophia said.
Karla shot Sandra a raised brow look and then glanced pointedly at Sophia. Sandra sighed. She knew what was coming. With a wave to Karla, Sandra walked out of the restaurant, Sophia at her side.
When they got to the cars, Sophia put a hand out to Sandra’s arm.
“Sandra, have you really thought this through?” she asked in a pleading tone. “I’m really worried about you. This isn’t like you at all. What would Clement think? Sandra, he’d die if he knew!”
“Sophia, Clement is dead,” Sandra said gently. “We can’t bring him back. God, if I could, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’d forget everything about my wants or needs if I could have him back. But he’s gone.”
Tears clogged her throat. Tears she’d refused to allow herself to shed today. She’d been determined that this year would be different. That she wouldn’t spend the anniversary of her husband’s death listless and grieving.
Sophia’s eyes were grief stricken. Tears welled up and slid soundlessly down her cheeks. “I miss him so much, Sandra. He was my only family. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
Sandra enfolded her in a hug, holding her tightly as Sophia’s shoulders shook. “You’re wrong. You have family. You have me. I’m not going anywhere. This doesn’t change things between us. I swear it. But Sophia, I have to pick up and move on with my life. This is killing me. My grief has been slowly killing me, and Clement would hate that. He’d never want me to spend the rest of my life mourning him. He’d be the first person to want me to be happy even if it wasn’t with him.”
Sophia pulled away, wiping hastily at her tears. “I know that. I do. And I want you to be happy, Sandra. But does it have to be this way? You don’t understand what it’s like to be at the mercy of a monster. You can’t possibly want to put yourself in a position where you’re helpless under a man’s power. He could hurt you. Abuse you. Believe me, you don’t want that. You could never understand how degrading and powerless that feeling is and I do. And I don’t want that for you. Clement would never want that for you.”
Sandra gently wiped away the rest of Sophia’s tears. “Not all men are like that, Sophia. I know your concerns. I’m not negating what you and Clement went through. I’d never allow that for myself. And look at Karla and Ken. You know what kind of relationship they have. Do you honestly believe Ken would ever harm a hair on her head? He loves her. He adores her. He absolutely respects the gift of her submission. And that’s what I want.”
“But he is hurting her,” Sophia said fiercely. “You had to have seen what I saw today. What we’ve seen for the last while. She’s not happy, Sandra, and I’m worried about her. What if he’s abusing her?”
Sandra blinked, utterly shocked by Sophia’s assertion. Yes, she’d noticed that Karla wasn’t her usual cheerful, sunny self. She’d sensed that something was off about her best friend, but never had she entertained, even for a moment, that Ken was hurting her physically.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going on with Karla and Ken,” Sandra said carefully. “But I do know that there is no way he’s abusing her. Karla would never stand for it. She’s too strong and independent, despite the fact that she gave Ken her submission. Not to mention she’d tell us if he was hurting her. We’re too close of friends. We’d know, Sophia. We’d know.”
“No one ever knew the hell that Clement and I endured,” Sophia said painfully. “We hid it from the world. Our father appeared to others as a doting parent incapable of ever doing us harm. But behind closed doors he was a monster.”
“Please don’t worry about me,” Sandra said. “And don’t worry about Karla. I’ll talk to her if it makes you feel better. I know Ken. We all know him. We’ve all been friends for years. There is no way he is abusing her And sweetie, I know you’re not happy with my choice. I don’t expect you to accept it, but I’d like for you to respect it at least.”
“I love you,” Sophia said brokenly. “And I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t at least try to steer you away from the path you seem so determined to take. But if this is really what you want, if it’s what you need and it will make you happy, then I’ll try to respect your choices. I just don’t want to lose you too.”
Sandra hugged her again. “You’re not going to lose me. You’re my sister and my best friend. Clement was not my only tie to you and now that he’s gone it doesn’t mean that our tie is severed. You’re my family, Sophia. I love you.”
Sophia pulled away, a watery smile quivering on her lips. “I’ll expect a report tomorrow just like Karla. I won’t sleep tonight for worrying about you. I just hope you know what it is you’re getting into.”
“So do I,” Sandra murmured. “So do I.”
Derrick parked his car outside The House and sat for a moment, wondering again why he was here tonight. Normally on the anniversary of Clement’s death, he would spend the day—and evening—with Sandra. Not that he didn’t spend plenty of other days with her, but for the first two anniversaries of Clement’s passing, he’d spent the entire day with her. Holding her. Comforting her. Supporting her.
And it was his own personal hell.
It sucked to be in love with his best friend’s wife. He’d lived with guilt for the entirety of Clement’s marriage to Sandra. Clement had known. He’d guessed, though Derrick had done his best never to allow his feelings to show. But his best friend was perceptive. He knew him better than anyone else ever had. They weren’t just business partners. They were as close as brothers, though Derrick hadn’t existed in the hell that Clement and Sophia had endured growing up.
No, Derrick’s family was the complete antithesis of Clement’s. If you could call the piece-of-shit bastard who’d fathered Clement's family. Derrick’s parents were still as solidly in love now as they were forty years ago when they’d married. Derrick was one of five siblings, the middle child. Two older brothers. Two younger sisters who were spoiled and protected by their older brothers.
Clement had been befuddled by Derrick’s close-knit family from the moment he’d first met them. He hadn’t known how to react to a normal, well-adjusted family setting. But Derrick’s family had embraced Clement—and Sandra, when Clement had married her. And even Sophia, though she was more reserved and more wary of his large family than Clement was.