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The Scheme by Cynthia Ayman (1)

Chapter 1


There was an animal in distress nearby.

That was what finally managed to pull her out of her state of unconsciousness. The hammering inside her head was blinding her even through her closed eyes. It didn’t matter, though. She was a Greenpeace benefactor and, judging by the wailing, the poor animal needed her help.

A whale. It was definitely a whale in agony. The long, drawn out noises were a dead giveaway. A mix of a prehistoric lawn mower, like her grandfather still stubbornly used, and the nasal whining she had mastered in her childhood whenever she really wanted a second scoop of ice cream.

“I’m comin’, Moby-Dick,” she mumbled with a snort before coughing. Why was her voice so slow and rough? “Hold on tight. I’m comin’ to help you.”

“If you’re planning on jumping in the ocean, please tell me you’re gonna do it like Pamela Anderson, slow-mo included.”

Her eyes opened. Then closed because it was way too bright in her bedroom.


Her eyes opened again. This was not her room.

And obviously, whales couldn’t talk, so the deep voice she had heard-

She yelled, scrambling away from the voice. The bed was huge, she noticed weirdly, because it took her a while to get out of it.

“Madison, it’s OK, it’s me,” the voice chuckled, tickling her brain. She knew that voice.

Holy. Crapadoodle.


She was in a bedroom with Ben Ackerman and…

“Oh my God,” she screeched, her hands reaching out to hide her breasts.

Which was futile because, as far as she could see, Ben was keeping his usually piercing grey eyes on the ceiling.

Ugh. Weird. What guy wouldn’t take the opportunity to get an eyeful? Not that there was much to see, she was still wearing her bra and her leggings were on. Still. Her boobs were on the fleshy side of the spectrum. So much so that one had actually sneaked out a little during her sleep.

“Damn,” she hissed, pushing it back into the cup. Big breasts were not the most practical thing.

Ben coughed, still keeping his gaze away from her. “There’s a shirt on the-”

“Yup, got it.” She grabbed the blue dress shirt that had fallen on the floor and quickly put it on. It was a little big on her, but it was nice and clean and, more importantly, kept her boobs hidden. “OK, I’m good.”

Ben glanced at her hesitantly, then smiled with a small nod once he saw she was decent. “Perfect. What do you want me to do with your eggs?”

She blinked, wishing she had her glasses on. “My… eggs?”



“You’re not vegetarian or something, are you?” Ben asked with a sudden frown.

“No. But…”

“But?” Ben picked something up from the nightstand and approached her, handing her glasses to her with a teasing wink.

“Thanks,” she murmured, quickly slipping them on with a sigh of relief. Her head was still killing her, she had a really awful taste in her mouth, but at least she could see clearly. “What am I doing here?”

“You forgot?”

The smirk on his face sent a flash of dread to the middle of her chest. Had she… had they hooked up? Of all the stupid things to do, that one would be the worst. Ben was a friend. Kind of, at least. He was a friend of Christopher, who was the friend, the baby daddy and the fuck buddy of one of her own best friends. That made Ben a second-degree friend or something.

“Please tell me we didn’t have sex.”

“Usually, girls beg me to do the deed.”

She cocked her head and glared at him. “Ben, I’m hungover, my head is killing me, I have to pee, and I’m freaking out.”

He lifted his hands. “Jeez. Sorry, I was trying to lighten the mood. No. No, Madison, of course not. You were hammered.”

“Then what am I doing here?”

Ben sighed. “Why don’t you go to the bathroom, take care of that peeing thing, and we’ll talk over breakfast?”

She noticed then that she was squeezing her thighs and shifting on her feet. “Good idea.” She made a wide circle to avoid him, then stopped in front of the three doors. “Err…”

“Last one on your right.”

With a nod, she rushed out of the room, only pausing when she had the door closed and the light was on.


The bathroom was huge, and she took advantage of the longest pee in the history of human pees to look around her. Marble floor and counters. Double sink. A huge walk-in shower and a bathtub that probably could hold two to three people comfortably.

It didn’t seem like a guest bathroom. It was way too big, for one. It also held a toothbrush and typical men’s products, like shaving cream. The room was spotless and tidy, but also obviously used frequently, especially with the lingering scent of cologne. Cologne that her nose seemed to think was familiar.

“Fuck,” she groaned, realizing that she had definitely spent the night in Ben’s bed. Since she had woken up topless and with one boob out, there must have been some heavy make-out involved at the very least.

She wasn’t reckless usually. Getting drunk in a bar and making out with a random dude was definitely not the way she usually spent her Friday nights. She had always been more of a mousy girl, happy to stay home with her books and laptop. Whenever she’d go out, she would just have a few drinks and head back home way before midnight. Last night, though, it had felt so good to allow herself to relax with her friends after months spent abroad.

That would teach her. Next time, she’d stick with the Ben from Ben & Jerry’s.

The curtains were open when she walked back into the bedroom, but her host was nowhere in sight. It was probably for the best, too, because there was no way in hell she could have held back the huge gasp that escaped her at the view that was now in front of her.


Not really surprising since this was where she lived and worked as well.

But she had never been in an apartment where you had an endless view of Central Park. She had no idea Ben lived in such a luxurious place. Even if she had had her suspicions with the giant King-sized bed and the sleek design of the bedroom, as well as the out-of-this-world bathroom… this was something else.

She knew Ben worked for a bank… or something like that. What she didn’t know was that he was apparently a wolf of Wall Street. He was barely thirty years old, how on earth was he able to afford a place like this?!

It took her more than a few seconds to finally tear her eyes away, but she eventually forced herself to walk out of the bedroom. She ended up in a hallway, just as modern and refined. The smell of bacon guided her until she arrived in a large foyer. She winced, because the smell was stronger there, and it didn’t seem appealing to her stomach.

“Here,” Ben said with an understanding grin as he handed her a bottle of Gatorade. “You need to hydrate.”

She took a few long gulps, groaning in pleasure at the way it soothed her throat and washed away the awful taste. “Not that I don’t appreciate your expertise in hangovers but… can you fill in the blanks?”

“Usually, chicks ask me to fill other-”

She glared at him, her eyes probably letting him know that she wasn’t in the mood for his usual boasting.

He coughed, then snapped his mouth shut with a small sheepish nod. “Right. Short version. You got drunk, I promised Everleigh I’d make sure you got back home safely, so I offered to drive you and Harper. You decided to fall asleep and snore your head off when I dropped her… and I have no idea where you live. So…”

“So you brought me here instead?”

“I figured it was better than to drop your sorry drunken ass on the curb, yeah.”

“You didn’t try to wake me up? And I’m sorry for…”

“Don’t mention it. I’m used to watching after my friends when they’re drunk. I almost have a Ph.D. in it, actually. And I did try, by the way. You’re a stubborn drunk, you know that?”

She grimaced as she sat down at the counter. “Actually, no. I’ve never really been drunk. I think. Tipsy, yeah but…”

“Well, you’re the stubborn kind. You did wake up, and I tried to find out but…”


He shrugged, then turned off the stove. “You weren’t making a lot of sense, talking about Camden, which I presume was where you lived in London. As you can guess, that wasn’t very helpful. I mean, I’m a friendly guy, but I wasn’t gonna rent a jet for you. I have my limits.”

She sighed in shame, hiding her face behind her hands. “I’m really sorry, Ben. I usually don’t do that.”

“It’s OK.”

“I took your bed, too, didn’t I?”

“Yup. You woke up when I put you down on the couch.”

“On the… you carried me here?!”

“All the time I spend at the gym had to be put to good use eventually. But not gonna lie… I’m fucking glad we have an elevator.”

Heat spread on her cheeks as she shifted uncomfortably on her chair. She wasn’t exactly the skinny type. Or even the slim type. Her hips were round, her thighs were thick, her stomach wasn’t flat - something that had never bothered her until then.

“Fuck… Madison, you’re super small. You’re not heavier than any of the other countless girls I’ve carried into my man cave.”

“I bet they all felt as special as I do now,” she deadpanned, secretly relieved to see he didn’t seem to suffer any consequences for the extra work out.

“You sure didn’t complain when I told you last night. Coffee?”

“Please.” It was weird to be in Ben’s home. They knew each other, but really superficially. He was as laid back and easy-going as usual, though, so it made her relax too.

He poured her a cup, taking the milk from the fridge and setting it on the counter with a jar of sugar. She only added milk, not daring to ask if he had any artificial sweetener. “How did I end up in your room? You won’t make me believe that this place,” she paused to make a wide circle with her hand, “doesn’t have a guest room or something?”

“It does. That’s where I slept.”

“I would have been just fine there.”

“Yeah. It was the plan. Then you took off running as soon as I helped you out of your shoes, and I found you jumping up and down on my bed, singing New York, New York at the top of your lungs. Then you swung your blouse at me. I had to tackle you down to make sure you would leave your bra on and not boob-harass me.” He let out a small sharp breath of relief. “It was really close.”

The mug landed loudly on the counter as she stared at him with wide eyes. “What?” she murmured.

The corner of his lips lifted. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist. The part where you took off running is true, but I found you sprawled on my bed. I closed the curtains and you started moaning. I barely had the time to grab a trash can.”

“I puked?”

“Yup. It was lovely.” He gave her a grin, waving between them with his spatula. “It bonded us. How do you like your sausage?”


“Kidding. You also told me all about that. I know you like it-”

“Ugh!” She covered her ears with her hands, not missing the way he was chuckling as he made them both a plate.

“Sorry. I’m just teasing. You puked, and that’s why I had to take your shirt off. It was dirty and… well. I didn’t peek, don’t worry. Lowered the light, looked at the ceiling like my mama taught me.”

“Still. I’m sorry I jumped into your bed that way.”

He gave her a one-sided smirk. “It’s OK. I’m used to-”

“Shut up.” This time, though, her tone could barely hide her amusement.

Her appetite was nowhere to be found, but she had already been a rude guest so she forced herself to accept her plate with a smile.

“You don’t have to eat it all,” he said as he sat down next to her. “But trust me, your body needs some food.”

She nodded, taking a small bite of the buttered slice of toast he had been kind enough to make for her. She absently chewed on it, feeling an odd sense of comfort when their arms brushed. He was wearing a simple black T-shirt, which complemented his dark hair and sun-kissed skin. She discreetly let her eyes travel up his arm, where the fabric of his T-shirt was tight over his well-defined bicep. He usually wore crisp, professional suits, but this relaxed outfit really looked flattering on him, she noticed distractedly.

The silence between them didn’t last more than thirty seconds, Ben breaking it as soon as he had swallowed his first bite. “I can’t believe Chris is gonna be a dad in a few months.”

Oh damn. Right. She had completely forgotten about that part. “Woah. Everleigh is pregnant.”

“Alcohol makes you extremely slow,” he snorted before taking a sip of coffee.

“Hey! I literally just got back from England, and I find out Everleigh wants a baby, then that she and Chris are fuck buddies, and then that she’s knocked up, all in one night.”

“True. By the way, how was it?”

“How was what?”


“What about it?”

“Well… how was it?” he repeated. “You barely talked about it, apart from the food and the architecture, I mean. What was it like working there?”

“It was nice.”

When she had been offered the opportunity to work temporarily at the London School of Economics, she hadn’t hesitated. Her mentor had accepted a job and asked her to follow as her assistant. It hadn’t been hard to convince her, especially since she had a crush on Prince Harry. At first, it had been a dream. All those handsome British males, the sexy accents, the afternoon tea times, and the insanely beautiful city… it had been idyllic.

Unfortunately, dreams can’t last.


She glanced at Ben with a small frown, having completely forgotten where she was for a moment. “Sorry. No, it was great. I saw Chris Martin one morning,” she added with a smile. “At least, I think so.”

Ben looked at her attentively before nodding. “Yeah, I remember Harper mentioning that.”

Something made her uneasy in the way his brow furrowed a little. It made him look a little more serious than usual. Once again, the thought that she was all alone with him in his apartment, on a Saturday morning, awoke a flutter of discomfort in her, like a barrier had been breached somehow. The number of times she had woken up in the apartment of a guy could be counted on one hand. The number of times said-guy had been as attractive as Ben? Zero. Tall, dark, and handsome, Ben had a boyish charm that she knew a lot of women fell for. She was a little too logical and rational for it to work on her, not to mention his goofiness showed a serious lack of maturity that wasn’t exactly appealing to her. A lot of women enjoyed fun partners, but Madison was more on the serious side when it came to relationships. She did like humor, but she also didn’t want to deal with a man who had the mind of a sixteen-year-old boy. It was hard for her to trust someone who never seemed to take anything seriously.

“I have to hit the gym, do you want me to drop you on my way?” he asked lightly before taking a sip of coffee. “It’s not that I’m kicking you out, but now that Chris is off the market, the ladies are counting on me to bring the eye candy.”

She shook her head, letting his bragging glide over her. “I think I’ve taken advantage of you enough already. I’ll call a cab, and let you work on your… alpha male body.”

“Don’t be silly. You didn’t get the chance to sleep with me, the least I can do is drive you back home.”

“How’s the ego?”

“Still recovering from getting kicked out of my own bedroom, thanks. It might take weeks before it’s fully back to its original shape.” He paused to finish his coffee. “Do you have any idea how many years it took me to build it up? So much hard work. Endless hours staring at myself in the mirror, kissing my biceps after a hard workout. It takes commitment, Madison. It takes sacrifices. And you… you just walk in and ruin it all by ignoring my banging hotness so you can steal my bed.”

The smile crept up on her lips, and she couldn’t hold back her chuckle at his obvious teasing.

He grinned back. “Now, that’s much better.”


He pointed to her face. “You’re smiling, and you’re not so pale anymore.”

That’s probably because I’m a little on the green side, now. Taking one last bite of toast, she pushed back her food. She had only managed to eat half of her eggs, but there was no way her stomach was going to handle more. “I’m sorry, it was very good but…”

“But you need to work a little on your hangover stamina,” he finished for her as he cleared her plate as well. “Finish your Gatorade at least.”

Not helping him was rude, but since the Gatorade seemed to be the only thing making her feel better, she didn’t argue much. She observed him instead, because truth be told she didn’t really know him that well, and she was extremely curious. He seemed at ease in a kitchen, surprisingly. Seeing where he lived, she expected him to have an army of domestics.

“Your place really is something else,” she said quietly as she took in her surroundings. It was an open space, with an entire wall made of windows and offering the same breathtaking view over Central Park. There was a large, black sectional sofa, a smaller couch, and a giant flat screen. Everything was spotless, clean, neat, elegant.

“Thank you. One of the only things my father does well.”

“He’s an architect?”

The wry smile on his face let her know the father-son relationship seemed to be a minefield. “No. Real estate. Like his father before.”

“You didn’t follow their footsteps?”

“Nope. This building belongs to my family, though. My father renovated it a decade ago. I inherited the loft from my grandparents, and that’s when I decided to move to New York.”

“Oh. I always thought you were missing Chris.”

He huffed out a laugh, throwing his kitchen towel and their napkins on a chair, probably to be dealt with later. “That too, but I’ll deny I ever said it.”

“Aww. Don’t want to ruin your reputation of Manhattan’s most famous playboy?”

He stepped next to her, resting his forearms on the counter and linking his hands together.

He really had beautiful eyes. In the beaming light, it was hard to not notice. A bright, light grey, offering a stark contrast to his dark hair.

“I think if the story of last night got out, said-reputation would be completely destroyed.”

“Because you were a gentleman?” She raised an eyebrow, ready to start a lecture about how women these days were much more attracted to guys who respected them over the ones who nagged for sex under the disguise of courtship.

“No. Because you puked on me.”

Madison winced, her cheeks burning with shame. “I’m so sorry. I usually don’t do that.”

“For the sake of your partners, I sure hope so.”