Naked: The Blackstone Affair, Part 1
My mother can’t see this right now, and that’s a really good thing. She would freak. I’d made it to Benny’s show tonight because I told him I’d be here and I know how important it is for him. It’s important for me too. I only want the best for my friend, just like he does for me. In the past three years Benny has been right there to console me, drink with me, commiserate with me, and even to help me pay my rent upon occasion by giving me work. Well, that and the fact he shot the photograph I’m staring at right now. And it’s a picture of my nude body.
Posing as a nude model isn’t something I dreamed of doing for my life’s work or anything, but it is a way to make some extra money in between student loans. And lately I’d been getting offers from other photographers. Benny said to be prepared for more interest too, because of this show tonight. People will inquire about the model. It’s a given, Brynne. That’s my Benny, always the optimist.
I sipped my champagne and studied the really huge image hanging on the gallery wall. My portrait had been enlarged and printed on canvas for this show. The effect was a bit startling but even so, it was apparent that Benny had talent. For a child of Somali refugees who started with less than nothing in the UK, he knew how to configure a picture. He’d posed me on my back with my head turned to the side, my arm over my breasts and my fingers flared between my legs. He’d wanted my hair splayed out, my legs straight up, and my puss covered. I’d worn a string thong for the shot, but you couldn’t see it. Nothing showed that would classify my image as porn. The proper term is artistic nude photography, anyway. My stuff was shot tastefully or I didn’t do it. Well, I certainly hoped my pictures didn’t get onto any porn sites, but who could know for sure these days. I didn’t do porn. I hardly did sex.
“There’s my girl!” Benny’s big arms wrapped around my shoulders and he rested his chin on top of my head. “It’s smashing isn’t it? And you have the most beautiful feet of any woman on the planet.”
“Everything you do looks good, Ben, even my feet.” I turned around and faced him. “So, you sell anything yet? Let me rephrase. How many have you sold?”
“Three so far, and I think this one’s going very soon.” Ben winked. “Don’t be obvious, but see the tall bloke in the gray suit, black hair, speaking with Carole Andersen? He’s inquired. Seems he’s quite taken by your gorgeous naked self. Probably going to go for a good palm session soon as he can get the canvas all to himself. How’s that make you feel, Brynne luv? Some rich toff pulling his pud to the sight of your unearthly beauty.”
“Shut up.” I rolled my eyes at him. “That’s just nasty. Don’t tell me things like that or I’ll have to stop taking jobs.” I tilted my head and shook it. “It’s a damn good thing I love you, Benny Clarkson.” Ben could say the crassest thing and manage to make it come out proper and refined. Must be his British accent. Hell, even Ozzy Osbourne sounded proper at times thanks to that accent.
“It’s true, though,” Ben said, placing a kiss on my cheek, “and you know it. That chap hasn’t stopped eyeballing you since you glided in here. And he’s not gay.”
I gaped at Benny. “Good to know, thank you, Ben, for the update. And I don’t glide!”
He grinned at me in that wicked, boyish way of his. “Believe me, if he was I would’ve offered to blow him in the back room by now. He’s off the charts hot.”
“You’re going to hell, you know that, don’t you?” I looked over casually and checked out the buyer. Benny was right about him; the guy oozed hotness from the leather soles of his Ferragamos to the tips of his wavy dark hair. About six foot three, muscular, confident, rich. I couldn’t tell about his eyes because he was talking to the owner of the gallery. About my picture maybe? Hard to say, but didn’t matter anyway. Even if he did buy it, I’d never see him again.
“I’m right, huh?” Ben saw me looking and nudged me in the ribs.
“About the jerking off? No possible way, Benny!” I shook my head slowly. “He’s far too beautiful to have to resort to his hand for an orgasm.”
And then that beautiful man turned and looked at me. His eyes burned across the room almost as if he’d heard what I’d just said to Benny. But that was impossible. Wasn’t it? He kept staring and I finally had to look down. There was no way I could compete with the level of intensity, or whatever the hell was coming at me from where he stood. The urge to flee kicked in immediately. Safety first.
I gulped another swig from my champagne and drained it. “I need to go now. And the show is brilliant.” I hugged my friend. “And you will be famous the world over,” I told him, grinning. “In about fifty more years!”
Benny laughed behind me as I headed for the door. “Call me, my lovely!”
I waved a hand without turning and stepped out. The street was busy for London on a weeknight. The upcoming Olympic Games had turned the city into an absolute cluster of humanity, though. It could be years before I got a cab. Should I risk the walk to the closest Underground station? I glanced down at my heels, which looked great paired with my dress but were seriously lacking in the walking comfort department. And if I took the Tube, I’d still have to hoof it another couple blocks to my flat in the dark. Mom would say no, of course. But then again, Mom was not here in London. Mom was home in San Francisco, where I didn’t want to be. Screw this. I started walking.
“It’s a very bad idea, Brynne. Don’t risk it. Let me give you a ride.”
I froze on the street. I knew who spoke to me without ever hearing his voice before. I turned slowly to face the same eyes that had burned me back at the gallery. “I don’t know you at all,” I told him.
He smiled, his lip turning up more on one side than the other of his goateed mouth. He pointed to his car at the curb, a sleek black Range Rover HSE. The kind that only Brits with money can ever afford. Not that he didn’t reek of money before, but he was way out of my league.
I swallowed hard in my throat. Those eyes of his were blue, very clear and deep. “Yet you call me by name and—and expect me to get in a car with you? Are you crazy?”
He walked toward me and extended his hand. “Ethan Blackstone.”
I stared at his hand, so finely elegant with the white cuff framing the gray sleeve of his designer jacket. “How do you even know my name?”
“I just bought a work entitled Brynne’s Repose from the Andersen Gallery for a nice sum not fifteen minutes ago. And I’m fairly sure I’m not mentally impaired. Sounds more PC than crazy, don’t you think?” He kept his hand out.
I met his hand and he took mine. Oh, did he ever. Or maybe I’d lost my mind shaking hands with the stranger who’d just purchased a huge canvas of my naked body. Ethan possessed a firm grip. And hot too. Had I imagined he pulled me a little closer toward him? Or maybe I was the crazy one, because my feet hadn’t moved an inch. Those blue eyes were nearer to me than they were a moment ago, though, and I could smell his cologne. Something so gawd awfully delicious that it was sinful to smell that good and be human.
“Brynne Bennett,” I said.
He let go of my hand. “And now we know each other,” he said, pointing first at me and then to himself, “Brynne, Ethan.” He motioned with his head toward his Rover. “Now will you let me take you home?”
I swallowed again. “Why do you care so much?”
“Because I don’t want anything to happen to you? Because those heels look lovely at the end of your legs but will be hell to walk in? Because it’s dangerous for a woman alone at night in the city?” His eyes flicked over me. “Especially one that looks like you.” That mouth of his turned up just slightly on the one side again. “So many reasons, Miss Bennett.”
“What if you’re not safe?” He raised an eyebrow at me. “I still don’t know you or anything about you, or if Ethan Blackstone is your real name.” Did he just give me a look?
“You have a point in that. And it’s one I can rectify easily.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a driver’s license with the name Ethan James Blackstone clearly printed on it. He handed me a business card with the same name and Blackstone Security International, Ltd. engraved on the cream cardstock. “You may keep that.” He grinned again. “I’m very busy at my job, Miss Bennett. I have absolutely no time for a hobby as a serial killer, I promise you.”
I laughed. “Good one, Mr. Blackstone.” I put his card in my purse. “All right. You can give me a ride.” His brow shot up again, and I got the sideways grin again too.
I winced inwardly at the double entendre for ride and tried to focus on how uncomfortable my shoes really would be for walking to the Tube station, and that it was a good idea to let him drive me.
He pressed his hand to the bottom of my back and led me to the curb. “In you go.” Ethan got me settled and then walked around to the street side and slid behind the wheel, smooth as a panther. He looked at me and tilted his head. “And where does Miss Bennett live?”
“Nelson Square in Southwark.”
He frowned but then turned his face away and pulled out into traffic. “You are American.”
What, he didn’t like Americans? “I am here on scholarship at the University of London. Graduate program,” I tacked on, wondering why I felt the need to tell him anything at all about myself.
“And the modeling?”
The second he asked the question the sexual tension thickened. I paused before answering. I knew exactly what he was doing—imagining me in my picture. Naked. And as weird as it felt, I opened my mouth and told him. “Um, I—I posed for my friend, the photographer, Benny Clarkson. He asked me, and it helps pay the bills, you know?”
“Not really, but I love the portrait of you, Miss Bennett.” He kept his eyes on the road.
I felt myself stiffen at his comment. Who in the hell was he to judge what I do to support myself?
“Well, my own personal international corporation never came through like yours did, Mr. Blackstone. I resorted to modeling. I like sleeping in a bed as opposed to a park bench. And heat. The winters here suck!” The snark in my voice rang out pretty clear even to my ears.
“In my experience I’ve found many things here that suck.” He turned and gave me an expert blue-eyed stare.
How he said “suck” got my blood tingling in a way that left no doubts about my skills in fantasy being sound. I might not get a ton of practical experience between the sheets, but my fantasies don’t suffer one iota from lack of use.
“Well we agree on something then.” I brought my fingers to my forehead and rubbed. The image of Ethan’s cock and the word “suck” in the same little space in my brain was a little much at the moment.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
We slowed for a stoplight and he looked over at me, his eyes traveling from my lap back up to my face in a slow, measured pace. “Merely a guess. No dinner, just the champagne you gulped back at the gallery, and now it’s late and your body is putting up a protest.” He lifted his eyebrow yet again. “How’d I do?”
I swallowed hard, desperately wishing for water. Bingo, Mr. Blackstone. You read me like a cheap comic book. Whoever you are, you’re good.
“I just need two aspirin and some water and I’ll be fine.”
He shook his head at me. “When did you last eat some food, Brynne?”
“So we’re back to first names again?”
He gave me a tolerant look but I could tell he was pissed.
“I had a late breakfast, okay? I’ll make something when I get home.” I looked out the window. The light must have changed, because we started moving again. The only sounds were of his body shifting as he turned the corner. And it was way too sexy of a sound to keep my eyes averted for long. I chanced a peek. In profile, Ethan had a rather prominent nose, but on him it didn’t matter; he was still beautiful.
Ignoring me now, acting as if I wasn’t sitting two feet from him, he efficiently drove us. Ethan seemed to know his way around London, because he didn’t ask me for directions once. I could still smell him, though, and the scent did things to my head. I really needed to get out of the car.
He made a rude noise and pulled into a strip mall. “Stay here; I’ll be just a minute.” His voice sounded a little edgy. A lot more than a little, actually. Everything was edgy with him. And commanding. Like he told you what to do and you didn’t dare argue.
The warmth of the car and the coziness of the leather seat felt nice underneath the thin skirt I’d worn tonight. Ethan was right about one thing, I would have died on my walk to the Tube. Here I sat in the car of a virtual stranger, who’d seen me naked, bullied me into taking a ride, and now coming out of the convenience store with a bag in his hand and a grim look on his face. This whole situation was weirder than weird.
“What did you need to get in the store—”
He shoved a bottle of water into my hand and opened a single packet of Nurofen, the equivalent of Advil in the United States. I took both without a word, not caring that he watched me gulp down the pills. The water was gone in under a minute. He set a protein bar on my knee.
“Now eat it.” His voice had that don’t-fuck-with-me tone again. “Please,” he added.
I sighed and opened the white chocolate Power Bar. The crinkle of the wrapper filled the silence in the car as we sat there. I took a bite and chewed slowly. It tasted divine. I had needed what he’d brought me. Desperately.
“Thank you,” I whispered, feeling suddenly emotional, the urge to cry bubbling up fiercely. I held it down as best I could. I kept my head down too.
“My pleasure,” he said softly. “Everyone needs the basics, Brynne. Food, water . . . a bed.”
A bed. The sexual tension was back, or maybe it never left. Ethan seemed blessed with the talent to make the most innocent word sound like hot, sweaty, mind-blowing sex you remembered for a long, long time. He sat beside me and didn’t back the car out until I’d finished the last of the protein bar.
“What’s your actual street address?” he asked.
“41 Franklin Crossing.”
Ethan took us out of the strip mall lot and headed back onto the street, bringing me closer to my flat with every revolution of the tires. I leaned into the soft leather and closed my eyes. My phone vibrated in my purse. I fished it out and saw there’d been a text from Benny: u home ok?
I shot back a quick yup and closed my eyes again. I could feel my headache begin to slip away. I felt more relaxed than I’d been in hours. Exhaustion won out, I suppose, because I would have never allowed myself the indulgence of falling asleep in Ethan Blackstone’s car if I could possibly help it.