Beautiful Stranger [Beautiful Series]

Twelve

I put Sara in a cab and watched as the taillights disappeared into the darkness.

Fuck.

She’d ignored the call at dinner, glancing at the screen before silencing it to vibrate against the table, but not before I saw who it was, and definitely not before I saw her try to hide her reaction.

ANDY CELL.

I’d never seen anyone shut down like that before; it was like someone flipped a switch and the light slowly drained from her face. She’d begun picking at her food and stopped talking, withdrawing into herself and answering in single-word sentences for the remainder of the meal. I’d tried to lighten the mood, told a few jokes and flirted with her shamelessly, but . . . nothing. After about ten minutes she’d put us both out of our misery, feigning a headache and insisting that she take a cab home. Alone.

Fuck.

I continued to stare off into the empty street as my car pulled up to the curb, idling quietly behind me. I waved off my driver, opening the door myself and climbing inside.

“Where to, Mr. Stella?”

“Let’s head home, Scott,” I said, slumping back into the seat. We pulled away and I watched the city rush by in a blur, my mood darkening with each block we passed.

Things had been going so well. She’d finally started to open up, to let me into that vault of a mind of hers. I was still reeling from her admission that her parents owned one of the largest luxury department store chains in the country, and then “Andy cell.” Fucking Andy cell.

Anger flared in my chest and for a brief moment I wondered how often they spoke. Six years was a long time and meant they had a history that would be hard to simply brush under the rug; I don’t know why I’d assumed he was completely out of her life. It made sense that she didn’t want to be in another relationship, but her forced distance always felt so much larger than that.

Maybe he wanted her back.

I frowned as I let that thought roll around in my head, hating the way it felt.

Of course he wanted her back; how could he not? For the hundredth time I found myself wondering what exactly happened between them and why she was so against telling me.

We drove through midtown and were almost to my building when my mobile vibrated in my pocket.

Home safe. Thanks for dinner. xx

Well, this night certainly went tits up.

I reread her text and considered calling, knowing it’d be a lost cause. She was so fucking stubborn. I typed out at least ten different replies, deleting each one before sending.

The problem was that I wanted to talk about this and she didn’t. The problem was also that I’d somehow misplaced my balls and my spine.

“You mind driving around a bit, Scott?” I asked, and he shook his head, turning north past the park. I flipped through my contacts and pressed Will’s name. It rang twice before he answered.

“Hey. What’s up?”

“You got a few?” I asked, looking out over the passing streets.

“Sure, give me a second.” There was some shuffling and the sound of a door closing before he was back. “Everything okay?”

I leaned my head back against the seat, not sure where to start. I just knew I had to unload some confusion with someone, and, unfortunately for him right now, that someone in my life was Will. “I have no idea.”

“Well, that was cryptic. I didn’t have an email telling me something is on fire, so I’m assuming this isn’t about work.”

“I wish.”

“Okay . . . Hey, didn’t you say something about having plans tonight?”

“That’s sort of why I’m calling, actually.” I scrubbed a hand along my jaw. “Jesus. I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I said. “I think I just need someone to . . . to listen. Like, if I say it out loud it’ll make more sense.”

“Well, this should be good,” he said, chuckling into the phone. “Let me get comfortable.”

“You know the woman I’ve been seeing.”

“Fucking. The woman you’ve been fucking.”

I closed my eyes. “Will.”

“Yes, Max. Your amazing shag. The secret sex-only situation with the woman who does not want to be photographed and which will most definitely not go down in flames.”

I sighed. “So, about that,” I mumbled. “I mean . . . this is just between us, yeah?”

“Of course,” he said, sounding a bit offended. “I may be an asshole but I’m a trustworthy asshole. And shouldn’t you be over here so we can, like, I don’t know, do each other’s nails while we talk about our feelings?”

“It’s Sara Dillon.”

Silence. Well, that shut him up.

“Will?”

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah,” I said, rubbing my temples.

“Sara Dillon. Sara Dillon of Ryan Media Group.”

“The very one. It started before I even knew she worked with Ben.”

“Wow. I mean, she’s gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but, she seems really . . . reserved? Who would’ve thought she had it in her. Nice.”

And because it felt so good to just say it, I barreled on. “It started out as just a hookup. I could tell she was using me to play around, explore things.”

“Things?”

I scratched my jaw and winced as I admitted, “She likes to have sex in public.”

“Uh?” he said, laughing. “That doesn’t sound like the Sara Dillon I’ve met.”

“And she lets me take pictures of her.”

“Wait—what?”

“Photographs, sometimes more. Of us.”

“Of you . . .”

“Fucking.”

The silence stretched for a few moments and I swear I could hear his rapid-fire blinking. He cleared his throat. “Okay, the sex in public is pretty awesome, but every guy I know has taken pictures while he’s fucking a girl.”

“What’s your point, tosser?”

“That you’re behind the trend, dick.”

“Will, I’m being fucking serious here.”

“Okay. So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is tonight was the first night I managed to get her to go to a restaurant. I find out her parents own fucking Dillons, Will. The department store? These are things I didn’t even know before yesterday.”

He was quiet for a beat and then laughed quietly. “Yeah.”

“So, like this, we’re actually talking for once, and then her twat of an ex calls.”

“Yeah.”

“And it’s obvious he did a right number on her but she just shut down and couldn’t get away fast enough after that. She’ll have sex with me until she can barely walk, but she won’t tell me why it took her over a month to agree to actually have a meal with me.”

“Uh huh.”

“So her parents own a store and she grew up in Chicago. That’s it? I know nothing about her, really.”

“Yeah.”

“Will, are you even listening to me?”

“Of course I’m listening. You know nothing.”

“Right.”

“So . . . have you googled her?” he asked.

“Of course not,” I said.

“Why?”

I groaned. “I thought we had this conversation after the Cecily debacle. Nothing good comes from personal Google searches.”

“But professionally, if you’re working with someone new, you look them up, right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I googled Sara as soon as I knew she’d be one of my contacts at RMG. It sure was informative.”

My throat grew tight, and I tugged uselessly at my collar. “Tell me what you saw.”

He laughed. “Not a chance. Find some balls and strap them on while your laptop boots. And on that note, this little chat’s been great but I gotta go. Company.”

I directed Scotty back to my building. Once upstairs, I made it all of five minutes before I was at the computer and typing the name “Sara Dillon” into the search engine.

Holy shit.

There wasn’t just the odd mention here and there; there were pages and pages of results, possibly more than I’d find on myself. I took a deep breath and went to the images first, scrolling through photos of her that had to span at least the last ten years of her life. She was so young in some of them, her butterscotch hair styled in a sleek pixie in some, a messy shag in others. In all of them, her smile was unguarded and naïve.

And these weren’t just a collection of family snapshots or selfies; they were high-definition paparazzi photos taken with expensive zoom lenses, bought and sold to newspapers and magazines with exclamation-point-heavy titles, even video and archived news footage. There were parties and weddings, charity events and vacations, and almost always with the same man at her side.

He was only a few inches taller than she was, with black hair and sharp, Roman features. His bright, toothy smile looked about as sincere as I imagined it would, which is to say not sincere in the slightest.

So this was Andy. Known to the world as Andrew Morton. Democratic congressman, serving the seventh district of Illinois.

Suddenly, a lot of things were falling into place.

With a resigned sigh, I clicked on what seemed to be a fairly recent picture; her hair was about the same as it was now and there was a Christmas tree in the background. The caption below the photo read:

Sara Dillon and Andrew Morton at the annual Chicago Sun-Times Holiday Bash, where Congressman Morton announced his plans to run for the United States Senate next fall.

I clicked the link and read the entire article, confirming that this story was written only last winter, and that meant the congressman was probably already on the Illinois campaign trail. I routed back to the main image page and scrolled back to the top where, beside several similar shots, there was a picture of Sara running through a tangle of paparazzi, covering her face with her coat. I’d ignored these at first because her face hadn’t been visible. I clicked the link to the story associated with the photo, dated only a few weeks before I met her, and an article from the Chicago Tribune came up.

Democratic congressman Andrew Morton was spotted last night in an intimate tête-à-tête with a woman other than his fiancée, Sara Dillon. The brunette, identified as Melissa Marino, is a junior aide in his Chicago-based offices.

In the middle of the article was the photo in question, of a man—obviously Andy—passionately kissing a woman—obviously not Sara.

Dillon and Morton have been linked since 2007, and the pair, the darlings of the Chicago social scene ever since, were engaged last December shortly after Morton announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate. Sara Dillon, head of finance for the commercial firm Nieman & Shimazawa, is the only child of Roger and Samantha Dillon, founders of the well-known department store chain found across seventeen states and hefty financial backers of the Morton campaign.

The Dillon family spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment, but a spokesperson for the Morton reelection campaign responded to the Tribune inquiry with only, “Mr. Morton’s private life has never been a subject for public consumption.”

Unfortunately, the widely rumored playboy legislator may have finally broken strategy and brought his extracurricular activities front and center.

Widely rumored playboy. Motherfucker.

I sat back in my chair as I looked at Sara and Andy together, a hot curl of anger sparking in my chest. She was the kind of woman men hoped they’d get to drink in for days, to know better than any other man has, to protect somehow, to take a punch for or to sweep away from an oncoming bus. I looked at every image I could find. She’d smiled so brightly in every photo prior to the ones dated last April. She’d been a natural in front of the camera, the brightness of her smile changing very little over the years.

And this twat had cheated on her—multiple times, if the article was to be believed.

He was a good enough looking bloke, I supposed, though obviously older than her. I clicked through to another article, one that listed his age at thirty-seven, ten years her senior.

According to one story published only two months ago, it was the world’s worst-kept secret that Andy had cheated on Sara several times in the past year, and a growing perception was that he was using her for her family’s name and their money, exploiting the press’s love for their local-celebrity romance whenever his reputation was in need of a little public relations boost.

I glanced through a few more photos before I pushed back from my desk, disgusted. That arsehole had used her. He’d asked her to marry him and then proceeded to fuck everything in a skirt. Christ, no wonder she had issues. And no wonder, too, that she was so mistrustful of paparazzi.

My flat had grown dark by the time I powered off the computer and left the den. I made my way to the wet bar, switching on a few lamps as I went, and poured myself a scotch. The drink burned on its way down, immediately spreading warmth throughout my veins.

It didn’t help, but I finished it anyway.

I poured myself another drink and wondered what she was doing. Was she home? Had she called the cheating bastard back? After looking at those hundreds of pictures, I could just imagine the history they had. What if he called to apologize? What if she was on a plane, headed back to Chicago right now? Would she even tell me? I checked the time and let myself imagine tracking her down, throwing her over my shoulder and bringing her back here. Fucking her into the mattress until I was the only man she remembered.

Clearly, I needed a distraction, and drinking wasn’t the answer.

It took me less than five minutes to change out of my suit and into a pair of shorts and trainers. I took the elevator to the gym on the twentieth floor and took to the running track. As usual this time of day, it was blissfully empty.

I ran until my lungs were on fire and my legs numb. I ran until practically every thought had been wiped from my mind, except one: it would break me if she went back to him.

I went to the locker room, stripped off my sweaty clothes, and then collapsed on the bench, dropping my head into my hands. The silence was broken by the sound of my mobile ringing inside my locker. My head snapped up; I was surprised that anyone would be calling at this hour. I crossed the room and froze when I saw Sara’s picture—a photo I’d snapped of her hand at her throat, the brush of caramel hair against creamy skin—light up the screen.

“Sara?”

“Hey.”

“You all right?” I asked.

A horn honked somewhere in the background and she cleared her throat. “Yeah, I’m good. Look, are you busy? I could—”

“No, no. Was just finishing a run. Where are you?”

“Actually,” she said, laughing softly, “I’m outside your building.”

I blinked. “You’re what?”

“Yeah. Could I come up?”

“Of course. Give me a few minutes and I’ll meet you—”

“No. Can I just meet you up there? I just . . . I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve if I wait.”

Well, that was cryptic. My stomach dropped. “Yeah, of course, Petal. Let me ring the front desk.”

A few minutes later, Sara was walking through the door of the locker room to find me wearing nothing but a towel around my waist.

She looked tired, with red-rimmed eyes and her bottom lip chapped and swollen. It was a softer, younger-looking version of Sara, one I had only seen today in photos. She smiled weakly, giving a small wave as the door closed behind her.

“Hey,” I said, crossing the room. I bent at the knees to bring my eyes level with hers. “You okay? What happened?”

She sighed, shook her head, and something snapped back in place in her expression. “I wanted to see you.”

I knew she was avoiding my question but felt the smile pull at the corners of my mouth before I could stop it. I couldn’t keep my hands to myself and I placed them on either side of her face, brushing my thumbs along her cheeks. “Well, that definitely warrants a trip to the men’s locker room.”

“We’re alone, right?”

“Completely.”

“We didn’t get to finish earlier,” she said, pushing me back toward the showers.

I felt my heart speed up at the feel of her in my arms again, the buzz of static in my ears. She stood on her toes to kiss me, her hands moving to the towel at my hips.

“Hmm,” I said, humming against her mouth. I felt her reach behind me and heard the water start, felt it run warm down my back. “You want to do this here?”

She answered wordlessly, pulling her shirt over her head and shimmying out of her jeans.

I guess that’s a yes, then.

“My apartment is just downstairs . . . ,” I said, trying to slow her down. I could already imagine what it would be like to fuck her right here, to hear her screams as they echoed off the tile, but for once I wanted nothing but her naked body on my bed, top sheet and blankets in a pile on the floor. Maybe her hands tied over her head and strapped to the rails of my headboard.

She ignored me, wrapping her fingers around my cock and leaning in to bite my shoulder. I tried to clear my head, remembering her expression as she’d walked through the door. It wasn’t unlike her to avoid answering my questions, but tonight she didn’t look hard and feisty; she looked wild for the wrong reasons. Her eyes were too bare, her face drawn. She’d only come for distraction.

My throat was suddenly dry and I ran my tongue over my lips, tasting the cherry lip gloss she wore.

I was a bit surprised by the Sara catalog I’d managed to compile without even realizing it. I knew what her face looked like when she came, the way her nipples hardened, and how her eyelids fluttered closed only at the very last second, like she wanted to watch every moment until it was suddenly too much.

I knew what her hand felt like curved around my waist, her nails digging into my back and scratching up and down my sides.

I knew the sounds she made and the way her breath caught when I moved my fingers just the way she liked.

And there were things that were new, things I found myself noticing and wanting to see again and again. The little smile she made when she knew she had just said something funny and was waiting for me to catch up. It was the subtlest thing, just a slight tilt to the edges of her lips and eyes. A challenge.

The way she gently pinched her lower lip when she was reading.

There was the way she kissed me that day on the roof, slow and lazy and like there was nowhere else, nowhere at all to be.

But I didn’t know this Sara. I’d always suspected that the feistiness I enjoyed so much about her was a form of self-preservation. But I never anticipated the way it would feel to see it gone like this; it was like a punch in the gut that took the breath straight from my lungs.

I gathered her hands in mine and took a step back. “What’s going on?” I asked, gauging her expression. “Talk to me.”

She leaned into me again. “Don’t want to talk.”

“Sara, I don’t mind being your distraction but at least be honest with me about it. Something’s wrong.”

“I’m fine.” But she wasn’t fine. She wouldn’t have come here if she were.

“Bullshit. You’re breaking your own rules by even being here. This is better—this is real—but it’s also different and I want to know why.”

She pulled back, looking up at me. “Andy called.”

“I know,” I said, my jaw clenched tight.

She smiled apologetically. “He said he wanted me back. Said all the things I once wanted him to say, about how he’s different now and he messed up and could never hurt me again.”

I watched her, waiting. She pressed her face to my wet neck, getting courage. “He’s just worried about his campaign. Our entire relationship was a lie.”

“I’m so sorry, Sara.”

“I looked up Cecily.”

I blinked, confused. “Okay?”

“Something about her name stuck with me, and after you told me about her, I wanted to know what she looked like.” She pulled back, looking at me. “She was familiar, but it didn’t sink in until tonight. I’d met a lot of people with Andy and usually I’d forget their faces two seconds after I shook their hands . . . but I remembered her.”

I nodded, my stomach warming, but let her keep talking.

“So I went home and I looked her up again before I called him back.” She paused, her voice shaking slightly. “He went on and on for a half hour about how sorry he was, how it was just the one time and he’d never be able to forgive himself. So I asked him about Cecily. And do you know what he said?”

“Cecily . . . what?”

“He said, ‘Fuck, Sare. Do we have to do this now? That’s ancient history.’ He fucked her, Max. Andy was the politician she talked about in her letter. Andrew Morton, whoring congressman from Illinois and fucking his way through the Seventh District. They slept together the night I met her, at a campaign event for Schumer.”

I groaned. I’d been at that fund-raiser, but not as her date. Cecily had been upset with me all night, and left angry, but I never knew why.

She flinched in my arms. “I remember catching him walking out of a bathroom, and we started talking and he was trying to get me to move, but I told him to wait, that I had to use the restroom. And then she stepped out of the men’s room, and looked at him, and then me, and it was really awkward and I had no idea why she stormed off. But she’d been in there with him.”

I wrapped my arms around her as the water pounded down around us, insulating us in a soundproof bubble. This was the smallest world; smaller even than I thought it’d been when I saw her playing pinball, or she urged me into the privacy of a cab in the middle of the afternoon. This was a world where, years ago, Cecily had sex with Sara’s boyfriend because she was upset with me. I didn’t regret having Sara in my arms; I didn’t regret passing up a relationship with Cecily. But I couldn’t help feeling guilty somehow.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered again.

“No, you don’t understand.” She looked up at me, beads of water running over her face and she didn’t even care. “We’d only been together for a few months at that point. All along, right up until the end, I’d assumed he wasn’t cheating back then. I thought that had only started recently. But he was never faithful—never.”

I tightened my hold, whispering into her hair, “You know that had nothing to do with you, yeah? It only tells me what a despicable human he is. Not every man is so horrible.”

She straightened, looking up at me, and I could see her biting down a smile. Her eyes were still brimmed with tears but the gratitude in them was real. Something seized in my chest with the way she looked at me, because the dirty sex and no-strings-attached thing we had was great—amazing even—but this, this was something entirely new.

“I was with him for a long time. Part of me wondered if he’d just messed up the one time and I was being unfair. But I’m glad I was right to leave. I’m just . . . ready for better this time,” she said.

I swallowed down this new emotion and tried to sort myself out, remembering that feelings and affection weren’t supposed to be part of the deal, trying to focus instead on where we were and the fact that her very naked body was still pressed against mine.

“There are plenty of men that would kill for a woman like you,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady, completely unprepared for how it felt like I was being hollowed out and filled with ice water to imagine her with someone else. With that sobering realization, I reached behind and turned off the faucet, grabbing a towel that hung nearby. “Let’s get you dried off; it’s freezing in here.”

“But . . . you don’t want to—”

“You’ve had one hell of a day,” I said, smoothing her hair. “Let me be the gentleman tonight and I’ll defile you next time.” I wanted to ask her to stay, but I wasn’t sure I could handle it if she said no tonight. “Are you okay?”

She nodded, pressing her face to my chest. “I think I just need some sleep.”

“I’ll have Scott drive you home.”

We dressed in silence, openly watching each other. It was a bit of a reverse seduction seeing her pull her jeans on, fasten her bra, cover her breasts with her sweater. But I didn’t think I’d ever wanted her more than in that moment when I was witnessing her put herself back together.

I was falling in love with her. And I was royally fucked.

Saturday morning I’d started to dial Sara at least twenty times before hanging up just before it would ring. My head told me to give her some distance. But fuck, I wanted to see her. I was acting like a fucking teenager.

Call her, you git. Ask her to come out today. Don’t take no for an answer.

This time I actually walked away, because a man who says clichéd shit like that doesn’t deserve to call any woman.

I made excuses the rest of the morning, telling myself that she was probably busy. Hell, I didn’t even know if Sara had friends other than Chloe and Bennett. I couldn’t exactly ask her that, could I? Fuck, no. She’d put her shoe in my eye socket. But what exactly did she do when she wasn’t at work? I played rugby, drank beer, ran, went to art showings. Everything I knew about her was related either to how she fucked, or to the life she’d left behind. I knew so little about the life she’d started to build here. Maybe she’d love to do something with me after the shitty day she’d had yesterday.

Time to man up, Stella.

Finally, I shoved my spine in my back and let the phone ring.

“Hello?” she answered, sounding confused. Of course she’s confused, you ass. You’ve never actually called her.

I took a deep breath and let out the most ungodly ramble of my entire life: “Okay, look, before you say anything, I know we aren’t doing the boyfriend-girlfriend thing, and after Congressman Morton’s wandering penis I totally get your aversion to relationships, but last night you came over and were a bit out of sorts, and if you wanted something to do today—not that you need something to do (and even if you did, not to imply that you don’t have other options), but if you’d like you could come to my rugby match.” I paused, listening for any sign of life on the other end of the phone. “Nothing clears the head better than watching a pile of muddy, sweaty Brits trying to break each other’s femurs.”

She laughed. “What?”

“Rugby. Come watch my match today. Or, if you prefer, meet us all for drinks at Maddie’s in Harlem afterward.”

For what felt like a week, she remained silent.

“Sara?”

“I’m thinking.”

I walked across the room and fidgeted with the blinds at my window overlooking the park. “Think louder.”

“I’m seeing a movie with a girlfriend this afternoon,” she began, and I felt a small tension unknot in my gut when she mentioned a friend. “But I guess I could be up for drinks later. What time do you think you’ll be done?”

Like even worse of a git than before, I made a little fist pump of victory and immediately wanted to smack myself. “Match will probably go until three. You could meet us at Maddie’s around four.”

“I will,” she said. “But Max?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you think your team will win? I don’t want to be drinking with a bunch of depressed, muddy Brits.”

Laughing, I assured her we were going to crush them.

We kicked their asses. I rarely ever felt bad for the other team—most teams we played were American and, although it wasn’t their fault they didn’t have rugby in their blood, it usually felt great to tromp them. But this may have been an exception. We stopped trying to score about halfway through. I had to attribute my generosity in part to knowing that Sara would meet us after. But only in part. By the end of the match it felt like we were beating up ten-year-olds in the mud, and I felt a twinge of guilt.

We roared into the bar, carrying Robbie on our shoulders and yelling the words to a rather filthy version of “Alouette.” The bartender and owner, Madeline, waved when she saw us, lined up twelve pint glasses, and began filling them.

“Oi!” Robbie shouted to his wife. “Whiskey, lass!”

Maddie gave him the V-sign but grabbed a handful of shot glasses anyway, mumbling something about Robbie’s drunk, muddy ass sleeping alone.

I scanned the room for Sara and came up empty. Swallowing my disappointment, I turned to the bar and took a deep drink of my beer. Our game had started late; it was already close to five and she wasn’t here. Was I really surprised? And then a horrible thought occurred to me: had she been here, waited, and left?

“Fuck,” I muttered.

Maddie slid a shot of whiskey to me and I downed it with a wince, cursing again.

“What’s wrong?” a familiar husky voice asked from behind me. “Looks to me like you dirty bastards won.”

I spun around on my bar stool and broke out into a grin at the sight of her. She looked like a cake topper, in a pale yellow dress and a tiny green pin in her hair. “You look beautiful.” Her eyes closed for a beat, and I murmured, “Sorry we’re late.”

She weaved a little where she stood, saying, “Gave me time to have a few drinks.”

I hadn’t seen her drunk since the night at the club, but I recognized a familiar light in her eyes: mischief. The thought of that Sara reappearing was fucking fantastic.

“You’re pissed?”

Her brows pinched together for a brief pulse and then smoothed as she smiled. “British for drunk? Yeah, I’m tipsy.” She stood on her toes then . . . and kissed me.

Holy. Fuck.

Beside me, Richie chimed in. “What the . . . Max. There’s a girl on your face.”

Sara pulled back and her eyes widened in realization. “Oh, crap.”

“Calm down,” I told her quietly. “No one here gives a fuck who we are. They hardly remember my name every week.”

“Patently untrue,” Richie said. “Your name is Twat.”

I tilted my head to him, smiling at Sara. “Like I said.”

She held out her hand and gave Richie her wide-eyed smile. “I’m Sara.”

He took her hand and shook it. I could see the moment he really looked at her and registered how ridiculously pretty she was. He immediately checked out her chest. “ ’m Richie,” he mumbled.

“Nice to meet you, Richie.”

He looked at me, eyes narrowed. “How the fuck you land that one?”

“No idea.” I pulled her closer, ignoring her mild protest that I was going to get her dress dirty. But then she wiggled free and turned to Derek, on my other side.

“I’m Sara.”

Derek put his beer down and wiped a grimy hand across his mouth. “Fuck yeah you are.”

“Sara’s with me,” I muttered.

And like this, Tipsy Sara worked her way down the bar, introducing herself to every single one of my mates. In her, I saw the politician’s wife she’d almost been, but even more than that, I saw that Sara was just a really fucking sweet girl.

When she returned to me, she kissed my cheek and whispered, “Your friends are nice. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Yeah, sure.” I lost my ability to form coherent thoughts. Almost nothing in my life made me feel the way she was making me feel—so bloody good. I wasn’t full of self-loathing, but I’d been a bit of a slut, worked in investments that, let’s be honest, relied on people losing money as much as others making it, and I’d fostered few deep connections since I’d been stateside. My closest friend was Will and most of the time we just called each other names that were all variations on the word pussy.

Tell her, you dick. Pull her to the other side of the room, give her a good snog, and tell her you love her.

“Take this old blues shite off the speaker, Maddie,” Derek yelled across the bar.

And just as I was about to touch Sara’s elbow, ask her to come talk to me, she straightened. “This isn’t blues,” she said.

Derek turned around, eyebrows raised.

“It’s not. It’s Eddie Cochran. It’s rockabilly,” she said, but under his continued inspection she seemed to shrink a little. “They aren’t the same at all.”

“You know how to dance to this rubbish?” he asked her, looking her up and down again.

To my surprise, Sara laughed. “Are you asking?”

“Fuck no, I—”

But before he could finish his sentence, she’d jerked him to his feet, and all 115 pounds of her was dragging his enormous frame to the dance floor.

“My mom is from Texas,” she said, eyes sparkling. “Try to keep up.”

“You’re kidding,” he said, looking over at us. The entire bar full of Brits had stopped talking and was watching them with interest.

“Go on!” I yelled.

“Don’t be a pussy, Der,” Maddie yelled, and everyone began clapping. She turned up the music. “Give us a show.”

Sara’s smile grew, and she placed his hand on her shoulder, shaking her head when he protested. “It’s the traditional pose. You put one hand on my back, the other on my shoulder.”

And while we watched, Sara showed Big Derek how to do a dance across the floor: two quick steps, two slow steps. She demonstrated how he was to quickly spin her counterclockwise around the room. Within one song, they were moving pretty good, and by the middle of the second, they were both cracking up, dancing together like they’d known each other for years.

Maybe that’s what it was about Sara. Anyone who met her wanted to know her. She wasn’t just appealingly sweet to me, with her innocence pushing through even given her basest fantasies. She was irresistible to everyone.

And in that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do more than punch Andy’s smug fucking face. He’d wasted his time with her, wasted her.

I stood, moved to the dance floor, and cut in. “My turn.”

Those deep brown eyes of hers darkened, and instead of posing my hands like she’d done with Derek, she slipped her arms around my neck, stretched to kiss my jaw, and whispered, “I’m pretty sure it’s always your turn.”

“I thought there was supposed to be a little more distance between us when we dance to this,” I said, smiling as I bent to kiss her.

“Not with you.”

“Good.”

She broke into a drunken, playful smile. “But I’m starving. I want a burger the size of my head.”

A laugh burst from my throat and I bent to kiss her forehead. “There’s a place near you that fits the bill. I’ll text you an address. Shall I head home to shower and meet you there in an hour?”

“Dinner two nights in a row?” she asked, looking more carefully eager than anything. Where was the cautious, distancing woman I knew only days ago? She’d evaporated. I suspected Distancing Sara had always been a bit of a fantasy.

Hers, not mine.

I nodded, feeling my smile slip away. I was done with the pretense that we had any boundaries left. The single expectant word came out hoarse: “Yeah.”

She bit her lip to hold back the smile, but it was impossible to miss.