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Bound and Determined

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Chapter One

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Sterling asked doubtfully as they stepped inside and the door closed behind them. He had to blink and let his eyes adjust, but even then it seemed like maybe they'd gotten the address wrong. He'd never actually been to a BDSM club, but whatever he'd been expecting, it certainly hadn't been this.

It looked like a regular nightclub, and a reasonably crowded one at that. There was a bar along the back wall with the typical collection of college students and older people jostling for the bartender's attention. Two dance floors instead of the more traditional single one, but otherwise it seemed like just about every club Sterling had ever been to in his life. Not that there had been all that many, of course, since he was still half a year from his twenty-first birthday and he couldn't legally drink, but one of the benefits to living in an area that catered to two different universities was that the clubs were prepared to handle things like checking ID and keeping the underaged from getting their hands on any alcohol.

Hypothetically, at least.

But once he looked around a little more closely, Sterling saw that this club was different. In subtle ways, maybe, but careful observation showed that some of the patrons were wearing collars. Choker-style necklaces went in and out of fashion, and he didn't pay all that much attention to what women wore at any time—still, he did pay attention to men, and he was pretty sure he'd never seen a guy wearing a necklace like the ones he was seeing now. There were a few different styles, and the men wearing them seemed just about glued to the people they were with—some men, some women.

There was music playing, but it wasn't the loud, pounding-beat kind that Sterling was used to at nightclubs. It sounded more like top forty.

“Hello? Earth to Sterling?” Alex said, sounding amused, and Sterling blinked and forced his attention back to his friend.

“Sorry, what?” Even now, he found his eyes being drawn back to a couple sitting at one of the tables. Well, one of the two men was sitting at the table—the other was kneeling on the floor at his feet and looking up at him with an expression that might have been called worshipful.

“You asked if it was the right place,” Alex said. “Then you looked around, and I guess you answered your own question judging by the way your jaw dropped. Play it cool, huh? We don't want to come off like tourists.”

“Hey, you've been here before,” Sterling protested.

“Only a couple of times,” Alex said. “Plus Ray was leading me around by the dick—mostly figuratively, by the way, in case you were thinking about asking—so I was kind of focused on him.”

Sterling nodded and watched as the guy sitting in the chair said something to the one kneeling beside him. Then he reached out and cupped the kneeling guy's head with one hand, stroking his hair. “Not too many people dancing,” he said to Alex, trying to sound casual even though his heart was fluttering in his chest.

“There will be later,” Alex said absently, his gaze scanning the crowd. “It's not exactly what people are here for though, you know?” He touched Sterling's sleeve. “Want to get a drink first and then I'll introduce you around? I see a couple of guys I know from when I was with Ray.”

“Okay.” They started toward the bar; then Sterling froze as one of the men sitting at it sharpened into someone he knew. “Fuck,” he said, the curse half under his breath but getting Alex's attention all the same.

“What?”

“That guy,” Sterling said. “Brown hair, blue shirt, with the top two buttons undone?”

“Yeah? You know him?”

“He's a professor,” Sterling said. “He taught my freshman lit class. God, what the hell is he doing here?”

“Huh.” Alex studied the man thoughtfully. “He does look familiar. And I think he's probably doing what everyone else is—hoping to hook up, maybe. It looks like he's alone.”

Sterling had a lump in his throat the size of a baseball; it almost hurt to swallow around it. Professor Sawyer, who'd stood at the front of the class and lectured about Shakespeare and Steinbeck and Gibson, sometimes smiling in a way that had made Sterling's cock sit up and take interest, was here. At a BDSM club.

“You look like you're about to pass out or throw up,” Alex said and moved to shield him from a possible glance from Sawyer, a gesture that left Sterling feeling irritated rather than grateful because it meant that he couldn't see Sawyer anymore. Which made no sense; Owen Sawyer wasn't even close to what Sterling was looking for, after all. There was clearly a lot that he didn't know about his former teacher, but Sterling doubted that the man was a sub. No collar around that neck, and the relaxed way that Sawyer was sitting, with a faint smile on his face, made him look like he belonged here in a way that Sterling envied. “I seriously doubt he's going to report you to the dean; how can he?” Alex grinned impishly. “He doesn't still teach you, does he? Because I can see how that'd be awkward the next time you meet up.”

“No, thank God,” Sterling said. “He teaches mostly writing courses; not really my thing.”

“Maybe he'll take you on as, like, an apprentice or something,” Alex suggested, sounding like he didn't really mean it. But actually, it wasn't a bad idea.

Sterling watched as a woman with an impressive cleavage revealed by her low-cut blouse went over toward Sawyer. He went so far as to step to one side so Alex didn't block his view as the woman spoke with Sawyer, smiling and twirling a lock of her blonde hair around one manicured finger. Sawyer seemed bored by her, a realization that sent a little thrill through Sterling. “You think he would?”

Alex shrugged. “Can't hurt to ask. You can get assholes here, like anywhere, but most people are happy to help out new players.” His expression brightened. “If he's into teaching, he might even get off on it.”

Sterling didn't think that being a teacher necessarily meant that you were willing to train someone in the finer arts of being a Dom in your spare time, but he didn't point that out. There were a lot of ifs and maybes to be dealt with, but he was too much his father's son to let hesitation and uncertainty stop him from reaching out for something he wanted. The worst that could happen was that Sawyer would say no, and a no could always be changed into a yes if you knew where to apply the right pressure.

He noted that Sawyer's glass was almost empty. “I'm going to buy him a drink and say hi,” he told Alex.

“Sounds like a plan. I'll get a beer, and I'll be over there if you need me,” Alex said, gesturing to a corner table where three men sat chatting animatedly to each other. He patted Sterling's shoulder solemnly, a glint of a smile in his blue eyes. “Go and get an A for assertiveness.”

The seat next to Sawyer's was conveniently empty—Sterling slid into it as the blonde woman walked off, looking disappointed, and said as smoothly as possible, “Hi. Come here often?”

He'd almost forgotten how cold Sawyer's gray eyes could get when he wasn't happy about something. Almost. One flickering, disinterested glance and Sterling was on his way to being hard and feeling combative, responding to being ignored the way he had in class when Sawyer had dismissed his take on a poem as juvenile or ignorant or both.

“I asked you a question,” Sterling said.

Sawyer swallowed the last of his drink—whiskey by the look and smell of it, poured over ice that had melted enough to lighten the amber of the liquid to a pale straw—and set his glass down on the bar. “And I was remarkably kind and pretended that I didn't hear it or notice your presence in a bar when you're too young to drink.” Sawyer stared at him directly for the first time, a hint of anger in his eyes but not a shred of embarrassment. “Go home, Mr. Baker. You don't belong here.”

“You don't get to decide where I belong,” Sterling retorted. “And I'm not too young to be here. To drink, sure—though not for much longer—but not to hang out. I came with a friend. How about you?”

“I don't come here to make friends,” Sawyer said, his voice crisp. Listening to it felt like biting into an apple just picked off a tree; Sterling's mouth wanted to water. “You do know where you are, don't you?”

Sterling frowned. “Yes—I'm not stupid. Which maybe, if you weren't old enough to be getting senile, you'd remember. I know you didn't like me when I took your class, but since our grades weren't based on your personal opinion of our character, I did get an A.” He sighed and rubbed a hand across his face—this wasn't the way he'd imagined the evening going. “Look, can we start over again? Let me buy you a drink.”

“No, thank you. And I remember you from my class very well,” Sawyer said flatly. “You were cocky, arrogant, and you owed your grade to the fact that when you wrote your papers for me you dropped the attitude and actually produced something worth reading.” Sawyer picked up his glass and swirled the ice in it, watching it clash against the side of the glass. “You surprised me; I assumed you'd paid someone to write them initially, but a phrase here and there echoed something you'd said in class…” He put the glass down and gestured to the bartender for a refill. “So forceful in public, so keen to correct me…but when you were alone, not surrounded by your clique of admirers, you wrote in a way that showed you'd listened to me closely.”

Sawyer's drink arrived, passed over with a smile that held a hint of the same adoration some of the subs in the room were showing their Doms. Sawyer took it with a nod of thanks and stood. “Enjoy your little field trip to the zoo—and, yes, some of the animals here do bite.”

Fine, Sterling thought, watching the man's perfectly shaped ass as he walked away. Who cares? I can find someone else to show me the ropes—someone a hell of a lot nicer than that bastard.

It was all a little too forced, though, and he wasn't in the business of pretending, not even to himself; he had to admit that it bothered him that Sawyer didn't like him. Sure, he could be kind of cocky sometimes. He was sharp as a tack, and he knew it. Growing up under the watchful eye of his father, the esteemed and respected William Sterling Baker II, he'd had to learn fast and protect himself faster. He could handle someone like Professor Sawyer.

If he wanted to.

Eyes searching the room, Sterling found Alex and went over to join him and the small group of people he was talking to.

The table was big enough that there were two empty seats, and he took the one next to Alex, who turned and greeted him with a smile that quickly turned sympathetic when he saw Sterling's face. Sterling didn't want sympathy, and he really didn't want to talk about his failure. He gave the men at the table a friendly nod and got some interested, appraising looks back that were soothing, even if he wasn't drawn to anybody in particular. It didn't matter. He wasn't here to pick someone up; he was here to find a guide through the maze. He slid his hand over Alex's thigh under the table and reminded himself that even if things hadn't gone as planned a few nights before, the sex between them was still okay as long as they kept it vanilla.

The noise level at the table rose as one of the men, a slimly built redhead with sparkling green eyes, recounted some gossip that was met with laughter and then capped by the man beside him, who was snickering too much for Sterling to follow what he was saying. Alex turned away from the table slightly and murmured, “So what did he say? I asked about him while you were at the bar, and he's definitely got a good reputation; he knows what he's doing.”

“Apparently he's even more of a jerk than I'd remembered,” Sterling said. “He thinks I don't belong here and I should run along home and play with my LEGOs or something.” He rolled his eyes, hoping he was acting convincingly nonchalant about the whole situation when, in fact, it was bothering him enough that he had a gnawing ache in his gut.

Alex's jaw dropped slightly, but he made a quick recovery. “Maybe it's a, uh, test or something and he wants to know if you're serious?” He scratched his jaw pensively. “I wasn't staring at you or anything, but from here you looked kind of, well…”

“What?” Sterling demanded, unwilling to admit that he hadn't even gotten as far as asking Sawyer to train him.

There was a couple walking by, the sub, tall, muscular, his arms bare, faded jeans clinging to his thighs and ass, walking a few steps behind an older man in a suit expensive enough to remind Sterling of his father. The sub looked unhappy, his head ducked down, a flush on his face, but as his Dom turned and looked at him, his head came up and he smiled tentatively, the happiness returning to his eyes as the older man, his face impassive, made some minor adjustment to the fit of the collar the sub wore. It was as intimate a gesture as a kiss.

“Like the guy not in the suit,” Alex said succinctly as the couple walked away.

“What?” It came out sounding disbelieving, which was how Sterling felt. “Seriously?”

“Well, yeah.” Alex shrugged and patted his shoulder. “Sorry, man, but it's true. I'm not saying it means anything—it's just how you looked.”

Sterling sat back in his chair and thought about it for a minute as conversation continued around him, the music in the background blurring into the other sounds until all of it became meaningless. Which was what Alex's theory was. Wasn't it?

His whole life Sterling had struggled to come out on top in his relationship with his dad, and although the distance that going away to college had created made things easier, it didn't eliminate the conflict. Sterling's entire existence revolved around not letting himself play second fiddle to anyone, so it made sense that, drawn to the BDSM lifestyle the way he was, he'd be a Dom.

Of course, until a few weeks ago, BDSM had been nothing more than a term, one that brought to mind men in leather masks whipping people stretched out on a rack with blindfolds over their eyes and gags in their mouths. It had been a cartoonish concept; that was all.

Then Sterling's roommate Brian had dragged him, somewhat unwilling, to an off-campus party on a Friday night. Brian had hooked up with some little red-haired girl almost immediately, leaving Sterling surrounded by straight couples who were making out on every available surface and no way to get back to the dorm unless he wanted to walk. He'd been on the verge of deciding to do so, even though it had to be at least six miles, when he'd noticed two guys slipping downstairs. Following them in the hopes that there was a flat-screen TV and a DVD player down there, something to help kill a couple of hours, he'd found only a bedroom door, ajar several inches, and sounds that told him the two men were doing something a lot more kinky than getting ready to watch a movie.

He hadn't been able to make himself leave. Instead, he'd stood there, watching what he could see, his cock rock-hard in his jeans as the bigger man ordered the other—who'd turned out to be Alex—to suck him off. The words he'd used had been explicit, but it was the submissive yearning in Alex's voice as he'd answered that had made it clear this wasn't just two guys hooking up.

Afterward, still hard, Sterling had crept back upstairs and waited on the front porch for one of the two to reappear. Brian and the redhead left for her place, offering to drop him back at the dorm, but he'd shaken his head and stayed until Alex, blond hair mussed, had come outside and lit a cigarette with hands that trembled.

“Hey,” Sterling said.

“Hey.” Alex inhaled blissfully. “You want one?”

“Sure. Thanks.” Sterling had only smoked a handful of times, but he felt instinctively that he wanted to create some kind of connection, and he'd take what he could get. “I'm Sterling Baker.”

“Alex Ross.” Alex lit a second cigarette and handed it over. “God, I'm wrecked. What time is it?”

“I don't know. Two, maybe?” Sterling took a drag, exhaled without coughing, and steeled himself. “Can I ask you something?”

That had been the start of their friendship, and now, with the background noise of the club sharpening again, Sterling looked at Alex with a mixture of affection and gratitude. He needed this, he knew it deep down, and Alex was the one who'd opened his eyes to this new world.

“It has to mean something,” he said finally. “Just not what you're implying. Maybe it's because it's him and I'm remembering how it used to be when he was in charge of me in class. Sort of a conditioned reflex, you know?” It was a lame piece of reasoning, but Alex seemed to buy it, if his vaguely encouraging nod was anything to go by.

Sterling might have allowed himself to be convinced if he wasn't thinking about the few times he'd tried to give Alex what he needed and fallen well short of what they'd been aiming at. Faced with Alex on his knees, an expectant look in his eyes, his features settling into a serenity that was absent at other times, Sterling had panicked. Orders that needed to be voiced with utter certainty had been stammered, his voice hoarse and wavering. He'd contradicted himself, snapped at a patient Alex, frustration at his own failure sour in his throat, and ruined the mood spectacularly. The second attempt, a few nights later, had just been boring, though there had been the sense of something tantalizingly out of reach that kept him awake for hours, staring into the darkness of his room, his body aching, hungry.

Submissive. The one thing he wasn't and never had been. No. He just needed some experience, that was all, needed to soak up the atmosphere here. He'd always been a quick learner, observant, imaginative; every report card he'd ever had bore that out.

“We can try again tonight, if neither of us gets lucky,” Alex murmured, his eyes bright as he passed his tongue over his lips. “God, I'd forgotten how horny this place makes me feel…” He made a sound very close to a satisfied purr and then turned his attention back to the conversation still occupying the table.

A minute later, though, everyone's focus was drawn to the couple in the center of the nearer of the two dance floors, and when Sterling glanced in that direction to see what the big attraction was, it felt like the bottom of his stomach dropped out.

Owen Sawyer—sometimes professor, sometimes Dom, if the way the woman with him kept her eyes cast downward had anything to say about it—stood there, some kind of flogging implement in his hand, eyes cool and distant.

The woman had straight dark hair, long enough to fall an inch or two past her shoulders, and she turned at Sawyer's direction, crossing her wrists behind her back and letting him bind them with a silky-looking scarf. Everyone near Sterling's table had gone quiet, so he was able to hear it when Sawyer murmured something in a low voice, something approving in the same tone of voice Sterling had heard him use in the classroom. He used the woman's name too: Carol.

Panic and excitement fought for ascendancy in Sterling as he stared at Sawyer. He wanted to be him—didn't he?—so completely assured, so in charge. Wanted to feel the cool, soft leather thongs of the flogger slide against his palm and through his fingers, wanted to make a gesture, just like that, and have a sub kneel instantly, a smooth, graceful movement that ended with them perfectly positioned for whatever he had in mind.

Sawyer's hand slid under the flowing dark hair and closed around Carol's neck. Sterling felt the echo of that possessive, claiming grip on the back of his neck and closed his eyes in despair and defeat, engulfed in an intense longing that made everything fade to gray.

God. He could barely keep himself together, painfully aware of how it would feel to kneel on that floor, the wooden surface hard against his knees, a sparking ache of fire traveling from bound wrists to shoulders. He could picture with perfect clarity the view from that position, the upward gaze along the line of Sawyer's body to his face.

His hands were trembling as he watched Sawyer take control of Carol. The man unbuttoned her blouse one button at a time, casually, as if he had all the time in the world and wasn't particularly interested in what he was doing. Sterling knew that part was an act, though. Carol's eyes, wide, tear-wet and dark, were mostly downcast, but occasionally moved up to look at Sawyer's face, searching for something there.

The audience was mostly quiet now, an appreciative murmur humming through the air. The music was muted so gradually that Sterling couldn't have said exactly when it ceased to be audible through the seashell roar in his ears. He heard the small, throat-caught sound Carol made as Sawyer slipped her blouse off to tangle around her bound wrists, though; he heard that clearly, and it brought an answering moan to his own lips that he hoped went unnoticed in the ripple of comment that went around the room.

Carol's small, rounded breasts were held in a wisp of white lace and silk, delicately feminine and concealing nothing, but Sawyer still took it from her, unhooking the clasp between her breasts with a deft flick. It was strapless, and it fell to the floor behind her, a pale splash against the dark wood. Carol was wearing tailored pants, and her feet were bare; the image she presented was a jarring mix that left Sterling unsettled. She didn't look like anyone else in the room; fully dressed, with her hair in a neat bun, she would have looked like an executive, a lawyer, maybe.

Half-naked on the floor, her breathing quick and ragged, slowing when the strands of leather were dragged over her shoulder, the only caress she'd been given, she looked like a fantasy come to life.

Not just any fantasy; hers, had to be—or maybe it was Sawyer's and he only went for women? Sterling stared at Carol and envied her without jealousy for what she was about to receive and for the way she'd gotten Sawyer's attention.

Even staring at her bare upper half, her flushed-pink nipples, did nothing for Sterling physically—he'd never been attracted to women—but at that moment he was so spellbound that he could almost imagine what it would have felt like if he was.

“What do you think?” Alex asked in a hushed voice, leaning closer. A shiver went through Sterling, all the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck prickling with it.

“How—” His breath caught in his throat, and he had to try again. “How far will he take it?”

“As far as she told him that she wanted to go,” Alex said. “He might give her less if he thinks she's reached her limits, but he wouldn't cross them.”

I know that, Sterling wanted to snap at him. That was basic, and the reading he'd done online, researching a kink that had made parts of his life go from confusing to clear in an instant, had spelled out all the steps of negotiation, all the rules. The words had blurred as he read them, so aroused that he couldn't continue without jerking off right there in the computer chair as if he'd been reading porn, not dry, matter-of-fact bullet point lists.

“I mean, will he—right here in front of everyone—” He swallowed dryly as the flogger swung through the air and struck the curved back waiting for its kiss, answering his question.

After the first glance at Carol's face—calm, though her eyes were squeezing shut with each stroke and she was starting to breathe heavily—he looked only at Sawyer.

Sterling had seen that intent absorption in the classroom; Sawyer gave it to anything he read and any conversation that interested him. This was different though; Sterling was pretty sure that Sawyer hadn't been hard when he'd discussed symbolism and Sylvia Plath, a flush rising in his thin, strong face.

“Jesus,” he whispered under his breath. He could see Sawyer's erection, outlined clearly under the khakis that might very well be one of the same pairs from freshmen lit. It was a thought that would have made Sterling hard too, if he hadn't already been—as it was, his cock gave a heavy throb, constricted as it was in jeans half a size too small.

Sawyer brought his arm back and swung again, quicker; Carol gasped, flinched, but didn't cry out. Her pale skin was red across her upper back and along her spine. God, what would it feel like to be the one kneeling there, waiting for the leather to strike? Knowing that Sawyer was the one in charge?

Sterling could feel sweat on his palms. He wiped them on his thighs and swallowed, shaken to his core.

Finally, and Sterling didn't realize that he'd been waiting for it until it happened, Sawyer spoke, his words directed at Carol, as if she was the only person who mattered and the watching audience didn't exist. It wasn't because Sawyer or Carol would have preferred to do this alone; if they did, this would be happening in one of the private rooms that Alex had said were at the back of the club, but it added a spice of voyeurism to the scene—not that Sterling needed it to get any more intense.

“You're doing so well, Carol.”

She sobbed for the first time, as if Sawyer's cool words, spoken without emotion, were harder to endure than the stinging flick of the leather.

“You earned this attention from me by failing, though, and I don't really think that we should lose sight of that fact, do you?”

If Carol answered, Sterling didn't hear her. As gradually as the music had faded, the lights in the room had dimmed, until the only illumination shone down on the woman kneeling and the man standing over her. It gave him the opportunity to stare at Sawyer openly, greedily, and he took it.

Sawyer had a strong jawline and a perfectly straight nose—the better to look down it at other people, Sterling thought—and though he was probably just over average as far as height went, just about the same height as Sterling, he gave the impression of being larger than life. His hands, though, when Sterling looked at them… His hands were solid, his fingers long. Sterling wanted to feel them on his body, that roughened palm against his cock, clutching his ass.

God.

Unthinkingly, Sterling reached out for Alex's knee and gripped it. He needed something to hold onto, and Alex seemed to understand, because he didn't ask questions or move away, just let Sterling hang onto him. It felt like it had been going on forever—each time Sawyer drew his arm back, Sterling's heart stuttered in his chest, and he could feel sweat beading on his upper lip.

Tears were streaking Carol's face now, but she held the position she'd been placed in by Sawyer's hand on her neck, the tight clench of her fingers betraying her emotions more than her expression.

“But we all fail from time to time,” Sawyer said and stepped back to study the marks he'd placed on Carol's skin. “And if we learn from that…” He walked to stand in front of her and used the handle of the flogger to tilt her face up to him, tapping it once underneath her chin and then taking it away. “What have you learned, Carol?”

What have we learned today?” Sawyer had often finished a class with that final question, sometimes targeting a hapless student who hadn't been paying attention and then, when they floundered, summing up an hour of discussion with a few brisk, incisive sentences.

Carol wasn't going to be one of the lucky ones who got a rare, approving smile. She blinked up at Sawyer, her eyes filled with a panicked desperation as if she knew that this was what mattered most, not how well she'd behaved during her whipping, and bit her lip.

“I'm waiting,” Sawyer said and made it sound not like an accusation or a reminder, but a flat statement of a fact that disappointed him.

Sterling shivered. He'd tried to make Sawyer angry from time to time, driven by an impulse he'd never examined deeply, but he'd never wanted to disappoint him and be on the receiving end of a dismissive, contemptuous stare. Carol wasn't getting that; she was getting something worse, because Sawyer untied her wrists and turned to walk away.

“No! Wait.” Carol twisted her upper body to watch him leave, wincing in pain, and then called out, “Owen! Please!” her voice cracking on his name. “I can do better, I will, I promise, I just—” She looked around at the people watching as if she'd only just seen them, and ducked her head with a gasp, her hair falling forward to shield her face and the tears that were sliding down.

A man and a woman emerged from the shadows around the dance floor, both dressed similarly in black leather pants and vest, hanging open over the man's bare chest, buttoned up tightly on the woman. They walked over to Carol and helped her to her feet, gathering her blouse from the floor.

“Staff,” Alex said into Sterling's ear. “They, uh, tidy things up. And that just got messy.”

“I think I've seen enough,” Sterling said and stood, knocking his chair back onto the floor with a clatter that went mostly unnoticed among the voices of all the patrons who were now talking, creating a buffer for Carol, an illusion of privacy. He didn't wait to see if Alex would follow, just headed for the door that was closing behind Sawyer.

He burst out onto the sidewalk. Sawyer was walking away, in the shadows now that he'd stepped out of the circle of light shed by the streetlamp above.

“Wait!” Sterling said, desperate, needing.

Sawyer turned at once, rounding on him in a way that made Sterling hesitate before closing the gap between them. He got to within a few feet of Sawyer and then stopped, searching the man's face for some acknowledgement of the way he felt. Sawyer had to know what watching that scene had done to him, had to have felt Sterling's arousal build to the point where he was fucking hurting.

“This,” Sawyer said, his voice clipped and furious, “is not a good time to annoy me with more clumsy attempts to get my attention. I don't appreciate them, and if you're serious about becoming more than an onlooker, you're going about it the wrong way.” He took a step toward Sterling, his expression closed off and forbidding. “Back off,” he said distinctly. “Now.”

And, for once in his life, Sterling took a deep breath and did what he'd been told. He didn't speak, he didn't push the issue. He lowered his head and looked at the sidewalk, forcing his shoulders to relax. He was aware of the picture he made with his blond-tipped hair and his erect cock plainly visible, and he could only hope that Sawyer would like what he saw.

“Better,” Sawyer said indifferently, casually, his anger fading as if Sterling's show of obedience had calmed him down. Sterling took a quick, hopeful breath, waiting—and Sawyer turned and walked away, disappearing around a corner before Sterling could find the words to stop him.

Chapter Two

Owen shouldn't really have been driving when he was this keyed up, but right then he just wanted to go home. He pushed his emotions aside to be dealt with later and concentrated on the road, navigating the familiar route between the club and his house with his hands gripping the wheel tightly to stop them from shaking.

Carol and that goddamned boy…an ending and a beginning side by side if he wanted it to be that way. Did he? He wasn't sure—and that indecision troubled him more than his failure with Carol.

He'd left a light on, and it made the empty house look welcoming as he got out of his car in the driveway and walked up the narrow, twisting path to the front door. The path was edged with low bushes of lavender, aromatic in the damp September air, and roses, some still with a few tattered petals clinging to the thorny stems. Owen had inherited the large 1900s house from his parents, who'd moved into it after he'd left for college and partially restored it. It was only now, three years after their deaths in a car accident, that it was beginning to feel like his home, not theirs, a change that brought with it some guilt as he painted over walls they'd decorated and disposed of furniture they'd chosen.

He got inside, kicked off his shoes, and headed for the master bedroom, walking slowly up the curved wooden stairs. This room was the first that he'd made his own, unable to bear the thought of sleeping in his parents' bed for even a single night, the shock of their loss making logic and reason disappear. He'd slept on the couch for a week until the redecorating was complete and his own furniture had arrived, waking stiff-necked and cramped each morning. The pale rose walls and cream carpet that his mother, Anne, had chosen and his father had endured, had been painted over and torn up respectively, and the room, with its high ceilings and long, narrow windows, was now hunter green with a hardwood floor in a rich chestnut wood. Against the deep, traditional colors, the black metal frame of his high bed could have looked uncompromising, but the way the metal was worked into an airy design, simple but visually interesting, saved it from that.

Or so the salesman had told Owen, who had been more interested by the linked double posts in each corner, rising up a few feet above the frame, and the numerous places on the frame that would take a cuff or a tether.

He showered, keeping his mind deliberately blank, and pulled on a disreputable but warm navy robe that dated back years over a short-sleeved T-shirt and shorts. It was still early, barely ten, and he went back downstairs to get a drink. The bottle of Lagavulin looked almost empty, but tipping its contents into a glass ended up giving him a lot more than he would usually have allowed himself as a nightcap.

Shrugging, he swallowed a third of it before going to sit in the wide, low leather armchair by the fireplace. A discreetly modern and effective heating system meant that he rarely went to the trouble of kindling a real fire, but he wished that there was one burning to chase away the chill that the hot shower and whiskey couldn't touch.

With no more reason to put off the inquest, he pictured Carol's face as he'd last seen it, anguished and contrite. Did he feel even a flicker of interest in her? He had to admit that he didn't. She was beautiful, not that it mattered to him as much as other factors, and she was exquisitely responsive, but God, she was so boringly predictable. Too many small flaws marring her performance too, flaws other Doms had let her get away with because of that shining fall of hair, those wide, beseeching eyes, and full, lush mouth.

Owen had taken her on because she'd begged him to and because he'd seen her potential, but she just didn't get it, none of it. The physical pleasure she got from what he did to her—that, yes, but she was incapable of understanding why something worked for her, and trying to coax anything other than a rote, “I like anything you do to me, Sir,” from her had proven impossible.

He didn't feel too sympathetic or regretful. She'd find someone else before the marks he'd striped her back with had faded, and they hadn't formed a real connection. She'd enjoyed being seen with him because he had a reputation for being choosy, but she hadn't been interested in him beyond what they did at the club.

Owen raised his glass in an ironic, silent toast to her, took a sip of whiskey, and forgot about her.

He wished that young Mr. Baker was as easy to ignore.

* * * * *

It was only two days later that Owen ran, almost literally, into Sterling again. The weather was gray, the sky threatening rain that Owen felt confident would hold off until the afternoon, and he was still keyed up enough after the weekend that he felt the need to burn off some of his nervous energy. He liked to run—had since he'd been a teenager—and mornings seemed the best time to do so if he wanted to lose himself in the rhythm of the exercise.

He definitely preferred the track to running in his own neighborhood; for him, the whole point was to be able to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, not to have to worry about whether cars or errant dogs might make him a target. Before noon, few students seemed to use the college track.

Tightening the laces of his fairly expensive running shoes, Owen stretched a little and started to run. He kept it slow at first, easing into it, and made two complete laps, a total of half a mile, before he sped up. As he did, starting the third lap, someone else joined him, pacing him. He glanced over and saw, more surprised than he should have been, that the someone was Sterling Baker.

“Hi,” Sterling said.

Owen had been using the track for months, but he didn't recall seeing Sterling do anything more athletic than tapping his pencil against his desk until Owen's fingers had itched with the need to spank the brat out of him. It was a second surprise to see just how fit Sterling looked, his long, muscular legs emerging from a pair of clinging running shorts that showcased an ass usually hidden under overly baggy shirts. Owen didn't pay much attention to the sporting side of the university, though; for all he knew, Sterling could be a star of track and field. Once the young man had left Owen's class at the end of his freshman year, their paths hadn't crossed often.

Now it seemed they were about to cross frequently unless he swatted this persistent bug with enough force to drive his message home. Telling Sterling to go away wasn't an option given their location; Sterling had every right to be here. Retreating was equally impossible; it went against Owen's natural inclinations, and he was only partway through his run.

Sterling was watching him with just a little anxiety in his eyes, very different from the cool arrogance he'd shown Owen so often in class, but there was a tilt to his chin that didn't look at all meek.

“Good morning,” Owen said pleasantly, glad that he wasn't at all out of breath. “Should I e-mail you my schedule for the week so that you don't miss any opportunity to accidentally bump into me, or can we end this game right now?”

“I don't want to end it,” Sterling said just as pleasantly. “We're just starting. So yeah, feel free to e-mail me your schedule. Or not—I'm stubborn. I'll figure this out either way.”

Younger and apparently just as fit, Sterling kept pace with no apparent effort—not impressive yet, not when he'd just started, but if it continued… If it continued, Owen would be impressed, and that wasn't part of his plan as to how this would go, not at all. Owen put on a bit more speed, testing, and Sterling sped up too.

They ran side by side in silence for a while, their paces perfectly matched, their feet striking the surface of the track in an insistent rhythm. Not good, and Owen, determined to break the unwanted synchronicity, fell back with an abruptness that left Sterling forging ahead for a few paces until he realized that he was running alone.

Owen gave him a bland smile and continued to jog at an easy, undemanding pace, frustratingly slow for him and, he was sure, maddeningly so for someone as athletic as Sterling. Now Sterling had several choices; he could match Owen's speed, following his lead, demonstrate his strength and endurance by sprinting off, or continue at his present pace. Or give up. Owen didn't really care what Sterling did; any choice he made would reveal something about him, and that was what Owen wanted. Know thy enemies… Sterling wasn't an enemy, but the theory was sound.

At first Owen thought Sterling had chosen to continue at the same speed they'd been at, but slowly, almost casually, he slowed down until he was running beside Owen again. He flashed Owen a friendly smile, somehow managing to keep any hint of pride out of it.

“I'm still an English major,” Sterling said.

Owen refrained from rolling his eyes. “Am I supposed to consider that an accomplishment?”

“After the hard time you gave me in your class? I'm surprised I didn't transfer schools.” Sterling's tone was light, joking.

“And miss the chance to repay the favor by giving me a hard time when I'm not in class?” Owen didn't give Sterling a chance to reply; he wanted to run, feel the pleasant ache of tired muscles vanish in an endorphin rush as he pushed his limits. “Two laps,” he said, and allowed a hint of challenge to roughen his voice. “Show me what you've got.”

It was a strange relief that Sterling was left behind in Owen's metaphorical dust, even if it was only for a few seconds. At least it reassured Owen that the boy wasn't perfect. It was stupid of him to think otherwise, of course—but God, Sterling was so young and beautiful. And quick too—he caught on and caught up in less than thirty seconds, long legs matching Owen's speed stride for stride.

It felt good, running so fast. The world passed by in a blur of color, Owen's nostrils flaring like he imagined a horse's would as he went faster and then even faster. He was aware of Sterling beside him, arms and legs pumping. Owen wasn't running at top speed—this wasn't about winning, it was about discovery, and he wanted to know what Sterling was capable of. A hell of a lot more than he was himself, if this was any indication. Owen was sixteen years older and, while fit by almost any standards, no match for a twenty-year-old with a chip on his shoulder.

He shouldn't be doing this—not the running, which was exhilarating, but what it implied. Sterling was barely more than a kid, a kid who had no idea what he was getting himself into. Or trying to get himself into. It'd be okay, though, because Owen would set him straight.

The second lap was almost over when Owen broke from a position that had given him an excellent view of Sterling's ass for the last few minutes and poured everything he had into the last few hundred yards, soon passing Sterling, who'd run a valiant race at a speed just a fraction too much to sustain over the distance.

As he'd expected, he heard a grunt of sheer determination from behind him, Sterling's breath sobbing in his dry throat, and he could almost feel Sterling straining every muscle to regain the lead. Did the boy think winning would give him what he wanted, whatever that was? And what would happen if Owen allowed him to win and then walked away again, something he was more than capable of doing?

It took more of an effort to stop than continuing to run would have done, but with the finish line a few yards away, he slackened his speed dramatically and watched a blown, panting Sterling finish the race.

“You don't know your limits well enough,” he said when he could speak without gasping for breath between words. His legs were trembling slightly, and the lure of a really hot shower made him disinclined to drag out a conversation that he supposed the boy had earned. They were still the only ones on the field, but it felt odd to be discussing this here in this wide-open space. “That kind of recklessness in a Dom can get a sub hurt, and in your case, you'd need a very experienced handler to impose more realistic demands upon you.”

Sterling was bent forward at the waist, hands braced on his thighs as he fought to regain control of his breathing. His face was flushed, his T-shirt damp and clinging to his upper body, but his eyes were bright and hopeful when he looked up at Owen. “You're experienced,” he said. “You could handle me. I want—I want you to show me. Teach me.” Sterling hesitated, then went on. “Like the woman in that club. Carol? Like her.”

“Oh, God, no,” Owen said without thinking before he spoke for once. He shook his head forcefully and felt the cool air brush against his flushed face, reminding him of how hot he was. “I'm not going through that hell again and certainly not with you. No.” He walked over to the towel he'd left draped over a bench a few yards away and used it to blot up the sweat on his face before picking up his water bottle. Sterling appeared beside him, but Owen ignored him in favor of getting the water from the bottle to his mouth, swallowing it in long, slow gulps.

Teach him? Teach the obnoxious brat who'd given him a semester's worth of hell to behave? Oh, it was appealing on one level—and Sterling's manners had improved somewhat since his freshman year—but Owen had had enough of newbies and wannabes. He'd already decided that his next session—and God, he'd earned it—would be a one-off with a sub he knew and trusted, a blessed relief after weeks of dealing with Carol's lack of imagination and, before her, the equally disappointing Andrew.

How long had it been since he'd really clicked with a sub? Bleakly, Owen wondered if he ever would again. Maybe he was too demanding, too exacting, but wasn't that what it was all about?

“Please,” Sterling said. His voice was quiet, but the lack of volume didn't do anything to hide the intensity. “What if—what if it wouldn't be hell? I mean, I'm smart, and I'm a fast learner. And there must be a reason you do it—for you. Something you get out of it, right? I could give you that.” From somewhere, the kid managed to find a slender thread of persuasiveness and inject it into his voice. “I could give you what you need.”

“How do you know that?” Owen asked bluntly, determined to make Sterling see sense. “You don't know anything about my tastes, and believe me, it isn't as simple as matching someone with a desire to control with someone who wants to be controlled. Far from it. I've been involved in this for a long time, and what I need and expect is almost certainly beyond you.” Sterling's mouth tightened mutinously, and Owen gave an impatient sigh. “That isn't a dig, so don't give me that look. God, you wouldn't last five minutes with an attitude like that… Tell me—and don't exaggerate—just exactly how much experience you've had.”

And then I can laugh, walk away, and avoid you for the rest of the year. Sterling smelled of sweat and musk, and the visceral memories that particular combination conjured up were making Owen edgy.

“Almost none,” Sterling said, looking at him steadily and making no apologies, two things that Owen reluctantly gave him credit for. “My friend Alex and I messed around some, but it wasn't working and we didn't know why. It wasn't until he saw how I looked at you at the club that something clicked and we realized that it was because I wanted you. Because I want to let someone else be in charge, but only someone I choose.”

Sterling sighed and looked out across the fields toward where the campus pond was. Owen looked too, reflexively, and they were both watching when a kid threw a stick and a black-and-white dog ran after it, barking, only to be swallowed up by the morning fog that hung thick in the air around the water.

“I know you think I'm too young to know what I want,” Sterling went on. “But I do. And even if I'm inexperienced, I'm not ignorant. I've been reading about this for weeks. I can learn. I just need somebody to teach me. I'd like it to be you.” That sounded like a thinly veiled threat—if Owen wouldn't take him on, he'd find someone else who would.

Owen contemplated walking into the club one night and finding Sterling kneeling, collared at someone's feet, and found the image not at all to his liking. Sterling was new, completely new to all of this, to a world that Owen had been part of for so long that he'd almost forgotten what it was like not to be surrounded by people who thought and felt as he did, people who understood. Someone had once told him that hell was standing in the cold, lonely darkness, looking through a window at a party you could never join, and right now that was how Sterling had to be feeling.

Which got him a certain amount of sympathy, but did it get him what he wanted, just for the asking? No.

Without vanity, Owen knew that he was considered good at what he did—what he was. Carol might be complaining about his harshness with a tear or two dewing her eyes, but that would add to the cachet of being his next sub, not put people off. If he showed up with someone as raw and untried as Sterling, eyebrows would rise and the gossip would start. There was more at stake than guiding Sterling's baby steps, not that Sterling, who possessed the natural egotism and selfishness of most people his age, would have considered that.

Overhead a squabble of birds flew, chattering noisily, swooping and diving through the cool, damp air. Owen tilted his face up to watch them, admiring their grace and precision. He could train Sterling to move like that, each shift of position smooth and flowing, his body under perfect control.

Under his control.

Oh, God, yes, it was appealing.

He turned his attention back to Sterling. “How old are you?”

Sterling looked startled, then answered slowly. “Twenty. Almost twenty-one.” When Owen lifted an eyebrow, he admitted, “In four months. January eighteenth.”

Owen shook his head. “Not a chance in hell until you're over twenty-one. And that goes for anyone you'll meet at the club or outside it, and trust me, I'll know if you try.”

Which wasn't strictly true, but he had no compunction about lying if it kept his sub safe—and look at how easily Sterling had slipped into that space…

“Oh, so now you control everyone in the neighboring five towns?” Sterling didn't look even slightly convinced. “I already know that's not true—Alex was seeing a guy who traded him in for a younger model, younger than me. Just because you have an unreasonable code that you pretend has something to do with ethics, that doesn't mean everyone else does. If you won't do this, I can find someone who will. But I'd rather it was you.”

“Fine, the legal age for gay sex in this state is eighteen, and you're well past that,” Owen snapped, goaded into honesty. “What you want is more than just sex, and I'm damned if I'm going to let you rush into this, demanding that everyone dances to your fucking tune. God, pushy subs like you are the most—”

“Challenging?”

“Not the word I was going to use.” Owen ran his hand through his damp hair, his T-shirt clinging clammily to his back. He really needed that shower, and he had a class at nine… “The answer's no.”

He glanced over to the right and saw a small group of students approaching, kicking a football between them, the sound of their voices carrying. Sterling saw them too, and his mouth tightened with frustration.

“Go away and think about it,” Owen said with more sympathy in his voice. “Talk to people like this friend of yours. You don't need someone like me when you're this new; you just need a boyfriend with an open mind. Find one and get him to give you a spanking. You might discover you don't even enjoy it when it's reality and not a fantasy.”

“So you're saying you're out of my league?” Sterling demanded. “I'm not good enough?”

Owen looked him over; tall, good-looking in a classic fair hair and blue eyes way, undoubtedly intelligent and so very much in need of discipline and control… Oh, Sterling was good enough.

“You're perfect.” Owen watched the boy's eyes light up, good-looking transformed into something so much more with the praise, vulnerability, and pleasure struggling for the upper hand in his expression. It made his parting words seem cruel, but they had to be said.

“For someone else. Not me.”

He walked away without looking back, putting some much-needed distance between them.

* * * * *

Sterling had never gotten over the surprise that there were so many people still willing to eat ice cream in the fall in New England, but it was okay with him because it meant he had a job. It wasn't crazy busy the way it was in the late spring, but business was steady and not at all hurt by the fact that Charlie, the store's manager, had branched out and added pastries and cookies to the menu along with an assortment of coffees. In a college town, there were always dozens of students willing to pay almost anything for a beverage with extra caffeine in it, and the very expensive and sometimes temperamental espresso machine saw almost constant use.

He'd just finished making a round of cappuccinos for some girls with the serious, drawn expressions of students working under a deadline and delivered them to their table—the delivery wasn't a usual part of his job, but it wasn't busy enough for it to bother him, and sometimes that kind of thing earned him good tips—when the bell over the door rang and a woman came in. She was wearing a black cap and looked, at first glance, vaguely familiar, but it wasn't until their eyes met and she said, “I know you,” that he remembered who she was.

“Um, Carol, right?” Sterling asked. She was the woman from the club, the one that had been Owen's sub. “What can I get you?”

She laughed, one of those artificial titters that were meant to say just how much she wasn't amused. “Well, I came in for coffee and a raspberry Danish, so how about we start with that? Skim milk, large, and why don't you surprise me on the beans?”

“Sure.” Sterling went for Kenyan and took the cup and the pastry over to her table, tucked away in a corner. He'd gotten good at guessing where people would sit, and he would've pegged her for a table in the middle of the room where everyone would see her, or the window, where she could look out. When she tapped the chair beside her and said, “Sit,” her choice made more sense.

“I'm working,” Sterling told her, but sat anyway because he was curious.

“Owen doesn't want to see me anymore,” Carol said. “So I assume he's seeing you.”

“No,” Sterling said. “I mean, I'm trying to talk him into it, but he says I'm, I don't know, wrong for him, or something. What am I doing wrong?”

Carol laughed again and wrapped her hands around her coffee mug like she was trying to warm her hands. “You think I know? It's just Owen—he's the best, but he gets bored easily, so he moves on. If he isn't with you, then he must be with someone else.”

Somehow Sterling didn't think that was the case, but Carol knew Owen better than he did. “Who? I mean, do you have any guesses?”

Carol shrugged, making the gesture theatrical. “I don't know. I heard about you because you were staring at me—you know, that night, and I hadn't seen you before, so I asked around.”

He'd been staring at Owen, not her, but it didn't seem kind to point that out.

“It was the first time I'd gone there. A friend of mine, Alex, is a member, and he—”

“Oh, I know Alex,” she interrupted. “He's the one who told me that you had your eye on Owen.”

“Remind me to say thanks to him,” Sterling said dryly.

Carol began to pick at her Danish, separating out small pieces with fingers tipped with nails painted much the same color as the filling, managing to keep an eye on Sterling as she did it. Sterling wondered if she planned to actually eat any of it; what she was doing seemed a real waste. Finally, she popped a piece laden with frosting into her mouth and pushed the plate aside.

“It's no one at the club,” she said. “I'd know.” She preened, her movements sensual and elegant; Sterling could see how she might have appealed to Owen, though something in him hated the thought that Carol was Owen's type. “People tell me things, always have.” She pouted thoughtfully. “It might be someone from the theater… That's where I met him. There was this opening night party, and we got to talking… I played…well, it wasn't exactly the lead character, but Amelia had a vital role. Without her delivering the letter, Colin and Susan would never have known that Susan's father suspected them. Owen said my role was pivotal.”

Sterling could just picture Owen when he said that, the delivery bone-dry, one corner of his mouth curled up.

Carol sighed and took a delicate sip of coffee, leaving the rim of the mug smudged with deep red lipstick. “We were so good together at the start,” she said mournfully, “but I knew I could never compete with Michael.”

Glancing over at the counter, which was customer-free, Sterling leaned closer to Carol. “Michael?”

“Oh, you haven't heard? He was Owen's first—and you know what they say about firsts.” Carol gave him a pointed look until he nodded, then went on. “If you ever do get together with Owen, it'll only be temporary, because nobody can measure up. Not that Owen still wants Michael.”

“He doesn't?” That sounded a little more promising.

“No, they agreed to split up. It's more that Michael is, I don't know, representative of the relationship Owen is looking for. He just hasn't figured out yet that it's not possible. He wants—hm.” Carol frowned at her plate, then slid it toward Sterling. “Feel free.”

Sterling shook his head. “No, thanks.” Like he'd eat a Danish she'd picked apart. “What does Owen want?”

“Not me, anyway.” For the first time, Sterling saw an unstudied, genuine emotion; Carol looked forlorn, her bright mouth drooping. “I knew we wouldn't have long—I see this psychic once a month, and she told me that I was still in a self-discovery phase and that in a year I might find the perfect partner, but it wasn't going to happen for a while and she'd guide me there.”

Sterling repressed the urge to ask how much the guiding would cost and gave her an encouraging murmur. He wasn't sure how much of what she said he could trust; she was a self-centered flake by the sounds of it, but even so…

“He wants you to be perfect,” she said abruptly. “He tells you to do something and that's the way he likes it done, and he really hates having to remind you if you screw up.”

That didn't sound too unreasonable to Sterling. In fact, he got a kick out of the idea of Owen being that precise, that stern. God, yes—and he could be everything Owen wanted him to be, he knew it.

“At the same time, if you do get it right—and I tried!—you can see him switching off. He got bored with me. With me.” Carol tossed her head. “The sex was nice, and he's good at the other stuff—you know. The spanking and the—”

“Yeah, I get it,” Sterling said hastily. The place was mostly empty, but that also meant that it was quiet.

“He's really good at that,” Carol said wistfully. “Just…hard to please. That scene at the club; that was over the stupidest little thing. Really, really dumb. He likes to talk; wants to know why things worked and other stuff didn't, and I can't do that. Well, not the way he wanted me to, anyway. And I was late a lot, and he just didn't seem to realize that I'm not a person who can be tied to a timetable. I'm a free spirit. Look!” She thrust out both hands dramatically, narrowly missing her coffee mug and exposing thin wrists jangling with silver bangles. “No watch!”

That was proof, all right. Sterling revised his opinion from “self-centered flake” to “potentially crazy flake,” then hid a grin as the “free spirit's” cell phone rang.

“Sorry,” she said. “Hang on.” She answered the phone, her voice low, and Sterling politely turned his attention to the glass display case where they kept the pastries, noting that it was speckled with fingerprints from when customers pointed to what they wanted. “Okay. Yes. Yes. I know—you too. Okay, bye.” Carol looked at Sterling again. “Sorry—that was my astrologist.”

“Oh.” Somehow that didn't come as the slightest surprise. What was surprising was that Owen, who had seemed pretty down-to-earth to Sterling, had spent so much time with this woman. “So Owen didn't like it when you were late?”

Carol pouted, something that Sterling felt sure she practiced in front of a mirror to get the exact blend of sorrowful dejection and reproof. “He said it showed a lack of respect for him, what we did, and his time.” Sterling noticed that her voice altered subtly and guessed that she was using Owen's exact words. They certainly sounded familiar. “He said he wouldn't start a session if he was really annoyed with a sub and with me, it was becoming impossible to feel any other emotion.” She tossed her head again. “I wasn't that late.”

It occurred to Sterling that he'd been late for a lot of Owen's lectures, sometimes accidentally, because his morning routine had been interrupted by something unforeseen, like his toast burning or a complete lack of clean shorts, but mostly just to get that intense stare and a few biting, scathing words thrown at him. He'd told himself that he enjoyed pissing Professor Sawyer off—the man was such an asshole about things like handing work in on time—but looking back, he wondered if he'd been looking for something more from Owen even then.

For Owen to put out his hand and say, “Enough,” and make him behave.

If all those times when he'd been late were contributing to Owen's reluctance to take him on… God, he hoped not.

“What else doesn't he like?” Sterling asked.

“Oh, lots of things.” Carol waved her hand, and her bracelets jingled faintly. “Too much talking, for one. Which is ridiculous, because, well, normal people talk, right? And he was so confusing about it! Sometimes he'd want me to talk, and other times he didn't want me to, and I couldn't keep track of which times were which.”

“That does sound confusing,” Sterling said diplomatically, even though he thought Carol was probably just not that bright. Right—so Owen liked it when you knew to keep quiet at certain times. That would be a challenge, sure, but he could learn.

Sterling knew he was smart. He could learn.

Carol gave him a surprisingly shrewd look. “Nothing I say will make any difference, will it? You still want him.”

“Don't you?” Sterling pulled a face. “You don't have to answer. I know you do. Yes, I want him—more than anything. And I don't give up easily. When I want something…”

“You think that you can make Owen do something he doesn't want to? Owen?” Carol shook her head. “No. The only way you'll get him to take you as his sub is if you make him see you as a challenge, and right now, this new, you're more like a chore.” She picked up her mug and took a long swallow. “It's been a long time since Owen trained a novice.”

“Let me guess,” Sterling said. “Michael.”

“That's right. Everyone after Michael has known what they were doing and didn't need training in the basics.” She gave him a look that might have been intended as kind but came off as patronizing. “How much training would you need?”

“Not as much as you'd think,” Sterling said. “I've done a lot of research already. And I learn fast.”

“It isn't book smarts you need for this kind of thing,” Carol said. “Honey, I got straight As in school too, but believe me when I tell you, you either have a knack for it or you don't. I've seen a lot of people who thought the scene was going to be some big kink fest, that it was all about the sex. But it's not. There's a lot more to it than that.”

Sterling opened his mouth to ask her what she meant, not really convinced that he trusted her take on it, but intensely curious, even so. Just talking to her had made him feel the first stirrings of an arousal that had nothing to do with her and everything about the subject of their conversation. He'd gotten the first words of his question out when the door opened and a group of teenagers walked in, backpacks slung over their shoulders, carried along on a tide of chatter and laughter.

“Damn,” he muttered as he stood up. “Sorry—hang on, okay? I'll be back. Let me just get these guys.”

The kids at least knew what they wanted—most of them were in the store a couple of times a week—but it took a while to make a variety of coffee drinks, especially when they asked for add-ins like syrups and whipped cream. When the last of them had paid and moved away from the counter, Sterling glanced reflexively toward the table where Carol had been sitting, but it was empty.

Looked like he was on his own again.

The next time Owen bumped into Sterling, it was even more literal. He was in the college library looking for a book he knew was on the shelf but which he just couldn't seem to find. Finally, he set his keys down on a shelf and knelt to check the lowest one, brushing his fingers along the spines of the books to make sure he didn't miss the one he wanted. There it was. He slipped it from between its companions, stood with a creak of joints that made him frown, and headed back toward the elevator.

Two rows later, he remembered his keys. Owen swore and retraced his steps, rounded the corner to the aisle he'd been in, and crashed full body into someone.

“God, I'm sorry,” he said, finding his balance and using one hand to steady the other person. “Are you—oh. It's you.”

“So I don't get an apology?” Sterling asked, grinning and not stepping back when Owen let go of him.

“You're stalking me,” Owen said.

Sterling shook his head. “I prefer the word 'following'; it sounds less creepy.”

“But doesn't make it any less annoying,” Owen said, raising his eyebrows. “You—almost—make me wish that you were mine to deal with; I can promise you'd be regretting this behavior very soon.”

That wiped the grin off Sterling's face. “God, I wouldn't regret anything if I was. Yours, I mean. I'd let you do whatever you wanted.”

“'Let' me?” Owen asked pointedly. “Somehow, I think you've misunderstood the definition of submission.”

God, they were close to flirting here, in the dense hush of the library, their voices lowered. Anyone could come around the corner like Owen had and find them here, standing too near to each other, looking too…involved.

“Maybe I need you to clear things up for me,” Sterling said, inching closer still. Owen stepped back, deliberately putting more space between them, and Sterling moved forward again. “I can be good. Show me.”

“You give me orders and demands when you should be begging, and follow when I'm telling you to back off; forgive me for doubting your ability to please me,” Owen said, sarcasm an easy weapon to wield. “Would you be this argumentative on your knees? I'm inclined to think you would. There's a big difference between an interesting, challenging sub and one who can't and won't learn. I know you, and I know what you'd be like.”

He let that ambiguity stand. Owen was certain which category Sterling would fall into and completely sure of his own ability to tame and control him—even if he was failing miserably at getting Sterling to leave him alone.

That failure was because of his ambivalent feelings, though, nothing more. He didn't doubt that he could train Sterling and enjoy doing it, but God, it would be such a bad idea. Sterling was floundering in the dark, but would he like what he saw if Owen lit a candle? Owen didn't want to see Sterling panicked, distressed, his brash arrogance scoured away. The boy had been a pest in class, granted; he was being way too demanding now, playing the part of a spoiled brat to perfection. I want. Give it to me now—behavior Owen would never have tolerated in a sub.

It didn't matter. He wanted Sterling tamed, not traumatized.

“You're not ready for me,” he said, and tried to put a cool finality into his words.

“Maybe not,” Sterling said. “But I don't want anyone else.” And he sank to his knees right there in the stacks, looking up at Owen with hopeful eyes. He didn't put his hands behind his back, and he didn't lower his head, but neither of those things mattered. He was so beautiful that the thought of turning him away seemed impossible. “Please, Owen. Teach me.”

“Oh my God—” Owen thrust his fingers through his hair, arousal and annoyance combining to make him louder than was wise. This was the most reckless, stupid… “Get up. Now.”

“Not until you say you will.” Sterling didn't pout or whine; he just looked up at Owen with a resolve that didn't waver.

Owen took a quick, sharp breath and tried to calm his racing heart.

“I just gave you an order,” he said. “Disobeying it is a poor start to our relationship.”

Sterling hesitated, seeming unsure of what the right thing to do was, then, finally, obeyed. On his feet again, the boy kept looking at him in that same way—steady, patient. Ready to learn, which just tempted Owen all the more.

“Better,” Owen said. Somehow, around Sterling, he found himself making snap decisions without hesitation, the way it had been with Michael all those years ago. The way it was supposed to be. “You want me to mentor you until you're sure of yourself? Then we do this my way. We do all of it my way, in fact. If that isn't something you can commit to, I walk away now, and we never discuss this again. Ever.”

Sterling blinked uncertainly, like he'd expected either a yes or no answer and didn't know what to do with something in between. “I don't know what that means,” he said. “Do I have to wait until January? Because I can't. I feel like—I've been waiting my whole life for this, to find out this thing about myself that's as important as breathing, only I didn't know what it was. And now that I know, I can't just hold my breath for four more months. I can't. I can't.” His hands were balled into fists.

Owen could understand that, but he refused to let Sterling have what he wanted so easily, just for the asking. He wanted Sterling begging, and for all the hunger in his eyes, Sterling hadn't come close to that. He would.

“There's more to discuss than we can do here,” he said, “but until you agree to one condition, there's nothing to discuss—and it's not up for negotiation.”

“Yes,” Sterling said recklessly, not waiting to hear what it was. “As long as it doesn't mean waiting, yes. Whatever it is. Yes.”

No.” Owen said vehemently enough to make Sterling flinch. “Never do that. Never agree to something blind—oh, God, can you think with something other than your dick long enough for me to get it through to you that this is only safe, sane, and fucking consensual if you use your goddamned brain to do more than stop your ears from touching?”

A distant part of his brain was telling him that he was breaking about a dozen student/teacher rules, but he ignored it. There was more at stake here than a code of conduct that he was fulfilling in spirit anyway by trying to protect Sterling from himself.

“Okay. Right, right. Sorry. I know this—I do. It won't happen again.” Sterling muttered the words, flushed and seemingly miserable, but he lifted his gaze with what looked like a fair amount of effort and met Owen's eyes. “Right. Tell me what it is.”

Owen exhaled, partially mollified by Sterling's reaction, which was certainly not the one a rebuke like that would have gotten had they been in class. Even the mildest criticism—and not many of Owen's qualified for that description; “scathing” was more accurate—had been greeted by a sullen pout or a riposte that bordered on insolent more than once.

“You said you didn't want to wait.” He could hear the elevator doors as they opened, and the voices of some students talking and coming toward them. Damn. “I won't make you wait to feel…” He hesitated, searching for the right words. “Owned” came to mind, and he rejected it as being too much, too soon. “That you belong,” he temporized, “but you've demonstrated impatience and bad manners—yes, you have—and they're not failings I'm lenient about. One lesson you have to learn is that actions have consequences, and another is that waiting is part of what you say you want, not something to be avoided. I want it understood that I won't have sex with you before your birthday, no matter what I decide to do with you.”

Sterling looked doubtful, but nodded. Owen thought cynically that the boy probably didn't think that he meant it. He'd learn. “Okay. If that's your condition, fine, and I'll try to be more patient. But—can we, I don't know, talk more?” He turned his head in the direction of the students coming toward them and lowered his voice. “Off campus. I know it's probably not a good idea to be seen with me. What's that, fraternizing?” Sterling's lips quirked into a good-natured smile that went all the way to his eyes, crinkling them up and transforming his already handsome face into a shockingly beautiful one.

Oh God, Owen was in so much trouble.

“I could take you out to dinner,” Sterling offered.

Owen shook his head. He couldn't think of many restaurants in town where there was zero chance of someone they knew seeing them, and it wasn't the ideal setting for the type of discussion they needed to have. Two good reasons to turn down Sterling's invitation, but the one that counted was that he didn't want to be Sterling's guest. Sterling was still, unconsciously perhaps, fighting for control of the situation as a way of dealing with it, and Owen didn't want to—couldn't—give it to him.

“We have to talk,” he said, “but I'd prefer to do it somewhere less public than that. Come to my house tonight at eight. I'm sure you can find it.” Giving orders, setting the scene…how many times had he done this? It still sent a sizzle of arousal down his spine, and he could feel Sterling respond to that without knowing what he was doing—subtle signs that Owen noted automatically, like the way Sterling was leaning in closer to catch every word. “Eat something before you arrive, but no alcohol, not even a beer.” He smiled. “And no, you don't have permission to do anything about the hard-on you'll get when you're showering, but I'm sure you knew that already.”

“I have been doing a lot of reading,” Sterling reminded him with just a hint of that cocky attitude Owen was familiar with. There was a tension in Sterling now, a new one that hadn't been there before—Owen felt confident it was because Sterling thought he'd won, that he was getting what he wanted and that meant he was coming out on top. “And yes, I'll find your house. Eight o'clock. Do I get punished if I'm late?”

“That depends,” Owen said mildly, more than equal to dealing with Sterling in this mood. “Would you consider being told to go away until you'd learned to tell the time a punishment, or no more than you deserved for failing to follow a simple instruction?” He moved past Sterling to retrieve his keys from the shelf. “Eight o'clock, Sterling.”

“Yes, sir,” Sterling said promptly. “I won't be late. Should I bring anything?”

“Just yourself,” Owen said, amused despite himself by Sterling's eagerness and wondering how long it would last once he'd spelled out certain conditions.

He wasn't sure, but he suspected it was going to be an interesting evening.

Chapter Three

Sterling took the bus to Owen Sawyer's house. Doing so felt wrong somehow, increasingly aware as he was of his own nervousness. For a while he'd been convinced that Sawyer didn't want anything to do with him, and as much as he'd wanted to change the man's mind, he hadn't thought he'd be able to. He still wasn't sure what the deciding factor had been in the sudden change of heart, which bothered him; he would have preferred to know why, mostly so that he could use the knowledge to his advantage in the future.

The bus stopped two blocks from Sawyer's house, the address of which Google had helpfully provided. Sterling walked up one street and then down another, noting that the houses were older, but well kept up. No peeling paint or unmowed lawns. Did Sawyer cut his own grass or pay someone to do it?

Sawyer's house was big and kind of old like the rest of them, with a wide porch and some tangled bushes lining the path that led up to the front door. Some of them were roses, Sterling thought, but he didn't know what the other ones were. He hoped Sawyer wouldn't expect him to know. And of course that thought set off a cascade of others, thoughts that made him even more anxious about how this was going to go.

Luckily Sterling knew how to pretend he was confident and self-assured, even when he was feeling anything but. It was a skill he'd perfected in years of living with his father—one of the few things he'd learned from his father that he actually ought to be grateful for, now that he thought about it.

He walked up the path slowly, aware that he was a few minutes early and assuming that knocking on the door before eight would be as frowned upon as being late. His cock, which had been at a state of half-mast all day, ached a little bit as he went up the stairs and checked his watch—7:59. Surely that wasn't too too early? He took a deep breath, steeling himself, and rang the bell.

Sawyer didn't keep him waiting for long, but the gap between when he rang the bell and when the door opened still seemed endless. The door was dark wood, with three stained-glass panels set high up, letting in some light without compromising privacy. Sterling had time to notice that the rose motif had carried over to the glass and time to count the panels on the door (six) before he was staring not at wood, but Sawyer, a phone to his ear and an exasperated look on his face.

He beckoned Sterling inside with a flick of his fingers and, when Sterling stepped over the threshold, gave him a nod of greeting. “I have to go, sorry,” he told the person on the other end of the phone. “Don't worry; I'll take care of it… Yes, I know where you keep your lesson plans… No, don't mention it; you'd do the same for me… Yes, I know you already did… See you soon.”

Sterling didn't want to ask questions, but he didn't need to. Sawyer turned the phone off and tossed it onto a table against the wall, then gave him a rueful smile. “Sorry about that. Part of academic life is the endless swapping of favors, and that was one I owed just getting called in.” The smile faded, replaced by pursed lips as Sawyer looked him over. Sterling tried not to fidget and did some staring of his own. Plain green shirt and faded jeans with a thin leather belt…casual, but like the man himself, a perfect fit. Sawyer always seemed so damn sure of himself, wherever he was. He wasn't good-looking enough to turn heads, his neatly trimmed hair an unremarkable dark brown and his eyes, now that Sterling was close enough to really notice them, a clear light gray. It didn't matter; he'd still get a second look in any crowd without even trying.

“Shoes,” Sawyer said unexpectedly and gestured at a built-in closet to Sterling's left. “Take them off, and your jacket, please.”

Trying to reconcile the apology for being on the phone when he'd arrived with the verging-on-curt order, Sterling obeyed. Maybe that was how you could tell if someone was a good Dom—they ordered you to do something, and you just did it. Sterling took off his shoes and lined them up neatly with the other pairs that were there, not seeing the running sneakers Sawyer had been wearing at the track. He wondered where they were as he slipped out of his jacket and hung it up on one of the empty hangers, then stepped back into the entry hall and closed the closet door.

“Okay, here I am,” he said, spreading his arms slightly. “All yours.”

“I'm sure you are,” Sawyer said with more than a hint of the sarcasm that had driven Sterling nuts in class, “but might I suggest toning down the attitude until I've decided that I want you?”

That was a little too much like a slap in the face for Sterling's liking, and as usual, that kind of vitriol directed at him made him defensive. Okay, more defensive. “I don't know why you wouldn't,” he said. “I'm great in bed—I know, I know, you're going to wait until my birthday to find out, but that's your decision, not mine—and I know I'm good-looking. I'm smart. I have a great sense of humor. And I follow orders: here at eight, no drinking, had dinner at the dining hall, and I haven't touched my cock all day.” That last was a slight exaggeration, since it was next to impossible to take a piss without touching his dick, but he'd followed the spirit of the rule.

“In other words, you did as you were told,” Sawyer said. “I expect that; it doesn't get you any brownie points. And as for your self-proclaimed success between the sheets…” Surprisingly, instead of an eye roll, Sterling was treated to a grin, flashing so quickly across Sawyer's face that he wasn't sure he'd seen it. “I'll allow you that illusion for a while.” Sawyer led them into a large room that was a mix of formal and casual, as if two people had decorated it. Or maybe it was all Sawyer and the guy had a split personality.

“Sit there,” Sawyer said and pointed at one of two armchairs beside a lit fireplace, crackling away and throwing out a moderate amount of heat and a little smoke. “You may have some water if you're thirsty.”

Sterling sat. “I'm fine, thank you.” It was easy to speak politely when dealing with everyday niceties—his parents had drilled that much into him. Then he waited, trying to stay relaxed because being tense wasn't going to do either of them any favors.

“You seem a lot happier about the idea of no sex than you were this morning,” Sawyer said, which was jumping in at the deep end as far as Sterling was concerned. “Of course, it's not strictly true that it's out of the equation altogether; that's impossible. There's a sexual element to something as trivial as me telling you that you're allowed to have water to drink instead of asking you what you'd like.” Sawyer's lips lifted at the corners in a faint smile. “Because I do have more than water in the house.” He raised his eyebrows. “So what changed? Is it a price you're willing to pay? Or do you think that I didn't mean it and you'll get me to change my mind?” The timbre of his voice changed from conversational to something with a bite to it. “And no, turning to a friend for a quick fuck to bleed off your frustration wouldn't be allowed, and yes, I'd know.”

“I agreed to today,” Sterling pointed out, not letting himself be baited. “I'm a man of my word—if I say I'm going to do something, I do it. If you want me to go longer, you'll have to convince me it'll be worth it.” Okay, so maybe he was getting riled up. He knew what this felt like, struggling for control, desperate to come out on top.

Wait, he thought, remembering.

“Wait.” He said it fast, before Sawyer could come back at him, which, again, wasn't the point of this whole thing, but he needed a minute to work this out. The fire popped loudly. “Sorry. I—this is harder than I thought. I've spent my whole life doing the opposite of this. And being miserable because of it. I want—I want something else.”

Sawyer frowned. “Explain that to me a little more,” he said and yes, that was definitely an encouraging look, even an expectant one. Maybe Sterling wasn't fucking this up as much as he thought. “You seemed adamant about you being the one to choose a Dom to control you, which makes me wonder if you've been in a situation where that choice was taken away—but you said that this was all new to you, so”—he spread his hands—“talk to me.”

“My father,” Sterling started out. “We've always had, I don't know, a difficult relationship.” He smiled ruefully. “That's the nice way to put it. He wanted me to be like him—I'm named after him, even, which is why I go by my middle name. Because I don't want even that much connection with him, you know?”

Sawyer nodded encouragingly, which made Sterling feel better. He'd done a lot of thinking, but he hadn't tried to put any of this into words yet, so he took his time. There were a lot of pauses between sentences; it made him feel slow and stupid.

“At first, when I was younger…I tried to make him happy, you know? Proud of me. But everything I did was wrong, everything I wanted was wrong. When I figured out I was gay—I guess I was about twelve, maybe thirteen—I knew that was the end of it. There was no chance I was ever going to live up to what he wanted from me, so I decided I wasn't going to try. We fought every day. I can't think of a single conversation that didn't turn into a fight.”

He wanted to get up, to pace the room. But Sawyer had told him to sit. God, this was hard. He could feel his stomach knotting up with the effort of explaining things he'd rather not think about.

“Anyway, I hate it. I'm so sick of it I want to scream. It's so much work. Why can't I just have what I want without it being such a struggle? Why isn't what I want enough, just because I want it?” Sterling bit his lip and looked up at Sawyer's face. “I don't know what I'm supposed to call you.”

“I suppose you don't.” Sawyer pursed his lips in thought for a moment and then said, “For now, please call me Owen. It's enough of a change from Professor Sawyer to remind us both that this is a new situation, and I don't think that you're ready for something more traditional.” He nodded slowly, never looking away from Sterling. “So you fought his authority because it was imposed on you, wanting the control, wanting to submit, but not to him, never to him… And you tried to be him because you thought that you had to be to stand a chance of winning.” Sawyer's—Owen's—hand slashed sharply through the air, a gesture of dismissal. “That's over. Done. And I can promise you that I'll never bully you, but it will be a struggle, and it will be hard work.” Owen stood and walked over to stand in front of him, his hand cupping Sterling's chin so that their eyes met. “And it will be worth it,” he said softly. “Trust me.”

Sterling's sinuses prickled, a warning that emotion was threatening to get the better of him. It wouldn't; he'd mastered it years ago, determined that he'd never let his father see him cry, and the habit had become permanent as far as he could tell. Even knowing that it was stupid and pointless to think that there was anything wrong with crying didn't change things. He could hold friends while they cried in the aftermath of a relationship gone to hell or the death of a parent and not think any less of them, but it wasn't something he could or would allow himself.

Now, with Owen's gentle, slightly calloused fingers touching his face, Sterling almost wished he could.

“I do,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I trust you. And I don't—I don't want you to think I'm looking for some kind of replacement father. I don't need that. What I need is someone I can…be myself with, I think. I'm just… I'm so tired of fighting, Owen.” Saying the other man's name felt right. Safe.

“That's good,” Owen said, his voice a quiet murmur that Sterling couldn't help contrasting with the strident tones his father had used, as if volume made what he said true. “I don't like fighting, either. It wastes time, and you don't have much of that.” Sterling frowned, not sure what that was supposed to mean. Owen patted his face and then let his hand drop away. “You might have forgotten that you're in your senior year; I haven't,” he said and sat down again, crossing his legs and looking very much at ease. “I'd like a copy of your schedule as soon as possible so we can see just how much time you have free at the same time as I do.”

“I can do that. I have a part-time job too, but the schedule for that varies.” Sterling felt strange, a combination of relieved and anticipatory. Was this really happening, or was it all a dream? “So… Um. What happens now?”

“We talk. For longer than you'd probably like. Normally, I'd know you better than this, you see,” Owen said. “I'd have seen you around the club, watched you perform, possibly discussed you with your Dom. It isn't usually this…rushed, and it's been a long time since I took on someone as inexperienced as you.” Owen ran his hand through his hair and looked fleetingly harried. “Not to mention the ethics of getting involved with a student.” He gave Sterling a bemused look. “Tell me again why I agreed to this?”

“Because I'm incredibly hot?” Sterling suggested. He knew it was true, but he also wanted to think it wasn't the only reason. “Actually—and I probably shouldn't admit this, because maybe it'll give you an excuse to change your mind, but—I don't know why you agreed. I didn't think you would. I was imagining weeks of 'accidentally' turning up where you were.”

Just looking at Owen was making Sterling hard, and he shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He wanted Owen to kiss him. Just that. He thought he could wait weeks for sex (if not the months Owen was proposing), but waiting that long for the press of Owen's lips to his own… He didn't think he could wait that long. He didn't want to.

But, he tried to remind himself, this wasn't only about what he wanted, and the idea of relinquishing control was such an incredible relief that it made him relax things inside him he hadn't even realized were tensed.

“Am I allowed to ask questions? About you, I mean?” he said.

“You can ask, but I can't promise I'll always answer if it involves someone else,” Owen said, which was reassuring in a way. “I won't discuss other subs I've been involved with and until I know you better, I won't share every detail of my past, either, unless I feel it's relevant. Questions about what we're doing or what I ask of you—yes, as many as you like, always.” He smiled, another of those small quirk of lips that Sterling was starting to get obsessed about. “Unless you're gagged or I've told you not to talk, of course.” He gazed into the fire, which allowed Sterling a small breathing space; Owen staring at him was pretty intense. “Why I agreed to take you on… Partly to save myself from being pestered, and partly because, yes, you're very attractive, although maybe not for the reasons you think.” He gave Sterling a sidelong glance. “And maybe for the chance to deliver the spankings you did such a good job of earning freshman year. Did you consider that possibility when you chose me?”

“Not…consciously,” Sterling admitted. The thought of it made his jeans feel even tighter, and he shifted again, trying to find a better position in the chair that had seemed perfectly comfortable when he'd first sat down in it. “I guess I'd like to know how you got into this, and if you've had a lot of, um, partners.” What he really wanted to ask was if Owen had ever hurt anyone, like, really hurt them, because as much as the idea of being spanked was turning him on, he wasn't too crazy about the thought of having broken bones or needing stitches.

Although a few weeks ago he'd probably have laughed if someone had suggested he'd like to be spanked, so who knew how he'd feel in a few more?

“I always knew this was what worked for me,” Owen said, “and when I got old enough, I went looking for it. I honestly couldn't tell you an exact number of casual partners, but people like you…” His eyes got distant for a moment. “Six. One long-term, the rest for a few months or so, none longer than a year. I'm a little hard to please, and I get bored easily.” Owen's eyes sharpened, and Sterling tensed up again. “Now ask me something that you really want to know, please, because evasions fall into the category of things that both bore and annoy me.”

Sterling's instincts insisted that he tell Owen off, make it clear that he didn't care whether Owen was bored or annoyed or both.

But it would have been a lie, and he didn't want to lie to Owen, so instead he forged ahead and asked his question even though he wasn't sure what kind of response he might receive. “Will you hurt me?”

“Is that a request or something you're worried about?” Owen asked, a frown appearing that was at least a familiar expression. “Nothing will happen to you that you haven't agreed to beforehand, and during a scene you can make it all stop with a single word. You should already know that.” His eyes narrowed. “Do you think that I won't do this unless you agree to everything I say, no matter how extreme? Sterling, it just doesn't work like that.” Owen sighed. “I'd be insulted if you weren't so damn naïve.” He leaned forward, his hands loosely clasped on his knees. “Pain is incredibly useful as a shortcut and, yes, under certain circumstances it's an effective punishment. If you think that because getting spanked arouses you, I can't use it to punish you, you'll soon discover how wrong you are. If you think that I'll leave you bleeding and scarred—” Owen's face twisted in a grimace. “No. That goes well beyond my limits, and they're not likely to move much after all this time.”

The air left Sterling's lungs in a rush. “Oh. Good. I mean—I wasn't trying to insult you.”

He sounded more eager than he could remember hearing himself, so fucking earnest and young, which was exactly the thing Owen didn't like about him and therefore something he needed to stop himself from expressing.

“There's a lot of stuff online,” he explained, since Owen seemed willing to listen and probably wouldn't hesitate to tell him to shut up if that changed. “It's hard to know how much of it's an expression of reality, and how much was written by somebody trying to sound cool. Or whatever. I just want to make sure I know what I'm getting myself into.” He sighed and looked down at his hands, wishing they were sitting next to each other and that Owen would touch him again. “And I can't promise I won't be uncooperative as hell sometimes. This is all new.”

“I know it is,” Owen said matter-of-factly. “And that's why we're talking, and why you're still fully dressed and sitting over there instead of naked and kneeling where I can touch you.”

God.” The word slipped out before Sterling could stop it, set free in the powerful surge of desire that swept through him. He didn't try to stop the next words. “I want that. So much. Could—please. Do you think—could we…?” He couldn't ask, too afraid that the answer was going to be no.

“You have no idea how different you look now,” Owen said, and Sterling didn't think that he was imagining the connection he could feel between them, with his own desire mirrored in Owen's eyes. “Open, needy, everything right there for me to see. You're naked now, Sterling. You wanted to know what I saw in you? This. Just this.”

Sterling stood on legs that trembled and took an uncertain step toward Owen. “Please.” He said it very softly, part of him ashamed of the person he was letting himself be in that moment, in the person he was hoping to become.

God, this was so fucked up.

Still, he took another step closer before sinking down to the floor at Owen's feet; it wasn't kneeling as much as it was collapsing, his legs no longer able to support him. He didn't touch Owen, unsure whether that would be acceptable, but gave him such a look of anxious devotion that it might as well have been a physical caress. “Please. I need—this. You.” He was shaking, his heart beating so fast it felt like the flutter of a hummingbird's wings.

“I can see that,” Owen said, and his voice was rock-steady now, which was just what Sterling needed. Someone who knew what to do, someone who understood how he felt, because even if they were on opposite sides, somehow they balanced each other. “Stand up, please.”

Owen saying please was so different from Sterling's stammered, pleading use of the word; it was coolly courteous and totally unnecessary, because Owen wasn't asking, he was telling. Every time he said it, Sterling felt a flicker of heat race over him. “I'm going to undress you,” Owen continued when Sterling had gotten to his feet with an effort of will that took everything he had. “Then I'll allow you to kneel for me and show you exactly how I want you to do it—and you're going to remember and do it perfectly the next time you're told to take that position.” Owen stood, so close that Sterling could feel the whisper of air from each word he said brush his face. “Aren't you, Sterling?”

“Yes.” His vocal cords were so tight that it was hard to give his reply enough force to be heard, but Sterling was sure that Owen had heard him. He made himself repeat it, though, just to be on the safe side, and it was only as he said it that he realized he was breathing way too fast, on the verge of hyperventilating. “Yes, Owen.”

Sterling took a deep breath and let it out slowly—he didn't think he was imagining Owen's look of approval. He hoped he wasn't.

“Relax,” Owen advised. “I know this is overwhelming, but the only way that you can disappoint me is by not trying, and that's not going to happen. I won't permit it. So you can relax and enjoy this.” He cupped Sterling's face again and ran his thumb slowly across Sterling's lips. Sterling couldn't stop the helpless push his mouth made, chasing the drag of that thumb and trying to keep it touching him for as long as possible. “You're getting what you asked for here, and there's been a little too much of that, I think, so we need something that you have to wait for, something you'll go home wanting so much that it's all you'll be able to think about.” He began to unbutton the shirt that Sterling had chosen to wear because it hadn't seemed right to show up in a T-shirt somehow, his fingers deft and unhurried as they worked the buttons through the small, tight slits in the fabric. “Any suggestions?”

His whole body was trembling, and he couldn't keep his eyes from darting back and forth between Owen's face and Owen's hands, so close. “Touch me,” Sterling said. “I mean, that's what—that's what I want you to do. I want you to touch me. Run your hands over my skin.”

Incredibly aroused as he was, his brain couldn't help but provide brilliant, Technicolor pictures of what it would be like. Stretched out on a bed, naked, with Owen sitting next to him. One hand would slide up along his bare thigh toward his dick… Sterling moaned, his cock giving a heavy throb inside his jeans, as Owen slipped another button free.

“Hmm, yes, I suppose that would do,” Owen said with something a little rueful in the words. He stepped back. “You'd better finish undressing yourself, then, and look at me as you do it, please. I want to see your face as well as the rest of you.”

God, he hurt with wanting, but he could do this. Owen had told him to do it, so he would. The thought that something could be that simple, that uncomplicated, was enough to get Sterling's hands fumbling at the front of his shirt, even though his fingertips were numb.

Somehow, he managed to undo the last two buttons, then remembered that he was supposed to be looking at Owen. Where had he been looking? He wasn't sure, but Owen wasn't reprimanding him and didn't look angry, so it must be okay.

Sterling slid the shirt down off his shoulders and let it fall to the floor, eyes locked on Owen's. Owen was watching him as he undressed. Owen was watching him, and he'd never been so turned on in his life.

With still-trembling hands, Sterling undid his jeans, slid down the zipper. His cock was a constant, determined ache, and he could feel the wet spot that marked the soft cotton of his boxer briefs. He licked his lips and pushed down his jeans and briefs in one—Owen hadn't specified that any of this had to be slow, and Sterling was breathing quickly enough that he wasn't sure bending twice would be a good idea, not with the way his lips were tingling. He was definitely hyperventilating.

He got his pants below his knees, then kicked them off, and his socks, and straightened, never taking his gaze off Owen's incredible gray eyes. Weirdly, he wasn't even slightly tempted to put on attitude—just spread his hands to his sides a little bit and stood there.

Here I am. Look at me.

For a moment, there was something unguarded in Owen's expression, like he was tempted to forget all the carefully constructed rules and instructions he'd built around them and just reach out and take what Sterling was offering. Sterling caught his breath, but the moment—a panicked moment, he realized, because the support of those commands was about all that was keeping him standing upright—passed, and Owen just nodded at him. He did that a lot, as if he expected Sterling to add the words to go with the nod. In this case, they'd probably be flattering; Sterling knew he looked good naked, and now Owen did too.

In a silence that felt heavy, thick, muting the distant sound of passing traffic to a hum but magnifying the small sounds inside the room, Sterling waited as Owen looked him over, an unhurried appraisal lingering not on the obvious places, like his dick, straining upward, begging like the rest of him, but his mouth, his hands…

It didn't get easier to bear that scrutiny when Owen walked behind him.

Actually, what that did was send him back into fantasy. He could almost feel Owen's hands on him, smoothing down along his spine to his ass. God, Owen was going to want to fuck him, wasn't he? That was something he'd never considered—stupid, stupid, maybe he really was stupid, maybe that was why he insisted he was smart so often, to convince himself that it was true when it obviously wasn't. Because of course a man used to dominating his partners would expect to fuck his newest toy. How could Sterling not have realized it until now?

The thought made his whole body tense up in a way that Owen couldn't possibly miss.

“You might not have a safe word arranged with me yet, but until we take care of that, just stay 'stop' if you need a break,” Owen said, and God, the words were spoken almost into his ear because even if Owen wasn't touching him, he was standing so close now. “Do you?”

Sterling shuddered and shook his head. “No. No.” But he'd gone from turned on to almost nauseated in a split second. He couldn't do this, not if it meant having Owen fuck him, even if that was weeks, months down the line. God, he was so stupid. “I'm sorry,” he said quickly. “Stop. I just—I can't.” He turned so that Owen wasn't behind him and bent to scoop up his clothes, holding them in front of him like protection. “I'm sorry.”

Owen shook his head, his face tight with exasperation that sent a chill over Sterling, making throwing up seem like a very real possibility. He hated seeing that expression on Owen's face, directed at him, but when Owen spoke, some of his misery abated as he realized just who Owen was annoyed with. “Don't be. I'm the one who fucked up here, not you, and I'm the one who's sorry. I let you rush me, and that's unforgivable, but it's so easy to forget—never mind.” He gestured at the clothes Sterling held. “Get dressed and sit down. I'm going to get you a glass of water.”

“No,” Sterling said. “Please.” He didn't know what was happening exactly, and he didn't know how to make it better, but he did know that he didn't actually want this to stop, he just wanted to know there'd be a point at which it would stop. He was trembling like his mother did whenever she saw a spider, phobic, terrified, and he didn't want Owen to leave him there alone.

It wasn't Owen he was afraid of.

“I don't want to stop.” He'd broken out in a cold sweat. “I—please. I want to, I do.”

“You did,” Owen corrected him, “but something changed, and I need to know what it was. I don't know you well enough to work it out for myself yet, so you're going to have to talk to me.” He reached out and took Sterling's hand, clasping it in his with a brief, reassuring squeeze and leaving Sterling clutching his clothes to him awkwardly, one-handed, not sure what to do with them. Owen solved that problem for him by releasing his hand and pointing at the floor. “Drop them there if you really don't want to get dressed, and tell me if you change your mind about that.”

“I don't know,” Sterling whispered. Did he want to get dressed? Not really, but maybe he'd feel less bare if he did. That was how he felt, laid open and showing all his secrets to the world. Only he wasn't, because Owen couldn't read his mind. But he could choose to give Owen that, to give Owen everything, all of himself.

He didn't have to, but he could.

He dropped his clothes and let his arms hang limply at his sides.

“I can't bottom,” he said quietly, knowing it didn't have to be loud because Owen was listening. “I've tried, but I can't. It's too—I just can't.” He couldn't look at Owen, either.

“There's a reason I said we were going to do this without sex, at least initially,” Owen said calmly. “And it wasn't just out of a desire to see you suffer, though I admit I'd probably enjoy that more than a little.” He tapped his finger under Sterling's chin. “Look at me, please. Yes, that's better.” Sterling could feel his face heat, a blush rising as he stared at the wavering outline of Owen's face. “I think we'll continue this conversation sitting—or at least I will be.”

Owen turned and walked the few feet back to his chair and sat down, leaving Sterling stranded in what felt like a lot of space. “Kneel down beside me,” Owen said, throwing him a lifeline. “Knees together, hands behind your back, facing the fire.”

It was strange how obeying Owen's order made him feel better, and as he knelt, Sterling thought that somehow, deep down, he'd known that this was what he needed. He faced the fire like Owen had told him to, made sure his knees were together, then put his hands behind his back. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to clasp them together or what; then he remembered the way Carol had crossed her wrists, and he did that.

And waited.

“You look happier now,” Owen said and touched Sterling's hair, a light, fleeting contact. “Good.” He settled back in his chair, his elbow on the arm of it, and propped his chin on his hand, staring thoughtfully at Sterling. “I'm pleased that you trusted me enough to tell me that, and I definitely needed to know, but I'm still wondering what I did to make it so…pressing a matter. Or didn't you believe me when I said I wasn't going to have sex with you?”

Sterling let himself take his time before he answered, because there was more than one question in there and he didn't want to screw up. “I believed you. For now. But in the long run, well… When you moved behind me, it suddenly hit me that you'd want that. Eventually. And I can't. I would, if I could. For you. But I don't think I can.” The words burned coming out, burned like the flames in the fireplace, but he was left feeling better once he'd said them.

“It's something I enjoy doing,” Owen said. He smiled. “Topping, that is. It's far from the only thing though…God, no.” He leaned forward and caressed Sterling's mouth again, tracing its shape with his fingertip and giving Sterling a good idea of what one of those things was. “Yes. Exactly,” Owen said, his eyes alight with amusement as Sterling's lips parted a little. “I like giving blowjobs too…under certain circumstances, anyway.” Sterling really wanted to ask what they were, but Owen didn't give him the chance. “So tell me something that you like doing or having done to you.”

He'd been with enough guys to know what most of them liked, and most guys liked dirty talk, so he'd figured out how to get himself into the right head space to be able to do it without blushing or even feeling embarrassed. Still, this was different, so Sterling spoke carefully.

“I like blowjobs. Giving and getting. I like—uhm. Fucking. Topping.” He did blush then, but forced himself to look at Owen anyway. “Rimming. I like rimming. Someone else, I mean, not—having it done.” God, it felt like his face was bright red.

“And we're back to your ass being a no-go area,” Owen said, which did nothing to help Sterling's face to cool down though Owen didn't sound sarcastic, just curious. “Getting fucked can hurt, especially if whoever you were with didn't take care of you, but rimming doesn't… What if you're the one doing the penetrating? When you jerk off, do you use toys or your fingers in your ass to get off?” Owen sighed as Sterling struggled to answer him with anything more than a strangled whimper. “And stop looking like you're about to melt into a puddle from embarrassment; I'm going to be asking you a lot of questions like this, so get used to it, please.”

“I can't help it,” Sterling muttered. He wished he could rest his forehead on Owen's knee, or that Owen would touch his hair, or…something. Anything, really. This might literally be the most difficult conversation he'd ever had in his life, including the one where he'd come out to his mother. But Owen was waiting for an answer.

“I just…don't. Touch myself there. It's not that—I mean, I don't think it's gross or anything. I like touching other people's, um. I even like putting my tongue there. And…inside.” He swallowed, trying to get some moisture to his dry throat, and hunched his shoulders as much as he could without changing position, drawing in on himself. “The first guy I was with tried to. Fuck me, I mean. He couldn't.”

“And when he kept trying, as I'm sure he did, it hurt, which only added to your difficulties?” Owen shrugged. “I'm not a therapist, Sterling, and I don't have all the answers—but you do. You know, if you think about it, why this is an issue to you. Maybe it's something someone said to you once as a child that planted the idea that touching yourself there was wrong, and you accepted that. Maybe every time you do it to someone else, it's part of a general rebellion, but you can't go so far as to do it to yourself and don't really think you'd enjoy it. I honestly don't know, but this is more than just not wanting to bend over for me, which is something we could work around. I need to be able to touch you anywhere without you flinching, and I need you to trust me not to do anything to you that you haven't agreed to.”

Owen held up his hand, turning it slowly. “See this? If I take you on, it's going to touch you, spank you, position you. It's going to brush your hair, clean you up, hold the leather that falls across your body and makes you cry for me. It's going to be what you kiss when I've finished whipping you; it's going to be on you when you fall asleep beside me and still touching you when you wake up. You're going to want my fingers inside you, Sterling, a long time before I'm ready to give you that. And now, we're going to leave this and move on. I'm thirsty, and I would like you to go and get me a glass of water, please. The water's in a jug in the fridge, there's a glass already out by the sink because I'm a slob from time to time, and the kitchen is at the end of the hallway.”

It wasn't as much of a relief to walk into the kitchen and get away from Owen's intense scrutiny as Sterling might have expected. His mind was racing as he found the jug, poured water into the glass that was right where Owen had said it would be, and put the jug back into the refrigerator. He wished he could take a few minutes just to think, to see if it was possible to make some sense of what Owen had said. Instead, he returned to Owen and handed him the glass, hesitated, then knelt down again in the same position he'd been in before.

That felt like relief.

“Can I—say something?” he asked tentatively.

“Yes.”

Sterling's chest was tight. “I-I don't know if you—if anyone, but if it was going to be anyone, it would be you—can touch me there without me flinching. Because I think it would take a long time, for me to—be able to do that. So if that's what makes or breaks this deal, then I don't know what to do. I can't promise that I'll never flinch. I'm—I'm willing to try to do anything you ask me to, but I can't promise that.” He searched Owen's face for some hint of what he was thinking.

“Don't make it into such an obstacle,” Owen said lightly. “A man capable of badgering me into taking him on is perfectly capable of persuading a few tense muscles to relax.” He set his glass down untasted on a small, round table beside his chair, empty of everything but a book whose title Sterling couldn't see and a coaster Owen ignored. “You probably don't look at it much, but you have a really nice ass, as it happens. It's kind of a shame; if it was covered in blemishes or flabby, I wouldn't be so interested in the idea of turning it the same color your face was a few minutes ago.”

“You'd like it better if it was unattractive?” Sterling managed to take his tone from Owen's and found that doing so made him feel more relaxed. “Why do I find that hard to believe?”

“Because you're not stupid?” Owen laughed and shook his head. “No, I like it just way it is, and I'm glad to see that you're in good shape overall. Being a sub isn't all about feeding me grapes as I lounge around looking stern, you know; it can be physically demanding, and if you're in a permanent relationship with a conscientious Dom, you'll find that your diet and exercise will be monitored if you're not taking care of yourself.”

Owen glanced at the glass beside him and then back at Sterling. “Even if you are being sensible, you might have a day in cuffs when every bite you eat is hand-fed to you, every sip of water taken from a glass held to your lips. It can go from being funny and messy to incredibly intense by the end of the session.”

“I—” Sterling bit his lip, then continued on. “Is it okay for me to admit that I like the sound of that?” Owen nodded. “I do. And I am. In good shape, I mean. I run pretty much every day—the other morning wasn't just about seeing you. Well, okay, it mostly was. I used to play baseball, seriously. Not just for fun, I mean.”

He'd been hopeful about getting a scholarship to college for a few years there, until he'd hurt his shoulder badly enough to shatter that dream.

“'Used to'?” Owen asked. “What made you stop?”

It wasn't easy to talk about it, because when he did it brought back memories of the months in which he'd been deeply depressed by the realization that his plans for the future had been rendered impossible. It had been years since he'd had to discuss it at all.

“I tore my rotator cuff,” he said, hoping that Owen would know what that meant so he wouldn't have to get into the details. “Pitching. And I couldn't deal with the thought of surgery, so that was the end of my great baseball career.” It came out sounding more bitter than he'd intended it to.

Owen didn't gush all over him with sympathy and platitudes, but Sterling hadn't expected him to. Instead, he placed his hands on Sterling's right shoulder and explored the hollow of bone and muscle with careful fingers. “That's something you'll need to mention to people in the future,” he said absently, his attention focused on what he was doing. “I can think of several common bondage positions that would put too much stress on it. Let me know if anything I ask you to do hurts. The only pain I want you to feel is the good kind.”

Owen's touch, even somewhat clinical as it was, made Sterling's body react immediately; his cock twitched and started to harden. “It hasn't hurt for a long time,” he said, trying not to let himself get too distracted. “I learned pretty quick what kind of things I have to avoid, so I just avoid them. As long as you don't ask me to pitch a baseball, spike a volleyball, or swim competitively, I'm good.”

“I'll remember that.” Owen sat back as if Sterling's arousal—and Owen had definitely noticed it; hell, Sterling was starting to think that Owen noticed if he blinked more than usual—had reminded him that he wasn't supposed to be touching Sterling. Or had that ended when he'd melted down so spectacularly?

“I haven't had the chance to ask you just what works for you when it comes to BDSM,” Owen said. “It can vary so much for people… You've reacted positively to a few suggestions, but I get the feeling that they weren't something you'd considered before I brought them up. Have you read any porn, watched any movies? Did anything get you hard just thinking about it or anything leave you cold?” He grinned as Sterling gave him a helpless look. “Poor Sterling; am I making you feel like we're back in class?”

“Kind of,” he admitted. “Well. It sort of started when I accidentally—and it was an accident, I swear!—Peeping Tommed—God, that's not a verb and there's no way to make it one—on a couple of guys at a party.” Owen lifted an eyebrow, and Sterling clarified, “A regular party, not a BDSM party. Last weekend at the club was the first time I went to anything official. If that was official. Anyway, one of them was telling the other one to get on his knees and suck him off—the one on his knees was my friend Alex, who brought me to the club—and, well, it definitely turned me on. It's been the masturbatory fantasy of choice for weeks, actually.”

He tried to think of other things he'd seen. “Um. Being tied up. Spanking. Maybe whipping too, although I don't think anything really violent would be up my alley. I don't want scars.” Sterling offered Owen an apologetic smile. “Which I know you said you wouldn't do anyway, but you asked, and I want to get an A if even a tiny part of your brain is thinking about grading me. I don't know what else. Um, wax? Like, hot wax. And I watched some porn online and kind of got off on watching someone being fucked with a dildo.” He blushed again then, a little bit shocked at himself for having revealed so much.

“You didn't blush until just at the end there,” Owen said approvingly. “And you gave me a lot to work with. Excellent. You'll find an A difficult to earn, but I suppose I can give you a B for that.”

“Plus,” Sterling said firmly. “Definitely a B-plus.”

“Brat.” Owen flicked his fingernail against Sterling's left nipple, startling a gasp out of him because, while it hadn't hurt exactly, it'd stung, and the two things—being mildly cheeky and the equally mild chastisement that followed—came together in his head with a click. He was fully erect now, and he couldn't help sneaking a glance at Owen to see if he was too, under the jeans that concealed a lot more than the fresh air that Sterling was wearing.

“You're supposed to be looking at my face,” Owen pointed out. “Yes, I'm hard. I have been since you got here, but I enjoy a certain amount of anticipation. It helps that I'm the one who decides when it ends, of course, but you don't have that luxury. Whether or not you come is up to me, always.”

“Always?” Sterling blinked and looked at Owen's face like he was supposed to be doing. “I can't come at all? Do you know how often I usually jerk off?” He was whining, just about, but he couldn't help it.

“From tonight I'll know exactly, because you'll only do it with my permission and usually in front of me.” Owen made a sound that qualified as a snicker, but Sterling could—just—forgive that if it meant he got to come at least now and then. “I'm sorry; did no sex for four months make you think I meant no jerking off too? I'm going to ask a lot of you, but not the impossible.”

“I didn't think jerking off would count,” Sterling said. “I don't—wow. This is going to be harder than I thought.” Then he snickered, having heard what he'd just said.

Owen rolled his eyes but didn't comment on the pun. “You know, it keeps hitting me just how much you don't know about all this. Not jerking off without permission is fairly standard in a Dom/sub relationship.” His expression softened, which made Sterling's throat tighten just a little. “You've cannonballed into the deep end when you don't know how to swim, haven't you?”

Sterling looked at him solemnly and smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Don't let me drown.”

That got him Owen's hand on his face again, tilting it up, and Owen's mouth on his in a brief kiss that felt like a handshake. This close, the eyes staring into his were all that he could see, their light gray flecked with darker shades. “I think I can promise that.” One final pat to his face and Owen stood. “I think we've done enough for one session. Get dressed now and I'll give you my personal e-mail before you go. I'd like you to send me your schedule tonight, and we'll arrange another meeting in a few days.”

Sterling climbed to his feet slowly, more than a little overwhelmed. As he reached for his clothes and started to untangle them, he hoped they weren't, between the two of them, making a terrible mistake, because he was definitely in over his head.

Chapter Four

Owen walked back into the living room after Sterling had left and stood quite still for a moment as he tried to add up just how many mistakes he'd made in the last two hours or so.

Or maybe even longer than that, starting with going to the club on the one night that Sterling had chosen to walk on the wild side. Carol had wanted to see a friend, and he'd overruled her, being petty, exercising control over her in a way that karma had punished with a heavy hand.

What in God's name had possessed him to take on a new sub so soon after freeing himself from Carol, as if he couldn't go a single day without knowing that he had someone to be responsible for? Pity, sympathy, fellow feeling? Or something less altruistic…

“Next time, I should just adopt a cat,” he muttered. God, this was so stupid. Sterling could ruin Owen's career with a few misplaced words to a friend—and get himself kicked out in his final year too. He could see the lurid headlines now, and the thought made him grimace. He'd kept his two worlds from meeting for so long, not out of any sense of shame, but pragmatism. The faculty knew that from time to time he dated men, and that wasn't a problem for most of them; times, and laws, had changed. Getting involved with a student, though…and introducing that student to what would be considered a depraved, perverted lifestyle… Oh, that wouldn't be met with the same carefully liberal tolerance.

So he should break this off before it went any further. Point Sterling in the direction of another Dom, someone with less to lose, someone who'd be more than adequate to guide a wide-eyed sub through his paces.

He tried to think of anyone he knew who'd be willing to take Sterling on given how conflicted he was and came up with a short list of one: himself.

Sterling was just too fucking tempting to walk away from. Body and face were both eye-catching. Sterling's athleticism had probably smoothed out the gangly awkwardness of youth early; he fitted his body well, all long, powerful legs and wide shoulders, smooth skin tanned by the summer sun, and that blush… Oh, Owen loved that blush. He wanted to paint Sterling's skin with it, bring the heat to the surface and rest his hand on that flushed, hot skin…

He'd been mildly attracted to the spoiled, arrogant brat he'd met in his class without really translating that into anything sexual. Sterling had been a student and young enough to be off Owen's radar. His partners were usually about his age, and he hadn't dated anyone not into the scene for so long that it was hard to remember sex that didn't come accompanied with at least a hint of kink. The attraction to Sterling in class had been rooted in his undeniable intelligence and the challenge he'd represented to Owen's authority. It had been enjoyable to deal ruthlessly with his audacity, and yes, Owen had gotten a kick out of it at times.

Sterling in the club, the lust pouring off him as he'd watched Owen discipline Carol, had been hard to look away from, even harder to reject. Owen, who'd never had any trouble controlling the most recalcitrant sub, didn't doubt his ability to deal with this new, hesitant Sterling, or any return of the Sterling he was more familiar with, but it was going to be one hell of a lot of work. The last time he'd taken a sub from day one had been Michael, fifteen years ago. Owen hadn't been all that experienced himself, but they'd had people to turn to for help and they'd made it work—oh God, yes they had…

Too on edge to deal with anything as mundane as grading papers or watching TV, Owen paced the house, picking up scattered items and restoring them to where they belonged and making an attempt to water at least some of the houseplants his mother had put in every room. Those that had survived his haphazard care were still valiantly green, but he thought that they had a dispirited droop to them.

He needed someone to talk to about this before it got out of hand, and really, there was only one person he'd ever turned to when he had doubts. Michael might have been gone for eight years—God, no, it was more like nine—and they'd both moved on, the bright dazzle of love softening to a friendship that was even stronger, but that didn't matter.

Any more than it mattered that it'd been six months since they'd last spoken and the call had ended with Michael telling him that he was a fucking idiot and hanging up.

Just after ten, so it'd be around lunchtime in Sydney. That would work. He settled himself on the couch with a glass of whiskey and the phone and pressed the first number on his speed dial.

Michael answered just after the third ring, his voice so familiar that Owen closed his eyes for a few seconds, drinking it in and finding it more refreshing and relaxing than the whiskey. “Hello?”

“Hi,” Owen said. “It's me.”

That was more than enough to tell Michael what Owen needed him to know—the first word would have done it. Still, there was a pause while Michael probably considered hanging up on him again, even though they both knew he wouldn't. “Hi, you,” Michael said finally. “Now, before you say anything else, just listen, okay? I forgive you for that last fight, but I don't forgive you for going so long without calling. You know I can talk to you as much as you want, but you have to be the one to call me—there's no way I'd risk breaking any of Daren's rules. Not even for you.” It was so easy to picture the smile on Michael's face. “So what's wrong?”

“Daren would love you to break a rule now and then,” Owen said, reverting to an old joke between them to give himself time to handle the sheer relief of being in contact with Michael again. Michael was right to be pissed off about him taking this long to call, even missing Michael's birthday because he'd still been smarting over the ruthless assessment of his lack of direction. “You're spoiling his fun.”

“Oh, trust me, he gets plenty of fun.” It sounded like Michael was running water—doing dishes, maybe? When his relationship with Daren had gone from playful to serious, he'd insisted on something full-time—the same thing he'd wanted from Owen but which Owen hadn't been able to give him. Now Michael stayed home, took care of his and Daren's house, and was ridiculously happy by his own report. “If you're not answering my question, then something's really wrong. What happened?”

“Put it this way—if this blows up in my face, Australia might be getting a new immigrant.” Owen sighed. “I might have gotten involved with a student. Not in my class, and he's in his senior year and almost twenty-one, but still…”

Michael made a sound like a suppressed whoop. “Well, excuse me for being excited for you,” he said before Owen could even object to his obvious delight. “Thank God you've gotten involved with someone. I was starting to think it was going to be one casual fling after another for you, and you know you deserve so much more than that. Is he cute?”

“He's pushy, arrogant, and when I taught him a few years back, he drove me out of my mind,” Owen said, “but I'll admit that outside the classroom and on his knees, he's appealing. Cute, no. Do we have a bad connection? Did you miss the part where he's a student?”

“But you said he's almost twenty-one,” Michael said. The sound of the water running stopped and was replaced by the clinking of dishes. “And not your student, which I'd think would make a huge difference. Anyway, you wouldn't get involved with him if you were really worried that he'd report you, right? What would be the point? Besides, you love pushy and arrogant.”

“I know I do,” Owen admitted with a groan. “Shit, the thought of finally getting to spank him after some of the crap he pulled…and the way he looks when I say something that pushes his buttons… He just… It's all there on his face, and he doesn't hold anything back.”

Michael snorted. “He sounds perfect. No wonder you're freaking out.”

“He's not perfect,” Owen said. He hesitated. Discussing a sub with someone else wasn't something he did—but this was Michael, and he was half a world away. “He only just found out a few weeks ago that all this worked for him. I mean, that's not just new to the scene, that's… God, Michael, he's groping in the dark for answers and he's got this weird hang-up about being fucked and I tried to get him to leave me alone by telling him that sex was out of the question until he was twenty-one and it still didn't work.”

He took a deep breath to shut himself up. He didn't mind letting Michael see him lost and unsure, but he was too old to babble.

“You really are freaked out,” Michael observed. “Okay, first of all, are you sitting down, or are you doing that pacing thing you do?”

“Sitting.”

“Good. Let's keep it to one word answers, okay? Yes or no.” Michael was sliding effortlessly into his helpful mood, which at times had annoyed Owen to no end, but right now he was grateful for it. “You like the idea that he's new to the scene because it means you get to break him in.”

That wasn't even a question, but Owen answered it anyway. “Yes.”

“And you want to turn him on to being fucked?”

“Yes.” Reluctant, but an answer.

“And you like that he wants you so much,” Michael said. “It makes you crazy that he'll do anything to get you, even wait.”

Yes,” Owen snapped. “How the fuck could I not like that? If it wasn't months away, I'd think you'd found me the perfect birthday present. Happy now?”

“Yes, thanks.” Michael sounded so casual and breezy; it was infuriating. “What I want to know is, why aren't you happy? You should be. Why can't you let yourself enjoy this instead of brooding about it? You love a challenge. Do you want to know what I think?”

“I suppose so,” Owen said grumpily, because if he didn't admit it, Michael would just point out that he'd been the one who'd initiated the conversation in the first place.

“I think,” Michael said, “that your perfect man just dropped into your lap, naked and ready for a good spanking, and you're so neurotic that you're looking for things to complain about instead of thanking the universe in its infinite wisdom for giving you this incredible gift.” He lowered his voice to a velvet caress that Owen needed more than he'd have guessed. “Honey, you deserve to be happy. Everybody does, but especially you.”

“Big, bad, toppy Doms aren't allowed to tear up, or I think I might have after that,” Owen told him, knowing that Michael would hear the unspoken gratitude behind his words. The house felt empty around him, quiet rooms, too many of them, sealing him in, but Michael was doing what he always did and making him feel connected to the world. It had taken them both a while to set aside the dynamics of their original relationship—and it'd led to some spectacular arguments the first time Michael lost his temper and refused to back down—but it'd been worth the effort. “If he ever lets me lay a hand on his ass, I'll dedicate his first spanking to you.”

“You gave me my first spanking, remember?” Michael sounded a little bit wistful. “I didn't know whether to scream or come.”

“You did both,” Owen reminded him. And his ass had been bright red by the time Owen was finished with him. The thought of Sterling like that, laid out across his lap, bare-assed, made Owen's hand clench on his glass of whiskey.

“I know. It was amazing. You were amazing—you always have been. This kid's lucky to get you, but it sounds like you're lucky too.”

“Not as lucky as Daren,” Owen said. God, Michael brought out the sap in him. Not that it had stopped him from taking them both to the very edge of their limits on more than one occasion—and now he was hard again, memories of Michael and images of Sterling tangled together. Daren wouldn't approve of that at all, not that Owen could blame him; Michael was worth getting possessive over, and Daren held his leash very tightly indeed.

Which was just how Michael liked it, of course… Would Sterling get a kick out of having every aspect of his life controlled, from the brand of his toothpaste to the color of his socks? Owen shivered. Too soon for that level of intensity and not very practical given the way things were, but it would be interesting to see his reaction to the idea.

Michael kept quiet for a few long seconds, then said, “If I know you, you're thinking dirty thoughts right now.”

“I'm thinking about the way you and Daren play it,” Owen admitted, knowing that Michael wouldn't read too much into that. “You and I never took it that far, even when we were living together, but every instinct I've got is telling me that with this one, I need to start off strong and maybe ease back later, instead of the other way around. It's like he's spent his life blind, and now that he can see, he doesn't want to close his eyes even to blink. Seriously eager. If I had him here for the weekend, I'd keep him naked the whole time and watch him get more and more desperate for a touch or a kiss.” He swallowed a gulp of whiskey and sighed. “I'm going to have to hang up soon, or this call will qualify as phone sex, not two old friends talking. I don't want you to have to confess anything tonight that would really piss Daren off.”

“I'd have to hang up on you before it went that far, and I don't want to have to do that again,” Michael said, then changed the subject. “So call me more often, okay? I want to know what's going on with you. Plus now you've got me all interested in how things with this kid will turn out. What's his name?”

“Sterling,” Owen said.

“Sterling,” Michael repeated. “That's unique.”

“It's his middle name,” Owen said. “He's named William after his father—not someone he gets along with from what little he's said, so he refuses to use it.” He pursed his lips in thought. “I might if he starts to act up, though… He'd hate it, but then, that's the whole point.” Owen shrugged, pushing it aside to think about later. “Enough about me; tell me what you did over your winter while I was working on my tan. Did Daren take you skiing again?”

And snowboarding, and I didn't even break any bones!” Michael gushed, and Owen made himself comfortable for what was probably going to be a long conversation.

Sterling was almost vibrating with excitement when he left Owen's house, and it hadn't really abated by the time he got back to the dorm. His roommate Brian was out—maybe working; Sterling never could keep track of Brian's schedule—and that was just fine with him, even though they got along okay. Mostly he wished he could be living off-campus at this point, like most of the other students his age, but his father had only been willing to pay bills that came directly from the college, and he'd have had to work a hell of a lot more hours at his part-time job scooping ice cream to afford rent, even in a place with multiple roommates. This way he only had to deal with one, and he had more spending money in his pocket to boot. It seemed a small price to pay.

He considered playing some music loud and dancing, something that worked when he needed to blow off steam, but it was getting late, and he didn't want to piss off the floor's RA. He could go run a couple of miles, but the idea just didn't appeal to him considering the darkened campus.

Sighing, he threw himself down onto his bed, winced because the mattress just wasn't as padded as it should have been, and thought about his dick. It was difficult not to when he'd been hard off and on all day, and Owen had said he wouldn't be allowed to come any time soon. That made him want to come more, of course, but he'd be good. He wouldn't so much as touch himself. Well, except in the shower and if he had to take a piss, but even in those instances he'd better check with Owen first just to make sure.

He remembered he was supposed to call Alex and report how things had gone. He felt a little weird about it—not because he and Alex hadn't already talked about sex, because they had, a lot, but because he wasn't sure what Alex's reaction was going to be.

He always kept his word, though, so he dug his cell phone out of his pocket, checked to make sure it had enough juice, and dialed Alex.

“Tell me everything,” Alex said immediately, which put Sterling in a really awkward position as he knew Owen wouldn't like him spilling every juicy detail. It wasn't as if Alex was connected to the campus at all, though, and he was deep enough into the scene to know that discretion was a given. “Did you get him to agree, or did he just blow you off again?” Alex gave a soft moan. “Okay, I need to hook up with someone soon, because the thought of him telling you to get lost, all icy eyes and stern as hell, is getting me hot. And it isn't hot. It's a tragedy. Or does this story have a happy ending?”

“Semi-happy,” was what Sterling decided to go with. “He didn't tell me to get lost, but he did tell me he won't have sex with me until I'm twenty-one. Which is four months away.”

“I'll throw you a huge birthday party to celebrate,” Alex promised rashly. “So what will he do, if sex is off the table?”

“I can't come unless he gives me permission.” That felt strange to admit and already too close to the unspoken line that Sterling thought Owen would draw if asked about what was allowed to be discussed. “Is that, you know…normal? For this kind of thing? I mean, I know it says it is online, but there are so many cases where online and in-real-life are two totally different things.”

“It's not something I've ever done,” Alex said, “but Ray wasn't—well, he was just playing around. It got him hot, but I don't think he really thought through a lot of what he did. It was all about the sex for him, and he wouldn't have done anything that stopped him from getting it.”

It hadn't occurred to Sterling that he wasn't going to be the only one going without. Not that Owen had said they were exclusive or anything.

“He sounds like he's treating you like you belong to him,” Alex said. “That's kind of intense this soon. Are you down with that?”

“I think I'd pretty much say yes to anything he wanted,” Sterling said honestly. “And yeah, I know how that sounds. It's just—there's something about him. The intense thing, yeah, but there's more to it than that. I guess I'm just not interested enough in anyone else to chance screwing things up with him.”

“Definitely intense,” Alex said again. “So does that mean no more sex for us? Damn, I was just getting used to the fuck buddy thing. I liked it.”

“I did too.” Sterling wished Alex hadn't brought it up, because the topic certainly wasn't contributing anything toward getting his erection to fade. “I'm not allowed—but I could talk to him about it.” He didn't think he would, though, because he had a feeling that it wasn't a subject that Owen would be mellow about.

Maybe he was wrong about that, but he didn't think so.

“Dude, it's fine. Whatever you want to do. I mean, I like you. It's cool.” Alex snickered a little bit. “And it'll be extra cool if you're willing to share the dirt once in a while. Just be careful, okay? Don't get hurt.”

“Emotionally or physically?” Sterling asked.

“If he's as good as people say he is, you won't have to worry about the last one,” Alex said, dodging the issue in Sterling's opinion. “Okay, scratch that; he'll hurt you, but you won't be doing anything but begging for more when it's him doing it… And I want to see the marks when he dishes out your first spanking—or is looking off-limits too?”

“I really don't have a clue,” Sterling said ruefully. “I think there are a lot of questions I still need to ask. And about a million things I need to learn. I wish there was a book or something.”

“I think there are,” Alex said. “No idea if they're any good, though.”

“I guess I could ask Owen if there are ones he recommends.” Suddenly feeling overwhelmed by the things he didn't know, Sterling sighed and rubbed his forehead. Was it possible to get a headache as a result of deferred orgasms? Like the intellectual version of blue balls? Somehow he didn't think that was a question he'd be asking Owen anytime soon.

Alex gave a snort of laughter. “A reading list from the professor? Does that count as homework? Maybe he'll make you write essays instead of spanking you.”

Owen's voice, calm, measured, telling him that he'd missed a comma and would have to start over and wouldn't get to come until the lines were written perfectly… Kneeling in front of him, waiting as Owen looked at what he'd written, tense and so fucking hard, needing Owen to read faster, tell him he could jerk off… Okay, when he'd gotten to the point where that sounded hotter than actual sex, he was in a bad way.

Aching with arousal, Sterling made some excuses and got off the phone, only to wish a minute later he hadn't because then all he had left to do was stare at the ceiling with the heel of his hand pressed to the base of his erection. He counted slowly to one hundred, keeping his mind as blank as possible, then a second time before his dick softened enough to be ignored.

Then he got up resolutely, sat at his scarred desk, and forced himself to read five chapters of his Ancient Civ text, which was the dullest thing he could come up with.

It was going to be a long four months.

Chapter Five

Here we go again.

Sterling wasn't any less anxious and excited than he'd been when he'd walked up to Owen's house the first time—in fact, he might have been more anxious and nervous. Because now he knew something was going to happen, even if he didn't know what it would be exactly.

He also knew that he needed to get some answers to his questions, but he wasn't sure if that would come before or after whatever else Owen had planned.

He'd followed Owen's instructions to the letter and knocked on the door one minute early, just like he had the last time, in case the clock on his cell phone was different from the one in Owen's house. That was one of those things he couldn't have any control over, so he'd decided not to worry about it.

When Owen opened the door, Sterling smiled nervously. “Um. Hi.”

Owen smiled back at him, his expression welcoming, which maybe shouldn't have been a surprise, because this time he was here because Owen wanted him to be, not because he'd pushed for an invitation.

Once inside, Sterling took off his shoes and jacket and felt some of the strain leave him. It was only the second time he'd hung his jacket in this closet, but when so much about the night was going to be totally new and scary, he would take his familiar and routine where he could get it.

“We'll go upstairs soon, but I want to talk to you first,” Owen said and led Sterling into the living room. Like before, the curtains were drawn, but the only light was from the fire burning steadily and a single lamp in the corner of the room. “I'd like to start all our sessions like this for a while to give you the chance to ask me about anything that's occurred to you.” Owen's faint smile didn't disappear, but his next words seemed on the ominous side, even if Sterling's conscience was—mostly—clear. “And anything that I need to know about.”

“Okay.” Sterling didn't sit down; he wasn't sure if Owen was going to want him to strip and kneel again. He had to hope he wouldn't get in trouble for not doing it without being told. “Um, I do have some questions…more about how we deal with this than how we do it. Because I figure the doing part is just me doing what you tell me to do, but when I'm not here… I need to know if I can talk about it—not with, you know, random people I meet on the street, but with people I trust. And, like, Alex wants to know if he can see marks that you put on me, and I didn't know what the answer would be—if that would be okay with you, I mean. Oh, and how far the not-coming thing goes, and—” He realized that he was talking way too fast and stopped, cheeks burning. “I'm sorry. I have to let you answer, don't I?”

“You can always e-mail or call me, you know,” Owen said gently, not commenting on the way Sterling had just shown him exactly how nervous he was. “I don't want you to feel that you have to wait to see me to ask your questions—and, yes, the occasional pause for breath might be a good idea.” He sat on the couch, grimaced, and reached behind him to extract a large, overstuffed cushion, piped and dotted with buttons. “My mother had these all over the place,” he told Sterling, “to the point where there was no room for anyone to actually sit down.” He tossed it to the floor and pointed, not at it, which was a relief because Sterling didn't think that he could kneel on it without sliding off, but beside him on the couch. “Sit down, and I'll do my best to answer your questions—and I have a few of my own, which you are not to blush and stammer over when you answer them.”

Sterling nodded and sat. He didn't know what to do with his hands and ended up clasping them together. It was hard not to fidget. “So this was your parents' house?” he heard himself asking, even though it wouldn't have even made an appearance on a list of questions he needed answers to.

“Yes. They died in a car accident three years ago and I… It didn't feel right to just sell it.” Owen glanced around the room. “I've made some changes, though…”

“Like the cushions.”

“Among other things,” Owen said. “I'm not as fond of rose pink as my mother was, and yes, you can talk to Alex and I'd leave it up to your common sense to know how much to share; no, he may not look at your well-spanked ass when I get around to spanking it, and I'm not quite sure how there can be any confusion about you being forbidden to come unless you have explicit permission from me.” He raised his eyebrows. “Next?”

“How do you do that?” Sterling said, awed. He'd recovered from thinking he was stupid and was, very reasonably, back to thinking he was smart, but it was clear that Owen's IQ left his in the dust. “Um, no, that wasn't an actual question. Uh, yeah. About the coming thing—I mean, I get that I'm not allowed to jerk off, but I can, like, touch myself in the shower, right? To wash. And what about—” It was very hard not to blush, but he thought he was managing it. “Sometimes, when I haven't come in a while, I'll, you know, dream. Do I get in trouble if that happens?”

He thought that he could see a gleam of amusement in Owen's eyes, but there was no trace of it in Owen's voice when he replied. “Keeping yourself clean is mandatory. And if you get hard from that—and you will—cold water is a traditional solution to that problem. We'll deal with you waking up with a smile on your face as it happens. It isn't something I'd punish you for, but if it happens too often, I won't be pleased. It's your body, Sterling, and I expect you to be able to control it and give me your best efforts to obey.”

Owen slid his hand behind Sterling's neck, the warmth of his touch soaking into Sterling's skin. The hairs on Sterling's arms stood up, and he shivered, swallowing back a groan. It felt as if he hadn't been touched in weeks, and when it was Owen doing it…

“You look so worried,” Owen said, his voice pitched low, a tickle in Sterling's ear. “There's no need. I'm very pleased with you so far. You're thinking about this and asking sensible questions.” His thumb began to move, a slow, regular drag up and down that felt good—oh God, yes—but at the same time was close to unbearable because Sterling wanted so much more. “Do you have anything else to ask me?”

“Will you keep doing that?” Sterling asked before he could really think that it might not be the best idea. “I don't—God, I just want you to touch me. Or to be allowed to touch you. Can I? Please?” He looked at Owen beseechingly, wanting in every molecule of his body.

Owen took his hand away, which was almost enough to bring Sterling off the couch and to his knees, begging—God, yes, he'd beg, and if he'd had any pride, any idea that he could handle whatever Owen gave him, it was gone now, because he couldn't take this if Owen kept leaving him alone, untouched.

“We're going to go upstairs,” Owen said before Sterling could move. “And you're going to get touched. It's time I got to know you.” He stood and held out his hand. “Come with me.”

Sterling stood up and slipped his hand into Owen's, trying not to clutch it too tightly. Every muscle in his body was taut with anticipation, and he thought it was a miracle that he managed to follow Owen up the staircase without tripping and falling on his face. That would have made a good impression.

They went into what was clearly Owen's bedroom. The bed was neatly made and—this shouldn't have come as a surprise—the headboard was one that would be easy to tie people to. The fact that Sterling had even thought that probably meant that he'd been watching too much BDSM porn, which seemed to favor showing people who were tied up, sometimes facedown so they could be spanked or beaten.

Sterling was hard; he didn't even know when that had happened.

“I'm not going to be getting out cuffs or a whip tonight,” Owen said conversationally, as if he was commenting on the weather. He stood in front of Sterling and began to unbutton Sterling's shirt, giving the rolled-up sleeves a disapproving look but not commenting on them. “You're a long way off from being ready for anything like that, and I wouldn't enjoy it because you'd be tense and on edge. Tonight's all about getting you ready for more and trying out some things. Think of it as taking small bites—appetizers, not a three-course meal.”

He undid the last button of Sterling's shirt, which hung down, untucked, over his jeans, and slid it back off Sterling's shoulders. “There's a chair over there. Put this over the back of it and finish undressing. Fold your clothes neatly, please.”

Taking special care but also trying not to waste time, Sterling hung his shirt over the chair and took off his slacks, folding them and setting them on the chair's seat before removing his briefs and socks. It felt alien to be in a stranger's—well, almost a stranger's—bedroom, completely naked, while Owen was fully dressed.

Sterling wanted to cross his hands in front of him to hide his erection, which was dumb because even if it was hidden, it wasn't like Owen wouldn't know it was there. He couldn't help a glance downward at it, though—hard, flushed at the tip, and with a drop of clear fluid beaded there, his dick was fully with the program and ready to rock.

He just hoped it wasn't going to be disappointed.

Owen wasn't even looking at him, though; instead, he was getting something out of the top drawer of a tall chest of drawers in a dark wood. When he turned back to face Sterling, he was holding a wide strip of black silky material. “This isn't to tie you in any way you can't get out of with a tug,” Owen said, “but I want to see how you respond to it wrapped around your wrists.” His gaze flickered over Sterling's erection. “You can end this with a single word; that's always going to be the case, by the way, no matter what we're doing, but I'll end it for you if you come, so don't.” He drew the silk through his hands, playing with it absently. “Speaking of which, have you given any thought to your safe word? You can have two if you like; one to tell me that you need a short break, or to ask me something, one to stop the scene immediately.”

As it happened, Sterling had thought a lot about safe words, in part because he'd been doing little else but thinking. “Um—'infield' for a break. And, uh, 'Junior' to stop.” He met Owen's eyes with a hint of defiance, daring Owen to tell him either word was unacceptable. If he did, it wouldn't be the end of the world, of course, but somehow being able to choose felt important, gave him a slight sense of control. Holding out his hands, wrists crossed, he asked, “In front or behind?”

“Not yet,” Owen said, gesturing to him to put his hands back by his side. “It's important to be aware of what I want from you, and in time a good sub can predict his Dom's needs and be ready to fulfill them instantly, but there's a difference between that and rushing me or a scene.” It could have felt like a reprimand, but compared to some of the stingers Owen had sent his way in class, it was pretty mild, and Owen didn't sound annoyed.

Sterling nodded and Owen continued, “I want to ask you about the significance of those words. They don't have to have any, of course; the point is that they're unusual, words that you would never say in an emotional moment by accident, but I get the feeling that's not the case here. I can see why you'd choose a baseball reference, but 'Junior'? Is that part of your name? Another part you dislike because it ties you to your father?”

Well, he'd hoped he wouldn't have to explain, but at least Owen wasn't saying no right off the bat. Sterling winced a little bit at that word choice before answering. “My dad used to call me that—even though technically he's the Junior, and maybe that's why it got to me so much—when he was pointing out the ways I was like him. When he was, uh, trying to convince me I was my father's son and there was no point in fighting it or trying to be different. Because it was inevitable, you know? It was—I hated it. I hate him.”

He stopped, shocked. He'd never said that last part out loud, too well-bred, probably, to consider giving that thought breath. Because he'd certainly thought it hundreds of times, and even gone so far as to scratch it into the wood of his desk at home—only to realize his mistake and have to scratch it back out again. Sometimes, in his senior year of high school, when he'd been dreaming about the day he'd get to leave, he'd run his fingertips over the imperfect spot on the desk the way a devout Catholic might finger a string of rosary beads; it had given him comfort.

“Some things are inevitable,” Owen said, “but I've never considered a child as an echo of one parent; how can it be when it takes two people to create it, and after that, its life experiences are so different?” He shook his head, dismissing some thought, maybe, that he clearly wasn't about to share. “They'll both work very well. Thank you, Sterling.”

Sterling felt himself relax at the simple praise—the thought that he could do, be what someone expected of him with so little effort, that he wasn't disappointing Owen (yet, a voice inside him added very unhelpfully) was a fairly incredibly one. “You're welcome,” he said, because it was the proper response, and waited.

“So,” Owen said, and held up the scarf just long enough for Sterling to say something, but there was nothing that he wanted to say, apart from Hurry up, please, and that probably wouldn't go over well.

“Keep your hands by your sides,” Owen said, his voice subtly different, calm and assured. “As I said, this isn't going to restrain you in any real sense, at first, but I want to see…” He looped the end of the scarf around Sterling's right wrist, tying it with a simple slip knot, and then took the length of silk behind Sterling's back and tied the other end to Sterling's left wrist with a more secure knot. There wasn't much play if Sterling kept his hands where they were, but plenty if he brought his hands together behind his back.

Owen stepped back and studied him, a warmth in his eyes, more of the approval that Sterling craved. “Oh, yes,” Owen said softly. “Very nice.”

When he thought about it, Sterling found it surprising that he was as comfortable in this position as he was. He barely knew Owen, but he was standing here in Owen's bedroom, stark naked, aroused, with his wrists bound.

And somehow it felt right.

More than that, it felt like he'd been waiting for this.

He wanted to beg for more but reminded himself that if he was patient, Owen would give him more. Owen knew what he needed.

“I can make them tighter,” Owen said. “So that the only person who can take them off you is me. Tie you so that you can pull and tug and feel held, feel safe, and I will, but I want to touch you first.”

Sterling's mouth was dry with longing, but he just nodded, and Owen stepped closer and kissed him, not on the mouth, but his neck, low down where it met his shoulder. The kiss was light, but it left Sterling's skin burning as if it'd been branded. Owen ran the back of his hand over Sterling's chest, the blunt points of his knuckles tracing a random path, leaving swirls of sensation. Knuckles became fingernails, scratching hard sometimes, enough to leave pale lines, rising and then fading, and then the smooth pads of fingers. Sterling swayed in place, his eyes wanting to squeeze shut so that he could lose himself in this but staying open because he didn't want to miss a thing.

After a while, Owen put two fingers against Sterling's lips. “Suck them,” he said. “Get them wet.”

Sterling parted his lips so that Owen could slide his fingers inside. Owen wasn't the biggest guy, but his hands were kind of large, and Sterling was eager to taste his skin, to mouth the fingers that had been teasing him.

First he licked around each finger, exploring the knuckles with his lips. He was tempted to bite at them, just a little, not enough to hurt or anything, but he was pretty sure that wasn't what Owen had in mind. What did Owen have in mind? Would he paint traces of Sterling's own saliva across his bare skin?

It didn't matter; he didn't care. He was so happy to finally have Owen touching him, making him hard through something more than just his sheer presence (impressive though it was) that it wasn't important to him what Owen would do next. Instead, Sterling focused on doing the best job he could, sucking on Owen's fingers, taking them deep into the back of his throat while stubbornly suppressing his gag reflex, hoping the demonstration of his abilities might tempt Owen into putting his cock in Sterling's mouth instead of just his fingers.

Owen withdrew his fingers slowly, teasingly, and then Sterling felt cool wetness and a small, sharp jolt of pain as Owen pinched his nipple to an aching peak, his spit-slick fingers moving to Sterling's other nipple and rousing it to a matching, aching burn.

After a single glance down at what he'd done, Owen's gaze returned to Sterling's face, and Sterling hoped that he didn't look shocked. The pain had been nothing, not really, but it was weightless snowflakes gathering to make a snowball; each sting of pain, each rub of the silk against the thin, fragile skin on the inside of his wrists, each touch from Owen, with Sterling unsure if it would hurt or soothe, was making him realize one thing—Owen was in control of this, all of it.

He was breathing shallowly now, his heart pounding. He hadn't been touched below the hollow of his hip, with Owen pressing his thumb there and drawing a circle that had tightened every muscle in Sterling's stomach. His dick was jerking with every breath, leaking, flushed darkly, showing every way it could that it was ready to come, but Owen wasn't looking at it.

Owen moved to stand behind Sterling, and as he walked past him, he let his hand trail behind him, his palm dragging across Sterling's stomach, the edge of his little finger grazing the tip of Sterling's dick.

A soft sound somewhere between a gasp and a moan escaped Sterling—he hadn't meant it to, but it did. He was so turned on that even Owen's hand touching his stomach was intense; having Owen touch his cock, no matter how lightly, was beyond intense, it was…maddening. He tried, really tried, not to shift his body chasing another touch, but he didn't think he actually succeeded.

“Be still,” Owen said, voice quiet but stern at the same time, and Sterling froze, determined to do better.

Owen's hand slid along Sterling's skin again, fingertips circling his navel, giving him goose bumps. Owen's skin temperature was slightly lower than his, and Sterling held perfectly still as cool fingers slid down along his hip, carefully avoiding his cock, and then brushed the soft hair on his upper thigh.

He could stay still, but he couldn't keep from whimpering, the second sound to escape him in as many minutes.

“I could tell you to be quiet too, but I like hearing you,” Owen said. “You're as eloquent as I remember you being in class, even when you're not actually saying anything.”

The last four words were punctuated by gentle tugs as his earlobe as Owen, standing behind him now, set his teeth into the soft flesh and bit down. Sterling could close his eyes now, and he did, tracking the glide of a single fingertip down his side. “Do you remember what I told you to do?” Owen asked.

“Y-yes,” Sterling said, his body screaming for release, for something more than darting kisses, fleeting touches. “Stay still.”

“And you're doing it very well,” Owen said.

It was a little scary, the rush of relief and pride that swept through Sterling when he heard that. It made his shoulders relax, dropping down half an inch or so into a more comfortable position, and it made his knees weak. He wasn't totally sure what it meant, but he liked it even though it worried him. Was this normal, or was he screwed up in ways he hadn't even realized yet?

Owen smoothed both hands up Sterling's chest, still standing behind him, and found his nipples with the edges of both thumbnails. Sterling didn't usually think of his nipples as being all that sensitive, but with Owen touching him he might have to revise that theory, because they felt so tight they almost ached with it, and each teasing touch forced more blood into his cock, which had gone beyond ache and into imminent-orgasm territory.

Not allowed to come, he reminded himself. Not allowed.

“I won't often give you a choice,” Owen said. “It's not a kindness, though it might seem like it. Today, though, you get one. You can come, or you can get spanked. If you choose my hand on your ass over yours on your cock, there's a possibility that you might come anyway. If you do, I'll be very understanding, completely sympathetic—even pleased that you enjoyed it that much…and you'll still be punished for being greedy.”

Owen's hands circled Sterling's wrists, gripping tighter than the silk, and then he undid the looser of the knots and let the length of material fall free, whispering across Sterling's ass and thigh before it hung from his bound wrist, the end pooling on the floor. “Choose, please, Sterling.”

God, he wanted to come so badly. It felt like he'd been hard for weeks without release. But the thought of Owen's hand on his ass, hitting him repeatedly, his hips jerking with every strike, skin burning…

How the hell was he supposed to choose?

That must be what Owen meant by it not being a kindness, but when he thought about it for a few more seconds, he realized that Owen's hand touching him, spanking him, was better than coming when it would be his own fist jerking himself off.

“Spanking,” he whispered, but it came out so quietly that he wasn't sure Owen had been able to hear it. He lifted his face and repeated it, flushing. “Spank me. Please.”

He heard Owen exhale as if he'd been waiting, holding his breath, for Sterling's answer, and he wondered if it had been a test and not a choice. Sterling was still getting used to the idea that being submissive turned him on after years of fighting not to give in to anyone, so he couldn't be too surprised that Owen had doubts as well.

Owen wound the silk attached to Sterling's wrist around his hand and used it to lead Sterling over to the bed. “I could do this several ways, but there's a reason why over the knee has never gone out of fashion, and it's certainly one of my favorite positions to give a spanking.” He held up his hand. “And there's a lot to be said for using this, not a hairbrush or a paddle, though for a longer session it's not practical. I'm going to spank you twenty times; enough to leave a burn, but really just a taste. Twenty is nothing. A warm-up lap. You're to count in your head, and if I stop and ask you the number we've reached, I expect you to know, or I'll add another two. Any questions?”

Sterling's heart was beating overtime, and he wondered idly how many months of his life were being burned away via sheer adrenaline. Not that he cared.

Questions? The only question he had was, why was he still standing up when he could be draped over Owen's lap.

“I don't—no. No questions.” Being spanked twenty times didn't sound like enough, really, but he trusted Owen, who had sat down on the bed and was waiting. Owen shouldn't have to wait.

It was awkward, figuring out how to lie down as an adult across another man's lap. The only spanking Sterling had ever participated in was the playful kind, whacking another guy's clothed ass a couple of times. Now, with his torso lying across Owen's thighs, he felt less sure of himself again.

The first touch of Owen's hand, smoothing over his ass, made him forget everything but what was about to happen. His usual tension at being touched there didn't exist; he wanted to be touched when it was Owen doing it, and this wasn't being fucked, this was being spanked.

Owen put a hand palm down in the small of Sterling's back, anchoring him, and made some small adjustments to their positions, spreading his knees a little wider so that Sterling's dick was kissing air, unable to find anything to rub up against. His toes dug into the thick softness of the rug by Owen's bed, and his fingertips could touch the floor if he ever relaxed enough to spread his fingers, currently clenched into fists.

“Ready?” Owen said and waited for Sterling to croak out a yes before hitting him.

It was expected, and it still shocked him into a grunt of surprise, an openmouthed gasp. Owen hadn't made that first slap light at all; his hand had slammed down, fierce and hot, forcing pain and heat into Sterling's ass. Pain given without anger, without disappointment…pain that melted Sterling's defenses like ice in sunlight and left him open to Owen in a way that scared him even as he reveled in it.

He held 'one' in his head, the number grounding him with the promise of nineteen more just like that, and found himself arching up his hips, his legs spreading wider, begging silently for another.

The next blow was harder, as if the first one had been a test, and Sterling gave a little cry as the initial sting of it became a deeper burn. He had time to think 'two' before the third slap came, about the same as the second in force but, because his nerve endings were already flaring, more painful. He cried out again, remembered to count 'three,' then found his mind shutting down as the next few blows came, everything becoming about the pain and the moments in between. His ass was on fire, his throat roughened by the sounds that were escaping him, and his head was spinning.

“What number is that?” Owen asked gently while Sterling was still poised for the next sharp crack of pain, waiting for it.

It took him a few seconds to get his head back together enough to answer, and then he discovered he'd lost count. There'd been three, and then maybe another eight after that. “Um, eleven?” he guessed.

Owen gave a dry chuckle. “I'm glad I never had to teach you math. No. Twelve. Which means how many remaining?”

It was amazing how difficult it was to gather his thoughts together enough to do a sum a five-year-old could have managed easily. The spanking had shattered him, body and mind, splintered him into jagged pieces, not with each smarting, biting slap, but the struggle not to give in to the insistent clamor of his dick, demanding to come. If he'd been aroused before he'd gone over Owen's knee, he was beyond that now. He didn't have a reference point for how turned on he was; he'd never, ever felt this close to climaxing for so long. Never realized just what denial would do to him.

“Ten,” he said and wished, with a small, rebellious part of his brain, that he'd gotten that wrong too, so Owen would add more to the tally. He wanted more. It was torture, and he wasn't sure how long he could keep from coming, but the pain, sweet, hot, welcome, was worth it.

And, yeah, he was curious about what a punishment from Owen would be, and that edged his arousal up well into the danger zone just thinking about it.

“Ten,” Owen repeated, his voice stern now, sending a shiver down Sterling's spine. “Don't lose count again, Sterling. Focus, please.”

The next three landed on the same few square inches of skin and brought tears to his eyes because that went beyond what he could handle. He squirmed, sobbed, wetness blurring his vision, tears falling when he squeezed his eyes shut. Two more on that same spot and then Owen mercifully moved away, leaving that place throbbing.

That was five, which left five more. Sterling inhaled sharply with the next slap, and when he exhaled, he was crying, really crying. He fought it, trying to hold in the string of sobs, but he'd lost all control, and there was no way to wall off a tide that had been gathering for years. Through the struggle, he kept track of the blows with the one part of his brain that still seemed capable of counting, so that when Owen paused again to ask, “What number is that, Sterling?” he was able to say, accurately if in a broken voice, “Ni-nineteen.”

He was still crying, the salt of his tears stinging his eyes, and his cock hurt. Not as bad as when he'd hurt his shoulder—that had been spectacularly painful, leaving his vision washed out with bright white and his tooth chipped from clenching his jaw so hard. He wanted to come, he wanted to come now. He'd been waiting so long, and his ass had to be bright red now.

He wasn't going to come. He wouldn't. No matter how much it hurt not to, or how good it would feel to just let go, Sterling was stubborn, and he was not going to let himself come.

The last three blows weren't any less painful for the fact that they were reaching the end; Sterling breathed heavily through his open mouth, still crying, his lips dry and his dick wet-tipped. As the sharp pain of the last strike came, his cock gave a warning throb, and he couldn't wait to see what would happen as a result—he scrambled off Owen's lap without permission and clamped his hand down around the base of his dick, squeezing so hard to prevent himself from coming that he moaned. “Sorry,” he gasped. “I'm sorry, I had to—”

Owen didn't say anything, which was like a dash of cold water over Sterling, killing at least some of his arousal and reducing the now-now-now to a more plaintive hope of soon. No praise, no blame, just Owen staring at him, a slight frown creasing his forehead, his gray eyes narrowed. The silence stretched, and then Owen crooked his finger and beckoned Sterling closer again.

“Back over my knee,” he said, and there was no mistaking the fact that Owen wasn't all that happy with him, but when Sterling, after a frantic swipe at his wet face, obeyed, his body a scream of sensation, muscles protesting the return to a position they'd held for so long, Owen put a cool hand, his left hand, on what had to be scarlet skin, taking back some of the heat, and let his right hand, the palm feeling rough and hot, caress the back of Sterling's thigh. “I know why you did that, and I appreciate your efforts to obey me and not come when you didn't have permission, but never break position like that again.” Owen smiled; Sterling could hear it shape his voice. “Apart from that lapse, and your inability to count, you were a pleasure to spank. Thank you.”

Sterling felt a smile break out across his own face even as he lifted a hand to wipe away tears again. Part of him had been worried that there were things he was doing wrong without realizing it—it was a relief to be told that he hadn't screwed up too badly. He was trembling, his ass a constant pain and his cock a more bearable one now that the adrenaline had died down a bit.

“Thank you,” he said, meaning it more than any other thanks he'd ever given. His throat hurt, felt raw from a combination of cries and sobs, and his nose was stuffed up, and God, he was tired. He wanted to slide off Owen's lap, curl up on the floor, and go to sleep right there.

After a final pat to Sterling's ass, Owen took his hands away. “Lie facedown on the bed now. You need to get yourself together and just come down from the high.”

Moving from Owen's lap to the bed was more of a scramble than a graceful shift of position, but Sterling was past caring. He sprawled out on a cotton comforter washed to softness and felt the bed rock under him as Owen stood up. “I'll be back in a moment. I'm going to get you a Coke. You need the sugar.”

Before he left, he untied the silk from Sterling's wrist and folded it into a compact square, tucking it into Sterling's hand. Sterling clutched at it as if it'd been Owen's hand and felt the delicate fabric catch at the work-roughened skin on his fingers.

He felt so good. He didn't even care that he was still hard and had no idea when Owen might let him come—sure, his dick ached, and it probably would for hours, but every other part of him, even his sore ass, felt good. Relaxed, like all the tension he carried around with him all the time, to the point where he mostly didn't even realize it was there, had melted away, leaving his muscles heavy and lazy, slow.

Apparently his brain was willing to melt right along with the rest of him, because he was actually dozing when Owen came back. He wasn't sure if Owen had said something or if his return had just changed the room somehow—because it made sense that Owen's presence would change a room that much. “What? Sorry.” He pushed himself up onto his elbows, wincing as the tender skin of his ass protested.

“Lie still,” Owen said chidingly. He set down a tray on the night table. Sterling squinted at it without making much effort to see what was on it. “You can sit up and drink some Coke in a moment. I want to take the temperature of your backside down a few degrees.”

Even with that warning, the cold, rough washcloth that Owen draped across his ass felt icy. Sterling whimpered in shock, goose bumps breaking out over him. “Cold!”

“I know.” Owen blessedly didn't scrub away with the cloth, just let it leach the heat from Sterling's well-spanked skin and then repeated the process a few times before patting Sterling's ass dry with a towel that might have been as fluffy as a marshmallow but right then would have made a good substitute for sandpaper as far as Sterling was concerned.

“Some cream now,” Owen said, sounding distracted. For the first time Sterling found himself wondering if Owen was as turned on as he was. He hoped so; maybe fellow feeling would let Owen give him permission to jerk off.

The cream really helped, Owen's fingers spreading it quickly and carefully. When the aftercare was over, Sterling figured that he might just be able to bear wearing pants again—assuming he didn't have to zip them up.

“Stay on your stomach while the cream soaks in,” Owen said, “but prop yourself up on your elbows and have a drink. Then tell me how you're feeling and what that was like. I'm not looking for 'awesome' or 'cool'; I want to know what worked and what didn't.”

Taking the bottle Owen handed him, Sterling drank half a dozen swallows almost greedily, then made himself lower it because drinking too much all at once when you were really thirsty was never a good idea. The icy liquid soothed his throat and settled in his stomach, cold.

“I feel good,” he said. “Really relaxed. Like I didn't even know I was tense until I could feel what the opposite was like. Does that make sense?” Owen nodded, so he went on. “I mean, I'm still, you know, hard, so I guess I'm not totally relaxed. But I think what I liked was when my brain shut off and I was just focusing on my body and how it felt, waiting for the next jolt without thinking about it. It was kind of like instinct took over or something. That was when I lost track of the counting, though—I went too far away, I guess. Too much into my body.”

“That's not necessarily a bad thing,” Owen said thoughtfully. “Not at all. I'll always be counting, so to speak, watching to see how you're handling it. You'll learn to control losing control in time—and I know that sounds paradoxical, but you'll see what I mean.”

Sterling sipped at the Coke, taking it slower now. He was still euphoric, but Owen this close to him, sitting beside him on the bed, one hand hot and reddened, was making it impossible to forget about coming. He wanted that hand, the one that had spanked him, wrapped tight and merciless around his dick, wanted to come, shuddering, his ass tormented by the sheets as he writhed on them, spunk mixing in with the ripe musk of sweat and lust that filled the room.

“You want to come, don't you?” Owen said, a murmur, a whisper. He took the bottle from Sterling's unresisting hand and set it down on the tray and then pushed at Sterling's shoulder and rolled him to his back, with Sterling feeling weightless, as if he was floating in seawater. “Beg me for permission, Sterling. Make me feel how much you need it, want it.” He leaned over and kissed Sterling's parted lips, hard and sweet, like candy, the kiss over too soon. “Beg for mercy and see if I have any where you're concerned, and let me tell you now that I don't have much. You look so damn good suffering, your cock hard and wet, waiting for me to lick it, bite it, suck it—and I'll do all that in time, with you tied up, helpless, so you can't move, can't get deeper in my mouth, can't beg because I'll gag you—can't do anything but let me play with you…but that's not going to happen for such a long time, and you need it now, don't you? Tell me, Sterling; what do you need?”

“You,” Sterling whispered, because when it came right down to it that was the most basic of truths. With his ass hot and sore and his cock hard against his belly, of course he wanted to come, especially after days of waiting, but if he had to choose between Owen's touch—hand, mouth, tongue, it didn't matter—and coming, he'd choose Owen. “Want you to touch me. If I can come, that's better, but it's not what I really want.” He shifted his hips pleadingly, using his body to speak for him but knowing that wouldn't be enough.

Owen wanted him to beg.

“Please. Please touch me, Owen. I've been wanting it for so long, wanting you.” This was more difficult than he'd thought it would be, the words thick over his tongue, almost choking him. He didn't beg, refused to. He'd have gone to work for minimum wage with nothing more than a high school education—private school though it had been—rather than ask his father to pay for his college education. And this, being allowed to come, was a much smaller thing, something he could have gone much longer without, surely. Sterling found himself with tears in his eyes again, but now they were tears of shame at how low he'd sunk. If he begged and Owen still said no… “Please, Owen. I need to come. Need to come for you, need to show you. I want you to see.”

There was nothing more intimate than having someone watch you come, but Sterling wanted it. Wanted Owen's eyes on him, Owen's hand stroking his dick. He was so close just thinking about it.

“I need it. Need you to let me. Need—please, Owen. Please.”

“You're struggling so much with this, aren't you?” Owen said, still in that cool murmur. “You can't understand why you need all this so much, just that you do. Like air, like water.” He put his right hand on Sterling's chest and drew it down slowly until it was so close to where Sterling needed it that Sterling only had to move an inch up the bed to get it, but he didn't. “And you don't let that part of you that wants to fight me win. You won't let it.” Owen's hand moved to cup Sterling's face, cradling his cheek. “Come for me, then. Use your hands. I want to see you work yourself; I want to see you come, here, lying on my bed.”

Sterling made a muffled sound, desperate now that he'd been given permission, and got one hand around his cock and the other cupping his balls. It hardly took any time at all—three clumsy strokes and he was coming in long, powerful waves that robbed him of breath, aware of Owen's palm against his jaw as his release shook him like a rag doll, heedless of anything but Owen's touch grounding him, Owen's face watching him.

It was the strongest orgasm he could remember; it left him gasping, heart beating staccato in his chest and the rest of him utterly boneless, a thought which made him laugh a little, helplessly, at its appropriateness. Not completely appropriate, though, because he was still hard, and even as he lay there his cock gave another lazy pulse.

“Thank you.” It was just a whisper, but he thought that the look that must have been on his face probably made up for it. He wanted to put his arms around Owen and be held, to use Owen's shoulder as a pillow and spend the night, but he had no idea if that was in the cards. He was such a novice. He didn't know how any of this worked.

Owen sighed, a long, heartfelt exhalation, and put his hand where Sterling's had been, a loose clasp that could've gotten Sterling back to full hardness again without Owen needing to do more than that. He spread his legs a little, not caring how blatant the invitation was, and Owen smiled, the cage of his hand opening. “You're welcome.”

He cleaned Sterling's stomach with the damp washcloth and then wiped his hands and tossed it back onto the tray, narrowly missing the small bowl of water. “It's not that late, but you have an early class tomorrow; I want you to get plenty of sleep. If I think that this—any of it—is affecting your work, it's going to stop.” He hesitated, his gaze on Sterling, whose face must have reflected some of the hurt he felt at the abrupt change from intimate to brusque. “Does that make you feel as if I'm pulling back after getting close? It isn't like that. It's just more of what we just did, expressed another way. Don't look so crushed.” Owen nudged Sterling's leg with his knee. “Move over.”

Sterling shifted across the bed and gave Owen enough room to lie beside him. He wasn't sure what Owen wanted him to do—and he really wished that Owen was naked too—but Owen reached for him and drew him closer, turning so that they lay side by side, their arms around each other.

It was…nice. Sterling was comfortable, and he wasn't hard anymore (which was a relief), and he was tired. He couldn't really let himself relax all the way, though, because he didn't want to fall half asleep only to be roused and sent on his way. His dorm room with its white walls and too-thin mattress seemed a world away, and he preferred this one.

“Can I—stay here? Spend the night, I mean?” he asked.

“I'm not sure that's a good idea,” Owen said dubiously. “You've got that nine o'clock class, and you'd need to get up early. I can't exactly give you a ride to your dorm.” As he said it, his arm tightened around Sterling's shoulder, sending a different message, but a moment later, he pulled away. “It's not a good idea,” he repeated.

Begging had worked before—maybe it would work now. “Please?” Sterling said. “I'll be good and get up early and walk back to campus. It's not that far.” It was, actually, but he could do it. It'd be worth it for a chance to sleep in Owen's bed.

“Why do you want to?” Owen asked, sounding genuinely puzzled. “This isn't—we're not dating, you know. You wanted me to help you—train you—and I agreed, but we barely know each other beyond that.” He pushed Sterling's hair back where it fell over his forehead, the gesture automatic, proprietary. “Or do you think you'll be able to persuade me to do more than sleep with you?”

Maybe they weren't dating, but Sterling knew, deep down, that he wanted them to be. This wasn't just training to him—it had already become something much more, and if it took a while for Owen to realize that too, well, he'd just be patient until that happened.

He was pretty sure that mentioning it now wouldn't go over very well, though.

“I'd do anything for you,” he said. “If you don't want…that, that's okay, but I'd suck you off however you wanted, or you could rub yourself off on me, or…whatever. Or not. I still want to stay. I feel…I don't know, like myself here. With you.” He searched Owen's eyes, hoping for the answer he wanted but resigned to quit here if he didn't get it.

“My first sub, Michael, used to sleep with me,” Owen said, which came out of nowhere as far as Sterling was concerned and left him dealing with yet another sharp pang of envy for Michael. “And I suppose over the years others have from time to time, but mostly they just…go home afterward, or the session takes place somewhere like the club.” He shrugged. “Stay if you want to, but don't make me have to explain the definition of no sex in the middle of the night, please.”

“Okay,” Sterling said. “Thank you. I won't. I'd rather sleep here with you and not have sex than go back to the dorm and not have sex alone.” He grinned a little bit. “Besides, I already know my roommate snores. You might not.”

“And you might,” Owen said with a tug at a lock of Sterling's hair, not hard enough to hurt. “In which case, remind me to show you where the spare room is.”

Sterling's grin widened; then he yawned. He was so tired—he felt like he could sleep for twenty-four hours at least. “I don't snore, and any of the guys I've slept with would tell you I don't kick in my sleep, either. Don't worry.”

Owen got up and stripped down to his boxer shorts—putting his clothes in the laundry hamper, Sterling noted, because apparently he was a neat freak—and went away to the bathroom to do whatever before coming back and getting into bed again.

Carefully, Sterling hitched himself a little closer to Owen, who was warm and smelled good, and closed his eyes, sure that he was going to get the best night's sleep ever. “Good night,” he said.

“Good night,” Owen said and patted his hair.

Chapter Six

Sterling woke in a mood that Owen couldn't help but feel was a little on the smug side. No wonder, since he'd gotten his way again. They'd both woken during the night, Owen roused from an uneasy dream when Sterling had switched on the light in the bathroom off the bedroom. He would have pointed out that the bathroom had a door that closed, but when Sterling had come back to bed, he clearly hadn't been awake enough to be capable of talking, falling asleep again within moments.

Owen had lain beside him for a while, his cock a resentful ache. Denial was one thing, but this was killing him. He could take care of himself, and he would, but it was going to be a long four months. It didn't matter; that was one stipulation he refused to break, bend, or change. Sterling needed to learn that there were limits, rules. Needed to submit to them as willingly as he submitted to Owen's hands and mouth on him.

As he lay wakeful in the dim room, he thought ahead to the morning. They'd both need to wake early to shower and eat; Sterling wasn't the only one with a class at the start of the day. Owen liked those classes; it let him see who was serious enough about the subject to put in an appearance, and once the students had woken up, the discussion was usually lively.

They'd both be in a rush, but that didn't mean that Owen couldn't indulge himself just a little…

He allowed Sterling to take the first shower and dug out a spare toothbrush for him to use. He had a battery-operated one, but his dentist always handed him a complimentary one after each checkup, and it was easier to tuck it into his pocket than refuse. He had half a dozen in assorted colors; Sterling got a cherry red one.

“I'm going to start breakfast,” Owen said before he left the bathroom, resisting the urge to put his hand on Sterling's ass and watch him shiver. It was shadowed faintly with tiny bruises, barely noticeable, the redness all but gone. “I can shower after you leave. Hungry?”

“Starved,” Sterling said apologetically. “Last night was intense. I think I burned a lot of calories.” Of course, the boy—it was best that Owen continue to think of him as a boy, really—was probably still growing, and Owen remembered what it had been like to be hungry at that age, feeling capable of eating a whole large pizza on his own and not being full.

He allowed himself a lingering look at Sterling's bare body as Sterling stood in front of the mirror toweling his hair, since it meant he could look without Sterling realizing that he was being watched. Sterling had wide shoulders that would likely fill out some more over the next couple of years and a long torso that narrowed to a slender waist. Owen remembered what the sensitive skin over Sterling's lower belly had felt like against his fingers and palm—so soft, almost silken.

Sterling's cock was flaccid, but Owen's hands still itched to touch it, to feel it swell in his grip and stroke it to hardness.

Then Sterling moved the towel lower to dry off his chest, and Owen beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.

The coffeemaker was on a timer, and the pot was already half full. Owen rarely had more than toast or cereal in the morning and didn't consider himself more than a passable cook, but breakfast was easy. He had frozen hash browns that only took ten minutes in the oven, and as they cooked, he set bacon and mildly spicy sausages sizzling in a frying pan. Toast, juice, and a bowl of scrambled eggs made in the microwave rounded off the breakfast, and Sterling appeared in time to be given the task of setting the table and pouring out juice and coffee.

Very domestic, very middle America…but Owen didn't, and never would, fit into that niche, and from what he'd seen, neither would Sterling.

It was only six thirty, and outside the September sunrise was chasing away the darkness, mist rising from earth that still held summer's warmth, though the leaves were beginning to turn, their bright green crisped with yellow and orange. Inside the kitchen, the air was redolent with the aroma of cooking, sharpening Owen's appetite and making Sterling look longingly at the oven.

“How many classes do you have today?” Sterling asked, looking in a second drawer until he found the teaspoons, which he'd left out while setting the table until he realized they'd need them for their coffee. Or he would, at least—Owen took his black and unsweetened.

“Hmm? Oh…two this morning, an appointment with a student after lunch, and then a meeting with the rest of my department that will probably drag on until three. Pretty quiet, really, unlike my Thursdays; some genius in admin decided it'd be fun to schedule me three consecutive classes in a row.”

Sterling sipped at his juice, standing next to the table. “I'll bet your students don't complain if you're late.”

“I'm sure they wouldn't,” Owen said dryly, remembering more than one occasion when Sterling had slouched into his class late with an excuse only one step away from “the dog ate my homework” level of credibility. The third time it'd happened, he'd told Sterling to leave and given the class a pop quiz, telling the students that anyone whose grade fell below seventy-five would have to write a 10,000-word essay before the next class. The quiz had been so easy that only two other students besides Sterling had to write the essay—and whereas theirs had been poorly written and padded out, Sterling's had been a pleasure to read, not that Owen had told him that. “But I'm never late. Well—very rarely.”

He divided the food, arranging it on warmed plates, and carried the plates over to the table. “Sit down and cut your food into bite-size pieces, but don't start eating,” he said casually.

Time to play…

Sterling looked startled, his eyes going just a little bit wider than normal, and his lips parting for a few seconds before he swallowed, nodded, and sat down. He looked so delicious when he was surprised that it made Owen wish he could surprise him all the time, slip his cock between willing lips and fuck himself deep into Sterling's mouth and throat while staring into dark, blown-wide pupils.

Owen pulled back to the here and now determinedly and took a bite of his own breakfast while he watched Sterling cut his food into a plateful of manageable pieces, occasionally glancing up at him as if trying to figure out what Owen was thinking.

He'd know soon enough.

Sterling set his knife and fork down with a clatter that Owen guessed was nerves and cleared his throat. “Okay, what now?”

“No,” Owen said and took a sip of juice, tartly sweet. “It's not necessary to address me when I haven't asked you a question; I can see that you've completed the task I set you, and it's for me to set the pace, not you. Or do we have to go running again to reinforce that lesson?”

If Sterling wanted to be trained, Owen was going to cram as much as he could into the hours they had—but even if they'd met during the summer vacation, with endless, empty days to fill, he would still have gotten a kick out of shortening Sterling's leash and bringing his exuberant puppy to heel. He made a mental note to work a tightly rolled newspaper into a scene and use it to administer some well-placed smacks if Sterling failed to deliver what was required of him.

A tingle of pure anticipation raced over him. He'd spent too long going through the motions with subs whose obedience was automatic, unthinking, a means to an end. Sterling's rough edges and flashes of rebellion were the perfect antidote to the boredom he'd been feeling.

“No,” Sterling said, then, as if he thought it was expected of him, added a grudging, “Sir.” He sat with his wrists on the table, eyes on his plate, unmoving, waiting for instruction.

Owen ate a few more bites of food casually, enjoying the tension in Sterling's frame as a minute and then another passed. The room was very quiet except for the hum of the refrigerator and the small noises from Owen's cutlery as he picked up bites of food. Finally, thinking that enough time had passed, he gestured at the floor to his left. “On your knees, please.”

The slightest pause—not long enough to complain about, really—and Sterling pushed back his chair and knelt beside Owen's instead. He didn't say anything, kept his head bowed, but he also didn't cross his wrists behind his back the way he should have, by now, remembered to.

“Where should your hands be?” Owen inquired mildly. He glanced at the clock on the wall as Sterling flushed and jerked his hands back with a complete lack of grace. “I think for you to be in class on time, you'll need to leave in fifteen minutes. Allowing you a few moments to get your shoes and coat on and say good-bye properly, that leaves, hmm, let's say ten minutes to eat. I'm going to take a minute off for your inability to remember a very basic instruction.”

He turned his attention back to his food, each bite spiced with a keen awareness of just how very much Sterling was hating this—and him—even though Owen was certain that the boy was half-hard already. Hating it didn't mean that it wasn't turning Sterling on at the same time.

After a final sip of coffee, he reached over the table and drew Sterling's plate to him, studying its contents. Some sausage first, maybe. It should have cooled enough to be handled comfortably—one, if far from the only, reason he'd made Sterling wait to eat.

“Open your mouth,” he said casually. God, that sulky pout was familiar. How had he gotten through a year of teaching Sterling without a single fantasy of bending him over a desk and fucking the insolence out of him, that strong body pliant and yielding, sweat-dappled back arched as Sterling begged for more?

Sterling's gaze flickered up to meet his, defiant, but when he saw that Owen wasn't angry, the look faded to one of mild confusion. He opened his mouth and let Owen feed him a bite of sausage, gripping it with his teeth so that Owen could slide the fork free and then chewing slowly. Very slowly, actually, even though he had to be hungry and he'd already been told his time was limited.

Owen always did love a sub with enough of a spark to test him; and he could see plainly, with Sterling's hands behind his back and not blocking his view, that Sterling indeed had an erection.

Hiding a smile, Owen fed the boy a bite of scrambled egg, then held a corner of toast, already grown cold, in front of his mouth. This time Sterling looked up at him with hopeful eyes, licking his lips before he took a crunching bite with his prep-school-straight teeth.

“How do you like my cooking?” Owen said, turning the toast so that a particularly buttery bite was closest to Sterling's mouth, counting on manners instilled in childhood to prevent Sterling from answering before he'd swallowed or taking another bite until he'd finished speaking.

As expected, Sterling finished chewing and swallowed before answering. “I love it,” he said, his voice warm and laced with appreciation. It was clear that his earlier pique at the situation had faded.

Owen snorted and let Sterling have another bite of toast. “Diplomatic and polite, but I don't think the kitchen is where I shine.” He held Sterling's coffee mug to his lips and allowed him a few swallows before continuing to feed Sterling bite by bite. “I won't be able to see you for a few days, but that doesn't mean that your training stops. There's a lot that you can do by yourself.”

“There is?” Sterling sounded surprised at the idea, though not the sort of surprised that Owen had so admired earlier. Then disappointment set in. “A few days? Can't you fit in a couple of hours somewhere? I don't want to—”

Owen cleared his throat pointedly, and Sterling stopped talking. “If you want to continue being seen by me, you won't make a fuss when I'm too busy. People who ask for more than I'm willing to give end up with nothing.”

This seemed to sink in, and Sterling nodded. “I'm sorry. You said there are things I can do by myself? What are they? Please.”

“I know that you share a room; do you ever have it to yourself?”

Sterling nodded. “Brian's seeing this town girl with her own place; he sleeps over there three or four nights a week.”

“Good. I want you to work on getting from standing to kneeling without looking like a puppet with its strings cut and to practice holding the position you're in now until it's second nature.”

Sterling moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. “Yes, Owen.” The very proper response was slightly spoiled by the self-conscious expression that accompanied it, but Owen let it go. It would come more naturally very quickly.

“I'm also going to ask you to start experimenting a little and getting past your issue with being fucked.”

That comment produced a worried look, but Sterling didn't say anything, just waited and then ate the bite of egg that Owen fed him.

He didn't need to say anything; Owen was an expert at reading body language and would have been able to see the tension Sterling was broadcasting even if he hadn't already anticipated the reaction. “I'm going to give you some lube, and by the next time we're together, I'll expect to be able to slide a finger into your ass without you tensing up the way you are now.” He gave Sterling a pointed look, and Sterling deliberately dropped his shoulders without actually relaxing at all; it was a valiant, if in vain, attempt to fool Owen. “If you're turned on and not being a drama queen about the whole thing, it doesn't hurt at all.”

Sterling bit his lower lip hard enough to turn it white around his teeth and nodded, but it was clear he had serious doubts.

“Tell me what you're thinking,” Owen said.

“That I don't know if I can do it,” Sterling said softly, eyes down.

Sighing, Owen set down the fork and took Sterling's chin in his hand, lifting Sterling's face until their eyes met. “You can, and you will, because I've told you to. Are we clear?”

“Yes, Owen.”

That still didn't sound convincing. “Choose a time when you'll be safe from interruptions. Lock the door. Take a long shower or a bath to relax. Jerk off—yes, for this you're allowed to come—and just incorporate it into what you're doing.” That sounded a little bald, but it wasn't easy to dress it up. Moved by sympathy tinged with mild impatience, Owen added, “If you're having real problems, we can discuss it Friday night. I usually order in some Chinese or pizza; you're welcome to join me for supper around seven.”

He usually went to the club too, but he wasn't ready to take Sterling back there yet.

Sterling did seem to relax some then, maybe at the reassurance that their next meeting had a specific date and time rather than a nebulous 'soon' that might mean it would never happen. Owen made a mental note of this; it was always good to know what would result in emotional unbalance in a sub whether one wanted to cause it or avoid it.

“And for as long as we continue this, I expect you to maintain your grades,” Owen said, remembering that he'd meant to mention it earlier. “They don't have to be perfect, but I'd like them to be as close as possible. Since you've made such a point to tell me how intelligent you are, it shouldn't be a problem.”

“It won't be,” Sterling said, then was quiet as Owen held the coffee cup to his lips and let him finish the beverage.

Walking Sterling to the door to send him on his way wasn't easy. Part of Owen wanted to take him back to bed and keep him there for the day, warm between rumpled sheets, waiting for Owen's touch. Self-discipline learned over the years kept him from saying the words that would have sent Sterling there. They both needed to be on campus working.

God, he really hoped that their paths didn't cross over the next few days; he was confident of his own ability to walk on by, giving nothing away, but would Sterling have that much control of his expression?

At the door, he slipped a small bottle of lube into Sterling's pocket and then kissed him, a slow, unhurried kiss that brought his erection to full hardness. If it made him late, he was going to have to take time out to jerk off in the shower. Sterling tasted of coffee and toothpaste, his lips moving against Owen's with the eagerness that caught at Owen's heart just a little.

Friday seemed like a long time to wait for another kiss.

* * * * *

It had been more than two weeks since they'd started their relationship (which Sterling was pretty sure Owen wouldn't refer to as a relationship, but he sure as hell did, if only in his head), and Sterling had perfected kneeling in the position Owen favored, hands crossed behind his back, sometimes for as long as three hours.

The first thing Sterling did after Owen let him in was go to the closet, where he took off his jacket, shirt, shoes, and socks. Then he went and knelt beside Owen's favorite chair—Owen murmured his approval at his graceful, now-practiced ability to get from standing to kneeling, which made Sterling instantly hard, although that might have happened anyway just from getting into position.

He'd learned, to his surprise, to like playing with his ass. Sure, it had taken hours of careful penetration on his own, sometimes in the shower in the middle of the day when everyone else was at class so no one on his dorm floor would complain about him using up all the water. And sometimes late at night when Brian had gone off to stay at his girlfriend's place, under the covers just to be on the safe side, enough lube coating his fingers that it left huge wet spots on his sheets.

The first time he'd tried it, he'd done as Owen advised—jerked off beforehand so he'd be nice and relaxed, then given himself permission to just touch his asshole, not trying to push inside at all. Somehow, knowing that he didn't have to take it any farther had made him bold, and fifteen minutes later he had his forefinger up to the first knuckle thrust inside, and it didn't hurt. In fact, it felt fucking fantastic, and when he was fully hard again just from the sensation of his own finger in his ass, he wondered, amazed, why he'd waited so long to find this out.

It was stupid because he'd fucked plenty of guys and they'd all seemed to enjoy it a hell of a lot, and he knew they hadn't been faking it.

Of course, having Owen's fingers in there seemed like a more complicated proposition, and Sterling knew that tonight Owen intended to do it. They'd had a long conversation about it the night before, with Sterling describing in embarrassing detail what he'd managed so far on his own, and Owen had said he was ready. And sometimes being told whether he was ready or not was such a relief that Sterling would have accepted just about anything Owen wanted to do.

“You're tense,” Owen said now, one hand settling on the back of Sterling's neck.

“Yes, Owen.” Such a simple answer.

“I told you that you were ready for this,” Owen reminded him. “If you prove me wrong, it won't be the end of the world, but I hope that you don't.” He smiled, his thumb stroking shivers into Sterling, running up and down the skin behind Sterling's ear. “I want to hear the sounds you make when I touch you there for the first time. I want to see your face when you're begging me to use two fingers, not one. And you will.”

Before Sterling could do more than swallow hard, filled with a mixture of dread and anticipation, Owen patted his cheek and added casually, “I'm going to take you upstairs and spank you, I think. You need to relax and remember that you trust me, and that's as good a way to remind you as any.”

Sterling wasn't inclined to argue with him on that count. Being spanked left him filled with a warm euphoria, intensely aware of every part of his body. That would wear off and leave him concentrating pretty much just on his burning, throbbing ass, which wasn't always as much fun, but the discomfort was worth it.

By the time Owen had finished with him, Sterling was gasping, his eyes wet with tears from the final flurry of slaps, but he'd been begging Owen for more until he'd lost the ability to be coherent and his dick was rigid, distracting him from the heat radiating off his backside.

“You took that so well,” Owen said quietly, his hand resting lightly on the skin he'd slapped scarlet. “You respond to me from the very first slap, do you know that? I've never had anyone… It's like you're primed for it because you want it so much. I could get you to this point emotionally with half a dozen slaps, I think, but don't worry, I wouldn't ever stop there. You need the pain as well, and I need to give it to you.”

Thinking that Owen was right—that he did need the pain, and that this specific contact was just what he'd needed to remind him how much he trusted Owen—Sterling nodded but didn't otherwise move. He wanted to let Owen control all of this, to take away the worry of what he was supposed to do next or whether it would really be the right thing. Owen would tell him what to do, and he'd do it. It was so beautifully simple.

The click of a bottle top being popped open broke through the buzz in Sterling's ears. He'd seen Owen drop the lube casually onto the bed before sitting on it and gesturing Sterling over his lap, but he'd forgotten about it.

Almost forgotten what the point of the evening was.

“I know your safe words, and so do you,” Owen said, “but this isn't a normal scene; use them by all means, but all that you have to do to get me to stop is to say just that. Which wouldn't work when I was spanking you unless I felt that you'd had enough, just so that we're clear.”

The easy flow of murmured words and the ability Owen had to command Sterling's full attention when he spoke meant that the first touch of cool, slippery fingers, tracing the cleft of Sterling's ass, was a shock.

Okay, he told himself silently. He could do this. He'd been doing it, and he knew it felt good—amazingly good—to have a finger in his ass, pressing against his swollen prostate. He'd done this lots of times, and if it felt good when he did it, just imagine how it would feel when it was Owen. And damned if thinking Owen's name didn't make his cock give an eager jolt, and then a second when Owen's slick fingertip rubbed across the incredibly sensitive skin of his asshole.

Sterling moaned softly as Owen did it again, giving himself permission to be vocal because he knew it would tell Owen what he needed to know—that Sterling was enjoying this, wasn't too tense. Of course, Owen could always tell that anyway.

God, it felt fantastic, having Owen touch him there. It was so intimate.

More lube, the liquid warmer than Sterling had expected, as if Owen had been holding the bottle in his hand, lessening even that small distraction. It trickled over his hole and down, coating the skin so that when the tip of Owen's finger pushed inside him, it took the liquid with it, easing the way.

Owen wasn't hesitant or cautious—Sterling wanted to thank him for that, but he couldn't make words form right then. The slow, gentle thrust of Owen's finger felt assured, as if Owen had done this a hundred times before—which of course, he had—and Sterling sighed out a long breath of relief.

“Tell me what you're feeling,” Owen said.

“Relieved,” Sterling said immediately—he'd learned there was no point in fighting Owen on this; it was better just to talk when told to do so. Even when it was awkward, which this definitely was, with Owen's finger sliding slowly in and out of his ass. “Oh God, that's so—that feels good.”

“It's supposed to,” Owen said with just a suspicion of a chuckle in his voice. Fine, Sterling was an idiot; he got it. The waves of sensation washing through him, making him want to tighten possessively around Owen's finger and at the same time somehow get it deeper, were intense enough to distract him from thoughts of how much time he'd wasted, though.

“Are you ready for more?” Owen asked. “Two fingers aren't as comfortable as a plug, but you should be able to take them.”

“Yes,” he said, so quickly that it was almost embarrassing. He was worried that it would be too much, but he was also eager for the pleasure and to prove to Owen that he could take it, that he could and would take anything that Owen wanted to dish out. Owen didn't keep him waiting, and yes, he could take two fingers—oh God, yes, he could. The shape Owen's fingers made inside him was new, but he wanted to learn it by heart, and each slow, careful thrust was creating a burn that was half physical and half emotional. He was panting now, gulping for air, pushing back to meet each stroke, sweat prickling down his back. He was dangerously close to coming, and Owen hadn't said that he could—

“Stop,” Sterling gasped, and Owen proved his trustworthiness by freezing instantly. “Just—wait. It's good, I just—it's too good. God.” An involuntary shiver went through him, his ass clenching around Owen's knuckles, and a reason for his fears about this act formed itself inside his head, sharp and clear. This was the kind of man his father hadn't wanted him to be, bent over for another man, being fucked the way his father thought only a woman should be.

Sterling shuddered and moaned, his cock half limp now in response to the sick twist in his gut.

“Don't move,” he whispered, knowing that Owen wouldn't. “Please. I just need a minute.”Sterling wasn't counting seconds, but it seemed like a lot more than sixty passed before he could focus on the truth—that he wanted to be here, that he'd chosen this, chosen Owen to be the man doing this to him. In that sense, he was in control. Owen was silent, unmoving, just as Sterling had told him to be.

Owen might not see it that way, but Sterling didn't plan to share that particular thought with the man, not now, anyway.

He concentrated on the incredible frisson of pleasure he was getting just from having his asshole stretched and filled this way, coaxing his erection back to life by sheer willpower. His father wasn't going to win this battle.

“Ready now?” Owen asked, his voice soft, undemanding, so perfectly in tune with Sterling that it was all the reassurance he needed to nod.

When Owen started to move his hand again, wide fingers pushing wetly into Sterling with slow, even pressure, Sterling let himself moan and enjoy it, immerse himself in it. This was who he was, and there was no shame in taking pleasure in whatever brought him pleasure. He wasn't sure he believed in God, but even if he did, he wouldn't have believed in a God that thought sex was a sin, no matter who one's partner was.

Inside, Owen crooked his fingers, and the pressure against his prostate was enough to make Sterling moan again, more deeply this time. “This is so—Owen, it's so good. Please don't stop.”

“You're doing so well,” Owen said, his husky voice like another touch on Sterling's body. “I want you to show me how much you like this, though. Come for me, Sterling. Let yourself go. I've got you.”

As incredible as it felt, it was hard to come. Sterling wanted to, but letting himself surrender completely, to take that last step when he'd avoided this for so long, was more of a challenge than he'd expected. For long minutes he hovered on the edge of orgasm, eyes tightly shut, hips working with the rhythm of Owen's hand, trying to get there.

And then, like a sharp slap, it hit him—he didn't have to try, and, in fact, he needed to stop trying. As soon as he realized that, it happened; his balls tightened, his ass tightened, and he came so fast that a surprised cry escaped his lips. He jerked and gasped, the rush of pleasure hot and more intense than anything he'd ever felt, and Owen's fingers were inside him, and by the time it was over he felt like he'd run a couple of marathons and followed it up with a fourteen-inning baseball game.

“I can move,” he offered finally, slurring his words more than a little.

“Whenever you're ready,” Owen replied easily and slid his fingers out, leaving Sterling with a sense of loss and an empty, throbbing sensation that took a while to fade.

* * * * *

Owen had been incredibly gentle and slow about it that first night—possibly even more gentle and slow than Sterling had been himself, but it had just made Sterling's feelings for him deepen. Owen was the one in charge; he easily could have been rough and impatient with Sterling. But Sterling trusted him, and he hadn't done anything to make Sterling regret that.

Which meant that he was really, really frustrated that Owen wouldn't fuck him.

“I said four months,” Owen had snapped the last time Sterling had brought it up. “What or who gave you the impression that part of a sub's duty is to nag and argue with his Dom?”

Sterling had ducked his head and accepted that rebuke then, but tonight he was determined to make Owen see sense. When the guy was spanking him, tying him up, finger fucking him and using a variety of plugs and dildos to get Sterling to the point of sobbing with the need to come, actual tears trickling wet and warm down his face, his breathing shot to hell, this insistence that they couldn't have sex seemed worn ragged around the edges.

Everything that Owen did was sexy; he could get Sterling's dick twitching with a word, a look—and Sterling was starting to fantasize about getting Owen's dick in his mouth. He'd shared enough showers with Owen to know what it looked like when it was full and thick, beaded with water, slicked with soap, and he wanted to taste it—God, he wanted to fall to his knees and fucking worship it, but Owen wouldn't let him.

He held his position and tried to keep his breathing even and quiet as Owen turned a page of the book he was reading, a glass of single malt within reach. Doing this was something that had taken him a while to get used to; it had felt too much like being ignored, and he'd been restless, willing to risk Owen's annoyance if it got him some attention.

What it had gotten him when he'd sighed loudly for the third time, rocking to a more comfortable position, was an order to get dressed and Owen's hand on the small of his back, propelling him firmly out the front door.

He'd learned to love it, though, after he'd begged, with a penitence that after four days without seeing Owen was genuine, to be allowed to try again. Slowly, as he knelt by Owen's side, he'd come to realize that he was as important a part of the picture as the book, the drink, and the flickering fire. More, he got to watch Owen, if he was careful, and when he'd slid into a state of waiting without urgency, he'd gotten a hand caressing his hair and face and a smile from Owen that was grateful as well as appreciative.

Tonight he waited for that light touch before speaking, knowing that this was Owen at his most mellow.

When it came, he breathed in slowly, determined to keep his voice as calm and reasonable as he could. “Owen, can we talk about something, please?”

Owen didn't answer right away, but Sterling was careful not to assume anything based on that. He waited, patient, until Owen finished the page he'd been reading, put a slip of paper between the pages to mark his place, and set the book aside. “What did you want to talk about?” Owen asked.

“If you'd consider making an exception to your rule about my age,” Sterling said. He'd chosen the words with care, not wanting the conversation to deteriorate before it had even started because of the way he put it. “Please hear me out. I know you must have your reasons, but I'm having a hard time understanding them. I'm over the age of eighteen, which is the legal age of consent in every state in this nation, and I know what I want. You aren't coercing me—if anything, I'm the one trying to convince you. But I want—I need to take this further.”

“You still don't understand why I'm insisting on this, do you?” Owen gestured him up with an annoyed flick of his fingers. “Get dressed and sit down over there.”

When Owen was irritated, Sterling got even harder, an automatic response. He stood up smoothly and moved to put on his clothes. Being told to do so wasn't a good sign, he didn't think, but at least it meant that Owen was taking him seriously. He hoped.

Sterling pulled his T-shirt over his head and sat down in the other chair. “I want you to know I'm not asking to piss you off, and I'm not trying to rush you or anything. God knows before school started if someone had told me I'd be begging to be fucked up the ass I'd have laughed so hard I'd have hurt myself.” He offered Owen a small smile, hoping for an answering one to reassure him.

He was disappointed. If anything, Owen looked as if he was on the edge of losing his temper, his lips tight and a faint flush rising in his face. After a moment, Owen opened his mouth and chipped off an icy, “Thank you for that eloquent assurance that you've overcome at least one of your shortcomings. Now maybe you can work on some of the others. Like obeying the single rule you agreed to when this started without endless complaints, nagging, whining, and attempts to cajole me into changing my mind. Because quite frankly, you're boring me.”

Sterling felt like he'd just had a glass of cold water dashed into his face. His stomach was churning because he knew that Owen got bored with subs fast, and somehow he'd managed to convince himself that things would be different with him, that he wouldn't be boring. “I'm not whining,” he protested. “And I don't see what part of what you just said is an explanation, or how it's supposed to help me understand the reason behind the rule. You know I want to follow the rules. I want to do this right. I just need to get it.”

“Some Doms would say that all you needed was to do as you were told, without question, once I'd earned your trust,” Owen said tightly. “Since I've always encouraged you to ask questions, you can probably tell it's not a view I share, but there's some truth in it. I choose my subs for their intelligence, not their pretty little asses and smiles, and I like to think that they've got the brains to work some things out for themselves.”

They were facing each other across the room, and Sterling wanted to be back where he'd been, kneeling naked within reach of Owen's hand, so much so that it was hard to stay in his chair.

“So tell me, Sterling, can you think of any reason why I'm being so very fucking unreasonable?”

“No, but you haven't explained yourself,” Sterling said. He should shut up, he knew that, apologize and beg for forgiveness and assure Owen he'd never bring it up again, but damn it, he was an adult and this was a relationship and he had a say. “I just want to understand. Why is it so important?” This was a mistake, a terrible mistake. He'd fucked everything up by not keeping quiet when he should have, and now he was in over his head and it was too late.

Owen got to his feet, words spilling out, forceful and bitter. “Because beyond the obvious rules to keep you safe, the worst thing a Dom can do is waver, be indecisive, second-guess himself. Because that single stipulation, that I admit I came up with more in an attempt to get you to rethink your pursuit than because I had a real objection to fucking you, is the basis of our arrangement. Because you weren't ready to get fucked, remember? Because you were, and are, a student at the college where I work. Because there's maybe more of the masochist in me than I realized.” He took a deep breath, and his voice dropped to a conversational tone again, though his hands, before he shoved them into the pockets of his jeans, were shaking. “Did none of that occur to you? Really? I guess you're still as spoiled as the boy who came up to me moments after an emotional scene and demanded that I set aside my disappointment over failing to get the best from my sub to dance to his tune.”

Owen walked over to him, and Sterling winced as his chin was gripped and forced upward, the first rough touch he'd ever had from that hand. It had spanked him, fastened ropes and cuffs to his wrists and ankles, held a paddle that stung and bruised his ass, but this was the first time it had hurt him. “I don't want to dance to it anymore.”

“Owen…” Sterling looked up at him helplessly, wishing he could take all of this back. A couple more months of waiting and he could have everything, but he'd had to push and ask for more, had to be impatient. Damn it.

As angry at himself as he was at Owen, he stood up, shoved Owen's hand away from his face and stood toe to toe with him, eyes blazing. He didn't say anything at first, just glared at the man he'd thought would be his.

“You know what? Fine. I don't care. You think I need this? You're wrong. And for the record, I'm not your student anymore, and if you think there aren't hundreds and thousands of couples out there who started from some kind of place where they maybe shouldn't have been together, you're crazy. No one cares what we do!”

“If you can't respect my wishes in this—if you can't wait—” Owen compressed his lips to a thin line, visibly struggling for a calm that Sterling had thought ran bone-deep. “This isn't helping either of us, and it's damaging the little we have managed to achieve. I suggest that we—”

“Take a break,” Sterling said. “I think we need to take a break, because I can handle you being in charge, and I can handle doing what you tell me to do, but I can't handle not understanding why, and no matter how many times I ask, you won't tell me. Which tells me you don't respect me.” That was the realization that pissed him off the most—he'd thought, at the very least, that Owen respected him, but he obviously didn't, and right now, knowing that, Sterling couldn't stand to look at him.

“I'm telling you, but you're not listening,” Owen said wearily. “You filter everything through your own wishes and needs, and it's rare that you consider anyone else's. You're immature, and that's nothing to do with your age; it's your attitude. I thought I could train that out of you—and maybe I could have, but you want everything right the hell now, instant gratification, and this isn't about that.” He was pacing the room now, quick, angry steps, looking like a cat about to spit and rake sharp claws into soft flesh. “You want a quick fuck, a good, hard climax that blows you away? That's easy. Go to any club or bar and looking the way you do, you'll get picked up and get a nice stiff cock to play with and service with someone who can't believe his luck even if he's not quite sure why you're waiting to be told what to do. It won't scratch your itch for long.

“Or go back to the club where we met and I can guarantee you'll walk out of there with someone, but it'll be easy, so fucking easy, and part of you never wants easy. That's the part of you that I—” Owen paused and turned to look directly at Sterling, gray eyes opaque, blank. “I could tell you to strip down for me, go up to my room, bend over, and give you what you want. There are nights when the only way I can get to sleep is by jerking off picturing that in my head because you've gotten me so turned on. But if I did, it would end any chance of making this work, and I won't do that. I won't.”

The thought of the scene Owen had described made Sterling's anger waver, but just for a few seconds. Then it was back, full force. “Only because you got this idea in your head of how this was supposed to work and now you won't let it go!” He felt his hands curl into fists, and he wished he had something to hit—there was no way, ever, that he'd hit Owen, but right then a punching bag would have been nice. “I can't do this. You can treat me like your property, and I can even like it, but you're the one who's being selfish because you won't let either of us have what we want, and there's no reason for it. You don't think I'm smart enough to know what I want or need—you don't respect me, and I won't be with someone who doesn't respect me. I'm sorry, Owen, because I lo—”

In horror, he heard what he was saying just in time to stop himself.

He'd been in love with Owen for weeks, but telling him that would make things worse, not better. And even if this was over, there was no point in making it worse.

“I'll see you around,” he said, and turned to go.

It wasn't until he'd slammed the door behind him and was halfway down the path, littered now with brown leaves crunching under his feet, that he stopped listening for Owen's voice calling to him to stop, wait, come back.

There wasn't any point; Owen wasn't going to beg him, was he? That was Sterling's thing, and he'd tried it, and it just hadn't fucking worked.

Chapter Seven

“Yes, I can take your ten o'clock class,” Owen said without thinking, giving Shari Temple a sympathetic pat on the arm. She looked like hell, her brown eyes red-rimmed and her nose unpleasantly moist and raw from being blown continuously. “I've only got a few more papers left to grade, and I'm sure the little darlings won't mind another day before the ax falls on them.” He tidied the scattered papers into a neat pile. “Go home, and don't come back until you're better.”

“I wouldn't have come in today,” she said thickly, “but Admin said they couldn't—” She broke off to sneeze sloppily, and Owen averted his eyes from the cleanup that followed. “Sorry. They said they couldn't get a substitute in until tomorrow, and I said I'd try, but I can't breathe and—”

“I'll do it,” Owen repeated soothingly. “Just tell me what you want me to cover, and then go home and dose yourself up with some nice, lemon-flavored drugs.”

He hoped that he'd managed to avoid the worst of her germs, at least. It was a few days after Halloween, the ground threatening frost every evening but warming well into the high sixties by afternoon. Typical New England weather, Owen thought—it couldn't make up its mind.

Which reminded him of Sterling, just as most thoughts had for the past week and, if he was being honest with himself, all the weeks since they'd met. He couldn't shake his distress at the way Sterling had walked out that night and had no interest in setting aside his irritation. The boy was spoiled, had been brought up being given everything he'd wanted, and still expected the world to hand it to him on a silver plate. Sterling didn't care about anyone but himself and what he wanted.

It was easy to push these thoughts to the forefront of his mind, ignoring all the little things Sterling had done that proved them wrong. The pound of gourmet coffee he'd brought Owen the week before, somehow having remembered Owen waxing philosophical about its quality on a previous evening. The night he'd been late, needing to be punished—something they'd both enjoyed, of course—because he'd stopped to catch a dog that had slipped its collar and left its owner, an eleven-year-old girl, crying distraught tears at the side of the road. The care with which he'd been selecting Christmas gifts for his mother and sister even though the holiday was two months away, setting aside the little money he earned scooping ice cream and blending shakes at the ice cream shop downtown, endlessly debating the merits of one gift over another until Owen tuned him out entirely.

Sterling was spoiled and selfish, and Owen was well rid of him.

“This is what we were supposed to discuss,” Shari said, interrupting his thoughts with a book and handful of papers shoved into his hands. “Shakespeare's “Sonnet 20,” among others. That should be fun.”

“Go,” Owen told her. “Go home. Rest. I'll handle everything.”

It was a measure of how distracted he was that he only remembered that she was one of Sterling's teachers after she'd gone, leaving the wastepaper bin clogged with soaked Kleenex. Which was ridiculous; he had Sterling's schedule memorized, along with his own, knew his assignments and when they were due, had often postponed a session to wait for Sterling to finish writing a paper, his laptop on the dining room table, a tall soda, heavy on the ice, dangerously close to it. Sterling had said how much he'd been enjoying Shari's classes, and Owen had wished that there was a way to pass on the compliment and regretted that there wasn't.

He glanced at his watch. Time to brush up on the sonnet, but no time to find another person to take the class. Shari had given a quiz two weeks before, earning a slightly less complimentary comment from an indignant Sterling, who hadn't been expecting it. The spanking Owen had promised him if his grade was poor had replaced his pout with an expectant sparkle—not the reaction Owen had intended, which was shortsighted of him to say the least. Owen didn't feel too guilty about potentially rewarding bad work. The quiz had already been taken, and what was done was done—and he knew Sterling; his grade would probably be respectable. It had been excellent, in fact, prompting Owen to replace the spanking with a blindfold, some cuffs, and an assortment of items that left Sterling's skin awake and sensitized to the point where he'd come with a hoarse yell when Owen had dripped ice water onto the head of his cock, the first touch it'd gotten.

Afterward Sterling had curled up against him, still trembling, holding onto Owen with all his strength. “God, what you do to me, the way you make me feel…”

Owen bit his lip hard and leafed through the book Shari had left with him, relieved to find a sheet of notes tucked into it at the relevant page.

The classroom was one he hadn't been in for several years, but it was next to one of his regular classrooms so finding it wasn't a challenge. When Owen entered the room, half the desks were already occupied by students who looked mildly surprised to see him come in and walk to the desk. They were quiet, though, murmuring among themselves, and he took advantage of the few minutes before class officially started to look over Shari's notes.

He'd never taught Shakespeare, though he felt confident he could handle one or even a dozen classes. He might not be an expert the way Shari was—he was a fan of short modern stories, himself—but he prided himself on being a well-rounded scholar.

He kept half an eye on the clock, and when the minute hand hit twelve, he stood up. “Hello,” he said pleasantly as all attention in the room turned to him. “Some of you know me—I'm Professor Sawyer—and all of you know that I don't belong here. Unfortunately, Professor Temple has a bad cold, and I'm taking over just for today.”

Just then Sterling came slouching into the room with an apologetic look on his face, a look that changed to upset and then to a sullen one as he slid into a seat.

Owen ignored him. Sterling wasn't late enough for him to make an issue over it, and the less interaction they had, the better. The natural confidence he had—and Sterling wasn't the only one with a dash of arrogance, which Owen would be the first to admit—made him view the hour to come as a challenge instead of a threat. That attitude was helped by the fact that he trusted Sterling, even an angry Sterling, to be discreet.

“Professor Temple tells me that you've been working your way through the sonnets. The sonnets from one to one hundred and twenty-six concern an unnamed gentleman referred to as…?” Owen picked out a vaguely familiar face in the crowd, a woman who'd been in the same freshman class as Sterling. “Miss Bowers?”

She cleared her throat, long silky hair falling over her face, its reddish shade matching her cheeks. “Umm, the Fair Youth?”

“That's correct.” Owen glanced down at the book he held, copies of which lay unopened in front of most of the students. “If you'll all turn to page fifty-four, I've been asked to make today's lesson about the twentieth sonnet. I'll confess that I'm not familiar with it, so perhaps we can all learn something today, which is what we're here for, of course.”

There was the expected ripple of ironic amusement at his mild attempt at humor. Freshmen were too nervous to smile, sophomores and juniors too cool, but by their senior year most of the students had relaxed and discovered a vague tolerance for the people who might help to determine their future.

“Maybe one of you would like to read it aloud so that we can get an idea of what the sonnet's message is, and then we can break it down and see what's hidden between the lines. This is Shakespeare; few people could pack as much meaning into a superficially simple line, and removed from him as we are by both time and geography, it's sometimes difficult for us to get a joke or an allusion that would have been crystal clear to a contemporary reader.”

Owen looked around the lecture room for a victim. He didn't want the poem butchered, so no one at the back, smothering yawns, and he wasn't in the mood to have it enunciated painstakingly by someone who'd memorized in an attempt to score points, so he avoided eye contact with the bright, eager students in the front row. He'd just settled on a young man with a reasonably intelligent look on his face when Sterling spoke, his voice cutting through the background hum as people found their places and flipped open notebooks.

“'A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,'” Sterling recited, not looking at the open book in front of him at all; Owen wondered when he'd memorized it, though not why. There was no point in interrupting him—that would only make it clear to the rest of the class that Owen wasn't in control. Better to allow it.

Sterling slouched further in his seat as he went on, his thighs relaxed and spread far apart. As he reached the third quatrain, he lifted his gaze and met Owen's, a haughty little smile playing about his lips and a challenge clear in his eyes. He finished reciting the sonnet and grinned triumphantly.

“Thank you,” Owen said, giving Sterling a dismissive nod while he cursed the long dead Shakespeare and the germ that had felled Shari. An hour spent discussing a love poem from one man to another? Oh, this wasn't going to be awkward…

Sterling had read the sonnet beautifully, his voice clear, expressive, bringing the plaintive longing behind the words to life, and it hurt the teacher in Owen not to acknowledge that, but he couldn't cede even that small a victory and hope to win the war. “An eye more bright than theirs…” Oh, God, yes, Sterling's eyes shone today, but it was an angry glitter.

“Now, from a modern perspective, the most obvious interpretation of the theme is…?” Owen raised his eyebrows inquiringly. Shari had mentioned that this class was reasonably articulate and insightful, and he hoped that habit and a desire to impress a visitor would mean that they gave him the same energy and commitment.

The man he'd been going to choose to read the poem raised his hand and, when Owen nodded at him, said hesitantly, “Uh, because we're like, less hung up on sexuality being, you know, straight and narrow, we'd go for the idea that the poet wanted the other guy? But he couldn't just come out and say that, not back then, so he did all this thing at the end to make out that he was cool with only having the other guy's friendship when, no way, 'cause he was totally into him.”

Yes, you sound considerably less hung up on sexuality, Owen thought, which wasn't fair—there was no reason to think this young man was straight, even. He just wasn't particularly eloquent.

“That's the most common interpretation, certainly,” Owen agreed aloud, because there was no point in making any of this more uncomfortable than it was likely to be unless Sterling chose to keep his mouth shut, which he wasn't anticipating. “Can anyone offer an alternative?”

A young man wearing shorts—surely inadvisable given the weather—raised his hand and didn't wait for Owen to call on him. “Why does it have to mean he was queer?” he asked and, when the dark-haired woman sitting next to him shifted in her chair and muttered something, tried again. “I mean, gay? People write about stuff all the time that doesn't have anything to do with their real life. Like, Stephen King. We wouldn't try to argue that he's some kind of ghost hunter or whatever just because he writes about monsters, right?”

“But monsters aren't real,” Miss Bowers argued, turning in her seat to face the young man in the shorts. “Plus we're talking about Shakespeare. There are homosexual innuendos all throughout his sonnets. Why would he do that if it didn't mean anything?”

Sterling looked bored, but he sat up in his seat and looked at Owen. “What do you think, Professor? Was Shakespeare gay?”

Meeting that hostile gaze sent a frisson of arousal through Owen. Every instinct he had was screaming at him to handle this as if Sterling was a sub challenging his Dom, and Owen knew exactly how to deal with that. Having an audience wasn't a problem, either; Owen loved acting out a scene at the club, with the arousal of those watching spurring him on. The problem, of course, lay in the fact that he was at work, surrounded by students, and had to rein in those instincts. Well, some of them, at least; a teacher was owed the same respect as a Dom, and the students would expect him to deal firmly with Sterling's insolence once it got to a level that was impossible to pass over. Right now, Sterling was very skillfully skirting the line.

“That's a question that's been debated, often hotly, for centuries, with no definitive answer,” Owen replied. He turned to address the class as a whole. “As I'm sure you're aware, people have several candidates for Shakespeare's lover—if he had one—including the earls of Southampton and Pembroke. One can only imagine what the Elizabethan equivalent of the tabloids made of those rumors.”

“But it doesn't sound, from the sonnet, as if Shakespeare liked women very much,” Sterling said.

Owen shook his head. “He was a product of his time, but I doubt he could accurately be referred to as a misogynist. There's enough evidence to suggest he might have been forced to marry an older woman, which wouldn't help as far as his feelings toward the 'fairer sex' might go.”

“So he had the fair youth on the side,” Sterling said. “That makes him dishonest, doesn't it? Not admitting to the public who he really was and just hinting at it through poetry that most people probably didn't analyze all that carefully anyway?”

“I think you're wrong there,” Owen said. Around them, the normal sounds of a full class were dying down to an expectant hush as if the students, several of whom had seen Owen and Sterling clash before, were anticipating something out of the ordinary to enliven their day. He gave the page of notes that he held a brief glance and spotted something that Shari had added an asterisk to, clearly wanting it to be stressed. “The educated people of the day were very well used to picking up on levels of meaning and would have torn each sonnet apart gleefully. No TV, no movies, no computers… This was part of how they entertained themselves.”

He was warming to his theme now. “It's been suggested that Shakespeare put clues into his work as to the identity of the youth. The word 'hews' appears in the poem; the modern spelling is 'hues,' but in the original it's spelled 'hews.' Some say that the appearance of those four letters in most lines of this sonnet refer to the initials of William and either of the earls, though that's possibly reading too much into it.” He put the notes he'd been shamelessly quoting from down on the desk he was leaning against. “What is certain is that the great poets of that time were masters of the art of verse writing. They made words mean far more than the sum of their parts.” He met Sterling's eyes. “And they knew that to be open about some matters was to risk everything: their social standing, their wealth—their life.”

“You mean, like, gay bashing?” The young man wearing shorts seemed a little too interested in that topic for Owen's comfort.

“There are laws against it now, but in Shakespeare's day there was nothing to stop people from attacking those they felt were lacking in appropriate morals,” Owen said blandly.

“But we're more civilized now,” Sterling said, voice loud enough to command attention. “Especially in New England. We've legalized gay marriage, and there's legislation against hate crimes. This isn't the Dark Ages—people don't lose their social standing over something like being gay.”

“A relatively recent development and certainly not the case in every state,” Owen said. He pointedly turned away from Sterling, who was frowning at him, his mouth set in mutinous lines. “I think we need to bring the focus back to the sonnet, and I'd like to hear from some of the less vocal of you.” He pointed at a young woman slumped in her seat, examining her nails, who only looked up when her more alert neighbor nudged her. “What would you say is the general feel of this? Happy? Sad? Romantic? What was your first impression of it and why?”

He listened to her stumbling efforts to answer with most of his attention on Sterling, visible out of the corner of his eye, but Sterling seemed to have decided that he'd pushed it as far as he wanted to—or dared. Owen was torn between annoyance and a reluctant admiration for Sterling's nerve. Which meant that things between them hadn't changed; it was that exact mix of emotions that had led to him accepting Sterling's proposal in the first place.

For the rest of the class, Sterling sat silently, appearing to listen as Owen asked questions and some of his classmates answered them. He even seemed to be taking notes occasionally, a few words here and there in the neat, somewhat blocky handwriting that Owen had become familiar with. In the end, Owen wound down the discussion with a mention of a few of the related sonnets.

“I'm sure Professor Temple will be back for your next class,” he said after relaying their next assignment. “So don't disappoint her by being unprepared. Thank you—that's all.”

Most of the students left immediately; a few lingered, talking to each other, before finally heading out the door and leaving only Sterling still in the room with him.

“I'm sorry,” Sterling said after the last student had crossed the threshold, the door swinging closed behind her.

Owen picked up the book of sonnets and the thin sheaf of notes, fully intending to walk out, and then put them back down on the desk. He looked at Sterling, still in his seat, and sighed. “It doesn't matter. I know why you did it, and I can't say that you didn't have a right to make the points you did. It wasn't the best place to do it, though.”

“It does matter,” Sterling told him. “I know it's no excuse, but I was so surprised to see you here—it kind of threw me for a loop. Still. I'm sorry. I won't let it happen again.” He smiled sadly and stood up. “Not that the opportunity will present itself anyway. Are you… How've you been? Okay?”

“I've missed you,” Owen said, going directly to the cause of his irritability for the last week. “I didn't like the way it ended between us and I feel…” He shook his head. He'd spoken to Michael midweek, and the conversation hadn't gone all that well. Boneheaded, stubborn, and several other epithets had sizzled across the miles, leaving him to slam out of the house and go to the club, where his bad mood hadn't been improved by an encounter with Carol, all leather harness, studded collar, and adoring eyes as she stared up at her new Dom—and she still hadn't learned how to kneel properly, damn it. She'd looked graceless, but that had just made him reflect on how perfectly Sterling knelt, and that hadn't helped at all.

He'd ended up brushing off some offers that would normally have gotten his automatic approval and had gotten home very late, stone-cold sober and depressed.

“I've missed you,” he repeated.

That earned him a wistful look as Sterling came closer, now-closed notebook in his hand the only thing he had with him despite the fact that Owen knew he had another class immediately after this one. “I missed you too, and—do you think maybe we could try again? I mean, I know I put way too much pressure on you—even though I don't think I was wrong for wanting you to explain—but I was definitely wrong for not listening when you tried. And I know I'm kind of a screw-up as far as, you know, everything is concerned. I know I wasn't living up to your expectations, and that you wanted more from me, and maybe I'm not even capable of giving it, which I shouldn't be admitting because yeah, way to sound appealing… It's just, I really, really miss you a lot, and I've been going kind of crazy, like I forgot how to release tension or something, and—”

He was close enough to touch now and that was just what Owen did, placing the tips of his fingers against still-moving lips, shaping words that Owen wasn't really listening to because this close, the need to claim Sterling as his again was overwhelming.

“You never failed me,” he said. “You just asked for something that I didn't—and don't—want to give you. Two months more to wait, Sterling, that's all. Give me those months and after that I'll fuck you raw every single night I can, but you need to wait. Can you do that?”

His unspoken please seemed loud enough to be heard. God, wouldn't Michael snicker to see him reduced to this state of want and need? But he was addicted to Sterling, and it had been a week or more since he'd kissed him, felt Sterling's mouth part under his, the sweet, hesitant flick of Sterling's tongue against his, the bitten-off moan Sterling made when the kiss ended, his eyes closed.

“I don't know,” Sterling whispered, so close now Owen could feel warm breath against his lips. “With the way I've been dreaming about you—every night, about you fucking me, Owen, pushing your cock into my ass and fucking me—but I promise I'll try. Okay? I'll try. That's the best I can do.”

And then their lips were together, Sterling whimpering desperately into his mouth, erection pressed to Owen's thigh and hands eager on his shirt. Sterling was good, so good, letting Owen control the kiss despite his need.

Owen realized that they were frantically kissing in a classroom that anyone could walk into at any time and pulled back, though he couldn't resist palming a hand across the front of Sterling's slacks, molding the cotton fabric to Sterling's cock for a brief instant, reminding both of them who he belonged to.

“Tonight,” he said, his voice harsh, rebuilding the dynamic between them with clumsy swiftness, a makeshift affair that they could polish and perfect later. “Eight o'clock.” Sterling nodded, his eyes wide, dazed, hopeful. “Don't expect me to be kind to you,” Owen warned him, knowing just what that promise—never a threat—would do to Sterling, keeping him half-hard all day, distracted.

For once, Owen didn't care what that would do to Sterling's grades.

* * * * *

“Owen.” It was one of the few words that Sterling was allowed to speak while they were playing, and he took full advantage of the permission, saying—and even moaning—it often.

Tonight he'd arrived at Owen's house at eight as directed, been let inside, and gone immediately to the closet to follow the routine. But Owen had said firmly, “All of your clothes, please,” and Sterling had stripped down, had his hands bound behind his back without complaint, and gratefully followed Owen upstairs to the bedroom.

Now he was kneeling on the floor beside Owen's bed, waiting to find out what Owen had planned for him. He knew that it was going to be an intense evening, but he needed it to be—it had been a long week without Owen, to the point where Sterling had started to wonder if it was even possible for him to go back to life as he'd known it previously. He'd even considered going to the BDSM club to find someone else to play with but knew that replacing Owen would be impossible, so had decided not to try.

“Did you have a question?” Owen asked, and Sterling remembered having spoken Owen's name aloud for the sheer pleasure of being able to do so.

“No—I'm sorry. I just…missed you so much.” Being back in Owen's bedroom, kneeling naked on the floor, was like coming home. The relief Sterling felt was immense.

Owen's hand closed around the back of his neck, and Sterling relaxed completely into the possessive grip. It wasn't a collar—he'd asked for one once, and Owen had snorted and said that they were earned and he hadn't, not yet—but it made him feel owned. He'd tried buckling his belt around his neck once, not tightly, just to feel the rough kiss of leather and see it in the mirror, dark against his skin. He'd ended up on the floor, on his knees, panting harshly, his hands fighting a stiff zipper to get at an even stiffer dick, coming moments after his hand had closed around his erection.

He'd told Owen that he'd come without permission and taken the hour in the corner, facing a really boring piece of wall, without complaint, but he hadn't told Owen the details. Sometimes, that small omission itched at him like a half-healed mosquito bite, but God, the guilt had been worth it for that moment of rightness he'd felt. If Owen ever put a collar on him, he'd probably lose it completely.

“Yes, well, you're here now,” Owen said, his voice free of anything but a deep satisfaction that was flattering and reassuring in a way that flowery phrases wouldn't have been. “And I want your complete attention, please.”

“Yes, Owen. You have it.” Sterling raised his eyes without lifting his chin, looking up at Owen but not breaking position. The man seemed enormous, eclipsing everything else in the room and, in fact, his world.

“Tonight, I'm going to tie you with very little room to move. I want you to be able to hold your position no matter what I do, and toward the end that might be difficult.” Owen's hand moved to run through Sterling's hair, carding it with his fingers and leaving it tousled and clinging to Owen's fingers. “I'm going to leave you like that, blindfolded, for a while—I'll be here with you, of course—and then, when I think you're ready, well…” Owen turned Sterling's head so that he was looking at the bedside table. There were candles there, plain white ones, that Sterling hadn't noticed when he'd walked into the room, his attention focused solely on Owen. “Sterling?”

Owen rarely asked in so many words if what he had planned for a scene was okay with Sterling, but he usually gave him the chance to express any doubts or fears before it started.

“Yes,” Sterling said, putting everything into that one word because it was all that mattered. He didn't care what Owen had planned; it was okay.

Owen must have heard it in his voice, or maybe just saw it in the blissful expression Sterling was pretty sure was on his face. He looked into Sterling's eyes for a long, long moment, then nodded and moved to get the blindfold.

They'd used it before, the black strip of cloth tied firmly around Sterling's eyes, cutting off his sense of sight entirely. He didn't mind it. Owen probably would have liked it better if he had, but for whatever reason, not being able to see wasn't a problem for Sterling, or at least it hadn't been so far. There was something peaceful about it; it gave him the ability to detach on some level, to feel without worrying about what was coming next.

He let Owen tie it, the flat knot positioned so that it wouldn't dig into his head when he lay back; let Owen untie his wrists and guide him, with small nudges, to the center of the bed where a wide, thick towel had been spread for him to lie on; let Owen bind his wrists and ankles to the frame of the bed with very little play.

And wished, just for a moment, that he could see the expression on Owen's face that went with the faint sigh of pleasure he heard when he'd been positioned exactly, precisely as Owen wanted him to be.

“You can make as much noise as you want to,” Owen told him, fingertips tracing the lines on Sterling's palm and making his fingers twitch. “And you know what you need to do to take a break or put a stop to things.”

Not that Sterling had ever used either of the safe words—he was probably too stubborn for that, couldn't imagine giving in and pushing either word past his lips no matter how freaked out or in pain he was in.

Now Owen teased him, and took his time about it too. Gentle fingers, barely touching, ran down along Sterling's throat, then moved away. Just when he started to wonder what would come next, Owen touched him again—his collarbone this time, one side and then the other, pressing thin skin over bone like Owen was leaving a mark on him. Sterling strained upward, trying for more, but Owen had tied him down tightly enough that he couldn't move very much at all.

Nothing again. Sterling waited, then focused on his breathing, on steady, even breaths and the spaces between them.

Another touch—the instep of his right foot this time, making him hiss and jerk against the restraints.

“Easy,” Owen murmured. “Accept it, don't fight it. Everything I'm giving you, just take it, use it.”

The next touch hurt, a pinch to a nipple that left it hot and swollen, the tight pressure of Owen's fingers maintained until Sterling was arching up, his breath ragged. The shock of the pain mellowed to heat, and each throb of punished, bruised flesh was echoed in his dick, already hard, though he knew that it would be a long time—if at all—before he was allowed to come.

“I'm going to give you a pair of clamps for these,” Owen said, releasing him finally and giving Sterling's other nipple a single, teasing lick. “Call you and tell you to put them on. Jerk off thinking about you walking around with them on, hurting you, arousing you. Call you when I've come and tell you to take them off, but you won't get to come. And I'll jerk off again later just thinking about how hard you are, how hot and sore your nipples are.”

The thought of Owen jerking off made Sterling crazy—what he'd look like, hand wrapped around his cock, muscles in his upper arm flexing as he stroked it, his expression when he came.

Don't fight it, he reminded himself when Owen's next touch was a firm tug at his balls. A few deep breaths helped him relax, and even when Owen's slick fingers rubbed his perineum and around his hole, he was able to accept it, to appreciate the touch instead of tensing up. He moaned when Owen slid a finger inside him without warning—God, it felt so good. How was it possible that he'd been afraid of this for so long?

Nothing Owen did lasted. He moved from one part of Sterling's body to another, pinching here, scratching with blunt fingernails there.

“I think it's time to heat things up a bit,” Owen said. Sterling smiled at the pun, but no more than that. He was sinking deeper, utterly relaxed, scattered notes of pain and pleasure scored onto his skin, waiting for him to voice them.

He heard the scratch of a match and knew that one of the candles, its base snug in a simple glass holder, was burning now, clear wax forming around the wick.

“It's not too hot,” Owen told him. “I'm going to drop it from high up at first, watch it fall and splash against your skin, hear you cry out for me.”

Sterling felt a shiver of anticipation shatter his calm; it would return, but he would have to rebuild it slowly, moment by moment. He didn't mind; he loved this space of waiting for something to happen. Expecting the flash of heat, he jerked with surprise when the next touch was to his lips as Owen kissed him, a hungry, avid kiss that left Sterling's lips wet and stinging from a bite. “That was to remind you that I'm here,” Owen said and before Sterling could find the words to tell him that he didn't need reminding, the wax, like liquid fire, struck his stomach, and he gave the guttural groan Owen wanted, his chest rising and falling as he caught his breath.

It wasn't the same as touching a hot stove top because in that case the body's immediate instinct was to pull away from the source of heat. Sterling couldn't do that—he could only lie there, panting, and wait for the burn to fade. It seemed to take a long time, and even when it finally had, the spot felt sore and stiff with the hardened wax.

Sterling lay quietly, listening for Owen, for clues of when another splash of hot wax might come. He'd just started to wonder if maybe that had been the only one, unlikely as that seemed, when another hit his inner thigh and seared its way down along his skin, gravity creating a line of fire instead of just a small, round spot. He cried out and arched against his bonds, the fabric around his wrists digging into the tender skin there—he couldn't help it; instinct told him to get away from the source of pain, but there was nowhere to go. It hurt, and his dick, well trained as it was, throbbed with need.

He could hear Owen moving, doing something, and about half a minute later there were two drops of molten wax at nearly the same time, one near each nipple. The sound that ripped its way from Sterling's throat then was more like a scream, short but startled. His fingers scrabbled at the material binding him, trying to find purchase.

Owen's fingertips stroked across Sterling's mouth, capturing the shape it made as it whimpered, a touch that didn't soothe or comfort because that would come later; right now, it was about building everything higher—the sting searing his skin, the arousal heating his blood, the trust between him and Owen.

“There's going to be more,” Owen warned him. “God, you should see how you look, how your skin's flushed, sweat making it shine.”

A tear trickled down, escaping the blindfold, and Sterling concentrated on tracking its path down his cheek, distracting himself from the wait, until Owen's tongue licked it away and jolted him back to the sensations coursing through him. The first drops of wax had hardened fully, and his skin felt tight there, pulled and tugged. Peeling it off was going to hurt too, and he curled his fingers into fists and let himself sob out Owen's name, wanting more even though—no, because—he knew how much it was going to burn.

Owen laid down a circle of wax droplets around each nipple with careful precision, never letting the drops meet and merge, and then, from only a few inches above Sterling's skin, judging from the increase in heat, coated the nipples themselves. It felt as if his skin was on fire, radiating out from those two points, the bruised nipples throbbing fiercely.

“Need to come—”

“Not yet,” Owen said, the two words enough to make Sterling hope that eventually he'd be given permission, even if it wasn't that much comfort given how close he was to losing it.

He should have known what was coming next, but he was so caught up in the moment that he didn't. It honestly came as a surprise when the next line of wax droplets started to fall at the base of his cock—he screamed and arched so hard against the restraints that later, in retrospect, he might have expected to learn that he'd sprained something. Thank goodness he'd had a little more play in his lower body than in his upper, because that was probably what prevented him from hurting his bad shoulder.

Sterling screamed a second time as another drop hit the center of his shaft, the sound tearing at his throat. He was aware of enough time in which to draw breath and exhale again—time Owen was deliberately giving him in which to put a halt to this, probably, but maybe he didn't know Sterling as well as he thought if that was the case, because there was no way Sterling was spitting out either safe word. The pause became excruciating—he could feel the towel underneath him sticking to his back, just soaked through with sweat—and then exploded when what felt like a quarter-sized circle of wax hit the tip of his cock.

God, it hurt like nothing else ever. He screamed so desperately that it didn't even come out very loud; there just wasn't enough air behind it to create volume. It was like his nerve endings were using up all his oxygen, and he couldn't breathe or think through the searing pain.

He couldn't do anything. He was gone.

The scary part was how fucking good it felt, the bright agony ripping him free of restraints that weren't made of rope or chain. He used the pain, just as Owen had told him to, shaped it, loved it, let it take him. Dimly, distantly, he felt his climax begin, lagging long moments behind his scream, an afterthought, as if his body was trying to kill the pain with pleasure, which was stupid, really, because they were both the same.

He lay languid, a washed-up piece of driftwood on an alien shore, and felt Owen's hand slide into his. Owen didn't speak. If he had, Sterling wasn't sure that he would have understood him. His brain was in free fall, splintered, smashed. That would change; already he could feel himself groping back to normal, but while it lasted, he floated, held in place by Owen's hand tight against his.

It was probably a good ten minutes later when he finally managed to push some words out. “S-sorry,” he whispered. “D-didn't have per-mission.”

“You did,” Owen corrected him, and that was good, that was what Owen did—created boundaries, kept him in check. “I said you could. Don't you remember?”

“No.” Sterling relaxed, relieved. Not that being punished would have been a bad thing. He tightened his hand slightly, squeezing Owen's against his own; he never wanted to let go.

Owen undid his blindfold, the bedroom lit dimly enough that Sterling only had to blink once or twice to adjust to the light. “I want you to see yourself,” Owen said, and idly scraped at a trickle of wax on Sterling's chest with his fingernail. “Tell me when you're ready for the next part.”

Oh God, Sterling thought. There's a next part? He'd already come, which in his head meant sex was over, but…this wasn't just about sex, was it? He knew that. It was still a little hard to absorb, maybe, but he did know it.

Sterling took a deep breath and nodded. “I'm ready.”

Chapter Eight

Owen gestured at the room. It was on the top floor, a corner room, with some cheap paneling on the walls that looked subtly askew. Not that much of it was visible; the room was a cluttered mess of furniture, each flat surface piled high with random objects. “There's always one in every house, I guess. The room you never quite get around to decorating; the one where you dump all the stuff you don't want to throw away but don't want to keep. Except I do want to throw a lot of this away—or donate it to charity—because this room would be perfect as a library. I'm sick of having my books scattered around the house where I can't find them.” He gave Sterling a sidelong look, noting the unenthusiastic expression on the boy's face. “I meant it when I said I'd pay you for helping me to renovate it. You're giving up an extra shift to help me today, I know, and I don't want you to lose out.”

“You don't have to pay me,” Sterling said, somewhat unconvincingly. Not for the first time, Owen thought that the boy probably had no experience at all doing this kind of work; it was a thought that appealed to him because each new thing he introduced Sterling to, no matter how inconsequential, belonged to him.

Just like Sterling did.

“First, we'll have to clear everything out of here. I've got Goodwill coming tomorrow to pick up the things I don't want to keep, so I'll have to figure out what's what—you don't need to worry about that. Then, once there's room to move, I'm going to have you pull down the old paneling, patch the walls, and paint.” He gave Sterling a stern look. “I don't expect perfection, because it's an old house and I doubt there's a single corner that actually forms a ninety degree angle, but I do expect you to do your best.”

“I know. I will.” Sterling peeled off the sweatshirt he was wearing, revealing the short-sleeved T-shirt he had on underneath, and put his hands on his hips, surveying the chaos. “So how will I know what you want to keep?”

“Well, I'm not leaving you to do this all on your own,” Owen said, amused. “Although I do have some things to do later today. For now, I'll help you sort through everything. The trash can go in the driveway, and the things for Goodwill on the porch. I guess the things I want to keep—there shouldn't be many—can just go in the hallway for now.”

Sterling nodded. “Okay.”

“So for the rest of today, you belong to me, bought and paid for,” Owen said with a smile. He was joking, but his body didn't care, reacting predictably to that idea. God, January couldn't come soon enough. He hadn't jerked off this much since he was a teenager, and it just wasn't enough to satisfy him. Sterling probably felt the same way, but ironically, he had less to complain about. Owen was letting him come at almost every session now, even if he made Sterling work for it.

Before Sterling could reply—and by the gleam in his eyes, he had no problem with the idea of being at Owen's beck and call and some suggestions for a better use of their time than getting filthy and exhausted hauling trash—Owen pointed at a corner. “You start there, I'll take the other side of the room, and we'll meet in the middle. Oh, and if it's pink, it goes, no exceptions.”

They worked companionably for some time, Sterling occasionally asking for Owen's opinion on one item or another. There were a few dozen china statues scattered about—his mother had collected them for years, and ironically enough, Owen had purchased some of them himself for various birthdays and other holidays. Although they'd originally “decorated” the whole house, Owen had gradually moved them all into this room as he'd needed to clear up space for his own things. At the time, he hadn't been able to justify disposing of them entirely—he knew they were moderately valuable—but last night he'd finally made the decision to box them up and take them to the antique dealer in the center of town to get an estimate on their worth. Hopefully their sale would finance a weekend's vacation at a nice resort in the Caribbean next year.

Or at the very least a new television, since his was threatening to give up the ghost.

“What about this?” Sterling gestured at a small table with sides that folded down. Its surface was damaged.

“Hmm. Goodwill, I guess. I like how it looks, but it would have to be refinished, and I don't think I'm likely to get around to it anytime soon.”

Sterling took the table downstairs, the wooden steps creaking under his sneakers as he went, and Owen heard the screen door to the porch open and close. A few moments later the door opened and closed again, and then Owen heard the fridge door before Sterling came back upstairs.

“Here.” Sterling handed him a water bottle from the flat of several dozen he'd carted to Owen's house the week before. Sterling had tipped over a glass of water a few days before that, then complained that it hadn't been his fault and that Owen should have bottled water like everyone else. That little comment had resulted in a spanking that had left Owen hard for hours, palm stinging.

“Thanks,” Owen said. He preferred tap water and had issues with the ecological problem of bottled water, but he'd given that lecture already, and a bottle was more practical in the dusty air. The water was refreshing—watching Sterling gulp it down thirstily, throat muscles working, even more so. He leaned against an armchair, springs poking up from its seat making it unusable, and studied Sterling. Hidden beneath the jeans, Sterling's ass and the back of his thighs would still be showing marks from that spanking earlier in the week, tiny bruises mottling the surface. Owen was careful with him, never marking him anywhere that couldn't be covered, never leaving him too stiff and sore, though he knew there had to be some days when sitting on the wooden seats in the classrooms at the college would leave Sterling suffering.

“I suppose you're going home for Christmas?” he asked idly. Thanksgiving had come and gone with Sterling remaining on campus, something that Owen had selfishly been pleased about, but he'd resigned himself to a Christmas spent without Sterling. He'd been invited to spend the day with a couple he'd met at the local theater during a summer of volunteering there. Jake and Gary ran the theater with a smiling, utterly ruthless efficiency, determined to make it profitable and a cultural beacon in the town. Owen still pitched in now and then behind the scenes, but if his interest in the theater had waned slightly, his friendship with its owners hadn't.

“Yeah—my mom and Justine are counting on it. It'll be fun.” Sterling didn't, Owen noticed, mention his father. “We'll do a tree and bake cookies—Justine says Christmas isn't the same without those cookies that come out of the gun thing.” This was a mystery, but Owen didn't comment, just let Sterling continue as he gathered up a few books and set them in a pile he was making against the wall. Sterling turned and gave Owen a guilty look. “I wish I could stay here with you.”

“Another time,” Owen said lightly—the boy already felt bad enough about having to go home. No point in making it worse. “Maybe you could come back a day or two before the spring semester starts and spend the time here?” That would be something to look forward to, a few days in which neither of them would have much in the way of work.

“Yeah, sure. I was figuring I'd bring my car back if I can get a parking sticker for the lot near my dorm.”

“I didn't realize you had a car,” Owen said.

Sterling wriggled an elderly looking chair experimentally, then picked it up and raised an eyebrow at Owen.

“Yard, I think,” Owen said, because it was both wobbly and moth-eaten.

“Present for my eighteenth birthday.” Sterling was obviously talking about the car and not the chair. “Wouldn't do to see William Baker's son driving around in an old clunker, even though he probably would have gotten a kick out of it.”

“It would make your life easier,” Owen said, thinking of how Sterling had to race from campus to work—and often from his house back to campus. “Gas isn't cheap, of course, but you wouldn't be going far.”

“I wouldn't be able to bring it here, though,” Sterling said, testing. “I mean, anyone could see it sitting in your driveway.”

Owen rolled his eyes. “Unless it's a bright red Porsche or something equally eye-catching, I doubt it'll even register with anyone passing by, but I could always make you park it a few blocks away, and I will if you give me any more of that attitude.” He walked over to Sterling and gave his ass a tap that wouldn't have popped a soap bubble, but which still made a shiver run through Sterling. “Break's over.”

“Right,” Sterling said and smiled before taking the chair downstairs.

While he was gone, Owen finished collecting the figurines and put the box on the floor in his bedroom where neither of them would be likely to trip over it. Sterling made a few more trips to the porch and then paused to drink some more water before opening a small cupboard and discovering some photo albums Owen had tucked into it.

“Hey, what are these?” Sterling picked one up and opened it carefully. “I think this is you.”

“Probably,” Owen agreed. He moved over to join Sterling, looking past his shoulder at the old photos from his childhood. They were in color, which had faded over the years, blunting some of the bright hues that had decorated the clothing of the mid-eighties.

“Nice shirt.” Snickering, Sterling pointed at it—the stripes were a bit much, but Owen had only been about ten at the time.

“I was always a trendsetter,” Owen said with a haughty sniff that broke into a grin when Sterling hooted with laughter. “Give me a break,” he said. “I'm sure your mother has some embarrassing photos you wouldn't want me to see.” He nuzzled Sterling's neck, kissing it without passion but a good deal of affection, his arms going around Sterling's body in a hug. “How would you like to go to the club tonight? We haven't been there for a while, and I don't think that I can haul one more box down those stairs.”

He'd been wary about taking Sterling to the club, but apart from a few raised eyebrows at the idea of him taking on someone so inexperienced, most people had accepted Sterling without comment. The guarded, careful attitude toward a newcomer had soon melted into a warmer acceptance; Sterling was clearly heart and soul into what he was doing, and it didn't hurt that he was Owen's sub and friends with Alex, who was fairly popular himself.

Sterling, after a few hours at the club watching the interplay between Doms and their subs, and sometimes a scene played out in public, was a handful, though, wound up, edgy, aroused, his emotions all over the place. That could be channeled into something more productive for them both, but Owen didn't always want to deal with him in that mood when his own arousal and frustration were fraying his temper.

“Okay, that sounds fun.” Sterling set the album down and turned a little in Owen's embrace, slipping an arm around Owen's waist and brushing his lips against the edge of Owen's ear.

Owen's body responded hopefully to Sterling's attention, cock stirring. It wanted so badly to be bare and rubbing against Sterling's equally naked skin, to slide its way into Sterling's body; waiting until Sterling's birthday was becoming more and more difficult.

“I promise, no matter how hot I get, I won't ask you to fuck me,” Sterling said solemnly, then sucked a spot just under Owen's ear.

The very fact that Sterling had brought the subject up made Owen feel wary of what the night would bring in the way of nagging from a turned-on, hyper sub whom he indulged far too much. “Good,” he said as neutrally as possible. “Because the next time you do, I plan to introduce you to my favorite ball gag.”

Okay, maybe that hadn't been quite as calm a reaction as he'd planned.

“Promises, promises,” Sterling said archly and pressed a kiss to Owen's jaw. “What do you want me to wear?”

That brought back memories of Michael, who'd insisted on Owen choosing every item he wore, every day. Part of Owen had gotten off on exercising that much control, but there had been days when it had felt like being a parent, not a Dom. Sterling suited him better, a realization that brought only the tiniest twinges of guilt; Michael was too good a friend for Owen to truly mourn the loss of him as a lover.

“A light coat of oil and you can choose where to put the peacock feather.”

Sterling laughed, a startled, full-out laugh that made him look young and carefree. It was similar to the way he looked after a particularly intense session during which he'd been allowed to come. “Maybe we should skip the peacock feather, and everyone can just see me in my naked glory.” He stepped back and pivoted, arms outspread.

“Oh, no,” Owen said. “That's just for me to see and appreciate. And I do.” He let his gaze travel over Sterling and didn't have to fake the quick, hot rush of lust he felt. “God, you make me want to—” He broke off, biting back the words that would betray just how much he wanted exactly what Sterling was begging for. He wanted to spank Sterling's ass scarlet and then fuck him, his hands on the hot, hurting skin, wanted to push Sterling to his knees and watch that mouth part obediently for his cock. He wanted to tie Sterling down and ride him, drawing out their climaxes to the point where Sterling would be sobbing for release, desperate, needy, perfect. “Go home, shower, and change, then meet me back here. As for what to wear… You know what works at the club, and you know what works for me.”

Sterling grinned and said two of Owen's favorite words in the English language. “Yes, Owen.”