“Will you take a cut, for your trouble, if I sell anything?” I finally asked.
He raised a brow at me. “I wasn’t planning on it, no.” He managed to sound insulted with the small statement.
“I would feel better if you did. The gallery will at least charge for putting on the showing, right?”
He sighed. “That is usually the standard procedure,” he said carefully.
Stephan burst out suddenly, his tone thick with exasperated annoyance. “Oh, for God’s sake, Bianca! How can you say no to this? You have a rare opportunity here, and if your work sells, it sells. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. What’s the hangup?”
He was using a certain tone he had, a tone that asked ‘Where’s your backbone?’ without him having to utter the words. It made my spine straighten, which was the point.
I nodded. “Okay, I’ll do it. When should we select the samples?”
James pulled me into his lap, kissing me way too passionately for anywhere but the privacy of a bedroom.
“Thank you, love,” he murmured against my mouth, then started kissing again. His hands stayed firmly on my hips, holding me tight in his lap. But his mouth was positively obscene.
I couldn’t forget that Stephan sat just a few feet away, but I also couldn’t keep from responding. I tried to stifle a little moan as his tongue stroked into my mouth.
He bit my lip, hard.
I gasped, my hands gripping his rock-hard shoulders. I could feel his conspicuous erection against my hip. As his tongue swept in again, I sucked on it. That made him pull back, giving me a hot but censorious look.
“That will get you fucked in a hurry, Love,” he whispered, but I figured Stephan could still hear us, in such a small space.
I glared at him. “You started it.”
I heard Stephan stifle a laugh.
James just grinned wickedly.
Lunch was a happy affair. James and Stephan seemed to be getting more and more chummy. They joked comfortably while we ate sushi at Stephan’s dining room table.
James had been right, of course. The sushi was great. And the selection Clark had collected was vast. It was literally enough to feed ten people.
I gamely insisted on using chopsticks, picking out a Philadelphia roll and some shrimp tempura to start, dipping it generously into soy sauce mixed with chili sauce.
“You joining us at that bar in New York again on Friday night? Same time, same place,” Stephan was saying to James.
James reached over, placing that familiar hand at my nape. “I was actually hoping Bianca would come see my apartment on Friday. Could I steal you away for a night, Love?”
I swallowed my mouthful of shrimp tempura. I was more than a little curious to see the playground he had mentioned. Equal parts thrill and trepidation coursed through me just thinking about it.
“Yes, you could,” I said simply. James sent me a scorching look, then went back to chatting with Stephan.
After lunch, James got a tour of Stephan’s house and again studied every piece of my art like his life depended on it. He took several pictures with his phone.
We stayed at Stephans until late afternoon. The two men found a surprisingly great deal to talk about, from politics to sports, to movies, to cars. I was silent for a good deal of it, simply taking in the novelty of the two men in my life interacting like it was the most natural thing in the world. When they finished talking, we watched TV.
I didn’t have a television, so the only TV I did watch was at Stephan’s house. We watched a few episodes of New Girl, a show Stephan had recently made me watch until I’d realized that I loved it. I was behind by at least a dozen episodes, but I was always behind on TV.
I laughed out loud at the show. James seemed to be enjoying himself, though he watched me more than he watched the screen. He smiled and touched me constantly, keeping me close to his side. I loved his touch, so I didn’t protest, although the whole thing was a little surreal for me.
When the third episode ended, I stood.
“I need to cook dinner,” I told them. It was already nearly 4:30. “I was going to grill some chicken, and cook some asparagus and couscous. That sound okay to everyone?” I asked. I was cooking one of my healthier meals, trying to cater to James’s preferences.
“Sounds great! I love that blackened marinade thing you do on grilled chicken, Bee,” Stephan said.
“I can’t wait,” James said.
Stephan was still watching TV. “You need any help?” he asked me.
“Nah. It’s an easy meal. I’ll text you when it’s ready.”
“I need to make some calls,” James told me as I let us into my house. He was carrying the bag with his laptop. “Where would it be most convenient for me to set up shop?”
I shrugged. “Anywhere that’s not directly in my way while I’m cooking.”
He set up in the dinning room, watching me cook while he worked, talking on the phone nearly constantly, taking call after call.
He cursed suddenly, and I looked back, startled.
“I forgot that was friday,” he was saying. His tone turned dry. “It slipped my mind. Fuck.” He listened for a few moments, looking agitated. “Yes, yes, set it up. I know. Drop it. I said set it up.”
He looked at me, trouble in his eyes. He ended the call, then closed his eyes and cursed fluently.
I went back to cooking. It had been deeply ingrained in me at a young age not to pry, so I didn’t. If he wanted to tell me something, he would. But the curiosity was killing me.
“I forgot about a charity event that I can’t miss on friday evening,” he told me, his tone careful. “I don’t have to be there until maybe ten, so we’ll have until then to spend together. You can, of course, stay at my place while I attend. I’ll duck out at the earliest possible opportunity.”
My spine stiffened at the realization that this was what the ‘no dating’ part meant. He would leave me at home like a dirty little secret while he met with his peers.
“That’s alright,” I said in a carefully neutral tone. “I’d rather stay at my hotel room. It’s an early morning for me. I’ll just leave your place when you do on Friday night.”
“I would prefer that you not leave,” he said in his most polite, cajoling voice. “I promise you won’t be late in the morning.”
I shot him a level stare, but quickly went back to prepping the chicken. “If you’re leaving that night, then so am I.”
He sucked in a breath.
“Are you upset?” he asked, sounding alarmed.
“I’m not,” I told him.
“Why won’t you stay with me on Friday, then?”
“I don’t want to stay there if you’re going out. I’ll leave when you do,” I repeated.
“What can I do to change your mind?” he asked, his tone turning seductive.
“You can’t. Don’t bother trying. We have an arrangement based solely on our preferences. This is what I prefer.” My voice was cold and getting colder. I wasn’t angry, but I was…resigned. Resigned to the idea of him disappointing me. And even more resolved not to give him more than I was willing to lose.
“What if I made it an order? Or a condition?” he asked, his tone getting hard.
I made my face into it’s best expressionless mask and looked at him. “Then this association may end even sooner than I had realized.”
His jaw clenched, a tick starting up in his cheek. “I can’t back out of this. It was my mother’s charity, and I’m expected to attend, even to say a few words.”
I didn’t miss the fact that asking me to come with him hadn’t even occurred.
“I don’t know why you’re pressing the issue. So I’ll sleep at my hotel. What is the problem?” My words were growing clipped with frustration.
“I can’t head back to Vegas until Monday. We won’t see each other for days,” he said, as though that explained his reaction.
I shrugged. “Just call me when we’re in the same city. What is the issue?”
My voice had become so brisk that I could hear a hint of my mother’s long ago accent surface. It usually only came out when I was deeply shaken. He had an affect on me that I didn’t want to acknowledge, even to myself, but even my voice seemed to know it.
He had moved in behind me, and he gripped my hair softly, breathing warmly on my neck as he spoke. “Are you so unaffected by me?”
I was breathing hard now, but I answered calmly enough. “I went twenty-three years without sex. A few days certainly won’t kill me. What do you think I’ll do when we’re finished? I doubt I could find another lover right away.” My accent thickened slightly as I realized at the end that I was trying to goad him.
It came back to me way too easily, the accent I had heard and affected for most of my young life. It surfaced only with strong emotions. It both terrified and titillated me, what I would found down the road of his fury.
He growled, literally growled, into my neck. “I’m going to punish you for that.”
“Yes, I know,” I breathed, dreading and wanting it in equal parts.
He wrenched himself away, sitting back in his chair in the dining room. He seemed too big for the room suddenly, his eyes livid and wild.
“You’re playing with me,” he said raggedly.
His assessment of the situation surprised me. I sent him a questioning look.
“Is that how it seems to you?” I asked, stunned by the notion.
He ran a hand over his face and scraped it through his golden-streaked hair.
“You’re tying me in knots, yet you remain unaffected yourself. Are you just waiting for a reason to end this? That’s the impression I’m getting at the moment. And that drives me fucking crazy, since I don’t have a clue what will tip the scales against me.”
I finished prepping the chicken, putting the marinating dish in the fridge until I was ready to grill it. I moved to the asparagus.
“I don’t know what to tell you, James,” I finally said. “Perhaps I can’t give you what you want.”
“I want you!” His fist made me jump as it struck the tabletop with a jarring boom.
“If you ever use your fists on me, that will be a reason,” I told him quietly, watching that clenched fist and trying not to flinch.
He looked instantly remorseful, and I knew from his reaction that the stark terror that always resided somewhere inside of me had revealed itself, at least a little.
He approached me, and I tried not to cringe away. I was determined to face the fear, not to curl into a ball as I had as a child. He hugged me very carefully from behind. I let him, because I would have felt like a coward if I ran.
“I would never do that, you have to believe me. I would never use my fists on you. I’m so sorry if I scared you.”
I shrugged. It was a jerky motion. “As long as we’re clear.”
“I never saw it before, but I scare you, don’t I?” he asked, a strange edge to his voice.
I tried to concentrate on washing and breaking the asparagus.