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The Castle hallway outside Master Marshall's office was surprisingly void of people. Now and then, the occasional costume-clad guest hurried by on his or her way to whatever kink-themed destination awaited them, but for the five authors sitting in the little reception nook just outside the Master of the Masters' door, the atmosphere was distinctly less excited and slightly more anxious.
"I thought he liked the boxed set," Abbie said. Seated at the end of the row of chairs, she leaned out to look at the others in turn. "Didn't he?"
Chewing on her thumbnail, Maren didn't meet her eyes. "Well�" she hedged. "The thing about that is, I wasn't actually going to show it to him."
Sitting beside her, her eyes growing huge, Tabitha snapped around to look at her. "I thought you said we had permission!"
Having chewed her thumbnail to the quick, Maren started in on the next finger. "Actually, what I think I said was, sometimes it's easier to get forgiveness than permission."
A slow flush of pink stole up into her cheeks as everyone now turned to look at her with the same measure of shock and appall.
"Maren!" Maggie wailed.
"I'm pretty sure I'd have remembered that if you had," Darling said dryly.
"Does this mean we're in trouble?" Abbie asked, but before anyone could answer, the door of Master Marshall's office opened and a tall, dark-haired woman appeared.
At once both smiling and shaking her head, Kaylee beckoned. "He's ready to see you now."
Not quite successful at stifling a curse, Maren got up. Walking to the door, almost afraid to look inside, to Kaylee she whispered, "Is he mad?"
Offering another knowing smile, Kaylee patted her shoulder. "I've seen him happier, that's for sure." Giving the reluctant woman a gentle push, Kaylee whispered, "Good luck," and then the door shut, and suddenly Maren found herself standing in Master Marshall's office, facing down the Master of the Masters by herself.
The room was a comfortable cross between a business man's office and a Victorian-era study. The couch and loveseat positioned around the hearth, where a fire popped and crackled warmly, added a rather homey touch, and helped to offset the instant chill that tickled up her spine when she looked down the length of the room to the massive desk where the Master in charge sat working on his files. Although his attention seemed wholly fixed on his papers, Maren knew he was very well aware that she was standing there.
"Sit down," he finally said, making a note on the page before him, still not looking up.
Wiping suddenly sweaty palms against her thighs, Maren crept up to his desk. As she slipped into one of the two waiting chairs on her side, her gaze moved past him to the two canes mounted on the wall just behind his chair. An anxious crawling sensation moved up the backs of her legs and across her bottom. It took everything she had not to squirm where she sat.
"Your name?" he asked.
Maren had to clear her throat twice. "Maren Smith."
"Yes, I remember your emails. I believe you approached me last fall regarding writing a book detailing some of the things that happen here at the Castle."
Having gleaned a thin ray of hope she might yet get out of trouble unscathed, Maren sat up straighter. "Yes, I did."
Looking up at her, Master Marshall pinned her to the seat with an icy stare. "I believe I told you no. Even were anonymity not a major aspect of our standard operating procedures, before I allow just anyone access to the more intimate details of our private little lives, I have to be relatively assured of just who�"
"Oh!" Seeing another thin ray, Maren straightened even higher. "I'm an author. I'm sure I told you that. I-I write books. Lots of books. You know, like 'Varden's Lady' and um, 'The Mountain Man' and� oh, and most recently, I've done a couple books in the Corbin's Bend series. You might have heard of it?"
"And did they appreciate the way you invaded their private lives as much as we do?"
Blinking twice, Maren deflated a bit. "I didn't invade you, sir. I mean, yes, I probably should have tried a little harder to get permission, but technically, I did invent you."
Marshall stared at her across his desk for several long seconds, before the severity of his frown melted into a reluctant smile. Then he laughed, a soft and dangerous sound. Setting his file to one side, he got up from his desk. "You invented us?"
It was a fight not to squirm in her chair as he came towards her. "Um� well, see� it kind of happened like this�"
"I suppose next you'll say you invented Alan and Tavy, since it's their personal life you have most recently intruded upon. Complete with rather graphic retellings of their sexual intimacies. They've asked me to give you their very special thanks for that, by the way." The look Master Marshall gave her as he walked past her chair shuddered her all the way to her toes. He continued on to his implement cabinet. "I've decided to let Alan thank you for that himself, since he has also requested a few minutes of your time down in the dungeon once I'm done. Which brings to mind, have you ever thought about entering our dungeon program?"
"D-d-dungeon program?" Maren squeaked, her stomach sinking all the way to her shoes. "Wait a minute, Master Marshall, um, sir�"
"You know, I'm curious." He pulled a strap�thick, wide, the leather black as midnight, doubled over and locked into a wooden handle�from the cabinet. "What is your least favorite implement?"
Sheer energy ripped through her legs. She couldn't stop staring as he walked back toward her, already rolling up his shirt sleeves, that strap dangling from his right hand. Suddenly unable to hold still, Maren vaulted to her feet. "I� that's a very dangerous piece of information to give out, and I don't think I want you to have it."
Feeling oddly breathless, she faced him. Her legs shook again, but she couldn't quite bring herself to run. And he just kept on coming, the hypnotic intensity of his pale, pale eyes never once leaving her face.
"You say you invented us," he drawled. "I have a feeling I might already know. It wouldn't, perchance, be wooden paddles, would it?"
Another shiver, another need to run aborted before it could do more than send a tremor through her.
"Our Dungeon Master, Dominick, has a collection of wooden paddles I think you'd benefit from seeing. He has asked to see you after Alan is through." Having reached her side, his left hand slid across the back of Maren's neck, gliding up into her hair in what was nearly a caress� until it drew into a sudden fist, bringing her with a startled gasp right up onto her toes. "I think I'm going to allow that too. In fact, I'm going to allow a good many Masters their request to have a 'word' with you. Sam. Parker. Jackson. Jackson's a little irate. I think we'll let him go last."
When he pressed, Maren bent, landing folded over the edge of his desk with her face just inches from her own file. Good lord, he had a file on her! He had a file on Abbie too. And Tabitha, Darling, Maggie� good Lord�
Another breathless protest sprang to her lips, but Maren forgot what it was the moment she felt him raise the bottom hem of her shirt high up over her back and, reaching under her to unfasten her pants, something he did with ridiculous ease, lowering those all the way to her knees.
"I did read your latest release," Master Marshall admitted, stepping back into position behind her. "Tell me, I'm curious. How much of yourself do you write into your female characters?"
Her knees threatening to buckle at every passing second, the desk beneath her an unwavering support that promised to hold her no matter what, Maren heard herself say, "That's another dangerous piece of information I don't think I want you to have."
His answering chuckle one of dark amusement, Master Marshall stepped back into position behind and to one side of her. "Don't worry," he assured her. "Before I'm through with you, little author, I have a feeling you're going to tell me all sorts of things you'd rather I not know."
* * * * *
Tabby Black sat uneasily in her seat; Maggie, Darling, and Abbie nervously occupying chairs right alongside her. As the measured cracks of leather on bare skin continued to cut the quiet, rapidly followed by a veritable symphony of yelps and squeals, nobody moved and nobody spoke.
At least not until Maggie said, "I say we make a run for it."
"We can't," Darling said from Maggie's other side. "There's a security guard posted at the stairs."
As one, the four women turned to look at him. Burly arms folded across his chest, the words 'Chief of Castle Security' emblazoned in white letters across a black t-shirt, the man made no effort to hide himself. As if he could. He was quite possibly the biggest man Tabitha had ever seen in her life.
"Is that Jackson?" Abbie squeaked from the far end of the line.
"I think so," Tabby said.
Propping his hip against the banister, arms folded across his broad chest, Jackson raised a hand to wave at them. He even smiled, although to Tabby it looked far more like the kind of smile a predator would give a rabbit just before it pounced.
In unison, the women sat back in their seats and averted their eyes.
"There's another exit in this place," Maggie whispered. "I say we find it!"
But, for Tabby at least, it was already too late. The disciplinary sounds coming from inside Marshall's office had fallen silent some time ago, but just as she noticed that, the door to her left swung open.
Stepping out into the hall, Master Marshall locked her in the severity of his gaze�those really were freakishly blue eyes; her stomach somersaulted wildly�then beckoned with one finger. "Next," he said dryly.
Oh god, that was her.
The urge to run�and something that might have been excitement if only she weren't so unnerved�shivered through her, but when Tabby stood up, her feet took her straight to him. Master Marshall held the door for her, but as she slipped in past him, she froze when she saw Maren. She was standing in a corner between the door and fireplace, her hands were folded behind her head and her bright red butt was on full display. Tabby immediately turned around, but already Marshall had closed the door. He didn't lock it, but with him standing between her and her only avenue of escape, it may as well have been barred, chained, and with guards posted.
She was trapped.
Without a word, Master Marshall pointed to his desk. Ducking her head, Tabby went. Though he didn't offer, when Tabby reached the first chair, she sat down. While she still could. She looked at him.
"Name," he said, sitting down on the edge of his desk and picking up the next file. "Tell me about yourself."
Clasping her hands tight in her lap, Tabby cleared her throat. "Tabitha Black, but my friends call me Tabby. I've been writing naughty stories about spanking and sex for ten years. Despite several attempts to 'get a real job', somehow I always end up back in the adult genre� be it as a glamour model, chat host or, of course, writer of erotica."
He made a note in her file. That was unnerving. What could he possibly be writing? "And your decision to come to the Castle, what brought that about?"
�Desperate to diffuse some of the tension in the room, Tabby made a crack at humor. "Pfft," she said with a wave of her hand. "That's a silly question!"
Only his eyes moved when he glanced up from his page and pinned her with another Look.
"Er�" All attempts at humor melted right out of her. She cleared her throat again. "Sir. It's simple really: the Castle is my idea of paradise. Naughty, lovely women, gorgeous, dominant men." She looked at him, a slow flush of heat burning straight up from her belly into her face. She cleared her throat again. "A-also the ability to experience all one's kinky fantasies in one breathtaking setting. Oh, and the Wardrobe. Who doesn't like dressing up?"
"Who doesn't, indeed." Rather than complimented, as she'd hoped he might be, Master Marshall became only more stern. "Were you unaware of our privacy standards when you wrote your story?"
Tabby's fingers fidgeted in her lap. "Well� um� yes. But you see, I've been meaning to write a m�nage for a long time. When I heard about the resident twins, Master Travis and Master Trevor, I couldn't resist telling their story. They really are devastatingly handsome, even though I'm not usually attracted to blond men." Her blush deepened as she cast a quick glance at his own blond head. She cleared her throat yet again. "Well� there are exceptions, of course."
She tried to laugh it off, but it came out sounding too high-pitched and half-strangled.
"Are you nervous?" Master Marshall asked, his silken tone vaguely mocking. He already knew the answer.
"Nope," Tabby lied, again too high-pitched and still half-strangled. "A-a-anyway, what I r-really adore about the brothers is their ability to go from easy-going and funny to predatory and�" He made another note in his file, and it was killing her not to know what he was putting down there, "�and faint-makingly intense in an instant. It's uncanny. No wonder Silver couldn't resist them. I defy any woman to maintain a dry gusset once they turn those dark glittering eyes on her."
"How is your gusset right now?" he countered, the corners of his mouth curling into a knowing smile.
The heat in her face kicked up so high it was a wonder she didn't spontaneously combust where she was sitting.
Without waiting for an answer, Master Marshall said, "Were I to allow you access to our Castle, what program do you think you'd be most interested in trying?"
He was going to let her visit the Castle? Seriously? Momentarily forgetting her embarrassment, poor, sniffling Maren in the corner, everything, Tabby jumped at the chance. "All of them! Although I'd probably go to the dungeon first. I'd like to see whether Master Dominick really is as brilliant as he's rumored to be�" She stopped, her eyes rounding wide. "Oh, crap, did I say that out loud?"
Master Marshall's smile both widened and darkened. "Is that who you'd like to be assigned to, little Ms. Tabby?"
Oh, she did not like the way he'd just said her name. She tried to laugh again, but still couldn't quite manage it. "Oh, I-I don't know how I'd possibly be able to choose just one�they're all wonderful in their own way. But as I said in my previous answer� I'm quite a little masochist, so I'd be very interested to spend some� er� quality time with Master Dominick."
Master Marshall chuckled then, and set his file aside. "Is that a fact? Have you any hard limits, or kinks you've never experienced but always wanted to?"
"I have some hard limits; the usual. As for kinks I've yet to try� not really." Tabby had to work to keep her tone strong and even. Both the direction of the conversation and the way he kept looking at her were working together to turn her into an absolute wreck right there in his chair. "I've been very lucky in that I've pretty much tried them all�at least, all the ones which interested me. Maybe I'd delve a little deeper into my Little side, if I found the right Daddy. That's one aspect of BDSM I haven't explored very much in real life yet."
"Hm." Pushing up off his desk, Master Marshall circled around her chair on his way to the open implement cabinet behind her. "Tell me, what are your favorite implements?"
A softly whispered, "Don't do it," issued from somewhere behind her.
"No talking from the corner," Master Marshall said evenly.
Tabby was beyond heeding any kind of warning. Her belly was a mass of warring nerves and anticipation, dread and excitement. "Anything thuddy," she admitted. "I like thick, heavy floggers and big� er� sticks. I got paddled with a cricket bat once. It was awesome. I also have a particular weakness for knife play; something I discovered I have in common with Silver."
"Master Dominick will be thrilled to know that. He doesn't get to play with his knives anywhere near as often as he would like to."
A clatter of something heavy and wooden being withdrawn from that cabinet made every wildly buzzing nerve ending in Tabby's body come to a violent standstill. It was a paddle. A big one, long and heavy. Thuddy, her brain helpfully supplied. She melted.
"Stand up." Coming back to her, Master Marshall didn't wait for her to comply, but caught the back of her neck in his strong, warm hand and guided her straight out of her chair. "Bend."
"Wait�" Tabby said, but it was a weak protest even to her ears. She couldn't believe it. She was in the Castle, bending over Master Marshall's desk, and he was taking her pants down. He didn't even ask first, he just did it! Her breath caught, choking her when she felt him hook the elastic edges of her underwear, pulling it right up into the crack of her buttocks, effectively baring them to the cool press of the heavy wooden paddle.
"I assume you've read our brochure?" he asked, seeming so calmly reasonable when suddenly everything inside of her was a jumble of hectic anticipation. "In particular, I assume you are aware of my rule regarding submissives not leaving my office unspanked?"
"Yes, sir," she breathed, her eyes huge and staring straight down at the wide expanse of his desk just inches from the tip of her nose.
"Good. Then, let's talk." The paddle stroked the quivering surface of her almost naked bottom, a single circling pass that seemed to cover every spankable inch of her with very little effort. "In particular, let's talk about your complete lack of respect for our privacy standards."