I found the ring disconcerting. Nick wanted to buy me one and I was happy enough about that, but I’ve never worn rings so all the ones I tried on felt weird and in my opinion looked weirder. Well, that was just unfamiliarity, but it meant that when the jeweller asked me what sort of stone I wanted and what styles I liked, I had no idea at all. That poor woman really earned her commission: we had tray after tray out, because I couldn’t discount anything without having a look. In the end, she produced, almost as an afterthought, a tray of antique rings and half an hour later I had a startlingly beautiful but disturbingly large diamond on my left hand.
Well, I thought it was disturbingly large. Nobody else seemed to agree with me. And I know it’s nonsense but I kept thinking I would bang it on things, or scratch things with it. In the end, Nick ticked me off, very gently, pointing out that if I took it off every time I washed my hands, in the end I would leave it beside a basin somewhere and forget it, and that if it had survived 150 years on other women’s hands it would probably survive soap and water on mine.
Yes, I did buy him a ring. I offered to buy him a signet ring, but he didn’t want one particularly, although he said he did want a wedding ring. Actually, I bought him a set of three matched rings, different sizes, in the shape of dragons chasing their tails, for him to wear in the club when we. . . why have you got your fingers in your ears?
All right. I bought my fiancé an engagement present, will that do? We bought each other rings.
What does the owner of a BDSM club do on his night off?
He goes to the theatre with his Sub and his friends. Somehow I didn’t expect that. They’re an odd couple, or the casual observer would think so. He’s a little round man, his hair’s going, he could afford to lose a bit of weight, and although he’s extremely astute, I get the impression that he’s short on formal education. She, on the other hand, is tall, elegant, upper class and a senior lecturer in something fairly heavyweight at the university. And yet, nobody who has seen him in the club doubts his authority, and she is the Sub to whose standards all the rest of us aspire. Neither of them so much as looks at another player; apparently they’ve been together for years. I’m not sure that they aren’t married too, although she wears no rings.
She wears no rings anywhere that I can see.
They’d invited us to go with them and although I’d been a bit twitchy about the whole thing, it had been surprisingly entertaining. The club had been mentioned, but only in passing, and as a location – had we seen that so-and-so had been there, what did we think of the new décor, that sort of thing. Nothing that couldn’t be overheard by the waiter who had served us an extremely pleasant, and at a guess, astronomically expensive post-curtain supper. Once the waiter had poured brandy and gone, though, Denis had asked about the wedding.
“You’ll have to do something at the club to mark the occasion.”
“We’d been wondering about that,” I said; the shy, nervy man who lives at the back of my head, the one who spent 25 years not asking women to spank him, had a conniption fit at where the conversation was going. I shut him up with more brandy. “I mean, we saw David’s 30th birthday celebration.” His Top had worked her way round the room, borrowing an implement from every Top in turn and giving him three with it. He had loved it, but it had been serious stuff – it had been a busy night at the club and there were a lot of people there.
“Well, you could do that, easily,” observed Denis. Fran agreed.
“Of course he could and we would probably enjoy it, too, but it’s been done, it’s old hat. We can think of something better. I just don’t want us to get bounced into something we don’t want to do. I saw somebody years ago doing the same sort of circuit – it was a woman, I don’t know what they were celebrating – and her Top gave her to as many of the Tops in the club as were willing to give her a spanking, women as well as men.”
I made a face, and Vanessa smiled. “Not Dominic’s sort of thing?” She had grasped, without it needing to be explained, the difference between Nick and Dominic.
“I could do it, if Fran wanted, but. . .”
“I don’t want. You’re mine and I’m not having anybody else touch you. So we’ll do something, I promise, we’ll think of something to knock their socks off but I don’t know what, yet.”
“Is that why you haven’t told anybody?” asked Denis lazily. Fran nodded.
“I’m not wearing my ring because some of the women there would notice and ask and then next thing we know he’s in the Cage with the killer Dommes and I’m being given some idiot Sub and we’re both expected to be grateful.”
I. . . thought I might like the Cage. But not with the killer Dommes.
What’s the Cage? Well, it’s only nominally a cage, for a start. Do you remember wall bars in the school gym, which could be folded out from the wall and bolted into an anchor point in the floor? It’s like those, only the bars themselves are a bit specialised and have restraint points added for cuffs and so on.
“You’ve not been in the Cage,” said Denis, slowly.
“Not for a long time,” agreed Fran. Vanessa’s glance slid towards me and I met it openly. Fran copes with the fact that I was married to Kate; I cope with the fact that she’s topped men before me.
“Do you fancy it?”
The whole-body shiver gave me away beyond any doubt; they all laughed, not unsympathetically.
“Give him a treat, Fran; do something special.” That was Vanessa.
“What would you like?” asked Denis, and it actually sounded as if he genuinely wanted to know. I suddenly realised that he did – he’s the same as Pieter that way, he loves to know what makes people tick. I could say I wanted anything, anything at all, and he would think no less of me, however much I might surprise him.
I think I surprised everybody. Including Fran.
Including myself, actually.
I’d given in without too much argument, for all that I didn’t like it. Everybody, one after the other, had told me that I didn’t have time – even after altitude training in Spain was cancelled, even with Tim taking on half the work – to plan the catering for Fran and Nick’s wedding and well, when I looked at my diary and the Lions tour, I had to admit that it was true. They’d sweetened the pill for me, first of all by Nick saying, “Anyway, we want you to be there. To be there celebrating with us, Phil, not rushing off into the kitchen to see to the organisation,” and then by Fran asking rather tentatively if I could find time to make their wedding cake for them. I fell on that as an idea – I’d never made a wedding cake. Well, of course, I asked what they would like and they both looked so blank that I said hastily that I would have a look in my cookery books and bring them some ideas.
“What are your colours, then?”
They exchanged glances. Fran, obviously, has photographed enough weddings to know what I meant, and Nick – well, he was married before, he must have done this already.
“God knows,” said Fran gloomily.
“You’ve not bought a dress yet?” I asked, faintly surprised. Fran’s generally so together that the idea of her not knowing what she wanted to wear was unexpected. Nick snorted.
“Are you going running on Saturday, Phil? Can I come? Fran’s mum’s coming down to visit on Friday, and they’re going out with Mary Hamilton on Saturday to choose something. If I can’t claim a prior engagement, they’ll make me go too.”
“Coward,” observed Fran dispassionately.
“I just know when my opinion isn’t really required.”
Fran rolled her eyes and deigned to explain. “My mum hasn’t altogether grasped that I’m middle-aged and I don’t want a fancy outfit. Or that this isn’t – wasn’t – a big wedding.” Yes, well, we’d heard about that. It was supposed to be a small Register Office do at the Town Hall (Tim caught me calling it the Registry Office, and when I teased him by persisting in it, he smirked at me and called my bluff with a rather revolting plimsoll) and a quiet party afterwards, until they’d drawn up a list of people who would be insulted if they weren’t asked. Then it had become a smallish reception in the afternoon followed by a much larger evening party in the ballroom, with a DJ from her contacts at the cricket club, and all the world invited. “I’d chosen a perfectly suitable grey and blue suit which might be of some use to me afterwards and my mum had a complete conniption fit.”
“I heard one end of the phone conversation,” put in Nick. “I honestly felt that I could let the other half go by.”
“Wise man,” I said, laughing, and the others joined in. “We can run the back way to Malton, if your knees are up to road work.”
So we’d done that, him and me and Hansie, and afterwards we’d all three of us ended up at their house – Fran and Nick’s – before Fran and the others came home.
“What are you wearing, Nick?” I asked lazily over coffee. “Are you having a new suit?”
He shook his head. “I’ve just had my good suit cleaned. But like Fran says, this isn’t supposed to be a big do. It’s not a church wedding, or anything.”
Hansie sniggered. “That will not save you, boet. Phil has strong opinions on such things.”
“Why? There’s nothing wrong with my suit, is there?” He turned back to appeal to me. “It’s a perfectly good suit.”
“Is it?” I asked blankly. I had no recollection of ever seeing Nick in a suit, although I supposed I must have done.
“Yes, of course it is! I’ve got a couple of ordinary ones for work and then that one which I bought for. . . I can’t remember exactly, but. . .”
“You can’t remember?” I asked, rather startled. “So how long ago did you buy it?”
His turn to look blank.
“Nick, where did it come from?”
Even blanker. I expanded. “If it was made for you, then it probably doesn’t matter if you’ve had it for a while, but if it wasn’t that good to begin with. . . and actually, come to think of it, you’ve put on a bit of weight since I met you. Are you sure it still fits?”
Hansie rolled his eyes. “Go upstairs and try it on, Nick, and let Phil have a look.”
It fitted him all right, but it was one of the ugliest suits I had ever seen. He and Fran are well matched; they’re as stubborn as each other. It took me ten minutes to persuade him that it wouldn’t do, and I only managed it by a decidedly low blow. “For heaven’s sake, you’re marrying an Alpha! Even I can see she’s an Alpha and I play for the other team! You’ve got to make a bit of an effort, it’s – it’s disrespectful if you don’t!”
“Yes but. . .”
“Not but anything. New suit. Good new suit. I could take you to Broussard Fournier. . .” but he was shaking his head.
“Not your designer people. I honestly can’t justify spending what Fran said they charged. I can’t even think about that sort of money without having a nosebleed.”
“Well. . . Nick, would you let me give you your suit as a wedding present? From Piet and me?” but he was still shaking his head.
“It’s kind of you, and I appreciate it, but what am I going to do with a designer suit? I’d never dare wear it, I’d be scared of spilling something on it. . . and look, I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I’m a police officer. A public servant. The money that costs, I can’t accept as a gift.” He gazed at me imploringly, and I gave way.
“No, I suppose not. It’s O.K., Nick, I do understand that. I have to declare gifts from the sponsors and so on, and there are rules about what I can accept and from whom; it’s not surprising that you’ve got them too.”
“Exactly,” he said, relieved. “It’s just – I can’t take anything which would be more than I could afford to buy for myself. All right, I need a new suit. I’ll go into town. . . maybe next weekend.”
I hid the shudder. There wasn’t anywhere in town which would sell him anything worth wearing. “Why don’t we make a day of it, go somewhere you’ll get a better choice?”
He rolled his eyes at me.
I tried not to roll my eyes. She’s my mother and I love her, and I’m very fond of Mary Hamilton too, but between them they were driving me nuts. “I just thought that since I was the one getting married, I got a say in the arrangements?”
“All I said,” retorted Mum smartly, “was that while I was quite in agreement that it wouldn’t be at all suitable for you to dress up like a meringue, I don’t see why you want to dress like a complete frump.”
“You mean like a sensible woman who doesn’t spend a vast sum of money on an outfit she’ll never be able to wear again,” I snapped crossly.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it!” Mum snapped back.
“It’s a small wedding; I don’t want to make a show of myself and I’ll bloody wear blue if I feel like it!”
“Oh darling, no, not blue,” objected Mary. “It’s not a good colour for you, really it’s not.”
“Mary, it’s not even properly blue! The thing she wants is mostly grey. Grey! For a wedding!”
“Mum, it’s a suit which I could wear to work afterwards!”
“Which is precisely why your mother and I feel you could do better, Fran dear. I’m all for you buying something you’ll get more wear from, that’s only sensible. But think of it as a good stylish outfit for formal occasions. Not ‘fashionable’ – you don’t want something which will date – but good quality. Now come along.”
I let my breath out in a rush. It was so obvious that I wasn’t going to win this – between them, Mary and my mum out-ranked me. I might be Alpha, but Mary was. . . Mary, and Mum was giving me the Look that Mothers have perfected since the dawn of time. I might as well give in.
And well, the shop we ended up in did have things which didn’t make me feel like I had to fight off the Attack of the Pastel Frills. There were suits, a sort of mix and match thing: a long Nehru style jacket, and a plain knee-length shift dress with self coloured embroidery on it, or a long camisole of the same embroidered fabric and plain trousers. I did rather like those. There was a green set: a bottle green jacket with leaf green dress or trousers, and another one which made us all catch our breath – cream but the jacket was gold patterned with deep bronze.
“Try them both, Fran dear,” commanded Mary, and Mum concurred. The green was lovely, and I had to admit that it suited me – but the other was perfect. I couldn’t deny it. “Dress or trousers?” I asked uncertainly. The dress was more. . . well, dressy, more suitable for a wedding, I supposed, but I thought, rebelliously, that I would get more wear from the trousers.
“Both,” said Mum briskly. “The dress for the ceremony and reception, and then for the evening, change into the top and trousers. What do you think, Mary?”
“With the jacket over both times. Perfect. And you know, Fran dear, that’s the sort of outfit which is always useful in your wardrobe. Always.”
I was almost convinced until I looked at the price tag.
“Holy. . .
Mum’s turn to roll her eyes. “Darling, you haven’t seen anything else remotely suitable. And it’s not that expensive, not for what you’re getting.”
Well, this was a definition of ‘not expensive’ which I for one didn’t recognise. Mary came to look.
“No, for four pieces, and this sort of quality, I’d say that was very reasonable.”
Very. . . I was speechless. And believe me, that doesn’t happen often. Fortunately it didn’t last.
“Mary, I just don’t have that sort of money to spend.”
She gave me another Look, and I wondered fleetingly if she knew what I had billed Hamiltons for their last advertising drive. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t have the money, it was more that. . . well, that I wasn’t in the habit of spending a four-figure sum on one outfit – however classy – and I thought that was a excellent habit not to have. But of course she wrong-footed me again.
“That hardly comes into it, does it dear?”
“Because Louise and I are buying this. All you have to worry about is underthings – get something really nice, and you know, if I were you, I would plan for a complete change, right to the skin, before the evening reception, and your shoes. I can remember from my own wedding, you’re on your feet all day, so cheap shoes are a ghastly mistake. Now go on, get your own clothes back on and let’s pay for this and then we can go for lunch.”
“Mary. . . it’s very kind of you, but . . .”
She was looking at me as if I were a rather awkward but generally likeable child. “Fran dear, I’m your godmother. I shall take a share of your wedding dress. Go on, I’m dying for a cup of coffee and something to eat.”
I was halfway back into my own clothes before I thought: she’s not my godmother! Mum’s a Catholic but only a nominal one and I was more or less brought up Catholic-ish, although nobody would say we practised. I was never baptised and even if I had been, I can’t see Mary as a Scottish Presbyterian being an acceptable godmother for a Catholic baby.
On the other hand, there was no way I was going to be allowed to win that battle. I had been completely out-manoeuvred. I wondered if Mum would like to go home with Mary for an hour or so to reminisce – I felt a distinct need to track down Nick and get after him with a heavy strap.
I’m not used to being topped: I wanted to pass it on.
I was half way through making the dinner when the phone rang; it was Fran.
“Phil? I believe that you’ve very generously offered to buy Nick a suit?”
“Well, yes, but. . .”
“If the offer still stands, he’ll be pleased to accept.”
“Will he?” I asked doubtfully.
“He will now.”
That sounded ominous. “Um. . . may I speak to him, please?”
There was some scuffling and muttering, and, I thought, a certain amount of laughter. “It’s not exactly convenient. He’s a little. . . tied up at the moment.”
Lalalalalalanotlistening. “Right. Right. But he’s O.K. with this? I mean, I’d love to buy his suit for him, but I’m not sure we can agree terms.”
She gave a huff of amusement, and sounded much more like the Fran I’m rather fond of and much less like Scary Top Lady. “Oh, he’s right about not designer, I suppose. But we aren’t scraping for pennies either, so he could afford something halfway decent. Trouble is, he won’t have the first idea of where to go for something decent, or how to recognise it when he sees it.”
“Is he listening?” I asked cautiously. The phone rattled and her tone changed.
“I’ve shut the door.”
“Look, Fran, cards on the table. Nick isn’t interested in clothes; neither are you. I am. Sure, I can find him a suit, and yes, I’d enjoy doing it. But not if it’s something he really doesn’t want. I don’t want to embarrass him, or make him feel awkward about himself, or me, or what he wears.”
“You won’t do that,” she said drily. “He – you know that he and I play in the club?”
Old news, Fran.
“A couple of our friends from the club are coming to the wedding and Nick’s decided that if he doesn’t get himself smartened up, they’ll think that he’s not doing right by his Top.” Her tone sharpened slightly. “I wonder who gave him that idea?”
“Hansie,” I said shamelessly. “But if he’s O.K. with it, I’d love to fix it.”
“Not Broussard Fournier,” she warned. “Really, Phil. That would be over the top.”
“O.K. Not BF. We can go to. . . Oh Phil, you nitwit!”
“Well, we knew that, but why particularly?”
“Phénix. I can’t imagine why I didn’t think of it before.”
From the silence, Fran didn’t know why she hadn’t either. Phénix BF is Broussard Fournier Lite, the off the peg range they produce for department stores. It’s not widespread in the UK, it sells more in France, but you can find it if you try. Well, I could, specially if I called Stuart Hetherington and asked him where the outlets were.
“So did you and your mum find something today?”
Even over the phone the temperature dropped five degrees. “Yes, thank you.”
“What colour? Anything I could pick up in the cake decoration?”
“Cream, gold. Bronze. Any good?”
“Oh yes, brilliant. Now look, Fran, I know there’s no point in asking if you’ve got a favourite cake recipe, but what about your mum? Or Nick’s mum?”
She laughed. “Nick’s might. I’ll ask, if you like, but mine won’t. She doesn’t like fruit cake any more than I do.”
There was a moment’s silence while I processed this. “You don’t like fruit cake?”
“No, ‘fraid not. Nor does Nick, much. But that cake you made at Christmas, that was good.”
So it damn well should have been: it was mostly alcohol. But –
“If you don’t like it, why didn’t you tell me?”
I could hear the incomprehension in the silence.
“Are you going to do the thing about sending pieces of cake to people who can’t get to the wedding?”
“Nobody does that any more, do they?”
“Well, I’ve never been sent any, and I can’t tell you how many of my friends’ weddings I’ve missed because I’ve been at camp or on tour or in a match. But if you’re not doing that, you don’t need to have a fruit cake at all.”
“Don’t we?” she asked doubtfully.
“Have you never seen that thing they do with a pyramid of profiteroles? Popular in France, I believe. Or the racks of cup cakes? Or. . . leave it with me. Cream and gold. And is Nick free on Saturday? I’m excused this weekend’s match, we could go and look for a suit. Oooh, he’s going to be a complete babe when I’m finished with him.”
That made her laugh. “I’ll look forward to it, Phil, but I’m not sure he will.”
“I wish to God,” said Fran only half in jest, “that we could be married at the club. At least then we’d have some control over the guest list.”
Both Denis and Vanessa laughed unsympathetically.
“I’m sorry, Fran, but I don’t think we would have enough couples to make it worth my while getting a licence. Which is not to say that we wouldn’t like to see you do the deed there. Top in a wedding dress, that would be new.”
“I might just do it,” countered Fran. “You know how I feel about the people who think you have to wear black leather to play. It would do some of them good to see a Top in a gold shift and a Sub in a grey suit. But you’ll have to wait until after the honeymoon, I suppose – can’t wear a wedding dress before the wedding.”
“Well, if the wedding is just the exchange of statements of intent,” I observed, “we’ve been married for ages. And as long as your mother never found out, I don’t see why you couldn’t wear it beforehand. Actually, I’d like that – something a bit more. . . I don’t know, I don’t want to be married in church, specially now that so few of them use the old forms of words, ‘with my body I thee worship’ and so on, but. . .”
“You’re a closet romantic!” crowed Vanessa; “You want a proper ceremony as well as the Registrar!”
I hid my face theatrically in my hands. “Guilty as charged. But Fran isn’t.”
“No, but I’m an indulgent Top,” she countered. “And it’s your wedding as much as mine. I don’t see why we can’t have something in the club if you would like it. And if Denis doesn’t mind.” That was half a question, and Denis shook his head, smiling.
“But what would you promise?” asked Vanessa, suddenly serious. “We’ve never had a – a handfasting of any sort. You read about them now and then, in the magazines, but I’ve never seen one.”
Fran made a face. “I’ve read stuff; I’ve had to do photos for stories about them. I’ve never seen one which seemed convincing. You know, UltraSub who has to promise to obey without question and without recourse to basic common sense. . . it gives me the creeps. It’s always implied that these people are living it 24/7. And it always seems to be all one way – Sub promises to obey and grovel and the rest but Top doesn’t commit to anything.”
“You want more by way of ‘safe, sane, consensual’?” asked Denis.
“I want. . . I don’t know exactly. I would just want something that marked that there were two of us involved. That we both have the right to days off? That Dominic isn’t a failure as a Sub if he says ‘that’s downright dangerous, I’m not doing it’. That there are times we play and times we don’t. That. . . well, that we each have to look after the other? That either of us may have to stop the other from going too far?” She gulped at her brandy. “I’m not expressing that very well.”
“Oaths of fealty,” said Vanessa unexpectedly. We gawked at her and her mouth twitched. “It’s my field,” she said apologetically. “No, not Forms of Marriage for Club Members. Mediaeval social structure. I did my PhD on the relationships between overlords and vassals and how they varied over time and between countries. You want an oath of fealty.”
“Do they?” asked Denis doubtfully. “I thought that was precisely what Fran was saying she didn’t want?”
She shook her head. “’Safe, sane, consensual’ isn’t new, you know. In the eleventh century, the words were slightly different, but the principles weren’t. The liege man was expected to obey his overlord, certainly, but it was fairly heavily proscribed. Bishop Fulbert,” and her voice shifted from conversational to Senior Lecturer, “had six principles in mind: he said fealty should be safe, honourable, easy, practicable, harmless and. . . hell, what was the sixth one?”
We all made faces of ‘Dunno, Miss,’ even Denis.
“Useful. That was it. Does that not sound like ‘safe, sane’ to you?”
It did, actually. “So that’s what Dominic has to do for Fran. He has to keep her from harm – that was what ‘harmless’ meant, actually keeping the lord from physical hurt – and keep her safe. That was protecting the lord’s secrets, privacy if you like. Not betraying the household. Nowadays, we might think of emotional and domestic security. Honourable, well, that’s fairly obvious. No sneaking off with other Tops or committing Fran to dealing with other Bottoms. Practicable and easy just meant not making unnecessary difficulties. Easing the work. Facilitation, that’s the current word.” She looked into space, obviously counting. “What have I missed? Oh, useful again. That was to do with possessions, I think. No selling off the chattels.”
“I pay a share of the mortgage,” I said. “Does that count?”
“Oh yes, I should think so. But it’s not all negative, it’s not all ‘thou shalt not’s. You have to be proactive as well as reactive. You have to provide good counsel and aid as well. I would say that covered ‘I’m not doing that, it’s bloody lethal, get a grip!’, wouldn’t you?”
She was brightening with enthusiasm as she thought it through, Denis was smiling to himself, and I was fascinated. Fran leaned forward.
“If that’s what he has to do, what about me? Do I just get to give orders?”
“Like hell,” said Vanessa succinctly. “You have to do the same. It’s an exchange. You have to look after him as surely as he has to look after you, with the same principles demanded of you. But you have the extra responsibility because you’re the lord. Or Top, if you like. So if he screws up, it might just be incompetence but if you do, it’s scandalous, it’s perfidious, you’re completely dishonoured. When he swears fealty, he’s making himself your man – your fighting man, your servant, if we’re still talking mediaevalism. But he’s not your slave. You have to swear too and your oath binds you to taking proper care of him and to looking after his interests as you would your own. Not just his physical interests either: his honour, which is tied up in yours. And if you wanted that brought up to date, I would say his emotional wellbeing as well.”
Fran was looking very pensive; Vanessa added more calmly, “Of course, if you were going to be married in church, you would get a load of that anyway, even with the modern words. The original betrothals were very often to do with land and property and making associations of power, and the pledges between ruling Houses were pretty much the same as between lord and vassal. That line ‘to have and to hold’, that goes back to the Saxons.” She glanced at Denis, suddenly embarrassed. “Sorry, I’m lecturing again.”
“It’s interesting,” said Fran thoughtfully. “So if we wanted an appropriate set of vows for a Top and a Sub, you think we should look into the Middle Ages? Where?”
“On her bookshelves, which are taking over every room in the house,” said Denis, catching the waiter’s eye and making ‘bill, please’ signs. “Let’s go and look.”
It’s quite true: Nick is a romantic, much more than me. On the other hand he’s about the most practical man I’ve ever met – not a combination I’ve encountered before. So while he does bring me flowers once in a while, it’s not often, and not vast bouquets. What I really like – the thing that conveys to me that he’s thinking about me and how to make me feel good – is that once a month (yes, at that time), without exception and more to the point, without comment, he puts a small bar of chocolate in the fridge. That one might carry an element of self-preservation: I don’t think I get excessively irritable when I’m hormonal but I’m perhaps not the best judge.
I wouldn’t have put Vanessa down as a romantic either, but it took her about an hour, and maybe ten textbooks, some of them in languages I don’t know and one which didn’t look like text at all, to come up with what she thought we needed to promise each other. I rather balked at that point – there’s a fine line between romantic and slushy, between intense and over-intense, and I wasn’t at all convinced that we weren’t crossing it. I didn’t say anything but Nick’s sensitive enough to pick up that I wasn’t sure, and he reined Vanessa in.
“Can we take this away and think about it? Do you mind? I think it’s lovely, Ness, honestly I do. . .”
“But you need to read it in the cold light of day and with less brandy taken,” put in Denis.
Nick smiled at him innocently. “Fran never allows me to make any decisions on a Saturday night in handcuffs. Sunday morning, fully dressed and in my right mind, she says.”
“Sound advice,” agreed Vanessa, printing the final draft for us.
And actually, yes, my first reaction in Denis’s cold light of day was that it was a bit too intense. I imagined myself saying the words on that sheet of paper, saying them out loud, not just for Nick to hear or even for Denis and Vanessa, but for Gráinne and Jack and so on, and just cringed – it made me desperately self-conscious.
What changed my mind was Phil. He came over with cake decoration plans, and stopped to have coffee with us, and as he got up to go, he said very wistfully, “I do envy you, you know.”
Well, that’s not exactly headline news. It’s one of the things we all know but nobody ever says aloud, that Phil has been yearning to get married for just about as long as he and Piet have been together, and it’s simply not an option. I didn’t answer him, because after all, what was there to say? And then when I reached to open the door to let him out, he took my hand and tilted it, making the diamond flash, and grinned at me, much more like himself, and said ‘That’s the way it should be – a bit of class and a bit of show.”
And I suppose it came from the fact that he and Piet couldn’t have the show, that I came round to thinking, not just that if Nick wanted it he could have it, but that he ought to have it. That what he and I do, both in the club and at home, is a major part of our lives, and ought to be acknowledged. It is important, it’s important to both of us, and because it’s sufficiently important that we really work to keep it right, it was wrong for there not to be some formal recognition of it.
I’m not explaining this very well, I suppose but. . . well, neither of us wanted a church wedding and quite frankly even the degree of the Town Hall gig was more for our families and friends than for us. The more I thought about it, the more obvious it was that the real commitment happened every time I buckled his collar round his neck. It’s not the biggest part of our lives, but maybe it’s the most intense?
And in that case, Vanessa’s draft vows were no sillier than ‘Wilt thou Frances take this Dominic’ or whatever the modern non-church version was. Yes, maybe I would feel self-conscious saying them in front of witnesses – but I wouldn’t be saying aloud anything which a half-way intelligent or sensitive individual couldn’t have worked out just by watching us. And. . . and perhaps feeling self-conscious wasn’t such a bad thing? Being totally aware of what I was saying to Nick and what he was saying to me, being conscious of myself and of him and of what we mean when we do. . . what we do?
Being aware that we honestly meant what we were saying?
Hell, I am not explaining this well. I’m Nick’s Top. He’s my Sub. We may have to behave discreetly in public but we’re not ashamed of what we are or what we do, and I rather thought that if I couldn’t make a statement about it, in front of a sympathetic audience, announcing my sincerity of – of intention, then I had no business actually topping him, either privately or in semi-public.
I would wear my gold shift into the club and as many people in the Scene who were interested could see that yes, we would indeed ‘have’ and ‘hold’. We would be married in a private club by an exchange of vows in front of witnesses, and the Town Hall thing would cover the legalities later.
I do regret that it means that Piet and the rest won’t see me actually married, but there’s no way he and Phil could come, Hansie I think would be freaked out by the setting, and Tim. . . No, as a matter of fact I think Tim would come and never bat an eyelid. But it wouldn’t do. They’ll have to be satisfied with the Town Hall.
The only other thing I needed to think about was the celebration. I’d need to put in a lot of private practice, to get my eye back in, if Nick was to get as a wedding present what he had tentatively asked for.
The cake. . . the cakes. Plural. Multiple. They aren’t having fruit cake at all. They’re having big sponge cakes on an S-bend stand: a top tier of lemon cake with cream coloured icing, the middle coffee and walnut with the icing as pale a tan as I can make it, and the bottom chocolate. And they’re having two of them, so that they’ve got a display cake for the evening as well as for the afternoon. I got gold and bronze edible powder to sprinkle across each layer and I spent bloody ages trying to find metallic colours of sugared almonds. I could get dragées, but not edible ones; anywhere which sold the edible ones was trade only and wanted me to buy in 5 kilo boxes, single colours. The only place I could find gold almonds was a shop in Paris called Calisson; they had a fabulous website with pictures of all their products, but bugger knows what it was for – they didn’t sell online. I even tried getting Tim to phone up armed with my credit card, promising ridiculous profit margins and postage, but they weren’t having any – they told him firstly that they didn’t have an export licence and then something about local sales taxes, neither of which he believed.
“Sorry, Phil, I think they simply don’t want to be arsed,” he said apologetically, after a long conversation in wheedling French, and that was that.
I was a bit ticked – I could picture exactly how the cakes should look and I don’t like using inedible decorations. I just don’t. I’d had everybody I could think of primed that if they saw anything even remotely suitable, they should send me photos off their phones and if in doubt, buy some and I’d pay them back – I went off to South Africa leaving a flurry of instructions in the dressing room. “Gold or bronze or copper or any mixture of them. Not the pastel pinks and blues. Almonds or chocolate or anything, but metallic coatings, right?”
I know, I know, not the sort of thing you ask rugby players to shop for. And I looked in South Africa too and didn’t find anything.
Dear Phil, I hope this might be what you require? T de St-C.
He’d only – T-Bone – he’d only asked his mother to go into Calisson and buy a boxful and post it to him.
They’re perfect. They’re precisely what I wanted, and he won’t let me pay him for them. He says, with that mulish look which he puts on, that they’re a ‘bridal gift for Madame Fran’.
Like hell. Oh, I don’t begrudge it too much, because they really are perfect, but he’s got me under an obligation and doesn’t he know it. And he likes it, too. He doesn’t say anything about it, but we both know: somewhere down the line, this is going to cost me.
Piet thinks it’s funny, damn him.
Vanessa twisted the leather neatly under and over, so that my hand was bound to Fran’s, and cleared her throat.
“Frances, from this day forward you claim Dominic as your Sub, taking no other. Is that your sworn intent?”
“It is,” said Fran, and her fingers trembled.
“Then we, who are as he is, do charge you:
“By all the strength in
you, by all the love in you, by all the life in you, you shall cherish him:
you shall cherish his mouth, so that the surrender of his kisses will be the currency you hoard like a miser;
you shall cherish his tongue, so that his cries will be a sword through your heart to keep it clean;
you shall cherish his eyes, so that his tears will be all that keeps your own sight clear;
you shall cherish his skin, so that every mark you make upon it will burn on your soul;
you shall cherish his freedom, which is not yours to bestow;
you shall cherish his spirit, which rests on your hand like a hawk;
you shall cherish his heart, which is not yours to break;
you shall cherish his gift of himself, and be grateful for every day and hour that it is granted, so help you.
“And will you bear the charge?”
Fran’s eyes were wet, but she looked straight at me and her voice was steady.
“I hold those present to witness that I bear the charge.”
They managed the transfer neatly, more neatly than they had done when we practised; this time the strap didn’t loosen at all as Denis took the ends from Vanessa.
“Dominic, from this day forward you claim Frances as your Top, taking no other. Is that your sworn intent?”
“It is,” I said, and Fran’s hand tightened on mine.
“Then we, who are as she is, do ask of you:
you be your lady's horse and bear her without complaint?
Will you be your lady's hawk and provide for her without stinting?
Will you be your lady's shield and protect her without hesitation?
Will you be your lady's hound and serve her without weakening?
Will you be your lady's heart and love her without wavering?
Will you give her of yourself, and trust her utterly?”
The answer didn’t sound like my voice at all.
“I hold those present to witness that I will be all these things.”
“We witness your words,” said Vanessa solemnly, and Denis added, “We witness your deeds.”
The thong slid off our hands and Fran gathered it up, a long wicked-looking single tail whip. The sort of whip that a stunt performer can use to lift the petals off a rose, or the ash off a cigarette, to spin a coin or burst a balloon. The sort which in careless – or malevolent – hands can split skin, and flay the underlying flesh to the bone. Fran had told me, the very first time that we met, that she knew how to use it.
I followed my Top – mine! – into the Cage.
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