Her television was blaring when Emma Dupree pulled into the driveway of her tiny two-bedroom bungalow, and a burn ignited in the pit of her stomach. Either lazy burglars had decided to watch her TV before stealing it, or Ron had dropped by. She exited her subcompact and slammed the car door, then stiffened her shoulders and strode to her house. She hoped she was being robbed.
Shoes off, Ron Franklin sprawled on her couch, his sock-clad feet planted on the sofa arm. Her emergency carton of chocolate-chip ice cream lay empty on the coffee table along with several granola bar wrappers.
Emma charged to the sofa, snatched the remote out of Ron’s hand, and switched off the television. “How did you get in here?”
“Hey, I was watching that!” Ron protested.
Emma gnashed her teeth. “I asked how you got in.”
“Maybe you left the door open,” he suggested. “You do that, you know.” Ron sat up and brushed crumbs off his chest. A T-shirt bearing a picture of a fish and the words Kiss My Bass stretched over the head start of a beer belly.
Emma pushed up her glasses and blinked. She distinctly remembered locking both door and the dead bolt. “Try again.”
A trace of guilty color crept over Ron’s unshaven cheeks. Some men looked dashing with a bit of beard; Ron seemed unkempt. Of course, the holey, stained shirt didn’t improve his appearance. Ron dropped his gaze to his grayish, formerly white, socks. “I used your spare key.”
Damnit! She’d gotten her house key back months ago after she and Ron split up, but she’d forgotten about the hidden spare. “Give it to me.” She stuck out her hand.
“I put it under the rock.”
Emma pivoted and marched outside. She lifted the faux boulder and emitted a sigh of relief when she spotted the key. After snatching it up, she tucked it safely into the pocket of her jeans. She’d find another hiding place.
As much as she desired to be organized and focused, Emma tended to be absentminded. She either left the house in a whirl and didn’t secure her door, or forgot her keys and locked herself out of the house. The latter had happened twice in the past month. Hence, the spare.
She stomped inside to find Ron putting on his shoes. Crouched in the corner, Jinx, her ginger tomcat, eyed Ron balefully, his tail swishing with animosity. Jinx had disliked Ron the moment he’d set his golden eyes on him. For the six months she and Ron had lived together, he and Jinx had engaged each other in a not-so-cold war. Ron’s frequent disparaging remarks about Jinx had elicited an immediate retaliatory hiss.
Ron wasn’t a bad person, just unmotivated. He had seemed so wonderfully ordinary at first—a refreshing change to someone who’d been raised by unconventional parents. Ron never acted strange or embarrassing, and Emma thought that they’d shared similar career aspirations. When they’d first met, he talked about moving up in the package delivery company where he worked or of starting his own business, but over time, she realized that was all it was—talk. What she’d mistaken for goals had amounted to pie-in-the-sky dreams. Shuffling through his nine-to-fiver and then slumping in front of the boob tube maxed out his ambition. Ron had employed no real steps to further his career—or their relationship, for that matter. Given the former, the latter resulted in a good thing for Emma.
She planted her hands on her hips. “Why are you here?”
“Maybe I missed you.”
“I wasn’t even home.”
“But I didn’t know that, so I decided to watch the game and wait.”
“So you broke in and helped yourself to my food?”
“I didn’t break in. I used your key.” Ron attempted a lighthearted grin, but Emma was in no mood, and she jabbed her finger in the direction of the door.
“Okay, okay. I’m going.” He raised his hands in defense. “Don’t get your panties in a wad.” He ambled in the direction of the exit. “And you can’t call the stuff you have food. There’s nothing in your fridge except yogurt and lettuce. I don’t know how you live on that stuff.”
Emma glanced pointedly at the empty carton. “You managed to find the ice cream.” She didn’t often indulge in sweets, but kept a small container handy for medicinal purposes.
“I know your hiding places.” His tone dropped to an intimate hum. “I know you, Emma.”
She crossed her arms. “Yeah? What do you know?” she demanded, her ire increasing when Ron ogled her breasts before raising his gaze to her eyes.
“You’ve gotten yourself into some weird shit.”
Emma studied Ron’s smug expression. She figured with 99 percent certainty he was baiting her, but the 1 percent doubt caused unease to skitter along her nerves. “What are you talking about?”
Ron jerked his head at her mini digital recorder on the coffee table. “I was gonna leave you a message. Kind of like ‘ha-ha, guess who.’ I played it first to make sure I wasn’t talking over something important.”
“You listened to my recorder? You have no right to snoop through my stuff.” Emma marched to the door and yanked it open. “Get out!” Her heart hammered. That Ron had invaded her privacy was bad enough; that he might have gleaned what she was working on could be disastrous.
By day, Emma managed an insurance claims call center. But under the nom de plume Cassidy Myles, she moonlighted for the Sentinel Review, writing “CityScape Uncovered,” a column about innocuous tidbits of community life. Until now. She’d stumbled upon a blockbuster story that could catapult her out of corporate drudgery and into a full-time journalism career—provided no one scooped her first.
Ron slouched beside her and folded his arms. At five feet nine, he stood several inches taller than her petite frame, but due to his poor posture, they glared at each other eyeball-to-eyeball.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard women talking about how much they respected their husbands for spanking them. But do you know what really shocked me?” He paused to curl his lips with disgust. “Your voice agreeing with them. What kind of kinky shit are you involved with? And what exactly is the Rod and Cane Society?”
As embarrassing as it was to have Ron believe she participated in “kinky shit,” she preferred it to the alternative—that he knew she was writing about kinky shit. He could be a blabbermouth, and if he leaked her idea, it could jeopardize the biggest career opportunity of her life.
Who could have imagined an organization of men who asserted their right to spank their wives to maintain “domestic discipline”? Or that the women bought into the crazy idea, insisting it was their duty to submit? And that the organization counted among its membership several judges, a mayor, a state representative, and a couple of prominent actors?
“No comment.” Brazenly she met his challenging stare.
Ron leaned in close enough for her to see the pores on his cheeks. “Is that why things didn’t work out between us? You wanted to be spanked?”
Emma recoiled She’d liked this man once, had had pleasant, if somewhat ordinary, sex with him. She couldn’t imagine letting him touch her now—or God forbid, spank her. She lifted her chin and stood her ground. “I am not going to discuss this with you. Please go.”
“Okay.” He shrugged. “Spanking isn’t my thing, but if it floats your boat, I could give it a try.” He whacked her ass sharply with his palm before he strutted to the open door. “You know where to reach me.”
A streak of orange flashed in her periphery. “No, Jinx! Grab him!” Emma lunged for her cat but only managed to graze his tail as he raced by Ron and shot out the door. “No! Come back, Jinx! Jinx!” she called. She sprinted after him, but the cat tore down the walk as if on fire and disappeared down the street.
She stomped into the house and glared at Ron. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
“You know I can’t catch him. He doesn’t like me.”
He dropped his gaze to Emma’s ass. “If you change your mind…” Ron swaggered out, and Emma slammed the door.
Ron was right. Given Jinx’s antipathy, the cat wouldn’t come if Ron was with her. But he could have offered to help, damnit!
She knew better than to leave the front door wide open. Like most cats—or people, for that matter—Jinx desired what he couldn’t have. Since she wouldn’t allow him outside, he considered it his mission to escape at every opportunity, which he achieved with regularity. Each time it happened, she vowed to be more diligent but then forgot, and in a flash, Jinx would make a break for it.
Emma trudged to the kitchen. Fortunately whenever he escaped, he didn’t go far, and she could usually lure in the gluttonous feline with a treat.
She had planned to spend the afternoon reviewing her Rod and Cane Society story to ensure it was perfect before she e-mailed it to her editor. Despite frequent jabs by her conscience, her procrastination in submitting it owed nothing to guilt or ambivalence about her research methods. Nothing at all. That’s what she told herself, anyway. Rod and Cane was her big chance, and she intended to grab it with both hands.
She’d stumbled across the story while researching a column about the personal and private things people threw away. While Dumpster diving in an upscale neighborhood, she’d found a book. Its masculine, hand-tooled leather cover bore only the words “Rod and Cane Society” and the previous year’s date in a gold-embossed serif typeface. As she thumbed through the parchment pages, her curiosity became aroused. The booklet was a membership manual containing bylaws, a directory, committee listings—typical boring organizational stuff. But nowhere could she locate an explanation of what Rod and Cane did. The premium placed on secrecy and privacy was further evidenced by a subsection under “Rules of Conduct,” which stated that any member who violated the confidentiality of the organization would be disciplined. What kind of civic organization did that? And what exactly did Rod and Cane mean by discipline?
With secrecy and care, she managed to infiltrate Rod and Cane’s offshoot for women: the Wives Auxiliary. Now, after months of undercover work, all she had to do was clamp a lid on the story until it ran at the end of the month. Hopefully Ron would keep his trap shut. Emma sighed, tucked a cat food can into the pocket of her hoodie, and went to get Jinx.