“Do you ever lie?” she asked, eyes searching mine.
“Of course I do. But why would I want to be dishonest with you?”
Her face straightened and she nodded thoughtfully. After a long pause, she whispered, “I should get back.”
My mood shifted immediately from warm and intimate to resigned business-as-usual. The girl was a boomerang. “Okay.”
She stood, wiping the grass from her knees and skirt. “We probably shouldn’t walk back together.”
I could only nod, for fear I’d let loose a litany of frustration over her publicity rules, particularly after she’d just climbed into my lap beneath a tree.
After a lingering look, she stretched and kissed my jaw once, carefully. “I’m fond of you, too.”
I watched her walk away, head straight and shoulders back. Looking to all the world as if she were returning from nothing but a brisk walk through the park.
I looked around me as if it were possible to collect together the heart I’d nearly spilled all over the grass.
To say my interaction with Max at the park had been odd would be an understatement. I knew I’d overreacted, but honestly? So had he. Worrying about my reaction in the conference room? Chasing me down? What were we doing?
Monday night I came home and spent two hours making æbelskivers for dinner. Puffed balls of dough, fried and powdered in sugar, traditionally served for breakfast, but screw it. I needed something elaborate. It was my grandmother’s recipe from Denmark, and focusing on making them perfect gave me time to think.
I hadn’t spent much time thinking at all lately.
But cooking something so associated with my family also made me miss home, miss my parents, miss the safety of a predictable life, no matter how depressing or untrue.
I reached for my phone, not caring how messy my hands were. Mom picked up on the seventh ring. So typical.
“Hi, pumpkin!” I heard something crash in the background and she swore, “Fucksticks!”
“You okay?” I asked, smiling into the call. It was amazing how three words could make me feel grounded.
“Fine, just dropped my iPad. You okay, honey?” And when she asked this I remembered I’d called her that morning on my walk to the subway.
“Tell me,” she said, and I immediately remembered the hundreds of times she’d said exactly this, urging me to let it all out.
I winced. I’d spoken to my parents a few times a week since I’d moved and had never mentioned Max. What was there to mention? They didn’t want to know about my sex life any more than I wanted to share it.
I could practically hear her strategizing her best response. Supportive, but protective. How one reacts the first time their daughter starts dating after a horrible, public breakup.
“A finance guy here. Local. But not,” I said, shaking my head and wishing I could start over. “He’s British.”
“Ooh, a foreigner, how fabulous!” she said laughing, putting on her thick southern drawl. And then she paused. “Are you telling me this because it’s serious?”
“I’m telling you this because I have no idea.”
I loved my mother’s laugh. I missed its frequency. “That’s the best stage.”
“For sure. Don’t you dare squander it. Don’t let that jerk of an ex-boyfriend keep you from having fun.”
I sighed. “But it feels so uncharted. I always knew what to expect with Andy.” As soon as I said it, I regretted it, and her answering silence felt thundering.
She knew me so well. I could practically see her arms crossed, her I’m-gonna-kick-some-ass face. “No. I didn’t.”
“Do you feel like you know this guy?”
“That’s the weird thing. I kind of feel like I do.”
No matter how much I thought about it, or how little sleep I got that night, it’d be fair to say I had no idea where Max’s head was after what happened Monday. The dynamics were backward: He was supposed to know how to do this casual thing. I was supposed to know how to do commitment.
And neither of us was supposed to want anything but sex. But somehow, it had never been like that. The niggling desire to know each other had started pushing its way in from day one, and I knew that as much as I wanted to be a person who could compartmentalize my relationship into Just Sex, I never really would be.
I remembered the panic on his face when he chased me down, and felt a stab of guilt.
Sara, you are complete fail at Booty Call for Beginners.
On Wednesday he texted me a picture from our night at the library. It was of the hem of my dress, pushed up against my lower back. A simple shot, but he’d stylized it into black-and-white, and the original was blurry enough for me to know he’d taken it toward the end, when I’d dissolved into inarticulate recitation and he’d followed me into orgasm with a groan muffled against my neck.
On Thursday, it was a picture I remembered seeing as we flipped through his phone on the Fourth of July. It was a photo of my hands unbuttoning his jeans. I’d pulled the denim away from his skin just enough to see the faint shape of his c**k straining against his gray boxer briefs.
Both pictures were sent around lunchtime, and I received them while I worked on finalizing two major contracts. I tried to convince myself that I felt giddy from getting a few contracts done rather than from the prospect of seeing him.
“Question,” George said, walking into my office without knocking first. “Are we entirely sure Max Stella is straight? I’ve been thinking about this since he was here on Monday.”
I blinked, trying to figure out if I’d just said his name out loud or if George was just doing what Chloe had been doing since the Stella & Sumner meeting: making constant, casual references to their firm, and then watching me for any reaction.
I looked up at him and dropped my red pen onto the thick contract in front of me. “Honestly? I really doubt it.”
I gave him my most intimidating glare, which, to be fair, was . . . not very intimidating. No way was George going to play this game today. “Did you get signatures from Miller and Cortez on the Agent Provocateur campaign?”
My assistant narrowed his eyes at me. “Fine. I won’t ask more. But just know that I’m suspicious, ma’am. Very suspicious. You looked like your underpants were on fire when you saw him on Monday. And yes, I got the signatures.”
“Good.” Just as I spoke, my phone buzzed on my desk and I quickly flipped it over, reminding myself for the millionth time that I needed to change my preview settings in case Max was texting me another picture.
George’s face was priceless: his restraint appeared to cause him physical pain.
“Until you marry me and pay all my bills, that will never be an appropriate question. Even then, you’re unlikely to get an answer.”
“Fine.” With a long middle finger raised, he swept from my office and back to his desk.
I glanced down at my screen, holding my breath. It was a text from Max, and my pulse exploded into a gallop.
Office being painted and recarpeted over the weekend. Must pack it up Friday after work, so I’m stuck in I’m afraid.
Quickly, I typed, So I won’t see you until next week? As soon as I hit send, I realized just how desperate I sounded.
Hello, Sara. You sound desperate because you are.
Within a couple of minutes, he replied, I presume you remember where my office is? I’ll see you at six, Petal.
Like many of the floors in our building, the Stella & Sumner offices were nearly deserted by six on Friday night. Max’s mother wasn’t at the front desk, and only a couple of people remained in cubicles as I walked through the halls to his office.
I knocked on his door quietly, and heard his deep voice tell me to come in.
I have it bad for this man, I realized when I saw him, sitting behind his desk with his sleeves rolled up and wearing thick-rimmed glasses. He wore an expression of such acute concentration it nearly stole my breath.
It turned out Max’s focused-at-work face closely mirrored his concentrating-on-giving-Sara-an-orgasm face.
“Lock the door behind you, if you would,” he murmured, without looking away from his computer monitor.
I turned, clicked the lock, and then glanced around his office again. How long were we going to be here? And when would he look up and tell me I looked beautiful? Our habits were already so heavily ingrained.
His office didn’t look at all like it was on the verge of being painted. He’d barely started putting things away: books and piles of papers lined one wall, and at least twenty empty boxes were stacked in a corner, waiting to be filled.
“I’m sure it will be boring for you to be here with me, and I’m a selfish prick for asking you to do this, but go ahead and take off your clothes.”
“Clothes. Off,” he said, and pulled his glasses down his nose as he finally looked over at me. “You expected to remain clothed?” Shaking his head, he pushed the frames back up and returned his attention to his computer. “I f**king hate packing. Seeing you na**d will be the only good thing about this night.”
“Um,” I said, trying to form a response. The truth was that old Sara would never have even entertained the idea of just casually sitting na**d in front of someone. Which was exactly why I wanted do it. I walked toward the couch and pulled my short-sleeved cashmere sweater over my head. I slipped out of my blue ballet flats with the British flag embroidered on top, and then wiggled out of my dark skinny jeans, mumbling, “You didn’t even notice my shoes.”
“Like hell I didn’t. God save the Queen,” he said dryly, winking at me. “I notice every single thing about you, Sara.”
“On your right side, just beneath your smallest rib.”
“The one on your wrist.” I glanced down to the freckle in question, impressed.
“What do I say when I’m about to come?”
“When you’re coming, you just make unintelligible sounds. But when you’re close, you just whisper ‘please’ over and over, as if I’d ever deny you.”
“What does my pu**y taste like?” I asked, and his eyes shot away from the screen and to me. I bit back a grin as I pushed my underwear down my legs and stepped out of them.
“Some pu**y just tastes like pussy. Yours tastes like good pussy.” He stood, walking over to me. “Lie down on the couch with your head here.” He positioned the back of my head on the arm of the leather couch. It was surprisingly comfortable for such firm leather.
My eyes widened slightly but I did what he told me to, smiling when he brushed the hair from my forehead, and adjusted my posture as if I were a piece of art he was hanging on a wall.
“Draw me like one of your French girls, Jack,” I said, looking up at him.
He reached down and pinched my ass. “Cheeky.”
To test him, I closed my legs a little as he started to walk away.
“Wide,” he called over his shoulder.
I laughed, and moved back to how he’d positioned me.
Max returned with a book and handed it over. “This is to entertain you while I work.”
“You’re not going to be na**d, too?”
“Are you mad?” he asked, grinning. “I have to pack.”
I glanced down at the book in my hands. It had a bare-chested man on the cover with a cat and a half-naked woman at his feet. Cat’s Claws.
“This looks . . . interesting,” I said, flipping it over to read the summary. “The guy has two partners. One is the human named Cat, and then she has a Werecat.” I glanced up at him. “As a pet. A pet they both have sex with.”
“You got this off the dollar table, didn’t you?”
“I did. It looks smashingly crude, though, so I knew you’d love it.” He turned and started moving things around on his desk. “Now, quiet, Petal. I’m very busy.”
At first it felt almost impossible to focus on the book in my hands, but as the minutes ticked by, and Max apparently grew absorbed in the process of packing up his desk, I started to forget that I was sitting on his couch. Alone.
The book he’d given me was ridiculously filthy, not to mention wordy as hell; the writing was horrible but I suspected that wasn’t really the point. There were multiple men, multiple women; too many appendages to keep straight but again—it didn’t matter. The point was the sex happening, and how descriptive it was. Everyone had some body part that was hard or dripping. Or both. People screamed and—sometimes literally—clawed at things.
And in the corner, the hero sat simply watching.
“You’re blushing.” He put a stack of books down and leaned against his desk watching me. “You’ve been reading that for fifteen minutes and something you’ve just read made you flush scarlet.”