“Don’t you think you’re taking this a little too far?” I asked Maggie as I studied my reflection in the mirror.
She snorted. “You’re trying to use a guy for sex to get him out of your system, and you think I’m going to extremes?”
I ignored her attempt to justify the get-up in which she’d dressed me. “I mean, the ‘Get Esme Laid Mix Tape’ was one thing—that was kind of funny.”
“It was fucking hilarious, and you know it.”
“Maybe. But…” I gestured to my breasts which seemed as if they would tumble out of the borrowed bustier if I so much as sneezed. “I don’t think I can go out in public like this.”
Maggie looked at me as if I were insane. “I do it all the time.”
“I know, and that’s kind of the problem. I’m not sure I want to him to think I’m a sure thing.”
She giggled. “Except you kind of are a sure thing…”
A knock on the door prevented Maggie from elaborating.
“Shit. He’s here, and I’m not even dressed yet. Can you let him in and keep him occupied for a few minutes?”
Maggie rolled her eyes as she left my room. I closed the door behind her and turned to my closet. There had to be a better alternative then going out looking like one of the hookers on Admiral Wilson Boulevard. I went for my old standby—a black sheath dress of unknown vintage I’d bought at a thrift store on South Street. I would probably be overdressed, but after what I wore last night, it was probably just as well. Though I wasn’t sure why I cared, I didn’t want Cullen to think I had no taste whatsoever. Plus, the dress was empowering. If the plan was to fuck him out of my system, I needed a dress that made me feel like I could call the shots.
I replaced Maggie’s bustier with a black bra and listened to what was being said in the next room. The worst thing about living in such a cheap apartment was that the walls were so thin that there was no such thing as a private conversation. Tonight, it was also the best thing.
“Hello, Carlisle.” Maggie’s voice was disgustingly sweet. “Wow, you brought flowers.”
What the hell? How clich√© could he get?
“Pulling out all the stops, huh?” Esme will be ready in just a few minutes. You’re welcome to have a seat while you wait for her, but unfortunately I’ll be unable to entertain you while you wait. I’m already late for a concert. See you around.”
Shit. With Maggie gone, there was no one around to help me with my zipper—well, no one except Cullen. Considering the entire point of this evening was to fuck him so I could forget him, I decided to seize the opportunity. My inner bad girl cheered as I stepped into my dress; I’d just have to ask Cullen to help me with it. I straightened my shoulders and fluffed my hair, before walking out of my room completely unzipped. I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw Cullen leaning against the kitchen counter in jeans and a white button-down shirt holding a bouquet of stargazer lilies. He wasn’t a med student; he was a motherfucking Gap ad.
He straightened his posture and offered me the lilies. “A somewhat unorthodox choice, I know, but I thought of you when I saw them.”
Stargazer lilies had been favorite flowers ever since I was little, largely because they were freckled like me. Cullen showing up with them had to be nothing more than a coincidence.
“May I ask why?”
“Why did I bring you flowers?”
“I know why you brought me flowers. I’m guessing it’s part of your standard operating bullshit. I meant why did you think of me when you saw these?”
Shrugging, he flashed me his trademark smile. “They’re unconventionally beautiful.”
It took every ounce of restraint I had not to laugh in his face; could his lines get any more obvious? Despite the fact I was onto his game, my mother raised me better than to be rude when presented with a gift.
“It was very thoughtful of you.” I took the flowers out of his hands and put them in a plastic pitcher filled with water, before turning back to him. “I’m ready when you are.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“My shoes are by the door,” I said, assuming he was referring to my bare feet.
“Turn around, Esme.”
His voice was commandingly sexy, and though I wasn’t sure if I should trust him behind me, I did as he asked. Seconds later, I felt my dress tighten across my chest as he dragged the zipper pull slowly up my back. He stopped when he reached my bra strap, gathering my hair into his hands and laying it against my shoulder.
“Wouldn’t want it to get caught in the zipper,” he explained, his breath hot against my neck.
As he closed my dress, his hands never lingered any longer than was necessary. I wasn’t sure if I was more surprised by the fact he hadn’t tried to cop a feel or my ensuing disappointment.
When I turned to face him, I expected him to look smug that he’d managed to make me forget my dress was unzipped. Instead, he appeared almost confused.
“What?” I asked. “Never help a girl get into her dress before?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“I meant, no, that wasn’t what I was thinking.”
“Are you going to tell me what you were thinking?”
“No,” he said, smiling.
“It’s just as well.” I walked to the door and stepped into my shoes. “It would probably only lower my opinion of you.”
He laughed. “Is that even possible?”
“Probably not,” I lied.
In actuality, it was possible—now. Twenty-four hours ago was a different matter entirely. Of course, I wasn’t about to let him know that my passionate hatred of him had begun to wane. I’d then lose what little power I had over him, and I couldn’t live with that. The only way I was okay with being number seven would be if I beat him at his own game. Specifically, if I threw his ass out before he even had a chance to take off his rubber.
He followed me out into the hallway, staying at my side as I locked my apartment. When I turned to go down the steps, he grabbed my hand and held me in place.
“We’re not going that way.”
There was only one way out of the building; the steps on the other side of the hallway only led the fifth floor…and to his apartment. That sneaky motherfucker.
I pulled my hand out of his. “Why did you bother zipping my dress if you were only going to try to get me out of it four minutes later?”
“What makes you think that?”
“I live here, too. I know we can’t get out of the building that way. We can, however, get upstairs to your place.”
He burst into laughter. “Because despite the fact I just had you alone and partially disrobed—nice panties, by the way—I’d bring you to my apartment to seduce you.”
I was too fascinated by the sight of his laughter to speak. The sound seemed to come from deep in his chest. Full and real, it was the laugh of someone who unashamedly loved life and knew how to live. Had it not come at my expense, it would have been beautiful.
I folded my arms across my chest and leaned against the wall, staring at him. He must have read my body language as annoyance, because with what appeared to be great effort, he stopped laughing.
“Come with me. You’ll like this, I promise.” He extended his hand to me, and against my better judgment, I took it. He led me past his apartment and through the door that led to the roof, where he’d laid out a picnic blanket and a cooler. “I may have interpreted the phrase ‘out to dinner’ somewhat loosely, but we are technically outside. Have a seat.”
I sat on the blanket as gracefully as I could manage in my narrow skirt. He poured each of us a glass of wine before retrieving a cheese board from the cooler and placing it in front me.
“I have no idea what you like, so I got a little of everything,” he explained as he arranged various meats and cheeses on the board.
“Where did you get all this? I mean, the selection here goes way beyond what they sell at the corner grocery.”
“The Italian Market. Have you ever been there?”
I nodded dumbly.
“I’d never been to South Philly before, but one of the guys I live with insisted it was worth the hike.” He spread one of the softer cheeses onto a piece of crusty bread before offering it to me. “You’ll have to let me know if he was right.”
When I reached for the bread, he pulled his hand away.
“I never would have pegged you for a tease, Cullen.”
When he raised the slice of bread to my mouth, I realized he wanted to feed me. I ate out of his hand, but called him on it the second I swallowed.
“What was your major at Princeton? The art of seduction?”
“You’re actually close,” he said. “It was art history.”
“And you got accepted into med school with that?”
“I took all the recommended biology coursework. Until my junior year, I still wasn’t sure which discipline I wanted to pursue.”
“Medicine or art history? That’s sort of a strange combination.”
“They’re more linked than you would think. My senior thesis was on the role of the artist in the early study of anatomy.”
I sipped my wine and tried not to stare at his lips.
“If anything, I think it made my med school application stand out,” he continued. “I mean, just about everyone applying to med school majors in a hard science.”
I wondered if he realized he’d just implied I was common.
“I majored in biology,” I muttered.
“There you go. Have you always wanted to be a doctor?”
“More or less. I mean, I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a concert pianist. Then I realized I’d never have a pot to piss in because I hate to perform.”
“A concertless pianist?” he asked, clearly amused.
“Don’t make fun of me. I knew it wouldn’t pan out, so I decided to pursue medicine. Besides, to be successful in music you have to be the best of the best, and I’m not even the best musician in my immediate family. Maggie is a piano major at Curtis; she puts me to shame.”
“Is she your only sibling?”
“Yep. We’ve done everything together for as long as I can remember. I was lucky; I got to grow up under the same roof as my best friend. What about you? Do you have any siblings?”
“I have an eighteen-year-old brother, but we’re not very close.”
He continued to feed me as we had the standard getting-to-know each other conversation. He was polite and respectful, and I wondered at what point it would turn into the standard getting-to-blow each other conversation. Meanwhile, his fingers against my lips coupled with the effects of the wine created a strange sensation that I was certain would remain at the forefront of my mind until I fucked him out of my system. The problem was that I was enjoying his company so much, my wham-bam-thank-you-man idea was quickly losing merit.
I refused to allow myself to deviate from the plan—regardless of the way he made me feel. After all, he was just acting a part, and I was determined to act mine. I inched more closely to him on the blanket, pretending I wasn’t aware of the way my skirt bunched up around the middle of my thighs.
As predicted, Cullen’s eyes went right to my newly exposed skin. When he realized I knew he was staring, he picked up a slice of cheese, pretending that had been the focus of his gaze. He raised it to my lips, and after I nibbled, I took his thumb and forefinger into my mouth. He let out a quiet gasp when without taking my eyes off his, I began to suck.
“You’re not making this easy for me,” he said.
I took his fingers from my mouth and put my arms around his neck.
“Oh, I think I’m making it very easy for you.”
I pressed my body against his and kissed him. Though he wrapped his arms around me tightly, he kept his mouth closed. Maybe Cullen wasn’t into foreplay. Though disappointing, it wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker. After all, the entire point was to get him out of my system—him being bad in bed could only help that. Besides, it wasn’t like I’d never been with a guy who was bad in bed. I wasn’t altogether sure I’d ever been with a guy who was good in bed. I did know that I’d never find out which category Cullen fell into as long as we remained on the roof of my apartment building.
“We should go inside. I’m getting a little chilly,” I lied. I may have been shivering, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with the cool evening breeze.
“Okay. Just give me a minute to pack up.” He rose to his feet and offered me his hand. After helping me up, he put the leftover food in the cooler and tucked the blanket under his arm. A few minutes later, we were outside of my apartment. He lingered in the hallway after I unlocked the door.
I pointed to the back of my dress. “If I needed help getting into it, it’s safe to assume I’ll need help getting out of it.”
He followed me inside, putting the cooler and blanket down right by the door. I pulled my hair up and turned my back to him.
“Do you know what you need?” he asked.
I knew exactly what I needed—a hot beef injection pronto—but I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him that.
He leaned in closely and dragged his fingertips across the front of my neck. “Pearls.”
“Pearls?” I asked in disbelief. Here I was expecting him to tell me I needed a good fuck. Then again, he could just be saying he wanted to jizz on my neck.
“You know, the kind that stops here.” He touched the hollow of my throat. “They’re classic, like your dress.”
“While you’re criticizing my lack of jewelry, are there any other modifications you’d make to my attire?”
He rubbed my shoulders as he spoke. “Do you honestly want to know?”
“I’d love to see you in heels.”
“I don’t wear heels.”
“Any particular reason why?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m five-foot-ten.”
“I have noticed. What’s your point?”
“I tower over most men as it is. In my experience, guys hate it.”
“Maybe the insecure ones. Personally, I love it.”
“You would. For the record, your interest in my accessories is more than a little weird. If I didn’t know for a fact you’ve fucked six of the girls in our class, I’d think you were gay.”
“You know this for a fact?”
“Are you denying it?”
He slowly lowered the zipper of my dress, before dragging his calloused fingers up the bare skin of my back. When he reached my neck, he pushed the strap of my dress off my shoulder, replacing it with his lips. His other hand rested on my hip, holding me in place as he kissed a path to my ear.
“You were saying?” he whispered.
As if I could remember what I asked him. At that moment, I doubted I knew my own name.
“I have no idea,” I admitted.
He turned me to face him and pressed his mouth against mine. His hands found my hair as his tongue entered my mouth. It was just a kiss—he wasn’t even touching me below the neck—but I felt it everywhere from my nipples to the soles of my feet. I didn’t know how to describe the sensation, only that I never wanted it to end. Instinctively, I put my hands on his ass and pulled him against me. My hips encountered his erection for all of a second before he pulled away.
“I’m trying to be a gentleman.”
“And I’m trying to seduce you.” I pulled his shirt out of his jeans and started unbuttoning it. “It’s a lot of unnecessary effort, don’t you think? I mean, if we stopped trying to be something we’re not, we both could get what we want.”
I opened his shirt and pushed it off his shoulders and surveyed his chest. I doubted I’d ever seen a more perfect male specimen. My fingers followed the trail of golden hair to where it disappeared into his jeans. Unwilling to wait any longer, I went to work on his belt buckle.
“What is it that you think I want?” he asked.
I opened his fly and stuck my hand inside his jeans, stroking his sizable hard-on through his boxers.
“This,” I said, giving it a squeeze. “In me.”
He closed his eyes and moaned.
“Come on.” Keeping my hand on his cock, I led him to my room. Once we were in front of the bed, I let go of him just long enough to step out of my dress, at which point he tucked himself back in his jeans and closed his fly.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“Esme, do you even like me?”
I saw no need to lie. “Not particularly. At least, I don’t think I do. You don’t have to worry about me getting all clingy, if that’s your concern. I’m not trying to make this a regular thing. For reasons I don’t entirely understand myself, I find the idea of having angry hate sex with you incredibly appealing. You have to admit, it’s win/win. Twenty minutes from now, you can count me among your conquests and begin planning number eight. Meanwhile, I’ll have gotten over my bizarre fascination with you.”
He looked appalled. “Twenty minutes?”
“Well, twenty tops,” I qualified. “Realistically, it would probably be closer to fifteen.”
“Do you really think that of me?” He seemed more surprised than offended.
“Based on my experience–”
“No, I meant do you think that’s all I want?”
He shook his head and cupped my face in his hands. “I want you.”
“You can have me.”
“I meant, I want all of you. I want to know you, to understand you. And when the time comes, I want to make love to you. But tonight, I’d just like to talk to you until you can no longer keep your eyes open then hold you while you sleep.”
He was a decent conversationalist, and he wasn’t bad to look at. It sure as hell beat sleeping alone.
“On one condition,” I said.
“Your shirt stays off.”
He rolled his eyes. “And you accuse me of objectifying the opposite sex.”
“It’s non-negotiable, Cullen.”
I went into the bathroom to change into a T-shirt to sleep in. When I came back to my room, he was in bed waiting for me. I lay down beside him, and he pulled me into his arms.
“Tell me about your family,” I said, resting my face against his chest.
He tensed beneath me. “There’s not much to tell. I had a bit of a falling out with my father a few months ago, and we’re estranged at the moment.”
“Then tell me about Princeton.”
“What would you like to know?”
“Your craziest antics, I guess. I lived at home all four years of undergrad; college stories still amuse me.”
In the end, he got exactly what he wanted—we talked until I could no longer keep my eyes open, then he held me while I slept.