When I got home, my girls were busy with their own specialties. Sissy was out in the attached garage–something Jack Hill’s home had never had, even if it was a bare shell at the moment–and Judi was in her “study room”. I knew this because they’d left notes for me on the white board hanging in the kitchen. Seed and Beets had given me plenty of food for thought, but something else was niggling at my mind, chewing away like termites in dry wood.
If we, meaning our Inner Circle plus the two Satellite assassins (Ret.)…if our Group of Ten…hmm, Group Of Ten, GOT for short…. Knock it off with the acronyms, Treemin Jackson; this is serious. Where was I? Yeah, there were ten of us plus one unborn baby girl. Not a bad group of warriors, even considering what was coming, but if I was to lead both offense and defense against the Heartbite bunch of supernatural predators, I needed to know everything there was to know about everybody. That wasn’t technically possible, of course, especially when it came to the enemy. But closer to home, there was at least one gap in my awareness that needed to be closed.
Jack Hill. I needed to know more about how his Master/slave relationship with Carolyn West and Wayne Bruce worked.
I could simply ask the old Protector, but my trust level wasn’t quite back up to one hundred percent yet. Ninety-five, maybe. Okay, ninety-eight. But not one hundred. Fortunately, I had another source.
By the time Sissy came through the side door and into the kitchen at five-thirty, I had my surprise ready. Both girls could cook. Both of them did a fine job of it. But this time, supper was on me. Being a guy, I was patting myself on the back already. The beef pot roast was just about ready, complete with plenty of carrots, onions, and potatoes as part of the recipe. It was the first time I’d ever done pot roast, but it was one of my Mom’s specialties. As a little kid, I’d watched her make it many a time. It had to be seasoned with love, naturally; I got that. For the rest of it, never think a guy can’t cook if he’s got an eidetic memory and has been around women who can.
Judi wasn’t out of her study room yet. That was good. Wait a sec–“Sis, are you staggering a bit there, or what?” Her eyes looked okay, but her balance seemed to be off.
She grinned, ear to ear. “Yes sir, Mr. Jackson, I am indeed staggering a bit. Get me to a chair before I fall down, will you?”
I jumped like a cricket with a firecracker up its ass when she said that, crossed the room in zero time, grabbed her around the waist, felt her clutch my sleeve as I eased her the few steps to the table and into her favorite kitchen chair. We each had our favorites. They weren’t matched, either. Maybe we’d go shopping for a set someday, but for now, these would do.
“Ah.” She let out a sigh of pleasure. “Now my day would be complete if we had some pink lemonade made.”
“Just so happens I made some.” I got the pitcher from the fridge, along with one of the frosted mugs from the freezer, and poured her a tall one. She threw down half the glass without stopping. I waited, expectant. It was worth the wait.
“I did it, Tree. Three times, so I know I can do it again.” Her voice was quiet, just reciting the facts.
I stared her, at a loss. “Did what?”
“Went full raven. And back, of course. Gotta have the and back.”
“Whoa.” At least, that’s what I meant to say. My jaw had dropped wide open; what actually came out was, “Uh.” Or something like that. It took a moment’s struggle to get control of my facial muscles and vocal chords. “Which is why you’re wiped out?”
She shook her head, eyes gleaming. “I’m not wiped out. Not really. The balance thing…I think it’s a side effect of switching back and forth. Like it takes the body a minute or two to adjust after a switch. So far, anyway; hopefully, the effect will lessen the more times I practice.”
“Can you…you know…fly?”
Her eyes crinkled in amusement. “Damfino, Tree. At a guess, in raven form I have something like a twelve foot wingspan, and I was doing this in the freaking garage.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Now I felt just plain stupid. Way to put the cart ahead of the horse, Jackson. “Um…I want to know everything you can tell me, Sissy, really I do, but….” I glanced toward the closed door to Judi’s study room. “Judi will surely want to hear it all, too, and I have, um, something else to ask you. That maybe she doesn’t need to hear.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Keeping secrets from our Jude, are we?” Disapproval radiated from her in waves.
“No, no. It’s not that. It’s just…I wanted you to feel free to decline to talk about it if you’re not comfortable….”
She’d been leaning forward a bit, elbows on the table, but now she leaned back in her chair. “Okay. Let’s hear it.”
“Well, uh, when you were Jack Hill’s slave….”
“Spit it out, Treemin,” she said drily. “We don’t have all day.”
“True. True. Um…what was it like? I mean, I don’t know squat about Master/slave relationships. Most of the stuff I’ve read on the Internet just leaves me scratching my head, and besides….” I trailed off, squirming in the chair I’d taken opposite the tall warrior woman. Unable to sit still, I jumped up and began setting the table just for something to do.
“Hm. Judi and I’ve already had this conversation, you know. I’ve been surprised you never asked before, but you never seemed to care one way or the other.”
“I don’t. I mean, I don’t feel it matters to our relationship.”
“Oh, but it does.”
“What?” I froze in the act of getting silverware out of the drawer. “How do you mean?”
“Easy, big man. You’re my guy, okay?”
“Damn right okay.”
“But if it hadn’t been for Jack Hill, you and I could never have made it. I was messed up when I met him; you know that?”
I thought for a second, noticing that I’d grabbed two sets of forks and forgotten the spoons. “I know you’d been through a lot.”
She nodded, admitting that much. “Yes. I had. And Tree, it had marked me. I was one feisty big bitch back in the day. I did not trust men in the least, Jack Hill no more than any other. But I needed a place to hole up, he offered, and where else was I going to go that wouldn’t end up with me being arrested for murder? So I accepted his offer. Low slave on the totem pole. I didn’t know what that was going to mean. Really, I had no idea. But I figured I could work that out later.
“Now, the first thing you need to know about Jack is, he demands complete and utter obedience from his slaves. The working relationship between him and anyone he’s had for a length of time is so smooth, so well oiled, that you really have to be looking to see the dynamic, but it’s there. He’s courteous. For example, he’ll ask Carolyn politely to do this or that, same for Wayne, and many times he’ll say thank you when it gets done. But trust me, woe be to the slave who willfully disobeys him in any particular, big or small.”
I frowned, trying to sort it out. “He’s the iron fist in the velvet glove?”
She waggled her hand. “Kinda sorta. Let me tell you what happened during my second week in the Hill household. The first week, no; that was my honeymoon period. I was on my best behavior, I actually liked the sexual aspects of the relationship, and I thought I had a handle on it. But about ten days in, the gloves came off. He asked me to bring in an armload of firewood, and I swear I don’t know where this came from–my deep and troubled past, I suppose–but I snapped at him, Get it yourself!”
“And?” I found myself sitting back down, engrossed in her story.
“Tree, I swear I never even saw that old man move, but before I knew what was happening, he had me belly down on the floor and wrapped up like a pig for market. A leather collar around my neck with a strap down the back, my wrists bound to that strap. My ankles likewise, with maybe a foot of chain between them. He blindfolded me, and put a ball gag in my mouth. I could wiggle, I could whimper, but that was about it.”
She paused for a moment. A good thing she did, too; I found myself fighting for control of my emotions. One part of me wanted to zip right on across the driveway and shoot Jack Hill in the head. Or in the genitals and then in the head a bit later. Yet another part of me was fiercely aroused, and a third part was thinking, WTF?! Sissy wasn’t looking at me, though, and that helped. Regarding her glass, though probably not really seeing it, she went on.
“The others weren’t going to help me. I knew that. They’d likely been through something similar before. For the first time in my life that I could remember, though I suspect I’ve repressed some childhood stuff, a man had me totally and utterly helpless. I’m six feet tall and muscled like a man; this was not a familiar experience. I think I knew then that Jack really was my Master. I know for sure that the feelings I was experiencing were…I’d never experienced them before. The thing is, I already knew he could be kind, he could be generous, he didn’t make senseless demands. I really…Tree, I was falling in love with the man and lashed out at him, I believe, because I had to try to get him to reject me before it was too late. But he didn’t reject me. Instead, he controlled me. He kept me in a room you’ve never seen, his total prisoner for thirty-one days. I didn’t know it was thirty-one days; I’d lost track. They told me later. I was whipped, but not much. Just three strokes, his standard for a first offense. He’d sit and talk with me, sometimes for hours at a time. He gave me books to read, mostly fiction, but they all had psychological lessons in them.
“And I began to change in spite of myself. Part of it was having no contact with anyone other than Jack himself, of course, but it was more than that. A lot more. I started to realize…there’s too much to tell in one sitting, but…at the end of the thirty-one days, he came into the room as usual. I had an ankle cuff padlocked to a chain that let me reach the bathroom in the place. By then, I thought I knew what was coming, but I was wrong. He sat down on the bed with me, pulled a key from his pocket, and told me I had a choice.” Sissy closed her eyes, remembering. “Let me try to quote him as best I can, lacking your eidetic memory.”
“Sissy, this is the day you decide. For the past month, I’ve done a number of things with you. I’ve disciplined you, but possibly even more important, I’ve given you a chance at an education, to know who and what you really are. Before, there was no way you could make a truly informed decision about being my slave, or not. You really couldn’t; you just didn’t know enough. You didn’t know enough about what I expected or how I worked. You didn’t know yourself all that well, either. Not really, and that journey, coming to know yourself, is a lifetime thing. It never ends. But like I said, this is the day you decide. If you choose to stay, you must never again try the bratty thing, must never again even consider disobedience to your Master. If you choose to go, I’ll drive you to any place you choose in the lower forty-eight states and turn you loose with ten thousand dollars in your pocket, and we’ll never see each other again. Which do you–“
“And before he could even finish, Tree, I’d thrown myself to the floor at his feet, begging to stay. And stay I did, until you came along.”
Well. I’d asked for it, hadn’t I? “Do you–” I couldn’t get it out.
She understood, though. “Do I miss being Jack’s slave?” Her head lifted up then, her gaze meeting mine.
“Yes. Do you?” Way to torture yourself, Jackson.
“Not only no,” she replied firmly, “but Hell no.”
“Oh. Um. That’s good.”
“Yes, you big idiot. It is good. But you need to understand something. Jack gave me structure, Tree. His training didn’t just discipline me; it helped me learn to discipline myself. He has an eye for the right slave, you know. Not every human out there is slave material. You and Jack, for example, are definitely not. But some of us are. Some of us need a head of household who really knows how to head a household. Jack Hill got me ready for you, Treemin Jackson.”
I must have looked confused or something, because she added, “Don’t you get it? I can’t picture you tying me and Judi up and whipping our asses, but both of us are every bit as much your slaves as Carolyn and Wayne are Jack’s. I believe that actually makes our two households stronger; instead of six people trying to figure out North from South, we have one strong man in each household pointing the way. And Tree, whether Jack will ever admit it in so many words or not, you’re the stronger of the two. Why do you think you ended up being the leader on that last mission?”
It had never happened before, but my beautiful Bear Warrior Woman had just struck me speechless. I was saved by Judi as she opened her study room door and called out, “Wow, am I ever hungry! What’s for supper?”
The pot roast, fortunately, was a big hit all around.