“Both,” I’d admitted, and he bent back low to my neck, biting me.
I found myself wondering about the pictures he’d taken and shivered slightly. I tried not to imagine him looking at them. Maybe even touching himself while he did . . .
Chloe cleared her throat and pulled a few periodicals from her box. I blinked, hard, and looked down at the journals in front of me. Jesus, where was all this coming from?
“I saw you talking to Max,” she said. “You guys danced for, like, three songs, too. Did you just meet him that night?”
Was she a mind reader? What in the actual hell, Chloe?
I didn’t look up, and instead mumbled, “Yeah, we just met at the”—I waved my hand in the air—“the thing on Friday.”
I could feel her gaze on me. Chloe was the least subtle poker in the world. She dropped a hint like a strike fighter drops bombs. “Don’t you think he’s gorgeous?”
Finally I looked up at her and rolled my eyes. “Knock it off. I’m not going to swoon for you over Max Stella. He seemed nice, that’s all.”
She laughed and shoved a few books on the shelf. “Fine. Just making sure you weren’t caught under his spell. He sounds like a great guy, but yeah, definitely a player. At least he’s up front about it, though.”
She watched me for a minute as I struggled to not react to that. It was a fair dig on Andy, and was the kind of thing she could say in a year or two and we’d both laugh and say, “I know, right?”
But for now her words just kind of dissolved into awkward silence.
“Sorry,” she mumbled. “Bad timing. Did you know that Max and Bennett went to school together?”
“Yeah, he mentioned something about that. I didn’t know that Bennett went to college in England.”
She nodded. “Cambridge. Max was his flat mate from their first day there. He hasn’t shared many stories with me, but the ones he has . . .” She trailed off, shaking her head as her attention returned to the books in front of her.
I was supposed to be uninterested, completely uninterested in all of this, right? So I studied my thumb, and only then did I notice a fresh paper cut.
Get it together, Sara; your brain is so fixated on Max that you no longer sense pain? That’s pathetic.
So how does one look when one absolutely does not care about the stories that Chloe may have heard? I mean, obviously the fact that he hasn’t shared many stories means that he’s shared some.
I alphabetized a giant stack of periodicals, pretending to be engrossed. Finally, the question felt like it was choking me and I relented. “Like, what kinds of things did they do?”
“Just guy stuff,” she said, distracted. “Rugby. Brewing their own beer and the insane parties after. Taking the train to Paris and blah-blah escapades.”
She looked up suddenly, as if she remembered something, and her dark eyes definitely had a mischievous shine to them. “Hey, this reminds me. Speaking of escapades . . .”
My stomach fell to my knees.
“You disappeared on Friday night, for like an hour! Where did you go?”
My face heated, and I cleared my throat, furrowing my brow as if I had to work to remember. “Oh, I just felt a little overwhelmed. I, uh, went for a walk around the grounds.”
“Damn,” she breathed. “I was hoping you ran into a hot caterer and got banged on a table.”
A hoarse cough burst out, and my entire throat was suddenly so dry that I couldn’t stop coughing.
Chloe stood and got me a cup of water from the cooler in the reception area, returning with a knowing grin. “You are so busted. You always start coughing when you’re freaking out.”
“Lies. Lying liar who lies all the lies. Tell me.”
I absolutely refused to look at her. Something about Chloe’s dark brown eyes and patient smile directed right at me made me spill everything. “There is nothing to tell.”
“Sara, when you disappeared, you came back after being gone for an hour and looked . . .” She tucked a long lock of brown hair behind her ear to reveal a devilish smile. “You know how you looked. Freshly fucked.”
I cut a box open and pulled out a stack of design magazines, handing them to her. “And it’s too crazy to explain.”
“Are you kidding me? You’re talking to the woman who had sex with her boss in the eighteenth-floor stairwell.”
My head shot up and a laugh burst out. I drank some more water to keep the cough at bay. “Holy crap, Chloe. I didn’t know that detail.” I considered this a little more. “God, good thing I never used the stairs. Gross. That would have been super awkward.”
“We were ridiculous. Nothing could be crazier than that.” She shrugged and turned her nonjudgmental face on me. “Or, could there be? You tell me.”
“Okay,” I said, leaning back against her couch. “The guy I met at the bar last week? The hot one?”
“He was there on Friday.”
Her eyes narrowed, and I could see her gears cranking. “At the fund-raiser?”
“Yeah. He found me outside the restroom,” I lied and looked out the window so she wouldn’t see it in my eyes. “We hooked up. I guess that’s why I looked . . . er, rumpled.”
“When you say hooked up you mean . . . ?”
“Yeah. In an empty ballroom.” I looked up and met her eyes. “On a table.”
She let out a loud whoop and clapped her hands. “Look at you, you wild thing.”
It was so like something Max would say to me, but delivered so differently, that for a moment it rendered me a little speechless. It was disorienting to ache for him like this, to wonder what he was doing, and whether he was presently looking at pictures of me spread out beneath him.
“Seriously, Sara, I knew you had it in you,” she added.
“The thing is, I don’t really want another relationship. And even if I did, I get the impression he isn’t really like that.” I stopped before spilling too much. If I alluded any more to Max’s reputation on Page Six, Chloe would absolutely know who I meant.
She hummed, listening, as she sorted through a stack of journals.
“But he’s fun, Chloe. And you know how things were with Andy.”
She stopped sorting, but toyed with the corner of a page. “Well, that’s the thing, Sare. I don’t really. I mean, come on; in the three years you and I have known each other, I only had dinner with you guys maybe five times. I learned more about him from the papers than I did from any stories you told me. You hardly ever talked about him! I always just ended up with the sense that he was using your family’s reputation to appear well connected and . . . wholesome.”
I felt guilt and embarrassment settle in my chest like a lead weight. “I know,” I said, inhaling and letting it out again slowly. It was one thing to imagine how people saw me, another to hear it straight out. “I always worried that if I said anything about him to someone, it would be misconstrued, and somehow break his public strategy. Plus, we weren’t like you and Bennett. We didn’t have a lot of fun together by the time I met you. Andy was a phony and an epic jerk and it took me a really long time to see that. This thing on Friday was just fun.”
Chloe looked up. “Hey, it’s fine. I knew it was something like that.” She turned back to another box. “So this is good then, he’s not like Andy.”
“So you mean he’s into you.”
“At least physically, which is fine for me right now.”
“So what’s the problem? It sounds like the perfect situation.”
“He’s kind of intense. And I don’t really trust him.”
Putting down the books in her hand, she turned to face me. “Sara, this is going to sound really weird, but just hear me out, okay?”
“When Bennett and I started . . . whatever it was we were doing, I was determined that every time it happened it would be the last. But I think I always knew it would keep happening until it had run its course. Luckily for us, I don’t think we’ll ever stop feeling what we felt those first few times. Even so, I didn’t trust him. I didn’t really even like him. Above all of it, he was my boss. I mean, hello, inappropriate.” She laughed, and following her gaze over to her desk, I saw that the first and only thing she’d unpacked so far was a picture of the two of them at the house in France where he’d proposed to her. “But I think if I’d just given myself permission to enjoy it a little bit, it might not have consumed me so much.”
I was starting to know exactly what she meant about being consumed. And I knew, too, that I was consciously fighting it with Max, with the idea of Max. But my reasons were different. It wasn’t a boss-employee thing, or any other kind of power struggle. It was the simple fact that I didn’t want to be anyone else’s but my own for a while. And although this thing with Max was insane and completely different from anything I’d ever felt before—I was different—I liked it. A lot.
“I do like him,” I admitted carefully. “But I don’t think he’s boyfriend material. In fact, I know he’s not. And I am most definitely not girlfriend material right now.”
“Okay, so maybe you just get together every now and then as f**k buddies.”
I laughed, pressing my face into my hands. “Seriously. Whose life is this?”
She looked at me like she wanted to pat my head. “Sara, it’s yours.”
George was reading a newspaper in my office with his feet up on my desk when I returned.
“Working yourself to the bone?” I teased, sitting on the corner of my desk.
“On my lunch break. And you had a package arrive, darling.”
“You found it in the mailroom?”
He shook his head and lifted the parcel off his lap, waving it at me. “Hand delivered. By a very cute bike messenger, I might add. I had to sign for it and promise not to open it.”
I snatched it from him and jerked my chin to the door, wordlessly telling George to scram.
“You’re not even going to tell me what it is?”
“I don’t have X-ray vision, and you are not going to be here when I open it. Get out.”
With a noise of protest, he kicked his feet off my desk and left, closing my door on his way out.
I stared at the package for several minutes, feeling the rectangular shape of it beneath the padded envelope. A frame? My heart jumped in my chest.
Tucked inside were a wrapped parcel and a note that read,
Open this with discretion. It is my favourite.
I swallowed, feeling a little as if I were on the verge of unleashing something I would no longer be able to contain. Looking up to ensure that my door was firmly shut, I unwrapped it, my hands shaking when I realized that it was indeed a frame. Made of deep, simply cut wood, it held a single photo: a picture of my stomach, and the curve of my waist. The black table beneath me was visible. Max’s fingertips were also visible at the bottom, as if he was pinning me to the surface at my hips. A faint beam of light spread across my skin, a reminder of the door opening nearby, of the person wandering around the room just beyond the screen.
He must have taken that picture just as he’d buried himself in me.
I closed my eyes, remembering how it had felt when I came. I was like a bare wire, plugged into the wall and with the charge that would illuminate that dark ballroom running through me instead. He’d bared my cl*twith his fingers, stroked me just like that. I’d wanted to close my legs against the intensity of it, but he’d growled, held me open with his pounding hips.
I shoved the frame back in the mailing envelope and hid the entire thing in my purse. Heat spread like a clawing vine across my skin and I couldn’t even turn up the air, couldn’t open a window this high in the building.
How did he know?
I felt the weight of it pressing down on me, how much I’d wanted it to be a photo of us, how much I’d wanted to be seen. He understood, maybe more than I did myself.
Stumbling to my desk, I sat down and tried to take stock of the situation. But directly in front of me was today’s New York Post, open to Page Six.
There, smack in the middle of the page, was a story titled, Sex God Stella Goes Solo.
The playboy millionaire venture capitalist tried something a little new Saturday night at MoMA.
No, it wasn’t looking at art, and it most certainly wasn’t raising money (let’s be honest: the man already raises money better than every slot machine in Vegas). Saturday night at his annual fund-raiser to benefit Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, Max Stella arrived . . . alone.
When asked where his date was, he simply said, “I’m hoping she’s already inside.”
Unfortunately for us, photographers were forbidden from the event.
We’ll get you next time, Mad Max.
I stared down at the paper, knowing George had put it here for me to see and was probably now laughing to himself.
My hands shook as I folded it and shoved it in a drawer. Why hadn’t it occurred to me that a photographer could have been in there? That there were no photographers in the event at all was a miracle. And although Max had certainly known this, I hadn’t, and I hadn’t even thought to care.
“Crap,” I whispered. I knew, with sudden clarity, that this thing between us either needed to end absolutely, or I needed some semblance of control. Feeling relieved in hindsight was a slippery slope, and I’d already dodged three bullets in my first week.