Down on Her Knees ONLY

a Dare Me novel by USA TODAY bestselling author Christine Bell

Down on Her KneesA 2015 Colorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence Finalist in the Erotic category
Four lessons, no strings…

Detective Rafe Davenport has always made Courtney DeLollis uneasy. While her instincts whisper, Touch him, her mind says, Run. But since she learned that he’s dominant in the bedroom, she hasn’t been able to forget about it. She should be appalled—she knows all too well what happens when a man has too much control—but a deeper, darker part of her is fascinated…

And so is Rafe. The sexual tension between them is thick enough to touch, and damn, does he want to touch. So he suggests something that will benefit them both. Four scenes—because anything more is a relationship, and Rafe won’t go there ever again. Each scenario is designed to tease and torment. To show Courtney that with every submission comes the reward of scintillating pleasure. But once he has Courtney down on her knees, Rafe realizes that she might be the one woman capable of bringing him to his



Title: Down on Her Knees
Series: Dare Me, #4
Author: Christine Bell
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 200 pages
Listening Length: 5 hours and 26 minutes
Release Date: February 2014
ISBN: 978-1-62266-496-2
Imprint: Brazen

Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.

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An Excerpt from:

Down on Her Knees
Christine Bell
Copyright © 2014 by Christine Bell. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

Chapter One

Courtney DeLollis huddled in the corner of the grandly appointed reception tent, peering through the leaves of a giant ficus, hoping the foliage would shield her from sight. If she played her cards right, maybe she’d get through the evening in the background, present and accounted for, but not having to engage with anyone. And by anyone, she meant—

“The sleek puma sits back on her haunches, waiting for her prey to stop sniffing the air, all the while scouring the group for the weakest link.”

The low male voice in her ear made her tense until it was followed by a chuckle she knew well. She resisted the urge to slump with relief and turned to face Galen Thomas.

“Hey there, handsome. You guys looked great out there,” she said.

Wasn’t that the truth. Galen and his wife of less than two hours, Lacey, both looked gorgeous. The groom in his gray tux, his bride in her white dress with a blue sash. On a beautiful summer evening by the lake under a pristine white canopy surrounded by family and friends, their first dance had been pure magic. Someday, a long time from now, Courtney was going to find a man who looked at her the way they looked at each other.

Yep. A verrrry long time from now.

“You look pretty great yourself,” Galen said and motioned to her dress. Even while he said it, though, he was scanning the canopied area for his bride. “Too nice to be hiding behind the potted plants. My wife has been trying to find you.”

Shit. She’d hoped to fly under the radar. “Well, here I am,” she said, waggling her fingers jazz-style. At his deadpan stare, she dropped her arms back to her side. “Fine. I’ll be right out. I had to escape your Uncle Milton.” Not the truth, but believable enough. The man was a talker. “He was yapping my ear off. It’s fine now, though. He seems to have located the bar.”

Galen laughed and nodded. “Okay, but don’t go wandering off again. Lacey’s worried because you don’t know that many people here. You know how she gets. Plus the bridal party needs to be on call for pictures and then the throwing of the bouquet.”

“Sure thing,” she reassured him brightly. His astute gaze held hers for a beat too long, and he seemed ready to question her further but a female voice called to him.

“Did you find her?”

“She’s right here,” he yelled back to his wife, moving his hulking form to the side to offer visual confirmation. Lacey waved, and the tall man standing next to her followed suit.

Rafe Davenport.

Courtney’s mouth went dry and a shiver ran through her. Six feet or better of lean muscle, he looked like he could have led the Trojans into battle if he had to. She had gotten to see him in his uniform a few months back when they’d all gone out for drinks to celebrate his commendation after he helped rescue a little girl lost in the woods. In his police blues, he was pure fantasy. In the tux, he gave James Bond a run for his money.

He leveled her with a mocking smile, as if he knew full well she was avoiding him, and she barely resisted the urge to flip him the bird. God, did he bring out the brat in her.

Besides, it wasn’t like she was hiding from him, so much. She just wasn’t in the mood to lock horns with him today, and staying out of sight was more foolproof than relying on her self-discipline. It seemed like whenever they were around each other, they got into some sort of beef that left her irritated, frustrated and way too aware of her body.

Apparently, he either didn’t feel the same way or enjoyed the sensation, because he dipped his head to say something to Lacey and then made his way purposefully toward Courtney’s foliage camouflage, long legs eating up the dance floor between them.

Talk about your puma. His focus was laser-like, and it took all her strength to stand her ground. So what. He was going to come over, break her balls, they’d do their little verbal sparring, and then he’d walk away. This wouldn’t be the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last. She needed to get better at managing him, was all. She loved her new group of friends, and he was part of the package, so the sooner she learned to deal with him, the better.

Straightening her shoulders, she tipped her head up to face him as Galen moved off to meet up with his wife.

“Hello, Courtney.” Rafe’s silky voice held a laugh right beneath the surface that had every muscle in her body tensing. She tried to calm the pounding of her heart as she offered a fake smile.

“Hey, Rafe.” That’s it, Court. Keep it casual-like. Only those eyes, black as pitch, sexy as sin, seemed to see right through her, and her smile wavered. Say something else. “What can I do for you?” As soon as the words slipped from her lips, she wished for them back. Why did everything she said around him come off like it was sexual?

His already-hot gaze went hotter and he made a soft snicking sound with his mouth. Chills broke out over her as he leaned in closer. Instinctively, she backed up, until the still-sun-warmed metal of the canopy post pressed against her spine.

“I think you know me better than to ask a question like that,” he said softly.

The thing was, she didn’t. Not really. They’d hung out as a group a lot, but the two of them had been like oil and vinegar. They’d mingle for a short while when forced, but that was about it. Something about him put her perpetually on edge. She’d managed to keep her wary distance until the night of Lacey’s bachelorette party, when she’d found out he was some sort of bedroom dom. Which, while none of her business, hadn’t been far from her thoughts ever since.

Her mistake had been calling him on it.

She pushed back the thought and took a sip of her wine to gather her wits before responding. “That’s charming. Someone asks a simple question and you automatically make it into some BDSM thing. Why don’t you scope the room for someone to handcuff to something?” she asked. “I’m a little busy right now.”

He glanced down at the ficus she was clinging to with her free hand and shrugged. “Your date looks like a real bore. I’m just trying to liven things up a little. And for the record, I didn’t mention anything about BDSM. You know, for someone who thinks it’s abusive, you sure do bring it up a lot.”

Only because he goaded her into it. After you goaded him first, her subconscious added helpfully. Okay, so maybe calling it “abusive” had been a stretch, but she’d been desperate. Willing to say anything at that point if it helped her throw up a roadblock between them before she did something stupid. What she hadn’t realized was that he’d view her little red herring as bait. In her attempt to keep distance between them, she’d unwittingly opened Pandora’s box and had no clue how to close it again.

Better to stay on the defensive until this thing ran its course or he got bored of messing with her. “Don’t act like the victim here, Detective.” She straightened, set her glass on a nearby side table, and laid a hand on his rock-hard chest to push him back a step. “You might be used to intimidating witnesses on the job, but I’m not a perp and I’m sure as hell not your sub. You’ve been yanking my chain about this for two weeks and I’m about sick of it.”

“See, there you go again, talking about yanking and chains. It’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it?” He covered the hand she hadn’t realized was still on his chest—gripping a handful of tuxedo—and squeezed. “It’s okay to admit you’re curious. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but if you give me ten minutes, I promise you’ll walk away with a very satisfied—”

She released him and slapped her hands over her ears with a squeal. “Oh my God, you’re seriously the most crass, rude, unbearable—”

In spite of her muffled hearing, there was no mistaking his laughter. He tugged at her wrists, devilment dancing in his eyes. “I was going to say ‘smile on your face.’ God, woman, what did you think I was going to say?”

Her cheeks burned, and she jerked her arms away from his grasp. “Nothing. Forget it.”

This was why she couldn’t be around him. He was too smooth for her, and as much as his cockiness irritated her, she also couldn’t deny the lure. The naughty pull low in her belly that made her want to run and lean closer at the same time. When had she last felt that way about a man?

Probably never.

But after her relationship with Wes, a guy like Rafe was the worst possible kind to wrestle with. Her ex had obliterated her confidence, taken over her life, and controlled her like a marionette, and she’d let it happen. Until she could learn to trust herself again, she sure as hell couldn’t trust someone else. And when she did decide to get out there on the dating scene? It would be with a nice, mellow guy who let her call the shots. A tough-as-nails cop by day and bedroom dom by night was exactly what the doctor hadn’t ordered.

Even as her gut seconded that notion, her thoughts went reeling back to the first time Rafe had offered her ten minutes of his undivided attention. The exchange was as fresh in her mind as if it had happened yesterday.

There he’d been, large as life, in the middle of the bar taking up way more than his fair share of the room, looking confident, sexy, and in control. She didn’t know what happened. It was like the words had tumbled out of her.

“Expecting a woman to submit in bed is wrong, you know.”

Even as she spoke, a vision of being draped over his lap, awaiting her punishment, filled her head. It was both terrifying and exciting, which only annoyed her more. Warning bells blared, reminding her that his sex life was none of her business, but her tipsy brain silenced the alarms and urged her on.

“Don’t you worry that doing things to a woman when she’s helpless and fantasizing about hurting her is a gateway to abuse? I have to wonder if it starts with a spanking in a bedroom and leads to a beating out of one.”

Rafe seemed to consider her words but then shook his head. “Nope. You can wonder all you want, but if I deliver pain, it’s only to intensify the pleasure later. I would never harm a woman, and I spend a lot of my workday hunting down men who do.”

He pushed back his chair and stood. “Now, if you’re through grilling me about my sexual practices, which you have no understanding or knowledge of, then I’m going to get myself a drink. Unless what you’re really asking for is a lesson? In which case”—he glanced at his watch and then locked gazes with her—“you can pick up that hood and those cuffs”—he jerked his head toward the bachelorette party props—“and I’d be glad to take you outside in the alley and give you the best ten minutes of your life.”

She stuttered and her whole body went white-hot, but she managed a tight smile and a damned good response. “As tempting as that is, if ten minutes is all you’ve got in you, I think I’ll pass.”

His responding grin was positively lethal. He leaned in close, the delicious scent of his aftershave battering her already-overloaded senses. His gaze traveled down the line of her neck, trailing over her breasts, where her nipples betrayed her, tightening. “Ten minutes isn’t all I’ve got.” Nostrils flaring as if he could sense her want, he bent low until his face was level with hers. “Ten minutes is all you could handle.”

The repetitive clink of spoons on crystal dragged her back to the present and she cleared her throat, ignoring the tightening of her nipples beneath the thin chiffon dress. “Like I said, forget it.”

“That’s the problem.” Rafe’s voice sounded pained, raspy as he cut an exasperated hand through the air, and all signs of humor fled from his handsome face. “I want to forget it. I’ve tried to forget it. But fuck if I can. See, ever since that night, I’m in a bad way.” He eyed her from head to toe, keen gaze taking in the arms crossed tightly over her chest. “And you don’t seem to be any better off. You’re all wound up. I’m all wound up. The perfect solution is to spend some time together and burn off this sexual tension.”

He tucked a loose strand of hair back into the knot on the top of her head in a way that made her insides go to mush. Even with all the innuendo and teasing, she’d never really considered that he wanted her for real. She’d thought it was nothing more than a game to him. A way to make her pay, albeit in a playful way, for her digs about his sex life.

This wasn’t that.

Her hands went from damp with sweat to icy cold in a flash at the realization. He was dead serious this time, and her already-overwrought nerves went haywire. This was Black Hawk Down emergency, worst-case-scenario-type serious. She could barely fight her attraction to him when he hadn’t been trying. If he turned his full, unadulterated attention on her? She was dead in the water.

“No. Uh-uh. Not gonna happen,” she said with a firm shake of her head that probably would’ve had a lot more oomph if her voice wasn’t trembling. “Maybe I haven’t been clear enough. I’m not in the market for a boyfriend, and—”

“Whoa.” He stepped back like she’d tossed a vial full of acid at him. If she hadn’t been such a wreck, she would have laughed. “Nobody said anything about a boyfriend. We’re on the same page there.”

“We are?” she asked, unable to stop herself from asking in spite of her ludicrously stinging pride.

“Yup.” His posture relaxed some and he leaned back on his heels. “That’s why we’d work perfectly together. I can show you how good giving up control in the bedroom can be, and you can help me get past this preoccupation I seem to have with you lately. When we’re through, you walk away enlightened, and I…”

…just walk away, she finished for him silently when he trailed off.

She silenced the devil on her shoulder insisting that he’d outlined the perfect solution to more than one problem and did what she did best.

Super-denial lockdown mode engaged.

She steeled herself and gave him a cool stare. “I’m sorry I gave you the wrong impression, Rafe. But I’m just”—she managed a nonchalant shrug even though she’d never felt more chalant—“not interested.”

She tossed her head back and shouldered past him, his laughter following her across the room. It wasn’t until she stood next to Cat and Lacey on the dance floor that she recognized the song pouring from the speakers around her.

“The Chicken Dance.”


It was official. This woman was driving him batshit crazy. He watched from his perch at the bar while she danced with her friends and tried her damnedest to ignore him. Too bad she was terrible at it. Not the dancing. The dancing was good. His dick twitched in agreement as she shimmied back and forth, her hips mesmerizing him for a second before he refocused.

Nope, the part she sucked at was ignoring him. The veiled glances from beneath her lashes. The way her pupils dilated when she looked at him. The pulse in her neck beating wildly.

Not interested, his ass. But the offer had been made and declined. Time to move along.

“All the single ladies, head on over to the center of the floor for me, would you?” the DJ called, snagging Rafe’s attention.

He took a sip from his glass of scotch and glanced at his watch. Another hour or so, a couple more corny traditions, and he could make a graceful exit. It probably wasn’t too late to find a woman willing to play tonight. It had been weeks since he’d done a scene, and he was feeling the drought now.

He ran through a mental list of possible partners until he found himself distracted again by the woman in peach chiffon being dragged into a line by a group of laughing women.

He didn’t look away until a shadow fell over the smooth lacquered bar. Galen Thomas stood over him, curiosity knitting his brows.

“What’s going on with you two?”

He considered playing dumb, but they’d been friends for too long. Galen would get it out of him one way or another. “Hell if I know.”

Galen snorted out a laugh. “That’s a first. The guy with all the answers doesn’t know. Are you actually digging her, or is this some tugging-braids-in-the-school-yard type of shit? Because I haven’t seen you look at a woman like that since—”

After having boxed together before Galen went pro, the serious look on his face warned Rafe that it was about to get real, and he cut in, deflecting the blow neatly. Because hearing her name still hurt, even now.

“Nope.” He took a long pull from his glass and set it down with a clink. “Courtney is sexy, and she’s a challenge, but that’s it. There’s no love match here, so get it out of your head.”

Galen had the audacity to look confused. “What do you mean? All I did was ask a simple question.”

“I know that you and your pretty new wife are plotting to end my days of debauchery so I can follow you down the rabbit hole to wedded bliss, but that’s not my bag, man. You done good, Lacey is a keeper, but that life’s not for me.”

Galen studied him like he was a creature under a microscope, and he braced himself for the second round. “Look, it’s been five years now, man. Maybe it’s time—”

Rafe cut him short again, anger making his voice tight. “I’m willing to bet you can still take me in the ring, but if you keep bringing Monica up, you and me are going to have a problem.”

The words lay between them like a live wire, and despite the guilt that followed right on their heels, he refused to take them back. Not much was sacred to him, but this one thing? Not open for discussion, end of story, period.

Galen’s gaze went flat, and for a second Rafe wondered if he was going to ignore his warning and push again. To his everlasting relief, his friend backed off with a curt nod instead.

“Got it.”

Twelve years of friendship was long enough for Rafe to know that they were cool. At least, they would be as soon as the head of steam he’d built between them had burned off. Right now, though, the silence felt heavy. He was just about to break it with some clumsy attempt at small talk when the space around them reverberated with shouts of encouragement.

“Get ready, Lacey!”

The DJ counted down. “Five, four, three, two…”

They both watched as the bride pitched the bouquet over her shoulder, directly toward her maid of honor, Cat. She lunged for it, but suddenly began to pinwheel, arms flapping as she slipped on a cloth napkin. She landed in a laughing heap on the floor even as the bouquet headed like a missile at its new, unwitting target.

“Shit!” Courtney squeaked, lifting a hand up and barely plucking it out of the air in time to avoid it smacking her dead in the face.

“Damn,” Cat grumbled, pushing herself to her feet to playfully glare at a stunned Courtney. “Looks like you’re the next one getting married.”

“Are you okay?” Lacey asked as the onlookers crowded around to make sure Cat was all right.

“I’m fine.” She blew a copper-colored curl from her eye. “But this guy’s in a load of trouble if he’s going to wait until after she gets married to make an honest woman of me.” She jerked a thumb at Shane, her live-in fiancé and another of Rafe’s longtime buddies.

“Not to worry, love. It’s an old wives’ tale,” he reassured her with a wink. “I’ll take you whenever you’ll have me.”

Rafe strode over, attention on Courtney, who stood stock-still, hazel eyes wide with shock. “Did you get hit?” he asked, leaning closer to scan her face for injury.

“N-no. I’m fine.” She stepped away, cheeks pink. “Let’s keep it moving,” she called to the crowd, her voice shrill. “Nothing to see here.”

“You heard the young lady,” the DJ crowed. “We’re ready to rock and roll, so come on, let’s get ready for the garter.”

Rafe gave her one last glance, to see that she was all right. In spite of her reassurance, she still looked panicked, which didn’t make sense. Surely she didn’t believe in that antiquated mumbo jumbo about being the next one down the aisle?

He was still deep in thought, trying to solve the mystery behind Courtney’s discomfort, as the festivities continued, with Galen making quick work of his bride’s garter.

With everyone focused on the dance floor, maybe he didn’t even need to stick it out the hour. Maybe he could sneak away—

“Where are you going?” Galen said, stopping him in his tracks.

“Jesus, you’re fast.”

“Right. Now answer the question.”

He glanced out the tent and up the pathway with a regretful sigh, knowing he’d missed his window. “I was going to head out.”

“No way.” Galen planted his body in front of Rafe and gave him a grim smile. “You’re in the wedding party, you can’t leave. Get out there before you hurt my wife’s feelings.”

That was a low blow, but coupled with his guilt over being shitty to his buddy earlier, it worked. “Roger that.” Rafe made his way to the line of men Galen was gesturing to, cursing under his breath all the while. Clearly another stupid tradition that he was glad he’d never have to go through again after today.

“Back up, assholes.” A young guy with a dirty-blond buzz cut cracked his knuckles and hunkered down into what Rafe instantly recognized as a fighting stance. “Someone is about to get their hand up that chick’s skirt, and it’s gonna be me.”

A couple of the other men laughed, most didn’t, and Rafe’s blood went hot.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” he growled at the frat boy, running through all the reasons he shouldn’t knock that leering grin off his face with one clean uppercut.

“Where are you from, dude, Mars?” Blondie frowned. “Whoever catches the garter gets to put it on that girl.”

Rafe hesitated. He didn’t have any siblings and most of his friends were single, so he’d only been to one other wedding in his life and that one was in Texas, years ago with Monica. Still, surely he would’ve remembered that tradition? Before he could grill the guy further, Shane shouldered his way into the pack and confirmed the situation.

“Yeah. It’s pretty standard, man.”

Which explained Courtney’s panic, and why she was strangling the bouquet in her white-knuckled hands. She was probably dreading the possibility of him catching the garter.

“Get your game face on,” Shane urged in a low voice, clapping Rafe on the shoulder, hard. “I don’t want to be here if this asshole next to me gets the garter. No matter what happens, remember, you’re an officer of the law. Keep it legal.”

Rafe nodded, but his focus was solely on Galen’s hand as he turned his back to the group and prepared to throw the tiny blue scrap of silk. Courtney might not want him up her dress, but there was no way in hell he was letting Frat Boy take advantage of her in the way he so clearly intended to.

When the garter came his way, the anger had drained away, leaving behind laser-like focus. And when Frat Boy checked him hard in the side, he checked him even harder back, sending the kid stumbling as his own fingers closed over the prize.

Even over the cheers of the guests, he heard Courtney’s gasp and met her gaze, his tunnel vision expanding to include her. She sat on a chair in the middle of the dance floor, eyes wide as he walked toward her, unable to squash the rush of adrenaline pounding through him. He might make her nervous, but at least that other guy wasn’t going to put his hands on her. If she knew what the bastard’s intentions had been, she might actually be grateful right now.

And what about your intentions? his conscience whispered.

So maybe they hadn’t always been pure, he conceded, but this time, he had only done what he’d done to protect her. He stopped in front of her chair and tipped his head at her.

“Ready for me?”

It wasn’t supposed to come out like that. All low and growly. But his pulse was still jacked over the near-brawl, and looking down at her now and realizing what he had to do was only making it pound harder.

“Do your worst,” she murmured, lifting her head dramatically, like she was at the gallows and he was her executioner.

His worst? Rafe let loose a rusty chuckle. Fuck, if she only knew how bad his worst could be, she’d already be up and running. Although he’d done his best, his worst, and everything in between to her a hundred times in his dreams.

The only thing that kept him in check was the realization that she had no clue what she was asking for. Because to a guy like him? That kind of declaration was an invitation. And in that way, a good bedroom dom was like a vampire.

An invitation was all he needed.

Not this time.

She’d made her position clear earlier, whether she meant what she’d said or not. He had to play nice.

He lowered himself to the floor, reluctantly slid off her strappy, fuck-me sandal and set it down next to him. She had a thing for shoes. Nearly every time he saw her, unless it was right after her shift at the hospital, she was in heels. Heels he couldn’t help but imagine locked around his neck while she rode his tongue.

Jesus, he was no better than Frat Boy.

Except she wasn’t looking at Frat Boy like he was a fat, forbidden slice of chocolate cake. She wouldn’t admit it, but there was no question she felt it too. The pull between them, thick as taffy on a summer day. A slow, sexy song began to play, and the guests all clapped and stomped, calling their names.

“Get on with it, Romeo.” She had her serious RN voice on now and for some twisted reason, the disparity between that and her body language raised his blood pressure higher, making his cock pulse. Sharp-witted and strong-willed, which he respected in so many ways. But in the bedroom, she’d be all his.

He bit back a curse, shut down his brain altogether, and focused every ounce of his energy on the task at hand. No time for thinking. It was time to get a garter on a bridesmaid. Not the Courtney he knew who’d wormed her vanilla way into his rocky road dreams. Just some girl on a chair.

Sitting right in front of him.

Lips parted.

Pulse pounding.



He squeezed his eyes closed and took her leg in hand to circle her slim ankle. Lightly at first, then, without conscious thought, more firmly, letting her feel his strength. She gasped, and his eyes snapped open.

He tried, god knew he tried to fight it, but it was like his hands had a mind of their own, desperate to make her gasp again, desperate to take her further as he slid to the side, taking her ankle with him. A scant few inches that would be imperceptible to onlookers, but that Courtney no doubt felt, as the move spread her legs for him. Not wide. Just open enough to make her aware of her position. Just open enough to let her know what was on his mind…what he really wanted from her in that moment.

Watch yourself, his mind blared.

But he was too far gone.

He kept his gaze trained on her face as he tightened his fingers into a band of resistance, effectively restraining her, and slid the garter over her foot and onto her calf. Her throat worked visibly, her body tensing as she opened her mouth to say something, but she closed it with a snap. He lifted her leg high then, resting her ankle on his shoulder and pinning it there with his hand.

The crowd squealed with excitement and laughter, caught up in the bawdy tradition and outward bravado of the moment, but the look on Courtney’s face was anything but funny. Her lush bottom lip was caught between her teeth and her eyes lit with fire so hot it nearly brought him low.

And what was so much worse?

She didn’t pull away.



Chapter Two

Panic warred with bone-deep need as Courtney stared down into the face that had dominated her thoughts for weeks now. His jaw was set tight, his gaze so intense, she couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to be the true focus of that intensity. Naked. On a bed. Heck, on a floor, for that matter.

A peal of laughter—Lacey’s?—broke through the sensual spell Rafe had woven over her, and she shook her head briskly.

This wasn’t right. None of it. Her enjoyment of his sure grip. Her twisted desire to offer up her other foot for the more of the same. The wild thoughts of him switching places with her, planting his fine ass on this frou-frou chair and dragging her over his lap.

For what? her subconscious whispered. So that he could spank her?

Her body tensed, and a bolt of lightning zinged through her before settling right between her thighs. Panic escalated as she jerked against his unyielding fingers.

“People are watching, Court,” he murmured. “You getting up and tearing ass out of here will look really strange. I know you’re nervous and afraid of what you’re feeling, but trust me, I’d never do anything you didn’t want me to.”

His eyes shone with absolute sincerity, and she willed herself to settle back in.

He was right. It was one thing to escape for a minute before the festivities had begun. It was something else entirely to run away from what would appear to onlookers as nothing more than a campy wedding tradition.

They had no way of knowing that she was falling to pieces on the inside.

“Fine. Then what I want is for you to get on with it, for Pete’s sake.”

He tipped his head to the side and nodded slowly before sliding the garter up her leg without further ado. It settled into place over her thigh, and she steeled herself for his touch on the way down, but he was careful to avoid even incidental contact.

“Your wish is my command.” A second later, he set her foot gently back onto the ground, sat back on his haunches, and settled the skirt of her dress back into place.

The music faded out and she forced a smile as the crowd clapped enthusiastically. He’d done exactly as she’d asked and, finally, it was over.

So why did she feel so bereft?

Before she could think too hard on the answer to that question, a loud voice rang in her ear.

“Whew! You guys were like something out of an Animal Planet documentary for a minute out there,” Cat said, yanking her up from the chair. Rafe stood, offering a mocking half grin and sweeping bow in their direction before gesturing toward the bar.

“Now that the garter is safely hidden away, can I get you ladies a drink?”

Courtney pressed a hand to her heated cheeks and mumbled a “no thanks,” adding a head shake in case he couldn’t hear her.

Maybe it was a combination of looks and confidence, or maybe it was the almost palpable sexuality of the man topped off with the aura of raw, masculine power, but whatever it was, she literally couldn’t handle it, and he knew it. She needed to regroup.

“I just got a fresh one,” Cat said, holding up a glassful of ruby-red liquid. “But thanks.”

Courtney allowed her friend to lead her away to a quiet corner where she pinned her with her an all-too-perceptive gaze.

“You know, Rafe is part of the crew. You’re going to have to figure out whatever this is between you and either get past it or grab on to it. Better now than letting it drag out.” She flicked a look over her shoulder in Rafe’s direction and waggled her eyebrows comically. “And if you were smart, you’d be all about the grabbing on to it. He’s almost as cute as Shane.”

Courtney managed a halfhearted snort of faux-disgust. “Are you for real right now? You know what he’s into. This is the kind of stuff that sets feminism back a hundred years.” She set her bouquet on the linen-covered table and tried not to cringe at the shrill piousness in her voice, wondering who exactly she was trying to convince.

After weeks of trying to stay atop her high horse, she’d finally accepted that her issues weren’t with Rafe’s lifestyle at all. The bluster was just a bunch of meaningless words now, thrown up like shields to deflect from the real crux of the matter. Spankings and handcuffs didn’t scare her. Relationships scared her. Getting lost in a man again—especially one so strong, one who would be so easy to get lost in—that was what had her shaking in her shoes. But she wasn’t about to admit that to Cat.

Her friend shook her head violently, sending her brassy curls swinging. “You are so wrong. Sure, I wouldn’t put up with a guy bossing me out of bed, but in the bedroom?” She shrugged and grinned. “It’s kinda hot. When Shane goes a little alpha on me, I get all melty. Seriously, you shouldn’t knock it until you try it.”

She crossed her arms over her chest to chase away the odd chill that had sneaked up on her. “I’m pretty sure we’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill, occasional-furry-handcuff stuff here, Cat. I think it’s more than that.”

Lie. She knew it was more than that. Even during their three-minute interaction on the dance floor, she could feel the strength of his will winding its way around her, tugging her toward some dark, hidden place. What if it grew deeper, into something more than sexual control?

Emotional currency. That’s what she couldn’t afford to gamble with again.

It had happened so slowly with Wes. Over the course of eighteen months. First, it was “making sure everyone had everyone else’s e-mail and computer passwords.” A “good-faith gesture to foster a feeling of trust and mutual respect.” Then it was making sure everyone was being considerate by calling to confirm that it was okay to make plans that didn’t involve the other person. And so it went.

Not once in the first year did any of it raise a single red flag. She blindly followed along, thinking how much more efficient and civilized their relationship was compared to other couples around them. Until the two-way street became a one-way street and she found herself asking for permission to go the grocery store.

By the time she had reached point break and got the balls up to walk away, it was too late. When she was feeling heartsick and alone, she’d picked up the phone and realized there was no one left to call. Her friends had dropped off one by one after broken plans when Wes decided that she didn’t need to go out after all, or unreturned calls when Wes had decided that she really had no use for her own cell phone anyway.

Courtney swallowed a sigh, wishing she could share her fears with Cat, but she wasn’t ready to talk about Wes yet. Not because she didn’t trust her friend, but because she was ashamed of her weakness…ashamed for letting it get as bad as it did.

“All joking aside, whatever you decide to do, make sure you’re careful with Rafe,” Cat said, concern chasing the smile from her usually laughing eyes. “I’m all about having fun, but as much as I love him, he’s not the kind of guy that sticks. Not anymore, at least.”

Had Rafe gotten hurt before too? Courtney’s heart tripped at the sadness on Cat’s face. Before she could press her for the details she wasn’t sure she really wanted to know, their tipsy bride burrowed between them, face aglow.

“Come and do the Electric Slide with me! Hurry, before it’s over,” Lacey said.

Courtney pushed aside the melancholy thoughts and took Lacey’s hand, and the three of them headed back to the dance floor. They’d dance a while, get through the cake ritual, and before she knew it, people would be saying their good-byes, with her leading the pack. Galen and Lacey had a flight to catch in a couple of hours, in any case, so there was a definite expiration time to her misery and confusion.

Then, with Cat’s blessing or without it, Operation Avoidance was in full effect, at least until she fortified her defenses after this recent breech.

Yup, as long as she stayed out of the path of Hurricane Davenport for a few weeks, everything would be A-okay.

Nooo sweat.