As soon as I climb back into bed, Liza’s fingertip is tracing along the swirling black lines of my tattoo, winding its way across my chest, all the way up to my neck. “That was amazing,” she purrs.
I smirk at the ceiling as she settles herself against me. “You’re welcome.”
She smacks me lightly on the shoulder. “It seemed like you enjoyed yourself, too.”
I cringe inwardly. That pouting, please tell me I’m pretty tone always makes me want to vault off the bed and sprint for the door, but I force myself to smile instead, because that’s how you play this game...if you want to win, that is. “More than enjoyed myself.” I brush her auburn hair away from her slightly damp forehead—catching a glimpse of a few gray hairs that tell me she probably has a salon appointment scheduled next week—and plant a lingering kiss on her brow.
She stretches like a cat in the sun, throwing her smooth leg over mine and nuzzling my neck. Ah, cuddling. Liza loves it, and I hope she pays accordingly. “This was exactly what I needed to get my mind off things.”
“Good.” I tangle my fingers in her hair as her lips tickle my skin. It feels good, and I close my eyes and savor it, focusing only on the sensation, fluttering and light and warm.
She sighs, and that’s when I know she wants to add talking to our routine. We met a few weeks ago when she began attending the winter session painting class I’m teaching at the artists’ co-op downtown. Like it’s been with so many of the wealthy wives of our local upper class, my arrangement with Liza started out easy—a “private lesson,” a quick fuck, a hundred or two in my pocket, a kiss goodbye—but now that we’ve been on for nearly a month, she’s wanting more. I don’t really do more, but she’s commissioned a series of paintings for the new entertainment suite her husband is building off the back of this mansion, and she’s paying a few thousand per canvas. How many canvases she ends up wanting depends very much on how well I satisfy her. So...“Are you okay, Liza? You sound stressed.” I squeeze her a little, just to show I really care.
She smiles and squeezes me back. Mission accomplished. “I’m okay, but not great. Estella came home from college for the holidays, and she’s adamant that she’s not going back.”
I try to remember which of her daughters she’s talking about. She pointed out their pictures in the entryway the first time I came over, poster-sized senior portraits of two girls with Liza’s high cheekbones and slightly pointed chin, and their dad’s dark eyes. One of them has black hair like he does, too, while the other is a brunette. I didn’t attach names to faces because I was struck by the fact that one of them is older than I am. I’m guessing the younger one is Estella, then, if she’s still in college. She’s the brunette, I think. “She’s been home since before Christmas?”
Liza chuckles. “See what I mean? You didn’t even know she was here. She’s like a ghost these days, haunting my house.”
“Is she transferring to Becker?” I’m a local boy and graduated from there. It’s a pretty solid school, and their art program is damn good.
Liza’s plastered against me, so I feel her stomach tighten and see her lips twitch. She’s trying not to laugh. Wow. “Oh, Daniel.” She lets out a little snort that makes me grind my teeth. “No. Lou and I are really pushing her to go back to Wellesley, but it looks like she’s sitting out this semester—and of course, we’ve already paid for her housing and tuition.”
Which is probably about as much as she paid for her last facelift—pocket change considering her husband owns an industrial machinery company and is one of the wealthiest men in the state—but her tone says she’s still pissed about it. “What happened?”
“Estella has always been a little sensitive and shy, but now she’s simply refusing to do anything. Refusing to leave the house, actually.”
I frown. “Did something happen to her?”
Liza’s hand flaps against my chest. “I’ve asked her, but she denies it. And there’s no discussing it. She won’t listen at all.”
“But if she won’t leave the house...is she scared? Do you think someone hurt her?” I stare at the elaborate light fixture above us and think of my best friend Caleb’s sister. That girl has too many problems to count and requires a lot of therapy to keep her on the rails, and Liza’s daughter sounds a little like her.
“It’s hard to tell with Estella. She’s very closed off. Hard to talk to.”
And Liza isn’t exactly the compassionate type. She’s pretty focused on how things affect her. “Are you getting her some kind of help?”
“I’ve tried,” Liza snaps before softening her tone. “I offered to take her to my own psychiatrist for a prescription, but she refused to consider it, even after Lou offered to buy her a Mercedes. It’s irrational. I’m almost at the end of my rope with her.”
Liza’s expression changes slightly, and I think she’s trying to raise her eyebrows, but her forehead stays smooth and still, made perfect by Botox or whatever else she’s had done. She looks great, but it’s weird when her face doesn’t quite move like it should. “She’s the most stubborn girl,” she continues. “Lou dotes on her, but even he doesn’t know what to do. She was a junior this year and we thought she was doing so well, but she came back for Christmas like a shell of herself. It was so embarrassing at our holiday party—everyone wanted to see her, but she refused to even come out and say hello!”
Jeez. It sounds like the girl had a total breakdown. “What are you going to do?”
She props herself on an elbow. “Actually,” she says, walking her fingers down my neck and across my collarbone. “I had an idea this morning.”
My eyes drift shut again as her touch dips lower, right down the center of my chest to my stomach, waking my cock from its temporary slumber. “Hmm?”
Tingles of pleasure roll out in waves from my belly as her hand closes around me. “Well, you know how they say art is therapeutic?” She strokes me, and a few times is all it takes to have me hard and ready. She keeps talking, but I’m not really paying attention anymore.
“Yeah.” My fingers tighten on her shoulder. “Yeah, definitely.” My hips start to move as her grip tightens. She makes this amused sound and edges down my body, her tongue dipping into my belly button before traveling south.
“I was thinking you might be able to help.” Her mouth closes around the tip of me, and everything goes tight.
“Sure,” I gasp. I can’t remember what we’re talking about. “Whatever you need.” My fingers twist in her hair as she bobs up and down. She has me practically arching off the bed in less than a minute.
Unfortunately, that’s when she pulls back and looks up at me. “I want you to give Estella some art lessons.”
I freeze. “What? Oh...”
She works on me for a few more minutes before teasing me again. “I’d pay you well. This would be outside the commission agreement.”
“Umm.” Wait, what’s she saying? “Could you...” She’s still stroking me. I can’t think straight.
“I want Estella to express herself. Maybe draw or paint a few things and work out whatever’s going on with her. Then maybe we can get her on the right track and back to Wellesley. You could help her.”
“Help...Estella?” I start to say something else, but Liza’s tongue slides over me and I groan instead.
“Yes,” she whispers, blowing cool air across my wet skin, making me jerk. “And if you do a good job, I’ll be recommending you to all my friends.”
“Sounds good.” I’m trying to guide her mouth back to where I want it. Words. She’s saying too many words right now.
She lets out a huff of laughter. “You can start tomorrow. Ten should be ideal. I’ll make sure she’s expecting you.”
“Mmmhmm. Sure. Good.”
Her grin is laced with triumph. Then she bows her head over me again.
She’s too busy to say anything else for a good long while.
I take a quick shower in the enormous marble bathroom before slapping on my clothes and kissing Liza, who’s napping on the bed. She gives me a sleepy smile and reaches for her purse on the bedside table, and I kiss her again as she slips me three hundred. I look down at it, wondering how I earned the extra, and she says, “Payment in advance for tomorrow.”
Shit. Now that I’m not horny, I’m remembering our conversation. Private art lessons for her crazy recluse of a daughter. My dick has gotten me into a lot of stupid situations, but this one might be the worst. “Liza...”
She slides out another hundred and hands it to me. “See you at ten. You know the way out?”
“Uh-huh.” Arguing is pointless, especially if she’s going to pay me this well. She’s just covered my monthly car payment and groceries for a few weeks. “See you.”
I grab my sketchbook and coat from the floor and exit her bedroom, walking toward the central section of the house. Her husband, Lou, who I’ve met at a couple of gallery shows and always has a glass of scotch in his hand, won’t be home until late. The guy’s never here, so Liza pretty much does whatever she wants without worrying about being caught.
I walk past a few pieces of art by people I know—one of Markus’s sculptures is on a small pedestal in the sunken family room. Liza bought the piece from him during their affair last year. She’s commissioned something from Caleb as well—a small painting for her library, she said—but that comes with no sexual strings attached, because Caleb doesn’t play this game. He’s crazy in love with his girlfriend, Romy, and he won’t do anything to mess that up. I’d say he’s missing out, but Caleb’s on the sensitive side. Not like me.
As I pass the guest wing, a door clicks shut and my heart jolts. A girl in black yoga pants is standing a few feet away. Her dark tunic shirt has white powder marks on it, and she’s clutching a book to her chest, staring at me with big, dark eyes. She’s only a few inches shorter than I am, and considering that I’m six-two, that’s saying something. Her long, straight brown hair hangs over her shoulder. She looks about twenty or so, but she’s got purplish circles beneath her eyes that make her look a little older.
“Hi,” I say.
She takes a step backward. “Hi. Sorry—who are you?” Her voice is a little raspy.
“My name’s Daniel.”
“What are you doing here?”
I raise my eyebrow. “What are you doing here?”
Her posture stiffens. “I live here.”
“You must be Estella.”
She blinks and mumbles something, and suddenly I wonder if I’m wrong. “Didn’t quite catch that,” I say.
“Stella. I prefer Stella,” she says a little louder. “I hate being called Estella. Or Stell.”
“Fair enough. I hate being called Danny. Or Dan. Or Danielle.”
The corners of her mouth twitch, and I stare. Liza’s crazy daughter is actually kind of interesting to look at. Not hot in the way I’m normally attracted to, but...definitely not boring.
“What are you reading, Stella?”
She bows her head over her book. “Anna Karenina.”
“Any good?” I’ve never read it.
She shrugs. “It’s about a woman who slowly has an emotional and psychological breakdown under the weight of society’s expectations.”
I let out a laugh. “Sorry. That sounds kind of morbid.”
“No, not at all. It’s a comedy. Pretty light and funny. You should check it out sometime.”
I can’t look away from her eyes, and that saves me from being snowed. The spark of mischief in their dark depths gives her away. “Maybe I will. I bet it has a happy ending, too?”
She presses her lips together and nods solemnly. Totally straight face. “The happiest. A perfect read if you’re feeling depressed.” She tilts her head like she’s just realizing something. “You still haven’t said why you’re in my house.”
She glances down the hallway toward her mother’s bedroom at the very end, and there’s a subtle change in her expression that tells me her brain is working at light speed. Her grip on the book tightens like she’s planning to hit me with it if I get too close. Most girls do the opposite—maybe it’s that I’m easy on the eyes, or they like the tat, the tips of which peek out of the collar of my shirt, or maybe I give off the right pheromones or whatever. I have no idea, but it certainly helps in getting things I want. But this girl? Her gaze is full of challenge. And more than a little fear.
I smile. “You’re right. I didn’t say why I was here.” I’m not going to confirm her suspicion that I was just in bed with her mom, and I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell her I’m showing up tomorrow to be her art teacher. If she says no, what the hell am I supposed to do then? I need this money. “Have a great day.”
I wave and head for the door. When I get to the huge, arched entryway, I look back. Stella’s peeking out of her hallway, staring after me. Good. Hopefully when Liza breaks the news, Stella will be intrigued.
I know I am.