Please be advised that this excerpt contains adult material, unsuitable for younger readers.
ROWAN RAN HER HAND OVER THE COOL METAL OF the chain suspended from the ceiling, drawing her fingers along the sleek, steely surface, one link, then the next. She curled her fingers around the length of it, slid her hand down until she felt the soft touch of leather against her skin, moving her fingers absently over the buckles of the cuffs.
She breathed in the familiar, earthy scent of leather. Club Prive. The most exclusive BDSM club on the West Coast. Rowan's second home.
She surveyed the space where her friends and acquaintances were preparing for the play party tonight. The room was, as always, womblike, with its dark red walls and dim purple and amber lights. The mesmerizing, tantric cadence of a Gregorian chant filled the air. She crossed the expanse of wood floor to find a seat on one of the red velvet couches that edged the play area, nodding quietly to those she knew, careful not to intrude as they cleaned and prepared their equipment and set the mood with their partners.
The familiar faint buzz of sensual anticipation that was always present at a play party was heavy in the air, a palpable shared energy that built up as the evening wore on. And as had happened all too often lately, a surge of disappointment rose up in her at the emptiness inside her that this place had once filled so beautifully.
When had it all begun to mean so little, when at one time it had been everything to her?
She watched as more people filtered into the room and willed herself not to fidget. Why was she even here? She had no intention of playing tonight; she wasn't in the mood. She was far too edgy, and dominating even the most beautiful boys at the club, the most obedient, was no longer satisfying. She'd been like this for months, and nothing seemed to help. Yet at the same time, her writing, her dark secret writing, was going better than ever. Words seemed to flow out of her fingertips effortlessly in a tide of language and emotion. It should have been a release, yet she never came out of it feeling sated anymore.
The music changed to the familiar trancelike tones that signaled the official beginning of the evening. Submissive men and women were bound to the large wooden crosses, the spanking benches, the racks. They were beautiful, all of them, regardless of their shape or size. She had always thought so. There was beauty in the act of submission itself, something which never failed to amaze her.
She had talked about it at the discussion group she ran one Tuesday night each month for those new to the lifestyle. They talked a lot about the psychology of BDSM, of the rituals and symbols that were the basis of it all. She was glad she was able to help people make the transition into accepting this secret side of themselves. But in the five years she herself had been involved, there was a part of her that never quite felt whole.
Don't think about it now, don't think about why.
One of the male submissives she often played with approached her with a smile of greeting, knelt on the floor before her. He was one of her favorites. Blond, with soft, curling hair and a cherubic face, he had a sweet temperament and the stamina of a racehorse. She shook her head, letting him know she wasn't prepared to play.
"Are you sure, Mistress?"
"Not tonight, Eric. But don't worry, you're sure to catch somebody's eye." She reached out and stroked a finger over his shoulder with a sigh.
"May I serve you, Mistress? A drink, maybe?"
"Thank you, no. Go play. Enjoy your evening. I'm going to observe tonight."
"As you wish." He boldly took her hand and brushed a kiss over her skin.
Rowan smiled. "Off with you, now."
She forced her focus back to the floor. The club was crowded tonight. Almost every play station was in use. Groups lounged on the couches, as she did, or sat at the small cafe tables placed here and there, the submissives, or bottoms, serving food and drinks to their Masters and Mistresses, or kneeling on the floor at their feet. A small group of new submissives were huddled against one wall like a bunch of teenage girls at their first dance, waiting to be noticed. All wore the white leather protective collar of the club along with their scanty lingerie, signaling their availability and their status as bottoms. Rowan was glad that as a dominant at the club, she'd never had to go through those first excruciating experiences, that waiting to be chosen. She chose her partners. It would never be any other way for her. Controlling her sensuality was key. She had allowed herself to be controlled by another once and had paid far too high a price.
She shivered, pushing away the memories, down deep where they belonged, where she had kept them locked away for so long.
When she glanced up, a shining cascade of strawberry blond hair caught her eye and April, a new friend from the monthly discussion group, came to sit on the floor near her feet.
"Good evening, Mistress Rowan." The pretty young woman's voice was light, lilting. Her warm smile reached her round, cornflower blue eyes.
Rowan laughed. "Don't be silly. I'm not your Mistress, no need for such formalities." She patted the seat next to her. "Come, sit with me."
April smiled, tugged at the hem of her short baby pink leather skirt, and settled onto the cushions close to Rowan.
"How are you, April?"
Her lashes fluttered as she looked away. "Nervous. Yearning."
"Ah. Who is he?"
April gestured with her chin toward a large man with close-cut dark hair and a goatee, dressed in the standard Dom attire: black jeans, a black T-shirt, a black leather vest. He was strapping a naked woman to a St. Andrew's cross, a large wooden X on a platform with hooks to which he attached the girl's leather wrist and ankle cuffs.
Rowan nodded. "Decker. He's Irish, but he's been here in the States for a while, and he's been at the club at least as long as I have. Does something in the music industry; a sound engineer, I think. He's very experienced, has great technique. You could do worse. He plays with all the girls here, and they're all half in love with him. But he's never stuck with one woman. He won't scene with anyone for more than one night at a time. He's not the commitment type. You should know that."
April sighed softly. "I know. They never are."
"Not true. Most of the members of the club are part of a couple."
"But not you."
"No, not me," she answered quietly.
"I'm sorry, Rowan. I shouldn't have said that. It's none of my business."
"No, it's alright. I just . . . don't know what to say."
"You don't seem yourself tonight. And you look tired."
"I haven't been sleeping well," Rowan admitted.
"I'm sorry. Is there anything I can do to help?" April's eyes were full of sincerity. She was a lovely girl, sweet, innocent in her desire to please. The man she ended up serving would be very lucky.
"No, nothing. Thank you, though." She squeezed April's hand.
There was nothing anyone could do to help her. She didn't know herself what this inner restlessness was about.
A cool rush of night air caught her attention as the door opened for a late arrival. An unfamiliar figure stood for a moment in the doorway, surveying the room. He was tall, well over six feet, with broad shoulders and a tapering waist. There was something elegant in his stance. As he turned to survey the room, she could see his long, pale blond hair was pulled back into a narrow leather thong. He had noble, chiseled features. And even from across the half-dark room, she could see his wide, lush mouth.
A small shiver went through her.
He is not for you.
She could see instantly that this man was a top. Dominance radiated from him like heat. Not one of her pretty boys to play with. But then, she wasn't in the mood to play, was she?
Still, she couldn't take her eyes from him, this stranger dressed all in black. And then he looked at her, locking gazes from across the room. Her stomach tightened beneath the dark blue leather
corset she wore.
She forced herself to blink, to look away. Why should this man have such an effect on her?
April leaned over and whispered, "He was looking right at you, Rowan. Through you, almost. Did you see that?"
See it? She'd felt it all the way down to her bones.
"He's a Dom."
"Yes, but still . . ."
Rowan shook her head. "It's impossible."
"But you find him as beautiful as he obviously finds you."
Rowan was surprised to feel heat flare in her cheeks. She didn't bother to deny it.
April, seeming to sense her discomfort, stood. "Why don't I fetch you a drink? San Pellegrino with a squeeze of lime, yes?"
"Thank you, yes." Good girl, remembering her drink of choice.
She bent her head and rubbed her temples with her fingers as April walked away. What was wrong with her?
When she glanced up again, he was moving across the room in long strides; graceful, predatory. She had no idea why his presence here made her so uncomfortable, so hyperaware of her own skin, her own breath.
He stopped to talk to Master Hawke, the owner of the club, an enormous man with a full brown beard. They both turned to look at the group of bottoms. Yes, he would choose one of the new girls. What would it be like to watch him play?
Again her stomach quivered. What was going on with her?
She turned away once more, focusing her attention on a triad playing at a spanking bench. The bottom, a lovely young woman, was bound to it, facedown, the arch of her smooth, bare buttocks high in the air. The tops, a man and a woman, were taking turns applying tiny, plastic clothes pins to her flesh. The bottom remained obediently still, until the man began to use a crop to knock the pins off. The girl squealed, squirmed, then moaned as the evil little pins flew onto the floor.
Rowan smiled. She had played that game before, knew how the blood rushed painfully back into the skin after being pinched away by the pins. It always gave the bottom an exquisite rush of endorphins. She'd watched it happen, that glazing of the eyes, the Mona Lisa smiles.
She was still smiling when a light touch on her arm brought her head up. Master Hawke stood over her with the new Dom at his side. God, he was even more gorgeous up close. His face was a symphony of fine planes and angles, his mouth even darker and more sensual. But it was his eyes that started a warm knot that began in her stomach and spread outward until her limbs went weak. Eyes that were a startling shade of turquoise and jade that shifted like the ocean at twilight.
Master Hawke leaned over her. "I'd like you to meet Master Christian Thorne, just back from Berlin. He's an old member at Prive. Thorne, this is Mistress Rowan."
Before she had a chance to respond, the stranger leaned in, took her hand, bent over it, and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. She felt his touch as though it were made of fire, those lush lips against her skin. But she forced herself not to react, her racing pulse to still. Reminded herself that he was just a man, like any other.
Why did that feel like a lie?
"It's very nice to meet you, Rowan."
She'd expected a German accent, but he appeared to be as American as she was. His voice was deep, smooth, elegant.
She nodded to him, cleared her throat. "Yes, it's nice to meet you, too. I hope you'll enjoy our club."
"I'm enjoying it immensely already."
Was that a wicked gleam in his eye? Suddenly her corset was too tight against her ribs.
Get ahold of yourself, Rowan.
"Thorne, let me introduce you to some of the others."
Master Hawke led him away and she could finally take a breath.
April arrived with her drink. She handed it to her as she took her seat once more. "I saw you talking to him. Who is he? What is he like?"
"Christian Thorne." She wasn't likely to forget that name anytime soon. "He's arrogant, cool, sophisticated. And utterly self-confident." She paused to sip her drink, watching him.
She'd sensed immediately that he was the kind of man those in her group would call a true Dom, someone who was so naturally dominant that everyone–waiters, sales clerks–automatically deferred to him without being aware of it or knowing why.
And lord help her, he was as beautiful a man as she had ever seen. His face was flawless. Strong, proud, beautifully made. He had one of those mouths that made a woman want to kiss him, to feel his lips on her flesh.
"He's gorgeous." April was smiling at her.
"He's a dominant, April. Any connection between us, other than being friends, is impossible. And I don't know that he's the kind of man I'd want to be friends with."
"But is he the kind of man you . . . want?"
The girl had a habit of asking the most revealing questions. But Rowan wasn't interested in pursuing the answer.
"I need to find a playmate for the evening."
She patted April's hand and rose from her couch. She still wasn't very much in the mood, but she obviously needed some distraction from her wandering mind, from the lust still singing in her veins from that momentary contact of his lips on the back of her hand.
Ridiculous. Ironic. But there it was.
Christian Thorne was the first man who had excited her in a long time. And she could never have him.
It was well after midnight when Rowan let herself into her nineteenth-floor apartment in Century City. She paused at the wide expanse of windows overlooking the city. Los Angeles sparkled like a blanket of diamonds in the dark, illuminated by a brilliant, almost full moon. She loved this view; it had been the main reason why she'd bought this place. But tonight it did nothing to soothe her.
Neither had paddling Jeffrey, one of her usual boys. He was very pretty, with the kind of youthful, androgynous features she liked in her playmates. He was an experienced submissive. Experienced enough to know her heart wasn't in her play tonight. Finally, he'd called an end to the scene and asked her if she was alright. Of course she wasn't. She'd left him with a brief hug and an apology.
She pulled the sheer drapes closed and went to her small granite-and-brushed-steel kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine. The aromatic scent of the fine cabernet hit her nostrils as she opened the bottle.
Excerpted from The Dark Garden by Eden Bradley. Copyright © 2007 by Eden Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.