I took a deep breath, then winced. I was trying to enjoy basking in the Miami sun, but I was still a little sore. It had been over a month now since I’d sustained my injuries. I was fit enough to work now, but I still got occasional reminders of what had happened to me when I moved or breathed just wrong.
My phone chimed that I had a new text message, and I winced again. I needed to remember to keep it in the off position. It helped me to delay the inevitable. I reached down to the concrete below my pool lounge chair, gripped my phone, and held down the off button until it powered off.
Just seconds later, I heard the Kings of Leon song that served as Stephan’s ringtone begin to play. He sighed heavily from his lounge chair beside me, then rose, heading into the hotel bar that was nearest the pool. If I hadn’t been sure my text was from James, I was now. It was his pattern lately. He would call Stephan after failing to get ahold of me. And for some odd reason, Stephan felt obliged to answer his calls. It had been the cause of an unusual new tension that had sprung up between us.
A different figure loomed over me a moment later, casting a shadow as it hovered near the seat that Stephan had just vacated.
“Mind if I join you, Bee?” Damien asked in his heavy Australian accent. I didn’t open my eyes from behind my dark shades, but I recognized his voice easily enough.
I made a humming noise that meant I didn’t care, and he lounged beside me.
Stephan and I had had to call in several big favors from another crew to get to Miami for our layover.
But I had wanted so desperately to avoid New York this week that Stephan had made it happen.
Somehow Captain Damien and First Officer Murphy had managed to do the same, after Stephan had casually mentioned in a text that we would be missing our New York trip for the week. At first, I’d thought it was rather stalker-ish of them, but more and more, the two men were growing on me. Damien had made no overtures. He was, in fact, great company for a person who just wanted some peace and quiet. He had no problem being comfortably silent, occasionally making light-hearted comments that drew me out of my black moods. And he was accompanied by Murphy more often than not. Murphy could make anyone laugh. Even me in the depressed mood that was dogging me lately.
“That cover-up is gonna give you an interesting tan line,” Damien said in an amused tone.
I wore a black swimsuit coverup that went to the top of my thighs. I wore it over my plain black bikini.
The coverup was see-through, but it was just dark enough to mostly obscure the faint traces of bruises that still patterned my torso in a stark reminder of the violence I’d survived just weeks ago. They had faded considerably, but they were still dark enough to need covering. I would draw unwanted attention if I bared my skin for all to see. I’d already gotten enough unwanted attention lately. The paparazzi would take any excuse to make me a headline nowadays. I wasn’t in any mood to encourage them.
“No one wants to see what’s under this cover-up. Trust me,” I told him, still not opening my eyes or even twitching.
He coughed back a little laugh that made me uncomfortable. I was perceptive enough to know that Damien was more than a little interested in me in a romantic way. Any reminders of the fact were unwelcome.
“I beg to differ,” he said quietly, and I felt myself frown.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said quickly, before I could speak. I let it go. As long as he knew I wasn’t interested in anything beyond friendship, I was content to let sleeping dogs lie.
Damien was handsome and funny and great company. He was also a shameless womanizer. I figured it was just second nature to him to try to to show interest in any woman in his vicinity. And it was also in his nature to flatter any woman when given an opening. I was usually more careful about giving him that opening.
“Is everything okay between you and Stephan? I’ve never seen you guys like this before. You’re so stiff with each other. Are you fighting?”
My gut clenched. Things did seem off between us, and I wasn’t sure how to make it better. I figured he had to be at least a little resentful of me for making him miss his week’s worth of Melvin time this week.
Not that I had actually made him. I had told him more than once that I would understand if he still wanted to go to New York. The crew we had traded with had even agreed to just do a single trade with me. But Stephan had insisted we stick together. He was worried about me, I knew.
I liked Damien. I even thought of him as a friend. One of my few pilot friends. But I couldn’t imagine discussing my difficulties with Stephan with anyone. It felt almost disloyal.
“He’s just worried about me, I think. Since the attack, we’ve both been on edge,” I explained. It was all true, but didn’t address the reason for our awkwardness.
Damien made a neutral little hum in his throat. “What about that James guy? You two doing okay? I saw a little bit of the media circus that surrounds him. You get tired of all that, and drop him? You could have any man you want, you know.”
I sucked in a breath. Damien was usually very good about not asking questions like that. It was why he had made good company lately.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said, my tone cool.
He got the hint. “Damn, sorry. I’m on a roll, putting my foot in my mouth, aren’t I?”
I gave a half-smile, finally looking at him. I gave a little nod, and he laughed.
“Well, I guess I owe you now. You want to ask me any rude, prying questions about my personal life?”
he asked. He had a great smile. It was all even white teeth, and self-deprecating humor. It would have been hard not to smile back. I didn’t even try.
“Nope,” I told him with no hesitation.
He laughed again, as though I was much more funny than I actually was. “I guess when you answer yes to that question, I’ll know I have you where I want you.”
I just wrinkled my nose and turned my face away.
“Wanna take a walk on the beach?” he asked, after several minutes of silence.
I realized in surprise that I did want to get up and move around a bit. I’d been so inactive lately, due to my injuries. “It’s not a romantic stroll or anything, is it?” I asked him cautiously.
He sat up, grinning at me. He really was a good-looking man. He wore only low-slung black swim trunks. He was tan and muscular. His dark hair and warm brown eyes were hollywood material. I really didn’t understand why he would put so much time into a passably attractive girl who wasn’t even remotely interested in him. I tried to use that characterization as further proof that he was just being friendly, still strangely uncomfortable with his company.
I got up, moving slowly. I was still stiff, though I had recovered remarkably well, all things considered.
I hadn’t been released from the hospital until I’d had countless tests run, so I was in the clear of any serious injuries.
I started walking, and Damien fell into step beside me. He seemed to know better than to try to help me.
I found the wooden crosswalk that led from our hotel to the beach, and crossed it resolutely.
I walked almost to the water line before I began to walk along the beach. My bare feet got wet, but it felt good after laying in the hot sun. I even got a few steps deeper into the tide before I began to follow the shoreline, passing the various ocean-front hotels. I counted the hotels we passed, absently keeping track.
“Some weirdo just got a picture of us,” Damien told me as we walked.
Inwardly, I cursed. Outwardly, I shrugged.
“Want me to go beat him up and take his camera?” he asked.
I laughed. “The damage is done,” I said. I could only imagine what they would print about me this week. I figured no matter what it was, it couldn’t be worse than the tangent they had gone on a month ago.
They had called me every derogatory name in the book. I was becoming quickly immune to it. It was almost a pleasant surprise to me, how quickly I was becoming desensitized to being publicly insulted.
Someday I might even stifle my unhealthy urge to check online for what they were saying about me. I wasn’t sure I’d ever have enough self-control to keep from checking to see what they were saying about James...
“Are you really done with that James Cavendish guy, or are you just taking a break?” Damien asked, walking close to my side, as though afraid I would lose my balance. He probably wasn’t totally wrong. I did feel a little wobbly, but it was mostly because I was so stiff.
I gave him a level stare. I decided to be brutally honest with him. “I’d like to think I’m sensible enough to be done with him. I’m realistic enough to know that, done or not, I’m ruined for other men. If you must know, he and I have certain…tastes in common. I don’t really care to discuss it any more than that.”
Damien touched my arm briefly, giving me a warm smile when I looked at him. “If you’re a dominatrix, Bee, I can live with that. Feel free to tie me up and spank me, anytime you feel the need.”
I laughed, because he was joking, and because it was the opposite of the truth.
“Um, no,” was all I said to him.
“Are you in love with him?” he asked. “Is it that serious? You can tell me, Bianca. I won’t judge. I just want to be your friend.”
I grimaced. He was my friend. Why is it so hard for me to open up? I wondered. Even to a friend. I thought over the question, trying to suppress my natural urge to just close up at such a personal topic.
“Yes,” I answered finally. “It’s hopeless, I know. Maybe that’s why my heart was perverse enough to give itself. But I do love him.”
He squeezed my elbow. “Hey, I know the feeling. Don’t beat yourself up so much. What will you do?”
I took a few deep breaths, really thinking about it. “That’s what I don’t know. I can’t deny how I feel, but I can deny where it has to lead. He still wants me. Will I let him have me again? That’s the million dollar question, I suppose.”
Damien gave me a pained look. “It is.”
I gave a small shrug, the one I couldn’t seem to help. It was a gesture that seemed to drive everyone in my life insane.
“He’ll grow tired of me, I’m sure,” I said softly. “It’s his M.O. The question is, am I so desperate for him that I’ll just sign on for the ride?”
Damien didn’t have an answer for that. Neither did I.
Damien and I walked slowly back to the hotel. We found more neutral topics to chat about on the return trip.
I noticed this time when my picture was taken by the man who crouched in the bushes outside of the hotel that bordered our own. He was a pudgy, balding man. I had the urge to tell him that he didn’t need to bother damaging his knees by attempting to hide. He was very visible, even hiding.
I made myself ignore him instead. His publication would say something horrible about me either way, I was sure.
“Wanna hit up that Cuban restaurant on the corner?” Damien asked. We were almost back to our hotel.
I shrugged. “Let’s see what Stephan wants to do,” I said neutrally. The food sounded good, but I didn’t want to end up going to dinner with just Damien.