None of the many dominant males I’ve known in my life would apologize so easily. To me, this speaks of confidence, not weakness.

“My reaction wasn’t about trust,” he continues. “It was about how crazy it makes me to think you might judge me by other people’s actions.” Then tenderness lightens his eyes. “I don’t have to leave until late tomorrow. I know what your first reaction is going to be, but hear me out. I’d like it if you could work it out to fly back with me.”

I open my mouth to object and he kisses me, his tongue stroking mine in a slow, sensuous caress. “Hear me out,” he repeats.

“You convinced me.”

“To come with me?”

I smile. “To hear you out.”

“There are a number of big names involved in the activities over the next few days who I know Mark would salivate to get as clients. Your going is an investment for him.”

“Like who?”

“Maria Mendez. She’s never shown her work with Allure. I think she can be convinced to donate a painting and use Riptide to manage the sale. Nicolas Matthews, the New York Jets star quarterback, will also be there. While he’s not an artist, I believe getting a Riptide donation would be as easy as handing him a football and pen to sign it.”

The possibility of going on this trip with Chris excites me. “You think it’s enough to get Mark to support me going?”

“I know it is.”

“Because you know Mark?”

“I know Mark far more than I wish I did.” He rolls off the bed before I can dig for more information, and walks in all his bare na**d beauty across the room to snatch up his pants. He holds up his cell and tosses it to me.

I grab the phone. “I don’t have his number memorized.”

“Auto-dial number four.”

“You have Mark on auto-dial?”

“The price of doing business with him is that I can never get rid of him, and since he donates to my charity I don’t want to.” He saunters toward me, all male grace and confidence, and joins me on the bed again. “In case you need further incentive to take off work, I’m meeting with the PI tomorrow and you can come with me if you’re free.”

I punch the auto-dial. “Merit,” Mark says tightly when he answers the line.

“Actually, it’s me,” I say.

“Ms. McMillan. I guess I know why I haven’t received my phone call after your meeting with Alvarez. You’ve been occupied.”

Oh crap. “I left my phone in my coat, but anyway, it didn’t go well. He says there’s a reason you’re aware of, and that’s why he won’t do business with you.”

“Then why did he see you?”

“To try to recruit me away from you.”

Chris arches a surprised brow and I nod to confirm it really happened. He scrubs his jaw, and I can tell he’s not pleased.

Mark’s silence tells me the same of him and it seems to stretch eternally. “And what did you tell him?”

“I told him I am loyal to Allure. Speaking of Allure, I have another opportunity.” Nerves get the best of me, and I begin a long spill about the event and the guests and Riptide. “And you see—”

“Enough, Ms. McMillan. Tell Chris he’s done a good job of arming you with reasons for me to agree, but make sure you bring me back clients.” He hangs up without saying good-bye and I hold out the phone and stare at it.

Chris laughs and takes it from me. “Stop looking like it will bite.” He pulls me beneath him. “I believe I owe you an orgasm or two.”

“Six,” I correct. “One for every time you spanked me.”

His eyes twinkle. “Five. You had one already.”

He leans in to kiss me and I press my fingers to his mouth. “If you make good on this, you can spank me again.”

“I’ve always enjoyed a good challenge.” His mouth covers mine and I am quite certain that no matter what the final number is, this is a challenge I can’t lose.

• • •

Three orgasms later, I am na**d when Chris carries me to his bathroom and sets me on the edge of the sink. Chris heads to the towel closet and I study the dragon tattoo, thinking about the wounded, lost teen he’d been when he’d gotten it. How young was he when he entered the BDSM world, and what is he keeping from me?

“Have you ever had a reaction to the adrenaline rush like I did tonight?” I ask, hoping to get him talking.

He freezes as he’s about to toss the towels over the top of the shower, and it’s clear I’ve hit a nerve. “No,” he says, completing his task, and glancing at me before opening the shower. “I told you. I’m always in control. I take people for the ride. I don’t go on it myself.” He turns on the water.

“But how do you do that and have someone inflict . . . pain? Isn’t that what you said you need?”

“Needed,” he corrects, walking over to me and lifting me off the counter. “And sex is never involved.”

“You just have someone beat you?” I choke out, appalled.

“It’s past history,” he says, pulling me toward the shower and inside, the warm water enveloping us. He molds me to him and stares down at me. “If I need to get lost, I’ll get lost in you.” His mouth comes down on mine, and the kiss is laced with the torment and pain he never lets me see. He is so much more damaged than I’ve imagined, and I wonder what I have yet to discover about my talented, beautiful artist. I wonder if I will ever truly reach him, if I will ever truly be enough to stop the pain inside him. If I dare love him for fear I won’t be . . . but then, it’s too late. I already do love him and I yearn to tell him so, to have him feel the same way. But there are other things I must confess first—things sure to bring me more pain than the whip he’s vowed to never use on me.