Read the first three chapters of ‘Masquerade’ by Madeleine Taylor!

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‘Masquerade’ by Madeleine Taylor will be out on 27/08/2020 and is now available for pre-order through the link at the bottom.

Chapter 1

I’m a little nervous as I follow my friend Tessa past the long rows of enormous properties that make up the Garden District in New Orleans. She insisted we come here tonight and although I was excited while we were shopping for our costumes and masks this afternoon, my normally self-assured demeanor is starting to crumble now that I’m about to enter a party in a city that I only stepped foot in last night and where I don’t know anyone apart from Tessa.

“These houses are out of this world,” I murmur, peeking through the gates to admire the huge yards and pristine pools. “Are you sure we’re dressed appropriately?”

“Are you serious? You look fabulous, Ivy.” The masked party being thrown in her friend’s huge house is supposed to be the place to be tonight and we’ve gone all out, following the ‘Black & White masquerade’ dress code printed on the formal invitation.

“Thank you. So do you.” I stare down at my long, black dress and decide that I do indeed, look fabulous. It’s vintage and has lace trumpet sleeves that match the skirt part. The black corset I’m wearing over it makes me look a little gothic, and in combination with my black Venetian style feathered mask, long, dark hair and naturally pale face I could very well pass for a ghost in the dark. “And I can’t believe how fast you’ve managed to make friends, considering you only moved here just over five weeks ago.”

“What can I say, people are just naturally drawn to me.” Tessa bats her eyelashes at me before she pulls her mask over her face, letting me know we’re close. She’s wearing a white dress we found in the same store. With her blonde hair and white feather adorned mask, we’re quite the pair, and passers-by are staring at us from a restaurant terrace as we turn a corner looking like ballerinas about to audition for the leads in Swan Lake.

“This one?” I ask incredulously as she stops in front of a huge house that looks stunning and even grander than the pastel-colored French colonial buildings next door.

“Yeah, I think this is it,” Tessa says, checking the details.

“How can you not be sure? I thought you knew…” I take the elegantly designed invitation from her and read the name of the host. “Countess Montgomery, which I assume is an alias.”

“Knowing is a strong word,” Tessa says as the heavy cast-iron gates open, and we’re asked by the security team to step into the front yard. An enchanting fountain sits on the lawn to our right. It’s lit up from below, the five cherubs in the middle shooting jets of water through their raised trumpets. The beautiful mansion is painted white with pastel green windowsills and shutters. A wide balcony with ornate railings runs along the second floor with French doors painted in the same shade of green. Large trees covered in Spanish moss are lined up on both sides of the long driveway that leads to the front door, and the many lanterns in the trees make for a spectacular sight.

A dozen or so women who have just arrived are hanging out by the gates. Some are wearing suits, but most of them are dressed in skimpy dresses, or very little but an elaborate mask and elegant lingerie with a separate train or a tuxedo jacket. Although they’ve all respected the black and white theme, their outfits are a lot more daring than ours, and I’m starting to wonder if we got the dress code wrong.

Studying the guests, I make a second observation and voice it. “I don’t see any men here.” Not that I mind; men are not my thing and I’m here to have some fun.

“You’re right. I think we may be in luck tonight.” Tessa smirks. “It’s been a while since I’ve been to a women-only party.”

My eyes are drawn to a woman in a short, black latex dress, smoking a cigarette under one of the trees by the gates. She’s wearing a mask that looks like lead has melted over half her face; silver wax-like drips run down her dark cheeks to complete the effect, but I can see from what’s exposed that she’s very pretty. Wild curls frame her mahogany face, and the mask accentuates her full lips. Another woman joins her wearing a sharp-tailored black suit. She has short, slicked back dark hair and is wearing a distinctly shaped Phantom of the Opera mask. Her eyes are so black that I wonder if she’s wearing contacts as she stares at me, sizing me up like prey. It’s giving me chills, yet I can’t help but look at her, too.

“Good evening,” Tessa says, flashing the invitation at one of the female security guards.

“Good evening.” A woman the size of a tree looks down at Tessa and raises a brow. “Password?”

I glance at Tessa, whose eyes flash back and forth between me, the talking tree and the street behind us. “It’s ehm…” Tessa shuffles on the spot, then lets out a deep sigh. “Fuck.”

I groan at her, because by now, I know exactly what’s going on. “Where did you get that invitation from?” I whisper at her. “Be honest. It’s clear you weren’t invited.”

“I found it,” Tessa says in a thin voice, looking deflated as her shoulders drop. “On the floor of the public restrooms, in the hotel I was staying at before I got the keys to my apartment.”

“No password, no entry,” the tree-like woman says in a friendly but pressing tone, gesturing to the gates for us to leave.

“I can’t believe you pulled this on me again,” I mumble in embarrassment, remembering New Year’s Eve, the last time she falsely claimed to have been invited to an exclusive party in New York, where we both lived at the time. “I’m thirty-five and you’ve made me try to crash a party for the second time in a year. It’s embarrassing beyond belief.”

Tessa doesn’t reply, clearly mortified herself, but just as we’re about to leave, the woman in the suit walks up to us. “Wait, they’re with me,” she says to the security guard before taking my hand, bending forward and kissing the top of it. Her lips press so softly against my skin that I can barely feel it, yet a shiver runs through me as I watch her bow. Something about her is incredibly sensual, and I’m curious to know what’s behind the mask.

“Miss…?” Her voice is low and husky.

“Miss Black,” I lie, not feeling entirely comfortable giving my surname to a stranger, even if the stranger has just saved us from humiliation.

“Welcome to the party, Miss Black.” The woman turns to Tessa. “Then you must be Miss White?” An amused smile plays around her lips. “Are you… together?”

“No,” I’m quick to say, unsure why I desperately want her to know I’m single. Tessa is my ex, but our attraction faded over twelve years ago and we’ve been best friends ever since. We recently agreed during a drunken night that we’d rather chew our arms off than sleep with each other again, so there’s never even been as much as a flirty comment between us since we were in our early twenties.

“Good.” The woman’s smile widens. “Let me introduce myself. In case you hadn’t worked it out I’m the Phantom, and this is my friend Stephanie,” she says when the woman in the latex dress joins us. “Stephanie, will you show Miss White to the bar, please? I’ll make sure Miss Black gets a drink.” She holds out her arm and instinctively I hook mine through it as I glance at Tessa, who is being whisked away by the other woman.

I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable around the Phantom, as she calls herself; she’s persistent, acting as if she’s already got me in her pocket, and I’m aware of the heavy gates closing behind me. When I observe guests entering the mansion, I note that they have a strange air about them, and that the atmosphere is way darker than I expected. The idea of finding Tessa and sneaking out after one drink crosses my mind, but first, I need to apologize. “I’m terribly sorry about gate-crashing the party,” I say, looking up at her. “My friend told me she knew the hostess, but that’s clearly not the case.”

“Don’t worry about it.” My handsome companion takes a tighter hold of my arm as she leads me to the entrance. “I know most people here and you’re with me, now. I couldn’t have wished for a better surprise than a gorgeous stranger showing up unexpectedly, so please allow me the pleasure of your company, at least for a little while.”

 

 

Chapter 2

“Cocktail?” The Phantom hands me a tall glass with a black liquid that smells faintly of licorice. “There’s champagne at the other bar if you prefer, but I thought this suited your looks tonight.”

“Thank you.” I take a sip and let it roll over my palette. “It’s good.”

“Of course.” She says it as if it’s a given that anything this party has to offer is good. “It has a couple of secret ingredients, but don’t worry—it’s all natural.”

“Are you telling me the drinks are spiked?” I raise a brow at her and tilt my head.

“No. I’m saying the cocktail contains certain herbs. There’s nothing synthetic in there and it won’t make you go crazy or do anything you don’t want to do.” She winks. “It might enhance your desires, though.”

As her words linger between us, I contemplate handing the drink back and leaving, but I can’t seem to tear myself away from her. She has an air about her that draws me in, and I find her incredibly attractive. In desperate need of liquid courage, and for no reason other than that my intuition tells me it’s okay, I decide to trust her and take another sip. “Very well, I’ll take your word for it.”

I must admit, the place looks very, very impressive as she offers her arm and shows me around. Two bars are set up in the spacious living room that is dimly lit and decorated with antique furniture, rich tapestries, huge chandeliers and exquisite, old oil paintings. Despite the opulence, I can see that the furniture is worn-out, and that there has been little maintenance done in the past years. It must be terribly expensive to maintain a house like this, but the paintwork that is chipped in places and the slightly damaged wallpaper, only adds to the charm.

The scent of incense hangs thick in the air and my sight is blurred by the occasional clouds of mist coming from the dry ice machine behind the DJ booth, which is set up in a corner of the room. An androgynous looking woman dressed in nothing but a pair of black shorts and a tuxedo jacket, is playing a slow, eerie tune that adds to the mysterious, laid-back vibe. In the middle of the room, the furniture has been cleared, and women are slow dancing, which is something I haven’t done since my high school graduation party.

People are everywhere, loitering on the sweeping staircase that leads up from the grand hallway and we spot others in various rooms as we pass their open doorways. The staff hired for tonight are dressed in simple black suits and black masks, and it’s kind of intriguing not being able to see anyone’s faces. Perhaps my companion is the most intriguing of all; her nonchalance and total confidence making me more and more curious by the minute. She’s clearly interested in me too, as she hasn’t taken her intense black eyes off me for a second and is blatantly ignoring everyone else.

“So, does the Phantom have a first name?” I ask.

She tilts her head and takes a sip of her drink, and her smile sends shivers down my spine. “Not tonight. Tonight, I’m just the Phantom.”

“Right.” I chuckle. “So, is The Phantom of the Opera your favorite musical?”

“Not quite.”

“Okay,” I say, wondering why it’s so damn hard to get any information out of this woman. She’s clearly not one for small talk. “Well, my name is…”

“Shh…” She hushes me, placing her thumb on my lips and it’s making me tingle all over. “Don’t you like the anonymity we’ve got going on here?” She leans in closer to whisper in my ear. “Don’t you like the idea of having a mind-blowing night with a stranger who will please you in ways you can’t even begin to imagine?”

Her last question makes me take in a quick breath, and as my lips part, she keeps her thumb there, wedging it between them. It sets me on fire and parts of me that have been neglected in the past year suddenly come to life, reminding me of what I’ve been missing. I can’t say the thought of kissing her hasn’t crossed my mind in the ten minutes I’ve spent in her company. Her lips are alluring, and her eyes have something dark and dangerous about them that arouses me each time she looks at me. Sex with a stranger is not something I’d normally even consider, but still, I make no effort to remove her thumb. Quite the opposite; I fight the urge to suck it into my mouth, and when she straightens herself and pulls her hand away, I feel a flicker of disappointment.

“I don’t know what to say to that.”

“But it’s simple.” Again, there’s that stare. “Does that idea turn you on, or not?” Awaiting my answer, she takes my drink from me and puts it down before she pulls me in by my waist, drawing me against her. “Never mind, where are my manners? I should at least offer you a dance to give you time to think about it.”

I’m grateful for the dancefloor as I’m not sure I can manage to hold a conversation after her indecent proposal, so I let her lead the way.

“Do you know how masked balls started?” she asks, pressing her hand firmly into the small of my back.

“No,” I whisper, aware of the alarming lack of distance between our lips. “Tell me.” I’m not a great dancer and I have no idea what I’m doing, but it doesn’t matter. There’s music, we’re moving, and our physical closeness feels amazing. It’s been a while since I’ve felt a woman’s body against my own, and hers does not disappoint. Strong arms, her thigh brushing between my legs each time she takes a step forward, her hips against mine…

“Balls have a long history, but masks were first worn during carnival season, where big indulgent celebrations were held before Lent; generally seen as a time of somber fasting,” the Phantom says. “People wore masks to hide their identity, so they could drink as much as they wanted, express controversial opinions and even have sex with people from different social classes, without having to face the consequences. Masks gave them the anonymity they needed to be free. Eighteenth-century masked balls were especially of an erotic nature.” She pauses, and her lips pull into a smile. “I feel like indulging tonight. Do you?”

“I think I do,” I hear myself say, but I’m not sure if I mean it. Although my body wants to, from the way it’s reacting to her, it seems a little extreme for me. I came here with the intention of maybe meeting some new people, to have some fun, to flirt a little but not to dive under the covers with a stranger.

Scanning the crowd and simultaneously searching for Tessa, I notice a lot of people are making out and, in some cases, it’s getting very heated. Considering it’s not even ten pm, I doubt any of these people are too drunk to realize what they’re doing. There’s a voyeuristic atmosphere, as if by some silent understanding, it’s okay for them to do whatever they want here tonight. “What kind of party is this?” I ask, not sure if I’m ready for the answer.

“The fun kind. The hedonistic kind.” The Phantom moves her hand lower, so that she can caress my behind and she then roughly squeezes it. “Are you okay with that?”

I bite my lip and nod, then realize what I’ve just done and shake my head. “Not my scene,” I say, still drawn to her mouth. It’s like I can’t take my eyes off her lips, and I’m dying to know what’s under the mask. Her short hair is gelled back, the way a fifties salesman would wear it, or perhaps phantoms, if they were real.

“Then you shouldn’t have gate-crashed.” She winks, letting me know she’s joking. “If you want me to walk you out, I will, but I can’t help thinking it would be a waste of a wonderful opportunity for both of us.”

I choose not to answer, buying myself time. Finally, I spot Tessa on a chaise in the corner of the room, talking to Stephanie. They’re sitting next to each other and Stephanie already has her arm around her. Seeing how engaged Tessa looks, I know that I won’t be able to drag her away from the woman if I try, but I have a spare key to her apartment, so it doesn’t really matter. I’ll leave when I want to leave, I tell myself, although I’m not totally sure what I really want regarding anything at this point. My seductive temptress of a phantom has planted a seed in my mind, and I keep wondering what it would feel like if she kissed me.

The song comes to an end, and the Phantom takes my hand and leads us back to the bar. “How about another drink, Miss Black?”

 

 

Chapter 3

“So, what do people talk about without giving anything away about themselves?” I ask when we’re sitting on a couch in something that looks like a reception room. There are fewer people in here, but the vibe is the same; steamy, heated, sexual. No one is taking it any further than kissing so far, but their hands have started to wander now, and it’s hard not to look. “I can’t ask you about your name, how you know the hostess, or what you do for a living,” I continue, desperate to take my mind off the woman opposite me, whose hand is now making its way up another woman’s thigh.

“We could talk about what you’d like me to do to you in bed,” she suggests matter-of- factly, making my heart rate go up so fast that I clutch onto my chest. “I take it from your reaction that public intimacy isn’t your thing, but I have a nice room upstairs. Countess Montgomery is fine with me using it and it’s very private.”

“Of course you do.” I can’t help but laugh because she’s simply not giving up. After my second drink though, I’m feeling more relaxed and the chemistry between us is explosive.

“Well?” She arches a brow. “What do you want, Miss Black?”

A blush rises to my cheeks and I hide behind my glass. Being a professional nightclub singer, I’m not normally the shy retiring type, but I seem to have lost my ability to speak tonight. “I’m not sure if I know what I want. Not right now, anyway.”

My seductress nods, the corners of her mouth tugging up. “Then maybe you should let me decide what you want. Do you like handing over control?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You know very well what I mean. Does the idea of me being in command appeal to you?”

“No.” As the answer leaves my lips in a breathy whimper, I know I’m lying. Although I’ve had many fantasies, I’ve never submitted to anyone. “Maybe.”

“Maybe means you’re curious. Are you curious, Miss Black?” Her eyes flash back at me and I let out a quiet breath before I finally give in.

“Yes.”

It’s just one word, but somehow, I feel like that one word is about to change my world. A rush of heat spreads between my thighs, making me quiver. Clearly, I want this more that I realized, and if I’m ever going to try something totally out of my comfort zone, it might as well be with an anonymous stranger who I will never see again.

“Are you sure?” Her hand slides up my thigh, making my chest heave. “You know what? It doesn’t matter; you can change your mind anytime.” A gentle squeeze is all the encouragement I need, because all I can think of now is having that hand in other places. I have no idea how she’s done it, but within the span of an hour, I’ve agreed to go upstairs with her and let her do God knows what to me.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Then let’s explore together.” Taking my glass from me, the Phantom stands up and holds out her hand. “Let me show you to the room.”

My legs are trembling as I get up, but deep down, I know I’ll regret it if I don’t do this tonight. I told Tessa earlier I was ready to have some fun again, after my girlfriend left me for someone else eight months ago, and this woman is not only devilishly attractive and charming, but the sexual chemistry is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. My body is craving to be touched again, and her fleeting caresses and dark eyes have set me on fire. “Wait… I need to check on Tessa.”

“I have no doubt she’s enjoying herself.” The Phantom leads me to the living room, where I see Tessa making out with Stephanie in a big armchair. She’s draped half on top of her and she seems to have been sucked into the same sexual energy as everyone else. It’s typical Tessa, throwing herself into the arms of the first woman who pays her attention—she’s always been that way—but Stephanie is smoking hot and I’m happy for her. Besides, I’m in no position to judge her as I’m about to do exactly the same thing myself.

“Tessa,” I say, gently nudging her shoulder.

“Oh, hey.” Tessa looks from me to Stephanie and back as if I’ve just woken her up from a spell. Realizing her bra is visible, she frowns and pulls the shoulder strap of her dress back up. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’ll just be gone for a bit. Do you mind?”

Glancing down at Stephanie, she grins before she turns back to me. “No, I don’t mind. I’ll be right here if you need me.”

“Are you okay?” I have to ask, because even for her, this is unusual behavior. “Do you feel weird in any way?”

“No. I feel…” Tessa takes a moment to think about it, then says, “I just feel immensely turned on, that’s all.” Then Stephanie pulls her back toward her mouth and they fall into another heated kiss like I’m not even there.

The Phantom doesn’t seem to think this is strange at all, and judging by the situation in the room, I know we need to either leave or join in, being the only voyeurs among many heated bodies. Groups have started to form naturally, a mysterious organic attraction pulling women together and I can see where this is heading. Concluding Tessa is fine, I take a deep breath and give my new friend a look that tells her I’m ready.

We walk up two flights of the broad staircase and head for a door at the end of the corridor. There’s nothing but silence between us, but it’s not uncomfortable. On the contrary—it only adds to the excitement and anticipation that is growing inside of me. I’ve just surrendered to my fate for the night, even though I have no idea what will happen. She takes a key out of her pocket and unlocks the door. “After you.”

Read the first 3 chapters of ‘The Scent of Rome’, out 28/05/2020!

 

Chapter 1

Nadine Costa was waiting at the bar of the St. Regis in Rome. Her red silk dress, black stiletto heels, long dark hair and elegant physique made her the center of attention and she knew it. People’s eyes were always drawn to her, wherever she went, especially when dressed the way she was tonight. She scanned the opulent space as she inhaled the scent of luxury. It was hard to define the ingredients that made up the hotel’s signature scent, but she picked up on a hint of rosewood and leather, no doubt carefully selected to leave a lasting impression on its guests.

It wasn’t the first time she’d been here, but the grandeur of the hotel always impressed her. The marble floor of the meticulously renovated palazzo sparkled like it had just been polished, reflecting the light of the crystal chandeliers in the ceiling. Even though this wasn’t Nadine’s scene, she looked like she belonged here as she waited for the man who would be her date for tonight while sipping a glass of champagne. She was early as always because she liked getting acquainted with her stage, as she thought of it, taking her time to prepare for her performance.

It was pretty simple, but the rules were strict. All meetings happened in public places, no exceptions. Touching was not allowed, unless it was a hand on her back while leading her to a table or opening a door, or maybe a peck on the cheek to convince others of their affection. Possible topics of conversation had been sent through prior to their meeting, so she could make herself familiar with the material. She also had a file with information on the man she was meeting, including a basic script on how they’d ‘met’. His name was Flavio Russo, a Rome-based investor and tonight, she was playing the role of a wealthy American on holiday in Rome, who had recently met Flavio in a café. After dinner, during which she would charm the hell out of his business partners, her agency would send a limo to pick them up, as she never got into private cars. The driver would drop off her client first before she went back to her own apartment in Trastevere.

Her privacy was protected by the high-end escort company she worked for, and sleeping with the clients was against the agency’s policy within their contracts. They often asked her out on a real date by the time the night was over, but it was purely a job to her and she had no interest in dating.

Nadine wasn’t afraid of anyone finding out what she did for a living. Her mother was back home in New York, and she didn’t have any close friends in Rome. What she did was innocent in her opinion; making the men and women who booked her look good for others. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was boring, but it was always strictly business.

“I love your dress.”

Nadine turned upon hearing the distinct American accent and smiled at the woman standing next to her at the bar. “Thank you. You look pretty great yourself.”

The woman frowned for a moment, clearly not expecting her to be American too. “Thank you back I guess,” she finally said. “I never know how to dress for meetings, it’s not my strong point.”

Nadine studied the petite woman, taking in her blonde bob, striking blue eyes, black knee-length pencil skirt and black top. She was carrying a simple leather envelope file and a small black purse hung from a silver chain over her shoulder. Her legs looked great in the high heels, but Nadine noted that just like her purse, they were designer replicas, which told her the woman was pretending to be wealthier than she actually was. “I’ll have to disagree on that.” She winked. “What are you drinking?”

“I was going to join you and order a glass of champagne.”

“Then please allow me.” Nadine gestured to the bartender to order another drink. “I’ll put it on my date’s tab.”

“No, that’s not necessary, I…”

“Please.” Nadine smiled as she handed her the glass. “I’m Nadine.”

“Rome. It’s nice to meet you.”

Nadine laughed. “Rome? Are you kidding me?” She studied the woman’s delicate features for a hint of humor, but she seemed serious.

“No, I’m not joking.” Rome laughed too. “I’ve never had that reaction to my name before but now that I’m here, suddenly everyone seems to think it’s funny. There’s no connection; my parents just thought it sounded exotic, and it’s actually my first time in Rome. I only arrived this afternoon.”

“Then you’re in for a treat. How long are you staying in town, Rome?” Nadine repeated her name because she liked the sound of it. It was unusual but cute and bold, full-bodied like a good Bordeaux.

“Depends. If my meeting goes well, a couple of days to round up the contracts, then for a considerable stretch of time after I’ve gone back home to Portland to pack my things. If it doesn’t go well, I’ll be flying back tomorrow.”

“Let’s hope this evening is a success, then. It would be a waste of the long-haul flight if you don’t get to see anything.” Nadine took a sip of her champagne, careful not to smudge her red lipstick. “What is it that you do?”

“I’m an app developer.” Rome shot her a goofy grin. “It’s very nerdy; I won’t bore you with the details but I’m here to meet a potential investor. I arrived early so I could take on some liquid courage and mentally prepare for my pitch.”

“Then I shouldn’t be distracting you.”

“No, it’s fine. It’s nice talking to you; it settles my nerves a little.” Rome tilted her head, then looked Nadine up and down. “Where’s your date?”

“He’ll be here soon. I came early too.”

“Oh. First date?”

Nadine thought about her answer for a moment, then decided to be honest. “All my dates are a first. It’s a paid date,” she said, lowering her voice, then clarified: “I’m an escort.” Rome’s wide-eyed reaction amused her. The response was to be expected but it wasn’t like they would ever see each other again and Nadine felt no need to defend what she did to make ends meet.

“So… he’s taking you out to dinner and then you go home with him?”

“Gross, no. I don’t sleep with them, it’s only dinner.” Nadine grimaced. “Wealthy men tend to like a younger woman on their arm to impress their business partners. I occasionally sleep with my female clients though, but only if I really want to and when I initiate it.” She winked. “Free of charge of course as that’s purely for my own pleasure. I have needs too, and it’s not exactly easy to maintain a relationship when you’re in this business.”

Rome seemed even more stunned now as a blush appeared on her cheeks. “Oh… So you only sleep with women? Because you’re…”

“Because I’m gay, yes.” Nadine locked her eyes with Rome and saw a hint of nervousness in them. “What about you? Men or women? Or both?”

“Men,” Rome answered almost immediately.

“Husband? Boyfriend?” Nadine was surprised to feel a little flicker of disappointment at Rome’s reply. Not that she expected anything to happen between them, but she liked flirting with women, and it was clear that she was not going to get anywhere with this one. A beautiful stranger who might only be in Rome for one night would have been perfect, because it had been a while since she’d had some action between the sheets.

“No, I’m single. Too busy with my nerdy stuff to meet people, and anyway, I’m not that bothered.” Rome hesitated for a moment. “Can I ask you something? Just out of curiosity…”

“Anything.”

“How much do you get paid to have dinner with your clients?”

“You mean how much does it cost to spend time in my company?” Nadine chuckled. “I don’t normally disclose that but as you have the best name I’ve ever heard and the best ass I’ve ever laid my eyes on, from what I can see in that skirt…” Inching closer, she decided to flirt with her anyway. She wasn’t doing anything wrong and besides, she liked how Rome blushed when she looked at her. Nadine was good at reading people and there was definitely something there, straight or not. “I’m seventeen-hundred Euros a night. Out of the seventeen hundred, I get twelve hundred and my agency takes five hundred. The duration of the date is flexible but as a general rule, I like to be home by midnight. That’s harder in Rome, though. People tend to stay up later than in New York and Paris, where I did this before.”

“Jesus.” Rome frowned as she processed the information. Or maybe she was processing the comment about her ass, Nadine wasn’t sure. Either way, she looked flustered. “So, you get twelve-hundred Euros just to have dinner with someone? Nice, fancy dinners in the best places in town?”

“I wouldn’t call them the best places. My personal tastes are a little more authentic than this, but yes, that’s the deal.”

“And your agency takes five-hundred? That seems like daylight robbery to me.”

“It’s not unreasonable.” Nadine shrugged and smiled. “They do a background check on the clients and make sure it’s safe for me to go out with them. They also protect my privacy and prepare an information pack, so I know exactly what I’m getting myself into. They’ve been good so far, so I’m not complaining.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound so daunting now that you’ve explained it.” Rome leaned against the bar and sighed. “Maybe I should look into it. Then I wouldn’t have to drag my presentation around the world while maxing out my credit cards.” She finished her champagne and shook her head. “But I couldn’t, I’d feel dirty.” As soon as she realized what she’d said, Rome slammed a hand in front of her mouth. “Oh God, I didn’t mean it like that.” Regret was written all over her face and it was endearing how her gaze kept shifting to the ceiling, trying to think of something to pull her out of the hole she’d dug for herself. Nadine didn’t mind the comment so much; she was used to it, and her line of work wasn’t for everyone. “I didn’t mean to insult you, I…” Rome’s clumsy stammering stopped when a big, bald man in a sharp, black suit came walking up to them, eyeing Nadine.

Nadine realized she’d lost track of time and turned to him with her most charming smile. Damn it. I never make mistakes. He looked extremely wealthy in his Brioni suit and patent leather shoes. A gold Rolex peeked from underneath his right sleeve, and his wedding band was still on his ring finger; it was something men often forgot. Or perhaps he simply didn’t care.

“Nadine, there you are. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” He eyed her up and down, then pointed to her dress. “You look beautiful as always.”

“Flavio.” Nadine kissed him on both cheeks and patted his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I got distracted talking to this lovely lady here.” She turned to Rome. “Flavio, this is Rome. Rome, this is Flavio.” She noticed Rome looked even more uncomfortable now as they shook hands.

“Flavio Russo, the CEO of Nero,” Rome said. “It’s great to finally meet you in person. I’m Rome Foster.”

Flavio’s gaze nervously shifted from Rome to Nadine and back and Nadine cursed herself as it clicked. An investor… of course. How could she have been so stupid? She was clearly not thinking straight, too immersed in flirting with the captivating woman who was apparently going to be at her table for the rest of the night.

“Rome was just telling me all about her app,” Nadine lied, trying to put him at ease. She knew it was vital for him that their secret was safe, yet she’d just told Rome about their arrangement. “It sounds like a great opportunity.” She gave Flavio another smile and knew that she had him then, as his shoulders relaxed and he smiled back, checking out her cleavage.

“Yes, we’re looking forward to hearing all about it.” Flavio put a hand on Nadine’s back and led them to their table, where another two men were waiting.

Nadine took a deep breath and braced herself for the evening ahead, then introduced herself and sat down next to Flavio.

 

 

Chapter 2

Rome watched Nadine immerse herself in the conversation with the confidence and flair of someone who was used to mixing in wealthy circles. The beautiful dark-haired woman who had been shamelessly flirting with her only five minutes ago knew exactly how to wrap men around her little finger; that much was clear. Nadine’s comment about her ass still lingered in the back of her mind. Women never flirted with her, and it was both exciting and distracting. For some reason she couldn’t explain, she was just as worried about what Nadine thought of her as the men around the table who were making the decisions. She could tell Flavio was happy with his ‘date’ by the way he kept looking at Nadine, as if she was the only thing that mattered in the room. Knowing that he’d hired an escort for the evening made Rome secretly loathe him, but she needed his money badly, so she tried not to think about it. She was down to the last of her savings, after dragging her presentation from one side of the world to the other, and he was her last hope. Other investors had been interested, but most of them were worried about privacy issues. So, she’d spent months adjusting her program and here she was again with the latest update of her app, which she was hoping would change the world for the better. It was now or never.

“I apologize for bringing a date to our meeting,” Flavio said. “But Nadine is only here for another two weeks and we wanted to spend as much time together as we could.” He shot his hired girlfriend a creepy grin and the two men nodded their agreement, looking a little envious as Flavio put an arm around Nadine and squeezed her shoulder. Nadine flinched for a moment, but immediately corrected herself and gave him a playful look. Rome found herself unable to take her eyes off the escort when her bright red lips stretched into a wide and infectious smile, showing perfectly straight, white teeth. God, she’s gorgeous.

“I understand. Young love is precious,” Rome improvised as her eyes locked with Nadine’s for a brief moment, letting her know that her secret was safe. “So, would you like to order first of shall I just go right ahead and tell you about my product?”

“Let’s eat first,” Flavio’s dark and handsome co-investor, who had introduced himself as Rob, said. “I can’t think on an empty stomach.”

“Me either,” Matteo, his chubby neighbor agreed. “I haven’t even had time for lunch today and that’s a crime in Rome, so thank God for the St. Regis’ sirloin and the two beautiful women at our table.” The men laughed, and Rome and Nadine laughed along half-heartedly. She realized then, that although they were there for different reasons, they were both in a similar position. They both needed something from the men in their company, and now she was the one who felt dirty.

Rome waited for her hosts to pick up their menus, then opened her own. If there was one thing she’d learned from boarding school, it was manners. “I must admit, I like how you do business here in Rome. I can’t say I’ve ever done a pitch in a restaurant before, but it sure beats a boardroom.” She didn’t mind eating first and was silently hoping the men would be more impressionable once they had a couple of glasses of wine in their system. She’d make sure not to drink more than one glass herself though, as she needed to stay focused.

“Hey, you’ve come all the way here to tell us about your app. Taking you out for dinner first is the least we can do,” Matteo said, then mumbled something in Italian to his friends.

The way they chuckled told Rome he was referring to the women at their table, but she pretended not to notice. Don’t say anything rude, Rome. You need this. “Well thank you, I appreciate it.” She scanned the menu and became internally outraged when a few moments later Matteo took it upon himself to order for her and Nadine.

“The ladies will have the artichokes, followed by the Sicilian red prawns, then the polenta with summer vegetables,” he said to the waiter in English so they could clearly hear what he’d ordered. “And we need champagne of course, and the best red wine on your list.” After that, Flavio, Rob and Matteo ordered for themselves in Italian.

Rome was shocked when she realized Matteo had not just only decided what she was going to eat, but he’d also ordered all the low-calorie dishes on the menu for her and Nadine. If they’d been on a date tonight, she would have waited for the food to arrive and then thrown it at him. Nadine’s eyes met hers for a moment and they exchanged a knowing look, acknowledging they were on the same page about his misogynistic behavior. It was a small comfort, knowing she wasn’t the only one appalled by his actions.

“So, as I explained, the Carbon app is connected to the Carbon Card. Think of it as a credit card,” Rome said after discussing the practicalities of her pitch. It had been a long dinner, but the espresso was doing its work and keeping her alert. “It’s an app to measure your carbon footprint, so before you start using it, you have to answer around two hundred questions. Various things like the type of car you drive, whether your house has double-pane windows or not, your utility usage, etcetera. Then, every time you purchase something, and you pay with the card, the estimated carbon footprint of the purchased items is stored in your profile. If you take a bus to work for example, you can enter that manually and Google Maps will pick up your location and measure your journey accordingly. Public transport gives you positive credit, of course, and walking is even better. The system can be connected to your health app too, so it tracks your physical journey. You can also use the app to scan products in grocery stores or anywhere you want really, and it will give you better alternatives in terms of mindful products and packaging. The Carbon platform is the future; it will change the way people think about consuming and living in general. It’s simple, like a calorie app. Every single thing you do in your day to day life counts.” Rome looked smug as she always did when she finished her pitch. She was proud of her product, even though it was surprisingly hard to physically get the idea out there. “I’ve patented the analytical part of the platform. Copycats are obviously still a risk, but they won’t be able to extract the data the way my program can.”

“Okay…” Flavio took his time to think about it, but it was Matteo who came up with the first question.

“I believe you when you say consumers are changing. You explained the shopping behavior of the new generations and I can see that. But, as far as I can see, the demographic that makes up the truly conscientious ‘green’ consumers still only represents a small percentage of the population and quite frankly, I think it’s too early to invest in this. People aren’t ready yet.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. People just need a catalyst.” Rome looked at all three men, then rested her eyes on Nadine, who appeared to be the only one captivated by what she had to say. For a moment, she almost lost her train of thought, but she quickly pulled herself back together and answered just like she had over a hundred times before. “Not everyone cares about the environment. But everyone cares about what others think of them. Humble bragging is real and showing the world you’re doing good online is the new status symbol, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.” She gave them a confident smile. “Imagine major influencers and stars using the app to tweet their progress on cutting back on their carbon footprint. It will be the most positive trend the world has ever seen, and I’m giving you the opportunity to be at the forefront of this huge universe of information that is not only immensely valuable, but also world-changing.”

“Why are you doing this?” Nadine studied Rome intently and seemed genuinely interested in the answer. She looked caught out as soon as she’d asked the question, like she only then realized then that her role was just to sit there and look pretty. Flavio seemed to be curious about the answer too though, his eyes flicking to Nadine as she spoke.

“Yes, why are you doing this?” He repeated the question, studying the file containing the financial details of Rome’s global roll-out proposal. “It’s a huge risk; sixteen million is a lot of money. And it’s not only risky for us, but for you too. If this goes wrong, no investor will ever touch you again.”

“And sixteen million is a bottom guestimate,” Matteo added. “We would have to put a team of experts together to work with you, and that will add significant investment too.”

“I know there’s a considerable risk. But I believe in this, and I’m doing it because I genuinely care about the environment and worry about global warming. I’m invested, and it’s been my life-long mission to make the world a better place. You may find that naïve, but it’s the only honest answer I can give you.” Rome focused on Nadine as she passionately answered the question, then remembered she was addressing the wrong person and turned to Flavio instead. Besides the fact that he was the biggest shareholder in their tech investment company, she’d already figured he was their main negotiator too. “But for you, it’s also an opportunity to make a lot of money. And I mean a lot. It is for all of us.”

Matteo cleared his throat. “What about user privacy?”

“Well, I’m glad you asked because I’ve been working on that. The products that are bought or consumed do not register to individual accounts. Once they’re processed, they move to the main database and only leave a code on the user’s app which is then converted into the ever-changing percentage of their own carbon footprint as they continue to use it. The history is deleted, so to speak. Therefore, it would not be possible for me to see what you, Rob and Matteo have purchased this week but I would be able to see how many combined quarts of milk have been purchased by all the people using this app, or how much gas they’ve gone through while driving. Although the data is not personal, and therefore direct marketing is not an option, the data is still very valuable because the people who will be using this app are the consumers of the future and the insights are pretty precise. The data can be used to predict how popular certain consumer goods will be before they’re even launched, and as a result, companies will be willing to pay a fortune for such lucrative information.”

“Hmmm…” Flavio scratched his chin and let out a deep sigh. To Rome’s surprise, it was Rob, who had been fairly quiet so far, who voiced his opinion first.

“I think sixteen million is a lot for something that’s never been trialed before. Nero tends to follow proven formulas, we don’t lead, and that’s been the key to our success so far.”

Rome sank back listless in her chair as she watched her life fall apart. She was pretty sure she wasn’t going to secure their investment tonight. She’d put all her bets on this app, confident that no one in their right mind would say no to it. How could she have been so stupid? I’m so fucked.

“Excuse me. I’m going to visit the restrooms while you gentlemen discuss business.” Nadine stood up and walked away with the sexiest sway in her hips Rome had ever seen. Despite the outcome of her meeting dampening her mood, she suddenly felt an urge to follow her and seize the opportunity to apologize in case she’d insulted her earlier. She sensed Nadine was fun and even though she was playing a role tonight, Rome had a feeling she was a lot smarter than she was letting on. Maybe she would have some advice on how to rope these guys in, because if they didn’t invest in the app, she might need an escort job of her own, soon.

“I’ll be right back.” Rome stood up too and rushed after her. Her heart rate accelerated when she saw Nadine reapplying her red lipstick, stretching forward as she looked into the mirror above the marble basins.

Nadine smiled at her through the mirror, then pursed her lips and ruffled a hand through her dark hair that fell over her back in long waves. “How do you feel the meeting is going?”

“I’m not sure,” Rome said, a little deflated. “But if my gut is anything to go by, it’s not looking good.”

“No, they’re not going to bite, I can tell. Believe me, I’m good at reading people.” Nadine turned, put a hand on Rome’s shoulder and gave her a wink. “But maybe I can help you. I can’t promise anything, though.” She headed for the door without waiting for a reply.

“Wait.” Rome watched her turn back and her stomach felt funny as Nadine’s dark eyes flashed back at her. “I wanted to apologize for what I said. I don’t think you’re dirty.” She rolled her eyes and let out a nervous giggle, then raised a hand to her temple, shaking her head. “Okay, that came out wrong.”

Nadine laughed too and walked back to her, then did something so unexpected that Rome froze on the spot. Closing her eyes, she leaned in and inhaled deeply against Rome’s neck, taking her time as if drinking in her scent. Rome’s pulse raced when she felt the woman’s breath on her neck. “You smell amazing,” she whispered, bringing her mouth close to Rome’s ear. “And the comment… don’t worry about it. I’m plenty dirty.”

Rome tried to compose herself after Nadine had left. Fuck. Her hands were visibly shaking as she opened the top three buttons of her top to get some air. She leaned against the wash basin and splashed cool water on her face as she focused on taking one deep breath after another. What was this woman doing to her? Shaking her head, she told herself not to get distracted by the unexpected turn of events. Nadine was a woman and her reaction to her made no sense. Go back and do what you do best. You need that money.

 

Chapter 3

When Nadine returned from the restroom, she knew she’d been right. The three men seemed keener to have another couple of drinks with their female companions than they were to discuss investment opportunities. Flavio put a hand on her back when she sat down, and she suppressed the urge to shrug it away.

“What would you like my dear?” he asked her in a sickening endearing tone. “More wine? Another glass of champagne, perhaps?”

“Just another espresso would be wonderful, honey. I’ve already had way too much alcohol,” she answered, giving him a saccharine smile. Her eyes followed Rome as she joined them a moment later and for the first time in months, she felt a little flutter in her belly. The woman was beautiful and sexy, and smart, too. Extremely smart. And that, in Nadine’s eyes, was a total turn-on. Not only was Rome able to put together a world-changing proposal and make it sound simple and understandable, she was also clearly passionate about her idea, and for those reasons, she desperately wanted to help her.

“Well gentlemen,” she said, after their last round of drinks had arrived. “If you’re not interested in getting involved in this gem of a plan, I’d like to introduce Rome to my very good friend Harold Gardner. I understand your concerns as, unlike Harold, you tend to follow, but this sounds like it’s right up his street.” Suddenly all eyes were on her and the mood took a nervous shift. “In fact, I’ll call him right now if you don’t mind,” she continued, pulling her phone out of her bag in a fake-tipsy state. Nadine never drank more than two glasses of wine, but her companions rarely noticed. “He’s always up late and I know he’s still in Europe; I spent a couple of days on his yacht in the South of France before I came here.” She managed to hold back a chuckle at their perplexed expressions.

“You’re friends with Harold Gardner?” Flavio asked, studying her for any signs that she was bluffing.

“Yeah. Didn’t I tell you last time we went for dinner? We met a couple of years ago at a charity event.” Nadine knew there was a plausible chance Flavio would believe her. Harold, the world-famous tech-investor was also a well-known ladies’ man and it was likely Flavio would suspect she was his regular companion. She watched his right eye twitch, enjoying the game. Flavio’s weakness was now her strength because she knew Harold Gardner was his nemesis. Nadine never went anywhere without doing some research herself, simply because she found people intriguing.

“You can’t do that,” Matteo said then. “We haven’t decided yet, so the first offer still lies with us.” Flavio and Rob nodded in agreement.

“Of course. I apologize, I was just trying to help out this lovely lady.” Nadine looked at them innocently, a little apprehensive about overstepping her boundaries. “How about you think about it for twenty-four hours, so Rome doesn’t have to leave her namesake just yet?” She had no idea why she’d suggested it, but it seemed like a good idea, even if she was treading on dangerous ground. If her agency found out she’d been toying with one of their clients and interfering in his business matters, she’d never work for them again. Why was she taking such a risk? Maybe she cared less, now that she was nearing thirty and approaching the end of her escort career. Or maybe she wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Rome. She liked how the woman had been thrown off her game by her flirtations and even though Rome would never admit it, she could see that she’d been affected more than she had let on.

“Fine. Let’s speak in twenty-four hours,” Flavio agreed. By now, Nadine had a feeling she could get him to do anything and she liked that. He would probably book her again this week, if his wife was still out of town like she assumed.

Matteo and Rob nodded and mumbled something along the lines of it giving them time to discuss funding and timing.

They stayed for a little longer—Nadine and Rome drinking espresso and the men sharing another bottle of red wine. Matteo was desperately trying to impress Rome, but she was vaguely aware it had more to do with her looks than her brain. It was obvious that Rome was keeping her distance but her replies were clever and witty and she pulled them in with her charms without even so much as a flirty glance. She’d also noticed Rome’s top was unbuttoned after returning from the restrooms and the idea that it might have something to do with her, pleased her. The men were getting tipsier now and she decided to call it a night, saving Rome from more hungry glances.

“Maybe if we’re done here, you’d like to go home soon?” Nadine batted her eyelashes at Flavio. “After all, as you said, we only have two weeks left.”

Flavio’s cheeks turned red hot as he looked at her. He knew he wasn’t going to get any more than a cab ride out of this, but he clearly liked that his friends didn’t know that. Or maybe he was hoping she’d fallen for him already. They were all suckers like that.

“Of course, my dear. As you wish.” He stood, reached into his pocket for his wallet and slammed a pile of cash on the table without bothering to count it. When Nadine arched a perfectly sculpted eyebrow at Rome, an amused look passed between them. She was glad she’d told her about her situation tonight; she’d be terribly embarrassed if Rome actually believed she was dating a man like him.

“Gentlemen, have a good night.” Nadine stood up too and gave Matteo and Rob a kiss on each cheek, before turning to Rome. “Rome, it was an absolute pleasure to meet you. I wrote down my number, let me know if this doesn’t work out and I’ll put you in contact with Harold.” She shot her a conspiratorial wink and saw Rome’s hand trembling as she took the slip of paper and put it in her purse.

“Thank you. That’s very kind of you, and it was great to meet you too.” She held Nadine’s gaze for a couple of beats, and Nadine was so captured by her blue eyes that she almost fell out of her role, but she quickly composed herself, remembering she was leaving with Flavio, and not with Rome. “Enjoy the rest of your stay,” she said, casting one last glance over her shoulder as they walked away.

‘The Scent of Rome’ is now available for preorder:

 

 

 

Read the first 3 chapters of Online by Madeleine Taylor!

This erotic novella will be out on 28/02/2020 and is now available for pre-order.

Online-Kindle

 

Chapter 1

The green light flashes on and her picture appears. My reaction is always the same; a strange sense of excitement deep in my core that makes me restless and desperate for her attention. We’re in different time zones and far apart, with me living in Los Angeles and her life being in Quebec, but we always seem to be online at the same time. I don’t know if her name or her profile picture are real but mine are. I only use my first name, Valerie, and she goes by Syd.

If the profile picture is indeed real and recent, Syd looks to be in her late thirties. She has dark, pixie-cut hair and the most spectacular light blue eyes. I always thought they were colored lenses—the shade so startlingly blue—before she assured me, during one of our rare non-book related talks when it was just us in the book club’s forum, that they were real. Her high cheekbones and defined jawline give off a European vibe, but the scant information I could find on her profile tells me she’s Canadian.

My profile picture is fairly recent. It was taken after my long and painful divorce on a celebratory night out, and I look as happy as I felt that evening—finally free from the man who cheated on me for years. Now single, Ellen, my best friend, decided it was the perfect time for me to start online dating and told me I needed a good picture for that. It’s only a headshot, just like hers. My long dark hair is pulled up into a topknot and I’m wearing a black turtleneck and only a little make up, as my dark eyes and eyebrows don’t require much. Being half Hawaiian, I have my mother’s exotic features, tanned skin and heart-shaped face, and after going through a phase of bleaching my hair in my twenties, the color is natural again.

Our book club consists of twenty members from all over the world, all of us a mixture of ages and with very little in common apart from one thing: we all love to read lesbian erotica. It’s been my guilty pleasure ever since I bought the wrong book online by accident, mistaking my purchase for something with the same title. I did think the cover of The Red Room looked a little different from the type of book I usually buy, but tired and grumpy after waiting up for my husband, who didn’t come home that night, I purchased it without thinking. I remember laughing to myself when it arrived on my screen, noticing the explicit cover and that the author was someone called Sadie London instead of Mark Finsburgh. One look and it was patently obvious it had nothing to do with anger management coaching on the work floor. Scanning through it, I got curious and like a woman starved of attention started reading it. The Red Room soon woke up parts of my body I’d neglected for years and since that day, I’ve been reading one lesbian erotica book after another, and still can’t seem to get enough of them.

No one knows this hidden side of me, apart from the nineteen other members of my book club. The website isn’t very well known, and the chat element is closed, so I feel safe to discuss my newfound passion with likeminded enthusiasts. The main reason I keep coming back religiously each night though, is Syd.

Of course, I’ve thought long and hard about my fascination with her. She’s attractive—again, if her profile picture is real—but there’s also something personal in the way she communicates with me and it makes me feel special. I know that sounds sad, but I haven’t exactly been dating much, too consumed with reading after work and frankly right now, I’d take lesbian erotica over a date with a man any day.

I’m not even sure if I’m still into men as I clearly don’t have much interest in them. When I was still married our sex life wasn’t exactly sizzling, and even before things started going south between us, I never enjoyed having sex as much as my friends claimed they did. Perhaps that’s why I like reading about good sex instead because, contrary to the real deal, it turns me on.

‘Valerie.’

Syd typing my name is enough to make my pulse race. ‘Syd  🙂,’ I reply.

‘It seems like it’s just us again. Did you finish the book?’

‘Yes. In one day. I liked it. Well written and very hot. Did you?’

‘I did. Cherry reminded me of you, in a way.’

I frown, wondering how she came to that conclusion, because honestly Cherry, the protagonist in our latest book club read, reminded me of myself too. ‘Why?’ I ask.

‘Not sure. The bad-ass job, maybe, and you seem to use the same language. Her description fits your profile picture too, so my mind just went there…’

It’s not so much what she types, but the three dots at the end that make me take in a quick breath. We’re not supposed to discuss anything other than the books we read in the group, so I phrase my reply carefully, the way we always do when we want to find out more about each other.

By now, I know she’s a tattoo artist and that she’s into running. In return, I told her I work as a CFO for a large electronics company and that I’m a wine enthusiast but that’s about it.

‘I guess I could relate to her because of her job. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much. I’m not exactly a blonde bombshell, though.’

‘I’ll have to disagree with that. Blonde, maybe not. A bombshell, most certainly.’

The comment makes me blush, and I look around, even though I know there’s no one left in the office. It’s 8 pm and most of my team members leave before seven, but because I had a late meeting and didn’t want to risk missing my precious half hour with her, I got back behind my desk in my corner office afterward, swapping my work phone for my private one. ‘Well, thank you,’ is all I can think of to say. Syd’s been on my mind a lot lately, and although I feel a little foolish for being so pre-occupied with someone who I don’t even know is real, it’s also been nice to have something to fantasize about again. Being an avid reader of lesbian erotica herself, I know there’s a good chance Syd is gay, and it’s a flattering thought that a beautiful woman might be into me.

I wait for a reply, and then it happens. I’ve been imagining this moment many times late at night in bed, when I can’t sleep and can’t stop thinking of her. Against all club rules, she sends me her personal email address and adds: ‘I’d like to continue this conversation in private’, before going offline.

I stare at it for a moment, not quite believing what she’s just done, then quickly copy it into my contacts before the mediator has the chance to remove it. We might get suspended for this, but I don’t care. My heart is beating steadily in my chest as I read her name in the email address. Sydney Heller. I don’t know why it feels like such a big deal to know her surname, but suddenly, nothing seems more important than sending her an email. I scan the office again and contemplate doing it here, but unsure of how long I’ll be waiting for her reply, I close my laptop and pack my bag instead. The traffic in LA will be fine at this time of night and I can be home in half an hour.

 

 

Chapter 2

‘Hi Syd,’ I type when I’m sitting on the couch after a shower. Reluctant to waste time driving around in search of food, I’ve settled for a glass of red wine and the leftovers of last night’s Thai take-out. I’m not hungry in the slightest, my nerves suppressing my appetite, but I force myself to eat something so I’m not drinking on an empty stomach. How do I continue? In theory, this should be easier than communicating face to face or in a group where everyone can see what we’re writing, but it’s not. I feel feverishly warm and open my robe a little, fanning my face with a magazine from the table.

Despite my reputation as a wild child when I was younger, sending this email seems like a reckless thing to do. Knowing she’ll be flirting with me when our exchange starts, my brain begins searching for something witty or intelligent to say, but nothing springs to mind—it’s all a blank—my mind suddenly void. What’s wrong with me? I lead a team of thirty in my day to day role and have no problem confidently consulting some of the most powerful people in my industry. In meetings or discussions, I’m always one step ahead of everyone else, yet sending a simple email seems terribly complicated right now. I curse when I almost drop my phone, and the two-word email is sent by accident in a clumsy scramble to catch it.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” The last of the three ‘fucks’ comes out as a cry when on top of everything, I spill wine over my silk robe, leaving a red stain on the delicate off-white fabric. Irritated, I quickly grab a dish towel to wipe myself off as a ping indicates a reply.

‘Hey, Valerie. I must say, you’ve been on my mind a lot lately. Is your profile picture real? You look beautiful.’

I feel flushed at her message and a twitch stronger than I’ve felt in years shoots between my thighs. The way my body reacts to her compliment surprises me. Still unable to think of anything amusing, I start typing the first thing that comes to mind.

‘Yes, it’s real. What about yours?’ My fingers tremble as I continue. ‘You’re very attractive yourself.’

Her reply again, is prompt. ‘Yes, it’s me. See pic attached. What are you doing right now?’ Almost choking with anticipation, I open the attachment, not sure whether to expect a dick pic as a result of being catfished by some cruel prankster or an actual picture of Syd. Relief washes over me when I see it’s an image of her. It looks like it’s been taken with a selfie stick, because I can see most of her. She’s sitting on a bed holding a bottle of beer. One of her arms is entirely covered in tattoos, and she’s wearing a white tank top and jeans, smiling into the camera, her piercing light blue eyes focused on the lens. She looks strong and toned, with small breasts and a slight curve at her hips. It’s the first time I’ve ever stared at a woman’s body like this and I can’t help but wonder what she would look like naked.

‘Nice picture. I’m on the couch, just got home.’

‘Perfect. I’m at home now too, and bored. I need you to distract me.’

A shiver runs through me as I reply. Are we really doing this? ‘Happy to help. What can I do for you?’

‘Well for starters, where’s my picture? I need proof too.’

I smile and take a selfie, wishing I’d freshened up before I started this. Cringing as I look at the wine stain splashed over my left breast, I send it anyway, not wanting her to think I’m trying too hard. ‘Here’s your proof.’

‘Cute. I like it J. What happened to your robe?

‘I spilled wine.’ Typing the words, I remember the still half-full glass on the coffee table and take a long drink, then fill it up again. Liquid courage is exactly what I need right now. This time, the reply doesn’t come straight away and I start to worry if my disheveled appearance in the picture has put her off. It wasn’t dissimilar from my profile picture, apart from my hair, which is down now but perhaps I should have rethought the robe? Finally, she gets back to me and my eyes widen as I read her message.

‘It looks wet. Maybe you should take it off.’

Initially, I’m shocked by her directness but deep down, it also arouses me. I should have seen this coming, of course. No one starts a flirty exchange without expecting it to turn sexy. I could always tell her I’ve taken it off, she can’t see me after all. But something makes me want to do it, and so I slide the silky fabric off my shoulders, leaving me in the pastel pink lace bra I’ve been wearing all day. ‘It’s off.’

‘I’m going to need proof of that too, I’m afraid.’

I laugh and shake my head. ‘Why would I send a half-naked picture of myself to a stranger? You could do anything with it.’

‘But I won’t. I promise I won’t, so just send me the picture.’

I bite my lip, contemplating her request while heat spreads between my thighs. It’s so not me, but then neither is being a member of a lesbian erotica book club. Knowing I’ll give in—because my body really, really wants this—I take another sip of wine so I can blame it on the alcohol if my picture ends up online. ‘You’d better keep this to yourself, Syd,’ I type, then take another picture of me in my bra. I’m not smiling in this one, but as I narrow my eyes and study myself, I notice I look aroused. It may not be obvious to her, as she doesn’t know me, but my own impassioned expression astounds me. My lips are parted, my eyes darker than normal and there’s even a hint of fear in them that could easily be mistaken for vulnerability, or shyness. Still, I send it and try not to think of the potential consequences of my irrational behavior.

‘Thank you. That’s very sexy… How about we play a game? It’s called I tell you what to do and you obey.’

I chuckle at her audacity and note that subtlety is not her strong point. ‘That doesn’t sound like a fair game to me.’

‘Maybe not, but it could be fun.’ She ends her message with a wink emoji. While I take my time contemplating her indecent proposal—wondering how I should reply—another email comes in. ‘Are you still there?’

‘Yes, I’m here,’ I type with trembling fingers.

‘Good. Because I want you to slide your hand into your bra. Feel your nipples harden under your touch. Roll them between your fingers and pinch them.’

I gasp as my eyes scan her message. I’m not used to people telling me what to do and she’s unapologetically bold and direct. I quickly type back.

‘Oh, we’ve started now, have we? I don’t remember agreeing to this.’

‘Just do as I say, and you’ll be rewarded. I promise.’

Part of me is afraid, but part of me also likes her demanding tone. If I’m doing anything on a Monday night, it might as well be this, and I surprise myself by following her command. My fingers skim my already hard nipples, the tips of which rose to attention the moment her first email came in. A small gasp escapes me as I pinch them, and my pussy twitches with arousal.

‘It feels good,’ I type with one hand.

‘I know it does. Now take off your bra and show me those nipples. I want to imagine my lips on them.’

My shaking hand covers my mouth and I stare at the screen for a long moment. This is getting out of hand, but by now I’m so turned on that I actually want to continue. I unclasp my bra at the back and let it fall off my shoulders, shivering at the breeze that blows in through the sliding glass doors. Cropping the picture I’ve hastily taken, I make sure only the bottom half of my face is in it so I can always deny that it’s me. Not bothering with a caption, I send it and again, it seems to take forever before she gets back to me.

‘Fuck. You are so hot.’

I smile and can feel myself blushing because it’s been a long time since someone has said that to me. ‘Where’s my topless picture?’ I daringly request.

‘Next time. I have to go. Send me your Messenger info, it’s much easier.’

‘What’s in it for me?’ I ask, suddenly kicking myself for sending semi-racy pictures of myself to a woman I don’t know. What if she sells them? What if she blackmails me? For someone in my position, I can’t risk having my reputation tainted.

‘You’ll find out soon enough. Expect a package at work tomorrow. Your reward.’

Adrenaline floods my system, and I’m feeling even more worried now. ‘How do you know where I work?’

‘Your email address, smart-ass J.’ Straight after, another email follows. ‘Bye. X’

“Damn it,” I say out loud. Why am I not thinking clearly this evening? Or rather, why am I not thinking at all? I rarely send private emails, and I realize I’ve used my work account which is connected to my personal devices too, without thinking. I immediately delete the emails and pictures, then down the rest of my wine. I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed that she’s gone because, despite my concerns, I’m still incredibly turned on. Wishing I’d kept the picture she sent me, I slide my hand into my panties and gasp at how sensitive I am. Slowly, I trace two fingers up and down my flesh, moaning as I roll my hips. The need for release is strong and I move my fingers faster, almost frantically. It’s been too long, and my clit is throbbing as I circle it, my release loud as I cry out when my much-needed orgasm washes over me.

Basking in blissful relaxation, I stare up at the ceiling and realize I need more of this, more of her. I love the way she talks to me, the way she makes no excuses and simply tells me what she wants. Maybe I should just go with it, because it seems that the licentious fantasies I’ve had during my time in the book club are finally coming true…

 

 

Chapter 3

“Thank you, that will be all.” I close my laptop and gather my paperwork from the enormous oval table in the boardroom. My staff is leaving for lunch after our monthly briefing and I’m headed for the mail room. During our meeting, a message from the mail room supervisor came in, letting me know there was a parcel for me. It was hard to concentrate on my presentation—knowing it might be Syd’s package—and the two hours felt like they would never end.

Walking toward the elevators, I give a polite nod to a couple of co-workers and smile at the janitor I often talk to at night, when we’re the last ones left in the office. Our enormous office building is spacious and decorated in neutral colors, the sleek and modern design making it feel like a clinic at times. I don’t mind that; I like no-nonsense and dress accordingly. My pantsuits that are custom-made for my petite, but curvy body are like a uniform to me. I wear them to work every single day; a fitted black blazer that accentuates my slim waist, black palazzo pants, high heels and a black sleeveless turtleneck. It’s always a little on the chilly side here, in summer as well as in winter, and being uncomfortable is a waste of time.

A text message from my friend Ellen comes in, asking me if I want to go for dinner tonight. For a moment, the idea seems great, but then I remember last night’s exchange, and I change my mind, replying that I’m busy. I still need to send Syd my Messenger details, but I want to see what’s in the parcel first.

“What have you got for me, Pete?” I ask the mail room supervisor. Normally, I’d send my assistant to pick it up, but I’m a little apprehensive about what the packaging will look like and I don’t want her to make assumptions or ask questions. I’m relieved when Pete presents me with a neutral black box, laced with a pink ribbon that is tied into a perfect bow on the top. Thankfully, there’s no card and no logo on the box.

“It was hand-delivered this morning,” Pete says. “By a pretty lady in a pink delivery truck. I don’t remember the name of the company. Naughty something…” He frowns, digging through his memory, and I cringe.

“Right, thank you. It’s probably just some marketing material addressed to the wrong department. I’ll make sure it gets to the right person.” My cheeks burn with heat, and I rush out of the mail room and into the nearest restrooms, where I sit down on a toilet seat and take a deep breath. After staring at the box for a moment, I pull at the ribbon, releasing it, then open the lid. Black satin fabric surrounds a small, pink device, along with a card that says: ‘Don’t use this until I tell you to.’

It’s a vibrator, and from the looks of it, it’s an expensive one. I take it out of the box and study the streamlined silicone toy. Even though I don’t have any experience with vibrators—in fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen one up close—I appreciate the design. It appears clever and uncomplicated, but above all, it looks intriguing. The bent oval shape fits perfectly in my hand and when I press the single ridged circle on the top, it starts buzzing. The feeling of it makes me quiver and the temptation to try it right now is strong, but looking down at the card again, I switch it off and put it back in the box. Tonight, I tell myself. Right now, I need to hide this box and grab a coffee before my next meeting starts.

 

I’m not taking much in from the planning meeting with the wearables marketing manager who is pitching his estimated budgets to me. There are another handful of people in the room but they’re really just here as a formality as, ultimately, it’s my decision how much he’s allocated for the coming year. I should pay close attention as this is important but just before we started, I emailed Syd my Messenger details and now my phone is buzzing. Moving my phone to my lap under the table, I open the message.

‘Did you get my present?’

I reply. ‘Yes. It’s a little much and a little soon, don’t you think?’

‘Don’t fool yourself, I know what you want. We’ve been discussing erotica books for months and I know you’re into this. You also seemed to be into me last night. So… do you like it?’

‘Yes, I do. Thank you.’ I realize then that she does in fact know what I want. Admitting I like a certain book is basically the same as revealing my fantasies. The second book I read by Sadie London springs to mind. It was about the owner of a sex store who tried out various toys on her clients. Clearly recalling telling the other members of the club it was my favorite book, and that I’m working my way through all of the author’s books now, I think she’s drawing from it, and knowing she remembers that makes me smile. The marketing manager smiles too, hopeful that my silly grin means I’m on board with his proposition. I try to relax my face and pretend to listen while shooting another quick glance at my phone when it vibrates again.

‘Is your pussy shaven?’ I gasp at the question, and suddenly, six pairs of eyes are focused on me. I shouldn’t be doing this here. My company is paying me a small fortune to make big decisions and I’m sexting in the middle of a meeting. Breaking into a coughing fit, I pretend to have a sore throat. It seems to do the trick, as everyone waits for me to finish clearing my throat, before turning back to the presenter, who is only on slide seven of which I know to be a forty-slide pitch. Despite my fleeting lapse in concentration, I don’t panic. I’ve read the presentation through beforehand, so at least I won’t be entirely clueless by the end of this. The pull to continue the exchange with Syd is strong, and now that I’ve had some time to get used to the idea—that I’m indecently messaging a woman—I can’t seem to make myself stop.

My fingers move silently under the table. ‘Trimmed,’ I lie, knowing I haven’t bothered with too much personal grooming since I last stopped sleeping with my ex-husband three years ago. Now I regret that I didn’t because who knows what will happen tonight?

‘Hmm…’ A couple of seconds pass before another message comes in. ‘I want you to shave yourself first. All of it. It will be much more intense if you do. Trust me.’ There’s another pause before she writes: ‘Have to go, talk to you later.’ She closes the message with her usual wink emoji, then leaves the chat.

I’m so turned on by her request that I have to push my chair back and cross my legs in an attempt to sooth the agonizing tingle between my thighs. Scrolling through my phone, I look up the number for the beauty parlor I always book when I have a last-minute business trip. If I’m doing this I might as well do it right and I’ve decided I’m going to get myself waxed.

 

Online by Madeleine Taylor

 

 

 

 

Let me transport you to sunny Capitola

Let me transport you to sunny Capitola with pictures from my recent inspiration trip and chapter 1 of Western Shores 🙂

 

Chapter 1

Capitola was everything Madison had hoped for. She’d shortlisted a couple of towns and cities before she came here with the intention of finding a home close to her new job in Santa Cruz, but the small town along Monterey Bay turned out to be even more picture-perfect than the photos she’d seen online. The rows of pastel colored beach-front homes behind the creek made for a spectacular view, painted in shades of yellow, turquoise, pink, blue, purple and soft green. Flowers in contrasting colors hung from the windowsills, matching the front doors and the steps. Even the commercial buildings were quaint, adorned with sun-bleached illustrations of beach scenes and vintage artworks. The town felt bohemian, with its small galleries, numerous tarot readers and stores selling hand-crafted jewelry and screen-printed fabrics. Swings and dreamcatchers hung from trees in the front yards that blended in seamlessly with the natural landscape. Capitola wasn’t big, but it thrived on tourism in summer and everything she needed was right here; grocery stores, coffee shops, bars, restaurants and most importantly, the ocean.

Today being a weekday and still early, the beach was quiet, but surfers and paddle boarders were already out there. Madison counted seven of them sitting or standing on their boards, waiting for a wave or just chilling out. Already excited at the prospect of going for a morning swim before work, she held up her hand to greet the nearest ones, knowing they might get acquainted soon if she moved here. There were volleyball nets on the beach and the path along the boulevard seemed like a great place to go for a run.

“Are you okay, Mom?” she asked, looking over her shoulder when she heard her mother panting. With each step, her stiletto heels sunk into the sand, making her lose her balance, yet she’d refused to take them off.

“Yes honey. It’s just the sand, it’s…” Edie, her mother, finally took off her heels and decided to continue barefoot, then. “Why did you have to cross the beach? There’s a perfectly good path leading up to the homes around the back.”

“I wanted to see what it looks like from here.” Madison took her mother’s heels and hooked her arm into hers. “And I can’t resist a nice beach, you know that.”

The one-storey beach front homes that were built up against a hill with palm trees sticking out behind the rooftops, made for a picturesque backdrop. There was only one house for rent along the strip, and she’d been instantly drawn to the tiny pastel pink building with the bright pink front door when she saw it advertised online. The other places she’d viewed with her mother had been nice; more practical and certainly much bigger, but she’d only gone to see them because her mother had insisted that choice was important in order to make an informed decision. Deep down, her heart had been set on the pink house all along.

“Are you sure that’s going to be big enough?” Edie asked as they looked up at it. “It’s very pretty…” she turned to Madison and let out a chuckle. “…and it certainly matches your hair sweetie, but it looks awfully small and…”

“I don’t need much space, Mom,” Madison interrupted her. “I’m used to my dorm so this will be a palace compared to college.”

“I’m not so sure about that.” Edie squinted, shielding her eyes from the sun. The house was standing between a blue house and a yellow bar, called Western Shores. “It will be your first home though, and I want you to be comfortable,” she continued, clumsily making her way toward the footpath. “You know your father and I would be happy to help you out with something bigger, and there’s always your trust fund. You could buy a really nice apartment in Santa Cruz, or we could buy one together. You could always sell it on if you decide you don’t want to stay here or if you get a better job offer somewhere else. It will be a good investment for us too, we really don’t mind. I’m just not sure if renting is the right way to go for you.”

“I know you want me to buy. And I’m grateful to you and dad for helping me out through college, but it’s time I take care of myself now. I’ve been leaching off you guys for long enough and besides, it’s only a six-month contract to start with. It’s very rare that rentals like this come up and it will give me some time to explore the area. There’s no point going through the trouble of buying something if I’m not going to stay, it’s too much hassle.”

A feeling or nervous excitement took over as they approached the house because it felt so right that there was no way she was going to look any further. It would be a fresh start. A new town, a new job – her first job, and she’d wake up to the sound of the ocean each morning. She fingered her recently dyed pastel pink bob, imagining herself living there. “And you’re right. It does match my hair, it’s a good thing I changed the color again. Maybe it’s meant to be.”

“Are you guys here to view the house?”

“Yeah.” Madison smiled at the woman who was arranging flowers on the three tables outside the bar next to the pink house. “Are you Ally?” The woman had long dark-brown wavy hair that fell over her shoulders, and she wore a loose off-the-shoulder white top and a short denim skirt underneath her black apron. She was barefoot, which was unusual for someone who worked in hospitality, but Madison figured it was a beach bar, and so the customers were likely to be barefoot too. Turquoise beaded earrings dangled behind her dimpled cheeks as she smiled back and nodded, then wiped her hands on her apron before she pulled a set of keys out of her back pocket and introduced herself.

“That’s me. It’s nice to meet you…” She narrowed her eyes. “Madison, was it?”

“That’s right.” Madison shook her hand. “And this is my mother, Edie.”

“Nice to meet you both.” The silver bangles around Ally’s wrist jingled as she unlocked the front door to the pink house and held it open. “Please come in and take a look around.” She switched on the lights in the tiny hallway and walked two steps ahead of them into the combined living room and open kitchen area. There was a beige three-seater couch, a coffee table on a cozy Berber rug, and a big bookcase full of art-related books. Right behind the couch was a small kitchen with a refrigerator, a stove, a sink and a breakfast bar with two stools. A separate piece of wood, matching the kitchen surface, had been placed on the bar to use as a cutting board as there was not much space elsewhere. It felt homey though, with lots of plants and striking modern artworks on the walls. “As I told you on the phone, it’s very small. I’ve been renting it out to tourists but with the bar being next door, some of the tenants have been complaining about the noise and leaving bad reviews. It’s not terrible in my opinion, but it does get busy during the summer and it’s not always easy to get rid of the last customers at night. Quite frankly, I don’t have the energy to deal with the complaints anymore.” She opened the light blue and white seersucker curtains to the two ocean-facing windows, letting in the light. “As advertised, here’s your unobstructed ocean view. The house comes furnished; it’s not the fanciest stuff but I’ve tried my best to make it nice and practical, and you’ll have everything you’ll need here. If you want me to, I can remove the books and other items of course.”

“It looks lovely and I can live with noise,” Madison said. “I’ve come straight off campus so I’m practically immune to it.”

“That’s that problem solved then,” Ally said, looking relieved.

 

“Is there a yard?” Edie asked, scanning the space for a back door.

“No, but there’s a set of fold-up table and chairs in the hallway that you can put outside your front door if you like. That’s how I do it. Besides, you’ll have the beach, so who needs a yard?”

“Totally agree.” Madison followed Ally to the bedroom and noted her mother wasn’t sold. In fact, she seemed horrified by how small it was. The big box-spring bed took up most of the room, but there was a decent-sized built-in wardrobe and a small desk in front of the window, framed by the same curtains. A blue oil painting, inspired by the view, hung above the bed and an off-white crocheted dream catcher dangled next to it. “So, do you live in the same building as the bar?”

Ally laughed. “No, there’s not enough space there for me and my son. We do live next door though, to your other side in the blue house. It’s got a small tower that we’ve converted into his bedroom.”

Edie turned to her. “You own both buildings?” She was clearly surprised to hear that the woman who worked in the bar next door had managed to buy herself multiple properties on such a sought-after strip of coastland. “Is the bar yours too?”

“Yeah, all three are mine, it’s a long story.” Madison was sure she saw a hint of sadness in Ally’s eyes, but the woman turned away from them, making sure to avoid eye contact. “The bathroom is right here.” She walked back into the hallway and opened the only other door, revealing a narrow, white-tiled bathroom that was so small that the showerhead was hanging over the toilet.

Madison couldn’t help but laugh. “Okay… I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. At least I can do two things simultaneously, saves me time in the morning.”

Ally laughed too. “Yeah, it’s small all right. Theo, my son and I brush our teeth in the kitchen sink. I use one of the kitchen cupboards for toiletries and I’ve stuck a mirror on the inside. You’ve got to be creative in a place like this. Oh, and I want to be honest with you about the parking too, although you probably figured that out when you arrived. The thing is, there is no parking space around here. This place comes with a guest permit, but you’ll have to leave your pickup at the end of the beach road. It’s a ten-minute walk from here and it gets really busy in high season. You might have to park it twenty minutes away sometimes during the summer months, so I just want to forewarn you.” She shot Madison an amused look. “But the time you save in the shower will make up for that.”

Madison’s eyes met Ally’s and held them for a beat. Her dimples and the few freckles on each cheek were adorable, and the fine lines around her eyes indicated she smiled a lot. She really liked this friendly hippie chick, and she had a feeling they were going to get on. “What’s behind there?” she pointed to a silk screen in front of an alcove in the living room.

“Sorry, I almost forgot.” Ally folded the screen away. “This little nook here has a washer and a dryer and there’s a little space left in case you have a surfboard or something else big you need to stow away.”

“It’s very small,” Edie remarked, unable to let it go. “We’ve viewed three-bedroom apartments for the same price not far from here.”

“You’re right. It is small, but if you take the premium location into account, it’s actually highly competitive.” Ally shrugged. “I understand if you’re not interested, it’s totally fine. I’ve got another twenty-six people lined up to take a look at it, but your daughter sounded so nice on the phone that I wanted to give her the first choice.”

“Thank you for that,” Madison said, shooting her mother a quick warning look. “I’ll take it.” She had a feeling Ally was bluffing about the twenty-six people, but even if she was, this place felt good and she couldn’t wait to move in.

“Really?” Ally arched a brow and grinned. “Are you sure?”

“Am I sure? You’re not exactly selling it,” Madison joked. “Did anyone ever teach you about upselling? I love it.”

“No, I’m afraid not.” Ally chuckled. “But I love it here too. I’m just highly aware of the impracticalities, that’s all. And there’s the price, of course. I know it’s not cheap but if you want it, it’s yours. I’ve got the contract ready for you to sign next door.”

“Let’s do it, then.” Madison ignored her mother, who was trying to make eye contact, determined to talk her out of it.

“Don’t you want to think about it, Madison?”

“No, Mom. This feels right, I want to live here.” Madison’s tone indicated there was no discussion to be had. This would be her new home. She’d never touched her trust fund until now, but she needed some of it to pay for the three months’ rent upfront. After that, she’d have a steady income from her job.

“Great, follow me.” Ally led them back outside and pulled out three chairs at one of the tables outside her bar. She disappeared for a moment after enquiring what they wanted to drink, then came back with a tray of coffees and a pile of paperwork clenched under her arm. “Here’s a cappuccino for you, Edie,” she said as she put the cup down on the yellow painted recycled wooden table. “And a soy latte for you, Madison.” She paused as she put a second cup in front of Madison. “And our new house special for you to try too. It’s a beetroot soy latte. I figured it suited you as both your hair and your house are pink now.”

“Damn.” Madison looked down at the bright pink hot drink with white foam shaped into a perfect wave. “This is art, Ally.”

“Wait until you taste it.” Ally put down an espresso for herself and placed the tray under her chair before handing Madison the contract.

“It’s so good.” Madison licked the foam off her upper lip after taking a sip. “It’s sweet, but a natural kind of sweet… and it’s spicy, which is unexpected.” She gave it to her mother to try.

“Hmm… I like it too,” Edie agreed. She seemed a little more relaxed than five minutes ago, Madison thought. Or maybe she’d just resigned herself to the idea, knowing there was nothing she could do to change her decision. Madison would do whatever the hell she wanted to do. It had always been that way.

“Yeah, it’s like chai but with a little cayenne pepper added in,” Ally said. “People who don’t tolerate caffeine love it because the spice still wakes them up in the morning.” She gave Madison a smug look. “My own invention.”

“Clever lady, you are.” Madison returned her smirk while she searched for her driver’s license in her purse. “Here’s my ID.”

Ally snapped a picture on her phone. “Twenty-three,” she said after calculating Madison’s age. “Do you mind if I ask why you’re moving here?”

“A job.” Madison flicked through the pages of the standard rental contract. She’d looked them up online before she came here, knowing her mother wouldn’t be of much help. Her father took care of things like that in their household, and her mother had always been comfortable taking a backseat to her husband’s career as a political strategist, sitting around looking pretty, and occasionally decorating houses they purchased to rent out. Not that there was anything wrong with that. She was an amazing mother and she did a lot of great charity work too. Edie was fifty-two now, but because it was hard to guess her age due to the many procedures that she’d undergone over the past twenty years, people often asked them if they were sisters. “My first job, actually, I got my Masters in Marine Biology last year. I’m going to be a research technician at the Marine Mammal Research Center in Santa Cruz. They’re starting a tagging-and-tracking program of long-beaked common dolphins next week so my first three months will be fieldwork mostly.”

“I see.” Ally seemed a little taken aback by that. She stared at Madison for a moment, then cleared her throat. “I know that place very well,” she said. “My husband…” She hesitated. “He was the director.”

“Really? What’s his name?”

“Marcos Santos.” Ally lowered her voice as she said his name, and Madison noticed that look in her eyes again. “I meant to say my late husband. He died nine years ago when Theo, our son, was two.” She took a deep breath and gave them a smile. “I apologize, this is all a bit heavy considering this is our first meeting and I didn’t mean to bring it up but since you mentioned the lab… It was a long time ago though, and Theo and I are okay now.”

“I’m so sorry, honey,” Edie said, reaching out for Ally’s hand. Madison hoped her mother wouldn’t start crying and make matters worse. She tended to get very emotional whenever there were children involved in tragedies.

“I’m sorry too.” Madison studied Ally, unable to look away despite the serious conversation because she was simply stunning. Her skin was sun-kissed and her long, brown hair, that she was constantly fussing with, shimmered in the sun. She was petite and cute, with a wide, contagious smile that made Madison smile too, each time she looked at her. She wondered about her age, but it was hard to tell. Mid-thirties, maybe?

“Thank you, but really, we’re okay,” Ally said. “Marcos gave me Theo and I feel really blessed with him. He’s sweet and extremely clever, he’s doing great in school and all in all, he’s just a good kid.”

“Children are the biggest blessing God has given us,” Edie said in a dramatic voice, rubbing a hand over Madison’s arm. “You know, Madison used to babysit when she was younger. She’s really good with kids if you ever need someone to look after your son.”

Madison barely suppressed an eye-roll at her mother, who was clearly sold on Ally now and all on-board with her moving into the pint-sized house. Jesus, it doesn’t take much.

Ally laughed it off. “I don’t doubt your daughter is amazing with kids, Edie, but I’m sure she’s got better things to do and besides, I don’t tend to get that personal with my tenants.” She knocked back her espresso. “But the tenancy package does include a free coffee each morning so I’m sure we’ll get to know each other better.” She pointed to the section in the contract Madison was reading.

“Free coffee?” Madison looked up at her and grinned. “Where do I sign?”