Just One Taste, Masters and Mercenaries~Topped Book 2

One Hot Chef….

Eric Vail has always loved a challenge. After leaving the Navy, he mastered his passion for cooking. As the sous chef at Top, one of Dallas’s hottest restaurants, his skills are pushed to the limit every night. Unfortunately, his ultimate prize still eludes him. Server Deena Holmes is the sweetest thing he’s seen in forever, but she’s as distant as she is beautiful. When they’re put together in the same training class at the infamous club Sanctum, he knows this is his shot. And this former SEAL never misses.

A Woman Who Lost Her Taste for Love…

Deena thinks Eric is the most gorgeous man she’s ever seen, but her heart has been burned too many times before. She’s sworn off relationships for good and she can’t trust herself with a man that easy to fall in love with. She takes a spot as a trainee at Sanctum in the hopes of finding a safe place to explore and experiment. When she discovers her partner is the same chef she dreams about every night, Deena knows she may have bitten off more than she can chew.

A Perfect Recipe for Passion

While exploring the world of Sanctum, Eric and Deena find themselves learning about each other and finding an intimacy neither expected. But when the ghosts of her past resurface, old wounds are reopened. Can their newfound love survive when it’s put to the test?


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Reviews

OMG! I had a smile on my face the ENTIRE TIME I was reading this. Lexi Blake always hits the spot, giving us page after page of sexy goodness! When you throw good food in the mix of all this sexiness, there is no going back my friends. Masters and Mercenaries is one of my all time favorite series, and this TOPPED spin-off series, is following very close behind. We get the excitement of meeting great new characters, as well as, the amazing treat of catching up with the likes of Big Tag and the rest of the gang. If you loved the Masters and Mercenaries series, then you will absolutely DEVOUR the TOPPED series. ~ Shayna Renee, Shayna Renee's Spicy Reads, ShaynaReneesSpicyReads.com

This was a delightful story with an interesting plot, likable characters, steamy sex scenes (including mild BDSM), and laugh out loud humor. ~ 5 Stars, Purest Delight, Shadow, Guilt Pleasures Book Reviews, GuiltyPleasuresBookReviews.com

The spin-off series has everything I love. A freaking awesome surrounding cast, cameos by my favourite M&M characters, hot and kinky play time and of course a main couple that makes you all warm on the inside and leaves you with a good feeling in the end. ~ Flo, Coffee Addict Books, CoffeeAddictBooks.com

I truly enjoyed this book. Of course, I loved the sexy scenes, but I also loved reading about both characters. The hero and the heroine definitely had chemistry which was obvious from the beginning of the book. The journey that a reader takes with them toward their HEA is such a great ride. ~ Sultry Steamy Reading, SultrySteamyReading.com

I have loved her writing style, and this one is no different at all – her writing speaks to you, inside at a place that you tend to keep locked up, because it feels too much. I love the fact that she introduces beloved characters without taking away attention from the protagonist and yet giving away tidbits that you know will be important in the next book. She has a way of making her characters feel like family and honestly, reading Just One Taste felt like homecoming! ~ For the Love of Fictional Words, BookLoveAffair.com

Lexi writes extremely well. I was able to get lost in the growing romance line and enjoyed the drama throughout. ~ Mignon Mykel Reviews, MignonMykelReviews.com

This was a very enjoyable novella. Alina, Ally's Miscellany, Ally'sMiscellany

Just One Taste provides more than just sex, it offers pain in different levels and shows that fear is not only for the next spank to arrive. Eric is a great Dom, while Deena is struggling to be a sub, due to her insecurities and inability to trust. Hence a great journey with this two. ~ Penny For My Thoughts, PennyForMyThoughts

I really enjoyed my time back in the Masters & Mercenaries world, and getting to know Eric and Deena. If you’re a fan, I think you’ll enjoy it. If you haven’t tried it yet but like a little BDSM with your romance, I’d encourage you to check out the series. ~ Ivy, After Dark Book Lovers, AfterDarkBookLovers.com

Just One Taste was a quick sexy read. I enjoyed every second of it from start to finish. I loved Lexi Blake’s take on BDSM. Eric and Deena were scorching together. I couldn’t get enough of the two of them. ~ Amy, Once Upon a Book Blog, OnceUponaBookBlog.com

Oh, how I loved this book and Eric and Deena. I know I’ve said this before about Ms. Blake’s books, but it bears repeating that she puts so much emotion into her characters and brings so much more into the D/s relationship and I love it. Thank you. Ms. Blake, for another emotional and sexy read and for giving us Eric and Deena! ~ Jillian, Read-Love-Blog, Read-Love-Blog.com

This book was the perfect combination of great food (gotta love food!) and hot chemistry. There was plenty of struggle but not so much that it wore you down. Eric is the perfect recipe for a hot alpha man while Deena is not only submissive but also very strong. This was my first time reading this series but I certainly going back and reading the first one as well as the original series. I loved every second of it! ~ Blushing Reads, BlushingReads.com

There is BDSM play and it is very well done. It is also a love story that is very well done and realistic. An enjoyable read. ~ Chris, Night Owl Romance, NightOwlReviews.com

This is another must read book from Lexi Blake, I definitely recommend it to readers who enjoy BDSM romances. Steamy, emotional and full of fun - I couldn't put this book down. Just One Taste receives five sexy stars. ~ Julie, JJ's Kinky Books, JJsKinkyBooks.blogspot.co.uk


Excerpt

Chapter One

Eric Vail stared at his boss’s office. The door was closed but he knew what was going on. There was no doubt in his mind that Kyle Hawthorne was giving his stepdad the news. The question was whether Sean Taggart would think it was good news or bad news.

Maybe now wasn’t the time to ask his boss for a favor.

The door to the kitchen opened and the reason for his favor breezed through. Deena Holmes. She was already dressed for work, wearing the white shirt and black slacks all the servers wore. Her dark hair was up in a neat bun, her makeup understated. She didn’t need it. She was perfect the way she was. She would be perfect naked, with her hair flowing around her shoulders and no makeup on. Not that he’d seen her that way except in his dreams. And if he didn’t ask for his favor, he likely never would.

She’d recently gone back to her natural brunette color. He’d liked her blonde, but she was devastating with dark hair.

“Hi, Eric,” she said with a generous smile. “How are you today?”

So sweet. So polite. She’d been giving him that glowy smile for a year and for a year she’d been putting him off with polite excuses. He’d almost given up. Maybe she was simply polite and glowy to everyone. She was the girl who lit up a room and breezed through making everyone feel happy and at home. He’d almost decided she was the girl who would be kind to the grizzled-looking dude with all the scars but she would end up with the handsome lawyer.

Until he’d finally figured out that her handsome lawyer had turned out to be a shitbag who’d ruined her life and she needed a grizzled dude who would look out for her. He might not have some fancy degree, but he also wasn’t a dirtbag who would let his wife work her ass off to put him through school and then dump her for another lawyer at his firm.

He would treat her right. He would take care of her the way she needed.

“I’m good, sweetheart. How are you?” He wanted to reach out for her and drag her into his arms and welcome her properly, but it wasn’t time for that yet.

Her eyes widened at the endearment. He hadn’t used it before. She recovered nicely, her smile barely faltering. “I’m great, of course. I saw the menu for tonight. Can’t wait.”

They all sat down for dinner after service was done. It was one of the perks of working at Top. A gourmet meal every night.

Was it the only meal she got sometimes? He’d seen the kitchen in her neat but tiny apartment. There had been very little in it. She’d needed a ride to work because her car had broken down. Had she asked him? Of course not. She’d asked Tiffany. He’d managed to work it so he’d been the one to show up on her doorstep and while she’d finished getting ready, he’d snooped.

He’d found out she either hated having groceries in her place or didn’t have the money to buy them. He’d also found out that apparently in her spare time, she enjoyed doodling his name. He’d found a notebook on her dining room table with some phone numbers and jotted down information and his name with hearts.

It made him feel less like a stalker.

He wasn’t. She didn’t know it yet, but he was the knight in slightly tarnished armor waiting for the princess to wake up. The fact that she was doing something like doodling his name was a good sign. From what he could tell, she’d been completely shut down since her divorce. She hadn’t dated, hadn’t had any crazy hookups, though that wouldn’t have bothered him. She could have played around with a whole football team and he wouldn’t care. She deserved to have some fun after what she’d gone through. Now it looked like she was ready, but that time had closed for her. Any fun that girl was going to have now would be with him.

“I’ll make sure to save you some of the brisket enchiladas. I know how much you love them.” Top served elevated comfort food. The brisket enchiladas were something he’d suggested and he loved watching how much she enjoyed them.

“Thanks.” Her eyes wouldn’t quite meet his.

“Are you going out with the group tonight?” He knew damn well she wasn’t. He kind of wanted to see if she would tell him what she was doing.

She gnawed on that full bottom lip of hers. “No. Not tonight. I’ve got some school stuff.”

Little liar. He gave her a nod. “Hope you do well on that. Let me know if there’s anything I can help you with.”

Her lips curved up. “Know a lot about accounting? Because I have a test coming up and it’s a killer.”

“I could snipe your professor,” he admitted. “That’s pretty much the extent of my help in that class.”

He’d been a Navy SEAL. College hadn’t been in the cards for him, but when he’d gotten out, cooking school had. He’d been the only six-foot-three-inch, two hundred pounds of muscle scarred vet in a class of people ten years younger and a thousand times less damaged than him.

Deena smiled that gorgeous, world-lighting grin of hers that made his dick tighten. “I think making him your enchiladas would go over better, but I’ll pass.” She looked up as Tiffany walked past her. “I should go help set up. Y’all rock the kitchen tonight.”

“Deena,” he said as she turned toward Tiffany. He used the same voice he would have used on his men or in the kitchen when he wanted to get someone’s attention, though he would admit he tried to add a silky edge that was only for her. He’d turned his military leader voice into his Dom voice.

It worked. She stopped in her tracks and turned back around, giving him her full attention. “Yes?”

“If that jerk comes back in, I want to know.” He gave her what he hoped was a stern glare so she understood this wasn’t a request. Though he technically wasn’t her boss, he was the number two at Top and he took the safety of everyone at the place seriously.

She flushed and rolled her eyes. “That was nothing.”

A customer had put his hand on her ass, causing her to drop a whole platter of drinks. He’d claimed it had all been an accident, but the guy was a regular and he always sat in Deena’s section and he always was alone. Yeah, he tried to keep an eye on that guy.

Tiffany shook her head as she stopped. “That guy’s weird and he’s totally got a thing for her. Not that having a thing for her is weird, but from that jerk, it is.”

Tiffany was infinitely more reasonable than Deena. He turned his attention to her. “Let whoever is the hostess tonight know that Deena’s section is full and will be all evening.”

“That isn’t necessary,” Deena said, her eyes widening.

“Will do.” Tiffany gave him a jaunty salute and a wink. “I’ll make sure that ass feels right at home.”

Tiffany turned and walked toward the front.

Deena shook her head. “I can handle Jerry.”

He cocked a brow. “I’m sure you can, but you don’t have to. I’m serious, sweetheart. I do not want to hear about you putting yourself in danger over a tip.”

“Fine. But only because he’s a shitty tipper.” She ran off behind her friend.

She could run but after tonight, he wasn’t letting her hide anymore. He would have watched over her, waiting until the time was right, but thank god she’d moved the damn clock up. He was dying. He couldn’t date because he didn’t want anyone other than her. And he was too old to hook up with women for sex.

He wanted more and he wanted it with Deena.

The door came open and Sean walked out first, Kyle second. Kyle stopped and shook his stepfather’s hand, his jaw squared.

Taggart nodded and said something to Kyle before Kyle turned.

Sean glanced around and then gestured for Eric to join him. His boss had a stern look on his face and Eric winced inwardly. Sean Taggart had been a Green Beret, but the man would have made a damn fine drill sergeant. Eric had to wonder if he was about to get a dressing down. He strode forward because he preferred to get the bad shit over as quickly as possible.

What the hell was he going to do if Sean wouldn’t help him? Could he go through with tonight’s class knowing he might have to watch the woman of his dreams with another man?

He walked into Sean’s office and waited for his boss to take a seat before settling himself into the big chair across from the desk.

Sean stared at him, those blue eyes of his steady in a way that would likely make most men look away.

Eric had been stared down by the best. He simply waited. Patience in all things. It was a motto of his.

“Do you know what my stepson just told me?”

Yes. He definitely knew the answer to that question. “Not the exact words, of course, but I suspect he informed you that he signed his enlistment papers yesterday.”

Sean sat back. “What gave you the right to talk him into joining the Navy, Eric?”

Damn. He hated disappointing his boss. Sean had given him a job when no one else wanted an almost forty-year-old, just-out-of-school chef who looked more like a mobster than a man who could cook. Sean had moved him quickly to the role of sous chef, training Eric in his own techniques and being one of the most sincerely helpful men Eric had ever met. Still, he wasn’t ashamed of what he’d done. Kyle had worked at Top for several months and they’d become friendly. “He asked my opinion. I gave it.”

Sean shook his head and then groaned. “If only I could explain it to my wife in such simple terms. She’s going to flip out.”

Eric softened a bit. “He needs it. He’s got no idea what he wants to do with his life. It certainly isn’t working in a kitchen.”

Sean’s eyes closed briefly. “I know. I also know he showed up drunk two weeks ago and you covered for him.”

Not a lot got past the boss. “I didn’t think that was something his mother should see. She was coming in for dinner that night.”

“Were there episodes I didn’t know about?”

He wasn’t going to lie to the man. He might be willing to cover for the kid, but not directly lie to Sean. “Yes. He’s struggling with something though he didn’t want to talk about it.”

“His best friend from childhood died last year. He’s been out of control ever since,” Sean explained. “He dropped out of grad school and we’ve been trying to help him find his way. He’s been drinking. I’m worried he’ll slide into something worse. I believe the military could help him in this case. He’s undisciplined, unfocused. Thank god you said it because Grace really had a problem when I brought it up.”

“Not that we should tell her I said it.” Grace could be formidable all on her own.

Sean chuckled. “Oh, this was all your idea, buddy.” He sobered. “Seriously, thank you for being kind to him. I’m very glad he signed those papers before telling his mother.”

“It’s a sign that he’s ready. He didn’t want her to talk him out of it.” Having spent time with the kid he knew Kyle wasn’t bad, he was struggling and now he had a plan to get his life back on track. “If it helps Grace any, I don’t believe he’ll make a career of it. I think he’ll eventually want to go back to school. It’s something he needs right now. He needs to feel like his life has purpose.”

“I agree with you, and you’re going to need a stiff drink after my wife finds out you’re the one who convinced her baby boy to join the Navy. Grace has certain fears when it comes to losing her loved ones. Not that we don’t all have them, but she went through the death of her first husband so she’s more sensitive than a lot of people. She doesn’t always understand that the risk is worth the reward. See, I’ve been coming up with all this stuff to tell her because I was dreading the moment I had to take a stand. Now I don’t have to.” Sean seemed to be warming to the idea. “I can honestly say I had nothing to do with it, but of course I support the decision since we can’t get him out of it now. It’s the best of both worlds for me.”

Thank god. He saw his in. “You know, boss, I was hoping you could do me a favor.”

“Absolutely. What do you need?”

This was one of the things he admired about his boss. Sean simply said yes without being told what he needed. Of course Sean was also very careful about the people he hired and let into his small circle. He wouldn’t bring anyone in he didn’t trust. Though they were roughly the same age, he looked up to Sean as a mentor in not only business but life. “I need you to talk to your brother.”

Sean’s face went tight for a moment. “Which one?”

Eric wished he hadn’t phrased it like that. Saying “brother” likely reminded Sean that he’d recently lost one. Theo Taggart had died on a mission for the firm the oldest Taggart brother ran, and no one had recovered from it. They might never recover. “I’m sorry. I meant Ian. I need you to ask Ian for a favor tonight. I’m in the training class at Sanctum.”

“Yes, I recommended you for the program. I promise I’ll get you out of here early so you can be on time.” Sean gave him a pointed look. “You should be on time. Ian does mean shit to Doms who show up late. His sister-in-law calls him Satan and she’s not that far off. Unless you’re Macon, and I swear Macon could punch my brother in the face and as long as he gave him a pie afterward, all would be forgiven. Huh. I wonder if I could get away with throwing one of Macon’s pies in his face. He’d be so distracted by the taste, I would have a serious head start.”

“I’ll be on time,” Eric promised. “But I understand that partners are assigned on the first night of training.”

Sean’s eyes narrowed. “You want me to make sure you get assigned to Deena.”

He was fairly certain his skin was a nice shade of red. What that woman could make him do. “Yes. I was hoping you could convince him to do that for me.”

“Is that such a great idea? You two work together.”

“We work in the same space. She’s not in the kitchen and not under my direction. Besides, Ally and Macon are married.”

“Yes, but he’s the pie maker,” Sean pointed out. “Even if I wanted to fire one of them, I would have to go through Ian. He still owns half this place until I make enough to buy him out.”

Was he serious? For the first time Eric got a bit unsettled. He hadn’t thought that Sean would have a problem with him dating Deena.

“Eric, have you thought this through?” Sean asked quietly. “From what I understand she’s not exactly chasing after you or anyone for that matter. Don’t get me wrong. She’s a lovely woman, but she shuts down when it comes to intimacy.”

“That’s not true. She’s quite comfortable with intimacy.” It was one of the reasons he thought she was ready. “Not physically, but emotionally. She’s the one everyone goes to with their problems. She’s the one who listens.”

Sean shook his head. “That’s not true intimacy. She listens but she never talks. I wouldn’t know she was divorced if I hadn’t run a check on her.” His eyes narrowed. “How did you find out? Or did she tell you?”

Eric shrugged. “I might have run my own check. And she does get chatty when she has a couple of glasses of wine. I stay fairly close to the women when we all go out.”

He was sure he looked ridiculous, like a large predatory bulldog watching over the pretty butterflies, but some of the clubs they went to could be dangerous. He’d caught an asshole slipping something into Deena’s drink once.

The man likely wouldn’t do it again. Luckily, she hadn’t been watching and his friend Javier had changed the drink and kept her occupied while Eric dealt with the situation.

“For which I’m eternally grateful. Are you doing the same thing here? Are you trying to watch over her?”

Again, he couldn’t lie to Sean. “I’m trying to keep every other man in the world off her so I can have her for myself.”

Sean sighed. “I wish I could help you, but the training partners have already been selected. Ian is very strict about the pairing process. He and Kai Ferguson spent hours selecting the proper partner for each trainee and I don’t think he’s going to be swayed.”

So he’d hit a wall here. When he couldn’t go through a wall, he went around it. “Thank you, sir. I’ll contact Ian on my own.”

Sean rolled his eyes. “God save me from freaking upstanding SEALs. You’ve already got Deena. I would have made sure of it, but Kai put you two together, which means he thinks you’re a good match. Actually, so do I. I think she needs someone like you in her life. She needs someone who can be patient with her. I was worried when I found out she’d taken the Sanctum offer.”

“She’s curious. I think she believes she’s going to go out there and sow some wild oats, but she’ll end up getting hurt.”

“She’s not the kind of woman who can have a string of one-night stands and come out of it whole,” Sean agreed. “She’s a one-man woman who happened to get the wrong man and now she’s determined to change. It could go seriously wrong.”

“I don’t intend to allow that to happen.” He had plans and being Deena’s Dom was the perfect way to set them in motion. Patience. In his SEAL team, he’d been the best sniper because he could sit motionless for hours at a time. One assignment he’d stayed in his perch for a week before taking out his target. He’d smelled like hell at the end and sometimes he was sure his spine had been permanently messed up, but he’d gotten the job done.

He would get this one done too. After all, this was the most important mission of his life. This was the rest of his life. He’d served his country and now he wanted his prize. Her.

Sean stood and held out his hand. “I’m glad to hear it. But whatever you do don’t tell my brother you intend to steal that girl. This whole program is about bringing in singles because everyone is pairing off and he’s got Doms who need subs to play with. So don’t mention the whole ‘you’re in love with her’ thing.”

Eric felt a grin slide across his face as he shook his boss’s hand. He wouldn’t admit it, but getting Sean’s approval was important to him. He would still have gone after Deena, but he was damn happy to know he had Sean’s blessing. “Not only will I not tell Big Tag, I think I’ll keep it from Deena for a while.”

“You know, I would have thought you would fight the whole love thing.”

Not at all. He hadn’t even thought about fighting it. When he’d seen her, gotten close to her, he’d known she was the one. “I’m not a stupid man. I’ve seen some bad shit. I know a good thing when it comes along and I’ve learned that good things are worth fighting for.”

And tonight, he started the real fight of his life.

* * * *

“What is up with Eric? He’s in a weird mood tonight.” Deena locked her purse up and turned to Tiffany, hoping and praying that her friend couldn’t tell that she felt all flushed and anxious because merely being in the same room with that man was enough to get her hormones flowing. Yes, being near the man did that to her and then he’d gone and called her sweetheart in that deep as night voice of his. She’d damn near had an orgasm right there.

Could the sound of a man’s voice cause her womb to spasm? It seemed to.

Tiffany looked in the mirror of the employee lounge and smoothed down her hair. Her hands had small flecks of paint still on them, as though she’d gotten up from her easel to come to work, which she very likely had done. She was an artist and she painted every chance she got. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Eric is a tiny bit protective.”

She leaned against the locker and tried not to think about how hot he’d looked. Or how he’d made her feel when he’d called her sweetheart. “I suppose, though he should stick to the kitchen. He doesn’t understand what goes on in the front of house. He should keep his nose out of it.”

His gorgeous, masculine nose that went so well with his face and his ridiculously large body.

She had to remind herself of all the reasons she wasn’t getting involved with him. A—She wasn’t getting involved with anyone. She was so over involvement. B—He was too much. Too gorgeous. Too masculine. Too sexy. She couldn’t keep Eddie around. There was no way she would be able to satisfy a man like Eric Vail. C—She didn’t play where she worked.

She pretty much didn’t play at all, but now that she was going to, it wouldn’t be with a man she had to work with. Especially not the sous chef. If it came down to a choice, there was zero question who would win. Servers were easy to find. Eric’s brisket was not.

Tiffany’s eyes widened. “I wouldn’t say that around the man if I were you. You know you’re going to have to watch that if you’re going to survive the training program.”

A little thrill went through her. It all started tonight. “Watch what? And I think I can handle the training program. I’m looking forward to it.”

She’d been counting the days since she’d been accepted. When Grace Taggart had explained that Sanctum was taking new trainees and they would allow Top employees to train in exchange for later work at the club, she’d jumped at the chance. Sanctum was the single most exclusive club in Texas. It wasn’t something she could ever afford and now all she had to do was wait tables once a week and she got a membership? Count her in.

Maybe, just maybe, she could find an outlet, have some fun. Maybe she could find a lover. Oh, not a lover as in she would love him. She was totally done with that. But someone she could try sex with. Put her toe back in that deep, scary pond she’d nearly drowned in.

“The first time you turn that mouth on your training Dom, you’re going to get a real not erotic spanking,” Tiffany said with a shake of her head.

Tiffany was going in with her. She was so happy to not do this alone. She gave her friend a saucy grin. “You are absolutely as untrained as me so you don’t know.”

Tiffany chuckled. “Yes, well I’ve read way more romance novels than you have. In Amber Rose’s books the Doms always get spanky when the subs talk smack. And from what I’ve heard, those Doms are based on the Sanctum Doms, so you should watch out.” She sobered a bit. “And you can’t talk that way around any of them. Not when it comes to work. It won’t matter that Chef has nothing to do with the training program. It will get back to him that you’re the brat of the class, and how is that going to make you feel?”

She hadn’t even thought about that, but it didn’t matter. “I’m going to behave perfectly. I’m not going into this on a whim. I want to explore and find myself, and this is a safe way to do it. I’m only being mouthy because Eric is going to cost me money.”

“Who’s being mouthy about what?” Ally strode through the door, ready for work. She had a smile on her lips and damn it, but the girl glowed a bit. There was no question what put the sunny expression on that girl’s face.

Sex. Sex with a superhot ex-soldier who adored her. Ally was married to Macon Miles, the pastry chef who apparently could do way more for a girl than ice a cupcake.

Tiffany pointed Deena’s way. “That one about you know who.”

Ally opened her locker and slid her bag inside. “What did Eric do? Did he finally ask her out for real?”

“He’s never asked me out and that’s a good thing because I would be forced to turn him down.” For all of her alphabetical reasons.

But mostly because he scared the holy hell out of her.

“He’s totally asked you out,” Tiffany replied. “He’s just sneaky about it.”

She shook her head because she wasn’t sure what she would do with an Eric who was actively pursuing her. And she couldn’t remember a single time he’d asked out. “No. He’s never wanted to date me.”

Ally shook her head. “That’s so sad. I thought I was unaware. You take the cake, D.”

What were they talking about? “I’m rarely alone with the man and honestly he doesn’t pay that much attention to me.”

The one time she’d been alone with him, she’d nearly fallen all over herself trying to get ready because he’d shown up twenty minutes early to pick her up for work. She’d been expecting Tiffany, but she’d opened the door and her tongue had nearly rolled out of her mouth because he’d stood there looking so lickable it hurt.

She’d rushed to get ready because the last thing she wanted was for Eric to truly understand how pitifully she lived. He would see her threadbare furniture and how crappy her décor was. He would likely wonder what the hell she did with her money, and she wasn’t about to admit she was still paying off debt from her first marriage.

Luckily, Eric Vail was practically Captain America. He was all moral and upstanding and would never stoop to spy on a fellow employee so she’d been safe. When she’d rushed out of her bedroom, he’d been standing by the door. He probably hadn’t moved the whole time.

He wasn’t a bad boy and she was going out to find herself one. A bad boy couldn’t break her heart. A bad boy might be able to make her feel like a woman. Even if it was only for an hour or two. That was all she needed from a man, all she would accept.

“You know all those times he’s asked if you have anything to do this weekend and do you want to hang out at his place? Or hey, a bunch of the gang’s going to see a movie. Why don’t you come?”

“He’s only being nice.” He was a sincerely nice man. He cared about his coworkers. He watched out for them. Sometimes he beat the shit out of people. He thought she hadn’t known what he was doing to the dirtbag who’d tried to roofie her drink. He’d even told her that he was only holding the guy until the police came, but she wasn’t an idiot. That dude had not gotten a black eye by himself.

But he would have done that for anyone. Right?

Ally laughed. “He’s not being nice. Don’t get me wrong, I like Eric, but I don’t know that I would call the man nice. It’s his way of getting close to you. You won’t let him in any other way. He actually asked you out once. He asked you if you were free on Monday about two weeks after you hired on.”

She remembered the day. She’d smiled and told him that she had classes on Mondays. “Oh, no. He was asking me because everyone was putting in an extra shift to get the new tables in.”

Ally groaned. “She’s extremely good at rewriting history. No. He asked if you wanted to grab something to eat. He didn’t work that day.”

Had she misinterpreted him so badly? Had Captain America asked her out? She shivered at the thought and about half of it was from fear. “No. I can’t go out with him.”

Tiffany shot her an incredulous look. “Why? He’s a stand-up guy.”

Because she wanted him. Because she dreamed about him at night. Because she no longer trusted her own instincts. “I’m not attracted to him.”

“So you stare at him because you’re not attracted to him?” Ally asked. “Because most of us like to look at the guys we’re attracted to.”

Why wouldn’t they let this be? “I don’t stare at him.” She did it all the time. She would catch a glimpse of the man and not be able to look away. She would walk into the kitchen and he would be stirring something or working over the hot stove and she would stand there for a minute before remembering what she’d come in to do. “Or if I do, it’s me zoning out and he happens to be standing there. I wouldn’t be surprised if he moved into my line of sight just so everyone will think I’m staring at him.”

Tiffany looked over at Ally, her mouth open. “Is she serious?”

“She’s ridiculous and she’s scared out of her mind and I have to wonder how she got past the shrink.” Ally frowned. “You didn’t lie to Kai, did you? Because he’s an avowed sadist and that could go poorly for you.”

She wasn’t sure she was ready for a sadist, but a baby Dom would do. “I was honest with him. I told him what I want. I want to explore my own sexuality and see if this lifestyle can help me find some of the things I need. Like self-confidence.”

Tiffany wrapped her up in a hug. “I think it will, sweetie. I think it might help both of us.”

“Self-confidence?” Ally seemed confused. “You have a ton of confidence.”

Ally hadn’t known her as long as Tiffany. “I am very good at faking it.”

“The divorce took a lot more than cash from Deena,” Tiffany said, squeezing her again before going back to fixing her hair. “It took her confidence in herself and men.”

“I’ve never had confidence in men,” Deena admitted. A faithless father had taken that long before her ex-husband had done his damage.

Ally sat down on the small couch and sighed. “Well, maybe the training program will do more for you than you think because a good Dom can restore your faith in men. Have either one of you heard who you’ve been partnered with? You probably won’t know their names but Macon might.”

“Does Macon know who’s in the program with us?” Deena was certainly curious.

Ally shook her head. “It’s all very confidential. Only the Taggarts know who they invited. You and Tiffany probably aren’t supposed to talk about it.”

“We’re only talking about it with each other and you,” Tiffany argued. “I hope we don’t have to share. I heard there’s an extreme lack of single Doms.”

“It’s kind of both ways,” Ally explained. “The way I hear it, there are some powerful members without subs to play with and the subs who are willing to play want more choices. It all makes Big Tag irritable and then he needs a pie. I swear Macon is like his bartender except with sweets.”

“Where does he put it all?” Tiffany asked. “Because there isn’t an ounce of fat on that man. I’m happy to go to Sanctum to watch that man in a pair of leathers. Not that I would do more than watch because his wife is super scary. I want to be her when I grow up.”

“Everyone wants to be her,” Ally agreed. “And I don’t think you’re going to share baby Doms. I overheard Kai talking to Big Tag about how happy he is with the partnership selection process. I’ve heard a rumor that Kai thinks at least one of the pairs is a perfect match. And don’t tell anyone I said that because my husband will take a spatula to my butt. What happens at Sanctum is supposed to stay at Sanctum.”

She wished that perfect match well because she intended to play. “I’m looking forward to tonight and the coming weeks. I hope my baby Dom is a seriously bad boy. I want him hot and nasty because I intend to have sex with him.”

She was going to figure out why Ally glowed when she walked into a room. Why Grace Taggart lit up when she saw her husband. She wanted to know why a woman truly chased after a man.

She’d kind of fallen in with Eddie. She couldn’t say it was a mad love story. She’d started high school and met Eddie and five years later she’d married him because she’d had nothing better to do. It had seemed like it was time.

She wanted to know what it felt like to lust after a guy. What it felt like to truly want someone.

Ally stared her way. “You think that’s a good idea? You might not like him.”

Whoever he was he would be Kai Ferguson approved, and that gave her some confidence. Kai was smart and cared about the people he counseled. He wouldn’t put her with someone she wasn’t compatible with. “I’ll like him.”

“Like you like Eric?” Tiffany asked.

She was pretty sure she turned beet red. “I don’t. I mean I like him because he’s nice, but I don’t like like him.”

She totally like liked him. She simply wasn’t going to act on her like liking.

“I have to ask you why.” Ally moved forward, her eyes steady on Deena. “Eric is amazing. I know he’s a little scary, but he’s also wonderful.”

She caught on the part she could use. “He can be scary when he wants to be.”

The door opened again and Jenni bounced in. “Oooo, are we talking about Eric? He’s totally scary. The other day I very innocently mentioned that his mole sauce needed salt and I’d put some in for him and I nearly peed my pants when he looked at me.”

Deena’s jaw dropped. “You’re lucky you didn’t get your ass fired. You don’t screw with a chef’s sauce.”

Jenni shrugged. “Chef yelled at me for a long time and I cried and then everything was all right. And it needed salt.”

Now there was a girl who would get her ass spanked if she ever tried to take a training class. “Yeah, well, he should be scary when you do that.”

“Oh, he’s kind of always scary,” Jenni said. “The scar freaks me out. That is one ugly dude.”

She got in the twenty-year-old, never had a real problem in the world until Daddy made her get a job’s face. “Don’t you dare call him that, you shallow bitch.”

Jenni’s eyes were huge in her face and she took a step back. “Okay, now you’re scary. I’m going to go and set up for dinner.”

She rushed back out.

“Hey, we all know Jenni’s got issues. There’s no need to start a fight,” Tiffany said, her voice calm.

“She’s a mean girl and I don’t like mean girls.” She couldn’t stand bullies.

“Don’t be so hard on her. She’s young and this is her first real experience outside a prep school.” Ally frowned and looked over at the door.

“I can make it her last.” She had no right to call Eric ugly. It was false in the first place. That scar made him heroic, manly. There was nothing wrong with that man’s face. Absolutely nothing.

“Please don’t.” Ally put a hand on her shoulder. “She’s the daughter of one of Ian Taggart’s biggest clients. He got her the job and she’s usually all right at it. Since they moved her to the hostess station, she’s been okay.”

“She spends all her time flirting.”

“She’s also excellent at table management and she’s good at making sure we all get customers,” Tiffany said with finality. “That girl can smell a good tipper from a mile away and she spreads out the wealth. It’s a thing that brings harmony to all of us, so let’s ignore the fact that she’s not interested in your honey.”

“He’s not my honey.” After tonight she wouldn’t have to worry about it. “And he’s not interested in me. We’re friends and coworkers.”

And that was the way it was going to stay.

Copyright 2015 DLZ Entertainment, LLC