I looked up at him and winced. “It’s the c-word. It just surprised me, that’s all.”

I nodded, surprisingly aroused by the bluntness of the word in his accent. It lacked the t. Somehow, that softened it. Made it into something far sexier.

“I bloody love that word. Such an ugly one. Cunt. Sounds so depraved, doesn’t it?” He scratched his jaw, considering me. “Read me the line.”

If possible, I felt my face heat further. “He gripped her thighs, forced them apart, and stared at her wet, flushed . . . cunt.”

“Wow,” he said, laughing. “That’s something all right.” He moved back to his desk and started sorting through a stack of papers. “You can tell me all about your favorite parts over dinner.” I started to protest, but he lifted a finger to his lips and hushed me. “Read.”

I stared at the page as the words swam together. What kind of a woman makes a big deal over dinner?

The kind of woman, Sara, I thought, who recognizes that dinner leads to sleeping over, which leads to staying together every night. And that leads to keys, and then moving in. And then come excuses, and quiet sex, and then no sex and no conversation, and hoping that there is some public engagement that invites us as a couple so that I’ll have time with him.

Then again, I’d regretted not sleeping over with Max on the Fourth. And I was starting to miss him during the week.

“All right?” Max murmured from across the room.

After another twenty minutes passed and I’d read about seventeen more sex scenes, Max walked over, ran a hand from my collarbone to my knee, and whispered, “Close your eyes. Don’t open them until I say.”

“You’re awfully bossy today,” I said, even as I dropped the book to the floor and did what he’d asked. Almost immediately, my sense of hearing seemed to become so acute the room almost vibrated. I heard the sound of his belt, his zipper, and a quiet sigh.

I could hear the soft brushing sound of his hand moving, how his rhythm started slow and then grew faster, firmer. The way his breath came out in short, tight gasps.

I’d never listened to a person masturbate before, and it was torture to keep my eyes shut. The sounds were teasing, his quiet grunts and instructions to spread my legs wider, touch my breast.

“The book made you wet,” he remarked, and then I heard his hand speed up against his cock. “How wet?”

I reached down, eyes still closed, and touched myself to find out. I didn’t even have to say anything; he just groaned, and then swore in a familiarly deep voice as he came.

I wanted to watch his face, but I kept my eyes closed, my heart pounding.

The room went suddenly silent except for the heavy rhythm of his breathing and my own. I became aware of the air-conditioning vent overhead, the cool air as it poured over my too-hot skin.

Finally, he zipped up his pants, fastened his belt. “I’ll be right back. Going to clean up.”

His footsteps retreated, and at the sound of the door opening, he laughed quietly. “You can open your eyes now,” he said, just as he stepped out.

It felt like the room had grown darker in just the past ten minutes. My hand was still between my legs, and the sounds of his orgasm lingered in my ears. I gave myself an experimental stroke and realized how quickly I could come. Maybe in less than a minute. Certainly before he would return.

Without any more hesitation, I arched into my palm, remembering the sound of his hand, the speed of his movements, his little grunts and instructions, how easily he told me exactly what he needed.

We had such an easy understanding, such a perfect balance.

It was so easy.

With that thought, my orgasm climbed up my thighs and burst forward, pressing starbursts of light into the back of my eyes and leaving me gasping.

The door opened, and my hand flew to my neck, where my pulse hammered wildly. I swallowed down a gasp and tried in vain to slow my breaths. I don’t know why, after what he’d just done, I felt like I’d been caught with my hand in the cookie jar, but I did.

Max smiled, walked over to me, and sat on the couch near my waist. I shifted over to make room and he leaned a hand on the back of the couch as he bent over and pulled my fingers into his mouth. “Have a nice rub, Petal?”

“I guess if you’d stuck around to see you wouldn’t have to ask,” I said, fighting the heat as it crawled up my neck.

“No matter,” he murmured into my throat, sucking gently. “I’ll just watch the video later.” He stood, walked over to an open cabinet, and pushed a button on a camera I hadn’t even noticed, balanced on the top shelf.

He turned, a wicked smile pulling at his mouth.

“You got video of that?” I asked. I had never felt so conflicted. Be discovered—terrifying. Be watched—thrilling.

His brows pulled together. “I trained the camera lower and put you exactly where I needed you. I wouldn’t record your face.” He walked over to me and kneeled beside the couch. “Which is a shame, actually, because I love watching you when you fall.”

He ran a fingertip down my cheek, studying my face before blinking and seeming to pull back into the present. “Now, for dinner I was thinking Thai but you’re allergic to peanuts, and my favorite place has peanuts in everything. How about Ethiopian? Do you mind eating with your hands?” He grinned. “I swear no one there will know who the hell I am.”

I gaped at him, completely forgetting that I was going to argue over going out for dinner. “How did you know I’m allergic to peanuts?”

He looked genuinely confused. “You wear it so that people won’t read it?”

Shaking my head, I sat up, running my hands through my hair. The man I’d loved had barely noticed me. The man I just wanted to have sex with noticed everything about me.

Max led us out the back of the building and to a black car waiting in an alley.

“Really?” I asked as he opened the door. “Paparazzi follow you home?”

He laughed and gently ushered me into the backseat. “No, Petal. I’m not nearly that famous—they only hit me up at events or on the street sometimes. The secrecy is for your paranoia, not mine.”

“Queen of Sheba. Hell’s Kitchen,” he told the driver, and then turned to me. “Thanks for keeping me company while I packed. You made an otherwise boring task quite enjoyable.”

“You didn’t get much done. Really wasn’t the most efficient evening for you, was it?” I leaned forward, giving him my best skeptical eyebrow raise.

He smiled, stared at my mouth. “You’ve caught me. I wanted you to come over tonight so I could remember how you looked na**d on my couch. I’ve hired someone to pack up my office tomorrow morning before the painters arrive.” He closed the distance between us and kissed me once, sweetly. “Sometimes at work I wish I saw you more. I liked seeing you there.”

I shifted in my seat, feeling a little like the world had been tipped on its end. “I didn’t really think there were men like you,” I said, without thinking. “Honest. Easy to be around.” I looked over at him.

“I already told you. I like you.”

He reached for me, slid me closer, and had his lips to mine for the rest of the drive. It could have been a minute, an hour, or a week. I had no idea. But when we arrived in Hell’s Kitchen I didn’t want to get out, and I most certainly didn’t care that I was half hoping Max would ask me to stay the night with him.

The waitress put down a large platter in front of us, with wedges of assorted vegetarian dishes fanning across the plate.

“Take the injera bread and scoop the food,” Max said, tearing a piece and demonstrating.

I watched him lick his fingers, chew, and then smile at me.

“You like my mouth?” His tongue slipped out again, sweeping across the corner of his lips, and then he lifted his glass and took a deep drink of wine.

He made me feel more than drunk. He made me feel disoriented, reckless. I curled my hands into fists beneath the table, running through the fantasy of asking him to leave here, take me home, and touch me.

Other than the kissing in the car, he’d barely touched me all night. Was that intentional? Was he trying to drive me crazy? Because seriously, mission accomplished.

I blinked, looking down at the platter, and then did what he’d done: ripped off some bread, grabbed some lentils, and took a bite. The food was peppery, warm, and delicious. I closed my eyes and hummed. “So good.”

I could feel him watching me, and when I looked up, he smiled.

“You know what I do at work, that my mum works for the company, that I have at least one sister. You know about Cecily. All I really know about you—other than you’re a fantastic shag—is that you moved here from Chicago a bit over a month ago, left a real twat back there, and work with Ben and his fiancée.”

Uneasiness nipped at my stomach, and I forced down the bite of food. “I don’t know, you seemed to know a bit more than that earlier.”

“Oh, I have a library of observations. I’m talking about knowing you.”

“You know where I live. Where I work and that I’m allergic to peanuts.”

“It’s been a few weeks, Sara. It’s weird that you still hold me at arm’s length.” He blinked away. “I’m not sure I can forever be strangers.”

“But we’re so good at being strangers,” I joked, and when his face fell, I relented. “What do you want to know?”

He looked back at me, thick, dark lashes pressing to his cheeks as he closed his eyes, thinking. He was so gorgeous; my pulse took over my entire head, hammering inside my cranium like a drill.

Opening his eyes, he asked, “Have you ever had a dog?”

A laugh burst from my lips. “Yes. My father always had Dalmatians, but my mom is currently obsessed with labradoodles.”

He shook his head, grinning. “You Americans always messing with our canonical breeds.” I lifted my wine to my lips and took a sip just as he asked, “Why are you so scared of being with someone?”

I stammered out a few unintelligible noises before he laughed, waving me off. “Just checking to see how far I could go. Do you have siblings?”

I shook my head, relieved. “Only child. Crazy parents, so thank God they only had me. Another would have killed them.”

“My parents are . . . eccentric,” I explained, smiling as I thought about them.

Eccentric almost didn’t cover it. I imagined Mom with her feather-wigs and jewelry. Dad with his thick glasses, short-sleeved dress shirts, and bow ties. They were from another time—almost another planet—but their eccentricities only made them easier to love.

“My dad’s always worked a lot but when he’s not at work, he becomes obsessed with one thing or another. Mom likes to be busy but Dad never wanted her to work outside the house. She grew up in Texas and met Dad in college. She was a math major, but once they got married, she sold cosmetics from home, and then sold some crazy no-wrinkle cotton clothes. And most recently, skin stuff.”

“What exactly does your dad do?”

I hesitated, wondering, How can he ask this? Does he really not know anything about me?

“So, my last name is Dillon, right?”

Max is British. He’s probably never heard of Dillons.

Telling him this felt like lifting a heavy iron chain. It was nice to think about being unburdened, but almost easier to leave it alone than try to lift it. My entire life people had looked at me differently after learning who my family was; I wondered if Max would be any different.

I took a deep breath and looked at him. “My family owns a chain of department stores. They’re regional, like, in the Midwest? But they’re big there.”

He paused, eyes narrowed. “Wait. Dillons? As in ‘You Should Love to Live,’ Dillons?”

“Oh. Wow. Your family owns Dillons. Okay then.” Max ran a hand over his face and laughed to himself, shaking his head. “Shit, Sara. I . . . I had no idea. I feel like a wanker.”

“I like that you didn’t know who I was.” I felt my stomach drop, realizing that now that he knew I was someone, he probably would look me up. He’d learn about Andy, and realize what a fool I was to not know what an entire city had known all along.

Max would know I’d been someone else’s doormat before I’d ever been his mystery.

I looked away, feeling a little deflated. I didn’t want to talk about lives or histories or family. I searched wildly for a new topic.

But he spoke before I could come up with anything. “You know what fascinates me about you?” he asked, pouring me another glass of honey wine.

“The first night we met, and then our first night in the warehouse in Brooklyn: the things you let me do. And then tonight, you flush at the word cunt.”