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Den of Iniquity Ch. 09

My eyes were closed and Annie's silky hair caressed my face. With my arms around her and her back to me, we were lying on my bed recovering from our fun with the remote-controlled egg. My fingertips trailed lightly up and down her side, and I enjoyed listening to her quiet cooing.

The minutes ticked by. We had a big night ahead, but neither of us wanted to break the spell. Finally I opened my eyes and lifted my head, looking for the time. It was near enough to 5.30 P.M. I smiled to myself when I noticed the egg and remote sitting on top of the clock radio. Easing my head back down to the pillow, I sighed contentedly and kissed the back of Annie's shoulder. Her breathing had evened out and it was clear she was now asleep.

Oh well, I thought. Time to start getting organised. I decided to let her nap for a few more minutes while I made us some coffee. Gently I slipped my arm from under her neck and stood by the side of the bed, looking down on her. I trailed my eyes down her body and back up again, admiring the curves camouflaged by the brand new white silk sheet wrapped around her. She looked so calm and serene.

I went to the kitchen to make a nice strong brew. For the life of me, I couldn't recall how Annie took hers at the coffee shop a mere few hours before. So I made her a standard 'white and one'.

Placing the two cups on the bedside table, I sat on the edge of the bed and gently shook Annie's shoulder. "Annie... It's time to wake up, pet."

"Hmmm? Huh? Mmmmmmm..." Rolling onto her back, she stretched overhead and her breasts strained against the sheet covering her. "Hello, Sir," she said sleepily, her eyes half open.

"Hello," I said, picking up my coffee and bringing it to my lips, smiling and sipping.

"May I have one of those?" she said, nodding and looking at the mug in my hand.

"It's right here but I couldn't remember how you took it," I said, passing her the cup as she yawned and sat up cross-legged on the bed, tucking the sheet around herself and under her arms.

"White, no sugar, Sir." She took a sip and immediately screwed up her nose. "Ewww... that's icky." She held out the cup and pouted. "I want a new one, honey."

I was so surprised by her behaviour I couldn't speak for a moment. Finding my voice, I raised an eyebrow and said, "We've only just started this, Annie."

The bratty smirk evaporated and she went white as a sheet. "I... I was just... kidding, Sir. T... Testing you. I didn't mean to-"

"I see." If she was testing me, she hadn't wasted any time doing it. I couldn't keep the concern from my face as the seconds passed. "I'd rather you didn't do that," I said finally.

"God," she breathed, biting her lip.

"What is it?"

"You're just a little bit scary when you get serious, Sir," she whispered, smiling hopefully.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't assume, Annie."

"Yes, Sir. I... I promise. I really was just testing you, Sir. Subs are supposed to test their Doms so they know their limits, Sir. I... I was curious about how you would react if I was naughty, and um, I got my answer loud and clear, Sir."

"I'm glad you 'got your answer', Annie, but there is still something wrong with this picture. I think you should go and fix your coffee while I think about what I want to say."

"I'm sorry, Sir. I just..."

I held up my hand and she stopped talking. I would give her a chance to explain herself in a minute. In the meantime I wanted to make sure of something. "I don't want you calling me anything but Roger or Sir. Understood?"

"Yes, Sir."

"But I'd like to have a pet name for you. We'll talk about it later."

"You could call me 'kitten', Sir," she offered, seeming to like the idea.

"Hmmm... We'll see. Until I decide, I'll just call you pet. You don't mind me calling you 'pet', do you?"

"Not at all, Sir. I like it." She grinned.

"Okay," I said, smiling a little. Then I added, "When you are good enough."

"Y... Yes, Sir," she whispered.

"Grab a t-shirt from the second draw. Everything to fix your coffee is on the kitchen counter. When you've made it, come back here and we'll talk."

"Yes, Sir!" She fairly leapt out of bed, throwing on one of my shirts and racing through the door. While she was gone I arranged two pillows on the floor so she could kneel comfortably. She returned with eyes down, immediately recognising why the pillows were on the carpet. She put her cup on the bedside table and stopped in front of me.

"Kneel here," I said, pointing down at the pillows.

"Can I please s... say something? Please, Sir?" she begged as she glided to her knees, lacing her fingers together in her lap. I nodded. "Thank you, Sir." She took a deep breath. "Sir, sometimes I'm a little... impatient? I don't like it but sometimes I just say things without thinking. I'm sorry if I 'assumed' earlier, Sir. I promise I'll do better."

"Good. As long as you try, I'll be happy." Nodding, she bit her lip and remained quiet, so I proceeded. "Annie, I'm very new at this, and I'm going to be need you for guidance on occasions. But I have a good grasp of the fundamentals. And I know what I like and don't like, even if I can't rattle off accurate examples beforehand."

"I'll make mistakes sometimes, Sir," Annie whispered.

"Without a doubt. And that's okay as long as, like I said, you are trying."

"Y... Yes, Sir."

"I want to base our relationship on honesty, trust and respect. A two way street, Annie. If we are honest with each other, then we can build trust and respect." She nodded softly, her light blue eyes gazing into mine, listening intently. "If you don't know something, or are not sure of something, whether it's something about me that you would like to know, or something you want to do, or want me to do... if you are not sure, then you are to ask, and in a pleasing manner."

"Y... Yes, Sir," she breathed, blushing hotly.

"Don't try to manipulate me for your own ends. Ask me. No more 'kidding' or playing games." I sighed. Annie looked like she might cry. "Listen carefully, because I'm not going to say this again, okay?" She nodded. "I don't want any crap, Annie. As God knows, I've taken enough of it over the years. By that I mean no arguing or talking back, I won't stand for it. You and I will discuss things, not argue. And I would suggest you steer clear of sarcasm. To me, sarcasm is having a personal joke at someone else's expense. I will expect better from my submissive."

"Y... Your submissive..." she said softly. I nodded and she looked down at her hands, sighing softly.

"Just be straightforward with me. If you want something, whether it be reassurance or a desire or a need or a want of any kind, just ask."

She swallowed. "I'm really sorry I disappointed you, Sir."

"There will be times when you will, Annie. And they will require an intervention that is in proportion to what you have done, and releases you from the guilt you feel."

"A... A punishment, Sir."

I nodded slowly, watching her eyes. "Like now. You feel guilty right now, don't you?"

"Y... Yes, Sir. I feel really stupid and guilty about d... disappointing you." Again I thought she might cry.

"Okay, we'll take care of that in a minute, all right?"

"Yes please, Sir. I want to be able look forward, not back."

"That's my girl," I said, holding out my arms and smiling as she climbed into them. She sat on my lap and we cuddled and I said everything was all right. I told her I understood about punishments and how once received, the slate was clean. One had 'paid for their sin'. She nuzzled my neck and nodded, listening to me. I wanted her to know what I was thinking, so I whispered it while she rested her head on my shoulder and I gently rocked her. "Look, I know I'm harking back to some bad experiences I've had in the past, but this life, this way, fits me so well. I've tried being the sensitive, new age guy... When I was married, I tried to be everything my ex-wife wanted. I couldn't do it. It wasn't me, Annie. I ended up miserable and depressed, being taken advantage of and feeling like nothing I did was right. I need to live my life the way I want to live. To be the way I want to be. And I want you to come with me."

She nodded, cuddling me tighter.

"There's another thing I need to tell you, thinking about past experiences... something that really gets up my nose, it's, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' I really don't like that. My ex-wife used to say it all the time whenever I asked her something she didn't feel like answering." She giggled softly, then sniffed. She had been crying. I lifted her chin with my finger and watched as a sparkling tear fell from the corner of her eye, trickling down her cheek. I gently brushed it away with the back of my fingers.

"I... I want to learn what pleases you, Sir. More than anything." Another tear fell from her other eye and she quickly wiped it with the back of her wrist. "I can be so stupid sometimes. I'm here with you and I can hardly believe my luck. Sometimes I'm not very good with words, and because I'm afraid of screwing up, I can't find the right ones to say what I mean."

"I understand. And that's okay. Over the coming days and weeks, I will teach you what pleases me mentally, physically, and emotionally. You will need to listen and learn. Me too, by the way."

"I will, Sir. Earlier I was thinking too much and got way ahead of myself, just like you said, Sir. I'm so sorry. I don't usually 'top from the bottom'."

"'Top from the bottom'?"

"As in, deliberately do something so you do something, Sir. Um, I'm not sure if that makes sense."

"You mean like, manipulate?"

"Yes, Sir. But that sounds even worse." She sighed.

"It displeased me, Annie. And you don't want to displease me, do you?"

"No, Sir. I want to be so pleasing to you... I want you to always look at me like you did in the coffee shop, Sir."

I cuddled her tightly and whispered in her ear. "Good girl."

She snuggled into me and asked hopefully, "Um... Sir?"

I leaned back and looked into her eyes. I had a feeling I knew what she was going to say. "Yes, Annie?"

"Does this mean I'm not in trouble?" she asked, smiling sweetly. Her eyes sparkled with mischief. She knew she was pushing it.

I chuckled. "Oh, we are gonna have such fun. No, it means you are due your first punishment. We better discuss what form it will take."

She took a deep breath. "Y... Yes, Sir."

I watched as the blush grew in her cheeks and I spoke quietly. "You need to be punished now, don't you Annie?"

The words tumbled from her mouth. "Y... Yes, Sir. I should be. I want to have a good time at the party, and I can't if I keep reminding myself of how stupid I was."

I slid my fingers into her hair and tightened them, slowly pulling her head back, exposing her neck. "What are you sorry for?" I asked softly as her back began to arch.

"I... I'm sorry for pushing you, for provoking you. I'm sorry for being a brat and t... testing your dominance, Sir. Oohhh..."

I tightened my grip further. "You were naughty and should be punished, shouldn't you?"

"Yes, S... Sir," she said breathlessly. "I just want to start over, Sir. I... I was stupid and assumed and ohhh..."

"Go on."

"I... I want a clean slate... s... so I can move forward with my thoughts on you, not on what I've done. I... I want to receive what I'm due, to show you I am serious, that I want to earn your forgiveness so I can move forward, now, with you, t... together."

"I'm very pleased by what you are saying. But I also think, in the beginning, it's important I'm firm with you. That way, I will show you my resolve, and show you it's important to me that you strive. You need to learn your lesson, and you have to realise I do this because I care, and because I expect more from you."

"Y... Yes, Sir. I understand. I'll accept whatever you decide."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. I trust you to punish me no more nor less than I deserve, Sir." I slid my fingers from her hair and her body relaxed, though she was breathing hard.

"All right, stand up." She climbed off my lap and took a step back, standing with her head bowed and her hands behind her back. I stood up in front of her and whispered, "Give me your hands." Taking them in mine, I spoke quietly and she lifted her eyes to mine. "It gives me no joy to punish you, Annie. Especially after the wonderful day we've had."

"Yes, Sir. I'm sorry I disappointed you."

"Okay." Releasing her hands and turning around, I dragged the quilt right off the bed and tossed it on the floor. I took a good look at the Velcro inserts sewn into the sheet covering the bed, ripping one open and closed, satisfying myself. I patted the bed where I wanted her and spoke. "Hands and knees, right here." Annie climbed lengthways onto the bed near the edge, and I strapped her wrists together with the Velcro. "Don't fall off."

"I won't, Sir."

I checked how tightly I'd secured her wrists. "I admit you could probably free yourself from these ties, but it is my wish that you do not attempt to do so."

"I won't, Sir. I'll be good. I just want it over with," she said, trying to smile.

"I am going to paddle you, Annie. And I'm going to need your help."

She looked up at me, a blush creeping up her cheeks. "Yes, Sir. Anything." I leaned down on my haunches and reached under the bed. The paddle had come in its own felt bag and I dragged it out. Annie watched me intently as I undid the clip that gathered the top part of the bag together and opened it, sliding the paddle out and tossing the bag on top of the quilt. "Wow," she said.

"Like it?"

"It's um... it's beautiful, Sir. Can we play with it another day, when I haven't been so stupid?"

"We'll see," I winked.

"Yes, Sir," she bit her lip, this time trying not to smile.

"C'mon. Let's be serious. You're not supposed to be enjoying this."

She composed herself. "Yes, Sir. I'll be good. I'm just nervous."

"All right then," I said, slapping the heavy paddle against my palm. "Let's do this."

She looked up at me as I stood beside the bed. "Can I put my head down, Sir?"

"Sure... um, why?" I thought maybe she didn't want to watch.

"I think it would probably look nicer, Sir," she said, her blush intensifying.

I couldn't help but smile. "All right then, head down and arch your back."

"Y... Yes, Sir."

For a moment I stood there, admiring her while I caressed the smooth leather of the paddle subconsciously.

Hmmm... Maybe I should paddle her with the studded side. No, that would hurt too much. But isn't it supposed to hurt? It won't hurt too much if I don't swing it too hard. I'll work up to it. How many? Should I tell her how many? She said she trusted me. Hmmm... The noise would be better on the smooth side, wouldn't it? It would be louder, but with less force. The noise should give her more of a fright and less pain. She should fear being punished, shouldn't she? How many was that again?

I spoke under my breath. "Fuck."

She turned her eyes up to me again. "What is it, Sir?"

I sighed. "I don't want to hurt you."

"It's not about hurting me, Sir. It's about correcting me. It's supposed to make me think before I do the same thing again."

"I don't know how many is the right amount. I mean, how many do you deserve? And how hard?"

"I deserve to be punished to your satisfaction, Sir."

I looked back down at the paddle. She was right. She had tried to screw with my head, tried to make things happen that didn't naturally happen. She'd 'topped' me and she was definitely not supposed to do that. I have to deal with it! I looked into her eyes, fresh determination in mine. "I'm going to tap it against you a few times, to get a feel for the weight and the force I want, Annie."

"Much like a cane, Sir."

"I've never used a cane, either."

"Then you probably should get one, Sir. 'Cause I have a feeling you're gonna need it." She giggled. "Um, sorry, Sir."

"All right."

"Like most things, Sir, it's up to you. I will accept the punishment you choose to give me. Just be consistent and fair. I'll get used to it."

"You're gonna have a sore ass tonight, Annie." I smiled ruefully.

"It's okay, Sir. It'll be a good reminder."

I checked the time. It was starting to run out. "Okay then, here goes." I tapped the paddle against her ass a few times.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

"Mmmmmm..." she murmured.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

"Okay. Get ready." I drew my arm back, feeling the muscles tighten. I swung down into the meat of her ass cheek about a quarter as hard as I could.

SLAP!

I was amazed at the sound. Almost like a thudding hand-slap, only louder. Much louder! The paddle bounced back off her ass. I wasn't ready for it to recoil like that. I firmed up my wrist a bit. Annie hardly even moved. She shuddered a little and gasped. "Is that about right?" I asked.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

"J... Just do it!" she begged, her eyes screwed closed. I steadied us both with a hand on the small of her back, and swung the paddle again, this time just a little harder.

SLAP!!!

She shuddered, a tiny moan coming from her chest. "Ohh!!"

SLAP!!!

I was aiming at alternate cheeks.

SLAP!!!

SLAP!!!

SLAP!!!

I drew the paddle back again and hesitated. Wait! Check! Taking a breather, I let the paddle hang loosely and caressed her ass, smoothed my hand over each of the cheeks. They were a light pink and quite warm to the touch... "You are doing well, relax a moment," I said. Listening to her shuddering breaths, I watched awed as her ass slowly reddened over the next sixty seconds. It was quite amazing. Her ass went from pink, to dark pink, to a light red colour. I was pleased with the look. I whispered, "Ten to go."

"Y... Yes, Sir."

I decided to end this quickly. "Grit your teeth, Annie."

"O... Okay."

"One every second, okay?"

"Y... Yes."

"Count them."

She moaned softly.

SLAP!!!

"Ohh, one!"

SLAP!!!

"T... Two."

SLAP!!!

"THREE!"

SLAP!!!

"Ohh! F... Four."

SLAP!!!

"F... FIIIVVE!"

I stopped and Annie groaned. "Are you okay?"

"Y... Yes."

"Five to go, Annie."

"Please, Sir. Just finish."

"Okay. No counting."

She nodded.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

"I'll finish when you are punished."

Tap. Tap. Tap.

"Yes, Sir. Sorry, Si-"

SLAP!!! SLAP!!! SLAP!!! SLAP!!! SLAP!!!

"OOOOOHHHH!!!" Annie collapsed on the bed facing away from me and I stood stock still over her, panting with the exertion. She moaned softly, holding her red-hot ass cheeks.

I watched her closely and she breathed deeply, almost wheezing. Her moaning trailed off and she shuddered a little, her breath catching. I retrieved a tissue from the bedside table and dangled it over her shoulder within her vision. She sniffled and took it from my hand. "Thank you," she said softly.

I didn't trust myself. I suddenly felt afraid. Perhaps I'd really hurt her. Jesus. "Please say you are okay," I asked in a whisper.

"I... I'll be okay, I just need a moment."

I sighed in relief. "Good... okay... Then um, I'll be back in a couple of minutes to check on you."

"O... Okay." She tucked her fists under her chin. She sniffled again and cleared her throat. Speaking a little louder, she made a good suggestion. "If... If it would please you, y... you could take your shower now, Sir."

"I... Yes. All right. Yeah, that's a good idea. Are you sure you'll be okay? I'll be like a few minutes. Maybe ten..."

"Relax, Sir. I'll be fine. May I have a cold washcloth, please?"

"I'll just get it. Would you like a glass of water as well?"

"Sir?"

"Yes, Annie?"

She lifted her head and turned towards me, then laid back down on the pillow, looking up at me. "I'm fine, Sir. I've had worse. Please don't worry."

I sighed and ran my fingers through her hair. "Okay. If you're sure."

"I'm sure." I took one last look at her and accepted her judgment. Making my way into the bathroom, I ran a facecloth under cold water, squeezed it out, and returned to the bedroom. I folded it over Annie's ass and she groaned in appreciation. "Thank you, Sir. I'm okay, honest."

"All right. I'll take my shower now."

When I emerged from the bathroom, the bed was made and Annie was nowhere to be seen. Having donned my new navy blue suit and a light pink shirt, I was struggling with my wide black tie in front of the mirror in the bedroom.

"Would you like a hand with that, Sir?"

Annie stood in the bedroom doorway. The setting sun, though not directly behind her, lit the living room beyond. She oozed warmth and flowed into the room, looking as fresh as a daisy. There was a ready blush in her cheeks as she approached and placed a fresh coffee on my dresser.

"That's for you, Sir," she said before approaching.

"Thanks, Annie."

She smiled up and me and reached for my tie. "May I?"

"By all means," I said, looking down on her as she took it between her fingers, deftly tying a knot. As she worked on it, her eyes flicked up to mine.

"I used to do this for my father, Sir," she whispered. She straightened the knot and placed her palms on my chest, whispering, "You are supposed to tell me how proud of me you are, Sir." As she straightened my collar and patted down my lapels I felt myself starting to smile. She looked up at me and waited.

I took her chin in my hand, gazing into her pale blue eyes, and spoke softly. "Annie, I'm so very proud of you."

A tear came to her eye as she broke into a huge grin. "Oh, I'm so happy! Ugh!" I moved to get her a new tissue and she thanked me and dabbed the corner of her eye with it, catching the tear. "Thank you, Sir. And thank you for caring enough to correct me."

"You are welcome, Annie." I leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Come on, pet, let's get to your house so you can change and... do the things women do... before they go out!"

"Yes, Sir!" she said, giggling.

By the time we arrived at the Domina Flagrante we had fifteen minutes to spare. Annie drove. I was far too nervous. I'd left my car at her apartment and we both knew what that meant. When we pulled up and parked a few doors down, I told Annie to wait while I walked around the car to open her door. "Come on, beautiful," I said, taking her hand and guiding her onto the footpath. "The guests will be arriving soon."

She put her keys in her handbag and held it in both hands in front of her. For a moment I was mesmerised. Her curly blonde hair was teased out like a halo around her angelic face, and her makeup was understated, just how I liked it. She wore a figure hugging red silk dress, with a pretty black lace trim around the hem. She looked fabulous. Apart from two inch black pumps and a long black leather coat that I slipped around her shoulders, she wore nothing else.

She looked very sophisticated, and I liked it. Back at her apartment I had asked if she wouldn't be cold without panties and she had explained she would be more comfortable. "The silk is quite soothing," she said.

So there we were, standing in the chill of the evening, about to embark on who knew what, and all I could think about was how lovely she looked. "You are quite stunning this evening, Annie," I told her, reaching for her hand.

She blushed anew, slipping her fingers into mine and stepping close. "I feel fantastic, Sir!"

"You're not too sore?" I asked, caressing the line of her jaw with my fingertips.

"I might wince a little when I sit," she said softly, gazing into my eyes. "But I'll get used to it."

"Not too often, I hope."

"Amen to that," she giggled. "Let's get a cocktail, Sir!"

"Great idea!" I agreed, grinning and kissing her nose under the streetlight. She slipped her arm through mine and held me close as we started walking. My heart thudded in my chest as Annie's heels tapped their way up the wide marble staircase leading to so many possibilities. I wanted to have a good time but I also wanted to be alert. I hoped to God everything went smoothly.

Someone was leaving just as we arrived and we slipped inside. A smiling Jonathan greeted us, just as he had promised me. "Hello, Mr. Moore. Hello Miss Wilkinson," he boomed loudly, with a huge grin on his face. Annie giggled. He leaned into us and whispered more privately, "Mistress gave me a heads up."

I smiled and shook my head thinking, typical.

Jonathan took Annie's coat, informing me, "Mistress would like to see you in the salon right away, Sir."

"Thanks, Jonathan."

He leaned into us, whispering again, "I've been so looking forward to this. We've never had so many vanilla people here at once!" he said, snorting and trying not to laugh. "I'm going to have to watch my P's and Q's!"

"I'm sure you'll be fine. Tell me, is Adrian okay?"

"Yes, Sir. He's recovered. He's in the control room tonight."

I nodded as if I knew what he was talking about. "I better get to the salon, Jonathan. Have a good time tonight, okay?"

"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir."

Annie tugged on my sleeve. "May I take a quick trip to the ladies room please, Sir?"

"Of course, pet. Go on." I watched her ass sway as she walked away from me. Looking back over her shoulder and catching me staring, she winked. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. It was going to be an amazing night. I turned back to Jonathan and spoke with him in a whisper. "Jonathan, have you seen Josephine?"

"No, Sir. But if I do, I'm to tell Mistress Chantelle immediately."

"Thank you, Jonathan."

He bowed. "Always a pleasure, Sir. And Sir?"

"Yes, Jonathan?"

"You make a lovely couple, Sir."

I almost blushed myself. "Thank you, Jonathan." He nodded and turned back to his station, waiting by the entranceway. Annie returned and once more threaded her arm through mine.

"Let's go, Sir!" She said, glowing. Together we walked down the red carpet leading to the salon. The lighting was just marginally brighter, but it had a dramatic effect. I was impressed and thanked Chantelle soundlessly as we rounded the entrance to the salon. "Wow!" Annie exclaimed under her breath.

Chantelle stood just inside and broke her conversation as soon as she saw us. We stopped still, watching as she turned to face us in full Dominatrix regalia. Standing in thigh-high boots and black leather hipster shorts, she posed for us with hands on hips and threw her head back, laughing. Under her short black leather jacket, a light blue lacy corset was revealed. Most of her raven hair was in a thick, high ponytail, while curled tendrils hung down, framing her face. She looked incredible.

She squealed as she got closer, reaching both hands for mine, and kissing my cheeks, European style. She turned to Annie. "Annie, you look divine. I love that dress!"

Annie blushed and curtseyed, looking down. "Thank you, Mistress."

Chantelle turned her dancing eyes back to me. "Roger! I'm so excited. I have all kinds of things organised. We are going to have such fun!"

"You're making me nervous, Chantelle!"

"Oh, silly boy. Nothing too crazy, I promise. Just a few things to keep your guests talking about this party for years! Look, here's Claudio!" Chantelle waved him over and kissed him in the same way. I shook his hand and found the huge smile spread across his swarthy face very infectious. Annie stepped up to him and kissed the back of his hand. Claudio was looking at me the whole time like he barely noticed. I nodded to him, unsure what to say.

Chantelle asked if anyone wanted a drink, then pouted theatrically when we all cried, "Yes!"

"Well I can't very well carry all our drinks on my own." She was loving this.

I turned to Annie to ask her to help, but Annie was already speaking. "May I, Mistress?"

"Of course you may, Annie. Such a good girl. Come with me."

Once they were gone, Claudio stepped closer to me. "It's good to see you again, Roger."

"And you, Claudio. I wanted to thank you for teaching Annie all you have. She is a credit to you. I feel like we both owe you a debt of gratitude."

"Nonsense," he said, winking at me. "She's a natural."

"I think she's lovely."

"I agree. Take good care of her, Roger."

"I will."

He nodded. A look of concern came over his face as he said, "I've been meaning to talk to you about Josephine, Roger." I rolled my eyes and Claudio pressed on. "She's as crazy as a cut snake, that woman. I never would have guessed she'd go off the rails like this. No one could have predicted it. I strongly suggest you steer clear of her."

"Don't worry. In the whole scheme of things, I thought she was fun for about a minute."

"Yeah, I know," he said, shaking his head. "I don't know what's triggered it, but I know she has issues with her sister and with Chantelle. I've tried to talk to Chantelle about it, but she thinks I'm imagining it. Josephine has Chantelle wrapped around her little finger."

"I wouldn't know about that. All I know is, that photo you gave me has done the rounds and Josephine has it back again."

Claudio sighed. "Oh, great. That's all we need."

"I don't think she's brazen enough to try to do anything in front of all these people, surely."

"How about we keep an eye on her if we see her?" Claudio suggested.

"Good idea. And I think we could convince Chantelle. She won't be too pleased though. Especially if Josephine was behind Adrian stealing that envelope you gave me."

"He what?"

I shook my head. "It's a long story."

"Well, I'm not so sure it's a good idea to tell Chantelle about all this. It could wait until tomorrow..."

"Yeah, I agree."

"Okay. Here they come," he said, nodding in their direction.

Chantelle and Annie returned to us with drinks in hand. Chantelle looked so alive and happy. A few hours wouldn't make any difference, would it? "What have you boys been talking about, football, I suppose?" Chantelle asked, passing Claudio his drink.

"Nothing important," piped up Claudio.

"Here you are, Sir," said Annie, handing me a drink with an umbrella in it. "A marguerita," she giggled. "The umbrella was Mistress Chantelle's idea."

"Thanks, pet," I said, kissing her forehead. Chantelle winked at me then shared a knowing smile with Claudio.

"So Roger," Chantelle began, "Everything's set. Cocktails till nine P.M., then into the Main Hall for food and drinks, with entertainment and dancing until late. How does that sound?"

I looked at my watch. It was seven forty-five. "Perfect."

"Oh, I nearly forgot, Chantelle exclaimed. "Has anyone seen Josephine?"

"I haven't seen her here, if that's what you mean, Chantelle," I said quickly.

"I was just wondering if she's coming. I haven't seen her all day." She looked at her watch. "Maybe she can't make it..."

I didn't know what to say. If I told her I knew Josephine was coming with Sylvia in tow, she'd wonder what was going on, and drag me off to explain it all to her. By now there simply wasn't time for that. I noticed a couple of lawyers and their wives entering the salon and nodded toward them. "I have guests."

Chantelle followed my eyes. "Let's greet them! Claudio, don't you have to go check on something?"

"As a matter of fact, I probably should. I'll see you all in a bit." he said, heading for the kitchen.

Chantelle took charge, slipping her arm through mine. "C'mon Annie, grab Roger's other arm." Annie grinned and held onto me tightly, smiling into my eyes. Chantelle looked at us and rolled her eyes teasingly. "Oh, stop it. You're making me sick!" She giggled, leading us over to welcome our first guests. Couples began entering almost constantly and, as usual, Chantelle the consummate host took over magnificently.

Surely my anxiety was misplaced. After all, it was just a party. What could go wrong?

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