Squirrel tastes fruit

Have a taste… Photo by Anton Croos

Yeah, my sadism takes many forms, just like Hugh’s. Behold, m’ducks, the first four teasing-ass chapters. (Amazon US folks can preorder here. [Side note: I’m researching global Amazon links, my friends. Soon. Soon.] All the rest of the buy links will be up in exactly one week when the book goes live, and the Smashwords coupon will go out to the mailing list.)

I know. I know. I’m a horrible human and I would feel bad about it, really, except…it kind of turns me on to be literarily cruel…

Chapters one and two are found here… Don’t worry. I’ll wait.


Nick approached Bernie’s door and forced his fingers to stop twitching toward his buttons. How could he still have so many built-in behaviors associated with a very brief aborted attempt to become the 24/7 submissive Bernie thought he should be? It had taken three days to blow up in their faces, and he should have known better.

Though the couple of weeks before Bernie went all fucking lifestyle on him had been good. Terrifying—in some indefinable way he’d never even been able to discuss with Hugh, who probably would have understood—but good.

He let himself in the front door. Now what? He sure as hell wasn’t going to kneel down, like the old protocol.

“I need a drink, sweetheart. And you?”


Bernie passed him into the hall. “How virtuous.”

“I’m dehydrated,” Nick said, almost relieved by the return of Bernie’s unruffled exterior. Focus on Eddie and Leo and Lucy. Anything but the past.

“Oh, me too. My god, that boy. Both of those boys. How did Mistress Lucy end up with a little gay slave?”

“He dogged her until she let him in,” Nick said. “Well, he dogged her until she took a closer look at him and realized that she was his last ditch effort.”

“Lucky he chose Lucy, then.”

Nick followed into the small room that served as Bernie’s home studio, where he did voiceovers and audiobooks and whatever else he could get. He had a wet bar in the living room, but he went, instead, to the mini fridge and came back with a bottle of Perrier.

“I think she thought she could do a lot more with him,” Nick said, and opened the bottle while Bernie turned away for glasses. “But he isn’t dead. And we don’t worry quite as much that he’ll be dead tomorrow.”

“Mm hm. Tell me more about the other one, our reluctant dom.” He came back, set the glasses down. “And Lucy doesn’t want Hugh Reynolds to knock him into shape? The boy reminds me of no one more than Hugh.”

“Hugh’s busy. He’s got a boyfriend, in the husband sense of the word.”

“Really? How extraordinary.” Bernie raised his glass, and Nick grudgingly followed suit. “If this is what it takes to get you to share a bottle of water with me, honey, so be it. To Mistress Lucy and her wayward harem.”


“No, no, we won’t discuss it if you don’t want to. We’ll discuss other things. Tell me your plan for the boy. And sit down, you’re making me nervous with all the pacing.”

Bernie, sprawled on the leather loveseat, raised his feet. An invitation.

Nick took the desk chair. From which he could actually look down at Bernie, even though Bernie had never needed more than a word to have him metaphorically—if not literally—on his knees.

“Lucy has never taken him all the way down. He’s played around with guys from FetLife, but according to Luce, he really wants Leo. But the kid’s growing distant, Bern. I can see it, and I hardly ever see the three of them. He’s just—” Nick considered the last barbecue at Hugh’s over the summer. “Before, when he stood close to Leo, I think he was hopeful. More recently he’s seemed resigned. And he’s been going out more, but she thinks he’s being reckless about it.”

“Is he clean?”

Nick rolled his eyes. “And has the paperwork to prove it. You know Lucy’s not bringing any shit into the house. But no, he’s not letting them fuck him. He’s letting them do scenes badly. Which probably annoys Lucy even more than if he was letting them fuck him.”

“Badly how?” Bernie asked, and now he was focused. He’d dropped the tone, and the flirtatious smile.

Nick relaxed just a fraction.

“He finds the ones who think aftercare is a slap on the ass. Or who break the skin accidentally. People who don’t know what they’re doing.”

“Irresponsible tops.”

“Yeah. And I’m not sure if he’s doing that because he thinks slavery means mistreatment, or as a cry for help, or what.”

“Are they always white men?”

Nick thought about that one, trying to remember if Lucy had mentioned it. “I think so. Lucy said he finds the ones who physically resemble Leo, but are bigger and meaner. You think race is an issue?”

Bernie had never made race part of their play, but he hadn’t avoided the subject, either. He’d once asked Nick if he minded submitting to a black man. And then wouldn’t let him respond until the next day because he needed time to think about it without thinking about it.

(Nick, naked and kneeling the next morning, had confessed that it turned him on, when he thought about it like that, when he imagined them as a picture: Bernie dark and strong and looming, Nick pale, strong, and oh-so-submissive at his feet. The answer, which had been honest in the way one can only be honest when one truly doesn’t consider any alternative, had earned him a brief caress to the cheek. They’d never discussed it.)

“I think it must be an issue. Little gay black boy, coming up in the world with a domineering, God-fearing mama, no father, who wants to lick white men’s boots? Honey, race is an issue.”

Sounded obvious. “You’re right. I’m surprised Lucy didn’t mention it.”

“Lucy thinks the boy’s in love with this Leo more than he’s in love with any white man with a whip. And he may well be. We don’t know yet. Tell me what you’re doing with him.”

“I think I’ll bring him in on the ground,” Nick said, and laid his head back so he could stare at the ceiling. “Catheter, maybe. Haven’t decided. Plug in all the time. Naked. Hairless, though I’d be grateful if you did the wax.”

“Wax all the hair off a sweet little masochist? You don’t have to ask me twice. Enemas?”

Nick made a face and glanced at Bernie. “Not really my favorite. You think so?”

“Yes. Meet his expectations and keep pulling him down.”

“Good point. Fine. Yes. Morning enemas. I want him working out to exhaustion throughout the day. I considered a blindfold for the first twenty-four. Maybe a hood.”

“I like that. Yes. Make him very dependent. Break open that fantasy.”

“Well, I’d rather he not be dependent on me, but Lucy won’t do it, Hugh’s not available, and even if he’s not letting some prick bareback him today, that’s where this ends up, and I don’t even think disappointing Lucy is enough to stop it that much longer, Bern.”

“And his hunger for pain? What do you have in your pocket for that, Nick?”

“She works some kind of domestic discipline angle with the paddle. He likes whips and floggers and she said he’s frightened of the cane, but will beg for it.”

“Nicky, did I teach you nothing? No. None of that. Don’t give the boy what he wants.”

“Well, you tell me then. But I’ve thought about this a lot.” It was hard, if not impossible, to resist irritation. Even though he’d invited Bernie along precisely because he’d have another perspective.

“Put him in a suit with a mask, Nicky.” Bernie reached for the Perrier and topped up both glasses. “She keeps him naked; you keep him so tightly wrapped he can’t feel anything on his skin at all. She beats him because he’s desperate for it and Mistress Lucy enjoys a beating as much as anyone, but you, Nick, you’ve never liked wielding a whip.”

“I don’t want a fucking slave, either. This is a favor.” His words came out more snarl than he’d intended.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Bernie said after a moment. “I only meant to clarify your goal.”

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing with this kid. What do I know about being a little closeted black slave and wanting to lick white men’s boots? I just see that he’s struggling, and Lucy asked, and I don’t know how to say no to that.” More honesty that he was comfortable sharing, but as long as he stared at the ceiling, it was okay. “Hell, Bern, I wasn’t any good at this. This kid? Wants exactly what I didn’t want. You should be training him.”

“Little boys who want to lick boots are a dime a dozen,” Bernie said. “Honey, of course you were good at it. Is that what you thought? I didn’t reject you, Nick. You left me.”

“Because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just be this—this thing, to you. It doesn’t matter now. It’s over. But I’m saying I don’t know how to get through to someone whose deepest desire is to lose all humanity in his role.”

“I never wanted to strip you of your humanity, Nick.”

“Oh really? Because that’s how it felt.”

Bernie sighed. “Tell me more about the wannabe dom. I’ll take him off your hands. If he has it, I’ll find it. But I will tell you right now, you can’t pull any of this off in your apartment, Nick.”

“I suppose you’re offering your house for the war effort.” Closed-circuit cameras and all.

“Do it here. You can have the entire east side of the upstairs, Nick. And you love my gym.”

He did. He’d designed it, after all.

“Your sauna is out of date.”

“You can give me a recommendation.”

“I’ll think about it.” No. Don’t think about it. Do not think about it.

“Good. I think I’ll start with a program similar to yours, with our potential top. Though I admit, I’m not seeing exactly what Lucy’s seeing.”

“You think she’s wrong?”

“No,” Bernie said. “No. I don’t know her as well as you do, but I know that the night you introduced us, she had me pegged down to the brand of my favorite lube within minutes. So I don’t think she’s wrong yet. I think she just didn’t show us what she sees. She was showing us the slave, and she did it well. But I want to see this boy of hers, who defers to her but doesn’t like it.”

“He was in school to be a Catholic priest. Then he ended up living at Lucy’s, playing with her and her slave, and working with a friend of hers at a church here in Richmond.”

“A Catholic priest,” Bernie said. “Well, isn’t that interesting?”

“She and Leo actually have sex, but neither of them fuck Eddie.”

“That’s another thing. I assume it’s not in your plan to have sex with the boy.”

“No, Bernie. No.”

Bernie smiled. “Just checking, don’t get your lacy underthings in a twist. If the baby master decides he’s willing, I think I’d start Leo off with a nice flogging and see how he responds.”

“Don’t think that’s exactly what Lucy thinks he needs.”

“All due respect, she’s somewhat lost the forest for the trees here, Nicky. And a good flogging never hurt anyone.”

“Well, she’d agree with that, anyway.”

“To say nothing of her own investment. She pushes the little slave with discipline because he craves it. I bet she pushes her budding top in sex because molding a young man in one’s image is an irresistible temptation, but never insists he perform on either side of the whip.”

“Won’t he be even less likely to say yes to you?”

“Put yourself in his position. On one hand, you have someone you love, and live with, and your feelings for that person are all tied in with how you see yourself. That’s a lot to risk. On the other hand you have a neutral third party about whom you feel mostly indifferent.”

Nick thought about leaving this house in tears nine years earlier, and the men he seduced like dominoes in the days following.

“I see your point.”

“And in any case, it’s good ethics. If we’re teaching him how to wield, he may as well learn how to take a beating, as well. I’ll be gentle, Nicky. I won’t break Lucy’s toys.”

“I know that.”

“There’s something between the two of them,” Bernie said after a minute. “I understand what she’s seeing there. I’m just not sure it aligns enough on either side to be the grand D/s love affair Lucy hopes it is.”

“And that’s the other thing, after all the rest of it. Is she trying to make herself redundant? She seems to be trying really hard not to involve her own feelings, which I know she has.”

“Oh don’t think I didn’t notice. And don’t think I’m missing that she needs a taking-down, too, maybe more than the two of them combined. Not sure who’s responsible for that.”

“Hugh, I guess. Or, he would be if he wasn’t all wrapped up in his boyfriend.”

“Maybe,” Bernie said, and stretched out on the couch, his long, lean body graceful and strong. A dancer’s body. Or a swimmer’s. Soft now in the middle, not as tight as it had been when he was younger. “Or maybe we’re training a top who can take down the dominatrix as well.”

Nick blinked. “Are you serious? You think—” But it didn’t just make sense. It was the only thing that made sense. “That’s why she’s not pushing him.”

“She needs to know he can push back first,” Bernie agreed. “I could be wrong, honey, but I’m familiar with the profile.”

“Oh please, Bern. You didn’t want me to push back. Every time I pushed back, you—” Punished me. Nick shook his head. “Don’t act like this has anything to do with us. I was never this kid. I didn’t want to serve you, I wanted to make you happy, like an adult, like a partner. You were the one who made all the rules.”

Bernie looked up at him, a deceptively lazy angle to his gaze, but sharp underneath. “You wanted my rules so much you couldn’t sleep, sweetheart, without my hands around your neck. I didn’t punish you only because I liked to hurt you, I punished you because that’s what I said I’d do when you broke the rules. But I think you’re right. I was young, and too stupid to see that holding those limits perforce ignored other limits. There are so many things I’d do differently now. And you still captivate me every bit as much as you did then. More, I think. Age suits you, Nicholas.”

Nick’s entire body responded to his name, his full name, said just that way, in just that tone. No. No, dammit. I’m not fucking doing this again.

“This isn’t a good idea,” he forced himself to say. “And even if I take advantage of your offer of the house, I’m not—that doesn’t mean anything, Bernie. About me and you.”

“Oh, I wasn’t trying to entrap you, honey. But I have the arrangement you need. And didn’t you say the boy could cook?”

“He can. And bake, as well.”

“He’d be wasted in your ridiculous kitchen.”

“Fine. I said I’d think about it, and I will.” Nick stood up, before he could do anything stupid (like kneel down). “I’ll let you know. Thanks for the second opinion, and taking on Leo. I don’t even know if he’s willing, yet, but I sure as hell can’t manage them both.”

“Oh, I have no doubt you could have found a way. But this will be better. I’ll show you out.”

Bernie walked him to the door and kissed his cheek, smiling like nothing disastrous had ever passed between them. “Sweet dreams, Nick.”

“Goodnight, Bernie.”

Nick was halfway to the car before he realized he was mildly aroused, just a low tingle. The kind that, younger, would have led to something. Now, in his mid-thirties, he could choose to follow that thread or not, as he liked.

Not, he decided. Not going to orgasm because of Bernie. Not ever again. He held the thought and ignored the much smaller voice repeating liar, liar, liar in the back of his head.


He had to see Nick again.

“Didn’t he break your heart once already? Don’t be a fool, big brother.”

“We broke each other’s hearts. And I’m not asking your advice, Melissa.”

“Don’t ‘Melissa’ me like you don’t know what I’m talking about. So then don’t be a fool about both of y’all’s stupid hearts. I’m saying, don’t get involved with him again, Bernard.”

“So I can’t ‘Melissa’ you, but it’s okay if you ‘Bernard’ me?”

Mel laughed into the phone and Bernie relaxed back into his studio chair.

“Damn right. You got that whole dignity thing going right now. What’s up with that?”

“Sorry. It’s the project I’m working on, kind of demands dignity and elocution.”

“Oh-h. Well in that case. I gotta go, Bernie, the kids are up. Listen, when you inevitably hook up with Nick again, can you at least introduce me to him this time? I know you get nervous with the white guys, but I swear, I’ll only mock you a little.”

“I don’t get nervous with the white guys. Wait, how do you know he’s white?”

“One, because you always hide the white guys. And two, I’ve seen a picture.”

“You have not. I didn’t take any pictures.”

Mel hummed a pleased sound in his ear. “Oh yes you did. It was on that throwaway camera the kids found, last time we were in California visiting. I finally had that shit developed, but by then you were all mopey and sad, so I didn’t send it to you.”

“I don’t remember a picture. How’d you even know who it was?” Though it was vaguely, so vaguely, familiar. Not taking a picture, but shoving a camera to the back of the junk drawer and leaving it there because what was on it cut too deep.

“The timing was right. Plus, big brother, you have a type. Especially with the white guys you hide from us. Like that skinny gamer from college.”

“I didn’t hide him. We weren’t together that long.”

“Uh huh. Sure. Well, I’m not Mom, and I actually like meeting the guys you’re serious about.”

“You’re in Milwaukee.”

“We’re living in the future, Bern. Video calling and everything.”

To cover his discomfort at the idea, he said, “So now I’m not only supposed to hook up with him, I’m supposed to introduce him to my sister? Because nothing says ‘not getting back together’ like ‘meet my sister’.”

“Oh please, you’ve been talking about Nick for years.” Voices rose in the background. “I gotta go. But I want to meet him this time before the two of you crash and burn again. Love you!”

“Love you too, baby.”

A distant chorus of “Bye, Uncle!” before the call cut out.

Jesus. He really had to get out there to visit more often. Though Mel was right; living in the future was good.

Introduce Nick to Mel? To her husband, the smooth, unruffled Randall?

To Mom? No. Not Mom. She wasn’t thrilled with him dating men. Asking her to accept a white boyfriend was a little bit much.

Boyfriend. Heaven forbid. No. Nick wasn’t his boyfriend. Bernie didn’t have boyfriends. He had tricks and fucks and the occasional devotee. Not boyfriends. And not Nick.

He caught himself imagining Mel laughing at some dry joke of Nick’s and forced his brain to stop going down rabbit holes.

Focus on how to see him again, sooner rather than later. There must be a way, an excuse, a story he could tell to make it sound less like what it was.

Or you could avoid doing all the things that fucked it up last time.

Bernie rehearsed a voicemail message long enough to feel rueful and exposed. He ran down an ageist, misogynist internal association with teenage girls, concluding that no teenage girl on earth had ever practiced a message with quite this level of craft. The stakes weren’t high enough.

Though of course, that was the curse of adolescence: the stakes felt like life or death without any regard for practical outcomes.

Fine. Let this be melodramatic. But he wasn’t going to call Nick until he had a message balanced between intellectual interest and warm investment, with just the slightest edge of desire.

Of course, as with all well-laid plans, this one disintegrated in seconds. Nick answered his phone.

“Nicholas,” Bernie said, which was the wrong, wrong, most wrong thing he could possibly have said. “Forgive me. I expected your voicemail.”

“You want me to hang up so you can call back?” Nick asked, sounding amused. Guarded, but amused.

“Are you busy tomorrow night? I have more thoughts about Lucy’s boys.”


“Not the house, somewhere public,” Bernie said, heart speeding up. “Wherever you’d like.”

“I have a prior engagement. Unless you’d like to come along.”

Anywhere. “Sweetheart, I’m trying desperately not to sound like a fawning teenager. Assume I’d like to come along. Where are we going?”

“Hugh’s. He’s going to announce his plans to marry his boyfriend and I’m going to act shocked, even though I already got a text message from the best man. Actually, the text message instructed me to look shocked.”

Hugh’s. Bernie conjured a mental image of Hugh Reynolds, the last time they’d met: short, angry, controlling himself well for all of that. Is he still in love with you? But that would not be polite.

“You still there? We can meet up another time. If you’re scared.”

“Oh, don’t be a bitch, Nicky. You really think it’s appropriate to bring me along to his big announcement?”

“Appropriate? Hell no. But god, I’m sick of being the loser who can’t— It doesn’t matter. Plus, this is at least partially in self-defense. His fiancé is a therapist as well, and they didn’t invite Lucy, so I need extra bodies to draw their fire. I tried to get Will to come up from Santa Barbara, but apparently he was just here. He’s the best man. If Will was there, too, it’d be fine, because they really can’t keep their hands or their anything else off him, but I don’t want to be the focus of the laser beams right now.” He paused. “Your call came at a good time.”

“So I would be doing you a service,” Bernie said, aware he was pushing it now.

“Technically I’m busy. I’m multitasking the social events on my calendar that won’t end in fucking.”

“You wound me, Nick.”

“If you want to come with, tell me now, so I can break it to Reynolds that he doesn’t control the world.”

“Is that a lesson he’s likely to learn?”

“Nah. I just like fucking with his head. You in, Bern?”

Challenge. Yes.

“Well I’m not scared, Nick. I’m in. Should I pick you up?”

“I’ll be at the gym. Seven work?”

“Seven works. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Let me know if you decide to wuss out.”

“Hugh never actually frightened me. I respected his fears, even if I wasn’t quite the bogeyman he wanted me to be.” Another thought occurred to him. “I wouldn’t mind knowing what I’m walking into, though. Should I pack ice packs and a spare shirt, or will he limit himself to threats?”

“No threats. He didn’t know the entire story, Bern. I wasn’t going to give him the opportunity to say ‘I told you so.’ He knows we broke up after dating a few weeks.”

So he doesn’t know any of the story.

“At least, that’s what I told him. Lucy might have said more than that, but he’s never brought it up. And it’s been nine years. Plus, if we could find a way to pick his brain about Leo, that might distract him long enough to fend off any ‘so how are you’ questions.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Bernie said, and almost laughed at his own rush of insecurity: why do you need his opinion when you already have mine?

“See you, Bern.”

“Let me know if plans change.”

“Of course.”


Bernie set the phone down and stretched his fingers.

Dinner with Nick, Nick’s over-protective friend (who was now a therapist; he’d been an intern when they last saw each other), and the over-protective friend’s fiancé. Not exactly what he’d expected. Not what he wanted. But he’d take it. And prove himself worthy.

Bernie turned to recording for a few hours, but he kept missing his place from one line to the next and needing additional takes. He finally gave up and lost himself in a run through the property the house backed up to, circling the soup factory and jogging all the way out to the railroad tracks, staying out past dusk. The dogs were less than impressed when he finally put their food out, but he ignored them.

He’d proposed a casual dinner to discuss other people. Nick had countered with an invitation to a very small, very private dinner. With—let’s be clear—people he considered family.

Mel may not have been that far off.

* * *

It was easy enough to pull on his general air of indifference until they were standing on the stoop.

“You nervous, Bern?”

“You enjoying yourself, Nick?”

“Indecently. Making you and Hugh uncomfortable at the same time?” Nick grinned. “I haven’t had this much fun in years.”

The man who opened the door was decidedly not Hugh Reynolds. He was taller, broader, and lacked the obsessive air of discipline about his body. This was a man who enjoyed himself and did not work off every calorie in the gym afterward.

“Hi, Truman. This is Bernie. Bern, this is Truman.”

“Hey, Nick. Good to meet you, Bernie.”

“You too.” A firm handshake with nothing to prove. This was the man Hugh was marrying? Fascinating.

“Is he hiding?” Nick asked, as they stepped inside.

“Oh, I believe he’s doing very important things with marinade, at the moment.” Truman raised both eyebrows. “Aren’t you going to congratulate me?”

“Um—for what?”

“Will confessed.”

“Oh good. I forgot to practice my shocked face.” Nick stepped forward for a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Congratulations.”

“Even if he hadn’t confessed telling the two of you, we would have known by the gag and shackles left in the middle of the bed, addressed to me. Lucy is, as ever, a creative gift-giver.” Truman turned to Bernie. “I take it you and Hugh have met?”

“A few times, many years ago.”

“Then you won’t need an explanation for the gag.”

The man was clearly screwing with him. To what degree, he wasn’t sure, and it felt equally like his tease extended in both directions. A suspicion confirmed when Hugh Reynolds finally emerged from his kitchen.

“Your support is duly noted,” he mumbled to his fiancé. “Bernie, good to see you.”

“You too. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.” This handshake was relaxed, without the edge he’d expected. Hugh turned to Nick. “Nicky.”

“Fuck me, Reynolds. Marriage. What did I tell you?”

“You said five years. I suppose we’re making it official.”

They embraced, and Nick said, “You better do this fast before Truman comes to his senses.”

“Our entire betrothal is going to be jokes about how Truman deserves better.”

“It’s insulting,” Truman said, but smiled. “Those aren’t jokes about you not being good enough for me, Hugh. They’re jokes about you being neurotic.”

“If that’s all.”

“Go grill the meat, would you please?”

“Of course.”

Hugh waved and retreated and Nick looked at Truman.

“Your best man seems uncommonly excited.”

“Did he mention he’s the reason we’re getting married?”

“Oh, this I gotta hear.”

They sat at the dining room table, formally set, and Truman entertained them over beers and an elaborate plate of nachos. (Bernie was surprised to see Nick eating nachos, until he realized that despite how good they tasted, there wasn’t an ounce of cheese on them. Cleverly baked with avocado and some kind of nut cheese, to say nothing of just enough taco-flavored ground beef, tomatoes, and julienned iceberg lettuce.)

“I have the distinct impression I should be defending myself,” Hugh said, finally sitting down with them.

“Everything taken care of?”

Hugh offered his partner a wry smile. “I think it will work. It’s not the recipe I intended. I was trying to—make it special.”

“I know. And it will be. I was just starting to tell Nick and Bernie about the couple you and Lucy have been carrying through your classes.”

“Ah. Yes. Bernie, you’ll find this interesting. And likely as appalling as Lucy and I find it.”

Camaraderie? From Hugh Reynolds? Bernie settled in. “Do tell.”

“We’ve been teaching a series of beginner classes at the GLBT Cultural Center, in Berkeley.”

“The Romance of BDSM is my favorite so far,” Truman added.

Hugh made a face. “Not our name. Anyway. We have this couple. The husband believes that submission will cure his wife.”

“And her disease?”

“Failing to enjoy sex to his satisfaction.”

“Oh, that’s fucking charming,” Nick said. “And Lucy hasn’t subtly had him killed yet?”

“Not yet. His misunderstanding is genuine, though his attitude leaves a great deal to be desired.”

“Has no experience and all the answers?” Bernie suggested.

“Ah, but he has, and I quote, ‘two decades in the lifestyle’.” Hugh opened both hands over the table. “Lucy’s never heard of him. She asked around. Would you like his name?”

“Has he been local for all of it?”

“So he tells us, with the not-so-subtle implication that we can hardly be qualified to teach him, because he’s been around so long.”

“And he learned it all from the Internet?”

“Thank you. Exactly.”

“But what’s the wife’s story?” Nick asked.

“Familiar. She has always wanted to belong to someone, and has romanticized the idea of a 24/7 arrangement to the extent that when it doesn’t make her happy, she figures they just aren’t doing it right yet. Hence the class, which is at her urging, not his.”

“So not much of a 24/7 arrangement,” Bernie said.

“Not something I know much about personally. But I will say that they are codependent enough to muddy all the waters. He is irritating, and not knowledgeable, but the only real alarm bell he sets off is social isolation. He’d like her to quit her job.”

Bernie frowned, fighting a jab of regret. Best not to think about that now.

“And he wants her to only have pre-approved contact with pre-approved contacts.”

“Tell me again why we’re not beating this guy up?” Nick said. “Jesus, Hugh. He’s telling you all this? Because if he said some shit like that to Luce, she’d deck him.”

“This is where Hugh and Lucy played the room,” Truman said. “They invented a division of the groups.”

“So he actually said all that to a group of men and women and one gender-fluid person, all of whom are currently living some version of the 24/7 lifestyle, whatever that means to each specific couple.”

“No triads?” Nick asked.

“Not unless Lucy plans to attend with her boys.”

“Remind me about that later.”

Hugh raised his eyebrows. “Of course.”

“And what was the response of the other people in the group?” Bernie asked, still curious.

“A range from low-level alarm to—ah, I want to say interest, perhaps envy.”

“At the idea of the control?”

Hugh studied him for a long moment. Long enough for Bernie to think he knows everything. “I suspect that was a case of wishing to become his slave, not wishing to have one. Everyone else responded about as you’d expect, and I think the group feedback was well-received.”

“I remain confused,” Truman said. “Hugh says this is not something I’ve seen before, even if to me it sounds very similar to scenes Will and Hugh do.”

Well, well, well.

“I’m apparently unable to actually explain the nuances beyond the fact that Will and I have no intention of it ever moving beyond a scene here and there.”

“Or a day,” Nick murmured. “I imagine Will would enjoy it as long as there was an end limit.”

“True, undoubtedly,” Hugh said, taking both of them in. “I have never even experimented with an arrangement like this.”

“I have,” Bernie said. Which, he was almost certain, Hugh knew. He carefully addressed only Truman. “It didn’t work out quite as I expected. Or suit me as well as I thought it would.”

“So perhaps we can hope that Hugh and Lucy’s students will come to the same conclusion. It does seem like it must be a somewhat difficult thing to negotiate. I find it hard to wrap my head around marriage, and I’ve been exposed to examples of that my entire life. Let alone something so very different, and so extreme.”

Bernie couldn’t tell, having just met him, if Truman was clever and crafty, or if he was as guileless as he seemed. “I have no regrets, at least not about the attempt. I might have regretted not attempting to live in ways that intrigued me.”

“The real question is, where do you draw the line? Though I think my questions are often simplistic, because my understanding isn’t excellent.”

“You draw the line wherever your submissive partner needs it drawn.”

“I miss that, sometimes. Or rather, I misinterpret it. I wouldn’t often say Will was in charge, but on the other hand, I’ve seen him effortlessly guide a conversation, or a scene.”

So Will, the best man, was a submissive…third? Or was Truman merely a voyeur? He’d have to ask Nick later.

“Will’s a little different, though,” Nick said. “I mean, he’s not in the wider community much. He’s with the two of you, but that’s a very specific relationship to what we’re talking about. Everything Will knows about this he learned at Hugh’s feet.”

“Literally, in many cases. Which loops back around to the notion of community accountability and isolation. I have that, thanks to you and Lucy. If either of you had thought I stepped wrong with Will at any point, you would have said something.”

“That’s true. But he didn’t have anyone independently who could do the same.”

“Well, except his brother. But I agree with you. And none of it works unless we’re honest with the people who care about us. The couple in our class is, we think, communicating honestly. And both of them are receiving feedback independent of the other. Which is, at this point, all we can do.”

A buzzer went off.

“Ah. The meat. Truman?”

“The potatoes, yes.”

The two of them went to the kitchen.

“Safe to assume he knows more than you told him,” Bernie said softly.

“Yeah, that was a dig at me. Let that be a lesson to us both, years late: when you can’t tell your closest friend what you’re up to, it may not be the best thing for you.”

“Or it may simply mean you don’t have enough limits in place.”

Nick stared back at him, long eyelashes brushing skin. “Limits weren’t really part of the game.”

“It wasn’t really a game, Nicholas.”

“Stop,” Nick said, and closed his eyes this time. “Stop. Not doing this here, Bern. You have to stop.”

“Forgive me.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Nick walked down the hallway, presumably to a bathroom. Bernie stood up and went to the painting on the wall so that he’d feel a bit less exposed, sitting at Hugh Reynolds’ dining room table alone.

“I used to imagine myself inside that picture, when I was a child.”

Bernie carefully did not turn, even though having Hugh at his back wasn’t exactly comfortable. “I can see why you would. Green rolling hills. Wildflowers.”

“And that tree. I think it might be an oak tree, but I may have made that up. I dreamed of hiding there and reading books.”

Bernie considered this, viscerally reminded of Hugh’s hand on his chest, threatening him, and the other hand clenched at his side. He turned back to the table. “It’s good to see you, Hugh.”

“Thank you. I was somewhat surprised to hear you’d be coming along tonight, but Nick does like to get under your skin, doesn’t he? And mine.”

“He called me about Lucy’s young men.”

Hugh deposited a board of sliced steak in the center of the table. “Oh, good. I was hoping he’d have an update.”

“I’ve got an update, Reynolds. I’m not sure you’ll be thrilled with it.” Nick waved as he went through to the kitchen, and emerged a minute later with a bottle of wine. “She wants me to train her slave.”

“Actually, I think that’s a good fit. What’s your hesitation?”

“My fucking hesitation? Are you joking? What do I know about training a kid to be a slave?”

Hugh raised one eyebrow and waved a hand over their wine glasses. “Are you pouring?”

“Thank you, Nick,” Truman said, and dropped a bowl of roasted rosemary potatoes. “Perhaps you’d like to get the salad?” he said to Hugh.

“Not everyone needs protecting from me, you know.”

“No one needs protecting from you. Dinner could use a little protection from you derailing a conversation before all the food’s on the table.”

“I’ll be back in a moment. But I want to hear more about Eddie.”

“I want you to hear more about Leo!” Nick called after him.

Bernie sat mostly silent, listening to Nick describe his conversation with Lucy, his plans for Eddie. Hugh watched and nodded and agreed when asked, but the fiancé, Truman, was fascinating. He spent easily as much time watching Hugh as he did Nick.

“Lucy ever say anything to you about race playing into this, for Eddie?” Nick finally asked.

“I know race played into it for her, in the beginning. He kept calling her ‘master’, do you remember?”

“Oh, yeah. I’d forgotten that.” Nick turned. “Lucy had a serious problem being called ‘master’ by a little black slave.”

“But he doesn’t use the term with Leo?” Bernie asked, glancing at both of them.

“Only ‘sir’. I believe she once described it as ‘running a British manor house.’”

“Or a plantation,” Bernie murmured. “Hm. Why doesn’t he call the boy ‘master’, if that’s the word he wants to use?”

“And wants to use it enough to push Lucy into it, which couldn’t have been painless, certainly not when they first started.”

He and Hugh Reynolds looked at each other, both trying to read the situation.

“It means too much?” Nick suggested. “And it’s obvious, but Leo isn’t his master. The last thing Eddie’s going to want is to feel like he’s the one enforcing that dynamic.”

“He wants it enforced on him,” Bernie said, still working it out. “Is there any point to trying with the boy—Leo? You know him better than I do, but I’m not seeing any shining potential there. I can make miracles, but if he’s just going to back out and run to the church, I’d rather not waste my time.”

“Training a master, Bernie? Should be interesting.”

“I think there’s a point,” Nick said, swirling his wine. “I think not everyone looks in the mirror and sees their own image staring back. And I don’t know, the way Eddie goes soft when Leo touches him? There’s something there. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s there.”

“Love, surely,” Truman said. “And a fair amount of desire. The edges have started to blacken, I think. When I first met them—which was soon after Leo moved in—Eddie’s entire body was attuned to him. Leo was the sun around which he orbited.”

“And now it’s an eclipse,” Nick said. “But how do we get Leo to let him in again?”

Hugh topped up the wine glasses. “That assumes Leo is the one who shut down. From what I see, it looks more like Eddie’s behavior has changed.”

“More reckless. Also, he’s gotta know the effect he has on Lucy, finding these assholes who don’t know how to throw a whip without wrapping it.”

“I agree entirely. He’s playing them both, though I’m not certain it’s fully conscious.”

“Mom and Dad,” Bernie mused. “Little boy’s seeking attention from Mom and Dad, but can’t get the right kind of attention. Behavior keeps escalating until they’re forced to take notice.”

“And when they do, it’s to ask me to train his ass as a slave.” Nick held up his glass. “Cheers to that. I’m so fucked.”

“I do not envy either of you,” Hugh said. “Though it won’t take much to meet Eddie’s needs, Nick. The real game will be in his head. Leo, though. I don’t know if you should break him, unless you’re trying to break Eddie through him.”

“What do you mean?” And did I ask for your opinion? Bernie schooled his expression to neutrality.

“Hm.” Hugh tipped his chair back slightly, glancing back up at the painting on the wall. “Eddie was suicidal when he found Lucy. Leo was this very normal, very contemplative young man, on a school break from a college that fed into a seminary. Four months later he dropped out of school and moved in, saying he was trying to figure things out. And he was, but it was a very particular thing. And Lucy would have taken him on the first day, except she liked him enough not to.”

“And there was Eddie.”

“Correct. She would have fucked him and never blinked, but when she saw him with Eddie, she—I think she realized that the most attractive thing about him was his attraction to her little wounded slave. But I’ve never gotten a real confirmation out of her.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Truman said. “There was that one night.”

“How could I possibly have forgotten that night?” Hugh said, and smiled across the table at his fiancé.

“That had something to do with the word ‘master’, I think, though I largely tuned out the specifics.

“The night Leo stormed out. Because she told him Eddie wanted to call him ‘master’, and Leo couldn’t handle it, even in the abstract.”

“Well?” Bernie shook his head. “Will someone please tell me what’s wrong with the boy?”

“She says it’s not religion, but it feels like it must be. Hell, I don’t know. Reynolds?”

“I’m not so sure about that. I’m not religious.” Hugh re-settled the chair and leaned forward. “Nicky, come on. How much different is Leo than I was at eighteen? Only he doesn’t have a you, he has Luce. If all I’d ever had was someone who wanted things I didn’t even allow myself to imagine, and they got off on it? I might have run screaming, too.”

You didn’t feel good about it because of shithead.”

“Leo did twelve years of Catholic school and two years of Catholic college, and he spent all of it planning to become a priest. I think Leo’s god may be a bigger shithead than Ethan ever was. Certainly I think having a calling is a heavier load to bear even than having a lousy boyfriend.”

“So what, you’re saying he needs someone to take him by the hand and lead him into it?” A smile tugged at Nick’s lips. “Should there also be pizza?”

“And wildebeests.”

Both of them grinned.

“Don’t even get me started on my roommates in college,” Nick said, to Truman and Bernie. “I don’t know, Reynolds. And anyway, Leo’s not my job. Bernie volunteered. I’m supposed to take the little slave by the hand and teach him how to love aftercare.”

“Subtle difference, I think, Nick.” Bernie considered the scene again, and the way the boy had relaxed. “Teach him it’s no more noble to love the lash than it is to love the hand that soothes you after.”

“Exactly,” Hugh said. “He can accept the part of himself that is a slave, but not the part of himself that is a man. Still less if that man requires comfort from other men, which is how he allowed himself Lucy for so long.”

Truman nodded. “I’m interested in what happened recently that changed everything. If this was therapy, and he was a client, that’s where I’d start. How long has he been acting in a way that worries Lucy?”

“She said three months. But I think he was going out before that less frequently, and maybe less recklessly, but I don’t know for sure.”

“I think he started meeting men online about six months ago,” Hugh added.

“So something happened, three to six months ago, that changed the way he interacts with Leo.”

“But why did he start meeting anyone online?” Nick asked. “I didn’t even wonder about it. Did she tell you?”

“Lucy thought it was a step in the right direction. Until then, he’d basically denied any practical attraction to men. What was more interesting to me than Lucy’s endorsement was Leo’s discomfort.” Hugh shook his head. “Truman? You remember?”

“I remember that he had bags under his eyes as if he hadn’t been sleeping. And Eddie never once looked at him. Do they fight? In a more traditional situation, I would have assumed they were in the middle of a row.”

“And Luce?”

Hugh shook his head again. “Bridge drawn, doors barred. You know?”

“I know. Well, hell. She’s holding out on me.”

“Or she genuinely doesn’t know what happened.”

“Well, whatever it is, Hugh, Lucy is your fucking job. And Truman’s.”

“I can’t sign up for one of the other assignments?”

“Just don’t bet against her, you’ll be fine. We should take off. Thanks for dinner. And really, congratulations. Both of you.”

“Thank you.”

Bernie shook their hands. Nick hugged Truman, and kissed Hugh on the cheek, mumbling something to him that Bernie couldn’t quite hear, which made Hugh look almost sad for a split second.

The drive to Nick’s was mercilessly short.

“I’m glad you came along,” he said, when Bernie pulled in front of the building.

“I am, too. And I didn’t even need my spare shirt. I thought he might still be in love with you.”

“Hugh was never in love with me,” Nick said. “He thought he was in love with me, because I was an improvement on the dick he’d just broken up with when we met and he wanted to be in love with someone. Thank fucking god for Truman.”

He said it almost reverently.

“Actually, thank god for Will. Because there’s no way Hugh could be an adult in a relationship without him.” Nick got out of the truck. “That was fun, Bern. See you.”

Not even a kiss on the cheek? Bernie smiled through the open door. “Soon. Please.”

“I’ll let you know the plan.” Nick waved and headed into his ratty old brick box apartment building.

Let me bring you home. You deserve so much better than this. I can give you everything, Nicholas, please.

That plea hadn’t been particularly effective last time, but it didn’t stop him from wanting to make the same promises all over again.

He sat there until the lights switched on in Nick’s window, then drove home.