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Tony Angelico thinks he knows all about Dominants and submissives. After all, his two brothers are unapologetic Dominants with long-term submissive partners. Tony also knows that Tessa, the woman who works for him – the one girl he can't get out of his mind – is interested in the lifestyle. But he wants no part of bossing women around, let alone dominating them.
Tessa Damon craves the attention and discipline of a strong, dominant alpha male, but she's not been able to find what she's looking for. She's attracted to Tony, and can't help fantasizing about being taken over his knee for a sound spanking. She longs for the release and comfort of submitting to a man she can trust.
The night Tony decides to give it a shot, everything changes. But can Tessa be healed from her abusive past, and realize that she's worthy of love? Can they find a path that works for both of them? Will Tony finally understand that there is no one definition to cover every nuance of what being a Dominant means – not when his heart and soul know that he wants nothing more than to assume the role of Tessa's protector?
DISCLAIMER: This book contains explicit themes, including the spanking of adult women and other BDSM scenarios. The book also includes a self-harm scene involving 'cutting.' If such material is likely to offend or trigger you in some way, please do not read.
Tessa watched as the teen-aged boys drying off her car wiped their towels over the hood in rhythmic circles. Over and over again, the flashes of brilliant white moved until her car gleamed like a polished sapphire in the sunlight. The tallest boy with a towel stepped back and gave her a thumb’s up. She nodded her thanks and pulled into the busy intersection of Main and Hawthorne Street, grateful that her car, at least, would not draw any attention from anyone. That was exactly what she needed. Anonymity.
No one needed to see that all her worldly possessions were stuffed in the back of her car.
Her first stop would be The Club, the Boston BDSM club so well-known and well-respected that it had ceased to be known by any other name, where she could sneak in a quick shower. Sneak being the operative word. Though Tessa had been a frequent visitor to The Club for a long while, this was well outside of business hours for anyone but the daily cleaning crew, who tended to leave the basement door open while they worked. Unfortunately, she had nowhere else to shower. And sneaking in wasn’t exactly breaking and entering, was it?
She wasn’t sure her friends would agree. Tessa’s boss, Tony Angelico, had a brother named Matteo who worked at The Club, and Tessa knew that if Matteo found out she went to The Club without permission, he’d have to tell Tony. And Matteo’s girlfriend Hillary was one of the few friends Tessa had. Tessa would die of mortification if anyone found out she was here. Stealth was crucial.
Tessa let herself into the basement stock room, then quickly ran up the short flight of stairs to where the employee changing rooms and facilities were. Tessa was not a sneaky person, and letting herself into The Club left her feeling queasy and uncomfortable. But she was experienced at being stealthy. When one grew up with a mom like she did, one grew accustomed to slipping about unseen.
Thirty minutes later, Tessa pulled her clean car into the parking lot of Cara, the restaurant where she worked as both event coordinator and manager. She thought how easy it was for the well-to-do to take cleanliness for granted. Access to hot water, showers, and a place to brush her teeth was something Tessa did not take for granted, and she took a minute to mourn the loss of the apartment she’d tried so desperately to claim as her very own.
Sunday would’ve been her move-in date. After so many years of working hard and saving every penny, living in the dismal house she’d grown up in so that her sister Nora wouldn’t have to take care of their mother alone, keeping her mother’s electricity on and the refrigerator stocked, she’d thought she could finally have a place to herself, a place to call home. The only reason she’d stayed so long at the dismal apartment she’d grown up in was because she couldn’t imagine leaving her sister alone. The plan was that once Nora hit her eighteenth birthday in just a few months, she’d move in with Tessa.
She’d finally made her way, finally had enough saved. The landlord required first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a security deposit. Hillary had put in a good word for her, and Tessa was moving in to a two-bedroom apartment nearby. The money had been socked away and untouched. But things hadn’t gone as planned.
Nora had called.
Tessa sighed, as she parked her car and took the keys out of her ignition.
One day, things would change. In many ways, they already had. She had already made her way in the professional world, establishing herself as dependable and hardworking, and Tony was pleased with the work that she did. She was paid well, and things were looking up.
But damn it all, if she didn’t always seem to take two steps forward and one step back.
How could she use the money she’d saved for an apartment when Nora needed her? Every penny she’d given Nora to pay for the books she needed for school had been found by her mother, who’d gone on a drinking spree and spent every damn penny. Nora needed the money, and she needed it now.
But Tessa would be damned if she’d beg her mother to let her move back in, either. Not after she’d angered her by saying she was moving out in the first place.
Glancing in the mirror, Tessa took a long, appraising look at the bags under her eyes, and her freshly-washed hair that was now almost dry, but stuck up in various odds and ends like a bale of hay. She sighed. She loved her auburn tresses, but really needed to touch up her hair and make-up before everyone else came to work. Her small overnight bag with make-up and hair accessories was tucked under her desk in her office, and no one usually showed up at Cara until noon, even Tony, as he pulled a late shift frequently. Tessa’s stomach growled, and she groaned. Damn it. She’d forgotten breakfast again.
She smoothed a hand over her skirt, thankful she’d found the little dress at the consignment shop at Downtown Crossing. Living in Boston had decided perks. Sure, it could be really pricey if you mingled with the yuppies and drank five dollar lattes with your seven dollar scones. But Boston was home to droves of college students, and second-hand clothing stores, consignment shops, and discount stores were abundant, if you just knew where to look.
And Tessa knew where to look.
She’d scored the olive-green wrap dress, a casual little number made of cotton and polyester that wouldn’t wrinkle no matter how she twisted it, for just a few dollars. The manager had put it behind the counter for her, insisting she try it on when she came for the Saturday morning perusal.
“It’s you,” she’d insisted. “Babe. You don’t even need to try it on. Fork over the four bucks and take her home.” She had tried it on, of course. And it had been her, as if it had been cut and sized to order. It dipped into a low vee in the front, just low enough to show off her ample assets, but not too low it was indecent. The empire waist accentuated her top but flared enough to make her look curvy, and not, as her mother always said, “dumpy and fat.”
Tessa was a curvy girl, and it was one reason she’d been drawn to The Club to begin with. Her ex, a former employee of The Club, told her “kinky guys like curvy chicks.” She still wasn’t sure if it were true, but it sure felt nice to believe it. For sure, the girls at The Club weren’t all supermodels. Hillary was thin and gorgeous, but her sister Heidi was all Marilyn-Monroe-like curves. Alice, the woman who tended bar but liked to play, was lovely but no waif either. Tessa felt like she fit in with these girls. As she pulled her purse from the backseat, glancing every which way in the parking lot to make sure no one was coming, she thought of Tony’s ex-girlfriend, Val. Always dressed to the nines, with perfectly manicured nails and flawless makeup, Val looked like she could’ve stepped off a runway. Val would’ve died a thousand deaths before she bought make-up at the local drug store, rather than a high-end department store. She wouldn’t have purchased a second-hand dress if someone put a gun to her head. And the thought of sleeping overnight in her car...
Tessa shook her head. Why start the day thinking about the bitch who’d held the staff at Cara hostage with her temper, sharp tongue, and control over Tony? Val was history. And sure, Tessa couldn’t compare, but just maybe she didn’t need to.
It was hard not to compare, though. Val had landed Tony—for a time, yes, but still. She’d been Tony’s. Tessa sighed.
God, she had to get her shit together.
Opening the employee entrance, Tessa stepped in quickly, and glanced around to make sure no one else was there yet. Scanning the parking lot wasn’t always reliable, as not everyone drove their own car. Occasionally, someone was there early when deliveries were made, or a big event was imminent, but the place looked vacant. She exhaled. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath.
Her office was near Tony’s, a small office to the side of the kitchen, with one thin wall between his office and hers. She’d hated that wall when Tony was dating Val. She could hear the fights they had, and suspected she heard a few other things as well. But now, she liked the fact that she could hear him on the phone during the day, or when he was talking with other employees. She liked the sound of his voice, deep and mellow, especially when he teasingly called her Miss Damon.
She reached for the light switch in the kitchen, and gasped when the light went on before she flicked the switch. Tony stood at the restaurant-entrance to the kitchen, his large frame dwarfing the doorway, blinking in surprise at her.
“Oh! Sorry, Tess. I didn’t know you were there.” He smiled. “You scared the hell out of me.”
Her heart was still pounding in her chest, not just from having been startled, but now hearing his voice and the way he smiled, his hazel eyes crinkling at her. His dark hair was still damp as if he just got out of the shower, and he had a little dimple when he smiled at her. She smiled back. God, it was so much nicer to be around him now that Val wasn’t there anymore. And then she remembered she still had hay-bale hair and a makeup-less face. She turned from him quickly.
“Morning, Tony,” she said, opening the door to her office and fairly sprinting in, shutting the door behind her.
Smooth, girl. Real smooth.
She grabbed her bag with her hair straightener and make-up. Ugh. Now, how was she going to get to the bathroom to fix herself up? She didn’t have a mirror in her office, and having her boss hauling her stuff to the employee bathroom wasn’t part of her initial strategy. She groaned. Crap! Well, the hair would be okay tucked into a clip or something, maybe. She rummaged through her bag and found one. Running her hands through the soft, but unruly locks, she quickly tucked it into a clip and grabbed her purse. Oh! There was a little compact mirror on the top of her makeup case. She quickly applied the lightest foundation, ran a mascara brush through her eyelashes, and slid lip gloss across her lips. Phew. That was better.
A knock came on the door just as she puckered her lips.
“Come in,” she said.
Tony entered, and smiled at her. Tony had the Angelico-brother grin, the same deep voice and dark hair. But that was where the physical similarities to his brother Matteo and Matt’s identical twin, Dom, ended. His strong jaw was clean-shaven, and he was huskier, with wide shoulders, large arms and equally large, very capable hands.
“Hey, you look nice,” he said, and her belly warmed just a little. “I’m sorry I scared you when you came in.”
She shrugged. “No biggie. What’s up?”
He held up a paper Dunkin Donuts bag. “They accidentally gave me three muffins instead of two. I think the girl there has a thing for me. She always calls me ‘honey’ and winks at me. I think she’s trying to butter me up.”
Tessa laughed, gesturing for him to come over and sit across from her at the desk. “Honey, I think it’s a prerequisite that all the girls who work that Dunks in Boston call their customers ‘honey.’ And yes, please. I would love a muffin. I forgot breakfast and I’m starving.”
He grinned, laying a napkin atop her desk and arranging the muffins.
“Uh. Blueberry… pumpkin… and cranberry orange, I think?” He leaned over and sniffed, which made her giggle.
“God, I love pumpkin muffins,” she groaned, reaching for it, but then she stopped. “Wait, you ordered two. Which ones did you want? I’m not gonna take yours.”
He shrugged. “A muffin is a muffin is a muffin,” he muttered. “Take what you want first.”
“I’m not gonna take your muffin! What did you order? Is the pumpkin yours?”
He sighed. “Tess. Take any one you want.”
She crossed her arms over her chest stubbornly. “No. Tell me which ones you ordered!”
He leaned over the table at her. “Infuriating girl, take whatever damn muffin you want. Wait, you said you like pumpkin?” He nabbed the pumpkin muffin and handed it to her on a napkin. “Eat.”
Frowning, she took the pumpkin muffin and suddenly felt self-conscious about eating it in front of him. What if he’d ordered the pumpkin?
“God, it’s good to see a woman eat a muffin,” he muttered, ripping the top off the blueberry and eating half of it in one ginormous bite. He swallowed. “Even if she’s as stubborn as a goddamn mule.”
“You should’ve just told me which you ordered,” she muttered, taking a tiny nibble. Mmm, it was good. Spicy and sweet and still warm. She took another, larger bite.
“Well, you’re the one who wanted to eat my pumpkin muffin,” he said. She nearly choked.
“Oh my God!” she said, and he chuckled, sounding exactly like his brothers when he did. She shook her head, reaching for the carton under her desk for a can of Diet Coke. She popped the top and took a large swig. She hated coffee, always had, and preferred starting her day with what she called her caffeinated bubbly.
“I have no idea how you can drink that stuff with breakfast,” he said with a grimace, as he sipped his coffee.
“You drink ginger ale with cannoli,” she said in her defense. “That’s just as weird. Except mine is caffeinated and makes more sense.”
“Have you tried drinking ginger ale with cannoli? I highly recommend it. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.”
“Well, I’d probably eat John’s cannoli with just about any drink,” she admitted. Their head pastry chef, John, was a master at the craft, and the cannoli he made were creamy but not too sweet, dusted with powdered sugar, and he had some kind of a method with the shells that made them crispy and as light as air. She loved them.
Tony had already polished off his blueberry muffin and reached for the cranberry.
“Either you were starving, or that was one good muffin,” she said, as she still had two thirds of hers left and he was already starting in on his second.
“It wasn’t as good as a pumpkin, but I’ll take it,” he said, his eyes twinkling at her. “And anyway, I’ve gotta eat plenty of carbs to maintain my chiseled physique,” he said sarcastically. He patted his belly. Though he was far from overweight, he was a good-sized guy. Tessa never had gone for the tall, lanky type. Something about Tony’s large, well-padded frame made her feel small and feminine. She snorted as she intentionally took a large bite of the pumpkin muffin.
“This one’s delicious,” she said, smacking her lips. “Just the right balance of sweet and spice.” She closed her eyes and moaned, licking her lips. When she opened them again, she noticed his eyes had gone half-lidded and his Adam’s apple moved up and down as he swallowed. Um, oops. She hadn’t meant to make the muffin-teasing into a sexual escapade. He was, after all, her boss, though the thought of him really being attracted to her was pretty much the best thing that happened to her all month… hell, all year.
She took a swig of Diet Coke, placed the muffin to the side, and sat up straighter. “So, are we all set for the Martin party this evening?”
He nodded and sat up straighter himself. “John’s got the pastry sorted, Rao says the menu is ready to go, and all preparations are in full swing. Oh, and Nicole is coming early to help set up.”
Rao had been promoted from wait staff to the kitchen, and Nicole was head waitress. Perfect.
“Oh, hey, I have a problem, though. Maybe you can help me?” he asked.
Hell, yeah, she could help him. Maybe he’d say something like, “I have this itch right behind my shoulder blades. Would you mind scratching?” or “My neck is really tight and maybe you can help massage out this knot…”
God, Tessa. Get a freaking grip!
“What’s up?” She was eager to hear what he needed. Sure, he was her boss, and yes, he was on the rebound having broken up with Val just a few weeks before, but hell if she didn’t want to get on his good side.
“My car’s in the shop,” he said. Ah, so that explained why it wasn’t in the employee parking lot. “Matteo took me in this morning, but has to be at The Club this afternoon and can’t take me to go pick up my car.” Her stomach began to clench, and she had a sinking feeling as he continued. “Is there any way you can take me? It’s just a few miles from here and should be ready by four, which gives me enough time to pick it up and be back here for the Martin party.”
Oh, God. He wanted a ride? How would she hide all her stuff? She couldn’t! There was too much of it. But she couldn’t lie to him, either. Her passenger seat was teeming with clothes, and the back seat was literally nothing but bags and boxes.
She should tell him no. She had to come up with some excuse. But what? She couldn’t tell him her car wasn’t working. Duh. It was right in the employee parking lot. She didn’t have plans because she had to be there for the Martin party anyway. She blinked. Shit! She was not good at thinking on her feet.
And this was a chance to do a favor for her favorite person in the entire world.
“Sure,” she said helplessly, nodding, trying her very best to pretend her world wasn’t imploding, and that she was so totally nonchalant about everything. She’d find a way to move her stuff before then. She would have to. “Yeah, I can take you.”
He stood, flashing that Angelico brother grin that should’ve been outlawed. It wasn’t fair what it did to a woman. She swallowed, and feigned having her shit together as she smiled back.
“Thanks, Tess,” he said, brushing the crumbs off her desk and into the bag. He crumpled it up, turned to the wastebasket, bent at the knees and shot. It bounced off the rim and fell to the floor. She stood and picked it up, shooting it in the way he did, but this time, she scored.
“Show off,” he muttered, shaking his head, but his eyes twinkled as he left her office.
She thought of her car filled with all her worldly possessions, as she watched his retreating figure. She slumped against the side of her desk. Tony made everything seem so simple and straight-forward.
Why couldn’t things be that way for her?
* * *
It was lunchtime, but she was still full from the muffin and too nervous to eat, anyway. She worked with Tony every single day, but ever since the day Val had pushed her over the edge at Heidi and Dom’s rehearsal dinner, things had been different. Val had accused her of hitting on Tony, but Tessa had been nothing but professional. When Val finally mumbled the word “slut,” Tessa had completely snapped, snagging a glass of red wine off the table and tossing it full force at Val. She’d met her mark completely, and was secretly pleased to see Val’s furious expression accompanied by a high-pitched shriek.
Val’s flip-out over that incident had pushed Tony to do what Tessa and every single member of the staff at Cara had wanted to do ever since Val had set her first Valentino stiletto in the door. He broke up with her. Hillary secretly gave Tessa a high-five, and John and Rao had been thrilled. They all kept their responses from Tony, however, who was brooding, but seemed somehow relieved.
Tessa wasn’t sure if it was her guilty conscience or the fact that all the men she hung out with were dominants at The Club, but she had expected a stern lecture from Tony. She felt she’d deserved it. Even though Val was out of line, Tessa knew giving way to her temper never ended well for anyone. She was raised by a mother with a raging anger issue, and Tessa had a hard time controlling her anger when she was pushed. But Tony never said a word. He’d taken Val home, and the next day at the wedding, had bought her a drink.
After that drink, she and Tony had talked until the wee hours of the morning. She’d been doing her best to prove to him that she wasn’t the crazy bitch who threw glasses of wine at people.
She would not do what she had done all through her teen years. No, she would not.
Her dresses and jeans always hid the scars on her thighs and she would die a thousand deaths before she would ever reveal to Tony, Hillary, or any of her friends at Cara or The Club that she was more than a masochist who craved spanking, but really what her mother called her regularly: fucked up.
Tessa shook her head. No. She had worked too damn hard to go down that rabbit trail of degradation again. She was not fucked up. Her high school guidance counselor, Mrs. Evans, would chew her out for that. Hell, even her little sister Nora would shake her head and stomp her foot and tell her not to go there. Her mother was the one who was fucked up. Tessa was strong, and capable, and better than that.
Tessa sat at her desk and lifted the edge of her dress just slightly, touching the raised scars that were the only remnants of the out-of-control girl she once was. Her hand shook slightly as she tentatively touched the deepest scar she had, the one on her left leg, the one that she’d opened up over and over again. The one that had finally caught the attention of her friend in high school, who had gone straight to Mrs. Evans. Tessa hadn’t spoken to her friend for months over that. But it was the turning point in her life.
She shoved her dress down and pushed to her feet, just as a knock came on her office door.
“Come in!” she yelled. She typically kept her office door open, but today she’d needed some privacy. The door opened, and Hillary stepped in.
God, Hillary looked amazing. She was always cute, and so pixie-like Matteo had nicknamed her “Tinker Bell.” But now she fairly glowed.
“Hey, babe,” Hillary said cheerfully, stepping into the office. “What’s up?”
“Oh, I was just stepping out for a few minutes,” Tessa said. “Need to run a few errands.” Her few errands involved finding a place to shove all the belongings that were littering her car so Tony could find a place to sit.
“You wanna go grab some lunch?” Hill asked, and Tessa shook her head.
“Sorry, not today, Hill. Got too much to do. How are you and Matt doing?”
Hillary flushed and lowered her eyes. Tessa giggled. That was a good sign.
“Oh my gosh,” Hillary whispered. “Amazing! And I finally got the rest of my stuff moved into his place this weekend. Well, I should say he got it moved in because you know the Angelico brothers. He was all, ‘Don’t lift a thing,’” she said, in a deep voice that sounded familiar. Tessa giggled, as Hillary continued her imitation. “I’m the one who carries the heavy shit. You go get the towels.”
Tessa smirked, but looked over Hillary’s shoulder and widened her eyes. “Oh, hi, Matteo,” she said. “We were just talking about you!”
Hillary gasped and swirled around, as Tessa burst into laughter.
Hillary turned back to Tessa, her eyes narrowed and her cheeks flushed. “Oh my God,” she hissed. “I am so gonna get you—” but she was silenced, as Matteo came up behind her and wrapped strong arms around her.
“Hey, babe,” he said, as he waved to Tessa. “S’up, Tess.”
Tessa waved back, slinging her bag over her shoulder. “What’s up, Matt? Hoping to catch some of Rao’s tortellini before you hit The Club?”
Matteo shook his head as his eyes danced. “Am I that predictable?”
“Yes,” said both girls in unison.
He gave Hillary a teasing swat and waved a finger at Tessa. “You two watch it,” he said warningly, and Tessa merely stuck her tongue out at him. Though Matteo occasionally played the role of Dungeon Master at The Club, Tessa had strategically made sure she never ended up playing a scene when he was around. It was just too weird at work. He knew she went, and he was friendlier to her than ever at The Club since Val outed her at the rehearsal dinner, but they kept their distance.
Tessa loved playing the part of submissive, and did it well.
But Matteo wasn’t the Angelico brother Tessa wanted to submit to.
She glanced at the clock. If she moved quickly enough, she would have just enough time to stash the contents of her front seat behind the dumpster, and pray to God no one would find it. The rest would have to be explained away. She sighed as she stepped quickly out of Cara’s. She’d done her very best to move past this shit, the sneaking, and the anxiety, the nerves and pressure.
When would she get her shit together for real?