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Two shamed souls, a mutual enemy and an attraction they can’t control…
Randolph Meryon is a man no woman can resist despite the whip he brandishes. Compelled to return home after his sister’s death, he struggles to fit new responsibilities into the hedonistic lifestyle he prefers to live. It’s a task he finds difficult enough without adding in the tangle of unanswered questions his sister has left behind and the sugar-cookie sweet nanny caring for his niece. He hasn’t had a taste of sweet in a very long time.
Jen O’Malley, shunned by her family, struggles to find work without their backing, meeting barriers wherever she turns. A position as nanny with the scandal-riddled Meryons seems like a lifeline. She’s relieved until she arrives and becomes enmeshed in a web of intrigue, unable to discern the identity of the spider at the center.
The slender slice of moon did little to light the edge of the cliff, over which the desperate bleating of a lamb sounded. Rhiannon, Tallav’s second moon, had yet to rise and brighten the night sky. Why the gardener’s boy sought Penny out on the patio rather than running to get the overseer, she didn’t question. He was a child and probably ran for the nearest adult. Peering over, she could make out a patch of dirty white caught in a bush. At least the lamb had slid into the branches, it’s fall blocked from the vertical plunge of the cliff to the river below.
How had it gotten here? The early lambs weren’t old enough to be out of the lambing shed, which was nowhere near the cliff. She slid carefully down the slight grade of the rim and tried to calm the animal while she waited for help to arrive. She’d sent the boy on to the overseer with a request to bring rope.
Careful to stay out of range of the lamb’s thrashing, she spoke to it in gentle, crooning tones. The animal quieted, no longer flailing but still bleating plaintively. The creamy tan color of the lamb’s body was more difficult to see in the dark, but the face, white with black speckles, stood out. To her horror, she noticed one of those dark marks was in the shape of a heart. This was the orphan lamb the overseer had allowed Sophie to help feed. That lamb was bedded down every night by the overseer himself in the enclosure built next to his office in the main barn. Someone had to have brought this lamb out here. She’d damn well find out as soon as she rescued it from its precarious predicament.
Above her, loose rock skittered with the sound of someone descending. She tipped her head back and shouted, “Don’t come down. Just drop the end of the rope.”
“We won’t need a rope.”
The low, throaty words confused her. That wasn’t the overseer. She lost sight of the darkened form above her when she sat up to roll over on the clumps of rock and grass beneath her to get a better look. A solid thud struck her back, sending pain lancing along her spine and around her rib cage. The lamb renewed its thrashing when she slid into it, knocking it backward. Squealing in terror, it tumbled out of view.
Heart pumping, Penny windmilled in a futile attempt to keep from falling forward. She straddled the bush with her legs, the sharp ends of broken stems lacerating her exposed face and hands, snagging in the long-sleeved pajamas she wore. For an instant, her momentum stopped. In desperation she clamped her fists onto the bush’s base, ignoring the sting of abrasions.
A second strike from her assailant’s booted foot hit her high to one side of her backbone.
Something snapped inside.
Pain flooded her shoulder.
Jarred forward, she began a slow-motion tumble headfirst over the bush.
Fingers and palms tore while branches slid through her grasp until the strain on her good shoulder from the somersault forced her to let go.
Oh God. I’m falling. Sophie. Oh God. I can’t die and leave Sophie.
Her temple struck a jutting rock, and darkness claimed her.
Above, a figure scrambled to the top of the cliff, humming a cheery tune. The wordless melody stopped at the sound of someone rushing toward the precipice. By the time the overseer arrived, the spot was empty. No lamb. No Penny. Just moonlight casting the side of the cliff in shadow in the waning heat from a late summer day. With an exclamation of frustration and an oath that he’d see to that boy for pulling pranks, the overseer left.
It wasn’t until the next day, when no one could find Penny, that the overseer mentioned his fruitless trip to the cliff edge. Her body lay on the rocks, half in and half out of the river. Officially she was a casualty of misadventure.
* * * *
The Whip Hand, Beta Tau
Randolph stroked the disheveled softness of Eva’s hair before firmly gripping the back of her neck. “You did very well, Eva.” A shudder and sob were her only response. The time he’d spent with Eva over the last week had been a refreshing change from the business expansion consuming him for over a year. Although he might not have taken on Eva’s remedial training if her master hadn’t been a member of the Beta Tau board of directors.
Her body writhed when he drew a finger over the marks he’d left on her back. One or two spots were seeping blood. He swirled the tip in the fluid before scraping his nail across the abrasion. The sight of Eva, arms shackled above her head, undulating before him, sent a jolt of pleasure through him.
“Your master doesn’t hurt you often, Eva. Perhaps that’s why you believed you could manipulate him. He brought you to me to break that habit.”
“Yes, Sir.” A whimper escaped her lips.
Randolph threaded his fingers into her hair and pulled her head back, noting the tears inching down her cheek. “This is our last session before I return you to your master. The pain you’ve experienced was not a punishment. You’ve learned your lesson and learned it well.” He brushed his finger through the damp trail on her face. “This was for me. Your tears are your gift to me. I’m a sadist, Eva. I enjoy hurting you. But I haven’t taken you over the edge of what you could bear. If your master sends you again, I will break you. Do you understand?”
“Unnnhhh.” The sound flew from her.
Randolph jostled her head. “Say you understand.”
“I understand, Sir.” The words came out with a squeak.
“Good,” he said, unwinding his fingers from her hair. He allowed the chain attached to her shackles to lengthen with a flick of his wrist before again engaging the locking mechanism. Gripping both her hips, he pulled her back until she was bent before him. He smacked her bottom. “Do not come. Your orgasms belong to your master. Correct?”
“Say it,” he ground out.
“My orgasms belong to my master.”
Randolph stepped away, allowing her master to step forward and take over. He didn’t watch the happy reunion when he exited the scene. He made his way to his office, brushing his fingertips through his neatly trimmed smoky brown hair. His cock had gone semihard, but Eva wasn’t his type and she wasn’t his. If she were, he would have taken her much deeper before fucking her.
His type. He had to smirk at that. His type hadn’t really been doing it for him lately. Probably the stress, which in theory should be diminishing. The addition of a private play space to his new suite had been a gift to himself a long time in coming. He’d finally indulged himself. The combination of play space, office, and apartment allowed him a level of privacy he’d never had. Perfect on days like today when he was too tired to face the onslaught of those seeking a personal moment with the celebrity owner and top sadist of the Whip Hand. He rarely entered the main play floors anymore, so when he did, the clamor was more strident.
After keying open his office door, he strode to the bar and a bottle of high-priced bourbon, pouring himself two fingers. He settled into his desk chair, downed a swallow of the liquor, and set the glass on the black coaster that protected his expensive desk.
He leaned back, eyes closed, waiting for the ripples of the chair adjusting to end, and then tapped the button that started his personal massage program. Heat soothed his tired back before the chair switched to a gentle overall kneading. A wince tightened his face when it began pummeling the knots in his shoulders.
The yearlong renovation had included an upgrade to the Whip Hand’s business offices. His new office was larger, including a sitting area and many other luxuries that put his old one with a desk and two chairs to shame. This desk was a work of art. The surface was black and white ebony inlay over black ebony. Its thick legs and panels were carved reliefs of tormented bodies struggling to free themselves from the wood. It made an impression on anyone who entered the room.
Yet he preferred his old office. Except for this chair. His old office with this chair would be just right, but the Whip Hand had evolved light-years beyond its original concept.
The expansion and renovation moved it well past its simpler days when he’d spent as much time on the floor as in his office. Now, a week could pass without him ever setting foot in any of the club’s venues. He’d passed oversight of the club’s subs to Tom. He was good at the job, but doing so still gave Randolph the sense that he’d allowed something to slip away.
As the chair resumed the previous gentle kneading, he realized what he missed: the immediacy. His own whip demos and playtime on the floor had evaporated, replaced by more and more meetings. Damn, he was a stodgy businessman now.
The chair’s program ended. Randolph drained the glass of bourbon and was about to retire to his apartment, shower, and climb in bed. When he sat forward, the red light that signaled an emergency comm winked at him from the touch bar on his desk. He sighed and brought up the message viewer. His forehead creased when he noted the comm was from his mother. Tabbed open, the static image showed her, shoulders drooped, no makeup, face puffy, and eyes red.
Randolph’s chest tightened. The last time he’d received a message with his mother looking this distraught was when she’d announced she was divorcing his father. He touched the start button.
“Randolph. I have bad news. Dear, I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll… Your sister died. She was trying to save a lamb. She fell from the cliff above the river.” Tears streamed down her face. “It’s awful, Rand. She lay there all night.” She reached for a tissue offscreen and blew her nose. “Please come home as soon as you can. We’ve had her cremated. The memorial service will be held when you arrive.” Pain was written in every line of her face. “Please, I need you here. I need you to stay.”
Stunned, a lump forming in his throat, Randolph sat immobile, unable to assimilate what he had heard. Penny couldn’t be dead. Both his beloved sister and nemesis, she, more than any other person, had driven him away from home, family… Tallav. How could the avenging angel, the destroyer of his life, be dead?
A replay of his mother’s comm did little to answer the questions swirling in his mind. She fell from the cliff? A ripple of nausea hit him. Fuck all. Penny knew the cliffs along the river at Briarcliff too well to have fallen from them. Not until he’d replayed the message a third time did he apprehend his mother’s last statement. Come? He would absolutely come. But stay? His mother just needed to get her feet under her. No way would he stay on Tallav longer than required to help her settle his sister’s affairs.
His fingers drifted to rub the inscribed heart on the pewter bead tied to his wrist by a leather cord. Penny was dead. It wasn’t possible. Someone so full of bullheaded life couldn’t die. Not the sister he’d never stopped loving even through the slinging vitriol they’d both flung at each other over the last twenty-one years. The sister who clung to distorted facts. Refused to listen each and every time he’d tried to reconcile. She couldn’t be gone. The hope he’d clung to that his big sister would once again be his best friend couldn’t be shattered. Every bitter word he’d spoken to her in anger hammered at him. If only…
He dropped forward, head in his hands, while searing pain flooded his soul.
* * * *
Jen O’Malley ran her sweaty palms over her navy slacks. Her morning had been spent vacillating between clothing options for this interview: formal business or kid friendly. She compromised and opted for casual business. But was that a mistake? O’Malleys expected formality. But this was the Meryons, not the O’Malleys. Stop second-guessing yourself.
If she were hired—and she needed to be—this would be the second job she’d ever held. Not that she’d had to apply for her first. Her appointment as third personal assistant to Lavinia O’Malley, granddaughter of the O’Malley head of family, Cordelia O’Malley, had been granted when she completed school at age twenty-one. O’Malleys took care of their own. A mantra she’d heard many times, always followed by a but and the lapse that had her perched on the verge of being kicked to the curb.
In her prolific family, there were O’Malleys and then there were O’Malleys. She was one of the lesser, a mere third cousin twice removed of Lavinia’s. Jen’s branch on the family tree was so far from the main trunk as to make almost no difference whether it was attached. The sap flowed thin and only if you worked for it. It didn’t anymore, and she didn’t work for an O’Malley either.
Now poised for her first job interview at the age of twenty-five, her nerves were rioting. She needed to obtain this position before her recent indiscretion, as Lavinia had termed it, was whispered about. Not that the details would make their way into gossip. No, the family wouldn’t brook that. The O’Malley name wasn’t to be associated with such regressive actions. The whispers would be that much more damaging for lack of facts. It was up to the mind of the listener to decide what nefarious deed Jen had committed to get her booted from the family’s affections. She brushed her hands down her slacks one more time before rapping on the door. A middle-aged woman dressed in dark gray slacks and a soft gray cable sweater answered.
She gave Jen an expectant look. “May I help you?”
Jen flexed her fingers. “Yes. I’m Jennifer O’Malley. I have an interview with Ms. Meryon.”
The woman gave her a polite smile. “She’s expecting you. Please follow me.”
Jennifer glanced around at the apartment while she followed the woman. It wasn’t what she’d expected. Lavinia O’Malley had followed in the O’Malley tradition of ostentatious antiquity in their furnishing choices. Ostentatious antiquity was a good way to describe everything about the O’Malley upper echelons. Although Lavinia would have taken exception to the term antiquity as it applied to her personally. She continually sought methods to retain the nubile perfection she’d had in her younger years.
This apartment was a complete contrast. From the color choices to the furniture and artwork, everything was understated. And none of it was cheap. The Meryons had money. And they were a first family, but not of the O’Malley stripe. No family could be as mired more deeply in traditional matriarchy than the O’Malleys. They would never have allowed the scandals that had struck the Meryons, divorce and a son who stood as the example used to scare young girls about what happened when men weren’t kept in their place.
The woman leading her paused before a doorway. “Ms. Meryon, Ms. O’Malley is here.”
“Send her in, Helen.”
Ms. Meryon rose from an exquisite Carlton House inlaid desk. “Ms. O’Malley. I’m Claire Meryon.” She extended an arm toward a love seat and chairs. “Please join me. Would you like tea or coffee?”
“No thank you.” Jen took a seat on the cream brocade love seat. The room reflected a refined elegance that spoke to the gentility of the woman who sat opposite her. The rose silk blouse over dark gray slacks surprised her. This was a house in mourning, but the only outward signs that Jen could detect of the woman’s recent tragedy were the shadows under her eyes and the overall sense of weariness she projected. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Ms. Meryon lowered her gaze to the side for a moment before looking directly at Jen. “Thank you. It’s been difficult.”
An understatement. Losing your daughter must be devastating. Jen felt a pang in her chest.
Ms. Meryon let a pallid smile cross her lips. “And that is why we need you. You come highly recommended by Evaline Braddock. Tell me about yourself and why I should allow you to take care of my granddaughter.”
Jen checked the instinct to wipe her sweaty palms on her slacks again by clasping them in her lap. “Well, I studied child development, but I can’t say that much of that was of real-world value. It was academic. Lots of study and analysis. It’s difficult to fit children into statistics. Each child is unique and shouldn’t be limited by labels.”
“Yes. Very interesting. But then what practical experience do you have?”
Jen flexed her fingers. “Well, I’ve always been the cousin that my family fobbed the children off on when all the cousins, aunts, and uncles gathered. Oh, not that I thought that way about it. No, they did. I loved it. Preferred it. I guess you could say I have a heart for children. And a knack for keeping them organized, well-behaved, and happy at the same time.”
Ms. Meryon responded with a brighter smile and a nod. “You’ll be attending to Sophie’s academics, too. Do you think you can handle that?”
Jen took a quick breath and plunged ahead. “I also have an education certification. Now that was a practical, hands-on program.”
“Really? I thought only men pursued education certification,” Ms. Meryon said, her eyebrows rising slightly.
“Yes. It’s part of a men’s finishing school. But they allowed me to attend.” Jen flicked a stray hair behind her ear. “I may have given the impression I was interested in studying men as primary educators of young children. Needed the firsthand experience of how they were trained.” Jen bit the inside of her cheek. Maybe she shouldn’t have said that.
Ms. Meryon’s responding smile had a hint of amusement to it. “Sounds like you know what you want to do and don’t let others stand in your way. That’s very Tallavan of you.”
“My mother calls it mulish.”
“Ah.” Her expression grew somber again. “Penny was like that. Stubborn as the day was long.”
Jen hesitated, uncertain how best to respond.
Meryon sighed. “You seem like the perfect person for Sophie’s nanny. Evaline gave you the terms of the position, didn’t she?”
“Are they agreeable to you?”
Jen’s stomach swirled. “Yes.” Do I have the job?
“We’ll need you starting the day of the memorial service. That hasn’t been set yet. When it is, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, I’d like to introduce you to my granddaughter.”
Jen rose with Ms. Meryon, twiddling her fingers instead of bouncing on her toes. She was hired! Her mother and Evaline Braddock had come through for her.
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