When I looked at him, I didn’t see the model in the magazines. I saw a man with basic needs and desires I wanted to fulfill. I wanted to be the one he called out for in the night, the one who caressed and soothed him back to sleep. The one who fed him, who cared enough to get him off those shit pills. It pissed me off that no one had cared enough to do these things before me.
At the same time, I was entirely grateful that I got to be the one.
He was mine. And I knew then that I loved him. Not the idea of him, not the model, or the prestige or luxurious lifestyle. I loved this man, this broken, sensitive, dirty-talking man.
I wanted to give him everything: all of me, my family, and everything he never had. But it still wasn’t enough because he deserved all that and more.
Loving Ben Shaw was the most terrifying feeling. It was like being on a roller coaster with no lap bar, freefalling without a parachute, and dying of heart-squeezing breathlessness all at once. I had no idea if he was even capable of a committed, traditional relationship. But it didn’t dampen my feelings. I loved him with my whole being, whether or not it was returned. It wasn’t a choice. And that scared the ever-loving shit out of me.
With the TV humming low in the background and providing the only light, Ben spooned his big, firm body around me. We’d dined on some of the best fresh ravioli I’d ever had and were full, sleepy from sex, and drifting off to sleep. Ben pressed a sweet kiss against my neck and murmured about how good I felt in his arms when three dumb little words tumbled from my lips: “I love you.”
I held my breath after I said it. It was entirely true, but crap, I hadn’t meant to just drop it on him like that. Now, or maybe ever.
Ben remained silent but I knew he’d heard me. I’d felt him stiffen just slightly when I’d uttered those three little words. After a few heartbeats’ time, he pressed another kiss to my head and said good night again, his tone final.
My heart thumped wildly in my chest. I didn’t plan to just blurt it out like that, but when I did say it, I certainly didn’t expect to be met with utter silence. My stomach cramped with nerves, and I was wired and nowhere near sleep. But I had to lie there, acting like nothing was wrong. . . . Shit! I wanted to cry. Instead, I bit my lip and stayed quiet, focusing on keeping my breathing deep and even.
All too soon, Ben’s body shifted closer and his arm around me became dead weight. He groaned softly in his sleep. I envied that he could fall into a peaceful sleep right now. My mind churned with unanswered questions as I tried to relax. It was going to be a long damn night.
Ben had promised that this evening’s afterparty would be much tamer than the crazy Fashion Week parties. Tonight was a private affair celebrating designers on the rooftop of the La Manufacture hotel, located in the textile district of Paris. Many of the major clothing brands would be there. Ben mentioned that Braydon was back in town for a shoot, but apparently I wasn’t supposed to get excited about the possibility of seeing him tonight. I assured Ben it had nothing to do with our night together; I was just relieved that I’d know someone there besides him and Fiona.
Ben, Fiona, Gunnar, and I rode together in a limo to the event. A smug little grin curled on Gunnar’s lips as he watched the way Ben pressed a hand into my lower back; anyone could see that his eyes and hands seemed to know me intimately.
Fiona silently pouted the entire ride there.
It was awkward, to say the least.
The chilly night air enveloped the rooftop. Strands of little twinkling white lights adorned the terrace, and the view to the city beyond was breathtaking. Tuxedo-clad waiters circled the crowd, holding silver trays of peach-colored cocktails. I didn’t know what they were, but Ben and I each took one.
He took a sip and shook his head. “You can have mine.”
I tried the drink. It was fruity and sweet. Delicious. “Happily.”
Gunnar and Fiona each headed off across the party and mingled. Fiona annoyingly air-kissed the cheeks of the industry people she greeted.
I spotted Braydon across the rooftop, leaning against the railing as he took in the views. I tugged on Ben’s sleeve and nodded toward him.
Ben chuckled. “Go on and say hi. I’m going to grab a real drink and then I’ll come join you.”
Braydon happened to turn just as I approached, like he could somehow sense me coming.
“Jellybean!” He carefully lifted me from my feet. And although I was double-fisting the two peach cocktails, I didn’t spill a drop.
I chuckled at the silly nickname. “Hi, Braydon.”
“Where’s your man?”
I nodded to the bar. Ben was on his way toward us, holding a glass of amber-colored liquor for himself and a bottle of beer I presumed was for Bray.
“Hey, buddy.” Braydon clapped him loudly on the back and took the beer from him. “Got her back, huh?”
“Yep. Thanks for your advice, man.” Ben smiled and pulled me to his side to kiss my temple.
I was a little self-conscious of him touching me in public. Fiona still didn’t know about us, and I was worried what she’d do when she found out. Ben and I had discussed it and decided to keep things quiet for a little while longer.
I noticed a glass of champagne marked with lipstick sitting beside Braydon’s empty bottle. “Is someone here with you?” I asked, nodding toward the glass.
His eyes went to Ben’s, and his expression looked pinched. “Yeah. London’s here. She just went to the restroom.”
Ben tensed beside me. Before I could ask who London was, Gunnar came to retrieve Ben. “There’s a designer from Gucci here, and he wants to meet you.”
“Sure.” Ben looked directly at me. “Is that okay if I leave you with Bray?”
I nodded. “Of course. Go.”
I eyed the champagne flute again. The lipstick was a pretty shade—blood red. I could never pull off that bold of a color. I’d look like Bozo the Clown. I tended to stick to sheer glosses mostly. “So, who’s London?”
“London Burke. Victoria’s Secret supermodel.”
“Are you two dating?”
“Oh. Did she and Ben . . . date?”
“Something like that.” Ben’s ex was a Victoria’s Secret supermodel. Translation: Fuck my life. He didn’t offer any further explanation, and I didn’t press. There was something about the situation he didn’t want me to know.
London never returned for her glass of champagne, and Braydon did his best to distract me. He asked about where I lived in New York and talked about his drunken adventures over the past couple of weeks, but my eyes continually watched for Ben’s return. An hour later, with still no sign of him, I excused myself from Braydon. After consuming three of the little peach cocktails, I was in desperate need of a restroom. And I wanted to find Ben.
I ventured inside, used the restroom, and reapplied my lip gloss, studying myself in the mirror. I was wearing a little cream-colored dress with a scoop neck and the black pumps Ben has gotten me. I felt cute but a little unsure. I hated how working around models caused me to constantly need reassurance from Ben that I was enough. I turned away from the mirror, frustrated. I just wanted to find him.
Reemerging into the night air, I scanned the rooftop for Ben. It should have been easy to spot him in the large, open, rectangular area. I saw Fiona talking to Braydon where I’d left him but no sign of Ben anywhere. Where had he gone? I noticed two girls exit the rooftop through a door I assumed was a stairwell into the hotel, so I decided to follow them.
The girls headed down the flight of stairs, gripping the banister as they navigated the steps, wobbling on their stiletto heels. I followed them inside one of the hotel’s top-floor suites. It seemed the party had slipped into this space, too. Club music thumped in the background, and the kitchen counter was littered with liquor bottles, lime wedges, and mixers.
People stood talking in the living room, mostly girls in too-short cocktail dresses that were no doubt freezing outside. I crossed through the room, still not finding Ben. Blood pumped erratically in my veins as I realized a hotel suite also meant bedrooms . . . and if Ben wasn’t on the roof, and he wasn’t in the living room . . . Oh God . . . I felt weak, but I pushed my legs into action, heading down the hallway.
There were three doors—two were open, revealing an empty bathroom and a bedroom, and the third door was closed.
Not hearing any sounds from inside, I reached for the knob. It felt cool in my palm. I turned it slowly and pushed the door open. The lights were on but the room was empty. At the far end of the room a sliding-glass door was open; the sound of voices from the balcony outside drew me forward.
My stomach danced with nerves and my heartbeat thrummed dangerously fast in my chest. I was terrified of what I might find, but I had to know.
“Are you honestly saying you don’t miss me at all?” a female voice asked.
“London . . .” Ben’s voice answered, his tone a playful warning. “I didn’t say that.”
She laughed a soft, calculated laugh—the laugh of a woman used to getting exactly what she wanted. “Because no one fucks like you, Ben.”
“That’s a good point.” He chuckled.
“We had fun together, right?” Her voice had dropped lower, gone all sultry.
“London . . .” His was a soft plea.
I couldn’t listen anymore but rather than exit gracefully, I turned and slammed right into the glass balcony door, rattling it loudly. Ben turned suddenly and caught my eyes. “Emmy.”
I fled, feeling the first of the tears already threatening to spill over. I retreated the way I’d come, back toward the living room. I would hail a cab back to the hotel. Alone. Ben and London trailed behind me, and once we reached the living room I ran smack into Braydon.
He reached out to steady me, gripping my upper arms. “Jellybean? You okay?”
He must have come in search of us, and unfortunately he’d brought Fiona with him, too. More people had crowded the living room, like the party was slowly but surely moving inside. Braydon’s gaze wandered behind me to Ben and London and he winced. He must have known all about their history.
“Emmy . . .” Ben reached for me. “That was nothing, just London and I catching up. I promise you.”
London stepped closer on precariously high heels. Her dress, if you could call it that, was a swatch of red satin that barely covered the important bits. Plenty of cleavage, incredibly long legs, long blonde hair, and that red lipstick I’d noticed on the glass earlier. Tears blurred my eyes, but what I did see of her was stunning.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause any drama,” London spoke up, sounding sincere. “I’m London.” She offered me her hand.
Oh God, she was nice, too. I just stood there, uselessly staring at her hand. Ben stepped closer.
“This is Emmy, my girlfriend.”
Fiona made a strangled cry at hearing the word girlfriend. I had to admit, it surprised me, too.
“Nice to meet you. I’ve never known Ben to have a girlfriend.” London smiled widely at me.
“Ben?” Fiona’s raspy, accented voice pierced the awkward silence. No one said anything for several long moments, but I could see tears filling Fiona’s eyes. She and Ben watched each other intently, her features awash in hurt. A second later, Fiona turned and fled, elbowing partygoers out of her way as she made a mad dash for the front door.
Ben gave me a sympathetic look then darted out after her.
Watching him go after Fiona felt like a knife was being shoved into my chest. After hiding me from Fiona all this time, he chose this horribly tense moment to announce that we were together, and then ran out after her?
My heart stopped.
I felt sick. Sicker than I had when I heard his flirty banter with London.
Black spots clouded my vision. Oh fuck, I was going to pass out.
Braydon’s hand lightly stroked my lower back and kept me from collapsing. London still watched me curiously, and the hush that fell over the room told me several others were too.
“Get me out of here, Bray,” I whispered.
His warm arm encircled my waist and he guided me away from the carnage.
The party on the rooftop had died down significantly, with just a few people lingering. Braydon led me to an out-of-the-way seating area in the corner. I stopped by the bar and grabbed a bottle of Jack and two glasses. His brows shot up but he said nothing and motioned to a couple of plush chairs situated around a stone fire pit.
I sank into the chair and poured us each a healthy measure of whiskey. I wasn’t near drunk enough to deal with all the confusing feelings Ben stirred up within me. I’d told him I loved him, and he’d said nothing . . . and now tonight I catch him flirting with his ex—who, oh, happened to be a supermodel. Then there was Fiona. I gulped the liquor, just wanting to feel numb.
“Whoa, easy there, jellybean.” Braydon’s hand on mine stopped me from pouring too much into my already-empty glass.
I leaned back into the plush cushions, kicked off my heels, and rested my feet in Braydon’s lap.
“Are you cold?” He started to remove his suit jacket.
I waved him off. “I’m fine. The fire helps.” Little blue flames danced from the rocks inside the elegant gas fireplace, gently warming the air around us.
“Tell me how I can help. You want me to kick his ass?” Braydon asked finally.
I’d really just wanted some company while I got intoxicated, but his willingness to help made me smile. “You’d do that? I thought you two were friends.”
He shrugged. “We are, but I like you better. You have better tits.”
I still couldn’t believe I’d had sex with Braydon. That was random. “Nah . . . you better not. His face is his money maker. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for taking down his career. Of course, if you wanted to chop off his . . .” I glanced at Braydon.
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