Beta, p.1

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  Waking up has turned into one of my favorite games. The first question is always who’s awake first, Roth or me? If it’s me, it’s my job—self-appointed—to make sure he wakes up in the best possible way. In other words, with my hands and mouth around his morning wood. And if he’s awake first, he pretends to be asleep, so I can wake him up that way.

  The second question I ask myself every morning is where in the world are we? Because it’s different every week or two. Two weeks ago, I woke up in Vancouver. I still had one of Roth’s neckties knotted around one wrist, the remnant of a long and scream-filled night spent tied spread-eagle to the bed. Roth didn’t untie me until I’d come…god, like six times? Seven? And when he did finally untie me, well, let’s just say I don’t think he’ll play the “torture Kyrie with multiple orgasms without letting her touch him back” game again any time soon. I literally attacked him. The claw marks raking down his back are still healing. I fucked him so hard I actually think I nearly broke his cock. I think that’s possible. Pretty sure it is, and I’m pretty sure I nearly accomplished it.

  This morning I woke up and took stock. A little sore between the thighs, but nothing too bad. Roth was snoring, so I knew I was awake first. I breathed in, sighed, stretched. I blinked my eyes open, catching a whiff of salt sea air and the sound of waves crashing. The bed rocked gently from side to side. We were in a small, wood-paneled room with low ceilings and an open window. There was just room enough for the bed and a small chest of drawers. But the room was moving. Why was the room moving?

  Where were we? It took a few minutes for memories of the preceding weeks to bubble up. A week in Vancouver…a long, long flight to Tokyo. A week in Japan. God, what a week. So many tours, so much hiking, so much sushi and sake. I’m not sure I’ll ever drink sake again, that’s for sure.

  Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto…. I remembered the flight out of Kyoto, the flight attendants all dressed identically, down to their hairdos and the little scarf-tie thing knotted just so.

  Then where did we go?

  A seagull cawed, and I heard voices off in the distance, chattering rapidly. But they were not speaking Japanese.

  “Nh?t nó lên!” The angry voice echoed across the water, faint and distant.

  Vietnam. That’s where we were. Hanoi.

  Roth had bought us a houseboat, paid for it in cash, and then piloted it himself up the Red River all the way to Hanoi from a little village on the Gulf of Tonkin. We took it slow, stopping often to take on supplies and admire the scenery. We ate, drank, slept, and fucked. We checked out temples, hiked out into the farmlands and up into the hills, hiring an interpreter/guide to show us the best places off the beaten path. That’s the thing about Roth: He never behaves like a tourist. He always seems to belong wherever we are, and he always makes sure we’re safe.

  We arrived in Hanoi last night, and Roth found some little old lady to cook us a huge dinner on the houseboat. He paid her enough U. S. dollars that she left looking slightly faint from shock.

  After dinner, he uncorked a bottle of some local wine or liquor—I wasn’t sure which—that was insanely strong. After a couple of small glasses, I was hammered. Roth took full advantage, laying me on my belly and drilling me from behind until we both came. That was it, because I passed out after that.

  Once in a night isn’t anywhere near enough to sate my Valentine, so I owed him this morning.

  Roth was lying on his side, facing away from me. The sheet was low around his hips, showing me his broad, rippling back. His blond hair had grown out over the last few months, enough that it brushed his collar when he had a shirt on, and it hung down past his cheekbones. He’d grown a bit of a beard, too. Being fair as he was, he didn’t grow a thick beard, just a fine coating of blond hair on his cheeks and jaw. Sexy. Oh, so sexy.

  I hadn’t realized it was possible to feel this strongly about anyone. I’d realized pretty quickly that what I felt for Valentine was love, and that had been scary enough by itself. I wasn’t prepared to fall in love. Especially not with a man like Valentine. But as the weeks turned into months and I saw the world at his side, I realized what I’d felt for him back in Manhattan had really only been the beginning. The tip of the iceberg. The tiniest scraping sample off the top. The longer I spent with him, the more I realized how deep and intense my feelings for him were. I wanted to be with him every second of every day. I lived for the moments when I could make him smile, when I could see the soft, tender side of him that existed only for me.

  Valentine was the best thing that had ever happened to me.

  I cuddled up against him, pressed my lips to the back of his shoulder, and kissed, running my hand down his thick bicep. I found his hip and pushed the sheet away. I peered over his shoulder to watch as I cupped his balls in my hand. That, I’d found, was the best way to get him hard if he was still asleep. Massage slowly, gently, maybe a little pressure to his taint, and the sleeping giant would respond. Sure enough, within a minute or so, his cock was engorged and his breathing was changing. He groaned, his abdominal muscles tensing, arms raised over his head. He rolled to his back, stretched, and flexed his hips to drive his dick into my fist.

  I glanced up at him, finding his eyes on me. “Morning. ”

  He grinned at me, a slow, sleepy smile. “Good morning, my lovely. ”

  “I passed out last night, huh?”

  “Yes. Snake wine does you in rather quickly, it seems. ” He watched as I stroked him slowly, one hand sliding from root to tip and back down in a smooth glide.

  “Guess so. ”

  “You passed out before we got to do the one thing I’d been wanting to do to you on this boat,” he said between yawns.

  “Which is?”

  “Mmmmm. ” He closed his eyes and lifted his hips. “Would you like to find out?”

  I just gave him my small, secret smile, the one that meant I wasn’t going to argue either way. The do as you wish grin.

  Roth growled low in his throat and sat up, pushing me off him. He grabbed the blanket, a large, thin piece of dark green fleece, and draped it from his shoulders, wrapping the ends around both of us as I stood in front of him. He gestured at the door leading from the cabin up to the deck, and I ascended, squeaking as Roth’s fingers traced a line up my ass crack. He just chuckled and kept fondling and fingering me, making the trip up the ladder a little difficult, but fun. On the deck, Roth kept the blanket around both of us and guided me to the bow, which curved up elegantly to about waist height. Hanoi was spread out before us, dim in the early morning haze. There was another houseboat some two hundred feet away, and a third the same distance away on the other side, but there was no motion from either. A fishing scow plied the water about a thousand feet up-current and drifted toward us with fishing nets being hauled in, voices echoing now and again.

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  “Grab the bow,” Roth whispered in my ear. I took hold of the bow with both hands, then turned my head to watch him, but he made a negative sound. “Act like you’re just staring out at the city. And try to keep your voice down. ”

  I took the edges of the blanket and held on to it for him, keeping it pulled around us as Roth’s hands slid around my belly and descended between my thighs.

  Oh, shit. Staying quiet was not one of my strong suits.

  He had me writhing and moaning within seconds, pressing into his touch and biting my lip to keep from screaming. It didn’t take long before I was coming for the first time, and then he was bending at the knees, fingers of one hand on my pussy, the other around his cock, feeding it into me. I bent forward over the bow, spread my legs wide, and took him.

  The fishing scow was getting closer, floating downstrea
m, angled slightly so they’d slide right by us.

  “Oh god, Roth. Hurry. I’m so close. ”

  “Don’t come yet. Not yet. ”

  “I can’t help it. I’m about to—”

  He slowed his pace immediately. “Not yet, Kyrie. Not yet. ”

  The scow neared. Faces turned to regard us, eyes narrowed, suspicious. Roth just waved, and I heard the fishermen exchange comments, laughing. At that exact moment, Roth flexed his hips and drove into me. I wasn’t expecting it, and I let out a loud whimper, and all the fishermen guffawed. But at a glare from Roth, the helmsman gunned the engine, and they were soon past. Then Roth was moving again, and I was coming apart despite his exhortations to wait…wait.

  “Come with me, Valentine!”

  He came. Oh, dear god, did he come. So, so hard. He filled me with his come, and then kept driving, coming and coming, and I could only clench around him and bend over farther and keep taking him, gasping in the morning air.

  * * *

  Two weeks later, we were in a chateau in the hills of southern France. I was waking up, playing my game. Taking stock and guessing at our location.

  But this time, something was wrong.

  I sat up suddenly, totally awake. Roth wasn’t in bed. He never, ever left me alone in the mornings. He never got out of bed before me. I glanced at the bathroom, but it was dark and silent.

  My heart was pounding, sweat beading on my forehead.

  “Roth?” My voice was tentative, quiet, echoing in the expansive bedroom.


  The bed beside me was rumpled, still warm from his body heat. The pillow was indented where his head had been. There was a note. A white scrap of torn paper was pinned to the pillow with a long, thin silver knife. The message was written in red ink in neat, feminine, looping handwriting:

  He belongs to me.



  “No. Nonono. ” I reached out for the knife and the paper, but stopped short of touching either.

  He belongs to me. The ink was crimson, the color of fresh blood. Was it blood? Roth’s blood? No, it couldn’t be. It was too neat, too clean, each pen stroke precise. Blood would smear, right? Oh god. Oh god. Who would do this? Who could do this? We went to bed drunk last night…I knew that much. But not that drunk. Not so drunk that someone could have kidnapped a man like Valentine Roth right out of the bed beside me while I slept.

  But he was gone.

  I scrambled out of bed; the six hundred year-old oak floors were cool under my bare feet. The four-poster bed was even older than that, Roth had told me. This chateau was one of two he owned in France. This one, in the Languedoc-Rousillon region, sat nestled between an old cathedral and a sprawling vineyard. There wasn’t much land attached to this chateau, just enough for the house and a small yard, but it was quaint, ancient, and beautiful. Peaceful. His other chateau was part of a winery in the Alsace-Lorraine area, and that was to be our next stop.

  Maybe Roth was in the kitchen? Maybe this was something new. Some ridiculous game. I hurried downstairs to the galley kitchen, which was dark and quiet, three empty bottles of merlot clustered together on the counter, a corkscrew beside them with a cork still in it. The den was empty as well, the fireplace dark now except for a few embers glowing a dull orange. A cashmere throw blanket lay rumpled on the floor in front of the fireplace, and I remembered lying on my back right there last night, the blanket on Roth’s shoulders as he moved above me, his arms thick pillars beside my face, firelight glinting off his skin, shimmering in his arresting blue eyes. He’d finished inside me, leaving me shaking and breathless from the force of my orgasm, and then he’d lifted me in his arms and carried me, still trembling from the aftershocks, to our bed. He’d nestled behind me, his hand a warm, reassuring presence on my stomach, his chest at my back, his lips kissing my shoulder as he murmured, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” in my ear. I fell asleep like that, cradled by him, his warmth cocooning me, his strength sheltering me.

  I was worried and frightened now, and I choked back a sob and tried the wine cellar, cool and dry and temperature-controlled to preserve the hundreds of bottles of wine, each worth hundreds and thousands of dollars. All worthless to me if Roth was gone. He wasn’t there. Of course he wasn’t. I knew he wouldn’t be, but I had to look anyway.

  Still naked, I threw open the door to the garage and flicked on a light. The Range Rover, black and gleaming and silent. The Aston Martin, red and sleek, also empty. The keys to each were on hooks just inside the house.

  I stumbled back to the bedroom, shaking all over now, hands trembling, panting in short, panicked breaths.

  What do I do? What do I do? The answer came immediately: Harris. Call Harris.

  My cell phone was on the nightstand, plugged in to charge. There were only four contacts in my phonebook: Valentine, Harris, Layla, and Cal. Valentine’s phone was on his nightstand, still connected to the charger. His clothes were on the floor, where we’d shed them the previous evening before taking a shower. God, the shower. It was small, a typical European shower. But somehow Roth had still managed to pin me up against the wall and ravish me until I couldn’t breathe.

  Everywhere I looked, there were memories of Roth. The bed, the shower, the kitchen—my bare ass on the counter, cabinet handle in my back, Roth lifting up on his toes to drive into me—the den, even the garage. I’d sucked him off in the garage, and he’d returned the favor, lifting me onto the hood of the Rover and performing his uniquely talented brand of cunnilingus on me until I begged him to let me stop coming.

  And everywhere I looked, there he was. Telling me he loved me. Him, Valentine Roth, gorgeous, ripped, talented, gazillionaire businessman. He loved me. And he never got tired of telling me, showing me, making sure I knew I belonged to him.

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  I tripped and fell onto the bed. Sobbing. And when I managed to open my eyes, all I could see was the knife, black handle, silver blade curving and serpentine and razor-sharp, evil. The note, a torn scrap of paper and the blood-red ink.

  I grabbed my phone, ripped the charger cord free, and pressed the “home” button. I swiped it to unlock it, then tapped Harris’s name.

  “Miss St. Claire. ” His voice, cool and calm, was there before it rang a second time. “How may I help you, ma’am?”

  “He’s gone—he’s—they…someone took him! He’s gone, Harris. Help me. Help me!” I wasn’t making sense and I knew it, but I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.

  “Kyrie. ” His voice cut through my panic. “Breathe. Take a moment and breathe. ”

  I took three deep breaths, in through my mouth, out through my nose. I tried again. “I woke up just now. Maybe ten minutes ago. We’re in—in France. Valentine is gone, Harris. ”

  “Where did he go? To the shops, perhaps? Out for coffees?”

  “No, Harris! You don’t understand!” I was shrieking, shouting. “There’s a note, a fucking note with a goddamn knife!”

  “I’m trying to understand, Miss St. Claire. Are you saying someone kidnapped Mr. Roth?”

  “YES!” I screamed it, so loud and shrill it hurt my throat. I had to swallow and breathe and start over. “The note — someone stabbed a big knife through the note into the pillow. It’s a woman’s handwriting. It says—god, god. It says, ‘he belongs to me. ’”

  “This is serious? For real? You aren’t joking?”

  “DO I SOUND LIKE I’M FUCKING JOKING?” I fell forward onto the bed, phone pressed to my ear, sobbing. “Who would do this…who? Why? What do I do, Harris?”

  “Is there anything else apart from the knife and the note?”

  “No. ”

  “Just those words? No demands or anything?”

  I shook my head even though I knew, rationally, that Harris couldn’t see me. “No. No. Just the note, just those words. His phone, the cars, his clothes…everything. It’s all here. I�
��ve looked everywhere, but he’s gone. Who took him, Harris?”

  “I have a couple of ideas. It’s going to be okay, Miss St. Claire. We’ll find him. Just stay there and don’t touch anything. Get dressed, but don’t go anywhere. Don’t call anyone. No one, do you understand me? Not Layla, not the police, no one. ”

  “Okay. ”

  “Say it. Repeat it for me. ”

  “I won’t go anywhere. I won’t call anyone. I’ll stay here and wait for you. ”

  “Yes. I’m in London, so I’ll be there in a matter of hours. ” His voice was calm and collected, and that reassured me somehow.

  “Okay. ” I swallowed hard and tried to sound calm. “Harris? Who could have done this?”

  “We’ll speak when I arrive, Miss St. Claire. Until then, try to remain calm. Get something to eat. Pack a bag of your clothes. Sensible clothes, sensible shoes. Necessary personal items. Do not touch anything of Mr. Roth’s, especially not the note or the knife. ”

  “Okay. I understand. ” My voice was quiet, barely audible.

  “We’ll find him, Miss St. Claire. I promise you. You have my word. ” Something cold in Harris’s voice scared me. But that was good. I needed the scary bodyguard Harris right now, not the polite driver and friend.

  I hung up the phone, unplugged the charger cord, and wrapped it into a tiny bundle, tucking it into my purse. I showered quickly, harshly suppressing the images of the last time I was in this shower. I lathered, rinsed, and got out, dried off. Brushed my hair, tied it up still wet into a messy chignon. Jeans and a T-shirt, my hiking boots. Roth had insisted on buying me a bunch of outdoor gear before we set out on our big trip. He’d bought me a set of luggage and pretty much a whole new wardrobe. Jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts and sweaters, khaki shorts and tank tops, a rain slicker, expensive hiking boots, hats, sunglasses, pretty much every kind of outfit for every kind of climate. And somehow he’d gotten it all into two big Louis Vuitton suitcases and a backpack. He always packed for us, saying he had a foolproof system.

  So right now I tried to replicate his method, rolling the clothes rather than folding them, packing them down deep into the bottom of my backpack. A couple pair of jeans, shirts, my favorite hoodie, some shorts and socks and underwear and a spare bra, toiletries. I put my purse in the backpack as well, and laced up my hiking boots, tied a sweater around my waist.

  Why was I packing? I’d followed Harris’s instructions, but I didn’t quite understand why I needed to pack and why I was now ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

  Once I was packed, I went into the kitchen and made what I thought of as a “French breakfast,” a baguette purchased the evening before, some Brie, fresh sliced fruit, and a cup of coffee. With Roth, everything tasted better. Plain cheese tasted like heaven, coffee was thick and rich and always perfectly doctored, bread was crusty on the outside and soft and warm on the inside. But now, alone, everything was tasteless, and I couldn’t stop thinking, couldn’t stop wondering.

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