Carey Hoffman stepped out of the air-conditioned limousine into the burning heat of a Palm Springs summer’s day. The air shimmered, and he half-expected to see a mirage in the distance along with a camel train and a bunch of wandering nomads. The sun’s intensity made the greenery around him all the more astounding. Extensive, manicured lawns stretched to either side of the sweeping drive and in front of him stood the biggest, most palatial house he’d ever seen. He could only imagine how much watering all that lush grass would need.
“It’s enormous.” Pure white, the sun reflecting off the building’s curved walls was blinding. Carey slipped on his sunglasses to reduce the combined glare of the sun and the paintwork. He couldn’t decide whether he liked the property or not. There was no doubt that it was extravagant and no question it was unique. “Probably designed by some celebrity architect for an extortionate fee,” Carey muttered. “It must be worth a small fortune.”
“I kind of like the smooth lines, it’s all curves, no harsh edges.” Alistair, Carey’s partner and submissive, joined him, slipping his hand into Carey’s. “It doesn’t come across as ostentatious as the McMansions you see in California. It’s understated, restrained somehow.”
“That’s your artistic eye at work, love. There’s way too much white for my liking. What’s wrong with a bit of color? Or at the very least a shade of white that isn’t…misty cloud or curdled milk or something. There are whole pages of so-called whites on paint charts, though they mostly look the same to me.”
Alistair gave him a gentle smile. “The heat’s getting to you, isn’t it, Sir?”
“How do people around here not combust? This place is like a furnace—I feel like I’m desiccating just standing here. What I wouldn’t give for a dose of London drizzle right now and that’s not something I ever thought I’d say.”
“We’re English. Our bodies are not equipped for more than two hot days a year—and by hot, I mean low eighties, not high nineties. Everything here seems to be air-conditioned to the point of frigidity, and I’m sure the house will be, too, once we get inside. You’ll be much happier then.”
“It’s entirely your fault we’re here, you know that? Now you’re a famous photographer, everyone wants a piece of you. Even multimillionaires. A personal invite from Taylor Denman is not to be sniffed at.” Carey gave Alistair a kiss to demonstrate his pride. “I’m so proud of you love, even if I am being fried alive.”
“Do you wish I’d turned down the invitation?” Alistair gazed at him anxiously. “I would have if you’d asked me to.”
“Absolutely not! Ignore me, sweetheart. The heat’s making me fractious. I’m very glad you accepted the invitation and I’m intrigued to meet Mr. Denman since he sponsored your exhibition in San Francisco. It was an enormous success. I’ve never seen so many sold stickers at a show before and it wouldn’t surprise me if he bought some of the pictures himself. You worked really hard to get everything set up, the launch was wonderful but exhausting. Mr. Denman’s offer to spend a few days at one of his hotels was a perfect way to end our trip so you could hardly turn down an invitation to meet him in person. It’s a small price to pay for an all-expenses paid stay in the best hotel in Palm Springs.”
They walked toward the house, glittering quartz gravel crunching beneath their shoes.
“I have to confess I’m a little nervous.” Alistair gripped Carey’s hand tighter.
“There’s no need to be. I’m here and I’ll take care of you.”
“You always do.” Alistair smiled, and Carey’s breath hitched. Alistair was beautiful, the sun glinting on his blond hair, his skin showing a hint of tan from several weeks in the sun.
“And I always will.” There was no doubt about that in Carey’s mind. Taking care of Alistair was the single most fulfilling part of his existence.
As they approached the huge front door of the property, it swung open. Carey expected to see a butler or maybe a personal assistant, but it was Taylor Denman himself who stood waiting for them. Carey recognized him from pictures he’d seen in the press. Taylor was casually dressed in jeans and a light blue shirt, the sleeves rolled up to reveal tanned arms and the curl of a tattoo. He was a striking man, about Carey’s age, his chestnut hair starting to silver at the temples. A trace of stubble shaded his jaw, and there were laughter lines around his eyes.
“Welcome, gentlemen. I’m so glad you were able to make the trip from San Francisco.” Taylor stepped forward with a welcoming smile.
“Thank you for inviting us, Mr. Denman,” Alistair said. “We’re so happy to meet you.”
“Call me Taylor. You’re Alistair of course, I know you from your catalog picture, so this must be Carey.” He shook hands with Carey first, then with Alistair. “Come inside, it’s hotter than the surface of the fucking sun out here, excuse my language.”
Alistair giggled. “You and Carey are going to get along really well.”
“I thought it was only us rain-soaked Brits who couldn’t handle it,” Carey said, following Taylor into the icy-cool interior of his home. “I’m melting.”
“I was born in Canada. Alberta. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the heat, but my business interests make having a home here convenient. I keep an apartment in New York but I thought you’d appreciate a few days here in Palm Springs after the bustle of San Francisco. It’s a lot more relaxing than The Big Apple.”
“We certainly appreciate it,” Carey said, gazing around the entrance hall. “It’s rare that we get to spend a few days alone together, and the exhibition was a little frantic. Thanks to you it drew a lot of attention.” He was impressed by the cool colors and sleek minimalist design. The area managed to be welcoming even though the cathedral-like ceiling height could have made it intimidating.
His eye was drawn to a wall displaying a single large picture. Carey smiled. It was one of Alistair's photographs, blown up to huge proportions. The original was one of Carey’s favorites. It showed a vast, ancient oak, standing alone in a rural landscape at twilight, its gnarled limbs outlined against the sky. A silhouette of a fox was just visible at its base. Ironically, it hadn’t taken hours of patient waiting for an animal to appear. He and Alistair had driven out to the Chiltern hills one afternoon and had been taking a stroll after an early dinner at a nearby restaurant. Alistair, his photographer’s instinct always active, had lifted his camera and taken the snap after spotting movement. He hadn’t even known it was a fox until he’d looked at the digital image. It had been pure luck that the picture had come out so well. It had sold at a London gallery, but the buyer had remained anonymous.
Alistair edged a little closer to Carey’s side, blushing. “Now you know what happened to the picture,” Carey said with a chuckle.
“I was curious,” Alistair admitted. “Anonymous buyers are intriguing.
“The original is in my study,” Taylor said. “I had this print made specifically for this space, and you have no idea how many compliments it draws. I’m loath to praise your work in public, Alistair because it never fails to increase competition for the pictures I want to buy. I’m a covetous man—I want the best for myself.”
“I’m so flattered. The picture certainly suits this space. I’m glad it went to someone who appreciates it.”
“Well, I’ve added several more to my collection thanks to the San Francisco exhibition. Shameless self-interest got me involved and as sponsor I got first pick, which caused huge annoyance to several acquaintances. An added bonus, I admit.” He grinned, mischief glittering in his eyes. “But I have to confess that it’s not the reason I’ve invited you both here. I’m afraid I have been somewhat dishonest. Of course, I sponsored the exhibition for absolutely genuine reasons, but over the last year things have come to light that I think you may be able to help me with. A personal matter.”
“You have my attention,” Carey said. “Does this have something to do with Alistair’s photography skills?”
“No. Actually, Carey, it’s you that I think can help. Let’s go sit in the sun room. I have light snacks set out in there, and cold drinks. We can relax and you can hear me out.”
Carey exchanged a curious glance with Alastair who shrugged, apparently unconcerned by the mystery. They both followed Taylor through the house pausing to admire the pictures and sculptures that were displayed everywhere.
The sun room proved to be constructed entirely of glass but managed to remain ice-cold. Several comfortable loungers surrounded a low glass table and there was a magnificent view of the sweeping grounds. Carey guessed that the hint of glittering water in the distance must be a pool.
They settled into their seats, Carey and Alistair next to each other, Taylor opposite them. Taylor offered them a selection of drinks. Alistair opted for chilled mango juice while Carey accepted a light beer, mirroring Taylor’s choice. On the table sat several platters of cold finger food, which was tempting but Carey wanted to hear what Taylor had to say before switching his attention to snacks.
“How do I start?” Taylor leaned forward, steepling his fingers.
“I find it’s always best to be direct,” Carey said.
“Perhaps the best way for me to introduce this subject is to mention that we have a mutual acquaintance.” Taylor stared at the view rather than meeting Carey’s eyes. “A close friend of mine, Lorcan Wilder.”
Alistair reached for Carey’s hand. Carey took it and gave it a comforting squeeze. “Lorcan is a good friend of mine too. How do you know him?”
“We met through various business dealings before he sold his company, and now I’m involved in some of his philanthropic endeavors. I contribute to a number of the projects he supports through his foundation but that’s not why I mentioned his name. Lorcan told me all about his stay at The Retreat and how he met his Rowan, who I have to say is the sweetest young man. He’s perfect for Lorcan.”
“They are very well suited,” Carey said, not bothering to conceal his curiosity. “But what’s your interest in The Retreat? I have to admit I would never have guessed that was what you wanted to talk about.”
“I know I can trust your discretion,” Taylor said, finally meeting Carey’s gaze. “And for that reason I’m going to give you a bit of context. My wife died a long time ago, but she and I enjoyed a relationship that was not always vanilla. I’m not completely ignorant of the BDSM lifestyle, though Anya and I never played outside of the privacy of our own home. I’ve also known Lorcan for a long time, he knows I like to play occasionally.”
“You understand that The Retreat only caters for men?” Carey said.
“Yes, I do.” Taylor chuckled. “I’m sorry, I’m usually more direct than this. I’m not interested in a stay at The Retreat for myself. It’s for my son, Zac.”
Alistair squeezed Carey’s fingers, and Carey gave him a nod to let him know he could speak. “Mr. Denman, Taylor, are you saying you want to book a stay at a BDSM retreat for your son?”
“I suppose I am, Alistair.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but that’s rather unusual.”
“I realize it’s rather a strange request, but I can assure you it’s in his best interests.”
“That’s so cool.” Alistair beamed. “The Retreat is an amazing place.”
“We are a little biased, though,” Carey admitted. “Okay, a lot biased.”
“I can assure you that Lorcan has the same opinion otherwise we wouldn’t be talking. I’ve taken his advice on this. I know this is…unusual but I’m extremely fortunate in having a very close relationship with Zac. He’s always been very open with me, and I’m proud that he feels able to be that way. I’m not sure whether I knew he was gay before he did or if it was the other way round, but he never had to come out to me. I’ve always been as supportive as possible and encouraged him to be open when he felt he could.” Carey nodded his approval. “However, being my son comes with a unique set of issues. Over the years there have been several threats against Zac. Let me be clear, that’s got nothing to do with his sexuality, it’s to do with my money and the fact that he’s my only heir. Zac has always had to deal with understanding that he’s at risk of being kidnapped. He’s recently finished college but his roommate was also his bodyguard. Other than the Internet, he’s had very little chance to explore the way he tells me he feels.”
“And how is that? Does he think he’s a Dom?” Carey asked.
Taylor shook his head. “The opposite. He takes after his mother. He has her looks and her submissive streak. He tells me that he wants to explore that further. He’s an adult, he can do as he pleases but he wants my blessing, and I want him safe.”
“Forgive me,” Carey said, “I’m still not quite seeing what you need from us.”
“It’s not my intention to be obtuse. I want to help Zac find a Dom in a safe, protected environment. He can’t go to clubs or leather bars—he’d be recognized. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with reputation here, though Zac deserves his privacy. It’s a security problem. I want him to have the opportunity to experience submission and potentially meet someone he can connect with in the same profound way that I did with his mother. The catch is that longer term, his Dom will also need to be his protector. I need a good man to keep my boy safe, Carey. That’s what I want you to help me with, though I don’t expect a short stay at The Retreat to solve everything of course—just get Zac on the start line as it were.”
Alistair sighed. “That’s so amazing. Zac is very lucky to have such good relationship with you.”
“Alistair’s relationship with his father was nowhere near so healthy,” Carey said, repressing a shudder at the memory of the evil that man had committed. “But you realize, Taylor, that I can’t countenance going anywhere with this unless it’s with Zac’s full agreement.”
“Of course, and that’s why I’d like you to meet him. He’s fully on board with the plan, I can assure you. You can come in now, Zac.”
Carey hadn’t noticed the door that Zac came through, until it opened, it was so cleverly concealed in a mirrored panel. The young man that strolled across the room to join them was visually striking and clearly Taylor’s son. His wavy hair was a shade darker than his father’s, his cheekbones were sharper and his lips fuller. It was his eyes that caught Carey’s attention. The unusual shade of pale green, framed by dark lashes, was arresting. Zac’s mother must have been an exceptionally attractive woman.
“Zac, come and meet Mr. Hoffman and his famous photographer partner, Alistair. I need you to convince Mr. Hoffman that I’m not trying to pimp you out,” Taylor said, rising to give his son a hug.
“You’re not?” Zac grinned as they pulled apart and laughed when Taylor gave him a light cuff. “Okay, you’re not!” He turned to Carey. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hoffman. My friend Rowan thinks you have magical powers when it comes to matchmaking.” Zac’s voice was deep and melodic. He spoke with quiet confidence, but Carey could tell he was nervous.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Zac. This is my…partner, Alistair,” Carey said.
Alistair rolled his eyes. He pulled his shirt down to show the narrow leather collar around his neck. “I’m his submissive partner. If you’re friends with Rowan, then I guess you understand how that works.”
“It’s a great pleasure, Alistair. Dad moons over your pictures constantly. He’s quite the fan boy.”
“Zac!” Taylor protested, “Stop giving away my secrets.”
Alistair blushed. “I’m a bit in awe. Can we get back to talking about submission—it’s a much easier topic?”
Carey gave Alistair a fond look. “So, you’re hoping to learn more about the lifestyle, Zac?”
“I want to. I know this whole plan must seem crazy but…well, it is kind of crazy, I suppose. I want to find out what sort of submissive I am. I want to meet different men in a way that doesn’t send my dad into a tailspin. When Lorcan told us about The Retreat, everything fell into place, and it seemed like the perfect solution.”
“We don’t run a dating agency,” Carey said. “What we can do is provide Dominants for you to play with, different men with differing skill sets depending on what you think you might like to try. Are you a masochist? Do you enjoy pain? Do you want to be humiliated or forced?”
“I don’t know!” Zac’s face pinked. “I just know I want to find out.” He scuffed the toe of his sneaker against the polished floor. “Can you help me?”
“Of course we will!” Alistair jumped to his feet then pulled Zac into a hug. “Won’t we, Sir?”
Carey knew there and then that he had no choice in the matter. “Something you’ll soon realize, Zac, is that submissives hold all the power in our world.” Carey shook his head.
Alistair giggled as he returned to Carey’s side. “Well, we will help, won’t we? You love a challenge, Sir.”
“If you say so, love.” Taylor seemed bemused, Zac hopeful. “There are details to be hammered out, but yes,” Carey said. “The Retreat should be able to fulfill what you need to a certain extent. I can’t guarantee you’ll meet anyone you want to make a lasting connection with but I’ll discuss your case with Luke Redding, the manager at The Retreat, and he’ll be in touch. There’s an extensive waiting list, so I don’t know how long it will be before…”
“I made the reservation some time ago,” Taylor said. “Under a false name. Zac and I decided to wait until he’d finished college, but we’ve been planning this for a while. The booking is for two weeks and begins at the start of September. I trust that will give you adequate time to prepare?”
Carey wasn’t often surprised, and he didn’t let it show on his face, but he was impressed by Taylor’s forethought. He was also a little concerned about the timescale. “That will be fine. We’ll look forward to welcoming Zac in September.”
“Excellent. Now that’s agreed, perhaps Zac could loan Alistair some swim shorts and show him the pool, while I take you to admire my wine cellar? I don’t get the chance to show it off often enough, and Lorcan tells me you know your vintages. Now our business is done, it would be very nice to relax with new friends, if you don’t mind staying a while.”
Carey glanced at Alistair who was bouncing with excitement. “That sounds perfect.” Alistair and Zac were already moving. “You can tell me all about Zac. Any insights you can give me will be helpful.” Carey fancied that Taylor’s smile was warmer, less tense, than before. “And I’m sure he’ll give Alistair all kinds of useful information.”
“I’ll do my best, Carey, and perhaps you can help me choose an appropriate bottle to go with supper. My driver will take you back to your hotel this evening.”
Carey relaxed. Good company, food and wine would be the perfect end to a surprising day. There would be time back in England to consider how best to meet Zac’s unusual needs.