Ask Me – Chapter 1

“Interesting cover. Is the book any good?”

Without thinking, Julia flipped the paperback over to look at the image, even though she was intimately acquainted with every detail of it—yet another instance of her cover artist’s intuitive ability to interpret her pathetic excuse for a specification, and come up with something that far exceeded her hopes and expectations. This specific example featured a couple whose relationship was definitely at the kinky end of the spectrum.

“That’s what I’m trying to decide.” Julia made a point of reading each of her books a year after first publication, as a means of identifying ways in which she could hone and polish her writing skills. Three chapters in, and she’d only cringed a handful of times.

“May I join you?”

After the morning she’d had, Julia wasn’t really in the mood for company. That was one of the advantages of traveling in this particular cabin with this particular airline—the way the seats were laid out, it was relatively easy to avoid interacting with fellow passengers. She looked up, intending to refuse graciously, and it was at that point her hormones decided it was carnival time. This outstanding specimen of masculine yumminess was tall and luscious, with an aura of command that had her ovaries snapping off a salute. His attire was as impeccable as his manners, and she couldn’t help but wonder what the story was behind that sexy mid-Atlantic accent.

Now that she thought about it, some conversation might just help to take her mind off the problem with her luggage, which she’d discovered on arriving at the airport. Only the minor matter of a jammed padlock, but she was dreading the possibility of being taken to one side at her destination, and asked to open her cases. Her lurid imagination had her being arrested at the very least for obstruction when she wasn’t able to comply. She didn’t even want to contemplate the possibility of allegations of drug-trafficking and a full body-cavity search…

It wasn’t that she’d forgotten the combination—the blasted thing had just refused point-blank to unlock, no matter what she did. Mentally crossing her fingers, she’d dropped her luggage off at the check-in desk, and sought refuge in the executive lounge. Two glasses of champagne after boarding the aircraft and before their delayed take-off had helped to lessen the sense of panic for a while, at least, but Julia had no intention of landing in New York as a lush-in-training.

“Please—be my guest.” She gestured toward the small ottoman in front of her, which doubled as a seat, so that passengers traveling together could also eat together.

“Thank you.”

Julia sat up a little straighter. Somehow, the man seemed to be even bigger sitting down. As a claustrophobic, personal space was important to her, and this man, with his overwhelming confidence and impossibly long legs, was in danger of encroaching upon hers.

“May I introduce myself? My name’s Mark—Mark Chandler.”

In the space of a second, Julia looked from his face to the hand he offered. As intrigued by the man as she was, when he took her hand and raised it to his lips to kiss her fingers, she became even more so. That mouth looked like it could do scandalously wicked things to a woman.

The contact sent an odd little shiver down her spine. Looks like I might be right about that mouth.

“Julia,” she replied, and didn’t miss the way his eyes flicked toward the book in her other hand. “Julia McKenna. One and the same.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Julia. You’re traveling alone?”

He’d have been in trouble if she hadn’t been, she thought wryly. “It’s a little late for that question, don’t you think, Mr. Chandler?”

To her surprise, he gave a chuckle of warm, intimate laughter that reached out and wrapped itself around her, seeming to isolate the two of them from the rest of the cabin. “Mark, please. Okay, you caught me out.” He held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Yes, I already had a pretty good idea. I didn’t see you with anyone back in the lounge.”

How could she have missed him there? Easily, she realised—her thoughts had been fixated on that stupid lock, and worrying about the possible dire consequences of not being able to open her case on demand once they landed.

Without a great deal of effort, she returned her focus to the man in front of her. He had to be a Brit, she decided, but one who spent a lot of his time in the US. Maybe even an expat who’d gone to make his fortune on Wall Street. He certainly dressed the part, though, in spite of the fact that most of the other passengers in the cabin were attired far more casually.

“Are you admitting to stalking me, Mr.—Mark?” Julia had no idea why, but she felt comfortable enough to tease this captivating stranger a little.

“Would you be upset if I said maybe?”

Good question—was she upset by a confession of stalking made by a very attractive man, one with a disarming smile and a voice that turned her girlie places into a molten mess? Perhaps she should be, but she couldn’t find it in her to object. Besides, a real stalker would hardly admit to it, would he?

“If it’s only maybe, then I think I can deal with it.”

At that point, a member of the cabin crew came around with more champagne, and at Mark’s insistence, a third glass was pressed into Julia’s hand, to accompany the appearance of a small bowl of snacks.

“So, did you forget what you wrote?” He nodded in the direction of the now-discarded novel.

Amusement rather than indignation tailored her response to that question—he was closer to the mark than he probably imagined. “Lest you think I’m some ego-driven prima donna, this is quality control. I make a point of reading all my books after they’ve been out for a while. After a few months, I’ve generally forgotten the details of the plot, which enables me to identify where there’s room for improvement. Lessons learned, as they used to say in my old day job.”

“And is there? Room for improvement?”

“There’s always room for improvement. But that’s enough about this nonsense—what takes you to New York, Mark?”

“I’m actually heading back home. I haven’t lived in England for the better part of a decade now. I’ve just been back for a vacation, and to visit my parents.”

That explained the accent, but more to the point, Julia was wondering if this was merely a coincidence, or if the universe really did move in mysterious ways. All of a sudden, her mood lightened again, though there was no reason why it should. New York was a city of millions—there was zero chance their paths would cross there. More to the point, why was she even imagining that they might?

“I thought I detected a mix of linguistic influences.”

He laughed again, a shorter laugh this time, and somewhat rueful in nature. “Yeah, about that. To my family I sound American, and to my friends and colleagues in the US, I’m still a dyed-in-the-wool Brit. How about you? What takes a writer of—” he went through a minor contortion to get another look at her novel “—erotic romance with a BDSM twist to the Big Apple?”

She tapped the cover of her novel. “I’m attending a conference for writers and readers of this sort of subject matter, both fiction and non-fiction. I fly back next Monday.”

In a way, that left her even more puzzled—he seemed to find the revelation of rather more interest than Julia thought it warranted.

“In that case, perhaps I could take you out to dinner while you’re visiting?”

Well, that was straight to the point. And how she wished she could say yes. She gave a brief, quiet sigh. “Thank you for the invitation. Unfortunately, my evenings are taken up with networking and various conference activities, including visiting a club. Then I fly back the day after it finishes.”

“No time for sightseeing, then?”

Not much, but there were two places she hoped to have time to see—the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station.

Her choices appeared to amuse Mark for a moment, and then he became serious again. “If you do find yourself with a little time on your hands, perhaps you’ll call me.” He offered her a business card.

Yes, she’d been right, he was something on Wall Street, which confirmed he was way out of her league. His social life was probably swarming with wealthy heiresses who could trace their family trees back to the Pilgrim Fathers.

“I appreciate the offer, Mark, but I have to be honest—it’s unlikely I’ll have the opportunity.” Julia hoped he realised her regret was sincere.

“Then will you tell me more about your conference? I’d love to know what’s going to keep you…tied up.”

Surely he hadn’t intended to imbue those last two words with any hidden meaning? Did that little pause make the words more suggestive? Or was it simply her imagination going into overdrive again?

“As I said, it’s for writers and readers of this kind of material, and consists of a series of discussions and workshops.”

“Really? Sounds fascinating. Please, go on.”

“I wish I could. This is the first time I’ve attended the conference, so while I have an idea of the subject areas we’ll be looking at, I’m not really sure what to expect.”

“So you don’t know yet whether you’ll have any hands-on experience?”

“Anything’s possible, although I’m not entirely sure I’m up for being flogged!”

“But if you had the chance to experience it—would you take it?”

The comment was surely supposed to have been throwaway humour, nothing more, but Mark’s quietly voiced, sincere question made Julia squirm a little in her seat, as did the intensity with which he was suddenly regarding her.

“I don’t know—it would certainly be a unique opportunity.”

“In the right hands, a flogger can make your skin glow, and deliver more pleasure than you can imagine.”

She almost stopped breathing. Mark sounded as if he knew exactly what he was talking about, and all of a sudden, the conversation was heading in a direction she wasn’t sure she wanted to follow.

“So I’ve heard, anyway,” he added with a smile, his attitude switching almost instantly to something much more light-hearted. “How about another glass of champagne?”

The remainder of the flight seemed to pass by in the blink of an eye. Mark was attentive, charming, witty and intelligent, and made an excellent traveling companion. Listening to his tales of making the transition to living in the Big Apple was a perfect diversion for Julia, and took her mind completely off the worst-case scenario she’d been concocting regarding her luggage malfunction.

Then—all too soon—they were starting the final approach to JFK. After a smooth landing, the jet taxied to the terminal. When the seatbelt lights finally went off, everyone was milling around in the aisles, preparing to disembark. Somehow Mark had managed to secure a position right behind Julia, so close she could almost feel him. Standing like this, he made her feel ridiculously feminine, almost protected, as if she were the heroine in one of her own novels. Not many men had ever done that.

He remained at her side all the way to the baggage claim area, even waiting with her long after he’d retrieved his own luggage, until her bags came around the carousel. With an impressive show of strength—Julia had packed those cases herself, including a couple of dozen paperback versions of her novels for the book fair at the end of the event, so she knew exactly how deserved those additional Heavy tags were—he lifted her cases onto the trolley as if they weighed next to nothing.

“Thank you for helping me with this, Mark. I’m sorry the bags weighed so much—it’s the books for the fair.”

“Don’t worry—I go to the gym regularly.” His smile wrapped around her one more time. “Julia, it’s been a pleasure getting to know you, and don’t forget—if you do find yourself with a couple of hours to kill, I’m your man. I mean it.”

Oh Lord. When he said it like that, she had trouble breathing, “I’ll remember that—and it’s been a pleasure for me too, Mark.”

“And even if you don’t have a couple of hours…when you get to the hotel, call me. I’d like to know you’ve arrived safely.”

What the hell was happening to her now? Heat pooled low in her belly at the intensity of his tone, and for some eminently stupid reason, Julia could no longer sustain eye contact with him. Had she been describing her reaction in one of her novels, it would have been the classic response of a sub to a Dom.

No. No, no, no. She was obviously more tired than she thought. She wasn’t a sub any more than Mark was a Dom.

And how can you be so sure about that?

Julia fought the temptation to stare after Mark as he strode off in the direction of the line of yellow cabs. During the flight, he’d told her that he had an appointment to get to, once they arrived, and since their departure had been delayed, she didn’t want to hold him up any further. She had the distinct impression that, had she not asserted that she could manage on her own, he’d have insisted on seeing her right to the door of the chauffeur-driven car she’d booked—wherever that might be waiting for her.

What she longed for more than anything was a hot shower and bed—only to realise that her toiletries and nightgown were packed in the suitcase with the troublesome lock. Nothing was ever easy. At least now, all that stood between her and what she most desired was the ride into the city, and the embarrassment of explaining the luggage problem to the hotel receptionist, keeping her fingers crossed that it wasn’t too late for something to be done about it.

After she checked in, Julia could have wept when the young lady at reception informed her that someone from the hotel’s maintenance team would be with her within ten minutes, armed with suitable tools to make short work of the misbehaving lock.

She’d barely gotten to her room before a man in overalls arrived, carrying the largest pair of bolt cutters she’d ever seen. He made short work of the lock, and once he departed, still wearing the rather bemused expression that had appeared when she explained the extent of the problem, she dug out what she needed, and took up residence under the shower.

The hot water felt so good. Finally free of the stress that had dogged her since the early hours—UK time—Julia luxuriated in the bliss of the cascade. When she was done, she dried her hair and then lay down on the bed, fully intending to call Mark in a few minutes.

A few minutes turned into a few hours. She woke with a start, and the first thing she realised was that she hadn’t made her promised call. With a quick glance at the time, she decided it was too late now. Even if Mark remembered asking her to contact him, he’d probably be asleep by this time, anyway. Just in case, though, she decided to send a text.

Sorry, fell asleep. Arrived safely. Julia.

She’d barely put the phone down before it rang.

“I told you to call me, Julia.”

The imperious tone triggered a confusing reaction. On the one hand, part of her wanted to sit up straighter in response to the unexpected reprimand, while on the other, there was a combination of indignation and incredulity, triggering the temptation to remove the phone from her ear and stare at it. “Excuse me?”

The silence on the other end of the phone lasted only a second or two, but she could have sworn she could actually hear Mark’s thought processes figuring out his next comment. Another wave of tiredness swept her straight to the end of her tether and her patience.

“Look, Mark, I’ve had a hellish day, one way or another. I was tired and I wanted a shower before I did anything else. Then I made the mistake of lying down for a few minutes, and before I knew it, I was out for the count. I’m safe, though God knows why you’re so interested in the well-being of someone you only just met.” Maybe he is a stalker after all. “I appreciate your assistance earlier and your concern now, but if you don’t mind, I’ll bid you good night.”

“No, wait, please, Julia.” He paused a moment, then continued. “My apologies. You told me you’d never visited New York before—it can be a minefield for the unwary, and I wanted to reassure myself as to your safety.”

He had a point; she had to concede that much. “Yes, well, I appreciate your interest in my welfare, Mark, but I really do need to get some sleep. It’s a fairly early start tomorrow, and I’m still tired.”

“Understood. Sleep well, and I’ll talk to you soon.”

Julia had a feeling he meant it—not passing acquaintances, then. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that, but exhausted as she still was, she wasn’t sure how she felt about anything other than getting a good night’s rest.

She’d worry about Mark Chandler tomorrow.

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