The next morning I woke at five and kissed Eli on the cheek.
“Nothing good about it,” he mumbled, his face buried in the pillow.
I tickled him and he growled.
“It’s too early for anyone to be as wide-awake as you are.”
“Get used to it. We’re crazy at the store now, preparing for Thanksgiving sales and then Christmas.”
“So you’re telling me I’m going to have to deal with you getting up this early every day now until the end of the year?” He rolled over and on top of me, pinning me to the mattress. Breathless, I stared into his eyes, the rising storm of desire sending a corresponding thrill through me.
“Whatever will you do about it?” I fluttered my lashes at him and laughed as he kissed my neck.
“It’s a good thing I love you.”
As always, when Eli spoke from his heart, I melted a little. “Yeah. ‘It’s a good thing’ is right. Funny how that works,” I whispered. “I might kind of love you too.”
His lips brushed mine. “And you’re too pretty to stay mad at. Even in the morning you drive me crazy.” He continued to place small, soft kisses on my face.
“Is that all I am, a pretty face?” I teased him and looped my arms around his neck, rubbing our cheeks together. I loved his warm Eli-smell. I wished I didn’t have to shower it off me.
He stopped and gazed down at me with a face so serious, my smile faded. He cupped my chin in his hand. “You’re mine. That’s what you are.”
You’d think all the movies Addie dragged me to see with her would’ve prepared me for hearing something like that, but when the man you love more than anything, the man who keeps his feelings to himself, says something that incredibly romantic, it turns your insides into hot melted butter. Overwhelmed, I couldn’t speak. I touched his face with the tips of my fingers, hoping to convey how moved I was by his words.
“I know, baby.” He kissed the tips of my fingers.
We had this unspoken current between us where we didn’t need to speak. After months of living together, Eli knew me better than anyone and knew what I needed. Every kiss, every touch, left me gasping and wanting more.
“You’re mine, he whispered again as he pushed inside me.
* * *
At seven thirty I walked into the store with a smile. After checking my reflection in the staff lounge mirror to make sure my suit and tie hadn’t suffered the indignities of an uptown trip on the subway, I joined the rest of the group on the floor. Spotting Javi, I sauntered over and greeted him.
He gave me a hug. “Good morning. You’re looking happy. I like seeing that.”
“I like feeling it as well.” I couldn’t help smiling. I smiled all the time now.
Troy joined us. “Ooh, look at you. Someone’s got a little spring in his step. Guess that big handsome man of yours is taking care of everything you need. Eli is such a sexy man.” He fluttered his lashes at me. “That’s what made me fall for Jimmy. He’s so strong and determined. Last night he was an animal. I almost couldn’t get out of bed.”
Troy had started dating one of our customers—an ex-professional wrestler and from what I could see, he was happy and the relationship was a healthy one. Jimmy “The Wall” McAllister hadn’t finished picking out his ties and shirts before Troy had his phone number and a date for dinner. The times I met Jimmy, he seemed protective and a bit overwhelmed by the effusive and over-the-top Troy, but I could see in his eyes how much he cared for my friend. And Troy was crazy about him as well. I loved seeing the people around me happy. The weekend past, Eli and I had gone out to dinner with Javi and his husband, Ricky, and I could see Eli had never imagined a loving, stable relationship between two men existed.
“I’m glad to see both of you are in a good place now, with men you can count on and trust.” As Javi spoke, he straightened out the ties on a display and we followed his lead, making sure the edges of the folded polos lined up neatly.
“You and Ricky have what I want.”
“Don’t wish for what I have.” He put a hand on my arm and, more serious than I’d ever seen him, gave me a comforting squeeze. “You need to make your own happiness. You and Eli have a wonderful relationship to build upon.”
I spent the rest of the day with my clients, discussing their plans for the fall season and what clothes they would need. I was busy and enjoyed my work and the people. In the late afternoon I met with a new client, Eric Morrison, who owned several luxury car dealerships in Long Island and wanted a whole new workout wardrobe. He was in his mid-forties, well dressed, and flashed a gold Rolex, but something about him set me on edge. There was no one else available, so I placed a smile on my face and did my job.
“I’ve been hitting the gym myself lately.” I brought him to the section of the men’s department where we kept out athletic wear and picked out a few different tops and shorts for him to choose from. “I can’t believe it makes me feel as good as it does.”
“You look like you keep in good shape.” His gaze traveled over me. “Very good.”
My cheeks warmed, but I dismissed his overly familiar tone. “Well, I’m trying. Now, which of these outfits do you like better?” I held up two different tops. “They both come in a choice of colors. The fabric wicks away the moisture and has a built-in odor shield.”
“Can you show me how they look on? I don’t have time to change clothes, but I’d love to see you in them.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked to model. “Sure. Which one would you like to see first?”
“This one.” His hand covered mine when he indicated the sleeveless top and black gym shorts.
Goose bumps prickled up my arm, and I withdrew my hand from his. “I’ll be right back.” I hurried to the dressing room and before I changed, I texted Troy.
Creepy vibe alert. I’m in athletics. Help.
Confident that Troy would soon be on the way, I changed clothes and rejoined Morrison, whose hungry gaze now alarmed me as I stepped out of the dressing room. He waited at the entrance and put an arm up, preventing me from walking farther. Nervous for the first time, I wondered where the hell Troy was.
“If you want, I can show you how it moves when I walk.”
“I can see just fine.” He grasped my shoulder and ran his hand down my arm. “It feels good too. You feel good.”
Nauseated, I pulled away from him, but he crowded me up against the wall. “Don’t be like that. I can make you a nice commission.” He bent his head, and I twisted away from him, trying to keep his mouth off mine.
“Get off me, or I’ll kick you in the balls.”
He chuckled. “Who’re they going to believe? The customer is always right.” He groped my ass, the fabric so thin, it was as if his hand touched my naked skin. My flesh crawled.
“Stop it, you bastard.” I pushed against him, and I heard both Troy and Javi in the distance.
“Coby? Are you here?”
Morrison let go and walked away, leaving me shaking, breathless and humiliated, even though I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. I folded my arms and huddled against the wall.
“Coby.” Troy ran over to me and put a protective arm around me. “What happened? Are you okay?” He might look like a frivolous man with his makeup and colorful clothes, but he possessed a warrior’s heart. “Did he hurt you?” His dark eyes flashed at Javi, who gave me a tight but reassuring smile and focused on Morrison.
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to leave our store. I’m going to ask Mr. Epstein if he wants to press charges.”
“No,” I answered quickly. I just want him out of here.”
“Mr. Morrison, please leave now.”
“I didn’t want the crap you sell anyway.” Morrison stalked away and I began to shake uncontrollably. Troy held me tighter, murmuring soft words of encouragement. Javi came over to me and touched my back.
“Do you want to go home? I think you should.”
I nodded, fearing if I spoke I’d burst out crying.
“I’ll take care of everything. Troy, I’ll have a car come around the front. You stay with him until he’s inside.”
“Okay, Javi. And he’ll get paid for the rest of the day, right?” Leave it to Troy to think of everything. I just wanted to get the hell out of there and go home, take a shower, and curl up in bed.
“Of course. If you need tomorrow off, Coby, take it. You won’t get docked for the day either.”
“Thanks,” I managed to force out. “I’ll be okay.”
“Of course you will.”
With his arm wrapped around me, Troy walked out with me past the whispers and stares of the people in the department to the street where we waited for the cab.
“Oh shit, I still have the gym stuff on. Look.” Price tags dangled from my outstretched arm.
“Don’t even think about it. I’ll have them pack up your clothes and send them to your apartment. Are you sure you’re all right?” He searched my face.
Feeling a bit stronger now that more time had passed, I gave him a hug. “Yeah. Thanks. He didn’t do anything but it was the shock, you know?”
“He touched you against your will.”
My senses buzzed. “This happened to you, didn’t it?”
He gave me a solemn nod. “Years ago, when I’d just graduated FIT. It went further than that. No one believed me over him. He was a professor who I thought wanted to mentor me. All he really wanted was to get in my pants.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing.” He ducked his head so he wouldn’t have to meet my eyes. “I did nothing and always regretted it. What if he did it to other guys? It’s always haunted me.”
I strained to hear him.
“But I help at rape crises centers and suicide help lines. It’s my way of making amends for doing nothing.”
“Thank you for sharing that with me. And when you’re young and scared, you don’t know what to do. I’m thirty and I was freaked out. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
He gave me a shadow of his usual bubbly smile. “Yeah, that’s what Jimmy says.”
“You really care about him, don’t you?”
Troy nodded. “He’s the first man who’s ever loved me back.”
A fierce anger rose up in me. “Don’t ever love someone just because you think they might love you back. You’re worth so much more than that.”
“I know that now.”
A black car pulled up. “There’s my ride.” I gave him a lingering hug. “I love you. Thanks for being there for me. I owe you.”
“No. You don’t. And I love you too. Call you later.”
I sat in the car as it headed down 57th Street and wondered how it all got so screwed up so quickly. Eli and I didn’t text during the day because he wasn’t allowed to use his phone when he was on duty. I dreaded telling him tonight, knowing how angry he’d get. This was a side of the job I rarely talked about, but it existed. In the past, I’d brushed it off like I had earlier, but I couldn’t hide this from Eli. I felt dirty where Morrison had touched me, and I was a little freaked out.
I texted the incident to Addie and I’d barely hit Send before she called me.
“What the fuck?” Her shriek split the quiet in the back seat. “Are you okay? Where are you?”
“I’m fine, really.” I tried to soothe her. “I’m going home. They gave me the rest of the day off, which was nice. I’m gonna take a shower and go to bed.”
After spending several more minutes calming her down, I shut off my phone and stared out the window at the cars rushing past.