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“Whoa. How’d you and Boden get to be friends?”

Dalton looked Ben in the eye. “At the Rawhide Club.”

That shocked his cousin. “Wait. Are you a member?”

“Guest.” Dalton’s face heated as it did every time he thought about how he’d reacted after seeing something he hadn’t understood. “Look, Ben, that’s the most humiliating thing I’ve ever done—calling your brothers and staging an intervention about your sex life. Not even walkin’ out on my own wedding holds a candle to that boneheaded moment in my life.”

“You gotta know that’s been over and done with for a long time.” He sipped his beer. “So the club must’ve made an impression on you if you’re still goin’ there…six years later?”

“The place—the whole situation opened my eyes. So a few months after you resigned from the club, I went in and ended up talkin’ to Layla.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed. “What did she say?”

“Nothin’ about you or Ainsley. That wasn’t why I went in. I wanted to understand more about that lifestyle choice ’cause it was pretty fucking obvious I didn’t have a clue.”

“And? What’d you learn?”

“More than anything I learned different strokes for different folks.”

Ben choked on his beer and Dalton laughed.

“Got ya there, cuz.”

“Smart ass.”

“Eventually I learned there ain’t no one-size-fits-all sexual playbook. I stopped in and I took in scenes, figuring I’d try them out in the privacy of my own bed. I assumed once I had the right sex moves down I wouldn’t have to try so hard with women. I’d be a killer lay.” Dalton shook his head. “Jesus. This is really embarrassing to admit, so just tell me to shut the fuck up and we can go back to kitchen remodeling.”

Ben shook his head. “Keep talkin’.”

Dalton chugged most of his beer. “Without goin’ into specifics, I’ve been in some pretty fucked up situations with women over the years. I never quite…got it. Hell, I even hooked up with a lesbian for a while so she could teach me about women. Didn’t work. I think she knew less about what women wanted than I did.”

Ben chuckled.

“I’m not qualifying this, but I never participated in any activities at the Rawhide. Not out of fear, or worry about bein’ judged.”

“Then why abstain? It is a sex club.”

“Because when it came to sex I’d always acted first and didn’t consider the results of my actions until it was too late.”

“When did you come to that realization?”

“After Tell and Georgia got married in Vegas. Hot women were coming on to me only because they thought I had money. When I got back home, I realized women were coming on to me because my last name was McKay. Or some women were avoiding me because of my shitty reputation as a wannabe player.” He felt like such a fucking pussy talking about this shit with his cousin Bennett, legendary Dominant.

Ben leaned forward. “I’m not judging you. Anything you tell me stays between us, okay? And it seems to me you need someone to talk to.”

“Probably.” Now that Rory was in the picture, he didn’t want to screw this up with her. “So I needed to rethink my entire approach to women, to sex, and what I wanted out of it. That’s why I went to the club a couple years later again.”

“So what did you learn about yourself?”

“I’m more tolerant than I believed I could be. Watchin’ some of those scenes just reinforced my stance that I’ll never use a flogger on a woman, or a whip, or a strap.” A shudder of revulsion rolled through him, though he tried like hell to repress it. “I doubt I’d even be interested in playful spanking.”

“Why not?”

Dalton shrugged. “Just not my thing.”

“That ain’t all of it, Dalton.” Then he pulled out the Dom voice. “Tell me.”

First time he’d heard that tone from Bennett. He sighed. “If I tell you, you gotta understand I’m not lookin’ for pity.”

“Now you’ve got me concerned.”

Where in the hell did he even start this? Better to just barf it out upfront. “Casper…used to beat me with a strap. Started when I was seven and ended after I got bigger than him. He did it in private and embarrassment kept me from telling anyone. Every time Casper lit into me with that leather, he recounted all the things wrong with me and what I’d done wrong, so it was physical and verbal abuse.”

Ben stayed quiet for several moments. “Christ, Dalton, is that why you freaked out when you saw me usin’ the whip on a member in the club?”

Dalton couldn’t meet Ben’s eyes. “Yeah. The only experience I had with any type of beating was forced, so I didn’t understand why someone would want to get whipped. Nor did I understand that not all people who wield the whip are sadistic bastards. I associated any hitting with shame and the strong preying on the weak.”

“I need another goddamned beer,” Ben said and took out two bottles, passing one to Dalton.

“I wondered if Uncle Charlie had used the ‘spare the strap, spoil the child’ philosophy on you or your brothers.”

“Nope. But I can see why you’d think my former whip expertise stemmed from dealing with childhood trauma.” He pointed his beer bottle at Dalton. “Kinda like you used to act out by getting into all them dust ups with any guy who looked at you crossways.”

“I had a fucked up need to prove I could defend myself—probably why I instigated half of the fights.”

“The only time I remember my dad raising his hand to one of us was when Chase was five. He ran out in front of the tractor when Dad was picking up hay bales. Dad jumped outta the cab so fast, grabbed Chase by one arm and spanked the living crap out of him. Me’n Quinn were shocked. Then Dad knelt in the dirt and got right in Chase’s face. Talked to him, hugged the shit out of him and made him sit in the cab with him for the rest of the day. Which was the worst sort of punishment for Chase.” Ben paused. “Your brothers didn’t know when it was goin’ on?”

Dalton picked at the label of his beer bottle. “One night after too many shots of Jagermeister I told Tell about Casper’s random whippings when I was a kid. Shocked him because Casper used to smack me in front of them sometimes and Tell thought that’s all there was to it. Sounds fun, don’t it?”

“Not even remotely.” Ben seemed to chug half his beer. “Your mom wasn’t aware of what was goin’ on in her own house?”

He looked at Ben. “It didn’t go on in the house and it never happened when she was home. My fuckin’ big-mouthed brother Tell spilled his guts about it to her after I told him.” He drained his beer and twisted the cap on a new one. “The next day she tracked me down and…” That was one of the worst days of Dalton’s life. Seeing his mother crumble. It’d crushed him knowing she’d carry guilt that wasn’t her burden to bear. Especially seeing her broken after witnessing her transformation into a stronger, independent woman after she’d left Casper. Which was why Dalton wouldn’t tell her about his conversation with Casper three years ago. It would shatter her all over again.

“Don’t blame you for not bein’ the forgive and forget type when it comes to him. Do your brothers expect that from you?”

“They’re havin’ a hard time forgiving me for bein’ almost completely out of touch for three years. Now that I’m here…I don’t wanna sit in Casper’s room for hours on end while he glares at me and refuses doctor’s orders.”

“My dad said the same thing after he visited.”

“And Casper wonders why he doesn’t have hardly any visitors.” He swigged his beer. “I assumed the cousins are still pissed off at me because they think I took off three years ago and left my brothers holding the bag.”

“Holdin’ the bag.” Ben snorted. “I can’t speak for anyone besides me’n Quinn, but we never saw it that way. No one blinked when Chase took off for different pastures. Or when Carter did. Or when Cam did. Brandt and Tell ain’t been suffering from work overload bein’s that Jessie and Georgia are sharing part of their daily work.”

Dalton sighed. “How’d we get on this subject anyway? I thought we were talkin’ about my life in Montana. You and Ainsley ever been up to Boden’s hunting lodge?”

“Nope. He’s invited us to visit but it’s never fit into our schedule. Boden’s not a cattle man so he doesn’t understand calving.” He stood. “Look, I’m glad you told me about this stuff even though it burns my ass that you went through it alone, say nothin’ of when you were a little kid. Obviously in your time away you found a way to deal with it, or heal from it or whatever.” Ben’s eyes were somber. Conflicted. “Lemme know if you wanna talk. Or if you need an extra hand with the handyman stuff.”


He slipped on his coat. “Oh, heads up in two weeks we’re playing poker at my place.”

“Texas Hold’em?”

Ben snorted. “Regular poker. Not that made-for-TV game that relies on luck, not card skill.”

If Dalton had a buck for every time he’d heard that. Wait. He did—from playing Texas Hold’em with guys who had that same attitude. He took their money and smiled. “Who’s we?”

“Just the cousins. Been a while and I figured we could gauge if your public tournament loss changed the way you play.”

It had changed him. Not only in the way he played cards, but how he could strip everything down to the basics. Cut and run if he needed to, or bluff his way into a better position if need be. “I’m in. But I don’t wanna hear any bitching when I clean all you guys out.”

“That’s not fair! You’re cheating.”