“You came to my house early,” I said, a small thread of accusation in my voice.

He just nodded. “Yes. But not early enough,” he said, and I could tell that he was blaming himself for what had happened, for showing up too late to stop it, which was crazy, of course.

I supposed, in a disconnected kind of way, that someone who needed so badly to be in control, must also feel the need to take a disproportionate amount of responsibility for things, even things that were completely out of his control. I squeezed his hand.

“How long have you been at the hospital?” I asked again.

He just blinked at me. “Since then, Love. Do you think I could leave you like this?”

My brow furrowed. “Don’t you have work to do?”

He laughed, and it was a rusty sound. “I’m taking some time off.”

I noticed for the first time that the private room we were in was filled to bursting with flowers. They ranged from exotic bouquets, to decadent roses, to simple carnations. It seemed that every flower was represented in the many vases around the room.

“You did this,” I said, as I took it all in.

He kissed my hand. “Not just me,” he said. “The white lilies are from Stephan. And those sunflowers are from Damien and Murphy. The mixed wildflowers are from your airline. And that mixed bouquet is from a group of flight attendants from your class. I got the rest.”

“They’re beautiful. Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” he murmured, watching me like a hawk.

Stephan came in then, and rushed to my other side. Tears ran down his face as he grabbed my other hand.

“How do you feel?” he asked, sitting in what was obviously his chair at my other side..

I grimaced. “Alive.”

“I should go get the nurse,” Stephan said, starting to stand.

“I buzzed her. She’s usually prompt, so she’ll be here any time now,” James told him.

Stephan sat again. He stroked my hand comfortingly. “I was just speaking to the police. They want to talk to you when you feel up to it. I told them that I thought it was your father, but I didn’t see him, so they won’t take my word for it. It was your father, right?”

I just nodded, wincing. “Later. I’m definitely not feeling up to it right now. What day is it?”

“Thursday,” Stephan told me.

My eyes widened, my mind automatically going to work. “We fly out tonight?” I asked him.

He patted my hand. “I talked to the director of inflight. He had no problem letting us switch our vacation time, with you being hospitalized. He was actually really great about it, knowing we couldn’t take that much time off unpaid, and that I couldn’t work with you hurt like this. We’ve got two weeks off, so don’t worry about work.”

I shut my eyes in relief. “Thanks, Stephan. You’re the best.”

James’s hand tightened on mine. “That’s not enough time. And if you’re that worried about money-”

“Don’t,” I told him, my eyes still closed.

His mention of money opened the floodgate, and I suddenly remembered, quite vividly, why he had no reason to be by my side. I started to withdraw my hand.

He clutched it, and my eyes snapped open, glaring at him. The look in his eyes stopped my hand, and I just didn’t have the heart to glare at someone who looked so…desperate.

“Okay, I won’t. I’m sorry. I just wanted to help,” he reassured me in a way that seemed foreign to him. No one could say he wasn’t trying…

The nurse arrived, checking on me. She asked me about the pain, and I saw her pushing the painkiller button several times. I drifted off.

Both men were seemingly unmoved when I roused again. I could see from the slightly opened shades that it was dark outside. Both of my hands were still warmly enveloped.

“How long was I out that time?” I asked.

Stephan seemed to be dozing, but James had his eyes open. He looked like he was praying over my hand.

“Fourteen hours,” James said, and kissed my hand. “I think you’ve taken ten years off my life this week.” He reached to punch a button, and I knew he was calling for the nurse again.

It was a different nurse this time, I absently noted, as she left after checking and medding me. They had both been pleasant and quick. I wondered if the hospital always had such good service, or if this was the James Cavendish effect.

“You don’t have to stay here,” I told him, as I began to drift off again. He sent me such a hurt look that I tried to take it back even as I sank into a drugged sleep.

Days went by like that, floating in and out of consciousness while my body healed. It was five days before I was up and about. And even then it was a limited amount of activity.

I had a severe concussion, some internal bleeding, and some badly bruised ribs. From the way they felt, I found it hard to believe they weren’t broken. I hated to imagine what they would feel like if they were actually broken, if this was what bruised felt like.

I found out from the doctor that I would be in the hospital for several more days, under observation. All of my injuries were painful, but survivable. I was lucky, I knew. It could have been so much worse.

I had several visitors. The rest of our crew even visited once, pilots included. They wished me well, and chatted pleasantly about nothing important. Neither of the men at my side even offered their spots to the other visitors. I wasn’t surprised.

James’s hand tightened on mine once, when Damien reached down to pat my leg. I knew Damien was just being friendly. He would have patted my hand, probably, if they weren’t both already taken.

James and Stephan never wandered far from their seats at my side, day or night. Occasionally, they took turns sleeping on a tiny bed that folded out from the wall in the far corner of the room. I couldn’t imagine either man was getting much sleep on the uncomfortably hard looking bed. It was both heartwarming and baffling to me, these two amazing men that insisted on watching over me, completely unconcerned for their own comforts.

A neat, business-like blond woman kept coming in and out of the room, silently handing James his phone, or his laptop, or even the occasional stack of papers. I supposed that was how he was able to spend so much time at my side.

“You don’t have to stay here,” I told him. “I understand that you have work to do.”

He just gave me a dismissive glance, working on his laptop.

I was nearly recovered enough to be discharged before Stephan brought up the attack again. “Why did he come after you again, after all these years?” he asked in a hushed voice. James was dozing in his bedside chair.

“He mentioned something about people asking questions about him, people that he didn’t know. He saw me in the tabloids, I suppose, and blamed me. He also seemed to think that dating a rich man would make me more likely to get brave and go to the police about him.”

“This was my fault,” James spoke, making me start in surprise. His face was ashen. “I’m so sorry.”

I arched a brow at him. “That’s a bit of a stretch. And, anyways, my father wasn’t wrong. I am feeling brave now.”

James tried to get me to explain what I meant, but I wasn’t sharing anymore. And there was nothing to share with Stephan. He already knew everything.

I caught the tail end of a hushed conversation as I woke up one morning, days later.

“I think that will do more harm than good,” Stephan was saying to James. “She won’t like it. Just give her time, James. I know it’s hard, but you’ll have to be patient.”

“What’re ya talkin’ bout?” I mumbled, as my brain crawled out of sleep.

Both men looked a little guilty at being caught discussing me, but neither answered.

“Spill it, Stephan.”

He sighed. “James would like to take you to a quiet place to heal. He was suggesting a place on the beach, maybe. And we were trying to figure out how to handle the media circus that seems to follow James around.”

I went from groggy to alert as he spoke.

James gave me a very solemn look. “I can’t tell you how much I didn’t want you to get caught in the crossfire of my media circus of a life. That is the entire reason that I wanted to keep our relationship quiet, at first. I was suggesting that I release a statement about our relationship so it’s clear that you and I are together and exclusive. And that Jules is and only ever has been a friend of mine. I hate the implication that you are usurping on her territory. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

I pulled my hand away from James, then raised it when he tried to protest.

“Stephan, give us a moment, please,” I said solemnly.

He left without a word, beating a rather hasty retreat.

James’s jaw had clenched, and he looked angry and pleading all at once. “Please don’t shut me out, Bianca,” he said quietly.

I took a deep breath. My chest hurt. It wasn’t just from the fists that had marked it. It was a deeper pain. “James, this has all happened too quickly. I need to take a step back.”

He looked down, hiding his pain-filled eyes, that lovely mouth twisting in a heart-wrenching way. “Please.” His voice was quiet. “I can’t stand the thought of losing you. What can I do?”

I swallowed past a very thick lump in my throat. “Just give me time, please. Things between us happened too fast, and everything that’s happened since has just made me realize that. I can’t think when we’re together. You just sweep me up and I seem to lose all semblance of sane thought. I don’t know that I can be a part of your life, or that I can even accept whatever little piece of it you would carve out for me.” I could tell he wanted to argue, but I quieted him with a look.

“Just give me some time,” I finally repeated. “That’s all I ask. We can discuss this thing we have in a few weeks, maybe a month, if you still want to. Frankly, I half-expect you to just move on in that time.”

He looked very angry now, but he studied me, and I could see that he tried to tamp it down.

“Please have more faith in me than that,” he said quietly. “Will you at least allow me to call you? Or even text you?”

I closed my eyes, wanting to go back to sleep, wanting to cry like a baby. “I’ll contact you,” was all I said.

He clutched my hand. “It feels like you’ve already written me off. I wish I knew the words to say to help you understand how serious I am about you.”

There were tears in his voice, and it broke my heart. But he didn’t really try to find any of the words. He never spoke of love, or even how much he cared. It made it easier for me to do what needed to be done. It helped me to tell myself, We barely know each other. This could all mean nothing to him in a month. If he had said he loved me, I might not have been able to manage it.

“I haven’t written you off. I just need time, and space. As you’ve seen and heard, I’m going to be fine. I’ll be released from the hospital anytime now. Today, probably. Stephan will take care of me after that.”

I kept my eyes closed. It was so much easier to say the words when I wasn’t looking at him.

Tags: R.K. Lilley Up in the Air Erotic
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