Twisted Love by Piper Lawson

 

1

Truth is overrated.I’ve learned that the hard way.

We think if we know someone long enough, we’ll know who they are. We can predict how they’ll act and react.

But the reality is, every person presents who they want to be. Who they think others want them to be.

“I want to fuck you in those heels,” I murmur, watching the couple laughing at the other end of the bar.

My colleague Kendall sneaks a look at them from around a fall of shiny red hair. “That’s what he’s saying?”

“It's a first date, so that’s what he’s thinking. He’s saying, ‘That’s my favorite brunch place too.’”

She laughs into her mocktail, her bright eyes dancing.

We always do happy hour after work on Fridays. It’s a chance to let go of the week, and for me, it’s a chance to thank the women who’ve come to be not only team members but friends.

My other colleague, Rena, returns from the bathroom, her stiletto heels clicking a sharp rhythm on the floor.

Her ice-blond ponytail bounces as she shifts onto the bar stool. “Daisy, when was the last time you went on a date?”

Like Kendall, she’s a few years younger than me and dating someone she met through work.

Unlike Kendall, she says everything she thinks.

I arch a brow. “Not every woman needs someone in her life.”

“Need? No,” Rena says. “Want, on the other hand…”

“Come on,” Kendall adds. “You’re thirty, and a professional badass. You have a relationship marketing company.”

“Which means I spend enough time courting clients at meet-and-greets. I’m not wasting my personal time on a guy who doesn’t want what I want.”

I shift in my seat, crossing my legs in a practiced move that ensures my black wool dress doesn’t flash something more exotic than my thigh before continuing.

“Half the men in this city will tell you on a first date they’re not threatened by a successful woman, but what they actually want is a woman who’s articulate, educated, always wants to fuck but won’t bother them with her needs or feelings. And is available to hang on his arm on short notice. God forbid she work too damn much.”

“You do work too damn much.” Rena’s red lips curve.

I shoot her a look as I down the last of my cocktail.

I’m good at helping brands figure out how to connect with their customers. It’s my superpower.

If I set aside my own desires in pursuit of making a real difference in other peoples’ lives… I don’t see anything wrong with it.

For the last decade, it’s been my dream to build something bigger than myself. To help our clients understand their customers better so we can all get more of what we need, so more people can have real relationships and genuinely understand each other.

Yes, humans need food and shelter and clothing and sex. But we go on endless dates to find the right person. Volunteer because we want to help people we’ve never met and feel good inside.

We want to understand and be understood. To love and be loved.

It shouldn’t be so hard, but it is.

“But it’s not your fault you work too much,” Rena goes on. “You’re growing a business in a man’s world. This week, that client pulled out of a two-year contract because a product line we didn’t even work on went south. Men shouldn’t pull out unless you ask them to.” Her wink ensures the innuendo doesn’t go unnoticed.

My company, Closer, does well, but doing business in Manhattan is expensive. I pay my team above-market rates—because they deserve it and because it means they can bring all of their creativity and talent to work, knowing their families will be supported.

“I have a Plan B. Richard Vane,” I say, thinking of the middle-aged real estate magnate. “He’s worth billions. He just bought a series of couples-focused resorts.”

Kendall’s lips twist in doubt. “I heard he never takes meetings.”

“He’s coming in Monday.” I think back over the summary points I prepared in advance.

“I bet she was running a lemonade empire at age four," Rena says to Kendall.

“No. My first business foray was a pageant in high school. My twin sister, Vi, entered. I did hair for her and all the other girls. Made two hundred bucks and earned the eternal gratitude of everyone entering.”

“You didn’t compete?”

“Getting people to look at her was Vi’s thing, not mine.”

She lived for it, and she was good at it. I learned to focus on other things I was good at.

“I didn’t realize you guys were twins. Identical?”

I pull up a photo on my phone and their eyes widen as they take in the picture I’ve stared at a thousand times—the two of us wearing matching camp T-shirts, shorts, and smiles in eighth grade.

“Wow. You must’ve been close.” Kendall shifts closer, engrossed.

“Until college.” My chest squeezes, the familiar swirls of regret and betrayal blending into a cocktail more complex than the one I was drinking. I finger the rose gold bangle on my wrist that I’ve worn for a decade.

The bartender sets the bill in front of us and I swipe it before either of them can think about it.

“Hi, Daisy.” A smooth voice has me turning my head to see a familiar man in a pressed suit. He's medium height and attractive, a few years older than me, with a confident smile and trim build.

“Marc. Nice to see you. We met at a charity event a couple of months ago," I explain to my friends.

"And she promised to go out with me, but I never got her number." His eyes sparkle. “A few of my friends are going for drinks. If you ladies are done here…”

Rena and Kendall look between us, anticipation on their faces. They’re both going home to their guys, but I can see their wheels turning.

“I have plans tonight,” I answer, and three faces fall.

But Marc doesn’t let that stop him. “If you finish early, stop by.”

I give him my number this time and send him off with a promise to call.

Rena nudges me as he leaves. “Are your plans hotter than that? Because you’ve had a long week and you deserve to recuperate.”

I shoulder my bag and head for the door as my phone buzzes with a text.

“Oh, I get it,” Rena declares after noticing who it’s from. “You don’t need a man because you have the hottest venture capitalist in New York sending you dick pics.”

I send her an arch look without checking the message, though every part of me itches to look. “Benji and I are friends.”

“And if anyone else called him Benji, he’d shoot them a charming grin and flash those beautiful brown eyes and then buy their grandfather’s company and sell it off for parts.”

“That’s only business.” I start back toward the subway, and they fall into step next to me.

“It’s not business. It’s a god complex. Besides, the guy could have any woman in New York and he knows it."

“Ben doesn’t date.”

“He conquers?”

I shake my head, swallowing the laugh. “His schedule is worse than mine. Plus, he’s very particular about his life.”

Rena makes a sound of agreement as we start down the steps. “Still, I bet you've stared at him shirtless. Given some romantic name to how he smells.”

I swipe my card and pass through the turnstiles, then turn toward my line, which is different from the one that takes Rena back to her place and Kendall to hers.

“Having a Friday night friend who’s not giving it to you is not pulling his weight,” Rena calls. “How many Marcs are you going to turn down before you either say yes or break down and fuck your best friend like a normal adult?”

Bless New Yorkers. No one even turns to look.

I take the subway to my stop, turning over Rena’s words.

It’s not that Ben isn’t attractive. He is—every inch of him is designed for the urban jungle, from the strong body that looks even better in weekend denim than designer suits, to a carved jaw that intimidates in the boardroom and makes a woman’s fingers itch, to a firm mouth that’s as tempting pursed as it is in a cocky “I just made a deal that will blow your mind” grin.

His brilliant engineer’s brain and dry sense of humor don’t hurt either.

It’s impossible not to look at a man that confident, that self-possessed, that successful, and not experience some primal desire to align yourself with him.

But I’m not the woman men like Ben stop to look at. Even back in college, I wasn’t the girl with the perfect hair and makeup and clothes, and I wasn’t the party girl. I was the one people liked to have in their group because I’d get shit done while they were off chasing the party girl.

When I emerge from the subway and head back to street level, I check my phone.

The picture message from Ben is a ceramic dog on a flat white surface, the blue sky and clouds over a shiny reflection that could be water in the background.

I shake my head, grinning. Unbelievable.

Another text has come in since the first one.

Ben: Missed my flight from LA.

Concern floodsme as I type back.

Daisy: Everything okay?

Ben: Meeting ran long. Fill you in later.

Daisy: Get home safe.

It's not a big deal.I tell that to the disappointment.

Ben and I weren’t always friends. For a while, he was part of a constellation of acquaintances in college, stars colliding in seemingly random patterns at pub nights or studying.

It was only later that our collisions became more purposeful. Inevitable.

I get to my Upper West Side brick walk-up, taking the stairs to the third floor in my four-inch heels and letting myself into the first door on the right.

“Lil?” I call into the dark.

My two-bedroom apartment is spacious for the city, in a renovated building. My suite has low-profile furniture in soft neutrals with pops of metallic and black. The kitchen is quartz with white cabinets. The walls of the living room, kitchen and my bedroom have art from a number of local on-the-rise female artists—paintings, photography, and pencil drawings. It’s a modest collection but I add to it when I have the time and money.

There’s a note on the counter from my little sister to say she’s crashing with her classmate on campus.

With tonight free, maybe I will stop by and see Marc and his friends. I’m thirty and it’s Friday night. So after showering, I get changed and put on a green dress that’s shorter than I’d wear to the office.

After turning out the lights, I’m in my foyer and bent over, stepping into my open-toed sandals, when the door sounds at my back.

“I thought you were out tonight…”

I turn, but it’s not my sister at the door.

The man towers over me in the semi-darkness. Terror has my heart hammering in my ears.

I must’ve left the door open.

I start mentally calculating how far I am from the knife block in the kitchen. Before I can decide whether to run for the door or the knives, the man speaks.

"Remember the day senior year when Hunter let live chickens into my apartment and we had to wait for animal control to collect them? I always thought that was the longest day ever. I take it back. Today was the longest day ever.”

His familiar voice has me sagging in relief.

I reach past him and hit the light switch, the overhead light flooding us in a warm glow and soft shadows.

“You scared the hell out of me,” I accuse. “You said you weren’t coming.”

The door swings shut behind him, his suit jacket following the strong lines of his shoulders, his chest as he yanks off the tie and drops it on the table by the door.

Despite the clothes, he doesn’t look like some Ivy League prep. He looks like a lion someone thought they could tame. As if he could act polite, follow every social nicety when it gets him what he wants, but underneath, he’s ruthless.

Ben frowns, perplexed as I take in the black overnight bag resting at his feet, the key he holds. “I said I missed my flight," he corrects. "When I messaged you, I’d already paid a guy for his seat on another one. When was the last time one of us missed this night?”

My heart squeezes. “Never.”

Ben reaches into his bag and pulls out a T-shirt and a bottle of tequila, then passes me the bottle before shrugging out of the jacket.

He walks past me into the bathroom. The water runs for a moment, then stops.

I pour the tequila into two glasses, then go get the Xbox out of the linen closet and hook it up while he changes.

Ben has more money than he can count, and I have more equity than most entrepreneurs my age. New York rules say we should be out on the town, wining and dining. And we do—all week long. Ben for his venture capital firm, me for my business.

This is what we do to recover from that.

Is it weird? Maybe.

But it’s cheaper than therapy.

I consider changing, but the bathroom door’s already opening. My friend tugs the hem of his fresh white T-shirt down to the belt on his Armani pants as he emerges.

Sorry, Marc.

I sit my ass on the floor in front of my couch, tugging down the dress that rides up high.

Ben takes his dress shirt to his bag by the door and returns, then he slides down next to me and grabs the controller I’ve set out for him and the tequila.

“The inventors of Duo deserve a medal.”

His low, rumbling voice has me smirking. “You just like the excuse to play Fortnite as a grown man.”

“Don’t question my masculinity,” he drawls. “This is two-thousand-dollar tequila.”

I cut him a look. “I didn’t realize spending some people’s mortgage payment on a bottle of alcohol made you legit.”

Ben has steady brown eyes that see far too much, a sharp jaw, strong nose, and carved lips that make you want to trace them with a finger to see if there's any give at all.

Now, those lips curve in a wry grin as he clinks his glass to mine. I drain mine and set it on the table.

“That was meant to be enjoyed,” he says.

“Trust me, I enjoyed it. I lost a big client, but it’s fine.” I take a deep breath, lifting the controller and navigating through menus as I get us set to play. “Ready?” I ask, and he nods.

We spend a few minutes getting into the gameplay. We’ve done the opening enough before that we don’t even need to talk, our cooperative strategy is so synced.

Eventually I say, “I’m pitching Richard Vane Monday. His new chain of couples-only retreats.”

Ben chuckles. “You’ll size up his business, find all the details no one—even him—sees, and show him exactly why he’s been lost without you.”

I warm at the praise.

I’m good at what I do, and my staff is, too. But sometimes when I’m trying something outside my comfort zone, like landing a huge client, it helps to hear it from another person I admire.

“Watch out. I’ve got your wing.”

“On it.” I focus on the game for a few minutes before things settle in and my awareness returns to the room. “I liked the picture of Jet. Was that at LAX?”

“On the BMW sailboat at the Oracle campus. You have no idea what I had to do to get him there.”

He’s been sending me pics of the ceramic dog on every trip since I got it for him.

“See how he’s grown on you? When I presented him to you as your MBA graduation gift, you weren’t impressed,” I say.

“You got him at a yard sale.”

“The best things come from yard sales. Besides, you said you wanted a private jet one day.”

“Uh-huh. And do you remember what you told me?” I bite my cheek and he continues. “You said, and I quote, ‘You don’t need a hunk of flying steel, you need something to teach you how to love. But it would be irresponsible of me to get you a real dog, so I got you this.’”

Ben curses at the screen as sudden fire comes in from an enemy. “I got hit. Keep going.”

His avatar falls to the ground, wounded. I know it’s not really Ben, but I hate the sight of him lying there. “I’ll heal you. Don’t move.”

“That’s not the plan. Just go.”

I take a hit on the screen. More fire comes in.

“D, just go.”

The exasperation in his tone doesn’t stop me. I’m determined to heal him, until...

I die, then we’re both toast.

“Why can’t you leave me?”

I set down the controller and turn toward him, leaning an elbow on the seat of the couch. “Because I can’t,” I say simply.

Ben sets down his controller and reaches for his glass, his strong arms flexing. He narrows his dark eyes at me over the rim as he takes a sip. “You’re too good for me,” he says when he’s done.

That’s not true. Not even close.

“Why did you miss your flight?” I ask, propping my head in my hand.

“There was a surprise call notifying me that I’m a finalist for a big venture award next month. It hasn’t been announced publicly, but Xavier’s on the awards committee. He wants to talk tomorrow morning.”

“It’s a big deal,” I say, reading between the lines. The senior partner at the prominent venture firm calls the big shots, but my friend is a rising star. His first few years at the company, the investments he backed had more than twice the returns of anyone else's.

“Rumor is Xavier is retiring in a couple of years. This award would be a big step toward being named his successor. Not only would I decide on deals, I’d get to influence the venture landscape in a whole new way.”

“That’s great, Benji.”

His eyes crinkle at the corners, a glint of satisfaction in them as he tugs on his hair. “It is.”

There’s no cockiness in it, though he’s more than capable of it. But when it’s the two of us, his walls come down. He’s worked hard to get where he is, and he deserves the rewards.

I’m so damned proud.

On impulse, I lean in and hug him.

With half a second’s hesitation, he draws me against him.

I might’ve initiated, but now it’s his strong body surrounding me. His heartbeat is a slow, steady rhythm against mine. The light stubble coming in along his jaw tickles my cheek.

I shut my eyes and breathe him in. “What did your mom say when you told her about the award?”

Ben stiffens against me, his shoulders tightening beneath my arms. “I haven’t.”

He pulls back the next second before rising to head for the kitchen.

Startled, I watch him go and turn over the brusque response.

He returns a moment later with the tequila bottle and pours another glass for each of us before he sits again. “I’ve been trying to reach her for three days, but she’s gone AWOL.”

His voice isn’t as crisp as it was before, and a ripple of worry runs through my stomach.

“What do you think happened?”

I know every line of his hard jaw, his firm lips that default to serious but curve in a heartbeat, the strong nose and dark brows. His eyes range from the color of good whisky to the color of earth.

Right now, they’re dark with emotion.

“I’m trying not to think,” he says.

My heart aches.

His mom was a soap star in LA who got her break when Ben and his brother were little. Ben’s dad was in and out of their lives, but when Ben’s dad finally took all his things and most of the family’s money and left when we were in college, it broke Ben’s mom. He was left picking up the pieces.

“We’ll find her,” I say.

Ben leans in, grabbing a piece of my hair and twisting it around his fingers. “I don't know what the fuck I'd do without you.”

I do. Ben would still be Ben, and I’d be the one left adrift.

The thought comes from nowhere.

I tuck my hair behind my ear, an excuse to pull away from the careless touch that has heat stirring between my thighs.

But he goes on before I can come up with a response.

“Nice dress. Is it cold in here?”

It takes me a second to realize his gaze has fallen to my chest. My nipples are sticking through the fabric.

“You flew home and showed up at my apartment so you could criticize my boobs?”

“I’ve been cooped up with a bunch of dudes for a week. There was no criticism.” The laughter in his voice doesn’t make it better. “I can return the favor.”

He’s lifting his T-shirt before I can protest.

“Why do men think the response to being caught checking out yours is showing you theirs? Keep it for your dating profile. I’m saving myself for Henry Cavill and…” My traitorous gaze locks on the grooves of his abs. “You’ve been working out.”

He tosses his head back and laughs, a warm sound that vibrates along my nerve endings. “I’m offended you just noticed. I was named the fourth sexiest bachelor in Manhattan this year. The associates at work made sure to bring me a print copy of the magazine.”

Let’s be clear—a ripped body does not make a perfect boyfriend, but it’s natural to stare a little longer.

When a man is already intelligent, protective, funny, confident and a little infuriating and he also possesses those hard planes and grooves... it’s downright unfair.

“I didn’t think you were coming tonight,” I say at last. “I was going to meet someone. A Wall Street guy I met at a charity event. Rena and Kendall were practically getting us a hotel room.”

Ben’s gaze sharpens as I reach for my glass. “I don’t want some loser touching you.”

I arch a brow. “This isn’t a veto you get with your partners. I’m not an investment.”

“No. You’re my best friend.”

Because Ben would never see me as someone he’d pursue romantically. I’ve experienced the truth of that firsthand.

I drain the glass in a single drink, two hundred dollars of tequila burning down my throat.

“D? You good?”

I blink to see his handsome face drawn in concern—for me, for my state of mind.

I set the glass on the table and force my attention back to the screen. “Yeah. We should play.”

We do, falling into familiar rhythms, the challenge and thrill of experiencing life-or-death in a safe way burning off some of the frustration in my bloodstream from the week. By the time we finish, it’s after two.

“Good job, partner,” I offer as I stand, stretching to alleviate my cramped muscles.

He follows my actions, high-fiving me once we’re both upright.

“Surprised Lily isn’t here,” he comments as he takes the glasses to the sink and tucks the remaining tequila into a cabinet.

“She’s staying at a friend’s.” I reach for the bracelet on my wrist on instinct, and his sharp gaze follows the motion.

“You still think about her,” he says, but he doesn’t mean Lil.

I swallow, drawing in a slow breath. “Of course.”

Do you still think about her?I want to ask the question, but I’m not prepared for the answer.

Once Ben has his jacket back on over the T-shirt, he steps close. His thumb grazes my jaw, his fingertips brushing the hair at my nape. The touch isn’t unusual.

But tonight, I swear he takes his time, not wanting to step back.

“Why do you touch me like that?” I blurt.

He frowns as if thinking about it for the first time. “Because it feels like you’re half somewhere else. I want you here with me and when I touch you, you are.”

My chest aches. I am here. I’m all the way here, Ben.

I wish to hell he would see it.

His thumb on my cheek sends sparks that have me parting my lips, and it takes everything in me not to let my traitorous gaze fall to his perfect mouth.

“Get some sleep,” he murmurs, those dark eyes searching my face. “I'll see you at brunch in a few hours.”

Then his touch is gone, and a moment later, so is he.

I lean back against the door, wrapping my arms around myself because I’m suddenly cold in this dress.

“I want you here with me and when I touch you, you are.”

The irony burns.

There’s no way Ben and I would happen, because he doesn’t see me that way. Because we have too much history as friends, because he’s too precise and controlling, because our lives are too demanding.

Because before she left

My twin sister had him first.