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27 May 2021 (15:58)
Praise for No.1 New York Times bestselling author KRESLEY COLE and the first novel in her Game Maker series, THE PROFESSIONAL “Kresley Cole brought the heat with this one, delivering page-melting erotic scenes that you’ll have to read to believe. With a breathtakingly intense alpha hero and a lovable heroine, The Professional is a feast for the senses not to be missed!” —Kyra Davis, New York Times bestselling author “Kresley Cole is getting hotter—sexy hot!” —The Hollywood Reporter “Every touch—every feeling—was palpable. Toe curling. Kresley Cole is a wicked genius with her words.” —Romantic Book Affairs “The hottest, most sensually erotic scenes I’ve ever read! The chemistry is beyond explosive. . . . I can’t tell you how many times I blushed, fanned myself, or squirmed in my seat while reading.” —HEAs Are Us “The suspense is addictive, the characters likeable, and the drama palpable. I found my new addiction, and it comes in the shape of a hot and sexy Siberian.” —Sinful Reads “This combination of humor, heart, and heat is absolute perfection.” —Fresh Fiction “The book crackled with sensuality. . . . The only thing I hated? That it ended.” —Under the Covers Book Blog “Full of beautiful descriptions, vivid imagery, great characters, and humor. This isn’t a run-of-the-mill, slapped-together erotica. This is engrossing, well-written literature that happens to be sexy as hell.” —The Book Vixen “Intriguing, smart, super hot, and just plain well written have come to be hallmarks of Cole’s writing, and it comes out full force in this new series.” —The Brunette Librarian “The romance is lusty, HOT and HOT and did I say HOT?” —Clue Review “Grab a fan, the smelling salts, and keep the BP cuff on hand, this is going to have you panting for more! BEST CARDIO EVER!” —Tome Tender Book Blog “Five sexy CAN’T-WAIT-TIL-THE-NEXT-ONE, WHAT-AM-I-SUPPOSED-TO-DO-WITH-MYSELF-TIL-THEN stars.” —Kayla the Bibliophile “A drop-everything-now MUST-READ! . . . Intense, ridiculously sexy, and thrilling the e; ntire way through. . . . One of the HOTTEST series I have ever read!” —Shayna Renee’s Spicy Reads “Can someone please hand me a chainsaw to cut this sexual tension?” —Guilty Pleasures Book Reviews “A riveting story that you won’t want to put down.” —Fiction Vixen “Scrumptious, scandalous, and scorching. . . . Natalie and Sevastyan’s gloriously descriptive and deliciously detailed stolen and wildly illicit moments demanded an immediate reread.” —The Lusty Literate “Pure adrenaline in action. The chemistry is amazing, and the back and forth between Natalie and Sevastyan is hilarious and steamy.” —KT Book Reviews “I was pretty much enraptured from start to finish!” —(un)Conventional Bookviews “If you’re a fan of erotica and Kresley Cole, you will definitely LOVE this story.” —The Darkest Reader “I have popped the Kresley Cole cherry, and all I can say is, hot damn and spank me silly! . . . The sexual tension had me fantasizing about my own personal brooding Siberian enforcer.” —Scandalicious Book Reviews “Everything a fun erotica should be.” —The Windy Pages “Turns up the heat—the hot, molten lava kind! Cole delivers erotica on a platter of orgasmic proportions.” —Readaholics Anonymous “Absolutely intoxicating . . . the perfect balance of intrigue, chemistry, raw sexuality, and supreme storytelling!” —Hesperia Loves Books Also by Kresley Cole The Game Maker Series The Professional The Immortals After Dark Series The Warlord Wants Forever A Hunger Like No Other No Rest for the Wicked Wicked Deeds on a Winter’s Night Dark Needs at Night’s Edge Dark Desires After Dusk Kiss of a Demon King Deep Kiss of Winter Pleasure of a Dark Prince Demon from the Dark Dreams of a Dark Warrior Lothaire Shadow’s Claim MacRieve Dark Skye The Arcana Chronicles Poison Princess Endless Knight Dead of Winter The MacCarrick Brothers Series If You Dare If You Desire If You Deceive The Sutherland Series The Captain of All Pleasures The Price of Pleasure First published in the USA by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2015 First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2015 A CBS COMPANY Copyright © Kresley Cole 2015 This book is copyright under the Berne Convention. No reproduction without permission. ® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved. The right of Kresley Cole to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd 1st Floor 222 Gray’s Inn Road London WC1X 8HB www.simonandschuster.co.uk Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library PB ISBN: 978-1-4711-1388-8 EBOOK ISBN: 978-1-4711-1389-5 This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY Dedicated to the incredible Barbara Ankrum, who dropped everything to beta read this book (and Dead of Winter, and Dark Skye, and The Professional . . . ). What would I do without your amazing vision? The Master “They say I’m heartless and manipulative, that I amuse myself by playing with others’ lives. They aren’t wrong.” —MAKSIMILIAN SEVASTYAN “A mal tiempo, buena cara. To bad weather, good face.” —ANA-LUCÍA MARTINEZ HATCHER (ALIAS: CAT MARÍN) CONTENTS CHAPTER 1 CHAPTER 2 CHAPTER 3 CHAPTER 4 CHAPTER 5 CHAPTER 6 CHAPTER 7 CHAPTER 8 CHAPTER 9 CHAPTER 10 CHAPTER 11 CHAPTER 12 CHAPTER 13 CHAPTER 14 CHAPTER 15 CHAPTER 16 CHAPTER 17 CHAPTER 18 CHAPTER 19 CHAPTER 20 CHAPTER 21 CHAPTER 22 CHAPTER 23 CHAPTER 24 CHAPTER 25 CHAPTER 26 CHAPTER 27 CHAPTER 28 CHAPTER 29 CHAPTER 30 CHAPTER 31 CHAPTER 32 CHAPTER 33 CHAPTER 34 CHAPTER 35 CHAPTER 36 CHAPTER 37 CHAPTER 38 CHAPTER 39 CHAPTER 40 EPILOGUE CHAPTER 1 Mi madre must be turning over in her grave right now. As I rode the elevator to the penthouse of the ritzy Seltane Hotel—it’d taken two staffers to key me up to the fortieth floor—I chewed on a fingernail. Was I really about to let some strange man have sex with me? For money? The elevator arrived too quickly, forcing me onto a private landing with its own lobby and an elegant sitting area. An open newspaper lay on a coffee table, as if someone had recently left. The entry—a pair of ornate mahogany doors—was just beyond, looming. Could I bring myself to ring the bell? Apparently, this penthouse was one of the largest (more than ten thousand square feet) and the most expensive (thirty-two grand—a night) in Miami. Who in their right mind would spend that much money on a hotel? Clearly my first client was loco. Other than that, I didn’t know much about him. He was a Russian businessman, here in Miami for a week. He’d been not only vetted but vouched for by sister escort agencies all over the world. In other words, he was a hobbyist, a routine user of escorts. Tempted to bolt, I pulled out my phone to call my hookup, Ivanna. She was a Ukrainian immigrant and high-class escort, making bank; I was her cleaning lady. She thought my current employment was a waste of my “spectacular figure and fresh-faced beauty.” Yeah, yeah. When she answered, I said, “I don’t think I can do this.” I began to pace the lobby, my stilettos silent on the plush beige rug. “Of course you can. You don’t understand how badly I wish I could be there. If this man is renting the penthouse for a week, imagine how rich he is!” The Russian had booked Ivanna, but she’d had a reaction to Botox (she was only thirty!). She’d thought she’d be okay by tonight, so she hadn’t called to cancel. A big no-no for escorts. “If my eyes weren’t swollen shut . . .” “Ivanna, I’m not at this point yet.” I’d been vacillating like crazy. Though I’d prepared to take a couple of dates—getting an exam and a waxing—I’d always suspected I’d balk. “I’m not here,” I insisted. But wasn’t I? Yesterday I could’ve sworn I’d seen Edward. In Miami. I’d been riding the bus home from a cleaning gig when I’d seen a tall, lanky blond stepping out of a bodega, striding toward a Porsche. The last time I’d seen him had been in the glare of headlights, his green eyes stark against his blood-coated face. If he was here, then I needed to flee to a new city as soon as possible. But that took funds. “You make this job sound so horrible,” Ivanna said. “You’re going to do great. You have the balls, and that’s half the battle!” Despite my upbringing—or maybe because of it—I was pretty shameless. Even with my, ahem, generous ass, I’d proudly strutted the beaches of Jacksonville in a micro thong bikini. I’d gotten hot and heavy with all manner of high school boys, doing everything but screwing, earning a reputation as a cocktease. When I’d started having sex with Edward, I’d studied tips and tricks, anything to tempt him. So I knew how to get a guy sprung. Ivanna said, “You’ll have inquiries from the agency site before you know it.” She’d gotten the web guy for Elite Escorts to toss up a makeshift page for me, by promising him an HR. Hand release. I knew all the lingo, had chuckled as she’d recited acronyms, never imagining I’d be using the lingo. A BBBJ was a bareback blowjob. Swallowing was BBBJNQNS—bareback blowjob, no quit, no spit. MSOG—multiple shots on goal—meant the client could come as many times as he liked in the specified time limit. “You shouldn’t have bothered with that web page for me.” I’d told her I would only do this once or twice, but she’d just smiled and said, “That’s what we all thought. Now pose for your site photo!” “You only have a couple more minutes to be on time,” Ivanna said. “Take a deep breath, remember my three key points, and you’ll be fine.” First, I should look for a nondescript envelope of cash lying on a conspicuous surface—my “donation.” I was to do nothing until I pocketed the money. And then? The name of the game was upselling, getting him to pay for services above and beyond the outcall, earnings that were all mine. Second, since my client wasn’t likely to inspire arousal—despite the fact that I hadn’t had sex in forever and my libido was going crazy!—I’d need to figure out a way to furtively lube up. Most escorts did. Lube made for safer sex and limited VF, vagina fatigue. Of course, a condom was mandatory. Third, the majority of clients that used Elite Escorts liked ingratiating, sweet dates; I was a cheeky smart-ass. So I would have to curb my personality to succeed. Damn it, I should never be in the service industry—in any capacity. But I needed this money to run! I had my own rules, and in three years I’d never broken them. 1. Never say anything above and beyond what is absolutely necessary. 2. Never create links between you and anything else. 3. Never stay in a place longer than six months. 4. Never get soft. 5. Never attract undue attention. 6. Forgodsakes, never, never, never trust another man. Without funds, I was going to break rule number three. “Trust me, Cat, with your business savvy, you’re going to make a killing,” Ivanna assured me. How savvy was I? Although I had six houses to clean each week—including hers—five of the women beat me up on my fee, assuming I was an undocumented worker from Cuba. “Just have fun,” she said. “It doesn’t have to feel like work. Your waxing was probably more uncomfortable than your date could ever be.” But . . . “It’s been more than three years since I slept with anyone.” And Edward’s pitiful attempts shouldn’t even count. “That is . . . hmm. How strange,” she said, as if I’d told her I liked to wear other people’s skin. “We’ll discuss this later. For now, remember: sex is like riding a bike.” I turned toward the elevator. “Mierda. I can’t. This was a mistake.” Ivanna sighed. “I didn’t want you to get your hopes up too high, so I never told you my record for one night.” “Are you going to now?” She’d been vague, saying the sky was the limit, but she’d refused to give me hard numbers. “My record for a six-hour outcall is over twenty thousand in cash and jewels.” Twenty. Thousand. Money like that could catapult me directly into the next phase of my life plan! When I regained the power of speech, I sang, “And we’re off to fuck the wizard.” She laughed. “I hope he’s a wonderful wizard. Oh, one last thing, Cat. You’re going to have a gut-check moment, and when you do, ask yourself: would I have sex with this guy for free? If the answer is yes, then why not view the money as a bonus?” “Okay, muy bien. I can do this,” I said, psyching myself up. “Go get ’em!” Disconnecting the call, I turned to check my appearance in a lobby mirror. December was usually mild, but this year had been downright balmy, so I’d worn a wrap dress of forest-green silk. The style was understated, with a conservative neckline, in case he wanted to take me out, but the sides were held together by only a single bow at my hip. Stilettos gave a hint of naughty. I twisted around to view the back. The thin silk was too tight across my ass, leaving little to the imagination. Nothing to be done for it now. I faced forward and eked out a smile. I’d worn only lip gloss, mascara, and a touch of glittery bronze eye shadow. Ivanna said it brought out the vivid copper color of my irises, making my eyes look exotic, especially against my dark hair. I’d left the length of it down in long loose curls. Makeup: in place. Hair: best that can be expected. Conclusion: If I were a horny Russian lech, I’d do me. I checked my cell phone clock. I had less than two minutes to make an on-time arrival. Stowing my phone in my purse, I pressed the doorbell, then gazed around, battling my nerves. I glanced at that newspaper on the coffee table again. Would a guy this rich have a bodyguard or something— The door opened, revealing my first-ever client. In escort slang, he was DDG. Drop. Dead. Gorgeous. He looked to be in his midthirties, with a full head of thick black hair and a built body. He was well over six feet tall. His blue eyes were hooded, his penetrating gaze roaming over me. He wore a lightweight cashmere sweater, winter white, that molded over his rigid pecs. The color made the piercing blue of his eyes pop. Dark, tailored slacks highlighted muscular legs and lean hips. If I was ever going to lose my “escort cherry,” I couldn’t imagine a more ideal client. Yet the Russian glanced behind me, as if he expected someone else to be there. “It’s just me,” I said, surprised my voice sounded so casual when my heart was pounding. Without a word, he turned, heading into a living area. I followed. Accent lighting illuminated the tasteful modern décor. Floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows offered what had to be the best view in the city. All the balcony doors were open, the sound of the waves reaching us even this high up. This place was huge, the size reminding me of my former mansion. Oh, to be rolling again . . . He faced me. “I confirmed a woman named Ivanna. Your agency suggested her when I sent in my preferences.” His voice was deep and rumbly, his accent tingeing the words. I was a sucker for men with accents. Edward’s slow Atlanta drawl used to light me up. Until I’d found out he was from England. “Ivanna was supposed to come tonight, but she had to call in sick.” “I requested a tall, slender blonde, at least in her late twenties. Ideally from Europe. Perhaps her substitute could have matched any of my requests.” Instead he’d gotten me—twenty-two, five feet two inches tall, curvy, brunette. Oh, and one generation away from Cuba. Giving him a fake smile, I teasingly said, “Isn’t variety the spice of life, querido?” Sweetheart. He wasn’t budging. “You’re not what I ordered.” I, above all people, knew that you shouldn’t have to pay for something you never asked for. I had a flash memory of Edward edging toward his gun, moments after declaring his love for me. “Are you even of legal age?” the Russian grated. “And then some.” He looked unmoved. I’d read and reread Getting to Yes, and I thought I could finagle one night out of this guy. But then, was I really ready to take this step? “I can’t change your mind?” When his expression grew even colder, I was glad he was about to kick me out. I would make a better outlaw than I would an escort. Outlaw? Give it time, Cat. In a stern tone, he said, “I never reverse myself on decisions.” I shrugged. “Okay, your loss.” How confident I sounded! Like a working-girl pro. Relieved, I turned toward the door, sauntering away— I thought I heard him hiss in a breath. Mierda. Knowing my luck, I’d split the seam in my dress. CHAPTER 2 “Perhaps I was . . . hasty,” he said. “Stay for a drink.” Had my ass worked for me? Was I happy about this? When I turned and traipsed back, he headed to the bar area. This was actually happening. I was going to have sex for money. Over his shoulder, he said, “I’m Maksimilian Sevastyan.” I turned it over on my tongue, finding his name a mouthful. In my mind, I styled him Máxim. “Encantada. Nice to meet you. I’m Cat Marín.” I glanced around for my donation. Nothing. Which made me uneasy, but I gamely bellied up to the bar. “Is that your working name?” My alias. “That’s what they call me.” And that was what my fake ID said, whenever I was forced to use it. I’d chosen my grandmother’s name of Catarina, and her mother’s name of Marín, and then I’d assumed the identity completely. Though I missed being Lucía, that life was like a distant dream. “What do you drink?” Good question. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had alcohol. Maybe beer after a 5K race? “Um, whatever you’re having.” “Vodka martini?” Probably not a good idea. “You must have a preferred cocktail.” I was about to say something stupid, like “Sex on the Beach!” but instead said, “White wine would be great.” “You seem uneasy.” I admitted, “I’m a little new to all of this.” “Uh-huh. I’ve booked many escorts. Not one has ever said she’s been at this awhile.” He thought I was lying. I was the world’s shittiest liar. Early on, I’d realized that anytime I’d been put into a position to tell an untruth, I’d resented it so much, I would stew for days. So I’d just stopped doing it. “I’m not lying to you.” He waved my words away, turning to the wine collection. As he investigated the offerings, I studied him up close. He was clean-shaven, with smooth skin that looked newly tanned, but he had no laugh lines around his eyes. Weird. No wedding-ring tan line either. At least he was single. His lips were firm, his white teeth even. A wide masculine jawline complemented his strong nose and chin, his broad cheekbones. His hair was close-cut on the sides, longer on the top. What would it feel like to run my fingers through it? “There’s a cellar somewhere on this floor, but I think you’ll like this wine.” When he uncorked the bottle, his muscles moved beneath his thin sweater. He wore a diving watch that probably cost more than my rat-trap apartment complex. The only thing that could compete with the view of him was the view outside. The wraparound balcony had small torches along its clear glass railing. Past an infinity pool that I would kill to experience, I could see the ocean. A nearly full moon hung heavy in the sky. “Go take a look.” He poured a glass and handed it to me. “I’ll meet you outside.” I wasn’t supposed to do anything until I got paid, but after a quick risk/reward assessment, I said, “Okay.” As I strolled past the pool, steam rose from the heated water. In fact, the entire pool deck was heated. I crossed to the balcony rail and sampled the wine, sighing at the taste. I could see the appeal of drinking with this on tap. A warm gust blew, and I inhaled the salty air. My eyes went half-mast at the sound of the ocean. I could almost imagine I was on Martinez Beach. Nearly a century ago, my father’s family had bought a long tract of oceanfront property near Jacksonville, putting it into a trust, never imagining the fortune it’d be worth today. Short of returning there, I would have loved to remain in this city. Unfortunately the only Miami in my future was M.I.A.M.I.: Money Is A Major Issue. If I made bank tonight, I could reboot somewhere as exciting, maybe LA or San Diego. I’d leave right after my last college exam, then get on with phase two of my reclaim-my-life plan: Disappear Forever. I’d buy a real fake ID (oxymoron?) and a social security number that would hold up under scrutiny. Here I was dreaming about bank, when I hadn’t gotten my donation, much less upsold him for more. I knew my hard limits, but other than that, I wasn’t sure what I would do. As I drank, I recalled the article Ivanna had made me read to help with my first date: The Top Ten Ways to Wow a Client. Suggestions included feigning breathless absorption when he talked, pretending affection, faking orgasms, and always telling him he was right. Seriously? Máxim joined me outside, with the wine bottle in one hand and his drink in the other. He set the bottle on a nearby table, then stood beside me. The moon bathed his face, lovingly highlighting all his chiseled features. Though unpaid, I began to relax. Regardless of what else happened, I was presently in the Seltane penthouse with a client who might just give me the FOTC. Fuck of the century. I took another sip. “Did you add crack sprinkles to this vintage?” “I was fresh out of crack,” he said in a derisive tone. “What do you think of the view?” I grinned over the rim of my glass. “I suppose it’s adequate. If you like this kind of thing.” At my attempt at humor, he tilted his head. “I looked you up on your agency’s site.” Only a couple of the items Ivanna had listed about me were true—two-thirds of my measurements and my status as a CAN, certified all natural, with no surgical enhancements. I recalled the fake bio she’d read to me: I like dancing (I hated dancing) and yoga (jogger here). In my spare time (as if I had any!), I enjoy performance art (no, gracias) and shopping (a form of torture). “Your photo’s unusual,” he said. “Is it?” Ivanna had taken pics of me on an out-of-the-way beach. I’d worn black boy-short bottoms that rode up my cheeks, no top, mascara only, and my hair piled up on my head. She’d chosen one taken from the back that I hadn’t posed for. My head had been turned to the side as I gazed off at something. My eyes had been distant, because I’d been deep in thought—second thoughts—about this entire idea. Oh, and cursing Edward as usual. The blood arcing across our bedroom . . . those ugly sounds . . . Shake it off, Cat. The Russian said, “It’s not your typical boudoir shot with flattering lighting and risqué lingerie.” “A hobbyist like you would know, huh?” I drank more wine, frowning when I reached the bottom of my glass. “I’m not really a simulated boudoir kind of girl.” Without a word, he refilled me. “What kind of a girl are you?” A dogged survivor who believed in living to fight another day. But I told him, “A girl who believes in topless beaches for everyone. Viva la revolución!” I thought that was funny, but he just tilted his head again. “Your photo makes a man wonder what you’re thinking about. That was by design, no?” “I didn’t choose the one that was uploaded.” I’d only allowed Ivanna to use it because I’d looked a world away from the last pictures taken of me, when I was still a teenager. “You’re twenty-six?” Ivanna had inflated the number. “Old enough to know better.” Máxim peered at my breasts. “Measurements: thirty-five, twenty-three, thirty-six?” “Thirty-four and a half on a good day. I didn’t put that up either. I like my size.” I could go braless if I wanted to, but could still produce cleavage when necessary. His brows drew together. I got the impression he was trying to fit me into a box, and having unexpected difficulties. I could’ve told him, My ass won’t fit, yo. “You have a marked accent. Not native to the States?” “I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household.” With una madre loca, Catholic to the core. Despite her refusal to learn English, she’d homeschooled me until high school and kept most people away from our secluded beach. I didn’t like thinking about my childhood, much less talking about it. “In Miami?” I shrugged. Questions like this made me nervous. The less anyone knew about me the better. Connections to others were breadcrumbs. That was why I didn’t date, didn’t socialize. Not that I had time between scrubbing toilets and going to school. “You don’t care to talk about yourself?” He gave a humorless laugh. “That’s a first.” “Oh, you don’t want to hear about my boring life. I have an idea: let’s institute a no-personal-questions rule.” “And you think you can keep yourself from digging about me?” If it kept him from doing the same? “Sí.” “Very well, then let’s get down to business. I believe this is the part where you upsell me.” Busted. “I’ll only need you for an hour or so,” he continued, “but I don’t like to be mindful of such things, so I booked half the night. How much will it cost to let me do anything I desire to you?” What would a guy like this—gorgeous, rich, condescending—want? “Some things aren’t on the table.” A flash of anger. “Everything is on my table, little girl.” This was turning into an issue. No, no, remember your mantra. When faced with a difficulty, good businesswomen said, “It’s not a problem,” then went to work fixing it. “Though I’d love to get to know your body better”—I gave him a brazen once-over that seemed to surprise him—“I can’t provide some of the services you might desire. There’s not enough money in the world.” “Such as?” “BBBJ. In fact, bareback anything is out.” “I have no interest in that. You replaced another tonight—I’ll expect you to do what she would have. What I ordered from your agency.” I recalled Ivanna’s kink specialization: bondage, discipline, submission, and the like. She had gear all over her apartment. Had this guy requested her for more than her looks? As a vetted hobbyist, he couldn’t be too dangerous. If he offered me enough money, could I trust a strange man to tie me up? To make me helpless? No, gracias. My ability to trust was broken, like a fractured limb that had never been set, now shrunken and useless. I even refused to trust myself when it came to men. But I didn’t want to lose out on this money. “Why don’t we take tonight as it comes? See where it leads us?” See where I can lead you. “I promise we’ll both be satisfied.” He narrowed his blue eyes, and it was like a blast of icy air blew over me. “Do not play games with me. And don’t mistake my intent—I couldn’t care less if you enjoy this or not, so don’t pretend to.” What a dick! Cállate la boca, Cat! Shut your mouth— “I won’t tolerate feigned passion.” So much for Ivanna’s article. Somehow I managed to say, “Understood.” “Then I’ll pay you three thousand—and you’ll be amenable to my interests.” My knees almost buckled. That much money would be life-changing! Yet words were leaving my lips: “Make it five, and we have a deal.” He stilled. Had I angered him? Blown everything? Mima, my island grandmother, had a saying: “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.” I was about to be bacon. “Deal,” he said. En serio? Wait, what had I agreed to? Amenable to his interests? “I assume you’ll want to be paid in advance.” Holy shit! “Yes, por favor.” “Follow me.” He returned to the living room, heading toward a stylish briefcase on a console. Once fifty bound Benjamins sat tucked in my purse, my fate had been sealed. He took my empty glass from me, setting it down. I’d drunk that wine too? I might’ve been buzzed, but my nerves prevented it. Now that the thrill of the deal was fading, anxiety took its place. He crossed to a suite, saying over his shoulder. “Come. I’m keen to see what five thousand buys me in Miami.” I stiffened at the reminder. At the bedroom entrance, he turned to me. “What’s your hesitation? Feigning shyness won’t be tolerated either.” My thoughts were in a tangle. Two stood out. You’re going to be a hooker, Cat, warred with Five thousand dollars, idiota! Gut check? Oh, yeah. But Ivanna was right; I would have sex with this guy for free. Besides, my situation demanded drastic measures. Nothing this man could do to me would be worse than what Edward would do if he caught me. Since he was my husband, and I’d foiled his plan to kill me. With that in mind, I joined the Russian in the bedroom. What I saw on the bed made me freeze in my tracks. CHAPTER 3 A ball gag. A crop. Leather restraints. Ni en broma! Not on your life. No, no, surely I could figure out a happy medium. This man had to be interested in more than BDSM. “Explain what you’d do to me.” He coolly said, “Once you’ve stripped, you’ll go to your knees at the edge of the mattress, buckling the gag on yourself. I’ll bind your arms behind your back, and you’ll lean forward resting on your forehead. Then I’ll whip your body wherever it occurs to me to. When I’m satisfied with that, I’ll fuck you from behind.” This sounded like a script. Like he did this with every escort. He’d said nothing about kissing my nipples, nothing about petting me. In his scenario, we’d share the fewest points of contact possible while still technically having sex. He wouldn’t see my face or hear my voice. He wouldn’t even touch me to gag me! I would be just a receptacle. Which he’d pretty much warned me about. A faceless, voiceless receptacle. I’m not there yet. So my options were to walk out or try to change his mind. Nothing to lose by the latter. Why not make this into a fantasy? I could be anyone tonight. A femme fatale, a man-eater. I told him, “While your script sounds . . . interesting, I don’t think that’s what you really want.” His brows shot up. “You don’t.” I turned toward the suite’s sitting area. All the windows and doors were open in the softly lit room. Gauzy moonlit curtains fluttered. I sauntered behind the couch. When I patted the back cushions, inviting him over, his lips thinned. Long, anxious moments passed as we stared at each other. Heartbeat . . . heartbeat . . . heartbeat. Then it seemed like curiosity forced him to stride over. When he took a seat, I smiled, sidling around in front of him. I stepped forward until he had to make room for me, spreading his knees. I played with the sash on the side of my dress. “Would you like me to take this off, Ruso?” Russian. Curt nod. I slowly untied the sash. Letting my dress hang open like a robe, I gave him a curtained glimpse of my provocative black demi bra and thong set. I couldn’t read him, couldn’t tell if he liked the view or not. He looked so cold. So why was I getting hot stripping for him? I glanced at his big, masculine hands. What would they feel like squeezing my breasts or cupping my bare pussy? My nipples were taut, my panties growing moist. I never wore lingerie like this, and I felt hypersensitive after my waxing a couple of days ago. I shimmied from my dress, tossing it to a neighboring seat. When I faced him in my underwear, he casually draped his arms along the back of the sofa. “Turn in place for me.” He was so calm, detached even. This was like foreplay with a computer. A DDG computer. “Slowly.” I reminded myself that I was playing the femme fatale. My two glasses of wine told me I was doing fine. As I turned, I could feel his eyes on my cheeks, exposed in my tiny thong. Which only made me wetter. Furtive lubing would not be a problem. In fact, maybe I should leave my panties on for a little longer? It’d been a while since I’d had the time or energy to masturbate. What if I lost control? Like everyone else on earth, when my body got turned on, my brain turned off. But mine was a total factory shutdown, a labor strike. I needed my wits to handle this guy. I faced him again. Had his breaths shallowed a touch? “Show me your breasts. Let’s see if I like your size as much as you profess to.” I removed my bra, tossing it in the direction of my dress. I was secretly proud of my pert breasts. They fit my body but were plump, with jutting nipples that were not quite pink and not quite tan. My small areolas we re raised, giving the peaks a slightly puffy look. When I squared my shoulders, the Russian’s nostrils flared—finally a hint of passion from him! “Very nice. I hadn’t thought the view from the front could compete with the back.” Wow. An actual compliment. My attention was drawn downward. A very large erection pressed against the material of his slacks. Muy grande. Maybe too big? For all my fooling around, I’d only had intercourse with Edward, and he was nowhere near as well endowed. “Continue.” Strip totally? Deciding against that, I stepped forward, straddling him. I rested my knees beside his hips, my hands on his shoulders. A breeze from the ocean drifted in, mingling with his intoxicating scent—a blend of sandalwood and simmering man. His scent made me tremble—it was like an unfair advantage, used to drug new escorts. When I lowered myself atop the thick ridge of his cock, I could feel his heat even through our clothes. My eyes went wide; his narrowed. I’d be taking his length inside me directly. The idea no longer filled me with hesitation. I shivered with desire. My nipples puckered even tighter, right before his eyes. I wanted this man, this stranger. I could count on one hand the number of guys who’d gotten me off. Most times had been accidental when I’d been fumbling in the backseat with a boy or grinding one at a keg party. Edward had never gotten close. Not that he’d cared. But this Russian— “I did not invite you to straddle me,” he snapped. His body went tense—angry tense. I froze with confusion. Most guys liked it when topless girls straddled them. “You just assume I wanted you atop me?” He couldn’t sound more cutting. He grabbed me, lifting me to the side—as if to fling my body off him. Yet then he stilled. His hands were so big on me, his fingers covered a good bit of my ass. After a hesitation—when we seemed suspended in the moment—he began to knead me. When he lowered his hands to grip my curves, a low groan escaped him. But he still held me upright. Again, something was happening that I didn’t understand, as if some inner battle were being played out. In my lust-dimmed mind, I wondered if he tied women up and fucked them from behind because he didn’t like to touch too much of them. Just when I’d decided that was the case, I found myself settled back over him, the raised bulge of his cock directly between my legs. Had I won this round? His anger seemed to have been put on hold, but he wasn’t ready to concede defeat. “You still refuse to give me what I want?” And he was going along with my refusal? Emboldened, I leaned in next to his ear. “I’m going to give you what you need, Ruso.” The wine and my arousal were making my own accent thicken even more. My stiffened nipples brushed the fine cashmere of his sweater, which felt incredible, so I skimmed them again. What would it take to get this man’s mouth on my breasts? When I imagined him sucking me . . . a soft moan escaped my lips, my back subtly arching. He clamped his hand over my nape. “What kind of escort brazenly denies a client? You’re either starving at this job—or making a fortune. . . .” He trailed off when I rolled my hips, running my pussy over his cock, with only my moistened panties and his slacks between us. I gasped at the sensation, breaths shallowing. My clitoris began to throb. He drew his hands away, resting his arms over the back of the couch again, as if he’d made a conscious decision not to touch me. I got the impression that I was being tested somehow—or that he was. “Put your hands behind your back. Now.” He probably expected me to clasp my elbows. “Of course.” Instead, I dropped my hands directly behind my ass, grasping high on his thighs to hold my balance. He tensed again, but before he could say another word, I whipped my hips over his length. My head fell back as I moaned. I’d forgotten how irresistible sexual play could be, had forgotten about uncontrollable urges and the hardness of a man’s body. I faced the Russian, beginning to ride him. Though his gaze was rapt on our point of contact, he refused to move his own hips to meet me. No matter. The bulge of his zipper had lined up with my swollen clitoris, my soaked panties rubbing that bud. Fricción! Sultry, damp friction . . . sent me ever closer to orgasm. Soon I was panting, grinding him like a pole dancer. He clutched the couch, his long fingers gone white-knuckled. “Is this what you think I need?” His voice alone could make me come. The husky timbre had only deepened. “To be ridden?” “I think you need passion.” I certainly did. “Maybe if it wasn’t feigned.” I nearly laughed. “Oh, I’m not feigning anything.” How to tell him I would climax soon? “Wait.” He seized my shimmying hips, holding me still. “Up.” Confused, I put my hands on his shoulders and rose up on my knees. Was he kicking me off again? Then I followed his narrow-eyed gaze. His slacks, which probably cost thousands, now had a damp spot over his groin. I’d wetted him through my panties. I should have been worried about his reaction, but I was too far gone to care. I dropped as low as his hands would allow, wanting my pussy back atop his hot hardness. He grated, “Blyad´!” Whatever that meant. “You’re truly wet for me. Very wet. You’ve been using me to get off?” “Por Dios, why are you talking so much?” I said between breaths. “Want to come, Ruso.” He blinked at me. The cool, detached Russian looked stunned. “Then by all means.” He released his grip. “Continue.” “Gracias.” I sighed with relief, letting my nipples skim his chest on my way down. If he’d allowed that . . . I threaded my fingers through his hair and leaned in to kiss his neck. When I gave a little suck over his pulse point, his head tipped back. I lost the ridge of his zipper, so I writhed atop him, hunting for it. Had his hips finally moved? Did he want that contact too? I found the perfect spot. “Ay, perfección.” When I set back in, he faced me, his blue gaze flicking from my eyes, to my lips, down to my tits and thong and back. As I pleasured myself, his own lips caught my attention. They were as attractive as everything else about him. The fuller bottom one had a sexy dip in the middle. What would it be like to kiss him? Ivanna said it bonded people too much, and that you had to save something special for a lover in your life. I had no lover, and no fear of bonding. Right now, hovering on the edge of orgasm, I had no fears at all! I gazed at his lips, licking my own. “You think I need to be kissed?” His words were hoarse. “Doesn’t everyone—” He bucked his hips hard, rocking his unyielding cock against my panties. At last! “Oh! Fricción . . . Do it again, por favor.” He did it again. And again. Soon he was groaning with each thrust, but the sound was pained, as if he were getting punched in the stomach at the end of each one—or cutting himself off. I’d think about all this—later. “Don’t stop!” As he shoved against my pussy, I muttered incomprehensible things, switching from one language back to the other, struggling to communicate that I was on the verge. “Oh, my God. Ay, Dios mío.” “You’re about to come?” he asked in a strained voice. “About to combust!” I clasped his face with both hands. Our gazes locked. His was still defiant and angry, his chin jutting stubbornly—even as he met my undulations. “No, no, cariño.” Rubbing my thumb over his bottom lip, I whispered, “No te pongas bravo conmigo. Don’t be angry with me. We’ll both feel good soon.” I leaned down and covered his mouth with my own. His lips were firm and hot. I licked the seam of them, whimpering. My movements quickened until I was bucking over the Russian’s cock. He parted his lips; the tip of my tongue found his, the spark that set off— Pleasure. Exploding. Electrifying me. Currents sizzled through my veins to make way for . . . fire. “Mmmm!” I cried out into his mouth. Bliss engulfed me, forcing my hips to gyrate on him. Lost, I rubbed my tits against his chest. I moaned, riding him like a toy as my pussy contracted over and over. Only as sanity returned and the spasms faded did I realize he wasn’t returning the kiss. I drew back. He’d gone completely still. That strain within him only grew. “You kissed me. You came. That was not supposed to happen.” “It was the heat of the moment. No te pongas—” He wrapped my hair around his fist, forcing me closer till our lips met. When I gasped, he set in with a fervor. He kissed as if he hadn’t taken a woman’s lips in years, as if he’d only been storing up need. I panted; he heaved breaths. His hands dropped to clench my half-bare ass. A growl sounded from his chest. An actual growl. The idea of inspiring that kind of lust turned me on so much, my arousal returned multiplied. I held his face between my hands and sucked on his tongue. He groaned, his fingers digging into my curves as I started grinding on him again. I broke away for a breath. “What are you doing to me?” “I could ask you the same,” he bit out in a baffled tone. “I detest surprises. I don’t tolerate them. And yet . . .” His brows drew together. He looked . . . not calculating, but something akin to that—as if he were working out the angles of a problem. “Still here,” he muttered to himself. He yanked me close, burying his face against my breasts, lips seeking. I arched to his mouth. “The moment I saw these pouty nipples, I feared I couldn’t let you go until I’d sucked them.” Feared? Why would he . . . My thoughts grew dim when he turned his head to take a nipple between his lips, dragging his tongue over the sensitive peak. When he suckled it with a groan, I cried out, “Finally!” I was on fire again! Raw inside. Needing more. He turned to the other one, muttering, “So sweet and plump. They tease my tongue.” Once he’d left that one wet and aching as well, he pulled me back to face him, excitement in his expression. “All of this is acceptable.” “I-I certainly think so.” “Very acceptable.” Okay? What was going on here? I sensed in him a seething need for me, barely contained—and building. Another woman might fear it; I drank it in like wine. “Ah, little Cat.” A gleam shone in his wicked blue eyes. “You’re about to get fucked. Hard.” CHAPTER 4 He laid me back on the couch, looming over me, predatory. Without warning, he grabbed both of my ankles in one of his hands, lifting my body up as he snatched my thong off and tossed the silk away. “Spread your thighs.” Confused by this turnaround, I tentatively did. Eyes riveted to my pussy, he licked his lips. “So lush. I can see your need. Did you enjoy the orgasm you stole?” “Stole?” He knelt on the couch, reaching between my legs. He ran his forefinger along my lips, spreading my moisture, then rubbed me right over my entrance. My lids went heavy as I watched his face. His gaze was keen with fascination as I grew even wetter for him. I got the impression that he hadn’t fingered a girl in forever. Of course, his “script” hadn’t called for it. He teased my opening until I was squirming, about to shove myself down on his finger. “You just get wetter and wetter. I could make you come again, only from this.” Yes, but I’d lose my mind! “Más. Give me more, Máxim.” He narrowed his eyes. “You call me Máxim?” “I’ll call you whatever you want if you finger me more.” My toes were curling in my stilettos. As he probed deeper, inch by inch, I moaned from the filling sensation. “Your little clit’s so swollen. Do you want me to rub it?” “Yes!” “Or do you need to be fucked?” “Both! Either! Anything . . .” Yet then he frowned. “Your pussy’s tight. Very tight.” Would he know that I hadn’t had sex in forever? Need to distract him. “I’ll be this tight around your cock, querido.” He pumped his finger inside me. “Tell me you want it.” He laid his free hand over one of my breasts, thumbing a nipple. “Yes, I want your cock!” My thighs quivered. I tripped toward another orgasm, and he hadn’t even touched my clit. I’d never felt so much pleasure with a man; I loved being an escort! He pinched my other nipple. “Then I won’t give it to you yet.” He stilled the hand between my legs. “Fuck my finger.” Again I sensed a surge of anticipation in him, as if he were a kid with a new toy. Shameless with need, I began to move against his hand, sending his finger in and out of my pussy. I was already about to levitate when his thumb made contact with my aching clit. “Ummm!” He rubbed it with slow circles while fingering my core. My eyes rolled back in my head, and I arched my back, stiffened nipples pointed at the ceiling. “You’re about to come again?” he asked in disbelief. “Look at me.” With difficulty, I raised my head. “You don’t come without my permission.” Qué? I had no control. “Ask me for my permission. Say ‘Can I come for you?’ ” Confused, I whispered the question. I didn’t realize I’d spoken in Spanish until he rasped, “In English, beautiful girl.” “Can I come for you?” “Not until I tell you.” He wedged another finger into my core, screwing them into my tightness. The fullness sent me over the edge. “Máxim!” The fire was back, searing every inch of my body. As I thrashed my head, I dimly heard him telling me he could feel my pussy squeezing, that I’d been bad, and he’d punish me for coming without permission. But all the while he thrust his big fingers and circled his thumb, drawing out my orgasm, forcing me to ride each mindless wave, each delicious spasm. . . . When he withdrew from me, I moaned with loss, still not sated. For some reason, I was even hornier than when we’d started. His smoldering gaze raked over my naked body, taking in my glistening pussy, my flushed chest, my swollen breasts—even my hair fanning out wildly from my head. He reached forward, grasping a lock. “You’re so fucking sexy,” he grated, and immediately frowned, dropping my hair. Was he surprised that he found me sexy—or that he’d told me? “You want me too.” “Want? Estoy desesperada!” He stood to undress. “Desperate? Don’t worry, I’m about to give you what you need.” He removed his shoes and socks, then he pulled his sweater over his head. As he revealed more of his body, I shivered with appreciation. His wide shoulders were muscled, his pecs rigid with dusky nipples, his arms brawny. He had sculpted washboard abs, and a tantalizing black goody trail that I wanted to nuzzle. His tanned skin sported a few raised scars over his chest and arms, but they didn’t detract from his hotness. His expression grew stern. “You disobeyed me. You came without permission.” I stretched my arms over my head, loving his gaze on my tits. “I regret nothing.” He unbuckled his belt, his movements menacing. So why did I feel no fear of this strange man? He snagged a condom from his pocket, then unzipped his slacks. As he worked them over his massive erection, I gasped. His cock was a work of art. Distended, damp-tipped, with a plum-colored crown and a thick veined shaft. I wished I could explore every inch of it at my leisure. I’d never been a fan of head, but I licked my lips to imagine my tongue flicking that bulbous tip, teasing it. My mouth nursing that length . . . He stood nude before me, his body the most mouthwatering I’d ever seen. All I could think: Best job ever!!! He wrapped his big fist around his shaft, giving a stroke that rendered me breathless. More moisture beaded the slit. As he rolled on what had to be an extra-large condom, he said, “Show me what I’m soon to enjoy.” There was no mistaking his tone. He’d given me a command. Beautiful arrogant man. I would follow his order, but I’d do it my way. I lifted one foot onto the couch back, resting the stiletto heel against the sofa’s piping, then let my knees fall wide. I undulated in this position, taunting him with my spread pussy. “How do you like variety now, querido?” His cock pulsated in his hand, and he muttered something in Russian that sounded like a curse. He returned to the couch, kneeling between my legs. The difference in our sizes struck me. He made me feel tiny and fragile—while he was all hard edges and power. He leaned over me, using one hand to restrain my wrists over my head. With his other, he gripped his shaft and aimed it. When the crown slipped down my slickened lips, he hissed in a breath. “So fucking wet for me.” As he prodded that broad head, I had my first worry. I was soaked, but he was big— He shoved inside to the hilt, yelling with pleasure. Too big! “Ow! Hold up!” I strained against his grip. “Mierda, give me a minute.” Lips parted, he released my wrists and drew back on his knees, leaving me pinned on his cock. “ ‘Ow? Hold up?’ ” This was the second time he’d flashed me that expression of shock/amazement; I termed the look Máximo shockeado. “You’re determined to enjoy your fucking?” I guessed other women had let him shove away. “Let me get used to your size.” The fit was so tight that I could feel his dick throbbing with each of his heartbeats. “Can you do that?” He held himself still, shuddering from the effort. His skin began to dampen with a sheen of sweat. He grated, “Somehow.” Tentatively, I rolled my hips, sending his shaft in and out of me. In . . . out . . . In . . . out . . . In. Out. In. Each time I could accept his length more readily, my body accommodating his. Pleasure subdued the pain. My lids grew heavy again. “Good girl.” His gaze was fixed between my legs. “I see you taking me, dushen’ka.” When he leaned over me once more, I threaded my fingers through his thick hair. At my ear, he murmured Russian words, then he took my mouth. He’d liked it when I’d sucked on his tongue, so I did it again— He growled into our kiss, his hips shooting forward between my legs. It didn’t hurt this time, wrenched a moan from me. He withdrew, then sank even deeper. And it was . . . Increíble! I broke away to cry, “Yes, yes! Más, Máxim!” Leaning on his forearms, he began to surge into me. His black hair was mussed from my frantic grip, his eyes hooded. He stared down at my face, brows drawn, as if I’d confounded him. “You’re making me lose control.” Did I appear as lost to lust as he did? “I don’t want you to hold back,” I panted, spellbound by him. His gaze narrowed, as if I’d challenged him—or was giving him lip service. He withdrew, then rammed his hips forward, taking my breath away. But I loved his strength, his intensity. “That’s all you’ve got, Ruso?” He went to his knees again and gripped my hips. “That was a warm-up.” Seeming to use every muscle in his body, he yanked me close as he shoved. “Uhn!” I cried out, lifting up to meet his next thrust. He rocked into me; I rolled up to him, the pressure hitting my clit each time. Once the two of us were in sync, our bodies moving together, he pistoned between my legs, railing me as I’d never been fucked before. Fuck of the century? Try millennium! I was holding on for dear life, hovering on the very verge of orgasm. “So tight,” he grunted, his jaw set as he pounded away. Ay, Dios mío, he could move! Each time he snatched me to him, his biceps bulged. His pecs flexed, hard slabs of muscle beneath sweat-lathered skin. Just watching his toiling body pushed me closer to the brink. He enjoyed watching as well, was transfixed by my bouncing breasts. The tension gathering inside me was about to release—if he kept up those long, deep thrusts. So close . . . so close . . . Accent thick as gravel, he bit out, “I love your nipples, your tits, your gripping pussy. The way you watch me with those stunning eyes. You like to watch me fuck you?” “Yes! Máxim, you’re going . . . to make me come . . . hard!” “Fuck. Fuck.” He swelled even more, until it was too much! “Can’t hold on! My cock’s about to explode!” The lines of his face grew tight, as if he were in misery. Then his body stilled. No, no, no! No, keep moving! His look of misery vanished, ecstasy lighting his face as he began to ejaculate. He threw back his head and roared to the ceiling, his throat working, tendons bowstring-taut. He gave a brutal stab of his hips, then another, bellowing, “It’s . . . so . . . fucking . . . good!” His shattering thrusts hurtled me over the brink. “Yes, yes, YES!” I screamed, my vision blurring. My back bowed, my tits slipping across his sweating chest. “Blyad´! I feel you!” As my core clenched him, he bit out, “Your greedy pussy’s milking my cock. You’ll have every last—ahh!—fucking drop out of me!” Hot. Wet. Bliss. Continuing on and on and on . . . Just when I could take no more, he shoved into me one last time. A long satisfied sound rumbled from his chest. His lids slid shut, and he collapsed over me. I lay boneless beneath him, my limbs splayed. I moaned when his cock twitched inside me; he groaned when my pussy continued to squeeze his shaft. As if our bodies wanted more of each other. He nuzzled my neck, his exhalations tickling my damp skin. His heart thundered against my chest. By the way he’d reacted, I began to think I might’ve given him an FOTC. CHAPTER 5 I patted his ass, sighing, “Not bad, Máxim.” With a half frown/half scowl, he withdrew, revealing a condom filled with more semen than I’d ever seen. “Un hombre viril.” I stretched out on the couch, grinning from ear to ear, finally understanding the term fuck-drunk. Rising, he yanked off the rubber and dragged on his pants. “You’re pleased with yourself.” “Pleased in general.” “I don’t ever lose control like that. I never come until I’m ready to.” His harsh tone was accusatory, as if I’d done something unforgivable. Qué cosa? Huh? “This took me by surprise as well.” I rose to look for my clothes. “You don’t make a habit of getting off with your clients?” “No.” Again, he clearly didn’t believe what the hooker was saying. “Something about me in particular must be ‘special’ and ‘different’ among your clientele. I suppose coming with each of your dates, all day long, would be an occupational hazard.” Wouldn’t know. By the time I’d collected my clothes, he was already in the next room. Shame. I’d wanted to see him from the back. I heard the shower running and had no idea what I was supposed to do. Leave? Get ready for round two? I donned my underwear, then grabbed my phone, ringing Ivanna. After I’d given her a rundown of everything, she sputtered, “Maksimilian Sevastyan?” “Yes. You’ve heard of him?” “Of course! He’s a politician and a billionaire!” The former interested me more than the latter. My father had been in politics too. Not that I’d ever tell the Russian. And not that he’d ever believe me if I did. Ivanna continued, “He’s one of Europe’s most eligible bachelors, but no one can land him. Damn Botox! Is he as gorgeous up close as he is in pictures?” “He’s DDG.” “Have you talked about me at all?” she demanded. I rolled my eyes. “Tell me what I do now!” “The payout was excellent, so upsell him for the whole night. You’re already at his place, have spent money and time on clothes, makeup, and transpo.” The kids in my business courses had nothing on Ivanna the Escort’s expertise. Or mine, for that matter. “You’re right. Sunk costs.” Economics informed the decisions I made every day. “Act as if he rocked your world,” Ivanna said, the phrase almost comical with her accent. “Like he is the best lover you ever had.” He is! “Make him think he’s the only one you’ll give your private number to. They eat that shit up.” “But it is private.” I hadn’t even allowed her to give it to the agency. “I don’t want anyone else to have it.” “We’ll get you a new number this week. For now, your job is to play to his ego and get him for the rest of the night—or to snag a future date. Though that isn’t likely to happen.” “Why not?” “He’s never booked the same woman twice. Oh! I could still get a date before he leaves town! Maksimilian Sevastyan, can you imagine?” Yes, Ivanna, yes, I can. She was going to have sex with a guy I’d screwed. She’d know his mighty body, would get high on his scent. At the thought, my emotions, which had been up and down all night, took a header. When the shower stopped, I hung up the phone, hurrying to the bedroom. I leaned against the doorway of the suite. Pulling my hair over my shoulder, I acted all alluring. He exited the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his hips. Por Dios, that body. How could one man be so utterly blessed? Before I could say anything about another go, he scowled. “You’re still here?” My lips parted. He’d expected me to let myself out, without even saying good-bye? Yes. Because my purpose had been served. He was looking at me like he might look at a used condom. Oooh, this man got my back up! He’d been all excitement and passion before; now the icy chill was back. He sat on the edge of the bed, casting me a disgusted look. “I suppose you remain in the hopes of upselling me for the rest of the night. Maybe even offering me your private line?” Although that was precisely what I’d been advised to do, I gave him a haughty smile. “I’m good for the night, and my private line stays private, querido. I’m just on my way out.” When he dropped his towel and climbed into the high bed, I turned to find my dress. From the bedroom, he gazed out into the sitting area, rising up on an elbow. I caught him ogling my body, actually tilting his head for maximal viewing. Keep looking—last time you’ll ever get to see it. Once I’d gotten my dress on, he lost interest and shifted over on his back, bending one brawny arm behind his head. I’d been so affected by what we’d done, while he behaved as if he’d just completed a bodily function. It hurt. I wanted to hurt him back. “Apparently I need to remind you that tips aren’t included.” In a forbidding tone, he said, “There’s cash on the dressing room console.” I found a gold money clip filled with hundreds. Maybe two grand’s worth. “How much?” I called. “Take whatever you think your performance deserves.” Performance? What a dick! I’d come my brains out, and so had he! So I took it all, including the goddamned money clip. Passing the bedroom door, I said, “Thanks for the tip, pendejo.” Asshole. “I’m surprised you aren’t acting ingratiating.” He was still talking to me, engaging me? I turned back to him. Mocking sneer in place, he said, “You’re supposed to tell me how I moved heaven and earth for you. You’re supposed to fawn over me, increasing your chances that I’ll book you again.” I gave him an aren’t you adorable? smile and purred, “Oh, baby boy, don’t you know statistics? Chances can’t be improved from one hundred percent.” CHAPTER 6 On the long cab ride home, I took stock of myself. Catarina stock had taken a beating in today’s trading. Even as I gave a bitter laugh at the double meaning, my fists clenched. While my body felt well-loved, a little sore, the rest of me felt cheap and used. He’d made me feel that way. Before he could say anything more, I’d pivoted on my heel and left him, heading downstairs to face the real world. By the time I’d reached the lobby, I was shaking. Bright lights had accused me; it’d seemed all eyes were on me. Like everyone knew what I’d done. When I’d asked for a cab, a gap-toothed bellman whistled one forward, but he’d smirked as he opened the door. “Madam.” I’d almost popped him in the groin, but refrained because of rule number five. No undue attention, Cat. One measly paid sex act had netted me burning humiliation. But the money! Five grand and then the two I’d lifted. Seven thousand dollars! I could probably pawn the money clip. I had plenty to get out of town. Yet even my windfall couldn’t cheer me. Dinero sucio. Dirty money, for dirty deeds. I could now add hooker and thief to my rap sheet. I took a deep breath, trying to shake off this feeling. A mal tiempo, buena cara, Cat. To bad weather, good face. When my cab was a few blocks from my apartment, I told the driver, “You can stop here.” Rule number two: never create links. If I didn’t take precautions, this cab’s route would link my home to the hotel. He raised his brows. “Drop you in this hood?” Nothing here could be as dangerous as what had lurked within my former Jacksonville mansion—my husband. I paid the cabbie, and he peeled off. I crossed a murky abandoned parking lot in my stilettos, dodging a minefield of broken bottles, tires, rusted mufflers, and weeds growing amok. My spirits sank even more as I came upon my shady apartment complex. I didn’t need the busted streetlights to see peeling stucco, rust stains, and duct-taped windows. Fat vines grew along the walls like tentacles claiming the building for the deep. The interior was much, much worse. I felt fifty years older as I climbed the cracked cement steps to my studio apartment. While I worked to unlock my door—it always stuck—movement to my side caught my attention. Mr. Shadwell, my creepy apartment supe/manager, stared at me with his buglike eyes. He was one of those Florida rednecks who should never have left the swamp. He wore a sweat-stained wifebeater that showed off his puny arms and furry shoulders. He didn’t even offer to help me as I struggled with my lock. In our last conversation, I’d asked him to fix my leaking roof. He’d propositioned me again. So for now, I kept pots all over my studio. Already, he’d been hitting me up for “protection deposits.” My need for anonymity meant I didn’t get to do anything about it. Basically, I paid him not to attack me—as he did the vulnerable single moms, prostitutes, and undocumented workers in the complex, those who would never go to the police. Shadwell was the reason I hadn’t saved money to move. Which was why I’d screwed the Russian. “Busy night?” The pig smirked, flashing his hit-or-miss teeth. His love of filterless cigarettes had left the remaining ones discolored. I considered and discarded answers—girls’ night out? Bachelorette party? But this insect of a man wouldn’t force me to lie. My lock started to give way. Before I could get inside, he rubbed his paunch, then lower. Too low. “We’ll be seeing you real soon.” I couldn’t help but think I’d just received a warning. After dead-bolting my door behind me, I leaned back against it. Coming from the Seltane penthouse to my cramped studio was like a slap in the face. In my kitchenette, the stove didn’t work, nor the little refrigerator. I had a miniature microwave for canned dinners. A large bowl contained apples, bananas, and oranges to eat on the run. Strategically placed pots littered the floor. I’d moved my pitiful sagging bed into the center of the room, under the largest area of non-leaking ceiling. Dinero in hand, I wended around the pots to reach my “safe,” my window AC unit, non-working of course. I used my Swiss Army knife to unscrew the filter, revealing a cranny. I added the money to my own meager operating fund: two hundred and fifty-seven dollars. Also inside were my fake ID and my one valuable: my mother’s rosary. It’d been passed down through my family for generations and was the sole thing I’d taken from home. The sight of Sevastyan’s stack of cash next to the rosary made nausea churn in my gut. Why had he turned something good into something dirty? I hadn’t thought I could hate anyone else as much as Edward, but Maksimilian Sevastyan had made the podium. What was it about me that men found so . . . disposable? Three years ago, Edward had planned on the ultimate disposal. After fleeing him, I’d moved every six months, living in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Half a year ago, I’d dared to return to Florida, figuring this would be the last place Edward would expect me to go. I’d headed to Miami, optimistic about getting lost in the sprawling city—and getting work without papers. Was he here even now? Had I made a bad calculation? I replaced the AC vent, screwing it into place, then sank down on my creaky bed. I lay back atop rough thrift-store sheets, replaying my Edward sighting. When that burst of recognition had hit, my muscles had tensed to run. If that man was him, then the last three years had altered him. He was now gaunt with bitterness etched into his face. No more angelic good looks to recommend him. I’d been seventeen when we’d had a “chance” meeting over my summer break. He’d told me he was an attorney from Atlanta who’d moved to Jacksonville to start his own practice. He’d also told me he was twenty-five, too old for me. I’d thought, Forbidden fruit! He’d already seen the world; I’d never traveled far from home. He was a sophisticated gentleman; I’d been proud of my keg stands. He spoke four languages, though strangely not Spanish. Despite our differences, we’d had an uncanny amount of things in common—we’d liked the same movies, music, sports, pastimes, and foods. My mother had seen right through him, saying he was a sinner with the face of an angel. So naturally, I’d had to have him. When she’d died and her strict rule had ended, I’d suddenly had no counterbalance to my own strong will. I’d floundered, grasping onto Edward for stability. Utterly naïve about men, I’d accepted his heartfelt proposal of marriage, inviting him into my life, my home, my body. Lightning flashed through my threadbare curtains, thunder shaking the building. Storms always reminded me of that last night with him. I’d come home early from a half marathon in nearby Savannah. A tropical depression had been blowing in, and the race had been canceled. I’d rushed home to help him batten down the hatches. As I stared at my water-stained ceiling, my eyes lost focus, the memory overtaking me. . . . A strange car was parked behind the house, a Jaguar. I almost hoped Edward was having an affair. It would explain so much, confirming my new suspicions. It would make my decisions going forward easier. In one year of marriage, we’d gone from two people who had everything in common and finished each other’s sentences to strangers. I entered quietly, creeping up the stairs, hearing voices coming from our bedroom. I paused in the upstairs foyer. When my mother was alive, the walls had been covered with crucifixes and gloomy old portraits of our ancestors. After her death, Edward had hired a decorator, telling me, “You’ll never move past her if you’re constantly reminded. Let’s make a fresh start.” I’d thought at the time, If you don’t like mi madre’s home, then why are we living here, instead of in your own mansion? The one I’d yet to see. But I’d stifled that question, because it would open the door to so many other ones—a pulled thread that would unravel the blanket that I still occasionally slept with. I’d agreed to the decorator, anything to repair the sudden rift between me and him, the one that’d appeared directly after our hasty courthouse wedding. He’d stopped calling me Lucía, insisting on Ana-Lucía (what my mother had called me when I was in trouble). He’d stopped flirting with me. We rarely had sex, and only at my urging. I stepped closer to our room, avoiding the groaning spots in the wood floor. I knew their exact locations, had been sneaking out of this house since I was twelve. At the door, I detected perfume and heard my husband and a woman speaking. “This is taking too long,” the woman said. “You have to be patient and trust me.” That was my husband’s voice—but now he spoke with a British accent. Who the hell was in my bedroom with my husband, and why had his accent changed? My fists clenched, my unruly temper about to blow. My first impulse was to bust inside and start cussing, but somehow I forced myself to bite my tongue and listen. “I usually am patient,” the woman said, her accent also British. “But you can’t let her leave for these races, Charles.” Charles? “You need to be working on her constantly.” Working on what? “Her training is the ideal cover, darling,” my husband continued. “Poor Ana-Lucía’s going to collapse after one of her long runs.” I rocked on my feet. They planned to . . . kill me? These motherfuckers were going to kill me. This. Is. Not. Happening. “It will work seamlessly,” Edward said. “Oh, if only my poor wife hadn’t taken amphetamines while marathon training in this heat.” Amphetamines? He’d given diet pills to me, saying, “Maybe you should lose a pound or two. Honestly, Ana-Lucía, your clothes scarcely fit across your backside. It’s only fair, since I do make an effort to keep myself in shape for you.” I’d nearly told him I would lose weight in my ass as soon as he gained weight in his dick, but he loathed curse words. I used to admire that he was such a gentleman. It’d gotten old. Edward said, “With that combination, no one will suspect another drug.” “Will she take them?” the woman asked. “She might be young, but she isn’t malleable like the others.” The others? They’d done this before?? Serial killers were in my room, like snakes loosed inside! “Give me more credit than that,” Edward said. “Once I work my magic, she’ll be choking them down. Julia, I vow to you that I will be a widower by the holidays. Shall we go to Aspen to celebrate?” He had a smile in his tone. A horrific thought struck me. Por Dios, had they killed my mother? She’d had a degenerative disease, but her actual passing had been sudden. The floor wobbled. Had they killed my mother? Had they killed her? This Julia wasn’t swayed yet. “If she suspects you . . .” “I always have an ace in the hole, darling. A pressure lever. If there’s one thing I know about my wife, it’s that she would do anything to avoid prison—” Lightning flashed outside my apartment, thunder rattling the window. I was jolted back to the present before I got to the confrontation about his ace in the hole, before I recalled too vividly the feel of blood coating my face and body. Maybe that was a good thing. I didn’t want to spur even more crimson-drenched nightmares. The storm intensified, rain pouring. My roof would soon leak like a colander. Depending on the duration of the storm, I could be up all night emptying the pots. If I didn’t, my apartment would flood. I pinched my temples. Edward had been right about me—I would do anything to avoid prison; even live in this shithole. CHAPTER 7 “Listen up, folks, the final is next Monday at seven sharp,” Ms. Gillespie, my econ instructor, told the class. She was a tall, graying brunette, with a no-nonsense demeanor. “And yes, I know it’s cutting into your holiday break. Take it up with the active hurricane season.” Three classes this fall had been cancelled due to tropical storms; with each storm, my apartment had taken on water like a sinking ship—just as it had last night. After no sleep, an early morning run, and a hard day of work, I’d had to drag myself to class. Despite my windfall, I’d been coerced by Mrs. Abernathy to clean her mansion. When I’d tried to quit, she’d told me she would report me to Immigration if I wasn’t there. My no-undue-attention rule forced me to show. “We’ll spend tonight and Friday reviewing,” Ms. Gillespie said. “So let’s get started. I’m going to give you terms that might be on the exam. Define them and imagine real-world scenarios.” Luckily this was a lower-level econ course. I’d done all the heavy lifting for my degree in my first two years; all that remained was this last straggler class. I took out my notebook and pen, determined to focus on this—and not on the Russian. For the past two days, I’d tried to put him from my mind, as he’d so easily done with me. Ms. Gillespie started writing on the board, and I dutifully scribbled my definitions. Final goods: products that end up in the hands of consumers. (Like my breasts. If I continued as an escort.) I stifled a chuckle, earning a look from a few of my classmates, among them two guys who’d asked me out. Unfortunately, I’d had to turn them down, but their interest had puzzled me; I always showed up to class in to-the-knee cutoffs, old 5K T-shirts, no makeup, and my hair plaited into two braids. I wore clunky running shoes and usually reeked of Pine-Sol. A far cry from a glamorous escort. Deflation: a sustained and continuous decrease in the general price level. (Or what would happen to an escort’s rates with age.) Economic mobility: the ability of an individual, family, or entity to improve or lower their economic status. Edward had targeted me to improve his. I’d signed any document my lawyer husband had put in front of me, unknowingly transferring my home and my inheritance of millions to him. But he couldn’t get my family’s beach, the prize he’d truly been after. As long as I remained alive, his mobility had flat-lined. Human capital: a measure of the economic value of an employee’s skill set. I was increasing mine by continuing my education at this community college. Heart in throat, I’d enrolled, using the fake ID I’d bought from a source near the Texas border. If I ever reclaimed my life, maybe I could figure out a way to transfer all my stray credits back to my ritzy private college in Jacksonville. Completing my coursework had become the holy grail to me. On her deathbed, my mother had begged me for two vows: to break up with Edward and to finish college. I’d only given her one vow. She’d used her last breaths to say, “Run from that evil man!” Phase one of my life plan was to complete my credits to atone for not listening to her. I was one exam away. So why was I thinking about Sevastyan more than my class? At least he hadn’t blown the whistle about my theft. Hey, he’d specified no amount for my tip! And how valuable could that money clip be? I’d been nervous about him ratting me out, which pissed me off. I was a closer; if something went unresolved, that meant I didn’t have the power to settle it and could assign no endpoint. This unsettled feeling sucked. I already had enough loose ends in my life. I’d talked to Ivanna several times since that night. She went way back with Anthony, the owner of Elite Escorts, so she would have heard if Sevastyan complained. So far, the Russian hadn’t contacted Anthony about my heist—nor had he booked me. Ivanna had told me, “Don’t take it personally, Cat! It happens to the best of us.” I didn’t even want to see Sevastyan again. At all. Not whatsoever. “You need to get back out there. Come in and talk to Anthony. Sign on officially. He’s a schmuck, but they all are.” “I was thinking about heading out of town for a while.” “Nonsense! I’ll let you take a break, but then we’ll get you back in the saddle. You can’t let yourself get down about Sevastyan. He wasn’t even in the realm of possibility.” Then she’d related all the gossip she’d learned about his dating life from her friends at sister agencies. He only booked one escort at a time, and he always overpaid. He was never cruel to his dates—though he wasn’t particularly kind either. He hired a new girl every other night, but never for parties or events. Then he just took a famous actress or model. I’d wondered why a guy like that would need to hire escorts at all, then thought back to his script. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t like to be touched. So why had he let me? I’d climbed him like a jungle gym. Today Ivanna was supposed to get a callback with even more dirty laundry—so I’d turned off my phone and gone about my job and school. I’d decided three things about him: His nastiness was directly proportional to his obscene wealth. (Why? When I’d been rich, I’d always been nice.) He’d affected me exponentially more than I’d affected him. (I was merely what five thousand had bought him in Miami.) No one should be that sexy. (Yesterday, I’d gotten off while fantasizing about giving him a BBBJ. Then I’d been disgusted with myself, blaming my run for making me horny.) Though I’d sworn to Ivanna that I had no further interest in him, I’d broken down today, slipping off my cleaning gloves to Google him on Mrs. Abernathy’s computer. Between laundry cycles, I’d learned that he’d grown up in Siberia, but had gotten a business degree in record time from Oxford. He had two brothers. His net worth fluctuated between nine hundred million and just over a billion, depending on how the market was doing. Though only thirty-one, he was a powerful politician—a member of the State Duma, or something. There were rumors of a mafiya connection. Maybe I was only attracted to criminals? The thought depressed me. At least his business dealings focused on real estate and government contracts all around the world. In almost every picture of him, he’d been flashing a movie-star smile, with a tall blond beauty on his arm. Why had I tortured myself researching him? I’d never see Maksimilian Sevastyan again. Would never know his touch again. Good riddance. Once class was over, I hefted my backpack, dreading the long bus ride home. All I wanted to do was microwave a can of soup, soak in my spackled tub for a decade, and not think about Sevastyan. Or how he’d be booking a new girl tonight. Which I didn’t care about. As I waited at the bus stop, I turned on my phone. It beeped like crazy. Eight messages from Ivanna? Mierda! The only reason she’d call that much was if the icy Russian had ratted me out! With a shaking hand, I dialed her. “Uh, hey?” “Sevastyan’s been calling Anthony like mad! Apparently, he is one scary-sounding man.” Why now? I’d thought I was in the clear! “I know. Listen, I can explain—” “I had to do some quick thinking since Anthony didn’t know he’d hired you yet. By the way, if he asks, you were an independent, a platinum-level producer out of Tampa.” If you say so. “Anyway, the Russian wants you to return to the Seltane. Now.” Maybe the money clip had sentimental value? A gift from an ex-lover? “Oh, Cat, he wants to book you! Do you know what this means? You’re the first girl ever to get a callback.” “Wait, book me?” “Da, for tonight. Anthony was calling me, and I was calling you. And when Anthony couldn’t confirm you . . . well, let’s just say that Maksimilian Sevastyan is used to getting what he wants.” You have no idea. “The man kept offering more and more money. Finally he demanded to buy your personal number. Anthony just called me for it.” “Which you would never give him, right?” At that moment, I got a text chime from a strange number: waiting “Ivanna, we talked about this! There are boundaries.” “We did talk about your number, about changing it. I held out for longer than even I would’ve expected, but when Anthony told me Sevastyan offered ten thousand, I caved. We’re to split half. There’s twenty-five hundred for you at the agency.” More money? “By the way, Anthony thinks your vagina is full of rainbows—and dollar signs. Aside from the Russian, you’ve gotten requests online! He wants your ‘upskirt magic’ working on other clients.” I didn’t have magic. Sevastyan simply wanted his money back, or his clip. Or he planned to punish me for stealing from him. Maybe with a crop? “What else did you tell Anthony about me?” “Nothing else. Mainly because I know so little. Other than the fact that you scrub toilets for a living—which might cool a billionaire’s ardor, if that got back to him. Cat, listen to me. I think you could land Sevastyan, so I’m going to do everything I can to help you, and then you’ll take care of me forever.” “I’m not going, Ivanna.” And walk into a trap? While she blustered, I texted Sevastyan: no dice, querido. have plans xoxo mwah He wrote back an instant later: this isn’t a request The man thought to intimidate me? He’d have to do better than this! Gritting my teeth, I texted: the money’s gone. regret nothing He replied: then you’ll be needing more There was only one way to meet this problem. Head on. I hung up on Ivanna’s tirade and dialed the Russian’s number. I opened with: “What’s your game, Sevastyan?” “What do you think it is?” Ay, his voice. My lids nearly closed. Then I remembered what a dick this guy was. “I think you’re pissed, and you want to teach me a lesson.” “You did steal from me,” he said. “I had to buy a new money clip yesterday.” “I procured a well-earned tip.” I could hear ice clinking in a glass. Having a cocktail while waiting for his cocktease? “I would think the pleasure I gave you—three times—was its own tip.” “Then by that reasoning, you shouldn’t have to pay for it at all, pendejo.” “I looked that word up. Not very nice of you to call me an asshole. Twice. I think you’re the first woman in my adult life who’s refused to fawn over me. Right now, you sound as if you could take me or leave me.” “Guess which way I’m leaning, Ruso.” He chuckled at that. The sound was warm and rumbling, seeming to stroke me from the inside. What had happened to the icy Russian? “Come over, Cat, and I’ll make you glad you did.” Maybe he had liked sex with me that much? Had I thrown one over on the billionaire? Didn’t mean I would let him off the hook. He’d treated me like shit, left me hanging for two days, then barged into my life with all the finesse of a tidal wave. “Couldn’t find a tall blonde? I thought that was what you really wanted.” What if he hadn’t waited a day to request another girl? What if he’d screwed someone last night, intending to switch back to me? “Or maybe you booked one last night to fill your quota?” “I didn’t book another date.” It worried me how much that relieved me. “No one is more surprised by these developments than I am. I told you I never reverse myself. Yet I have concerning you.” My heart raced. I had affected him just as much as he had me. “It seems you know me better than I know myself; you were one hundred percent certain I’d call. Here I am.” His voice had grown huskier. “Now, tell me you wouldn’t want a repeat.” Merely thinking about him got me wet. “That’s all you want?” “All I want?” He sounded amused. “A repeat would be a lot to hope for, no?” What if he got all ice-cold again? Would it matter if he paid me as well as before? Yes. He’d hurt me. Even worse, what if he didn’t get ice-cold? Que Dios me ayude. God help me. I did a quick risk/reward analysis. Risk: erosion of self-worth and possible infatuation. Reward: more money, and therefore more security. I’d be closer to a new identity. Great sex wasn’t unwelcome. I just couldn’t allow myself to get caught up in him. I would put up a wall between us, keeping him at a distance. Logistics . . . Getting from my apartment to the Seltane took nearly an hour. I’d cleaned today; no way I could forgo a shower. “I can’t be there until nine, and I can’t stay very long. Not that this is a problem with you.” I laughed. “A nanosecond after you nut, you’ll be wondering what I’m still doing there. I’ll start reaching for my clothes as soon as your balls tighten. It’ll be like a fire drill.” He murmured, “Amazing,” as if he were a safari guide encountering an unknown creature. “Now you ridicule me?” “Only because you make it so easy.” “Where have you been that your own agency can’t get in touch with you?” “Here and there. If you wanted to see me, you should’ve scheduled. Why, you could’ve booked me when I was with you Monday night! Oh, but you were too busy being rude as hell.” As if I hadn’t spoken, he said, “You were out on another date?” Surely I imagined that subtle hint of jealousy in his tone. “Remember our no-personal-questions rule?” Silence. Had I pushed too hard? “I want you here in the next fifteen minutes,” he finally said. “How much will it cost?” “Nah, no es posible. In the future, book often and book early.” Another bout of silence. At length, he grated, “Wear something sexy.” CHAPTER 8 At the door to Máxim’s suite, I removed the long lightweight jacket I’d worn to conceal my racy dress. He’d said sexy, so I’d gone to Ivanna’s, uncaring if I was fifteen more minutes late. She’d brought out the tiniest dress I’d ever seen, gifting it to me because, as she’d put it: “My breasts are too big to wear this since I got enhanced.” The cream-colored confection was short and backless. Two narrow bands of silk made a halter to cover my tits—somewhat. Side-boob galore. The “skirt” was about eight inches long and displayed the cleft of my ass, but the hem was trimmed in a fringe of slinky strands, making for a peekaboo situation whenever I took a step. A braided gold cuff on my upper arm, chandelier earrings, and fuck-me stilettos rounded out the ensemble. I’d worn my hair in a loose knot to show off my bared back. She’d even given me a beaded purse to go with the dress. Ivanna’s last instructions: “Land him, Cat. Whatever you did—do more.” What had I done that other women hadn’t? Well, I’d kinda been a bitch at times. I’d refused to “fawn.” I’d insisted on my own pleasure. Three things I could definitely repeat! With that thought in mind, I pressed the penthouse doorbell. “You’re late,” he snapped when he answered. “You said nine . . .” He trailed off as he raked his gaze over my body. “Fuck. Me.” “Hola.” I hoped I sounded casual, but he looked even hotter than last time. He wore a sharp gray suit, with the collar of his crisp white button-down open. “Qué pasa?” I sauntered past him into the living room. Stopped in my tracks. Another man was here, a giant. Burly and even taller than Sevastyan, this guy had a bald head, a brick-end chin, and a bulldog jaw shadowed with rough stubble. My heart tripped with panic. “I don’t do that.” “Do what?” Sevastyan frowned. “Two men.” Instinctively, I retreated a step—then realized with a start that I hadn’t taken a step toward the door; I’d taken a step closer to Sevastyan. “Ah. Vasili’s my head of security and right-hand man. Has been for over a decade.” Relief sailed through me. Vasili grated something in Russian. Sevastyan responded. I couldn’t understand the words, but there was no mistaking Sevastyan’s do not fuck with me tone. He looped his arm around me, drawing me close, which seemed to surprise Vasili. More evidence that Sevastyan didn’t like to touch or be touched? Or he hadn’t in the past? In English, he said, “Vasili was just leaving.” The man shot me a cutting look as he passed. When we were alone, I said, “He certainly doesn’t like me.” “He’s suspicious because he can’t find information about you. Anyone who comes in contact with me more than once would have an inch-thick dossier by now.” That sounded risky, but I’d only be here for another hour or so, then adiós. I set down my jacket and purse. “I don’t appreciate being strong-armed into a date at the last minute. I do have a life, you know.” “In my experience, most escorts don’t have to be ‘strong-armed’ into dating billionaires.” “Oh, baby boy”—I gave him an embarrassed for you wince—“you weren’t quite a billionaire today, now, were you?” His lips curved. “Bad day in the markets. So you looked me up? And you still give me shit?” Growing serious, I said, “I didn’t appreciate you violating my privacy. I meant what I said Monday night: I wanted my line to stay private.” “You’re really angry about that? I know something that will cheer you.” He crossed to his briefcase, offering me a stack of hundreds, bound with a currency strap. “Five thousand. I assume you won’t try to haggle for more after our first night.” I followed him, accepting the money. This would be twelve grand in two nights! Plus the phone number fee! Still, when I thought of how miserable I’d been over the last two days—and his high-handedness today—I found myself saying, “No haggling. With the late-booking fee, it’s ten thousand. Or I take the party in my tiny dress somewhere else.” I knew I’d aimed too low when he handed me another stack—as if I’d asked him to pass the salt. My anger faded. I could afford to get another number. Wasn’t like I would need to update my contact info with all my friends and family, since I had neither. Once I left town, I’d toss the phone anyway. As if in a dream, I floated toward my purse to stash my windfall. When I returned, his gaze raked over me in a way that made me want to fan myself. My nipples were already straining against the silk. “I thought I told you to wear something sexy.” A joke out of the Russian? “Why didn’t you dress like this last time? I only turned you away because you appeared almost . . . wholesome. At least from the front.” “I wasn’t sure if you would take me out. Now I know you won’t.” He crossed to stand in front of me, seeming to make a visible effort to keep his eyes on my face. “Perhaps I would if I had no time limit.” “You’re the one who called at the last minute.” “I began calling late this afternoon.” I tapped my chin. “Then that sounds like a you problem.” “Where were you tonight?” “I told you. Here and there.” “Do you have a standing date?” “Boundaries, Sevastyan. That’s none of your business.” “It’s my business when your schedule affects my plans.” His plans consisted of depositing sperm into a condom, then dozing off. How nice life must be for him. “And following another is not my style.” He stalked even closer. “You aren’t, okay? Not that you’ll believe me. I haven’t had sex with anyone but you in a while.” “Have you thought about me?” “Fleetingly.” His lips curled again. Not surprisingly, he had a sexy grin. Everything about him was sexy to me. When charming and warm like this, he was a different man. One I found myself dangerously attracted to. He pulled me closer, lowering his head. His scent washed over me, sending shivers over my body. “I think you missed me, Katya.” Oh, my name in his accent made my toes curl! Right at my ear, he said, “I think you replayed what we did, and it made your soft little pussy wet.” His rasped words turned me on so fast and so hard, I gasped. His mouth descended over mine. I tasted a bite of vodka as he gave me sensuous flicks of his tongue. So much for my wall and boundaries. I welcomed his kiss, lapping back. Just like that, the fire raged, and my fingers dug into his shoulders. When he clamped my thigh to his hip, I rocked my hips to him. He broke from the kiss to ask, “Did you miss this”—he thrust his hard cock against me—“for two days?” I moaned, nodding, grinding back. “It wouldn’t take much to make you come, would it?” He nuzzled my neck. “Rub your sweet clit with my thumb and you’d go off.” “Try me—” My stomach growled. Loudly. He drew back, releasing my leg. “You haven’t eaten dinner?” I shook my head. Seeming to wrestle with a huge decision—which involved peering at my legs, my lips, my hard nipples—he sighed and said, “Let’s go down to the bar for some food.” Why not call for room service? “Are you wanting to feed me, or show me off in this dress?” “Maybe both.” CHAPTER 9 In the elevator, his towering frame and palpable energy took over the space. He trailed the backs of his fingers up my spine, making me shiver again. “So sensitive.” Downstairs, as we headed to the outside bar, he kept a proprietary hand on my back. Taller than all the other men, he walked with his chin up and his shoulders squared—utterly arrogant. Which I kind of enjoyed, when it wasn’t directed at me. The Seltane’s outdoor area was breathtaking, with giant palms, multiple small pools, and luxurious seating nestled in romantic alcoves. He squired me away from others, closer to the ocean. Though two sofas wrapped around the candlelit table, we sat on the same one. Our server—Tiffani!—was a tall blonde with a striking face. I expected Sevastyan to drool over her, but he was very attentive to me. He selected a white wine, a specific vintage that must be expensive; Tiffani raised her brows. He ordered a vodka martini for himself, telling her, “We need something to eat, something quick. Have the chef surprise us.” As we waited for drinks, I relaxed back on the sofa, determined to enjoy the lavish setting. My lids went heavy as a breeze wafted over us, dancing with the table’s candle flame. Palm fronds fanned above. The now full moon was tinged with yellow and painted the waves. While I was gazing at the ocean, he’d been gazing at me. “What?” “I can’t figure you out. I can figure everyone out. I’ve met spies less secretive than you.” Spies? As a politician— or mafiya heavy—did he mean that literally? “Are you so secretive because you fear another besotted client? I’m sure you’ve had your share.” I teasingly said, “Should I be worried about you?” “You looked me up online—what do you think?” “Your long trail of brokenhearted blondes tells me your heart is bulletproof. Just like mine.” I said this so confidently, but I could see my interest in him deepening—if he stayed warm like this. Tiffani returned with our drinks. After she’d gone, I sipped more crack ambrosia. Over the rim of my glass, I said, “You have excellent taste in wine for someone who never drinks it.” “Nothing but the best.” So I’d figured. I was beginning to suspect he’d preferred tall blondes because they represented cachet. He’d had no problems with my looks Monday night or tonight. “Back to the subject at hand,” he said. “Could I tempt you to tell me about yourself if I paid—” “No.” He raised his brows. “I’m to ask you zero personal questions, but you can read whatever you like about me?” “Should I believe everything I read?” “Absolutely not.” He shook his head. “You know my net worth, yet you continue to treat me as if I’m an aggravation.” “Monday night, I was delighted with you—but then you were cruel to me.” He opened his mouth to say something, closed it, then tried again. “That night was . . . different.” He gazed out at the water as he said, “I expected you to do the escort spiel and resented it. I wanted nothing to color the experience.” What did he mean by different? Surely he expected me to ask. So I didn’t. “I do know your net worth. You should pat yourself on the back for a good job. But it won’t affect my behavior.” He faced me. “Oh, really?” His words were tinged with ice. The man thought I was cozying up to him for his money. The irony! “Your wealth is an abstract—it’s leprechaun gold to me.” Why would I dream about his money—instead of my own? There’d been a few million liquid, but Edward had probably blown through that much searching for me. He still had the mansion, but not Martinez Beach. Each decade, the strength of the land’s trust eroded; in time, a lawyer like him could figure out a way to circumvent the trust. With resort encroachment on both sides, its value would be through the roof. Others had had the same idea. Developers had hounded my mother constantly, one reason she’d become a shut-in. “I could almost believe you,” Sevastyan finally said. When I shrugged, he asked, “How much of your online bio is true?” “Not a lot.” “You don’t like dancing, yoga, and shopping? What do you do for fun?” “I can’t dance, I scoff at yoga, and I despise shopping. I’m a runner, and I don’t have spare time for fun.” A muscle ticked in his wide jaw. Of course he would take that to mean: I’m always on my back. “I have little time myself. Most of my life is dedicated to business.” “Hmm.” “Hmm, what?” I ran the pad of my forefinger around the rim of my glass. “You could’ve had fun Monday night. You missed out on the time of your life.” “Did I? Tell me what we would’ve done.” “The party would’ve begun right after you screwed my ever-loving brains out on the couch. Instead of getting rid of me when I patted your ass, you would’ve laughed. Maybe even tickled me. Wrestling would’ve ensued, and I might have let you win. Then we would’ve had another round of drinks and gone swimming.” I fake-examined my nails. “If you must know, seeing me dive naked would’ve been life-changing for you.” “Would it, then?” His blue eyes grew lively. His charisma was off—the—charts. “Continue.” “We would’ve had sex again. In the water. Then, after more drinks, I would’ve ridden you on a lounge chair until your eyes rolled back in your head.” He groaned low. “MSOG?” Multiple shots on goal. “Sometimes I forget what a hobbyist you are.” “The hobbyist and his courtesan. How long have you been doing this?” “Would you believe me if I told you that you were my first client?” “Nyet.” “Wow. Don’t even want to think about your answer?” “I ‘strong-armed’ an escort into a date and purchased her private line for ten thousand dollars. Before that, I downloaded her goddamned picture to my phone. If I’m to be brought this low, it shouldn’t be at the hands of a rank novice.” My pique passed. “Is there a compliment in there?” Had he truly downloaded my picture? “You fuck too well to be anything but a pro.” “Thanks?” Maybe he liked the idea of me being a professional. If I convinced him I wasn’t, maybe the thrill would be gone for him. And did it matter when I’d never see him again? “Is Cat short for Catherine? Or maybe Catarina or Catalina?” “I’m just Cat.” “Tell me your real name.” “That’s not even on the table.” “Like I said, everything’s on my table. I’ll get it out of you sooner or later.” How long did he think this arrangement was going to continue? “You better hurry. You return to Russia soon, no?” “I’ve decided to stay until the twenty-eighth. My older brother is getting married in Nebraska that weekend, so I’m remaining in the States till then.” Could I have had something to do with his decision? He sipped his drink, waiting for me to reply. And waiting . . . “This is where you angle for multiple dates, telling me you’ll show me the town.” Angle? That was something Edward would do. I gave Sevastyan a tight smile and patted his shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll get up to something. Have fun.” His lips parted. “I gave you an in, and you didn’t take it. I find you a very singular creature.” I laughed. “I’m singular? Psst, I’m not the one who gets off on whipping strange women.” He gave me that DDG smile. “This is precisely what I’m talking about. You know what I’m worth, but you still give me lip. It’s incredibly refreshing.” For once my sass (as my mother used to call it) was working for me! “Unlike every single other escort I’ve been with, you didn’t try to upsell me after sex; you simply took my money.” I jutted my chin. “You deserved that.” “Maybe I did,” he conceded. “And you didn’t feign passion. In fact, you insisted on your own pleasure.” “You’re a good-looking man. I find it hard to believe that no one gets turned on when they’re with you.” I glanced down. When had we gotten so close together? We now sat thigh to thigh. “They have their reasons. Some have admitted that they keep that part of themselves separate from their clients. I’ve observed others so busy thinking about upselling me, or even landing me, that they don’t relax.” And I’d told him, “Ow! Hold up.” I had to stifle a laugh. “Or else an escort bills herself as a submissive, when she’s anything but. I’ve had many who swear they enjoy discipline and bondage, yet then I would see no evidence of it.” Ivanna had told me that she initially enjoyed it. But one day she’d had five outcalls, had been tied up and whipped by five amateurs. Her experience had soured her on it. “It’s not easy to find a true submissive,” the Russian continued. “One who’s beautiful and available would be snapped up.” He peered at me keenly. Though I was beginning to suspect that kink with Máxim might just blow my mind, I wasn’t ready to sign on. “How did you discover your interest in that?” He leaned back, glass in hand. “I’m in the business of information. For many years, I’ve brokered in it. I was investigating a particular man—one I thought I knew well—when I learned of his darker . . . leanings. I wanted to understand what drew him to that type of life. The more I learned, the more curious I became. I tried it and found it suited my needs.” He didn’t sound like a man who’d discovered a secret passion and reveled in it. He talked about BDSM almost mechanically. “So you enjoy it.” “It suits my needs,” he repeated. “Then what made you decide to call for me today?” “I was at a yacht party yesterday, hosted in my honor. Many businessmen attended, and even more escorts. As I had no intention of calling you again—and proving you right—I gravitated toward my usual.” He swirled ice in his glass. “But the blondes weren’t doing it for me. Figuring my tastes had changed, I approached a petite Latina. Didn’t work out either. Still I fought the impulse to call you. I made it to this afternoon. When I pulled up your picture, I decided I’d have what I truly wanted.” Had he slept with the Latina? Me on Monday, her on Tuesday, me on Wednesday night? “So you had a taste test of sorts. I guess I outperformed her in bed?” “I didn’t fuck her or anyone else there.” I exhaled, relieved once more. “And no one at that party was using a bed.” “It sounds like an orgy.” Dios mío. “Do you often attend them?” “I wouldn’t say often.” He turned my question back on me. “Do you?” “I’ve never been to one.” I was open-minded about sex, but an orgy would never be in the cards for me. “That’s not my speed.” “Have you ever slept with more than one man at a time?” “I’ve never had sex with more than one man.” He’d think I was talking about at one time. And he would still disbelieve me. “I don’t want to.” “Earlier, you balked hard. That’s unusual in your line of work, no? Still, I can see it.” “Why?” “I’ll wager your clients can barely handle you, much less another added to the mix.” “Thanks. I think.” I drank. “Have you ever even tried BDSM?” I shook my head. “I wouldn’t want to be struck.” “There’s more to it than that,” he said. “Whipping a woman is not a favorite aspect of mine.” “Then why was a crop part of your script?” Maybe because it limited touch even more? “If you’ve never tried any of it, then how do you know you won’t like it?” He’d deflected my question. Because of my ineptitude at lying, I dodged and deflected, bobbing and weaving, and I