I hit the spacebar on my laptop to wake up my computer and googled the location of “Stella & Sumner.”
Stella & Sumner took up half of the seventy-second floor of the GE Building, one of the most iconic buildings in the city. Even I recognized it from blocks away.
However, for such a well-known venture capital firm, I was surprised how little space it required. Then again, it took very little to run a company that basically just raised and invested money: Max, Will, some junior executives, and assorted math brainiacs.
My heart was hammering so fast I had to count ten deep breaths, and then duck into a bathroom just outside their office doors to get myself together.
I checked each stall to ensure it was empty, and then looked myself right in the eye. “If you’re doing this with him, remember three things, Sara. One, he wants what you want. Sex, no strings. You don’t owe him more. Two, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. And three”—I stood up straighter, taking a deep breath—“be young. Have fun. Turn the rest off.”
Back in the hall, the glass doors to Stella & Sumner opened automatically when I approached and an older female receptionist greeted me with a genuine smile.
“I’m here to see Max Stella,” I said, returning it. She had a familiar smile, familiar brow. I glanced down and read her name placard: BRIGID STELLA.
Holy crap, did his mother work as his receptionist?
“Do you have an appointment, love?”
Her accent was just like his. I jerked my attention back to her face. “No, actually. I was hoping I could just get a minute.”
She smiled—but not a knowing smile, thank God—looked at her computer, and then nodded a little to herself before picking up the phone. “I’ve got a Sara Dillon here hoping for a chat.” She listened for barely three seconds and then said, “Right.”
When she hung up, she was already nodding. “Straight down the hall to the right. His is the office at the end.”
I thanked her and followed her directions down the hall. When I drew closer, I saw that Max stood in his doorway, leaning against the frame and wearing such a self-satisfied smile that I pulled up a good ten feet short of my destination.
He burst out laughing, turning and walking into his office.
I followed him in, closing the door behind me. “I’m not here for what you think I’m here for.” And then I paused, reconsidering. “Okay, maybe I am here for what you think I’m here for. But not really. I mean not here, and not today here, when your mother is right out there! Oh my God—who hires their mother as their receptionist?”
He was still laughing, that damn dimple etched into his cheek, and with each rambling word I unleashed he seemed to laugh harder. Goddamn if he wasn’t the most playful, adorable . . . infuriating . . . ass!
“Stop laughing!” I yelled and then slapped a hand over my mouth as the words echoed back to me from the walls all around us. He struggled to straighten his expression, walked over to me and kissed me once, so sweetly I literally forgot for a beat what I was here for.
“Sara,” he said quietly. “You look beautiful.”
“You always say that,” I said. I closed my eyes, felt my shoulders slump. I couldn’t remember a single instance in the last three years where Andy had complimented me on something other than the wine I chose for dinner.
“That’s because I’m nothing if not honest. But what are you wearing?”
I opened my eyes and looked down at my white blouse, pleated navy skirt, and thick red belt. Max was staring directly at my chest, and I felt my ni**les harden under his gaze.
He grinned. He could tell.
“You look like a naughty schoolgirl done right.”
“I’m twenty-seven,” I reminded him. “You’re not being a pervert by checking out my boobs.”
“Twenty-seven,” he repeated, grinning. He acted like every bit of information I gave him was a pearl he could string on a necklace. “How many days is that?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “What? It’s . . .” I looked up for a few seconds. “About nine thousand, eight hundred fifty. But more, actually, since my birthday is in August. About ten thousand.”
He groaned and pressed a dramatic hand to his chest. “Fuck. Numbers queen and stacked like that. I’m helpless against your charm.”
I couldn’t help but smile back at him. He’d never been rude or sharp with me, and had given me more orgasms in a week and a half than any other man had in . . . ugh, Sara. Depressing. Move on.
He looked me over once more before saying, “Well, I certainly can’t wait for you to tell me why you’ve blessed me with your visit today. But let me answer your most recent question. Yes, my mother is my receptionist and it does seem uncouth. But I dare you even to try to get her to leave that desk. I assure you, you’ll walk away with one ear pulled from your head.”
He took a step forward, and suddenly he was standing so close. Too close. I could see the tiny stripes in his tailored suit jacket, see the shadow of stubble on his chin.
“I came here to talk to you,” I said. I must have sounded minuscule, and I needed to find some power to put behind the words I wanted to give him. I didn’t want to be how I was with Andy initially: easily bulldozed. After six years, I realized the problem was I’d never really cared enough to fight for anything.
He smiled. “I figured as much. Do you want to sit?”
“Do you want something to drink?” He walked over to a small bar in the corner and held up a crystal bottle filled with amber liquid. Without thinking, I nodded, and he poured two glasses.
Handing it to me, he whispered, “Just two fingers today, Petal.”
I surrendered to my laugh. “Thank you. I’m sorry, this whole situation is just . . . eating at me.”
He raised an eyebrow but seemed to rethink lacing further innuendo into the moment. “Likewise.”
“I feel a little out of my depth with you,” I started.
He laughed, but not rudely. “I can tell.”
“See, before what happened in the club? I’d been with the same guy since I was twenty-one.”
Max took a sip of his drink and then stared down into the glass, listening. I considered how much I really wanted to tell him about Andy, and me, and who we were together.
“Andy was older. More established, more settled. It was fine,” I said. “It was always fine. I think a lot of relationships end up that way, just sort of . . . fine. Easy. Whatever. He wasn’t my best friend; he wasn’t really my lover. We cohabitated. We had a routine.”
I was loyal; he banged women all over Chicago.
I paused, looking at him. Had I used that word with Max? I thought back, and realized no, I hadn’t. I’d used that to describe my life when I left, but I’d never shared it with him. I felt goose bumps spread along my arms. A million answers flashed through my head, but the one that I gave him was “I got tired of being so old when I was so young.”
“That’s it? That’s all you’re going to tell me? You’re a complete puzzle, Sara.”
Looking up at him, I said, “For what we’ve done together, you don’t need to know more than that I left a lot of unhappiness in Chicago and am not looking to be involved with anyone.”
“But then you found me at the club,” he said.
“If I remember correctly,” I said, dragging my finger down the front of his shirt, “you found me.”
“Right,” he said, and smiled, but for the first time I could remember, his eyes didn’t do it first. Or even later. “And here we are.”
“Here we are,” I agreed. “I figured it was my one wild moment.” I looked out the window, at the billowing white clouds, looking for all the world so solid, and hearty as if I could leap from this floor and catch one and go somewhere, anywhere, where I would feel sure of what I was about to say. “But I’ve seen you a few times since then and . . . I like you. I just don’t want things to get crazy, or off track.”
Did he? He couldn’t possibly. And in truth, it didn’t matter whether he understood that even more important than my life staying on track was my need for it not to be as safe as it had been in Chicago. Safe was a nightmare. Safe was a lie.
“One night a week,” I said. “I’ll be yours one night a week.”
He stared at me with that calm reflective expression and I realized that every time I’d seen him before this, he’d been showing every card he had. His smile was complete honesty. His laughter was him being perfectly real. But this expression was his mask.
My stomach tightened painfully. “If you even want to see me again, that is.”
“I absolutely do,” he assured me. “I’m just not entirely sure what you’re saying.”
I stood up and walked over to the window. I felt him move behind me and I said, “I feel like the only way I can handle it right now is to give it a clear boundary. Outside that boundary, I’m here to work, to build a life. But inside that boundary . . .” I trailed off, closing my eyes and just letting the idea take hold. The idea of Max’s hands, and his mouth. His sculpted torso and the thick length of him pressing into me again and again. “We can do anything. When I’m with you I don’t want to worry about anything else.”
He moved to the side, so that I could turn my head just slightly and look right at him, and stared directly into my eyes. He smiled. The mask was gone, the midafternoon sun blazed into the room, and his eyes looked like green caught on fire.
“You’re offering only your body to me.”
“Yeah.” I was the first to look away.
“You’ll truly only give me one night a week?”
“So you want to have . . . what? Some sort of committed fling?”
I laughed and said, “I certainly don’t like the idea of you whoring your way across the boroughs. So, yes, that’s part of the deal. If you even do that.”
He scratched his jaw, not answering my implied question. “What night? The same night all the time?”
I hadn’t really thought this part through, but I nodded, winging it. “Fridays.”
“If I’m not to see other women, what if I have a work function, or an event on a Thursday or a Saturday that requires a date?”
My chest twisted with anxiety. “No. No public appearances. I guess you can take your mom.”
“You’re a demanding little thing.” His smile followed his words and grew slowly, like a low-burning fire. “This feels so organized. That hasn’t been our modus operandi, to date, little Petal.”
“I know,” I allowed. “But this is the only way that felt sane to me. I don’t want to be in the papers with you.”
His eyebrows pulled together. “Why that specifically?”
Shaking my head, I realized I’d said too much. I murmured, “I just don’t.”
“Do I get any say in how this goes?” he asked. “Do we just meet at your flat and f**k all night?”
I ran my index finger down his chest again, venturing lower, to his belt buckle. Here was the part I hoped he was up for and the part that scared me most. After the club, the restaurant, the fund-raiser, I was starting to feel like an adrenaline junkie. I didn’t want to give that up, either.
“I think we’ve done pretty well so far. I don’t want to go to my apartment. Or yours, for that matter. Text me where I should be, and generally what to expect so I know what to wear. I don’t care about the rest.”
I lifted myself on my toes, kissed him. It started out teasing, but then turned deep enough to make me want to take back everything I’d said and give myself to him every night of the week. But he pulled away first, breathing heavily.
“I can avoid photographers, but I’ve become obsessed with taking pictures of you. That’s my only condition. No faces, but photos are allowed.”
A shiver moved up my spine and I stared up at him. The thought of having proof of him touching my bare skin, of him looking at pictures of us together and getting hard, made a hot flush spread up my chest to my cheeks. He noticed, smiling and running the backs of his fingers along my jaw.
“When this ends, you delete them,” I said.
“I’ll see you Friday then.” I reached inside his jacket, taking a moment to run my hand over the hard lines of his chest before pulling his phone from his inside pocket and dialing my cell number. It rang in my purse. I could sense his amused smile without even looking up at his face. I slipped his phone back in his pocket, turned, and walked away, knowing if I looked over my shoulder at him, I’d walk back.
I waved goodbye to his mother and took the long elevator ride back to the lobby, thinking about that cell camera of his all the way down.
Two blocks away my phone buzzed in my purse.
Meet me Friday at 11th and Kent in Brooklyn. 6:00. Have a cab bring you and stay in it until I’ve opened the door. You may come straight from work.
Back when I was young and naïve, Demitri Gerard had been the second client I ever took on. He’d had a small but profitable antiques business in North London. On paper, Demitri’s business was nothing special: he paid his bills on time, had a steady client list, and made more money a year than what he put out on expenditures. But what was truly exceptional about Demitri was his uncanny ability to sniff out rare finds that few people knew existed. Pieces that, in the right hands, sold for small fortunes to collectors around the globe.