Next came old trumpets. Art from a local sculptor. And, finally, pinball machines.
Dad had about seventy of the machines in storage and another seven or eight in the game room at home. In fact, it was during a tour of the game room that Dad and Andy had first bonded. Although Dad had no way of knowing that Andy had never played pinball in his life, Andy had acted like Dad’s collection was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen and managed to sound like he’d been playing since he could reach the levers. Dad had been smitten, and at the time I’d been thrilled. I was only twenty-one and wasn’t sure how my parents would feel about a boyfriend who was almost ten years older than me. But Dad immediately did everything he could—with his time and his checkbook—to support our relationship and Andy’s ambitions. My father was always easy to win over and, once won, his esteem was almost impossible to lose.
Unless, of course, he ran into you while you were out at a romantic dinner with a woman who wasn’t his daughter. Despite what my father told me and how much he urged me to see Andy for who he was and not the public image he strove to portray, I chose to believe Andy’s side of the story: the woman was a hardworking staff member, depressed over a breakup, and needed someone to listen, that’s all.
Two months later he was caught in the local paper cheating on me with yet someone else.
I fed a quarter into the game and braced my hands on the side, watching the shiny silver balls rack into place. Presumably the music and whistles and bells had been disconnected because the game remained eerily quiet as I shot a ball up and over the field, flipped the levers, and nudged the machine with my hips. I was rusty, and playing like crap, but didn’t care.
I’d had a few of these quiet, crystallizing moments in the past few weeks. Moments where I simultaneously registered how much I’d grown up and how little I really knew about life and relationships. Some of these moments happened when I was watching Bennett and Chloe, and the quiet way they picked on and adored each other in equal measure. Another moment was here, playing a game by myself, feeling more content than I had in a very long time.
A man or two came and talked to me; I was accustomed to the way guys seemed unable to resist a woman playing pinball by herself. But after four games, I felt someone watching me.
It was as if the skin on the back of my neck was being pressed only with the pressure of an exhale. Draining my beer I turned, and saw Max standing across the room.
He was with another guy, someone I didn’t recognize but who was also in formal business attire and who stood out in the bar just as clearly as I must have in my slim gray dress and red heels. Max watched me over the top of his beer, and when I located him, smiled and raised his glass slightly in salute.
I finished my game after another twenty minutes or so, and walked over to where they stood, trying to keep my face from breaking into a goofy grin. I was in the mood to see him and hadn’t even realized it.
I looked to the friend at his side, an older man, with a long face and kind, brown eyes.
“Sara Dillon, this is James Marshall, a colleague and good mate of mine.”
I reached out, shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, James.”
Max took a sip of his beer and then pointed to me with his glass. “Sara’s the new head of moneys over at RMG.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, looking around. “This doesn’t seem like a place for business in the middle of the day.”
“Fucked off work early, just like everyone in this town. And what about you, little miss? Trying to hide?” Max asked with a wicked gleam in his eyes.
His eyes widened slightly, and then he blinked to the bar, nodding at the bartender. “I come here because it’s filthy and usually empty and they have Guinness on tap.”
“And I come here because they have pool and I like to pretend that I can kick Max’s ass,” James said, and then finished his beer in a long drink. “So let’s play.”
I took this as my cue, and secured my purse over my shoulder, smiling a little at Max. “Have fun with that. I’ll see you.”
“Let me walk you out,” he said, and turned to James. “Get me another pint and I’ll meet you at the back table.”
With Max’s hand pressed to the small of my back, we walked out of the bar and into the blinding afternoon sun.
“Aw fuck,” he groaned with the heat, covering his eyes. “It’s better inside. Come back in and play with us.”
I shook my head. “I think I’m going to head home and do some laundry.”
I laughed but then looked around anxiously when he lifted a hand and touched the side of my face. He dropped it quickly, mumbling, “Right, right.”
He looked at me, slightly wounded. “No. My friends know there’s someone, but not who.”
A thick awkwardness settled between us for a beat, and I didn’t know what protocol was here. It was exactly why the Friday-only arrangement was ideal: it required no thought, no negotiation of friends, feelings, or boundaries.
“Do you ever think about how weird it is that we run into each other all the time?” he asked, eyes unreadable.
“No,” I admitted. “Isn’t that the way the world works? In a city of millions you’ll always see the same person.”
“But how often is it the person you most want to see?”
I blinked away, feeling a bubbling mixture of unease and thrill drill up from my belly.
He ignored my awkward silence and pushed on. “We’re still on for tomorrow, yeah?”
He laughed, dropping his gaze to my lips. “Because it’s a holiday, Petal. I wasn’t sure I had holiday privileges.”
“Sure it is,” he said. “It’s the day we got rid of you whinging Americans.”
“Lucky for me there are no other holidays on Fridays this year, so I don’t have to worry about missing my new favorite day of the week.”
“Have you looked that far ahead at the calendar?” I felt myself moving a little closer to him, close enough to feel the warmth of his body even in this over-ninety-degree heat.
He laughed, clucking his tongue playfully. “Something like that.”
“So where am I meeting you tomorrow?”
He lifted his hand again, and ran his index finger across my bottom lip. “I’ll text.”
And he did. Almost as soon as I turned the corner and reached the subway, my phone buzzed in my pocket with the words 11th Ave and W 24th St. There’s a high-rise across from the park. 7:00.
No indication of what building, what floor, even what to wear.
When I got there, it was clear there was really only one building he could mean. It was modern stone and glass, and overlooked the Chelsea Waterside Park. It also had a ridiculous view of the Hudson. The lobby was empty but for a security guard behind a desk, and after I fidgeted for about a minute, he asked me if I was Mr. Stella’s friend.
“Oh, good. I should have asked sooner!” He stood, almost as big around as he was tall, and waved me over to the elevators. “I’m supposed to send you up.”
I stared for a beat before snapping into action and walking into the elevator beside him. The guard stuck a key in a slot and then hit the R key.
We were going to the roof?
With a friendly wave, he stepped out. “Have a nice Fourth,” he said just as the doors closed.
There were twenty-seven floors in the building, but the elevator was clearly new, and very fast, and I barely had time to think about what could be awaiting me before it let out a quiet ding and the doors opened.
I was in a small hallway, facing a short flight of stairs that led only to a door marked, ROOF ACCESS. NOT FOR PUBLIC USE.
What else could I do but assume that, today, the sign didn’t apply to me? This was Max, after all. I had the sense that he respected rules just long enough to learn how to properly bend them.
The door opened with a shrill metallic creak and slammed heavily behind me. I turned and tried opening it back up, to no avail. The day was hot, windy, and I was stuck on the roof of a building.
Holy crap. Max had better be up here or I am going to flip out.
“Over here!” Max called from somewhere to my right.
I blew out a relieved breath and walked around a large electrical box. Max stood, alone, with a blanket, pillows, and a giant spread of food and beer at his feet.
He looked unbelievable, dressed casually in jeans and a blue T-shirt, tanned, muscular arms, and all six foot five of him moving toward me. His physical presence, out in the sun and with the wind whipping his shirt all over his chest . . . holy hell. Let’s just say it did things to me.
“I asked if you were ready to be f**ked outside,” he said quietly, bending to kiss me. He tasted like beer, and apples, and something inherently Max-like. Warmth, sex, comfort . . . he was my comfort food, the thing you indulge in every now and then, without guilt, knowing that it grounds you even as it’s probably not all that good for you.
“Yes,” I said. “So you’re not worried about helicopters or cameras or”—I looked past him, pointing to the people on a roof in the distance—“the people over there with binoculars.”
I narrowed my eyes, ran my hands up his chest to his neck. “Why don’t you ever worry about being seen?”
“Because it would change me to worry about it. It would keep me indoors, or make me paranoid, or stop me from f**king you on the roof. Consider what a tragedy that would be.”
“A big one.” It occurred to me that he was just as indifferent to being seen as not. He didn’t seek it; he didn’t avoid it. He just lived around the reality of it. It was such a different way of interacting with the press and the public that it threw me a little. It seemed so simple.
He grinned, and kissed the tip of my nose. “Let’s eat.”
He’d brought baguettes, cheese, sausage, and fruit. Little cookies with jam thumbprints, and perfect, tiny macarons. On a small tray were bowls of olives, cornichons, and almonds. In a metal bucket were several bottles of dark beer.
He laughed. “I’ll say.” He ran a hand up my side, across my stomach, and to my breast. “I plan to get my fill.”
He pulled me down onto the blanket, opened a beer, and poured it into two glasses.
“Do you live in this building?” I asked, taking a bite of apple. The idea that we were this close to his apartment made me feel faintly queasy.
“I live at the building where you dropped me after the handy the other day. I own the apartment here but Mum lives there.” He held up his hand just as I opened my mouth to protest. “She’s visiting my sister in Leeds for a couple of weeks. She won’t be coming up to the roof.”
“Will anyone be coming up here?”
He shrugged, popping an olive into his mouth. “I don’t think so. Not sure, though.” Chewing, he regarded me for a minute, eyes smiling. “How do you feel about that?”
Apprehension warmed my belly, and I looked back to the locked door, wondering how it would feel to be spread on the blanket beneath Max, feel him pounding into me, and then suddenly hearing the sound of the door opening and slamming shut.
“It has the best view for fireworks,” he explained. “They set off four simultaneous shows you can see over the river. I figured it was something you’d like to see.”
I pulled him closer to me and kissed his jaw. “I’m actually most excited to see you totally na**d.”
With a little growl, Max pushed some pillows to the side and laid me down on the thick blanket. He smiled, closed his eyes, and kissed me.
Damn, why did he have to feel so good? It would be easier to be casual—though certainly so much less satisfying—if Max were a mediocre lover, or treated me primarily as a convenient way to get off every week. But he was tender, attentive, and so sure of himself in this respect that it took very little for him to make me bow beneath him, ache for him, beg him quietly.
He loved the begging. He’d tease me to get more of it. I’d beg him to tease me longer.
In times like this, when he was kissing me, running his hands over my skin and pinching me in sensitive, hungry places, I struggled to not compare this lover to the only other I’d ever had. Andy was quick and rough. After about a year of playful sex, our contact never really was about exploration or sharing something. It had been in our bed, sometimes on the couch. Once or twice in the kitchen.
But here, Max slid a strawberry over my chin, sucked off the juices. He murmured about tasting me, licking my juices, f**king me until I screamed and it echoed across the street.
He took pictures of me as I peeled off my shirt and then his, as I licked my way down his stomach, unbuttoned his jeans, and took his hard length in my mouth. I hoped he would let me keep going this time.
He whispered, “Keep your eyes open. Look at me.” And then he took a picture. I was lost enough in the feel of him that, for the moment, I didn’t care.