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Page 18

“Oh. ” I shrugged.

  “So the short answer is no, I don’t have a hairbrush with me. But you don’t need one. You’re stunning, Kyrie. Whether you’re done up in Dior and jewels, or just woken up in a sundress and messy hair, you are, very honestly, the most lovely woman I’ve ever known. You don’t need fancy hair or makeup to take my breath away, Kyrie. You just have to be you. ”

  Good grief. How is a girl not gonna melt at words like that? I expected someone like Valentine Roth to be caught up in appearances, to expect me to look my best at all times. That impression was reinforced by the outfit for the opera, and the closet full of clothes in my room. He himself never looked anything less than spectacular, but then, I don’t think he could ever be unpleasant to look at. I mean, there I was, makeup washed off by the swim, hair a swim-tangled rat’s nest, tied back in a ponytail, wearing a simple sundress, and he thought I was lovely? I looked like shit. But the appreciation in his eyes, the sincerity in his voice…it erased my worries.

  He made me feel beautiful. He made me feel safe. Even though he was playing a maddening game of sexual frustration and domination, he never made me feel like an object, or a piece of meat. It wasn’t about the sex. And that, more than anything, made me want him and appreciate him. All the guys I’d dated had made me feel, even unintentionally, as if the goal of our relationship was good sex. Dates were engineered to end up in bed. Even if there was a romantic element to the relationship, the romance was aimed at buttering me up so I’d f**k them.

  Roth? He made sex blatant, up front. He told me what he wanted, what he was going to do. And on top of turning me on something f**king fierce, he made things honest. I knew what to expect. And when we were talking, or hanging out, that was all we were doing. Just spending time together. He wasn’t constantly angling to get me in the mood for sex. When I spoke, he listened. His attention was focused on me, and only on me. His gaze never wavered, he never interrupted, and his responses told me he was listening and actually hearing, and caring, rather than just waiting for his turn to talk. He wasn’t charming, a good thing in my book. Charm always smacked of flattery to me. It felt like false advertising. I didn’t trust guys who could charm me. I’d flirt with them, sure, and I might even hook up with them once in a while. But nothing real would ever happen with a guy who was charming.

  Roth was a contradiction. He was reserved and untrusting. He had walls a mile high. Yet for all that, he was open and honest. He said it like it was, told me what he was thinking and told me what he expected, what he wanted. If he didn’t want to answer a question, he would say so. He wouldn’t skillfully change the topic or distract me, he would just tell me, “I’d rather not answer that. ” I respected that in him.

  All this ran through my head as I sat beside Roth on the ride up the Hudson River and back to his slip. I’d never met a man I’d respected before. I’d never met a man who’d really impressed me before. There had been guys I really liked, who were cool and fun and hot, decent guys from good families. But they didn’t leave me breathless. They didn’t make me sit up and take notice. They didn’t demand my attention, and they certainly couldn’t have commanded my respect, not like Roth did. He’d been kicked out of his home at eighteen, given what was, in his world, a small amount of money, and left to his own devices. To a girl living paycheck to paycheck, it was a fortune. In the world of business, a hundred grand wasn’t a lot. To a guy who’d grown up in the lap of luxury, it was barely enough to get started. If I scrimped and saved and ate sparingly and lived in the cheapest apartment I could find, I might be able to make a hundred last a couple of years. So the fact that Roth had turned it into billions? Or millions, or however much he was worth? Pretty amazing feat, I think.

  Roth tied the boat up and held his hand out to help me to the dock. “You’re deep in thought,” he remarked.

  I shrugged. “I guess. ”

  “What are you thinking about?”

  How was I supposed to answer that? I just shrugged again. “Lots of things. ”

  We arrived at the Bentley, and Roth held my door for me as I slid in, then circled to take the driver’s seat. “Lots of things, hmm?” He brought the engine to life, and it rumbled with a smooth, powerful purr. “Such as?”

  “You’re gonna drag this out of me, aren’t you?”

  He grinned. “Obviously. ”

  “I was thinking…. ” I thought about deflecting or lying, but decided on the truth. Or at least a version of it. “I was thinking about you. You’re not what I expected, Valentine Roth. Not in the slightest. ”

  “No? What did you expect?”

  I bobbled my head from side to side. “A lot of different things. At first, I expected some crusty, lonely old rich guy with nothing better to do than go around ‘collecting’ girls. ”

  Roth chuckled. “Well, you got one of those words right at least,” he said, more under his breath than to me. He shot a sideways glance at me. “You really take exception to being collected, don’t you?”

  “Yes!” I glared at him. “I’m not a f**king paycheck, Roth. I’m a person. And when Harris showed up at my door to collect me, as he put it, I was pissed. And yes, I still get pissed off when I think about it. ”

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  “Well, I apologize for the misunderstanding. But I couldn’t risk you refusing to accompany him, so I ordered him to leave you with no choice. ” His expression darkened, hardened. “You’ve always had a choice, Kyrie. You still do. You can leave at any time. You know that, correct?”

  I rolled my eyes. “I’m not going anywhere, Roth. Not yet. You’ve got my interest at this point. ”

  “Just your interest?”

  I gave him a teasing grin. “Yeah. You could say I’m interested, at the very least. ”

  “And here I thought I’d aroused a bit more than mere interest in you. I guess I’ll have to step up my efforts. ” The look he gave me was scorching, virulent, and laced with erotic promise.

  I shivered, sucked in a deep breath. “You should do that. You’re slacking, Roth. ”

  Evening had fallen by the time we had the boat docked, and as we entered the towering glass and steel canyons of downtown Manhattan, darkness was spreading thickening shadows between the buildings. We still had the Bentley’s top down, so I was chilled by the cool in the night air, goose bumps covering my skin. Roth noticed this, and as we stopped at a red light, he touched a button so the top unfolded and slid into place.

  “You looked cold,” he said, eyeing me.

  “What gave it away?”

  His tongue slid over his lower lip. “Your ni**les. They’re poking through the dress. Teasing me. Standing up hard. Begging for my mouth. ”

  I glanced down and saw that, sure enough, my ni**les were peaked, showing clearly. Roth’s hand left the gear shifter and drifted up, pinched my left nipple. I bit my lip to keep from gasping, but Roth only pinched harder and rolled it between his finger and thumb, making me squirm in my seat, his touch verging on painful. When he increased his pressure, taking the sensation past pleasant and into outright uncomfortable, I flinched away, letting out a breath.

  “That hurt, Valentine. ”

  “Just making sure I still have your interest,” he said. His hand settled on my thigh, just above my knee. “Do I have it?”

  “Yeah,” I breathed. “I’m interested. ”

  He glanced away, back to the road as he made a left turn, touching the brakes as traffic slowed ahead of us. We were in Little Italy, I realized belatedly. He was taking us somewhere specific, some restaurant he knew, I guessed. My capacity for clear thought faded as Roth’s hand slid up my bare skin, fingers grazing my inner thigh, pushing up the hem of my dress.

  “Take off your underwear,” Roth said.

  I glanced at him, blinking, and then looked out the windows. We were surrounded by cars, stopped at a traffic light. There were people on the sidewalk and a cube van was idling beside us, the driver sm