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Ice Queen

Joey W. Hill

Chapter One


  "Catch a tiger by the toe, eeny, meeny, miny, mo. " Marguerite glanced up from her purchase order as her hostess, Chloe Marcel, came into the kitchen area. Genevieve Wisner, her other waitstaff person, slid by in front of her with a tray of teacups as Chloe propped a hip on the doorframe. Fortunately, Gen was a tall woman, whereas Chloe was a tiny thing not even five feet tall and committed by genetics to look fourteen years old though she was nearly twenty-eight. Marguerite had discovered her working a kiosk at the mall that sold a wide variety of body-piercing jewelry. She'd liked the woman's easy manner that drew customers to her side like old friends, the selection of high-quality jewelry and the fact that Chloe, while passionate about piercings, only had one. A navel piercing that she rarely revealed by her clothing choices without having to manually turn up the edge of her blouse or tug down her waistband. Marguerite had also liked the simmering mischief in her eyes.

  However, since hiring her as hostess for Tea Leaves, informally known in the Tampa area as the Tea Room, she'd learned to be wary of it.

  "What are you going on about, Chloe?"

  "I'm thinking about better parts of a tiger than his toes. " Genevieve rolled her eyes, setting down the tray. "She's in one of those moods, M. " She used her favorite nickname for their boss, having pointed out more than once that Marguerite's cool reserve and authoritative presence would qualify her to head up the MI-6 of the James Bond movies. "She's comparing men to animals again. "

  "It's not like we get many here, you know. "

  "Men, or animals?"

  Chloe grimaced at her. "This is a terrific, lovely place, Marguerite, but we do need to figure out a way to market it to men of marriageable age. Or at least the age of sexual interest. "

  "Got it. " Gen nodded. "Age twelve to ninety. "

  "I'll plan a construction workers' convention here just for you, Chloe. " Marguerite tapped her pen on the desk, considering the matter from her side office while Gen grinned, placing the teacups from the Coalport set carefully in the sink water to handwash them, as they did with all the porcelain sets. "Do you think they'd prefer something manly, one of our strong black teas served up in a reproduction YiXing? If clay was good enough for the samurai, it should be good enough for them. Of course, since the samurai left their swords outside the teahouse, we might ask our guests to leave their tool belts at the door. "

  "Maybe everything else but the tool belts. " Chloe grinned wickedly. "Here, take him today's sample. " She took away the dish towel and pressed a tiny cup into Gen's hand. "You go take a look and tell me if I'm right or not. Money isn't the only thing oozing off this guy. I'd have given him a lap dance if he'd said another word in that voice, or kept looking at me with those tiger eyes. " Genevieve made a resigned face but obediently went back out the swinging door.

  Chloe looked toward Marguerite. "Even more intriguing, he says he's here to meet with you. And that you're expecting him. "

  Though the apprehension curling in Marguerite's stomach at Chloe's description had already raised her suspicion, the hostess's words confirmed it. He was an hour early. Marguerite suppressed a surge of resentment, laced with a bit of uncomfortable panic. She'd wanted time to close up the shop. While she'd wanted the strong foundation of meeting on her own turf, he'd taken that edge by coming when she would have to be something different from what he knew, revealing a side of herself she'd not intended to give to him.

  But then, it wasn't the first time Tyler Winterman had unsettled her. Why had she decided to approach him to help her resolve her dilemma, knowing that about him?

  Pride, in a simple word. If she had to do this - and she'd been told it was required - she wouldn't do it paired with someone whose skills were less than her own.

  Her hope was that she wouldn't have to embrace the task at all, which was the less galling reason she'd invited Tyler here. He might agree with her plan and go along with it. If he didn't. . . Well, she preferred not to address that at the moment, especially when a flush swept her skin like the brush of a heron's wings at the thought, making her heart flutter strangely and the muscles in her thighs tighten.

  This was a mistake. One she could not gracefully undo.

  Genevieve re-entered, a smile playing around her mouth. "Beware the day Chloe comes in here and compares a customer to a bull. We'll have to run out there and collect all the china cups before the metaphor becomes reality. She's right. That one's a tiger. I feel ten times prettier, just having talked to him. " Gen didn't know the half of it. Tyler was a Southern gentleman, always rising when a woman entered the room. She'd seen him kiss a woman's hand as naturally as an English duke. When he was with a woman, he saw to her welfare with the easy authority of a man who believed it was his responsibility to look after her. That essence was what Gen had picked up. Anything female felt enormously delicate in his presence, as if his sweeping glance put her in skirts, corset, decolletage, piled-up hair. Marguerite knew all of that. Felt it and so much more that disturbed her about Tyler.

  "Marguerite?" Chloe spoke. "Is this guy some kind of trouble you need me to get rid of? I could tell him you had to leave early, let you slip out the back. " There was no running from this. Maybe that was good. Yes, she decided. It was good. Time to face up to it. Destroy the illusion her mind had created that had made her avoid him for nearly two years. Maybe that was her true motive in inviting him here.

  Facing this task would uncover the man behind the myth, and then she could firmly place him on the shelf with other bedtime stories.

  "This isn't one of your extreme tests for yourself, is it? Marguerite, you've actually gotten paler. "

  "Don't be ridiculous. He's a man, not a leap from an airplane at ten thousand feet. " Though suddenly, the first time she had done the latter seemed less daunting than this situation.

  "Need a chair or a whip to face your tiger, then?" Genevieve dispelled the moment with a twinkle in her eyes.

  Marguerite rose. "With my two circus clowns in the wings, I feel fully protected from any wild beast. "

  "Cute. " Chloe did smile then, though Marguerite felt their attention follow her closely as she moved to the kitchen door.

  She looked back at them, summoning the cool, tranquil expression they knew. "I'll be back in a moment. "

  Courtesy demanded she acknowledge his presence, even if she couldn't meet with him for the next thirty minutes. But perhaps courtesy was not what was called for here.

  She didn't notice men the way Chloe did. When she allowed herself to notice them as sexual beings, it was in the boundaries of The Zone, the BDSM club she frequented. It was a part of her life Chloe and Gen knew nothing about. When she chose her submissive for the night, she focused on his eyes, looking for signs of a need that she could not describe in words. And they recognized her as the Mistress that could fill that need. She never lacked for a partner.

  But Tyler she noticed, despite the fact he was not a submissive. He was well acknowledged as one of the most powerful and sought-after Masters at The Zone by the female submissives.

  Whenever she was close enough to feel the heat of his energy, which seemed to be whenever they were under the same roof, even at a club as large as The Zone, she felt his dangerous edge. The ruthlessness and resolution moved like an intriguing shadow just beneath the surface. Something in his eyes made her feel she could need him, and he would take care of those needs, of anything she needed.

  As she moved out onto the floor, she saw him right away. He wore tan slacks and a perfectly ironed and fitted cream-colored Oxford shirt, open at the throat. His jacket was hooked on the point of the chair, and he wore brown, polished dress shoes, the casual elegance suiting Tea Leaves.

  He didn't blend though. Instead, he looked
like an intrigued, benevolent god who walked among men. He emanated difference and yet something so familiar, as if she knew him like the touch of the sun.

  She had tried to describe him in her mind before, as if using words would sculpt a definitive closed boundary around him, keeping the essence of him from touching her identity and altering it somehow. Her failure to do so forced her to acknowledge she was captivated by more than his physical attributes. Her body reacted to his presence, the sound of his voice, his scent. There were times she would pass an area at The Zone, catch that scent, and know he had been there only a moment before.

  His physical features were nothing to scoff at, however. Dark hair kept cropped smoothly short on his nape and around his ears. Just enough feathering on top to draw attention to the way it scattered carelessly across his high forehead. He was in his forties, so she suspected if he let it grow longer, the peppering of gray would become silver streaks. A tall man, probably six foot five, his shoulders coaxed a woman's fingertips to trace their breadth. And then those fingertips might tremble off the edge, slide down the curve of hard biceps, linger on a forearm, find themselves captured by a large hand that looked capable and confident of handling something fragile without damaging it, much as he handled the whimsical sample cup now.

  In short, he exuded the confidence of a man in the prime of his life, where the physical and mental abilities were at once together, a man who understood what he wanted. And whatever that was, it created a restless force to him that had the ability to reach out and physically touch her whenever they had the slightest proximity to one another, like now.

  She'd never had to deal with him out of The Zone. As she crossed the floor, it suddenly felt as if they were all alone. Her heart rate sped up, choking her with its throb of panic.

  Stop. It's bad enough you have this reaction to him. You don't know why, which makes it irrational. Stupid, even. You invited him here. Remember?

  With the expression of the pleasant proprietress firmly in place, she moved toward him, giving him a slight nod to let him know she was on her way, a courtesy. However, she stopped to pay attention to her customers, an unspoken reprimand to him for coming before the closing time she'd specified.

  "Mrs. Allen. " The lady she addressed was approaching eighty. It was an age at which Marguerite expected a woman could safely allow one's looks and appearance to lapse but most of her senior citizen clientele were better put together than women half their age. They came to Tea Leaves wearing silk blouses, suits with a tasteful pin on the lapel and sturdy but stylish shoes. Their nails neatly manicured and legs always, always clad in silky hose, never a run to be seen. Sometimes the perfume might be a bit overdone but Marguerite found it comfortable. The smell of older Southern women, the scents of their powder and papery skin mingling with White Diamonds or Chanel #5.

  Mrs. Allen smiled at her and clasped her hand, and Marguerite immediately covered it with her other one, savoring the contact with someone she genuinely liked, who eased rather than disturbed, the familiar rather than the unknown. She realized at once her grip might be a bit desperate, for Mrs. Allen looked startled. Marguerite loosened her hold and gave the woman's knuckles a gentle pat. "After your friends treated you to the Staffordshire set for your birthday, I thought you'd never go back to Brown Betty. "

  She nodded at the little brown ball of a teapot, its surface polished to a shine that allowed her to see the impression of her own reflection, distorted and distant. The connection of their hands was magnified, as if it was the truly important part of the picture, and she supposed it was.

  "Miss M, you know that was the prettiest thing. And you were right. The same tea could taste entirely different in it. I'm so glad you had us try that new brand of Earl Grey. But me and the Brown Betty. . . " Mrs. Allen gazed fondly at the squat ball of a teapot. "We have ourselves a standing date each week. We're a sturdy pair of practical birds is all. "

  "Stolid classics," one of her two friends at the table put in.

  This incited a chatter of notes and laughter among the three women that made music in her tearoom. It would join with a similar composition at the next table, then another, the different conversations weaving into a complex arrangement that was a song of sanctuary. Marguerite imagined its energy filling and surrounding her tearoom every day, even spilling onto the street and bringing in new people, those seeking tranquility. She fed off it, used it now, absorbing it in a deep breath as she gave them one last smile and released Mrs. Allen to face the less tranquil element who had entered her domain.

  As she passed the last table, he rose, that Southern gentleman she expected. Her height of five ten with an added two inches of heels to bring her to a willowy six feet didn't faze him. That centered element to him made him perfectly in sync with the atmosphere she strove to provide. It was how he affected her that sent a ripple through the composition, that warning note that a transition in the symphony was about to occur.

  He didn't smile, utter polished platitudes or flash a smile to throw up the barricades of acquaintances. His gaze passed over her leisurely. She was sure he had thoroughly inspected her when she came out from the back, as sure as she was that he was doing it now to be certain she was aware of his scrutiny.

  It made no sense at all. Tyler was a sexual Dominant. She was a Dominant. There should be the attraction of mutual admiration but why this? This indefinable, overwhelming feeling?

  "Our meeting was for six-fifteen," she said.

  If he was taken aback by her lack of greeting, he did not show it. He remained standing, studying her, and then he did the most remarkable thing, because men did not touch her. Not without her expressed permission, and usually only after they had begged for the privilege.

  He reached out and touched the hair she'd artfully arranged along her temple. "I've never seen you with a curl. " Inserting his finger into the coil, he caught it with his thumb to stroke it with his forefinger, stretching it out straighter as he did so, then letting it go, watching it bounce back into place. It caused a pleased and warm look on his face that made her feel at loose ends. "Always, when I see you, you're wearing it tied back in that severe tail. "

  She knew she needn't worry. He wouldn't fill in that sentence with ". . . when I see you at The Zone", the place where they knew one another best. Or rather, the façade they both knew best. They both knew the strict rules of confidentiality for all members of The Zone, maintained in the outside world.

  "Yes," he said at last. "I'm early. I wanted to see your place, how you run it. I can't get that impression after closing. Why does my being here early bother you?" If it had been anyone else, the automatic answer "It doesn't" would have bounced out of her mouth. But she was sensible enough not to bluff with a man who only had one equal at The Zone for interpreting body language and tone, and that was herself. It raised her hackles though, for him to exercise his power as a Dom at this moment, calling her out and making it clear, albeit in a mild and courteous way, that he wouldn't accept an evasive answer.

  People lied all the time in the real world with a bouquet of pleasantries to deceive no one, only to make evasiveness palatable, acceptable. In The Zone, Doms didn't allow subs to do that. It was all about getting to the pure naked core of every thought, no dissembling on any level.

  "That's not really something I care to discuss. It's my problem, not yours. " That was as honest an answer as it had been a question. And it was all of the answer he was getting. "You're welcome to be here. If you need anything, let Chloe or Genevieve know. I've got some things to finish in the back but I'll be out when they lock up in about thirty minutes. "

  He nodded, those amber eyes never shifting from her face but making slight movements, revealing that he was watching her lips as she spoke, the sweep of her lashes, even the sparse movements of her hands. "I'll be here. Go finish your day. I'll wait as long as you need. "

  Like she needed his permission.

  Her lips tightening to suppr
ess a retort, she turned precisely on her heel and headed back the way she had come, intensely aware of the curious looks from Mrs.

  Allen's table. Her regulars would be wondering about that corkscrew curl move but she kept on her cool smile and moved briskly enough that no one engaged her. Her track took her into the reflection path of the large Victorian mirror mounted to the left of the kitchen entrance, so she could see him.

  He was watching her. Quite deliberately, making her acutely aware of the swing of her hips beneath the fitted skirt, the glimpse of the back of her knees and curve of calves that would be displayed as she walked in her heels. His regard made her aware of the fact she'd chosen seamed stockings, and this pair had a tiny embroidered rose in black thread just above the delicate anklebone. Even the soft brush of that curl along her temple was intensified by the memory of his touch there.

  His gaze met hers in the mirror right before she entered the kitchen. One corner of his mouth tugged up in a smile, and from the expression in his eyes, she wouldn't have put it past him to mortify her with a wolf whistle. She escaped through the door, but her own lips were twitching with a near smile, reminding her that she liked Tyler Winterman. She was just deathly afraid of the effect he had on her.

  Taking the two steps up into her side office, she closed her door. Chloe and Gen were used to her doing that at the end of the day so she could focus on receipts. It gave her an excuse now to collect her thoughts. And watch Tyler.

  The large Victorian mirror was a façade for a two-way mirror, the window side mounted on the wall of her raised office so she could keep an eye on the floor. It helped her anticipate when Chloe and Gen could use a hand, or she needed to come out to greet a frequent or new customer, underscoring the sophisticated charm and service her tearoom was known to lavish on its clientele.

  In this instance, it gave her the opportunity to study him further. He had left the bistro chair, and was now perusing her display wall. It offered pieces from the full tea sets that clients could request for the serving of their chosen beverage, everything from English porcelain to Japanese and Chinese clay. With one hand, he touched the tuocha, a compressed tea shaped like a bird's nest, then he moved on to examine the copper shine of the Russian samovar with its ornate dragon tap.

  She had originals under glass that ranged from one hundred and fifty to one thousand years old, the latter being the YiXing set from the Ming Dynasty. Her very first tea set was also under glass, a child's set of colorful ceramic cups and matching small teapot. It sat within the ankle span of a doll whose best days were long over, underscored by her brittle hair, faded satin gown and scarred face.

  Her hands clutched the desk edge, knuckles white as she watched him study that symbol of her past which she had arranged with quaint charm. It gave patrons the picture of a little blonde girl getting the set, the doll when it was brand new. Cherishing it, deciding to grow up and have her entire life be like a tea party. Civilized, every detail thought out. Well designed, beautiful. Peaceful.

  The room was laid out such that none of the tables were too close to that display wall, so that a person could move comfortably past its offerings without hovering over seated patrons. In this case it gave the ladies in the room the opportunity to study him easily under the guise of interest in the displays that most of them had seen many times before. She had three age groups in the room; Mrs. Allen's set, who were well into grandmother realm and perhaps holding out successfully for great-grandchildren; a pair of women in their forties, now empty nesters; and a table of six chic professional women who preferred this spot on Thursday afternoons rather than a golf course, nightclub or bar hangout. And every one of them was watching Tyler. Not blatantly, but with quick flicks of their eyelashes, secret smiles among themselves, a feminine chuckle. It set her teeth on edge. Why had he invaded her world before she had the inner gates to it closed? She felt as if he were contaminating it in some way, disrupting the atmosphere like the arrival of a Chippendales stripper in a library to deliver a birthday gram to the quiet steward of all those dignified books.

  But he didn't have the effeminate prettiness of a Chippendale. Chloe was right.

  Tyler commanded attention because he was like a tiger. Mesmerizing and possessing something that suggested it was wise not to turn your back on him, any more than it would be a wise move to run.

  He turned at last, made his way down the wall until he reached her mirror. Being a tall man, it was easy for him to rest an elbow on the mantel.

  Other male Dominants did not affect her this way. Perhaps it was the Domme in her that admired the strength to his bearing, his profile. The predatory readiness that pulsed from him was equally balanced with the assurance he would be the first to hold out a chair for a woman, help an elderly woman down the stairs at the bank or ask a girl crying in the mall what was the matter. How could he make it better? The moment any woman met his gaze she'd know he could make it better. In short, he was a walking fantasy, and there was nothing more dangerous to Marguerite's world than that.

  The motion of his body suggested that he had put a hand in the pocket of his slacks, a comfortable, masculine pose. His attention appeared to now rest on a photo of colorfully dressed tea pickers in India, which was grouped with lovely landscapes of the green hills of the tea gardens in Malaysia. Beyond that were some of her favorite Japanese tea theme scrolls and watercolors drawn by tea masters.

  The desk pressed against her thighs as she leaned forward. The surface was too wide for her to touch the window. Inching her skirt up, she slid onto the wood top, folding her legs beneath her as she reached out.

  It didn't matter why she felt like doing this. She didn't want to think about why she was tracing his shoulder on the glass, imagining how it would feel, the fabric of his shirt, the solid man beneath. Flattening her palm against the cool surface, she visualized touching his hair, the line of his throat, feeling the heat of life pulsing there as she passed her knuckles over it, just a gentle caress.

  He turned toward her, studying the mirror rather than himself in it, and she saw his shrewd assessment, his quick realization that it was likely a two-way. Outlining his mouth, she watched as the sensual lips curved into a faint smile. He winked and placed one finger on the glass. Entranced, she moved hers to it, pressing finger pad to finger pad. She supposed he thought she was frowning at him or ignoring him, and that was fine. But as they stood there for a moment or two and his finger stayed in place with her print against it, she began to get that uncomfortable feeling she often had, that Tyler saw more than he should when he looked her way. Moving off the desk, she took her seat and returned to her paperwork, trying not to look up again.

  She held out for about three minutes.

  He was still at the mantel. He'd taken out a palm organizer and was keying something into it. Checking his messages, she supposed. Tyler was a significant name in the erotic film industry, using his talent to help producers and directors put high-quality erotic content for women on the screen. He'd even co-written a couple award-winning scripts himself, and served as advisor on countless others. Although she'd heard that he'd cut back some the last couple years, she imagined he had a full schedule just maintaining his going concerns. Evolution of a Domme, his latest investment, had swept the erotic film awards. It had even garnered a Golden Globe nomination, for the first time breaking a barrier shattered previously only by darker, more destructive erotic films with larger name actors.

  She watched, curious, as he lifted the organizer. He placed it flat against the glass, his body shifting so to the others in the room it only looked as if he was casually relaxing at the mantel.

  What are you wearing back there?

  It startled a snort out of her, and she clapped her hand over her mouth, though there was a reasonable amount of soundproofing. As if he knew her reaction, he grinned, a slow, sexy smile. Pocketing the organizer, he strolled away, wandering back past the display wall.

  Tucking the me
mory of that smile to her breast like she was clutching her doll, she used it to ease her concerns about this meeting. It would work out. Of course it would.

  And it was nowhere near the worst thing she had faced in her life.