By Jeb

You probably shouldn't have peeked.

In the end, though, it wouldn't have made any difference.

I saw you arrive. You didn't see me… not yet. But I saw the bright look on your face as you gazed about the huge dining room. The chandeliers… the glittering furnishings and settings… and the equally glittering assembly of guests. The wealthy and celebrated are here tonight… and you. Because in your own way, you belong with them.

I'm not the only one watching you, of course… how could I be? Your figure makes that little black dress into a lethal weapon; your shining eyes and hair; your stance, your gait, your smile… no one in the room could doubt that you are a woman at the top of the world, self-possessed and confident.

But then, I'm not in the room yet.

I'm on the other side of the two-way mirror that runs the length of the wall opposite you. You pay it no heed-- to you, it is simply reflecting the grandeur of the long dining table, and the backs of all the beautiful people seated opposite your side of the table.

You find your place: center of the table; we eschew the old-fashioned practice of alternating men and women; so, on your left is blond fashion consultant Pheobe van Cortlandt, on your right, rising soap star Lance Graham. Each of you sits at a place setting of sterling silver, gilt-edged china, Waterford crystal… and a small, velvet-covered box.

"Do Not Open Till After Dinner". Well, the cards on the boxes couldn't be much clearer, could they? And, at first, as you engage your neighbors in chat, your eager fingers are able to stay away from the tiny latch on the lid.

But I know you. As I say, it didn't matter, in the end… but I knew you would not be able to resist.

And the moment comes. Your neighbors are chatting with others, their attention engaged elsewhere… and you reach casually for your box-- the only one in black velvet, you may have noticed. Your nails flip the latch, you surreptitiously make sure you're not being watched… and open the lid.

I have an excellent view. And I'm so glad I do. I watch your face go pale as the linen napkin at your elbow… then flush a deeper red than I have ever seen it.

I can't see inside the box from here… but then, I don't need to.

The first thing you notice is the huge, shiny, ball of black rubber. Is it the same one? Hard to tell. Certainly the black leather straps attached to it, and the shining chrome buckle, have been kept in excellent condition.

The cuffs look familiar: again, the leather is soft, shining, and well-maintained; here, too, the buckles and clips are made of gleaming chrome.

But it is the third item… the third item cinches it.

Black and soft and supple… you can practically recognize the places where the leather shaped itself to your neck, and your skin tingles in remembrance. I see your eyes gleam moistly as the metal tag embedded in the collar swims before your vision: "If Found, Please Return…" but before you get to the part with my name and address… I am there in the room.

I take my seat at the head of the table, smiling to my guests… and you remember.

You never really "forgot", of course. In some ways, I suppose you almost regarded it as a dream you'd had.

But it was real. One year ago. One year ago this very night. I had given you your chance. One year to pursue your career… and hadn't you just made good? Here you are, among the other artists, writers, celebrities… and you're one of them. Or you were.

For now, though… for this one last evening… you are their toast. Their icon. You are beauty, skill, brains, artistry… all summed up in one glitteringly perfect package.

You close the lid, trying hard not to look in my direction. Instead, your eyes dart to the servants. Which one set your place? Which one might have already seen what's in the black velvet-covered box? The tall blonde, standing off to the side, in her immaculate uniform-- is she wearing a smirk on her face as she briefly returns your glance? Or one of the others…? No, wait-- what if it's ALL of them? Any one of them might have shared what they knew with the rest of the staff. Are they looking at you? Are they looking THROUGH you, right into you?

And what about the guests?!? After all, you were fashionably late. Could some of them have been given a sneak peek at the contents of your box? Your eyes roam, terrified to meet any others, but desperate to know.

But you can't really know, can you? All you can know for certain is that ANY pair of eyes in that room might be regarding you in a whole new way tonight: seeing you stripped of your secrets, exposed for what you once were… and always have been.

As I say, a shame that you peeked-- I am sure you couldn't really enjoy the salmon and risotto, the fresh-baked sourdough bread, the excellent wine… I doubt you tasted any of it. Or if you did… did it all bear the remembered tang of rubber along with it?

Dinner ends, as you knew it must. I see you glance now and again to the expensive watch on your wrist… and the skin of your wrists almost puckers in anticipation. So little time left.

The dessert. The coffee-- wonderful Jamaican Blue Mountain. And now, I tap my glass… and I address my guests.

I welcome everyone. I perform some introductions. And then… "You've all been so good about not peeking into your little prize boxes," I smile. "I hope you'll find these little trinkets worth the wait."

I can't actually see your heart leap into your throat… but I have a good imagination.

"Now," I continue. "Let's start with-- Phoebe!"

Phoebe. The guest to your immediate left. She is to be the first… which means, as we move around to the left, you will be the last. How long will it take? How long will you have to wait to be exposed as…

Phoebe giggles and opens the green velvet box in front of her. She smiles and draws out a party hat-- an exquisite one, crafted from expensive paper, and unfolding into a shape Marie Antoinette might have worn. To calls of encouragement from around the table, she puts it on, and receives warm applause.

To her left, an important local playwright puts on the satin "Lone Ranger" mask that had been in his red box. The next guest dons a pair of hand-crafted Groucho glasses with real tortoiseshell frames… and so it goes. On around the table, each guest opening their velvet box, and putting on some article of party wear.

It's Lance's turn. He, too, gets a hat-- made to look like the newspaper hats boys made for themselves many years ago…

And now, finally… it's your turn. For the first time all evening, you look me in the eye. I raise an eyebrow a fraction of an inch: you have your answer. You lick your lips, your mouth dry, your eyes once more starting to sting…

And you open the box.

You start with the cuffs. For a few more seconds, your mind can pretend they are no more than a fashion accessory. You slip them onto your wrists, and the past year falls away like a discarded garment. The feel of them…they don't weigh a lot, but the weight of their confinement is heavy enough. The little clips dangle and shine in the light.

No applause yet. You know that I will signal them when it is appropriate.

You take the two straps of leather into your fingers, and gingerly lift the ball to your lips. A year's a long time… it took a while to get used to this thing the first time. Now, its size intimidates you, and you genuinely wonder if you can even open your mouth that wide again… but you do. You feel the strain in the sides of your jaws as your mouth is distended to admit your old friend and intruder. Your teeth lock in place in the soft, thick rubber, and you wonder how long it will take that line of saliva to make its way down to your dress. Your fingers move almost without conscious control as they bring the straps around your head. Your hair up, the buckle is easy to fasten at the nape of your neck. And your mouth has, once more, passed from your control.

You can't help but look up now. Now, in this last moment. Every eye in the room is on you. What do you see in them? Puzzlement… lust…envy… desire… They watch. They wait. And you draw the last item out of the box.

The leather of the collar is familiar and soft, its buckle jingles as you lift it to your throat. I see the trembling in your fingers as you perform your last voluntary act-- you thread the strap through, and buckle my collar about your neck.

There is quiet in the room; your breathing already sounds harsh in your ears. Then, soft, muted applause. Now there is no need to worry who did or did not know before-- now, they all know. Now, they all see you as you truly are. I see a quiver as your belly tightens.

Without your realizing it, one of the servants has come to stand behind your chair. You can't see which one, and it doesn't matter. As I look in your eyes and nod, you stand up from your chair. You feel slender fingers take your arms and draw your wrists behind you. They nestle the cuffs so as not to catch on your watch… and then the clips are fastened. Your wrists are now cuffed securely behind you, and the gasp behind the ballgag is loud enough to be heard all over the room.

A gentle hand on your shoulder, and you take your first step. You are turned to walk around the table. The long way. Passing by guest after guest whom you had previously charmed, tempted, rivaled… now, only a bound and gagged girl for their inspection. No one touches you-- though I might have let them had anyone dared to ask. They don't ask, though, which in a way is far worse. What they can do to you with their eyes alone is enough to send your loins into a flame that they've not experienced in the past year.

And you are finally led to the head of the table.

 Your journey ends now.

 You are returned to me.


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