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“I’d like to hire you to paint my portrait.”
Harlow almost bounced out of her seat, but caught herself with a single thought. Can’t appear too hasty. “Okay,” she said, playing with the edge of a piece of paper. “If you insist. And if the price is right.” She’d drawn countless images of Beck, but the thought of painting him to scale and seeing him in full color intoxicated her. She could play with different shades of gold, brown and bronze, and even a wealth of greens to get the emerald flecks hidden so deeply in his eyes just right.
Maybe Kimberly had nailed it. Maybe Harlow had stared at Beck for reasons that had nothing to do with the job.
“Name a figure.” He slowly, leisurely, walked back to the couch and eased down, the whiskey in hand. “Whatever it is, lollipop, I’ll pay it.”
The new endearment startled her, considering he hadn’t used one these past three weeks. The fact that he’d gone with lollipop, something sweet and edible he’d never called the others…
I’m special to him.
Oh, no, no, no. Red alert! Red alert! That was the true danger of him. Somehow, he made everyone feel special.
“That’s a daring thing to say,” she stated quietly.
“But true nonetheless.”
She placed her elbows on the desk and leaned forward. “Very well. The price is…” Inspiration struck, and she smiled evilly. “You can’t have sex for a week.”
His eyes narrowed to tiny slits, but he appeared far from angry. “Why do you care about my sex life?”
“I care about you, and I think abstinence will help build character.”
He didn’t miss a beat. “You care? Very well, I accept.” No time to celebrate. “With two caveats,” he added. “The week won’t start until the painting is done.” He smiled now, and it was a wicked one. “Also, I want the painting to be a nude.”
Her breath caught in her throat, only to exit on a gust. “I…you…excuse me?”
“A nude. Meaning I won’t be wearing any clothing. If you want to strip down, that’ll be okay too.”
This was punishment for daring to impede his sex life, wasn’t it? “I’ve never actually painted or even drawn what you’re suggesting, and I’m not sure I have the skill.” Or if she would survive.
“I have complete faith in your ability. And as an artist, a professional, I’ll expect you to view me strictly through objective eyes. You can do that, can’t you?”
“Of course,” she said. She could absolutely, one hundred percent view him through objective eyes…if he wore a cloak of invisibility. But even then it would be iffy. “Why do you want a nude?” she demanded, hoping to shame him into retracting his request.
“Maybe I enjoy the thought of disrobing for you.” His voice had gone low and husky, a caress of unfettered temptation, making her shiver. “Maybe I like the thought of your eyes on my bare skin and your hands forming the shapes of my body.”
She gulped. Having only ever dealt with boys, never with men, she had no idea how to respond to so blatant a statement.
“Or,” he said, his voice returning to its normal fun, flirty tone. “Maybe I’m narcissistic and want to immortalize every inch of myself. How is one to know?”
How indeed. “When would you like to start?”
I’m going to hate myself for reminding him of this, but… “What about your date? I can’t—won’t—hurt Kimberly.”
“I think we both know she was about to cancel on me. Which makes me wonder what the two of you were discussing.”
Shifting uncomfortably, she said, “I will never betray a confidence.”
“I could change your mind, but I won’t. I admire your mindset.” His gaze dropped to the pulse fluttering in her neck. “I’ll arrive at seven, and I’ll bring dinner.”
“Yes. I’d like that.” A lot. And it wasn’t the thought of food that made her heart race, but the thought of having him in her space. Alone…naked. Within reach.
She sucked in a breath. Oh…crap. The worst had happened, hadn’t it?
Kimberly had figured it out, but Harlow had done her best to deny it until the truth practically vibrated in her bones. How had she ever fooled herself into thinking she could fall for West…when she’d already fallen for Beck?
“What’s wrong, dove?” he asked gently. He came around the desk and sat at the edge, turning her chair to trap her between his legs. “You were twinkles one moment, sullen the next.”
He always read her so well, while she always struggled to make sense of his moods. Life wasn’t fair. “It’s nothing I want to discuss right now,” she said, refusing to lie to him. But she had to talk to someone about this.
Who? She had no confidants, and any secrets she revealed to others could be used as a weapon against her. A game of “humiliate Harlow for sport.”
“What will it take to get you to trust me, hmm?”
Was he serious? “Beck, for the past three weeks you’ve treated me like I’m a carrier of cholera. Why do you want my trust?”
“You’re my friend.”
But I want to be more. “Yes,” she said, and cleared her throat. “You’re right. I am.”
“So talk to me like a friend. Share your past with me. Tell me what changed you in high school.”
Her mouth went dry. Always they circled back to this. “Forget I agreed to be your friend. We’re enemies.”
“You’ll tell me what’s easy, but nothing that’s hard.”
“I don’t like to think about what changed me. It hurts.”
“Pain fades. Rip off the bandage and give the wound a chance to heal.”
“No.” If she told him, she’d have to show him. If she showed him, he’d never want her again. And right now he wanted her. He had to. The way he was looking at her…
He leaned down until his nose almost brushed against hers. “One day, Harlow, you’ll open up to me.”
“One day,” she whispered. “Maybe. But probably not.”
He cupped her nape, the heat of him making her gasp. “Definitely. And in more ways than one. I’ll make sure of it.”