Read an Excerpt
'The Understudy' by Lisabet Sarai
“It’s him!” Adele tugged at my shirt, almost hard enough to tear it. “Look, Sarah!” She pointed to the shiny black Lincoln cruising around the corner. “I still can’t believe it! We’re really going to have a chance to work with Geoffrey Hart!” The wooden porch shook as my friend literally jumped up and down with excitement. Adele’s temperament matched her fiery hair.
Of course my own heart beat faster than normal as the town car approached the inn at a sedate pace. Geoffrey Hart was a legend in American theatre. Since his first appearance off-Broadway ten years earlier, he had won every award in the world of drama. He’d played every prestigious role from Oedipus to Willy Loman. One summer in Central Park I’d seen him as both Hamlet and King Lear. He was astonishing, equally convincing as the callow, indecisive university student and the bitter, world-weary old man. His magical voice, full of nuance and music, reached the back row without amplification. His body language was eloquent with emotion. In both plays, he’d made me cry. His performances were an inspiration, one of the things that finally made me settle on drama—much to my parents’ chagrin.
I’d been thrilled when the Berk Hills Playhouse offered me a place for the summer. I never in a million years expected that I’d meet the man who had been such a role model.
But why on earth was he coming here, to a little summer stock theatre in the rural hills of western Massachusetts? The last news I saw, he was lead actor and part owner of the Gotham Repertory Company. What could possibly have induced him to abandon the city for the sticks?
“I heard that he broke up with Anne Merrill,” said Adele, sotto voce, as if she’d read my mind. “She dumped him. He’s come out here to the country to lick his wounds.”
“What? Who told you that?” I recalled the actor’s handsome face and imposing presence. It was hard to believe someone would dump him—he seemed like the type to do the dumping.
“I can’t reveal my sources.” Adele’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “But the word is that his heart is broken.”
'Paradise of Pleasure' by Trina Lane
“You want me to do what?” Mike Wright exclaimed.
Elaina Roman lifted her chin, and looked straight into the shocked, pale blue eyes of the slack-jawed man across from her. “I want you to tie me up.”
“Why on earth would you want something like that? It’s silly and theatrical. What we have is more important than games in bed. At least I thought so.”
“It has nothing to do with games, Mike. A couple who dabbles in BDSM or chooses it as a lifestyle doesn’t have any less of a meaningful relationship. Some would argue that they have stronger base for success because they’re honest about what they need. I want to try, is that so bad?”
“It’s not bad, El. It’s just not us. Isn’t what we have enough? Don’t I satisfy you?”
“What we do is fine, but haven’t you ever wondered if it could be more? We’ve been dating for six months, and I can count the number of orgasms I’ve had on one hand.”
Elaina watched her current boyfriend’s—or imminent ex-boyfriend by the way things were looking—face go pale. His eyes darkened in embarrassment or maybe anger. She still couldn’t read his expressions very well because they surfaced so infrequently.
“So if you’ve had so few orgasms, what’s with all the moaning and gasping when we’re in bed? Are you telling me you’ve been faking this whole time?”
“It’s not that I fake enjoying sex with you. I do enjoy it. You make me feel good. I just rarely ‘get there.’ Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. It’s...”
“It’s what? You started this. Go ahead, spit it out.”
“I was reading this book the other day about female sexual fantasies. In it the woman was describing being tied up by her lover. Being controlled, not by force but quiet authoritative command, and I...god, Mike, it made me so hot I nearly had to run to the ladies’ room in the lounge. I figured if reading about it got me so turned on, maybe experiencing it would be even better. I want to experience that with you.” Elaina looked down at floor in her Miami Beach condo. The cool travertine tile beneath her bare feet did nothing to dispel the heat in her cheeks.
'Neil and Obey' by Elizabeth Coldwell
The envelope was lying on the mat when Liz came home from work, addressed to her in handwriting she didn’t recognise. Ripping open the heavy cream stationery, she found an invitation inside. It read... Mary and Don Burney request the presence of Miss Elizabeth Webster and guest at the marriage of their daughter, Jillian, to James Anthony Steele, on Saturday November 6th at three p.m. at St. Michael’s Church, Greater Endover. Reception to follow at the Endover House Hotel. RSVP.
She scanned the wording again, not quite able to believe it. James was getting married, less than eight months after the two of them had split up. She’d kept on friendly terms with him after they’d gone their separate ways, so she knew he was seeing some girl he had met at a conference, but he’d never given the impression the relationship was particularly serious. There had certainly never been any talk of engagement and wedding bells.
He’d always told her he didn’t want to settle down. Now she realised he just hadn’t wanted to settle down with her. And while she’d been sure, deep down, that James would find happiness with someone else, she hadn’t expected it to happen quite so quickly. For a moment, she considered dashing off a reply to tell the Burneys she was sorry, but she wouldn’t be able to attend. Thinking about it a little longer, she had to admit she was actually curious to see the woman who had captured James’ heart in a way she’d never managed.
Her eyes were drawn again to the word, 'guest', on the invitation. If only she had someone to accompany her. The truth was, she’d barely been on a date since her break-up with James. She had thrown herself into her demanding job as the press officer for a small charity, which helped London’s rough sleepers, telling herself that when the time was right she would start looking for love once more. Petty as it might be, she simply didn’t want James to feel he had succeeded in meeting someone else where she had failed.
Liz propped the invitation on the mantelpiece, in a spot that had once been occupied by a photo of herself and James on the beach at Brighton. It had been her favourite snap of the two of them, taken not long after they’d started dating. How long ago that seemed now. She had a week before she needed to send a reply. If only a hot, available man could wander into her life before then, everything would be perfect.
'Ever Unknown' by Charlotte Stein
The email looked like nothing at all, really. No fancy fonts, no exclamation points—red or otherwise—nothing with any urgency in the subject line. Just the words, ‘for your attention,’ without a capital letter amongst them. Followed by a few abrupt sentences about nothing in particular. Molly Hunt had read a thousand like it before, and never batted an eye. But she batted an eye for this one. Oh, she batted an eye, all right. Mainly because of the last line, which at first glance, didn’t seem like anything at all. I would be deliciously pleased if you could rectify this issue.
Until she looked back, and found that, yes, this person really had, in fact, included the word “deliciously,” right in front of “pleased.” And whoever it was had used the word “pleased,” too, instead of something far more innocuous, like grateful. As though the email sender derived the greatest possible satisfaction from the idea of her filing her forms in the exact precise place.
Because that’s what the rest of the email had been about. Filing. This person had noticed that she’d filed something in the red box, instead of the green box, and he’d be deliciously pleased if she managed to rectify said filing mishap, as soon as possible.
Then he’d signed it not with a name she could search out, or a company ID she could unearth, but his initials…E.U. Like the conglomeration of European countries, only smaller, and hopefully a person. Even his email address looked to be an outside one, and said little more than those two letters—EverUnknown@hotmail.co.uk.
He could have been anybody—maybe it wasn’t even a he she was dealing with. Maybe it was Louisa in accounting who had a fetish for the word deliciously and hated bad filing. Maybe it was all just a mistake, some overzealous punching at the keyboard and somehow the word deliciously just fumbled its way in there, elbowing past more sane word choices to sit proudly amidst an otherwise normal email.
She’d had similar brain farts herself, though usually they involved typing the word butt when she’d meant but, as in that notorious email to the head of marketing. The one that had somehow ended up suggesting he use his ass instead of premium stock white card.
These things happened. So she wasn’t sure, exactly, why she was still thinking about it hours later. The word grew huge and curling behind her eyes, like something enchanted out of a genie’s bottle. It danced, and wriggled its hips, and said disturbing things like, if you reply, use a similarly incongruous word. Make it really out there like, “I’m so glad you caught my sexy error. I’d be only too happy to stroke it to correction.”
'Fresh Start' by Jane Davitt
The carpet against her knees had always felt soft when she was walking on it barefoot, but after forty minutes of kneeling, Helen was convinced that it was made of sandpaper, not wool. She shifted position, just a little, just an inch, and Connor’s hand moved.
God, that hurt.
How many times had he tugged sharply on the chain? She’d lost count. She’d tried to stay completely, perfectly still, but it wasn’t easy and the blindfold wasn’t helping. She wasn’t disorientated, just distracted. Connor was sitting at his desk, writing, and the scratch of his pen, and the rustle of paper, told her exactly where he was.
If he’d taken that sense away from her, too, plugging her ears, it wouldn’t have mattered. She could still smell him, each breath she took leaving her more helplessly aroused than before. It was a subtle seduction of crisp cotton and clean skin, and she wanted to find the places on his body where that scent became earthier, richer, and nuzzle into them.
She inhaled deeply and regretted it when the clamps pinching her nipples gave her away, the small bells hanging from them chiming, a cool sound, like water over rocks. The echoes were drowned in her moan when Connor sighed and pulled again at the slender chains linked to the clamps. The end of each chain was held in his hand, warmed by his palm as she’d discovered when he’d needed both hands to refill his pen. He’d coiled the chains and pushed them inside her mouth to hold, the irregular bumps pressing into her tongue and palate. The taste of the metal had lingered after he’d taken the chains out and she’d licked at her lips, trying to take the metallic tang away.
He wrote in navy ink, always, with a fountain pen worn shiny where his fingers gripped it. The sound of the nib travelling over the paper was like a language she didn’t speak but could guess at in places. It didn’t matter. She’d be given the pages to read and she’d see for herself where he’d changed his mind and scratched out a sentence with an impatient click of his tongue and be able to guess at why he’d done it.
Connor leant over, his leather chair creaking, and let go of the chains. Helen felt them strike her thighs softly, the chains swaying with her quick, caught breath. Small though it was, the additional weight increased the pain in her tender, tortured nipples. The clamps weren’t overly tight because Connor had known that she’d be wearing them for a while, but they’d been on for almost too long to bear.
Connor capped the pen and put it down, two distinctly different clicks. Helen hadn’t reached the state where she was floating, anchored by her awareness of Connor and a quiet exultation in the perfection of her submission. Not today. Not for a long time, really, though that was a passing thought, no more than that.
'A Very Personal Trainer' by Justine Elyot
My life back then was full of someones and somethings—non-specific people and objects who needed my attention in various ways. The trouble was that the someones and somethings appeared to outnumber the units of my attention by a factor of about ten to one. To be frank, things were getting out of hand.
I had let my gym membership slide, my wardrobe was like a rummage sale and any poor dogs needing bones would have been better off canvassing Old Mother Hubbard. My kitchen table was piled high with parking tickets, overdue bill reminders and dog-eared takeaway menus with the phone numbers circled in black marker.
Life was getting away from me, and I didn’t like it.
A typical dinner of the period—pasta à la microwave. In other words, some hardened curly things in a blisteringly hot, tasteless sauce. It hardly embodied temptation. Neither did the pile of unironed clothes, the half-finished tax return or the dishes in the kitchen sink. That bottle of Merlot and family-sized tub of Phish Food on the other hand…
No, Lara, no. I would sometimes catch myself off guard in the mirror—pale, pasty, carrying several more pounds than my clothes could handle. My skin was dull and my eyes looked tired. I needed a haircut, but the last time I’d managed to get one I liked was in 2005. The messages on my phone told me that I’d missed a dental check-up and my brother’s birthday. The shit was in close proximity to the fan. I was out of control. I had to do something about it. Quickly.
I opened my handbag and almost shut it again on being confronted with a hundred balled tissues, some capless lipsticks and three metric tonnes of loose change. But I had to brave the shoulder-borne rubbish dump if I was to make any progress, so I let my fingers pluck at the detritus until I unearthed the treasure I sought. The newspaper clipping Shona had given me when we’d met in Starbucks a few days earlier, still intact, not ripped or shredded yet. I’d been ten minutes late for our meeting and she’d been angry—actually really angry, not the kind of eye rolling ‘it wouldn’t be Lara if she wasn’t a bit late’ indulgent exasperation. I was hot at the memory of it, and so ashamed of myself.