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Ava pushed through the door of the small cafe on Columbus Avenue. The rich scent of coffee hit her right away, along with the pungent aroma of garlic that seemed to be everywhere in North Beach, San Francisco's Italian district. She paused, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dim, gray light filtering in through the windows. To take a breath, to allow her heartbeat to calm. It wasn't working. She looked around the cafe, full of the casual Sunday-afternoon crowd. They hadn't arrived yet. Relief ran warm in her body, mixing with the exquisite tension that had been with her for several days, ever since her conversation with Marina about what she needed.
What she needed. She wasn't used to thinking in those terms, not in any sort of thorough way. She'd spent her whole adult life in a battle between what she desired and what she thought she should do. What other people thought she should do. Her family. Michael. Which had left her in a nowhere place she still hadn't figured out how to escape from. Not that BDSM was all about escape for her. She was looking for something deeper.
She'd read about subspace, that trancelike state often reached during bondage or sensation play where a person's mind could let go, get in touch with his or her deeper self. Perfect, blissful release. She knew it was what she yearned for, that it might help her clarify what she wanted, help her work through some of her old issues, but she hadn't quite figured out how to do it. Marina said she thought she had an answer.
She had come to trust Marina, even though they'd known each other only a few months. They'd met at Pinnacle, one of the most exclusive BDSM clubs in San Francisco, and Marina had quickly become a mentor and a friend. Now she was introducing Ava to one of her oldest friends from Pinnacle, someone she'd met there and known for a number of years. Marina believed he was one of the best at what they did: Shibari, the ancient and beautiful ritual of Japanese rope bondage.
Ava paused, looking for an empty table. She gave herself a moment to calm down, pulled air into her lungs, held it, blew it out slowly, as she'd been taught to center herself. But her pulse was still humming, her body trembling.
Today, she would meet him.
Would he be her answer? It was hard not to hope.
She didn't know why this felt so different. She'd been with other dominant men before. But Marina had told her this man was special. And something in Ava's body, in her very blood, answered to the sound of his name.
How could she possibly know, even before meeting him, that with him things would be different?
She hoped it wasn't anything so mundane.
Making her way between the tables, she found one miraculously empty right by the window. Taking her coat off, she sat down and stared out through the glass. It was the usual gray March day in San Francisco. But she wasn't looking at the weather. No, she was looking for Marina. And she was looking for him.
Marina had told her about him, but not nearly enough for this sort of utter certainty. She knew he was forty years old, older than she was by eleven years. Knew he was a software designer, had his own company. And more important, she knew Marina was confident that he was the perfect top to give Ava exactly what she needed: absolute release in the Shibari ropes. Her fondest wish. Her deepest unmet need.
She shifted in her chair, adjusted the hem of her dress, tried to smooth down her unruly mop of blond curls, knowing it was a fruitless task.
What would he look like? How would she know him if he arrived before Marina did?
Her gaze went back to the sidewalk outside just as Marina drew the door open. Ava's heartbeat accelerated as the tall, elegant woman with the gorgeous fall of wavy auburn hair spotted her and made her way to the table.
"Ah, I'm glad you found a place to sit, Ava. No, don't get up." Marina pulled her dark trench coat off, hung it over the back of the chair, seated herself, every motion graceful. "Have you been waiting long?"
"Only a few minutes, Marina."
"You don't have to be formal with me today, you know."
Marina chuckled. "You want to obey, even when you don't have to, don't you?"
"I can't help it. Especially knowing you're here to turn me over to someone else. I want . . ."
"You want what?"
"I want to be good for him," Ava said quietly, acutely aware of the other patrons around them. She tugged on one curling strand of hair, twisted it around her finger. She always wanted to be good. More than good. It had been ingrained in her since childhood.
"Of course you do." Marina smiled. "Which is exactly why I'm sending you to Desmond. I think you'll please him. And I think he'll be just what you need. He can give you what I can't."
"I'm sorry. I know this is some sort of failing on my part."
"You have nothing to apologize for; we've discussed this already." Marina leaned toward her, lowered her voice a little, but not enough, Ava thought. "You simply need to be played by a man. You were very good for me. You were good in the ropes, but we both know you weren't able to sink deep enough. You need that sexual element to take you where you need to go. And you and I, Ava, are both far too heterosexual for that dynamic to work between us."
"But you play other women all the time."
"Everyone's needs are different. Yours run deep. But Desmond will love that about you." Marina leaned back in her chair, her smoky gray gaze assessing Ava. She smiled. "He'll love everything about you. You're perfect for him, really. I don't know why it didn't occur to me sooner. And he'll be perfect for you. The only other rope master I trust."
They paused while Marina ordered their coffees and one for Desmond from the young waitress who stopped at their table. Marina was a natural dominant; people automatically deferred to her. Ava admired that in her, but it was nothing she wanted for herself. She was far too submissive by nature. She'd never wanted it any other way.
Marina was just the opposite. And she was an expert with the ropes, a master, what was called nawashi in Shibari rope bondage. But she was right. There was something missing in the energy between them. What it was exactly, Ava didn't know. How could she? She'd never managed to reach that clear and lovely floating place she imagined deep subspace to be. That place of meditation, freedom. She'd come close several times, but no one yet had been able to take her as deeply as she needed to go. That perfect release lay always just out of her grasp.
Maybe this time, with this man. This master of the ropes.
"He's here," Marina said quietly.
Ava immediately rose to her feet, keeping her eyes on the table. She didn't dare look at him. Her pulse was a hot, hammering blur in her veins.
"Good girl," she heard Marina murmur, and felt the answering shiver of pleasure run up her spine.
"Marina." His voice was deep, held the edge of an accent. Scottish, maybe?
"Desmond, it's good to see you. This is the girl I talked with you about, Ava Gregory."
He was quiet a moment, but she could feel the intensity of his gaze, looking her over. She held her breath, hoped he found her pleasing.
What would she do if he refused her?
Her heart tumbled in her chest.
He stepped closer, until she could smell him: dark and musky, like the clean, pure earth.
Then a fingertip lifted her chin and she was forced to raise her eyes to his. Green eyes, like dark, glossy moss. They seemed to see right through her. Shifting her focus, she took in his face, his dark hair swept back from high cheekbones that were a little sharp, a well-defined jaw, a wicked-looking goatee framing his lush mouth. Almost too lush in comparison to the hard male features, making him seem all the more ruggedly beautiful. Intimidating.
She had never expected him to be beautiful.
She had never expected her body to begin this hot, melting sensation from the first glance, the first hint of his scent. But she was going weak all over, her stomach, her heartbeat, fluttering. And she was dimly aware that all of this was happening to her in the middle of a cafŽ, in the middle of the day, with other people, everyday life, going on around them.
"Ava." Marina's voice. "This is Desmond Hale, my fellow rope master, my trusted friend."
"Beautiful," he murmured.
He was looking into her eyes, making her tremble. Making her feel as though nothing about her could be kept secret from him. And more than that, she felt power. It radiated from him like some palpable thing.
Marina, a formidable dominant herself, wore an air of authority. Ava had recognized it, responded to it, immediately. But even with Marina she hadn't felt this sense of being completely overpowered. And when he brushed one finger along her cheekbone, she had to press her thighs together to ease the ache there.
Oh, yes. This man could be exactly what she needed. Craved. And more.
"She's even lovelier than you led me to expect, Marina." Yes, definitely a Scottish accent, making him seem all the more exotic. "And so tiny. Like a doll. Yes, exactly like a porcelain doll. Beautiful pale skin."
"Desmond, why don't you sit down? I've ordered coffee for you. Ava?"
Ava nodded, sinking back into her chair as Desmond took his seat across from her. She could feel his unwavering gaze on her. Searching. Intense.
"Ava, we're not in role now, do you understand?" Desmond said to her quietly. "We need to talk, to come to an agreement about what we need and can expect from each other."
"Yes, Sir, I understand." She'd been through this sort of negotiation with other dominants she'd played with before. It was standard practice among people in the lifestyle. But she felt so completely awkward now. What was wrong with her?
He watched her closely for a moment, leaning toward her in his chair, and she caught his scent on the air again.
"You're very submissive, aren't you?"
She nodded her head. "It's always been natural for me. There's never been any confusion for me about that."
"Marina's told me a little about you, but I want to hear from you. Talk to me, Ava. Tell me about yourself. About how you came into the lifestyle. What you've experienced, what you understand about what we do."
"I've been exploring these things my whole adult life. Power exchange. Bondage."
Was she really saying these things out loud, surrounded by people who would probably be shocked to know what they were discussing? But it didn't matter as much as it should have, somehow.
"And how old are you?"
"I was . . . one of those kids who had strange thoughts, even as young as eight or nine. I had fantasies about being kidnapped and tied up. But it was never frightening to me. Does that make sense?"
"Absolutely. I dreamed of kidnapping pretty girls and tying them up at that age." He laughed, making her smile. Making her bones go warm and loose.
"Well . . . I did a lot of reading. Fiction, of course, but also some of the instruction books, over the years. I went to my first club five years ago." Yes, just leave out that one other detail; no reason to tell this man about her experiences with Michael, how he had made her question herself in such a harsh light. "It took me a while to . . . be brave enough."
"Where was that?"
"In Seattle. That's where I'm from."
"You have family there?"
"Yes. My parents are still there, my sister, Andrea. I don't talk to them much. Is that . . . important?"
She wasn't sure what he wanted from her, where this was going.
"Every aspect of your life is relevant. Any of life's experiences can affect how we feel about ourselves, about our sexuality, and in particular how a submissive responds during a scene. So, yes. It's important that I know as much as possible about you. But we'll talk more about your family another time."
Ava nodded. It made sense.
"Tell me what your experience in the Seattle club was like. How did you respond?"
"It was confusing at first, a little overwhelming, as I suppose it would be for anyone, but good. It was what I wanted; I knew that right away. People say some things are better left as fantasy, but not for me."
He smiled again then, a slow, spreading grin taking over that lush mouth, and pleasure washed over her simply knowing he was happy with her answers.
The waitress came, set their cups on the table. Desmond took his with one packet of sugar, she noted.
Marina was watching them quietly, but Ava was focused on Desmond. She could barely look away long enough to add cream to her coffee with shaking hands.
"But . . . I've never gone far enough. I've never gone deep enough. I feel as though I hit the edge of subspace, my mind begins to let go, and then I'm pulled back into reality, a thousand thoughts racing through my brain, almost as if . . . my mind is defending me from seeing what's really in there. In those deep places. I struggle with it. I try to give in but . . . I don't know why it won't quite work for me. I mean, maybe I understand some of it, but . . . should I go into detail right now?"
"We can talk more about it as we go. Just tell me a bit about your experiences with bondage."
"Well . . ." She sipped her coffee, even though it was really still too hot, scalding her tongue a little.
"I've played with some people who were very good, with cuffs and chains, harnesses. Even some rope. But until Marina it was never the formal Shibari, which is what appeals most to me. To be decorated that way. For the binding itself to mean something. And I need someone who can stay with me. I mean, I think I need to be bound and made to stay there for hours. I don't understand these people who go to the clubs, tie someone up, then immediately let them go and it's over. I don't get the point of that. I'm sorry. Am I . . . am I saying too much?"
She glanced at Marina, who nodded in encouragement.
"These are exactly the things I prefer," Desmond said. "For the ropes to be more than the simple act of binding someone. For the ropes to be beautiful, to be organized into a symbiotic visual and physical form. And I'm a stamina player; I prefer to go for several hours, an entire evening." He paused, lifted his cup, drank. He lowered his voice, his gaze steady on hers. "But we'll have to see what you can really take, Ava."