Mischief and the Masters by Cherise Sinclair


  She winced. “I used it last month and…didn’t get it replaced.” When he frowned at her, she felt like a total loser.

  “No worries. The tow company will bring a tire and change it out tomorrow afternoon.”

  “Tomorrow afternoon. B-b-but…” Okay, think, girl. She’d simply take a taxi home tonight. Then tomorrow—or even Monday—take one to the department store to pick up her car. “If you let me know the cost of the service and the tire, I’ll bring the money to the Shadowlands next weekend.”

  “Don’t worry about it, Zuri.” Max’s mouth tightened. “From the looks of your tires, they’re all due to be replaced.”

  Yes, she knew. She picked up her glass, swirling the water. “I held off on the tires because I was going to get a newer car. I almost had the money, but I moved and had deposits and stuff.” College tuition had eaten up her extra money for years. With her recent promotion, she’d now be able to pull ahead.

  “I should be going before it gets much later.” She rose.

  “How exactly are you planning to get home?” Alastair asked softly.

  “That’s why taxis were invented.” She needed her purse and phone…which were upstairs. At the thought of climbing those stairs, she felt her hip start to whine. She limped toward the door.

  And was swept off her feet. As her head spun crazily, she was cradled against a rock-hard chest. “Hey!”

  “You are not going anywhere.” Max frowned down at her and gently set her back on the leather recliner.

  “Excuse me. You can’t…can’t….” Unable even to think of the right words, she struggled to stand again.

  “Do. Not. Move.”

  At Max’s growled order, her muscles went on strike, and all she could do was stare. “B-b-but I need to go home.”

  “You can barely walk, let alone see straight.” Max shook his head. “No.”

  She turned to Alastair who would surely see reason. During the drama, he hadn’t even moved. No, he had; he’d put his feet up on the coffee table.

  “When I did you the favor of”—his grin appeared and disappeared—“breaking you out, I took responsibility for you. Would you have me go back on my word to the ER doctor?”

  She stared at him. The time in the emergency room was foggy, but she did remember they hadn’t been willing to let her leave. Until Alastair had appeared. “I can’t stay here.”

  “Why not?” Standing two feet in front of her, Max frowned down. “You don’t like the bed? Don’t like us?”

  Omigod, she’d been rude. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s wonderful, and you’ve been wonderful and—”

  “Max, now you’ve done it.” Alastair’s hazel eyes lit with amusement.

  “I haven’t even started.” Max pinned her with a penetrating stare. A cop’s stare.

  She picked up the glass of water to have something to hold. “Is something…wrong?”

  “Now, see, I’m trying to figure that out. The reason you had a flat was because someone cut off the valve stem.”

  The valve stem. Wasn’t that the little rubber thing sticking out where a tire got air into it at the pump? “Cut it?” She shook her head, wishing her brain would kick into gear.

  “Yep.” He made a scissor-like gesture with his first two fingers. “It was deliberate.”

  No. As fear iced her bones, her hand went limp, and the glass dropped—only to be caught by Alastair in mid-air.

  He set the glass down, rose, then gently lifted her and sat down in the recliner—with her in his lap.

  “No, no. Let go.” Panic swept through her and she struggled.

  “Shh-shh-shh, sweetheart. You’re safe here. Shhh.” The deep, slow voice penetrated the fog of fear and swept it away.

  She sucked in a breath. Safe. Not alone. Her fingers curled into his shirt pocket and gripped.

  “There now. That’s better.” Alastair snuggled her closer, his left arm around her shoulders, and his right across her thighs.

  The warmth of his body seeped into hers and eased the shaking that had started deep inside. With a sigh, she leaned her head on his shoulder.

  After a minute or two, Alastair said quietly, “Go ahead with your questions, Max.”

  Max moved to sit on the arm of the couch and studied her. “Way I see it, we have three choices for who flattened your tire. Your stalker, Kassab. Some asshole who wanted to trash a car—any car. Or someone who’s mad at you.”

  A day’s beard growth darkened his jaw. “The person who flattened your tire might be the same one who ran you down. Or not.”

  Someone had run her down. Not Jarvis. Please, don’t let Jarvis be here. Her muscles tensed, making her head throb painfully.

  “Easy, darlin’.” Max’s voice softened. “Anne looked up Kassab for me. In his factory, he does three to four ten hour shifts and hasn’t missed any workdays. She checked—and I don’t want to know how—but he didn’t take a plane from Cincinnati. So unless he spent a whole day driving down here, which is possible but not likely, he’s not your hit-and-run driver.”

  Uzuri let out a soft breath of relief.

  A reassuring rumble sounded deep in Alastair’s chest. To her relief, his arms stayed around her, a barrier against the world.

  Max leaned forward. “Besides Kassab, is there anyone who’d want to cause you grief? Maybe someone at work?”

  She got along with everyone in the offices. There wasn’t anyone…except for Carole down in sales. Uzuri stiffened.

  Max’s keen eyes sharpened. “That’s a yes. Who?”

  “Although she’s a little…angry…with me”—Uzuri shook her head—“I can’t point a finger at her. She probably didn’t—”

  “We’d have trouble proving anything with no witnesses and you not seeing anything.” Max took her hand. “But I’d like to keep an eye on things. Maybe talk with ‘her’ so she knows the police are taking an interest.”

  Send the police to talk with Carole? It would make everything worse. “I don’t want—”

  “Zuri. Give me her name, or I’ll show up at Brendall’s and interview everyone from the owner to the janitor.” His tone held out no chance of compromise.

  “You wouldn’t.” She stared at him.

  “Tell him, love.” Alastair’s deeper voice was just as unyielding.

  “Carole Fuller. She’s a sales associate in women’s clothing.”

  “Good enough.” Max squeezed her fingers before releasing her hand.

  “It’s late, and she’s exhausted.” Alastair rose, lifting her as easily as if he were carrying a pillow. “Time for bed, pet.”

  Max also rose. He stepped close and cupped her cheek. “Night, princess.” He lightly kissed her lips.

  “But. My car. I need—”

  Max shook his head. “Get a good night’s rest, and we’ll discuss it in the morning.”

  “But…”

  “This is not up for discussion at this time,” Alastair told her and steel underlay the soft tone. The Dom was fully as uncompromising as his cousin.

  With a resigned sigh, she leaned her head on his chest and…and simply took in the sheer comfort of being carried. Being cared for.

  Being protected.

  Chapter Nine

  MAX ENTERED THE guest room midmorning and smiled. Zuri was still zonked out. He and Alastair had taken turns looking in on her last night, although he’d insisted that Alastair do the neuro checks. Shining lights in people’s eyes and asking idiotic questions should be left to the sadists in the crowd.

  Taking a moment to sit beside the bed, Max did a quick assessment. Her breathing was regular and even. Color was much better.

  Damn, she was a pretty woman, all smooth skin and long eyelashes. Her lips were slightly bowed, her lower lip fuller. Bitable. Her delicate fingers were tipped with a sky blue polish. She couldn’t afford tires…so did she do her own nails or spend the bucks at some salon?

  She was on her back, one arm flung over her head, beautifully relaxed. Seemed like in his pr
esence, she tensed up. Given her past, he understood why, but it eased his heart to know she trusted him and Alastair enough to be able to sleep like this.

  The rest would come.

  No. No, it wouldn’t.

  Jesus, what the fuck was he thinking? He had no future with this little bundle of troubles. Look what’d happened to him with the last woman he’d tried to help.

  Shaking his head, he walked out.

  * * * * *

  A COUPLE OF hours later, Max was enjoying a late cup of coffee on the patio when a noise caught his attention.

  The French doors were open. Uzuri stood in the doorway, obviously not wanting to disturb him. Her eyelids were puffy with sleep, her hair pulled into a haphazard twist. She wore one of his old robes that he’d left on the foot of her bed. “Good morning?”

  “It is. C’mon out, baby.” He pointed to the chair on the other side of the patio table.

  Moving stiffly, she settled on the edge of the chair.

  “How do you feel?” he asked. “Did you find the pain pill and milk Alastair left on the nightstand?”

  “I feel better, and yes, thank you.” Her chin lifted slightly. “I appreciate the care you’ve taken of me. I’m going to call a taxi and get out of your hair now.”

  “Nope.”

  Fuck, he liked when she wasn’t awake enough to conceal her emotions. Surprise was followed by a healthy bit of anger. She was damned cute.

  “You can’t keep me here.”

  “Well, no. That might be against the law”—he scratched his cheek—“I think. Though sometimes, the letter of the law does kind of escape me.”

  Her brows drew together, and she started to stand up.

  “However, Z said to keep you for another night. In fact, he doesn’t want to see any of us until next weekend.”

  She sank back into the chair. “Master Z?” She spoke the name as if the Shadowlands owner was God Himself.

  Max smothered a laugh. Guess to the submissive members, that would hold true. “Alastair let him know you were hurt.”

  Her big brown eyes rounded. “Oh noooo, I was supposed to be a barmaid last night. I didn’t call to say I wouldn’t be in. How could I have forgotten?” Looking as if she’d be whipped to death, she slumped in the chair.

  Max frowned. Had he missed seeing a sadistic streak in the Shadowlands Master? After a second, he carefully asked, “Will Z punish you physically?”

  “Oh no, of course not. It’s only…he’s done so much for me. I hate to let him down.”

  She wasn’t worried for herself, but couldn’t stand disappointing Z. Here was a true submissive—one who wanted to serve more than take. Huh.

  “But he said you had to put me up for another night? Why?” Her question came out almost a wail.

  This time Max couldn’t suppress his laugh. “Two reasons, baby. One: You’re still moving badly, and he doesn’t trust you not to overdo. Two: When the ER staff asked you if you had anyone to help you, you said no. According to Z, you have a whole crew of girlfriends who would drop everything to be there for you. Gotta say, if I was one of your buddies, I’d feel pretty hurt.”

  MAX’S WORDS STABBED into Uzuri. Right into her heart. Despite the ache in her shoulder, she wrapped her arms around herself to contain the unexpected blow. She’d hurt her friends?

  She swallowed hard. “I was trying not to be a bother. I didn’t mean to-to hurt their feelings.”

  Warm hands closed on her shoulders. Alastair had walked up behind her chair. “It will be all right, Uzuri.”

  No. No, it wouldn’t. Tears filled her eyes.

  Max’s face softened. “Why, baby? Why didn’t you call them?”

  She couldn’t speak. She wasn’t even sure of an answer.

  Dressed in a white tank and khaki shorts that revealed muscular legs, Alastair sat beside her and took her hand. “I knew a service submissive who was overjoyed to give, but felt guilty if she needed help herself. Add to that the strong black woman image so prevalent in this country?”

  “And a little subbie ends up in a trap.” Max frowned. “Does that sound right, princess?”

  Uzuri nodded. Needing help felt like failure. She was strong. Still…all her friends counted on each other. Called each other for help. She frowned. Why didn’t she ever ask anyone, then? The answer welled up, dark and ugly. Because I don’t deserve—

  “Deserve?” Alastair’s hand tightened on hers.

  Omigod, she’d spoken aloud.

  Max crouched in front of Uzuri, took her other hand, and asked in a rumbling croon, “Explain to me, darlin’. Don’t you think you merit help?”

  She shook her head no and then bit her lip. That wasn’t right, was it?

  “Why?” Alastair rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand. “Did your mother feel you weren’t worthy?”

  How could she feel trapped between the two Doms and yet…cared for? “Mama was wonderful. She was always proud of me. She even enrolled me in a private school so I’d get the best education possible.”

  “Your buddies at the school, maybe?” Max asked. “Did they make you feel unworthy of support?”

  “A private school can be cruel,” Alastair prompted.

  Uzuri shook her head. Sure, a few snotty girls in her private Catholic school hadn’t wanted the poor black girl to be in their classes. Others had become her friends, and her set had been the smart, fun ones. They’d helped each other with everything, including pulling tricks on the… Oh. “The teachers.” Her brows drew together.

  “What did the teachers do, Zuri?” Max asked.

  “Some of them didn’t think I should be there. They wouldn’t answer my questions or help when I couldn’t figure something out. It was like I didn’t exist. I shouldn’t exist.” She realized her hands had fisted over the men’s and wouldn’t relax.

  “Because they saw you as nothing but a black girl?” Max asked.

  She blinked. The Dom was awfully blunt, wasn’t he?

  Max gave his cousin an amused look. “Shocked the subbie again, did I?”

  When she looked up at Alastair to see his reaction, his attention was on her, not Max. “Was that the reason they didn’t approve of you, Uzuri?”

  “Maybe.” She sighed. “Or because we weren’t rich. My mama was a secretary and put in time at the school after hours to pay the tuition. It sure seemed to bother some people.”

  A small smile tipped the corners of Alastair’s sensuous lips. “Ah. That’s more the British way. If you’re in the lower class, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.”

  Max snorted. “In that case, it’s a good thing you were born with a silver spoon between your lips, cuz.”

  “Quite.” Alastair studied Uzuri. “Do you feel as if you’re less deserving of help than everyone else?”

  “N-no. Not if I think about it. I do deserve help. I’m smart. And strong.” She frowned. “I work hard and I’m honest and…and I’m a nice person.”

  The sun lines at the edges of Max’s eyes crinkled. “Good to know. But it’s not good that you got turned down so much when you were a kid.”

  “Probably in ways that hurt.” Alastair’s expression held an understanding she wasn’t used to. “So much that now you instinctively avoid asking for help.”

  “Guess we’ll have to work on that response, too.” Max squeezed her hand and rose. “I’m going to watch some football. Come on in if you want to watch the Buffaloes kick Wildcat ass.”

  As Max disappeared into the house, Uzuri turned to Alastair. “Wh-what did he mean, work on my response?”

  “We’re Doms, pet. You’re a submissive with a problem. What do you think?”

  Oh no. “But Master Z asked you to help me learn to be around bigger men. Nothing else.”

  His lips quirked up. “No worries, little miss. We’re quite flexible.” Alastair tapped her chin. “While I get you some food, I want you to consider what we discussed and why you need to be able to ask for help like other people.”

&nbs
p; Quietly, he walked into the house, leaving her alone on the patio. With homework.

  * * * * *

  AN HOUR LATER, Alastair opened the front door and smiled at Jake’s woman, Rainie. In a bright blue sundress that showed off her colorful tattoos, the lushly curved submissive beamed at him. “Are you ready for the new member of your family?”

  “We are, indeed.” He looked down to see a dog hiding behind her. The way the pup watched with frightened dark brown eyes quite broke his heart.

  “Hunter is a little timid,” Rainie said. “I think he had a rough time of it after his owner died.”

  “I see.” Alastair motioned her forward. “Come on in.”

  “Actually, I have a cat in hysterics.” Rainie glanced back at the van she was driving. “Jessica said Uzuri was here?”

  “She is.”

  “She knows Hunter and the adoption routine. She’ll walk you through it.”

  “Why would Uzuri know—”

  “Gotta go.” Without waiting for him to finish, Rainie thrust the leash into Alastair’s hand along with the folder she was carrying. “I’ll be back as soon as I get the calico settled in her new home.” She hurried back to her vehicle and opened the van door.

  Alastair could hear the cat screeching. No wonder Rainie was in a rush.

  “Well, Hunter.” He looked down. First get the dog inside, then they could make friends. “Let’s go see if Uzuri knows you.” Although that did seem unlikely considering her distaste for animals.

  The dog’s nails clicked across the oak flooring as Alastair led him to the back and outside onto the wide, screened patio. Enclosing the swimming pool, the tables and chairs, and the garden pond, the huge screened-in patio overlooked the landscaped backyard to the southwest. Although caging the pool as well as the patio had involved immense amounts of screen, he appreciated the insect-free-zone.

  He looked toward the mini-pond to his right. The pretty submissive was curled up on a lounge chair in the shade of the live oak.

  “Uzuri, Rainie bought Hunter by.”

  “Rainie?” She sat up and saw Hunter. “Puppy!”

  With a yip of delight, the pointer tugged the leash out of Alastair’s hands and charged across the concrete.

 
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