He shrugs. “He swore he’d sell one of my paintings at Riptide for a ridiculous figure and I agreed to paint the wall if he did.”

“And you donated the money to the hospital.”


I watch the emotion flash across his face and his expression becomes all hard lines and ridges. “It paid for Dylan’s treatments and set up a trust fund for his family they don’t know exists yet.”

I feel his words like the punch in the chest I know they are to him. “You and Mark seem to do a lot of good together, but you have a strange relationship.”

“We have a business relationship.”

“But you were once friends.”

“Friends is a word used too loosely by too many people,” he comments dryly, and clearly he has had enough talk of Mark. He motions to a table of food. “Are you hungry?”

“I’m starving,” I say, but I’m bothered by the way he avoids the topic of Mark.

Chris’s hand slides around my waist, discreetly molding us hip to hip, thigh to thigh, and all thoughts of Mark are gone when he softly murmurs, “I’m starving, too—and not for food.” And he looks like he wants to gobble me up right here and now. My body reacts, and my lack of panties makes the damp heat between my thighs more than a little evident.

I blush, and I don’t know why. Less than an hour before, the man licked my ni**les and attached rubies to them, but there are just these moments when Chris is such a powerful male that I melt for him.

And he knows it. I see it in his face, in the wicked heat burning in the depths of his green eyes. I don’t care, either. I don’t fear him knowing how I react to him as I once might have. I watch as a slow, sensual smile slides onto his lips, and with it I am relieved to see the dark lines and ridges of moments before fade away. “Ah now,” he says softly, seductively, “there is my sweet little blushing schoolteacher. Seems I haven’t corrupted her completely just yet.” He pauses. “But I’m working on it.”

“You accused me of corrupting you.”

“You did, but in all the right ways, baby.”

My brows furrow. “What does that mean?”

“If you don’t know yet, you will.”

He sweeps me into the crush of the crowd, leaving me guessing his meaning, which shouldn’t surprise me. He is all about coded double meanings, and hidden messages I understand later, if at all.

We survey several tables of food and stop at one filled with a variety of finger foods. We fill small plates and do our best to eat between chats with the many people who want to talk to Chris. I’m finishing a bite of a finger sandwich when out of nowhere, it seems, Gina Ray, a rather famous actress, who according to a Google search once dated Chris, appears by his side.

Her hair is brown silk, her dress red and cut to display her ample cle**age, which she presses against Chris’s arm as she hugs him. “Chris!” she exclaims. “So good to see you.” Her voice is a rich, lovely mix of wild vixen and Hollywood bombshell, just as she is.

The only thing ample about me is my insecurity I swore I left in the hospital, but apparently it’s hitched a ride to the gala. Compared to her, I feel awkward and unladylike, and absolutely not star- or Chris-worthy. I feel like the sweet little schoolteacher who has no business being here at this party with a man like Chris. I set my plate down and fight the urge to dart away, though I have no clue to where.

Chris seems to sense my reaction and dislodges himself from Gina’s embrace, wrapping his arm around my waist. “Sara, this is Gina Ray. Gina’s been a huge supporter of our charity for several years now, and”—he glances down at me meaningfully—“contrary to the paparazzi who chase her around like starving animals, I have never dated her. Gina, this is Sara McMillan, whom I am dating, and who is someone I hope you’ll be seeing by my side often.”

His announcement delivers relief and a sweet, warm spot in my chest. I melt into Chris and his fingers flex on my hip.

Gina rolls her eyes playfully. “I’ve apologized with my checkbook for that dating scandal, Chris. Stop guilting me for putting you through that.” She fixes her attention on me, and her pale blue eyes, so unlike my deep, dark chocolate ones, remind me of diamonds in the moonlight. “And very nice to meet you, Sara.” She extends her hand and I accept it. A camera flashes and still holding my hand, she casts Chris a quelling look. “It’s not my fault if tomorrow’s news is Gina Ray has run-in with ex-lover’s new girlfriend. Not. My. Fault.” Someone calls Gina’s name and she releases me. “I’ll catch up with you two in a bit.”

“You read the gossip about me dating her,” Chris accuses the instant we are alone again.

“Why do you say that?” I ask guiltily.

“You almost choked on your sandwich when she hugged me.”

I shrug. “She’s a movie star. I was starstruck.”

His lips quirk. “Is that so?”

“Okay. I might have googled you at some point.”

“Anything else you discovered I need to explain?”

“No. Nothing.” And I mean it. I believe he still has secrets of his own, but none of them will be found on Google. They’ll be found in the midst of his pain, which I hope he allows me to fully understand one day. My voice softens. “I know everything I need to know.”

A hint of the torment I seem to excel in creating in him flashes in his green eyes.

“Sara—” He is cut off when we are suddenly surrounded by a group of people who all want to speak to Chris and meet me, leaving me wondering what he’d been about to say. We fade into the conversation but our eyes lock and hold, unspoken words twining between us, burning to be heard.

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