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Craving Him: A Love by Design Novel by Ryan, Kendall (1)

Emmy

Approaching the door to my apartment, I was a bit self-conscious for Ben to see my place. The apartment itself was located in an older run-down building in a not-so-charming neighborhood in Queens. Ellie had relocated to a cheaper unit during my absence. Compared to Ben’s luxury apartment in Gramercy Park in the heart of downtown, this place was a piece. But it was all Ellie and I could afford. And it was home. For now.

Scuffed, yellowed walls and worn gray carpeting lined the narrow hallways. Green paint was peeling from our front door, and the smell of three-day-old Indian food permeated the corridor as soon as you entered the building. Charming, I know.

Ben attempted a reassuring smile as I fumbled with the key in the lock, but I could tell his eyes were assessing every detail. He’d nearly choked when I’d told the driver to head toward the Queensboro Bridge. Not all of us could afford to live in the insanely expensive heart of Manhattan like he did. I didn’t know what he’d expected.

Finally freeing the second dead bolt securing the door, I pushed it open.

I’d hoped perhaps Ellie would be in her bedroom and I could have a word privately with her about Ben before he was accosted by her questions. Sadly that was not the case. Ellie was standing in the living room wearing only a towel, her hair thrown in a messy bun, mustache remover cream spread above her top lip.

She spun around, hearing our entrance. “Geez! Thanks for the warning, Em.” Clutching the towel tighter to her chest, she scurried down the hall for her room.

Oops. I guess I should have texted and told her Ben and I were on our way over. I was out of practice on the etiquette of being a good roommate after living at home with my parents for the past month and alone in Paris for the two months before that.

“Sorry, Ellie!” I called out to her retreating backside. I knew she was going to be mortified that a guy as hot as Ben had seen her with depilatory cream on her face.

Ben smiled weakly. “I take it that’s your roommate?”

“Yeah, that’s Ellie. And I think I’m in trouble with her.”

Giving Ben the grand tour took all of about three seconds. I was acquainting myself with the apartment at the same time. Dumpy living room with beige couch—check. Small but neatly organized kitchen—check. Narrow hallway leading to our bedrooms and a shared bathroom—check.

He smiled politely, but I knew this wasn’t the type of living quarters he was accustomed to. I wondered if he’d ever stay over, or if he’d insist we stay at his place. Before I had time to ponder it further, Ellie came charging out of her bedroom.

Her eyes were bright and determined, her dark hair flowing in loose waves over her shoulders. “You,” she poked Ben in the chest, “are on my shit-list.”

He cocked his eyebrow up. “Uh . . . excuse me?”

“You heard me,” Ellie said, her tone firm and unwavering. “I’m onto you. And Emmy will not be your plaything until you get bored. She’s the fucking shit. You got that, mister?” She poked his chest one more time for emphasis before I caught her wrist and pulled it away.

“I completely agree. Emmy’s the best,” he said.

Ellie lifted her chin, throwing her shoulders back. “Good. We’re on the same page then. But just know, I’m watching you. And I won’t hesitate to kick your ass if need be.”

“You’re Ellie, right?” he asked.

She nodded, seeming to realize that she hadn’t yet introduced herself.

Ben stepped in closer, meeting her intense gaze. “I’m going to take care of this girl. She’s mine. And I’m not going anywhere.”

“Okay then.” Ellie’s tone had softened.

My heart soared at hearing his sweet declaration.

Ellie met my eyes, looking for any signs of trouble. I kept my face neutral and gave her a small smile. She returned my grin and headed off into the living room, leaving Ben and me standing alone in the hall.

He pulled me to his chest and pressed a light kiss to my forehead.

“I’m sorry about that. She means well,” I offered.

“I know, babe. No worries.”

Ellie was a tough-ass New Yorker. That was for sure. She spoke her mind and didn’t take crap from anyone. Apparently she was also fiercely protective of me. It was flattering and also a little bit scary.

Ben leaned down to angle his mouth against mine, kissing me tenderly. “I love you. I’m going to go so you guys catch up and talk, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks for the ride home. You didn’t know you were coming all the way to Queens today, did you?”

He smiled and pressed his lips to mine once more. “Nope. But you’re worth it.”

He’d have a forty-five-minute subway ride back unless he called his driver again. Was that guy just at the ready, waiting for Ben’s call? No time to ponder it. I walked Ben to the door. He gave a brief wave to Ellie and kissed me one last time.

“Call me later, baby.”

“I will,” I confirmed. My head was still reeling from the emotional weight of our reunion. I couldn’t help but be both happy and apprehensive at the same time.

Closing the door behind him, I found Ellie in the kitchen, fishing a can of Diet Coke from the fridge.

“So . . .”—I leaned against the counter—“how much trouble am I in?”

Ellie straightened and popped open the top of the can, taking a long sip. She looked me over thoughtfully. “For your supermodel boyfriend seeing me with mustache remover or for getting back together with said boyfriend in the first place?”

I smiled unevenly. “I didn’t plan for this to happen. It was by complete coincidence that I ran into him at the airport yesterday. He convinced me to hear him out, and I’m glad I did. I missed him, Ellie. Like missed him missed him.” The truth was, with our quick reunion last night, I hadn’t had time to sort out all of my feelings and emotions. My heart still yearned for Ben, as foolish as it might seem. “And as for the pregnancy, that really wasn’t his fault. He plans to have paternity testing done as soon as it’s safe.”

“And that’s . . . okay with you?”

I swallowed the bitter taste in my mouth. I’d researched paternity testing extensively online and found most people waited until after the baby was born to do the test, as it was less invasive and much easier. No wonder Fiona was digging her heels in on this. I couldn’t help but imagine her using any excuse to wait until after the baby was born so that, in her head, Ben could be the father a little longer. It made me sick to even think about it. Yet I clenched my jaw and nodded to answer Ellie’s question.

“He’s also cut off his friendship with her,” I quickly added, like that made it all better somehow. I was still wary of his relationship with Fiona and knew it would take some work to rebuild my trust in him. But Ellie’s constant suspicions would only make this harder. I needed to put on a brave face. I needed to try and move past all this if he was what I really wanted.

“But he’s still going to stay with her agency?” Ellie shot me a curious glare.

“Yes, for now. He’s under contract.” I didn’t mention that this little fact also drove me mad. I didn’t want him working with her, but I didn’t want to give Ellie another reason to hate him, so I held my face impassive, trying to pretend it didn’t bother me. That it was all just some harmless business arrangement. The truth was, I didn’t trust Fiona and never would. Ben had a weakness where she was concerned, giving her too much leeway, being too accommodating.

Ellie released a deep sigh. “It killed me when you took off for home. I felt helpless and I just don’t want to see you go through something like that again with him.”

“It won’t happen again. I’m here to stay. In fact, I need to start looking for a job so I can pay you back for rent.”

Ellie waved me off. “Psshh . . . I’m not worried about the rent. I’m just glad you’re back and doing well.” She opened her arms. “Come here.”

I stepped into her embrace and gave her a hug. She wasn’t a hugger usually. “It’s good to be home.”

“Though keep in mind I’ll have his balls if he so much as steps out of line with you again.”

“Understood.” I smiled. She meant well.

Not much had changed even with the new apartment, and I was glad it felt nice and cozy to be back. All of our stuff had found its home, and even my room was set up much the same.

After unpacking, I logged onto my laptop, ready to look for jobs. I was set on paying Ellie back for the rent. I knew she didn’t have much extra money just lying around, and I wanted to pull my fair share. Not to mention I’d go positively crazy without a job. A pang of regret coursed through me at how my job at Status had ended. I certainly wouldn’t be getting a recommendation from my former boss. And God, what would I say if someone asked why I’d left my last job? Crap! My male model boyfriend got my boss pregnant and I quit. Ha! Yeah right. That’d go over about as well as a fart in church.

I supposed I’d have to spin it . . . say I went home for a family emergency. They didn’t need to know the emergency was me having a complete emotional breakdown.

Being in New York and back with Ben was emotionally overwhelming. It would take some time to process. I certainly hadn’t expected to run right into his arms again. But then again, nothing about our relationship was expected. I decided last night that I’d give him another chance, and I meant it. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to be warier approaching our relationship this time around. I had both of my eyes wide open, and I would wait to see how it all unfolded. He would need to show me with his actions, and not just pretty words, why he could be trusted again.

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