Arden MacCarren can’t afford to lose control. Her family’s investment house has failed, their professional reputation is all but destroyed, and it’s up to Arden to hold the line. The only distraction she allows herself is a weekly drawing class where she can forget everything. Then she meets Seth Malone. When he poses in her class, strong, mysterious, and unbearably sexy, she can’t resist him. The only thing she can do is keep it purely physical—no emotions, no strings, and definitely no telling.
Seth understands responsibilities, both Arden’s and his own. During his last tour as a Marine he lost his best friends to an IED. He has a duty to look after his buddies’ survivors. All he allows himself is the stolen moments with Arden. But as he’s drawn into Arden’s battle with her demons, he comes face-to-face with his own. Seth will have to choose between a duty he can’t ignore and the longing to inspire Arden’s every desire—mind, soul, and body…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR ANNE CALHOUN
TITLES BY ANNE CALHOUN
– ONE –
The cab’s horn went off like a shot, twice, then settled into a long, indignant blare, shattering what passed for quiet on Fifth Avenue on a Sunday afternoon. Arden MacCarren’s heart rate spiked abruptly as adrenaline flooded her nervous system. Startled in the act of removing her bags from the backseat of the SUV, she banged her head on the doorframe. With one hand clapped to the back of her head, she hunched over to extricate herself from the car when the horn blared three times. Her heart rate spiked again, nearing the terrifying sharp thrum that was the precursor to passing out. She reached out blindly for any solid surface, and gripped the door handle until her fingers went numb, then forced herself to relax her grip slightly. Balanced on the razor wire between frightened and a panic attack, her body would interpret even the slightest stimuli as a reason to tip over the edge.
You’re overreacting. Calm yourself. Brain over body. Mind over matter.
Her brain snapped into hyperalert mode, cataloging her surroundings. Fifth Avenue. Sunlight glinting off chrome and mirrors, coating the trees with gold. The cabdriver righteously taking to task the driver of a Mercedes double-parked while a woman unloaded her take from an afternoon of shopping. Hermès, Tory Burch, Barneys, Irresistible. Arden scanned the woman’s sharp features without the click of recognition, but her brain, already on a hair trigger thanks to the horn, slid into the worst-case scenario like tires on black ice. No one she knew, but in her New York world it was only one degree of separation. She knew someone who knew this woman.
This woman knew.
The woman stalked up the red carpet leading to her building’s front door, and the Mercedes turned the corner onto the side street, allowing the cab to roar off down Fifth Avenue with one final blaring honk. Arden’s heart stutter-stepped up a notch, the resulting spike in blood pressure throbbing in the sore spot on the back of her head. Not good. She forced in a deep breath, inhaling long past the point her lungs thought possible, then exhaled as she focused on what was right in front of her: the black leather backseat of her SUV, the tote holding her sketchbook, pencils, charcoal. Reach out, ignore the tremor in your hand, and close your fingers around the handles. Good. Don’t forget your purse.
Derek, her driver, waited patiently until she closed the door. Arden turned to find Tony, the doorman, sweltering in his gray wool uniform and white gloves as he hovered under the canopy stretching from the building’s heavy brass doors to the sidewalk, his normally friendly face a smooth mask. “Allow me, Ms. MacCarren,” he said, reaching for her bag.
“I’m fine, Tony, thank you,” she said, and ordered her knees to quit shaking. But Tony’s unusual formality sent a new wave of anxious thoughts surging to the forefront. The woman in the street knew. Tony knows. The only people who didn’t know your father and brother were arrested for orchestrating a decade-long Ponzi scheme that swindled thousands out of hundreds of millions of dollars were living under rocks or in yurts somewhere without electricity or satellite television, and how many of those people were left? Six, maybe eight? Everyone knows. You’re exposed; you’re all exposed for everyone to see, stare at, a shining example of how the mighty have fallen . . .
The cool air in the building’s marble-tiled lobby swirled against her skin, drying the sweat at her nape and sending goose bumps down her spine. Without meeting her gaze, Tony pushed the button to call the elevator. “Ms. Cottlin said to send you straight up,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said.
The doors opened and she stepped inside. Tony pushed the button for fourteen, then stepped back.
When the doors closed, she held it together through sheer will, inhaling slowly, filling her lungs, forcing her diaphragm to expand into her belly, safe in the cocoon of the elevator. That’s all it took to make her feel safe: several layers of thick walls between her and the outside world.
No. I’ve given up on finding peace, inside or out. I will not give up on feeling safe.
At the ding the elevator doors opened, revealing the marble floor of the fourteenth floor. She strode off and nearly collided with a woman obscured by a marble-topped table holding a profuse arrangement of flowers. Her heart jackrabbited again. “Excuse me,” Arden said as her face flushed.
The woman looked up from her phone, and did a double take before her jaw dropped in shock. That’s the way it would be from now on, stares and double takes, whispers behind her back and tirades on social media, their honor dragged through the mud again and again, for ratings. The woman’s gaze flicked over Arden’s clothes, the sizable oval ruby ring on the middle finger of her right hand.
“I hope your father burns in hell,” she said, teeth bared in hatred.
Arden froze. The woman sidestepped into the elevator, the doors closing, leaving Arden with the spray of flowers and her reflection in the mirror. Unbrushed blonde hair spilling around her shoulders. Pale skin. Near-colorless lips. A lavender tunic her personal shopper chose to draw attention to her eyes, which only served to highlight the smudges under her eyes and the scar tissue on her shoulder and chest. White jeans. Gold sandals.
Put on some lipstick, Arden. It brightens your face.
Her mother’s voice echoed in her ears until a door at the end of the hallway flung open, and Betsy Cottlin peered nearsightedly into the hallway. “I thought I heard the elevator,” she said. “Why are you standing in the hallway? Come in and help me find my glasses.”
“You live next door to a former investor,” Arden said as she hurried down the hall, glad for the distraction. Her voice was almost normal, but Betsy knew all of Arden’s tells. “She hopes Dad burns in hell.”
“Her dog craps in the elevator at least twice a week. I hope she sees him there,” Betsy said. She closed the door and resumed patting tabletops and rifling through the pockets of coats hanging in the closet by the door. “Carlotta, have you seen—?”
Betsy’s housekeeper appeared in the door to the kitchen, a pair of red-rimmed glasses in one hand and a scraper smeared with what looked like spinach dip in the other.
“Thank you,” Betsy said, and took the glasses.
“Hello, Arden,” Carlotta said, then disappeared as Betsy slid the glasses on her nose to study Arden. Her gaze, sharpened by both corrective lenses and two decades of BFF status, missed nothing. “Oh, honey.”
Arden surrendered to the enveloping hug Betsy gave her. “It’s fine,” Arden said automatically into her friend’s loose dark hair.
“I call bullshit,” Betsy said.
“Okay, I’m at the end of my rope,” Arden said.
“That’s better,” Betsy said. “How’s your mother? Still in denial?”
When the FBI raided their Hamptons house a week earlier, Arden and her mother had no idea what was happening, or why. Shunted off to the side and under the watchful gaze of an armed agent, Arden immediately called her cousin Neil, who served as the family’s attorney, and got him off the sidelines of his son’s soccer game. When the FBI left, taking her father and brother away in handcuffs, she turned on the television and watched a CNBC reporter narrate the devastation of their family’s reputation.
MacCarren, the investment bank carrying their family name and headed by her father and oldest brother, Charles, was a front for one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history. The screen cut from a report to video of men and women in cargo pants and polos with FBI emblazoned on the back and guns strapped to their thighs, carrying boxes and computers out of the firm’s offices in Midtown, the principals’ homes in New York, Aspen, and Palm Springs. She had been so stunned, it took her a moment to realize the reporter was broadcasting from the front lawn of the house in which she’d been standing. In the next ninety seconds, Arden watched her mother age a decade, right in front of her eyes. She wouldn’t have been surprised if her hair had gone white.
In the moment, Arden kept it together, called lawyers, took the house phone off the hook. When the scope of the accusations became clear, Charles’s wife, Serena, laid her crying, shivering girls down in the back of her Land Rover and covered them with blankets before driving through the reporters and back to her family home in Connecticut. Her mother refused to leave, then spiraled into an attack of hysterics. It was Arden who shut off the television, Arden who found her mother’s pharmacopeia, Arden who helped her mother into bed, as if the shock had numbed her system to whiteout overload that staved off a panic attack. But she knew one was coming, perhaps the mother of all panic attacks, and if history repeated itself, the monster inside her head would arrive at the worst possible time.
“She’s still refusing to leave Breakers Point,” Arden said. Her pulse had slowed, her breathing deepened, but the scent of flop sweat hovered in the air around her, and her legs were still unsteady. She held out her hand, tremors running through her fingers, out into the air. “A cab honked while I was getting my bags out of the car.”
Betsy’s eyes sharpened even more. She reached for Arden’s hand and held it palm-down in hers. “I’ve seen worse,” she said, her voice oddly gentle. “If you want, I’ll reschedule this for another time. This probably isn’t the best week for us to brush up our rusty drawing skills. Libby and Sally won’t mind.”
It was tempting, except it felt like quitting, and quitting felt like failure. “Who’s here?”
“Everyone except the model.”
Which meant Micah Russo, on faculty at NYU and an accomplished artist, was also here. “No,” Arden said. “This is a good idea. I need a distraction. It might even help.”
“Fine, but say the word and we shut this down in favor of a really good pinot,” Betsy said decisively. “Come have a glass of wine.”
“Where’s Nick?” Arden asked as they walked down the hall into a classic eight overlooking Central Park.
“Dubai,” Betsy said. “He said to tell you whatever you need.”
As Betsy’s husband, Nick was still Arden’s friend, although he had dated Arden all through college before they parted ways just after graduation. All three of them pretended there was nothing awkward about this. “Thanks,” Arden said automatically.
“All right. Forget about it. For the next two hours, you’re in a Parisian atelier. Nothing exists but this moment,” she said grandly, leading Arden down the hallway.
Betsy did nothing by half, including turning her spacious, high-ceilinged living room into an atelier overlooking Central Park. The furniture now resided against one wall. Four easels were arranged on the antique Turkish rugs in a semicircle around a simple wooden box draped with a soft blanket. Libby Harmand and Sally Kettering-Stevens were arranging their pencils in the easel trays, but they stopped to kiss Arden’s cheek and hug her.
“I’m so sorry,” Sally said.
“How are you?” Libby said, squeezing her hand.
“Fine,” Arden said automatically. “Which one’s mine?”
“That one, unless the sun is too bright,” Sally said, pointing to the easel at the top of the circle, facing the windows. “I can switch with you.”
Sally erred on the side of oversolicitous, unlike Betsy, who would crack dirty jokes until Arden howled with laughter. They’d clearly circled the wagons before Arden arrived, maybe even had a conference, and while Arden knew they meant well, this group of friends who’d seen her through crises before, this time it rankled.
“It’s fine,” she said to Sally, and forced a smile. “We’ll switch it up each class.”
Libby brought her a glass of wine, placing it on the barstool beside her easel. Arden set up her large sketchpad and arranged her pencils, then sipped the wine. Sometimes alcohol helped and sometimes it acted as a trigger. She just didn’t know which would happen, but she refused to stop drinking wine because something bad might happen. The instructor, Micah, stopped by to say hello. They’d met before, moved in the same art circles, which enabled them to keep the greeting casual. His blond hair brushed his fine-cut jaw, and his brown eyes reflected a calm, if abstracted, wisdom.
“We’re just missing our model,” he said.
The buzzer from the doorman went off, startling Arden nearly out of her skin. She covered by adjusting her sketchpad on the easel. A few moments later the door opened, and Arden heard Carlotta’s low welcome.
“That way?” came from behind her.
A male voice, smooth and dense, like the caramels her grandmother used to keep in her pocket for Arden. A thud of a heavy bag hitting the floor, then the hair on Arden’s arms lifted as he strode between her easel and Libby’s. Her gaze focused down at her pencil tray, Arden saw bike shoes, knee-length cargo shorts, and a tight-fitting jersey, unzipped to the end of his breastbone. Tattoos swirled up his forearms to disappear into the jersey’s short sleeves, and reappeared in the gap between the unzipped edges. A day or two’s worth of stubble accentuated his square chin and full lips. His hair was buzzed close to his head, indentations flattened into the hair and his forehead from a bike helmet that had left a distinct line on his forehead and around his ears from the straps. The heavy sunlight streaming through the west-facing windows slid through his irises, turning them the pale green of sea glass.
He shook Micah’s hand. “Sorry I’m late. I took one last job in Midtown.”
“You’re fine,” Micah said amiably. “We’ve just set up, so you’re in good time.”
The model scanned the room, his gaze searching corners high and low. Arden got the impression he wasn’t interested in the crown molding. “Now?” the model asked.
Micah nodded. In two seconds the model tugged the zipper of his bike jersey free and shrugged out of it. Arden’s first impression was of skin stretched over muscles, revealing veins, tendons, ligaments, flat planes of muscle. The cargo shorts hung low on his hipbones, held up by God-only-knew-what force of nature because the man didn’t have an ounce of fat on his body, but was absolutely covered in tattoos. Ink curled up both arms to the shoulder, but the first thing Arden could distinguish in the swirl of color was a sword, the hilt spreading over his collarbone, the blade arrowing down his pectoral, ribs, and hip to end just above his thigh. The second thing was a dragon, prowling restlessly over his other shoulder. The third thing was an oddly bare spot just over his left pectoral, a patch of skin remarkable for its lack of ink.
Micah turned to the circled easels. “This is Seth. Seth, this is Libby, Betsy, Arden, and Sally,” he said, pointing to each woman in turn.
Seth paused in the act of unzipping his cargo shorts to give them a short nod, then, with absolutely no ceremony or coyness, hooked his thumbs in his shorts and boxers, and pushed them to his ankles. In one movement he stepped out of them, kicked them behind the platform, and then he was up onto the blanket-draped box. Hands on his hips, weight on one hip, he looked at Micah. “Say when.”
“Now’s good,” Micah said, and moved from the center of the circle to the outer edge. “We’ll open with fifteen-second poses. Big movements, not details. Warm up your arm, and your brain,” he said. “Whenever you’re ready, ladies,” he said gently.
Arden blinked. Stared. Came back to her senses. Ducked her head behind her easel, and slid Betsy a look, only to find her best friend gaping. Flat-out gaping, which was worth savoring. Very little took Betsy by surprise, and the sheer shock on her face almost made the past week worthwhile. Clearly Micah hadn’t vetted his choice of model with Betsy.
This wasn’t happening. This kind of person didn’t show up to model for a private drawing class hosted in a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park. Classes like this hired dancers of either sex, slender, supple, waxed, capable of holding languid, elegant poses while beginning artists struggled to capture the way fingertips dented the air, the slope of a thigh into negative space. Seth was almost too much to look at.
She’d done this before, taken drawing classes at boarding school and in college before her business-and-math course load edged out electives. The fact that she hadn’t drawn anything in nearly a decade didn’t make her a novice, just rusty, so there was no reason for her heart to pound. She picked up her pencil and glanced back at Seth. Still tattooed. Still naked. His sparse body hair thickened at his navel and groin, and his genitals hung heavy between thighs bulging with muscle. His skin darkened abruptly just above his knees, then lightened just as abruptly at his ankle. A tan from riding a bike in the city’s sunny summer, delineated by the shorts and socks.
Color heated her cheeks, a stupid, schoolgirl reaction. She’d seen naked men before, slept with them, gone to strip clubs and hired dancers for bachelorette parties, so this shouldn’t have caused a blush. Libby wasn’t blushing. Betsy wasn’t blushing. Arden couldn’t see Sally, but Sally was a pathologist; it was unlikely anything about the human body made her blush. But Arden’s body was on high alert after the incident in the cab, calling blood to the surface more quickly, triggering that rush of goose bumps when he passed her.
The hushed scrape of pencil against paper pricked at Arden’s awareness. To her right and left, Betsy and Libby were drawing, pencils held between first and middle fingers, arms moving in sweeping arcs, capturing broad shoulders, jutting elbows, long, thickly muscled legs.
Seth’s gaze caught hers, his green eyes even more shocking without the light rendering them translucent. One eyebrow lifted ever so slightly. Breaking the fourth wall, she thought hysterically. Things like this worked because everyone pretended one of the people in the room wasn’t stark naked. On display.
Without batting an eyelash, Seth dropped into a pose Arden recognized from yoga class. Warrior one. Knee bent, leg extended behind him, arms extended to either side.
Micah stopped at her easel and smiled at her. “Big gestures,” he repeated. “Just loosen up your arm and hand. That’s all.”
She went for the obvious, the stretch of his hands from fingertips to fingertips, a long, slender oval, then the line of his spine from the crown of his head to the sharp swell of buttocks, angling down to his foot.
Flip her paper and leave the bent leg behind. Warrior two. He’d either taken yoga, maybe to combat hours hunched over a bike, the constant jarring of flying over the city streets, potholes, cracks, debris, curbs, or knew someone who had. A girlfriend, perhaps.
She stopped thinking as Seth shifted smoothly through a series of poses, all long lines and unfocused eyes. He turned as he changed postures, giving each student a different angle. It took two minutes to run through ten postures. By the last one, Arden was over her blush, more comfortable in the room.
“Time,” Micah said. “We’ll do two forties, with a break in between. Sound good to everyone?”
Seth stepped off the pedestal and waited for Micah to use blocks and blankets to support him in the pose he would hold for forty minutes. Arden sharpened her pencil and watched covertly as Micah had him sit on the pedestal—one leg stretched onto the polished parquet—then twist to his right so his right arm bore most of his weight.
“Music?” Micah asked belatedly. The standard rule of thumb for a class was that the model chose the music. If the artists didn’t like it, they wore headphones.
“Anything from my phone is fine,” Seth said without moving. “Left cargo pocket.”
Micah opened it and connected the phone to Betsy’s wireless speakers. To her surprise, the opening lines of New Orleans jazz colored the air. Definitely not what she expected.
She leaned over to Betsy’s easel. “This is ridiculous,” she murmured under her breath. “Mom’s so medicated she doesn’t know what century it is, Garry’s not returning my calls, and Neil says we should prepare for the worst.”
“Life is ridiculous,” Betsy shot back. “Is this taking your mind off your life?”
“Yes,” Arden said.
“Then shut up and draw.”
“Ladies,” Micah said gently as he passed behind them. “The pose.”
That was the point. When Betsy suggested the class, she had been thinking of Arden’s panic attacks, but now any break at all from the swirling hell of her life was not only welcome but vital.
Seth was different. Rather than lulling Arden into a sense of beauty and order, stylized into a smooth imperturbability, she hardly knew where to start—the taut swell of buttock braced on the pedestal, the sword or dragon, the way his toes spread and flexed against the floor—yes. Start there. Toes. She lightly sketched the shape of his foot, oval, the arch a pale shadowy arc underneath, before defining the slope of his toes, rectangular, then making each a distinct, flattened circle topped with toenails, a tuft of hair gilded by the sunlight. Narrow to the bones of the ankle, that defenseless bump of bone, the Achilles tendon, then the curve of his calf, an odd slope of muscle, not rounded like hers, but a plane that dropped off into space then reappeared as the back of his knee, bent at a slight angle, the back of his thigh, the muscles taut oblongs narrowing at the connections with hip and knee. Kneecap, a circle, the bulge of muscle alongside the knee.
His penis hung soft between his spread legs. She sketched in a suggestion before continuing the line from his pubic bone to his other leg, bent and dangling in the space between the table legs and top. The proportions stymied her until Micah stopped at her side.
“Don’t think too much,” he said. “Find the essence of the pose, the line of energy,” he said quietly, one arm folded across his abdomen, his chin braced on his thumb, his fingers obscuring his lips.
Arden blinked, then looked again at Seth. If she had to use one phrase to describe the essence of the pose, his energy in the room, it would be hidden in plain sight. He was physically there, irresistible, but somehow not in his body.
Don’t make this more difficult than it is, Arden. Just draw his body.
She re-created the twisted line from his hipbone to his opposite shoulder, then added his arm, braced to hold his weight, and the table under the palm. Micah nodded, gave her an abstracted smile, and moved away to stand beside Libby.
When it came, Micah’s soft “Time” took her by surprise. Seth waited until all four artists had set down their pencils and stepped back before he abandoned the pose. He snagged his boxers and shorts from the floor, stepped into them, zipped and buttoned the fly, then stretched side to side while his spine cracked all the way down. Carlotta brought out chilled white wine and water, trays of grapes, cheese, crackers, hummus, vegetables for dipping, olives, little pastries and cakes, setting them on the dining room table next to plates, napkins, glasses.
“Well?” Micah began, looking first at Libby.
“I can tell it’s been years since I’ve done that,” Libby said, cradling her wineglass between her palms.
Arden took two of Carlotta’s truffles and nodded a yes, please to Betsy, who filled her wineglass. Seth poured water into a wine goblet, filled his plate, and sat down across from her. Close up his bare chest was even more daunting.
She looked up from her phone. Everyone besides Micah and Arden had their phones out, tapping and scrolling. Arden’s would contain ninety percent bad news, if not more, so she focused on the strawberries and not sneaking glances at Seth.
“I can’t remember the last time I went forty minutes without looking at this,” Betsy said, waggling it at the group.
“Focus isn’t my problem,” she said. “Drawing live bodies without turning them into an anatomical exercise, however, that’s different.”
A little laughter. Libby leaned over and said, “She’s a pathologist,” to Seth.
A weird silence, because everyone in the room knew about MacCarren’s downfall, and most of them knew about the panic attacks. “There’s just so much to look at.”
More laughter. At that, Seth looked up from his phone. His face broke into a smile that wrinkled the skin around his eyes and carved lines on either side of his lips, adding entirely new layers and nuances to his already unfathomable self.
“That’s a Marine Corps symbol,” Sally said. Arden followed her gaze to a globe and anchor on his upper right shoulder.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said easily, but while the smile remained on his mouth, it disappeared from his eyes.
“I see a lot of tattoos in my line of work.”
“No shoptalk,” Betsy said gently.
Sally looked quickly at Arden. Yes, she was the reason for the no-shoptalk rule. Usually Sally’s tendency to describe the trickier parts of autopsies was the most socially awkward thing to happen, but now they were making a space for Arden to not have to think about, much less talk about, work.
“It’s not a problem,” Seth said. “If it was, I wouldn’t take off my clothes for art students.”
Slightly nervous laughter, but Arden sensed tension underneath the accurate statement. Just because you showed your soft underbelly to people didn’t mean you wanted people to poke it.
“Let’s talk about the introductory exercise,” Micah said. “What’s the connection between the warm-up and the longer session?”
“Switching on the right brain?” Betsy offered.
“In part,” Micah said. “Getting down a quick sketch is the foundation for a drawing. When we come at drawing from the left brain, we want to make each line perfect the first time. It makes us hesitant. Building from a quick sketch captures the pose’s energy and relies on intuition. If you learn to follow your instincts, the rest will fall into place.”
“I knew this was easy,” Libby quipped.
“It’s that easy, and that hard,” Micah said, and finished off his wine.
They pushed their chairs back from the table. Seth leaned over. “How are the truffles?” he asked, his voice carrying under the conversation at the head of the table. Sally was already back at her place, frowning as she erased a line and redrew it.
“Really good,” Arden said. “Carlotta makes them with red chili powder.”
“Don’t give away all her secrets,” Betsy chided.
Seth snagged a truffle on his way to the circle of easels, consuming it in two bites before stripping as casually as he did before. Micah arranged him in a reclining pose that allowed him to relax entirely. Betsy got Seth’s front while Arden the long line of his back, from the crown of his head to his heels. Libby and Sally got a serious challenge in foreshortening.
She flipped to a new page in her sketchbook and set to her task. The sword was repeated on his back, as if someone had driven it through his shoulder and now the thing pulsed inside him, the edges, carved hilt, and ornate text on the blade radiating through his skin. Arden ignored the ink and focused on the muscled cleft of his spine.
She’d done it again, lost track of time as she drew. Micah stopped at her easel, his slender finger tracing over the line of Seth’s torso from shoulder to knee. “Good,” he said quietly.
“It’s out of proportion.”
“He’s out of proportion,” Micah said, then nodded at Seth. “Look again. It’s good.”
Seth had risen from the pedestal and was in the act of stretching, his fingers reaching for Betsy’s nine-foot ceilings, toes pushing against the floor. Arden looked again, and discovered Micah’s eye had seen what her brain denied. Seth’s torso was shorter than his legs would suggest, something the energy of his presence hid. Her brain tried to make it “right,” but her instinct captured the truth.
Seth stepped into his shorts, zipped up, then paused at Sally’s shoulder as he pulled on his bike jersey. As Arden watched, Sally all but melted. He continued around the circle, looking at each drawing, before turning to Arden.
“Don’t,” she said, blocking his body with hers. His forward momentum carried him into a split second of thrilling full-body contact. The heat from his bare chest seared through her linen tank to her skin, and the shift of his hips against hers sent a deep quake through her lower belly. She drew in her breath in response and the scent of him, the inevitable sweat of a humid New York City summer, warm skin, something deeper and darker she recognized from her study abroad year in Oxford as the grease used to lubricate a bike chain. The scent of the oil lingered long after she’d scrubbed her fingers.
With an innate grace, he shifted back from the balls of his feet to his heels, putting an inch of space between his body and hers. “Okay,” he said, very gently, his gaze searching hers.
It wasn’t defensive, accusatory, but a caress. Arden knew she’d been abrupt, if not rude, but there was a limit to how exposed she could stand to be, and after the events of the last week, she was at her limit, all the time. It wasn’t rational, but a self-protective instinct. She looked up at him, into those green eyes and saw them flick to the thick scar that started just below her collarbone, disappeared into the V-neck of her sleeveless top, then emerged at the ball of her shoulder.
Seth took two steps back, purposely not looking at her easel. “Okay,” he said again, soft, reassuring.
“Same time next week,” Micah said. Arden gathered her pencils into the box.
“Leave your sketchpads here,” Betsy said over her shoulder as she escorted Seth and Micah to the door. “I’ll store them with the easels. No point in hauling them all over Manhattan.”
The door closed behind Micah and Seth. Between them, Betsy and Arden shoved one of the sofas back into place, then collapsed on it. They all looked at one another, then lost it laughing. For a moment the lightness of sheer relief swept through Arden.
“My God,” Libby said. “Where on earth did you find that man?”
“I didn’t!” Betsy gasped. “Micah said he’d arrange for the model.”
“He’ll bring him back, right? Can we request a specific model?”
“He’ll probably alternate,” Sally said. “Men and women, different body sizes and shapes. Crap. Did I really ask him about his tattoos?”
“You did,” Betsy said, lifting her glass to toast Sally.
“I’d love to know the story behind them,” Sally continued, thinking out loud.
“You could just ask him,” Betsy said, eyes twinkling.
Sally opened her mouth, closed it again, then looked at Arden. “It’s nice to see you laugh,” she said.
The mood in the room instantly dampened. “I feel like I’ve forgotten how,” she said, and finally pulled out her phone. She had voice mails and missed calls, but none of them from Garry. Now. To download or not to download? Normally her emails downloaded automatically, but after the news broke, she set the retrieve option to manual so she could handle them when she felt up to it.
Might as well get it over with. She should be inured to the near-constant stream of anger, hatred, and vitriol. She swiped her thumb over the list of her accounts and watched the wheel spin as the phone connected to the servers.
“What’s the latest?” Libby asked.
“I don’t even know how to describe it.” Where the hell was Garry? New Zealand, where it was apparently possible to just disappear off the grid into the mountains.
“Why are people angry with you? You ran the foundation, not the investment side of the house.”
“My name is on the firm. I’m on the board. It’s all about the name. We are MacCarren.” She waited for the emails to finish downloading. Three hundred and eight in the three hours she’d been in Betsy’s apartment. She’d given her assistant paid leave and taken over managing her own email. The sheer numbers were overwhelming, as was the hatred and pain many of them now contained.
“Have you seen your dad since . . . ?”
“Since the FBI raided the house and took him away in handcuffs?” she asked, refusing to mince words. “No. I looked through the evidence, and it’s clear the accusations are true. He and Charles were running a Ponzi scheme. I’m too angry to go see him, or Charles.”
Silence. Arden tried to get used to the fact that no one wanted to talk about MacCarren anymore. Before, it was the only thing people wanted to talk to her about. How did her father do it? Could they buy in or was he closed to new investors? On the surface, she, too, was MacCarren. They got close to her to get close to him, not knowing that she, like the rest of the family, like the rest of the world, was being told a great big lie.
Sally picked up her purse and tote. “I have to work in the morning. Brunch soon?”
“I’ll walk out with you,” Libby said.
Betsy walked them to the door, then came back to top off Arden’s wine and set the plate of truffles in front of her. “Want me to help you put the furniture back?”
“Carlotta and I will take care of it in the morning,” Betsy said. She looked around the room. “It’s rather bohemian. I might keep it this way.” Arden contemplated a second truffle, settled for topping off her glass of wine, then dragged Betsy’s cashmere throw from the back of the sofa. Betsy pulled the trailing end over her feet and snuggled them companionably against Arden’s calf.
“He was hot.”
No need to name the subject of that sentence. Except hot didn’t quite cover Seth Last-name-unknown. He was compelling, and Arden was suddenly of the opinion that hot was what you settled for when compelling wasn’t available.
“He was,” Arden said, assuming Betsy would stop there. They had a deal: they were ruthlessly honest with each other about everything except the fact that Arden never got over Nick leaving her for Betsy. In exchange for Arden being the smiling, attentive, picture-perfect maid of honor at the wedding of her best friend to her former lover, Betsy stayed out of Arden’s love life.
“He was interested in you.”
Arden flicked Betsy a look. “Everyone’s interested in me at the moment.”
“He didn’t do the double take,” Betsy said. “Either he doesn’t know, or he doesn’t care.”
“The last thing I need right now is a date.”
“So don’t date him.”
“Let me rephrase that. The last thing I need right now is a man.”
Betsy shrugged. “Your family name is being dragged through the mud by every news outlet on the planet. People are sending you hate mail, picketing outside your offices, and you’re vibrating like a hummingbird on crack. Maybe you don’t need a date, but you could sure as hell put that man to good use.”
“The drawing class was supposed to help with the hummingbird thing.”
“So try two things at once.”
“How will I know which one worked?” Arden said lightly. Betsy knew all about randomized double-blind controlled studies because she was trained as an epidemiologist. After she married Nick she put that training to use on boards and charities focused on public health. Arden used to donate significant sums of both her personal money and the MacCarren Foundation’s annual budget to programs Betsy vetted.
“If you get drawing and him, who cares which one works?”
Arden threw Betsy a glance her oldest friend had no trouble interpreting. Enough. Move on.
“What comes next?”
“Neil’s cleared his schedule to handle this full-time. I have an appointment with the FBI in a couple of days.”
“Again? I thought they interviewed you.”
“They have done. Twice. I suspect I’ll be at their beck and call for a very long time,” Arden said. “This time they want to go over the family assets.”
“That sounds ominous,” Betsy said.
“It is. Neil’s been rather vague on the subject, which is even more ominous.”
Betsy reached out and clasped Arden’s hand. “Want to stay the night? Carlotta will make you crepes.”
Derek was waiting downstairs, but he could just as easily drive the SUV back to the garage and head home whether she was in the back or not. A week ago she had work, a schedule filled with both professional and personal obligations, but right now she had only one goal: to salvage what she could from the wreckage of her family. She found herself remembering the ease with which Seth undressed, his confidence in his own skin. He’d forged that confidence in the Marine Corps, while she couldn’t even handle Manhattan traffic.
Daydreaming about a tattooed former Marine wasn’t in her plan at the moment, let alone actually dating or sleeping with him. “Why not?” she said, and put Seth out of her mind.
– TWO –
The gap between the alley wall and the delivery truck narrowed as the truck slowed to make its left turn. Seth knew to the micron how wide he was on the bike; the question wasn’t fitting his body through the gap, or the bike’s handlebars, but rather the messenger backpack slung across his back. He had two boxes crammed in there, the straps straining to close. If he misjudged the space, the box would catch between the truck box and the wall, snagging him off his bike as neatly as a bomb blast blew souls into the afterlife.
He’d proved fucking hard to kill, so he probably wouldn’t die. The digital monitor strapped to his handlebars ticked relentlessly; three minutes to deliver the contents of his messenger bag. All senses focused on the narrowing gap, his thrumming heart rate, his lungs straining for air to fuel his muscles, he leaned forward and found another gear deep inside. He shot through the gap and out of the alley into the intersection, and felt only the faintest brush of metal against Cordura nylon as he did. The truck driver honked indignantly and extensively, right next to his head, but Seth heard only a faint bleat. He swerved around a taxi, popped up over the median and back down into what would be oncoming traffic when the lights turned, dropped his head and ignored his screaming lungs, and dipped into what he mentally dubbed the I don’t give a fuck if you’re dead, you hold your goddamn position, marine reserve tank and made it across the avenue before the traffic arrived.
One minute. Six blocks. Not enough time, or air in his lungs, in the city, in the entire fucking ecosystem. He blew past a line of cars waiting for the light at the end of the street, hit the light just as it changed, swerved to avoid a left-turning black SUV, lather, rinse, repeat at the next intersection. He was going too fast to time the lights right, so there’d be a red in the next block.
He blew through it.
Brakes, a horn barely denting the thick, pervasive silence enveloping him, twenty seconds. Three blocks. Too close but he could see the building now, and surely he hadn’t survived Iraq and Afghanistan to die of a heart attack on a Manhattan city street. Slight uphill he knew only because his quads quivered on the verge of giving out on him, but he was through the last intersection and braking at the building’s entrance. His bike would disappear if he left it unlocked on the street for more than a split second, so he rode right through the open door beside the revolving doors, startling the man holding the door for the women behind him, swerved to avoid them, ignored the indignant Hey, braked in front of the reception desk, and glanced down at the digital readout on his handlebars.
Six seconds to spare. Fuck, yeah. “Mirinda Castille,” he said with the last air in his lungs, then heaved in a breath. Sweat dripped from his jaw. He used his shoulder to smear the droplets, but his jersey was as soaked as his skin. The fabric snagged on his stubble and the still-unfamiliar arrangement of straps. The bike helmet’s straps didn’t quite match the configuration of his combat helmet. It was the little things that hooked him out of the adrenaline rush, back into reality.
A woman stepped up beside him. “I’m Mirinda,” she said, her voice faint under the thrumming heartbeat in his ears.
“Sign there,” he said, handing her his phone, then shrugged off the messenger bag, opened the clips, and pulled out the packages. “What is it?” he asked. His heart rate was separating into distinct jackrabbit beats, not the chest-exploding thrum of high-intensity exercise.
“Running shoes, and wing tips,” she said, and opened the box for him to see. “My boss is on his way to the Hamptons for the weekend and he forgot his shoes at his club.”
Seth peered into the bag. They were Nikes, blue with red accents, showing some road wear, and what the ever-loving fuck? He damned near killed himself getting some hedge fund manager his running shoes for a weekend in the Hamptons? The irony tasted like blood, or maybe he’d bitten his lip when he hit a bump. He touched his hand to his mouth. Yup. Bitten his lip. Didn’t feel the sting until the adrenaline started to ebb.
“He could buy new shoes for what that delivery cost.”
“But not for what the wing tips cost,” she said in the mild tone of a woman who’d long since given up making sense of unreasonable demands.
Seth peered into the box. There was no identifying mark on the insole or leather, so . . . handmade? He had no idea. “Shoes.”
“I would have waited,” she said with a smile he’d seen fairly regularly since leaving the Corps. He questioned her sanity, given that he was dripping sweat onto pink granite floors and his legs were literally shaking.
“It’s the principle,” he said. “I said I’d be here by two fifteen, and I was.”
“Let’s hear it for principles,” Mirinda said.
“Sir, on principle, we’d like you to remove your bike from the lobby,” said the receptionist.
“Understood,” he said, and popped the bike up on its back wheel to walk it out the door.
“Thanks,” Mirinda said. Running shoes firmly tucked under her arm, she climbed into a Lexus SUV not that much smaller than a tank, leaving Seth on the sidewalk.
He walked his bike over to a low wall separating the building’s plaza from the sidewalk, sat down, and fumbled his cell phone from his cargo shorts pocket. The phone was like his rifle now. He always knew where it was, constantly checking for it like he’d check for his rifle. He was registered with three different online delivery services, picking up jobs based on where he ended up, taking multiple jobs at once if he could do a quick delivery in one zone while on a longer one between zones.
Sweat dripped from his chin and elbows to plunk on the sidewalk, dripped onto his phone’s screen. Absently, he wiped the screen, then activated it. The screen saver was a picture of him and his three best friends, a candid shot taken by their lieutenant of them laughing just after they’d shrugged out of body armor and flak jackets. Seth looked at it, looked at the tremor in his hand and the quiver in his legs, and felt nothing. He’d just chased down a legendary run, set every neuron and nerve ending in his body on fire. He should feel something. At a minimum he should hear something.
He didn’t. He had, of course, held conversations, but they all echoed across a canyon, like someone was standing on the other cliff face, shouting at him through cupped hands. He’d had his hearing checked during his discharge physical. It was perfectly normal. Except it wasn’t.
The app refreshed while he scratched at the stubble on his jaw, where the sweat itched under his bike-helmet straps, then dried his fingers on his cargo shorts. A new job was available, a pickup in Midtown with the delivery on Wall Street, to the building that used to house MacCarren. When the news broke about MacCarren, Seth hadn’t paid much attention to the story until Ryan Hamilton, who’d retained him to make deliveries to Irresistible, a high-end lingerie shop in the Fashion District, was identified as the whistleblower who brought the entire scheme crashing down.
That explained a lot about Ryan’s demeanor over the course of the summer. Seth joined the Corps at eighteen, so while he didn’t know much about a lot of things relevant to civilian life, he recognized all the signs of someone under incredible pressure: sleeplessness, weight loss, but the big tip-off to Seth was the extravagant, inexplicable way he threw money around. To secure Seth’s services to make deliveries to Simone at Irresistible, he had handed Seth a manila envelope full of more money than Seth made in a year with the Marines, including the bonus for combat pay. Seth had been worried that the guy was going to eat a gun, but then again, he saw potential suicides everywhere these days.
He swiped over to his texts, tapped on Ryan’s name, and sent a quick one. You okay? Back in the app, he tapped on the Wall Street run to claim it, then set his bike upright, swung his leg over the seat, adjusted the messenger bag to his back, and set off into traffic again.
He waited for a light near a flower shop in Midtown. The blooms of vibrant purple orchids caught his eye. The color reminded him of Arden’s violet gaze, flicking from him to her drawing paper during the class on Fifth Avenue. He really had to stop thinking about her, or just think about her less, which was low-hanging fruit because he thought about her basically all the time. Not actively, but sunlight reminded him of her hair, and a certain pensive expression glimpsed as he waited in a lobby or foyer reminded him of the way she looked as she drew, thoughtful, brow furrowed, attacking the drawing with a fierce concentration that made him want to run his thumb over the lines between her golden eyebrows, tell her to ease up, just let it flow. But Micah didn’t do that, so Seth sure as hell wouldn’t. He was the model, not the instructor. She and Betsy were friends, and Betsy lived on Fifth Avenue; maybe there was some sort of “wrong side of the track” friendship there, but he didn’t think so. She was beautiful, expensive, and while he could make the effort to get to know her, in the end she was something he couldn’t have.
Where did she get those scars?
The train of thought was wearing a groove in his brain. Back on the bike, he rode slowly downtown, stopping at the intersection of Broadway and Morris, across the street from the fabled bull. There was still a fair amount of foot traffic in the area, heading for the Staten Island Ferry terminal or the Lex Avenue line, but he found a delivery doorway where he could lean the bike against the building and hunker down out of the way. With a sigh of relief, he lifted the messenger bag over his head and set it down beside him. Unfastening the seat-belt clasp, he rummaged around in the front pockets and pulled out his Moleskine journal and a Micron pen.
Ease up. Let it flow.
He’d never had official drawing classes like the ones he modeled for, just books checked out from the school or public library and thousands of hours of practice on long, solitary walks back home in Wyoming, his muse a constant, subtly demanding presence in his life. He had every sketchbook he’d ever used, one continuous record of what he saw, where he was, from fourth grade on, but the one in his bag was brand-new, the cover a pristine black, the pages cream and crisp, ready for his pen.
Open the cover and flip to the first page. Uncap the pen.
He couldn’t do it. It felt wrong, a jump in time, like gaps in the fossil record, because the last one he’d been using during his last tour in Afghanistan was jammed in a bag in the tiny closet in his motor home.
Just start. Draw the bull. It’s a New York City landmark, and a fine piece of sculpture. Just draw the curve of the nostrils and the horns, the bellied side of the bull leaning mid-breath, the lifted forefoot.
Hunkered down on his heels, he watched suits stride past him, talking on Bluetooth headsets or on phones, rarely to each other. He felt invisible here, enveloped in silence and the smell of cement and asphalt, which was just fine with him. In this city of art students and designers, no one paid any attention to a man with a notebook. It should have been the easiest thing in the world to whip off a quick sketch of the bull.
Not today. He shut the sketchbook, snapped the elastic strap over the cover to keep it closed, and jammed it back in his messenger backpack. Then he got back on the bike and merged with traffic heading outbound on the Brooklyn Bridge. He easily outpaced the vehicle traffic by splitting the lanes. The practice of riding between cars was technically illegal but almost impossible to enforce, as long as he didn’t ride past a police cruiser. When traffic picked up, he reached out and snagged a strap holding down a truckload of lumber, and let the truck power him the rest of the way into Prospect Heights.
Home. Home until he was eighteen was Laramie, Wyoming. Then, for the next ten years, it was an assortment of bases, barracks, camps, and forward operating bases, both stateside and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he was living in a twenty-three-foot motor home he bought from a former city employee, parked a couple of blocks from the west edge of Prospect Park. After detaching the front wheel from his bike, he unlocked the heavy metal chain from around his waist, and secured the bike’s frame to a rack attached to the motor home’s grill. It wasn’t the most secure thing in the world; anyone determined enough to steal the bike could work the bolts free and make off with both the rack and the bike in very little time. Taking the front wheel inside was a more effective deterrent. Even more effective was the fact that the bike was an old ten-speed, and not really worth the trouble it would take to steal it.
By the time he unlocked the door, took the three steps up into the motor home, and flicked on the lights and the air-conditioning, all he could smell was himself, the garlic from three slices of pizza working its way out through his pores. The first order of business was to take a shower. Every few days he filled up the motor home’s hundred-gallon tank at an open fire hydrant or the local VFW, but he was stingy with water, as stingy as he had been on deployment. He rinsed out his compression shorts and his bike jersey, then hung them up to dry on a clothesline strung the width of the bathroom. He had a couple of sets of each—one to wash, one to wear, each set drying in the heat accumulated in the motor home over the course of the day.
A life executed within normal tolerances was a life, no matter if the silence threatened to crush him. He’d shared the same amount of square footage with three other Marines. Of course it was quieter.
He opened the tiny closet and pulled out jeans and a river driver’s shirt, resolutely ignoring the blood-stained pair of cammies neatly folded on the top shelf, the Moleskine in the left-side pocket. Wallet and keys in hand, he scuffed his feet into flip-flops and set off for dinner with Phil.
* * *
But when Seth arrived at the bar, a trendy combination of microbrews and Middle Eastern food, Phil wasn’t there yet, probably caught in some delay on the subway in from Manhattan. Seth snagged the last table and ordered a beer to nurse while he waited, his gaze divided between the television screens tuned to the Yankees game over the bar, and the door. Twenty minutes late, Phil walked in the door. He lifted his chin in greeting and stopped at the bar for a beer before making his way through the crowd to Seth. The resemblance to his brother was unmistakable. Same dark hair, pale blue eyes, but at twenty-three and four years younger than Doug, Phil hadn’t developed into the wall of muscle Doug was. Used to be, Seth corrected himself. Doug used to be, and that’s why you’re here.
“Hey,” he said.
Seth nodded a greeting.
“You look wiped,” Phil said.
“Rode forty-two miles today, pretty average,” Seth said with a shrug, “except for one delivery to Midtown. I damn near exploded my heart. Guess what the package was.”
Excerpted from "The Muse"
Copyright © 2015 Anne Calhoun.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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