So after graduating from college and landing a job as an assistant at a prestigious modeling agency in NYC, I was well on my way. I would make this work.
My roommate pulled out cheese and crackers then set them on the counter, jarring me from my thoughts. She munched on a cracker and sipped her wine. I watched her and smiled.
She was spunky and fun and I was glad to be subletting a room from her, but we were from totally different walks of life. Ellie was a sassy New Yorker who didn’t let anyone blink at her the wrong way without making some sassy comment in retaliation. Being the opposite, I’d been known to stop on the side of the road to help ducks cross the street and couldn’t walk by a homeless person without giving him my last few bucks.
“Okay, we need to prep you for your Euro-adventure! You’ll need a makeover; we’ll get you smokin’ for all that hot-male-model action. New clothes. Haircut. No more carbs. Wine doesn’t count,” she added, urging me to take another sip.
I laughed at her enthusiasm. “Whoa there! There will be no model action in my future,” I assured her. I didn’t need a one-way ticket to heartbreak city. No thanks.
Still, I couldn’t help thinking about Ben Shaw again. Those intense, sexy eyes, his full lips . . .
I’d thought of him constantly since our awkward tea-spilling, blueberry muffin–peddling run-in earlier. Ben was the reason Fiona and I were even going to Paris and Milan. As the agency “It-boy,” he’d been booked for several spring campaigns in some of the hottest fashion markets in the world. And Fiona, superbad at disguising her crush on the poor man, told me that she always traveled with Ben when he went on extended assignments. I couldn’t blame her, though. I was pretty damn close to crush territory myself.
Ellie thoughtfully swirled the wine in her glass. “We should also make sure you get some nookie before you go; otherwise you’ll be a horny mess.”
“What?” I laughed again. “No, I won’t. I’m a professional, unlike you.”
Ellie shook her head and snorted. I didn’t want to be the one to burst her bubble that many of the male models were g*y anyways.
She grabbed the menu for the deli across the street, picked up her phone, and dialed. “Yes, two spinach salads with grilled chicken.”
I raised my eyebrows at her.
“No carbs,” she mouthed to me. It was a little disheartening to be informed by your roommate that you needed to slim down. Sure, I could probably stand to lose a few pounds, but spinach, seriously? That was ridiculous.
“You’re going to be in the company of male models for the next few months,” she explained after ending the call.
I didn’t think Ellie understood that I’d be working, not competing on a game show to find my future husband.
But then I made the mistake of thinking of Ben.
Honest to God, I would never eat another carb again.
While he and Fiona had been out to lunch, I’d opened his file. That way I could snoop in peace without her watching over my shoulder. He was perfection. Textbook perfect. If I had to draw up the specs for my perfect man, Ben Shaw is what God, or Cupid, or whoever would’ve delivered to me wrapped in a bow. Tall, broad shouldered, and blessed with chiseled dark features. The pictures of him shirtless, or better yet, in a pair of briefs, really sent my pulse racing. Smooth, rounded pecs, golden skin, a well-defined six-pack, full pouting mouth, and the most intense eyes ever completed the look.
I had been ready to remove my panties discreetly under my desk when Fiona came back and my sexy reverie was over in a damn hurry. As fast as my mouse would allow, I closed the pictures of him, silently cursing myself that I hadn’t thought ahead to email any to my personal account for private viewing later.
I had shaken my head clear of those horny thoughts and leaned back in my chair. The last thing I needed was a desperate crush on a male model I worked with. I would need to keep my wits about me if I expected to survive the next few months living in close proximity to him. Not to mention pack a big supply of batteries. Yes, an extra suitcase full of batteries oughtta do the trick.
After a relaxing weekend watching Netflix and lounging with Ellie, it was back to the grind Monday morning. Oddly, Fiona seemed like she was in a great mood for once; her smile was sincere as she greeted me.
“Good morning, Emerson.”
“Morning?” I wasn’t sure what to make of her sudden shift in attitude. The number of Post-its on my desk reflected her good mood. There was just one. Book your ticket to CDG.
It took me a second to realize that CDG was the Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. I didn’t wait to be told twice. Using the credit card Fiona had given me for business purposes, I booked an overnight flight out that Friday night. Same as Fiona’s. I wouldn’t have a clue how to navigate Paris if I landed there on my own.
I wasn’t sure when Ben was flying out but I’d overheard that he would be there a few days before us to visit a friend.
That week leading up to our trip was crazy busy. During the day, I organized the many details that were Fiona’s life: coordinating her weekly massage appointments to take place in Paris, ensuring I had a whole caseload of her favorite brand of English Breakfast tea, and arranging the Post-it note bible in alphabetical order, with subsections according to things I thought might pertain to our trip.
My evenings were spent shopping with Ellie and packing everything I owned into two rolling suitcases. It was weird to think I’d be gone for three whole months. Ellie even had someone lined up to sublet my room while I was away. My life was about to be totally turned upside down, and I couldn’t have been more excited.
• • •
Pushing the strap of my duffle bag higher on my shoulder, I squeezed through the narrow aisle as I boarded the flight. I spotted Fiona sitting in the third row of first class, glass of champagne in hand, flirting with the businessman beside her. The stewardess leaned over to pass her a warm towel. Of course, I was sitting much farther back in coach, but on the bright side, I was going to Paris! Nothing could’ve dampened my mood right now. Fiona’s mouth pursed when she saw me gawking, but she continued her conversation with Mr. Business Executive in seat 3B.
Ellie’s advice to take Tylenol PM at boarding was sound. I was asleep before lift-off and only woke when we were an hour from landing. Leaving my seat, I freshened up in the tiny airplane lavatory, attempting to fluff my flat, greasy hair and dotting concealer under my tired eyes. But there was no helping the lack of color in my cheeks or the rumpled clothing. I knew I’d have a busy day ahead of me once we landed. Fiona was long gone when I finally made it off the plane. After passing easily through customs, I powered on my phone and waited at the baggage claim. Although I’d arranged for an upgrade to an international plan, I was still surprised when my cell showed a text from Fiona.
Get my bags and meet me at the hotel.
Well wasn’t that just craptastic? I had no idea what her bags looked like, so I was forced to wait until everyone from our flight had taken theirs and then read the little tags on the dozen or so bags left unclaimed.
She had a whole fleet of luggage. Louis Vuitton, of course. It was a wonder she trusted me with it. After wrestling her bags and mine out to the curb and tracking down a shuttle, nearly two hours had passed before I made it to the hotel: an upscale, boutique affair in Saint Germain in the lovely 6th arrondissement.
Stepping from the cab, the mouthwatering smell of coffee and croissants hit my nose. People sat clustered in outdoor cafés under umbrella tables, sipping espresso and eating pastries. Water flowed down the gutters as the streets were flushed clean, and elderly people fed the pigeons. The golden glow of the sun hitting the old, stone buildings and the brilliant bright blue sky seemed to transform the city streets into something magical. Romantic, cultured, and pretty.
A place where anything could happen.
The hotel lobby was quaint and simply appointed with a large oak desk, buffed marble floors, and colorful tapestries hanging on the walls. After a quick check-in, I stepped into the antique elevator, praying it would support the weight of all the luggage.
My room was as tiny as I had expected. Though the hotel was quite upscale, my room held little more than a bed dressed in fluffy white linens. There was a wardrobe pushed into the corner and a TV mounted on the wall. Gauzy cream curtains framed the tall, narrow windows, lending the efficient room a pretty and enchanting vibe. It would be my home away from home.
Anticipating Fiona’s many demands, I planned to meet with the front-desk staff to understand the Paris subway map. Best to be preemptive, since I knew I’d likely be running around the city fetching whatever Fiona needed at a moment’s notice, and my learning curve was likely to be steep, having never set foot outside the U.S. Plus, my French was limited to bonjour and merci. But first, I needed to get Fiona’s bags to her room. They quite literally didn’t fit in my own.
After wrestling them in and out of the tiny elevator, I was sweaty and more than a little grumpy as I stood at the door to Fiona’s top-floor suite. The door was left cracked open, and I gave a quick but firm knock before pushing it open.
No one answered, but I could hear muted voices in the adjoining room.
Entering the living room with plush sofas and a TV, I dragged the suitcases in after me. Voices leaked from the bedroom. Fiona was with a man. And apparently they were in a heated discussion. Awkward . . .
I could leave the bags and sneak away unnoticed. I wasn’t in the mood to face a grumpy Fiona. My agenda included a hot shower and a nap.
After stacking her bags in the corner, I froze. I recognized the man’s voice. Deep and rich with a confident tone.
My body responded instantly, my n**ples hardening against my bra and my pulse jumping erratically. My body’s responses to him were anything but normal.
Unable to resist getting a look at him, I tiptoed closer to the doorway, and peeked inside the room.
“What’s this about, Fiona? You’re mad that I saw Madeline last night? Is that what this tantrum is?”
“I’m not going to pretend I like it. But, love, you know I can never stay mad at you.”
“I haven’t seen Maddie in years, you know that, and we’re shooting together tomorrow. I wanted to say hi. We hit one club, got a drink, and reminisced. It was no big deal,” Ben said, his voice indifferent.
“Those gossip rags follow her around and I just don’t want your image linked to hers.” Fiona’s voice was a soft whine, vaguely reminiscent of a lap dog in heat.
“Chill. It was low key, Fiona. I was back here, in bed alone, by eleven. I couldn’t sleep worth shit, but I was here.”
“Okay.” Fiona sighed. “If you say it wasn’t a big deal, it wasn’t. End of story.”
It sounded like Fiona was jealous that he’d hung out with a woman, and I knew she had issues with estrogen, but that couldn’t be it, could it? Surely Ben was allowed to hang out with whomever he wanted. I couldn’t resist peeking farther around the corner.
They stood in the center of her bedroom in front of the bed. Fiona had changed and was smartly dressed in a fitted black lace top and cream skirt. In contrast, I was frazzled, greasy, and still dressed in yesterday’s wrinkled clothes. Ben, of course, looked like a walking orgasm, wearing dark fitted jeans and a black tee that showed off his muscular physique. His jaw was unshaven and his deep-set gaze was locked on Fiona’s, exuding his dark boyish charm. Good Lord, did that man know how to work it.
Fiona’s back was to me, and I watched as she placed her open palm on his chest and gave it a gentle pat. “I’m over it, love. I’m here now and this season is going to be terrific.”
Ben’s features visibly relaxed, his shoulders dropping as if her words held the power to soothe him. Just then, his eyes flicked to mine and he took a step back from Fiona, his expression weary.
“Excuse me, Miss Stone?” I found my voice, knowing I’d been discovered eavesdropping.
Fiona whirled around on her four-inch Prada stilettos. “Oh, Emerson. There you are.” Her voice was laced with sour frustration and held none of the sugary sweetness reserved just for Ben. “Took you long enough. Good thing I had my carry-on.”
She started toward me, seemingly annoyed by my interruption but acting as though being reunited with her precious luggage was the best thing that’d ever happened to her. Ben followed and they both joined me in the living room.
“Ben, this is my new assistant, Emerson Clarke,” she introduced me, waving an absent hand in my direction.
Ben’s large hand reached out for mine.
“Emmy,” I added, placing my palm against his. A jolt of heat at the contact of his skin made me shudder.
Ben stared at me with an unreadable expression. Maybe he’d forgotten me.
“Blueberry Muffin Girl.” He smiled. “Burn all healed up?”
“Oh, it was nothing. I’m fine.” Why couldn’t he have forgotten that disastrous first time we met?
“Where’s my garment bag?” Fiona asked, pulling my attention away from Ben’s deep hazel gaze.
Hands anchored on her hips, she stood surveying the four large brown monogrammed suitcases with a frown. “I had a hanging bag of gowns. It’s not here.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know about the garment bag, but I can call the airport and arrange for it to be delivered.”
Fiona grabbed the smallest suitcase, heaving it past me so I had to jump out of her path to avoid being knocked over. Ben steadied me as I shuffled closer to him. His warm hand closed around my elbow, sending heat zipping up my arm at the contact. Whoa.
Realizing my conversation with Fiona was over, and still standing open-mouthed staring at Ben, I mumbled an apology and fled through the door.
Fiona had only just arrived and she was already exhausting me. It was going to be a long damn season if she pulled that jealous pouty act every time I talked to a female. Christ. And speaking of females, I hadn’t been expecting to see her sweet little assistant. That was an interesting turn of events. Honestly, I was kind of amazed.