Beautiful Stranger [Beautiful Series]

Eleven

To say my interaction with Max at the park had been odd would be an understatement. I knew I’d overreacted, but honestly? So had he. Worrying about my reaction in the conference room? Chasing me down? What were we doing?

Monday night I came home and spent two hours making æbelskivers for dinner. Puffed balls of dough, fried and powdered in sugar, traditionally served for breakfast, but screw it. I needed something elaborate. It was my grandmother’s recipe from Denmark, and focusing on making them perfect gave me time to think.

I hadn’t spent much time thinking at all lately.

But cooking something so associated with my family also made me miss home, miss my parents, miss the safety of a predictable life, no matter how depressing or untrue.

I reached for my phone, not caring how messy my hands were. Mom picked up on the seventh ring. So typical.

“Hi, pumpkin!” I heard something crash in the background and she swore, “Fucksticks!”

“You okay?” I asked, smiling into the call. It was amazing how three words could make me feel grounded.

“Fine, just dropped my iPad. You okay, honey?” And when she asked this I remembered I’d called her that morning on my walk to the subway.

“Just wanted to hear your voice.”

She paused. “Feeling homesick?”

“A little.”

“Tell me,” she said, and I immediately remembered the hundreds of times she’d said exactly this, urging me to let it all out.

“I met a man.”

“Today?”

I winced. I’d spoken to my parents a few times a week since I’d moved and had never mentioned Max. What was there to mention? They didn’t want to know about my sex life any more than I wanted to share it.

“No. A few weeks ago.”

I could practically hear her strategizing her best response. Supportive, but protective. How one reacts the first time their daughter starts dating after a horrible, public breakup.

“Who is he?”

“A finance guy here. Local. But not,” I said, shaking my head and wishing I could start over. “He’s British.”

“Ooh, a foreigner, how fabulous!” she said laughing, putting on her thick southern drawl. And then she paused. “Are you telling me this because it’s serious?”

“I’m telling you this because I have no idea.”

I loved my mother’s laugh. I missed its frequency. “That’s the best stage.”

“Is it?”

“For sure. Don’t you dare squander it. Don’t let that jerk of an ex-boyfriend keep you from having fun.”

I sighed. “But it feels so uncharted. I always knew what to expect with Andy.” As soon as I said it, I regretted it, and her answering silence felt thundering.

“Did you?”

She knew me so well. I could practically see her arms crossed, her I’m-gonna-kick-some-ass face. “No. I didn’t.”

“Do you feel like you know this guy?”

“That’s the weird thing. I kind of feel like I do.”

No matter how much I thought about it, or how little sleep I got that night, it’d be fair to say I had no idea where Max’s head was after what happened Monday. The dynamics were backward: He was supposed to know how to do this casual thing. I was supposed to know how to do commitment.

And neither of us was supposed to want anything but sex. But somehow, it had never been like that. The niggling desire to know each other had started pushing its way in from day one, and I knew that as much as I wanted to be a person who could compartmentalize my relationship into Just Sex, I never really would be.

I remembered the panic on his face when he chased me down, and felt a stab of guilt.

Sara, you are complete fail at Booty Call for Beginners.

On Wednesday he texted me a picture from our night at the library. It was of the hem of my dress, pushed up against my lower back. A simple shot, but he’d stylized it into black-and-white, and the original was blurry enough for me to know he’d taken it toward the end, when I’d dissolved into inarticulate recitation and he’d followed me into orgasm with a groan muffled against my neck.

On Thursday, it was a picture I remembered seeing as we flipped through his phone on the Fourth of July. It was a photo of my hands unbuttoning his jeans. I’d pulled the denim away from his skin just enough to see the faint shape of his cock straining against his gray boxer briefs.

Both pictures were sent around lunchtime, and I received them while I worked on finalizing two major contracts. I tried to convince myself that I felt giddy from getting a few contracts done rather than from the prospect of seeing him.

I was a giant lying liar.

“Question,” George said, walking into my office without knocking first. “Are we entirely sure Max Stella is straight? I’ve been thinking about this since he was here on Monday.”

I blinked, trying to figure out if I’d just said his name out loud or if George was just doing what Chloe had been doing since the Stella & Sumner meeting: making constant, casual references to their firm, and then watching me for any reaction.

“Pretty sure.”

“Maybe he’s bi?”

I looked up at him and dropped my red pen onto the thick contract in front of me. “Honestly? I really doubt it.”

George lifted two curious eyebrows. “You know personally?”

I gave him my most intimidating glare, which, to be fair, was . . . not very intimidating. No way was George going to play this game today. “Did you get signatures from Miller and Cortez on the Agent Provocateur campaign?”

My assistant narrowed his eyes at me. “Fine. I won’t ask more. But just know that I’m suspicious, ma’am. Very suspicious. You looked like your underpants were on fire when you saw him on Monday. And yes, I got the signatures.”

“Good.” Just as I spoke, my phone buzzed on my desk and I quickly flipped it over, reminding myself for the millionth time that I needed to change my preview settings in case Max was texting me another picture.

George’s face was priceless: his restraint appeared to cause him physical pain.

“You’re adorable, but go,” I said.

“Who’s texting you?”

“Until you marry me and pay all my bills, that will never be an appropriate question. Even then, you’re unlikely to get an answer.”

“Fine.” With a long middle finger raised, he swept from my office and back to his desk.

I glanced down at my screen, holding my breath. It was a text from Max, and my pulse exploded into a gallop.

Office being painted and recarpeted over the weekend. Must pack it up Friday after work, so I’m stuck in I’m afraid.

Quickly, I typed, So I won’t see you until next week? As soon as I hit send, I realized just how desperate I sounded.

Hello, Sara. You sound desperate because you are.

Within a couple of minutes, he replied, I presume you remember where my office is? I’ll see you at six, Petal.

Like many of the floors in our building, the Stella & Sumner offices were nearly deserted by six on Friday night. Max’s mother wasn’t at the front desk, and only a couple of people remained in cubicles as I walked through the halls to his office.

I knocked on his door quietly, and heard his deep voice tell me to come in.

I have it bad for this man, I realized when I saw him, sitting behind his desk with his sleeves rolled up and wearing thick-rimmed glasses. He wore an expression of such acute concentration it nearly stole my breath.

It turned out Max’s focused-at-work face closely mirrored his concentrating-on-giving-Sara-an-orgasm face.

“Lock the door behind you, if you would,” he murmured, without looking away from his computer monitor.

I turned, clicked the lock, and then glanced around his office again. How long were we going to be here? And when would he look up and tell me I looked beautiful? Our habits were already so heavily ingrained.

His office didn’t look at all like it was on the verge of being painted. He’d barely started putting things away: books and piles of papers lined one wall, and at least twenty empty boxes were stacked in a corner, waiting to be filled.

“I’m sure it will be boring for you to be here with me, and I’m a selfish prick for asking you to do this, but go ahead and take off your clothes.”

I felt my mouth fall open, eyes go wide. “What?”

“Clothes. Off,” he said, and pulled his glasses down his nose as he finally looked over at me. “You expected to remain clothed?” Shaking his head, he pushed the frames back up and returned his attention to his computer. “I fucking hate packing. Seeing you naked will be the only good thing about this night.”

“Um,” I said, trying to form a response. The truth was that old Sara would never have even entertained the idea of just casually sitting naked in front of someone. Which was exactly why I wanted do it. I walked toward the couch and pulled my short-sleeved cashmere sweater over my head. I slipped out of my blue ballet flats with the British flag embroidered on top, and then wiggled out of my dark skinny jeans, mumbling, “You didn’t even notice my shoes.”

“Like hell I didn’t. God save the Queen,” he said dryly, winking at me. “I notice every single thing about you, Sara.”

“You do?”

“Try me.”

“Where’s my birthmark?”

“On your right side, just beneath your smallest rib.”

“Do you have a favorite freckle?”

Tricky question, I thought. I don’t have many freckles.

“The one on your wrist.” I glanced down to the freckle in question, impressed.

“What do I say when I’m about to come?”

“When you’re coming, you just make unintelligible sounds. But when you’re close, you just whisper ‘please’ over and over, as if I’d ever deny you.”

“What does my pussy taste like?” I asked, and his eyes shot away from the screen and to me. I bit back a grin as I pushed my underwear down my legs and stepped out of them.

“Some pussy just tastes like pussy. Yours tastes like good pussy.” He stood, walking over to me. “Lie down on the couch with your head here.” He positioned the back of my head on the arm of the leather couch. It was surprisingly comfortable for such firm leather.

“And knees up, legs spread.”

My eyes widened slightly but I did what he told me to, smiling when he brushed the hair from my forehead, and adjusted my posture as if I were a piece of art he was hanging on a wall.

“Draw me like one of your French girls, Jack,” I said, looking up at him.

He reached down and pinched my ass. “Cheeky.”

To test him, I closed my legs a little as he started to walk away.

“Wide,” he called over his shoulder.

I laughed, and moved back to how he’d positioned me.

Max returned with a book and handed it over. “This is to entertain you while I work.”

“You’re not going to be naked, too?”

“Are you mad?” he asked, grinning. “I have to pack.”

I glanced down at the book in my hands. It had a bare-chested man on the cover with a cat and a half-naked woman at his feet. Cat’s Claws.

“This looks . . . interesting,” I said, flipping it over to read the summary. “The guy has two partners. One is the human named Cat, and then she has a Werecat.” I glanced up at him. “As a pet. A pet they both have sex with.”

“It sounded rather cerebral.”

“You got this off the dollar table, didn’t you?”

“I did. It looks smashingly crude, though, so I knew you’d love it.” He turned and started moving things around on his desk. “Now, quiet, Petal. I’m very busy.”

At first it felt almost impossible to focus on the book in my hands, but as the minutes ticked by, and Max apparently grew absorbed in the process of packing up his desk, I started to forget that I was sitting on his couch. Alone.

Totally naked.

The book he’d given me was ridiculously filthy, not to mention wordy as hell; the writing was horrible but I suspected that wasn’t really the point. There were multiple men, multiple women; too many appendages to keep straight but again—it didn’t matter. The point was the sex happening, and how descriptive it was. Everyone had some body part that was hard or dripping. Or both. People screamed and—sometimes literally—clawed at things.

And in the corner, the hero sat simply watching.

“You’re blushing.” He put a stack of books down and leaned against his desk watching me. “You’ve been reading that for fifteen minutes and something you’ve just read made you flush scarlet.”

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

“Cunt?”

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.”

“I don’t . . .”

“Sara.”

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.

Damn.

I coughed, squeezing my eyes shut.

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

“Fine.”

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.

Is he . . . ?

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.

“Let me watch,” I whispered.

“No.” His voice was tight. “I’m watching you.”

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.

“You . . . what?”

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.

“I did.”

“Max, my face . . .”

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?”

“You wear an allergy bracelet.”

“You read it?”

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.

To my surprise, I whispered, “Ethiopian sounds perfect.”

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 naked 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.

“What?” he asked.

“Um . . . ,” I stammered, pointing. “Your mouth.”

“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.

“What?” I asked.

“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.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Labrador retriever and poodle mix.”

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.”

“Why?”

“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?”

He nodded, interested.

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?”

I nodded.

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

“I know!” I laughed, taking a sip of wine.

“I like that about you. I like your internal conflict, your sweetness. I like that you have this insanely wealthy family but I’ve seen you wear the same dress a few times.” He licked his lips and gave me a predatory smile. “Mostly, I like that you’re so clearly good and yet have let me do such bad things to you.”

“I don’t think they’re bad.”

“Ah, but that’s the point. Most people would think you were mad to meet me at that warehouse. You’re an American heiress and you let some whorish Brit take pictures of you naked. Take video of you masturbating in my office tonight just for the thrill of knowing I’ll watch it. But it’s what you’ve asked me for.”

He leaned back in his chair, watched me. He looked so serious, almost perplexed. “I’m a fucking bloke; I’m not going to say no to that. But I didn’t think women like you existed. So naïve in all these really obvious ways, yet so fucking sexual that a friendly, gentle little shag on a mattress would never be enough.”

I lifted my glass, took a sip while he watched my mouth. Licking my lips, I smiled at him. “I think you’ll find most women aren’t always satisfied by a friendly, gentle little shag on a mattress.”

Max laughed, murmuring, “Touché.”

“And that’s why the cameras and the women chase you,” I said, looking at him from over the top of my glass. “It’s more than the history with Cecily. If it were just that, they would have lost interest within a few weeks. But you’re the man from the paper with a different woman all the time. The one nobody can seem to catch. The man who obviously knows his way around a pussy.”

Max’s eyes widened a little, pupils dilating like a drop of ink into the dusk sky. “I’m not with a different woman every night lately.”

Ignoring him, I finished my thought. “Women don’t always want to be treated like we’re delicate, or rare, or somehow more precious. We want to be wanted. We want sex to be just as raw as you do. You’re the guy who knows that.”

He leaned forward on his elbows, studying me. “But why do I feel like you’re the one giving me something special? Something you’ve never given anyone before?”

“Because I am.”

He opened his mouth to say something, but then my phone rang, vibrating where I’d put it on the table. And as both Max and I looked down at it, I knew we saw the name at exactly the same time.

ANDY CELL.