Beautiful Stranger [Beautiful Series]

Seven

Maybe this was how Andy got so much done every single day. Nothing cleared the head better than a screaming orgasm with a gorgeous stranger who didn’t expect me to go pick up his dry cleaning afterward. Monday morning, I felt energized and completely engaged in the nine o’clock department meeting.

The other executives and their assistants had finally arrived to the new office, and because some things Bennett had been working on came through, we were inundated with the prospect of twenty new marketing clients. I was buried. On the upside, I had very little time to fantasize about Andy-shaped voodoo dolls and castration techniques.

But in between the frenzy—walking from one meeting to the next, a trip to the restroom, a quiet lull after a phone call—I remembered my night with Max, his hard, naked body behind me, my limbs heavy with delicious exhaustion and his hands fisted in my hair.

“Don’t close your eyes, don’t you fucking close your eyes. I’m about to come.”

Despite how much fun it had been, I’d felt off for a couple of hours on Saturday morning. Not regretting anything, exactly, but slightly embarrassed that I’d actually done it. It occurred to me that I was giving Max a very bad impression, showing up in some random neighborhood and willing to let him do what he wanted to me in front of hundreds of mirrors where it was very likely no one would be able to hear me if I needed help.

The thing was, even below that thin layer of mortification, I knew I’d never felt more alive. He made me feel safe, as strange as that was, and like I could ask him for anything. Like he saw something in me nobody else did. He didn’t seem even the slightest bit surprised or judgmental when I’d laid out my terms in his office. Didn’t even blink when I told him we wouldn’t be having sex in any bed.

I sat back at my desk in my office, closing my eyes as the memory returned from the last time Andy and I had had sex, more than four months ago. We’d stopped bothering to argue over his schedule, or mine. Instead, the lack of intimacy in our relationship felt like a dark shadow growing to cover the room.

I’d tried to spice things up, showing up at his office late one night in nothing but a long coat and heels. But I’d have been better off showing up wearing a yellow duck suit, for how embarrassed he was to see me. “I can’t have sex with you here,” he’d hissed, looking over my shoulder.

Maybe he said that because he could only have sex with other women in the office. I’d been humiliated.

Without saying anything, I’d turned and left.

Later that night, he came home and made some effort: waking me up, kissing me, trying to take his time and make it good.

It hadn’t been.

My eyes blinked open, as the reality of everything seemed to hit me in this one, totally random moment. Max made me feel so good, and Andy had only ever made me feel miserable. It was time for me to woman up, and stop apologizing for taking whatever the hell I wanted.

Although I still craved him uncomfortably much, knowing that I would hear from Max eventually let me shut off wondering how or when it would happen for most of the week. But when lunch rolled around on Friday, and he still hadn’t contacted me, it occurred to me that if Max wanted to end things he might just decide to not text me. We had no rules for how to let this go, or how to back away gracefully. In reality, the way I’d set it up meant that the most graceful way to back out would be to simply disappear. There was something comforting about an arrangement that was so tenuous it could just evaporate.

Still, I wanted to see him again.

I put my phone in my desk drawer, determined to not take it with me to the afternoon team meeting. But ten minutes into discussions about a lingerie marketing campaign, and with the memory of Max slipping my skimpy lace panties down my legs still playing on a loop inside my head, I found an excuse to get up and go back to my office to retrieve it.

No message. Damn.

Returning to the conference room, I found Bennett flipping through slides at lightning speed. It was okay for me because I’d seen the deck beforehand, but I could tell the newly arrived junior executives wanted to throw up their lunches.

“Slow down, Bennett,” I came up and said to him quietly.

He snapped his attention to me, his temper barely tied down. “What?”

I swallowed. Colleagues or not, he still scared the hell out of me. “I think you clicked through the marketing segmentation too fast,” I explained. “You just finished it yesterday, when these guys were on a plane. Let them digest it.”

He nodded tightly and looked back to the screen. I could almost feel him counting to ten in his head as he let them read the slide, and I looked across the table at Chloe. She was watching him, biting down on her pen to keep from laughing. I doubted Bennett had any sympathy for the RMG employees who had just uprooted their entire lives and were expected to have memorized seventeen tables of market figures in twenty-four hours.

“Good?” he asked, clicking to the next slide without waiting for an answer.

Catch up or catch the next train. That’s what I’d overheard Bennett saying to a new marketing associate named Cole.

My phone vibrated loudly on the table and I picked it up, apologizing under my breath for the interruption. Thank the universe for Bennett Ryan and his endlessly entertaining, impatient perfectionism; for two whole minutes I’d forgotten to wonder if Max was still interested in meeting.

New York Public Library has some fascinating volumes. Schwartzman Building. 6:30. Wear a skirt, your tallest heels and skip the pants.

I grinned down at my phone, thinking Max was a pretty lucky bastard that all I would need to do was remove my panties before meeting him. When I looked up, Chloe still had her pen between her teeth, but this time she was watching me, eyebrows raised.

Looking back to Bennett, I studiously ignored her stare, but I couldn’t seem to lose my giddy grin.

There were altogether too many iconic buildings in New York. Every building seemed familiar or laden with history. But few were as immediately recognizable to me as the New York Public Library, with its lion statues and hulking stairs.

I’d seen him four times since the first night we had sex, and even though this was a planned meet-up, I still felt like the breath had been kicked out of me when I spotted my beautiful stranger. He stood far above everyone around him, and as he searched the crowd for me, I took a few seconds to just drink him in.

Black suit, dark gray shirt, no tie. His hair had grown out in the last couple of weeks and although he kept it longer on top, I liked it messy like this, imagined tugging on it with his head between my legs.

He cut quite a shadow on the steps, as people parted around him. I want to see you naked in daylight, I thought. I want to see pictures of you with me in full sun.

Max found me then, and I was totally busted for ogling him. A knowing smile spread across his face and he hooked a finger at me, beckoning.

When I drew closer, he teased, “You were staring.”

I laughed, looking away. “Was not.”

“For someone who so enjoys being stared at in her most intimate moments, you’re awfully shy about being caught playing the voyeur.”

I felt my smile shrink a little as something ached beneath my ribs. I spoke before even really planning to. “I’m just really happy to see you.”

This clearly caught him off guard. He recovered with a bright smile. “Ready to play?”

I nodded, oddly nervous despite the rush of heat that spread across my skin. We’d had an audience of a hundred mirrors last week, but had otherwise been entirely alone. Here, even at six thirty on a Friday night, the library was bustling.

“This looks interesting,” I mumbled, turning to lead us inside when he pressed two subtle fingers to the small of my back.

“Trust me,” he said, leaning forward to whisper, “this is right up your alley.”

Once inside, he moved in front of me, walking ahead as if we were simply two strangers passing through the library entryway and headed in the same direction. As I followed his lead, I noticed a few people watching him; a couple pointed and nodded to each other. Only in midtown Manhattan would an investment whiz playboy be immediately recognizable.

I followed him, admittedly paying more attention to the fit of his jacket across his wide shoulders than to where we were headed.

Slowing, Max asked, “How much do you know about the New York Public Library, Sara? This branch specifically?”

I searched my memory for details I would have picked up from movies or TV. “Other than the opening scene in Ghostbusters? Not much,” I admitted.

Max laughed. “This library is different from most in that it relies heavily on private philanthropy. Donors—such as myself,” he added with a wink, “take a special interest in certain collections and give generously—very generously in some cases—and are sometimes granted small perks in return. Quietly, of course.”

“Of course,” I repeated.

He stopped, turning to smile at me. “This is the room most people would recognize, the Rose Main Reading Room.”

I looked around. It was warm and inviting, filled with hushed voices and the muted sounds of footsteps and the turning of pages. My eyes moved to the ornate ceiling painted to resemble the sky, the arched windows and glowing chandeliers overhead, and for a beat wondered if Max planned on taking me on one of the large wooden tables lining the cavernous and very busy room.

I must have looked unsure, because Max laughed softly beside me. “Relax,” he said, placing a hand on my elbow. “Even I’m not that bold.”

He asked me to wait while he crossed the room to speak with an older gentleman, who I got the impression knew exactly who Max was. The man glanced at me over Max’s shoulder and I felt myself blush, quickly looking away and back up toward the painted ceiling. Only a few moments later, I was following Max down a narrow flight of stairs and into a small room filled with row after row of books.

Max knew exactly where to go, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he came here a lot, or if he’d scouted the location sometime during the week. I liked both ideas, actually: the Max who was as intimate with the library as someone who worked here, and the Max who had been thinking about this as much as I had.

He stopped in a quiet corner, in a narrow, crowded row of books. It felt like the stacks pressed in on us from both sides; the tight quarters gave me the strange illusion of the walls closing in. I heard a cough and realized that there was at least one other person in the room with us.

Anticipation thrummed low in my belly.

Max lifted a book from a shelf without even really looking. “Do you read smut, Sara?”

I knew when he laughed a little at my reaction that my eyes must have nearly popped out of my head. I wasn’t a prude, and I wasn’t closed to the idea of erotica; I’d simply never gone looking for it. “Not much.”

“Not much? Or not any?”

“I’ve read some romance novels . . .”

He was already shaking his head. “I’m not talking about soft-focus covers with sweaty bare-chested men. I mean books that tell you how the woman feels when the man penetrates her. How she aches when he slips his tongue inside her. How he describes her flavor when she asks him to. I mean books that describe the fucking.”

My heart began to drill beneath my sternum at how casually he talked about things that made me want to close my eyes and squirm. “Then no. I haven’t read anything like that.”

“Well, then,” he said, handing me the book, “I’m happy to be here for this momentous occasion.”

I glanced down at the cover. Anaïs Nin. Delta of Venus. I knew the name and, like everyone, I knew the reputation, too.

“Great, let’s check this one out.” I flipped it over, looking for some kind of bar code or number. But the volume was leather, with heavy gilded pages. Obviously a rare edition. “Take it with us . . . ?”

“Oh no, no, no, no. One can’t actually check out the books at this library,” he began. “And, besides, where would the fun be in that anyway? The acoustics in here are so lovely, with the wood, and ceilings and whatnot . . .”

“What? Here?” My heart drooped a little. As much as I loved the idea of reading something racy with Max nearby, I loved the idea of being completely wild with him tonight even more.

He nodded. “And you’re reading to me.”

“I’m reading you erotica in here?”

“Yes. And I’ll probably feel the need to fuck you in here, too. You got to be loud last week. But this week”—he brushed some hair off the side of my face, lips pursed—“not so much.”

I swallowed heavily, unsure whether this was exactly what I wanted to hear or whether it terrified me. His hand spreading across the back of my neck was soothing. His palm was warm; his fingers were long enough to wrap almost to my windpipe.

“You did only give me Fridays, and no beds,” he said. “Circumstances being what they are, I want to do something with you I know with absolute certainty you’ve never experienced before.”

“And you?” I reconsidered why he knew this room so well.

He shook his head. “Most people aren’t allowed down here at all. And I can assure you, I’ve never fucked a girl in the library before. For as much of an expert at this as you think I am, most of my adventures are in a limo on the way to drop someone off somewhere. I’m more of an arse than a slut, if I’m being introspective about it.”

There was freedom in his determined bachelorhood; I didn’t have to pretend that this meant any more than it did. And even though it was only sex, and even though he was the first man I’d been with whom I really didn’t need to know at all, I had craved his touch all week long.

I reached up and pulled his face close to mine. “Fine with me. I don’t need you to be a nice guy.”

He laughed into a kiss. “I’ll be quite nice to you, I promise. You’ve so far refused the back of my limo or a quick shag at my place. You’re making me break all of my habits.”

We were invisible from across the room, thanks to the books surrounding us, but if anyone walked down to our dark little corner, we’d be exposed. Something inside me began to ache in that heavy, sweet way that caused my spine to arch and my heart to pound wildly.

Max stepped forward and bent to kiss me, starting with the corner of my mouth, humming at the contact and smiling.

“I’m following your rules, but it does mean I’m hard all the time. I deleted the video, but I’ll admit I regret it. You’ll let me take some more pictures tonight?”

It took so little from him to make me feel like I was no longer solid, but turning into a warm, honeyed ooze. “Yes.”

He gave me a smile that made me fear for a beat that I’d handed a slice of my soul to the devil. But then he kissed my jaw, whispering, “You know I’d never show anyone. I despise the idea of another man seeing you like this. When you leave me, the next poor bastard will need to figure out all on his own how to please you.”

“When I leave you?”

He shrugged, eyes wide and clear. “Or end this. However you choose to describe it.”

“I half wondered this Friday if you’d simply not text. If that’s how it would end.”

“I think that’d be pretty shite,” he said, frowning thoughtfully. “If either of us wants to end things, let’s have the courtesy to say it, right?”

I nodded, surprisingly relieved. I suspected that even though I’d made the deal with myself to keep this about sex, if it ended I would still miss it—miss him. Not only was Max an amazing lover, he was also fun.

But he was a player, and took this just as seriously as I did . . . which is to say not at all.

“Now that that’s settled . . .” He turned me to face the stacks. Reaching around me, he opened the book, flipping to a specific passage, and then moved my hand to hold it open. With him pressed behind me and a shelf in front, I felt completely hidden, like I was buried in this hulking man. Or maybe sheltered.

“Read,” he whispered, his breath hot against my ear. “Start there.”

He indicated with his fingertip that I begin at a paragraph partway into a chapter. I didn’t know what was happening, who was narrating. But I understood it didn’t matter.

Wetting my lips, I read, “ ‘When he and Louise met, they immediately went off together. Antonio was powerfully fascinated by the whiteness of her skin, the abundance of her breasts, her slender waist. . . . ’ ”

Max’s hands ran up beneath my dress, over my hips, across my stomach, up to where he cupped my breasts.

“Fuck, you’re soft.”

One of his hands smoothed down my side and between my legs, teasing at my wetness.

It was work to focus on the plain English in front of me, but I kept reading. Max moved his hands away, clearing my head for only a beat, because behind me, I could feel him shifting, could hear the click of his belt as he unlatched it. I barely processed the words as I said them, instead listening to the sounds of him behind me.

Could I do this? This wasn’t a wild dance floor, with strobing lights and writhing bodies; this wasn’t an empty restaurant and his hand under the table. This was the most famous public library, full of rare volumes, marble flooring . . . literary history. Since entering the building we hadn’t even spoken at full volume. And we were going to have sex? It was one thing to imagine it, another to be standing here about to actually do it.

I was nervous.

Hell, I was terrified. But I was also buzzing, every neuron firing, my blood pumping wildly in my veins. My words faltered as I read.

“Focus, Sara.”

I blinked down at the book, struggling to push my attention to the words on the page.

“ ‘Everything made him laugh. He gave one the feeling that the whole world was now shut out and only this sensual feast existed, that there would be no tomorrow, no meetings with anyone else—that there was only this room, this afternoon, this bed.’ ”

“Read that again,” he growled and then lifted my skirt. “This room, this afternoon, this bed.”

Just as I was about to speak, and without any warning, he slid right inside me, so wet was I that he hadn’t even really had to tease, stroke, or pet me. He just had to give me a book, the briefest teasing touches, and the sounds of him undressing. I groaned, wishing he could find a way to push all of him entirely inside me. I was convinced that being ripped in two by him would be the best pleasure I’d ever known.

“Quiet,” he reminded me, moving back and then into me slowly. He was so hard, so long. I remembered the sharp sting when he’d taken me roughly on all fours last week in front of the mirrors. I remembered how I dreaded and welcomed every brutal thrust. When he caught my face in my orgasm on a hundred different mirrors, he’d completely come undone. More than anything, seeing him like that had been the climax of my night.

We were at the end of a darkened row, but I could hear the faint sounds of someone else a few stacks down. I bit my lip as Max slid his hand around my hip and between my legs, teasing my clit.

“Keep reading.”

I felt my eyes go wide. Was he serious? If I gave my throat permission to make any sound, I couldn’t be held responsible for what came out. “I can’t,” I squeaked.

“Sure you can,” he said, as if he’d suggested I simply take a deep breath. His fingers swept across my clit again, teasing. “Or we can stop.”

I threw him a dark look over my shoulder and ignored his silent laugh. I had no idea where I’d left off, or what was happening in the story other than Antonio ripping off Louise’s dress but leaving on some giant, heavy belt. I could barely find my breath, but I began reading again in a tight, stuttering cadence that seemed to make Max crazy. His fingers dug into my hips and he swelled inside me.

“Please . . . ,” I begged.

“Christ,” he gasped. “Keep going.”

Somehow, I strung the words together, and the passage grew heated and wild. So descriptive. Her wetness was “honey.” The man sucked and tasted every single place on this woman’s body, probing into her and teasing until I started to feel heavy with her want and mine. To my horror, I could feel my own wetness going down my thighs, sliding between us with the force of his movement.

Max shuddered behind me, losing both patience and rhythm. He seemed unable to move his hand from where it gripped my hip, and I suspected the other held his phone, taking pictures.

“Sara. Fuck. Touch yourself.”

I carefully pinned the book open with one forearm and reached between my legs, rubbing. I’d been so swollen, so heavy with the weight of my orgasm pressing down on me that I began to come within only a few seconds. The last of my words came out broken.

“ ‘ . . . thought she . . . would go in-sane . . . with a hatred and a j-oy . . . ’ ”

When my muscles stopped trembling, he thrust hard into me a few more times and then stilled, stifling his groan with his mouth pressed to my neck.

The room was completely silent, and I realized I had no sense of how loud we’d actually been. I’d whispered every word I read, I knew. But when I came, had I made some other loud noise? I lost myself so completely with him.

He pulled out of me, releasing a quiet grunt, and a whispered, “Be right back.”

I stood, hearing him disappearing behind me while I fixed my clothes. He returned, kissing the back of my neck. “Mmm. Lovely.”

I turned to face him.

“And per your rules,” he said, looking down at me as he buttoned his suit jacket, “I suppose this is where we part.”

I straightened my already straightened dress. This was our arrangement—I’d been the one to demand it—but it felt . . . odd. He continued to watch me with a twinkle in his eye, almost as if to say, I just gave you an insane orgasm and you look a little dazed, but hey! Here’s your dumbass rule!

I was tempted to agree.

“Right. Perfect. I’m glad we’re on the same page,” I said instead.

He laughed as he slid the book back onto the shelf. “And thank God that page isn’t Page Six, right? A brilliant shag and no one’s the wiser. We are most definitely in agreement.”

“Do you ever get tired of it?” I asked. “People watching you?” I remembered how much I hated the unsolicited opinions about my hair or what I wore when I was with Andy, the speculation on whether I’d gained or lost a few pounds or who I was seen with. I wondered if it was the same for him.

“It’s not like being a true celebrity. People here just like to know what I’m up to. I think most people reading that rubbish just want to think I’m having fun.”

That seemed so optimistic. “Seriously? I think they all want to catch you with your pants down.”

“Wait, isn’t that what you’re after?” He laughed at my eye roll, and continued: “The slut image is convenient for them. I’m not fucking a different girl every night.”

Stretching to kiss him, I added, “Well, at least not lately.”

Something passed across his eyes, a tiny flicker of confusion before it cleared. “Too right.” He leaned forward and kissed me sweetly, his hand cupping my face. “Let’s go, shall we?”

I nodded, a little dazed. Max motioned for me to lead the way and we climbed the stairs, stepping back onto the main floor of the library. Nothing had changed: the sound of whispers and pages turning still filled the air and nobody even glanced in our direction. There was a thrill in what we had done, and the fact that nobody seemed the wiser.

We were nearing the exit when Max reached for my arm and pulled me into a darkened corner. “Just one more,” he said, right before he brought his lips to mine. It was soft and sweet and his lips lingered there, as if he didn’t want to be the one to pull away.

I swallowed when I met his eyes again.

“Till next week, Petal.”

And then he was gone. I watched as he crossed the floor and headed out into the fading sunshine, and wondered how much I would regret this when it was over.