The French rolls off his tongue with such sexiness my throat goes dry and I feel tingly all over. “I have no idea what you just said.”

“I said that I speak Spanish, French, and Italian.” He leans closer, and his eyes find mine. “And then I said that I would very much like to paint you. Pose for me, Sara.”

Chapter Eleven

Chris wants to sketch me again? No. Not sketch. He wants to paint me, and I think he means in his studio. I am stunned speechless. My throat is dry and my mouth will not form words. This silent reaction to stress I’m developing is new to me, but then, I’m always an extremist. Mute silence or ramblings at the speed of lightning, there really seems to be no in-between. Still without words, I blink at Chris who is watching me intently, and I cannot read anything but expectation in his expression. He is waiting for a reply. Say something, I silently order myself. Say anything. No. Not anything. Something witty and charming.

Thankfully, I am saved from my mental scramble for the perfect reply when Chris’s beer appears in front of him. A soft flow of air escapes my lips, as Chris launches into a conversation in Spanish with the man who now stands by our table. I grapple for what to say when we return to our topic of Chris painting me, but I am pulled into the conversation before I resolve my thoughts.

“Sara, meet Diego,” Chris says, “the other half of ‘Diego Maria’.”

I try to focus on the conversation with Diego, who is about Chris’s age, and has a sleek goatee and warm brown eyes but I am ultra-aware of Chris’s long fingers as he squeezes his lime into the beer. It’s crazy to be so drawn to someone’s hands, but of course, I remind myself, his hands are gifted in ways most could never be. I’m light-headed with his impact on me, not to mention a very real need to eat, so as the two men talk, I am content to mostly listen while I nibble on several yummy, warm salted chips with some salsa. Diego, it seems, is planning a trip to Paris, and is seeking advice about where to stay and what to do that Chris is graciously offering. I am taken aback by the way Chris, a famous, millionaire artist, acts as if he isn’t those things at all.

Our waiter, the real one, not Diego, appears with our food, and Diego excuses himself to allow us to be served. “Sorry about that,” Chris says. “He’s been off every time I’ve been by since I got back from Paris three weeks ago.” He motions to my plate. “How’s it look?”

I inhale the spicy aroma and my stomach cheers with joy. “It looks and smells absolutely divine.”

He picks up his lime and motions to one on the side of my plate. “They aren’t the same if you don’t use this.” He squeezes the juice onto his food.

“I’ve never put lime on my tacos, but I’m game to try.” I quickly follow his example, relieved we’ve turned our attention to food, not me posing for him.

“Before you dig in, I should warn you that hot means hot. Really hot. So if you aren’t sure you can take it, then-“

I’m too hungry for caution. I pick up my taco and open my mouth, with my stomach cheering me on and welcoming substance.

“Wait-” he says, but it’s too late for me to stop, even if I consider it an option, which I don’t.

Fire shoots through my mouth, and bites a path down my throat. I gasp and almost choke. Oh my god, I said bring the fire, but I didn’t mean literally. I drop the taco and curl the fingers of one hand around the cloth napkin in my lap while my other hand goes to my throat.

Chris shoves his beer at me, and I don’t even hesitate. I grab it and gulp several, long, cold swallows and still I can barely breathe. When the heat finally eases, I am breathing hard. “I should never have said bring the fire.” I take another drink of his beer, the bitterness of the liquid somehow easing the burn. Sanity returns and I stare at the half empty bottle and then at Chris. I drank his beer, right after I made a fool of myself, and all but choked. I shove the beer toward him. “Sorry. I forgot myself.” Why do I keep embarrassing myself with this man?

He grins and slugs back a drink of the beer. My lips part and my fingers curl on both sides of the table as I watch the muscles of his throat bob. I am acutely aware of the intimacy of sharing his drink, of my mouth having been where his is now. He sets the nearly empty bottle down, his eyes locking with mine, the steam in his stare telling me I’m not alone in my thoughts.

“You really do have quite the knack for witnessing me embarrass myself,” I manage in a voice raspy from the heat of the food, or maybe, simply because this man exists on planet earth.

“I told you, I’d prefer it to be called a knack for rescuing you.”

Rescuing me. Though this is the second time he’s said those words, they radiate through my body, deep into my soul, and something long suppressed within me stirs, then raises its ugly head. I don’t need to be rescued. Do I? In that deep down spot the words have touched, an old part of myself screams yes, yes, yes. You need to be rescued. You want to be rescued. You want to be taken care of. I straighten and twist my fingers together in my lap. Silently, I battle my inner self. No. No. No. I do not want to be rescued. I do not need to be rescued. Not anymore. Not for a long time now. Not ever again.

Chris lifts a hand towards the kitchen. “Diego,” he calls out. “Can we get Sara an order minus the fire sauce?” They exchange comments in Spanish before Chris refocuses his attention on me. He studies me intently, and I can tell he’s trying to read whatever emotion is stamped on my face. Good luck, I think, because I can’t even read what I’m feeling myself.

Lisa Renee Jones Books | Romance Books | Inside Out Series Books