Stephen tilted his head to the side and studied the canvas before him. It didn’t make any difference. The geometric shapes still didn’t align with the artist given title of Day at the Beach. Sighing, he glanced at his watch and wondered how much longer they would have to stay for the sake of being polite. Aster had dragged him to this fundraiser and then promptly disappeared with one of the artists. He couldn’t even recall what charity this event was in support of.
In many ways, Aster reminded him of his mother. She had a college degree but no real ambition. She was content to fill her days with shopping, hobbies, clubs, and various charities. The business their fathers had built together held no interest for her. She was polite and always said and did the right things. Her clothing and her views were all conservative. If she ever disagreed with anyone about anything, she was too well mannered to voice an opposing opinion.
A hand skimmed his shoulder and the nape of his neck, sending a shiver racing down his spine. Ashley. Before he could stop himself, his eyes swept over her body, missing nothing. She wore a glittering bright red cocktail dress that stopped about five inches above her knees. A deep V displayed the plump cinnamon curves of her breasts. Dragging his gaze back up to her face before he could start drooling, he saw that she studied him with the same intensity, desire darkening her brown irises. She ran the tip of her tongue over ruby red lips so glossy that his cock jerked in his pants. She’d arranged her short hair into curls that fell over her brow.
His first instinct was to drag her off to a dark corner and discover if she wore a bra beneath that slip of a dress. Instead, he cleared his throat, made sure his jacket covered his hard on, and removed her hand from his shoulder. “Is this a coincidence as well, Ash?”
“What does that mean?”
“What do you want to hear?” she asked, her tone provocative.
He refused to rise to the bait. “I’m here with Aster.”
She nodded. “I expected as much.”
“Then you know nothing is happening between us tonight.”
Her lips curled up in a sexy grin that made him wish it could be otherwise. “Can’t I simply enjoy your company?”
He looked away from her. He’d always enjoyed being with her. It didn’t matter if they were so tied up in studying for exams that they couldn’t speak or if they were dancing on the beach during Spring Break, he’d just been happy to have her at his side. Until she wasn’t anymore. And he’d thought she never would be again. Losing her was like losing part of himself. God, how it had hurt.
“This painting reminds me of the summer we rented the beach house in Florida,” she said, bringing him back to the present. She’d shifted over to a more traditional landscape of white sands dotted with colorful umbrellas and bikini clad sunbathers.
He read the title out loud, “Saturdays.” He grunted. “I wonder if the titles are mixed up.” He gestured at the previous painting.
Ashley studied the red, blue, and white shapes. “Maybe not. I think it’s a kite.”
Stephen grunted. She was probably right. She’d always been more creative than him. He tended to view the world through a more constrictive lens. Ashley had a way of opening him up to his emotions in a way that he’d found addictive before. When she’d left, he’d closed the door to his feelings and built a brick wall in front of it. He’d been a playboy when they had met. But none of the women before her meant anything. They were conquests and thus, quickly forgotten.
He recalled the first time he’d caught a glimpse of Ashley. He’d been surrounded by friends and a few girls that hoped to be more. Ashley walked by, her eyes glued to a notebook, barely paying attention to where she was going. He’d stopped mid-sentence, captivated by her beauty. She’d never looked up. He’d made excuses to his friends and tried to follow her, but he’d lost sight of her in the crowd. When next he saw her, she was working in the local movie theater and he hadn’t let the chance to introduce himself escape him. Ashley had been less than welcoming, but his persistence wore her down. She’d been a sophomore and he’d been a junior. Almost from the beginning, he knew that she was the one. Other girls didn’t exist for him anymore. There was only Ashley.
Ashley grabbed his hand and led him to another painting. “Oh, look at this one. It reminds me of when you drove us through the Blue Ridge Mountains to watch the leaves change colors. It’s beautiful.”
Stephen tore his gaze from her face to glance at the painting. A tree-lined road twisted up the side of a mountain. Colorful leaves in shades of gold, red, and brown floated to the ground like large snowflakes.
“I miss going for rides with you,” she said wistfully.
He missed it, too. They used to just get in the car with no destination in mind and ride. He didn’t do that anymore. Taking a drive out alone wasn’t as appealing. Besides, he had work.
“Why are you doing this?” he finally asked. He knew what he should do. Don’t question this. Take his revenge and move on, but falling under her spell again was a dangerous possibility that he couldn’t ignore.
She looked up at him. Her honeyed skin glowed in this lighting. Her dark eyes were mesmerizing and full of love. It was all he could do not to cover her full lips with his own. “You know why,” she whispered. “You feel it, too.” She reached up and stroked his jaw. “I could never stop loving you.”
“I wish I could believe you,” he said before he could stop himself.
She smiled. “You can. I never stopped believing in what we have. You’re the only one for me.”
He leaned into her touch for a fraction of a second before strengthening his reserved and pulling away. “I should go.”
“In a minute. I want your opinion on this painting I saw in the other room.”
He knew it was just an excuse to keep him at her side. She trailed her fingers down his shoulder to the palm of his hand before curling her palm beneath his. She was at once submissive and seductive and he found he couldn’t find the resolve to say no. Stephen resigned himself to fact that he would be fucking Ashley sooner or later. He was powerless to resist. Only resignation had never felt quite like this.