I pressed a finger to his lips. “Don’t interrupt me, I’m on a roll.”
“I see that.” He smiled into my touch.
“So my point is that you’re amazing and I want to kiss you in a bar. I don’t care if someone sees me and thinks, Wow! That woman wants to be Mrs. Stella, how pathetic! Does she even know he bangs a different woman every night?”
“But they don’t know that, and the point is”—I took a breath, putting my hand on his chest and staring into his amused eyes—“I don’t care what they think right now. I’m tired of caring what people think. I like you.”
“I like you, too. Very much. In fact—”
I leaned in and kissed him. It was a mess: hands in hair and practically climbing into his lap right there in that stupid bar but I didn’t care. I didn’t care. His hands moved to my face, and his eyes—when I peeked—were open and pleading and something was there. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“Sweet Sara,” he murmured around my wild kisses. “Baby steps. Let’s get you home.”
It was a good thing my head stopped pounding by Monday morning because I had a lot of work to do. First up was the pricing strategy for the new Provocateur line. Second was handing over all of the B&T Biotech workload to Samantha. Most definitely not on my list was obsessing over Max, and how the entire dynamic of our relationship had shifted in the last thirty-six hours.
First: work. There was plenty of time to freak out later.
“Saaaaarrrrrraaaaaa,” George called, somehow managing to stretch my name into about seventeen syllables. I stopped short just inside my office, dropping my laptop case on a chair and taking in the scene before me: George, in my desk chair, with his feet up and a newspaper spread on his lap.
“Why are you at my desk?”
“Because I figured it was a better place to enjoy Page Six with you than in the break room. Are you ready?”
My stomach dropped to my feet. “Ready for what?” I asked. It was seven thirty on a Monday, for crying out loud. I was barely ready for conscious breathing.
George flipped the paper to face me, and in a giant picture, in black-and-white, was half of Max’s face. The other half was covered by my head. Talk about déjà vu.
“A newspaper, darling,” George sang, rattling the paper in his hands, and the word darling triggered a tight pull in my abdomen. I’d been rolling that word around in my head for the past day, remembering how it had sounded when Max said it to me. “A picture of Max kissing, ooooh, a ‘mystery woman.’ ” He turned it back around so he could read the caption to the photo. “Millionaire playboy Max Stella spotted out for a drink with a mystery blonde—”
George looked up, giddy. “Thanks for confirming! And I agree. More of a sandy brown, really. But let me finish: ‘The pair started out the night with quiet smiles and teasing, and ended with some heated action in the corner booth. Looks like the flavor of the week is a tiger!’ ”
George cracked up, extending the page to me, his face growing serious. “You didn’t have to lie about you and Max, boss. I’m wounded.”
“It’s not your business,” I said, practically ripping the paper from his hands and looking it over. It was obviously Max in the photo, but with only the back of my head and part of my arm and hand visible, my identity would be almost impossible to discern by anyone who didn’t already know me.
“It’s your allergy bracelet and your adorable hair,” George crowed. “How long?”
“Is he amazing in bed? He is, isn’t he? Oh God, don’t tell me yet, let me work up a good mental lather first.” He squeezed his eyes shut and hummed.
“Not your business,” I repeated, a hand to my forehead. Holy hell. Bennett and Chloe were going to see this. My coworkers. Someone could send this to my parents. “Oh God.”
“Are you guys, like, a thing?” he asked, exasperated and slapping his hand to my desk.
“Oh my God! Not your business! Get out of my office, Skippy.”
He stood, then gave me a dirty look that was about as genuine as a politician’s smile. He looked more excited than anything else. Maybe even a little turned on.
“Fine,” he grumbled. “But you’d better spill every detail after you’ve had a chance to calm down.”
“This really is great, by the way,” he said, serious now. “You deserve a hot guy.”
I stopped freaking out for a beat, looking up at him. He wasn’t freaking. He wasn’t assuming the worst. He was being a total pervert and enjoying every minute of my torment, but he was also assuming that I was happy, and having fun, and being a single woman in my twenties, doing what we do. He was mirroring my thoughts on Saturday night—this man is good for you, Sara—the same thoughts I’d tried so hard to hold on to.
But somehow, in the light of day on a Monday, it was harder than I expected to be young, and wild, and confident that I wasn’t setting myself up for another disaster.
“You’re welcome. But Chloe is coming down the hall so get your big-girl panties on.”
In fact, she was closer than I expected and shoved my assistant playfully out of the way before walking into my office and slamming my door in his face.
She stopped me, holding up a hand. “I asked you if it was Max. You lied to me, very convincingly, and said no. I’m not sure whether I should be impressed or pissed.”
“Oh my God, don’t be cute.” She walked over to my couch near the window and sat down. “Walk me through it.”
I crossed the room and sat with her, taking a deep breath before telling her everything: about meeting Max at the club, how we hooked up. I told her about the Chinese restaurant and how I’d tried to tell him not to come looking for me again but ended up letting him get me off. I admitted he was the man I’d been with at the fund-raiser, and how she was the one who made me realize it could be a good distraction to explore this new adventurous side of myself with a man who was practically a world expert on casual flings.
“But it’s more,” she said, interrupting. “In the past, what? Two months? It’s become more.”
“For me it has. I think for him, too. Maybe.”
“BB saw the pictures this morning,” she said, wincing. “I freaked out, because I tried to hide it, but he saw the Post outside the subway station.”
She smiled a little. “Honestly, he seemed more worried about my reaction. But he said he knows Max, and if he’s promised he’ll be with only you, he will. Good thing, because if he hurts you he’ll be one appendage short, if you know what I mean.”
“That’s not the problem,” I said. “Which I realize is ironic because”—I pointed to my chest—“hello, cheated on for six years straight. What bothers me more is that I didn’t want to want someone. This was supposed to be for me. And what if he likes me because I’ve been clear about what I don’t want from him. I’ve given him a goal: make me want him. I don’t think he’d ever admit that, maybe he’d never even realize it, but I worry that he’s not used to someone setting limits with him. That might be the lure: the challenge.”
She shrugged and spread her hands in front of her. “I’m the first to tell you that there’s a first time for everyone, and everything. Have you told him how you feel?”
There was a crash from the outer office, followed by George’s frantic shout of “Incoming!”
Max burst through the door, George hot on his heels.
“Does he ever listen?” George asked me.
“Not usually,” Max answered, stopping short when he saw the paper already in my hands. “You’ve seen it.”
“Yep,” I said, tossing it to the desk.
He crossed the room, his expression grim. “Look, it’s not a very good picture, I doubt—”
“It’s fine,” I said, tucking my hair behind my ear. “I—”
“Well, I wouldn’t say fine,” Chloe interrupted, rounding the desk. She crossed her arms and stood between us. “I’ll agree it’s not the best picture, but I knew it was you. Bennett, too.”
“Why are you even still here?” I asked, glaring. “Go to work.”
“Touchy,” George said, pushing away from the wall.
“Well, well.” At the sound, every head in the room turned in the direction of the door. “Glad everyone could make it,” Bennett said as he walked in, looking like he’d won the biggest, most ridiculous man-bet of all time. “Nice photo, Stella. A bar?”
I felt my eyes go wide. “What, the eighteenth-floor stairwell would be better?”
His head whipped to Chloe. “Seriously, Chlo? You told her that?”
“Of course I did.” She waved him off with an impatient hand, and beside her, Max laughed.
“You did that, Ben? Shagged your intern at work?”
“A few times,” Chloe said in a stage whisper.
Max rubbed his palms together, obviously delighted by this turn of events. “How very, very interesting,” he said, eyeing Bennett. “Funny you didn’t mention this when you were basically calling me a whore the other day.”
“Oh, that’s rich. Pot, meet kettle,” Chloe said, motioning between the two men.
“And I’m done here,” Bennett grumbled. “Max, stop by my office before you leave.” He gave Chloe a quick peck on the lips before walking out of my office.
Chloe turned to Max. “I want to know what it’s like to work with your mother when this kind of news hits the papers. Did she freak out?”
Max shrugged. “She pretends I don’t have an active libido. It’s better that way.”
“What are we even talking about?” I groaned. “Chloe, I love you but get out of my office. George!” I yelled.
He poked his head in within a few milliseconds of hearing his name.
“Stop listening in. Take Chloe down to the break room and buy her some chocolate.” I finally met Max’s eyes. “I need to talk to Max alone.”
Chloe and George disappeared down the hall and Max shut and locked my office door. “Are you livid?” he asked, wincing.
“What? No.” I sighed, dropping into my chair. “If I remember correctly, I jumped you. I believe you even warned me not to.”
“True,” he said, flashing his dimple in a smile as he lifted the photo up. “But I also come out of this looking quite good. I mean, the back of this head can only belong to a ridiculously fit woman.”
I tried to bite back my laugh and failed. He bent so that we were eye to eye. “We’re together a lot, Sara. It’s just a matter of time before we’re photographed.”
He straightened, looking out my window with a dramatic sigh. “I suppose we’ll have to confine our snogs to bedrooms and limos now.”
He said this with a smirk, but something twisted in my belly, and not because I was averse to the idea of Max in a bed. It’s just that I wasn’t done having Max everywhere else.
I’d wanted to hold on to this New Sara a little longer.
“That doesn’t look like a happy face,” he noted.
“I like what we do.”
His face fell the slightest bit. “The wildness of location?”
I nodded. “Just feeling like I could do anything I wanted with you.”
He paused, seemed to be thinking something through. “That doesn’t have to change, Sara. Regardless of where I have my wicked way with you.”
“But you realize if we continue that, and I’m not averse, it’s possible we’ll eventually be caught.”
He was right, and the reality of it was enough to make my hopes shut down a little.
“We’ll figure it out,” I said, but even I heard my lack of conviction.
“Sara, it’s possible to have fun even with more standard relationship rules.”
I nodded, and gave him as convincing a smile as I could manage. “I know.”
But the truth was, I didn’t know. I only knew that I didn’t want what I had with Max to resemble any bit of the life I had before.
At three in the morning, I woke up with such an absurd idea I was immediately positive I should go get a shot of whiskey so I could fall back asleep.
But I didn’t get up, and I didn’t have a shot, and I most certainly didn’t go back to sleep.
I was up half the night, my mind spinning over what to do with Sara’s paradoxical need to remain a secret yet still explore her wilder side with me. Admittedly, she’d been more relaxed than I expected about the photos in the Post, but we’d been lucky, and they hadn’t actually gotten her face or anything too telling. Anything more revealing could turn her skittish, if that hadn’t happened already. I could tell she had feelings for me beyond the adventure of public orgasms and our shared exhibitionist fetish, but that was a far cry from anything lasting, and miles away from what I felt about her.