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The Kiss Quotient

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Stella Lane thinks math is the only thing that unites the universe. She comes up with algorithms to predict customer purchases — a job that has given her more money than she knows what to do with, and way less experience in the dating department than the average thirty-year-old.

It doesn't help that Stella has Asperger's and French kissing reminds her of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. Her conclusion: she needs lots of practice — with a professional. Which is why she hires escort Michael Phan. The Vietnamese and Swedish stunner can't afford to turn down Stella's offer, and agrees to help her check off all the boxes on her lesson plan — from foreplay to more-than-missionary position...

Before long, Stella not only learns to appreciate his kisses, but to crave all the other things he's making her feel. Soon, their no-nonsense partnership starts making a strange kind of sense. And the pattern that emerges will convince Stella that love is the best kind of logic...
The Kiss Quotient
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I'm very happy that a book concerning Asperger was written. Most people just wave it aside or pity or even avoid it but this is a shout our that they exist and everything is possible for them.
13 December 2020 (13:35) 
The Kiss Quotient is a seriously sexy, fun book that has rekindled my interest in the romance genre. When it hits the spot, I LOVE a good romance, but I rarely find one that goes beyond cliches and instalove so I usually end up bored. Not with this one. Not one bit.

It's the perfect blend of sweet and steamy. And let me be clear: this is not YA. There's a lot of graphic sex scenes, though I should also say that the author builds up to it really well; she knows how to tease us. It was just so nice to read a book where sex is actually sexy and not political, cold, a form of manipulation, or not sex at all because consent went out the window.
28 March 2021 (13:44) 
Loved it! So much better than The Bride Test
26 April 2021 (18:37) 
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐, spicy & cute. I didnt expect to love it this much but im glad this book talks about a certain disorder that helps readers understand what not to do and what to do whenever we encounter people with autism. ++ IM SO HAPPY THAT THE LEADING MAN IS THE ONE WHO UNDERSTANDS HER THE MOST???
23 May 2021 (06:53) 
Michael is really sweet❤
23 June 2021 (19:40) 
This book has a good balance
It's spicy and sweet and I wish I have Michael in my life ❤
24 June 2021 (07:56) 
Just go for it!!! ❤❤❤
27 June 2021 (07:30) 
Wow... this is an amazing book ? I really enjoyed it
02 July 2021 (20:37) 
Wonderful, a must read.⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
05 July 2021 (20:43) 
It's good book thank you so much
11 July 2021 (14:13) 
its good enough.............
19 July 2021 (16:04) 
how to read... AA IDK someone help me please
09 August 2021 (18:28) 
i downloaded it but how do i read it?? someone help
13 August 2021 (15:13) 
Idk this book wasn’t giving what it was supposed to give. If you reading this and you’re from tik tok, fuck that stupid app! I’m telling you, this book is a 3/5 for me bc she is a little cringe at some parts but it’s overal amazing still
14 August 2021 (14:17) 
I absolutely love this book❤️❤️❤️???
Need more books like this
30 August 2021 (23:25) 
Kashvi, I need the cringe book
08 September 2021 (14:21) 
Everyone should give this book a try. It might not gonna pick everyone's interest but it's still a great book. Honestly, I love how the author chose to write the storyline. Never mind what other people said about it.
08 September 2021 (19:36) 
I can't describe how much I absolutely LOVE this book
14 September 2021 (21:30) 
Best book I’ve read in a while. While it centres on thé Autism spectrum, it also makes us understand that everyone is capable of LOVE, you just need the right person to nudge you there. I would always recommend, infact I’ve recommended offline so many times. I love Micheal and Stella. Have not seen a DUO that compatible in a while. Thank you Helen Hoang, Patiently(with lots of anxiety and love) waiting for your next project. Love ya
26 September 2021 (10:07) 
Totally loved this book❤️
24 October 2021 (15:58) 
Do it NOW PLEASE. I promise you won't rwgret it.
17 November 2021 (17:13) 
Sort off cringy. Lol. But I enjoyed it somehow
21 November 2021 (05:14) 
I feel like "The woman was too stunned to speak"
06 December 2021 (19:09) 
Ok so this book... gosh i have a lot to say about it.
I completely loved it. It took a little while for me to get addicted to it since the beginning was a little boring, but honestly? i didn't care because when the book got THERE, I couldnt stop reading it.
Helen Hoang became one of my favorite authors after this book. The way she makes you connect to the characters in such a deep and emotional level, its... magical. I love the fact that she divides the narrative of the story between Michael and Stella because you can see both sides of the love story, not just the woman's one (like most of the rom-coms I read do) which only makes the story more perfect.
And the autistic representation? Jesus so good. I'm not autistic but reading a book with an autistic protagonist was so amazing and made me feel so proud.
Thanks Helen Hoang for this gift of a book.
20 December 2021 (19:36) 
This book was absolutely AMAZING! There were some scenes that were a little iffy but overall this was a fantastic book. I come back to reread this book every month. I love Michael and the way he treats Stella makes me swoon. If you're looking for a book that'll make you feel warm and giddy inside, this is definitely it.
07 January 2022 (10:17) 
Aditya Singh
An amazing book ?. Simply fantastic. An amazing way to explain the life and feelings of an autistic person and a goosebumps giving Love Story. It felt like I was viewing the thiings take place in front of my eyes. Loved their chemistry and their treatment to each other. Fell in love with the characters. Red whole story in a day and rered it again the next day. Mind blowing way to write. Things went slow towards end but it was ignorable.
15 January 2022 (09:36) 
Megha Bansal
Hats off to the presentation of autism. The way it was showcased that it's a spectrum and not an all dictating condition. Second hats off to the way Michael's character makes her realise how romance or sex should be, and how he addresses that her earlier encounters were no less than molestation
21 January 2022 (14:12) 
29 January 2022 (06:55) 
I enjoyed reading this book!
30 January 2022 (00:04) 
Cringe ass book -3/5
30 January 2022 (22:48) 
It was okay, kind of cute but also not too much. A nice fluff read though
10 February 2022 (07:07) 
Saffron <3
It's a good book, it's cute and talks about something I haven't seen much in book, it's usually the guy that's yk doing pretty well but I love how this book kind of turned around the stereotypes and didn't take anything the characters' femininity or masculinity because of their jobs ... It's a book that talks about different subjects and different personalities and I love the variety that's been created... I love Michael and Stella is just phenomenal, they're good together, I give this a higher rating than most books I read because it included much more than you'd anticipate... It's an easy read, the writing is also quite nice, I can't complain and I'd give it a solid 4/5...

Im usually not as generous but honestly it's amazing, we all have different reasons for our ratings and mine were:
Not giving into stereotypes
Great characters and plot
The questions at the end, they allow you to think about what you've read and not just part with the book, it allows you to form a deeper connection, at least to me that's what it felt like.

Anyways I hope you like it too, and Michael is GOOD;)
26 February 2022 (19:36) 
Saffron <3
Also I'm not gonna say it had me locked in from start to finish, I kind of put it off for a while but I'm not letting that affect my rating because of the reasons that justified my ratings are above... Its a nice book, you'd pick up when you're not particularly happy or sad just neutral, I didn't gush over scenes as I usually do but the characters were simply amazing and the only thing that put me off was Michael referencing to his trauma all the time, I like trauma but the multiple references was boring me and made him slightly insufferable... If I was to rate my discomfort with this book it would be 3.5/5

So overall the book's rating is 3.25/5...if we average with my discomfort

7.5/2=3.25 but that's just my personal opinion and it shouldn't deter you from reading the book
26 February 2022 (19:44) 
Five. Fucking. Stars.

So, upon seeing this book, I was skeptical. I'm not only a mixed Vietnamese/white guy, but I'm autistic, so this book IMMEDIATELY stood out to me. I've learned to expect the worst from any YA portraying neurodivergency, but this utterly shocked me.

The way Hoang displays autism is wonderful. In my opinion, she also portrays Michael's trauma well, despite other reviews. It's clear she has a close connection to this book, and I'm astonished with how good it is. This made me kick my feet like a schoolgirl. It's also not exactly YA. Too explicit for that.

But, I adore the portrayal of everything here. I could relate so intimately to every nook and cranny. I see reviews here saying it's cringey or forced. And this makes me realize how little people understand autism and generational trauma. Because for me, at least? This was perfect. Spot-on.

Also, the way Michael's family works made me cackle. My family is the exact same. Grandparents on the TV, everyone else yelling in the kitchen. The mango peeling was nice to see.

If you're on the brink about this book, read it. I'll admit my opinions aren't as nuanced and deep as others, but from someone who's so personally connected to the topics the book portrays, what's there to lose from listening?
15 March 2022 (09:31) 
Raniya Addams
Wow. I mean....this is so amazing, and you can feel every single thing in the story and I just resist the urge to tell Stella that he didn't break up with her bc she was autistic at some of the tense parts. Just amazing and vivid. Any bitch will love it. You should read it
17 March 2022 (17:26) 
Raniya Addams
And I just read a review above that said ' this book is absolute trash' And that it's a 'Walmart version of The Hating Game by Sally Thorne'
@Kashvi Srivastava, Wtf this book is heavan
17 March 2022 (17:31) 
guys there is a 2nd book - the bride test....its about khai Michael's cousin
20 March 2022 (08:57) 
Decent plot, decent book, decent read 4/5⭐️
05 April 2022 (18:12) 
It was good, but the writer was too repetitive with some scenarios.
10 April 2022 (10:31) 
It's good. And it's not just about love, it discusses more abiut so many things which will make you love the book. Happy reading!
16 April 2022 (12:20) 
omfg that was so amazing. so beautiful. i really liked the autism representation, i have a friend and she has aspergers and the book reminded me a lot of her. i also have other friends on the autism scale and I just felt really connected to this book because of that. I loved Michael, he was so strong and caring towards his family, everything id love in a guy. and the FOOD, some close family friends of mine are filipino and vietnamese and the family reminded me of them a little bit. anyway, i completely rec this book it was so unbelievably GOOD. ill definitely be reading this again in the future.
17 April 2022 (03:14) 
Great romance, reverse pretty woman.
I loved to read about people on the spectrum and how they navigate in society, makes me more aware of people around me and I think we should all read books like that to understand people better and just be more open minded.
You never know what the person in front of you is going through.
I really loved the development character, on both MC. I'm looking forward for the two others books
21 April 2022 (16:48) 
best book ever!!! I'm crying

27 April 2022 (23:56) 
One of the most heart warming book with a rare genre I've ever read. Love it
22 June 2022 (12:29) 

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		 			 			A JOVE BOOK

			Published by Berkley

			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

			375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

			Copyright © 2018 by Helen Hoang

			Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

			A JOVE BOOK and BERKLEY are registered trademarks and the B colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

			Names: Hoang, Helen, author.

			Title: The kiss quotient / Helen Hoang.

			Description: New York : JOVE / Berkley, 2018. | “A JOVE book”—Verso title page.

			Identifiers: LCCN 2017061141| ISBN 9780451490803 (paperback) | ISBN 9780451490810 (ebook)

			Subjects: LCSH: Women mathematicians—Fiction. | Asperger’s syndrome—Fiction. | Escort services—Fiction. | Man-woman relationships—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Romance / Contemporary. | FICTION / Contemporary Women. | GSAFD: Love stories.

			Classification: LCC PS3608.O1775 K57 2018 | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at

			First Edition: June 2018

			Cover design and illustration by Colleen Reinhart

			Background equation texture by Marina Sun / Shutterstock

			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


		 			 			Dedicated to my family.

			Thank you, Ngoại, Mẹ, Chị 2, Chị 3, Chị 4, Anh 5, and 7, for being my safe place.

			Thank you, Honey, for loving me, labels, quirks, obsessions, and all.; 

			Thank you, B-B and I-I, for letting your mama write. You are the best thing I have.


			They say writing is a solitary task. And that’s true. You sit down, and you write alone. But this book never would have come so far without the help and support of many, many, many people.

			This book, in this form, would not exist if I hadn’t had the opportunity to participate in Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars contest. Thank you, Brenda and the Pitch Wars team. You’re doing an amazing thing. (If you’re an unpublished fiction writer, you should really check out The contest connected me to my wonderful mentor, Brighton Walsh, who has had an immeasurable impact on my life. Not only did she help me improve my writing, but she guided me through this wild journey toward publication and became a true friend. Thank you, Brighton, from the bottom of my heart.

			Thank you so much to all my critique partners for taking time to read my work. Ava Blackstone, you were my very first writing friend. You gave me courage and confidence, and I’m super lucky to know you. Kristin Rockaway, you read the first crappy draft of this book, and your feedback helped me get into Pitch Wars. Michael and Stella’s first kiss is better (more awkward, lol) thanks to you! Gwynne Jackson, you fantastic human, thank you for being there. You are honest, patient, and kind, and I’m keeping you forever. Suzanne Park, I don’t know where to start with you. You are a truly generous person, so damn funny, and you get me. Jen DeLuca, I’m grateful I got to have a mentee sister during Pitch Wars and super glad it was you. I am envious of your incredible writing and try to emulate it. ReLynn Vaughn, thank you for your honesty and encouragement and including me in Viva La Colin so I could meet Ash Alexander and Randi Perrin. You ladies are so fun. A. R. Lucas, I’m endlessly entertained that I wrote your doppelganger in Stella. Shannon Caldwell, thank you for telling me you read the whole book in one night—I walked around grinning for hours. Jenny Howe, thank you for letting me send you my progress updates to stay on track. C. P. Rider, we need to go to Denny’s again!

			Thank you to the Pitch Wars mentee class of 2016. You are an incredible group of people. Right now as I work on these acknowledgments, a few of you are writing with me in our Am Writing Group. Ian Barnes, Meghan Molin, Rosiee Thor, Laura Lashley, Tricia Lynn, Maxym Martineau, Alexa Martin, Rosalyn Baker, Julie Clark, Tracy Gold, Tamara Anne, Rachel Griffin (I still want to name a book Calculust!), Nic Eliz, Annette Christi, and so many others have been there to flip virtual tables over rejections and cheer for successes. You guys make this writing thing even better. Thank you to Pitch Wars mentor Laura Brown. I wasn’t your mentee, but your kindness has always stuck with me.

			Thank you to the San Diego chapter of Romance Writers of America. Demi Hungerford, Lisa Kessler, and Marie Andreas, a lot of my writing and revising gets done during sprints with you. Tameri Etherton, Laura Connors, Rachel Davish, Tami Vahalik, Tessa McFionn, and Janet Tait, you are one awesome pack of women, and you always make me feel welcome. Extra thanks to HelenKay Dimon for leading our chapter’s April Writing Challenge, during which I wrote most of the first draft of this book.

			Thank you to the Autistic Women’s Association for helping me meet other autistic women like myself. The people I’ve interacted with in our Facebook group are some of the sweetest, most considerate individuals I’ve ever known, and it’s an incredible experience knowing I’m not alone, that there are others who share my same challenges and eccentricities. Harriet, Heather, Elizabeth, and Tad, among many, you ladies were a great support as I learned more about myself and autism, and eventually attained a diagnosis. Thank you for your friendship.

			Special thanks to my incredible agent, Kim Lionetti, for being patient with me, fighting for me, and making dreams come true by finding The Kiss Quotient a home.

			Thank you, Cindy Hwang, for seeing potential in this book and being absolutely wonderful. Kristine Swartz, Jessica Brock, Tawanna Sullivan, Colleen Reinhart, and others, you have been a pleasure to work with. Thank you, Berkley, for helping me share another perspective with readers and literally fight hate with love.


			Title Page




			 				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


			Author’s Note

			Readers Guide

			About the Author



“I know you hate surprises, Stella. In the interests of communicating our expectations and providing you a reasonable timeline, you should know we’re ready for grandchildren.”

			Stella Lane’s gaze jumped from her breakfast up to her mother’s gracefully aging face. A subtle application of makeup drew attention to battle-ready, coffee-colored eyes. That boded ill for Stella. When her mother got something into her mind, she was like a honey badger with a vendetta—pugnacious and tenacious, but without the snarling and fur.

			“I’ll keep that in mind,” Stella said.

			Shock gave way to rapid-fire, panic-scrambled thoughts. Grandchildren meant babies. And diapers. Mountains of diapers. Exploding diapers. And babies cried, soul-grating banshee wails that even the best sound-canceling headphones couldn’t buffer. How did they cry so long and hard when they were so little? Plus, babies meant husbands. Husbands meant boyfriends. Boyfriends meant dating. Dating meant sex. She shuddered.

			“You’re thirty, Stella dear. We’re concerned that you’re still single. Have you tried Tinder?”

			She grabbed her water and gulped down a mouthful, accidentally swallowing an ice cube. After clearing her throat, she said, “No. I haven’t tried it.”

			The very thought of Tinder—and the corresponding dating it aimed to deliver—caused her to break out in a sweat. She hated everything about dating: the departure from her comfortable routine, the conversation that was by turns inane and baffling, and again, the sex . . .

			“I’ve been offered a promotion,” she said, hoping it would distract her mother.

			“Another one?” her father asked, lowering his copy of the Wall Street Journal so his wire-framed glasses were visible. “You were just promoted two quarters ago. That’s phenomenal.”

			Stella perked up and scooted to the edge of her seat. “Our newest client—a large online vendor who shall remain nameless—provided the most amazing datasets, and I get to play with them all day. I designed an algorithm to help with some of their purchase suggestions. Apparently, it’s working better than expected.”

			“When is the new promotion effective?” her father asked.

			“Well . . .” The hollandaise and egg yolk from her crabcakes Benedict had run together, and she attempted to separate the yellow liquids with the tip of her fork. “I didn’t accept the promotion. It was a principal econometrician position that would have had five direct reports beneath me and require much more client interaction. I just want to work on the data.”

			Her mother batted that statement away with a negligent wave of her hand. “You’re getting complacent, Stella. If you stop challenging yourself, you’re not going to make any more improvement with your social skills. That reminds me, are there any coworkers at your company who you’d like to date?”

			Her father set his newspaper down and folded his hands over his rounded belly. “Yes, what about that one fellow, Philip James? When we met him at your last company get-together, he seemed nice enough.”

			Her mother’s hands fluttered to her mouth like pigeons homing in on bread crumbs. “Oh, why didn’t I think of him? He was so polite. And easy on the eyes, too.”

			“He’s okay, I guess.” Stella ran her fingertips over the condensation on her water glass. To be honest, she’d considered Philip. He was conceited and abrasive, but he was a direct speaker. She really liked that in people. “I think he has several personality disorders.”

			Her mother patted Stella’s hand. Instead of putting it back in her lap when she was done, she rested it over Stella’s knuckles. “Maybe he’ll be a good match for you, then, dear. With issues of his own to overcome, he might be more understanding of your Asperger’s.”

			Though the words were spoken in a matter-of-fact tone, they sounded unnatural and loud to Stella’s ears. A quick glance at the neighboring tables in the restaurant’s canopied outdoor dining area reassured her that no one had heard, and she stared down at the hand on top of hers, consciously refraining from yanking it away. Uninvited touches irritated her, and her mother knew it. She did it to “acclimate” her. Mostly, it drove Stella crazy. Was it possible Philip could understand that?

			“I’ll think about him,” Stella said, and meant it. She hated lying and prevaricating even more than she hated sex. And, at the end of the day, she wanted to make her mother proud and happy. No matter what Stella did, she was always a few steps short of being successful in her mother’s eyes and therefore her own, too. A boyfriend would do that, she knew. The problem was she couldn’t keep a man for the life of her.

			Her mother beamed. “Excellent. The next benefit dinner I’m arranging is in a couple months, and I want you to bring a date this time. I’d love to see Mr. James attending with you, but if that doesn’t work out, I’ll find someone.”

			Stella thinned her lips. Her latest sexual experience had been with one of her mother’s blind dates. He’d been good-looking—she had to give him that—but his sense of humor had confused her. With him being a venture capitalist and her being an economist, they should have had a lot in common, but he hadn’t wanted to talk about his actual work. Instead, he’d preferred to discuss office politics and manipulation tactics, leaving her so lost she’d been certain the date was a failure.

			When he’d straight-out asked her if she wanted to have sex with him, she’d been caught completely off guard. Because she hated to say no, she’d said yes. There’d been kissing, which she didn’t enjoy. He’d tasted like the lamb he’d had for dinner. She didn’t like lamb. His cologne had nauseated her, and he’d touched her all over. As it always did in intimate situations, her body had locked down. Before she knew it, he’d finished. He’d discarded his used condom in the trash can next to the hotel room’s desk—that had bothered her; surely he should know things like that went in the bathroom?—told her she needed to loosen up, and left. She could only imagine how disappointed her mother would be if she knew what a disaster her daughter was with men.

			And now her mother wanted babies, too.

			Stella got to her feet and gathered her purse. “I need to go to work now.” While she was ahead on all her deadlines, need was still the right word for it. Work fascinated her, channeled the furious craving in her brain. It was also therapeutic.

			“That’s my girl,” her father said, standing up and brushing off his silk Hawaiian shirt before hugging her. “You’re going to own that place before long.”

			As she gave him a quick hug—she didn’t mind touching when she initiated it or had time to mentally prepare for it—she breathed in the familiar scent of his aftershave. Why couldn’t all men be just like her father? He thought she was beautiful and brilliant, and his smell didn’t make her sick.

			“You know her work is an unhealthy obsession, Edward. Don’t encourage her,” her mother said before she switched her attention to Stella and heaved a maternal sigh. “You should be out with people on the weekend. If you met more men, I know you’d find the right one.”

			Her father pressed a cool kiss to her temple and whispered, “I wish I were working, too.”

			Stella shook her head at him as her mother embraced her. The ropes of her mother’s ever-present pearls pressed into Stella’s sternum, and Chanel No. 5 swirled around her. She tolerated the cloying scent for three long seconds before stepping back.

			“I’ll see you both next weekend. I love you. Bye.”

			She waved at her parents before exiting the ritzy downtown Palo Alto restaurant and walked down sidewalks lined with trees and upscale shops. After three sunny blocks, she reached a low-rise office building that housed her favorite place in the world: her office. The left corner window on the third floor belonged to her.

			The lock on the front door clicked open when she held her purse up to the sensor, and she strode into the empty building, enjoying the solitary echo of her high heels on the marble as she passed the vacant reception desk and stepped into the elevator.

			Inside her office, she initiated her most beloved routine. First, she powered on her computer and entered her password into the prompt screen. As all the software booted up, she plopped her purse in her desk drawer and went to fill her cup with water from the kitchen. Her shoes came off, and she placed them in their regular spot under her desk. She sat.

			Power, password, purse, water, shoes, sit. Always this order.

			Statistics Analysis System, otherwise known as SAS, automatically loaded, and the three monitors on her desk filled with streams of data. Purchases, clicks, log-in times, payment types—simple things, really. But they told her more about people than people themselves ever did. She stretched out her fingers and set them on the black ergonomic keyboard, eager to lose herself in her work.

			“Oh hi, Stella, I thought it might be you.”

			She looked over her shoulder and was jarred by the unwelcome view of Philip James peering around the door frame. The severe cut of his tawny hair emphasized his square jaw, and his polo shirt was tight across his chest. He looked fresh, sophisticated, and smart—precisely the kind of man her parents wanted for her. And he’d caught her working for pleasure on the weekend.

			Her face heated, and she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “What are you doing here?”

			“I had to pick up something that I forgot yesterday.” He extracted a box from a shopping bag and waved it at her. Stella caught sight of the word TROJAN in giant capital letters. “Have a nice weekend. I know I will.”

			Breakfast with her parents raced through her mind. Grandchildren, Philip, the prospect of more blind dates, being successful. She licked her lips and hurried to say something, anything. “Did you really need an economy-sized box of those?”

			As soon as the words left her mouth, she winced.

			He smirked his assholest smirk, but its annoyingness was softened by a show of strong white teeth. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to need half of these tonight since the boss’s new intern asked me out.”

			Stella was impressed despite herself. The new girl looked so shy. Who would have thought she was so gutsy? “For dinner?”

			“And more, I think,” he said with a twinkle in his hazel eyes.

			“Why did you wait for her to ask you out? Why didn’t you ask her first?” She’d gotten the impression men liked to be initiators in matters like these. Was she wrong?

			With impatient motions, Philip stuffed an entire militia of Trojans back in his shopping bag. “She’s fresh out of undergrad. I didn’t want to get accused of cradle robbing. Besides, I like girls who know what they want and go for it . . . especially in bed.” He swept an appraising gaze from her feet to her face, smiling like he could see through her clothes, and she stiffened with self-consciousness. “Tell me, are you still a virgin, Stella?”

			She turned back to her computer screens, but the data refused to make sense. The cursor on the programming screen blinked. “It’s none of your business, but no, I’m not a virgin.”

			He walked into her office, leaned a hip against her desk, and considered her in a skeptical manner. She adjusted her glasses even though they didn’t need it. “So our star econometrician has ‘done it’ before. How many times? Three?”

			No way was she going to tell him he’d guessed correctly. “None of your business, Philip.”

			“I bet you just lie there and run linear recursions in your head while a man does his business. Am I right, Ms. Lane?”

			Stella would totally do that if she could figure out how to input gigabytes of data into her brain, but she’d rather die than admit it.

			“A word of advice from a man who’s been around the block a few times: Get some practice. When you’re good at it, you like it better, and when you like it better, men like you better.” He pushed away from the desk and headed for the door, his bag of condoms swinging jauntily at his side. “Enjoy your endless week.”

			As soon as he left, Stella stood up and shoved her door shut, using more force than was necessary. The door slammed with a hard, vibrating bang, and her heart stuttered. She smoothed damp hands over her pencil skirt as she brought her breathing back under control. When she sat down at her desk, she was too jittery to do more than stare at the blinking cursor.

			Was Philip right? Did she dislike sex because she was bad at it? Would practice really make perfect? What a beguiling concept. Maybe sex was just another interpersonal thing she needed to exert extra efforts on—like casual conversation, eye contact, and etiquette.

			But how exactly did you practice sex? It wasn’t like men were throwing themselves at her like women apparently did to Philip. When she did manage to sleep with a man, he was so put off by the lackluster experience that once was more than enough for both of them.

			Also, this was Silicon Valley, the kingdom of tech geniuses and scientists. The single men available were probably as hopeless in bed as she was. With her luck, she’d sleep with a statistically significant population of them and have nothing to show for it but crotch burn and STDs.

			No, what Stella needed was a professional.

			Not only were they certified disease-free, but they had proven track records. At least, she assumed so. That was how she’d run things if she were in that business. Regular men were incentivized by things like personality, humor, and hot sex—things she didn’t have. Professionals were incentivized by money. Stella happened to have a lot of money.

			Instead of working on her shiny new dataset, Stella opened up her browser and Googled “California Bay Area male escort service.”



Which envelope should he open first? The lab results or the bill? Michael was paranoid about protection, so the lab results should be good. Should be. In his experience, shit didn’t need a reason to happen. Bills, on the other hand, were a sure thing. They always sucked. The only question was how hard they’d punch him in the balls.

			Tensing his muscles for impact, he tore open the bill. How much was it this month? He scanned to the bottom of the itemized invoice and located the final amount. The breath trickled from his lungs before it gusted out. Not horrible. On the scale of stinging to pulverizing, he’d put this one at merely bruising.

			That probably meant he’d contracted chlamydia.

			He set the bill down on top of the metal filing cabinet nestled behind his kitchen table and opened the lab results from his latest STD screening. All negative. Thank fuck. It was Friday evening again, which meant he needed to work tonight.

			Time to get himself in the mind-set for fucking. Not an easy thing to do after thinking about STDs and plaguing bills. For an instant, he let himself imagine what things would be like if the bills came to an end. He’d be free at last. He could return to his old life and—shame doused him. No, he didn’t want the bills to end. He never wanted that to happen. Never.

			As Michael padded through his cheap apartment toward the bathroom and shed his clothes, he tried to revive his old enthusiasm for this job. The taboo nature of it had been enough in the beginning, but after three years of escorting, that was pretty much old hat. The revenge aspect still satisfied him, though.

			Look at your only son now, Dad.

			It would torment his dad if he found out Michael was having sex for money. A thoroughly delightful thought. Not an arousing one, however. That was what fantasies were for. He mentally sifted through his favorites. What was he in the mood for tonight? Hot for Teacher? Neglected Housewife? Secret Lover?

			He cranked the shower knob and waited for steam to cloud the air before climbing beneath the hot spray. A breath in, a breath out, and he readied his mind. What was the name of tonight’s client again? Shanna? Estelle? No, Stella. He’d bet twenty dollars that wasn’t her real name, but whatever. She’d chosen to pay up front. He’d try to do something extra nice for her. Hot for Teacher, then.

			It was his freshman year of college. He skipped all of his lectures but this one because Ms. Stella liked to drop the chalkboard eraser right by his chair. Picturing her skirt riding up as she bent down to retrieve the eraser, he gripped his cock and stroked with firm motions. When class ended, he draped her facedown over her desk and bunched her skirt up to her waist to reveal that she wasn’t wearing panties. He plunged into her hard and fast. If someone walked in on them . . .

			With a groan, he yanked his hand away before he could fly over the edge. He was primed and ready to see Ms. Stella outside of class.

			He kept his mind locked in the fantasy as he finished with his shower, dried off, and left the bathroom to pull on jeans, a T-shirt, and a black sports coat. A quick look in the half-fogged mirror and two swipes of his fingers through his damp hair confirmed he was presentable.

			Condoms, keys, wallet. Out of habit, he reread the special comments section of tonight’s assignment on his phone.

			Please don’t wear cologne.

			That was easy. He didn’t like the stuff in the first place. He slipped his phone into his pocket along with everything else and left his apartment.

			It wasn’t long before he parked in the underground lot of the Clement Hotel. As he strolled into the sleek, ultramodern lobby, he made sure the lapels of his coat were down and played his usual pre-meet-and-greet game where he imagined what his new client was like.

			Under Client Age for tonight, it had said thirty. He sighed and corrected the age to fifty. Anything younger than forty was always a lie—unless it was a group thing, which he didn’t do. Bachelorette parties paid well, but the idea of destroying young love depressed the hell out of him. Maybe it was pathetic, but he wanted to live in a world where brides-to-be only had sex with their grooms-to-be and vice versa. Besides, large groups of horny women were terrifying. You couldn’t defend yourself against them, and their nails were sharp.

			“Stella” could be a pampered fifty who indulged in sweets, spas, and froufrou canines, was therefore decadently rounded, and preferred to be worshipped in bed—something Michael had no problem with. She could also be a fit fifty who liked yoga, green juice, and marathon sex sessions that worked his abs better than weighted incline crunches. Or, his least favorite, she could be a hard-ass Asian gogetter who chose him because, with his mixed Vietnamese and Swedish heritage, he looked a lot like the K-drama star Daniel Henney. This last kind of woman inevitably reminded him of his mom, and after sleeping with them, he needed therapy with a punching bag.

			Entering the hotel restaurant, he searched the dimly lit tables for a brown-haired, brown-eyed woman wearing glasses. Because he’d gotten through his mail without major incident earlier, he braced himself for the worst now. His gaze skipped over tables occupied by businessmen until he saw a solitary, middle-aged Asian woman micromanaging the waitress on how to make her salad. When she brushed manicured nails through her lightened brown hair, his stomach sank and he began walking toward her. It was going to be a long night.

			No, this was the culmination of a semester’s worth of sexual tension. They both wanted this. He wanted this.

			Before he could reach her, a reed-thin older man took the seat opposite her and covered her hand with his. Confused but relieved, Michael stepped back and surveyed the restaurant again. No one was sitting alone . . . but for a girl in the far corner.

			Her dark hair was pulled back in a tight bun, and sexy librarian-type glasses were balanced on a cute little nose. In fact, from what he could see of her, everything looked like it had been chosen from a sexy librarian cosplay. She wore neat pointed pumps, a gray pencil skirt, and a fitted white oxford shirt buttoned clear up to her throat. It was possible she was thirty, but Michael put her at twenty-five. There was something young and wholesome about her, though her frown was rather fierce as she scrutinized the menu.

			Michael glanced about the room, searching for a hidden camera team or his friends cracking up behind the potted plants. He found neither of those things.

			He closed his hands around the back of the chair across from her. “Excuse me, are you Stella?”

			Her eyes shot to his face, and Michael lost his train of thought. Those sexy librarian glasses showcased the most stunning pair of soft brown eyes. And her lips—they were just full enough to be tempting without detracting from her overall air of sweetness.

			“I’m sorry. I must have the wrong person,” he said with a smile he hoped was more apologetic and less embarrassed. There was no way a girl like this had hired an escort.

			She blinked and jostled the table as she flew to her feet. “No, that’s me. You’re Michael. I recognize you from your picture.” She stuck her hand out. “I’m Stella Lane. Nice to meet you.”

			He stared at her open expression and proffered hand for a stunned fraction of a second. This wasn’t how clients greeted him. They usually waved him into a seat with a sly curl of their lips and a sparkle in their eyes—that sparkle that said they thought they were better than him but were looking forward to what he could offer anyway. She greeted him like he was . . . an equal.

			Quickly recovering from his surprise, he wrapped her slender hand in his and shook it. “Michael Phan. Nice to meet you, too.”

			When he released her, she motioned toward his chair awkwardly. “Please, have a seat.”

			He sat and watched as she perched herself on the precarious edge of her seat, her back straight as a board. She searched his face, but when he arched an eyebrow at her, she switched her focus to the menu. She adjusted the position of her glasses with a wrinkle of her nose.

			“Are you hungry? I am.” Her knuckles went white as she clung to the menu. “The salmon is good here, and the steak. My dad likes the lamb—” Her gaze jumped to his face, and, even in the dim light, he could see her cheeks go crimson. She cleared her throat. “Maybe not the lamb.”

			Because he couldn’t resist, he asked, “Why not the lamb?”

			“I think it tastes woolly, and if you . . . when we . . .” She stared up at the ceiling and took a deep breath. “All I’d be thinking about would be sheep and lambs and wool.”

			“Understood,” he said with a grin.

			When she stared at his mouth like she couldn’t remember what she was going to say, his grin widened. Women chose him because they liked the way he looked. Few of them responded to him like this, however. It was flattering even as it was funny.

			“Are there any things you would prefer I not eat or drink?” she asked.

			“No, I’m pretty easy.” He kept his voice light and tried to ignore the tightness in his chest. It had to be heartburn. Simple thoughtfulness wasn’t doing this to him.

			After the waitress took their order and left, Stella sipped from her water glass and drew geometrical shapes in the condensation with delicate fingertips. When she noticed him watching her, she drew her hand back and sat on it, flushing like she’d been caught doing something she shouldn’t.

			Something about that was kind of endearing. If she hadn’t already paid, he wouldn’t believe she actually wanted this. Why did she want this? She should have a boyfriend . . . or a husband. Against his better judgment—it was best when he didn’t know—he looked at her left hand resting on the table. No ring. No white line.

			“I have a proposition for you,” she said suddenly, pinning him with a gaze that was surprisingly direct. “It would require a commitment of sorts—for the next couple months, I imagine. I would . . . prefer . . . to have sole access to you during that time. If you’re available.”

			“What do you have in mind?”

			“Please tell me if you’re available first.”

			“I only do Friday nights.” That was non-negotiable. Escorting once a week was bad enough. If he had to do it more than that, he’d lose his fucking mind, and he couldn’t afford for that to happen. Too many people depended on him.

			He never scheduled repeat appointments with the same client, either. They tended to get attached, and he couldn’t stand that. But he wanted to hear what she was proposing before he declined.

			“You have the next few months open, then?” she asked.

			“It depends on what you’re proposing.”

			She pushed her glasses up her nose and drew her shoulders back. “I’m awful at . . . what you do. But I want to get better. I think I can get better if someone would teach me. I’d like that person to be you.”

			Understanding splashed over Michael in surreal waves. She thought she was bad. At sex. And wanted lessons to improve. She wanted him to tutor her.

			How the hell did you teach sex?

			“I think we should do a trial run before we set anything up,” Michael hedged. She couldn’t actually be bad at sex, and she’d already paid. At the very least, he had to give her tonight.

			Frowning, she nodded. “You’re absolutely right. We should establish a baseline.”

			A grin tugged at his lips again. “Are you a scientist, Stella?”

			“Oh, no. I’m an economist. More precisely, I’m an econometrician.”

			In Michael’s book, that put her solidly in the brainiac category, and an odd feeling ghosted up the back of his neck. Damned if he didn’t have a thing for smart girls. There was a reason why his favorite fantasy was Hot for Teacher. “I don’t know what that is.”

			“I use statistics and calculus to model economic systems. Do you know how when you buy something online they usually email you with future recommendations? I help them formulate those recommendations. It’s a very fluid and fascinating field right now.” As she spoke, she leaned toward him, and her eyes lit with excitement. Her lips curved like she was telling him a secret. About math things. “Today’s material is completely different from what I used to teach when I was in graduate school.”

			That odd feeling simmering up Michael’s spine increased in intensity. She’d somehow gotten prettier during the course of their discussion. Brown eyes and thick lashes, pouty lips, delicate jaw, vulnerable neck. Vivid images of him unfastening the buttons of her shirt flashed in his mind.

			But unlike the usual, he didn’t want to do it quickly. He didn’t want to skip straight to the fucking, get out, and go home. This girl was different. It was that spark in her eyes. He wanted to take his time and see if he could make her shine with a different kind of excitement. His cock dug at the fly of his jeans, dragging Michael back to the here and now.

			His skin had gone hot and sensitive, and his pulse thrummed with eagerness. He hadn’t been this turned on in forever. And he hadn’t been fantasizing she was someone else. He reminded himself this was business. His personal wants and needs didn’t play into this at all. This assignment was just like any other, and when it was done, he’d move on to the next.

			He took a deep breath and said the first thing he could think of. “Were you on the math team in high school?”

			She laughed down at her water. “No.”

			“Science club? Maybe it was chess club.”

			“No, and no.” Her smile was a sad, barely there thing that made him wonder what high school had been like for her. Looking back up at him, she said, “Let me guess, football quarterback.”

			“Nope. My dad was a firm believer that sports are stupid.”

			Her brow wrinkled with a little frown. “I find that difficult to believe. You’re very . . . athletic-looking.”

			“He only encouraged practical things. Like self-defense.” He hated to agree with his dad on anything, but with the family business being what it was, and his helping out with it, the techniques had come in handy when shit kids teased him.

			A discovering kind of smile lit her face. “What do you do? MMA? Kung fu? Jeet Kune Do?”

			“I’ve done a little of everything. Why do you sound like you actually know what you’re talking about?”

			Her gaze dropped back down to her water. “I like martial arts movies and things like that.”

			He groaned as suspicion dawned. “Don’t tell me . . . you’re a Korean drama fan?”

			She tilted her head as a smile peeked over her lips. “Yes.”

			“I do not look like Daniel Henney.”

			“No, you look better.”

			He settled his hands on the edge of the table as his face heated. Fuck, he was blushing. What the hell kind of escort blushed? His sisters had posters of Henney plastered all over their bedroom walls, had even established a man-beauty scale of one to Henney. They’d agreed among themselves that Michael was a solid eight. He didn’t give a damn where he ranked, but it meant something that this genius girl gave him an eleven.

			Their dinner arrived, saving him from having to respond to her compliment. She’d ordered the salmon, so he’d done the same. No way was he going to eat lamb. He snorted to himself. Woolly.

			His fish was good, so he ate all of it. He suspected everything was good here. The Clement was one of Palo Alto’s most exclusive hotels with rooms going for more than a thousand dollars a night. Apparently, econometricians made shitloads of money.

			As he watched Stella pick at her dinner, however, he noticed that everything about her was understated. Her face was devoid of makeup, her nails were short and unpainted, and her clothes were simple—though they fit her perfectly. They had to be custom made.

			When she set her fork down and wiped her mouth, her salmon was only half finished. If they’d known each other better, he would have eaten it for her. His grandma always made him finish his dinner down to the last grain of rice.

			“Is that all you’re going to eat?”

			“I’m nervous,” she admitted.

			“You don’t need to be.” He was a damned good escort, and he’d take care of her. Unlike most of his assignments, he even looked forward to it.

			“I know. I can’t help it. Could we just get this over with?”

			His eyebrows twitched. He’d never heard someone say something like that in reference to a night with him. Changing her mind-set was going to be fun.

			“All right.” He draped his napkin over his empty dinner plate and got to his feet. “Let’s go to your room.”



After Stella unlocked the door, she stepped into her intimately lit suite, set her purse on the chair by the door, and arranged her high heels against the wall, almost sighing as her bare feet flattened on the carpet.

			Michael sent her an amused look, and she stared down at her toes. She’d taken her shoes off on autopilot. It was one of her routines. Was it rude to do that when you had company? Maybe she should put them back on. Her stomach knotted, and her heart raced at rabbit speed.

			He took the decision out of her hands by kicking off his own black leather shoes and positioning them next to hers. When he finished, he shrugged out of his suit jacket and tossed it on the chair next to her purse, revealing the simple white T-shirt underneath. It stretched over his chest and upper arms, and his jeans rode low on narrow hips. Stella couldn’t help but stare.

			His body was raw sculpted muscle and loose-limbed coordination. He was by far the finest male specimen she’d ever laid eyes on.

			And they were going to have sex tonight.

			She took a desperate breath and marched into the bathroom, where she braced her hands on the cool granite and stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes were open a fraction too wide, and her face was paper pale, her lips dry. She didn’t think she could go through with this. She shouldn’t have picked such a good-looking escort. What had she been thinking?

			Her lips twisted with a grimace. She hadn’t been thinking. After perusing the escort files for hours, sifting through countless faces and descriptions that had blurred together, she’d taken one look at Michael and known he was the one. It’d been his eyes. Dark brown with slashing eyebrows above, they looked intense . . . but kind. All of his five-star reviews had only cemented her decision. Looking like the hottest K-drama star ever didn’t hurt, either. Well, except for now, that was. There was a good chance she might throw up her dinner into the sink.

			Through the mirror, she saw him step into the doorway and lean against the jamb. That motion alone was so sexy, she felt her heart trip, stumble, and scramble to continue beating. He walked into the bathroom and stopped behind her, his eyes locked on hers in the mirror. When she wasn’t wearing her heels, he was more than half a foot taller than her. She wasn’t sure if she liked feeling this small.

			“Can I take your hair down?” he asked.

			She nodded once. Within seconds, the tension on her scalp released, and her hair tumbled free. Her black hairband landed on the countertop before he eased his fingers into her hair, separating the tendrils so they fell to her shoulders and down her back. She vibrated with tension as she waited for him to initiate intimacy and send her body into nervous lockdown. It was going to happen, and then he’d see what he was working with.

			A black imperfection on his bicep caught her eye, and she turned around to inspect it closer. She lifted a hand to touch it but stopped before making contact. She never touched people without permission. “What is this?”

			His lips curved with a slow, crooked grin, showing off perfect white teeth. “My tattoo.”

			Her throat worked on an involuntary swallow, and a wave of heat swept over her. She’d never seen the point of tattoos. Until now. Michael with a tattoo was just about the hottest thing she could imagine.

			Her fingers itched to pull his sleeve up farther, and she wavered over his arm until he caught her hand in his and pressed it to his skin. An electric jolt shot from her fingertips straight to her heart. He looked so perfect, like carved stone, but his skin was smooth and hot, firm but giving, alive.

			“You can touch me,” he said. “Anywhere.”

			Even as the invitation thrilled her, it gave her pause. Touching was such a private thing. She didn’t understand how he was able to do it so well with people he didn’t know.

			“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” she asked.

			That crooked grin returned in full force. “I like being touched.”

			When she continued to hesitate, he drew his sleeve up himself, exposing black ink marks that swept across his upper arm, over his shoulder, and disappeared beneath his T-shirt. The tattoo had to be quite large because the shape hadn’t even begun to materialize. Just how much of him did it cover?

			The swell of his muscles distracted her from further investigating. She’d never touched hard rounded flesh like this before. She wanted to touch him all over. And his scent. How was it she was just noticing it now?

			“Are you wearing cologne?” she asked as she filled her lungs.

			He stiffened. “No, why?”

			She leaned as close as she could without burying her face against his neck, seeking out more of that intoxicating scent. “You smell really, really good. What is it?”

			Where was that scent coming from? It seemed to be everywhere on him, but too light. She craved a more concentrated dose.


			A funny look crossed his face. “It’s just me, Stella.”

			“You smell this good?”

			“Apparently. You’re the first to comment on it.”

			“I want this smell all over me.” As the words left her mouth, she worried she’d said the wrong thing. That statement had sounded a little too personal, a little strange. Would he notice how strange she really was?

			He bent down so his lips hovered a hairsbreadth away from her ear and whispered, “Are you sure you’re bad at sex?”

			“What do you mean by that?”

			“It means so far you’re very good at it.”

			Her fingers flexed on his arm, and she battled the urge to press herself against him like a stripper on a pole. It bewildered her. She was not at all stripperish, and unlike him, she actively disliked touching. But she craved connection so much she hurt with it. “So far we haven’t done anything yet.”

			“You’re very good at the talking part.”

			“I’ve had sex. There isn’t a talking part.”

			A spark danced in his eyes. “There’s definitely a talking part.”

			Please, don’t let there be a talking part. There was no hope for her if it involved talking. “So far—”

			He gathered her hair to one side and brushed a fleeting kiss behind her ear. It happened so quickly that by the time her body tensed up he’d already pulled away. When he didn’t move to repeat the caress, her muscles relaxed once again. The place where he’d kissed her burned with awareness.

			Without touching her skin, he stroked his fingers over her hair. Slow, measured movements that swept from her crown, past her neck, and down her back. The motions calmed her even as they put her on edge.

			“I think you should kiss me,” he said in a husky voice.

			Her heart squeezed tight, and her skin pricked with panic. She was a horrible kisser. Her awkward attempts were sure to embarrass them both. “On the mouth?”

			The corner of said mouth kicked up. “Wherever you want to. The mouth is usually a good place to start.”

			“Maybe I should brush my teeth. I can do that right—”

			He pressed a thumb to her lips, silencing her, but his eyes were gentle. That touch, too, was gone before it fully registered in her brain. “Let’s try this another way. Do you want to see my tattoo?”

			Her mind eagerly switched gears, jumping from fear straight to excitement. “Yes.”

			With a small smile that was half amusement and half self-deprecating, he pulled his white T-shirt over his head and tossed it on the counter.

			Stella’s mouth went lax as she filled her eyes with him. A dragon’s head, its mouth open in midroar, covered the entire left half of his wide, sculpted chest. The ink on his shoulder and arm formed one of the creature’s claws. The intricate scales of its body worked diagonally across his abs and disappeared inside his jeans.

			“It’s all over you,” she commented.

			“It is. Here . . .” He captured her right hand and pressed it to the ink over his heart. “Feel it.”

			“You don’t mind?” When he shook his head, she bit her lip and tentatively settled her left hand on his chest as well.

			Her touch was timid at first, but when he didn’t object, she grew bolder. She pushed her hands across his firm chest, enjoying the ridges of defined muscle and the smoothness of his hairless skin. Tactilely, she couldn’t discern a difference between his inked skin and his unmarked skin. Fascinating.

			Her fingertips bumped down his abdomen, and she counted under her breath, “—Five. Six. Seven. Eight.” Her fingers met the waistband of his jeans, and his stomach muscles flexed and rippled as he took a breath.

			“You couldn’t have a regular six-pack? You had to make it eight?”

			He rolled his eyes as his lips curved. “Are you complaining, Stella?”

			“Nothing to complain about. I had no idea I liked tattoos until now.”

			“So you like it?”

			She thought that should be obvious, so she didn’t answer. Besides, it was getting difficult to concentrate. The sight of his perfect athlete’s body and his excessive tattoo, the feel of his hot skin, and his delicious scent overwhelmed her senses.

			“Can I take your glasses off? Will you still be able to see without them?”

			She swallowed and nodded. “I’m nearsighted, so I won’t be able to see things far away, but that’s all right because—”

			He slipped her glasses off. A soft clinking sounded as he set them on the counter behind her. The hotel suite and everything around her became a soft blur. Only he stood out in sharp focus. The solid feel of him against her palms grounded her.

			“It might be easier to kiss me if you wrap your arms around my neck,” he suggested.

			Her fingers twitched as she dragged them across the decadent expanse of his stomach and over his hard chest. After looping her arms stiffly around his neck, she said, “Done.”


			She inched forward.


			She inched forward again, stopping before their bodies could come flush together.

			“Stella, closer.”

			Understanding broke over her, and she settled herself against him. They were touching almost everywhere. Only the thin layers of her clothes separated them. Her nerves jangled, and panic threatened, but he didn’t rush her. He stood still, watching her with his patient, kind eyes. Against all odds, she relaxed.

			“Are you still with me?” he asked.

			Coming up onto her tiptoes, she aligned their bodies until they fit . . . just right. Her heart crashed in a crazy rhythm against her sternum, but she was still in control of herself—because, clever person that he was, he’d given her that control. “I’m okay.”

			When he closed his arms carefully around her, his heat sank through her shirt and warmed her skin. The pressure of his undemanding embrace reached deep inside her, calming her and loosening knots she hadn’t known were there. Maybe she was better than okay.

			She would gladly pay his escorting fee again just for him to hold her like this. This was heavenly. She burrowed her face into his neck and breathed him in. She skated her hands over his bare skin as she tried to nestle closer to him. If he could hold her a little tighter . . .

			Something hard prodded her belly, and she drew her head back.

			“You can ignore that,” he said.

			“We haven’t kissed or anything. How can you . . . ?”

			Hooded eyes searched hers as he lowered a hand from between her shoulder blades to the small of her back. The heat of his palm penetrated her clothes, and all the fine hairs on her body stood up. “This goes two ways, Stella. You like the feel of me. I like the feel of you.”

			That was a novel concept to her. Intimacy almost always was a one-way thing with her. The men enjoyed it—sort of. She did not.

			She was enjoying this, however. It made her feel brave and reckless.

			Her gaze locked on his lips again, and her blood raced with something new: anticipation. “Will you show me how to be a good kisser?”

			“I’m not certain you aren’t one already.”

			“I’m really not.”

			His mouth was inches away, but she couldn’t quite push herself to kiss it—even though she wanted to. She’d never initiated a kiss before. In the past, the men had just kind of . . . fallen on her.

			“Can I tell you where to kiss me?” she whispered.

			A smile slowly stretched his lips. “Yes.”

			“M-my temple.”

			His breath fanned over her ear, sending goose bumps down her neck, before he pressed a kiss to her left temple. “Now where?” The words were spoken softly against her skin, each one a caress.

			“My cheek.”

			The tip of his nose grazed her skin as he moved lower. He kissed the hollow beneath her cheekbone. “Now?” he asked without lifting his lips.

			So close. She could hardly breathe. “The corner of my m-mouth.”

			“Are you sure? That’s very close to being a real kiss.”

			Impulsive impatience seared through her, and she sank her fingers into his hair, held him in place, and pressed a closed-mouth kiss to his lips. Bolts of sensation zigzagged straight to her chest. After a surprised hesitation, she did it again, and he took the lead, showing her how it was done, drawing the kisses out.

			This was kissing. Kissing was glorious.

			When his tongue slipped between her lips, she went stock-still. Not glorious anymore. His tongue. Was in. Her mouth. She couldn’t stop herself from pulling away. “Is that absolutely necessary?”

			He exhaled sharply, and his brow creased in puzzlement. “You don’t like French kissing?”

			“It makes me feel like a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish.” It was weird and far too personal.

			His eyes danced, and though he bit his lip, she could see a grin peeking around the edges of his mouth.

			“Are you laughing at me?” Hot shame burned her face. She ducked her head and tried to back up, but the bathroom counter dug into her spine.

			The pressure of his fingertips on her chin made her face him again, leading her to believe he wanted eye contact. There were rules for that which she’d had to learn. Three seconds counted slowly in your head. Less and people thought you were hiding something. Longer and you made them uncomfortable. She’d gotten passably good at it. Now, however, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She didn’t want to see what he thought of her. She shut her eyes.

			“I was laughing at your analogy. You’re very funny.”

			“Oh.” She hazarded a glance at his face and found sincerity there. People said that to her sometimes, and she never understood it. She didn’t know how to be funny. It only ever happened by accident.

			“Instead of thinking of sharks at the dentist, think of me caressing your mouth. Concentrate on how it feels. Will you let me show you?”

			She nodded once. That was why they were here, after all.

			He bent toward her mouth once again, and she fisted her hands against his chest and braced herself. Instead of pushing his tongue between her lips, he kissed her like he had before, more drugging closed-mouth kisses. These she could do. These she liked. They rained upon her mouth in an unhurried procession. Some of her stress drained away, and her fingers uncurled.

			Wet heat stroked over her bottom lip. His tongue. She knew it was his tongue, but closed-mouth kisses made her forget. Another stroke, and shivery sensations cascaded outward. More kisses. In between aching presses of his lips, his tongue caressed her, making her skin tingle.

			Soon he was seducing her mouth, stroking her bottom lip, the top lip, teasing the crease. Maybe she parted her lips. Maybe she wanted him to go further. But he didn’t. The closed-mouth kisses she’d liked so much in the beginning were no longer enough. She tried to capture his tongue, to take it into herself, but he evaded her. He brushed at her lips with maddening strokes, dipped inside for the merest second, withdrew, and she kneaded his shoulders in frustration.

			Over and over again, he gave her a brief taste of salt and heat, and then retreated. Without consciously deciding to do it, she sealed her mouth with his and touched her tongue to his. His taste flooded her senses. Butterflies exploded in her stomach and sped through her veins. Her legs went weak, but his arms tightened around her, keeping her from falling.

			He sucked on her bottom lip and laved the sensitized skin before taking her mouth again. The room began spinning, and she realized she’d forgotten to breathe.

			Coming up for air, she said, “Oh my God, you taste good.”

			For a moment, he stared at her mouth like she’d taken something that he wanted back. He blinked the expression away, and a gravelly chuckle escaped kiss-reddened lips she wanted to touch with her fingertips. “Do you always say exactly what you’re thinking?”

			“Either that or I don’t talk.” No matter how she tried, she couldn’t overcome it. Her brain simply wasn’t wired for social sophistication.

			“I like hearing what you’re thinking. Especially when I’m kissing you.” But instead of kissing her again, he stepped away and tugged on her hand. “Come on. I don’t want to bruise you on this counter.”

			That was when she noticed the hard granite pressing into her back. As she let him lead her from the bathroom, she glanced at her hazy reflection in the mirror. She didn’t recognize that girl with the flushed cheeks and wild hair, could hardly believe she’d kissed a man and enjoyed it. Was it possible she’d be able to conquer what came next, as well?



Michael rubbed his lips to hide a grin as Stella balanced on the very edge of the bed and folded her hands in her lap. If he kissed her right now, she’d fall to the floor. She was the kind of girl who got weak when she was hot. He fucking loved that. Every bit of effort it had taken to get past her guard had been worth it.

			She’d been pretty before, but like this, she was almost too much. Freed from her tight bun, her hair framed her face in large ringlets. Arousal brightened her chocolate eyes, and her lips were swollen from his kisses. Gorgeous. He almost wished they were meeting again after tonight.

			Instead of sitting next to her, he stretched out near the center of the king-sized bed, propped himself up on an elbow, and patted the area next to him. After a momentary hesitation, she crawled across the bed and lay down next to him, her body corpse-straight and her eyes staring ahead. Her pulse drummed under her jaw, and she stiffened like she was bracing herself for an attack.

			That wouldn’t do.

			“I’m going to kiss you again.” Because he sensed she needed to be forewarned, he added, “French kissing.”


			He leaned over her and kissed her, starting right back at the beginning with innocent brushes of their lips and teasing licks before taking her mouth once again. She really had no idea how to kiss, but it was entertaining feeling her learn. What she lacked in skill she made up for in pure enthusiasm.

			She kissed him with untrained strokes of her tongue, following his mouth when he tried to pull back so he could dim the lights further. Experience told him she’d be much more comfortable with sex if the lights were low.

			He tried to reach for the switch without breaking the kiss, but she buried her fingers in his hair. If there was one thing that drove Michael crazy—aside from BJs—it was having a woman play with his hair. Her nails scraped over his scalp with just the right pressure to send pleasure shooting down his spine, and he forgot about the light.

			He ran his hand along the length of her body, cupped the curve of a small breast. Even through the layers of her shirt and bra, he could feel the firm ball of her nipple. He wanted to pinch it, love on it, but there was too much fabric in the way. He kissed her harder, and she arched into his body. If she hadn’t been wearing a pencil skirt, he would have spread her thighs. He’d bet everything she was wet for him.

			Leaning back and pulling cool air into his lungs, he assessed his handiwork. She breathed through parted red lips that glistened, and her eyes were pure sex. She was ready for more.

			He fingered the button at her collar and slipped it free.

			It was like flipping a switch; the change was that dramatic. One moment, her body was loose and languorous. The next, she was tense as a stretched rubber band. The color bled from her face. Her expression went from sensual to downright scared. She dropped her hands to her sides and balled them into fists.


			She gulped down a ragged breath and started unbuttoning her shirt. “I’m sorry. Let me get them.” With uncoordinated fingers, she loosed one button, then another.

			He covered her hands with his to halt her progress. “What are you doing?”


			“I’m not going to have sex with you when you’re like this.” It was wrong. He’d never had sex with a woman who wasn’t one hundred percent into it, and he wasn’t going to start now.

			She turned onto her side to face away from him, and her chest shook. Dammit, she was crying. He lowered his hands toward her before hesitating. Would his touch help her or make it worse? Fuck it. He had to do something. He couldn’t let her cry like this. Tears gutted him like nothing else. He wrapped himself around her. When she tried to shrink away, he held her tighter. What the hell? It had just been one button.

			“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. What happened? Did someone . . . hurt you? Is that why you tensed up on me?” The thought of someone assaulting her sent a murderous rage through Michael’s brain, and adrenaline spiked, preparing him for a superb ass-kicking.

			She dug her palms into her eyes. “No one hurt me. I’m just like this. Can you please continue and establish the baseline?”

			“Stella, you’re trembling and crying.” He stroked tear-soaked tendrils away from her face.

			She scrubbed at the moisture and took a hard breath. “No more crying.”

			“Other men had sex with you when you were like this?” He strove to sound gentle, but the words came out harsh. The thought of some asshole sweating over her while she was pale and terrified made his fists itch.


			“Goddamned piece-of-shit assho—”

			His words dried up when she turned around to face him with a wounded expression.

			“No, I’m not talking about you. You’re not the problem. It’s those men. Me.” A wrinkle formed between her eyebrows, and he smoothed it out with a fingertip. “You need someone to go slow with you.”

			“You have been going slow with me. The others were done by now.”

			“I don’t want to hear about the others,” he bit out.

			She looked away and held the folds of her shirt together. “What now?”

			Michael had no idea. Whatever it was, it had to be ultra slow. He looked around the hotel suite for inspiration, and the large TV mounted on the wall across the bed grabbed his attention. “A movie and cuddling. We can try for the baseline afterward.”

			Her face became pained. “I don’t really like cuddling.”

			“You can’t be serious.” All women were suckers for it. Even he liked cuddling. At least, he had back before he’d started escorting. Cuddling with clients was something he tolerated at best, but his instincts told him this was something she needed.

			“I might like it with you, I suppose. It’s your smell, I think. Your body wages biological warfare on me.”

			“So you’re saying I’m your Achilles’ heel?” He kind of liked the sound of that. They’d never see each other after tonight, but maybe she’d remember him. He knew he’d remember her.

			Instead of smiling, as he thought she would, she searched his face. She looked into his eyes for a split second before she got out of bed and padded to the bathroom. After several moments inside, she returned wearing her glasses and holding his now neatly folded T-shirt. She set it on the nightstand, picked up the remote, and sat on the far edge of the bed, turning the TV on. As she flipped through the viewer guide, her expression was cool with concentration. Dressed in professional business attire, she could have been at a board meeting—but for the tangled, finger-swept state of her hair. “What do you want to watch?”

			Her sudden distance shouldn’t have bothered him. But it did. He wanted her back the way she’d been before. “No K-drama, please. My sisters force me to watch with them so they can laugh when I cry.”

			Her reserve melted as her lips curved, and everything was right again. “Do you really?”

			“Who wouldn’t? People die left and right. There are huge misunderstandings. That super cute pregnant heroine got hit by a car.”

			Her smile widened, though it looked almost shy. “That one is my favorite. How about something with more action and less drama?” The movie page for Ip Man, one of the best martial arts flicks ever, covered the screen.

			“You don’t have to watch this just for me.”

			She rolled her eyes and hit the purchase button.

			“Wait,” Michael said, taking the remote from her and pausing the film. “There’s one more thing.”

			“What’s that?”

			“You need to take your clothes off.”

* * *

			• • •

			Stella clawed at the unbuttoned folds of her shirt, feeling like the walls were closing in on her.

			“Why?” she asked.

			“Why not?”

			Because she preferred being dressed, needed the tight restriction of fabric to feel safe. Because she didn’t like her body. Because every time she was naked with a man, he ended up using and discarding her.

			She wet her dry lips and said the most basic truth: “I’m not used to it.”

			Also, she was exhausted. So many new things had happened tonight, she felt shell-shocked. She desperately wanted to go home, but that would be pure cowardice. She was on a mission. Once she decided on something, she was just as single-minded as her mother—and her mascot, the pugnacious honey badger.

			When his only response was the raise of an eyebrow, she asked, “Do you honestly think it will help?”

			“I do.” He propped the pillows up, kicked the covers down, and made himself comfortable. He looked so beautiful lying back against the pillows that for a moment Stella felt like she’d walked into a magazine cover. The shadows and light loved the striking lines of his face, the sharp edges of his man’s body, and the dragon tattoo. It was difficult to believe she’d mussed his hair to such sexy perfection, even more difficult to believe that the place he’d reserved next to him was for her.

			Drawing her shoulders back, she stood up and brought cold fingers to the buttons of her shirt. As the plackets came undone, her heart rate accelerated. Silence roared in her ears like jet engines preparing for takeoff. A film of sweat made the shirt adhere to her skin. After she tugged it free of her skirt and peeled it off, she shivered.

			She could feel the weight of his eyes on her newly naked skin, and her hands fumbled on the side zipper of her skirt. Her fingers were so stiff it took three attempts before the small metal clasp came free. The skirt pooled around her ankles, leaving her in nothing but a simple flesh-toned bra and matching panties.

			Eyes on the wall, she said, “Maybe I should have gotten better lingerie. Mine are all like this.”

			He cleared his throat before asking, “They’re all that same color?”

			“It’s the most functional color.”

			She winced at how boring she sounded and hazarded a glance in his direction, but he didn’t look put out by her underwear choices. Maybe some of his clients preferred granny panties. Those had a definite time and place. At least she wasn’t wearing those right now.

			“You can leave those on if you want. I’m here for you, Stella. Don’t forget you have the final say on everything we’re doing.”

			Her stomach untightened a fraction, and she adjusted her glasses and nodded. After draping her clothes on the nightstand next to his folded T-shirt—which she’d spent a good minute covertly breathing in like rubber cement inside the bathroom—she crawled onto the bed and sat next to him.

			He eased an arm behind her and pulled her close so their sides came flush together. “Rest your head against my shoulder.”

			Once she did as he bid, he unpaused the movie. The opening credits rolled, and dramatic theme music played. She couldn’t focus even though it was Donnie Yen, and, in her mind, he was better than Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and Jet Li put together. She was on the verge of hyperventilating, and her muscles were so tense, she was one large impending charley horse.

			Michael ran his hand up her sweat-misted arm and stared down at her with concerned eyes. “Are you too hot? Do you want me to turn the AC on?”

			Her chest constricted. “I’m sorry. I can shower.”

			She rocked forward to get up, but he stopped her, wrapping his arms tightly around her and settling her over his lap. Their skin was touching everywhere—her cheek on his chest, his arms around her shoulders, her side to his front—and she was achingly conscious of the dampness of her perspiration. He had to think she was disgusting. She squeezed her eyes shut as she tolerated the embrace. She didn’t know how much more of this she could take.

			“Relax, Stella,” he whispered. “I don’t mind sweat, and I like holding you. Watch the movie. He’s about to have his first fight.”

			He clasped one of her hands in his, interlaced their fingers, and held on with firm pressure.

			As he pretended to watch the movie—she somehow sensed she had his full attention—she stared down at their hands, noting the contrast of his tanned olive skin against her own. Like the rest of him, his hands were beautiful works of art with long fingers and strong veins on their backs. She frowned as her palm registered the scrape of calluses.

			She found his free hand and opened it up. One large callus covered the base of his palm while three smaller ones decorated the space beneath his middle, ring, and pinky fingers. She traced her fingertips over the hard patches of skin.

			“What are these from?” She couldn’t imagine how escorting gave him calluses like this.

			“They’re sword calluses.”

			“You’re kidding.”

			That lopsided grin stretched over his mouth. “Kendo. Actual sword fighting is nothing like in the movies, though. Don’t get too excited.”

			“A-are you good at it?”

			“I’m okay. It’s just for fun.”

			She couldn’t quite see him kicking ass with a face so pretty, but she had to admit the idea thrilled her. “Can you do the splits?”

			“It’s my secret talent.”

			“I’d think sword fighting was your secret talent.”

			“I have many,” he said, running a fingertip down the bridge of her nose before lightly pinching her chin.

			“What are they?”

			He merely smiled and fixed his gaze on the TV. “Watch. It’s getting to the part where he lays down the smack.”

			It was on the tip of her tongue to ask the question again, but she knew that was rude. He’d purposely refrained from answering. She realized then she knew almost nothing about him. Before, he’d said he only scheduled Friday nights. That left a whole lot of time for another life. What did he do when he wasn’t escorting? Aside from martial arts. Or did he train and work out all day, seven days a week?

			Maybe he did precisely that. You didn’t get a body like his doing nothing. He could be one of those guys who woke up at dawn, swallowed five raw eggs, and ran stadiums. It was definitely worth it if he did—unless he got salmonella.

			As pictures of him punching frozen slabs of meat flitted through her head, she forgot she was mostly naked. Her breathing evened out, and her body unwound. The pressure of his arms stayed firm, compressing and comforting, and the extraordinary events of the day caught up with her. His smell, the steady rhythm of his heart, and the low volume of Ip Man spanking his opponents lulled her to sleep.



Stella’s eyes shot open, and she took in the bright interior of the hotel room. After groping at the surface of the nightstand, she found her glasses. The digital clock read 9:24 A.M. Her heart lurched.

			She’d slept in. She never slept in.

			When she sat up in bed, the blankets fell to her waist, and cool air touched her bare skin. She was wearing yesterday’s underclothes. Alarm sirens wailed in her head as she realized she’d completely skipped her night routine. She hadn’t flossed, brushed, showered, and put on pajamas. She had stuffed a dirty body into these clean sheets—well, they were definitely dirty sheets now. Good thing she didn’t have to sleep in them again.

			Michael stepped out of the bathroom, freshly showered with a white towel around his lean hips. His tattoo looked particularly sexy in the light of day. He grinned around his toothbrush. “Morning.”

			She clapped a hand over her mouth. Her breath had to be rancorous.

			He strode casually across the room and dug through a small overnight bag he must have retrieved from his car. It hadn’t been with him last night. As he extracted fresh clothes from the bag, Stella watched the fluid bunch and play of the intricate muscles on his back, admired the twin grooves at the base of his spine. She wanted to touch her fingertips to those dents. Then she wanted to take the towel off and—

			“It stops on my right thigh,” he said, glancing at her over his shoulder.

			It? What was it?

			Blinking furiously to clear her mind, she noticed that his tattoo wrapped around his hip, disappeared beneath the towel, and peeked out behind his knee. The dragon had wound itself around his torso and one of his legs. She imagined she’d be doing the same thing throughout the course of their arrangement—which they still needed to discuss.

			She parted her lips to speak, but the chalkiness of her mouth overwhelmed her. She jumped out of bed, only then remembering she was all but naked, grabbed the first article of clothing she saw—his white T-shirt from yesterday—and sprinted to the bathroom as she yanked it over her head.

			Once inside, she lunged for her floss and ran the thread between all of her teeth. Twice. When nothing heinous came free, she breathed a sigh of relief and went about brushing at a more sedate pace.

			He entered the bathroom, and she stepped aside so he could spit into the sink, feeling horribly self-conscious with toothpaste foaming from her mouth. Why couldn’t she look sexy like him when she brushed her teeth? After rinsing out his mouth and patting it dry with a hand towel, he leaned toward her and kissed her cheek. He smelled of hotel soap, minty toothpaste, and . . . himself. That elusive scent still clung to him. She supposed it emanated from his pores. Lucky him. Lucky her.

			As she continued brushing her teeth, keeping her eyes awkwardly glued to the bubbles in the sink, he left the bathroom. Pausing midbrush, she heard it: the rustle of fabric. He was getting dressed. That meant he was naked. Without a qualm, she rushed to the doorway and peered out.

			Her lungs depressed when she saw him pulling clean jeans over his boxers. He yanked on a tight black T-shirt and sat down to pull on black socks. He had to be leaving soon.

			She hurried to finish brushing her teeth and caught him just as he tied his last shoelace.

			“We have to talk,” she said.

			The look on his face as he straightened in the chair made her stomach bottom out. He was going to back out. Last night had been a fiasco filled with panic attacks and fear sweat, and he wanted nothing to do with her now. She tightened her lips when they threatened to tremble. It had been bad, but there had been good parts. Hadn’t there?

			She’d thought she had a chance.

			“I have something at ten I shouldn’t miss.” He stood, looped the strap of his bag over his shoulder, and walked to her with a loose stride. His eyes were heartbreakingly kind as he looked at her.

			Or was it pity? She hated pity.

			“I need you to tell me if we’re moving forward with the lessons or not.”

			He shook his head with a sad smile. “I’m afraid not. I’m sorry.”

			Her heart plummeted, but she couldn’t bring herself to regret last night. He’d gotten her to kiss him—really kiss him, not lie there and cringe as he stuck his tongue in her mouth. “I’ll leave you another five-star review.”

			“I don’t deserve it. I never sealed the deal. The agency doesn’t issue refunds, but I’d be happy to return my share of the commission. Give me your account—”

			“No, no refund,” she said firmly. “Thanks, but no. I’m sure you had to work harder with me than most of your other clients.”

			“Not really, no.”

			She interlaced her fingers and stared down at the floor. She did not want to ask this, but she had to. “I know you need to go, but first, could you . . . recommend . . . a colleague who you think would work well with me?”

			“After last night, you still want to go forward with these crazy lessons?”

			“They’re not crazy, but yes, I plan to move forward.” She forced her eyes up to his stony face and took a determined breath. “Maybe if you think about it a while, you’ll remember someone who’s . . . patient, like you, a-and doesn’t mind sweat or—”

			He took a half step toward her, and his jaw worked for a moment before he said, “Girls like you don’t need escorts. Girls like you have boyfriends. You need to get this idea out of your head.”

			Burning anger pulsed through her body, immobilizing her. He didn’t know anything about girls like her. “That’s completely untrue. Girls like me intimidate boyfriends away. Girls like me have never been asked out by a single boy. Girls like me have to find their own way, make their own luck. I’ve had to fight for every success in my life, and I’m going to fight for this. I’m going to get good at sex, and then I’ll finally be able to entice the right person into being mine.”

			“Stella, it doesn’t work that way. You don’t need these lessons.”

			“I don’t agree with you. Please, think about it? I trust your judgment.” She rushed to her purse, extracted a business card, and scrawled her cell number on the back. Placing it in his hand, she said, “I’d really appreciate it. Thank you.”

			He stuffed the card into his back pocket with a hard jab of his hand. “What will you do if I don’t give you a name?”

			She shrugged. “My selection process was pretty good the first time around. I’ll just go through the escort listings again.”

			“Do you know how many crack jobs there are in there? It’s not safe.” He lifted a hand like he wanted to touch her but fisted and withdrew it instead.

			“Are you saying your agency’s guarantee of safety is meaningless?”

			He growled in frustration and raked his fingers through his damp hair, making it stand on end. “There’s a vetting process with psych evals and background checks, but people can slip through the cracks. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

			Stella tipped her chin up. “I’m not stupid. I have a Taser.”

			“You have what?”

			She snatched the pink C2 Taser from her purse and handed it over.

			“Holy hell, do you even know how to use it?” He stared at it with eyes so rounded she would have laughed if the situation had been any different.

			“You slide the safety back, aim, and hit the button. It’s very simple.”

			“Would you have used it on me?”

			“I didn’t, so clearly the answer is no.”

			When he rotated it and stared at it in horrified fascination, she grabbed it from him. “Never aim it at yourself.” After plopping it in her purse, she crossed her arms and said, “As you can see, I have the situation under control, but I appreciate your concern.”

			The thought of perusing the escort ads again made her grind her teeth. None of those men interested her anymore. Once her mind was made up, it was made up. The only one she wanted was Michael, but she’d botched things so badly he couldn’t stand to see her again. How was she supposed to get better if her problem kept driving away the people who could help her?

			Her bitterness must have shown because his expression softened. “Stella, I don’t do repeat sessions. Otherwise, I’d take you up on your offer.”

			“Why?” she asked on a frustrated exhalation.

			“I used to do it in the past. A client got attached, and things blew out of control. The single-session policy has saved me and my clients a lot of grief.”

			“You mean you knew ahead of time you weren’t going to accept?” Blackness threatened to spill over and stain her insides. She’d thought he was a potential solution to her problem. Now, it looked like it had been nothing but a one-night stand from the start.

			He nodded curtly.

			“Why did you stay last night, then? I was up front with you about what I wanted. All of the k-kissing and touching, my clothes, I did that for nothing.” Her throat swelled so much that near the end, she could barely force the words out.

			She pressed hot palms to her forehead, trying to deal with this betrayed feeling. The pain and shame were so unexpected, she had trouble breathing. Why had he made her do those things? Had it been a game? Had he thought it was funny?

			How come she never understood people?

			“I honestly didn’t believe you,” he said. “At most, I thought you had a confidence problem that would go away after we were together. Besides, you paid in advance. I wanted you to get your money’s worth.”

			“You wanted to show me a good time.”

			“Well . . . yeah. That’s why people hire me.”

			“But that’s not why I hired you.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose and righted her glasses, suddenly hollowed out and exhausted. “It doesn’t matter. You should get going, or you’ll be late.”

			As if from a distance, she was aware of her feet bringing her to the door and her palm gripping the handle, pulling it open.

			He took a breath as if he meant to speak but ended up shutting his mouth before he could say anything. He swept past her and paused on the other side of the doorway, considering her. “I’m sorry to leave with things like this. Be safe, okay?”

			She looked away from him and nodded.

			“Good-bye, Stella.”

			He padded down the hall, and she shut the door. The locks engaged with a final click.

			She should shower. She’d basically slept in her sweat last night. But when she touched her clothes, she realized she was wearing Michael’s shirt. She pressed her cheek to her shoulder and inhaled his scent. After sniffing her arms and hair, she discovered it was all over her.

			What did she do now?

			Her body itched with the need to wash, but if she showered, that precious smell would be gone. And there wasn’t ever going to be any more of it. This was it.

			She sank to the floor and hugged her knees to her chest to keep the loneliness at bay. She ached so badly to be held it felt like a sickness had invaded her muscles and bones. As usual, her own arms provided little comfort. She’d give herself five minutes, and then she’d get ready for work. It was only Saturday morning, and she’d already had more weekend than she could handle. If she didn’t find a way to occupy her mind, she’d spiral into something dark and bleak—was already spiraling.

			Three quick knocks rapped on the door, and she stood up mechanically. It was probably housecleaning, checking to see if she’d left yet.

			She opened the door, and Michael stared back at her with an intense gaze. His chest labored like he’d sprinted the entire way back from his car.

			“Three sessions. That’s the most I’ll do,” he said.

			It took her a moment to understand that by sessions he meant lessons, but when she did, her heart sprinted so fast her fingers went numb. He was going to help her. Could three lessons possibly be enough to perfect sex? There was so much she had to learn, so much she was bad at, but what choice did she have? Maybe if they planned everything out very carefully . . .

			With her limbs frozen in shock, all she could manage to say was, “Okay.”

			He considered her, the muscles of his jaw taut. “If we do this thing, you have to promise not to go crazy when it ends.”

			“I can promise that,” she said through the roaring in her ears.

			“I mean it. No stalking, no calling, no outrageous gifts. None of that.” His fingers were tight around the strap of his bag as he awaited her response, and his expression was dead serious.


			He unlooped the bag from his shoulders and let it fall to the ground before he stepped toward her, not stopping until her back was pressed against the open door. He flattened a hand on the door next to her face and leaned down. His gaze dropped from her eyes to her lips. “I’m going to kiss you now.”

			“Okay.” He’d shaken her brain into malfunctioning, and apparently that was all she could say now.

			He touched his lips to hers, and pleasure jolted to her heart, down her arms, down her legs. Tilting his head, he kissed her deeper. Once. Twice. Again. Until she sighed and leaned into him, tangled her fingers in his cool hair. He claimed her mouth with his tongue in a way that was new and familiar at once. She kissed him back with everything in her, trying to tell him all the things she wasn’t articulate enough to say.

			“God, Stella,” he rasped against her lips, his dark eyes dazed and heavy-lidded. “You learned that fast.”

			Before she could respond, he took her mouth again. She forgot about the time, forgot about work, even forgot about her anxiety. His large body rubbed against hers, and she arched into him, reveling in his closeness.

			Her phone buzzed with her mother’s ring tone.

			Michael tore away at once, flushed and breathing heavily. He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth as he stared deep into her eyes, looking like he was two seconds away from kissing her again.

			“I should get that.” She slipped inside, sat on the edge of the bed, and pressed the talk button on her phone with a shaky thumb. “Hello?”

			“Stella dear, your father’s—oh, hold on a second.” Her father’s deep voice rumbled on the other end, and Stella held the phone away from her ear as her parents discussed golf and lunch plans.

			Michael approached her with a fluid-limbed gait. “I need to go, but we’re on for next Friday.”

			“Next Friday,” she confirmed with a nod.

			Instead of leaving immediately as she expected, he leaned down and brushed a fleeting kiss to her mouth. “Good-bye, Stella.”

			She watched his departure in a dazed state. They were meeting again. In a week.

			“Who was that?” Even with the phone several inches from her ear, Stella could hear her mother’s surprise.

			“That was . . . Michael.” A breathless kind of nervousness filled her. She might like it that her mother had discovered her male visitor.

			A brief silence ensued, followed by, “Stella dear, did you spend the night with a man?”

			“It’s not what you think. We didn’t do anything. Other than kissing.” The best kissing of Stella’s life.

			“Well, why ever not?”

			Stella’s mouth worked without issuing words.

			“You’re a mature adult, and you make good choices. Now, tell me all about this Michael.”



Destroy. Defeat. Deceive.

			Michael scanned his partner’s black-clad form for weaknesses he could exploit. Right now, during the heat of the match, was the only time he gave free rein to the base, selfish instincts he battled daily. And it felt so fucking good.

			No matter how hard he fought against it, at his core, he was just like his dad. The badness had been passed down in his blood.

			He shoved and went for a head shot. When his partner’s sword rose to block the strike, Michael pushed for that extra burst of speed and arched his weapon down. The tip of his sword cracked against his partner’s side.

			Clean point. Match over.

			Everyone bowed and set their swords on the blue matted floor before kneeling. Michael hated this part of class, not because it meant practice was ending, but because it was time to remove his armor and return to his normal self.

			This was the beauty of apparel. A suit transformed you into a certain kind of person. A T-shirt, a different kind of person. Black nightmare armor that hid your face behind an ominous metal cage, yet a different kind of person. The gear weighed thirty pounds, but he always felt lighter when he wore it.

			As he shed layers, cold air touched his skin, and reality crept back into his head. Heavy thoughts stacked one upon the other like bricks, returning him to his regular burdened state. Responsibilities and obligations. Bills. Family. His day job. His night job.

			After class officially ended, he put his gear in its place on the shelf along the back wall. Space was tight as fuck with five guys in the cramped changing room, and he didn’t feel like waiting around, so he slipped his uniform off in the hallway. Nothing half the women in California hadn’t already seen.

			Two high school girls giggled and hurried into the women’s room, and he rolled his eyes as he yanked a pair of jeans over his boxer briefs. Michael Larsen: now serving half the women in California plus two.

			“We’re probably going to have a bunch of new girl members next week now,” said a voice Michael recognized as belonging to Quan, Michael’s cousin and sparring partner.

			“I’ll let you teach them their strikes,” Michael said as he retrieved a wrinkled T-shirt from his duffel bag and straightened.

			“They might be disappointed.”

			“Whatever.” He yanked his shirt on, trying and failing to ignore their contrasting reflections in the full-length mirror hanging on the wall.

			Lots of girls went for Quan. With his buzzed head and the dense tattoos covering his arms and neck, he rocked that badass Asian drug lord image. You wouldn’t guess he was paying his way through business school while helping his parents at their restaurant. Michael, on the other hand, was a pretty boy.

			It wasn’t a bad problem to have—it was paying the bills, after all—but people’s responses got boring. Well, except for a certain economist someone’s response. Stella’s attraction to him had been obvious, but she hadn’t looked at him like he was an expensive cut of meat. She’d looked at him like she saw no one else. He couldn’t forget the way she’d kissed him once he’d earned her trust, the way she’d melted and—

			When Michael caught the direction of his thoughts, he mentally punched himself in the dick. She was his client, and she had issues. It was fucked up to think of their sessions like this.

			“If we have new students, I’ll teach them. I don’t mind,” Khai, Quan’s younger brother, offered. He still wore his uniform and practiced running strikes in front of the mirror, his pace fast but steady, like a machine.

			Quan rolled his eyes. “He never minds. Even when they throw themselves at him. You should have seen the last one. She asked him out to dinner, and he said, ‘No, thanks, I already ate.’ ‘Dessert then?’ ‘No, I don’t eat dessert after class.’ ‘Coffee?’ ‘That will keep me up, and I have work tomorrow.’”

			Michael couldn’t help smiling at that. Khai reminded him a little of Stella.

			As Quan shoved both of their weapons into a nearby storage box, he said, “Nice match. Bad day?”

			Michael shrugged. “Just the same.” He should be grateful. He was grateful. Everything would be fine if he could stop wanting all the things he’d given up. He didn’t regret exchanging his old life for this one—he’d do it again—but at the same time, this wanting wouldn’t stop. If anything, it was getting worse. Because he was a selfish bastard. Like his dad.

			“How’s your mom doing?”

			He raked a hand through his hair. “Good, I guess. She says she likes her new meds.”

			“That’s good, man.” Quan squeezed his shoulder. “You should celebrate. Come out with me on Friday. There’s this new club in SF called 212 Fahrenheit.”

			That actually sounded nice, and a rush of excitement burned over him. He hadn’t been out without a client in forever.

			The reminder of clients had him exhaling a heavy breath. “Can’t. I have something.”

			“What?” Quan’s eyes turned assessing. “Or do you mean who? You’re always busy Fridays. Do you have a secret girlfriend you’re scared of introducing to everyone?”

			He snorted inwardly at the idea of taking a client to meet his family. Never going to happen. “Nah, no girlfriend. You?”

			Quan laughed. “You know my mom. Do you think I’d subject a girl to that?”

			Grinning, Michael picked up his bag and headed for the studio’s front door, passing Khai, who hadn’t stopped with his practice or slowed down this entire time. “Look on the bright side. If a girl meets your mom and doesn’t run, you’ll know you found a keeper.”

			As Quan followed him, he said, “No, then I’ll have two scary-ass women in my life instead of one.”

			They both waved at Khai from the doorway, but, as usual, he was too focused to wave back.

			Out in the parking lot, Quan climbed onto his black Ducati, shrugged into his motorcycle jacket, and propped his helmet on his knee before giving Michael a direct look. “You know I don’t give a shit if you’re into guys, right? Like, I’d be okay with that. Just so you know. You don’t have to hide stuff like that from me.”

			Michael coughed and adjusted the position of his duffel bag’s strap on his shoulder as an uncomfortable wave of heat boiled up his neck and singed his ears. “Thanks.”

			This was what happened when you kept secrets. People drew their own conclusions. He wondered briefly if he should just roll with it. There was no doubt in his mind his family would take that better than the truth. They didn’t know about his escorting or the bills that necessitated the escorting. He planned to keep it that way.

			He took a breath of air that smelled like exhaust fumes and blacktop, feeling touched by Quan’s acceptance but also old and tired in his bones. “It means a lot to hear you say that, but I’m not, okay? I’ve just been . . . seeing . . . lots of people. No one I’d bring home, though.” God no. “No one special.”

			As soon as that last comment came out, however, he wanted to retract it. He didn’t know why, but it didn’t feel right to lump his latest client in that category.

			“Do me a favor and tell your mom and sisters, then. They’ve been gossiping about it with my mom and sister, and they keep asking me for the inside scoop. I’m going to be honest and say it was a little embarrassing telling them I have no idea what you do when you disappear.” Quan kicked at a pebble on the ground, his face pensive, and Michael knew he was thinking back to times when they’d known everything about each other. Well, as much as guys ever told one another. Their moms were close sisters who had purchased homes two blocks apart and given birth to boys in the same year. As a result, Michael and Quan were closer than brothers. They used to be, anyway.

			Michael rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve been a crappy friend. I’m sorry.”

			“You went through all that shit.” Quan gave him an understanding smile. “First with your asshole dad and the lawsuits and then with your mom’s health. I get it. But things are better now, right? We should do stuff. Friday nights are best for me because I don’t have work or class Saturday mornings. Your ‘no one special’ can hang with mine. Let me know.” With that, Quan started his bike and pulled his helmet over his head.

			After his cousin disappeared around the corner, Michael opened his car door and tossed his bag into the passenger seat. Things were a lot better now, but he wouldn’t be double-dating with Quan anytime soon, not when he was fucking a different woman every Friday night. Well, not the next three Friday nights. Those were for Stella and sex lessons. He’d never expected to have the opposite role in his Hot for Teacher fantasy, but he admitted it excited him more than he would have thought.

			He knew it was messed up, but Friday night couldn’t come fast enough.



By the time Friday night rolled around, Stella was a jittery mess. She couldn’t stop her fingers from drumming on the restaurant table as she waited for Michael to arrive. She’d arranged the appointment through the agency’s mobile app—with the state-of-the-art setup, it was as easy as booking airline tickets, but without the frequent-flier miles. They’d sent a confirmation email, but that was the only indication she’d gotten that the date was still on. She couldn’t help worrying that Michael had changed his mind.

			She wished she had his cell phone number, but she figured he never gave that to his clients. It was too personal. Especially if his clients had the tendency to get obsessed.

			Which was actually one of her main weaknesses, and a defining characteristic of her disorder. She didn’t know how to be semi-interested in something. She was either indifferent . . . or obsessed. And her obsessions weren’t passing things. They consumed her and became a part of her. She kept them close, wove them into her very life. Just like her work.

			Going forward with Michael, she had to tread carefully. Everything about him pleased her. Not just his looks, but his patience and his kindness. He was good.

			He was an obsession waiting to happen.

			Hopefully, she could keep a cool head during the coming weeks. Perhaps it was for the best there were only three sessions. Once they were finished, she’d focus on someone she could actually have. Like maybe Philip James.

			When Michael entered the hotel restaurant, she noticed right away. Tonight, he wore a perfectly fitted black suit over a white oxford shirt. No tie. His collar hung open, drawing attention to his Adam’s apple and the sexy base of his throat. His gaze swept over the room and landed on her.

			She looked down at the menu without seeing it, horribly aware of his slow advance toward her. Keep a cool head.

			“Hello, Stella.” He sat down across from her and folded his hands on the tabletop.

			Her lungs drew in a slow breath, and she caught his light scent. Everything inside her turned over and sighed. With a sense of defeat, she lifted her eyes to his, counted to three, and looked away.

			“Hello, Michael.”

			“Are you nervous already?”

			She laughed slightly. “I’ve been nervous since Saturday.”

			“About that . . . Who was that on the phone when I left?”

			Her lips tightened as she tried to suppress a smile. “It was my mom. Her name is Ann. She thinks you’re my boyfriend now, by the way.”

			He pressed a knuckle to his grinning lips. “I see. Will that be a problem?”

			“Actually, I think it’s a good thing. Now that she thinks I have a boyfriend, she should stop trying to arrange blind dates for me.”

			“Ah, the mother-arranged blind date. I’m very familiar with those.”

			“Does that mean you don’t have a girlfriend?” As soon as the question left her mouth, she winced. “I’m sorry. Forget I asked that.”

			She had no right to inquire about his personal life, but the intense curiosity burned inside her. She wanted to know everything about him. And if he did have a girlfriend, whoever that lucky girl was, Stella hated her guts.

			“No, I don’t have a girlfriend.” He said it like it should have been obvious.

			Thank God.

			“What kind of girls does your mother try to hook you up with?”

			He rolled his eyes. “Doctors, who else? And nurses. By now, I think my mom’s tried to hook me up with the entire second-floor staff at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.”

			Stella couldn’t help being impressed. “That’s really determined.”

			“That’s nothing. You don’t know my mom.”

			She forced a smile and focused on the menu. What did it say about her that she wanted to know his mom? No, wait, she knew the answer to that. It said she was nuts. Mothers were scary she-bears when it came to their sons, especially sons like Michael.

			And Stella wasn’t a doctor.

			Enough of this. She wasn’t dating Michael. It didn’t matter what his mother thought of her. Stella was never going to meet the woman. She needed to get back to the matter at hand.

			“Let’s discuss my lessons,” she said briskly.

			“That’s a good idea.” Michael leaned back in his chair, looking at ease.

			Stella tried to copy his relaxed air as she retrieved three folded sheets of paper from her purse. “Because we’re pressed for time, I took the liberty of drawing up lesson plans. They’re not set in stone. In fact, please suggest changes where you see fit. I have no idea if what I’ve written is feasible, but it helps me to keep things structured. I don’t deal well with surprises.”

			Michael’s expression went unreadable. “Lesson plans.”

			“Exactly.” She pushed the salt and pepper shakers and candle aside. After placing her papers in the middle of the table, she smoothed the creases out with her fingertips and pointed at the first sheet, which was labeled Lesson One. “I put boxes next to each item so we can check things off as we go.”

			Eyes on the paper, he opened his mouth to speak, caught his breath, and tapped a finger to his lips. “Give me a moment.”


			 				 					☐ Hand Job Lecture and Demonstration

				 					☐ Hand Job Practice

				 					☐ Performance Review

				 					☐ Missionary Intercourse Lecture and Demonstration

				 					☐ Missionary Intercourse Practice

				 					☐ Performance Review

			Michael read and reread the clinical lesson plan, and surprise melted into amusement, which then dissipated as frustration crept over his back and up his neck. He curled his fingers and restrained the sudden urge to crumple Stella’s papers into ugly balls. Irritated. He was irritated. Fuck if he knew why.

			With words like lecture and demonstration involved, he should be getting off on this. It was exactly like having the teacher role in Hot for Teacher—except there was no “hot for” part.

			“Who’s going to check the boxes? You or me?”

			“I can if you don’t want to,” she offered with a helpful smile.

			A picture of her pausing in the middle of sex to put her glasses on and scribble notes on a legal pad flashed in Michael’s head. Like he was a sexbot or a fucking science experiment.

			“I notice there’s no kissing,” he said.

			“I was under the impression we’d moved beyond that.”

			His eyebrows twitched. “How’s that?”

			“You said I’d picked it up, so it’s best not to waste time on it. Kissing you makes it hard for me to think, and I really want to get this right. Beyond that, it feels like something people do when they’re dating—which we’re not. I want things to stay clear and professional between us.” She took a prim sip of ice water and set the glass down, leaving a sheen of moisture on her pink lips—lips he wasn’t allowed to kiss.

			Her kisses weren’t for him anymore. He was supposed to fuck her and let her jerk him off, but she was saving those soft lips for someone else. The thought made him almost violent, and he shoved his feelings down deep.

			“You’ve watched Pretty Woman too many times. Kissing doesn’t mean anything, and it’s always best if you’re not thinking too much in bed. Trust me,” he said.

			Her mouth thinned into a stubborn line. “This is too important for me not to think. I’d rather not kiss anymore if you don’t mind.”

			Michael’s irritation redoubled, and he forced his hands to relax before he popped all his blood vessels. How the hell had he gotten himself into this? Ah yes, he’d been worried about his escort colleagues taking advantage of her. Stupid of him. His life was complicated enough without worrying about his clients. This was exactly why he had the one-session policy.

			He would have backed out—it was tempting—but he’d promised. He always carried through on his promises. It was his way of balancing out the universe. His dad had broken enough promises for the both of them.

			“All right,” he made himself say. “No kissing.”

			“Do the other plans look okay?” she asked.

			He forced himself to read them and found them pretty similar, only she’d moved from hand jobs to blowjobs and changed the sexual positions.

			Amused despite himself, he said, “I’m surprised you used the terms doggy style and cowgirl.”

			Her cheeks went bright red, and she adjusted her glasses. “I’m inexperienced, not clueless.”

			“Your plans are missing something important.” He held his hand out, and she placed the pen in his palm with wary motions.

			She tilted her head to the side as she watched him write FOREPLAY at the top of all the plans in capital letters. As an afterthought, he drew a box in front of each iteration with hard stabs of the pen.

			“But why? I was under the impression men don’t need it.”

			“You do,” he said flatly.

			She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “You don’t have to bother with me.”

			He narrowed his eyes. “It’s not a bother. Most men like foreplay. I do. Getting a woman hot is satisfying as hell.” Besides, he was not having sex wit