Bran had been back at Jonathan’s for less than an hour, and already he found himself naked and cuffed, hand and foot, to a chair. A very cold and uncomfortable chair, too—steel-framed, no cushions, wire mesh biting into his bare back and ass, armrests icy cold beneath his forearms. A single blinding spotlight directly overhead cast far too much heat on his shoulders and scalp, cutting a perfect cone of light through the otherwise pitch-black dungeon. Strange how he’d seen this space a thousand times and still felt unease crawling up his neck at the thought of what lurked within the shadows.
Jonathan, for one, fully dressed, crop in hand, looming like he was eight feet tall instead of five and change.
“We’re going to have a little chat,” Jonathan said, and Bran just sat there, eyes locked steady on Jonathan. One week away wasn’t enough to forget not to speak out of turn. “And I want to make sure you understand the rules very clearly here—no more miscommunications.” Their whole first month had been nothing but. Bran didn’t exactly have the highest hopes they could avoid it completely this time around, but he’d try. “All right?”
Bran tried to blink a drop of sweat out of his left eye and nodded. “All right, Jonathan.”
Jonathan smiled, bright and unexpected, and swiped his thumb across Bran’s left eyebrow, wiping the sweat away. “There’s a good boy,” he said, and strange how . . . uncondescending he managed to make that sound. “Now I’m going to ask you some questions. They may be uncomfortable. They may be hard for you. You may not want to answer. None of this matters. I expect truth, whole and unhesitating. Delay and you’ll be struck. Omit and you’ll be struck. Lie and you’ll be struck rather more than you’d care for. Do you understand?”
Yeah, and how are you gonna know I’m lying?
Fuck it. Jonathan always knew. Bran flashed him a toothy smile. “So what you’re telling me is, I’ll be struck, Jonathan?”
Unexpectedly, Jonathan laughed, but then cut himself off and went all serious again. “What I’m saying is there’s no point in trying again if you won’t try.” He spun the crop in his hand, eyeing it thoughtfully. “This is to remind you that you hurt yourself most of all by lying or delaying or hiding. I do hope you won’t need reminding.”
Well, he wanted to give Jonathan the truth. That had to count for something, right?
“As added incentive, if you answer three consecutive questions truthfully and completely, then you can ask me one of your own. Anything you’d like. And I too will be truthful and complete.”
Yeah? And do I get to hit you if you lie?
But he knew better than to say that out loud, settling instead for, “Thank you, Jonathan.” Shame he had no fucking idea what to ask. Wondered how likely it was he’d even get the chance.
Jonathan circled around the chair, then stopped in front of Bran, leaning down to look him in the eye. “Why are you here?”
All right, starting with an easy one.
“I just told you. When we were upstairs.”
“You told me a lot of things.” Jonathan drove the crop across his chest. It hurt, but not as bad as it could’ve. He’d had much worse in this room. “Including that I hurt you in ways I think we both know I didn’t intend.”
What? Was the Big Bad Dom finally making some kind of veiled apology?
“Is it so shocking to you,” Jonathan said, his mouth twisting like it couldn’t quite choose between a wry smile and a frown, “that I’m willing to admit I was wrong too? Because I was wrong, and I am sorry for that, I truly am. I misread you. I made assumptions about your desires, your knowledge and understanding—about my own knowledge and understanding too— that caused me to handle you badly. And worst of all, I let you frustrate me into driving you away, when what I should have been doing was helping you get to the root of why you felt the need to frustrate me so in the first place.”
Holy shit, it was an apology. He hadn’t thought Jonathan had it in him—no room between all that confidence and arrogance and Domly know-it-all-ness. Hadn’t realized how much he’d needed to hear it, either— how angry he’d been, up until a moment ago, that Jonathan hadn’t copped to his own half of their fucked-up mess.
“Yet you came back, and judging by the look on your face—my mother would tell you to shut your mouth, by the way, before a bird builds a nest in there—you clearly thought you’d be coming back to more of the same.”
Had he, though? Or had he just magically assumed it’d be different somehow? Or had his own needs driven him so relentlessly he hadn’t even stopped to think about whether or not Jonathan might change?
“You’re too smart not to learn from your mistakes, Brandon, so why are you here?”
Suddenly the answer seemed so blindingly obvious he found himself blinking against it. “Because you’re too smart not to learn from your mistakes, Jonathan.”
Bran felt strange satisfaction at the expression on Jonathan’s face. Not entirely readable, but he saw surprise, yes, and relief too, and something else he couldn’t even begin to make out. But he’d made the man shut up for a while, which was more than he could say for most anything else he’d done since they’d met.
Jonathan swallowed, caught Bran’s gaze and held it. “Thank you,” he said. “That means a lot to me.” Then he blinked, raked a hand through his hair, and whatever moment of vulnerability he’d just shown, whatever lightning-quick loss of control, he shook it off and pulled himself back together into something at least three sizes too big to be contained by his compact frame. Back to confident, dominant Jonathan again. Back to difficult questions, too: “Would you still be here if I took the money off the table?”
No fucking way sprang to Bran’s lips, but didn’t make it past them. Seemed stupid to press his luck after all the ground Jonathan had just given. Besides, way to make himself feel like a whore. Not to mention the fact that he wasn’t actually sure it was true anymore.
Another blow, this time across his left shoulder blade. It made him jerk in his bonds, rattling against the metal chair. “That’s for hesitating,” Jonathan said. “Answer the question.”
Bran swallowed hard, answered the only way he could. “I . . . I don’t know, Jonathan.”
Jonathan smiled. “Well, that’s a start. But I expect a more considered response next time.”
Huh. Maybe Jonathan wouldn’t kill him if he said no, then. “Yes, Jonathan.”
Jonathan fell back a step, switching the crop to his other hand. “So, why me?”
Bran blinked. “I . . . uh, don’t know what you mean, Jonathan.”
“You can’t swing a cat without hitting a male Dominant in this city. You could’ve sought one of them out to get what you needed after you left. You didn’t have to come back here. So why did you? After the way you stormed out the other day, after the way I let you down, I thought you hated me.”
Maybe because I did. But I don’t anymore . . . Do I?
“I don’t know, Jonathan,” he tried again.
Jonathan didn’t buy it this time; the crop smacked hard across Bran’s lower belly, a noisy little blot of fire.
Different tack, then. “Because I know you, Jonathan?”
Another strike, this time on the top of his right thigh, and yeah, okay, that was probably his own fault for phrasing his answer as a question.
“Seriously,” he said, because it was at least part of the truth. “Where else would I even find another Dom? Jonathan.”
Jonathan painted a matching red splotch on the top of Bran’s left thigh. “Craigslist? That leather club two blocks from your apartment? Google?”
Like he’d have had the slightest idea where to look. Ridiculous that Jonathan thought he’d even have known what to look for. This was Jonathan’s world, not Bran’s, and fuck it all, but Jonathan should’ve known that. Making assumptions like this was what’d screwed everything up so badly last time, and here Jonathan was doing it again?
Well, fuck that. Fuck him and his fucking ridiculous assumptions, because there was no fucking way Bran was gonna put up with this shit again.
He gritted his teeth, rattled his handcuffs once, just for the satisfaction of hearing them clink. “What, do you want me to tell you I came back because I missed you? Because we’re best buds and I hope we get married someday?” He looked Jonathan dead in the eye and added, “Sorry, but I can’t say that, Jonathan. You told me not to lie.”
He’d also said not to omit, and Bran knew damn well better than to mouth off, no matter how good it felt, so it came as no surprise when the crop slapped down right across his dick. He still howled though, legs jerking against the cuffs, hands straining toward the hurt, but he couldn’t bring his knees together or press fingers to the pain.
“Maybe you didn’t miss me,” Jonathan said when Bran settled, and how was he so fucking calm all the time, even when Bran insulted him like that? Made it hard to stay mad. “But you missed something. Something I gave you, perhaps?” Jonathan reached out and Bran flinched, but the man only smoothed his fingers over the marks on Bran’s chest and belly, soothing the pain. Giving Bran’s dick a few strokes until, to his chagrin, he found himself growing hard. “Something like this?”
It hurt, but it felt good too; why was still a mystery, but . . . “Yeah, maybe. Jonathan,” he added quickly.
“Try to be more definitive next time. There’s far too much you haven’t given sufficient thought to.” He circled around again, laid a familiar hand on the nape of Bran’s neck. Bran leaned back into the touch without even realizing at first. Then Jonathan whispered, lips to Bran’s ear, “Why do you hate it when I call you Brandon?”
Bran sat up straight, jerking himself away from Jonathan’s grasp. “Because that’s not my name,” he snapped. “Brandon was a little kid. I’m not a kid anymore.”
Jonathan didn’t reply. Didn’t strike him. Didn’t do anything for an endless moment. Then he strode across the dungeon, disappeared into the darkness. A cold fist curled in Bran’s belly at the bumping and scraping sounds coming from across the room—what the fuck was he doing back there, and just how unpleasant would it end up being?—until Jonathan reappeared, dragging a chair. He flipped it around and straddled it, arms crossed over the back. Stared into Bran’s eyes until the spotlight overhead felt like a sun gone fucking supernova.
Jonathan smiled. “Take your time. I can sit here all night, if need be, until I get a satisfactory answer.”
Jesus, what the fuck did he want? He’d been telling the truth. Why wasn’t it good enough?
“I, uh . . . I stopped calling myself Brandon a long time ago. Back when I left Jersey.”
“An interesting bit of history, to be sure. But not what I’m looking for.” He reached over and tapped the crop on Bran’s knee. “You might be more convincing, by the way, if you didn’t fidget so much. Sort of gives the game away.”
“Doesn’t mean I’m lying. Maybe I just don’t like to think about that shit, you ever think of that? Jonathan?”
Another blow, this one to the inside of his thigh. No mere tap this time. “Language,” Jonathan singsonged. Then, much more seriously, “I’m aware these questions are difficult. But do your best. Another try, please.”
Fuck this. Clearly even his best wasn’t good enough, so what was he fucking doing here? He tugged hard at the handcuffs and said, “This isn’t what I signed up for, Jonathan.”
Except, he supposed, for the part where it kind of was—a fact Jonathan’s disappointed little frown made perfectly clear. He’d known it wasn’t going to be easy. He’d begged Jonathan for another chance. And now that he had it, what was he doing? Acting like some spoiled brat, that’s what.
“I’m sorry,” he sighed, forcing his hands still, grateful and kind of weirded out that Jonathan hadn’t said a thing, hadn’t hit him, was just sitting there, chin resting on his folded arms, blinking, waiting for Bran to get with the fucking program. As if he were absolutely positive Bran would. So different from last time, when Jonathan would’ve jumped to “correct” him with pain, to leave him feeling like some inadequate child who could only disappoint. This Jonathan was so much more . . . reassuring, almost.
“I just . . .” He shook his head, dropped his gaze. Couldn’t keep it fixed on those blue, blue eyes, so piercing, so fucking attentive. “I don’t know what else you want me to say. I’m trying, I am. I promise.”
“I know,” Jonathan said, so gentle it made Bran’s eyes sting as surely as a crop to the nuts.
“Please. Just, tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it, okay?”
Jonathan sat up, shook his head. He was frowning a little, but Bran thought it looked sad rather than angry. Or maybe disappointed. Fuck, please, anything but that. “It doesn’t work that way, Brandon. You know that.”
Yeah, he supposed he did.
“But I appreciate you trying. And I appreciate you wanting to please me. Thank you.”
He felt way too fucking shitty to say, You’re welcome. Jonathan didn’t seem to mind his silence anyway. The man just laid his chin back on his arms and stared again. Stared some more, dead quiet, so long it felt like the spotlight had sunburned Bran’s nose and ears, so long he became acutely aware of how thirsty he was, how much he was sweating, how very much Jonathan hadn’t asked a fucking thing for him to answer so he could make all this end.
What did he want?
At long, long fucking last, Jonathan stood, pushed his chair away, pulled out the handcuff key. “I think that’s enough for tonight,” he said. He unlocked Bran, but Bran stayed in the chair anyway, waiting for permission to move. “Up you go,” Jonathan said, and even though Bran stood right away, Jonathan still added, “That’s four for the night, by the way.”
Four? He felt his eyebrows shoot up toward his hairline and just barely stopped himself from asking, What did I do? Jonathan told him anyway: “Four times you failed to address me properly. I didn’t think we’d have to go back to basics after all this time, but here we are. I’ll be adding one for each time you swear, as well, so do watch your tongue.” A raised eyebrow, a hinted quirk of a smile. “It offends my delicate sensibilities, you understand.”
Bran almost couldn’t contain his snort. Yeah, such a fragile whip-wielding flower you are.
Jonathan jerked his head toward the bathroom. “Go groom yourself properly—inside and out. Shave your face, but nothing else.” Really? How . . . odd, but he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the unshaved crotch. “Then come back to the bedroom. Did you tell your boss you were leaving again?”
What? “I—” Strange to feel so warm and so nervous at the same time—amazed that Jonathan had even thought to ask after his well-being outside this house, afraid the man wouldn’t like his answer. “No, Jonathan. I didn’t . . .” He dropped his eyes to his feet, wished he knew what to do with his hands. Remembered, then, what Jonathan had told him about posture and clasped his hands behind his back, feeling oddly relieved at the simplicity of it. “I didn’t know if I’d . . . I mean, if you’d—”
“Take you back?”
Bran nodded, exhaling relief at the gentleness in Jonathan’s tone. “Yes, Jonathan.”
“Well, call him. Tell him something, I don’t care what. But account for the next five months; you’ll not have cause to leave again. Understand?”
A full-body shiver at that, equal parts fear and excitement and something downright delicious he couldn’t quite put a name to—a warmth at being wanted, maybe, or maybe the tone of Jonathan’s voice, commanding without bullying, possessive but not presumptuous. “Yes, Jonathan.” Because the man was right. He wasn’t going to leave again.
Not this time.
# # #
Jonathan got the yoga mat and blanket out of the walk-in closet, then went to get ready for bed. He took a quick shower, just to unwind and help him think, before brushing his teeth and pulling on his pajamas.
Now that the anger and resentment and frustration had cleared, his own failures were much clearer than they had been just hours before. What they’d done tonight down in the dungeon, that was what Brandon needed. Introspection, careful questions, endless patience. Discipline and punishment too, yes, but neither were fair substitutions for simply talking, and he knew that. Had always known that. So what was it about Brandon that’d made him forget, made him careless, made him lose control? And how could he stop it from happening again?
Patience. Just be patient. Remember how smart he is, how good at pushing buttons, bucking authority, defending and deflecting. Remember how different he is from everyone you’ve ever known, and how much you want him.
How much you want him to want you back.
Yes. He could do that. He’d been given a second chance, and he wouldn’t waste it. He’d be the stable, affectionate authority figure Brandon had never had—be the one person Brandon couldn’t goad into anger or drive away. Not this time.
Brandon walked in just as Jonathan left the bathroom, groomed exactly as he’d been instructed: face clean-shaven, short damp hair combed, skin dry . . . and cock half-hard. Well, no wonder—he’d just used the shower shot for the first time in a week.
Brandon almost looked glad of it when he saw the mat on the floor. That was new. Then again, it had to be better than the cubby downstairs—or a cage. Small favors, Jonathan supposed. But Brandon didn’t approach the mat; he stood just inside the doorway at parade rest and waited until Jonathan said, “You may make yourself comfortable.”
Brandon—cheeky bastard that he was—strode across the room, flopped down on Jonathan’s bed, and flashed him a theatrical smile.
All right. I walked right into that one. “On the mat, if you please.” Still, he couldn’t stifle a tiny grin. “And don’t even think of doing that again.”
Brandon’s smile faded a bit—but only a bit. “Yes, Jonathan.” He obeyed immediately. Another nice change. So they’d both learned from their mistakes, then.
Brandon lay down on the mat and tugged the blanket up to his chest, his hard-on tenting the front. He cast Jonathan a flirtatious glance. Good lord, what a temptation, but . . . no. Not tonight. They both had some serious thinking to do before they could afford to muddle their minds with sex, and besides, it was a terrible idea to let Brandon think he could manipulate him with a mere flutter of those lovely eyelashes.
He climbed into bed, flicked off the light. Lay there pondering their talk while sleep eluded him. Brandon tossed on his yoga mat, no doubt trying to will that hard-on away—or pester Jonathan into taking care of it for him—until Jonathan nearly gave in to the urge to sit up and tell him to knock it off. But that would only encourage him.
I suppose I could threaten to beat him.
Well, he’d already seen how ineffective that was. There were better—if perhaps less fun—ways to instruct the man. Especially now that he’d come to understand just how much Brandon had to learn—not only about being a submissive, but about being, well, himself. About his needs and desires. Needs and desires he couldn’t even come close to articulating yet, no matter how he tried. But at least he was trying. Even if his defenses had taken a rather nasty turn this evening.
Do you want me to tell you I came back because I missed you? Because we’re best buds and I hope we get married someday?
Well, he should have seen that coming. Maybe they weren’t friends, exactly, and yes, he’d screwed up, but he’d hoped Brandon at least liked him. That the man hadn’t only returned for the money or the things Jonathan could teach him about himself. And while Jonathan would never have expected Brandon to come back if the money weren’t in play, he’d at least hoped, when Brandon had walked through his door again, that he’d done so out of affinity, if not affection.
Well, so what if Brandon did only want him for the secrets he could unlock? He had been the one to awaken the knowledge of those secrets, after all, which he supposed made him responsible for Brandon. And besides, Brandon was the first submissive he’d been with in . . . well, ever, who hadn’t started to bore him at least a little. Was in fact still a tremendous challenge—a vast and fascinating unsolved puzzle, and one that had bested him, no less. And maybe, now that Brandon had lost the urge to fight him at every turn and he himself had come to understand his shortcomings in handling the man, Brandon might be a tremendous pleasure as well.
A loud sigh floated up from the foot of the bed. Brandon was tossing again. Or rather, still. Jonathan’s own erection had been plaguing him from the moment that infuriating minx had flashed those bedroom eyes, but at least one person in this room needed some bloody discipline.
“I will strap you to the floor if you don’t stop fidgeting,” he growled into the darkness.
Brandon stilled. For about thirty seconds. Another bad habit he’d have to train out of him. With a sigh, he rolled out of bed and flipped on the nightstand lamp before dragging his overtired carcass to the wardrobe and digging out a set of wide leather straps. Brandon had complained often about pain, but never about restraints. Perhaps he liked being tied up, even if he couldn’t admit it to himself yet. Perhaps all this tossing was just his subconscious’s way of asking for what it really wanted.
Or maybe he was just a brat full of bad habits.
Well, I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.
Bran opened his eyes to find himself still strapped in tight, long strips of leather binding his ankles, thighs, hips, and shoulders to eye-bolts in the floor. Amazingly enough, it felt . . . well, not so bad. He flexed his fingers and toes. No pins and needles. No pain of any kind, except for a stiff back and a familiar ache in his bladder.
And a rather irritating case of morning wood.
He lifted his head off the yoga mat, trying in vain to peer over the foot of the bed. Couldn’t tell if Jonathan was still asleep. Oh, wait—now he heard him breathing, slow and steady. Damn.
Guess he was stuck here while Mr. Lazy got his beauty rest.
He let his eyes drift shut again, last night playing over in his memory. Looked like he’d done the right thing by coming back. Jonathan had not only listened to his concerns, he’d appeared to take what he’d told him to heart—even if it meant getting cuffed to a chair and asked a bunch of stupid questions. Jonathan had even apologized, admitted he’d fucked up. Bran hadn’t expected either of those things in a million years.
Jesus, he had to piss. Would serve Jonathan right if he did it right here on his broad-planked hardwood floor. Except . . . well, he’d end up lying in it, and of course Jonathan would make him clean it up.
With your tongue, if he’s mad enough.
Bad idea, then. But how the hell was he supposed to wake Jonathan up without getting in trouble?
Screw trouble. He already had four demerits racked up.
He coughed as loudly as he could. Once, twice. Nothing. Jonathan slept like a fucking corpse. He tried to roll over, tried to bump the footboard hard enough to shake the bedframe, but the straps were too tight. He could barely move at all. So he cleared his throat really loudly. Faked an even louder sneeze.
A rustle of bedclothes, a soft groan, and Jonathan’s head poked over the footboard. He looked like a puppy who’d just crawled out from under its mother, all mussed hair and bleary eyes and Jesus fuck, why did he have to be so damn adorable?
“Yes?” he said a touch sternly.
Shit. “I’m sorry, Jonathan, but I really, really have to piss.” Jonathan didn’t say anything, just stared at him for a second like he was contemplating smacking the shit out of him, then reached down to unclip the straps from the rungs in the floor. Bran let out a relieved sigh and sat up, pulling his knees to his chest, then twisting his back until it popped. Felt amazing to stretch the kinks out after being stuck flat the entire night.
Jonathan said around a yawn, “Go downstairs and take care of yourself. Skip the razor.” Then he crawled back up to his pillow and yanked the covers over himself.
Bran wasted no time doing as ordered. He practically raced to the dungeon bathroom, where he took the most satisfying piss he’d had all week, then washed inside and out, brushed his hair and teeth, and toweled dry. He ran a thumb down one cheek, just barely roughened and shaded ginger from a night’s worth of stubble. Felt odd to be standing here and not shave it off. Slack. Lazy. But orders were orders, and he didn’t doubt that Jonathan had his reasons. Hopefully ones that had nothing to do with Jonathan thinking he didn’t care enough to bother. Admittedly, he’d given Jonathan plenty of reasons to think that in their first weeks together.
He went upstairs to find Jonathan in his office, sipping coffee at his desk. He still looked half asleep, even in his jeans and that familiar blue hand-knit sweater, worn and comfortable-looking like an old favorite he couldn’t bear to part with. Bran’s eyes zeroed in on Jonathan’s feet, crossed at the ankles beneath the open center of the antique desk, bare and strangely vulnerable. Sexy somehow. Perfectly manicured, too. He wanted to touch them, and what the fuck was up with that?
He tugged his gaze away from Jonathan’s feet and to the side of the desk, where— Huh. Where his cushion was not. Was Jonathan going to make him kneel on the bare hardwood?
Jonathan smiled up at him over the rim of his coffee mug and pointed at a straight-backed chair against the far wall. “Bring that over here and sit down.”
He was allowed to use the furniture now? He went to get the chair before Jonathan could change his mind, dragged it over and sat gingerly on the edge.
“Make yourself comfortable,” Jonathan said, grabbing a pile of papers and setting them in front of him. “I’m putting you to work today. Real work, not just the busy kind. I need these documents translated. Your Mandarin seems fluent enough. Give these a look and see what you can make of them.”
Bran started skimming the first page. Made it through a couple of paragraphs—your typical businesslike but sufficiently deferential executive greeting—before all the technical language froze him in his tracks. He couldn’t decipher half the words. Great. The first real work Jonathan had given him, and he was gonna end up letting the guy down.
And end up on the fucking punishment stool too, like as not.
“Uh . . .” He peered up at Jonathan, lower lip between his teeth. “Jonathan?”
“Hmm?” Jonathan didn’t even look up from his computer, so Bran’s sheepish You don’t really want to hurt me, right? look went totally wasted.
“I, uh, I can’t actually read this, Jonathan.”
Jonathan sipped demurely at his coffee, placed the mug back beside his keyboard—still without actually looking at Bran—and said, “Nonsense. I don’t know why you feel the need to hide how intelligent you are, but honestly, there’s no call for it here.” Another sip of coffee—God, Bran was jonesing for some of his own—and finally, Jonathan met his eyes. “You claimed to have simply osmosed Chinese, but that wouldn’t explain your ability to read the menu on our first date, so obviously you studied at some point—and studied hard. There’s no shame in being smart, Brandon. It only makes me respect you more, in fact.”
All well and good, if perhaps a little creepy—was there a single detail in the whole fucking world that Jonathan failed to notice?—but kinda missing the point. “What I meant, Jonathan, was I can’t read this specifically.” He thumped his index finger against the stack of papers, some technical report about . . . fuck, who knew. Computers, maybe? Some kind of manufacturing, anyway. “I’m on maybe a third-grade level. This looks as dense as a credit card user agreement.”
Jonathan blinked at him like he was as indecipherable as the report, but then nodded and said, “Ah. There’s a laptop on the desk in my bedroom. Go get it.”
Bran did as told and came right back. Opened up the laptop when ordered, and accessed the City College translation database, more than a little surprised his password was still good after three semesters without taking a single course there. At least he had some idea of what he was reading now, even if picking out the words was taking him for-fucking-ever. Over an hour just to make it through the first page, and the document was twenty pages long. At least Jonathan hadn’t given him a deadline.
He’d been hard at it for a while when his stomach started grumbling. Loudly. Jonathan threw him a look—embarrassed, rather than irritated. “My apologies,” Jonathan said. “It’s just, I’ve a number of obligations this week—catching up from last month, you understand—and I do tend to get lost in my work. I’m afraid I won’t be able to give you quite as much attention these next few days as you’re accustomed to.”
Oh, the horror.
“Nevertheless, it was careless of me to forget to feed you just because I’m not hungry.” Jonathan paused, tapped a flurry on the keyboard—chatting with someone live, maybe?—then raked a hand through his hair and turned his attention back to Bran. “Perhaps you should head down to the kitchen on your own. Please don’t think this means I can’t be bothered with you, or that I don’t want to feed you, but I’m afraid Sabrina will have to do it this morning.”
Still couldn’t feed himself, then? He’d hoped the whole furniture thing meant Jonathan had finally decided to start treating him like a human being, but apparently not quite.
His—what? Disappointment? Resentment?—must have shown on his face, because Jonathan reached across the desk, laid his hand atop Bran’s, and said, “What we’re doing here, what we’re trying to do . . . None of this comes naturally to you yet, though I imagine it might have, once upon a time, if you’d not been subjected to such narrow-minded ideals of masculinity. Yet all this can come naturally again if we work at it. And as with an actor playing a role, everything becomes easier, more real, with the right props and costumes and sets. The right co-stars to support you. All this?” Jonathan’s hand left Bran’s to wave at Bran’s naked body, the cuffs around his ankles and wrists, the hallway beyond—where, presumably, the hand-feeding awaited. “These are your trappings. To help you find your headspace. You may not understand it now—you may well hate it now—but it’s important you understand none of this is meant to debase you in any way.”
A long pause spent trying to wrap his head around everything Jonathan had just said. The man actually looked uncomfortable. Maybe even nervous?
“Do you?” Jonathan asked. “Understand, I mean?”
Good question. “I . . .” Too bad he didn’t have an answer, but fuck if he’d keep him waiting. “Not really? Jonathan.” Jonathan’s face fell ever so slightly, and Bran added, “I mean, I guess? I just . . . I guess I just don’t see how all this is supposed to work yet, is all.” Fairy dust, maybe? “I guess I’ll just have to—”
Jonathan straightened up, a hopeful glint in his eye, the beginnings of a smile creeping across his lips. Like he’d read Bran’s mind again, and Bran supposed that shouldn’t have come as any surprise at this point.
Never got any less uncomfortable, though. “Yeah, so, uh, I’ll just, uh . . .” He stood, made to stick his hands in his pockets and rather awkwardly encountered his bare thighs. “. . . go downstairs, Jonathan?”
Jonathan nodded. “Come right back when you’re finished,” he said, attention on his screen again as if Bran were already gone. “You’ve a big stack of papers awaiting your return.”
# # #
Bran felt like he’d been staring at the same fucking paragraph—hell, the same fucking sentence—for the past hour. He’d fallen into kind of a rhythm for about a page and a half, but now he was stuck. The translation database could only take him so far. He cast a glance at Jonathan, still hard at work after . . . how long had they been sitting here? Dwindling sunlight slanted in through the far window, a thin gold slice peeking over the Golden Gate Bridge.
God, his back was killing him. He wasn’t used to sitting still this long. Sitting still at all, really. He tried to stretch as best he could without standing, but it only redistributed the cramps from his upper back to his lower back.
It did catch Jonathan’s attention, though. “If you want to stand up,” Jonathan said, “go ahead. Stretch all you like.”
“Thank you, Jonathan.” He pushed to his feet and did exactly that, every vertebra in his back popping. His brain was cramping too, and his empty stomach. Jesus, when Jonathan got going, he never took a break. He hadn’t even stopped for lunch, just sent Bran down to the kitchen to fetch a tray.
As if on cue, the intercom buzzed: Sabrina, announcing that dinner was ready. “We’ll be right in,” Jonathan said, rising with a tiny groan. He rolled his neck before heading for the office door. “Come along.”
In the dining room was the familiar cushion beside Jonathan’s chair, one place set at the table. Bran thought about offering to rub Jonathan’s neck—hey, a few brownie points couldn’t hurt—but Jonathan’s gesture for him to kneel quashed that impulse.
This time he knew better than to hesitate before dropping onto the cushion. Besides, it wasn’t so bad down here. Trappings, Jonathan had said. Props, costumes, sets. It was easier to take when he thought about it that way.
A covered tray sat on the table. Jonathan lifted the lid to reveal six small plates of dumplings and rolls. Dim sum! Despite living in Chinatown, it’d been ages since he’d indulged in that.
Jonathan caught him smiling and smiled right back, leaned forward to cup his cheek in one hand. “Welcome back,” he said, all soft and full of affection. Like he was really glad Bran had come back. Even after all Bran had said and done. After how cruel Bran had been.
Bran turned his face into Jonathan’s palm and brushed a kiss across it. He wasn’t used to people being this nice to him—especially Jonathan. Hardly knew what to do with it. Almost wanted to skip dinner and show Jonathan his appreciation in a more mutually enjoyable fashion. “Thanks, Jonathan. This is really nice.”
“I thought you’d like it.” Jonathan spooned some sticky rice onto his plate, then scooped up a small bit with his fingers, rolled it into a ball, dipped it in a little bowl of sauce, and offered it to Bran. Bran took it eagerly, nipping and licking at Jonathan’s fingers. Couldn’t wait for the next bite, or the next, and not just because he was hungry. His gaze locked on Jonathan’s as Jonathan took a bite of his own, then cut a dumpling in half to offer Bran a piece. So damn good. The fingers in his mouth. Jonathan’s focused attention, his gentleness. Hell, Jonathan had hardly eaten anything himself, he was so busy taking care of Bran.
Not that Bran wasn’t perfectly capable of taking care of himself if only Jonathan would let him. But he supposed this wasn’t so bad, either. Lazy in a good way. Indulgent. The sort of thing a guy could get used to, maybe, if he had the luxury of enough money and time.
Or a sugar daddy. Bran grinned, chuckled to himself, shook his head when Jonathan raised a questioning eyebrow and looked down . . . at Bran’s rock-hard erection. Not very surprising—that just seemed to be what happened whenever Jonathan put his hands on him, or in him. Besides, he’d been expecting sex last night, and Jonathan had left him hanging. Jonathan’s fingers sliding between his lips as he fed him, lingering there and stroking, weren’t exactly helping.
More sticky rice, followed by a bite of eggroll. A sip of tea. A tiny bit dribbled from the corner of his mouth—tough to drink from such a delicate little mug when someone else was tipping it up for you, even with all the practice they’d had in the last month—and of course Jonathan wiped it away with the pad of his thumb. Stuck his thumb in Bran’s mouth and let it lie there, resting on the tip of his tongue, before he took it away.
The perfect dessert.
Actually, he could think of a better one. But he hadn’t forgotten those four demerits and didn’t plan on earning any more. So he remained on his knees while Jonathan gave him a few more bites in between feeding himself. Leaned into Jonathan’s touch when they’d both finished eating, Jonathan’s fingers carding through his hair, that familiar protective, possessive grasp at the nape of his neck.
The stroking hand fell away, and Jonathan stood, stepped close. Unzipped his pants without a word. His dick sprang right out from his fly, hard and leaking, and Bran needed no order, no more invitation than that. He closed the last few inches between them and sucked it into his mouth as surely as he’d sucked in Jonathan’s fingers. Savored it just as he’d savored the fine meal—long, leisurely strokes, teasing swipes of tongue—the dessert he’d been so eager for. Jonathan let him have it how he wanted it, didn’t grab his hair or fuck his throat or even say a single word except “Yes,” low and breathy through parted lips.
Bran meant to make this last.
He curled his fingers around Jonathan’s hips, not to stay the man’s involuntary movements, but rather to keep his hands away from his own dick, aching with a need so strong he knew he’d touch himself without thinking if given the chance. Which, he supposed, lent a sort of sense to the thought that flitted through his head, the one where he almost wished Jonathan had bound him first, where he thought this whole thing might actually be better that way, more enjoyable, more relaxing, because at least then he couldn’t slip up and get into trouble.
Jonathan’s hands threaded through his too-short hair, fingers curling into his scalp. “Just like this,” Jonathan panted, guiding him into a slow, deep stroke, dick briefly bumping the back of his throat before sliding, slick and steady, along the flat of his tongue until only the head remained in his mouth. “When I want it to last. Just like this.” Again, and yeah, it made Bran gag a little at the deepest point, but only for a second, and then that hot sweet glide of smooth skin, the fullness of it, the way his lips wrapped round the shaft, even the scent and the taste of it made up for that one small moment of discomfort. As did Jonathan’s breathy little moans, his grasping fingers, his stuttering hips—all that perfect control, his iron discipline, unraveling right in front of Bran, unraveling because of Bran, and even though he was on his knees with another man’s dick in his mouth, another man’s fingers tugging his hair, he felt powerful, wanted, like he could do anything, take Jonathan fucking Watkins apart one piece at a time and be thanked for it after.
Heady shit. A guy could get used to that.
Jonathan yanked free, gave Bran’s shoulders a push. “On your stomach,” he rasped, shoving Bran over, hands and knees, then flat on his belly, the cushion’s nappy fabric rough against his dick. It was almost enough to send him off. Almost.
Breath caught in his throat, he braced himself for the spit-slicked fingers probing between his cheeks, opening him with a flash of pain that did nothing to deter his looming orgasm. Jonathan’s hand closed over his hip, holding him in place as he slammed home, both of them moaning in stereo.
The sharp stab of entry had barely faded when Jonathan’s hand slid from Bran’s hip to his belly, urging him onto his hands and knees and then fisting his dick. Suddenly it was impossible to sort the pain from the pleasure, his every nerve a mass of friction and heat and sweet sharp edges he could barely wrap his head around. Two strokes, three, and the whole fucking world grayed out, then flashed back with an intensity that left his ears ringing. Fingers clenching, muscles spasming as sensation washed over and through him, nearly drowning him, and he let it sweep him away, spinning and dizzy and half fucking delirious with the sheer relief of it all.
Just as the waves began to recede and he managed to find his breath again, Jonathan made one final thrust, a grunt like he’d been body-checked, and stilled atop Bran. Held there, suspended as long in the moment as Bran had been, before dropping down heavy on top of him, chest to Bran’s sweaty back. They lay there, feeling each other’s hearts beat, Jonathan’s breath rasping in his ear. A hot, living blanket, and Bran closed his eyes and pressed his cheek to the cool hardwood floor, thinking he could fall asleep just like this and be happy.
Well, that’d gone as well as Jonathan could possibly have hoped. He felt so sated he didn’t even want to move, never mind that he was still lying atop Brandon, that they were sprawled on the dining room floor with his softening cock starting to complain about still being parked in Brandon’s too-tight hole.
Brandon seemed equally content. He was lying motionless beneath Jonathan, head turned, eyes closed, making the occasional satisfied little humming sound, like a man half asleep and already happily dreaming. His breathing had slowed and steadied. He wasn’t even complaining about Jonathan’s full weight pressing down on him.
Which confirmed something nearly beyond a shadow of a doubt: The suspicion the handcuffs had planted their first night in bed and that Brandon’s deep sleep while strapped to the floor had strengthened. The jury was still out on Brandon’s masochistic tendencies, but it seemed pretty clear he had a taste for bondage.
Now if only Jonathan could convince him of that.
He brushed a kiss across the nape of Brandon’s neck, then propped himself on his hands and slid free from Brandon’s ass. Brandon’s eyes squeezed momentarily tighter, but he made no sound, didn’t even move when Jonathan rocked to his feet. Brandon couldn’t be that comfortable, which left sated and tired. Good—perhaps he’d have no fight left in him for their little Q&A tonight.
“Come on, then,” Jonathan said, tucking himself away and zipping his pants. Brandon’s one visible eye rolled slowly up in Jonathan’s direction, blinked once, twice. He had to admit the man’s lethargy was satisfying, even flattering—so rarely had he been able to work Brandon into a stupor with pleasure instead of pain—but rules were rules, and more important now than ever, so he said, “Five.”
Brandon blinked again, sighed heavily, and dragged his palms up beneath his shoulders to heave himself off the floor. Jonathan took pity and helped him up.
“To the dungeon, then,” he said when Brandon was on his feet and staying there under his own steam. Brandon tossed him a wary glance, opened his mouth but then closed it again, brows drawn. So adorable like that, despite his hard edges and lines—vulnerable, frightened, nervous. Yet he followed along without argument.
Amazing—like night and day, this Brandon versus the Brandon who’d stormed out just over a week ago. “I’m not going to hurt you,” Jonathan said as he descended the first step of the spiral staircase: a reward, he told himself, for Brandon’s growth, for how hard the man was trying. No need to let him stew, after all. “At least,” he added, quirking a smile over his shoulder, taking in the relief writ large across Brandon’s guileless face, “I won’t if you don’t make me.”
Brandon’s tongue darted out, swiped across his lower lip, and he nodded. He looked like he wanted to say thank you but was afraid to speak out of turn. “You’re always free to express your gratitude, Brandon; I’ll never punish you for that.”
Predictably, Brandon rolled his eyes.
Jonathan paused on the staircase, smiled far too cheerily. “However, I will punish you for your sarcasm, spoken or no. That’ll be six, then.”
No eye-roll this time, but he could see the toll it took on Brandon to contain it; Brandon ended up sighing instead, hard enough to ruffle Jonathan’s hair.
“Seven,” Jonathan chirped. “You don’t listen well after sex, do you? Perhaps letting you orgasm is a bad idea.”
He decided to let Brandon’s narrow-eyed glare slide. Otherwise they’d never get off the staircase.
At last they made it into the dungeon. The chair and handcuffs were right where they’d left them the previous evening. Jonathan gestured for Brandon to take a seat, then circled around him to fasten the restraints on his wrists and ankles. Brandon gave an experimental tug, but other than that, he didn’t struggle at all, even when Jonathan flicked on the spotlight overhead.
Jonathan didn’t bother grabbing an implement this time, just dragged over the other chair and planted himself on it, leaning forward to look Brandon in the eye. “Tonight we’re going to do something a bit different. I’m still going to ask you questions, and you’ll still be punished if you lie. But, if you give me three satisfactory answers in a row, you’ll get to ask me a question and I’ll wipe your accumulated demerits clean.”
Brandon blinked, eyes slitted against the burning light. “Thank you, Jonathan?”
Jonathan smiled. “You think there’s a catch. There isn’t. Other than your full and unhesitating honesty.”
Brandon’s skeptical expression made it clear he thought that just as unlikely as Jonathan did. Still, it was progress, of a sort—he wasn’t fidgeting or mouthing off again. And it would give Jonathan a chance to determine if Brandon might respond better to honey than vinegar—something he should have tested long ago.
“So,” he said slowly, “tell me, do you like being tied up?”
Brandon’s shoulders stiffened, the cuffs rattling. “No.”
“Eight. Remember, just because I’m not holding a crop or a cane doesn’t mean you won’t be punished for lying.”
“Nine. And yes, you are. Else what are you doing here? Why did you sign the contract in the first place? Why did you come back?”
“Because I want . . .”
Jonathan let that hang in the air for a moment, then stood and took a step forward. Ran a hand along Brandon’s sweaty shoulder. He was baking beneath the spotlight already. “Finish your thought.”
“I want you to fix me!” Ragged, desperate. Completely honest. “You . . . did something to me. I can’t go back to the way things were before, but I can’t go on like this, either. You broke me. Now I need you to put me the fuck back together. And asking me bullshit questions isn’t gonna—”
“Actually,” Jonathan said, his hand closing over the nape of Brandon’s neck, kneading the corded muscle, “these bullshit questions are the only way to, as you say, put you back together. If you can’t even acknowledge the truth, how can you face it? If you can’t face it, how can you learn to live with it? Live in it, be happy with it? Comfortable in your own skin.” He slid his hand round to cup Brandon’s cheek, thumbed away a drop of sweat and tilted Brandon’s chin up to place a gentle kiss on his tightly pursed lips. Brandon didn’t offer the slightest pretense of kissing him back, but at least he didn’t jerk his chin from Jonathan’s grip, like he might’ve done not so long ago. “And that’s ten, by the way.” A smile to soften the bite of his words. “What did I tell you about that filthy mouth of yours?”
“That cursing is crass, Jonathan.”
“Sarcasm, sarcasm . . .” Jonathan tsked. “Eleven. Are you quite finished?”
Now Brandon did jerk his chin away, rattled the handcuffs. “Are you?”
Jonathan sighed, stepped away and dropped back into his chair. And he’d been doing so well . . . “Twelve,” he said round another sigh. How quickly the night had lost its pleasure. Even the thought of delivering those twelve blows just made him tired and sad. Surely he was missing something here—surely there had to be another way.
He scrubbed a hand through his hair, sighed again. “We seem to have wandered off on the wrong track, Brandon.”
Brandon eyed him steadily, said nothing. When the silence stretched, he nodded once, as if uncertain he should. He seemed calmer now, though his fists were still clenched.
“Don’t answer this—I just want you to think. You’ve had more orgasms in bondage here than you can likely count. That first night, when I took you home? The handcuff key was right there, yet you left them on. Last night, when I strapped you down, you settled. After all that tossing and fidgeting and bustle, you fell asleep in minutes once you’d been bound.”
“What else was I supposed to do pinned to the floor like that, Jonathan? Jiggle my foot all night?” Jonathan made to answer, but Brandon spoke right over him. “And that night with the handcuffs? You had me so fuc— You had me so worked up, no way was I leaving without getting off, and I thought you’d kick me out if I unlocked myself.”
He couldn’t tell if that was true or not, but Brandon certainly seemed sincere, if terribly defensive. As for speaking out of turn right after he’d told him not to, well, he was pleased enough with Brandon catching and correcting his language to let that slide this once.
“There’s no shame in liking it, you know. Babies stop crying when they’re swaddled. Almost all mammals settle when they’re held, no matter their age. A great many submissives love the sensation of heavy pressure. They find it calming. Soothing. An extension of the human need for touch. Simple biology. But if you look closer, if you stop fighting me and yourself, I think perhaps you might see there’s more to it than that.”
Brandon’s gaze dropped to the floor, chest hitching on a ragged breath. Even through the flush caused by the spotlight, he was blushing. “It’s . . . actually kind of . . . easier when you bind me, Jonathan. That way I know I can’t f— mess up. Can’t fight you, no matter how much I want to.”
Jonathan swallowed his astonishment at such a naked admission. Did Brandon even realize how much he’d just given him? Given himself? Yes, he still had a long way to go before he reached the deepest truth, but he’d taken a real first step. Knocked the first big brick from the wall he’d built so thick around him.
“That’s good,” Jonathan said, leaning forward to cup Brandon’s hand where it lay on the armrest. “That’s very good.”
Brandon still wouldn’t meet his eye, so he tucked a knuckle beneath Brandon’s chin, nudged gently until Brandon lifted his head. “Look at me. I’m proud of you.” He smiled, and Brandon smiled back—a weary, wobbly ghost of a thing. “That wasn’t so hard, now was it, telling the truth?”
Brandon met his gaze with a single sharply raised eyebrow and said, “Now who’s lying, Jonathan?”
Jonathan chuckled. Touché, my friend. Touché.