Beautiful Stranger [Beautiful Series]

Eight

Monday afternoon I was in a crap mood. It was hotter than balls outside, my oldest sister was making noises about convincing Mum to move back to Leeds, and Will’s office had a better view.

“You’re a fucking tosser,” I muttered, stabbing at my chicken.

Will laughed and shoved an enormous bite of his lunch into his mouth. “Is this about my view again?”

“Fucking gross.” I pointed my chopsticks at his face, barely able to understand him around all the spicy eggplant. “Remind me again how you ended up with this office?”

“You were late to the walk-through. I put my name plate on the door. Boom.”

Right. It had been the first time since moving to New York that I shagged a woman at her place and, just as I expected, I got trapped. Normally I preferred sex at my place, where I could always make an excuse that my mother was dropping by or I had somewhere to be. At her place, a woman would want to offer tea, ask me to sleep over.

I wasn’t a complete prick. I had always been as open to a relationship as anyone. I just hadn’t yet met a woman who made me want to skip a night in my own bed. The women I’d met all introduced themselves to me, knew who I was, knew who it was they thought they wanted. For such a big city, New York often felt minuscule.

I looked out the window, at the fantastic view—fuck Will—and thought about Sara. She was my default distraction lately. She was a mystery, that one. If a woman wanted a man to think of her constantly, she should tell him he can only have her once a week and bam—concentration blown.

So here I was wondering, if she asked me to stay over at her place some night, what would I say?

You know the answer to that, you twat. You’d say yes.

I’d had sex with a few dozen women since moving to the States, but lately I’d had a hard time remembering details. Every memory of sex made me think of being with Sara. She was sweet and wild. She hid so much of herself, and yet she let me do fucking anything. I had never met a woman I found so paradoxically secretive and open.

“I met a woman, mate.”

Will shoved his chopsticks back into the takeout container and slid it across the desk. “So you’re going to talk about it now?”

“Oi. Maybe.”

“You’ve been seeing her for a while now, haven’t you?”

“Few weeks, yeah.”

“Just her?”

I nodded. “She’s a fucking stellar lay, and it’s good because she told me she doesn’t want me sleeping with other women.”

Will gave me the holy shit face. I ignored it.

“But she’s different. There’s something about her . . .” I rubbed my mouth, stared out the window. What the fuck is wrong with me today? “I can’t get her out of my head.”

“Do I know her?”

“Don’t think so.” I thought back, trying to remember if Will had actually met Sara at the fund-raiser. I was with him most of the night after I left her to straighten her dress and freshen up, and I don’t think I ever saw them speak.

“So you won’t tell me who she is.” Will laughed, leaning back in his chair. “Has she captured your soul, young lover?”

“Fuck off.” I grabbed the plastic bag and shoved the mostly empty containers inside. “I just like her. But it’s just sex right now. By mutual agreement.”

“Which is good,” he said, carefully. “She’s not a digger then.”

“Am I a wanker for thinking that’s weird? She doesn’t want more. Even if I did, I think that would just make her run off. She’s terrified of being seen in public with me. Do you think I like her so much because she’s so bloody uninterested in anything but my dick?”

And like I always did when I thought of Sara, I began to make guesses about her endgame.

Will whistled quietly. “She sounds fantastic. But I can’t imagine why she’d be interested in your dick. With that tiny thing you’ll never be half the man your mother is.”

“You just insulted Brigid? You’re an arsehole.”

He shrugged, cracked open a fortune cookie.

“You put the seat down to piss, don’t you?” I asked, grinning.

“Nah. Don’t like getting my dick wet.”

“Will. The only way you could give a woman pleasure is by handing over your credit card, mate.”

And somehow, in the flurry of insults that followed, Will made me forget to act like a pathetic arse about the whole thing and I stopped worrying about whether Sara was fucking with my head.

After lunch, I left the office, hailing a cab almost immediately for a quick jaunt to see a new art installation being set up in Chelsea. I’d helped an old client find and open a gallery, and he was showing a set of rare E. J. Bellocq photos for only a few weeks. All it took was a one-line email from him—They’re here—and the rest of my day was shot. I was mad to see the never-before-shown reconstructed pieces from the damaged negatives of Bellocq’s “Storyville” collection. Although I had come to his work rather late in my education, his had been the art that triggered my fascination with photographs of the body, of its angles, its simplicity, its everyday vulnerability.

Though, until Sara, I’d never taken a picture of myself with a lover.

And there was the real rub. My shots of Sara and me together in no way mimicked Bellocq’s art, but still it reminded me of her. Her thin waist, soft stomach, and the gentle curve of her hips.

Glancing down at my phone, I wished for the thousandth time that I had one single picture of her eyes when we were making love.

Fuck.

Having sex. When we were having sex.

It was warm, without being unbearably thick outside, and after viewing the photos, I wanted to walk off my excitement for a bit. Chelsea to midtown wasn’t awful, but around Times Square I realized a man with a camera was following me.

I always assumed that the paps would learn I wasn’t nearly as interesting as they suspected, but that hadn’t yet happened. They stalked my weekend activities, my fund-raisers, every work function. It had been almost four years since anything of interest had happened to me—other than a date with the occasional semifamous woman—but at least half of the time that I dared to walk Manhattan alone, someone found me.

And suddenly my light mood vanished; I was ready for home, for a mindless viewing of Python and a few pints. It was fucking Tuesday and I wanted Sara.

“Piss off,” I called over my shoulder.

“Just one shot, Max. A shot and a comment on the rumor of you and Keira.”

Fuck. This rubbish again? I’d met her once, a month ago at a concert. “Yes. I’m totally fucking Keira Knightley. You really think I’m the person you should ask for confirmation?”

A cab screeched to the curb, scaring the ever-loving shit out of me as the back door flew open. A smooth, bare arm reached out, the hand frantically waving me in before Sara leaned forward, grinning. “Get in already!”

It took several seconds for my brain to connect to my mouth, and my legs. “Shit. Yeah. Brilliant.”

Ducking in the cab, I shoved my briefcase on the floor and looked over at her.

“Hey, Max. You looked a little . . . stalked.”

“You spotted that pretty well,” I said, eyeing her.

She shrugged, giving me her strange, elusive smile.

“Fucking paps,” I grumbled.

Sara crossed her legs and gave me a tiny shrug. “Poor baby. Need a cuddle?”

She had a fire in her eyes I hadn’t seen since the night at the club when she dragged me down the hall.

You’re in trouble, mate.

She wore a short red wrap dress and it had come undone a bit at the top. I understood the feeling. I gazed down at her left breast, the black lace of her bra peeking out.

“Nice to see you,” I told her cleavage. “I’ve had a day. Can I bury my face in you?”

“No sex in my cab!” the cabbie barked. “Where are we going now?”

I looked to Sara for guidance but she only raised her eyebrows and smiled.

“Up toward the park,” I muttered. “Not sure yet.”

He shrugged, turning the wheel away from traffic and muttering something under his breath.

“You look beautiful,” I told Sara, leaning to kiss her.

“You always say that.”

I shrugged, and licked her neck. Fuck. She tasted like sweet tea and oranges. “Come home with me.”

She shook her head, laughing. “No. I have tickets to a show at eight.”

“With whom?”

“Myself,” she said, straightening and looking out the window. I reached for her hand, slipped my fingers between hers.

“It’ll play another night. Which means you should come home with me and ride my cock instead.”

Sara’s eyes widened as she glanced at the cabbie. He glared at us in the rearview but said nothing.

“No,” she whispered, eyes searching mine. She tried to pull her hand out of mine, but I didn’t let her. “But can I ask you something?”

With her hair tucked behind her ears and looking so small on the seat beside me, I felt a completely foreign panic: was this all wrong for her? In her bare, unguarded moments she looked so naïve.

“Anything,” I told her.

“I’ve been thinking about it. Why are you so famous around here? Yes, you’re gorgeous and successful. But New York breeds gorgeous and successful. Why do photographers stalk you on a random Tuesday?”

Ah. I smiled, realizing that although she had looked me up online, she hadn’t looked very far back. “I thought you did your homework.”

“I got bored after going through three pages of pictures of you in a tux with your arm around all of the women.”

I laughed. “I assure you, that isn’t why they follow me.” Pausing, I wondered why I was talking about this now, after being so tight-lipped about it for so long.

“I moved here a little over six years ago,” I began. She nodded, clearly familiar with that part. “And about a month after I arrived, I met a woman named Cecily Abel.”

Her brow furrowed. “I know that name . . . Do I know who that is?”

I shrugged. “You may know her, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t. She was very big on Broadway but, as is often the case in the New York theater world, her fame didn’t extend very far into middle America.”

“What do you mean she ‘was’ big on Broadway?”

I looked at her fingers woven between mine. “I believe Cecily—and her dramatic departure from the theater scene—is the reason I’m noticed at all. She left New York quite abruptly, after mailing a letter she wrote that was printed in the Post. It detailed all of her gripes with this city, including,” I quoted, “ ‘directors who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves, whoring politicians, and investment hounds who didn’t know a good thing when they had it.’ ”

“She loved you?”

“Yes. And, as is often the case in life, it was unrequited.”

Sara’s eyes grew a bit dark, her red mouth curved into a frown. “That sounds pretty flippant.”

“Believe me, I am anything but flippant about Cecily. She’s fine now. Happily married in California. But for a time, she was under a doctor’s care.” Before she could say more, I added, “She was a good friend, and her decision to leave everything here showed me she wasn’t very . . . stable. Really there were many reasons she left the city and I was just the most recent disappointment. I simply didn’t love her the way she loved me.”

Sara blinked up at the ceiling and seemed to consider this. “It’s better you were honest with her.”

“Of course,” I assured her. “Her mental state was, ultimately, not about whether or not I loved her. She was troubled regardless . . . but that doesn’t make very good newspaper copy, now does it?”

Sara looked back at me and her eyes softened, her smile returned. “So people became interested in who this man was, the man who broke the local star’s heart and drove her mad.”

“And thus I was made into a mystery. The press loves a good roguish playboy, and her letter was quite dramatic. Their portrayal is true, and it’s also not. I do love women, and I do love sex. But my life’s rarely as interesting as the tabloids hope. I’ve learned to not care much one way or another what people are saying.”

Our cabbie swerved to miss hitting a kid on a bike, and laid heavily on the horn. In the jostling, Sara’s breast pressed against my arm and I pressed back, grinning, as her eyebrow rose in mock exasperation. “There are a lot of pictures of you online.”

“Some of those women were lovers, some weren’t.” I ran my thumb across the swell of her breast, and she looked down to watch, eyes hooded. “I’m not abnormally averse to commitment; I just haven’t made one in a very long time.”

Her head snapped up and I could see with perfect clarity how her pupils dilated, her lips twitched in a smile.

“Yes,” I admitted, laughing. “I suppose our arrangement is a commitment of sorts. It just doesn’t count when you refuse to ever go on an actual date with me.”

The smile shrank slightly. “I don’t think either of us is good at anything more.”

“Well,” I admitted, “we certainly are good at what we do. Speaking of which, I discussed you with Will,” I told her, letting the vibrating heat of her irritation focus on the side of my face for just a moment. She was fun to rile, this one. “Without names, Petal. Settle down.”

I waited for her to ask what I said.

And waited.

Finally, I looked over at her to find her still watching me carefully. We were stopped at a red light and everything in the cab felt completely still.

“So?” she said, giving me a slow, wicked smile when we accelerated forward. “You told Will you found a woman who likes to have sex in public?”

“Not in my cab!” the cabbie yelled so loud we both jumped and then broke into laughter. He pumped the brakes, jolting us. “Not in my cab!”

“Don’t worry, mate,” I told him. I turned to her and murmured, “She doesn’t let me fuck her in cars. Or on Tuesdays.”

“She doesn’t,” she whispered, though she did let me kiss her again.

“Shame,” I said into her mouth. “I’m good in cars. And especially good on Tuesdays.”

“So this conversation with Will,” she said, reaching across and shoving her hand beneath the suit jacket I’d laid across my lap. “If you didn’t tell him my name, what did you tell him?” She pressed her palm against my cock, squeezing.

Was she going to give me a wank in the cab?

Fucking brilliant.

“Sixty-fifth and Madison,” I told the driver. “Take the long way round.”

He shot me a look, most likely at the prospect of driving through Columbus Circle at rush hour, but nodded, taking Fifty-seventh toward Broadway.

“No sex in cab,” he said, quieter this time.

I turned to Sara. “I mentioned I’d met a woman, whom I was fucking quite happily. I may have also mentioned this woman was unlike other women I know.”

Sara tugged at my zipper, deftly pulled my cock out, and gave me a rough squeeze. A strange warmth spread up my spine as I registered at the same time as I hardened that she was learning how to touch me quite familiarly.

“How am I different?” Leaning into me, she sucked on my ear and then whispered, “Other women don’t get you off in cabs?”

I stared at her, wondering who this woman really was; this fresh, innocent, and highly fuckable woman who barely needed anything from me other than a good shag. Was she playing me? Was this real?

Or would she break after a few orgasms, admit she didn’t like the arrangement anymore, tell me she wanted more?

Most likely. But as I looked at her—at her red pout and giant brown eyes so playful and filthy—no way was I going to give her up before she made me.

“I didn’t tell him much actually. Serious conversations with Will always devolve into insults about penis size.”

“Well, then I’m sure you went easy on him. ‘I refuse to enter a battle of wits with an unarmed man,’ ” she said, giggling into my neck and beginning to stroke me.

“Truly,” I whispered, turning to kiss her. “Though I’ll be honest: I have no idea how big his dick really is.”

“Well, if you want to know, I’m happy to find out and tell you all about it.”

I laughed, growling into her mouth, “It’s refreshing to have a chat with a woman who doesn’t feel the need to show off her intelligence all the time.”

“No sex,” the cabbie growled, glaring at us in the rearview mirror.

I raised my hands and grinned at him. “I’m not touching her, mate.”

He seemed to decide to ignore us, turning up the talk radio and rolling down the window to let in the late afternoon breeze and the incessant city noises. Sara’s hand began to slowly stroke up, twisting at the top, and back down.

“I’d suck you off if I didn’t think he’d notice,” she whispered. “I mean, you deserve the best. At least you’re beautiful on the inside, Max. Right where it counts.”

I burst into laughter, pressing my face into her neck to stifle the groan that followed when she focused her efforts on my tip. “Fuck, that feels good. A little faster, love. Can you?”

She faltered at the term of endearment, and then turned her face to suck on my jaw, her fist tight and fast over my cock. She glanced at the cabdriver but he was absorbed in the radio program and yelling at the traffic in front of us.

“Yeah? Like that?” she asked.

I nodded, smiling against her cheek. “I never would have guessed you’d be so good at this.”

Her laughter vibrated along my neck and beneath my skin. I’d never heard her make such a goofy, indelicate sound. Another one of her walls I’d penetrated. Victory surged warm and sharp in my chest, and for a brief pulse I wanted to yell out the window that she was letting me in.

She licked up the side of my neck, nibbled my lower lip. “You have the most perfect cock,” she told me. “You’re making me want you on a Tuesday.”

“Fuck,” I groaned. And as I came, jaw clenched, fists tight at my sides, I realized that Sara, too, had made me forget to act like a bloody arse about the whole thing and stop worrying about whether she was fucking with my head.

Sara reached into her bag, fished out a tissue, and wiped off her hand while it was still inside her purse, giving me a goofy grin and hiding the evidence from our cabbie. And then she leaned forward, and kissed me so sweetly it made me want to throw her down on the car seat and make her come against my tongue just to hear her little hoarse cries.

“Feeling better?” she asked quietly, eyes searching.

I learned something else about Sara in that expression: her first instinct—and the one she continually battled—was to please me.

But then we pulled up a block away from my apartment and she sat back, smiling pleasantly. “Is this where you’re getting out?”

I hesitated, wondering if she’d want to come with me. “I suppose, unless you’d like—”

Her voice was quiet, which I realized was her attempt at easing the harshness of her words: “I’ll see you Friday, Max.”

We were done. I was excused.