Stephan had always hated violence, but his bastard of a father had guaranteed that he was good at it from a young age.
I poked Stephan in the ribs with an elbow. “You hate to fight,” I told him.
“Yes, I do. But I’m good at it. And I’m guessing Mr. Cavendish never had to fight in a ring to keep from starving.”
I flinched, remembering those days. “It won’t come to that, ok? I’ll be just fine at the end of this thing, and you won’t even think about throwing a punch.”
Stephan nodded, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. I finally dragged him into the store. We’d spent enough time dwelling on unpleasant things.
Stephan headed straight for frames while I went with a shopping cart and replenished my supplies. I stocked up well.
I was in a mood to create. I grabbed several varying sized canvases and even more watercolor paper. I selected a few new acrylic colors carefully, finding a blue that was absolutely perfect. Painting was all about color for me.
I grabbed half a dozen tubes of watercolors that just needed replacing. I stocked up on some cleanup supplies that the paint shop had cheaper than everywhere else. The prices at the eccentric shop were what drew me from across town to resupply.
It took me a good five minutes to locate a tiny sable brush that I used for details. It was a brush I had to replace often. When it’s bristles started to soften, it didn’t do me much good. I bought two, and some new oil paints, since I would be saving money now at the grocery store.
It was a nice feeling, quite a relief really, to be able to get a few extra goodies for my coveted hobby. I tried not to feel guilty for allowing someone to help me out in such a way. But it had been hard not to refuse the offer. The order, rather.
My cart was uncharacteristically full when I finally sought out Stephan, who still agonized over his frame choice. He was very particular about his home decor. That made it doubly flattering to me that he chose to decorate nearly all of his walls with my paintings.
He showed me the five choices he’d narrowed it down to. I zeroed in on a heavy, dark, roughly carved pattern immediately.
“This one,” I told him.
He gazed at me me, sending me his best ‘Puss in boots’ pleading look. I smiled, starting to put the frame together for him. I had planned to, anyways. Stephan would butcher it, and I had the touch for this sort of thing.
I got wrapped up in the process, using the picture Stephan had brought to double check my work. I hammered the V shaped nails in lightly and slowly, which was the trick. Stephan tended to hammer them straight through to the other side with one strike.
When I finally finished, I held the finished art up to Stephan, smiling. He beamed back. He had been engrossed on his phone nearly the entire time I’d worked, which was his habit. He was the social butterfly of our duo, constantly texting someone, updating his Facebook page, or throwing out Tweets.
I went first through the one open checkout line. I was starting to feel a little remorseful about splurging as the price began to rise even higher than I’d anticipated. I really didn’t want to have to put some things back. That was an embarrassment I hadn’t had to suffer for years.
It would be a close thing, I realized, as the price grew higher. But as I got my debit card out, the checker held up a hand.
“It’s all been payed for, Ma’am.” I was speechless as she bagged the last of it. I felt grateful and helpless all at once.
Probably his intention, I thought absently.
Stephan’s purchases were covered as well, though he hadn’t wracked up anywhere near the bill that I had.
“It’s wrong to allow him to do all of this, isn’t it?” I asked Stephan.
Stephan shrugged. “Why? He’s doing something nice and thoughtful. It’s not a crime to let him dote on you.”
Clark met us halfway through the parking lot, taking the shopping cart solicitously. He managed to both push it to the car and get our door opened before we could reach it.
I nodded at him, smiling warmly. “Thank you, Clark,” I told him.
He gave me a surprisingly shy smile in return. He was a large black man with a bald head and big dark shades. His suit looked expensive and professional. He looked so intimidating, but had the nicest smile. He nodded back politely.
“My pleasure, Ms. Karlsson,” he said, surprising me by knowing my last name.
I slid onto the cushy seat next to James. He was on the phone, his computer open. He didn’t look at me or speak, just placed a possessive hand on my knee as I sat next to him.
Stephan bounced into his seat, grinning. I could tell he loved getting the royal treatment, as we were today.
It went a long way towards silencing my protests. Denying myself something was easy. Denying Stephan, on the other hand…
James stayed on the phone as Clark started driving. He was giving short, crisp, cold answers to the poor soul on the other end. His hand would occasionally tighten on my leg, as he tensed. “If I need to find new management for my New York offices, I will do so. I expect a level of competency that you’re not proving to me at present.” He paused, gripping my leg.
He glanced at me absently, and his grip turned into an apologetic stroke.
Clark stopped the car, getting out and heading into a Sushi place. It must have been the one that James had been talking about. James just stayed on his phone, listening and squeezing my leg.
Clark was back in the car surprisingly quickly, his arms full of takeout bags. He began to drive again. I assumed we were headed home.
“How is it that I can be absent from every other property for weeks or months at a time, and things still run smoothly? It seems obvious to me that this is a management issue.” James’s voice was growing in agitation. I shot Stephan a look. He was on his phone, of course.
My hand covered James’s experimentally, then ran up to his arm, carefully avoiding the spot on his wrist with the thin lines of scars. I was avidly curious about those scars, but of course I wouldn’t ask. It would be inviting similar inquiries about myself.
I clutched the back of his bicep, rubbing tentatively. I wasn’t accustomed to this touching thing.
I leaned against him, putting my cheek to his back as he leaned forward. I moved my hand to his leg, the other to his shoulder to massage tentatively.
He froze at my touch. I started to pull back. He moved his phone away from his face.
“Don’t,” he told me, putting my hand back on his leg. Neither of us was used to me doing the touching, but it didn’t seem unwelcome.
I rubbed his leg lightly and he seemed to relax, bit by bit.
“Make it happen. This is your chance to prove yourself, for better or worse.” He ended the call, shutting his tiny laptop and stowing both into the bag near his feet.
He spared a brief glance towards an occupied Stephan. He grabbed the back of my head, gripping my hair firmly and kissing me. It was a hot kiss, and I tried to draw back. This was no way to act in front of Stephan. He gripped me tighter, sweeping a tongue into my mouth. I had just started to soften when he pulled back.
“It makes me wild when you touch me,” he whispered roughly. “Remember that the next time you touch me in front of other people. Having an audience or even being in public won’t stop me from touching you back. This is my only warning.”
He sat back, but pulled me hard against his side.
Was he somehow staking his claim in front of Stephan? I just couldn’t tell with him.
“How was the shopping?” he asked.
“Great. Thank you for, um, for buying everything.”
He surprised me by kissing me again roughly.
“Thank You. For all of those wonderful paintings that you so generously gave me, with no thought for recompense.”
I flushed. I wasn’t that comfortable with compliments in general, and praise for my painting was a novelty, since so few people had witnessed it.
Stephan finally put down his phone. He’d kept his painting in a bag and brought it into the car with us. He pulled it out, showing it proudly to James.
“Isn’t she amazing?” he said proudly. “She even built the frame.”
James studied the painting. “She is.”
“My whole house is covered in her paintings. Should we eat over there, so you can check it all out?”
James agreed readily. “Yes, thank you. And I have a favor to ask you, Stephan.” James arm tightened around me as he spoke, almost as though he was afraid I would try to get away at his next words.
“Sure, man. What’s up?”
“I’ve studied Bianca’s paintings extensively, and I think she has enough accomplished work for a gallery showing,” James began.
James casually covered my mouth when I tried to speak. “I have a gallery in New York. I can have my people handle all of the details. As you can see, she’s going to resist the idea. I need you to help me talk her out of her reservations.” He uncovered my mouth, but I was suddenly speechless.
“I’ve been collecting art since I was a teenager. I have an eye for it, and I know she has a rare talent.” James continued when neither of us spoke.
Stephan looked shocked, then ecstatic. “Yes, she does. You have to do this, Buttercup. I will have an absolute conniption if you don’t.”
I said the first thing that came to my mind. “Most of them are desert landscapes. There is no way that would go over well in New York.” Of all of the things I found impossible about his proposal, I didn’t know why that detail was at the forefront of my thoughts, of all things.
James smiled, a triumphant smile. It was mesmerizing. The smile of a savage conquerer. And I’d just given him what he wanted.
“You never know, they might like a change of scenery, but that will be for my gallery people to decide. I have a gallery in L.A as well, and even a small one on the strip here in Vegas. The Vegas one is mostly a tourist attraction, though. I wouldn’t consider it for a showing.”
“All I need you to do is to set aside anything you don’t want shown, and to name the pictures that you’d like named. I’ll send a sampling to both galleries so they can give me some feedback before we set up a showing. Also, I think some of the work you have displayed around the house could sell really well as prints, if you’d consider something like that.”
I thought back to all of the pictures he’d set aside. “So that’s what you were getting? Samples for the galleries?”
He looked at me like I’d gone insane. “No, of course not. Those are for my own collection. You and I will decide together what to send as samples.”
I felt a wave of insecurity. “I have no training. I-”
He covered my mouth. “None of that matters, Love. You’ve either got it or you don’t. And you have it. Now tell me you agree.”
I didn’t agree or disagree, but just sat for awhile, stunned. I did want this, wanted it badly, though I’d never even considered that something like this could happen. And I knew that it wouldn’t have, if a billionaire hadn’t taken a sudden, obsessive interest in every aspect of my life. I supposed that was my biggest reservation about the whole thing; the fact that this was all just another way for him to dote on me.