Mischief and the Masters by Cherise Sinclair

Alastair stared in surprise as the self-professed dog-hater slid out of her chair and onto the concrete. Despite her pained movements, she still pulled the dog into her lap as if he were the puppy she’d called him instead of around sixty-five pounds.

  Squirming happily, Hunter covered her face and neck with frantic licks as if to say, Rainie brought me here and left me with a stranger!

  Alastair simply watched. Dog hater, hmm?

  Winces and grimaces showed Uzuri was hurting, but her focus was on comforting the dog. “You’re okay, Hunter. You’ll be fine. This is a good place, puppy.” Her voice was a low murmur, much the way Alastair talked to terrified children, and within a couple of minutes, the dog was calm and ready to look around.

  Uzuri bit her lip, looking up at Alastair. “Please don’t be upset with him. His owner was old and lived alone. Hunter’s had a lot to deal with in the last month.”

  “I understand.”

  For someone who hated pets, she appeared quite comfortable hugging one. Holding the dog against her, she ruffled his short hair.

  Giving both the dog and girl some space, Alastair picked up the folder, settled down on the concrete, and leaned against a post.

  Hunter and Uzuri both relaxed. Alastair smiled as Hunter’s nose lifted in his direction, testing the scents now that he wasn’t terrified.

  “He’s a beautiful dog,” Alastair flipped open the folder. The forms were starred where signatures were needed, and a pen had been tucked in the pocket for convenience. Quite nicely organized. “Rainie said you knew your way around the adoption papers?”

  “I help her out occasionally.” Uzuri rubbed her cheek against the dog’s, collected a few more licks, and giggled. “It gives me a chance to get my puppy and kitten fix met.”

  “Ah.” As he pulled the papers out, he studied her more closely. The Shadowlands member records focused on BDSM preferences, adding medical and personal histories only when the information might affect scene play. Although Z received more information from the mandatory background check, he kept most of it confidential. “What exactly do you do at Brendall’s?”

  “I’m a fashion buyer.”

  “Are you now? No wonder you dress so beautifully.”

  Her face lit. “Thank you.”

  As he perused the papers, he smiled. Stylish wasn’t the operating word today since she was wearing a huge robe of Max’s and no makeup. Despite her outburst to Rainie about not liking dogs, she didn’t appear concerned about getting fur on her only item of clothing. Alastair signed two papers about dog care before he noticed Hunter’s brown nose next to his leg. Progress. He worked through another paper before holding out his hand, palm up.

  Hunter sniffed his fingers, then dropped his head and lowered his gaze. Alastair stroked his short fur, suffering a pang of loss at the familiar feel. Even now, he missed Jeeves.

  Hunter’s hand-length docked tail started to wag.

  “You’re a good boy, aren’t you,” Alastair murmured. The wagging increased in speed.

  After collecting more petting, the dog bounded back to Uzuri and right onto her lap, earning a soft “oof” of pain. Thinking of her injuries, Alastair started to call Hunter back, but the little submissive’s arms closed around the pup.

  Hunter gave her a sloppy lick across her chin.

  Giggling, Uzuri kissed the top of his head.

  “Well, look what arrived.” Max’s rough voice came from the door a second before he stepped out. He grinned and squatted. “Hey, pup.”

  Obviously feeling more at home, Hunter trotted over to sniff another set of fingers and collect some pats. Before long, he was making short forays across the patio before returning for approval and reassurance.

  Max watched him. “Careful, isn’t he?”

  “But not afraid of being hurt. I’d say his world got overturned with his owner’s death, and now he’s wisely cautious with strange environments and people.” Alastair smiled and held out his hand. “Hunter, come.”

  The dog ran back, tail wagging, obviously expecting praise and patting.

  Alastair gave a hearty scratching. “That’s a good dog. Good dog.”

  Wiggling all over with pleasure, the dog ran back to Uzuri to leap into her lap again and share his joy.

  Laughing, she hugged him, collecting another lick.

  Alastair glanced at Max, seeing the same confusion. Uzuri had been quite emphatic how she felt about animals, after all. “I hate pets. I hate dogs. They shed and lick and…and ruin my clothes.”

  A few questions would be in order.

  Leaving Max to make friends with the dog, Alastair went inside to scrounge up some American-style afternoon snacks—iced sweet tea and his favorite gingersnaps.

  Back on the patio, he set the tray on a table and looked around.

  Max had coaxed Hunter outside of the screen-enclosed area to explore the backyard lawn. Uzuri was still sitting on the cement. Probably was having trouble standing.

  Alastair walked over and held his hand out. “Come, love. I’ll help you up.”

  Startled, she cringed. A second later, she’d regained control and let him pull her to her feet.

  Taking the chair beside her, Alastair set out the glasses of iced tea. “You weren’t cringing from me when we did a scene together. Not until we were well into the session. Are you more frightened of men than you were last year?”

  Obviously stalling, she sipped her drink. Her eyes finally met his. He’d heard of melting brown eyes, but this was the first time he’d ever thought such an over-blown description would apply to anyone. Beautiful.

  “I was doing better. Until last spring.” Her hands tightened on the glass. “Last year… I’m sorry I accused you of wanting me only because I’m not white.”

  “I will say your refusal—and anger—were a surprise.”

  Leaving Hunter to prowl the yard, Max silently stepped back onto the patio. With his years in special ops, he moved more quietly than a stalking cat. After an interested glance at Alastair, he stopped behind Uzuri, listening to the conversation. Sneaky bugger.

  Her look of guilt was rather adorable. “Did Master Z…give you trouble?”

  “No worries, pet. He has no problem with preferences. After all, he likes curvy women, Cullen prefers big submissives, and some Doms want quiet personalities. However, Z dislikes a Dom making choices out of laziness.” Alastair took her hand. “I had to agree with him. Nonetheless, you knew full well that I asked you because I knew you and liked who you were.”

  Ruefully, she took a breath and met his gaze. “I’m sorry.”

  “An apology isn’t enough. You owe me a scene, Uzuri.”

  Her mouth dropped open. He shouldn’t enjoy upsetting her, but…by God, he did.

  Behind her, Max shot him a grin. Without speaking, he walked back to the patio door and gave a shrill whistle through his teeth.

  Hunter came running, paused to get his ears ruffled, and headed straight for Uzuri. He set one paw on her knee and panted in her face as if reporting to the boss.

  She hugged him around the neck, “Did you have a good time, my man? Scare all those evil squirrels out of the garden?”

  “He did.” Max dropped into a chair on Uzuri’s right…and pulled it closer to her.

  Again, she stiffened.

  When Max leaned back, obviously not planning to jump on her, she relaxed. Hunter still had his paw planted on her thigh as she stroked his head.

  Max nodded toward the dog. “So, baby, why’d you tell Rainie you hate dogs?”

  She froze before gently pushing Hunter down. “I don’t hate dogs. I just didn’t want a dog, and I had to come up with a good excuse. Rainie can be pushy.”

  Rainie was pushy. She was also reasonable, and Uzuri was quite articulate. Her panicked excuse meant she hadn’t wanted to discuss the real reason. He was betting on something to do with her stalker. “Did something happen with a pet and the man who bothered you in the past?”

  “Jarvis Kassab,” Max growled, giving h
im the name.

  Her face paled to almost gray. After a long moment, she spoke almost inaudibly. “He hurt my little dog.” The tears in her soft brown eyes could break a man’s heart. “I never thought he’d”—she pulled in a shuddering breath—“I had to give Hugo to my cousin, had to get him out of Cincinnati to make sure he’d be safe.”

  Alastair remembered the day Jeeves had busted a leg; his heart ached at merely the memory. How much worse would it be to have an ex deliberately hurt a pet—and feel at fault? How bloody helpless she must have felt to have given up her Hugo to keep him safe. They’d thought her unfeeling. Instead, she felt too much. Unable to help himself, Alastair plucked her from the chair and cradled her in his lap. “I’m sorry, love.”

  His cousin gave a muffled laugh.

  Yes, seeing a child or a woman hurting or frightened wasn’t something Alastair had ever been able to ignore. His first instinct was to offer shelter—as he had last night. At this rate, Uzuri would be in his lap quite a bit.

  He had no problems with that. As her round body, soft in all the right places, slowly relaxed against him, his anger eased. Being able to give comfort in this way was…sweet. Satisfying. Filled a need he hadn’t realized he had. When she leaned her head against his chest, he tightened his hold.

  With a soft whine, Hunter pushed his nose under her elbow.

  She reached down to rub his head. “It’s okay, puppy. Nothing’s wrong.”

  Actually, something was right.

  Feeling like a complete prat, Alastair watched her comfort Hunter. He was an idiot. The woman had lied to Rainie about not liking dogs, and neither he nor Max had caught it. Yes, she took care with her appearance; however, her clothes took second place to a pup’s need to sit on her lap. She had set aside her own worries and discomfort to reassure the dog.

  She had a caring heart.

  Alastair had lived long enough to know how precious a gift that could be. When bundled with a beautiful face and figure, intelligence, and a sense of humor? Amazing.

  Where did Max stand? Alastair arched an eyebrow at him.

  Max’s gaze on Uzuri was troubled, and Alastair received neither a nod of agreement nor a shake of the head. Max wasn’t ready to decide yet.

  Apparently, his cousin was as bullheaded as the steers on the Drago ranch. It was fair that Max should get time to think…however, a judicious nudge or two might be advised.

  What else were cousins for?

  * * * * *

  AFTER A SUPPER that Max and Alastair had put together, not letting Uzuri help with either the cooking or the cleanup, she’d gone back outside. The sun had set, and tiny lights around the small garden pond glowed in the increasing darkness. From inside the house came the clatter of dishes and the low murmur of the Dragos.

  Not helping them seemed wrong and made her uneasy.

  But Alastair had been adamant that she use this time to think of ways to overcome her problems. He and Max planned to discuss her goals and objectives with her later. There were times the Doctor Dom seemed like one of her college professors.

  Nonetheless, she’d better come up with some goals and objectives.

  She tipped her head back, enjoying the soft brine-scented breeze. Hillsborough Bay was only a block away. Max planned to jog with Hunter along Bayshore Boulevard in the morning. On the waterside. Happy dog.

  The pointer had settled in more easily than she’d anticipated. Then again, he’d found himself a “pack” that had two dominant males to tell him what to do.

  Very dominant males.

  At one time, she’d have given up just about anything to have one of them for her own. Not now, though. She sighed and hugged her knees.

  Getting involved with a guy was dangerous. After all, she’d thought Jarvis was wonderful. How wrong could a girl get? Even worse than beating her up, Jarvis had hurt her pet and the people she loved. He’d harassed and driven away her friends and any potential boyfriends.

  She’d sent him to jail, yet he still controlled her life in too many ways. She was afraid of big men. She didn’t date or let anyone get too close. She hadn’t told even her besties about her past. She lived in fear in her own self-created prison.

  Wouldn’t Jarvis be delighted at how he’d ruined her life?

  Yet, he wasn’t the only one to have influenced her adversely. Frowning, she considered what the Dragos had said—that she didn’t ask for help because of “habits” she’d developed in school. Because some teachers had considered her undeserving of assistance. Since Mama had been so pleased to get her admitted, Uzuri’d never mentioned the small cruelties. She’d simply struggled harder to prove she belonged there.

  I don’t think I’m undeserving. I don’t.

  Apparently something inside her did.

  Her lips compressed as anger burned. Jarvis and those teachers—was she going to let them win? Let them rule her life?

  No.

  Her career was on track, but the rest of her life was a shambles. She needed to get over her fears and stop letting the past affect her behavior. If she ever wanted a lover, a Dom, a husband, she had to get her act together.

  Number one: she had to manage to be around big men. A shiver ran through her. Easier said than done. Size did matter, and a man could easily overcome her. Then again, Mistress Anne wasn’t a huge woman, but she could take down anyone, male or female.

  Uzuri, however… A ten-year-old could probably kick her butt.

  It was her own fault, too. Losing a bet with Holt had forced her into the Shadowkitten self-defense classes, but she hadn’t…exactly…put her heart into learning anything. How stupid was that? Maybe she should practice what Anne taught in those classes.

  Ideas dancing in her head, Uzuri rose. Time to get a notebook and make a list. Her life was going to change. It would.

  When she stepped inside, Max was turning on the dishwasher.

  Alastair smiled at her. “We’ve decided tonight is tequila night. How do you feel?”

  “Pretty good.” She shook her head cautiously, then more vigorously. “My headache is gone, and alcohol would help the other sore spots.” In fact, she was totally ready for a drink.

  Max pulled a bottle of Casa Dragones from the cupboard. “Do you prefer to sip your tequila?”

  Ick. Or as Sally would say, “Gag me.” “No, thank you.” She hesitated, and then offered, “I make good strawberry margaritas if you like those.”

  Max pulled out a blender. “I drink my tequila straight, but the doc prefers his mixed. Go to work, baby.”

  An evening drinking with two Doms. She’d wanted to get used to being around men; she sure hadn’t planned to put the resolution into practice right away.

  She was really going to need that drink. Chin up, she crossed the kitchen.

  SPRAWLED ON THE couch, one leg up, the other foot on the floor, Max was as comfortable as a man could get. He set his empty glass—his fourth shot—on the end table and bit into a lime slice. He was enjoying the alcohol fuzzing his brain—although he’d regret it in the morning, which was why his over-indulgences were few and far between.

  Hunter was sacked out at Alastair’s feet.

  Across the room, Uzuri poured more of the strawberry margarita for Alastair before refilling her own glass. Alastair still looked sober, Uzuri less so. Max smiled at how much she’d relaxed.

  After seeing her with Grant and Connor, he’d figured she’d be a fun drinking companion. She was far more than that. He’d never met anyone so funny and polite at the same time.

  Yeah, it was a shame he and Alastair planned to destroy her equilibrium now. While cleaning the kitchen, they’d discussed their responsibility to this little sub and realized they didn’t have much time in which to work. Right now, her defenses were down.

  As she headed for her chair, Max glanced at Alastair and lifted an eyebrow.

  His cousin nodded.

  Time’s up, baby. As Uzuri walked past the couch, Max snagged her wrist.

  She froze for only
a second before relaxing. Improving. Good.

  “You spent some time thinking today, darlin’.” Sprawled out, his back against the couch’s side arm, he pulled her down to sit on his belly. Hopefully, if she had the high ground…so to speak…she wouldn’t be too terrified. And she’d be close enough he could touch her and assess her reactions. “Did you arrive at any interesting conclusions?”

  She sat as stiff as a cornered mouse, holding her glass in her left hand. Pulling in a slow breath, she nodded. “A few. Yes.”

  He curled his fingers around her right hand, pleased to feel only minor trembling.

  “The correct answer is ‘yes, Sir’.” Alastair’s correction let her know that they were proceeding as Doms, not friends.

  Her voice grew even softer. “Yes, Sir.”

  Alastair took a leisurely drink of his margarita, drawing out the tension. “Excellent. Share with us.”

  If possible, she grew even stiffer. Her body language was as revealing as a shout.

  Max bit his cheek to keep the laughter out of his voice. “Sometime today, princess.”

  She tugged at her lower lip before finding her courage—courage he no longer doubted she possessed—and met Alastair’s gaze. “I realized how much my past has affected my life. How I’ve let my bad experiences and my fears put me in a cage.”

  “Good. What are you going to do about that?”

  She huffed. “I was coming to get paper to make a list when I was hijacked into drinking.”

  Max squeezed her fingers. “We’ll help you with brainstorming ideas. And Alastair never forgets anything, even if he’s had a few.”

  “Ever?” She gave Alastair a worried frown. “For studying, a perfect memory would be great. For experiences… I heard you volunteered as a doctor in some bad places.”

  No shit. Max knew Alastair had as many ugly nightmares as he did. The only difference was that Max had wielded a weapon. And killed. Nevertheless, the aftermath of a battle was ugly, no matter what a man had done. Max was grateful that time was blurring his uglier experiences. Alastair’s memories were undoubtedly still far too sharp.

  “That’s one of the reasons my volunteering in war zones is finished. Why I made changes in my life.” Alastair moved his shoulders as if throwing off the past. “What are the changes you’re planning?”

 
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