Chapter 1


“CANCER!” ORION couldn’t breathe.

Stop! Stop! Can’t be tied!

Everything needed to cease. Squeezing his eyes shut, he called out, “Cancer!”

The ropes vanished from around his wrists as if they had never been there.

It was no good. What kind of submissive was he if surrender was beyond him?

No! Trust. Can’t. No!

Zack spoke to him, but Orion couldn’t piece together the meaning of his words.

Andrew’s deep dominant voice cut through the building terror. “Orion, I’m wrapping a blanket around you, and then I’m moving us to the platform.”

Blanket. Yes. Hide. No more.

Flat on his back, Orion burrowed into the warmth, hoping it might protect him.

Stupid. Idiot. I’m good for nothing. I can’t even—

Wanting it all to stop, he pressed closer to the body generating heat. The scene ended like it had too often in the recent past. There was a time Orion would have cut out his tongue rather than use a safeword. But now he used the word to make everything end before anything could even start.

“You’re with us. I’m lying next to you.” Zack’s words comforted him.

Orion held on as Zack wrapped his arm lightly around Orion’s middle.

Andrew stroked his hair. “You’re safe, Orion. Just breathe. Draw air in through your nose and out through your mouth. Inhale and exhale nice and slow.”

Orion gasped.

“Easy. In through your nose and out through your mouth,” Andrew instructed again.

Failed. Again. Don’t deserve to be held and petted. Can’t even breathe right.

The weight of disappointment threatened to bury him further in the abyss. Everything he believed about himself was… a lie. He focused all his energy on catching some air. Following these simple directions was the least he could do.

Inhale. Exhale. Even breaths. There. He had his respiration under control. His heart would slow eventually.

How many times had he been in one of these back rooms of Entwined? Probably countless times since he’d joined the BDSM club right after college. This room was like all the other nonthemed rooms. It was white with a padded platform for various activities. A supply cabinet stood in the corner to assist a Dom who needed to purchase something. Eyehooks decorated the walls at various heights, and it also contained a sofa, a chair, a bench, towels, blankets, and a fridge with water and juice. It had just about everything a Dom or a submissive required to live out their BDSM dreams.

Blinking to clear his vision, Orion muttered, “I thought I’d be able to handle straightforward bondage.”

Damn it. How things had changed. In the past, he’d never sought to play with either of these two men because they weren’t willing to give him the harsh treatment he needed.

Now, look at him. Had they even gotten a chance to secure the first knot on the rope before he called an end to the scene?

Was he that damaged?

Zack whispered, “Hey, it’s okay. Orion, remember the basics. Limitations are invitations to find creative solutions. Next time….”

But there would be no further attempts. Orion was finished with dreams he could no longer have.

He opened his eyes and wished he hadn’t. Zack and his way-too-understanding Master were sharing a moment, offering love to each other. Not too long ago, Zack had been a submissive’s fantasy Dom until Andrew won him in Entwined’s charity auction and later collared him. Now Zack served Andrew as if he were born to the collar.

The Dominant touched Zack’s collar as if to give quiet support. The bond between them was an unbreakable trust. Orion had never experienced such a connection… and now he never would.

Jealousy wasn’t a feeling he suffered often, but envy ate at him. He’d never wanted a long-term, committed relationship; he didn’t even believe in romantic love, but witnessing the tender touches these two men exchanged made him ache. It was more intimate than watching them doing a full scene on stage.

The scientist in him quantified love as a statistical result of biological factors. Maybe that was the missing piece? Knowing—

It didn’t matter; this part of his life was over. If he couldn’t submit to a simple handcuff tie, what use was he to anyone?


“I’d like to get dressed….” And get the hell out of here.

“Are you okay?” Andrew was all concern and caring Dominant. The consideration made Orion feel a thousand times worse.

“Yes….” Again the word Sir wouldn’t work its way out of his mouth. Then again, he didn’t deserve to call Andrew by any title, since he couldn’t even offer a fraction of submission.

Orion needed to slip away from the warmth of their now-stifling embrace.

“Orion, we’d like to have a drink with you.” Or in BDSM speak, Dominant needs to make sure sub doesn’t dissolve into an emotional mess.

Too late for that. Dammit. They’d try to make him process this aborted debacle. But there was nothing to dissect. It was over.

Shit, no escaping their Dommy concern. “Sure.”

His assless underwear mocked him as his jeans slid over his bare cheeks. The stretchy blue fabric was meant to frame his ass and make it an alluring target. His gray silk shirt fluttered around him, reminding him there was no need for loose clothing.

Andrew and Zack stood by the door. Hell, they hadn’t even undressed.

Such a waste. I’m such a failure.

“What kind of juice do you want?” Zack ushered him out, and Andrew shut the door on the private room.

“Orange, please.” Orion dragged his feet into the main part of Entwined.

He used to find the opulent Renaissance style—with the artwork, gilded tables, and cushioned chairs—charming. But tonight the elegant chandeliers no longer screamed luxury. They were too bright, the stone walls and staircase too cold to be mysterious, the fabrics on the cushions too lush, and the gilded furniture simply too much. Now everything resonated that he no longer belonged.

Zack rushed to the long bar against the far wall to get the juice as Andrew guided Orion to a table off to the side of the shadowy room. The view of the velvet stage curtains reminded Orion of how he’d never be volunteering as a sub for a demo again.

Someone snarked, “Hey, Andrew, that was a lightning-quick scene. Losing your touch?” The guy was one of the dumbasses Orion’s genius intelligence hadn’t warned him to avoid.

“Bob, show respect, or you’ll be shown the door,” Andrew growled as he pulled out a gilded bloodred velvet chair for Orion.

Bob muttered something Orion didn’t catch and slunk off.

Andrew was not only gorgeous, he was a gentleman; he waited to sit until after he’d seated Zack. The huge smile Zack wore said he appreciated the gesture. “Here you go. Orange for you, Orion, cranberry for Drew, pineapple for me.”

Orion grabbed the juice, hoping to avoid conversation.

Zack ignored the cue. “Was there anything we could have done differently?”

“I didn’t give either of you a chance to do anything,” Orion scoffed.

“How are you feeling?” Andrew asked.

Not answering wasn’t an option. “Frustrated and angry.”

“Of course. That fucker violated your trust!” Zack smacked the table.

“It was my fault. I wanted rough play.” Orion had believed he’d found a partner who could go as hardcore as he wanted to go. Dom Henry went harsh enough to silence the voices of doubt that constantly chased around Orion’s head. The man wasn’t afraid to play hard….

“You didn’t agree to abuse,” Zack growled.

“Easy, Zack.” Andrew’s hand on Zack’s wrist silenced whatever else was about to fall from his lips. His Master stroked Zack’s tattoo, a dragon scrolled around Andrew’s nickname, which marked Zack as taken.

Orion pointed out one simple fact. “I didn’t safeword.”

“Why?” Andrew asked in his Dominant’s voice.

“I was doing scenes without a safeword.” Orion sighed at how bad that would sound to people who stick to the rules.

Agreeing to not have a safeword was the only way to get on Dom Henry’s play card. For six months, he and the Dom met outside of Entwined. Each session had grown in intensity. They hadn’t drawn lines, so it was difficult to say when Dom Henry crossed the initial boundaries.

Zack tightened his hands into fists.

“Is he the first person you’ve played with who didn’t ask for a safeword?” Andrew’s voice calmed Orion and invited him to share.

“No.” His first boyfriend believed if Orion really loved and trusted him, there was no need for a safeword. If he leaned toward self-analysis, Orion was sure that was when affection, trust, and safewords got twisted, but he didn’t subscribe to such a subjective approach.

He was a scientist, and he’d stick to facts, not guesswork. True, his arm had gotten broken, but they’d just been in high school. Although who was he kidding? Closeted frat boys in college didn’t want a discussion long enough to include a safeword either.

“Have you done this often?” Andrew leaned forward, studying Orion.

“Define often.” Requesting the parameters always bought some time.

Andrew’s look of “answer now” stopped Orion from dancing around.

Orion shrugged. “Safewords are constrictive. They limit—”

They protect,” Zack snarled.

Orion shook his head. “Playing without a safeword is like the best sex ever—”

“Until it’s not,” Andrew finished for him.

Granted, gangbangs weren’t really as fun as they appeared in porn, but…. “I didn’t want a safeword.”

He didn’t want an escape. Well, until now. Now all he did was safeword out.

“Black eyes and bruised faces are limits that shouldn’t have been breached,” Andrew stated in a calm voice.

Clearly his misfortunes of connecting his face with Dom Henry’s fists went beyond his sub meeting confession he made months ago. Of course word had gotten around.

Exhausted with arguing—he’d simply gotten what he asked for… and then some. Much, much more than he’d ever wanted, but he was to blame—he just wanted to go disappear. Too many people at Entwined were determined not to allow him to shoulder the responsibility.

I’m not a victim. It was my decision.

Maybe playing without a safeword wasn’t the best choice. But hell, for a while, it had been glorious to have that much freedom. Orion took everything given, and each time the Dominant went a little further. Somehow the scenes morphed into things he’d never agreed to do. Every interaction with Dom Henry became colored by pain and humiliation. Orion never knew when they were doing a scene and when they weren’t.

Zack stared at him with a fierce intensity that threatened to melt Orion’s heart. “I think next time we should—”

“There won’t be a next time, Zack.” He didn’t even try to choke out a Sir.

Zack gasped. “What do you mean? Of course—”

Orion shook his head, willing Zack to understand. He failed, and he needed to admit he was done. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

His best friend and savior, Xander Young, bounced over to the table. “Hey, Sirs! Or I mean, Sir and Zack. Greetings, O!”

Xander’s overcompensating perkiness implied Orion had a disaster sign flashing in neon over his head. Damn Xander for knowing him so well, and thank Darwin he did.

Orion fake yawned.

Xander nodded slightly. “Hey, I’m heading home. Do you want to come with me, O?”

On his feet, tucking in his chair, Orion grasped at the lifeline. “Oh, um, sure. We came together.”

Andrew wasn’t stupid. “We can drop you off. That’s not a problem, Orion.”

“Oh….” Fuck no. Orion shifted and moved closer to Xander.

Save me! Take me away, X.

Xander waved off their concern. “I forgot my key, so he needs to come with me—”

“But he could—” Andrew squeezed Zack’s wrist. Was that the signal to stop the logical argument from following its course? Maybe, because Zack said, “Oh… are you really okay?”

No! Haven’t been for months and months. Going crazy.

“Yeah. I’ll catch you both soon.”

Orion beat a path up the stairs and out the door into the lobby. He nabbed his license from the gatekeeper behind the desk, grabbed his jacket out of the locker, and shot out into the parking lot.

As he zipped his jacket against the damp weather, his finger touched leather. Pulling his jacket back open, he took a deep breath. Then he unbuckled his play collar and stared at the leather, barely noticing the wind.

Maybe he should get rid of the stupid thing. It was useless and meaningless. He brought his hand back to throw the collar into the bushes… but stopped. After coiling the leather around itself into a tight circle, he stuffed it into his pocket and rezipped his jacket.

Whew. Xander came out of Entwined alone, no concerned Dominants dogging him.

Xander didn’t say anything but rolled his red crotch rocket out of the slim parking spot he’d wedged the bike into. He handed Orion a helmet and helped him hop on the back.

Orion would be forever grateful he’d sat down next to Xander in freshman biology. He’d been a bit leery of the tall guy with long, wild, dark hair and gorgeous green eyes. Xander always laughed, seemed to have fun, and was friends with everyone, but for some reason, the two of them clicked.

Maybe their connection had been solidified by their interest in BDSM, sci-fi, being academically advanced, or their willingness to ease each other’s raging hormones without strings when no other outlet was available. As long as Xander was in his world, all would be okay or at least tolerable.

When Orion clutched Xander’s middle, Xander peeled off one hand and pressed a kiss into Orion’s palm. Then he slapped down his visor and sped off into the dying twilight.



ORION HUSTLED around the kitchen, making hot chocolate to appease Xander’s wicked sweet tooth. He and Xander shared a large two-bedroom apartment over a trendy boutique on Lark Street that neither could have afforded alone.

Lark Street was the Capital District’s “in” place to be, home to unique shops and great restaurants and bars. It was Albany’s SoHo. Parking was a bitch, but neither of them had a car.

“Talk to me,” Xander demanded.

“I had another shitty day at work. I can’t accomplish—”

“Orion, come on. I know this isn’t about you having another bad day at work. So are you going to tell me what happened tonight?” Xander slipped a crocheted pouch over his head and dropped the matching one around Orion’s neck. Xander handed him an apple chunk.

Tribble, the curious sugar glider, poked his head out of the rainbow bag. He squeaked happily at Orion and nabbed the piece of apple. “What’s to tell? Nothing happened.”

Xander shook his head and pulled out his phone. He whispered into it, and Orion got a chirp on his cell.

He glared but opened the message and played the video. A picture of Xander’s sugar glider, Nippet—named after a baby Ewok in Return of the Jedi—started talking to him in a morphed version of Xander’s voice. “Spill. Tell Xander what happened. I don’t wanna go all sugar glider on you and eat your face off while you sleep, but the voices… ah, the voices in my brain will force me to do it… unless you tell your bestest friend ever everything.”

Orion chuckled. “I should have never showed you that app!” The application turned pet pictures into talking images. Xander utilized it way too often to threaten and cajole Orion.

“What happened?” Xander’s bag rustled until Nippet poked his head out of the top. He sniffed to confirm the identity of his personal jungle gym and with a squeal, nuzzled with affection before burrowing into Xander’s shirt.

“I safeworded before anything even started.” Was verbalizing his failure supposed to make him feel better? He brought the mugs of cocoa into the living room and sat next to Xander on the floral love seat.

The pastel flowery monstrosity was overstuffed to the point where Orion almost needed a step stool to sit on the damned thing, but Xander had fallen in love with the bright colors at the discount furniture market. Orion hadn’t had the heart to smash Xander’s love seat dreams of coziness.

“Good. See? Not everyone’s an asshole. You safeworded, and everything stopped. That’s how it’s supposed to work.” Xander grabbed the blanket from behind them and threw the warmth over them. He snuggled closer to Orion.

Tribble shifted around in his pouch. He peeked his head out, yawned, and ducked back into his haven.

Xander must have taken Orion’s silence as encouragement to continue down this road of deconstructing the event. “Well, I know you feel like somehow this isn’t progress, but I consider it a victory. You safeworded.”

I failed.

Did Xander think Orion needed a lesson in Safewords 101? He huffed out a breath. “You don’t get it. With Dom Henry, I asked for that type of play. I just couldn’t say stop.”

“Actually, you could have. That’s kind of the point. One word stops everything.”

Unless you’re too scared to use it!

Xander reached down into his shirt and pulled Nippet out. He held him at arm’s length away and opened the rainbow pouch. Nippet yawned and launched himself at the opening. Once his sugar baby was settled, Xander retucked the blanket.

Orion couldn’t admit that when Dom Henry started to use his fists, Orion didn’t know what to do. He prided himself on always being able to take whatever a Dom gave him, but fear of the fury he’d have incurred by refusing an activity had paralyzed him. The final straw had been when Dom Henry violated Orion without protection. Orion had lost consciousness from overzealous breath play and woke with the evidence leaking out of him. Thankful for the pharmaceutical industry, he’d taken the postexposure prophylaxis for twenty-eight days and hated himself every day. He still had another week in the testing window and tried not to obsess, but he broke out in a cold sweat of panic every time he remembered.

“It was a success.” Maybe Orion’s scowl told Xander it was time to change the subject. “Speaking of safewords… I finally found mine,” Xander confided.

That was news. Xander could never quite land on a single word and stick to it. “Oh, other than Ow?”

Xander rolled his eyes. “Ha-ha. No… aye-aye lemur.”

Orion snorted. Only Xander would decide the gremlin wannabe of Madagascar would represent his all-stop word. “I know they’re part of the lemur family, but usually they’re called just aye-aye.”

Indignation straightened Xander’s spine. “Yeah, but aye-aye could be misinterpreted in a scene, where lemur wouldn’t be. Not to mention, the aye-ayes are the creepiest little bastards on the planet! Their fucking long middle finger all gnarled up. Tap, tap, tapping for grubs. They’re like icky little death machines. You know the ugly things are considered evil omens. I think it’s the perfect fit.”

“Sure. Why not.” Orion sipped some chocolate. His sugar glider squirmed in his pouch and then settled.

“Did you go to your therapy appointment?” Xander asked, but Orion was sure he knew the answer.

Orion didn’t need a therapist. “I’ve gone to a few sessions, but you know they didn’t help me.”

“Maybe you need a different therapist… or—”


X frowned. “No? No what?”

“It’s time to stop trying to participate in trigger activities. Simple. Problem solved.” Orion would just have to learn to ignore the loss gnawing at his gut.

Xander tilted his head. “Avoidance? You can’t mean that.”

“I do. I’m done.” There. That was simple, clear, and concise.

X’s mouth dropped open. “What do you mean, you’re done?”

Apparently he wasn’t crystal clear. Orion shrugged. “I mean no more BDSM.” He looked toward the window, but the dark prevented him from seeing if the forecast of snow had been correct.

Xander inhaled deeply and put a hand to his heart. “No. You don’t mean that.”

“X, I’m tired, and I don’t want to go through this anymore.”

Coward. Wimp. Pathetic.

Xander didn’t fight with him. He just tugged Orion into his arms and held him tight. Their breathing evened out and synchronized.

Nippet wiggled out of his pouch and jumped onto Xander. The sugar glider wormed his way under the blanket, and soon both he and his playmate were racing around Xander.

Orion nabbed their pets and delivered them back to their sugar glider resort: a cage as large as a refrigerator that claimed an entire corner of their kitchen. “So tell me, how was your night? Did you talk to anyone?”

Fingers crossed.

“Nah, he didn’t show.”

Not for the first time, Orion wished he could be who Xander needed… in that way. They were compatible in every way except sexually. “Sorry, I wish….”

Xander laughed. “Me too. Especially with your oral fixation.”

Orion elbowed him. “Eh, though your delusions of Star Trek’s prowess over Star Wars makes our love impossible.”

“Speaking of oral fixations, you want a blowjob?”

The negativity of Orion’s defeat still clung to him like death adhered to Starkiller and Juno Eclipse when they were following Order 66: Kill all living Jedi. It forced him to say, “Nah, but if you want—”

“Eh, it’s okay. I’m going to go jerk off to some porn. I’ve been watching early Buck Angel ones. God! He is incredibly hot.”

“Have fun.” Orion reached into his jacket pocket and tugged out the collar. He traced a finger around the circlet as it unrolled.

Never again.

He crushed the overwhelming loss and laid the leather circlet to rest in the back of his sock drawer—way in the back—and closed it.