Freelance tech journalist Lily Foss wears many masks. No one knows the "L. Foss" who reviews the latest Eidolon robotic companions is also "codemonkkey," whose program cost the Eidolon manufacturer a lot of money. No one knows she can't sleep at night. No one even knows she's a woman, and all of this secrecy makes fulfilling her desires as a sexual submissive next to impossible. Not even the newest Eidolon can replace a living, breathing Dominant.
Lily pins her hopes on the rumor that her best friend and fellow programmer Finley used to tie up his old girlfriend, but after a night with him falls apart, all she wants is a Dom who won't ask for her heart—or her real name. Then a chance meeting gets her the business card of a high-class escort named the Stranger who specializes in domination. His commanding presence and guaranteed discretion seem like the perfect solution.
But Lily isn't the only one who wears a mask or the only one trapped between fantasy and reality, past and present, pleasure and pain. When the masks come off, Lily will have no choice but to face the horrifying truth.
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One thing was for certain—Lily had never gone out with anyone like the Stranger. When she thought she might get comfortable, he threw her off-balance. His confidence and composure were absolute, and the way he studied her rather than the RFL game made her feel as if she were being dissected. In fact, he never looked at the TV unless she pointed at it.
His laser-sharp focus unnerved her, and for some twisted reason, she loved it. She tugged her hem down her thighs, somehow convinced he might detect her enthusiasm. She then set her half-eaten bruschetta on the small plate in front of her and picked up her glass of Merlot.
“No, Jill. Answer me first,” he said. From the corner of her eye, she saw no hint of relish or cruelty. In fact, his face was blank. She set down her glass and glanced at the TV just as the game cut to commercial.
“I’ve dealt with it for a while.”
“Hmm, interesting choice of words,” he said mildly as he picked up a slice of the bread. “But I didn’t ask how long you’ve known. I asked when you knew.”
She heard the soft crunch as he took a bite. Thing was, she wasn’t sure when she first knew. Was it the time she’d bypassed her parents’ nanny software to look at the bondage porn site her school friends denounced as perverted? Or the time she’d fucked her high school boyfriend in the backseat of his car after he impulsively spanked her hard enough for it to hurt? She didn’t recall any sort of eureka moment when the word submissive had suddenly applied to her.
She shrugged and gave an exasperated sigh. “I…I don’t—”
“Let’s try this,” he said as he wiped his fingers on a napkin. “What was your first obsession? Something you didn’t realize until you were older.”
That one was easier, but like every other increasingly warped step of her sexual awakening, it ended painfully.
“I used to follow my older brother around a lot. His best friend Mike was always at our house, and sometimes we’d wrestle.” Ugh, it sounded awful when she said it like that. They were just kids, and all she’d wanted was to hang out with her cool brother and his friends.
“I always lost, but I kept begging to do it again. I liked being held down and… Anyway, Mike came over one day and I ran into the living room. He gave me this look, and my brother said I couldn’t play with them anymore. I didn’t understand at the time, but…”
“Mike had become aroused, and you were so young.”
“Yeah,” she said, deflated. On the TV, a hardware store commercial promised their products were top-of-the-line. The one before that had been selling cars and the one before that had been peddling processors. She knew because she couldn’t look at her date.
“Why haven’t you been owned before?” he asked.
“I…can’t really handle that. I don’t think I’m the type for something steady.” She reached for her wine again. The Stranger didn’t stop her this time.
“Ever come close?”
She remembered an undulating dreamcatcher and a pair of warm, green eyes. She intended to take a sip of wine but instead downed the rest of her Merlot in three deep swallows before setting down her glass.
“Only in my head. Reality never fails to disappoint.”
“Mm, is that what you suspect will happen tonight? Disappointment?”
The commercial break was over. The Sprockets had the ball, first and ten. Two sets of droids faced off at Seattle’s forty-two yard line. She glanced at the smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
“No offense, but yeah.”
The bartender appeared and pointed at her empty wineglass. “Care for another?” She opened her mouth to tell him “Heck yes,” but her escort interrupted.
“We’re good with water at this point.” The Stranger then pointed at her. “Are you a fan of olives?”
“Uh, sure,” she said. The bar crowd groaned. The Sprockets still had the ball, but now it was second down and nine yards to go. Her escort turned back to the bartender.
“We’ll take an order of the olive ascolane.”
“You got it,” the bartender said before walking away with Lily’s empty wineglass.
“I’d have liked a little more wine,” she said.
Her date finished his beer, pushed the glass away, and used his napkin to blot the corners of his mouth.
“Perhaps in the future I’ll allow you to drink more, but tonight I want you sober.”
Warmth suffused her cheeks, and she wasn’t quite sure of the reason. She was going to go with anger, though. She straightened her shoulders and leveled her best glare on him.
“I haven’t even decided if anything will happen after dinner, let alone if I’ll see you again.”
The Stranger slowly turned those frosty eyes to her. His forehead was smooth, his mouth relaxed, and his body loose, but something about him made her want to shrink into her seat. He wasn’t angry or frustrated—or anything at all—and yet she could barely meet his stare.
“Then let’s not waste any time on that decision,” he said. The pervading din forced her to lean closer to hear him. “After we’re full on damn good Italian food, we’re going to pay, get our coats, and hail a cab. My place isn’t far, but your feet undoubtedly still hurt, and I don’t intend to cause you that kind of pain.”
The insinuation that he did mean to cause her a different kind of pain was unspoken but unmistakable. On TV, Akerman was excited about something. The bar crowd was getting louder.
The Stranger leaned forward and gripped her knee. His voice was no longer mild and dispassionate but warm and rough, like the sear of whiskey in one’s throat.
“I have many ways of restraining you in many vulnerable positions, but not tonight. You haven’t earned it. I might show you my toys if you’re curious, but only after we’re done.”
Whereas before she was intimidated by his gaze, now she couldn’t look away, not even when a couple dozen people around her erupted in cheers.
His face was so close. Their upper bodies were drawn together as though pulled by an invisible rope. She felt his hand drift up her thigh. He slid his other hand to the side of her neck, brushed his thumb across her throat, and pressed it against her pulse point.
He could simply squeeze and cut off her air. She knew she didn’t have permission to touch him, but she gripped his wrist out of need and fear—need for more and a fear of liking it. She couldn’t tell which emotion was stronger.
“Once I train you to undress for my pleasure and to kneel like a submissive should, you’ll be punished for your tardiness. I won’t remove any of my clothing except for one item.” She looked at his striped silk tie, but the Stranger shook his head.
“Oh God,” she whispered. She pressed her knees together and looked lower at the black belt around his waist.
“If you are obedient and please me, I will permit you to come.”
Her vision was slow to focus on his face. She shouldn’t have drunk her Merlot so quickly—or maybe he made her dizzy. He pulled her closer by her throat until their mouths nearly touched.
“What’ll it be, little girl? Do you want to go home alone, or come home with me?”