Beautiful Stranger [Beautiful Series]

Seventeen

Monday came crashing in with another summer storm and a sky so greenish blue it felt like the ocean was filling up the air. I ran beneath my umbrella to the subway station and barely made my 7:32 train.

For once, there was a seat open and I dropped into it, wrapping up my umbrella and closing my eyes to think about everything I had to get done today. Some pricing research, a wall of meetings before lunch, and then a meeting with my staff.

When I looked up and glanced at the paper the lady next to me was reading, every one of those plans fell away.

Staring at me from the middle of Page Six was a picture of Max next to the headline, MAD MAX’S MANY MISTRESSES.

“What?” I shot out involuntarily, leaning forward and not even caring that I was one hundred percent into the personal space of the girl reading the paper.

“Can I see this?” I asked forcefully, and the woman handed the paper over like she thought I might be nuts.

I quickly skimmed the story.

Max Stella loves art and beautiful women. It’s no surprise to any of us that his (worst-kept) secret is his penchant for combining hobbies: photographing himself with his flavors of the week. Caught only a week ago with a stunning blonde in a bar, new pictures have leaked of Max devouring an equally delicious brunette. While most of the shots were, let’s just say, very too NSFW to reprint here, one face shot clearly identifies the venture capitalist’s “getting the business” partner as the Spanish starlet Maria de la Cruz, only days ago as the time stamp has it.

Come on, Max. Can’t we just see a sex tape and get it over with?

As I finished reading the story for probably the tenth time, the train pulled up to a stop and I shot up, stumbling from the subway car and wandering in a daze out to the street.

After walking the last dozen blocks to our building, I wasn’t even a little surprised to find Chloe standing inside my office, waiting for me.

With shaking hands, I held up the paper. “I need you to explain what I’m seeing here. Is this just gossip? Who is this woman?”

She stepped closer, handing me her phone. She had the browser open to Celebritini, which apparently had broken the story. At the top of the page was a picture I’d seen weeks ago, on the rooftop with Max. It was a picture of my hip, with his hand spread across my skin.

Beside the picture of my obviously naked body was a picture of a woman’s face. She had dark hair and I would have no way of knowing what color her eyes were because her head was thrown back, eyes closed. At the bottom of the photo was a hint of hair of the man whose face was pressed against her neck.

She was very obviously having an orgasm.

“This photo was on his phone.” I scanned the story that outlined just how many women Max had pictures of. “Apparently there were a lot of pictures of other women.”

Chloe reached for the pair of scissors on my desk. “I’ll be back later; seems I have an appendage to remove.”

“He’s out of town.”

She paused, taking a deep breath. “Well, at least that will save me from prison.”

“What did Bennett say?”

Chloe flopped down on my couch. “He said we should try to be circumspect. That we didn’t know the entire story. That there is a lot of bullshit in the press. He reminded me I thought he was sleeping with everyone in the office before we hooked up.”

I pointed to the picture of his Spanish Starlet. “This story says this was the most recent of his photos leaked and that there were many others. And the one of me, the other one, was taken earlier this summer. So he’s been with her since then.”

She didn’t respond. I stared at the wall, considered putting my fist through it, and then almost laughed at the image. Max could put a fist through a wall. I wouldn’t even leave a mark, and would probably end up with a broken hand.

“I’m tired of feeling like an idiot.”

“So don’t be. Kick his ass.”

“This is exactly why I didn’t want to get involved with anyone. Because I want to see the best in someone, and am totally shattered when I’m wrong.”

Chloe still didn’t say anything, just watched me from across the room. Max didn’t even have a phone or a laptop. I couldn’t call to find out anything.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I picked up my phone and powered it off.

“What do we have on the calendar today?” I hit the spacebar on my computer to wake up the screen, and glanced through my appointments. I looked up at my friend.

She reached over and turned off my monitor. “Nothing pressing. George! Cancel everything and then get your stuff. We’re getting day-drunk.”

By noon I was hammered, thrilled that the seedy bar we hit up in Queens had a jukebox, and even more thrilled that the proprietor seemed to love eighties hair bands as much as I did. It was my mom’s guilty pleasure music and playing Twisted Sister over and over strangely made me feel like I was home.

“He was brilliant in bed,” I mumbled into my glass. “Well,” I corrected, holding up a heavy hand, “that one night we actually did it in a bed. My bed. And in that bed he was brilliant. I think we had sex like seven thousand times that night.”

“You only did it in a bed once?” George asked, standing next to the table and leaning on a pool stick for support.

Chloe sighed heavily and ignored him, popping another few highly suspect peanuts into her mouth. “I hate that you feel like you have to give that up. Nothing keeps a relationship together better than amazing sex. Oh, and honesty. I mean, that’s important too.” She scratched her cheek, adding, “And just, like, having fun together. I mean, sex, honesty, and fun. Secret of success right there.”

“We had the sex and the fun.”

Chloe looked like she was headed into the nap zone. “BB is fucking stellar in bed, too,” she mumbled.

“My complete lack of a sex life is also fantastic,” George groaned. “Thanks for asking. Do women really sit around talking about sex all the time?”

Chloe said, “Yes,” just as I said, “Not really.”

Then I changed my mind and said, “Kind of,” right when she said, “I guess not.”

We fell into each other giggling, but my laughter quickly dissolved when a tall shadow stepped into the bar. I sat up, heart pounding. He had broad shoulders, the same light brown hair . . .

But it wasn’t Max.

My chest felt like it was too small for everything inside it.

“Ouch,” I moaned, rubbing over my heart. “Last time I was so far beyond feeling sad I was just mad. This just hurts.”

Chloe threw an arm around me. “Men suck.”

Her phone rang and she answered it after barely one ring. “I’m at a bar.” She paused, listening, then said, “Yeah, we’re getting day-drunk . . . She’s sad and I want to castrate him . . . I know. I will . . . I promise I won’t throw up all over the new carpet, settle down. I’ll see you later.” She ended the call and gave the phone the finger. “Such a bossy ass.”

And then she slumped against me. “You deserve a guy like Bennett.”

George bent down, inspecting us and shaking his head. “You two are a mess. Tomorrow night we’re doing Buck Up Sara Time the gay way.”

Tuesday night, George took us to a gay bar, packed wall-to-wall with people, pounding with music. It was exactly the kind of place I wanted to go with him in happier times, but now it only reminded me of how miserable I was. And the truth was, I didn’t really want to go out and party. I didn’t want to be in the middle of a fifteen-man grindfest. I wanted to find a way to just skip time, and get to that point where Max didn’t matter anymore.

What scared me was that it had taken almost no time to stop loving Andy; I’d met Max within a week. I suspected that it would be a lot longer before I’d get over this one.

I finally turned my phone back on Thursday morning to find seventeen missed calls from Max, but he hadn’t left a single message. He’d sent me about twenty texts on Monday and Tuesday, as well, and those I read:

Call me.

Sara, I saw the Post. Call me.

More variations on the same thing: call, text, let me know you’re getting these. And, just when I was going to call, I saw the last one and it tripped an instinctive wire caging my heart.

Sara, I know it looks really bad. It isn’t what you’re thinking.

Oh, perfect. How many times had I heard that in a past life? The truth is, if you have to say that, it’s almost always exactly what you’re thinking. It took me forever to learn that lesson, and it wasn’t a program I was going to delete very soon.

I turned off my phone again, this time determined to leave it off for good.

Max returned Friday, I knew, but I still hadn’t called. He didn’t come by my work, and when I turned my phone back on a few days after checking my texts, I realized he’d stopped calling, too.

Which was worse: His clichéd insistence that I misunderstood? Or his silence?

Was I even being fair? I hated the in-between space, where anger met uncertainty. I’d lived in that space for so long with Andy, feeling like something was happening behind my back, but never knowing for sure. I had been caught in a horrible battle between feeling like a guilty nag and being positive he was doing me wrong.

This time my angst was so much worse. Because this time, I’d truly thought Max was a man worth knowing. In comparison, I realized I didn’t know that I’d ever felt that about Andy. Maybe I’d just wanted to make him into a man worth knowing.

What was the story with the other woman? Was she someone he hooked up with once before we were serious? Could I really hold that against him even though we’d agreed to be monogamous? But when had that picture been taken? Was it really only a few days before he spent the night at my house?

“Sare-bear. I can practically hear you thinking in there,” George called from his desk. “It is shrill and growing hysterical. Calm your tits. I put a flask in your desk drawer. It’s pink and sparkly but don’t fall in love; it’s mine.”

I pulled open the drawer. “What’s in it?”

“Scotch.”

Slamming the drawer shut, I groaned. “No go. That’s a Max Stella staple.”

“I know that.”

I glared at the wall, hoping he could feel the burn of my eyes on the back of his neck on the other side. “You’re an ass.”

“You haven’t called him, have you?”

“No. Should I?” I pressed a hand to my face. “Don’t answer that. He has Spanish flavors of the week. Of course I shouldn’t call him.”

I stood up and slammed my door closed, but just as I sat back down, three soft taps landed on the other side.

“You can come in, George,” I growled, defeated. “But I’m not drinking the scotch.”

Bennett walked inside, filling the space as only Bennett Ryan really could fill a space. I sat up straighter, looked down at my desk to instinctively inspect the level of paperwork disorganization.

“Hi, Bennett. I was totally kidding about the scotch. I don’t drink at work.”

He smiled. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”

“Okay . . . ,” I said, wondering what he was doing here. We rarely had cause to interact one-on-one at work. He studied me for a beat before saying, “In Chicago, when I’d hit rock bottom, you came into my office and yelled at me.”

“Oh.” Oh shit.

“You gave me perspective, hinted that my feelings for Chloe weren’t a surprise to anyone. You made it clear that everyone knew I was hard on her because I held her in particularly high regard.”

I smiled when I realized he wasn’t going to chew me out. “I remember. You were both such sad sacks.”

“I’m here to return the favor. I’ve known Max a long time.” He sat down in the chair on the other side of my desk. “He’s always been a bit of a playboy. He’s never been in love, I don’t think. Before you,” he added, eyebrow raised.

I knew it wouldn’t matter how long I knew Bennett; I would always feel intimidated by him, especially when he pulled the eyebrow move.

“And he hasn’t told me what’s going on, even though I’ve broken my own unspoken rules and actually asked, but he did say he hasn’t heard from you. And from what I hear from Will, he’s not doing well. If you really felt strongly about him, you owe him the chance to explain.”

I groaned. “Sometimes I think so, and then I remember that he’s a jerk.”

“Look, Sara. The way Andrew treated you was unconscionable. We all saw that, and I regret not speaking up on your behalf. But you have the choice to decide how you grow from it. If you’re going to think every man is like him, you don’t deserve Max. Max isn’t that guy.”

He watched me for a moment and I had no idea how to respond. But the way my heart squeezed painfully at the thought that I didn’t deserve Max told me that Bennett was right.

And that I needed to find a dress for the fund-raiser.

Chloe and Bennett picked me up in a town car and, as I climbed in, I took a second to appreciate Bennett in a tux. Honestly, the man was so pretty it was a little unfair. Beside him, Chloe glowed in a shimmering pearl halter gown. She rolled her eyes at something he whispered in her ear, and she replied, “You’re a pig.”

He laughed quietly, kissing her neck. “That’s why you love me.”

I loved seeing them happy, and wasn’t cynical enough to think that person didn’t exist for me. I just realized, as I stared down at my dress, that I’d spent more than an hour getting ready for this. I had really wanted my person to be Max.

I turned and looked out the window, trying not to remember the last time I’d been to his building, and how safe I’d felt with him in the shower. But to my tangled horror and relief, when we arrived the security guard remembered me, and smiled.

“Good evening, Miss Dillon.” He escorted us to the elevator and pressed the button for the penthouse before stepping back to leave us to ourselves. “Enjoy your night.”

I thanked him as the doors closed, and I felt like I might fall over.

“I’m legitimately worried I’m going to have a stroke,” I hissed. “Remind me why I’m here?”

“Breathe,” Chloe whispered to me.

Bennett leaned forward to look at me. “You’re here to show him how beautiful you look and that he didn’t break you. If that’s the only thing that happens tonight, it’s fine.”

I was swooning so hard at what he’d said that I’d completely forgotten to prepare myself to see Max’s living room. When the elevator doors opened, the sight of his place hit me like a wood plank to the chest, and I actually stumbled back a few steps.

The section that had been replicated in Johnny’s club was a minuscule portion of the room—a small area set back in a recessed corner and obviously meant for smaller gatherings. But to me it stood out like a beacon. Even with the vast open space and what felt like miles of marble floor between me and that memory, I could barely look away. A couple of men lingered there, sipping drinks and looking out the window. It felt invasive somehow, as if they were on the wrong side of the glass.

Without skipping a beat, Chloe slipped her arm through mine and pulled me forward as a tall, older gentleman led us from the foyer to the main living areas.

“You okay?” Chloe asked.

“I’m not sure this was a good idea.”

I heard her inhale a sharp breath and then she said, “Actually, that may be true.”

I looked up and followed her attention across the room to where Max had walked in, just behind Will.

He wore a tux, similar to the one he wore at the gala weeks ago. But tonight the vest beneath his jacket was white and his eyes were flat. His mouth smiled in greeting to everyone in the room. But the smile never made it into his eyes.

There were maybe a hundred other people looking at his art, wandering into the kitchen to grab a glass of wine, or standing in the center of the room, talking. But I felt frozen near the wall.

Why had I worn red? I felt like a wannabe siren among the muted creams and blacks. What was I hoping to accomplish? Did I want him to see me?

Whether or not I wanted him to, he didn’t. At least, he didn’t seem to. Max walked around the room, talking to his guests, thanking them for coming. I tried to pretend I wasn’t staring at his every move but it was useless.

I missed him.

I didn’t know what he felt, what was real and what wasn’t. I didn’t know what we had really been.

“Sara.”

I turned at the sound of Will’s uniquely deep voice.

“Hi, Will.” I hated seeing him so serious. I’d rarely seen either Max or Will unsmiling. This looked all wrong.

He studied me for a beat, and then murmured, “Does he know you’re here?”

I looked across the room at where Max stood, speaking to two older women. “I don’t know.”

“Should I tell him?”

I shook my head and he sighed. “He’s been such a useless bastard. I’m really glad you came.”

Laughing a little, I admitted, “I’m still undecided.”

“I’m really sorry,” he said quietly.

I met his eyes. “You don’t have to apologize for Max’s indiscretions.”

His brow furrowed and he shook his head once. “He never told you?”

My heart fell and then immediately began thundering. “Told me what?”

But Will took a step back, seeming to reconsider saying anything else. “Oh, you really haven’t talked to him yet.”

I shook my head and he looked over my shoulder, to where Max stood. Will put his hand on my arm. “Don’t leave without talking to him, okay?”

I nodded and looked back to Max, who was standing with a beautiful brunette. She had her hand on his arm and was laughing at something he said. Laughing too much, trying too hard.

When I turned back around, Will was gone.

Suddenly needing air, I turned and walked down the closest hall. Down here, there were no caterers carting trays of food, no guests mingling. Just a wide hallway lined with closed doors. Between each were beautiful photographs of trees and snow, lips and hands and spines.

Where was I going? Was there more Max to discover here? Would I stumble into a room filled with a woman’s things? Was the reason he’d always been so amenable to staying away from his place the fact that it allowed him to have a private space for someone else?

Why was I even here?

Hearing footsteps, I quickly ducked into a room at the end of the hall.

Inside, away from the crowd, it was so quiet I could hear my pulse whooshing in my ears.

And then, I looked around.

I was in an enormous bedroom, with a huge bed in the middle. On the bedside table, which held the only lit lamp in the room, was a framed photograph of me.

In it, I stood, staring at the camera, with my fingers poised on the button of my shirt, lips parted. I looked at once surprised and relieved.

I remembered that exact moment. He’d just told me he loved me.

Whipping around, I looked at the wall behind me. More photos: My back as I reached behind me to take off my bra. My face as I looked down to unzip my skirt; smiling. My face looking up at him in the morning sun.

I stumbled forward, wanting to escape the realization that I had messed up, hugely. That there was more here for me to understand. But past another door was an expansive dressing room, and if possible, it was worse.

The room was exploding with intimacy. There were probably thirty pictures of us, all black-and-white, all different sizes, artfully tiered and layered across the simple cream paint.

Some were chaste and simply beautiful. A picture I’d taken of his lips pressed against the top of my foot. His thumb sweeping across a small exposed strip of my abdomen as he pushed my shirt up my torso.

Some were erotic but restrained, suggestive of a moment where we were lost in each other, but not showing how. My teeth biting his earlobe, only mouth and jaw visible against his skin but with me clearly gasping, close to climax. Or my torso, beneath him. My fingernails dug into his shoulders and my thighs were pulled up high to my sides.

A few were downright filthy. My hand wrapped around his erection. A blurry shot of him moving in me from behind, in the warehouse.

But the one that stopped me dead in my tracks was the one taken from the side the night at my apartment. I didn’t even realize Max had set his camera on a timer but it was an awkward angle, with the camera sitting on my bedside table. In the picture, Max was over me, his hips flexed as he pushed inside. One of my legs wound around his thigh. He was propped above me on his forearms, leaning down over me as we kissed. Our eyes were closed, faces devoid of any tension whatsoever.

It was us, making love, caught in a single perfect image.

And, beside it, a picture of his lips open around my breast, his eyes gazing up at me with naked adoration.

“Oh my God,” I whispered.

“No one is meant to be in here.”

I jumped, pressing my hand to my chest at the sound of his voice. Closing my eyes, I asked, “Not even me?”

“Especially not you.”

I turned around to look at him but it was a mistake. I should have taken a bigger breath, prepared myself somehow for how he would look up close: crisp, put-together, unbelievably gorgeous.

But at the edges: broken. Dark lines circled his unsmiling eyes. His lips were tight and pale.

“I was having a hard time out there,” I admitted. “The room, the couch . . .”

He looked up at me, eyes hard. “It was like that for me when I came home from San Francisco, you know. I wanted to buy all new furniture.”

We drowned in a heavy silence after that until he finally looked away. I didn’t know where to start. I had to remember that his phone had pictures of other women on it, ones more recent than those of me. But here in this room, he seemed more hurt than I did.

“I don’t understand what’s going on right now,” I admitted.

“I don’t need my humiliation put so plainly before me,” he said, motioning to the pictures on the wall. “Believe me, Sara, I feel pathetic enough without you coming in here uninvited.” He glanced up at a picture of my lips on his hipbone. “I made a deal with myself. I was going to leave them up for two weeks, and then put them away.”

“Max—”

“You told me you loved me.” His calm exterior cracked slightly; I’d never heard him sound angry before.

I had no idea what to say. He’d phrased it in past tense. But nothing felt more immediate than my feelings for him, particularly in his room, surrounded by the evidence of what we’d become that night. “You had photos of other wo—”

“But if you loved me how I love you,” he said, cutting me off, “you would have given me a chance to explain what you saw in the Post.”

“By the time explanation is needed, it’s usually too late.”

“You’ve made that clear. But why do you assume I’ve done something wrong? Have I ever lied to you, or kept anything from you? I trusted you. You assume I’ve never been hurt and that trust comes easily to me. You’re too busy guarding your own heart to realize that maybe I’m not the arsehole people expect me to be.”

Any response dissipated when he’d said this. He was right. After he’d told me about Cecily, and his romantic life after, I’d assumed it had been easy for him, and that he had no experience with the harsher side of love.

“You could have let me explain,” he said.

“I’m here. Explain now.”

His scowl deepened but he blinked away, nodding. “Whoever stole my bag sold the pictures as their own. The good folks at Celebritini found a hundred and ninety-eight pictures of you in my briefcase. On my SD card, my phone, and a thumb drive. Had they been able to decode the password on my laptop, they would have found another couple hundred. And yet, they chose to post a picture of your hip, and the picture of a woman I’ve never met before.”

I felt my brow furrow in confusion; my heart hammered wildly beneath my ribs. “You mean they just put her in there? It wasn’t yours?”

“It was on my phone,” he said, looking back at me. “But I don’t know who she is. It was a picture Will had texted me that morning, just before my bag was taken. It was some woman he’d seen a few times a couple of years ago.”

I shook my head, not following. “Why would he send you that?”

“I told him about the art I had of you, how it was all new for me. And, as is the way with us, he joked that of course he’d already done that before. Taken photographs of lovers, tasteful ones. It was all a game, that’s old sport, been there done that. He was taking the piss. He could tell I was sincere and loved you.” He stepped back and leaned against the wall. “But we’d been joking about it the day before my trip. He asked me if I’d stocked my phone with Sara porn. He sent just that one because he’s a twat and was having a laugh. The timing was just really, really poor.”

“The story said you had photos of a lot of women.”

“A lie.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that? Leave a voice mail, or text the truth?”

“Well, one because I thought being adults we’d talk face-to-face. Everything we’ve done together required a great deal of trust, Sara. I gathered I deserved the benefit of the doubt. But also”—he ran his hand through his hair, cursing—“it would mean admitting that I’d told Will about how you let me photograph you. It would mean admitting I’d betrayed our secret. It would mean revealing that he’d sent me a private picture of a woman who had presumably trusted him. I’ve had my lawyers handle the containment issue, but honestly, it made us both look like pricks.”

“Not as much as seeing her in the paper did.”

“Do you not see it’s exactly the story they wanted? The story of me and all my many women? They found hundreds of photos of me and you and yet they just post one? There is one image of another woman, and bam—it fits their gossip narrative. I told you I wasn’t with anyone else; why wasn’t that enough?”

“Because I’m used to men who say one thing and do another.”

“But you expected me to be better than that,” he said, eyes searching mine. “Otherwise why admit you love me? Why give me a night like that?”

“I guess when the photos came out . . . I didn’t think that night meant as much to you.”

“That’s absolute shite. You were there, too. You’re looking at the photos now. You know exactly how much it meant to me.”

I reached for him but reconsidered. He looked really pissed, and my frustration with myself and him and all of it just exploded. I still remembered the stab I felt in my chest when I saw the picture of the other woman.

“What was I supposed to think? It just seemed reasonable that you’d played me. Everything between us always seemed so easy for you.”

“It was easy. Falling absolutely in love with you was really fucking easy. Isn’t it supposed to be that way? Just because I haven’t been brokenhearted in recent years doesn’t mean I’m incapable of it. Fuck, Sara. I’ve been wrecked for the past two weeks. Positively smashed.”

I pressed a hand to my stomach, feeling like I needed to physically hold myself together. “Me, too.”

He sighed, stared down at his shoes, and didn’t say anything else. In my chest, my heart twisted tightly.

“I want to be with you,” I said.

He nodded once, but didn’t look back up, didn’t even say a word.

I stepped closer, stretched to kiss his cheek, and only made it to his jaw because he wouldn’t bend to meet me.

“Max, I miss you,” I told him. “I know I jumped to conclusions. I just . . . I thought . . .” I stopped, hating how still he remained.

Without looking back, I walked out of his dressing room, through his bedroom, and back to the party.

“I want to go home,” I said to Chloe, once I’d been able to discreetly—semi-discreetly—pull her away from a conversation with Bennett and Will.

The two men watched us in the obvious way men have where they don’t even bother trying to hide what they’re doing. We all stood in the recessed portion of the living room that looked exactly like the room in the club. The memories sent sharp pangs through my chest. I wanted to get out of this dress, wash my face, and curl up in a tub of cookie dough.

“Give us twenty?” she asked, eyes searching mine. “Or do you need to leave right this second?”

I groaned, looking around the room. Max still hadn’t emerged from his bedroom and I wanted to be gone when he did. I certainly didn’t want to be standing exactly where I was, remembering exactly how loving he’d been with me in Johnny’s club, and every second after. I was mortified, and confused, and most of all, I was wildly in love with him. The memory of the way he’d displayed the beauty in our photographs pulsed like a vivid echo in my mind.

“I just had the world’s most awkward conversation with Max. I feel like an asshole and he’s being obstinate and has every right to be because I’m an idiot and I just want to leave. I’ll get a cab outside.”

Will put his hand on my arm. “Don’t leave quite yet.”

I couldn’t help giving him a scolding look. “You’re kind of a piglet, Will. I can’t believe you did that. I would kill Max if he sent you a picture of me.”

He nodded, chastened. “I know.”

My attention was drawn up and over his shoulder to the hall to Max’s room. He’d come out without me seeing, and stood, leaning against the wall, sipping a scotch. He was staring directly at me. It was the same intense expression he wore the first night we met, as he watched me dance for him.

“I’m sorry,” I mouthed to him, eyes welling with tears. “I messed up.”

Will was saying something, but I had no idea what. I was too focused on the way Max licked his lips. And then his eyes turned up in the familiar smile and he mouthed the words, “You look beautiful.”

Will had asked me a question. What did he just say?

I nodded, and mumbled, “Yeah . . .”

But he laughed, shaking his head. “It wasn’t a yes-or-no question, lovely Sara.”

“I . . .” I tried to focus. But behind him, Max had set his drink down on a table and was headed straight for me. Tugging at my dress, I stood straighter, tried to keep my face impassive. “Could you repeat the question?”

“Max is walking over here, isn’t he?” Will asked, watching me with naked amusement.

I nodded again. “Um.”

I hadn’t realized how close I’d been standing against the wall until I was pressed against it, Max’s mouth warm and sliding over mine, whispering my name over and over. I wanted to say something, I wanted to tease him for kissing me like this in the middle of his own party, but I was so wrapped up in the intensity of my own relief that I just closed my eyes, opened my mouth, to let his tongue slide across mine.

He dragged his teeth down my jaw, sucked at my neck. Over his shoulder I saw that the entire room full of people had stopped talking and were watching us, wide-eyed. A few were leaning together, already discussing what they were seeing.

“Max,” I whispered, tugging his hair to pull his head back to mine. I couldn’t stop smiling; I felt like my face was going to crack in half. He looked at my lips, his eyes hooded as if he was drunk from me. “We have an audience.”

“Isn’t that your thing?” He leaned forward, kissed me once more.

“I like a little more anonymity.”

“Too bad. I thought we agreed this would be our coming-out party.”

I pulled away, searching his eyes as they grew more sober. “I’m really sorry.”

“I suppose it’s obvious that I want to be with you, too. I just . . . needed a moment to collect myself in there,” he said quietly.

I nodded. “Totally understandable.”

Max grinned and kissed my nose. “At least we got that out of the way. But I’ve earned the right to a fair trial. No more mistrustful Sara.”

“I promise.”

Collecting himself, he slipped my arm through his and turned back to his stunned party. Max announced to all near, “Sorry for the interruption, everyone. Haven’t seen my girlfriend in a couple of weeks.”

People nodded and smiled at us as if we were the most charming thing they’d ever seen. It was a familiar type of attention, the kind I’d received for years. But this time it was real. What I’d found with Max wasn’t about opinion polls and public perception. For the first time in my life, what happened behind closed doors was ten times better than what others saw from the outside looking in.

And he was mine.

Max was still out saying good night to the last of his guests to leave when I slipped back into his bedroom to look at the photos again. They were so revealing of our emotions, they almost made me feel bare all over.

I heard him come in behind me and quietly shut the door.

“How could you stand it?”

“Stand what?” He stepped behind me and bent to kiss the back of my neck.

“Seeing these pictures every day.” I pointed to his wall. “If they’d been on my wall while we were apart it would have hurt so much I would have gone fetal and subsisted entirely on Cap’n Crunch and self-pity.”

He laughed and turned me to face him. “I wasn’t ready to get over you yet. I was miserable, but would have been more miserable if I’d admitted it was over.”

And that’s what he gave me, a reminder that the glass wasn’t just half full, it was overflowing.

“It’ll exhaust you sometimes,” I said, “having to be the optimist for both of us.”

“Aaah, but eventually I’ll bring you over to the light side.” He reached behind me, unzipped my dress, and slipped it from my shoulders. It fell in a puddle at my feet and I stepped out of it, feeling the pleasure of his eyes on my skin.

When I glanced up at him, he looked so serious it made my stomach lurch. “What’s wrong?”

“You could break my heart. Just know that, yeah?”

I nodded, swallowing a thick lump in my throat. “I know.”

“When I say ‘I love you’ I don’t mean that I love what being with you does for my career, or I love how often you’re willing to shag. I mean I love you. I love making you laugh, and seeing how you react to things, and getting to know the little things about you. I love who I am with you, and I’m trusting you not to hurt me.”

Maybe because he was so tall, and broad, and constantly smiling and impossible to offend, Max seemed so formidable, as if nothing could actually break him. But he was only human, too.

“I understand,” I whispered. It was so strange to be on the other side of messing up, and to be the one who was given another chance.

He kissed me and then stepped back, slipping out of his jacket and hanging it on a coatrack in the corner. I spotted his camera on a shelf in the opposite corner of the room and walked over to pick it up. I stared down at it, found the ON button, raised the camera, and adjusted the lens.

I aimed it at where Max stood, watching me and tugging at his bow tie.

“I love you, too,” I said, zooming to take a close-up of his face. I clicked a few more pictures in rapid succession as he stared hungrily at me. “Undress.”

He pulled his tie away from his collar and dropped it, eyes growing darker, and began unbuttoning his shirt.

Click.

“A warning,” I murmured from behind the camera as he pulled his shirt open. “I’ll probably need to lick every inch of your chest tonight.”

A smile tilted his mouth. Click. “Fine by me. I might insist you lick a little lower, too.”

I took a picture of his hands at his belt, his pants on the floor, his feet as they stepped right in front of mine.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, reaching to take the camera away from me.

“Taking pictures for my bedroom.”

He laughed and shook his head. “Get on the bed, Petal. Apparently you need a reminder of how this works.”

I climbed back, feeling the cool sheets as the mattress dipped below me. He reached down, adjusted my leg, studied me.

Click.

“Look at me,” he murmured.

The light from the Manhattan skyline slipped across my body, illuminating a strip of skin on my ribs. His finger ran up the inside of my thigh as I looked up at his face, partially hidden by the camera.

Click.

I exhaled, closing my eyes and smiling.

New life. New love. New Sara.