Whoever said there was beauty in truth had clearly never witnessed their estranged husband going down on his mistress in a crowded room while “Hungry Like the Wolf” blasted from the building’s sound system.
I imagined Duran Duran’s band members would have shared in my disgust. Then again, given the nature of the lyrics, it might have been the exact backdrop they’d envisioned all along.
A nearby toilet flushed, and a woman with a silver bob emerged from the bathroom stall moments later, dressed to kill in an ivory satin suit. She wore nothing beneath the two-button blazer, and I tried guessing her age as she washed her hands and touched up her deep red lipstick.
She met my stare in the mirror before matter-of-factly stating, “You don’t belong here.”
I couldn’t help it. I threw my head back and laughed at the observation, my harsh cackle echoing off the brick walls and metal lockers. “Thank you, Captain Obvious! Had I run into you ten minutes earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble!”
“Oh peuchère,” the woman responded with a dismissive wave of her hand. Her French accent had a melodic singsong to it. One that brought to mind memories of butter-hued limestone and Saturday mornings inside Sarlat’s Sainte Marie church, turned covered market, sampling tangy Laguiole and velvety 'Cabécou’.
“You misunderstand. I simply mean you do not belong in the powder room. You should be out there—”
“Doing what exactly, admiring the Gothic rib vaults and stained glass?” I interjected, nodding toward a nearby arched window depicting a golden-haired Mary clutching her sacred heart. Her downcast blue eyes seemed to search for the nearest exit.
One of the few things the Blessed Virgin and I had ever had in common.
I crossed my arms over my chest and turned back to the woman. “Or maybe I should question the psychopath who looked at a deconsecrated nineteenth century church and thought, ‘Yep. This is the perfect place for my sex club.’ For fuck’s sake, is nothing sacred anymore?”
Her lips pursed briefly before relaxing into a neutral line again. “Strong words from a woman who subjected herself to a rigorous background check and STD testing, all so she could watch her soon-to-be ex-husband fuck his mistress. Odd, really, considering masochism wasn’t listed as one of your kinks.”
“Oh my god. You’re—you’re—” The color drained from my face, and I braced myself against the marble vanity lining the sinks, choking on the words.
“The psychopath who thought to convert an old church into a sex club?” she supplied helpfully, approaching me much like a cat would a cornered mouse. “Oui. Although, I will say, most people refer to me as Brigitte… or, on occasion, Mistress. And you are—”
“Leaving,” I said, resisting the urge to clutch my skirt as I hurried toward the door. The phone strapped to my thigh might as well have been a ticking bomb. Sainte’s rules of conduct had been explicitly clear—no recording devices of any kind within the club. On top of a lifetime ban, violations came with a free pair of handcuffs. Not the fuzzy kind they had lying around in spades, either. These were of the cold metal variety and included a ride in the backseat of a squad car.
Brigitte moved in front of me with an amused grin, ticking my stats off on her fingers. “Giovanna Vitale, thirty-six. Former model and heiress to the Vitale fortune. EVP and CEO-Designate at Vitale, Inc., as well as Creative Director overSelvaggia Intimates, the brand that launched the empire. Separated from your husband of four years, Hunter Logan, for almost eight months, yet you didn’t file divorce paperwork until recently. Irreconcilable differences, I believe it was.”
“What is it you want?” I asked with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The trolls at Hollywood Underground generally stuck to A and B-lister celebrity drama, but I didn’t doubt the gossip rag would pay a mint for the juicy details of my visit to a sex club.
Over the years, I’d witnessed more than one fall from grace over little more than unsubstantiated rumors and watched helplessly as a former friend and model lost her contract in a PR nightmare involving one very married actor, a yacht, and a sharp-eyed paparazzo with a telephoto lens.
Living in Colorado, I’d managed to keep a relatively low-profile. That and the fact that every free second of my day was spent running my company. It was the main reason I’d gone to such great lengths to conceal my divorce from the public.
Not great enough, apparently.
“I want to know what you hoped to gain by paying the five-thousand-dollar membership fee and coming here tonight,” she said, watching me carefully. “You knew he was unfaithful, so why bother catching him in the act? Needed to twist the knife a bit deeper? If it’s pain that you’re after, we have plenty of options I think you’ll find more enjoyable.”
What had I hoped to gain?
Nothing I planned on admitting without an attorney present.
I shrugged. “Quite honestly? I don’t know.”
Her Botoxed face remained expressionless, making it impossible to tell what she was thinking.
Brigitte walked a slow circle around me before coming to a sudden stop at my back, lowering her hand to hover just above my skin. “May I touch you?”
Instead of dropping to my knees and confessing my sins, I met her steely gaze in the ornate Cheval glass near the door and nodded. “Sure.”
No matter the pressure, a Vitale never cracked.
A thread of tension coiled around my spine like a snake poised to strike as her slender hands came to rest over my shoulder blades. “I know exactly why you’re here, Giovanna.”
My pulse skyrocketed, and I held my breath, playing out the various outcomes in my head. All of which ended with me in handcuffs.
“What do you see when you look in the mirror, ma chérie?” she asked, taking me by surprise.
A woman who was about to have a criminal record?
Another whose fingers were within strangling range?
I sighed. “This is ridiculous.”
Brigitte clicked her tongue against her teeth and shook her head. “No more ridiculous than turning up to a place reserved for those seeking enlightenment and escape from the mundane when you claim to not want either. You knew what Sainte was as soon as you saw the building. If you truly found it offensive, you could have turned back long before stepping foot inside. Yet, you didn’t. I find that very telling.”
Goosebumps spread across my skin as she swept my caramel-colored waves of hair off my shoulder before skimming a manicured fingernail over the silver chain around my neck and down the plunging neckline of my black bodysuit. “Leavers lace, very nice. The construction is both delicate and seductive, leaving no doubt as to the designer. Was it an impulsive decision, or did you take your time deciding on the perfect piece for tonight?”
I swallowed past the sudden dryness in my mouth and croaked, “I simply followed the dress code.”
The admission only made her smile again. “Ah, there is no doubt you did. But you wanted to feel something, too, I think. Sensual. Desired. Wanted. How long has it been since someone made you feel alive, Giovanna?”
While she spoke, she casually teased the delicate scalloped edging over the swell of my breasts with her fingertips, making my skin heat. I leaned into the touch, praying she wouldn’t stop.
Damn the implications.
I cleared my throat. “A… while.”
Brigitte nodded. “I suspected as much. The man you married didn’t know the first thing about keeping a woman like you satisfied, did he?”
A woman like me.
Like I was a sideshow attraction or museum oddity.
“That’s none of your business,” I bit out, lowering my head to conceal the flood of heat rising into my cheeks.
“Of course not,” she murmured, slipping a finger under my chin, and guiding my eyes back to hers. There wasn’t an ounce of judgment in her expression. A stark contrast to the shame radiating from my pores.
“But clearly you’ve been starved of affection for some time,” she continued. “You tell yourself the hunger pangs aren’t so terrible and that you don’t need connection with another human to survive. Yet your body tells the truth.”
The hand resting beneath my chin slid over the front of my throat in a caress. “Coming alive from the merest stroke. Why lie in a place made for truths?”
My lips parted to respond, but she shook her head, silencing me. “No. No more lies. There’s something here that called to you. You feel it, don’t you—this pull to make your fantasies a reality? Lingerie designer. Billionaire. Heiress. Divorcee. The world lives by labels, but within these walls, you have the power to be anything you choose to be. Look again, Giovanna, and tell me what you see.”
“A fool,” I whispered, my reflection blurring before me. Tonight, I’d come face to face with the truth.
Hunter didn’t have an aversion to public displays of affection.
He’d even chosen a woman who was my opposite in every way—short, thin, blonde—and it was impossible to note the differences between us and not find myself lacking.
“Non, madame, try again,” Brigitte said sharply, her gray-blue eyes sparking with anger. “A fool would not show her face here. A fool would not have the courage to leave her marriage. Many years ago, I was invited to attend Semaine de la mode de Paris, where I had the privilege of watching you walk for Vitale Couture. I’ll never forget the sight of you in a strapless emerald ball gown, just sixteen years-old and commanding the room in a way that was wholly unique to you. That girl is still in there. Who would she want to be tonight?”
I searched my reflection for a hint of the woman who’d known exactly who she was and what she wanted out of life. Before I let Hunter turn me into something I no longer recognized—something other than human.
Was I nothing more than a walking vendetta or lingerie-clad vigilante with an axe to grind?
Like a film noir femme fatale from Hollywood’s golden age, the lady uses her beauty to lure men to their death.
My crimson lips curved into a smirk as I recalled the words penned on a bar napkin by a drunken poetry major. I’d worn those words like a badge of honor.
A seductress had all the power and none of the hurt.
“Mia,” I said firmly.
Not the frigid bitch or Andreas Vitale, Jr.’s ball-buster of a daughter.
Tonight, I belonged to myself.
“Magnifique,” she purred, steering me toward the door. “Now come, there’s someone I want you to meet.”
“What made you choose this building, as opposed to one downtown?” I asked, hoping to distract Brigitte as we emerged from another narrow and winding hallway filled with hairpin turns and abrupt dead-ends. This one had been geared toward ropes and bondage, something that hadn’t piqued my desire as much as I’d imagined it would.
I couldn’t seem to focus on anything other than the persistent, anxious churning in my gut. The thought of meeting someone—in a sex club, of all places—left me vacillating between morbid curiosity and severe acid reflux.
Brigitte cocked her head to the side as if she found my question perplexing. “Your grandfather could have set up shop in any pre-existing building. Instead, he constructed Vitale Tower, which remains the tallest building in Denver to this day. Why? Because of what it symbolizes. Power. Wealth. Two things your family has in abundance, no?”
“And because Sainte means holy, you chose an abandoned church?”
“What takes place inside a church, Mia?” she asked as we approached a bank of elevators, having dropped Giovanna as soon as soon as I’d settled on the alias. “Worship, praise, the confession of one’s darkest thoughts and desires, and ultimately, the granting of absolution.”
My frown deepened. “It almost sounds like you’re comparing sex to a religious experience.”
Her cryptic response left me with more questions, but the elevator doors in front of us slid open before I could voice them.
A man stepped off, his mouth stretching into a wide grin as soon as he saw Brigitte. “Oh, you’ve really outdone yourself this time!” he bellowed, leaning in to kiss both of her cheeks before turning to me. “Karl.”
I flicked a glance at his extended hand and stumbled back a step, eyeing the open elevator at his back.
He was at least thirty years my senior, several inches shorter, and sweating like a pregnant nun.
“Karl, this is Mia,” Brigitte said when the silence lingered. “And you’ll have to excuse us, but we are in the middle of a tour. Enjoy the rest of your evening, darling.”
I adopted a strained smile and waited until he entered the bondage hallway before letting out a loud sigh of relief.
“Sweet man, but he is like a—” She waved her hand, as if trying to come up with a socially acceptable description. “—kid in a candy store. It’s too much energy, which can be off-putting for newer members.”
“For a minute there, I thought he was the man you wanted me to meet,” I admitted with a weak laugh.
Brigitte cackled. “Oh, mon Dieu! I am a proponent for exploring the taboo, but that pairing is beyond even my limits. Unless you’re into degradation role play, I suggest we move on.”
“Wait a second, he gets off on degrading women—that’s his kink?” I sputtered, making no attempt to hide my disgust. I’d dealt with men like him my entire life. Men who viewed women in positions of power as a threat to their delicate masculinity. I couldn’t fathom why any woman would willingly allow themselves to be put down by any man, much less some balding prick with overt mommy issues.
“Reverse it,” Brigitte said, drawing a circle in the air with her index finger as we stepped onto the open elevator. Seeing my blank expression, she elaborated. “He finds sexual gratification in being degraded by a woman. Humiliation. Name calling. It can be quite liberating, like a form of desensitization. Does that make sense?”
I gave a slight head shake. “Not really. It sounds insulting.”
“May I show you?” she asked, moving until we were standing toe to toe.
My mouth fell open, and I bobbed my head up and down in a jerky nod.
“Mia, at Sainte, consent must be verbally given,” she reminded me with a patient smile.
“Y-yes,” I finally managed, my voice warbling.
She cupped my jaw in her palm and tipped my face until our mouths were mere inches apart, lightly stroking my cheekbone with her thumb. “That’s a good girl.”
The words sent a small flutter throughout my lower belly. One that left me questioning my decision to leave the ‘You and One Female’ box unchecked on my list of preferred kinks.
All too soon, she lowered her hand and moved to stand on the opposite side of the car. “How do you feel?”
I sagged against the railing with a shaky exhale, feeling relaxed and strangely disappointed at the same time. “I—I’m not sure I follow.”
“How did it make you feel when I called you a good girl?”
“Turned on?” I blurted, before shaking my head. “Are you saying I should consider being with a woman as a way of coping with the divorce?”
It wasn’t the worst idea.
“How would you react to another adult calling you that in, say, a work setting?”
“They’d need prompt medical attention,” I said without hesitation.
She smiled. “Exactly. But once you distanced yourself from the stigma surrounding those two words, you found them to be a turn-on, did you not?”
“Wait,” I argued. “How do we know this isn’t just a subconscious desire to be with a woman?”
“I don’t think it’s a sexual desire as much as a longing for what a woman represents. Career. Family. Life. You effortlessly juggle your obligations and ensure everything is taken care of because it’s what’s expected of you. Deep down, you want someone to nurture you with the same care and attention you yourself give freely every single day. And naturally, you think another woman will be the one to fill the gaps when what you’re really searching for is a partner. Now then, where to next? I’ve shown you bondage. There’s still exhibitionism, submission, and role play,” she said as we arrived on the next floor, reciting my approved kinks from memory.
I was itching to circle back to her assessment and poke holes in the idea that I was looking for anything other than freedom when the sounds of raised voices reached the car.
“What on earth?” Brigitte’s mouth tightened into a thin line. She thrust her arm out as soon as the doors opened, but it was impossible to determine where the commotion was coming from in the growing crowd.
“Excuse me for just a moment,” she muttered, gesturing to a discreet wire headset looped over one ear. “I’m going to find out what the problem—”
A man broke away from the throng and stormed onto the elevator, treading over the toes of my stilettos in his haste.
“Seriously?” I growled at the same time a familiar voice rose above the rest.
“I don’t give a fuck what the rules state! I’m telling you; someone has a phone and was taking photos of me and my girlfriend!”
I latched onto the man’s lapels, hauling him in front of me like a human shield. Without missing a beat, he snaked one arm around my waist to hold me upright while punching a button on the steel panel with the other.
Hunter’s bald head came into view as the doors slid closed, but his demands for justice continued ringing in my ears even as we began making our ascent.
Brigitte cleared her throat. “I thought I asked you to wait upstairs.”
“You were gone for a while, and I got bored,” he said with a responding grin that made the fine lines along the outer edges of his eyes more pronounced.
Realizing I was still holding the man’s suit in a death grip, I released him with a shaky exhale and backed away. The sudden goosebumps along my arms were a result of the situation unfolding below with Hunter and not a reaction to hearing the stranger’s deep voice. If I told myself enough, maybe I’d believe it.
“Sorry about your toes. It’s a complete madhouse down there,” he said, raking a hand through his jet-black hair. The fluorescent lights above illuminated several strands of silver woven throughout. There were even a few nestled in his short beard, but it suited him.
Instead of the acknowledging the apology like a normal human, I followed his hand as he lowered it to the railing at his back, ignoring the odd flutter in my chest at the sight of his bare ring finger. As if all that stood between us was a simple gold band.
He inclined his head toward me, his gorgeous green eyes narrowing in concern. “Are you okay?”
My tongue connected with the back of my teeth, but the words wouldn’t come. I ended up settling for a nod, but I wasn’t okay.
Nowhere close to it.
“Good.” He turned back to Brigitte, leaving me inexplicably disappointed for the second time that night.
I took in the black titanium Breitling strapped to his wrist before letting my eyes carve a path up the curve of his biceps to the peak lapels of his steel blue suit. I didn’t even need to see the label to know it was custom.
He rubbed his lower lip with the pad of his thumb and nodded along to something Brigitte was saying, but his eyes never strayed from mine.
“I just realized you two haven’t been properly introduced!” she exclaimed as we stepped off the elevator. “Where are my manners? This is—”
“Luke,” he interjected, cutting the space between us to offer me his hand.
I didn’t even hesitate before taking it in mine. “Mia.”
Maybe I was a masochist because the warmth of his skin against mine was a cruel reminder of how long it had been since I’d last touched someone.
Unfortunately, ring or not, he was still off-limits.
“Mia,” he echoed with a grin, leaving me wishing I’d given him my real name. If only to hear it spoken in that low, husky tone of his.
Brigitte raised an eyebrow before disappearing through a set of frosted French doors. I broke away, disgusted by my forwardness.
The hallway was identical to the countless others we’d explored, down to the quatrefoil two-way mirrors and yoke-mounted copper lanterns beside each door. Gas-lit flames flickered against the tempered glass, the ominous shadows dancing along the walls like ghosts.
Brigitte fished a keycard from the pocket of her blazer while carrying on a terse conversation through her headset. Her low voice and stiff posture left no doubt what it pertained to.
Or rather, whom.
“I’m going to go,” I whispered, jerking my thumb toward the elevators. “I’ve got a few things I need to wrap up back at the office—”
She held up a finger, gesturing for me to wait. “Assure the member that no one will be leaving until we get this mess sorted. I’ll be down shortly.”
“No one?” I croaked, unable to mask the rising panic in my voice.
“Protocol, I’m afraid,” she said, not sounding the least bit apologetic. Given the smile on her face, I’d say she lived for this kind of drama. “Now, what was it you wanted to tell me?”
“Wait, you can’t possibly mean everyone—”
“What’s the problem?” Luke asked, so close I could feel the heat of his body against my back and smell the spice in his cologne.
“Seems someone smuggled a phone onto the premises and used it to capture images of a member,” she replied, ushering us into the room. “Which means Sainte is in lockdown until we’re able to determine who’s behind the breach.”
“Ma che diavalo?” he growled, driving yet another stake through my heart. “You’d have better luck finding a needle in a haystack!”
Of course, the first man I’d felt an inkling of attraction to since Hunter was a fellow Italian. I imagined he also attended Mass every Sunday and never missed a big family dinner.
“Nonsense.” Brigitte waved off his concern and keyed something in on a nearby wall panel. “I have ways of finding out everything. In the meantime, make yourselves at home. I’ll have drinks brought up—”
“I can’t stay here with him!” I protested as the soft synth-pop strains of Billy Idol’s, “Eyes Without a Face,” drifted through the speakers. “Not because you can’t trust me—or him. It just sounds like you’re going to be tied up with this situation for a while, and it’s getting late—”
“Mia, you are aware you’re under no obligation to have sex, correct?”
“W-what? Of course not! I would never!” I choked on the remainder of my argument, suddenly imagining what it would feel like to have Luke’s hands on my hips—to hear him growl my name while roughly taking me over the back of the couch.
I clenched my thighs together and forced myself to think of Hunter banging his mistress like a steel drum, but the ache—and fantasy—persisted.
“Then I suggest getting comfortable. This might take a while.” Brigitte gestured toward our seating options, a faux leather sectional and four-poster bed, both of which had likely seen more than their fair share of bodily fluids.
Luke gravitated toward the door at the exact moment I did, both of us trying to maintain our distance from the other. Like awkward teenagers at a middle school dance.
I swiped my damp palms over my skirt. “I don’t know the first thing about the whole Domme/sub… dynamic, but you can’t seriously be considering leaving your partner in a room with another woman.”
What? Brigitte mouthed with a shake of her head.
Luke covered his mouth and turned away in a poor attempt to stifle his laughter.
“Unless it’s a test? Considering he doesn’t seem submissive in the slightest, it makes sense,” I rambled on, my every stray thought slipping past my lips. “Either way, I don’t really think I would make the best test subject, all things considered…” My voice trailed off as I took in a nearby crystal bowl filled to the brim with condoms.
To my surprise, she began laughing. Not the polite giggles I would have expected from a woman such as herself, either, but the side-clutching, eyes streaming sort of laughter better suited to a comedy club.
“What—what’s so funny about that?” Luke asked with a mock frown. “You’d be lucky to have me, and you know it.”
His statement triggered another loud peal of laughter before she composed herself enough to speak.
“Oh, I haven’t had a laugh like that in quite some time,” she said, dabbing at the tears in her eyes. “While I am flattered and will absolutely share this story with everyone I know, Luke is the man I wanted you to meet, Mia.”
“Me?” Her pronouncement did nothing for the anxiety coursing through my body. I was more aware than ever of the silk ties on the bedposts and what appeared to be a sex dungeon starter pack hanging from a pegboard on the wall. It wasn’t an ideal location for a blind date… or any date.
“Yes, you. Have fun,” she trilled on her way out. The door closed behind her with a grim click.
I turned to Luke. “You and Brigitte—”
“Aren’t together. She and my mother—the two of them are—” He shook his head with a soft chuckle. “Christ, I can’t speak. Let’s try this again. Brigitte and my mother are close friends, but she and I are not involved.”
My eyebrows shot up toward my hairline. “So, your mother’s friend invited you to her sex club?”
“Well, when you put it like that, it sounds weird as hell,” he admitted with a grimace. “But no—not exactly. This isn’t really my scene.”
Despite what he may have thought, it hadn’t been my dream to end up trapped in a sex club, either. But “Ai mali estremi, estremi rimedi,” as Nonna Sofia often said. The Italian equivalent of ‘desperate times call for drastic measures.’
“Then why’d you come?” I asked.
He tipped his head to the side, studying me. “Why are we in a private suite and not downstairs getting a cuff and rub with the other commoners?”
“Do you always answer a question with another question?” The built-in waist shaping panels on my bodysuit compressed my lower ribs, making my response sound much harsher than I’d intended.
Luke lifted his palms in surrender. “Hey, I’m just making sure we get our stories straight before the cops barge in.”
“What story? There’s no story. I checked my phone at the door and was with Brigitte in the bathroom,” I rushed to say, feeling the wave of heat migrating up my throat. “But you…”
“I was in the elevator with you.” He leaned in with a smirk. “You’re looking a bit flushed for someone whose alibi is supposedly airtight, Mia.”
The bristles of his beard brushed against my earlobe, leaving me struggling to think of anything other than turning my face a couple of inches to the left.
I shook my head and pulled away with a shaky exhale. “I have nothing to hide.”
“So, what’s keeping you here, apart from the charming company?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
“Charming? Please!” I pulled my lower lip between my teeth, trying to keep a straight face. “I’m going to have bruises from where you trampled my toes back in the elevator.”
Luke calmly unbuttoned his suit jacket and sank down onto the arm of the sectional before crooking a finger at me. “Come here. I’ll make it up to you by rubbing them while we wait.”
I shook my head regretfully. “I can’t. It’s getting late.”
He nodded, his expression giving nothing away. “Worth a shot. So, what’s your plan for getting out of here—just going to tell Denver’s finest to go fuck themselves when they insist on searching you?”
“Maybe. I can be very convincing.”
“Duly noted. Although, I can’t say I’d be opposed to seeing you stripped bare, bellissima,” he murmured, letting his eyes slowly travel the length of my body.
I gave a small growl of frustration at the genuine hunger reflected in his stare. “Thanks for making my first and only visit to a sex club more… exciting, I guess?”
“It was a less than auspicious start. Maybe we’ll meet again someday under better circumstances,” Luke said, and I wondered if I was imagining the hint of regret in his voice.
“Maybe so.” I reached for the doorknob; struck with the painful realization that I would likely never see him again after tonight. “Word of advice? If you want to avoid a cavity search, I’d start by coming up with a more convincing cover story of where you were before the elevator.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” he called out.
I turned, freezing mid-movement, when I saw what he held in his hand.
“Word of advice? The next time you smuggle a phone into a sex club, you should consider a more secure hiding spot. You dropped this back in the hallway.”