Seven tasks. Twenty-four hours. And one chance.
The moment her best friend, Ben Meyers, drops his phone into her drink, model Livvie Winston knows The List has begun. Seven tasks, each more difficult than the last. If Ben completes them in twenty-four hours, Livvie must abandon her strict friends-only rule for one night of reckless, wicked sex with the most delicious man she knows…
The first tasks are easy. Order the cheapest thing on the menu. No cell phone for twenty-four hours. No ogling Livvie's model friends. Check, check, check.
But when Ben heads to the tattoo parlor, Livvie realizes that Ben isn't just playing for one night—he's playing for keeps. Livvie won't sacrifice this friendship for anything—even for a night of enjoying this incredibly sexy man in every naughty position imaginable. And she'll do whatever it takes to protect their friendship and her heart, even if it means beating Ben at his own game. Even if it means playing really dirty…
“I’ll have the house salad, please. Dry. And tap water.”
Livvie looked up, startled at the nonsensical words escaping her companion’s mouth. While she could understand the caloric necessity behind the occasional dinner of unadorned lettuce, no one ordered tap water at the Brick House. This place had some of the best—and strongest—cocktails in Manhattan. One drink, and you were likely to forget your date’s name. Two, and you forgot your own. Three, and there was a good chance you’d wake up in Vegas with a brand-new one.
Not that Livvie had ever done such a thing. She liked her name perfectly fine the way it was.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the waiter said. “Did you just order tap water?”
“Yes, thank you. Let’s go crazy and add ice, shall we?” Impervious to the waiter’s raised brows, her friend Ben turned to her with a smile. This wasn’t his polite company smile, either. It was all hydrogen peroxide and enamel over there, a flash of blinding white she mistrusted in an instant. “What’ll you have, Olivia? You should get the sea bass.”
She’d been planning on it—in fact, it was why she’d suggested this restaurant in the first place. She loved sea bass. As, she might add, did he.
Understanding hit her at once, and she closed her menu with an exasperated laugh. “You jerk. You have another date after this, don’t you? A real one?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You do too. I’m the appetizer—and not a very good one, either. I don’t even warrant a drizzle of balsamic reduction.”
He didn’t lose his smile. If anything, it only increased in voltage. Ben had a way of doing that, of dazzling with his perfection. In addition to possessing teeth that belonged in a cosmetic dentistry ad, he had an array of features that looked as if they’d been hand-selected to maximize a woman’s pleasure. His tousled brown hair held the right amount of curl to sit elegantly on his head no matter how much moisture saturated the air. His jaw was a piece of chiseled perfection that always seemed to bear exactly eight hours of stubble. And she wasn’t even going to start on the business happening below his neck. This was a public place, after all.
“You’re being paranoid,” he said, his voice deep and expressive. He had one of those, too—a voice that rumbled with laughter when he was happy, with sex at all other times. It was unfair for one man to possess so many appealing qualities, but Benjamin Meyers had been born under a lucky star. He’d been born under a whole sky of them. “Would it make you feel better if I ordered a wedge of lemon on the side?”
“It would make me feel better if you ordered an enormous meal and hid it in your napkin like a gentleman.”
He ignored her and turned to the waiter. “The lady will have the sea bass. And a vodka gimlet. You may want to keep them coming.”
The waiter didn’t bother checking to make sure that was what she wanted. When Ben issued commands, the entire world’s population climbed over itself to comply. All he had to do was open his mouth, and he had seven billion people at his bidding.
Well, seven billion minus one. Livvie was no fool.
“All right, how much time have you allotted me?” she asked as soon as the punctilious tuxedo disappeared into the periphery. “Half an hour? Forty-five minutes? We didn’t get our rendezvous in Milan, so I haven’t seen you in like two months.”
“Two months and six days, if you want to be exact.”
She lifted her chin in a half nod. She also knew the specific day count since she’d last seen Ben, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of hearing her say so out loud. It was best to be sparing with compliments where this man was concerned. He sort of absorbed them and added them to the massive swelling that was his ego. Too many, and he might burst.
“I’m sorry about the missed connection, by the way,” he added. “I had some lingering business that detained me.”
“There’s always lingering business that detains you—but I’ll make you a deal. I’ll forgive you if you tell me about this date of yours. I hope she’s one hot piece of ass if you’re drinking tap water for her.”
“She’s the hottest piece of ass I’ve ever seen.”
No surprise there. Ben’s dates were always hot pieces of ass. Sometimes, she thought he did it on purpose—picked up the most beautiful women he could find—just to prove how overwhelming two such paragons could be when they walked into a room together. People had been known to run screaming. Seeing all of them at once was too much, like opening the Ark of the Covenant and having your face slide off.
“She must be,” Livvie said. “You usually take a few days off before you resume your tomcatting activities, but you only got back this morning. You’re not wasting any time with this one.”
“I got back this afternoon, technically.” He looked at his watch, his smile dimming as he reset it to Eastern Standard Time. If Livvie remembered correctly, he’d spent the past week in London, the week before that in Paris. A real estate developer with a wallet in every city, his travel itinerary put hers to shame—and she had enough frequent-flier miles to practically buy her own airline. “My flight didn’t get in until two. But you could say this date has been in the works for a while now.”
“Now you’re making me feel bad.” Although she’d been looking forward to this dinner with an almost giddy excitement, she was also aware of how precious Ben’s free time was. “We could have rescheduled. You probably need a nap more than anything.”
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead. I’d much rather spend my time on affairs of the heart.”
She was about to point out that his affairs had less to do with the heart than they did with an entirely different pumping organ when the waiter returned bearing her gimlet. He also handed over the tap water, which Ben held up in a toast. Since he didn’t appear to intend to lower his glass until she returned the gesture, she offered an obliging clink.
“To tap water,” he said.
“You’re in a weird mood tonight.”
“How jet-lagged are you?”
“And the start of something beautiful.”
“Okay, now you’re being obscure on purpose.” She ignored the way his dark gaze held hers and took a drink, grateful when the high alcohol content of the vodka moved through her in a spreading warmth, a perfect distraction.
“Don’t you want to know her name?” Ben asked.
She stopped, her drink suspended in midair. “Why? Do I know her?”
“Yes. You could say you know her quite well.”
Alarm mixed with the alcohol in her gut, and she took another sip of the gimlet to fortify herself. Ben had never shown an interest in dating one of her friends before—and most of them wouldn’t take him up on the offer anyway. They were far too smart to bother with a man who refused to stay in one place long enough to actually grow attached. “Oh, really? Who is this mystery woman, and why did you come out with me if you’re so hot to trot her out? You know I don’t hold you to your promises. There’s a party at Le Bain I could have gone to instead.”
“I didn’t realize you operated under such a sense of obligation.” Ben set his glass down without taking a sip. Typical. He might order tap water, but he wouldn’t actually allow it to pass his lips. She was pretty sure he showered in Evian. “By all means, go to Le Bain. I’d hate to smother you with all my unwanted attention.”
“Don’t be such a drama queen. Of course I want to be here with you.”
“I can tell. Your scowl is especially charming this evening.”
She slapped on her best lipstick-ad smile, holding it in place long past the breaking point of the average person. She wasn’t a muscular woman by any stretch of the imagination, but she’d been modeling long enough she could practically do push-ups with her zygomatics.
“Much better. I feel like I’m looking at a picture.”
She gave in and laughed. One of her favorite things about Ben was that neither time apart nor his short attention span affected their friendship. They didn’t require regular contact or weekly chats to maintain their ties. She could be gone for months at a time and experience parts of the world she’d never known existed before, but the second she saw him smiling at her from across the room, it was as if nothing had changed.
Ben was timeless.
It was nice, having someone like that, especially since they didn’t seem to have to work at it. Five years had given her a pretty good glimpse at what went on inside his perfectly molded skull, and he was one of the few people who understood that her modeling career was a necessary part of her identity—not because she needed to be in the spotlight or photographed to be happy, but because nothing else fed her need for constant movement.
She was like a shark that way. Move forward or die. A decade spent jet-setting and striving to make her own way didn’t lend itself to long-term relationships with men, but Ben had always been different.
Thinking of those differences and how bleak her life would be without him, she softened and laid a hand on top of his, giving his fingers a reassuring squeeze. She’d be happy for him no matter who the woman in question was. “I mean it. If you have somewhere you’d rather be, we can do this later. I don’t want to stand in the way of your depravity with what’s-her-face.”
“Yes. I’m sitting right here. You’re being weird again.”
He turned his fingers over so he was the one doing the squeezing. Even though Livvie knew for a fact his supple digits got regular manicures, there was a strength to his grip that no amount of pampering could hide. It was impossible to spend ten minutes in Ben’s company without being reminded how much of a man he hid underneath that well-groomed exterior.
It was a lot. There was a whole lot of man under there.
“That’s-her-face,” he said softly. “Olivia Winston. I believe you two have met?”
She snatched her hand away, her movements jerky enough to cause a splash of her drink to cascade over the rim of the glass. Since wasting such a precious commodity right now seemed like a bad idea, she brought her hand to her lips and licked the lime cocktail from her skin. There was no mistaking the way Ben watched her actions, his eyes following each flick of her tongue as if he’d do anything to trade places with her right now.
He wants to wear my skin.
Later, she would blame the alcohol for how long it took for the details to fall into place, since everyone knew gimlets from the Brick House deadened the senses and made idiots out of otherwise perfectly intelligent females. For right now, however, there was no denying it was his darkly expressive gaze that rendered her incompetent. More intoxicating than vodka, pulling her in like twin black holes, that gaze belonged to a man she didn’t recognize.
But holy hell, that looked like a man she wouldn’t mind getting to know.
He blinked and the look disappeared. So too did the mesmerizing spell he’d been weaving, and she shot out of her chair with a start. She stumbled to the nearest table, where a middle-aged woman with an impressive bouffant sat looking over the wine list. “Excuse me, ma’am—do you think I could see your menu for a minute?”
The desperation in her voice caused the woman to comply without a murmur of complaint, and Livvie didn’t bother sitting down as she looked over the menu prices, eyes scanning over dollar signs with a rapidly increasing pulse.
Oh, no. He wouldn’t dare. He knew better.
She handed the menu back with an only slightly shaking hand and inserted her best sashay as she returned to her seat. There was no need to let Ben see how much he was affecting her right now—it was best not to equip the enemy with any more ammunition than necessary.
And Ben was her enemy. If her suspicions were correct, he’d just declared out-and-out war.
“Call the waiter back right now and order real food,” she commanded. Instead of transforming her facial muscles into a smile this time, she allowed them to settle into her natural expression. The Olivia Winston the world knew by sight was famous for her resting bitch-face, had transformed her naturally surly expression into a comfortable living. Livvie literally got paid to glare at people. “I’m not kidding. Order the fig and prosciutto starter. Or get the wedge salad instead.”
“But I don’t want the wedge salad.”
“I’ll get up and walk out of this restaurant. I’ll force-feed you my sea bass until you’ve got at least ten dollars’ worth of fillet inside you.”
“I’d love to see you try.”
He flashed a smile of understanding. It was that smile, private and small, that was the only thing preventing her from getting up and walking out of the restaurant. There was nowhere she could go—no one she could talk to—who would understand as well as this man the way her throat tightened in a combination of fear and rage. Ben would offer her sympathy and make her smile and put her back on her feet so she could face whatever happened next, no questions asked.
It was why they were such good friends. Emphasis on friend.
“I know, Livvie. Believe me—I know. You’d like to kick me in the face with one of your high heels right now, wouldn’t you?”
“I really would.”
“We can make that part of the arrangement, if it helps.”
She choked on a laugh. On the very few occasions she’d allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to be with Ben—really be with him, the way nature and sexual organs and his perfect body intended—dominance hadn’t figured in the picture. She wasn’t against that kind of play as a general rule, but there were a host of other things she wanted to do to him first.
Not that she ever would. She liked Ben. She loved Ben. He was one of the first men she’d met in New York who’d treated her as an actual human being. Livvie remembered very little about that time in her life except for an overwhelming urge to wipe the world of its male population. At just twenty years of age, her younger bitch-face plastered on billboards across the country, she’d met dozens of men every day—rich and powerful and handsome men, men with every opportunity fed to them with silver spoons—and not a single one of them looked at her and thought, Now, there’s a person I’d like to get to know. At least, not unless the knowing involved biblical implications.
Except Ben. Suave Ben. Funny Ben. Sitting-next-to-her-at-a-dinner-party-and-making-origami-out-of-napkins Ben. He hadn’t quite reached his current state of intoxicating charm yet, but there had been no denying his animal magnetism was fully charged and ready to go. He hadn’t pressed her for anything beyond friendship, though. For the first time since she was fourteen, a man had shown interest in her that wasn’t sexual in nature, and she’d basked in it.
She’d been basking in it ever since.
The waiter came around again, this time with their plates of food and another gimlet. She hadn’t finished the first one yet, but now seemed as good a time as any to overindulge, so she kicked hers back and handed off the empty glass.
She was grateful for her lush-like behavior about two seconds later, when Ben dipped a hand into an interior pocket. In her experience, that was where men kept things like theater tickets and jewelry and the burner phones they used to separate their wives from their mistresses. The velvet box he extracted clearly fell into the middle category. Livvie felt a profound urge to jolt out of her seat again, but something about the way he pushed it across the table had her frozen in place.
“You don’t have to open it right away.” He spoke quickly, as if afraid she might flee. “But you should know that I refuse to take it back. If you don’t pick it up, it belongs to the busboy.”
She didn’t touch it.
“I also have this.”
The this in question was as recognizable as the velvet box, and it filled her with an even greater degree of foreboding. He held a crinkled napkin, frayed with age and crushed from its position in his pocket, just out of her reach. Not that her limbs were moving enough to make a lunge for it anyway.
“Don’t you dare read that out loud.”
He cleared his throat and carried on. “‘You must order the cheapest thing on the menu and drink tap water.’”
“I wrote that as a joke. A laugh.”
“We signed it. In my line of business, we call that a contract.”
He couldn’t possibly be serious. “I don’t recall signing anything. Let me see it.”
He tucked the paper back in his pocket and gave his chest an almost reverent pat. “You’re not getting your hands on it that easy. It’s our only copy. I fell for a similar trick once in Prague and lost out on an excellent parcel of land overlooking the Vltava. Never again.”
Ben brought out the business references only when he was trying to impress someone or shut them up. Since Livvie had ceased to be impressed by his career years ago, she could only assume he considered that napkin the last word on the subject.
But if she remembered that napkin correctly, it wasn’t the last word on anything. That sucker was a Pandora’s box she had no intention of letting him crack open.
“Technically, you haven’t touched your tap water yet,” she pointed out. She might not be a contract lawyer or have teams of experts like the man seated across from her, but she could fight. No one fought harder than a woman backed into a corner. And by her best friend, too. “You just sniffed it.”
His smile lifted the corner of his mouth, infusing a touch of the lopsided into his perfect features. It was all that was needed to take him from handsome to gorgeous. One of the first things they taught you in the modeling world was that blandly recognizable beauty would take you only as far as the catalog circuit. If you wanted to make it big, you needed an anomaly, a quirk, something that marred your perfection in the best possible way.
In addition to being known for her resting bitch-face, Livvie also had a heavy pair of brows she was contractually forbidden from overgrooming. A gift from the father she knew only from a single faded Polaroid, those brows had been the bane of her existence when she was a preteen.
Now it seemed the bane of her existence was the man seated opposite her.
Without dropping his gaze from hers, Ben lifted the glass of water to his lips and guzzled. Unlike frat boys and Wall Street tycoons—indistinguishable from one another except by age—he took his time with the act of chugging, his throat working up and down as the liquid made its way into his esophagus. Livvie wanted to look away and pretend she wasn’t witnessing this act that was half defiance and half foreplay, but her eyeballs were glued in place.
He even made drinking into a sexual act. How was that fair?
“There. That wasn’t so terrible.” He set the glass down with a satisfied sigh. “Though it tastes metallic. I wonder where it’s pumped from.”
“Are you asking me or being a conversational dickhead?”
“The latter, naturally. Now, it doesn’t say I have to eat the salad—just order it—but if this is all that’s going to sustain me until the next meal, I’m digging in. Pass the pepper?”
She grabbed the pepper and dropped it in her purse, heedless of spillage all over the satin lining. There wasn’t anything in there except her ID and an emergency tampon anyway.
He chuckled and picked up his fork, spearing lettuce with more flourish than the bland plant warranted. “Fair enough. I didn’t expect you to make this easy. Are you sure you don’t want to peek in the box?”
She ignored it where it sat, taking up a disproportionately large amount of table space. She also ignored her sea bass, even though she was starving and it was her favorite. Ben knew that, of course. He knew all her favorite things. It was what made that napkin so dangerous.
“Ben, you can’t be serious about this.”
“I assure you, I’ve never been more serious in my life.”
“But we made that list years ago.” Three years, to be exact, the pair of them tipsy and bored at some theater gala with an open bar. All major life decisions made near an open bar were immediately rendered null and void—it was the cardinal rule of city living. “It was for fun. We were just fooling around.”
“No.” He set his fork down carefully on the table and leaned closer. “You might have been fooling around, but I was serious. I’ve always been serious about you, even though you refuse to see it. We’re good together, you and I.”
“We’re only good together because we’ve never been together.” Livvie leaned right back, dropping her voice to a strained hiss. She wasn’t sure why, but it seemed important that no one overhear this conversation. And she was a woman who normally shouted sexual overtures from her fire escape, leaving them hanging there alongside her bras. “Sex ruins things. The second you cross that line, there’s no going back.”
“I told you, I already crossed that line. I crossed it the day I met you.”
Her heart picked up. That was the golden day. The origami day. How dare he ruin it?
“And I’ve been standing here for years, waiting for you to cross over and join me. I thought I could wait forever, but it turns out I’m not as patient as I thought. I’m sorry to have to call in your promise like this, but you leave me with no other choice.”
He made another motion toward his jacket pocket, this time extracting his cell phone. His umbilicus, she liked to call it. Although he was always polite enough to turn it off when they had their dinners, he kept it on for all other events and gatherings. She’d once thought about taking up smoking, if only so she could have a reason to step outside whenever he did.
But no one could smoke every time Ben was on the phone. Not even a chimney.
“Oh, shit. You’re not really—”
He dropped his phone into her gimlet. She could see the screen flashing out as the alcohol seeped into the cracks and rendered the expensive electronic useless.
“‘Number two. You must spend an entire twenty-four hours without your cell phone.’” He flashed her another one of those sympathetic grins. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay close by my side until, let’s see, eight thirty-four tomorrow night. You’re going to want to make sure I don’t cheat on this one.”
“You can’t really expect me to sit around babysitting you until then.”
“Oh, but I do. There are five other requirements on the list I need you to witness. I’m sorry, Livvie, love, but you’ve forced my hand. By this time tomorrow night, I’ll have satisfied all your obligations.”
“Don’t say it.”
“And then it’ll be your turn to satisfy mine.”