This Is Who I Am
Masters of the Shadowlands - 7
Dedicated to those brave souls who have abandoned the conventional trail to find their own way. Your courage will ease the way for those who follow.
I want to thank my crazy street team, who keeps me laughing with tales of pouncing on unwary readers to pimp my books. Y’all are the best!
Thanks to my fantastic beta readers: sweet Rosie Moewe for her encouragement; Monette Michaels, who forces me to stay with the plot; Bianca Sommerland, whose wicked pen keeps me from fatal errors *wiping off blood*; and Fiona Archer, who kicks critting and brainstorming ass.
It was a long winter and a long wait for this book. To all of you who sent encouraging and scolding e-mails, who filled Twitter and Facebook with cheers and hugs as well as photos for inspiration, laughs, and kitteh fun—you have my gratitude and love.
Hugs to Robyn Peterman for the generous gift of Frank. Frank, without you, this book would have been years in arriving. Bless you both.
Cheers to my editor for dropping everything to get Master Sam’s story off to a quick release date.
And, as always and for always, to my wonderful husband for his enduring patience and love.
Linda grabbed the chair arm of the witness stand, fighting to pull in a breath. Under her silk blouse, sweat dampened her back, and black spots danced at the edge of her vision. As her knees threatened to buckle, she tightened her grip on the curved wood. Will. Not. Show. Weakness. Another breath. She pretended to look around, stalling and hoping she’d be able to walk.
Whispers skittered around the courtroom, but the jurors were silent, watching her with concern. The white-haired grocer’s expression was outraged—for her. The tiny housewife wiped tears from her face.
The prosecuting attorney stepped forward to help, but the jury’s warmth had put strength back into Linda’s body. She straightened, stepped down, and her legs held. Thank you, God. Surely she could walk to the door.
She glanced at the defense attorney and his client—the balding, older man in his European-cut suit and diamond-encrusted watch—who was on trial for the murder of a nineteen-year-old college student.
Holly had been kidnapped. Enslaved like Linda.
Linda swallowed hard. She’d held the sweet-faced girl as she’d cried for her mother. She’d told her it would be all right. She’d lied. When the FBI raided an auction, freeing the slaves, it had been far too late for Holly.
The bastard sitting there so smugly had whipped her to death.
As Linda walked past, his patronizing gaze slid down her body, making her shudder and remember her own screams. Unable to escape, unable to fight. Beaten. Raped. She already felt dirty all the way to her core; his stare added another layer of filth. Ignoring the bile burning her throat, she forced herself to give him a dismissive look. Testifying had required all her strength, but she’d done what she’d come here to do. Chin up, head held high, she strode toward the exit.
The sandy-haired FBI agent, Vance Buchanan, waited there. “Well done,” he said in a low voice. “Only a few steps farther.” He reached out to assist her.
She flinched away.
As his hand dropped and he opened the door, she cursed herself for showing weakness. But she’d been a slave. She didn’t want to be touched.
After the overcrowded courtroom, the fresh air in the hallway was bracing, and then suddenly too cold. Her legs went boneless, and she dropped with a jarring thump onto the wooden bench. When she pushed her hands between her knees to hide the trembling, it only made the shaking of her knees more obvious. The dancing black spots had returned. Lovely.
“You did great, Linda.” Vance’s voice was washed away by her pounding pulse, and she—
“Goddamn fool, she’s shocky.” A voice from her dreams grated across her nerves, snapping her into the present. The bench squeaked a complaint as someone sat beside her. Arms closed around her, trapping her.
No! She shoved at his wide shoulders, panic rising like a flood tide.
“Don’t move, girl. You need to be held. Slap me later.” The rough growl of Sam’s voice was the rumble of an 18-wheeler carrying a truckload of safety.
Not trapped. Sheltered. He was warm—so, so warm. She sagged against him. I hate you.
“That a girl. Take a break for a second. You earned it.”
His chest was a brick wall, his arms iron bands, not comfortable in the least. Her body didn’t care, more secure than in the long, long months since she’d been freed from the slavers. With Sam’s arms around her, nothing would hurt her.
“What are you doing here, Davies?” Vance asked.
“Kim told me the asshole who’d killed their friend was being tried. I figured this one would testify.” The silence that followed sounded accusing.
Vance sighed. “Linda didn’t want to see you.”
“Yep. I can see that.” The dryness in the gravelly voice came through loud and clear.
When had she put her arms around his waist? She was gripping him as if he were a lifeline over an abyss. Her arms loosened.
His tightened. “One more minute, missy. Be a shame not to get your strength back before you bust my chops.”
Another minute sounded…just right. As she rested her cheek against his chest, the lazy lub-dub of his heart tried to coax hers into slowing. His soft cotton shirt smelled of the outdoors, of hay and leather and sun. So very different from the stench of fear and sex. Of pain. Her stomach clenched.
He gave a hissing sound of annoyance.
She looked up.
In a face tanned to old leather, his eyes were a startling pale blue. His silvering hair needed a trim. “Whatever you’re thinking, stop.” He curved a hand over her nape and tucked her head back under his chin.
Okay. For a few more seconds, she’d… What in the world was she doing? I hate this man. As her mind cleared, she tried to push away. “Don’t touch me.”
He grunted as if she’d hit him, and released her instantly.
Expecting to see amusement in his gaze, she saw only concern. It didn’t matter. She rose to her feet, rattled when he did the same. But he was the kind of man who’d observe that old-fashioned courtesy. A gentleman sadist. His aura of confidence—and menace—was disconcerting. She took a step away from him.
Distance didn’t help. He trapped her easily with the power of his gaze, his posture, his voice. “I want you to call me.”
“No,” she whispered, unable to give her refusal the strength it deserved. “I don’t want to see you.” The one hour of knowing him had been enough for her. He’d seen right to her core, and she’d learned how deep humiliation could go.
His hard mouth tightened, but he merely tapped her chin with a finger. “Submissives don’t get what they want. They get what they need.” He might as well have said the rest of what he was thinking: And you need me.
But she didn’t. She wouldn’t.
Sam left his battered truck in the parking lot and strode across the street to the small city park. Beyond the palms lining the entrance, massive live oak trees cast dark pools of shade. The air was cool with a slight crispness. Almost into February, Tampa still had a few months before the daily rains would send the humidity to sauna-like levels.
He spotted Nolan King on a picnic bench across the green swath of grass. Sam glanced at his watch. Late. Linda’s testimony had lasted longer than he’d planned.
As Sam sidestepped a toddler chasing a beach ball, her mother on a park bench gave him a sharp look. He approved of her vigilance. The world held too many monsters. But Sam wasn’t someone she needed to worry about. He might be a sadist, but he only played consensual games.
Except for one time.
The scene he’d done at the slave auction with Linda hadn’t been what he would call consensual. To lead the FBI to the auction, he’d convinced the slavers he was a buyer and gotten himself an invitation. But the cops had needed time to block the roads, which left Raoul, his sub, and Sam in a nightmare. Wealthy buyers had roamed a ballroom, sampling the “merchandise”—the slaves chained to the walls.
Linda had been up for sale. Since Raoul’s sub knew her, she’d asked Sam to care for Linda. But there was no care to be had in a place like that. Disguised as a buyer, Sam’s only hope was to pretend to check her out prior to buying her. To whip her himself. He couldn’t risk telling her that he was a good guy and help was on the way.
Seeing Kim’s nod of approval, Linda had known Sam wasn’t a complete bastard. But was the scene consensual? Hardly. Not when her only choice had been him or another slaver.
Sam ran his hand through his hair. He was too damned old to play James Bond. He was a farmer, not a spy. He’d done his best by her, and she’d been the sweetest, most responsive submissive-masochist he’d ever met. The chemistry between them had been a bonfire. She’d trusted him, given him what he asked for, and in return, he’d transformed what might have been a nightmare of pain into something wonderful for her.
And then he’d made a mistake; to this day, he wasn’t sure exactly what. He had ideas, but hell, he could be totally off base.