Strands of tiny lights glowed yellow and warm above the entrance, and a small bell rang as I opened the door. Max was already there, cleaned up and seated in the back reading the Times. I gave myself this stolen moment to take him in: deep red T-shirt, worn jeans with a rip in the thigh. Light brown hair almost gold in the light. Fancy Brit-looking sneakers at the end of his long, stretched-out legs. Sunglasses on the table near his elbow.
Just your average godlike f**k buddy, hanging out at the burger place, waiting for you.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked over to him.
The lines had blurred. After today, I couldn’t pretend I wanted nothing from him beyond orgasms. I couldn’t pretend that my heart didn’t twist deliciously when I saw him, or twist with discomfort when I left. I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t have feelings for him.
I wondered if it was too late to flee.
It was only when I heard his laugh that I realized I’d been staring, my mouth open slightly, and he’d been watching me for . . . I have no idea how long. A smile tilted up half of his mouth.
“You look pretty excited for this beer.” He pushed a pint across the table and held up his own. “I took the liberty of ordering you a burger the size of your head, and some chips.” He grinned and then clarified, “A.k.a. ‘fries.’ ”
“Perfect. Thanks.” I set my purse on an empty chair and sat across from him. His eyes smiled, and then dipped to look at my lips.
“So,” I said, sipping my beer and assessing him over the rim.
He looked positively amused with this turn of events. I wasn’t a control freak, but I was used to having a pretty predictable life, and in the past two months, I hadn’t been able to anticipate anything that had come my way. “Thanks for inviting me to the bar today.”
He nodded, scratching the back of his neck. “Thanks for coming.”
I laughed, feeling my shoulders slowly relax. “That’s funny. That’s what they said about you.”
He rested his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “I have a question.”
I nearly choked on the sip of beer I’d just taken.
“For the love of God, woman, don’t have a fit. I just wonder if you’d like to reestablish ground rules. Should we review our previous set?”
I nodded, pressing a napkin to my lips and mumbling, “Sure.”
He set his drink down and began ticking my rules off on his long fingers. “One night a week, no other lovers, sex preferably in public—definitely not in my bed—pictures are requested, but no faces, no publicity.” He lifted his glass, took a deep drink, and then leaned forward again, whispering, “And nothing between us other than sex. Scratching an itch and all that. Did I capture it all?”
“Sounds about right.” My heart thundered under my ribs as I realized how far we’d strayed from that in only a day.
A college-age kid brought over two baskets with burgers bigger than any I’d ever seen before and enormous piles of fries.
“Holy crap,” I said, staring at my food. “This is . . .”
“Exactly what you wanted?” he asked in return, reaching for a bottle of vinegar.
“Yes, but way more than I can eat.”
“Let’s make this interesting, shall we?” he said. “Whoever eats more of their burger can set new ground rules.”
With a smile, he screwed the cap back on the vinegar and set it down. We both knew he was almost double my weight. No way could I eat more than him.
But was he hungry? Maybe he’d had enough beer to fill up and knew that I would eat more than he would? Or did he want to make the rules?
“Christ, woman. Stop thinking,” he said, lifting his burger and taking a gigantic bite.
“Fine. Deal,” I said, suddenly dying to know what Max’s rules would be.
I stared at Max as he wiped his hands on a napkin and then balled it up, dropping it into his empty basket.
“That was good,” he mumbled, finally looking up at me. He cracked up at the pathetic progress I’d made. I had managed to polish off only about a quarter of my burger, and it looked like I had barely touched my fries.
Dropping the burger back into the basket, I groaned. “I’m so full.”
“Then why’d you take the deal?” he asked, pushing his chair away from the table. “You could have said no.”
I shrugged, then stood, turning to leave before he pressed me to answer. I could be curious about what he wanted between us, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to admit it.
My beer buzz from earlier in the day was wearing off, and with the weight of the burger in my stomach I could have curled up on the sidewalk and gone to sleep. But it was only half-past eight, and I wasn’t ready for the night to end. The idea of waiting until Friday to see him felt impossible . . . unless he changed that rule.
The East Village was crowded with twenty-somethings out for Saturday night drinking and music. Max reached for my hand, slipped his fingers in between mine, and squeezed. Out of habit I started to protest that we were not going to walk down the street like this, but he surprised me by pulling me into the dimly lit bar next door.
“I know you’re full, but sit in here, sip a cocktail, and you’ll wake up. I’m not nearly done with you.”
God I liked the sound of that.
Squeezed tight together in a booth, we sat in a dark corner, me sipping vodka tonics, Max drinking a few beers and telling me all about growing up in Leeds with Irish Catholic parents, and born smack in the middle of seven sisters and three brothers. They’d lived three kids to a bedroom, and it was so different from my childhood that I barely blinked the entire time he regaled me with stories of the time they decided to form a family brass band, or when, at eighteen, the oldest sister, Lizzy, was caught in the family Volvo ha**g s*x with their local priest, consensual sex. Max’s oldest brother, Daniel, left after high school to go on a Catholic mission to Myanmar, and had come home a Theravada Buddhist. His youngest sister, Rebecca, married right out of college and, at twenty-seven, already had six children. The others had stories just as riveting: the brother born just ten months after Max, Niall, was second in command at the London Underground; one of the middle sisters was a chemistry professor at Cambridge and had five children, all boys.
Max admitted that sometimes he felt mediocre compared to his siblings. “I studied art at uni and then got a business finance degree so I could sell art. In my father’s eyes, I was a miserable failure, both in my choice of career and in my failure to produce Catholic babies before I hit thirty.”
But when he said this, he laughed, as if being an absolute failure wouldn’t have really mattered that much to his parents in the end. His father, a lifelong smoker, died of lung cancer the week after Max finished graduate school, and his “mum” had decided she needed a change, so she moved with him to the States.
“Neither of us knew a soul here. I had a couple of indirect connections from uni, and some from my business program—friends of friends on Wall Street—but I knew only that I wanted to be involved in New York art ventures, and wanted to partner with someone who knew science and technology. That’s how I met Will.”
He sat back and finished his beer. Seriously, the man could drink. I’d lost count of how many beers he’d had and he didn’t seem affected at all.
“Well, I met him at a pub, admittedly, but we hit it off and almost the next day we started our little pet project. A couple of years later we brought on James to head up the technology piece, because Will could no longer juggle biotech and IT at the same time.”
“How do you not have a giant beer gut?” I asked, laughing. It was unfair. His body was what Julia would call “shredded” and he had muscles on his torso I didn’t even know existed.
He looked confused for a beat before glancing down at his empty glass. “Are you taking the piss?”
“Absolutely,” I said, feeling the effects of my second vodka tonic. My cheeks were warm and my smile seemed to keep growing. “I am absolutely taking the piss.”
“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head, “that saying doesn’t really work so well in an American accent.”
“Do you like American accents, or no? Because the whole British thing you have going on makes me want to do very wicked things to your mouth.”
He licked his lips quickly, and actually seemed to blush. “American accents aren’t particularly sexy, no. Your little Chicago thing is cute, though. Especially when you’re tipsy. It’s so flat and like—” He made a horrific whining noise that I had to believe was like no sound I’d ever made.
“I absolutely do not sound like that.”
“Okay, that might have been a slight exaggeration,” he said. “But what I do find sexy is your brain, your giant brown eyes, your full lips, your little Sara-is-coming sounds, and your particularly stellar tits and thighs.”
I cleared my throat, feeling heat spread along my skin from my chest out to my fingertips. “My thighs?”
“Yeah. I believe I’ve mentioned that your skin is amazing. And on your thighs it’s soft as hell. Maybe you haven’t heard? I suspect not many people have kissed them as much as I have.”
I blinked, stunned. He knew I’d been only with Andy, but he was more right than he knew. Andy barely even kissed me below my chest.
“What are the new rules?” I asked, feeling a little dizzy. Whether it was the drinks, or the man, I wasn’t sure.
A wolfish grin pulled at his mouth. “I thought you’d never ask.”
I shivered, but it was more from the growing heat in my stomach than actual fear. I could always say no to whatever he asked.
“Rule one, we keep Friday nights as a given, but we add more whenever we want. You can say no, but in this scenario I don’t have to feel like an arse if I ask. And,” he said, reaching to push some hair out of my eyes, “you can ask. You can admit you want to see me more, too. You don’t have to apologize for coming to see me when you’re upset. Sex isn’t all there is, you know.”
I let out a shaky breath and nodded. “Okay . . .”
“Rule two, you let me be with you in a bed. A giant bed with a headboard I can tie you to or bend you over. Maybe even just f**k you into the mattress with a pair of your gorgeous shoes over my shoulders. It doesn’t have to be mine, and it doesn’t have to be now. I love f**king you in public—which we will return to in a moment—but I want to have you all to myself sometimes. Take me time.”
He waited for me to answer, and finally, I nodded again.
“I promise to keep taking pictures of you because we both get off on them. I won’t ask you to be seen with me in public until you’re ready—that’s fine. And if you never want to, that’s okay, too. But I’m fascinated by you, Sara, and your need for privacy and your need to be watched. I get it now, I think. And I f**king love it. I want to play with that some more. Explore what we both like.”
He spread his hands in front of him and shrugged, before moving in to kiss my lips once, quickly. “All right?”
Laughing, he asked, “What did you think I was going to say?”
“I don’t know.” I picked up my glass and finished it in a few, long drinks. The vodka slid into my belly and warmed me further, triggering a quiet hum in my limbs. “But . . . I think I like these rules.”
“You’re kind of cocky, do you know that?”
I looked up from my hands on the table and met his eyes. “What?”
“Thank you for trusting me to be your first crazy decision.”
I stared at him, watching his expression morph from playful, to curious, to slightly anxious. And maybe it was that expression, or maybe it was the quiet, pulsing music. Maybe it was that I was seeing Max in such a new way—with depth, and a history full of family and people he loved and kept close in every moment of his day-to-day, but I wanted to be closer to him. Closer not just in proximity.
Putting my hands on his face, I leaned in and told him, “Revision to my previous statement: you’re kind of amazing.”
He smiled, shaking his head a little. “And you’re kind of tipsy.”
“I may be tipsy, but that doesn’t affect your amazingness.” I pressed a single kiss to his mouth. “Just makes me more expressive about it.” I sucked on his lower lip, tasting. And damn, on most days I would rather drink gasoline than beer, but on his lips, it tasted fantastic.
“Sara . . . ,” he mumbled around my kiss.
“Say it again. Damn, I love when you say my name. Sahhhrahhhh.”
“Sara,” he said again, obligingly, before he pulled away. “Darling, you do realize we’re somewhere we could be seen.”
“You might care tomorrow when you’re a little less . . . expressive.”
“I’m not that drunk. And I honestly don’t care. I realized last night I was photographed all over the country with a man who didn’t give a crap about anything more than my name. And you’re here, being all nice and wanting to see more of me and revising my stupid rules—”