To the Very Last Inch (The Professor's Rule, #5)
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Just days after their scorching reunion, Professor Evander Carson has kicked his one-time pupil James Sheridan to the curb—and tried to sabotage James’s new relationship with Satish Malhotra. Something isn’t right here, but James isn’t sure he should bother trying to figure out what. Carson isn’t good for him and will never change. He needs to accept that and move on.
Satish knows something is up, too, but he thinks the relationship between Carson and James is worth saving. To do the right thing, Satish will have to make James and Carson confront the secrets they’ve hidden for years and help them to overcome the pain and mistrust they’ve caused.
But if Satish succeeds, where will that leave him and his intensifying romance with James? Will the three of them be able to find the right balance, or will James be forced to choose between the pain and submission he craves with Carson, and the sweet, vanilla stability he’s found with Satish?
This title comes with no special warnings.
Spoilery warnings (click to read):
non-explicit mentions of past dubious consent and drug use
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Four Years Earlier
The snap of the cane ignited another line of clinging, molten agony across the back of James’s thighs. He screamed, but barely heard his own voice. He writhed, but barely felt the bonds that restrained him. All he knew was the pain, and the contradictory yet somehow undeniably blissful freedom of being detached from his own body, his own cares, everything. He soared miles above it all, released from everything that kept him tethered to the earth except Carson, who pulled him in like a lodestone.
No more blows fell. Instead, there were cool fingertips tracing those scalding lines with the lightest of touches. Somewhere at the edge of awareness, the pressure on his wrists and ankles disappeared, though he didn’t have the strength to test his restored freedom. All he could do was lie there on that bench, panting and whimpering. When he rubbed his face against the padded leather surface, it was wet with sweat and tears.
“Come, my sweet.” Carson’s voice carried none of its customary brisk formality. It caressed James’s ears the way his fingertips caressed the welts, with tender deference for his fragile state. “Let’s get you to the bed.”
James managed to struggle to his feet with Carson’s arm about his shoulders, but his knees quickly buckled. Time had long since ceased to have any meaning; all that mattered was the sweaty warmth of Carson’s body as he pulled James close and let James cling to him, murmuring soft reassurances when his tears renewed. He supported James’s weight without complaint, until James was steady enough to cross those few feet to the other side of the room.
The bed in Carson’s basement playroom—he disliked the term “dungeon”—was as simple and spartan as the rest of the fixtures down there. But oh, the sheets were soft as lamb’s wool against James’s hypersensitive skin, and cool despite the glow of the gas fireplace nearby.
“Here. Drink.” A water bottle appeared, and liquid relief slid down his raw throat. Then it was gone and a wet cloth—as soft as the sheets, no abrasive dormitory-grade terrycloth for Carson—followed, carefully skirting James’s welts to clean his sweaty skin. He ignored the cloth and rubbed his face like an affectionate cat against the thigh near his head, where Carson leaned over the bed to tend him.
Music reached his ears, low and trancelike. Soothing. Spa music, or something like it. His bones were already the consistency of well-boiled pasta, and still he felt himself melting further into the mattress.
Soft, warm lips brushed his shoulder, and then his back, and Carson’s fingers carded through his damp hair. There was something almost reverent about the touches, though that could just be James’s disconnected state. Carson wasn’t usually like that with him, or at least not to this degree.
“Well, my sweet, do you think you’ll be sufficiently focused for your midterms this week?” Carson asked after a while, his voice still quiet and gentle. Nothing too shocking. The question began the process of reeling James in, bringing him back down to earth, reestablishing him in reality. He wanted to ignore it, but this was Carson. He couldn’t have ignored Carson if his life depended on it.
“Yes, Professor,” he slurred. Carson sat on the bed next to him, and James did the face-rub again, smearing his tears on the fine wool slacks covering Carson’s hip. That was what this had all been about, he recalled distantly. He had opted to take a load of summer courses—condensed classes that were kicking his ass. And he and Carson had discovered way back in the fall term, the first time Carson had spanked him with that damn ruler, that the lingering pain of a beating centered him, sharpened his focus.
The nuzzling he was doing against Carson’s hip turned into a kiss, and it didn’t even matter that his lips touched fabric and not skin. James just had to kiss him, had to release some of this emotion burgeoning inside him. He always felt connected to Carson after a scene, but today it was particularly close. Intimate, maybe even a little needy.
Felt like . . . like . . .
God, it felt like he was in love.
That thought should bother him, because that so wasn’t the deal with him and Carson. What they did wasn’t about love; it was about James’s need for pain, Carson’s need for control, and a lot of extremely hot sex. Hell, when they had first begun seeing each other, he had barely been able to stand Carson, no matter how much he craved what Carson did to his body. How could love possibly evolve from that?
But right now it didn’t matter. It was probably the high, anyway, so he should just enjoy it and slowly descend back to the reality where he and Carson had a lot of hot fun together, but weren’t tangled up in ill-advised emotions.
“Do you need anything, my sweet?” Carson asked. The backs of his knuckles caressed James’s cheekbone, his voice tender. God, so tender. He was always kind and solicitous after a scene, but this was something more.
“Yeah.” He meant to say “fuck me,” but that wasn’t how the request came out. “Make love to me.”
Carson went the slightest bit still, just for an instant, and then slid off the edge of the bed, kneeling beside it so that he was close enough to truly kiss. Which James did, and it was slow and soft, and it gripped something in his chest and refused to let go.
He lay there, still half in his haze while Carson stripped. It was neither a frenzied effort to lose his clothes as quickly as possible, nor a deliberate striptease. Carson’s eyes never left James, but held his gaze, and they were sober. Intent.
And then Carson was in bed, his skin warm against James’s. His graying chest hair scrubbed against James’s nipples—when had James rolled onto his back, and also, Jesus, ow, his welts—as he laid himself carefully over James and kissed him again. And again. And each one was like the first, full of an adoration that had to be all in James’s head, but it didn’t matter because it felt so damn wonderful that he wanted to laugh and weep at the same time.
Carson didn’t try to fuck him, though James wouldn’t have minded if he had, welts be damned. He merely grasped both their cocks in his long-fingered hand and began to thrust slowly against James between those worshipful kisses, moving until hot, thick fluid surged between their bellies, combining and melding into a single slippery layer.
Afterward, as Carson held him gingerly, his featherlight kisses roaming the back of James’s neck and shoulders, James let himself drift off into sleep. He should probably be fretting and trying to figure out where all those weird thoughts about love had come from, but it just didn’t seem important. He could worry about it later.
James rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes and then against his runny nose. Fuck, why didn’t he keep tissues in the car?
There were very few bikers or joggers on the Eastbank Esplanade at nearly midnight, which meant that James was alone on his bench beside the Willamette River, looking across the water at the twinkling beauty of downtown Portland at night.
He hadn’t thought about those early days of his relationship with Carson for years, but what better time to reminisce than after being dumped? It had been easy when he left Carson two years ago to remember only the stuff that had gone wrong and forget about when it had been good. But then, it was soon after that moment—when James realized he could love Carson—that things started to go wrong. Just a week later, everything changed and the downward spiral began, though it had taken nearly two years before James finally called it quits.
His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he considered not checking it, but whether it was Satish or maybe even Carson, he needed to talk to them. Not that he thought Carson would try contacting him, but maybe, if he was lucky, fate had decided it was time for a cosmic replay and declared a do-over.
But no. It was Satish.
Hey. Heading to bed soon, but wanted to say good night. How did things go? You okay?
He swallowed hard. Oh, no. Fuck no. He was the farthest thing from okay. What the fuck had happened back there at Carson’s place? Carson hadn’t seemed defensive or anything James had expected. He’d seemed resigned and relieved, but also . . . defeated? Why? James was no longer on the same page as Carson. He’d missed whole chapters. Hell, he wasn’t sure he was even in the same book anymore.
Um, not really. Pathetic answer, but what was he supposed to do, pretend everything was sunshine and flowers?
There was a long pause on Satish’s end, and then: Come over?
You said you had to be up early.
Nbd. We can talk when you get here.
He stared at the sparkling skyline a moment longer, trying to decide if he was willing to move or if he just wanted to sit there until he grew moss on his north side. Finally he heaved a sigh. Okay. Be there soon.
“So he just sent you packing?” Satish put James’s cup of tea down in front of him. Tea, because he didn’t know what else to offer a guy who looked as bad off as James when said guy didn’t drink alcohol. It was annoying enough that Satish’s roommates had lit up out in the living room earlier and the smell still lingered. Now they were playing video games, which meant he and James kept getting startled by shouts and curses.
“Yeah.” James took his mug between both hands and hunched on the chair by Satish’s dresser. “I don’t know. It was weird.”
“Weird how?” Satish sat on the bed, crossing his legs and resting his elbows on his knees.
“Well, he didn’t even try to deny that he told you to keep your distance, but made it sound like I had totally misunderstood. Which—damn it! No! I’m not going to let him twist my head around until I blame myself for this whole fucking mess.”
“Right.” Satish said firmly. With the shit Carson was pulling, there was no fucking way Satish would let James take the blame, either. “Please, don’t. You know you’re not in the wrong. You know and I know and he knows. But what do you mean, he tried to make it sound like you misunderstood? How do you misunderstand something like that?”
“He said it was reverse psychology, which—I mean, lame, right?” James rolled his eyes. “And then it was all about how I never trusted him. Like, how the hell can you claim someone who lets you beat him black and blue doesn’t trust you?” His shoulders sagged. “I don’t know. I guess he could have been playing you to get you to call me again. It’s totally his style to manipulate people like that.”
Satish nodded a grudging agreement. “Yeah, I guess it could be. I have to admit that I’m still pissed at him, but if I’m being fair, I’d say it was pretty fucking effective, too. If he’d come straight out and stood up for you, pushed me to see you again, I probably would’ve gotten even more furious about this guy I didn’t know getting up in my business, and then I definitely wouldn’t have texted you.” He shrugged, twitching even at the thought of giving Carson the benefit of the doubt.
“Right. Okay, so maybe he was trying to help . . . in his way.” He growled suddenly, running a hand though his hair. “Fuck! You can’t just manipulate people like that and still complain about them not trusting you! Why not just fucking explain it?”
Satish didn’t have an answer to that. He was still trying to decide what irritated him more: Carson sincerely warning him off James, or Carson pulling his strings like a puppet master.
When he remained silent, James closed his eyes and sighed tiredly. “I just don’t get it. If he was trying to get you to call me, why do that, then get all upset and break up with me? He got what he wanted, right?”
“Guess that depends on what he wanted.” Satish shrugged. “Did he help because you wanted to be with me and he wanted to give you what you wanted? Or did he want you to be with me? There’s a difference.”
James shook his head, his eyes crossing. “Can we unravel all those ‘wants’? Eh, fuck it. I get what you mean. But come on, he’s always urged me to see other guys. I just figured he got off on it, you know? Just another one of his crazy kinks.”
“He liked watching you?” Satish couldn’t help being slightly intrigued by the possibility.
“Well, not . . . not really? I mean, sure, sometimes there was a bit of a voyeurism thing going on . . . you know, at sex parties and stuff. Mostly he just picked out guys in random places like restaurants or coffee shops. Or even at school, once.” He chuffed a humorless laugh. “I used to say he’d given me my marching orders. He’d point to the guy and say ‘Go ask him out,’ and then he’d disappear and I’d meet up with him back at his place after I was done. He didn’t stay to watch, usually. He didn’t even ask for all the dirty details of what we did.”
Satish frowned. “That’s weird. Why not stick around if he was getting his rocks off on it? Is that how it was that day in the dressing room?”
“Actually, that was a little different. That’s the closest he’s come to being present for something like that, the most explicit he’s been about what he wanted me to do sexually. Mostly, he just wanted to know if I’d had a good time or if I’d liked the guy, and then he’d—” James’s cheeks flushed. “And then he’d fuck me like he had something to prove. Then, a couple weeks or months later, he’d pick a new guy and it’d start all over again.”
“And that’s what he did with me,” Satish said softly. His irritation was fading, though he couldn’t decide if it was because he was too concerned with James’s obvious distress to be in a snit, or if it just didn’t bother him as much now. He should still be furious, but that wasn’t going to help James.
Weird. This was exactly what he’d wanted when he’d arrived at the pool that morning to meet James for their swim. He’d wanted James to break up with Carson so he’d be available for Satish to have all to himself. But after spending the day learning what he’d learned about James—about how important what he and Carson did together was—he knew it wasn’t ever going to work out well that way.
Mostly, right now, he just felt sad and worried. For James, and for the prospects of their relationship, but also, strangely, for Carson.
“Okay,” Satish sighed after a long moment. “I’m probably way off base here, but are you sure he just wanted you to sleep with those guys? Because if it were anyone else acting like that toward someone, I’d say they were matchmaking, trying to set up a date and see if you hit it off. And trust me, my mom’s a pro at it; I know my matchmakers.”
“I don’t—” James frowned, and his eyes flashed with tears as some troubling memory crossed his face. “But that makes even less sense. It damn sure didn’t seem like that at the time.”
“Well, what did it seem like?”
James hunched over in his chair again, his mug between his parted knees. He fell silent for a moment, and then began to explain.
Four Years Earlier
James nearly shook with eagerness as he let himself into Carson’s house after his last midterm. He had thought the emotional intensity would have faded with last week’s endorphin high, but no. His heart still raced whenever he thought about it, and he’d decided that he had to give in and accept that he could fall for Carson. Really fall for him. Might even be starting to already. Which was probably a terrible idea on any number of levels, and almost certainly not one Carson would approve of. But James was surprisingly okay with it. If it happened, it happened, and he was content and settled enough in his life now that he was willing to see where it would take them.
His heart filled his throat as he closed the front door behind him, looking around the familiar foyer. He ached to see Carson again, and not just because he wanted the pain and control Carson used on him. Was it possible Carson had felt it, too? That shift between them? He had to find out.
He made his way upstairs to the bedroom that was technically his, though he never slept in it. He expected to strip and prepare himself for Carson, but Carson was there in the room already, laying out clothing on the bed.
Like, real clothing. The kind you went out and about in, not the kind you wore while playing kinky games in the basement.
“There you are, my sweet,” Carson said briskly, barely looking at James, much less greeting him with anything more substantial than a vaguely distracted smile. “Come. Get yourself ready. We’re going out to celebrate the end of your midterms.”
Out? Seriously? He tried not to frown and stepped on the complaint that rose immediately to his lips. He’d had something entirely different in mind to celebrate kicking ass on those tests.
“I— Professor, I thought we would be staying in this weekend,” he ventured, gnawing on his lip. Damn it, he didn’t want to disappoint Carson. Since his initial resistance to the spanking games—which he could now admit had totally been a case of protesting too much—he had never raised a single murmur of objection to anything Carson had required of him, even when he’d had some significant doubts. His safeword was unused thus far and he intended for it to stay that way, though he didn’t mention that to Carson, because Carson was always double-checking with him to be sure James knew he could use his safeword. He didn’t get that James felt like using it would be admitting defeat. He’d spent enough of the last few years failing, letting people he cared about down. When he got out of rehab, he’d sworn it would never happen again.
Carson’s lips gave a smug tilt in response to James’s surprise, and he squeezed James’s shoulder as he passed. “There will be plenty of time for that on another night. Get dressed, I’ll wait for you downstairs.”
Carson’s idea of going out to celebrate was to go to a club, which surprised the hell out of James. Carson didn’t seem the type, but whether he was more familiar with the club scene than he let on, or just had the confidence to move through any environment like he belonged there, he didn’t appear the least bit out of place. He’d ordered sodas for them both and told James to feel free to dance if he wished to.
“What about you?” James sipped his Coke, trying not to frown. The club was—thankfully—not one that his former dealer ever frequented, but it was still a loud, hot mass of gyrating bodies, with lights brightly flashing and the air heavy with the scent of sweat, cologne, canned fog, and pheromones.
He would have much rather been in Carson’s basement, where the only light came from the fireplace and the only noise was the fall of the lash, his own screams, and Carson’s murmured solicitude or stern commands.
Carson smiled that distant smile again. “I’m afraid dancing is one activity I’ve never had a particular aptitude for. But by all means, enjoy yourself. This evening is for you.”
James swallowed, his reluctance to leave his Professor’s side so strong it was like an anchor holding him in place. It seemed to have actual physical weight, all of it sitting on his gut. He wanted to be with Carson, not unremarkable strangers in a crowd.
He groped for some excuse not to. It was tempting to say that his painstakingly reconstructed knee wouldn’t tolerate dancing, but he couldn’t bring himself to lie to Carson, and Carson would probably know if he did. “Do you want me to go dance?”
Now Carson frowned, and the expression made James’s stomach tighten. Was he disappointing Carson, not being as into this treat as Carson had hoped? “It would please me to see you enjoying yourself, James. You’ve worked hard, and denied yourself many pleasures since you got out of rehab.” He glanced past James’s shoulder, his eyes fixing on something at the other end of the bar. “That young man over there has been admiring you since you walked in.”
James turned to follow Carson’s gaze, and sure enough, there was a guy checking him out and not being shy about it. He looked like he was maybe a grad student, a couple years older than James. He was attractive enough, but meh. Way too young.
Jesus. When had guys his own age or a little older started to seem too young? Probably around the time he went to rehab, he supposed. Guys who hadn’t dealt with the things he’d dealt with just seemed painfully immature now.
“Go introduce yourself,” Carson urged. “Spend some time with him. Do whatever you’d like with him.”
James stared in surprise, and then his eyes narrowed. Wait. Hold up. Was this some new kinky game? Did Carson get off on the idea of James with another guy?
That weight in his gut hitched up a little higher, squashing his heart and lungs underneath it as well.
Guess that answers my question about whether Carson might feel more, too.
“I don’t understand.” James lowered his eyes until they stopped stinging. He had to clear his throat to keep his voice from sounding too strained or emotional. “Are you saying you want me to go fuck that guy?”
Carson twitched almost as though he were startled, but when James looked up to meet his eyes once more, his face was expressionless but for the calm indifference that was classic Carson.
“Would you enjoy that, my sweet?” Even Carson’s voice was neutral.
Fuck. Fuck Carson and fuck himself for being an idiot.
“Yeah, sure,” James gritted from between clenched teeth, forcing a smile that probably looked like he’d swallowed something sour. Fine. Whatever. If this was how Carson got his jollies, James could play along. It would definitely make it easier to remind himself just what the situation between him and Carson really was. They weren’t in a relationship. They would never be boyfriends or lovers or whatever. They were hot for each other and enjoyed kinky spanking games, and that was all it ever would be. “I could do that.”
“Then by all means.” Carson swept his hand out in an inviting gesture. “Have fun, James. I’ll be here when you return.”
“Fine.” James managed not to give Carson a resentful glare and stalked away.
The halls of the history building were cool and quiet; classes were over for the day, and the advisory appointments he’d come in to his office to attend were finished. Still, Evander couldn’t bring himself to return to his empty house. The thought of going home to the place when James’s presence would never warm it again was too much to contemplate. Instead, he decided to spend his time organizing files that his T.A. had already left in perfect order.
He’d done what was necessary. He knew that, but no matter how many times he told himself so, it didn’t make the hollow ache any less. He should have known better than to get his hopes up when James had returned to him, but where James was concerned, Evander had always been rather foolish.
He never should have let himself imagine that it would be any different this time.
A soft rap on the partially open door dragged his attention from the file he’d been staring at, startling him. He pulled himself together with a blink, smoothing the expression from his face. “Enter.”
The sight of Satish standing there made the ache beneath his ribs worse. Satish cleared his throat and shook his head with a mildly annoyed expression. He muttered something under his breath that sounded a lot like “Not boyfriends, my brown ass,” before raising his voice and meeting Evander’s eyes. “You look almost as bad as James.”
The knowledge that James might feel anything approaching this sort of ache didn’t help. Evander tightened his jaw in an attempt at smothering whatever Satish thought he saw on his face. “Satish. I imagined you’d be off somewhere becoming better acquainted with James. What brings you here?”
“I’m trying to figure out what the hell you think you’re playing at. Is this another one of your reverse psychology stunts? Send James packing in the hopes that he’ll realize he actually wants you instead of me?”
“I beg your pardon?” Evander forced a wry smile to his lips. “Are you under the impression that I owe you any explanations?”
“Maybe you don’t owe them to me—actually, you probably do, considering I’m the one you pulled into your games without permission—but you definitely owe some to James.”
Evander couldn’t help the condescension that crept into his voice. “You seem an able lad. I’m sure you’re more than willing to provide any assurance James might need from this point on.”
Satish rolled his eyes. “Oh, for— Will you please just cut the bullshit? Stop the head games, because I’m not buying it, okay? Jeez, where do you get off accusing James of not trusting you when you’re not even the slightest bit capable of giving a straight answer?”
Evander clenched his hands on the edge of his desk, cool anger straining his effort to appear unaffected. “What has or has not passed between James and myself is not your concern, nor do you know nearly as much as you assume you do about the intricacies of our relationship. Now, kindly show yourself out.” He swept a hand toward the door and turned his attention resolutely back to the file on his desk. The click of the door shutting was expected, but not the squeak and thump in the chair across the desk from him. He raised his head to see Satish giving him a narrow-eyed look, as though daring Evander to try to throw him out.
Satish folded his arms across his chest. “Maybe I know more than you assume I do.”
“Really.” He dropped his pen on his desk and sat back, mirroring Satish’s movements until he realized that all the aggressive posturing was bordering on ludicrous. “Do enlighten me.”
“First tell me one thing.” Satish leaned forward, his expression open and frank. “Why were you pushing James at all those other guys?”
He snorted softly. “Surely James has already informed you that I’m a deviant who gets perverse thrills from playing voyeuristic games with his students.” He heard the note of bitterness creep back into his tone and tried to soften it. It had been a blow, to discover so late in their relationship what James had thought of him.
“He didn’t phrase it quite like that, but yeah, that’s basically what he said. But from where I sit?” Satish shrugged with that wry smile again. “It sounds more like you were trying to find him a boyfriend than just some random guy to fuck.”
Something thumped in Evander’s chest, astonishment and fear and even—God help him—hope, all combining to soften the barriers he’d put up between himself and the young man seated across from him.
He allowed himself a slight smile, rubbing a hand over his jaw. “That’s an interesting theory, Satish. And why do you think I would do such a thing?”
“That’s what I can’t figure out. Unless you were looking for your own replacement.” Satish gave him a level look. “Am I getting warmer?”
Evander managed not to swallow against the lump in his throat, but couldn’t continue watching those dark, perceptive eyes. He turned to stare out the window, letting the memory wash over him of that night when he’d realized James might be falling in love with him.
The discovery hadn’t filled him with joy, but with agony. The difference in their ages hadn’t seemed like an issue until then; before that, he had assumed that whatever pleasures he and James sought with one another were purely temporary. But to develop more abiding feelings could only have ended in sorrow.
He sighed, still unable to meet Satish’s eyes. “You’re a very astute lad,” he murmured, drumming his fingertips on the blotter. One corner of his mouth lifted in a bittersweet attempt at a smile. “James chose well when he settled his interest on you.”
“James hasn’t chosen at all,” Satish said flatly. “He can’t.”
“Hmm. I daresay you’re right.” He finally got up the courage to face Satish once more. “All the more reason to have ended things. So he won’t have to.”
“See, I don’t get that.” Satish’s voice rose as he swept a hand through his dark curls. “Why on earth would you try to push him toward someone else when he clearly wanted you?”
Evander sat upright, folding his hands and staring intently at his interlaced fingers for a moment, trying to decide just how much he wanted to reveal to this stranger, this interloper who would end up being the one to finally detach James from him. He drew a deep breath and released it before looking back at Satish. “James must have explained some of his history to you—”
“You mean the drugs?” Satish interrupted, and Evander nodded brusquely. “Yeah, he has.”
“Then perhaps you’ve noticed that James sometimes forgets to be his own age. He’s seen too much, done too much he regrets. There are times when he’s an old man living in a young man’s body. He needs someone who can help him be young and enjoy the pleasures of his youth.”
Satish blinked. “Wait. So you kept trying to fix him up with someone because you felt you were too old for him? Seriously? That’s what all this has been about?”
He shrugged. “You yourself were quick to point out the age difference, were you not?”
Satish rolled his eyes. “That is such bullshit.” Evander’s eyebrows lifted in surprise, inspiring a scoff from Satish. “He’s a grown fucking adult. You don’t get to decide what he does and doesn’t need. I mean, seriously? Are you always such a condescending prick?”