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Authors: Lydia Michaels

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Titles by Lydia Michaels

Protégé

The Surrender Trilogy

Falling In

Breaking Out

Coming Home

Protégé

Lydia Michaels

INTERMIX BOOKS, NEW YORK

INTERMIX

Published by Berkley

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Lydia Michaels.

Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

INTERMIX and the “IM” design are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

ISBN: 97804511487971

First Edition: August 2016

Cover design by Sandra Chiu.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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For Amber M. of the marvelous Naughty Book Club.

The world needs more people like you:

devious, dirty minded, and undeniably hilarious.

Fernweh/fern-vay/ (German origin; no English translation)

—A deep yearning for the unknown

—The unsettling sense of being called to something not yet understood

ContentsTitles by Lydia MichaelsTitle PageCopyrightDedicationEpigraphChapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveEpilogueAbout the AuthorChapter One

“Welcome to Fernweh Industries. Do you prefer water or champagne?”

Breath whooshed into Collette's hollow lungs as she stared, wide-eyed, at the man standing behind the enormous desk. This moment, her being here in this office, was perhaps the most surreal experience of her life. But wasn't the definition of surrealism complete individualism, the unlocking of the unconscious mind necessary to reach one's creative potential?

Her darkest desires had been locked away in those corners of her mind far too long. Believing in thissurrealplace, was the only chance left at feeling alive again. And it wasthis manwho could help her unlock her potential.

Having forgotten his question, she looked at him blankly, her eyes widening once more. Dear God, she totally forgot his question. She was having some sort of acute amnesia. Her lips parted as the tiniest squawk escaped her throat—a mediocre apology, if that—and he raised a perfectly arched brow.

Say something!

She couldn't think, couldn't form a single excuse for sitting there like a mute idiot incapable of simple chatter. Sensing he already found her tedious—which her unnecessary silence absolutely was—she lowered her gaze and muttered, “I'm sorry, what did you ask?”

He silently sighed and ignored the iced champagne bottle in the stainless bucket and poured a tall glass of water from the pitcher on his desk. “Have a seat, Ms. Banks.”

Her chest filled with cool air and the masculine scent of the finely appointed office. Hoping not to make an even bigger ass of herself, she quickly took a seat and frowned. He'd used her real last name, not the fake name she'd concocted to register for the interview.

Passing her the glass, he chuckled. “I know everyone's name, Ms. Banks. As the founder of Fernweh, it's my responsibility to be thoroughly familiar with the people I'm endorsing, but have no fear. I also believe in total confidentiality outside these doors. Tell me about yourself.”

Her fingers slid along the heavy crystal she had yet to bring to her lips. Using both hands, she supported the weighted tumbler from slipping through her numb fingers.

Robotically, she chanted facts into the quiet room as if dictating to a machine. Apparently lying was useless.

“My name is Collette Banks. I'm thirty years old. I was born in Savannah, Georgia, where I lived most of my life. I'm currently unemployed, but I have a degree in secondary education . . .”

Her words tapered off as he moved with the patient grace of a jaguar, sliding into the thickly upholstered chair behind the ornate desk. His motions distracted her train of thought; his acute focus appeared undeterred as he observed her without interruption. His stare was so intense; it intersected her speech, as if that single-minded look were somehow louder than her own voice. Yet he was silent. His fingers drummed on the arm of the chair as the knuckles of his right hand curled over his mouth, disguising his expression.

Every word that came to mind seemed clumsy and unsophisticated, a blunt insult to the well-polished man before her. She lowered her gaze to the glass she held—not a single fleck or particle polluting the crystalline liquid.

What am I doing here?

“You've stopped talking, Ms. Banks.”

She nodded but didn't look up. If he asked her to leave, she would. As a matter of fact, she was waiting for his direction to do just that. This was a mistake.

“Tell me about your last job.”

Her shoulders felt bare, naked and exposed, but her sweater safely covered them. Before one entered this office, the establishment looked just like any other upper-class commercial space. No one would assume this was where men and women came to sign their futures away. Perhaps she hadn't given this decision the consideration it deserved.

“Ms. Banks, I'm waiting.”

“I taught French.”

“Yet you're a southerner from Georgia. How . . . charming. Say something in French.”

“Qu'est-ce que vous me tiens à dire?”What would you like me to say?She never knew what to say when people asked that.

“Dites-moi quelque chose que je ne vais pas trouver dans votre paperasse.”

Her head lifted and her breath caught in her throat. He was smirking, not with his mouth, but with a slight crease around his green eyes, as if he found her bilingual abilities amusing. His unexpected French response took her so off-guard that she had to switch gears to decipher his words.Tell me something that isn't on your résumé.

A grin trembled to her lips. She'd only regurgitated facts up until that moment—but now that she learned she wouldn't get away with fibs, she quietly confessed what brought her to the area.“Je suis venu ici pour cette.”I came here for this.

“Fernweh?”

“Oui.”

His head tilted, throwing his dark brown hair into the light. It wasn't as dark as her first impression had led her believe. In the natural light it was almost auburn.“Pourquoi?”

Why had she come all this way to be a part of Fernweh? Even she didn't have the answer to that.“Je ne sais pas.”

He continued to speak to her in French, her mind now naturally translating. “There must be a reason.”

Speaking to someone, other than students, in French was a rare pleasure. She seldom got to stretch her linguistic muscles in companionable dialogue. His grasp of the language was refreshing, a strange comfort in an awkward situation. “I wanted a change.”

“That's quite a life-altering decision. Tell me how you discovered Fernweh. You aren't a direct relative of any of our clients, which is typically how referrals come to us.”

Her gaze again lowered and she swallowed. “I assume you're familiar with the school that employed me.”

“I am. Small town, generic demographic, rural enough that the lands don't require picket fencing to boast the community's charm, yet everyone knows the bank teller, the librarian, and the mechanic by name.”

Startled by his astute and somewhat symptomatic synopsis, she met his gaze again. “Have you been there?”

“No, but no one walks through my door until I've done my research. Do you find it difficult to breathe there, Ms. Banks, among all that open land with few shadows to hide any secrets?”

Her chest tightened as her heart beat a bit faster. “It can get claustrophobic.”

His eyes creased. “Ironic.” His chair shifted, but he continued to study her. “Do you feel like you're hiding in plain sight sometimes?”

How was he reading her so easily? They'd never met. He'd never been to her town. What sort of research had he done? This man, after only a few minutes of meeting her, seemed to see her deepest secrets, the ones she never whispered or dared to write down.

Her gaze darted to the surface of the desk and held. “I'm not hiding, but sometimes I feel like I'm dying, in front of everyone, but too gradually for anyone to notice.”

“Lost?”

She nodded. “Yes. Lost.” It was something she'd felt since childhood, but lately the adrift sense of meaninglessness overwhelmed her.

“And you're hoping to find an anchor.”

She nodded, sensing that his inference didn't require an answer. A familiar lump built in her throat and she swallowed to force it back, but it didn't budge. Her eyes glazed with unshed tears that she quickly blinked away. There was a soft whisper of fabric, and a silk handkerchief was offered just inside her peripheral vision. He'd moved so quietly she hadn't noticed him stand. “Thank you.” She took the handkerchief and blotted away her inexplicable tears.

“You're welcome.” His voice was low. “Do you cry often?”

With forced calm, she blinked away the dampness at her lashes. “I don't know why I'm crying now.” This was absurd.

“I suspect you're nervous, perhaps a little unsure. Disclosing personal details is a necessary part of the Fernweh process, I'm afraid. The unease you're likely experiencing is your mind's protective instinct to hide all vulnerability. There's no judgment here, Ms. Banks.”

She sniffed and blotted her lashes again, certain her makeup was blemished. “I'm sorry. What were we talking about?”

“No need to apologize. You were informing me how you discovered Fernweh.”

She nodded. The gentle way he coaxed her to continue somehow made it easier to go on. Though she was the one speaking, he seemed to be in control of the conversation.

“Right. Well, with the economy as it is, our school let some employees go. The arts took the largest staff cut, but then the language department felt the pinch. I should have planned for such a thing, but I have a habit of putting too much faith in intangible security.”

He said nothing, so she went on. “At first I kept myself busy, but then I was just . . . hiding, I guess. I watched TV for hours on end, abused my Netflix, stalked social media, but never really commented or interacted with others. My voice mail slowly filled up with messages from concerned friends until it was full. I actually found the silence relieving.”

“You were depressed.”

Such a simple diagnosis, such a complex and insufferable disorder. “Yes.” She finally sipped the water. The pure taste was refreshing, more so than tap. She wondered if he had it shipped in from some exotic place.

Seeing he was waiting, she continued, compelled to give him everything, all the facts. “One day I was online searching for something. I don't recall what. I started on Google, which led to another place, then a blog of sorts. As I was reading an article that caught my attention, some words were highlighted, so I clicked them and I wound up being transplanted to a strange site about people living in D/s relationships, and finding suitable mates within that lifestyle. I'd never heard of such a thing before. It seemed . . . not real. I couldn't imagine people actually living in such a way. But it . . .”

“Spoke to you?”

A soft smile curved her lips as she gazed at him, appreciating his gentle suggestion. “Yes.Called to memight be more accurate.”

“Your experience with dominance and submission doesn't accurately align with the information provided, Ms. Banks. You've checked off nearly the entire list of permissible . . . intimacy.” Easing forward, he fingered through the file on his desk. “And you've only listed four hard limits. Either your curiosity is copious or you've forgotten a good part of your listed familiarity.”

She'd guessed at most of that stuff. Blushing, she confessed, “I suppose I'm more interested in the emotional dynamic of relationships like that. I don't think the sexual stuff matters all that much.”

“I'm afraid I disagree. The sexual component of every relationship matters significantly. You've marked an inclination for certain practices you've never attempted. What would happen if you were paired with someone specifically drawn to that practice, perhaps to a fetish level, and after experiencing the act, you discovered it to be something you couldn't abide?”

She swallowed as the compatible conversation drifted into an unfamiliar territory. “Am I in trouble?”

His eyes creased again, but she was coming to recognize the expression as a sort of smirk. “No, but this application is trash.” He dropped the entire file into the leather can beside his desk, and she flinched. That seemed a bit dramatic. “Now, continue with your story. You were flitting from one blog to another, landed upon some interesting D/s forums, and . . .”

It was difficult to determine if his tone was impatient or amused. She detected a dry sense of humor but didn't know him well enough to assume he was teasing. He could very well be annoyed and rushing this meeting to its end.

“Um . . .” She swallowed again, her throat dry, but her hands were too numb to lift her glass. “Well, I guess I just kept reading until someone mentioned Fernweh. I saved the article to my favorites. That's how I came to your site. It doesn't show up when you search it on any of the search engines I've tried.”

“Precisely the way we prefer it. I'd like the link to that article when you have a moment.”

“Sure.” It became clear her application had been accepted only because they wanted to know how she'd discovered their company, which was probably why her paperwork was now in the trash. Disappointment moored her insides, pulling tight until she felt slightly ashamed of her actions, but she was unsure why.

Slowly, she frowned and asked again, “Am I in some sort of trouble?”

His hands now rested on his lap. His fingers entwined, thumbs folding over each other in a slow revolution. “No. I'm merely contemplating how to proceed.”

She glanced around the office, hoping he'd make up his mind sooner rather than later. She had to use the restroom and her meter only had about twenty more minutes.

“You do understand that this is not a sex club.”

Her attention snapped back to him. “That's not what I thought it was at all. Dear Lord, do such things really exist?”

***

Jude chuckled. Her southern accent was an abrupt shift from the throaty French dialect they'd been using. This woman had no business being here. “Indeed they do, but that's not what Fernweh is.”

Her soft pink lips parted, showing white, slightly crooked teeth. There was such innocence in her hazel eyes. Her round cheeks reminded him of a woman from the twenties, but her hair was quite long. He couldn't decide how long, as it was clipped back, but bronze curls sprang with unruly determination to be set free.

There was something so charming and proper about southern women. They possessed an aged eloquence that seemed depleted in East Coast women, replaced by cutthroat drive and grit. West Coast women also lacked this unnamable quality as well. Sometimes there was nothing more appealing than an independent woman, who knew what she wanted and just how to get it, but today he experienced an appreciation for antiquated charm.

Fernweh had very specific policies about welcoming newcomers. It was unheard of for an application to arrive without a distinct link to a prior client. The site that linked the outside world to theirs would be disabled within an hour to avoid repeat episodes. But that still left this situation. She'd come all this way . . .

“Tell me about your family.”

Her hand delicately lifted to her throat, narrow and unmarked as porcelain. Rubbing lightly across her collarbone, she pursed her full lips.

“Take a sip of water, Ms. Banks.”

Lifting the glass, she did as he instructed without raising a brow. As the glass lowered, she smiled as if appreciating his assistance. “Thank you.” Such manners. “My father's in a Texas penitentiary.”

He made a mental note to check into that. “And your mother?”

“He shot her when I was eleven.”

It was a legitimate challenge not to show a reaction to her words. “And she passed from this?”

“Yes.” Her eyes held cool acceptance, as if after so many years she learned to look back on the incident without personal attachment.

“I'm sorry for your loss. Were you close to your mother?”

“Yes, but I was also close to my father. People don't seem to understand that when someone does something so heinous, they're somehow separated in your mind, split into two people—the before and the after. Everyone expected me to confess how horrible my father was after he murdered my mother, but I couldn't. The truth being, he was the one that helped me with my homework, and he'd lovingly prepared my breakfast the morning he killed her—peach oatmeal with extra raisins, the way I liked it.”

“That had to be difficult for you.”

“Very. After she died, I lost both of them. Not because he went to prison, but because he no longer fit the mold of my dad. I don't know who that man is, but he isn't my father.”

Eleven was a young age to be orphaned. Those preadult years usually held more implication than any other stage of life. He wondered what sort of challenges she'd faced, overly curious to fill in the gaps.

Then there was the disconnect she'd experienced with her father, a man she'd supposedly trusted and believed was good until he proved to be something undeniably bad. Having been betrayed by someone close to him and finding out she was not the woman he suspected, Jude understood what Ms. Banks was referring to. When a person shocks others by behaving well outside their expectations, moldsarebroken and one is left with shattered pieces that no longer fit. There's no point to solving the puzzle. Better to just throw away the broken bits and wipe the surface clean. Ms. Banks seemed to accept that theory as much as he did.

“Are you a violent person, Ms. Banks?” It seemed fair to ask, after the brief family history.

“No,” she answered quickly, with grave surety.

“Have you ever hurt an animal?”

Her head shook. “I once lost a litter of baby rabbits I was taking care of after the mother disappeared. I was devastated for weeks.”

She gave the impression of a bleeding heart, but something told him she was also strong. “Where were you the day of your mother's murder?”

Her eyes blanked. Every slight motion stilled as if she were no longer inside her body.

“Ms. Banks?”

Her tongue slowly licked her dry lips, but she did not blink. “I was in school. Our teacher had just passed out a quiz when the principal pulled her into the hall. Initially, I assumed someone was in trouble. I never suspected his presence had anything to do with me. My teacher stepped into the classroom and called my name. I still assumed the situation was about someone else, thinking she needed me to deliver a note or help the principal with something. But as I stepped into the hall, I saw their expressions and knew something very bad had happened.”

“Were your teachers male or female?”

Her head tilted as her brow knit. “My teacher was a woman, but the principal was a man.”

“Did they move you before explaining the situation?”

She nodded, her eyes again focused on a point just above his shoulder. “They told me to leave my books and for some reason that frightened me, though I think it was meant to calm me. We walked to the front office and no one said a word. The principal, Mr. Mattock, touched my shoulder. He never touched me, so that was when I really began to panic. When we reached the front office, two officers waited, dressed in blue.”

“Male officers?”

Again she nodded. “Yes, but I don't recall anything beyond their uniforms.”

“Do you recall what they said?” He couldn't imagine facing such a delicate situation with a fragile child. The tact necessary or lack thereof could easily impact a person for the rest of their life.

“No. I'm certain I cried, but I can't recall. I was at school. Then I was in a squad car. I can recall the creases of the warn leather interior, but not a single word said. Next I was taken to a building that seemed like a hospital, but it wasn't.”

“Why did it seem like a hospital?”

“Because it was scary, people only spoke in whispers, and it smelled clean.”

“Did you have relatives nearby, anyone you might know who could comfort you?”

“No,” she rasped, her hazel eyes shimmering. “My parents were both only children like me. It was just me.”

No matter how he tried, he couldn't imagine how frightening such a thing would be for a child. “How long were you at the building that reminded you of a hospital?”

She shrugged. “I don't know. It was dark. They gave me juice boxes and crackers.” Her lashes swept low as her head tipped down. “That's the day I got lost,” she whispered.

“Lost?” Had she run off?

Her mouth flattened as she audibly swallowed. “I never went home. I never finished my quiz. I never saw my friends at school after that. My belongings, selected by someone else, were transported to the place they took me.” She shook her head. “I was upset, because they forgot my favorite shoes and a doll I liked, but I never complained because none of the other children, aside from the babies, had dolls.”

“There were other children there?”

She nodded. “I think there were nine of us, but it changed every day. I wasn't there long, maybe five days or two weeks.”

“Did you attend your mother's viewing?” The state would have insisted on grief counseling, he hoped.

She nodded. “It was just a box. Part of me believed she wasn't inside, but I guess that was silly.”

“You were eleven, an age where seeing is believing. Death, I assume, wasn't something you had prior experience with. It's understandable that you might have doubts.”

“When I went to my first foster home and my mom didn't come rescue me, I started to believe she was really dead.”

“How many families did you live with before becoming an adult?” She obviously sought stability, and that might be a trigger from her unstable upbringing.

She shrugged. “I don't know. A lot.”

His curiosity was erroneous, driven by intrigue, and the last thing he wanted was to traumatize her by probing at devastating memories. “We can stop now.”

She surprised him by looking forlorn, as though such a discussion could not conclude until she was finished. “I don't mind talking about it.”

“You appear upset.”

“It's upsetting,” she said quickly, and her fervor pleased him. It showed her strength.

“You're absolutely right. Continue only if you're comfortable doing so.”

“I am.”

“Do you feel your personal experiences led you to a career with children, Ms. Banks?” It wasn't rare for submissives to possess a protective nature. They were nurturers, caregivers, and strong-willed despite the outside world's assumptions.

Her gaze tenuously held his, as if testing their connection, but every few seconds her lashes lowered and she struggled to make eye contact once more. “Maybe. I love teaching and I miss the verve of the school. Children have so much energy. It's a great distraction from the mundane. I liked my classroom. I miss that a lot . . .”

Her words drifted as her hazel eyes glazed with unshed tears. She quickly wiped her eyes with the crumpled handkerchief.

He placed a gentle yet brief hand on her arm before easing back to his seat. It seemed telling that her classroom held such significance in the loss of her job. Or perhaps she was still expelling emotion linked to her childhood. Keeping his tone gentle, he asked, “Did you establish any bonds with the foster families that raised you, Ms. Banks?”

“No.” Her clipped answer left little to doubt. He sensed, despite her willingness to go on, she was reaching a limit.

“We'll readdress more of your past later if need be. For now, let's jump to the present.”

“Which brings me here.” He hadn't expected her to take control of the conversation. It seemed out of character with the woman he was interviewing, but completely acceptable behavior for a woman who'd been essentially on her own since puberty. He appreciated her ability to pull herself together quickly.

Putting his curiosity aside, he cleared his throat. “Let's discuss that. Tell me your first impression of Fernweh.”

“Honestly, I thought it was a joke or something from a book, like a fictional place in a romance novel.”

His brow lowered, understanding her misinterpretation but finding it necessary to clarify. “Fernweh isn't necessarily a place, Ms. Banks. It's a lifestyle, a society of like-minded people.”

“I know it isn't a compound or anything.”

He chuckled, imagining dust clouds and dirty trailers. Certainly not what his clientele would find palatable.

She frowned. “But I assumed . . . where do they go?”

He grinned as curiosity danced in her eyes, now clear of tears. “Out of respect for my clients' privacy, I'm afraid I can't disclose that information. Suffice it to say we have various places we call home.”

“Oh.”

“Typically, our clients are descendants or referrals of established members. I've cross-referenced your name and, after hearing your story, I'm certain that isn't the case with you, my dear.”

“No, I don't know anyone here.”

“Precisely. Which is why I hesitate to proceed with this interview.”

Her gaze lowered, sheltering her eyes behind a sweep of loose curls. “I understand.”

Silently, he searched for a loophole, but there wasn't one. His clients depended on the agreed rules. What sort of business would they be running if anyone could apply and be accepted? “Unfortunately, without the endorsement of a platinum client, I can't offer you a trial membership.”

She laughed, as though the rejection came without surprise. “I don't even know what that means.”

“Loosely translated, it means your situation doesn't meet Fernweh's criteria.”

Her head again lowered as she nodded. “Yes, sir.”

He frowned, disliking her easy agreement. True, submissives typically surrendered to authority without undue argument—at least the dedicated ones—but that wasn't what this was. This wasn't polite compliance—though her use ofsirdefinitely struck a chord. This was dejection without the courage to try for more. She should understand that his decision wasn't a reflection of her qualifications, but rather a reflection of Fernweh's policies. “It has very little to do with you, Ms. Banks, and everything to do with the founding rules of Fernweh.”

Also, he wasn't convinced she truly grasped the level of commitment required. Delving a little deeper, he asked, “If I asked you what Fernweh was, Ms. Banks, what would you say? Explain it to me as though I'm not the president.”

She, again, licked her lips. “It's a place where every personal interest is taken into consideration, your background and education is formulated into some sort of theorem, and your sexual preferences are considered and weighed against other members' scores.”

“To what outcome, my dear?”

Her hazel gaze met his, steadier than ever. “To find the perfect mate.”

“Do you understand how much we trust our formula, Ms. Banks? It isn't just an identification process. It's an arrangement, a contract that we hope ends in permanence. Our clients come to us to find a spouse.”

“I understand.”

“This is not entertainment for those seeking something casual. Some of our clients work under a nonnegotiable clause, meeting their identified mate only after their attorneys have drawn up the marriage contracts and prenuptials. Are you prepared to sign your future over to someone you've never met, Ms. Banks? Could you surrender your judgment and trust the hypothesis of a mathematical program?”

“Well, there's science too, right?”

His breath stilled as he struggled not to laugh at her joke. This was not something one entered into lightly, not that she was being accepted. But he wasn't ready to send her on her way just yet. The interview had shifted now that he'd explained she didn't meet the qualifying criteria, and her tone had lightened considerably. Perhaps, knowing she didn't qualify and the opportunity was off the table brought relief—nothing more to lose, therefore nothing left to fear. His blood thickened in his veins as he relished the idea of toying with her a bit.

His interrogation, or interview, had not been easy. She'd handled herself impressively well, considering the detour into her past and the personal details she'd disclosed. But still, this was not a joking matter.

As he leveled her with a stern look, she apologized for the tart slip. “Sorry.” Her lips pursed and she went on, her words stretching out like taffy on a hot day as she pronounced each syllable with that lilting Georgian drawl. “The way I see it, sir, I'm not doing anything to move my social life along as it is. I'm thirty years old and the world's become a scary place to me. I'm done dating.”

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