The Dance Card by Maren Smith

It’s the Ladder 54 countdown! Five more days until this hot new box set is released!! The preorder has just gone live, which means the sale price of $2.99 is in effect! Get your copy now, because when Ladder 54 publishes on Friday, the price will jump back to $4.95!

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What do you get when five smokin’ hot firemen put themselves up for auction to help with a charitable cause? How about anything a lady could want.

Five brand-new stories. Five weekends their ladies will never forget. These Doms have set the thermostat to ‘Panty Melting’… that is, if they’d let you wear them.

How about a sneak peek at the first story in the set?

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Blurb:

Shy, awkward wallflower Rylee Mercer has never had the courage to stop watching the world around her and actually play with any doms at the local BDSM club, and especially not handsome, commanding Walker Daniels. But when she wins a date with Walker at a kink-themed charity auction by less than honest means, will he take it upon himself to punish her properly?

Chapter One

Rylee Mercer arrived at the Crystal Lake cabin a good ten minutes before she finally worked up courage enough to get out of her car.

“I can do this,” she whispered under her breath. She was strong. She was fierce. She was worth this; she deserved it. And besides, there was always a chance Tammi Lou might not attend tonight, so Rylee probably didn’t even need to worry about… well, that.

It still took ten minutes, each and every one of which was filled with the kind of whispered validations that would have done self-help guru Murphy Wallace proud, if only he knew she’d bought all his books. Or that she was his number one undeclared fan. Or, in fact, that she existed at all.

Which was the reason she’d started reading his books in the first place. Rylee Mercer was tired of not existing. She was tired of being the most invisible girl at any given party—the stalwart wallflower, always in a corner, watching the action because she lacked the nerve to do… well, anything. That she’d received an invite at all was only due to being a vetted CCC member and, therefore, on the automatic invite roster. Otherwise, she probably wouldn’t be.

“You’re fierce,” she whispered, brows drawn in determination, hands wringing the black felt of her steering wheel cover. “Get your fierce ass out of this stupid car.”

But getting out meant walking up to the cabin, with all those smokers gathered around the fire pit watching her come and knowing why. The embarrassment…

Oh, as if they weren’t here for the same damn thing!

But still… embarrassment.

Another car pulled in and parked, not next to Rylee who preferred sheltering under the warped boughs of the mutant Douglas fir that bent and bowed over the farthest corner of what was otherwise a neatly manicured circular parking lot. Even in her car, she was always in the corner. But, no. That new arrival parked among the twenty or so other vehicles that lined up side by side as close to the patio walkway as it could get.

Three people got out of the car. Rylee recognized two fellow members. She had no idea who the third woman was, but the instant they started walking, she jumped out of her car and hurried to catch up. Better to be part of a group than to make this journey alone—even if the rest of the group had no idea she was tagging along.

Sophie knew, though. Standing sentry at the cabin door, she smiled in greeting. But then, she smiled to everyone, and gave them each a cheerful hello as she held open the door.

“I’m glad you could make it,” she said to Rylee, but Rylee tried not to take it personally. Nothing if not a good hostess, Sophie did this at every play party too.

Still, to be polite, Rylee smiled back and murmured a shy, “Thanks.” Once she was in, however, she detached herself from the group and quickly ducked into the nearest shadowy nook to stop herself from hyperventilating.

She had this. She had this, damn it! Strong! Fierce! Don’t weaken now, you can do this!

She jumped when a man she didn’t know tapped her elbow. “May I take your coat?” He smiled, his gray eyes warm and inviting. Rylee didn’t take that personally, either. If he was taking her coat, that meant he must be working for Sophie. Being friendly would be part of the job.

“Thanks.” Feeling even more awkward than usual, Rylee relinquished her coat. Snagging her black sequined wallet out of the pocket, she quickly made sure the glittering skirt of her minuscule cocktail dress was tugged down over everything that ought to be covered, then made herself stop fidgeting. It was the only little black dress she owned and she’d had to go all the way to Missoula to get it. Every bit as sequined as her wallet purse, the V-neck collar was low, the shoulder straps were spaghetti-thin, and the skirt was cut so high up her thigh that if she wasn’t careful when she sat, she’d be showing off her panties. Something that happened all the time here at the cabin, albeit usually only on party nights. This was not a party night.

Tonight was special. Something that would likely never happen again, not in all the history of the BDSM group that called Big Banks home.

Tonight, they were going to auction off some of the group’s most eligible doms, each for a night of private play right here at the cabin, with all proceeds going to help Sophie’s husband, Walt, the fire chief of Big Banks, as he battled cancer. Like most people here, for a cause of that magnitude, Rylee would have donated anyway.

Big Banks wasn’t a huge town. Everybody pretty much knew everybody else. Most smiled and waved, and it wasn’t uncommon to see two vehicles stopped side by side in the middle of the road just so the drivers could chat for a while. Rylee had lived here all her life, she’d never once locked her front door—she wasn’t even sure the hardware store sold locks—and she still remembered sitting in the gymnasium during her eleventh-grade year when newly made fire chief Walt Lassiter had come to her school to instruct them on the dos and don’ts of fire safety. Even without the auction, she’d have donated money to help defray the costs of what she was sure were about to become massive medical bills. She might not have donated as much as was currently stuffed into her fancy, glittering wallet, but she would have given something.

That donating tonight would also win her one full day and night of Walker Daniels’ undivided attention was beside the point. It was, quite possibly, the only way Rylee would ever play with the ruggedly handsome dom who had caught her eye for the first time way back in high school. Now that he was divorced and back from Los Angeles, he’d caught it all over again. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one looking his way.

Walker was a service dom. Attending almost every party, he spent those nights jumping from partner to partner and scene to scene. Over the last year, that had made him one of the most highly sought-after doms at the Crystal Cabin Club. He played with anyone. Everyone, even… except Rylee. He didn’t even have to do the asking anymore. From the moment he arrived and descended the stairs to the basement dungeon, submissives flocked to him. And there he’d be, laughing, chatting, negotiating scene after scene until his dance card was full, and there she’d be, lurking in the shadows like some B-movie stalker, wanting him desperately, and just waiting for a chance to move in for the kill.

Except that chance never came, because every time she worked up nerve enough to head his way, something always happened. Most of the time that ‘something’ was her chickening out and veering off into the bathroom where she could quickly lock the door and hyperventilate as quietly as possible in a corner of the black-and-white-tiled shower. But once, that something had been Tammi Lou, falling off the cross where she had been receiving a relatively minor flogging. She’d landed practically at Walker’s feet, causing one hell of a commotion. For ten minutes straight, Rylee had watched in shadowy, stalker-y, simmering resentment while Walker and another of his fireman buddies gave Tammi Lou first-aid-style aftercare, much to Tammi Lou’s current sugar daddy’s ill-concealed annoyance.

Much to Rylee’s, too. She hadn’t said two words to Tammi Lou since that night, something that might have had greater impact if only Rylee could have worked up the nerve to talk to her before then.

Or if Tammi Lou had noticed.

She was such a mess. Resisting the urge to rub her face and ruin her makeup, Rylee fled to the quiet end of the bar. There were so many beautiful women here, what chance did she possibly have against so much competition?

Except, a quiet voice in the back of her head whispered, tonight it isn’t up to any of those women or even to Walker. Tonight, Walker’s undivided attention would go to whomever had the nerve and the cash to win it.

“Tequila,” she said, just as soon as Lance wandered down to her end of the bar and placed two used glasses in a bucket bound for the kitchen.

He poured one for her, then headed back to the busy end of the bar, where—true to past scene-hogging behaviors—Tammi Lou stood surrounded by fellow club members, laughing and absorbing all the attention she could, like the emotionally deficit sponge that she was.

“There’s only one man up on that stage I’m interested in,” she boasted, accepting the drink Lance passed to her. Waggling her shoulders to show off her boobs—even Rylee looked; Tammi Lou had great boobs—she settled in against the bar, smirking up into the eyes of an admiring dom. “I’m a bad, bad girl, and I can’t wait to do some really bad, bad things to him.”

“You might not be able to afford him,” another man said coyly. “Who will you be bad for then?”

A shiver of cold washed over Rylee, sparked by the other woman’s throaty laugh.

“Of course I can afford him, darling,” she said, letting her fingers do the walking right up his tie and adjusting the lay of the knot at his throat. “I’ve got my sugar daddy’s MasterCard. Excuse me. I’ll be right back.”

Ducking out of her group of admirers, she left them all shaking their heads while she left the bar in search of an unoccupied bathroom. An experienced party girl, she took her drink with her.

From her quiet end of the bar, Rylee watched as Tammi headed her way. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to Tammi Lou, but if she didn’t, she might as well go home right now.

Tipping back her head, Rylee drained her shot. It burned all the way to her stomach, but she’d have taken two or three more just like it if only there were time. There wasn’t. Courage, she told herself and, when Tammi Lou walked past her, Rylee slipped seamlessly into the perfumed breeze of her passing and followed her all the way to the powder room.

Tammi Lou glanced back over her shoulder as she pushed open the door. “Oh.” She startled when she saw Rylee. “Sorry. I didn’t see you.”

Rylee made herself smile. “That’s okay.” She was used to it, and it wasn’t likely that Tammi Lou would notice anyone… unless she thought they might give her something.

“Here,” Tammi Lou said, pushing her drink into Rylee’s hand. “A girl can never be too careful, but taking a drink into the bathroom is disgusting. You don’t mind holding it for me, do you?” Her smile was as fake as it was catty, nor did she give Rylee a chance to refuse. She simply went inside and closed the door, leaving Rylee with nothing to do but stand there, staring at the first aid kit attached to the wall and holding that stupid drink.

“So,” Tammi Lou called through the door, ever willing to be the center of attention, even if she had to strike it up herself. “Are you planning to bid in the auction tonight?”

“Yes, I am,” Rylee made herself say, which would have been the perfect moment to segue into what she really wanted to say, which was: “I know you really want Walker, but between the two of us, we both know you can get him at the snap of your fingers. So why not be nice just this once and let me have him?” Heat burned her face and, though her mouth opened, the pathetic plea refused to come out.

“Who are you bidding on?” Tammi Lou pressed, but with a smirk in her voice that Rylee could hear right through the wood.

Tammi Lou had access to more money than anyone with her self-centered, twelve-year-old, selfish-whore mentality ought to. She had men lined up to be her sugar daddy, and she ran through both them and their bank accounts with the kind of wild abandon that nobody except kings and presidents could afford for very long. Rylee didn’t have that kind of money. She was a day-trader with a trust fund, a few careful, long-term investments that kept her monthly bills paid, and a part-time job at the Big Banks elementary school library. There was no way she could outbid Tammi Lou if both their hearts were set on the same dom.

“Walker,” Rylee answered, staring at the first aid kit on the wall. Her voice sounded odd. As if it were someone else speaking from a tinny distance.

Tammi Lou laughed. “How funny is that?” she snickered, that audible smirk of hers deepening. “I guess we’ll be competing for the same man, then.”

“I guess so.” Rylee’s shoulders sagged. Tammi Lou was going to bid. No matter what Rylee did, she was going to bid and she was going to win.

It wasn’t fair. That horrible woman could have anyone she wanted, whenever she snapped her glossy-pink manicured fingers. Rylee had one chance. One. If she lost it tonight, deep inside her heart she knew there would never be another. She would never know what it was like to have a man like Walker put his hands on her, touch her with those same practiced strokes and caresses that she watched him use on the other submissives in the club. She would always be just another voyeur in the shadows.

“Well,” Tammi Lou said brightly. Behind the bathroom door, the toilet flushed, followed by the spraying sound of water in the sink. “I guess the only thing left to say is, let the best woman win.”

She laughed again, that throaty chuckle that said Rylee wasn’t even in the same competition much less Tammi Lou’s caliber of winner’s circle. She was right, too. Rylee wasn’t.

The door unlocked and Tammi Lou swung out, a mean little smile of victory twisting her perfectly painted lips. Rylee’s own face felt like brittle plastic and yet, somehow she still managed an answering smile when the other woman plucked her drink from Rylee’s numb fingers.

“I wish you luck,” she smirked. “You’re going to need it, honey.”

Knocking back her drink, the bombshell blonde rolled it victoriously across her tongue and swallowed hard just before her face screwed into a grimace. She gagged. “Ugh, word of the wise, sweetheart. Stay away from the tequila. I knew Sophie was desperate, but if I’d known she was cheap, I’d have brought her a bottle or two from home.”

Shuddering, she thrust the now empty glass back at Rylee and walked away, leaving the shorter woman to stare morosely at the wall.

She ought to just go home. At this point, why stay if all she was going to do was watch Tammi walk away with the hottest, most popular dom in the club?

What happened to fierce, a little voice in the back of her head whispered. What happened to strong? What happened to being willing to fight for what she wanted? If she thought for one second a poke in the nose would win her Walker for a day, Rylee would happily chase her down and slug her one. But this wasn’t about fighting. It was about money, and no matter how much she wished it differently, Rylee just did not have enough.

Her hands dropped despairingly to her sides, but Rylee had forgotten about Tammi’s glass until she felt it slip from her fingers. She jumped when it shattered all around her feet.

“Oh crap,” she dropped, guiltily scrambling after the broken pieces. But between the noise from all the cooks working in the kitchen, the music from the orchestra, and all the guests laughing and talking around the bar, nobody noticed what she had done. Pain lanced her fingertip. “Ow!” Yanking her hand back up, Rylee sucked back a curse as blood welled around the jagged piece of glass she’d stabbed herself with. No one noticed that, either.

Hissing softly, she plucked it out and immediately released a flow of crimson the likes of which neither the floor nor her dress would escape for very long.

“Damn it.” Pushing into the bathroom, Rylee washed her bleeding finger in the sink and hoped for a quick clot. When that failed, she wrapped her finger in toilet paper and hurried back out to clean up the broken glass before anyone else got hurt. Her throbbing finger soon bled through the toilet paper wrap, but fortunately, the CCC was a safety-first kind of club. It had first aid kits everywhere, including right here.

With one hand full of broken glass for the garbage, she unhooked the kit from the wall and went back into the bathroom. Throwing the former away, she set the latter on the counter by the sink and dug into it in search of a Band-Aid.

Funny, the things one’s eyes fell upon in moments such as this. It might have been a Band-Aid Rylee was looking for, but as soon as she propped the kit open, it was the little brown bottle wedged among the other ointments that she saw first. Syrup of ipecac.

A shudder moved up her spine, tickling at a distant memory of the one time when, as a very little girl, she’d eaten a mushroom from the yard and her panicking mother had shoved this very stuff down her throat.

If she couldn’t outbid Tammi Lou, that treacherous little voice in her head whispered, then she would have to make sure Tammi Lou was in no condition to bid at all.

Her finger throbbed. So did her conscience, but neither of those stopped Rylee from snatching that bottle from the kit and quickly stuffing it into her sequined wallet of a purse. Stuffing it down beneath her envelope full of cash—down to the dollar, every bit that she could afford to spare on a venture such as this—Rylee snapped it shut again, so no one else would see what she had done. No one else was in the bathroom, but from the moment Rylee raised her gaze to lock with that of her reflection in the mirror, all she could see was the guilt in her stare.

And the blood she was dripping all over the sink, her little black purse, and the outside of the first aid kit.

Shit.

It took almost ten minutes and four Band-Aids to staunch the flow. By then, she had a plan in her head that made the guilt growing on her face shine like a neon bar sign. She would have to get close to Tammi Lou. But if she could, then sometime before dinner ended and the auction began, all she had to do was slip the ipecac into Tammi’s drink. Ten to twenty minutes after that, if she got the dosage right, the effects would kick in and Tammi Lou would be too busy in the bathroom for another half hour after that to bid on anybody.

I wish you luck, Tammi Lou had snickered, right before she’d walked away.

Avoiding her own guilty face, Rylee drew herself to stand a little straighter. This was not her proudest moment, but she set her shoulders the way a strong and confident woman should.

“Good luck to you, too,” she belatedly told Tammi. She was about to need it more than she knew.

* * *

“How did I get talked into this again?” Walker asked, shrugging into his heavy fireproof work coat. Standing behind the massive show screen with the others who had volunteered, all he could hear was the beating of his own heart and the sounds of the women filing into the room on the other side of the screen. The dinner portion of tonight’s event must be done; he was dessert. Despite his own building excitement, he couldn’t believe he was doing this.

Beside him, Declan, arguably his best friend of all the guys who worked at Ladder 54, shrugged his eyebrows and said, “You wanted to do something to help bring in a lot of money and, like me, having nothing else of any real value, you decided… what the hell.”

To Walker’s left, Troy tipped back his head and prayed, “Please, dear God, don’t let me be bought by Tammi Lou.”

“Amen,” everyone grumbled at once.

Declan snorted. “She’s not after you, bud. She’s fixed on Walker.”

Walker wasn’t as annoyed by the acknowledgement as much as he was by the way his friend sang his name. “Tell me how to get rid of the problem and still keep my membership, and I’ll be happy to send her packing.”

“Just say no.”

“I ha—”

“Shh!” Blake shushed from the edge of the screen. He continued watching the audience for a moment, then came back to finish getting ready with the rest of them. “Boy, it’s packed out there. I never knew there were this many man-hungry submissives on the CCC roster.”

“There’s not,” Theo said with a grin. “Remember, Sophie said she sent those flyers out to every major BDSM group in Montana.”

On the other side of the screen, the microphone came on and Sophie Lassiter’s voice crowed her welcoming greeting over the loudspeakers.

“I feel like a piece of meat,” Declan said, flexing his neck and trying to relax as the men assembled into a ready line.

“Yeah,” Theo agreed, then grinned. “Isn’t it great?”

Declan and Walker both looked at him.

Blake whapped Theo’s arm. “This experience ought to be sucking the joy of strip clubs right out of you.”

Theo’s grin only broadened. “Try growing up in the same close Greek neighborhood I did, my friend. Trust me, it only whets the appetite.”

When the lights went out, Walker felt the jolt of nervous energy ripple straight down through the line of his brothers and up his back. It was a lot like staring into the gaping maw of a burning building: unsure if anyone was still inside, but knowing if someone didn’t check, a person could die. And he was that someone. That jolt of sizzling energy didn’t just dash up his spine, it shot down his legs now too.

Sophie was almost done spelling out the rules. She was going to introduce them soon, and the lights were already down low. They’d flash on soon. Then it was do or die time, and Jesus, he was first.

As he’d done with just about every other burning building he’d encountered in his career, Walker took the lead. Silent as fireman-clad ninjas in heavy boots and rattling helmets, they ducked out from around the screen and hurried to stand in a line in front of it.

“I feel like such a piece of meat,” Declan said again.

“I think I see my ex,” Blake said.

“What?” Everybody stared at him.

“Submissive,” he clarified. “Not wife.”

“You did that on purpose,” Troy accused, and the volume on Sophie’s speakers shot up to cover both Blake’s muffled chuckles and the cheers of the crowd. Women jumped out of their chairs, clapping and whooping, and nearly drowned Sophie’s spiel, making her shout the last of her introduction: “I bring you the bad boys from Big Banks’ very own Ladder 54 and the CCC’s first ever Date-A-Dom!”

Do or die. Walker managed to bow his head along with his coworkers just before the blinding stage lights snapped on. Even staring down at his own booted feet, at last he understood how the possums on the highway felt, pinned in the brights of his truck’s headlamps. Not the sort to get stage fright under normal circumstances, Walker usually loved performing in front of an audience. Heaven knew, he did it every play party night, dancing his dance with submissive after submissive. Sending them to fly in the heights of subspace through the steady application of his floggers, or the sharp biting snaps of his cane.

As one, his brothers removed their coats. Walker barely managed not to lag behind. His coat hit the floor perhaps only a half second after everyone else’s. Hopefully, he wasn’t so out of sync that anyone noticed. Like he had any reason to be nervous. Like he hadn’t already played with more than half of the CCC submissives in this crowd at least once. That was one of the best benefits to being a dom outside of a committed relationship. Or, in his case, any relationship. He could play with anyone he wanted, in any way he wanted, without fear of having to ask permission or worry about what touches might or might not set off his significant other.

“Walker!” Sophie called, startling him from his thoughts. She was supposed to introduce him, but his name and the subsequent cheering that followed was all he heard.

Shit. He was up already. He wasn’t prepared, and yet his long legs carried him to the front of the stage just as they’d done in their rehearsals. Every step felt like a leap of faith, though. The lights were so bright, he couldn’t see a thing. But he could hear and, wow, the language these submissives were using as they catcalled out of the darkness. He wasn’t a sailor, had never felt the urge to be one, but a sailor would have blushed at some of the comments he caught when he turned sideways to show off his physique and even struck a somewhat goofy pose. At least, it felt goofy. The ladies went wild, and damn if Sophie wasn’t egging them on.

“A master with both flogger and cane,” she shouted above the noise of the cheering crowd “If you’ve seen him play, then you also know he’s got one hell of a pumper!”

Oh, Jesus. Walker almost rolled his eyes. He cast a glare out over the audience he couldn’t see for the lights. Sophie had better hope she got out of here before he did, because otherwise, his chief’s wife or not, he was going to swat her ass.

Fuck it, he sighed. When in Rome… Flexing his biceps, he gave two sultry pumps of his hips, much to the delight of the women in the audience. Auction paddles flashed all over the room, like blinking red fireflies riding that sea of shadow beyond the glare of the stage lamps even before Sophie bellowed those infamous words: “Shall we start the bidding at one hundred dollars?”

The audience went off like a shot. Before he even thought to flex another muscle or pump his ‘pumper’ or, hell, rip his pants off and give the girls a show to match anything they’d seen at any beefcake show in Vegas, his cost soared over eight hundred dollars.

“Yes, ma’am,” he mouthed back over his shoulders to the rest of the guys.

“They’re overpaying,” his best friend Declan shot back, but they were all grinning.

His price topped a thousand, and Walker promptly struck another pose, showing the audience the size of his spanking hand and his best ‘You’d better mind me, little girl’ glare. The bidding, which had begun to slow down, shot up another two hundred dollars. It hit fifteen hundred when he shrugged out of his suspenders and took off the belt his uniform did not require, but which he’d thought might be a useful stage prop for a show like this. He doubled the worn leather over and crooked his finger to the audience. It was too bad he couldn’t see beyond the blinding glare of the stage lights, or he’d have walked out among those cheering ladies to pull the first willing one that he came across over his knee and mock spank her for the crowd. Which was also too bad, because there was so much more to him than just a man who liked to spank. What about his violet wand? His Hitachi wand? His multicolored low-temperature wax candles and play bag full of toys that revolved around bondage and sensation play? He could make a head-to-toe zipper in three minutes flat and rip it off again in a hell of a lot less. He was versatile and learned, and he took pride in various techniques that he’d studied in the lifestyle. Flogging and caning was only a single facet of who he was as a dom. But then, Sophie’s flyers had emphasized what these ladies were purchasing was one night of hot spanking fun. As much as he didn’t want anyone mistaking the Date-A-Dom auction for Purchase-A-Prostitute, he saw no harm in showcasing exactly how he might put the ‘hot’ into their evening, were they so inclined.

Grabbing a phantom head of hair, he mimed putting a woman on her knees and face-fucking her there, and damn if his price didn’t jump again. It was seventeen hundred now, although it was slowing down. The race seemed to be between two determined bidders, with one bidding immediately upon the back of the other, while the other was taking longer and longer to follow through.

Curiosity gaining the best of him, Walker approached the edge of the stage. From here, the lights were almost directly at his knees—still blinding, but the shift in vantage did leave him able to see the shadow of individual faces in that sea of blackness. He could also hear a little better. Whether it was because the disappointed bidders had fallen to pouting silence, or because others were as curious as he was to see who the last two bidders were, the audience had somewhat calmed. Beneath what catcalling and laughing continued on, Walker thought he heard something else. Something lower-pitched, like a grunt of exertion… or perhaps, distress. Either way, it was an unusual sound to make in the middle of a bidding war.

Stepping over the light directly in front of him, Walker hopped off the stage. The grunting sounded desperate now, deep and guttural and rhythmic, like someone in the throes of sex. He wasn’t the only one to notice either. Heads were turning. People kept looking back over their shoulders, trying to identify where that noise was coming from. A paddle came up in the back, flashing a blink of deep red and punctuating it with a grunt that drew his immediate attention.

“Yup!” called David, a fellow firefighter who had volunteered to act as Sophie’s auction spotter. He pointed to a flashing paddle in the front row as the bid climbed a hundred dollars higher.

Walker recognized the front-row submissive as a member of the CCC, although he couldn’t immediately place her name. She was a quiet one. The sort that liked to watch, but never seemed to play. At least, he’d never seen her play.

“I’m fine,” snapped a raspy voice, drawing Walker’s attention back to the far row again. A few seconds later, a badly quavering paddle rose high enough to flash out a single red blink, then immediately dropped out of sight again. The paramedic in him took over. Walker strode down the aisle, amazed that neither David nor Sophie had noticed the woman was bowing over, clutching her stomach and rocking.

“Excuse me. Excuse me.” Walker squeezed his way through the densely occupied row of women and folding chairs until he reached her. When he lay his hand on her shoulder, she raised her sweat-bathed face and—ah, hell. It was Tammi Lou, and just that fast her shoulders suddenly jerked and hunched, and bending double, she vomited all over his shoes.

The blowout must have affected both ends, because the woman on her other side squealed in disgust and leapt out of her chair, falling into the person on her left because they were too tightly packed to have anywhere really to go.

Flushed, panting, and now crying too, Tammi Lou grabbed both her mouth and the back of her dress. She all but climbed over everyone in her race for the nearest bathroom. Her sobbing echoed weirdly with the deep thumping base of the stripper music.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer girl, Walker thought and was instantly ashamed of himself for it. Nobody deserved that. Not even a shallow, selfish, money-grabbing person like Tammi Lou, whose only noticeable ambition in life seemed to be bilking money out of men in exchange for sex.

The music was still thumping, but now people were whispering. The laughing had fallen silent and so had Sophie.

“No, no,” he mouthed, waving his hand for her to proceed. “Too much to drink.”

From the bar, Lance brought cleaning supplies and a bucket of hot Pine-Sol-scented water.

“Was that Tammi Lou I saw tearing out of here?” Lance asked once he was close enough to be heard over the music. This wasn’t the worst mess they’d ever seen, and it didn’t bear much need for commenting beyond, “Carry on. Excuse me, ma’am. Nothing to see here,” as Walker waded back down the row to scrub the floor, chair, and his own shoes. “Carry on.”

Sophie was too far away and the music too loud for her to hear his mutterings, but she was a smart woman and she’d already drawn her conclusions. Her mic clicked on, her spiel started up again, and the crowd—made up of sensible women who’d been promised a good time—were more than willing to get back into the swing of the next auctioned male.

Trust Blake to provide a distraction when one was needed. His good ol’ boy wink and charm soon had the ladies cheering again. Leaving Lance to dispose of the bucket, rags, and filthy water, Walker ducked into the men’s room to wash his hands and make himself presentable to meet his winning bidder.

Was it the same young woman—her name still eluded him; R-something, wasn’t it? Rachel… Regan… Rebecca—that he’d seen before Tammi and her bout of sickness claimed his attention? Or had the winning bid been stolen by someone else? Ready to see who he’d be playing with, Walker dried his hands, combed his fingers through his short dark locks to make sure he didn’t have helmet-hair cowlicks standing up anywhere, and then headed out to meet up with whomever was waiting for him.

Only nobody was.

Walker searched the bar and circled the outskirts of the audience, every whooping one of them with attentions fixed on the stage, but he couldn’t find a single lady patiently waiting with a happy-expectant-nervous-apprehensive or any combination of those emotions on her face. No one was standing near Sophie, either, who was once more working the crowd, driving up the bidding being ‘yupped’ out by David each time a red-light-flashing paddle shot up in the air. Currently on the stage, Blake was air-humping and air-spanking to the music, and those ladies with their paddles were going crazy. If he kept that up, his auction price was going to clear Walker’s. Which didn’t spark seeds of jealousy so much as relief. He was glad Sophie and Walt were getting the help they needed.

Speaking of which, where had his own winning bidder gone?

A quick glance back over the crowd revealed only one other empty chair, and that had been in the spot R-something had been bidding from.

Yeah, like that didn’t hit him in the ego. She’d just shelled out two grand for him and then, what? She’d bailed? Without lingering to say ‘hi’ or exchange phone numbers, or solidify any date night plans?

Maybe she’d gone to check on Tammi Lou.

Curious, Walker left the noisy living room again and ventured down the hall. It was only because the back-patio wall was all windows and there was a fire still burning in the smoking area that he saw the shadows of R-something, head down, clutching her coat tight around her as she fled for the parking lot.

Okay, now that did hit his ego. Had he taken too long in the bathroom? Did she think he’d ditched her?

A flash of white light startled him. Turning, Walker spotted Lance, tucked back behind his bar with a camera in hand. “That little lady could not get away from you fast enough,” he said with a grin. Chuckling, he examined the digital picture he took. “Oh, yeah, this is going right up on the firehouse Wall of Shame.”

Yeah, this didn’t affect his ego at all.

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The Dance Card by Maren Smith is available only in the Ladder 54 box set, coming Friday, 8/31 but on SALE NOW for the special price of $2.99 for all five stories!!

About me:

Fortunate enough to live with my Daddy Dom, I am a Little, coffee whore, pain slut, administrator at my local BDSM dungeon, resident of the wilds of freakin’ Kansas (still don’t know how I ended up here) and submissive to the love of my life. An International and USA Bestselling Author, I have penned more than 120 novels, novellas and short stories, and am the author of the Masters of the Castle series.

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