When Jake had first moved into his London flat, he’d been leery about living above a bar, thinking that it would become a problem due to noise or obnoxious behavior. As it turned out, he rarely noticed the bar noise and, for a place that was a notorious cruising joint, there was very little in the way of trouble. Jake chalked it up to their intimidating leather-bear bouncers and the manager’s low tolerance for drama-prone twinks.
At the moment, he was carefully navigating a narrow wooden staircase on behalf of said manager. The stairs led up from the bar cellar and Jake was balancing three cases of beer in his arms, shadowed by Manny, who ran the place.
“Those are the last. Thanks, mate, I don’t know what I would have done without your help,” Manny said.
Of the two other barmen who were supposed to be helping with the delivery, one had called in sick and the other had disappeared a couple of days ago and no one had seen him since. Normally it would have just meant some extra work for Manny, but a week ago he had slipped and taken a tumble on the very stairs Jake had just navigated and his right arm was in a cast and a sling. Jake had been on his way to the grocery store when he’d seen him struggling and offered to help.
“No problem,” Jake told him, grunting as he set the cases down. “Saves me a trip to the gym later.”
“Ha! Well, if you want to save yourself the membership fees I’ll let you haul the cases up twice a week.”
Jake chuckled. “Maybe, until you get your cast off, anyway.”
“You should come back tonight. We’re doing a Best Chest Contest. Place should be packed with fit blokes flexing.” He was looking Jake up and down in a way that left no doubt he was getting an early start on watching fit blokes flexing. “You should enter.”
Jake grinned and shook his head. “No, thanks.”
“Well, come in for a pint anyway, it’s the least I can do.”
“I might,” Jake hedged. “I don’t know if Mari’s got plans for us tonight.”
“So bring him. I guarantee you’ll both have fun.”
“I’ll call and ask if he wants to,” Jake said, to be polite.
* * * *
At least Jake thought he was only being polite. When Mari eagerly agreed to a night out, even if it was only downstairs, Jake had to wonder if maybe he’d been stifling Mari’s social life. Work kept them both fairly busy and while they liked to jog together in the mornings, the majority of their time together wasn’t usually spent in public places.
“Hello, gorgeous,” Mari said effusively, dipping his head to drop a kiss onto Jake’s lips when he showed up that evening. “You look good enough to eat.”
Funny Mari should say that when it was Jake’s mouth that was watering just looking at him. While Jake couldn’t really remember a time when Mari wasn’t smartly dressed, he’d certainly put some extra effort in tonight. His nearly white blond locks were artfully messy and he wore a silvery, near-translucent tank top under a fitted, tan leather jacket and teal jeans that Jake already wanted to peel him out of. He returned the kiss and slipped an arm around him, telling himself it was just a friendly arm, not a possessive one.
“Good enough to eat, huh? Well if I’m the meat and potatoes, you are definitely the dessert. How did you even get those pants on?” Jake teased.
Mari glanced down as if he’d not even realized what he was wearing.
“Spray job. They’ll be harder to get off,” he said, as if he’d read Jake’s mind. Mari was already bouncing on his toes to the beat of the music spilling out from the open door of the bar. They were play a remix of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Mari chirped, “Old school! Love it! I haven’t danced in ages. I think I forgot how.”
“Should I remind you?” Jake asked as they walked in. He snagged Mari around the hips and moved in closer with a sexy sway and shimmy.
“Mmmh, I haven’t dated a man who wanted to dance with me…ever.” Mari chuckled but moved his hips in time with the swing of Jake’s, nudging up against him. He leaned in close, speaking directly into Jake’s ear to be heard. “There is an awful lot of leather going on in here, don’t you think? I feel underdressed. Or overdressed…not sure.”
“Even if I dipped you in liquid latex and rolled you in metal spikes, you would stand out. Blending in isn’t your thing, Ilmari. You’re too hot for that.” Jake turned him in a swirl between the clusters of people standing around the bar.
“Guy Upstairs! We was wondering when you’d get brave enough to come on in,” one of the men at the bar whooped, eyeing Jake up meaningfully before his attention shifted to Mari. “Hello, Blondie. Is he treating you right then, this quiet guy?”
“He’s not so quiet when you get to know him.” Mari laughed. “And yes, he’s a gentleman.”
“Don’t get many of them in here,” observed a shaven-headed chap.
“Jake! There you are. Glad you could make it. What can I get for you two? You want a beer, or are you tired of lugging them around?” Manny asked, coming up to their spot at the bar.
“A beer sounds great, Tanglo, if you got it.” Jake looked at Mari. “What would you like?”
His partner scanned the pumps along the bar then the chill cabinets behind it. “Bottle of Estrella, thanks,” he decided, his eyes traveling over Manny, splint and all. “What did you do to yourself?”
“Fell down the cellar steps,” Manny said gruffly, shifting under that intense stare.
“You’re s’posed to tell the hotties you did it fighting a bear.” The shaven-headed customer laughed.
“He’d be spoilt for choice in here, I guess,” Mari said, and Jake chuckled at the glint of mischief in his eyes.
The other man winked at him. “Too true. All the chickens are too scared to come in tonight.”
“Is that right?” Mari asked, slipping onto a bar stool. “Why’s that then? Can’t be the terrible music.”
Two bushy eyebrows crept up their companion’s forehead and he looked over at Manny, who was suddenly busy with other customers.
“Did he not tell you tonight’s the club’s BDSM night then?” He chortled. “Guess that’s one way to get newbies in here.”
For a moment, Mari’s perfectly composed face was totally unreadable. He touched the neck of the bottle to his lips and blew into it gently. His sky-blue eyes flickered to the awkward form of Manny behind the bar then back to Jake’s face, failing to hide his surprise.
“I take it they don’t just order a pizza and talk about complicated knots?” Mari said, with the barest twitch of his lips.
The bald fellow smirked. “You can sign up to hitch yourself to the switching post later tonight if you want,” he offered, his tone teasing.
“Well, that would be awkward.” Mari fixed him with that stare, the one Jake knew had already melted the resolve of bigger guys than their barfly. “I might need some help with that. Complicated knots and everything, you know.”
He winked and the hairless guy reddened a shade. The guy was clearly considering that proposal and Jake was on the verge of pointing out that Mari was teasing.
“Maybe you coming in tonight weren’t such an accident after all, eh?” The guy laughed at last, breaking the tension. “New faces are always a big draw. You boys are new to the scene, aren’t you?”
Mari shrugged one shoulder, pursing his lips as if he was considering the question.
“Maybe some of us are,” he said at last.
Mari kept looking at him, stealing tiny glances from the corner of his eye. Jake imagined the wheels in that beautiful complex head of his spinning at light speed. He sipped his beer and hid his grin, keeping his expression unreadable. Jake didn’t consciously try for aloof and mysterious, but it got Mari so wound up sometimes that he couldn’t help doing it on purpose, once in a while. Of course, the fact that Mari usually wanted to get into his head in the more physical sense only reinforced the behavior.
Jake leaned close to his ear, letting his lips brush over the shell. “Want to dance?”
Mari took a good swig from the beer bottle in his hand then slid down from the stool, still holding his drink.
“Well…come on,” he said, with a devilish grin. “What are you waiting for?”
They moved to the nearest clear area. Jake slipped his arms around him and pressed up close, giving him a kiss before he let him have his space again. He could not help remembering how Alex had been so surprised that not only did he like to dance, but he wasn’t half bad at it. His ex’s unspoken implication—that he was just too straight-laced and uptight to enjoy grinding on a dance floor in a crowd of sexually charged men—had not been lost on either of them.
Jake hadn’t realized how much he’d missed dancing, either. He had always been a physical guy and getting lost in the modern-day version of tribal dance was without a doubt something he could get into. Of course, watching Mari move, like he was made out of silk and slinkies, was an added bonus. He wondered what exactly was going on in that clever head. Jake had not missed Mari’s interest in the conversation at the bar, nor the way he’d tried to be so nonchalant about it. He still wasn’t sure if that was all it came down to—just an interest—or if Mari really was turned on by the idea of playing whipping boy.
Whatever the attraction, Mari seemed in his element, fit enough to out-dance just about any man in here. There was a fierce joy in him as he writhed and slammed his way around the compact dance floor, drawing in fellow participants and bemused onlookers alike, most of whom seemed more surprised than Jake at his wholehearted enthusiasm.
Jake was having a good time and had just started to work up a sweat when Mari touched soft lips to his ear, shouting to be heard over the music.
“Wonder what’s downstairs then?” He nodded toward the back of the dance floor where a flight of steps led into the basement, and from which a red-gold light glowed like it was the entrance to Hades.
“Are you asking that because you don’t know, or because you want to let your inner exhibitionist run free tonight?” Jake asked, equal parts amused and aroused by the idea.
“I have an inner exhibitionist?” Mari looked at himself as if he expected a mini-Mari to pop out of his belly like the Alien. “All my days! That would be something. Do you think I make a habit of hanging out in fetish bars, Jake Chivis?”
“You tell me,” Jake teased. “Do you want me to sign you up for a flogging?”
Mari just chuckled and caught his hand, bringing it up to his lips to brush a kiss across his knuckles. He grinned as he let Mari tow him along in his wake, snaking through the thrashing bodies on the dance floor, down the concrete steps into the lower reaches of the bar. There was another chamber opposite the store room where Jake had earlier been heaving crates. The door to this room stood open, decked with a cartoon poster depicting a Charles Atlas type, in a golden posing pouch, that advertised the club’s impending Best Chest Contest. The music was still audible, but louder still were the sharp cracks of leather on bare skin and the rhythmic groans of the clientele who had come to the basement for their punishment and pleasure.
The shaven-headed man from the bar was already there, bent over a bench with his leather pants around his knees as an older guy wearing a peaked cap, a black PVC posing pouch and a pair of biker boots swatted his bare arse with a wooden paddle. The hitching post he’d spoken of, an upright affair with two sets of iron rings and a square iron base, was occupied by a muscular, bearded man. He was nude except for a pair of white briefs, and they’d been tugged down at the back to expose his pale cheeks. He was fastened with his wrists together, over his head, and his feet apart, straps around his ankles attached to either end of a fixed wooden spreader bar. A younger man, with elaborate tattoos all over his powerful upper body and tight black jeans over his lower parts, was swinging a short-handled flail almost lazily at his buttocks, the leather strands striking skin with a rippling sound that nonetheless made the tethered man moan and sigh.
Beside him, Mari uttered kittenish growling noises as he watched the way the stranger flexed and pulled on the restraining bonds each time the lash fell on his bared flesh. Jake made a casual sweep of the room, but he was much more interested in Mari’s reactions than the actual goings-on. Mari’s fingers were still wrapped around his and they squeezed tighter at the sounds of flesh being smacked. It was marginally quieter down here, but Jake still leaned closer to speak in Mari’s ear.
“So, you’re into all this?” he asked, less teasing and more curious. “How come you didn’t tell me before?”
“You never asked,” Mari said casually. His eyes were still fever-bright as he watched the stranger at the hitching post take another lazy slap of the flail. “And it’s not the sort of thing that you can drop into polite conversation, is it? ‘How’s your mother?’ ‘Oh, she’s fine. She says, when are you going to strap me to the bed and whip me, Jake?’” He waved his free hand toward the post. “Wonder how much something like that costs.”
Jake nearly choked on a sharp bark of laughter, then cleared his throat at the brief disappointed look Mari threw him.
“Do you mean him, or the post?”
“He is rather cute, but where would we keep him?” Mari said, poker-faced. Jake wondered if he was getting his own back for Jake laughing at him when he turned back again, openly admiring the inked designs on the Dom’s well-developed torso and powerful arms. As his client came down from the endorphin rush, the guy was admiring Mari too—rather brazenly, Jake thought.
“Bet he’d win the Best Chest, don’t you?” Mari speculated.
“Maybe I should ask if I can borrow his flogger,” Jake said, with a sudden hot spark of jealousy. He wasn’t sure if he was joking, even as he said it.
For a moment, Mari looked as if he might be struggling to breathe. The inked man unfastened his client and began making arrangements for the same time next month, as the satisfied customer pulled his clothes on. Judging by the damp patch in his tighty whities, before he’d pulled his trousers up over them, he’d found the experience stimulating. When Mr. Muscle-n-Tatts headed over toward them, Mari cleared his throat and swallowed hard.
“Hi there. Are you interested in something in particular? Haven’t seen you down here before. What do you like?” the Dom asked, very open, very friendly.
Mari made two unsuccessful attempts to speak and Jake had to nudge him with his elbow.
At last, his voice gone attractively husky, his lover managed to murmur, “I’ve…um… I’ve never done this professionally before. Does it…hurt?”
“As much or as little as you like. You can handle the paddles and floggers first,” his guide offered. “Get a feel for the weight of them, what you think might feel nice on your skin. That’s what nights like this are all about, educating new clients.”
“It’s…more the bondage that’s new to me,” Mari said, as shyly as Jake had ever heard him speak. “I know what feels good on my skin.”
Jake turned his head trying to get his attention, since this was news to him. Mari was not taking him on, his fascinated gaze remained fixed on the hitching post. The Dom responded with a warm smile. He could have been trying to sell windows or a car instead of an intimate BDSM session.
“You like the idea of being tied up, though?” he said in a calm, soothing tone. “A lot of men enjoy that. No need to be shy. We’re all like-minded guys here. Is this your boyfriend?”
Mari nodded, no hesitation. In spite of the surge of jealousy, Jake got a warm glow inside him at that simple admission.
The Dom managed a playful pout. “Shame. He’s very cute, though. Lucky boy. Does he want to paddle you? Or just watch and fuck you when I’m done?”
Jake wanted to protest, he really did, but he bit his tongue. It wasn’t that he had a problem with the spanking, or the bondage, or even—to a limited extent—the publicness of the situation, but he wasn’t sure how he would handle seeing another man touch Mari like that. He’d never been a particularly jealous or possessive person, but as he tried to picture Hot Tattoo Guy strapping his Mari up and whipping him, his brain utterly rebelled at the idea. However, he could tell Mari was turned on, and if Jake refused he knew Mari would be disappointed. Worse, he might start to overthink and figure that Jake had him down for a pervert or something.
He tried to catch Mari’s eye again but his adorable mate was looking just about anywhere else except at him. Making up his mind, Jake said, “No, if he wants a paddling, I’ll give it to him.”
Mari turned toward him sharply, his bright, aquamarine eyes filled with curiosity. He looked rather startled by Jake’s vehemence.
Their inked host murmured, “Uh-huh…possessive, much!”
“Seriously?” Mari asked him, ignoring the Dom. “You’re up for that? For spanking me, I mean?”
Jake had to fight down the feeling of absurdity that wanted to bubble up as nervous laughter, certain that it would be taken wrong. He wasn’t so sure he should do this. While he wasn’t prudish about exploring kink and he got off on really pushing Mari’s buttons, the last thing he ever wanted to do was hurt him. He had never in his life struck a lover—not even Alex, who had pushed him to the limits of provocation—and playful swats were about as far as any physical roughness had gotten. Jake could sort of see the appeal in turning Mari over his knee and slapping his arse as he squirmed there, but using an actual wooden paddle on him was not really in his comfort zone.
He could tell that Mari saw him wavering.
“Um, sure,” he murmured, before Mari could get out one of his patented ‘forget it!’ head tosses.
“I’m not going to push anyone,” their host added quickly, picking up on the tension between them. “That isn’t what we’re about. But if you wanted to explore your options somewhere less public, I can give you my number.” He turned away for a moment toward the wheeled equipment case and produced a card which identified him as Colm Fleming. The company name on his card was The Headmaster Ritual and the backdrop to his details was a soft-focus image of a darkened room with a pair of cuffed wrists and a pale cane in motion. Very artistic, if you liked that kind of thing. “I do photography as well,” Colm offered, with a helpful smile. “Not weddings and stuff, but some portrait work. Mostly abstract.”
“Aren’t you the entrepreneur?” Mari teased, seeming to recover some of his composure, but he took the card with a nod. “Can I have one for Jake as well?”
Colm looked at Jake curiously then back at Mari. “You don’t live together?”
“We’ve not been seeing one another very long. You know how it goes.” Mari smiled but he reached out to snake the fingers of his right hand through Jake’s left as Colm handed them another card.
Jake smiled too. He wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or relieved that Mari seemed to want to postpone the experiment.
“If you’re not gonna…?” A young guy had come over while they were talking and he looked from Jake and Mari back to Colm, then gestured toward the post.
Mari waved him toward it with a magnanimous gesture but he nodded at Colm. “I’ll ring you. I’d like to talk things over with you, but maybe in a less…hectic environment?”
“Sounds good to me.” Colm grinned at him, then reached for a set of cuffs as the lad was getting his shirt off. “I’d best get cracking here. Pun intended.”
“Yes, you’d better,” Mari agreed, and Jake didn’t miss the way he admired the toned body revealed by the young penitent’s shucking of his shirt. When his gaze moved to Colm’s face again there was a hint of his natural mischief back there. “Thanks for this,” he said, waving the card then tucking it into his pocket as he turned away.
Was that flirting? Was he flirting with the guy? Jake tried to rein those thoughts in but he couldn’t help it. Mari had a habit of flirting, but it had never bugged Jake before. Jesus, they’d managed to go to one bar for an hour and already he was devolving into Neanderthal territory. He realized something else. It had never really bothered him when he and Alex had gone out and his ex had spent all night coming on to strangers. Then again, he’d known Alex was doing it to get a rise out of him. That was not Mari’s way, at all.
“You want another drink?” Jake asked, by way of keeping himself from hauling Mari out of there and grilling him about whether he wanted to sleep with Mr. Whips and Tattoos. They had to step to one side as a sweating, agitated-looking guy pushed by them on the stairs in an obvious hurry to get down to the basement for some chastisement. Though he looked chastised enough already, in Jake’s opinion.
“If you do,” Mari said, then exhaled a huff that might have been regret and might have been relief. “Unless, of course, you just want to put me over your shoulder and carry me out, Mr. Caveman. I wasn’t giving him the come-on. So you can stop looking daggers. And don’t deny it.” He pointed a slender finger at Jake as he opened his mouth. “I could see you thinking it. Yes, he’s very cute, but he’s not really my type. I do like his toy box though.”
Jake snapped his mouth closed then pushed a hand through his hair and let out a sigh of his own. He had always pitied guys that acted like possessive jerks and here he was being as transparent as glass, all but snarling at anyone who got too close to Mari. “I’m sorry. I was aiming not to be obvious. I’ll try and refrain from clubbing you over the head and dragging you out by the hair.” He managed a sheepish grin.
“In that case, it would be my pleasure to have another drink with you, Chivis.” Mari chuckled, slipping a hand around the nape of his neck and towing him in for a brief, firm kiss.
They made their way back up into the bar and as they were weaving their way through the crowd, Jake heard someone shout, then screaming coming from the direction of the basement.
The red and gold lighting seemed to be flickering and Mari yelled, “Can you smell something burning?”
Jake noticed the smell just as Mari was saying it, and turned his head. A curl of pale smoke was winding up from the basement stairway, not thick but noticeable.
“Shit!” He grabbed Mari’s arm. “Get out of here. Hurry.”
Jake gave him a push toward the front exit then shoved through the crowd, trying to get to the stairs.