His mother threw a gaudy sequined scarf over her shoulder like a Hollywood diva. She placed her hands on Ben’s cheeks and stood on tiptoe to peck him on the mouth. “I love you. So here’s some advice, and please don’t take this the wrong way. You are a strong, independent man. A good man. A man who deserves happiness. But don’t be a stubborn man. It doesn’t make you weak to want to rely on someone or to want someone in your life who understands you fully. Who accepts you completely. Who gives you something you can’t get from anyone else. Everything in life is about compromise. If it’s worth it, you’ll change to get it. Changing things about your life that don’t fit who you are anymore doesn’t mean you have to change who you are inside.”
He stared at her with his mouth hanging open.
“It’s scary how well I know you, isn’t it, son? We’re a lot alike.” She laughed. “And that absolutely horrifies you, doesn’t it?”
The door slammed behind her and she yelled at his dogs before she sped off.
Smart woman, his mother. Between her advice, and Gavin’s, he’d finally found the answer he’d been looking for.
Without changing clothes, without giving himself a chance to change his mind, he jumped in his truck and headed for Gillette.
Late Tuesday morning Layla showed up at the bank, practically spitting fire.
As soon as Ainsley shut her office door, Layla was in her face. “What did you do to Bennett?”
“Me? Nothing.” Panic surfaced. “Why? What happened to him? Is he all right?”
“No, he’s not all right. He resigned from the Rawhide Club.”
Her stomach lurched. “He did? When?”
“Last night.” Layla poked her in the chest. “We’re friends, A, but if you did something to hurt him, I swear I’ll—”
“Hold up. Why do you assume it was something I did?”
“Because he told me it was.”
“Sit and start from the beginning.”
Layla flopped into the chair. “I just happened to be at the club last night.”
“The club was open last night?”
“No. The guys have a meeting every couple months to deal with schedules, new members, any problems. Ben showed up, which he almost never does. But he looked awful. He had bags under his eyes. I think he came in wearing cow-poop-covered clothes. That isn’t the Bennett I know. He gave no input during the meeting. As soon as it ended, he stood and announced he was canceling his membership. He’d appreciated their friendship and support over the years, but sometimes a man had to make a choice and he’d made his.”
Ainsley couldn’t believe her ears. “What did the other guys—his friends—say?”
“What could they say? They were stunned. So I followed Bennett out to his truck and asked him why he was leaving the club. He said being with you changed his life.”
Anger rose. Bennett could tell Layla that, but not her?
You have no right to the anger. You gave him no choice but to keep his feelings from you when you told him it was over.
Layla tapped on the desk to get her attention. “Tell me what happened between you two.”
Despite her distraction, Ainsley gave Layla the rundown. She tried for detachment in the telling, but by the time she finished, the pressure and misery from the past couple of days nearly had her in tears.
“So everything with him was all just an experiment to you and you can just walk away like nothing happened?”
“No!” She jabbed her finger at Layla. “You’re the one who said I should give the club a try. I did. You’re the one who said I should embrace my sexuality. I did. It was supposed to be one weekend out of my life and nothing more.”
“But it wasn’t enough, was it?” Layla said softly. “I had nothing to do with you agreeing to be Bennett’s sub, outside the club for a month. So don’t pretend you were coerced.”
“I know that, Layla. I’m not denying it. I’ve learned…I’ve accepted that I prefer to be submissive when it comes to sex.”
“But after seeing how I jeopardized my job with one misstep, regarding Ben, I knew it had to end. All of it.” Even when I didn’t want it to.
“Why? What you do in a private club isn’t anyone’s business but yours.”
“Wrong. What would happen if my coworkers or bosses found out I’m a sexual submissive? That I do whatever Bennett demands of me, without question? That I’m involved with a man who’s a sexual dominant at a sex club? And please don’t tell me it doesn’t matter because it does. Maybe not in all lines of work, but definitely in this one and definitely in this part of the country. And Bennett keeps the Dom side of himself hidden from his family and friends too, so it’s not just me who knows the risks of our preferences becoming common knowledge.”
Ainsley sank back in her chair.
“I get that, A, but don’t you see how much Bennett cares about you? He’s removing the big obstacle that prevents you two from being together.”
“I don’t want that burden from him.”
“Too bad, you’ve got it,” Layla snapped, “and now you have to deal with it. So tell me how you plan to?”
Stung, she retorted, “How long do you think before Bennett gets bored with me and misses the sexual variety that defined his time as a Dom at the Rawhide?”
“Bennett has always been very committed to the club. Making it a place where everyone who’s a member is comfortable because he struggled for years with accepting who he was as a Dom. So for him to walk away for good? I know he’s even more committed to making this work with you.”
That brought tears to her eyes again. “Damn him. I didn’t want this.”
“Didn’t want what?”
Didn’t want to fall for him.
“Ainsley, do you love him?”
Yes. “What if my feelings are from the sex that rocks my world? What if I’ve latched onto the convenience of being with Ben because he lives here? What if I’ve confused submission with love?”
“What if it is love and you’re making all these lame excuses because you don’t believe you can fall in love in a month?” Layla countered.
“That’s not it.”
“Then are you worried Bennett will expect you to become a lifestyle sub like me if you’re outside the club?”
She remembered exchanging harsh words about that very thing the last night they’d seen each other. “No. I know that’s not what he wants. But hearing that he’s leaving the club—”makes me hopeful that maybe we have a chance, “—makes me wonder if he feels pressured to do it.”
“Bennett is a force all his own. He doesn’t do a damn thing he doesn’t want to. He is willingly walking away from the club because he wants you, A, for the long haul. He found something more meaningful than he was getting with random hookups at the club. He found it with you.” She shook her finger at Ainsley. “But don’t for a second think he’ll become some pussified girly man because he’s no longer wielding a whip at the Rawhide. Bennett is a Dom through and through. That part of him won’t change. Ever. He’ll still want a sexual Dom/sub relationship with you, and not temporarily this time.”
“I don’t want that part of him to change.”
“Good.” A long sigh echoed. “I know you, Ainsley. Don’t talk yourself out of what could be the best thing that’s ever happened to you because you’re scared.”
“I am scared. Aren’t you the one who warned me not to fall for Bennett because he wasn’t a long-term guy? You told me I’d be an idiot for taking up with the first Dom I met.”
Layla leveled her with an uncompromising stare. “I was wrong. I can admit it. Can you?” She stood. “Don’t be an idiot. Accept him as he is. Accept yourself for what you are to him. Accept what you two can have together.”
Ainsley watched Layla flounce out of her office. Her friend’s words swirling around in her head.
Accept him as he is.
Accept yourself for what you are to him.
Bennett made no apologies about who he was. He’d given her all of himself while helping her get in tune with a side of herself she hadn’t acknowledged. He’d respected her boundaries, even while pushing them at every opportunity.
And now she wanted to bring those boundaries back in because she was scared? She wanted to use what he was—unapologetically sexually dominant—against him because she was freaked out about what she’d discovered about herself?
Why couldn’t she just accept that she admired the sexual woman she’d become because of Bennett? She liked that he challenged her. She liked handing control to him, knowing he’d never abuse it. She liked how he looked at her, not only the admiring gazes he gave her body, but when he locked his eyes to hers and seemed to see into her soul. He saw the real her. He acknowledged the woman she was—in and out of the bedroom—not just as who she was as his submissive.
Ainsley let her head fall back and stared at the ceiling.
So what to do now?
Call Ben and share the news she hadn’t gotten canned?
Confess she’d fallen in love with him? Not only as Bennett the Dom, but as Ben the man? That she wanted them both?
Or would he believe her confession was only a knee-jerk reaction to her relief at not losing her job?
Or would he think she’d only come to him because he’d quit the Rawhide Club?
Don’t think about it now. Get back to work.
But the rest of the afternoon was a total wash.
So many thoughts bounced in her brain, she pled a headache to her staff and shut off the lights in her office. Her mind kept drifting to sex, specifically the night she’d shown up at Ben’s house to seduce him with plain old vanilla sex. Intending to prove they didn’t need foreplay in the form of ropes, cuffs, vibrators or restraints. They could get naked, roll around between the sheets, until hungry kisses and fevered touches weren’t enough. Then Ben could pin her body beneath his and gaze into her eyes as he slowly slipped inside her. Loving her as fiercely and hotly as he always did.