Beautiful Stranger [Beautiful Series]

Five

Monday morning, I found Chloe in her suddenly cluttered office, staring out the window. Her furniture and all of her boxes had finally arrived, and her pacing and mumbling told me that she was more than a little overwhelmed at the prospect of unpacking.

I’d spent most of the weekend alternating between horror and celebration over what I’d done at the fund-raiser, and had come in to work to get my mind to stop looping through and looking too closely at what my actions said about me. I stayed until midnight on Saturday and, unfortunately, made my way through all of the contracts and invoices I needed to get done this week. Other than a handful of phone calls, I had nothing to do, and these days an idle Sara was not a good thing.

“Need help?”

Chloe laughed, flopping down on her couch. “I don’t even know where to start. We just finished unpacking our apartment. Plus, I feel like I just packed all of this up.”

“Start with your bookshelf. I never feel organized until I can see the neat rows of books all set up.”

Shrugging, she slid from the couch and crawled to where a few boxes were stacked against a wall. “Did you have fun at MoMA?”

I opened a box of supplies and pulled out a box cutter. “Definitely.”

I could feel her look up at me, and her lingering attention pressed into the side of my face. I probably should have elaborated, but my mind turned completely blank when I struggled with what else to say. What else had happened? We arrived. Had some hors d’oeuvres. Max and I danced, and then I asked him to take pictures while he pounded me on a table.

By the time I remembered the rest—the dinner we’d missed, the silent auction he’d gone to attend, the beautiful garden I’d escaped to after our . . . encounter, too much time had already passed for me to add to my one-word answer.

“Good,” she said, and I could hear the smirk in her voice. “I’m glad you decided to come. Max and Will apparently host that every year and they raise a ton of money for the charity. I think it’s amazing.”

“Amazing,” I mumbled in agreement, remembering Max in a tux. Good sweet baby Jesus, the man was born for black tie. He looked pretty amazing half naked, too.

I looked out the window, remembered the throbbing heat of his breath on my neck.

“I’m not pulling back,” he growled, spreading a huge hand over my breast. “I just want to push farther and farther and farther in.”

My breasts weren’t small but the size of his hand had made me feel tiny, like he could pick me up and snap me in half. Instead of feeling afraid, I had spread my legs wider, welcomed him deeper.

“Harder.”

He pulled back to look at me. “My hand, or how I’m fucking you?”

“Both,” I’d admitted, and he bent back low to my neck, biting me.

I found myself wondering about the pictures he’d taken and shivered slightly. I tried not to imagine him looking at them. Maybe even touching himself while he did . . .

Chloe cleared her throat and pulled a few periodicals from her box. I blinked, hard, and looked down at the journals in front of me. Jesus, where was all this coming from?

“I saw you talking to Max,” she said. “You guys danced for, like, three songs, too. Did you just meet him that night?”

Was she a mind reader? What in the actual hell, Chloe?

I didn’t look up, and instead mumbled, “Yeah, we just met at the”—I waved my hand in the air—“the thing on Friday.”

“He’s gorgeous,” she said.

Poke. Poke.

I could feel her gaze on me. Chloe was the least subtle poker in the world. She dropped a hint like a strike fighter drops bombs. “Don’t you think he’s gorgeous?”

Finally I looked up at her and rolled my eyes. “Knock it off. I’m not going to swoon for you over Max Stella. He seemed nice, that’s all.”

She laughed and shoved a few books on the shelf. “Fine. Just making sure you weren’t caught under his spell. He sounds like a great guy, but yeah, definitely a player. At least he’s up front about it, though.”

She watched me for a minute as I struggled to not react to that. It was a fair dig on Andy, and was the kind of thing she could say in a year or two and we’d both laugh and say, “I know, right?”

But for now her words just kind of dissolved into awkward silence.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “Bad timing. Did you know that Max and Bennett went to school together?”

“Yeah, he mentioned something about that. I didn’t know that Bennett went to college in England.”

She nodded. “Cambridge. Max was his flat mate from their first day there. He hasn’t shared many stories with me, but the ones he has . . .” She trailed off, shaking her head as her attention returned to the books in front of her.

I was supposed to be uninterested, completely uninterested in all of this, right? So I studied my thumb, and only then did I notice a fresh paper cut.

Get it together, Sara; your brain is so fixated on Max that you no longer sense pain? That’s pathetic.

So how does one look when one absolutely does not care about the stories that Chloe may have heard? I mean, obviously the fact that he hasn’t shared many stories means that he’s shared some.

Right?

I alphabetized a giant stack of periodicals, pretending to be engrossed. Finally, the question felt like it was choking me and I relented. “Like, what kinds of things did they do?”

“Just guy stuff,” she said, distracted. “Rugby. Brewing their own beer and the insane parties after. Taking the train to Paris and blah-blah escapades.”

I wanted to strangle her. “Escapades?”

She looked up suddenly, as if she remembered something, and her dark eyes definitely had a mischievous shine to them. “Hey, this reminds me. Speaking of escapades . . .”

My stomach fell to my knees.

“You disappeared on Friday night, for like an hour! Where did you go?”

My face heated, and I cleared my throat, furrowing my brow as if I had to work to remember. “Oh, I just felt a little overwhelmed. I, uh, went for a walk around the grounds.”

“Damn,” she breathed. “I was hoping you ran into a hot caterer and got banged on a table.”

A hoarse cough burst out, and my entire throat was suddenly so dry that I couldn’t stop coughing.

Chloe stood and got me a cup of water from the cooler in the reception area, returning with a knowing grin. “You are so busted. You always start coughing when you’re freaking out.”

“I’m fine.”

“Lies. Lying liar who lies all the lies. Tell me.”

I absolutely refused to look at her. Something about Chloe’s dark brown eyes and patient smile directed right at me made me spill everything. “There is nothing to tell.”

“Sara, when you disappeared, you came back after being gone for an hour and looked . . .” She tucked a long lock of brown hair behind her ear to reveal a devilish smile. “You know how you looked. Freshly fucked.”

I cut a box open and pulled out a stack of design magazines, handing them to her. “And it’s too crazy to explain.”

“Are you kidding me? You’re talking to the woman who had sex with her boss in the eighteenth-floor stairwell.”

My head shot up and a laugh burst out. I drank some more water to keep the cough at bay. “Holy crap, Chloe. I didn’t know that detail.” I considered this a little more. “God, good thing I never used the stairs. Gross. That would have been super awkward.”

“We were ridiculous. Nothing could be crazier than that.” She shrugged and turned her nonjudgmental face on me. “Or, could there be? You tell me.”

“Okay,” I said, leaning back against her couch. “The guy I met at the bar last week? The hot one?”

“Yeah?”

“He was there on Friday.”

Her eyes narrowed, and I could see her gears cranking. “At the fund-raiser?”

“Yeah. He found me outside the restroom,” I lied and looked out the window so she wouldn’t see it in my eyes. “We hooked up. I guess that’s why I looked . . . er, rumpled.”

“When you say hooked up you mean . . . ?”

“Yeah. In an empty ballroom.” I looked up and met her eyes. “On a table.”

She let out a loud whoop and clapped her hands. “Look at you, you wild thing.”

It was so like something Max would say to me, but delivered so differently, that for a moment it rendered me a little speechless. It was disorienting to ache for him like this, to wonder what he was doing, and whether he was presently looking at pictures of me spread out beneath him.

“Seriously, Sara, I knew you had it in you,” she added.

“The thing is, I don’t really want another relationship. And even if I did, I get the impression he isn’t really like that.” I stopped before spilling too much. If I alluded any more to Max’s reputation on Page Six, Chloe would absolutely know who I meant.

She hummed, listening, as she sorted through a stack of journals.

“But he’s fun, Chloe. And you know how things were with Andy.”

She stopped sorting, but toyed with the corner of a page. “Well, that’s the thing, Sare. I don’t really. I mean, come on; in the three years you and I have known each other, I only had dinner with you guys maybe five times. I learned more about him from the papers than I did from any stories you told me. You hardly ever talked about him! I always just ended up with the sense that he was using your family’s reputation to appear well connected and . . . wholesome.”

I felt guilt and embarrassment settle in my chest like a lead weight. “I know,” I said, inhaling and letting it out again slowly. It was one thing to imagine how people saw me, another to hear it straight out. “I always worried that if I said anything about him to someone, it would be misconstrued, and somehow break his public strategy. Plus, we weren’t like you and Bennett. We didn’t have a lot of fun together by the time I met you. Andy was a phony and an epic jerk and it took me a really long time to see that. This thing on Friday was just fun.”

Chloe looked up. “Hey, it’s fine. I knew it was something like that.” She turned back to another box. “So this is good then, he’s not like Andy.”

“Yeah.”

“So you mean he’s into you.”

“At least physically, which is fine for me right now.”

“So what’s the problem? It sounds like the perfect situation.”

“He’s kind of intense. And I don’t really trust him.”

Putting down the books in her hand, she turned to face me. “Sara, this is going to sound really weird, but just hear me out, okay?”

“Of course.”

“When Bennett and I started . . . whatever it was we were doing, I was determined that every time it happened it would be the last. But I think I always knew it would keep happening until it had run its course. Luckily for us, I don’t think we’ll ever stop feeling what we felt those first few times. Even so, I didn’t trust him. I didn’t really even like him. Above all of it, he was my boss. I mean, hello, inappropriate.” She laughed, and following her gaze over to her desk, I saw that the first and only thing she’d unpacked so far was a picture of the two of them at the house in France where he’d proposed to her. “But I think if I’d just given myself permission to enjoy it a little bit, it might not have consumed me so much.”

I was starting to know exactly what she meant about being consumed. And I knew, too, that I was consciously fighting it with Max, with the idea of Max. But my reasons were different. It wasn’t a boss-employee thing, or any other kind of power struggle. It was the simple fact that I didn’t want to be anyone else’s but my own for a while. And although this thing with Max was insane and completely different from anything I’d ever felt before—I was different—I liked it. A lot.

“I do like him,” I admitted carefully. “But I don’t think he’s boyfriend material. In fact, I know he’s not. And I am most definitely not girlfriend material right now.”

“Okay, so maybe you just get together every now and then as fuck buddies.”

I laughed, pressing my face into my hands. “Seriously. Whose life is this?”

She looked at me like she wanted to pat my head. “Sara, it’s yours.”

George was reading a newspaper in my office with his feet up on my desk when I returned.

“Working yourself to the bone?” I teased, sitting on the corner of my desk.

“On my lunch break. And you had a package arrive, darling.”

“You found it in the mailroom?”

He shook his head and lifted the parcel off his lap, waving it at me. “Hand delivered. By a very cute bike messenger, I might add. I had to sign for it and promise not to open it.”

I snatched it from him and jerked my chin to the door, wordlessly telling George to scram.

“You’re not even going to tell me what it is?”

“I don’t have X-ray vision, and you are not going to be here when I open it. Get out.”

With a noise of protest, he kicked his feet off my desk and left, closing my door on his way out.

I stared at the package for several minutes, feeling the rectangular shape of it beneath the padded envelope. A frame? My heart jumped in my chest.

Tucked inside were a wrapped parcel and a note that read,

Petal,

Open this with discretion. It is my favourite.

Your stranger.

I swallowed, feeling a little as if I were on the verge of unleashing something I would no longer be able to contain. Looking up to ensure that my door was firmly shut, I unwrapped it, my hands shaking when I realized that it was indeed a frame. Made of deep, simply cut wood, it held a single photo: a picture of my stomach, and the curve of my waist. The black table beneath me was visible. Max’s fingertips were also visible at the bottom, as if he was pinning me to the surface at my hips. A faint beam of light spread across my skin, a reminder of the door opening nearby, of the person wandering around the room just beyond the screen.

He must have taken that picture just as he’d buried himself in me.

I closed my eyes, remembering how it had felt when I came. I was like a bare wire, plugged into the wall and with the charge that would illuminate that dark ballroom running through me instead. He’d bared my clit with his fingers, stroked me just like that. I’d wanted to close my legs against the intensity of it, but he’d growled, held me open with his pounding hips.

I shoved the frame back in the mailing envelope and hid the entire thing in my purse. Heat spread like a clawing vine across my skin and I couldn’t even turn up the air, couldn’t open a window this high in the building.

How did he know?

I felt the weight of it pressing down on me, how much I’d wanted it to be a photo of us, how much I’d wanted to be seen. He understood, maybe more than I did myself.

Stumbling to my desk, I sat down and tried to take stock of the situation. But directly in front of me was today’s New York Post, open to Page Six.

There, smack in the middle of the page, was a story titled, Sex God Stella Goes Solo.

The playboy millionaire venture capitalist tried something a little new Saturday night at MoMA.

No, it wasn’t looking at art, and it most certainly wasn’t raising money (let’s be honest: the man already raises money better than every slot machine in Vegas). Saturday night at his annual fund-raiser to benefit Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, Max Stella arrived . . . alone.

When asked where his date was, he simply said, “I’m hoping she’s already inside.”

Unfortunately for us, photographers were forbidden from the event.

We’ll get you next time, Mad Max.

I stared down at the paper, knowing George had put it here for me to see and was probably now laughing to himself.

My hands shook as I folded it and shoved it in a drawer. Why hadn’t it occurred to me that a photographer could have been in there? That there were no photographers in the event at all was a miracle. And although Max had certainly known this, I hadn’t, and I hadn’t even thought to care.

“Crap,” I whispered. I knew, with sudden clarity, that this thing between us either needed to end absolutely, or I needed some semblance of control. Feeling relieved in hindsight was a slippery slope, and I’d already dodged three bullets in my first week.

I hit the spacebar on my laptop to wake up my computer and googled the location of “Stella & Sumner.”

I couldn’t help but smile. “Of course.”

Thirty Rockefeller Plaza.

Stella & Sumner took up half of the seventy-second floor of the GE Building, one of the most iconic buildings in the city. Even I recognized it from blocks away.

However, for such a well-known venture capital firm, I was surprised how little space it required. Then again, it took very little to run a company that basically just raised and invested money: Max, Will, some junior executives, and assorted math brainiacs.

My heart was hammering so fast I had to count ten deep breaths, and then duck into a bathroom just outside their office doors to get myself together.

I checked each stall to ensure it was empty, and then looked myself right in the eye. “If you’re doing this with him, remember three things, Sara. One, he wants what you want. Sex, no strings. You don’t owe him more. Two, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. And three”—I stood up straighter, taking a deep breath—“be young. Have fun. Turn the rest off.”

Back in the hall, the glass doors to Stella & Sumner opened automatically when I approached and an older female receptionist greeted me with a genuine smile.

“I’m here to see Max Stella,” I said, returning it. She had a familiar smile, familiar brow. I glanced down and read her name placard: BRIGID STELLA.

Holy crap, did his mother work as his receptionist?

“Do you have an appointment, love?”

Her accent was just like his. I jerked my attention back to her face. “No, actually. I was hoping I could just get a minute.”

“What’s your name?”

“Sara Dillon.”

She smiled—but not a knowing smile, thank God—looked at her computer, and then nodded a little to herself before picking up the phone. “I’ve got a Sara Dillon here hoping for a chat.” She listened for barely three seconds and then said, “Right.”

When she hung up, she was already nodding. “Straight down the hall to the right. His is the office at the end.”

I thanked her and followed her directions down the hall. When I drew closer, I saw that Max stood in his doorway, leaning against the frame and wearing such a self-satisfied smile that I pulled up a good ten feet short of my destination.

“Get over yourself,” I whispered.

He burst out laughing, turning and walking into his office.

I followed him in, closing the door behind me. “I’m not here for what you think I’m here for.” And then I paused, reconsidering. “Okay, maybe I am here for what you think I’m here for. But not really. I mean not here, and not today here, when your mother is right out there! Oh my God—who hires their mother as their receptionist?”

He was still laughing, that damn dimple etched into his cheek, and with each rambling word I unleashed he seemed to laugh harder. Goddamn if he wasn’t the most playful, adorable . . . infuriating . . . ass!

“Stop laughing!” I yelled and then slapped a hand over my mouth as the words echoed back to me from the walls all around us. He struggled to straighten his expression, walked over to me and kissed me once, so sweetly I literally forgot for a beat what I was here for.

“Sara,” he said quietly. “You look beautiful.”

“You always say that,” I said. I closed my eyes, felt my shoulders slump. I couldn’t remember a single instance in the last three years where Andy had complimented me on something other than the wine I chose for dinner.

“That’s because I’m nothing if not honest. But what are you wearing?”

I opened my eyes and looked down at my white blouse, pleated navy skirt, and thick red belt. Max was staring directly at my chest, and I felt my nipples harden under his gaze.

He grinned. He could tell.

“I’m wearing . . . work stuff.”

“You look like a naughty schoolgirl done right.”

“I’m twenty-seven,” I reminded him. “You’re not being a pervert by checking out my boobs.”

“Twenty-seven,” he repeated, grinning. He acted like every bit of information I gave him was a pearl he could string on a necklace. “How many days is that?”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “What? It’s . . .” I looked up for a few seconds. “About nine thousand, eight hundred fifty. But more, actually, since my birthday is in August. About ten thousand.”

He groaned and pressed a dramatic hand to his chest. “Fuck. Numbers queen and stacked like that. I’m helpless against your charm.”

I couldn’t help but smile back at him. He’d never been rude or sharp with me, and had given me more orgasms in a week and a half than any other man had in . . . ugh, Sara. Depressing. Move on.

He looked me over once more before saying, “Well, I certainly can’t wait for you to tell me why you’ve blessed me with your visit today. But let me answer your most recent question. Yes, my mother is my receptionist and it does seem uncouth. But I dare you even to try to get her to leave that desk. I assure you, you’ll walk away with one ear pulled from your head.”

He took a step forward, and suddenly he was standing so close. Too close. I could see the tiny stripes in his tailored suit jacket, see the shadow of stubble on his chin.

“I came here to talk to you,” I said. I must have sounded minuscule, and I needed to find some power to put behind the words I wanted to give him. I didn’t want to be how I was with Andy initially: easily bulldozed. After six years, I realized the problem was I’d never really cared enough to fight for anything.

He smiled. “I figured as much. Do you want to sit?”

I shook my head.

“Do you want something to drink?” He walked over to a small bar in the corner and held up a crystal bottle filled with amber liquid. Without thinking, I nodded, and he poured two glasses.

Handing it to me, he whispered, “Just two fingers today, Petal.”

I surrendered to my laugh. “Thank you. I’m sorry, this whole situation is just . . . eating at me.”

He raised an eyebrow but seemed to rethink lacing further innuendo into the moment. “Likewise.”

“I feel a little out of my depth with you,” I started.

He laughed, but not rudely. “I can tell.”

“See, before what happened in the club? I’d been with the same guy since I was twenty-one.”

Max took a sip of his drink and then stared down into the glass, listening. I considered how much I really wanted to tell him about Andy, and me, and who we were together.

“Andy was older. More established, more settled. It was fine,” I said. “It was always fine. I think a lot of relationships end up that way, just sort of . . . fine. Easy. Whatever. He wasn’t my best friend; he wasn’t really my lover. We cohabitated. We had a routine.”

I was loyal; he banged women all over Chicago.

“So what happened? What detonated?”

I paused, looking at him. Had I used that word with Max? I thought back, and realized no, I hadn’t. I’d used that to describe my life when I left, but I’d never shared it with him. I felt goose bumps spread along my arms. A million answers flashed through my head, but the one that I gave him was “I got tired of being so old when I was so young.”

“That’s it? That’s all you’re going to tell me? You’re a complete puzzle, Sara.”

Looking up at him, I said, “For what we’ve done together, you don’t need to know more than that I left a lot of unhappiness in Chicago and am not looking to be involved with anyone.”

“But then you found me at the club,” he said.

“If I remember correctly,” I said, dragging my finger down the front of his shirt, “you found me.”

“Right,” he said, and smiled, but for the first time I could remember, his eyes didn’t do it first. Or even later. “And here we are.”

“Here we are,” I agreed. “I figured it was my one wild moment.” I looked out the window, at the billowing white clouds, looking for all the world so solid, and hearty as if I could leap from this floor and catch one and go somewhere, anywhere, where I would feel sure of what I was about to say. “But I’ve seen you a few times since then and . . . I like you. I just don’t want things to get crazy, or off track.”

“I understand you perfectly.”

Did he? He couldn’t possibly. And in truth, it didn’t matter whether he understood that even more important than my life staying on track was my need for it not to be as safe as it had been in Chicago. Safe was a nightmare. Safe was a lie.

“One night a week,” I said. “I’ll be yours one night a week.”

He stared at me with that calm reflective expression and I realized that every time I’d seen him before this, he’d been showing every card he had. His smile was complete honesty. His laughter was him being perfectly real. But this expression was his mask.

My stomach tightened painfully. “If you even want to see me again, that is.”

“I absolutely do,” he assured me. “I’m just not entirely sure what you’re saying.”

I stood up and walked over to the window. I felt him move behind me and I said, “I feel like the only way I can handle it right now is to give it a clear boundary. Outside that boundary, I’m here to work, to build a life. But inside that boundary . . .” I trailed off, closing my eyes and just letting the idea take hold. The idea of Max’s hands, and his mouth. His sculpted torso and the thick length of him pressing into me again and again. “We can do anything. When I’m with you I don’t want to worry about anything else.”

He moved to the side, so that I could turn my head just slightly and look right at him, and stared directly into my eyes. He smiled. The mask was gone, the midafternoon sun blazed into the room, and his eyes looked like green caught on fire.

“You’re offering only your body to me.”

“Yeah.” I was the first to look away.

“You’ll truly only give me one night a week?”

I winced. “Yes.”

“So you want to have . . . what? Some sort of committed fling?”

I laughed and said, “I certainly don’t like the idea of you whoring your way across the boroughs. So, yes, that’s part of the deal. If you even do that.”

He scratched his jaw, not answering my implied question. “What night? The same night all the time?”

I hadn’t really thought this part through, but I nodded, winging it. “Fridays.”

“If I’m not to see other women, what if I have a work function, or an event on a Thursday or a Saturday that requires a date?”

My chest twisted with anxiety. “No. No public appearances. I guess you can take your mom.”

“You’re a demanding little thing.” His smile followed his words and grew slowly, like a low-burning fire. “This feels so organized. That hasn’t been our modus operandi, to date, little Petal.”

“I know,” I allowed. “But this is the only way that felt sane to me. I don’t want to be in the papers with you.”

His eyebrows pulled together. “Why that specifically?”

Shaking my head, I realized I’d said too much. I murmured, “I just don’t.”

“Do I get any say in how this goes?” he asked. “Do we just meet at your flat and fuck all night?”

I ran my index finger down his chest again, venturing lower, to his belt buckle. Here was the part I hoped he was up for and the part that scared me most. After the club, the restaurant, the fund-raiser, I was starting to feel like an adrenaline junkie. I didn’t want to give that up, either.

“I think we’ve done pretty well so far. I don’t want to go to my apartment. Or yours, for that matter. Text me where I should be, and generally what to expect so I know what to wear. I don’t care about the rest.”

I lifted myself on my toes, kissed him. It started out teasing, but then turned deep enough to make me want to take back everything I’d said and give myself to him every night of the week. But he pulled away first, breathing heavily.

“I can avoid photographers, but I’ve become obsessed with taking pictures of you. That’s my only condition. No faces, but photos are allowed.”

A shiver moved up my spine and I stared up at him. The thought of having proof of him touching my bare skin, of him looking at pictures of us together and getting hard, made a hot flush spread up my chest to my cheeks. He noticed, smiling and running the backs of his fingers along my jaw.

“When this ends, you delete them,” I said.

He nodded immediately. “Of course.”

“I’ll see you Friday then.” I reached inside his jacket, taking a moment to run my hand over the hard lines of his chest before pulling his phone from his inside pocket and dialing my cell number. It rang in my purse. I could sense his amused smile without even looking up at his face. I slipped his phone back in his pocket, turned, and walked away, knowing if I looked over my shoulder at him, I’d walk back.

I waved goodbye to his mother and took the long elevator ride back to the lobby, thinking about that cell camera of his all the way down.

Two blocks away my phone buzzed in my purse.

Meet me Friday at 11th and Kent in Brooklyn. 6:00. Have a cab bring you and stay in it until I’ve opened the door. You may come straight from work.