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Behind Closed Doors by Ashley Goss (1)

CHAPTER ONE

If there's one thing, she is happy about it's the fact that over the summer, while Stella was away, she had part of her attic converted into a rooftop terrace. Placing a glass of white wine on the little table next to her lavishly cushioned deck chair, Stella puts her phone on vibrate and takes her book and glasses from inside the attic room and relaxes in the last few hours of mild October sunlight. Paris is still bustling below her, the sounds of cars honking and sirens wailing in the distance not quite making it to her secluded little spot five stories up in the air; a row of assorted potted plants blocking out the sounds and smells quite effectively.

When she hears the doorbell ring, causing her to sit up in a flash, it dawns on her she has fallen asleep. Stella gets up, sending her book to the floor and walks inside, grabbing her phone to see if she missed anything significant that might explain the person at the door, but the screen is a casual blank.

“Hello?” she asks when she reaches the little intercom thingy, brushing her hair out of her eyes.

“Hi,” a familiar voice sounds through the device.

Why is he here?

“Come up,” Stella says curtly before more words can be exchanged and buzzes the door open, not allowing herself to think about why she allows him in, releases the breath she didn't know she was holding. Stella counts to ten and opens the front door, listening to his footfalls on the stairs, pushing the wrong thoughts as far from her mind as possible, tries to focus on the right ones and find her composure as she watches his curly head appear a floor down. Keep it together, is all she keeps telling herself. You can't.

When Max ends up on her floor, just a little bit out of breath, it's all she can do to keep a straight face, to smile at him, to open the door a little wider. When he smiles back at her in that stupid, shy way he has, it's all she can do to ignore the thumping of her heart, the fact that she's suddenly too conscious of her body, her apartment, of fucking everything.

“Hey,” Stella says, pasting on a concrete smile. “Never thought I'd see you here.”

Max smiles again, still shy, and looks around a little helplessly. "Sorry," he started and did that really have to be the very first word to leave his mouth?! “I can go if I presume too.”

“Nonsense,” Stella cuts him off and why, for heaven's sake, because it would have been a wonderfully graceful way out of this. “Let me get your coat.” Max shrugs out of his coat, ignoring her outstretched hand, instead draping it over the doorknob behind him. “I won't stay long,” he mutters, pushing his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “It's just...”

Of course, nothing comes out of his mouth, as she can tell he is dead nervous.

“Well,” Stella says, still smiling at him, walking into the bright light of the living room. “Come have a glass of wine with me upstairs, the sun's still out, and the view is amazing.” She grabs the bottle from the kitchen counter as she passes it, takes an extra glass from a cabinet and makes for the cast iron spiral staircase. He is still hesitant, taking in the room; the light coming through the windows sets off the golden brown in his curls, and she almost misses the first step up.

“Max...” Stella says, and he snaps out of his thoughts and looks at her.

“Oh, sorry,” Max mumbles, his cheeks flaring and - that word again - she turns on her heels and makes her way up the stairs, hoping her own blood will have stopped betraying her by the time she's reached the top floor. Stella can hear him behind her. He breathes as he's closing in on her and she shouldn't be thinking about the fact his face is far too close to her skinny jeans hugging her legs and her bum right about now.

The fresh air on the roof terrace is soothing at once, and she goes for the little railing to look across London basking in the last of the afternoon sun; the Eye in the distance, the Shard. Stella makes herself pick them out and name them all and then she counts to ten again, breathing deeply, knowing - deep down – there is no chance in hell she can fight this. Experience has taught her that putting distance between them is the only solution, but Max showing up on her doorstep unannounced effectively killed that option. Still, she's not going to give up on herself just yet - she must have more determination than this.

Stella watches his hands close around the railing, and then he is next to her, his shoulder barely brushing hers and she abruptly resorts to pouring his glass. “Here,” she says and holds it out for him to take. Stella turns back to admire the view - or at least control her breathing - and smiles at the sky. “Beautiful, isn't it?”

“Yeah...”

From the corner of her eyes, she can see Max sip his wine, perfect lips touching the glass.

“So,” Stella starts again, really wondering what the hell he is doing here. “All done with work?”

“On a break, yes,” Max says, and it's about work, and they're the first confident words out of his mouth. “It's a good job. I like it. I like the work I do.”

“That's good,” Stella says, and she winces, as she undoubtedly sounds like his mother. She reaches behind and gets her own still half full glass, taking a firm swig; an action which, of course, screams cannot deal with you here, and she turns back almost immediately, and Max seems to have turned around as well because now they're looking at each other. Really looking at each other.

“What are y-?” Stella starts to ask but it's barely one step between them, and there's no more time or space or breath left to say anything else before his arms are around her and he's hugging her so close that the same space and breath are squeezed from her very existence, and just the feel of him against her is enough.

No.

It hurts as she's practically wrenching herself away.

“No, Max... no,” Stella starts, and although he allows enough room between them to look each other in the eye, she's kept in strong arms that clearly have no intention of going any other place than around her. “We talked about this, we can't.”

“You mean you talked about it,” Max cuts in and all at once the nerves are gone, and it's replaced by something fierce. “You said it couldn't be, couldn't happen, couldn't happen again.” He brings his arms up, slides his hands into her hair, cups her face. “I was just too stupid, too overwhelmed, to say anything in response to that - you made it sound so reasonable and true and final, and I just swallowed it and allowed myself to be ushered out of your room and your life.” He takes a deep breath.

“Max...”

“No, I'm not done yet,” Max breaks in right away - eyes dark, mouth set. “I came over to see how you would react and it's plain, isn't it? You can't control it any more than I can. So, stop telling me it can't be because I just know it's going to be a rubbish excuse.” He's let her go by now, the strength behind his words too overpowering to stay so close but he's in her space, touching her - his fingers on her cheek - and Stella watches his chest rise and fall with the breaths he's taking now that the flow of words has stopped. He's left one button too many undone on his shirt, and there's a tiny bit of hair poking out, and it makes her mind flash to that first time when she finally gave in as she couldn’t fight her feelings any longer. Everything had been building toward that moment for months, and they both knew it.

They had been working very closely for the last three months competing to get a promotion at work. Ben, also Max’s Dad, was leaving Gem Marketing. He made a contest to whoever sign the most clients would secure the position of CEO of Gem Marketing in his retirement. Stella and Max had worked together before the announcement for fifteen years and from across the office hated one another but this competition brought out the craziness in both. See the difference between the two was Stella wanted to make her parents proud and had worked her ass off to someday get a position as extraordinary as this one while Max just wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps to finally hear him say the words, “I’m proud of you.” They both wanted the position but only one could get it. Over the course of the next several months, leading up to his retirement, they were at each other’s throats stealing clients from each other, locking the other in their office, heck one of them even went crazy enough to spike their drink with sleep medicine to make them miss a meeting which would have secured five new clients had she made it. Competition brings out the crazy in people.

Finally, it was done to the last couple of days, Ben decided to have them work on a client together. The last time they were asked to do this, it didn’t go so well. Max tried to take all the credit which she wouldn’t let happen. So, she stood her ground and pitched all her own ideas herself to the client. Just so happens, the client loved her ideas better. The client signed the contract and it was credited as one to both of their scores. This meant they were tied! This didn’t sit well with Max, he’s a man so he liked to win but when Stella was around, that was unlikely. He knew he had to do something to throw her off her game. There were only two days left until he retired, and he needed that damn promotion.

“Hey, Can I talk to you for a second?” Max said confidently while pulling her away from a potential client.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m busy.” She scoffed and gave him the most go to hell look he had ever seen. The look that said don’t fuck with me.

“Listen, we need to come to an agreement. Whoever wins this, fair and square, we need to be civil. I know we don’t exactly see eye to eye on most, well, everything so we are just going to have to get the hell over it. The future of this company depends on it. Agreed?” Max explained wanting her to understand how serious he was. Even though, he wasn’t. He just wanted to throw her off her game long enough for him to swoop in and steal a client, so he can beat her.

Let me give you some insider information about Max, though, you might think he’s an evil manipulative asshole but honestly, he’s not. All his life, he has been fighting for his dad’s attention. As a baby, toddler, pre-teen, and even adult. Ben has been so wrapped up in the business that he never even attended one of Max’s games. Hell, he’s never even said the words, I’m proud of you, to his own son. He just wants the acknowledgment and right now, he would do anything for that including cheating.

Stella went right back to her client and closed the deal, and boom she was back ahead. No tie. But little did she know, that while she slept that night, Max had taken her little notebook full of potential clients and scheduled meetings for the next day. He stayed up all night preparing pitches to them on why they should sign with Gem Marketing and he pulled it off. With hours to spare, he signed five new clients.

Now, yes, Stella should have been on top of her game and shouldn’t have slept the night before a HUGE deadline like this, but she had been staying up doing all-nighters for weeks and really needed a good night’s rest. Little did she know, it was going to come back to bite her in the ass.

Back at the bar, “I insist,” Max said and rested a hand in the small of her back. “I'll walk you home.” The others that were outside the pub, having a smoke or a breath of dubiously fresh air, waved at them; someone even throwing in a catcall for added effect and Max had flipped them off without so much as a backward glance, laughing, his face open and happy and flushed from the alcohol. The arm around her back had almost unnoticeably been transferred to her shoulders. He was smooth that way, she had to hand it to him - by the time their hotel came into view and they had fallen silent, just walking, her shoulder softly bumping the side of his chest, her heart hammering in her rib cage because she knew where this was going, where she wanted it to be going. Even entering the hotel lobby with its dozens of people milling about didn't give him enough reason to remove his arm; he just lowered it to her back again and steered her gently towards the lift, his face a perfect blank as they waited for the doors to open. “You've walked me home, Max,” she tried, futilely, not really knowing why she even bothered.

“Don't you want to go back to the others? I'm sure they'll be there for a while longer.” Max just smiled, not looking at her, waiting for her to get into the lift first before stepping in behind her, pushing the button to close the doors.

“Don't want to,” he said as soon as they were alone, his voice rough, his eyes pinning her with a smoldering stare. “I want to be with you.” Max looked down then, as if suddenly aware of the boldness of his words and his blatant attempt at seducing her, adding a bashful please that made her smile.

But maybe, if her room had been on a top floor, she might have been given the chance to talk him or herself out of this, but they only needed to go four floors up and before his please had effectively left his mouth the doors slid open, and her room was already in view. Stella just shook her head, fumbled with her key card and felt his hot breath across her cheek as he pushed himself against her back, his arm snaking around her waist to hold them close.

“Stella,” Max whispered, the tip of his tongue flicking against the shell of her ear. “Let me fuck you...”

The creak of the door opening blocked out the sound of her needy whimper, and then they were inside. Max using her body to slam the door shut, pushing her up against the wood, his mouth on hers, tongue pushing in - sliding against and around hers, his hands demanding and strong on her breasts, his hips against hers, making her feel him - every last, rock hard inch of him.

She'd been resting her hands on his hips, but now she moved them, cupping his ass, pulling him impossibly closer, making him groan. Max wrenched his mouth away from hers, lips red and wet; his tongue a pink dash behind perfect teeth.

“Come on,” he urged, clearly just as incapable of making full sentences as she was, and she laughed; a full, throaty laugh as he unzipped Stella’s skirt behind her back, causing it to drop to the floor, causing him to almost gulp at the sight of her as she started working on the buttons of her blouse. “Let me, let me,” he hurried, catching on again, his rash and clumsy fingers still getting the job done. “Oh, fuck,” was all he managed as he pushed the fabric off her shoulders, staring at her black bra and matching panties, biting his lip.

“Want that?” Stella asked, knowing the answer full well but drunk already on his unadulterated adulation of her body. That had been a while, it briefly flashed through Stella’s mind, and she couldn't wait to peel him out of his clothes. In answer Max just cupped her breasts, kissing them, licking them, mouthing them through the fabric and another surge of want shot down her body, taking up firm residence low in her stomach.

“I'll take that as a yes, then,” Stella giggled and slid her fingers in his hair, holding his face between her breasts, dropping her head back against the door - body arching against his, listening to his heavy breathing as he started fumbling with the clasp of her bra, having pushed the straps off her shoulders already.

“You,” Stella muttered, reaching behind herself, swatting his hands away, dropping the garment to the floor within seconds. “Get out of those clothes now.” She had to smile when he looked down himself as if only then he realized he was still fully clothed, grinning sheepishly as he looked up again.

“Sorry,” Max offered, and her knees almost buckled with the thickness of his accent. Max yanked three buttons of his shirt open and pulled it swiftly up and over his head, and she looked at his chest. His wide shoulders angling to a narrow waist, quite unable to resist scratching her nails through sparse, soft hair, causing his eyes to widen and his breath to catch and he made quick work of his jeans, the outline of his erection sharp and angry in the confines of his briefs before taking those off as well.

“Come on,” Stella smiled and walked them to the bed, pushing him down on it, straddling his hips, hands on either side of his head as she leaned in for more kisses.

When Max’s hands traveled down her body, she felt him stroke the inside of her thigh, and she gasped into his mouth. “Is that okay?” Max asked, and she nodded, feeling a quick, clever finger hook around the hem of her underwear before dipping into her wetness, her sharp intake of breath as he slid through, bringing his hand back up to suck his finger.

“Christ, Max,” she choked out, and he laughed.

“Max will do just fine,” he said, doing it again.

“Lie down,” he ordered, and she flipped onto her back, allowing him to slide her panties off, before getting on his knees between her legs and dipping his head, hands under her buttocks.

“Okay?” he asked again, his blue eyes almost fully shot to black, and she just nodded, falling back on the bed, pushing her fingers through his curls. Max’s mouth was hot on her; hot and insistent and everywhere, and it didn't take him all that long to have her in shudders, lifting her hips off the bed to give him an even better angle. Stella hooked her knees around his shoulders and watched him work, felt his tongue stab into her, his scruff rough against her lips, coiling the spool at high speed now.

“M-Max,” she gasped, but she was gone already, a cry ripping out of her so loud that it made her throat hurt. By the time she regained some sort of consciousness it slowly dawned on her that he was reaching behind him, feeling around for his jeans, and in a split-second, she was horrified at the thought he wanted to leave until he turned back to face her while his fingers made short work of opening a condom.

“Want me like this?” Max asked all smiles at the sight of her, stroking the inside of her thigh with his free hand.

“Yeah, I want to look at you,” she muttered, taking the condom from him and rolling it on. Stella smiled as she watched his eyes close, a low groan escaping him, realizing she hadn’t touched his cock before that moment. Opening his eyes again, he nudged her legs up and around his waist, pushing in without much resistance, her heat, and her wetness causing him to let out a strangled, feral noise. Max immediately lifted her legs even higher and, straightening up as he grabbed the back of her thighs, started fucking her for real; a growl on every push, his knees spread wide on the mattress.

“You're thinking of it too, aren't you?” Max’s voice breaks the long silence. Stella looks at him, feeling caught. She nods slowly. He moves away from her and picks up his glass only to down its contents in one go. “I knew it.” Putting the glass on the little table, he takes a few steps toward the stairs.

”Max...” she starts but what's there to say. Stay? Sorry? I want you just as bad?

“I said I wasn't going to stay long,” Max mutters quietly, not looking at her, “and I won't. I just wanted to find out where we stand; what the truth is. Because you're not honest with me.” He turns around and disappears as he goes down the spiral stair, back to the living room and the hall to grab his coat and leave.

Of course, she doesn't want him to go, everything inside her is screaming for him to stay. She hates him for what he did, but she can’t deny their attraction. It had always been there but never realized it until that fateful night.

“Max,” Stella says, coming down the stairs after him and he's already with one arm in his coat. She walks up to him, grabbing his hand. “Honey...” Stella sighs, why are things always so complicated? “Darling, don't be angry.” But he is, she can tell. “It's just... we wouldn't stand a chance.”

“I beg to differ on that,” Max shoots back icily, shrugging into the rest of his coat, pulling his hand away from hers.

“Max,” Stella pleads, because she would hate for him to leave like this - frustrated and angry; almost a mirror image of how he left her the morning after he'd walked her back to the hotel. “Let's not say goodbye this way.”

“Why?” Max spits, and she hadn't been aware he can put that much venom behind his words. “As long as you keep saying we have no future, as long as you keep on believing our roles are going to come between us, as long as that's what you want to tell yourself I'll be on the other side of town. Being angry.”

He's gone before she can think of anything else to say, the dry click of the closing door painfully loud in her ears. The fact that Stella’s crying within seconds should tell her something about the point he was just trying to make, but her stubborn brain refuses to go there. She's at a different stage in life; at a different stage in her career. They need different things, want different things – Stella’s certain of it. They would end up hurting each other most disastrously, because she knows herself, knows how quickly she would grow to love him – how they would break each other’s hearts when, in the end, their lives are going to take them in different directions; one without the other. Stella wouldn’t be able to take the heartache, and this is the only thing she can do – hurt for him now.

It takes every last bit of her willpower to convince herself that what she wants is not Max Robertson in her life and in her bed, and the only way to shape that into a somewhat believable premise is by forcefully throwing something against the door that will shatter into a thousand tiny pieces, but there's nothing within reach and Stella just shakes with frustration and anger and sheer want for him as she bangs the front door once with an angry, useless fist.