“And you just left her there?”
The question comes from Sutton Cooper the roughneck of our little group. The censure in his voice leaves no doubt as to his opinion on the matter. He may be a hard-ass with a background roping steer and raising hell but he has a hard line about treating women well.
Even if that only means making her breakfast after a night of no-strings sex.
“She paid for the night” I say blandly.
Christopher leans forward in the leather armchair his eyes dark. They always see right through me. They see through everything. “Have you ever made a girl cry before?”
“But of course that’s why I’m the highest-paid escort in Tanglewood. Because I say sharp and insulting things that make the women cry.”
Blue takes a sip of whatever new beer he’s drinking. “Has Hugo been sarcastic before?”
“Only when he’s upset” says Christopher the bastard.
We’re sitting at the Den like we do almost every week. When we started there was only Blue and Sutton and me starting with a handful of dollars in our pockets determined to make something of ourselves. The Thieves Club we called it only half joking—our own Den of thieves. We weren’t planning on robbing any banks but every dollar we earn means taking one away from someone else.
Christopher runs a hand through his blond curls the ones that can make any woman swoon. Some of the women in the room glance at him as he does it the light from the amber fixtures glancing off golden strands. He’s a veritable angel walking the earth—made hard from his fall.
“She must be something” he says. “For you to get shaken up.”
“I’m not shaken up.”
“So she wasn’t something?” Blue says crossing one booted foot over his knee. He wears only jeans and T-shirts and dusty black boots in direct violation of the dress code. He wears enough suits running his security company he says when he would much rather be in army fatigues.
“She’s beautiful of course. All women are beautiful.”
Christopher raises an eyebrow. “So she’s ordinary?”
They’re baiting me. I know they’re baiting me and still it works. “Non. She is perfection. Delicate and pale and covered in freckles. Everywhere freckles.”
“I do love freckles” Sutton says with a wistful sigh.
“And she has a smart mouth that presents itself at the most surprising times. When I think she will be most scared and cowering that’s when she tells me what’s what.”
Blue grunts because he enjoys a woman with attitude. “Nice.”
“And there’s something about her—the strangeness of her staying in that hotel for one thing. Her past. Her secrets. I want to unwrap them as much as I want to take off her clothes.”
“Which is a lot” Christopher observes his voice dry but I’m not fooled.
He loves secrets as much as I do with his neat suits and obsidian eyes. He was the last addition to the Thieves Club one we never expected. But when he went into business with Sutton he slid into our group as if there had always been a space waiting for him.
With his cold ambition there is no one better suited to join us.
Plus he brings the most excellent brandy.
I take a sip savoring the spice. “Most likely she won’t call again. She will find some handsome traveler in the hotel bar who will finally convince her to leave the safety of her little nest.”
The thought turns the brandy sour in my mouth.
“Or not.” Blue turns the amber beer bottle in his thick fingers studying me. “If you really upset her that much she might be too afraid to try again. You might have fucked her up.”
I choke on my next sip and set the crystal down. “Thank you for that.”
“She’s going to call again” Christopher says raising his finger for the server. The Den has a full bar of course but we can bring our own liquor especially if we have a special bottle. The brandy he brings for me. Obscure craft brews for Blue. His business partner Sutton prefers Patron.
He drinks only wine himself the kind that must be purchased at auction.
There is terrible hope inside me at that because Christopher is usually correct.
“Because she wishes to cry again?”
“This is a woman who has spent her whole life behind bars essentially. Even if they are bars of her own making. She wants to feel something. That’s why she called the first time. It’s why she’ll call again.”
I turn to stare into the fire as the server attends to refilling our drinks. Absolute privacy is assured in the Den but I still would not speak of Bea in front of a stranger. In fact I do not usually tell the Thieves Club about any of the women I’m with but she’s far from usual.
And of course there’s the issue of L’Etoile but I have no intention of telling anyone about that—not even these men. They don’t need to know that I have a darker purpose for wanting to go back to the hotel to get closer to the woman who lives there.
When we’re alone again I lean forward. “I want to see her again which is enough to convince me that I shouldn’t. I don’t have feelings about my clients. I pleasure them they pleasure me. That’s all.”
“It’s clear this has gone beyond that already” Sutton says. He wears a white business shirt rumpled from a day’s use the sleeves rolled up. They dress alike he and Christopher in their high-rise real estate office but they could not be more different.
“And I’m worried that if I go again I’ll have sex with her. Of course I will. But how can I do that knowing she cried when I only made her come? How do you take someone’s virginity?”
“Don’t ask me” Blue says.
He’s the only one of us in a committed relationship. He loves his wife who had a very rough childhood. Enough that he didn’t take her virginity even though they met as teenagers. I’ve met Hannah and she’s impossibly sweet; it’s heartbreaking to think of her hurt.
“No idea” Christopher adds but I happen to know he holds a deep fascination with his stepsister. She’s the reason he moved to Tanglewood
Even Sutton puts up his hands. “Who wants that kind of responsibility?”
“I am in very big trouble” I announce softly.
The group drinks in silent agreement.
The next Saturday night I come prepared. The paper bag in my arms isn’t about seducing her at least not about having sex. I already know she will do that with me but I want to seduce her in other ways. Her mouth and her mind. Maybe then I will be comfortable taking her body.
She opens the door and her eyes widen. “What’s this?”
“I told you I was bringing dinner” I say stepping over the threshold and heading into the kitchen.
“I thought you meant takeout from downstairs.”
“But no. Tonight I will cook for you my favorite meal.” Inside this bag is everything I need: half a chicken that has been marinating overnight and roasted before arriving vegetables an onion garlic. An array of spices from my pantry.
Her brow furrows. “A tagine?”
She ducks her head and hides a shy smile. “I don’t think I’ll forget anything about that night.”
It’s rather uncomfortable having a boulder sitting on my chest. I remove it by clearing my throat. “You can help me by chopping vegetables if you’d like.”
“Of course” she says picking up an onion.
I take it away. “No need to make you cry so early in the evening. Start with the cauliflower.”
That makes her laugh and I feel myself relax. I have never cooked with a woman certainly never a client but we fall into a pattern of quiet preparation.
“Like this?” she asks showing me the cherry tomatoes in quarters.
Her technique is clumsy because this tiny kitchen leaves no room for cooking anything but the essentials. It reminds me of the way she kisses all eagerness no finesse. “Perfect” I say. “Keep going.”
She flashes me a brief nervous smile before turning back to work. My stomach feels lighter than it should almost fluttery and it takes me a moment to realize what this is: nerves. Dear God. She’s turning me into a schoolboy.
It’s perhaps with too much gusto that I break down the chicken letting the slice of the knife break the strange tension in the air. The meat comes apart under my hands tender and fragrant.
“Tell me about your day” I say my tone coaxing. I need to get us back to solid ground. We are shallow and flirty that’s fine. But we will not be nervous. There is nothing more at stake here than a fun night together.
“I played for a while. And then—”
“Oh.” She makes an embarrassed face. “I forgot you didn’t know. I’m a pianist.”
I have to bite my tongue so I don’t ask her to play for me. It’s not her job to perform for me. It’s mine to perform for her. Finished with the chicken I settle the pieces into the dish and wash my hands in the sink. “That’s incredible. You play every day?”
A flush this time. “Yes most days. It’s my job actually so…”
I pause with my hands under the warm water. It’s not hard to believe that she’s a concert pianist. She has the wild hair and the dreamy atmosphere. And certainly the wealth that would have afforded her the opportunity to train at a world-renowned music school.
But she does not leave this suite. How does a concert pianist work from home?
She fills in my questioning silence. “I have a video channel. You know online.”
First there’s shock. I turn off the water. This tentative creature exposes herself online? Perhaps not her body but music is far more intimate than that. And then there’s attraction the kind that makes me want to watch every video she’s ever posted. Damn. “That’s incredible. Would it make you self-conscious if you showed me one of your videos?”
“No. I mean yes but not as much as what we did the other night. When I’m playing that’s when I’m the most comfortable. The most… me.”
“After we’ve eaten” I tell her.
She looks more comfortable just talking about music. “I like this. The cooking thing.”
“Here add the vegetables.” I hold the pan for her while she puts in carrots zucchini onions. On top of that I add the marinade where they will simmer together on the stovetop before serving. Not a traditional terra-cotta dish but I had to improvise with her small kitchen doing most of the cooking at my home. “I cook almost every night. It’s soothing.”
She peers over my arm at the stew. “Why is it orange?”
“Paprika is what gives it the color. Turmeric. Cinnamon. Ginger.”
Her lips form an “O” and it’s too much of an invitation whether she means it or not. I touch my forefinger to her bottom lip giving her the chance to pull away. Her eyes widen but she doesn’t move. I know without tasting them that my skin will taste like spices. Without breaking eye contact I push my finger inside rubbing my finger pad along her tongue.
“Coriander” I murmur. “Cumin. Olive oil.”
She sucks in a breath which forms a seal around my finger. The pulling sensation almost brings me to my knees strong enough shocking enough that I pull away.
“What do you think?” I ask softly.
Her swallow is an audible surrender. “It’s really good.”
That makes me laugh but only a little. “Really good? I’ll have to try harder.”
“I would die” she says both solemn and playful in a way I’m learning is unique to her. “If it were any better I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
“Poof” I tell her more playful than solemn. “You would expire on the spot.”
Her smile is tilted. “You would do that to me?”
“I suppose you’ll have to wait and see.”
There are trolls who live under bridges according to my mother. She was full of superstitions and stories. They were fun when I was small. They turned darker later. These trolls they make you answer questions in order to pass. That’s what I become during dinner cajoling and curious.
I want to know everything about her including when she started to play—she was three when she first read music but she played from the moment her pianist mother sat her on her knee. She played from a young age and then… and then there is tragedy. She does not tell me what it is and I don’t ask. That’s beyond the scope of what we do here. Sorrow has no place here.
And under no circumstances will I make her cry—again.
“When did you begin your video channel?” The tagine turned out to be exceptional despite her rather sad stovetop that heated completely uneven.