Beautiful Stranger [Beautiful Series]

Sixteen

I looked down at her in the late-morning sun, all sleep-warm and cheek pressed into the pillow, her smooth hair a tangled mess around her head. My eyes moved over her body, along the side of her bare breast and down the curve of her spine, to where the sheet rested just at her hips.

There’s a list of things you learn about someone the first time you spend the night together: whether they steal the blankets, whether they snore, if they’re a cuddler.

Sara was a sprawler: all limp arms and legs, her whole body draped over me like a starfish.

We’d made love again when the sky started to lighten, soft and pink and blue smudging its edges. She’d collapsed on me, boneless and grinning, and immediately fallen back asleep.

It was half ten now and I trailed my finger down her arm, not wanting to wake her, certainly not wanting to leave. My camera still sat on the nightstand and I reached for it, sitting carefully on the edge of the mattress as I began scrolling through the photos. I’d taken hundreds of her last night, some of her undressing but even more of her desperate and arched below me. The sounds of our bodies moving together and her soft cries broken by the click of the shutter would forever be branded into my brain.

I went back to the pictures of the beginning of the night and stared at the photos of her expression as I’d admitted I loved her. She’d let me take so many pictures of her face last night; I relished the memory of the moment she’d brought it up. Our last rule, broken. Her permission said more than words ever could. As I clicked through the series, she went from desperate at first, to relieved, and then to mischievous in rapid succession.

And the photos from later, on her bed, looked just as intimate and carnal as I’d remembered feeling.

I stood quietly, crossed the room, and retrieved my laptop. It took only a moment to boot up and I removed the SD card from my camera, fitting it into the attachment for my computer. I logged into my favorite photo site, a small, discreet company that specialized in printing professional photos. I uploaded the ones I wanted and then erased the files from my hard drive, removing the card and stowing it safely in my bag.

With everything but my camera packed away, I leaned over her, whispering, “I have to go,” against the shell of her ear. Goose bumps broke out along her skin and she stirred. “I’ve a flight to catch.”

She mumbled, then stretched, and I watched as her eyelids slowly fluttered open.

“Don’t want you to,” she said, rolling to look up at me. Her voice was thick and raspy with sleep, and I immediately thought of a thousand things I wanted her to say.

She was too fucking tempting, eyes still tired and pillow creases lining her face, but it was her naked breasts that had my full attention. I braced my hand on either side of her head and hovered above her.

“You look fucking phenomenal in the morning. Did you know that?” I asked.

I reached down and ran my thumb across her bare breast, and had to take a shaky breath, overwhelmed by the immediate and almost suffocating closeness of her, how she seemed to fill up every space inside my chest.

“Yeah?” She smiled, arching a brow and brushing her thumb across my bottom lip. I wanted to suck on it, bite it. Her expression seemed to sober and she blinked up at me, eyes searching mine. “Did last night really happen?”

“You mean did I fuck you senseless and admit that you basically own me? Yes.”

“What does ‘I love you’ even mean? It’s weird how different three words can feel. I mean, I’ve said it before but it’s never felt so . . . big, you know? I’m not sure it meant the same thing then. Like, I was too young to get it. Is that insane? You think I’m insane. But I’m not. I’m just . . . new to this, I think. Honestly, I think I’m new to this.”

“I know you’re saying something profound, but it’s hard to focus when your tits are out.”

Sara rolled her eyes and tried to push me away, but I wouldn’t have it. Instead, I leaned in and kissed her, swallowing her protest as I tried to shape every wild and unhinged feeling I had and fit it into that kiss.

I could hear the sound of a summer rainstorm as water began to pelt the windows and thunder bellowed in the distance. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought briefly of wet roads and everyone hailing a cab at once, and how much more time it would take to get to the airport. But as she wrapped a leg around the back of my thigh and pulled me fully on top of her, talk of the weather evaporated from my mind.

Her lips moved from my mouth to my ear and I tried to remember why I’d needed to leave in the first place.

“I’m sore in a really good way,” she said, rocking her hips against mine. “I want more.”

Any blood left in my brain evacuated and headed straight for my dick. “That is probably the best thing anyone has ever said to me.”

Sara pushed against my chest and I practically whimpered as she rolled me to my back. “Don’t go,” she said, moving on top of me. The sheet fell away and I gripped her torso, my thumbs brushing the undersides of her breasts. She reached for my camera and held it up, looking down at me through the viewfinder. “I want to take pictures of your pretty face between my legs.”

“Jesus Christ, Sara,” I said, my head falling back against the pillows and my eyes closed tight. “And here I thought you were this little innocent little thing and I was the Great Corruptor.”

She burst into giggles and I just stared up at her.

“I love you,” I said, gripping the back of her neck and bringing her mouth to mine. My hand trailed down her side, naked and smooth and covered in goose bumps.

“We’re really doing this, aren’t we?” she asked, pulling back just enough to meet my eyes.

“We’re really doing this.”

“Officially.”

“A hundred percent. Dinners, dates, introducing you as my girlfriend. The whole thing.”

“Think I like the sound of that,” she said, her cheeks pink. She dragged her nails across my scalp and I melted, turning in to her touch. Not wanting to be anywhere but right here.

But . . .

The time on the clock near the bed reflected back at me. “Fuck. I really do have to go,” I said, closing my eyes.

“Okay.” I felt the heat of her lips against mine, not moving or doing anything in particular, just there, a chaste kiss made so much hotter by all the decidedly unchaste things we’d done only hours before.

I groaned, tugging my tie from my collar and tossing it somewhere over my shoulder. Pushing up on my knees, I looked down at her as I began to unbutton my shirt.

“But your flight,” she said, even as she reached for my belt. An evil grin spread slowly across her face.

“I’ll take the next one.”

After a mad dash through JFK—totally worth it—and another five hours in the air, I finally touched down in San Francisco. I’d only managed to get an hour or two of sleep the night before, and only a few minutes here and there on the plane, and was really starting to feel it.

I yawned and gathered my bag from the overhead compartment, stepping off the plane and heading out of the terminal and straight for the closest cup of coffee I could find.

It’d been reckless to blow off my flight just to get an extra hour with Sara; I knew that even as I was looking down at her, watching myself move in her. But I’d never felt anything even close to this before, and it was still a bit hard to wrap my head around everything we’d said.

A text from Will popped up as I waited for my caffeine.

Any new sexy pictures, you wild trendsetter?

Fuck off. You’d never have the balls to pull out a camera, I wrote back, then stuffed my phone in my bag. I’d call Will later about the meeting and update him on the Sara situation.

With a smile on my face and my drink finally in hand, I stepped away from the counter and took off the lid to add cream. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around.

“I think you dropped this.” A shorter man with thinning blond hair stood behind me, holding out a black leather wallet.

I shook my head. “Not mine, mate. Sorry.” I nodded toward security near the escalator to the luggage carousel. “Maybe try one of them.” I started to turn and he gripped my arm, stopping me.

“You sure?”

“Pretty sure,” I said with a shrug, taking out my own wallet and showing it to him. “Good luck finding the owner, though, yeah? Good man.”

He was already taking a step back and I watched as he walked quickly away, headed toward the baggage claim. Having already lost enough time today, I placed the lid back on my cup and bent to reach for my bag near my feet.

My heart stopped.

It was gone.

“What kind of bag was it again, sir?” A bored airport employee looked up at me from behind the counter. According to the tag pinned to her too-tight chambray shirt, her name was Elana June. She blew a bubble while she waited for me to respond.

I glanced up at the monitor suspended on the wall behind her, at the image of my own back flickering on the screen, certain I had to be on some sort of hidden camera show.

“Sir?” she said again, sounding, if possible, even more bored than before.

I ran a hand through my hair, reminding myself that reaching out and strangling her would not help the situation. “An Hermès messenger bag. Gray and tan.”

“Can you identify all the valuables inside?”

I swallowed down the taste of bile. “My files. My laptop. My phone. Fuck. Everything.”

I considered all the client information I’d just lost, all the passwords that would have to be changed immediately. How much time this was all going to take and how many problems this could cause. And I didn’t even have my fucking phone to call Will.

She slid a form and a ballpoint pen attached to a chain across the desk. “You look like you need a minute. Just fill this out and check the appropriate boxes.”

I picked up the pen and filled in my name and address, checking the spaces for laptop, mobile phone, and personal items. I looked at the time and wondered if there was a box for sanity, because I was pretty sure I was close to losing that, too. I’d just about finished when I came across a choice that made me feel like I might throw up my spleen.

Camera. I hadn’t brought my camera with me, but I had packed my SD card, intent on wiping it clean as soon as I had the opportunity.

There just really weren’t enough fucks in the world for this one.

I looked down at the shitty counter, at the way the laminate was pulling away from the metal edge. There was a crack running along the surface and it seemed like the most ironic metaphor ever.

“My SD card,” I said to nobody in particular.

“For a camera?” Elana June asked.

I swallowed. Twice. “Yeah. The card, with all the images.” I swore and pushed away from the counter, remembering what Sara had let me do last night, how she had trusted me.

Fuck fuck fuck.

An older woman with dark hair pulled back into a bun stepped up to the desk. “Mr. Stella?” she asked.

I took a moment from my breakdown to nod and she continued.

“We looked at the footage. Looks like there were two of them. One distracted you while his partner took the bag. He was down the escalator and almost out of the terminal before you even realized it was missing.”

I wondered if it was possible for the floor to open up and swallow me. I kind of hoped it was.

Having done everything I could at the airport, I took a car to the hotel. With no time to replace my phone before the meeting, I called directory assistance and had them ring the office. Will wasn’t there, but his assistant assured me she’d change my account passwords herself and explain everything to Will as soon as possible. After promising her a dozen roses and a raise from her boss, I hung up and sat on the bed, glaring at the phone as I tried to decide what I would tell Sara.

Realizing there was no easy way to do this, I dialed directory assistance again and had them ring Sara’s office.

George answered and I closed my eyes. I liked the guy well enough, but I was in no mood to deal with him today.

“Sara Dillon’s office,” he said.

“Miss Dillon, please.”

He paused just long enough for it to become awkward before saying, “And good afternoon to you too, Mr. Stella. One moment, please.”

I heard the click as I was connected and waited for her to pick up.

Three rings later, she answered. “This is Sara Dillon,” she said, and I felt warmth coat the inside of my chest.

“Hey.”

“Max? I didn’t recognize the number.”

“Yeah. I’m calling from my hotel. You all right? Sound a little stressed.”

“I could do without the giant stack of pricing research on my desk today. I should have come into work before lunch, but I can’t say I regret my lazy morning.”

She paused and I closed my eyes, remembering her face when she came for the last time.

“How was your flight?”

“Good. Long,” I said, standing and walking as far as the phone cord would allow. I looked out the window, down to where people scurried about on the sidewalks below, completely lost in their own little worlds. “I miss you.”

I heard her stand and a door close before she sat again. “Me, too.”

“Did you get any sleep after I left?”

“A little.” She laughed. “Someone wore me out.”

“Lucky bastard, that one.”

She hummed and I tried to picture what she was doing, what she was wearing. I decided she was wearing a skirt, nothing under, and had on her black knee-high boots.

Bad move, Max. You’re across the country and ready to go now.

“You’re gone for the week?” she asked.

“Yeah. I get back Friday afternoon. Spend the night with me?”

“Absolutely.”

I took a deep breath, reminding myself I didn’t have any reason to be worried. Most likely the thief would wipe my phone and laptop and just sell them. “So, my bag was stolen at the airport.”

“What?” she gasped. “That’s awful. Who does that?”

“Arseholes.”

“Which bag was it? Your clothes?”

“No, my carry-on.” I took a deep breath. “My laptop, my phone. I’ve already had the passwords changed for anything work related, but Sara . . . the SD card I used last night was in there and I haven’t cleared all of it yet. My phone, too.”

“Okay,” she said on an exhale. “Okay.” I heard the sound of leather creaking and could imagine her standing from her desk chair again and pacing the room. “I’m assuming the thief wasn’t caught.”

“No . . . Just a couple of shithead kids from what I gather.”

A few beats of silence filled the line and I remembered why I sucked at phone calls. I wanted to see her, to read her expression and gauge whether she looked worried or relieved.

“Well, odds are that they were just out for a quick buck, right?” she said finally. “They’ll probably pawn the laptop and phone and toss the SD drive. For all we know they’ve cleared the laptop and the card’s already sitting in the trash somewhere.”

I pressed my forehead to the window and exhaled, my breath forming a cloud of condensation on the glass. “Christ, I love you. I was very fucking stressed-out about how you’d take this news.”

“Just come back so we can get some new pictures, okay?”

I smiled into the phone. “Deal.”

The art show Saturday night and the conference on Sunday were complete insanity. I met several people in person I’d spoken with on the phone for months, and had agreed to a few meetings in New York later on to hammer out possible investments. The pace of the weekend allowed me to keep my mind off the fact that I had no pictures of naked Sara for distraction.

Monday I woke to a sky full of fog and croissant-and-coffee room service. As strange as it was to admit, I quite relished the forced unplugging I had to endure now that I’d lost my bag. I’d be able to pick up a new phone that morning and could make do without a laptop for the rest of the week, but aside from missing my photos, it had been nice to disengage a little from the constant work calls.

And then I noticed that, beside the bed, the light on my room phone was blinking red. Had I missed a call?

Checking the side of it, I realized the ringer had been turned off. I lifted the receiver and hit the voice mail button.

Will’s no-nonsense voice snapped through the line: “Max. Check the Post then call me ASAP. We have fires to put out back home.”