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Holding The Cards

Joey W. Hill

Chapter 1


  Control is temporal, but some bonds will last forever if you submit to the blessing of their existence upon you.

  To Mary, who deserves joy in every form.

  To Ben and Gil, who contributed considerable inspiration to this work.

  To my husband, always.

  Chapter 1

  "Good grief, Lisette, don't worry so much. " Lauren tossed her duffel bag into the front of the boat and began to tie the waterproof tarp over her belongings. "I used to camp by myself in the Blue Ridge all the time during college. And you said I'd be perfectly safe there, that the only reason you all lock your doors at all is to keep out the occasional sticky-fingered fisherman. " She straightened, eyes twinkling, and pointed. "There's the island. I'll be a dot, but a very visible dot, when I reach the dock. "

  "But Thomas could take you over in the Whaler. You know, boating like this, by yourself, it's not safe.

  And I feel so bad, because I had hoped - "

  "Don't start again," Lauren took her friend's hand. "I'm glad you've been asked to go on a book signing tour. Strange as it sounds, and as much as I enjoy your company, I think I need the time alone. I'm going to lay out on the beach, cook myself dinner, and read books until I sack out at night. " Her chin tightened.

  "This is my gift to me. "

  "Well, just do me a favor and give my machine a call once a day, okay? I'll check it from Toronto. I know Josh will be there, but I'd still feel better knowing - "

  "Whoa, back up, rewind. Josh?"

  Lisette waved away Lauren's narrow look. "He's the caretaker, carpenter, fix-it person. He keeps a little crofter hidden on the island. His phone number is in my kitchen if you need him. If he's not on the island, it forwards to his cell. And don't worry," Lisette grinned. "I'm not setting you up for a D. H. Lawrence novel. He's gay. He has a male 'friend' that comes down a lot and works with him on some of his projects. It's real obvious, they're both drop-dead gorgeous. They won't bug you. "

  Lauren sighed, the corner of her mouth quirking up. "I don't know. I get a private tropical island all to myself for the weekend, nothing there but a handful of million-dollar retreat homes of world-famous artists and writers. I have to lay on the beach and watch two good-looking guys in tool belts who aren't the least bit interested in hassling me. It sounds wretched. I'm booking a flight back tonight. "

  Lisette smiled and then surprised Lauren by pulling her into a tight hug. "I knew you'd bounce back," she murmured into Lauren's hair. "You always do. "

  Yep, she was like a rubber ball, just bouncing off of every wall. Lauren embraced her friend, but her control slipped, and she held on longer than she intended. Lisette waited just long enough, then eased back with a teasing smile as if she hadn't noticed anything amiss.

  "It's probably good I mentioned him," she added. "He's a little strange, and he might have startled you when and if you do meet him. "

  "Strange, how?" Lauren snapped on her inflatable PFD.

  "It's hard to describe. If you get a chance to talk to him, you'll see what I mean. I think he's stayed on the island by himself too long. " At Lauren's raised brow, Lisette lifted a shoulder. "It's like he's so used to silence, he has to think about how to form words. He'll look at me as if he's said something and he's waiting for an answer. Then he realizes he didn't say the question out loud. It's fascinating. "

  "I sense a character about to be born," Lauren said.

  "Honey, that's a done deal. You remember Gazing at Sirius , Jeremy -"

  It was twenty more minutes before Lauren pulled in the dock lines and turned the JY16 toward Goat Island. Lisette had to assure herself Lauren had the charger for the cell phone, which was at the bottom of her bag, and hug Lauren several more times.

  The wind was coming in perfectly across the starboard side of the boat as Lauren situated her feet under the hiking strap, and sheeted in the main and the jib. She had not sailed in some time, and the eager leap of the craft thrilled her as it took her out of the cove.

  She looked back and raised her hand. Lisette waved and waved until distance and the movement of the water reduced her to a tiny figure.

  Sailing had taught Lauren patience, the expectation that things go wrong. It tended to balance that with an ironic tranquility, the peace of working with nature to reach a goal. It was a view of life she had internalized, and was reflected in who she was professionally, as well as sexually.

  She had graduated with honors from Duke University, and then fought her way to the top of their grueling medical program. She divided her residency between rural clinics in the North Carolina tobacco towns and the busy emergency room of the university hospital. A prestigious pediatrics practice in Atlanta accepted her immediately upon passing her boards. Now she was almost thirty, with an established base of patients, and two published papers to her credit.

  Her family received appropriate and thoughtful gifts from her on birthdays and holidays, and she had a small group of loving childhood friends. She was healthy and happy with her life.

  Lauren raised the dagger board, letting the counter weight of her body against the sails do the work of balancing the boat, and the craft responded with another burst of marvelous speed. She lifted her face to the wind and closed her eyes.

  Yes, she was happy. But she was somewhat different than her close friends and colleagues. On Friday nights, when she bid goodnight to her co-workers, some would go to the bars and restaurants that catered to unwinding professionals, while others went home to the spouse and children. Lauren went home and prepared for a far different type of evening.

  * * * * *

  She would begin by pampering herself for an hour in her clawfoot tub, filled with scented bubble bath and surrounded by pillar candles. When at last she stood up, she would let all the bubbles slide down her skin like creamy silk before reaching for a towel. She bought her towels from a bath-and-body shop, where each towel was rolled and tied with a satin peach ribbon and a sprig of lavender. Each Friday night merited a new towel from the shop. She would dry herself with gentle presses and strokes of the absorbent cotton, awakening nerves that had to be encased in steel during the week.

  When she laid aside the towel, she sprinkled her body with a light dusting of silver glitter. She applied her favorite perfume, an exotic sandalwood scent, to her throat, wrists, and inner thighs.

  Her outfit of the night might be a thigh-high skirt and short jacket, severely tailored and woven of soft linen to follow the curves of her body like a second skin. She might wear a shell of shimmering black stretch gauze with a pearl embroidered collar beneath the jacket. The demure lapels and conservative pearl embellishment would frame the shadowed but distinct curves of her breasts, visible through the transparent fabric. Thigh high boots that laced up the side with satin ribbon might be chosen. It was entertaining to watch a man take a zipper down with his teeth, but to watch him work to pull out the same bindings that she might use to restrain him later. . . that was delightful. She could feel the hot touch of his mouth through the lacings, a sensation zippered boots could not provide.

  Her long blonde hair might be swept up on her head, with just a few tendrils down to caress her neck.

  She would paint her lips with a delicate pink lipstick, and line her eyes with a charcoal pencil to deepen their impact.

  At last ready, she would be off to an evening that could last until dawn, in one of Atlanta's upscale fetish clubs. There she might wander the "dungeons", and be mesmerized by a performer slicking oill over the taut muscles of a manacled young man and disciplining the aroused submissive with a riding crop.

  Lauren had been aware of being a Dom sexually since college, thanks to an adventurous firs
t boyfriend.

  She used the shortened insider term often instead of Dominatrix. She liked the word, but knew it had become a caricature in people's minds; a woman with a God-complex dressed up in leather and thigh high boots, wielding a whip and a smirk.

  It was a part of her life that friends such as Lisette did not know about, for exactly that reason. Lauren was not ashamed; she simply knew that most of them would have the same view of it as propagated by television, a comedic farce of leather and chains.

  Subconsciously, Lisette did understand, Lauren knew. In the alpha-male heroes and submissive-yet-feisty heroines of her romance novels, Lisette instinctively created characters that danced around a fragile triangle of control, trust and sex, and a few million readers just as instinctively responded to it.

  There was an intimacy to a relationship between a Dominant and submissive that pulled on the elemental need for unconditional love and trust. So while she did not share her preferences with those closest to her, Lauren desperately wanted to find someone to share them with her, as well as a lifetime of love, marriage and all the rest. It was not just the submissive who had needs. The Dominant had vulnerabilities that were comforted and healed by the faith and pleasure of the submissive. They were two parts of a whole.

  * * * * *

  The salty spray of Caribbean waters misted her skin and Lauren did not turn her face away, hoping it might also wash away some of her thoughts.

  Maybe she was meant to be alone. When a woman got to be nearly thirty and was delighted to be going on a retreat by herself, it said something. Maybe the energy for making a relationship work from scratch just ran out as a person got into three decades of living. So much was soaked up by the career, the commitments to family and friends. When the first thought upon meeting a guy was, do I really have time for this relationship shit ?, it was a pretty obvious indicator. Everybody wanted love and a Mr. or Mrs. Forever, but only if he/she fit seamlessly into their life without disrupting the pattern already set by tenacious individuality.

  The touch of Jonathan's hands and his moist mouth invaded her cynical thoughts, and her skin shuddered, the response of gnawing sensual hunger. She could find something to feed the body, but would she ever find someone to feed the heart? There were no emotional vibrators out there.

  Maria, a third generation American-Spanish waitress and performer at Lauren's favorite club, had tried to get Lauren to do performances, even become one of the dungeon regulars. But she wasn't looking to fulfill someone's fantasies for one night. She missed the intimacy; she missed Jonathan. Cold, calculating Jonathan who had turned out to be. . . not hers.

  Lauren shook out of the thoughts as she ducked under the boom for the smooth swing of the tack. She could do this, focus on a skill she had neglected, enjoy the fading sun on her shoulders. If she didn't know Lisette would stand there until she reached the beach, she would have stopped the boat mid-way and watched the sun melt into gold fire on the water.

  Lisette's defection had been fated. For several months, her friend had been at her disposal for long, tearful phone calls and last minute trips by plane to hold Lauren together. It was time to start manufacturing her own glue again.

  Lauren couldn't see the houses, even as she drew closer to the island. They had been designed to blend into the maritime forest. Though Lisette's had a clear view of the beach, Lauren could not make it out at all through the green canopy, a thick weave of palms, knotted sea-swept oaks, and uncut understory.

  Everything was postcard colors, from the crystal blue of the water through which she waded, to the white crystals of the beach onto which she tugged the boat. She found the piling driven there for tying the vessel against high tide's grasp and made it fast. Just to ease Lisette's mind, she sat down, just out of the water's reach, pulled out the cell phone and left a message with her friend's answering service.

  Lauren replaced the cell phone and eased back onto the sand, absorbing the silence. Only the soft whisper of wind and surf, and the gentle movement of the sails of the tied boat, spoke to her.

  It was as if she had stepped into an alternate universe. How often did a person get to be genuinely alone, not just the privacy of one's house, but in absolute quiet, both within and without?

  Lauren closed her eyes and stretched out her arms, feeling the rough grains of sand shift and trickle over her biceps as she slid them through the sand like a bird's wings. She nestled her head into the soft stuff and chuckled at the image of herself rooting with the joyous pleasure of a canine.

  She arched her back and pressed her hips deeper into the soft mattress that smelled of the sea. The sun kissed her lips, warmed a path along her bared throat.

  Without warning, the memory of Jonathan's hands was upon her. She remembered his lips touching, sucking, and caressing. Her body arched harder in instinctive reaction, wishing. . . wishing he had offered the intimacy that the eager touch of those lips and the caress of those strong hands had seemed to promise. The distant eyes were a mocking contrast to the expert lovemaking. He did exactly and only what she bid him to do. Even a dominatrix couldn't command a heart to love her.

  Lauren's hand lay on her thigh, and she slid her fingers up, beneath the loose shorts, under the elastic of her panties. Damp, just from the thought of him.

  At times when he knelt before her, she would consider him with cool eyes and crossed legs that revealed nothing. He would have to persuade her to uncross her thighs by tracing his tongue along the delicate anklebone, up the ridge of the calf, along the back of her thigh. When at last she relented, she made him sit back and watch her slide one knee off the other to spread open her legs. She would take her time.

  The flickering light thrown by the candles in their room would advance like a sunrise into the dark tunnel between her thighs as she drew back the snug skirt. When it was high enough, she would give him permission and he would surge forward and plunge his tongue into her.

  He lapped, made intricate swirls, and she came again and again, but she wanted to beg, plead with him, to demand that he offer her more than his flesh. His soul was what she craved. In the end, she had begged, and he had left her.

  A cloud covered the sun, leaving her skin chilled with its absence. She was crying, dammit. Goddammit.

  Lauren erupted from the sand, cursed, shouted, kicked the boat, grabbed up handfuls of sand and flung them about her, screaming out her frustration at the silent island, a primal wordless cry.

  Get out of my head. You're not fucking worth it.

  She brought her clenched fists to her chest and bent her head over them, as if the heart beneath was an infant that needed protection. And it was, in a way.

  "Sadistic bastard," she muttered and snatched up her pack, refusing to give in to the familiar spiral of terror that she would always be like this, always destined to end up alone because of who she was.

  * * * * *

  "Maybe this game is what's the matter with me," she had suggested to Maria.

  The waitress had chuckled and laid a hand over hers, her long nails painted a burgundy color as liquid as wine.

  "Everybody plays a game to find that special someone, sugar. This game isn't your problem, and even if it was, you can't get it out of your blood. I've seen people like you try to go vanilla. They think they always fuck relationships up because they're into kink. It's like a person who wants kids, convincing himself he can live without them to be with that special lady who doesn't want kids at all.

  "You're not planning on strapping some boy's ass until you're both in dentures, though that's a part of it.

  You need to find out what's driving your game. You and Jonathan were playing the same game on the face, but in reality you were as different as Monopoly and Tiddly-Winks.

  "Figure that out, and you'll know exactly what you want. Then when that lucky boy shows up in front of you - blam - it won't be just his fine ass that will be all yours. "

  * * * * *
/>   Josh sat on his heels just inside the tree line, his arms crossed loosely over his knees. He had observed the woman's approach, admiring her easy handling of the sailboat in the stiff breeze. He had watched, at first amused when she flopped herself down on the sand. He got less amused and more intent as her body responded to the sensual offering of the natural world around her. When she arched and stretched in the sleeveless polo shirt, the muscles of her thighs contracting, raising, her hand finding herself, he had thought for a moment he was having some type of prurient daydream, a common phenomenon when a man spent his days on a deserted island. Then she had exploded into rage and he watched her tantrum, his eyes widening at both the immediacy and strength of her fury.

  The infrequent visits by the residents didn't perturb him. They were artists, naturally reclusive and devoted to their respective crafts. It was the reason the island had drawn them, and though their temperaments might be volatile or celebrated when in contact with the mainland world, here most were quiet, at peace with themselves, gods busy in their workshops with the creation of their newest worlds.

  It looked like this latest visitor had not come to create, but to vanquish demons. It would be an interesting process to watch, and maybe, to help her.

  It was an unexpected thought. Josh straightened, unsmiling, and went to find Marcus.