Where was I going? Was there more Max to discover here? Would I stumble into a room filled with a woman’s things? Was the reason he’d always been so amenable to staying away from his place the fact that it allowed him to have a private space for someone else?
Why was I even here?
Hearing footsteps, I quickly ducked into a room at the end of the hall.
Inside, away from the crowd, it was so quiet I could hear my pulse whooshing in my ears.
And then, I looked around.
I was in an enormous bedroom, with a huge bed in the middle. On the bedside table, which held the only lit lamp in the room, was a framed photograph of me.
In it, I stood, staring at the camera, with my fingers poised on the button of my shirt, lips parted. I looked at once surprised and relieved.
I remembered that exact moment. He’d just told me he loved me.
Whipping around, I looked at the wall behind me. More photos: My back as I reached behind me to take off my bra. My face as I looked down to unzip my skirt; smiling. My face looking up at him in the morning sun.
I stumbled forward, wanting to escape the realization that I had messed up, hugely. That there was more here for me to understand. But past another door was an expansive dressing room, and if possible, it was worse.
The room was exploding with intimacy. There were probably thirty pictures of us, all black-and-white, all different sizes, artfully tiered and layered across the simple cream paint.
Some were chaste and simply beautiful. A picture I’d taken of his lips pressed against the top of my foot. His thumb sweeping across a small exposed strip of my abdomen as he pushed my shirt up my torso.
Some were erotic but restrained, suggestive of a moment where we were lost in each other, but not showing how. My teeth biting his earlobe, only mouth and jaw visible against his skin but with me clearly gasping, close to cl**ax. Or my torso, beneath him. My fingernails dug into his shoulders and my thighs were pulled up high to my sides.
A few were downright filthy. My hand wrapped around his erection. A blurry shot of him moving in me from behind, in the warehouse.
But the one that stopped me dead in my tracks was the one taken from the side the night at my apartment. I didn’t even realize Max had set his camera on a timer but it was an awkward angle, with the camera sitting on my bedside table. In the picture, Max was over me, his h*ps flexed as he pushed inside. One of my legs wound around his thigh. He was propped above me on his forearms, leaning down over me as we kissed. Our eyes were closed, faces devoid of any tension whatsoever.
It was us, making love, caught in a single perfect image.
And, beside it, a picture of his lips open around my breast, his eyes gazing up at me with na**d adoration.
“No one is meant to be in here.”
I jumped, pressing my hand to my chest at the sound of his voice. Closing my eyes, I asked, “Not even me?”
I turned around to look at him but it was a mistake. I should have taken a bigger breath, prepared myself somehow for how he would look up close: crisp, put-together, unbelievably gorgeous.
But at the edges: broken. Dark lines circled his unsmiling eyes. His lips were tight and pale.
“I was having a hard time out there,” I admitted. “The room, the couch . . .”
He looked up at me, eyes hard. “It was like that for me when I came home from San Francisco, you know. I wanted to buy all new furniture.”
We drowned in a heavy silence after that until he finally looked away. I didn’t know where to start. I had to remember that his phone had pictures of other women on it, ones more recent than those of me. But here in this room, he seemed more hurt than I did.
“I don’t understand what’s going on right now,” I admitted.
“I don’t need my humiliation put so plainly before me,” he said, motioning to the pictures on the wall. “Believe me, Sara, I feel pathetic enough without you coming in here uninvited.” He glanced up at a picture of my lips on his hipbone. “I made a deal with myself. I was going to leave them up for two weeks, and then put them away.”
“You told me you loved me.” His calm exterior cracked slightly; I’d never heard him sound angry before.
I had no idea what to say. He’d phrased it in past tense. But nothing felt more immediate than my feelings for him, particularly in his room, surrounded by the evidence of what we’d become that night. “You had photos of other wo—”
“But if you loved me how I love you,” he said, cutting me off, “you would have given me a chance to explain what you saw in the Post.”
“By the time explanation is needed, it’s usually too late.”
“You’ve made that clear. But why do you assume I’ve done something wrong? Have I ever lied to you, or kept anything from you? I trusted you. You assume I’ve never been hurt and that trust comes easily to me. You’re too busy guarding your own heart to realize that maybe I’m not the arsehole people expect me to be.”
Any response dissipated when he’d said this. He was right. After he’d told me about Cecily, and his romantic life after, I’d assumed it had been easy for him, and that he had no experience with the harsher side of love.
“You could have let me explain,” he said.
His scowl deepened but he blinked away, nodding. “Whoever stole my bag sold the pictures as their own. The good folks at Celebritini found a hundred and ninety-eight pictures of you in my briefcase. On my SD card, my phone, and a thumb drive. Had they been able to decode the password on my laptop, they would have found another couple hundred. And yet, they chose to post a picture of your hip, and the picture of a woman I’ve never met before.”
I felt my brow furrow in confusion; my heart hammered wildly beneath my ribs. “You mean they just put her in there? It wasn’t yours?”
“It was on my phone,” he said, looking back at me. “But I don’t know who she is. It was a picture Will had texted me that morning, just before my bag was taken. It was some woman he’d seen a few times a couple of years ago.”
I shook my head, not following. “Why would he send you that?”
“I told him about the art I had of you, how it was all new for me. And, as is the way with us, he joked that of course he’d already done that before. Taken photographs of lovers, tasteful ones. It was all a game, that’s old sport, been there done that. He was taking the piss. He could tell I was sincere and loved you.” He stepped back and leaned against the wall. “But we’d been joking about it the day before my trip. He asked me if I’d stocked my phone with Sara porn. He sent just that one because he’s a twat and was having a laugh. The timing was just really, really poor.”
“The story said you had photos of a lot of women.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that? Leave a voice mail, or text the truth?”
“Well, one because I thought being adults we’d talk face-to-face. Everything we’ve done together required a great deal of trust, Sara. I gathered I deserved the benefit of the doubt. But also”—he ran his hand through his hair, cursing—“it would mean admitting that I’d told Will about how you let me photograph you. It would mean admitting I’d betrayed our secret. It would mean revealing that he’d sent me a private picture of a woman who had presumably trusted him. I’ve had my lawyers handle the containment issue, but honestly, it made us both look like pricks.”
“Not as much as seeing her in the paper did.”
“Do you not see it’s exactly the story they wanted? The story of me and all my many women? They found hundreds of photos of me and you and yet they just post one? There is one image of another woman, and bam—it fits their gossip narrative. I told you I wasn’t with anyone else; why wasn’t that enough?”
“Because I’m used to men who say one thing and do another.”
“But you expected me to be better than that,” he said, eyes searching mine. “Otherwise why admit you love me? Why give me a night like that?”
“I guess when the photos came out . . . I didn’t think that night meant as much to you.”
“That’s absolute shite. You were there, too. You’re looking at the photos now. You know exactly how much it meant to me.”
I reached for him but reconsidered. He looked really pissed, and my frustration with myself and him and all of it just exploded. I still remembered the stab I felt in my chest when I saw the picture of the other woman.
“What was I supposed to think? It just seemed reasonable that you’d played me. Everything between us always seemed so easy for you.”
“It was easy. Falling absolutely in love with you was really f**king easy. Isn’t it supposed to be that way? Just because I haven’t been brokenhearted in recent years doesn’t mean I’m incapable of it. Fuck, Sara. I’ve been wrecked for the past two weeks. Positively smashed.”
I pressed a hand to my stomach, feeling like I needed to physically hold myself together. “Me, too.”
He sighed, stared down at his shoes, and didn’t say anything else. In my chest, my heart twisted tightly.
“I want to be with you,” I said.
He nodded once, but didn’t look back up, didn’t even say a word.
I stepped closer, stretched to kiss his cheek, and only made it to his jaw because he wouldn’t bend to meet me.
“Max, I miss you,” I told him. “I know I jumped to conclusions. I just . . . I thought . . .” I stopped, hating how still he remained.
Without looking back, I walked out of his dressing room, through his bedroom, and back to the party.
“I want to go home,” I said to Chloe, once I’d been able to discreetly—semi-discreetly—pull her away from a conversation with Bennett and Will.
The two men watched us in the obvious way men have where they don’t even bother trying to hide what they’re doing. We all stood in the recessed portion of the living room that looked exactly like the room in the club. The memories sent sharp pangs through my chest. I wanted to get out of this dress, wash my face, and curl up in a tub of cookie dough.
“Give us twenty?” she asked, eyes searching mine. “Or do you need to leave right this second?”
I groaned, looking around the room. Max still hadn’t emerged from his bedroom and I wanted to be gone when he did. I certainly didn’t want to be standing exactly where I was, remembering exactly how loving he’d been with me in Johnny’s club, and every second after. I was mortified, and confused, and most of all, I was wildly in love with him. The memory of the way he’d displayed the beauty in our photographs pulsed like a vivid echo in my mind.
“I just had the world’s most awkward conversation with Max. I feel like an as**ole and he’s being obstinate and has every right to be because I’m an idiot and I just want to leave. I’ll get a cab outside.”
Will put his hand on my arm. “Don’t leave quite yet.”
I couldn’t help giving him a scolding look. “You’re kind of a piglet, Will. I can’t believe you did that. I would kill Max if he sent you a picture of me.”
My attention was drawn up and over his shoulder to the hall to Max’s room. He’d come out without me seeing, and stood, leaning against the wall, sipping a scotch. He was staring directly at me. It was the same intense expression he wore the first night we met, as he watched me dance for him.
“I’m sorry,” I mouthed to him, eyes welling with tears. “I messed up.”
Will was saying something, but I had no idea what. I was too focused on the way Max licked his lips. And then his eyes turned up in the familiar smile and he mouthed the words, “You look beautiful.”
Will had asked me a question. What did he just say?
But he laughed, shaking his head. “It wasn’t a yes-or-no question, lovely Sara.”
“I . . .” I tried to focus. But behind him, Max had set his drink down on a table and was headed straight for me. Tugging at my dress, I stood straighter, tried to keep my face impassive. “Could you repeat the question?”
“Max is walking over here, isn’t he?” Will asked, watching me with na**d amusement.
I hadn’t realized how close I’d been standing against the wall until I was pressed against it, Max’s mouth warm and sliding over mine, whispering my name over and over. I wanted to say something, I wanted to tease him for kissing me like this in the middle of his own party, but I was so wrapped up in the intensity of my own relief that I just closed my eyes, opened my mouth, to let his tongue slide across mine.
He dragged his teeth down my jaw, sucked at my neck. Over his shoulder I saw that the entire room full of people had stopped talking and were watching us, wide-eyed. A few were leaning together, already discussing what they were seeing.
“Max,” I whispered, tugging his hair to pull his head back to mine. I couldn’t stop smiling; I felt like my face was going to crack in half. He looked at my lips, his eyes hooded as if he was drunk from me. “We have an audience.”
“Isn’t that your thing?” He leaned forward, kissed me once more.
“I like a little more anonymity.”
“Too bad. I thought we agreed this would be our coming-out party.”
I pulled away, searching his eyes as they grew more sober. “I’m really sorry.”