by Lynn Kelling
To everyone else, Trace is an enigmatic and carefully controlled Dominant. He runs Diadem, a private BDSM club and is a Master and mentor to his fellow Doms and their lovers—Gabriel, Darrek, Ben, and Kyle—while trying to be Master and lover for Micah. Trace is the one they all depend on to step in when anything or anyone threatens his closest friends.
But even Trace is in over his head when haunting events of the past endanger all their lives. Trace is forced to call on old connections for help from the world he tried to leave behind—the Master’s Circle in England. Tensions rise to a fever pitch as Trace’s hidden truths shake up the lives of everyone in his tangled, tight-knit family. (M/M+)
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Chapter 5: In Love and Loss
Ten Years Ago
Micah is seriously, diligently trying to lose himself in the moment. It’s late. They’d had a quiet dinner at home and danced barefoot in the kitchen to music from the radio before retreating to the bedroom. Crouched by the foot of their bed with his head nestled between Lilianna’s firm, smooth, caramel-colored thighs, he kisses and licks her. He’s fairly certain he’s doing a good job at giving her pleasure, and not only because his wife is quite vocal about what she likes and how she likes it. With his eyes closed, his mind free of worries or cares, Micah gets lost in the beautiful, sexy woman who is to him everything warm and good, and pushes his tongue in deeper.
“Oh!” Lilianna exclaims, not really like someone who’s about to get off, but, rather, someone who just remembered that thing they forgot, which has been bugging them all day.
Sighing, Micah lifts his head to see her face. On her back, gazing happily at the ceiling, one hand tangled in her long, dark hair and the other gripping the top of her leg, Lilianna makes a curious humming sound.
“You always sound so surprised,” Micah observes, squinting warily at her. He’s not as exasperated as he could be, at least not until she begins to giggle. “The giggling doesn’t help my confidence here, either.”
“I’m sorry,” she apologizes and it sounds sincere, but she’s still laughing even though she’s trying very hard to compose herself and make her expression a serious one. It’s not really working.
Rolling his eyes and settling back down, he caresses her silky soft skin. As he nuzzles against her inner thigh, dragging kisses here and there, he hears her say conversationally, “You know, the first time I was with a guy, as in, you know, close encounters with a penis, the biggest surprise was—”
“Oh, here it comes.”
“It moves!” she says brightly, giggling even more helplessly. He gives it up for the moment at least and climbs up to lie atop her, gazing with frustrated wonder at her sweet face. “It moves on its own. Like a… like a snake.”
“Jesus, Lil,” he sighs with dull amazement. It does make him smile, though, but he does his best not to laugh with her, as much as he wants to. His pride demands it. “That’s what you think about while I’m tonguing your clit? Some guy’s twitchy johnson?”
Lost in the giggle fit, she argues, “I mean, they don’t tell you that!”
Squinting again, he asks, “Who is ‘they’? Your parents? They never sat you down when you were a young girl, perhaps on the way back from church, to have the all-important twitchy johnson talk? And now you’re snorting. Fantastic.”
She covers her face with her hands, snorting and laughing hysterically.
He makes himself comfortable, because there’s no telling how long it’ll take her to settle down again. He consoles himself with the knowledge that he’s got a naked, aroused, hot as hell and very leggy woman wrapping herself around him.
“I love you,” she grins happily.
“Can we move on now? We done?”
“Yes,” she says, calming down and raking her fingers through his hair, drawing her legs more snugly around his lower back. He reaches down between their bodies and lines himself up with her.
“Wait!” she says abruptly, her eyes lighting up.
“Wait?” he echoes, confused again.
“I want to do something for you too,” she explains, making that sweetly imploring face she knows he can’t resist. Her voice softens. Like the temptress she is, she tries to hypnotize him into agreeing before she properly explains herself and her motives.
Letting go of his dick and planting the hand instead on the bed by her side, he asks pointedly, “What do you think this is, lady?”
Her smile only grows, and she’s like a cat brushing against him, purring softly and he knows where this is going, or he has a good idea at least.
“No, I mean it,” Lilianna says. “C’mere.”
She has him and she rolls them. He doesn’t fight it. In fact, once they’re on their sides, he shifts onto his stomach, holding his face in his hands. Speaking against his palms, he groans, “Lil…”
She kisses along the side of his jaw, down his neck and around the back of his shoulder. Her hand skims down the length of his back, her dainty fingers tickling over his skin. Down the side of his thigh, over to between his legs she rubs lightly. Drawing the hand up his inner thigh to the crease of his ass, she slides her index finger into him in one push.
“I want to,” she says breathlessly, eagerly and with plenty of intent. The finger pumps inside the clenched ring of muscle. “Please? Please?”
A few minutes later, she has the damned harness strapped on and he’s full to bursting with the lube-slicked phallus attached to it. Crying out roughly, panting, sweating, he can’t bring himself to look at her, not when he’s in such a state—humiliated and aroused, vulnerable and wild—and keeps his face turned down toward the bed as she rides him in smooth strokes. The thing that makes his skin pebble and stiffens his cock, sliding easily in her small fist, is how much Lilianna is obviously getting off on this, maybe even more than the cunnilingus. She moans like the dildo is part of her and she can feel Micah’s ass gripping the shaft, and yes, it’s unspeakably hot.
She takes him up the edge, pumping the toy into him, jacking his dick harder and faster until he shouts, “Fuck!” Shuddering with his release, feeling her small fingers play in the hot fluid of his spend, he gasps, “I love you too.”
“Mm,” she hums happily, “there it is. Say thank you, and mean it.” It’s not a request, it’s an order. But she has him and there is no fighting her, not when she gets like this. She owns him completely.
“Thank you,” he answers, meaning it entirely. He still can’t glance back at her, though. Blushing, he tries to hold in small panting sounds and grunts as she keeps going, rocking against him in just the right way.
“God, I really love you,” she chuckles when he shivers and arches on the bed, pushing back onto the toy.
“Fuck,” he rasps, but it doesn’t matter. He’s lost and nothing else exists but her.
It’s terrifying what time can do to you. Sometimes, no matter how many material possessions you accumulate, or accomplishments you achieve, it still adds up to not much worth anything. Micah sits in his large, fine house—nicer than any of his friends’ houses—in an office where the walls are lined with his framed and immaculately displayed degrees, photos of professional triumphs such as the company he built from the ground up, then sold for millions of dollars in profit, his bank accounts filled with as much money as he will ever need. He wishes it all could help fix what’s wrong inside of him and with his marriage. He wishes it all meant something to him anymore.
His hand, trembling, rests on the remote control for the video screen perched on the elegant desk in front of him. He has no thought of Lilianna other than, for once, hoping she stays away instead of just expecting her to. Typically, he’s praying for her return, her attention, or her care. But she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care, and why should she? Her husband isn’t just having an affair behind her back with another man who she thinks is just a friend they have threesomes with once in a while. Now he’s gone and fallen in love. Micah feels more alive with Trace than he has with Lilianna in years. Every time he looks at her, he feels the lies he’s telling constantly now, like silent, unseen barbs shot into her back, driving her away to someone else. Saoirse wasn’t there through the torture and loss, so she still has the ability to have a conversation with Lilianna that isn’t layered with subtle bitterness and accusation.
They used to be happy together. Micah and Lilianna would laugh and find the humor in any situation. It made it easier to get through the tough times. But humor doesn’t get you through hellish nightmares chewing up their lives, gutting their hope. Lilianna turns her face from Micah now. Out of self-preservation, she lowers her gaze, closes him out, and he doesn’t know if he can ever get her back. He can’t take it. He’s sick of living beside the woman who used to be his best friend in the world, constantly reminded how their closeness has withered because of the mistakes he’s made. Now, with Lilianna looking elsewhere for sex, love, and trust, Micah has been left to fend for himself, trying to piece back together the tattered scraps of their world, losing a little more every day of the one person who was supposed to be his best friend forever.
The office door is securely locked against her, but she won’t try to come in anyway. She probably left the house entirely in order to not be anywhere near him. He doesn’t blame her. She’s never been able to tolerate him when he gets like this, because now Micah is the poison, corrupting everything he touches. He deserves pain. He deserves everything he’s suffered through and more.
Guilt is a pang in his chest, because he knows he won’t call. Not today.
It’s Moira’s birthday.
You should have reminded him, a voice barks angrily. The voice sounds a little like Ben, enough to make the corner of Micah’s mouth twitch in an almost-smile. He’s human, you silly bitch. He forgets shit just like everyone else.
They should be having a party. There should be family and friends gathered in celebration, laughter and presents, shining, colorful balloons and a big, decadent cake. They should be so happy.
But all they have is this. This large, fine house, silent as a tomb; this office littered with accolades that count for nothing, except money he doesn’t spend, with honor that feels hollow; and a pathetic man who used to be a good husband, and a father.
Submitting helps. In fact, it’s one of the only things that helps him cope and continue to get out of bed every day. Conversely, dominating helps him vent, purging some of the tightly bottled emotion inside him. Plus, he gets a rush off of it like nothing else. The ways he enjoys submitting and dominating are really quite different. The pleasure of each originates from opposite ends of the spectrum of his identity. But really, there is only one way to crack the hard shell formed around his emotional core, and get to what is trapped inside.
Oh, how he wants to be back there when life was so good, holding his baby in his arms, seeing her smile, hearing her laugh, and taking her hand. He’s so mad it’s gone, like it never was, like it was erased, like she was erased. He knows it was real. It was the best of him, the best of bothof them—those years, that wonderful little girl.
With one press of his finger, and a click of one button, he presses play and the delicate sound of old, recorded, gentle laughter fills the air.
The effect is quick and devastating.
It comes erupting up from the depths in a hot spray that splatters the fine walls, the trophies and trappings of sanity. Everything bubbles, boils and melts, coursing to the floors, burning through those too, eating through earth and rock, dripping down even unto hell itself.
Micah doesn’t know why he does it to himself, watching the videos, driving himself to madness with the proof of what could have been and will never be, but he does, and the screams come from way, way down, below the fury and the pain and the unfairness of it all.
Because there is nothing else of her left.
She would have been six.
Zippered pouch in hand, Trace slams the door of his truck closed, exhaling a heavy breath. His dark hair, interspersed with plenty of gray, is loose about his shoulders but the bandana tied around his head keeps it out of his eyes. The fall weather gives the air some bite, but even though he’s wearing a sleeveless shirt and no jacket, he doesn’t mind the cold.
He’s left the truck’s engine running. The sound of the radio through the window’s glass is muffled. His boots crunch over loose gravel and dirt of the long, winding drive which reaches around to the back of the property. That’s where he parked. The sun is bright, the wind blowing gently. Lilianna sits on the back step, elbows on her knees, quaking subtly, like she’s recovering from shock, and sucks hard on the end of a burnt-down cigarette. Her long, dark hair is pulled tightly back, her almond-shaped, exotic-looking eyes focused on nothing.
The breeze quiets for a moment and Trace is sure he can hear Micah, deep within the house. He shouldn’t be able to, but it is what it is.
Lilianna had sent him a simple, coded text—MM911—maybe twenty seconds after Trace remembered on his own, slamming a fist in frustration with himself against the beat-up old Ford in his garage, which he’d been tinkering with at the time.
Life is shitty like that sometimes. Blame it on the chaos, or his waning ability to manage so much at once, or his age. He knows he’s not perfect, but he should be better than this. For Micah especially, he should.
“Hey, beautiful,” he says in greeting to Lilianna. It’s full of apology and a resigned, tired sort of sorrow. “He in the office again?”
She nods without looking anywhere near his face, one knee bouncing, making quite a picture there, huddled like she’s just waiting for her own house to swoop in from behind like a giant monster to gobble her up.
Yeah, ain’t I her proud, white knight come to save her?
He knows it’s not his place to tell her about Micah’s feelings and infidelities. That’s something Micah needs to own up to himself, hopefully sooner than later. Still, he hates seeing her question herself on such fundamental levels, especially after everything she’s already been through with Moira. She’s endured the most awful kind of loss, one no one ever should have to face. Now she’s losing Micah, too, and, little does she know, Trace is the one stealing him away.
Maybe he shouldn’t, for her sake, but he does set his hand briefly on her shoulder as he passes. Without having to look, he knows her cheeks are free from tears. They hollow as she draws smoke into her lungs, eyes still diligently averted. He hates that quaking, though. It makes him angry at many things at once, wishing there was something there to fight and rip apart with his bare hands, for the sake of everyone he knows who’s in pain from impossible, intangible things.
Feeling each and every one of his forty-nine years, he takes another deep breath and walks past Lilianna, toward the back door.
“Go on in the truck, now,” he tells her. After a sideways glance at that cigarette, he adds, “Leave those windows up.”
Lilianna is up and on the move before he’s even able to turn the door’s knob.
As soon as the door is ajar, he hears the screaming more clearly. It’s primal and coming from the far corner of the first floor.
Trace quickens his pace, boots clicking on the slick wood floors, the wailing growing stronger and stronger as he approaches. As soon as he’s at the door, he draws his lock picking kit out of the pouch. Crouching, he gets to work. Last year, Micah installed a reinforced lock on that door, despite Trace’s assurances that it wouldn’t make much difference. Trace would be able to get in anyway, and Lilianna would never bother to try.
With his hands busy, he tries to turn his thoughts inward rather than listen, but behind the screams, he hears it, soft and awful. A child’s giggling.
Trace slams a palm against the door, twice, in warning, rattling it in the frame.
He gets the lock, turns the knob, and eases the door open. A scan of the wrecked room reveals Micah to Trace’s left. Micah is on the floor, back to the wall. His dark, olive skin is slick with a light sheen of sweat, his brown eyes glistening, and the whites now red. Face covered in tears, hiccupping on his cries, because god knows how long this has been going on, he looks wild, crazed, and way, way beyond reason’s reach.
Christ, if only she would listen to him, now and then. If only she would try. None of this is his fault. Not like he thinks it is. Maybe, if they were both kinder to each other, it wouldn’t have to get this bad. It wouldn’t even get close.
Stepping over some shattered glass from photo frames bashed in on walls or thrown around, Trace approaches Micah slowly.
“You know how this goes, slave,” Trace warns, using every bit of volume and command he can muster. He’s glad for his early morning workout, since it means his blood is already pumping, his body honed and ready to do battle with the demons in the room. They’re some real sons of bitches, too. He knows from experience. “You fight me, and it’ll only make it worse for you.”
Micah doesn’t respond, except to blast Trace’s eardrums with a yell that comes from way down in his gut. He doesn’t look over, either. His eyes are glued on the video screen. A quick scan of the room for the remote finds it in a corner, in fragments.
Setting the pouch in his hand on the edge of the desk, Trace withdraws a few items, namely a syringe, a vial, disinfectant and a cotton swab. He plunges the needle into the vial, fills the syringe and then holds the fucking thing between his teeth so that his hands are free to wrestle his slave, should he fight back. He soaks the swab and decides on the best approach.
Trace really, really wants to turn the video off, and not just for Micah’s sake, but it would waste time he doesn’t have. Micah has never looked this bad before. It gets worse every year as Micah gets a little closer to the frayed end of his rope, and it makes Trace dread the year to come because it sounds like Micah’s throat is bleeding from making so much noise. Each yell is shredded and painful. Trace almost expects a fine spray of red to accompany it on each exhale. Maybe he’s screaming to cover up the sounds coming from the video, or the recriminations being voiced in his own head, or out of terror of what’s still to come. There’s no way to know. Sometimes, it all gets to be so much; all that’s left is to lash out, blindly.
“Okay, fuck it,” Trace sighs, muttering around the syringe, smooth between his teeth.
Luckily Micah doesn’t fight back much. He must have expended most of his energy while causing all of the damage in the room, hitting everything but the screen, because Trace feels the exhaustion in Micah’s slim body when he gets an arm, twists it behind Micah’s back and pushes him face down to the floor. Trace sits, straddling Micah’s ass and swabs the side of his pinned right arm. A second later, the needle is jabbed into the muscle of his bicep, the plunger pushed to disperse the tranquilizer.
Growling, fighting back a little more just as the drug sweeps over his system, Micah finally, slowly, quiets. Dissolving into whimpered hiccups, he’s malleable as Trace shifts off of him and sits against the wall, drawing Micah up into his arms.
He rocks Micah gently as the drugs make it harder to move, harder to cry out. Kissing Micah’s temple, wiping his face dry, Trace, like Lilianna, looks everywhere but at the thing that fills his mind and heart.
The video plays on a loop, taken on Moira’s last birthday, in her hospital room. Lilianna is the one behind the camera, making witty commentary, sounding so confident and hopeful. She’s a beacon of positivity. Moira is center-screen, her body wasted away from the leukemia to almost nothing, her hair gone, but her smile wide and beautiful as she hugs her teddy and kisses her daddy.
Micah sobs softly, then seems to calm, especially once Trace covers Micah’s eyes with a hand.
It takes Trace longer than he’d ever admit, to find the off button for the damn screen. When he does find it, he almost rips the screen from the wall and throws the fucking thing out the window just to be rid of it. If he didn’t know Micah has hidden many backup copies of the videos, he would have.
Micah is limp as Trace heaves him up and takes him out of the office, carrying him to the guest room down the hall. Laying him down on the bed, making him comfortable and checking his vitals, Trace does everything possible for Micah before leaving him alone for a moment in search of Lilianna.
He doesn’t get farther than the kitchen on his way to the back door and the truck, because there she is, unable to stay put for long. He can tell she’s only inside so she can go and get even farther away. The cab of Trace’s truck isn’t nearly as isolated as Lilianna would like. He figures she’d sensed things had gone quiet inside the house and came in search of her means of real escape. Would she stay if Micah was able to ask it of her? Maybe it would be too little, too late. Trace knows they’ve been living at odds with each other for a long time, both of them carrying blame they shouldn’t.
“You’re shaking like a leaf,” he says, finding her standing by the kitchen counter near the door, digging through a purse. Her cheeks are still dry but there’s that god-awful look in her eyes that says the ability to cry anymore would be a blessing she can no longer expect.
He knows how this goes, too, well enough to know it’s not worth saying what he’d rather say. What Micah is going through in regards to their daughter’s untimely death is not Lilianna’s fault, though she might feel it is. The reasons why Moira died and the state of his marriage to Lilianna isn’t Micah’s fault either, though Micah is convinced it is. This is all just something they need to endure and process, somehow, as long as they keep drawing breath. They’re the ones left here, alive. That’s the truth. Hating it doesn’t change it.
Trace could go to her, hold her if he didn’t know she’d fight him harder even than Micah, just because she can. Maybe he should, anyway. Maybe it would help her to fight a little, the way Micah does.
But she doesn’t look at him, so he stays where he is, reading her signs.
“I need to get out of here, get some air,” she says, even her voice quaking. She finds her keys and her phone, then heads for the door without looking back. “You’ll stay with him?”
Halfway out the door already, she doesn’t wait for Trace’s reply. She just runs.
The door shuts behind her.
“Yeah, I ain’t leavin’ him, Lil,” Trace says to no one, only the ghosts. “Guess one day you’ll figure that out, too, huh?”
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