JOSHUA STOOD in the center of his room, his flesh still warm and damp from his recent shower. Tonight, Nash would be taking him to the club for the first time since the night Nash brought him home. It had only been a couple of days since they’d recommitted to their contract, and Joshua was still trying to get used to his schedule and rules. He’d much rather stay home. He didn’t want to embarrass Nash. But Nash wanted to go, and Joshua wouldn’t deny him. He was both nervous and excited. It meant a lot to him that Nash wanted to show him off, and yeah, there was a part of him that wanted to throw it in the face of every person who turned up their nose at him, gave him looks of pity or—especially—nasty sneers, like he got from folks like Troy. He would be kneeling at the feet of the most attractive Dom in the place. My Dom. The thought made him smile.

“That’s a good look on you,” Nash commented as he stepped up close to Joshua.


“No… well yes, but I was talking about the smile,” Nash clarified. “Care to share what you were thinking about that caused it?”

“You, Sir,” Joshua said with absolute conviction. The smile he got in return curled Joshua’s toes. It looked damn fine on Nash’s face too.

“Suck-up.” Nash sniffed.

“Only stating facts, Sir.”

“All right, let’s get you dressed before Malcolm scolds me for being late.” Nash cocked his head, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Although, he may forgive me if he learns it was because I had you bent over with my….” He shook his head and pointed a finger at Joshua. “Stop tempting me.”

Joshua clamped his lips to keep back the snort of laughter that threatened.

Nash walked over to the chair and picked up a pair of leather pants, went to his knees in front of Joshua, and held them out for Joshua to step into. A thrill raced through him at seeing his master on his knees before him, and his dick twitched.

Nash must have read Joshua’s thoughts because he pointed at him again. “Don’t get any ideas, boy. Come is a bitch to get out of leather.”

“Only if you spill a drop, Sir.”

“Cheeky sub.”

Unfortunately, Nash didn’t try to prove Joshua right. Instead, he slid the pants up Joshua’s thighs. Joshua sighed as the soft leather caressed his skin and then moaned wantonly when Nash took Joshua’s hard dick in hand and adjusted it within the leather.

Once Joshua was dressed, Nash rolled to his feet and retrieved the black T-shirt from the chair. After he helped Joshua into it, Joshua caught a glance of his reflection in the mirror and pushed his chest out a little more, preening.

I look fabulous, darling. Joshua rolled his eyes at his silliness. This was a serious night, one in which he needed to focus, not joke around.

Wide wristbands and black leather boots with heavy soles completed the look. They fit perfectly, as did the rest of his clothes—they looked and felt good. Nash stepped back, crossed his arms, and ran a critical eye up and down Joshua’s body, a frown marring his brow. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers and went to the armoire, threw open the doors, and started rummaging through its contents.

Joshua’s eyes went wide when he saw what was in Nash’s hand. He couldn’t help but jerk when Nash stepped up behind him and slid the collar around his neck, making sure the small O-ring was in the divot of his throat. He hadn’t worn a collar in a long time and had mixed feelings about it being around his neck. The last time he had one on had been during a dark period of his life, and removing it had been the darkest. Nash buckled it into place, the collar tightening briefly. A strange sound escaped Joshua’s lips and his pulse instantly kicked up.

“Too tight.”

It wasn’t tight, in no way restricting his ability to breathe or swallow, but it felt like a huge weight pushing down on him, and with it came unwanted memories.

Nash wrapped his arms around Joshua, resting his chin on Joshua’s shoulder. “Hey, you’re shaking. You okay?”

Joshua blinked to dispel the images of another place, another time, another collar. He swallowed his unease and nodded. “I’m okay, Sir.”

Nash ran a soothing hand over Joshua’s belly, up his chest to the collar. “Don’t let this distress you. It’s simply for show. We have a lot of work to do together before we can talk about your actual collar.”

“I know, but….” Joshua’s voice cracked. The idea of being collared by anyone, even Nash, wasn’t comforting—it was scary as hell. Collars equaled ownership, possession, humiliation, betrayal, disappointment…. The trembling increased, and he struggled to take a full breath.

A gentle hand landed on his shoulder, stroking, comforting. “Look at me.”

Panic spread through Joshua. Run! His heart rate kicked up, sweat trickled down his temples.

“Look at me. Focus. Right here,” Nash encouraged.

Joshua lifted his eyes and met Nash’s concern-filled gaze.

“That’s it. Right here. Long deep breaths.”

Joshua focused on Nash, on his soothing touch. It took several minutes, but eventually he pushed the unwanted memories away, stood in the here and now. He took a deep, full breath and blew it out deliberately, the trembling easing.

“That’s it. Would you like me to remove the collar?” Nash offered.

Just for show. Joshua took another deep breath. “No, I’m okay, Sir.”

“Are you sure? Would you like to stay home and talk about what just happened?”

Joshua shook his head. “No, Sir. I’m looking forward to going.” And he was. He concentrated on Nash, the club, his pride in being at Nash’s side. He took the white room, the battered collar, the look of disdain, all the negative images the collar had invoked and shoved them into his mental safe, secured the lock. He was good at hiding things, even from himself. He took another long breath and let it out.

Nash pressed a gentle kiss to Joshua’s temple. “All right. Let’s go have some fun and enjoy each other. But we will be talking about this later. Understood?”

Joshua nodded. “Yes, Sir.” He had no plan to keep the agreement. Those things, the past, had no business being part of his future. Eventually, they would fade into forgotten memories. At least he hoped.

Nash kissed him one last time before releasing him. He then walked around Joshua and stood a few feet away, facing him. “You, my boy, are pure perfection.”

Joshua focused on the compliment, let it take over his thoughts until he could feel it swelling his chest, the pride coursing through him. He squared his shoulders and adjusted his stance. “Thank you, Sir.”

“I’m going to be the most envied Dom in the place tonight, and I can’t wait to show you off.”

“I hope I don’t disappoint you, Sir.”

Nash shook his head. “You never could. All right, let’s go make the members of the Underground weep with envy.”

Joshua followed Nash out of the room. He didn’t know whether they would weep, but Joshua certainly was going to do his best to make sure they envied Nash by being the perfect sub. Nash deserved nothing less.

From the moment Joshua followed Nash into the Underground Club, it felt like every eye was on him. He didn’t dare lift his head, but his skin prickled as their gazes bore into him. Out of his peripheral vision, he saw club members, subs and Doms alike, with looks of disgust on their faces as he and Nash passed. Others appeared shocked, indifferent, or unimpressed. Joshua did his best to keep his posture while walking to heel. The reaction to his presence made it hard to breathe, let alone walk with any kind of pride. He was a fucking poser, a loser, and he didn’t belong here. Not with Nash. Not with anyone.

Malcolm was sitting at the bar, but as soon as they approached, he stood and gestured for Nash to follow him. Malcolm stopped at the open door to the back dining room and held out his arm. “I thought we’d dine in private. We have so much to catch up on. We can enjoy the crowds after.”

Nash pecked Malcolm’s cheek as he passed. “You simply want to gossip without others overhearing.”

“Yes, well, that too,” Malcolm said. He raked his gaze up and down Joshua.

Joshua held his breath, worried what he would see when Malcolm looked back up. Joshua was spared when Nash took the seat opposite Malcolm. Joshua went instantly to his knees, adjusted his posture, held his head high, and eyes lowered. He couldn’t look at Malcolm, didn’t even attempt to. He couldn’t stand to see the same look of disdain the others had worn. He was having a hard enough time not running. Seeing disgust in Malcolm’s eyes would shred the last of Joshua’s restraint.

Nash ran his fingers through Joshua’s hair, but it did nothing to help him relax. Nash wanted him here, wanted to show him off, but Joshua was seriously questioning Nash’s decision.

“Chardonnay, boy,” Malcolm said.

Joshua got a glimpse of Conrad, who said, “Yes, Sir,” before he scurried off.

“When are you going to take that boy under your wing? The way he looks at you, the poor thing is in need of your skilled hand,” Nash said.

“He’s much too young for me,” Malcolm responded. “Your boy, on the other hand, seems to be flourishing.”

Joshua stiffened. His pulse raced, and the sound of blood rushing in his ears made it difficult to hear. Had Malcolm actually complimented him?

“That he is,” Nash replied. It sounded like he might even have a hint of pride in his voice, but again, the noise in Joshua’s head was making it difficult to be sure. Maybe he only heard what he wanted to hear. Nash had to have witnessed the way others reacted to their entrance. No way could Nash be proud of Joshua.

The prickling sensation he’d experienced when walking into the club intensified, and Joshua tuned out Nash and Malcolm and concentrated on slowing his racing heart. He clamped down on his trembling muscles, taking deep breaths in through his nose and releasing them slowly. Dammit, if he didn’t get the rush of sound out of his head and get control over his body, he was going to lose it.

Conrad returned to the table with a bottle of wine, and while he filled the glasses, Nash leaned down and whispered in Joshua’s ear.

Joshua heard “Go with Conrad,” and although Nash was still talking, he tuned it out. He couldn’t concentrate on what was being said as it took everything he had not to jump up and run in his excitement to get away from Nash and have a few minutes to collect himself.

He forced himself to remain on his knees, his posture erect, and said, “Yes, Sir.” He rolled to his feet, locked down on his trembling legs, and curled his hands into fists behind his back to hide the way they shook.

Nash sat back in his chair. Joshua held his breath, doing his best not to give away how close he was to losing it. He knew better than to look up, and it took every bit of pure willpower not to break into a run.

“Conrad, could you escort Joshua to the bar and assure no one steals my boy away?” Nash finally asked.

“It would be my pleasure, Sir.”

Joshua kept his steps slow and measured as he followed Conrad, but it was with great difficulty. It was as if someone had attached a vise around his lungs and was steadily tightening it. He dug his fingernails into his palms, the spark of pain as he penetrated his flesh giving him enough focus to keep his composure. The instant Joshua stepped out of the private dining area, he lowered his head and rushed to the bathroom. He cared nothing about his posture or etiquette or what people thought; he had to get the hell out of there. It would be a harder hit to Nash’s reputation if his boy had a panic attack and freaked out in the middle of the club.

Inside the bathroom, Joshua locked the door with a trembling hand then turned and slid down the door. He grabbed the back of his head with both hands, fisted his fingers in his hair, and pulled his head down, rolling into a semiball.

He didn’t belong here; every set of eyes that settled on him with disgust was proof of that. Nash was a decent guy. Surely he thought he was doing the right thing by bringing him here tonight. Nash was wrong. He was so very wrong.

Since his meltdown, when Joshua nearly picked up that knife and put it to his flesh, he’d been questioning everything, especially his decision to be with Nash Mead. An epic battle raged within Joshua, desire versus need, right versus. wrong, worth versus. insignificance. Tonight need, wrong, and insignificance were the clear front-runners.



NASH SIPPED at his wine until Joshua and Conrad left. “Okay, I can tell by the way you’re vibrating that you’re dying to ask me something. Go ahead.”

“Joshua looks amazing, but how are his sessions with Cedric going?”

Nash shrugged. “He’s only had two visits and is very tight-lipped about what he and Cedric talk about. It’s driving me nuts, as you can imagine, but I have to respect his privacy in this.”

Malcolm nodded. “I’m sure it’s very difficult, but you’re doing the right thing. He will come to you in time when he is ready.”

“I hope so.”

“There you go, doubting me again.” Malcolm sniffed, then softened it with a curious smile. “And his pain issues?”

“The cock cage is still working quite well, but I fear he is beginning to get used to it. He no longer groans or complains—he’s quite eager to have it on, in fact.”

“Yes, then you must change it up.”

“I know.” Nash nodded. “Another thing I’m going to have to approach is his collar.”

Malcolm’s eyes went wide. “You think that’s wise?”

Nash pursed his lips. “Give me a little credit. He is nowhere near ready to be collared. I was referring to his reaction to wearing one tonight. He started to panic when I put one on him. I was able to get him to focus on me and we worked through it, but whatever the reason behind the reaction, it has left him shaken.”

“Did you ask him about it?”

“Of course, but he wasn’t ready to discuss it. Trust me. We will be addressing it, and soon.”

“The poor boy.” Malcolm sighed. “I hope you are able to bring him peace soon.”

“Honestly, Malcolm, I don’t know if the boy will ever have it. His past is always lurking just below the surface.”

“I must disagree. I think if anyone can help the boy find it, it is you. That he’s willing to see a professional to deal with the hardships bestowed upon him while growing up and throughout his young life speaks volumes for what he is willing to do for you.”

“I don’t want him to do it for me—”

Malcolm held up his hand. “There is nothing wrong with him going into counseling to please you or doing it for you. You’re his strength, his motivation, and in time, he’ll do it for himself as well.”

Nash stared at the far wall, unblinking, thinking. Malcolm was probably right. In fact, it was highly probable, and what did it matter who Joshua was doing it for as long as he was getting the help he needed? That’s what mattered most.

Nash met Malcolm’s gaze. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“It’s a good thing you have me to remind you,” Malcolm said smugly. “So, what’s next on your to-do list?”

“To be everything he needs.”

“What about your needs?”

“Right now, I’m focusing on his.”

Malcolm gave Nash a disapproving look. “In order for your relationship to work, both of your needs must be met.”

“I know, but honestly, I am trying, and I believe Joshua is as well.” The truth of it settled into Nash. “Joshua may not be whole at the moment, but every day he learns and grows and heals. My need is to teach him and complete him, which makes me whole as well.”

“Going to be one hell of a rocky road, my friend.”

Nash smiled broadly. “The road to happiness usually is.”

Malcolm held up his glass. “Here’s to a successful journey.”

Nash clinked his glass against Malcolm’s before taking a sip. It wasn’t going to be easy, but Nash was committed. Joshua’s healing was Nash’s definition of success.




MY SHRINK has suggested I start keeping a journal to write down my feelings each night. Therapy, he calls it. Help me get in touch with my feelings, he tells me. Well, I’m sure he’s making me do this because he’ll want to talk about what I wrote, so I’m going on record as saying I think this is a really, really, really stupid idea. I’m writing to myself for fuck’s sake. If that isn’t stupid, I don’t know what is. I will be the good little boy and play along.

So, my feelings huh?

Well, beyond feeling like a fool, I’m also irritated. I woke up in a piss-poor mood, and as I’m sitting here in my bed with Nash in his across the hall, I’m in an even worse mood than when I woke up today.

I don’t get it. He likes having me in his bed, I like being there, and yet here I am in “my” bed. I don’t want this to be my bed or my room or my space. I want to be in his, and I don’t fucking understand why I can’t be. I think he’s just trying to be a dick. It’s the only reason I can think of as to why he denies us both what we want. I did nothing today to warrant punishment. I don’t understand him at all.

Other than being irritated, I’m also confused a lot. I’ve been that way since the first night Nash pulled me away from Troy and took me into the back room at the Underground Club. Nash is a very odd duck. I knew instantly he was. I mean, seriously, what kind of Dom takes a boy back into a fetish room and only asks for a kiss. It’s not normal. I tell ya what kind, the type that has a screw loose. Now, don’t get me wrong. It was a nice kiss and the guy is smoking hot, but I didn’t like how it knocked me off-kilter, and I have to admit, I was pretty disappointed I didn’t get so much as a slap or a good fucking.

Nash is a total weirdo.

If Nash thinks he’s helping me with my issue with pain, he’s not. I could teach him a thing or two about pain. I tried to play the nice, sweet little sub, did all the right things, used all the right words, including safewording, just because I thought it was what Nash wanted to hear. It didn’t work. I got so fucking anxious I started thinking about cutting again. I played the role for a while, but each day it gets harder and harder to pretend. He doesn’t hit me hard enough or often enough. I don’t think he understands what that does to me, how it leaves me feeling empty with too much time to think about things. Things I don’t want to think about. Things that should be left in the past. It’s getting harder to keep them there. They keep escaping from the iron safe I’ve constructed. This is my prison. I’m the keeper of the keys, locking bits of me behind cell doors. The safe is where the weapons are held. The lock must hold. The things within will destroy me as surely as a knife would pierce my flesh. No, I’m not going to think of the blade, what it represents, or the release only it can provide me. Goddamn it! If only Nash would get tougher, was a better Dom, then I might not have to wait too long for its kiss. I wouldn’t be so angry and confused all the time.

This is his fault.

I feel like an idiot most of the time, and I’m beginning to think Nash is doing that on purpose. But why? Doesn’t he know how to take control and be consistent with it? It’s easy. He tells me what do to, and I do it or get my ass beat. Plain and simple. Done and done. But he’d rather talk about why I misbehaved. He demands respect. When I want to feel the bite of leather, I disrespect him, but again, he wants to discuss the reasons behind my behavior rather than correct it properly. It’s a two-way street—he pushes and I push back. He swings the crop and I take it. Fuck! How can anyone not get it? Maybe it’s not me that’s fucked-up and stupid, but Nash who has the issues. That’s got to be it. Nash is forcing all this shit from my past to come out. He’s the one taking me back to a time I don’t want to think about. He is the one wielding the lockpick. It will be all his fault when the safe springs open and I reach for the knife. His fault when I finally give in to the need to cut, and oh how that need is growing. To feel that release, to purge myself of all the bad shit, watch it ooze from my body.

When the blood runs from my body, it will be Nash’s fault, not mine.

I am not weak.

Nash is simply not strong enough.