This Ridiculously Hot Romance Novel Is The One Night Stand You NEED

Photo: WeHeartIt
romance novels
Contributor
Sex

You’ve got your hands all over it. Your heart is pounding as you climb into bed. You turn on the light so you can see EVERYTHING.

No, we’re not talking about a summer fling — it’s the latest irresistible romance novel from Harlequin’s new Forbidden Series.

The salacious new series is the perfect read for under the covers. And trust us, you’re gonna want to stock up on chapstick because you’re going to be biting your bottom lip the whole time.

But don’t take my word for it, check out the teaser text (and then hit the full steamy preview below):

“Nora Grant wants to make something of her life, but she doesn't realize it will lead straight to billionaire prince Zair al Ruyi. Beneath his polished royalty, Zair has warrior's blood running through his veins, and he's found his next conquest!”

Billionaire royalty? Warrior’s blood?

If you’ll excuse me, I need some one-on-one time with my Kindle.

--

The Billionaire’s Innocent

By Caitlin Crews

Chapter One

Zair al Ruyi walked onto the yacht like a nightmare come to life, and Nora Grant’s first stunned thought was that she was hallucinating. She had to be, because he couldn’t be here.

Not Zair. Not here.

But it was still him, and he was still there in the entryway—his security guards flanking him as he stole all the air from the intimately lit sunken lounge with the French sea glittering in the moonlight outside the windows, wearing a hard smile and shaking the smarmy host’s hand—after Nora clamped her eyes shut and then opened them again. After she pinched herself savagely on her own mostly bare thigh, hard enough to leave an immediate purple bruise.

He was still there, and he looked as relaxed as a man like Zair ever did—maybe more relaxed than Nora had ever seen him. He appeared to be utterly at his ease, in fact, like all the rest of the enormously powerful, extraordinarily well-connected men indulging in this very high-priced evening on an especially extravagant luxury yacht off the coast of Cannes, France.

You don’t know what you’re asking, little girl, he’d told her six years ago on what had been, until now, the worst night of her life. He’d been very certain. His dark green gaze had left marks. Swim back to the shallow end before you drown.

“Prostitutes and punters,” one of the other girls said beneath her breath from beside Nora, which diverted Nora’s attention from the entryway. “A match made in heaven.”

“Lucky us,” Nora replied with a smoky sort of laugh, the way she would if she really were the jaded party girl she was pretending to be tonight.

She expected that when she looked again, it would be some other dark-haired man prowling there in the doorway. That her mind had conjured up Zair because he was, truly, the worst person she could imagine seeing in a place like this, outside a member of her own family.

But when she turned back, he was still there. Still Zair al Ruyi, the bane of her existence. The only man who had ever turned her down, and emphatically at that. The last man she’d ever want to see under normal circumstances, which these were not. Still hideously, horrifyingly real and right there besides.

And because he was Zair, he was far more beautiful than the rest of the assembled punters no matter how much money or fame they had at their disposal. He was dangerously magnetic and impossible to look away from, as though he’d created his own vortex simply by entering the room. He wore one of his exquisitely crafted bespoke dark suits with his shirt collar open at the neck, exposing the strong column of his throat and the suggestion of his sculpted chest below. He took the drink one of the stewards handed him with a hint of his usual athletic, martially trained grace. He laughed that same velvet scrape of a laugh that had always made Nora’s stomach flip no matter how many times she told herself she disliked him, and tonight was no exception, despite the circumstances.

This really is a nightmare, Nora thought in deepening horror as one moment became a handful, because he didn’t appear to know she was there. And that meant he was in this place of his own volition. It meant he was a guest, come to sample the women assembled for the taking and pick out his favorite, just like all the rest of them.

He’s one of them.

And that meant Nora didn’t know Zair at all no matter how many years he’d been in and around her life, because no matter how much she’d claimed to hate him since that humiliating night after her eighteenth birthday party, she would have said it was impossible he could be involved in something like this.

She had said exactly that.

Gorgeous, mysterious, impossibly sexy Zair of the cool green eyes, jet black hair, and that body Nora knew was all lean muscle and fighting fit because he’d learned how to defend his country with his hands before he’d left it when he was eighteen. He couldn’t be one of these disgusting men, she thought then with no little desperation. He couldn’t, because he was one of her older brother Hunter’s best friends from college. He was the ambassador to the United States from the very wealthy sultanate in the Middle East his own much older half brother had ruled for the last decade. More than that, Nora had adored him. Right up until the night he’d rejected her so emphatically.

He can’t be one of them, she thought again, fiercely.

But he was here. And the fact that a man she knew—a man she’d touched with her own hands, danced with and eaten meals with across the years, a man she’d once begged to kiss her and more—could be a man like this was like a kick.

Hard. Right in the stomach.

And then he saw her.

Those deep green eyes of his that had always seen straight through her found her across the outrageous lushness of the yacht’s vast lounge area, across all the pretty girls vying for the attention of the wealthy clientele, across the laughter and the flirting and the increasingly lewd displays to where Nora sat on one of the low sofas.

Slammed into her like a fist, more like.

Everything stopped for a searing, shattering, horrifying instant. The night. The world. Zair froze where he stood, his storm-cloud eyes as hard as steel and something like unforgiving on hers despite the dangerous smile still stamped on his uncompromising mouth.

Nora’s heart stopped beating.

His gaze moved on in the next breath, slid past her and onto the rest of the smiling and preening girls displaying their wares in a number of alluring poses, as if Nora were a stranger. As if she were no more than an interchangeable thing for sale and nothing more to him than that.

Which, of course, she was.

Tonight, she was.

Her heart slammed against her ribs with a vicious wallop, so hard she felt dizzy and sick at once and worried she might faint right there on the gold-and-navy nautical carpet, and Zair walked deeper into the vile little gathering as though he belonged there. He was welcomed as if he did, as if all the revolting people here already knew him well. It didn’t make sense. She couldn’t let it make any kind of sense.

She couldn’t accept—she refused to accept—what it meant that he was here. It was bad enough that she was.

It was bad enough that she’d come to Cannes on a kind of lunatic kamikaze mission in the first place, especially when there was a possibility that the unconcerned British police were right and her missing friend Harlow might not even want to be found after her disappearance from London a few weeks back.

There is the distinct possibility that Ms. Spencer has merely done what many young women do on their first trip abroad, the impatient British detective had said when she’d contacted him. There is almost always a foreign lover and a last-minute adventure she’d rather not share with anyone back home. I rather doubt she’ll appreciate all this fuss when she turns up.

But possibilities weren’t enough for Nora. Not when it was Harlow.

It wasn’t until a CCTV picture had surfaced showing Harlow entering Nice, France, with a grim-looking stranger—hardly the lover everyone seemed to think she’d taken, not with that merciless grip on her arm—that Nora had been sickeningly sure she knew exactly what had happened.

Harlow had written her undergraduate thesis on human trafficking and then, thanks in part to her friendship with their sorority sister Addison Treffen and in part to Nora’s merciless prodding that she do something with her life—not that Nora had taken her own advice—she’d accepted a prestigious law internship at Treffen, Smith, and Howell’s London office as a first step toward the kind of world-saving work she’d always said she wanted to do. But then the Jason Treffen scandal had broken a few months back and Addison’s father had been exposed as the leader of a high-class sex ring he’d operated out of his New York City law office, making him responsible for all manner of appalling things—including the death of the college girlfriend of Nora’s brother Hunter. Now Jason was dead, shot by an unknown assailant who’d never been found, right in front of poor Addison, and Nora knew there was no way Harlow could possibly have resisted poking her nose into things in that London office. Because if it was anything like the office Jason Treffen had run in New York…

All it had taken was a simple internet search on “sex trafficking” and “the south of France,” and Nora had found a wealth of unsavory information on the “yacht girls” who swarmed Cannes during the famous annual film festival to ply their trade on the yachts that dotted the Côte d’Azure bays and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. The yachts, the boulevards, the upscale, breathlessly opulent hotels that lined the iconic beaches, and the airy villas high in the hills. Some were prostitutes, some were down-on-their-luck actresses looking for cash and a way back to the bright lights of Hollywood by any vehicle possible, and still others were bored socialites simply out for a good time with a bit of rough and some pocket money besides.

Nora would have bet anything she had that Harlow was headed there. Which meant she needed to do the same, because she knew what no one else did. What she could scarcely admit even in her own head.

This was her fault.

Which made fixing this, by any means necessary, her responsibility.

She watched Zair stop and talk to a pair of very elegantly dressed twins on the far side of the lounge, both of whom giggled at his brooding attention. He gazed down at them in that hard, leashed-danger way of his that made her chest feel tight. Except she knew she shouldn’t let it.

He wasn’t flirting with them. He was inspecting the merchandise.

I can play whatever game you want, she’d told him on her eighteenth birthday. A desperation unlike anything she’d ever experienced before had swamped her as she’d stared at him out on that dark terrace with Manhattan at their feet, making her feel drunk and unsteady, when she’d been neither. I can do anything you want me to do.

Zair had watched her with that same expression on his face. Harsh. Predatory. Knowing.

Is that so? Anything is a big word, Nora. It covers a multitude of sins.

So can I. She’d thought she sounded sultry. Tempting.

The kind of sins I like leave marks, he’d told her. You don’t know what you’re asking, little girl.

Nora jolted when a hand grabbed her upper arm, slamming her back into the here and now, where she was still sitting on a vast yacht pretending to be a prostitute and Zair was still standing on the other side of the room in a sea of women, presumably because he wanted to buy one.

Proving that he’d been right six years ago. She’d had no clue what she was asking for back then. She’d had no idea who the hell he was. And there was no reason she should feel that like a wash of shame now, making her throat feel tight, as though he’d wrapped his hard hand around it and squeezed when he wasn’t even looking in her direction.

The real hand on her arm clenched tighter, and when she looked around, Nora found herself gazing into the disconcertingly sweet face of the woman who was running things tonight, Laurette Fortin. Who had been so easy to meet, really, once she’d arrived in France. Too easy. An old boarding school friend Nora hadn’t seen in a while, a late night talking about how bored she was with her life and how she’d kill for a little adventure, the crazier the better, and here she was. Greer, the friend in question and herself a notoriously ill-behaved plastics heiress with a penchant for public nudity, had presented Nora to Laurette back on shore an hour or so ago as though she’d been showing off her latest acquisition.

Because, of course, she had been.

“She’s cool,” Greer had said, nodding at Nora as she’d kicked off her wedges to climb into the little speedboat that would transport the group of girls out to the much bigger yacht. “An old friend of mine from prep school. And her brother is Hunter Grant. You know. The American football star.”

Laurette had obviously recognized Hunter’s name, which had made Nora feel…profoundly unsettled. She’d eyed Nora up and down, taking in everything. The short, flirty dress Nora had worn for this strange occasion that drooped from one shoulder but then caught tight beneath her breasts, the shoes that made her bared legs seem twice as long. Every minute detail of Nora’s appearance, making her want to squirm, or cover herself. Or both.

This is her job, Nora had thought, and though that was as awful as all the rest of it, she’d started to feel a bit numb. Which had been a bit like a blessing, all things considered.

“I’m Nora,” she’d supplied when the silence stretched out between them, and the other woman had smiled back at her in a way that had made Nora’s blood chill. She’d had to fight not to shudder, and from the look on Laurette’s face, she’d known it. And liked it.

“It is not your name that matters, chérie. It is all that American old money stamped on your face. They like to look at that while they fuck you in every degrading way they can think of. It makes them feel like the gods they think they are.” The older woman had jerked her chin at the boat. “Climb in. Let’s see how you do.”

Not very well, if the current expression on Laurette’s face was anything to go by.

“Are you feeling all right?” Laurette asked, her voice as concerned as the look in her dark eyes was hard. She dropped her hand from Nora’s arm, but she didn’t shift herself from the arm of the sofa. “A little seasick, maybe? Poor darling.”

“Not at all.” Nora forced a smile she didn’t feel at all. “Why would you think that?”

“Because this is a party,” Laurette murmured silkily. Viciously. “Everyone is here to have a good time. To make friends, have fun. Do you know how to have fun? I ask because no one else is sitting in the corner, frowning at the ground.”

Nora almost laughed out loud, but not because anything was funny. She wasn’t sure anything could ever be funny again, not after tonight.

Get a hold of yourself, she ordered herself sternly. This is about Harlow. And you’re not going to find her if you don’t figure out a way to please this woman. You know exactly what that means you have to do, so stop sitting over here feeling sorry for yourself that your teenage crush has turned out to be a disgusting pig, and do it.

Yes, she knew what she was asking of herself. What she was going to do with…whoever. She’d turned it over again and again in her head, she’d studied the pictures plastered all over the internet of pretty starlets in the grip of repugnant, always older and less attractive men, and she hadn’t been able to come up with a reasonable alternative. It was her fault Harlow had left New York in the first place. This was how she’d pay for that.

She’d rationalized it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Some girls picked up strange men in bars every weekend and had sex with them for free, she’d reminded herself. How was this any different? It was probably smarter, really, because if Greer and her friends and certain Vanity Fair articles were to be believed, Nora could come out of this with a hefty addition to her investment portfolio rather than a run-of-the-mill Sunday morning hangover and its attendant regrets.

Of course, she’d also be a prostitute, but that was only a word, she’d assured herself. That dark, hollow thing inside her that whispered otherwise was irrelevant. It had to be. She had no other choice if she wanted to find Harlow.

“I was just getting up now,” Nora said and did so at once, with a bit more speed than necessary. She caught herself before she toppled over and aimed a too-bright smile at Laurette to cover it. “To mingle.”

“This is good,” Laurette said, still in that voice that sounded lovely on the surface but had all those sharp claws beneath, and Nora was certain she felt each one of them draw blood. “Mingling is much better than frowning at the floor, reminding a man of the troubles he is here to forget, mais oui?”

Nora agreed with a vigorous nod and then smoothed her hands down the front of her too-short dress, steeling herself to look around. But not to look too closely when she did, because she didn’t want to see which lissome girls had caught Zair’s attention now. She didn’t want to know anything further about him or his proclivities—

So there was no reason she should have felt something like disappointment, if far sharper, when she couldn’t spot him. Had he already made his choice? Selected a girl as if she were a shiny bit of produce and headed off to get his kicks—whatever those were?

Nora refused to let herself wonder. You’re not here for Zair. You’re here for Harlow.

She had to order herself to focus. She didn’t want to focus.

There were too many people crowding the vast and tastefully decorated room, none of them Harlow, and it was obvious at a glance which people were displaying themselves as the merchandise tonight and which ones were doing the shopping. It wasn’t like a run-of-the-mill, meat-markety Manhattan bar scene at all, no matter how many times Nora tried to tell herself otherwise. There was a different sort of energy in the room, taut and gritty and spiked, that she could feel along the length of her spine every time one of the men looked at her.

Because each man was deciding whether or not he wanted to fuck her, which wasn’t the same thing as hitting on a girl in a bar and hoping for the best. This was a room filled with grim certainties, not any bright or drink-fueled optimism.

Nora had to fight not to shudder, or to break for her freedom and swim back to shore. She had to scream at herself until she managed to smile prettily. To act as though she was happy to be here and having the best time. She had to force herself to look as cheerful as she did available.

And as she looked around she realized that Zair—wherever he was, and she shouldn’t care, she shouldn’t let herself speculate, she couldn’t deal with how awful that was just yet—wasn’t the only person she recognized.

There was a famous director widely lauded for his incisive, intellectual, even feminist films with his arm around a giggling brunette who was letting him fondle her between her legs where she stood. There was an actor best known for his much-celebrated television role as a wise and generous old father figure surrounded by three laughing young girls on one of the sofas, none of them fully clothed. She saw a well-known financier she’d never met personally but had last seen with his wife and daughters at a Manhattan gala to benefit victims of domestic violence, smiling down at a woman Nora recognized as a former runway model in a manner that could only be described as smug.

But Harlow was nowhere to be seen.

Nora felt a rush of something—and she couldn’t tell if it was relief that her friend wasn’t subjecting herself to this horror or a keen disappointment that she was still missing. Both, perhaps. It meant that Nora would have to find out if any of the girls had seen Harlow around, which could take more than this single night—and she knew what that meant. What it would entail. Where this course of action had always been leading her.

Keep smiling, you idiot, she ordered herself. So what if you have to do this more than once? No one here looks anything but happy. You can do it. You’ll be fine.

But it was hard to keep her smile on her face. If that awful woman hadn’t still been right beside her, she doubted she’d have managed it—

“Bonsoir, Laurette.”

Nora recognized Zair’s voice instantly. Worse, she felt it.

It rolled through her like low, ominous thunder and she had to fight to keep herself from flinching. Laurette, who still sat there on the sofa arm studying Nora as if looking for visible cracks, brightened and extended her hands.

And then it was impossible for Nora to pretend this wasn’t happening. That it wasn’t him. Zair was right there, kissing this hard, dangerous woman on one smooth cheek and then the next.

As if they were dear old friends on the best of terms. As if he attended sex slave auctions every night of the week.

Maybe he did.

Nora didn’t know if she wanted to be sick or maybe collapse into tears, but she knew she absolutely could not do either.

This is who he is, she snapped at herself. Deal with it—and deal with it right now. You can’t fall apart here.

But the truth was, Zair was right there beside her, she didn’t want to believe that he could be as evil as he clearly was, and she didn’t think she’d survive the next few moments.

And Harlow was still missing somewhere. Nora didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with any of it.

“This one will do,” she heard him say to Laurette, and she could feel his eyes on her. Intense. Too much. Even worse than usual. “I’ve always had a thing for blondes.”

Laurette’s laugh was horrible. It slid inside Nora and broke something in her into jagged little pieces. “This I know.”

Later, Nora thought, sick and not numb enough and torn apart in a thousand ways she knew she couldn’t let show on her face, she would look back at this moment. Zair’s comment and Laurette’s awful laugh that told her so many things she didn’t want to know.

Later, she could grieve.

But here, now, she had to think about Harlow.

There was a flurry of the French she’d had no idea Zair spoke so fluently, another silvery little laugh from Laurette that left ice shards lodged into her heart, and then Nora and Zair were left standing there alone.

“Look at me,” he said.

It was that same voice that she knew so well. The same voice that had slapped her down so calmly, so ruthlessly, six years ago. The same voice that he’d used only a few weeks ago when she’d been forced to spend an evening with him at an art gala, all smiles and surface and lies, apparently.

It was also an order.

Her heart didn’t stop this time. It beat so hard it made the edges of everything seem to flicker, to fade in and out, and she had to force herself to breathe through it. To stay standing, no matter what.

Because if Zair was a part of this thing the way Harlow’s old faculty adviser Louise had suggested outright back in New York, if all signs pointed to the involvement of a high-ranking member of the Ruyian government and Zair was the only person fitting that description at this party, then Nora had to convince him that she was exactly who she was pretending to be: a bored trust-fund princess having “adventures” on the far side of acceptable behavior—a description that was a touch too close to home. Because he might be her only chance of finding Harlow.

“I know you heard me,” he said, with a darker current in his low voice.

He was her only chance. This was the only way. Nora forced herself face him. To look him straight in the eye.

Zair gazed down at her in that haughty, commanding way of his that announced his royal Ruyian blood without his having to utter a word. Even in the high sandals she wore that added a few inches to her height, he towered over her the way he always had, strong and undeniably, disastrously gorgeous. So compelling that his sheer dizzying masculinity couldn’t be erased by what his presence here meant. So beautiful he cast even the Côte d’Azure and a roomful of men celebrated around the world for their good looks into shadow.

This close to him, she could smell the hint of that scent he always wore, something like cedar and indefinably male beneath. It made a prickling sort of heat spread over her and threaten to flood her eyes. Only a kick of panic at what it might mean for Harlow if she burst into tears here, if she exposed herself like that and thereby ensured she couldn’t come back to continue her search, kept her from it.

His green eyes, usually so cool and remote, were like fire tonight. Too bright. Too hot. His gaze seared into her, ripping through her, making Nora worry she might be blown backward by the sheer force of it.

Nora had memorized his face a long time ago. Those perfect, aristocratic cheekbones under slashing black brows, that harsh blade of his nose. And that tough desert warrior’s mouth below that had always made something roll over deep inside her and then curl up tight, so out of place was it on a polished diplomat like him.

But her memory was never as arresting as the real thing. It never did him justice. He was more. He was vital and male, breathtaking in a way she’d never been able to put into words—a way that here, in this sordid place where he’d revealed the rot beneath his spectacular surface, she hated herself for noticing the way she always did. As if everything was normal when nothing could be, ever again.

Zair didn’t speak. He only studied her, his face unreadable, those green eyes alight with that too-bright fire.

She wanted to say a million things, but they all crowded together on her tongue and choked her silent. Are you a john or a pimp, Zair? Do you know where my best friend is? Was that your boat she took out of London? Does my brother know what kind of nasty pervert you are? Is he one, too?

Nora felt a desperate kind of heat behind her eyes, worse now that she was looking at him, and the way he gazed down at her was terrible. Terrible. It made her shake, deep inside, low in her belly, and everywhere else. It made her more afraid than she’d ever been in her life.

But not of him, though she should have been. And however deep that fear might have gone, it didn’t make her turn away.

He muttered something in Arabic then, the words a caress and a blow at once. And then, “You can’t be here. This is no place for tourists.”

“I think you’ll find that sex tourism is one of the world’s great economic powerhouses,” she said, pleased at the flippant sound of her voice. “But then, look where you are. I suspect you already know that.”

“Nora.” The way he said her name made everything tilt and then slide inside her, but she still didn’t turn away. And she only hated herself that much more for her weakness. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Join now for YourTango's trending articles, top expert advice and personal horoscopes delivered straight to your inbox each morning.

She wanted to hit him. Her hand curled into a fist at her side, but then she remembered all the eyes on them, Laurette’s in particular, and forced it open again.

“Selling my body to the highest bidder,” she said, as politely as she could. The way she’d discussed appetizers with him when she’d seen him last. Or had it been the weather? “As you do.”

He reached over and brushed a lock of her blond hair back from her face, and Nora couldn’t conceal her shudder. She told herself it was revulsion, because it should have been. But she could feel that ribbon of liquid heat that wrapped around her breasts and then pooled between her legs, and she knew better.

Zair’s formidable mouth flattened, and then he sank his fingers into thick spill of blond waves Nora had artfully arranged to fall down her back in seeming abandon. He wasn’t particularly gentle. Nora let out a tiny, shocked gasp that did nothing but make his green gaze narrow.

He didn’t speak for a long moment that dragged on forever, and her pulse was a wild drumming in her veins, catapulting her off balance.

“That hurts,” she managed to say, though it didn’t.

It should have hurt, shouldn’t have it? But instead that small sharpness bled into something like need, and she craved it. More. Him.

She despaired of herself.

“No,” he said, calm and certain. Lethal. “It doesn’t.”

“Zair—” she began, but he only increased the pressure. That sharpness bloomed and the need became a driving, pounding thing that made her feel bright and hot and very nearly desperate.

And Zair was tilting her head back, bringing her mouth that much closer to his, showing off his brute strength to the whole of the yacht, displaying her before him like property.

Like his property.

Nora told herself she loathed the part of her that thrilled to that—to all of it. The part that didn’t care where they were or what all of this meant or who was watching or what might happen next. The part that wanted him the same way she’d always wanted him, no matter that she’d decided to hate him after he’d rejected her six years ago or that her friends thought he was the bad guy or what nasty truths she’d discovered about him tonight.

Someday, she thought, she’d loathe herself for that in earnest. But tonight she needed to survive him so that tomorrow, she could keep hunting for Harlow.

“The first rule is this, especially in public,” he said, in a low, measured voice that was his and not his. Gone was the warmth, the life that usually infused his rich baritone and that vaguely British intonation of his. The hint of his dry humor. This version of his voice was darkly patient. Menacing and yet calm at once, and it should have chilled her straight through. Instead it moved in Nora like an open flame, and maybe he wasn’t the sick one here. “Don’t speak to me unless I tell you to speak or ask you a direct question. Whatever leeway I give you—and I don’t know that I’ll give you any, I don’t care how long I’ve known you—will happen in private.”

“You can’t be serious.”

He laughed, and it swept through her like a bewildering kind of wildfire, and only partly because there was so little amusement in the sound. He dragged her closer to him with that merciless hand buried deep in her hair and no other change in his intent expression, and Nora told herself she was acting when she went. When she didn’t protest. When she did nothing but obey the simple command of the pressure he exerted.

But her body wasn’t performing any role. She couldn’t fake her reaction to being close to him at last—and she couldn’t control it, either. Her breasts brushed against the hard planes of his chest and felt deliciously heavy at once, her nipples pulling taut and needy. An answering heat rushed through her, pooling in the core of her, making her feel wild and dirty. Making her hate herself even as she longed for him the way she always had.

“Do you understand?”

It was the perfectly calm way he asked that question that got to her, despite the cruel hand that held her captive and that she should have found as reprehensible as if he’d chained her up.

But instead, it made her throat go dry. It made the rest of her turn molten and run wild. It made her wonder if there was anything that could make her stop wanting this man. Any depravity. Any crime. Anything at all.

She didn’t want to know the answer.

Because she already did. And she could see, from that same knowing gleam in his fierce green gaze, that he did, too.

“I understand,” she whispered.

He traced a pattern over her cheek with his free hand, as light against her skin as his other hand was hard against her scalp, and the dual sensations buffeted her, pulling at her and destroying her, as if he’d taken over her body without her permission.

And she liked it. How could she like it?

“Good girl,” he murmured, and God help her, but she liked that, too.

And then Zair simply bent down, jerked her that last little bit closer, and slammed his mouth to hers.

It was a hot, stark, possessive kiss.

Fire roared through her, setting off a thousand chain reactions in an annihilating instant, an explosion of light and yes and finally and a brilliant, devastating thing she suspected was pure passion.

Nora felt Zair’s hard, dangerous mouth everywhere. In the tips of her painted toenails. In the weakness that made her knees feel suddenly precarious beneath her. In her hands that rose of their own accord and flattened against the glorious planes of his chest at last.

It was the culmination of more than a decade of intense, vivid fantasies, and Nora couldn’t help herself. She couldn’t fight this. She couldn’t fight him.

Worse, she didn’t want to fight him.

Zair kissed her as though he’d done it a thousand times before, as though he were already deep inside of her, as though this wasn’t a first kiss at all, and Nora simply exulted in it. There was nothing but his mouth and hers, the delirious tangle of their tongues, the taste and the feel and that power he wore so easily all around her.

There was no thought, no panic, no terrible worry, no fear of exposure—nothing but Zair.

He was all heat and steel beneath her palms, but his mouth was hotter by far. He tasted like desire, like a little bit of wine and something indefinably, intriguingly male. She kissed him as if they might never touch again, as if this were the first and last and only time she’d ever get to taste him.

She kissed him as if it were her heart on the line, when she knew better. He’d broken it six years ago when he could have been kind, but had instead been cruel. He’d broken it when he’d walked onto this yacht tonight. When he’d revealed himself.

Her head was spinning when he pulled away, and she already regretted it. The abandon, the need. The fact that she’d let him touch her at all, much less here.

The fact that she didn’t want to stop. That she didn’t care how many people were watching or what they thought of her. That this was a betrayal of her best friend.

Zair eased his grip in her hair but he didn’t back up; he only stared down at her with a faint hint of heat across his high cheekbones and that narrow green glare of his that made her ache, low and hot and sweet.

But then she remembered where they were, and her stomach sank.

Nora dropped her hands and would have stepped away from him, put some much-needed distance between them at last—but something in his harsh gaze kept her from it.

“Do you always kiss your prostitutes?” she asked. “Oh, I’m sorry. Am I speaking out of turn?” She smirked at him and wished she felt as bulletproof as she sounded. “I suppose you’ll have to punish me, won’t you?”

Zair didn’t appear to move so much as an inch, but she sensed his tension grow. She could feel it expand on all sides, like a force field, enveloping both of them.

“Out of curiosity,” he said in a friendly tone that she knew at once was nothing of the sort, so cold was it when it streaked down her back and left a shiver of goose bumps in its wake, “how long have you been renting yourself out? I saw you not three weeks ago at that tedious art exhibit at MOMA and you looked as you always do. Young, excitable, and distinctly vanilla. You can understand my confusion to find you here, in this squalid little den of iniquity a world away from your charities and your tea parties and whatever the hell it is you do.”

Nora didn’t rise to the bait. She reminded herself that there was more at stake tonight than her feelings or her life choices, and then she crooked her lips in the sort of crafty, self-satisfied smile she imagined she ought to have been wearing. “I told you a long time ago that I was up for anything. Maybe you’re not as good at reading people as you think.”

“Unlikely.” He watched her much too closely, a muscle she’d never seen before at work in the lean perfection of his faintly shadowed jaw. “In my line of work it doesn’t pay to be wrong. I rarely am.”

“What line of work is that, again? The ambassadorial efforts on behalf of your brother or the diplomatic immunity you can hide behind while breaking, for example, the many international laws against patronizing prostitutes?”

That muscle of his jumped again, making his jaw seem that much more male, somehow. Then his mouth moved into something so hard it made her stomach flip over, before plummeting straight down to her feet.

“Does Hunter know?” he asked.

That was meant to be a blow, she thought. She didn’t know why it wasn’t. It was that kiss, maybe. It was still running through her like a lightning storm. She let her smile deepen into a smirk.

“That’s an excellent question, Zair. I don’t think he’s a huge fan of the sex trade, especially with everything that’s happened this year. Pimps and sex rings and so on. Do you think he knows his best friend likes to pay for it, too?”

Which, all things considered, would be the very best outcome of this, Nora realized—and that was when she knew that she was truly sick. Truly, deeply, irrevocably. That her pathetic teenage obsession with this man’s physical beauty had made her as twisted as he was, if she was actually hopeful that he only bought sex.

Because buying sex was better than masterminding an international sex trafficking ring.

You need help, she told herself harshly. Desperately. The Zair you thought you knew is dead. He never existed in the first place.

His mouth shifted into something much too dangerous to be a smile.

“What makes you think he doesn’t pay for it himself?”

Nora didn’t have to consider that appalling possibility. “Because Hunter is many things, but he’s never been a hypocrite.” She met his eyes. “Unlike some.”

“Is that what you think I am?” Zair’s voice was lazy then, but she could see that harsh light in the depths of his green gaze. That muscle that still flexed in his lean jaw. He’s acting, she thought, confused. But for whose benefit? And he was still talking. “I told you exactly who I was six years ago. You didn’t listen. And now here you are, at my mercy."