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In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact, to shatter and destroy it is not so good.
The Art of War
The corset tightened, and Grayson let out his last breath of freedom, finally at ease. Corsets were popular with the men of Victorian society, but the reason he wore a corset was different from the rest. For them it was vanity, a softness of the waist, or a straighter posture. But for him? He had no need for help with posture or waistline. His structure was not at issue.
Grayson needed the binding and the constriction, the pain of the tension and the relief when it released.
Grayson breathed against the steel bones, letting them pinch as he watched the process in the cheval mirror. If he took a deep enough breath, if he held it long enough then shifted, he could bruise his skin where the boning crossed his ribs.
He put his hands against the front of the corset and breathed again, waiting for as long as he could before exhaling, then he used his muscles to prolong that feeling.
The pinch. The burn. The release.
Then he nodded to his valet in the mirror’s reflection, and his shirt was brought to him. Then his waistcoat.
Grayson wasn’t looking forward to today. It took everything in him to not run, leave Britain, and return to India—his home. It’s where he felt safest. Here in England, a country he’d wished to never see again, he was constantly on edge. Terrified he would be discovered. There was too much scrutiny here, particularly for a man like him.
The fact that chance or fate or whatever machination would take his father and brothers without warning, without so much as an inkling, was beyond cruel. That today he was to meet the woman his father had contracted for his oldest brother, the woman he would marry, the woman who was now to become his duchess, was beyond him. Grayson couldn’t fathom marriage to anyone, but to a society miss? The daughter of a duke? A highborn lady who would expect certain things from him? This was truly unfathomable.
This woman would be in his life and in his house. It would be impossible to escape her. The fact that he was an honorable man never rankled more than it did now. Honor was all he truly had, when the rest of him was…what he was, and he would be forced to hide who he was even in his own house, where he slept.
To live out his greatest fear in life, to be a man of society, a husband, a father, a proper gentleman—he choked suddenly and leaned over, his breath stolen from him. He rested his hands on his knees at the thought, attempting to catch his breath as the corset bit into his lower abdomen.
“Too tight, Your Grace?” Rakshan asked as he held Grayson’s jacket.
Grayson lifted one hand and waved him off, unable to voice an answer. Breathing in through his nose, he stood tall again then pushed his arms back behind him. Rakshan slid his coat up his arms then yanked the tail, straightened the shoulders, walked in front of him, and buttoned him up. Then he pulled the brush from the dressing table and slid it across his chest, shoulders, and back.
Grayson closed his eyes and settled into the calm of the movements on him. He would need to take that calm with him today to meet the woman he would marry. The future Duchess of Warrick, his dead brother’s fiancée, the woman who would prevent him from ever being himself.
He may not miss his family for the reasons people believed he should, but miss them he did, because they were all that had prevented him from becoming who he now had to be.
Lulu snapped the single tail just to the left of Oliver’s shoulder, letting the sonic boom send shudders through his muscles. She loved the dance of muscle as it rippled across the back of a client, the skin undulating like a soft wave carried to shore. She snapped it again quickly, this time on the right before the first ripple had a chance to make its way fully across the broad expanse of his back—and Oliver did have the loveliest back.
With near-perfect symmetry and structure, he was simply beautiful with his arms stretched out to the bedposts above his head. The canvas of his physique, almost flawlessly balanced, could not have been more suited to her art.
He pulled against the bindings on his wrists, his muscles tightening in the center and stiffening his spine. The tension straightened his back as the lats on both sides flexed. The action made his back even bigger and more impressive, exactly what she needed him to do, exactly as she had instructed, throughout his training.
Lulu waited for him to steady, then she struck him in earnest. First on the left just below his scapula, then on the right without pause.
she would give him the wings they’d worked so hard for.
She picked up the second bullwhip and tested the air with both bullwhips in tandem. This was her special trick and hers alone, and her clients paid thousands for the honor of it.
She followed the pattern of his muscles down his lats, not letting him breathe between the strikes because the tension played out in his back. The feathers of his wings, made by the welts of the whips, needed to follow his natural musculature in order to look perfect. It was a difficult and practiced dance. Each strike had to be exact, because she wasn’t to draw blood, yet, and it was incredibly easy to draw blood with a single tail. Much too easy.
For her part, the muscle control required of her had taken years to perfect, the ability to strike in tandem with an exacting weight and placement was nearly impossible. She practiced daily and worked her shoulders and back twice weekly to train out all signs of dominance on her left side. She worked harder than anyone else had ever considered doing. That’s why the clients paid, and they got exactly what they paid for.
Lulu painted his lats with the red feathers, different weights and lengths of strikes making different patterns until he looked as though his back would physically give birth to the wings she put there.
She set the bullwhips aside and picked up the Wartenberg wheel to add more subtle texture to the feathers. Then the evil stick for the center of the wings, for additional definition. She used multiple tools to complete her work, each leaving a different pattern.
She didn’t use the bullwhip where the bone was close to the surface, because the chance of drawing blood was much too high. Instead, she used the floggers to paint broad strokes, then the wheel and the stick to define. The final effect was well-defined crests with fluffier-looking feathers down to the tips, but it was the last feather that sold the piece.
She picked up her whips again for the final strikes, the most painful of all. They would hit the soft hollows below his ribs, carefully avoiding his kidneys, and painting the final, long feathers that would go from his sides to just on either side of his spine. The feathers would bracket those beautiful dimples in a searing pain he would remember for the rest of his days. These would bleed, but only slightly, and only because he’d asked for them to.
He yelled into it, a deep, throaty growl. They always did, if not during the process at least during the last strike. None of her subs could contain themselves through that final strike—blood or no.
Lulu dropped the bullwhips and inspected his back. The small cuts at his lower back bled two small rills of blood that slid easily into the dimples at his spine, pooling there. “Don’t move,” she whispered.
She walked to him and leaned across his back, careful to avoid streaking the blood while brushing his newly formed wings with her corseted breasts, running her fingers down his sides, at the very edges of his feather welts.
“Don’t move, don’t breathe, we’re almost there,” she whispered over his shoulder into his ear. Her breath sent goose bumps across his skin, his welts, causing shudders of pain to rack his body once again. She loved the sound that came from the depth of his rib cage. She wrapped her hands around his waist, skimming her thumbs just at the edges of the last welts to the center of his spine.
“Thank you, Domina,” he breathed, his voice tense and hard but gracious, and she was brought to life in that. She hit a switch on the wall, then walked to her camera. The lighting was set, the stage created. All Lulu had to do was check the focus and press the shutter, and they would both have a permanent reminder of why they were here.
She stared into the ground glass at the upside-down reversed image to check the framing. “Don’t move, my darling,” she said as she made the final adjustments to the focus. This was one of her best yet, and she had the beautiful man before her to thank for it.
She grinned and gave a little booty shake at her excitement, but when she stepped to the side to take up the shutter release, her heel caught on the tripod and her ankle rolled. Her hand flew out to grab anything to help steady herself, catching the leg of the tripod. As the camera tipped she went down hard, hitting her head on the floor, the camera crashing down with her.
The entire thing landed just in front of her as though she were composing an image, their legs tangled like lovers. She could see the back of the camera, the image out of focus, the tilted room projected on the shattered glass, the wings she’d only just created attempting to take flight as Oliver fought against his cuffs.
She blinked, struggling to keep her eyes open, focusing intently on the back of her camera one more time to try to keep herself from passing out. As she felt the warmth of blood pooling beneath her skull. she heard him yell her name, but she could do nothing but close her eyes and dream of wings.
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