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“Ah. I see. Well listen, baby girl. There’s no reason you can’t be the one in control. This isn’t about love, or being tied down. Do you think any man on the planet would think twice about engaging in some no-strings-sex with a supermodel? Of course not. Any man would go for it. Hit it and quit it. Think like a man, Emmy. Think with your dick.”

I laughed again at her choice of words. Fuck buddies with Ben Shaw, I could do that.

After Ellie’s pep talk, I felt a little more encouraged and in control about my relationship with Ben.

“I’ve gotta get to work,” she reminded me.

“’Kay. And I’ve got to get some sleep. Talk soon.”

“Mwah!” Ellie said, ending the call.

I curled up on my side, hugging the pillow beside me, and was just about asleep when my phone chimed beside me. My hands scrambled for it in the dark. Just that little chime made me think of Ben, which in turn made me horny. I was like a trained Pavlov dog for that sound.

Ben: It’s my birthday . . . in four minutes

I glanced at the clock. Almost midnight. I hadn’t known it was his birthday tomorrow, today, whatever. I smiled at the image of him lying in bed alone, several floors up, feeling alone and just needing someone to know it was his birthday. I liked that I was the person he reached out to. I waited until the clock changed to midnight then texted him back.

Me: Happy Birthday

Ben: Thanks, beautiful. You should come to my birthday dinner tomorrow night.

I replied that I would be there, and Ben provided the name of the restaurant. I hadn’t known there was a birthday dinner for him. Surely Fiona had planned it. Normally, she made me handle everything—from sending her clothes out to be laundered, to booking her monthly bikini waxes. My only conclusion was that she’d wanted to keep this from me. Tomorrow night should be interesting.

10

Emmy

I stood naked in front of the full-length mirror while the bathtub filled. Lazy heat vapors drifted toward the ceiling as I inspected myself in the mirror. My thighs jiggled when I walked, my breasts, while still high, would sag with their weight as I aged. It was just gravity. I pressed my hands into my fleshy hips, willing them to shrink. I’d never been so aware of my body in my entire life. It turned out getting naked with a supermodel would do that to you. I remembered Ben’s hoarse whisper, the desire in his voice when he said I was soft. But maybe I was only remembering it the way I wanted to. Maybe he’d prefer I had a six-pack, or a tiny, firm little butt.

Once the tub was filled, I stepped into the steaming hot water and sank down, submerging myself in the fragrant bubbles. I lathered every part of my body, exfoliated every inch, and shaved every bit of hair until I was bare. I shampooed and conditioned my hair, and made sure all of me was scrubbed clean. As much as I’d told myself that I couldn’t be with Ben again, I didn’t trust my body not to betray me.

I emerged pruned and boneless. But I felt wonderful. After wrapping myself in the fluffy robe from the wardrobe, I worked the calluses from my heel and, trimmed, filed and painted my fingernails and toenails. I plucked stray eyebrows in the magnifying mirror in the full sunlight pouring through my window where I could see every speck of everything. After every pore was extracted and spotless, I expertly applied my makeup and styled my hair. I slathered lotion on my skin, mixing in several droplets of baby oil. I was soft and glowing when I was done. I knew I couldn’t compete with the women Ben attracted, but my self-confidence had tripled in the last hour. I needed this. I wanted to feel sexy tonight. Powerful and in control. Ellie would be proud.

I slipped into my black skinny jeans, ballet flats, and a gauzy cream top that fell off one shoulder. I added a few chunky necklaces and fluffed my hair one last time. Ready as I’d ever be.

The dinner was being held at a swanky restaurant on the river. I found it strange that Fiona had booked the reservation for Ben’s birthday herself. I hoped she wasn’t going to shit a brick at the sight of me. I arrived a few minutes after eight and learned our party was still having drinks at the bar.

I took a moment to gather myself and scope out my surroundings. Deep beats of house music played in the background; glittering dim lighting from crystal chandeliers and beautiful people mingling at the high-top tables completed the ambience. I was glad I’d taken the time to make myself presentable.

Fiona’s shrill wave of accented laughter caught my attention. She, Ben, and a few others I didn’t recognize were at the far end of the bar. Ben looked scrumptious in tailored dark gray trousers and a button-down shirt rolled to his elbows, showing off those thick, sexy forearms coursing with veins. His shirt was open at the collar and memories of inhaling the skin at his neck danced through my mind. Fiona spotted me across the bar and her mouth pulled into a tight line. Ben’s smile fell at Fiona’s sudden change in mood and his gaze lifted to meet mine.

“Hi,” I mumbled weakly, suddenly regretting my decision to come.

Ben pulled me close, wrapping his arms around me, and all fears I had fell away. He wanted me here. Fiona could shove it.

“You came,” he whispered against my hair, breathing me in.

“Happy birthday.” I smiled up at him as he released me.

Ben grinned. One little tug of his mouth and my heart was beating like a drum. I could tell he’d already had a few drinks. His normally penetrating stare was relaxed and happy. And he was holding a glass of amber-colored liquor. The strong stuff.

“Hi, Fiona.” I gave her a cordial smile. I knew she wasn’t my biggest fan, but we could at least try to be civil about things.

“Emerson.” She tipped her head and turned her focus back to Ben.

I sensed the mood shift in the little group when I arrived, like they’d been in the middle of a story. But a strange hushed silence fell over the group as their eyes moved back and forth between me and Ben. I hated being the center of attention. I hated feeling scrutinized.

Stepping away, I murmured, “I’m going to grab a drink.”

I recognized one of the photographers from an earlier shoot and Madeline. I said hello, but she didn’t seem to recognize me even though I’d just met her a few days before. The few others were new faces.

Approaching the bar, I ordered a beer. You could take the girl out of the country but you’d never take the country out of the girl. The bartender filled a pint glass with amber-colored goodness and slid it toward me. Grabbing it with shaky hands, I took a long, icy sip.

When I rejoined the group, Fiona slyly smiled at me. “You know how many calories are in that, dear?”

Soft laughter erupted nervously across the group. They could sense the catfight brewing. Stupid industry people sipping their stupid skinny cocktails.

Ben stood across from me looking troubled. I didn’t like being responsible for that look. I didn’t want to be a source of tension between him and the head of the agency—our boss. I didn’t think she’d do anything foolish, like stop booking him for jobs—he was too valuable for that. But she could fire me. And something told me if I got too close to Ben, that’s exactly what she might do. I could handle her snarky comments about my clothing and calorie consumption. I didn’t want to blow this out of proportion, so I merely smiled and nodded and took another sip of my carbohydrates-rich drink.

“Fiona, can I have a word?” Ben asked.

“Of course, love.”

Fiona followed him around the corner and out of sight.

I knew I shouldn’t, but I slipped away from the group and trailed after them. In what universe was this okay? I must have been dropped as a baby. But if this was about me, I needed to know.

They stood at the far end of the hall in an alcove near the restrooms. I remained just out of sight, hidden around the corner, but near enough that I could hear their low, murmured conversation.

“We’re not curing cancer, Fiona; stop being so serious,” Ben said.

“I’m always serious where you’re concerned,” Fiona returned, her voice tense.

“Why don’t you tell me what this is really about?”

Fiona let out a heavy sigh. “I think you know.” She hesitated a moment, silence falling over them as my pulse thrummed in my ears. “You haven’t come by to see me lately. . . . Is this about her?” Her voice took on a whiny plea.

“I told you that was done. That has nothing to do with Emmy.”

Holy shit. What did this conversation have to do with me? And why was my spine tingling like there was something big I was missing here?

“Just be civil,” Ben added.

“Then don’t shag my assistant,” Fiona hissed.

“Calm down, pussy cat,” Ben chuckled. “It is my birthday, after all.”

“Love, if you want birthday sex, all you have to do is ask,” Fiona’s sultry, accented voice whispered.

“Fiona . . .” Ben warned, letting the rest of the statement hang in the air.

All the oxygen was sucked from my lungs. Had they slept together? I didn’t doubt that Fiona would be interested, but would Ben do that? Damn, this situation was far more complicated that I’d imagined.

“Do you have plans for a girl later?” Fiona asked.

“No girls, Fiona, I told you. You can relax.”

My legs felt shaky, but I pushed them into action, disappearing back down the hall before I was discovered. Rejoining the group, I stood on trembling legs, sucking down mouthfuls of the icy-cold drink until my temples throbbed. Ben and Fiona rounded the corner and he crossed the room to stand next to me, letting his hand rest at the small of my lower back. The contact made me jump and I sloshed a bit of the beer from the rim of my glass.

“You okay?” Ben murmured beside me.

“I’m fine.”

He took a deep breath and reached for my hand. “Our table’s ready. Come on.”

Ben sat between me and Fiona, which was good because I wasn’t above flicking a booger in her food, given the chance. Lord knows she’d deserve it. She leaned over him, reading the menu and pointing out things he would like, which annoyed me to no end. He ordered the salade Niçoise. I wondered if he ever got to actually eat what he liked. It seemed like a birthday was the one day you should be entitled to do so. I sure as heck wouldn’t order a salad on my birthday.

I switched to sparkling water toward the end of dinner. I wanted to be clearheaded for later. I didn’t know if I’d get any alone time with Ben. But if I did, I wanted to be thinking clearly. I needed to know what was happening between us. Clouding my head with alcohol probably wouldn’t help any. And I didn’t want to see Fiona have a coronary at the table if I ordered another beer.

The guests chatted with Ben throughout much of the meal. I quickly learned the others in our party were more executives for luxury brands that Fiona was trying to book. I was so frustrated, I couldn’t even look at her fake smile. Tonight was supposed to be a relaxing, low-key night for him, but of course she had turned it into a job interview. Ben politely fielded all their questions, acting like none of it bothered him, but I could tell it did. I nibbled on my food and stayed quiet for the most part, but Ben glanced my way several times and once squeezed my hand under the table.

The drinks continued flowing after dinner, and Fiona told story after story about Ben, designed to either impress our guests or scare me away. She painted him as quite the playboy, and my dinner churned in my stomach with each new bit of information.

“We were in Singapore, what was it, two years ago, love?”

Ben nodded.

“We were on set for Versace, and he was all sour and mardy.”

Ben grimaced, like he knew the story she was about to tell.

“He hadn’t been sleeping well—jetlag, and all that.”

“Fiona,” he warned, his voice dropping lower.

“Oh, hush; it’s funny, love.” Fiona waved a hand in his direction then turned back to the group. “It was a brilliant set, beautiful clothes, and our gorgeous model here was pissy—in need of a good shag. I knew he needed to take the edge off before we started shooting.” A few of the business executives leaned forward in interest and Madeline’s cheeks grew pink. Ben was growing increasingly agitated. He removed the napkin from his lap and balled it on the table beside his plate.

Fiona continued, “So I found this little assistant in the back, asked if her duties extended to oral, and shoved her at Ben. She took one look at him and nodded, pulling him into an empty broom closet. I don’t know what happened next; all I know is that when he emerged fifteen minutes later, there was a smile on his face.”

The table erupted in soft laughter. A lump lodged in my throat and I had to take a drink of water to get my windpipe working again.

Fiona’s story demonstrated that Ben was in an entirely different category of men. He’d lived and worked all over the world, and apparently got blow jobs from assistants at the drop of a hat. Did he even remember her name? Was that what I was to him? A plaything to take the edge off? That was exactly why I wasn’t cut out for this. Sex meant more to me. There was no way to separate the physical connection from the emotional in my mind. Ellie was right. I never should’ve slept with him. But I also knew if he asked me to bed again, I probably wouldn’t say no. Part of me wished I was stronger; part of me was dreaming up ways to get him alone later.

Fiona carried over a large bag filled with wrapped gifts, taking each one out and placing them in front of Ben.

He smiled and tried to act humbled, opening each one and thanking the giver. An Hermès scarf, Cartier watch, Balenciaga satchel, men’s grooming kit—some luxury brand I didn’t recognize but was surely out of my price range.

I did get him something, or rather made him something. It was in poor taste to show up to a birthday party empty-handed, but there was no way I was going to embarrass myself by whipping out a homemade gift among this extravagance. It would stay tucked in my purse. Thank you very much.

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