She presses her hands to the desk and leans forward, too, yet I see her bottom lip quiver. “Fucking me,” she bites out, “pleasing me, doesn’t make you own me.”

My blood heats with desire. “Sounds like a challenge to me.”

“One you’d fail,” she assures me.

“Should I remind you yet again, how easily I made you beg me to lick your—”

“Don’t,” she warns calmly. “Don’t keep pushing me.” She straightens her spine and crosses her arms. “I’m done. We’re done.” She sits down and pulls her folder in front of her. “I’m getting back to work.”

Control. She wants it desperately, but we both know it’s mine. I’ve won, despite my body’s scream that the only win would be bending her over the desk and burying myself inside her. I curve my lips as if I’m amused at her efforts, though I’m not. “Carry on, Ms. Smith,” I say, arrogantly enough to singe every control-freak nerve ending she owns as I turn and head to the door.

As my hand touches the knob, she says, “Objective achieved.”

The simple words are as good a power play as any I’ve ever delivered. Intrigued despite myself, I turn and arch a brow. “Objective achieved?”

“You had a message to give me tonight, and I got it. You love your family too much to risk letting us become a problem. It won’t. As I’ve said before, we didn’t happen.”

We didn’t happen. She’d challenged me with those words right before I’d followed her to a restaurant bathroom and proved I could make her say, “Mr. Compton, please lick my pussy.” I didn’t like her words then, and I don’t like them now.

“Denial is weakness,” I tell her. “It means that I’ll have you tied up and tormented before you know it. I’ll own you before you can blink. You need to come up with a better plan, or you’ll belong to me in no time. Unless that’s what you really want.”

I leave, giving her no chance to reply.

Crystal . . .

He disappears into the hallway, his musky, spicy, deliciously provocative scent lingering. After his footsteps fade, my shoulders finally slump and my breath gushes from my lips. I knew this was coming, and thought I was prepared. I’d spent the last few days telling myself that I’d welcome the day that he pushed me away, because he’d gotten under my skin. But I hadn’t been prepared for his trying to turn me into a mere contract that expires—and it scares me that he still affected me after he gave it to me. He’s still everything I don’t want, and somehow everything I crave.

No. No. I shove off the desk. The man I just dealt with is not the man I crave. He is not the man I’ve known these past weeks, the man I’ve started to fall for in a huge way. The one who has a tender side, who’s vulnerable yet strong.

This man is cold and hard, an arrogant asshole, and I should welcome these realizations. Falling in love with a man who’s grieving for a woman he’d loved and lost is nothing but a heartache. And Mark Compton is not a man you let tie you up, or he’s right: He’ll own you. I’ve worked too hard to find myself and my freedom to let that happen.

He doesn’t know me—not even close. And he’s just done me a favor. Now we’re both where we need to be: in control of ourselves, not each other. We’re done.

Three

Mark . . .

I’m cold inside and out as I exit Riptide, for reasons that have nothing to do with the snow that’s now blowing in fierce gusts. As I slide into the Escalade, Jacob eyes me in the rearview mirror. “Everything okay?”

“Fucking beautiful.”

“Does that mean go to the hotel, or a bar?”

“Sex is my drug, not booze.” Especially not scotch, considering the last time I’d drunk-dialed Ms. Smith and flown her to San Francisco. “Go to the Omni on Madison Avenue.”

“Got it,” he assures me, tapping his GPS.

He pulls away from the curb, and during the three-minute drive I replay my encounter with Ms. Smith. By the time the hotel doormen open our car doors, I tell myself there was no other way than making her hate me. This woman sees beneath my skin, and the sense of freedom in being unable to hide from her is dangerous. Instead of containing what I feel in some moment, when she’s nearby, I get lost in it and in her. She makes me weak enough to forget my control. And I think it’s pretty clear I’m not one of her better choices, either.

Jacob and I enter the white-tiled lobby, a sparkling chandelier above our heads. Due to the late hour and the weather, only a few patrons are sprinkled across the room. “The front desk,” I say when I don’t see any manager I recognize. At the counter, the clerk quickly looks up the alias I’ve registered under, as I did during my mother’s blood infection, and sees the flag on my file. As I follow the woman leading us to a private office, Ms. Smith’s “I’m a gateway” plays in my head, causing a twist of guilt in my gut. She’d have ended up hating me anyway, no doubt rightfully so.

The manager who helps us is no one I know, a pretty blonde whom I barely register outside of her remote resemblance to Ms. Smith, who seems to want to play around in my head. She does whatever check-in computer work that is needed while Jacob engages her in conversation to ensure our privacy.

The woman is efficient and quick, as is Jacob’s glance at our room numbers and the knowing look of disapproval when he sees we’re on different floors. Leveling a stare at him, I dare him to challenge me and he gets the message. We cross the quiet lobby to the elevators, the silence between us lurking, not comfortable.

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