Bare Skin: A Billionaire Romance (7 page)

My favorite detail in the whole image was the trunk. There were small indents that wrapped the bark, tiny streaks and divots just like the scars of a real tree.

Scars from living, scars from supporting life, scars from growing into the beauty it had become.

Every color seemed to stretch out and grab my eyes. The vibrant hues, all the pinks, the whites, the highlights that rolled across each petal...

It was amazing enough to hang in a gallery, to have people stand around it and chatter about the realism and how the artist captured the natural beauty with every stroke.

Rubbing the A&D ointment gently over my bruised muscle, I couldn't stop thinking about Kash.

His face was flashing in my brain, his muscles were ricocheting like thunder screaming against the skyline. And I couldn't stop the storm, couldn't shake the tremors he sent through my lungs deep into my core.

What the hell did I do?

Kash had taken my one track mind, my  focus and desire, and turned it into dreams of him. Dreams of his hands and how I wanted him to finish what he started.

I let him touch me.

Why?

Why him?

Why now?

He had only used his hand, we didn't have sex. That was one thought that brought me some comfort. I'd never let someone I just met caress me that way. Ever.

But there was something about him that made it easy for me to give in, to want it, to crave it. He made me feel sexy, he made me feel...

Stop. It doesn't matter!

There was no time in my world to get caught up in some guy, to let him taint what I was working so hard to achieve.

I needed this gallery to work, I needed to stay focused on making my art pay for itself. I couldn't let myself get sidetracked by a fucking bad boy; riddled in ink that sent shivers over my flesh, and ripples that shocked my system from him being thick in all the right places.

You have a huge day Friday. Get your shit together!

Limping to my couch, I lowered slowly and rested my leg up on the arm. The pain pulsed so fiercely, it felt like I had a second heart built under the surface. The skin was rising, deflating, and breathing with lungs of its own.

Getting home after five-thirty in the morning didn't help either. My eyes hurt, my head was crushing the brain inside my skull, and all I wanted was to sleep till I could wake up and feel like myself again.

But that wasn't happening. Every inch of me seemed to be bursting with some form of pain and discomfort, highlighted by tingles and a raging case of electric static flowing through my veins.

I was annoyed and miserable, hot and bothered. And I couldn't stop staring at the image glistening beneath my waist.

Revisiting the night in my head, picturing Kash's hands, the way he worked his fingers around my thigh...

God I had wanted him to go higher, wanted him to brush my skirt out of the way, and drape a finger across my needy button. And when he did, I froze.

My inner wish had been granted, it manifested right in front of my eyes, and I opened to let him in.

But I wanted it, stopping him didn't even cross my mind.

The way he looked at me, the way his eyes drifted around my body. It turned my insides into a watery pool of liquid desire.

His muscles had muscles, his body looked like it was crafted from marble, painted with designs I could watch dance all day long as he flexed every inch of hardened sinew.

And for the first time ever, it was me getting the attention. Kash had bypassed Beth and ate me up, he shoved a model to the side just to get closer to me.

Right? Or am I just imagining that?

Was I just the vulnerable one?

No he did, he definitely went for me.

The thought sent a rush through my nerves, electricity fired off inside my skull in the form of colors.

Bright ringing colors exploded behind the scenes, fireworks in the darkness, a new light in a place that had been barren and forgotten.

Confidence, excitement, pleasure; all the feelings that coated me in ways I had lost long ago came to life, brewing deep in my core. Shaking my head, I drove my fingers to my temples.

You're never going to see him again. It was just a small attraction. If you can even call it that.

Stop drooling over the first guy to show you any interest in years.

And it had been years.

I hated thinking about that, hated having to admit that my honey pot had long grown dry. I wasn't outgoing, I didn't go looking for relationships, or even a one night stand to fulfill any need my body had demanded.

Because I had a goal, a desire that fed the hunger of my soul.

Besides, I learned ages ago that guys are self-centered. Men are walking hard-ons with one goal in mind; pussy.

My life in upstate New York was plagued by a couple assholes and users. Men who took advantage of my weaknesses, men who used me for what they wanted then tossed me into the gutter when they were through.

Yeah, Lo, all two of them. Sad, that's so sad.

I was twenty-three, and regretfully had to say I was a born again virgin. It had been over three years since I had gotten down and dirty.

My late night excitement now consisted of batteries and a voiceless expression. It was shameful to think I had grown accustomed and accepting of my lover being more closely related to a hand mixer than an actual human being.

Beth had no idea about my dry spell. She thought four months was a long time... Shit, she probably would have died of dehydration ages ago if she was in my shoes.

Before I moved here, I let her think that I had been through a few relationships that ended under normal circumstances.

That was a bold-faced lie. One I tried to forget and ignore.

It was embarrassing for me to have to tell her that my weekends were spent alone, while she would ramble on and on about her many guy friends, and all the long, wild nights.

There hadn't been any guys in my life for ages, and the ones that did sneak a little taste of my world here and there, all left before it even led to a friggin kiss.

Pathetic, I'm so damn pathetic.

I'm an artist, an introvert. My internal thoughts are best laid out on paper, my emotions are best said through brush, and my feelings are best expressed through colors.

Fuck this! Stop pitying yourself, Willow!

You chose to close off, you decided to keep yourself boxed in.

That was my doing, all my own unraveling of relationships.

I pushed people away, attempted to keep myself from anyone so I didn't have to get hurt anymore. My brain read into things way too much, and Beth had been the only one to challenge me. She had cracked my shell, while leaving it still whole for protection.

If I didn't have her, I wouldn't have experienced half the shit I did.
Kash included.

And tomorrow she'd be a world away.

And I'd be all alone again.

Like I had been for years, alone with my past.

Alone with my memories.

Eyeing my easel in the corner, I pushed myself off the couch. The one and only thing that helped me to release the demons clawing their way through my soul... Painting.

And I had hoards of pictures that I'd painted over the years that echoed my darker days. But this... This wasn't dark.

This was yearning, this was need.

This was going to be my life.

Laying out my most recent works, I grabbed some of the frames I had stacked to the side. Friday was going to be the breaking point for me.

I had to focus my energy on that, get these paintings ready to showcase for the investor my friend Dana set up.

Dana, even though I might refer to her as my friend, was really Beth's friend. Thank God Beth had connections around this city. Dana was a local art dealer, and she knew a man that loved to invest in upcoming artists, and small businesses.

After a few phone calls and a number of emails, Dana was finally able to convince him that I was worth the time.

Sealing the back of a frame, I flipped the image over. My tired reflection gazed back at me off the glass, the weathered and down look still boldly visible.

Get this done. You need to have your shit together or Friday will suck and you'll have nothing left.

That was the last thing I wanted. This was my stand, my feeble attempt to prove to myself that I had talent, and a boring desk job wasn't for me.

I had to make this work.

No. This is going to work.

And I was going to do everything in my power to get this investor to see I was worth it.

He had to. If he walked out and wasn't interested, I'd be screwed.

Positive, stay positive. This will work.

IT WILL WORK.

Chapter Six

Willow

I
t took me two days to finish framing all my paintings, and just as much time to force Kash to the back burner.

My fingers were raw and pink from sealing the pictures in, small indents rode the bridge of my knuckles where the metal tabs had laid their mark.

The frames I had were cheap and weak, but they were all I could afford. Every penny of my life savings was going into this gallery, and I needed way more to get it off the ground.

Beth called me late Sunday night after getting settled in Paris. And a twinge of jealousy raked my heart.

She had hit it big, a top model with agencies kicking down her door. There were already designers grappling each other over who's clothing line she would wear first.

I wanted that... God I wanted that.

I wanted people fighting for my art, battling for a single piece to hang in their store, their home; aching to have just one work from the great and talented Willow James.

Patience Willow, it takes time. Nothing happens overnight.

I thought about telling Beth what happened with Kash, but I silenced myself. She would've been excited, angry, mortified, all the emotions I didn't want to have to talk her out of over the phone.

Then I would have had to deal with her questions. The wonder of why I didn't take him home, was I going to try and see him, everything I didn't even want to let myself ponder.

Because the answer was 'No.'

No, I wasn't going to let myself get roped into a man who probably rotated through woman like socks on a hot summer day.

No, I'm not willing to be someone's midnight snack on a binge of pussy to feed their hungered cock.

No, no, no. Not Kash, not now.

So what if he made my sex scream with music, so what if he conjured up feelings that I never had, so what if he looked at me with
real eyes.

Eyes that weren't just filled with having sex, eyes that called to me, eyes that made me feel alive.

Eyes... His eyes said more than his lips. And it made me forget everything about myself I despised.

The loud grumble of my stomach vibrated through my shirt. I couldn't remember the last time I ate more than a low fat yogurt and a dry bowl of cereal.

With all the crap I needed to get done before my big pitch, food was the last thing on my mind. And now, my body was insisting I refuel, regardless of my pressing time restraint.

Slipping on a sundress, I let the soft material cascade around my body. My thigh was still sore from the new tattoo, and the only clothing that didn't bother me to wear were dresses or baggy pajama pants.

Thank God it's summer and not the dead of winter. Jeans would torment the tender skin, leggings would stick to the ointment, and I'd be a miserable mess.

Hitting the pavement, I made my way over to this little pizzeria I found a couple weeks back. The food was amazing, and it was one of the few places I felt the price was worthwhile.

This city was expensive, and my wallet was growing emptier by the day. Each meager dollar I had left was tediously portioned out for everything I needed. I couldn't afford to splurge, couldn't afford to be mindless with what I had left.

Call me cheap, but money wasn't something I had a lot of, every last dime had to last.

Turning up Fifth street, the crowd had already formed outside Antonio's Pizzeria. The mass of people all chatted among themselves, the delicious scent of freshly made dough mingled with the aromatic smell of coffee from the cafe next door.

Taking my place at the end of the line, I fiddled with my ear buds. I was willing to deal with my awkwardly racing lungs standing in line, but I wasn't going to let my brain get swarmed with the loud mesh of voices all trying to talk over each other.

Music had become my calming facet, the soothing caress I needed in a wild and noisy place. Staring down at my phone, I flipped through the library of cover art.

A gentle tap on my shoulder pulled my head up to see a young man standing beside me, a soft smile spreading across his face.

Tugging on the wire, I popped one of the small speakers free. “Yes?” I asked, waiting for him to question me about what the line was for, or ask me for directions.

Which I knew if that was his question, I'd never be able to give him any sort of good navigation around the city. I barely had my feet wet here, and had really only migrated at most a block or two from my apartment by myself.

“Miss, that man is trying to get your attention,” he said, pointing towards the front door.

“Who?” Arching a brow, I held my hand over my eyes to block the sun's glare.

“The guy at the door, he's been calling to you.”

“How do you know he means me?” Glancing around, I took in all the faces. “He could mean someone else.”

“No, he's talking about you. You're the only girl here with a tree tattooed on her thigh.”

Shifting my eyes from the kid with spiked blue hair, to the shiny image on my leg, I shot my eyes back to the head of the line. “Me?” I half yelled, slightly embarrassed and unsure.

The guy at the door nodded yes, waving his hand for me to come forward.

What the hell is he calling me for? Did I do something wrong?

Stepping out of line, my chin held low into my neck like a kid getting called to the front of the room by their teacher. I felt like I was heading to a punishment or a lecture for not paying attention or causing an issue.

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