Rylen sat up in the bed, looking about the unfamiliar room and waiting for his memory to come back to him, but after half a minute, he had no idea where he was. The room was lit by a shallow light spilling in from the open door of a walk-in closet in the far corner. His eyes were the only thing that moved in the stillness, taking in the details of the room while his brain worked to recall how he had come to be there. They fell across the naked form of the woman who lay in the bed next to him. Her back was to him, and her bare torso rose and fell with the slow and unmistakable rhythm of the sound sleeper. He became aware of something else--he was naked as well. There was one thing the confused man was sure of as seconds crept into minutes: his memory would not be returning anytime soon.
Distantly wondering why he did not want to wake her, Rylen slid out of the bed. He moved to his clothes that lay in a pile against the wall and dressed as silently as he could, the plush carpeting on the floor muffling his movements. What was the last thing he could remember? He had been at an event of some kind, but after that was a complete blank. He was putting on one of his finest suits, which had been carelessly piled in a heap like used hotel towels. But he was not in a hotel. He had stayed in too many to make any mistake, even if the walk-in closet and all too personal décor of the room had not furnished this information.
There was a four-by-six-foot painting on the wall across the room, mounted evenly between the door to the closet and a door out of the bedroom. It depicted a young, muscular man, kneeling naked with his hands bound behind his back. Standing in front of him was the flawless form of a woman in black heels with a garter belt and dark stockings, her head and shoulders cropped out of the top of the frame. She was holding a riding crop that touched the man under the chin, guiding his eyes up to a face left forever to the imagination. It was a masterwork. The gleam of the shoes, lacquered red fingernails, and even the nylons on the woman were exquisitely done. The enraptured look of the bound man was perfectly readable, even in profile. The bewildered Rylen had taken in its quality in an instant, despite the shallow lighting of the room. The gallery would never show art of that subject matter.
That was it; the memory hit him in a flash. He had been at a silent auction at the art gallery. That was where he met her, the woman in the bed. This was her home; it had to be. They connected immediately, and Rylen had found her captivating. Did he have too much to drink? Yes, that had to be it. He had one too many drinks, and she had invited him back to her place to have sex and sleep it off. Did they even have sex? He had been naked, but why could he remember nothing else? Not even her name was coming back to him. Was this enough for him to wake her and find out more about the missing hours? Perhaps, but there was another problem with his theory. Rylen never got drunk; he never had more than one.
A quick peek through the closed drapes showed him he was on the first floor of a house, and an expensive one, if the other homes he could see on the well-lit street were any indication. Good. He would not have far to go. Dressing as quickly and silently as he could, he took up his blazer, necktie, and shoes before making his way into the other room.
He found himself in a spacious, open-plan living room and dining area. It was tastefully and expensively furnished. He put his wingtips down on the carpet and slipped them on, less worried about disturbing the sleeping woman from here. A lamp on a corner stand in the dining room provided what light he needed. Feeling his trouser pockets, to his relief, both his wallet and car keys were there. He crammed the necktie into the side pocket of his suit jacket, but halted in his movement to the front door, realizing that there was another obvious problem.
If he had been drugged and lost his memory, how likely was it he drove himself in the first place? He went to a bay window in the dining room and parted the drapes. He was in luck. The window looked out to the driveway; the dark form of his Cadillac was visible thirty feet from where he stood. He unlocked the doors with his key fob to be certain. The car glowed to life.
Rylen turned and headed to the front door.
“I can make you some coffee before you leave,” came a soft voice that froze him in his tracks. The woman was standing next to a lamp atop an end table beside the couch. She touched a switch on the base of the lamp and it bathed the room in a soft, yellow light, illuminating both the woman and the subtle smirk on her face. The question was not asked with a tone of concerned sincerity, but with a none-too-well-hidden sarcasm. She was naked except for black thigh-high stockings with a thick band of lace at the tops. Rylen noticed that a white satin robe lay over the arm of the couch. She raised an eyebrow questioningly and his eyes moved from the robe and back to hers. He held her gaze in awkward silence for a few seconds, waiting for her to become... what? Modest? Self-conscious? Whatever he had been expecting, she made no move to cover herself.
Snippets of what had transpired between them flashed back to him. They did have sex. Not just any sex, but the very best sex of his life, and for him, that was saying quite a lot. The reason he’d been so keen to leave without waking her became obvious now. There was another feeling that rose above the confusion that had taken hold of him when he saw her. This feeling was causing his heart to pound hard enough to cause the misaligned buttons on his shirt to move. Fear.
For some reason he had yet to figure out, he feared this woman, and he did not want her to know that he was completely ignorant of all that had happened between them. If she had slipped something into his drink, she would already know about his memory loss. If not, he would not place himself at an even greater disadvantage. He decided he would make his excuses and leave, then figure all of it out later.
“No,” he said, hoping to pass off his unease as her having startled him. “I have to go and I didn’t want to wake you.”
“It’s four o’clock in the morning,” she answered, looking more amused than insulted or hurt.
“I need to be up early.” He no longer cared how unconvincing he was. The flustered man gave up all pretense and turned for the door.
“You going to keep that as a memento?” she asked to his back.
He turned back sharply. “What?”
She pointed a finger toward his neck and tapped her own, so he would know exactly where she was pointing. Rylen raised his hand to feel a band of leather fastened around his neck which, until that very moment, he had not known was there. How had he gotten dressed and not noticed it before? His blazer still over one arm, he felt it with both hands and found the buckle. He removed it, his neck now cold the instant the air of the room touched it.
He found himself holding a thick collar of black leather, the inner side warm where it had rested against his skin for some time. The woman moved toward him with her hand out to receive it, but he tossed it to the couch, ignoring her and retreating from her advance. A thousand questions flooded his brain as he walked to the door, but he dared not ask a single one. He knew that one question would lead to others, and then he might never bring himself to leave.
“Your phone is on the table by the door,” she called as he reached the door and opened it to the chilly morning air. He took his phone without pausing. “You have my number,” he heard her say before he swung the door closed. Even that last statement, called in a voice that was loud enough to ensure he didn’t miss it, was loaded with layers of meaning.
Safely behind the wheel of his car in her driveway, Rylen sat in silence, struggling to collect himself. He wanted to be away with all possible speed, but taking another minute to think wouldn’t make any difference. What had just happened? She must have drugged him; it was the only thing that made sense. They met at the gallery and came back here, to her home, where she drugged him and they had kinky sex until passing out. He wasn’t entirely without memory; glimpses of her riding him and his repeated orgasmic climax flickered through his brain. He grabbed onto the many fragments like random puzzle pieces. Soon he would have his memory back. Had he even used protection? He would have to get himself checked. All of these thoughts were secondary to the one that troubled him the most: why had he been so afraid of her?
When one wakes up naked in bed with a total stranger and has no memory of where he is or how he got there, he is sure to be shaken by the experience to some extent. Anyone would be. Could that be all it was? No. If he accepted so inadequate an explanation in an attempt to assuage his need to paint a complete picture, he would be cheating himself of the true answer. The fear he had felt with her was real, and it had not manifested from an awkward memory lapse. What had happened to him had not been voluntary... or had it been? The parts he was slowly recalling made him think he had been an eager participant. It was not a physical fear, but a psychological one that overtook him. She was no physical threat to him. At six foot three and well over 200 pounds, there was little chance of her overpowering him. Nor did she even try to appear threatening. In some way he could not fully understand, she had made of him a sexual tool.
That was the explanation for the fear. He had lost all control and had not been able to help himself; the easy and amused confidence of that woman was all the confirmation he needed. She was aware of both her superior position and his total ignorance. Rylen was used to being the smartest person in the room and seldom had he ever been mistaken. In business, he could not afford to allow anyone to gain the upper hand from the other side of a negotiating table. This manic control carried into every aspect of his career and personal life as well; it was the reason he was so good at what he did. It was also the reason he had never taken a wife or had children, both being chaotic and unpredictable by nature.
The circles his superiors moved in were not the sort to tolerate legal entanglements of such a disreputable nature by one representing them. His position with the Foundation would be history if any of this were to get out, as it surely would if he ever chose to follow some legal action against her. His ego would never allow it, anyway. There was no way even his closest friends would ever know this had happened, so he certainly could not permit it to be made part of any public record. What could he even prove if he tried? He had nothing. He would find out who she was, then he would go about discovering how and why he woke up naked in her bed with a collar around his neck. What the hell was that thing for? What else did they do?
The drugs, if indeed any had been involved, had surely worn off. They must have. He knew his own mind, and he was back in full control of his faculties. There was no question of that. Primal instincts weren’t something he thought himself above, but he was an intellectual whose mind never failed him when he listened to it. Whatever had happened to him, he was without all the facts, but once in possession of them, there would be a reckoning. He set the GPS to take him home and backed out of the driveway.
He was in the town of Lowell, not even an hour from his home in Boston. Good, Rylen thought. He would be home in time to avoid any real traffic. He drove onto Massachusetts State Route 3 and set the cruise control five miles over the speed limit. The last thing he needed was to get stopped by some underpaid cop with self-esteem issues. When his phone chimed with an incoming text message, he ignored it, but then grew curious. Who would be sending him a message at such an hour of the morning? His guard went up as soon as he saw it was a blocked number, but it was not even a written text message. It was a thumbnail image. Was it the woman whose home he had just left? If she was sexting him a photo, she was as crazy as everything else indicated. He tapped the thumbnail to bring up the image.
It was the image of a plant--or, to be more specific, a leaf. It was shiny and had serrated edges surrounding a delicate web of veins over its surface. Rylen felt a jolt of shock and recognition, yet it was just out of the reach of his comprehension. What was this? A call came in. Blocked number. He took it.
A woman’s voice was talking to him. His mind registered only one word of the first sentence she spoke: sleep. A wave of exhaustion overtook him in an instant. He struggled for a second before his eyes closed. Blackness. Peace.
The last thing Rylen registered with his fading consciousness was the sound of his car leaving the smooth hum of the blacktop paving under the wheels. The car gave a lurch upward, and he felt like he was moving through air.