Eva’s world collapsed when Leo announced he was divorcing her. She believed an imperfect marriage was better than none since Leo protected her and their daughter. Then she quickly came to love Jesse, Leo’s new husband, and realizes their “pack” is better, for all of them.
Nate Crawford practices acupuncture and enjoys helping people in his clinic and at Venture, the BDSM club. Family is all to him, because he raised his little sister as a single parent. He thought Leo, Jesse, and Eva were a triad, until matchmaking Tilly gets involved. Their only barrier to long-term love is whatever dark secret Eva keeps deeply buried.
When a confrontation finally forces the truth out, Nate and Eva are able to move forward, with Leo and Jesse’s blessings. But the worst day of Nate’s life pales in comparison when an unexpected crisis forces him to rely on the strength of their pack to carry him through a nightmare he can’t escape.
NOTE: This book is a direct sequel to Vulnerable (Suncoast Society 29) and that book should be read first to avoid spoilers.
NOW this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.—Rudyard Kipling, “The Law for the Wolves,” The Second Jungle Book, 1895.
Nathaniel Crawford started most of his mornings with a three-mile run. Rain, cold, heat—he didn’t care. Some people needed caffeine.
He needed the endorphins only a good hard run could give him.
He’d thank his step-father, the former Marine drill sergeant for that, if the man, and Nate’s mother, hadn’t been twenty years in their graves.
Although at the time, as a kid, he’d hated morning runs with a passion. Especially the six years they’d lived in England in his early teen years when most of the mornings were wet, cold, and drizzly.
Still, old habits die hard. Especially when they become addictions.
The mornings he didn’t or couldn’t run, usually throughout the rest of the day he felt unsettled, missing…something. Like a car with an annoying, intermittent misfire that you couldn’t quite pin down and diagnose.
Except, in his case, he could pin it down and diagnose it.
Which is why he didn’t miss many runs.
This Saturday morning had been a missed-run morning, and by ten o’clock he was already in the weeds. He’d had to change shirts before leaving the house because he’d managed to not get the lid to his travel mug of coffee snapped on securely and spilled the contents down the front of his shirt.
Then he realized on the drive to his office to meet an early client that his fuel light was on because he’d neglected to stop on the way home last night due to his sick headache.
The lingering remnants of which were why he hadn’t taken his run that morning.
His Saturday morning drive, which usually took him fifteen minutes, took him nearly forty between the gas stop and an accident blocking the road where a car hit a power pole and knocked it over.
Then he arrived at the office to find the power out. Due to the same accident.
Fortunately, that wasn’t a totally bad thing. He could light candles in the treatment room, and was in the process of doing that when his client arrived fifteen minutes early.
While he was trying to get her situated and wondering where the hell Cherise, his receptionist and little sister was, his cell phone rang in his back pocket.
He walked out to the front desk to answer it and found it was Cherise.
“Hey, there’s an accident or something. I’m stuck in traffic.”
“I know. I hit it, too. And the power’s out.”
“Great. Add the phones. I tried calling the office number first and it rang fast-busy.”
Shit. “Lovely. My first client is already here.”
“I’ll get there as fast as I can, bro. So I guess the AC is going to be an issue, too.”
Oh, bloody hell. “Yes,” he muttered. “Please, get here.” It was the first week of December, but the highs were supposed to be in the mid-eighties today, and sunny.
Meaning AC was still a necessity.
“Doing my best, Nate. Love ya.” She ended the call.
He’d have to prop the front door open. In the Florida heat, while the office was well-insulated, if the air-conditioner wasn’t on it wouldn’t take long for the building to warm to uncomfortable levels, even on a day as relatively mild by Florida standards as that one.
After taking care of that, and propping open their back door to allow a cross-breeze, he stepped into the treatment room with his client.
“Mrs. Donalds, I apologize for the inconvenience this morning. I’m going to give you an additional treatment appointment at no charge to make up for today.”
The fifty-five-year-old woman always seemed to wear a smile despite her debilitating chronic pain. “That’s all right. Things happen. Usually for a reason. You don’t need to do that.”
“I want to. Well, let’s get started.”
Mrs. Donalds was here today for an acupuncture appointment. At least it wasn’t a fire cupping treatment, which would have added heat to the rapidly warming office.
Thirty minutes later, Cherise’s head appeared in the partially open doorway and she silently waved.
He waved back, not speaking, acknowledging he saw her. He hated when his routine was disrupted even though he did his best to flow with it.
Easier said than done.
Maybe I should skip the club tonight.
Except he’d promised Marcia he’d do a fire cupping demo tonight, and it had been promoted on the club’s site already.
The power came on just as he was finishing with Mrs. Donalds. “Well, that was perfect timing,” she teased as he helped her sit up.
“I’m still giving you a free appointment,” he insisted.
“All right. If I tell my husband I gave up a freebie, he’d probably grumble.”
Her insurance didn’t cover her treatments but she’d had some relief from them. Nate discounted her visits because he knew the older couple was strapped for cash.
What should be their retirement years, and her husband had to work two jobs, one full-time and one part-time, to help pay for insurance so he could keep her in medications, what she needed to try to stay functioning between her lupus and her RA. It was amazing she could even still drive. Sometimes, she couldn’t.
They’d started the process with Social Security to get her officially classified as disabled and make her eligible for cash benefits and Medicaid, but cutting through red tape was a nightmare.
By his third patient of the morning, Nate still felt unsettled. At least the phones had come back online, as had the office’s Internet. He sublet to three other professionals, two acupuncturists and a chiropractor, but they usually didn’t see patients on Saturdays. Cherise worked for all of them, handling the phones, front desk, billing, processing payments, and scheduling.
“Last one of the day is coming up, Doc,” she joked, her work nickname for him. “You have plenty of time to grab a bite to eat, if you want.”
She’d been too young to remember most of their time in England beyond fuzzy, hazy snippets of time. Technically, she was his half-sister. Twelve years younger than him, she was twenty-nine and had been born in England to his mom and step-father while they were stationed there.
“You all right?” she asked.
“Headache last night.”
She winced. “Ooh, sorry.”
“It is what it is.”
He hadn’t brought anything with him to eat, but he walked over to the plaza next door and got a vegetarian sandwich from the sub shop there and took it back to the office, along with a bottle of Mountain Dew.
The stuff was horrible for him. But sometimes when he had one of these headaches, which he’d had off and on all his life, the jolt of caffeine and carbonation helped the ibuprofen kick the pain in the ass and chase it off.
He knew from the faint echoes in the back of his skull that the headache hadn’t completely cleared out yet and was still deciding on whether or not to leave or come back in full force. He really didn’t want to cancel going to the club, if he could avoid it.
Cherise wrinkled her nose when she saw what he had in his hands. “Eww. That stuff will pickle your liver. You must really be hurting.”
He headed toward the break room they all shared. “Let me know when my last appointment arrives, please.”
Once they left, then he could break out another weapon in his arsenal, slathering peppermint oil on his forehead and the back of his neck. He didn’t like doing that before a client, though, because he never knew when someone might be allergic to the oil or to the carrier oil it was blended with.
He could tough it out another ninety minutes.
He was used to toughing things out. Life had taught him that lesson.
Too damn well.
* * * *
By the time Nate returned home at three, the headache had finally retreated. He would take a short nap and, if history proved correct, by the time he was ready to head to the club a little after seven, he should be ready for the night.
Finding Venture and the members of the Suncoast Society munch group had been like stumbling across long-lost family. Even better, because he chose to incorporate many of them into his life.
Cherise was well aware of what he did in his free time. She’d bugged him about his Saturday nights at the club until he finally took her for the first time, not too long after she’d turned nineteen, just to shut her up, thinking she’d be freaked out.
She’d loved it. And she’d not only become a member of Venture, but volunteered at the club, too. This was after a bumpy time in her life when he’d had to confront her about issues she’d been having. He’d been relieved to find out she was kinky and not into drugs, although at the time she hadn’t realized how “normal” she was. Her months of agony had led her down a lonely, dark, self-destructive path, until he finally forced her to admit the root cause so he could help her.
He thought it might freak him out to see his sister play, except she turned out to be a Domme, not a submissive.
Well, go figure. He didn’t exactly label himself a Dominant, even though he certainly was a dominant person, more a sensual sadist than anything.
He was getting ready to lie down for his nap when Cherise called his cell.
“Did you want me to come pick you up and drive you to the club later?”
“I thought you weren’t going tonight?”
“I wasn’t, but Wade got called in to work an extra shift for another guy at his station.”
He thought about it. Cherise and Wade only lived five minutes from him. It wasn’t like it would put her out of the way. She could drive right by his house.
Hell, not like he would be bringing a date home, either.
“Okay. I won’t argue with you.”
“About damn time. Did you want to go to Sigalo’s first for dinner?”
“No. Just the club.”
“Be ready by 6:45, then. I’m going to help open, so I need to be there early. Laters.”
He climbed into bed and set his alarm for five. That would give him plenty of time to get a shower and wake up.
I will go run tomorrow.