It had been a month since I’d seen him, but my body still knew when he was near. The skin on the back of my neck tingled and my hands curled around my middle, like my body was preparing itself to fall apart.
I glanced over my shoulder to see Ben Shaw striding through the glass doors with a compact carry-on bag in hand, looking devastatingly handsome. My heart pinched painfully in my chest.
Long-forgotten memories infiltrated my brain. His large hands splayed across my hips, his full mouth nipping at my throat . . . the filthy things he murmured in my ear. The way his gorgeous mouth would turn up in a lopsided smile when I tried to refuse him. My heart, though utterly destroyed, beat just for him. My hands ached to hold him; my body longed to be nestled against his. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
Last month I’d left my job and fled New York City to go back to the safety and comforts of my home in Tennessee. Now I was standing on the curb at LaGuardia, one of the busiest airports in the world, running smack into the reason I’d left. But Ben, purposeful in his stride, had yet to notice me.
Pulling my eyes away from him, I focused on getting the hell out of there. I rushed toward the curb, hoping Ben wouldn’t see me, snapping my fingers to get the attention of a cabdriver. He sped past as if I didn’t exist. Figures. Damn New York cabbies. As I turned for the curb, Ben’s eyes scanned the lines of waiting cars. I was only a few feet away, and he still hadn’t noticed me. This both relieved and offended me. I tightened the grip around myself, though I was barely holding on.
“Emmy . . .” The deep timbre of his voice washed over me in a familiar way, knotting my stomach and making my knees weak. My eyes slipped closed.
How dare he have the audacity to speak my name? He’d lost that right awhile ago. There should be a special place in hell reserved for boyfriends who got another woman pregnant. Raising my hand in the air, I waved at a passing cab. Ugh. No luck.
“Emmy, wait.” He crossed the distance between us, reaching for me.
Don’t touch me. I jerked out of his reach. I couldn’t handle the feel of his warm fingers grazing my skin. It’d evoke too many memories I’d been fighting to keep at bay. I watched the cars pass, unable to face him.
“How’s the baby?” I couldn’t resist asking; nor could I prevent the bitter tone lacing my voice.
From the corner of my vision, I saw him swallow roughly as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. “We should talk, Emmy.”
“I have nothing to say to you.”
“Well, I do. There are a few things you should know.”
What could possibly be so important?
I spun around to confront him, my ponytail lashing him in the face. Dark circles lined his eyes. He looked terrible. His insomnia was obviously back in full swing. He’d once told me that sleeping by my side was the only thing that kept it at bay. I closed my eyes briefly, but the memories refused to stay locked away. Thoughts of his warm body curled around mine, the way he mumbled in his sleep, and the sensation of his lips rubbing against that sensitive spot at the back of my neck drifted into my consciousness.
My stomach lurched. Hold it together, Emmy. Guarding myself against the hot tears that threatened to escape, I drew a shaky breath.
This tall, beautiful man overwhelmed my senses. He stood with such an air of authority that I had to physically fight the gravitational pull urging me to throw myself into his arms. Even after all this time, my body had not forgotten a thing.
I couldn’t believe I’d once thought he could be mine. Looking into that brilliant, hazel gaze framed by long, dark lashes, I was hit with a thousand different emotions I’d convinced myself I’d only imagined—the way he looked straight into the very center of me, the clean masculine scent of his skin that I was powerless against, the way his fingers twitched to reach out for me. Suddenly, I was delirious, overcome with emotion, and consumed by a longing so deep it owned me. And it always would. I loved him. Loved him with every fiber of my being. There was no getting over this man. It was too much to look directly at him; it was like staring into the sun. I blinked, looking down at the dirty sidewalk, needing a moment to pull myself together.
“Please. My driver’s here.” He motioned to the waiting black sedan parked at the curb. “Let me take you home and explain.” Ben lifted my bag from beside my feet, and then those brilliant eyes locked firmly onto mine.
I felt my resolve weaken and slip away. This was why I’d left, why I hadn’t answered his calls. He was going to say he didn’t love her, and it had all been a terrible mistake. God help my wounded heart, I’d lap it up. I knew myself, though, knew I couldn’t handle living in her shadow with the knowledge of their shared past. But being a polite southern girl, or just a complete glutton for pain, I followed Ben to the car and slid inside.
Four Months Earlier
Cursing my wardrobe, I grabbed a navy pencil skirt and a cream silk blouse out of my closet. Although I’d already worn them earlier this week, my options were limited. As soon as I got paid, I was going to blow my first check on clothes. If I stayed at this job, that is. I didn’t know which outcome was more likely—getting fired or quitting. For the past two weeks, I’d been working at Status Model Management in New York City. Being a country girl at heart, the experience was proving to be a spectacular disaster, but at least the pay was going to be good. If I could just stick it out.
I tucked the blouse into the skirt and checked my profile in the mirror. Ugh. Bloated. I rummaged through my top drawer and dug out my Spanx. I quickly tugged them up under my skirt, cursing loudly all the while. God, these things are awful. I’d left my rich brown hair loose, and it fluffed out around my shoulders nicely. I could thank my mother for having good hair. I quickly dabbed concealer on the dark circles beneath my eyes and applied lip gloss. There. Much better. Standing back, I gave myself one last look. Not bad. I was far from a supermodel, but I looked decent. I glanced at the clock. Shit! I’m so late.
I shoved my feet into my only pair of heels—nude pumps that I pretended went with everything—and stumbled toward the door. Between the fitted skirt, tight down to my knees, and this damn girdle cutting off my circulation, walking was going to be a challenge today. Quickly grabbing the tray of muffins I’d baked last night as a gesture of goodwill for my new boss and coworkers, I launched myself out the apartment door.
A warm July breeze danced around my ankles as I walked outside onto the bustling street. A swarm of yellow cabs roared past me. The scents of car exhaust, warm bread, and stale urine crammed the air, fighting for attention. A hot dog vendor on my right smiled as I walked past. A bike messenger zipped down the road, nearly hitting me as I crossed the street, and the MetLife building loomed in the distance. I was overpowered with an enormous sense of homesickness. This place was nothing like Tennessee.
Even after living here a few weeks, I didn’t see how the roar of New York traffic was something I’d ever get used to. Some days I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew, yet I kept moving forward, kept putting one foot in front of the other.
When I arrived at work with my tray of muffins I was already late, so I shuffled as quickly as my heels in plush carpeting would allow and made a mad dash toward the executive assistant’s suite outside the boss’s office. A few heads looked up as I hurried past, and I wondered if my heart could give out at the ripe old age of twenty-two.
Deep, exotic perfumes mingling with the aroma of leather filled my nose and I stifled a sneeze. The agency itself was all modern, with thick opaque glass and steel beams, looking very chic and high-end. The twentieth floor provided gorgeous views of Central Park in the distance. I loved looking at those leafy green treetops. I never knew you could miss seeing trees, but New York made that possible.
The top of my desk was littered with at least a dozen Post-it notes, each one containing some nearly illegible message written in Fiona’s messy handwriting. Crap. She’d clearly been at work for a while. Why she preferred to communicate solely on yellow scraps of sticky paper was beyond me. She never emailed me—she’d either yell something from her office or scrawl it on a Post-it when I wasn’t around. It was my job to decipher the meanings. I peeled up the first one from my desk, which was fairly clear. It said, Call Ben in.
I dropped into my seat to start organizing her notes in case I needed to refer back to one later. I shoved one note that was presumably written in hieroglyphics into my plastic-sleeved binder and then set about dealing with the rest of them. First things first, I tried to figure out which Ben she meant. Checking the database, I saw our office had three Bens. Two of them hadn’t booked a job in several months, so by process of elimination I assumed she was referring to Ben Shaw, one of our most popular models. I took a deep breath and dialed his number.
“Yeah,” a deep voice answered.
“Um, yes, hi. This is Emmy Clarke from Status. Fiona would like to see you today.”
“Okay.” He sounded mildly annoyed. “What time?”
I opened her calendar, silently cursing myself for not having that information ready. Thankfully my computer cooperated and quickly loaded the information. She was free all morning. “You can come in any time before noon.”
“Sure,” he replied. “I’ll be in later this morning.” He hung up without saying good-bye.
I sighed and returned the phone to its receiver. Okay then. Task one complete. That wasn’t so bad.
Now to take care of the few emails I had. I liked being privy to the inner workings of a modeling agency, and Status Model Management was one of the more powerful New York agencies, often winning seven-figure contracts with major advertisers. It had a fleet of fresh new faces to feed any executive’s desire. The unique thing, though, was that my boss, Fiona, who ran the agency, represented only male models. Fiona made it widely known she didn’t work well with females. She’d once said it was too much estrogen, or something like that.
As Fiona’s assistant, my job description included maintaining the agency database of models and passing their info on to her for specific jobs. Requests would come in for certain looks, hair color, eye color, height, and weight, and I would comb through the files to find the right beautiful men for the job before sending their headshots and files over to Fiona for approval. The position certainly had its perks. Ogling delicious man candy daily was the main one. Did that make me shallow? No. I didn’t think so. I’d had a bunch of crappy jobs and crappier relationships before all of this. If I wanted to be surrounded by completely delicious and highly unattainable men all day, I felt that was a God-given right. And getting paid to boot—yes, please. Sign me up.
It was my job to know the nitty-gritty details of each model, to help determine which one was right for each type of job—editorial, high fashion, fitness, lifestyle—before giving their comp cards to Fiona. This entitled me to intimate information on the couple hundred or so young men we worked with. Their shoe sizes, personality quirks, and even little-known facts, like that Nico couldn’t work with Sebastian because they’d once dated and it had ended badly. Or that Leo had a phobia about anything fluffy and couldn’t be around tulle or feathers.
I made sure things ran smoothly on set, and many times the photographers were worse than the models—demanding and pissy, with a tendency to degrade the models when they couldn’t get the shots they wanted. I’d already learned part of my job would be to act as a mediator, helping to smooth things over and finding out about the expectations of the photographer and explaining them to the model.
Of course, my biggest challenge was dealing with Fiona Stone, the ultra-British, ultra-bitchy head of Status Models. She was truly a rare breed. Somewhere between thirty and forty, she was stunningly beautiful. She definitely fit in among the pretty people working at the agency. Smart as a whip at business, but with the social skills and politeness of a mosquito. She was cunning, conniving, and most of all, ruthless. She negotiated hard for her models, often earning them higher rates and better contracts. But she ruled with an iron, though well-manicured, fist. And I had the distinct pleasure of dealing with her day in and day out. Lucky me.
My little desk sat right outside her office. From her immaculate red leather perch, she could glance up whenever she wanted and see my computer screen and whatever I might be looking at. So online shopping, catching up on Facebook, and personal emails were all a big no-no.
I’d applauded myself that I wasn’t the receptionist out front or one of the production assistants. They seemed even more miserable than I was. Nope, I’d landed the executive assistant position—yay me! Rolling my eyes, I remembered how extremely self-conscious I had been my first day among all the toned and stylish women already working here. Little did I know that working for Fiona would prove to be a special kind of torture. She criticized everything, from my brown hair to my nonexistent sense of style to my southern accent.
My first Friday night, I’d gone out to happy hour with Gunnar and a few of the other assistants. He’d informed me that Fiona didn’t hate me, that the sharp tongue was just part of her way. Apparently I’d already lasted longer than her previous three assistants combined. Gunnar was a production assistant and occasionally worked with Fiona, too, so he knew what I was talking about. After that pep talk, I’d convinced myself I could endure anything. I would win her over. I would succeed where others had failed. No way was I going to hang it up and crawl away with my tail between my legs. No ma’am. This was my first real job, and in New York City no less. I would make this work. And with the promise of the travel schedule taking us to Paris and Milan soon, I wanted to make this work. Back home, no one got opportunities like this. I would be stupid to quit just because I didn’t like my boss.