[ Truyện Tiếng Anh] A Different Kind Of Fairy Tale

Thảo luận trong 'Thư giãn, giải trí' bởi novelonline, 16/8/2016.

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    Author : Morgan Rayne

    “If you drop one more pass, I swear I’m going to jump through this TV and rip your balls off!”
    Stella Howe screamed and paced in front of her 55-inch flat screen television. Her favorite team, the Green Bay Predators, had a road game this week against the Washington Justice. They were down by six with ten seconds to go, and one of their star wide receivers had just dropped another pass. They had one more down to go for the end zone and the win from the eight yard line.
    Stella stalled her pacing as Abel Redder, the Predators hot hot hot quarterback, got set under center. She held her breath as the ball was snapped.
    Redder dropped back and scanned the field. As the seconds ticked away, it seemed so did the Predators hope of that first round bye. Suddenly, Redder took off like a shot for the goal line.
    “Get your fine ass moving! Go Go Go Go! Woooooo!” Stella cheered as loud as she could. Redder dove into the end zone for a touchdown and the win.
    Stella slumped down onto her couch, out of breath and with a smile on her face. There were few things in this life better than watching football on a Sunday afternoon for Stella. She enjoyed everything about it. But most of all, spending all day watching...
     

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    A Different Kind of Fairy Tale
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    Dedication

    This book is dedicated to everyone who encouraged me to take a chance; most of all, my stepmother. Without her encouragement and help, I would not have followed through on my dream of writing. For this, I will always be thankful.

    Chapter 1

    “If you drop one more pass, I swear I’m going to jump through this TV and rip your balls off!”

    Stella Howe screamed and paced in front of her 55-inch flat screen television. Her favorite team, the Green Bay Predators, had a road game this week against the Washington Justice. They were down by six with ten seconds to go, and one of their star wide receivers had just dropped another pass. They had one more down to go for the end zone and the win from the eight yard line.

    Stella stalled her pacing as Abel Redder, the Predators hot hot hot quarterback, got set under center. She held her breath as the ball was snapped.

    Redder dropped back and scanned the field. As the seconds ticked away, it seemed so did the Predators hope of that first round bye. Suddenly, Redder took off like a shot for the goal line.

    “Get your fine ass moving! Go Go Go Go! Woooooo!” Stella cheered as loud as she could. Redder dove into the end zone for a touchdown and the win.

    Stella slumped down onto her couch, out of breath and with a smile on her face. There were few things in this life better than watching football on a Sunday afternoon for Stella. She enjoyed everything about it. But most of all, spending all day watching hot men in tight pants, bent over—what more could a girl want?

    Knock, Knock, Knock

    Before Stella could pull herself up off the couch, her door swung open. “Is the room safe from flying objects, or should I come back later?”

    Alex Gray, Stella’s next-door neighbor and best friend for the last three years, came strolling in with a smile on his gorgeous face. “I don’t know what you could possibly mean,” Stella replied with mock offense.

    “Since I could no longer hear your loud mouth through these incredibly thin walls, I just assumed the game was over and I would be free of bodily harm,” Alex replied. Knowing exactly what Alex was referring to, Stella cocked her head to the side to study him.

    “It was one time; and it’s not like you needed stitches when the pieces of the remote hit you. You barely needed a band aid.” Stella rolled her eyes at Alex.

    “One time? I wish it were a one-time thing. You, my dear, have scared away some of the toughest men I know with your outbursts. Kyle won’t even visit my apartment when a game is on, out of fear you’ll throw something through my wall. How one woman can get so worked up about a silly game is beyond me,” Alex stated.

    “Silly game? How dare you! This is serious business. They are in the playoffs; but if they don’t get their heads out of their asses, it’s going to be a short run. I’m simply motivating them; and if small innocent objects get broken in the meantime, so be it. And if Kyle is scared of little old me, his crew at the firehouse should be concerned about him watching their backs,” Stella said pointedly.

    Alex looked at Stella for a few seconds before finally giving in, and he burst out laughing. “I can’t believe you just said all that with a serious face. It’s a football game. And most of the men at Kyle’s station have seen you in action. I think they would understand his fear. I swear if I hadn’t accidentally walked in on you naked last summer, I’d be convinced you’re a man.” He had finally stopped laughing long enough to bring in a few deep breaths. Stella felt her face go a deep dark red at the memory of last summer.

    ****

    She had just gotten out of the shower and forgot a towel, so Stella left the bathroom and froze with her hand on the linen closet doorknob. Alex had waltzed into her apartment, like he always did, asking what she was making him for dinner. Only this time, instead of dinner, he was getting a show.

    Their eyes connected for a brief moment, and Stella thought she saw a flash of desire in his eyes. But as quickly as it had come, it was gone. Embarrassed beyond belief, Stella bolted for her bedroom.

    After slamming the door shut, she leaned back against it. Stella heard Alex’s footsteps getting closer. “Stella? Stella, answer me.”

    “Go away. I would like to die of embarrassment without you here.” Stella wanted the floor below to open up and swallow her whole. Men had seen her naked before, but this wasn’t just any man. This was her gorgeous, hot, sexy neighbor; a man she could not, and would not, think about in ways other than friendship.

    She had long ago conceded that she would never be more than a buddy to Alex. He dated women that looked like they should be on the cover of magazines or walking the runways of Paris. Not someone that couldn’t even tell you the difference between eyeliner and eye shadow; let alone how to put them on.

    Stella’s idea of dressing up was jeans and a T-shirt. She loved sports, beer, and food. In no way, shape, or form did she want to be a model, but one day she would like to be looked at as more than one of the guys.

    ****

    Stella glared at Alex for bringing up the second most embarrassing situation of her life, and for insulting her beloved Predators. She threw her hands in the air, let out a growl and went to the kitchen to finish some food she started earlier.

    As she went about getting the ingredients out of the refrigerator, and dropping chicken wings into the deep fryer, Alex came in and sat on a bar stool at the island to watch her work.

    “What are you making?”

    “Why should you care, you’re not getting any?”

    “What, why? Come on, Stella, I was just kidding earlier. Predators’ football is a big deal, and I hope they win it all this year. And seeing you naked was the highlight of my summer last year. Too bad you always remember to lock your door when you take a shower now,” Alex said with a wiggle of his eyebrows.

    “You’re just saying that because you smelled my amazing brownies baking and saw the honey barbeque wings cooking.” As soon as Stella said brownies and wings, she knew she had distracted him from anymore shower and naked talk.

    “Brownies? Wings? Where are they? Are they done yet? I will pledge my undying love to the Predators for both. ” Alex was talking a mile a minute and looking around frantically, and it made Stella laugh.

    “I’m sure the team will appreciate your support, even if it is over food,” Stella said dryly. “They are almost done, so let me finish getting the sauce ready, and then we can go eat in the living room and watch the post-game show. Here’s some mini quesadillas to hold you over.”

    “You’re the best. Although, since living next door to you I have let myself go. How am I going to find a woman looking like this?” Alex rubbed his hand in a dramatic rounding motion over his stomach.

    Since the day she moved into the building, Alex had been raiding her cabinets and containers for food. Anytime she made something from scratch, he was there. It’s like he had developed a sixth sense when she was cooking. It never bothered Stella, because she loved to cook, and liked even more that someone appreciated it. Even if it was someone totally off limits.

    Their easy friendship worked for her. She had enough going on in her life without the complications a man would bring; especially a man like Alex. All cool confidence and striking good looks. Been there, done that, got the broken heart to prove it.

    As Stella’s gaze trailed down Alex’s body she started laughing. “Yes, I see your point. Every woman hates a six foot two man with blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, washboard abs and muscles that scream: touch me. You just get more unattractive every day; poor baby. I guess I’ll have to cut you off from all of my food so I don’t feel bad for throwing off your game with the ladies.”
     
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    A Different Kind of Fairy Tale
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    Alex’s startled expression was priceless. “You will do no such thing. I’ll just have to turn up the charm so they ignore my love handles.” And with that, Alex grabbed another quesadilla, shoved it in his mouth, and smiled like a fool.

    Stella shook her head. She couldn’t believe she just said all of that to him. She turned away and finished up the BBQ sauce she was mixing. She pulled the wings from the fryer and tossed them with sauce. As soon as she set the bowl down, Alex pounced.

    “Let them cool down,” Stella scolded. “If you want a woman so bad, please never let them see you around chicken wings. No amount of charm can make up for a ring of BBQ sauce around your mouth and the stain on your shirt. Seriously, use a napkin. I don’t have time to clean up after you. I have to head to the office in a little bit.”

    “It’s not all chicken wings; just yours. And, it’s Sunday. Why do you have to go in? You’re the boss. Give yourself the day off,” Alex said around a mouth full of chicken.

    “I have three weddings this weekend; plus all the clients coming in for the day to day shoots, too. I need to make sure everything is ready. Plus I need to do some cleaning at the studio.” Stella could already feel the tension of the week set in from just saying her schedule aloud.

    “You work too hard. You need to learn to say ‘no’, Stella. It’s not healthy. You hardly sleep or eat, and let’s not mention your social life because you, my dear, don’t have one. You’re twenty-seven, not fifty-seven. You need some fun in your life, not just work.” Alex looked at her with concern filled eyes.

    Stella knew all of this. It’s nothing she hadn’t heard from Alex before, let alone her sister and assistant, Lindsay. But she had worked hard to build her photography studio into what it was today. She was proud of what she had accomplished in just three short years. She refused to fail, and taking time off or cutting back was not an option. Stella would not chance losing even one client.

    ****

    When you grow up constantly worrying about whether you will have a place to live, have food in your stomach, or if the power will be on when you get home, it is a pretty big motivator to work hard.

    Hard work, the one lesson Stella wished her mom would have learned. Instead, Tina Howe had lived for herself, and would take from whomever she could. The only use her children had in her life was for child support. She, in turn, spent it on going out boozing with whatever flavor of the week she had at the time; leaving her two daughters at home to survive on their own.

    And survived they had. She and her sister had both been toward the top of their classes, worked hard, and became two very successful and independent women.

    Stella loved her sister. Victoria was outgoing, beautiful, and Stella’s best friend aside from Alex. She was always popular in school, and had an eye for fashion and hair; an eye that landed her a scholarship to the top art institute in Chicago. Victoria had excelled at the institute and now had her own stylist firm in downtown Chicago. They were best friends and always there for each other no matter what else was going on in their lives.

    Stella was the baby of the family and so different from her sister in looks and personality that she sometimes wondered how they were related. Her sister was around five foot one, and Stella was just shy of five foot eight. While her sister was skinny with long blond hair, Stella had thick chestnut brown hair and a curvier athletic build. She knew that was just the way her body was made, no matter what her mother said.

    According to Tina, Stella needed to be on a constant diet so that she could be as beautiful and well-shaped as her sister. Her sister knew how to do her hair and make-up and always dressed in the current style. Stella was a tomboy through and through. Throw on a pair of jeans, a T-shirt or hoodie and she was happy. Her hair was pulled up in a ponytail most of the time, too. Put Stella in a pair of heels, and you might as well be asking to spend the night in the E.R with her.

    Just one more thing her mother threw at her during one of her many fits of rage. How no man would ever want to marry a chubby buddy, when they could have someone like Victoria as arm candy. It had been five years since Stella had seen her mother. She had finally given up on her mother ever changing. That still didn’t stop Tina from calling to try and weasel money from her, though.

    Stella’s childhood wasn’t all bad, however. Going to her dad’s house, every other weekend, was like a vacation from hell. She knew without a doubt that she was loved there. Stella was, if nothing else, Daddy’s little girl. Their weekends were spent playing basketball or softball outside. Stella tried like hell to beat him at a game of horse, but failed miserably.

    In the winters, they would play board games or video games—Madden being their favorite, because they could trash talk each other’s teams. They watched movies; mostly old westerns, war movies, or Star Wars. He would ask her about school or whatever else was going on in her life at the time.

    Stella knew her dad had always wanted a son, but she was as close as he ever got; which was fine with her. Stella could never see herself as a girly girl. Sure, she sometimes wished she could turn heads like Victoria, especially one particular man’s head, but she was comfortable with who she was.

    A few years after her parents divorced, John had remarried. Penny was a breath of fresh air. She was more of a mom to Stella than her own. Penny taught Stella everything she knew about cooking. They would spend hours in the kitchen, trying new recipes or laughing about any number of things. Life at her dad’s house was the break Stella’s soul needed to make it through the other parts of her life.

    If it hadn’t been for her sister and all her friends at school, Stella would have asked to move in with her dad and Penny. Her dad knew very little of the hell his daughters lived in. The constant yelling and hitting was not something her and Victoria liked to talk about.

    ****

    Stella needed to stop dwelling on the past and move on. Her business was great. She talked to and saw her family and friends as often as she could, and aside from her mother constantly trying to borrow money from her, Stella’s life couldn’t be better. Unless she thought about the fact that she hadn’t had sex for three years and counting. Not since the day she walked in on her ex, Kevin, in her bed, with her now ex-friend Heidi.

    She refused to give a man the power to hurt her ever again. If and when she decided to put herself back out there, she was going to look for an average guy; average in every part of his life. Never again would she fall for the charming, good-looking, sweet talker type; the ones that as soon as they so much as say hi, your panties are hitting the floor. They say you’re all they ever think about, while sleeping with your friend behind your back.

    ****

    Chapter 2

    “Earth to Stella.” Alex waved an impatient hand in front of her face.

    “Sorry, what were you saying?” Stella shook her head as if to clear some unwanted thought from her mind. Alex sat for a moment just staring at her. She had bags under her eyes and had lost quite a bit of weight in the last few months.

    “I said, you need to eat some food, get some sleep, and take better care of yourself. I hate seeing you like this.”

    Stella rolled her eyes as she always did and brushed his concerns aside with a mumbled, “I’m fine.”
     
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    “Damn it, you’re not fine. When is the last time you ate a decent meal; let alone slept for more than three or four hours a night?” Alex was getting more and more frustrated with Stella. He had watched as she built up her business and let it take over her whole life. She never took time off, and when she wasn’t at the studio, she was in her home office going over details for upcoming shoots.

    He wanted to pull her close and hold her until she listened to reason and took a much needed nap in his arms. Mentally smacking himself, he quickly let that thought slide away.

    Stella had been Alex’s best friend for three years. She was one of the only people he could talk to who actually listened. His buddy Kyle was great to hang out with and drink beer, but not a great listener; unless the subject was sports or hot chicks. Stella, on the other hand, was one of the guys; but would also listen if he needed her to. She never judged, gave great advice, and was the most loyal person he knew. Not to mention her amazing cooking skills.

    Every time he started to let his romantic feelings for Stella come to the surface, he quickly pushed them back down. He thought about everything he would lose if he told her how he felt.

    If she didn’t return his feelings, which at this point he was pretty sure was the case, there would be an awkwardness hanging over them every time he saw her. If she did have the same feelings and they tried and failed at a relationship, he would lose his best friend and girlfriend all in one shot. Girlfriends came and went, but a friend like Stella was one in a million. That was not a risk he was willing to take.

    “Well, instead of having a repeat conversation like the last two, I’m going to head home.” Alex tried to keep his tone even, but judging by the look on Stella’s face, he had failed.

    Alex got up from the bar stool, walked over to give Stella a hug and kiss on the cheek, said a quick good-bye, and headed for her door. He knew trying to talk to her was a lost cause. The woman was as stubborn as a mule.

    “Wait! Don’t you want to take these with you? I’ll never be able to eat them all myself.” Stella came in the living room holding the bowl of wings and smiled. Damn her and her hold over him and his stomach.

    Alex snatched the bowl from her; then for good measure, walked back into the kitchen for the pan of brownies that had been cooling on the counter. He thanked her for both and headed back to his apartment. As he closed the door behind him, he heard Stella sigh. He didn’t know if it was out of frustration over their conversation, or the fact that he had just stolen all of her brownies.

    ****

    Three years ago, Alex was in the middle of another “chat” with his then girlfriend, Sarah. It was the same thing constantly. “I don’t think we want the same things.” “Care more.” “You never take me anywhere nice.” He knew he needed to end it, but he didn’t know how. Most women would have dumped him by now, but Sarah seemed to think she could “fix” him. He wasn’t a bad guy. He just didn’t see the need in going out every night to eat, or buying presents for anything other than birthdays and holidays. Sadly, all the women he attracted were the high maintenance type that required all of the above.

    He heard a woman shriek outside his door, then a string of curse words that would have made a sailor blush. He got up from the couch without a second thought to Sarah and her “issues”, and headed for the door.

    As he opened the door, he saw a tall, brown haired woman balancing a moving box between her and the wall. He couldn’t see her face, but he had a hard time believing this was the woman that had let such colorful vocabulary fly.

    She had long legs that led to an incredible ass, a waist that was made for grabbing and holding onto as she was bent over the back of a couch, and long hair pulled back in a ponytail that he had the sudden urge to wrap tightly around his hand. He was broken out of his wandering thoughts when another string of expletives proceeded out of her mouth as she tried to get a better grip on the box.

    She was dangerously close to falling down the stairs if she adjusted the wrong way, so he quickly reached out to steady her and grab the box.

    When he finally got a look at her surprised face, he was held in place by the most amazing eyes he’d ever seen. They were big and round and the oddest color of green mixed with gold around the center. Then there were her lips. Those plump, juicy lips that Alex could easily imagine wrapped around his dick. He stared for what felt like minutes, when he suddenly realized they were still by the stairs. He pulled her and the box back out of harm’s way.

    “Thank you. I thought I could make the two flights of stairs no problem. Clearly the box was heavier than I thought. I’m Stella, by the way. I’m moving into apartment 2B.” Alex stood still for a few seconds longer than he should, and then readjusted the box he had taken from her and shook the rambling woman’s out stretched hand.

    “I’m Alex. I live in 2A. So I guess I’m your new neighbor. Would you like me to carry this in for you? It is a little heavier than it looks. What did you pack; bowling balls?”

    With a laugh, Stella opened the door to her apartment and Alex followed her through the door. A few pieces of furniture and some boxes were strewn around the living room.

    The apartment was just like his. The floor plan was open, with a wall of floor to ceiling windows in the living room. You could see from the living room through the modern kitchen to the hallway at the back that leads to two nice size bedrooms. A small bathroom was in the hallway along with a laundry room. The master bedroom was large, with a private bath and walk in closet.

    “You can set that down on the kitchen island if you want.” Stella’s voice, which had a husky rasp to it, pulled Alex out of his haze. He walked over and set the box down.

    For such a small box, it weighed a ton. As if reading his mind she said, “That box has all my cookbooks in it. I didn’t think I had that many. Guess I should have labeled the boxes better.”

    “So you like to cook? Are you any good, or are these books your attempt not to poison people?” Alex smirked and hoped she knew he was kidding. He thought she did, too, until the most crushing look came across her face. It looked like she was going to cry, and then he heard the first sniffle come from her.

    Suddenly feeling like the world’s biggest jackass, he started muttering, “I’m so sorry. I was just kidding. Please don’t be upset. I swear it was a joke. Please don’t cry.”

    Just as Alex was prepared to get on his knees and beg for forgiveness, Stella did something he didn’t expect. She laughed, and they were not girly little giggles. It was a full on, tears rolling down her face, body shaking laugh. One look at his stunned face only made her laugh harder. After several seconds, she composed herself enough to stand up and talk to him.

    “I’m sorry for laughing.” She looked anything but sorry. “You’re just too easy. Men can’t take a woman crying. It always gets me. You didn’t upset me. If I got upset over a guy thinking I can’t cook, I would need medication for the bigger problems in my life.” And as Stella said that last sentence, all traces of humor left her face.

    Alex knew enough about women to know not to ask what big problems she may have. Especially when it was clear it wasn’t something she wanted to talk about. Instead, he went for a much lighter conversation.
     
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    “I can already tell living next to you is going to keep me on my toes.” She relaxed once again. All the sadness leaving her face. “Now back to the cooking thing. Can you really cook; because if you can, you are now my new best friend?” Stella gave the cutest blush.

    “I’ve been known to throw together little things here and there. And as you so elegantly put it, nobody’s been poisoned yet.” Stella stepped around him and headed back toward the living room.

    “Do you have more boxes to carry up? I could help if you need me to.” Just as he had gotten the last word out, an annoyed sigh came from the open front door.

    “Alex, what the hell do you think you’re doing? We were in the middle of a conversation. I don’t appreciate being ignored. Now, come back so we can finish this, and then you can take me to get some dinner.” Sarah stood in the doorway, staring at Stella with clear aggression. If how she was looking at Stella wasn’t enough, her comments toward him tripped the wrong trigger inside him. No one gave him orders; especially someone looking to continue a relationship with him.

    “I think we are finished with this, Sarah. Please don’t call me or contact me ever again. You can take your demands and holier than thou attitude and go to hell.” Alex wasn’t normally such an ass, but this was the last straw. How he had put up with Sarah for the last six months was beyond him. He felt like a hundred and ten pound weight had been lifted off his shoulders and out of his bed. Without a second thought, he turned his back to Sarah.

    With a very un-ladylike growl, Sarah turned on her heels and stalked back to his apartment. After he heard the sound of his front door slamming and her high heels click clacking down the stairs, he turned to Stella. “I apologize for her rudeness.”

    Stella stared at him for all of two seconds before she blurted out, “Why are you apologizing? What a bitch!”

    Her bluntness made him laugh. “I couldn’t have said it better myself. I guess I should have done that in private. I’m not normally such an ass. We were having so much fun before her little interruption. Can we forget it happened? Why don’t we finish getting your stuff up here and then I’ll order pizza as a sort of ‘welcome to the building’ thing.”

    “That sounds like a great idea, as long as you’re not a big baby. I like my pizza fully loaded. None of that ‘supreme, but take everything off but the pepperoni’ stuff.” He liked her even more now. “And by the way, I think you had every right to act the way you did. I’m pretty sure the only time I’ve seen a woman be that nasty was in a movie. How long were you together?”

    “You are a woman after my own heart.” He placed his hands over his heart and sighed. “The greasier the better; and to answer your question, six long months,” Alex replied with a dramatic shudder.

    Stella laughed. “Well the look your girlfriend just gave you said you have no heart,” she said with a mischievous grin, “but if that’s how she was all the time, you deserve a medal for not throwing her and her high heels out a window long before now.”

    Stella was unlike any woman he had ever met. She didn’t seem to have five layers of make up on. In fact, she wasn’t wearing any at all. She spoke her mind and didn’t care who was around. And she liked to eat. Where had this woman been all his life?

    Alex spent the rest of the night helping Stella unpack. She didn’t have a lot, so it went fairly quickly. They talked and laughed like they had been friends for years, instead of hours. He had learned that she just got out of a relationship, but didn’t say much beyond that, and he didn’t push.

    He watched her unpack several Green Bay Predators knick-knacks and souvenirs and started poking fun at all of them. She turned steely eyes on him and gave him one warning.

    “I will tell you this only once. No one insults my beloved Predators, in my home, and gets away unharmed. You have been warned.” Alex’s only reply was the shocked expression left on his face from her words.

    ****

    And so began the best friendship he had ever had. After three years, they still made each other laugh. Sometimes they got on each other’s nerves, but that was mostly when he was poking fun at her beloved Predators, or she was withholding her excellent food from him for said offense. Nothing was going to change. He wouldn’t let it. Now, if only he could convince his heart and other body parts to listen to his head.

    ****

    Chapter 3

    Stella pulled up to the back of her studio and turned the car off. She looked up and couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride. Since opening Picture Perfect Studios three years ago, her life had been a lesson in long days and sleepless nights.

    Making the decision to open her own photography business at one of the lowest points in her life was frightening. Stella second guessed herself every step of the way. Until one day she woke up and realized she had to do this one thing for herself.

    ****

    When she passed the building her studio was currently in, everything had clicked into place. She called the realtor, made an offer, and signed all the paperwork sixty days later.

    Since that time, she did everything from baby pictures to weddings and everything in between. After the first year, she had finally broken down and hired an assistant.

    Lindsay Pierce had been a lifesaver. During her interview, Stella had felt an instant connection. Lindsay was quiet and shy. She had long red hair and wore simple clothes that did nothing to show off the figure Stella could tell was hiding under the too big clothes. She seemed jumpy, but Stella figured it was nerves over the interview. After twenty minutes, Stella knew her search for an assistant was over, and had never once regretted her decision.

    Two years later, Lindsay was someone Stella had come to count on and listen to when she had an idea. She also considered her a friend. Along with being extremely well organized and great with clients, Lindsay had an artistic eye that rivaled Stella’s. Lindsay had gone from quiet and shy, to downright feisty.

    She no longer hid herself behind her long hair and frumpy clothes. Lindsay could light up any room she was in. She still didn’t talk about her life before starting at Picture Perfect much, but Stella chalked it up to her being a private person.

    ****

    Now with business booming, they were busier than ever. In the last couple of months, she had started debating on hiring a part time photographer to take care of the day-to-day photos, while she traveled to ones on location.

    Stella walked in the studio, mind wandering, and quickly realized she wasn’t alone. All the lights were on in the backroom and she could hear items being moved around. Stella grabbed in her purse for the pepper spray Alex had insisted she buy. Her studio was in a good neighborhood on the outskirts of Chicago, but she was often alone and he said he would feel better if she at least had some protection.

    Just as her fingers found the can, she heard a familiar voice. “Stella, is that you? I’m in the back.” Lindsay!

    “Yes it’s me. What are you doing here?” Stella asked as she approached the storage room Lindsay was currently in.

    “Alex called me a little while ago and said you were headed down here. I wasn’t doing anything, so I figured I’d come help you get everything sorted out for the week.” Lindsay spoke as she rearranged backdrops and props for the shoots scheduled for tomorrow.
     
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    “He shouldn’t have done that. I would have been fine on my own,” Stella said on an exasperated sigh.

    “We all know you can do it on your own, but you don’t have to. He’s worried about you, and so am I. You look like you’ve aged ten years in the last few months, and you’ve lost weight from not eating enough. It’s okay to ask for help, Stella.” Lindsay had stopped working and looked Stella straight in the eyes. All Stella could do was shake her head and walk to her office, with Lindsay hot on her heels.

    “I’m fine. We’ve just been extra busy lately. The holidays are over so everything will slow down. As for the weight, it’s not like I couldn’t stand to lose a little anyway.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she regretted them.

    Lindsay’s face went bright red and she looked like she was going to blow a gasket. “How many times do I have to tell you that you look amazing? Stella you are one of the most beautiful women I know, inside and out. You didn’t need to lose weight and you still don’t. Whatever bullshit your mother drilled into your head about needing to be a size zero to be happy is wrong. Curves are beautiful, and I wish I had yours.”

    Stella knew Lindsay was right. She was healthy, stayed active, and her body was normal, but every once in a while her mother’s voice was there in her head; warping her view of her stomach and legs into something unattractive. “I’m sorry. I don’t know where that came from. I know I look okay. The doubts just creep in every now and then.”

    “You should never let anyone make you feel that way about yourself.” Lindsay now had a sad look in her eyes. One Stella hadn’t seen her have in a long time.

    “I know. I promise it was the last time.” She gave Lindsay a smile and she smiled back. Lindsay shook her head and walked back out of the office. Stella sat her purse on her desk and reached for the phone. On the third ring, he picked up.

    “Let me guess, you don’t appreciate me calling Lindsay and voicing my concerns about your well-being, and I should mind my own business. How am I doing so far?” Alex sounded pleased with himself for knowing her so well.

    “Lindsay deserves a day off, Alex. I wasn’t going to be doing so much that I need her here,” Stella said with as much exasperation as she could muster.

    “You need a day off, too. So why don’t you tell Lindsay to go home and you do the same. I’ll take you out for some dinner, and if you’re nice to me, a movie too. But no chick flicks.” Alex finally finished his ramblings.

    “I’m not happy with you right now. I don’t know what it’s going to take for you to believe I’m fine. It’s just been a crazy couple of months. Christmas is over and all the craziness should be done now. How is dragging me all over town going to get me the rest you say I need?” Stella pointed out.

    Alex sighed. “Fine! But will you at least call it a day. I’ll order take out and we can watch something on Netflix at my place. I’m sure we can find a Bruce Willis movie for you to drool over.”

    “I just got here, but if it will get you off my back for a while, I will only work for an hour then leave. Does that make you happy?” Stella could not get any more sarcasm in that last question.

    “Extremely, now what would you like for dinner?” Alex asked a little too happily.

    “I want sushi from Chop Sticks, with a side order of egg rolls and Chow Mein.” Stella could already taste the delicious Chinese food on her tongue and barely stifled a moan. Chop Sticks had the best take-out in their neighborhood.

    “Text me when you’re leaving, and I’ll place the order. I’ll see you in a bit. Bye.” And with that, Alex hung up. With one nagging friend taken care of, for now at least, all Stella had to do was get Lindsay out of here.

    Stella sat down at her desk and checked her emails. Then she pulled out her planner to go through her schedule for the week when an appointment jumped out at her.

    “Lindsay, can you come in here please?” Stella said a little louder and shakier than she would have liked.

    “What’s up? Do you need me to get you something?” Lindsay asked sweetly, as if Stella’s world wasn’t currently spinning off its axis.

    “Did you write this appointment in my planner? And if so, please tell me it was your attempt at a horrible joke.” Stella could barely stop her hand from shaking as she pointed to the appointment in question.

    Lindsay rounded the desk and looked down at the planner. Stella knew the moment reality set in by the look of sheer horror on Lindsay’s face.

    “Stella, I am so sorry. I didn’t put two and two together. I’ll make this right. I’ll call and let them know that this meeting won’t be happening. Why the hell would they have called here in the first place? They have to know you’re the photographer. What sort of sick game are they playing?” Lindsay was already grabbing for the phone when Stella stopped her.

    “It’s ok, Lindsay. I’ll take care of it. Hopefully it’s all a horrible mistake.” Who was she kidding? Stella knew better. “I think we are done for today. You can head out. I’ll be right behind you.” Stella didn’t want Lindsay around for the meltdown that was sure to happen as soon as she was alone.

    Right there in front of her, written in blue ink, were the names Kevin Montgomery and Heidi Shaw. They were looking for a wedding photographer. Stella had not seen or spoken to either of them since the day she caught them in bed together; her bed. The same bed she shared with Kevin for over a year. And now, with a cruel twist of fate, they were getting married and were looking to hire her as their photographer.

    “Are you sure? I can take care of it. It’s not a problem. It’s my fault that the appointment was made,” Lindsay finished with a pained look on her face.

    “Lindsay, it’s really ok. I’m a big girl. I’ll call them tomorrow and get it all straightened out. Go ahead. Alex bribed me with Chinese food to quit work for today, so I’m headed home too. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

    With one final apology, Lindsay grabbed her things and left. Stella sat frozen at her desk. For three years, Stella had put her heart and soul into making her business a success. Only now, sitting staring at the two names that had turned her world upside down, she realized she had worked to avoid dealing with just how much their betrayal had hurt her.

    ****

    Stella had asked her manager at the Crimson Café to leave early. Kevin didn’t have to work late at the law firm for once, and she was hoping to surprise him with a special dinner and an even better dessert.

    As Stella drove home, she stopped at her favorite lingerie store for a hot pink and black teddy she had been eyeing for a while. Every woman had their weakness. Some were shoes or purses. Stella’s weakness was expensive lingerie. She loved feeling silks and satins against her skin. And if she had to pay extra for that luxury, it was worth it.

    After another stop at the grocery store, to get all the ingredients for Kevin’s favorite meal, she headed home. As Stella pulled into the driveway of the house she and Kevin rented together, she was surprised to see his car already in the driveway. “So much for surprises,” Stella murmured as she made her way up the front steps.
     
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    Just as she pushed through the front door she heard voices coming from somewhere in the house. After placing all the bags in the kitchen, Stella went in search of Kevin and whomever he was talking to. When she realized they were coming from the bedroom, her spine started to tingle with an uneasy feeling.

    She slowly pushed the door open and was cemented to the floor. The view in front of her was something she couldn’t have imagined in her worst nightmare. Kevin lay on the bed running his hands over every part of a leggy blonde. But on a closer look, it wasn’t just any leggy blonde. It was Stella’s best friend since high school, Heidi Shaw.

    Stella must have made a noise, because all of a sudden there was a flurry of blankets and clothes as they both flew from the bed. “What are you doing home? I thought you worked until six?” Kevin gasped out as he tried to shove his boxers back on.

    “Please, don’t let me interrupt. You both seemed to be enjoying yourselves. I had this crazy idea to come home early and cook you dinner as a thank you for all the hard work you’ve done lately. But I see you’ve already had your dessert, so there really is no point.” With that said, Stella turned and all but ran from the room.

    Just as she reached the front door, soft hands grabbed her. “Stella, wait! Let me explain. It’s not what you think.” Heidi stopped her from leaving.

    “You weren’t just riding my boyfriend like a whore on a rollercoaster. I really should get to the eye doctor, then, because that’s exactly what I saw. Now, unless you want to lose the use of your right hand, I suggest you remove it from my arm.” Heidi let Stella’s arm go and stepped back.

    “Please don’t do this. I never meant to hurt you. It just happened.” As Heidi finished her pathetic plea, Kevin joined them in the living room. Stella glared at him.

    “I will be back here tomorrow to get my stuff. If you so much as show your face while I’m here, I will personally make sure you can’t walk for a week. You can keep the bed, even though it’s mine. The thought of ever laying any part of my body on it again makes me sick to my stomach.” Stella turned around and walked to her car with all the calm she didn’t feel. She had backed out of the driveway and made it to the end of the street before the first tear fell.

    ****

    With that last thought screaming in her ears, Stella walked around turning off all the lights and locked the doors. Once she reached her car, Stella sat there trying to decide what to do. She could go home and stuff herself with Chinese food and watch Bruce Willis blow shit up and kick ass.

    That option, however, involved seeing Alex and explaining why she was about to have a stroke. The other option was that she could head to the nearest bar and try to drink away all the memories of that one horrible day. With the decision made, she backed out of the parking lot.

    Rum trumped Chinese food any day!

    ****

    Chapter 4

    Alex was breathing hard, his muscles were on fire, and he was covered in sweat. After Stella had called, he decided to get a quick workout in before she was set to be to his place. He walked out of his spare bedroom, which he used as his home gym, and went to get a bottle of water.

    Stella had said she would work another hour, but as Alex checked the clock for the hundredth time, it seemed she had lied and was putting in more work. He was just picking up his cell phone to call and nag her, when it went off.

    “Hello?”

    “Alex, its Lindsay, is Stella there? I’m trying to get hold of her, and she’s not answering.” Lindsay had a slight panic to her voice that caught Alex’s attention.

    “No, she hasn’t come back yet. I thought you were going into the office to help her out? Did something come up?” Alex took a sip of his water and waited for Lindsay to continue.

    “I was at the studio when she got there. I started giving her grief about her working so much, and she went to her office. I left her alone to go finish up what I had been working on when she yelled for me to come to her office. There was an appointment I had written down in her planner that she apparently hadn’t seen yet. God, Alex! I’m such an idiot. The appointment was for a possible wedding client. It was Kevin and Heidi. I didn’t realize at the time that’s who it was.” Every word after that last sentence was lost on Alex.

    On the few occasions Stella had actually opened up about her split with Kevin, Alex could see the pain that was still in her eyes from it all. “What happened after she saw it? Did you get it cancelled for her?” Alex had a feeling he was not going to like Lindsay’s answer.

    “I told her I would take care of it, but she assured me that she would handle it. Then she said you had bribed her with Chinese food, so I could go ahead and leave because she would be right behind me. I left her alone in her office, thinking she was going to leave then.” Alex had never heard Lindsay sound so pained, but that still didn’t keep the bite out of his next words.

    “What do you mean you left her alone? How could you leave her alone after she saw something like that?” Alex was in full-blown panic mode. Stella was God knows where, with the knowledge that her ex-boyfriend and the woman he cheated on her with were getting married; not only were they getting married, but wanted to hire Stella as their photographer. If he was ever within two feet of Kevin Montgomery, he was going to tear him limb for limb.

    “I’m sorry, Alex. I should have called you as soon as I left. I’ve tried her cell a bunch of times, but I keep getting her voicemail. She must have turned it off.” Lindsay sounded just as worked up as Alex did. Any other woman would have come straight home and had a good cry. But Stella Howe was not just any woman. She was stubborn, independent, and refused to let anyone see her vulnerable side.

    “It’s alright, Lindsay. I’ll head to the studio and see if she’s there. If I can’t find her, I’ll call you back.” Alex hoped he sounded calm enough to relieve some of Lindsay’s worry.

    “Yes, please do. I’m so worried about her. She never really talked about everything that happened, but I know she was really upset today.” With that last bit of information, she hung up.

    Alex quickly headed to his bedroom to throw on some clothes. He had planned on showering before Stella got there, but seeing as this was an emergency, people could deal with him being sweaty and gross. Just as he opened his dresser drawer to grab a T-shirt and jeans, he heard the door to Stella’s apartment open.

    “She’s home. Thank God!” Alex made his way to the front door. He pulled it open and stopped. There, sitting in her doorway, with one hand still on the knob and her back leaned against the door, was Stella.

    “Alex!” Stella shouted.

    Great! Alex thought. Not only had she been drinking, but she was absolutely smashed.

    “Hi Stella, been doing a little drinking have you?” Alex couldn’t help but smile as she made an adorable scrunched up face while thinking about her answer.

    “Nope, been doing a lot of drinking.” She ran an appraising eye up and down his bare chest and smiled. “What have you been doing, playing naked roller coaster with some super-hot, skinny model? That’s what all the boys are doing these days.” With that final statement, Stella’s door gave way and she fell backward into her apartment.
     
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    Alex stood there watching as her back and head hit the floor. “Stella, are you alright? Would you like me to help you up?” Her only response was a very small giggle.

    “You look yummy from down here.” Alex was standing above Stella, trying to assess if she was hurt. “Maybe I should stop wearing underwear under my clothes, too. It would be one less complication in my life.” He stared dumbfounded at the woman lying on the floor, until Stella’s words finally registered in Alex’s brain and he jumped back several feet.

    Alex had always worked out in athletic shorts and nothing else. It was in the privacy of his own home, and there wasn’t a chance of anyone seeing his nether regions, so why constrict himself. Now he was beginning to question that decision.

    Since he couldn’t leave Stella laid out in the doorway to her apartment while he went to change, he quickly scooped her up off the floor and headed toward her bedroom.

    On the way to the bedroom, Stella was all hands. She was twisting and turning and touching everywhere on Alex she could get to.

    “I’ve always wondered what your muscles would feel like under my hands. It’s even better than I imagined. Only, I always thought you’d be sweaty from some acrobatic sex, not whatever you’ve been up to.” Alex stumbled momentarily at her admission, but he held tight to Stella and got his footing back. Stella’s wandering hands were gliding over his biceps to his chest and then lower still to map each individual abdominal muscle.

    “Stella, stop! You’re drunk and don’t know what you’re saying or doing. I’m going to take you to your bed, lay you down, get you a glass of water and an aspirin, and let you pass out in peace.” It took all of Alex’s willpower not to notice how perfectly Stella fit against his chest, or how right her hands felt exploring his body like he’d imagined her doing for so long.

    Just when he didn’t think he could keep his body under control any longer, he was lying Stella down on her bed.

    “Don’t leave. I wasn’t done exploring yet. I haven’t gotten to the best part!” Stella attempted to snag Alex back to her, but he was just out of reach of her greedy little hands.

    “Behave. What is wrong with you? I’ve never seen you like this. How much did you have to drink? What did you have to drink actually?” Alex was staring into Stella’s unfocused eyes as she let out a sigh.

    “Why is the rum gone?” Stella asked before she broke into another round of giggles. Well that explained what she drank. Now all he needed was for her to talk to him about why, instead of coming home and talking to him, she drowned her feelings in a bottle.

    But talking to a drunk about anything was a challenge; especially, when that drunk is unbelievably sexy and trying to use your body as a scratching post. It was impossible.

    “Sweetheart, I need you to talk to me. How did you get home?” Alex asked, hoping Stella had not driven herself.

    “I rode in a car,” Stella stated with a serious face.

    “What car? Was it yours? Because I swear if you drove home in the state you’re in, I will bend you over my knee and spank your ass this instant.” Alex groaned and looked to the ceiling. Why did he have to say the one thing he knew he shouldn’t? And why did it look like Stella wanted him to do just that?

    “Well, now I want to lie and say yes. You don’t make telling the truth easy on a girl.” Stella was sprawled out in what she probably thought was a seductive pose. When, in all reality, she looked like a rag doll that had been thrown on the bed.

    “Stella, I’m going to get you some water. Please stay on the bed and try not to fall off.” She gave him a salute and Alex left the room; coming back a few minutes later with a tall glass of water and two aspirin he had found in her bathroom cabinet.

    Stella was still in the same spot he had left her. Only now, adorable snoring sounds were coming from her unconscious body. Alex shook his head and placed the water and pills on her nightstand. After carefully removing her coat, shoes, and socks; which right now were the only articles of clothing his poor nerves could handle being removed from her, Alex gently moved Stella’s head to rest on her pillow. He pulled her comforter up to her chin, kissed her on the cheek, and with one last look back, left the room.

    After picking up her purse and keys from the entryway, Alex made sure her lights were off and the door was locked, before leaving her to sleep it off.

    Once back in his apartment, Alex threw himself down on the couch. What the hell had that all been about? Since when had Stella become so sensual and provocative? And why was she talking about his body like it was a present she couldn’t wait to unwrap?

    Alex had to keep reminding himself of the circumstances. She was drunk and dealing with a very emotional situation right now. It didn’t mean anything. She would have acted the same way with anyone else. That thought made Alex see red. He needed to get his head together; both of them. After placing a quick call to Lindsay to let her know Stella made it home safe, Alex went to take a shower.

    As the warm water cascaded over his tense muscles, all Alex could think about was the woman sleeping in the next apartment. How right she had felt against his bare chest. How the spark of desire he had seen in her eyes was now igniting what was turning out to be one of the most painful erections he had ever had. No matter how hard he tried, Alex could not will it away.

    After washing his hair and body, Alex took his hard shaft in hand. With a firm grip, he began pumping up and down with quick jerks. With every pass of his hand over the sensitized head, Alex’s mind imagined Stella on her knees in front of him; placing her warm wet mouth over the head and with almost painful suction taking him all the way to the root.

    This wasn’t the first fantasy Stella had starred in where Alex was concerned. After last summer, anytime he needed a release all he had to do was think about her strong athletic body coming out of her bathroom naked, and he was on the edge in seconds.

    With that final thought in his head, Alex’s seed exploded all over the back wall of his shower. His hand kept sliding up and down his now semi erect shaft until every last spasm had left his body.

    As he turned the water off and went to get ready for bed, one thing kept running through Alex’s mind. How was he going to keep his feelings bottled up inside now that he knew how good her hands felt on his skin, and that she had apparently thought about him or at least his body a time or two herself?

    Alex got in bed and fell into an uneasy sleep. Dreaming of a dark haired woman that meant more to him than any one person should.

    ****

    Chapter 5

    Ring…Ring…Ring

    Stella tried to open her eyes enough to locate her phone and destroy it. Had the stupid thing always been that loud and obnoxious? When she finally got one eye opened, she did a quick scan of the room.

    She was definitely in her bed, wearing yesterday’s clothes and feeling like she had been the victim of a mob beating. The question was how she had gotten here? The last thing she remembered was waving down a cab in front of Bart’s Bar around the corner from her studio.

    As Stella slowly made her way to a seated position and propped herself up against her headboard, the memories from last night came flooding back.

    Kevin and Heidi getting married, drinking what was probably a whole bottle of rum at Bart’s, falling on the floor in her doorway, Alex nearly naked, Alex holding her, her feeling up Alex and confessing her desire to touch him, Alex taking care of her and being the gentleman he always was with her. God she was pathetic. Even drunk she couldn’t interest a man.
     
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    And this is why you don’t drink, Stella. The very small filter you normally have is virtually non-existent when you add alcohol. She mentally scolded herself while trying to remember every detail of what she said and did last night. How had she let this happen? Alex probably thinks she’s crazy or psychotic or both. He should have just left her on the floor of the walkway and hoped someone came along and kidnapped her.

    The room was dark, but Stella could just make out the faintest hint of pre-dawn light peeking over the horizon. “Death is coming to take me away,” Stella murmured as she watched the day approach.

    Her phone had stopped ringing, only to be replaced by the pounding in her head. Set to crawl her way to the bathroom for some much needed medicine, Stella paused when she spotted the glass of water and pills sitting on her nightstand. Alex! Of course he thought of everything. He wouldn’t want her to die without the chance to torture her endlessly about what a fool she had made of herself last night.

    Stella picked up the aspirin and gulped down half the glass of water. Her mouth felt like the Sahara Desert. As she started to get out of bed, she heard her front door open. A few minutes passed and she could hear the telltale signs of coffee being made and pots and pans clanging and banging around.

    She quietly walked down the hall, only to stop a few feet from the kitchen; she stood there staring. Alex was in her kitchen, moving around like he owned the place, making breakfast. He had just added a few stripes of bacon to a pan when he turned around and saw her standing there.

    “Sorry if I woke you. I was hoping to get this all done before I had to wake you up for work. I figured your alarm would be too much for the headache you must have. How are you feeling?” Confused, humiliated, embarrassed, and mortified. Stella could think of a million things she was feeling, but the most elegant thing she could come up with was “Like shit.” And with that she moved the last few feet into the kitchen and sat down on a barstool.

    “Coffee just got done. Would you like some, or do you want juice?” Alex was talking and acting like nothing was wrong. Like she hadn’t tried to attack him last night and pretty much beg him to let her have her naughty way with him.

    “Coffee would be great, thanks.” Alex smiled at her as he set the steaming cup of happy in front of her. She gave him what she hoped was a smile and took one giant gulp of the coffee in front of her.

    “Shit! That’s hot!” Stella was not only a stupid drunk; she was an even bigger moron sober. Why me? It was the same question that had been going through her mind since yesterday in her office. What had she done in a previous life to deserve this hell?

    Her only saving grace was that Alex didn’t know about the whole Kevin/Heidi mess. If he asked why she got drunk, she could just say she was taking his advice and getting a social life; although, the thought of socializing with the guys down at Bart’s made her cringe. Just when she thought she could salvage the whole situation, Alex’s voice broke through her haze.

    “So you want to tell me why you went out and got hammered instead of coming to my place for dinner like you were supposed to last night?” Alex had a knowing look on his face, but Stella went forward with her story like she hadn’t seen it.

    “I was attempting to get a life, like you told me to.” Stella could see that her poor attempt at a cover up was not working. So she went for distraction. “Why are you up so early? Shouldn’t you be in bed until the wee hours of noon?”

    “Yes I should. But you see I have this neighbor. She’s a pain in the ass, and last night she came home so drunk I had to pick her up off the floor in her doorway and carry her to bed so the rest of the building wouldn’t see her like that come morning.” He held her in place with a hard stare.

    “And then I thought I would be nice and make her breakfast since clearly something had been bothering her last night. Only now I’m regretting that choice because she’s lying to me and leaving out the small detail of finding out her ex-boyfriend and his mistress are getting married; and that those same people want her to be their photographer.”

    As Alex ended his long drawn out speech, all the color drained from Stella’s face. “What do you mean…How did you…Who told…” Stella couldn’t finish a single thought. He knew, but how? Her memory of last night had come back and she never once remembered mentioning any of those details.

    “Lindsay called me last night looking for you. She was worried that you were taking the news harder than you were letting on. And when she couldn’t reach you on your cell, she called me. Apparently you told her we were having dinner. She felt awful about what happened and you disappearing didn’t do a damn thing to calm her down.” Stella had never heard Alex like this before. He was pissed, mixed with another emotion she couldn’t quite place.

    Knowing she was treading into uncharted waters, Stella began slowly. “I went to Bart’s last night after I left the studio. I took a cab home from there. I’m sorry if I worried you guys. I just needed a little time to myself to figure a few things out.”

    Alex let out a sigh, and Stella saw some of the tension leave his body. “You scared the shit out of me. When Lindsay called and told me what happened, I knew you’d be upset. Then when you didn’t show up like you were supposed to I really started to panic. Why didn’t you just come here to begin with? You could have talked to me. I am a pretty good listener most of the time.”

    “And said what? ‘Hey Alex, by the way, my ex is marrying the whore he cheated on me with and they want me to take the pictures that will forever show their love for one another.’ That would have been such a fun and uplifting tale. You would have got pissed and wanted to track down Kevin and beat him within an inch of his life. I didn’t need that last night.”

    “I would have tried to understand. You wouldn’t have been in a bar, surrounded by people that could have done God only knows what to you. I’m surprised you were able to hail a cab in the shape you were in last night. What were you thinking?”

    Stella had had enough. She was twenty-seven years old. Alex was her friend. Not her dad, not her boyfriend, her friend and she’d be damned if she was going to sit here and listen to one more minute of this lecture.

    “You know what, Alex, I’m a big girl. I’ve done just fine taking care of myself for the last twenty some years and I don’t need you coming into my house and giving me a lecture about one night of stupidity.” All the shouting wasn’t helping her headache, but she went on.

    “You know what, I wasn’t thinking. I wanted to forget everything for just a little while. So I got drunk. I’m grateful for your help last night, but that doesn’t give you the right to pass judgment on me for my choices. They were mine, not yours, and I am paying the price today. Now, if you are finished, I’d like to take a shower, wash the memories of last night off of me, and go to work.” Stella turned around and left the room.

    ****

    Twenty minutes later, she was showered and dressed for work. Still feeling like a Mach truck had drove straight through her head; she made her way back to the kitchen. Her breakfast was laid out on the counter, but Alex was nowhere to be found.
     
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    A sudden pang of guilt hit Stella. She was pretty mean and vicious to him earlier. He was only trying to help, and after what she put him through last night, he didn’t deserve her attitude. He deserved a reward for not giving in to the pathetic attempts of a drunk to seduce him. She ate her breakfast at a leisurely pace, as to not upset her already nauseous stomach and went to apologize to Alex.

    She reached for the door handle to let herself into his apartment, only to be stopped with resistance. It was locked. Alex never locked his door. Since becoming friends, they had both left their doors unlocked when they were home to make it easier to float back and forth. And considering Alex worked from home as a web designer, he couldn’t have left for work.

    She retrieved her keys from her purse and separated out Alex’s. Opening the door and letting herself in was the easy part. Not knowing how he would react to it was going to be the test. Stella scanned the apartment and didn’t see Alex. She heard the sound of running water coming from down the hall and made her way in that direction.

    She walked through his bedroom and stopped in front of the master bathroom’s door. “Alex? Can you hear me? Look, I’m really sorry for being such a bitch earlier. You were only trying to help and I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. Will you please forgive me? Alex?”

    Stella tried again, but there was still no answer. She turned the doorknob on the bathroom door so she could stick her head in just enough for him to hear her. As she pushed the door open the water turned off. And before she knew it, she was face to face with the most beautiful naked man she had ever laid eyes on.

    “Holy shit, Stella! What the fuck are you doing, trying to give me a heart attack? Why are you in my apartment, let alone my bathroom?” Alex was so caught up in yelling at her that he must have forgotten he was naked, because he made no move to cover himself.

    “I...I...I wanted to apologize for the way I acted earlier, but you couldn’t hear me through the door, and I didn’t want to leave for work with you being mad at me.” Stella gave herself a mental pat for getting it all out without looking down. But now that she was no longer explaining herself, she couldn’t stop her greedy eyes from wandering down Alex’s body.

    The man was built like a Greek God. Broad shoulders gave way to defined muscular arms that were made for keeping a woman safe and secure, hugged close to his chest. A chest Stella was admiring with pure female appreciation. Its sprinkling of chest hair that continued down to a set of abs that at this very moment she would like to run her tongue over, one bump at a time, finally coming to rest at the large shaft currently sticking straight out toward her. Beckoning her like a moth to a flame.

    As Stella openly gawked at Alex’s impressive member, it grew even larger. She was about to take a step forward when whatever daze Alex had been in for the last few moments finally snapped. He lunged for a towel and secured it around his waist.

    “Sorry. I shouldn’t have barged in like this. I’ll talk to you later.” Before he could respond, she high-tailed it out of his bedroom and out of the apartment. Calling for a cab once she was outside, Stella went down to the front of the building to wait for it. Well… that went well.

    ****

    Chapter 6

    Alex didn’t release the breath he had been holding until he heard his front door slam shut. What was happening? Last night he tried to blame Stella’s interest on her being drunk and emotional. Now he wasn’t so sure.

    “Ugh, why didn’t she just go to work this morning?” Alex murmured to himself as he finally got his feet moving toward his bedroom.

    After Stella had yelled at him and went to take a shower, he had finished making her breakfast and left. He was angry with her, but the need to take care of her, and hope she would eat, still won out. Maybe he should have minded his own business, but after last night he wanted answers.

    He had locked his apartment door, hoping she would get the message that he did not want to talk right now. Clearly, he forgot whom he was dealing with. If Stella had something to say, no locked door would stop her.

    Alex finished getting dressed and headed to his computer to get started on a new website he had been hired to design. Alex loved his work. He was his own boss, chose the clients he wanted and the hours. Life was how he always imagined; minus the one small detail of someone to share it with.

    This brought Alex’s mind back to Stella. Until yesterday he had placed her in the category of look but don’t touch. Now with her confession last night and the scene in his bathroom just moments ago, he was more confused than ever.

    There was clearly something drawing them together. Whether it was purely physical or something deeper remained to be seen. Neither one of them had dated anybody in a while. Maybe that’s all this was; two people in desperate need of release. Stella had so much going on in her life right now. Alex didn’t want to cause any undue stress to her, but this feeling of not knowing was eating him up inside.

    Alex’s mind was too scrambled to get any work done. After quickly checking his email and calling his client, Alex grabbed his car keys. He knew exactly where to go. To the one person, other than Stella, that knew him and would not hold back on calling Alex an idiot for even thinking about pursuing Stella.

    ****

    Mondays were always Kyle’s scheduled days off from the fire station. They were also the days he didn’t get up before three in the afternoon. He was about to get a rude awakening. Alex had put up with a lot of shit from Kyle over the years. Kyle owed Alex for all the late night phone calls to bail him out, or help him get rid of some bimbo he had picked up at the bar. Now it was Alex’s turn to collect.

    When he pulled into Kyle’s driveway the house was dark. Alex walked around to the back door and found the hidden key under a rock next to the steps. Letting himself in to Kyle’s house, he took a look around and laughed. Other than the piles of dishes and pizza boxes being in different spots, it always looked the same. It screamed ‘bachelor pad, no women allowed after sunrise.’

    Alex decided waking Kyle up wasn’t going to be easy. Especially since he had probably just went to bed an hour or two ago. He grabbed a handful of ice from the freezer and headed in the direction of Kyle’s room with an evil grin on his face. Alex gave a soft “rise and shine, Kyle” a second before depositing the handful of ice on Kyle’s bare stomach.

    “Ahhhh!” Kyle screamed as he jumped off the bed, smacking the ice in every direction. “What the fuck is the matter with you? Who wakes someone up like that? A simple ‘wake up, Kyle’ would have done just fine.”

    “My way was a lot more fun,” Alex said with undisguised mischief.

    “Fun will be me tackling your ass to the ground and making you beg for mercy.” Kyle still looked half asleep as he made the threat.

    “Quit your bitching. I need your help with something, and after all the times I’ve helped you out, you owe me.” The sooner they started talking, the sooner Kyle would tell Alex to quit being a pussy and go get laid. Kyle’s answer for any problem involving a woman was to find another less complicated one.

    “Can’t this wait? I just went to bed like three hours ago.” Kyle had started to climb back in bed when Alex grabbed his arm.
     
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    “If you don’t get up right now, it’s going to be a bucket of ice water next.” Kyle narrowed his eyes at Alex, but got back up and headed into his living room.

    “Do I have time to make coffee before we talk, or am I forbidden from that too?” Alex laughed and told Kyle to sit down while Alex got the coffee ready.

    Ten minutes later, Kyle was slightly less grumpy after taking a few sips of his coffee. “So are you going to tell me what has your panties in a wad at such an ungodly hour?”

    Alex sat down with a long drawn out sigh. “I think I’m in love with Stella.” The gulp of coffee Kyle had just taken was now deposited all over the front of Alex’s shirt. Alex reached for a napkin to wipe off with while Kyle sat in the chair across from him, laughing like a fool.

    “That’s your problem? Man, I could have told you that two years ago,” Kyle exclaimed as if this was old news.

    “What the hell do you mean? Stella and I are just friends,” Alex said stubbornly.

    “Friends that can’t keep their eyes off each other maybe; the last time we all went to the bar you practically took a piss on her leg to mark your territory when any guy asked her to dance.”

    “She could do better than those guys. I was just saving her from wasting her time on losers.” Really, it was the least he could do as her friend.

    “What about a few months ago when you had a date with Tina or Gina or whatever the hell her name was; Stella just happened to need your help on a simple plumbing problem, which we all know she could have done herself. Actually, every time you have a date she walks in your apartment with some question or problem. Anytime we all hang out together, it’s like the two of you are an old married couple. You eat off each other’s plates, snuggle on the couch during movies, and spend all your free time together.”

    Alex sat there in stunned silence. How could he have not seen it before now? They had become so comfortable with each other over the years that Alex had missed all the signs. Now thinking back, Stella did seem to go out of her way to annoy his dates with her shenanigans.

    “Why didn’t you ever say anything?” Alex asked as Kyle just stared at him.

    “I figured if you wanted me to know about your relationship you’d tell me. I can’t believe it took this long for the two of you to finally admit you want to be together.”

    “It isn’t the two of us. I have no clue how she feels about me. I’ve been trying to keep my feelings to myself for so long because I don’t want to ruin our friendship.”

    Kyle gave Alex a ‘you’re dumber than a box of rocks’ look before saying, “The woman can’t keep her eyes off of you. Whenever you leave a room, those green eyes of hers follow you like a heat seeking missile. I think it’s a safe bet she reciprocates your feelings.”

    “Reciprocates huh? That’s an awfully big word for you isn’t it? Was one of your dates having fun with a dictionary again?” Alex knew it was mean to rib his friend right now, but he felt like he was drowning with all the new information and needed to lighten the mood.

    “Fuck you, buddy! I’m not the one sitting here like a pussy, talking about my feelings.” Kyle cocked his head as if daring Alex to counter.

    “I’m just giving you shit, Man. I’m so messed up right now; I don’t know what to do.” Alex laid his forehead on the table in front of him and looked down at the broken linoleum.

    “What brought all of this on? I mean you didn’t just wake up this morning and suddenly want to tell Stella you love her. Not after three years of trying to hide it. Something must have happened.” Kyle sat back, waiting for Alex to spill the beans.

    Alex relayed all the events of yesterday and this morning to Kyle. Everything from Stella finding out about Kevin and Heidi, her getting drunk, the comments about his body, and the looks she gave it. After he finished the story Kyle had lost all of his cockiness and became somber.

    “Shit. How the hell could that bastard be so cold; especially after what he’s already done to her? Now I at least see why you’re conflicted. If you start something with her now, how do you know it’s not just her trying to prove she’s over Kevin?”

    “I really need to talk to Stella, but I don’t know what to say to her. This is all so messed up. I feel like if I tell her now, I’m taking advantage of her vulnerability. And that doesn’t make me any better than Kevin.” Alex could no longer sit still. He got up and started pacing around the small kitchen.

    “You are not now, nor will you ever be anywhere close to being like Kevin. Second of all, you two are already best friends. Adding some making out and sex to that can only make it better,” Kyle said with a wiggle of his eyebrows.

    Finally, a small laugh came from Alex. “Man, only you would make this whole thing about sex. But thanks, you actually have helped a lot.”

    “That’s just the kind of sweet guy I am. Now, go tell your woman you love her and let me get back to bed. This is too many emotions for so early in the day.” With a final wave goodbye, Alex left Kyle’s.

    One thing was for sure, he needed to talk to Stella. By the end of today, he would know one way or another where he stood with her.

    ****

    The fifteen minute drive to her studio was pure torture. He talked himself in and out of what he was about to do. The risk was high, but so was the reward. He had wanted Stella for three years, and if there was even the smallest chance that she wanted him too, nothing was going to stop him.

    As he pulled into the small parking area behind her building, Alex took a deep breath to calm his nerves. “This is Stella. You’ve talked to her a million times. You can do this.” With his small pep talk out of the way, he steeled his shoulders and headed for the door. It was now or never.

    ****

    Chapter 7

    “Honey, oh I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve missed you.” Stella threw herself into Alex’s arms and planted kisses all over his face.

    “Uh, I missed you too, Sweetheart,” Alex said and Stella could hear the confusion and surprise in his voice. She knew it was mean to put him through this, but right now she didn’t care. As discreetly as she could, she leaned in and whispered in his ear.

    “Whatever I say or do just play along; I am begging you.” And with that Stella gave him one more kiss on the cheek and stepped back.

    As Stella turned in Alex’s arms, making sure to keep her back to his front with his arms wrapped around her, she spotted Kevin and Heidi coming out of her office.

    “This must be the guy we’ve been hearing so much about; Kevin Montgomery, nice to meet the man that has captured Stella’s heart.” Stella felt Alex tighten up behind her, but to her amazement he didn’t let it show on his face.

    “Alex Gray. How do you all know each other? I’ve never heard Stella mention a Kevin before. Are you a new client?” Stella had to fight the laughter that wanted to bubble up from the menacing look on Kevin’s face.

    Stella knew exactly what Alex was doing. By making Kevin think Stella never mentioned him or their relationship, he couldn’t know how much he had hurt her. God she loved this man. No, he is your friend. Stop those love thoughts right now.

    “Kevin and I used to know each other, before I moved to Spring Towers and met you, My Love. It feels like a lifetime ago.” Stella smiled sweetly up at Alex and was surprised when he leaned in and gave her a too brief kiss on the lips.
     
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    “It feels like just yesterday I saw you almost falling down those stairs, Honey; just waiting for me to rescue you. Even then I had you falling for me.” Alex wrapped his arms tighter around her waist and kissed the tip of her nose. Oh, he was good. Alex was playing the part so well, she almost believed him.

    Someone clearing their throat drew Stella out of her daydreaming. “And this is my fiancée, Heidi. We came to ask Stella to do the photography for our wedding on Valentine’s Day.” Heidi reached out to shake Alex’s hand, running her beady eyes up and down his body, but he just ignored it and continued to look in to Stella’s eyes.

    “Are you going to do it, Honey? I mean you’ve been so busy lately; we haven’t even had time to discuss our own wedding plans.” Stella tried to disguise the shock his statement caused. What was he doing? She was trying to show them she had moved on. Pretending to have a boyfriend was one thing, but saying she was getting married was a disaster waiting to happen.

    When a wedding didn’t happen, she would have to explain why and there would be no way to spin it for her to come out on top. They would see her as a pathetic loser who not only couldn’t keep a man, but couldn’t get him to the alter either.

    “You’re engaged? How wonderful for you two. Why didn’t you tell us? Congratulations!” Kevin and Heidi both hugged Stella and her skin crawled.

    “It is fairly recent. We had been keeping it kind of quiet until we had a date picked.” Stella glared at Alex. To anyone else, it was the look you gave your partner or spouse when they told a secret they weren’t supposed to. Alex knew what that look meant coming from Stella. Bodily harm was coming to him in the not so distant future.

    “Sorry, Baby. I didn’t mean to blurt that out, but when I’m around you I lose my head. I’ll make it up to you when we get home…promise.” Alex nuzzled Stella’s neck, before placing small kisses wherever his lips touched.

    “You better. Now behave yourself so I can finish with my meeting. Kevin, Heidi if you want to go back to my office I’ll be there in a minute. I can give you more details on what packages are offered, so you can make your decision.” Stella waited for Kevin and Heidi’s retreating backs to disappear into her office again before she turned on Alex.

    “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Why did you say we were engaged?” Stella was whispering, but there was enough force behind her words to get Alex’s attention.

    “It seemed like a better way to go with the story. I always have been fond of story time. I already told you I’d make it up to you later.” Alex smirked at her. He was happy with himself, while she was about to have a panic attack. Bodily harm was definitely happening later.

    “This is not funny. I have to go finish up with them, but when I’m done I’m going to strangle you.” Stella was so mad; why had she thought that one lie could be just that?

    “Don’t be too long, Sugar. I don’t think my poor heart could bare you being away for so long.” And with that final comment, Alex grabbed Stella with one hand behind her neck and the other at the small of her back. He dipped her down and gave her a good old-fashioned movie style kiss.

    Only this wasn’t just any kiss. This kiss was so full of passion and heat that Stella was worried her clothes were going to catch on fire. As quickly as the kiss started, it was over. Alex stood her back up, straightened her clothes, turned her around, and whispered in her ear. “Had to make sure they got a good show.” And with those parting words, he gave her butt a pat to move her toward her office.

    Amazed that her legs held her up, Stella crossed the few feet back to her office. Kevin and Heidi sat quietly while she sat back in the chair behind her desk.

    “Stella, I’m very happy for you. He seems like such a sweet guy. And obviously he’s smitten with you. You always did go for the good looking charmers.” Heidi smiled sweetly at Stella as her words hung in the air.

    “Yes, he’s very sweet and charming. But I think the thing I love most about him is his loyalty.” Stella smiled just as sweetly back at Heidi as she let the jab fly; aimed straight for both Heidi and Kevin. And it hit the mark by the looks on their faces.

    “Well, we will let you know what we decide soon. I have to be getting back to the office. It was so great to see you again, Stella. Hopefully, it won’t be so long until the next time.” Kevin extended his hand and Stella gave it a shake. Then he placed Heidi’s hand in the crook of his arm and left.

    Once she was sure they were gone, she leaned her head against the back of her chair and closed her eyes. She didn’t know how long she lay there like that, just absorbing everything that had happened.

    ****

    Stella had arrived at the studio in a fog. She was still all worked up over the incident with Alex and his wonderfully naked body, when the buzzer sounded for the door. She hadn’t been expecting anyone for another hour or so and really needed to get things prepared.

    When she opened the door and saw Kevin and Heidi, she nearly fainted. “What are you doing here?” Stella was trying to hold it together, but there was only so much her heart could take right now.

    “I know we had an appointment for later in the week, but we were hoping you could fit us in today. Kevin just found out about a business trip and leaves tomorrow.” Heidi’s words were rushed, as if she was trying to get them out before Stella slammed the door in her face.

    “So this wasn’t a mix up? You two actually want me, me, to take the pictures at your wedding.” Stella had to give them one thing. They had balls of steel.

    “We know it may be a little unorthodox, but you are one of the best around and I know you will do an amazing job.” Kevin must have finally found his voice and was now trying to stroke Stella’s ego to get his way.

    Stella was about to tell them both to go to hell, when she saw Lindsay’s car pull into the lot. “My office is on the other side of this wall. If you want to go have a seat, I will be with you shortly.”

    As they disappeared in the direction of her office, Lindsay came through the door. “Hey, I didn’t think you had any appointments until nine? I would have been here sooner if I would have known.”

    “Not a client. That was Kevin and Heidi. Apparently they were hoping to catch me before their appointment because Kevin has a business trip later in the week. They just showed up right before you did.” As Stella finished explaining the situation, she watched as Lindsay’s eyes widened and then closed to small slits.

    “I’ll take care of this.” Lindsay went to push past Stella to go tell Kevin and Heidi where they could go, Stella was sure, when Stella stopped her with a hand on her arm.

    “That’s very sweet of you, but I will handle this. It’s my mess and I will have to deal with them at some point. It might as well be now.” Stella could feel the anger pumping through Lindsay as her eyes kept darting past Stella in the direction of her office.

    “Are you sure? Because I wore my ass kicking boots today, and you know I will use them.” Stella had to laugh. Lindsay was all of five foot two, but she was a firecracker.

    “Yes, I’m sure. It shouldn’t take but five minutes, and when I’m done we can sit and gossip until our first appointment.” With a murmured “If you insist” from Lindsay, Stella headed to her office.
     
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    Kevin and Heidi were sitting in the two chairs in front of her desk and turned to look at her. “This is a nice place, Stella. It’s so cozy.” Heidi was looking around Stella’s office. Cozy was Heidi’s way of saying small. It wasn’t big and fancy, but neither was Stella.

    It was decorated in light blues and greens, with pictures of her family on various shelves behind her desk. A small bar sat in the corner, stocked with water, juice, and snacks for her clients. Her desk sat in the middle of the room with two comfortable leather chairs sitting directly in front of it. Of course, Stella had some of her Predators memorabilia around the room too.

    The pennant she got at her first game hung on the wall behind the door. On her desk sat her Abel Redder bobble head, along with a Green Bay mouse pad. And sitting on a shelf behind her, in a Predators picture frame, was a picture of Stella and Alex. He had gotten her tickets to see the Predators take on the Chicago Boulders last season.

    It had been one of the best days Stella had ever had. Even if they had gotten kicked out not long after the picture was taken. Clearly the men that rooted for the Boulders couldn’t take a little harmless trash talking. Alex had nicely asked security to let her go, on the promise that he would never bring her to a game again. Men are such babies.

    “Still a Predators fan I see. Think they can pull out another Super Bowl win this year, or is Redder going to blow it again?” Opening and closing her fist in her lap, Stella looked at Kevin. He knew which buttons to push, and seemed dead set on pushing every last one of them.

    “I have no doubt they will,” Stella got out between clenched teeth. “Now, back to the business at hand, I’m not sure when you plan to get married, but…” before Stella could finish her sentence, Heidi piped in.

    “We’ve set the date for Valentine’s Day. It just seemed so romantic, and it’s also a slow time for both of us at work.” Again trying to calm herself, she flexed her hands. Why were they so set on interrupting her and making her listen to this bullshit? She was getting ready to finally throw them out when Kevin started staring at the pictures behind her.

    “I see work is not the only thing that has kept you busy the last few years. You two look happy.” Kevin nodded his head in the direction of her shelves. Stella knew without turning around what picture Kevin was looking at. The one of her and Alex was the only none family picture in her office.

    Stella didn’t know if it was the fact that Kevin didn’t sound happy for her at all, or that she had had enough of this whole situation, but Stella found herself saying, “Yes we are. Alex is the absolute best” before she could stop herself.

    Stella hated lying, but the reality of telling them she was single and had been since the day she left him, didn’t make her feel any better. It wasn’t like she would see them again after today, so there was no harm in spinning a story that made it look like Kevin wasn’t even a blip on her radar.

    “Alex had surprised me with the tickets for my birthday. He’s so thoughtful. We went to Navy Pier after the game and rode the Ferris wheel. It was the most romantic night I’ve ever had.” Stella let the lies pour from her mouth.

    “That’s wonderful, Stella. How did you meet him? Was it at that bar you used to like?” Heidi asked with a slight annoyance to her voice. Obviously seeing Kevin’s less than pleased response to the picture had pissed Heidi off. Good, serves her right.

    “No, we actually met when he saved me from falling down the stairs at our apartment building. I knew as soon as those strong arms wrapped around me I had to have him. I mean, the chemistry that sparked between us was…” Stella fanned herself as if someone had turned up the heat before she continued. “Well, let’s just say, I’m surprised my clothes didn’t have scorch marks after.”

    Kevin and Heidi sat in stunned silence. Heidi was the first one to recover. “He looks familiar. Where does he work? I swear I’ve seen him before.” Stella knew Heidi would recognize Alex. It was in her nature to know a wealthy man within a two state radius. She had always cared more about money and social climbing than what was on the inside.

    “He works from home, but he was featured in the Tribune a couple months back.” Stella glanced quickly at Kevin as her words sank in. “He owns Gravity Designs.”

    “Gravity Designs, THE Gravity Designs? Alex is Alex Gray?” Heidi gasped and then shared a disbelieving look with Kevin. Heidi’s acting skills had gotten better, but Stella still knew her surprise was all an act.

    Alex was one of the most sought after web designers and bachelors in Chicago. He had grown his small web design business into a very lucrative business over the last five years. Stella still couldn’t figure out how he had done it, though. Alex was picky about the jobs he took and worked at his own pace. And despite all of that, he was still one of the wealthiest twenty-eight year olds in Chicago; although, anyone who met him wouldn’t know that.

    He had a normal apartment, drove a Toyota Camry, and never dressed flashy or expensive. The only time Stella caught glimpses of his wealth was seeing all his electronic gadgets. He always had the newest techno devices and gaming systems; boys and their toys.

    As Stella sat satisfied to have finally shut them up, a movement from the front door caught her eye.

    Walking through the door at that very second was Alex. “Damn it!” Stella muttered under her breath, but Kevin heard her and asked her what was wrong. She had to think quickly and did the first thing that came to her. She excused herself and went to create a very public display of affection.

    ****

    Stella rubbed her hands over her eyes. Why did she think she could get away with her lies? If Alex hadn’t walked in, she could have gotten rid of Kevin and Heidi without having to put on a show. Luckily, Alex had played his role beautifully; almost too beautifully. Even she had started to believe him.

    Peeling herself out of her office chair, she went out to find Lindsay and Alex. As she walked into the backroom, the only person she could see was Lindsay. “Hey, where did Alex go?”

    “He said he had work to do, and to tell you he’d see you later.” Lindsay had a hint of a smile on her face as she relayed the message.

    “What has you so happy?” Stella asked.

    “That was quite a show you two put on. Got me all hot and bothered from all the way back here.” Stella hadn’t realized Lindsay was in the room earlier. Now she was even more mortified.

    “Oh My God! You saw that? The humiliation keeps coming. All right, go ahead. Tell me how pathetic and desperate I am. I deserve it.” Stella waited for Lindsay to start her lecture, but it never came. Instead, what Lindsay said surprised her.

    “If it had been an act, I would say it was pathetic. However, since you and Alex are perfect for each other and have been skirting around each other since I met you, I don’t see the point.”

    Stella’s jaw hit the floor. “What! What do you mean perfect for each other and skirting around each other? Alex and I have been friends.”

    “Oh please. I’ve watched the two of you together. He stares, you stare, and you both bring out the claws when the opposite sex comes around. It’s kind of funny, in a sad sort of way. And after seeing that kiss he laid on you, I’m pretty positive the sex is going to be fantastic.” Lindsay stood there smiling like the cat that caught the canary.
     
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    “We were playing a part. That’s all it was. I’m not Alex’s type, any more than he is mine.” As Stella finished, she knew it was a lie. Alex was exactly her type; tall, sexy, charming. In short, everything Stella had avoided for the last three years.

    “Sorry to burst your bubble, but no man kisses a woman like that if he’s just playing a role. That kiss screamed ‘I want to rip your clothes off and make you come ten ways to Sunday.’ Furthermore, Alex is every woman’s fantasy come to life. And you my dear are not immune to it.”

    Stella found a small chair and sat down. “I’m so screwed.” Stella told Lindsay all about last night and this morning. When she was done, she didn’t feel any better about the situation.

    “Stella, everyone should be lucky enough to find what the two of you have.” Again there was that sad look. But as quickly as it came, it was gone. “What possible reason could you have that would make you think he’s not head over heels for you?” Lindsay asked.

    “Come on, Lindsay. You’ve seen the women he goes out with; all long legs, big boobs, and tiny waists. I can’t compete with that.” Stella wanted to stop this conversation, but Lindsay had other ideas.

    “Compete with whom? When is the last time Alex had a date with someone other than you? Stella, how many times do I have to tell you, you are a knock out? Any man would be lucky to have you in their life, and it just so happens that a very gorgeous sexy man does.” Lindsay said the last part with a knowing smile.

    “We do not go on dates. We hang out together. And, I don’t know. We’ve been friends for so long. What if we try and fail? Then what will I be left with, other than another broken heart and the pain of losing my best friend?” Stella didn’t think she could bear to lose Alex. It would hurt worse than losing Kevin ever had.

    “What if you try and succeed? You already have the friendship part down. That’s the hard part. Now comes the fun part.” Lindsay gave a little waggle of her eyebrows, and then laughed. “Plus, I need to live vicariously through you. So I expect to get all the juicy details.”

    All Stella could do was shake her head. Before she could respond, the front door dinged and signaled their client had arrived. “We will finish this conversation later. Let’s get to work.”

    “You got it, boss lady.” Lindsay winked and went to greet the customer.

    “Smart ass,” Stella murmured as she went to get her camera.

    ****

    Chapter 8

    Four hours later, Stella and Lindsay sat down in the small break room to eat their lunch. “I know I say this all the time, but that was the cutest baby ever.” Lindsay had a soft spot for all kids, but babies especially. She always got such a look of longing on her face during the shoots.

    They had just wrapped up a photo shoot with a newborn baby, and Stella had to admit the little buddle of joy was pretty darn cute. “I think baby shoots are my favorite. They are just so sweet, innocent, and full of life.” Stella let go of a small sigh.

    Lindsay studied Stella for a few minutes. “Are you starting to hear the tick tock of a biological clock, Stella?”

    Stella jerked her head up from the salad she was eating and started choking. “Biological clock, um no; I just love babies. They are so small and always smell so sweet.” Lindsay made a face and Stella chuckled. “Ok, well maybe not always.” She wrinkled her nose, remembering the present little Brayden had left his parents when the shoot was done.

    “I think you’d be a great mom, Stella. You are so great with the kids that come in here, and they all seem to instantly warm to you. I can picture it now: little blonde haired, blue-eyed boys running around; screaming at the TV screen during Predators football games. It will be perfect.” Stella could only look at Lindsay with disbelief. Stella loved kids and one day wanted a house full of them, but you needed another person to help with that.

    “Last time I checked, it takes two people to make a baby, and I am currently hopelessly single. Also, I am a brunette with green eyes. Where is the blonde hair and blue eyes coming from?” Stella had no clue what made her ask that ridiculous question.

    “Alex of course; if he didn’t succeed in getting you pregnant with that kiss earlier, I’m sure Alex won’t mind giving it another try, or fifty.” Lindsay continued eating her lunch. Although, Stella didn’t know how she could eat with such a big smile on her face.

    “You’re a pain; you know that, right?”

    “I know, but you love me all the same.”

    Stella was about to show Lindsay just how much she loved her, by throwing a cherry tomato at her, when “Big Girls Don’t Cry” started playing on her cell phone. Stella clicked open her phone without even looking at the caller ID; only one person had that ringtone in her phone.

    “Hello, Victoria.”

    “You’re alive; I’m so glad. Now I can call dad and tell him to quit worrying and not to turn your old room into a sauna. Although, having one at my beck and call would be fantastic. So I may put it off a few more days.” Victoria did always have a flare for the dramatic.

    “It’s nice to hear from you, too. Now, do you want to tell me why you thought I was dead, when I just saw you Saturday night for dinner? At Dad’s, I might add.” Stella loved her family, but sometimes they were just too much.

    “It is now Monday. When is the last time we went two days without so much as a text message?” Victoria was right. Since Stella had gotten out of college, they had talked daily. Even if it was the most pointless conversation, it still meant a lot to both of them.

    “Sorry Vicki. I’ve had a rough couple of days. Is everything ok? Does Dad need something? He’s not feeling sick again, is he?” Stella felt the well of panic rise higher as she asked each question.

    “No, Dad is fine. He was worried when you didn’t call and give him his Sunday hazing about the Boulder’s losing. Stop getting so worked up about him. The doctor reassured all of us that the blood clot was a fluke and not a sign of anything serious going on. You were there when they said it. You’re going to make yourself sick if you don’t quit stressing about him all the time. He goes to regular check-ups and they have found nothing further.”

    ****

    A few months ago, Stella’s dad had started to have trouble breathing at their regular Saturday dinners. After they ate, things had not gotten any better, so they convinced him to head to the ER, just to be safe.

    The nurses had poked, prodded, and made John’s life a living hell for two and half hours. When the doctor finally came in, he informed John that he had a small blood clot in his left lung.

    Stella’s world had stopped spinning. Her dad and sister were everything to her. If anything were to happen to either of them, she didn’t know how she would go on with her life. She clutched onto her step-mom, Penny’s hand. She felt the tremble and pulled herself together enough to give Penny’s hand a reassuring squeeze.

    “Mr. Howe, have you been sitting a lot lately or been on any long trips?” The doctor asked her dad.

    “We drove to Florida and back about a couple weeks ago. But other than that I stay pretty active while I’m at home. Why do you ask?” Her dad seemed calm as a cucumber; typical. The only thing John Howe got worked up over was Boulders football and his family.
     
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    “Well, other than the small blood clot we found, you seem to be in excellent health. Sometimes long trips in a car or long periods of inactivity can be the cause. That’s why I needed to rule it out before checking for further causes. I am going to prescribe a medicine that will dissolve the clot and also take care of any others we might not be able to see. You should be good as new in a week. While on this medicine you must be careful not to do anything that can cause you to bleed. If that happens, you are to come straight into the ER.”

    The doctor finished giving his orders and sent the nurse in with the discharge papers and the paper with his prescription on it. Penny, Victoria, and Stella had fussed over John the rest of the night, until he finally had had enough. “I am not an invalid. The doctor said I was fine, so stop hovering over me. Goodnight. I love you all.”

    His rant had no true power behind it, but they all left him alone to go to bed. For the whole week that followed, Stella had visited every day and even watched a Boulders game with him that Sunday without ribbing him too bad.

    Stella knew they said it was a freak thing to have happened, but it still reminded her that life was precious. She had been so busy since that whole ordeal, that aside from Saturday dinners, she hadn’t been by to visit.

    ****

    “You’re right, Vicki. I guess I’m just feeling guilty for not visiting more. How are you? How did your date go after you left Dad’s?” Vicki had been so antsy to get out of dinner Saturday night for her date that Stella was surprised she didn’t choke as she all but inhaled her food.

    “Ugh! It was horrible. First, he was late getting to the bar we were meeting at; then when he finally did show up, his mom called his phone three times. Apparently, he forgot to mention he lives with his mother still and she worries when he’s out after ten. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he spent the whole night talking about his pet snake and how he had permission to stay out late tonight. He’s thirty-one. Honestly, why does this always happen to me. On paper they seem great, but in person they all fail miserably.” Victoria sighed heavily.

    “You’ll meet someone one of these days, I swear. But you have to stop searching online. Their profile never tells the real story. You need to physically meet someone first to see if there is that spark; the kind that starts at the top of your spine and goes all the way to your toes.” Stella could feel Victoria making icky faces through the phone.

    “With my work schedule, online is the only way I can do anything. And, I would settle for a flicker right about now, not even a whole spark. I haven’t had sex in months, and if I don’t get to it soon, my virginity is going to grow back.”

    “I’m almost positive that’s impossible, but hopefully you won’t need to find out.” Stella was probably the poster child for born again virginity after her three year dry spell. “Whatever happened with that guy who’s interning at your office? What was his name; William?”

    Barking laughter came through the phone. “Stella, William would be good to go shopping with, or even get a Mani/Pedi with, but I don’t think his partner, Jeremy, would appreciate my making a move on him.”

    “He’s gay!?! No way! He is so hot. Every time I’m there it seems like he is checking you out.” Stella really did need to get a social life if she couldn’t spot an openly gay man anymore.

    “The only thing he ever checks out is my wardrobe and shoes, but enough about me. Why have your last couple days been rough? And whose ass do I have to kick?” Victoria was, if nothing else, a loyal sister.

    “Don’t go putting on your boxing gloves, it’s nothing much. Kevin and Heidi made an appointment to ask me to be their wedding photographer the other day. And when I saw the appointment for the first time, I may have went out and gotten slightly intoxicated. Then proceeded to go home and throw myself at Alex.” Stella cringed while giving Vicki the play by play.

    “WHAT! I’ll kill that little bastard, and the bimbo too just for good measure. I hope you told them where they could shove their meeting?”

    “I didn’t get a chance to. They came in early this morning before we opened and cornered me. But I haven’t even got to the worst part.” Stella took a deep breath.

    “What could be worse than your scum bag ex and the woman he cheated on you with, asking you to take pictures at their wedding?”

    “While they were in my office, Kevin saw a picture of Alex and me. He didn’t seem very happy about it, and I may have said he was my boyfriend and we were over the moon happy. And when he just happened to come into the studio a few minutes later, I had a pretty hot and heavy make out session with Alex in front of them.” What had possessed her to tell Vicki all of this?

    “So, let me get this straight. Your ex assumed an insanely hot guy was your new boyfriend, and wasn’t too thrilled about the idea. And when said hot guy came in, you had some heated kissing with him just to get under Kevin’s skin?”

    “That is an accurate description so far.” Stella knew Vicki was far from done.

    “Damn Stella. I don’t know whether to bow down to you, or kick your ass. Alex is the only hot guy I know that isn’t a complete tool or gay. You have all the fun.”

    “This is not fun. I have tweedle dee and tweedle dumb to deal with still, and I have no clue what to do about Alex. It wasn’t fair for me to put him in the middle of this mess, and now things are going to be awkward between us.” Stella rubbed between her eyes where a headache was beginning to form.

    “I’ll tell you exactly what to do with tweedle dee and dumb. It involves a wood chipper and a lot of trash bags.” Stella rolled her eyes. “As for Alex, I’m sure the middle he would like to get in is the middle of your legs.”

    “Ew, you are my sister, stop thinking about someone putting anything between my legs; especially Alex.”

    “So while you were playing tonsil hockey with Alex in front of Kevin, I’m guessing he fought you every step of the way?” Stella should stop talking now. Giving Vicki anymore information was only going to encourage her.

    “No, he actually played along, and even told Kevin and Heidi we’re engaged. Now not only did I lie, but when I don’t get married, it’s going to make me look even more like a loser.”

    “Stella, what is the rest of your day like?” Before Stella could adjust to the abrupt change of subject, she was telling Vicki that she had a couple of meetings but no other shoots for the day.

    “Good. Tell Lindsay to handle the appointments and meet me at my salon downtown in an hour.” Vicki’s tone said she was not to be argued with, but Stella still tried.

    “Why do you want me to meet you down there? I can’t leave in the middle of the day. It’s my business; people expect me to be here.” Stella was pretty sure Vicki was losing her mind.

    “I am going to make you look like sex on heels, so that you can go home and seduce that sex on a stick neighbor of yours. As for leaving, yes you can. Lindsay is more than capable of running things while you take some personal time.”

    “I will do no such thing. Who said I wanted to seduce Alex? And I am not dumping my appointments on Lindsay…” Stella didn’t get to finish the conversation with Vicki. Lindsay took the cell phone from her hand and started talking to Victoria herself.
     
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    “Hi Vicki…Yes…Of Course…Ok, Bye.” With that, Lindsay hung up the phone and handed it back to Stella.

    “What did you do that for?”

    “Because, Stella, you need this. For the last three years you have worked your ass off and you have a great business to show for it, but you’ve sacrificed everything else. You are going to Vicki’s salon, getting dolled up, and then you’re going back to Spring Towers and finally telling Alex how you feel.” Lindsay was already up and out of the room before Stella realized what had happened.

    “Why does nobody listen to me? I am fine. I don’t need to seduce Alex. I am perfectly happy with my life.” Stella stuck her chin out stubbornly.

    “When is the last time you had sex, Stella?” Lindsay asked the question as if she already knew the answer. Stella just stood there looking at her. “Exactly, I can almost guarantee you haven’t had sex since Kevin, or if you did, it wasn’t very good and it was still probably a long time ago.”

    “You’re one to talk. You haven’t exactly been living it up since I met you.” Lindsay slowed her walking and turned to look at Stella.

    “I’m too much for anyone to handle.” The statement held a weight to it that Stella couldn’t figure out. Then Lindsay brightened and continued. “Now stop trying to change the subject.”

    “I’ve already made a fool of myself in front of the man three times in the last two days. Do I really need to do it again?”

    “You will not be making a fool of yourself. You’ll be giving both of you exactly what you need; orgasms and lots of them if that kiss was anything to go by. Now get your purse and coat and get to your sister’s salon. I don’t want to see you in here until tomorrow at ten.”

    “We open at nine, Lindsay,” Stella pointed out.

    “Yes we do, but your first appointment isn’t until ten, and if anyone walks in before then, I will have them schedule for a later time. Now, if you’re done making excuses, please go, get dolled up, and have hot monkey sex with Alex. Then come in tomorrow, walking funny and give me all the dirty details.” After she finished giving her demands, Lindsay all but shoved Stella out of the door into the cold afternoon air.

    ****

    Chapter 9

    An hour later, Stella pulled up to Victoria’s salon, Color Me Beautiful.

    “It’s about damn time you got here. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to go find you, and drag you here kicking and screaming.” Vicki greeted her with a hug and kiss to the cheek as she walked in the door.

    “I didn’t have much of a choice after Lindsay all but threw me out of my own studio.” Stella was still mad at both Vicki and Lindsay for hatching this ridiculous plan.

    “We both love you, Honey. This is as much for us as it is for you. If you’re happy, we’re happy. And being with Alex is going to make you very happy.” Vicki sounded so sure of herself. A family trait Stella had apparently not received.

    “I don’t know how to seduce someone, Vicki. And I definitely don’t know how to seduce my best friend.” Stella should just make a break for it now.

    “That’s where I come in, Sweetie. Before you leave here today, you will be the sex kitten that I know is hiding inside of you. Now, go into the back and change into a robe and we’ll get started.” Vicki disappeared behind a curtain, and Stella resigned herself to her fate.

    Five minutes later, Stella came out wearing a long pink robe and nothing under it. She had no idea what Vicki had in mind, but Stella knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant.

    “Finally, come on over here. Maya is going to give you a manicure, while Julie gives you a pedicure. Then, we will move on to the waxing room. When you’re smooth as a baby’s bottom, we will bring you back out here and I will do your hair and make-up.” Stella sat down where she was directed and shook her head.

    “Waxing? What are you going to wax? I think I like that part of your plan the least.”

    “Stella, you are beautiful and I wouldn’t change a thing about you. But if I have to look at your unplucked eyebrows for one more day, I’m going to attack you with a pair of tweezers.” Vicki then lifted the robe off one of Stella’s legs and grimaced.

    “For the love of God, when is the last time you shaved your legs? You could start a fire with those babies.”

    “It’s winter,” Stella said with a shrug, “and they aren’t that bad. I shaved last week, but I’ve been too busy to get to it this week.”

    “No woman should ever be too busy to shave. I guess I shouldn’t even ask about your bikini area then. You’re going to hate me by the end of today, but it will be worth it.”

    “Already do,” Stella muttered, not meaning a word she said. Julie and Maya had already started her manicure and pedicure. As she sat in the massaging chair, she hated to admit how good this actually felt. Maybe she did need to start making time for a little luxury.

    “Alright, let the waxing begin.” Stella opened her eyes and looked at Vicki smiling down at her.

    “You are not waxing my legs or any other parts of me, Vicki.”

    “Of course I’m not, Sweetie. William is going too!” If she hadn’t just got a very cute manicure, she would have smacked the smile off Vicki’s face.

    “You will pay for this one day. I don’t know when or how right now, but soon.”

    “Yeah yeah, get moving. The wax is going to start cooling down and that would make things a lot worse for you. Just think ‘beauty is pain’ and you’ll do fine.”

    Stella walked into a room that smelled vaguely of aloe vera and coconut and lay down on the table. The lights were soft and the sounds of rain floated through the room.

    “It’s so peaceful in here.”

    “I’ll remind you of that when you’re screaming in pain.” Vicki smiled. “William will be with you shortly.” Vicki quickly retreated out the door with a wave.

    “Paybacks a bitch, you know?” Stella yelled to a now closed door.

    “Actually, Julie is, but don’t tell anyone I said that.” William walked in the room and shut the door again.

    “Ah, the master of torture has come for his victim. How much will it cost me for you to forget I’m here?” Stella pleaded with her eyes for William to have mercy on her.

    “Sorry, Sweetheart. I was warned that if I let you get away without removing all unwanted hair, I will no longer have a job, or testicles. I’m quite fond of both.”

    “Wimp.”

    William chuckled, then gave her an apologetic look and began to prepare everything he would need.

    ****

    “Much better; now was that really so bad?” Vicki was helping Stella into a salon chair to start work on her hair and make-up.

    “No, it was worse. I feel so exposed. The least he could have done was left a landing strip or something.” William had assured her this was what men liked. How the hell would he know? The men he knew liked other men, not bare vaginas.

    “Honey, you will be fine. If you don’t like it, you just have to wait four to six weeks for it to grow back. Now if you’re done with your tantrum, I’d like to get started on your hair. Do you like the length, or do you want to try a shorter look?”

    “No, I want to keep it longer. It’s easier to put up when I’m working if it’s longer. Maybe just trim the ends.”
     
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    Vicki studied her hair and then asked, “Would you mind if I just added some layers here and there? That way your hair has more shape and it doesn’t just lay there in long strings.”

    “As long as I can still get it in a ponytail, I don’t mind.”

    “Don’t worry; your ponytail will be safe to hang again.” With that, Vicki began the process of washing, drying, cutting, and styling Stella’s hair.

    Stella wasn’t sure how much time had passed when Vicki stopped and turned her away from the mirror.

    “I’m going to do your make-up, and then you can get dressed. I don’t want you looking in a mirror until I’m done.”

    “Am I that scary? Don’t want me to break any mirrors with my hideousness?” Stella was joking, but the hard look on Vicki’s face told her that Vicki didn’t find it all that funny.

    “You are sexy and beautiful, Stella. I won’t have you putting yourself down in my presence.”

    “It was a joke, Victoria.”

    “Stella, I was there when we were growing up. I know what Mom said to you. If you for one second let that egg donor lower your self-esteem, I’m going to lock you in a room full of mirrors until you see what everyone else does.”

    Stella sat there looking everywhere but at Vicki. When she finally found her voice, she could barely speak. “You knew the things Mom said to me? Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

    “How would I bring it up? I was the person Mom was comparing you to. I didn’t want you to think I was just doing it because I felt sorry for you, or that I believed a horrible word she said.” Vicki looked so sad. Stella would do anything to take that expression off her face.

    “I really was joking. I don’t let the things Mom said affect me. At least, I try not to. Now, you are supposed to be getting me ready for a seduction, and if we don’t get a move on, the lighting is going to be terrible.” Both of them shared a laugh and Vicki got started on Stella’s make-up.

    ****

    “What am I going to wear? I didn’t bring any clothes.” Stella was looking around the small dressing area, but didn’t see anything other than a rack of lingerie on the far wall and a woman’s trench coat hanging off a hook.

    Vicki stepped through the curtain and stepped up to the rack of lingerie. “Pick your favorite and put it on. I want to see it once it’s on.”

    “You want me to model lingerie for you? Is there something you need to tell me?”

    “Stop being a smartass and just do it. I personally like the black corset with the red ribbon and bows, but it’s your seduction and your choice.”

    Stella ran her fingers over all the silks and satins and was in her own personal heaven. Picking the perfect outfit was very important. She wanted it to scream sex, but not slut. There was a fine line between classy and trashy.

    “I love the black corset, too. The accents of red are very sexy and with a pair of sheer black stockings it will look unbelievable. And since William did such a great job, I won’t feel so self-conscious wearing the see through black thong with it.” Stella could already feel the silk material skimming along her body and gave a little shiver.

    “Save the shivers for Alex. Now, go change so we can make sure everything fits and exposes all the right areas.” Vicki was very bossy when she wanted to be.

    It took Stella a couple minutes to snap the corset together and attach the small clips that would hold her stockings up. When she stepped out of the dressing room she didn’t know how she would feel showing her sister this side of herself.

    Vicki gasped and threw her hands over her mouth. “Oh My God, Stella, you look HOT! If I wasn’t your sister and straight as a board, I’d let you do naughty things with me.”

    “That’s a lovely image, Vicki,” Stella said dryly.

    “If Alex doesn’t die from swallowing his tongue, you are going to be a very satisfied woman tonight; and for many more to come.”

    “That’s if he doesn’t laugh in my face and send me home.”

    William walked into the room just then. “If he does, Honey, he obviously bats for my team, because even I can tell you’re sexier than sin right now.”

    “Well, we have the under outfit prepared, what am I wearing over it?”

    Vicki looked at William, who only smirked. Stella had a very bad feeling about this. Vicki headed toward the hook that held the long coat and brought it over to Stella.

    “I figured you can just put this on and pull it tight around you. It will be like opening a late Christmas present for him. You’ll knock his socks off; and his pants too.”

    “Have you lost your mind? I can’t walk out of here in nothing more than lingerie and a trench coat. What if I would get pulled over?” Stella was starting to panic.

    “One look under the trench coat and you’d never get a ticket,” Vicki stated.

    “This is such a bad idea; and what about shoes? I don’t think my tennis shoes are going to work with this getup.”

    “I have a whole selection for you to choose from in the next room. It’s all going to be ok, Stella. Trust me. I would never steer you wrong.” Stella did trust Vicki. She just didn’t know if she trusted herself to pull this off.

    “Let’s do this. Although, if I break my ankle in the shoes you have for me, bad things are going to happen.”

    “It will all be ok. I made sure the heels weren’t too high,” Vicki said reassuringly.

    “Not too high to you is five inches,” Stella said sarcastically as they went into the next room.

    “Here, these are the ones that go with the outfit you chose.” Sitting in front of Stella were a sexy pair of red stilettos with a little black bow just above the opening at the toe.

    “Try them on and make sure you can walk in them.” Vicki helped her slip first one foot and then the other into the shoes. Standing there in the impossibly high heels, Stella felt like a giant.

    “I’m going to make him feel like a dwarf in these. I’ll tower over him like the Jolly Green Giant.”

    “You will not. Even in the heels, you will be a good two inches shorter than him. And who says your shoes will be on for very long, anyway.”

    “Well, hold my hand while I try to get used to these. How do you walk in these torture devices every day?” Stella never wore heels and this only reminded her why.

    “Stand up straight, put your shoulders back, and walk heel to toe.” As Stella let Vicki’s instructions sink in, walking became easier.

    “I think I can do it now. Let me make one more lap around the room on my own and I think I will be ready.” Stella couldn’t believe what she was saying. She was about to leave Color Me Beautiful, and head to seduce her best friend. This could go so very bad, but it was too late to turn back now.

    Stella let the panic rise and fall, and then went to grab the trench coat. “Well, once I put this on, the transformation is complete. Am I allowed to look in the mirror yet?”

    With a slight nod from Vicki, Stella walked over to the closest full-length mirror. The woman staring back at her was stunning. Long, brown, shiny hair hung in beautiful waves down her back. Her eyes had never looked bigger or greener, with impossibly long eyelashes. Her make-up was gorgeous, but not overly done. And the corset and stockings fit her body like a glove. Her breasts were pushed up and together and the stilettos made her legs look a mile long.
     
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    “Wow!” The one word said it all.

    “Stella, you are stunning. You were before this and you will be after, but right now I couldn’t be more proud of you for being so brave. Now, put this coat on and go get your man.” Vicki’s statement was genuine and made Stella tear up.

    “Don’t you dare cry and ruin all my hard work,” Vicki mock scolded Stella. “I love you. Be safe and call me tomorrow.”

    Stella pulled the trench coat tight around her waist. With a quick thank you to Maya, Julie and William, and hug and kiss for Vicki, she left.

    ****

    Instead of trying to climb the stairs in the high heels, Stella decided carrying them up the stairs was a much safer way to go. She reached the landing of the stairs, put the shoes back on, and made sure the coat was pulled tight around her.

    The wind had really picked up and was colder than when she had left the salon. She hoped Alex was home, because she was not going to wait out here for long.

    With one final deep breath, Stella moved the few feet to Alex’s door. She checked her coat, hair, shoes, and the small gift she had stopped off and bought on the way to the salon.

    “Let’s do this.” Stella lifted her trembling hand and knocked.

    ****

    Chapter 10

    Alex had driven back to Spring Towers with a smile on his face. Not only had he gotten to feel Stella in his arms, but he had kissed her senseless in front of her asshole ex and Barbie doll fiancée. It may have all been make believe for her, but he had meant every word and kiss.

    Feeling better than when he had left earlier, Alex strolled into his apartment, ready to get some work done. He knew Stella was going to kick his ass later, but he was looking forward to it. If he had his way, they would be involved in some naked wrestling by the end of the night.

    ****

    At six o’clock that night, there was a knock on Alex’s door. Thinking it was probably Kyle coming over to get all the dirty details, he opened the door. As the door opened and he was hit with a blast of cold wind, he froze.

    Stella was standing in front of him with a smile on her face and a small trophy in her hand. She was wrapped up tight in a long coat, and there was something very different about her.

    Her hair was down and slightly curly, hanging down her back. She was closer to his height, and when he looked down he caught a glimpse of what he thought were some sexy heels. Then, as if the heels hadn’t been shocking enough, he noticed Stella was wearing makeup. It was lightly applied, making it look almost natural against her skin. “Can I come in? It’s really cold out here.”

    Stepping aside so she could come in, Alex watched her cautiously as she went into his living room, only wobbling a few times as she went. Instead of sitting down, she stood at the floor to ceiling window and looked out at the Chicago skyline. “Why did you knock? You never knock.”

    Stella continued to look out the window when she answered him. “You locked me out this morning. I figured you might still be mad; especially, after this morning at the studio.”

    “Stella, I’m not mad at you. Confused, bewildered, curious, but not mad.” Alex took a few steps toward her. “Why don’t I take your coat for you?”

    “Not just yet, I have some things to give you.” Stella finally turned around and extended her hand, holding the trophy out toward him.

    “What’s this?” As Alex took a closer look at the small trophy, he noticed the writing at the bottom and looked up with a smirk. “Best Actor, huh, but what will Bruce Willis think about losing his title?” Alex didn’t know how to feel about this silly gift. He hadn’t been acting with her earlier today, but didn’t know how to start the conversation he knew they needed to have.

    “I’m sure Bruce will understand. Although, I can always give him the title back… if you weren’t acting.” Stella held Alex in place with a pointed look. A look that said she was giving him the opening he needed.

    “What are you asking, Stella?” Alex knew what she was waiting for him to say, but he needed her to give him a clue as to what she was thinking before he poured his heart out.

    “I think you know what I’m asking, Alex. So please tell me.” Stella never moved from her position beside the windows, and Alex couldn’t stand the distance anymore. He walked over to her and took both her hands in his.

    “Stella, I don’t know how to do this.” Alex took a deep breath before he continued, “So I will just start with your question. No, I was not acting today. Other than the engagement thing, but that we can talk more about later.” At her startled expression, Alex couldn’t help himself; he leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the lips.

    “Um…” Stella had started to say something, but Alex gently placed his hand over her mouth to stop the ramblings that would probably come out. Stella had a terrible habit of saying anything and everything when she was nervous.

    Removing his hand from her oh so soft lips, Alex continued. “Please let me get this out before I lose my nerve. I love you, Stella! And it’s not in an ‘I love you as a friend way’ either. For the last three years, I have thought of little else but you. I have tried my hardest to lock down my feelings and desires for you out of respect for our friendship, but today I realized I don’t want to anymore.”

    “But I’m not…” Again Stella tried to interrupt and he stopped her with a kiss this time.

    “You’re not what, Stella? Beautiful, sexy, irresistible, kind, sweet, funny, because if you were going to say you weren’t any of those things, you would be a liar. And aside from that little stunt earlier in your studio, you are one of the most honest people I know.” Alex held Stella loosely around the waist now as he finished.

    Stella began to sway and Alex had to tighten his hold on her. “Can we sit down? I need to sit down.” Alex walked her over to the couch and let go of her long enough to take his seat right next to her. Then without thinking twice, he picked up her hand and intertwined their fingers.

    “Is that better? Do you want me to get you a glass of water?” Stella shook her head, but still hadn’t said anything about all he had told her. After what felt like hours, he couldn’t take the silence anymore. “Stella, I’ve kind of poured my heart out here. And the most you’ve given me is that you want to sit down. Have I completely freaked you out?”

    Stella stared at him for a few more minutes. She opened and closed her mouth several times as if to say something, but no words came out. Finally, she blurted out, “I like you Alex.” Okay, not exactly an ‘I love you’, but it was a start. “Sorry, that came out wrong. What I meant to say was I really like you. I’ve been thinking about you, too, and I haven’t wanted to say anything that could ruin our friendship.” Stella was worrying her bottom lip, while she looked anywhere but at him.

    “Stella, your friendship is very important to me. And no matter what happens, nothing will ever change that. I promise.” Alex was rubbing his thumb over her knuckles, trying to calm the nerves he could still see in her eyes.

    “I’m nothing like the girls you’re normally with, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

    “If you hadn’t noticed, there haven’t been any women in my life for a while now. And, I’m glad you’re nothing like them. Sure they were fun to hang out with a few times, but they always left me with an empty feeling. I want someone who challenges me, makes me laugh, and sees me for more than a meal ticket and a good time. I want you, Stella.” Holding Stella’s hand was no longer enough. He let go of her hand and pulled her into his side. She came willingly.
     
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    “I’m more than a challenge, Alex. I can be the most stubborn, pain in the ass around, and you know this. I’m not good at relationships. Look at how well the last one turned out.” Alex could feel the stress begin to take over Stella’s body, and he had to laugh.

    “Stella, you are stubborn, and you are a pain in the ass most of the time,” at her hurt expression he quickly went on, “but those are two things I love the most about you. You will tell me like it is, and not let me get away with stupid shit. You will call me out on my mistakes and I will do the same to you. It’s going to be hard at times, but I will never intentionally hurt you. However, I am a guy and we have been known to act without thinking. And if that happens, you have my full permission to kick my ass and knock some sense into me.”

    Stella sat there absorbing everything he had just laid on her. Then with a wicked grin she said, “I don’t make mistakes.”

    “Ha Ha, smartass.” All Alex could do was shake his head and laugh. Just then, a comment she made minutes ago came to the forefront of his mind and he lost all humor. “Stella, your last relationship was not your fault. Kevin was an asshole, who never deserved you. If he couldn’t see what a great woman he had in his life, then he’s a moron; although I should probably thank him.” Stella snapped her head up to look at him.

    “If he hadn’t been such an idiot, you wouldn’t have moved here, and I wouldn’t have you in my life.” A small tear rolled down Stella’s cheek and Alex wiped it away with his thumb.

    “I’m a mess. I’m not normally such a crier. Please don’t think it will be water works all the time. It’s rare that it happens.”

    “Stella, you’re not a robot. You are allowed to have emotions.” Alex hugged her tight.

    “I know, I just swore I wouldn’t cry again after ‘him,’ and now look at me, I’ve done it twice in one day.”

    “When else did you cry today? That asshole didn’t make you cry after I left, did he? Because I will hunt him down and make him pay.” Alex felt the anger rise within him.

    “No, it wasn’t Kevin. Victoria was being very sweet and it touched me. She isn’t always the hard ass everyone thinks she is.”

    “When did you see Vicki? Although, that would explain the hair and make-up right now; she is always trying to change you.” Alex felt a sharp pain in his rib from where Stella’s elbow had just connected.

    “Be nice. I love my sister. And yes, she had a hand in this. But she wasn’t trying to change me.”

    “I’m sorry. I like Vicki; she’s just very pushy sometimes.” Alex rubbed his free hand over his now sore ribs.

    “Yes she can be, but I can handle her.”

    Wanting to get back on steady ground, Alex asked, “So…you gave me the trophy, but when you handed it to me you said you had some things, as in plural. What else have you got up your sleeves?”

    Alex felt Stella go still in his arms. “Oh, um…” she bite her bottom lip so hard, he was surprised she didn’t draw blood.

    “It’s ok, Stella. Whatever it is, I’m sure I will love it.”

    “Well, now you’re really making me nervous.” Stella pushed out of Alex’s arms and slowly stood up. She walked in front of his TV and stopped with her back to him. He saw her take a deep breath and turn around.

    The look in her eyes when she turned around was like nothing he had ever seen; a mix between desire, nerves, and apprehension. “What is it, Stella?”

    She didn’t answer him. The only response he got was her reaching for the belt on her coat. She very gently untied the knot, and then went to work on the buttons. When she was done, Stella held the two pieces of the coat so tight her knuckles turned white.

    Alex made a move to get up and go to her, but she held up her hand to stop him. “No, if you come over here right now, I’ll lose what’s left of my nerve.” Alex sat back down and waited.

    Stella loosened her grip on the coat and finally opened it and let it fall to the floor. “Surprise,” was the only thing Stella said.

    Alex’s lungs ceased to take in enough air. Standing in front of him was the most erotic vision he’d ever seen. Stella wore a tight fitting black corset with tiny hooks that ran down the middle. Suddenly all Alex could do was flex his fingers to keep from reaching out and undoing every last one of them. The tiny red bows were strategically placed in all the places his eyes were already wandering.

    Stella’s breasts were dangerously close to spilling out of the top of the corset and Alex prayed for divine intervention to help them do just that. When Alex’s eyes finally started moving again, they nearly popped out of his head. The smallest scrape of see through black silk was covering Stella’s bare mound. A small groan escaped past Alex’s lips before he could stop it.

    Forcing himself to continue the tour of her body, he moved on to her legs. Legs that Alex had wanted to have wrapped around his waist for what felt like an eternity. They looked a mile long and were covered in black stockings. Stockings held up by small clips with more of those red bows.

    Alex’s eyes finally came to a stop at the shoes he had gotten a glimpse of earlier in the doorway. Red high heels with another tiny black bow. Her toenails had been painted a sexy red color, and were playing peek-a-boo out of the front of the shoes. And just like that, Alex went from hard to near bursting.

    “Stella, you look amazing.”

    “You like?” She looked nervous again.

    “Like… No, my dear, love is more like it. You did all this for me?” Stella nodded her head, but said nothing.

    No longer able to stay on the couch, Alex rushed over to Stella. His lips were on her in a hard, passionate kiss before she could react. It was not the sweet romantic kiss he had envisioned giving her, but damn if he could control the desire burning inside of him. They broke apart, both breathing hard and fast. “I take it you don’t want to send me home and forget this ever happened?”

    Alex looked at Stella like she had grown horns. “Why the hell would I do that? A ridiculously sexy woman has come to me, dressed in an outfit that should have a health warning, and you think I’m going to send you home?” Alex took her mouth in another heart stopping kiss.

    As they pulled apart again, Stella stuttered, “W-Well, I hope not, but I didn’t know how you would react.” Without a second thought to what he was doing, Alex swept Stella into his arms and all but sprinted down the long hallway to his bedroom.

    Just as he had gotten inside the door to his bedroom, Alex pressed Stella up against the wall and took another sip from her delicious lips. “Oh, Stella, the things you do to me.” Alex laid his forehead on hers, trying to breathe.

    “Touch me, Alex. I need you to touch me.” Stella’s plea was Alex’s undoing.

    He pulled her away from the wall, crossed the last few feet to his king sized bed, laid her down, and quickly covered her body with his. He captured her lips, only this time it was a much gentler kiss. After several minutes, Alex pushed himself up and with one slow grind of his hard shaft between their still clothed groins; he sat back on his heels.

    “Stella, if you can’t feel how much I want you, then maybe I’ll just have to convince you somehow. But right now you are wearing entirely too many clothes. And since I love opening presents so much, I’m going to savor every single second of unwrapping you. After all, I did say I would make up for earlier.” And with that said, Alex began the slow process of removing the last of Stella’s defenses.
     
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    ****

    Chapter 11

    Stella could hardly believe she was here; lying on this bed, with this man undressing her. The room was dark, but the light from the hallway was streaming through, outlining Alex like a halo. Only, he was no angel. The feelings and need he had coursing through Stella’s body right now were down right devilish.

    Alex was taking his time undoing each little hook holding her corset together. Tempting and teasing her skin with feather light kisses after undoing each one. Stella was sure she would spontaneously combust at any moment if he didn’t give her more.

    “Alex, please.” She didn’t know what she was begging for, only that the throbbing between her thighs was about to drive her insane with want.

    “All in good time, Baby.”

    “I need you now!”

    Alex stopped undoing the hooks and looked up at her with a wicked grin. “Patience is a virtue, Sweetheart.”

    “Patience is over-rated.” Each word was panted out breathlessly.

    He slid up the bed and placed his hands on either side of her head, and kissed what was left of her breath away. The connection wasn’t nearly enough for Stella, though. She threw her arms around his neck and pulled him down so there wasn’t one part of her body not connecting them. He opened on a gasp and her tongue was inside his warm wet mouth instantly. Stella sucked and nipped at his tongue until Alex was moaning his delight.

    “Stella, you are going to unman me. Let me take care of you, Baby. If you keep kissing me like that, this will be over far too soon.” With one last slow sensual swipe of her tongue over his, Stella reluctantly let Alex pull away. He didn’t break all contact, though, as he slid one of his legs between her thighs. Without even thinking, she found herself thrusting her hips against his hard, muscled thigh.

    “Mmmm…..” The pressure was like a lightning bolt of sensation and Stella knew it would only take one look, one touch and she would be a goner.

    “Stella.” Her name was a groan on his lips. She could see a fine sheen of sweat breaking out over Alex’s forehead and loved that she could do this to him. Testing his control and tempting him to lose it. Seconds later, he did just that. Her corset was ripped the rest of the way from her body.

    Alex moved down the bed. After removing her heels, he grabbed her left ankle, bringing her leg up just enough to slip her stocking off. After placing a kiss to the bottom of each toe on her left foot, Alex gave a tiny bite to her pinky toe.

    “Arggg….” Stella felt the bite all the way to her throbbing clit.

    “I see you like a little pain with your pleasure. Let me see what other secrets your body holds, Sweetheart.”

    Alex moved to her right leg. Once again removing her stocking and kissing each toe, ending with a small love bite. Never in her life had she felt so on edge. So full of need that if he didn’t give her a release soon, she may very well hurt him.

    Alex had placed her legs back on the bed, leaving her lying naked in front of him except a thin scrap of silk covering her bare mound. He reached down and ran his finger along her silk covered folds. “I can feel how ready you are already. You’re so fucking wet, Stella, and I’ve barely touched you.”

    “Then please touch me. Touch me anywhere. Touch me everywhere. Just don’t stop touching me.” She didn’t normally sound so desperate in bed, but it had been three long years. And he seemed hell bent on prolonging the wonderful torture he was putting her body through.

    “You are killing me, Stella. You’re so damn beautiful. I don’t want to leave one spot untouched.” Alex had started running his hands up her sides and was now absently running his thumbs along the under sides of her breasts. “You don’t know how many nights I’ve wondered what these beauties would feel like. Cupped in my hands, your nipples beaded into hard points, waiting to be taken into my mouth and sucked until you scream out in pleasure.”

    His words were like a shot of desire aimed straight at her clit. It pulsed, and Stella gave her hips another roll against his thigh that he had once again returned to between her legs. “Please…”

    Alex shifted and was now hovering near her ear. Warm, wet breath was tickling her over sensitized skin, as he sucked her earlobe in between his teeth and gave it a light tug.

    He rained kisses along her jaw line, before running his tongue down to the crook of her neck. Nipping at her pulse points, and then soothing them with flicks of his tongue. When he reached the spot where Stella’s neck and shoulders met, he pulled the tendon between his teeth and gave it the hardest bite yet.

    “I want my mark on you. Reminding you where I’ve been. Giving you pleasure when I’m not there. Making you think about how much you want to come right now.” Stella let out a moan that was barely human. No way would she be forgetting him in this lifetime. The man not only had her begging, but also seemed to know her body better than she did.

    “Yes.” The one word seemed to satisfy, him because he began his torturous trek down her body once again. His tongue dipping into the hollow of her collarbone, and Stella could feel the action as if he was dipping in between her slick and swollen lips.

    Alex slid further down her body and began to run his tongue over the tops of her breasts, with his hands not far behind. Her breasts rose and fell with her harsh breathing; pushing her breasts further into his waiting hands. He was so close to her painfully hard nipples, but didn’t touch them. “Alex, please…”

    “Tell me what you want, Stella. I want to hear you say it.” Stella threw her arms over her eyes and shook her head from side to side.

    Stella had never been shy about what she wanted in bed, but lying there, almost completely naked with Alex, brought out all of her insecurities. Her eyes were not the only part of her body she wished she could hide right now.

    As if he could sense her pulling away from him, Alex stopped caressing her breasts and gently laid his hands on her arms. With a slight pull, he removed her arms from covering her eyes. “Stella, look at me.” She slowly opened her eyes, but refused to look at him.

    “Look at me.” This time he said it with a little more force. Stella turned her head just enough to see him staring down at her with so much understanding that Stella could feel the tears building.

    “Never hide from me, Stella. You are so incredibly sexy and responsive, I feel like a teenager again. Afraid I’m going to come in my jeans from just kissing and touching you. There is nothing you could say or ask for that is going to turn me off. I want you to be completely satisfied. So please, tell me what you want.”

    Taking a deep breath, she finally caved. “My breasts are very sensitive. You were so close to my nipples, yet not touching them. I need some sort of relief before I burst into flames.”

    “See, that wasn’t so hard.” Easy for him to say; she still wasn’t thrilled he was seeing all of her. “Thank you for telling me what you want.” Alex kissed her quickly, and then repositioned himself above her breasts. “Now look at me.”

    Stella wasn’t used to a dominant man in the bedroom. Her previous partners, all two of them, always let her lead. Only now did Stella realize this is what she wanted and needed; someone to take control. Stella did as he asked and just as her eyes connected with his, he sucked her nipple into his mouth and gave it a hard flick with his tongue.
     

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