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It was nearing the end of another mild winter. The skies were rippled gray silk, streaks of sunlight shining through only in the middle of the day, peeking out and then rushing to set again. No snow, and very little frost, but that particular kind of city climate that settles over the coast for a season and lifts so gradually that the spring seems to arrive almost by surprise.

The row of brownstones was lit with the scattered bands of light from street lamps shining through twisted, barren tree branches, a spooky but oddly pleasant effect. Michael stepped out of the cab and shivered slightly. He had checked his letter of instructions in the car as they drove down the Grand Central Parkway from the airport that bore his name. He had smiled when he received the ticket just a few weeks ago. Now, as he took a deep breath and checked the address again, his smile broadened.

He heard the cab driver hauling bags out of the trunk, but walked up the five steps to the glass-paneled front door and rang the bell. It took a few moments for him to hear responding footsteps inside, and he was half turning to the cabby to tell him to bring the bags closer to the door when the sound of a lock being undone interrupted him. He took a quick glance and snapped his fingers.

“Hey, took you long enough,” he said. “I’m LaGuardia, Anderson is expecting me.” Michael waved absently over one shoulder to indicate the tasks which awaited on the pavement and pushed past the undersized fellow who had opened the door.

At last! Stepping through a small hallway, he turned to the left and found a perfect urban oasis, a warm, comfortable sitting room with a large bay window and a heavy fireplace, now dark. Muted colors met his gaze, dark woods and shadowed burgundy, indirect light from other rooms flowing across an ancient, ornate carpet. Soft music was playing in the background—Vivaldi, also perfect—and the wide doorway through the sitting room led to a formal dining room. Very classy. Just like he imagined.

Like magic, as soon as he was in the room, another slave appeared; this one a charming little bundle, her russet hair drawn up into a bun, dressed in a formal maid’s uniform with a pristine apron tied around her. She was round and plump, with heavy breasts and a rosy cheeked face; definitely not what he was used to, although she did have a beautiful smile. She curtsied at once, a very nice one indeed, understated yet satisfyingly obvious at the same time. He recalled that the twit on door duty didn’t make a similar gesture, and reminded himself to make sure that Anderson found out.

“I’m Michael LaGuardia, is Ms. Anderson available?”

“Yes, Mr. LaGuardia, I’ll fetch her at once. May I take your coat?” She was poised on the balls of her feet, ready to approach him or take off to fetch her mistress, yet displaying no hint of expectation. Her voice showed strong traces of a British accent. Michael sighed in pleasure; this was going to be fantastic! He started to shrug the raincoat off, and she caught it from his shoulders with a touch so light he thought it had grown wings and lifted of its own accord.

She swept it away, and left the room quietly, and Michael stretched out and looked around. From the door, he could hear the cabby thanking the doorman; at least he knew how to tip. Michael’s luggage was poking inside the sitting room entranceway now, and as the doorman stepped back to close the door, Michael raised his voice.

“You can take those things to my room.” There was no response, and Michael started to move forward to give the guy a good smack. Establish dominance and authority early, that was the key! But he stopped himself, and held still. Maybe the doorman was under instructions not to speak? It would probably be inappropriate to start off his training by hitting a slave who didn’t really deserve it. Just as he decided to ignore him, the doorman stepped into view and casually leaned against the inside of the entranceway. He examined Michael with a look of studious curiosity.

This was not silence. It was sheer insolence.

“I don’t know if you understood who I am,” Michael said, rubbing his right knuckles. “I’m the new trainer here.”

“Are you?” He adjusted the steel-rimmed glasses on his nose and examined Michael again. “Oh, I beg your pardon, sir.” And he straightened his posture a little bit, smoothing down the suit jacket and tightening the tie.

Oh, he’s itching for a beating, Michael thought, controlling a grin. Man, he’s aching to be taken down.

“I’m not that easy to provoke—boy,” Michael stated firmly. No sense in letting the squirt get an upper hand, no way.

“That’s quite a relief, sir. Since that is the case, you may carry your own damn bags upstairs.” One small hand pointed to the staircase, and the man actually started to walk into the room, intending to pass Michael on his right.

There was a second or three when Michael wondered if he had heard right—surely no one would speak to him that way in Anderson’s house! But as his hand shot up instinctively, Michael got the second major surprise of his evening. For the smaller man moved quickly, and even as Michael’s arm swung in an arc meant to deliver a classic disciplinary slap, one arm moved up to intercept it. Michael felt his wrist hitting what seemed to be a steel post, followed by the disorienting sensation of being pushed back a step.

His mouth dropped open in astonishment even as he lost his balance and fell backward, awkwardly, into a large wingbacked chair.

“So, this is our new pupil,” came a woman’s voice from the direction of the dining room.

Michael turned his head and saw the mistress of the house and staggered to his feet. Blood rushed to and then from his face. He opened his mouth once to catch a breath and tried to gather himself. “Anderson—I’m—”

“Michael LaGuardia, I know. What I don’t know is why you would possibly have the temerity to strike someone in my house without my permission.”

She was tall, as oddly tall as her doorman was short. She was no longer a young woman, silver streaks running through her almost waist-length black hair, all bound behind her at the nape of her long neck. Standing in the doorway, she seemed all angles and lines, a hard, horsy woman who would have looked natural in the dusty plains of Kansas or in the hills of Arizona. Her voice was low and hoarse, her rhythm of words strong and direct, with the slightest of twangs.

She was everything he had imagined she was—except maybe a little bit older. Well, a lot older. She looked at least fifty-five. He swallowed and gave her a terse acknowledging nod with what he judged to be the proper deference.

“I beg your pardon, Ms. Anderson. I thought your boy here was challenging me.”

“Really?” She turned slightly to look at the doorman, who was busy straightening the sleeve of his jacket. Michael didn’t catch any meaning in the looks they traded, and started to feel very, very wary.

“Well.” It was a statement, a verbal comma that came out as though she were summing up possible options of discourse. “This is not a very auspicious way to make an entrance, Mr. LaGuardia. Maybe I’d better make an introduction. Michael LaGuardia, trainer in training, please meet Mr. Chris Parker, my friend and house guest. And, in case you didn’t know, a trainer who’s been around the block a little longer than you. He definitely has seniority over you.”

Michael looked at the man facing him, really looked this time, and felt a sudden need to sit down again. What an absolutely stunning way to make an entrance indeed.

“Ah, Mr. Parker,” he searched for some kind of proper words to try to salvage this situation as best as he could. “I—I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m so sorry if you took offense at what I did.”

One glance at the hard look in Parker’s eyes and the faint sound of a “tsk” coming from Anderson completed Michael’s sensations of social vertigo. What did I do wrong now? he thought miserably.

“Maybe I’d better go out and come in again,” he offered weakly.

“Only slaves get to do over mistakes in my house,” Anderson said firmly. “You’ll just have to work harder, that’s all. And just so you know, no one raises a hand—or any other part of the body—to any one else in this house without permission from me. Is that understood?”

“Yes.”

“Then take your bags upstairs. Joan will show you the way. Parker and I are about to go over your records. After you freshen up, you may join us in my office.” With that, she turned and walked back through the doorway, and Parker followed her. The maid stood by his bags, waiting to show him upstairs. The slightest of drafts curled around his shoulders and he shivered way out of proportion to it. This was bad, very bad. He hadn’t counted on there being two trainers in residence. He hadn’t counted on there being other free people around, period. And he had never made such a spectacularly bad entrance in his entire life.

I’ll just have to get better, he swore, gathering himself. He turned to Joan and picked up his bags to follow her.

* * * *

“Michael Xavier LaGuardia, born and raised in Los Angeles, California. BA in Communications from Berkeley, just twenty-six years old. Likely looking fellow, isn’t he?”

“He’s an arrogant, unobservant infant, straight out of kindergarten. How the hell did you get stuck with him?” Chris Parker was still brushing imaginary dust off of his jacket sleeve. He scowled and glanced at the folder on the table between them and pointed at another offending entry. “He’s only been training for two years! You barely spoke to me when I was a two-year man!”

Anderson nodded. Her eyes danced slightly, and she kept her smile in the crinkles around them, not in her tightly drawn lips. “You were different, bucko. I wanted to see where you’d go without me first. But now—have you seen the new crop of trainers in the past few years?”

“No, not especially. I tend to keep an eye on the older houses, and the formal apprentice relationships only. Why? Are all the new American trainers rude, ignorant twenty-somethings?”

The Trainer of Trainers sat down, her raven-black skirt fluttering down around her legs to settle around her like a silken lap robe. “No, not all of ’em. But in the past five years, I’ve only seen two American novices with the touch. The sight. And of that pair, only one will make a career out of it, if he actually gets out of the training whole.”

“Are you saying I’m part of a dying breed?” He did smile, a crooked twist of one corner of his mouth. He sat down as well, and dropped one hand down to the side of his chair, where a blonde woman was kneeling, carefully assembling papers into assorted folders, hearing yet not listening to their conversation. When his hand brushed her shoulder, she turned slightly to kiss the flesh behind his thumb, but continued to work.

“Ah, the joys of a cliché. No, I didn’t say that, although you might be. But whether you are or not, I do owe the Marketplace their new trainers—and this Mikey was the best looking out of the list they offered me.”

“They were right about that. He’s pretty as he can be. Those eyes! A potential distraction.” He ran his fingers through the hair of the slave beside him, felt the slight tremor when he touched the back of her neck, and then stopped trying to distract her as he focused his attention back on the trainer.

“Is he?” Anderson looked up, and her flinty eyes caught Chris’s across the table. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Oh, of course not.”

They stared at each other, calm and serious for all of a moment and then laughed, the sounds similar in tone and pitch.

“I can leave if you like,” Chris offered, after the moment passed. He looked out the window as if the waving tree branches were suddenly captivating. “I do have other places to go.”

“You’ll stay until you finish,” Anderson said.

“As you wish.”

On the floor, Tara hid a slight smile of her own.

* * * *

Michael looked at himself in the mirror, and, as usual, liked what he saw. He ran his fingers through his hair, flipping it back so that the seemingly stray locks fell in an artful arc over his forehead. His face was cleanshaven and evenly tan, although not quite as dark as he would have preferred. He took all that skin cancer stuff seriously; no sense in spoiling this face.

His Italian father boasted that the good looks came from his side of the family, and Michael knew that it was at least half true. He had some mighty good-looking uncles and cousins in the LaGuardia clan. But it was his Irish mother’s ancestry that gave him the naturally fair skin, and those magically blue eyes, so haunting under a mop of black hair. They were the ice blue of sapphires, ringed with black, always the first thing people noticed about him. Once, he had tried to darken them with contacts, thinking he’d look more natural, but found that it only made him look more ordinary.

Ordinary was hardly what he wanted to be.

Unlike a lot of his friends, he did not work out—and he didn’t have a beautifully hard, cut body. But he was trim and in good health nonetheless, one of those lucky men with a good body and good hair—for now. Time enough to lift and push and investigate Rogaine when he was older.

His suitcase was on a rack near the bed, his garment bag hung on the closet door. Joan had shown him the room, given him directions to the bathroom, and left him alone. He had expected that his bags would have been unpacked, at least.

What a weird system, he thought, pulling his collar straight. Why have slaves in the house and not use them? Using people is the natural talent of a master, his Uncle Niall said.

If it hadn’t been for Uncle Niall, I wouldn’t be here.

There were no slaves and masters in the LaGuardia household, unless you counted a dysfunctional aspect or two in one or another family grouping. Nothing but a second and third generation, mixed heritage but all-American, hard-working family, based on the West Coast. Michael had gone to college because it was what everyone he knew did, and had a relatively normal sex life for an American boy, full of experimentation and discovery and the freedom that good looks, a car, and an easygoing personality will give you.

The family was politically divided on several issues, but generally liberal in many things. The question of whether Uncle Niall was gay wasn’t really discussed as much as it was an unstated fact which had to be accepted. Invitations to him always included “and guest,” and occasionally he did show up with a usually younger and very good looking man as his companion. Once, Michael heard his mother saying to her sister in law, “At least Niall doesn’t flaunt it, dressing in women’s clothing and dancing naked in the streets. You’d never know he was…that way.”

Michael didn’t think about it much—he had his past experiences with boys and preferred girls, and if Uncle Niall didn’t, it was hardly any of Michael’s business, was it? He just treated Niall like everyone else.

So when Uncle Niall invited Michael up the coast to his place for a weekend, Michael accepted more out of obligation than interest in spending a weekend with a relative. He packed his swim trunks and sunscreen, expecting to spend most of the time on the beach.

It was a nice place; small but classy, with huge bay windows that had a view of the ocean, and a long winding path that led to the dunes out back. Uncle Niall was a screenwriter; he did a lot of work for sitcoms and some commercials and a few straight-to-video movies, all of which he thought were outrageously funny. All in all, he was a great guy to hang out with, funny and full of industry gossip. When Michael got there, he was swiftly introduced to Ethan, his uncle’s “companion,” and Jerry, the older man who Niall said “runs the house.” But as soon as hands were shaken, Michael was in his swim gear and heading down to the beach.

It was a great afternoon—he splashed alone for a while and then stretched out in the sun, loving the illusion that this entire area was his alone. He wondered if Uncle Niall and Ethan ever came down here and swam naked together. Michael had doffed his Speedo a couple of times at clothing optional beaches. He liked the feeling of the water against his genitals, the way his balls felt, tight because of the cold yet sensuously teased by the motion of the waves and the current. He also liked the looks he got when he walked along the beach, his cock swinging. He might not be some tremendous god of a bodybuilder, but hell, they were practically common in Los Angeles.

Just thinking about it made him pull the trunks off, that first caress of wind and sun enough to stir him tumescent. Yeah, that was better! He ran down to the surf and plunged in again, and laughed with the sheer exuberance of it. This was the life—out where no one could bother you, practically your own private beach—one day, he’d have this. How, he didn’t know, not yet. But one day, somehow, he would.

He saw Ethan coming down the path just when he was ready to get back into the sun and dry off.

His first instinct was to blush, because man, to be caught skinny dipping by your uncle’s boyfriend? How embarrassing. But there wasn’t anything to do—the man was going to see Michael’s abandoned trunks next to his sunscreen. Michael sighed and composed himself and began to make his way to shore. When he stepped free of the water, he shook his hair out and tried to act casual.

Ethan, whose apple-cheeked midwestern origins were betrayed by the slower, almost drawling way he had of speaking, was hardly casual. He gave Michael a long and measuring glance, and Michael found himself doing the same. Because Ethan was not in the jeans and sweater he’d been wearing at the door, but in a thong bikini, his cock a hard mass twisted to one side, clearly visible through the skimpy fabric. He had no hair on his chest or legs, like a competition swimmer, and his nipples were larger than any nipples Michael had ever seen on a man. And they were pierced, too—with heavy, silver-colored rings. Between his pierced nipples hung one of those little plastic cases that floated, someplace to put your change or Chapstick or car keys.

“Hi,” Michael said lamely.

“Hi, Mike. Your uncle thought you might like some company.” He flashed a friendly smile.

“Oh, yeah, sure.”

“I see you’ve already gotten comfortable,” Ethan continued, motioning to Michael’s crotch. “Maybe I can help you out there.”

“Huh?” The sunlight was definitely getting to him.

“You look like you could use a little release, Mike. Would you like a blowjob?” This was said in as casual a way as if Ethan was inviting him back up to the house for lunch. Michael stood silently for a moment, and tried to ignore the urgings of his cock, which definitely did want a blowjob. He struggled not to bring his hands together in front of the anxious organ, and covered his embarrassment verbally instead.

“Jesus, man, you’re my uncle’s boyfriend!”

“Sort of,” Ethan admitted.

“Well, what is that, coming onto me? We’re practically related! What if Uncle Niall found out?” Michael bit his lip; he hadn’t wanted to ask that last question.

“Mike—he sent me here. It’s no big deal. If you don’t want to, that’s all right, I won’t be insulted. But it looks like you could use one—and I am good.”

Michael looked up the hill toward the house. It was too far to see, covered by dunes and shrubs. He glanced down at his obviously eager cock, and then across to the man he thought was his uncle’s lover. “Well—okay, sure.”

“Great!” With that, Ethan led him up the beach, to an area where the sand was soft and warm, and settled him down comfortably. Michael leaned back, still amazed at the offer, but willing to believe that it was real.

And it was real—every minute of it. Ethan was right, too, he was really good. Excellent, in fact. Better than anyone, girl or guy, that Michael had ever had, even that hooker he picked up on Santa Monica Boulevard one night. He just slurped Michael’s entire cock into his mouth and then settled down to work on it for a good long time.

This is heaven, Michael thought, throwing his head back. I’m never leaving.

He tried to hold on to his erection as long as possible, and Ethan helped by varying his speed and strength, and the motions of his head. But soon, the sun and the sand, the overall tightening of the skin on his body, and the wondrous, pulsating pressure on his cock made Michael’s head begin to spin. Without even knowing it, he grabbed onto Ethan’s hair and pulled him tighter into his own crotch, crying out when Ethan pulled back.

“Jesus! I’m ready to fucking explode!”

“I got you, Mike, I got you!” And suddenly, there was a cool touch on the head of Mike’s cock, and then the reappearance of Ethan’s sucking, swallowing mouth, only tighter this time, hotter, and Michael finally let it come, shooting so hard he couldn’t even keep his head up. He arched his back and felt Ethan’s lips smashing against his groin as he came, and groaned out loud.

“Oh man, oh man!” he said, when his cock stopped spurting and started that throbbing slide into softness. He felt Ethan’s mouth gently surrounding his glans, licking, letting the cock fall slowly back against his thigh. Then he felt a condom being stripped off of him, and looked down.

“Shit, where did that come from?”

“My secret,” grinned the other man. “I hope you didn’t mind.”

“Mind? I didn’t even know it was there! Shit, that was fantastic!”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Ethan said. He wiped his mouth and scooped up a plastic wrapper from the sand, and then stood. “Dinner is at five, okay? You can stay here or come back and soak in the Jacuzzi, or whatever you want until then.”

“Thanks—thanks, man.”

“It was my pleasure to serve.” And with that odd statement, Ethan walked away, heading back up to the house. Michael didn’t know what to say to such a comment, so he didn’t say anything. Besides, it was better to just lie back and relax in the afterglow of that fabulous blowjob. Man, gay guys are really good, he noted. I’d be gay, if I didn’t like tits so much.

He let himself fall into a reverie of erotic images, and then, when he was feeling more awake, went off to find his trunks and went back to the house.

More surprises were in store for him that night.

“Did Ethan show you a good time on the beach?” was Uncle Niall’s first question when Michael came downstairs for dinner. Michael had changed into pull-on pants and a T-shirt, and felt better than he’d felt in weeks, relaxed and rested. The question stopped him in his tracks.

“It’s okay, I know all about it,” his uncle continued. “I sent him.”

“Um. Yeah, that’s what he said.” Michael looked around. Ethan was nowhere in sight. “What can I say, Uncle Niall? He was great.”

“Good. I thought you looked a little tense when you got here. Let’s sit down and eat, I have some things to tell you.” The older man waved at the table by the open doors that led to the deck. It was set for two.

“Isn’t Ethan eating with us?” Michael took a seat.

“No, he eats with Jerry, in the kitchen. That’s part of what I’m going to tell you about.”

“Okay,” Michael said. He glanced toward the kitchen, feeling suddenly aware that it wasn’t that far to the little room from where he and his uncle were seated.

Uncle Niall dug into the grilled vegetables and sea scallops, serving Michael and then pouring wine for both of them. “Here’s to the Marketplace,” he said, raising his glass, “and to your introduction to it, nephew.”

“The Marketplace?” Michael echoed, tapping his glass lightly against Niall’s. “You mean the stock market?”

“No, boyo, a slave market. Ethan isn’t my lover, and Jerry isn’t my assistant or housekeeper. They’re both my slaves; I bought them. Eat, and I’ll explain everything.”

Michael didn’t remember eating that night or drinking, or even getting back to his room later on, after he and his uncle continued their rather one-sided conversation out on the deck. He remembered asking lots of questions, and his uncle’s long, complicated responses. But it was almost too much to believe all at once. A world—wide network of voluntary slaves? Secret auctions of human property? Actual money changing hands, and contracts signed, with training locations and special schools and entire houses filled with people who could be traded or gambled away on a whim?

And his Uncle Niall—his own mother’s little brother—was a part of it?

He didn’t remember saying that he had to think about all of it, but his uncle did usher him upstairs to the spare bedroom with gentle encouragement to do just that. Michael thought he was going to remain awake all night, but in due time he fell asleep, and when he awoke the next morning, Ethan was kneeling next to his bed, naked except for that little tube around his neck, swinging gently between the silver rings.

“Would you care for some more attention, sir?” he asked, his eyes bright. And as Michael turned back the sheets to reveal his morning erection, Ethan wordlessly moved his mouth over it and proved that yesterday’s afternoon delight was no unique circumstance.

I could really get used to this, Michael reflected.

And I have gotten used to it, he thought, pushing the hair out of his eyes again. Used to people being deferential, slaves being eager to please, my luggage being carried and unpacked. It actually feels weird having to carry my own stuff. It should be no big deal—but it is. Maybe she does that with all her trainees. Surprises them; puts them off balance. Everyone knew that doing that was an essential part of training—you broke down expectations first, and then built new ones. Everyone knew that, because it was one of the methods she approved of.

There’s nothing like an Anderson-trained slave. There were maybe ten trainers in her class in the whole world, and they could train only so many slaves at a time. But the trainers they taught were especially valued. Months—or even a year—with Anderson could guarantee him a prominent placement in a large household, or in a training facility. He knew that some trainers spent even more time with her—years even! But that wasn’t necessary for his purposes. Just enough time to say that he had studied with her would be fine, and anyone would welcome him as a partner. Or, he could just go freelance and open a house of his own, or travel from job to job for a while. If he was properly trained. If Anderson approved of him when he left.

Anderson, the mystery trainer who saw no one except by appointment, who attended no auctions or parties or sporting events, visited none of the ranches or resorts where people of the Marketplace gathered. Her rare appearances at the trainer-only gatherings were spoken of like saintly visitations. Yet, her writings on the training of slaves and the responsibilities of owners were part of the canon of the field; her contracts and her method of structuring and ranking slaves were almost universally applied.

She had studied methods of teaching, indoctrination, and even brainwashing, and was rumored to have been an observer in military, medical, language, and penal instruction. Her writings certainly contained comparisons of every technique from toilet training in North America to captivity trauma training designed for the Mossad. And all of these methods were somehow entwined in her seemingly endless instructions about how to find, create, and maintain perfect servitors.

In a way, she was the ultimate master—for she taught not only slaves and trainers, but she taught the masters how to manage their slaves and trainers. Her structure of certifying owners for the North American markets was considered an international model for safety and security, and many of her former students spent their time flying all over the world to make sure that new owners would be ready for the valuable property they were about to take responsibility for. Hell, that wouldn’t be such a bad way to make a living either!

Michael dropped his eyes from his reflection and gathered his dignity and confidence. It was time to make up for his embarrassing entrance into the world of the Trainer of Trainers. How on earth had he misread the man at the front door as a slave? When Anderson had introduced them formally, he looked into Chris Parker’s eyes and what he saw there made him almost gasp out loud. Amusement, disdain and contempt, sure—but also a clear and challenging look that read “I can take you down right now, kid, just try me.” It was hostility threaded through with such confidence that Michael had, for one split second, been actually afraid of the man!

Impossible. And stupid. Michael put it down to jet lag and nervousness. Of course he was a little off balance the first time he entered the house of America’s most famous trainer. It was only natural to make a little mistake somewhere. There was no reason for Parker to hold this against him, and certainly no reason to be afraid of the little man. He was only a guest, after all. Perhaps he would be gone soon.

If only he wasn’t here at all! Michael allowed himself a moment of bitterness, and then buried it. He had work to do. Anderson’s guests were none of his concern. He had to focus on her and his goals and make sure he handled this whole thing right this time. There was no other alternative for him.

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