“Come, now,” he ordered finally, and it was my undoing, as always.
I fell apart, and he came with me, his eyes going to that forbidden place of tenderness that I craved, and feared, and tried so hard not to feel down to my soul.
“Oh, Bianca,” he whispered, cupping my cheek as I lowered myself to lay on his chest.
He shifted me so that he stayed inside of me securely. “You’re a marvel. I never imagined anyone could be so perfectly made for me.”
I shut my eyes, and felt a dreaded tear seep down my cheek. I felt his words deeply, but couldn’t find any of my own, so stayed silent.
Recovering and getting dressed again was a slow and languorous affair.
James did most of the work, laying me down to get my pants back on.
“I want to tie you to that hook and take you there, but your wrists need to heal from the last time,” he murmured as he fastened a chap back on.
I looked up at the hook he was talking about. A bridle hung from it. It did seem ideal for his purposes.
I glanced at my wrists. They were red with conspicuous abrasions. I hadn’t been able to put my watch back on. James had packed it somewhere, I knew. I would have to find a way to cover the marks at work. They could raise questions. They stood out starkly against my pale skin.
“I don’t mind,” I said softly. “I can barely feel them. You could try it. If it got too rough, that’s what my safe word is for, right?”
He gave me a wild kind of look. I was already able to read him so well. This look said ‘You shouldn’t encourage me.’
“You’re a dangerous woman,” he nearly growled. “I’ll be making all of the calls about your safety, since you apparently can’t be trusted to judge such things. Your wrists are in bad shape. I went too far the last time, whether you think they hurt now or not. We’ll leave them alone until they’ve healed.” He finished the long process of dressing the lower half of my body as he spoke.
All he’d had to do was raise his pants and cover himself, then shrug back into his shirt with a fluid movement. I’d watched each delectable part of his body disappear behind clothes with disappointment. I could have looked at his tan flesh forever.
He smiled, pulling me against him for a long kiss. We walked back to the house with his arm around my shoulder, tucked tightly into his side.
A man in a suit and shades whom I didn’t recognize met us at the back door of the house. He nodded at us, opening the door. “Sir. Ms. Karlsson.”
“Tell Pete to tend to the horses,” James said brusquely. “We are done with the stables for today.”
“Yes, Sir. Kent called to check in with you about the investigation,” the man said hesitantly, glancing between the two of us. As though not sure whether to speak in front of me, I thought.
“Any new developments?” James asked, his voice cold. This was a subject that didn’t improve his mood, I noted.
“Nothing, Sir. Just his daily account of what he and his men have been doing.”
“Tell him to send me a report. And notify me if there are any new leads. That will be all, Paterson.”
James led me into the house, and Paterson closed the door behind us, remaining outside.
“Is that about my father?” I asked him quietly.
He glanced at me, his face a careful mask. “Yes. Can we talk about it yet?”
“No. There’s nothing to talk about. I gave my report to the police, and I won’t be so careless again. It was just terrible timing that got him into my house in the first place.”
He blanched. “Will you please tell me what happened? I’m trying to be patient, Bianca, but I need to know how he got to you. If only to prevent it from happening again.”
I sighed, the pain in his gorgeous eyes affecting me. “Stephan was due at my house. I heard the doorbell ring. I checked the peephole, but a hand was covering it. I was a fool. I actually let him in myself. I thought Stephan was playing a mean joke. Which is so ludicrous, because Stephan doesn’t do things like that, even when he’s being playful. I undid my security and opened the door, meaning to tell him off. My father had me pinned to the wall before I could even register who it was.”
He looked away, his face gone ashen. “He just attacked you on sight?”
His hands had dropped away. He looked so forlorn that I wanted to comfort him. But I gave him his space. And, finally, with a resigned sigh, some answers. “He had seen me in the tabloids. And he thought someone had been investigating him, so he blamed me. He had come to threaten me. The injuries were just his neanderthal way of telling me not to speak to the police.”
His eyes shot back to mine, shocked and appalled. “It was my fault. It was my fault you were in the tabloids. And my men had begun to look for him. He laid hands on you because I was careless enough to look for him, and expose you, without protecting you.”
I studied him. His tone and his face spoke of a deep self-loathing so misplaced that I didn’t even know how to address it.
“Of course it wasn’t. It was no one’s fault but my own. I know what he’s capable of, more than anyone, and I was careless enough to let him into my home. It’s not your job to protect me, James. It’s my job.
Stephan had your same reaction, blaming himself. I don’t understand it. It’s impossible to take responsibility for things that are completely out of your control.”
His eyes were anguished as he told me, “It is my job to protect you. You don’t have to acknowledge it, but it is. All of my influence is completely worthless if I can’t even protect the thing I cherish most.”
I reached up and patted his arm comfortingly. “My dad has been like this for my entire life. Will you blame yourself for all of the other times, as well? You must see how illogical that is.”
He seemed to get himself under control, schooling his features once again. “We don’t have to agree on this, Bianca. But thank you for answering some of my questions.”
I thought briefly of all of the questions I hadn’t answered. And all of the secrets I still kept. I was grateful that James seemed to drop the subject after that.
“Let me show you the upstairs now. I’ve made some changes that I think will please you,” he told me solemnly.
I smiled at him. “I’d love to see all of it. Your homes are like works of art. You have impeccable taste.”
He put his hand on my nape as he led me to a set of stairs. “I have to agree,” he said warmly, and I knew he was referring to more than his homes.
He pointed out several guest rooms first, just glancing inside. They were themed in different colors. I thought it was a rather English thing to do. They all had names. The Green Room, The Blue Room, etc.
“All of your homes probably have the same thing. It’s so English,” I told him teasingly.
He smiled. “You’re right. They do.” We came to a closed door that he opened with a flourish. “The library,” he told me with a smile. “I’ve made some recent additions. Guess which ones.”
I blinked at the massive room. It was filled with sunlight. It was a a room of windows and books. So many books filled the massive room.
“I know e-books are the way of the future, but I can’t help it, I still love plain old books. Guess which section I made just for you.”
I glanced around, baffled as to how he thought I could know that, with so many things to take in. But my eyes fell on it quickly. One of the dark floor to ceiling bookshelves was filled with content that was just more colorful than the rest of it.
I laughed, delighted and a little embarrassed. “You know, I don’t just read Manga,” I told him. But I moved to the shelf to study it. It held full collections of all of the favorites that I’d told him about, and several that I had heard of but hadn’t yet read. I sent him a warm smile. “Thank you. What a sweet thing to do.”
He smiled back. “I can be sweet. You inspire me to be sweet. And you can get whatever you want, for any of our libraries. I added a Romance and Urban Fantasy shelf, as well, though I was just guessing at the authors you might like. You only mentioned that your read the genres, not what in particular.” He pointed. “It’s over by the window.”
I glanced over, blinking at the extent of what he’d done just to please me. There was a small fortune worth of books in this monstrosity of a room, purchased just for me. It was such a thoughtful thing to do.
He’d made a few more chips in the thick wall of ice around my heart with the gesture. Little by little, he was making his way in.
I took deep breaths, trying to manage my sudden feeling of panic at the thought. It worked. I was becoming more accustomed to the way I felt about him. I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing, but I didn’t linger on that thought.
“Thank you. I could spend the afternoon reading, if you need to do some work,” I told him politely.
“I have one more surprise for you.” He pulled me from the room as he spoke.
I looked at him warily, wondering what he had planned for me next.
He led me into a large room with a bed, though I didn’t think it was a bedroom. It was another room of windows, the sunlight streaming in to light every corner. I saw the painting supplies then, lined up along an ornate chestnut table. There was an impressive easel beside it, already holding a large piece of mounted watercolor paper.
I walked to it, speechless.
“The table holds more supplies, in drawers, and shelves. And I had shelving put in along the walls to hold various canvases, so you can keep them organized.”
I glanced where he gestured with his arm. One wall was covered with custom made, built-in shelving, with shelves large enough to hold many sizes of canvases and papers. Many blank ones were already stacked there, sorted by size. The room was a painter’s dream. It was an inspiration in itself, the large windows giving me an unobstructed view of the majestic Wyoming forest.
There was a large desk in one corner. It held a Mac that had the biggest screen I’d ever seen on a computer.
I pointed at it. “What’s that thing?”
He raised his brows, as though I should know. “Those are the best computers for artists. I’m sure you’ll find a use for it if you need to pull up a picture, or do any kind of research. There are also several programs you might find useful. I’ll walk you through them, whenever you like.”
I just nodded, overwhelmed. “It’s amazing. Thank you.”
He smiled. “So what do you want to do this afternoon? I got to pick horseback riding, and you were more than a good sport about it. Your turn. We could read in the library, or you could paint. Or anything, really. What’ll it be?”
I chewed on my lip, my mind already on a picture I’d seen online that I wanted to paint. “There is a painting I’d like to start on, if you don’t mind. You could get some work done.”
He just nodded. “Okay. We need to shower first, though. I’ll work in here with you, if it won’t disturb you.” He gave me an inquiring look while he spoke.
I just shook my head that it wouldn’t.