THE BURNING ONE (STANDALONE NOVEL)

Chapter One

February

New York, New York

Chadwick Benedict entered the art gallery on the far side of Chelsea with much fanfare. It seemed he couldn’t do much these days without garnering attention. Paparazzi bulbs flashed and people in the small crowd gathered outside screamed his name, but he couldn’t make out any particular faces. He didn’t take the time. He moved quickly from the big black SUV he arrived in to the cool white loft. Finally the door was closed firmly behind him, and things quieted down. Rolando and Freddy, his two bodyguards, positioned themselves in front of the door and Chadwick was free to roam the art-filled space. It was blissfully, if deceptively, empty of human activity. He knew her people were buzzing around in the back, prepping for tonight. Tonight was the opening, but he’d thrown his weight around and gotten in early to see her work. A perk of being famous. When he heard she was finally back in the states and out of her self-imposed exile in South America, he knew there was no way in hell he would miss seeing her work. And buying whatever pieces he liked the best, no matter the cost.

The last three years had been a whirlwind of mind-blowing success and excess, but even before he was rich, he had been no stranger to the art world. He’d grown up around artists, successful and starving. His mother Colletta had been of the starving variety for most of her career. It was only after her death that her name grew famous and her pieces grew expensive. Indira was his mother’s superstar student, taught during Colletta’s stint at Columbia University. Although he had never met the reclusive woman, he knew her story well.

Born in India in the late ’70s, but raised all over the world, Indira Zacharia Frederickson was the daughter of a British aristocrat and an Indian woman. She’d grown up rich and sheltered, and was considered by many to be charmingly eccentric. She found her first success in her early twenties, when Archie Travers, the famous art critic, discovered her toiling away in her Brooklyn studio on her most well-known piece, Ophelia On The Bank. As a teenager, he had seen the massive Ophelia when he visited the Tate Modern in London, where it hung. Since then, he’d been somewhat obsessed with the mysterious woman. He was drawn to her style. Her work was primitive. Unhinged. Now somewhere in her thirties, she was bordering on irrelevant. But this show would be her comeback. He knew it the second he saw her new work.

He was no art criticin fact, he disliked the elitist, racist assholesbut he could sense that her work was powerful. He was immediately drawn to a large, textural canvas, hanging from the ceiling. The slick black oil paint bulged and dripped, the imperfections catching the light, and it made him think of sex, somehow. Unforgettable sex, rough and hard and messy. He raised his hand to the gold chains on his chest, flipping one of big diamond pendants between his fingers.

Hey, Georgie,” he called out. His personal assistant, his baby cousin Georgie, sashayed over, her eyes not leaving her iPhone. She was nowhere near as impressed with him as everybody else.

What up, Cee?”

What do you think of that one?” He pointed above. She glanced up and cocked her head. His father’s side of the family, to which Georgie was a part, had very little understanding or appreciation of the arts. Georgie shrugged, her big gold earrings brushing her shoulders.

I don’t know. It looks dirty. And… wet.”

I know, right?” Cee nodded, slowly. “I want it.” Georgie slid her phone into the back pocket of her neon green skinny jeans and nodded.

I’ll find someone.” She headed off toward the back of the gallery, in search of the artist’s agent. He normally didn’t take care of these things himself. He would look at the pieces online, then Georgie or his buyer would purchase it for him. But he couldn’t stay away this time. He wanted to experience Indira’s work up close and personal. And more than anything, he wanted to meet her. He had hoped she would be here today. But apparently, that wasn’t the case.

He continued working his way around the space, his phone vibrating every few seconds. He should turn the damn thing off. He didn’t want to be interrupted. But he didn’t. He just ignored it, moving on to a smaller pink and red canvas. The paint was caked on and thick, peaked and ridged. Jesus. Maybe he was seeing sex in everything, but damn if he wasn’t getting turned on. Turned on by being so close to something Indira’s hands and mind had touched.

Mr. Benedict.” A tall redhead was striding toward him, her simple tailored black suit contrasting with the rough and sexual pieces around her. “I’m Erica Stephens.” She held out her hand for him to shake and he took it, his eyes traveling down the deep V of her blazer, her shadowy cleavage naked to his eyes. She smiled, her eyes lingering on him. He was dressed like the star he wasblue velvet blazer, oxblood-red leather pants, white T-shirt, chains, and loosely-laced Timsand he knew he looked fly. But he wondered if she was judging him. His dreadlocks, tied back and long, didn’t help, he was sure. But his money was just as green as any other rich man’s, and he had it to burn. Her eyes moved on to the painting, and she smiled slightly.

I love this piece.” She raised her hand to point, the gold watch on her wrist glinting in the light. “The way the line draws your eye in.”

Is the artist here?” Cee asked, unable to resist.

Oh. I’m sorry.” She shook her head and he felt disappointment flood through him. “She won’t be here until the opening tonight.”

She’ll be here tonight?” he said, a little too sharply. She furrowed her brow for a brief second.

Do you know Indira Z.?” she asked.

No.” Cee turned back to the painting. “I’ll take this one. And that one.” He motioned over his shoulder at the black canvas. The redhead’s eyes widened.

I’m sure we can arrange that, Mr. Benedict.” She slipped away as quietly as she’d come, disappearing behind the white wall in the back. Wetting his lip with his tongue, Cee’s eyes caught on a moving image, projected high on the wall. Indira’s dark eyes stared down at him, blinking every few seconds, her oval-shaped face placid. But there were shadows under her eyes and her cheekbones jutted out. Her long dark hair blew around her as if by some unseen force. Then she began to speak, but there was no audio. She looked to the side, turning her face away. Then the video replayed itself, on a loop.

He couldn’t tear his gaze away. She was as beautiful and as haunting as any picture he had ever seen of her. She was older now, but more radiant, if it was possible. She had an odd intensity behind her eyes, like a fire, burning brightly, threatening to consume her. He knew that intensity. He saw it in himself sometimes, when he finished a good show and was back in his dressing room, sweat-drenched and out of breath.

Mr. Benedict.” The redhead was back, her brow furrowed again. “I apologize, but that piece is not for sale.” She motioned to the black canvas, frowning.

What?” Cee wasn’t used to being told no. “Why?”

The artist has not listed it.”

Talk to whoever you have to. I want it.” Cee shrugged, no doubt in his mind that the painting would be hanging in his bedroom before the week was out.

***

Indira sat in her car across the street from the Chelsea studio. The paps were waiting around on the sidewalk for the rock star who had entered to look at her work before everyone else. She’d caught a quick glimpse of the tall black man as he fought his way in. She rolled her top lip between her teeth. She hoped he bought something. She needed the money. One piece alone would give her breathing room for the next few months.

She ran her hand through her thick black hair, now enhanced or marred by a swath of blue in the front, depending on the perception of who was looking at her. Maybe she was too old for it. At 35-years-old, she didn’t feel young or hip anymore, that was for sure. And she was well aware that this show was probably her last hope. If it went well, she could disappear again and toil away at her own pace. If it went badly, she supposed she would have to pursue a career in academia. The thought was not a happy one. But she’d never been good with money, and she was running perilously low.

Her phone vibrated on the leather seat next to her and she glanced down at the caller ID. Erica, her seller’s agent. Her heart gave an excited jump. A good sign. She answered it, holding it away from her ear like it was contaminated. She didn’t want bad news.

Indira?” Erica was saying.

Which pieces?” Indira answered, her heart in her throat.

Revanche and Pearl,” the agent replied, referring to a smaller work and a Museum Call, a term she used to refer to the bigger pieces that she wanted to see in famous museums, not in private collections. She felt her lips pull into a pout. Of course. Of course he wanted that one.

Pearl is not for sale,” she heard herself saying, although it pained her to do so. She could easily net a million for the single piece. But some pieces deservedcried out for!placement in public spaces. And she knew in her heart Pearl was her best piece in years.

I’ll let Mr. Benedict know,” Erica said then hung up. Indira started her late-model BMW and drove up the cobblestone street to 11th avenue. She made a screeching left at the light and made another left onto the street behind the gallery. Jerking to a stop at the back door, she double-parked and put on her hazards. Climbing out of the low slung car, she hurried to the door, painted to blend in with the back of the building, and knocked. The street was deserted, as streets in far west Chelsea tended to be, and no one paid her any mind. Not that they would anyway. Unlike the rock star, no one was interested in taking pictures of a fading artist trying to make a comeback.

The February day was unseasonably sunny and warm, and Indira tilted her face up to the sky, enjoying the feel of the sunshine on her face. For a few brief moments, she let herself feel good. Let herself feel like everything wasn’t on the brink of collapse. Then the door swung open, interrupting her reverie.

Ms. Indira?” the security guard said, his face surprised. They weren’t expecting her back until later in the day. She adjusted her enormous sunglasses and gave him a small smile. He stepped aside and let her pass. She had wanted to take off before the rock star stopped by, but her nervousness hadn’t allowed her to do so. Now that he wanted one of her favorite pieces, she was intrigued. Dropping her car keys in her big black leather bag, she rounded the corner into the main gallery, her paint-splotched ballet slippers soundless on the cement floor.

Talk to whoever you have to. I want it,” she heard the deep male voice saying.

Mr. Benedict” Erica began, then glanced back at her, surprised. Time seemed to slow as the tall rock star turned to face her. She knew immediately who he was. She should have known from the name, but it for whatever reason, it hadn’t registered. Colletta Chadwick. Chadwick Benedict. She kneaded her top lip between her teeth. He was handsome. He looked like his mother in the face, but with a strong masculine jaw. His eyes were big and brown, his lashes long behind a pair of thick black frames. And his hair, pulled back in dreadlocks, suited him. He looked damn good. Young, but damn good.

Talk away, but you’re not going to change my mind,” Indira said, her voice stronger than she felt. His eyes swept her, from her feet to her hair. Then his lips spread into a wide, charming smile. It was probably the smile he used when he was in the business of getting panties to drop. But she wasn’t wearing any panties underneath her long, shapeless black dress, so she didn’t have to worry about that.

Indira, this is Chadwick Benedict,” Erica said, making the perfunctory introductions.

I know who he is,” she said, but she held out a hand anyway. “I used to pick you up from school. Do you remember that?” He blinked, and then enveloped her small plain hand in his big warm one. Dark ink covered the back of his hands and forearms, she noticed. His mother would have hated that. She didn’t believe in tattoos. Colletta believed the body held all the beauty it needed simply in being. Body modification was a disruption of the natural body, therefore ruinous to the creative spirit. Indira could practically hear the dead woman’s voice in her ear.

No.” He shook his head, glancing down at her hand. He towered over her, at least six foot to her five foot five.

As a favor to your mother.” Indira let herself look him in the eye, because she was protected by the big sunglasses. “You were about ten or so then. Little know-it-all. Bratty as hell.”

Sounds like me. But I don’t remember that at all.” He was shaking his head, still holding her hand.

I was going by a different name then. Maybe that’s why you don’t remember me.” Softly, she withdrew her hand and swept around him toward Pearl, which was suspended from the ceiling by a rope and pulley system. “You’re interested in this one?” She waved Erica off and Chad followed her, his heavy boots clomping behind her.

I am,” he said, stopping close behind her. She could smell his expensive aftershave, light and spicy. She couldn’t believe the bratty little Chad she had once known was now a big star. She wondered what had happened to him after Colletta died. What had his life been like? He obviously still held onto his mother’s love for the arts.

Why are you interested?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder. He was closer than she thought he was, his chest inches from her shoulder.

I just am,” he said simply, his voice low. “What name did you used to go by?” Indira twirled a lock of hair around her finger, debating for a moment whether or not she was going to answer. She rarely talked about her past with anyone. But since he was a part of her past, she supposed she could break her rule, this one time.

Pamela,” she said, softly. She heard him whisper the name to himself, as if trying to remember. She flicked her eyes back to Pearl, finding her favorite part of the piece easily. She had trailed her forearm through the paint one night when she was frustrated and ready to scrap the whole thing. As soon as she added herself into the paint, it was like the clouds had opened up.

Name your price,” he said, and she felt a light pressure on her hair. He was touching her, she realized. Arousal, hot and prickly, rushed through her and she felt her muscles tighten. Her nipples hardened. Strange. This man was almost ten years younger than her. They lived in two very different worlds. And yet her body was responding to him. She didn’t often deny her body. She had learned long ago that she was at her best when her body and mind were one. But… it was still strange. She didn’t often find men as young as him attractive. And he was practically family. Long lost family, but family nonetheless. She turned abruptly to face him.

It’s not for sale, Mr. Benedict.”

Mr. Benedict, huh?” He ran his tongue over his full lips. Indira felt her eyes zero in on the small movement. “Call me Cee.”

Erica says you’re interested in another piece as well?” she said. He shook his head.

I was hoping for the set. To go with my collection.”

Collection?”

I have a few more of your pieces. One I picked up at an auction. Two I inherited.” Her curiosity and vanity were piqued. She was surprised that he had kept the pieces she’d given Colletta.

I’m sorry to disappoint you. Apparently, you’re not used to taking no for an answer.”

Are you, Miss Z.?” His lips twitched. He was flirting with her, she realized. Interesting.

Erica will be in touch with your people about Revanche.” She motioned to the smaller painting on the opposite wall.

You can call me personally.” His eyes were amused behind his glasses. “And let me know when you figure out how much you want for it.”

Maybe you are still that bratty kid I used to drive home,” Indira said with a small smile. Chad reached into his back pocket and pulled out his vibrating cellphone.

You’re tough, you know that?” he said, glancing down at the screen and typing up a quick message with his long fingers.

Yo, Cee, time’s up. We gotta go.” The girl with bright green jeans said by the door. Chad nodded at her but turned back to Indira.

You’re a busy man, I hate to keep you.” She crossed her arms over her chest, letting her position be known. He chuckled, his teeth white against his dark skin, and slid his phone back into his pocket.

Alright, I see how it is.” He let his eyes sweep her again then he glanced up, above her head. She followed his eyes to the projected image of her, shot a month ago on a beach in Costa Rica. Always forward, never backward, her lips mouthed, over and over. She felt self-conscious, her face bared to him 20 feet wide when she hadn’t even taken off her sunglasses to let him see her eyes. When she turned back to him, he was staring at her again.

I think of your mother often,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “I’m glad to know that you’re doing well.”

Yeah.” He ran his knuckles under his chin. “We’ll have dinner some time, Zee. I’ll set it up.” Before she could refuse, he was walking back toward his big bodyguards and colorful P.A. She watched them go, fighting their way out through the paps and getting back into his black SUV. Only after he was gone did she take off her sunglasses, folding them up and dropping them in her bag.

***

Chadwick Benedict wasn’t used to hearing no. But he was even less used to the feeling that was vibrating through his body as the SUV drove toward midtown. When Indira Z. had appeared right in front of him, he’d almost been struck dumb. She was more beautiful in person than he could have imagined. Her thick blanket of black hair hung down past her ass, and even in the shapeless bag of a dress that she wore, he could see that ass was a little fat, just the way he liked. She was tiny, almost engulfed by scarves and her dress and her big bag. And her sunglasses hid those bright, intelligent eyes from him. But her attempts at hiding herself hadn’t worked. He was more intrigued than ever.

It was hard, sometimes, the life that he lived. He was an intelligent, inquisitive type, had always gone to private schools and was taught to speak in proper English by his mother. He played four instruments and had taken tap and ballet classes as a child. But when she died, he was sent to live with his father in Inglewood, California. He’d been looked at like a freak of nature, even by his own family, until he assimilated. Now, he rode a fine line between the perception of him and his reality. Indira was the embodiment of the community he’d grown up in, and the women he’d admired as a child. She had paint under her fingernails and on her shoes. She was stylish but didn’t wear makeup or spend time on her hair. She was weird as hell and kind of spacey, staring off into the distance like her mind was creating even when her hands were idle.

A woman like her had no use for a man, except for an occasional roll in the hay. Which worked out well for him, because he wanted to fuck her. In fact, he wanted to buy her painting, and then he wanted to fuck her under it. He laughed to himself, covering his mouth with his hand. Georgie gave him a look.

You know that weird lady?” she said, already back on her phone, updating his Twitter account.

My mom knew her,” he said, drumming his fingers on his knee. Georgie nodded, her attention already moving on. She dug around in her messenger bag for her iPad, ready to rundown his schedule.

Okay, we have the Pitchfork interview at 3 p.m., then we have the flight back to L.A. at 6 p.m., then we have to make an appearance at a club at midnight in Santa Monica. Donny’s going to meet us at the airport…”

Cancel that shit,” Cee said, staring out the window as they slowed to a stop in traffic.

What? Why?” Georgie furrowed her brow.

I’m staying in New York tonight. I already texted Donny.”

Thanks for letting me know,” she said, pissed.

I just decided. You got a problem with that?”

Whatever, Cee.” She gave him the side-eye. “Do I get a night off, then?”

You do whatever you want.”

Sweet.” She smiled. “You want me to get a block of rooms at the Four Seasons?”

I’m gonna stay in my place. But you stay wherever you want.” Georgie clapped her hands and giggled, then starting typing on the iPad. Cee turned back to the window, a smile curling on his lips. He was going to go to her art opening. He had a feeling if he played his cards right, she’d be in his bed that night. Then he could go about tackling the secret obsession he had with her head-on. Find out if his hunch about Indira Z. was correct or not. And he was hoping like hell it was.

Chapter Two

Indira stood in the center of the storm, trying to keep her calm. Art snobs filled the room, as well as models and actors and other pretty people, all chattering and laughing and drinking. She much preferred the quiet of her ranch in Uruguay, her work only interrupted by the occasional rooster crow or bray of a donkey. She knew she shouldn’t have contempt for her customers. These were her patrons, the people who allowed her work to continue. Money, young and old, made the art world go ’round. And these were technically her people, people like her parents, people she had grown up surrounded by. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t counting down the minutes until they would all leave and she could go home to her dark Tribeca loft.

Roger, her lawyer, stood by her side, his arm pressing against her hip. His wife, Sandra, was conveniently not in attendance. He was a good-looking man, tall and blond, and in any other instance, she might be attracted to him. On a weak day, she might have even considered sleeping with him. But he fancied himself in love with her, and that was a problem. She could see it in his eyes, his feelings for her were stronger than ever. He hadn’t left her side all night, which she appreciated and resented at the same time. No man owned her, especially one that was married with three kids still in prep school.

It’s a success, darling,” Roger whispered in her ear. Indira wet her lips with her tongue and smiled. She didn’t respond, just cast her eyes about the room. She noticed a cluster of critics standing near Pearl, whispering and gesturing at the canvas. She took a deep breath, soothing her nerves. She caught Erica’s eye, standing beside a Hollywood actor and his much younger wife in the far corner. Erica nodded, indicating the sale of yet another piece. Her publicist Rebekah was working the room, laughing and making easy conversation with the patrons. Indira knew she would have to start making the rounds herself, but she hadn’t quite built herself up to it yet.

She used to like this, she mused. When she was younger, she loved having all eyes on her. She loved wearing ridiculous, outlandish clothing. She loved being beautiful and well-liked. But now… it felt empty. She was no longer as beautiful, nor as well-liked. She was more known for her eccentricities and indulgences than her talent. And she was tired. She had been lost in her own head for so long that making small talk was exhausting. Indira let her eyes wander to Revanche and the little black sticker beside the placard, indicating that it was sold. She wanted to go and touch the paint, let her fingers travel along the surface that would soon be in Chadwick Benedict’s possession. She wondered where he would keep it. Would he hang it in the bedroom where he slept the most?

A commotion near the front door caught her attention and she glanced over. She felt her heart stop. It was him. He had returned, and he was making his way through the crowd, flanked by his big bodyguards on both sides. A tall black woman was at his side, wearing a dress that was painted on and left little to the imagination. Something like what Indira would have worn in her younger days, she mused. When he saw her, the charming white smile swept across his face and he immediately headed for her, alone, his date heading toward the bar and the bodyguards melding into the crowd. Indira felt her body stiffen and Roger, sensing her tension, stepped closer.

Who’s that?” Roger asked.

Chadwick Benedict. Colletta’s son,” Indira replied, just as Cee reached them. His eyes swept her, and she felt herself standing straighter, raising her chin. She was suddenly very happy that she’d worn the outfit she had. The black mesh of her high-necked bodice was thick, but the swell of her breasts and her dark nipples were just visible through the fabric. Her skirt was voluminous and dragged the floor, even though she wore her highest heeled boots. The boots allowed her to almost look him in the eye, whereas before she’d had to crane her neck, but her wide-brimmed hat made it hard for him to return the favor. Cee leaned forward to kiss her cheek and she tilted her face to let him.

Surprise,” he whispered, his voice caressing her ear. Her nipples immediately went hard as his lips pressed against her skin, and the scent of his aftershave was again surrounding her. This man could be a problem for her, she was beginning to realize.

You’re stubborn,” she replied, raising an eyebrow, as he pulled away.

It’s in my genes,” he said, looking like the cat that ate the canary.

Roger Braithwaite, Chadwick Benedict,” Indira introduced the two men to each other, not able to ignore her manners. They shook hands, but Cee’s gaze stayed on her. His eyes dipped to her chest, then back up again.

Yes. The name sounds familiar,” Roger was saying. Cee smirked, but didn’t press the issue.

He’s somewhat well-known,” Indira said.

In what capacity?” Roger was starting to get that annoyingly snobbish tone he used when talking to people he didn’t know.

He’s a star,” Indira said. “Can’t you tell?” And he did look like a starin black leather pants, bling, boots, and a military jacket. The glasses were gone now, and his face was even more handsome than she remembered. Cee waved her off, the rings on his fingers catching the light.

Tonight is your night, Zee. Looks like everybody is feeling your work.”

Zee?” she heard Roger mumble under his breath.

I think you brought me luck earlier,” Indira said. “I’ve sold seven pieces tonight.”

You deserve it.” He looked away from her, finally, his eyes scanning the room. “So what do I get for being a good luck charm?”

Mmm.” Indira narrowed her eyes at him. He was definitely flirting with her again. Why did she get the feeling he wanted more from her than just her painting? If his date was any indication, Indira was nowhere near his type. And then there was Colletta, who, as of this afternoon, had taken up residence in Indira’s consciousness like a ghost.

You’ll have to excuse Indira and I. We’re being summoned.” Roger motioned to Rebekah, who was waving them over. Indira noticed her face light up when she recognized Chadwick Benedict, superstar, standing next to her client. Roger slid his hand around her waist, and Indira shot a look at him, irritated.

Rebekah can wait.” Indira stepped out of his grasp. “Mr. Benedict

Cee,” he reminded her.

Cee. Let me introduce you around,” she held out her arm, and he took it, no hesitation. She glanced back, and Roger followed behind them, a frown darkening his features.

What’s your friend’s name?” Indira asked, turning to Cee.

Angel,” he said.

She’s stunning. Actress?”

Model,” he supplied with a smile. She took him around, introducing him to friends and acquaintances. She used him as a buffer, letting them gush over his celebrity as she stood silently. She noticed he was finding excuses to touch her, a hand on her shoulder here, a tug on her elbow there. Eventually, they reached Rebekah and Indira made the introductions. Rebekah looked as thrilled as her Botoxed face would allow.

Chadwick Benedict, please tell me how you came to know Indira’s work?” she asked.

My mother,” he said, and Indira felt his the muscles in his arm tighten.

Your mother has wonderful taste.”

He’s Colletta Chadwick’s son,” Indira said lightly. Rebekah’s mouth made an ‘o’ and she nodded.

I see, I see. So you and Indira have known each other a long time, then? Funny, she never mentioned knowing a world-famous musician,” Rebekah said, aiming a dig at Indira.

We reconnected today, after a long time.” Indira tilted her face toward Cee, and he glanced down at her.

There’s no way in hell I was going to miss this show,” he said, as if speaking only to her. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Well, you can’t rush genius,” Rebekah said with a smile. Indira let out a slow breath, running her fingers over Cee’s knuckles, wanting to touch him. He blinked, and Indira let the moment pass, letting her hand drop from his.

I am headed to the bar, anyone need anything?” Roger said from behind them, his voice strained. “Ginger ale, perhaps?”

Indira gave him a pointed look, guilty and glad to be rid of him at the same time.

When you’re ready, Indira, I have the press lined up,” Rebekah said, all business. “Perhaps you’d like to say something, Chadwick? I’d love a blurb,” she added, shamelessly.

Cee looked over at the press, hovering near the front of the event and then back at her. Indira felt an odd sense of urgency.

I should get it over with. How much time do you have?”

Depends.” He shrugged.

Depends on what?”

I cleared my schedule tonight.” He looked around as if bored. “So it depends on you.” Indira swallowed, her throat thick. She knew she didn’t imagine the heat that crept into his eyes when he spoke to her. She’d known enough men who found her attractive to know when one was interested. But she couldn’t help questioning it. She flashed a look at Roger at the bar, who didn’t look happy.

Come with me,” she said and she felt Cee behind her as she glided to a medium sized piece, Marketplace, and stopped in front of it, pretending to study it. “What are you doing here?”

You know what I want.” His voice was close to her ear.

I asked you why you wanted the painting so much and you didn’t have an answer for me. And yet, you continue to be stubborn.”

You want to know why I want it?”

Yes.”

Sex,” he said, matter-of-factly. She looked at him sharply. “It drips. It undulates. It makes me want to fuck.”

How basic,” she said and clicked her tongue, pretending that his words didn’t affect her.

Don’t pretend,” he began, his voice low, “that you don’t like crawling around in the dirt, on your hands and knees.” She felt his hand on her hair, pressing against the small of her back. “That motherfucker Roger knows it. Everybody who looks at your work knows it. Every straight man in here wants to fuck you.” She blinked, feeling lust like a punch in the stomach. She wasn’t used to the feeling. She’d been celibate for months now, out of choice, but at his words, it was like a switch was flipped in her body.

Cee, why are you here?” she asked him again, her voice strained.

I couldn’t stay away. I’ve been waiting to meet you for a long time.”

You have?” she glanced back at him, questioning. She hadn’t thought about him in years, and he’d been thinking about her all this time? His fingers were stroking her hair like he was playing an instrument, and she realized his fingers were always moving, like he was strumming to a beat only he could hear.

Why did you have to wear this dress, huh?” She felt his fingertip graze the zipper that ran up her back. “I’m gonna pretend you wore it just for me.” She took in a ragged breath, feeling unsteady on her feet. She could feel how wet he was making her; her thighs were getting slick. She wanted to slap herself and clear her mind. What was she, sixteen in the back of some boy’s car? This was Colletta’s son. Colletta’s son whom she had known since he was ten years old. But as much as she wanted to feel like it was wrong, her body was telling her the exact opposite.

She turned to face him, not sure what she wanted from him. Part of her wanted him to go away, and the other part wanted him to take her over the table in the back and throw up her skirt. He ran his tongue over his lips as he stared at her tits, not even attempting to hide it this time.

How long are you in town?” she asked, her voice sounding out of breath to her ears.

Tonight.” He raised a hand, lifting the brim of her hat so that the light caught her face.

Are you playing me?” She cocked an eyebrow, trying to keep her cool. But it was difficult.

No,” he said plainly, and she saw the out-of-control lust she felt mirrored in his face. She turned and strode away from him, disappearing behind the white wall that separated the gallery from the back offices. Her eyes had barely adjusted to the dark of the hallway when he pulled her roughly against his hard chest. She felt the cold metal of his chains press against her sternum and she felt a chill run the length of her spine. He walked her back, blindly, until her ass hit the wall.

I’m too old for you,” she whispered.

Shut up.” Then he kissed her, hard and unyielding, his tongue thrusting between her lips. She slid her hands underneath his t-shirt, loving the feel of his warm skin against hers. He knew exactly what he was doing, sucking on her lower lip and grabbing her ass, and she let herself get lost in him. It had been such a long time since she’d felt this way.

When he slid his face down to her neck, panting, she clenched her hands in his dreads and closed her eyes. He bit at her throat, and then continued downward until he found her left breast. He sucked her nipple through the fabric, and she pressed her mouth against his hair to muffle her moan. He yanked her leg up, throwing it over his hip as his hand roamed up her thigh under her skirt.

Fuck,” he hissed, when he realized that she wasn’t wearing panties. “You all naked for me?” Without any warning, he slid a finger roughly inside of her and she bucked her hips against him. He captured her mouth again, thrusting his tongue inside of her in the same rhythm as his finger glided in and out. Her hands cupped his face, holding him to her, not letting him pull away. She broke the kiss only to moan as he slid another finger deep inside of her.

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