“Mr. Cross is right this way. Follow me, please.” The skin around the man’s light blue eyes crinkles when he offers me a gentle smile. His suit is perfectly fitted to his proportions; his shoes are shined so well the chandeliers in the foyer of the restaurant sparkle against the black leather.

He’s professional and kind. Still, I don’t move. I stay where I am, knowing with every step I take that Jase Cross tells me to take, those ropes get tighter and tighter. Holding me right where he wants me.

The only saving grace is that if I don’t think about it, if I just surrender to him… it will feel weightless, easy and deliciously thrilling while it lasts. If only I could think of anything but the demise of what my life once was.

The polite smile falters on the gentleman’s face, emphasizing the lines around his eyes even more. The chatter of the crowded restaurant is what breaks me in this moment. There are plenty of people here, witnesses if anything were to happen. And I do need The Coverless Book. I need to know what Jenny said.

With her in mind, one imaginary rope around my ankle loosens. I’m all too aware that it belongs to her.

With every step I take, I think back to what’s led me here:

Jenny’s disappearance and how I couldn’t let it go.

Jase’s bar and how I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

Jenny’s death and how I need to have justice.

The gun Jenny gave me and how I shot at Jase rather than playing dumb.

The contract I signed giving away my time and body in exchange for a debt.

And the break-in I don’t know enough about. The book and the message inside I have to obtain.

They may have left the ropes for me to take, but I damn sure slipped them into place myself.

The host pulls the chair out for me as Jase stands, buttoning his jacket and pinning his gaze on me. A gaze I return.

“Thank you.” My words are soft and I’m not certain if the host heard me or not, but I’m well aware that my hand is trembling as I reach for the water. Even more certain when the ice clinks against the edge of the pristine goblet.

I can tremble as much as I need. I’m in this mess of tangled lies and secrets, the violence and the need for vengeance. Even if it ends up killing me, I would have taken every step just the same if I had to do it all over again.

“You didn’t sleep.” Jase speaks first and I shake my head, staring at the cold drops of water that drip down the goblet as I set it on the table.

When I lift my tired eyes to his dark gaze, I answer him, “Maybe an hour. I was in and out.” I swallow and place my hands in my lap before continuing. “Just couldn’t stop thinking about everything.”

He nods once and doesn’t speak; instead he searches my expression for answers. Or maybe for where my boundaries lie with him today.

“What you did yesterday is unacceptable.”

The tremors inside of me tense with irritation. “Which part exactly?” I question and the defiance is clear in my tone.

“The part where you ran from me.”

“Who are you to me where that is unacceptable?”

His fixed stare narrows. “Your lover.”

“Do all of your lovers owe you thousands of dollars?” I dare to question him, feeling the anger simmer from his taut skin. It’s so much easier to be angry. It’s easier to yell than listen. Easier to hate what’s happened, than to suffer through the aftermath.

The muscles in Jase’s shoulders tighten, making him look all the more dominant and I don’t stop pushing him. Maybe I have a death wish. “You’re a man who coerced me, a man I fell for when we both know we shouldn’t be together. And whatever’s between us will end when the debt is paid. I will not listen to your every command because you happen to give one to me. If I don’t want to be with you… I won’t.” His chest rises and falls quicker as his jaw clenches at my final words. “You’d be wise to remember I am not interested in being told what to do. This agreement was for information. That is all I want from you.”

Thump, my heart wrenches inside of me knowing it’s a lie. All I can do is remember CROSS in the hidden message of The Coverless Book and it stops its furious beating, but the beat it gives me in return is dulled and muted, slowing more and more by the second.

“I’ve already told you, I don’t like it when you lie to me.” He hardens his voice further as he adds, “Knock off your bullshit.” Jase speaks through clenched teeth and before I can answer, a waitress appears with a bottle of wine draped with a white cloth napkin in an ice bucket and two glasses. It’s a dark red with a silver label although I can’t read what the label says.

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