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“Let me finish, sweet girl.” His mouth crashed against mine and his fingers continued their sweet assault, sending me spiraling closer to the edge. I didn’t know if it was the sense of danger, the possibility of being discovered, or Ben’s dominance over my body, but I came apart completely, shamelessly rocking my hips against his hand to ride out the sensation. Ben kissed me to quiet the moans tumbling from my lips.

The voices trailed off, and somehow we weren’t discovered.

Afterward, we made our way inside the house and Ben showed me to the guest bath where I washed up and made myself presentable.

As we entered the large dining room with a rustic plank-wood table, the smells of garlic and tomatoes and roasting meat greeted us. Angelo uncorked a bottle of red wine and Rosa arranged several large serving platters in the center of the table.

“Grazie!” she greeted us warmly, stuffing each of us into a chair.

I didn’t realize it before, but now that I could smell the food, I was ravenous.

Ben’s eyes lingered on mine throughout the meal, probably because I couldn’t help the moans each time I tasted a new dish.

I can’t say the conversation exactly flowed, because well, it didn’t. Neither Angelo nor Rosa spoke great English. But the food was delicious. Some of the best things I’d ever tasted—roasted meats, fresh ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and sweet basil, all paired with scrumptious local wines. Our hosts were warm and welcoming and it was a lovely meal.

At the end of dinner, Ben called for our car and our hosts walked us to the door. Rosa pulled me in for a hug, thanking me and telling me that Ben was a good man and needed a good girl.

It was clear she was a motherly figure to Ben, and I felt honored that he’d thought to introduce me.

“Thanks for coming,” Ben said once we got in the car.

I smiled and rested my head on his shoulder.

The drive back to Milan was dark and I was sleepy. I snuggled against him, full and happy. I hoped nothing would change.

14

Emmy

The following day we had a late flight out, but first Ben had a photo shoot. He urged me to stay at the hotel, sleep in, order breakfast, and take a swim in the deep tub. He’d be back to collect me in a few hours. I didn’t argue. After all the wine last night, a little extra sleep was exactly what I wanted.

When I woke an hour later, I called for room service and let the bathtub fill, adding a generous pour of bubble bath. It was nice to have a morning to myself to relax. Usually Fiona had me running around early, so this was a rare treat to be savored.

After a leisurely bath, I dressed in the fluffy hotel robe and ate my poached egg and toast. Then while I waited for Ben, I crawled back into bed and watched the Italian-only TV stations.

I checked the time, and realizing it’d be late evening back home in Tennessee, I decided to try my mom.

My mom’s accent burst through the phone. “Emmy Jean, I miss you. How’s Paris, honey? Are the French being snooty?”

I laughed. God, I needed this. Needed to hear her voice. It was like a little slice of home and instantly grounded me. “Oh Momma, it’s amazing here. I’ve been to the Yves Saint Laurent offices and Versace castings and got samples from Louis Vuitton. And I’m actually in Milan right now.” I didn’t mention Ben.

She was quiet on the other end, and I wondered if she knew the names of the famous designers I’d name-dropped.

“Don’t get caught up in that world. Those people aren’t like us, Emmy Jean.”

Her words stopped me. She was right. I’d never felt more out of place, yet with Ben I didn’t have to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. “Don’t worry, Momma. I’m still me.” I smiled, knowing it was true.

“Good. I can’t wait for you to get home for a visit. With your dad on the road so much, I get lonely.”

My dad was an over-the-road truck driver and was gone much of the week. I listened as she droned on about the church potluck and her prized tomatoes, occasionally asking her questions and probing deeper. It was good just to hear her voice. It reminded me that there was a bigger world beyond the glitz and glamour of Fashion Week, that I was destined for more in life.

This was a temporary adventure and the realization unsettled me. I’d been so caught up in this whirlwind; I wondered what would happen once I was back home. Would Ben still be interested in me once we were in New York? I tried to picture him in my little, dingy apartment, hanging out with me and Ellie. It was like trying to envision Fiona dressed in last year’s couture. Never going to happen.

“I’ll come home soon, Momma. Say hi to Dad for me. I love you.”

She seemed so far away—my childhood home in the country was a distant memory in the bustling fashion world of Paris and Milan. And my affair with Ben consumed everything, every waking thought, and even inspired my dreams. I knew it probably wasn’t healthy, but it was my reality. I’d been sucked into his bubble, and I didn’t want it to end.

After saying our good-byes, I curled up on the bed to await Ben’s arrival.

Was I really so shallow that an attractive—albeit stunningly attractive—man could turn me into a pile of goo? But it was more than that, I reminded myself. As much as I enjoyed his outward appearance, I liked him for all the qualities that had nothing to do with his good looks.

He’d been honest and forthright with me about his goals. The way he talked about his future and his financial savvy was sexy. It demonstrated his ability to plan ahead and provide. He put my needs first when we’d been intimate, which was more than I’d expected based on my prior disappointing experiences. Not to mention, the man had the dirty-talking gene. Which meant over the long haul, he’d be the type to keep things interesting. Just enough of that spontaneity to keep the fire burning. I knew I was getting ahead of myself, though. Damn, I was ready to pick out bridesmaid dresses and he hadn’t even told me we were exclusive. If this was just sex, why did it feel like so much more?

15

Emmy

Fashion Week was in full swing in Paris. The air buzzed with energy and excitement and there was a flurry of activity. I headed backstage at the Versace show to see if I could find Ben. Guys were everywhere in various stages of undress. Some were seated at the makeup stations, their hair being coaxed into new styles and held with clips to let the creation set; others changed behind partitions, modesty aside.

Ben was easy to spot. He stood several inches above everyone around him. My perfect Greek god. My sexy man. I felt proud watching him. The makeup artist used a foundation brush to dab on concealer, brightening up his skin tone. The dark circles he once had under his eyes had disappeared. Perhaps sleeping next to me at night really had done the trick.

Fiona stood near his side, sipping a glass of champagne and chatting casually with the stylist while the makeup artist worked her magic. Ben was walking in several shows today but was currently wearing a pair of faded jeans that made his butt look adorable and a white T-shirt.

His eyes caught mine and an easy smile bloomed across his pouty mouth. He really was gorgeous. I returned his smile, sending him a silent wish of good luck, and then headed back out to the seating area. I needed to make sure Fiona’s reserved seat in the front row was all set. I would be sitting several rows back but felt lucky I’d been able to get a seat at all. Gunnar was watching the show from the hotel via live video feed.

I found my seat and settled in. I wondered if I was allowed to take any photos with my camera phone. But I supposed I could find photos of Ben later online. There were a million photographers here, their flashes already popping like crazy.

I saw Fiona slip into her seat in the front and I knew the show was about to start. Little butterflies danced in my belly in anticipation.

Hot lights and flashing cameras flooded the stage. Loud gyrating music thumped through the sound system. I didn’t know the order or when I would see Ben. Some shows lasted only seven or eight minutes; others were closer to twenty. It just depended on how many looks they had to show, and I didn’t know how many exits he had.

The first of the models began walking and a slow smile overtook my face. I was here, in Paris, at my first fashion show. The feeling was surreal. I watched in transfixed fascination as the parade of beautiful men marched confidently down the catwalk. This season was all about bold colors, solids, blacks and whites, and lesser-used animal prints . . . apparently snakeskin was going to be big next year.

Suddenly Ben was there, strutting beautifully toward me on the runway. He was utter perfection. Confident, sure, and sexy as hell. His walk was poised, his chin up, and his dark gaze straight ahead. My eyes wandered the length of his body, taking in the charcoal-gray suit and bold red tie. A leather satchel hung from his shoulder. Never had a slim-cut suit and a murse looked more sexy.

I knew he didn’t get to keep the clothes, but damn, I wouldn’t mind slowly undressing him later, unwrapping him like a present. My pulse kicked up at the thought. With all the after parties to follow, I only hoped I could get some alone time with him.

• • •

Once the shows ended for the day, I scrambled backstage to find him. It was insanity: photographers, designers, and models everywhere. And everyone was in a celebratory mood. Drugs, alcohol, naked people. Wow. Giving up any hope of finding him, I sent him a text telling him I’d see him at the afterparty and headed out.

After swinging by the hotel to change into something more evening-appropriate—skinny black ankle pants paired with a silk purple halter top and strappy silver sandals—I navigated to the Metro that I’d grown comfortable taking over the past several weeks.

When I arrived at the hotel where the afterparty was being held, I felt out of place and awkward as I made my way inside the elegant hotel. Stopping at the front desk, the reception staff directed me to take the elevator to the third-floor ballroom.

I was not at all prepared for the scene that greeted me. Low house music thumped from the speakers, and along with the dim lighting, set an evocative mood. Plush white sofas were arranged in a U shape and filled with stick-thin female models chatting amicably. I continued past them, feeling like I was back in my high school cafeteria, passing the cool-kids table to sit alone in the corner.

Needing some liquid courage, I approached the bar before seeking out Ben. Or even Gunnar. Any friendly face would do. But first I wanted a drink in my hands. I preferred an icy-cold beer but opted for a glass of champagne, which seemed to be the drink of choice tonight.

I took a sip of the semisweet, chilled champagne and closed my eyes. I hated how out of place I felt. It was obvious who the models were and who the regular people were. I was too short, too curvy. Never had I been more aware of my body than standing in that room of size-zero women. I headed farther down the bar to an empty stool, where I could sit and take the pressure off my feet. Damn pinching heels. Easing into the modern half-moon–shaped seat, I noticed the man next to me, head down, sipping his beer quietly.

He must have noticed the way I longed for his bottle of beer because, just seconds later, he signaled and nodded to the bartender, and a beer was uncapped and placed in front of me.

I turned to him, all smiles for the first time tonight. “Was I that obvious?”

He smiled easily, his features open and friendly. “Braydon Kincaid.” He extended a hand toward me.

“Emmy Clarke.” I placed my palm against his. “And thanks for the beer.”

“Anytime.” It was obvious he was a model. He was tall, at least a couple inches over six feet, and his body, while lean, was toned and firm with muscle. His hair was a shade lighter than Ben’s—a mix of warm brown and blond—and his eyes were a striking blue.

Braydon turned fully in my direction, still watching me as I tilted the bottle to my lips and took a long sip. I wasn’t much in the mood for conversation, but something about him set me at ease, more than it probably should have.

Swallowing the icy gulp, I turned to face him. “Were you in some of the shows today?”

He took a pull of his own beer, the broad column of his throat working as he swallowed. It was hard not to be affected by this man physically. He truly was gorgeous. “Armani, Prada, Iceberg, Jil Sander, and Calvin Klein. Fun stuff.”

“Oh, now I remember. You opened the Jil Sander show. You were the one wearing those hot-pink pants.”

He smiled, his eyes sparkling on mine. “You caught me. They were giving out samples after the show, but I don’t think I’ll need to wear those ever again. I’d like to keep my man card, thank you very much.”

I laughed easily, instantly put at ease around him despite only knowing him a few minutes.

“So what do you do?” he asked. He’d worded it in a polite way, but it was obvious he knew I was not a model.

“I work for Fiona Stone.”

“Ah, I see.” The knowing smile that tugged at this mouth told me he was familiar with her, but I didn’t probe any further. Most people had heard of her or Status Model Management. That was no surprise. But I didn’t feel like swapping Fiona horror stories, so I let it drop.

“And I think you should be proud being dressed in pink today. It takes a damn confident man to pull that off,” I said, changing the subject away from myself.

He shook his head. “Yeah, I’m sure my parents would be real proud. I had a manicure today and strutted the catwalk in pink. Every father’s dream right there.”

I laughed, though I wondered if there was any truth in his words and if his dad approved of his chosen profession. “Where are you from?” Mention of his family had me wondering where he grew up. His accent was definitely American.

“Ohio. What about you?”

“Tennessee.”

“I should have guessed.”

“Why, my accent?” I was used to people commenting on it.

“Yep.” He grinned. The small talk relaxed me. We each took a sip of our beer and let the comfortable silence permeate the air around us.

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