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Room at the Top

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Chapter One

Austin Fisher was on his knees.

The carpet beneath him was thin and rough—probably easy to clean, though, which might be why it had been chosen. Another thirty minutes and he’d have rug burn, because no matter how hard he tried to stay absolutely still, it was impossible. He could feel colder air seeping through the wall behind him; it made the sheen of sweat on his bare, aching ass more noticeable, even with the majority of his attention focused on his boyfriend, Jay, and on the third man in the room.

Jay knelt too, but in an awkward position over a padded chair that Austin thought was probably meant for something other than what it was now being used for. Like sitting on. Jay’s naked ass was red, and his hands gripped the wooden frame of the chair tightly as the tall man standing over him repeatedly struck him with a slapper, the looped leather belt landing with a solid snap that made Austin tense as if it was his ass on the receiving end.

Jay wasn’t happy, Austin could tell. The sounds Jay made after he’d called out the number of each stroke were frustrated—even desperate—as if something was wrong, but Austin couldn’t figure out the cause. It didn’t matter. The night had been a disappointment, and it wasn’t likely either of them would be back for more. Jay had just four strokes to go of his fifty and then they could get dressed, go home, and try to salvage something from the evening. Austin wanted their bed, Jay curled up against him, his long hair getting in the way when Austin kissed him. He wanted to take the sting out of Jay’s ass with a cool, wet cloth and tell him just how hot he’d looked bent over, and he wanted to see Jay smile.

Three to go.

“Sauron!” Jay said, using his safe word for the first time in months. “Sauron!”

Austin broke position without thinking. He scrambled to his feet and felt his cramped leg muscles protest the sudden change.

“Stay where you are,” Niall said sharply. Austin assumed the command was directed at him, and he hesitated, willing to let Niall handle Jay and bring him down slowly, but wanting to be there for Jay too.

“Just three more to go,” Niall said and planted his hand firmly in the small of Jay’s back, holding him down. “You can take it, boy.”

Niall raised the belt, and Austin’s uncertainty fled. He jumped forward and grabbed Niall’s wrist hard enough that he could feel tendon grinding against bone. “No.”

“I’m the one in charge here.” Niall didn’t sound convinced of that anymore, though, and Austin knew that was all it took in a situation like this.

Playtime was over.

“No,” he said again. “He safe worded. You can’t be stupid enough not to know what that means.”

Austin was excruciatingly aware of Jay’s breathing, harsh and uneven, but he also knew that until Niall relented, there was no option but to restrain the other man’s hand. Jay was in a vulnerable position, and protection was more important than reassurance at that moment.

He tightened his grip on Niall’s wrist. Niall winced, then nodded, and Austin felt the man’s arm muscles relax. “Right,” Niall said. “I was caught up. Yeah, we’re done. Jay, are you—”

“Don’t touch him,” Austin snapped, and Niall stepped back, his eyes wary. “Give us a minute. Alone.”

He didn’t wait longer than it took Niall to move away before dropping back to his knees, this time so he could gather Jay into his arms.

“Easy,” he said gently as he helped Jay to get off the chair. “Take it slow. Deep breaths. Are you dizzy?”

“I’m okay.” Jay didn’t sound it. His brown eyes looked unfocused, hazy. Jay didn’t always go deeply into a scene. He had a tendency to get distracted, something he could hide successfully enough that whoever was his Dom didn’t notice, but tonight he’d let himself fall without hesitation.

For once that’d been a mistake.

“You don’t look it.”

Jay shook his head, more to clear it than in denial, Austin guessed. “It wasn’t working for me. I told him to stop. I did, didn’t I? I said it?”

“Yeah,” Austin said, anger burning through him. Jay’s safe word had made him roll his eyes and grin when Jay had chosen it, but hearing it used, it hadn’t seemed weird at all. Just very Jay. “You did.”

Jay was taller than Austin by a few inches, but hunched over and pressing close, he felt smaller. He rubbed his forehead against Austin’s shoulder, his exhaled breath warm against Austin’s bare skin. “Thought so. Niall’s an asshole.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m not,” Niall said, and Austin, who’d assumed he’d left the room, turned his head to look at him. “It was an honest mistake.”

“There wasn’t anything honest about it.” Austin wanted to stand up and shout at Niall, intimidate him, make him feel something of what it was like to be on the other side of the equation. He felt like it was more important to stay with Jay, though, so he kept his voice low.

“There was.” Niall came closer, holding out his hands—look, not a threat—and then sat down cross-legged on the floor. “I was caught up in the scene, and it didn’t register. Jay, I’m sorry. It wasn’t deliberate.”

“Okay.” Jay didn’t look at Niall.

“No, really. I’m sorry.” Niall sounded genuinely upset.

“We know,” Austin said. “Just give us a minute here, will you?” He slid a hand under Jay’s hair to the back of his neck and rubbed it. “It’s okay. Everything’s good. Take all the time you need. No hurry.” He’d sit here all night holding Jay if that was what it took.

“You were so close to the end,” Niall said, like that mattered. “Three more. I wanted you to feel like you’d accomplished something, I guess. Crossed the finish line.”

“It’s not a race,” Jay said. The trace of irritation in his deep, slow voice was heartening. He straightened, and Austin let his hand slide down Jay’s back, unwilling to break contact with him. “The numbers don’t matter, just how I’m feeling, and it wasn’t working for me at all. Couldn’t you tell?”

“How am I supposed to—” Niall broke off. “Jesus, it’s not like I’m a mind reader. You could’ve said something, maybe given me a hint, not just ended it like that. When we started the scene, you two said you were up for a good, hard paddling, and that’s what I gave you.” There was a hint of sulkiness in his expression now, his remorse fading visibly as he worked himself up, justifying his actions. “Two of you…it’s a lot of work, you know? My shoulder’s going to be killing me tomorrow, and I’m supposed to be going indoor rock climbing with my boss. I hate those team-building exercises.”

“You’re unbelievable,” Austin said flatly. “You were drooling at the thought of playing with us when I called you.”

“Yeah, well, I thought I’d be getting something good out of it,” Niall said. “I’ve never had a threesome before, and it sounded hot. Like a porn movie or something.” He cleared his throat and scratched at his jaw, sheepish but hopeful. “How about I get us a drink and we can just, you know, move on?”

“To the bedroom?” Jay said. “Is that what you mean?”

“Well, yes.” Niall shrugged, more relaxed now, as if he thought the awkwardness was behind them. “I get off on the spanking and the games as much as you two. You know I do, or you wouldn’t have asked me to set this up for you. Doesn’t mean that’s all I’m interested in. What do you two do? I’m up for pretty much anything.”

“Then I hope you’re up for an evening alone, because we’re going home.” Austin uncurled himself from around Jay, stood, and held out a hand to pull Jay to his feet. “Get your clothes.”

“You aren’t in charge either, you know,” Jay complained but went to do as he’d been told.

“What do you mean, going home? Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” Niall stood too, hands on his hips.

There was something intimidating about being naked next to a man who was fully dressed, but Austin was stubborn and used to getting his way.

Austin ran a hand through his hair. “Nope. And you’re not going to change our minds, so you might as well give up now.”

“Fine. Whatever. But you should know if this is the kind of thing you do, you’re going to have a hard time finding partners. People don’t like to be used.” Niall sounded like a sulky teenager, and Austin knew from experience that the way to handle them was to ignore their attitude.

“Are you good?” he asked Jay, pretending Niall wasn’t even there.

Jay could take his sweet time dressing in the morning, ignoring the clock and Austin’s verbal prodding, drifting around their small apartment absently chewing on a piece of toast, crumbs floating down, but Austin was glad to see that tonight Jay was in no mood to linger. Their shoes were by the front door, and Jay’s shirt hung unbuttoned over a faded T-shirt declaring I’M NOT MOVING UNTIL I’VE HAD MY SECOND BREAKFAST, but other than that, he was ready to leave.

Jay moved, shielding Austin from Niall’s view. His shoulders were still rounded, his head ducked, but that was normal for Jay. In the two years they’d been together, Austin had never figured out if Jay’s posture was due to his hobby, his job, or a desire to take up as little space as possible in the world. Maybe a little from every column. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

He sounded bored, but Austin didn’t fool himself that Jay was ready to put what had just happened behind him. Jay would most likely refuse to talk about it in detail, but eventually he’d finish mulling it over and vent. Austin just hoped it was sooner rather than later. The longer Jay waited, the worse the meltdown would be.

Austin dressed quickly, his skin crawling because he knew without looking that Niall, who’d gone over to fiddle with the strap he’d been using, was watching him. He was too raw from hearing Jay’s voice crack as he’d yelled out his safe word to feel any sympathy for Niall’s blue balls. Even if the scene had played out better, there was no way they would’ve ended up in bed with Niall. He’d made that clear when he’d called to arrange the evening, but Niall had only heard what he’d wanted to by the sound of it. With Patrick, they’d been happy to blow him if he wanted that when the session was over, the two of them on their knees, their mouths saying thank you without words, as he stroked their hair or gripped their shoulders, his body taut with need.

Patrick had understood that Austin and Jay didn’t want anyone else in their bed or their relationship—just someone who could give them what they needed as subs. Niall would never have gotten that, and maybe it was unrealistic to expect him to. Unlike Patrick, he wasn’t still emotionally committed to someone else.

Austin wanted to go back to the time when Patrick was living just a few miles away, not on the other side of the country. He couldn’t grudge Patrick the new start the man had made, though he still missed him. Maybe they could call him over the weekend. Their good-bye gift to him had been a webcam, and Austin had installed it and run through the basics of setting up Skype, with Patrick dubious but indulgent.

“It’s better than just talking,” Jay had said, pushing his hair back behind his ears so he could give Patrick an earnest look. “You can see us.”

“I’ve grasped that much,” Patrick had said drily.

“And it’s free. No long-distance charges.”

“I’m convinced. And grateful. You’re both very sweet, and I wish…”

“You don’t,” Austin had said quickly. “It’s going to be great, Patrick. The job sounds perfect, your apartment’s right by the beach and—”

“And I won’t miss Dan as much out there?”

Jay had put his arms around Patrick then, a comforting, clumsy hug. “Yeah, you will. You don’t want to stop. Not yet. It’s too soon. But it’ll be easier someplace different. We get that.”

Austin and Jay both missed Patrick for himself, as well as what he’d been able to give them, but it had been more than two months before they’d talked about what they were going to do without him. They both craved the emotional release being with an experienced Dom brought. That they were a couple and determined to remain that way meant not just any Dom would do. Meeting Patrick had been little more than luck, and recasting the role he’d filled was going to be difficult—if not downright impossible.

In desperation one night, they’d attempted a scene on their own, with Austin playing the Dom role. It had been a complete disaster. He hadn’t been able to get into the right head space, which left Jay understandably frustrated and Austin alternating between apologies and near hysterical giggling.

Niall had been recommended by a friend, and though Austin believed he hadn’t had high hopes for the encounter, his sense of disappointment as they got into the car told him he’d been fooling himself. “Well,” he said, putting the key into the ignition but not starting the car. “That sucked.”

“Beyond words,” Jay agreed and put a hand on Austin’s thigh. “You okay?”

“I’m not the one who safe worded and then was ignored,” Austin pointed out. “Jesus.” It was still sinking in.

Jay patted his thigh, comforting him as if Austin had been the one pinned down. “Yeah, but you didn’t enjoy it much, either. I could tell.”

True enough. The paddling Austin had gotten had felt good to start with, the familiarity of the act soothing. He loved getting his ass spanked red, the sizzle sinking in deep until it spread through him, leaving him wrung out and satisfied. He could climax from it if it was done right, needing nothing but a word of permission followed by one more perfect, painful slap. Niall hadn’t brought him even close to that delicious euphoria. Austin had soon realized Niall’s ideas of what constituted a paddling were basic to say the least. Placement, rhythm, force, the sweet cruelty of a pause with a few well-chosen words spoken in a clear voice cutting through the roar in his ears…none of that had been present. Niall had bent him over, groped his ass in a way Austin had resented, then walloped him with a brisk enthusiasm that had petered off quickly.

Niall had been right about one thing: His shoulder was going to ache tomorrow. The man was out of shape.

He couldn’t.”

Jay sighed and picked at a frayed spot on his jeans, just above his knee. “Like I said. He’s an asshole. We really blew it tonight. Patrick’s going to freak when we tell him.”

“We don’t have to tell him.”

Jay turned his head, the long, straight fall of his hair swaying forward. “He’ll know something’s wrong.”

That was too much a given for Austin to even bother arguing. “Well, it’s not like he can do anything to us when he’s thousands of miles away.”

Even he could hear the longing in his voice. He wanted Patrick to tell them they’d been reckless and come up with some inventive way to punish them that would leave all three of them smiling when it was over. Knowing it wasn’t going to happen and they were on their own was more painful than anything Niall had done.

Jay shifted in his seat. “My ass hurts. I want to go home. I feel”—he gestured impatiently with his hands, his long fingers graceful, expressive—“like a firework that didn’t get to go bang. Fuck. I really, really wanted this to work out for us.”

“I know. Me too.” Austin sighed and started the car. “Well, let’s get you home, at least.”

They didn’t talk much on the way back, which was usual for them following a scene, but for entirely different reasons. Usually they were happily post-orgasm and exhausted, looking forward to a long shower and a deep, peaceful sleep. Tonight their silence was about the frustration they shared and the reality that they were once again out of options.

“We’ll be okay,” Jay said as they thumped their way up the long, narrow staircase that led to their apartment on the second floor of the old Victorian they called home. “Hey, come on. You’re supposed to agree with me.”

“Yeah. We’ll be okay.” It didn’t sound particularly convincing. “Ow! Shit, Jay, when are you going to do something about these books?” Austin had tripped yet again over a stack of books, this one piled near the door.

“Sorry.” Jay knelt to pick them up, then slid the stack closer to the wall.

Austin shut the door and banged his head against it, despising himself just a little bit. “No, don’t be sorry. I’m an asshole. Come here.” They were barely in the door, and here he was snapping at his boyfriend.

“I don’t mean to bring home so many,” Jay murmured against Austin’s neck, hugging him tightly. “And you’re not an asshole.”

“Sometimes I am.”

“Sometimes everyone is, I guess, but you, no. You’re perfect.”

Austin couldn’t help laughing. “You work at a library, and you think I’m perfect? Doesn’t it have a dictionary? Because I’m pretty sure my picture isn’t next to that word.”

“You take care of me,” Jay said with a simple trust that made Austin feel like driving back to Niall’s and punching him, hard. Jay wasn’t naive exactly, but he tended to believe the best about people. That a Dom wouldn’t listen to a safe word would never have occurred to him before tonight, and Austin wasn’t sure how Jay would process Niall’s inability to follow such a basic, necessary rule. “You take care of your family too. Assholes don’t care about anyone but themselves.”

Jay’s voice was muffled, but Austin heard every word.

“I love you.” He didn’t say that often enough. Jay shivered with pleasure and pressed a kiss against Austin’s neck, unerringly finding the precise spot to make Austin’s eyes squeeze tightly closed as his body responded.

Jay kissed him again, this time adding a nip from his teeth. “Want to salvage something from tonight?”

“Yes.” There were a lot of other things Austin wanted to say, but he rarely shared more than a fraction of the thoughts that flitted through his head. He was the kind of guy who did what was needed and didn’t talk about it. “Shower okay?”

That was the kind of thing he wouldn’t put into words—the need to make Jay’s skin his again, to erase any lingering memory of Niall’s touch and put his on Jay instead. Austin wanted to touch every inch of Jay. He wanted to wash him clean and then take him to bed and fuck him, long and slow and careful.

The bathtub was an old claw-foot with a shower curtain that didn’t really do the job. Long before Austin had moved in, Jay had bought a collection of bath mats and spread them on the floor all around the tub to soak up the inevitable flood. The mats didn’t always dry out between showers, so Austin had insisted on a strict schedule of trips through the washer and dryer that was tiresome but necessary, like so many other things in life.

Austin was grateful every day that his relationship with Jay was the complete opposite of tiresome. He was still in awe of Jay’s skin, of the light freckles that decorated Jay’s shoulders and the smooth silkiness of Jay’s lower back. Every smile Jay directed toward him was like an amazing gift. Sure, the piles of books and the clutter got on his nerves, but none of that was important when compared to Jay’s loving, generous spirit.

Aware he was getting lost in thought, Austin forced himself to focus on the moment. He reached for the soap and a washcloth. “Turn around,” he said softly.

Jay obeyed at once. Austin supposed both of them were inclined to do that in certain circumstances—and naked, wet, and horny definitely qualified—but now that they were floating, no hand on the rudder since Patrick had left, it always seemed to be him giving the orders. He didn’t want to, though. It didn’t feel right. God, this was so messed up.

He glanced down at Jay’s ass, mottled faintly with rising bruises, the pale skin splotched with scarlet. If Patrick had made it look like that, Jay would’ve been twisting around to stare at it in the mirror every chance he got until the marks faded, touching the tender skin and loving every twinge. Austin got a kick out of Jay’s wholehearted enjoyment of the aftermath of a scene. It was so rare to see him exuberant. Jay’s happiness ran more to a steady glow than a blaze.

With his finger, he traced around a particularly dark patch of skin. Niall must’ve struck it repeatedly. That could feel intense in the moment, as Austin knew from experience, but it hurt like hell too. Jay hadn’t been anything like ready for that level of pain so early in the session. No wonder he’d safe worded. Austin had been there, lost in the pain, unable to use it to guide him to any kind of emotional resolution. Patrick had picked up his confusion and eased back at once, so by the time the spanking was over, Austin had been sobbing with relief, not panic.

“Throbs,” Jay said, a plaintive note in his voice.

“Yeah, it’s pretty raw there,” Austin said, not sugarcoating it. Jay would see it for himself, if not tonight, tomorrow. “The skin’s not broken, though.”

“Scrub it,” Jay said. His hands were flat against the tiled wall, but as he spoke, they tightened into fists. “Scrub it clean, Austin.”

It was his thoughts given words, but Austin hesitated.

“Hurt me,” Jay begged, his voice breaking. “Not much, but I need—I need to feel it from you. From someone I trust. I can remember him behind me, and God, I can still smell him on me. He reeked.”

Austin wrinkled his nose sympathetically. Niall had been wearing cologne, the scent musky and thick enough to make his throat close up at first, though he’d gotten used to it after a while and tuned it out. Jay tended to react badly to certain odors, and strong perfumes were high on the list.

“I want to forget him,” Jay said. “Make me. Please, Austin?”

Austin went to his knees. There was no way he could ignore the appeal in Jay’s voice, not tonight. Not ever.

The slippery surface, hard, unyielding, hurt his knees, but he’d learned how to push discomfort aside when it wasn’t important. Nothing mattered but giving Jay the reassurance he needed.

He worked up a thick lather on the washcloth and then applied it to Jay’s skin, too gently at first. It made him angry if he thought about it too much, knowing Jay needed things he wasn’t capable of giving. He wanted to give Jay everything, and he couldn’t. It sucked. Austin tried to channel that anger into his hands, turning them rough and scrubbing the area that was already the sorest if Jay’s breathing had anything to say about it.

“Yeah.” Jay’s voice broke again. It was almost a sob. “Like that. Little harder.”

Austin did as he’d been told, feeling emotion choking him, his eyes stinging and the back of his throat tight and thick with it. “There,” he said, scrubbing harder. “You’re clean. Feel it? Nothing but soap and skin.”

“Want you.” Jay was trembling, and on instinct Austin slid the washcloth up between Jay’s thighs and gripped his cock with it. He knew the cloth was rough and soapy and could imagine how it felt, the sheer fucking relief of pressure and stimulation on an erection that wanted to explode.

He leaned in and kissed Jay’s soap-slick ass, and Jay gasped, hips rocking.

“Good? Can you come like this?” It was an awkward position, but the panted sounds of Jay’s pleasure would have kept Austin going even if it had hurt.

“Ah. God. So close.”

“I know.” Austin slid his pinky finger, still sudsy, between the rounded globes of Jay’s ass and teased his hole. He was hard himself, turned on by Jay’s arousal, and, like Jay, with a lot of built-up heat from the scene. Kneeling, his ass as tender as Jay’s—though Niall had done a better job of spreading out the strokes—Austin focused on how good it’d felt to bend over, cry out, to kneel, waiting, holding position, and ruthlessly edited Niall out of the picture.

He worked his finger deeper, Jay trembling but holding still when Austin could tell he wanted to bear down. So good, so fucking obedient. They both were, but it was wasted because they had no one to be good for.

He nudged Jay with his shoulder, moving him so the soft rain of water from the shower rinsed Jay’s ass clean of soap on one side at least. One cheek was still marbled with white swirls, creamy against the flushed red skin. He kissed the clean, wet cheek, feeling the heat of the punished flesh against his lips, and moaned as he remembered the sound of the leather against his ass. His fingers tightened reflexively around Jay’s cock, and Jay whimpered, a frantic, imploring sound.

Austin wanted to make this last, use the waiting to take Jay deeper, but Jay was sobbing now, breathless incoherencies spilling from lips so ready to smile at him. He couldn’t hold back. He bit and licked Jay’s ass, his hands busy now, his finger knuckle-deep in the tight, clinging channel. Jay’s skin tasted of water and nothing else, no one else.

He knew thirty seconds before Jay came that it was imminent—he could feel it in the way his body mirrored Jay’s, and as soon as the pulse of Jay’s cock began, he dropped his other hand to his dick and stroked it fast and hard. It wasn’t a great orgasm—not even close—but it was still a relief to let go of the tension.

In the aftermath, they were both quiet, breathing heavily. The sound of the water hitting skin, cast iron, and the plastic shower curtain liner was almost hypnotic, and Austin felt lulled by it. If he hadn’t been aware the water was going to turn cold sooner rather than later, he would have been tempted to lie down right there on the floor of the bathtub and go to sleep. Instead he leaned his forehead against Jay’s ass and mumbled, “Sleepy.”

“Yeah, me too.” Jay shut off the water and urged Austin to his feet, and somehow they managed to dry themselves off and stumble to the bedroom.

Austin face-planted into his pillow. “This is good.”

Jay mumbled something Austin didn’t bother to translate. Too sleepy to do more than curve his body into the position he liked to start the night in, though he always woke on his back, he let the day slip away from him.

Chapter Two

“Jay, you’re going to be late. If you’re not on the road by eight, you won’t make it, not now they’re digging up Lockwood. It’s down to one lane there, and the traffic gets backed up at rush hour. You know that.”

Austin sounded stressed as he headed toward the door, and Jay hated that. Being late mattered; he knew it did. It was just so difficult to focus first thing in the morning. The library opened at nine thirty, but the employees were supposed to be there an hour earlier. It was easier when he was on the shift that stayed until the library closed at eight. He didn’t have to go in until noon then. The trade-off was less time in the evening with Austin, though, and that sucked.

He set his coffee mug down on the small kitchen table, moving aside a magazine he’d been reading to make room for it. The table was sticky, and he decided to make an effort when he got home and do some tidying. Austin liked it neat. Austin’s room, tiny, used mostly for storage though there was a bed in it, was spotless, an oasis of order in the middle of Jay’s chaos. Jay walked over to the door, automatically swerving to avoid a pile of laundry. He’d meant to put it away, but the phone had rung and he’d gotten distracted. He wasn’t letting Austin leave without saying good-bye properly.

“Late,” Austin repeated, but he returned Jay’s hug, the two of them carving out a moment of peace. Austin’s blond hair needed cutting, his bangs drifting down over his blue eyes, but Jay loved playing with it, running his fingers through it, messing it up, and he never told Austin it was time to get it trimmed.

“How’s your ass?”

Austin shrugged, his hand sliding down to cup Jay’s ass. The touch felt good, but Jay tried not to let it get him worked up. No time to do anything with Austin, and if he jerked off after Austin left, he really would be late. “Sore. Yours?”

“Same. Why do we both have jobs that mean we’re sitting down all day?”

“Bad planning?” Austin shook his head as soon as he’d said it, a smile appearing. “Hell, who’re we kidding? You know we both like the reminder.” His smile faded. “Usually.”

“Forget about it,” Jay said, knowing Austin would be worrying about him all day. If he let himself think about Niall, his skin felt creepy-crawly, but he hadn’t been tied down and Austin had been right there. Nothing bad could’ve happened, not really. He had to remember that. Even if part of him was still shocked and bruised at Niall’s decision to ignore him, like he didn’t matter, like he didn’t count. Not cool. Not cool at all. “It’s over. We move on. Right?”

“Right.” Austin kissed the edge of his ear, and Jay knew from the way he did it that he was going to be stewing about the situation for the rest of the day.

He knew just as certainly there was nothing he could say to change that.

* * * * *

Unsurprisingly Jay was late to work, but not late enough that anyone would say anything about it. There was a bag of books next to the return slot, so he snagged it on his way into the library, knowing Nancy would have meant to come back for it but forgotten in the face of all the other things on her plate.

People were always donating books—sometimes they put them into the book slot with the returns, which always resulted in a moment’s confusion when they were discovered—and Jay was always claiming some of them as his. That was how he ended up with so many stacks of them at home.

“Oh, thanks,” Nancy said as he brought the bag into the office.

“No problem.”

“Anything good?” Nancy was sorting mail into a couple of different piles that no doubt made perfect sense to her but would be incomprehensible to Jay.

“Haven’t looked yet.” He was itching to, though. Who knew what might be in there? He knew realistically that finding a signed first edition of The Hobbit wasn’t going to happen, but among the generic thrillers and tattered children’s books, he might find something interesting. His first love was fantasy, but he read too much, too quickly to confine himself to one genre.

“Do it, and if there’s nothing you want, sort through them. Any that are in good enough condition can go for the book sale. The rest—”

“Not the recycle bin,” Jay said. He hated throwing books away. It felt wrong, like littering or chopping down trees.

Nancy gave him a sympathetic look. “Sorry. Has to be done. We can’t use them, and no one will buy them.”

“I could take them to the thrift store,” Jay said, bargaining for their survival like he always did, even though it would add fifteen minutes to his journey home.

“They don’t mind being recycled,” Nancy said absently, her attention back on her mail. “Back to their roots. Circle of life. Ashes to ashes, pulp to pulp.”

Jay set the bag down under his desk, out of the way. If they didn’t mind, he did.

After a busy morning dealing with a stack of interlibrary loan requests, he ate his lunch outside. Spring had been slow in arriving this year, but the grass of Madison was finally green, not brown, and the small garden outside the library, city-maintained, was bright with tulips in candy pink and yellow. Jay found a bench and opened his book along with his box of sandwiches, carefully setting his watch to beep at him when it was time to go back to work. Once, two years ago, he’d forgotten to do that, and only the splash of raindrops on the pages had broken the spell of the story he was reading.

Nancy had been less than pleased with him, but he’d met Austin at the library that afternoon, and there was nothing about that day he wanted to change, ever.

He’d noticed the young man wandering the stacks with a scrap of paper in one hand and a couple of books tucked under his arm. It would have been hard not to notice him with his curly blond hair and blue eyes…

* * * * *

“Can I help you find something?” Jay finally asked when the blond appeared a fourth time.

“I don’t know? Maybe. I mean…the computer says this book is checked in, but I can’t find it.”

“The computer is usually right,” Jay told him, moving around the main desk and heading toward him. “Sometimes people put books back where they don’t belong. And sometimes people steal them, of course, but that’s usually certain titles.”

“Really? Like what?”

“Here, let me see.” Jay took the piece of paper and frowned. “Huh, yeah, this should be here.” He moved to where the book should have been shelved and crouched down. “Well, The Guinness Book of World Records, for one.”

“Seriously? Are people trying to break the record for that too?” The young man sounded as amused as Jay had been the first time he heard it.

“Maybe. And Abbie Hoffman, of course. Oh, here it is.” The missing book, Marijuana—What’s a Parent to Believe?, had been pushed back behind the row, and its front cover was bent. Smoothing it, Jay stood. “You have kids?”

“What? Oh, no. Younger sister.” The blond reached for the book. “Thanks. Abbie Hoffman?”

Jay hadn’t let go, which meant they were both holding it. “He wrote a book called Steal This Book,” he explained. “Political thing. Was there, um, anything else you were looking for?”

“No, just this. And these, but I found these. Obviously.”

Reluctantly Jay let go of the book and gestured toward the main desk. “I could check you out?”

“I kind of hoped you already were,” the blond said, grinning. He tucked the book in with the others he had and offered Jay his hand. “I’m Austin.”

Jay took Austin’s hand. He’d always wanted to possess some sort of psychic ability. At the age of eleven, he’d wanted to be a wizard, but he’d let that go. Telekinesis would’ve been cool, but the idea of telepathy kind of freaked him out. Minds were full of dark places. With Austin’s palm warm against his, he just knew this was going to work out. It might not be a genuine psychic flash, but he was willing to count it.

“Jay.”

“You’re new here, aren’t you? I come in a lot, and I’ve never seen you.”

Cute, gay, and into reading? Jay felt his smile start on the inside, a happy glow. Okay, this was too good to be true, but he was going to trust to fate and not start looking for flaws in a pretty perfect picture.

“Started two months ago, but this is the first week I’ve been out here. They’ve kept me busy in the processing office sticking on bar codes and entering books into the system.”

Austin grimaced, looking like he understood. “I’m the office manager for two doctors, and it was the same for me when I started. Trial by paper cuts.”

Jay led Austin to the mercifully empty checkout desk and reluctantly put the counter between them. Checking books out was easy, just a matter of letting the computer read the library card, then scanning the bar code on the back of each book. Because he loved books, he always glanced at the title as he checked a book out, though he’d soon learned not to start up a conversation. That always led to a long line of impatient library patrons and, once, a scolding from an embarrassed elderly lady checking out three steamy romances sandwiched between books on quilting.

It wasn’t nosy to look at Austin’s information on the screen, though. Jay was supposed to do that, to make sure the card wasn’t out of date. They were renewed each year. Austin still had plenty of time left on his, but Jay couldn’t help seeing his full name—Austin James Fisher—and noticing Austin lived only a mile or two away from him.

He gave Austin a sheepish look and found Austin smiling at him, an amused glint in his eyes as if he’d known what Jay was doing and didn’t mind.

Ducking his head, Jay concentrated on checking out Austin’s books, wishing he knew the right words to propose a date. He wasn’t good with strangers, though once he got to know someone, he opened up. Austin felt like a potential friend, but that could just be his hopes misleading him.

The books went through, scanning without trouble, giving Jay no time to organize the words in his head into a coherent sentence. He reached for the last one, scanned, and flipped it automatically. The book was large and heavy, and he felt it slip through his fingers. He looked down at it and felt a jolt, similar to the one he’d experienced shaking Austin’s hand, a sizzle running through him, excitement and anticipation combined. The book was one he owned, the familiar cover blurring as he stared at it.

“Is this for your sister too?” His voice sounded weird, as if it was coming from far away.

Austin didn’t back down or make a joke of it. “Screw the Roses? No, that’s for me.”

Jay swallowed, dragging his gaze away from the picture of the bound woman, blindfolded and cuffed and meeting Austin’s eyes. “I’ve read it. I own it,” he said, and it turned out that was all he needed to say.

* * * * *

Austin had been the one to propose their first date, which was coffee on the weekend followed by dinner the following night, and they’d hardly been apart since. In some ways, they were exactly the same, and in others they were almost complete opposites—Jay’s messiness and Austin’s neat streak came to mind—but those two elements combined made them just about perfect partners.

The only thing they lacked now was what Patrick had given them.

Jay was just finishing his lunch when his cell phone started to play the theme song from Indiana Jones. He fumbled the phone from his pocket and answered the call. “Hey there, boyfriend.”

“Hi, boyfriend.” Austin sounded distant, which probably meant he was still thinking about the night before. Being Austin, though, he wouldn’t let it affect his ability to work. He’d just keep plugging away. “How’s your day?”

“Okay. How’s yours?” Jay licked his thumb and rubbed the corner of his mouth.

“Long. And we’ve had four no-shows, which always puts Chelle in a shitty mood.” If Austin was swearing it meant he’d either left the office or was in the supply room out back. “Let’s do something tonight.”

It was Friday. Friday used to mean they met up with Patrick. Not every Friday—he was an antique dealer, and that meant driving out to estate sales sometimes hundreds of miles away—but most of them. The arrangement with Patrick had only lasted a year, but it felt like longer, like they’d always had him in their lives.

Still mourning the death of his partner six months earlier, Patrick hadn’t been interested in a romantic relationship, something that had suited Austin and Jay just fine. They’d been given his number by a Domme called Laura. She ran a monthly meeting in a local bar for people into the scene, hiring the back room for the night. Jay and Austin had gone there not knowing what to expect and found a group of people remarkable for being unremarkable, their ages ranging from mid-twenties, like them, to over sixty. They hadn’t been the only gay couple at the meetings, but they’d been the only pairing of two submissives.

“How does it work with you two?” Laura had asked them bluntly after the third meeting. “Is it difficult involving someone else?”

“It’s really difficult,” Austin had told her. “We’ve had a few offers from people here, but we don’t want to commit to anything long-term, and without that buildup of trust, it’s just…it doesn’t work very well.”

“Complicated,” Laura had said thoughtfully. “You want to get to know a Dom, without him feeling that he’s part of your day-to-day life, and you won’t split up for scenes.”

“Absolutely not,” Jay had said. “We’re in this together. It’s the way we want it.”

“There’s someone you haven’t met here. He was never really into all this socializing.” Laura had gestured at the room filled with people talking about everything from pets to vacations as the meeting wound down. “I can vouch for him, though. He lost his partner last year. Car accident. Very sad. Knowing Patrick, he’s missing having someone to play with, though he might not be willing to admit it even to himself. If you want a no-strings spanking from someone who knows his way around and isn’t interested in a relationship or sex, you three might just click.”

Which they had, and with a lot less effort than Jay had thought possible. It had worked out so well. They’d all gotten what they needed from the relationship, and Patrick hadn’t expected anything from them. Once, following a particularly intense session, with Patrick visibly aroused, Jay and Austin had shared a look and then gone down on their knees and offered to blow him. Patrick told them it wasn’t necessary, but the longing and loneliness in his voice gave a different answer. They took care of him, their mouths on him, warm and eager, the way he’d looked after them. It wasn’t how every session ended, but it was never something they were unwilling to do. In the long run, though, Patrick had decided to move, and they’d had to figure out how they’d manage without him. They were still trying. Jay wasn’t surprised it was an adjustment, but he was surprised by how difficult it was turning out to be.

“So what do you want to do tonight?”

Austin sighed. “I don’t know. I just feel like we should go out and do something that will be, you know, what we expect it to be.”

“Then maybe we should go see the movie with the worst reviews,” Jay suggested. “It would have a good chance of being the kind of bad we’d be expecting.”

“I don’t know if I’m in the right mood for that. Could we go shopping? At the mall?”

Jay was easy. “Sure, if you want.”

“I think I want to pretend we’re like everyone else,” Austin said.

“We are like everyone else,” Jay told him gently.

“If we were like everyone else, I’d be able to tell my mom why my porn of choice features leather, whips, and chains.”

Jay winced. “Austin, it’s your mom. She doesn’t want to hear about her baby boy looking at any kind of porn.”

He tried to picture his parents’ reaction if they’d discovered that along with an obsession with Middle-earth, he’d always fantasized about being tied up and spanked. It wouldn’t have gone down well. Luckily for him, after they’d divorced when he was at college, they’d both moved out of state with new partners and that particular discussion had never taken place. He visited them now and then, but the gaps between visits were getting longer. He didn’t fit in their new lives. No surprise since he’d never really felt like he belonged in their old ones. It could’ve been worse. They’d been unsurprised and vaguely supportive when he told them he was gay, they sent him generous checks for his birthday, and they were nice people who’d just fallen out of love with each other, but they’d never cracked a book for pleasure. He’d spent most of his childhood waiting to be told he was adopted.

“True.” Austin chuckled, the soft sound tickling Jay’s ear. “She found Tim’s stash last month, did I tell you? She was going to quietly shove it back under the mattress, but April went into this long rant about the exploitation of women and threw it into the recycling. Then Mom freaked out in case the neighbors saw it, and it all went south from there.”

As an only child, Jay viewed Austin’s large family with a mixture of envy at how close they all were and the conviction he’d have gone quietly insane living with them for more than a week. The noise level inside their crowded home was off the scale. Music, TV, raised voices, and barking dogs…

Three younger brothers, one hellion of a sister, just turning eighteen, and a father who’d died when Sarah Fisher was pregnant with April, had forced Austin to step up to the plate when he’d been barely into his teenage years.

Jay sometimes wondered how much of Austin’s love of submission could be explained by the responsibilities he’d been forced to shoulder. It had to feel good to let someone else call the shots, if only for a few hours a week.

He’d never bothered to work out why he felt the way he did about being a sub. He just did. It was like asking him why he liked purple better than red or melon but not kiwi fruit. They didn’t go to many of the meetings now, though they’d kept in touch with a few of the people they’d met there. At the meetings, when the topic came up—and it did, frequently—he’d heard people talk about pivotal moments, childhood spankings or lack of them, and he had nothing to contribute. Sometimes he wondered if the answer did lie buried deeply in his head, but not enough to go digging for it.

“I’m really glad you moved in with me. I don’t tell you that enough.”

“Are you kidding me? It saved my sanity.” Austin sighed, the faint sound carrying down the phone. “I miss seeing them every day, and I feel guilty about bailing, but my brothers are old enough not to need me, and April… We’re better off with some distance between us right now.”

“She’d be the same with anyone she saw as an authority figure.” Jay was hesitant to suggest it even though he was convinced it was true, mostly because he wasn’t sure how Austin would take it.

“Maybe. She sure as hell doesn’t show Mom much respect, but Mom’s got all kinds of weird guilt issues where her ‘baby girl’ is concerned.”

This conversation was starting to freak Jay out. Not in a bad way, but they hadn’t talked about Austin’s family’s dynamic much. Any discussion they had usually ended up sounding more like the dialogue from a sitcom—lighthearted and slightly sarcastic. Jay had always known Austin had a lot going on under the surface, but it had been water he’d done no more than dip his toes into. “It’s got to be hard, being the youngest and the only girl.”

“She’s had it too easy,” Austin said. “Four older brothers taking care of her and a mom who wasn’t around enough to keep her in line.”

“If she had been around, there wouldn’t have been much food on the table,” Jay pointed out. Austin’s mom had worked long hours until her kids had grown up and started taking care of her. Thanks to Austin’s example, his brothers seemed to accept that necessity without resenting it. Sean and Timothy, now in their early twenties, were getting restless and wanting places of their own, like Chad and Austin, but Jay couldn’t imagine them leaving their mother to fend for herself even if they did move out. Part of Austin’s paycheck went directly into his mother’s bank account and always would.

“Yeah. I guess it was me as much as Mom who let her get away with murder. I wasn’t sure how to handle a girl, so I figured Mom would take care of all that female stuff, you know?” Austin was quiet for a few long moments, then said, “Wow, heavy conversation for a lunch break. Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I like that you can talk to me, you know? I just wish you were right here instead of over there.”

The library and the surgery weren’t a long way from each other, but it would take Jay twenty minutes to get there and with an hour for lunch, a round trip of forty minutes, maybe more, just wasn’t practical. They sometimes met in the middle at a small café, but even that involved so many phone calls and texts as meetings and emergencies got in the way that it wasn’t really worth it, especially now that they were living together.

“Me too. And now I’ve got to go. Sorry.” The reluctance in Austin’s voice was like a kiss.

Jay smiled. “I’m going to buy you something tonight,” he said and put every ounce of seductive promise into the words he could. “Something special.”

It came out sounding as if he had a sore throat, but his intention must’ve been clear enough because Austin, after a choked snort of laughter, sounded gratifyingly hoarse himself. “What kind of special?”

Jay smiled at an old man walking his dog past the tulips, not caring that all he got in return was a suspicious glare. “Nothing we can get at the mall, so I guess you’ll have to wait and see.”

“We can skip the mall.”

Jay shook his head, even if Austin couldn’t see it. “No, I need some paint, and I’m out of moss to go around the troll’s bridge.”

Austin groaned. “You get twenty minutes in the model shop, okay? Twenty. And if you go over, I’m dragging you right past the bookstore.”

“You’d never do that.” Jay frowned down at the path in front of his bench, watching some industrious ants bustle around a tumbled heap of rocks, a miniature landscape just like the ones he built in the loft space above their apartment. “You wouldn’t? Austin?”

“If you’re out of the most boring store in the world in less than twenty minutes, I won’t have to.”

“It’s not—” Jay took a deep breath and abandoned the argument before it began. “I’ll be good.”

“If you are, I’ll buy you something special,” Austin said. “It’ll be like Christmas. Really late Christmas.”

“Or really early.” Jay didn’t care either way. He loved Christmas, and the most recent one he’d spent with Austin had been as close to perfect as he could have wished for. They’d had an amazing tree and piles of presents, and Christmas breakfast had consisted of the two of them snuggled on the couch in their almost identical new bathrobes, sipping hot chocolate and eating fresh cinnamon rolls. The apartment had smelled like cinnamon for days. “Too bad there won’t be candy canes.”

“Yeah, I think those are a seasonal thing. Have a good afternoon, okay?”

“Love you.”

“Love you two.”

“Love you three,” Jay said. If he’d heard anyone else say that, he’d have rolled his eyes at the sap overload, but when it was between them, it felt like a joke only they got.

He tucked his phone away and left a scatter of bread crumbs for the ants.

Did they even eat bread? Maybe he’d look it up when he got back to the library. He was going through Dewey numbers in his head as he crossed the road, but he made it to the other side, so he must’ve looked both ways.

Chapter Three

Jay paused in front of the hall mirror again and smoothed the front of his new shirt. “You really didn’t have to buy me this.”

“And miss out on seeing you preen? What a thought.” Austin grinned, propping his feet up on the coffee table so he could rest the laptop on his thighs. “Besides, it looks amazing on you, and you know it.”

“Really?” Jay fiddled with the top button. “It’s not too much?”

Austin shook his head. “Just enough.” The deep emerald green of the shirt brought out the tiny flecks of green in Jay’s mostly brown eyes, enhancing the elfin vibe he already had going. “Now get over here.”

“Okay, okay. Jeez, just order me around, why don’t you.” Jay flopped onto the couch next to him and stretched his legs out beside Austin’s. “How awesome is it that Nicole’s boss is paying for wireless?”

Nicole lived on the floor beneath them, a tall, thin blonde with enough energy that she could probably have powered the Internet solo if there was some way to plug her into it. Austin liked her—difficult not to—but she was tiring to be around. “Awesome. I’d kiss him if I could.” Austin looked sideways at Jay’s expression, which immediately shifted into one of outrage. “Kidding, kidding! I don’t want to kiss him. He’s probably old. And gross.”

“So you’d want to kiss him if he was young and hot?”

“Well…” Austin pretended to reconsider, then yelped when Jay jabbed fingers into his side. “Ack! Okay, no, no, I wouldn’t kiss him! Only you, forever and ever!” He was giggling uncontrollably now even though Jay wasn’t poking him anymore. His ticklishness was the bane of his existence.

“That’s better.” Jay rescued the laptop from him and started to type. “Let’s try Amazon first.”

Wheezing, Austin straightened up. “We’re not buying sex toys from Amazon.”

“They’re probably cheaper,” Jay said reasonably.

“They’re probably covered with dust from sitting in some huge warehouse somewhere.” Austin rested his head on Jay’s shoulder. “Mm. This is the best kind of shopping.”

“Yeah. Malls make my head feel like it’s about to explode. Too much noise, too many people.”

“You’re just sulking because they didn’t have the right kind of moss.”

“It was too green! Moss shouldn’t be fluorescent.” Jay chewed his lip in thought. “At least, I guess maybe sometimes it is… Hey, would it be cool if I did something on an alien planet just for a change? Everything all the wrong color because the sun was a red giant…”

Austin had a love/hate relationship with Jay’s creative side. On the one hand, it was part of what made Jay who he was, and there was nothing about Jay that wasn’t lovable. However, if he got involved in a project, he could spend hours in the loft, patiently tweaking tiny scraps of wood and fabric into part of a landscape, forgetting Austin existed. It wasn’t good for Austin’s ego, and it left him feeling resentful of the dioramas, though he genuinely appreciated the skill that went into making them.

With his head on Jay’s shoulder, biting Jay’s earlobe was an easy way to distract him from world building, though. “Cuffs. Crops. Clamps. Candy-flavored lube and other things starting with c.”

“Why do they have to start with c?” Jay asked, but he was looking at the screen again, scrolling through some sites they’d bookmarked. He clicked on one, a site they’d bought their first paddle from. Austin could remember it arriving and how they’d both gotten hard just from looking at it lying there in its box. Jay had run his finger over it, then snatched it back as if the paddle was hot, his breathing quickening.

They’d been desperate to feel it on their asses, but they’d been good and waited to give it to Patrick, who’d grinned at them, handling it with a confident ease that’d left Austin’s mouth dry with anticipation. He’d bent them both over his couch, close enough that Jay’s arm had brushed Austin’s, and paddled them both at the same time with it, dealing out the swats fast enough that even when it was Jay’s ass on the receiving end, not his, Austin didn’t have time to catch his breath. It’d been fun, intense, and they’d shared the experience, every second of it, which made it perfect.

He could remember it vividly as Jay scrolled through the selection of toys. “That could be fun.” Austin pointed at the screen.

It was a flogger made of deerskin, a collection of thin straps. Imagining it striking his bare ass, Austin felt his cock start to swell.

“Oh my God, look at this!” Jay clicked, and they both stared at the photo.

“The Pleasure Machine?” Austin frowned, then tilted his head. “How does that even work?”

“Good question.” Jay scrolled down. “I think that part goes under the bed and then you just…lie there. Oh look, it comes in hot pink.” He laughed. “Good thing, right? Wouldn’t want your thousand-dollar fucking machine to clash with your decor.”

“So far out of our budget it might as well be a Lamborghini.”

“It probably is the Lamborghini. Of fucking machines.” Jay shook his head and took them back to the previous page. “Okay, focus. Let’s try looking at stuff we can actually afford.”

“What about those?” Austin pointed at a link.

“Medical play?” Lifting an eyebrow, Jay clicked on the link in question. “Is there something about your job you aren’t telling me?”

“Yeah, my bosses are secretly kinky. And so are all their patients. Once I get to the office, I’m on my hands and knees.” Austin grinned and rolled his eyes.

Jay perked up. “Ooh, like in Secretary! That was hot. Hey, those look kind of cool.” He indicated some bright green scissor-style nipple clamps.

“You don’t think they’d be too much?” Austin knew from experience that while Jay loved to have his nipples played with, he was also pretty sensitive and could go from excited to overstimulated very quickly.

“Maybe. Yes.” Jay still sounded tempted.

They were both getting edgy, needing something the other couldn’t provide. Austin could climax, his cock deep in Jay’s mouth, his balls high and tight, coming with a gasp and a moan, gloriously, totally satisfied because hell, who wouldn’t be? Jay gave the best fucking blowjobs Austin had ever had, all his concentration focused on making Austin whimper for him, his tongue like the softest whip imaginable, flicking against every sweet spot on Austin’s cock over and over.

Austin could have that every morning if they woke up early enough, and return the favor, stealing Jay’s voice, the choked-off moans Jay made like their own language. He could lay Jay out on the bed, long and tall and all his, the strands of Jay’s hair dark against the plain white pillow, and rub off on him, a palmful of lube making everything slip and slide just right. Austin loved pouring lube into the crack of Jay’s ass and riding the groove until there was nothing easier than sliding inside Jay, slow inch by slow inch.

He could kneel in front of Jay and open his mouth, moaning as Jay teased him, stroking Austin’s parted lips with his fingers, letting Austin suck on them but not giving Austin his cock to taste until they were both so close to coming that Austin only got to feel it fill his mouth for a few thrusts before Jay’s spunk was surging out, hitting the back of his throat, a salt wave of it, soft and thick.

They could hurt each other, fingers pinching nipples, hands slapping thighs and asses as they jerked each other off. They could fuck each other with dildos, make each other wait to come—but it just wasn’t the fucking same. It wasn’t enough.

They could take turns being a Dom—kind of—but they couldn’t fool each other or themselves that they were very good at it. They didn’t need a third person in their bed, but they did need someone to kneel for, someone who could make the ache of need die away for a while.

Austin realized his hand was clenched into a fist, and forced it to relax. God, he was so fucking wound up. He pressed closer against Jay, a needy whine spilling from him.

Startled, Jay turned his head, his eyes wide. He didn’t say anything—Jay waited before he spoke, most of the time at least—but after he’d studied Austin in silence for a moment, he sighed. “Me too.”

“You don’t know what I want,” Austin said, just to be awkward, because of course Jay did know.

Jay nodded at the screen, then ran his hand over Austin’s chest and down to the unmistakable shape of his cock, pushing up against his zipper. “Yeah, I do. You want to buy the nastiest, kinkiest things they’ve got and beg someone to use them on you, fucking grovel if that’s what it takes, and kiss their boots after they’re done playing with you because you’re so fucking grateful. You want to watch me get spanked raw and red, ass up over someone’s knee, hearing me cry and beg, seeing me squirm and fight until he makes me stop just by telling me to lie still and take it, all of it. Maybe you’re watching from a corner, roped so tightly you can’t move, white rope and black, all knots and lines. Your skin’s red from being whipped and you look so beautiful I keep staring at you until he sees me and puts his hand in my hair and turns my head away, but I know he’s looking at you too, because how could he help it? And there’s a ball gag making your jaw ache so much you’re crying, tears sliding down your face that you can’t wipe away. You love not being able to speak too much to want him to take it out, though, unless it’s so you can crawl over and lick my ass when he’s done spanking it, lick the sting clean off it, feel how hot it is for yourself. You want—”

It was like getting punched in the gut hearing Jay recite that list in a dreamy, calm voice as if he was describing a movie he was watching or reading from a book. Austin listened until he couldn’t bear to hear another word, staring transfixed into Jay’s dark eyes, then put his fingers on Jay’s mouth, not surprised to see his hand was shaking. “Jay. Fuck. Stop.” He pulled his hand back, the swift, unthinking push of Jay’s lips against his fingertips leaving them warm and tingling.

His voice was shaky too. They’d never done anything like that with Patrick. It’d all been, well, not tame exactly, but limited by the restrictions the three of them had set in place. He’d spanked them, tied them up, posed them, and punished them if they’d broken position—and yeah, sometimes they’d done it deliberately, but that was part of the game—but Patrick had never done anything like the things Jay was describing.

Jay’s eyes were deer-in-the-headlights huge, as if he’d shocked himself by what he’d said. He swallowed hard, his throat muscles working. “Okay, I think I just turned myself on. A lot. Fuck.” He gave an anguished little whimper that would’ve been cute if Austin hadn’t been aware of just how desperate Jay was feeling, because it matched his hunger. It went deeper than sexual frustration, which wasn’t exactly a problem for them anyway. “Looking at toys—bad idea, really, really bad. It’s like being on a diet and reading recipe books.”

“Not that you have any experience with that.” Austin knew he shouldn’t rest his hand over Jay’s cock, not when they were both so needy, but he couldn’t help it. He could feel the heat of Jay through the fabric of his jeans and underwear, and he let his thumb trace Jay’s dick to the head. “We’re so screwed.”

“No, we aren’t. We’ll figure this out. Find someone else, maybe. Or how to do it on our own.” Jay shivered. “Stop, okay?”

“Stop touching you?” Austin's fingers closed on Jay’s zipper and drew it down slowly. “You don’t really want me to do that. You want me to touch you.”

“I don’t want you to tease me.”

Austin turned his head and bit Jay’s shoulder, then shifted so he could see the dark, damp spot his mouth had left behind. “You like to be teased.”

“Not like this,” Jay pleaded. Austin genuinely had no idea whether he should continue or not, a dilemma which on its own was probably indication enough that playing Dom was beyond his capabilities.

“I don’t know what to do,” he admitted. “I don’t know how to do this, and I want to. It’s killing me that I can’t give you what you need.”

Jay growled, pure frustration giving it an edge he wasn’t usually capable of. “Yeah, well, I know how that feels.” He rolled his head, his mouth pinched tight. “If I drank, right now is when I’d be sucking on a bottle of vodka. Or tequila. Something.”

“No, you wouldn’t.” Austin had seen Jay drunk once, and if the ball of mush he turned into after a few beers was cute as hell, the puking, whimpering mess he became the next day was too high a price to pay.

They stared at each other, all out of words. Austin felt his arousal ebb, and he sighed. Maybe they could just have an early night and snuggle or something. It was at the opposite end of the spectrum to what they wanted, but in some ways, that made it less grating than sex would’ve been.

“I’m going to take a bath,” Jay said abruptly. He rose and walked off to the bathroom without looking back, the snick as the door closed a definite hint that he wanted to get wet by himself.

Austin scrubbed at his face with his hands and sighed. Shit. He hated this. Hated it. The rush of water and the resulting clang from the ancient pipes assaulted his ears, and he stood, walked over to the window, and forced it open so he could take a deep breath of fresh air.

The street outside was quiet, the tall trees bright with new leaves. It was too dark to see them, but he could hear them rustle in the breeze even over the bath filling. It was soothing in a way. A bunch of kids at the corner were talking in the glow of a streetlight, their high voices raised in excitement, their laughter floating up to him. From here, it was hard to be sure, but Austin thought one of them was Nicole’s son, Jon. Nice kid, skinny and tall enough at twelve to come up to Austin’s shoulder. The muted thud of a bounced basketball confirmed it. Jon practically lived with that ball in arm’s reach. Austin had joined in a pickup game at the local court when Jon and his friends had needed an extra player, and he’d been impressed by Jon’s moves.

Austin picked moodily at the peeling paint on the sill and, lost to sight almost immediately, watched the flakes flutter down. He felt bruised and depressed, not a good combination.

The phone rang, and he swung around, irritation rising at the intrusion. If it was someone trying to sell him something, he was going to tear them a fucking new one.

The phone wasn’t on its charging station, which annoyed him even more. By the time he found the handset—next to the sink in the kitchen, a stupid place to leave it—he was gritting his teeth, and he answered in a clipped, angry tone. “Hello?”

“Whoa. Am I interrupting something?”

Most of the anger went out of Austin in a sudden rush, and he leaned against the counter. “Patrick. No, you’re definitely not interrupting anything.”

“What’s wrong?”

It didn't surprise Austin that Patrick could tell something was wrong from just a couple of sentences. He hedged his answer, though he knew it wouldn't fool Patrick. “Nothing. Why?”

“You don’t sound right. Is Jay okay?”

“Depends on your definition of okay.” Austin sighed and tugged a chair out from under the table with his foot, then sat down heavily. “I mean, yeah, he isn’t sick or hurt or anything. Pissed off at me, I guess.”

“Did you have an argument?” Patrick sounded concerned, and for some reason that made Austin feel depressed.

“Not really. Yes. I don’t know.” In a voice not much above a whisper, he said, “We’re falling apart without you.”

There was a short silence before Patrick said firmly, “Nonsense. You two have to be one of the most stable, grounded couples I know. You didn’t need me, remember? You had each other, and that was enough.”

“It was when we had you. The sessions…they made everything else work. We’ve tried to find someone else, and God, Patrick, it’s been a nightmare.” With a few terse sentences, one eye on the bathroom door, Austin filled Patrick in on the events of the previous night. When he’d finished, he felt drained, lighter, as if a burden had been passed over.

Patrick’s voice was gentle when he replied. “I won’t tell you what I think of Niall because you don’t need to hear me swearing, but I do want to know how you’re handling it. It must have left you shaken up.”

“Me? It was Jay who—”

“No,” Patrick interrupted. “I’m sure Jay was upset, but he’s better at handling things than you give him credit for. It’s you I’m most concerned about. You’ve got this protective side to you, and with Jay it’s always turned up to eleven. If you’re blaming yourself in any way—”

“I’m not.” Austin knew he’d replied too quickly and forcefully to be convincing. He sighed. “Okay, maybe a little bit, but I’m not stupid. It was Niall’s fault.”

“Too fucking right it was,” Patrick said. “God, I’m so sorry that I left.”

“You had to go,” Austin said and wished he didn’t sound so desolate. “We’re happy for you.”

“You sound it,” Patrick said wryly. “Look, be honest with me. Is it me you’re missing or what I provided?”

Austin caught his breath. “God, Patrick, it’s both! You make it sound like we were using you, and it wasn’t like that.” Maybe at the beginning, a little, but not by the end.

“I know. I’m just wondering if you’re really looking for someone to replace me or, well, moping.”

“We were moping, but now we’re looking,” Austin assured him. He came clean. “We’re desperate, and I’m scared where we’ll end up if we don’t deal with this. We’re out of options. It’s not like there’s this huge pool of volunteers, you know?”

It was so easy to pour it all out to Patrick. Unfair to dump it on him, maybe, but Austin was past caring when Jay was like this.

“How about if you started looking in a bigger pool?” Patrick said after a long pause.

“Outside the area, you mean?” Austin studied the bowl of fruit on the counter. There was a brown spot on one of the apples, and he made a mental note to toss it out. They needed to eat more fruit. They bought it, but then they just left it in the bowl like buying it was enough to keep them healthy, and—

“Austin. Pay attention.” The familiar snap to Patrick’s voice make Austin jerk upright, his heart hammering. God, he’d missed hearing Patrick give him orders. “No, I don’t mean driving for hours and meeting up with someone who might be worse than Niall. I meant…would you consider someone who was straight if I could personally vouch for him?”

“Huh?” Austin felt confusion replace the brief spurt of happiness. “Why would a straight guy be interested in two male subs?”

“At least he wouldn’t place sex with you at the top of the list, the way Niall clearly did.”

“True.” It was something Austin had never considered; he’d never thought of anyone but a gay man as an option because so many straight ones, especially the older men who were experienced Doms, tended to run toward homophobic. And even if they weren’t, they might be turned off at seeing two guys together, which was kind of the opposite of the point even if sex wasn’t part of the D/s dynamic. “That wasn’t a hypothetical question, was it?”

“Not really. I do know someone, and I think chances are he’d be a good fit for you and Jay. He’s straight, divorced, but he reminds me of, well, me in a lot of ways. I’d like it if you’d think about it, at least—and not because I think you and Jay can’t make it on your own. You can. I know you can. I could see that from the moment we met.” Patrick’s voice changed slightly. “I want you to go find Jay and talk to him.”

“What, now?” Austin had heard the command. He shouldn’t argue, shouldn’t question.

“Yes. Now, Austin.”

“Yes, Sir.” It wasn’t deliberate, the addition of the title of respect for his former Dom. It just slipped out automatically.

The bathroom door was closed. It was hollow, though, so it didn’t allow for much in the way of privacy. Austin could hear water running into the tub as he knocked.

“Patrick’s on the phone,” he said to the door. “He wants us to talk.”

There were a few long seconds of silence; then Jay said, “Okay. Come in.”

Austin felt better when he turned the door handle and found it wasn’t locked, and better still when Jay smiled at him, even if it was tentative.

Sorry, Jay mouthed at the same time Patrick said, “Put the phone on speaker.”

Austin did that, then walked over to the bath, a matter of two short steps. He sat down on the edge of it, holding the phone out so all three of them would be able to hear each other. Jay sat up, the wet ends of his hair clinging to his chest and shoulders. His nipples were hard, even though the heat of the water had stained his skin pink, and Austin wanted to run his fingers across them, transfer the beading of water to his fingers and taste it.

“Jay, I owe you both an apology. Not for moving away, but for neglecting to arrange a replacement for my…services.”

Jay leaned forward, the words tumbling out. “No way, Patrick. No apologies. We found you and we’re…we should be able to… We can take care of it.”

“It’s okay,” Austin said, stroking Jay’s head. “He knows we can’t. I told him.”

Jay turned his head to look up at Austin. “He shouldn’t be worrying about us!” he hissed.

“I can hear you even when you whisper,” Patrick said, a suspicion of a chuckle audible. “Jay, I just put forward a proposal, but it’s obviously something that both of you have to be fully on board with.”

“You’re coming back?” Jay said, the eagerness in his voice painful to hear.

“No. For a visit, maybe in the fall, but no. I can’t. Not yet.” Patrick sounded regretful but firm. “I think that you both trust me enough to go along with my idea of a new Dom, so I’ll let Austin fill you in on that and you can call me when you’ve come to a decision. What I want to talk to you about is the way you two are doubting what you have.”

“We’re not.” Jay sounded hurt. He gave Austin an accusing look. “Did you tell him that?”

“I told him you came in here to sulk,” Austin snapped back. Jay was entitled to his space. Of course he was. But to just walk off like that was rude.

“I wasn’t sulking!”

“Boys.” Patrick sounded irritated, and that was rare enough to make them both go quiet. “God, if I was there, you’d both be yelping.”

“If you were here, we wouldn’t be fighting.” Jay’s voice cracked, and he struck the surface of the water with his hand, splashing Austin and the wall. “I need—I need so fucking much, Patrick, and so does Austin and we can’t…we tried to do it ourselves and it didn’t work—”

“You tried… No, don’t tell me. I can only imagine.” The irritation had gone now. Patrick sounded sympathetic—even if Austin suspected some amusement still lurked. “Trust yourselves. I do. Implicitly. You two are solid, rock solid, and this is just going to make you realize that.”

“No pain, no gain?” Austin said, using a towel to blot the water from his jeans.

Patrick laughed. “Well, you can’t expect me not to agree with that particular saying, now can you?”

“Who’s this new Dom you’re thinking of?” Jay asked with a spark of interest Austin silently thanked Patrick for inspiring. “Someone we know from the group?”

“Someone I know,” Patrick said. “We met a few years ago, though he wasn’t active in the scene at the time. His wife needed to redecorate, and I supplied some nice pieces of Regency furniture from my store. We hit it off. Liam and I, not his wife. She wasn’t my type at all.”

“His wife?” Jay gave Austin a questioning glance, and Austin shrugged helplessly. “He’s straight?”

“I believe so. The redecoration was a last-ditch attempt to salvage the marriage, but it didn’t work. Liam’s divorced now, living in that new subdivision, Maplewood Estates.”

“I know it,” Jay said with a hint of scorn. “Cookie-cutter four-bedroom houses with double garages.”

“Yes, but Liam’s not… Well, if you meet with him, you’ll be able to see what he’s like for yourself.”

Austin was feeling desperate enough to agree to just about anything right then, especially since it was Patrick suggesting it. “We can’t just turn up and ask him to spank us. He doesn’t know us.”

“I’ve mentioned you to him from time to time, as it happens.” Patrick chuckled. “I may have even boasted a little about how good you were. Even so, I’m sure you’ll all have questions. Do you want me to give him your number and have him call you?”

Jay and Austin exchanged a look, and Austin could read Jay’s eyes so well that it gave him hope. Jay was desperate too, and wanted this to work. And Jay loved him. “Yes,” Austin answered for both of them. “Yeah, that would be great.”

Chapter Four

“Don’t freak out,” Jay warned Austin. It was a pretty funny thing to say, since the chances of Austin freaking out in any visible way were slim to none. Still, it was reassuring to hear the words out loud even if they were both unnecessary and pointless.

“I just don’t want you to be disappointed.” Austin finished tying his work shoes, straightened, and looked at Jay.

“If I am, I am. You can’t stop that.” Jay knew he was being perfectly reasonable, but it warmed him anytime Austin said something protective.

They were meeting Patrick’s friend Liam—well, calling them friends might be stretching it a bit—for coffee at a local bookstore. Jay suspected Austin had suggested the location because if it didn’t go well, it would be easy enough to distract Jay with all the lovely books. But it was also a good place to talk, in an older building with lots of comfortable stuffed chairs and couches tucked away into little alcoves while still being public enough to feel safe.

Before Niall, they would’ve probably agreed to go to Liam’s house to do this without thinking twice about it, but they were both more cautious now. Jay couldn’t decide if that was a good thing. On the surface, yes, but they’d lost something that night. If he started thinking about that, he was going to be all melancholy and mope, and this Liam guy would probably decide they were too much trouble.

“I can make it less likely to happen.” Austin put his hand on Jay’s face, cupping his cheek. “At least, I wish we knew what he was like.”

Jay had formed a mental picture from the little Patrick had told them: expensive suit, intense blue eyes, doesn’t smile often, dark brown hair, shorter than either of them would ever wear it but compared to Patrick, he had plenty, taller than either Jay or Austin. And Liam sounded intimidating.

Patrick could be stern. Jay had loved it when he was, though he’d never admitted it even to Austin, who probably already knew. But Patrick had never made Jay feel anything but safe. The phone call had been short, with Liam sounding distracted if polite.

“Patrick likes him,” Jay offered. Those three words were the mantra he’d been using to calm down, and they seemed to work on Austin too because he relaxed visibly.

“Yeah. True.”

“It’s going to be fine.”

Austin glanced at the clock and winced. “Unless we’re late, in which case, way to make a bad first impression. Come on.”

If Austin drove more than a little bit over the speed limit, it was understandable though out of character for him. His thumbs beat a nervous rhythm on the steering wheel as they waited for the one empty space in the parking lot to open up.

“Come on, asshole, let’s go,” he muttered under his breath.

Jay gave him a disbelieving look. “Relax, would you? You’re going to give yourself a heart attack.”

“Yeah, I know.” Austin took a deep breath and let it out as he pulled the car into the finally vacated space. “Sorry. Okay. I’m under control. I just, you know—”

“You hate being late. I get it. But if you’re worried about making a good first impression, this isn’t the way to do it.” Jay felt for Austin, he really did. He also knew Austin would blame himself if this didn’t work out, no matter what Jay said. “You’re amazing. He’s going to see that.”

Austin shut off the car and gave Jay a look of such warmth and love it took his breath away. “You’re the one who's amazing.”

Jay smiled. “Well, let’s get our amazing selves in there and meet this guy.”

He saw the man who had to be Liam right away, already holding a cup of coffee and reading the back of a bestseller he must’ve taken from the display beside him. It was good the man was distracted, because it meant Jay could take time to study him without being too obvious.

Liam was wearing a beautifully fitted suit, his hair looked newly trimmed, and his shoes had to have cost at least three hundred dollars. If you looked closely, smile lines were visible around his eyes and mouth, but on casual viewing the man appeared to be stern, professional.

Perfect.

“Is that him?” Austin said into Jay’s ear.

“Who else could it be?” Jay had never been very good at figuring out if someone was gay or not. It had led to one embarrassing moment in high school that he really wished he could wipe from his memory, though the guy he’d impulsively kissed hadn’t looked insulted or angry—just stunned. When it came to spotting someone who looked capable of bringing him to his knees with a downward twitch of a finger, though, he was pretty damn good.

Liam Thornton probably wouldn’t even need the finger twitch.

“Good point,” Austin muttered. “He’s very, uh, he’s…”

“Waiting for us,” Jay said, feeling like a kid caught sneaking candy. “Shit.”

Liam had glanced up, spotted them immediately, and frowned just slightly, as if he was trying to figure out why he was being stared at like a zoo exhibit. It made him look forbidding, and Jay found himself groping for Austin’s hand, needing something to ground him before he fucked this up by running away. Okay, maybe that wasn’t the direction he would’ve gone. The patch of carpet by Liam’s feet looked far more tempting, if totally off-limits.

“I don’t need to guess,” Liam said in an unexpected British accent, putting the book back and coming toward them. “Patrick e-mailed me some photos, so I’d know what to expect.” He offered his hand, and Austin shook it.

“Yeah. We weren’t sure.” Austin smiled. “I’m Austin, and this is Jay.”

“I didn’t realize you’d be so tall,” Liam said to Jay, who took his turn shaking hands. Liam’s was solid and strong.

Jay wasn’t sure what to say to that—should he apologize?—and ended up not saying anything. He managed to nod, though.

Fortunately Liam seemed comfortable taking control of the situation right from the start. “Austin, why don’t you grab some coffee or whatever, and Jay and I will get a table. I’m sure you’ll be able to spot us.”

Jay found himself alone with Liam, following the older man between long sets of shelves to a corner near a window where there was a love seat and a padded chair. A table nearby held a few stacks of books and several coasters, no doubt intended to encourage people to set their cups where they wouldn’t damage the wooden surface.

“Sit,” Liam said, and Jay did. He clasped his hands on his lap. It made him feel like a kid, so he forced himself to put them on his knees instead. “Tell me about yourself.”

Jay blinked at him. It was one of those questions open-ended enough to give him agoraphobia. “Uh…”

Liam waited for him to continue with a patience Jay appreciated. He had the feeling, though, that it was limited, and when it ran out, Liam would be expecting something more than a mumble. He reminded himself of just how much this mattered and tried again.

“I build dioramas.”

The words hung in the air, unsupported by any gleam of interest on Liam’s face, and Jay felt his throat close up. He looked around for Austin, but it took forever to get served here and Austin would be worrying about him and probably fumbling the order, dropping his change, spilling their drinks and needing to order more—

“Jay.”

Jay’s gaze went back to Liam’s face. Impossible not to when his name had been spoken with that much calm assurance.

“Breathe. If you pass out, your boyfriend will blame me, and I don’t really think that’s fair, do you?” Liam smiled, a small upward curving of his lips that took him from good-looking to handsome. “Let’s try again. Patrick tells me you work at the library. Was that always your plan or just a job that presented itself?”

Given something specific to answer was a lifeline in a choppy ocean. Jay exhaled and felt the tight band of tension around his forehead ease off. “Sorry. We’re both nervous as hell, and I guess I let it get to me.” He cleared his throat. “Like I said, I build dioramas, but that’s a hobby. I’m good at it, but it’s not something I could turn into a job. Books, though, there’s a lot you can do that involves them. I’ve always loved reading. I can’t write them; I tried and it just didn’t work. But I’ve spent so much of my life in libraries I figured, hey, why not get paid for it?”

He ran out of words then, sending Liam a beseeching look—how did I do?—and hoping he didn’t look as freaked out as he still felt.

Liam nodded. He didn’t say good boy, but the implication was there. “So you took a masters in library science?”

“Yeah.” Something sparked in Liam’s eyes, a warning glint, and Jay swallowed, uneasily aware he was half-hard. Not the place for it. Shit. “Yes, Sir,” he said, amending his answer to something less casual. “At Simmons College in Boston. I’m not from Madison, but the position looked interesting and I liked the town. I moved here two years ago, and that’s when I met Austin.”

Liam opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Austin joined them. Jay wanted to sigh with relief, but he wasn’t sure how Liam would take that. He settled for giving Austin a welcoming smile and moved over on the love seat to make room for him. That put him closer to Liam, close enough to smell him. Liam wasn’t wearing cologne, but he smelled expensive in some way Jay couldn’t define but found himself liking.

“I couldn’t get your usual,” Austin told him, setting two large paper cups down on the coasters. “They were out of Kenyan, but she said the house blend would be similar and if you didn’t like it, she’d replace it with one from Guatemala.”

Liam snorted with amusement. “You Yanks and your complicated coffee. I’ve lived here fifteen years, and I still can’t get used to it.”

“England doesn’t have places like Starbucks?” Jay asked, surprised.

“It does now,” Liam said, “but then so does the Gobi desert.” He grinned unexpectedly. “That was a joke, but you’re not required to laugh at them, don’t worry. I’ve been told my sense of humor is on the abstract side.”

“At least you have one,” Austin said. He sounded confident, and that made Jay feel even more relaxed. “I think that’s what I was most worried about. I was kind of picturing you as a caricature, you know? Instead of a real person.”

Liam gave them a quizzical look. “Oh, I’m real enough. Just because Patrick likes me doesn’t mean you two will, though. If that’s the case, just tell me. Don’t pretend it’s working if it’s not. God knows that’s the last thing any of us needs.”

Jay nodded. It was good to have that spoken aloud, an affirmation they weren’t committing to anything yet. “This is like an audition.”

“No,” Liam said, frowning. “Not really. That implies there are roles that need to be filled, and while that’s true on a basic level, it’s more complicated than that.”

“So you’ve done this before? This early stuff, I mean,” Austin explained. “We’re kind of new.”

“I gathered as much,” Liam said drily. “Yes, I’ve been through this early stuff, as you put it. More than once. Try not to be nervous, all right? I promise I don’t bite unless you want me to.”

Jay smiled. It was true: Liam did have a sense of humor. “More than once? Are you, um, seeing anyone else right now?”

“I have an ex-wife and two nearly grown children living in Maryland.” Liam sipped his drink, then set the cup down on one of the coasters. “I’ve had a few relationships since my marriage ended, but they’ve all been casual and temporary. Would it be a problem for you if I met someone I wanted to date?”

“No, of course not,” Austin said, and Jay nodded his agreement. “Unless it was an issue for her. I mean, would you tell her about us? You’d have to, right?”

Liam glanced away from them, his gaze distant. “I’ve kept this part of my life separate for a long time. It’s become something of a habit.”

“That’s not really an answer,” Jay said, surprising himself with his boldness. “So your wife wasn’t in the scene?”

“I would prefer it if we didn’t discuss Barbara,” Liam said with a chilly politeness. “And I’m not in the mood to be lectured about my failings as a husband.”

“Slow down,” Austin said immediately, saving Jay from the need to reply. “Jay didn’t say anything like that. It’s a reasonable question. We appreciate this is something you maybe don’t want to tell a lot of people about—neither do we—but if you’ve got this idea it’s something to be ashamed of, then maybe we’re not interested in…in anything.”

Jay slid his hand into Austin’s and held on tight. He hated confrontations, but like Austin, he couldn’t see this working if Liam saw them as a dirty little secret. It would spoil everything.

Liam leaned forward, his hands linked loosely, resting on his knees—strong hands, with long, elegant fingers, Jay couldn’t help noticing. “I’d like you both to stop talking and listen before this goes too far and we all walk away with nothing.” He waited for them to exchange uncertain looks, then nod before continuing. “No, she wasn’t in the scene. If you’re asking if I was faithful to her, yes, I was. I respected that our interests weren’t the same, and I stepped back from my…activities. For many years, the only outlet I had was my imagination, and I don’t think I need to tell you how unsatisfactory that was. It wasn’t the only reason the marriage didn’t work, but it was what the divorce lawyers like to call a contributory factor.”

“I’m sorry,” Austin said. “I can’t—”

“I think I told you not to talk,” Liam said evenly.

Austin bit his lip. His hand tightened on Jay’s. They waited, and after a minute, Liam went on.

“Now we’re legally divorced and I’m free to live my life as I like, that’s exactly what I intend to do. If I start seeing someone and I think she’ll understand, I’ll tell her. Otherwise I’ll keep it to myself. But I don’t intend to go back to living the way I did when I was married, and it’s not an issue that’s up for debate. So think about whether or not that’s something you can accept.” He nodded at them and picked up his coffee again.

“To you,” Jay said softly, “it wouldn’t be being unfaithful because it wouldn’t be sex, is that it?”

“I’m not gay, yes. I know Patrick told you as much; this would be different from what you had with him in some ways. Another thing for the two of you to think about and discuss together.”

Austin sighed. “They say nothing worth having comes easy.”

“It was easy with Patrick,” Jay protested, then covered his face with his hand as he realized how that sounded. “And he was worth it, and that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Sorry. It’s hard not to make comparisons.”

“No, I understand. I’ve never had any formal arrangement with a man, let alone two, so I know what it’s like, contemplating something new like this. Still, I don’t think Patrick would have suggested this meeting if he didn’t think it had a chance of working out. Do you feel that you owe him to try?”

“No,” Austin said. “If we do this, it’s not about owing anyone anything. It’s about all of us getting something we need.” He tilted his head to the side, studying Liam with a frown. Jay waited, content to let Austin handle this for the moment. Liam didn’t seem like the kind of man who got intimidated, but there were two of them, after all. “You said you’ve never had anything formal with a guy, but we’re not the first male subs you’ve had, are we?”

Liam took a slow, deliberate sip of coffee. As a stall went, it wasn’t very subtle. “No. The first in a very long time. Though if I’m being perfectly honest, I prefer working with men when it comes to this.”

“But you’re not gay.”

“Why is that so hard for you to accept?”

Austin shrugged. “It’s not. It’s just kind of unusual, I guess.”

Liam smiled thinly. “I don’t see it that way, but feel free to your opinion.”

“We’ll be naked,” Jay said, keeping his voice low. Their corner was out of the way, but the conversation wasn’t one he wanted to have a stranger overhear. “Turned on. You’ll have your hands all over us. That’s not going to be a problem for you? Seriously?”

“Given what I’ll be doing to you with my hands, no. I’ll enjoy it. A lot.” Liam arched dark eyebrows. “Carry on, Jay. You’re making me really look forward to our first session.”

“If there is one,” Austin said, though his fingers were gripping Jay’s painfully tightly now, his breathing shallow and quick. He was aroused, Jay knew. Hell, they both were. Liam was just tapping too many buttons, even if he was on the arrogant side.

Liam stood, his pants falling back into perfect lines, a sharp crease running down the center of each leg. “I’d like to see you both at my house next Friday. Eight o’clock sharp. We’ve still got plenty to discuss, but we’ve reached the point where we need more privacy. I think it’s fairly obvious that we’re going to try this. The two of you aren’t exactly good at hiding your emotions, you know. That’s a compliment, by the way. It’s an asset, not a flaw.”

Jay looked up at him. From this angle, Liam seemed huge, filling his vision. It wasn’t quite the view he’d have if he was on his knees, but it was close enough to make him ache with a longing that had been with him for weeks now, never quite fading away.

“Can we think about it and let you know?” Austin asked.

Liam nodded. “Of course. Let me know what you decide. I hope to see you on Friday.”

Chapter Five

By the time Liam got home, he’d more or less gotten himself under control. He drove his BMW into the right-hand side of the spotless, virtually empty garage and turned off the engine as the door rumbled down into place behind him.

Once inside, after kicking off his shoes, he poured himself a drink, mixing his gin and tonic with painstaking care and taking the time to carve a paper-thin slice of lime to jostle against the two ice cubes.

He stared at it for a moment—the translucent liquid dotted with bubbles, the dark green of the lime—then poured it away before he was tempted to drink it.

It wasn’t what he wanted. He’d left that behind him in the bookstore, looking up at him with hopeful, hostile eyes, the pair of them so hungry, so needy that the air had been thick with it, until he could barely breathe.

He’d held it together, just. Shown them something of what they could expect and felt them respond. Thank God they’d been in public, or he’d have shown them too much of what he wanted from them and possibly scared them off.

They weren’t innocent. They were in their mid-twenties, independent young men with plenty of bite and snap to them. There was an age gap; his fortieth birthday was approaching fast, but Patrick was a decade older than him and that hadn’t bothered them from what Patrick had said.

There was still a troubling vulnerability to them. Liam liked men as subs because he could go further, push them harder. It wasn’t politically correct for him to have issues about giving a female sub what she was begging for, but it was a personal hang-up he’d learned to live with. He had no qualms about spanking a woman, but getting a man to submit to him held a certain appeal he didn’t trouble to analyze too deeply. More of a challenge covered it well enough.

He wandered through to the small den he planned to use if they did show up. Two of them… Maybe it wouldn’t be big enough, but there was no way he wanted them in his bedroom, and the basement was just too… No. The den would do. An upright chair, a roomy armchair, a footstool, and a desk, the surface uncluttered, the dark wood polished smooth. Plenty to bend them over, with enough floor space to put them through their paces, and more importantly, nothing about the room revealed its purpose.

Liam sat in the wide leather armchair and leaned back, getting comfortable. He wished now that he hadn’t poured away his drink. It would have been nice to sip it in this room with its cozy atmosphere, to listen to the clink of the ice cubes against the glass and let that sound remind him of previous nights years ago. Many years ago now he was middle-aged, but he wasn’t in the mood to think about that.

Instead he decided to allow himself the rare pleasure of remembering the details of his time with Robert. They’d both been so young, but their friendship had been a close one and their occasional boyish roughhousing had become a more and more significant part of their summer together. One round of wrestling had resulted in Liam pinning Robert to the floor of his bedroom, tufts along the edge of the throw rug mixing with Robert’s mussed hair.

With Robert taut and struggling beneath him, Liam had realized he had an erection and immediately stood up. They’d both been embarrassed, exchanged some awkward words, and Liam had told himself he wouldn’t let it happen again.

But it had happened again, and then again, until somehow the wrestling consisted of Liam restraining Robert, spanking him, both of them hard and panting.

There’d never been anything romantic between them, though. Well, just the one kiss, which Robert had initiated.

Liam found himself sitting with the heel of his hand pressed against his erection, absently rubbing as he thought of how it had felt to bring his palm down onto Robert’s ass—through his boxer shorts, never on bare skin. It had made his fingers tingle, made his cock hard. It was something he’d never forgotten and had been seeking ever since, that level of almost unbearable excitement.

He’d found something close in more structured encounters, sometimes with men, more often with women so he could end the session by fucking them, all that carefully built arousal and pain combining to make their climaxes explosive, violent, but nothing had ever quite matched that first spanking he’d dealt out.

His thoughts returned to the present. Jay’s dark eyes, wide and wondering, his hurried, formal yes, Sir when Liam had made it plain a mumbled yeah was unacceptable as a reply. Austin’s ruffled feathers when he’d come to Jay’s defense, the beautiful, stubborn defiance in his blue eyes just crying out to be tamed. God, they were irresistible, the two of them. How the hell Patrick had left them… Liam grimaced, chiding himself as he remembered Patrick’s loss.

Discreet as ever, Patrick had smoothly deflected the conversation away when Liam had bluntly asked for details of how far Patrick had gone with his subs, but it was difficult to believe that sex hadn’t been involved at some point, even if Austin and Jay were adamant they didn’t need that from a Dom. He’d wanted to know, not out of prurient curiosity, but to discover just what the two of them were used to. It didn’t matter. Liam was confident enough—arrogant enough, according to Barbara—to feel sure he could give any sub what they wanted without sex being part of the equation. He’d done it before, after all, and really, with two of them, it would be easier. He could just sit back in this very chair and order them to take care of each other, leaving them to it if it was what they wanted.

He’d allow them that much say over it, at least.

He glanced down at his erection. It’d been present when Patrick had been putting forward his suggestion. It’d been there as he drove home from his meeting at the bookstore. With a shrug, he unbuckled his belt, a thin strip of tooled leather that would have raised some interesting welts on a curved, taut backside if he’d been crass enough to use it during a session—which he wasn’t. Liam was fastidious about his small collection of bondage impedimenta, built up in the time since Barbara had left. He bought high-quality items, took scrupulous care of them, and discarded them when they became worn.

He’d need to do some shopping before Friday. Brand-new plugs in a variety of sizes, of course, color-coded to each sub because he was fussy that way. Even after sterilizing a plug, he’d never use it on someone else. Black for Austin, and red for Jay. It would be verging on precious to carry that color scheme through to ropes, candles, cuffs, and clamps, but he was damned if he wasn’t tempted. He smiled. Barbara had always told him he didn’t have a clue about decorating, but she’d been talking about rooms, not naked subs.

Belt hanging, his pants shoved down far enough to allow his hands access to his cock and balls, he started to touch himself. Light, teasing touches, watching his hands as if they belonged to someone else at first, just the way he’d flick a flogger over Jay’s arse. Jay first, definitely. He wanted to watch Austin’s face, see how that protectiveness manifested when Jay was hoarse from begging, tears standing bright in his eyes. Would Austin enjoy the sight the way Liam undoubtedly would, or be troubled by it?

The thought of the two of them together was shockingly appealing, and Liam wondered how he’d get through the next week. Just imagining the potential for Austin’s pseudorighteous anger, the way that Jay might sob, what their arses would look like once they’d been struck bright red. His hand would burn with it if he used that, and he couldn’t believe that wouldn’t end up happening. As satisfying as it was to hit a willing participant with a paddle or flogger, it was twice as good to use his hand. The same hand Liam was stroking his cock with right now, the knuckle of his thumb brushing the edge of his trousers as he moved from base to tip. Christ, it felt amazing, and after a session with these young men, it would be ten times better.

He couldn’t wait to see lower lips swollen from being bitten, skin marked with blows. It wasn’t just that he missed a good session; it was that he was looking forward to this one in particular, and hopefully to more that would follow. If things worked out, he’d be able to anticipate regular sessions, and he knew from experience that would mean he’d be more relaxed and happy overall.

Poor Austin and Jay, to be so in need of something they hadn’t been able to get since Patrick had moved away.

But feeling sorry for them wasn’t really the way to go into this, Liam knew. Some level of sympathy was fine, as long as he used it to hone his concentration and give them what they needed. He had no doubt he’d be able to do that, assuming they were a reasonable fit.

Liam grunted as he changed his focus to the top few inches of his cock, working it hard and fast. He was close to release already, from two minutes of wanking and thoughts of the beautiful submission he anticipated.

How long would they spend with him on Friday? Two hours, three? He needed to make plans even if their reactions would guide him more than anything he’d decided to do. Not that he’d let them see that.

God, they’d been running loose for far too long. Time to bring them to heel.

An image formed in his mind, pure fantasy, but it didn’t need to be more than that to get him off. His boys, wrists bound behind them and resting against scarlet skin marked with bruises like shadows.

They’d be facing each other, straining to kiss but held back by his command and their need to please him. He could walk around them, maybe bring them an inch closer so their lips could meet, just barely, and the tips of their stiff, aching cocks could brush. They’d be trembling, shaking—

He heard himself moan, and the image splintered like a spun kaleidoscope as he came, leaving his shirt streaked and wet and his heart hammering.

Jesus. If they called to cancel, he’d—

No. They wouldn’t.

Ruefully he raised his hand, staring at it with a bleak amusement. He’d better ease back on the fantasies. A sprained wrist would put a serious damper on things.

* * * * *

He did manage to keep himself from spraining anything, but it wasn’t from lack of activity. Generally Liam masturbated a few times a week. In the days before his first session with Austin and Jay, he found himself getting turned on and needing release a few times a day. It had been several years since he’d been aroused so frequently. He indulged rather than denying himself, in part because he hoped it would mean he’d be better prepared to be in control on Friday.

Full of anticipation, he considered taking Friday off from work, but in the long run decided it was best to be busy even if he was somewhat distracted. He ate a light dinner of salmon and vegetables, low carb, half a glass of wine—just enough to relax him. A long shower and a clean set of clothes and he was ready.

The car pulled into the driveway at five minutes to eight, after having sat in front of the house next door for the previous ten. It made Liam smile for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the fact they were taking him at his word: eight o’clock sharp. They sat in the car for a moment longer than was strictly necessary and knocked on the front door at one minute till.

“I like that you’re on time,” was the first thing he said when he opened the door, and noticed that Austin’s cheeks pinked in response to the praise.

“Austin’s great at being on time,” Jay said.

Liam filed that bit of information away for later and smiled. “Come in.”

He noticed them very carefully not staring at their surroundings after they’d taken off their shoes and left them tidily by the door, and he awarded them a point for manners—after deducting one for the frankly awful T-shirt Jay was wearing under an open green shirt. He couldn’t quite make out what it was supposed to be, but there was a dragon in the mix and a leering goblin. Never mind; he wouldn’t be wearing it for much longer. Austin seemed to have made more of an effort, wearing dark pants, not jeans, and a blue shirt. Liam didn’t leap to conclusions, though. Both of them could simply be wearing what they liked to wear, nothing more than that. They’d both bathed recently. There was a small nick from shaving on Jay’s chin, and their hair was still slightly damp.

He led them into what the realtor had called the family room, though it wasn’t very apt given that he was living here alone. He’d furnished it simply, like most of the house, preferring a modern, minimalist look after years of living with Barbara’s collection of antiques. Pointing out to her that they were secondhand furniture hadn’t gone down well. He’d said it mostly to annoy her, but it held a grain of truth for him. He didn’t want used and discarded; he wanted new.

The walls were ivory, the floor pale wood, and the leather couches black. The TV was huge, and if he rarely turned it on, at least when he did the picture was crystal clear. What else did he need?

Jay stumbled on the way into the room, with Austin catching him by the arm to steady him. Puzzled, Liam glanced down at the floor, but there was nothing there.

“I’m used to the floor having stuff on it,” Jay explained, waving his hand vaguely. “Yours doesn’t. It threw me.”

“He means that he uses it as a shelf,” Austin said with a long-suffering sigh, though a fond look at Jay went along with it. “Along with every other flat surface in the place.”

“You live together?” Liam already knew that, but he wanted to fill in the details surrounding the bare scraps of information he had.

Austin nodded. “I moved in with Jay about six months ago. It’s the top floor and the loft of this Victorian over on Holmes, not far from Sheldon Park.”

“I know the area.” It was quaint or seedy, depending on the preferences of the person describing it. Liam didn’t expect to ever go there to visit them, but he was glad they didn’t have a long drive home. If a session ended with them in no shape to drive, he’d take them there himself, of course. But he’d prefer to keep a distance.

When they were seated on the couch, bolt upright and nervous, he took a moment to study them, standing in the middle of the room at ease, his arms folded. He was wearing dark pants, like Austin’s if the difference in cut, fit, price, and material was ignored, and a gray shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his concession to the fact the weekend had begun. He’d also kept his shoes on. It was all about the details when it came to subtly underlining the power dynamic.

He let the silence grow and then said casually, “Want a drink? I’ve got sparkling water or juice.”

He didn’t offer them anything more stimulating than that. They all knew better than to mix alcohol with what they were about to do.

They shook their heads in unison. “We’re fine.”

“Then we should continue our talk.” Liam’s favorite chair was too far away from the couch. He wanted to make the conversation part of the scene, though he wasn’t sure Austin and Jay would pick up on that immediately, and that meant being closer to them. Irritated it hadn’t occurred to him before to move the furniture into a better grouping, he took the chair anyway. “I’d like to know your hard limits, your flexible ones, and something you want to try but you’re not sure about.” He let his gaze travel between them. “Austin. Let’s start with you.”

Austin bit his lip and then swallowed. “Hard limits…um, I don’t think I have that many, or maybe I just, you know, think the ones I have are reasonable. But maybe everyone thinks that?”

“Deep breath,” Liam advised. “Let it out. What’s absolutely nonnegotiable? It’s all right if you add things to the list later. I don’t expect you to divine the future, and it’s normal to discover there’s something else you don’t like.”

Glancing at Jay, Austin said, “I want to know that safe words are going to be respected. If you can’t promise that, 100 percent… I don’t just want that. I need it.”

“Of course you do. Patrick told me there was an issue at a previous session, and I can guarantee beyond a shadow of a doubt there won’t be any similar issues with me.” Liam had found himself feeling angry at a man he’d never met and probably never would, even without knowing the details of the incident. “I trust you not to use your safe word unless it’s necessary, and you trust me to respect the line when you draw it.”

“You aren’t the one in danger of getting hurt if that trust gets broken, though,” Jay said quietly, and Austin put a hand on Jay’s knee.

“That’s true, but I’d prefer for you to wait your turn. I’ll get to you, I promise.” This was one of the ways to build trust, even right from the beginning: to make promises he knew he could keep and then do just that. “Austin, what else?”

“I don’t want to be scarred.” Austin had the look of a man who was going over a collection of ideas he’d been gathering in his head. “And I don’t want to be hurt anywhere that would be easily visible at work. Like my face or forearms, mostly.”

Liam nodded. “You work at a doctor’s office, don’t you?”

“Yes. It would be awkward trying to explain something like that to the people I work for. I don’t know if it would jeopardize my job, but I don’t want to risk it.” Austin looked down at his knees, then back at Liam’s face. “Anyway, it’s not about the marks for me.”

“No?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to them. It’s just…not what I’m in it for. I do like them on Jay, though.” This was said almost apologetically, and now it was Jay’s turn to pat Austin’s leg in reassurance. They did a lot of that, exchanging small touches. “I think I just need to get out of my head, and I don’t need bruises for that.” He wet his lips and went on. “I don’t want to exchange bodily fluids, like blood or…anything.”

“No, I don’t want that, either,” Liam told him, although there had been times that had been part of the scene for him.

“I think…I don’t mind being cut, or bleeding. I just want it to be safe, you know. Universal precautions. Something I’d like to try…” Austin got quiet for rather a long time, and Liam was just about to verbally prod him when he spoke again. “I guess being tied up. For real, like, so I couldn’t move. Because it scares me, but I think that means it could be good.”

“All right.” Liam thought for a moment, then turned his attention to Jay. “Your turn.”

Jay’s long hair was gathered at the back of his neck with something, possibly an elastic. It looked silky smooth, and Liam wondered what it would feel like gripped in his fist, and how Jay might react to having it pulled. “Like Austin, I want to know if I get to the point where I need to safe word, that’s where things stop.”

“I promise you.” Liam looked directly into Jay’s eyes and spoke with the utmost sincerity. “Always.”

He could feel a connection between them all building, lines thickening steadily, with moments like now when another thread was added to the twisting rope. Jay wanted to believe him. Liam could see it in his eyes. Well, it was up to him to give Jay no choice but to trust him.

Jay licked his lower lip. A nervous gesture or habit? Liam didn’t know yet. He wanted to know everything about the two of them so the smallest movement or sound sent him a clear, unmistakable message.

“I’m the same when it comes to visible marks on my face, but my arms…” Jay circled one wrist with his fingers. “I can always wear long shirts. And if I get bruises or rope burn on my wrists, I’ve got these wide leather bracelets I can wear. Kind of cuffs, I guess. That’s why I like—”

“You can’t wear those at work!” Austin interrupted.

Jay turned to look at him. “I have before, and no one ever said anything. Nancy asked if I’d made them and when I—”

Enough. Amusement vied with annoyance, and Liam snapped his fingers, the crisp sound bringing their attention back to him.

“Austin, don’t interrupt. Jay, eyes on me, please.”

He waited a beat until they were both giving the impression of squirming uncomfortably, though in fact they were sitting very still. “You two have got away with far too much, you know. That kind of disrespect isn’t something I’m prepared to tolerate. I’m not impressed, but I’ll give you that one bite at the cherry. I suggest you both make an effort to show me you can follow simple instructions.”

He gestured at Jay. “I don’t leave bruises or rope burn on wrists when I restrain someone, so that won’t arise. Go on.”

He didn’t add that he loved holding a sub’s wrists tightly as he spoke to them, standing behind them, his mouth close to their ear, feeling their body tremble and sway toward him. That left bruises, dark smudges he loved to trace afterward, but he supposed…oh well.

“I like—” Jay broke off. “How good are you at this?” he asked.

Liam sighed. Okay, that wasn’t amusing him at all. “Are you deliberately trying to push me into losing my temper? It’s not a good idea. Pissing me off is more likely to have me showing you the door than my hand.”

“No!” Jay looked horrified, but he didn’t back down. Beside him, Austin stirred, obviously dying to leap to Jay’s defense. To his credit, he stayed quiet. “I wasn’t… You told us that you’d taken a break from this, a long one, so it’s not like you’ve been doing this for years and years.” He took a breath, visibly steadying himself. “What I want to know is, if we ask you for something we want, and it’s something you don’t know how to do safely or just the way we need it, will you tell us? Not go ahead and try it because you think you’re not supposed to admit you can’t do stuff?”

Liam noted the way Jay was still speaking for both of them, but it was a passing thought. Relieved there’d been a valid reason for Jay’s question, he gave him a small smile.

“Fair question, and no, my ego’s not as important as your safety. I’d be a bloody fool to think I know it all. I don’t. If you want to try something esoteric I’ve never even heard of, I’ll tell you it’s not possible right then and go away and do some research and practice it if it’s something that appeals to me.” Curious, he tilted his head. “Anything specific in mind?”

Jay didn’t blush. “Nothing out there, no. I like my face being slapped. Not deliberately—no, that’s not right. I mean, if we were doing a scene, role-playing, and it worked to slap me, I’d want you to do it. I don’t want you to do it often or when I’m expecting it, but I’d want you to know you were going to do it, not just lash out… Shit, I’m sorry. I’m not explaining it well.”

Austin’s hand was on Jay’s leg again now, stroking it reassuringly, but Austin was looking at Liam, not Jay, which was progress of sorts.

“I’d like you to tell me what you want with more clarity than that in the future. Don’t worry, though. I understand what you mean, I think.” And now he was going to be talking with his cock half-hard. Maybe it was just as well he was across the room. His handprint blazing across Jay’s cheek, the added spice of the small humiliation… “You want to be sure I can do it hard enough to count in the moment, but without leaving a lasting mark or bruise for the next day?”

Jay sighed, his eyes closing for a moment as if he was picturing it. “Yeah. Because sometimes I have to work over the weekend, so it’s not like I always have two free days after a session, you know? Thank you.”

His deep voice had slowed, reduced to a quiet murmur Liam had to strain to hear.

Jay’s eyes opened, and when he spoke, his voice was conversational again. “Me, I like marks. Between sessions they remind me. I can look at them, press down on them, and get an echo of the pain. I like more pain than Austin. I need more to get that safe feeling.”

Jay reached for Austin’s hand without breaking eye contact with Liam, lacing their fingers together. “If this works out, and you’re still around, we’re both off work for two weeks in June. I’d love it if you could see us at the start of that and give us a really intense session, maybe a full day. Nothing that would scar. I wouldn’t mind getting one or two, but that’s something…that’d be special, like a tattoo, and I’m not ready yet. But I’d love to push my limits, really push them.”

Taken aback but careful not to show how much the idea appealed, Liam nodded. “We’ll see.”

“You don’t think it’s freaky, me liking the bruises so much?”

Jay didn’t look worried, Liam decided. It was more a case of Jay checking Liam’s limits. He shrugged. “I’d be stupid if I did. I like putting them there. I’m looking forward to putting plenty on both of you. Anything else?”

When Jay just shook his head, Austin looked at Liam for permission to speak, and Liam gestured that he could. “May I use your bathroom, please?” Austin spoke the words carefully, as if he was conscious of behaving well.

“Of course. There’s one through there, second door on the right.” Liam indicated the direction, and Austin thanked him and disappeared. Once he’d gone, Liam asked Jay, “Is there something I should know about?”

“He’s probably just nervous. He’s been nervous all week. We both have. Is it rude to ask if you were too?”

“Yes, it’s a bit rude, but I’ll answer you this once.” Liam knew this would make him appear magnanimous. “No, I wasn’t nervous. I’ve been looking forward to it. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t enjoy it, and I’ve been particularly anticipating spending some time with the two of you. I take it Austin doesn’t have to work tomorrow, but what about you?”

Jay glanced in the direction of the bathroom, even though Austin had barely been gone a minute. “No. Next Saturday I do, but I have this weekend off.”

“That worked out nicely.”

“I know. The library is open on Saturdays, and I have to work one or two of those a month, usually, unless someone is on vacation or something. There’s a rotating schedule. On the weeks I work on Saturday, I get a half day off on one of the weekdays. Sometimes Austin and I can sync our schedules up so we have a free afternoon together to go to the movies or whatever, but if that doesn’t work out, I usually put in some time on whichever diorama I’ve got going.”

Liam nodded. “How did you get into that?”

“I had an uncle who was into model trains when I was a kid. This is sort of an offshoot of that, I guess. It’s the same scale—well, one of them. There’re about five different scales for model trains, and I actually use two different scales depending on what I’m making. Sometimes it makes more sense to use HO, which is the most common scale for trains, but sometimes I use one-twelfth scale, which is what people who are into dollhouses use.” Jay was adorable like this, earnest and passionate about his hobby. Liam could have listened to him for hours, which was probably what it would have taken for him to make sense of the subject matter.

He heard the sound of the bathroom door opening, and Austin came back and stood at the entrance to the room, looking uncertain.

It would probably have calmed him if Liam had skipped ahead to the spanking, and it was certainly what Liam’s body was in favor of, but he controlled his impulse. He’d always held the belief that it was impossible to effectively impose discipline on anyone else if he couldn’t control himself, so he gestured to Austin to take his seat again.

Keeping his voice unhurried but covering the ground as quickly as possible, he ran through more of the basic information he needed from them, equally unsurprised by Austin’s traditional choice of yellow and red for his pause and stop safe words and Jay’s decidedly individual ones of Mordor and Sauron. Liam was vaguely aware of the books they were drawn from, but he’d never read them. He was getting the impression that for Austin, simplicity and efficiency were important. Yellow and red worked, so why spend time dreaming up an alternative? It intrigued Liam, but he reminded himself they didn’t want him to get involved with them beyond this limited interaction, and he brought the conversation to a merciful end.

“I have what I need to begin,” he said and stood, bringing them to their feet with a flick of his fingers. “If anything occurs to you that you think I really need to know, tell me, but I’d prefer as few distractions as possible once we begin. Oh, cell phones; turn them off, please.”

That hadn’t been an issue when he’d first done this years ago, but he’d been blazingly furious when a sub he’d been about to spank six months back had wriggled off his knee to answer her phone—then started texting back a reply. She’d argued with him, apologizing with a complete lack of conviction as if she didn’t know why he was so annoyed. He’d given her two minutes to dress and kicked her out.

He led them into the den, with thick curtains drawn over lowered blinds ensuring their privacy, and closed the door.

“Two of you at once could be a challenge in some ways. I don’t want either of you to feel neglected.”

“We’re used to waiting our turn,” Jay began, then closed his mouth quickly when Liam gave him an icy look.

“Get undressed and put your clothes there.” He indicated a small table, and they started to take off their clothes. Jay was quick and casual about it, as if nudity was unimportant to him. Austin seemed more hesitant and took his time folding each item as he removed it. He even picked up Jay’s balled-into-a-wad T-shirt and started to fold that as well.

Liam shook his head.

“Don’t do that for him. It’s his responsibility.”

Jay gave him an apologetic look and took over.

Liam took his time in studying them once they were naked. It would probably make them feel uncomfortable, being scrutinized, he thought. However Jay seemed relaxed despite his lack of covering. In fact, the closer they got to actual play, the more comfortable Jay acted. The question was, was it an act or was it genuine?

He’d find out soon enough.

Jay was tall and slender, all of him. His pale skin had a slight olive hue to it that went well with his long dark hair and somewhat pointed ears. He didn’t have a great deal of body hair. Liam suspected he was stronger than his build would lead one to believe. Jay’s cock was standing up at attention, moving a little with every breath Jay took. When Liam looked at his face, Jay dropped his gaze and put his hands behind his back.

Good.

Austin was obviously less comfortable being naked than Jay was, but had moved instinctively into position with his hands clasped at the small of his back. This pulled his shoulders into a slightly unnatural pose that made the muscles in his upper arms stand out. In this light, his blond chest and arm hair were nearly invisible, and despite his clear discomfort, he also had an erection.

Stepping closer to both of them, Liam said, “I’m going to touch you now.” It was a courtesy, nothing more, and certainly not necessary, but this was new and he wanted to ease into more serious activity.

He touched Jay first and could feel the young man trembling. Goose bumps sprang up on Jay’s warm skin almost immediately as Liam ran a hand along his wide shoulders and down his back to his ass. Then Liam moved over to Austin, who flinched ever so slightly at the brush of Liam’s fingers along his side.

“Ticklish?” Liam asked.

“No, Sir,” Austin said, his voice soft but convincing even though it was a lie.

“I am,” Liam said conversationally, moving to stand behind them, “but that’s not really a problem because I’m the one doing the touching.” Without warning, he pinched Austin’s arse, delivering a quick flash of sensation, more startling than painful. Austin couldn’t have known it was going to happen, yet he didn’t break position. Instead he made a sound deep in his throat, muted, pleading.

“Go and lean against the wall, both of you, hands against it, legs spread.”

He’d made sure one wall was clear, no pictures hanging on it, no furniture up against it. Walls were more useful than they appeared for a Dom with imagination, and with a rigid loyalty to his wife keeping him from doing more than imagine, Liam had had years to dream up some interesting scenarios. None of them had featured two subs at once, though. He was going to need to adapt some of his pet fantasies a little.

Positioned like that, so close he couldn’t have walked between them, their arses upturned, pushed out shamelessly, begging to be spanked, they presented a picture arousing enough that, unseen by them, Liam permitted himself a smile of pure satisfaction and anticipation.

His voice cool, he rapped out some instructions, making Jay spread his feet wider, Austin arch his back a little more. They’d been fine as they were, but he wanted to see how readily they obeyed him and make them realize that for him good enough never was.

He wanted perfection.

When they were exactly as he wanted them, he let them hold the position for long enough to remember it, then stepped forward. Giving way to his earlier desire, he wrapped the long fall of Jay’s hair around his fist and tugged at it, bringing Jay’s head back so his throat was a taut curve, ready to be licked or kissed—or maybe just waiting for Liam’s hand to close around it, a firm clasp, lasting long enough for Jay’s eyes to tell him so very fucking much. He ran his hand down to Jay’s left nipple, scraping the edge of his thumbnail over it as hard as he could, leaving it stinging if the hiss of breath from Jay was any indication.

“As you were,” he said and released Jay’s hair. “Exactly as you were.”

He stepped back and watched Jay adjust his hands against the wall, shift his feet fractionally.

“Not quite right,” he said pleasantly and brought his hand down with a sharp crack against Jay’s arse.

The sound Jay made was a high-pitched one, and he twitched, a movement that Liam knew from experience was involuntary. Not any more acceptable, of course, but at least it told him Jay was making an effort.

“Unless I tell you otherwise, I expect you to remain still.” Liam lifted his hand and struck Jay a second time, and this time Jay didn’t move, overriding his body’s natural instinct by sheer force of will. “Better. Good.”

He moved to one side so he could see Jay’s face, which was flushed, his bottom lip slightly more plump and pink than it had been before. He was gorgeous like this, obeying.

Liam turned his attention to Austin. He slid his hand up along Austin’s spine, slowly, tracing each vertebra beneath the skin, the sight of his hand following each rise and dip nearly hypnotic. “This is going to be such fun,” he said. He knew Austin was waiting now to be spanked, for the possibility of sharp, unexpected flashes of pain and where they might occur. The anticipation was one of Liam’s favorite parts of this, and he realized he was aroused already—through no more than a bit of teasing.

He could feel Austin going tense as he trailed his fingertips lightly along smooth skin. The longer Liam continued to touch him gently, the more tense Austin would become. Waiting, always waiting. When would the featherlight skirting of knuckles turn into something more? Would it be a pinch, a slap? How hard?

The back of Austin’s neck was visible with his head hanging down like this, his hair falling forward. His nape was dusted with the finest of hairs, pale enough to verge on invisible. Liam leaned over and exhaled against it, his lips separated from skin by barely an inch. They didn’t want kisses from him—and they wouldn’t have received them if they had. Austin moaned as if he’d been struck, not loudly, but in the quiet room, every sound seemed amplified, a shiver racing through his body. Liam pursed his lips and blew a reproving stream of air against Austin’s ear, grinning when Austin held still, stubbornly refusing to be caught out again.

“Oh, you hate me for not punishing you the way you want, don’t you?” He made sure Austin could hear the amusement in his voice. “If I gave you permission to beg for something, Austin, what would it be? My hand spanking you hard? The chance to show me how hot you look kneeling, your head down, your back straight? Or something else?”

Austin didn’t move but whispered, “I’d ask you to hit me.”

“Ah, that’s what you’d ask for.” Liam stroked his hand down Austin’s back to his arse, letting the muscle shape his hand, feeling Austin shudder. “I did wonder. And it’s been so long, hasn’t it? All the time, waiting, and now here I am, making you wait even longer. Don’t move.”

He could almost feel Austin’s tension as he turned back to Jay. This was more challenging than he’d realized, keeping each of them engaged in the scene. “And what about you, Jay? What would you ask for, if I gave you permission to ask for something?”

Jay whimpered. “I’d—I’d ask for you to make me suck Austin. His cock. So he could—” Another whimper. “He could fuck my throat, choke me.” Was that a tear at the corner of Jay’s eye?

“Breath play, hmm? That could be fun.” Another night—it was too soon to get into something that intense. They hadn’t built up enough trust yet.

Liam turned and took Austin’s chin in his hand, tilting Austin’s head so Austin had no choice but to look at him. “I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. Would you like to hear?”

“Yes, Sir,” Austin whispered. “Please.”

“I,” Liam said, “will spank one of you tonight. Only one.” Beside him, Jay inhaled sharply, but Liam’s attention was on Austin’s face. “You get to decide. Which of you will it be?”

He saw the hurt in Austin’s face, as if he’d been betrayed somehow, but Austin didn’t try to argue with him. A calm acceptance smoothed out the lines puckering his forehead, and he said, “Jay,” without hesitation or regret, his readiness to give up everything he wanted for his boyfriend leaving Liam with a lot to think about.

Jay made a sound of protest, close enough to being a no that Liam sighed and reached across Austin—the two subs so close it wasn’t much of a stretch—and gave Jay’s arse a solid smack without looking away from Austin.

Jay took it in silence. Austin grimaced, his eyes squeezing shut for the space of a breath.

Oh, he really was being unfair, wasn’t he? Three for Jay and none for Austin.

“Why him, not you?”

“He needs it.” Austin’s voice was raw as if he’d been crying or screaming. Liam moved the hand gripping Austin’s chin from side to side, playing with Austin as if he were a toy. Austin didn’t resist him at all, allowing his head to be bobbed up and down, side to side.

Liam stopped and slid his thumb over Austin’s parted lips, rubbing them gently. “So do you. I can taste how much you need it, see it, smell it. It’s pouring off you like smoke from a fire, Austin.”

“Let it be him. Please. I can wait. Austin, don’t choose me—”

Jay really had to learn to stop talking.

“Jay it is, then.” Liam straightened, not glancing back at Austin. “Thank you for your input, Austin. As a reward, I’ll let you watch. In the corner, please, kneeling. Hands flat on the wall at either side of you.” That would remove any temptation for Austin to touch the cock that was still rock hard and very quickly make his arms and shoulders begin to ache. It would also give Liam a nice view when he wasn’t watching Jay’s arse turn red. “Any sound from you, even the smallest whimper, and you get to stare at the wall instead. Do you want a gag, or can you manage that?”

Chapter Six

Austin tightened his jaw and shook his head the tiniest bit in reply to Liam’s question. He had himself so determinedly under control that it was better not to speak unless he had no other choice. If he loosened his grip even a fraction, he was likely to break, to shout that it wasn’t fair, that he’d been waiting so long and he needed this and now he had to give it up.

There wasn’t any part of him that resented Jay. In the same position, Jay would’ve made the same choice. Jay would relinquish what he needed and let Austin have it, every time. That’d made it a simple decision. Austin didn’t have to wonder if it was the right decision. He’d make the same one next time, and the time after that, a hundred times if he had to.

Liam directed Austin to the corner. It was a relief to kneel, even if it became obvious half a minute in that his arms were going to be sore as hell the next day.

He wouldn’t make a sound. No matter what happened.

As Liam took his time getting Jay into position, Austin was incredibly glad that he’d slipped a free sample of Valium into his pocket at the office earlier in the week and taken it fifteen minutes ago in Liam’s bathroom, because he suspected if he hadn’t taken it, he’d be losing his shit right about then.

The spanking started, with Liam using his hand on Jay, fast and hard, not troubling to warm up, as if he knew Jay never cared too much about that, though Austin liked it. He’d been told to watch, so he did, his view limited in some ways, comprehensive in others. Unlike Liam, he could see the sway of Jay’s balls as his body moved with the slaps raining down on his ass and thighs, see Jay’s face flush darkly to match the spanked-red burn on his ass. Jay was staring at the floor, sometimes closing his eyes, but Austin didn’t want Jay to look at him. This was for Jay, all of it.

He tried to think what lay behind Liam’s decision. If it was something he’d done—

They’d both spoken when they should’ve been quiet, but—

He hadn’t been aware of Liam’s attention on him, but the heavy crack of palm on skin paused. Liam, one hand resting carelessly on Jay’s back, leaning on it as if Jay were a table, said, “Stop thinking so much, Austin. It’s noisy. Remember what I said would happen if you made a sound?”

That was so blatantly unfair Austin had to bite his lip hard to keep from speaking—which had probably been what Liam was trying to get him to do. He schooled his expression to a polite mask and stared at the side of Jay’s ass. Jay’s long legs, racehorse legs, were taut, trembling, his breathing ragged. Austin could tell what was bothering Jay was the pause, not the heat and sting of Liam’s hand. Without meaning to, his gaze flickered to Liam’s face.

Liam drew his hand back, his gaze holding Austin’s. When he brought his hand down, for a dizzying moment, Austin felt like that hand, sore, hot, throbbing all over. He gasped and tried to cover it with a quick breath in. Liam couldn’t order him to stop breathing, after all.

“Watch him,” Liam said. “Listen to the sounds he’s making for me.” He tapped his fingers against the top of Jay’s thigh. “This is such an overlooked place. So many people make the mistake of concentrating on the arse, but the thighs are far more sensitive. When you sit down tomorrow, you’ll wish I had overlooked it, Jay.”

Jay couldn’t push his ass up any higher without going onto tiptoes. Still he tried, and Austin watched him do it, wordlessly begging for more.

“Slut,” Liam said with a chuckle. “Unlike Austin, you don’t seem to have any problems about letting me know what you want.”

I did tell you.

The wall was warming against Austin’s hands. He wanted to dig his nails into it, draw them down, flaking away the paint and plaster, tearing the pristine surface open the way he’d wanted Liam to tear the wall around him down so he could feel something again. He was numb, and he wanted to breach that numbness, pierce it, but only Liam could do that.

“Tell Austin how good it feels when I’m spanking you,” Liam said mercilessly, his hand flashing down over and over, striking skin that had been smooth, uniform in color, and leaving it blushing bright and hot. “Tell him, Jay.”

“’S good.” Jay gasped the words as if they were being driven from him with each blow, finding a rhythm. “Good. Hard. Wish it was you, though.”

Austin looked at Jay, at Liam, watched what was happening when in his head all he could do was try to concentrate on the ache at the small of his back, the burning in his shoulders and neck, the weight of his arms as he held them up. This was a different form of pain than Jay was experiencing, and it wasn’t fun at all. Inside Austin’s head wasn’t a good place to be. It was a bad place, a really bad place, and he wanted out. In that moment, he would have agreed to any number of things that would normally have been unacceptable to him. Had Liam wanted to whip his face and leave scars, he’d have said yes. Hell, he’d have said yes please and probably added more.

Another minute that felt like an hour, the sound of Liam’s hand striking Jay, and Austin discovered it was getting easier. It didn’t make any sense, but he was looking in the right direction and seeing nothing. He didn’t think he was losing consciousness—though he didn’t know what that felt like, since it hadn’t ever happened before—but somehow his consciousness was being altered. His body was on the floor where Liam had left it, but the part of Austin that really counted wasn’t in it anymore. He was out of his head, at least, and that was a relief.

“Three more,” he heard Liam say, and Jay gasped with each of the last three blows. Austin knew what that felt like, the almost electric pain of being spanked on skin that was already raw, bruises rising. He knew how it felt good and bad at the same time, and how powerful a feeling that was. Jay was sobbing softly, and Liam was murmuring comforting words, telling Jay how good he was, how obedient, how he’d done wonderfully.

Still disconnected from his body, Austin knew Liam was urging Jay to curl up on his side in the wide chair that already had soft blankets spread across it. Liam covered Jay with another blanket, pointed out a glass of water and box of tissues on the table beside them, then came over to Austin and touched his face.

Just like that, as if Liam’s hands held the all the magic in the world, Austin was back in his body, trembling with the effort of having held position for so long.

“Are you all right?”

Austin couldn’t speak. Liam told him, very firmly, to sit, which at that point didn’t require any more effort than to let gravity take hold. By the time Austin had untangled his stiff limbs, Liam was back with another blanket and a bottle of water.

“Drink this. No, drink it.” Liam was in charge, and Austin did as he’d been told, swallowing a few times and clearing his throat.

“I’m okay.” He was shaking and felt every bit as exhausted and relieved as he ever had after a scene, even though he shouldn’t have, really.

Liam helped him to his feet. “Come sit with Jay. I want you to see.”

With Jay curled up on the oversize chair the way he was, it was easy for Austin to run gentle fingers over his burning ass and the darker area where he’d bruise. God, Jay was so beautiful.

He couldn’t picture getting spanked himself after sharing in Jay’s spanking the way he had. If Liam had told him that he’d changed his mind, he’d… What would he do? He honestly didn’t know. He felt dizzy and centered at the same time.

“You two are close, aren’t you?” Liam was leaning against the back of the chair. He was always higher than them, Austin thought through the fuzziness filling his head. He nodded and went back to petting Jay, whose sobbing had turned to shuddering breaths of sheer relief.

“I meant it when I thanked you,” Liam said. Austin glanced up at him. There was a light sheen of sweat across Liam’s forehead, and he held a bottle of water, drinking from it with small sips as he waited for Austin to find the words to answer him. “You were honest, and I appreciate that. No, I require it.” He cocked his head to the side. “Do you wish you’d given me a different answer?”

“How could I? You said you wanted the truth, and you got it.”

“If I ask you that question next time, what will you say?”

Jay raised his head. “If you make him choose again, there won’t be a next time.”

Alarmed, Austin slid his hand into Jay’s, squeezing it in a warning. “Jay, no. It’s okay. I was… I got what I needed as much as you.”

“You got to see Jay marked up,” Liam pointed out. “That’s what you told me you liked.”

That aspect of it hadn’t occurred to Austin, but it made Jay’s flash of temper fade visibly. He gave Liam an apologetic look, then turned to kiss Austin, pausing before their lips met.

“Can I do this? Kiss Austin, I mean? Is it all over?”

“It’s not over until you leave. But yes, since you thought to ask, you may.” Liam sounded close to indulgent, his voice a mellow rumble.

The kiss made Austin’s world click into focus again. Jay’s mouth was eager against his, but the desperation that’d been eating away at them like dripped acid was gone. Neither of them had come, but that didn’t seem to matter. A session with Patrick had nearly always ended with them climaxing; Austin wasn’t sure how Liam would feel about that.

“I’d like to discuss what happened and clear up any questions you have. I find it useful. Take a moment to compose yourselves and get dressed, then join me in the family room.” Liam straightened and walked over to the door. “Please don’t keep me waiting.”

When the door had closed behind him, Jay gave Austin a rueful look. “Does that mean what I think it does?”

Austin rolled his eyes. “What do you think?”

“We’d better get dressed, then.” It was probably a sign of how good Jay was feeling now that he was willing to get up and pull on his clothes rather than lounge. Austin felt a twinge of regret as Jay’s boxers covered his ass—under other circumstances he’d have asked Jay to stay naked for at least an hour, and by the time they went home, the worst of the redness would have faded.

“I want to hold you,” Austin blurted, and Jay turned immediately and wrapped him in a hug.

“Me too. As soon as we get home, okay? We’ll climb into bed and stay there till morning.”

Liam was waiting patiently, the bottle of water beside him empty, when Jay and Austin went into the family room. “I think,” he said as they sat down, “that considering this was our first session together, it would be a good idea to go over how we feel it went while it’s still fresh in our minds. I don’t expect a detailed examination. I know you’re probably not up for that.”

“I think it was good,” Austin said. “Not just good, really good. I’m wiped out, in a good way.”

“I see vocabulary isn’t your strong suit after a scene.” Liam’s lips quirked. “No, no, it’s fine.”

“That’s what being wiped out does,” Jay said, defending Austin even though it wasn’t actually necessary. “He’s just like usual after, but I’m not sure I understand why.”

“I am, and I’m not sure either.” Austin wanted to explain it. “It was like…I was there, watching, and then I blinked and everything was different. Like my perception changed.”

Liam nodded. “That hadn’t happened before?”

“Well sure, it did, but not like this. This was intense, maybe because there wasn’t a physical element to it. I wasn’t the one getting spanked.”

“Yeah.” There was confusion in Jay’s voice. “You weren’t.” He gave Liam a questioning look, frowning at him. Austin knew Jay like this, on the trail of an answer to something that puzzled him. “Why did you do that? Okay, make that not do it?”

“I didn’t mind,” Austin said quickly. Liam made a sound, an incredulous snort, and Austin amended his words. “I don’t mind now. At first, when I was in the corner watching, I hated it. I was so disappointed that I wasn’t going to get what I’d expected. Disappointed? God, that’s not strong enough.”

Jay made a choked sound, turning to hug him. “Now I feel like I took something from you,” he said, his voice muffled against Austin’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I should’ve—”

The snap of Liam’s fingers brought Jay’s head up, and Austin, his body responding to the small, definite sound as if it’d been a command, sat straighter, his gaze going to Liam.

“If you’re quite finished,” Liam said. It was all he said, but it was enough to bring the blood to Austin’s face in a blush he could feel heat his cheeks. “I think I told you that the session wasn’t over until you left. I think I also told you I wanted to discuss what happened in what we can call the hand-on part of it, if you like. Discuss. Not weep and wail over each other. Everything that happened to you in that room went the way it did because I wanted it to happen like that. Me. Not either of you, so stop feeling guilty.”

He got up from his chair and walked over to the couch—standing over them, staring down. There would’ve been room for him to sit down between them, and part of Austin wished he would, that Liam would put his arms around them, gather them in, let them all touch and breathe together, enjoying the afterglow. The discussion was a good idea, he guessed, and it was a world away from Niall’s selfish plans for fucking them. And—like Liam’s expensive, bare, colorless house—it felt a little cold. He reminded himself they’d told Liam they didn’t want anything like that from him, and that Liam was straight and probably not comfortable with hugging them.

“It’s early days, I know, but you have to trust me, even when it feels that I’m being unfair. Being a Dom doesn’t give me godlike powers, but in that room, let’s pretend it does and believe you’ll each get exactly what you need. I don’t play favorites, and I’ll never leave either of you wanting, needing. I’ve felt like that myself too often to want to inflict it on others. It doesn’t mean that I won’t sometimes indulge myself and play with you a little. This is for me as well as you, you know. There were three of us in there wanting something, not two.”

Liam sounded exasperated but his expression softened a moment later, and he sat on the coffee table across from them. It was solid wood and it didn’t even creak, but the informality of it made him seem less inflexible to Austin.

“Okay, you can stop looking so crushed. I’m actually very impressed with you both, and from my perspective, you were everything I was hoping you’d be. Responsive, a challenge, interesting… The session was very short, I know—”

Austin sneaked a look at a clock on the mantelpiece above what looked like a real fireplace, though it was spotless, unused. God, it was barely nine. They’d been in the house an hour. It felt like forever since they’d walked in the door.

“I didn’t want to throw too much at you this first time.” Liam grinned at them, seeming relaxed, satisfied—looking, Austin realized with a stab of surprise, the way they probably did. “I had fun.”

Austin found himself smiling too, even though he was confused about how to have this conversation and what its limits were. “I’m glad. Is it okay to say that?”

“Yes, it’s fine.” Liam straightened his shoulders, like he was trying to stretch without appearing to. Austin wondered if his hand and arm were sore, and if there were any part of him that would regret tonight. He suspected the answer was no. “I’d like the two of you to go home and have a quiet evening. I won’t always suggest how you should spend your time when you aren’t here under my care, but on this occasion, consider it a very strong suggestion.”

“We will,” Austin promised. “I think it’s pretty safe to say we’re both looking forward to an early bedtime.” Which might or might not include sex, but that part was better left unsaid, considering.

“Good. In that case, let’s get you home.” Liam stood and moved off toward the front of the house, and the two of them rose hastily and followed. “And I’d like you to think about anything you might want to try next week. I’ll expect you here at the same night and time unless I hear otherwise.”

“Okay. Right, good.” Austin was surprised how quickly they were outside and in the car, not because he felt Liam had rushed them but because it felt like he was moving through thick syrup.

They were both silent on the drive home until they were two blocks from the house, at which point Austin asked Jay, “Should I stop at the convenience store? Do you need anything?”

Jay shook his head. “No, I’m good. I bought some new arnica gel earlier in the week. You know, just in case.”

Austin could feel the strain in his thighs as they made their way up the steep staircase to their apartment. He’d probably feel it for the next two or three days. They started to shed their clothes as soon as they were in the bedroom. A clatter as something hit the floor caught their attention, and Jay bent to pick up the bubble pack that the pill Austin had taken earlier had been in.

“I’ve got that,” Austin said and took it from Jay’s hand, hoping they wouldn’t have to talk about it.

Jay snatched it back and studied it. “Valium? What the hell?”

“I was nervous, okay? Liam’s…he’s not Patrick, and after what we went through…”

“I went through it too, but I wasn’t stupid enough to do a scene after I’d taken something like this.”

It was so rare for Jay to get angry with him, beyond the usual spats a couple had, that Austin felt thrown off balance. “It didn’t affect me, not in a bad way.”

“Yeah? Suppose you’d gotten what I did? He spanks hard, even when it’s just his hand. You might not have known when it was too much until it was too late. And you should’ve told Liam. You’re supposed to tell a Dom something like that.”

“If I had, he wouldn’t have gone through with it!”

“Good.” Jay flung himself into bed, a wild flurry of arms and legs, his reddened ass showing for a moment before the covers were drawn up and all Austin had to look at was a hunched shape and the back of Jay’s head. “Because I’m still not happy with the way it all went down. As far as I’m concerned, the only person who got what they wanted tonight was him.”

“You loved it,” Austin said flatly. He wasn’t going to let Jay work himself up into blaming Liam for anything.

There was a moment when he didn’t think Jay would answer. Jay argued by retreating into himself—his Cone of Silence, as Austin privately dubbed it. It was hell when that happened, and Austin, used to his family, where disagreements were loud but short-lived, had never worked out how to deal with it.

The covers were thrown back, and Jay turned, wincing as his ass touched the mattress. “I did,” he admitted in a small voice, “but are you sure you did, Austin? Really sure? He didn’t touch you, not the way he did me.”

Austin put his fingertips on his chin, remembering Liam’s grip. He shuddered, rubbing at the goose bumps on his arms, then sat down on the bed, close enough that he could smooth Jay’s hair back off his face. “He still involved me. It felt like I was getting spanked with you.” Slowly, working it out as he said it, he continued, “Putting me in the corner, just because he wanted something to look at when he was dealing with you, the way he posed me… God, it was a fucking rush, Jay. It was about him, not me, not even you, and I-I know it’s not how it was with Patrick, because he always made sure he did stuff we wanted, but I liked it that way.”

“I don’t get it,” Jay said.

“I don’t either.” Austin sighed and slid beneath the covers. “I wish I did. But, well, it worked, so maybe I don’t need to understand it.”

“You hate not understanding stuff,” Jay pointed out.

Austin rolled onto his side and kissed Jay. He’d meant it to be a quick press of lips. That ended up feeling too casual, so he moved in for a second, slower one and Jay responded in kind.

“Don’t do that again, okay?” Jay searched his eyes earnestly. “The Valium.”

“I won’t.” Austin wasn’t sure he was telling the complete truth, but there were times it was hard to do that even with Jay. “It was a small dose anyway, just to take the edge off.”

“I don’t care how small a dose it was. You can’t do it.” Jay hesitated, then added, “I’ll tell Liam if you do.”

That was enough to widen Austin’s eyes. Some threats were a lot more motivating than others, and the thought of how Liam might react to that bit of information was squirm inducing. “Okay. I won’t.”

“Promise?”

Put on the spot, Austin hesitated for long enough that any assurance he gave was going to be suspect.

Jay sighed. “Never mind.”

“I promise,” Austin said, unable to deal with the disappointment in Jay’s voice. “Never before a session, ever. I probably wouldn’t do it anyway. The past few weeks have just been hard.”

“Might be easier now we’ve found someone who knows what he’s doing,” Jay said and wriggled against him with a soft whimper. “My ass is fucking killing me.”

He made it sound like something that definitely belonged in the plus column.

Austin drew his hand down Jay’s back and placed it on skin that still felt appreciably warmer. “Hot enough to fry an egg,” he agreed.

“Felt so good,” Jay whispered, nuzzling Austin’s neck. His cock was rigid, the head jabbing into Austin’s stomach, insistent, impatient. “Hated getting dressed. Wanted to suck you. Or have you fuck me right there in the chair.”

“He knew that,” Austin said drily. “It’s why he told us to hurry.”

“He was hard too,” Jay pointed out. “Did you notice?”

Yes. “I guess.” Austin slipped his hand down to his erection and lined it up with Jay’s, the two of them beginning to rock against each other, finding a slow, casual rhythm. It wouldn’t be long before they were rutting against each other, fingernails scoring skin, biting and kissing and panting out their own version of pillow talk, sweet and dirty, but for now this felt good. “Maybe he’s jerking off now, thinking about us.”

“Straight.” Jay seemed to like the idea, though, if the sharp bite Austin’s shoulder got was any indication. “Doesn’t like our cocks, just our asses.”

“I don’t think that necessarily rules him out of being—”

“You know what I mean.” Jay licked Austin’s earlobe wetly, lavishly. “He looked at you, naked, your dick all hard, and he didn’t touch you. Straight or insane. No other choices. I wanted to touch you, Austin. Told him what I wanted, remember?”

“My cock in your throat, choking you.” Austin rubbed his knuckles over Jay’s ass hard enough to get a grateful, adoring grunt of pain from Jay. “Bad Jay. Nearly made me break position and go to you.”

“You can do it now, if you like.” Jay arched against him, shameless, hungry. “Please, Austin. Let me suck you. Fuck my mouth. Use it. Use me. God, please—”

It would have taken a stronger man than Austin to refuse such a generous and eager offer. He moaned and pushed at Jay’s shoulder, encouraging his lover to slide down the bed toward his cock. Jay moved and a second later had taken Austin’s cock into his warm, willing mouth. “You’re so hot for it,” Austin whispered lovingly. “Make me crazy, you know? Yeah. Teeth are good.”

He closed his eyes so he could concentrate on the feel of Jay’s lips and tongue. Almost immediately he had to open them again so he could see Jay. Jay’s dark hair was tangled, and the line of his nose pointed toward the ache that was Austin’s erection. Austin watched the head of his cock pushing between Jay’s lips, swollen flesh sliding deeper and challenging the stretch of Jay’s mouth. The scrape of teeth surprised him again, and Austin cried out, reached down and grabbed Jay’s hair.

“Relax,” he gasped. “Gonna…do it now…fuck you hard…”

His hips jerked forward on the first stroke, and he felt Jay swallow reflexively, the tightening around his cock a sweet pleasure. He used his grip on Jay’s hair to steady him and thrust forward again, shuddering. The look in Jay’s eyes when Jay glanced up at him was almost enough to make him come right then. Jay was like some spectacular sex toy, the perfect fit for Austin’s body and with a willing spirit to match. Austin had never loved anyone the way he loved Jay, and knew it wouldn’t be possible to love anyone more.

He wanted so badly to come but knew if he did, he’d regret not having been inside Jay’s hot, bruised ass. He allowed himself a few more thrusts, clenching his jaw at the effort it took not to fuck so deep into Jay’s throat it made him choke or gag. Not that Jay was likely to do either of those things anyway.

“Love you so much,” Austin said. “Gotta fuck you now; say yes, say it.”

As a method of deriving consent, it would have been considered shaky, but Jay was already gasping his agreement and rolling onto his back. A quick application of lube and Austin was able to guide his cock to Jay’s hole and push inside. The sensation was incredible. There was nothing like the hot, tight clench of Jay’s ass. Austin was almost sorry for Liam that he’d never know how it felt.

Not entirely sorry, though. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to share Jay under any circumstances.

It occurred to him, though, as he worked his way deeper that in a way, Liam was part of this. It was what he’d done to them both that had gotten them this wild to fuck, and it was his hand that’d left Jay’s ass so tender to the touch that when Jay hooked his legs over Austin’s shoulders, trying to get Austin deeper still, the slightest brush of Austin’s hand over the punished flesh made Jay whine pleadingly.

Liam was in a house that echoed with emptiness—no books, no plants, no clutter in any of the rooms that Austin had seen—and his pleasure in the aftermath of what they’d done would be a solitary one.

Austin slid a hand down Jay’s leg to his ass again, a firm touch this time, cupping the flesh. “You’re going to be bruised tomorrow. Those little ones, tiny purple bruises under the skin.”

Jay bared his teeth in a smile. “Good.” His hand dropped to his cock, encircling it so the flaring head was all that showed, deep with color like his ass.

Austin paused and tapped his hand against Jay’s wrist reprovingly. “Nuh-uh.”

Jay stuck his tongue out. “You’re not the Dom of me,” he said. “Not now.”

Austin grinned, not offended, though. God, if Jay ever did that to Liam… Yeah, now they had someone to keep them in line again, even if it was just a couple of hours once a week. It was enough. They didn’t need their lives micromanaged—just that precious space of time when they could kneel and say yes, Sir to someone.

“True, but I’m the one with his dick in your ass.” He gave Jay a few hard, erratic thrusts just to remind him. “Want to play a game?”

“As long as it’s not fucking Monopoly.”

Even with his dick telling him to move, now, Austin couldn’t hold back a wince. Game night at his mom’s house was a family tradition, but Jay hadn’t taken well to April’s blatant cheating. His little sister liked to win.

“No. How about Simon Says, but we don’t know a Simon, so maybe we should change it to—” He didn’t need to finish his sentence.

“Oh, that’s just wrong,” Jay said, but he took his hand away from his dick and waited, obedient now.

Austin rocked in and out of Jay once, twice, thinking. “Liam says…touch your dick again, but just one finger. Slowly.”

“I can just hear him saying it in that funky accent of his. You’d think he’d have lost it by now.”

Jay drew his finger along the length of his erection, balls to tip, a smooth, slow glide, leaving Austin to admire his control.

“Good…God, you feel so fucking tight, Jay. Like no one’s fucked you in months. Now the head; make a circle.”

Jay did it without thinking, tracing his fingertip through the gathering wetness crowning the tip. With a triumphant crow, Austin slapped Jay’s ass hard—not really much of a penalty, but who cared—and shook his head. “I didn’t say ‘Liam says.’” He was breathing as hard as if he’d been running now, holding back his climax with the distraction of the game and a lot of willpower.

“You’re just mean.” Jay tilted his head back, bringing the point of his chin up, exposing his throat, submissive and challenging at the same time. “Be mean some more. Your hand where his was… God, yeah.”

“He called you a slut,” Austin said, remembering how it’d made his cock throb hearing it. No need to clarify who he was. “He doesn’t know what you’re like when you’re really desperate. He’s gonna need to come up with some new words.”

“Play some more,” Jay urged him.

“What?” He was pumping steadily into Jay’s ass now, feeling the welcome squeeze and flex of the tight tunnel around his dick. Hard to concentrate on anything but the feel of Jay under him. Jay’s skin was damp against his where they were touching, warm and sweaty. Austin loved the earthy scent of arousal pouring off him. “Oh…Liam says, um, your nipples. Squeeze one of them, hard as you can take it.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I like that.” Jay’s eyes fluttered half-closed as his long fingers pinched and tugged at his nipple. “Wish he’d clamped yours when you were in the corner.”

“Oh, Jesus, I wish he had too.” Austin shuddered, losing the rhythm he’d created. He could feel a phantom throb in his nipples as if they had spent time being tortured by the brutal bite of clamps. He couldn’t wait much longer to come. “Liam says put those fingers in your mouth. Suck them like you were just sucking my cock. Get them so wet they drip.”

He wasn’t sure if the last ones counted as valid instructions under the rules, but Jay was obeying the first instruction, two fingers sliding between his lips to be taken inside all that lovely, hot wetness.

“Now put them in me,” he said urgently, feeling his control unravel as his muscles tightened in a warning. “Reach round. In my ass, Jay, do it, God why don’t you just do it—”

“Didn’t say ‘Liam,’” Jay told him and slapped the side of Austin’s ass, a hard, resounding crack of hand on skin.

“Don’t care.” Austin squeezed Jay’s ass, and Jay whined and bucked against him.

“Oh! Ow, God, Austin, that hurts. Liam’s hand on me. Shit, he was so good.”

All of it combined—Jay’s voice, Jay’s words, Jay’s ass—was driving Austin crazy. He shook with it, his hips stalling. “Liam says put your fingers in me, Jay. Please. Please.”

The angle was awkward, so Jay’s fingertips pushed into him from the side, stretching skin that was so sensitive with nerve endings that Austin yelped with the pain/pleasure of it and thrust forward again, deep into Jay’s ass. Any semblance of control snapped. Austin came, his dick throbbing in Jay’s tight body, his mouth open, teeth biting down on the solid meat of Jay’s shoulder.

It felt better than anything had in months.

With great effort, he pushed himself up off Jay, cock still buried inside him, and gasped, “You, now. Liam says you can come.”

Jay’s hand moved on his erection in a blur, three or four quick strokes before he cried out. The first pulse shot fluid as high as his nipple—still reddened from where he’d pinched it—and his eyes slammed shut, lips parting, jaw tense as his orgasm rushed through him. Austin loved being inside Jay when he came, feeling the tightening waves of Jay’s body. He loved the way Jay’s gaze was unfocused and hazy when his eyes opened again, the way Jay’s body relaxed into boneless pliability.

After a few minutes, Austin eased himself free and collapsed onto the mattress, grateful for its solid support. “Good?” he managed.

“Good. The best.” Jay blinked at him and smiled.

“Yeah.”

Chapter Seven

“What the hell?”

Jay was standing by the glass doors leading to Liam’s yard, staring out. The patio was illuminated by a security light that’d been tripped by a cat wandering past, its eyes huge as it’d frozen in the sudden wash of light. In Jay's opinion, Liam's yard was boring. Grass that someone else kept short, and a small, manicured shrubbery. It was always dark when they got there, but maybe as the weeks went by and the days got longer, Liam would plant something with some color to it. Or pay someone to do it for him. He joined Austin at the kitchen table and reached into the box Liam had just opened. “That’s a plug. Mine.” Not trying it out before he handed it over to Liam had been a wrench. It was easily the biggest he’d ever owned, three rippling curves promising all sorts of fun. He stroked it wistfully with the tip of his finger, then tapped what lay next to it. “These are beads. They’re Austin’s.”

“Thank you, Jay. I’d worked that much out for myself.” Liam continued to peer into the box as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Why in God’s name are they neon green and a pink that reminds me of dentures?”

“They were on sale,” Austin said, moving to lean against the counter. “Seventy percent off.”

“That’s no excuse,” Liam said.

Jay gave Liam a reproachful look. Liam had made it clear the session started as soon as they walked in. Respectful words and behavior were required, not optional. It helped Jay to get into his head space before he got naked, but it didn’t mean Liam could be an ungrateful asshole.

“They’re a”—gift didn’t really make sense when they weren’t going anywhere near Liam’s ass—“a contribution," Jay told Liam. "You buy everything, and we know how much all that stuff costs because we look at it online. You’ve spent a lot on us this last month, and this is just our way of helping out. They’re different colors because we know you’re fussy about that. And I know you’ve got this thing for red and black, but where they’re going, who gives a fuck?”

Over Liam’s shoulder, he could see Austin shake his head and mouth something that looked a lot like shut the hell up, but it’d needed saying.

“I do, and that’s all that concerns you.” Liam’s tone was pleasant, but there was an edge to it that gave Jay a thrill. “I appreciate that you want to contribute. It’s not necessary, and you needn’t do it again. My income far exceeds the both of yours combined, and even if it didn’t, you’re well aware of who’s in charge here, aren’t you.”

It wasn’t a question, but Austin answered anyway. “Yes, Sir.”

“Good.”

Jay watched as Liam looked into the box again. “We don’t have to use them tonight or anything,” Jay said hopefully.

“Yes, I’m aware of that, thanks.” Liam rolled his eyes and said to Austin, “He really has perfected this innocent act, hasn’t he?”

“It’s not an act!” Jay protested.

“Pretty much,” Austin said, then frowned and reached into his pocket. “Crap, that’s me. Sorry, I must have put it on vibrate instead of off.” He pulled out his phone and looked at it. “It’s April. I’ll be quick, I promise.”

Austin turned away as he answered the phone, and Jay explained, “His little sister,” to Liam in a low voice.

“I remember.” Liam looked concerned, and Jay didn’t know why until he glanced at Austin and saw how he was standing, all tense.

“Well, what the hell were you doing?” Austin was saying into the phone, sounding anxious and angry at the same time. “Okay, yes. I said yes. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Just keep your mouth shut and don’t do anything stupid. Anything else stupid.” He turned back around while pushing the button to hang up the phone, looking miserable. “I’m sorry, I have to go. My sister’s been picked up by the police, and they want someone to get her from the station. I’m really sorry.”

His gaze was fixed on the floor near Liam’s feet, his head down. Jay was already stepping forward to go to him and offer comfort—even while part of him was wondering what April had done this time—when Liam gestured at Jay to stay where he was. Liam moved in close to Austin and took Austin’s chin in his hand. “Look at me,” Liam said, and Austin did, his head tilting back. “It’s all right. You haven’t got anything to be sorry for.”

It hadn’t taken long for Liam to come up with certain gestures or commands that were personal to them both. That grip on Austin’s chin was one of them. Jay could see how still Austin went, as if he were unable to move even an inch, though he could’ve broken free with minimal effort. Of course, he didn’t want to, any more than Jay would ever have flinched away from the slicing stroke of Liam’s thumbnail over his nipple. Always the same one, always done at least once during a session, though he never knew when it would happen. Such a small flash of discomfort compared to everything else Liam inflicted—no, gifted—him with, but it never failed to make Jay melt and quiver for some reason.

“I have to go,” Austin said, his voice subdued. It rose. “I have to fucking go, and I don’t want to. It’s spoiling everything and—” He closed his eyes, not moving away from Liam. “Why tonight? Why couldn’t she have done this any other goddamned night?”

Jay wanted to go over to Austin, but he’d pushed Liam enough already. The session had obviously been cancelled, but something told him Liam wouldn’t be happy if they acted any differently.

“I imagine she’s unaware you had plans.” It was said in a reasonable tone, but Jay could tell Liam was as disappointed as they both were. This would only have been their fifth session, yet it was already the pivot around which Jay’s week spun. Losing it, walking away when he’d spent all day at work wondering what Liam had planned, made him feel the way he did when a figure of a warrior he’d been working on had been blown off a table by a sudden gust of wind, leaving something he’d created to be fierce and warlike, damaged and forlorn. He had Austin to comfort him later, though. Liam had no one. At least, Jay didn’t think Liam did. The vague possibility of Liam dating either hadn’t materialized, or Liam had decided not to share that information with them.

“She wouldn’t have cared.” Austin did move then, stepping back, his face set like stone. “God, Mom’s going to lose it when she hears about this.” He put out his hand to touch Liam’s arm. “I’m still sorry. You’ve got a right to be angry, but she’s…she’s my baby sister. It’d serve her right to have to get out of this herself, but if she thinks I won’t come for her, she’ll call my mom and that’s just not a good idea.”

“I’m not angry.” Liam sounded surprised. “Disappointed, yes, but I understand that you have to sort this out.”

“I have to go with him,” Jay said, and they both turned to look at him, Austin in protest, Liam in what was probably resignation. “No, seriously. Have to and want to. It’s not good to be alone for something like this.”

“You could stay.” It seemed like a difficult offer for Austin to make. “I could come back later, or if this ends up taking too long, maybe Liam could drive you home, after you…”

“No,” Liam said firmly. “Not an option. Of course I’d be willing to drive you home, Jay, but there won’t be a session unless both of you are here.”

Austin made a face. “That makes me feel even worse. It’s bad enough I have to miss out, but that doesn’t mean Jay—”

“It wouldn’t be the same without you,” Jay said loyally.

It was quiet for a moment. Austin looked like he was struggling with something he wanted to say, and finally, softly, said, “Liam, if you…you could come with us, if—”

“I’d only be in the way.” Liam dismissed the idea so quickly that Jay could see Austin’s feelings were hurt. It made him want to yell at Liam. “This is a family matter. I’m not a part of it.”

“Okay.” Austin nodded and gestured at Jay. “Come on. I’m really sorry, Liam, about all of this. I’ll call you later and let you know how it went.” He walked toward the front door, where their shoes were.

Liam gave Jay what might have been an apologetic look. “He doesn’t have to be sorry. I really do understand. Try to make him see that.”

It was hard to be mad at Liam when he sounded genuinely sorry and worried, but Jay didn’t want to let go of the emotion completely. “You can do that yourself,” he said, and he followed Austin out.

* * * * *

Austin drove too fast on the way to the police station, but it wasn’t until he ran a yellow light that was a shade too close to red for Jay’s comfort that Jay said anything.

“Slow down, okay? She’s safe. She can wait a few extra minutes. What happened?”

“I only know what she told me,” Austin said, which meant he didn’t believe it. He did slow down a little bit, though. “She said she had a taillight out, but I don’t know why they wouldn’t just let her go with a warning.”

“There must be something more to it,” Jay agreed.

“Liam seemed really pissed off.” It was a statement begging to be disagreed with, and Jay had no problem doing just that.

“I don’t think so.” Jay shook his head, the dangling earring he had in his left ear swinging wildly, the winged dragon striking the side of his neck. He liked the weight of it, though Liam would’ve made him take it off if they’d stayed. “You come to me naked, and you wear what I put on you,” he’d snapped when Jay had argued about that rule a few weeks ago.

“No. No way. He feels the same way we do, but it’s not the end of the world.”

He wriggled his ass against the car seat, trying to get even a twinge from the stripes Liam had laid across it the week before, but though the sting at the time had been electric, searing enough to take his breath away, the six clear, dark stripes had almost gone. “Maybe we can see him tomorrow?”

“I don’t know if he’d like that. He’s all about boundaries and routine. We’ll have to wait.” The depressed resignation in Austin’s voice made Jay think dark thoughts about April. It wasn’t the loss of tonight that was making Austin sound this way. Austin was too levelheaded to mind that. It was inevitable there’d be times when Liam had to cancel or both of them weren’t available, after all.

“I wish he’d come, though,” Jay added. Liam might not be pissed, but Jay was.

Austin shrugged, turning into the parking lot closest to the station. “He’s not a lawyer, just a whatever…corporate law attorney. What could he do?”

“Be there for us. Support us.”

“Not part of the deal.” Austin turned off the engine. “If I start yelling at her, stop me, okay? It just makes her worse.”

There was a reception desk in the entryway of the building with an officer behind glass to buzz people in. This was the first time Jay had gone with Austin to the station, but not the first time Austin had been there. All he had to do was explain who he was and the police officer buzzed them in.

“Hi,” Austin said to the man who came over to meet them. “We’re here to pick up my sister, April Fisher?”

“Right. I’m Officer Peterson,” the policeman said. “I wasn’t the one who pulled your sister over, but the officer who did said she was kind of uncooperative.”

“Sounds like her. Did she run a stop sign or something?”

Peterson shook his head. “She was pulled over for having a broken taillight, but when we checked her record, we found out she has half a dozen unpaid parking tickets. You’ll have to pay a fine before we can release her. She tried to pay it with a credit card, but it was declined.”

None of this seemed to surprise Austin, who sighed. “How much?”

“Six hundred and eighty dollars.”

“What? Where the hell has she been parking?” Austin bit his lip. “Sorry, sorry. I know this isn’t your fault.”

“She seems to prefer using handicapped spots,” Peterson said. “Plus they’ve gone unpaid for so long there are a lot of late fees.” He gestured at an officer near the back of the room, and Jay saw that April was sitting back there too, looking annoyed.

“There are so many questions I won’t ask,” Austin said, mostly to Jay. “Like why she couldn’t park in regular spaces, and why she didn’t just pay the tickets when she got them. And why she has to be such an idiot.”

“Took you long enough,” April said, joining them and glaring at Austin.

“Yeah, that’s a nice way to thank me for coming to get you.” Austin looked at Peterson. “What happens if we don’t pay the fine?”

Peterson shrugged. “She stays here over the weekend and talks to the judge on Monday morning. The car will stay in impound.”

The expression April turned toward Austin was one of panic. “Austin! You can’t leave me here!”

“I don’t have a choice,” Austin said grimly. “I don’t have the money. Mom’s gonna flip. What will she do without a car? She can’t afford to replace it.”

“I’ll pay the fine. Whatever it is,” a familiar voice said behind them, and Jay turned to see Liam standing there, looking weirdly out of place. “I assume you’ll take a credit card? I doubt I have enough cash on me.”

“Liam? What are—” Austin shook his head. “Never mind. No. You can’t.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

Jay saw Liam’s head turn the barest amount necessary to bring April into view. He looked her over unhurriedly, head to toe, and Jay wondered what he made of her. April’s hair was naturally the same blonde as her brother’s, but she’d dyed it for so many years—it was currently black shot through with purple—that it was a hot mess of split ends and frizz. She was dressed in black, leather-look pants and a skimpy ripped T-shirt, and weighed down with a ton of silver chains around her neck and wrists. She was sexy, he supposed, considered objectively, with high, lush breasts straining against her top, and a sullen pout that screamed kiss me.

For one horrible moment, Jay thought Liam was attracted to her. A bad girl and a Dom kind of went together—in his nightmares, at least.

Liam turned away, dismissing April as rudely as she’d addressed him, and Jay felt a surge of relief. Stupid, really. There was no way that Liam would have—no. He was going to scrub that thought from his mind.

“How much?” Liam asked the officer, his voice bored but polite.

“I said, who are you?” April’s voice was shrill now, and she grabbed Liam’s arm, pulling him around to look at her.

“He may be the reason you won’t be spending the night in a cell, not that I think for a minute that he should pay the fines, so take your hands off him,” Austin said through his teeth, shooting Liam an apologetic, hunted glance. “I’m sorry. She’s freaked out.”

“Don’t make apologies for her,” Liam said.

“Six hundred and eighty dollars.” Peterson gestured Liam toward a desk where he could make the payment, and Austin followed Liam.

“Seriously, you don’t have to do this.” Austin sounded, if anything, more upset than he had previously. “Please. Don’t.”

“I don’t want to stay here. Austin.” April had summoned up tears from who knew where, and one of them traced its way down her cheek, taking black eyeliner along for the ride. She tugged at Austin’s sleeve. “You wouldn’t leave your baby sister in jail.”

Austin whirled around. “You’re such a selfish, irresponsible little bitch. Just shut the fuck up for five seconds so I can think.”

Blinking, April stared at her brother wide-eyed; then Jay saw a flare of matching anger and her hand came up to slap Austin. “You asshole!” she shrieked, and Austin’s head jerked as her palm made contact. “Don’t you dare talk to me like that!”

Officer Peterson grabbed on to April and dragged her backward, roughly but not as rough as Jay would have been if it was him doing the restraining. Austin was still standing there in shock, so Jay put an arm around him, ignoring April as Peterson said something to the other cop. April started to sob loudly and sat down on the floor, rocking back and forward like a baby. Austin sighed, pulled away from Jay, and went to kneel beside her.

“Hey, come on. Don’t cry.” Austin didn’t touch her. “It’s okay.”

“You’re being so mean to me,” April sobbed. “I called you because I knew you were the only person who’d help me, and instead you say I’m a bitch?”

Austin looked up at Jay helplessly. His cheek was flushed red where she’d slapped him, and Officer Peterson was saying something about Austin pressing charges. “No,” Austin said. “No, I don’t want to do that. I just want her to get released…or whatever.”

Peterson nodded and moved to process Liam’s credit card payment. “This doesn’t make me legally responsible for her in any way, does it?” Liam asked wryly, even though he had to know the answer to that question.

“No, just for the payment,” Peterson said. He slid the slip of paper toward Liam so he could sign it, then gave him a printed receipt.

“Could I get another copy?” Liam asked and, when he had it in hand, walked to where April was still sitting on the floor and dropped it in front of her. “There. Try not to lose it. It’s the only one you’ll be getting from me.”

April looked up at him, her eyes narrowed. There was no gratitude in them. Whenever Jay heard someone—usually an older person in a crotchety mood—use the phrase she thinks the world owes her a living, he thought of April.

Sure, she’d grown up without a father—but she’d never had one to miss and her mother and brothers had surrounded her with love, as far as he could tell. Jay knew when it came to Austin being used and abused, he tended to get plenty crotchety himself, but even making allowances for his prejudice against people who hurt his boyfriend, he just didn’t like April much.

“Third time, suit. Who are you?”

With a cool self-possession Jay admired—and yeah, it got him hot—Liam ignored her as if she’d ceased to exist once he’d finished speaking to her.

“Get up,” he said to Austin. He didn’t offer his hand, but when he stepped back, Austin rose as if the order, delivered in a flat, disinterested voice, had scooped him up off the floor.

Jay walked over to slip his hand into Austin’s, not caring if the cops saw him. Madison was a college town, so the police tended to be more tolerant than otherwise, echoing the local population’s attitude, but like anywhere, there were always assholes. Right then he didn’t care.

Austin’s hand was trembling, but his voice was steady when he spoke. “Go home, April. We’ll talk about this tomorrow, all of it. Right now, though, just go.”

“Sure thing, Big Brother,” April snapped, putting a smear of emphasis across the last two words that changed them from a statement of fact to an insult. Austin hated that nickname, Jay knew, but April had been using it for years, claiming Austin was always watching her.

Watching out for her, yes.

She got to her feet in a smooth, sensual wiggle and gave the three of them a scornful look. “Austin and Jay, sitting in a tree—and suit makes three?” She eyed Liam, giving him the same appraisal he’d given her. “Are you paying them to blow you or something? Is that why you came to the rescue?”

“April, I swear to God, if you don’t shut your fucking mouth and leave—”

Liam held up his hand, cutting Austin off. “Miss Fisher is about to do just that, I’m sure.”

“I’ll go when I want, suit.”

April’s defiance ended abruptly when Officer Peterson began to walk toward them, a heavy frown on his face.

Thank you,” she said with fulsome insincerity and leaned up to plant a mocking kiss on Liam’s face, the scarlet of her lipstick leaving a bright, sticky smudge. Austin’s fingers clenched around Jay’s, but he didn’t say anything. They both knew that letting April have the last word was the only way to get rid of her. “See ya, sucker in a suit.”

When she’d gone, Austin sighed, a long, pained exhalation, and his grip on Jay’s hand eased off. Working his fingers to get the feeling back, Jay said softly, “Give her a minute to go around to the impound lot, huh? We don’t want to bump into her again.”

Liam took out a handkerchief as white as cotton could get and rubbed at his face where he’d been kissed. When he saw the stain on the fabric, he walked over to the nearest trash can and dropped the handkerchief into it, with Austin and Jay trailing behind him.

“That was… You didn’t need to do that. Not when she was such a bitch to you.” Austin was flushed with embarrassment, a darker patch showing where he’d been slapped. Jay wanted to scrub that clean, the way Liam had done to his cheek. She’d marked both of them—no, all of them, because he felt tainted with anger and dislike.

“He didn’t do it for April,” Jay pointed out with more sharpness than Austin deserved. “Did you?” he asked, turning to face Liam.

“I don’t care why he did it,” Austin said. “I need some air.” He fled into the entranceway and then outside through the second door while Liam and Jay still stood there.

“He’s embarrassed,” Jay said. “He can’t be grateful because he’s too busy being ashamed of how she acts.”

“I take it she’s always like that,” Liam said.

Jay nodded. “Yeah, pretty much. I’ve got to go see if he’s okay.”

Outside, Austin was leaning against the stone wall of the building. His shoulders were hunched, and he looked like he either needed the wall to hold him up or like he wanted to turn and punch the shit out of it. He gave Jay a tight, apologetic grin when he saw him. “God, I’m so sorry. Our night got ruined, and she wasn’t even appreciative. She thinks… Fuck it, I don’t know what she thinks. I’m so sick of her bullshit; I really am. Right now I’d be happy if I never had to see her again.”

This wasn’t the first time Jay had heard that particular sentiment, but he didn’t comment. “It was nice of Liam to pay the fine.”

“Nicer than I deserve,” Austin said bitterly as the door swung open and Liam came out to join them.

“Untrue.” Liam looked unruffled. “Are you all right?”

Austin shrugged and turned his head to look off across the parking lot. “I’m used to it. She’s been like this for years. I don’t know why.”

“I was actually referring to your face,” Liam said and came closer, turning Austin’s face toward the light. “We could get you an ice pack.”

Austin stood looking at Liam like he was the answer to some question never asked. “Thank you,” he said shakily. “For paying the fine. I’ll pay you back.”

“Not necessary.” Liam’s fingertips traced Austin’s cheek. “Besides, it isn’t your debt.”

“But Jay was right when he said you didn’t do it for April.”

Liam smiled gently, and Jay bit his lip at the tenderness in the expression. “Yes, he was right. I did it for you.”

“It’s too much.” Austin jerked his head away from Liam’s touch and threw his hands into the air, an uncontrolled gesture that told Jay just how unsettled Austin had to be feeling. Austin never got theatrical and over-the-top. Neither did Jay, for that matter. “Gah. I can’t do this. April. You. Hundreds of fucking dollars just wasted.”

“My money,” Liam reminded him, which wasn’t maybe the most tactful thing he could’ve said, in Jay’s opinion.

Austin glared at him. “Yeah. Your money. We’re costing you a lot, Sir. Maybe you should go with April’s suggestion and buy what you want. It’d work out cheaper in the long run.”

Liam stared at him in silence and then turned to Jay. “Why is he angry with me?” The words were mild, but Jay could see Liam wasn’t happy—with the situation, with Austin, with the loss of the evening he’d planned, so many possible reasons.

“I already told you.”

“So you did.” Without looking around to see if they were being watched, Liam took hold of Austin’s chin, forcing Austin to meet his eyes. “This is outside our arrangement.”

“I know.” For a moment, Austin sounded as sulky as April, and Jay saw Liam frown. But both emotion and expression were short-lived. Austin drew a shaky breath and leaned into Liam. “God, I’m sorry. Please. Don’t…don’t tell us it’s over. Not because of this. I’ll make it up to you. Do anything you want. Please, Sir. Please.”

“I didn’t do it to create any sort of debt between us, and I won’t end our arrangement over it. This was entirely separate. As far as I’m concerned, if it makes you feel more comfortable, pretend it didn’t happen.”

“I don’t think I can do that.”

“Then believe me when I tell you that it’s not important. Frankly it was pure selfishness on my part. I don’t want our time together disrupted, and this was the simplest route to that end. Now I want you to do something for me. Will you?” Liam’s voice was gentle and encouraging.

Austin nodded. “Anything.”

“I’d like you to take a few deep breaths, let them out slowly, and think about what sort of evening would be best for you. It isn’t too late to go back to my house for a session, or we could go have a few drinks or see a movie. Or you and Jay could go home and have a quiet evening on your own. What would you like to do?”

At that moment, movement at the edge of Jay’s vision caught his attention, and his focus sharpened as April’s car—Sarah Fisher’s car, technically—cruised past them. The smirk she directed at Austin must have felt like a punch to the gut if his wrecked expression meant anything, and as soon as she was gone, Austin gave Liam his attention.

“I want to go home with you. Can we?”

“Since it was one of the options I just gave you, then obviously, yes.”

Liam’s asperity seemed to do more to calm Austin than his kindness had. Jay felt a rush of gratitude toward the man that wiped out his earlier annoyance. He saw now how unreasonable it’d been of him to expect Liam to involve himself in something totally unconnected to the relationship they shared. At the same time, he realized it felt right for Liam to be here, somehow. Not because they needed him to take care of them—Jay could’ve just about covered April’s debt with his credit card and would have if Liam hadn’t stepped in first, solely to save Austin from April’s recriminations—but because…because—

“Jay.” Liam snapped his fingers, and as it always did, the sound brought Jay to a state of readiness, all his attention focused on Liam. “That’s better. I’ll see you both at ho—at my place. Don’t hurry. I want you to arrive in one piece.” He smiled, a brief flash of teeth. “I can’t promise you’ll stay that way.”

“That man knows how to make an exit,” Jay said as Liam walked away. He was rewarded with a shaky smile from Austin. “Are you sure you want to do this? I mean, he could be inviting us back for coffee, but I doubt it. If we go, he’s going to want—”

“He’s going to want exactly what we do.” Austin met Jay’s eyes squarely. “And tonight I want a hell of a lot more than usual. Don’t you?”

He walked away before Jay could reply, leaving Jay nothing to do but hurry to catch up and wonder if Liam knew how to deal with Austin in this mood. He wasn’t sure he did.

Chapter Eight

Liam took his time driving back to the house. He knew if he arrived much earlier than Austin and Jay, he’d have a hard time finding something to do with himself.

He still wasn’t sure why he’d followed them to the police station. It certainly wasn’t because Austin had suggested it as a possibility; in fact, that ought to have made him less likely to go rather than more. None of this was about what Austin or Jay wanted. That was the whole point, though somehow he was finding it more difficult now than he ever had before. He told himself it was purely due to the frequency of their sessions. Surely it was natural to become more attached to people one spent a great deal of time with, especially when they were as responsive and enjoyable as these two.

The house was largely the same as it had been before Austin and Jay had arrived earlier, so there was nothing to prepare. The bottled water Liam had set on the shelves in the den would be nearing room temperature by now, but that wasn’t important.

As soon as they arrived, while still standing on the front porch, Austin said, “Hi. I wanted you to know…I know this has been kind of a crazy night, and if you were just trying to be nice, or if you felt sorry for me, and it would be better for you if we rescheduled, well, I’d understand.”

It was clear from Jay’s expression that he didn’t feel the same way, and there was something in Liam that didn’t want either of them to be disappointed. They needed this tonight, or at least Austin did, and part of Liam’s role in all this was to figure out what Austin needed and give it to him.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Liam said brusquely and gestured to them to come inside.

Austin took off his shoes at the door and went immediately to the den.

“Thanks,” Jay said. “He really needs this.”

“I know.”

By the time Liam and Jay joined him, Austin had already taken off his clothes, folded them neatly, and was kneeling on the floor with his hands behind his back. Liam couldn’t help but admire his naked form—from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, of course.

“Good,” Liam said. “Jay, what are you waiting for?”

Jay gave him a reproachful look that would definitely require some sort of correction later in the evening, but for now Liam wanted to focus on Austin. There was a new toy that he’d been saving for the right occasion, and this was it.

“Austin, look at this.” Liam held it up. It was one of the biggest dildos he’d ever seen, with a slight curve to it and a flared base. “I’m going to use this on you tonight. Now, actually. I’d like to know how you feel about that.”

Wetting his lips, Austin said hoarsely, “Good.” He was erect, and Liam could see a bead of fluid at the tip of his cock. “I want you to.”

“Yes, I thought you would,” Liam murmured, more to himself than Austin. He’d sensed the tension in Jay as they’d walked toward the den—and he used each of them as a barometer for the other more than they realized—but it’d faded when Jay saw Austin. Liam trusted his judgment enough that he didn’t look for reassurance that he’d made the right call during a session, but it was still oddly comforting to know Jay didn’t see Austin’s dogged determination to push his limits as a worrying sign.

When it came down to it, Austin could push all he wanted; Liam didn’t intend to let anything go beyond what Austin could take.

The dildo was certainly going to prove a challenge, though. Liam ran his palm down it appreciatively, feeling the slick heaviness and picturing it buried in Austin’s arse, stretching him wider than he’d ever been stretched before. Neither of them had been fisted; he’d asked them and been amused at the furtive glances they’d exchanged, silently asking each other if they wanted that to change. Not that it was entirely their decision, of course. He wouldn’t do it to them without their agreement, but equally he wouldn’t do it on their schedule either. The dildo wasn’t as big as his fist and forearm, but it was a significant step toward that potential goal.

“Are you going to use one like that on me?” Jay, now naked and kneeling himself, sounded unabashedly eager. Liam had to fight to keep a grin from showing, though Jay’s lack of manners didn’t amuse him at all.

“No. You get a ball gag and a nice view of the wall until I decide you’ve had long enough to learn that you don’t speak without permission, you don’t try to anticipate or influence what I choose to do to you, and you don’t interrupt me.”

If they thought he’d gone soft after he’d rescued them and dealt with that dreadful girl, Liam intended to disabuse them of that notion in short order. They needed calming, and the best way to do that was to give them no room in which to panic. He was going to take away every thought that didn’t center around what he was doing to them, control them as utterly as he could, fill their vision.

And by God, he was going to enjoy doing it. When he’d thought he’d lost these hours with them, he’d come as close to losing his temper as he ever did, not with his boys, but with Austin’s sister. When she’d struck Austin, his anger had turned to ice, his innate possessiveness triggered—which hadn’t surprised him—and an unfamiliar protectiveness, which had.

They were his. Worried, tense Austin, fretting over so many people he loved, and Jay, whose frequent small rebellions were less of a challenge to Liam than his dreaminess when Jay went somewhere deep inside himself.

His.

“Austin, forehead to the floor, and keep your hands where they are. Arse up, knees spread,” he rapped out, going over to the new filing cabinet in the corner that’d become a storage space for the toys he used on them.

Jay had been correct when he’d said Liam was spending a lot, but Liam didn’t regret a penny of it. He bought the best, avoiding the gimmicky novelty items with a curl of his lip. Or he used everyday objects. He got a kick out of walking into a supermarket and buying a basketful of items that were intended for the kitchen, office, or laundry room and would all end up here, being used on Austin and Jay. Too much of a kick sometimes. Paying for wooden spoons, clothespins, and a wheel on a stick designed for cutting out pastry had been awkward to say the least with his cock half-hard, his face flushed. Worth it, though. Jay had shuddered and yelped in a very satisfying way when the pastry cutter was run along his thighs, but the spreader had made it impossible for him to do more than that.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Austin move smoothly into what was a rather awkward position to achieve. Humiliation wasn’t something Austin enjoyed, though Jay’s limits became fluid when he was aroused, something it’d taken Liam a few sessions to appreciate. On a normal night, Austin would’ve hesitated noticeably before assuming a position quite that blatantly suggestive and exposed, but tonight he seemed to welcome the chance to be instantly obedient.

That fucking money. Liam took down the gag from its shelf and added a handful of clothespins. Jay could pay part of the price for his irritation over Austin’s suspect submission. Austin would foot most of the bill, though.

Jay’s eyes widened when he saw the pins, but he had enough sense not to comment. He cooperated when the ball gag was fitted on him, his lips spread obscenely wide, a trail of drool appearing at the corner of his mouth within moments, his throat working convulsively.

“Good boy,” Liam said lightly, dismissively. He patted Jay’s head as he would a dog’s, tousling his hair, knowing exactly how much Jay would both hate and revel in it. He tossed the pins from one hand to another, juggling them casually. “What a shame I won’t be able to hear the sounds you’ll make when these go on. Let me see, how many do I have? Five. One for each nipple, so that leaves three to place. The skin of the inner arm high up, that’s very sensitive…or the inner thigh. Of course, if I’m there, I could just give your balls a treat or decorate your cock.”

He’d avoided touching their cocks at first, more for their benefit than from any reluctance on his part. As far as he was concerned, when they were here, every inch of them was his to play with, but he respected their limits. That’d gradually become less of an issue, though Liam didn’t think sliding a cock ring into place or adjusting the fit of a harness qualified as foreplay. He’d felt the weight of their aroused cocks in his hand, or the soft, fluid shift of their balls. Nothing to really concern him about that, even when he’d been tempted once or twice to slide his hand along the stiff, ripe flesh and hear Jay or Austin moan. He had the same organs hanging between his legs, after all. It meant nothing.

Jay’s dark eyes were frantic, a keening whine barely audible, but he didn’t shake his head or move away. Gagged, his safe word was a gesture, three knocks on the floor when he was kneeling, made with his hands, knees, or feet. Neither of them had needed to use any form of safe word yet, though Liam was prepared for that to change tonight.

“I also notice that you’re still wearing an earring despite being told I don’t want to see you wearing anything at the start of a session.” He removed it with a sharp, impatient tug and tossed it away, noting where it fell for later. “Well, I know where one pin will go. Right here.” He flicked Jay’s earlobe hard enough to sting. “If you forget to remove it again, I’ll send you home and that will mean Austin loses his time with me too, since you’re a package deal. Do you understand me?”

Jay nodded, the bob of his head as frantic as his eyes.

“I hope so. Now let’s see…” Pretending to consider his options, Liam pinned each of Jay’s nipples in turn—Jay whimpered and trembled endearingly—and then the aforementioned earlobe. Two more. One went onto the supremely sensitive skin just behind Jay’s balls, which elicited a whine, and the last pinched the fold where the head and shaft of Jay’s cock met. Liam knew from previous play how tender a spot this was, but he also knew the clothespin wouldn’t clasp tightly enough to cause any real damage.

It’d hurt like hell, though.

Satisfied Jay was reasonably occupied, Liam turned back to Austin, snagging a bottle of lube and a low stool on his way. He’d have better leverage and be more comfortable if he wasn’t on the floor with Austin, and he’d need both of those things to make this the best experience possible. He lowered himself to the stool and flipped open the lube.

Liam drizzled some lube between the globes of Austin’s exposed arse and smiled to himself as Austin’s skin twitched as the cool liquid touched him. It ran down in a shimmering, silvery line, darkening pale hair.

“I shouldn’t have to tell you I expect you to remain completely still.” Liam set down the lube and traced a finger through the slickness to Austin’s hole, teasing it until Austin trembled.

Next he picked up the dildo and wet it with lube, making sure it was well coated. He wanted to hurt Austin, but he didn’t want to damage him.

“Do you want me to fuck you now?” he asked and felt a twinge as it reminded him of other times he’d asked a sub the same question and then fucked her with his cock instead of an artificial one.

“Please, Sir.” Austin’s voice was low and rough.

“Say it.”

Austin shivered. “I—I want you to fuck me now. Sir.”

Liam pressed the end of the dildo against Austin’s flesh. He couldn’t rush this; the dildo was too wide, and he needed to take it slow. That was harder than it should have been. He found himself wondering what it would be like to just shove the dildo inside Austin, wondering what Austin’s desperate cries would sound like echoing in his ears.

Wondering what it would feel like if it was his cock thrusting into Austin’s arse.

Unsettled by the thought, Liam pushed the tip of the dildo inside, watching thin skin stretch to accommodate the width of the silicone. Austin remained silent, but his hands clasped behind his back tightened on each other.

From his position facing the wall, Jay made a muffled, yearning sound, as if he’d felt that first push of the dildo. It was probably just the bite from the makeshift clamps really making itself felt, but it reminded Liam of how connected his two subs were. It was a puzzling dynamic among the three of them on the face of it. He was used to the connection running from him to his sub, but because his interactions had always been short-term, it’d always been a temporary link, broken as the sub dressed and left.

Jay and Austin were totally wrapped up in each other and had made it clear that was how they liked it, but Liam wasn’t blind to the way they’d begun to bond with him. He supposed they had with Patrick too. It was impossible not to, given the intimacy of what they did here in this small room.

And it was small—or rather not entirely suitable for everything he wanted to do to them. He gave the dildo the smallest of twists and got the first sound from Austin, an openmouthed gasp. This would’ve been far easier on a bed. His scruples made the two rooms upstairs that his children would sleep in if they ever came to visit off-limits, and his room was his space, private. That left one bedroom free. It was empty now, apart from a few boxes of memorabilia he hadn’t unpacked. Maybe he’d move them to the basement and put a bed in there. The small attached bathroom would come in handy too. He had an idea for a form of breath play with Jay, putting him face up under a steady flow of water, that he wanted to explore down the line, and on a more mundane level, it would make cleanup easier if he ever allowed them to come after a session. Maybe tonight. They’d need the familiar comfort of each other after he’d given them his version of it.

His thoughts were superficial, disconnected, but under them was a current of pleasure. Jay, trying so hard to kneel in perfect stillness and failing just enough that really Liam would be forced to punish him for it, Austin taking this impossibly huge dildo deep into his arse and quite literally opening up to Liam for the first time without reservations. They were being so fucking good for him, so obedient.

Without thinking, he smoothed his hand down Austin’s side and leaned in to kiss the fragile winged point of a shoulder blade, murmuring a few soft words of encouragement as the dildo inexorably spread Austin’s hole wider.

Austin shuddered and whimpered, a series of short, desperate cries. He was a contradiction, his upper body and arms tense but his lower body relaxed. If it hadn’t been, the dildo would have been causing serious injury. “Please,” he whined.

Oh no. That wouldn’t do at all, speaking without being given leave. “Quiet,” Liam said and gave the dildo a sharp twist. Austin bit back a shout, his entire body going taut for a second before he remembered he needed to be relaxed. Liam wished he could see all of Austin’s face, lip no doubt swollen from the contact with his teeth.

There was a fine sheen of sweat on Austin’s skin now, and against the wall, Jay was still making the occasional sound. Liam focused on working the dildo deeper into Austin’s body using a careful in and out motion, each inward push driving a tiny sound from Austin. He was trembling all over by the time the dildo’s flared base was flush to his body.

Liam found himself eager to see Austin’s reaction to a proper fucking now he’d been opened up, and he wanted to be closer. He hitched the stool around so he was directly behind Austin, in the same position he’d be if it was his cock inside Austin, and gripped the base of the dildo tightly.

He pulled the dildo almost entirely out, watching Austin’s body cling to the shaft. A brief pause to listen to Austin’s breathing, and then Liam thrust the dildo all the way in, deep. His erection throbbed in reaction to Austin’s whimper, and that was enough to spur him on. He found a rhythm of fucking and concentrated on it, his senses straining to catch every nuance of Austin’s response.

“Ah. Ah.” Austin’s breath was quick now. “Yellow!”

Liam stopped. He was aware of Jay’s tension. “All right,” he said, as much for Jay as for Austin. “Take all the time you need.”

“Tha-thank you, Sir.” The words emerged in pants, interrupted by the deep breaths Austin was pulling into his lungs.

If Liam had heard red, he’d have removed the dildo with as much care as he could—speed wouldn’t have been a kindness. Yellow, though, didn’t require the loss of all that he’d—they’d—gained. He put his hand on Austin’s hip to ground him and sorted through some possibilities while Austin got his breath back. A Dom was supposed to know everything and often it was a polite fiction, but someone paying attention could make an informed guess and be correct nine times out of ten. None of the sounds coming from Austin had been pained—well, not the wrong kind of pain, at least. There was a difference between the insult of a stubbed toe and the controlled infliction of a desired sensation. The position was awkward and probably uncomfortable to a certain degree, but that wouldn’t have made Austin call for a break.

That meant the reason at the top of the list became rather a flattering one.

“Do you still feel close to coming?”

The moan from Austin was answer and confirmation enough.

“Oh dear,” Liam said, pinching Austin’s ass just because he felt like it and admiring the small patch of red his fingers left before it faded. “Well, you don’t have permission for that, so I suggest you concentrate on pleasing me, not yourself. After all, that’s what you’re here for, isn’t it? Pleasing me?”

“Yes, Sir.” Austin’s voice breathed submission, but it shook as he continued. “I want to please you. I don’t want you to stop. I just… It’s so big and I need…I need… Please?”

“It’s not about you,” Liam reminded him before Austin could lose control and do or say something Liam couldn’t overlook. He gripped the base of the dildo, holding it in place as his other hand whipped across Austin’s arse, three stinging slaps delivered to one pale cheek, flushing it with color. Without looking around, he added calmly, “That’s earned you something extra at the end of the session, Jay. I expect you to remind me if I forget.” As if he would.

He heard the small sound of knees moving against carpet again and knew that Jay was once more facing the wall.

Depriving either of them of the chance to watch the other being played with or punished was cruel of him, he supposed. They did enjoy it so much. Unfortunately for them, the knowledge that he was being cruel was more of a spur than a signal to slow down.

“I was enjoying myself, Austin. You really have no idea what the view’s like from here. It’s quite inspiring. Black definitely looks good against your skin.” Lime green and that revolting pink… He supposed they’d meant well, but… “I don’t see why I should deny myself the pleasure of fucking you some more just because your self-control is on the shaky side, do you?”

He counted Austin’s uneven breaths—four, five, six—with the intention of beginning again once he reached ten. What he’d do if Austin came and required punishing was beyond him, but he’d worry about that if and when it happened. But just as he silently counted eight, Austin said, “No. No, I can…I can do this, Sir.”

It wasn’t the time to offer praise, so Liam kept that to himself. He started fucking Austin with the dildo again, slowly now. He found it impossible to understand how Austin could stay still and yet respond to each thrust, but somehow Austin was doing just that. He was quiet and at the same time begging with his body for more, more, faster, harder. Liam didn’t want to allow Austin to control how things went, but it was so hard not to give in to his need.

“I almost wish I’d decided to let you come,” he mused out loud. “I might like that, seeing you lose yourself in that moment.”

Austin groaned, and from his position near the wall, Jay made an answering sound of desperate need. Oh, that was a boy who’d need a solid punishment when he was done here. For now Liam gave Austin’s arse his full attention, speeding up the thrusts of the dildo just a small amount. He’d have to stop soon or Austin’s shoulders and arms would be too seriously strained. It was a shame, though. He could have done this all night. He imagined what it would be like to fuck Austin through one orgasm and then a second. Would Austin cry? He was so lovely with tears running down his face. He’d be so much lovelier if he was doing it while Liam fucked him.

“Tell me you don’t want to come,” Liam said sternly.

“I—” Austin’s breath hitched. “I—I don’t want. Don’t want to come. I don’t.” It had to be an incredibly hard thing to say when clearly he did want to come, but he was such a good boy.

“You’re so good.” Liam hadn’t meant to say that out loud, but somehow he had. “Tell me you want me to hit you.”

Austin’s shoulders shook. “Please, Sir. Please hit me. Please.”

Liam let go of the dildo, leaving it buried in Austin’s arse, and struck him. Not hard, but with the blow landing squarely on the flared base of the dildo so the slap made contact with Austin’s skin and drove the dildo deeper at the same time. Austin cried out an affirmation, and Liam did it again, and then again. It took fourteen strikes of Liam’s hand to break Austin. The final blow made Austin shout in a voice so high-pitched and hoarse that it was nearly a scream, a sound which tapered off into loud sobs.

Liam reached for the dildo to ease it free and saw his hand was shaking. God, he’d been so caught up in the moment that he hadn’t appreciated the way his body had been clamoring insistently to come, to release the building intensity in some way. He’d struck Austin and that’d helped—God, those sounds Austin had made, plaintive, despairing, adoring—but he needed to leave the room and jerk off, something he always did almost before their car had cleared the end of the road.

Except he was nowhere near done here, and leaving Austin like this was unthinkable.

He hesitated and put his hand on Austin’s back instead, stroking it. He needed Austin’s cooperation to get the dildo out without hurting him, and Austin was in no state to listen to instructions to breathe or bear down. Austin broke position—not that Liam cared right then—and turned, burrowing his head into Liam’s lap and clinging to him. By the wall, Jay, unashamedly looking now, was wide-eyed with distress, clearly poised to come over to Austin if Liam rejected him.

Well, he wasn’t bloody well going to do that, now was he? Not after all the work it’d taken to get Austin like this.

The low stool he was sitting on put his lap at a good height to be used as a headrest. He soothed and petted Austin, brushing damp hair back from a scarlet, tear-stained face and trying to ignore the way Austin’s cheek was rubbing against his erection. He didn’t think Austin knew he was doing it, which was some comfort.

“Good boy,” he murmured. “That’s it; I’ve got you. Now calm down. I need to tidy you up and see to Jay.”

Austin gave a hiccup, took a long shuddering breath, and nodded, responding to Jay’s need just as Liam had known he would.

Their love for each other might have been sweet, but it made them incredibly predictable.

Getting the dildo out was quicker than getting it in, but Austin suffered through its withdrawal. He hadn’t come, which Liam found frankly incredible. The climax Austin had reached had been an emotional one, but his body was still stubbornly insisting it was aroused and needed satisfying.

Liam took mercy on him, though he longed to replace the dildo with his fingers, driving up into the widened, welcoming channel and feeling Austin convulse and cling to him, sobbing out his gratitude.

Bleakly Liam realized he had some thinking to do when he was alone. They’d all agreed where the line was to be drawn, and he was crossing it in his head two or three times a session. He’d been prepared for it to blur, but not like this.

He helped Austin over to the chair, brought the soft throw down over him, and uncapped a bottle of orange juice, folding Austin’s hands around it and making sure he swallowed some of it. The dildo he wrapped in a hand towel and set aside to clean later. It was a chore he enjoyed, the true end of the session for him, as he returned each item to its place, recalling the use he’d put it to.

When he’d cleaned his hands with a disposable wipe, taking his time, he walked over to Jay, who was still kneeling but glowering at him. The clothespins had to be causing him a considerable amount of discomfort.

Good.

“I was thinking twenty strokes with the paddle for you,” he said calmly. Better to rid Jay of the gag first—that way it would be more of a challenge for him to keep quiet while the pins were removed. No point in making it easy. It didn’t take long to unfasten the gag, and Jay swallowed. Saliva glistened on his lips.

Liam removed the clothespin from Jay’s earlobe.

Jay whimpered and swallowed again. “And something extra, Sir.”

“Oh yes.” Liam hadn’t forgotten the extra punishment, but he was pleased Jay had reminded him. Well, most of him was pleased. A small part of him wished they’d both forgotten, because anything doled out to Jay at this point was going to lack something. Irritated with himself for being affected when he shouldn’t be, Liam unclipped both pins from Jay’s nipples at once and without warning.

Jay’s nipples, having been pinched tightly for so long, flushed bright red as blood rushed back to the area. At his sides, Jay’s hands twitched as if he wanted to rub them.

“Sore?” Liam asked.

“Yes, Sir.” Jay’s voice was tinged with discomfort. Liam wondered what those swollen nipples would do when licked. Would they tighten into points?

“Turn around and get on your hands and knees.”

Jay looked shocked. “Sir? I—”

“I’m perfectly aware that I haven’t removed all the clothespins yet,” Liam said, turning to get the paddle and glancing to see that Austin was all right at the same time. “I’m going to paddle you with them on. That’s the something extra.”

There was no point in doing this lackadaisically, even if his interaction with Austin had left him shaken and uncertain. Liam was determined not to leave Jay wanting, and he wasn’t going to cheat himself of the experience of paddling Jay, who had done as he’d been told and was on his hands and knees, bare arse facing Liam and the clothespin on his scrotum visible between his thighs.

“I believe I said fifteen.” He said it casually so Jay wouldn’t realize it was a test.

“No, Sir. Twenty.” There was anticipation in Jay’s voice, and Liam rewarded him for his honesty with a quick caress of his arse before bringing the paddle swinging in to strike him.

By the time Liam reached double figures, he was aware of an ache in his shoulder. Nothing to do with the evening’s activities; he’d been foolish enough to agree to playing a round of golf two days running after months when his clubs had been left to grow dust over the winter. Knowing that he’d got this to look forward to, he’d decided not to self-medicate with anything but a long soak until after they left. Even a muscle relaxant or a stiff drink could slow him enough that he might miss something.

He separated himself from the pain, concentrating on Jay, who provided an excellent distraction. The glow on his arse from the paddle was shaded beautifully from rose pink to crimson, and he whimpered before, during, and after each blow.

Liam hadn’t made him count the strokes; Jay often got it wrong simply to buy himself a few more strokes, and so Liam usually made Austin do it for Jay. Austin sometimes got it wrong too, but that was because, like Liam, he found the sight of Jay being paddled a distracting one. The week before, their eyes had met when Jay had indignantly corrected Austin’s fifteen to fourteen, and Austin had grinned at him, an impulsive, friendly grin that Liam had returned before he could remember he was supposed to be in charge.

“Talk to me,” he said, suddenly curious about what Jay would say if permitted since he was so vocal when it wasn’t.

“Hurts. Oh God. Please don’t stop, Sir. Harder, do it harder.”

Liam slowed the next stroke to a pat that wouldn’t have cracked an eggshell. “That counts,” he said and smiled when Jay made an inarticulate sound of protest. “So does this,” he added and smacked the paddle down with as much force as he could, given the angle.

“Oh!” Jay drew the word out and then hissed through his teeth, his body swaying, rocking as he absorbed the force and the pain. “I think…think I’m gonna come.”

“I’ll be most displeased with you if you do,” Liam retorted and made the last two count. “There.” He couldn’t resist smoothing his palm over all that hot, hurt skin, though he didn’t usually touch them in a way that could be interpreted as a caress. He was taking pride in what he’d done, that was all.

Jay arched into Liam’s touch, though right then Liam’s palm must have felt like sandpaper. Jay choked out a “Thank you, Sir” that sounded heartfelt.

“You’re welcome.” He meant it as much as Jay had. This was doing so much for him. He’d started smiling at work, the tension headaches that’d plagued him dwindling to nothing. He was sleeping better, drinking less. He was happier.

He owed them a lot more than a spanking or two.

“Let’s see about removing the last of the pins. Roll over onto your back.” The carpet would chafe unmercifully, but Jay would enjoy that.

Jay shifted position and lay staring up at him, dark eyes filled with trust and tears. His cock was full and thick, the pin hanging from it, the pinched skin almost purple.

Liam removed the clothespin on Jay’s balls first. It was in a spot that would hurt more during the paddling but less coming off, since it had been biting into only a thin fold of the sensitive skin. The sound Jay made was a whimper more of relief than anything else. When Liam unclipped the pin that had been attached to Jay’s frenulum, though, Jay went utterly still with the agony of it, cock twitching and then throbbing. Jay cried out and came, white fluid painting his stomach even as he grabbed hard onto the base of his shaft too late to stop his release.

“Fuck,” Liam whispered, shocked by his level of arousal at the sight of Jay’s orgasm. Even the smell of semen was a turn-on, and not knowing what else to do, Liam struggled to his feet and fled to the safety and privacy of the downstairs bathroom, slamming the den door behind him.

Chapter Nine

Austin hardly knew what had happened. One minute he’d been recovering from one of the most intense sessions of his life, listening to Jay getting a paddling that he and Liam were clearly enjoying, and the next he and Jay were alone in the den with the echo of a door slamming shut in their ears.

His first thought was for Jay. “Are you okay?”

“I came,” Jay said miserably.

Shit. Well, that probably explained Liam’s hasty retreat. The question was, how mad was he? Austin went to Jay, who was breathing hard and blinking back tears. “Hey, it’s okay. It’ll be okay.” Jay curled up in Austin’s embrace, welcoming his touch like always; there was little else that made Austin feel more competent than comforting his boyfriend. “It was an honest mistake.”

“I was so turned on. I tried to warn him.”

“I know. These things happen. He’ll understand.” Of course, if Liam understood, why had he left the room without a word? Austin was jealous that Jay had come, but only a little bit. It was safe to assume Liam would be super strict with Jay for weeks after this, not taking him anywhere close to the edge.

“He’s pissed off.”

“He probably just needs some time. He’ll be back.”

“Jesus, Austin. I’m so sorry.”

Austin kissed Jay’s damp temple. “I know. It’s okay, I promise.”

Jay sighed. “He never asks us for anything we can’t do. Did you notice that?”

“You’re not some tantric ninja warrior,” Austin pointed out, pushing aside the emotional turmoil that was left to help Jay. “Your body gets turned on that much, you’ll come. Anyone would. If he’d been that bothered, he should’ve put you in a cock ring.”

Jay snorted. “No room. Too many fucking clothespins hanging me out to dry. Not that I’m complaining.”

“What did they feel like?” Austin traced a swollen nipple. It felt hot, so he sucked on his finger, then did it again. “Like clamps? Worse?”

“There is no worse, only different.”

“Yes, Yoda.” They shared a grin and then a surreptitious kiss, with Austin acutely aware of the door behind him and his neglected hard-on. Listening to Jay being punished had done nothing to make it subside. The taste of Jay’s mouth was maddeningly arousing, and he drew Jay’s hand down to where his cock was waiting. “Touch me? Please? That’s all it will take. Look at me. I’m so fucking close.”

Jay looked tempted but alarmed. He lifted his hand an inch or two away from Austin’s cock. “Hey, two of us in trouble? Not a good idea.”

Austin felt conflicted, not wanting to disappoint Liam after all he’d done for them both, but God, he needed to come as much as he’d needed every deep, hard shove of the dildo, every flat slap from Liam’s hand. Right then nothing mattered but the throb in his balls. He’d been fucked to the edge and left hanging by his fingernails; he wanted to let go and fly.

He ran his hand over Jay’s chest, pressing kisses against Jay’s lips, sweet, biting kisses he knew Jay loved, shameless in his need.

“This is just for us. It’s not…it’s not connected to what we have with him. The session’s over, he’s gone, maybe just so we could do this. I don’t know. If he doesn’t agree with me, he can dream up any punishment he likes and I’ll do it, but I need you, Jay. God, do you want me to beg?”

“And he called me a slut.” Jay licked Austin’s ear and then bit his earlobe; Austin gasped, not holding back in the hopes it would convince Jay. “Anyway, it’s not over, you know that. It’s not over until we leave.”

“Please, Jay. Please?” Austin murmured the words, and Jay nodded.

“Okay. But we’d better not make a mess.” Jay shifted downward and took Austin’s cock between his lips, sucking at the tip wetly.

Whether they had unspoken permission or not—and Austin was leaning toward not, he just wasn’t in the mood to care right then—he didn’t want to alert Liam to what they were up to. So he pressed his lips firmly together and focused on the feel of Jay’s mouth and on not making a sound.

He was so close it didn’t even take a whole minute. With his ass burning inside and out and Jay’s hand cradling his balls, Austin closed his eyes and came, shooting into Jay’s warm mouth with a fantastic sense of relief. He opened his eyes again before he’d finished trembling, though, feeling like he’d cheated on an important test and glad that Liam hadn’t come back to the room yet.

Sitting up and wincing, Jay wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and whispered, “Do you think he wants us to go?”

“I think he’d tell us to if that was what he wanted,” Austin said. “Maybe he doesn’t feel good. Shit, you don’t think he’s sick?”

“He felt fine when he was—”

The door opened and Liam walked in, composed, but his mouth set in a tight, forbidding line. Austin’s bravado and shaky logic abandoned him, and he instinctively edged closer to Jay.

“Yes, that’s not a guilty look at all.” Liam’s voice was harsh. “Let me guess. I was away, so you two mice decided to play. Is that it?”

“It was my fault,” Jay said immediately. “Austin needed it. We didn’t think you’d mind.” He got to his feet and held out his hand to Austin, who took it and let Jay haul him up.

Maybe they should’ve gone on their knees or something, looked penitent, but his knees were aching. He didn’t want to get scolded like a naughty kid anyway. Not for this. He was done for the night, completely wiped out.

“I mind the fact that you didn’t ask…” Liam’s voice faltered, and he passed his hand over his mouth, rubbing at it. When he spoke again, his voice was strong, confident. “Never mind. Tonight’s been stressful for all of us. It’s not surprising that you’re not as in control of yourselves as you should be.”

Austin had the weirdest feeling Liam was trying to convince himself, not them. “We’re sorry. Really. Don’t blame Jay, though. I talked him into it.”

“Into what, exactly?”

Liam’s crisp, cool words demanded an answer. Austin swallowed. “Uh, I came in his mouth. It didn’t take long. I was so close I probably would’ve come anyway. I just couldn’t hold it back. Not after what you did to me.”

The hell with his knees. They’d screwed up, and he knew it. It wasn’t gratitude for Liam bailing his sister out that prompted what he did next, but respect for his Dom. He took the few steps needed to put himself in front of Liam and went down to the floor as smoothly as possible, bowing his head and whispering, “I’m sorry, Sir. I’ll take whatever penalty you think I’ve earned for not asking permission.” The formality of the words felt right even if he’d never talk like that outside this room.

When there was no reply, he took a chance and glanced up. Liam was staring at him, a blind, blank expression closing down his face.

Austin’s penitence shifted into concern. “Sir?”

“Everything’s fine,” Liam said, which was a lie if Austin had ever heard one. “It’s all right. I’m not angry. I shouldn’t have left the room without clarifying things for you, and I don’t blame you for being confused.”

Jay walked over to join them, giving Austin two sets of legs to stare at, one pair bare, one pair wearing expensive dark pants. Liam’s wardrobe didn’t vary much, but Austin found himself wondering if they were the same pants Liam had been wearing when he’d left the room. They showed no creases beyond the sharp one running down the center, and they smelled faintly of dry-cleaning chemicals. Weird.

Jay cleared his throat. “Do you want… I mean, is this something we need to talk about?”

Liam shook his head. “No. I don’t think so. Just get dressed, both of you. Jay, drink some of the juice over there if you need it. Again, I’m sorry.”

Austin felt ridiculous being the only one kneeling, so he stood again, grabbing on to Jay’s arm to steady himself as the blood rushed to his head. The three of them were crowded close like this, close enough that it felt natural for him to slip his arm around Jay’s waist. As soon as he’d done it, he realized he was underlining how alone Liam was, especially when Jay put his arm around Austin’s shoulders, but he couldn’t push Jay away. Inviting Liam to hug it out wasn’t really an option either.

Awkward. All of it. Austin wasn’t sure what had happened to sour the end of what had turned out to be an incredible session, but he was ready to go home and sleep, curled up with Jay in their bed. Tomorrow he’d have the situation with his sister to cope with—and a fucked raw ass that would be sore as hell—but that was tomorrow.

“Did we do something wrong?” he blurted and regretted it immediately because it made Liam’s face harden again.

“No. For God’s sake, Austin, not everything is about you.”

None of them moved.

“Then what is it about?” Jay’s voice was small.

“I’m just…” Liam shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know. But it’s not your fault, either of you.”

“You can talk to us, you know.” Austin wanted to reach out to Liam, keep the connection that was so strong during a session from fading away. “Not just as our Dom about what we do together, but about anything.”

Liam’s eyebrows rose. “Really? You’re familiar with corporate law then? I had no idea.”

“No, you know I’m not, but we both have jobs and we know they can get stressful.” Austin took a risk and tried a direct question. “Is it that? Work? Or—”

“Austin, you and Jay are both charming subs, but I don’t think we’re at the stage of braiding each other’s hair and sharing secrets, and frankly I prefer it to stay that way.” Liam stepped back and ended that part of the conversation with a finality Austin was forced to respect. “Get dressed. In front of me, this time.”

He stood, arms folded across his chest, and watched them separate and go over to their folded clothing. At the end of their third session, he’d stayed to watch them dress and controlled the order each item had gone on, drawling out instructions from the chair. It’d been a surprisingly erotic experience, but tonight Liam just watched in silence, his gaze more often than not on the bare wall.

Austin felt self-conscious, relieved when he was finally covered up.

Jay tucked his T-shirt in, then changed his mind and pulled it out again. He was moving with gingerly care, and Austin bet that as soon as they got home, Jay would strip and go to soak in the tub. Tight jeans had to be the last thing he wanted to wear given what he’d endured. “Will we see you next week?”

“Yes.” Liam sounded impatient. “I told you, nothing’s changed and nothing’s wrong. Just go home and try to forget about the less than ideal start to the evening.”

He turned on his heel and led them to the front door. Usually he opened it to usher them out, and they left with a nod from him, Liam barely waiting for them to reach their car before he closed the door.

Tonight he paused, studying them in turn. “Poor boys,” he said unexpectedly. “You look so crestfallen. There’s really no need.”

“Let’s see.” Jay began to count on his fingers. “You hated the present we got you, April put a dent in your bank balance—”

“But I’m paying that back.” Austin wasn’t sure how, but he would. Installments, maybe.

“And then we both came without permission. Yeah. Consider our crests all droopy and shit.”

Liam chuckled. “Along with other parts of your anatomies?” He shook his head. “Forget it. All of it, including the money—though I think you should impress upon your sister that I’m not prepared to step in and help her again, Austin. You, yes, but not her. And I appreciate the thought behind your gift, Jay, even if that’s all I liked about it.”

Jay seemed more cheerful, which of course made Austin feel better too. “Okay, well—we’ll see you next weekend.”

“Don’t,” Liam said, glaring, “be late.”

Chapter Ten

Saturday morning was one of Liam’s favorite times in the office. It wasn’t that he disliked the space during the workweek—the vast majority of his work hours were on his own whether he was at the office or at home—but on a weekend it was quiet and peaceful, much easier to focus.

There were always people in the office, even on a Sunday, of course. It was just the nature of the job. Liam had known before he’d gone into law that it was a field that required dedication and long hours, but the facilitatory nature of corporate law had appealed to him in ways that other types of law didn’t. He preferred to save his confrontations for places other than a courtroom.

He’d come in to get some documents he needed and decided since he was making the trip he might as well put in a few hours’ work while the building was at minimal capacity. He had lifted a hand in greeting to another of the firm’s employees while coming in, but didn’t bother to close his door because he didn’t anticipate being interrupted.

As a result, he nearly jumped when a shadow appeared in his doorway. “Saul. How are you?”

“I was going to ask you the same question,” Saul said. He looked strange in jeans and a casual shirt, the uniform of their profession left behind. “I’m good. I heard the Bernstein deal’s a wash.”

It wasn’t a case either of them had worked on, but because the company that had hired their firm to handle the negotiations was large and willing to pay handsomely, it had been a topic of much discussion in the office for weeks.

“Yes, I heard that as well. Shame, after all that work.” Liam wasn’t convinced the attorney in charge of the situation had been up for the job, but it wasn’t the sort of thing one could say out loud.

“We were talking about taking Junior out for drinks Friday night. To that new place, you know, Candy’s—or whatever it is. It’s a Hooters rip-off but who cares when it means racks like that, right?” Saul flushed and glanced over his shoulder, then wiped his brow exaggeratedly. “Whew. Just the kind of thing I’d say and then find Miriam standing behind me, you know?”

There were so many things wrong with Saul’s few sentences that Liam wouldn’t have known where to begin, so as usual he didn’t bother to try. “Candy’s?”

“Yeah, it’s over near the highway. Where the crummy Chinese place was? The one where Daniel and Joe and those guys got food poisoning that time?”

All of this required more knowledge of office gossip than Liam was interested in. “Right. Sadly I have plans Friday night.” Thank God.

“You can’t have plans as good as these.” Saul leaned against the door frame as if he was getting comfortable for a protracted conversation, something Liam was not at all in favor of. “Come on, it’ll be fun. We’ll have a few dozen drinks, ogle some hot women.”

“Appealing as that sounds,” Liam lied, “I really do have something else to do.” Something that would be a great deal more satisfying than the horror of spending an evening with drunken coworkers.

He knew he tended to come across as rather dull, and he didn’t care. There were fellow attorneys at the firm whose company he enjoyed; they were generally his age or older, and most of them had been married for at least two decades. Strangely, though, the younger attorneys seemed to focus on convincing Liam to socialize with them while leaving his peers alone. He hadn’t sorted out if this was because he was single and they felt guilty knowing he was on his own, or if they genuinely thought he’d be good company. He suspected it was the former but hesitated to ask for clarification because he knew it would make him seem more interested than he actually was.

“You’ve got almost a week to make different arrangements,” Saul said, obviously not willing to let it drop. “Change your plans.”

“I don’t want to,” Liam said mildly and looked at Saul. “I like my plans.”

“You go out with Jordan all the time,” Saul protested. “Didn’t you play golf twice last week?”

Liam blinked. “I didn’t realize my off time activity was a matter of such interest.”

Saul must have heard the hint of irritation in his voice. “No, it’s just…Junior wants you to come.”

“Junior couldn’t possibly care less what I do.” Liam was aware now that he needed to end this conversation soon before he said something he’d regret. His shoulder ached, a combination of the aforementioned golf games and the paddling he’d given Jay the night before, and he really wasn’t in the mood to argue. Saul, on the other hand, seemed to get off on it.

“Well, you’re wrong about that. People like you, Liam. You shouldn’t close yourself up in here like a hermit. Get out, have a good time.”

“I appreciate the invitation,” Liam said carefully. “But it won’t be possible. I really do have plans. Another time.”

For a few seconds, Saul studied him, then nodded. “Okay, sure. But I’m going to hold you to that. See you on Monday?”

“Of course.” Liam had planned to work from home on Monday, but under the circumstances, he didn’t want to appear antisocial. He could work in the office instead if it meant ending this.

He was more than grateful when Saul went away, and he wished he’d stopped in for those two minutes to collect what he’d needed and then taken it home and worked from there. It could be distracting, though, trying to work in a house where Jay’s and Austin’s voices echoed in every corner. It seemed strange they’d managed to become such an important part of his life in such a short time.

Speaking of which, he made a mental reminder to phone Jay later in the day and check on Austin. For all he knew they spent weekends catching up on their sleep, something he definitely remembered doing himself back when he’d been younger. The night before had been difficult—what with Austin’s sister and her brush with the law—and Liam wanted to make sure Austin was dealing with all of it in a way that wasn’t emotionally damaging.

In an ideal world, no one would need therapy. In this world, many people did but didn’t get it for a variety of reasons. Liam believed some of them turned to the world of Doms and subs. He found it reassuring, but he also recognized it was a fine line to walk and the last thing he wanted was to contribute to someone’s issues. He wanted to be sure his interactions with Austin were helping, not hurting.

Liam worked at the office for another hour or so, then wrapped things up and neatened his desk for Monday before leaving. He waved to Saul—on the phone, thank God—on his way out. It was already well after noon when he stopped at the grocery store for supplies. Often, he had a different supermarket deliver, but sometimes it was nice to wander the aisles and choose individual pieces of fruit by touch and smell instead of just by checking a box on a Web site. Not, however, on Saturdays. The store was crowded, and people kept bumping him with their shopping carts. When the same woman bumped into him a third time, he frowned and opened his mouth to say something—what, he wasn’t sure.

“I am so sorry,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes at him, and Liam realized she was flirting with him. “I should have my license revoked.”

“Somehow, I don’t think that would help,” Liam said.

“No, probably not. But I’m still sorry. I thought the worst of the crowds would be here in the morning, but I guess I was wrong.” She was lovely, with long dark hair and a curvaceous figure.

He gestured for her to go ahead of him. “Please, ladies first.”

“Thank you.” She smiled at him and moved her cart past his. “London?”

Liam nodded. “Very good. Most people are lucky to guess the correct continent.”

“Guess is the right word. But it’s faded, your accent. You’ve been here awhile.”

“Years,” Liam agreed, taking a bottle of tomato juice from the shelf and setting it in his cart.

“I went to England in, hm, I guess it was the mid-nineties. Wow, that makes me feel old.” She wrinkled her nose in an endearing way.

Liam was quite sure she was hoping to be told she looked young. In fact, she did—not more than thirty-five or so—which certainly wasn’t old by the definition of anyone but a teenager. “Where did you go?” he asked instead, following her to the next aisle even though he probably didn’t need anything there.

“Different places. It was one of those group tour things. You know, it was fine, and we saw all the stuff they tell you that you have to see, like Stonehenge and whatever.” She stretched to reach a box of trash bags that was just out of her reach.

“Let me get that,” Liam said, and did before handing it to her.

“Thank you.” She let her hand touch his a little longer than strictly necessary. “Oh, I’m Leslie, by the way.”

“Liam.”

“Two L names,” Leslie said. Her eyes were very soft and warm. “That must mean something.”

It didn’t mean anything as far as Liam was concerned. Any other time, he would have been pleased to pursue something with her, even just a cup of coffee, but today he found himself less than excited at the prospect. In fact, he found himself thinking about Jay and Austin. “Yes, well. It’s been very nice talking to you. Have a nice weekend.”

He turned and left, not looking back so he wouldn’t feel guilty about the expression of disappointment he was sure was on her face.

He ended up doing some of the household chores he had a tendency to put off, including changing the lightbulb above the garage. By the time he’d eaten dinner, he discovered the day was nearly gone and he’d never phoned Jay. No time like the present, so he picked up the phone rather than put it off any longer.

“Hello.” Jay sounded cautious. “Liam? Is everything okay?”

“Hello, Jay. Actually, that’s why I was calling you. I wanted to see how Austin was. Is he there?”

Better to find out right away if the subject of their discussion was in the room.

“Um, no. He went over to his mom’s house to talk to her. You know, about April. He’s okay. Nervous about how she’s going to take it.”

“If Austin didn’t tell her, she wouldn’t find out?” Liam asked.

He could practically hear Jay nodding. “Yeah. Unless she got some kind of receipt in the mail, I guess, but April’s probably been getting rid of stuff like that for months.”

“And how was… Wait. Is it all right with you if we discuss him like this? I don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable position.”

Jay snorted. “You love putting me in uncomfortable positions. But yeah, it’s okay. As long as you’re not asking me to keep it a secret or anything.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that.” Liam definitely didn’t want to do anything that might risk damaging Austin and Jay’s relationship. “I was just hoping to get a feel for how you thought he was, both in general and in regard to last night’s session.”

“April stresses him out,” Jay said slowly. “She always does that, the whole time I’ve known him. I don’t think that’s going to change unless she does, and I’m kind of thinking that’s not going to happen.”

“She’s still young.” Liam felt he was being charitable.

“I don’t care. I don’t even know if I like her because I’m so sick of seeing how she knots Austin into a pretzel.” Jay sighed. “Anyway, I guess I’m trying to say that he isn’t any more freaked out about her than he ever is.”

“Which isn’t saying much.”

“Nope.” Jay brightened. “But hey, on the plus side, he was way more relaxed last night. Maybe not perfect, but he really needed it. Thanks for being flexible on the time issue. I know it wasn’t the night you were expecting.”

“I don’t think it was the night any of us was expecting,” Liam said ruefully. “I’m just glad we were able to salvage something from it.”

There was a pause, then Jay asked, “Um, what about you? Were you okay with it?”

Damn. Liam had hoped Jay would be so focused on Austin that this issue wouldn’t come up. “Fine. Unless you’re talking about the fact that you both came without my permission, in which case I can’t say I was pleased. I expect more control from you than that.”

“Yes, Sir. It won’t happen again.” As Liam had hoped, the accusation snapped Jay back into sub mode.

“Good. Then I’ll see you both on Friday. Have a good week, Jay. Behave yourself.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

Austin waited to show up at his mom’s house until after six on Saturday night. She worked on Saturdays in addition to all week, so Sunday was her only day off. He felt guilty as hell giving her the bad news about April right before the one day she could really relax, but at least he was doing it in person and not on the phone. His mom had a phone thing. She really, really didn’t like talking on it unless it was totally necessary.

Her car was in the driveway when he pulled up in front of the house, looking none the worse for wear after its evening in impound.

He still hadn’t settled on how to enter the house. After living in it most of his life, it felt natural to just walk in without knocking or anything, plus he still had a key. But he didn’t live there anymore. He lived with Jay now.

Deciding on knocking and then opening the door without waiting for an answer, Austin stuck his head inside. “Mom?”

“Austin? Is that you, honey? I’m in the kitchen.” She was almost always in the kitchen when she was home, unless she was sleeping. She had a tiny television set up in one corner and would watch the news while she cooked, sometimes reading a magazine at the same time. His mom was a mistress of multitasking.

“Hi. Sorry I didn’t call or anything.” Austin went over to kiss his mother’s cheek, and she hugged him tightly before turning back to the stove where she was tending a pot of some kind of thick stew.

“You don’t have to call! I’m just glad to see you.”

“You aren’t going to be once I tell you why I’m here.”

His mom frowned and put a hand on her hip. “What did she do this time?”

Austin gave her a rueful glance. “Why do you assume it’s her, not me?”

“Because you’ve never given me a moment’s worry and she’s never given me anything else.” Sarah sighed. “Listen to me. I love her; you know I do. She’s my baby girl. Always will be. But she’s not easy to get close to. Goodness knows I’ve tried.”

“Growing up with no dad and all of us boys teasing her—”

“You and your brothers grew up with no dad too,” she said sharply. “Sean and Tim were only babies themselves. They don’t remember him. You do, and Chad, but not them. And if making sure she always had the biggest slice of cake, the first pick of any treat is teasing, well, things have changed since I was growing up with your uncles.”

Austin walked over to the coffeepot and poured himself a mug, adding milk and sugar, moving around the kitchen without thinking about it because everything was where it’d always been. “April’s going through a difficult age.”

“She’s been going through that since she was a baby. Go on, tell me what she’s done now.” Sarah’s hand tightened on the spoon, her back stiffening as if she was preparing herself for a blow.

Austin put his coffee down untouched and went to her, hugging her again. “I took care of it,” he said, stepping back after dropping a kiss on her cheek. “It was just some parking tickets.”

She smiled at him doubtfully. “Oh. Oh well, if that’s all… They don’t make it easy for you, those people. I was over the line by no more than six inches once and came back to find a ticket on the windshield. She should be more careful, of course, but that’s not so bad. I’ll make sure she goes out with plenty of change for the meter.”

If only it was that simple, but either way Austin was doing what he always did: protecting his mother from the realities of life. She’d had enough, raising five kids on her own, always working at least two jobs. She deserved a little cushioning now and then. “How are you? How’s work?”

He always asked those questions because answering them guaranteed her focus for at least a few minutes.

“Oh, you know. Jennifer, at work, she’s fighting with her husband again. Every time I think maybe she won’t go back to him this time, but every time she turns around and disappoints me. I don’t know why his family lets him get away with it. She’s such a sweet girl, you’d think one of his brothers would say something to him about it.”

“Maybe they have,” Austin said.

“Maybe,” she agreed. “The doctor thinks my new cholesterol medication is helping this time.”

“That’s great, Mom. What’s in the pot, anyway?”

“Oh, something new. Caribbean something or other, with pineapple. I get so bored of the same things all the time, and you know your brothers will eat anything. April, I think she lives on air.”

“Smells good. Hey, why don’t you sit down and let me take care of that?” Austin took the spoon from her hand.

Sarah sat at the table, brushing crumbs from it as if staying still was impossible. “You’re a good boy,” she said fondly.

Austin blushed, his fair skin betraying him. He turned back to the pot of stew so he could blame his flushed skin on the heat rising from it. How many times had Liam used those words to him? It felt wrong to be standing here with his mother, his body tingling at the thought of Liam, but he couldn’t help it. The man was difficult to forget, and Austin found himself thinking about Liam at the oddest moments. Fucking Jay and seeing the marks on his ass that Liam had put there—that was a reasonable moment to recall Liam’s blue eyes and lean, strong body. Booking an appointment for Mr. Shelby to get eight stitches removed from a cut hand, less so, even if Mr. Shelby’s first name was William and he’d never lost his English accent after forty years in the US.

A comfortable silence fell, broken by a burst of loud music from outside.

Sarah frowned. “That’ll be your sister now. She’s been out with that Kyle again. I don’t like him.”

Austin grinned. Kyle, despite his habit of driving around with his car windows down and hip-hop music playing loud enough to be heard a mile away, was okay. In fact, compared to some of April’s former boyfriends, he was a keeper. At least his car belonged to him, not someone else who wasn’t aware it was missing. “You mean you don’t like his mother.”

“Who would?” Sarah asked. “Vacationing in Hawaii! And we all know how she pays for them.”

“Mom…” Before he could point out that Kyle’s mom had come into a nice chunk of money after an insurance payout following an industrial injury that had left her in the hospital for a week, the door swung open.

April’s face tightened immediately, her gaze darting from Austin to her mother, panic and anger clear on her face.

“There you are, sweetie,” Sarah said, giving her a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Just in time to set the table. The place mats are in the dining room.”

The phone rang in the hallway, and Sarah hurried to get it, calling back over her shoulder, “This had better be Alice telling me she’s changed her mind about joining the book club. I’m not going on my own, and she owes me.”

Alone with his sister, Austin gave the stew a quick stir, then turned the heat down. “Hey.”

April glared at him, her hostility mixed with suspicion. “You didn’t tell her what her darling daughter did now to shame the family name? Or are you saving that for the dinner table and a bigger audience?”

“Don’t blame me if you feel guilty,” Austin told her. He’d decided earlier that afternoon, bouncing ideas off Jay, to do his best to be nice to her because being mean sure didn’t seem to change anything. “I downplayed it, okay? I told her you had some parking tickets and I helped you get it straightened out, that’s all.”

She didn’t look convinced. “Why would you do that?”

“What, help you out? I don’t know, maybe because you’re my sister?” He knew he was being obtuse, but something about it amused him.

“No, I mean why wouldn’t you tell her the truth?”

Austin sighed. “Because it’d just make her feel bad, and I hate doing that. Why don’t you?”

For once April looked genuinely hurt at the thought of having caused someone else pain. “I do. It’s just…I have to live my life. I can’t do whatever she wants me to forever. I’m not a little kid anymore. She has to let me grow up.”

“Yeah, but growing up means being responsible for your mistakes,” Austin pointed out, “not expecting your family to bail you out.”

“It was just some parking tickets.” April was dismissive, irritated. “You make it sound like I murdered someone or…or got caught selling heroin or something. Besides which you weren’t even the one to pay the stupid fine. Who was that guy, anyway? Jay’s dad?”

Austin shook his head. “Jay’s dad lives like a thousand miles away and doesn’t give a shit about him, let alone me. We’ve had this conversation before. Maybe you’d remember it if you weren’t so self-absorbed.”

“Give me a break, would you? You can’t seriously expect me to memorize every detail of your boyfriend’s life. I’ll bet you don’t even know who I’m dating.”

“Kyle, right?” Austin tried not to gloat and failed.

Their mother came back into the kitchen and frowned. “I thought you were going to set the table.”

“That would involve going into the other room,” April said sweetly. “I was busy talking to my big brother about a friend of his I met the other night.” She gave Austin a triumphant look behind Sarah’s back.

“Oh, that’s nice, dear.” Sarah wasn’t really listening, Austin didn’t think. “You two can talk more over dinner.”

“Sure can,” April said. She smiled brightly at Austin. “Has Mr. Suit got a name? Or do his friends call him Sugar Daddy?”

Austin eyed April sourly. So much for being nice.

He managed to change the subject by asking his mother about her latest gardening project. She was sort of adorable about it. She had the blackest of black thumbs, killing almost every plant she focused her attention on, but remained cheerful that she’d figure it out sooner or later. Currently she was trying to coax a wilted blueberry bush back from the dead. “It was in the clearance section, and it didn’t have very many leaves left, but it was only three dollars so I figured it was worth a try.” Sarah put her hands on her hips and surveyed the countertop. “Okay, dinner’s ready to go through.”

“Want me to make the call?” Austin asked.

“That would be nice.”

He went around through the dining room to the foot of the stairs and shouted, “Dinner!” Years of training warned him to get out of the way, and it was a good thing because less than a minute later, his two youngest brothers came thundering down the stairs. He could remember a time when it had been all of them, with April sliding behind one step at a time, skirt hiked up almost to her waist with the friction from the thin carpet on the steps.

“Thought that was you,” Sean said, entering the dining room. “What are you doing here?”

Austin began to set the table. “Just came to check in, make sure you aren’t getting into any trouble.”

“Just wanted a free meal, more like,” Tim said and brushed past him on his way to the kitchen, where the food was still waiting to be carried through.

“Actually I’m not staying for dinner,” Austin said, though the smell was tempting as the dishes were placed on the dining table.

“What? You have to stay. Look how much I made!” Sarah sounded aggrieved.

Austin grinned as everyone settled into their seats. “You always make too much. You think you’re still feeding a crowd of starving teenagers.”

“Speak for yourself,” Tim said, piling his plate high with rice and stew. “I’m always starving.”

“Wait till your metabolism slows down,” Austin told him, taking his seat. “Then you’re screwed.”

“Right, the voice of experience.” Sean rolled his eyes and patted Austin’s flat stomach. “Size of a house. Hey, where’s Jay?”

“Working. He’s got a competition coming up, and he’s, like, 90 percent finished with the diorama. Which means the last 10 percent will take twice as many hours as he’s already put into it because he likes to get everything perfect.”

“It’s so cute that he does those.” April blinked at Austin, her words innocent even though they hinted at condescension. “What is it this time, a teeny tiny hospital scene?”

For a second, Austin flashed on a diorama of a BDSM scene, miniature sub tied to a bedframe as his miniDom raised a flogger. “Um…no. Alien planet, actually. All these ruined buildings with the proportions not quite right so you know it wasn’t humans using them. It’s really cool.”

“Adorable.”

“No,” Austin said, refusing to back down and let his sister get away with mocking Jay’s hobby. Jay had worked so hard on this diorama over the past few weeks, even needing to be prompted to get ready for their visits to Liam. Though once they’d arrived at Liam’s, Jay had snapped out of the creative fog soon enough. Liam didn’t approve of distracted subs with their minds on decorating a slender spiral tower with delicate curlicues of shaved metal. “It’s actually pretty scary, but it’s good.”

“Tell us when and where the competition’s on and we’ll all go and stand around it making appreciative comments when we see the judges approach,” Sean said. “Got to support our own. The Fishers stick together.”

“Jay’s not one of the family. He’s just a boyfriend. They don’t count.” April’s eyes narrowed, the shadows under them not all down to the heavy makeup she was wearing, Austin thought. She seemed to realize she’d gone too far and smiled. “Sorry. Of course Jay’s different. Special. I like him.”

Austin expected April’s nose to grow an inch after that. She’d liked Jay when Austin started seeing him, but as soon as it’d gotten serious between them, that’d changed to hostility.

“If you keep up like this, you’ll be eating your supper in the kitchen,” Sarah told her, not fooled at all judging by the stern look that she gave April. “Jay’s family, and I hope he knows it. With his parents so far away, we’re all he has, bless him.” She turned to Austin. “I’ll put some of this aside for him, and you’re to make sure he eats it.”

“I’ll do that.” Austin eyed the depleted dishes on the table. “Assuming there is any left.”

“You’re the one who pointed out I make enough for an army.” Sarah sighed. “It is nice to have leftovers around, though. What does everyone think?”

Tim, who had just shoveled in another huge mouthful of food, said a muffled, “’S good.”

“You’d eat something scraped off the bottom of your shoe,” April said with disgust. “It’s okay. It probably has a million calories.”

“Only a half a million,” her mother said.

“Don’t talk to me like I’m six,” April snapped, eyes flashing. “You know what? I’m not hungry.” She got up and flounced from the room, ignoring her mother’s protests. She reappeared a moment later with a bottle of diet soda in her hand and announced, “I’ll be in my room. Kyle’s picking me up at eight.”

“You’re going out again?” Sarah asked, dismayed.

Austin went to pick up April’s abandoned plate.

“Don’t clean up after her,” Tim protested. “God, she’s so spoiled. It’s a miracle she knows how to wipe her own ass.”

“Timothy!” Sarah exclaimed.

“Well, it’s true.” Tim sulked for a few seconds, then smiled at his mother apologetically. “Sorry, Mom.”

“That’s better.” Mollified, Sarah concentrated on her own food while Austin, wanting to save her at least a little work, packaged up some of the meal in a container for Jay. “I just don’t know what to do about that girl.”

“You could send her to one of those camps,” Sean offered like it was a perfectly reasonable suggestion.

“Camps?” Sarah frowned.

Sean nodded and scooped another bite onto his fork. “Yeah, you know. Scared straight or whatever.”

“He means boot camp,” Austin explained. “Well, not the army version, but the other kind.”

“I never know what any of you are talking about.”

“That’s not a bad thing,” Austin assured her. He hesitated in the doorway. “I’ll go up to her. See if I can smooth things over.”

His mother sighed. “If you manage it, tell me how.”

April’s room was the smallest of the four rooms upstairs, more of a storage closet, something she’d complained about long and loud in the past, but she’d always had it to herself at least. As Austin knocked at the firmly closed door, he tried to remember how long it’d been since he’d gone inside. The last time, the black walls had been covered with posters and every surface littered with makeup, cheap jewelry, and a collection of glasses and plates that needed washing.

When he got no reply, he raised his voice. “I’m coming in, April. You’ve got to the count of three, so if you’re smoking or half-naked, now’s the time to change that.”

She opened the door before he started to count. “You’re not coming in.”

He put his hand on her shoulder and pushed, following her into the room and ignoring her outraged squeal. “Looks like I am.”

“What the fuck do you think—”

“Language, little sis, language.” He pointed at the unmade bed. “Sit. We need to talk.”

He’d been channeling Liam’s command voice, and to a certain extent it must’ve worked, because she sat. With a flounce and another muttered, “Fuck you,” under her breath, but it was a victory of sorts.

“You’ve always been a pain in the ass, but you’re getting worse,” he said bluntly. “If there’s something going on I need to know about, tell me. I’ll deal with it.”

She glanced up at him through her lashes. “You can’t fix me, Austin. I’m damaged goods.”

Not rolling his eyes at the soulful quiver in her voice was a struggle. “You’re a drama queen, and you’re just fine. Selfish, immature, vain, but apart from that—”

“How would you know what I’m like?” she flung at him. “You’re never here! Off in rainbow-candy land playing kissy face with Jay.” Her mouth twisted on the last word, turning Jay’s name into a curse.

Austin frowned. “I live ten minutes away, and I come over twice a week, if not more,” he pointed out. “You’re never here; that’s why we don’t see as much of each other as we used to.”

“Like I’m going to hang around here?”

“Like I—” He stopped himself and sat down on the end on the bed. “Five minutes with you and I regress a decade, maybe two,” he said ruefully. “April, you and Jay used to get along just fine. You spent an afternoon in the park finding red pebbles for one of his dioramas, and you told him every embarrassing story about me you could remember.”

“Yeah, well that was before he took you off me.”

Austin stared at her. He found himself really studying her face—God, all that makeup, did she really think it looked good—and he thought he could see, under the paint and defiance, the little girl he used to know. Reaching out, he touched her hair, and April let him. “Remember when we baked the cake for Mom’s birthday?”

She smiled sadly. “You let me help. I dropped two eggs on the floor and half a bottle of sprinkles.”

“And almost set your hair on fire when we lit the candles.”

“It looked like crap.”

Austin shrugged. “It looked like a couple of kids made it. We were proud at the time.”

“Yeah. Mom was too.” April tilted her head to one side and looked at him. “So who was that guy? The Scottish one.”

“British,” Austin told her. “He’s just a friend. He’s divorced and…I think he’s lonely, you know? He, um, likes hanging out with me and Jay.”

April didn’t seem convinced, and it was hard to blame her when it sounded lame even to Austin’s ears. “He’s old.”

“So? If I remember right, your last boyfriend was almost thirty.”

“That’s different.” April glared at him. “Wait, are you cheating on Jay? With that guy?”

No. I wouldn’t cheat on Jay with anyone.” Thank goodness it was the truth.

“Is he cheating on you?”

“No. God, what is your obsession with—Shit, April. Not again?” Her last two relationships had ended when she’d replaced her boyfriend with a newer model without telling him first.

“Kyle’s nice. He’s just…okay, that’s his problem. He’s nice.” April hunched up one shoulder. “Nice is boring.”

“Mom doesn’t like him, if that helps.”

April looked at him, then started to laugh. “Maybe. Really? Why?”

“He plays his music too loud in the car.”

April stared at him for a moment, then giggled. “No, that’s me. I make him turn it up as loud as it can get when we turn onto the street. He hates it because everyone stares at us but—”

“But you love the attention.” Austin shook his head. “You’re impossible.” He couldn’t keep his affection from showing. When it came down to it, she was always going to be his little sister. He didn’t want that to change.

She put her hand up, her fingertips touching the place she’d slapped. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. Did…did Mom notice?”

Austin shook his head. “It doesn’t really show unless you’re looking. It’s fine. I mean, don’t do it again, but I’ll live.”

And I’ve had much worse.

“Jay was mad at me.” Her mouth drooped forlornly. “I do like him, Austin, I do. I’m glad you’ve got someone, even if he is a total geek about dwarfs and dragons and books and stuff. I’ve never met anyone who reads as much as him. It’s weird.”

Austin swallowed the words that rose to his lips. Defending Jay wasn’t a good idea right then. “You know, he’d love it if you came and looked at the piece he’s working on.” That was shading the truth, but Jay wouldn’t mind showing it off to her. “God, April, I’ve lived there for months, and you’ve never been over. It’s this really cool Victorian, all nooks and crannies, and the attic—”

“I’ve seen it.” She flushed as he blinked at her. “I might’ve walked past it once. Twice.”

Austin shifted closer and gave her a hug. Her necklace dug into his chest, but he didn’t let go, not once her arms came up, returning the hug. He could see her walking along, hoping that he’d see her, come out, drag her inside…

“Next time, walk up the path and ring, okay? Please?”

“Maybe,” she whispered and turned her head to kiss his cheek where she’d slapped it. A moment later, she was leaning against the pillows, her eyes suspiciously bright. “Now get out. I’ve got to make myself beautiful for Kyle.”

Austin stood and glanced at his watch. “Oh my God! In just two hours? You’ll never make it.”

“Jerk.”

“Spoiled princess brat.”

“Asshole.”

“Barbie lover.”

“I used to dress them in Goth gear and spike up their hair. Doesn’t count.”

“You still owned them.”

“Oh yeah? Wait till I tell Jay about your collection of GI Joes and what you used to do with them. All those cute bare tushes on display…those, uh, training maneuvers you put them through…”

Austin swallowed, the back of his neck going prickly with sweat. Sometimes he’d used a red marker and drawn faint lines across their asses, rubbing them off later, but he’d always done that when he was alone. “Don’t you fucking dare.” Belatedly he realized she had to be bluffing. “Wait a minute. I gave them to Goodwill when you were in diapers.” She grinned impishly and he exhaled. “Brat. Really. You are.”

April gave him an enchanting smile. “Thank you.”

Chapter Twelve

Jay tripped on the stairs leading up to their apartment, narrowly avoiding dropping the paper bag from the deli. He swore under his breath. “Fucking stairs. Why do they have to be so fucking steep?”

There was no one to answer his purely rhetorical question, which was probably a good thing because it would be embarrassing for someone to see him tripping up the stairs. He shouldered his way into the apartment and remembered to close the door quietly in case Austin was sleeping.

Setting the bag on the kitchen counter, Jay kicked off his shoes and dumped the soup from the deli carton into the clean pot that was sitting on top of the stove. He turned on the burner underneath it. They tended to use the same medium-sized pot and large frying pan for almost all their cooking, so it didn’t seem worth it to Jay to put them away between meals. Austin didn’t entirely agree, but in this instance he’d been sick in bed for the past two days and Jay had pretty much been doing what he wanted.

He crept past his bedroom door—it was really the bedroom they shared, but Austin had insisted on sleeping in his bed the night before so Jay could both get a decent night’s sleep and avoid the germs he was coughing up all over the place—and peered into Austin’s room.

“I’m up,” Austin said, and just those two words sparked a coughing fit.

“Feeling any better?” Jay asked hopefully.

“I think I’m dying.” Austin reached for a tissue and blew his nose. The collection of already used, wadded tissues scattered across the floor bore testament to his illness. Under other circumstances, Austin was too neat to let them lie where they’d fallen.

Jay sighed and padded over to sit on the side of the bed, then reached for Austin’s forehead. “You’re still hot, but I think you’ll live.”

“Yeah, it’s just hard to want to.” Austin looked at him blearily. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too, but for you. It’s okay. I’ll call Liam and let him know we’ve got to cancel. I e-mailed him this morning to give him the heads-up, so it’s not like it will come as a surprise.”

Austin’s forehead puckered in a frown. “What? No. I don’t want you to cancel.”

“If you think Liam’s gonna touch you when you’re like this, think again. It’s only because I love you with a deep, undying passion that I still think you look hot enough to kiss. Theoretically, because last time I tried, you sneezed and it went in my hair, which was gross.”

“Yeah, I was sorry about that too. I was aiming for your face.”

“Funny guy.” Austin looked like shit, deathly pale apart from the red nose and eyes, his hair limp and damp. “Smell that soup?”

“Now you’re the one cracking jokes. No. I can’t smell anything but snot.”

“Snot smells? You know what? Don’t tell me. Just lie there, and I’ll feed you some nice chicken soup, spoon by spoon.”

“So I can throw it up, barf by barf.”

“That was yesterday’s fun trick, and it was all the coughing you were doing, not the food I gave you.”

“Don’t remind me.” Austin put his hand on his stomach. “I think I pulled a muscle. It hurts. Everything hurts. I just want to sleep. Every time I dropped off last night, I woke myself coughing. I need to nap for maybe six hours or so. Longer.”

“Oh.” Jay bit his lip. “Now we’re in for the night, I was thinking of starting to piece together the display framework for the diorama. I really need to start it soon.”

“Sawing? Hammering? God, just use your nail gun to put me out of my misery, why don’t you?” Austin sniffed wetly, reproachfully, and added, “Your soup’s burning.”

“It’s your soup, and I thought you couldn’t smell anything.” Jay could tell from having nursed Austin through a previous cold that he’d turned the corner and was actually on the mend, even if he didn’t really feel better yet. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure Liam would kill me if I brought you over there and you coughed and snotted your germs all over him.”

“That doesn’t mean”—Austin paused to cough again—“that doesn’t mean you have to cancel.”

Jay frowned. “I think you’re delirious.”

“No, I’m not delirious. I’m actually making more sense than you are. You can go without me, duh.”

“Um, no, I can’t.” Jay was mildly alarmed by the suggestion. “We’re a package deal, remember? That’s what we told Liam.”

“The important word in that sentence being we.” Austin fought with the tangle of covers so he could roll onto his side. “You’ve had a shitty week, what with me being sick and the reorganization at the library. You need tonight. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have it. It’s okay with me, and it’ll be okay with Liam too.”

Jay fiddled with the frayed edge of Austin’s T-shirt sleeve. “You need a new shirt.”

“And you need to get better at changing the subject if you want to get away with it.” Austin poked his thigh. “At least call him and ask.”

It was true that Jay’s week had been spectacularly shitty, and he’d have been lying to himself or anyone else if he’d said that his weeks didn’t revolve around Friday nights. He loved Austin and didn’t want their life together to be any different than it was, but without the once-a-week sessions with Liam, something would definitely have been missing. He could get through another week without tonight, obviously—but he’d be a lot more relaxed if he didn’t have to give it up.

“I’m really not sure it’s a good idea.”

“Put it this way: If you don’t go, what will you do? Oh wait, you already told me. Make lots of noise when I’m trying to sleep. Go and make it for Liam instead. He knows how to shut you up.”

“Part of me wants to,” Jay admitted slowly. The very fact he was tempted made him decide against it. “It’s just…no. I’m not leaving you. You might drown in snot. I’m going to make you drink some soup; then you can go to sleep, and I’ll be quiet as a mouse.”

“Jay—”

“No,” Jay said firmly. “I’ll call Liam and cancel after you’ve had your soup.”

Austin managed to swallow half a bowl of soup with Jay coaxing, cajoling, and threatening him. When Austin’s eyelids began to droop, Jay set the bowl aside.

Tiptoeing out, he closed the door carefully and went to call Liam, using his cell and going up into the attic where his latest project waited for him.

Fiddling with a piece of balsa, he waited for Liam to answer, surprised by the jolt he got when he heard Liam’s voice, a conditioned anticipation. That voice promised him pain and pleasure on a weekly basis. He’d been channel surfing and caught a Miss Marple mystery the week before. The English accents had made him half-hard, even if they were saying things like, “And where were you on the night of the seventeenth, madam,” not, “Touch your toes, Jay, and let me show you what six of the best feels like. Oh, I think you can do it without bending your knees, don’t you? Or I might abandon tradition and make it a baker’s dozen. That’s thirteen, by the way, and trust me, it really would be an unlucky number…”

“Thornton.”

“Oh, hi. It’s me, Jay.”

“I know. I have call display.”

Of course you do.

Jay got to the point. Liam hated it when he rambled, or at least he said he did. “It’s about tonight, like I said in my e-mail. Austin’s down with this flu bug going around. He’s been off work for two days, and he’s fast asleep and looks like hell, so tonight…well, we can’t make it.”

There was a pause, long enough for Jay’s hand to get slippery against the small phone. “We’re really sorry, Sir,” he ventured. “I was looking forward to it.”

“I’m sure you were. Another time. Give Austin my best wishes for a speedy recovery.”

Jay looked at his silent phone. Liam had hung up on the heels of the last tight, icy syllable. “Oh yeah. That went well.” The piece of balsa wood in his hand went flying across the attic as the quietest way he had of venting. “Fuck.”

He tucked his phone back in his pocket and looked around the attic. There had to be something he could do that wouldn’t disturb Austin and would take his mind off everything he was going to be missing out on tonight.

Something turned out to be painting rocks. He had to wait for them to dry between coats, but there were a lot of rocks so by the time he finished the base coat on the last, one as big as his fist, the first pebble-sized rock was dry.

Or at least he thought it was. When he picked it up, it slid through his fingers, leaving them smeared with gray, and fell to the floor, rolling along the boards, picking up dust and leaving splotches of paint in return.

“Fuck!”

It was the smallest of mishaps, but it was enough to make him snap. With a growl, he picked the rock up from the floor and launched it at the wall. The thud it made was anticlimactic enough to deepen his frustration.

“If you don’t go to Liam’s, I’m gonna call and ask him to come and get you.”

Jay whirled around. Austin’s head was sticking up over the edge of the stairwell, his hair rumpled, his eyes sleepy.

“You should be in bed!”

“I got up to pee. All that soup. Heard you muttering and cursing.” Austin yawned. “Go. Tell him to spank you once for me. Stay there long enough for me to get some sleep. If you don’t, I’m going to call him myself and promise him whatever it takes, so you might as well listen to me.”

“Okay, okay. Fine.” Jay tried to sound like the put-upon boyfriend who was only going along to be cooperative, but in reality as soon as he made up his mind, his heart started beating faster. He considered calling Liam, then decided to follow the old adage that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. He’d just show up on Liam’s doorstep.

* * * * *

By the time he’d driven over, he was starting to regret that decision.

It took Liam a couple of minutes to answer the door, and he looked surprised when he did. “Jay.” His expression changed to one of worry. “Is something wrong with Austin?”

Jay shook his head. “No. I mean, other than the copious amount of phlegm he’s producing. He was kind of, um, hoping I could hang out here for a few hours so he could get some rest. Says I make too much noise.”

“You do have a tendency to be noisy,” Liam said thoughtfully. “And when you say hang out, you mean…?”

“He mentioned getting you to spank me because I was being a pain, but I’ll do whatever you want me to do. Preferably on my knees?” Jay grinned. “I could start out here on the porch, if you want?”

“No. Come in.”

Once the door was closed, Liam gave him a long look. “Is this a first for you? A solo session?”

“Yeah, but we’re both cool with it.” It felt important that Liam know. Jay added, “It was Austin’s idea.”

“I see.” Jay could tell Liam didn’t want to send him away. “I had a plan for this evening that involved a new location. There’s a spare room upstairs with more space now that I’ve rearranged things a bit. But it’s up to you. We can save that for another time, when Austin is feeling better.”

“Upstairs sounds good. It’ll be different.” Different would be good, Jay thought. It’d be different without Austin anyway, so he might as well take it the whole way.

In all the weeks that he’d been coming over, Jay had never been upstairs. Like the rest of the house, it was big, but empty both of ornament and warmth. Liam’s personality made itself felt strongly, but not here. The house was clearly somewhere he ate, slept, stored his belongings, and, once a week, spanked, tormented, and teased two grateful subs—nothing more than that.

“No pictures.” Jay gestured at the pale walls when they reached the top of the stairs. “Don’t you like them?”

Hell, even hotels had pictures.

Liam shrugged. “Not for the sake of it and there just hasn’t been time to visit any galleries. My last house had a good many pieces of art—too many—but none I cared about enough to fight for.” He gave the hallway an appraising look, then led Jay into a room that felt bigger than the den. It housed a queen-size bed against one wall, covered with a white fitted sheet, nothing more, with four pillows at the top. “I suppose I should make an effort,” he said half to himself before turning his head. “Are you sure about this?”

The jump from art to the reason he was here left Jay stumbling for words. It wasn’t an easy question to answer when he was both sure he wanted and needed it, but was also feeling guilty about leaving Austin and being here without him.

Honesty was something Liam prized even above the ability to hold still and keep quiet, though, so he did his best.

“I… It feels right to be here. It’s Friday. I’m so fu… I’m so ready for this that it hurts.”

“Not as much as it will do, especially if you keep swearing,” Liam said with a flash of dry humor. “Go on. I’m sure there’s a but about to make an appearance.”

Jay gave him a suspicious look. “Was that another pun?”

Liam grinned, a swift, charming grin that transformed his face. “Yes, but it wasn’t intentional. I promise not to inflict any more on you.”

“Then I promise not to swear.” Jay told himself firmly it was a promise he would keep for the night, even if it wouldn’t be easy. Cursing just came naturally, the words slipping out into conversation without thought. He managed to keep it under wraps at work, but the whole atmosphere encouraged it—the library was quiet, a place of respect and sanctuary.

Come to think of it, Liam’s house wasn’t all that different.

“I’m waiting,” Liam said pointedly, and Jay hurried to strip off his clothes, folding them and putting them on top of the low dresser Liam indicated. He knelt, the thick rug soft under his knees and against his shins, and bent his head.

“Better.”

Liam walked in a circle around him slowly. His shoes were dark brown leather and looked brand-new. They made little indentations in the rug with each step. Jay wondered what Liam would do if he bent forward and kissed one of those shoes. It would smell of leather and polish, he knew that much; it would be smooth against his lips. He’d never kissed any part of Liam, not even the knuckles of those large, strong hands.

“Hands and knees.” Liam expected immediate responses to his orders and got it.

It was a more comfortable surface than the den downstairs. Did Liam know that? It was confusing because this wasn’t supposed to be about Jay’s comfort. This was about what Liam wanted, and if Jay got what he needed out of it, that was just a fortunate side effect.

“Sometimes,” Liam said, “I think about leaving you like this for an entire day. I could go to work and come home, and you’d still be here on your hands and knees waiting for me.”

Jay had already been half-aroused; now his cock swelled more in response to Liam’s words. “Yes, Sir.”

This earned him a swift, hard slap on the ass. “I haven’t given you permission to speak.”

Not sharing what he was feeling was one of the most difficult parts of the session for Jay, but he was learning to find some measure of peace in the silence Liam imposed on him. At the end, Liam encouraged him to talk, but by then Jay had usually forgotten what he was going to say or it’d stopped mattering. He closed his mouth, pressing his lips firmly together to remind him.

The bed caught his eye, a clean, white shape hovering on the edge of his vision. That was different. That was new. It didn’t disturb him; the way Liam had it set it up, it looked more clinical than romantic—and now he was back to the medical fantasies Austin was always teasing him about. Fuck.

“You’re so easily distracted, aren’t you?” Liam placed his hand directly over the piece of skin he’d slapped. Jay could feel every finger lining up with the quickly fading heat. “Something triggers a thought and you just…go away.”

He sounded curious, not annoyed. Jay opened his mouth to explain he was going deeper into the scene, not thinking about work or what he’d had for supper or anything like that, but he caught himself just in time.

“Good boy.” Liam patted Jay’s ass. “I was about to start some work when you turned up. Nothing urgent, but since I had the evening free…” There was the slightest edge to that. Jay had known Liam was pissed over the cancellation, but he hadn’t realized how much. “I wonder how you’d feel if I went back to it, with you kneeling beside me, forbidden to talk or move—and that was a rhetorical question, but you may think about your answer now, and tell me when I ask if it’s the same when I’ve finished talking.”

Jay exhaled. Okay. His answer was that he’d hate it, and he couldn’t see that changing. Austin would love it, the self-discipline required, the deepening intensity with every passing moment, but Jay knew he’d get bored quickly. Patrick had tried it with him once or twice, but it hadn’t done anything but make him antsy.

“Austin, I’d simply allow to kneel without binding him in any way. He’d look good, don’t you think? His back perfectly straight, his shoulders pulled back, his knees parted just a few inches. He’d be hard when I put him there, and he’d stay that way until I released him.”

Liam slid his hand over Jay’s head, making Jay feel like a petted dog or cat, and gripped Jay’s hair, caught up in a tie because that was how Liam liked it. “You, I’d gag and blindfold and cuff.”

Jay choked on a groan he couldn’t smother. Fuck. Yes. Liam’s words struck him like blows, and he wanted to arch and writhe under them. His arms trembled as he fought the urge.

“You’d be in the dark, listening to me, aware of the smallest shift in my position, hearing the rustle of paper, the click of keys as I typed. You’d be so angry with me for ignoring you. That’s definitely one of your triggers, Jay. You don’t resent the time I spend with Austin, no, because you love him and you want him to get what he needs, but you always do something to draw my attention if you think I’ve forgotten you.”

Jay gasped as Liam used his ponytail to pull his head back, a slow, relentless tug. Liam did that a lot, knowing Jay enjoyed the way it made it harder to breathe, the control Liam was exercising over him.

“I never forget you, Jay,” Liam said, his mouth close to Jay’s ear. “Never.”

He would have bitten his lip, but the position he was in made it too hard. Instead he let his feelings be known with a slight whimper, which earned him a more vicious tug.

“Such a bad boy you can be sometimes.” Liam turned his head so that when he spoke his warm breath moved over Jay’s skin. “You think I can’t tell the difference between when it’s an accident and when you’re doing it on purpose?”

Jay was allowed to answer a direct question. “No, Sir.”

“I hope not. Because I’m perfectly aware of how smart you are.” Tugging at his hair, Liam forced Jay to tilt his head until their eyes met. “And I know when you’re deliberately defying me. I always know.”

I love that you do. Jay wanted to tell him. It was such a fucking turn-on knowing he couldn’t hide from Liam, that more was exposed than his expectant skin. He tried to get some of what he was feeling over with his eyes, but he really needed words for that.

Or the opportunity to touch Liam, and that wasn’t going to happen.

“I wait for you to do it,” Liam said, and it sounded like a confession, putting them, for a brief, disorienting moment, on the same level—two men, each wanting something so much it colored their lives, haunted their dreams. Liam smiled, a thin, anticipatory smile, and he was Jay’s Dom again, the man he tried so hard to obey—mostly. “I left something out. Maybe I plug your ears too, so you’re kneeling with nothing to let you know when I’m going to remember you exist and just…touch you.”

Okay, that would work. Oh God, yes, it would. Jay tried to swallow, his head tilted so far back that it was an effort. Liam saw him struggle and ran his fingers over Jay’s throat, but didn’t ease off. The back of Jay’s head was burning where the hair was pulled taut.

“You’d jump when I did,” Liam told him. “Austin would be so deeply into obeying me that he’d let me do anything and not break my command to stay still, but even the lightest touch would make you react.”

The hand on his throat moved down his chest, Liam’s fingernails scratching at his skin, a long, slow spiral that ended in the hollow of Jay’s hipbone. “And if it wasn’t a light touch, if I did something that made you scream through your gag, you’d most certainly move. But tell me, Jay, would you move away or get closer, begging for more?”

“C-closer.” He couldn’t take a deep breath. Hell, he could barely speak, but he knew the answer to that one. The pull on his hair slackened, and he took advantage of it. “May I ask a question, Sir?”

Liam had drummed it into both of them that can I wasn’t good grammar and would never get a yes. The lesson had stuck. “You may. Just one.”

Jay gasped as Liam began to tug at his right nipple, playing idly with it, plucking it and pinching it until it stung. “What would you do to make me scream?”

“Hm.” Liam tightened his grip on Jay’s nipple and kept it there, like his fingers were a clamp designed to do nothing more than drive Jay crazy. “There are so many things that can be pushed into someone’s arse. I could think of half a dozen that would make you scream.” Without letting go of his nipple, Liam shifted around behind him. “Is that what you really want, Jay? For me to make you scream?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“What if I were to whip you?” Liam’s other hand slid over his hip and around to the curve of his ass, stroking it so gently it made Jay tremble because he knew something painful was lurking. “I think a riding crop. With enough strength behind the blows, the skin splits open like butter. Yours is so smooth. I can picture what it would look like covered with thin welts, blood. I could slide my fingers through it and over the rest of you, cover you with my fingerprints, painted in your own blood.”

Jay’s hips rocked helplessly, his cock hard and hanging between his legs where it couldn’t get any physical stimulation. The thought of being marked with Liam’s fingerprints was new and shocking.

“Then,” Liam went on dreamily, not sounding like himself at all, “I’d use those same fingers, slick with your blood, to open you up. Push them inside your arse while you gasped and cried.”

Liam leaned to the left, trailing his thumb down the seam of Jay’s body to his hole, rubbing over it. Jay did his best to stay completely still and quiet because he didn’t want to break this spell. Liam had never touched him there before, not with his hand—with a plug, of course, and once with a long, thin dildo, but never like this. Against his hip, Jay could feel the solid press of Liam’s erection.

It didn’t matter that he knew Liam wouldn’t do any of those cruelly enticing things to him. When he was jerking off, darkly violent fantasies painting the blackness behind his eyes red, he knew they weren’t real either, but he still came hard. And with Liam’s finger breaching him—a dry, rough thrust, shallow enough to make Jay’s muscles lock with the need to push back, get more—anything felt possible.

Liam bit Jay’s shoulder, not a token bite, a love nip, but a bite. Jay felt the pain burrow inside his flesh and spread out. He was panting now, every breath audible, close to the line when exhaling would become the sounds he’d been forbidden to make.

A fingertip inside him… How did it feel for Liam? Jay guessed that Liam had done it to himself—but to another man? Maybe not. Given everything Liam had done to them, it was such a small act, but it felt significant in a way Jay was too strung out to puzzle over.

“You’re thinking again.” Liam licked the skin he’d bitten and kissed it, the softness of his lips lost in the second bite that did draw a cry from Jay. It hurt, a raw pain that made him want to submit, roll over, expose his belly to the wolf savaging his flesh. His small disobediences, his rebellions—they were all meant to force Liam into subduing him, but Liam always pushed them aside as irrelevant, working at his own pace.

They’d told Liam no blood, no scarring, and his trust in Liam was strong enough for him to know without looking that no blood would be welling up from the teeth marks. But God, he wanted it to.

“If I let you say one word, what would it be?”

Jay picked one from the dozens swirling through his head. “Harder.” Then he added “Please, Sir,” even if he knew he’d pay for it.

“If I bite you harder, you’ll bleed. And those two extra words will cost you, Jay.”

“I don’t care. Make me,” Jay whispered and closed his eyes, waiting for the storm to break, because Liam had really strong views on subs who tried to top from the bottom.

“Make you bleed or make you care?” Liam kept returning to the bite mark he’d made, scraping his teeth over it, digging them in. His finger slid free, and Jay whimpered with loss.

“Both, Sir. Sir, please—”

His cock and balls hung heavy between his legs. He wanted to sink to the floor and rub along the soft nap of the carpet, abrading the sensitive skin until, yeah, until it broke and bled, staining the carpet so that Liam would look at it and remember…

“You’re talking too much,” Liam told him. “Scream instead.”

His hand slid between Jay’s legs, an intimate caress that ended with Liam’s hand cupping, then crushing Jay’s balls.

God, it hurt, and Jay did scream. He couldn’t have kept from screaming no matter how hard he’d tried. It was the deep, stomach-twisting kind of pain that made him empty his lungs and his abdominal muscles turn to stone. The scream tore at his throat, and he lost the ability to support his weight, arms collapsing and dropping him face-first toward the floor. Somehow Liam managed to get an arm under his chest and catch him, keeping him partially upright.

Jay turned his face to Liam’s upper arm and breathed against the finely woven shirt, openmouthed, the fabric dampening with moisture. He couldn’t keep from moaning softly as the pain faded; he knew from previous experience that it was the kind of hurt that went from agony to moderate discomfort and then a steady ache that would last for an hour or more regardless of whether he was allowed to come or not. There were tears on his cheeks he couldn’t remember having shed, and his dick felt hot and touch starved.

“Ssh,” Liam murmured, and Jay realized he was still crying.

A twitch of his hips brought the head of his cock into contact with Liam’s hand. He shuddered and made the motion again, knowing he’d be punished for that too. It just felt so good, and he needed to feel good.

Liam didn’t move at first. Then, after a long moment, he rotated his hand so the palm was upward and lightly cupping Jay’s cock. That felt even better, and Jay whined. “It’s all right,” Liam whispered and closed his fingers around Jay’s erection.

If nothing else, Jay had done what Liam wanted him to do—stopped thinking. He was too busy losing himself in the sensation of Liam’s hand on his cock, stroking slowly from base to tip. Too slowly, but when he tried to get Liam to move faster, he ended up with another bite on his shoulder, this one lower than the last. He was going to have a whole collection of marks, beautiful marks left on him by Liam’s hands and teeth. God, he was going to come.

Liam took his hand away, and that hurt worse than anything he’d ever done to Jay, anything anyone had ever done. His body hung, suspended between the onrush of pleasure and the memory of pain and unable to move in any direction because Liam wasn’t fucking touching him.

Even in that moment when he wanted to lash out and make Liam touch him, Jay retained enough awareness of what Liam was to curb his tongue. “Please, Sir, please. I’ll scream for you. I’ll beg. I’ll lick your feet.” He’d wanted to do that an eternity of moments ago, cloud the polished surface of Liam’s shoes with his breath and feel that sense of rightness clear his head as he abased himself.

“I know. I can make you do all of that any time I want it from you.” Liam’s hand was still there, hovering as if he didn’t really want to take it away.

The implication was clear, or at least it seemed so to Jay, drunk with lust and pain. Liam wanted something he couldn’t order Jay to do—but there was nothing Jay wouldn’t have agreed to right then. His body was on the rack, his mind crammed full of Liam’s fantasies as well as his own until he felt like he was going to shatter like cold glass in hot water if someone didn’t do something to him soon.

So instead of taking, he gave, twisting his body around and dropping lower, kneeling with his head in Liam’s lap and the thrust of Liam’s cock right there to be mouthed through the fabric of his pants as eagerly, as adoringly as Jay would have licked Liam’s shoes.

Liam froze, and for a second or two, Jay thought he would be pushed away, reprimanded, maybe even sent away from Liam’s house and life. This was a line being crossed, even if Liam had crossed it first by wrapping his hand around Jay’s cock.

Then Liam groaned and grabbed on to Jay’s hair at the nape, keeping him where he was, and that was all the permission Jay needed. He pressed his lips to Liam’s zipper, blew hot air through the fabric until Liam shuddered. He used his mouth—mostly teeth, but a bit of tongue—to unfasten the top of the finely woven trousers and slide the zipper down. It was awkward, but he didn’t care. He wanted to taste Liam’s skin, cock, balls, inner thighs.

Liam growled. He tugged at Jay’s hair, pulling him away, and Jay made an imploring sound, but all Liam was doing was shoving his pants down. “Tell me this is what you want,” he said harshly.

“I want this,” Jay gasped. “I want to suck you, Sir, please.”

“Do it.”

Apparently Liam had decided it wouldn’t be Domlike to make noise, because he was totally quiet even when Jay swallowed him down. His breathing did some interesting stuff, though, so Jay took his cues from that, focused on listening to each little hitch and sigh. He licked all around the head, bathed the shaft, sucked on each ball in turn. Liam tasted kind of bitter, in a good way, and Jay was determined to get Liam off.

It had been a while since he’d had any cock but Austin’s in his mouth, and the memory of the two of them doing this for Patrick after their sessions had faded over the months. Nothing about this reminded him of those blowjobs anyway, given gratefully, respectfully, accepted as an unexpected but welcome gift.

Liam wasn’t going to pat his head afterward and murmur a mildly flustered but pleased thank-you.

Jay squirmed so that his cock dragged over the carpet, the soft-rough rub of the fibers spurring him on to be inventive. He loved sucking Austin’s cock, spinning out the experience until his lips were slick and numb, his jaw aching, sensations that he could take with him for hours, long after his body had forgotten and forgiven. This wasn’t going to take as long. Liam was so hard, so hungry that Jay guessed the only thing holding him back was the unfamiliarity of it being a man’s mouth on him.

No…his sub’s mouth. That, Liam had to be used to, right?

Jay took Liam in deep, then choked when Liam unexpectedly jerked his hips, driving his cock a crucial inch farther, the smallest of sounds finally escaping his mouth. He felt the darkly erotic threat to his ability to breathe again. As when his hair had been gripped tightly, the threat was open-ended, not a closed box, but it still thrilled him. He could always safe word, and if that failed him… But it wouldn’t, not with Liam.

He wasn’t sure what it was about this that got to him. Maybe it was the idea of someone having power over his most basic need, the inescapable necessity to draw air into his body every few seconds.

He relaxed, accepting Liam’s wish to fuck his mouth, encouraging him with soft moans, made so that Liam would feel their vibration along his shaft as much as anything. Liam thrust a few times and came, a rush of heat and salt flooding Jay’s mouth. He swallowed, licking at his lips to catch the taste. He could kiss Austin when he got home, slide his tongue along Austin’s and let him taste Liam too, share the sharp, powerful tang until Austin could get it firsthand at their next session.

The sessions would end differently now.

“Kneel up,” Liam said, his voice shaking. “Hands behind your back.”

The order surprised Jay. He opened his mouth and allowed Liam’s cock to slip free, getting a good look at it as Liam got unsteadily to his feet. It was lavishly wet with his spit, gleaming, long and thick enough to make him wonder what it would feel like in his ass.

The thought carried with it a flash of longing for Austin to be here with them, but he was too preoccupied with rising smoothly to his knees to explore the connection fully.

His dick stuck up, the tip beaded with fluid, the chafed skin on the underside burning warmly. He wanted to see it, but he’d been told to do something with his hands. Oh yeah, behind his back…

Before he could complete the transition to the position Liam had told him to take, Liam’s hand struck him across the face, a hard slap that rocked his head to the side.

“Hands…behind…your…back,” Liam said dully, each word weighted, separated by a pause as if Liam was struggling to say them but knew they had to be said.

He was too shocked to do more than grunt, an instinctive protest that died as the heat in his face rose and his balls tightened warningly. He could taste blood, a faint trace of it in his mouth, threading through the saliva. He’d cut the inside of his cheek on a tooth. No, Liam had done that when he’d slapped him across the face. Jay wasn’t entirely sure how Liam felt about the slap—he’d gone kind of quiet—but Jay spun the act the way he wanted it to be. Liam had slapped him contemptuously, dismissively, a sharp reprimand to a sub who’d failed to obey him perfectly, exercising his dominance. Yes, that was what had happened, just the way it had in so many of Jay’s fantasies. Oh fuck, no, he couldn’t come too soon again

“Yes, Sir,” he said, hoping Liam would get his complete and utter approval of the way this scene was going.

“Close your eyes,” Liam said. “And don’t move.”

He obeyed those commands too, and a moment later heard Liam’s steps on the stairs. That came as a surprise and Jay almost peeked, but reminded himself there wouldn’t be anything to see except the empty room. He waited, skin prickling with anticipation, trying not to imagine what Liam might have planned.

The minutes felt like hours. It might have been ten minutes total before Liam returned. Something struck Jay’s chest, and he flinched, confused because he could tell Liam was barely inside the doorway.

“Open your eyes and put that on,” Liam ordered.

There was a leather cock ring on the rug in front of him. Jay picked it up and fastened it in place, gritting his teeth at the feel of the constriction.

“Wear that until you go to bed tonight,” Liam said. “Don’t touch yourself unless it’s absolutely necessary. Do you have any question about what that means?” He sounded angry.

“No, Sir,” Jay said.

“In the morning, put it on again. Wear it all day tomorrow until twenty-four hours from now. Adjust it if you must, but that’s all. You may not come until the twenty-four hours is up.” Liam looked at his watch, then waved dismissively. “Ten thirty tomorrow night. After that, what you choose to do is up to you.”

Jay swallowed, confused by how abruptly the session had ended and the sudden change in mood. He’d made Liam mad, and he wasn’t sure how. He found it hard to believe Liam was angry about a blowjob—for one thing, it had been a pretty great blowjob, and for another it seemed like a man who was comfortable playing Dom to two gay subs wouldn’t be having a homosexual freak-out now. He waited for Liam to say something else, to explain.

Liam just stood there. “Well? Put on your clothes and go home.”

He should keep his mouth closed; he knew he should. But he couldn’t. “Should… Do you want me to—”

“For once in your life, Jay,” Liam said wearily, “just shut up and do as you’re told.” And he turned and left the room.

Chapter Thirteen

Austin sniffed experimentally through his nose after a night of mouth breathing, judging by the foul taste coating his tongue. He found that one nostril was clear. It was a whole new beautiful world. He sat up in bed, his head spinning, but the pounding agony of a sinus headache reduced to a whisper.

Thank God for extra-strength cold meds and the restorative power of eight hours of sleep. He drew a deep breath and called out, “Jay! Get in here. I can breathe!”

He sounded interestingly husky, not hoarse, and when he coughed it didn’t trigger a prolonged fit of even more coughing. Dying was officially canceled.

He knew Jay was awake; he’d heard Jay moving around in the kitchen area making breakfast, but he’d drifted back to sleep again without registering the fact that he could smell coffee. When Jay didn’t appear, he yelled his name again,

Jay stuck his head around the door, looking bleary-eyed and wearing sweats and a faded T-shirt. “Shouting. That’s a good sign, right?”

Austin beamed at him. “Hey, you. I feel better. Not, like, ready to scale tall buildings, but I can breathe again.”

“Heard you.” Jay came into the room, smothering a yawn. “Good. Great.”

“Yeah.” Austin felt deflated, but when Jay sat down on the bed and gave him an apologetic smile, sleepy and sweet as sugar, he forgave him for popping his bubble. “You don’t look so good. God, I didn’t give you my germs, did I?”

“You know I never catch colds.” Jay reached down to his groin and winced. He made a careful adjustment to his junk.

It was something Austin would’ve been happy to help him with when he’d had some coffee and was all the way awake, and when he’d had a nap.

“Ow.”

“Ow?” Austin peered down the bed, mildly curious. Everything looked normal as far as he could see. “Aftereffects of last night? Sorry I was dead to the world when you got back in. I wanted all the juicy details, but I knocked myself out with cold meds.”

“Juicy?” Jay sighed and plucked restlessly at the rumpled sheet. “Not sure that’s the right word. It was short and not sweet. I fucked up, Austin. I told you it was a bad idea me going by myself. I need you there to make sure I don’t do something stupid.”

Austin had settled himself against the pillows, but that made him sit up, alarm and concern dousing his euphoria at being on the mend, along with a dollop of guilt. He’d pushed Jay into doing the session solo, and his motives hadn’t been entirely unselfish. He’d wanted to sleep in peace so much, and Jay clattering about overhead had made that impossible. With Jay in that edgy mood, it’d seemed like a win-win situation to shoo him off to play. Make that a win-win-win. “Jay, whatever it was, we can fix it. Spill.”

“It was so fucking good at first.” Jay moaned, his eyes squeezing closed, his hands clutching the sheet beneath him. “Wish you’d been there to see it, hear the things he was saying to me.” He opened his eyes again and turned his head toward Austin, his dark gaze earnest. “You know how he never touches us? Not those kind of touches, anyway, but there’s always this feeling that he wants to; then he does something like kissing us on the shoulder when he thinks we won’t notice because our ass is on fire, and it makes us feel…”

“Twitchy, frustrated and confused,” Austin supplied and sighed. They’d talked about mentioning it to Liam but decided to hold off and hope he eventually got the message that they didn’t mind where he put his hands during a session or if he showed them some affection in the heat of the moment. Liam wasn’t a grope-happy creep like Niall. They trusted him. “Not as confused as he is. That man isn’t all the way straight, Jay. I’m not complaining, not at all, but he isn’t. He can’t be. Bi, maybe, yeah. Straight, no fucking way.”

They’d discussed that too. In fact, they talked about Liam a lot now that Austin thought about it. At first, it’d been the scene they’d focused on, but it’d slowly changed to a fascination with the man himself. Liam was so closed off, but during a scene that reserve cracked from time to time.

Jay stared up at the ceiling. “Yeah. So he put his finger in my ass. Not all the way, but it felt like he’d gotten the message too, so I, uh… “ He reached out and took Austin’s hand, his thumb smoothing the back of it in nervous, jerky sweeps. “I offered to blow him. Same deal as Patrick, I guess, but it felt… It wasn’t the same. Well, you weren’t there. I should’ve waited so we could do it together. I screwed it up. Fuck. Fuck.”

Austin rolled to his side and planted a firm kiss on Jay’s mouth, noting absently it was swollen on one side. “Stop it. You might screw up when it comes to reheating soup and remembering my birthday, but there is no way, none, that you could ever screw up a blowjob. Seriously. Just not possible.”

Jay sighed and returned the kiss. “He did that thing I wanted him to. You know. The slap.” Jay stuck out his tongue, exploring his lip. “Really good job. Hurt at the time, and you can’t see a mark on my face, but I caught the inside of my cheek against my tooth.”

Austin guessed Jay had spent some time in front of the mirror checking out his face, half-disappointed that it wasn’t marked. “Is your mouth okay? Did you wash it out with salt water?”

Jay nodded and gave Austin’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “Yeah. It’s fine. I was just so turned on when he did it. Jesus.”

“I’m not surprised. You’ve been waiting for him to do that for weeks.” Austin groaned. “God, I missed that too. Okay, you were right. No more solo sessions.”

“I’m kind of glad you weren’t there right then. It got weird. He basically just threw a cock ring at me and kicked me out.” Jay let go of Austin’s hand and ran his fingers over his cock, exploring its outline over and over as if he couldn’t keep from touching it. “I’ve got to keep it on until tonight. He’s never done something that carried on after everything was over. It’s all different, and it’s all my fault.”

Austin flopped back against his pillows and joined Jay in staring at the ceiling, turning over what had happened in his head. “First off,” he said slowly, “I don’t think it’s your fault. It was, like, a different dynamic because I wasn’t there. Not bad, just different, you know?”

“Yeah.” Jay didn’t sound convinced.

“Second, whatever happened, we’ll deal with it. Things with Patrick weren’t always smooth sailing either, and we worked that out.”

“And then he left.” Flopping sideways dramatically, Jay put the back of his hand to his forehead, then opened one eye. “Think I could get an Oscar?”

“It’s never too late for a new career,” Austin said and patted Jay’s hip. “So he came, but he didn’t let you come?”

“Uh-huh. I know he liked it. How could he not have liked it?” Jay pouted.

“Maybe he liked it too much.” Austin sighed and—as much as he wanted to touch Jay’s cock—he didn’t. “I’ll call him later, okay?”

“Okay. But for now can we talk about something else? Because my dick hurts, and if we focus on this, it’s going to be harder. To ignore.”

Austin took a long, hot shower, which felt amazing after days of being sick, and let Jay feed him pancakes. He only managed to eat one, but he wasn’t worried about his lack of appetite. He knew from experience that it would return, and probably with a vengeance. He fielded two phone calls, one from his boss and the second from his mother, who had another half dozen complaints about April that he tried to let go in one ear and out the other. It wasn’t until almost lunchtime that Jay went up to work on his diorama and Austin was able to make a phone call he could concentrate on.

The phone at Liam’s end rang for so long Austin was almost ready to hang up. “Hello,” Liam said finally.

“Hi, it’s me. Austin.”

“Oh yes. Hello.” Liam sounded distant and uninterested, but Austin was well equipped to deal with teen-style angst even when it came from a middle-aged man.

“Jay’s upset,” he said bluntly. “So I wanted to touch base and see if you were too.”

“No, of course not. Why would I be upset?”

Austin sighed and sat down on the edge of his bed, where the covers were a lumpy and uncomfortable tangle. “Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Pretend like everything’s fine and you don’t care. I know you care. So take some deep breaths and talk to me.”

It was quiet. Austin wondered if Liam was actually following his advice and breathing. If not, chances were the next sound he was going to hear would be the dial tone.

“Is Jay all right?” Liam asked eventually, finally sounding like a human being and not a robot.

“He thinks he did something wrong.”

“He didn’t. If there were mistakes made, they were mine, not his.”

“What mistakes?” Austin stood and started to pick up wadded, damp tissues from the floor.

“Would you like a list?” Liam asked bitterly. “I let things get out of hand, I lost control of the situation and myself, and I broke the verbal contract we’d made.”

“You sound like a lawyer,” Austin pointed out.

“The shoe fits. Or near enough.”

“Is this a gay-sex thing?”

Liam grumbled. “I’m nearly forty, Austin. I’m a bit long in the tooth to be worrying about a sudden sexual epiphany.”

The tissues went in the trash, and Austin began to strip the covers off the bed one-handed. Laundry day. Definitely. “Yeah? I think it’d be more of a shock the older you got.”

“Well, it isn’t.” Liam sounded peevish, which only heightened Austin’s feeling that he was dealing with his sister in a really bad mood. It made him feel exhausted sometimes, always being the one in charge. It didn’t take a degree in psychology to work out that part of the attraction of submission for him, though he knew letting someone else drive for a while wasn’t the only reason he loved to kneel for a man like Liam.

“It wasn’t a shock to us, if that helps.” The fitted sheet was stuck, one corner resisting his tugs. He walked around the bed and eased the corner out from under the mattress.

“Excuse me?”

It had been exhilarating and liberating to talk to Liam without watching every word, but the ice around Liam’s last words was a wake-up call that playtime was over. He’d gone too far to back down yet, though.

“We’ve been wondering for a while if you were as straight as you said you were.” The sheet hung heavy from his hands, and he sat down abruptly, sweat breaking out over his back. Okay, maybe he’d overdone it for his first day out of bed. “Before you freak out, we weren’t being, uh, disrespectful. It was just that we were getting some mixed signals.”

“Oh God.”

The mortification and shock in Liam’s voice made Austin grimace involuntarily. Shit.

“Liam—” Had he ever called him that directly? Not that he had much choice. Sir wasn’t going to work, not for this conversation, and they’d gotten way past Mr. Thornton. “It’s okay. Really. We don’t mind. We can all sit down and um, renegotiate things.”

And wouldn’t that be a fun discussion if Liam was still in this prickly, snappy mood.

“You don’t sound angry,” Liam said slowly.

“That’s because I’m not. Frustrated, sure, because I missed out on last night and because Jay’s unhappy about you being unhappy. But not mad.”

Liam hesitated. “You don’t mind that Jay and I were intimate.”

Austin laughed and tucked the phone against his shoulder so he could ball up the dirty sheets. “Liam, you’re always intimate with us. Why am I even explaining this? You know it, all of it. Stop being so focused on what life is supposed to be like and think about what our lives are actually like, you know?”

“You didn’t want sex to be part of what we did.” Hesitancy and Liam didn’t go well together. Hearing the doubt in his voice made Austin want to do or say anything to restore the confident, crisp bite he was used to.

“That was…” Austin had so much to say that he couldn’t decide where to start. He let the sheets fall to the floor again and wandered over to the window. Fresh air seemed like a good idea. “Okay, I’m going to babble like Jay here, so bear with me. First, we’re used to having sex with our Dom—with Patrick, anyway. Not full-on fuck-us-through-the-mattress sex, but blowjobs, sure. We’re not naive and what we do is a turn-on for everyone in the room, so yeah, stuff happens. Like last night.”

“He… I would never have—” Liam made a frustrated sound. “I didn’t plan it.”

“I know.” Austin worked the stiff window up and shivered as a cool breeze blew in. “Jay didn’t either, if that helps. He enjoyed it, though. Especially you slapping him. That’s been a fantasy of his forever.”

He could hear the soft, quick breath Liam took. Okay, knowing Liam was probably getting aroused on the other end of the line was making it hard to concentrate. “Uh, okay, that was one. Niall wanting us for nothing but sex was two. We were really freaked out by what happened with him. Three is, well, three is that we thought you were straight, and we didn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable. We needed you. God, you have no idea how much we need you, and we didn’t want to do anything to—”

“Scare me off?”

Austin grinned. “Yeah.”

“I don’t scare easily. I’ll admit to a few qualms about the logistics of dealing with both of you at once, but it worked out surprisingly well.”

“Stop talking about it in the past tense,” Austin said, alarm making him reckless. “You’re not ditching us over this, Liam. Tell me you’re not going to be that stupid.”

There was another pause. With most people, silence was just emptiness, but Liam’s pauses always seemed to be crammed full. When he spoke, it was a single chilly word. “Liam?”

“Sir,” Austin said quickly, relief flooding through him. He wanted to get back to normal—but better—and it was starting to look as if Liam did too. “I’m sorry, Sir.”

It was ridiculous when he wasn’t even in the same room as Liam, but he yearned to go to his knees. It felt wrong to be standing, looking out at the street below, after using that tone to Liam. He wanted to be on his knees, his eyes closed, Liam’s voice filling his head, making everything simple and easy. Waiting until Friday to see Liam again would be a struggle, but never seeing him again? Austin couldn’t go there. It made his gut clench with dismay. The only thing that would hurt more would be losing Jay, something Austin couldn’t contemplate without feeling a dark, helpless panic.

Slowly, his cock hardening, he sank down to the floor and positioned himself the way Liam liked, back straight, knees just a few inches apart. He’d done this as a teenager on the bathroom floor with the door locked—the only way to get any privacy in his crowded home. He’d closed his eyes and pretended he was in a room with his Dom, a belt looped around his neck in lieu of a collar, jerking off like that, hearing a calm, stern voice giving him instructions.

“You should be sorry,” Liam said on the other end of the line. “I don’t tolerate disrespect, Austin.”

“I know, Sir.”

“What do you think a reasonable punishment for disrespect should be?”

Austin tried to think, but he was already getting turned on and that was always distracting. “Um…a whipping?”

“At the very least,” Liam said severely. “And I’m sure I’ll think of something else as well. I’ll dole out your punishment on Friday. I expect you to be prepared to behave yourself.”

“Yes, Sir,” Austin said gratefully. “Thank you, Sir.”

Liam’s voice softened the barest fraction. “Now take care of yourself and feel better. I’ll see you on Friday.”

Chapter Fourteen

Liam stepped out of the shower and reached for the thick white towel on the rack. He always showered before a session, even though it was likely he’d need to repeat the action after it ended. Disciplining one sub had often left him pleasantly exhausted; two was a real challenge from a physical and mental standpoint.

There was something about the routine he’d formulated over the past few months that grounded him. Making sure the floor of any room that might be used was free of anything that could dig into bare flesh, that there were drinks at hand, towels, scissors, a first aid kit fully stocked in a drawer or cupboard, that any equipment was clean, in good repair…minor chores, but necessary.

He’d done all of that, and his heart was still hammering fast, making him feel light-headed. He had to get himself under control or the coming hours would be a disaster.

Dried, he walked out of the bathroom into his bedroom, where he’d laid out clean clothing with the meticulous care a valet would have used. It was, though he’d never told them, his way of showing respect toward his subs. They deserved the best, and until last week, he’d been confident he could provide it.

He’d learned so much about them, what they liked, what they needed—not always the same, of course—and how they would respond in certain circumstances. Hell, he’d even jotted down notes in the messy scrawl he called handwriting, notes, plans for the future, subjects to research, equipment to consider buying…

He played golf with colleagues, online Scrabble with a cousin back in England, and he loved swimming. They were hobbies, pastimes. This was part of his life. He needed it. How in God’s name had he gone so long without it?

He couldn’t lose it. He couldn’t lose them. His Jay, his Austin. Even if they belonged first and foremost to each other, for the time they were with him, they allowed him to pretend they were his with a generosity Liam knew he could never match.

It was why he’d been left shaken at the thought of walking away and leaving them to replace him, though if they’d told him it was what they wanted, he’d have had no choice. He cared for them too much to come between them—and when and how that’d happened, he didn’t know.

He could understand now, on one level, why Patrick had chosen to move to another city altogether. Of course it had been more complicated for Patrick, who’d been running from the memories of his previous, irreplaceable life, but Liam had actually considered that if things with Jay and Austin ended, he’d quite possibly choose to move away as well. It would be too difficult to be in this house and not see their ghosts in every corner. His feelings for them were complex. He wasn’t sure if he was in love with either of them, but he cared about them.

He cared about them more than he’d have guessed would be possible.

Checking the clock showed there were only five more minutes before they’d be arriving, so Liam finished buttoning his shirt, slid his feet into his waiting shoes, and went downstairs. Everything was ready.

They were late.

Liam was surprised by that and more than a little irritated. They’d always been so prompt before. Concern began to swamp irritation, but the car pulled into the driveway at nine minutes past the hour. Jay and Austin nearly flew up the steps to the front door.

He pasted an unamused expression onto his face before he answered their knock.

“We are so sorry,” Austin said. He appeared to be fully recovered from his illness of the week before. “We lost track of time.”

“I was finishing a book,” Jay confessed. “He tried to tell me it was getting late.”

“I see.” Liam made a show of checking his watch. “Nine minutes you kept me waiting.” He stepped back to let them in, and Jay closed the door behind them. “Take off all your clothes and kneel.”

They exchanged a look, then scrambled to do as they’d been told. The only place to pile their shed clothing was on the small table where Liam kept his keys in a brass bowl that was one of the few tangible items left from his marriage.

“Upstairs. No, stay on your knees. Jay, you can show Austin where to go. I’ll be joining you in nine minutes.”

Liam found the thought of the two boys climbing the stairs naked on their hands and knees far too amusing. He knew he’d never keep from smiling if he watched them doing it, so he went to the kitchen and put some ice cubes from the freezer into a small bowl.

All the toys were fun, but really, give him a well-equipped kitchen and he had plenty to work with. He found he was humming under his breath as he opened the fridge and took out a bowl of peeled ginger floating in water. Before his shower, he’d carefully carved a shallow groove an inch or so from the base of each five-inch finger, leaving a stub that would poke out in a way he’d always found rather appealing once the finger had been pushed inside a sub’s arsehole, though it’d been years since he’d last done this.

Ice and heat. Extremes were so intriguing. Which sensation would the two upstairs dislike most? The ginger would stay inside them, the burning heat building unbearably, while the ice would touch their skin unexpectedly, its freezing bite not unlike a flash of flame. Luckily for them, he wasn’t cruel enough to make them choose.

They’d take both, for as long as he wanted them to, and thank him afterward for every moment of discomfort.

When he walked into the bedroom, they were kneeling, eyes down, totally silent, the rise and fall of their chests the only sign of movement. His nerves had disappeared the moment they walked through the door, a profound anticipation of pleasure washing away his self-doubt.

He set the bowls on the bedside table. The fitted sheet of the bed was hidden by towels, large, thick ones, and he’d taken the precaution of fitting a waterproof sheet over the mattress. Ice melted.

When he turned, they were still staring down at the carpet, but he could feel their interest and he smiled. An indifferent, passive sub was hell to work with, but these two would never be that.

“Jay, onto the bed. Lie on your side facing the center.”

Jay got into the requested position quickly enough that Liam had no reason to reprimand him, and when Austin was given a similar order, that was followed as well. They were clearly intent on putting forth their best efforts to smooth over the residual awkwardness from the week before and their late arrival.

“Now roll onto your backs a bit so that I can reach your wrists. No, keep your hands there. Good.” Swiftly and efficiently, Liam tied their hands together between them, so that all four wrists were bound to each other. There was no way to do it in a truly comfortable manner, but he was satisfied he’d done a good job and that neither of them would be injured by spending an hour or so where they were.

He then had them stretch out their legs so that he could tie their ankles to the bed frame. The fabric was a strong, soft silk, easy to work with and, more importantly, easy to tie very snugly. That afternoon he’d tucked a pair of sharp scissors beneath the mattress in case of emergency, and he wouldn’t hesitate to use them if the situation warranted.

Done with this first part of the session, Liam stepped back and looked them over carefully. They would have made a lovely photograph, now in black-and-white and then later, once he’d slapped a flush into their arse cheeks, in color. He stepped closer to the bed and reached out to caress Austin’s hip.

“I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but since we’ll be trying something new, I’ll remind you that your safe words exist for a reason and you should use them if something is wrong.”

“Yes, Sir,” they chorused.

“Now I’d like you both to shift backward away from each other so that the only parts of your bodies that are touching are your wrists. Jay, a bit farther, please.” They were both on the way to being hard, and he didn’t want them to be able to rub against each other just yet even if he knew it would happen sooner or later.

“Waiting isn’t one of my favorite things. Delayed gratification, on the other hand, well, it’s not quite the same. I’ll tell you two now that if I’m pleased with you—and after you were so late, that’s not the case right now—I’ll allow you to come at some point. You’re going to want to. Pleasure can be as hard to bear as pain if there’s no end in sight, and I’d enjoy proving that to you.”

He saw Jay bite his lip, a furtive gesture. He could also see, quite clearly, the faint mark his teeth had left a week earlier in Jay’s shoulder. Good. He’d wanted it to last.

“But let’s start with some pain.”

Austin closed his eyes, hiding the flash of stark need Liam had hoped for, Austin’s cock half-hard, thickening as Liam stared at it, openly now, appreciating the view.

“I’m going to blindfold you both. And I know we covered this in the past, but you don’t have any food-related allergies? Only speak if you do.”

Silence, thick with questions. He smiled. Good.

Fitting the blindfolds was an exercise in willpower. He wanted to stroke and tug at Jay’s silky hair, touch his mouth to the bite mark. Wanted to run his hand over Austin’s back to the upward curve of his arse and push his fingers into the cleft between the cheeks and feel the buried heat. He settled for fitting the blindfolds around their heads with meticulous care.

“I want silence for this. It won’t be easy, but I will punish you for any failures. I’m not interested in excuses, apologies, or explanations. Each sound will count. Keep track of them if you like, but my tally is the one we’ll be using.”

He could see Jay fighting not to speak, to protest. It was amusing, really, how much of a struggle keeping quiet was for him.

Well, perhaps a distraction was in order.

He took a finger of ginger from the bowl and shook it free of water. The pale golden root was carved smooth, the fibers shining wetly. He fitted his fingers into the groove at the base and sat down on the bed behind Jay.

“I’m going to put a small piece of ginger inside each of you. It’s cut into the shape of a plug, so it’s easy enough for you to hold it in place. After a very short while, you won’t want to, but I can assure you that despite how it might feel, it’s not hurting you.”

He parted the cheeks of Jay’s arse and ran the smooth head of the ginger down to its goal. It slid home easily enough, and he waited until the muscles contracted, holding it where it needed to be.

Jay shifted uneasily but stayed quiet. “Good boy,” Liam said and allowed himself one kiss, just one, against the bruised, bitten skin of Jay’s shoulder.

Next he moved to Austin, who was completely unmoving and silent but fully erect now. The young man had an amazing ability to be still, almost like a statue. When Liam pushed the plug of carved ginger inside him, he trembled, and Liam indulged himself in watching him, rapt, as his cock twitched and a bead of clear fluid welled from the tip. He allowed himself to wonder what it would be like to lick across it and taste Austin properly.

He accepted that at some point he would find out. Last week with Jay had made that inevitable.

Jay was tense now as the ginger began to create its heat inside him. Liam didn’t know from personal experience what it felt like, but he had a perfectly reasonable imagination and could make guesses based on using it on other subs in the past. The longer it was left inside, in contact with sensitive tissue, the burn would become more intense until the sub was desperate to get it out.

There was little Liam enjoyed as much as watching a sub come to a fresh realization, and even with Jay’s and Austin’s expressions obscured by blindfolds, it was easy to see the significance of their situation was beginning to sink in. Now that they couldn’t see him, Liam was free to surprise them however he liked, but for now he let the ginger do its work.

Jay being Jay, he seemed incapable of staying still. His hips shifted; his thigh muscles tensed and relaxed and tensed again. He was obviously trying to keep his arms from moving, knowing that movement on his part would cause Austin to move as well. It was so representative of the two of them and their relationship that it made Liam smile.

Austin, on the other hand, wasn’t moving, unless Liam counted the way his cock had now produced enough fluid that a bead of it was slowly heading toward the mattress. No surprise there. Liam knew Austin in particular would get off on this scenario. Jay would derive more pleasure from being punished for disobeying the order to be silent.

“I’m sure it’s beginning to feel very uncomfortable by now,” Liam told them. He walked around to Jay’s side of the bed and jostled the ginger plug a bit. Jay reacted by squeaking slightly. “Quiet.”

Well, that was one for Jay.

He slid the plug out and back in a few times, the action itself probably exquisitely uncomfortable as the fibrous root rubbed against all that heated flesh, not to mention the release of more of the watery juice. Some had found its way into a small nick on Liam’s finger as he’d peeled the root, and it’d stung fiercely.

He was enjoying this: the quiet air of the room disturbed only by the increasingly heavy breathing from both of them. Even Austin was starting to show visible discomfort in his face, his mouth tight, though his body was still, motionless.

“You’re both doing so well for me.” Surprisingly the words of praise brought a moan from Austin, the sound one not of pain but pleasure, as if he’d been thirsty for hours and been given cool water to drink.

Liam smiled, unseen, and ghosted his hand down Austin’s back, never touching skin, but close enough to it that his palm felt the heat radiating off Austin.

Time to cool them down.

He did his best to retrieve the ice quietly; this would be more fun if he didn’t give it away. The cubes had been out of the freezer long enough that they’d started to melt, so they were slippery. It made Liam think of Popsicles, and wonder, not for the first time, if he’d enjoy sliding a Popsicle inside a sub’s arse. They’d have to try that at some point. Jay in particular would be delightful under such circumstances. Maybe he could make them lick each other clean of all the sticky mess leaking out as the Popsicle melted, their bodies curved head to tail, a living yin-yang symbol.

For now Liam picked up one ice cube and held it over Austin’s ear, waiting for a droplet to fall and the inevitable reaction. When the icy drip touched skin, Austin flinched, and his breathing sped up. Liam let a second drop fall, then moved the ice cube to Austin’s chest and rubbed it over a nipple. He loved the way Austin gasped, and how his nipple tightened at the contact. He loved watching Jay’s reaction to Austin’s reaction too. They were so in tune with each other that something done to one was nearly done to the other as well.

Jay was somehow managing to stay mostly still and to strain toward Austin at the same time. Their erections jutted out from their bodies and were only a few inches apart—significant movement on either of their parts would bring them into contact, which Liam wanted to avoid for now. Later he thought he’d like to see them rubbing against each other, even coming on each other’s skin.

Hmm. To give Austin more or to give some attention to Jay? He decided to walk to the other side of the bed and, without hesitating, directed a line of melting ice drops down the length of Jay’s body, starting with his temple and ending at his toes. Jay twitched nearly every time a drip of water hit him, and the one that hit his cock elicited a squeal.

“That’s two now,” Liam said reprovingly, and Jay dug his teeth into his lower lip.

Liam wrapped his fist around the ice cube he was holding until his skin hurt, then swapped the cube to the other hand and wrapped his icy fingers around Jay’s cock without warning. Jay’s cock jumped in his hand.

A hiss of breath through gritted teeth. Did that count as a sound? Liam decided to give Jay that one. He held on, taking the heat from Jay’s skin to warm his palm, then reached around and caressed Jay’s plugged, hot hole with the remnants of the ice in his free hand. Fragments of ice slid down, destined to melt on the back of Jay’s balls and his thighs. Harmless pieces of frozen water, but from the violent jerk Jay gave, they might as well have been thorns or flames. Jay shuddered and cried out, a harsh, disbelieving cry that sounded louder than it was after the enforced silence.

Liam sighed. “Oh dear. You were doing so well too, Jay.”

Jay moved his head on the pillow, though Liam couldn’t tell if it was meant to be a yes or a no. He was squirming now, small, involuntary shivers as he endured the constant burn of the ginger and the suspense of never knowing when or where the ice would be used on him.

“Austin, we had a recent phone conversation in which you were less than polite. I believe we agreed a whipping was in order to remind you that when you speak to me, it’s important to be respectful. I think it’s a lesson Jay would benefit from too.”

Jay stopped wriggling at that.

“And of course, both of you have earned a little something for not being perfectly quiet. It’s really getting difficult to keep track of all these transgressions. Luckily I have an excellent memory. Three for Jay, one for Austin. Not bad, but far from perfect.”

He went to get what he wanted from the chest of drawers by the wall. A long, heavy ruler that would leave wide, dark stripes, and a five-stranded flogger that would blur the lines the ruler had left. As he turned with them in his hand, his breath caught. God, he was glad they were still blindfolded so they couldn’t see the open longing on his face. He was achingly hard, greedily taking in the picture they made.

Their faces were close enough that they had to be able to feel each other’s breath. Giving way to an impulse he couldn’t explain, he walked to the end of the bed and said, “I want to see you kiss before I remove your blindfolds. I don’t expect to see any other contact.”

Was he being cruel or kind? He couldn’t decide, but he felt that it mattered. He was going to take off their blindfolds when they were whipped so they could watch each other suffer, and yes, that was cruel, no doubt about it. But a kiss? If he’d asked them if they’d wanted to kiss, they’d have said they did, he was sure of it. However, he wasn’t doing this for them. It was just for him. Maybe that was all that counted.

For a moment, neither of them moved; then Austin was the first to obey, jutting his chin out until his lips collided with Jay’s cheek. Jay shifted and their mouths met. Jay made a soft, longing sound and pressed forward into the kiss. Liam let it go on longer than he probably should have. It was hard to tell them to end it when he was enjoying the sight of it so much. “Stop, now,” he said finally. “And back to where you were.”

It pleased him that they broke the kiss without hesitation, each of them carefully adjusting his position until it matched the original.

“The ginger’s subtle in some ways. You could walk around, your arses plugged with it, and no one would ever know it was there, though you certainly would. I believe it was once used as a way to get a tired horse to look lively for a buyer, but it’s a very traditional tool for this kind of use too. Maybe next time, I’ll reverse it and the ice can go deep inside you and the ginger can be applied externally. It would feel interesting rubbed over your cocks, I imagine. Did you say something, Jay? Let’s hope not.”

One final, approving look at them and he slipped off their blindfolds, leaving them to blink at each other, exchange smiles, then glance at him out of the corners of their eyes.

He shook his head. “For this, I want you watching each other. You like that usually, but this close, it’s going to feel a little more intimate. I’ll allow you to make some noise, but I don’t think I want you to speak. You may move too, as much as you like.”

That wasn’t merciful; it would mean those hard cocks would brush and nudge each other, a dozen tantalizing contacts distracting them from the continuing burn deep inside and the fresh pain he’d be applying, stroke by stroke. Sadly for them, it wouldn’t be long until what had started out as a distraction became another layer of their ordeal. Would they try to keep from touching or fight to get closer?

He picked up the ruler and slapped it against his palm just for the sound effect.

“Since you earned three to Austin’s one, let’s deal with those first, Jay.” Jay took full advantage of the change in his standing orders, whimpering and arching his ass, blatantly begging for his punishment.

There was nothing like delivering well-deserved blows to an eager sub, especially when he knew there was no need to hold back. It didn’t mean Liam wouldn’t control the amount of force he used; another thing he loved about this was the control it required, the careful measurement of strength and speed.

The first blow wasn’t as hard as the subsequent ones would be, but that didn’t mean it was gentle. The ruler made a faint whistling sound as it traveled through the air, and a solid smack as it hit Jay’s arse cheek. Jay yelped and instinctively jerked his hips forward, which brought his cock into contact with Austin’s. Austin moaned and gave Liam a desperate, needy look.

“That’s one,” Liam said and quickly delivered the second before Jay could take time to prepare himself.

This blow was quite a bit harder than the first. The sound Jay made as it struck was more of a shout, and he twisted his body, rocking his hips and cock against Austin’s not just once but repeatedly. He tilted his chin up and caught Austin’s lips with his.

Liam let the ruler rest against Jay’s arse, a firm pressure, a wordless rebuke. He’d told them they could move, but another kiss? He didn’t think so. Jay moved his head a fraction so his lips weren’t touching Austin, and Austin’s eyes slid closed as if the loss of the kiss had hurt.

“Jay, do that again, and I’ll give Austin double what you’re getting. Austin, open your eyes.”

Jay made a protesting sound but had the sense not to argue. Austin opened his eyes and fixed his gaze obediently on Jay. Liam saw that both of them were showing more of a reaction to the ginger now, their arses flexing, their legs moving restlessly.

“Last one, Jay.” He made it count, watching, fascinated, as the ruler swept down and struck. There was always a gap between contact and the awareness of pain as the body processed the physical changes caused by a hard object striking soft flesh at speed. The pain was inescapable after the blow had been delivered, but for a moment, Jay made no sound, though he had to be aware that—oh, there it was. Jay cried out, a tear trickling down his cheek as he screwed his eyes tight, giving the gathering moisture nowhere to go but out, his face contorted, his mouth hanging open.

He was stunning in that moment, but Liam’s gaze flicked to Austin’s face. Austin was so open, so exposed when he was face-to-face with Jay suffering. His expression hid none of his arousal, and the murmured sound he made was one of encouragement, not sympathy.

Jay didn’t want sympathy, and Austin and Liam both knew it. Jay wanted this precisely delivered pain. He’d have begged for more if Liam had allowed it, but he wasn’t going to get it for the asking.

“Austin. Your turn.”

Austin shivered and settled himself into position, preparing himself. Jay’s fingers moved, clutching awkwardly at Austin’s, the bonds linking their wrists making the angle a difficult one.

Liam moved around the bed and placed the ruler against Austin’s arse, enjoying the flinch he got on one level. He raised the ruler an inch or two and brought it down, over and over, gentle pats, warming Austin’s skin with the wood and his words. “You can take this, Austin. It’s going to hurt. You saw how much from Jay’s reaction. Your skin’s going to feel as if it’s split open, you’ll fight for breath, but I know you, and you’ll accept that pain as gladly as you do a kiss from Jay.”

He gave one final pat, then brought his hand back, the edge of the ruler digging into his palm.

Austin made a breathless keening sound, trying to move closer to Jay, picturing what was to come too clearly for comfort, Liam guessed. Anyone who thought what they did was all about the physical was missing so much. He paused, lowering the ruler to his side.

“No. Push your arse out for me, Austin. This is a punishment, remember. You didn’t stay quiet when I’d told you to, but you can make up for it by taking this stroke as if it’s what you want more than anything in the world. And it should be, because it’s going to please me to give it.”

Austin trembled, then swallowed hard and did as he’d been told, arching his back so that his arse stuck out, making the perfect target for Liam’s ruler.

He almost wished he was using his hand. It would have been impossible to strike them with enough force without hurting himself as well, which was probably the main reason why people had begun spanking with objects in the first place. But it would have been satisfying to know it was his skin and bone that brought tears to Jay’s eyes or made Austin’s breathing hitch and catch.

Maybe next time, Liam told himself, and brought the ruler swinging down. The sound of it making contact with Austin’s flesh was a sharp one, and Austin’s mouth opened in response to it in a silent cry. He shuddered all over, and his cock pulsed once but didn’t spill its release. Austin did make a sound then, a quick, desperate panting as he tried to control his reaction to the blow.

Yes.” Liam didn’t try to disguise his delight at the way Austin had taken his stroke. “You’re both doing so well for me tonight. I’m pleased.”

They didn’t smile, but he saw their faces relax, a subtle acknowledgment of his praise.

“I’m going to whip you both now. It’s going to take a while to build to something more than you can take, because I plan to take my time. Before I begin, though, I think I’ll remove the ginger. It’s done its job, and I don’t want you to be distracted.”

They made a sound in unison at that, a relieved exhalation. He grinned. “You don’t like it? Poor, sore holes. They must feel so hot. Unfortunately the ice has all melted, or I could cool them down for you.”

He dealt with Austin first, crouching by the bed and staring, fascinated, at the small plug and the dark pink flesh clutching it. The mark the ruler had left was stark against Austin’s pale skin. Liam drew his finger along it, feeling the faint ridge, and then traced the darkest part of the stripe with the tip of his tongue, tasting sweat and feeling the trapped heat.

“S-Sir? Oh, God, that feels—” Austin gasped, the sound raw and needy, then took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Sir.”

“Mm,” Liam said, idly working the ginger in and out of Austin’s hole before pulling it free. “I’m sure you are. And if you aren’t, I can arrange it, because really, that was very disobedient.” It was hard to sound severe when he was smiling over finally getting Austin’s self-control to snap. “I think you can wait to get dressed until you’re just about to leave. When we’re discussing the session later, you’ll be naked and on your knees by my chair, not with Jay on the couch.”

Neither of them would enjoy that, but Liam would. Oh God, yes, he would. Austin would kneel, his eyes downcast, his cheeks crimson, singled out, alone, leaning into Liam’s leg, looking for comfort.

He walked around to Jay and bent over, removing Jay’s plug with a swift jerk and a slap against the curved cheek of his arse, a version of the gentler touch Austin had received, tailored to Jay’s preferences.

“Thank you, Sir,” Jay said demurely, deliberately disobeying Liam’s order not to speak.

Cheeky brat. Liam frowned, genuinely irritated, if far from angry. Jay’s motive—to get to share Austin’s punishment and thereby lessen its impact—was obvious and sprang not from rebellion but concern; Liam knew that. Even so, he couldn’t ignore—or allow—such a blatant attempt to manipulate him. For Liam, a sub topping from the bottom wasn’t something to be encouraged.

“Don’t move,” he said. “And don’t speak, or this will be the last attention you receive tonight. You think you can control what happens by breaking the rules? You’re wrong.”

With that, Liam turned all his attention onto Austin, aware of Jay’s outrage and Austin’s concern, and determined to ignore both. This was the time to teach Jay a lesson. If it wasn’t taught properly, there would be repeat incidents of disobedience, and that would not do.

“Now, I trust you’re going to do as you’re told.” He ran a hand up the back of Austin’s thigh, feeling the wiry hair prickle his palm, letting his fingertips brush against Austin’s balls, then reached around and pinched the base of Austin’s cock.

Austin jerked but didn’t make a sound. His gaze had started to go unfocused as it did when he was really letting the scene carry him away.

“Yes,” Liam said. “You are.”

He stood at the foot of the bed, the flogger in his hand. Not the best angle if he’d been aiming solely for their arses, but he wasn’t. They were his to mark within the limits he’d agreed to, and that meant he had a damn sight more territory to claim. The flogger was too light, the strands too soft to really hurt. They wouldn’t agree after it’d struck them a few dozen times, but by tomorrow, there’d be barely a trace of red on their skin. Pity.

He swung it down, the five strands landing across the back of Austin’s thighs with a sting in their tail, the next strike a backhanded slash across Jay’s side.

“Move for me, both of you, rub off on each other. I want you hard. I want you sweating and crying, you’re so desperate for relief.” He heard the uncompromising edge to his voice, each word snapped out crisply. “If you come before I give permission, you’ll discover that I have plenty of punishments that you won’t enjoy, even you, Jay.”

Liam found a rhythm with the flogger, a back and forth swing that let him put more force behind the blows—even a hundred strokes in, the feel of this whip striking skin wouldn’t be as intense as being struck with some other objects. Jay was staring at Austin’s face and writhing against him, and Austin was glassy-eyed with the pleasure of being in sub space. The one thing that was unsatisfactory about this was that the way they were pressed together meant Liam couldn’t really see their cocks, just the occasional glimpse of sliding, damp flesh.

There were lots of things he could see, though. He could see the sweat beading on their shoulders and upper arms, the pink flush to their skin even in the places he wasn’t whipping them. The expressions of their faces were clearly visible: the tight, determined set of Jay’s jaw that told Liam he’d obey; Austin’s parted lips.

“You’re beautiful like this.” Liam spoke the words deliberately. He didn’t want to feel guilty for them later, for having lost control, so this was a conscious decision. “Both of you.”

Somehow he thought one of them might break the rules and speak, but neither of them did. Liam brought the whip down again and again, flogging them until his arm muscles were a fiery ache and their skin was dark red and slick with perspiration.

Enough.

He dropped the whip and stood over them, his chest heaving as he got his breathing under control so he could speak without gasping. The two on the bed didn’t even notice the whipping had stopped for a moment, but when it registered, there was no more than a pause before they continued to move. That was fine with Liam. He hadn’t told them to stop, after all.

“Move apart,” he said and made sure that there was no doubt in his voice. If they disobeyed this order, he’d be so fucking disappointed, not with them but himself.

Jay was arching his hips up, rubbing his cock against Austin’s stomach. He looked lost in the sensations he was creating for himself, but at Liam’s words, he jerked backward, the first clumsy movement he’d made since Liam had tied his ankles to the bed. Austin moaned, a dismayed, bereft sound, but even though Jay wasn’t touching him with anything but their linked hands, he too edged back a few inches.

Liam stared down at them. Their cocks were as deeply shaded in red as if they’d been whipped, the tips glistening, the shafts streaked with sweat. They’d taste and smell of sex, those jutting, hard pieces of flesh, raw, rich, musky, overwhelming his senses if he put his mouth on them. He shuddered, unbearably aroused by what he could see, what he’d done to them, the unthinking, instinctive obedience they’d shown.

“Come for me,” he said, testing them one last time. “Like this, not touching. Let me see.”

He wanted his order, not each other’s warm, damp skin, to be the trigger for their climax.

With Austin, it was like a button had been pushed. The young man lifted his hips once and painted his stomach with his orgasm, the fluid creamy white. Liam felt spellbound by the sight of it, and when he shifted his gaze from Austin’s cock to his face, he found Austin was watching him—him, not Jay. Austin’s love might belong to Jay, but at that moment, his pleasure was all Liam’s, each moan and twitch owned by the man who dominated him.

Liam’s own erection was impossibly hard inside his slacks. It felt as if the fabric might not survive the press of his eager cock. Austin relaxed, and Jay’s small whimpers drew Liam’s attention.

Jay was desperate to come. That much was clear. But it seemed he wasn’t able to. His body writhed, cock touching nothing but air, eyes locked on Liam’s face. He wasn’t speaking, but he was begging all the same, needing something more from Liam that he might not have been able to put into words even if he’d been allowed.

Liam bent, picked up the flogger, and straightened. His fingers ached as he curled them around the handle again, but he didn’t let it show on his face. This was no time to tease, to drag the long strands of leather, soaked with their sweat, over the straining heat of Jay’s cock until he came. Jay needed to be pushed, not led slowly.

Liam held Jay’s gaze until he had to glance away to aim, then struck, a single, precise lash, not as hard as before, but against the sensitive flesh it wouldn’t feel that way. The strands flew through the air, close together, and parted, spreading on impact, to lick and kiss Jay’s cock and balls and stomach.

Jay’s mouth fell open, but though Liam could see the muscles of his throat working, no sound emerged. Jay’s eyes were wide, stunned, shocked. For a long moment, Liam waited; then Jay released the breath he’d been holding and came, a jumble of sounds that weren’t quite words pouring out of him with each jolting spurt. Tears ran out of the corner of his eyes, trickling down to dampen his hair.

Austin bent his head and kissed Jay’s fingers, murmuring something Liam couldn’t hear over the rush of blood in his ears. He was not going to come from watching them. He was not. But he wasn’t sure he could move to release them from their bonds without climaxing.

God, they were incredible. So responsive, so willing to trust him.

With an effort, moving carefully because every shift of fabric across his erection was eroding what little self-control he had left, he bent to untie their ankles. A small towel was on the night table, and he walked around the bed to get it, each step sending a wave of arousal over him. He could’ve untied their hands and told them to clean themselves up, but he liked doing it. It was part of his responsibility, in his eyes. He sat on the bed by Jay and ran the towel over Jay’s stomach and down to a cock that was slowly softening, being reasonably gentle, but not coddling him. Even through a towel, he could feel the shape of Jay’s cock, and his fingers tightened possessively before he could stop them. Jay whimpered and sighed, his lips curving in a half smile. Liam released him.

Austin moved closer to Jay, offering himself up to be cleaned, that same pleased smile hovering on his lips. Liam wanted to lean over and kiss it off Austin’s mouth, take its sweetness and roll it on his tongue like candy.

He tossed the towel onto the floor behind him and unbound their hands, his breathing shallow and quick, his hands shaking.

“Rest for a while,” he told them. “I’ll bring you some juice, and if you like, you can shower here.”

“Please,” Austin said, voice sounding hoarse as if his throat was swollen. “Don’t. It isn’t over?”

It was a question Liam didn’t want to answer, because it should be over. They’d both got what they’d needed from the session, and they’d both come. That should be all there was to it. But it wasn’t, not with Liam’s cock wanting the attention it had gotten last week, the heat and suction of Jay’s mouth.

Hesitating, torn up over which decision to make, Liam reached down and touched Austin’s face. He rubbed his thumb across Austin’s lush, bite-swollen lower lip. “Isn’t it?” That wasn’t what he should have said. In this room, he was the one calling the shots.

“We don’t want it to be,” Austin whispered, gazing up at him trustingly. “Jay?”

“We want to,” Jay agreed. “This was… You’re so good to us. We want to be good for you, and to you, and… Please. Sir.”

“Please,” Austin whispered again, and Liam, so eager for their touch he barely knew how to speak, nodded resignedly.

It was Jay who reached for the fastening on his slacks and let them fall to the floor, and it was Austin who took his hand and drew him down onto the bed with them. Neither of them kissed him on the lips, but they pressed their mouths to the skin of his stomach and the curve of his hip, licked the head of his cock with slick, hot tongues.

He ran his hands through their hair, tangled and damp, and down to their shoulders, where the flogger had left their skin hot. Lying still was impossible, but he tried to keep from pushing up, though he knew if he did, a mouth would welcome him.

He glanced down at them and groaned as he saw their busy tongues flickering over him like hummingbirds, darting, dancing touches that brought their mouths together in a kiss now and then. “You two… Have you any idea of what you look like right now?”

He didn’t expect an answer, and he didn’t get one. Austin’s hand curved, cupping Liam’s balls, rolling them deftly before his tongue lapped at them, sending a shiver of lust through Liam. Jay enclosed the head of Liam’s cock in his mouth, his lips closing tightly.

Liam’s heart was pounding, his body tense as he began to surrender—to them, to his climax, to the whole situation. He tightened his fingers in their hair and tugged, bringing Jay’s head back and Austin’s up, so they faced each other with his cock between them, a few inches away from their mouths.

“You want me? Take what you can get.”

He felt his balls draw up and the final, almost painful hardening of his cock a moment before it jerked, spunk jetting out to fall like rain on his stomach. His grip slackened, and Austin and Jay leaned in, Jay’s hand circling the base of his cock, holding it up, as Austin put his mouth close to the head. Spurts of spunk struck his lips and dripped down over his chin, making him look debauched, erotic. Jay leaned in and licked eagerly at the trail of creamy fluid and along Austin’s wet lips, pushing his tongue inside Austin’s mouth as if he couldn’t get enough of the taste.

Austin broke away, turning his head to lap at Liam’s stomach, avid, wanton, shameless in his hunger, and Liam bit down on his lip, then gave in and moaned.

“Enough,” he said a moment later, still riding his high but trying to regain some control over the situation. “Thank you. That was…” He faltered, lost for words that wouldn’t leave him open. They rescued him.

“Thank you, Sir,” Austin whispered, and Jay echoed it, the two of them smiling up at him, utterly relaxed and content.

He smiled back and allowed himself to stroke their hair one more time.

Chapter Fifteen

Jay was asleep; he knew he was. Asleep with Austin beside him in their bed, the stifling heat of the last few days swept away by a thunderstorm that had rolled through the night before. He’d stood at the window with Austin, watching the lightning flash through the ink-dark sky and feeling the thunder shake the world.

And after the storm had passed, leaving a cool rain pattering down, they’d gone to bed, not gone outside.

So why was his face wet, drops splashing down onto it…?

Jay sat up in a room filled with the first hint of dawn. His face and hair were wet. Not damp with sweat or drool, but wet. He glanced up automatically, but it wasn’t light enough for the ceiling to be more than a vague shape above him. A droplet fell from it, striking his eye.

“What the hell? Austin! Wake up.”

Austin made a small, grumbling sound and buried his head in the pillow. Jay got out of bed, his brain shocked awake, his body still sluggish. He tripped on the sheet and stumbled, knocking his elbow against the night table. “Fuck!”

“Jay?” Austin sounded more awake now, if irritable. “What’s wrong?”

“The bed is wet.” Cradling his arm as the pins and needles hit, Jay jerked his head. “It’s coming from the ceiling.”

“Huh? Oh. A leak? The roof, maybe the storm…” Austin yawned and stretched out his hand, encountering the wet patch. He explored it with his hand, then opened his eyes. “Fuck. It’s wet.” He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “God, what time is it?”

“Don’t know, doesn’t matter.” Jay headed for the door stark naked and now fully awake. Any water coming through their ceiling would’ve passed through the attic on the way. His diorama was up there. Panic spurred him on even as dread of what he might find held him back.

The competition was a week away. If anything had happened to it—

He opened the door and stepped out onto a carpet that squished, soggy with water. “Oh my God. It’s not rainwater. There’s too much of it.” He made his way to the stairs leading up into the attic and found them awash, a small stream of water flowing down them. It was surreal. Water didn’t run down stairs; people did. The stream was heading for the kitchen area through some unevenness in the floor; only some of the water had seeped the other way to their bedroom.

He couldn’t grasp the enormity of it all, but as he climbed the ladderlike stairs and glanced around, he realized that he didn’t have much choice.

The attic was flooded. The water tank in one corner—right next to his worktable—had burst, water spraying out of the crack in a determined way. The table was drenched, water dripping off it, and the floor was covered in puddles, though gravity and ill-fitting floorboards were doing a good job at draining the water. Down to their floor, then to Nicole’s, doing damage as it went.

Right then, though, Jay couldn’t have cared less about soaked carpets or furniture. He needed to see what had happened to his project.

It became clear immediately that the entire diorama was trashed, destroyed, ruined. But Jay didn’t want to believe it and kept touching different parts of it in the hopes he’d find that it wasn’t as badly damaged as he thought. Maybe the left side of the base… No, it was sopping, and his questing fingers did even more damage because the whole thing had gone soft like a cracker that had fallen into the sink. At first glance it seemed fine, looked whole, but as soon as you touched it, it just collapsed.

Okay, so no touching the base. He turned his attention to the rest of the landscape, to the tiny buildings painstakingly crafted from a variety of materials including balsa wood and resin pieces he’d modified, now half washed away. They hadn’t been able to stay in place with the onslaught of the flood, and while a couple of them might be salvageable, it might be as long as a week until he’d know for sure.

“Jay?” Austin came up and joined him, bare feet splashing through the water on the floor. “Oh shit. Okay, hang on, let me see if I can get the water to stop—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jay said dully, numb in the face of damage he couldn’t possibly repair in the time before the competition. “It’s ruined.”

“We can fix it. I’ll help.” Austin was over on the floor, kneeling next to the place water was pouring out of, mindless of the fact that he was getting soaked. “Damn it, this thing is ancient. Why didn’t I ever look at it before? Bring me that chair. At least we can redirect it. Jay? Never mind, I’ll do it.”

Jay stood there as Austin used the back of the old, ratty sofa chair as a shield, then disappeared back downstairs. He could hear Austin moving around, dragging things, talking on the phone.

“Okay, he wasn’t too happy about being woken up, but Mr. Dalhover is sending some emergency plumber guy over. What can I do now?”

Jay looked at him in despair. Austin was being helpful, sympathetic without gushing, clearly determined to rise to the occasion.

And it didn’t matter, any of it.

“There’s nothing you can do. Nothing.” Anger with no focus welled up, as destructive as the flood itself. With an inarticulate sound, he swept his hand through his diorama, feeling it cave and crumple. A sharp edge that’d once been part of a bridge, arching up in a stunning, truncated sweep, cut his forearm, but as he watched the work of weeks fly off the table to land with a soft, anticlimactic thud on the wet floor, he really didn’t care.

“Jay!” Austin had tried to catch the diorama as it fell but failed. He raised horrified eyes to Jay’s face. “We could’ve dried it out, maybe salvaged some of it—”

Jay shook his head as Austin spoke, a slow rejection that eventually dried Austin’s words up at the source. “You don’t have a clue. I know you’re trying to be nice, but just…don’t.”

Blood was welling up on his arm from the ragged cut. He ran his finger through it, smearing it across his skin. The cut hurt, but it was a distant pain. The agony of loss filled his vision, leaving no room for any other pain to register. He glanced down. Naked. That was why he was shivering in the warm attic.

“I’m going to get dressed. We need to shut off the water. I think it’s in the basement? And tell the neighbors, wake them up…” His voice trailed off. That sounded like too much work, all of it. What he really wanted to do was crawl back into bed or just walk out the door and leave the mess behind.

“Shit, I didn’t even think of the main water shutoff. I don’t know where it is. I’ll have to go see. You go let Nicole know what’s going on.” Austin went away again, leaving Jay alone in his misery, which was exactly where he deserved to be.

If he’d been asked to imagine the shittiest possible day, he probably wouldn’t have been able to come close to this. Hours went by and felt like days as they dealt with the plumber and the landlord, and with calling in to work. Jay told them he’d try to make it in for the afternoon but that he couldn’t make any promises.

“They don’t want us using the washer and dryer in case the electrical is compromised,” Austin said when Jay wandered into the bedroom. Austin was wadding damp bedding into a trash bag obviously intended to serve as a makeshift laundry hamper.

“Yeah. Mr. Dalhover said we can stay at a hotel and he’ll reimburse us.” Normally Jay would have been stressed at the thought of leaving all his stuff—he was trying not to think about the books that were probably ruined, because that would make him really crazy—but right then it was hard to care about that.

“I texted Liam, just so he’d know what we’re dealing with in case Friday’s impossible.” Austin sounded disappointed but resigned. Jay hated when Austin was resigned.

“I’m sorry.” It was inadequate, but it was all he had right then. He wanted to huddle up to Austin, breathe in his familiar scent, and just hold on, but that seemed as selfish as the rest of his behavior.

“For what?” Austin paused, a sheet half-in, half-out of the trash bag, a puzzled look on his face. “Jay?”

“I let you deal with everything. I went to pieces. I was just… Fuck, I was useless.” Jay gestured at the chaos. “This is your stuff too, and I’ve been acting like I’m the only one who’s lost anything. I suck, and you’re too nice to even come up to me and tell me to snap out of it.”

Austin dropped the bag and came over to him. Deep down, part of Jay had known he would, and yeah, that was selfish too, interrupting Austin and shamelessly begging for comfort. But it was that or add to the humidity by crying. Jay didn’t think he’d be able to stop if he started.

“You are not useless,” Austin said, his hands cupping Jay’s face so Jay couldn’t look away. “You lost it at first, yeah, but there’s no one on the fucking planet who’d blame you for that, and you were helping Nicole put out buckets ten minutes later.” He brushed his lips against Jay’s, the light kiss thawing the icy shell around Jay. He hadn’t been able to get warm all day, and he kept shivering, his teeth chattering. “You’re dealing with this better than I would, but”—he grimaced, his concern evident—“don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d understand it more if you did freak out. You’re drifting around like a ghost. Talk to me. Vent. Scream. I’m here.”

“I know. I know you are, and that makes it worse, because—” Jay shrugged and wrapped his arms around Austin.

“Okay,” Austin said slowly. “I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

Jay shook his head. “I feel bad. You’re so good to me, and I can’t even appreciate it, I’m so…”

“You’re in shock, I think,” Austin said. “Come on, let’s go in the other room and sit down somewhere dry for a few minutes, figure out our plan of attack.”

Your plan of attack, more like.” Jay let himself be led into the living room, where the couch was more or less dry.

“No, ours. We’re in this together.”

“I don’t get why I can’t function when stuff like this happens,” Jay complained.

Austin sat back on the couch and tugged Jay to lean against him. “You can function. You just need a little time to adjust. That’s normal.”

“But you’re fine. You, you know, do stuff. I’m standing around like an idiot.”

“Hey, I had some clothes get wet. You had something you’ve put hundreds of hours into get wrecked. You’re entitled.”

“I can’t even think about it,” he confessed. Austin had offered to clean up the mess Jay’s impulsive act had made, but Jay had shaken his head and done it himself, burying the debris in two bags and leaving them downstairs with the rest of the trash. “It’s like a spider on the wall next to me, and if I look at it, it’s gonna know I can see it and it’ll jump onto me.” The house was old and full of spiders. Jay didn’t mind them—much—but the thought of one on him, crawling over him or skittering fast across the floor, beady eyes on his ankles, gave him the shudders.

“What kind of spider?” Austin held up his finger and thumb an inch apart. “This big? Because I can put them in a cup and help them move house.”

“Big. Huge. Like Shelob.” He’d nagged and cajoled Austin into reading a few of Tolkien’s books, so Austin would know just what he meant.

“Yeah. I can see how it’d seem that way.” Austin didn’t say anything for a while, his fingers stroking Jay’s head. It felt nice and then it just felt like giving in and Jay straightened, forcing himself to sound brisk and efficient.

“So Nicole and Jon have gone to her mom’s, and the guys with the dehumidifiers and fans are going to be here soon. What about us? Where do you want to go?”

“We could go to my mom’s,” Austin said, but there was enough reluctance in his voice that it didn’t sound like an option but a last resort.

Jay couldn’t disagree with that. He liked Austin’s family and was sure a night or two under the same roof with them would be fine, but April and Austin clashed and their interactions tended to be unfun to witness. “I feel bad descending on them,” he said diplomatically. “A hotel would probably be better for everyone, you know?”

Austin looked relieved. “Yeah. Oh, that must be the flood control guys.” They both got up to answer the knock at the door.

“This staircase is a hazard,” Liam said, standing in the doorway.

“Tell me about it,” Austin said. “Imagine trying to move furniture up it.”

Jay was still stunned at seeing Liam in a place he’d never been, like he was a completely different person. He was even wearing casual cotton slacks and a short-sleeved shirt. “What are you doing here?” Jay asked.

“Yes, hello to you too,” Liam said drily. “You’re going to come stay with me. I have more than enough room, and it isn’t a request. I’ve taken the day off, and I’m here to help you pack up whatever you need.”

Austin seemed as shocked by this pronouncement as Jay felt. “I…um. I mean, yes, Sir.”

“No need for that.” Liam was gruff. “I’m here as a friend, not your Dom. What can I do to help?”

Between them they managed to pack up enough clothes and other things for several days. Liam urged them to bring the bags of laundry too, but Jay noticed Austin kicked at least one bag behind the closet door in the bedroom.

He kept sneaking looks at Liam, trying to adjust to him doing normal stuff like brushing dust off his shirt from a box he’d carried from one room to another. Liam and dust just didn’t go together, like the man had a dirt-repelling force field around him or something. Liam. Here. It was the freaky sprinkles on an already strange day.

Liam’s hand closed around his wrist as he headed for the door, following Austin. Jay stopped, his body responding to being held, not in a sexual way—that was the furthest thing from his mind—but finding some comfort in the warm grip.

“I’m aware of what you lost.” Liam’s eyes were kind—not sympathetic exactly, not full of pity—but kind. “I wish I could fix that for you as easily as I can put a roof over your head, but I can’t, I’m afraid.”

“No one can.” Jay covered Liam’s hand with his, and Liam turned his hand, squeezing Jay’s fingers for a moment, then releasing him. “I’m not going to be much fun to be around for a while.”

“I’ll try to be understanding.” There was a dryness to his words, warning Jay that Liam’s patience wasn’t endless, but he found he didn’t mind that. He needed to wallow in misery, but not forever. “I don’t want to make helpful suggestions that are anything but useful, but—”

“It’s cool,” Jay said, minding his manners with an effort. He wanted to get out of here. His home with Austin had been transformed from a cozy, cluttered haven to a damp, dank, dripping mess. He couldn’t breathe without smelling rusty water and mold. He knew he was imagining the mold, but his throat was still closing up and his chest felt tight.

“Did you take photographs?”

“Huh? I mean, uh, yes. I always do. I have this scrapbook I keep with photos, notes, samples. A lot of it’s on the laptop, but I like having it in a book… Oh God, that’s gone too.” Jay glanced around wildly. “Where is it? I had it out last night. I was checking the shade I’d used for the bridge supports—”

He strode over to the kitchen table piled high with an assortment of items, all damp but not ruined, and began to search through the unstable heap. “It’s not here. Shit, where is it?”

Liam appeared beside him, reaching out to steady a stack of plates. “Calm down. Maybe Austin will remember?”

“No, he’d gone to bed and I put it…I put it….” Jay spun around. Nothing was where it should be. Everything had moved. “Fuck!”

Austin put his head around the door. “Guys? A truck just arrived, and they’re unloading the fans and stuff. They said it’d be easier if we got out of their way.”

Jay couldn’t answer him. He was having a panic attack, every breath he took doing nothing to ease the constriction in his chest, blood booming in his ears. “My book,” he managed to say. “My book.”

“Jay?” Austin sounded worried, but Jay couldn’t focus on him, couldn’t focus on anything because he was hyperventilating and the walls were closing in on him. “Liam, get him down before he falls down!”

In any other situation, Jay would have thought it was funny, hearing Austin order Liam around like he was the one in charge. It was funny because Liam was in charge, even now as he manhandled Jay back into the living room and onto the couch. The couch was good; it was dry and the cushions were squishy but supportive enough beneath him.

“Deep breaths,” Austin was saying. Jay’s head spun, and Austin’s and Liam’s heads looked too big, balloons floating detached above their shoulders.

“He needs his feet up,” Liam said. Jay’s feet lifted and had something stuck under them. “Jay, listen to me. I want you to take slow, deep breaths.” He was using his command voice, the one Jay knew better than to disobey even when he was freaking out.

Deep breaths. He could do that. Slowly the room steadied around him and came back into focus. Austin was kneeling on the floor next to him. “I’m okay. I need my book.”

“It’s here,” Austin assured him. “It’s on top of the fridge. I put it up there so nothing would happen to it. It’s fine.”

“Okay. Okay.” Jay blinked and looked up. Liam was gazing at him, worried face upside down and one hand, Jay realized, wrapped around the back of his neck. “That can’t be comfortable.”

“I’m not concerned about my own comfort just now,” Liam said.

Jay closed his eyes, blocking out the two people who meant the most to him, because their concern was pushing down on him and it was too heavy to bear.

“It’s just paint and wood and stuff. It doesn’t matter.”

“Anything creative is far more than the sum of its parts, but we can get philosophical later. What matters is that you’re upset and both of you are understandably stressed. I need you to open your eyes and sit up.”

When Liam gave him orders, he felt like a puppet on strings. Jay did as he was told, glancing from Austin to Liam and seeing no impatience in their eyes.

“That’s better. Now, are you sure you’ve packed anything personal or valuable?”

Austin nodded. “I’ve put the laptop in your car, and there was this box file where we keep all our paperwork. I put that in too.”

“That was Austin’s idea,” Jay said. His voice was still shaky, but it felt as if it was coming from him, not someone a foot to the left of him. “He spent a Sunday going through all the bills and insurance forms and birth certificates, and filed all of it in there.”

“Austin gets a gold star,” Liam said. “Excellent. How about anything even more personal than that? I imagine you own a few items you might prefer not to be seen by anyone walking through and getting curious? Hopefully not all in lime green or pink.”

“Oh shit, yes.” Austin headed for the bedroom, grabbing a small white plastic bag on the way. “Won’t be a sec.”

Liam raised his eyebrows. “Anything likely to shock me?”

Jay couldn’t help smiling at the idea. “You? No. Our landlord, yeah, definitely.”

Liam stood and went over to the fridge and retrieved Jay’s scrapbook. It was a binder, stuffed full of paper and plastic envelopes he could drop swatches or samples into. “God, this is heavy.”

Jay took it from Liam and cradled it to him. “I guess I need to start a new one.”

“Is there”—Liam hesitated—“is there time to make it again using the photographs to guide you? Now that you know what it looks like, the pitfalls to avoid?”

“In a week?” Jay shook his head. “Even if I took some time off work—and I can’t—and didn’t sleep, I don’t think I could get it to where it was. You have to let things dry and set and…” He couldn’t continue. So many nights spent in the hot, airless attic, blocking Austin out, focused on his miniature world…

He could see it in his mind if he concentrated, each detail clear and perfect. He’d been so close to finishing, a score of tiny tweaks to make, but nothing complicated, just polishing it up, really. The towers, the bridges, the ruined alien city rusting under the light of a dying sun…

Austin came back into the room, the bag hanging heavy from his hand, half-full. “All set. God, it feels weird carrying these around. If the bag breaks on the way to the car, I might just die of embarrassment.”

Jay stood abruptly, his scrapbook still clutched to his chest like a security blanket, forcing Liam to take a step to the side to let him pass. “Can we go now? Please?”

He was walking toward the door before they answered, head down, moving quickly, not looking back.

Chapter Sixteen

“That’s the last one,” Austin said, dropping the heavy bag of what had been clean clothes and was now wet, flood-soaked laundry on the floor next to Liam’s washing machine.

“No, just leave it,” Liam said as Austin leaned in to check the controls on the machine. “I’ve already called my cleaning service, and they’re sending someone in the morning to take care of it.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Austin protested. “I can do it myself—”

“I hope you aren’t telling me what to do in my own house,” Liam said mildly.

“I thought this was just friends.” Austin ignored the laundry and gave Liam his attention. “If it’s not, you have to say.”

Liam shook his head. “No, you’re right. Unless we agree to a session while you’re here, I have to remember that this is different.”

“Okay.” It was awkward—everything about this was awkward, partially because it was adding a whole new dimension to the ways in which they owed Liam. “I should, um, go check on Jay.”

“Yes. You do that. Did you two have lunch?”

It was mid-afternoon and they hadn’t. “We didn’t have breakfast. Things were so crazy.”

“I understand. Give me fifteen minutes, and I’ll make something.”

Austin opened his mouth to say that wasn’t necessary, but remembered in time. “Okay. Thanks.”

Upstairs, the guest room had been transformed before they’d even arrived. Liam had made it look like a regular guest room that anyone could have walked into without suspecting it had ever been anything else. Jay had unpacked a few things into the adjoining bathroom but was now sitting on the bed with his diorama scrapbook opened beside him.

“Hey,” Austin said. “How are you?”

Jay gave a listless shrug. “Okay.” He nodded at his cell phone on the bed beside him. “Mr. Dalhover called. He said the attic and our floor is the worst, but Nicole’s ceilings are all going to need replacing and the carpet is so old the people who came to assess the damage advised him to get new.”

New ceilings and carpets sounded expensive. “How much is all this going to cost?”

“No worries. The insurance company pays for all of it. He said they were really nice, but he sounded upset.”

“We should go and see him.” The house had belonged to Mr. Dalhover’s family for three generations, but he’d moved out and converted it into apartments when he’d lost money on some investments. He lived with his sister, a lady who as far as Austin was concerned defined feisty. She’d visited them when Austin had moved in with Jay, dark eyes bright with interest as she’d peered around.

“Yeah. We can ask him why he didn’t take care of the fucking plumbing.”

The bitterness in Jay’s voice was only marginally better than the empty flatness. Austin cleared his throat. “It’s just one of those things. That tank might’ve lasted another ten years—”

“Yeah, well, it didn’t. It cracked and the water came out.” There was a short, awkward silence. Jay broke it, adding, “They’re going to need to put everything into storage for when they bring the ceiling down. They’re taking care of that too. They pack it, take it away, dry it out or restore it. Most of the furniture is his, and all the pots and pans and shit like that, so it’s not like we have any say in it, but he told us to go back tomorrow and grab the rest of our stuff.”

Austin began to go over it all in his head. Books, magazines…most of those were pulped, sadly. The rest of their clothes, their DVDs, Jay’s diorama supplies. He kept thinking of random items, like the food in the fridge, their potted plants.

Overwhelmed, he sat down heavily on the bed. “It’s a nightmare.”

“No.” Jay’s voice was wound tight, ready to snap. “It’s real. It’s happening.” He put his hand on his book as if he wanted to reassure himself it was still there. “I think I’m going to lie down for a bit. Take a nap.”

“Oh. Do you want company?”

Jay shook his head and lay back, rolling to his side, turned away from Austin.

Austin sat down next to him, moving the scrapbook so nothing would happen to it. It would be just his luck to wreck the thing less than twenty-four hours after it survived a flood. He put a hand on Jay’s shoulder. Jay didn’t respond, and Austin sighed and lay down behind him. “Hey,” he said gently. “Sweetheart.” He didn’t use terms of endearment often, but right then he definitely meant it. “It’s going to be okay.”

“Yeah. The house will get fixed, we’ll move back in, you’ll have fun putting everything away nice and neat and tidy, and there’ll be another competition next year. It’s all going to be just fucking fine. I get it.” Jay turned his head and glared at him, the hostility in his eyes like a slap. “Jesus, Austin, stop being so goddamned chirpy. And stop pretending you care about my diorama because you don’t. You hate how long I spend working on them, and you think they’re fucking pointless and a waste of time and money.”

Stung beyond words, Austin got off the bed and stood beside it. His gaze fell on Jay’s scrapbook, and he considered, for a second or two, throwing it across the room just for the satisfaction of hearing the spine crack. But he knew he’d regret it as soon as it left his grip, so instead he kicked the leg of the bed. “I know you’re upset, and you have a right to be, but none of this is my fault. It’s time for you to fucking grow up and stop taking it out on me.”

Austin turned and strode from the room before he could do anything he might regret, heading for the kitchen where he could hear the sounds of Liam preparing a meal he doubted he’d be able to swallow a single bite of past the lump in his throat. “Do you have anything to drink?” he asked as soon as he reached the threshold.

“Excuse me?” Liam said, turning. He was holding a spatula, and the image of him wearing a frilly apron flashed through Austin’s mind.

“Beer or something? I’m not going to get trashed, I promise. Just one?”

For a long moment, Liam just looked at him. Then finally he said, “Of course. In the door of the refrigerator.”

It was weird, opening Liam’s fridge and looking inside. Tidy. A lot of lemons. Austin focused on the beer bottles. Somehow just wrapping his hand around one, the glass cold and moist against his skin, was reassuring. There was a magnetic bottle opener stuck to the side of the refrigerator, so he used it instead of checking to see if the cap would screw off without it.

“This house isn’t built as solidly as yours.” Liam used the spatula to flip through some vegetables cut into neat sticks: bright red, orange, and green peppers, dotted with yellow baby sweet corn and green onions. It was colorful and smelled of ginger, which brought back all sorts of memories.

Austin pushed them aside in favor of drinking his beer.

“I heard you two arguing.”

Loyalty warred with the need to get rid of his anger by sharing it. Loyalty lost out. This was Liam, after all. “Jay’s being… He’s making my sister look mature.”

“That bad? Oh my.”

“He’s sulking.” Austin slammed his bottle down on a glossy granite countertop in a deep, rich blue, and watched beer foam up, forced through the neck. It didn’t overflow. He’d drunk too much of it. “I don’t mind him being upset. I don’t. But he’s being a complete fucking dick and I… Oh God. Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“It doesn’t matter.” Liam gave him an amused, impatient look. “I swear, Austin. A lot. I just don’t let you when we’re together because it’s not respectful. This is a time-out. We’re not in a session. If we were, you’d be naked and kneeling and I’d be feeding you scraps of food as I cooked.”

Any other time and Austin would’ve given that idea his full approval, but he was too churned up to focus on anything but Jay. “He said I hated his dioramas. I don’t! They’re really good, and I’m proud of him. I might not like how…how obsessed he gets when he’s working on one, but it’s Jay. That’s what he’s like.”

“They were part of his life before you came along,” Liam observed.

“Exactly! It’s not like he surprised me with them. And I like that he has something outside of his job that he cares about—in addition to me, I mean. It’s healthy to have a hobby. I don’t care that it’s dioramas instead of, I don’t know, watching baseball or whatever.” Austin licked his lips and drank some beer. It was a darker beer than he was used to—sour, but not in a bad way.

Liam flipped the food in the pan around. “I’m sure you’d be just as upset as he is if it had been something of yours that was destroyed.”

“Of course I would. I don’t mind that he’s upset. I mean, I care that he’s upset, but I understand. I just don’t want him taking it out on me. That’s the part that sucks. I was trying to be nice and supportive, all the stuff a good boyfriend is supposed to be, and he just spewed all this hatred on me.”

“You both need to eat something.” Liam turned off the burner under the pan and reached for shallow bowls he’d set out, then put on an oven glove and slid a broiler pan onto the stove top. “You’ll feel better once you have.”

Austin hadn’t felt hungry until that moment, but the fish fillets and vegetables Liam served him smelled good enough to awaken his appetite. “Thanks. This is great.”

“It’s about the limit of what I can do in a kitchen. I eat out a lot on business, and cooking just for myself seems like a lot of work. I’ve built up a few easy recipes I can do quickly, and I freeze the leftovers.”

Liam watched Austin eat a few bites, leaning on one of the chairs around the table. All the furniture looked brand-new and unused, though Austin knew Liam had moved in a couple of years before.

“Would you like me to tell Jay his meal is ready?”

Austin swallowed what he was chewing before it was ready to be swallowed and choked. He really didn’t want to see Jay again, not this soon. “Uh, he said he was taking a nap, so maybe we should just…leave him alone?”

“Did he.” Liam reached into Austin’s bowl and pulled out a long slice of red pepper, glistening with soy-ginger glaze. “Open up.”

Austin felt arousal shoot through him, unexpected, dizzying. He parted his lips and let Liam feed him the pepper. It didn’t feel flirtatious, though it was kind of a romantic gesture, he guessed, more as if Liam was making a point of some kind.

“Keep eating,” Liam told him and left the room.

Austin took another bite and then another, listening, his hand tense around the fork he held. What would Liam do if Jay defied him? Not hit him. Liam would never do that outside a session, but would it make a difference to the relationship they’d built up?

The minutes ticked by; then he heard footsteps on the stairs. Liam and Jay walked in together, Liam smiling faintly and Jay with a sullen twist to his mouth that told Austin his bad mood hadn’t passed.

Now that his bowl was almost emptied, Austin was feeling better, and he hoped once Jay had eaten, he would too.

“Jay is going to eat something,” Liam said. “We’re going to wait to talk until you’ve both finished your lunch.”

That sounded reasonable to Austin, who slowed his pace but still set his fork down while Jay was barely halfway through his food. He got up and put his bowl and fork into the dishwasher. “I could do these?” he offered to Liam, gesturing at the pans and utensils, and Liam nodded.

It didn’t take long to do the dishes, though it felt like longer because Austin was aware of Jay’s presence and they’d had a loud argument twenty minutes before. The more he thought about it, the more it upset him. They’d had so few arguments, and the ones they’d had had been short-lived and not really about anything important. This one had cut deeper, and Austin didn’t like what it might say about them.

Finally, having cleaned everything, he turned around and leaned against the countertop. He looked at Jay, who at that moment lifted his eyes and looked at him. There was one silent moment, and then Jay stood up and came to him and hugged him.

“I’m sorry.” Jay muffled the words against Austin’s neck, and Austin hugged him back. “I didn’t mean any of that, I promise. Do you hate me?”

It was pretty hard to hate someone who was clutching you so tightly you could barely breathe. “No,” Austin managed. “I don’t hate you. You lost something really important. I get that.”

“You’re the only thing that’s really important,” Jay told him. “More important than a stupid diorama.”

“It wasn’t stupid. And it sucks that it got ruined. If there was anything I could do to fix it, I would.”

“I know.” Jay pulled back to look at him, and Austin realized they were alone.

It made it easy to do what he’d wanted to do all day: kiss Jay and lose himself in the feel of Jay’s mouth on his. A slow, sweet kiss to remind them both that love was pretty waterproof when it came down to it.

“Love you,” he whispered because they were so close there was no need to say it any other way. “Love you, Jay. My Jay.”

“Oh God, I love you so fucking much.” Jay looked at him beseechingly. “I was saying all those awful things, and I didn’t even want to, but I couldn’t help it. Don’t remember it, Austin. Don’t remember any of it, please. God, I wish you could just forget I said it.”

“Said what?” Austin asked with a grin. It was a forced one because he really didn’t feel like smiling after the truly shitty day he’d had, but he didn’t think Jay would notice.

“I don’t deserve you.”

Austin felt he’d reached his limit on reassuring Jay that he deserved everything good in the world. He was emotionally and physically wiped out. “Probably not, but it so happens that I love you, which I think I just mentioned, and that means you get me anyway.”

Jay frowned, his forehead creasing as he worked it out. “Does that even make sense?”

“In my head, kind of, but everything’s all weird today, so maybe not.” Austin gave Jay another kiss, a quick one this time. “Do you feel up to moving the rest of our stuff from the foyer? We’re giving the place that lived-in look, but I’m not sure Liam will be happy if he trips over something.”

“I won’t be,” Liam said from the open archway leading to the hall. “If you’ve finished billing and cooing, moving it’s an excellent idea. If you like, you can put some of the boxes in the basement.”

“Okay.”

They made a few trips back and forth, putting the bulk of the boxes into the basement since it seemed like a reasonable suggestion. It was mostly a huge room with a couple of half-walls dividing the space, part of which seemed to be designated as a home gym. There was a high-quality treadmill—not that that surprised Austin. Everything that Liam owned seemed to be top-of-the-line—along with some free weights, a Nautilus machine, and a heavy bag.

The best spot for the boxes seemed to be along the back wall, so they piled them there carefully. On the way back toward the stairs, Austin bumped into the heavy bag. “Oof.” It was solid and made him think he’d have a bruised shoulder later when all he’d done was collide with it. He punched the bag. “Ow.”

“Well, don’t do it if it hurts.” Jay shifted to the side and swung his fist into the bag. The thud was louder than the one Austin had made, but Jay didn’t complain. “Hang on. I want to try this.”

Austin stepped back to give Jay some room. He realized the weight bench was behind him and sat down, watching as Jay slowly experimented with punching the heavy bag and then, once he’d figured that out, adding the occasional kick as well.

“Feels good,” Jay grunted. He swung low with his left fist, and the bag rocked away from him. “Distracting. Maybe we should get one of these.”

“Maybe.” If they wanted to pull the new ceiling down on top of them.

There was something mesmerizing about watching Jay. It was like watching someone with an innate ability to dance finding their stride and rhythm, and it made Austin marvel that Jay could have such a talent for this and he’d never known.

“Want to try?” Jay circled clockwise and hit the bag three times in rapid succession.

Austin grinned. “No, thanks. I’m good. I like watching you.”

“I don’t”—Jay paused, kicked, punched, and then finished—“look like an idiot?”

“God, no. You look great. Where did you learn this?”

“I don’t know. Took a couple of different martial arts classes when I was a kid, but I didn’t like how the teachers yelled at us.” Jay hit the bag, left-right, hard.

“You’re going to hurt yourself. Your knuckles.”

Jay glanced at him. “One more minute.”

Austin opened his mouth to protest, but Liam came up behind him, put his hand on Austin’s shoulder, and squeezed it. As nonverbal back-offs went, it worked. Austin sat silently and Jay went to town on the bag, finally, Austin guessed, finding something to hit back at that he couldn’t hurt.

“He needs this.” Liam wasn’t lowering his voice much, but it didn’t matter. Jay was in a world of his own, his mouth tight, small grunts emerging as he landed a particularly hard punch, sweat shining on his brow.

It felt wrong to watch Jay hurt himself, but Austin supposed given what usually happened to Jay in this house, skinned, swollen knuckles were nothing. It was most definitely Jay’s choice to do this, and he had to respect that.

“A pillow works too,” Liam said reflectively. “In fact, in some ways, it’s better. It’s so soft and yielding that it keeps you irritated and you generally have to destroy it completely to feel better.”

Austin turned his head and looked up. Liam was smiling. “That’s one of those jokes I don’t need to feel I’ve got to laugh at, right?”

“At least you recognize it is a joke. You’ve missed a few over the months we’ve known each other.”

That made Austin feel guilty for a moment, but not for long. Jay gave the bag one final, solid punch, then whirled around to face them, his eyes glittering with triumph. “Oh yeah. That felt good.”

Austin smiled at him. “You looked hot.”

Jay blew air up over his face. “I feel hot. The other kind of hot. It’s hard work.” He bounded over to Austin, as lively as a puppy that wanted to play. “You know, that was fun. Maybe we can’t fit one in our place, but we could, I don’t know, join a gym?”

“Or use mine,” Liam suggested. “I try to keep in shape, but most of this equipment gets used once in a blue moon. You’re both welcome to blow the dust off it anytime you like.”

The thought of coming over not for a session, just to see Liam, was one Austin had to turn over in his head a few times before he could decide how he felt about it, but his initial reaction was positive. Liam was older than them, yes, by about fifteen years, but he made Austin feel safe and at the same time stimulated, like standing on the edge of a cliff staring over, knowing he couldn’t fall because he was on a rope.

He grinned. Ropes and Liam went together well.

“Why don’t we go back upstairs and Jay can ice his knuckles—yes, you need to—and possibly shower, then we could, well, watch a movie? Unless you two had plans?”

Liam sounded his usual self until the last bit, when a hint of uncertainty showed.

“I’m exhausted,” Austin said. “A movie sounds great.”

“Do you have popcorn?” Jay asked.

“No, but I have chips.”

“Chips are good,” Jay assured him. “They’re not some funky English chips, are they? I had a friend who went over there, and he said you do ones like prawn cocktail and smoky bacon flavor. That’s just wrong.”

Liam snorted. “And dill pickle and ketchup flavor are normal? For your information, if they were English, they’d be crisps, and no, they’re just salted.”

The chips might not have been English, but the movie they eventually decided on was—after some good-natured arguing, of course. Liam won—definitely not a surprise—and put the DVD into the player as Jay and Austin collapsed on the couch, Austin in the middle and Jay curled up next to him.

“You didn’t dry your hair,” he commented, stroking his fingers through the damp strands.

“Too hot. But now I’m good.” Jay gave him an adoring look. “Liam? Sit with us.”

Liam had been moving toward the chair beside the couch, but he hesitated and nodded. He sat next to Austin as the DVD’s menu came on, then leaned forward to pick up the remote. “You’ll like this, I promise. Meaning of Life is a classic.”

“I think I saw part of it before on TV,” Austin offered.

The movie was funny, but Jay was snoring halfway through, head on Austin’s shoulder. At one point, Austin glanced over to find Liam watching them.

“He was tired,” Liam said quietly.

When the ending credits rolled, Jay yawned and stretched. “Nap,” he mumbled and staggered off upstairs.

Austin was anything but sleepy. Liam got up and put the DVD back in its case—exactly what Austin did as soon as he finished watching something.

“I suppose neither of you will be hungry for supper until eight or so, after a late lunch and all those chips,” Liam said.

“Yeah.” Austin got to his feet and looked at Liam steadily, studying him. He looked so different in casual clothes, and something about the way his casual pants fit made him seem even more solid and substantial than usual.

“Anything I can get you? Would you like another drink?”

“No, I’m good.” He’d had a glass of sparkling water, embellished with ice and lime, the glass perfectly clean so the water seemed to be held by air, not glass. Their glasses had come with the furnished apartment and were clean but clouded with faint scratches after years of being washed.

Liam sat down on the couch, in the middle, and reached for the remote. “Maybe there’s a game on. Is there any sport you—”

“Spank me,” Austin blurted out and felt his face go warm. “Please,” he added, though he left off the Sir.

“I…don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Austin drew in a deep breath. Yeah, it was. It was a really good idea. Like Jay, he needed to nap, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to. There was too much still going on in his head.

“I can’t punch the bag downstairs the way Jay did. I need that same…that release, but I can’t get it that way. I need you to give it to me. Nothing really hard or painful, just…just a spanking. So I can go upstairs and sleep and forget about this whole fucking day. Please, Liam.”

It sounded like the kinkiest thing he’d ever asked for when he said it like that. A spanking to send him to sleep, like Liam’s hand on his ass was some kind of security blanket to cling to.

“You’re still angry.”

“With Jay?” Austin bit his lip. “Kind of. I… That’s normal, though. To love someone and want to yell at them too. I feel that way with April all the time. With Jay, not so much. I thought he was perfect.”

“No one’s perfect.” Liam rubbed his mouth with the edge of his thumb, his expression distant. “It doesn’t stop people from falling in love with them, though.” He met Austin’s gaze. “I won’t do this if you’re trying to punish Jay in some way.”

“By getting spanked when he’s not here?” Austin shook his head. “He won’t mind. He’ll understand that I need it because it was probably what he needed too, but he wasn’t in the right head space to ask for it.”

“I was half expecting him to,” Liam admitted, “but I’d have turned him down. He was in far too volatile a mood, and it would’ve been a disaster.”

Austin took a step closer to the couch. “It won’t be with me.” He wanted this so much. Something to take the bitterness out of the day and leave nothing but the sweet ache and burn in his ass.

“All right.” Liam nodded. “Take off your clothes. Put them there. I’ll be back in a minute.” He left, presumably going into the kitchen if the sounds he was making were any indication, and Austin swiftly did as he’d been told, clothes neatly folded and placed on the arm of the couch.

Liam hadn’t told him to kneel, but it was automatic enough that once Austin was naked, he found himself on his knees. Eyes downcast, he let his vision go unfocused and just breathed, trying to get into a space where he didn’t mind waiting because he knew Liam’s word was good and that he’d be back soon.

When Liam did come back, he’d put on his shoes. He sat on the large chair, not the couch. “Over my knees.”

Austin was too big for lying across someone’s lap to be anything but uncomfortable, but that was part of the process. It was good that it was uncomfortable—it added to the experience. His cock, already hard, was jammed awkwardly against the underside of Liam’s knee and the right side of his pelvis felt like it would bruise from the pressure. He braced his hands on the floor for balance.

“I’m going to spank you until you cry.” Liam spoke calmly. “Until you ask me to stop. If you ask very, very nicely, I might stop then.”

The first slap was swift and unexpected, and Austin gasped and let the sting spread through his skin.

“Good,” Liam said. “I want to hear you making noise.”

“Yes, Sir.” Usually Austin went right into his head and was pretty quiet. It worked for him, even though Jay was the complete opposite.

He wondered if Liam wanted Jay to hear them doing this, so there’d be no question of this being done in secret, but that didn’t seem likely. Austin was going to tell Jay about it the first chance he got, not as a confession but as something to share.

He didn’t want this to be about Jay, anyway. He needed this to be about him. Taking care of people he loved wasn’t a chore or a burden, not really, but sometimes it came close. Today, the need to be the adult, to deal with most of the decisions, big and small, had come at a cost.

Liam’s hand came down again, jolting Austin free of the thoughts tangling in his head like seaweed floating in the ocean. “You don’t need to think about anything but my hand.”

“Yes, Sir.” He didn’t need to reply, but there was something about saying those two words that took away some of the tension balled up inside him.

Yes. Anything. You decide, not me. Give me what you know I need, just do it.

Liam was marking the places he intended to spank, a subtle way of letting Austin know what to expect. The surface of both cheeks, the underside, the very top of his thighs all got a single slap, warming the skin. Then Liam settled down and began to spank him in earnest. “You really do take my hand so well. I’ve barely touched you, and your arse is red.”

Austin moaned, picturing the view Liam had. Every spanking left a different reminder painted on skin, but the burnished redness, the tiny purple bruises…they stayed the same.

“I never see you until the marks have faded,” Liam murmured, his hand hurting Austin now, the heat building, the impact of his palm a shock every time, driving Austin’s breath out in ragged gasps and moans. “A week’s a long time. This spanking is different. I’ll make you show me your arse tomorrow, Austin. I won’t tell you when it’ll happen, but whenever it is, I expect you to take down your trousers immediately and let me see, let me touch.”

“Oh God,” Austin choked out, knowing he’d be waiting for that command. “Yes. Yes, Sir.”

“If I think you need more color, I might put you up against the nearest wall and give you half a dozen slaps. Ever been spanked on top of a spanking, Austin? Those six slaps will feel like sixty.”

He shuddered and closed his eyes, directing all his focus onto the burning pain spreading across his ass and upper thighs. Each slap hurt more than the previous one because he was already sore and getting more so by the second. If he really concentrated, he could feel the sensation spreading far beyond the area that was actually being struck, like it was traveling along his nerves. It went all the way to his knees and up to the bottom of his rib cage. It was consuming him, setting him on fire, burning him to ashes.

Austin didn’t realize right away that he was crying. The thing that finally tipped him off was the cooling sensation on his cheeks, and then he noticed the back of his throat and nose felt thick and swollen and his lips tasted of salt. God, he hurt. “Sir.” He could barely speak. “Please stop, Sir. I’ll do anything, anything you want, please.”

“Yes,” Liam said tightly and hit him once more, so hard he bit the side of his tongue. “You will do anything I want, Austin.”

And stopped.

Austin sobbed with relief and slid off Liam’s knees onto the floor. That hurt too, but he was too grateful to care. He turned to lean against the chair.

Liam stroked his hair. “There. Good boy. Do you have any idea how beautiful you look?”

For some reason, that made Austin cry harder.

“After that first meeting in the bookshop, I came back here and all I could think about was how much I wanted to do this with you and how you’d look when you were crying for me, holding nothing back. Waiting for that first Friday was hell.”

Austin remembered that week. It hadn’t been hell exactly, but he’d been so worried it wouldn’t work out with Liam. The meeting had left him certain it would when Liam was sitting next to him, that cool assured voice in his ears, watching Liam’s fingers flex on the coffee cup. But after Liam had gone, the doubts had rushed back.

It seemed a long time ago now. Spring had turned to summer, and Liam was a part of his life, still so closed off in some ways, but never during a session. Liam showed them his control in those hours, without hesitation or doubt, but it was obvious he needed the release as much as his subs did. In that, they were equal.

He felt Liam’s finger trace the path of one of the tears trickling down his face.

“Stay here.”

He rested his head against the chair when Liam had walked away. It felt light, detached from his body, making him feel as if he were floating. He lost himself in the insistent throb from his ass, enjoying the way the cool air felt against it.

Liam came back with a small glass of pineapple juice and a wet washcloth. “Let me take some of the sting out,” he said when Austin had drunk the sweet, tangy juice.

Austin shook his head. “I want to feel it.”

Liam raised his eyebrows and gave him a wicked grin. “Oh, you will. Trust me.” He shrugged and wrapped the cloth around his hand, his breath hissing out. “My hand needs it, even if your arse doesn’t.”

Austin shifted position. He didn’t want to sit on Liam’s furniture with a bare ass, but he did want to lie down. When his legs felt like they could support him, he’d get up and go to bed for a nap. Right then, though, if he stood, he’d fall over.

“Does it hurt you a lot? Spanking us, I mean?” He’d sometimes wondered if it did, but during a session there was no opportunity to ask. This spanking had felt different, as casual as Liam’s jeans. A friendly spanking. “I mean, if my ass is burning, your hand must be too?”

“Hands are meant to be tools,” Liam said, as if that was an explanation. “Yes, it will be sore for a few days, but I won’t regret having done it. It’s a different sort of satisfaction, using my hand on you instead of a paddle or a whip.”

Austin’s erection hadn’t faded much even now. He hoped when he went upstairs, he could persuade Jay to fuck him. Jay preferred to be the receptive partner but knew Austin liked being penetrated too, and was usually happy enough to oblige if Austin asked.

“Do you think—” Austin started off spontaneously, then paused and tried again. “May I ask a question?”

“Yes.”

“It’s pretty personal.”

“If it’s too personal, I won’t answer,” Liam said.

“I think we’ve crossed lines we didn’t originally plan to,” Austin said carefully. “The lines…moved, I guess. I wonder if the one, um, the line of fucking—oh God, that sounds stupid. Do you think you’ll ever fuck us?”

“That…yes, that’s fairly personal.” Liam was quiet. “But since it involves you, I suppose you deserve an answer. I…haven’t made any decisions about that particular line just yet.”

“That’s not really an answer,” Austin pointed out.

“Jay isn’t here.”

“He’s wondering too, but yeah, okay, I guess this is something we need to be three for.”

“And it would be three, wouldn’t it?” Liam smiled, the barest twitch of his lips. “I’ve enjoyed my one-on-one time with you both, but the two of you together… I thought you’d be a challenge, and you are, but I never realized how heightened the experience would be. To be spanking you and see Jay’s face as he watches, or have both of you tied, waiting for me to touch you, not knowing who I’ll touch first… It’s a rush.”

“You don’t sound straight.” It was a risk, pushing Liam like this, but Austin needed to take advantage of Liam’s receptive mood. “Do you still think that you are?”

Liam shook his head. “No. I’d have to be incredibly lacking in self-awareness not to realize that I’m physically attracted to you both, though I do think it’s down to what we’re doing to a large extent. I…when I was younger, I had a friend. He—” Liam paused. “God, this is difficult to talk about, even with you. We were teenagers, randy as hell, but friends, nothing more. I suppose it’s the time of one’s life when experimentation is normal, but we never took it far. I spanked him, though. Loved it. God, I loved it so much. I… Women, I like them. I was happy with my wife for a long time, but this, what we do…it’s so much better for me with a man.”

Austin didn’t think Liam had ever shared that much about himself in all the months they’d known each other. He wet his lips, unsure of how to reply, then found himself yawning. “God, I’m sorry. I’m just wiped out.”

“Well, that was the intention, wasn’t it?” Liam smiled at him easily, but the barriers were coming back up, Austin could tell.

He got to his feet, muscles protesting. “I’m going to tell Jay about this, all of it, when he wakes up, if that’s okay?” Liam nodded, just the barest hint of reluctance showing. “Thank you,” Austin added. “For the spanking, for sharing that with me.”

With a sense of having reached a destination—or maybe a crossroads—he moved closer to Liam and kissed his lips. Not lingering, but trying to make it mean something.

Liam held still for the kiss, though he was passive under it, but his eyes were wide, startled, when Austin stepped back.

“Should I say I’m sorry?” Austin asked, wondering if he’d just blown it.

“No,” Liam said. “No. Don’t be. That was…unexpected, but not unwelcome.”

Austin turned that description over in his mind as he walked upstairs to the guest room. Unexpected but not unwelcome? Well, he supposed there were worse responses to a first kiss.

Chapter Seventeen

Liam had to admit he was beginning to find having Jay and Austin staying at his house tiring. It wasn’t that they were annoying or ill-behaved. In fact, they were apparently on their best behavior, helpful and polite. It was just that he was so used to having the house to himself. On one level he enjoyed their company, but on another they made his home seem crowded. They’d left him alone one night and met up with some people Austin had been at school with, going to see a movie Liam had never heard of, followed by pizza. It’d been amusing to see them hesitate over leaving him, asking him to join them without thinking it through. The introductions would’ve been supremely awkward if truthful, though that didn’t seem to have occurred to them. He’d made it plain he really didn’t mind them going and hustled them out of the door with a sigh of relief.

Though he’d missed them after a few hours.

They’d changed his house in small ways too, without ever being disruptive. Once uncluttered surfaces were now crowded with odds and ends, and Jay’s books were everywhere. Liam could understand reading in the bath or even on the loo, but halfway up the stairs, wedged between the wall and the railing? The fridge was crammed full of unfamiliar food—very little of it healthy—and Austin had insisted on barbecuing outside one evening, on the grill that Liam had bought and used once. Liam had no patio furniture, but Jay had vanished for thirty minutes and returned with three white plastic chairs from the local hardware store. They’d been uncomfortable to sit on, but Liam had to admit he’d enjoyed his steak, washed down with a peppery Shiraz, even if he’d had to pick a few bugs out of his drink as the night went on.

They’d also presented him with a houseplant, a cactus of some sort. He’d thanked them, and after studying the label, he’d put it in the kitchen, where it’d get the sunlight it apparently needed. It was only as he’d been dropping off to sleep that he realized Jay’s lips had been twitching and Austin’s eyes gleaming with amusement. Pink flowers and lime-green leaves…a good match to the toys Jay had bought and he’d rejected. He’d rolled to his back and stared up at the ceiling, plotting revenge, an activity enjoyable enough that he’d forgiven them long before he woke up.

His room was far enough away from theirs that he didn’t hear any sounds they made once the lights were out, but he’d woken once in the night, ragingly thirsty, and gone down to the kitchen. It’d been earlier than he thought, only one in the morning, and on the way back to his room, he’d heard them making love. The muted squeak of the bed, the low, intimate sounds they were making… He’d stood listening for longer than he should before walking back to his room, wondering if they’d waited until they’d known he was asleep. Wondering what they did to each other, how they’d look as they came.

He was working from home one afternoon when he heard the front door being unlocked. A moment later, Jay called, “It’s me!” Two minutes after that, Jay appeared in the doorway. “Hey, I’m back.”

“Yes, the shouting got that message over, thanks.” Liam sighed. “Please close the door on your way out. I’m trying to work.”

He only had another twenty minutes or so of work to complete, but it felt like longer when he was aware that Jay was probably nursing hurt feelings. Forcing himself to be diligent, Liam gave the paperwork more attention than it required before leaving his office in favor of finding Jay.

Jay was lounging on the couch, his feet up, a can of soda in one hand and a bowl of chips on the floor within reach, watching TV with a book, a form of multitasking Liam just didn’t get. The sound was louder than Liam considered necessary, and he was fairly certain that if he saw one more snow-capped New Zealand mountain covered in elves, he was going to hide Jay’s DVD collection in the trash.

When Jay saw Liam, he got up and carefully placed his can on a coaster. Liam had pointed out that condensation caused rings on wood two days before, and not held back when he did it.

“Work finished?”

“Yes, more or less. Jay—”

“I am so sorry I bugged you when you were busy.” Jay closed the gap between them and gave Liam a hug. “I was just glad to see you.”

The hugs had started on the first morning of their stay. Liam got them at breakfast, before Austin and Jay left for work, when they returned, and at bedtime.

They were friendly, casual hugs and impossible to object to, even if Liam had been inclined. He’d been aware that Austin and Jay touched each other a lot, perhaps unconsciously; it was difficult to miss. They sat close enough that their arms brushed, held hands or bestowed reassuring pats if they were stressed, and hugged, kissed, and snuggled in a way that left Liam watching with a baffled wistfulness.

To be included, if only partially, in that closeness made up for a lot of the minor irritants of having them underfoot.

Possibly not the way Jay’s ancient, rusting VW bug had dripped oil onto Liam’s pale gray driveway.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you. How was your day?”

“Honey,” Jay said and grinned when Liam gave him a blank look. “It should be, How was your day, honey?”

Making him the wife? Not likely. He gave Jay a reproving tap on the cheek with one finger. “Very funny. Don’t make me ask again.”

Jay grinned, unrepentant, though even that one small touch had made his eyes widen, a flash of interest showing. “It was fine. Well, it was busy, but that’s fine. I’d rather be busy than bored.”

“You really don’t like being bored,” Liam agreed. It was probably an explanation for why Jay tended to be so naughty during a session. He’d rather be punished than bored as well. Definitely something Liam would have to explore in more detail at some point.

“Austin called on my lunch break,” Jay said, suddenly going a bit more sober. “He says we can go home on Thursday.”

Liam felt a pang at the thought of being alone in the house again, even though he knew he’d also appreciate the peace and quiet. “You don’t sound very happy about that.”

“No, I am.” Jay looked down at his shirt and picked an invisible bit of lint from it. “But I like being here too.”

“You can be here on Friday nights.”

“I know.” Left unspoken was that it wouldn’t be quite the same, and Liam couldn’t disagree with that. “Oh, that must be Austin now.”

Sure enough, Austin came in a moment later, already unbuttoning the top two buttons on his shirt. Jay got the first hug, Liam the second. Austin smelled of heat and behind that the vague odor of antiseptic from the clinic. It wasn’t an unpleasant combination. “Whew. Hot one out there. Did Jay tell you the good news?”

“About your apartment being fixed? He did.”

“I had an idea.” Austin bent to untie his shoes, and Liam found himself wishing Austin was facing the other way so that his arse could be admired.

“And what was that?”

“I think—and it’s just an idea, obviously, so either of you can veto it if it sounds like a bad one—that we could, well, maybe have a session at our place. Once we get things more or less back where they belong.”

“Why would we do that?” Jay asked, frowning. “Which is not a veto.”

“It would kind of make it, you know, ours again. Except even more ours, because Liam would be there. We could have some new good memories to kind of erase the bad ones.” Austin was studying Jay’s face as he often seemed to, reading the reactions there.

“I’m not averse to the idea,” Liam said as neutrally as possible. He was. He liked being in control, in an environment he owned. On the other hand, what Austin was asking was, in a way, another invitation to get closer, to step into their world.

And it would only be the one time.

“But you don’t love it.” Austin’s face fell, though he tried to hide his disappointment.

Liam surrendered.

“I just want to be sure that you’ve thought about the, ah, limitations? Noise? Neighbors? I’d hate for you to be placed in an awkward situation.”

“Oh!” Austin smiled, reassured. “Yeah, Jay does tend to get noisy.”

“Hey!” Jay elbowed him. “Do not.”

“Do too—”

Children.” It got their attention, though it’d never worked on his actual kids. “Will it be a problem?”

“No,” Austin said with an air of triumph. “Friday nights, Nicole and her son stay at her mom’s. Kind of a standing family dinner. She never misses it.”

Liam nodded. “Then let me know when you’re settled and I’ll be there.” He hesitated, needing to mention something he’d been putting off because he was unsure how they might react. He hadn’t been able to decide if he should mention it casually or have it be the subject of a serious discussion.

Jay had wandered into the kitchen and was looking in the refrigerator. It certainly hadn’t taken long for him to make himself at home. “What are we going to do about dinner?”

“I could make that chicken thing with the pasta,” Austin suggested.

Thus far Liam hadn’t sorted out whether either of them could cook. “That would be nice,” he said, hoping he wouldn’t be proven wrong. “Oh, I’ve been meaning to mention that the weekend after next, I’ll be gone—for five days, actually—but only the Friday night will affect our plans. That should give you time to get your place back to normal before I come over.”

Austin, who had just straightened up and was holding a package of chicken, looked surprised. “You’re going away?”

“My daughter is graduating. I’m going for the ceremony and the party her mother, God help me, is throwing.” He was looking forward to the parts where he’d see Alison, but not particularly to the rest of it. Barbara’s family would be there, of course, and to say they weren’t fans of his would be the understatement of the decade.

“But why do you have to be gone for five whole days?” Austin asked plaintively.

Liam wondered how he’d known this wasn’t going to be a cut-and-dried discussion. “Because almost an entire day each way is devoted to travel. And because I haven’t seen my kids for a while and I want to spend time with them. I won’t be gone for a month, Austin. It’s less than a week.”

“But—” Austin blinked, and his expression went from upset to blank in an instant. “Right, okay.”

Jay had been watching Austin’s face, but now he looked at Liam and smiled. “That’s great that your daughter is graduating. Is your ex-wife’s family nice, or will it be awful?”

“Awful,” Liam said, “but I’ve known them all for so long that it’s a familiar awful and I can handle it. We got on fairly well before, but they blame me for the divorce and the effect it had on Barbara and the children. The fact that she asked for the separation and is enjoying life very much these days doesn’t seem to count.”

Jay asked a few more questions about Alison and Ben, Liam’s son, but with Austin now chopping vegetables with the precision of a surgeon, his back to them, pointedly not joining in, Liam was happy to let the subject die a natural death.

* * * * *

“He’s not really worried that you won’t come back,” Jay said when Austin was in the shower, leaving Jay and Liam in the family room. The pasta dish had been edible, but Austin had alternated between silence and talking too much, too fast, so it hadn’t been the most relaxing meal Liam had ever had. “I mean, you will, and he knows that. And he knows your daughter graduating is important. He’s just—” Jay wiggled his hand. “He likes people he cares about being where he can see them. When I go to see my parents, he closes down on me. Not because he’s angry, it’s just…” Jay shrugged.

“So Patrick going must’ve been difficult for him to deal with?”

“Oh God, yes. For both of us, though, so I wasn’t much help. I went to pieces too.” Jay smiled at him. “Though it worked out just fine in the end. We spoke to him a couple of weeks ago, by the way. He says to tell you hi.” Jay bit his lip, worrying the skin until Liam reached out and stopped him with a finger laid across Jay’s mouth. “I used to wish he’d come back. I still want to see him again, but…he’s not our Dom now. You are.” Jay stared down at the book in his lap. “You push us more. You hurt me better. I think…Patrick needed to do something, but he didn’t really need us. You do.” Jay glanced up, his expression begging for reassurance. “You do, right? Need us, I mean, not just any subs?”

“Yes.” It was a simple answer, but Jay’s face lightened immediately. It was also an honest reply. Liam couldn’t picture being with anyone but the two of them. He had so much he wanted to do with them. They’d barely scratched the surface, but exploring their kinks and his wasn’t something he wanted to rush. “I know what it was like, not having such a badly needed outlet, Jay. I needed this as much as you both did.” It was an important thing to admit, even if it made him feel uncomfortable to do so. “And it really is just a few days. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“I guess we’ll have to make the most of you while we’ve got you.” Jay smiled at him again. “Sir.”

* * * * *

Getting Austin out of his bad mood with an unplanned session had seemed like a good idea with the memory of Jay’s smile heating Liam’s body, but he had to admit it wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped. For a start, he’d sprung it on them when they were halfway through a movie they’d rented that needed to be returned that night. They’d agreed to it, but the dynamic had been all wrong from the start. Liam wasn’t a fan of impromptu at the best of times, and without his usual preparations and mental planning, he’d found himself struggling to get the session running smoothly.

With Austin and Jay living in the bedroom that they’d been using for the sessions, he took them back to the den—only to discover that most of the equipment was upstairs and a large part of the den floor was taken up by a board game Jay and Austin had tried to get him to play. Liam remembered playing Risk as a student, but he also remembered that the game could go on for hours. He’d turned them down, despite being told that playing with two people wasn’t as much fun. Walking into the den to check it out, he’d trodden on a pink piece of plastic with sharp edges and yelped as it dug into his bare foot.

Making them clean up the game naked while he administered some well-aimed slaps at their arses and the back of their thighs with a long, narrow paddle that had a wicked bite had soothed him a little—even if Jay had pouted throughout.

Liam didn’t give a fuck that Jay had been about to take over Asia.

Ten minutes in, with Jay over his knee, yelping through a spur-of-the-moment spanking he’d earned for going to his knees with all the grace of a sack of potatoes—deliberately—the doorbell rang.

Liam paused, aware that Austin, kneeling in the corner, wearing a cock ring, nipple clamps, and a pout, was giving him a startled look of inquiry.

“Ignore—” The bell rang again, followed by a polite but insistent rapping. “Oh, for God’s sake!”

Liam tipped Jay off his lap. Neither of them was tied up, but leaving them during a session went against the grain. He pointed at the opposite corner. “Jay. Crawl over there. Hands and knees, facing the wall. Don’t talk. We’re far from done here.”

He lingered long enough to watch Jay’s reddened arse sway as Jay crawled across the room, then he left, closing the door firmly.

The only blessing was that he wasn’t at all aroused when he yanked the door open.

“Mr. Thornton. So nice to see you!”

Liam tried not to scowl. One of his neighbors, though he didn’t know her name, with a clipboard in her hand. He pasted a reasonably genial look on his face. “Yes? I mean, good to see you too, uh…”

“Tina. Tina Wilder?” Her arch look made him uneasy, but she was wearing a wedding ring, so presumably she wasn’t here to flirt. Not that he could be sure of that. Being single, employed, and reasonably good-looking—not to mention having a cute accent—meant that Liam had been invited to dinner parties, barbecues, and get-togethers of all sorts since he’d moved in. Most of the invitations had included the promise that there’d be a woman there that he just had to meet.

He’d been firm but polite about refusing all of them.

“Am I disturbing you? Only I saw the cars in the drive, so I knew you were in—or at least someone was. Maybe one of those young men I’ve seen about the place recently?” She blinked at him, blue eyes innocently wide.

Liam had grown up on a housing estate near Reading, and he was well aware of the information-gathering skills of the average suburbanite—the ones who didn’t work and had nothing better to do, at least. He didn’t make the mistake of underrating her or giving her any crumbs.

“What can I do for you, Tina?”

“Your accent…I could listen to it all day. It’s just like Colin Firth’s.” She sighed. “Don’t you just love him?”

Hiding his frustration, he smiled at her. “Colin Firth? Is he an actor?”

“Is he—Oh, you’re teasing me!”

She was edging forward with every sentence, giving Liam the choice of stepping back and letting her over his threshold—not going to happen—or having her plastered against his chest. He stood firm. “I’m in the middle of something right now, so I’ll have to make this quick, I’m afraid.”

“Oh. Oh, well that’s too bad.” She pouted. When Jay did it, it made Liam long to spank him, but Tina’s pout left him cold. She was attractive in a generic way, but he could hear his grandmother’s caustic voice in his ear describing one of her neighbors in Manchester. “That one? Red hat, no drawers.

It had confused him, but his mother had told him later that drawers in this case meant knickers and that he wasn’t to pay attention to Granny, who was getting old. But the phrase had stuck.

“I just wanted to ask you to sign this petition to stop them extending the gravel pit.” She shoved the clipboard at him. The petition didn’t have many signatures on it. Liam scanned it quickly and felt no rush of civic indignation. He wondered if Jay and Austin were obeying him and staying quiet. Was Jay wriggling his arse; were Austin’s nipples throbbing so much that he’d have tears gathering in his eyes?

“What gravel pit?”

“It’s the one on the edge of town? It’s going to have a dreadful effect on property prices, and the dust—”

Irritated by the questioning lilt in her voice, he shook his head. “I’m a lawyer. I don’t sign anything. Besides, that quarry is ten miles from here. Sorry.”

“Oh, but—”

“Good night, Tina. Nice to see you again.”

“Likewise, I’m sure,” she snapped and turned on her heel to stalk away.

Liam closed and locked the door, then leaned his head against it. In the den, two impatient, naked men were waiting for him to come up with something special to save the evening from being a total disaster, but the mood had been ruined.

He walked back into the den and opened his mouth to tell them that he was sorry, he just couldn’t carry on after the ill-timed interruption.

They were kneeling in perfect silence. Tears were trickling down Austin’s cheeks, his cock straining upward, the head dark red, filmed over with clear fluid. The clamps hung heavy from his nipples, the chain connecting them quivering with every shuddered breath he took. Jay was facing the wall, his spanked arse raised, his arms quivering as they held his weight. Liam could see the shape of his balls between his well-spread legs, the shadowed cleft, the hole he’d intended to spread wide and torment later.

Liam kicked the door closed behind him. Went to Austin, not to release him from the clamps but to tug down once, twice, three times on the chain, sharp, short tugs that made more tears spill as Austin cried out for him, holding position beautifully. There was no confusion or misery in his eyes now.

“A little longer,” Liam told him, brushing his fingers against the pinched, tortured flesh. “You can take it for me, can’t you?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Liam went across to Jay, caressing the spanked skin and letting his hand slide between Jay’s legs to cradle his balls. Jay’s skin was warm, the hair around his balls a crisp tickle against Liam’s fingers. He captured a single hair between his thumb and finger and pulled it out, ignoring Jay’s startled yelp of pain. Hmm. Interesting reaction. He had a pair of tweezers somewhere… “Let me see, I was spanking you for being graceless and disrespectful. Show me that you’ve used your time in the corner to think about that. Stand, turn to face me, and kneel. When I’m satisfied, Austin’s clamps can come off and we can all move on.”

Jay rose, spun, and went down to his knees, every movement coordinated, smooth, just the tiniest wobble as his knees touched the carpet.

Liam pursed his lips and went back to sit in his chair, where he could see them both. He felt his connection to them like reins in his hands, not frayed by irritation as it had been at the start, but strong, alive. “Better, Jay, but not perfect. Again.”

Austin whimpered and Liam smiled.

Chapter Eighteen

Liam had only been gone for two days, but one of them had been Friday and Jay was already finding Austin impossible to deal with. Okay, maybe not impossible, but definitely unpleasant. He’d insisted they make plans for Friday night, knowing Austin was going to need the distraction so he wouldn’t just sulk about missing out on their usual night with Liam.

They’d gone out to dinner, and that was fine, but some kind of technical problem at the movie theater meant that their movie had stopped suddenly halfway through, and after that everything had gone to hell. Austin had gone back into cleaning mode when they got home. Jay went into the kitchen to find him scrubbing around the faucet with an old toothbrush.

“You don’t think that’s a little OCD?” Jay asked.

“Yeah, cleaning is OCD,” Austin said sarcastically.

“I don’t mean cleaning in general. I mean doing it with a toothbrush.”

“This place is filthy. Can you move a little? Yeah.” Austin went back to work.

Jay sighed. “It isn’t filthy.”

“Please. Like you’re a good judge. You’d probably sleep in a trash heap and not notice.”

“You’re being a jerk,” Jay said. “I know you’re stressing about Liam being gone, but that’s no excuse.”

Austin dropped the toothbrush into the sink next to a bowl of white powder Jay assumed was some kind of cleanser and not, you know, cocaine. “I know. I’m sorry.” He didn’t sound all that sorry, though.

“Patrick missed a Friday now and then.”

“I know.”

“Liam left us his key. We could go over there tomorrow, maybe work out or something?”

No.” Austin’s jaw set like concrete. “Not without Liam there.”

“He said we could.”

“Yeah, well, we don’t have to do everything he says. Our lives aren’t one long kinky session with Liam micromanaging every fucking second.”

“No,” Jay said slowly, “because that’s not what we want, any of us. It doesn’t mean that he’s ordering us to go there when he gives us a key and the security code and says we’re welcome to crash there if we like.”

“What would be the point?” Austin pulled off what looked like half a roll of paper towels and started to dry behind and around the faucet. “Look, I know I’m in a shitty mood. Maybe just stay away.”

Jay moved to the fridge and took out a bottle of juice, then poured himself a glass. “Right, because that makes sense. You’re mad ’cause Liam went away, so I should go away too?”

“Not go away. Just, you know, avoid me.”

“And that’s different how?”

“I don’t know,” Austin said.

“You know he’s coming back, right?” It wasn’t the first time Jay had asked the question, but he wasn’t sure what else to ask.

Austin glared at him. “Yes, of course.”

“Then why are you so freaked out?”

“It’s just so easy for him, you know? To leave. It’s not like we matter to him or anything.”

“Are you insane?” Jay asked, not even trying to keep the warmth from his tone. “You don’t really think we don’t matter to him, do you?”

“Maybe,” Austin said sullenly. “Not enough, anyway.”

It wasn’t often that Jay took charge of things between himself and Austin. It was less to do with his submissive tendencies and more to do with the fact that drifting was easier than making a decision. Austin generally picked the movies they saw, the restaurants they went to, even some of Jay’s clothes. Jay liked it that way. Now and then, though, he took a stand and this was too important to ignore in the hope that it would go away.

He took a sip of juice, then set the glass down. “Austin. You need to stop doing whatever the hell it is that you’re doing and come and sit down.”

“No. I want to do this, and I’m not in the mood for a lecture or you trying to cheer me up.”

“I could make you.”

Austin snorted. “Dream on.”

“I could beg you.”

“Your puppy dog eyes work on Liam. They don’t work on me.”

“Yeah, they do.” Jay got closer, ignoring the irritated jerk of Austin’s shoulder. He put his arms around Austin and nuzzled into the back of his neck. “That’s why you’re not looking at me right now. ’Cause if you do, you’ll cave and we both know it.”

“You really think so, huh?” There was a subtle softening in Austin’s stance that told Jay to keep pushing. Austin didn’t want to feel like this, miserable and upset—no one would—but he needed some help getting out of the hole he’d dug.

“Look at me and prove me wrong.”

Austin let go of the wadded paper towels and turned within Jay’s arms, a bored expression pasted on his face. “Fine, I’m looking. Not caving.”

“Gotcha.” Jay swooped in and kissed him, hanging on when Austin struggled, patiently waiting for Austin to kiss him back.

If Austin had really fought to free himself, Jay would’ve let go, but his efforts felt more like his way of testing how determined Jay was. Jay could get behind that. The first thing he did when Liam tied him down was tug hard to prove to himself that he wasn’t going anywhere. Nothing beat that first delicious rush of arousal when the bonds held.

“Love you,” Jay said and bit down on Austin’s lip. “Love you so fucking much, and I’m not going anywhere unless you’re with me.”

Austin made a small, hungry sound and rolled his head to the side to expose his neck, inviting a bite there. “Show me.”

“Show you I love you? Yeah, I can do that.” Jay licked the side of Austin’s neck before using his teeth, and felt him shiver. He pressed his body up against Austin’s, his cock hardening, the quick intake of breath from Austin telling him that he wasn’t alone in that. “Trust me?”

“Always.”

Good to know.

“Going to tie you to the bed and do wicked, naughty things to you.”

Austin’s hands tightened on Jay’s arms, an involuntary response more honest than his bored, “Same old, same old.”

“You’re gonna pay for that,” Jay promised him. Being in charge, if only fleetingly, was exhilarating and scary. He wasn’t sure how Liam did it. He tried to sound as sure of himself as Liam always did. “And after you’ve come so hard you need help adding two and two, we’re going to talk, Austin.”

“You’re gonna have to make me to do that too,” Austin said. It was possible that he was playing now, just a little bit, and that made Jay feel more confident.

“Bed,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Austin allowed himself to be led into the bedroom, let Jay undress him and find the silk scarves tucked under the mattress. Even let Jay tie him to the bed frame, all without saying anything aside from the occasional murmur of agreement.

Jay tugged at the scarves where they were looped around the frame, making sure they were snug enough to hold even if Austin fought them. Then, grinning, he licked Austin’s ankle. “I don’t care if you talk,” he said. “I’m not Liam, I’m me. This is just us, and that’s okay.”

“Better than okay,” Austin said, then squeaked when Jay bit his toe. “Hey!”

“I like that,” Jay said. “That’s a good sound. Make it again.”

This time he bit Austin’s knee, and Austin did squeak again. “Just don’t bite anything important.”

“You wouldn’t care if I did.” Jay licked Austin’s balls and then bit at them, but gently, careful not to really hurt. No matter what Austin said or liked with Liam, he didn’t want to be hurt right then and Jay knew it. Jay knew Austin inside and out—sometimes, maybe better than Austin knew himself.

Austin’s cock was stiff, flushed pink. Jay loved his coloring, the way his little nipples got pink and tight when he was turned on, the way his eyes went kind of hazy and warm. There wasn’t anything about Austin that Jay didn’t love—okay, maybe there was the occasional thing he didn’t like, but that was the exception to the rule. “I love you so much,” he said. “More than anything. More than anyone.”

“Me too,” Austin said, lifting his head and looking at Jay like he was worried.

“No, it’s okay,” Jay said. “I’m good. I’m so happy, with you.” To prove it, he bent down and took the head of Austin’s cock into his mouth.

“Considering where your mouth is right now, I really hope so,” Austin said.

Jay pulled back and glanced up the bed at Austin. “Okay, I’m starting to see why Liam makes us shut up.”

Austin pouted at him, all fake contrition. “Am I distracting you?”

“Yes. From something very, very…” Jay didn’t bother to finish his sentence. Far more important to get the solid weight of Austin’s cock back where he wanted it, lying heavy against his tongue. He didn’t move for a few seconds, luxuriating in having his mouth filled, then took in a little more until the head of Austin’s cock had nowhere to go, pushing against the back of his mouth, blocking his throat.

He breathed through his nose and put his hands under Austin’s ass, encouraging Austin to arch up and managing somehow to take him deeper. He could still breathe in, but it was restricted, and a thrill of arousal went through him. He loved literally having his breath taken away, though he’d never been able to explain why to Austin or to Liam without stumbling over his words. It felt like the ultimate surrender of control.

Liam’s version of breath play, mindful maybe of Austin’s worried frown, had been as simple as it got. He tied Jay to the bed and told him to hold his breath until he was given permission to exhale. A tissue placed over Jay’s nose and mouth, as light as the air he was denied, let Liam see when Jay lost the battle. Jay, gasping for air, his heart pounding with excitement, his dick rock hard, took with an exultant grin the spanking he got for not lasting as long as Liam had wanted him to.

“That’s a start,” Liam told him. “We can take this further, but if you ever—ever—try to do this when you’re alone—”

“I won’t, Sir,” Jay promised. “I swear. Just with you.”

He’d obey that promise now because he’d meant it when he said it, and he wouldn’t want to have to admit to Liam later that he’d broken it. Instead he eased back and sucked harder on the head of Austin’s dick.

“Jesus,” Austin gasped. “Jay, too much. Unless you want me to come, which I’m going to, soon, if you keep that up…”

Jay had to pull off to answer. “Not yet. I want you to come in me.”

Austin groaned as Jay found lube and slicked himself up, keeping his eyes locked on Austin’s as he worked his fingers into his ass.

“You don’t get to fuck me,” Jay told him. “I get to fuck myself on you. It’s gonna feel so good, your cock inside me, all hard and thick.” He straddled Austin and eased back, the head of Austin’s cock pressing against his hole. The stretch was always intense in the first half minute or so, but this time Jay didn’t want to take it slow. He wanted Austin deep in him now.

They both cried out when Jay rocked back, Austin arching upward beneath him. Austin couldn’t get much leverage being flat on his back with his hands and feet tied, so Jay had to do most of the work. That was fine by him since it meant he could move as fast and roughly as he wanted. He loved quick, hard penetration and didn’t really see the point in drawing out orgasm—maybe when he was old he would, but for now his recovery time was still short enough that he’d rather increase his chances of getting to come twice.

“Told you I was in charge,” he panted. “You like it, don’t you?”

“Yeah. God, Jay, I’m so close. Don’t stop.”

“Not gonna stop, not even if you beg me to. Gonna come on you, all over you—leave you tied up and watch it dry on you while I feel your spunk drip out of me.”

Austin moaned, a raw, guttural sound that drove Jay crazy. He used his crude words like a flogger, arousing them both to the point where there was no turning back. Later he’d remember what he’d said and blush, but in the moment he didn’t care. “God, you’re stretching me. Hurts, Austin; every time I slam down on you it hurts, I’m taking you so deep. Love it, love you.”

He leaned forward, changing the angle slightly, braced on one hand, and ran his free hand up Austin’s chest to his left nipple, pinching it tightly. He felt the heat in the trapped flesh, how hard the nipple went as he rolled it. “Should’ve clamped these. Tight, really tight, so every time you moved, it hurt. Punish you for moving, ’cause it’s me fucking you, but you wouldn’t stop trying to fuck me, would you?”

“Love fucking you.” Austin’s eyes were hazy now. “Worth it.”

Jay groaned in agreement. “God, yes. It’s all worth it with you.” He moved his hand to Austin’s hair, using his grip to pull Austin’s head up so he could kiss him, a bruising clash of lips and teeth.

He sat back, tasting blood—his or Austin’s, he didn’t know which—and oh God, yeah, there, just there, the heat and burn going nova as Austin’s cock slid deep, digging in, touching all the right places.

“Fuck! Fuck—”

He threw his head back, unable to keep his eyes open in the first moments of his climax, his muscles locking, the arch in his back forming a deep curve. He forced his eyes to open, focus, needing to see his spunk jet out and strike Austin’s skin. He didn’t touch his dick, his hands clenched into fists on his thighs.

“Need you with me—”

Austin shook his head, his chest heaving with every ragged breath. It wasn’t a refusal; Austin was lost in his own world right then, his cock like iron inside Jay. Jay ground down on him, his asshole tender enough it made him wince with pleasure and pain, teasing a last spurt from his cock and triggering Austin’s climax.

He loved that, the feel of someone coming inside him. Loved it so much that he’d been kind of a slut for it before he’d met Austin, taking chances he shouldn’t have. There was nothing like it, the pulse, the tug of skin stretched to its limit—with Austin, it was better than it had ever been with anyone else.

Jay whimpered as the last bit of pleasure was wrung out of him, collapsing onto his outstretched arms. Austin was still coming, mouth open, and Jay leaned to kiss lips soft with distraction.

It was typical for Austin to be limp and pliable after an orgasm, and tonight was no exception. He barely moved as Jay crawled off the bed to untie him, and was still lying in the same position when Jay lay down again, though he tugged Jay closer with an arm, willingly becoming Jay’s pillow.

“Was that good?” Jay asked as he snuggled up. He already knew the answer, but he wanted to hear it anyway.

“Mm. Good. Great.” Austin turned his head and kissed Jay’s hair. “When did you get so smart?”

“I’ve always been smart.” It was hard to summon enough energy to be offended.

“Then now you’re brilliant. That’s what Liam would say. Brilliant.” Austin sounded relaxed and maybe a bit sad.

Jay rubbed a fingertip over Austin’s nipple, watching it go hard and tight. “I don’t remember you getting this upset about when Patrick had to cancel a session, or whatever.”

“Yeah, well. Patrick was different.”

“He was a sweetheart, but we were just…we didn’t matter to him the way we do to Liam. He didn’t need us. Liam does.” Austin sighed, and Liam ran his hand down Austin’s side to his ass, giving it a gentle pinch. “Yes. He does. Why can’t you see that? We turn up, and he just switches on, someone home. It’s special to him, what he has with us.”

“Sure.”

“Austin, it’s his daughter’s freaking graduation—”

“I know.” Austin sounded exasperated. “It’s not about that. God, how can you think I mind him… It’s not that.”

“So I keep guessing what it is, or do you cut to the chase and tell me?”

Austin rolled to his back and threw up his arm, covering his eyes. His body was still damp with sweat, flushed with pleasure. Jay caressed him, unable to keep his hands off him even when his body was smugly satiated, replete.

“I told him he could fuck us, yeah? Said we were both okay with it.”

“Uh-huh.” The thought of it, Liam in bed with them, orchestrating the sex with the same deft assurance he did when he was their Dom, was a huge turn-on. Jay’s dick began to thicken in a hopeful way. What would he order them to do to each other, to him? How far would he take it when it came to adding some pain to the mix, an edge of intensity he and Austin always found to be just out of reach? Jay didn’t know, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t imagine it.

“You like that idea,” Austin said. “I can’t even see you and I know you’re so fucking turned on by the idea you’re drooling.”

“I don’t drool, but the rest, yeah. So are you.”

“We thought we didn’t want that.”

“Yeah. So did Liam. Things change.”

Austin moved his arm away and sat up, staring down at Jay with a painful intensity. “Too much? For us and for him? Because I asked him a few weeks ago, Jay, and I don’t see him being the kind of guy who takes long to make his mind up about something, and now he’s gone. We pushed too hard, too soon. We ruined it.”

Finding out the root cause of Austin’s depression wasn’t the relief Jay had expected it to be.

“He’s coming back.”

“Yes, but is he coming back for us, or because this is where he lives?”

Jay felt his stomach lurch at the thought of a call from Liam telling them it was over. “We didn’t push. We just told him he could fuck us.”

Austin ran his fingers through his hair, making it stand up wildly. “We told a straight man he could fuck two guys, Jay! Yeah, he says he’s maybe bi, but he’s never done anything with a guy apart from get a few blowjobs from us. That’s nothing.”

“It's something.”

“It’s not.” Austin was working himself up now, his face pale, his words spilling out. “And what about us? How will you feel if I’m on my hands and knees with Liam ramming his dick into me?”

Jay blinked at him. “Am I supposed to get jealous now? Jesus, Austin. I’d be there watching, remember? Hell, knowing the way he is about everyone getting involved, if his dick was in your ass, mine would be in your mouth.”

“It’s all fucked up.” Austin sighed and stood, looking dejected. “I want him to want us, you know? And that’s not going to happen. If he does have sex with us or let us blow him or whatever, it’ll just be because he’s turned on from spanking us or feels like he’s supposed to or something. So what’s the point?”

Swinging his feet down onto the floor, Jay tightened his hands on the edge of the mattress. “If you were a girl, I’d accuse you of having PMS.”

“Yeah, and then I’d slap your face,” Austin grumbled. “You can’t get away with stuff like that. Trust me, I have a sister, I know.”

“You aren’t making any sense,” Jay said. “First you’re upset that Liam hasn’t had sex with us, and then you’re upset because if he does have sex with us, it might make me jealous, and now you’re upset because if he has sex with us, it won’t be for the right reasons? You’re talking in circles.”

“I feel like I’m walking in circles.” Austin sat down again, the mattress sagging under his sudden weight. “I don’t… How did this happen? I like him more than I thought I would. More than I’m supposed to, I think.” He looked at Jay, anguished.

“Hey, hey, come on. It’s all gonna be okay.” Reaching out, Jay touched Austin’s face. “You’re allowed to like him. You think I don’t want you to like him?”

Austin’s lips had pulled down into miserable lines. “Maybe not this much.”

Jay looked at him helplessly. “Austin—”

“I’m not saying I love him the way I love you. It’s just that I think I do love him in a different way. I can’t imagine him here, living with us because, well, he’d hate it.”

“Big-time,” Jay agreed automatically, his thoughts frozen in place by what Austin had said. Love. Austin in love with Liam? That was—

“And it was nice staying with him, but—”

“We’d drive him insane after a month.” He kept talking, saying the right things, but underneath the calm, his mind was in lockdown, every sound echoing oddly in his ears.

“Or he’d turn into one of those full-time Doms and organize every second we were together.”

“That wouldn’t be as much fun as it sounds. It might work for some people, but not for us.”

Austin gave him a shrewd look. “You’re trying to figure out what to say to me after that bombshell, huh?”

Jay sighed. He never could fool Austin. “Yeah. I mean, we’re not talking love him like a brother, right?”

Austin pulled a face like a toddler offered spinach in place of chocolate pudding. “Ish. No. And more than a friend, before you go there.”

Time to do some sharing of his own. “You love him because he’s a part of your life now. Because he makes you feel good, feel safe. Because he knows you, not as well as I do, but pretty fucking close, and that means so much.” Saying it started the thaw, freeing up Jay’s tongue so it could say more than the obvious.

Austin began to speak, then paused, a frown appearing. Jay began to count down silently in his head, waiting for Austin to realize what lay behind Jay’s words. It was Austin; it didn’t take long at all.

“Shit,” Austin said. “You too?” And without waiting for an answer—because he was right, obviously he was right—he flopped down on the bed in dramatic fashion, the kind of thing Jay was more likely to do. “Fuck.” Austin looked up at the ceiling, freshly painted since the flood. “What the hell are we supposed to do now?”

“Talk to him, I guess.” Jay didn’t sound any more confident about the idea than he felt. “I don’t know. We don’t want to make him feel guilty, like he did something wrong because this happened. It just…did.”

“It’s not the same as telling him it’s cool if he wants us to suck him every now and then.” Austin groaned. “God, this is depressing.”

Jay hadn’t been thinking about it that way, but as soon as Austin mentioned it, he discovered it was true. “Thanks.”

“For what?” Austin lifted his head.

“Bringing me down. What is this, the negative hour?” Jay was teasing—mostly. Sometimes the only thing you could do was laugh.

“Yes,” Austin said. “It’s the negative hour. Soon to be followed by the ice cream hour.”

“Ooh, is there ice cream?” Jay brightened. Austin had been the one to do the grocery shopping the evening before.

“Espresso chip,” Austin said tantalizingly. It was Jay’s favorite flavor. And wasn’t that what really mattered the most? Having someone who knew you inside and out and loved you anyway?

Yeah, that was what was important. The thing with Liam—well, they’d work it out or they wouldn’t, and that was the end of Jay being able to think about it right then.

“Okay,” he said and moved to find his cotton sleep pants. “I declare the ice cream hour to have officially begun.”

Chapter Nineteen

“Sore?” Austin asked, noting Jay’s wince when he stood up to put his ice cream bowl in the sink.

“A little. Not in a bad way. I’ll sleep good, at least.” Jay was watching him now, weighing each line of Austin’s expression.

“Yes,” Austin said. “I’ll sleep too. Well, it’s what you were thinking, right?”

“Right.” It was nice that Jay was so forthcoming about it, at least. He didn’t try to pretend Austin was imagining things. “Thanks for the espresso chip.”

“Hey, I know what you like.” Yawning, Austin glanced at the clock and discovered it was later than he should be up, considering he had to work the next morning. Only a couple of hours, but the inventory should have been done weeks ago and he and the other office staff had agreed to sacrifice a few hours on a Saturday morning to get it over with.

He was just putting both ice cream bowls in the dishwasher when he heard a knock at the door.

“Who the hell is that? It’s almost tomorrow.” Jay frowned and went to answer.

“Oh hi, Jay,” April said from the landing, and Austin sighed. Not that it should have come as a surprise that it was his sister showing up late at night; who else would it have been? “I was driving by, and I saw your lights were still on.” She wrinkled her nose at Austin. “Glad I didn’t interrupt anything.”

“We were just gonna go to bed,” Austin told her.

“Are you kidding? The night’s still young.”

Austin tried to think of a way to ask if April wanted something without it coming out sounding rude, but failed. “So, um. You just stopped in to say hi?”

“Actually…I was kind of hoping…” April gave Jay a meaningful look. “Do you think you could give us a minute?”

“Jay lives here, April,” Austin said with more patience than he felt. “He doesn’t have to clear out.”

“And I’m not going to.” Jay scratched his ribs and smiled at April with just enough smirk in it to make Austin wince. Oh, this could get ugly, fast. April brought out a side of Jay that rarely surfaced with anyone else. He seemed to enjoy needling her, his shyness forgotten. Of course, Jay was only shy with strangers, and April was hardly that. As if he’d picked up on Austin’s feelings, Jay backed off. “Anyway, even if I go into our bedroom, I’ll still be able to hear you. This place isn’t that big.”

April glanced around, her lip curling. “It’s a dump.” She gestured at a stack of cardboard boxes by the wall, filled with odds and ends they hadn’t gotten around to unpacking yet. “What’s in them? Are you moving out or something? You didn’t mention it last time you were over.” She gave Jay a malicious smile. “Or is my brother trading up finally?”

“April, one more dig and I’m kicking you out.”

She pouted and fluttered her eyelashes at Jay. “I’m sorry. Jay knows I don’t mean it, don’t you?”

“You mean it,” Jay told her with an indifference Austin knew April would hate. “I don’t care what you think because I don’t like you, so it doesn’t matter.”

April wasn’t the only one who could be brutally frank.

“Sit down, April.” Austin pointed at one of the new—well, less used—chairs their landlord had provided. “And you, Jay.”

Jay didn’t pout, but when he flopped onto the couch next to Austin, his expression was on the grim side.

“We had a flood.” Austin nodded at the boxes. “The water tank in the roof leaked in the night a few weeks ago. Huge mess. Everything got trashed and we had to put a lot of stuff into storage while they renovated. We’re unpacking it slowly now that it’s all fixed.”

“A flood? God, that’s awful!” April had the grace to make her sympathy sound sincere, though in Austin’s experience if it didn’t affect her directly, his sister’s sympathy was fleeting at best. “Did you lose much?”

Beside him, Jay went tense. Austin remembered the pathetic, soaked remnants of the diorama and slid his hand into Jay’s. He squeezed it, offering wordless comfort, and felt Jay’s fingers clasp his. April’s eyes sharpened.

“The roof? You mean that room where Jay makes his little models? Did anything get spoiled up there?”

She’d always been good at targeting vulnerabilities and getting a swift, if petty revenge when she thought she’d been insulted.

“Everything of Jay’s and mine is fine,” Austin said before Jay could reply. There was no way he was giving April the satisfaction of hearing what Jay had lost. She’d bring it up for months every chance she got. “Just things like the ceilings and carpet that got damaged, really.”

“So where did you go? You didn’t stay here, did you?” April tossed her head. “I’d have made the insurance company put me up in a fancy hotel. Somewhere with a pool, room service…somewhere nice.”

And she would’ve stolen anything not nailed down and believed she was entitled to it.

“We stayed with a friend.” Jay’s voice was too controlled to sound normal, but at least he hadn’t retreated into the dense, distant silence Austin dreaded. He could coax Jay out of it, but it took a lot of work. Liam was better at it, but he was able to give Jay a curt order to snap out of it. Austin couldn’t do that without making Jay resent him.

For a moment, he wanted Liam with them so intensely he couldn’t bear it. Liam was supposed to be calling them the next day, and even hearing his voice would be a relief. It’d only been a few days since he’d seen Liam, and generally it was a week between visits, but knowing Liam wasn’t a short drive away made all the difference in the world.

The pause had gone on too long. Austin could see the second the gears in April’s head clicked and caught, drawing her to the correct conclusion. Damn it, she was smart. She could do so much with her life if she’d stop acting like an idiot.

“You stayed with that guy? That old guy. What, is he your sugar daddy now? That’s kind of gross.”

“He’s just a friend.” Part of Austin hated lying, but it was a complicated situation. He hated lying about Liam. He didn’t hate lying to April, who was pretty much the least trustworthy person he knew.

“A friend who pays my fines off to keep you happy?” April was sneering, the expression taking her expertly painted lips from beautiful to ugly. “That’s pretty much the definition of sugar daddy in my book.”

“I don’t think your book ever made it past kindergarten. Didn’t you get stuck on Red Fish Blue Fish?” It was mean, but Austin was hoping to distract her from her current train of thought.

“How did you even meet him?”

Okay, it hadn’t worked.

“Friend of a friend.” Jay leaned forward, his hair shielding his face so Austin couldn’t read his expression. “Never mind him. Why are you here, April?”

She shrugged, the rise and fall of her shoulders conveying just how little any question from Jay counted. “Just in the neighborhood. No biggie.” She tapped her lips with her finger. “Hmm. He must be a really…special friend letting you stay with him like that. Is he gay? With a really big bed, maybe?”

“No.” Austin said it and wondered if that was another untruth to add to his tally over the last few minutes. He still wasn’t sure what gender Liam really preferred deep down. That was another source of stress. He wanted to do so much with Liam; they both did. If Liam had mixed feelings about being attracted to them, if Liam was enduring the need to touch them, see them hard, aroused, just to get his kicks as a Dom, that would suck. “He’s divorced. He has kids.”

The savage prod from Jay’s elbow came too late to stop him spilling more about Liam than was probably wise.

“We’re going to bed,” Jay said and stood, tall and straight for once, not hunched over. He folded his arms across his chest and fixed April with a cool stare. “You should maybe come back another time. Bring thumbscrews if you do. It’s not an interrogation without them.”

As usual April was able to see when it was time to back off. “I didn’t mean to come across like that. I was actually hoping—Austin, if maybe you could loan me some money. Just a little, until next week?”

Austin sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He should have known. “How much is a little?”

“Maybe two hundred?” April looked at him hopefully, somehow managing to remind him of the small sister he and his brothers had doted on when she’d been six and seven. They’d never escape seeing her that way, and that was probably why she always got to them.

“I don’t have two hundred to give you.” That wasn’t true, either. This whole conversation had been one lie after another.

“I could drive you to an ATM.” April stood up like she was sure Austin would say yes.

He shook his head. “No, I don’t mean on me. I mean at all. I just don’t have it.”

“You have a great job,” April protested. “You work for doctors! I know you make a lot.”

“And I have lots of places to spend it. None of them are you.” Austin was sure that this would make April angry, and he was right. Her eyes narrowed as she stepped closer to him.

“You think you’re so much better than the rest of us?” she asked, glaring.

“No, he just knows he’s better than you.” Jay said it calmly, but at that moment Austin appreciated the support.

“Bullshit! Dead-end job, nerdy boyfriend, still living here. I’m going to get out of this place the first chance I get.”

“So my job went from good to bad in what, five seconds? And don’t you dare… I’m so fucking lucky to have Jay—” Austin’s voice faltered. He couldn’t do this. He wasn’t going to defend his life, his choices to someone like April. “You know what, April? You can start your journey to someplace better by getting the hell out of here. Now.”

April’s gaze went from Austin to Jay as if she was gauging the level of their annoyance. “Fine. I’m gone. Don’t expect me to come back, either. I knew you were talking crap when you said I’d always be welcome.”

She turned away, a forlorn droop to her shoulders that Austin didn’t buy, not for one fucking second. She was so good at leaving him feeling guilty, but not this time.

He stayed silent as she left, refusing to call out something placating even though he knew down the line he’d pay for it.

When enough time had passed for her to have gotten out onto the sidewalk, he walked to the window and glanced down. He needed to see her leave before he trusted that she had.

He watched her stalk away, heading for her car, the anger she’d expressed in stinging words manifesting in her walk. He let out a long sigh.

Jay joined him at the window, standing behind him, his arms coming around Austin in a hug. “If I let you be rude about the way my dad sings Elvis songs when he gets drunk, can I tell you what I think about her?”

Austin leaned back, knowing Jay would support him. “You can say what you like, but I just want to forget she exists right now. Tell me you still love me, even when I come with baggage like her. No, I know you do. Just kiss me.”

Jay’s kiss landed on his ear, not his neck, because they both moved at the same time. Austin didn’t mind.

* * * * *

Surprisingly Austin found himself in a reasonably good mood at work the next morning, though it probably didn’t hurt that the office’s billing manager, Caroline, had brought in fancy coffees for all of them.

“How did you even know what to get?” Sue, twenty-four and recently engaged, took hers gratefully and sipped some of the whipped cream off the top of the cup.

“In my experience, pretty much everyone will drink something that’s got whipped cream on top,” Caroline said. “Especially if someone else bought it, because then they don’t have to feel guilty for the calories.”

Austin grinned and chugged half his drink almost at once. “I always knew you were one to watch out for.”

“My feminine wiles all revolve around food.” Caroline licked foam off the edge of her own cup and gave them a stern look. “Okay, now get to work.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Austin said and went back to the supply closet—really more like a series of closets, because the office building had been designed for some other purpose years ago and the renovations had been creative—to start his inventory.

It easily could have taken all day, but he’d created a sort of spreadsheet that helped make the job more manageable. The most frustrating thing was that they all, he included, had a tendency to “put things away” where they definitely didn’t belong, so before he could start counting supplies, he had to straighten all the shelves. He was making progress, though, fueled by the extra caffeine and Jay’s promise that they’d have a nice lunch somewhere when he was finished, when Sue appeared as if from nowhere.

“God! Don’t scare me like that.” Austin held a hand to his chest, feeling the rapid thumping of his heart.

“It’s not like I was sneaking up on you.” Sue gestured over her shoulder. “Your sister’s here. I told her she could wait in your office.”

His good mood evaporated at once. “God, I’m sorry. I don’t know what she’s doing here.”

Sue gave him a puzzled smile. “It’s okay. It’s not like it’s a normal workday or anything, and even if it was, she’s family. Go and see her. It might be important.”

Or April might have decided that if he was asked for money in front of the people he worked with, he’d be too scared of her making a scene to turn her down.

Anger, bright and hot, swept through him. He’d had enough of this. Selfish, destructive, manipulative—in that moment, he couldn’t think of a single positive trait his sister had. He entered his office determined not to let her win this round of a battle that felt as if it’d been going on since he’d tried to spoon mashed peas into her mouth as a baby when she’d wanted carrots. She’d grinned at him triumphantly as the peas she’d spat at him ran down his face. His mom had smiled and taken the spoon off him, telling him that all babies acted up at mealtimes, but it’d felt more personal than that.

April was standing by his chair, her phone in her hand, her face intent as she tapped at the keyboard. Her head jerked around when he entered, guilt flashing across her face. She pressed a final button, then tucked the phone away in her back pocket. Austin was too used to carrying on a conversation with her as she texted to expect it to stay put away for long.

She was dressed conservatively for her, jeans and a plain white T-shirt, a simple silver chain around her neck—a birthday gift from him, Austin realized sourly—and no makeup. Scrubbed clean, her face showed the marks of not enough sleep, but she looked younger and vulnerable, which he supposed was the intention.

“You shouldn’t be here. I’m working. And I don’t have any cash.” His jacket hung over the chair she was standing by, and he frowned. Would she have gone through it looking for his wallet? Was that why she’d looked so guilty? She would’ve been out of luck if she did, because it was on him, but the thought of her rifling through his jacket wasn’t pleasant.

“Look, I’m sorry, okay? Is that what you want?”

What he wanted was for her to leave him alone, but he wasn’t quite mad enough to say that. “I want you to grow up,” he said instead.

“What, just because I need to borrow a little money, it means I’m not grown up?” April looked at him pleadingly, and he found himself softening. “I appreciate your friend bailing me out, you know?”

“You should. Otherwise you’d be in deep trouble with Mom right now.”

“You’re my big brother,” April said. “I knew you’d help me.”

He sighed. “I can’t give you two hundred,” he said. “No way. But I can swing fifty bucks, if that will help. As long as you promise you won’t use it for drugs or anything.”

“Are you serious? Do I look like someone who’s on drugs?” Right then, scrubbed clean, she didn’t.

“It’s not about whether someone has a certain look,” Austin told her. “Just tell me. And don’t lie to me.”

April glanced away. “It’s not for drugs. I just…I have kind of a big credit card bill this month.”

“You shouldn’t have a credit card at all, if you’re going to run the bill up.” He should probably just be glad that she hadn’t asked their mother for the money.

“I need stuff, okay?”

“What kind of stuff?” God, she made him feel so old and responsible. He’d always had to be. No adolescent rebellion for him. Hell, he’d never even slammed a door at home after yelling that he hated his family and wished they were dead. Wasn’t that a rite of passage or something? Maybe April was rebelling for both of them.

Her gaze fell. “I went shopping with Christy and Brittany at Crestview Mall. They have so much money, and they were buying everything they wanted. When I said I couldn’t afford stuff, they just laughed at me, and I hate that, okay? I hate being the poor one!”

Crestview? Ouch. Unlike the local malls that contained the usual midrange chain stores, Crestview, an hour’s drive away, was packed with luxury stores. To be fair to April, she’d done a good job of developing a style of her own that—extreme though it was sometimes—wasn’t too expensive to maintain. Faced with the glitter of Crestview with those two empty-headed girls egging her on, though…

“Can you return any of it?”

Her eyes widened in what looked like genuine bewilderment at his suggestion. “What? No way!”

“You don’t hang around with those two much. They’d never know. If there’s anything you haven’t used, anything that still has the tags on…” He sighed, reading the answer in her face. “Too late, huh?”

Way too late.” She gave him a hopeful smile. “So you’ll help me out? If I don’t pay it, I’ll get hit with a load of interest charges. And that just means you’d have more to pay off, so it makes sense to pay it now.”

Austin shook his head. April’s version of logic made his head ache. “I can’t do this, April. I can’t keep bailing you out. Stop using your card, pay it off as fast as you can, and think about getting a job maybe.”

“It’s not as easy as that!”

“Yeah, it is, if you just open your eyes and realize that you’re leeching off your family and making things harder for everyone.”

“You’re so fucking mean.”

“Honest,” he corrected her. “And it’s time someone was, because you’re just—you’re spoiled. Maybe that’s our fault, but it’s got to stop, April. You can’t keep doing this.”

Frustration made his voice get louder; anger at her, at himself, made it shake. He was saying the same things over and over, and none of it was sinking in, he could tell.

“Austin?” Sue tapped on the open door and put her head around it. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah.” He turned his back on April. “She’s leaving now.”

And he’d watch her leave to make sure she didn’t steal anything. His own sister and he didn’t trust her. God, how had they gotten to this?

He wanted to go home and hug Jay, wanted the evening to come and bring with it Liam’s phone call. Instead he walked a sullen, tight-lipped April to the door and locked it behind her, then went back to work.

Sometimes being a responsible adult sucked.

Chapter Twenty

Liam hung up the thick, soft, white—and now damp—towel on the back of the bathroom door and glanced in the mirror despite himself. He hated hotel bathrooms, with their bright, unforgiving lighting and unavoidable reflective surfaces that reminded him that he was getting older by the minute. He had wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, and his hair was just a bit thinner than it had been last year.

With a sigh, he turned off the light switch and went back to the bed, which was a much more comfortable place to sit than the padded chair at the desk. The afternoon and evening had been a long-drawn-out affair at the party his ex-wife, Barbara, had thrown to celebrate Alison’s graduation. He’d felt so awkward, standing around with a drink in his hand as people who had once been his family, if only by marriage, gave his daughter gifts. Many of Alison’s friends had come to the party as well, cheering when she cut the first slice of cake and taking photos of each other constantly with their cell phones.

Now Liam was relieved to be back in his hotel room. He’d planned to order room service but had eaten far too much at the party and at that moment couldn’t imagine ever being hungry again. He had promised to call Jay and Austin, just to check in—he knew Austin in particular had been dreading their separation, and Liam wanted to do what he could to alleviate the younger man’s stress.

As he reached for his cell phone, he caught sight of the glossy advertisement for cable television sitting beside the lamp and noted that a movie he’d missed in the theater was now available. He clicked the TV on and then had to reach hastily for the remote again to turn the volume down.

He watched the first twenty minutes and realized that his thoughts kept drifting to Austin and Jay. The night before, at the family dinner Barbara had hosted, when eight o’clock had rolled around, if he could’ve wished himself back home ready to open the door, he would have. He’d made polite conversation, a smile pasted on his face, laughing at the right moments, playing the role of proud father and civilized ex-husband.

And his mind had been filled with images—not the anonymous fantasies that he’d used to console him in the barren years of his marriage, featuring faceless subs, kneeling, begging, hurting, but clear, detailed memories of Austin and Jay, naked, obedient, his.

He’d excused himself and gone into the beautifully kept garden, the air sweet with the scent of roses. Closed his hand carefully around the stem of one, the flower a tightly furled bud but the thorns sharp. He’d let the triangular point of the thorns dig into his palm, not gripping tightly enough to break the skin, and given himself up to a fantasy of whipping Jay with a bunch of rose stems, the thorns leaving his olive skin beaded with blood from his shoulders to his thighs. Jay would scream for him, his body locked in ecstasy, his cock as darkly red as the petals strewn on the bed. Liam had pictured Jay’s cock, a thorny stem wound around it, Austin’s tongue lapping at the head, making Jay harden even more so that the thorns dug in deeper, and he’d groaned, his breath coming in harsh gasps.

He’d had to stay out there for ten minutes before his erection had subsided sufficiently for him to return to the house.

With an impatient stab of his finger, he muted the movie and reached for his phone. He’d worked himself up again, his cock insistently demanding that he do something about the state it was in. The idea of jerking off when he was talking to his subs was looking more appealing by the moment. It wasn’t as if either of them would mind. Hell, they’d love it and so would he. Not that he’d let them come when he did, of course. Maybe at midnight. He’d enjoy picturing them both suffering for a few hours.

As his hand closed around his phone, it rang, startling him. He glanced at the call display but didn’t recognize the number.

“Thornton.”

Hi, suit. Guess who?”

“I don’t need to guess, do I. April, isn’t it?” Liam was fortunate to have an excellent memory for some things, even in cases like this when he rather wished he could have forgotten. The little he knew about Austin’s sister told him she wouldn’t be calling about Austin’s health. “Was there something you needed? In addition to the gift of six hundred dollars, of course.”

“Yeah, I figure you owe my family that much at least.” Liam could imagine April’s sneer. “Since I’m pretty sure you’re not paying my brother for whatever sick stuff you’re getting up to with him and his boyfriend.”

Liam found himself frowning even though there was no one there to appreciate the expression. “Was that an answer to my question?”

“I don’t owe you any answers, asshole,” April snapped. Then, clearly directed at someone else, “Excuse me, I’m sitting in this car! Find somewhere else to make out!”

“Amusing as this conversation is, it sounds as if you have other things to attend to,” Liam said. He actually had no intention of hanging up first—for one thing, he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction, and secondly there was part of him that found her entertaining, in a twisted sort of way.

“Lame party,” April muttered. Her voice was slurred just enough to make her words blend together. Liam hoped that if she was sitting in a car, it wasn’t one she intended to drive later. “I wanna know who you are. I don’t like you.”

Liam grinned. “I’m deeply hurt.”

“If you do something to my brother, you will be.” The threat in April’s voice didn’t scare Liam in the slightest. In fact, he was pleased to see that she was concerned about Austin. That, at least, was common ground between them. “I mean it.”

“I have no intention of hurting Austin or Jay in any way.” If April knew what he did to her brother on a regular basis, she wouldn’t agree with that, but it was the truth.

“Don’t give a fuck about the hobbit, but you’d better not mess with my brother.”

“I won’t,” Liam assured her. Hobbit? Jay was actually more like an elf. God, he’d soaked up more of those movies than he’d realized. “Is that all?”

“What? No!” April made an exasperated sound. “God, why won’t anyone tell me who you are? It’s not normal, an old man like you hanging around with them. It’s sick. You’re sick. Do your kids know about you? Is that why your wife left?”

All amusement left him. Refusing to acknowledge her accusation or answer her speculations, he said, “I’m about fifteen years older than them, yes, but they’re adults. They can choose their own friends.”

“Is that all you are? A friend?”

No, I’m their Dom. I tie them up, spank them, leave their skin bruised and tender so they have to sleep on their stomachs, and the things I want to do to them beyond that… You have no idea, but they do, and I can’t wait and neither can they.

“That’s right. Just a friend. Is that concept really so hard to grasp? Don’t you have any friends?”

Privately he doubted it. People she hung around with, maybe, but no one as bitter and selfish as April would attract real friends.

“It doesn’t make any sense. It’s pathetic. Do you want to pretend you’re young or something? Do you go clubbing with them, trying to look cool?”

“God, no,” Liam said involuntarily. “I can’t think of anything I’d hate more.”

“So it’s all about the sex, then.” April didn’t sound drunk now, just viciously triumphant as if he’d fallen into a trap she’d dug. “They said you were straight, but you’re not, are you? Just in denial and too cheap to pay for it. Do you give them little presents for being your good boys? Do you like watching them fuck? What gets sickos like you off, suit?”

“Certainly nothing I care to discuss with an immature child like you,” Liam said. He reminded himself to stay calm. Once he lost his cool, this would go from being a minor amusement to something else entirely. “Perhaps you should leave adult topics to adults. Like your brother. He’s more than capable of making his own decisions.”

“I don’t care how capable he is.” In the background, behind April, Liam could hear raucous laughter. “I care about you using him.”

“Ah, but that would be the pot calling the kettle black,” Liam pointed out.

“Huh?”

“You’re the one who uses Austin.” Liam was an expert at remaining patient under difficult circumstances. “How did you get this number, by the way? I take it you didn’t steal his phone, or I’d have recognized his number when you called.”

He could almost see the shrug that preceded her words. “Lifted it off his phone when I paid him a visit at work. He really needs to be more careful with his possessions, you know?”

It sounded as if she was echoing something Austin or another adult had said to her in the past.

“That was very enterprising of you.” He didn’t bother hiding his distaste. “I think it’s time we ended this, don’t you? You’ve expressed your concerns, and I’ve answered them.”

“What do they get out of it? That’s what I don’t get. You, yeah, you get two hot guys to play with, and I bet that’s a fucking rush for you because there’s no way they’re lining up to jump between the sheets with you. Not unless you pay them. You’re old.”

She made it sound like the worst of perversions. Liam admitted that his vanity was stung. His fortieth birthday was coming up, after all, and yes, compared to Austin and Jay, he was old.

Younger than Patrick, though.

“Or maybe that’s it. Austin misses his daddy, and he’s using you as a stand-in?”

“I’d have to be a few years older for that to work.” Not that the thought hadn’t sometimes crossed his mind. Doms didn’t need to be older than their subs. When he’d first become involved in the scene, he’d met more than one pairing with a Dom considerably younger than his or her sub. It was all in the attitude. Jay and Austin seemed to prefer submitting to an older man, though, and Liam wasn’t going to complain about that.

He didn’t feel comfortable with the idea that either of them saw him as a father figure, though.

“What they get or don’t get is none of your business.”

“I could report you.”

Liam sighed, putting every ounce of boredom that he could into it. “Good luck with that. You’d get nowhere, and you’d put Austin into a very difficult position. You claim to have his best interests at heart, so prove it by letting him live his life his way.”

“What’s it worth to you if I do back off? A thousand dollars?”

His lip curled with revulsion, an involuntary grimace. God, she was such a nasty, immature child. “What’s it worth for me not to repeat this conversation to your brother?”

“You wouldn’t!” She sounded sincerely outraged, as if she had the monopoly on blackmail.

“Of course I would. What’s stopping me? Oh wait. It would hurt him. That’s what. Unlike you, I do care about that.”

There was a moment’s silence, and he wondered if she was going to make him endure some fake tears. Instead she said calmly, “You’re not going to give me any money?”

“Too bloody right.”

“Asshole,” she said and ended the call abruptly.

Liam stared at the phone in his hand and set it down. He felt shaken, reaction setting in. Most of what she’d spewed out had been ridiculously far off the mark, but some of her barbs had stuck. He needed to call Austin and Jay, but that was impossible when he was so emotionally churned up.

Was he preying on them? He didn’t think so. They’d reached out to him through Patrick because they needed him or someone like him. Everything between them was consensual, and if outsiders would view it with horror, well, that couldn’t be helped. Their ignorance wasn’t his problem.

He walked around his room, restless and upset, picking up items and putting them back where’d they’d been, futile actions that did nothing to calm him.

Ironically April hadn’t targeted his most vulnerable spot. She’d mentioned that he was in denial about being gay, but to someone her age, being gay wasn’t really the issue it had been in the past. She would have expected him to be gay.

“And I’m not,” he said aloud.

He’d told Austin the blowjob from Jay hadn’t bothered him, but he knew he hadn’t been entirely honest.

He also knew that if he stayed in the room right then, he’d be up until all hours, frustrated and miserable. The hotel bar was open; he’d go down and have a drink or two, have a casual conversation with whoever seemed amenable, and get his mind off all the things April’s phone call had stirred up.

There were wooden stools at the bar, and a collection of small tables to complement the booths tucked against the right-hand wall. A television was playing a baseball game in one corner, and a group of young women had pushed a few tables together. One of them was wearing a tiara, and they all seemed to have matching T-shirts. They were also fairly drunk if their screams of laughter were any indication.

Liam ordered a gin and tonic and had barely taken a first sip when he heard someone saying his name. He turned. “Rachel!”

“I’m so sorry I didn’t get to say hi to you this morning at the ceremony,” Rachel said, clasping his offered hand between both of hers. “It was so crazy. Too many people.”

“You won’t get any arguments from me.” Back when Liam and Barbara had still been married, they’d been close friends with Rachel and her husband, but both marriages had ended around the same time and Liam had been horrible at keeping in touch with anyone since. “How are you?”

“Tired.” Rachel didn’t look it. She’d always been very attractive, with wavy, dark hair she was wearing shorter now and bright green eyes. “I hate jet lag. But you aren’t far from here?”

“Less than five hours by car,” Liam agreed as the bartender came over to ask Rachel what she’d like to drink. She ordered a glass of white wine.

“And you’re not remarried?” She took his left hand and tilted it so she could see his ring finger.

“No, that’s not in the cards right now.”

“So you’re not seeing anyone? You?” The emphasis was flattering. Rachel chuckled when Liam shook his head. “I find that really hard to believe, but then I always did have a crush on you. I felt guilty about it, of course, but not enough to stop.”

“You hid it well. I didn’t have a clue.”

Rachel lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “You weren’t supposed to. I wasn’t interested in making any of my fantasies—nothing kinky, don’t worry—real. They were just comforting when Bill was having another affair or drinking too much.”

It was surprisingly easy to smile at her and make it warmer than a smile between friends should have been. “I had a few of those fantasies myself over the years.” None of them qualified as vanilla, but there was no need to share that with Rachel and scare her off.

Which implied that he wanted to do more than exchange a few words with her.

Before he could give that some thought, Rachel put her hand over his, her eyes sparkling. “You fantasized about me? Really?”

He opened his mouth to correct her, but he couldn’t do it. She looked so damned happy at the idea that he’d fancied her, and really, it wasn’t totally off the mark. She was an attractive woman, and he’d always enjoyed her company. He gave her a teasing smile. “What do you Americans say? I plead the Fifth?”

“Apart from the accent—which is charming and you know it—you fit in too well to pretend that you don’t belong here.”

“Sometimes I do; then someone will refer to something everyone but me knows, and I feel like a stranger in a strange land all over again.”

Rachel’s wine arrived. She took a sip of it, leaving the rim of the glass smudged with lipstick, a deep crimson that Liam liked seeing on her lips. “You didn’t go back after the divorce, so this must feel like home.”

“Well—the children—”

She covered her mouth with her hand, faking chagrin. “Of course you wouldn’t want to be far away from them. They’ve gotten so tall! I hardly recognized them.”

Liam wasn’t interested in talking about his kids, though he’d been pleased by how well he’d related to them. His children—not that they’d thank him for calling them that—had been glad to see him, something he hadn’t expected. His relationship with them had always been amicable, and he’d done his best to be a good father to them. He’d held their bikes as they’d wobbled along the sidewalk, watched their Christmas concerts at school, helped with their homework, and read to them at bedtime.

All his good memories were of them as young children. When they’d grown up enough to sense the growing distance between him and their mother, they’d chosen sides and it hadn’t been his.

No surprise there. He’d taken to spending longer hours at work, avoiding the sterile environment at home. He gave them money, the latest electronic toys, the clothes they wanted, paid for their activities and camps and hobbies. He’d given them everything but his interest in what they did, and he’d paid for it when they left with their mother after the divorce.

Being told on the phone by Alison that her day would be ruined if he wasn’t there, her voice tremulous with emotion, had left him with a warm, pleased glow that he’d tempered with caution. Alison and Ben were as conventional as their mother; it wasn’t too surprising that she wanted to appear with a full complement of parents to fit in.

She’d hugged him, though, a glitter of tears in her eyes, hugged him, smiled, then dabbed a tissue under her eyes carefully to avoid disturbing her mascara. Alison’s makeup was muted, discreet, her clothes a younger echo of her mother’s.

Two years younger, Ben had been a friendly, vague figure, never taking the headphones for his MP3 player out of his ears unless he was made to. Liam had become used to saying something, then waiting for Ben to frown and pause his music before repeating it.

Still, they were nice kids. His. And they’d promised to visit him later in the summer.

He cleared his throat. “Rachel—”

“You want to ask me up to your room so we can have sex.”

He wasn’t often left wordless, but her directness and the wicked glint in her eyes had him fumbling for a response. “I… That isn’t—” He took a deep breath. “You? Are trouble. I always knew it.”

She laughed, throwing back her head, the long line of her throat drawing his gaze. She was wearing a heavy silver and onyx necklace, a thick, twisted rope circling her neck. It wasn’t a collar, but it was close enough to make him want to slide his fingers under it and tug her closer.

“I’m naughty, I know it. Why not? I don’t have any reason to be good these days.” She sent him a flirtatious look, and he could tell what was coming next, he just knew it. “Want to spank me?”

The flicker of interest he’d felt was snuffed out before she’d finished speaking. She’d let him spank her, go across his knee with a giggle and a heated glance, wriggle and squeak when his hand came down on her bottom. He’d get maybe five or six spanks in, and she’d roll off his knee, rubbing her reddened skin and complaining that he’d hurt her and she hadn’t been that bad… It would be a mildly kinky bit of foreplay for her, no more than that, and if he tried to make it more, she’d get uneasy, nervous.

He didn’t want that. The sex would be welcomed by his body, maybe. God, it’d been months, blowjobs aside—but it wouldn’t satisfy him.

He wanted Jay’s mouth on him again, taking him deep. Needed to drive his cock into Austin, not a dildo, and feel Austin’s body welcome him.

He took a gulp of his drink, hating himself for being unable to take what was being offered and baffled at his reluctance. Jay and Austin had told him he could date. Hell, they were probably fucking each other right this minute. He didn’t owe them any sexual fidelity, and they wouldn’t expect it from him. He couldn’t keep on arousing himself in the sessions only to turn to his hand for relief. He wasn’t sure how the situation had developed the way it had. He hadn’t gone into the arrangement intending to deny himself sex in favor of being able to satisfy his need to dominate. He’d wanted both. He still did, but somehow the thought of sleeping with a woman had lost its tang. And the thought of sleeping with Austin and Jay—it would have to be both of them—terrified him because of the implications.

What he’d thought was a solid structure had become a house of cards, falling to pieces with a single prod.

“Liam?”

No, he decided. It wouldn’t work, and there was no point pretending it would. They’d both be disappointed. “You’re wonderful,” he told Rachel. “It’s just…not the right time for me.”

Her face fell, but then she smiled. “It’s not you. It’s me?”

“In this case, completely true,” Liam assured her. “A few months ago, I would have jumped at the chance.”

“But now…” Rachel studied him, head tilted to one side. “Liam, do you have a crush on someone? Well, it stands to reason. You say you aren’t seeing anyone, but you refuse a no-strings-attached night with me. There must be someone you’d like to be with, and I find it hard to believe anyone wouldn’t be thrilled to have your attention. So you must be the one hesitating. Why?”

He was sure he didn’t want to attempt a conversation about Jay and Austin with her, and yet he found himself saying, “It’s complicated.”

“It always is.” She sounded sympathetic. “Is she seeing someone else?”

“Yes. And…there’s an age difference.”

Rachel made a face. “That’s the worst. I think, if there’s more than five or six years, it’s hopeless. Sorry.”

Like a kid picking off a scab even though it hurt, Liam raised his eyebrows. “Hopeless? Why?”

She picked up her glass and tilted it so the wine reached the brim, her hand perfectly steady. “I don’t know. There’s just no common frame of reference. Maybe a hundred years ago, it wouldn’t have mattered, but the world changes so fast now. To a teenager, we seem impossibly out of touch, and to us they seem so damned ignorant. God knows what they’re teaching them in school, but it isn’t leaving them with any appreciation of the past. Everything’s about what’s coming next, what’s new.” She set the glass down with a decisive click. “And us? We’re old.”

Hearing the same word April had used made Liam frown. He shared more with Austin and Jay than Rachel realized, but it was true that when they were staying with him, he’d been conscious of a gulf at times.

Even so, they’d watched movies, talked, enjoyed meals together. Spent some quiet hours reading in the same room, Jay sprawled out on the couch, Austin curled up on the floor like a cat, his book resting on a cushion. There had been awkward moments as they adjusted to living under the same roof, but that was only to be expected. He’d had a hard time juggling the responsibilities of being their host and their Dom, unsure when to switch from one role to the other. A purist might have argued that he never stopped being their Dom, but Liam really couldn’t have sustained that dynamic around the clock. For a weekend maybe…the boys had mentioned that they’d enjoy that, but their stay had been for an indefinite period and it just wouldn’t have worked.

Bleakly he wondered how Austin and Jay really thought of him. He was used to being thought of as good-looking, sexy, by his partners. Even Barbara had given him an appreciative once-over when they’d met again, and he’d seen that, to her, he was still attractive. It wounded his vanity to think that to his subs, he was valued only as the means of delivering what they wanted, not for himself.

He might be ambivalent about a sexual relationship with them for several valid reasons—damaging their relationship with each other topping the list—but he wanted them to desire him, he realized.

“I’m sorry,” Rachel said again. “I didn’t mean to be such a pessimist. You’ve got everything going for you. If it’s meant to be, I’m sure it’ll all work out.”

“Right.” Liam couldn’t imagine a world in which Austin and Jay would want more from him than he was already giving, and he couldn’t blame them. They were young and beautiful. They could have anyone they wanted, truly, and who was he? Even in the kindest terms, he was a middle-aged man who’d left a broken family in his wake. He’d been unable to maintain a long-term relationship.

Austin and Jay deserved better.

He did his best after that to be friendly and make small talk with Rachel, but it was clear to both of them that his mind was elsewhere. After another ten minutes or so, she finished her wine, patted his hand, and went upstairs to her own room. The walk from the elevator seemed long to Liam, and he fell into bed and sleep with a sense of relief and escape, without remembering to call Jay and Austin as he’d promised.

* * * * *

In the morning, he found two messages waiting for him in his voice mail. The first was from Austin, who sounded worried and guilty, apologizing for calling but wanting to be reassured he was all right. The second, nearly two hours later, was from Jay.

Liam, it’s me. I know Austin already called you, and I guess you fell asleep, or maybe you’re out with old friends or whatever. Um. I’m sure you’re going to call us. You said you would.” Jay’s voice lowered as if he was trying to keep from being overheard. “Just, call, okay? Austin’s stressing out about it. Thanks. Um, hope you’re okay. Bye.

Liam sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to them. They could be astonishingly perceptive at times, and there was no chance that they’d fail to pick up on his mood. If anything, his doubts about their relationship had multiplied overnight, not lessened.

April’s spite, Rachel’s pragmatic honesty, his own lurking doubts—they made him hesitate and second-guess himself. That feeling was unfamiliar enough to leave him disturbed and on edge.

His phone could send texts, of course, though he loathed fiddling around with the tiny buttons and rarely used that function. Another reminder of the generation gap. With his head pounding from a stress headache, he tapped out a terse message telling them that he was fine but busy and setting up a meeting at his house on Monday night.

He’d be tired from the drive back, but he needed to deal with this as soon as possible and face-to-face.

He owed them that much, at least.

Chapter Twenty-one

Going to Liam’s on a Monday night felt weird, like going to bed in the middle of the afternoon. Not that Jay minded doing that if he had Austin in bed with him. It was nice to think that Liam had missed them enough that he couldn’t wait for their usual Friday meeting. Even if his silence during the time he’d been away had left them both worried.

Jay pulled up outside Liam’s house, parking on the road, mindful of oil leaks on driveways. Liam had really gotten tight-lipped over that and not in a good way. He turned to Austin. “Is it eight? I left my watch behind, and I don’t trust the one in here.”

“That’s because it’s a pile of rust held together with dirt and oil.”

Jay patted the steering wheel affectionately. “Don’t listen to him, sweetheart. He just doesn’t appreciate a classic when he sees it.”

“Yeah, it’s eight. Three minutes past, actually.”

“Shit, let’s go then.” Jay put his hand on the door, then hesitated. “Austin? You okay?”

“Yeah, but I won’t be if we’re late, and neither will you.” Austin had been tense for days.

Liam opened the door while they were still climbing the stairs, obviously waiting for them. He smiled, though, instead of looking stern because they were late. “I take it you’re aware of the time?”

Jay nodded as he followed Austin inside. “Sorry. We didn’t mean to be late.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

That was new. Of course it mattered. Liam actually cared about them being on time.

“No, leave your shoes on. Come in and sit down. We need to talk.”

“That sounds ominous,” Jay said. It sounded worse than that. He was primed and ready for a session. He didn’t want to talk. He wanted to strip naked and give himself over to Liam.

“Austin, your sister called me when I was in Baltimore.” Liam waited for them to sit on the couch but didn’t sit down himself.

Austin looked unhappy but not surprised. “Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry. She came into my work and had a couple of minutes alone at my desk. I wondered what she was up to. I knew it was something but couldn’t figure out what it was.”

“She must have borrowed your phone long enough to find my number.” Liam sighed and reached to his throat to loosen his tie. “I don’t expect you to do anything about her behavior, for what it’s worth. I don’t blame you, and you don’t owe me any apologies. I just thought you should know.”

“Sometimes I feel like I should be apologizing to the whole world for her existence,” Austin said. He was watching Liam like he was waiting for more. No, worse than that: like he was waiting for more bad news. “What did she say?”

Liam waved a hand. “It’s not important. I’m sure you could guess with a fair degree of accuracy, but it doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me,” Austin said. He rubbed his forehead. “I’ll talk to her.”

Talk to her?” Jay said in disbelief. Forget talking. He wanted to go call every one of the boyfriends April had cheated on and tell them in excruciating detail what had gone on. “No way that’s all we’re going to do. Talking stopped being enough a long time ago.”

“Not here, okay?” Austin glanced at Liam, who shook his head and came over to sit on the couch beside him.

“It’s all right. You can talk about this with me here.” Liam was being understanding. That helped.

“I can’t change her.” Austin sounded so upset about it that Jay slipped an arm around his waist and hugged him. “And if I go after her about this, she’s just going to dig deeper until she finds out every little sordid detail of my life. You know what she’s like. She won’t just tell Mom—she’ll probably tell everyone I know, leave anonymous messages at my work. It’ll suck. I can’t deal with that.”

“You shouldn’t have to.” Liam reached out and smoothed Austin’s hair. It was something Jay would’ve done without thinking, but coming from Liam, it seemed significant somehow. The affectionate caress should’ve made Jay relax, but it didn’t. Something was wrong. Liam wasn’t doing anything the way he usually did. “Is it really a problem? Your mother finding out about, well, what you do with me?”

Austin shuddered. “Yeah. Huge. She wouldn’t understand it at all. Being gay, yeah, she coped just fine with that. She was great. This, though…she’d just…she wouldn’t—”

“If it’s not your thing, it seems weird.” Jay shrugged. “It’s kind of ironic, but April probably would get it. Not something she’s played with as far as I know, but she gives off this vibe, you know?”

Liam looked at him. “Toppy-as-hell sub? I can picture that, but God help her Dom.”

“Hey!” Austin said, his voice sharp. “That’s my sister you’re talking about. She’s not part of what we do in any fucking way.”

“And yet she keeps popping up,” Liam murmured without commenting on Austin’s swearing. The red flags were all over the place now, and Jay’s skin was crawling with tension. “Never mind her for now. I wanted to talk to you about something else.”

Jay felt Austin stiffen, his body rigid. He wet his lips. “Sir?”

Liam winced at that, the smallest of grimaces, but it told Jay what was coming even before Liam began to speak. He felt his heart thud painfully, dread holding him silent even as he chanted no over and over in his head.

“When I was away, I had time to think, and without beating around the bush, I feel it’s time to end our arrangement. It’s nothing you two have done, so please don’t feel—”

“I know it’s nothing we’ve done.” Austin’s voice was shaking as he stood, breaking free of Jay’s embrace. He stared down at Liam, his face pale. “Because we’ve done everything you told us to. You can’t just walk away when we’ve done nothing wrong. You can’t punish us like this for something my sister did.”

Jay got to his feet, leaving Liam on the couch, looking up at them, his expression controlled but a flicker of distress in his eyes.

Is this because of what April said?” His voice sounded strange in his ears. “Did she threaten you or something?”

“No,” Liam said calmly. “Well, yes, she did, but that doesn’t have anything to do with my decision. Any of us can end this at any time, for any reason. My reasons have nothing to do with April or with anything you’ve done.”

Jay felt like throwing up. It was one thing to be dumped like this, but another not to understand why. “What did she say?”

Liam sighed. “I’d really hoped not to get into it. Would it be enough to say that Austin’s fears are exactly what she’d zeroed in on?”

“Oh God.” Austin looked like he felt like throwing up, and obviously Jay didn’t blame him. “Sorry, I have to—” He bolted from the room, and a moment later Jay and Liam heard the sounds of retching from the bathroom.

Jay went to him and ran cold water over a washcloth to hold to Austin’s face when he was done. He didn’t actually throw up, just made miserable noises and curled up on the floor, hiding his face against Jay’s chest. “Shh. It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay,” Austin said, voice muffled. “It’s not. How can we stop? We need this.”

Looking up to catch Liam’s eye, Jay hoped his face made it clear what he thought of Liam’s pronouncement and what it was doing to Austin. Liam glanced away, then said, “I’ll get you a glass of water,” and left.

“I don’t get it.” The back of Austin’s neck was cool and clammy against Jay’s fingers. “If we didn’t do anything wrong, then why?”

“I don’t know. But we’ll find out. He’ll tell us.” Jay meant it.

Liam returned with the water, the sides of the glass wet as if he’d filled from the tap in a hurry. It slipped through Jay’s fingers as he took it from Liam, and he had to tighten them to prevent dropping it. He held the glass to Austin’s lips. “Just take some small sips.”

Austin did as he was told, obediently swallowing about half of what was in the glass. He glanced up at Jay, his eyes wet with tears. “I’m okay now. Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.” Jay felt like punching the wall and leaving streaks of blood to mar the cool, pale perfection of the surface. “Neither of us did.”

“You’re being overly dramatic.” Liam’s voice was cold and brittle as if a thin layer of ice had formed around the words. “You’ll find someone else. I suggest next time you make sure he’s gay. I don’t think I worked out so well for you in that department, did I? Of course, he’ll want to fuck you, but no one would blame him for that.”

It had been only a few minutes since Jay had gotten out of the car, looking forward to seeing Liam, maybe even hugging him before the session started and feeling Liam’s breath warm against his face. Jay took the glass from Austin and placed it carefully on the floor, out of the way.

Ignoring Liam, blocking out what he’d said for the moment, he asked Austin, “Can you get up?”

Austin nodded, and Jay rose and helped Austin up. He wasn’t doing this crouched down, groveling at Liam’s feet. Liam didn’t want to see them like that.

Liam stepped back, and Jay led Austin out into the hallway. They faced Liam, a gap between them, the empty space around them echoing with silence.

“Is that the real reason?” Jay tried to stay calm. Austin didn’t need more drama; he just needed truthful answers. They both did. “You’re freaking out over the idea that you’re physically attracted to us? What you said before about being able to cope after I blew you, all that bullshit about your friend—”

“I don’t ‘freak out.’ I’ll leave that overreaction to your generation, but yes, it’s part of it. Since I met you two, I haven’t had sex. I can’t live like that.”

“We never tried to stop you.” Austin’s words were almost inaudible.

Liam made an impatient sound. “Yes, I know I could date someone under our arrangement. I had the opportunity to sleep with a woman when I was away, as it happens—but I turned her down. She wouldn’t have been at all interested in what I wanted from her in bed. I’m sick and tired of settling for less. I don’t want to play with you and have a woman on the side for vanilla sex. I want a sub I can fuck. I’d prefer it be a woman.” Liam spread his hands. “You see? It’s not your fault. You just can’t provide what I need.”

There was a brief silence; then Austin said, “Well, that sucks.”

“Yes,” Liam said.

“And it’s not like we can turn into women. Not that I’d want to.” Austin’s hand found Jay’s again and held on to it.

“No. In the long run, this won’t suit any of us,” Liam said. “There’s no point in continuing, knowing that. We’re all likely to be more hurt than we already are.” He paused, then added, “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” Jay said bleakly—because how could you argue with the man’s sexuality? If he wasn’t attracted to them—or, Jay suspected, he was but didn’t want to admit it—there was nothing they could say to change his mind. “Yeah. We’re sorry too.”

“So…that’s it? It’s over, just like that?” Austin seemed stunned, his grip on Jay’s hand like that of a drowning man’s.

“It would seem so.” Liam looked sad. Jay wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse.

No, screw that. Nothing could make it better right now. He and Austin just had to keep hanging in there, together, until enough time had passed.

They’d done it before. They could do it again.

* * * * *

The next two weeks were sheer hell as far as Jay was concerned. Thank God for the library and his love of books. They provided much-needed distraction from the sense of loss he felt. He wished Austin had something similar to cling to, but Austin went to work like a zombie in the mornings and came home like a zombie in the evenings, eyes dull. At night, with the lights out, they had desperate, needy sex that didn’t make either of them feel anything but physical release. It was something, though.

Friday morning—Fridays were the worst and probably would be for months—Jay was determined to start the day on the right foot. “Let’s do something tonight,” he said with forced cheerfulness over breakfast.

“Like what?” Austin was eating his wheat-flake cereal without enthusiasm, still bleary with lack of sleep.

“I don’t know. We could check out that new mall, you know, the one we’ve been seeing all the ads for? They’re supposed to have a lot of restaurants.”

“Okay. Sure.”

Jay got home before Austin that night, and was half listening for the sound of Austin’s key in the door as he straightened up the kitchen. Instead what he heard was footsteps and then a muffled curse and a series of loud thuds that had him springing to throw the door open. Austin was sprawled at the bottom of the narrow staircase, unmoving.

“Fuck. Fuck, Austin…” Jay flew down the steps without caution for his own safety and was incredibly relieved when Austin sat up, one hand to his head.

“Always knew one of us would do that someday,” Austin said, dazed.

Jay dropped to the floor and cradled Austin’s head, tilting it to examine the damage. “Don’t move. Let me see.” A lump was already rising on Austin’s head, though it didn’t look as bad as it probably would in an hour. The skin was reddened and grazed, purple lines scoring the swelling skin.

“It’s not bleeding, but we need to get some ice and arnica on it.”

“Arnica usually goes on my ass,” Austin mumbled. He sounded vague and out of it, which wasn’t surprising. “Ow. This hurts and not in a good way. Doesn’t seem fair. We’re supposed to get off on pain.”

Jay had never felt less like laughing, but he forced out a chuckle. “It comes in all shapes and sizes. Like ice cream flavors.”

“You know that makes no sense?”

Jay kissed the bumped skin. “You know what I mean. Can you get up or do you want me to bring the ice to you here?”

“I can walk. It’s just a flesh wound.”

The quotation from one of the movies they’d watched with Liam made Jay’s mouth tighten, but he concentrated on helping Austin up the stairs. When he’d gotten Austin settled in a kitchen chair with a homemade ice pack, he let himself take a deep breath. His legs were wobbly, so he sat next to Austin at the table, taking Austin’s free hand in both of his, stroking it comfortingly.

“Poor baby. I’ll get you a painkiller in a minute. You’re going to have one hell of a headache.”

Austin glanced down at the table, not meeting Jay’s eyes. “I’m okay.”

“Huh? I think you should take something.”

Austin snatched his hand away. “I’m fine.”

Okay, that made no sense. Jay wasn’t going to let it go, either. There’d been too much of that lately. He reached out and grabbed Austin’s chin, using his hold to tilt Austin’s face up so that he could get a good look at his eyes. The shamed defiance in Austin’s eyes told him all he needed to know, though the dilated pupils were hard to miss. “You’ve been taking Valium again.”

Austin closed his eyes as if he couldn’t bear to see Jay’s expression, though Jay was doing his best to keep it neutral. “Just the last few days, I swear. I needed to sleep. I feel so fucking tired all the time.”

“You can take ibuprofen with Valium,” Jay said, keeping his voice steady. “I’ll get you some.”

When he came back with it, Austin reached for his hand, the ice pack on the table now. “Please don’t be mad at me,” he whispered. “Please. I can’t take it.”

“I’m not mad.” It was a lie, because part of Jay was mad even though he understood why Austin had done it. “I’m worried. Here, take these.”

Austin obeyed without question, swallowing the pills Jay gave him. “I’m sorry. I know I said before I wouldn’t do it again—”

“But this time you mean it?” Jay shook his head. “I know you’re sorry; that’s not the point.”

“What is?” Austin was looking at him with wide eyes, biting his lip, and Jay knew with a flash of insight that he’d love him forever.

“Is it Liam?”

Austin’s eyes flooded with tears that spilled over and ran down his cheeks. “It’s not…it’s not just missing what he did for us, the Dom stuff. It’s him.”

“Yeah, I miss him too. But we’re going to be okay.”

“It doesn’t feel like it.” Austin swiped at his cheeks angrily. “It’s not just me, right? It was good, the three of us. Why couldn’t he see that?”

This was the same conversation they’d already had several times, and Jay didn’t have any new answers. “Maybe he really is straight.”

“No.” Austin shook his head, too vehemently given the knock it’d taken. He winced and put his hand to his head. “No,” he repeated with less emphasis. “He’s not. Bi, yeah, but he’s not straight. I’ll accept that maybe he’s happier having sex with women than men, though he hasn’t really tried the alternative, but he said it himself that when it comes to playing, he prefers guys. And he might want to get laid. Hell, after months without it, sure he does, but he’s got to choose.”

Jay thought that over. “Yeah. Sex with a female sub—nice and easy, but the sessions don’t work for him as well—or a session with us, and we know damn well he loves those, but the sex is problematic because—”

“We’re men.”

“No,” Jay said slowly. “Well, maybe, but there’s more to it than that.” He stood, needing to move, and found himself over at the sink, staring at stacked dishes that needed to be washed. Austin had let the housework slide, and without his nagging, Jay had lapsed into being a slob. He felt as if the answer was right there, always had been, but they’d been too ripped apart emotionally to see it clearly. “April doesn’t scare him. He’d chew her up and spit her out. He’s worried about your family finding out, but not for himself, just for you. And that bullshit about not wanting to fuck a guy? I had his dick in my mouth, and there was nothing about that he didn’t like.”

“He didn’t mind me kissing him either, or us making him come.”

Jay turned to face Austin and flung out his hands. “See? It makes no sense, any of it. Liam’s the kind of guy who hates compromising, but I don’t see how being with us would be one. We’re everything he wants.”

“One of us would be.”

“Huh?”

Austin gestured between them. “You. Me. A couple. He doesn’t want to split us up. I bet he’s been stressing over it for weeks, and April just tipped him over the edge.”

“He couldn’t split us up.” Jay closed the gap between them and went to his knees next to Austin’s chair. Austin’s mouth tasted of tears and tiredness, but he kissed it anyway, making sure Austin could feel just how much he was loved. “No one could. I love you. Love you more than I can tell you.”

Austin sighed and kissed him back, a long, sweet kiss. “You know I feel the same way. My Jay.”

“All yours.” Jay smiled at him. “We get sappier faster than anyone I know.”

“Ssh. It’s our secret. I’ll never tell.”

Jay rested his forehead in the crook of Austin’s neck. “So you think that’s it? Liam’s being all noble and self-sacrificing?”

“Maybe. Or maybe we’re just doing a lot of wishful thinking and he’s already found some sweet little sub, and he’s fucking her brains out every Friday night.”

Jay drew back. Austin sounded so bitter. “I don’t… He wouldn’t.”

Austin stood, the peaceful moment shattered. “Why not? No point in kicking us out of his life if he doesn’t follow through and replace us. Hell, maybe we’ve given him a taste for threesomes, and he’s found twins who’re both into the scene. We know he can handle two subs at a time.”

There was so much wrong with that picture, Jay didn’t know where to start. “Austin—”

“I’m going to take a nap. My head aches. And, Jay, don’t get any ideas about calling Liam. He knows where we are. If he wants us, he can come crawling.”

Austin pushed Jay’s hand aside and walked away, heading for his room, not the bedroom they shared. The door closed with a quiet click.

Jay exhaled, a long sigh. Austin knew him too well. Calling Liam had been something he’d wanted to do for a while now, but he could see why Austin’s pride would take that option off the table—even if Austin wanted Liam back so much Jay could see it every time he looked at him. Easy to recognize that helpless yearning when he saw it in the mirror most days.

And really, satisfying though it would be to scream at Liam, the situation wasn’t totally his fault. He might have been worried about the growing intimacy between them, but without April’s interference, it was more likely that Liam would’ve talked it over with them. April had dripped poison in his ear—okay, yeah, he was being dramatic again—and Liam hadn’t realized how much of it had seeped inside.

It was messy. They had nothing to go on but a lot of guesswork, and there wasn’t likely to be a single reason Liam had dumped them, but a cluster of half reasons that added up to that final, brutal decision.

So he couldn’t call Liam…but he could sure as hell call April and tell her just what she’d done to a brother Jay had always believed she loved best of all her siblings, even if she had trouble showing it. She certainly didn’t give the rest of the family the grief she did Austin.

Austin had his family’s phone numbers written on a piece of notebook paper stuck to the side of the fridge. It had been there for months, and as Jay dialed April’s number, he wondered if it was still current—he didn’t know for sure, but April definitely struck him as the kind of person who’d go through phones quickly. As it turned out, though, she answered on the third ring.

“Hello?”

Even the sound of her voice made him angry. “You’re a horrible person, you know that?”

“Um, what?” April clearly didn’t recognize him at first. “Who the hell is this?”

“It’s your brother’s boyfriend,” Jay spat. “He’s all fucked up, and it’s your fault.”

“Jay? Nice way to start a conversation. What do you mean Austin’s fucked up?”

“I’m pretty sure a lack of imagination isn’t among your many faults,” Jay said. “You can guess. Why do you have to make life harder for him?”

“Aw, Austin’s little boyfriend got a spine,” April cooed. “That’s so cute, Jay. Seriously, I mean it. You’re adorable.”

She was so fucking patronizing. “And you’re a bitch.”

“Oh, I’m hurt.” He could imagine her putting her hand on her chest dramatically. “Was there a point to this? Or can I hang up now?”

“I want you to start treating your brother like you give a shit about him, or I’m going to convince him not to have anything to do with you ever again. No more bailing you out of trouble, no more money, no more making excuses for you because you’re ‘young.’ I’m sick of it.” Jay realized he was starting to get pretty loud and lowered his voice. “He’s the only person who really knows you who’s still on your side. Do you really want to lose that? Do you want to lose him? Fuck, we both could have lost him tonight.”

“What? Is he okay?” Now April sounded genuinely worried. “Jay, what happened?”

“He’s been so stressed out about—” Okay, he couldn’t believe he was actually telling her this, and maybe it would come back to bite them on the ass later. “Look, when you called Liam, he decided he didn’t want to hang out with us anymore. Austin’s been really depressed about it, and he’s been doing some stuff he shouldn’t, and tonight he fell down the fucking stairs. He could have killed himself.”

“But he’s okay? Did he go to the hospital?” April’s emotion was in her voice, real, and it made Jay like her just a tiny bit despite himself.

“He’s okay.” Jay suddenly felt tired. Tired and sad. “He just bumped his head. He’s lying down.”

“I didn’t mean… What stuff he shouldn’t be doing?” The anxiety in her voice answered her own question. “Oh God, is he using?”

“No. Not really. Not the way you and your friends probably do.”

“I don’t! I’m not stupid. You’ve got to tell me what he took.”

“I don’t have to tell you anything. Not when you’re hell-bent on ruining every chance he has at being happy just because you don’t like that he moved out.” Jay had always held back with April out of consideration for Austin’s feelings, but what was the point? It hadn’t helped the situation. “He’s been acting like an adult since he was a kid, trying to hold the family together. How fucking dare you try to spoil things for him? Grow up, April. Or you’ll lose him. He’s close to hating you right now.”

“I didn’t realize.” She was crying, not the artificial tears she seemed able to summon at will, but messy, wet tears from the sound of it, hiccupping, catching her breath. “Jay, I didn’t know. I thought he was some creep taking advantage of you both.”

Jay rolled his eyes. “Yeah, because we’re so sweet and innocent. No. He wasn’t. We wanted him around, and now he won’t even speak to us.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He could barely understand what she was saying through the storm of tears.

“You’re always sorry, April, but you just keep on hurting people.”

She made an effort to get her tears under control. He heard her blow her nose wetly and take some deep breaths. “I won’t…won’t do it again. I know I’ve said that before, but I mean it. I just…I miss Austin.”

“He didn’t go far.” Jay tried to control his exasperation. “You were always welcome to visit. Jesus, April, stop making everything so life-and-death. He moved out. So will you soon. It’s what people do.”

“I don’t like things changing,” she admitted in a small voice as if she was confessing to a crime.

“Neither does he,” Jay said, “but things do. That’s life.”

“I guess he doesn’t want to speak to me?”

“He’s sleeping it all off, but yeah, better give him some space right now.”

“Tell him I’m sorry? Tell him I love him too. Because I do, Jay, I really do. That’s why I—”

“That’s why you can hurt him.”

Saying it sparked a sudden certainty that Liam loved them. At the time, Jay had been too concerned about Austin’s distress and his own dismay and anger, but looking back, Liam had been suffering too, he was sure of it. The control he was used to seeing from Liam had been assumed, not natural, as if Liam was holding back words he didn’t dare speak.

Jay ended the call with a woebegone, repentant—for now, at least—April, and went up to the loft. The new diorama he’d started, then abandoned, took up most of the table space, but he didn’t give it more than a glance. Curling up in a sagging but comfortable armchair by the small window, he let himself hope that they could work all this out.

Chapter Twenty-two

After an entire day in airports on his way back from a work conference, with the temperatures edging into the nineties, Liam wanted nothing more than a shower, a drink, and his bed. The icy blast various air-conditioners had pumped out had given him a headache, and squinting into the setting sun as he finally drove toward home had exacerbated it.

Yet here he was taking the road leading past Austin and Jay’s house instead of the one that led to his home.

He’d been missing them more and more over the past weeks, more than he’d ever expected he would. Half a dozen times, he’d held his phone in his hand, his finger poised to complete a call to one or the other of them. An equal number of times, he’d changed his mind and slipped his phone back into his pocket. What he wanted to say to them—but was determinedly avoiding—was a conversation they should have face-to-face.

Not that he’d been actually planning on having it.

He found a parking space a block from the Victorian where they lived and took it. It’d feel good to stretch his legs and breathe in some sun-warmed air, the bright, harsh heat of the day mellowing in the dusk. From the street, the Victorian looked serene, as if the rushing waters of their flood hadn’t left plaster ruined and ceilings sagging. It was built to take such minor tribulations, it seemed to say.

Liam could only hope that Jay and Austin were equally strong and forgiving.

Jay’s car was closer to the house, looking better than usual where it sat in the shadow of a neighboring building. God, Liam was tired—not sleepy, but weary to his bones. He probably ought to have gone home instead of chasing this fleeting idea that he needed to see them. He ached with it, the sensation of emptiness left behind so powerful that Liam couldn’t do anything but what it told him, lifting his feet to climb the steep, narrow staircase to Jay and Austin’s apartment. Maybe they wouldn’t be home, in which case he could stumble back to his car and go to his house.

He could pretend this brief series of moments hadn’t happened.

He knocked and waited. At first it was quiet, but then he heard footsteps and Jay opened the door.

“What—um. Hi. Are you… Is everything okay?” Jay asked, and Liam found himself smiling for what felt like the first time in weeks.

“Yes,” he said. “No, not really. I know I should have called, but I—”

Austin appeared behind Jay. He looked uncertain and worried, and Liam suddenly felt awkward.

“Did I come at a bad time?” he asked. “Am I interrupting something?”

“No.” Austin looked at him. “No.”

Liam scratched his chin, feeling the rasp of stubble. He smelled of travel and hotel rooms, and his clothes were rumpled. He’d always tried to be well groomed, his clothes perfect, around them. “I still should have phoned. I’m sorry. It’s inexcusable, just showing up here without warning.” He should turn away and leave, but he’d missed them so terribly that he couldn’t make himself move.

“No,” Jay said. “It’s okay. I mean, I think it is.” He looked absurdly anxious, as if he might accidentally send Liam away with a careless word. It was a relief to Liam to realize Jay wanted him there.

“Come in,” Austin said, backing up to make room. “Do you want to, um, sit down?”

Liam stepped inside, closing the door carefully behind him. “Thank you. How…how have you been?”

“How do you think we’ve been? Terrible. You dropped us like you didn’t care about us at all.” Jay bit his lip, then said, “Sorry, but it’s true.”

“I’m sorry if that’s how you felt,” Liam said, choosing his words with care. “It isn’t true. I do care about you.” He’d been thinking about them constantly. “But I do need to tell you something. And yes, I think I’d like to sit down.”

If he let himself think about what he was going to say, he’d be terrified, so he forged ahead as soon as they were all sitting.

“I made a mistake,” he said. He didn’t look down at the floor, but kept his eyes stubbornly on their faces. “I thought that if I told myself I was straight, full stop, it would be true. But the past few weeks…I’ve discovered it’s not that simple. Because I haven’t been able to stop thinking of you, and all the things I’d like to do with you that we never had a chance to explore.”

He could see Austin swallow. “What kind of things?” Austin asked quietly.

“Sexual things.” Liam had come so far, he couldn’t refuse to go the rest of the way now. “Fucking you. I’ve had dreams about it, every night since I ended our arrangement.” The dreams had been detailed and incredibly erotic—to the point where twice he’d woken to find that he’d come in his sleep. “I can’t stop dreaming about you. Thinking about you. And that has to mean something.”

“Don’t jerk us around here,” Jay said bluntly, and Liam winced at the dual meaning of his words under the circumstances. “I mean, there’s a point to all this, right? If it’s just an apology…”

“It’s not,” Liam said quickly. “It’s an apology, of course it is—I’m so, so sorry for hurting you, and if it’s any consolation, the past few weeks have been hell for me. But what I’m trying to say is that I want you. Both of you. I want the three of us to be together in all possible ways. If you’re willing to forgive me.”

Jay’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “You fucking bastard,” he said, voice shaking, and Liam’s heart sank. “You can’t be stupid enough to think we’d say no.”

It took a few seconds for that to sink in. Then Liam was standing up, and so were Jay and Austin. They hit him from both sides, drawing him into a three-way embrace, their bodies solid and warm against his. It felt so welcoming that he found himself closing his eyes and gathering them close. At least one of them was trembling.

“Miss me?” Liam asked gruffly.

“You have no idea.” Jay’s voice was muffled against his sleeve. “God, you smell good.”

“I smell like sweat and jet fuel,” Liam protested. ”I’ve been on the road for hours.”

“You smell like you,” Austin said, then pulled back. “You must be exhausted.”

Liam let Jay draw him over to the couch across from the chair where he’d been sitting, which was surprisingly comfortable considering it looked about forty years old. “How did you even get this up those stairs?”

“It was already here,” Jay said. He was holding Liam’s hand in both of his—it should have felt strange, but it didn’t. “All of the big stuff already was. It’ll probably be here forever.”

“Until the building rots around it,” Liam agreed.

Austin came back from the kitchen with a glass of water; Liam accepted it and drank some gratefully. “Hey, that’s our home you’re talking about, with the rotting and everything.”

“It’s a lovely home.” Liam attempted to sound diplomatic. “I, for one, am very glad to be here right now.”

“We’re glad you’re here.” Jay still sounded cautious. “It’s for keeps, though? You’re done with second thoughts? Because I don’t think we can go through all this again.”

He put his glass down on the table nearby, a battered but oddly charming end table that Barbara would have snapped up to restore if she’d seen it in a junk shop.

“I’ll say it as many times as you need to hear it.”

“I need to hear it a lot.” Austin sat down beside Liam. He looked so tired that guilt washed over Liam in a wave because he knew Austin’s exhaustion was down to him. “I can’t believe you left us.”

Liam stared down at the rug his feet were resting on, noting the muted red and green color, the vague pattern. “I was scared. Scared of committing to being with you, worried that if I did it could spoil what you two have. And that’s not a reflection on the strength of your relationship. It’s just you were so adamant that you didn’t want a third and I-I respected that, I tried to keep a distance, but…” He needed to look at them. He’d once gone to one knee to propose to Barbara. Now he stood, turned, and sank to his knees in front of them. “I didn’t do a very good job of it. I fell in love with you, and I pushed you away before I told you. I didn’t want to hear you tell me it was impossible.”

“It’s not impossible,” Austin said, his voice unsteady. “We love you too. It’s new and scary for us as well, but we don’t want to turn away from it.”

“Sir?” Jay leaned forward. “Please—”

“Anything,” Liam said recklessly.

Jay smiled at him, the shy, sweet smile Liam hadn’t seen in so long. “Get up and let us be the ones kneeling?”

Liam gave that idea the consideration it deserved before nodding. “I can do that.” He rose as gracefully as he could, and a moment later, he was looking down at one fair head and one dark.

Love and lust and longing—he felt them all in that moment. “God, what I’m going to do to you…”

“It’s only Monday,” Jay said, a hint of wistfulness showing.

Liam smiled. “About that, by the way, I’d been thinking for a while that I’d like to see you more often. Not just to, ah, play, but socially. Nothing organized or set in stone, just a meal together now and then, or we could, uh, we could—”

He broke off, aware he had only the vaguest idea of what they did when they weren’t with him. He knew they didn’t have even as much social life as he did. They were just so wrapped up in each other that though they’d mentioned friends in passing, none had seemed important to them. Austin had his family, Jay his hobby and his books. They were incredibly self-contained. “Is that something you want with me?”

Jay nodded. “Yeah. I mean, yes, Sir, we’d like that.”

“A lot,” Austin said with a nod of his own.

“You can get up now,” Liam said, running his hand over their heads and sighing with pleasure at the freedom to do that without wondering if he was revealing too much. Not that he was going to be soft on them at the next session. Far from it. But it was intoxicating to think that he could kiss them, caress them as well.

They rose with a grace he’d trained them to show. Austin was practically glowing. Liam saw faint color rise in his cheeks, heard the pleasure and relief rounding every word as he asked, “Did you have dinner, Sir?”

“I had a sandwich a few hours ago,” Liam said.

“So did you eat out the whole time you were gone? Because we could order pizza or I could make something here if you’re sick of takeout.”

Liam smiled, appreciating Austin’s thoughtfulness. “I did have a lot of restaurant food.”

“Then we’ll make you something.” Austin sounded eager, and Liam could sympathize with that. He needed an outlet for his emotions too, but he was conscious that they were still on shaky ground. They’d forgiven him with a generosity that left him grateful and humbled, but he was realist enough to know that forgetting what he’d done would take longer.

“There’s that leftover lasagna in the freezer,” Jay said. “We could heat that up with some fresh sauce. I could make garlic bread. How does that sound?”

Really, what Liam would have liked would be to sit on the couch between them, his arms wrapped around them, but it was clear they wanted to take care of him. So he sat back, got comfortable, and listened to the two of them working. They were surprisingly efficient and worked well as a team.

He was nearly drowsing when they called him to the table. He refused the wine Austin offered to open after they’d been eating for a while. “I’d probably fall asleep.”

“You can do that if you like,” Jay offered around a mouthful of garlic bread. He swallowed. “Stay here for the night, I mean.”

The sharp inhalation from Austin told Liam that Jay’s suggestion had surprised him, but even as he began to give them the polite refusal that ran against everything he wanted to do, Austin nodded.

“I wish you would, Sir.”

Liam sighed. “I want to, but don’t you need your space? Time to discuss this?”

Austin reached across the table, small enough that it was easy for him to do, and touched Liam’s arm lightly, a look of appeal on his face. “We’ve had weeks to talk it through. Please stay.”

“I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble.” Even to his ears, it sounded weak.

“Wouldn’t be,” Jay told him. “Unless you want to sleep in the spare room, not with us. Then we’re going to have to do laundry tomorrow. That’d be a huge pain in the ass.”

“You want me to sleep with you?” He’d seen their bed when he was helping them to move back in: large, comfortable, covered in a tie-dyed quilt, the gaudy colors faded to a rain-washed rainbow. It’d looked plenty big enough for the two of them, but…

“Sleep? Eventually, yes. It can be just that if you’re not ready for more, but we want you with us. You don’t know how much.” Jay picked up his fourth piece of garlic bread, studied it, sighed, and set it back on the plate. “Too full.”

Liam set his fork down, the invitation enough to chew over that he was no longer hungry. “I would like to sleep here,” he said slowly, “but I don’t want you to rush into anything. It’s been an emotional night. I can wait until you’re sure. And I’m pretty tired. You wouldn’t be getting me at my best.”

“We don’t have any crazy expectations,” Austin assured him. “We just…we want this. Even if it is just sleeping, not sex. We do.” He exchanged a look with Jay. “If there’s stuff you need, from your house, one of us could run over and get it?”

“Not necessary.” Liam shook his head. “I brought enough things on my trip. I can just go out to the car for what I need. I shouldn’t leave the laptop overnight, in any case.”

“Our neighborhood’s not that bad.” Jay grinned and stood. “Austin, I’ll do the dishes. You go get Liam’s stuff, and, Liam, do you want to grab a shower? Just give me a few minutes to load the dishwasher first or you might get frozen. We’re still figuring out the new water heater.”

Ten minutes later, Liam was standing naked in their bathroom, neatly folded clean clothes waiting for him on the sink, and an expression of disbelief reflected back at him from the mirror. He wasn’t entirely sure how this had happened, and he wasn’t used to feeling like he was going along for the ride instead of doing the steering.

“There’s shampoo in there,” Austin said through the closed door. “Lots, actually. Jay kind of has a thing for it. Just use whatever you need.”

The lure of hot water and feeling clean again overrode his doubts about what was to come.

His mind went blank again, but that only served as a canvas for the images that flooded in a moment later, ranging from the vague to the stunningly explicit: Jay’s mouth warm around his cock; Austin’s hand stroking Jay’s hair as he kissed Liam with quiet, fervent passion; one of them beneath him, taking everything he gave them, his cock, his hand against their skin, his possessive kisses, with their own brand of graceful, grateful submission; playing with them, teasing them, lying back spent against the pillows and watching them kiss for him; seeing what they did and thinking up ways to make it good for them all; merging the intimacy and excitement of a session with the sensual heat they would bring to his bed.

He shuddered and glanced down. Fatigue still weighed him down, but his cock was stiff and hard. Whatever lingering misgivings he still had weren’t shared by that part of his anatomy.

He got into the claw-foot bath—another item his ex-wife would’ve cooed over as she prepared to haggle—and pulled the curtain around him. The water fell, warming quickly, and he let it sluice over him. Jay’s collection of shampoo was eclectic to say the least, all of it clearly marked as being not tested on animals, some of it with ingredients Liam had never heard of. He sniffed cautiously at a ginger and orange one that sounded more like a marinade and settled for one with a citrus base.

When he got out, the floor around the bath was damp, but they’d warned him about that. He put the wet towels and mats in the hamper and dried himself with a towel from the rack. It wasn’t a clean one, though it was dry, and something about the way they expected him to be fine with drying himself on a towel they’d used left him reassured they were sincere.

He was wanted, not just needed.

It wasn’t late, but when he left the bathroom, he found both Jay and Austin had already changed into what he recognized as their pajamas—Austin’s included a worn T-shirt, but Jay seemed to have forgotten his.

“We thought, um, since you’re tired…” Austin glanced at Jay. “We thought you’d want to go to bed. Sleep. Go to sleep. Honestly it’s okay.”

“I would,” Liam said. He didn’t have to fake a yawn. “It isn’t too early for you?”

“Well, we’ve all got to work tomorrow,” Jay said.

It was incredibly awkward going into their bedroom in his sleep trousers, watching Jay climb into bed and then Austin. They thoughtfully left the side of the bed nearest the door for him.

“Just get comfortable,” Austin said. “Or try. If you can’t, one of us will drive you home.”

He hated feeling like a child, so he lay down on the bed and tugged the sheet up over all three of them. It was warm enough that they didn’t need more in the way of covers.

“Good—”

“Jay, if you start a ‘Good night, John-Boy’ thing, I’ll put salt in your coffee tomorrow,” Austin said, his voice already drowsy.

“There’s only three of us.”

“Even so.”

Liam smiled. God, their pillows were soft. The mattress was too, probably too soft to suit his back, but right then it was perfect for his tired body to nestle into. He could still hear them squabbling in low whispers as he drifted off to sleep.

* * * * *

He woke to darkness an unknown number of hours later. A dog was barking out in the street, which was probably what had woken him, and he’d moved in his sleep so his arm was against Jay.

They slept beside him, wrapped around each other, most probably breathing in the scent of each other, locked in a closeness that really didn’t need any addition. Like the ubiquitous peanut butter and chocolate that seemed to be in most of the chocolate bars over here, they were all each other needed. He’d been an idiot to think he could add himself to the mix. He’d continue to be their Dom without asking for more. He’d slide out of bed, dress in the other room, let himself out, and—

Jay rolled over, his body suddenly very much inside Liam’s personal space, his hand moving in a lazy, sleepy glide along Liam’s leg up to his ass.

He couldn’t freeze because that would bring Jay awake immediately, so he tried to stay relaxed. His entire body wasn’t on board with this plan, however. His cock was most definitely not the slightest bit interested in relaxation. No, his cock was in the opposing camp and seemed determined to bring the rest of his body online too, if the slow spread of arousal along his nerves was any indication.

Jay’s hand moved a bit higher, stroking the small of Liam’s back along his spine. “Mmph,” Jay murmured. It was a sound that could mean anything from I want you to fuck me to Get the hell out of my bed.

Liam knew that it was closer to the former when he felt the insistent prod of Jay’s cock against his thigh. Jay snuggled to him, mouth seeking contact with Liam’s skin and finding his shoulder, which was given a soft, lingering kiss.

While Liam was still trying to decide what to do—he couldn’t sneak out unnoticed with Jay’s arm over him—Austin’s hand snaked over Jay’s hip and closed around Jay’s erection as if drawn to it by magnetic force. Jay squeaked and shifted and moved. Moved his hand to Liam’s cock and squeezed it, then opened his eyes.

It took a moment for realization to dawn. “Um.” Jay swallowed but didn’t let go. God, his hand felt good. “Morning?”

“Not even close,” Liam murmured back. Jay’s shock steadied him, making it easier for him to slip into a familiar role with them both, one where he was in control. Even if he wasn’t entirely sure what to do. Oh, he knew the basics, but theory and practice were two entirely different animals, as he’d discovered the first time he’d tried to roll on a condom. “Be careful with that. I’m rather fond of it.”

Jay chuckled, a rich, warm sound, ripe with promise. “That makes three of us.” He jacked Liam slowly, his intent to arouse clear. “Tell me to stop and I will, Sir,” he murmured.

It was easy to see he didn’t expect a command to cease and desist, which made the Dom in Liam narrow his eyes.

“Stop,” Liam said, and even with his voice pitched low in the darkness, he knew how to make it snap like a whip. “I don’t believe I gave you permission to touch me.”

Jay made a startled sound, drawing his hand back immediately. Liam felt a flicker of regret at its loss and Jay’s chagrin, but if Jay chose to call him Sir, he had to expect the Dom to answer.

“Why don’t we try that again? And, Austin, I don’t recall telling you to touch Jay.”

It hung in the balance for a moment. He was interfering with something that so far hadn’t been any of his business. He was in their bed, invited there, welcomed there, but in what capacity? They hadn’t really discussed that.

Then he heard them both sigh, a soft exhalation of acceptance and pleasure. Austin’s hand left Jay’s cock. “I’m sorry, Sir,” Austin said with evident sincerity. “I wasn’t really awake.”

“Are you now?”

“God, yes.” Jay shifted restlessly. “Please, Sir. Let us take care of you?”

He knew what Jay meant, but it wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to be the one taking care of them, giving them what they needed even if they didn’t realize what that was. “Jay, over on this side, please. Yes, where you can’t touch each other. Don’t worry. I don’t intend to leave either of you wanting.”

Liam was glad for the light they’d left on in the hallway. Without being too bright, it let him see everything he needed to see. He sat, cross-legged, between them, facing the headboard so he could see their faces.

“Good. Now I’d like you both to be naked.”

Neither of them was wearing a shirt—Austin must have removed his after Liam had fallen asleep—and it only took a few moments for them to remove their trousers.

“I think we’ll try something new,” Liam mused. “You can talk if you’d like, though for various reasons I’d prefer you not to be too loud. I’m going to touch you both.”

Really, this was just like a session. Maybe in the future—and wasn’t that idea enough to make his heart beat faster—he’d let them show him what they liked, let this be more informal, but this first time with them, it had to be on his terms, for his sake and the relationship they’d built over the months.

“Are you going to fuck us, Sir?”

That was Jay. Of course it was. Liam thought he heard a resigned sigh from Austin a moment after his.

“I’m going to be kind and assume you had a good reason for asking that question.”

“Lube and condoms are on Austin’s side of the bed, Sir.”

Well, wasn’t Jay the helpful little sub? “Thank you. If they become necessary, I’ll be sure to bear that in mind.”

“We don’t always use—”

“Jay. Shut up.” Austin didn’t sound truly annoyed, Liam noted.

“If I fuck you—if—I’ll be using a condom.” Any scene needed negotiating. He reached out, ran his hands over them, throat to nipples to the point and hollow of their hips. They shivered under his fingertips, eager, impatient. “Tell me if there’s anything off-limits. You must have discussed this between you before I was so fucking stupid.”

It was Austin who replied, so still under the light pressure of Liam’s hand, his submission offered without hesitation. It didn’t mean Liam valued it less than Jay’s, which never came without a struggle between them. Austin offered it like a gift, with a smile, and Liam always accepted it with a complete appreciation of its value.

“We don’t have any, Sir. You can fuck us or tell us to fuck each other. You can use bondage and toys. You can tell us what to do. Or you can just…be with us. Your choice, Sir.”

“Not for this,” Liam said, giving in to temptation and cupping their balls, rolling the warm, damp flesh gently, then grazing their cocks with his fingernails. So hard, so beautifully ready. “This was always between the two of you. I’ll ask you again, before it’s too late. Are you sure you want this? Want me?”

“We talked about it a lot,” Austin assured him. “It’s not… We aren’t going to wish we hadn’t, later. We want anything you’re willing to give us.” His eyes were eager, anxious, and he bit his lip endearingly.

“Anything? I find that hard to believe.” Liam didn’t mean it; he knew that whatever he did, they would love both in the moment and in retrospect because it was who they were. He’d hate to be responsible for interfering with the depth of their relationship, though. “Jay? How would you feel if I fucked Austin?”

Jay closed his eyes briefly. “I’d wish it was me.”

“You’d wish you were the one being fucked or the one doing the fucking?”

“Either. Both.”

Liam dragged his fingernails up along their chests to their mouths, then pushed his fingers between warm, startled lips. Jay sucked on his index finger avidly, and Austin kept his mouth relaxed, letting Liam slide three fingers in and out slowly. How much would Austin accept? His cock, thrusting deep?

“I do want to fuck you.” He said it with some regret, as if he’d already made up his mind not to, just to see their reactions. He withdrew his fingers. “Tell me, Jay, how does Austin like it?”

“I don’t do it much to him. Usually he tops.”

That interested Liam without surprising him. It fit what he knew of them.

“If I do, though, it’s because he really wants to feel it. Not hard and fast so much, just—” Jay broke off, catching his breath on a moan as if he was replaying a particularly erotic memory. “Deep. He likes me in him as far as I can get, stretching him, filling him. Just rocking in and out of him slowly, never pulling out all the way.”

The thought of that was enough to make Liam bite the inside of his mouth to hold back a sound of his own. God, yes. Jay’s long body curved over Austin’s, the two of them staring at each other, the small, barely noticeable shift back and forth as Jay’s cock advanced and retreated, the gradual build of intensity until they were sweating, clutching at each other, their breath harsh and hurried.

“Austin?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“What if I wanted to take you fast and hard? Drive into you? Use you to please me?”

Austin moaned, then bit back the sound and nodded. “You could do whatever you wanted. Sir.”

“And what about Jay? What does he like?” Liam pinched the inside of Jay’s thigh just to see him jump.

“He likes that. Being surprised.” Austin’s voice was shaky. “Likes it rough and hard. Likes to…be hurt.”

None of that came as a surprise. Some people preferred to have their kink buttons pushed in every situation but sex. Jay wasn’t one of them. “Good. Enough talk. And remember that you may not come without permission.”

He started to stroke both their cocks, finding a rhythm in it. It was difficult to concentrate on both of them at once—easy to move his hands, but not to focus on what each of them liked. Jay seemed to want a tight grip, whereas Austin’s hips didn’t begin to lift until Liam’s fist gentled near the head of his cock.

There was a definite satisfaction to be found in the power he held over both of them when he had their cocks in his hands, an elemental, basic kind of power. They weren’t tied down, but neither of them was struggling. Even if they’d been inclined to, he could’ve stopped them with a word. That was a heady realization.

His eyes were adjusting now. The dimly lit room worked better than full light for this, gentling the edges, making it dreamlike, a fantasy. And he’d had so many dreams like this since he’d met them, since he’d lost them, fevered, starkly erotic dreams that he woke from achingly hard, needing only the slightest of touches from his hand to find release.

Time to do what he loved and play with his boys, appreciating it so much more after the lonely weeks without them.

“Remember when you were tied facing each other, kissing? Do that again.”

They rolled to face each other, the soft sounds of their mouths meeting rising up to Liam as he sat between them. They’d curved their bodies around him so their lips could touch and their cocks rubbed along his thighs as they tried to get closer.

Last time he’d watched. This time, he could do what he liked to them. He slid off the bed, noting approvingly that they didn’t immediately wriggle closer, but left space between them for him. The lube and condoms were easy to find, even in the low light; Austin’s drawer was tidy, uncluttered. Liam suspected Jay’s would be so crammed full it would be difficult to close or locate an item.

He went back to his spot between them and leaned over, his arms braced on either side of them, his head close to theirs. “Kiss me, both of you.”

There was nothing that could compare to this. He found it nearly overwhelming, not just the feel of their lips and tongues, but the emotion behind it. Austin was quiet, but Jay made a whole collection of soft little sighs and moans that Liam wanted to eat up. Without looking, he flipped the top of the lube bottle up, squeezed some out on his fingers, and slid his hand up along Jay’s inner thigh.

Jay’s sounds became more high-pitched and anxious as Liam’s slick fingertips found his hole.

“Please, Sir. I need you, need you inside me.”

“No talking,” Liam reminded him and pushed a finger inside. Jay squeaked and writhed against his hand, and Austin leaned back to give them more room. As soon as the additional space was available, Jay kissed Liam desperately, licking and sucking at his mouth. Liam remembered what those lips had felt like wrapped around his cock. He gripped the back of Jay’s neck and kissed him with bruising force, then eased back half an inch and growled, “Austin, suck me.”

Again Austin was nearly silent but bent immediately to do as he’d been told. Fuck, his mouth was hot, his chest solid against Liam’s thigh where he was wrapped around him.

“More,” Liam said, meaning harder and faster. Austin seemed to know what he meant despite the inadequacy of the single word, and it felt so good Liam might have forgotten to kiss Jay if Jay hadn’t been kissing him with such fervor.

He wanted so many things. He wanted to come in Austin’s mouth, to kiss Austin and then Jay so that Jay could taste the sour salt in his kiss. He wanted to shove Jay facedown on the mattress and fuck him, hard, not holding back, one hand on the small of Jay’s back, Jay’s thighs spread wide so they’d burn with the stretch the same way his arsehole would burn from the stretch of Liam’s cock. He wanted to fuck Austin with Austin’s legs over his shoulders so he could watch the expression on Austin’s face.

Knowing that both of his boys wanted these things too was almost enough to make him lose control.

He put his hand on Austin’s shoulder and pushed, his message clear. Austin opened his mouth and pulled back, careful not to scrape Liam with his teeth, his hand wrapped around the base of Liam’s cock. Liam felt a last stolen kiss against the head, quick, furtive, as if Austin couldn’t bear to lose the taste of him. He ran his hand roughly through Austin’s hair, tugging at it in a rebuke that was pro forma at best, and slid his finger out of Jay, who whined a protest.

“I want to fuck you both.”

It was a statement of intent, but he was also giving them the opportunity to object.

Jay, daring him, just asking to be punished, kissed Liam’s throat without being told, his mouth hot and wet. “God, yes. Do it. Got a full box of condoms, Sir.”

A full box wouldn’t come near what his fantasies had in mind for them both, though it was plenty for the reality of what might happen. “I’m well aware. For being so eager, you can wait your turn for my cock, but you can have my hand right now. Turn around.”

He felt the shiver that ran through Jay, heard the swift breath Austin took. Jay moved away just a few inches, enough that he wasn’t touching Liam anywhere, then turned to face the head of the bed and bent over, his back a beautiful curve, his arse offered up for Liam to punish.

“I can think of so many ways to torment you like this,” Liam told him. He dealt out two slaps, quick and sharp, one on each cheek, then poured more lube into his palm. He grabbed Jay’s balls in a rough, careless grip, working them with a casual indifference, sliding his slicked fingers along the crease of Jay’s ass to his hole. Teasing it, circling it with his finger but never pressing past the tight ring of muscle, he said, “I might put you on your back, with Austin on his hands and knees over you as I fuck him. Forbid you to reach up and kiss him, or even touch him, but let him use you to rub off on. Then, if you were good, the way I know you can be, I’d let him come on you.”

He turned to Austin, kneeling beside him, waiting in perfect silence, so completely his in this moment that it hurt Liam not to be touching him. He pulled Austin to him and kissed him, claiming the quiet mouth with his lips and tongue. Liam moved his head to the side to address Jay again. “But I think you can just tell me how sorry you are, Jay, and then kneel beside Austin while I take him. You’re permitted to use your mouth on him when I tell you that you may, but not your hands.”

“I’m really sorry, Sir.” Every word breathed contrition.

“You got carried away,” Liam observed.

“Yes, Sir.”

Liam caressed Jay’s ass forgivingly, then slapped it again, just to hear the flat crack of his hand on skin. “On your knees, then. Hands behind your back.”

Jay obeyed, turning to the side slightly as if aware that the position allowed Liam to see his lovely pink arse.

“Now, Austin.” For a moment, Liam hesitated, trying to decide between putting Austin on hands and knees or on his back. Either position had its appeal, certainly, but he decided being able to see Austin’s face was most important. He’d never had penetrative sex with a man before, and although he had no doubt that it would be good for both of them, he’d feel more comfortable if he could read Austin’s expressions.

“Just lie down like this. Yes, you’re such a good boy. You’ve no idea how much I’ve been wanting this, waiting for it.” Liam quickly applied a condom and lube to his cock as he spoke, watching Austin’s eyes as they communicated in ways just as eloquent as his mouth could have. Two slick fingers pushed into Austin’s arse without hesitation, and Austin’s back arched, his mouth falling open.

Liam slid his fingers deeper, curled them slightly until he felt Austin’s prostate. Austin gave a small sigh and lifted his hips, eyes locked on Liam’s.

“I want you to answer my questions, but only with yes or no. Does this feel good?” Liam rubbed Austin’s prostate gently—some men liked it, others didn’t, and it was something that would be good to know either way.

Panting, Austin whispered, “Yes.”

“And when I do this?” Liam pushed his fingers deep. It wouldn’t be as deep as his cock could go, but he was curious to see how accurate Jay’s assessment of Austin’s preferences had been.

Yes.” Austin’s pupils had widened.

Liam leaned in, mouth close to Austin’s. “Would you like me to fuck you?”

That drew a whimper from Austin, who could barely speak the single word. “Y-yes.” The tip of his tongue came out and wet dry lips.

“Good,” Liam said, satisfied. “Because I’m going to.”

He focused all his attention on Austin, more as a way of calming himself than concern for Austin, who was clearly more than happy with how events were unfolding. Liam wasn’t nervous, not about sex, just aroused to the point where he wasn’t sure how long he would last.

Coming after a few thrusts would be embarrassing to say the least.

His fingers had entered Austin easily—with Austin’s cooperation—but the head of his cock seemed impossibly large pressed against the closed entrance. Reminding himself of the plugs and dildos he’d used on Austin and the force required to slide them home, he pushed forward, dimly aware of Austin moving just a little, improving the angle, a subtle assistance he appreciated.

Tight. Warm. God, he wanted more, wanted all of his cock to be encased in the slick sheath. He gained ground slowly, inch by inch, sweat standing out on his back, his hands on Austin’s knees, pushing them back. Austin was panting, his gaze locked on Liam’s face every time Liam looked at him. Not enough light to catch every nuance, but he could see enough.

“You’re doing so well,” he told Austin and knew that in part he was saying it to himself. Later, when he was alone, he’d deal with the emotional fallout of what he was doing—and there would be some, he was sure of it. Right now, nothing mattered but the two men he was with.

Time to involve Jay, who was kneeling so close to Austin, his hands behind his back, his nipples drawn into tight points, his erection hard as marble.

“Jay. Kiss him. Wherever you like.”

He expected Jay to kiss Austin’s mouth and swallow some of the soft cries Austin was making now that Liam was as deep in him as he could get, shifting back and forth, fucking him slowly. Instead Jay’s mouth came to rest against Liam’s hand where it gripped Austin’s knee, his tongue lapping against Liam’s fingers and Austin’s skin.

The liquid warmth, the message it sent—both of you, I want both, not one—peeled away another layer of Liam’s doubts.

“Yes, like that.” Liam let himself focus on his pleasure for what he intended to be only a few seconds but which ended up being longer because it just felt so good. He couldn’t bear more than slight movements in and out of Austin’s arse, so he concentrated on staying deep. He loved the way Austin was breathing, openmouthed, and how wide and shocked his eyes were. Clearly this was something Austin needed, and if Jay wasn’t able to give it, Liam would.

Jay’s mouth had moved to Austin’s nipple. Liam couldn’t resist reaching to entwine his fingers in Jay’s dark silky hair, then tugging at it purely because he knew what that did to Jay.

Austin moaned as Liam rocked his hips forward again, meeting Liam’s eyes and then lifting his arms up over his head and crossing his wrists. It was such a beautiful demonstration of his submission that Liam rewarded him by spreading his thighs wider and fucking him harder.

Austin’s fingers flexed, a helpless curl, groping for something to hold on to and finding only air.

“Next time, I’ll put you in cuffs,” he told Austin, his voice beginning to lose its clarity, roughened around the edges. Jesus, it’d been months since he’d fucked anyone, but that couldn’t wholly account for how aroused he was, how completely captivated by them both. “Make it easy for you to stay just how I want you.”

“It doesn’t have to be easy,” Austin said, speaking without permission, but in that moment, Liam didn’t care. Austin’s voice rose, high and wild, his self-control shattering as Liam gave way to his desires and began to fuck Austin in long, deep thrusts. “Just what you want. I can do it. I can do anything you want me to, Sir, just don’t stop, don’t…please…oh God, God, Sir—”

Jay made an inarticulate sound, leaning in and mouthing the head of Austin’s cock as best he could, given the way Austin was writhing now, careful not to block Liam’s view. It was a courtesy Liam appreciated because the sight of Austin’s cock glistening wetly, the tip disappearing into Jay’s mouth only to reappear a moment later even wetter, the anguished, desperate sounds Austin made as they both worked to push him over the edge were stunningly erotic.

“Please, Sir. No. Make him stop. Jay! I’m gonna come. Jay!”

“You said you could do anything I asked,” Liam reminded him, his climax so close that he knew he could beat Austin to it if Austin couldn’t hold back. He wasn’t going to let anything mar this first time. “I told you not to come, Austin, and I told Jay he could use his mouth on you anywhere. Are you going to disappoint me?”

“No.” Austin’s face screwed up, and he dug his teeth into his lip as he fought to obey.

Liam found the sight of Jay’s mouth on Austin’s cock unbearably delicious, and even that didn’t come close to how it felt to be buried to the hilt in Austin’s arse. He discovered, though, that what he really wanted was for all of them to come at the same time.

Letting go of Austin’s thigh, Liam reached out and closed his grip around Jay’s cock, squeezing what would have been cruelly tight on anyone else. On Jay, though—

“You both have my permission,” he growled. “Come for me, both of you.”

Austin’s body seemed to obey as instinct. He instantly came, his body arching under Liam’s as his cock pulsed fluid onto and between Jay’s lips. Liam felt his dick throb a warning and shoved his hips forward, driving himself deeper than he’d thought possible as Jay’s cock in his fist twitched and shot, slicking his fingers.

He came, the sensations so much more intense than any climax he’d experienced before because it was not only shared, but shared with two people he loved. They were linked in that moment, and he wanted them both with a yearning that left him as open and vulnerable as they were.

He lowered himself onto Austin, taking his weight on one arm and using the other to gather Jay in, the three of them as close as it was possible to get, arms around each other, exchanging kisses because they were easier than words. Liam took Jay’s mouth in a long, sweet kiss, turned his head, and met Austin’s lips, parted for him, warmly welcoming.

It couldn’t last forever, but in that moment, he was content.

Chapter Twenty-three

Austin, scrubbing his hair dry with a towel that was probably at least a day past due for a wash, stuck his head into the bedroom. “Jay. You’re going to be late if you don’t get up right now.”

“I’m up. I’m up,” Jay muttered unconvincingly into the pillow.

“Is he always like this?” Liam sounded amused, at least. He’d had the first shower and was already on his second cup of coffee. Austin was finding it awkward to take care of a houseguest and get ready for work at the same time, but Liam had assured him he was fine.

“Always,” Austin said. “Pretty much the only time he isn’t late is on Friday nights, and I don’t think I need to tell you it isn’t because he’s afraid of being punished.” He ran his hands through his hair and gave Liam a thoughtful look. “Maybe you’d have better luck.”

Liam smiled and walked to the bedroom doorway. “Jay,” he said in a firm, no-nonsense voice. “Get out of that bed immediately.”

There was a muffled thud as Jay’s feet—at least Austin hoped it was his feet—hit the floor. A few minutes later, Jay appeared in the doorway, his eyes owlishly wide, dragging his sleep pants up over his ass.

“Hey! I was getting up!”

“No, you weren’t,” Liam said calmly and swatted Jay’s ass before walking back to pick up his coffee. “But now you are,” he added.

Austin grinned, watching Jay’s dick grow behind the thin cotton pants. Jay could go from zero to sixty in less time than anyone he knew. “No time for that, either, so you’d better make it a cold shower. Maybe if you’d gotten up when we did…”

Jay rubbed at his erection with the heel of his hand and made a noise halfway between a huff and a grumble, leaning against the door frame. There was a bruise over one nipple. Liam’s mouth had left that on him just before they’d settled down to sleep for the second time. Austin remembered hearing Jay cry out and then feeling him nestle closer, snug between the two of them.

“There still wouldn’t have been time.”

Liam set his empty mug down. “I hate to love you and leave you, but I need to be on my way.”

Hearing Liam say that word made Austin’s world freeze in place for a second. He saw Jay’s reaction to it and how quickly Jay covered it with a yawn.

“We, um,” Austin said. He immediately regretted having started and shut up, but it was too late. Liam was already looking at him expectantly. “Um. You really do, right? Love us? You meant it when you said it.”

“Austin?” Liam’s voice held a hint of command, and Austin couldn’t disobey. He looked up into Liam’s serious face. “Sit down, please. Both of you. I have something I need to tell you.”

Austin didn’t like the sound of that, and apparently neither did Jay because he felt Jay’s hand slip into his as they sank down into chairs and waited.

Liam sat down too, and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. “A few days ago, I was offered a job on the West Coast.”

There was a sharp inhale from Jay, and Jay’s hand tightened on Austin’s. “Liam,” Jay said shakily. “Sir.”

“I haven’t finished,” Liam said, frowning. “I spent a fair amount of time considering the offer. It’s a very good one, by the way. It would mean a 50 percent increase in my salary.”

Austin could tell he was hyperventilating. He was getting light-headed and trying not to freak out even though he knew this had been a bad idea, it had been a terrible idea, all of it. Why had he taken a chance like this, to get close to someone who would just end up leaving him? Of course, it was a lot of money, and of course Liam would want a better-paying job if it was possible—

“There were a host of excellent reasons to take it—and only two reasons not to.” Liam pointed his finger at Austin and then Jay. “You and you. I could leave my home and this place without looking back, but you two… I love you too much to give you up.” He glanced down at the table, frowning, which gave Austin the chance to breathe, in and out, the dizziness increasing. He couldn’t process what Liam had said. His mind was telling him it was good news, but his body was locked into panic mode and he couldn’t break free.

“Austin, if you pass out when I’m being as romantic as it’s possible for me to get, I’ll give Jay every one of your spankings for the next month.”

Okay, that helped. Austin ducked his head just long enough to clear it and felt his heartbeat slow and then steady. Jay released his hand and put his arm around him in a hug that Austin leaned into, grateful for the support.

“So that’s, like, your way of telling us you mean it,” Jay said. “Because we do too—love you, I mean. And we’re serious about it.”

“I mean it,” Liam said. “I’m serious.”

“So are we.” Austin’s voice was unsteady, but he was determined. “We’re kind of—I mean, this is kind of—”

“Amazing,” Jay said.

“Well, give yourselves some time to get used to the idea, if that’s what you need to absorb how, er, amazing it is.” Liam was smiling, his gaze moving from Jay’s to Austin’s and back again. He turned his hands palm-up on the table, extending them. Without hesitating, Austin slipped his hand into Liam’s and saw Jay do the same. When Jay’s free hand found his, they were linked, a circle of three.

The two hands he held were both warm, both strong, but he could’ve told them apart in the dark, and not only because the feel of Jay’s was so familiar. The clasp of Liam’s hand was possessive, firm, and Austin closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the sensation of being held safely.

“I’m not planning to move in or ask you to live with me anytime soon,” Liam said, a hint of apology in his voice. “The first is impractical—there’s just no space—and I don’t think the second option would work just at the moment for any of us.”

“It’d be kind of hard to explain to people,” Jay said with a flash of practicality. “Austin’s mom would freak, and if your kids come to visit and we’re living there calling you Sir and saying ow every time we sit down because you’ve spanked us or fucked us raw the night before…kinda awkward.”

Liam winced. “I wasn’t going to put it quite like that, but yes, I imagine it would be.”

“It will change things, though.” Austin wasn’t sure why he was insisting, but it felt like it should change their lives that they were in love. That was what love did.

Liam gave him an understanding look. “You want it to change things, don’t you? Well, I never took advantage of being able to date other people, though I appreciated that you were willing to agree to that at the time, but that’s out of the question now, if that helps.” He turned his wrist to glance at his watch without letting go of Jay’s hand, and he grimaced. “This is really the worst possible time for us to be having this conversation. I’ve got a nine o’clock meeting, and unless every light between here and my office is on green, I’m going to be late.”

“We can talk about it later. You should go,” Jay said. “It’s really important not to be late for work,” he added virtuously. “I keep telling Austin that.”

“Sir? If I begged you really nicely on my knees, would you spank him for me?” Austin asked, glaring at Jay.

“I’d spank him for all three of us,” Liam said. “And I’d enjoy it just as much as both of you. Speaking of which, I have a late conference call this evening, so I won’t be around, but what about tomorrow night at my place? Eight o’clock?”

Austin frowned. “Tomorrow’s Wednesday.”

“True,” Liam said. “But I thought we’d agreed that things are changing?” His eyes were alight with something Austin had never seen in them before, something that had Austin standing when Liam did and moving forward into his arms to kiss him. Liam’s mouth was warm; it tasted different from Jay’s, but no less sweet.

“Tomorrow night,” Jay agreed, and they both trailed after Liam to the door and watched as Liam hefted his bags and stepped out onto the landing.

Austin, overwhelmed, managed to speak Liam’s name. Liam turned, an eyebrow lifted, and Austin couldn’t choke out anything else. Instead he did what came so naturally. He sank onto his knees, hands behind his back, and looked at Liam with all the love and admiration and gratitude in his heart. Beside Liam, Jay was smiling like the sun coming out, bright and all-encompassing.

Austin Fisher was on his knees, and he’d never been happier.

~ * ~ The End ~ * ~