Look. The first thing I realized with Melly was that if we weren’t prepared to talk about it openly, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it. I realized that because we started together early, before we really had a language for any of that stuff. Before we knew what to do and what we even really liked. We were idiots, shuffling blindly through sexual exploration.
I guess it’s sheer luck that we were able to figure it out together, but that—like any aspect of a good marriage—took a lot of attention, effort, and talking. Lord, in those early days we talked all night about what we wanted, who we were, and what turned us on.
If you think this chapter is going to be a salacious tell-all about my sex life with the beautiful Melissa Tripp, you’ll be disappointed. Go pick up a different book—maybe one with a sexy cowboy on the cover. Another important piece of taking care of a sexual relationship in marriage is to keep it private. My daddy always said, “The only way to keep a secret is to not tell anyone,” so this is me not telling you a single detail about my wife and how damn sexy she is when she wears her hair down, puts on a pair of jeans and boots, and goes outside to ride her beautiful Arabian, Shadow.
Well, I guess that tidbit got away from me, but here’s the other thing: a healthy sexual relationship happens when you find your partner sexy at one day, at one year, at ten years, and when you’re both old as time and slow as honey in the winter. Those things you think are sexy at first might change over time. People aren’t as acrobatic at forty as they are at twenty. These are the facts of life.
But when you’re near someone and feel like your knees turned to jelly, and when you can look them square in the eye and tell them exactly what it is you want them to do, well, that’s just the start of something beautiful.
In the handful of steps from the elevator to James’s room, my confidence evaporates. It’s been years since I’ve undressed in front of a man. What was I thinking? I’m not even sure who this brazen person is. It’s a wonder James didn’t gently guide me to my own room and instruct me to sleep it off.
Debbie would probably tell me that burst of madness in the elevator was born of frustration and anger—some need to be in control of my life because it feels like I never have any control at all. I’ve given ten years to Melissa Tripp. My young years! Ten years of hard work and ideas, hoping one day I might be acknowledged for even a fraction of it.
That is obviously not going to happen.
I rarely let myself think this way. Thoughts like these would make the day-to-day too hard, and any suggestion that I’m more than just an assistant would make Melly’s head explode. It’s not even that I want credit, exactly, but maybe I just need to know that she knows? Does she? Or have we played these parts for so long that she’s managed to fool herself right along with everyone else?
Here’s to another ten years.
Taking a deep breath, I press my face between James’s shoulder blades as he swipes his keycard. Gesturing for me to lead us inside, he follows, dropping his wallet, key, and phone on an entryway table. The door sweeps shut, sealing us into an air-conditioned silence. I clock the way he turns his ringer off. Good idea. But before I can do the same, he reaches up and gently slides the purse strap from my shoulder.
“I’ll get it,” he says.
I’ve never met anyone before who so easily and unobtrusively anticipates my needs. “Thanks.”
His room is a mirror image of mine, but otherwise identical—if not a whole lot tidier: king-size bed and upholstered headboard, requisite dresser and TV, desk, same framed watercolor prints on taupe walls, velvet couch, damask drapes. But my destination, of course, is the minibar.
While he pulls the sheer drapes closed—affording us both privacy and light—I open the small refrigerator and examine its contents. Soda, water, beer, juice, Red Bull. Tiny bottles of alcohol are neatly lined in the door. Normally the only thing I’d be interested in is the single-serving bottle of wine or maybe a bag of M&M’s, but today I reach for the hard stuff, twist off the top, and finish half the tiny bottle of vodka in a single go. It burns in the best way. On top of the fridge in individual weighted compartments is an assortment of chips and candy, along with a small box with a red heart on the front. I feel my face heat as I finger the label and read its contents—condoms, lube, personal wipes. And the label: INTIMACY KIT.
Okay, universe. No need to shout.
With liquid courage still smoldering in my chest and making its way slowly through my veins, I pick up the box and turn to face James.
He’s standing by the window, expression unreadable.
“I’m usually a very independent person,” I tell him.
I toss the box to the bed and his eyes follow the movement, widening when he realizes what it is. “I got that.”
“I don’t usually like help and I rarely ask for it, but …”
He lifts a brow in question.
“I’d like it if you undid my buttons again.”
Only a tiny beat passes—the time it takes for the words to travel across the room, for his brain to interpret them—and then James grins, crossing to me in a few short steps. “I was hoping you’d ask.”
Slipping off my shoes, I kick them to the side. “I’ve never had hotel sex.”
Slower than I’d have thought possible, he pulls the front of my shirt free from my skirt. “Never?”
“I did have sex outside once.” I watch as he undoes one button, and then a second, his fingers lightly grazing the skin of my stomach.
I have to work to keep my voice steady: “I was a senior and dating this guy named Jesse. There’s a trail in the Grand Tetons that takes you to Death Canyon. I’d never been there before, but he really wanted me to see it.” James pulls his attention from the buttons to glance at my face. I give him a little grin like, Yeah, I’m sure that’s really what he wanted me to see.
He laughs, this warm husky sound that makes my blood simmer.
“We stopped to have lunch and spread out a blanket in this gorgeous spot that overlooks the lake and—” I give a meaningful pause. “We never did make it to the canyon. What about you?”
His hands pause on the buttons. “Me?”
“You really want to talk about my exes right now?”
I swallow thickly. “Talking is relaxing me.”
He pushes out his bottom lip into this adorable pout as he considers. “Mathletes finals in San Jose. Her name was Allison, we were both seventeen. We spent an hour together in a Sheraton hot tub, and she invited me back to her room.”
He lifts a shoulder. “I was nervous, but it was good.”
“I’m not in high school anymore,” he says with a smile. “And you could say I’m a lifelong learner.”
I clear my throat and glance down at the floor. “Listen, I know I was pretty presumptuous earlier. We don’t have t—”
“You’re right. We don’t have to.” He takes a single step closer. “But I didn’t mind the presumption, and I’m very good at following instructions.”
“The qualities of a great assistant-in-training,” I whisper, and he laughs into a single, sweet kiss.
The last button is undone and he opens my shirt, fingers carefully pushing the fabric off one shoulder, and then the other. I can barely breathe. My eyes fall to his chest and with a little nod, he seems to understand, making quick work of his own buttons, stopping about halfway before reaching behind his neck and tugging the shirt up and over his head.
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but he looks even better than he did last night by the pool: shadows more defined, bones sharper. The part of my brain that seeks out shapes and symmetry wants to capture this image and wallpaper my room with it. Last night I stared in frustration at these bland walls; now all I want to see is him.
We stand in front of each other in the bright diffuse light, with the enormous bed looming beside us. My hands follow the lines of his chest, down his stomach to where his belt sits low on his hips. With his eyes on me he brings his fingers to the clasp, and the sound of the leather as it slips through metal turns me on even more here, in the quiet room, than it did last night.
He pushes one hand into my hair and leans in, pants still closed but belt open. It’s like the pool all over again, our chests touching, his breath ghosting across my lips. With a rush of cold air from the vent overhead, goose bumps bloom across my skin; my nipples harden. His lips meet my cheek, my chin, my jaw, and with a quiet groan, he slides his mouth over mine.
It’s a hit of warmth and pressure, that indescribable satisfaction of a kiss that promises more. There’s only one kind of touch like that, one sensation that stimulates this kind of relief and hunger. It’s the pressing of his lips on mine, the small teasing bite, a shaking exhale, and a hungry moan that I lick off his lower lip. His other hand slides around my back, pulling us flush, and only now do I realize how acutely lonely I’ve been. How long has it been since I’ve had that quickening feeling shoving every other thought to the side?
I reach for him, gripping his wrist with one hand like I need an anchor when he comes back at a different angle, kissing me with more purpose, less caution. He licks my tongue, plays with me, smiling as he growls.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” he says, tilting his head, tilting mine. His hand slips down to my throat.
“Have you thought about it before last night?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” he admits.
This is the same James I see every day, the same one who scowls down at his computer, who dresses for the job he wants, not the job he has. But this James also has hungry hands. He makes quiet noises in the back of his throat when I press against him, when my hands slide up his arms and over his shoulders.
This James sucks in a breath when I open my mouth, letting him in deeper. My hands trail along his skin, down his chest to where his heart pounds beneath my palms. I know he wants to help, but he’s patient and holds his breath when I unbutton his pants. The sound of his zipper is hilariously loud in this room full of quiet anticipation. I push his pants down his hips, along with his boxers. We both watch as I wrap my fingers around the hard heat of him.