Beautiful Stranger [Beautiful Series]

Thirteen

I’d been in New York for two months and had no real sense of what I was doing when I wasn’t at work. I ran. I had a few friends I would meet for shows, or coffee, or drinks. I talked to my parents a couple of times a week. I wasn’t lonely; I certainly had a fuller life here than I’d had by the end of my time in Chicago. But most of my life outside of work had become Max.

How in the hell had that happened?

Casual Sex: You’re Doing It Wrong.

Then again, for his part, Max never seemed surprised by anything that happened between us. Not when I coerced him into having sex in the club, or when I came to his office offering sex and nothing more, and not even when I sought him out only to break down in his shower, begging him to just take me and make everything else go away.

Even his friends were amazing. Derek was possibly the largest human I had ever met, and though he was not exactly light on his feet, dancing with him had been some of the most fun I’d had in ages . . . other than every time I was with Max.

I waved goodbye to Derek and he winked at me, reminding with a nod to where Max sat at the bar about what he’d said on the dance floor: “He’s a prick, that one.”

Under the single light of the dance floor, Derek had looked even muddier than he had when I’d introduced myself. I’d glanced down at my dress and noted a few handprints near my shoulder. “He’s not so bad.”

Laughing, Derek had patted my head. “He’s the worst, nice to everyone and never fucks up. Always there for his mates, never comes off like an arsehole.” He’d winked. “What a fucking nightmare.”

Thanking Maddie as we left, I heard the team’s continued drunken singing from behind me in the bar as Max hailed a cab and held the door for me as I climbed in.

“See you in a bit,” he said, before closing the door and giving me a small wave through the window as we pulled away from the curb.

I looked out the back window. Max stood still, watching my cab disappear down Lenox.

We’d decided on something simple for dinner: burgers at a small, quiet place in the East Village.

Quiet was good. Quiet would help drown out the mayhem in my brain. My plan to have fun, be wild, and keep things compartmentalized had gone to hell.

I went home and showered off the mud from dancing with Derek and Max, and put on a simple blue jersey halter dress. The songs from the bar echoed in my ear, and I let myself imagine seeing his friends again: curling up with Max on a friend’s couch and watching a movie with them, or cupping my hands around a mug of coffee on the sidelines of a rugby match. Each fantasy felt like a given, but I stopped thinking about any of them when the tendrils of my mind began to analyze, worry, play devil’s advocate.

I walked out into the hall and locked my apartment, reminding myself, One thing at a time. No one is making you do any of this.

Even on this Saturday night, with people out enjoying the lazy evening sunset, it was less hectic in the Village than it ever felt in midtown. When had this place started to feel like home? Max chose a restaurant within walking distance of my building; I no longer needed to read every street sign to find my way there.

Strands of tiny lights glowed yellow and warm above the entrance, and a small bell rang as I opened the door. Max was already there, cleaned up and seated in the back reading the Times. I gave myself this stolen moment to take him in: deep red T-shirt, worn jeans with a rip in the thigh. Light brown hair almost gold in the light. Fancy Brit-looking sneakers at the end of his long, stretched-out legs. Sunglasses on the table near his elbow.

Just your average godlike fuck buddy, hanging out at the burger place, waiting for you.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked over to him.

The lines had blurred. After today, I couldn’t pretend I wanted nothing from him beyond orgasms. I couldn’t pretend that my heart didn’t twist deliciously when I saw him, or twist with discomfort when I left. I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t have feelings for him.

I wondered if it was too late to flee.

It was only when I heard his laugh that I realized I’d been staring, my mouth open slightly, and he’d been watching me for . . . I have no idea how long. A smile tilted up half of his mouth.

“You look pretty excited for this beer.” He pushed a pint across the table and held up his own. “I took the liberty of ordering you a burger the size of your head, and some chips.” He grinned and then clarified, “A.k.a. ‘fries.’ ”

“Perfect. Thanks.” I set my purse on an empty chair and sat across from him. His eyes smiled, and then dipped to look at my lips.

“So,” I said, sipping my beer and assessing him over the rim.

“So.”

He looked positively amused with this turn of events. I wasn’t a control freak, but I was used to having a pretty predictable life, and in the past two months, I hadn’t been able to anticipate anything that had come my way. “Thanks for inviting me to the bar today.”

He nodded, scratching the back of his neck. “Thanks for coming.”

“Your friends are nice.”

“They’re a bunch of arseholes.”

I laughed, feeling my shoulders slowly relax. “That’s funny. That’s what they said about you.”

He rested his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “I have a question.”

“Yes?”

“Are we on a date?”

I nearly choked on the sip of beer I’d just taken.

“For the love of God, woman, don’t have a fit. I just wonder if you’d like to reestablish ground rules. Should we review our previous set?”

I nodded, pressing a napkin to my lips and mumbling, “Sure.”

He set his drink down and began ticking my rules off on his long fingers. “One night a week, no other lovers, sex preferably in public—definitely not in my bed—pictures are requested, but no faces, no publicity.” He lifted his glass, took a deep drink, and then leaned forward again, whispering, “And nothing between us other than sex. Scratching an itch and all that. Did I capture it all?”

“Sounds about right.” My heart thundered under my ribs as I realized how far we’d strayed from that in only a day.

A college-age kid brought over two baskets with burgers bigger than any I’d ever seen before and enormous piles of fries.

“Holy crap,” I said, staring at my food. “This is . . .”

“Exactly what you wanted?” he asked in return, reaching for a bottle of vinegar.

“Yes, but way more than I can eat.”

“Let’s make this interesting, shall we?” he said. “Whoever eats more of their burger can set new ground rules.”

With a smile, he screwed the cap back on the vinegar and set it down. We both knew he was almost double my weight. No way could I eat more than him.

But was he hungry? Maybe he’d had enough beer to fill up and knew that I would eat more than he would? Or did he want to make the rules?

“Christ, woman. Stop thinking,” he said, lifting his burger and taking a gigantic bite.

“Fine. Deal,” I said, suddenly dying to know what Max’s rules would be.

I stared at Max as he wiped his hands on a napkin and then balled it up, dropping it into his empty basket.

“That was good,” he mumbled, finally looking up at me. He cracked up at the pathetic progress I’d made. I had managed to polish off only about a quarter of my burger, and it looked like I had barely touched my fries.

Dropping the burger back into the basket, I groaned. “I’m so full.”

“I won.”

“Was there any question?”

“Then why’d you take the deal?” he asked, pushing his chair away from the table. “You could have said no.”

I shrugged, then stood, turning to leave before he pressed me to answer. I could be curious about what he wanted between us, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to admit it.

My beer buzz from earlier in the day was wearing off, and with the weight of the burger in my stomach I could have curled up on the sidewalk and gone to sleep. But it was only half-past eight, and I wasn’t ready for the night to end. The idea of waiting until Friday to see him felt impossible . . . unless he changed that rule.

The East Village was crowded with twenty-somethings out for Saturday night drinking and music. Max reached for my hand, slipped his fingers in between mine, and squeezed. Out of habit I started to protest that we were not going to walk down the street like this, but he surprised me by pulling me into the dimly lit bar next door.

“I know you’re full, but sit in here, sip a cocktail, and you’ll wake up. I’m not nearly done with you.”

God I liked the sound of that.

Squeezed tight together in a booth, we sat in a dark corner, me sipping vodka tonics, Max drinking a few beers and telling me all about growing up in Leeds with Irish Catholic parents, and born smack in the middle of seven sisters and three brothers. They’d lived three kids to a bedroom, and it was so different from my childhood that I barely blinked the entire time he regaled me with stories of the time they decided to form a family brass band, or when, at eighteen, the oldest sister, Lizzy, was caught in the family Volvo having sex with their local priest, consensual sex. Max’s oldest brother, Daniel, left after high school to go on a Catholic mission to Myanmar, and had come home a Theravada Buddhist. His youngest sister, Rebecca, married right out of college and, at twenty-seven, already had six children. The others had stories just as riveting: the brother born just ten months after Max, Niall, was second in command at the London Underground; one of the middle sisters was a chemistry professor at Cambridge and had five children, all boys.

Max admitted that sometimes he felt mediocre compared to his siblings. “I studied art at uni and then got a business finance degree so I could sell art. In my father’s eyes, I was a miserable failure, both in my choice of career and in my failure to produce Catholic babies before I hit thirty.”

But when he said this, he laughed, as if being an absolute failure wouldn’t have really mattered that much to his parents in the end. His father, a lifelong smoker, died of lung cancer the week after Max finished graduate school, and his “mum” had decided she needed a change, so she moved with him to the States.

“Neither of us knew a soul here. I had a couple of indirect connections from uni, and some from my business program—friends of friends on Wall Street—but I knew only that I wanted to be involved in New York art ventures, and wanted to partner with someone who knew science and technology. That’s how I met Will.”

He sat back and finished his beer. Seriously, the man could drink. I’d lost count of how many beers he’d had and he didn’t seem affected at all.

“Well, I met him at a pub, admittedly, but we hit it off and almost the next day we started our little pet project. A couple of years later we brought on James to head up the technology piece, because Will could no longer juggle biotech and IT at the same time.”

“How do you not have a giant beer gut?” I asked, laughing. It was unfair. His body was what Julia would call “shredded” and he had muscles on his torso I didn’t even know existed.

He looked confused for a beat before glancing down at his empty glass. “Are you taking the piss?”

“Absolutely,” I said, feeling the effects of my second vodka tonic. My cheeks were warm and my smile seemed to keep growing. “I am absolutely taking the piss.”

“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head, “that saying doesn’t really work so well in an American accent.”

“Do you like American accents, or no? Because the whole British thing you have going on makes me want to do very wicked things to your mouth.”

He licked his lips quickly, and actually seemed to blush. “American accents aren’t particularly sexy, no. Your little Chicago thing is cute, though. Especially when you’re tipsy. It’s so flat and like—” He made a horrific whining noise that I had to believe was like no sound I’d ever made.

I cringed and he laughed.

“I absolutely do not sound like that.”

“Okay, that might have been a slight exaggeration,” he said. “But what I do find sexy is your brain, your giant brown eyes, your full lips, your little Sara-is-coming sounds, and your particularly stellar tits and thighs.”

I cleared my throat, feeling heat spread along my skin from my chest out to my fingertips. “My thighs?”

“Yeah. I believe I’ve mentioned that your skin is amazing. And on your thighs it’s soft as hell. Maybe you haven’t heard? I suspect not many people have kissed them as much as I have.”

I blinked, stunned. He knew I’d been only with Andy, but he was more right than he knew. Andy barely even kissed me below my chest.

“What are the new rules?” I asked, feeling a little dizzy. Whether it was the drinks, or the man, I wasn’t sure.

A wolfish grin pulled at his mouth. “I thought you’d never ask.”

“Should I be afraid?”

“Oh, yes.”

I shivered, but it was more from the growing heat in my stomach than actual fear. I could always say no to whatever he asked.

But I knew I wouldn’t.

“Rule one, we keep Friday nights as a given, but we add more whenever we want. You can say no, but in this scenario I don’t have to feel like an arse if I ask. And,” he said, reaching to push some hair out of my eyes, “you can ask. You can admit you want to see me more, too. You don’t have to apologize for coming to see me when you’re upset. Sex isn’t all there is, you know.”

I let out a shaky breath and nodded. “Okay . . .”

“Rule two, you let me be with you in a bed. A giant bed with a headboard I can tie you to or bend you over. Maybe even just fuck you into the mattress with a pair of your gorgeous shoes over my shoulders. It doesn’t have to be mine, and it doesn’t have to be now. I love fucking you in public—which we will return to in a moment—but I want to have you all to myself sometimes. Take me time.”

He waited for me to answer, and finally, I nodded again.

“I promise to keep taking pictures of you because we both get off on them. I won’t ask you to be seen with me in public until you’re ready—that’s fine. And if you never want to, that’s okay, too. But I’m fascinated by you, Sara, and your need for privacy and your need to be watched. I get it now, I think. And I fucking love it. I want to play with that some more. Explore what we both like.”

He spread his hands in front of him and shrugged, before moving in to kiss my lips once, quickly. “All right?”

“That’s it?”

Laughing, he asked, “What did you think I was going to say?”

“I don’t know.” I picked up my glass and finished it in a few, long drinks. The vodka slid into my belly and warmed me further, triggering a quiet hum in my limbs. “But . . . I think I like these rules.”

“I suspected you might.”

“You’re kind of cocky, do you know that?”

“I’m kind of smart,” he corrected, laughing. “And Sara?”

I looked up from my hands on the table and met his eyes. “What?”

“Thank you for trusting me to be your first crazy decision.”

I stared at him, watching his expression morph from playful, to curious, to slightly anxious. And maybe it was that expression, or maybe it was the quiet, pulsing music. Maybe it was that I was seeing Max in such a new way—with depth, and a history full of family and people he loved and kept close in every moment of his day-to-day, but I wanted to be closer to him. Closer not just in proximity.

Putting my hands on his face, I leaned in and told him, “Revision to my previous statement: you’re kind of amazing.”

He smiled, shaking his head a little. “And you’re kind of tipsy.”

“I may be tipsy, but that doesn’t affect your amazingness.” I pressed a single kiss to his mouth. “Just makes me more expressive about it.” I sucked on his lower lip, tasting. And damn, on most days I would rather drink gasoline than beer, but on his lips, it tasted fantastic.

“Sara . . . ,” he mumbled around my kiss.

“Say it again. Damn, I love when you say my name. Sahhhrahhhh.”

“Sara,” he said again, obligingly, before he pulled away. “Darling, you do realize we’re somewhere we could be seen.”

I waved a floppy hand. “Don’t care.”

“You might care tomorrow when you’re a little less . . . expressive.”

“I’m not that drunk. And I honestly don’t care. I realized last night I was photographed all over the country with a man who didn’t give a crap about anything more than my name. And you’re here, being all nice and wanting to see more of me and revising my stupid rules—”

“Sara—”

I pressed a finger to his lips. “Don’t interrupt me, I’m on a roll.”

“I see that.” He smiled into my touch.

“So my point is that you’re amazing and I want to kiss you in a bar. I don’t care if someone sees me and thinks, Wow! That woman wants to be Mrs. Stella, how pathetic! Does she even know he bangs a different woman every night?”

“I don’t.”

“But they don’t know that, and the point is”—I took a breath, putting my hand on his chest and staring into his amused eyes—“I don’t care what they think right now. I’m tired of caring what people think. I like you.”

“I like you, too. Very much. In fact—”

I leaned in and kissed him. It was a mess: hands in hair and practically climbing into his lap right there in that stupid bar but I didn’t care. I didn’t care. His hands moved to my face, and his eyes—when I peeked—were open and pleading and something was there. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

“Sweet Sara,” he murmured around my wild kisses. “Baby steps. Let’s get you home.”

It was a good thing my head stopped pounding by Monday morning because I had a lot of work to do. First up was the pricing strategy for the new Provocateur line. Second was handing over all of the B&T Biotech workload to Samantha. Most definitely not on my list was obsessing over Max, and how the entire dynamic of our relationship had shifted in the last thirty-six hours.

First: work. There was plenty of time to freak out later.

Or so I thought.

“Saaaaarrrrrraaaaaa,” George called, somehow managing to stretch my name into about seventeen syllables. I stopped short just inside my office, dropping my laptop case on a chair and taking in the scene before me: George, in my desk chair, with his feet up and a newspaper spread on his lap.

“Why are you at my desk?”

“Because I figured it was a better place to enjoy Page Six with you than in the break room. Are you ready?”

My stomach dropped to my feet. “Ready for what?” I asked. It was seven thirty on a Monday, for crying out loud. I was barely ready for conscious breathing.

George flipped the paper to face me, and in a giant picture, in black-and-white, was half of Max’s face. The other half was covered by my head. Talk about déjà vu.

“What is that?”

“A newspaper, darling,” George sang, rattling the paper in his hands, and the word darling triggered a tight pull in my abdomen. I’d been rolling that word around in my head for the past day, remembering how it had sounded when Max said it to me. “A picture of Max kissing, ooooh, a ‘mystery woman.’ ” He turned it back around so he could read the caption to the photo. “Millionaire playboy Max Stella spotted out for a drink with a mystery blonde—”

“I am not blond!” I hissed.

George looked up, giddy. “Thanks for confirming! And I agree. More of a sandy brown, really. But let me finish: ‘The pair started out the night with quiet smiles and teasing, and ended with some heated action in the corner booth. Looks like the flavor of the week is a tiger!’ ”

George cracked up, extending the page to me, his face growing serious. “You didn’t have to lie about you and Max, boss. I’m wounded.”

“It’s not your business,” I said, practically ripping the paper from his hands and looking it over. It was obviously Max in the photo, but with only the back of my head and part of my arm and hand visible, my identity would be almost impossible to discern by anyone who didn’t already know me.

“It’s your allergy bracelet and your adorable hair,” George crowed. “How long?”

“Not your business.”

“Is he amazing in bed? He is, isn’t he? Oh God, don’t tell me yet, let me work up a good mental lather first.” He squeezed his eyes shut and hummed.

“Not your business,” I repeated, a hand to my forehead. Holy hell. Bennett and Chloe were going to see this. My coworkers. Someone could send this to my parents. “Oh God.”

“Are you guys, like, a thing?” he asked, exasperated and slapping his hand to my desk.

“Oh my God! Not your business! Get out of my office, Skippy.”

He stood, then gave me a dirty look that was about as genuine as a politician’s smile. He looked more excited than anything else. Maybe even a little turned on.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “But you’d better spill every detail after you’ve had a chance to calm down.”

“Not happening. Go.”

“This really is great, by the way,” he said, serious now. “You deserve a hot guy.”

I stopped freaking out for a beat, looking up at him. He wasn’t freaking. He wasn’t assuming the worst. He was being a total pervert and enjoying every minute of my torment, but he was also assuming that I was happy, and having fun, and being a single woman in my twenties, doing what we do. He was mirroring my thoughts on Saturday night—this man is good for you, Sara—the same thoughts I’d tried so hard to hold on to.

But somehow, in the light of day on a Monday, it was harder than I expected to be young, and wild, and confident that I wasn’t setting myself up for another disaster.

“Thanks, George.”

“You’re welcome. But Chloe is coming down the hall so get your big-girl panties on.”

In fact, she was closer than I expected and shoved my assistant playfully out of the way before walking into my office and slamming my door in his face.

“Max?”

“I know.”

“The mystery guy is Max?”

“Chloe, I’m sorry I didn’t—”

She stopped me, holding up a hand. “I asked you if it was Max. You lied to me, very convincingly, and said no. I’m not sure whether I should be impressed or pissed.”

“Impressed?” I offered, giving her a winning smile.

“Oh my God, don’t be cute.” She walked over to my couch near the window and sat down. “Walk me through it.”

I crossed the room and sat with her, taking a deep breath before telling her everything: about meeting Max at the club, how we hooked up. I told her about the Chinese restaurant and how I’d tried to tell him not to come looking for me again but ended up letting him get me off. I admitted he was the man I’d been with at the fund-raiser, and how she was the one who made me realize it could be a good distraction to explore this new adventurous side of myself with a man who was practically a world expert on casual flings.

“But it’s more,” she said, interrupting. “In the past, what? Two months? It’s become more.”

“For me it has. I think for him, too. Maybe.”

“BB saw the pictures this morning,” she said, wincing. “I freaked out, because I tried to hide it, but he saw the Post outside the subway station.”

“Oh no.”

She smiled a little. “Honestly, he seemed more worried about my reaction. But he said he knows Max, and if he’s promised he’ll be with only you, he will. Good thing, because if he hurts you he’ll be one appendage short, if you know what I mean.”

“That’s not the problem,” I said. “Which I realize is ironic because”—I pointed to my chest—“hello, cheated on for six years straight. What bothers me more is that I didn’t want to want someone. This was supposed to be for me. And what if he likes me because I’ve been clear about what I don’t want from him. I’ve given him a goal: make me want him. I don’t think he’d ever admit that, maybe he’d never even realize it, but I worry that he’s not used to someone setting limits with him. That might be the lure: the challenge.”

She shrugged and spread her hands in front of her. “I’m the first to tell you that there’s a first time for everyone, and everything. Have you told him how you feel?”

There was a crash from the outer office, followed by George’s frantic shout of “Incoming!”

Max burst through the door, George hot on his heels.

“Does he ever listen?” George asked me.

“Not usually,” Max answered, stopping short when he saw the paper already in my hands. “You’ve seen it.”

“Yep,” I said, tossing it to the desk.

He crossed the room, his expression grim. “Look, it’s not a very good picture, I doubt—”

“It’s fine,” I said, tucking my hair behind my ear. “I—”

“Well, I wouldn’t say fine,” Chloe interrupted, rounding the desk. She crossed her arms and stood between us. “I’ll agree it’s not the best picture, but I knew it was you. Bennett, too.”

“As did I,” George volunteered, hand raised.

“Why are you even still here?” I asked, glaring. “Go to work.”

“Touchy,” George said, pushing away from the wall.

“Well, well.” At the sound, every head in the room turned in the direction of the door. “Glad everyone could make it,” Bennett said as he walked in, looking like he’d won the biggest, most ridiculous man-bet of all time. “Nice photo, Stella. A bar?”

I felt my eyes go wide. “What, the eighteenth-floor stairwell would be better?”

His head whipped to Chloe. “Seriously, Chlo? You told her that?”

“Of course I did.” She waved him off with an impatient hand, and beside her, Max laughed.

“You did that, Ben? Shagged your intern at work?”

“A few times,” Chloe said in a stage whisper.

Max rubbed his palms together, obviously delighted by this turn of events. “How very, very interesting,” he said, eyeing Bennett. “Funny you didn’t mention this when you were basically calling me a whore the other day.”

“Oh, that’s rich. Pot, meet kettle,” Chloe said, motioning between the two men.

“And I’m done here,” Bennett grumbled. “Max, stop by my office before you leave.” He gave Chloe a quick peck on the lips before walking out of my office.

Chloe turned to Max. “I want to know what it’s like to work with your mother when this kind of news hits the papers. Did she freak out?”

Max shrugged. “She pretends I don’t have an active libido. It’s better that way.”

“What are we even talking about?” I groaned. “Chloe, I love you but get out of my office. George!” I yelled.

He poked his head in within a few milliseconds of hearing his name.

“Stop listening in. Take Chloe down to the break room and buy her some chocolate.” I finally met Max’s eyes. “I need to talk to Max alone.”

Chloe and George disappeared down the hall and Max shut and locked my office door. “Are you livid?” he asked, wincing.

“What? No.” I sighed, dropping into my chair. “If I remember correctly, I jumped you. I believe you even warned me not to.”

“True,” he said, flashing his dimple in a smile as he lifted the photo up. “But I also come out of this looking quite good. I mean, the back of this head can only belong to a ridiculously fit woman.”

I tried to bite back my laugh and failed. He bent so that we were eye to eye. “We’re together a lot, Sara. It’s just a matter of time before we’re photographed.”

I nodded. “I know.”

He straightened, looking out my window with a dramatic sigh. “I suppose we’ll have to confine our snogs to bedrooms and limos now.”

He said this with a smirk, but something twisted in my belly, and not because I was averse to the idea of Max in a bed. It’s just that I wasn’t done having Max everywhere else.

I’d wanted to hold on to this New Sara a little longer.

“That doesn’t look like a happy face,” he noted.

“I like what we do.”

His face fell the slightest bit. “The wildness of location?”

I nodded. “Just feeling like I could do anything I wanted with you.”

He paused, seemed to be thinking something through. “That doesn’t have to change, Sara. Regardless of where I have my wicked way with you.”

I smiled. “I know.”

“But you realize if we continue that, and I’m not averse, it’s possible we’ll eventually be caught.”

He was right, and the reality of it was enough to make my hopes shut down a little.

“We’ll figure it out,” I said, but even I heard my lack of conviction.

“Sara, it’s possible to have fun even with more standard relationship rules.”

I nodded, and gave him as convincing a smile as I could manage. “I know.”

But the truth was, I didn’t know. I only knew that I didn’t want what I had with Max to resemble any bit of the life I had before.