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Masters and Mercenaries Book 18.5, Sanctum Nights Book 10

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About the book

A snarky submissive princess

Sarah Stevens’s life is pretty sweet. By day, she’s a dedicated trauma nurse and by night, a fun-loving club sub. She adores her job, has a group of friends who have her back, and is a member of the hottest club in Dallas. So why does it all feel hollow? Could it be because she fell for her dream man and can’t forgive him for walking away from her? Nope. She’s not going there again. No matter how much she wants to.

A prince of the silver screen

Jared Johns might be one of the most popular actors in Hollywood, but he lost more than a fan when he walked away from Sarah. He lost the only woman he’s ever loved. He’s been trying to get her back, but she won’t return his calls. A trip to Dallas to visit his brother might be exactly what he needs to jump-start his quest to claim the woman who holds his heart.

A masquerade to remember

For Charlotte Taggart’s birthday, Sanctum becomes a fantasyland of kinky fun and games. Every unattached sub gets a new Dom for the festivities. The twist? The Doms must conceal their identities until the stroke of midnight at the end of the party. It’s exactly what Sarah needs to forget the fact that Jared is pursuing her. She can’t give in to him, and the mysterious Master D is making her rethink her position when it comes to signing a contract. Jared knows he was born to play this role, dashing suitor by day and dirty Dom at night. 

When the masks come off, will she be able to forgive the man who loves her, or will she leave him forever?


Chapter One

In which our erstwhile hero speaks to his brother…and his brother calls him a moron.

Jared Johns settled into the comfy chair in his brother’s office and hoped that his choice of seat didn’t give Kai a reason to start psychoanalyzing him. There really hadn’t been another choice. He kind of thought Kai liked it that way. 

“You haven’t worked in a while,” Kai said, sitting across from him. “How does that make you feel?”

Jared sighed. It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d refused to sit down. His big brother was a shrink and he psychoanalyzed absolutely everyone. “It makes me feel glad I invested wisely. I did not come here to ask for cash. I’m good.”

Kai sent him a perfectly innocent look. “I wasn’t implying you came to ask for a loan, Jared. You were on a popular TV show for years. Your last movie part fell through. It’s got to be rough, but you don’t talk about it.”

There were reasons he didn’t talk about his career with his sainted brother. Kai had gone into the military after their mother died and sent back everything he could to support his baby brother. It wasn’t his fault their aunt hadn’t actually given him the cash. Kai had been the one to work his way to a doctorate. Kai was the one who lived a simple life, treating patients with profound PTSD for almost no money at all. Jared had been the one funding him for the last couple of years, though they’d agreed to keep that quiet. 

And he was okay with that because Jared was the one who ran around in spandex and leather pretending to be a superhero. He was the brother known for whole YouTube channels devoted to his workouts. 

“I wish you would talk about it,” Kai said. “I know the last few years had to have been difficult. The show was important to you.”

It had been everything at one point in time. It had been his ticket to a new life. Now it was hard to think about what his dream job had cost others. “Well, it was apparently my fault Dart got canceled.”

Kai settled his glasses on his nose and sat back. “I don’t see how. You got even better at throwing darts around over the years. Your abs stayed tight. I don’t know what happened.”

Yes, this was why he didn’t talk to his brother about his job woes. “The last two seasons’ storylines sucked. The head writer blamed me because his fiancée left him and he tanked the show by sending Dart to jail and making the whole thing into a political statement on the way prisoners are treated.”

Kai nodded. “Yes, I liked that part.”

“I was sent to Stankfield Prison. No one names a prison that.” It had been the single worst year of his life. He’d rapidly learned the power he had with the producer. None. He was supposed to shut up, read his lines, and not get pudgy. 

“You also managed to fashion darts out of any number of things no one can fashion darts out of.”

“I get that you didn’t like the show.” His brother was an overly pretentious intellectual. “I didn’t come here to fight with you. I also didn’t come to have a session.”

Kai leaned over. “I wasn’t trying to fight. I guess I’m not sure how to talk to you. I’m worried about you. I know you made some money from the show, but that place out in Malibu has to be expensive. And I know you were counting on that racing film.”

Ah, there was the man who’d pretty much raised him. Jared couldn’t even blame him. He’d been a fuckup most of his life. His brother didn’t get that he’d gotten his shit together. “Money is not a problem and honestly, the acting thing I can take or leave at this point. The movie fell through because Josh Hunt hurt his back doing a stunt and they recast the role. When he was no longer doing the film, they suddenly didn’t want me.”

Josh had been his best friend for the last couple of years. Josh had stood by him even when it wasn’t great for his career to do so. Even when the world had been questioning whether or not Jared Johns had something to do with his oldest friend’s hobby. 

Kai stared at him for a moment as though trying to decide how to continue. “Are you sure the lack of work isn’t due to the social media stuff?”

“I’m sure it played its part.” Social media. It was funny how much it had helped him on his way up. He would post a work-out video and get a couple million views. At one point he’d been one of the most followed people in social media. He still had a ton of fans, but he’d discovered the dark side to the web. Not the nasty assholes who came on and told him he should shut up about whatever cause he was trying to help, or the ones who called him arrogant and ugly. He could deal with those people. There was another group. The trolls were the people who sniffed blood and pounced. They caught on to a conspiracy theory and remade reality into a horrible place. 

“Have you thought about suing?” Kai’s mouth went tight. “Because I have. I’ve thought about suing a couple of the fuckers.”

They got on his social media and called him a killer. They spread rumors that he’d killed Squirrel to cover up his own crimes, that he’d been the one to murder those women. It didn’t matter that the police had cleared him. In their world, he paid off witnesses and apparently owned the cops. In their world he would always be guilty and they would protest anyone who hired him. “What good would it do? If I get one blocked, another twelve show up, and it’s probably the same one I blocked in the first place, coming back at me under another name. Social media is anonymous. People can get on and say things they would never say in real life. There’s not a lot I can do about it except continue to be me and not let them drag me into the muck.”

“Or you could let some of your brother’s friends use their talents to find the little fuckers and teach them a lesson.” 

Sometimes he forgot how bloodthirsty Kai could be. He always seemed civilized. He always had been, but there was a dark side to his brother. There was a side that had done well in the Army, that likely would have led to an excellent career there if he hadn’t been so unwilling to indulge that sadistic part of his personality. Kai knew how dark he could get and he managed it, feeding his beast in the best of ways. It didn’t hurt that he’d found the one woman on earth who could complete him. 

“I appreciate that, but it wouldn’t solve the problem.” The fact that his brother wanted to protect him, to avenge him, settled something deep inside Jared. 

“Then what will?” Kai visibly calmed himself. It was something he’d seemed to always be able to do, to turn aside the dark impulses and find his peaceful center. “Because I’m worried you won’t be able to work with all this negativity around you. I know the show aged and it had a good run, but I also think it would have lasted a few more seasons if the scandal hadn’t happened.”

A lot of things would have lasted had Squirrel not turned out to be a raging psychopath, and the least of those was his career. He needed to put his brother’s mind at ease. “Kai, I’m worth a hundred million. I made a lot of money in the last couple of years doing endorsements overseas. Dart was big over there. I still make money doing appearances. I invested most of what I made in the last few seasons. I lived in Vancouver and didn’t spend a dime I didn’t have to. I bought the place in Malibu with cash. I produced a couple of films that did really well.”

The lack of acting work hurt, but he’d learned the game pretty quickly. He’d figured out who his friends were and who had been hanging out to get ahead. His movie career as an actor seemed blocked and he might have missed his chance. He could find a TV gig. He’d been offered a couple despite the crap that still clung to him. Television was where the industry had slotted him. He could go back to working eighty-hour weeks and not seeing anyone outside the cast and crew. That had been enough for him in the beginning. He’d been beloved. The fans had been crazy about him. He’d gotten something from the hype surrounding the show. 

He needed more now. 

“Well, you have a hundred million dollars, so who the fuck cares?” His brother said the words with a sort of hushed awe that had Jared grinning. 

It was good to know he could still shock his brother. Though in a good way this time. “Fuck ’em. I’m fine on the work front. I’ve got a couple of projects in pre-production. The real money is in producing, and I’ve got great ties in the sci-fi world. I want to run some ideas by Kori while I’m here.”

Kai’s wife was a brilliant screenwriter. So brilliant she’d been smart enough to leave LA. Not that he hated LA. He loved parts of it. He just hated the part where he was already seen as a washed-up loser because he wasn’t in a blockbuster film. There were other ways to have a career. 

“I’m surprised. I guess I thought you would find another show after Dart.”

He didn’t fault Kai for thinking that way. After all, he’d spent the majority of his life seeking attention—good or bad. But he’d grown up. “I need something more. I know you think the acting thing was all about narcissism…”

Kai shook his head. “Hey, that is not what I think at all. I do not in any way think you’re a narcissist. Quite the opposite. You’re kind, Jared. You think of others. I might have had a lot of baggage when it comes to you, but the last couple of years have shown me what a good person you are. But your personality type requires positive reinforcement.”

It was how he’d gotten in trouble so many times. He knew what Kai saw when he looked at his younger brother. Their father had walked out on them when they were young. Kai had taken over much of the protector role while their mother had worked and worked to keep food on the table. Jared had gone from his mom walking him to school every day and being the room mom, tirelessly showing up on the sidelines of whatever sport he was playing that month, to almost never seeing her at all. He’d needed the attention, and looking for it had almost led to losing his whole family. 

He knew one thing now. “I’ve tried to fill that void with fans, and it doesn’t work because not one of them knows the real me. I think for a long time I loved acting because I didn’t have to be me at all. I had to be whatever character I was playing, and then offscreen I was the actor Jared Johns. I didn’t have to be Jared Ferguson.”

Because Jared Ferguson had been a scared kid. He’d been a fucked-up kid. He’d been selfish and self-centered and lost and so vulnerable it hurt to think about it. 

“You want to be Jared Ferguson again?” Kai asked. 

“It’s taken me a while but yes. I think that’s what’s come out of all of this, out of what happened with Squirrel.” This was the part his brother might not like. “I mentioned I’m making a documentary.”

“I know. I think it’s a good way to examine what happened to you.”

Jared breathed a sigh of relief. He’d been worried his brother would have reservations, and the documentary was absolutely nonnegotiable. “Good. We’ve done the background work on Squirrel and where he came from, how he turned into what he did.”

A killer. Squirrel had been his oldest friend, someone who’d had his back since childhood. It was still hard to think of the things he’d done. 

“I was hoping you would consent to talk about the incident on screen.” He was cautious, knowing he was tiptoeing into a field of landmines where his brother was concerned. Kai was a deeply private individual. “I thought you could talk about things from a psychological perspective.”

His brother’s lips turned down in a prissy frown, though he was sure Kai would object to the word. “I don’t like to go on camera. That’s not what I do.”

He nodded and waved it off like he’d known that would be the reaction. Which he had. “No problem. I thought that’s what you might say. I wanted to give you first dibs. I’ve got another psychologist lined up. Kenny Prewitt. He’s done a couple of documentaries on true crime. Don’t worry about it.”

Kai’s face immediately went a nice shade of red. “That quack? You can’t be serious. He’s not a real psychologist. He’s a nice head of hair. That’s all I can say about that idiot.”

Jared let Kai rant on. He’d known Kenny Prewitt had a long history of clashing with Kai. They’d been in the same doctoral program. Kai had gone into private practice and Ken had found fame as the therapist to the stars. 

Dr. Kenny wasn’t actually doing the documentary. There was no way he was paying what Dr. Kenny asked, and Kai was right about him being nothing more than a good haircut and some really shockingly white veneers that could be hard on his cinematography. But Kai didn’t have to know that. 

“I’ll do it.” Kai pronounced the words with a sigh like he’d known he would have to bail his little brother out again. 

Yeah, score one for the actor. “That’s great, Kai. You were actually there. You’re the one who was involved. I think your input could be invaluable.”

Kai frowned. “That doesn’t mean I should talk about it on camera.”

Jared shrugged. “Dr. Kenny said it might not be good for you. He said you’re probably too close to the subject to be able to talk about it. He had some theories about you he was more than willing to share.”

“I will share my theories with him. I will share them right up his probably bleached asshole, and then we’ll see how he feels,” Kai vowed. 

“Oh, he’s out if you’re in. I just need someone who can talk about the incident from a psychological point of view.” And that person had always been Kai. He had to be sneaky about making sure Kai said yes. 

“Fine. I suppose I’ll have to do it. Are you planning on talking to the other people who were affected?”

“I already have talked to them. That part of the documentary was the most important. It was hard. I talked to each of the victims’ families.” He had to look away or Kai would see how haunted he still was. “It wouldn’t be right if I simply told his story and not theirs.”

“Why wouldn’t you tell me you were seeing the families? I would have come with you to make sure you’re all right. Those women, they were murdered because Squirrel had an obsession with you. A rational person would understand that doesn’t mean you’re at fault.”

“But a father whose daughter was killed because she’d had a brief affair with a TV star isn’t rational.” He had to take a deep breath. “It was terrible and I had to do it. It wasn’t until I showed him how I intended to portray Carrie that he even would meet with me. Mia had to talk to him.”

Mia Taggart had been involved. She’d had a friend who’d died at Squirrel’s hands. At the time she’d thought it was Jared himself doing the killing, crawling across the world like a spider finding his next victim. 

The film was as much about Jared’s own blindness as it was Squirrel’s evil.

Mia had built a bridge between Jared and the victims’ families. She’d convinced them he would do the right thing by their daughters and sisters. He meant to make her proud.

“I don’t cut myself slack,” he admitted. “I knew something was wrong with Squirrel. I knew something was up with the way he treated women, but he was my buddy. Surely he was just blowing off steam. I didn’t think there was any way he could hurt one of them. I want this to be a wake-up call. Men…we can’t let other men off the hook when it comes to this. I know it’s an extreme case, but what would have happened if I’d taken it seriously the first time he catcalled a woman or talked about how he wanted to strangle the ones who nagged too much?”

Kai sent him a sympathetic look. “If I were in your place, I likely would have thought he was joking, too.”

“No, you would have known. You would have asked the pertinent questions. Kai, it’s okay. Part of making this whole documentary is about taking responsibility. I can’t forgive myself until I truly know the wrong I did. I think you told me that once.” He’d learned a lot from his brother. He’d learned that sometimes a man had to be patient. And sometimes patience didn’t work and a man had to press things forward a bit. “Now let’s talk about the other thing I need from you.”

“An invitation to Sanctum?” Kai asked, his lips curling up in a knowing smile. 

There was a reason he needed the invitation. He’d run away from a lot of things when he’d left Dallas last time. “I gave up my membership when I walked away from Sarah.”

Kai studied him for a moment. “You’re ready to try this again?”

“I know she doesn’t want to talk to me, but she agreed to do the documentary. That has to mean something. I won’t hurt her. If she chooses to not play with me, I’ll probably go home and I won’t bother her again. She spoke to me on the phone a couple of months back about the project.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t mention it to me.” Kai was married to Sarah’s best friend. They were deeply entrenched in each other’s daily lives. 

“I suspect she’s embarrassed.” He’d thought for a long time about why Sarah wouldn’t forgive him. “For a couple of months, we regularly talked. And then she stopped all of a sudden.”

“She stopped returning your calls?” Kai asked. “That doesn’t sound like Sarah. She’s not afraid of confrontation. What happened the last time you talked to her?”

He’d gone over it again and again. He’d replayed that phone call a thousand times in his head. “We talked about her day. She’d worked a long shift because of a massive traffic accident. She wanted me to tell her stories about celebrities I’ve met. I think she found that soothing. Especially the ones where they turn out to be assholes, and that’s a surprising number of them.”

“I do not find that surprising at all,” Kai replied. “So you two didn’t argue?”

“No. We were even doing something together. We bought those DNA tests, the ones that tell you where you come from.” It had been a silly thing to do, but they’d spit in the little vial together one night, making fun of each other over a video chat. She’d teased him telling him she was way better at swallowing. They’d been moving forward. “We were betting on who was going to have the more boring ancestry.”

“And then she refused to talk to you?”

“I was gone for three weeks filming in Asia. It’s a streaming movie that comes out next summer. We were in a pretty remote spot and I wasn’t able to keep in touch. But I’d told her I would call her when I got back. I was going to ask her to come out and see me. I thought we’d gotten to be friendly again and maybe it was time to move into something more. I’d cleaned up my personal life entirely. You remember my friend, the one I pretended to date to keep the press off both of us? Well, I explained I couldn’t do it anymore because I needed Sarah to understand she would be the only woman in my life. I was going to explain this to her but when I got back to the States, she refused to take my calls.”

“Something happened,” Kai mused. “Recently. She’s been quieter than normal. When I ask, she simply smiles and tells me nothing’s wrong and I’m being too ‘shrinky,’ as she puts it. That is not a technical term, by the way.”

But it sounded very much like a Sarah term. She was utterly adorable. “She finally replied to an email I sent about the documentary. She agreed to do the interview but she demanded more cash and asked that I not call her again until it was time to film. I don’t understand. She seemed like she was getting over it.”

“Getting over you dumping her?” Kai asked in that tone that let him know he’d said something stupid. “You know that’s a dumbass move when you’re in love with a woman. She tends to take exception.”

He’d had his reasons. They’d seemed like good ones at the time. “I had just found out my friend was a killer and that she’d been his next victim. I had to watch him die. He deserved it, but he was still a big part of my life. Yeah, I needed a time-out. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still want her. It doesn’t mean I don’t think about her every minute of the day. I’ve been celibate. I haven’t touched another woman since before I met her.”

Two and a half years. He hadn’t had sex in two and a half years. Before he’d met Sarah he hadn’t gone two weeks without. The problem was he knew she was the one and he couldn’t cheat on her. If he had any shot at winning her back, at showing her they could work, he had to be serious about their relationship. Even when it didn’t exist. 

Kai was staring at him with something akin to awe. “Are you serious?” 

Jared nodded. “I’m in love with her. It’s wrong to sleep with someone else. This is my last shot. If she can’t find a way to forgive me for walking out the first time, then I’ll try to move on. But I want this chance with her.”

“Well, it’s your lucky day because Ian Taggart called before you came in and wanted me to put together Doms and subs for this big party thing he’s throwing for Charlotte’s birthday…of course. How does he see these things before I do? He knew you were in town, right?”

Big Tag had been one of his first calls. “I asked him if we could do some filming in the building since it’s part of the story.”

“He’s a smart asshole. Well, brother, looks like you get your chance.”

Jared breathed a sigh of relief as Kai started to explain. This was his shot and he was taking it. 

Copyright 2019 Lexi Blake