“You want to understand?” he asks, his voice low, his eyes ripe with challenge.
“It’s not about want. It’s about need, Chris. I need to understand.”
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He considers me, his expression impassive, but his pale green eyes shimmer and then burn. “Stand up and take off your clothes, Sara.”
After a moment of hesitation, I decide his command is as close to an agreement as I’m going to get. It’s enough. I stand up and walk to the bottom of the pedestal and Chris shifts to sit against the bed. In spite of this power play he is using on me, or perhaps because of it, there is something wickedly erotic about standing before this man and undressing. This brings my vulnerability back to the forefront. It is an act of trust, and my chest tightens at the implications of giving myself to him, of why he might need me to do this. I think … I think he needs to know that I’m not holding back, that he’s shown me his dark side, and I am still willingly his.
Yes. I am willingly his. Suddenly, I want him to know this more than ever.
With a lift of my arms, I peel away my T-shirt and toss it away. My hair catches on my mouth. I tug away the long, dark brown strands and Chris’s gaze settles on my mouth. My sex clenches because I know he is imagining my mouth on his body and I very much want my mouth on his body. But he is always in control, deciding what I do and don’t do. I vow right then that he won’t tonight. Now, yes, but not all night. At some point
before he leaves for Los Angeles again, my mouth is going wherever it damn well pleases. I cannot be naked quickly enough. He will leave in the morning for a week. There is much unresolved between us. Too much.
I strip away my clothes in seconds, and I’m pretty sure the art of the seductive, slow striptease is really not my forte. I’ll work harder at it when I want to tease him and not me. I just need Chris right now. I need to be naked with him, all barriers gone. I need him to know that I want to understand him because he matters, because we matter. Because life made me believe that what is blos-soming between us wasn’t possible, but maybe, just maybe, it is.
“Come here,” he commands urgently as I toss aside my panties, his voice gravelly, affected, and I revel in the impatience in him that matches mine. It is still hard for me to believe I affect him sometimes. He is so many things that I aspire to be: strong and powerful, confident and in charge of his life, his destiny. It moves me to know I make this man as hot as he makes me. It makes me stronger. He makes me stronger.
I go to him, letting him pull me to his lap, straddling him, his thick erection settling between my legs. I do not like that he is fully dressed, but I know this is about control to Chris. I know on some level I have taken it from him and he needs it back.
“Lace your fingers together behind your back,” he orders.
Adrenaline rushes through me instantly and my heart thunders in my chest. Yes. This is about control with Chris, but in his control he’s revealed far more than he knows. He has to have it and that says much about him. That I have some deep burn to let him have it says just as much about me, I know.
Watching his face, I search for a reaction I do not find as I slide my hands behind my back. His hands settle firmly on my upper arms, branding me with his touch, even as his gaze rakes over my breasts. The air crackles with a charge I feel in every inch of my body, before his eyes lift to mine and his voice is rougher now, tighter. “Lace your fingers together, baby.”
I do as he bids and the instant I comply, he lowers his mouth to linger above mine, his hands still holding my arms, his breath warm, teasing me with the kiss I burn for, but he withholds. I am breathless when his mouth brushes mine, and shocked when his teeth nip my bottom lip. I yelp with the sting and my fingers loosen behind me. Chris holds my arms in place, so I can’t reach for him, and his tongue snakes forward. He licks the wound before he delves deep into my mouth, stroking me into a compliant moan.
“Pain,” he explains moments later, his arms still wrapping my shoulders, “that becomes pleasure.” His eyes burn into mine.
“Lace your fingers again.”
Shaking inside, I nod, afraid to speak, afraid I’ll somehow do something to shut this window he is opening for me. His hands caress a path up my arms and down my shoulders. His path travels downward, over my chest, and he fingers my nipples, sending a rush of sensation through my body with the delicate, sensual caresses that become rougher and rougher. He tugs the stiff peaks, and this time I squeeze my eyes shut against the bite of tension.
“Look at me,” he orders. “Let me see what you’re feeling.”
I force my lashes to lift and the amber glint in his green eyes is as wicked as his touch. It is not just what Chris does to me that is enticingly erotic, but how he commands and claims me with every action, every reaction.
He pinches my nipples, tugging roughly at the same time, sending conflicting sensations of pain and pleasure through my body and straight to my sex. I pant with the delicious roughness and arch against his hips, against the thickness of his erection straining against his zipper.
His lips press to my ear, nibbling on the delicate lobe. The gentleness of the touch is a startling contrast to the way he continues to pinch and tug my nipples, and I can hardly stand the way he is teasing me. I want to reach for him, to touch him, but
I am afraid he will stop what he is doing and I cannot bear the idea. I want more, not less, and I am wet and achy and I think … oh … my sex clenches and I think—no—unbelievably I am almost certain I am going to come.
Seconds before I tumble, his hands leave my breasts and slide down my arms, holding my hands behind my back, and I know this is no accident. He has intentionally taken me to the edge and pulled me back. I am panting and I want to scream with the pain of needing release and having it denied.
He leans back, putting intolerable distance between our lips, our bodies that makes me want to scream. “Pain that’s about pleasure,” he repeats huskily, “and sometimes, baby, that pain is so intense that it becomes the pleasure.”
I understand. Right now, I understand oh so well. “And clearly you know how to make someone feel just that.” There is accusation in my voice. I can’t help it. He knows what he just did to me. He knows he took me to the edge but not over.
His shift in mood is instant, the game we’ve just played ending abruptly. He reaches behind me and unlaces my fingers, settling my hands on his shoulders. “Yeah, baby. I do. But I have never hurt anyone. And I won’t ever hurt you.”
Guilt over what I’ve made him feel slams into me. “I know that. I know, Chris.”
“You didn’t know that last night.” His voice is tight, strained, the torment I’ve caused him etched in his words, in the tight lines of his face.
“I was scared and confused.”
“And when you feel that way again?”
“I won’t.” I barely contain the urgency to tell him I love him, but I fear I will scare him and he will reject me, maybe reject us.
“I won’t. ”
He studies me a long moment, his expression impossible to read no matter how hard I search for a clue to what he is thinking. I’m still trying to read him when suddenly his mouth is on mine, and he is kissing me, tasting me, testing my words on his tongue. I cling to him, meet him stroke for stroke, trying to answer him, trying to show him that I am here. I am not going anywhere.
I feel the moment he snaps, the moment he needs to claim and possess, rather than question. He picks me up and carries me to the bed, a man with a mission, and I am that willing mission.
He sets me down on the edge of the mattress and reaches up and yanks his shirt over his head. I barely have time to admire him when he’s pulling me forward, spreading my legs. He sinks to his knees and his mouth closes on my clit and he suckles and licks. I gasp and fall back against the mattress, my fingers curling around the black comforter. I pant and try to hold back but his fingers are inside me and his tongue tantalizes me in all the right spots. I shatter with ridiculous speed that screams of him owning me. He owns my pleasure. He owns me. It is a terrifying thought because I’m not sure I will ever have that power over him. Not the way he does over me. I scoot up the bed, grappling with my emotions, but he is already undressed and pulling me beneath him, and I am helpless to resist. Of course I am. He owns me.
Damn it, he owns me.
My arms wrap his neck, and he comes down on top of me and his weight settles on me. I am suddenly, intensely aware that we have never been like this, in a bed, with him on top of me.
We’ve fucked all kinds of ways, but never in a bed, never in his bed. Awareness rushes over me, the reason I’d been nervous. We are in new territory, the intimacy of this night taking us to a new place.
“I’m going to make love to you now, Sara.”
It is the last thing I expect, and everything I both want and fear. My world is spinning out of control and I’m not sure if it will stop in a place where I will have even footing. “What happened to fuck and get fucked?”
“Baby, the ways I’m going to fuck you are too many to count, but not tonight. Tonight, I’m going to make love to you.”
His lips part mine, his tongue delving deeply, exploring, and the demand of minutes before becomes a sultry, sensual caress. He has torn down every wall I possess and I cannot fight him, or this.
He spreads me wide and settles between my thighs, thick and pulsing, parting me with the promise of finally filling me. I feel him press into me and my arms tighten around his neck. I lift my hips and meet him, urge him to go deeper, to give me more, when I know it is him demanding more of me, taking what I try to hold back but cannot.
He sinks into me, buries his cock inside me, and we lie there, foreheads touching, breathing together. I have never felt as part of a man as I do in that moment. Never felt so a part of another human being. I do not know what to do with the emotions inside me. I do not know how to be this close to someone and still hold on to myself.
“Chris?” I rasp desperately, afraid of this, of him, of where I am spiraling and will never be found.
He moves then, the thick ridge of his shaft caressing a path backward until I think he is going to pull out, to move away. I arch forward, desperate to bring him back, and he answers me with a hard thrust. I cry out and wrap my leg around his, lifting my body, moaning as his hand slides under my backside and pulls me closer, drives him deeper. He pumps into me over and over and I feel him shaking, or maybe it is me who is shaking. I don’t want this to end, and I sense he, too, is fighting it, as if we both fear the moment after, and what comes next. But the pleasure is too intense, too overwhelming, to be sustained. My sex clamps down on him, spasming with the most intense orgasm of my life.
He growls low in his throat and thrusts deep into me, before I feel the wet, hot heat of his release. And then we are there, in the moment after, him on top of me in his bed. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know what to do with this ball of emotion threatening to explode in my chest.
Chris moves first, shifting me to lie in front of him and pulling the blanket over the top of me. I feel the wetness clinging to my thighs but I don’t care. Chris is wrapped around me, holding me in his bed. For long minutes, we lie there in silence and I don’t want to sleep. I just want to feel him here with me.
“Come with me to Los Angeles.”
For a moment I consider saying yes and my reasons are many.
Chris somehow steadies the shaky ground of uncertainty in my world.
“I bought you a seat on the plane.”
“Chris,” I say, rolling over and feeling defensive, and more than a little pressured. “You know I can’t. You know I have a job. And when did you even have time to buy me a seat?”
“Before I even knew about the storage unit power outage.
I came here tonight determined to convince you to come back with me, and before you start to argue, getting out of town gives the private detective time to check on what happened last night and gives us some peace of mind that it was nothing to worry about.”
My stomach flutters wildly. “You think I’m in danger?”
“I just don’t want to take any chances, Sara.”
“You do think I’m in danger.”
“I’m not trying to scare you, but I also told you I want to protect you and I meant it. That means being cautious.” He teases a tendril of hair at my forehead. “And I want you with me. I’d want you with me even if this wasn’t going on.”
He wants me with him. These words please me deeply and I yearn to say yes but my fear for my job holds me back. “I want to go, but I can’t. I have to stay. And I’ll be fine thanks to you. I feel safe here.”
His expression darkens. “You won’t be in the apartment around the clock.”
“I’ll be at the gallery and it’s safe.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” he says dryly, and I know he’s talking about Mark’s presence there, not the security. He runs a hand over the back of his neck and casts me a wry glance. “I’m about as likely to change your mind about this as I am likely to get you to watch Friday the th with me, aren’t I?”
“Less.” I cup his cheek and plant a quick kiss on his mouth.
“Buttered popcorn and the promise of a chick flick to follow might convince me to watch the movie.” I roll back over and he leans away from me and turns out the light before pulling me close, and yes, we are spooning. It’s wonderful.
“You really are making me crazy, woman,” he murmurs, nuzzling my ear.
“Good,” I say, smiling into the darkness. “Because you make me crazy, too.”
“Is that right?” he challenges.
“Hmm,” I assure him, feeling the heaviness of emotional and physical exhaustion begin to settle deep in my limbs. “Yes. You absolutely make me crazy.” And it’s crazy good, I add silently, letting my lashes lower and the groggy sensation of sleep claim me.
• • •
Blinking awake, I am instantly aware that Chris is gone. For a moment, I fear that morning has come and he’s flown off to Los Angeles and hasn’t given me a chance to say good-bye. But there’s the soft hum of a light beyond the door, and it gives me hope he’s still here. The sound of muffled music slides into my awareness, and relief washes over me. I know I am not really alone and I am eager to seek out Chris.
I sit up and the blanket falls to my waist, the cool air chilling my naked body. Still, I toss away the comforter and find Chris’s shirt on the floor, and glance at the clock to find it’s almost five in the morning. I wonder how early his flight leaves and hope it’s not the early bird, but it must be since he’s awake. It is odd to imagine being here without Chris, and I am shocked and pleased at his willingness to allow me such a freedom.
Pulling his shirt over my head, I inhale the delicious scent of the man who has come to fill such a big part of my life, and I decide I’ll keep this shirt to sleep in until he returns.
I pad in bare feet to the doorway and stare at the empty living room. The music pulls me to my left and down a hallway that is long and narrow, and I pass several closed doors. The one at the very end of the walkway that serves as an endcap is open several inches, and I rest my hand on the surface. I am certain this is Chris’s studio, which I have longed to see, and I know the crack is an invitation. The music changes, and the song, “You Taste Like Sugar,” a sexy Matchbox Twenty tune, begins to play.
I remember Chris saying he paints to music and I wonder what this song inspires, and I am almost nervous to find out.
The door opens, taking me off guard, and Chris stands there wearing nothing but low-slung jeans and looking like he tastes of sugar. My eyes travel the rich reds, blues, and yellows of his dragon tattoo, which covers hard muscle and taut, tanned skin, and my mind plays something he’d said to me not that long ago.
Do you know what happens when you push a dragon? They burn you alive, baby. You’re playing with fire. I’ve played with fire tonight with Chris, pushed him to be that dragon, and the way he’s looking at me now, the way he sees what I do not want him to see, is burning me alive. I know in that moment that I cannot keep asking Chris to show me who he is and not be willing to show him all that I am. My gut twists with the biting possibility that holds because it means confessing something I haven’t been completely honest about, something I don’t want him to know. Something I wish I could forget forever but it is carved in my chest like a brand that only seems to get deeper when I try to wash it away.
Chris draws my hand into his and my eyes lift to his and there is mischief dancing in their depths. “Come into the ‘man-cave,’ baby.”
Laughter bubbles from my throat and I am amazed at how he takes me from somber to lighthearted. I love this about Chris.
“That’s right. Are you scared?”
“I guess it depends what kind of man-cave we’re talking about. Wasn’t the room you took me to at that club called the Lion’s Den?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be gentle.” He wiggles a brow and pulls me forward and I instantly forget man-caves and Mark’s club. I am standing inside a massive room carved into a circle and windows surrounding me on all sides, the twinkling lights of the city enclosing me like a glove. I have this sense of being at the railing of a massive ship, about to tumble into an ocean of never-ending discovery.
“It’s amazing,” I whisper, my gaze brushing his.
“I told you,” he says. “This is why I bought the apartment.”
I nod. “Yes. I understand.”
He releases me, silently giving me the freedom to explore on my own, and I walk deeper into the core of this magnificent studio. Random easels sit on stands, all covered in cloths, and I am excited at the prospect of uncovering them and seeing what is beneath. My gaze catches on the splattered paint here and there beneath my feet, and I smile at the remnants of his work, his frustrations, his excitement to get paint on canvas.
“I’ve been known to get a little messy while I work,” Chris informs me, stepping behind me, his hands settling on my waist, and I am instantly aware of him in every inch of my body. The sultry words of the song filter through the air— I just want to make you go away but you taste like sugar— and Chris leans down and murmurs something in French in my ear.
I shiver with the erotic way the words roll off his tongue and twist in his arms to face him, wrapping my arms around his neck.
“What did you say?”
“I said,” he murmurs softly, “that I want to make you melt like sugar on my tongue like you did earlier.” He tugs the T-shirt I’m wearing up my hips and cups my bare ass, pulling me against the thick ridge of his erection. “And if I didn’t have a flight in two hours, I’d lick all that sweetness until you begged me to stop.”
“I don’t beg,” I declare, though I have no idea how I’ve formed what could be called a sentence when his fingers are tracing the crevice between my cheeks and promising delicious exploration.
“Oh, you’d beg, baby. I’d bet on it and if you tempt me much more I might just have to prove how fast. In fact”—he starts leading me toward a stool sitting in front of an easel—“I have time.”
Yes. Please. “Two hours and you still have to drive across the bridge to the airport? You don’t have time.”
“I have time.” He sets me on the stool and his hands settle on my waist. “Now, about the begging.”
I smile. “You’re going to miss your flight. You do know that, don’t you?”
He turns me to face the easel and tugs the shirt over my head. I brush hair from my eyes and suck in a breath at the painting I’m now staring at. It’s me, and I’m sitting in the middle of the floor of the “man-cave” on my knees with my hands bound in front me. “What’s that wrapped around my wrists?” I ask, my throat rasping with dryness when suddenly my hands are behind my back and I feel the tug of them being wrapped and bound.
Chris steps in front of me and holds up a roll of tape. “Very efficient.”
“Chris,” I whisper. “You’re going to miss your flight.”
His lips curve seductively. “You clearly underestimate my efficiency.” He goes down on a knee in front of me and spreads my legs. “Now. On to the begging.” His hands, those talented, artistic hands, travel up my thighs and his thumbs stroke my clit. “I’m on a timer, right? I’d better get busy?” His tongue drags slowly, sensually over me. “Like sugar, baby, and I’m going to melt you like honey.”
My body sways. “And I’m going to fall off this stool.”
“Not if you lean into me,” he says, and slides two fingers inside me. “Lean.”
I arch forward and slide. “I’m going to fall.”
“I have you, Sara.” His fingers splay on my thighs. “Trust me. I have you.” His eyes hold mine and the depth of power and heat I find there are as limitless as what he makes me feel. His voice softens into a caress. “Relax into me.”
Relax into him. Like I had in bed. I nod. “Yes.”
Slowly, he lowers his head and I feel the warm trickle of his hot breath a moment before his mouth closes down on my clit.
I gasp as his hand leaves my leg and my body shifts forward, but then his fingers are inside me, and that arch of my body is like sweet, unbearably necessary pressure. I am on the edge in a flash of seconds and Chris is wrong, so very wrong. I won’t beg. There isn’t time. I’m going to come and there is no question, none whatsoever, that this man owns me and I can’t think of a single reason why that’s a bad thing.
Forty-five minutes later, I’m still wearing nothing but Chris’s shirt and standing in the kitchen, watching while he downs the cup of coffee I’ve poured him as if it’s not scalding hot. His hair is damp, finger tossed, and sexy, and he’s wearing a light blue T-shirt with Spider-Man on the front that one of the kids he’s seeing at the hospital gave to him, with black jeans. I’m eager to discover what has inspired such fierce dedication to this charity and wish I had more time to ask him about his involvement.
“Did you sleep at all?” I ask, and I try not to let my insecurity run wild. But if he wanted me in his bed, why wasn’t he in it with me?
“I don’t sleep much at night. That’s when I paint.” He reaches for the cup I’m holding and sips some of my coffee. “I had something I wanted to paint for one of the kids. He’s a bit of a movie fanatic like I am so we’ve bonded over a few favorites.”
“How old is he?”
He nods, his expression tightening. “Leukemia. Late stages. It’s destroying his parents. They’re good people forced to watch their child die.”
My chest pinches painfully. “You’re sure he’s going to die?”
“Yeah. He’s going to die. And believe me, if there was an amount of money or medicine that would change that, I’d make it happen.” He runs his hand through his fast-drying hair and turns away, walking to the phone and calling for a cab. I can see the tension ripple along his shoulders. I can’t imagine what it
must be like to know someone you love is dying and be powerless to stop it, but I think Chris does. I mean, didn’t he watch his father slowly drink himself to death? I suddenly wish I was going with him and decide right then to try to get Saturday off, even if I have to use the charity event as publicity for the gallery to make it happen. And I’m darn sure going to make Mark open his thick wallet for a big fat donation.
Chris hangs up the phone and turns to me and I don’t get the chance to ask why he’s taking a cab. “Come with me,” he says. “I didn’t cancel your reservation.”
Knowing more about the charity only makes my reply harder. “Not this time.”
He does not look appeased by my inference that I would accept a future invitation. “That’s not the right answer.”
“It’s the only one I have.”
He scrubs his jaw and turns to the counter directly beside me and presses his hands to it. His head falls forward and he just hangs there for several seconds, tension rolling off him in waves.
I reach over and run my hand through the spiky blond of his hair. He lifts his head, and the concern in his pale green eyes glistens in sunlight beaming from the bay window behind us.
“I’m going to be out of my mind with worry. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to leave you like this?”
“It’s hard for me to let you leave.”
He registers my words, and I know I’ve pleased him, but his mood shifts, his jaw tenses. “I need you to do something for me, Sara. I need you to lock those journals in the safe in my closet and leave them there. I’ll give you the combination.”
My heart begins to race and I lean against the counter to see him more fully. “You’re worried someone will try and take them? I thought you said the apartment was safe?”
He rotates around to face me. “It is safe. That’s not what I’m worried about or else I wouldn’t be trying to talk you into going with me. I’d be insisting instead. What I’m worried about is you reading the damn things and then reading into them. I’m asking you to put them away while I’m gone. Save your curiosity until
I’m present and have the chance to explain whatever you read if you somehow relate it to you and me like you did last night.”
“It’s not about curiosity, Chris. It’s about finding Rebecca.”
“Let the private detective do his job. I’m going to put a call into him this morning to talk about what happened last night and see if he can get anything from the storage facility about the incident that we couldn’t.” His hands slide down my hair. “Please, Sara. Lock up the journals.”
I swallow hard against the refusal that wants to spurt from my lips. This is important to him, and there is nothing in the journals I haven’t read at least once before. Reluctantly, I nod. “Yes. Okay. I’ll lock them up.”
Approval crosses his face. “Thank you.”
My lips curve at his thank-you.
He arches a brow. “Why are you smiling?”
“Because most macho control freaks don’t say ‘thank you.’ I like it.”
“Enough to agree to fly up to Los Angeles Saturday after work and help me survive being stuffed in a tuxedo at a gala that evening?”
I wiggle an eyebrow. “I get to see you in a tuxedo?”
“Better. You can help me take it off.”
“Deal,” I say with a laugh. “Though I want a picture before the undressing begins.”
“I’ll give you the picture if I can talk you into bringing the painting I did last night with you. It’s not dry enough for me to carry with me.”
“Of course. I don’t mind at all.”
“Great. There’s a small room in the back of the studio with a high-tech dryer. It’s sitting back there. I’ll call you when I get settled and work out the travel arrangements.”
The phone buzzes on the wall and he grabs it. “Be right down,” he murmurs and replaces the receiver before reluctantly announcing, “My cab is here.”
“Why aren’t you driving?”
“I want you to take the Porsche.”
“I have my car.”
“The Porsche has top-notch security. It knows where you are at all times.”
A flash of a past I prefer to forget slips between us, sharpening my tone. “In other words, you want to know where I am at all times?”
He appears unfazed by my reaction. “If I had to find you I could, but that’s not the point. If you were in trouble, you’d be found and found quickly. If you need help, you just tell the computer and it will get you help. It’s peace of mind for us both.”
His reasoning isn’t horrible and the past begins to slip away, replaced by another, rather obvious potential motive. “And as a bonus me driving your car makes a statement to Mark.”
He crosses his arms over his chest. “As a bonus, yes.”
My hands go to my hips. “I don’t want to be in the middle of the war between the two of you. I’m not a game token, Chris.”
He backs me against the counter, his legs framing mine, and in my bare feet and only his T-shirt, I feel tiny and he is larger-than-life. “It says you’re mine,” he informs me, his voice low, intense, “and I want him to know you’re mine.”
I’m thrilled when I should be objecting. “And you, Chris?”
I challenge instead. “Are you mine?”
“Every bit of me, baby, good and bad.”
I am shocked at how easily this declaration has rolled from his lips. My own lips part and no words come out.
“Take the Porsche.” His voice is softer now, rough and seductive.
He was right earlier, I conclude instantly. I melt like honey for this man when he wants me to. “I’ll take the Porsche.”
Chris’s hand slides to the side of my face. “That’s the right answer, baby,” he murmurs, then slants his mouth over mine, his tongue pressing past my lips. The ripe taste of his approval mixed with the sweet nuttiness of hazelnut coffee floods my taste buds, and consumes me. I am happy for the first time in a very long time.