Beautiful Stranger [Beautiful Series]

Four

Three days after I’d given her an orgasm for lunch I wasn’t any less obsessed.

“So who are you bringing tonight?” Will asked absently, eyes on the folded copy of the Times in his hand.

The drive back to the office from the tailor had been silent up to this point, broken only by the sound of the engine and the occasional car horn or shout from the street. I continued to go over the files I’d brought—photographs from a new exhibit in Queens—as I answered, “Going solo, actually.”

He looked up at me. “You don’t have a date?”

“No.” I glanced over just in time to see his eyebrows inch up in surprise. “What?”

“How long have we known each other, Max?”

“Six years, I’d say.”

“And in all that time, have you ever attended a social function without a date?”

“I really wouldn’t remember.”

“Perhaps we could check Page Six. I bet they’d know,” he deadpanned.

“Very funny.”

“It’s unusual, that’s all. It’s our biggest event of the year and you don’t have a date.”

“It hardly matters, yeah?”

He laughed. “Are you serious with me right now? ‘Who is Max Stella taking?’ is one of the first things people ask when there’s a party like this.”

“I like how you play me up as the skirt-chasing wolf in contrast to you, all upstanding and virtuous.”

“Oh, I never said anything about being virtuous,” he said over the top of his paper. “I’m simply suggesting that people might wonder if you’re meeting someone there, that’s all.”

I turned back to my files as I considered this. In truth, I hadn’t made a date for the fund-raiser. I hadn’t made a date because I wasn’t interested in taking anyone.

Which was weird. Maybe Will was right. Ever since I’d met Sara, other women seemed predictable and tame.

Will was also right when he said the annual Stella & Sumner Charity Gala was our biggest event of the summer. It was held at the Museum of Modern Art, and everyone who was anyone in New York would be in attendance. With dancing, dinner, and the silent auction that followed, we managed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a pediatric cancer foundation every year.

The dreary sky of the afternoon had cleared, but the smell of a storm still hung in the air when my car stopped at the barricades in front of the museum. A valet opened my door and I climbed out, fastening the button of my tuxedo jacket as I stood. My name was called from several directions, the pop and flash of cameras erupting like a small lightning storm within the press area.

“Max! Where’s the date?”

“Max, quick photo! Quick, over here!”

“Any truth to the rumor of a Smithsonian endowment?”

I smiled and posed for pictures, waving as I made my way inside. I felt like I was on autopilot, glad that I’d kept the press from inside the event tonight. I simply didn’t have the energy.

Guests were directed through the museum and out to the garden, where the majority of the party would be held, where crowds of well-dressed people mingled while sipping cocktails and champagne, discussing money and each other and whoever happened to be the gossip of the day. A series of white tents had been erected, each of them lit from below by pools of brightly colored light. An orchestra sat at one end of the garden, a DJ booth for the after party at the other.

The air was heavy and humid, and the night clung to my skin almost uncomfortably. I crossed to a line of large tables dressed in white and dripping in crystal. Reaching for a flute of champagne, I felt someone come near beside me.

“Perfect as usual, Max. You’ve really outdone yourself.”

I blinked over to see Bennett standing next to me.

“It’s bloody hot out here, is what it is,” I said, nodding toward the drink he held in each hand. “Here with your Chloe, I assume.”

“And your date is . . .”

“Flying solo tonight,” I answered. “Hosting duties and what have you.”

Bennett laughed, bringing his glass to his lips. He didn’t comment but it was impossible to miss the way his eyes shifted over my shoulder.

I turned just in time to see Chloe and Sara walking back from the restroom. Sara looked stunning in a light green gown with beading covering the bodice and trickling into the skirt. Silver stilettos peeked out beneath the hem of her dress.

It took a moment before I could speak.

“She’s here with someone, Max.”

I turned and gaped at Bennett before looking around our immediate vicinity to try to spot who she might have come with. “She is? Who?”

“Me.”

“Wait, what? No way.”

“Christ, I’m kidding. Look at your face.” He scratched his jaw and waved casually at someone across the room and I legitimately wanted to punch him.

“Max,” he said, voice low and serious now. “Sara is Chloe’s best friend and an important member of my team. I trust your business sense more than I trust almost anyone’s, but your history with women is not exactly pristine. I’m the last person to point fingers, trust me, but don’t do anything stupid.”

“Calm down. It’s not as if I’m planning to drag her off for a romp in the coat closet or anything.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he said with a smile, draining his glass.

“For you, either, mate,” I answered.

Bennett looked almost relieved as I left him at the table, and for the briefest of moments, I felt almost guilty for lying to him. The truth was that while I did want to drag Sara off to the nearest coat closet, I also wanted a moment to just watch her.

I made my way across the garden, shaking a few hands and thanking others for their donations, keeping Sara in my peripheral vision as I went. I stopped to the side of the large Lachaise nude sculpture and watched her from a distance, captivated by how beautiful she looked tonight.

Her gown was long and fitted, displaying every curve perfectly and emphasizing some of my favorite ones.

I remembered the way she’d looked that night on the dance floor, wild in her too-short dress and too-high shoes, and compared that to the sophisticated woman here tonight. I could tell even then that what we’d done had been out of character for her. But I don’t think I’d understood exactly how much until tonight. She was poised and delicate . . . though, still, there was something else, some neglected recklessness beneath her prim exterior.

My eyes moved along the line of her throat and across her collarbone, and I wondered what she was wearing under her gown. I wondered what had brought forth the woman who had fucked me against a wall in a club full of people.

I was fairly certain Bennett hadn’t been joking when he’d suggested I stay away from Sara. Or that his fiancée would have his balls—and mine, too—if she found out. Bennett was obviously aware that I had more than a casual interest in Sara, but he was tight as a vault and, despite his protests, would never interfere if this were what Sara wanted.

But Chloe—she was a different matter altogether. She seemed too smart, her gaze too knowing. I didn’t know much about the future Mrs. Ryan, but I was sure that if Bennett had finally met his match, I did not want to be on her bad side.

And despite that, I was quite enjoying this little game Sara and I seemed to be playing.

When the orchestra shifted into a slower song, I watched as a few people excused themselves from their circles and ventured out onto the dance floor. I walked around the edge of the garden, stepping behind Sara and tapping her on one bare shoulder.

She turned, her smile slipping from her face when she saw me.

“Well, hello to you, too,” I said.

Sara took a long sip from her champagne flute before addressing me. “How are you tonight, Mr. Stella?”

Mr. Stella, was it? I smiled. “I see you’ve done a little checking up on me. I must have made quite an impression.”

She returned a polite smile. “A quick Google search gives a girl plenty of information.”

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you the Internet is full of rumor and falsehood?” I stepped closer, brushing the backs of my fingers along her arm. It was soft and smooth, and I noted the way goose bumps spread along her skin. “You look stunning tonight, by the way.”

She met my eyes, sizing me up. Even as she put a little distance between us, she murmured, “You don’t look so bad yourself.”

I feigned shock. “Did you just compliment me?”

“I may have.”

“It would be a shame for both of us to have gotten all dressed up and not share a dance. Wouldn’t you agree?” Sara glanced around the garden and I added, “Just a dance, Petal.”

She emptied her glass and set it on the tray of a passing waiter. “Just a dance.”

Placing my hand on the small of her back, I guided her to a dimly lit corner of the dance floor.

“I enjoyed our lunch the other day,” I said, taking her in my arms. “Perhaps we could do it again. Maybe with a slightly different menu?”

She smirked, and looked past me.

I pulled her body flush to mine, eliciting that little quirk of her eyebrow I was beginning to like so much. “So how are you finding New York?”

“Different,” she said. “Bigger. Noisier.” She tilted her head, finally looking up at me. “The men are a little pushy.”

I laughed. “You say that as if it’s a bad thing.”

“I suppose that would depend on the man.”

“And what about this man?”

She blinked away, smiling politely again. It struck me that Sara behaved like a woman who was very much used to being watched in public.

“Look, I’m flattered by your attention, Max. But why are you so interested in me? Can’t we admit we had a good time and leave it at that?”

“I like you,” I said, shrugging. “I rather like your kink.”

She laughed. “My kink? That’s one I’ve never heard before.”

“Well, that’s a shame. Tell me, when you fantasize, what’s it about? Is it about sweet, gentle sex in a bed?”

She looked up at me with a challenge in her eyes. “Sometimes, yes.”

“But is it also about being touched in a restaurant, where anyone could see?” I leaned in, whispering against the shell of her ear. “Or fucked in a club?”

I felt her swallow, felt her shaky breath before she straightened, putting a socially acceptable amount of distance between us. “Sometimes, of course. Who doesn’t have those fantasies?”

“A lot of people don’t. And even more people don’t ever act on them.”

“Why are you so hung up on this? I’m sure you could turn that smile on any woman here and take her in any room in this museum.”

“Because, unfortunately, I don’t want any other woman here. You’ve become quite a mystery to me. How can you house such a paradox behind those big brown eyes? Who was that woman who fucked me in front of all those people?”

“Maybe I just wanted to see how it felt to do something crazy like that.”

“And it felt amazing, didn’t it?”

There was no hesitating when she looked up at me. “Yes. But look,” she said, taking a step back. My arms fell to my sides. “I’m not interested in being anyone’s plaything right now.”

“I believe I’m asking to be yours.”

Shaking her head, she fought a smile and looked up at me. “Stop being cute.”

“Meet me upstairs.”

“What? No.”

“The empty ballroom adjacent to the restrooms. It’s up the stairs and to your right.” I stepped closer, then kissed her cheek as if to thank her for the dance.

I left her there just as the music came to a stop and they announced that dinner would be served inside, immediately followed by the auction. I wondered if she would do it. If she would risk being missed, if she felt the same buzz of adrenaline I felt.

The sound of conversation built as I stepped out of the humid night and into the air-conditioned museum. I climbed the wide staircase and meandered down the hall into the empty, unlit ballroom. The voices dimmed as I pulled the door behind me, leaving it open just a sliver.

I waited just inside for a beat, listening to the muted sounds of the party as it continued downstairs and outside, and listening to make sure I was truly alone in the dark room.

The occasional patron walked down the carpeted hall and inside the empty ballroom, making brief phone calls or looking for the restrooms. It felt as if every sound I made echoed out into the hallway, my shoes slapping on the wood floor as I took note of the layout. The room was longer than it was wide, and the city glowed through the windows on the long side of the room, the hum of traffic steady on the streets below. Along the far, short wall was a rectangular table partially hidden by an ornate screen. The room was otherwise completely empty. I walked over and leaned against the table, behind the screen and even farther out of sight as I waited.

Over fifteen minutes after I’d left her—and after I’d almost given up on waiting any longer—the slice of light through the door expanded and cut across the floor. I watched the shape of her body through the screen, backlit from the light in the hall. I knew that in the darkness, I remained invisible to her, and I took the opportunity to watch her as she scanned the room. I could imagine the pulse in her throat hammering with nerves and excitement. Stepping out from behind the screen, I finally let her see me, a silhouette against the light of the city.

She crossed the room, eyes on mine as she slowly closed the distance between us. Her expression was hard to make out in the dim lighting, and I waited for her to speak, to tell me to go to hell or even to ask me to fuck her again, but she said nothing. She paused with just inches between us, hesitating for only a moment before grabbing my jacket and pulling me to her.

Her lips were warm and insistent and she tasted of champagne. I imagined her downing a glass, hoping to find the courage to come up here and do exactly this. The thought made me moan, eyes fluttering closed as she opened her mouth to me, her head tilted back as her tongue pushed against mine. I palmed her breast with one hand, gripping her hip hard with the other.

“Take this off,” she said, hands fumbling with my tie, fingers tugging at my buttons.

I walked us backward and unzipped her dress, watching it slip from her body to pool around her feet at the floor. She was completely naked beneath her gown.

“You’ve been like this the whole time?” I asked, taking one nipple into my mouth and looking up at her.

She nodded, lips parted as she twisted her hands into my hair, whispering words like more and with teeth and please. I guided her down to the table, gripping her behind the knees to pull her toward the edge.

My fingers trailed down her ribs and over her flat stomach. I met her eyes, lifting a brow as I ran my hands over the heels of her shoes. “We’ll leave these on, I reckon,” I said, looking down at her otherwise naked body. She was perfect: creamy skin, spectacular tits, and taut, pink nipples.

Bending over her, I licked a line down her neck to her breasts, pressing my thumb into a fading mark I’d apparently sucked into her skin on Saturday. “I bet you looked at this every day,” I said, admiring my handiwork, pressing just a bit harder.

“Too much talking,” she said, pushing open my shirt. “Too many clothes.”

I grazed my teeth across her nipple, sucking, blowing across the hardened peak. “Touch me,” I said, pressing her palm over my cock.

She squeezed and my head fell against her shoulder.

Her hands shook as she unfastened my trousers, hurriedly shoving them down around my hips. She leaned back on the table, her body stretched, the shadows dipping into the hollow of her collarbone, the curve of her breasts.

“Max,” she whispered, eyes hooded as she looked up at me.

“Yeah?” I was distracted by her neck, her breasts, her hand curling around my cock.

“Do you have a camera?”

How did she do that? How did someone so contained, so naturally refined, let loose that completely? I reached into my jacket—still hanging open from my shoulders—and pulled out my phone, holding it up to her. “This’ll do?”

“Will you take pictures of us?”

I blinked, and then blinked hard again. Was she kidding? “Fuck. Absolutely.”

“No faces.”

“Of course not.”

A beat of silence passed as we both considered what I could do with this gadget in my palm. She wanted pictures of what we were doing. I reeled from the knowledge that she got off on this as much as I did. I could see it in the way her pulse beat wildly in her throat, at the fever in her eyes.

“Nobody else sees them,” she said.

I smiled. “I don’t relish the idea of sharing any part of you. Of course no one else sees them.”

She leaned back and I brought the phone up, aiming at her. The first shot was of her shoulder. The second of her hand on her breast, her nipple caught between her fingers. A soft moan left her lips as I smoothed my hand up her thigh to slip between her legs.

Voices echoed in the hall, pulling us out of our dark corner and back into the reality of where we were, and how we both eventually needed to return downstairs. I rolled a condom down my length and reached up to press my thumb to her mouth, slipping it inside.

She answered wordlessly, wrapping her legs around my hips and trying to pull me closer. I watched myself slide into her just as the door to the ballroom creaked open.

As it had before, the brightness from the hall spilled into the room, filtering through the screen and painting her torso with its ribbon of light. Her breath caught but I didn’t stop, instead lifting her chin and motioning for her to stay quiet as I pushed into her again. Heat spread from my cock up my spine at the feel of her around me.

She closed her eyes tight and I gripped her hip to steady myself, thrusting into her harder, pulling her farther down the table toward me. The light from the city was just enough for me to capture a sensual, dark photo of my hand on her skin. Footsteps crossed the room toward the window, and her legs tightened around me as if to keep me from pulling back and away.

I watched her nipples harden, her lips part in excitement. Don’t worry, I thought with a smile. I’m not stopping.

My movements were shallow and I gripped her breast, pinching her nipple. “They’re right there,” I whispered, bending to kiss her neck and relishing the wild rhythm of her pulse under my lips. “They could see us if they wanted.”

Her breath caught and I pinched again, rougher this time. “I’m not pulling back. I just want to push farther and farther and farther in.”

“Harder,” she begged in a whisper.

“My hand, or how I’m fucking you?”

“Both.”

I swore against the skin of her neck. “You’re fucking dirty, you know that?”

Her mouth opened in a silent gasp as I rocked into her, wishing I could get even deeper somehow. I felt her stomach tense against mine, her hips roll up with greater insistence. Fuck, she was warm and slick and if she didn’t get there soon I was going to go before her. Thankfully, with a squeak, she dug her nails painfully into my shoulder, her body tensing as she came apart around me. I felt lightheaded, euphoric, as if something inside was about to explode.

The sound of footsteps returned, and then came to a quiet stop just on the other side of the screen. I felt my orgasm barrel down on me, white hot and enough to make me see stars. It went dark as I pushed one final time, my head buried in her neck as I let myself drown, lost to every other sensation as I came deep inside her.

And then silence, the collective moment when we struggled to contain our panting breaths, and nobody dared to move.

I became vaguely aware of the sound of breathing just beyond the screen, the stillness of someone waiting. Listening. I turned my head and saw Sara’s wide eyes, her teeth buried into her bottom lip. A moment passed, and then another before the footsteps moved on, the light slipping along our sweaty bodies just as the door closed.