Seven minutes in the shower is the quickest I’ve ever managed. It’s what needs to be done if I have any hope of making this work.
The image of my sexy stranger’s figure illuminates the darkness of my eyelids every time I blink. Even the water raining over me does little to quell the flames engulfing my body.
He has a name now, though. Rob. Masculine. Simple. Uncomplicated. Hot.
Just what I need to power me through a transpacific flight.
I rinse, dry off, and swipe my phone from the bathroom counter. I re-read the text I didn’t send before I hopped in the shower. Having him join me in there would have been off-the-charts delicious, but I wanted some sexy build-up. It’s worked for the two of us so far.
Wrapped in the plush white hotel towel, I swipe my free palm over the foggy mirror, and survey what I’m working with. Not terrible. A week of packing and traveling has taken its toll, but the raw materials are there. A bit of makeup and a few minutes with the blow dryer, and I’ll be cute enough.
With tingling fingers, I type a message to him:
Got your message under the door. Very slick. Fancy a drink in the lobby around noon?
That should give me enough time to get dressed, order breakfast for my mom, and lay her down for that midday nap that she likes to take before long trips.
It’s not even a minute before my phone dings with a text response. I gnaw my lip to keep a wide grin at bay. Just the thought of seeing this guy face to face after he watched me pleasure myself rockets me to a whole new level of nervous. A good nervous, though. I’ve never behaved in such a naughty way for a complete stranger before. It’s a whole new realm of thrilling.
His number flashes across my screen as a second ding echoes through the massive marble bathroom. A smidgen of my nerves disappear. He must want this just as bad as I do.
Rob: I’d love to 😉
Rob: And I’d love your name almost as much
Me: Where are my manners, lol. Layla 🙂 See you soon
Rob: Can’t wait 🙂
Again I bite my lip, this time to stave off giggles. I haven’t felt this sort of giddiness for a guy in ages. A string of bad dates and even worse relationships over the past few years have left me with a cynical attitude and an impressive sex toy collection. Kudos to Rob for making me feel emotions other men—and my favorite vibrator—can’t deliver.
After swiping on makeup and drying my hair, I throw on yoga pants, a loose fitting tank top, and sneakers. The sharp ding of my phone captures my focus while I pack up my suitcase.
It’s not even nine yet. My mouth tugs into a smile. I guess Rob couldn’t wait. And really, I can’t either. When I check my phone, my stomach drops. It’s a text from the airline stating that our flight has been canceled due to mechanical issues. We’ve been bumped to an earlier flight on a companion airline, which leaves in three hours.
Through my clenched jaw, I huff out a frustrated breath. That’s hardly enough time to pack up my mom and get ourselves to the airport in time.
I fall back into the bathroom door, my limp body sliding all the way down until my ass hits the floor. I just missed out on an afternoon of no-strings-attached sex with a hot stranger due to crappy airplane maintenance. Sad and disappointed don’t even scratch the surface of how I feel.
Pressing my fist against my forehead does little to relieve the frustration pulsing through me. I type a message to Rob with slow-moving fingers. Regretful fingers. Fingers that will never, ever have the pleasure of touching his hard body, his thick hair, those luscious lips.
You have NO idea how bummed I am to send you this message, but my flight out of Taipei has been bumped up. I have to leave now, which means meeting up is a no-go. I’m so, so sorry 😦
While I wait for his reply, I shove piles of wrinkled dirty clothes and my toiletries bag into my suitcase. When the ding of his reply happens a minute later, my heartbeat quickens. I wait a full minute before I even look at my phone. The longer I wait, the longer I can put off the inevitable disappointment. What I wouldn’t give to have that giddy, excited feeling of five minutes ago pulsing through me. How simple and sexy and happy my world was then.
Rob: Don’t even worry about it, really 🙂 I’m disappointed for sure, but I understand. Flights are a pain. I travel all the time, and this has happened to me before. If you’re game, hang on to my number. Look me up the next time you’re in Taipei 😉
A foreign mix of disappointment, relief, and excitement send a jolt of energy through me. The odds of me visiting to Taipei anytime soon are slim now that my mom will be living in the US. Sure, there’ll be a visit every year or so to see my dad’s family, but I can’t count on Rob to be available. All we will probably ever have is last night, and we weren’t even technically together.
I shove the last of my clothes in my bag, along with my lingering disappointment. Stomping out of my room and into the hallway, I drag my suitcase behind me. My mom’s hotel room is just a few doors down. Once I cross her doorway, it’s back to reality. Maybe it’s best that my one night of hot antics remain just that: one. I have a disappointed mother to transport halfway across the globe. I have a make-or-break work meeting to prep for as soon as I land. Last night was one hell of a fantasy. At least I’ll always have that.
Rob’s grip isn’t as firm as I thought it would be. At least not when he’s touching me. His rough, calloused palms slide over my bare skin, leaving me in a sheet of goosebumps.
I haven’t seen his frown once since that night at the bar. Now, it’s a permanent half-smile gracing his face. “You came all the way back for me?” he says, with a lift of his dark eyebrow.
When I nod, the bed sheets under my head bunch into a soft mound. “I felt so bad leaving things the way I did.”
Thick lips press a light kiss to my bare stomach. I have to clench my teeth to keep from groaning. I want to keep composed, stay in control. I’ve already given away so many cool points by coming back to find him.
He trails a handful of light kisses to the waistline of my panties. Green eyes pin me to the pillow. “You could have told me where you were flying. I would have followed you, no questions asked.”
It’s a line that would normally send me running for the hills, but pouring from his pretty mouth in that charming Irish accent, I’m a goner. Heat flashes through my body. Thankfully it’s not too obvious with my tan. Since the moment I set eyes on Rob, I’ve wanted him. Everything from his cool, respectful demeanor to his perfect body has me hooked.
Those rough hands slide my panties halfway down my legs. His face hovers an inch above where I want him most.
“Not like it matters.” He smirks. It’s smug and delicious, and I love it. “You’re here now.”
It’s the last thing I see before he lowers his face. Then the heat hits. It’s wet heat, the very best kind. His tongue swirls, and a low hum slides from this throat to his lips. It all drives me absolutely insane in the best possible way. Endless swirls have me writhing, panting, begging. I call his name, and he hums louder. It’s reassurance, confirmation that despite missing out on each other earlier, he’s here for me now.
Tighter and tighter I wind, the heat building from my midsection all the way to my fingers and toes. Climax is coming, and it’s only been a minute.
My stranger, my Rob, is a legend with his tongue. I’m so damn glad I came back.
A breathy moan of his name is all I can manage. When I try to run my hands through his rich brown hair, it’s weirdly hard. Like plastic. A sharp poke in my ribs throws me off. What the hell is—
The sharp hiss of my mother’s trademark annoyed whisper jolts me awake. It’s a handful of blinks before I register her frown leering down from the seat next to me. A bewildered flight attendant crouches next to her in the aisle, her deep brown eyes equal parts worried and confused. I cross my legs, pressing them together so hard until my thighs begin to ache. The pulse inside me fades.
Awareness makes an appearance, and I shake my head. Rob is nowhere to be found. It’s just me battling the onset of my dream-induced orgasm in front of my mother and a frightened flight attendant.
Already I can feel the heat making its way to my face. Good thing it’s the middle of the night, and the entire cabin is dark, save for the dim lights along the aisle.
“Sorry…I, um…I had a weird dream.” I pull my hoodie tighter around my chest. Silently, I thank the universe that most of the other passengers were not awake to witness the results of my rather vivid sex dream.
Nodding, the flight attendant slowly stands back up before scurrying away. My mother pulls the thin airplane blanket over her chest before shaking her head.
“Who is Rob? You kept saying his name.”
I force my face into a frown before my eyes can widen, giving away even more of my embarrassment. Apparently I didn’t just moan his name in my subconscious; I actually spoke it out loud.
Twisting away to the window is the only way I can think to deal. “I was saying ‘robber.’ I was having a bad dream that we were being robbed.” It’s the best lie I can come up with after several hours on a plane and broken sleep.
“It’s all fine, anak. Just rest now.” My mother yawns through her words, which is a relief. It means she won’t pepper me with intrusive questions about my made-up nightmare.
Soft wheezing in my left ear signals she’s back to sleep. Disappointment settles deep in my chest. I press my lids shut, willing sleep to come. It doesn’t. All that comes is Rob’s image. Even my subconscious won’t let me forget.
“You’re a doll for doing all of this. Really.”
My sister Naomi beams at me. Her megawatt watt smile could put Julia Roberts’ trademark grin to shame.
A tight-lipped mouth crease that barely qualifies as a smile is all I can manage. We landed in Sacramento yesterday morning and since then, all I’ve been doing is unpacking my mother’s belongings in Naomi’s guest house, her new home. My mother has been too enamored with her luxury surroundings to help, and Naomi was too busy with work. Of course.
My mom’s toothy grin shines from all the way across the room, where she sits on a plush sectional. This thousand-square foot dwelling is more than she will ever need, but that’s precisely why she loves it. Her successful oldest daughter is putting her up in some seriously swanky digs.
This guest house is worth more than my duplex and is the very definition of minimalist sophistication. White cupboards in the kitchen match the white marble countertops perfectly. Every surface in the living room is some variation of white: there’s an ivory rug, white brick fireplace, and white accent tables. Only the massive sectional boasts color, and even that is a subdued gray hue.
“No problem,” I say. “Thank you for taking care of the hotel rooms.”
Naomi pats our mother’s shoulder, then crosses the room to me. “The rest of the furniture will be delivered tomorrow, mom. Think you can hang tight with just the sectional and your new bed?”
She nods, before raving about how soft the suede upholstery feels.
The clack of Naomi’s black Jimmy Choo heels echo through the crisp white space. She digs a handful of fifties from the pocket of her Chanel skirt suit and hands them to me.
“For all your trouble.” She tilts her head at me, her voice just barely above a whisper. “I know she can be a handful.”
A deep breath is all that keeps me from shoving her hand away. Naomi may sound sincere, but I’ve learned to take her words at surface-value only. It wasn’t always this way. As kids we were inseparable: reading books in each other’s beds before falling asleep, sharing snacks on the playground, drawing pictures together during flights from our home in the US to visit our relatives in Taipei and Manila.
But then she left for college and realized she wanted something more, something better than the simple life she and I enjoyed together for our childhoods. Image and money became Naomi’s main focus. She’s achieved a lot, I’ll give her that. She busted her ass in school, in internships, in every single job she’s ever had. As a result, she’s about to make partner in her law firm, and she’s the owner of a five-bedroom home in the coveted Westlake neighborhood of Sacramento.
When she started hitting it big in school and work, she didn’t have time for her artsy little sister who dropped out of college, who now works out of her garage studio. Every time she bothered to talk to me, it was to lecture me about my career choices, what a mistake it was for me to drop out of college and venture out on my own as a freelance illustrator. Every time, we ended up in an argument.
My mom was an easier sell. Naomi showered her in gifts and trips, and she loved it. But I could never understand why she couldn’t just accept that money never mattered to me.
Deep down, I’m proud of my big sister. I just wish her feelings for me didn’t change when her life did. That’s what kills, what makes my skin crawl every single time I’m forced to spend time with her now that we’re adults living separate lives.
Staring at the cash in her hand, my jaw clenches. “It’s fine. I don’t need it,” I mutter before yanking my purse over my shoulder.
“Sweetie, come on. You deserve it,” Naomi croons. It makes my skin crawl.
Yet another tactic she’s used before. I used to love it when she called me sweetie when we were kiddos playing house. Now any pet names she uses on me are dripping in faux affection. They’re only there to remind me who’s really in charge, to make me feel less than the big sister success story she knows she is.
This time, I lightly shove away her fist full of cash, her brows knit in a shocked frown. I haven’t seen that particular look of disgust in ages. Probably because she and I don’t spend any time meaningful time together unless it’s the holidays, and we’re forced to see each other.
“Please don’t pull that crap with me.” I take a step to the door.
“Honey, don’t leave like that.” Naomi waves a hand at our mom, who’s frowning at me now, too. “You missed work to help mom, and I want to compensate you for that. I know freelancing doesn’t always pay that great in the first place.”
I grit my teeth, then command my jaw to relax. “It’s certainly no corporate lawyer salary, but I’ve somehow managed to keep afloat. I don’t need your help.”
Her head tilt and pursed lips are like a silent disappointed sigh. “At least eat with us. I was going to order dinner as soon as the nanny brings Bryan back from the Palace of the Fine Arts.”
I huff out a chuckle. “You made your nanny take your one-year-old to the Palace of the Fine Arts? It’s a venue for weddings and photo shoots. What the hell is a baby going to do there?”
Naomi crosses her arms across her chest. At least this anger brimming inside of her is genuine. “There’s nothing wrong with introducing art and culture into a child’s life at an early age.”
I roll my eyes and reach for the obnoxiously large brass door knob. “Whatever you say. I can’t stay for dinner anyway, I have to get ready for a work meeting in San Francisco. Use the cash you were going to give me for babysitting mom and buy dinner. That way it’ll be like I’m treating you.”
I shut the door behind me before I either of them can utter a response.
An hour on the five-eighty freeway, and I’m in the financial district of San Francisco. I scour the parking garage down the block from the Le Meridien Hotel and land a spot halfway up the tower.
The echo of my second-hand heels in the cement structure helps to snap me out of the funk I’ve been in ever since storming out of my sister’s guest house this afternoon. Now that our mom lives in the same country, I’m navigating a whole new level of familial tension. She and my sister did a stellar job of criticizing my personal life and career choices when they lived nearly seven thousand miles away from each other. Now that they reside in the same home, I’m expecting a ruthless, united front.
I shift to hyper-focus work mode. A meeting with Phoebe Chen, marketing head of Offshoot Publishing. The international book publisher is establishing its West Coast branch in San Francisco and is looking for a freelance designer to design its ebook covers. It’s a position that could turn into full-time work if I impress them with my samples and my ideas for upcoming releases.
Swallowing back my nerves, I focus on the Le Meridien skyscraper in front of me. Its hard angles jut against the early evening sky. It’s like a magnet for my gaze; I can’t help but gawk. If I can nail this meeting, I’m on my way to making my dream come true. I’ll be designing book covers for a major publishing house, something I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a teenager.
A college-aged doorman opens one of the glistening front doors for me. I smile a thanks and head to Bar 333. A mix of mod and art deco styling greets me the moment I walk in. All the tables boast slim metal bases. Faux leather upholstery adorns every chair, in every neutral hue imaginable. Under the dim lighting from the drum chandeliers, I spot Phoebe in the far corner, tapping her phone screen. When she sees me heading her way, she stands up immediately. A wide smile flashes across her face.
She shrugs her sleek ponytail to the side before sticking her hand out. “Layla. What a pleasure it is to finally meet you in person.”
I return her firm handshake and warm, professional greeting. Inside, I high-five myself for choosing to wear my black shift dress and fitted gray blazer. Phoebe dons a similar outfit in navy blue, though judging by the crisp fabric and impeccable tailoring, hers was probably purchased at Bergdorf Goodman. I scored mine during a massive clearance at a local outlet store.
“Please have a seat.” She gestures to the chair across from her. “Thank you for meeting so late. I wish we could have met at our new office in Chinatown, but renovations have been taking forever. I figured you’d prefer a hotel bar to an open space with exposed electrical and crumbling drywall?”
I shake my head. “You guessed correctly. It’s no problem at all.”
Her eyes scan the nearby space before she turns her focused gaze back on me. “My business partner just zipped to the restroom. He should be back in a second.”
I nod and pull out my portfolio while she goes over the wish-list she’s come up with for this position. It’s a recap of everything we chatted about during our calls and the Skype interview she conducted before I left for Taipei. When I show her the cover mockups, her eyes brighten behind her cat-eye glasses.
“These are incredible. You have such a skill for creating images that draw the eye as both thumbnail and full-size images. This is exactly the sort of vision we have in mind at Offshoot.” Her gaze floats from my portfolio to an unseen person behind me. “Speaking of creative vision, this is our Creative Director in the flesh.”
Twisting around in my chair, my gaze lands on a killer figure that’s as shocking as it is familiar: broad shoulders, dark hair, sharp jaw, pensive green eyes. Judging by the split-second of recognition that dances across his face before he frowns it away, he wasn’t expecting to ever see me again either.
“Rob Donaughy, meet Layla Soberano.”
My sexy stranger. Holy fucking shit.