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Copyright © August 2012 by Nona Raines
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Editor: Rory Olsen
Cover Artist: Ginny Glass
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Once again, thanks to my critique partners Denise and Suemarie for their patience and assistance in seeing this book through several revisions. I’d also like to thank Paula G. for taking time to answer my questions about social services and her insight into the profession.
“It’s nothing you’ve done wrong, Bella Mia.” Philip spoke softly. “But it’s time to move on. For both of us.”
Too stunned to speak, Mia gaped at him in disbelief. Her hand lay limply in his. She hadn’t seen it coming.
For weeks Mia Manetti had looked forward to this dinner at LoFiglio’s, the most exclusive restaurant in Rosemont, NY. But now she wished she was anywhere else.
Oh, it was a beautiful place. Candles glimmered; crisp ivory linens and sparkling crystal graced the tables. Tinkling piano music played softly in the background. Even more glittering than the atmosphere were the other diners, dressed to impress.
But Mia had lost interest in her surroundings. She and Philip had been together for a year. A year of bliss, as far as she was concerned.
And she’d been sure that he felt the same way. Convinced that tonight, on this anniversary of sorts, he’d tell her what she’d been longing to hear from almost the first moment she met him. That he wanted her to be his. Forever.
How could she have been so wrong?
The numbness spread, filling Mia’s chest. She felt distant from herself, as if she were two separate people. One of them sat at the table, speechless, staring stupidly at the man across from her. The other floated on the ceiling and looked down, watching helplessly.
She should do something. But what? Scream, cry, storm out in a rage? A public scene would only embarrass herself and Master Philip.
No. Not her Master. Not anymore. He didn’t want her.
“We had a beautiful year together,” he told her, his voice compassionate but firm. “But now it’s over.”
It had been beautiful. At last Mia marshaled her scrambled thoughts enough to ask the only question that came to mind. “Why?”
He squeezed her fingers gently. Mia loved the feel of his hand on her, touching her hair, her face. She loved his low, gravelly voice—hearing it always made her feel safe, as though he’d wrapped her in velvet. And she loved his handsome face—the square shape of it, the cleft in his chin. His dark hair was graying at the temples and perhaps thinning a bit, but that made no difference to Mia. The thirty-odd-year age difference between them didn’t matter, either. He was everything she wished for in a Master.
If she thought it would change his mind, she’d sink to her knees before him, right here in LoFiglio’s in front of everyone: the women in their jewels, the men in their designer suits, the elegant waiters. She wouldn’t be ashamed, although a public display would be against everything Master Philip had taught her. It would be wrong to involve the unsuspecting diners in something private between Master and slave.
And it wouldn’t do any good. Once Philip made up his mind about something, there was no changing it.
Most people wouldn’t understand their relationship. Mia hadn’t understood until she met Master Philip. But meeting him had changed her life, had given her everything she never knew she wanted.
She had to do something. Reason with him, argue. She couldn’t let him go without a fight. As though he could read her thoughts, Master Philip spoke in a voice that was quiet but firm. “Remember, your actions reflect on me, Bella Mia.”
She had no chance to respond, because Philip’s gaze lifted to someone standing near her shoulder. “Good evening, Francesco.”
Mia went still and glanced quickly to the man standing above her. Most of the world knew Francesco Ryan as a successful real-estate developer. Only a select few, those who frequented Club Restraint, knew him as Master Chess, a sexual Dominant.
Chess had a compelling aura of self-confidence that made it easy to forget that he wasn’t quite handsome. He was tall, his form sleek—he was a greyhound rather than a Labrador retriever. His dark blond hair had a stylish cut that looked artfully mussed. He was as impressive tonight in his dark gray suit as he was in the black leather he sported at the club.
“I’m having dinner with a few friends,” he said, his gaze flickering from Philip to Mia and to their clasped hands on the table. “I wanted to say hello.”
“How are you?” Philip asked, his voice a warm rumble. It was more than a polite phrase. His interest was genuine. He cared about his friends. He was that kind of man. He squeezed Mia’s fingers gently to comfort her during this brief interruption, to show that he cared about her as well.
If he cares so much, why is he letting me go?
Anger spurted through her, as caustic as lye. A wave of fear followed. She’d never been angry with Philip before. But then, she’d never had a reason to be.
“I’m well, thank you.” Chess glanced at Mia once again. “Hello, Mia.”
She inclined her head and twisted her mouth into something she hoped resembled a smile. She simply couldn’t speak.
Chess took it all in, seemed to know exactly what was happening, what she was feeling. “I won’t disturb you any longer. Have a good evening.”
She felt rather than saw him take one last look at her before he returned to his table.
Mia fingered the delicate gold chain around her neck, the lovely necklace that Philip had given her. The world saw it merely as a pretty item of jewelry. Only Mia knew it was a slave collar, though a temporary one, that marked her as her Master’s possession. She wore it every day, at work, out in public. It reminded her who she belonged to. Who she served. It made her feel cared for. Loved.
Tonight she should have been trading her temporary collar for the permanent one her Master would bestow. But now her throat would be bare. The collar belonged to Master Philip, and it was only right that she return it to him. She looked across the table at him, and he read the questi
Affection? Affection was what one felt for a pet or a friend’s child. What she felt for Master Philip went far beyond that.
But she straightened her spine, took a breath, and struggled for control. Leaning in, she said softly, “Sir, if it’s something I’ve—”
He shook his head impatiently. “I told you; it’s nothing you’ve done.” Philip’s tone snapped with impatience, like the crack of a whip. Subject closed. Mia drew back abruptly. Fine. No more discussion.
After all, she had her pride. She was an independent woman. She went to work every day, had her own apartment, paid her own bills. It’s not the end of the world. There were other Masters. It would take time, but eventually she’d find someone who—
The bit of food Mia had ingested rose in her gorge. Who was she kidding? She’d never find anyone like Philip. She didn’t want to.
Philip withdrew his hand from her grasp, just as he was withdrawing from her life. “You’ve served me well and always made me proud.”
But that couldn’t be true. She must have failed him somehow. Why else would he let her go?
Was she was too eager to please, too compliant? Maybe he wanted someone with more spark, someone who challenged him. A brat.
Maybe he’d grown tired of her.
Maybe there was someone else.
The cold hand of fear squeezed her chest. No. It couldn’t be. Philip would never—
Mia’s eyes were hot and gritty. She looked down at the decoratively plated meal that suddenly resembled a smear of paint on a canvas. Swallowing hard, light-headed, she rose abruptly. “Excuse me. I need to—”
She wanted to run to the ladies’ room. But no, she walked in a very dignified and deliberate manner as the all the diners in her line of vision melted into a blur.
As soon as she entered the lounge, Mia swept past the red velvet tufts that served as seats along the mirror-lined walls. If the dining area of LoFiglio’s was understated elegance, the ladies’ lounge was over-the-top opulence in scarlet and gold.
There was no time to admire the setting. She hurried into a stall and vomited up what little she had in her stomach. She returned to the lounge area, her throat raw. Mia went to a sink, trying to ignore her reflection as she cupped her hand under the faucet to rinse her mouth.
A voice came from beside her. “Miss…”
Mia looked up at the attendant, a tiny woman with a weathered face and gentle eyes. She held out a box of tissues. “Maybe you’d like some of these.”
Mia took the box, grateful for the small act of kindness. This lady must have seen it all. “Thank you.” She used a few tissues to dab at her red-rimmed eyes and blow her nose.
“He’s not worth it,” the attendant told her. “None of them are.”
Mia smiled. “This one is.”
She tossed the used tissues, then smoothed the red silk sheath over her hips. She’d maxed out her credit card for it, but the dress flattered her, actually giving a womanly shape to the boyish body she so despaired of.
Not that it made any difference now.
Mia smoothed back her short black hair and opened her purse to retrieve a comb and compact. She repaired her smeared mascara as best she could. No amount of powder would hide her swollen eyes or red nose.
Did Philip have someone else? Pain sliced through her at the possibility. An image flashed in her mind of Philip with some faceless woman who didn’t need fashion tricks to give her a shape. Some woman who—
The gold chain circling Mia’s neck winked at her in the mirror, mocking her.
She stared at her reflection and made a decision. “Could you help me?” she asked the lounge attendant.
Mia gestured to the clasp at the back of her neck. “Could you undo that for me?”
“I’ll try. These old fingers of mine get a little clumsy…”
A minute or two later, the delicate gold chain lay in Mia’s palm. “There you go, dear.”
“Thank you.” As Mia gazed at it, pain gnawed at her breastbone. She dropped it into her purse. She would never wear it again.
Mia gave the attendant a five-dollar bill, thanked her, and slipped out of the lounge. Yes, she was a coward, but she couldn’t go back to the table. She didn’t want to disrespect Master Philip. But torn by confusion, sadness and, yes, anger, she couldn’t face him now. Now that they had no future.
She’d ask the doorman to hail a cab to take her home.
As she turned toward the lobby she bumped, almost literally, into Chess Ryan. He appeared suddenly, as if he’d been waiting right outside the ladies’ lounge.
“Oh!” She stepped backward in surprise, wobbling on her high heels. Chess steadied her, his hands warm on her bare arms, his gray eyes fixed on her face.
“I didn’t, uh, didn’t expect you—”
“Have you been crying?” His voice was rough. He sounded angry.
“I’m not feeling well,” she murmured, looking away.
His fingers flexed briefly on her skin and then fell away as he withdrew. “Let me take you back to your table.”
“No!” Mia cried, panic-stricken. His eyebrows flew up, and she immediately calmed herself. “I mean, no, thank you. I’m going home now.”
His brow lowered, and his gaze drifted to her bare throat. Something flashed in his eyes. She was shaken, as though he’d seen her nude.
Though one of the most respected Doms at Restraint and one of the most popular, he had never done more with Mia than exchange a few pleasantries. Master Philip wasn’t into sharing, and neither was she.
But now he said, “I’ll take you home.”
“They’re not really friends. Business acquaintances, more like. I’ll make my excuses.” Before Mia could even think what to say next, he quickly took charge. “Wait for me right here. We’ll leave in a moment.”
She could have easily slipped away while he said good night to his dinner companions, but for some reason Mia waited, just as Chess told her. She had no idea why. Was it easier to simply let someone else take charge? Or perhaps Chess’s attention soothed the hurt of Philip’s rejection?
A dull ache throbbed behind Mia’s left eye. She was almost grateful for the distraction it provided from the pain in her soul.
Chess appeared again, his expression still taut with simmering anger.
“Your friends weren’t upset?” she asked.
He shrugged as if it made no difference. “They’re fine.” He paused a moment. “I spoke to Philip.”
Her steps faltered. “You didn’t—”
“I only told him I’m taking you home. He was fine with it.”
Fine with it. Another hurt, another small sign that Philip no longer wanted her.
In spite of Chess’s abrupt manner, he was most gentle as he took her by the arm. “Come, Mia. We’re leaving.”
AFTER TELLING HIM her address, Mia had nothing to say on the drive home, and Chess didn’t push. Her bare throat and stricken expression told him all he needed to know. He kept a tight rein on his own anger so as not to upset her further, but he couldn’t help wondering what the hell was wrong with Philip.
How could he just let Mia go with no explanation?
Chess remembered the startling sting of jealousy he felt when he first saw them together at Restraint. That wasn’t like him at all. Mia was appealing, sure, and if she’d been available, he’d have enjoyed playing with her. But he’d played with plenty of willing subs, some of them real knockouts. So why did Mia get him going?
He thought of the way she looked at Philip as if the sun rose and set on him. Could it be that he, Chess Ryan, wanted a woman to gaze on him with that kind of admiration and love? As if he were Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and George Clooney rolled into one. But she’d always been off-limits because she belonged to Philip.
She’s not off-limits now. Chess frowned
“Here it is.” Mia’s voice was low as she pointed out the multiunit building where she lived. He pulled into the lot and accompanied her inside. Without speaking, they climbed to the second floor and stopped in front of Mia’s door.
“Thank you,” she murmured as she unlocked the door.
Before she crossed the threshold, he spoke. “Mia.”
When she turned toward him, he told her, “Look at me.”
She lifted her beautiful brown eyes to meet his gaze, and he took her hands in his. “You will have another Master, Mia. And when he finds you, I hope he realizes what a lucky man he is.”
As she stared at him, he felt as though he could look into her eyes forever. A shiver went through her and passed to him before they pulled away simultaneously. She fumbled with her keys and finally managed to slip them back into her purse. “Thank you,” she repeated, stepping quickly inside and closing the door quietly but firmly.
As though she wanted to escape him.
The young woman flipped her hair back over her shoulder. “Yeah, Miz Manetti, it’s goin’ real good.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Mia leaned back in the chair behind her desk. The two women were seated in Mia’s cubicle in the Social Services office, where Mia served as a caseworker. On the other side of the desk sat her client Serina Dawes. They were discussing Serina’s recent success in finding a job, with Mia’s help.
“Yeah, yeah.” The young woman bounced in her chair with the excitement of a child. Mia had to smile. In these past two months without her Master, she rarely felt like smiling, but Serina’s enthusiasm was infectious.
Serina had come to the Department of Social Services like a number of clients—a sixteen-year-old single mom with little education, few skills, and a whole lot of attitude.
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