As the door to the mansion opened, Mac rubbed her clammy hands on her cape and frowned. She'd heard of butterflies in the stomach, but hers felt more like giant birds. With claws. She pressed her hand to her abdomen. I'm a friendly, competent, pretty woman. I can do this. She could act like a lady and not humiliate herself or embarrass Alex by doing something gauche. Piece of cake.
When she glanced back at their car—again—Alex's arm slid around her waist, preventing any escape. She glared into his amused eyes and managed to put a smile on her face.
“Good evening. Please come in.” The butler—a real one—took their coats. He glanced at Mac's attire and didn't—quite—sniff in disapproval.
Mac raised her chin. Alex had wanted to buy her a dress, but she'd refused. She had an adequate dress, after all. A basic black that she'd worn everywhere, ever since her sorority sister Tiffany had tossed it across the room to Mac, declaring she'd never wear the dismal color again.
In the center of the foyer, Victoria turned from the last guest. When she saw Mac, her smile disappeared. And probably not because of the dress.
Why did Alex have to have a mother? A rich, dignified mother.
“I'm pleased you both could come,” Victoria said, giving her son a kiss on the cheek. “Alex, you know the way.”
Mac stopped just inside the room and stared. A huge chandelier cast glimmering light over people dressed in suits and cocktail dresses. The babble of conversation swamped the soft music. Perfume and aftershave scented the air.
“You look lovely, little vet.” Alex kissed her fingertips, then nipped one sharply enough to make her squeak. “And when this is over, I intend to strip you out of that pretty rag, bend you over a bench, and take you hard.”
Before she'd recovered from the surge of heat at his totally unexpected words, he was introducing her to an older couple. “John, Felicia, this is MacKensie Taylor. She's a vet and working with Susan Weston. MacKensie, this is John and Felicia Lordan. They have three cats from the shelter—or is it four now?”
Just that easily, the conversation took off as Felicia talked about their newest adoptee. Mac gave Alex an admiring glance before attending to the talk.
After meeting more people, Mac turned to Alex. “Most of the people here are high society and politicians, except for the slew of veterinarians infesting the place. Isn't that combination a little strange?”
He grinned. “My mother uses her parties for recruitment. She—” He broke off, his attention on the door.
Pleasure washed through Mac when Peter and Hope entered the room. Look, I actually know someone in Seattle.
While the men shook hands, Hope gave Mac a hug, saying, “I hoped you'd come.” The small group wandered over to the drink table, presided over by a man in a black coat.
Mac smiled at the bartender before confiding to Hope, “This is the first time I ever met a real butler, but I like our Butler better. Not nearly as stuffy.”
“I have noticed that myself.”
Mac turned and froze. Alex's mother. Oh frak. Open mouth, insert foot.
Alex didn't seem to notice the chill as he laughed and said, “Our staff is growing, Mother. We now have a Chef who spends most of his time in the kitchen.” Alex grasped Mac's wrist and turned her arm over to display the scratch marks.
“Our staff?” Victoria's eyebrows rose and then snapped together as her gaze turned to Mac. “You like cats?”
Alex's voice turned cold as he said, “Enough to risk life and limb rescuing a scrawny ball of fluff from the center of Mercer Street.”
Mac winced. She'd thought the story of her dramatic rescue of the cat amusing. Instead she had gotten swatted on the butt—really hard—for almost getting killed.
“Well.” The chill in Victoria's eyes eased. “Good for you. Far too many people don't like cats.”
“I—Well, hell,” Alex said and earned himself a real frown from his mother. He held up his hand. “I'm sorry, Mother. I didn't realize I hadn't mentioned it at the ball. MacKensie's a vet. Susan already snatched her up to work at the hospital.”
Whoa. The chill disappeared completely, Mac noticed, as Victoria murmured, “A vet. Indeed.”
“Here she goes,” Alex muttered, and then the full force of the woman's personality came to bear on Mac.
“Alex is obviously quite amiss in his introductions. I presume he neglected to tell you that I run a cat rescue.”
Mac's jaw dropped. “You?”
“Me. One of the finest in the state. And we have many, many veterinarians”—she glanced around the room with a smile—“who volunteer to help spay and treat our residents.” Victoria tilted her head and waited.
Frak, the woman was way too much like her son. “I… Well, I just started working, but…I'd be delighted to volunteer as soon as I know my schedule.” Actually she would. She'd put in many hours back home doing just that. Her smile felt natural this time. “I really would be happy to help.”
“Excellent. You'll have to invite me over to meet…Chef.” Victoria accepted a drink from the bartender with a nod of thanks. “Such names.” She shook her head. “A few years back, I instructed my son to get a butler for his parties.” She took a sip of her drink, nodded approval at the bartender. “Perhaps I might have indulged in a slight amount of nagging.”
Mac kept her mouth from dropping open. The regal posture couldn't hide the laughter dancing in Victoria's blue eyes.
“As you might have discovered, MacKensie, Alex doesn't respond well to orders.”
“Um. No. He reacts rather badly.” Mac felt a flush creeping up her face. Just this afternoon she'd instructed him to relax rather than building a cat condo. He'd gagged her and cuffed her to a patio post. What kind of man had anchors embedded in posts?
“Exactly,” Victoria said. “So I was quite pleased when he said he'd found a fine butler.”
Mac choked back a laugh as she realized what his mother meant.
“You laugh?” Victoria raised her eyebrows. “I'll have you know, when we were introduced, that incredibly ugly Butler of his licked my ankle.”
Oh Lord, she could just see it. Mac couldn't keep the giggles down.
With a tilt of her head and a smile, Victoria excused herself to see to her guests.
Hope grinned. “Just when I think she's made of ice, she proves me wrong.”
Mac felt a tiny upwelling of hope. Maybe Alex's mother didn't hate her after all. As the others ordered drinks from the bartender, Mac watched Victoria make the rounds, and she realized the woman intimidated every damn person she talked to. Even the congressman.
For the next hour, with either Hope or Alex at her side and eventually by herself, Mac mingled and nibbled on hors d'oeuvres, argued about Seattle and Washington politics, and gossiped about celebrities. She was actually having a good time, she realized. Although a bit conservative, the guests were, without exception, intelligent and involved.
Could life get any better? She had a whole new world here, with a job and a lover and friends. Time to call the real estate agent back in Iowa and get her house listed for sale.
Smiling a little, she turned and came face-to-face with Dickerson. She gasped.
His wet lips drew up in a satisfied smirk. Grabbing her wrist, he leaned toward her. “Want to change your mind, slut?”
The blood drained out of her head, leaving her dizzy. This couldn't be happening.
“My bitch of a wife might have left me”—the enraged, sick look in his eyes made Mac's stomach twist—“but I'll have you to service me every night.”
Her mouth filled with bile, but her answer was engraved in her very bones now. “No, I won't.”
“You're nothing.” Dickerson pulled her closer.
What would it take to make him leave her alone? Insults? “I may be nothing, but you're really little. And the worst I ever had.” Her voice wasn't loud, but people's heads turned at the emotion in it. More turned when she wrenched her arm out of his grasp. “Stay away from me.”
His face turned a horrible purple. “Cunt. You don't belong here among decent people,” he said, then raised his voice. “Victoria, this woman is a whore. She's from the Midwest, where she worked out of an alley, servicing anyone who'd give her money.”
Shocked inhalations filled the air, each sound stabbing through her defenses, until she wondered why there wasn't a pool of blood at her feet. She staggered back a step and tore her gaze from his, only to meet the barrage of eyes. Condemning, disgusted.
Victoria, her mouth pinched thin. Hope, with her hands over her mouth.
Across the room, Alex. Eyes like ice, yet filled with fury. He shoved a person out of his way and headed straight for her.
* * * * *
The lights of the city never went dark.
Mac stood on the balcony of the third-rate hotel and watched the cars crossing the Ballard Bridge like a jeweled ribbon of light. The saucerlike Space Needle glowed high above the city. How many children thought it was an alien spacecraft coming to steal them away?
“Take me too,” she whispered, her hands clutching the railing. She stared up into the night sky, clear of clouds, the stars muted by the city. Surely rain should be pouring from the sky and the air should be cold, to match the aching chill inside her.
How can the world go on when mine has been destroyed?
So many people had attended Victoria's party—all the leaders of this city. The gossip would spread, and then everyone would know about her and what she'd done.
In Oak Hollow, Jim had given her a job because he loved her. But here? Even if she and Susan were friendly, the other vets wouldn't permit an ex-whore to work there. My job—gone.
No one else would hire her. My future—gone.
Hope's face, the shock on it. My new friends—gone.
And Alex. She let go of the railing and wrapped her arms around her stomach, trying to contain the pain. She hadn't even dared to return to the house, even to get Chef.
Alex would have followed her there. Of course he would. And she couldn't bear to see the condemnation in his eyes.
Even if he didn't hate her, their time together was finished. No one associated with a whore.
Her knees gave out, and she slid down to sit, facing the desolate hotel room. A few more tears escaped, but she'd pretty much exhausted that avenue of comfort.
Hadn't been much comfort anyway.
Time to pick up and move on, MacKensie. But her past would bite her in the butt no matter where she went. How could she live like that, knowing someone could take everything from her again?
Maybe she should change her name and face. She gave a short laugh. Plastic surgery cost money, and gee, she didn't have a job. Not anymore. Well, she could possibly try a do-it-yourself facial reconstruction: bash her face into the wall, bust her nose, and let it set crooked. Then cut her hair short, spike it, and dye it black.
What the hell. Why not?
She was a survivor. The past years had taught her that. Knock her down and—eventually—she'd pick herself up and march on.
But this time she'd march without her heart. Oh God, Alex… She wouldn't go back for her clothing. No. Just disappear from his life. She rocked back and forth. What would he be thinking now? Would he feel betrayed? She tried to tell herself that he wouldn't care, and kept seeing his face when he held her in the dungeon. “Stay, little vet.”
How long would he wait for her to return? Oh please, don't let him be hurt. Her breath hitched as her throat tightened. Guess she hadn't cried herself out after all.
She heard a key in the lock and looked up.
The hotel-room door opened. A young man in the hotel's uniform glanced at her before turning to someone in the hallway. “You were right, sir. She does look ill. Do you need me to call an ambulance?”
“I'll let you know.” Alex stepped into the room. He handed the bellboy several bills. “Thank you for your help.” As the man disappeared, Alex closed the door.
Alex, Alex, Alex. His name reverberated in her head with the beat of her pulse. “H-how”—her voice cracked—“how did you find me?” She couldn't voice the real question: why are you here?
“Your taxi. We helped start the company. As a courtesy, they keep a car or two on the street for Mother's parties.” He bent and hauled her to her feet.
Couldn't she get anything right? Not even an escape? “Alex,” she whispered. “No.”
His jaw tightened. He pulled her into the room and sat on the bed beside her. His grip moved from her arms to her wrists, a ruthless grip that didn't release when she tugged. “Explain,” he said.
She stared down at his corded, muscular hands, at the thickness of his wrists. “You heard him. It's true. I'm a whore.”
“And you've been trolling Pioneer Square in your spare time?” He snorted. “I said explain. This was what happened twelve years ago. How did you get started?”
She yanked at her hands again without success. Her worst nightmare never included sitting next to Alex and delving into the dregs of her life. “I am not going to talk about it.”
“Yes,” he said quietly, his voice deepening. Dom voice. “You are.”
And he would keep her here until she did. Talking wouldn't be easier an hour from now. Her stomach twisted into a massive, painful knot, and she swallowed hard. The hands encircling her wrists felt more restraining than any leather cuffs. No escape. “I ran away. My foster home… When Arlene's daughter graduated, she closed down. The one I went to—the man tried to touch me.” Her bitter laugh sounded more like a sob. “I ran from him and ended up under others. Smart, huh?”
His thumbs rubbed the back of her hands, and the tiny comforting gesture made tears pool in her eyes. He couldn't hate her and do that.
“How old were you?”
“Fifteen. Old enough to know better.”
“You could have gone back…”
“I'd decided to. But…I was stupid, so stupid. I hadn't eaten in three days, and a guy bought me a burger. He said he had an extra room.” Alex's hands slid down to hold hers, enfolding them in warmth. “I walked into his apartment thinking everything was going to be all right.” The relief singing through her.Food. A place to stay. A friend. Then the slap, coming out of nowhere. “He was a pimp. He beat me.” A fist in the stomach. The shocking, horrible pain…
She tried to smile as she said lightly, “I tried to escape once or twice, but he didn't like that.” The beatings, over and over. Face pressed into the carpet, bleeding, crying.
Alex's hands tightened around hers, and she heard a low noise, almost like a growl, but when he spoke, his voice was even. Unemotional. “How did you escape?”
“Jim.” The memory caught her and pulled her upward. The sweetness of being cared for, of being loved. Why did they have to die? “Jim and Mary found me after a…client had expressed his displeasure, and Ajax had…” She licked her dry lips. “They took me in.” Clean. Bandaged. Fed. But she didn't trust them. She'd already unlocked the bedroom window. “Jim came in and put a puppy into my lap.” Wiggles and joy, soft and trusting. “I…I was caught.”
“How old were you then?”
“Just under sixteen. I had walked the streets about a year.”
“They kept you. Helped you get into college. And then you went back to Oak Hollow for Jim.”
Her gaze jumped up. “How'd you know that?”
His eyes crinkled, and then his gaze turned cold. “The point is that you should have been the one to tell me.”
She should have. Guilt seared through her so fast that her eyes teared. She looked down, away, anywhere but at his face. “I'm s-sorry. I should have told you about being a whore. That you'd be going to bed with a—”
“Dammit!” Hard hands gripped her shoulders, and Alex shook her once. “You're not a whore. And you should have told me because you share painful things with your Dom—and your lover. I thought you'd been raped, for God's sake.”
“Not rape. I gave it away for money,” she whispered, the shame like scalding water.
“Oh, sweetheart.” A hand against her cheek turned her face to his. “You were a teenager, which is another term for idiotic. You jumped from bad into worse, but that wasn't your fault. Hell, even if you took money for sex and had a good time doing it, that's not something I'd hold against you.” A crease appeared in his cheek. “I know too many women—and men—who've married for money, which is essentially the same thing, only with better living conditions.” He set her on his lap and wrapped her in his arms.
The sweetness of his embrace made more tears come. But she knew he didn't really mean it. A whore was a whore.
His little sub let him hold her, yet he could feel the stiffness of her body against his. She had heard his words, but her subconscious didn't accept them. Her self-loathing was so great that she didn't believe he could care.
But he knew the biggest missing pieces of her past now, and her behavior finally made sense. She'd been as abused as any little puppy or kitten he'd rescued. He could work with her on putting this into balance, but only if she stayed with him. “You know, when you ran from me,” he said gently, “when I arrived at home and you weren't there, it felt like you'd ripped my heart out.”
Her breathing paused.
“I love you, MacKensie. I would have told you before, but I knew it would scare you.” He stroked her silky hair. Such a stiff little body. “Normally at this point, a person might show how much they care by indulging in sex.”
He set her on her feet and caught the confused but accepting look in her eyes. She didn't believe he loved her, and although she would let him take her to bed because she needed him as badly as he needed her, she would spend the entire time grieving, convinced he'd leave. He unbuckled her glittery belt and tossed it aside. After unzipping her black dress, he pulled it down to pool around her ankles.
Then he yanked her, facedown, over his lap.
Mac hadn't even managed to regain her breath when his hand landed on her bare bottom. She yelped in shock, tried to get away, but her feet tangled in her dress, and Alex's merciless hand pushed her shoulders down.
Slam. “I love you, MacKensie, and I'm doing this because I love you.”
Slam. “I wouldn't do this if I didn't care, but you mean everything to me, and if this is what you need, then this is what you'll get.” He added in a mutter, “But we're damned well going to work on changing this association between caring and spanking.”
Slam. “I am very angry that you didn't trust me enough to tell me about your past.”
Slam. “I am very angry that you didn't trust me to still love you anyway.”
Slam. “I love you, little sub, and I'm doing this because I love you.” A pause. “MacKensie. Do I love you?”
Her head spun. He couldn't possibly love her. Not with her past. “I'm a whore.”
A growl. Slam, slam, slam. The pain burned through her, and tears streamed down her face. He rubbed his hand over her burning buttocks. “You were an abused little girl. If Hope said she'd been forced to be a prostitute at fifteen, would you hate her?”
“Of course not!”
“Then don't hate yourself.” He slapped her again. “I love you, idiot sub. Do you believe me?”
He'd turned his back on Cynthia. He could easily have done that to Mac, but he was here. He'd followed her and had no reason to do that unless he loved her. He'd let her bring a kitten home, bought her pizza, introduced her to his friends. And his mother. He'd come after her. He could have any woman in the world…but he was here. “I believe you,” she whispered.
“Good.” His hand came down, cracking across her skin three more times.
Her fingers clawed into the ugly carpet as she cried out, sobbing. “Why?”
“To make sure you didn't forget.” His hand didn't release her shoulders, and she tensed, waiting for the next blow. Instead his hand stroked over her back, across her stinging bottom, and into the crease between her buttocks and thighs. Light, feathery touches like a counterpoint to the burning of her skin.
“What are you doing?” She pushed up and had her shoulders shoved right back down. A light slap hit her upper thigh, making her hiss.
“Silence.” He bent and yanked her dress completely off her feet, then shoved her feet apart. Cool air struck her pussy, making her shiver. Feeling vulnerable, she tried to close her legs.
He slapped her thigh again. “Do not move, sub.”
God, that voice. Something inside her tightened, and she froze. He wouldn't…
A finger stroked down through her folds, finding her only slightly damp. “Did you know that some submissives find a good spanking to be exciting?”
That earned her a mild slap on her upper thigh. “I think it's time to work on making your spankings into something more fun for both of us.”
Her pussy was open, and now his fingers flickered over her labia, her clit, before returning to rub her tender bottom. The world shifted as arousal sparked to life inside her.
He pushed a finger into her, holding her shoulders down when she jerked. In and out; then, with a slick finger, he rubbed over her again. With each stroke, she could feel the nubbin engorge with blood. Her hips squirmed as he plunged his finger back in, pressing deep, then returned to her clit.
“You see,” he murmured, “when you're excited, your body has trouble telling the difference between pain and pleasure.” He slapped her butt lightly, and the pain stung, yet sizzled right to her groin. As his thumb slipped into her, he traced his fingers over her clit, then captured it between his knuckles, pressing, releasing, in a rhythm she couldn't escape.
Her vagina tightened around him, needing more. She was getting so close, and then he pulled out. She whimpered at the loss, at the frustration.
Slam. Slam. Slam.
Frak! Shocking, stinging pain, and yet it sent her right to the brink of release. So close. She panted, digging her fingers into the carpet.
Yet he didn't touch her. She moaned.
Then he pressed into her again, stroking that spot inside. “Come for me, MacKensie.” His fingers rubbed her clit firmly, and with his other hand, he slapped her bottom.
“Oooh, oo, oo, oo.” She bucked on him as he plunged his thumb in and out, as his fingers tapped her clit just enough that her orgasm wouldn't stop. His hard hand pressed her down again, pinning her to his knees as he drew every last spasm out of her.
When he finally picked her up off his knees and held her, rocked her, told her he loved her, that she was his wonderful sub, she cried. Oh God, she cried. Wrenching, gut-hurting sobs.
When she finished, she whispered, “I'm sorry.”
He huffed a laugh and lifted her chin with one finger. “Make it up to me,” he murmured.
She nodded and started to unbutton his shirt. He chuckled again. “No, little cat. It goes like this…” He looked into her eyes and stroked her cheek. “I love you, MacKensie.”
Her heart seemed to stop, then compress, then sink. She just stared at him.
A crease appeared in his cheek. “We'll try again. I love you, MacKensie.” He raised his eyebrows, waiting for…
He wanted her to—he wanted her to love him back? He wanted that? From her? She met his gaze, saw the patience and—oh God—the love. “I love you, Alex,” she whispered.
His eyes crinkled. “Better. A little tentative, but I'm sure you'll improve with practice. I love you, MacKensie.” He waited.
Her lips curved, and she said firmly, “I love you, Alex.”
“Perfect.” He kissed her, sweetly at first, tenderly, then so possessively that her heart started to pound. His hands moved over her breasts, his thumbs tormenting her nipples into swollen peaks. When he released her, she moaned a complaint.
Smiling, he put her hands on his shirt again. “Now, little sub, now you may show how much you love me.”
She undid the buttons, removed his shirt, and settled beside him. Her bottom touched the bed, and she winced and then gave him a mean look. “You want me to show you like you did me?”
He barked a laugh, and suddenly she was underneath him, his weight pressing her down into the mattress. He shoved her legs apart, freed his cock, and slid it into her in one ruthless thrust. One hand fisted in her hair, holding her face in place as he frowned into her eyes. “Little sub, if you try to swat me, I'll tie you up so tight, you won't be able to move.” He slid his cock in and out, as if he'd felt the clench of her pussy. “And then I'll take you so many times, you won't be able to walk.” In and out.
“Or maybe I'll strap a dildo in you and a vibrator on your front and make you come until your voice goes hoarse.”
Her breath stopped, and then she could see the amusement in his eyes that he'd hidden. “Ah, I know. I'll have a party and let everyone spank you”—he lifted her legs, pressing her knees upward, then moved inside her, harder, deeper, faster—“and then I'll take you again.”
* * * * *
Peter led them through the formal parlor and into a more-casual family room before raising his voice. “Hope. Alex and MacKensie are here.”
Mac braced herself. She'd had years of seeing disdain on people's faces. Peter had appeared friendly, but hey, he was a lawyer and Alex's friend. He'd never—
Her thoughts blanked when Hope appeared, sped across the room, and wrapped Mac in a whirlwind hug. A hug? After a second of complete shock, Mac managed to lift her arms and hug back. And breathe. Breathing was important.
Eventually Hope stepped back and set her hands on her hips. “So—at the party yesterday? Well, I've never seen anyone retreat that fast before. You were gone before anyone could move.” She scowled. “You dummy.”
Mac shook her head as her preconceptions slid right out from under her. “Why are you still talking to me? Didn't you hear anything that man said?”
“Yeah. And Alex explained. You were just a baby.” Hope's brows drew together. “A couple of my students have dropped out over the years, and I pray they aren't getting caught in something like that.” She pointed at the couch. “Sit down and don't even think about trying to escape.”
When the pixie trotted back into her kitchen, Mac looked at the men helplessly.
Peter ruffled her hair and pushed her toward the living room. “Sit. You have some decisions to make, and Alex asked me to help you with them.”
Decisions? Mac sank down on the couch, reassured when Alex sat next to her, his warmth against her side. He leaned back, as always totally at ease, his arms resting on the back of the couch.
Hope emerged from the kitchen with a tray of drinks. “Iced tea. I hope you like it,” she said. She set the tray on the coffee table, handed Peter a glass, and then perched on the arm of his chair.
“Thanks, love.” Peter smiled at Hope, then tipped his glass at Mac. “Are you planning to stay in Seattle, MacKensie? And will you be with Alex?”
She opened her mouth, closed it, and then burst out, “I can't.” She felt Alex stiffen and turned to him, trying to make him see. “You have a reputation. You're one of the movers and shakers in Seattle society. My being with you will ruin your reputation. They'd ostracize you.” Her chest hurt, but she forced the words out. “I can't do that to you. Don't you understand?”
Alex glanced at Peter. “See why I love her?” Taking her hand, he kissed her palm. “I am one of the owners of a notorious BDSM club named Chains, and people know that. So I already have a disreputable reputation that, oddly enough, everyone manages to ignore. You will do me no damage, pet.”
He grinned. “Ah. That you'll have to take up with her, although I think you underestimate her. But, MacKensie, her opinion doesn't affect what is between us.”
Didn't he understand anything?
“MacKensie.” Peter dragged her attention back. “Assuming none of this happened, would you want to stay with Alex?”
“Oh God, yes.”
Alex chuckled and pulled her closer, tucking her into his side as if she were a little chick. “There's the right answer.”
“All right.” Peter pursed his lips as he thought. “Does Carl Dickerson have anything else to throw at you, or has he shot his wad, so to speak?”
“Peter. Honestly!” Hope smacked him on the thigh.
Mac shook her head. How could they take this so calmly, even joking about it, as if her past was a simple problem to be solved? “There's nothing else. I didn't do drugs, wasn't arrested, didn't steal.”
“Just a year of being a baby hooker, then. Good.” Peter smiled at her. “Honey, you realize what that means, don't you?”
Mac thought about it. Alex's hand cupped her shoulder, his thumb stroking her skin gently. Patiently. She began to see what Peter was driving at. Dickerson didn't have anything else he could throw at her. He'd already broadcast her past in the highest society and vet circles. “He can't do anything worse than what he's already done.”
“Very good.” Peter smiled. “I did a little checking. He has a nasty temper—one of the reasons that he's changed clinics several times—but apparently he just had an acrimonious divorce, and his wife made some very unflattering comments about him in public.”
Mac bit her lip, smothering a hysterical laugh. Perhaps insulting Dickerson's size and performance had been a bit unwise.
“So, knowing that, the next move is yours. You can cower in the house or simply go on. Your decision, honey.”
“He's a vet. I'm bound to run into him again,” Mac whispered.
Mac stared at her hands, the fingers infected with a fine trembling. He would undoubtedly denounce her again. But gossip being what it was, by that time, everyone would already know her past. He could yell…but people had yelled at her before. He could proposition…but she'd dealt with that before too. So yes, he'd done his worst, and she'd survived. Alex was not only still with her but loved her. I've done enough running and hiding. Her shoulders straightened. “I'm not going to cower.”
* * * * *
As they were leaving, Alex watched MacKensie give Hope another hug. Much of the tension had left her body; she'd been bracing herself for the pain of losing her friends. He glanced at Peter. “Thank you. She needed an objective viewpoint.”
“My pleasure.” Peter smiled. “Not that I had a choice. I think Hope has adopted her. We still on for tomorrow afternoon?”
“Yes.” Alex nodded. “You'll be able to manage that as well as the party?”
“Oh yes.” Peter's eyes glinted with the look he had right before he did a closing argument to the jury. “I'm looking forward to a wonderful evening.”
Mac stopped in the center of the sidewalk, her feet refusing to move farther. Peter's house glimmered with light. As the sound of lilting music and a multitude of voices wafted out the open door, Mac just knew this was going to be a horrible evening.
Alex halted and looked down at her, but didn't speak. Just waited.
Mac took a breath of the cold night air. Okay. She had to do this. One more trial in an already-very-full day. She shook her head. Damn Alex anyway. Late in the afternoon, his friends had shown up at the house for “playtime,” and Alex, going into Dom mode, had forced Mac to explain her past. All of it.
Peter and Hope knew, of course, but Hope had a big heart. Apparently so did others.
“Honestly,” Tess had said. “If someone held teenage fiascos against me, I'd be dead meat. Not many of us get through that age without screwing up royally at least once.”
And over the next couple of hours, each Dom had yanked her over his lap and swatted her a few times, telling her that if she needed to know she was cared for, they had the laps and the palms to help her out.
Her bottom still hurt. She glared at Alex, and as if he understood, he slid an arm around her waist, then down, until his hand rubbed her tender butt.
“Jerk,” she whispered.
“True.” He nuzzled her cheek. “But we all enjoyed it.”
She sighed and kissed him lightly. Painful as it had been, they'd actually made her feel cared for. Like in gym class when people lined up on sides… Only this time, she actually had someone standing on her side.
After the play session, Hope and Tess had chattered away, taking turns scolding Mac when she got teary-eyed over their continued friendship. They'd insisted on helping Mac dress for this party. Tess had pulled Mac's hair back into a low ponytail, and Hope had applied her makeup. As a result, she looked ten years younger, more like a college student than a professional.
I can do this. Mac gave herself a mental nod and started her legs moving again. I can do this. She repeated it all the way up to the door of Peter's brick home. She managed to let the doorman take her coat, although it felt as if she were relinquishing her armor. But she looked good, partly because of the unexpected addition to her wardrobe that had appeared in her closet earlier. The silky blue cocktail dress—true blue, Alex called it—flowed around her legs. The bodice, decorated with darker blue stones, was modest and subdued.
The first sight of the room full of people stopped her in her tracks, and she had to instruct her feet to move—gracefully, dammit—into the room. Beside her, Alex didn't speak, simply walked with her, his arm brushing against hers with every step.
She knew full well that he wanted to walk in front of her and slay the dragons for her. That he'd let her stand on her own as she'd asked was a gift to her. God, she loved him.
They moved into the center of the room. So many people, and she could feel the impact of their eyes. This is just a party. She'd been to parties before and even enjoyed herself. I can do this.
“Take a breath, little cat,” Alex murmured.
When she spotted the man, her stomach dropped to her toes. Why was he here? Surely Peter hadn't invited him. He wouldn't do that to her. She started to shrink like Saran Wrap in a fire.
Alex's fingers lifted her chin so she could meet his uncompromising blue eyes. “When our kitten screws up, does he dwell on it? Even if I scold him, what does he look like?”
This morning, the kitten had knocked over a bowl from the mantel. When Alex scolded him, Chef had given a haughty look and stalked away, tiny tail straight up in the air, indifference in every step.
“I call you 'little cat' for a reason, you know,” he murmured. “Even before I knew how well you land on your feet.”
Well. She felt her spine straighten and her chin come up. He was right. She'd turned her life around. She deserved respect, not scorn.
And they continued forward.
As Alex greeted friends, Mac kept an eye on Dickerson. Her mouth dropped open when Peter and Hope strolled over to him, all chummy and smiling. After a minute, Peter turned and nodded at Alex, and then the traitorous lawyer actually winked at Mac before continuing his conversation with Dickerson.
Hand on the small of Mac's back, Alex guided her right up to Peter. He didn't even look at Dickerson. “Peter, I wanted to ask you—”
“Alex,” Peter interrupted. “Have you met Carl Dickerson? He recently joined your mother's list of vet volunteers.”
“Indeed.” Alex gave him an indifferent glance, not extending a hand. “Peter, I wanted to ask—”
Dickerson's face purpled at being ignored, and his glare descended on Mac. He obviously thought she'd caused trouble for him. “Nice to see you again, missy. Long way from the alleys, isn't it? How much are you charging these days?”
“Excuse me?” Peter said, lifting his eyebrows.
Dickerson snorted. “Oh, weren't you at the last party? The little lady here used to be a whore back in Des Moines. I think—”
“Really?” Peter interrupted. “How do you know her, then?” His voice had risen to match Dickerson's.
What was he doing? But the murmured “little cat” from Alex kept Mac in place, head high.
“How do you think?” Dickerson gave a filthy laugh. “Hell, she'd do anybody who offered the price. She—”
Victoria appeared on Mac's other side, her voice ice cold and carrying. “Have you ever noticed that men with inadequate equipment are incredibly loud?” She didn't—quite—sniff at Dickerson before looking at Mac. “My dear, how old were you and how long did you do this?”
Starting to get an idea of what was going on, Mac wet her lips. “Fifteen. For a year.” She tried, but her voice didn't come out very loud.
It didn't matter. Hope jumped in. Loudly. “Fifteen? Oh my God, you were just a baby.”
“Indeed.” The look Victoria gave Dickerson could have cut stone. “Please leave. I do not associate with men who prey on youngsters.”
Dickerson's mouth dropped open.
Then Alex attacked. “Might I add,” he said, and his voice didn't rise, but it carried, “if you ever speak disparagingly about my fiancée again, I will take you apart, physically, financially, and socially”—he cast his mother an amused look—“although the socially is probably superfluous at this point.”
Dickerson sputtered. “Did you just threaten me?”
“What? Do you lack ears as well as morals?” Victoria did sniff this time.
“Good job, Alex,” a man boomed from across the room. “Does she want to press charges?”
Startled, Mac glanced over. Wasn't that the police commissioner?
Bug-eyed, Dickerson stood frozen until Peter leaned forward and said quietly, “Leave. Now.” Dom voice.
No one seemed to notice his exit as the room broke out in a fresh buzz of conversation. Expecting to hear her past hashed to pieces, Mac heard people discussing their children and how difficult teenagers were to deal with, the need to clean up the streets and increase the services to the victims. The glances that came her way showed sympathy and even respect.
“That was totally fun,” Hope announced, bouncing up and down on her toes. “Can we cut the legs off someone else?”
“Bloodthirsty midget.” Peter ruffled her hair and then looked at Mac. “You stood up well. Very nice.”
As he and Hope walked into the crowd, Mac pulled in a breath. Dear God, what had she done to deserve such friends?
She turned to Alex and kissed him on the mouth. “You could have warned me, you sadistic bastard.”
His lips quirked. “You wouldn't have come.”
“I… Yes, probably true,” she admitted. “So thank you. But, um…the fiancée thing? Isn't that something people discuss? I've even heard of terms bandied about referring to proposals?”
“No,” he said. His eyes narrowed. “You will marry me. Refusal is no longer an option.” One hand gripping her arm, he kept her pinned in his gaze.
Not that she'd refuse, but he needed to learn that he couldn't walk all over her—except when he was doing his Dom thing. She shivered, thinking of the previous night and…
His lips curved, and his thumb stroked her lips.
Alex's mother.Still here. Frak me. Mac reddened and tried to step away from Alex.
His grip only tightened. After a long, long second, he released her, making sure she realized it had been his choice, not hers.
Victoria glared at her son before saying, “I fear I need to leave; I have another engagement across town.”
When Mac realized why Victoria had come, she had to blink back tears. “I can't thank you enough. You cowed him completely.” The memory replaced her tears with an urge to laugh. “It's amazing how you can do that.”
“It will be my pleasure to teach you,” Victoria said. “And as for thanking me? Since you already have a Butler and now a Chef, I believe it's time to start on grandbabies. Brown eyes or blue, dark hair or light—I'm quite flexible.”
The idea of having a baby with Alex sent a surge of joy through Mac that she couldn't conceal, and Victoria's smile warmed for a second before she frowned at her son. “Human grandbabies, Alex. Human.”
Alex chuckled. As his mother walked away, he bent over, his breath warm against Mac's ear. “My mother is not to be denied. So when we return, you will strip and place yourself over the spanking bench to await my pleasure.”
Her mouth opened as a wave of heat washed through her.
His finger traced a path down her cheek. “If I am unsatisfied in any way, you will be in the right position for me to show my dissatisfaction.”
The thought of his hand slapping against her bottom made her want to squirm, and she realized the thought no longer brought images of unease—just of heat.
His thumb rubbed over her lips as he smiled at her. “I love you, little sub.” He waited.
The words came ever so easily this time. “I love you, Alex.”
His brows drew together at the omission of the expected Sir.
With a sense of growing anticipation, she repeated, slowly, defiantly, “I love you…Alex.”
His eyes glinted. “I see. Perhaps it's time to sample some of the equipment off the wall.” His hand closed over her arm, warm against her bare skin.
Equipment? No. No way. The firm grasp mercilessly holding her in place sent a thrill through her even as she whispered frantically, “Sir. I meant Sir.”
He smiled at her—oh frak—and she knew she was doomed.
Harnessing the Science of Persuasion
IF LEADERSHIP, AT ITS MOST BASIC, consists of getting things done through others, then persuasion is one of the leader's essential tools. Many executives have assumed that this tool is beyond their grasp, available only to the charismatic and the eloquent.Over the past several decades, though, experimental psychologists have learned which methods reliably lead people to concede, comply, or change. Their research shows that persuasion is governed by several principles that can be taught and applied.
The first principle is that people are more likely to follow someone who is similar to them than someone who is not. Wise managers, then, enlist peers to help make their cases. Second, people are more willing to cooperate with those who are not only like them but who like them, as well. So it's worth the time to uncover real similarities and offer genuine praise.
Third, experiments confirm the intuitive truth that people tend to treat you the way you treat them. It's sound policy to do a favor before seeking one. Fourth, individuals are more likely to keep promises they make voluntarily and explicitly. The message for managers here is to get commitments in writing. Fifth, studies show that people really do defer to experts. So before they attempt to exert influence, executives should take pains to establish their own expertise and not assume that it's self-evident.
Finally, people want more of a commodity when it's scarce; it follows, then, that exclusive information is more persuasive than widely available data.
By mastering these principles-and, the author stresses, using them judiciously and ethically-executives can learn the elusive art of capturing an audience, swaying the undecided, and converting the opposition.
A LUCKY FEW HAVE IT; most of us do not. A handful of gifted "naturals" simply know how to capture an audience, sway the undecided, and convert the opposition.
Watching these masters of persuasion work their magic is at once impressive and frustrating. What's impressive is not just the easy way they use charisma and eloquence to convince others to do as they ask. It's also how eager those others are to do what's requested of them, as if the persuasion itself were a favor they couldn't wait to repay.
The frustrating part of the experience is that these born persuaders are often unable to account for their remarkable skill or pass it on to others. Their way with people is an art, and artists as a rule are far better at doing than at explaining. Most of them can't offer much help to those of us who possess no more than the ordinary quotient of charisma and eloquence but who still have to wrestle with leadership's fundamental challenge: getting things done through others. That challenge is painfully familiar to corporate executives, who every day have to figure out how to motivate and direct a highly individualistic work force. Playing the "Because I'm the boss" card is out. Even if it weren't demeaning and demoralizing for all concerned, it would be out of place in a world where cross-functional teams, joint ventures, and intercompany partnerships have blurred the lines of authority. In such an environment, persuasion skills exert far greater influence over others' behavior than formal power structures do. Which brings us back to where we started. Persuasion skills may be more necessary than ever, but how can executives acquire them if the most talented practitioners can't pass them along? By looking to science. For the past five decades, behavioral scientists have conducted experiments that shed considerable light on the way certain interactions lead people to concede, comply, or change.
This research shows that persuasion works by appealing to a limited set of deeply rooted human drives and needs, and it does so in predictable ways. Persuasion, in other words, is governed by basic principles that can be taught, learned, and applied. By mastering these principles, executives can bring scientific rigor to the business of securing consensus, cutting deals, and winning concessions. In the pages that follow, I describe six fundamental principles of persuasion and suggest a few ways that executives can apply them in their own organizations.