“I still don’t understand why you’re coming with me today.”
I bit back a smile as I met Will’s annoyed expression in the mirrored doors of the elevator, ignoring the curious glances we’d earned from some of the other passengers around us. He hit the button for the eighteenth floor.
My attention lingered on the label beside it: RYAN MEDIA GROUP. “You know how much I enjoy seeing you in action. Fish in a barrel or whatever it is you Americans say.”
“First of all,” he said, quieter now, “you’re using that wrong, and nobody says that anymore. And second, you’re full of shit. You have a hundred other meetings this week; I know you’re swamped. Why on earth are you coming to this? It’s not anything I need you for.”
“You’re right, technically I don’t need to be here, but I’ve seen you in these kinds of meetings before, mate. Someone starts talking about neurotransmitter somethings or chemical scaffolds and it’s like you’ve smoked a blunt. Just here to make sure you don’t geek out on us all and agree to some ridiculous budget.”
“I do not geek out.”
“No, of course you don’t,” I said. “And weren’t you the one going on about great contacts? I’ll spend some time chatting up Bennett while we’re here and kill two birds with one stone, yeah?”
I couldn’t even swallow my own excuse; I wasn’t used to feeling this out of my depth with women. I certainly wasn’t used to sneaking around like a bloody teenager in order to catch a few minutes alone with one. This thing with Sara was engineered to be simple, but right now it felt anything but. A few hours ago I’d thought I had it all figured out: tag along to the meeting at RMG, use Bennett as an excuse should Will question, and if luck was on my side, run into Sara on a Monday rather than having to wait all the way until Friday. Spending time with her outside of our arrangement had spoiled me. Getting a wank in the back of a cab hadn’t hurt, either. But now I felt conflicted, wondering if I was asking for trouble by blurring the lines like this.
The doors opened and Will turned to me. “As long as you understand that this is my show. You just sit there and look smart.”
“Mr. Sumner, Mr. Stella,” the receptionist greeted us. “Nice to see you again.” She led us down the hall to the large conference room lined with windows, New York poised like a postcard on the other side. “Mr. Ryan is on his way down.”
“Seems like a shame to spend your free afternoon here when you could be visiting your mysterious little sex kitten,” Will said when we were alone again.
I walked over to the window and looked down at the traffic on the street below. “What makes you think she’s free in the afternoon?”
Will began going through his papers and I took a seat at the long table, letting my mind wander to the last time I’d been in this building. I’d been chasing after her that day, too, though admittedly not that much had changed. Sure, I’d spent time with her, fucked her and tasted her and touched practically every inch of her body, but I was no closer to understanding what was going on in that pretty little head now than I was then.
The sound of voices carried down the hall and I looked up just as Bennett walked inside.
“Will,” he said, reaching out to shake his hand. “Thanks for coming down.” He gave me a curious smile. “Max. Wasn’t expecting to see you today. You joining in on our discussion of B&T Biotech?”
It was impossible to miss the smug look of satisfaction on Will’s face. Both he and Bennett knew I’d only scraped my way through biochemistry by flirting with the professor, Dr. William Haverston. They loved to reminisce about the “boyfriend I almost had.”
“He’s just full of surprises,” Will said.
“He certainly is,” Bennett agreed. I hadn’t really considered the Bennett angle. It had been a few weeks since the fund-raiser, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether he knew I was here more for Sara and less for discussion of the latest in proteomics.
“I think you’re both a couple of tossers,” I mumbled.
There was a flurry of activity as the others filed in; unfortunately for my attempt at maintaining a cool front, Sara was the last through the door. She looked amazing, and as Bennett made the introductions, I let my gaze travel up the length of her body. Navy skirt, cute little pink sweater over the gentle swell of her breasts, and a neck I wanted to suck on for hours.
“This is Sara Dillon, head of our finance department,” Bennett said to Will.
Will stepped forward. “Yes, we’ve been exchanging emails. So nice to finally meet you, Sara. We missed each other at the fund-raiser last month, I think.”
They spoke for a moment before she glanced my way, her eyes going wide for the briefest moment. She walked over, hand outstretched, and did not look entirely pleased to see me.
“I believe we met at the fund-raiser,” she said, tight smile in place. “Max Stella, was it?”
I took her hand, letting my thumb graze the inside of her wrist. “I’m flattered you remember, Sara.”
She pulled her hand back, smiling blandly at me and moving to her seat.
I moved on to Chloe, making small talk and accepting a vague invitation for dinner sometime in the next few weeks. It was pretty clear why Bennett was so taken with her: she was beautiful and obviously sharp. I didn’t miss the way her eyes flickered to Bennett’s and then back to me, as if they were having some sort of silent conversation. At one point he rolled his eyes, face stretching into a smile unlike anything I’d ever seen on him before. The poor bastard was whipped.
As the meeting started, I took the only seat available, right next to Sara. Judging by her expression, I wasn’t entirely convinced this was a good thing.
The minutes seemed to drag by and, Jesus Christ, this really was the most boring thing I’d ever sat through, science and strategies about science. At one point I could have sworn I saw Will’s eyes roll closed in ecstasy.
Sara was still silently fuming beside me. What happened that had her so tense? I could feel every bit of space that separated her body from mine. I had to consciously work to keep my hands in my lap. I was aware of every movement she made, every time she shifted in her chair or reached for her bottle of water. I could smell her. I hadn’t realized how hard it would be to be this close and not be able to run my hands along her skin, to do something as simple as tuck her hair behind her ear.
Why the fuck did I suddenly want to tuck her hair behind her ear? This plan had officially gone to shite.
Immediately after Will’s portfolio presentation, Sara excused herself and left before I could talk to her any more. When I finally disentangled myself from a conversation about the best way to highlight the firm’s proteomic technology in the marketing strat plan, I practically sprinted to her office.
“Hello,” her assistant said, looking me up and down from behind his monitor.
“I’m here to see Miss Dillon,” I said, continuing on to her office.
“Good luck, because she’s not in there,” he called over my shoulder. I turned to find that he’d gone back to his spreadsheets.
“Any idea where she might be?”
Without looking up he answered, “Probably out for a walk. She just stormed through here like someone had set her shoes on fire.” He blinked over to me. “She usually goes to the park when she wants to stab someone.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
I ran to the elevator, ignoring the looks I got along the way, and watched the floors count down. What the hell had gone wrong? I’d barely said two words to her in there. The heat of the afternoon hit me like a wall as I stepped outside, even in the suffocating shadows of the buildings overhead. I looked up and down the street, turning on foot in the direction of the park. The sidewalks were crowded with dog walkers and tourists, but hopefully her shoes would slow her down enough that I’d be able to catch up.
It was the strangest feeling to move from the city and into the park, where the smells of asphalt and exhaust were replaced with trees and leaves, damp dirt and water.
I saw a flash of pink at the end of the trail and I sped up, calling out to her. “Sara!”
She stopped on a paved trail and whipped around to face me. “Holy hell, Max. What were you thinking?”
I pulled up short. “What?”
“Back there!” she said, short of breath. “I didn’t know you guys funded B&T! They don’t need to disclose that at this stage. Hello, conflict of interest!”
I scrubbed my face, wishing this simple arrangement would stop feeling so fucking complicated. “I didn’t think it would be a problem.”
“Let me lay it out for you,” she said. “The head of finance of B&T’s marketing firm is sleeping with the head of the venture capitalist firm that pays said marketing firm. Think you maybe have a conflict? Do you think maybe you’d like your new sex buddy to have some business? Or maybe you’d like to ensure your new venture gets the best possible price on premium marketing strategy?”
Was she kidding with this bollocks? I felt my face grow hot with indignation. “Christ, Sara! I’m not bringing you business because I worry about you, or shagging you to ensure you do your job well!”
She sighed, holding her hands up. “I don’t actually think that. But that’s how it could look. How long have you been doing this? Don’t you know how these things get spun? This is a new position for me. This is your business and people are hungry for every detail about you. Look how much the press follows you, even five years after Cecily left town.”
She was hypersensitive about publicity, and spin, and it was bewildering. This was all a load of bullshit, and I could tell she knew that. She looked away, arms crossed over her midsection, shoulders slumped. The truth was, I didn’t care who saw me with Sara. Five years out from the Cecily drama and I realized you couldn’t help what anyone said anymore. No way could Sara understand that.
I walked over to a willow tree several feet away, ducking under the curtain of leaves, and sat down with my back to the trunk. “I don’t think this is as big an issue as you’re making it out to be.”
She stepped closer but remained standing. “My point is that there needs to be some level of discretion. With or without a potential conflict, I don’t want Bennett to think I sleep with clients as a point of habit.”
“Fair enough, but I don’t think Bennett has a lot of room to criticize.”
I watched her legs move closer, bend, and then she was sitting next to me on the warm grass. “There wasn’t any reason for you to be there. I wasn’t expecting to see you and it threw me.”
“Bloody hell, Sara. I wasn’t going to try to finger you beneath the table, I just wanted to come along and get a chance to see you, say hello. You could be more adaptable, you know.”
She laughed a little, and then stopped. But then a few seconds passed and I realized she’d started to laugh again: silent at first, and then she was holding her stomach, bent in half, practically howling with laughter.
“You think?” she managed.
I had no idea what I had said that triggered her reaction, so I just sat still, imagining that less was probably more when sitting beside a woman who might or might not really be losing her kit.
She calmed, wiping her eyes and sighing. “Yes, I could be more adaptable. Having sex with a guy in a club, in a banquet hall, a warehouse, a library—”
“Oi, Sara. I didn’t mean—”
She held up her hand. “No, it’s just a good lesson to me. Stretching myself is a constant process. As soon as I stop and consider how well I’m handling one thing, I see how rigid I am about something else.”
I pulled up a long blade of grass, considering this. “I should have texted.”
“But you know, I would have been thrilled to see you randomly show up at a meeting at Stella & Sumner.”
“You also want to go out to dinner with me, and have me sleep in your mother’s guest room, and probably even make cookies with me or something.”
“Because I don’t care if we’re seen together,” I said, growing frustrated. “Why do you?”
“Because people will get invested,” she said, turning to look at me. “People will discuss it, make a narrative out of it. They’ll speculate, look into who we are, what we both want. Relationships in the public eye don’t do well and it will follow you forever if you admit you care.”
“Right,” I said, nodding once.
I listened to the wind blowing past us, muted by the curtain of leaves. I liked being in this little cave of quiet, hidden from foot traffic, birds, anything else that might want to witness our conversation and my silent meltdown. Too many things were bubbling up inside me: the realization that I wanted Sara, that I’d always wanted Sara—from the first day I saw her. I also accepted the truth that I’d expected Sara to eventually hope for more, and that I would be the one setting limits, not her.
“Max, I’m kind of a mess,” she said quietly.
“Will you at least tell me why?”
“Not today,” she said, looking up at the branches overhead.
“I’m happy with what we’re doing, but it’s not always easy to be kept at such arm’s length.”
She laughed a little, humorlessly. “I know.” And then she leaned over, and pressed her mouth against mine.
I expected a tiny peck, a discreet public kiss to wipe the slate clean after I’d admitted I should have given her a heads-up and she admitted she’d overreacted. But it turned into something wholly deeper: her hands on either side of my face, mouth open and hungry for more, and finally her climbing over me, straddling my thighs.
“Why are you so nice?” she whispered, and then kissed me, muting any possible reply.
But this one stuck. It felt too big to disregard and pave over with my hand in her underwear or a grind under a tree. I pulled back. “I’m nice because I’m genuinely fond of you.”
“Do you ever lie?” she asked, eyes searching mine.
“Of course I do. But why would I want to be dishonest with you?”
Her face straightened and she nodded thoughtfully. After a long pause, she whispered, “I should get back.”
My mood shifted immediately from warm and intimate to resigned business-as-usual. The girl was a boomerang. “Okay.”
She stood, wiping the grass from her knees and skirt. “We probably shouldn’t walk back together.”
I could only nod, for fear I’d let loose a litany of frustration over her publicity rules, particularly after she’d just climbed into my lap beneath a tree.
After a lingering look, she stretched and kissed my jaw once, carefully. “I’m fond of you, too.”
I watched her walk away, head straight and shoulders back. Looking to all the world as if she were returning from nothing but a brisk walk through the park.
I looked around me as if it were possible to collect together the heart I’d nearly spilled all over the grass.